The Grandmother (Božena Němcová, 1891)/Chapter 9

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FIVE pilgrims are seen wending their way up Zernov hill: they are Grandmother, the miller's wife, Christina, Manchinka, and Barunka. The first two have white kerchiefs tied over their heads and pulled over their faces to a point; the girls have straw hats. Barunka and Manchinka have tucked up their petticoats like the older women, and over their shoulders are hung bundles in which they are carrying provisions for the journey.

"It seems to me I hear singing," said Christina as they reached the top of the hill.

"I, too," cried the girls; "let us hurry up so they won't leave us," and they wanted to start on a run.

"O you simpletons, when the leader knows we are coming, do you suppose he'd leave us?" said Grandmother; and the girls, now satisfied, followed the rest with a slow gait.

On top of the hill the shepherd was watching his flock, and greeted them from afar.

"What do you think, Yoza? shall we get caught in the rain?" asked the miller's wife.

"Have no care, the present state of the weather will continue till day after to-morrow," replied the shepherd. Remember me with a Pater-noster! A pleasant journey to you."

"God grant it, we will not forget."

"Grandma, how does Yoza know when it will rain and when the weather will be fine?" asked Barunka.

"Just before rain, worms crawl out of the ground, making tiny cells, the salamanders look out of their holes, but lizards hide, and spiders too; the sparrows fly close to the ground. The shepherds, being out doors all day and having little to do, observe those creatures and thus learn much about their habits. My best calendar was always the hills and the sky. By the clearness in the outlines of the mountains and the color of the sky, I can tell when we are to have fair or foul weather, when winds, hail, and snow," replied Grandmother.

A group of people, men, women and children, were now seen standing by Zernov chapel; they were pilgrims. Several women were carrying babies tied up in pillows. They intended to offer them to the Virgin at the shrine, that she might either restore them to health, or grant them some special blessing.

The leader Martin stood on the steps of the chapel; his tall form towered above the rest, so that he could easily command a view of the whole company entrusted to his care. Seeing Grandmother and the others coming, he said: "Now we are all here, so we are ready to start." But first let us pray Our Father for a safe journey!" The pilgrims knelt before the chapel and prayed, and the villagers standing near prayed with them. After the prayer, they sprinkled themselves with holy water, one of the young men took a long cross, upon which Tomesh's bride had hung a wreath, and Christina had tied a pair of red streamers. The men stood near the leader, behind them the women, grouping themselves together according to their ages. But they were not quite ready to start. The careful housewives repeated their directions to their servants to see well to the housekeeping, and the fathers gave strict orders to their help to take good care of the farms. The children begged: "Please bring us something from the shrine!" the old women: "Remember us with a Pater-noster!" Then the leader gave the signal, beginning to sing in a loud voice: "Hail, daughter of God!" The pilgrims joined in full chorus, the young men raised the garlanded cross, and the party started on their pilgrimage to Svatonovitz. At every chapel they stopped and ofered a Pater-noster and the creed for the glory and honor of God; by every tree upon which some pious hand had hung the picture of the Virgin, by every cross that marked the spot where some accident had happened, they knelt and prayed.

Barunka and Manchinka gave good heed to the leader and sang with the rest. But when they came to Red Hura, Barunka all at once asked Grandmother about the deaf and dumb girl from Turyn.

This time her questioning met with a sad rebuff, for Grandmother replied: "When you go on a pilgrimage, you must turn your mind to God, and not think of something else. Sing or silently pray!" The girls sang again.

They now came into the woods. Here and there strawberries were seen in the grass. It was a pity to let them go to waste; they preferred to pick them. Their hats fell, their petticoats came down and had to be tucked up again, and finally they remembered the buns in their bundles and began to break off bits and eat. Neither Grandmother nor the miller's wife noticed it, for they were deeply buried in their devotions; but Christina and Anna did, and reproved them several times. "Much good your pilgrimage will do you, and great reward you will merit if you keep on like this," they said.

The pilgrims reached Svatonovitz before dark; before entering the village, the women stopped to put on their shoes and arrange their clothing. When they entered the village, the first thing they did was to go to the sacred well, whose waters gush out in seven streams from under a tree upon which is hung a picture of the blessed Virgin. There they knelt down and prayed, then each one took a drink of the water and moistened his face and eyes three times. That clear, cold water is said to possess miraculous powers of healing, and by it thousands of people have been restored to health.

From the well the pilgrimage went to the well-lighted church, from whose walls was heard the murmur of different melodies; for processions kept coming in from different parts of the country, and each sang a different hymn.

"O Grandmother, how beautiful it is here!" whispered Barunka.

The child knelt down beside her Grandmother who bent her head almost to the floor and sent forth fervent prayers to the most holy mother of Christ, whose image upon the altar, gleaming in the light of thousands of candles, was decorated with garlands and bouquets, the gifts of pious maidens and brides, who came hither that she might grant success to their love. The image was covered with a magnificent robe, decked with costly jewels, the offerings of those who, afflicted with diseases, had sought and received help at her feet.

The prayers being ended, the leader arranged such matters as were necessary with the sexton, and led his little flock to their lodgings. He did not have to seek these, for as the swallows coming in the spring seek their old nests, so the pilgrims went where year by year they had received, if not a rich hospitality, still a pleasant welcome, bread and salt, and a clean bed. The miller's wife and Grandmother were in the habit of staying at the house of the steward who was in charge of the iron mines in the neighborhood. They were old people, holding to the good old ways, and for this reason Grandmother felt at home with them. The stewardess hearing that Zernov pilgrims had come, sat on a bench before her house waiting to welcome them. Before they went to bed she exhibited to them her treasures, whole rolls of linen and dimity and skeins upon skeins of yarn. This was her own work, to which she added some each year.

"For whom, my good woman, are you saving this, seeing that your daughter is married?" asked the miller's wife.

"O, but I have three grandchildren, and linen and yarn never come amiss."

With this the other women fully agreed; but when the steward came along, he said: "Well, mother, you are again spreading out your wares; shall I have the drums beat for an auction?"

"Wait a while, till I have saved some more," she replied.

It worried the stewardess not a little that she could not entertain Grandmother with anything else than bread, for when the latter went on a pilgrimage, she lived only on bread and water. This vow was sacred to her, and nothing would induce her to break it. The miller's wife enjoyed it very much at the steward's and when she sank down in the soft feather beds filled with down, she would say with great satisfaction: "Dear soft bed, it feels as if a person were lying in a snow bank."

Christina and Anna went to a certain widow who owned a little house with a garden. They used to sleep in the garret on the hay, where a bed was made for them. They would have slept soundly upon a rock. This night they did not remain in the garret, but climbed down the ladder into the garden.

"Isn't it a thousand times better here than up there?" said Christina. "This garden is our chamber, the stars our candles, 'And the green sward, love, our bed shall be,'" she sang, wrapping herself up in her petticoat and lying down under a tree. "There I shall slumber, there I shall slumber, sweetly with thee," replied Anna, lying down beside her. "But listen! how Mrs. Fouskek snores; it sounds just as if one were emptying a bag of stones," she said laughing.

"Wouldn't it be delightful to sleep beside her. Say, Anna, do you think they will come to-morrow?" asked the girl, turning to her mate.

"Of course they will come," said Anna, with great assurance. "Tomesh is sure to be here, and that Milo should not come is not to be thought of. Why, he likes you."

"Who knows, we have not spoken of it yet."

"And why should you speak of it? one knows that without speaking; I really can't say whether Tomesh ever told me that he liked me, and yet we are very fond of each other, and the wedding day has been set."

"When will it be?"

"Father wants to give us the homestead and go to live in the new house he is building. When the house is finished, we shall be married; that will be about St. Katherine's. It would be very pleasant if you and I could have our wedding the same day."

"O, go away! You talk as if the arm were already in the sleeve, and yet all is still behind the mountains."

"If it is not, it can very easily be. Jacob Milo's folks would be very glad to have him marry into your business, and your father could not get a better son; no one could suit him better. As to yourself, why, there is no question. No one can deny that he is the handsomest fellow in the village, and I think the squire's daughter, Lucina, would mourn for him."

"You see, that is another stone in our path," sighed Christina.

"Indeed, there is more than one stone, for Lucina is solid enough herself, and to her weight her father will add a bag of Rhine dollars."

"So much the worse!"

"But do not worry your precious head about that. If her father is the squire, he is not the Lord, and Lucina, with all her dollars, cannot hold a candle up to you, and Milo has good eyes."

"But if they all go against him, if he does not get that place on the manor farm, and if he is taken into the army?"

"Do not borrow trouble: should the steward look dark, his eyes can be brightened with coin, you understand?"

"That could easily be done, but it does not always work; yet on St. John's night I dreamed Milo came to me. But a dream is a dream, and Grandmother says we should not put any faith in such superstitions, nor tempt God to reveal to us the future."

"But Grandmother is not the Gospel.

"I believe her as I do the Scripture; she always gives one good counsel, and everybody says she is a most estimable woman. What she says is the most sacred truth."

"I believe that, too, but I would bet my little finger that when she was young she believed as we do. That is the way all old people are; my mother is forever complaining that the young people are not as they used to be, that all they care for are dances and merrymakings, and that they haven't a grain of sense. That was not the way they acted when she was young, and I know positively that our great grandmothers were no better when they were young than we are, and when we get old, we will sing the same tune they do. But now let us commend ourselves to the care of the Blessed Mother and go to sleep," added Anna, pulling the petticoat tight around herself, and in a little while, when Christina looked into her face she was fast asleep.

In the garret one of the women that slept there was trying to quiet her baby, which, however, kept on crying.

"What! mother, does that child cry this way every night?" asked the other woman waking from her sleep.

"For two whole weeks, every night," she replied. "I have given it everything that people advised, but to no purpose. The blacksmith's wife says it has been overlooked and that it has gone to its bowels. I decided to offer it upon the altar of God that it might get well, or that the Lord would take it to himself."

"To-morrow, place it under the stream, so that the water shall go over it three times; that helped my little girl," said the woman, turning over and going to sleep.

In the morning, when the pilgrims gathered before the church, shaking hands with the usual greeting, "Let us forgive each other," they were going to communion,—two familiar voices were heard behind Christina and Anna: "May we be forgiven, too?"

"We grant you absolution without confession," replied Anna, giving her hand to Tomesh; Christina, blushing, gave hers to Milo. The young men, putting themselves under the command of Martin, entered the church with the rest.

After the service all went to the baths, where the old men and women were usually cupped, that being also one of the duties of the pilgrims. After the bath, they went to the numerous stands and booths to buy presents for those at home. The miller's wife bought a great many pictures, rosaries, images, and other gifts; for she said: "I have my help, the people come in with the grist, and each expects something from the pilgrimage, so I must have a goodly supply."

Not far from Grandmother stood Mrs. Fousek who wanted to buy a bladder-nut rosary; but when the shopkeeper told her it was twenty kreutzers, new coin, she laid it back, saying it was too dear.

"Too dear!" exclaimed the excited shopman, "you never saw a bladder-nut rosary in your life, if you say this is too dear. You had better buy a gingerbread one. "Well, sir, it may not be too dear for others, but it is too dear for me, for twenty kreutzers is all the money I have in the world," she replied, sadly. Mrs. Fousek went away, but Grandmother followed her, and advised her to go to another stand, where everything was a great deal cheaper. And behold! that shopman seemed to sell everything for a song, just as Grandmother wanted it, so that the twenty kreutzers paid not only for the bladder-nut rosary, but also for pictures and various knicknacks.

When she left the stand, Barunka said: "Grandma, you paid the shopman what was lacking; I saw how you winked at him, when Mrs. Fousek was not looking."

"Suppose you saw, that is no reason why you should tell. The left hand must not know what the right hand doeth," replied Grandmother.

Christina bought a silver ring with two flaming hearts, and Milo seeing this at once bought one that had two clasped hands. All these things the pilgrims had touched with relics or blessed; and a rosary, ring, picture, or prayer book so "touched" or blessed was kept as a precious memento.

All the duties being performed, the pilgrims thanked their friends for their hospitality, prayed once more by the sacred well, and commending themselves to the care of the Mother of Christ began the homeward journey. After going some distance, they reached Hertin forest, and being weary sat down to rest near a spring of water not far from The Nine Crosses. Being thirsty and seeing that Christina gave Milo some water from the palm of her hand, they asked her to give them some too, which she willingly did. The older people sat down in the grass, and began to examine one another's purchases, and to discuss the other processions. The girls went into the woods to gather flowers for garlands, and the boys went to put in order a large grave upon which were the nine crosses.

"Nannie, please tell me why those nine crosses are here," asked Barunka, arranging the flowers for the bouquet Anna was making "

Listen then, I'll tell you. Not far from here is the ruin of an old fortress which is called Vizemburg. In olden times a squire dwelt there who was called Herman; he was in love with a girl from one of the villages. Another suitor tried to win her, but she did not like him and gave her hand to Herman. On the morning of her wedding day Herman's mother brought him a red apple, and asked him why he was so sober. He replied that he did not know. The mother then begged him not to go to the wedding, because she had had bad dreams; but he hastily arose, bade his mother farewell, mounted his steed, and started. The steed refused to go through the gate; the mother again begged him: 'My son, remain at home; this is a bad omen, some misfortune will happen.' But he would not obey; putting spurs to his steed, he reached the bridge. The steed reared on his hind legs and again refused to go; and the third time the mother begged him not to go; but he gave no heed to her words and went to meet his bride. When the wedding party reached this place, they were stopped by the other young man with his comrades. The two rivals began to fight and Herman was killed. When the bride saw her lover killed, she plunged a knife into her heart. The wedding guests killed the rival, and it was said that nine persons perished in that battle. They were buried in the same grave and nine crosses were placed here to their memory. These crosses are kept in repair by the pilgrims, and when we come here, in the summer, we hang garlands upon them and offer a Pater-noster for their souls."

Anna finished the tale, but Mrs. Fousek who was near, gathering mushrooms, and who had heard part of it, shook her head and said: "Your story is not quite correct, Anna. Herman was a squire from Litobor, and not from Vizemburg, and the bride was from Svatonovitz. He was killed together with his attendants, before he reached the bride; she looked for him, but he never came. She sat down to the table, when suddenly she heard the tolling of the bell; she asked her mother three times for whom the bell tolled; but she would not tell her the truth, saying it was for this one or that one, till finally they took her to the chamber where Herman was laid out. Filled with despair she stabbed herself through the heart. They buried them all here. That is the way I heard it," added Mrs. Fousek.

"Who can decide which story is the true one, since it happened so long ago. No matter how it happened, it is a pity it ever happened. It would have been better could they have been married and lived happily."

"In that case no one would ever have heard of them; we could not decorate their graves with flowers," said Tomesh fixing the fir cross that was broken down.

"Yes, but what does that amount to? I should not want to be such a bride," replied Anna.

"Nor I," said Christina, coming with the finished garlands.

"Well, I should not want to be killed on my wedding day," said Milo; "but after all Herman was more fortunate than his rival. It must have been dreadful for him to see the maid he loved carried to the home of another. For that reason we ought to pray the more fervently for him, for he died guilty and unhappy, while Herman was happy and in God's grace."

The girls hung the garlands upon the crosses, scattered the rest of the flowers over the moss covered mound, and having offered up their prayers returned to the rest of the pilgrims. Presently the leader took his cane, the boys raised the cross, and singing they turned their steps homeward. Not far from Zernov, at the crossroads the villagers were already waiting for them. As soon as the villagers heard the song and caught a glimpse of the red streamers, the children rushed forward to meet them. Before they reached the village, the boys blew their new trumpets, whistled on new whistles, and chased about with wooden horses; the girls carried dolls, little baskets, pictures, and gingerbread hearts. After praying in the chapel, the pilgrims thanked their leader, the cross was placed in the chapel, the garland with streamers was hung upon the altar, and the pilgrims scattered to their respective homes.

At parting, when Christina was giving her hand to Anna, the latter noticed the silver ring that was glistening on Christina's finger, and smiling she asked: "That is not the one you bought?"

Christina blushed, but before she could reply, Milo whispered to Anna: "She gave me her heart, I gave her my hand."

"A good exchange, may God bless you," replied Anna.

At the mill, by the statue under the lindens sat the Proshek family and the miller; from time to time they turned their eyes to Zernov hill; they were waiting for the pilgrims. When the sun was sending its last rays upon the hills, and bathing the tops of the oaks and ash trees in a flood of golden light, white kerchiefs and straw hats gleamed through the green branches, and the children, who had been watching the hill most intently, cried out: "They are coming!" and started to meet them. Mr. and Mrs. Proshek and the miller slowly followed. The children hung about Grandmother and kissed her as if she had been gone a year. Barunka, with much pride, declared that she was not at all tired. Grandmother asked the children if they had missed her, and the miller’s wife asked her husband: "What’s the news?" "Our old goose lost her shoes," he replied, and added, very soberly: "Tt was a great calamity, mother."

"There is no talking with you," she replied, giving him a smart stroke upon the hand.

"When you are at home, he teases you; but when you are away he goes about like a wet chicken," remarked Mrs. Proshek.

"That is the way, those men appreciate us only when they miss us."

Thus the conversation began, but it proved to be unending. The pilgrimage to Svatonovitz was to the inhabitants of this quiet hamlet an event of the greatest importance. It furnished a theme for conversation for at least two weeks. When one of the neighbors had occasion to go to Vamburg, it was discussed six months before and six months after, and a pilgrimage to Maria Zell was talked of for a whole year.