The Grandmother (Božena Němcová, 1891)/Chapter 2

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IN the summer, Grandmother rose at four, but in the winter, at five. The first thing she did was to bless herself and kiss the cross upon her rosary. This rosary she always carried with her, and at night placed it beneath her pillow. Then she dressed and said her prayers, sprinkling herself with holy water; this done, she sat down to her spinning, and sang morning hymns as she worked. Her own sleep, poor old lady! was not good; but she remembered how sweet it used to be when she was young, and so was always glad to let others enjoy it.

After she had been up almost an hour, a light step was heard, one door squeaked, then another, and in a moment more, Grandmother stood at the kitchen door. At that instant the geese sneezed, the hogs grunted, the cows lowed, the chickens shook their wings, and the cats, coming from somewhere, rubbed themselves against her feet. The dogs jumped out of their kennel and at one bound were by her side; if she had not been careful, they would have knocked her over and scattered the grain which she had for the poultry. She was very fond of all these animals, and they seemed equally fond of her. She could not bear to see any creature harmed, no, not even a worm! She would say: "What is injurious to man, or must be killed for food, with God's will kill it, but let it not suffer needlessly." The children were never allowed to look on while a creature was being killed, lest by pitying it they should make it die hard.

Once, however, her wrath was roused against the two dogs, Sultan and Tyrol. There was cause! They had dug into the ducks' house and before morning had killed ten ducklings,—bright yellow ones and full of promise. When, the next morning, Grandmother discovered this, her hands fell to her side. There was the old goose, frightened and cackling, and with only three ducklings left of the large brood that she had hatched out, when they were deserted by their own truant mother. At first she suspected the raccoon of the deed, but she soon discovered by the tracks that it was the dogs. The dogs, those faithful watchers! She could scarcely believe her eyes. And yet they came out and wagged their tails as if nothing had happened. "Away from me, you wretches! What had those ducklings done to you? Are you hungry? Indeed, you're not; you have done this out of pure willfulness. Away, out of my sight!" The dogs dropped their tails and sneaked off to their kennels; Grandmother, forgetting that it was yet early, went into the bed-room to tell her daughter of the misfortune.

When Mr. Proshek saw her pale face and tearful eyes, he thought that the burglars must have broken into the store-room, or that Barunka was dead; but when he heard the whole story, he could scarcely refrain from smiling. What were a few ducklings to him! He had not "set" them; he had not seen them break through their shells; he did not know how pretty they were as they swam in the water, at times hiding their little heads and showing their pretty pink feet, to him they were nothing but so many roasts. For all that, he arose and went to administer justice. Taking the heavy horsewhip from its hook, he proceeded to give the dogs something that they would not be apt to forget. When Grandmother heard the noise, she placed her hands upon her ears; but she said: "It can't be helped, they must be made to remember it!" When, however, an hour later, they still stayed in their kennels, she went out to see if they were harmed. "What's gone is gone, and after all they are only dumb brutes," she said as she looked inside. The dogs moaned and crawled to her feet upon their bellies, looking so mournful that she said: "Now you are sorry, are you not? See, thus it happens to such rascals; remember it." And they did remember it. Whenever the ducklings wabbled about the yard, the dogs hung their heads and skulked away, and this seeming penitence again won them Grandmother's favor.

When the poultry was fed, Grandmother called the servants, if they were not yet up. After six o'clock she went to call the children. She rapped gently upon Barunka's forehead—the soul is thus awakened the soonest—and whispered: "Little maiden, it is time to arise?" She helped her to dress and then went to call the rest of the little ones. If she found them awake and lounging about in bed, she spanked them, saying: "Up, up, the cock has marched twice around the yard, and you are still in bed. Are you not ashamed?" When they were up, she helped them to wash, but she never could learn how to dress them, These curiously made clothes, with all their straps, hooks, buttons and buckles, were beyond her comprehension. As soon as they were ready, they knelt before the picture of Christ and said The Lord's Prayer. Then they went to breakfast.

In the winter, when there was no regular work to do, Grandmother sat in her room with her spinning; but in the summer, she took her work into the orchard, or into the yard, where stood the large linden, or she went out walking with the children. During her walks she gathered herbs, which she dried and put away for future use. In all her life she had never had a physician. She also used to get a large supply of herbs from an old dame who came from the Sudetic mountains. When the herb-dame came, she was always entertained at The Old Bleachery. She brought the children a bunch of sneezewort, and the housekeeper fragrant herbs and moss for the window sills.[1] But the children enjoyed most the wonderful tales which she related about a certain prince, named Rybercol, that great hero that played such pranks upon those mountains. Somewhere, hidden away in the forests, lived a princess named Katharine, and Rybercol was in love with her. His journeys to and from the princess were marked by great horrors. When she called, he rushed to her with such delight that everything that came in his path and hindered his progress was destroyed. Trees were broken and torn up by the roots; the roofs of houses and barns were carried away by the hurricane caused by his headlong speed; great boulders were hurled down the sides of the mountain, destroying cottages, and at times killing the inhabitants; in a word, his pathway was marked by destruction as if the hand of the Lord had passed over it in vengeance. Although this prince rushed to his beloved with such joy, she did not allow him to remain, but after a time drove him away, when he wept so hard that all the streams overflowed and there was danger of an inundation.

The herb-dame brought each year the same herbs and the same stories; but they always seemed new to the children, who looked for her coming with eager anticipation. As soon as the meadow saffron was seen in the fields, they said: "Now the herb-dame from the mountains will come;" and if her arrival was delayed, Grandmother would say: "What has happened to our Granny? I hope she has not been afflicted with illness, or that she is not dead!" Thus she was the constant theme of conversation till she again made her appearance in the yard, with the large basket upon her back. Sometimes Grandmother took the children out for long walks, either to the gamekeeper's or the miller's, or wandered about with them in the woods. There the birds sang sweetly, the ground was covered with leaves, making a soft bed, the air was fragrant from the lilies of the valley and the violets, and there they could gather primroses, wild pinks, thyme, and those beautiful Turk's cap-lilies. The last was the favorite flower of the pale Victorka, who brought it to the children whenever she saw them gathering flowers. Victorka was always pale, her eyes shone like two live coals, her hair hung over her shoulders in disorder, her clothes were soiled and ragged, and she never spoke to any one. There was a large oak on the borders of the forest, where Victorka used to stand for hours, her eyes fixed upon the mill-dam. At twilight she used to go to the edge of the dam, and seating herself upon an old stump gaze into the water, and sing long, long into the night.

One day, as the children heard her singing, they asked: "Grandma, why doesn't Victorka ever have any nice clothes, and why doesn't she speak to any one?"

"Because she is crazy."

"And what is it to be crazy?" again asked the children.

"For example, Victorka doesn't speak to anyone, goes about ragged, and lives in the woods both summer and winter."

"In the night, too?" asked Willie.

"Certainly. Don't you hear her as she sings every night by the dam? After that she goes to sleep in the cave."

"And isn't she afraid of Jack-o'-the-lantern, or of the waterman?" asked the children in great surprise.

"Why there is no waterman," said Barunka, "Papa said there isn't."

In the summer it was quite unusual for Victorka to come to the house to beg; but in the winter she came like the raven, rapped on the door or window, and stretched out her hand. As soon as she received a piece of bread or something else to eat, she hastened away without saying a word. The children, seeing the bloody tracks left on the ice by her bare feet, called to her: "Victorka, come here Mamma will give you some shoes, and you can stay with us." But she heeded them not, and in a few moments was again out of sight.

On summer evenings, when the sky was clear, Grandmother used to sit with the children upon the bench under the old linden. While Adelka was small, she sat in Grandma's lap, and the rest of the children stood at her knees. It could not be otherwise, for as soon as she began to speak, they looked right into her face so as not to lose a single word.

She told them about shining angels that dwell above and light the stars for the people, and about guardian angels, who protect children, rejoicing when they are good and weeping when they are bad. The children then turned their eyes to the thousands of bright lights that shone in the heavens, some small, some large and of various brilliant colors.

"I wonder which one of those stars is mine?" asked Johnny one evening.

"God alone knows," replied Grandmother; "but think, could it be possible to find it among those millions?"

"I wonder whose are those beautiful stars that shine so bright?" asked Barunka.

"Those," replied Grandmother, "belong to people whom God especially loves, His elect, who have accomplished many good works and have never displeased Him.

"But, Grandma," again asked Barunka, as the sad tones came to them from the dam, "Victorka has her star too, has she not?"

"Yes, but it is clouded. But come, let us go in; it is time to go to bed, for it is quite dark. Let us pray 'Angel of God, Guardian Mine.'" They entered the house, and Grandmother blessed them with holy water and tucked them up in their little nests. The little ones fell asleep at once, but Barunka often called her Grandma, saying that she could not sleep. She came, took her granddaughter's hands in her own, and began to pray with her, and they prayed until the girl's eyes were closed.

Grandmother's bedtime was ten o'clock. She knew the hour by her eyelids—they felt heavy then. Before she retired, she examined all the doors to see if they were locked. She called the cats and shut them up in the garret, lest they should come into the bed rooms and choke the children. She put out every spark of fire, and placed the tinder box upon the stove. Whenever a storm appeared to be brewing, she got out the blessed candle, and wrapping a loaf of bread in a white napkin placed it upon the table, while she admonished the servants: "Now, don't you forget, should a fire break out, the first thing to be saved is the bread; for then a person doesn't lose his presence of mind."

"But the lightning won't strike," objected the servants.

This answer she did not like at all. "Only God, who is omnipotent, knows that. What do you know about it? Besides one never loses anything by being careful."

When all was in order, she knelt before the crucifix and prayed. This done, she blessed herself and Barunka with holy water, placed the rosary under her pillow, and commending herself to God's care fell asleep.

  1. In Bohemia the windows are double, and the space between them being quite large is filled, in winter, with moss and ferns.