Selected Czech Tales/The Death of Count Christopher des Loges

Selected Czech Tales  (1925)  translated by Marie Busch and Otto Pick
The Death of Count Christopher des Loges by František Xaver Šalda




He was too infirm now to walk alone; two footmen in grey liveries, with coarse, red, clean-shaven faces, led him hither. Up till now they had accompanied rather than led him, but the doctor had pointed out to them the possibility of a fall, and this had made them be on their guard constantly; they were therefore also constantly anxious and cross.

Only last year he had still been able to come here by himself—now and then accompanied by his doctor—to this garden of varieties which startled the casual observer like the incoherent ramblings of a lunatic’s imagination. It was as if a team of whims had taken the bit between the teeth and come to grief within sight of the onlooker.

There was a clearing in the quietest and most remote part of the park, covered with frail grasses, that were scorched by the heat at this season. It was planted with trees; some were tall, some undersized, some quite stunted; some were well-matured, some of more recent growth; some were indigenous, while others, of exotic origin, were doing badly in their present conditions. A few were taken out of the hothouses when the weather was fine, and placed by the gardeners in the exact positions in which the aged count liked to see them, so that close to a group of fine, bristling Northern firs, stunted olives, oranges and lemon trees would languish in wooden tubs, sheltered from the north wind, and unfold their large blossoms. Here a mimosa drooped its long sprays over a myrtle bush, there it would mingle its sweetness with that of the rose of Jericho or an Ailanthus: laurels touched Japanese camelias, and next to the proud, funereal obelisk of a cypress, enfolded within its severe shape like a frosty cloud whose outlines no wind will disturb, an aspen responded to the slightest breeze, so that it seemed almost as if its leaves were raising the wind of themselves.

All these trees and shrubs had been brought hither from his travels in distant lands by Christopher des Loges, who had been a great adventurer, lover, and man of the world. Most of them he had planted in this curious garden with his own hands. They were a secret code in which he had written down the most interesting part of his life-story. The idea had been suggested to him at the Vallée aux Loups, where as a young attaché he had visited Chateaubriand, who interested him as a great diplomatist, not as a poet. But Count Christopher possessed a still more fastidious discretion. He often thought of the distinguished old man, depressed with age, fame, and especially with an intolerable ennui and sterile melancholy. Chateaubriand had taken his young colleague round the garden, his face overshadowed with the cool cloud of a silent pride, and had shown him with a short, tired movement of his hand the cedars from Lebanon and the pines from Champagne which he had brought back from his travels. Count Christopher never could understand why this man had written his Mémoires d’outre tombe, when he had created this singular park for the reception of his memories. And because of his not understanding, he showed himself to be more of the aristocrat of the old school than Chateaubriand himself.

Every shrub, every tree had a name; each one reminded the count of an event, or at least of a distinct impression or emotion; a grave, a drunken orgy, a woman, a friend; this stood for a broken vow, that for a disappointed hope, an unappreciated devotion, or unjustifiable hatred.

There was a birch, shimmering in the sun, which had been brought from the Polish plains, and named ‘Mecislava.’ Des Loges had plucked it from the grave of a beautiful woman for whose sake he had fought a duel, and whom he then had cast off; soon afterwards she had died. When he had visited Masovia for the second time, he had pulled the slender sapling from her snow-covered, neglected grave, on a night when he had ridden from the village inn to the castle, in company with a wild cavalcade of drunken comrades. He had made a detour to ride across the cemetery; when he returned to overtake his companions, he had very nearly lost his life. The little tree, strapped to the saddle, had startled the horse which was unaccustomed to carrying such a singular object, and had thrown the count. In the morning he was found, half frozen, and with a broken ankle.

In another part a stunted pine in a tub reminded the aged man of her wonderful mature sisters, under whose umbrella-shaped crowns he had been wont to lay down the languid body of his Roman mistress on a bed of copper-coloured wild lilies and tenderest anemone leaves. All that his endless cruises along the coast and melancholy drives through the Campagna had meant to him, was enshrined in this insignificant little tree.

Far back, at the end of the plantation, a larch bristled with clumps of delicate needles. Thirty years ago it had been a tiny tree in a clearing, and had marked Christopher’s place in a duel with a famous swordsman. He had thought it unlikely on that occasion that he would return alive. But the Sempervivum, a blossom that possesses magic charms, being the plant of immortality, was growing around him thickly from the crevices of the crumbling terrace; the herb of the blue-green god, brought hither from Greece.

Then there were trees and shrubs at which Count Christopher hardly dared to look; at least he always took off his eyes as soon as they fell on them, as though they had been scorched with glowing coals. Some memories one carefully avoids, perhaps for the very reason that it is no longer necessary to do so.

Daily during the summer, when the weather was fine, Count Christopher des Loges, great adventurer, lover, and man of the world, and now a weak-minded septuagenarian, was led hither, tottering and supported by the two lackeys with dull red faces and a vague brutal fury hidden deep down under their clean-shaven skin and mask-like faces. There were moments when the count’s eyes rested scrutinizingly on these faces, and the old man seemed to grind something between his teeth. To be able to fasten your nails into these masks! Could they be torn off? Much blood would no doubt gush forth. Beasts! It seemed to him as if all life had crept far down below the surface, underneath its bark, or had hidden itself behind a mask. Here then he would sit, handsome and proud even in his decay, on a deck-chair brought by one of the footmen. There was still something leonine about his head with its grey locks and prominent cheek bones, with the sensual, disdainfully curved lips and forbidding expression. As he sat there, his head bent forward, his hands resting on the knob of his stick, he seemed more like an injured man brooding on revenge than one crushed by age. His heavy eyelids only, half covering his eyes and raised with difficulty, and the deep lines across his cheeks betokened his decay.

During the days of this summer, as soon as he had sunk back into his chair and told the lackeys to be off, he would lose himself in silent, passionate dreams. He was living through his youth once more. The more recent layers of his memory had died already, had decayed, and disclosed the older strata. Events and pictures long obliterated began to glow and spend their last warmth on the aged man when he sat in the heat of the midday summer sun, which made the sluggish blood course more violently through his veins. His lips meanwhile remained cold and half-open, like those of a man dying of thirst; his throat felt dry, and his dull eyes glowed as in a fever.

Sometimes he would ask the lackeys who came to fetch him to his dinner: ‘Has Lisa come? And do not forget, the Haydn Quartet are coming to-night.’

But Lisa had been rotting for a score of years in the chapel vault, and the players of the Haydn Quartet had been dispersed even longer than that, and fate had blown them hither and thither before throwing their bones into the cemeteries of various countries.

‘Very good, Your Honour,’ the lackeys would answer by the doctor’s orders, and wink at each other.

There was one thing in real life which could still excite the aged count: the naked feet of women, of the labouring women who worked in the plantations, and were sometimes obliged to pass him on their way. His eyes under the once arched brows would open wide, and from under his eyelids a flash dart forth which greedily devoured the foot from the sole upwards, and rested on the hips, excitedly but with the critical appraisement of the connoisseur.

On this August day when the air was trembling with heat, and fire was pouring down from the sky, the count was sitting in his deck-chair as usual. He had taken his wonted walk through the bizarre plantation, but to-day he had tarried longer over it. He had stood still in places which he avoided as a rule, from which he would purposely turn away. For a long time he had stood looking at a small tree in a round wooden tub which the gardener had just carried out from the hothouse; it was a Taggiasca, the rarest kind of olive, which covers the steep hillsides of Porto Mauricio on the Italian Riviera. He had gazed at the pruned tree for a long time, then uttered a senile groan and shuffled towards his chair.

Under the influence of the sun’s hot rays he remembered steep terraces covered with olive trees, wonderful olive trees, hundreds of years old, peopled with wood sprites; eloquent as a grave; personal in their individuality, like great men. He remembered olive-mills driven by rushing waters amid moss and ferns, and hands of women working among these terraces generation after generation. He thought of a pair of particularly small hands, passionate in their embraces, and ever ready to snatch up a knife, and of white, sinuous and affectionate feet which he had pursued in their flight up those terraces that seemed to be made for chamois’ feet. Then he saw those same feet, white, sinuous and affectionate, dashed against the rocks; saw the black rocks spattered with hot blood spilled through his fault. . . .

Again the aged man groaned; it was a sound so hollow and horrible that he was startled himself for a moment, as if he thought that not he but some one else had uttered it. He did not know how long he had been sitting there; his thoughts were concentrated on one tragic point. He could see nothing but those white, sinuous, affectionate feet that had been destroyed through his fault. He saw them running over the rocks, or moving in a graceful dance; he saw them stark and dead, showing almost severe and threatening from under the mist of the light covering. The sun madly beat down upon the earth, the crickets chirped their metallic, deafening song, the blood in his temples was throbbing, but all these sounds melted into one, and the aged, embittered man heard only the sound of waves dashing against rocks that were spattered with blood which he had wantonly wasted.

The laughter of a young thing, apparently approaching him, suddenly startled him from his dream. At the same time he saw a pair of graceful, light, sinuous and gentle feet, which together with the laugh produced an effect of something musical and irresponsible. An intoxication as from the aroma of a fine hock rose to the count’s head and deceived him with a mad anticipation.

A number of young women and girls ran past him with their skirts tucked up high; some were carrying rakes on their shoulders. About a dozen naked feet danced and floated past him, but only one pair belonged to her; he would have known them among a thousand.

All his senses were roused. His eyes dilated with a magnificent, primeval wildness, his veins swelled, and his whole body showed a single tragic pose, the hunger for the fulfilment of passion, or death. It was as if his youth, long since dead, had been allowed to return once more, to give this weak body a mad, deadly tension, while the final blow was held suspended above his head.

The girls, horrified at this sight, were seized with animal fear, and fled in wild confusion as from a catastrophe.

‘Rita! Rita!’ The aged man’s groan seemed to issue not from his throat only but from his whole body. A frightened girl ran down the steep incline, the count pursued her. This chase after youth did not last long; it soon turned into a chase after death. Count Christopher of a sudden stumbled over the stump of a tree and fell heavily, knocking his temple against one of the boulders which were lying about in this part of the grounds. He fell without a sound.

‘Look at the monster . . . so old and so sinful!’ said one of the footmen, who had been called by the girls.

‘What do you expect? A good horse will die in harness,’ said the other and grinned. He did not know that he had summed up Count Christopher’s philosophy in these words.

They lifted him up and carried him to the castle with the lazy steps of footmen. He was heavy, and they often stood still, mopped their faces and yawned.