The Grandmother (Božena Němcová, 1891)/Chapter 3

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SHOULD a traveler, accustomed to the busy hum of city life, wander into the vale where stands the isolated house of the Proshek family, he would think: "How can these people live here during the whole year? During the summer, when the roses are in bloom, it may be pleasant enough; but how dreary it must be in the winter!" Yet the family had many pleasures, both in summer and winter. Love and content dwelt under that humble roof, and the only sorrows that visited them were the frequent departures of the father, or the illness of some member of the family.

The house was not large but pretty and cosy. The front part was ornamented with a grape vine, and the garden was full of vegetables, roses, and mignonette. On the north-eastern side was an orchard, and beyond that a meadow stretching out clear to the mill. Close to the house stood a large pear tree, whose branches spread themselves over the shingled roof, beneath the eaves of which the swallows built their nests. In the middle of the large yard stood the linden, where the children used to sit in the summer evenings. On the south-eastern side were the stables, sheds, and other outbuildings, and behind them grew shrubbery clear to the dam.

Two roads went past the house: one a wagon road, by which a person could travel up the river to Riesenburg castle, and thence to Red Hura; the other led to the mill and along the river to the nearest village, a short hour's distance. That river is the wild Upa, that flows from the Riesenburg mountains, plunging over rocks and rapids, and wandering about through narrow valleys, till it reaches the level plain, where without any further hindrance it flows into the Elbe.

Its banks are always green, in places precipitous, and often covered with dense shrubbery.

In front of the garden there was a stream of water, across which there was a foot bridge leading to the oven and thedrying house. Inthe fall, when the drying house was full of prunes, apples, and pears, Johnny and Willie were often seen running across the bridge; they were always on the lookout lest Grandmother should see them. That, however, helped them little; for as soon as she entered the drying house, she knew how many prunes were missing. "Johnny, Willie, come here!" she called, "it seems you have been taking some of my prunes?:" "Oh, no!" protested the boys, while the tell-tale color mounted to their faces, "Don't tell any falsehoods; don't you know God hears you!" They remained silent and she knew all. The children wondered how she found out everything, and how she could tell by their noses whether they spoke the truth. They were afraid to deceive her.

When the weather was warm, she took the children to the river to bathe; but she never allowed them to go in deeper than their knees, lest they should be carried away by the force of the current and drowned. Sometimes she sat down with them on the bench from which the servants rinsed the clothes, and allowed them to paddle their feet in the water, and play with the little fishes that darted about in the stream. Dark leaved alders and willows bent down over the water, and the children were fond of breaking off twigs, throwing them into the water, and watching them as they floated farther and farther down the river.

"You must throw the twig well into the current, for if it remains near the bank, its progress will be hindered by every herb and every root," said Grandmother.

Barunka broke off a twig and threw it into the middle of the stream; when she saw that it floated in the middle of the current, she asked:

"How will it be, Grandma, when it comes to the lock? can it go any further then?"

"It can," replied John. "Don't you remember how, the other day, I threw one into the water at the very lock; it turned and turned, and all at once it was under the lock and floated under the trunk, and before I passed the mill-room, it was in the stream and floated down the river."

"And where does it go then?" asked Barunka.

"From the mill it floats to Zlicskem bridge, from the bridge to the channel, from the channel down across the dam around Bavirsky hill to the brewery. Below the rocks it will press its way across rough stones beyond the school-house, where you will go next year. From the school-house it goes to the large bridge thence to Zooli, from Zooli to Jarmirn and then to the Elbe."

"And where will it go then, Grandma?" again asked the little girl.

"It will float far down the Elbe until it reaches the sea."

"Oh, dear, that sea! Where is it and what is it like?"

"Oh, the sea is wide, and far away, a hundred times as far as from here to town," answered Grandmother.

"And what will happen to my twig?" sadly asked the child.

"It will be rocked upon the waves, till they cast it ashore; many people and children will be walking there, and some little boy will pick it up and say: 'Little twig, whence came you, and who cast you into the water? Probably some little girl sitting near the river broke you off, and sent you afloat.' The boy will take the twig home and plant it in his garden. It will grow into a handsome tree, birds will sing in its branches, and it will rejoice."

Barunka heaved a deep sigh. In her interest in Grandmother's story she had forgotten all about her petticoats; they dropped down into the water and had to be wrung out. Just then the gamekeeper came along and seeing her plight laughed at her, calling her a waterman. She shook her head and said: "There is no waterman."

Whenever the gamekeeper passed by, Grandmother called: "Stop in, sir, stop in; our folks are at home." The boys ran, seized him by both hands, and led him to the house. Sometimes he objected, saying that his pheasants were hatching, that he had to see to them, or that he had some other business on hand; but when Mr. and Mrs. Proshek happened to see him, willing or unwilling he was obliged to come in.

Mr. Proshek always had a glass of good wine for any welcome guest, and the gamekeeper belonged to that number. Grandmother brought some bread and salt and whatever else they had, and during the conversation he forgot that his pheasants were hatching. When he recollected himself, he cursed his thoughtlessness, and seizing his gun hastened away. In the yard he missed his dog. "Hector! Hector!" but no Hector appeared. "Where in the deuce is that brute racing?" he scolded. The boys ran out, saying that they would fetch him, that he was somewhere with Sultan and Tyrol.

The gamekeeper sat down upon the bench under the linden to wait until the boys brought his dog. Then he started, but stopped once more and called to Grandmother: "Come up our way, my wife is saving some guinea eggs for you." He knew well the weak points of housewives. Grandmother assented at once. "Give your wife my regards and tell her we will come." Thus they always took leave of each other with some pleasant word.

The gamekeeper used to go, if not every day, certainly every other day past The Old Bleachery. This he did year in and year out.

The other person that one would see every morning at about ten o'clock, on the walk leading to Proshek's house, was the miller. That was his hour to see about the locks. Grandmother used to say that the miller was a good man, but somewhat of a rogue. This was because he was very fond of teasing and cracking jokes at the expense of others. He never laughed himself, but his face was drawn out into a mischievous grin. His eyes from beneath his pendent eyebrows looked cheerily into the world. He was of medium height and thick-set. He wore light-gray trousers the whole year round, at which the children marveled greatly, until one day he told them it was the miller's color. In the winter, he wore a long cloak and heavy boots; in the summer, a grayish blue jacket and slippers. On week days, he wore a low cap trimmed with fleece. In rain or shine his trousers were turned up, and he was never seen without his snuff box. As soon as he was in sight, the children ran to meet him and went with him to the lock. On the way he teased the boys. Sometimes he asked Johnny if he could reckon how much a penny loaf would cost, when flour was two Rhine dollars a bushel. When the boy answered correctly, he would say: "You're a trump! Why, they could appoint you squire to Kramolna!"[1] He would give the boys snuff, and when they sneezed hard, he smiled grimly. Whenever the miller came, Adelka hid behind Grandma's petticoats; she could not yet speak plainly, and he teased her by asking her to repeat after him quickly, three times in succession, "Our gable is of all gables the most gabley." The poor little girl almost cried when she could not say it. To make up for this, he would bring her, sometimes a basket of strawberries, sometimes almonds, or other delicacies, and when he wished to flatter her, he called her "little linnet."

Another person who used to go regularly past The Old Bleachery was Long Moses, the watchman from the castle. He was tall and slender like a pole, with dark sinister looks, and was wont to carry a bag upon his shoulders. Betsy, the housemaid, told the children that he carried disobedient boys in that bag, and from that moment,whenever Long Moses made his appearance, they turned crimson and were as still as mice. Grandmother was angry and forbade the girl to tell any more such stories; but when Vorsa, the other servant, said that Moses was a grabber, that everything that he could reach clung to his fingers, Grandmother did not say anything to that. Indeed, he must have been a bad man, that Moses, and to the children he remained terrible, even if they no longer believed that he carried children in the bag.

In the summer, when the nobility lived in the castle, the children often saw some beautiful princess on horseback, with several lords following in her train. The miller seeing this once remarked to Grandmother: "It appears to me like the whip of God (a comet) dragging its tail behind."

"With this difference, my dear miller: the whip of God announces evil to the world; the nobility, when they show themselves, bring us profit," replied Grandmother. The miller turned his snuff box, smiled grimly, but made no reply.

Christina, the innkeeper's daughter, frequently came over in the evening to visit Grandmother and the children. She was as pretty as a pink, spry as a squirrel, and happy as a lark. Grandmother called her Smila, because her face was always radiant with smiles.

Christina came on a run, just for a word; the gamekeeper stopped in; the miller came for a moment; the miller's wife, when once in a great while she undertook to come to The Old Bleachery, brought her spinning; the gamekeeper's wife generally brought her baby; but when the stewardess from the manor honored the Proshek house with her presence, Mrs. Proshek would say: "To-day we shall have company."

On such occasions, Grandmother took the children and went away; she had not the heart to dislike anyone; but this lady was not agreeable to her, because she held her head higher than her station warranted. One day, when Grandmother had been but a short time at her daughter's and was unacquainted with the customs of the family and those of the neighbors, the stewardess, with two other ladies, came to make a call. Mrs. Proshek happened to be out, and Grandmother, according to her custom, after asking the ladies to be seated brought bread and salt and invited her distinguished guests to partake of her hospitality; but the distinguished guests politely informed her that they were not hungry, and then gave each other a significant glance, as much as to say: "You old-fashioned granny, do you think we are only so, so?" As soon as Mrs. Proshek entered the room, she saw that a mistake had been made; and when the ladies were gone, she told her mother never to offer bread and salt to such people, as it was not the custom among them.

"Theresa," spoke up Grandmother quite put out, "who will not accept bread and salt from me is not worthy to cross my threshold; you yourself may do as you please, but do not come to me with any of your new fangled notions."

Among the annual visitors that came to the Old Bleachery, the peddler Vlach was one of the most welcome. He came with a one horse wagon, which was loaded with delicacies: such as almonds, raisins, figs, perfumeries, oranges and lemons, and toilet soaps. Mr. Proshek bought up a large supply both in the fall and in the spring, and for this reason the peddler always gave the children a package of candy. This pleased Grandmother, who would say: "He is a clever man, this Vlach; still, I don't like his haggling ways of bargaining." She preferred to trade with the medicine vender, who also came twice a year. She always bought a bottle of Jerusalem balsam for wounds, and added to the price a large slice of bread.

She always had a hearty welcome for the wire drawer and the Jew peddler. They were the same ones each year, so that they seemed to belong to the family. But when the Gypsies appeared near the village, she was alarmed and quickly took some food and carried it out to them; for she said: "It is for one's own advantage to see them clear to the cross roads."

The most welcome visitor, both to the children and to the rest of the family, was Mr. Beyer, the gamekeeper of Marshendorf, from the Sudetic mountains. He came every year as the overseer of the wood that was floated down the Upa river. Mr. Beyer was tall and slender, his body being composed apparently of bone and muscle only. He had a long face, a sallow complexion, large, bright eyes, a Roman nose, brown hair, and a long mustache which he was in the habit of stroking. The gamekeeper of Riesenburg was thick-set, with a florid complexion, a short mustache, and hair always in order; Mr. Beyer's hair was parted in the middle and hung down helow his coat collar. The children noticed this at once. The gamekeeper of Riesenburg walked with an easy gait, Mr. Beyer, as though he were stepping over precipices. The former never wore such heavy boots as the latter, and his gun straps and munition bag were finer and newer than Mr. Beyer's. In his cap he wore blue jay's feathers, while Mr. Beyer's green felt hat was decorated with feathers of kites, hawks, and eagles.

Thus looked Mr. Beyer; but the children liked him as soon as they saw him, and Grandmother declared that children and dogs never made any mistakes as to who were their friends; and she was right. Mr. Beyer was very fond of children. Johnny was his pet,—naughty Johnny, who was generally called a scamp; but Mr. Beyer said he would make a good, sturdy youth, and that should he take a fancy to forestry, he himself would undertake to instruct him. The gamekeeper of Riesenburg, who usually came to The Old Bleachery to see his brother of the mountains, would say: "Indeed, if he should wish to be a gamekeeper I myself would take him; for very likely my Frankie will be one, too." But Mr. Beyer objected to this; he said: "Brother, this would not do at all; here he would be too near his home; and, besides, it is always well for a young man to learn the difficulties of his calling. You foresters and gamekeepers here below have an easy time; you don't know what hardship is." Here he began to depict the hardships of his lot. He spoke of great storms of wind and snow inthe winter time, of dangerous paths, of precipices, of tremendous snow drifts and fogs. He related how he had been many a time in danger of losing his life, when his foot slipped upon some precipitous path; how many times he had lost his way and wandered about for two or three days without a mouthful of anything to eat, not knowing how to find his way out of the labyrinth. "On the other hand," he added, "you dwellers in the lowlands have no idea how beautiful it is in the mountains, in the summer. As soon as the snow melts the valleys become green, the flowers burst into bloom, the woods are full of song and fragrance, and all seems as if an enchanter's wand had passed over it. Then it is a pleasure and a delight to wander about in the woods for game. Twice a week I ascend the Snowcap (Snezka), where I see the sun rise and this God's world spread out before me in a grand panorama; and forgetting all my hardships I think, after all, I would not remove from the mountains."

Mr. Beyer often brought the children stones of various crystalline forms, and told them about the caves in the mountains where such specimens were found; he brought them moss as fragrant as violets; he loved to describe to them the beauties of Rybercol's garden, into which he had wandered once, when he was lost during a fearful snow storm.

As long as Mr. Beyer was with them, the boys did not leave his side. They went with him to the dam, watched the floating of the logs, and took a ride upon the raft. When he was getting ready to leave, they could scarcely restrain their tears; and with Grandmother they accompanied him part of the way, helping to carry the generous luncheon with which Mrs. Proshek provided him. "Next year, God willing, we shall see each other again. Farewell!" Thus they parted, each wending his way homeward. For several days nothing else was spoken of but Mr. Beyer, the wonders and terrors of the Riesengebirge, and the happy time when he would come again.

  1. A small hamlet that never had a squire or justice.