The Czechoslovak Review/Volume 1/The Diary of a Reporter
Every nation has had its unfortunate, misunderstood men of letters, men who had to starve while alive and giving their best to their own nation, who had to fly to foreign countries and earn among foreigners the bread denied them at home.
And after they died—too often a tragic death—streets were named after them. Their works have been incorporated in the school curriculum and monuments erected to their everlasting memories.
Poor short sighted posterity stones its contemporaries and endeavors with stones to atone for the sins of its fathers.
Every artist created his own monument in his own work.
According to the greatness of his own work will his greatness be eternal.
Jan Neruda was born in Prague at the time that Bohemia’s national spirit had just been reborn.
A Palacký had written its history, demonstrating the glorious past of the Czech nation. The language that had been lost for so long had come back to life in all its beauty. Schools were erected everywhere. People were no longer ashamed to speak their own language in their own country. They realized that Bohemians had their own national characteristics, their own private lives, their comic and tragic figures on the streets and in their homes.
Neruda loved his country with all the ardor of the youthful artist. He knew that once you showed Bohemians their own lives mirrored from streets and houses, they too, will realize that they are a people, and not dependent, even in literature, upon other nations.
Neruda was a poet, who sang his beloved “Zlatá matička Praha”—“Golden little mother Prague”, into the hearts, not only of every Bohemian but also of every Slav in the Universe.
He originated the feuilleton in the Bohemian language. But his stories, full of color and temperament, were more appreciated at Paris, than in his own country.
Years have passed since his tragic death. Today he is the idol of the Bohemian enthusiast and the lifelong friend of every Bohemian inhabitant of the city of Prague.
Most of his books are translated into French, Russian, German, Polish and Serbian.
This is the first translation of Neruda into the English language.—The Translator.
Evening, August 1st.
AT last I am home again after a tedious, tiresome day of work; home in my new quarters. Quite a nice bachelor apartment! Of course it is in the sixth story and in reality, a garret, but such a habitation is extremely healthy. Not very spacious, but sufficient for my furniture. Bed, table, trunk, a chair, and a box for the books I steal from the editorial room, don’t need much space. I never receive visitors, but if one should come, he is welcome to the chair and I could have my choice between the trunk and the table. I think I’ll be quite happy here. I shall a few dashes now and take off my shoes — — — — Ha! How free I am! In taking off my boots I feel that I am shaking off the reporter; as long as I keep them on my feet I am obsessed by a secret fear that I may have to run somewhere to interview somebody. Oh what a dreadful running about it has been today! But even at that ,the life of a reporter is most beautiful and luring. Today, for instance, I already know the news of tomorrow. In such a manner I am always ahead of time of my fellow citizens. Quite funny, the kind of thing that is fit for a news item! People may do whatever they please but a news item will be the final result! The most bitterly opposed political parties will unite in the reporter’s pocket and he will think that party right which gives him the most material to write the most lines—“at a penny the line”. I have to think of Heine: Heine was a born reporter. It’s too bad that he didn’t try his luck at reporting. He would have earned heaps of money. And then again think of the fun, if we get hold of somebody and drag him into the limelight of publicity where he finds a place as suitable as perhaps Pilate could find in the Credo. Then he gets mad and curses newspaper writers! We don’t bother about it. The respect of our readers? Do we wish the asses upon whose backs we are riding to bray?
Jan! Jan! I am afraid you are plagiarizing Bulwer. But what of it? Plagiarized stories are the main nourishment of a reporter. As such I am undoubtedly an authority: people read me more and laud me less. I am yawning! It is time to get to bed. And “nihil humani a me alienum puto”.
Morning, 2nd August.
So then, I passed my first night in my new quarters; it was anything but quiet. Something seemed to be wrong; I awoke very often and only now I see what has been the cause of my restlessness. I forgot to make friends of the night watchman of my district and therefore, for the first time in years, I had not placed a string around my wrist whose other end would hang out of the window to the street, so that the night watchman could wake me easily if anything of importance should happen somewhere after midnight. And without this string I cannot pass a quiet night.
Early in the morning are my hours of concentration; usually I do not think at all. I just rest. But after I have once obtained my first news item a kind of fever takes hold of me. I am anxious to get more and more news. I am hunting for a news item continually. Something seems to grind in my head like a millwheel and I am unable to rest until in the evening I lay down with the string around my wrist. But now to the window! How about the view? I couldn’t have selected better situated quarters. The city fire-alarm is plainly visible and if ever fire should break out during the night, I must be the first on the scene. My street is rather narrow but always busy with people; possibly accidents will happen here and though they may not, I’ll make a few fat news items out of my narrow street. At first I shall draw public attention to this street and lengthily describe how narrow it is; a few days later I’ll bring a report that the city fathers are thinking of enlarging the street and I will mention the plans of some contractor that were submitted to a special commission; and still later I’ll write a rather short notice that the project has been abandoned. I can repeat this every year.—Well! Well! There is a singing bird in the house, too. It must be on the third floor if I am not mistaken. By Jove, she sang those scales all out of tune! Now I see it was only a charmingly wrong transition. An awkwardly shrill soprano singing the trite “When the swallows homeward fly”. Oh Lord, please save me from this annoying singing. I wonder who my neighbor across the street is. She is in a garret right beneath the roof, like my own, with drawn window shades, flowers on the window sill. Down below in the street there is boisterous life, and here high above, a peaceful domesticity.
But now let me consult my diary book to see what work is ahead of me. This month is fairly well filled with graduation exercises and school reports; the dedication ceremony of a new high school building. Then there is the new American mill which will be completed, and—well, somebody is liable to die. Somebody will commit murder, accidents will happen, there will be political plots, weddings, and somebody may invent something—fate will be kind to a poor reporter.
Good-bye, my dear little garret! I must start out on my daily grind. Hang that singer! How she must love her eternal “When the swallows homeward fly”—now she’s at it again—for the third time.
August 2nd, Evening.
All my work is done! I made a hurried trip to the theatre for some possible news. I learned that Miss D. will give a final farewell performance before she leaves for Berlin. Of course that will make an interesting story—what a horrible voice! There she goes again, “When the swallows homeward fly”. I wonder whether she has stopped singing that since morning; I think I'll make it a sad scene—the farewell of Miss D.! After the last act, frantic applause, curtain call after curtain call; flowers showered upon the stage, a laurel wreath, two wreaths, three wreaths—then finally she appears. She wishes to thank the audience for these unexpected manifestations of appreciation and love, but she cannot find adequate words—tears glisten in her eyes—. And in six months she is forgotten. No one even remembers her name! Shallow and fleeting is the fame of actors. Unless one of them should be a Garrick or an Irving, or a Devrien, his fame vanishes a few weeks after the high tide of his career. Hallo there, my little neighbor seems to be curious! While writing, I chanced to glance across to the garret window, and noticed that someone, almost hidden by the white curtains, is watching me. I see the shadow of a female form against the window shades. A woman is moving about in the room.
The profile is very attractive. Why do you hide yourself, you bashful little creature? It is really unnecessary, I could very well look in another direction.
A few minutes ago, when I came home, she had the light burning, with curtains and shades drawn back. I lighted my candle, and down went the shades! I am not envious! Nihil Humani—The string around my wrist, and I’ll turn in.
August 3rd, Morning.
No assignments for today in my diary; no work and next month one more hungry day. I expect I won’t be able to acquire anything else new for my wardrobe next month but a few more holes in my shoes. I shall remain at home today. But what shall I do with myself? I don’t feel like working on my novel; I don’t seem to be able to concentrate on any one subject. My thoughts are traveling.
Reading? Yes, but what? Let me see, the new review books which I brought home with me from the office. Poems? Bah! these are not in season. A history of the city of Prague? Too dry! A novel by K.? I’ll wait until I’m married and blase before reading it. Here is a cookery book. How the dickens did that get among the bunch? Look, who is here! The window across the street is open and I can explore the mysteries of my little neighbor’s abode.
“You are not very polite, Miss, to turn your back on me.” She stands near the tiny stove; she cooks something—it must be mush. Now she pours it into a dish of the kind used for feeding babies. She turns her face, and I see her plainly.
A beautiful girl!
Her face is pale and oval; her eyes are blue. Wonderful eyes! Why don’t they look over to me?
My sister, who died as a young girl, had such eyes, and people tell me that my mother, whom I never knew, had beautiful blue eyes. How often have I kissed her picture and yearned for the sound of her voice!
That prosaic mush over there for the baby! Why do such insignificant things recall memories of days long past by? The love of my dear sister and her care for me—her little, orphaned brother!
These same blue eyes bring memories of the past, of the time when she watched me with sisterly love while her small beautiful hands kept the needle busy and earned a living for both of us.
How I must have annoyed her with my dreams and my constant questions? Oh, yes, I too once was young in thought. Now I am only young in years.
Youth! Youth! Your memories rest up on us heavily like a leaden burden, or they warm us like the sunshine of an early August noon. Youth brings the saddest and the loveliest memories at the same time. A lovely memory for the happy man; a sad one for him who prefers to walk the straight path rather than the crooked. If one did not realize the dreams of youth, the early years of life would seem paradise lost.
The dreams of youth! Are they not like the birds that escape from their cages and are now singing in the branches of some tree beyond a yawning abyss; happily and mockingly?
And my own dreams? What were they? Ah, Yes! Immortality! They were rather commonplace. But the end is rather commonplace too.
If I am not mistaken, I am beginning to feel sentimental. This is ridiculous, and—as they say, misfortune is ridiculous too.
Only Youth and Love are the proper subjects for sentimentalities. Love! Must every blue eye charm love for me?
I have discussed love for so long and from so many angles that there remains nothing for love in me.
August 3rd, Afternoon.
I must have slept for hours. My poor feet, how well they have rested! Head and heart do not suffer from work—they have little or nothing to do with it. It is half past four! I have missed lunch. Hungry? No! I shall stay home; back to the bed and . . . Oh! Dear. What a voice! But why this fine old song now, which I knew so well many years ago? I know you, melancholy melody. So sweet and so sad. How often have I listened to you until my eyes filled with tears! It is “The Rose of Zion”, the touching melody of the Hebrews.
My blue-eyed neighbor is the singer. She fondles the little child and rocks it to sleep with a lullaby that was composed for a whole nation.
I can see her distinctly in her little garret. Her features certainly remind one of the Orient. And the song of Zion! I must make inquiries tomorrow. Yes! Go on! A thousand thanks, neighborly stranger, for beginning over again. I shall close my eyes and . . . Damn the swallows. There she goes again. Only why did the dear Lord create swallows? All the pleasure is over! Do I feel hungry? Yes, very hungry. Quick! my boots, and out of the house!
August 3rd, Evening.
Dame Fortune was very kindly inclined as she made me choose my new rooms. In a barn right across the street, a small fire broke out just as I was leaving the house. Of course they put it out in a jiffy; old rags and bundles of paper were the sole prey of the flames. But I made a long story out of it and they used it too. I had a man burn his right hand and I described the panic among the families in nearby houses. Hurrah! Nine-six lines, Ninety-six pennies.
August 4th, Morning.
Good morning, blue-eyed neighbor! Are you blue-eyed? What does it matter if you are not? I got up very early in the morning, opened the window and dressed as if I wanted to leave the house. Then I closed it, drew the curtain and took my seat next to the window sill. Soon her window was thrown open and I could observe her undisturbed. I am wondering why there is no older woman with her. Perhaps they are two orphans. She is kneeling in front of the crib and she must have been succeesful in rocking the baby to sleep. Maybe the pale infant has not slept at all during the night and his nurse has been watching at his side. She must be praying for her little brother or sister or why should she remain on her knees for so long? She turns her face! Goodness! She cries, tears stream down her cheeks and she looks unceasingly up at the clouds . . . Does she know that she is crying? She dries her eyes. She looks down into the street. She must be waiting for somebody. I open the window carefully. She does not notice it, yet must have heard the creaking of the old worn window sash. Paper is in front of me on the window sill, the pencil is in my hand. If I could only draw other things beside my old horrid caricatures! The letter carrier turns into our street—well, he has nothing for me. It is tragic how anxiously she watches him emerging from one house and disappearing into another. Poor little girl, he has passed your house already. So for him she had been waiting.
She espied me leaning out of my window; she flushed. I did too, if I remember right. She closed her window, and, I feel she weeps again.
I hadn’t noticed that I have not been alone in my room. The milkwoman delivers my daily breakfast, a penny’s worth of milk—milk that strongly resembles the beauty of southern skies—aren’t they famous for their delicate blue hues? Her strange carrying-on today astonishes me. At first she makes elaborate excuses for disturbing me. She says that she knocked twice on the door but that I did not answer (she had never knocked previously). She mentions that she thought I might like cream for breakfast, just for a change and finally she confesses that she would like to ask a favor of me, not for herself, but for someone in the neighborhood. I thought with horror of her asking me to write a petition for someone. But nothing of the kind. “The cobbler’s daughter on the third floor” she said “knows that you are on “a paper”. She is studying to become a “prima donna”. No, she hasn’t a teacher yet, but is practicing hard all by herself.”
“They are very nice, good people, and the girl’s mother would like to know if she could pay you a visit tonight. I am sure you are just the person to tell them how to go about making their daughter a famous singer.”
I hesitated a minute and then graciously gave my consent. . .”But I took occasion to inquire about my neighbor in her garret. “Ah! That woman” was the answer I received. “The Jewess? The poor thing is an unhappy fallen girl, but otherwise she is a good woman; she pays very regularly. She has wealthy parents, and I also believe
I did not listen any farther. “A Jewess—a fallen woman?” The milkwoman seemed to be impatient over my sudden silence and she repeated her question several times: “May I tell the cobbler’s daughter she will be welcome tonight?”
“I shall be glad if you will,” I answered, absentmindedly.
“Good-bye, and thank you.”
“I have not paid you yet.”
“Please don’t mention it”, and out she went, more quickly than I had ever seen a woman of her age move. A bottle of cream—a tip, my first graft.
It is at least a nickel’s worth. But I don’t touch it. I have no appetite this morning.
August 4th, Evening.
I wish I was a real artist, able to draw with a few lines human weaknesses with all their psychological variations!
I lean against the window. The cobbler’s daughter is seated at the chair and is so bashful, as if she did not know how to be at ease; her mother, a fat little woman with red cheeks and an imitation lace shawl around her shoulders, sits on my trunk. We are all waiting until the daughter shall have overcome her bashfulness and sing for us to show her talent. “If you desire to enter upon a stage career, you must overcome your bashfulness.”
“That’s what I am continually telling her.”
“But I can’t . . . if I . . .” Her eyes are downcast; she is plump, with big heavy feet and enormously large red hands.
“Now, go to it, Magda, and quickly . . . don’t make me angry. At home she hollows the whole day long. And now, when her future is at stake, she is bashful and dumb. Why don’t you sing that nice song you have been practicing lately?”
“I too, implore you, please?”
And “Magda” starts in. At first pianissimo, and after she feels sure that I shall not laugh at her, she screams with her terribly shrill voice—well, I wrote about it all in my diary on the second of August.
She has finished and I compliment her on her voice. She blushes and is bashful.
I promise to take care of her future. Her mother is overjoyed and happy. I bow them out of the room.
If you only know how little and insignificant the man is whom you have chosen for your sponsor? What fun I’ll have tomorrow in the office! I must prepare myself to narrate it properly. A story for the office and another version for the cafe. In a week’s time the reporter of our opposition paper will say that he, in reality, was the hero of my story, or he will insinuate that the mother gives me my meals and that the daughter is my sweetheart.
The windows across the street remain closed. Several times I have seen her shadow outlined on the window shade. Now again she covers her face. Does she dry her eyes? She blows out the light! Why so early?
Good night, little girl, God bless you!
August 5th, Evening.
Much work today and many hundreds of lines! I am dead tired. I have not seen my neighbor at all. The windows were closed in the morning and now they are still closed and the curtain is drawn.
August 6th, Morning.
The riddle is solved. As I got up in the morning and looked across, the windows stood wide open and the room was filled with people. I notice a policeman whom I know and a city physician in the street. Both disappear into the house. Something must have happened. I dress quickly and hurry across. All are requested to leave the room.
“You are in luck”, motions the police man to me, after locking the door securely. “This is a fine story.” The physician stands near the bed and now he speaks to us: “Suicide. The mother poisoned herself and her child.”
I was thunderstruck.
“Here is a letter”, says the policeman.
“Dear Madame: I fail to understand why you persist in annoying me. In order to end it all, I must tell you that my marriage will take place tomorrow.”
She looked ghastly with the death pallor on her cheeks. Shall I write the story? I must—and our paper will have the best story of “The Tragedy in the Garret.”
But I’ll give notice immediately and move out on the fifteenth.