The Grandmother (Božena Němcová, 1891)/Chapter 15

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CHAPTER XV.

 

THE Pentecost holidays were over; Grandmother called them green holidays, probably because everything both inside and outside the house was decorated with foliage; so that whether they sat at the table or slept on their beds, they were "under the green." Corpus Christi and St. John the Baptist's were also gone. The voice of the nightingale was heard no more in the thicket, the swallows under the eaves were leading forth their young, on top of the oven with the old cats lay a May kitten, which Adelka loved to pet. Her black hen was leading about a brood of half-grown chickens, and Sultan and Tyrol were again jumping into the water to catch water rats, which gave occasion to the old spinners to start the report that the foot bridge at The Old Bleachery was haunted by a waterman.

Adelka used to go with Vorsa to watch Spotty in the pasture; she also helped Grandmother collect herbs, or sat with her in the yard under the old linden, whose blossoms they dried for tea. Here also she recited her lessons to her. In the afternoon, when they went to meet the children returning from school, they took a stroll in the fields, where Grandmother stopped to see how her flax was doing. She loved to look at the broad, manorial wheat fields, for their full heads were fast turning yellow, and when the wind swept them into billows, it was such a beautiful sight that she could scarcely turn away her eyes. When she met Kuderna, who was watching the fields, she would say: "God blesses the country with abundant harvest; may he also keep it from all damage!"

"Yes, there is some reason to fear; the weather for several days has been unusually hot," he replied as he turned his eyes to study the clouds.

Whenever they passed the field of peas, Kuderna picked Adelka's apron full of nice green pods; quieting his conscience by observing that the Princess would not object, seeing she was so fond of Mr. Proshek's children.

Barunka did not bring Adelka any more gum or sweet wood from school, for as soon as the cherry woman took her stand near the schoolhouse, she brought each day a kreutzer's worth of cherries; or when she took the path through the oak grove, she gathered strawberries for her little sister, putting them in a little birch-bark basket that she had made for the purpose. Later in the season she brought huckleberries, and finally hazel nuts. Grandmother gathered mushrooms and taught the children to know the good from the poisonous. July was over, and at the beginning of August the Princess would come, and also their father. In addition to these pleasures, vacation was close at hand. Mrs. Proshek went to the castle to see that all was in readiness for the arrival of the mistress, and the gardener almost ran his legs off in his anxiety lest the garden should not be in the best possible condition. He scrutinized the sward to see that no blade of grass was higher than another; he raised up the leaning branches of the plants for fear some weed might still be hidden beneath them. Preparations were made everywhere for the coming of the mistress. Those to whom her arrival would bring some gain rejoiced, while others were vexed. Among the latter was the steward, who grew more and more humble each day, and when the report was circulated that she would be in the castle the next day, he became so meek that he returned the greeting of the forester quite respectfully, something that he never did in the winter, when he regarded himself the first person on the estate of the Princess.

Grandmother at all times wished well to the Princess, and always remembered her in her prayers; but if with her coming had not been connected that of Mr. Proshek, it would have been all the same to her whether she came or not. On this occasion, however, she could hardly restrain her impatience; she had something on her mind that she confided to no one.

The harvest began in the early part of August, and the Princess came with all her attendants. The steward's daughter was expecting the Italian, but was disappointed, for he had been left in Vienna. Mrs. Proshek's face beamed with joy, for the children had their dear father with them. Grandmother's face, it is true, grew somewhat sad when she saw that John came without Johanna. He brought her a letter, in which her daughter sent her a thousand greetings from Aunt Dorothy and from Uncle, but said, that on account of her uncle's illness she could not come, for she could not leave her aunt to care for the sick man and see to the housework besides. She wrote that her lover was a worthy young man, that her aunt was satisfied with him, and that she would make a wedding for them on St. Katherine's, and that they were only waiting for Grandmother's consent. "As soon as it is possible, after we are married, we will come to Bohemia to receive your blessing, dearest mother, and to make you acquainted with my George, whom, however, we call Jura. He is not a Bohemian, his home being somewhere on the Turkish boundary, but you can speak with him, for I have taught him Bohemian more quickly than Theresa taught John. I should have preferred one of our nationality, for I know you would have been more pleased; but, dearest mother, what can one do? The heart will not be constrained, and I have chosen my Krobat." Thus the letter ended.

Theresa read the letter. John was present and said: "It sounds as if I heard her, our joyous Hannah; she is a good girl, and Jura is a worthy young man. I know him; he is the first workman at Uncle's, where Hannah is, and whenever I entered the blacksmith shop I loved to look at Jura,—a fellow like a mountain! it would not be easy to find his equal."

"There was one word there, Theresa, that I did not understand, somewhere near the end; read it for me again," said Grandmother.

"It was 'Krobat,' was it not?"

"Yes, that's it."

"That is what they call a Croat in Vienna."

"Is that what it means? May God grant her happiness! But who would have guessed from what remote regions they would come to meet each other! And his name is George, the same as her father's!"

With these words she brushed away the tears that came into her eyes, folded the letter, and went to hide it in the side drawer of her chest.

The children were delighted to have their father with them. They never grew weary of looking at him, and each interrupted the other in trying to tell him all that had happened during the year, which, however, he already knew from their mother's letters. "Now you will stay with us the whole winter, won't you, Papa?" asked Adelka, coaxingly, stroking his beard, which was her favorite way of caressing him.

"And, Papa, when it is sleighing, you'll give us a ride in that beautiful sleigh, and hang the bells on the horse? Our Godfather from town came for us once in the winter; we went there with Mamma; Grandmother would not go. How it went, and how the bells jingled! People ran out to see who in the world was coming," cried Willie, and before the father could put in a word John said: "Papa, when I am big, I shall be a gamekeeper. When I leave school, I shall go to Mr. Beyer's to learn, and Orel will go the Riesenburg gamekeeper to learn."

"Very well, only you must first be very diligent in school," said the father smiling, but leaving the boy full freedom of choice.

His dear friends, the gamekeeper and the miller, came to welcome Mr. Proshek. The whole household grew happier, and even Sultan and Tyrol rushed out to meet Hector with unwonted glee, as if they wished to tell him some good news. Mr. Proshek liked them; they had not been whipped since they had killed the goslings, and whenever they came to meet him he patted them on the head. Grandmother seeing their joy, said that animals knew well who was kind to them, and never forgot it.

"And is the Countess quite well?" asked the gamekeeper's wife, who also came to welcome Mr. Proshek home.

"They say she is, but I think she is not. Something must prey on her mind. She was always delicate, but now she seems only a spirit, and her eyes seem to look down from heaven, I could weep when I see her; she is an angel. The Princess is filled with sorrow and anxiety, and from the time the Countess was taken ill, there have been no merrymakings in our house. Just before her illness she was about to be betrothed to a certain Count. He comes from a wealthy family, and the Princess thinks a great deal of his parents, and was very desirous to have this marriage take place. I don't know what to think of it," added Mr. Proshek, shaking his head dubiously.

"And what does the Count say?" asked the women.

"What should he say? He must be content to wait till she gets well. If she dies he can put on mourning, if he really loves her. They say he wants to follow her to Italy."

"Does Hortense like the Count?" asked Grandmother.

"Who can tell! If she hasn't given her heart to any one else, she could learn to like him; he is a handsome man," replied Mr. Proshek.

"That is, if she doesn't like any one else," said the miller, passing his open snuff box to Mr. Proshek; "there is no disputing of tastes." This was his favorite saying. "Now, our bar-maid from the tavern could be married, and not go about as if she had been put under the water, if those deuced fellows had not taken away what she liked," continued the miller taking a pinch of snuff, and casting a side glance upon Christina who was there also.

"I was sorry for both of you, when I learned from Theresa's letter what had happened," said Mr. Proshek, looking kindly upon Christina's pale face. "Has Milo become somewhat reconciled to his lot?"

"What can he do? he must be reconciled. It is hard enough for him," replied Christina, turning to the window to hide her tears.

"Yes, indeed," said the gamekeeper; "shut a bird up in a golden cage, and he will still prefer the woods."

"Especially if his mate is pining there without him," said the miller, with a mischievous smile.

"I, too, was a soldier," began Mr. Proshek: a smile played about his lips as he said this, and his blue eyes turned to his wife.

She smiled in return, as she said: "Yes, and what a hero you were!"

Don't you laugh, Theresa; when you and aunt Dorothy came to the fortifications to see us drill, you wept, both of you."

"And you with us," laughed Mrs, Proshek; "but at that time nobody was in a laughing mood, except, perhaps, those who observed us."

"I must confess," said the tender hearted Mr Proshek, "that it was all the same to me whether they called me an old woman or a hero. I had no longing for the latter distinction. The whole of those fourteen days that I was a soldier I spent in sighs and tears; I scarcely ate or slept, so that when I was discharged, I was but a shadow."

"So you were a soldier only fourteen days! Hm! that would suit Milo, if they would count his days as years," observed the miller.

"But I should not have suffered so much, had I known that a good friend was trying to pay me out, and, that my brother was offering to act as substitute. It came to me wholly as a surprise. My brother liked a soldier's life, and was in every way better adapted to it than I; still, I do not think that I am a coward! If it were necessary to guard family and home, I should be the first in the ranks. We are not all alike; one is adapted to this, another to that. Is it not so Theresa?"

Thus speaking, he placed his hand upon Theresa's shoulder and looked lovingly into her eyes.

"Yes, yes, John, you belong with us," replied Grandmother for her daughter, and all agreed with her, knowing Mr. Proshek's gentle disposition.

When the company was about to leave, Christina slipped into Grandmother's room, and drawing a letter from her bosom, upon whose seal was the impression of a soldier's button, said almost in a whisper: "From Jacob!"

"Indeed! And what does he write?" asked Grandmother.

Christina unfolded the letter and began to read slowly:

"My dearest Christina, I greet and kiss you a thousand times. But alas! I should prefer to kiss you once in reality than a thousand times on paper; but a great distance lies between us, so that we cannot come to each other. I know that many times each day you think: 'I wonder how Jacob is? What is he doing?' I have enough to do, but such work! The body works while the thoughts are elsewhere. Were I free like Anton Vitkov, perhaps I might learn to like a soldier's life; my comrades are becoming accustomed to it, and soon they will not be so lonesome. I, too, learn everything and find no fault; but nothing seems to interest me, and instead of becoming accustomed to it, it seems harder every day. The whole day long I think only of you, my dear dove, and if I knew you were well, if I had a single greeting from you, I should be happy. When I stand guard and watch the birds flying in the direction of our village, I think: 'Why can't they speak, so that they can carry my greeting to my love?' or rather I wish that I myself might be a bird, and fly away to you. Doesn't Proshek's Grandmother say anything? What did she mean by saying that perhaps our parting would not be for long? Do you know? When I feel the worst I think of her last words, and it seems as if God himself came to me, pouring fresh hope into my soul, and that she will find some way to help us. She never speaks in vain. Send me a few lines to comfort me; some one can write them for you; tell me everything, you understand? Did you get the grain in dry? Harvest has begun here, too. When I see the reapers going into the fields, I want to fling everything aside and run away. I beg you, Christina, don't go alone to the socage,[1] they will question you and grieve your heart, don't go. And that good-for-nothing.—that clerklet——"

"How foolish he is! Does he think that I could——" frowned Christina, but began reading further: "would not let you alone. Stay near Tomesh. I charged him before I left to be your right hand. Give him my greeting,—and Anna, too! Remember me also to my folks, to Grandmother and the children, and to all my friends. I could say so much more, that it could not be put upon a piece of paper the size of Zernov hill; but I must go to stand guard. When I stand guard at night, I sing:

 

'Ye stars so beautiful, how small you are,'

 

You remember we sang it together the evening before I left; you broke down and wept. O, heavens! how those little stars used to cheer us up; but only God knows whether they will ever cheer us again. May God bless you. Good bye!"

Christina folded the letter, and turned her questioning eyes to Grandmother's face.

"You can be comforted; he is a good boy; give him my greeting and tell him to trust in God; tell him the darkest days pass away and the sun shines again, and his sun, too, will shine. I cannot tell you positively, it is thus or so, as long as I am not certain. When it is necessary, go with the reapers; I want you to present the garland to the Princess at the harvest festival, for since you work in her fields, it will be becoming for you to do it?"

Christina was comforted by these words, and promised to do everything according to Grandmother's advice. Since Mr. Proshek's return Grandmother had asked him several times when the Princess was likely to be at home, and what were her accustomed places of resort, till Mr. Proshek was surprised. "Never before has she been curious to know what was going on in the castle; the castle did not seem to exist for her, but now she asks and asks. What does she want?" But she did not tell them. They did not wish to question her; therefore they learned nothing, and ascribed her queries to inquisitiveness.

In a few days Mr. Proshek took his wife and children to town; he wanted them to have a good time. Vorsa and Betsey went into the fields, while Grandmother watched the house. She took her spindle and went into the yard under the linden as was her custom. Something seemed to weigh upon her mind, for now and then she shook her head, then nodded, and finally, as if she had decided what to do, she said aloud: "That is the way I'll do it." At this moment she saw the Countess coming down the hillside past the oven and over the footbridge. She had on a white dress and a round straw hat; she walked as lightly as a fairy, and her feet, encased in satin gaiters, hardly touched the ground. Grandmother arose quickly and welcomed her with joy; but her heart ached, when she looked into the girl's face, so pale that the skin seemed transparent, and so resigned and full of deep pain that no one could gaze on her without pitying her.

"Alone! and so quiet here," said Hortense, after returning Grandmother's greeting.

"Yes, all the rest have gone to town with their father; they cannot enjoy him enough after having missed him so long," replied Grandmother as she brushed the dust from the bench with her apron before asking the Countess to be seated.

"Yes, indeed, that was a long time, but I was to blame."

"Is one to blame, dear Countess, when God visits one with illness. All of us were so sorry for you and prayed every day that God would restore you to health. Health is a precious treasure that one is apt to value only when it is lost. It would have been a great pity to lose you, you are so young, and her grace, the Princess, would have been overwhelmed with grief."

"I know that well," sighed the Countess, placing her clasped hands upon a beautifully bound album that was lying in her lap.

"You are so pale, dear Countess, what ails you?" asked Grandmother, with great sympathy, looking upon Hortense, who seemed the embodiment of sorrow.

"Nothing, Grandma," replied the Countess, with a forced smile, which, however, only revealed the pain it was meant to conceal.

Grandmother did not venture any more questions, but she felt sure that physical illness was not the only thing that troubled the Countess.

After a moment of silence, the Countess began to inquire what had been going on in the cottage during her absence, and whether the children thought of her. Grandmother gladly told her, and in turn asked how the Princess was and what she was doing.

"The Princess rode to the gamekeeper's," replied the Countess. "I got permission to remain here so that I might sketch this vale, and make you a visit. She will stop for me on her way back."

"Really, it seems as if God himself sent her!" rejoiced Grandmother; "I must put on a clean apron; one gets all dusty from this flax. Excuse me, if you please, I will return presently!"

Grandmother hurried into the house, and before long returned with a clean apron, and clean kerchiefs both on her head and neck, and bringing white bread, honey, butter, and cream.

"Perhaps, your Grace would relish a piece of bread; it was baked yesterday. But let us go into the orchard, it is pleasanter there. When I am alone, I prefer to sit here under this linden, for I like to have the poultry about my feet."

"Then, let us remain here, I am quite comfortable," said the Countess, taking the refreshments Grandmother brought. She did not wait for Grandmother to urge her to eat, but took some bread and a glass of cream. She knew that if she accepted nothing, Grandmother would feel hurt. Then she opened the album and showed Grandmother what she had sketched.

"Oh, dear Lord!" exclaimed Grandmother, "here we have the whole country above the dam; the meadows, the hillside, the woods, and here is Victorka, too!"

"She suits this lovely region well. I met her on the hillside; she looked bad. Cannot anything be done for her?" asked the Countess in a voice full of pity.

"Oh your Grace, her body could be helped, but her trouble is not there. Her mind is wandering; what she does, she does as ina dream. Perhaps God out of pity took away the remembrance of her sorrow, which must have been heavy, indeed. Should her reason return, she might in despair lose her own soul, as—well, God forgive her if she sinned; she has suffered enough," said Grandmother, turning over another leaf. A new wonder. "In all my life! why this is The Old Bleachery, the yard, the linden,—here am I and the children, and the dogs,—everything! Well, well, in my old age what wonders do I see! What would our folks say!" exclaimed Grandmother, more and more astonished.

"I never forget people that once were dear to me," said the Countess, "but that I may retain a clear image of their faces, I usually paint them. It is the same with places in which I have spent happy days. I love to transfer them to paper, so that I may have a pleasant remembrance of them. This vale here is most charming. If you would not object, Grandma, I should like to paint your picture for your grandchildren."

Grandmother blushed, shook her head, and said: "Such an old woman as I, why that wouldn't do at all!"

"Never mind, Grandma, when you are at home alone, I will come over and paint you; I will do it for your children's sake, I know they will be delighted."

"Since your Grace desires it, I cannot object, but, I beg of you, nobody must know anything about it; they would say I am becoming vain. While I am with them, they need no picture; but when I am gone,—let it be as you say!"

The Countess was satisfied.

"But where did your Grace learn this? In all my life I never heard of women painters," said Grandmother, turning over another leaf.

"Among our class of people we must learn a great many things that we may know how to pass away our time, and I took a fancy to painting," replied the Countess.

"It is an excellent thing," remarked Grandmother, looking upon a picture that was loosely placed in the album. In the foreground of the picture was a rock overgrown with shrubbery, its base washed by the waves of the sea. A young man stood upon the rock, holding a rosebud in his hand, and gazing out over the sea, upon whose bosom were seen in the distance several ships with outspread sails.

"Did your Grace paint this, too?" asked Grandmother.

"No, the artist from whom I took lessons gave that to me," replied the Countess in a low voice.

"That perhaps is himself?"

The Countess did not at once reply; her face turned crimson; she arose. "It seems to me that the Princess is coming," she said.

Grandmother took the hint; she now understood what ailed the Countess.

The Princess was not coming. The young lady sat down again, and after several attempts Grandmother succeeded in turning the conversation upon Christina and Milo; she confided to the Countess her intention of speaking to the Princess about it. The young lady approved of the plan, and promised to intercede for them.

The Princess returned through the path, while the empty carriage was taken along the road. She greeted Grandmother very heartily, and brought a bouquet for Hortense, saying: "You are very fond of wild pinks! I gathered these for you along the way."

The Countess bowed, kissed the hand of the Princess, and put the pinks in her belt.

"These are tears," said Grandmother, looking at the bouquet.

"Tears?" wondered both the ladies.

"Yes, the tears of the Virgin. That's what these flowers are called. When the Jews led Christ to Calvary, the Virgin Mary followed, although her heart was breaking with grief. When she saw on the way the bloody tracks of Christ's wounds, she wept bitterly, and from those tears of Christ's mother and the blood of her son sprang forth, along the way to Calvary, such flowers as these," said Grandmother.

"Then they are the flowers of grief and love," said the Princess.

"Lovers never pick them for each other, lest they should bring them tears," returned Grandmother, at the same time offering the Princess a glass of cream and humbly begging her to partake of her hospitality.

The Princess did not refuse. Grandmother continued: "Indeed, they have enough to weep for, even if they gather no tears, for there is always much grief as well as joy. If they are happy in each other's love, envious people are sure to pour in some wormwood."

"Dearest Princess, Grandmother wants to intercede for two unhappy lovers. I beg you to listen and, dearest Princess, help!" The Countess clasped her hands and looked up imploringly into the face of her guardian.

"Speak, my good woman, you know I told you once that if you should come to me for help, I would gladly grant your request; I know you would not beg for any one who is unworthy," said the Princess, smoothing the glossy hair of her ward and looking kindly at Grandmother.

"I should not presume to come to your Grace, if I thought they were unworthy."

Then she told about Christina and Milo, and how he came to be taken into the army, keeping back only the poor girl's persecution by the steward. She did not want to injure him any more than was necessary.

"That is the same girl whose lover had that quarrel with Piccolo."

"The same, your Grace."

"Is she so pretty that all the men fight for her?"

"A girl like a strawberry, your Grace; at the harvest festival she will present the wreath, so your Grace can see her. To be sure, sorrow doesn't add any beauty; when a girl grieves for love, her head droops like a faded flower. Christina is now but the shadow of herself, but one word will restore her, so that she will soon be as before. Her Grace, the Countess, is also very pale; but when she sees her old home and what is dear to her heart, her cheeks will blossom out like rose petals," added Grandmother giving the words, "dear to her heart," such an emphasis that the young lady was startled. The Princess cast a keen glance first upon the Countess then upon Grandmother, but the latter acted as if nothing had happened; she wanted to give a hint, that was all. She thought: "If the happiness of that child lies near her heart, she will seek further."

After a moment of silence the Princess arose, placed her hand upon Grandmother's shoulder, and said in a pleasant voice: "I'll care for those lovers. But you, my good woman, come to me about this time to-morrow."

"Dear Princess," said the Countess, placing the book under her arm, "Grandmother has consented that I shall paint her picture, but wants it to remain a secret while she lives. How can we do it?"

"Come to the castle, Grandmother; Hortense can paint you there. While you live, I shall keep the picture. She will paint your grandchildren, too; but that picture will be for you, so that when they are grown up you can see how they looked when they were small."

Thus speaking, the Princess bowed, entered the carriage with the Countess, and rode toward the castle.

Grandmother went into the house, her heart overflowing with joy and thankfulness.

 
  1. Service due the lords from their tenants, being usually work in the fields.