The Grandmother (Božena Němcová, 1891)/Chapter 12

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SPRING was coming on apace. The people were working in the fields; upon the hillsides lizards and snakes basked in the sun, so that the children, going out to gather violets and lilies of the valley were often frightened by them; but grandmother told them they had nothing to fear, for before St. George's such creatures were not poisonous, and could be handled with impunity; but when the sun was high, then they had poison in them, In the meadow behind the dam were seen blossoming the ox-eye daisies and larkspurs, on the hillside liver wort and the golden primroses. The children gathered young leaves for soup and brought nettles for the goslings; and whenever Grandmother entered the stable she promised Spotty that she should soon be taken out to pasture. The trees quickly put on their green leaves, the mosquitoes sang merrily in the air, the lark winged his way high up into the clouds, so that although the children often heard the little singer they never could see him; they also listened to the cuckoo and called into the woods: "Cuckoo, cuckoo, tell us how many years we shall live?" Sometimes she would coo, but sometimes she refused, and Adelka scolded, saying that it was just out of spite. The boys taught Adelka to make willow whistles; when her whistles wouldn't sound they told her it was because while knocking the bark to loosen it she had not said the words right. "You girls can't even make a whistle," laughed John.

"That isn't our business; but you can't make a hat like this," said Barunka, showing her brother a hat made of elder leaves and trimmed with daisies.

"Hm, that's nothing!" said John, with a toss of his head.

"Nothing for me, but a good deal for you," laughed Barunka, making a doll out of the pith of elder to match the hat.

John placed the switch on his knee and said to Adelka: "Now, listen and watch how I'm going to do it!" and striking the switch with the handle of his knife, he recited:

"Hark! hark! hark!
And quickly loosen thy bark;
If thy bark thou wilt not free,
It shall be ill with thee.
Our prince will come full soon
And give thee a blow
Till thou shalt go
Right up to the silver moon?

Clip! clip! clip!
At first thou wast only a whip,
But with my little knife
I'll give thee a new life;
A new life so sweet and good,
That at my word
Thou wilt sing like a bird,
Like a little bird of the wood."

The bark was loosened, the whistle made, and when John tried it, it gave out a pleasant sound; but Willie said that it did not whistle nearly as well as Wenzel's old whistle that he used when he watched the cattle. He got tired of making whistles and made a wagon instead, to which he hitched himself, and started to race about the meadow with the dogs after him.

Barunka, giving her sister the pith doll, said: "Here, you may have this, but you must learn to make them yourself? Who will play with you when we are gone to school? You will be here alone."

"Grandma will be here," replied the child with an expression that said that although it would not be pleasant to be left alone, still if Grandma was with her she would have everything.

Just then the miller came along and handing Barunka a letter, said: "Take it to your mother and tell her one of my men was in town, and the postmaster gave it to him."

"It's from papa!" exclaimed the children running into the house. Mrs. Proshek read the letter with a face beaming with joy, and having finished it, told the children that their father would come home about the middle of May, and the Princess, too.

"How many times shall we sleep?" asked Adelka.

"About forty times," replied Barunka.

"O, my! that is so long yet!" said the little girl, much disappointed.

"Do you know what I'll do?" said Willie; "I will make forty chalk marks upon the door, and every morning when I get up I will rub one out."

"That is a good idea, the time will pass away more quickly," said his mother.

The miller was going from the dam and stopped at Proshek's. His face was sober, the habitual grin was gone, and he held his snuff box in his hand, but did not turn it; instead of that he tapped the cover with his fingers. "Do you know what's the news, my friends?" he said as he entered the room.

"What has happened?" asked Mrs. Proshek and Grandmother at the same time, seeing that the miller was not in his usual mood.

"The mountain water is coming."

"God grant that it be neither sudden nor heavy!" said Grandmother, much frightened.

"I am not a little alarmed," said the miller. "For several days we have had south winds; then there have been heavy rains in the hilly regions, and the farmers tell me that the streams are flooded and the snow is rapidly thawing. The outlook is not inviting. I shall hurry home now and put everything out of the way of the evil visitor. I should advise you to do the same; we cannot be too careful. In the afternoon I will come to see how things appear. Watch how the water rises,—and you, little linnet, don't you go near the water!" he added, pinching Adelka on the cheek; then he left the house.

Grandmother went to look at the dam. On each side the banks were protected by oak piles, among which brakes had grown. She saw that some of the lower brakes were already beneath the water. Pieces of wood, sod, and branches of trees were carried away across the dam by the muddy current. She returned to the house with an anxious face. When the ice broke, it sometimes stopped at the dam, and the current rushed into the sluice and flooded the house. This was always a time of anxiety to the miller, and his men were constantly on the watch to arrest every threatening danger, by separating the floes that were accumulating in heaps. This, however, could not arrest the progress of the mountain flood. Like a mad charger it came plunging down the sides of the mountain, carrying with it everything that lay in its path. The banks of oak were torn asunder, houses were overthrown, and all this happened so suddenly that the people scarcely had time to think what to do. Grandmother, who had once experienced this, no sooner entered the house than she advised the immediate removal of the furniture to the garret, which was done at once.

In the meantime, the gamekeeper came over. Going from the woods past the saw mill, he had heard of the coming of high water and had noticed the rise of the river. "Those children will only be in your way, and when the worst comes, what will you do with them? I will take them with me up above." Mrs. Proshek gladly accepted his offer. Everything was packed and put away, the poultry was taken to the top of the hill, and Spotty to the gamekeeper's.

"You two go to the gamekeeper's, so his wife shall not have everything on her own hands," said Grandmother to her daughter and Betsey, when everything was in order. "Vorsa and I will remain here. Should the water come into the house, we will go up into the garret, and, God protecting us, we hope it will not be so bad that the house will be carried away; it is not so low here as at the mill; they, poor souls, will have a harder time."

For some time Mrs. Proshek would not consent to her mother's remaining there; but when she could not persuade her to go, she finally went without her. "Don't let the dogs get away," she said, as she was leaving.

"Never fear for them; they know where their safety lies, they will not leave us." And, truly, Sultan and Tyrol were constantly at Grandmother's heels, and when she took the spindle and sat down by the window, out of which she had a good view of the river, the dogs lay down at her feet. Vorsa, accustomed constantly to be doing something, began to clean out the empty pens, not thinking that in an hour, they would be filled with mud and water.

It grew dusk, the water rose higher and higher, and reached almost to the edges of the sluice; the meadow behind the dam was already under water, and where the willows did not obstruct the view, although the house lay low and the banks of the river were high, Grandmother could see the dashing of the waves. She laid aside her spindle, clasped her hands, and began to pray. Vorsa entered the room, and said as she brushed the dust from the bench by the window: "The water roars till one is filled with terror; all living creatures have hid themselves as if they knew something was going to happen; not a sparrow is to be seen."

The sound of a horse's hoofs is heard on the main road leading from the dam, and a rider gallops along at full speed; he stops at the house and shouts: "Save yourselves, people; the flood is upon us!" Then he gallops on to the mill and from the mill to the village.

"God be with us. Up above they are in peril; they’ve sent a messenger," said Grandmother, turning pale. Still she told Vorsa not to be afraid, and went again to see if all was safe, and to note how much the water had gained. She caught sight of the miller. He had on a pair of high boots and was examining the condition of the water; he showed her that it was already overflowing the side of the sluice.

Milo and Kuderna came to offer their assistance and to stay with her; she sent Kuderna home, saying: "You have children, and if some misfortune should befall them, I should always blame myself. If any one is to stay, let it be Milo; at the inn he is not needed; there they have nothing to fear, except that the water may get into their stable." Thus they parted.

By midnight the house was surrounded with water. On Zernov hill the people went about with lanterns; the gamekeeper, too, came near the house, upon the hill, and thinking that Grandmother could hardly be asleep called and whistled, till Milo replied that they were all right, that Mrs. Proshek need have no fears for her mother. Then the gamekeeper went away again. In the morning the whole plain was one vast sheet of water. Down stairs they had to walk on planks, and with great difficulty Milo got to the top of the hill to the poultry; the water rushed with such force as almost to knock him over. At daybreak everybody came down from the gamekeeper's to see how it was at The Old Bleachery. The children seeing the house, in the middle of a lake, and Grandmother walking about on planks, began to cry and lament at such a rate that they could scarcely be quieted. The dogs were looking out of the door of the garret, and when John called them they barked and howled, and would have jumped down, had not Milo held them back.

Kuderna came and related what damage the water had done below. In Zlici it had carried away two houses, in one of which there was an old woman, who, not heeding the warning of the messenger, delayed till it was too late. Bridges and trees were carried away, in short everything that lay in the way of the flood. At the mill, they lived in the upper rooms.

Christina came to Proshek's to see if it was possible to bring them something warm to eat; but she saw that it was not to be thought of, and when Milo boldly started to cross over, she herself begged him to remain where he was.

The danger lasted two days; the third day the water began to subside. How the children wondered when they returned to the house. The garden was flooded, the orchard was covered with debris, deep gullies were washed out in many places, and the willows and alders were half buried in mud. The foot bridge was carried away, deep caves were worn out under the pens, and the dogs' kennels were nowhere to be seen. Adelka and the boys went to look behind the house. They had some trees there which they had brought from the woods, and which Grandmother had planted for them,—birches for the girls, and firs for the boys. They stood there unharmed. Under the pear tree they had made a little cottage, and around it a garden with a fence and a small ditch, in which were mills that turned when a rain had filled it with water. There was also an oven there in which Adelka baked her mud buns and kolaches. Not a trace was left of this little establishment. "You simpletons," said Grandmother, laughing when she heard the children bemoaning their loss, "how could you expect your plaything would stand before the force of those angry waters that in their course overturn houses and root up trees centuries old!"

Before many days passed the sun dried the fields, meadows, and roads, the wind carried away much of the debris, the grass grew more lush, the damages were repaired, and hardly a trace remained of the destructive flood; but the people spoke of it for a long time. The swallows returned, and the children welcomed them gladly; they hoped that Mr. Beyer, too, would soon come, and after him their father.

It was the evening of Philip and James' day, Grandmother took chalk that had been blessed upon Three Kings' day,[1] and made three crosses upon every door, not only of the house, but of the stables, pens, and chicken coops, as a protection against witches. This being done, she went with the children to the hill near the castle, the boys carrying an old broom upon their shoulders. Christina and Jacob Milo were already there, as well as the young people from the manor and from the mill. Wenzel Kuderna, with his brothers, was helping Jacob to cover the brooms with pitch, and the others were arranging the wood for the bonfires.

The night was beautiful. A gentle breeze swept the young grain into small billows, and carried the fragrance of the flowers and blooming fruit trees over the whole hill. The hooting of the owl was heard from the forest, a blackbird chirped from a tall poplar by the roadside, and the nightingale's sweet song resounded from the park. Suddenly a flame was seen to shoot up from Zlici hill; in an instant more one appeared on Zernov hill, and along the hillsides lights were seen moving in all directions. Further off, upon the hills of Nachod and Newtown, were seen bonfires and dancing lights. Then Milo set fire to the pitched broom and threw it upon the heap of leaves and faggots, and presently the whole was in flames. The young people shouted, and each seized his pitched broom, lighted it, and hurling it high into the air cried: "Fly, witch, fly!" Then they fell into line, and began to dance wildly about, holding the burning torches; but the girls made a ring and, singing, danced round the burning faggots. When the heap fell down, they scattered the pieces and jumped over them, each trying to outjump all the others.

"See," said Milo, "this old witch must fly the farthest," and seizing a broom,[2] he threw it up with such force that it whizzed through the air and flew almost to the green field where the lookers-on were standing.

"How she spits!" laughed the boys, running for the crackling broom, while the others applauded. From the other hills also were heard singing and laughter. Around the red flames people moved hither and thither, their dark forms producing a fantastic effect; from time to time a witch flew up out of their midst into the air, shook her fiery mallet till it rained a thousand sparks, and then fell down again amid the shouts of the people. "Look! how high she flies!: said Manchinka, pointing toward Zernov hill. One of the women, however, pulled down her hand, saying that she must never point at a witch, lest one of the fiery darts pierce through her finger.

It was late when Grandmother returned home with the children. "Grandma, don't you hear something?" whispered Barunka, stopping in the middle of the blooming orchard, "it seems to me I hear something rustling."

"It's nothing but the breeze playing with the leaves," replied Grandmother, and then added: "That breeze does much good."

"Why, Grandma?"

"Because it bends the trees together. They say that when blossoming trees embrace and kiss each other, there will be an abundant harvest."

"O, Grandma, what a pity that now, when there will be cherries and strawberries, and everything will be gay, we must be shut up in the schoolhouse all day,” said John sorrowfully.

"That cannot be otherwise, my boy; you cannot always remain at home and play. Now you are beginning to have new tasks and new pleasures."

"Oh, I shall be glad to go to school," said Barunka, "only I shall be so lonesome not to see you all day, Grandma!"

"I shall miss you, too, my children, but it must be so; the tree blossoms, the child grows; the fruit ripens and falls, the child grows up and leaves. It is God's will. While the tree is sound, it bears fruit; when it dies they cut it down and cast it into the fire, and the ashes fertilize the soil out of which new trees grow. Thus your Grandmother will finish her tasks, and you will bear her away to her eternal rest," said she, almost in a whisper.

The nightingale began to sing in the garden shrubbery; the children said he was their nightingale, because he came every spring and built his nest there. From the dam came the sad sound of Victorka's lullaby. The children wanted to remain outdoors a little longer, but Grandmother said: "Don't you know school begins to-morrow, and that you must get up early? Come to bed, lest your mother be angry;" and she pushed them one after another into the house.

In the morning at breakfast, Mrs, Proshek gave all the children except Adelka, who was still asleep, some excellent counsel. She told them how to behave at school and on their way home, and how to improve their time. She admonished them with so much earnestness that they could scarcely refrain from weeping.

Grandmother prepared their lunches. "Here you have each your share," she said, laying three great slices of bread upon the table. "Here is a jack-knife for each, the same that I put away for you. Don't you see, Johnny, that if I had not hidden it, you would have lost it long ago, and now with what would you have cut your bread?" And taking three red-handled knives out of her pocket, she gave one to each of the children. Then she cut a piece of bread out of the middle of each slice, filled the hole with butter, covering it up with the bread that she had cut out, and putting one slice into Barunka's wicker basket, she placed the other two in the boys' leathern satchel. She also added some dried fruit. Breakfast over, the children were ready to start on their journey. "Go in the name of the Lord, and don't forget what I have told you," said the mother, standing in the door.

They kissed their mother's hand, while their eyes filled with tears. Grandmother did not bid them good-bye yet; she went with them across the orchard, and Sultan and Tyrol followed. "Now, boys, you must mind Barunka; you know she is older than you," said Grandmother, on the way. "Don't play any of your foolhardy tricks, lest you hurt yourselves! Improve your time well in school; if you do not you will regret it when you are older. Greet respectfully every one you meet and keep out of the way of teams. You, Willie, don't try to pet every dog you meet; some are cross, and you might get bitten. Don't go into the water, and when you are warm, do not drink. And Johnny, don't you eat your lunch before dinner time, and then gape at the others. Now, good-bye. Adelka and I will come to meet you about four o'clock."

"And Grandma, don't forget to leave us some dinner,—a part of everything you have," begged John.

"You foolish boy, how should we forget!" said Grandmother. Then she blessed each one with the sign of the cross, and they turned to go, when she thought of something else. "Should a storm come up—I don't believe it will—then don't be afraid; go your way quietly and pray, but don't stop under a tree, for lightning is very apt to strike into a tree. Do you understand?"

"Yes ma'am, Papa told us so once, too."

"Now good-bye, give the schoolmaster our best regards!"

Grandmother turned around quickly, so the children should not see the tears in her eyes. The dogs sprang about, thinking that they were going out walking with the children, but John drove them back. At Grandmother's call they followed her, but turned back several times with wistful looks, thinking that perhaps some one would call them. Grandmother, too, looked back several times, and only when she saw the children turn to the bridge where Manchinka was waiting for them, did she turn and go home without stopping. The whole day she seemed somewhat absent-minded; she went about the house as if she were looking for somebody. Hardly had the cuckoo in the clock sung four o'clock, when she put the spindle under her arm and said to Adelka: "Come, my dear, let us go to meet our little scholars; we can wait for them at the mill. So they went.

By the statue under the lindens sat the miller, his wife, and several farmers who had brought in grist. "You are coming to meet the children, are you not?" called the miller's wife from afar; "we, too, are looking for Manchinka. Come, take a seat among us."

As Grandmother sat down she asked: "What's the news?"

"Just before you came, we spoke of the conscription; it takes place this week," replied one of the farmers.

"May heaven comfort our young men," said Grandmother.

"They will need to be comforted. I fear there will be great lamentations, and Milo's heart is beginning to fail him," said the miller's wife.

"That is the way it generally goes when a person is well favored," said the miller, half closing his eyes as he spoke. "If that were not the case with Milo, he never would be taken into the army; but that deuced jealousy of Lucie and the spite of the steward's daughter have settled it for him."

"Will not his father help him?" asked Grandmother. "Milo had hoped so, when last Christmas the steward refused to give him work at the manor."

"We heard," began one of the farmers, "that Old Milo would gladly devote one or two hundred guilders to that purpose,"

"Two hundred! my dear sir, that isn't enough," said the miller; "their farm is not large, and there are several more children. The only way I see out of the difficulty is for him to marry Lucie, but there's no disputing of tastes. I know that if he still has the choice, he will prefer to be a soldier rather than marry the daughter of our squire."

"Well, one evil is as great as the other," said one of the farmers with a shake of his head. "Whoever gets Lucie need never say: 'Lord, chastise me!' he will be chastised enough."

"I am very sorry for Christina," said Grandmother; "how that girl will take on!"

"Never mind the girl," said the miller with half closed eyes; "she will weep a while and groan and sigh, and that's all; but poor Milo, he will suffer worse."

"There is no doubt of it. He who doesn't like to be a soldier, finds it very hard; but he must get accustomed to it as to everything else. I know by experience how that is. My husband,—may God grant his soul eternal rest,—was obliged to get accustomed to worse than this, and I with him; but with us it was not as with Jacob and Christina. George got permission to marry and we lived together contented. In this case it may not be, and it is no wonder that he doesn't want to go, when we remember that they would be obliged to wait for each other for fourteen long years! But perhaps he will escape after all." At this moment her whole face brightened up, for she espied the children coming; they in turn, seeing her, started on the run to meet her.

"Well, Manchinka, are you not hungry?" asked the miller, when his daughter greeted him.

"Indeed, I am, Papa, and all of us are. Why, we haven't had any dinner to-day!"

"That large slice of bread, those dried apples and buns, that was dew?" asked the father as he turned round his snuff box.

"Oh, that was no dinner, that was only a lunch," laughed the girl.

"To walk such a distance and study besides makes one hungry, does it not?" asked Grandmother, and putting the spindle under her arm, she added: "Come let us hurry home lest you die of starvation!" They bade each other good-night. Manchinka told Barunka she would wait for them the next morning again, and hastened into the house. Barunka took her grandmother's hand. "Now tell me how you got along at school, what you studied, and how you behaved?"

"Just think, Grandma, I am bankaufser," said John, skipping before her.

"What in the world is that?" asked Grandmother.

"You see, Grandma, he who sits at the end of the bench watches those that sit near him, and when they do not behave he puts down their names," explained Barunka.

"It seems to me that in our village they called him a monitor, but the monitor was always one of the best boys in the whole school, and this honor was not conferred upon any one the first day he came to school."

"Indeed, and didn't Anton Kopriva twit us with it on our way home and say that if we were not Proshek's children, the schoolmaster wouldn't make such a fuss over us," complained Barunka.

"Don't you believe that!" said Grandmother, "the schoolmaster will make no exceptions with you; when you deserve it he will punish you as quickly as he would Anton; he showed you this favor to make you like to go to school, and to have you behave well. What did you learn?"

"Dictando," replied Barunka and the boys together.

"What's that?"

"The schoolmaster reads to us and we write it down, and then we must translate it from German into Bohemian and from Bohemian into German."

"Do those children understand German" asked Grandmother, who, like the Princess, wanted to know the why and wherefore of everything.

"Well, Grandma, nobody knows any German but us, because we studied it at home and Papa speaks to us in German; but it makes no difference, if one does not understand it, if only the exercise is correctly written," explained Barunka.

"But how can they do it, when they don't even know how to look in German?"

"Indeed, they are punished enough for not doing it right; the schoolmaster puts their names in the 'black book,' or they must stand on the dunce-block, and sometimes he strikes their hands with the ferrule. To-day, Anna, the daughter of the squire, was obliged to stand on the floor; she never knows the German dictando. At noon she told me, while we sat outdoors, that she didn't know how to write the exercise. She was so afraid that she did not eat her dinner. I wrote it out for her, and she gave me two cheeses for it."

"You should not have taken them from her," said Grandmother.

"I did not want to take them, but she said she had two more; she was delighted that I wrote the exercise for her, and promised that she would bring me something every day, if I would only help her with the German. Why shouldn't I do it?"

"You can help her, but you must not do it all yourself, for then she will not learn anything."

"What of it! she need not know that; we study it only because the schoolmaster wants us to."

"Because the schoolmaster wants you to know something; for the more one knows, the easier one can get along in the world; and, after all, the German language is very necessary; you see how hard it is that I cannot speak with your father."

"But papa understands all you say, and you understand him, though you do not speak German. But in Zlitz, only Bohemian is spoken; therefore, Anna need not know any German. She said that if she wanted to learn German she could go to Germany. But the schoolmaster will have it his own way. Indeed, Grandma, nobody likes to learn the German dictando, it is so hard; if it were Bohemian; oh, my! it would be as easy as the Lord's prayer!"

"You don't understand this yet, but you ought to obey and learn all things willingly. How did the boys behave?"

"Quite well, until Johnny began to cut up with the other boys when the schoolmaster left the room. They even jumped over the benches, till I told him——"

"You told me? indeed, I stopped because I heard the schoolmaster coming!"

"I'm learning nice things about you! You should watch others and you misbehave yourself; how is that?" asked Grandmother.

"O Grandma," said Willie, who till then was silent, but was busily engaged showing Adelka a piece of sweet wood and a tiny book made of gilt paper, which he got from some boy at school in exchange for a kreutzer. "O Grandma, those boys in school are so bad; why they jump over the benches and fight, and the monitor acts as bad as the rest."

"For the Lord's sake, what does the schoolmaster say to that?"

"That's while he is out of the room. When he is coming they jump back to their places, put their hands on the desks, and all is quiet."

"The little wretches!" exclaimed Grandmother.

"But the girls play with their dolls; indeed, I saw them," said John.

"You seem to be blossoms from Satan's own garden; the schoolmaster must have the patience of Job to stand it all." The children related much more about the school, and what they had seen and heard on their way; it was their first journey from home, and they felt as proud as if they had returned from Paris. "Where are your cheeses, did you eat them?" asked Grandmother, fearing that they might have indulged their appetites too much.

"One we ate, the other I wanted to bring home; but while I was writing at the blackboard, Anton Kopriva smuggled it out of my hand bag. He sits behind me. If I had said anything to him he would have beaten me on my way home. He is a fine fellow!"

Grandmother did not take the children's part, but in her soul she thought: "We were not any better." They knew that she was a great deal more lenient than their mother; she winked at many a caper that the boys cut up, and did not object when Barunka engaged in some boisterous game. For this reason the children confided in her much more than in their mother.

  1. Festival of the three wise men that came to Bethlehem at the birth of Christ.
  2. The brooms commonly used are made of birch twigs, hence are heavy and well adapted to the use described.