The Grandmother (Božena Němcová, 1891)/Chapter 11

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IT was the custom at the mill, the gamekeeper's lodge, and The Old Bleachery, that whoever came on Christmas eve or Christmas day had all he wanted to eat and drink; if no one had come Grandmother would have gone to the cross roads to look for somebody. Her joy can be imagined when, unexpectedly, her son Caspar with her nephew from Olesnic came the day before Christmas. For a whole half day she wept with joy, and every few moments she left her baking and ran into the room to look at them, to ask her nephew how this one and that one were doing in her old home; and again and again she said to the children: "Your grandfather looked exactly as you see your uncle here, only he was a great deal taller." The children examined their uncle and cousin from all directions, and were much pleased with them, especially since they replied pleasantly to their endless questions.

Every year, the children wanted to fast the day before Christmas, so that in the evening they might see the golden pigs;[1] but they never succeeded in keeping the fast the whole day. Their intentions were good, but their wills were weak. On Christmas eve everybody received a goodly share of dainties, and even the poultry and cattle were not forgotten when the Christmas loaves were cut. After supper, Grandmother took a part of the contents of each dish, half of which she threw into the stream that the water might remain pure, and buried the other half under a tree in the orchard that the ground might be fertile. She brushed the crumbs up carefully and threw them into the fire, so that it should do no damage.

After the work was done, Betsey took a branch of sweet elder and shaking it, recited:


"Sweet elder I shake, I shake!
Tell me, ye dogs that wake,
Where is my lover to-night."


Then she listened to ascertain in what direction the dogs were barking.

In the sitting room the girls were melting together wax and lead,[2] and the children were sailing candles in nutshells.

John secretly pushed the pan of water so that it moved, and the shells, which represented the ships of life, sailed from the edge to the center of the water; then he cried joyfully: "Look, look, I shall get far, far into the world!"

"My dear boy, when you get into the current of life, among its eddies and rocks, when the waves dash your boat hither and thither, then you will think with longing of the quiet haven from which you sailed," said the mother in a low tone, cutting his apple, "for luck," through its wide part. The seeds made a star, three of its rays being clear and sound, two imperfect and worm-eaten. Laying it aside with a sigh, she cut Barunka's, and again the star was imperfect. She said to herself: "Neither one will be completely happy!" Then she cut Willie's and Adelka's, and in those the stars were clear and sound, but had only four rays. "These perhaps may be happier," thought the mother, when Adelka interrupted her by complaining that her boat would not go from the shore, and that her candle was almost burnt down.

"Mine, too, is going out, and did not get very far," said Willie.

At that moment somebody pushed the pan, the water was covered with waves, and the boats in the middle went down.

"See, see, you'll die before we do!" cried Adelka and Willie.

"No matter, since we shall go far," replied Barunka, and John agreed with her; but the mother looked sadly at the extinguished candles, and a presentiment took possession of her soul, that perhaps, after all, this innocent, childish play was the foreshadowing of their future.

"Will the child Jesus bring us something?" whispered the children to Grandmother, when the table was cleared.

"I cannot tell you that; you will hear, if he rings,” replied Grandmother. The smaller children took their post at the window, thinking that when Jesus went by they would hear him. "Don't you know that Jesus can neither be seen nor heard?" said Grandmother. "He is in heaven sitting upon a shining throne, and sends his gifts to good children by angels, who bring them down upon golden clouds. You will hear nothing but the bells."

The children looked out of the window, piously listening to all Grandmother said. Just then a bright light gleamed past the window, and the sound of bells was heard. They clasped their hands, while Adelka whispered: "Grandma, that was the child Jesus, was it not?" Grandmother nodded. Then the door opened, and the mother entered, telling the children that Jesus had left gifts for them in Grandmother's room. When they saw a beautiful lighted tree, their joy knew no bounds. Grandmother was not familiar with this custom, it not being common among the villagers, but she was much pleased with it, and, long before Christmas, was careful to see that a tree was provided, and helped her daughter to trim it.

"In Niesse and Kladran this custom is celebrated; do you recollect, Caspar? You were quite a boy before we left," said Grandmother addressing her son. She then seated herself beside him, leaving the children to enjoy their tree and their presents.

"Of course I remember," replied Caspar; "it is a good custom and you did well, Theresa, to introduce it here. The recollections of these domestic festivities will be dear to the children when they find themselves adrift in the world. When one is away from home, one loves to think of this day. I found it the case when I lived among strangers. My masters were not hard, so that I had good times; and yet I always thought, 'Oh, that I could be at home with my mother, to eat pudding with honey, buns with poppy-seed sauce, and pease with cabbage. I would have gladly exchanged all the good things I had for that homely fare."

"Our own victuals," smiled Grandmother, nodding: "but you forget the mixture of dried fruit?"

"Yes, but you know I never cared for it. I have thought of something else that we all love to hear; at Dobran they call it 'music.'"

"Oh, I know what you mean! the shepherds' Christmas carol; we have that here, too, you'll hear it before long," said his mother, and hardly had she spoken, when the shepherd's horn was heard near the window. First the melody of the carol was played upon the horn and then the shepherds sang:

"Arise! ye shepherds, arise!
Glad tidings to you we bring;
To day a Savior was born to us
In a manger in Bethlehem."


"You are right, Caspar. If I did not hear this song, it would not seem like Christmas to me," said Grandmother, listening to the rest of the song with much pleasure. Then she went out and loaded the shepherds with Christmas dainties.

On St. Stephen's, the boys went tosing Christmas songs at the mill and at the gamekeeper's; if they had not come, the miller's wife would have thought that the ceiling must have come down, and she herself would have gone to The Old Bleachery to see what had happened. Afterwards Bertie and Frank came down to sing in return.

The Christmas holidays were over; the children began to talk of the next holiday, of the Three Kings or Wise Men of the East. Then the schoolmaster came and sang of Christ's birth, and wrote the names of the Three Wise Men upon the door. After the Three Kings, the spinners celebrated their festival of the "Long Night." To be sure, at The Old Bleachery and at the mill it was not as in the village, where there were many young people; there they chose a king and queen, had a dance, trimmed the spinning wheel, and crowned the queen.

In The Old Bleachery a good supper was prepared, the spinners came, sang, ate and drank, and if by chance the hand organ was heard behind the door, they danced in the kitchen. Tomesh, the miller, and the gamekeeper, and several others came, and the party was complete. The floor of the kitchen was of bricks, but the girls did not mind it, though some of them, who were too careful of their shoes, took them off and danced barefooted.

"What do you say, Grandma, couldn't we have a little hop together?” said the miller, who had entered the kitchen among the young folks, where Grandmother was watching the small fry who, together with Sultan and Tyrol, were constantly getting in the way of the dancers.

"O, my dear miller, there were times when I did not care though my feet were full of bloody blisters, if only I could dance. As soon asI showed myself at the tavern, or in the summer on the threshing floor, the boys would say: 'Madaline is here, play Kalamajka vertak![3] Hurrah! Now for it!' and Madaline flew into the circle. But now, good heavens! I’m like the steam over the kettle."

"Indeed, I do not doubt it, for you are still as smart as a quail; come, let us try just a little dance."

Here is a dancer, who can turn like a spindle," laughed Grandmother, taking the hand of Anna, Tomesh's wife, who happened to be standing behind the miller, listening to the conversation.

Gayly the young woman took the miller's arm, told Kuderna to play the first tune slowly, and began to get her step ready for the dance. The miller, willing or unwilling, had to start, while the young people clapped their hands and shouted, till the miller's wife, hearing the noise, came to see what was going on. Tomesh, seeing her, offered her his arm, and she was soon following her husband, and thus the old people also had a hop, and Grandmother laughed at the miller's expense.

"Hardly was the Long Night over, when there was merry making in the mill. A fat hog had been killed, sausages were made, fried cakes were cooked, and a sleigh was sent to get the friends from the mill and the gamekeeper's. Later, the feast was at the gamekeeper's, and at last at Proshek's.

Shortly after this, the young people came to play Dorothea. Vaclav Kuderna acted the part of King Diocletian, his sister Lida was the maid Dorothea, the two courtiers, the judge, the executioner and his assistants were boys from Zernov. The courtiers and the assistants carried bags for such edibles as they hoped to receive. The pond before Proshek's house furnished a good skating place; here the actors stopped to have a good time, while Dorothea, the maid, shivering with cold stood by and watched them. She urged them to go, but her voice was drowned in the general shouting, and they did not start until they had had their fill of skating, rolling, and tumbling over one another. Then they entered the house, where the dogs met them with a terrible barking; but the children welcomed them with the greatest delight. They remained near the door, where they laid down their bags and put themselves in order for the play. Their clothes were quite simple. The maid Dorothea had on her brother's boots, a white dress that Manchinka had lent her, and beneath her paper crown she wore her mother's white kerchief. The boys wore paper caps, and to complete their costumes they had white shirts over their other clothes, fastened around the waist with bright colored handkerchiefs. King Diocletian also had a crown, and the beautiful cloak that hung so gracefully from his shoulders was his mother's best Sunday apron, which she had lent him as a special favor. As soon as they had warmed themselves by the fire, they took their stand in the middle of the room to recite their parts; the children heard it every year but never got tired of it. When the heathen king, Diocletian, condemns the Christian maid Dorothea to death, the assistants take her by the arms and lead her to the block, where the headsman stands with his sword raised up high, and says with terrible pathos:


"Thou maid, Dorothea, kneel,
My sword do not thou fear;
Now bravely bend thy head
In a second, thou art dead!"


Dorothea kneels, bends her head, the headsman cuts off her crown, and the assistant raises it in the air. Then all bow, Dorothea picks up her crown and puts it back upon her head, and takes her stand in the corner of the room, by the door.

"How well those children recite!" exclaimed Vorsa; "I could listen to them the whole evening."

Grandmother, too, was not chary of her praise, and the actors, with well-filled bags, sallied into the yard. When they got behind the house they examined the contents of their bags. The food was at once divided equally among them, but the money the king put into his own pocket, saying that he had a right to do so, since as director of the troupe he had assumed all the expenses and the responsibility. After this just distribution of profits, the party started for the gamekeeper's. For several days the children kept reciting the verses and acting the part of Dorothea, but the mother could not comprehend how any one could enjoy such egregious nonsense.

One Sunday morning some time after this, a handsome sleigh was seen in Proshek's yard. When the horses stirred, their bells jingled so loudly that the crow, the winter boarder in the poultry yard, flew away to the top of the mountain ash, and the chickens and sparrows eyed the team curiously, and seemed to say: "What in the world can this mean?" It was Shrovetide, and Mr. Stanicky had come to take the Proshek family to town to spend the day with him.

Grandmother, however, would not go; she said: "What should I do there? leave me at home, such company is not for me." The Stanickys were good, pleasant people; but as they kept a hotel, all sorts of people met there, some from afar and quite stylish, and this was no company for our lowly Grandmother 

In the evening, when the family returned home, the children related all they had seen and heard, and what nice things they had eaten. Here, however, Grandmother was not forgotten, for Mrs. Stanicky never neglected to send her a large package of good things. The children praised the music and told her who were there.

"Guess, Grandma, whom we saw?" said John.

"Well, whom?" asked Grandmother.

"The peddler, Vlach, who comes to our house and gives us figs! But you would not have known him; he was clean, dressed up like a prince, and had a gold watch chain!"

"One can afford to be extravagant when one has a plenty; besides, you, too, do not go out among people in your every day clothes. A person owes it to himself and to society to dress as well as he can afford."

"But he must be rich, do you not think so, Grandma?"

"As I never looked into his chest, I cannot tell. Doubtless he is, for he is a good business man."

On the last day of Shrove-tide the masqueraders came along with great parade, at their head Shrovetide himself. He was covered with pea straw, so that he looked like a bear. Wherever he came, the house-wife tore off a piece of the straw and saved it to put into the nest the following spring, when the goose was set, so that the eggs should hatch well.

Shrove-tide passed by and with it all the winter merry-makings. At her spinning Grandmother sang Lenten Hymns; when the children sat near her, she told them stories from the life of Christ, and the first Sunday in Lent she put on mourning. The days grew longer, the sun shone with greater power, and the warm wind carried away the snow from the hillsides. The poultry cackled gayly in the yard; and when the housekeepers met, they talked of setting hens and of sowing flax,and the men prepared the ploughs and harrows. When the gamekeeper wanted to come from the woods opposite to The Old Bleachery, he could not cross the river, for the ice was cracking and, as the miller said, "piece after piece was taking leave of its fellows."

The Sundays came, "the Black," "the Social," "the Sneezing," and, finally, the long expected "Death Sunday." The children cried: "To-day we will carry Death away," and the girls added: "Now it is our turn to be waits."[4] Adelka had been saving eggshells all the week, and now Grandmother took these, together with some gay streamers, and trimmed up a switch for her; this was called "summer." The girls prepared for the spring merry-making. In the afternoon they met at the mill to dress "Death." Cilka Kuderna made a straw dummy, and each girl contributed some article of clothing; for the handsomer Miss Mawlikin was, the greater was the credit which the girls received. When she was dressed, two girls took her by the arms, the rest formed a procession behind, and dancing as they went, they sang:

"Death from the village now we carry,
New season come, and do not tarry."

A few of the villagers followed them out some distance, but the boys came close to them, making gestures of contempt and trying to jerk off poor Miss Mawlikin's cap; but her escort protected her well. Reaching the dam, they disrobed her and with shouts of joy flung her into the water, and then both boys and girls sang:

"Death is floating down the stream,
A new season is drawing near,
Bringing eggs and Easter cheer."

Then the girls sang alone:

"Oh summer, summer so sweet,
Where hast thou been delayed?"
"To wash my hands and feet,
In the forest's deepest shade.
The rose and the violet blue
Cannot bloom without God's dew."

Then the boys burst forth with their song:

"St. Peter at Rome, be thine
The good will to send us some wine.
Thy praises we'll drink, and sing
Till the woods with merriment ring."


"Come in, come in, ye waits!" called Mrs. Proshek, who had been outdoors listening to the songs of the young people; "we cannot give you wine, but we have something with which to make you merry."

The party still singing, entered the house, where for some time they enjoyed themselves to their heart's content.

On the morning of Palm-Sunday, Barunka went down to the river to pick some pussy-willows. "They are already in blossom, as if they knew they were wanted," thought the child. When she went with Grandmother to early mass, each carried a bunch to be blessed.

On Ash-Wednesday, when Grandmother had finished her spinning and was carrying the spinning wheel up into the garret, Adelka cried: "Oh, my! the spinning wheel is going up to the garret. Grandma will now use the spindle."

"If God grants us life and health, next winter we'll bring it down again," replied Grandmother.

On Maundy-Thursday the children knew they would have nothing for breakfast but Judases[5] with honey. At The Old Bleachery they had no bees; but every year the miller sent them some honey, and had promised them that as soon as a good swarm was ready to leave, he would give it to them; for he once heard Grandmother say that she desired nothing so much as a beehive near the house. "Everything seems more cheerful," she said, "when one sees those bees flying about so busily all day long."

"Rise, Barunka, the sun will soon be up!" called Grandmother early on Good-Friday, gently rapping her grandchild on the forehead. Barunka opened her eyes, and seeing Grandmother standing by her bed she recollected that she had asked to be awakened for early prayers. She jumped out of bed, put on her petticoat, and throwing a shawl over her shoulders was ready to accompany Grandmother to the hill. Vorsa and Betsey were awakened, too, but not the little ones, for Grandmother said they did not understand it yet. As soon as the kitchen door squeaked, the poultry and cattle began to stir, and the dogs jumped out of their kennels. Grandmother pushed them aside as she said: "Have patience till we have said our prayers." When Barunka, at Grandmother’s suggestion, had washed her face in a stream of water, they went upon the hillside to say nine Pater-nosters and nine Ave Marias, so that God would grant them for the whole year cleanliness of body. Grandmother knelt down, clasped her hands, and prayed fervently, her confiding gaze turned to the crimson sunrise.

Barunka knelt beside her, fresh and rosy as a bud. For a while she, too, prayed fervently; but soon her gaze wandered from the east to the woods and over the meadows and hillsides. The river still carried along with it pieces of snow and ice, and the snow still lingered in the valleys; but here and there were seen patches of green grass, the early daisies were whitening the hillsides, the trees and bushes were beginning to bud, and all nature was awakening to a new life. The red clouds were scattered in the skies, the golden rays rose higher and higher behind the mountain, gilding the tree-tops, till finally the sun showed itself in all its glory, pouring a flood of light upon the whole hillside. The opposite hillside was still in a dim light, behind the dam the mists fell lower and lower, and above them upon the opposite hill, the women of the mill were seen kneeling in prayer.

"Look, Grandma! how beautiful the sun rises," said Barunka, all wrapped in wonder at the glorious sight. "O that we were now on the top of Snow Cap!"

"All places are sacred to worship, for the earth is the Lord's,” replied Grandmother, making the sign of the cross and rising from her prayers. When they turned, they saw a woman's figure standing on the top of the hill leaning against a tree. It was Victorka. Her disheveled hair, damp with the dews of night, hung about her face, her throat was bare, her black eyes, gleaming with a strange light, were fixed upon the rising sun, and in her hand she held a primrose. She did not seem to observe them. "Poor child, where has she been wandering?" said Grandmother, pityingly.

"And where could she have found that primrose?" said Barunka.

"Somewhere upon the top of the hill. Why, she knows every nook and corner," replied Grandmother 

"I am going to ask her for it," said Barunka, and was already running up the hill. Just then Victorka seemed to awake from her reverie and turned to flee; but when Barunka called: "Please, Victorka, give me that flower!" she stopped, and with her eyes turned away gave the child the primrose. The she turned abruptly and flew down the hill. Barunka came down to Grandmother.

"It is a long time since she came to get some food," said Grandmother.

"O,no! Yesterday, when you were gone to church, Mamma gave her a loaf of bread and some Judases," said Barunka.

"Poor creature! The summer will soon be here, and then she will be better off; but heaven knows whether she has any feeling left. She wears such thin garments the whole winter long, and goes barefoot, and often she can be tracked by the bloody marks which she leaves upon the snow. How gladly would the gamekeeper's wife give her something warm to eat every day; but she won't accept anything but bread, or some other cold victuals. Unhappy girl!"

"Grandma, I don't think she is cold in that cave; if she were she would go somewhere else. Why, we have asked her many times to stay with us."

"The gamekeeper says that it is warm in such underground places, and since Victorka never enters a room warmed by a fire, she is not so sensitive to cold as we. God orders things thus; he sends guardian angels to protect children from evil, and Victorka is a poor child, too," said Grandmother, entering the house.

Usually the bell from the village chapel called the family to prayers and to dinner; but this time, John and Willie ran into the orchard with clappers and clapped till the sparrows were frightened out of their nests. In the afternoon, Grandmother and the children went to the village to see the Lord's tomb, and on their way they stopped for Manchinka and her mother. The miller's wife took Grandmother into the store-room to show her the great basket of colored eggs which she had prepared for the Easter singers. There was also a long row of coffee-cakes covered with various kinds of sauce, and a fat lamb ready to be roasted. She gave each of the children a little roll, but none to Grandmother; for she knew that from Maundy-Thursday, she never took a mouthful till the evening before the Resurrection Day. She herself fasted on Good Friday, but not so strictly as Grandmother. The latter said: "Every one must act according to his own conscience. As for myself, it seems to me if I'm going to fast, I must fast during all of these days. She examined and praised all the baking, and added: "We are going to bake to-morrow, everything is prepared; but to-day is devoted to prayer!" This was the custom at Proshek's, for there Grandmother's word was law.

The Saturday before Easter, from the earliest dawn till the close of the day, The Old Bleachery reminded one of the bridge at Prague; in the sitting room, in the kitchen, in the yard, at the oven, everywhere busy hands were constantly meeting each other, and each one of the women to whom the children turned with their difficulties declared she didn't know where her head was. Even Barunka had so much to do that she forgot one thing in the effort to remember another. But by evening the house was in apple-pie order, and Grandmother, with Barunka and the mother, went to the service of the Resurrection. When they entered the brilliantly lighted church filled with devout people, a full chorus burst forth with the hymn beginning:

"This day our Savior arose! Hallelujah!"

Barunka was carried away by a powerful feeling, her breast heaved, and she felt impelled to rush out into the open air that she might give free vent to the inexpressible emotions that filled her soul. The whole evening she was filled with a quiet joy, and when Grandmother came to bid her "good night," she put her arms around her neck and burst into tears.

"What is the matter, my child?" asked Grandmother.

"Nothing is the matter, Grandma, only I am so very happy," replied Barunka. Grandmother bent down, kissed her grandchild on the forehead, but said not a word,—she understood her Barunka.

On Easter Sunday, Grandmother took a cake, some eggs, and some wine to church to be blessed. When she returned, she cut up the cake and gave each one a piece, and also a little wine. The poultry and cattle also got their extra portion of food as on Christmas, so that they would become attached to their home and return good profits.

Easter Monday was a bad day for the women, for then the waits came to sing and to switch them. Hardly were they awake at Proshek's, when they heard a voice behind the door singing: "A little wait am I," and somebody knocked at the door. Betsey opened it very carefully, fearing it might be one of the boys come to give her a switching; but it was the miller, the earliest of them all. He came as meek as a saint, and wished them a merry and happy Easter; but all at once he pulled out a switch from beneath his coat and began to apply it vigorously. He spared no one, and even Mrs. Proshek and Adelka and Grandmother were struck several times across their petticoats "so the fleas shouldn't bite" as he said. He was treated the same as any other wait, he got his Easter egg and an apple. "Well, boys, have you done your duty this morning?" he asked.

"They are nice fellows! other days one can hardly get them out of bed; but to-day I was hardly in the sitting room when they began to switch me," complained Barunka, and both the miller and the boys laughed at her.

The gamekeeper, too, and Milo and Tomesh came down to switch the women; in short the girls had no rest the whole day, and as soon as they caught a glimpse of some new comer, they covered their bare shoulders with their aprons.

  1. The children are told that if they will fast the whole day, in the evening they will see beautiful golden pigs running about the room. As no child ever succeeded in keeping the good resolution the promised pigs are never seen.
  2. A species of fortune telling, the form which the wax and lead assume on cooling indicating what will happen to the person during the coming year.
  3. Slavonic dances.
  4. Usually boys or men go out on the eve of festivals or holidays to sing under the windows, but on Easter it is the privilege of the girls to do the singing, or be "waits."
  5. A kind of flat biscuit baked only in Passion week.