Magdalen (Machar)/Chapter 10

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THE Bohemian crown was gleaming on the façade in its golden splendor, and below it hung the familiar wreath of dry, pine twigs. Through a passage-way, permeated with greasy smells which issued from the open door of the kitchen, one crossed the yard, mounted seven steps, and entered a garden. Here chestnut trees spread their thick foliage over white tables. In the middle of every one of these stood large lamps, against which gnats and moths were beating blindly. Around these tables, in careless positions and at ease, sat the citizens of the town,—only those, of course, who had joined the banner of the Opposition,—for the foot of the ruling party would never, never stumble against the “crown.” They sat there conversing, talking politics and judging this or that man, as the case might be, drinking three or four glasses of liquor, smoking, submitting to the enticement of cards,—and then they went home.

Under the veranda, whose walls were covered with a whole mass of pictures cut out of our leading periodicals, the dignitaries sat at a round table. Here they discussed politics in the higher style: local, national, Austrian, and European affairs were rummaged through in all seriousness. Here the strategical doctor placed his men on the townhall chessboard, ready for any attack. Here the initiated ones learned from still wet manuscripts of the little scandals and inventives that The Free Citizen would contain in its next number. In her anxiety, the burgomistress frequently saw that veranda, at about half past eight in the evening, blown up by the dynamite of anarchists,—an enchanting picture,—what a pity that it was only a picture!

Nine o’clock. The garden was merged in a yellow light. It was filled. A small rainstorm had in the afternoon cooled off the stifling heat, and the air felt fresh and pleasant.

A long table was placed upon the veranda. The cream of the Opposition was in full attendance. The doctor, Jiří, with the trusty partisan from Prague, Captain Knotek, merchant Jiskra, the tax collector, the apothecary and both the adjunets, Alderman Vrzal, Doctor medicinæ universæ Řehák, grocer Vrba, the president of the citizen’s club, the veteran worthies (only the white),—all were there, and all were elated, for they had with them, as the guest of Jiří, a good friend of the doctor’s, the gentleman from Prague, who was a part of the centre of politics, and who brought them a light from there, together with a variety of spicy stories. They listened with apparent attention to what was being said at the table, but at the same time they were racking their brains to think of something to say themselves, and when to say it, in order to pass for very brilliant fellows, and to attract the attention of all around the table.

They were debating in a lively manner.

Grocer Vrba was praising the latest article in the National Gazette, entitled: “Well, Bohemian people, judge for yourselves!” (Our people,—reader, pardon your author’s precision in reporting,—have to be the superior stern judges of all the steps of their representatives. Our people are an enlightened nation, who, with their sound instinct, will find out what is for their good, and what will harm them. Our people have long ago seen through the cowardly, degenerate politics of the impoverished ruling party. Our people will drive the party before the judge’s seat, and will judge it. They will find determined, energetic men for an extreme opposition, and they will thunder at the Bohemian Diet in quite a different voice. Our people will also send different people to Vienna. There they will speak in quite a different manner. Our two-tailed lion must show himself in all his power. For twelve years has the venal ruling party been leading him in chains around in the circus, to be laughed at by rascals, to the country’s shame. That carnal sin must be stopped at once. Our people support the whole Empire by their labors, and so they are asking only for their sacred rights, and they will get them. To those who knock, it shall be opened. New people will be knocking with their mighty fists,—and so forth. In all, there were some three columns of that matter.)

The trusty man smiled significantly and mysteriously, as one who always and in everything looks behind the curtain.

The apothecary had been hemming for a while, and he seated himself in another chair and wrung his hands. Something was trying to issue from his throat but would not come, until the gentleman from Prague cast a kindly glance at him, which gave him courage.

It was no wonder, he said, that in the country, away from the main stream, everything was not quite clear. The patriots were always fighting shoulder to shoulder, and all present belonged to the Opposition,—he, the apothecary, too,—yet he was not quite clear about some things,—for example, what was the difference between the Old-Čechs and the Young-Čechs?

Having said that, he drew a deep breath.

The doctor jumped up, flushing.

“It is a joke, just a little joke of our friend, the apothecary,” and he turned to the trusty man, as if burning with shame.

The latter laughed, apparently accepting the challenge.

“It would not be strange, however,” he began in a dignified manner, “if the gentleman meant it in all seriousness. That question has been put hundreds of times in Bohemia. The distinction can easily be demonstrated by the following metaphor: Here is a corner,” and he turned up the white table cloth from the edge of the table—“the Old-Čech comes,—tries it, pulls it, twists it, but the corner does not budge. That corner, notice, is Vienna’s good will. The Old-Čech sits down peacefully, and with his nails scratches off a few splinters, and is quiet. The Young-Čech comes, takes a look at it,—the corner is immovable,—so he bangs at it with his fist, until the corner falls into his lap. That is the distinction.”

Saying this, the trusty man banged upon the corner of the table.

As if overhearing the sigh of relief which alderman Vrzal breathed, the trusty man continued with importance to discuss the opposition of the Croatians and that of the Irish. He colored his speech with much humor and many witticisms, which Bismarck and Napoleon had used before him. In places he wove in a whole anecdote, which was very entertaining, though it had nothing to do with the purpose at hand. After an effective sentence (the trusty man wanted to pass once more to our affairs), captain Knotek swiftly rose to his feet and took the floor.

He was a pensioner who had joined the Opposition for no other reason than because it was an opposition. He passed in the town for a tactful and many-sided man, who always knew what to do, and who always spoke interestingly upon any subject. His opinion carried weight. He had entered the military career from pique. He was one of those old sons of Mars, who everywhere impress people by their rounded culture,—they attentively read Weber’s “Democritos” five or six times,—the only book they ever read through.

He spoke solemnly and deliberately of the Armada, by two or three leaps passed over to Temesvár, where, he said, he had stayed ten years, then led up to Hungary, to their sharp political contest, to their nobility who were always in the van of every action. He made comparisons and similes, and finished, measuring with his eyes the sympathy of his hearers.

So time flowed on. A tiny waiter kept bringing the dark-brown fluid in glasses with colored lids. There was a subdued murmur around the table, and the tobacco smoke hovered in bluish cireles about the lights.

The conversation became more trifling. Now Jiří, now the doctor, or the apothecary, dropped a few remarks. Our nobility was condemned by all. Our strength and our salvation lay only in a pure demacracy. In half a century there would be no such thing as aristocracy, just as America no longer had any.

Merchant Jiskra spoke in elegiac tones of that real aristocracy of our blood which went down on the Old-Town Square,[1] or was drowned in a far-off, foreign sea.

A weak smile appeared on the doctor’s dry face, as much as to say: “Merchant Jiskra spoke in the same elegiac tones of the aristocracy a week ago, and in the same words,”—but he kept silent.

“Maybe,” added Jiskra, this time going beyond his usual custom, “things would have been different with us, if that aristocracy still existed.”

The collector shook his head, but continued smoking. The adjuncts drew a deep sigh.

The trusty man again unbent himself for another speech. No other European nation, he said, was in such a position as we. The blood of slaves runs in our veins. Who was left after the battle at the White Mountain? Cowardly people, renegades, traitors of their faith. Their thin blood had mingled with the blood of a mob of foreign intruders. It is true, there was once such a crowd in ancient Rome,—outlaws, thieves, and rough soldiers,—the town of Romulus had grown up and flourished with them; but with us it was different. The accursed blood is even now coursing through our veins. Our people are wretched, without principle! Here is an example: in his journeys through Austria he had found countrymen in the most distant places, but always in the employ of the police! Shame, shame!

These words produced a strong impression. Captain Knotek shook his head; Vrzal in despair ran his fingers through his hair, which was parted in the middle; merchant Jiskra looked in dismay at the National Gazette, and at the words “Well, Bohemian people, judge for yourselves!” but he was afraid to say anything. The tax collector took long and rapid puffs at his cigar; a sad expression shone in the eyes of the adjuncts. Only Jiří and the doctor were unmoved: they had heard those flourishes at least twenty times before; there was a time when they had been powerfully affected by them, but now they were impervious to them.

Doctor medicinæ universæ Řehák cleaned his glasses, blinking his grey eyes at the trusty man in a provoking manner:

“You, sir, I judge,” said he, in a rasping voice, “are a follower of the theory of heredity. I will tell you straight that it is nonsense. . . . It is just so with diseases. Somehody, somewhere, sits down to-day, scowls, then opens his eyes wide, takes up his pen, and begins to scribble: I have found a new disease,—morbus ——icus,—and so forth. He writes a book about it, or sends an article to some magazine, and three months later three hundred people really are affected with morbus ——icus, and they go to the dogs. So it is with everything. People do not know what to do, so they concoct theories and systems, and put them into print. Suddenly the thought comes to somebody: theory of heredity! Good! Drive everybody into this straight-jacket, here a family, there a family,—or a whole nation,—what difference does it make? These stories are exceedingly clever, they are striking. And when hatched out, they all have a philosophical shell. Keep on driving! Reim’ dich oder ich fress’ dich. . . .

“Hold on?” cried the apothecary in a loud voice. “Put six kreuzers in the box! That’s the fine for talking German,” he said, turning to the trusty man.

Řehák threw a ten kreuzer piece into a tin box. “I assert,” he continued even more earnestly, “that the people are good. They are of better stuff than you will find anywhere else. How many are there of us? Count them up! And yet think of the taxes we have to pay! We do it all without a murmur, bah, what do I say? Our nation pays them with a sense of pride. It submits to discipline, and what discipline! I beg you, think of the elections in the seventies! That was a time of trial and of strength! How those hard skulls stood out like a wall against Vienna! You call this degenerated blood? The devil! Go to! The people are all right,—may the lightning strike only their leaders! . . .

“Again I ask you to consider the stacks of books which the printing-press distributes every year in the country! What a mass of printed sheets!—I mean your newspapers! Do you know, gentlemen, what gigantic tribute the nation pays for its enlightenment? If you only gave the nation enlightenment! Bah, here you place it on the throne as your sovereign,—just look here, I beg you,” he pointed to the National Gazette—“and if the people do not elect you, they are a lot of blind dullards. You excite their enthusiasm, which you ought to guard like gold, to a wild passion. A hundred times a year you strain their strength to shoot at an ephemeral target. . . . You throw them like a ball somewhere into the skies, and then let them drop again to the ground. You promise them paradise, and when they, when the people, come like spoiled children and begin to cry, you say:-‘Hem, our nation has inherited accursed, degenerate blood,—it’s all in vain. Shame, shame. . . .

“I could go on endlessly. . . .

“But I will only say: Our people are a stream of a great and mighty river, and he who wants to be in the lead, ought to make it his aim to find out their strength and to utilize it intelligently for the great work, and he ought not to seat himself in a boat and, raising a little banner, let himself be carried God knows whither.”

Doctor medicinæ universæ Řehák was red in the face, and he took a mighty draught.

(Reader, the author in no way identifies himself with Řehák: it is the latter who said these things,—let the inquisitorial sentence fall upon him. The author washes his hands of the affair. It was imprudent of Řehák to contradict that gentleman from Prague, that gentleman with influence and a sharp pen, who, when the proper time comes, will pay Řehák back for it in his customary manner.)

The speech had very little effect at the table. Everybody felt the painfulness of the situation: Řehák had too sharply criticised the gentleman from Prague. Indeed, Řehák had gotten into the ranks of the Opposition by mistake. He was not liked there, but he remained imperturbed, like a blind man. He opposed every speech. He had but one good point: he did not get into discussions,—he said what he had to say, then he remained silent.

The trusty man began once more to speak tactfully. He smoothly deduced from the speech just made that in its main points it exactly agreed with what he himself would have said in regard to the social question. He then sketched conditions abroad and at home. He proclaimed that our nation never dared show its color, or it would cease to exist. The townspeople and the peasantry,—in them was the strength of the real Bohemian people, the laboring class was our Hecuba. The problem must be solved, but not by us. Our nation had solved European questions twice, in the case of the Hussites and at the White Mountain,—he came very near getting excited (Doctor Řehák again moved impatiently and softly mumbled in his beard: “Eternally that one theory; gentlemen, it will some day spoil your reputation!”) That may be the task of other great nations, but we will simply take the shelled kernel,—thus the trusty man proceeded, and again he became humorous, and wove in anecdotes, and won applause, awakening a whole swarm of ideas, opinions, dreams, and wishes.

After that the conversation threw off its high buskin.

Hostinský (a fat, portly man, who had in his youth served for ten years in the infantry as trumpeter, and who was the second in command of the veterans,—the white ones,—a rich man whose yearning was all directed towards one goal,—an alderman’s seat in the townhall) placed his chair at the table and addressed himself to Jiří, saying that he, Jiří, ought, as a representative, to see to it that their native town was properly recognized. He showed vividly how the whole district would be abloom, how the town would be flowing with gold. He further urged that Jiří ought to persuade the government to give the town a garrison, say, of dragoons (he adorned his whole speech with conjunctions: “howbeit,” “whereas,” “therefore,” “if”), and he thought Jiří should take a local deputation to the ministers, should talk to them, and intercede for his people, just as is usually done.

Jiří promised that he would do so.

So time passed, and they drank and smoked. The peaceful conversation centred about the town, its hopes, its people. The ruling party came in for their share, first the men, then the women, and spicy gossip touched now this one, now that one. All were laughing.

The apothecary told about Clotild, the faded beauty of the house in the corner of the common, and he told of that meeting and of the racy conversation of the town ladies, which Miss Clotild had overheard behind the door. Then he suddenly stopped,—he had to mention Lucy, but he did not know how.

Here the doctor helped him. “We all know that . . .” and he proceeded to tell the story himself. There was a burst of laughter.

Then he turned excitedly to Jiří, “Tell us yourself, what are the real facts concerning the girl? All the women are so down on her. Of course, I understand, she is a fine-looking girl. My wife is quite liberal, but she will not hear of her. Is it true, what they say of you and her? You are among friends here!”

Jiří slowly lighted a cigarette. Something was agitating his breast, as if the next moment he were to vault into the saddle of a tall horse, and, when up there, to catch the look of admiration which the people would cast at him.

He told the whole incident: the meeting in that house, the first pure impression, her father, her soul, his desire to bring her back to decent society (he mentioned himself only in a superficial, off-hand way). He spoke of the reserved manner which had since fallen upon her, and of the pleasure which his aunt had in her; excitedly he denied all the contemptible tales which were told of her in the town, and he said that he did not understand it, but that he knew the people well enough to realize that they were only judging her by themselves, just as every judgment in general was only a sentence of the judger’s faults.

He stopped. The doctor arose, lifted his glass, and gave a solemn address in praise of pure humanity, and in praise of Jiří. There were cries of “Glory!”, and they drank, and clinked their glasses. Jiří bowed.

Subjects of conversation were running low. Only a word fell here and there. Old gentlemen began to look at their watches: it was eleven. The garden was getting empty. Only in a few places were cards being played. The surfaces of the empty tables reflected the lamplight. The tiny waiter was falling asleep in a dark corner. The gentlemen arose, paid their accounts, and went away.

It was a beautiful night. Thousands of gleaming stars were twinkling in the dark heavens. A moist, fresh breeze was wafting fragrance from the nearby gardens.

The doctor, the trusty man, and Jiří were walking together. Their steps re-echoed at the other end of the street. They walked in silence. A night watchman was somewhere singing off the eleventh hour. The mournful barking of a dog was heard somewhere in the distance. Below was the roar of the water falling from a dam of the Elbe.

The doctor stopped: “But do tell me, Jiří, how can a man do so? Is your relation to that girl really so pure, let us say, platonic?”

“Yes,” said Jiří, sharply and confidently.

The doctor burst out: “Do you know, my dear fellow, forgive me for saying it, but I think you’re an ass!”

“A-ass, a-ass!” he added, accentuating the words with a tune from the “Troubadours,” sung in a dry, rasping bass.

 
  1. On June 21, 1621, twenty-seven of the leaders of the insurrection were executed there.