The Grandmother (Božena Němcová, 1891)/Chapter 14

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CHAPTER XIV.

 

THE next day when, as usual, Grandmother went to meet the children, her first words were, "Guess who is at our house?"

The children were surprised, and for the moment could not think of any one until Barunka exclaimed: "Oh, I know; Mr. Beyer!"

"Right," replied Grandmother, "and his son is with him."

"Oh, I am so glad!" exclaimed John, "let us run to see him;" and both he and Willie rushed to the house as fast as their legs could carry them.

Grandmother called after them not to go like wild beasts, but like human beings; but they were already beyond hearing. All out of breath, they bounded into the room; their mother was about to reprove them, when Mr. Beyer stretched out his long arms toward them, and raising one after the other, embraced and kissed them. "How have you been all the year?" he asked in a deep voice that re-echoed through the small space. The boys did not reply immediately; their eyes fell upon a boy, about Barunka's age, who was standing beside Mr. Beyer. He was a handsome lad, the image of his father, though he had not as yet the latter's muscular strength; his face was ruddy, and childish happiness beamed from his eyes. "Aha! you are looking at my boy; well, take a good look and shake hands, so as to become good comrades. This is my Orel." Thus saying he pushed his son forward, who without any bashfulness stepped up and shook hands with the boys. Just then Barunka came, together with Grandmother and Adelka. "My boy, here you see Barunka, who I told you is always the first to bid me good morning when I stay here over night. This year I see it is different; you attend school, and so Johnny must rise as early as his sister. And how do you like it at school, Johnny, would you not prefer to roam about in the woods? You see, my Orel must go with me everywhere, and soon he will know how to shoot as well as his father," continued Mr. Beyer.

"O, do not tell such things," said Grandmother; "John will get wild and will want to see Orel's gun."

"Well, why should he not see it? Go, Orel, show him your gun; it is not loaded."

"No, for you remember I fired the last charge at that buzzard," replied the boy.

"Yes, and killed it, too. You can show it to the boys." The boys ran outdoors delighted, but Grandmother was not satisfied; she followed them, although Mr. Beyer assured her that Orel would be careful.

"Why, you have a name like a bird," said Adelka to Orel,[1] while John and Willie were examining the buzzard.

"My name is really Aurel, but father prefers to call me Orel, and I like it too," replied the boy, smiling at Adelka's question. "The eagle is a fine bird; father once shot an eagle."

"I should think so," said John, "I will show you an eagle and many other animals; I have pictures of them in a book that I got as a present upon my namesake's day. Come with me." With these words he dragged Orel into the house, where he showed him the pictures in his book.

Orel was much pleased with the pictures, and even Mr. Beyer looked on with great interest. "You did not have that last year,did you?" he asked.

"I got it as a present from the Countess on my namesake's day; besides that, I got a pair of doves from Christina, rabbits from the gamekeeper, a silver dollar from Grandma, and a suit of clothes from my parents!" said John proudly.

"You are a lucky boy," said Mr. Beyer, who was looking into the book; and seeing a fox, he smiled and said: "Wait, you rascal, I'll make you come to time yet!" Willie, thinking he meant the one in the book, looked up with surprise; upon which Mr. Beyer said: "Don't you be afraid. I don't mean this fox in the book, but one in the mountains that resembles this one and that must be caught, because it does us much damage."

"Perhaps Peter will catch it; I helped him set the trap before we started," said Orel.

"O my boy, a fox is ten times more cunning than Peter; he is up to tricks that a man would never think of, and especially if, like this one, he has once been caught. The wretch! I set a nice roast for him, thinking I should catch him; he was hungry, but what did he do? Just bit off his broken leg and escaped. Now he will hardly allow himself to be caught a second time. Man learns wisdom by experience, and a fox seems to be as wise as a man."

"People say very appropriately 'as cunning as a fox,'" said Grandmother.

"This is the eagle!" cried the children, looking at a beautiful bird with wings outstretched, just as if he were about to light on his prey.

"Just like the one that I shot! It was a beautiful bird and I was almost sorry to shoot it, but what was to be done? one does not meet such an opportunity every day. I hit it well,—that is the principal thing,—so that the creature did not suffer."

"That's what I always say," spoke up Grandmother.

"But are you not sorry for those poor animals, Mr. Beyer. I could not shoot any of them," said Barunka.

"But you could cut a creature's head off," smiled Mr. Beyer; "and which is better: to kill it at once, when it is not suspecting danger, or first to frighten it while you are catching it, then to spend some time in preparation, and finally to cut its neck, sometimes so clumsily that it escapes still alive?"

"We never kill the poultry," protested Barunka; "Vorsa, who doesn't pity them, does it, and then they die instantly." For a while longer, the children amused themselves with the pictures, and then Mrs. Proshek called them to supper.

Heretofore, when Mr. Beyer had come, he had no rest from the children; they wanted to know about the mountains, whether he had not wandered into Ryberzol's garden, and many other things. This time, however, they questioned Orel, and listened with great wonder when the boy told them of the perils which he had shared with his father and of the game he had shot, when he described to them the great masses of snow that lie on the tops of the mountains, sometimes rolling down their sides and burying whole villages, till the people have no outlet but their chimneys, and each one is obliged to make his own path from his house to that of his neighbor.

All this did not discourage John; he still wished to be old enough to go and live with Mr. Beyer.

"When you are with us, father will send me to the Riesenburg gamekeeper, so that I may have experience in easier gamekeeping," said Orel.

"That will be too bad, if you are not there," said John, quite vexed.

"You will not be lonesome; we have two other apprentices, and brother Chenek is as tall as you, and Sister Mary will like you," said Orel.

While the children, seated in the yard, were listening to Orel and looking through the crystals which he had brought them, Mr. Beyer was listening to Grandmother, who told him of the flood and all the other events that had happened during the year.

"Are the family of my brother at Riesenburg well?" asked Mr. Beyer.

"Quite well," replied Mrs. Proshek. "Anne is growing fast; the boys attend school at Red Hura; it is nearer for them than the town school. I am surprised that the gamekeeper isn't here yet; he said he would drop in to welcome you when he went to watch. He was here this morning and brought me news from the castle, that a letter had come from Vienna. I went to the castle and learned that the Countess is better, and that most likely the Princess will come during the harvest festival, to remain a fortnight, and then go to Florence. I have hopes that my husband will remain with us during the winter; they say she will not take the attendants with her. Thus after waiting so long we shall be together again."

For many days Mrs. Proshek had not spoken so much; for many days she had not been so happy as to-day, after she had heard the good news of her husband's home-coming.

"Thank God that the Countess is restored to health. It would be a thousand pities to lose that dear, good child," said Grandmother. "We remembered her in our prayers every day, and but yesterday Celia Kuderna was here and wept for her."

"She might well weep if the Countess should die," remarked Mrs. Proshek.

Mr. Beyer asked what they meant, and Grandmother told him about her visit to the castle, and how the Countess had helped the organ grinder's family.

"I heard," said Mr, Beyer, "that the Countess was the daughter of——"

At this moment somebody tapped at the window.

"That is the gamekeeper, I know his knock. Come in," called Mrs. Proshek.

"People have evil tongues," returned Grandmother, replying to Mr. Beyer's remark. "He who goes in the sun is followed by the shadow; how could it be otherwise. What matters it whose daughter she is."

The Riesenburg gamekeeper entered the house and was heartily welcomed by Mr. Beyer.

"What kept you so long?" asked Grandmother, casting a timid glance at the rifle he was hanging up.

"I had a precious guest, the steward; he wanted some wood; he sold his deputat,[2] and now wants wood in advance, and would inveigle one into crooked dealings. He can't come any such game on me. My suspicions were at once aroused, for he came like a saint. I told him what's what. I also gave him a thrust for Milo; I am sorry for that boy and for Christina, too. I stopped at the inn this morning for a glass, and she frightened me, she looked so ghastly. That conf——," here the gamekeeper struck his lips, recollecting that he sat near Grandmother—"steward has that to answer for."

"What has happened?" asked Mr. Beyer, and Grandmother quickly informed him of Milo's conscription and the causes that led to it.

"That's the way it goes in the world; wherever one turns, nothing but misery and sorrow among the great and small, and he who has none, will make some for himself," said Mr. Beyer.

"The soul is purified by misfortune and sorrow, as gold by fire. Without sorrow there can be no joy. If I knew how I could help that girl,—but it is impossible. She must bear it as well as she can. The worst trial will be to-morrow when Milo goes away."

"He goes, then, to-morrow?" questioned the gamekeeper. "They seem to be in a great hurry. Where does he go?"

"To Koniggratz."

"Then we have the same destination, only I travel by water and he goes by land."

Just then the boys ran into the room; John and Willie showed the gamekeeper a buzzard that Orel had shot, and the latter told his father that they had been at the dam and had seen crazy Victorka.

"Is that poor creature still alive?" wondered Mr. Beyer.

"Yes, indeed, though it would be better if she were under the ground," replied Grandmother. "But she is failing fast; it is very seldom that we hear her sing, except on bright moonlight nights."

"But she still sits by the dam and looks into the water, often till after midnight," replied the gamekeeper. Yesterday I went past her; she was breaking off willow twigs and throwing them over the dam into the water; it was late, I asked: "What are you doing here?" She made noreply. I repeated the question. She turned, looked at me, and her eyes flashed. I thought she was going to spring upon me; but she must have recognized me, for she turned away and began again to cast twig after twig into the water. One cannot do anything with her. I feel sorry for her and should be glad to know that her miserable life is ended, and yet if I did not see her at the dam, and hear her song when I watch in the night, I should miss her and feel lonely," said the gamekeeper holding the buzzard in his hand.

"When a person becomes accustomed to a particular object it is hard to give it up," replied Mr. Beyer, putting a bit of glowing fungus into his short, wired[3] clay pipe, and after taking several deliberate puffs he continued: "be it man, beast, or aught else. Thus, I have become accustomed to this pipe while going on a journey; my mother used to smoke from one just like it. It seems to me I can see her sitting on the doorstep."

"What, did your mother smoke?" cried Barunka, greatly surprised.

"In the mountains many women smoke, especially old grandmothers; but instead of tobacco they use potato tops, and, when they can be obtained, cherry leaves."

"I shouldn't think that would be good," said the other gamekeeper, filling his pipe, a beautifully painted porcelain one.

"Thus I have certain favorite places in the woods," again began Mr. Beyer, "where I stop unconsciously. These have become dear to me, because they remind me either of certain persons or of pleasant or unpleasant events in my life. If from those places a single tree or shrub were taken away, I should miss it. In one place, upon a precipitous height, stands an isolated fir. It is an old tree; its branches on one side hang over a deep precipice, in whose fissures, here and there, are tufts of ferns or juniper shrubs; and down below, a stream hurries along over rocks, forming cataracts and waterfalls. I don't know myself how it happened, but whenever some grief oppressed my mind, or some misfortune befell me, I always found my way to that spot. Thus it was when I used to go to see my wife, and imagined I should not get her; her parents were unwilling, and it was not till later that they gave their consent.

"It was the same when my oldest son died and when my mother died. Each time I started from the house, went without any purpose, looking neither to the right nor to the left, and unconsciously my feet carried me into that wild dale; and when I found myself over the precipice by that gloomy fir tree; when I saw before me the summits of the mountains, one above the other, my burdens seemed to fall from me, and I was not ashamed of my tears. When I embraced its rough trunk, it seemed to me that it had life, that it understood my sorrows, and the rustling foliage seemed to sigh as if it wanted to tell me of similar griefs."

Mr. Beyer made a long pause, his large eyes were turned to the light burning upon the table, and instead of words little clouds of smoke passed from his mouth and went up to the ceiling like visible thoughts.

"Yes indeed, it often seems that those trees have life and consciousness within them," said the Riesenburg gamekeeper. "I know this from experience. Once,—it happened several years ago,—I selected some trees for felling. The forester could not go, so I was obliged to see to it myself. The woodcutters came and were preparing to fell a beautiful birch; there wasn't a flaw in her, she stood there like a maid. I fixed my eyes upon her and it seemed to me,—it is laughable, but it was so,—as if she were bending to my feet, as if her branches embraced me, and something sounded in my ear: 'Why do you wish to destroy my young life? what have I done to you?' Just then the sharp teeth of the saw creaked over her bark and entered her body. I don't remember whether I cried out, but I know that I wanted to stop the men from cutting further; but when they looked at me with astonishment, I was ashamed of myself, and left them to their work and went away into the woods. I wandered about for a whole hour, followed by the thought that the birch begged me to spare her life. When I composed my feelings and returned to the spot, she was down; not a leaf stirred on her, she lay there like a corpse. I was seized with remorse, as if I had committed murder. For several days I was almost ill, but I did not tell any one the cause, and if we had not happened to speak of such things to-day, I suppose I never should have mentioned the circumstance."

"Something similar happened to me," began Mr. Beyer in his deep voice. "I was to furnish the game for my master. I went hunting. A fawn came in my path,—a handsome creature, with hair as smooth and even as if it had been trimmed. She looked about her gayly and here and there cropped the grass. I was moved with compassion; but I thought: 'How simple I am?' I fired, but my hand trembled, and I hit the fawn in the side; she fell and could go no further. My dog rushed to her, but I called him back, for something told me I must not let him harm her. I went to her, and I cannot tell you how that creature looked at me,—so mournfully, and so imploringly! I pulled out my knife, and thrust it into her heart; her limbs quivered and she was dead. But I burst into tears and since that time,—well, why should I be ashamed of it?"

"Father won't shoot at a fawn," quickly cried Orel.

"Quite true. Whenever I aim, I see before me the wounded fawn with her mournful eyes, and fear lest I might miss my aim and only wound the animal; so I don't shoot at all."

"You should shoot only the bad animals and leave the good ones alive," said Willie, his eyes filled with tears.

"There is no animal so good that it is not also bad, nor any so bad that it is not sometimes good, as is the case among people. It is a mistake to suppose that the animal that has a pleasant, mild face must therefore be good, and that the one with a repulsive face is bad. The face is often a great liar. It often happens that that which is repugnant to a person and does not interest him is less pitied than that which is agreeable and interesting, and thus great injustice is often done.

"Once I was at Koniggratz before the execution of two criminals. One was a handsome man, the other hideous and disagreeable. The first had murdered his friend because he believed that he had seduced the girl he loved. The second one was from our neighborhood; I went to him, after he was condemned, to ask him if he had no word to send home, and said that I would gladly deliver any message. He looked at me, laughed wildly, then shook his head and said: 'I send a message, a greeting! to whom? I know nobody.'

"He turned from me, buried his face in his hands, and remained silent for some time; then he sprang up, stood before me with his hands folded over his breast, and asked; 'Will you do for me what I ask?' 'Most willingly,' I replied, giving him my hand. At that moment such agony was depicted in his countenance that I would have done anything in the world for him; his face lost its repulsiveness and awoke only pity and sympathy. He must have read my heart well, for he seized my hand quickly, pressed it, and with atrembling voice said: 'If you could have given me your hand thus three years ago, I should not be here. Why did we not meet? Why did I only meet people who trampled me into the dust, who ridiculed my face, who fed me with wormwood and poison? My mother never loved me, my brother drove me away, my sister was ashamed of me, and she, who I thought loved me, for whom I would have risked my life, for whose smile I would have brought down the stars, for whom I regretted that I did not have ten lives that I might offer them for her love, she only mocked me, and when I wanted to hear from her own lips what all others told me, she drove me out of her door with her dog.' Then this savage man wept like a child.

"After a while he dried his tears, took my hand and added quietly: 'When you come to Marsovward, go into that deep, wild glen. Above the precipice stands an isolated fir; give it my greeting and greet those wild birds that fly about its head, and those high mountains. Under its branches I slept many a night, to it I told what nobody knows. Then I was not such a wretched being; I was——.' He stopped, sat down on the bench again, and said no more, nor did he look at me again.

"I left the prison full of pity for him; the people condemned him, cursed him for a hideous monster, said that he deserved death, that villainy looked out of his eyes, that he would see no priest nor anybody else, that he made faces at people and went to his execution as to a feast. The handsome man was pitied by all; they fought for the song that he had composed in prison, and every one wished that he might be pardoned, since he had killed his friend through jealousy, but the other one, they said, had shot a girl out of pure maliciousness,—a girl who had never done him any harm.

"Thus each judges according to his own feelings. 'So many heads, so many opinions;' to each eye things appear different, and therefore it is hard to say: 'This is thus and cannot be otherwise.' Only God knows the world. He looks into the innermost depths of the human heart and judges it; He understands the language of animals; before Him is unfolded the chalice of every flower; He knows the path of every worm; the rustling of the wind is according to His commands; the streams flow the way He has pointed out."

Mr. Beyer again made a long pause; his pipe had gone out, his eye sparkled with animation, his face resembled a mountain dale lighted up with the soft light of the autumn sun, and upon whose bosom there is still green shrubbery and flowers, even though the top of the mountain is already covered with snow.

All turned their eyes upon him, until Grandmother spoke out: "You are right, Mr. Beyer; one loves to listen to you, it seems like a Scripture lesson. But the little folks must go to bed; your son must be tired after his journey, and you, too. To-morrow we will finish our conversation."

"That buzzard you can give to me for my owl," said the gamekeeper to Orel.

"Most willingly," replied the boy.

"May we take it to your house to-morrow morning early," begged the boys.

"But you must go to school."

"I told them they might have a holiday to-morrow, so that they can enjoy your son's visit," said the mother.

"Why, then, I must let those blue jays of mine stay at home, too. Now, come. Good night! Farewell!"

"The dear brother of the lowlands," as Mr. Beyer sometimes called the Riesenburg gamekeeper, shook hands with his friends, called Hector and departed. In the morning, before the children were dressed, Orel was out on the river upon the floating logs. After breakfast Mr. Beyer and the boys went to the gamekeeper's, while Grandmother, together with Barunka and Adelka, went to the inn to bid Milo good-bye. The inn was already crowded; mothers and fathers came to see their sons depart; friends, relatives and acquaintances were there. Although one tried to encourage another, although the innkeeper and his daughter had so much to do that even Milo was called on to assist at the bar, although the young folks joined in many a gay song, it was all of no avail; not one drank too much, as had been the case when they went to the conscription. Then they trimmed their caps with evergreens, shouted gayly, drank and sang so as to smother their fear and anxiety. Each one, even the straightest, the handsomest young man, cherished still a little hope. Then they were flattered by the sorrow of the girls, they were pleased with the love of their parents, which on such occasions gushes out like a stream which has been hidden in the bosom of the earth; they were proud of the opinions expressed by their friends: "Oh, he'll not return,—such a man, grown like a fir tree, as solid as if he were cast from metal,—they delight in such soldiers!" With such sweet drops, vanity tried to lessen the bitterness of the cup which necessity placed before them; on the other hand, that which comforted the strong, handsome men only embittered the hearts of those who had nothing to fear, who were conscious of their physical defects; many a vain fellow felt this burden so grievous that he would have preferred to be a soldier rather than hear remarks like the following:

"Your mother need not weep for you; you will not swear on a drum, you'll do to put into a dog's garter," or "Why, boy! join the cavalry; your legs are like the horns of an ox!" and other equally cutting remarks.

Grandmother entered the inn, but she did not venture into the bar-room, not because the air there was close and oppressive, but because she was startled by the heavy cloud of grief that had settled upon every countenance. She knew how those unhappy mothers felt. Here, one wrung her hands in mute agony; there, another was weeping quietly; while still another gave vent to her grief by loud lamentations. She understood the feelings of those girls, who were ashamed to make their grief visible and yet could not, without tears, look upon the pale faces of their lovers, who even while drinking became only sadder, and whose voices failed them when they tried to sing. She felt with those fathers who, seated around the table, spoke of nothing, thought of nothing, except what they should do without the help of their industrious boys, who had been as their right hands; how they should miss them, and how they were to live without them for fourteen long years!—Grandmother sat down with the children in the orchard.

After a while Christina came out, haggard, with swollen eyes, and pale as a sheet. She wanted to speak; but a stone lay upon her breast, and her throat was drawn together so that she could not utter a word. She leaned against the branch of a blossoming apple tree. It was the same tree over which on St. John's eve she had thrown her wreath. The wreath had fallen on the other side, and now, when her fondest hopes should have been realized, she must part with her lover. She covered her face with her white apron and began to weep aloud. Grandmother did not try to stop her. Milo came. What had become of that ruddy face, those bright eyes? He seemed to be carved out of marble. Without a word he gave his hand to Grandmother, embraced the girl so dear to him, and drawing from his pocket an embroidered handkerchief, which every girl works for the youth she loves, wiped away the tears from her cheeks. They did not say to each other how deep was their grief, but when a stanza of the well-known song resounded from the inn:

"When, dear love, I part with thee,
Two faithful hearts shall broken be;
Two faithful hearts and four eyes bright,
Shall mourn and weep both day and night,"

 

Christina threw her arms around her lover and, sobbing violently, hid her face upon his bosom. That song was the echo of a melody that was heard in their own hearts.

Grandmother arose, and the tears rolled down her cheeks; Barunka also wept. Grandmother placed her hand upon Milo's shoulder, and said in a deep voice: "God go with you and comfort you, Jacob! Do your duty willingly, and it will not seem so hard. If God grants success to my plan, your parting will not be for long. Hope! You, my child, if you love him, do not make this parting so much more grievous by your lamentations! Farewell!" Thus saying she blessed Milo with the cross, pressed his hand, and turning quickly took the little girls by the hands and hurried home, having the sweet consciousness that she had comforted the sorrowing.

The lovers, into whose hearts Grandmother's words fell like dew upon a perishing flower, quickening it to new life, stood under the blossoming apple tree clasped in each other's arms. A wagon was heard entering the yard; it came for the soldiers. Somebody called from the inn: "Milo!—Christina!" But they did not hear. What cared they? what was the whole world tothem? They held their world in their arms.

In the afternoon, Mr. Beyer, too, bade his kind hostess good bye. Mrs, Proshek, as usual, loaded him and his son with food for the journey. Each of the boys gave Orel something as a keepsake, and Barunka presented him with a band for his hat. When Adelka asked Grandmother what she should give, she told her to give the rose that the Countess had given her.

"But, Grandma, you said I should keep it till I am grown up and then wear it in my belt."

"What you value the most, you must bestow upon your friend, if you wish to do him honor. Give it to him; it is becoming for girls to present flowers."

Adelka put the pretty rose into Orel's hat.

"O my dear Adelka," said Mr. Beyer, "I don't know how long that rose will keep its beauty. Orel is a wild bird, the whole day long he flies over rocks and hills, in wind and rain."

Adelka turned her questioning eyes to Orel.

"Do not think so, father," said the boy looking with great pleasure upon the gift; "during the week while I am in the mountains, my rose shall be put away; I shall wear it only on Sundays and holidays, and then it will always stay pretty."

Adelka was pleased. No one thought that she herself would be the rose for which, some day, Orel would long, which he would carry off into the snow-covered mountains, and there in the seclusion of the forest keep and cherish for his delight; that her love would become the light and bliss of his whole life.

 
  1. "Orel" in Bohemian means Eagle.
  2. An allowance in kind in addition to the salary.
  3. A common method of mending broken stoneware is by a lace work of wire, after which it lasts longer than the unbroken article.