Poet Lore/Volume 4/Number 6-7/Under a Bush of Lilacs

UNDER A BUSH OF LILACS.

By Jakub Arbes


I AM going to tell a simple story, as simple as the most common, every-day occurrence of which men hardly take any notice. I am going to tell of one of those sweet little creatures every tenth, eighth, or sixth of whom withers away when scarcely entered upon life; of one of those cobwebby organisms often felled to the grave in a night—nay, in a few hours—by a mere breath of a gentle wind; or again, possessed of such wonderful life-power that for almost a century they are able to withstand the wildest storms. In a word, I shall tell the story of a little child who had passed only the second year of its age, of a child that was noted neither for any bodily beauty nor for any mental abilities, nor distinguished in any way from millions of other children of the same age.

Is that likely to interest anybody? Will the “adventures” of such a little creature attract any one? Can we speak at all of any “adventures” that would stir the mind of the reader?

Hardly. And yet there are few mortals whose life has been as strange as that of this little baby, who, not having yet any notion of life, is sitting in the thick, high, soft grass under a low bush of lilacs by the churchyard wall whither it has just come toddling from that hut,—its home.

The hot rays of a June sun, nearly setting, play in the most varied hues on the luxuriant grass, here covering it with golden, yellow, or orange colors, there allowing the glittering green to display its various shades, from the shimmering evergreen to a greenish-brown.

For all these and other things the child has no sense; it plays in the grass wholly at random, without any purpose, without thinking; it even seems that it is not playing, that its little soul has not developed sense enough for the most primitive play. It stretches out its little hand for single stalks of grass that are higher than others, or that in some way draw its attention, as though it would pick them, but drops them forthwith. It looks around, and then looks forward or into space, and again it plays with its little hands in the grass or with one little nail awkwardly digs the ground; in a word, it attempts to play, not yet knowing how.

It is a plump, light-haired little girl in a short slip, with its border bemired, loosened at her throat so that you may see the little sunken, naked breast. The expression of her face is indefinite at first sight, but a certain inexpressibly bitter line around its full lips and the dark blue, dreamy, and gloomy eyes give the little face the almost painful expression often marking children who have been born in grief and sorrow.

Still it seems that her little soul has not yet been clouded with the least shadow of grief. She looks around so carelessly, so naïvely, that we cannot believe that she yet lives a life different from that which we call animal life.

How differently she would look about if she understood more than a mere child does! How she would enjoy the view into free space, where bluish mountains, surrounding a delightful valley, rise to heaven! How pleased she would be to look where the wooded hills lower gradually like terraces, forming a wonderful amphitheatre, easily to be surveyed from the place where the child stands. How eagerly would she gaze at those far-off hills crossed by a zigzag highway, that now disappears in the woods and again may be seen looking like a white or yellow thread or glittering like melting gold in the glowing rays of the sun! And what strange sentiments would fill her heart when she turned to that small field in her immediate neighborhood, enclosed by a low, dilapidated wall, here and there bearing a shrub or a tree,—a country churchyard, with half-sunken graves, most of them without a cross or other memorial sign; a lone country churchyard in a forsaken mountain region seldom visited even by a chance wanderer.

What does this poor child, who has scarcely seen its nearest surroundings, know of the world, of its joys and griefs, its enjoyments and sufferings, its efforts, labors, and struggles? What does this awkward worm in a soiled little dress know of men,—those noble creatures said to have been created in God’s own image, and of all their excitements and passions? Why, this little girl does not even know that the nearest mountain village—a few miserable huts with inhabitants as poor, nay, poorer than those huts themselves—lies under the nearest wooded hill, an hour’s journey away from the churchyard; she has not the slightest idea that the first church may not be seen until half an hour’s journey beyond the village; she has never dreamed of what the difference is between a charming park, designed for pleasure, and that mysterious place where human hearts are quietly decaying; she does not even know that she is sitting by a churchyard wall, under a bush of lilacs, amid grass that has grown up out of a forgotten grave!

Suddenly a breeze springs up, swings the top of the lilac bush, and shakes down upon the little blond head a few faded blossoms of the shrub, which in mountainous regions blooms as late as June. Unconsciously the child raises her head. For a moment she looks at the quivering leaves, and then at the trembling branches and the yellowish blossoms.

It seems as though she can not understand how any such thing is possible,—for she looks surprised, amazed, as a plain countryman would look at a clever feat of jugglery incomprehensible to him.

A moment later she slowly lifts up her little hand, as though she were trying if it were possible to reach the branches, the leaves, and the blossoms; then the hand falls slowly down to the stem of the shrub, which she embraces with her little fingers. She seems to feel a firm support. Holding the stem fast, she rises slowly, and again lifts up her hand as though she were going to pick the nearest half-faded blossom.

At least she fixes her dark blue eyes with great eagerness upon it; but a moment later her fickle gaze again wanders about the churchyard, thoughtlessly, it seems, until it remains fastened on a cottage about thirty paces distant from the shrub,—the dwelling of the man who, in this solitude, prepares and guards the last resting-place for the human beings brought hither to moulder into atoms.

It is a miserable hut, built of unburnt bricks and covered with thatch. Two gigantic ash-trees, overshadowing the only window, protect the interior from the scorching heat of the sun. From this cabin, in front of which the child used to play, she has come toddling—for the first time in her life—as far as the churchyard wall, to the bush of lilacs, the only one of its kind in the cemetery. She looks at the cottage for some time as though she expected some one to come and caress her fer behaving so well. But after a few minutes,—which to the child are long,—as no one comes from the hut, she again turns her eyes toward the nearest surroundings, lifts up her head, looks at the nearest flower, and stretches her little hand to reach it. But the blossom is a little too high; she strives to catch at it, but her grasp is too short, —about half the thickness of her little finger too short. If she would stand on her tiptoes, she would reach the whole branch, but she does not know how to stand on tiptoes.

Happily for her, a fresh gust of wind, fiercer and colder than the first, bent the top of the lilac bush so low that a blossom, growing on a different branch, however, and not the one the child was longing for, slipped by chance into her hand.

A joyous smile plays about her lips. She holds the blossom in her little hand, apparently not knowing what to do with it. Either she does not know that it may be plucked or she lacks the strength; for a time she stands motionless.

Suddenly there rushes out of the door of the cottage a young woman in a plain but neat house-dress. She looks shyly around about the fields and the graveyard as though she were seeking some one. In the next moment she finds the one; her eye discerns the child under the bush of lilacs.

“Marushka, Marushka!” she cries out. “Where are you?”

At the first outcry the child staggers back, and the lilac blossom is caught in her hand.

“Mamma! mamma!” the child lisps in answer to the call, in that sweet childish tone which an adult can never faithfully imitate.

Now for the first time does the young woman realize in what place her child is standing. A strange blaze flashes from her dark eyes, betraying fright and horror.

“Jesu Maria!” she moans in pain; and as quickly as a hawk falling on its prey, she speeds along and over the graves to her child, crying anxiously, “Marushka! my dear, poor, unhappy Marushka!”

The child looks at her mother with a sweet smile, as though she knew her mother came to fondle her. She keeps the plucked lilac blossom in her little hand, as though she were showing it to her mother; and when the mother comes nearer, she puts the blossom into her mouth and stretches out her arms.

The mother is almost out of breath. She pulls the blossom at once from the child’s mouth, and taking her to her arms, presses the little creature to her breast.

“Oh, my God!” she laments in a trembling voice. “Marushka, my dear Marushka, where have you been? Why, why did I leave you alone a moment unwatched?”

But the child smiles playfully. She does not understand her mother’s words or their dark meaning.

As quickly as she has come, the mother hastens with her little one to the cabin. Her face is purple, her eyes glittering, and her heart throbbing.

“Oh, God, my God!” she wails. “I would not have thought that the parson’s prophecy would be fulfilled this very day,—the anniversary day. Oh, why did I not watch you as I had done before,—my dear, my only Marushka?”

The playful child only smiles. At times she tries to say something; but even the mother fails to understand what she prattles.

The frightened mother has reached the hut; she rushes in, slams the door, and puts the child into the cradle.

She reaches out her hands to her mother, and smiles fixedly. The mother soothes her.

“Sleep, sleep, my darling!” she mutters, rocking her.

She rocks her long; the child cannot fall asleep, but is lulled at last.

The mother’s eyes are suffused with tears. Every now and then she bends over the child, listening to its breath or feeling if its brow be not hot. Still the child smiles even in its sleep.

The sun has set, and the shadows of evening have spread over the graveyard. The mother is still sitting by the cradle watching her only child. Now and then she utters disconnected words disclosing her fear and anxiety. At last peace returns to her soul. The child is breathing quietly; there is nothing to justify the mother’s fears. And finally the mother lies down on her simple bed and falls asleep.

***

Midnight has come.

The yellowish moonbeams, penetrating through the dense foliage of the shady ash-trees that stand before the window, picture on the floor in front of the cradle a few silvery silhouettes, faint, feeble images.

In the room there is a deep silence interrupted only by the breath of two human beings,—the mother’s breath, full and apparently free, but occasionally shortened as in anxiety, and the delicate breath of the child, a breath alarmingly quickened.

The mother’s breath suddenly stops; then a deep sigh follows, and a half-suppressed groan, as she awakes from a troublesome dream, sits up, and fastens her eyes upon the cradle and the child.

The child lies on its back; a faint reflex of the scattered rays of the moon falls directly upon the baby face; the eyes are shut. To the mother the face looks deadly pale. She leaps to the cradle, and puts her hand on the child’s forehead; it is hot. The mother bends lower; she feels a hot breath which she thinks to be the breath of death.

She would cry out in pain, but she cannot. Her breath is stopped; the word dies on the trembling lips. Unutterable anxiety brings the cold sweat upon her brow; the blood rushes violently to her heart and back to her head; the arteries are beating more and more wildly; her head is dizzy.

How gladly she would press the child to her heart, how gladly she would kiss death away from the pale lips! and yet there she stands helpless, bent over the cradle, as if benumbed.

Only a mother who, in feverish excitement, has spent a sleepless night by the cradle of a sick child, will understand the state of this woman’s mind. Before her mental sight there passes, in wild chaos, one picture after another, each one more terrible, more threatening, and darker than the one before, until at last the most dreadful of all appears on the scene.

She sees a man with the stern features of a zealot, with a cold and yet expressive face,—the parson. Two years ago he had come to sprinkle the grave of a rich farmer with holy water and say a prayer at his coffin, and on that occasion he also came under the thatched roof of the grave-digger’s house to baptize a new-born child,—a poor unfortunate creature.

With fear and shame the youthful mother approached the priest. Her eyes met the austere, gloomy look of the shepherd of souls; she shivered. And to this day it seems to her as though she distinctly heard his reproachful voice:— “God be merciful to you, unhappy daughter! May He be merciful to your child also, whose sinful father will not, cannot, escape eternal damnation.”

The words overwhelmed her ; she staggered. Even to-day—after more than two years—the mere recollection pierces her heart.

She seems again to hear what the priest said after the baptism: “Follow my advice, erring daughter! Guard your child as your eye, and beware lest you should, in its presence, utter any word to remind it of the condemned father. Never speak a word to your child of the life, the death, or the grave of that wicked man, and take care lest the unhappy child should approach the unhallowed grave in which the bones of its villainous father are mouldering. Its vapors shall ever be a pestilential breath for your child; every flower, every blade of grass, every leaf that sprouts from that grave, every grain of dust the wind blows off that grave, shall be pernicious to your child.”

For two years did the unfortunate mother heed the warning of the priest, never speaking a single word to her child about its father; for two years she had guarded it as her eye and taken care that the child should not approach the unholy grave. And to-day, on the anniversary day of the death of the wretched father,—to-day that happened which never should have happened: the child went to the grave, played in the grass, plucked a fading blossom of lilac, and held it in its mouth. And now it is feverish; its breath is hot, the face ghostly pale in the reflection of the moonlight. Is not the prophecy of the “pestilential breath” being fulfilled?

***

Long stands the poor mother by the cradle, motionless, as if stupefied. The child is breathing at the same quick rate; its breath is as hot as before; and yet it slumbers on as though it felt no pain.

At last the mother moves. Her eyes, which have been fixed upon the face of the sleeping child, glide to the window, through which a broad stream of moonlight is flooding the poor room. Quietly and cautiously, fearing lest she might awaken the child, with a throbbing heart she steps from the cradle and goes to the open window, through which not only the moonbeams, but also the balsamic fragrance of a summer night pour in, and leaning against the wall, she looks out through the window.

In the grayish silvery moonshine she sees a row of graves, crosses and trees, bushes and flowers, and the old wall, which the moonlight seems to give a faint hue of malachite.

From the dilapidated wall her eyes suddenly fall lower to that ominous bush of lilacs upon whose top and main bough and many branches, standing in the full light, the moonshine plays in manifold shades of molten silver. Yet even this glorified bush awakens gloomy, bitter reminiscences in the soul of the poor mother, the most bitter thoughts that ever stirred a mother’s soul; for it seems to her as though she saw before that bush the tall figure of a strong young man in the uniform of a foreign soldier, standing upright. His sunburnt face, full of vigor, shows traces of violent, indomitable passions, but is, nevertheless, manly and well-favored. The thick blond hair, the deep blue eyes, full lips, and an indescribable expression of haughty defiance make the face appear seemly. It has lived thus in the memory of the unfortunate mother for three years, and just now it rises before her mental sight with an unusual vividness, as clearly and plastically as when, from the same window that she is now looking through, she saw him for the first time, in the scorching heat of the sun, standing at the bush of lilacs under which gaped an open grave.

Her own father, old, sick unto death, had dug that grave on a fatal day. He was hardly able to crawl to the grave and back to the house. He fell at the threshold of the cottage; and the daughter, his only child, wept for hours at the bed of her dying father.

And just in the moment of her greatest distress the first reports of guns were heard in the neighborhood of the cemetery. The enemy had broken in through the mountain passes, advanced, and fought the first skirmish with the advance-guard. But the fight lasted only a few minutes. A few shotguns sounded. The hostile army advanced again, and its vanguard took possession of the fields adjoining the burying-ground. One man appeared in the churchyard,—the foremost sentinel.

The young mother sees him to-day as vividly as she saw him on that fatal day; she sees how he deserts his post at the bush of lilacs, how he comes nearer, how he enters the cabin.

Oh, no, no! She cannot think further what the dim eye of the dying father had seen.

***

Punishment instantly followed the accursed deed.

And once more she sees that blond-haired young man standing by the lilac bush and the gaping grave. A little farther off stand several soldiers with their rifles aimed, and an officer who had witnessed his act.

She sees him standing boldly facing death. He tries to speak, but at the same moment the guns are discharged. She did not see what followed: the dreadful man had fallen into the open grave.

When she had recovered from her swoon, she had found only the cold body of her old father, the graveyard lonely as ever, and a fresh grave under the bush of lilacs.

And now it seems to her as though again she saw that fearful man standing at the ill-fated bush of lilacs; yet his face no longer wears an expression of stubborn defiance, but an indescribable expression of silent yet eloquent entreaty for mercy and forgiveness.

“Forgiveness! Forgive you!” slipped from the closed lips of the unhappy mother. “No, no; I cannot! Not even for the salvation of my soul—not for the—”

She did not finish. The child stirred suddenly in the cradle, and a prolonged sigh escaped from its throbbing bosom. Quick as an arrow, the mother springs to the cradle and anxiously looks into the sweet face of her little child.— How wonderful! Even this tiny tender face, formerly ever full of smiles and now deadly pale, seems to express a silent but urgent entreaty.

“Forgive—forget!” laments the mother, vexed by her fears. “No, no!—And yet!”

She stands mute awhile. Her breast heaves; hot tears steal to her eyes.

“Yet—I must—to save my child,” she whispers as in a dream; and then suddenly bending forward, she takes the child from the cradle into her arms, and pressing it to her heart, she prays,—“O God, only save my little angel from the baneful breath! I forgive—all.”

Here the child cries out; but, from its opening eyes new life gleams, and a smile plays about the lips.

The mother shouts with joy. She runs to the window. The east begins to blush with the first flush of dawn. The gleam shines in through the window; and in the rosy glow it seems to the mother that her little angel’s cheeks are as bright as they were before the poisonous vapor of the father’s grave touched them.

***

From that night the ill-starred mother loved her child more devotedly than ever; she guarded her daughter as she would her eye, but she no longer kept her away from the “cursed” grave. Oftentimes the child played on the mound under the lilac bush, where were decaying the bones of a man without whose sin she would not have seen the light of day.

Later, when she shall have grown up into maidenhood, she will spend many an hour in melancholy dreams under that ill-fated bush of lilacs, and perhaps she will think of her father with bitterness, or perhaps she will willingly pluck from the shrub a little twig with a fresh blossom, and pinning it to her bosom, will kneel down at the grave without rebuke, without bitterness, and will forgive as her mother has forgiven.

Translated from the Bohemian by Josef Jiři Král.

Copyright.svg PD-icon.svg This work is a translation and has a separate copyright status to the applicable copyright protections of the original content.
Original:

This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

 
Translation:

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925.


The author died in 1951, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.