Short Stories from the Balkans/A Trip to the Other World

2835784Short Stories from the Balkans — A Trip to the Other WorldEdna Worthley UnderwoodKálmán Mikszáth


THE people of my country do not like to travel. The high, blue mountains that surround them, shut out the world. Besides, what could there be that is different on the other side of the mountains? And the rich people and the influential are of just the same opinion.

There is only one man in this part of the country—Franz Nagy—(and he lived a century or more ago!)—who has traveled. Once he went almost to Prague. After that all the people of his name went by the title of “the Prague Nagys.”

If there was one who had been almost to Prague, there were hundreds who had not been as far away as the next village, and among the latter is Paul Rediki. Once, because of an important law suit, upon the result of which all his property depended, he was called to Vienna. But he declared: “Rather would I lose all I have than travel to Vienna.” And he did just as he said and he became a sort of popular hero.

This affair in some way or other came to the knowledge of the Administration. Just what he did do or did not do I have forgotten, but the fact remains that King Ferdinand V invited him by letter to Vienna ad audiendum verbum regium.

When Paul Rediki received this invitation he seated himself at the table and penned a dignified refusal. He explained that he had just taken an oath never to go to Vienna, and he hoped that His Majesty would be gracious and pardon him, that he was very sorry that he could not possibly come. How very different was he from men of today.

However, it happened after many, many years that old Vienna bestirred herself and moved nearer. The wing-swift railroad had been built. Our great blue mountains were pierced through and through, and the velvet-soft, green meadows were covered with iron ribbons, upon which wheels were to roll.

Paul Rediki was in favor of the railroad, and worked lustily for it. “It will bring money and prosperity to our community,” he declared, “and it will make our harvests of value.”

Too bad that he was not at home when the first flower-decked coaches rolled in; but he lay ill in an hospital where he had been sent by order of the doctor.

Upon the important day the entire country-side assembled. “We shall see now,” argued the peasants “whether it is true or not.” “It’s all just foolish talk,” declared Martin Saki, the cobbler of Tiszle. “Nothing will come of it. I’ll bet you, brothers—it can’t move ten paces.”

“How could it go without horses?” questioned Mathias Kozka, laughing. Gabor Kovacz, who took care of the church, said he was willing to lie right down on the track in front of the engine, but the village watchman would not let him.

“Well, if it doesn’t do any good, it won’t do any harm!” he consoled himself by saying.

The railway officials were the butt of jests and scorn.

“Take a halter along any way, because you bet you’ll have to pull that Polish village.” The long coaches with their rows of little windows, fastened together in a long line, looked to them like a village of small and diminutive houses.

In the meantime the invited gentry had assembled. They climbed on to the coaches and the huge, foolish machine began to puff and snort and blow like a wild horse, while the smoke poured forth and spread out across the pleasant fields. A whistle, and the long line of little Polish houses moved with a noise like thunder, and the more they moved, the faster, until it was just like an arrow shot from the bow.

Gabor Kovacz crossed himself piously again and again, and stuttered in confusion: “That’s not the work of God, men! The devil is behind it.”

“Let the fool think so,” contradicted Istvan Tot.

“I tell you that there are horses inside of it.”

“But where? We ought to see them.”

“I’ll bet my soul they are hidden there! Probably in every second little house, there are two parade horses from the circus, and they pull along the houses which are behind them.”

That was the most reasonable explanation, and found ready belief. Only the most zealous and religious kept insisting that it was tempting God's mercy, and it was the work of the devil.

These seemed to have hit upon the truth; because when the train came back from its trial trip at noon, the heavens began to bear witness to the anger of God.

At the great banquet just as all were lifting their wine glasses to drink the health of the absent Paul Rediki, and the voices rang out: “Here’s to—!” a telegram came saying that Paul Rediki was dead. He died at exactly nine o’clock, the very moment when the train entered his village. So his soul went journeying away with it.

Outside a storm began to rage. It uprooted trees, unroofed houses, the lightning struck apart, like a sword of God, the great bell in the tower and destroyed one of the small station houses. The reapers of Paul Rediki saw bloody rain drops falling upon the grass. That’s what always happens when man tempts the mercy of God.

On the third day at three o'clock the burial was to take place. At half past two the coffin was to come on the train, and the services were to be conducted with pomp such as had never been seen before in Gernyefalva. Printed invitations had been sent to the gentry of the neighborhood. Nine reverend gentlemen of neighboring villages were there. The country roads as far as one could see were black with crawling wagons. Even the pupils from the Selmezlanya had been invited and were approaching in numbers 

The dead man deserved this honor because he was a reliable man, a man who kept his word even unto death. But they were obliged to get along with only the little bell because the big bell had been ruined in the thunder shower.

There were numberless mourners dressed in black. The black, draped catafalk was placed under the linden tree; here seats were brought out, the tapers lighted, the singer cleared his throat, and the mourners took their places.

Now nothing was lacking but the dead man. The master of ceremonies, clothed in full dignity, looked impatiently at his watch. “He must be here very soon.”

Carl Petroczig, who had arranged everything properly for the ceremony, hastened to quiet him.

“He must be here soon. The wagon has already been sent on to the station.” After a brief period of waiting, rattle of wheels was heard, the crowd began to sway to and fro, each one stretched up and tried to look over the one in front. While curiosity whispered, there were heard cries of astonishment and displeasure, and the members of the family began to separate.

“What is the matter? What has happened?” inquired the people, and stepped about lively upon each other’s corns, in their effort to reach the catafalk where the relatives were assembled.

Petroczig, as paralyzed as if he had been turned suddenly into a statue, gave the explanation, in a tone that resembled despair.

“My brother-in-law has not come: he has been delayed.”

It was really true; the dead man had delayed his own funeral. They sought him on the train, but he was nowhere to be found, although a telegram had come which said that he had been sent on it. There was nothing for it now but for the assembly of mourners to depart, and to beg the pardon of the others, that they had come in vain.

“How people do change when they are dead!” observed the reverend Pastor Mukuczek, angrily. “The blessed man was always so punctual, too, when he was alive.”

The crowd dispersed, while the family hastened to demand again the body by telegram. But it did not come the next day, nor the third, nor the fourth. They could not get any trace of it.

At length after elapse of a week they found it in Vienna. So Fate willed it that he should visit the city, which he declared he would not enter for any price.

The wagon with the body, by some accident, was driven to the station for Vienna, and placed in a car attached to that train. So poor Paul Rediki, after his death, traveled the length and breadth of Austria for an entire week.

That is the reason that I insist that it is better to die at home, but it is a good deal better still, not to die at all.