Selected Czech Tales/A Kiss
The midday bell had stopped ringing, and now it tolled. The children playing on the spacious green remained unconcerned; the men lifted their caps, but otherwise did not look as if anything special were happening; but the women—they did start! They all left what they were doing; one a half-cooked dinner, another the cows which she was just milking, the third her work in the store-room where she was getting rid of the winter’s dust, after the fashion of good housewives, with the first warm rays of the sun. In short, from all their haunts and corners the curious daughters of Eve hurried to their usual place of assembly, the venerable centenarian lime tree that spread its huge, protecting arms over the plain little village church.
‘Whoever can it be that has died so suddenly?’ one neighbour asked of the other. But their astonished looks told plainly that none of them had had any idea of the impending event. No one had been known to be dangerously ill.
Our good gossips make a guess in one or the other direction rack their brains in the endeavour to ﬁnd out the name of the deceased, and make investigations concerning all the inhabitants of the place. They do not fail to fold their hands or to cross themselves devoutly from time to time, so that the wicked world should not say that it was sinful curiosity and not Christian charity that had driven them from their homes to the old lime tree. But that does not prevent their thoughts from dwelling constantly with the bellringer in his belfry, and from anxiously counting how many periods he will toll. Ah! he has finished at the second; it is a woman then who has blessed life and died. If he had tolled a third time, it would have been a man.
New astonishment new surmises under the lime tree! What woman can it possibly be? From which part of the village?
The gossips are determined to wait for the bellringer at all costs, so that they can cross-examine him as soon as he leaves the church. Let the cattle meanwhile low at the empty manger, the omelette frizzle to a cinder, the cat get into the store-room and steal to her heart’s content; let the husband grumble at the dinner being late—they will not budge while their curiosity remains unsatisfied. What does a little grumbling matter, when one can snatch news red-hot? The husband will soon forget his grievance when the wife comes out with her brand-new intelligence. Not only to-day, but for four days running the latest death will form the sole topic of conversation.
To whomsoever this may not be a repetition of a well-known feature, it should be known that gossip in and out of season is as indispensable to us mountain-dwellers, as water to a fish. If anyone ever were to stop our talking and chattering, he would condemn us to death. We who live around the Jeschken Mountain would rather do without daily bread and content ourselves with dry potatoes, than renounce our sweetest habit. We will never give up gossiping; it eases life’s burdens, steels our courage, keeps us healthy—in short, gossip is as important as going to confession. No girl would go haymaking, no child pick strawberries, no man set out on a journey, no old woman gather dry sticks alone. Otherwise we should get bored, and all the work would be spoilt. But when there is some one with whom we can chatter about possible and impossible things, dear me, how the task does fly! How quickly we get on with it, so that the dwellers of the plains cannot take their eyes off us.
The gossips are on pins and needles, and can hardly wait for the bellringer. What an age the man is taking to-day before coming down, and limping out of the church door! He is really getting too old. The priest ought to look out for a smarter man!
At last he appears on the threshold.
‘Whom have we lost to-day, goody?’ they cry in chorus, and with a noise that drowns even the rattling and screeching of the keys in the lock, which usually searches marrow and bones.
‘What? You don’t mean to say you don’t know?’ asks the cunning bellringer, holding up his hands. He is still a jolly old soul, although his head is as white as an apple-tree in the spring; it is covered with snowy curls, and he is bent with the burden of years.
‘How do I account for this? There’s something uncanny about it. You will see I am right when I say that the old prophecy will come true. If such an extraordinary thing happens as your not knowing what is going on, our mountain will disappear and a great lake come in its place.’
‘Come, come, you’ve made enough noise from the belfry for us not to forget that you are the sacristan. What are rattling on for now?’
‘How can I help being surprised? So far you have always known everything that happened exactly an hour sooner than those whom it most concerned. I could not dream that you should not have known of Lukas’s young wife having blessed this life, and gone to her rest in the Lord.’
‘Lukas’s young wife? That can’t be true! That is impossible! I met her last night in the lane.’
‘I saw her hanging up her washing yesterday.’
‘I’ve told you the truth. Lukas’s young wife has blessed this life. She died a few minutes before noon, and left a little daughter.’
‘Poor wee thing! What a hard parting that must have been! Poor wretched mother!’
‘They say she died an easy death; she did not know she was going where all of us who are standing here will have to go; one a little sooner, the other a little later. She went to sleep and did not wake up again.’
‘God give her eternal rest.’
‘And a happy resurrection. We can’t say she had all the virtues, but she was not a wicked woman.’
‘Lukas won’t fret to death about it.’
‘Rather not! He only married her in obedience to his parents, who threatened him with their curse if he would not do as they wished.’
‘Bah! whoever saw her and Lukas together could not help thinking that those two should never have been married. Lukas holds his head high, and looks about him as though the whole world belonged to him; but she went about with a drooping head like a sick bird. She had no life and no spirits in her, and she wasn’t healthy.’
‘Well, now Lukas can choose as he pleases. I’m glad for his sake. I couldn’t help being sorry for him when I saw him going to his wedding past this lime tree; he was as pale as if the bridesmaids had led him to his death and not to the altar. Every one will wish him happiness and content. There are not many like him. He hurts nobody and will allow no one to be wronged. Where he can do you a good turn he does it with all his heart. He has a temper, that’s true, but who is perfect?’
‘Who could have prophesied to Vendulka Paloucky that she would marry Lukas after all? Since the day when his banns were up, she hasn’t gone to a single dance or feast, and yet Vendulka is a spirited girl, and nimble as a doe. Because she was not allowed to marry Lukas, she would not be any one else’s wife.’
‘But why were his parents against her? I can’t take that in. She is a good, handsome girl; she is not poor either, and she’s thoroughly fond of work.’
‘And she’s a sort of cousin of his.’
‘That is just why he was not allowed to marry her. His parents were of the old confession, and believed they were committing a sin if they let them marry, because their great-grandfathers were brothers. Even the priest could not persuade them. They thought that no one but themselves understood the will of God. They really imagined they alone of all people possessed the key of heaven.’
‘So that was it? I’ve often and often puzzled about it. You see, I married into this place only a year ago. Vendulka’s heart will be beating, if she knows for whom they were tolling.’
‘Lukas won’t wait before he marries again, and it wouldn’t be sensible if he did. The cowshed full of cattle, the house full of servants, and a small child in the cradle—a man cannot do long without a woman in the house under those circumstances. When the six weeks of mourning are over, and the last mass has been said for the deceased, he is sure to go straight to old Paloucky’s and ask for her.’ ***** They had not been mistaken. Everything happened exactly as the gossips under the lime tree had made out.
Six weeks after the death of his wife, on the day on which the last mass had been said for her soul, the widower and all his male relations —according to the uses, or rather abuses, of our country—went to the inn, to drink off his sorrow. He remained there with them till dinner time treated them to the usual sumptuous meal. When this was finished, he thanked them all for giving him their company on this and on the day of the funeral, and begged them for their further friendship. They, of course, promised this readily with many handshakes, and demanded on their side that he should remain to them true as friend and relative, and he also promised this with lips and hand. Then there was general embracing and drinking to each others’ health. At last Lukas rose and looked towards his brother-in-law who was sitting next to him. He too rose and, wishing his guests the best of health and further amusement, the widower at once left the inn. No one asked where they were in such a hurry to go, but all smiled a friendly smile at and winked knowingly at each other.
And what speering and looking there was from behind all the windows when the two went through the village together! Although no one had the least doubt where they were going, all wanted to see with their own eyes whether they were really off to Paloucky’s to get his consent. When the neighbours saw that they were actually turning in there, they at once got ready to follow them. The custom in our country demands that when a would-be bridegroom and his groomsman are seen to turn in at a certain door, the villagers should follow in close upon their heels. As a rule the people divide; if the parties cannot at once come to terms, or one of them demands impossibilities, one half supports the bridegroom, the other the father-in-law.
The Palouckys’ house was always kept spotlessly clean, for Vendulka was as particular as if she had been town-bred. But on this day more than usual care had been taken to clean and tidy everything, as though it were the eve of a festival. The floor of the room and passage had been amply strewn with white sand; the black frames round the pictures of saints had been pasted with leaf-gold and stuck with green boughs; the window-panes were polished so that each one should catch the rays of the sun at their brightest. And yet it was neither a saint’s day, nor the eve of a festival. Clearly then, rare and honoured guests were being expected.
Lukas, although he had avoided meeting Vendulka during the six weeks of mourning, so as to give no offence, had probably given her a hint through a trustworthy person that he intended to call and ask for her father’s consent. She must also have communicated this news to her father: otherwise old Paloucky, called “the Moper” behind his back, on account of his extreme bigotry, and of his finding cause for dismal reflection in every event that happened, would hardly have put on his Sunday clothes on that day, nor parted his long hair carefully and smoothed it down on both sides of his face; nor provided himself with a freshly filled snuffbox. He welcomed the widower and his brother-in-law with beseeming civility, but did not fail to heave a deep sigh. He was perpetually brooding on the sins and follies of this irreligious world, and had become so melancholy about this that he looked quite wan. He offered his guests armchairs, and in a dismal tone asked them to take a rest. But they refused his offer with thanks.
‘There will be time for that when we have learnt how you will receive our request,’ said Lukas’s brother-in-law, ‘no doubt you know without our telling what we have come for.’
Old Paloucky sighed again; he was always most unwilling to take a part in worldly affairs, but he could not help himself on this occasion and had to bite into the sour apple.
He was probably anxious to shorten the disagreeable task that lay before him as much as possible, so he showed at once that he had been instructed in this matter.
‘It would be a lie to say that I was ignorant,’ he said. ‘I suppose Lukas wants to marry our Vendulka?’
The brother-in-law could not suppress a smile at the Moper’s unusual smartness; as a rule he took a long time before he said what he was going to say, and pondered long and thoroughly, so as not to endanger his salvation. It is to be regretted that people of this kind are dying out: formerly all our mountain dwellers were equally cautious and conscientious.
Lukas too was smiling contentedly to himself, pleased to hear Vendulka’s name coupled with his own. He was only at that moment beginning to believe that all that had happened in the course of the last six weeks was true. He had lived through the weeks of mourning as in a dream, unable to realize this sudden turn of his fortune. He warmly replied: ‘We two would have come to terms three years ago if my parents hadn’t interfered, isn’t that so, uncle?’
‘What d’you mean by that?’ said the Moper in a depressed tone.
‘What do I mean? You would have been as glad to give me Vendulka as I should have been to have taken her.’
The old man again looked perplexed; for some time he did not answer, then he slightly shrugged his shoulders.
Lukas, the rich peasant, good neighbour and well accredited man, had hardly been prepared for this answer.
‘What is it you would have had against me, or what’s wrong with me?’ he cried, and the blood mounted to his face.
The old man was startled by his violence.
‘Don’t shout,’ he calmed him timidly, ‘do you not know that we sin against God Almighty when we give way to vain wrath and fury?’
‘Why then, tell me straight out why you would not have cared to give me your daughter. Did you consider me a spendthrift or a windbag? Or did you think she wouldn’t have had enough to eat in my house? Perhaps you don’t care to give her to me now?’
‘Oh yes, I am quite willing to give her to you. How should I not, since you hold her so dear?’
‘And is that the only reason?’
‘Let me alone with your questions if every answer makes you wild.’
‘I shall ask what I want to know! I want to know what’s wrong with me, and why you don’t give me your daughter as willingly as I should wish.’
The Moper pondered for a considerable time; it was obvious that he did not quite know how to extricate himself.
At last he decided for a straight course, reflecting that that always leads you furthest, and besides it would not be seemly for him to prevaricate.
‘Well then, if I as a Christian am to tell you God’s truth then . . .’
‘Then I tell you that as a father I would give you my daughter willingly, and do not know any one whom I would rather have as a son-in-law. But all the same I do not advise this marriage either for her sake or for yours.’
Old Paloucky wiped away the beads of perspiration that stood on his forehead. How importunate this fellow Lukas was! But perhaps it was as well that he had been so pressing, for it had given Paloucky an opportunity of saying what had been a load on his conscience ever since his daughter had told him of Lukas’s intentions. Otherwise he might not have dared to come out with it. Now it was over. But it had cost him a good deal of perspiration.
Lukas and his brother-in-law were speechless with astonishment when they heard these words, and silence had also struck the neighbours and gossips who, one after the other, had crept into the room to be witnesses of the betrothal. They would have expected anything rather than such a development. There had been but one opinion for years on the whole mountainside that no two people had ever been made for each other as Lukas Paloucky and Vendulka Paloucky were. The village had been full of the tale of their unhappy love affair, of the admirable faithfulness of the girl, the deep grief of her lover who had been yoked to another woman. Every one rejoiced and was glad for their sakes that they should come together after all. Their marriage was being looked forward to with the pleasantest anticipation, as though it were a great festival. And here was the Moper, saying incomprehensible things! But the villagers soon regained their usual balance of mind. They looked at each other as much as to say: ‘We know him; it is an old story that he spoils every game.’ Lukas, however, was not satisfied, and repeatedly pressed the old man, saying: ‘If you do not advise the marriage, you must have a reason. Do you think Vendulka cares less about me now?’
‘Don’t talk nonsense. You know very well that she has had eyes and heart only for you. If your wife hadn’t died she would have remained single to her dying day. She has had handsome and very acceptable offers from all sides, but if I had counselled her to accept one, she would not have listened to me in the least.’
‘If one of them had dared to go past my house after he had been accepted, he would never have reached his home alive, I swear to you!’ Lukas cried with such violence that the old man shrank back frightened to death and again entreating him not to sin against God’s mercy. Lukas’s face was aflame with passion, but that became him well, very well. He was a fine fellow, this Lukas; he had an air and ways as though the whole world belonged to him.
‘Just as she never left off loving me, I have had her in my heart all the time,’ thundered the young widower, without paying any attention to those exhortations. ‘During the marriage service I could hear nothing but her sobbing in the organ loft. I was not far from leaving the bride and the priest at the altar and running up to her to take her to my heart, and no one would have torn me from her alive. It was not for the sake of the bride that I remained on the stool of repentance. I hated her because she insisted on marrying me when she knew I hated her, and insisted although I cared for another, and did not rest till she had got round my parents. I held out on account of the old people, so that they should not say shame had killed them sooner than God had meant to call them to Him.’
‘Let wife and parents rest in peace,’ his uncle timidly warned him, ‘do not call their shades from the grave with your unnecessary talk, or they might come to my bedside and demand an answer from me why we have disturbed their peace. The dead to the dead, the living to the living! I have told you already that I have nothing against you; I know you for a good, law-abiding and obedient son, and a kind neighbour. If my words, tentatively said, are displeasing to you, you have only yourself to blame for having urged me to speak out. I said them to satisfy my conscience and to warn you, so that you should not blame me when you have come round to my opinion. But enough of this, we will now talk business. I shall give my daughter Vendulka a thousand florins. When you take her to the altar, I will pay you the money down on this table in silver currency. She shall also have an outfit such as becomes a bride. If that satisfies you, give me your hand.’
Old Paloucky held out his hand to Lukas.
The widower took it hesitatingly and said: ‘I did not ask for any settlement, I don’t care whether you give your daughter anything or not: I ask for nothing but the girl. If we two, after so much trouble, now come together, I shall envy no king. To be sure, far rather than have your thousand florins I wish you had not made that insinuating remark which has given me great pain. And do not think, my dear uncle, that I shall give you peace until you have told me quite plainly why my marriage with your only daughter is not as agreeable to you as I had hoped and thought.’
These words, said in a tone of real distress, did not fail to make a great impression on the future father-in-law.
‘Well, my dear boy——’ he hesitated, fearing a fresh outburst of wrath, and yet willing to grant a reasonable and civil request, ‘do you want me to tell you what I really think? I fear, there will be no blessing on your marriage.’
‘No blessing? Do you think in your heart as my parents did?’
‘Yes and no. I have no objection to your being blood-relations, as our Church does not forbid such marriages. But I do dread your both being of the same temperament. Vendulka won’t give in once she takes a thing into her head; she would sooner see the world in ashes. She has an iron will in everything, not only in love. And you, my dear boy, so far as I know, you are not an angel of patience either when you have set your heart on a thing. I fear that when your two hard heads knock against each other, you will see stars and not know where in the world you are; and then things will go badly, very badly indeed.—Now you know everything, you have got it all out of me to the last word; now leave me alone or else your wooing will put me under the earth. See how the sweat is running from my forehead. I want to have peace from you; your love affair has cost me trouble enough. For the short space of time that is left me, I want to have peace to prepare myself worthily for the grave time of reckoning and my meeting God. So I am telling you beforehand, don’t come to me with your complaints. I don’t want to have my life embittered any more by your affairs. If you should not get on together—I don’t want to know anything about it, any more than you want to listen to me now. Don’t come to me with your quarrels; my door will be closed against you. Now you know!’
Old Paloucky had spoken the latter part of his admonition with so much emphasis, that the bystanders realized he meant it very seriously. It rarely happened that his great conscientiousness would allow him to commit himself to a definite statement. As a rule he gave the impression that on further reflection he might come to still better conclusions. But when he spoke like this, every neighbour knew only too well that nothing on earth would move him to a change of opinion.
He was mistaken in his fear of a fresh outburst of fury on the part of the bridegroom. Lukas only laughed heartily, and the others joined in his merriment. Every one thought that this was the Moper’s usual way of hitting the nail on the head.
‘If you like, uncle, I will give you a written statement that you are exempt from knowing either me or your daughter if we should fall out ever so little,’ he proposed to his future father-in-law in the highest of spirits.
Nothing could have seemed more ridiculous to him than the idea that he could quarrel with Vendulka, with his Vendulka! For her sake he had often raised the youth of the village in the night-time against the old man, to help throw large stones on his roof and disturb his sleep, for he could not forgive him for guarding his beautiful daughter with Argus eyes. How could he quarrel with Vendulka, who had never been absent from his mind for a moment while he was married to another; who had refused every suitor for his sake, although neither he nor she could have known that fate would still bring them together?
Well, old Paloucky did not bear his nickname in vain, it fitted him exactly. Who would have thought that even the present occasion would give him cause for moping?
The groomsman who was shaking with laughter, as well as every one else, went off to fetch the bride.
When Vendulka had seen the bridegroom entering the house, she had hidden herself, as a good old custom demanded of a well-brought-up girl, and had waited in her bedroom till the groomsman should call for her, to tell her the result of the preliminaries, and to lead her to the bridegroom, who would then repeat his suit to her.
Vendulka came into the room with the groomsman. When Lukas saw her who shortly would be his bride he grew quite pale with excitement. ‘Lukas,’ she said, and held out her hand to him, while the tears poured from her eyes. Lukas greedily seized her hand and pressed it to his heart.
‘Lukas, believe me or not; perhaps it would have been better if we had never found each other than at this price. Maybe the poor woman had to die because I never thought of her except with bitterness, and grudging her the place at your side. I can’t get rid of the thought that my feeling like that may have hurt her, although father says it is a stupid idea, and God works His will without minding human wishes. But ever since I have learnt for whom the death knell was tolling, my tears have not ceased to flow.’
Lukas tried to comfort the weeping girl, but he himself had tears in his eyes.
Not indeed for his dead wife; but he thought how long it was since he had held Vendulka’s hand, and that he had had to pine through his best years without her, tied to a wife he did not love. Whoever saw these two young people standing together, holding each other’s hands and looking at each other with moist eyes, must have borne the old Moper a grudge for his eternal whims and premonitions. Were they not made for each other? Both were of tall stature, well grown, with the eyes of swift does, and beautiful jet-black hair curling at the nape of the neck. They were absolutely bound to fall in love with each other, whether they would or no; that was clear to everyone present. And equally clearly they were bound to come together, in despite of all the powers of darkness, were they sworn against them. One might say their destiny was written on their foreheads, and that they belonged together.
‘If you are so sorry for his dead wife, you will be all the kinder to her child,’ the brother-in-law led off the conversation again, when he saw that Lukas was speechless with emotion. ‘As you probably know, my wife has looked after his household so far. She has been very pleased to do it for him, but she can’t go on. We have a large household ourselves and children like organ-pipes. If my wife has to go on running away at any moment, we shall come to grief ourselves. I should have said nothing if you could have been married in a week’s time; but as it is, because you are relations, you must wait for the Bishop’s dispensation from Leitmeritz. That will be a long business, maybe it will take two months. I therefore ask you in the name of all Lukas’s relations, to take over the care of his household at once for love of him, so that he need not take a stranger into his house who would probably go off with what she could lay hands on, and perhaps neglect the child as well.’
During the groomsman’s speech Vendulka had gradually calmed down.
‘Why do you make so many words about it?’ she replied. ‘What sort of woman should I be if I left the care of my lover’s household and his motherless child to a stranger? What would Lukas, what would you all think of me,’ she continued in a reproachful tone, ‘if I made difficulties about helping him in his need? I don’t know what I myself should think of a girl who refused a similar request! I think I should advise her lover not to marry her, as she could not possibly have a spark of real devotion for him, and would be altogether without feeling. Of course I will take over Lukas’s household, and will do so at once, so that your wife can stay at home with her work and her children.’
All the bystanders heartily approved Vendulka’s warm words. It never occurred to any one to think the groomsman’s request peculiar, or to take offence at the bride’s willing acceptance. On the contrary, they would have been offended had she answered differently, and severely blamed her for letting a strange person take over the care of her lover’s household and child. The usual custom in our mountains is for the bride not to go to her husband’s house till a few weeks after the wedding, but only when it is convenient; it is just as usual, when circumstances demand it, for her to go to her new home as soon as the banns are published. She does so when her mother-in-law is very old or bed-ridden, and wishes to be relieved of the household cares; or when the daughter who had done the work marries; or when illness, demanding immediate and urgent care, has broken out in the family. In short, as soon as the bridegroom has got his father-in-law’s consent, the bride considers herself as belonging more to his family than her own, and feels it her duty to help him under all circumstances, as befits a true and faithful companion. The bridegroom, on his part, is also ready to help her family as though he were a son.
Everybody had predicted that Vendulka would go to Lukas’s house immediately after the betrothal, to put his bereaved and neglected household in order. His first wife had been known to be a bad housekeeper; then she had died so suddenly and everything had been at sixes and sevens. Every one was now looking forward to Vendulka’s management of his affairs, and, taking all things into consideration, thought the brother-in-law’s request a natural and inevitable part of the suit.
The most indifferent person among the onlookers was the bride’s father, who took no notice of such trifling things. Let his daughter and her lover do about them as they pleased. He now looked upon her as belonging to Lukas’s family more than her own, and he was thankful that she would soon be leaving his house altogether. He was hoping confidently for the return of those quiet days in which he would be able to prepare himself at leisure for his journey from the valley of tears to a better land. Hitherto he had been disturbed and hindered in this important duty by the constant contemplation of his daughter’s misfortune; her frequent and passionate outbursts of despair had embittered his mind. In addition to this he had had to deal with frequent offers of marriage from her numerous suitors, who urged him, as her father, to support their cause.
It was not without good reason that Paloucky had reproached Lukas with having caused him endless trouble and difficulties. To pass the time agreeably to himself and others during the preliminaries, he took much snuff and frequently made the snuffbox circulate. When Vendulka and Lukas at last had come to an agreement, and sealed it with the customary handshake, he sent for beer from the inn and for new bread and goat’s cheese from the larder, so that it should not be said his guests had had to leave his house with a dry mouth after Vendulka’s betrothal. They did not wait to be pressed to eat, but fell to, and drank each other’s health in many glasses.
Lukas was the only one who cared neither for food nor drink. His eyes were continually seeking his sweetheart, who had disappeared from the moment when he had taken the head of the table at his father-in-law’s request. From that time forth she had not been seen again. He did not want to ask after her for fear of being laughed at. But he missed her sadly, and did not enjoy the feast. As soon as his brother-in-law with the advent of twilight began to get ready to leave, he jumped up from his seat and, without minding the others, went with great strides into the hall to look for his sweetheart.
He ran up against a maid-servant, and asked after her. She opened her eyes wide in astonishment. Thinking that she might be deaf, he repeated his question. At last he got an answer.
‘She’s been off ever so long ago.’
‘Where to?’ asked Lukas who was as astonished at her answer as she had been at his question.
‘Where should she have gone?’ the maid sald, gaping, ‘where in the world but to your house? When I went for the beer, she was packing up her things in her bedroom, and when I came back I saw her close to your house.’
Who would doubt but that Lukas did not want to be outdone by Vendulka in proof of steadfast devotion? Shouting as he bounded along the road, he ran home, and entered the room quite out of breath. He found his sweetheart by the cradle of his motherless infant. Again she was weeping bitterly, as before, when his brother-in-law had led her to her bridegroom and the lovers had looked into each others’ eyes again for the first time.
Lukas dared not break in upon her mood with outbursts of his boundless happiness. Content to know she was with him, he stood by the window and waited for her to calm down. The sun was just setting behind the woods; everything was bathed in gold. The western sky, flushed with crimson, was glowing like a sea of fire.
To Lukas all this seemed indescribably beautiful and magnificent, and in his happiness he fancied he was on the eve of a great festival which would last for all the rest of his life. How many times he had stood at this window and looked at the evergreen woods, and thought of Vendulka’s faithful love which was as lasting and true as the green of yonder pines.
On countless days the sun had set in such glory as this, but to him it had seemed veiled in gloom, like everything else in the world. Nothing could please him; life had held no joy while he constantly had before him her whom he disliked, and had to keep out of the way of the one for whom his heart was pining. How often he had stood at this window and silently accused his parents of having brought this hard fate upon him; how often blamed himself for having given way to their urgency, when he knew that he would only bring unhappiness upon himself with his marriage.
Gradually Vendulka seemed to regain her composure, and slowly tore herself away from the sleeping infant. Lukas also turned away from the window and looked round. He then noticed the exemplary order and cleanliness of the room. Vendulka had tidied everything, and washed the table after she had given the servants their supper. The young housekeeper had no sooner set foot in her future husband’s house than his household had become her first concern. Again Lukas experienced a feeling of great happiness when he saw that he and Vendulka were at one also in this respect. It had always been his special wish that the servants should receive their due punctually and in proper course. How often had not his first wife’s carelessness about this annoyed him! He could see in every detail that henceforth a different spirit, a new life would enter into his house. And the old Moper would have him believe that their temperaments were not suited to each other! Just because they were at one in so many respects, they would understand each other all the better.
Lukas expected Vendulka to come to him; he hesitated to go to her, fearing he might upset her as she had been so excited. But Vendulka was making a close inspection of the spinning wheels and spindles near the stove, to see whether the maids were keeping them in proper order. So he approached her after a time and, sitting down on the stool near the stove, he looked at his handsome bride with all the intense love which his heart held for her. Again, as in the afternoon during the settlement he was speechless with emotion. She too was silent, and busied herself with the spinning wheels.
At last Lukas began with a voice choked with emotion: ‘It is good of you to be so fond of me.’
She looked at him with astonishment, and if her heart had not been so sore at the thought of the dead woman and her innocent babe, she would have laughed aloud at his remark.
‘Is that a new thing, that you praise me for it?’
‘Well, it’s not new; I only meant to say that we should never have found each other but for your faithfulness.’
‘Yes, to be sure,’ she assented, ‘for us two things have come right. But your dead wife has had to suffer for it. It is a sad thing that one man’s joy is another man’s sorrow. But I will make up to her child what she has done for me in giving up her place at your side to me. Just now, before you came into the room, I promised her that I would sooner lose my hand than touch a hair on her little girl’s head or let it be touched. She will see if I keep my vow faithfully when she comes to visit her. Not once shall she have to change her linen, not once to make her bed. She will always look as if she had grown out of the water, poor little mite! I shall expect her every night. I shall put ashes on the floor round the cradle and look for her footprints; they say, spirits do leave footprints; ever so light and feeble, hardly to be seen. You have heard that, haven’t you?’
Lukas nodded, but he hardly knew to what he was assenting or what she was talking about, although his eyes were fixed on her lips. But he was not looking at them so as to catch the sense of the words she was speaking. His eyes sought them because they were so charmingly red and cherry-ripe. Of course, Vendulka was now ten times more beautiful than she had been when he had roused the whole village for love of her, and exasperated the old man, for his daughter dared not come out to meet her lover. He would have fetched her in with a hazel switch if he had suspected her of loitering outside the house. When she bade him good-night, he had always laid it down by his bedside with a significant look at her, as she turned to go towards her bedroom.
No, it was impossible! Lukas could no longer only look at these lips; he must feel how warm and sweet they were.
And before Vendulka knew what he was doing, he had jumped up, caught her in his arms and pressed his mouth upon her red lips so hard that he nearly drew blood.
In angry surprise Vendulka tore herself from him and pushed him away with all her strength. Lukas was not prepared for this; caught unawares, he reeled back into the room.—Every one knows how powerful our mountain-girls are. They easily lift their partners into the air at the ‘longest night’ dance during the contest after supper.
‘Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?’ she rounded upon him, and flushed scarlet, as though the evening sky had been reflected in her face.
‘Gracious, what a to-do about a kiss! As though to-day had been the first time I had taken one from you,’ Lukas tried to conciliate her, while he did not seem disinclined to repeat the offence.
‘I don’t say it is the first time, but previously you were free. It was no one’s concern if I didn’t mind. But now you still belong to your dead wife.’
But Lukas would not hear of such a thing, and strongly resented the inference. ‘Oh no, I have been mourning my wife as I should, from her funeral to the last mass for her soul this day. I haven’t spoken of you once all that time, nor looked at you till after I had told old Martinka to let you know what I was going to do. At mid-day I publicly drowned my sorrow at the inn with my friends, and all that is now over and done with. Ask whom you will, they will all tell you that I am as good as a bachelor.’
‘I don’t ask other people what I ought to do or not to do, and no one need tell me, because I always know my own mind. And I tell you that I am not going to be made love to under your roof where the feet of your dead wife have barely grown cold. I don’t care if the whole world should prove to me that I am in the wrong. There’s time enough for that sort of thing after the wedding when we two really belong to each other, and she will have no right to mind.’
‘It’s true that you are ten times prettier now than three years ago when I used to rouse the whole village for your sake, but you were ten times nicer then. Just think how you used to shout with joy when I crept along the willows by the brook and into your garden at twilight, and you waited for me under the aspen. You flew into my arms with delight then. Why this coyness all of a sudden?’
Although Vendulka gave him an arch smile when he reminded her of those evenings under the aspen, she turned a deaf ear to his reproaches, and would not grant a second kiss on any account whatever. Her anger became violent when he put his arm round her neck unawares. How could she have the heart to frown so severely, and to threaten him that he would be sorry for what she would do to him if he did not leave her in peace. But when he would not be put off, and kept on teasing her, she seized him, and before he knew what she was doing, she had put him out into the passage, bolted the door on him, and barricaded it with the table, to prevent his return to the room.
For a long while Lukas stood outside in the dark as though he had fallen from the clouds. This was not as he had pictured the evening to himself when he had sped home after Vendulka on wings of love. But he mastered the feelings that were rising in his heart, and tried to smile at what had just happened as at a jest that had missed fire. Who should have a right to jest if not a bride with her future husband? It is her prerogative to tease and annoy him a little.
So Lukas walked away from the door of his room without trying to enforce an entry. With the happiest of faces he mixed with the servants, pretending that he had come out of his own accord so as not to be in her way. He listened smilingly to their praises of the new housekeeper, and to their congratulations of him and themselves on such an excellent mistress. And when it was time to go to sleep, he crept into the hayloft with the men, where he had been in the habit of spending the night since the death of his wife. ***** He turned restlessly on his couch, wondering why Vendulka had been so prudish with him and, although her eyes had betrayed passionate love, had been cold and reserved in word and deed. What was in her mind? Was she afraid that now that she was his, he would hold her less dear, as men sometimes do? That therefore it was prudent to be more reserved and to put him off? How could she so misjudge him? It was just because of her sincerity and undisguised surrender that he valued her so highly, and he had been happy to know that there was nothing but truth behind every one of her glances and words. At last he resolved not to trouble his head about it, and not to try to know the reason for this sudden change in her. Perhaps she hardly knew herself. Women sometimes took an obstinate notion into their heads, and when you asked them the reason for it, they could not tell.
It was of no consequence. What did a kiss matter? If not to-day, she would give it him another day. The chief thing was that he had her with him on his farm, by his fireside, with his child, and no one had a right to interfere or take her from him.
‘She will change her mind to-morrow, she won’t be able to keep it up longer,’ Lukas repeated to himself, and to comfort himself he recalled those lovely evenings under the aspen tree.
Firmly convinced that those hours of bliss would return, he at last put worrying thoughts from him, and shut his eyes for sleep when the cocks crew for the third time behind the shed, reminding the maid-servants that the sun had risen from his bed of roses and the new day demanded its share of work.
But Lukas made a mistake when he confidently expected Vendulka to change with the next day. She was exactly the same on the second day, and the third did not differ from the second. She stood firm on her ground that no caresses and kisses must pass between them before their marriage, that to do so would mean troubling the rest of the poor woman in her grave, who had to quit this world so that they might be happy. How else could they conciliate her? What could they do for love of her otherwise than show by their restraint that they valued her memory and held her in high esteem?
Lukas could get nothing out of Vendulka by love. Her sophistries and reasoning displeased him, and she would listen to nothing that he said against her point of view. He could not find it in his heart to treat her roughly. So he resorted to entreaties. He no longer demanded the kiss as a proof of her love, but of her compliance.
‘You are not a little child, Lukas,’ she said reprovingly, ‘a man ought to have more insight, not less than a woman; why are you so slow of understanding in this? It almost annoys me that you should be.’
Lukas had failed again in spite of all he had said, reasoned and urged. At last the thought occurred to him that his sweetheart was perhaps purposely tormenting him, because it gave her pleasure to think that he was head over ears in love with her.
Perhaps she was enjoying the sight of his passionate unrest? How could she have failed to notice that he thought her ten times more attractive now than three years ago, and that the sudden sight of her, or the sound of her voice when he heard it unexpectedly, made him start? With her quick perception she would no doubt be well aware of this; but was it kind of her to torment him out of mere wanton pleasure? Perhaps to laugh in her heart about his love, and think: ‘I can do with you as I like, you won’t escape me!’ Some people only value what is unattainable. When it is within their reach it has no further attraction for them. Perhaps she was one of these?
Gradually Vendulka’s attitude roused him to resentment, and after a week he frankly told her that she did not seem to him as kind-hearted as he had thought three years ago.
But Vendulka pretended that she had not understood him, or that his words had gone in by one ear and out by the other; she never gave him a definite answer. She was otherwise kind to him, looked so happy and ran about with an expression of so much delight in all her duties, that no one could fall to see she was in the seventh heaven. Whoever looked into her beaming face, felt the happier for it. Lukas also was glad of it; he too seemed to be in heaven when she smiled her happy smile at him, and looked at him with her lovely expression. But as soon as he sat down beside her to talk of love’s sweet delights, she would remember some work that needed doing, and before he could prevent her, she had torn herself away and was gone.
During the short time since Vendulka had taken charge of his household, everything had taken on a different look. Every part, to the remotest corners, was spotlessly clean and tidy; it was a pleasure to look at it. From early morning till late at night Vendulka was cheerfully doing her work, trying to make up with her industry for the carelessness of the woman who had died. She really had not much time for talking. But what did Lukas, being deeply in love, care for all her work, her clever management of the household and the change she had worked? He wanted his kiss; the rest she might as well have left undone.
Who will blame him when he lost patience with her in the end, as he could do nothing with her either by love or by threats? He at last became really bitter against her and unable to master himself any longer; he angrily stamped his foot one day.
‘Listen, Vendulka, let’s make an end one way or another, I am sick of this to-do,’ he cried, hoisting the storm-signals. ‘If you do not immediately embrace me as you used to do under the aspen tree, you will see me do something that you won’t like. I shall go to the inn this minute, and not come back till the sun rises on yonder mountain.’
The blood mounted to her cheeks; it was easy to see that his threat frightened her, but she would never have dreamt of giving in.
‘If you haven’t learnt sense at your time of life, go and welcome!’ she answered abruptly, and ran off.
That was more than Lukas had bargained for. He had thought that, if for no other reason, she would have given in for the sake of appearances. Now that he found he was disappointed, he had to make good his boastful threat. So he took his cap and went to the inn which had never had any attraction for him, and now less than ever. While his wife was alive he had only occasionally gone there when he felt too miserable in her company, and his longing for Vendulka had been overstrong. He left his house with gall in his blood. Now he would take his revenge of his prudish and heartless sweetheart! When he returned from the inn at a late hour, he purposely upset all the pails and milkcans in the hall, so that she should hear the noise and think that he had come home drunk—because of her.
How could Vendulka have failed to know that all this nonsense was happening on her account? She had meant to be really angry with him, but when he chose to make a noise as if Beelzebub himself had taken possession of the place, she nearly died of laughing. He meant to punish her, and was only punishing himself! She knew quite well that he did not care for drink, and equally well that, unless a man is inclined that way, he does not become a drunkard in one night.
When she saw her lover again in the morning she did not mention what had happened the night before. She spent as little time as possible with him, and hurried off to her work. She was afraid of laughing in his face, if their conversation were to last long. The trick he had played upon her would not have surprised her if he had been a boy of sixteen. But she had not expected it of him, such a discreet man and greatly esteemed, and a widower into the bargain! Fancy upsetting pails and milkcans on account of a kiss! Her manner irritated Lukas more and more.
‘If she is going to play the obstinate, she shall feel that I am a stiff-necked one too,’ he decided, and, without saying a word about it at night, or saying good-bye to her, he ran off to the inn directly after his supper, as if it had been a settled thing between them that he would go there if and when he liked. But on the next morning also Vendulka remained as dumb as a fish on the matter. No—things couldn’t go on like this! She must have exemplary punishment for her obduracy.
‘Every one was singing your praises last night,’ Lukas began smilingly; ‘because I now sit at the inn till break of day when I never used to formerly.’
‘They must be wise people who blame one person for another’s follies.’
‘They know quite well that I should not seek their company if you behaved as you should.’
Vendulka felt this was beyond a joke.
‘What am I neglecting in my duties that you talk to me like this, and try to make people gossip about me?’
‘The first duty in every household—the master.’
Vendulka became pensive. How was it possible that Lukas should misunderstand her intentions which must be as clear as day-light to every one? Only a person evilly disposed towards her could put her in the wrong about it. Or had her father been right after all with his doubts and his warning?
‘I know you are sensible and kind-hearted,’ she said at last, ‘why do you now dissemble, and pretend you are neither? I have told you more than once that it was not for the sake of love-making that I came to your house: there will be time enough for that. I have come because there ought to be a mistress on the farm, and your child needs a mother. My idea was that your brother-in-law had asked me to come for no other purpose than that. If I had dreamt that you had had other intentions, I would never have set foot in your house.’
‘There you are! You admit that everything in the house matters more to you than my happiness. And do you imagine that does not give me pain? Is that the way to thank me for being so faithful to you all these years? For your sake I never once looked kindly at my wife and was always grieving to see her in your place. But I must say one thing for her, whatever else I had against her: she would sooner have bitten off her tongue than denied me anything; my will was hers. I should not blame you if I had asked anything impossible from you. But now I am asking for nothing but a single kiss, to let me see you care for my wishes. And it is not the kiss either that you mind; you are only denying it to show you don’t care for me. Do you think that does not annoy me? If I asked any girl of my acquaintance, she would give me a kiss for friendship’s sake, willingly and without prudishness.’
‘But I am not “any girl.”’
‘You’re right there. Any other would have given heart for heart, it’s only you who gives pride for love.’
‘If you think love means no more than two people kissing each other, you do not know what love means, and never have known it. I don’t care for such love.’
‘And I don’t care for love without kindness and gentleness.’ Saying these words sadly and impressively, Lukas went out of the room, thinking more than ever of the Moper’s words. What he had said was unfortunately only too true; he was a wise and experienced man; only a fool could have disregarded his warning.
This time Vendulka was sorry to see Lukas turn away from her. So far he had only been annoyed and angry, but now he seemed seriously offended, perhaps he really doubted her affection, as he could see nothing but obstinacy in her attitude. That he could take this view had grieved her unspeakably; she minded it more than the comparison in her disfavour with his first wife. She was startled, and not without reason, to think how far things had already gone between them, that such words could have been spoken. These melancholy reflections brought the tears to her eyes. She thought long and seriously about Lukas and about herself.
‘After all, would it matter,’ she pondered, leaning her perplexed head on the hood of the cradle, ‘if I gave him his heart’s desire, tomorrow morning before he goes to work?’ She pulled herself up with: ‘Enough of this,’ but continued to reason in the same strain. ‘It might not offend the dead woman, and yet show him that I can do something for him even if it goes against the grain. But no—no, I will not do it! I am not standing out for appearances but for my deepest convictions and in an honourable cause. What would have happened if his wife had never yielded her place to me, and everything had remained as it was? We should have had to make the best of it. No, I will stick to what I have decided upon; I know I am doing right.’
Her father had had good reason for saying that his daughter had an inflexible will, and would not yield even if her world should be consumed in fire and flame. Of that which she thought right Vendulka would not yield a hair’s breadth.
When from that day Lukas never lost his sad expression; when he never sat down at her side, and spoke no more than was necessary; when he went out every evening, staying away till daybreak, it dawned on her that with all her good intentions she had taken the wrong turning. She realized that it was wicked to drive him further on his downward path, that she must save him from ruining himself. He might in the end make a habit of things to which he had at first only turned from vexation and ill temper.
‘Don’t forget that you have a child, Lukas,’ she at last warned him, when she saw him take another florin from the drawer, after he had put one in his pocket the night before only.
‘You do as you like, and so do I.’
‘We should always listen to well-meant advice.’
‘I never once listened to advice my wife gave me who was fond of me, and would not think of following yours, who are not.’
‘What in the name of Heaven do you mean? I—you say—I not fond of you? Who was it told me in this very place three weeks ago how unspeakably happy he was in being certain of my affection?’
‘I did not know you then as I know you now. I should have expected death rather than your driving me from home and enjoying what you are doing.’
Vendulka found no words to reply to these unjust reproaches. She felt she would lower herself in arguing with him. She suppressed the bitter feelings that were rising in her heart, and turned away in silence, but he only saw another proof of her pride in this. He decided to revenge himself by another visit to the inn, and stayed away even longer than usual.
Vendulka spent the night in great excitement, and prayed to God to illumine the Bishop, so that he should make haste and send them the dispensation. These continual bickerings and quarrels filled her with great apprehension for the future. How differently she had pictured to herself the life at his side! How they had longed for each other; how many tears they had shed for each other, looked forward to the moment of reunion—and now? Now everything went wrong, and for absolutely no reason. But this was just why Vendulka would not give in, nor Lukas either, who became more embittered and unmanageable every day.
Sometimes they both felt their heads reel at the thought of what was to be the end of it! Nevertheless, neither of them gave way. He demanded that she should recognize his right to her personally for the sake of his love, while she expected him to appreciate her straight and honest character and her steadfastness. Meanwhile the breach between them gaped larger and larger before their eyes, and they began at last to look at and speak to each other as enemies. Alas! Why were their temperaments so similar? Even the Moper had probably not guessed how soon their happiness would change.
At last Vendulka’s long repressed sorrow found vent in tears. In the same room and on the same seat near the stove, where the disastrous quarrel had begun, she broke down and wept bitterly. Her tears flowed unchecked, and she took counsel with herself what she should do when Lukas returned home from his work in the evening.
When he came in, she had not yet made up her mind. It startled him to see her weeping so bitterly in his house, and the last occasion on which he had seen her cry like this occurred to him. It had been on the last evening which they had spent under the aspen tree together; when they had both thought that they were taking leave of each other for ever. He too took counsel with himself, whether it would not be better to give in, and not demand the kiss until after their wedding. A man should have more sense than a woman. Why embitter each other’s lives? They were really fond of each other, had thought to die because they had not been allowed to marry, and now, shortly before their wedding, here they were, tormenting each other for no reason whatever.
‘Why are you crying?’ Lukas asked his sweetheart in a gentle tone, such as she had not heard from him for a long time.
‘I hear you have now taken to gambling at the inn as well?’
‘I have learnt many things lately that I knew nothing of before.’
‘But above all you have learnt to do things to annoy me.’
‘What about you?’
‘I am behaving in your house as a decent girl should. I think I deserve praise rather than blame for that.’
‘You think I ought to praise you into the bargain, because you jeer at me for dancing to your piping? Tell any one how you are treating me, they wouldn’t believe you. Show me a bridegroom who has had to put up with so much annoyance from his bride shortly before the banns are published. But mind! I’ll let you know that I am not a silly boy in his teens who can be led by the nose. I won’t be treated like this! I shall do to you after the wedding as you have done to me now when you have hardened your heart against me. I have quite made up my mind on that point. Wait and you will see me do it.’
It was foolish of Vendulka to turn pale at these words. She might well have known that he was only a man in a temper, and it would have been better if she had simply said: ‘Don’t talk nonsense!’ Possibly all would have been well. A woman who cannot lead a man with gentleness when he is storming and shouting with anger, will never manage him at all.
But these heartless words had barely escaped Lukas, when Vendulka behaved as if she had lost her senses.
‘It is not written in any book that we two must be married,’ she cried in a voice trembling with anger. ‘If that is how you feel about it, and you are preparing nothing but shame for me, I should do best to leave your house before I kill myself with misery.’
Now it was Lukas’s turn to become as pale as a corpse.
‘You’re not making many words about that,’ he shouted, ‘but try it, and see what a welcome you will have from your father! And don’t imagine that you will have suitors by the dozen. They all will see that you are not what you pretended to be, else you would not leave your bridegroom when you had come to his house to take care of him.’
‘You know better than any one else whether I have ever minded what men thought of me. I don’t care for any of them, and I don’t care for you either. I’ve had to do without you once, and I shall do so again.’
Lukas ran out into the open like a wounded boar; he felt as though poisoned arrows had pierced his heart. What could he do to her to make her feel the same burning resentment that her barbed words had caused him to feel?
Vendulka had done wrong in answering him so uncompromisingly; but he did no better when he revenged himself on her by taking home a brass band from the inn and making them play one piece after another under her windows. The band, however, was the least offence. Why should they not have played to him if it amused him, and he made it well worth their while? But he brought with him three girls who did not enjoy the best reputation, else they would not have gone with him, when they knew that he was betrothed to another. He then proceeded to dance with the girls so furiously that the house shook.
Crowds of spectators arrived on the scene to enjoy this exhibition. They all laughed at the bridegroom’s mad behaviour, and made conjectures as to the causes of this disgusting spectacle. Vendulka could hear every word through the open windows. She dared not shut them for fear of drawing the people’s attention upon her. What she heard made her feel sick. No! she would do wrong to put up with this scandal; it had evidently been Lukas’s intention to hold her up to public ridicule for having pined after him for years.
When he had at last taken himself off with his crew, when the screams and laughter died down in the distance, and darkness fell, Vendulka hastily gathered up her belongings into a bundle and took leave of the sleeping child. She bent over the cradle to which she had come on that first night with many good intentions in her warm heart, and burst into a flood of tears: ‘I must leave you, because I held your mother’s memory in high honour,’ she whispered, kissing her, ‘tell her that, when she comes to see you. I wanted to make up to her for the happiness she gave up when she made room for me. Happiness indeed! I am now running away from him to whom I was so eager to come. I hope that whoever will come in my place to take care of you will be as good to you as I have been. But poor, poor thing, if it is one of those he is now caressing!’
Then Vendulka roused one of the best and most faithful maid-servants from her sleep, gave her all the keys of the house and made her responsible for the child, about whom she gave her the most minute instructions.
‘Where are you going so late in the night, and why do you talk as if you were leaving us?’ the maid asked in astonishment and alarm.
‘I am going away for ever,’ Vendulka answered sadly. ‘I am going to the town to look for a place.’
Before the maid, who was speechless with fright, could regain her composure, Vendulka was gone. She had run off hastily, so the weeping girl had not even heard her footfalls, and could not tell in which direction she had gone. ***** Old Martinka got up from her bed and lighted a candle. She started; it was nearly eleven o’clock. She ought to have been on her way through the forest by this time. But her rheumatism had kept her awake, and so she had ended by oversleeping herself. She would willingly have given a silver three-penny if she could have lain a little longer and slept to her heart’s content, but there was no help for it; she was expected, and must needs creep out of her feather-bed. What would old Matouš say if she did not come to fetch the contraband?
He had hinted at silks which would have to be hidden in the bushes and under trees, as it was impossible to convey them to their destination at once, and he could not do this without her help. The customs officers and the police of the whole neighbourhood knew him for a bad penny, and had their eyes. on him. Even with his cleverest moves he would not have succeeded in getting through.—Ah! things did not come as easily to her as they used to. Her old legs were longing for rest and comfort. Martinka was right to think of the lean years, and she had made her little pile. She had no need now to be afraid of old age and illness. If she had found a dependable assistant whom she could have trusted, she would have sent her in an emergency like this; she might even have thought of retiring altogether. She herself had never cared about a life of comfort. But where were such people to be found nowadays? Did any of the young women want to work really hard? Weren’t they all afraid of danger, as if they were made of glass, and of the rain, as if they were made of sugar Wherever she went she secretly made inquiries for a strong, discreet girl or a widow, who would not be afraid of serving the good cause by day or night, storm or frost, wind or snow. But she had been unsuccessful so far. Vendulka only recently had refused the offer with a shrug of her shoulders, when Martinka had told her of the hope she had cherished with regard to her services. Vendulka had said it was a precarious thing to join the smugglers; not only good health was needed but a particular kind of recklessness which hardly one girl in a hundred would possess. Since that day Martinka had almost given up hope of realising her wish. When Vendulka had made a decision, it was once and for all.
Martinka was the sister of Vendulka’s mother, after whose death the child had come to her for comfort, and remained with her for several years. Vendulka did not care to live at home, partly from grief for her mother, partly because she did not like living with her father, who forbade all loud and cheerful noises in his presence. She therefore was almost one of the family, and Martinka talked over her affairs with her as with her own daughters; these would even reproach their mother with caring more for her than for them.
Lukas knew well how dear old Martinka held her little Vendulka, and that their affection was mutual. He therefore had chosen her to announce him as her suitor, knowing that his offer would be all the more graciously received if it came through her.
Vendulka was right in saying that hardly one in a hundred women had the necessary gifts for the smuggling trade.
Martinka herself had only gradually acquired her skill, and it had taken a long time before she got accustomed to turn day into night, and to creep along lonely passes and byways in the dark, endure the hardships of winter, and be for ever on the look-out. It was always on the cards that one of the frontier-police might be hidden by the wayside and suddenly spring upon her, inspect her basket, and if she did not pay the duty, take her off to the magistrate.
But she had not had much choice at the time. When a man dies and leaves his wife an empty cottage and five hungry children, a woman cannot be too particular. She must take what comes along and be glad of profits, however small. How should she have refused from mere niceness what was very profitable, and certainly not bad or dishonest?
Old Martinka saw nothing wrong in her trade, and all the people in our mountains share her view. Nowadays the trade has lost much of its profit and is a poor one, but thirty or more years ago it was a very different matter; a nice little fortune could be made by it, and it was not only a poor beggar or tramp in the last ditch who took to it, but many of the better class who looked upon it as a means of adding to their income. They considered smuggling a trade like any other, with only this difference that it was forbidden officially. Martinka had been acquainted with the smugglers even before her husband’s death, as he had frequently concealed them in his cottage, which was conveniently situated for their purposes, being at about half an hour’s distance from the village, and quite hidden by bushes. The place was called ‘the firs.’ No one could see who was passing in or out of it, unless he stood close to the fence.
When her husband died the smugglers had asked Martinka to join them, out of gratitude for his many services to them. They expected her to meet them regularly at night in some lonely spot in the forests which cover the frontiers of Saxony and our mountains. She then had to take over part of the contraband and carry it to the next place of appointment, whence it was taken by other trustworthy persons to its ultimate destination, which would sometimes be as far off as Prague. Martinka had gratefully accepted the offer. She had now distinguished herself by her skill for many years; had made a living for herself and her children, helped them to obtain good situations, and saved a nice little sum for herself. What other trade would have done as much for her? The ‘blackies’ employed several women carriers, but none of them worked to their satisfaction as Martinka did. Her ‘Capo,’ old Matouš, who with his five sons did a roaring trade by smuggling, had often been heard to say that he would give up the whole business if ever Martinka gave it up: the other women caused him too much trouble and annoyance. You never could tell what they might be up to. One had lost part of the goods entrusted to her; another had not hidden them skilfully enough and so spoilt them; a third suddenly and without any cause had taken alarm and thrown away her basket. They did more damage than they were worth. How should Matouš not have been annoyed with them? He often lost patience with them, and patience was such a necessary attribute of his trade. After all, when he came to think of it, there was now no great necessity to put up with them. He had made his pile, and what he now did was more from habit and as a pastime. He was a widower, his sons were married. What was there at home to amuse him? He preferred to roam.
Old Martinka was a past-master in dressing her basket. When one of the police met her in the mornings in the woods, it did not occur to him that her basket could contain anything besides the eggs or apples which she had heaped up on the top, or to ask her any questions. She showed them such an honest face, said good-morning so simply, and told her beads by the way with so much devotion, that no one would have taken her for anything but an honest egg- or apple-woman who had got up early, and was now hurrying to the town by short cuts to steal a march on the other market women.
If in spite of her precautions one of the men stood still and looked at her with suspicion, she at once stood still too and offered her produce. Who could have doubted her sincerity? It had even happened that the police had bought pears or cherries from her without finding her out. What wonder that old Matouš appreciated her, and praised her to the skies, saying that such women were not born in these latter days, and that she would be the last to tell of the old glories.
Still grumbling with annoyance at having overslept herself, old Martinka hurriedly wrapped herself in a warm shawl, took her basket and once more overhauled its double bottom and the shoulder straps. Then she wedged in two pieces of wood crossways about a hand’s breadth from the rim, covered them with a board on which she laid several pounds of fresh butter, and spread a cloth over the top.
When she was just on the point of starting, some one came running full tilt towards the door of the cottage. Martinka stopped short; she thought this might mean a police raid. But by the dim light of the rush-candle she recognized—Vendulka Paloucky.
At this hour of the night Martinka would sooner have expected to see a ghost than her niece, and at the first moment she was speechless with astonishment and apprehension. Without bidding her aunt good-even, Vendulka dropped on to a seat near the door, and groaned as if she were in agonies.
‘Thank God a thousand times that you had not yet started,’ she stammered at last.
‘But for the Lord’s sake, what are you here for at this hour of night?’ asked Martinka, when she had regained her composure; ‘your face is on fire, and you have no breath left. I suppose Lukas’s baby is ill, and you want me to get you medicine from Zittau through the smugglers. Be quick and out with it! I’m in a hurry, I ought to have been on my way by now. I don’t know what Matousš will think; he will say I am no better than the other women.’
‘There is no medicine in the whole world for the illness that has driven me from Lukas’s house,’ said Vendulka, and hot tears were gushing from her eyes.
‘What? What is that you are saying?’
‘That my engagement to Lukas is broken off, and we shall never meet again.’
‘Girl, you are out of your senses.’
‘I will soon prove to you that I still have my senses, although enough has happened to make me lose them. Lukas made love to me the same as he used to do when he was free. I wouldn’t let him, out of respect to his dead wife, whose rest in her grave I ought not to disturb. Then he behaved as if he were demented, raved and scolded, and constantly found fault with me, so that I grew hot and cold to think what would be the end of it. And this night he brought a brass band to play under our windows, and three loose girls, and he danced with them in front of the house to make me the butt of shame and ridicule. After that I could do nothing but pack up my things, and here I am. I dare not go home; you know that father told me beforehand, Lukas and I were not suited to each other. His sermons and his reproaches for not having listened to him would be the death of me. I don’t wish to go into service in the town either. I should die with home-sickness among strangers, and with longing for our mountains and our speech. Then in my trouble it occurred to me that you were in need of an assistant. You won’t find one who is more devoted to you than I am, and you will soon teach me the rest. You know that I am not timid or spoilt, and I am not stupid either; I would rather be with you than anywhere else. The neighbours know that you are either asleep or on the roads, so they don’t come to see you. Nobody will know that I am with you, and if you ask the smugglers not to tell, none of them will gossip. Lukas will think I have gone into service, and leave me in peace. I need not fear to be bothered either by him or by father; neither of them will trouble about me, they will be glad to be rid of me.’
She could not go on, her face betrayed her despair.
‘What frights you give people, you young devil!’ Martinka scolded her niece. ‘I really thought something dreadful had happened.’
‘What? Is that nothing? Didn’t I tell you how Lukas has put me to shame before the whole village, and why?’
But Martinka only shook her head, annoyed with Vendulka for having startled her so unnecessarily.
‘What Lukas has done, any other man in his place would have done,’ she said disapprovingly to the sobbing Vendulka. ‘What bridegroom would like his bride to set a person who is dead and gone above him, even if it should be his own wife? I can’t understand why this didn’t occur to you before you ran away. He is not the first man to be made mad by such behaviour as yours. Have you forgotten our Mráček, who went to keep house for her lover in a similar case? He too was a widower and had two children. She was just like you, and would not let him think of frivolous things; she was afraid of the dead woman’s ghost coming to her bedside at night. And what did he do? Slit up all the feather-beds and emptied them into the street—a regular snowfall we had, although it was St. Peter and St. Paul’s. And don’t you remember Kavka? When the bride forbade her bridegroom to pinch her cheeks, so as not to offend his wife in paradise, did he not straightway go to the grocer’s, bought up all the beer and emptied the barrels down the gutter, simply to annoy her? My dear girl, men are men; they want to be the masters at any price. You won’t change them, nor I. When a bride goes to keep house for her lover before the wedding, she lets herself in for much trouble, but in return her husband will love and honour her to the end of their days. You can’t have something for nothing, honour is dearly bought. The only thing about it that annoys me is that your father should have proved to be in the right. Fancy you letting it come to that! Why couldn’t you let Lukas rave and fume? Why retort? It serves you right that you should have had a taste at once of what obstinacy and bad temper lead to. In the future you will be careful not to go too far. But your anger doesn’t impress me at all. It is like thunder in the spring, short and furious; everything is the more beautiful and luscious for it afterwards. You will make no one believe that you can live without Lukas or he without you. You make me laugh. You two will attract each other for ever; as long as you live on this earth you won’t get rid of each other. When Lukas comes to his senses he will be annoyed with himself for the trick he had played on you; and if you will sit here and think about it till to-morrow morning, all sorts of things will occur to you which you ought or ought not to have said. Your wrath will go up in smoke when your blood has cooled. You will be reasonable, and the old love will come back all the more strongly.’
‘Never—never!’ Vendulka cried with all her might. She had hardly been able to contain herself to the end of her aunt’s admonition. ‘I don’t deny that I loved Lukas more than my life, but now—now I hate him like death. Oh God! What a dreadful thing to say! I cannot think how I can bear the pain of saying it. He was not like this formerly; his dead wife has spoilt him. Yes, it is her fault, she has spoilt him for me. He says himself that he could do as he liked to her. She didn’t mind what he did. That is bad for a man. A girl like me needn’t put up with everything. She was careless, and didn’t do a thing well, but I am a first-rate worker in the house and on the farm. Every farthing I take for milk and butter is booked, and I can read every book in the old spelling or in the new. And I demand nothing but what is right and fair! You think I shall change my mind by sitting here and thinking things over till to-morrow morning? You mean to say you are going off and leaving me here alone? For Heaven’s sake, don’t do such a thing, I should get desperate by myself. Think of my misfortune! The man for whose sake I have scorned all the others, who was the first in my heart after God Almighty Himself, has held me up to ridicule before all the world, and threatened to make me miserable after we were married. My hair stands on end when I think of it. Aunt, you must take me with you to make me forget my sorrow; if you leave me here, I shall die.’
Aunt Martinka had not the heart to refuse this pathetic appeal.
‘Well, it doesn’t matter for once, and you won’t want to come a second time—gently, gently, don’t be up in arms again, I suppose I may still say what I think? I will bet you anything that we shall not even finish a loaf of bread together in this house. Come in God’s name! Take that basket and strap it on your back. I shall take it easy by your side, to make up for the fright you gave me. But you mustn’t walk upright like that; bend down low, so that every one can see you are carrying a heavy load. You know yourself what a basket of that size weighs when it is full of butter. You mustn’t look as if it were full of feathers. If you want to go in for smuggling, you must pay attention to these things; sometimes the smallest detail will become a pitfall. That’s right! Now let us be off under God’s protection, and mind you start with the right foot forward, so that we may both come back safe and sound. You needn’t be afraid of my smugglers, they do not look like dandies, but they are very respectable people, especially old Matouš. Do you know him? He never misses going to Church on Sundays and Saints’ days, and always stands close to the pulpit, to hear God’s word first-hand. Church and sermons, that’s what he likes, he is very devout. He never smuggles during Lent, and he doesn’t smoke, so as to make Providence look in favour upon him. In short, he is a very good man, just like my poor husband; they might have been brothers, those two. He is still as smart at the trade as his youngest son, no one can beat him at it. He is the leader of the party, and has ten or twenty followers. They walk one after the other at a distance of a hundred steps; they glide like shadows. Formerly there would be as many as fifty, but like everything else, the trade is going down. He climbs the rocks like a chamois and has the hearing of a partridge; he smells the police half a mile off. As soon as he notices the slightest thing wrong by the way, he makes a sign to the others and leads them on byways and paths where spies daren’t go. I am now meeting them in the woods of Kriesdorf, near the “bonny well.” Matouš himself usually meets me there with his bundle; he doesn’t get on with the other women.’
They had stolen out of the house during this conversation and taken to the woods. Then they walked along in silence.
Vendulka felt the cold, deep, damp darkness of the woods enfolding her, and heard the eerie rustling, sighing and groaning overhead, without knowing whence these strange, mysterious sounds came. Were they really produced by firs and larches, or was there something else sorrowing between heaven and earth? Cold shudders were running down her spine. Sometimes she felt as though she were walking at the bottom of a deep lake, and the waters were moaning over her head. She thought of a fairy tale which a tenant in her father’s house used to tell her on the seat by the stove, on winter nights:
‘There was once a town which was suddenly engulfed, and a lake appeared in its place—and all this happened because the town had harboured a traitor. It is said that to this day bells can be heard on the shore of that lake, which the inhabitants down below are ringing for help.’
Did this tale occur to her now, because she herself was on the brink of ruin, and because she was harbouring in her heart love for a man who had been a traitor to her? Was that why her heart was beating so sadly, like the bells of the engulfed town? Fear and a horror hitherto unknown took possession of her; she had never been in the forests at midnight. Accustomed to houses surrounded by fields and gardens, she was not used to its mystery.
‘And yet I would a thousand times rather be in the forest alone at midnight, a thousand times rather serve the smugglers as a common carrier, than lower myself to be the footstool of an unjust man who persecutes and scorns a woman because she is steadfast,’ she repeated to herself over and over again, and then her fear and horror would yield to bitter resentment. Yet it was impossible now that she was alone in the world, and sadly wandering through the darkness, not to remember the joyful, happy day when she had flown on wings of love from her father’s house to that of her bridegroom to become an unspeakably happy, honoured, loved and loving bride. On that day the western sky had been glowing like a sea of fire; her eyes had seen the heavens open, and her heart had been full of the presentiment of a great happiness. But none of these dreams of bliss and love had come true; all the hopes of her young life had been blighted. How should her heart not break with the pity of it all?
‘I shall get over it, indeed I shall,’ she told herself, but a voice deep down told her she never would, and that she never could detach her heart from the man to whom it had been so wholly given.
‘I shan’t tear my hair about it! Perhaps he is now laughing at me with one of my rivals. I won’t think of him—I won’t, he isn’t worth it! If I stay where I am, no one will tell me of his new courtship and his marriage; no one will praise his bride to me—her beauty, his fondness for her. Fond? Could he really be fond of her? I can hardly believe it. I blame him severely, but to love another in his place—no, even spite could not make me do it! But men have quite different ideas of love from ours; unfortunately I have had to learn that. He was not like this before his marriage, though! His wife has spoilt his character.’
Vendulka was interrupted in her tearful soliloquy. Her aunt had stopped short, and Vendulka, who was following on her heels, was obliged to stand still also. The old woman drew a whistle from her knapsack and put it to her mouth; it gave a sound so soft that every one would have taken it for a bird piping his gentle midnight call in the top of a tree. Long-drawn echoes answered from the distance. Her aunt was delighted.
‘Old Matouš is still on the watch,’ she whispered, ‘he knew I should come, even if it rained stones. He can depend on me. But now we must be quick and not keep him waiting longer.’
The old woman quickened her pace so that it was all Vendulka could do to keep pace with her. They reached a steep piece of rock, thickly wooded; Vendulka thought they would skirt it, but Martinka began to climb, holding herself upright; her niece scrambled after her. A sudden turn brought them to an opening in the rock, from which the shadowy form of a man appeared. It was old Matouš, who had been lying down in the grass, waiting for the arrival of his laggard carrier; he was now raising himself.
When he had heard a noise in the bushes, he had taken a roll of material from under his coat, but as soon as he heard that two persons were approaching, he dropped the roll and put his hand in his breast pocket. Vendulka started and drew back; she saw the mouth of a pistol which was pointed at her head. However, the fright was all that she received. Who knows what might have happened if Martinka had not quickly stepped forward and explained who her companion was? But Vendulka had had a taste of what might happen to her at any moment, and she was trembling in every limb. The old smuggler laughed at her for her fear; a palm hard as bone was held out to her. But she herself did not feel like laughing. She trembled as if she had looked death itself in the face. Timidly she laid her hand in his, and thereby evoked a fresh burst of laughter.
Her aunt, he said, was made of different stuff, but of course such women were not born nowadays.
Meanwhile Martinka had hidden the roll of stuff in her basket, which she dressed again so that no one would have guessed it contained anything else than butter. But she would not allow Vendulka to carry it; she might have done something foolish, seeing that the mere sight of a pistol frightened her out of her wits.
Old Matous nodded approval, and repeated that if Martinka gave up, he too would retire from business and not care what became of it. He told her she need not take the contraband farther than her home; a linen-draper from Reichenau would send for it, and deliver it to the customer who wanted the silks for her daughter’s trousseau.
Old Matou$ had hardly said this, when he disappeared suddenly, as if the rock on which he stood had swallowed him. Vendulka again shook from head to foot; his unexpected disappearance, his rough speech and uncouth gestures and his wild laughter had quite unnerved her. Oh Lukas, Lukas! What had he made of her! This was her reward for the confidence with which she had meant to lay the destiny of her whole life in his hands, and would not believe that happiness could come through any other man! Who could have thought that he would make her so unhappy? And she had been near to losing her life through his fault as well! Would he have been touched by the news of her death? Would he have come to the funeral? Would she have forgiven him in her last hour? No—she could not have done it. But ought she to have taken her anger against him into eternity, and complained about him to the Almighty, when she knew the fault was not really his, but his first wife’s, who had spoilt his character?
Vendulka was trembling with cold and with the mental agony through which she was passing; and added to this was the fear that perhaps the worst was still to come, and a horde of police and watchmen would suddenly fall upon her and drag her off to prison.
‘Well, how do you like smuggling?’ her aunt asked with a sly smile, when they emerged from the woods and turned towards ‘the firs.’
‘Very much,’ Vendulka hastily assured her with chattering teeth. ***** Lukas with his dancers returned to the inn at the head of the band, and whoever had good lungs and sound legs in the village accompanied him, to make merry at his expense, and dance to their heart’s content.
He had made up his mind to mete out exemplary punishment to Vendulka that night by making a general feast for his comrades and all the merry girls who were no prudes and knew his true value. He gave orders to the landlord to consider every one his guest who came to the inn that night, and to fill their glasses as often as they liked.
He danced merrily, with a full bumper in his hand; he had no sooner let go one of the girls when he held the second in his arms; he need not call them, they came of their own accord; they vied with each other for his preference. Each wanted to be first; each one had words of honey on her lips and fiery glances in her eyes; they would have embraced him readily. Not one was afraid of troubling his dead wife’s rest; he would not have asked for their kisses in vain; he could have had as many as he wished. But why did they not tempt him? Why was he so soon tired of it all? ‘Why did he leave the dance to sit down by a table in a corner of the bar, determined not to dance another step? Why did he look as black as if he were at war with the whole world, pushing aside his glass as though it contained wormwood? Why did he suddenly jump up to fly from the inn as if some one had whispered in his ear that his house was on fire?
Lukas fled from the inn, from the music and his partners, because a loathing of everything there had come over him. In the wild noise and turmoil, in the midst of girls who cringed to him to win his favour and oust Vendulka from his heart, the reaction had set in. When the general mirth had risen to its height, when the women were prepared to go to any length to please him and draw him into their coils, Vendulka’s image pursued him, and would not be banished. He could not help comparing her to those who were throwing their favour at him, and felt that with all her pride and temper, her masterful and sarcastic words, she was animated by a very different spirit. How passionately devoted she had been.to him, yet how much restraint she had shown during all those years! How true and sincere had been her intentions, and how single-minded the proofs of her love for him! What she had given to him, she would have given to no other man; of that he was firmly convinced. But of his flatterers of to-night he knew that if he did not let himself be caught, the same words and pressures of the hand would be given to another eligible man to-morrow.
He had turned to these girls to annoy his sweetheart, and they themselves had made him realize, what he unwillingly had to admit, that Vendulka with all her faults was immeasurably above them in sincerity and purity of character.
In the stillness of the night he walked to and fro for a long while, trying to make up his mind to his future behaviour towards Vendulka. She had deeply wounded him with her harsh refusal; she deserved that he should be cross with her for a long time after their marriage. Should he now go on meeting obstinacy with obstinacy, and breaking down her pride, to show that he meant to be the master now and for the rest of their lives? Would she have been sufficiently annoyed with what he had done to her this night? What would she say when they met again? It never occurred to him that she could possibly have carried out her threat.
Our good Lukas was so deep in thought that he imagined himself still walking from end to end of the field at the back of the inn; but he had unconsciously drawn nearer to his own farm. He did not realize this until he stood close to the fence of his little garden. Suddenly he heard a joyful cry, and a woman ran out of the house towards him. It was the maid-servant.
‘Oh, it’s only you?’ she said in a disappointed tone, when she recognized him.
‘Well, and who else should it be?’
‘I thought the mistress might have come back with you.’
Lukas started; he began to suspect that something was wrong.
‘The mistress,’ he faltered, ‘where should she come back from?’
Instead of answering, the girl burst into tears.
‘What has happened?’ Lukas urged in great agitation, ‘why are you standing here at this time of night? Why are you not in bed? What are you crying for?’
‘How can I help crying?’ sobbed the girl, ‘when our mistress has left us for ever? We shall never get one like her. You might go to the ends of the world to look for a better. We all of us loved her for her kind heart and her order and cleanliness. She thought of every one rather than herself, and was always ready to do you a good turn; she never was proud. And what a good mother she has been to the child; she will never get one like her. The little mite knew her quite well, and smiled at her when she gave her her bottle. Poor little thing! She took in that she cared for her and loved her as tenderly as any mother. Now she is orphaned, and so are we.’
Lukas reeled and had to hold on to the fence.
‘Then the mistress is gone?’ he repeated dully several times. He could not believe that what he had heard was the truth.
‘Of course she is gone! How should she not have gone?’ the girl reproached him bitterly. ‘Any girl would have gone after you had danced under her window with three women. Oh, why must you go and raise a scandal like that? We knew quite well that what she did was not bad. We have got our eyes and ears too, and cannot help noticing things. Such a thoroughly good girl, and now shortly before her wedding she has to go among strangers, perhaps even to Germany! Yes, I am sure she must have gone into Germany. Where else could she have gone? She had to leave the country; in our country people would laugh her to scorn.’
It was said of Lukas that he had no other fault than his bad temper; apart from that he was the kindest, mildest, and. most benevolent of men, who would not hurt a creature. He now showed that people had judged him fairly. He not only took the reproaches of his own servant quite meekly, but he felt his heart warm during her tearful homily, as though he were waking from a heavy dream that had held him in its toils. The simple statement of Vendulka’s goodness by this disinterested observer did more than any arguments on the right or the wrong of his case could have done.
Without knowing how he got there, Lukas found himself in his room and at the window where he had so often stood in the days of his married life and thought of his sweetheart. And he had stood in blissful silence at this same window and waited, on the evening when his heart’s desire had come into his house for the first time.
He had looked at the sky flushed with the crimson sunset, and fancied his life at her side would be one perpetual rosy dream. How different it all had been! He saw his sweetheart flying from him in the dark, silent night, into a distant place, to eat the bitter bread of servitude with tears. It was in vain that he turned away from the window to change his thoughts. He determined that he would not let himself be carried away by the emotions that welled up in him, would not let them influence his reasoning, nor would he listen to the voice in his heart which clamoured for his bride. But wherever he turned his eyes, they fell on the traces of her activity. How charmingly arranged and cosy was his room; she had an eye for these things, and no detail escaped her devoted attention. Yes, he might well go to the ends of the earth to find one like her! His eyes fell on the cradle over which he had so often seen her bend—the sight of it stung him to the quick, and his sorrow mastered him completely. Why was it that she had gone? What had driven her away? It was that she had valued the memory of his own child’s mother more than he had done.
‘And if she were a thousand times in the wrong . . .’ he at last cried so impulsively that the servant who was silently weeping where she sat by the cradle, jumped up in alarm.
‘Hasn’t she deserved that I should be indulgent with her? I have been blaming her for her obstinacy, but when she refused one suitor after another, although she had not the least hope of our ever being married, I was glad enough of her obstinacy. It pleased me mightily, and I called it steadfastness, and praised her for it more than for anything else. What other girl would have forgiven me for marrying another? Indeed, when she saw how unrelenting my parents were, she herself urged me to give way, and would not let them curse me on her account. Any other girl would have blamed me for giving ear to them more than to her. From the beginning she has been as good as gold, and cared more for my honour than my love—and this is her reward! I have tortured her for the sake of a mere kiss. It is my fault that every one will laugh at her, my fault that she is shut out from her father and home, and has to go and earn her living among strangers—but no, no, I shall not let things go so far. I shall go to the old man to-morrow and tell him everything. He must find his daughter and let her know that I will give her back her word if she hates me so much that she wishes for it. But it shall be in all honour, and as friends. I should kill any one who dared to jeer at her; I’ll let them know! But where is the old man to look for her?’
Lukas thought about this for a long time, and consulted with the servant, asking her in which direction Vendulka had gone; but they could come to no conclusions. At last it occurred to him that old Martinka would be the most likely person to find her traces. The old woman was always on the roads, and often heard the latest news. She could easily ascertain through the smugglers whether Vendulka had gone into Germany. For the moment Lukas suppressed every other feeling but the anxiety for Vendulka’s safe return to her father and her usual with all speed.
He knew that old Martinka returned regularly before sunrise from her nightly raids. Dawn was approaching, and he started without delay to find her on her return.
He arrived at ‘the firs,’ but deep silence reigned at the homestead. He looked through the windows; the room was empty. The carrier then was still abroad. But she would not be long, for she did not like to be seen by day with her load in the woods. She surely must be back in a few minutes; the sky was flushed with red, and the sun was just about to rise over the ridge of the mountains.
Lukas leant against the fence and waited.
There she was, he could see her among the trees; that was her woollen shawl. But she was not alone, another woman was with probably an assistant.
He was just on the point of hiding behind the firs, to wait for the departure of the unwelcome third person, when Vendulka’s aunt saw him.
‘Lukas, Lukas!’ she shouted madly to her companion, who walked with her head bent.
The next moment the widower heard a cry of irrepressible delight; Martinka’s companion flew past the old woman; two trembling hands embraced him, and a kiss, a hundred times more fervent than he had ever received under the aspen tree, was pressed on his lips. Lukas seized his bride by her belt, lifted her up and, speechless with emotion, carried her back to his own house. ***** What are we to think of Vendulka? First she stands out against the kiss, and rather risks a scandal in the village than give it to the lover with whom quite shortly she is about to go to the altar—runs away, goes among the smugglers rather than comply, and, after the bitterest outbursts of wrath, gives him the kiss of her own accord, unasked. Oh women, women! Which of them has not known her heart run away with her reason when she was least prepared for it? God knows why this is so. I have racked my brains about it in vain, and yet it would be a good thing if the matter were properly sifted once and for all. But what is a reasonable being to say of Lukas, who boasted on his wedding-day to everybody that his bride ran away and joined the smugglers rather than grant him a single kiss before their wedding? You should have seen how proud he was of this, how he praised her and showed her off with delight.
Can you guess who banged away the loudest at the wedding when the usual shots were fired? Vendulka had many groomsmen, six riding alongside of her, and the seventh was best man. But more gunpowder than was used by any of these young fellows was turned into smoke by old Matouš. He held a pistol in each hand and fired two shots at the same time. When the other guests passed him, he stood still and banged away so that the gossips under the lime tree were wellnigh deafened.
Martinka, who was his companion, only smiled when he occasionally pointed his pistol at her head for fun. When Vendulka had asked him through Martinka to join the wedding-procession for the sake of the old friendship, he had asked himself why he shouldn’t have a wedding of his own as well? And he decided to leave the business with its daily toil and burden to his sons, and made an offer to Martinka to do as he was going to do, and give her old bones the rest they had deserved. She might enjoy the few years left to them in health and content at his side. If they got married, she would not be dull in her little cottage, and they could while away the rest of their lives retired from and in happy talk.
Martinka consented and made ready for the wedding at once. Now their banns were to be published, and this was why old Matouš made so much noise, and when Martinka offered the loving-cup of rosoglio to the gossips under the lime tree, none of them was allowed to take a draught only; it had to be emptied to the last drop. Not one of the bridesmaids was so generous with her gift—nay, the gossips never remembered anything like it, though they had been witnesses of many wedding-processions. Old Martinka had spent a good margin of her little reserve on this, but she was held in high esteem for her generosity. For a long time afterwards it was the chief topic of the neighbourhood, how splendidly she had celebrated the wedding of her niece, Vendulka Paloucky.