Selected Czech Tales/A Shot

He often tried to remember what had been the beginning of it. There was first the silence of long, uneventful years: days of no importance, months without incidents, a passionate longing for life, for something to happen. Sometimes life begins in this way, sometimes it ends thus. For him it had been ordained that the day on which a strange thing happened should become the first of many strange days.

The beginning of it had been an early spring day with all the rested impulses ready to break forth and spring up; when the earth opens her bosom, and yesterday’s rain clothes the fields in their first pale green.

It was a Sunday. Martin, the underforester, walking up the hillside behind his lodge, met Jurko the fool, who was coming down from somewhere in the hills. His real name was Jurek Prohabác, and as a rule he was to be found preaching sermons to the children on their way home from school. The forester said: ‘Hope you’re well, Jurko?’ He answered: ‘Thank you.’

‘Looking for rabbit-food?’

Jurko began to tremble.

‘I’m not looking for rabbit-food . . . I’m not looking for rabbit-food,’ he stammered, then added anxiously: ‘I’m looking for traps, they’ve been laying traps here.’

Jurko had flashes of clairvoyance in his muddled head. When there had been theft or incendiarism, his instinct invariably told him who was the culprit. This sense in him seemed to have been developed at the expense of all the others.

Martin the forester knew that Jurko was scenting poachers.

The head-forester had gone into the town early on this Sunday morning, leaving Martin in charge. Sunday mornings were a favourite time with the poachers, and Martin was interested in his work, and ambitious. There were constant little skirmishes between him and the poachers; he was ruthless, and they knew it and hated him; but no serious incident had occurred so far. Neither had they, according to their custom, thrown him bound and gagged into an anthill, nor had he wounded any of them.

He had his eyes particularly on Flandara, a cunning poacher, who considered the forests his private property, and resented all punishment as an injustice. Whenever he was sentenced to a few months’ imprisonment, he would sigh and say: ‘All right! I shall saw logs for the magistrate during the winter and read the Bible from cover to cover. Then I shall go home.’

And when he went home he continued to poach and steal wood. Martin, when he met him, would say to him: ‘Your neck has grown quite crooked with looking for crooked firs.’

When you looked for Flandara in the woods, he would be fishing in all the weirs with his flat-bottomed boat full of fish. When you looked on the river-banks he was shooting cartloads of hares in the woods. The Archduke himself once watched him at the station, sending off a consignment of hares. He said ironically that he hoped Flandara had at least shot half of that waggon-load himself.

And Flandara bowed respectfully and said: ‘Begging your Grace’s pardon, but half of them have been eaten by the magistrates. I had shot twice as many.’

This facetious poacher annoyed Martin, and he had been longing for some time to put his mark upon him and make him innocuous.

He was glad he had met Jurko. Perhaps he would now be able to come to grips with the satirist. He quietly went in the direction whence Jurko the fool had come.

Heavy clouds were hanging low above the forest, the air was full of early spring scents. The earth’s eternal youth was intoxicating him, and setting his blood on fire. He was thirsting for life, for action. Men’s thirst for action, for something to do, is ever unquenchable.

Martin’s thirst was to shoot at a soft human body, to cause suffering, to deal retribution.

‘You wait!’ he hissed through his teeth. He felt as if he had already got hold of the rascal who always escaped him as by a miracle.

He had reached the path which skirted the hill like a ring. He carried his gun in his hand and stooped low, as though on the scent of the poacher’s traces underneath the thick pine boughs.

Something suddenly stirred in the thicket without a sound.


Two hands, two powerful hands were knotting a sling.

‘At last!’

He took aim at the hands and shot.

‘Jesus Mary!’

There was a terrified cry of a tormented human being. Martin the forester jumped into the thick undergrowth. The boughs were lashing his face, he had difficulty in making headway.

He pentrated to the spot where the trap had been laid; he hoped to find Flandara at the point of death, but he found—nothing. He looked for a track and found bloodstained moss, and a trail of blood which stopped abruptly. He beat about the undergrowth in every direction without coming upon any one.

He spent the whole morning in the woods, impatient, annoyed, disappointed. He grew more and more dissatisfied with himself, he could not say why.

His desire had been to hurt, wound, cripple a human being. He had nursed this desire the whole morning, had hardly been able to bide his time. Then he had had his quarry at bay, had wounded a man who had lost so much blood that he was likely to bleed to death somewhere in the bushes; his lust for blood and murder had been satisfied. And now his teeth were chattering, and the feeling of dissatisfaction was growing stronger and stronger. His chest was beginning to hurt. He threw his gun down, sighed, shook himself, then took the gun up again and went on.

He was a tall fellow, almost a giant, with a small head of dark hair; his eyes usually looked a little dim, and he never quite knew his own mind. Whatever he decided to do, he was always sorry afterwards that he had missed doing the other thing.

He did not go back to his dinner at the forester’s house, but went down into the village. He knew he would meet his companion there, the under-forester from the next beat. He felt a need for talk and for a good, deep draught.

As soon as he came into the village, he met Flandara by the first cottage. He was perfectly sound, and bowed to him with the irony of the ever evasive. His smile was condescending and at the same time sarcastic, and his politeness that of a rich peasant bowing to the squire who is head over ears in debt to him. Martin had no feeling of relief.

‘Faugh!’ he ejaculated, and shook himself as he passed the poacher. He went into the inn. His friend, the black forester, was sitting alone at a table in the parlour. Not even the innkeeper was there. Martin threw himself on the seat beside the forester Ernest.

‘I have killed a man,’ he said and let his head drop heavily forward on his arms. ***** The two friends searched the woods all that afternoon for the dead poacher. They found no one. The bloodstains on the moss had became clotted; they heard no moans. The place was silent as a cemetery. Martin crept through the bushes on his knees, Ernest had to take him away at last and calm him, for fear of his betraying himself. Darkness had set in, and further search would be useless.

Martin began to brood. He tried to understand the complex of feelings which had led to the shot. What had he been thinking of before it happened? Was there any inevitableness about it? Had it been necessary for him to take human life? If only Jurko had not come along! He hated the sniffing fool, he could have found it in his heart to take his life at this moment, and atone for one murder with another. He wished he could throw Jurko into the bloody track of the poacher, so that he should know what had come of his omniscient babbling, and suck up and get thoroughly saturated with the evil consequences of it. He had a bad night. He went to sleep, but was startled by a dream. Some one was stepping on his heart, penetrating his chest. He tried to realize what it was that was hurting him, and found that a block of wood with a plank across it was standing on his chest. On the two ends of the see-saw were Jurko the fool and a man without a head. The blood was streaming down over his coat. They went on perpetually see-sawing, and each wanted to go higher than the other. Why must they put this plaything on top of his chest?

Jurko was crying: ‘Rabbit-food, rabbit-food!’ and cackling his thin, wise, old-man’s cackle.

He was sure it had been Jurko who had brought it all about, because he knew everything and could see into the future; he had known exactly how he would set impulse after impulse throbbing in his heart.

Martin awoke and could not go to sleep again.

‘I’ve killed a man, that’s it,’ he remembered, as soon as he was going to doze off. He turned from side to side, his bed seemed red-hot, he got up unrefreshed, unrested, more tired than when he had lain down.

In the morning the beater Kolar came to him. He was a small sinewy fellow with shoulders on which he might have carried large oak trees, had bright-red hair and a matted beard; his face was freckled, his pale eyes full of cunning. He was an old poacher who had been taken into the service solely to make him innocuous. The expression of his deeply-lined face was restless and vindictive.

He accosted Martin and said spitefully: ‘Sir, Novák’s old woman from Zbozi has bought six kreutzers’ worth of yeast. The old fellow must be in a bad way. Else paupers like that would never buy so much yeast.’

‘What has happened to him?’ asked the forester.

‘Don’t ask me; how should I know? But what does a poacher use yeast for, except his wounds?’ concluded the red-haired beater.

Martin went to see his friend.

‘The man I have wounded is dying. It is old Novák from Zbozi. Tell me, what made me do it? I have thought about it all night.’

‘Don’t be a fool,’ said his companion. ‘You must look unconcerned, so that no one suspects you. We will walk over to Zbozi this afternoon, go to the inn and sit down to drink a glass of beer. Then we shall hear what is the matter with Novák; no one will dream of fastening the guilt on to you, when they see that you are not afraid of coming down to the village.’

They went. On the way Martin was talking continually under his breath

‘Can you explain this passionate desire that I felt to shoot Flandara? I seemed to be adding to it bit by bit, like a man who piles up coin upon coin of a hoard. I simply had to shoot. I did not keep this passion in check, and now it hurts. I wish I could understand it.’

Ernest the forester said: ‘I think you have gone crazy! Where is the difference between shooting a stag or a poacher? I could sooner be sorry for a stag, for he is a king, but what is a poacher? Vermin, common vermin! There was a whole tribe of poachers in my district. They were living in lonely cottages, and no one could lay their hands on them. The magistrate had more respect for them than he had for the beaters. He would say: “Sit down, Jansky, the beater may stand.”

‘We didn’t know how to help ourselves. We called in the police, and they surrounded the cottage. No Jansky to be found. We waited until the morning. At break of day some one crept down the ladder. I took aim. Jansky never made a sound, and escaped into the woods. We had a drive, as if we were shooting game. We found him near the pond. He lay like a wounded animal. He recovered; they gave him two months, then he came back, and the whole farce began all over again.

‘We were all agreed that we must help ourselves. So he disappeared. The beaters used to tell everybody that Jansky could not be found, neither on the earth nor in the water nor in the air, and they would chuckle.

‘But his wife had a little pointer, and she went out to track her husband day and night, but could not find him.

‘When at last she came to the fringe of the forest, she found a charred place on the ground. The little pointer stood still and would not stir. It was true, Jansky was to be found neither on the earth nor in the water nor in the air, and yet this little dog had found him. But what evidence can a little dog give? You have been lucky, and ought to be glad. You have shot a fox, and no one can prove that it was you who did it.’

This example failed to raise Martin’s spirits. He felt a great loathing for man-killing man.

‘Men are beasts,’ he murmured between his teeth, ‘beasts!’

They were drawing near to the village.

The young buds of the willows were pressing towards the light, and the trees bent over the mirror of the water, as if they could not gaze enough at their own beauty. The waterfowl were darting hither and thither on the river as though they were intoxicated; children’s shouts came from afar. And with all this young, warm, spring atmosphere there was a sound in the air, broken and weary, but persistent—the tolling of the knell. ‘The knell,’ quaked Martin and ducked involuntarily, as if a breaker were going to swamp him.

The bell rattled on, it sounded like a broken piece of crockery. Martin remembered his dream, when the unknown corpse and Jurko Prohabac were see-sawing on his heart. They seemed to be calling out with nasal voices: ‘Ding dong, ding dong.’

Ernest the forester pulled him up sharp: ‘Cheer up, every one will get suspicious!’

They met the red-haired beater near the inn; he smiled a sly, knowing smile which wrinkled up his freckled face till it looked quite small; he winked, drew up a corner of his mouth which usually drooped with continual smoking, and said: ‘Sir, they are not tolling for old Novák.’ He fluttered the fingers of his right hand in front of his eyes, and the full flavour of his plebeian, satanic nature came out in his cackle: ‘it’s old Háta Látalová who is dead.’

What irony, spite and superiority there was in those words! How they pointed to the red-haired one’s past! They revealed all the cautiousness and danger of a poacher’s life, which is never safe for a moment, and yet he continually gets the better of his pursuers and daily has his laugh at them.

‘What is it to me who is dead? I don’t know Háta Látalová,’ curtly answered Martin and went into the inn.

When he bade good-morning to the inn-keeper, he found that his voice had regained its usual power. He ordered two glasses of beer for himself and drank alternately from both; he gave a penny to a poor child. Then he proposed to Ernest that they should sing a song, and they sang:

‘’Neath the limes, above the limes, the lights are twinkling,’


‘See the white steed running by the river.’

The red-haired beater came in and sat down near the door, looking as self-satisfied as a successful producer of a play. Martin treated him to as much brandy as he would like to have. He sat and sipped it thoughtfully like a connoisseur. The innkeeper went across the parlour to him. He did not presume to sit down with the gentlemen.

‘How is Novák?’ the beater asked him. The tone of his voice left Martin no doubt that the question was pointed at him, but the beater had not looked in his direction. The youth trembled and pushed his glass away in his confusion.

‘He has had the last sacrament,’ answered the innkeeeper, ‘but perhaps he may pull through all the same.’

Martin’s melancholy returned. He had been feeling so happy! As if old Háta Látalová had been doing all the dying for Novák, and his conscience had been cleared; as though because Háta had died he had never shot a man, nor felt the desire to murder Flandara!

The weary sadness which had made him go to the village, accompanied him through many days, and roused him from his sleep with the monotonous call: ‘You have killed a man!’

His companion’s reiterations of the stories of poachers killed with the butt end of a rifle and burnt, did not contribute to his happiness.

Three bad weeks passed; Martin was suffering. The red-haired beater kept an obstinate silence. He sometimes eyed Martin with a half respectful, half ironical look, as though he were about to tell him the remaining chapters of the story, then turned away as if he had changed his mind, and said nothing.

‘Were you going to speak to me?’ Martin would ask in a dull tone of voice

I? Not at all. What could I have to tell you, sir?’ the beater would answer in feigned astonishment.

Martin went to Zbozi on his own account. He went into the inn, and on entering the parlour said: ‘Good-morning,’ in a general way. A guest was sitting at a table in the corner; he did not return the salutation. This surprised Martin; he looked up and saw that it was the poacher, restored to health.

Instantly Martin felt as if his stature were being raised; strain and torment burst away from around his heart, which had been encircled as with iron rings. And there was in this liberated heart a masterful, unsubdued, high-handed spirit.

‘Why don’t you answer me?’ he shouted at Novák.

He was pleased to hear his own loud, clear voice. He had murdered no man; what need was there to change anything in his ways?

Novák answered him in a cold and sad voice: ‘You know quite well why I did not answer you.’

‘How should I know? I have done you no harm,’ lied the youth.

‘I have been laid up,’ said Novak. ‘This is the first time I have come down here. And my foot will never be right. The likes of us don’t go to the doctor or the hospital, and you’ve splintered the bone and made me a cripple for life. And all because a poor man wanted his share from the rich. I love the woods as much as you do.’

He got up and went towards the door, dragging his bandaged leg. ‘I won’t stop in the room with you,’ he said, ‘I can’t answer for myself. But some day we shall have a reckoning. You had no business to make a cripple of me.’

He left the room. ***** No one besides Martin had heard this conversation. It reverberated in his soul like a knell; it took away his joy in life. Sometimes he thought of other things, but he never forgot. He felt like a man who conceals a guilty deed of which he will reap the fruits some day. He lived in anticipation of this, and always went out alone. He was not afraid. A sweet humility had taken possession of him, and sometimes his arms would droop by his side with the poignancy of an obstinately recurring resolve. Some day, when he should meet Novák alone in the solitude of the woods he would say to him: ‘I am not going to defend myself—shoot!’

He wanted to get even with him, to wipe out the impression which the sorrowful voice had left on his soul when it said: ‘You had no business to shoot at me—you had no business to make me a cripple.’

Sometimes his soul would melt as though a spring-sun were thawing it. And when he asked himself whence this feeling came, he discovered that it was caused by this same silent longing to be face to face with the man he had injured so badly; to deliver himself up to his justice. He knew he was looking forward to this terrible retribution, and that the desire for it made his life more beautiful, made it festal. If it were taken away from him, he would lose that which was sweetest and best in him, and his life would lose its object. ***** Autumn came; following on a summer which Martin had exclusively dedicated to this strange inward experience.

The Archduke came with the young princesses, and they hunted every day. At night they dined at the forester’s house, and the foresters went to the inn. Martin was never alone. Words, curses, laughter, and song fell upon his soul, overlaying all that there was in it of sweetness and justice. He longed for solitude, regretted every moment which was stolen from his silent self-examination and sacrificed to other people.

There was a day in October when a warm, soft grey mist lay over the landscape like a pearl-coloured sea. The sun, although unable to penetrate to its depth, now and then reached the small windows of the cottages, and made them sparkle like diamonds.

Towards evening the mist became bloodred, and through it waded the sickle of the moon, and bent its wan light over the red waves of the rapid river. In the course of the drive Martin had become separated from the rest of the party, and found himself isolated on a lonely outpost. Perhaps he had more or less unconsciously sought it; perhaps some inward power, stronger than reason, had led him to it. The cries of the beaters could not be heard in this place, only the distant shots. Martin was walking along a woodland path by the side of a clearing, which was filled with masses of large anemone leaves with white, silky fringes. The wind was swaying them, and the leaves were nodding obstinately, craning their necks, as though they were persuading some one, and repeating with a spiteful pugnacity: ‘No, no, no, no!’

Martin stood still and looked at them.

‘God knows why that family has settled in just that spot,’ he murmured. Two hares ran across the path; he did not shoot, he took no interest in them. His eyes followed them mechanically and rested on the place where they had disappeared.

Suddenly something in his breast leaped up: surely some one was dogging his footsteps! It could not be one of the foresters or beaters—impossible. It was a face he knew well, both in reality and in his dreams; he saw it more often than he wished. It was the pale face of Novák.

The poacher’s leg was still swathed in rags it had not healed properly; he was thin and emaciated.

He was creeping after Martin, but he had no gun. Was he stealing about here for love of the forests and the excitement of the hunt, or was he shadowing him? Eager to avail himself of the chance which he had demanded of fate, Martin said: ‘Novák, what are you doing here?’

His tone was kind and humble.

Novák did not answer. Martin went up to him with his gun in his hand. Novák gave him a scornful glance.

‘You owe me a debt,’ said Martin, ‘and you have the right to pay it in my own coin. Look here, there is no one within earshot, no one will see or hear us. You have no gun, take mine and shoot.’

He put his gun down at the poacher’s feet, stepped back a few paces, leant his back against a tree and waited.

Novák stood motionless, he grew paler still, his eyes glowed with a dull, smouldering fire. He stooped slowly and picked up the gun; he held it in his hand, weighing it greedily and cunningly without taking his eyes off Martin’s face. Martin knew that now at last the moment for simple, natural justice had arrived. He had crippled this man, had meant to murder him, and now the man would settle up with him. Martin had been asking for this ten times daily.

Novák was still standing and weighing the gun in his hands; only his jaw was working, and his terrible, far-off, sorrowful look searched the forester’s face, to try and understand from his expression what he meant. ‘Why the devil don’t you shoot?’ cried Martin. His teeth were chattering in short spasms, as if he were in a fever. He was hungering for the shot, but he could hardly bear the delay, and the poacher’s irony was not a part of his programme and the whole composition.

‘Young Martin, you think I’ll be generous and spare you, but what if I do shoot? You’d better say good-bye to the world. I’ve been shadowing you, and here you are. What did it matter that I was without a gun? I had only to whistle and my comrades would come; they have guns enough and to spare. Who thinks anything of a shot more or less to-day? There are hundreds of shots; no one will lay the guilt at my door. One of the foresters might easily have done it; the Archduke himself might have been graciously pleased to make a hole in your precious forehead. Who will say it was I? You made a cripple of me. You are right, it is my turn now.’ He raised the gun slowly and aimed.

Martin’s expression grew hard. An icy line appeared round his lips; his face looked tired and disappointed. Every word Novák had said had annoyed him. He was longing for purity of feeling, rebirth of soul, if need be at the cost of his life; but Novák’s talk had been low.

He had been mistaken in his antagonist.

But the poacher too, his keen eyes and his receptive faculties sharpened, when he saw that droop in the corners of the youth’s lips, realized that Martin had not counted on being spared, and was every moment getting more disgusted and sorry not to have saved his feelings for some one better, more worthy of them.

His head drooped. In his breast also something was beginning to thaw; that festal feeling was warming his heart and taking him above himself. He said: ‘For God’s sake, forgive me!’ and threw the gun into the field of nodding anemones. They were still obstinately repeating: ‘No, no, no, no!’ although no one minded them.

Martin knew from the new light which had come into the poacher’s eyes, from the humble droop of his head and the sweetness of his tone, that he had understood. He said: ‘You too forgive me, for God’s sake.’ He held out his hand to him. The poacher drew near. They clasped hands in a firm strong grip. The tears they could have wept, the tenderness of an embrace, were enclosed in this pressure of their hands.

‘Have you forgiven me?’ asked Martin with relief in his voice.

‘I have forgiven you.’

Another pressure of their hands, and they parted. The poacher disappeared in the bushes.

Martin took a deep breath and returned to the earth from a strange sphere in which he had been living, returned to a more beautiful earth.

He remembered that he was on duty, and that he was late and would be missed. He picked up his gun and took a short cut through the bushes. Damp clay seemed to hold his steps.

The thick growth of rusty brown leaves, hips, alders, syringas, and young maples hid the distant view.

Martin was not thinking of what he saw, he was looking towards the sky which had cleared. The sun was shining through the beeches, laying pale patches of light at his feet, and touching his burning face.

He felt the warmth and was glad of it; then he realized that he was humming a tune; he had not done that since the spring! And, although his chest was still hurting him, he sang aloud.