The Grandmother (Božena Němcová, 1891)/Chapter 8

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CHAPTER VIII

 

TO-DAY Grandmother's room is like a garden; wherever a person turns everything is full of roses, mignonette, cherry blossoms, and other flowers; among the rest is a whole armful of oak leaves. Barunka and Manchinka are making bouquets, and Celia is weaving a large garland. On the bench by the stove sit Adelka and the boys, reciting the congratulation.

It is the eve of St. John's, and to-morrow will be father's name's day,[1] a great day for the family. Mr. Proshek had invited several of his dearest friends to dinner; that always was his custom. That is why there is such a commotion in the house; Vorsa has been scrubbing and cleaning from early morning; Betsey is scalding and cleaning the poultry; Mrs. Proshek bakes kolaches; and Grandmother sees now to the baking, now to the poultry, in fact, is wanted everywhere. Barunka begs her to call John out, because he won't let them alone, and when he is out Betsy and Vorsa complain that he is in their way. Willie wants her to listen to his story, and Adelka pulls at her apron, begging for a kolach, and in the yard the chickens are impatient for their supper.

"For pity's sake, I cannot attend to everything at once?" exclaimed the poor, distracted old lady.

And now Vorsa gives the alarm: "Mr. Proshek is coming!" There is a rush to hide what must yet remain a secret; Mrs. Proshek locks up the sweet-meats, and Grandmother gives strict orders to the children not to repeat anything.

The father enters the yard, and the children run to meet him; but when he says good evening and asks them about their mother, they are embarrassed, fearing to speak, lest they should divulge some secret. But Adelka, who is "Papa's pet," goes to him, and when he takes her up in his arms, she whispers: "Mamma and Grandma are baking kolaches; it will be your name's day to-morrow."

"Wait, won't you catch it for telling?" exclaim the boys as they turn to tell their mother. Adelka turns red; for a few moments she sits frightened and finally begins to cry.

"Well, don't cry, dear," says the father, soothingly; "I knew it would be my name's day to-morrow, and that mother is baking kolaches."

Adelka wipes away her tears with her sleeve; still she looks with some fear at her mother, who is coming with the boys. She, however, makes everything all right, and the boys find out that Adelka has told nothing that she ought not to tell. But the secret is too much for the children, so that the father hearing does not hear, and seeing does not see. At supper, Barunka must constantly wink at them, and push them for fear they will tell all, and Betsey afterwards calls them "tell-tales."

Finally the work is finished, and everything is in readiness for the morrow; even the smell of the baking is gone. The servants have gone to sleep, and only Grandmother's footstep is heard in the house. She shuts up the cats, puts out the last spark in the stove, and recollecting that there has been fire in the bake-oven outside, and that a spark may have remained there, decides that she had better go out and see.

Sultan and Tyrol sit on the foot-bridge. When they see Grandmother they look up surprised, for she is not accustomed to be out at that hour; but as soon as she pats them on their heads, they begin to rub themselves against her. "I suppose you've been watching for mice, you watermen? This you may do; but don't you meddle with my poultry!" She goes up the hill to the oven, the dogs following close behind her. She opens the oven, pokes among the ashes, but seeing not a single spark shuts it again, and returns homeward. By the foot-bridge is a large oak, whose branches make a convenient roost for some poultry. Grandmother looks up into the branches, hears gentle sighs, low twittering, and peeping. “They are dreaming of something," she says and goes further. What has delayed her by the garden? Does she hear the pleasant warbling of two nightingales in the garden shrubbery, or Victorka's sorrowful and broken melody that resounds from the dam? Or has she turned her eyes to the hill where multitudes of fire-flies are shining like so many twinkling stars? Below the hill over the meadow are hovering clouds like waves of gossamer. The people say they are not clouds, and perhaps she, too, believes that in those transparent silvery gray veils are enrobed the forest women, and is now watching their wild dance by the light of the moon. No, neither this nor that; she is looking toward the meadow that leads to the mill.

From the village inn, across the creek, Grandmother saw a woman running, her shoulders covered with a white wrap. Now she stands and listens, like a fawn that has run out into the open meadow to feed awhile. All is quiet except the song of the nightingale, the rumbling of the mill, the murmuring of the waves under the dark alder bushes. She binds the white wrap upon her right arm and gathers nine different kinds of flowers. Having her bouquet ready, she bends, washes her face with the fresh dew, and turning neither to the right nor to the left, hastens back to the inn. "It is Christina! she is going to make St. John's wreath; I thought she was fond of that youth," said Grandmother, never turning her eyes from the girl. She is now out of sight, and Grandmother remains standing buried in a deep revery.

She sees before herself a meadow, a mountain village, above her the moon and glittering stars; they are the same stars, the same moon, ever young, never changing, and eternally beautiful. She, too, was young when on that St. John's eve she made that fatal wreath of nine kinds of flowers. Grandmother remembers as if it were now, how afraid she was lest some one should meet her and spoil her charm. She sees herself in her chamber, she sees her bed covered with the flowers, she remembers how she placed the wreath under her pillow, how fervently she prayed that God would send her a dream in which she should see him whom her soul had chosen. Her confidence in the fatal wreath was not misplaced: she saw in her dream a tall man of bright, candid expression, whose equal, in her eyes, was not to be found in the whole world. She now smiles at the childish faith with which she went before sunrise to the apple tree, over which she threw the wreath backwards, in order to find out by the distance it fell beyond the tree whether George would return soon or late. She remembers how the rising sun found her in the orchard weeping bitterly because the wreath fell far beyond the apple tree, by which she knew that it would be a long time before she should see George again.

Thus, buried in deep thought, Grandmother stands a long time. Unconsciously she clasps her hands, turns her calm, earnest gaze to the stars, and softly murmurs: "How long, George, how long?" A gentle breeze fans her pale cheek. Are not those the kisses of the departed loved one? She trembles, signs herself with the cross, the tears fill her eyes and fall upon her clasped hands. For some moments she stands in silent meditation, then turns and quietly enters the house.

In the forenoon of the next day, the children stood at the window watching for their parents, who were in town, at church. The father paid for a mass that day, and Grandmother ordered prayers to be said for all the Johns of the family, beginning back several generations. The beautiful wreath, the congratulations, the gifts,—all were ready waiting for the father. Barunka heard one, then another recite his congratulation, but they made so many mistakes that she had them do it all over again. Grandmother's hands were full; still she found time to glance into the sitting room now and then with the admonition: "Be good, don't cut up," and then went about her work again.

Grandmother was going into the garden to cut some parsley, when she saw Christina coming carrying something tied up in a handkerchief. "Good morning, Grandma!" she said with a countenance so bright and happy that Grandmother gazed on her for a moment without speaking.

"Why, child, you look as if you had slept on roses," said Grandmother smiling. "You have guessed right; my pillowcases are covered with flowers," replied Christina.

"Oh, I see, you do not wish to understand; but no matter, let it be as it will, if only it be well. Is not that so, my dear girl?"

"Yes, yes, Grandma," said Christina, blushing.

"What have you there?"

"A present for John; he liked our doves, so I'm bringing him a pair of young ones, he can raise them."

"Why did you do it? he did not need them."

"Never mind, Grandma; I like children, and children find much pleasure in such things; then why should he not have them? But it seems to me that I did not tell you what happened at our house day before yesterday."

"Yesterday, your house was like the bridge at Prague.[2] I recollect that you wanted to tell me something about the Italian, but we were too busy to talk. Tell me now, but leave a word out of each sentence, for I expect our folks home every minute," said Grandmother.

"Now think: that sneak, that Italian came to our house every day to drink his beer. There was no harm in that, for a public house is for everybody. But instead of sitting at the table like a respectable fellow, he rummaged the whole yard like an old broom, and even went into the cow stable; in short, wherever I turned he was at my heels. Father scowled, but you know him; he is good-natured, couldn't harm a chicken, and besides he doesn't like to drive away his customers, especially those from the castle. He thought I was equal to the occasion, so did not interfere. I made short work of the Italian several times, but he acted as though I had said the most loving things to him, and yet I know he understands Bohemian, if he does not speak it. He kept saying constantly: 'Pretty girls I like,' clasped his hands, and even knelt down before me."

"The wretch!" exclaimed Grandmother.

"O, you know, Grandma, that class of men jabber no end of moonshine; it makes one's ears ache to listen to it. What would a person come to if he should believe it? Such nonsense finds no place in my head; but that Italian tired me out. Towards evening we were out in the meadow raking hay, when by chance Milo happened to come along (Grandmother smiled at that "by chance"); we spoke of various matters, and I told him what a nuisance that Italian had become to me. 'Just let him alone, I shall see that he troubles you no more,' said Milo. 'But don't you do anything to offend my father,' I said, 'for I know you Zernov boys; when you get started, the deuce himself is to pay.' In the evening that blessed Italian came again, but in a few minutes he was followed by the boys; there were four of them, among them Milo and his comrade Tomesh,—you know Tomesh, don't you? He is going to marry Anna Ticanek, who is my best friend. When I saw them come I was as delighted as if some one had given me a new gown. With a merry heart I went to fill their glasses and drank with each one. The Italian's face grew dark. I never drink with him. Who can believe him? He could put in some love potion! The boys got round a table to play cards, but only for a blind; for they kept making cutting remarks about the Italian. Vitkov said: 'Look at him, he looks like a noodle owl!' Then Tomesh said: 'I am watching him constantly to see how soon he'll bite his nose off; that would not be difficult, for it reaches almost to his chin!' Thus it went on, he changed color, but did not lisp a syllable. Finally, he threw the money upon the table, left his beer standing, and went away without a word. I signed myself when he left, but the boys said: 'Could he have stabbed us with his looks, it would be all over with us now.' As soon as he left, I went about my work,—you know since mother has been ill, everything depends upon me. The boys left, too. I think it was after ten, when I was through with my work and went to my room. I began to undress, when tap, tap, tap, I heard some one rapping upon my window. I thought: 'Surely it is Milo, he probably forgot something.' He always forgets something. I tell him that sometime he'll leave his head at our house."

"If he has not done it already;" said Grandmother with a smile.

"I threw my shawl over my shoulders;" continued Christina, "and went to open the window; and behold, whom did I see!—That Italian. I banged the window, and was so frightened that I trembled! Then he began to talk and beg, though he well knows that I cannot understand a word he says. At last he offered me the gold rings from his fingers. Then I got mad. I took up my water pitcher and going to the window, said: 'Go away instantly, you miscreant, or I'll dash this over your head!'

"He stepped back from the window, but at that moment out from the shrubbery rushed the boys. They got hold of him, stuffed up his mouth so that he could not scream, and began to mock him. 'Wait, you rascally Italian, we'll teach you manners,' cried Milo. I begged Milo not to beat him, and closed the window,—only partly, for I wanted to know what they were going to do. 'Now Milo what shall we do with him? The fellow is almost gone; he has a hare's heart and trembles as if he had the ague.' 'Let us switch him with nettles,' proposed one. 'Let us tar-and-feather him!' cried another! 'Not that,' decided Milo. 'Tomesh, you hold him, and the rest of you come with me.' They ran off.

In a little while they returned, bringing a pole and some tar. 'Now, boys, take off his boots and turn up his trousers,' ordered Milo. They obeyed, but when the Italian began to kick, they soothed him as if he were a pony: 'Whoa, little one, whoa! you won't be shod! Don't be afraid. We mean only to grease your feet, so you can run home the faster!' 'At any rate, you'll get a more wholesome smell than comes from those perfumes of yours,' said Tomesh. When they had tarred his feet, so that it seemed as though he had on a pair of boots, they took the pole, and laying it over his breast stretched his arms over it and fastened them on in the form of a cross. He tried to scream, but Tomesh placed his hand over his mouth and held it as in a vice. It won't hurt such an idle fellow as you to stretch his limbs a little; otherwise your veins might become contracted!' 'Now, tie his boots together and throw them over his shoulder, and lead him out to the road; let him trot to where he came from,' said Milo. 'But wait, he must have a buttonhole bouquet, so that people may know he's been to see his girl, said Vitkov, and picked a piece of nettle and a thistle blossom, and put them into his coat. 'Now you are very handsome! Now you may go with your gifts.' Then Tomesh and Milo lead him out to the road.

Presently, Milo returned to the window, told me how furious the Italian was and how he looked running, his arms outstretched and fastened to the pole. I asked how he knew that the fellow was here. He said that the boys and he were passing by, and that he left them waiting at the mill while he ran to my window to bid me good night, and just then espied some one sneaking along the wall like a thief. As soon as he recognized him, he returned to the mill to get his comrades, and all agreed that the Italian ought to have a severe chastisement.

"He said: 'Everything went on as we expected, and I am sure the fellow will trouble you no more.'

"All day yesterday I was amused thinking of the trick the boys had played, but in the evening Watchman Kohoutek came over,—he comes every day, and after drinking several glasses he is apt to tell all he knows. He said that the Italian came home that evening in a fearful condition, having been attacked and maltreated by some villains; that he looked so dreadful that all the dogs ran after him; and that Mrs. Kohoutek worked till morning before she got all the tar away. She got a silver dollar for her trouble, but she was to say nothing of it at the castle. He swore a fearful vengeance upon the boys. I fear for Milo now, for they say those Italians are very bad people. Besides, Kohoutek said that the Italian waits upon Mary, the steward's daughter, and that her folks do not object, since they think that he is likely to be promoted. Milo wanted to serve a year in the manor in order to escape the conscription, but if the Italian sets the steward against him, that plan may as well be given up at once. I have considered all this, and now I wish they had let the fellow alone. Last night's dream comforted me a little, but after all it was but a dream! What do you think of the whole affair, Grandma?"

"It was not a wise thing for them to do; but what can we expect of young men, especially when love is mixed up with their affairs? My George did something very similar and we paid for it dearly."

"What was it?" quickly asked Christina.

"Indeed, would you have me begin the story now? I think our folks are returning from church, for I'm sure I hear the rumbling of wheels? Let us go in. I'll consider what you've told me, and perhaps I may be able to give you some counsel," added Grandmother, as she entered the house.

The children, hearing Christina's voice, ran out into the hall to meet her; and when she gave John the beautiful doves, he threw his arms around her and gave her such a squeeze that a red streak was left upon her white neck. He wanted to take the doves to the dovecot at once, but just then Barunka exclaimed: "Here they are!" Hardly had the carriage entered the yard, when the gamekeeper and the miller followed it, coming to spend the day with the Proshek family.

Mr. Proshek, seeing himself surrounded by loving friends and the family he so dearly loved, and of whose company he was deprived during most of the year, was deeply moved, and when Barunka began to recite the congratulation, his eyes filled with tears. The children, seeing this and observing that their mother and Grandmother were also in tears, hesitated, and finally began to cry. Betsey and Vorsa, listening at the door, covered their faces with their blue aprons and wept, too. The miller turned his snuff box like a water-wheel, and the gamekeeper began rubbing a fine hunting knife over his sleeve (he was in full dress to-day), in order that he might conceal his feelings; but Christina stood at the window, not at all ashamed of her tears, till the miller approached and rapped her on the shoulder with the snuff box, saying: "I suppose you are thinking, 'would that the time were near when I, too, shall be thus congratulated?"

"You, sir, cannot get along without teasing somebody," replied the girl, wiping her eyes. With the tears still in his eyes, but joy and content in his heart, Mr. Proshek stepped to the table and poured out a goblet of wine. "To the health of all!" he said, drinking the first goblet. Then they all drank to his health, and soon their faces beamed with good cheer. John was the happiest of all; the gamekeeper had given him a couple of rabbits; the miller's wife had brought him an immense cake covered with such sauces as he liked best; and Grandmother had presented him one of those coins she had in the little green bag in her chest. Just after dinner the Princess and Countess came into the orchard, and when the family went out to meet them, the Countess presented Johnny with a beautiful book full of pictures of animals.

"I have come to see how you are enjoying yourself," said the Princess to her equerry.

"With my family, your Grace, and several good friends I am always happy," replied Mr. Proshek.

"Who is with you?"

"My neighbors, the miller with his family, and the Riesenburg gamekeeper."

"Do not let me keep you, return to them," said the Princess, preparing to leave.

Mr. Proshek bowed, not presuming to ask his mistress to remain; but the simple-hearted Grandmother began:

"Oh, indeed! what manners would that be, to let her Grace and Miss Hortense go without even offering them a kolach! Go, Theresa, go bring something. What comes unexpectedly often tastes good. Barunka, you bring a basket and pick some cherries. Perhaps her Grace will accept some cream or some wine."

Mr. Proshek and his wife were much embarrassed, fearing that the Princess would be offended by that simple offer; on the contrary, smiling pleasantly she dismounted, gave her bridle to Mr. Proshek, and seating herself upon the bench under the pear tree, said: "Your hospitality will be acceptable to me, but I do not wish you to neglect your guests; let them come out, too!"

Mrs. Proshek went into the house, Mr. Proshek tied the horse to a tree, brought out a small table, and in a little while the gamekeeper came out, making a profound bow. He was followed by the miller, who showed a great deal of shyness; but as soon as the Princess asked him how his business was prospering, he was in his element and got so far over his bashfulness that he offered her a pinch of snuff. When she had spoken a kind word with each one, she accepted a kolach from Mrs. Proshek and a glass of cream from Grandmother.

While this was going on the children surrounded John, who showed them the pictures in his book. The Countess stood by enjoying their happiness and wonder, and gladly replying to their questions.

"Mamma, look! this is our fawn!" cried Bertie, as John turned the leaves to the picture of a fawn; and the mother and children put their heads together, looking at the pictures.

"Sultan! that's Sultan!" cried Willie, and when Sultan answered the call by running to them, John showed him the picture, saying: "See, this is you!" There was also a very large elephant of which Adelka was afraid. There were horses, cows, rabbits, squirrels, chickens, lizards and snakes, fish, frogs, butterflies, lady-bugs, and even ants. The children were familiar with all those creatures, and Grandmother, seeing the scorpions and snakes, said: "What will not people make! they paint even those reptiles!"

When, however, the miller's wife wanted to see the fiery dragon, whose mouth spits fire, the Countess said there was no such animal, that it was only an imaginary monster. The miller, hearing this, turned the snuff box in his fingers, smiled mischievously, and said:

"O your Ladyship, it is not an imaginary monster; there are plenty of such wicked dragons with fiery tongues in the world, but they belong to the human race, and therefore are not put here among these harmless creatures."

The Countess smiled, but the miller's wife rapped him upon the shoulder, saying: "Too many words, father."

The Princess spoke with Mr. Proshek and the gamekeeper about various things, till finally she asked if there were many poachers around.

"I have two such rascals still; there were three but the most foolish one I fined several times, so now he stays at home. But the other two are deuced sharp, I can't catch them unless I put some shot through their bodies. The master of the woods tells me to do it; but it is no small matter to cripple a man on account of a hare."

"I do not wish you to do it," said the Princess.

"I, too, have thought that for such a trifle your Grace will not come to poverty, and they dare not enter the ward for larger game."

"I hear that much wood is stolen from my forests. How is that?"

"I have served your Ladyship for many years, and the damage thus done does not amount to much. A good deal is said, I know; for example, I could have several trees cut down during the year, sell them, and when I could not give a clear record, I could say they were stolen. But why burden my conscience with lying and cheating? In the fall when the women come to rake up leaves and moss, and the poor people come to collect sticks for fuel, I am always about and swear till the trees tremble; but should I half kill some old granny when she breaks off a few stouter limbs! Your Grace will not come to poverty for that, and the poor creature is helped and blesses you a thousand times. I do not call such things losses."

"You are right," replied the Princess. "Still there must be some very bad people about; day before yesterday, in the evening, as Piccolo was coming from town, he was attacked, and when he called for help, he was beaten so that he is ill. Thus I was told."

"That does not seem possible," said Mr. Proshek, shaking his head dubiously.

"In all my life I never heard that there were robbers about here!" exclaimed the gamekeeper and miller at the same time.

"What is it that's happened?" asked Grandmother, coming nearer.

The gamekeeper told her.

"That lying scamp," exclaimed Grandmother, in her indignation supporting her hand on her hip. "It is a wonder he isn't afraid that God will punish him. I will tell your Grace how it was." Here she related what Christina had confided to her in the morning. "Not that I would approve of what those boys did; but they cannot be blamed much, for everybody guards his own. If any one had seen that fellow standing by Christina's window in the night, it would have been trumpeted over the whole neighborhood, and her good name and future would have been ruined; people would say: 'O, she shows favor to such lordlings, she is not for us.' But now she is afraid that he will revenge himself apon them," added Grandmother.

"She need not fear, I will manage that," said the Princess, and motioning to the Countess they mounted their horses, graciously bade the company good day, and galloped to the castle.

"Really, no one would venture to talk with the Princess as our Grandmother did," said Mrs. Proshek.

"It is often easier to speak with an emperor than with a secretary, and a word spoken in season may bear good fruit. Had I remained silent, who knows what would have come from it," said Grandmother.

"Now,I always said that our Princess was pale from the lies people told her," said the gamekeeper, re-entering the house with Mr. Proshek and the miller.

In the evening, Kuderna came over, with his hand organ, and as soon as he began to play, the children, Christina, Betsey, and Vorsa began to dance. They also had champagne, which the Princess had sent to be drunk to her health. Even Victorka was not forgotten; as soon as it was dark, Grandmother carried a generous portion to the stump by the dam.

The next day the miller's wife complained to Grandmother that while they were going home in the night, "father talked a great deal of nonsense, and seemed to see things double;" but Grandmother only smiled, saying: "O dear soul, it happens only once a year, and there isn't a chapel without some little preaching."

 
  1. In Bohemia (and in most Catholic countries) one's name's day is celebrated instead of one's birthday. Thus the day of St. John is celebrated by all the Johns named after him.
  2. In olden days there was but one bridge in Prague, and as there was a great deal of travel on it, the saying, "Like the bridge of Prague," became proverbial.