The Grandmother (Božena Němcová, 1891)/Chapter 17

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CHAPTER XVII.

 

ONE afternoon, several days before St. Katherine's, the young people were gathered at the inn. The whole house, inside and outside, shone; around the doors were garlands of evergreen, a branch of greens was behind every picture upon the wall, the curtains were white as snow, and the floor was like chalk. The long basswood table was covered with a white cloth, and upon it were bunches of rosemary, white and red ribbons, and around it blushing maids like roses and pinks. They had come together to make the wedding wreaths for Christina's wedding. She sat behind the table in the corner, the handsomest maid of them all. She was excused from all household duties, and placed under the charge of the spokesman and the wedding matron, which honorable offices were filled, the first by Martin, the leader of pilgrimages, and the second by Grandmother. She could not refuse this to Christina, although she usually avoided such public duties. The miller's wife took the place of Christina's mother, who, on account of lameness in her feet, could not take charge of the housekeeping. Cilka and her mother helped. Grandmother sat among the girls, and although she had nothing to do, her advice was constantly needed. The bride was fastening long pieces of ribbon upon beautiful sprays of rosemary for the bridesman and the spokesman. The younger bridesmaid was to weave the wreath for the bride, the older the one for the groom; the others, one apiece for their partners. The rosemary that was left was made into wedding favors for all the guests. Even the horses that were to take the bride to church had their harness trimmed with ribbons and rosemary. The eyes of the bride beamed with joy and love, whenever she glanced at the stalwart form of the groom. He was standing among his friends, each of whom had more liberty to speak with his own love than he had to address his bride, upon whom he could only cast a longing glance. The bridesman waited upon the bride, and the groom was obliged to give his attention to the first bridesmaid. Every one, except the bride and groom, had full liberty to be gay, to joke, to make witty remarks; the last, however, was expected of the spokesman especially. Christina spoke but little; with downcast eyes she sat behind the rosemary-covered table. When the younger and older bridesmaids began to weave the wreaths, and all joined in singing:

"Where, white dove, hast thou flown,
Aye flown,
That thy snow-white plumage is soiled,
Is soiled?'

 

the bride covered her face with her white apron and wept.

The groom looked at her anxiously and asked the spokesman: "Why does she weep?"

"You know, groom, that joy and grief are bed-fellows, and thus it happens that the one often wakes the other. Never mind. 'To-day weeping, to-morrow rejoicing.'"

Here followed song after song, both gay and sober; they sang the praises of youth, beauty, and love, of the happiness of a bachelor's life; but at last the youths and maidens began to sing the joys of married life, when two hearts love each other like two turtle-doves, when they live in harmony like two grains of corn in one ear. They were, however, constantly interrupted by the mocking voice of the spokesman. When they sang of marriage, harmony, and concord, he announced a solo by himself, saying that he would sing them a brandnew song.

"Then crow, to show what you know," cried the company.

The spokesman took his stand in the middle of the room and began in a mocking tone, which was as natural to him at a wedding as the serious one was at a pilgrimage:

 

"Oh, wedded bliss!
There's naught so delightful as this.
If I bid her cook pease,
She'll only cook barley,
If I ask her for meat
For pastry she'll parley.
Oh, wedded bliss!
There's naught so delightful as this."

"Both the song and the singer are not worth a broken penny!" cried the girls, and immediately began to sing so as to spoil the pleasure of the young men who wanted to hear the rest of the song. With constant singing and joking the bouquets and wreaths were finished; then the girls arose, joined hands, and, dancing around the table, sang:

 

"All is now finished,
The prize is won;
The kolaches are baked
The garlands are done."

 

At this point the door flew open, and the miller's wife, with several other women, came hurrying in with their hands full of food, the miller and the bridesman bringing the drinks. The company sat down again to the table, which was now covered with various dishes instead of rosemary. The groomsmen sat next to the bridesmaids, the groom between the first bridesmaid and the wedding matron, the bride between the younger bridesmaid and the bridesman. The spokesman went around the table, allowing the bridesmaids to feed him, and at times to rate him soundly; for this privilege, however, they were obliged to receive every jest in good humor, though sometimes it was quite pointed. When the table was cleared, the spokesman brought in three dishes as presents for the bride. In the first was wheat, which he gave her with the wish that she should be fruitful; in the second, ashes mixed with leek seeds, which she was obliged to pick out to show her patience; the third dish was the one with the "secret" in it, and was covered up. The bride was expected to receive this dish without looking into it. But how could she endure that? When no one observed her, she carefully raised the corner of the cloth that covered it, and f-r-r-r—the sparrow hidden there flew up to the ceiling.

"You see, dear bride," said Grandmother, giving her a tap upon the shoulder, "that is what happens to the inquisitive. Some persons would rather die than not try to find out what is hidden from them, and when the cover is raised, they catch nothing after all."

The young people remained together till late at night, for dancing followed the feasting. The groom and the bridesman escorted the wedding matron home, reminding her at parting, that they were to meet early the next morning.

The whole neighborhood of Zernov was up early the next day. Some were to accompany the bride to church, some only to attend the wedding at the house, and those who were not invited could not overcome their curiosity to see the procession about which everybody had talked for several weeks, It was to be so grand; the bride was to ride in a carriage drawn by horses from the manor; she was to wear a costly garnet necklace, a white embroidered apron, a rose-colored taffety jacket, and a sky-blue skirt; the Zernov gossips knew all this, probably before Christina herself had thought of it. They knew all the details as to the quantity and kinds of food that would be prepared for the wedding feast, and in what order the guests were to come to the table; what kind of furniture the bride was to have for her outfit, how many feather beds and how many pieces of underwear. They knew all as well as if she had given them a written statement of it. Not to go to look at such a wedding, not to see how becoming the wreath was to the bride, how much she wept, how the guests were dressed, would have been so great a negligence that it could never be pardoned. This was an epoch in the history of Zernov, this furnished material for conversation for at least half a year. How, then, could they miss it?

When the guests from The Old Bleachery and the mill came to the inn, they were obliged to push their way through a large crowd of people that had assembled in the yard. The guests on the bride's side had already arrived. The miller was dressed in his best, his boots shone like a mirror, and to-day he held a silver snuff box. He was the bride's witness. The miller's wife was dressed in silk; beneath her double chin glistened strings of pearls, and upon her head was a golden cap. Grandmother also had on her wedding dress, and a Sunday cap with the dove knots. The bridesmaids, the groomsmen and the spokesman were not at the inn; they had gone to Zernov to fetch the groom. The bride also was not to be seen; she was hidden in her chamber.

Suddenly a great commotion was heard in the yard: "They're coming, they're coming!" and from the mill were heard the sounds of the violin, flute, and clarionet. They were bringing the groom. The spectators whispered: "Look, look! Milo's sister is the younger bridesmaid, and Tichanek's daughter the elder one. There is no doubt that if Tomesh's wife were still single, she would have filled that place."

"Tomesh is the groom's witness!"

"And where is his wife? She is nowhere to be seen."

"She is helping the bride to dress."

"And see! there comes the squire, too; what a wonder that they invited him, for he alone was to blame for Milo's conscription!"

Everybody marveled.

"The squire himself is not so bad; Lucie made him start the fire, and the steward added fuel. No wonder that he acted as he did. Milo did well to invite him; that was the best punishment he could mete out to him, and especially to Lucie. She will turn yellow with envy."

"Why she is betrothed," said another.

"How can that be?" exclaimed a third, "I have not heard of it."

"It took place only day before yesterday,—with Joseph Nitlovitz."

"He had been waiting upon her a long time."

"Yes indeed, but she would not have him as long as she had any hope of getting Jacob Milo."

"What a beautiful handkerchief the groom has, it must have cost the bride no less than ten guilders!" said some of the women. "What a dashing figure he cuts. His like is not seen every day!"

These and similar remarks were made by the lookers-on while the groom was approaching the house; he was greeted at the door by the innkeeper with a full beaker. The groom went at once to look for the bride, and found her, as was expected, weeping in her chamber. He led her into the room where the parents of both were waiting for them, to give them the blessing. They knelt before them, and the spokesman began his speech, as is the custom on such occasions; he spoke long in behalf of the couple, thanking the parents for all they had done for their children and asking their benediction. Everybody in the room was moved to tears. The blessing having been given, the company prepared to start for church. Christina was led between the bridesman and the first bridesmaid; then came Milo with the second bridesmaid; they were followed by the others arranged in couples, except the spokesman, who went at the head of the procession. When they entered the carriages and wagons which were waiting for them, the girls waved their handkerchiefs and sang, being soon joined by the young men; but the bride wept silently, at times casting a wistful glance upon the second carriage, where the groom rode with the witnesses and the matron.

The spectators scattered to their respective homes, and for a while the inn was empty, save that at one window sat the old mother watching the procession and praying for her child, who for so many years had filled her place, and endured all her moods with gentle patience, attributing them to her long and severe illness. Soon the women came to arrange the tables. Wherever one turned, a cook or one of her assistants was to be seen.

The young Mrs. Tomesh had charge of everything. She assumed the responsibility gladly, as the miller's wife had done the day before at the weaving of the wreaths.

When the wedding party returned from church, the innkeeper, as before, met them at the door with a full beaker. The bride changed her dress and they went to dinner. The bride and bridegroom sat at the head of the table; the bridesman waited upon the bridesmaids, who laid aside a part of their viands for him and from time to time passed to him the nicest bits from their plates. The spokesman declared he fared "like God in Paradise." Grandmother, too, was gay, and with many a witty remark answered the spokesman, whose ears were everywhere and whose large, angular person was in everybody's way. At home she would not have allowed a single pea to be thrown upon the floor, but when the guests began to throw handfuls of peas and wheat at each other, she herself threw some at the groom and bride, saying: "May God so shower his blessings upon you." But the peas and wheat were not trampled upon; Grandmother had noticed how the tame pigeons were picking up everything from the floor.

Dinner was over; many a heavy head swayed from side to side; each one had before him a generous allowance of food to take home, and if he was not able to take care of this himself, Mrs. Tomesh saw to it that he fared no worse than the rest. It would have been considered a disgrace to come home from a wedding empty handed. There was an abundance of everything, so that whoever went past the inn got as much to eat and drink as he wished; and the village children who came "hanging about" got their aprons full of buns and kolaches. After dinner they gave the bride money "for the cradle," and she was not a little astonished to see silver pieces falling into her apron. The groomsmen brought bowls of water and towels to the bridesmaids to wash their hands, for which service they were expected to throw a piece of money into the water. As each girl wished to be thought liberal, nothing but silver gleamed at the bottom of the dishes; this was spent the next day by the young men in dancing and drinking with their partners.

The bride and bridesmaids went to change their dresses again, for the dancing was now to begin. Grandmother embraced this opportunity to take the children home; they had been feasting in Christina's room. She herself was obliged to return, because later in the evening would occur the unwreathing of the bride, at which ceremony the presence of the wedding matron was indispensable. She also brought the cap which, with the help of Mrs. Proshek, she had selected and bought for the bride. This was also one of the duties of the matron. When all had danced as much as they liked, and the bride was almost breathless from the exercise,—every one wanted to dance with her, even if he took but one turn,—Grandmother beckoned to the women and whispered that it was after midnight, and that now the bride "belonged to the wives." They began to quarrel about her, the groom and the bridesman refusing to give her up to be deprived of her beautiful wreath; but it was of no use. The women got possession of her and led her off to her chamber. The girls stood behind the door singing to her in a sad voice, not to let them take away her green wreath, for once laid aside she would never find it again.

All in vain! The bride was seated upon a stool, Mrs. Tomesh unbraided her hair, the floral coronet and the green wreath were laid aside, and Grandmother replaced them with a cap, having long strings. The bride wept constantly; but the women sang and shouted, and only Grandmother remained serious, though sometimes a smile passed over her face and her eye grew moist as she thought of her daughter Johanna, who also celebrated her wedding at this time.

The bride's cap was quite becoming to her, and the miller's wife declared that she looked like a "Meissen apple" in it.

"Now to the groom! Which one of you will go to tease him?" asked Grandmother.

"The oldest," said the miller's wife.

"Wait, I'll bring him one," quickly cried Mrs. Tomesh. She ran out and brought the old washerwoman, who was helping in the kitchen. They threw a shawl over head, and the wedding matron took her by the arm and led her out to the groom to see if he would "buy her." The groom walked about her and examined her till he had an opportunity to raise the shawl; underneath he saw an old wrinkled face soiled with ashes. All laughed. The groom did not want to claim such a bride, so the matron hurried with her out of the room. A second one was brought out. Both the groom and the spokesman thought she looked more like a bride; at first they thought they would buy her, but the spokesman said: "Indeed, we won't buy a hare in a bag!" he raised the shawl and they saw the fat face of the miller's wife, whose small black eyes laughed mischievously.

"Buy her, buy her; I'll sell her cheap!" laughed the miller, turning his snuff box in his fingers, but slowly, either because it was heavy or his fingers were stiff.

"Hush, hush, Father," laughed his wife, "to-day you would sell, to-morrow you'd be glad to buy back."

The third was the tall, slender form of the bride. The spokesman offered an old kreutzer for her, but the groom emptied the silver from his purse and won her. The women came rushing into the room, joined hands, put the groom in the circle, and sang:

"All is now finished,
The unwreathing is done;
The kolaches are eaten,
The bride is won."

 

The bride now belonged to the groom. The money which the women received for her was spent the next day in feasting, when they came "to make the bed," at which ceremony there was again much singing and joking. The spokesman declared that a well-ordered wedding ought to last eight days, and this was usually the case with grand weddings. The weaving of the wreaths before the wedding, the wedding itself, the making of the bed, the reunion at the home of the bride's parents, a second reunion at the groom's house, the meeting at the inn of all the young friends: thus the whole week was spent before the newly married couple had any rest, before they could say: "Now we are alone."

A few weeks after Christina's wedding, Mrs. Proshek received a letter from the first chambermaid, who wrote that Countess Hortense was to celebrate her marriage with a certain artist, her former teacher, that she was perfectly happy, that she was again like a rose, and that the Princess rejoiced at her happiness.

Grandmother hearing this good news, nodded her head saying: "Thank God; all has turned out well."

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It is not the purpose of this little book to describe the life of the young people that grew up around Grandmother; neither do I wish to weary the reader by leading him from the gamekeeper's to the mill and back again, through the little plain in which iife was always the same. The young people grew up; some remained at home, married, the old people giving up their places to them, just as upon the oak the old leaves fall away when the young ones begin to bud. Some left this quiet region to seek their fortune elsewhere, like seeds which are blown away by the wind, or carried far away by the waters, that upon new shores they may find better soil in which to strike their roots and grow.

Grandmother never left the place where she had found a second home. With a quiet, happy heart she saw how everything about her prospered; she rejoiced at her neighbor's good fortune, she comforted the sorrowing, she helped, when it was possible for her to do so, and when, one after another, her grandchildren left home, she followed them with tearful eyes, and with the wistful sigh: "God grant that we may meet again." And they did meet again. Year after year they returned to visit their home, and Grandmother's eyes brightened as she listened to the descriptions which the young men gave of the great world; she encouraged their brilliant plans for the future, she excused the shortcomings of youth, which they did not conceal from her. They, on their part loved to listen to her advice, even though they did not always follow it; they honored her words and her virtuous life. The grown up girls made Grandmother their confidant. She knew all their secrets, their dreams, their hopes and fears; for with her they were always sure of sympathy and love. Thus Manchinka from the mill sought refuge with Grandmother when her father forbade her to love a poor but handsome youth. Grandmother knew how to "set the father's head upon the proper handle," as the miller himself declared; and when in after years his daughter was happy and the business, under the management of an industrious and enterprising son-in-law, prospered, the miller would say: "Grandmother was right; God follows the poor with his blessing."

The children of the young women loved Grandmother as if they were her own grandchildren; they knew her by no other name than Grandma. When, two years after Christina's wedding, the Princess returned to the castle, she sent at once for Grandmother and showed her a beautiful boy, the son of the Countess, who, a year after her marriage, had died, leaving the bereaved husband and the Princess this child. Grandmother took it in her arms, and her tears fell upon its silken robe as she thought of the young, good, and beautiful mother; but laying it again in the arms of the Princess, she said in a low tone: "Let us not weep. She is in heaven; the world was not for her. God loves those the most whom he calls away when they are the happiest, and your Grace is not left desolate.

People did not know how Grandmother was failing; she alone felt it. She would often say to Adelka, pointing to an old apple tree that year by year grew dryer and put on its green foliage more sparingly: "We are alike; we shall probably go to sleep together." One spring, when all the other trees were clad in their green livery, the old apple tree stood there alone, without a single leaf. It was dug up and used for fuel. The same spring, Grandmother coughed severely; she could no longer walk to the village to "God's dear church." Her hands withered more and more, her hair was like snow, her voice grew weaker and weaker.

One day, Mrs. Proshek sent letters in all directions urging the children to come home. Grandmother had taken to her bed, she could no longer hold the spindle. From the gamekeeper's, from the mill, from the village, messengers came several times a day to ask how Grandmother was; she was no better. Adelka often prayed with her; she was obliged to tell her every morning, every evening, how the trees were growing in the orchard, how the vegetables were thriving in the garden, how the poultry was doing, how Spotty was; she had to reckon in how many days Mr. Beyer would probably be with them. "Perhaps John will come with him," Grandmother would add. Her memory began to fail. She often called Barunka instead of Adelka, and when the latter reminded her that Barunka was not at home, recollecting herself she would say, sighing deeply: "No, no, she is not at home, I shall not see her again. Is she happy?" And yet she saw them all again.

Mr. Proshek came, and with him Willie and Johanna; her son Caspar came, and from the Riesengebirge mountains came Mr. Beyer, bringing with him his sturdy apprentice, John; Orel came from the school of forestry, where the Princess, discovering his talents, had placed him. Grandmother counted him, too, among her grandchildren, for she had observed the growing attachment between him and Adelka, and approved of it, knowing his nobleness of character. All gathered around Grandmother's bed. The first of all was Barunka, who came with the nightingale. He came back to his nest by Grandmother's window, and Barunka found her old place in Grandmother's room. There her bed used to stand, there she used to listen to the music of the sweet singer, there, rising up and lying down, Grandmother used to bless her. They were together again; the same voices were heard around them, these were the same stars upon which they had gazed together, the same hands rested upon Barunka's head. It was the same head, but different thoughts crowded in it, and the tears which Grandmother saw rolling down the cheeks of her beloved grandchild were different from the tears of childhood, which a pleasant smile dried from the rosy cheeks, when, as yet a little girl, she slept in her little bed in Grandmother's room. Those tears bedewed, but did not dim the eyes.

Grandmother knew she had not many days to live; therefore, like a good housewife, she set her house in order. First she made her peace with God, then she distributed her little property. Each one received a keepsake. For all who came to see her she had a kind word, and when they left, her eyes followed them till they were out of sight. Even the Princess, with the son of Hortense, came to see her, and when they were leaving, she looked long after them; for she knew she should never see them again. Even those dumb brutes, the cats and dogs, were not forgotten. She called them to her bed, caressed them and allowed Sultan to lick her hand. "See to them," she said to Adelka and the servants, "for every creature is grateful for kindness." But Vorsa she called to herself and said: "When I die, Vorsilka,[1]—I know my time is near at hand, for I dreamed last night that George came for me,—when I die do not forget to tell it to the bees, so that they shall not die out! The others might forget." Grandmother knew that Vorsa would do it; for the others did not believe as she did and, therefore, might neglect to do it in time, even though they were willing to fulfill all her wishes.

Towards evening of the day following the children's return, Grandmother was quietly passing away. Barunka read to her the prayer of the dying, she repeating the words after her. Suddenly the lips ceased to move, the eye was fixed upon the crucifix hanging over the bed, the breathing stopped. The flame of life went out like a lamp in which the oil has been consumed.

Barunka closed her eyes. Christina opened the window "so that the soul might have freedom to fly away." Vorsa, not delaying among the weeping, hastened to the hive which the miller had set up for Grandmother some years before, and rapping upon it called three times: "Bees, bees, our Grandmother is dead!" and then she sat down upon the bench under the lilacs and sobbed aloud. The miller went to Zernov, to have the bell tolled. He himself offered to do this service; he felt oppressed in the house; he wanted to go outside so that he could weep and ease his grief. "I missed Victorka; how, then, can I forget Grandmother!" he said on the way. When the tolling of the bell was heard, announcing to the people that Grandmother was no more, the whole neighborhood wept.

"The third day, when the funeral procession, composed of a great company of people, was passing the castle,—for everyone who had known Grandmother wanted to follow her to her last resting place,—a white hand pushed aside the heavy curtains, and the Princess appeared between them. Her sad gaze followed the procession as long as it was in sight, and then dropping the curtains and sighing deeply, she whispered:

"Happy woman!"

 
  1. The diminutive of Vorsa.