The Grandmother (Božena Němcová, 1891)/Chapter 10

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THE Princess is gone, and with her the Countess; the father is gone, and the merry swallows, whose homes were under the eves, are gone, too. For several days it has seemed at Proshek's as it does after a funeral; the mother's eyes are often red from weeping, and the children seeing this weep, too.

"Now, Theresa, dry your eyes," Grandmother would say. "What good does it do to cry? You knew what you had to expect when you married, so now have patience. And you, children, rather than shed tears, pray God to keep your father in good health, so that when spring comes he may return to us."

"When the swallows return, Grandma?" asked Adelka.

"Certainly, my dear," replied Grandmother, and the child dried her tears.

Around the Bleachery it was sad and quiet. The foliage in the forest grew less and less dense; when Victorka came down the hill she could be seen from afar. The hill grew yellow, the wind and streams carried away heaps of dried leaves no one knew whither. The wealth of the orchard was hidden in the store-room, and in the garden only asters and kitchen and French marigolds were seen; and the fireflies played their games near the dam in the meadow saffron. When the children went out walking, the boys took their kites to let them fly on the top of the hill. Adelka followed them, catching upon a switch the fine threads of gossamer that floated in the breeze. Barunka gathered viburnum and haw berries for Grandmother, which she used in her medicines, and hips for culinary purposes; or she picked mountain ash berries to make bracelets and necklaces for Adelka. Grandmother loved to sit with the children on the top of the hill behind the castle. Before them spread a beautiful valley, where a herd of cattle was grazing; they could see even to the village, and at their feet was the castle, built upon a small elevation and surrounded by a park. All was now changed. The green curtains were drawn, no flowers were seen on the balcony, and the roses on the sides of the balustrade were faded; instead of attendants in livery, common laborers were seen in the garden, covering the plants with branches of evergreen. No beautiful flowers were seen, but the germs of them were hidden beneath the covering, and in due time would delight the eye of their mistress. Rare exotics, deprived of their green robes, were rolled up in straw; the fountains, sending forth silvery streams of water were protected with moss and lumber, and the golden fishes had hidden in the bottom of the pools whose surface, at other times so clear, was now covered with leaves, duck weed, and green slime. The children looked down to the castle and thought of the time when they walked with Hortense in the garden; they remembered how beautiful everything was when they breakfasted with her, and wondered where she was now. Grandmother, however, preferred to look beyond the opposite hill, beyond the villages, wards, groves, and forests, to the new town, clear to Dobrau, where dwelt her son, and beyond Dobrau, among the hills, to the little village that held so many souls dear to her. When she turned her eyes to the east, there lay before her a beautiful half garland of the Riesengebirge, from the rough, projecting back-bone of Heyshov to the summit of the snow cap. Pointing to Heyshov, Grandmother said: "There I know every nook; there in those mountains is Kladran, where your mother was born, there is Vamberitz and Varta; in those regions I spent many happy days."

She fell into a deep reverie, out of which she was awakened by Barunka's question:

"Is Varta the place where Sybilla sits upon that marble horse?"

"They say it is upon a hill near Varta. She sits upon a marble horse,—herself made of marble,—and has her hand raised up to heaven. When she sinks into the ground so that not even the end of her finger will be visible, her prophecy will be fulfilled. My father said he saw her, and then the horse was in the sand clear to his breast."

"Who was that Sybilla?" asked Adelka.

"Sybilla was a wise woman, who could foretell the future."

"What did she foretell?" asked the boys.

"I have told you already several times," replied Grandmother.

"We have forgotten."

"But you should not forget."

"Grandma, I remember some of it," said Barunka, who always listened with great attention; "Did not Sybilla prophesy that much misery was to come to Bohemia, that there would be wars, famines, and plagues, but that the worst time would come when the father did not understand the son, the brother his brother, when the given word or promise would not be held sacred; that then the Bohemian land should be carried over the earth upon the hoofs of horses?"

"You have remembered well, but God forbid that any such thing should ever happen!" sighed Grandmother.

Barunka, kneeling at Grandmother's feet, her clasped hands upon her knees, her bright eyes fixed confidently upon that old dignified face, asked further: "What was that prophesy you told us about the Blanick Knights of St. Vaclav and St. Prokop?"

"That is the prophecy of the Blind Youth," replied Grandmother.

"O, Grandma, sometimes I am so afraid that I cannot even express it; you would not want our country to be carried over the earth upon the hoofs of horses, would you?"

"Dear child, how could I wish such a misfortune! do we not pray every day for our country, because it is our mother? Well, if I saw my mother going to destruction, could I be indifferent? What would you do, if somebody wanted to kill your mother?"

"We should cry and scream," quickly replied the boys.

"You are but children," smiled Grandmother.

"We should have to help her, shouldn't we?" asked Barunka, her eyes brightening.

"Thats right, my child, that's right; that is the proper thing to do; crying and screaming profit little," said she, laying her hand upon her granddaughter's head.

"But, Grandma, we are so little, how could we help?" asked John, vexed that her opinion of him was so unfavorable.

"Don't you remember what I told you about the young David, how he slew Goliath? You see even the little one can accomplish much when he has faith in God,—don't you forget this. When you grow up, you will go into the world, see good and evil, be enticed and led away into temptation. Then think of your Grandmother and what she used to tell you. You know that I gave up a good living which the king of Prussia offered me, and preferred labor and great hardships rather than see my children estranged. Therefore, you, too, must love your country as you love your mother; work for her as dutiful children, and the prophecy you fear will never be fulfilled. I cannot hope to see you grown up, but I believe you will remember my words," she added, with a voice trembling with emotion.

"I shall never forget them," said Barunka, hiding her face in Grandmother's lap.

The boys stood silent; they did not understand their grandmother's words as Barunka did. Adelka, clinging close to her asked with a voice broken by sobs: "You are not going to die, are you!"

"My dear child, everything in the world is only for a time, and some day God will call me," she replied, pressing the little one to her bosom. They were silent for some time; Grandmother was buried in thought, and the children did not know what to say. The silence was broken by the rustling of wings, and when they raised their eyes, they saw a flock of birds sailing in the air above them.

"These are wild geese," said Grandmother; "they always go in small flocks consisting of one family only, and their way of flying is different from that of other birds. Observe! two fly in the front, two behind, and the rest go in single file, either lengthwise or crosswise, unless they make a half circle. Jackdaws, crows, and swallows go in large flocks. Several go in front, these seek a place of rest on their journey. In the rear and on the sides fly the guards, which in time of danger protect the female birds and the young; for often they meet an unfriendly flock and then a battle is fought."

"But, Grandma, how can they fight a battle when they have no hands in which to hold swords and guns?" asked Willie.

"They fight in a manner peculiar to themselves; they peck with their bills, and strike with their wings as cruelly as people do with sharp weapons. In such a battle many fall to the ground dead."

"How foolish they are," cried John.

"My boy, God has endowed man with reason, and yet how often for mere trifles men will fight till they destroy one another," said Grandmother, rising from the bench and preparing to go. "Look! the sun is about to set, the west is scarlet, to-morrow it will rain." Turning to the mountains, she added: "and Snowcap has a hood."

"Poor Mr. Beyer! what hard times he will have when he must travel through the woods," said Willie, thinking of the gamekeeper of the Riesengebirge mountains.

"Every occupation has its hardships; but when one chooses it, he must be willing to suffer the evil with the good, even should it be a matter of life and death," replied Grandmother.

"I shall be a gamekeeper, anyhow, and go with Mr. Beyer" said John courageously, and letting his kite fly he ran down the hill, Willie following; they heard the call for the cattle which the cowherd was driving home from the pasture, and the children loved to look at those beautiful cows that went in front of the herd, with red straps on their necks, upon which were hung brass bells, each having a different sound. One could see that they understood, for they proudly tossed their heads from side to side. Adelka seeing them coming, began to sing:


"Heigh—ho! the cows come home,
Through the meadow, by the stream,
Bringing us both milk and cream.


Grandmother was looking for Barunka, who still stood upon the hill, gazing upon the beautiful sunset. Here the outlines of the hills were seen in huge sketches upon the bright background; then the small elevations, upon whose tops were castles and churches, were set against the sky. From the level plain stretched up slender pillars connected by arches, like Gothic architecture, and all the dark figures were bordered by golden hieroglyphics and arabesques. These mountains, forests and castles disappeared, and forms even more strange appeared in their places. Barunka was so delighted that she called her grandmother to come up once more to see the beautiful sight; but she said her feet were not so young as they once had been, so Barunka came down to the rest of the party.

On All Saints' day the children, as usual, going out to meet Grandmother coming from church, said: "To-day we shall get some candles from church." And Grandmother brought the candles.

"When we cannot go to the graveyard to offer them for the souls, we will light them at home," she said. Thus in their own home each year they celebrated the festival for the dead. On All Souls' day,[1] in the evening, they set up the candles on the table, and as they were lighting them named the souls for whom they were offered. At last they lighted several without any name saying: "Let those burn for the souls that are un-remembered."

"Grandma, may I light one for that unfortunate wedding in Hertin forest?" asked Barunka.

"Yes, yes, my child; our prayer will be accept able to them." One more was lighted. Grandmother and the children knelt around the table and prayed as long as the candles burned. Grandmother ended the prayer with the words: "Let the Eternal Light shine for them, and may their souls rest in peace!" to which the children said: "Amen."

A week after All Souls' day, when Grandmother called the children in the morning, she told them that St. Martin had come upon a white horse. They jumped out of bed and ran to the windows, and lo! everything was white. Not a single trace of green leaves was seen upon the hill side, nor on the willows by the river, nor on the alders by the pond. The only green things in the woods were the firs and balsams, the branches of which bent down beneath their loads of snow. Upon the mountain ash, which stood near the house and had still a few bunches of frozen berries, a crow sat, and the poultry in the yard stood quiet, looking with wonder upon this strange sight. The sparrows, however, hopped about merrily, picking up the grain that the chickens had left. The cat, returning from the chase, at each step shook the snow from her paws, and hastened to her favorite place upon the oven. The dogs, wet to their knees chased each other playfully in the snow.

"Snow! snow! That is good! we shall ride down the hill!" shouted the children, welcoming the winter which brought them new pleasures. St. Martin brought them good rolls, and after St. Martin would come the feather bees.[2] They liked the spinning bees much better, for then they had more liberty. When the women got around the long kitchen table, and on it appeared a great heap of feathers, like a snow bank, then Grandmother kept driving Adelka and the boys away. Once, while John was at the table, he fell into the feathers, and the rumpus thus made can easily be imagined. From that time Grandmother did not think it advisable to allow the children to come near the table. Indeed, they did not dare to play near it or blow, or open the door too wide, for in that case they got a scolding at once. The only pleasant things about the feather bees were the puchalka,[3] and the stories about ghosts and robbers, about lights and fiery men. On long, foggy evenings, as the women went from village to village, it often happened that one was frightened here and another there; and when once they started to talk about it, there was no end to the stories, for each one knew several similar instances. The Kramolna thieves, going to prison in the spring and returning in the fall,—people said they had been at school, for they always learned something,—often furnished topics for conversation. Speaking of them, they began to talk of thieves in general, and then they related stories of bands of robbers. The children sat as still as mice, but for the whole world they would not have ventured out of doors. For this reason, Grandmother was never pleased with such conversation; still she could not stem this general current of thought.

After St. Martin's there was a market in town. Mrs. Proshek, taking Betsey and Vorsa with her, went there to buy crockery, and whatever else was needed for the winter. The children awaited their mother's return with the greatest impatience, for she always brought them some toys and gingerbread; and Grandmother got each year woolen stockings, a pair of fur-lined shoes, and half a dozen strings for her spinning wheel.

As she was putting them away in the side drawer in her chest, she would say to John: "If it were not for you, one string would be all I'd want."

This time Adelka got a wooden block on which was the alphabet, "To-morrow, when the schoolmaster comes, you can begin to learn; you don't know what to do with yourself while the others are studying; and since you remember the Lord's prayer and various songs, you can learn the a, b, c, too," said her mother.

The child skipped for joy, and immediately began to examine the letters with great attention; the clever Willie offered to teach her a, e, i, o, u, but she hid the block behind her back, saying: " I don't want to learn from you, you don't know it as well as the schoolmaster."

"As if I didn't know my letters when I can read from a book," said the boy, much hurt.

"But the letters are not the same as in the book," replied the sister.

"O, how foolish you are," exclaimed Willie, clasping his hands in astonishment.

"I don't care," said Adelka with a toss of her head, and went with her letters to the window.

While these two were quarreling over the letters, John, together with Sultan and Tyrol, was making a concert in the kitchen; he blew the trumpet and beat the drum which his mother had brought him from the market. The dogs did not seem to appreciate his music, for Sultan barked and Tyrol howled in a way that was fearful to hear. Grandmother was in the storeroom with her daughter putting away the purchases; hearing this music they both rushed into the kitchen. "Didn't I say so? it is that reprobate of ours; there isn't a good bone in his body. Say, will you stop!"

John took the trumpet out of his mouth and, as if he had not heard what Grandmother said, laughed, saying: "Look at those dogs, how mad they are; they do not seem to like my music."

"If those dogs could speak they would tell you to go to the Old Nick with such music, you understand? Put those things away instantly. If you will be such a bad boy, this year, I shall surely complain of you to St. Nicholas, and he'll not give you anything," threatened Grandmother.

"That would be a good thing; they say that St. Nicholas brought a whole wagonload of toys to town, and that he will be very generous this year,—to those who are obedient," said Vorsa, who, standing in the door, heard Grandmother's words.

The next day, as soon as the schoolmaster came, Adelka got her block and sat down with the rest of the children; she gave good heed, and in an hour she came running to Grandmother with great joy, saying she knew all the letters in the first row, and read them, together with the signs that the schoolmaster had made to help her to remember them. Both her mother and her Grandmother were well pleased with her, especially when the next day she still remembered them; and since Grandmother was obliged to hear her recite them so often, she finally learned them herself. "Well, well," said she to herself, "never in my life did I think I could yet learn the a, b, c, and now I have learned it. With children one must again bea child."

One day, John rushed into the room with the words: "Children, children, come see, Grandma has brought down her spinning wheel from the garret."

"What of it?" said the mother, as she saw all, even Barunka, rushing out of the door.

Certainly it was nothing, but she did not consider what pleasures were brought with the spinning wheel. With it came the spinners, and with them beautiful stories and merry songs. The mother, indeed, found no pleasure either in the stories or in the songs; she preferred to remain in her sitting room and read books from the castle library, and when Grandmother said: "Tell us something from those histories," the mother complied with her request; but the children were not half so interested as when she told them about the life in Vienna; and when the spinners said: "How beautiful it must be in such a city," not desiring, however, to see it, the children thought: "Oh, that we were grown up, so that we could go there, too."

All, except the mother, liked best to listen when Grandmother told stories about princesses with golden stars upon their foreheads, about knights and princes turned by enchantment into dogs and lions, or even into stones, about nuts, in whose shells were folded whole wardrobes of magnificent garments, about golden castles and seas, at whose bottom lived water nymphs. The mother never suspected, while she combed Barunka's hair, that the child, buried in deep reverie, and gazing out of the window, saw upon the bare hillside and the snow-covered valley, a garden of paradise, a palace of costly stones, birds of brilliant plumage, ladies, whose hair of pure gold, came down to their feet; that the frozen river changed for her into a blue, billowy sea, upon whose waves nymphs sailed in pearly shells, Sultan, who lay snoring stretched upon the floor, never dreamed of the honor the boys gave him when they looked upon him as an enchanted prince. How pleasant it was in the room as soon as it was dusk! Vorsa closed the blinds, the pitch pine cracked in the stove, in the middle of the room a large wooden candlestick was placed, in whose iron arms were burning faggots, around it were benches for the spinners, for whom Grandmother always had ready a basket of dried apples and prunes, "just for a bite," as she said. With what impatience the children waited to hear the click of the door latch in the hall when the spinners entered the room. During this time Grandmother would not begin to tell anything, but waited until all the spinners were present. In the day time she sang Advent hymns.

When, as yet, the children did not know her well, her good and ill humor, they thought they could tease her till she told them a story. But she disposed of them quickly. Sometimes she began to tell them about the shepherd who had three hundred sheep, and who, driving them to pasture, came to a footbridge over which only one could go at a time; "Now we must wait till they cross," she said, and became silent. In a little while the children asked: "Are they over?" She replied: "What are you thinking of? it will take at least two hours." They knew what that meant. Another time she said: "You think I have seventy-seven pockets and a story in each. Very well, out of which pocket do you want one?" "Perhaps from the tenth," said the children. "Very well. In the the tenth pocket is this story

"There was once a king, who had a ring, in which he rolled a tomcat bold. Now listen, for it will be very long," and that was the end of that story.

The worst story was about Red Ridinghood. The children could not endure that one, and usually ran away; with every other story they could coax Grandmother to keep still or talk about something else, but here they did not dare to say a word unless they wanted to hear it repeated.[4] The children finally learned to wait patiently for the spinners. The first who came were Christina and Milo, then Celia Kuderna, the friend of Betsey and Vorsa; sometimes the miller's wife came, too, with Manchinka and the gamekeeper's wife, and once a week Christina brought with her Anna, who was now the wife of Tomesh. When the spinning was over, her husband came to see her safe home.

While the women were warming themselves and getting ready for the work, they spoke of various things. One told the news from the village, another that which had been heard in town; or if there happened to be some holiday, with which there was connected some national custom or some superstition, this also furnished a topic of conversation. For example, on the eve of St. Nicholas, Christina asked Adelka if she had her stocking hung up, for St. Nicholas was already going through the village. "Grandma will hang it up for me, when I go to bed," said the child.

"You must not hang up your own stocking, it's too small. Ask Grandma to lend you hers," suggested Christina.

"That won't do, for the rest of us would be cheated," said John.

"You won't get anything anyhow but a switch," teased Christina.

"Oh, but St. Nicholas knows that Grandma has had one hidden since last year and that she never whips us," replied John. Grandmother, however, remarked that it was not because he had not deserved it.

Lucie's day was very disagreeable to the children. The superstition was, that on this night, Lucie a tall woman in white, with long, disheveled hair, went about seeking disobedient children. "Cowardice is folly," said Grandmother, who was not at all pleased when the children were taught to be afraid. She used to teach them to fear nothing except God's displeasure; but she could not, like their father, prove to them that no such things existed as watermen, fiery dragons, will o'the wisps, fiery men that roll before the observer like a bundle of straw; for her own belief in them was too deeply rooted in her mind. To her, the various forms in nature were animate with good or evil spirits; she believed in a wicked infernal spirit, that God sends upon the earth to try the souls of his people. She believed it all, but was not afraid; for she possessed a firm living faith in God, in whose power is the whole earth, heaven, and hell, and without whose permission not a hair falls from our heads.

This confidence in God she tried to instil into the hearts of the children. So, when on Lucie's day Vorsa began to talk about the woman in white, Grandmother told her to be quiet, for she had never heard that Lucie ever harmed any one. Milo was the most welcome visitor, for with his jack knife he made the boys little sleighs, plows, and wagons, or prepared the faggots for lighting, and the boys did not stir a step from him. When the spinners related ghost stories, and Willie clung to him, he would say: "Don't you be afraid, Willie; against the devil we will take the cross, and a cane for the ghost, and we'll beat them both."

This pleased the boys and they would have gone anywhere with Milo, even at midnight. Grandmother agreeing with him said: "A man is a man."

"Yes, indeed, and Milo is not afraid even of the devil, nor of the steward, who is worse than the devil," said Christina.

"How is it, Milo, is there any prospect of your getting work on the manor farm?" asked Grandmother.

"I fear not, they are pressing upon me from two directions, and several malicious women are meddling with my business," replied Milo.

"Do not speak in this way, perhaps it may yet be arranged," said Christina sorrowfully.

"I desire it as much as you; but, really, I see no way out of the difficulty. The steward's daughter can never forgive me for that trick I played upon the Italian. They say she was in love with him, and when, on account of that trouble, he was discharged by the Princess, the young lady's plans were brought to naught. Now she uses all her influence to induce her father not to take me into service. That is one enemy, the other is Lucie, the Squire's daughter. She has taken it into her head that I shall be her king on Long Night,[5] and as I cannot accept that distinction her father will be angry, and when spring comes I suppose I shall sing:

"'Alas, no longer am I free,
For soon a soldier I must be.'"


As Milo began to sing, the girls joined in, but Christina burst into tears.

"Never mind, my girl; it is long before spring, and who knows what God has in store for us," said Grandmother, trying to comfort her.

She wiped her eyes, but remained sad the rest of the evening.

"Don't worry about it; perhaps, after all, father will be able to manage the matter," said Milo, sitting down beside her.

"Could you not be that king without compromising yourself?" asked Grandmother.

"Of course I could, Grandma; some fellows wait on two and even three girls at the same time, before they select one for good, and girls do the same. I should not be Lucie's first admirer, and should not be obliged to be the last; and yet among us it is an unheard-of thing that a fellow should woo two girls at once, and when one is the 'King,' it is almost the same as if he went to the wedding."

"In that case you do well not to go," replied Grandmother.

"What has possessed Lucie, that she wants only you, as if there were not plenty of other boys in the village," scolded Christina.

"The miller would say 'There is no accounting for tastes,'" replied Grandmother smiling.

When the Christmas holidays were drawing near, the conversation was varied with talks about the baking of Christmas rolls, discussions about the fineness of the flour and how much butter each intended to use; the girls also talked about melting the lead, the children, of the good loaves, the sailing of candles in nut shells, and the little Jesus[6] bringing them presents.

  1. On All Souls' day the graves are decorated and candles lighted for the souls of the dead.
  2. Gatherings at which feathers are stripped.
  3. Pease first soaked and then roasted.
  4. This story about Red Ridinghood is not the one commonly known in America as well asin Europe. The story teller begins by saying: "Now I'll tell you the story about Red Ridinghood." Most probably the listener will say: "Very well," upon which the teller says: "I wasn't going to tell a story about 'very well' but about Red Ridinghood," and so on, each time repeating what the listener says.
  5. A festival held by the spinners.
  6. In Bohemia there are two festivals when presents are given. St. Nicholas day, on the 6th of December, and Christmas day. The children believe that on the latter day, the child Jesus makes them presents.