Selected Czech Tales/At the Rotary Machine




Before the eyes of Kuba, whose nickname was ‘Spattered Kuba,’ a strip of paper, about two yards in width, was madly careering down with a speed which the chance onlooker would have found it difficult to estimate. It unwound itself from an immensely fat spool, which was so heavy that it took the full strength of two workmen to lever it into the position where it turned; this spooled the strip into the unwieldy, polished printing machine, which first of all directed it into a narrow reservoir where it was moistened by a scarcely perceptible vapour; then it was squeezed between two cylinders, one of which was smooth, while the other was covered with a surface of cast metal consisting of thousands of letters, so that one turn of the cylinders printed eight pages of a newspaper. The interminable strip flew on to a second pair of cylinders which supplied it with another eight pages on the reverse side, wherewith the first two sheets of the number were finished. But the strip continued on its mad career, twisting itself through a whole labyrinth of cylinders, which printed further pages on further sheets; through sharp, tiny wheels which indented, through knives which cut it across: through disks which touched it with sticking-paste: through steel arms which folded it, till it reached the point where it was met by another strip of half its size, which had undergone the same treatment of cylinders, disks, knives and arms, and had thereby been turned into a supplement. By an ingenious device this was folded and pasted into the number, so that both paper streams, ready printed, cut and pasted, emerged from the opening as the complete newspaper, of which five copies a second were deposited on a stand, and taken off by the hands of young transport workers.

All this happens amid an overpowering, penetrating din, as though a gale were shrieking with inharmonious howls through the pipes of a gigantic organ, or as if all the two hundred thousand readers of the daily paper, collected under the vault of the printing house, were reading all the columns at the same time in breathless haste. Every word that is spoken is swallowed up by the noise; the men communicate with each other by signs only, or they put their mouth close to their companion’s ear and shout into it with the full power of their lungs.

But there is no time for unnecessary talk. The Sunday Paper is being printed in two editions, and every second of lost time costs five copies. From the moment when the overseer takes the seal off the indicator which gives the number of copies, every workman becomes a part of the machinery which has to perform certain movements within a certain time. From eleven at night till four in the morning, during the five hours while printing is going on, under stress of perpetual excitement, in the heat of an oven, none of the slaves of this despotic metal monster is conscious of himself. Their eyes anxiously watch the course of the shiny white paper, which is lit up by electric lamps at points of danger, and their hands are upon the levers to stop the machine instantly, should the paper get torn, which may happen at any moment through too much moistening or through a tiny pleat.

On the stopping of the machine at the right moment depends the immensely valuable economy of time, and the smooth working of a new installation for inserting a fresh roll of paper by machinery.

Otherwise the machine is never stopped before a roll, measuring several thousands of yards, comes to an end on one side or the other; then a fresh one has to be mounted. A whole row of them can be seen through the door which opens into the courtyard. They will all be required to-day.

When a fresh roll is needed, or there is another urgent reason, any one of the workmen may stop the clanking colossus; no one, however, except one of the two chief engineers is allowed to let down the machinery, for it is necessary to get inside it to set the lathes which carry the paper on its entire course, or to rectify the torn strip of paper; and there is not the slightest doubt that this immense mechanism would grind human bones as easily as produce a newspaper.

There are three levers by means of which the machine can be stopped, one at each of the cylinders, and one at the opening for the passage of the printed copies. Spattered Kuba is in charge of one of these levers, and is responsible for stopping the machine the moment he notices a tear or pleat in the unwinding paper.

Spattered Kuba is at this moment staring at the snow-white surface, watching its tension and moistness, which he has to estimate. His hand reaches out now for the brass wheel of the brake, now for the handle of the lever. It is his duty at the same time to watch the glass tubes of the oil reservoirs which grease the axles of the wheels that are in his charge; overheating or firing would mean an accident, or else the end of the world . . . that is, the non-appearance of the paper on the following morning!

A noise as of thunder is roaring beneath the vault of the printing-house; the brass axles of the innumerable cylinders which grind the print turn in their steel beds, from which drops of oil are oozing; through the fine dust which rises from the crushed paper, electric lamps are shining with a steady glow. Spattered Kuba has eyes for nothing but his paper, his axles and taps.

He seems to have no thought but for this. His tall, bony figure, covered with a blue blouse which is tucked into his trousers so that there should be no fulness in which a tooth of the machinery could catch, is standing upright like a statue; only the thin bare arms are moving: they have hard broad muscles, and sinews like the strings of a double bass. The right hand ever hovers near the lever. His arms are covered with black, oily smears; drops of sweat are on his forehead and run down his cheeks in rivulets. Perhaps it is for this reason that his companions have called him ‘spattered’ Kuba, or it may be because of the freckles with which his plain, red-bearded face is sprinkled; they are as large as a threepenny piece.

His absorption in his work is, however, only apparent. His thoughts are flying, perhaps not as fast as the mad paper-strip in front of him, yet in the course of the two hours since he has been standing there, he has been totting them up one by one, and the sum-total which he has drawn in the end is so fearful that it scares him; but not a single movement betrays what he is thinking.

The sum-total is that he is going to kill somebody to-night. He can see his victim every time he looks up. The head, covered with a silk skull-cap, is just visible between the framework and the cylinder, bending now over the indicator, now over the tablet on which he enters the number of copies which have passed through. He is the overseer in charge, and Kuba is going to kill him to-night. That is an absolute certainty; he wishes everything else were as firmly settled as that.

There is the place where he will be drenched in his own blood; where he will bleed to death like an ox, there, inside the machine, with just room enough underneath the cylinders for a man to crouch and insert the paper by the light of an electric lamp.

Kuba has seen it done once when he was working at a cotton printer’s, and knows what the power of these cylinders is when they are at work.

Cotton had been printed in this manner long before it had occurred to any one that newspapers might be produced in the same way. One of the workmen there had let the cylinders down on an overseer who had worried him; it had torn off his arm ‘as though it had been a travelling bag,’ and the machine had gone on as though nothing had happened.

Spattered Kuba can do it when he likes, at any of the shifts of paper rolls; he will have time to do it until four o’clock in the morning; any one of the white rolls with which the yard is filled may bring death to the tyrant.

It is going to happen in exactly an hour’s time, and death is approaching in the shape of the fourth roll, which has a torn cover; it will soon be rolled into the workshop. The three preceding ones are standing in front of it like hour-glasses; their turn will come, will surely come, and after that—death.

The heat in the printing-house increased with every puff of the vaporizer which moistens the paper; Kuba felt a rivulet of perspiration running down his shoulder-blades. But whenever he bent his head forward a stream of icy cold October air from outside struck his temples; his head was reeling with a fit of appalling toothache, and mad fury shook his whole fame.

This accursed, hellish pain had been the cause of all his troubles! Every night, as soon as he had taken his stand at the machine, it had seized upon him, and held his head as in a vice. Just a fortnight ago, on a night like this, Kuba had tried a remedy that some one had recommended, he did not remember who: ‘Drink half a pint of brandy in one draught, and in two twinks the pain will leave you . . . absolutely dead gone.’

He had never drunk brandy as long as he lived, but on that occasion he did. The pain really had left him, but when the overseer had passed him on his round, he had stopped, although Kuba had done his utmost to hold his breath. ‘What, you drink brandy?’ he had said, ‘then we have no use for you here at night; come for your discharge in a fortnight.’

The overseer had said it like everything else he said, short and sharp like a cut with a whip. Kuba knew that all remonstrance would be useless. He said nothing all that fortnight, but his wrath grew within him.

He had been looking everywhere for work. ‘My dear fellow, you are none too young,’ or ‘Do you think we keep our workmen for the benefit of the panel doctor?’ were the answers in the printing houses where they worked with steam.

Yesterday the manager of a factory had sent him away with the advice to apply for work as a scavenger. And he was only forty-seven! That had been as if some one had struck him in the face with his fist. It had happened in the suburb of Lieben, and all the afternoon he had wandered about at the back of the Karoline Valley. When he had returned home to Ziskov, his family had increased by two; his wife had been pre-maturely confined and presented him with twins. When there were six already! That was no small matter.

Then at last his bitterness had given way for a moment. Who knows but what God had sent him these two little angels to help him? If he were to tell the overseer of this increase in his family, and two at once. That must move his heart, even if it were made of stone. Otherwise he would not have said a word, but now that the twins had come. . . . He wished he had bitten off his tongue rather! Evidently his words had gone home and touched the overseer, but all the same he had shrugged his shoulders: ‘he had no use for a drunkard who might do harm, kill somebody or endanger the issue of the newspaper. And so far as he was concerned, Kuba might have triplets.’

After these two long weeks his stubborn fury had for the first time given way to sorrow on this last night at his work, while he was cleaning his machinery until it looked like the inside of a watch seen through a magnifying glass. For the last time! And yet he had always seen single-handed to this part of the work, and never failed in one of his duties.

But when the machinery had started, and began to roar with a thousand wild sounds, his sorrow vanished, and when the stream of paper was flowing past him, illuminated by an oblique, dazzling light, it made him feel giddy for the first time. Then when the icy draught struck his temples again and he felt that boring pain in his jaws, his strength left him, and a hard, mad fury took its place such as he had never felt in all his life. What he had turned over in his mind for the last two hours had now become an unalterable resolve: ‘If I am here for the last time, he is!’

When this terrible thought had first occurred to him, he had rejected it with the comment: ‘It would serve him right!’ But it returned again and again; it rode upon his neck like a demon which would not be shaken off. It was as if every sharp stab of pain in his temples spurred him on to it.

From out the tumult of vociferous metallic noises which struck the vault with endless shrieks from throats neither knowing nor needing respite, there seemed to come to him the crying of his infants, the twins. It went on without ceasing, worrying him with its monotony, and at times he imagined he could see the two little heads reflected on the interminable white strip, as he had seen them on the white pillow before he left his home. He saw the two wide-open mouths and the tiny quivering nostrils quite distinctly. And he saw the eyes of his wife into which he had not dared to look all this fortnight; they had pursued him from the corner of the room behind the door. Before he had left, she had called him to her and said in a hardly audible whisper: ‘Jakob, you are out of work, I know it; Mrs Skemralka has told me to-day . . . what are we going to do . . . for God’s sake . . . Jesus Mary. . . .’ And she had begun to cry.

It was a curious thing, but as soon as the cylinders left off turning and the engine stopped, these visions ceased, and now, at the moment when he ought to have done what he wanted to do, his courage failed him, and his reason returned. While the overseer inside the engine was putting in the fresh paper, two workmen were turning the machine with a separate lever in obedience to the orders from inside: ‘Slowly . . . enough . . . go on.’ It would only have needed a movement of Kuba’s hand towards the lever, and the overseer would never have given another order. But Kuba became like a statue, his arm cleaving to his body. He wished he were at least capable of looking at the place where the overseer was putting his fingers positively between the teeth of the beast like a tamer who may do as he likes with the lion’s mouth.

But he could not even do that, and before he was able to collect himself the familiar dry sound of the rustling paper indicated that it was passing over the cylinders again, and the overseer cried: ‘Stop!’ He crept out, and a click at the cylinder indicated that the leverage had been put out of action; the men cried: ‘Ready,’ and the chief engineer, in virtue of his sole right, set the machinery going again. For a second it hummed like a spindle, and then roared afresh like a waterfall. And with its voice Satan was beginning to speak again; he laughed at Kuba’s cowardice, and seared his temples as with flames. As soon as Kuba thought of his home, he heard the crying of the twins, and then his murderous desire grew in him to such an extent that he could hardly wait for the paper-roll to be finished. But when the time came, he could not move.

So it came to pass that the fourth roll, the one with the torn cover, with death riding on it, went down the maw of the machine without injuring a hair on the overseer’s head; that the seventh also passed the same way with a blot of oil on it which pursued it through all the copies, and that at last only two rolls were left.

When the last but one was hauled up, the last but one: ‘Ready!’ was called. And again spindle and waterfall were set in motion. Once more, for this last chance, the demon bestrode Kuba’s soul and heated his brain with the thought: ‘If I don’t do it now, it will never be done.’

Although he bit his teeth together to master the unendurable pain, they chattered, and he gulped and struggled for breath from time to time. His hands and feet trembled as though he were in a fever, and when he reached out for the brake, his fingers shook violently. In all his life he had never experienced so much searing rage, such intense passion as he did now, while the moments rushed on madly, and yet too slowly for his murderous intention. At last!

They were hauling up the last roll. Kuba had to hold on to something, else he would have fallen down. If he had been commanded to stir from his place, he would have been unable to do so. He could not even turn his head and look at his victim, so as to be ready to start the engine suddenly and let it seize his hand at the right moment, when he had his fingers between the cylinders.

‘Slowly . . . enough . . .’ he heard him say.

Kuba started up. The red-hot vice which seemed to have held his head round the temples, now twisted it round by the neck, and his smarting eyes looked at what they had not dared to look on before, the inside of the machine. He saw the curly head of the overseer, saw the fingers of his right hand, which were deftly putting the paper between the cylinders. The moment had come.

The spasmodic impulse which had twisted his head round, was now tearing his arm from his side and bringing his fist to the handle of the lever. But what was happening?

The white light of the electric lamps turned to a blood-red glow, the twists of electric wire became yellow, then red, and went out. All this did not take more than half a second, then there was complete darkness. Curses and shouts were heard.

But within this half second a mad thought rushed through Kuba’s mind: Satan himself had sent him this darkness, so as to cover the deed and its perpetrator. Who could say which of the three levers had set the engine in motion?

Quickly now, while he is inside!

A thousand sparks were dancing in a huge circle before Kuba’s eyes, while with a violent movement he reached out for the handle . . . he reeled, feeling a sudden sharp pain in his right hand.

But above everything he was feeling a supreme joy in satisfied revenge. The machine began to puff and roar and rush like a waterfall. Above the din Kuba fancied he heard the screams of pain from his victim’s throat . . . he even heard words. . . .

But the roaring ceased suddenly, and turned into mere humming. Kuba realised that this humming was only in his ears, that the engine was silent, and that the voice of the overseer was going on, but not in the least in pain or in agony.

‘Damn that fellow down below, is he asleep? Somebody run and see what’s the matter. And no reserve light either! Does a match cost a fortune in this place?’

A light was flickering, a burning match was raised to the gas-burner, which hissed and caught. Close to the flame Kuba saw the face of the overseer, who had himself lighted the gas, in sharp outline. Three other flames shot up on the walls and lighted up the large room.

The engine had not moved. The two other workmen were standing at their levers, waiting for further orders. There was absolute silence, and all the eyes which had been turned on the gas-jets, returned to their work. The hands of the transport workers could be heard banging the copies to press them down. Familiar noises were starting again.

The overseer who had crept out of the machine at the moment when the light went out, looked at the cylinders which were in working order, then he stood up, and his eyes met Kuba’s look of horror.

They held him with a look so severe and fixed, that Kuba was unable to turn his eyes away. His feet were trembling, his heart beat as though it would tear itself from the flesh. For a good while the overseer looked him in the eyes, then suddenly his own severe eyes were lighted up by a smile so genial and almost friendly, that Kuba could not help smiling back at him. The overseer gave him a nod which expressed trust and at the same time a warning. Then he turned to the two other workmen. ‘Attention!’ he called out.

The brake left the cylinder with a click, the men cried: ‘Ready.’

The chief engineer set the lever in motion, the engine purred like a spindle, and broke into a roar like a waterfall, to finish the last ten thousand copies. Not until much later, when the paper stream was again rushing past, did Kuba dare to look at his knuckles. He had grazed the skin of all four of them. In the darkness and unspeakable excitement he had missed the handle and dashed his hand with his full strength against a piece of metal which had taken the skin off his knuckles and made his hand bleed. His over-wrought senses and unfettered imagination, combined with the rushing of the blood in his temples, had misled him into thinking that he had really set the engine in motion under cover of darkness.

The last few hundred copies had long been sent into the neighbouring office whence came the sound of thuds with which the stamps were affixed to the postal copies. Somebody was preparing a shakedown on which to spend the night till sunrise; the printing-press, covered with paper dust, and defaced by numberless streaks of stale oil, stood still and silent, as though it were as tired as its servants. Kuba did not stir; he stared in front of him as if he had been annihilated, looking without thought or consciousness at some object which he did not take in.

The overseer, who was putting on his overcoat, came up to him: ‘Well, Spattered Kuba,’ he addressed him, ‘if you have not found another job we will keep you on . . . what the devil has happened to your hand? I am always telling you men, you won’t be careful until one of you leaves his paw in the machine. And as you have told me that you get the toothache at that lever, you can change places with Strizek; there is no draught in that place.’

And the overseer moved towards the door: ‘Ah . . . haaaa . . .,’ he yawned, covering his mouth with his hand.

‘Sir,’ stammered Kuba, crushed with shame, while the tears were rising in his eyes, ‘sir, God repay you. . . .

‘Don’t be a fool, old man, you know we have got to be strict. I have had to put in a good word for you with the manager. If it hadn’t been for those twins . . . well, so long.’ And he shut the door behind him.

Kuba sat down on a barrel of print, pressed his face into his oil-smeared hands and sobbed, letting the tears trickle through his fingers.