Selected Czech Tales/The Naughty Child
THE NAUGHTY CHILD
If the learned counsel permits, I should like to thank him for his brilliant defence, which in spite of its thoroughness and ability has resulted in my condemnation. I am saying this without bitterness or irony; I know only too well that in the eyes of the majority of people my case is one that deserves no pity.
I am not asking for it either. But before I die, I should like to say a few words which may subsequently help psychologists in the analysis of a certain type to which I belong. This is my case:
I am the fifth and youngest child of a customs officer in a small provincial town. There were three sisters and a brother older than myself. My father, who had been annoyed at the birth of three daughters successively, is said to have been mad with joy at the arrival of this my elder brother. But this happiness did not last long, for the boy was sickly all through his infancy, and every winter his life hung in the balance.
All his hopes, therefore were centred in me. I was the first child in the town known to have a perambulator with rubber wheels, a fact on which the entire population commented for years afterwards. I was dressed up like a doll, and decked out in ribbons. When the nurse carried me out, I was wrapped in a red shawl shot with gold. People turned round to look after me, and the great lady of the place, the countess, once left her carriage in the market square in view of everybody, to kiss my forehead.
Imagine my father’s happiness, sir! He was of humble birth. Through a happy combination of circumstances he had been able to take his degree at a university, and to marry a comparatively rich wife. Being an ambitious man, he looked upon every member of his family as a means to attain the social success for which he was longing. Unfortunately my brother and sisters took after my mother, who was a plain little woman with a nose like a knob; they had also inherited her homeliness and slow peasant mentality.
So my father looked upon me as the sole hope of the family. I soon enjoyed endless privileges: I was free to beat the nurse and use my youngest sister as a riding-horse. My fair hair was allowed to grow and was twisted into curls. With my bright blue eyes and a lace collar I was not unlike the princes in van Dyck’s picture. I had no difficulty in wiping out the remembrance of naughty tricks by engaging looks and rippling laughter.
The sum of my little sins increased. Once I devastated a pansy-bed and did not leave one plant alive; another time I threw a stone at the gardener’s boy and hurt his head. One day I nearly set the house on fire by a shot from a toy gun which I fired close to the curtains. As a rule allowances were made for me; only now and then, when things became too bad, my father would make his displeasure felt. But then I used to sulk, and as every one was silent when I would not speak, my father generally capitulated very soon. He would pet me and give me a penny. At this price I consented to be conciliated, for I was passionately fond of snow-cakes of which fifteen could be bought for a penny.
I was sent to school before I was ten. The masters were astonished at my precocity. But I did not like going to school. The close air of the school-rooms did not suit me, and I grew thin, and complained of headaches. As I was treated differently from the other children, my complaints resulted in my going to school only now and then on visits. I thought my fellow-pupils coarse and rude; they jeered at me, examined and felt me all over, and made me feel like a man who has fallen among a herd of monkeys. They drank up my little bottle of wine which the doctor had prescribed for my anemia, pulled my sandwiches out of my pocket, and ate the chocolate with which my mother provided me. I went home crying.
At last my parents decided to take me away from school altogether. For whole days I played in the nursery, and my laughter once more rang through the house.
Then I was sent to the High School. Favouritism continued to shelter me; I was not forced to work, and spent most of the school hours in playing tric-trac under the desk with my neighbour. My masters unanimously declared that I was a genius, but lacked application.
When I was thirteen, my father was given an appointment in Prague. This change in my surroundings was the first rung on the ladder of those misfortunes to which fate has chained me ever since. In the country our circumstances had placed me among the well-to-do; now we had arrived in an inferno of noisy streets, and women in expensive dresses. My father, instead of being one of the influential people, had become merely one of a thousand civil servants.
The masters, who were apt to take for granted that a pupil from the provinces must be badly taught, worried me like devils. They treated me as though I were either an idiot, or else a dangerous ne’er-do-weel. Far from being a favourite myself, I saw others being favoured. I once ventured to give my opinion on this point to our Latin professor, a dried-up little man with a badger’s face, who enjoyed nothing more than giving bad marks.
From that day onward school-life became a torture-chamber, with the masters as executioners. I became neurotic; at one moment I would burst into tears, at the next go mad with fury. I fought sanguinary battles with my more favoured comrades.
The final result at the examination was that I failed in five subjects. This had the effect of changing the feelings of my parents towards me. My elder brother, a conscientious worker, who until recently had been regarded as a bundle of stupidity at home, earned decent reports through sheer industry, while I, ‘the prodigy,’ was left behind. When my brother was moved into the upper form, my father gave him a cigar on Sundays as an outward sign of his new dignity. I hated him for this cigar; I hated him for having usurped my place in the home; hated him for having to wear out his clothes; hated him as I hated my masters and fellow pupils.
A cousin in the cadet corps became my ideal. I used to visit him at the barracks in Joseph Square, and listened rapturously to the cracking of rifles, the rhythmic steps of the drilling soldiers, the drums, and the pleasant chatting when the command ‘Stand easy’ had been given. We smoked cigars and drank wine together in the canteen; for the first time in my life I listened to talk about women, and it drifted into my soul like sparks. I already fancied myself dressed in a blue uniform with bright buttons, wearing the white gloves that caress a woman’s cheek so pleasantly.
It was proposed, then, that I should enter the cadet-corps. I had to undergo a physical examination, and the medical officer declared me unfit for military service on account of a congenital weakness. I ran out of the room; in the passage I burst into tears; I wept as though my heart were breaking. I could have beaten my father and mother who had made me a cripple at birth.
Work seemed to me more useless than ever. I argued that if my parents were responsible for my being born a cripple, it was also their duty to make up to me for the happiness which had slipped through my fingers. I was quite clear on this point, that they were under obligation to me, not I to them.
But far from honouring these obligations, my father apprenticed me to a bricklayer, after I had firmly refused to re-enter the torture-chamber of the school.
It so happened that my master put me to work at a new house which was being built close to the barracks of the cadet corps. My imagination was busy all the time with drilling, fixing bayonets, and attacking the enemy with my companies. And here I was, having to hand bricks, and fetch tobacco for a drunken foreman. I had thoughts of jumping into the Moldavia.
At last my parents realized that this state of things was unbearable. They took me away from the bricklayer, and from that time onwards my life became an Odyssey. I was clerk to an income-tax collector in a provincial town; assistant to a chemist; I worked in a brewery. I waded through oceans of malt, pounded drugs, listened to the chink of money on the collector’s table. Sometimes I stuck to my job for two months, sometimes for a fortnight. I was unsuccessful in everything, on account of my ineradicable repugnance to work, which was the foundation of my character.
My father, not knowing what to do with me, threatened me with a house of correction. I was spared this humiliation only because my mother, when she heard of it, had a heart attack which very nearly cost her her life.
I was now twenty-one. I loitered about the streets of Prague all day long in shabby clothes and greasy collars. The continual noise of the traffic, the lighted shop windows with their glittering display, all these things were to me what the smell of food is to the starving. With my hands in my pockets, feverishly trying to find a single coin in them, I stood on the pavements, watching the ebb and flow of passers-by. I saw women with magnificent busts, shown to the best advantage by enormous lace fichus; women with tiny hands, and small black boots which I could have kissed; this endless procession of fragrant femininity passed me, and vanished without deigning to give me a single glance. This would drive me almost mad at times. My senses became confused, and I fancied I could hear in the clatter of the horses’ hoofs the chink of the money for which I might have bought any one of these charming, elegant creatures.
How I ached for these women! But what do you, sir, know about that? You have had enough money to buy mistresses, and when you were tired of them you got married, and are now smoking your cigars in the family circle, surrounded by your children.
The irritability of my nerves grew worse when I became acquainted with others who were as unhappy and disappointed as I was. We met daily. Debates were our sole occupation. We debated in reeking top-floors in the room of one or the other of us; we debated on endless promenades along the embankment; in cafés that were open all night; we debated over empty cups of coffee finished hours ago.
Sometimes we all burst out crying and embraced each other, as though we were on the point of taking a leap into an abyss.
I began to read sociological literature, certain books in red covers, the very titles of which would make a bourgeois like you, sir, shiver. I tried to find an explanation in these books for the reason why I should be starved of all the good things which others enjoyed. But I sought in vain.
These are the reasons, and they are the sole reasons, sir, why I fired the three shots at the fat bourgeois, the first man who on a certain day crossed my path. I had no personal grievance against him, and if it had been you, instead of now being my brilliant defender, you would have been my victim. To me this bourgeois was simply symbolical of a certain class which does no more work than I did, and yet is rich and happy. I shall probably not attain these two attributes even in that world to which the gallows will elevate me in a week or a fortnight’s time.