Short Stories from the Balkans/All Souls' Day

2548467Short Stories from the Balkans — All Souls' DayEdna W. UnderwoodJan Neruda


I DO not know how often on All Souls' Day she had been to the graveyard of Koscher, but today she is hurrying there again, and her feet do not bear her as nimbly as of yore. Everything else, however, was just as it used to be years ago. At eleven o'clock her heavy body got out of the droshky, then came the coachman carrying gravewreaths, wrapped in a piece of white cloth, and last a five year old child, warmly dressed. This little girl had been five years old for fifteen years. Every year Miss Mary borrows her in the neighborhood.

“There, my dear! Now look—look at the crowd of people. It's a good sized crowd, isn't it? And the candles, and the little lamps, and the flowers! Go on, my child—go on! Don't be afraid. Go right ahead wherever you wish. I am coming right behind you.”

The child walks timidly along. Miss Mary follows, encourages it, but she does not point out the direction which they are to take. It trots along and turns this way and that until at last Miss Mary says: “Wait, dear!” She takes the child by the hand and guides it between two graves. She takes down from an iron cross, the wreath, bleached by wind and weather, and hangs up the fresh one—made of black and white—in its place. Then she places her hand upon the cross and begins to pray. It would be too hard for her to kneel down. At first her eyes rest upon the withered grass and the grey earth, then she lifts her head. Her wide, pleasant face and blue eyes are looking into space. Her eyes become sad, her lips tremble, and tears course down over her face. The little girl is abashed, but her companion hears and sees nothing. Then she draws a long sigh as if she had just gained possession of herself again, smiles through her tears at the child, and speaks in a voice that frames the words a little harshly:

“Go now where you wish! I'm coming right after you.”

Then she began again the strange promenade, and the little girl, trembling and uncertain, decides the direction. Again Miss Mary says: “Stop!” and she goes up to another grave. There she does what she did before, and tarries perhaps a minute longer. Here she places the second withered wreath in the white cloth beside the first one, and then takes her little companion by the hand.

“You are cold, isn't that so? Well, come on—we must not delay then. We'll get into the droshky and drive home. You like to drive, don't you?”

After some effort they reached the droshky, the little child and the wreaths ahead and Miss Mary follows not without difficulty. The wheels creak, two blows fall upon the horse and they set out.

Thus it goes, year out and year in. Miss Mary, secretive and unapproachable, had attached herself to no one throughout her life. From childhood she had had but one friend, Miss Louise, who now was the faded widow of the superintendent of finance, Nocar. Today she will visit Mrs. Nocar a while. Only seldom does she visit her friend, because she goes out little, and only leaves her dwelling on Sunday morning, when she goes to mass in Nicholas church. As fat as she is she cannot join walking parties. Therefore, she is spared by her friend Mrs. Nocar, who usually calls upon her daily. As result of sincere friendship extending over a period of years, they are one heart now, one thought.

Today especially if Miss Mary were at home alone she would be melancholy. The house would be emptier than usual. For Mrs. Nocar, too, it is a holy day. Never on any other day is she so especially careful at the coffee roasting, so particular that the cakes be light and well baked. Today her conversation is always carried on in a sort of subdued voice. They do not say very much, but what they do say, sounds monotonous. From time to time a tear shines upon the cheek and the number of their friendly embraces is increased. They sit long upon the sofa side by side, until they reach the yearly point of their conversation.

“The dear God,” begins Mrs. Nocar, “has treated us both alike. I had a good brave husband and two years ago he was taken away from me forever—and he did not even leave me a little baby to take care of. Since then I am all alone. I don't know which is worse—to have and lose or not to have.”

“You know, do you not,” replied Miss Mary, solemnly, “that I have always complied with the will of God? I knew my life long ago. I was to have only a dream. I dreamed—when I was only twenty years old—that I was at a ball—you know, of course, that I never went to a ball in all my life. We were promenading in the splendidly lighted salon, while the music played. But the dance-salon was just like a great empty attic! Suddenly I saw couples, one after the other, walk down the great stair-case; I was the last to come—with my dancing partner. I can't recall just now how his face looked. There were only a few of us left up above there, when I turn my head and see Death drawing near to us. He wore a green velvet mantle, a white feather in his hat, and he carried a sword. Then I looked upon the stairs where the others were—and they were all gone; even my dancing partner had vanished. Then Death took my hand and led me away. For a long time after that I was in a palace and Death was there—my husband. He treated me real well and he semed to like me, but I could not get used to him. We lived in the most astonishing splendor. There was crystal and gold and velvet. But I did not care anything about it. I wanted to go back to the world, and my page—he was another Death—kept telling me all the time what happened there. My grief at length affected my husband and I saw it. Then I knew that I should never marry and that Death would be my bridegroom. Now, Louise, don't you see that dreams come from God? Has not a two-fold death separated my life from other people?”

And Mrs. Nocar wept and wept, although she was not listening to the dream for the first time, and she poured refreshing balm upon the grief filled heart of her friend.

The fact that Miss Mary never married is interesting. She was left an orphan early, and in possession of a comfortable two-storied house. She was not an ill-favored girl. Any one could see that today. She was tall—as only few women are—her blue eyes were good to look at, and her face, although a trifle too broad, was pleasant and the features were regular. It was perhaps, because as a child she had been too fat, and they gave her the nickname of “fat Mary.” Because of fat she was a little indolent and did not take active part in the play of the other children. When she became a young lady she did not go to parties often and limited her exercise to a daily walk. The people then all corresponded to marked types, and Miss Mary was the type of an old maid. If any of her acquaintances put to her the question, she invariably replied: “Can one not serve God, married or single?” And when anyone asked Mrs. Nocar, she shrugged her shoulders and replied: “Why she did not wish to! She could have married many times—and men of consequence—I know of two myself—good people. She did not wish to!”

I, however, know that the two men were vagabonds and not worth considering. They were the merchant, Cibulka, and the engraver, Rechner, and whenever anyone spoke of them they said—“The vagabonds!” They were good for nothing in every way, no mind, no character. Rechner never worked before Wednesday, and Saturday afternoon again, he did not work.

“He might have scraped together a little competence because of his dexterity,” said a friend of my mother, Mr. Hermann—but he didn't like to work. And the merchant Cibulka would rather be in a wine shop than in his own place of business. He did not get out of bed until broad daylight, and then when he went behind the counter he was sleepy and cross. He learned French, I believe, but business was something he did not care to learn, and his clerk ran the shop.

They were always together, these two, and if a spark of nobility flamed up in the soul of one of them, the other was sure to be on hand to extinguish it. But you could not find two more jovial companions—in the beer-hall or the wine shop. Over the narrow, smooth-shaven, pointed face of Rechner, there was always a smile twinkling, like sunshine over fields. His lofty brow, from which long chestnut brown hair was brushed back, did not show a furrow, and about the thin, pale lips played scorn and irony. His thin, dried up body, usually clothed in the yellow-brown that suited him so well, was extraordinarily active and expressive.

Cibulka, his friend, wore black and gave himself the airs of a distinguished gentleman. Like Rechner, he was thin, but he was larger. His small head had a low forehead. It sheltered sparkling eyes under thick, dark brows. The black hair was combed forward toward the face. A long, soft black beard shaded his well formed mouth and under his beard one could see snow-white teeth. His face expressed good humor, lack of control, and emotion. Usually he restrained his laughter as long as he could, and then it burst forth. Then again his face assumed its usual mask. They understood each other. A little twinkle in the eye, and each knew everything the other thought. But they did not have many friends, their jokes were too rough for their honest neighbors. They had the reputation of dissipated men who squandered life. Cibulka and Rechner did not care what the others thought of them. They reveled and played pranks throughout the entire city. They even went as far as distant Frantischek [1] when, late at night, laughter echoed through the streets, it was Cibulka and Rechner coming home.

They were the same age as Miss Mary. They had attended with her the Nicholas Parochial School, but since then they had never troubled themselves about her. They met occasionally upon the street and an indifferent nod was the greeting. Then suddenly, Miss Mary received a letter written in a fine, almost microscopic hand. When she had finished the reading, her hands sank upon her lap, and the letter fluttered to the floor.

Highly Esteemed Miss:

You will be surprised that I dare to address you, I and no other. I was never bold enough to approach you—but—not to indulge in circumlocutions—I love you! I have loved you for a long time. I have taken council with myself and come to the conclusion that I can find happiness only by your side.

Miss Mary! Perhaps you will be astonished and reject me. Perhaps false reports have blackened my reputation with you, and you will scornfully shrug your shoulders. I must beg you not to hasten to say the decisive word. I make bold to say that in me you will find a husband who will try to make you happy. Only one thing I beg. Consider the offer. Four weeks from today I await the decision—not earlier, not later.

With most passionate devotion,

William Cibulka.

Miss Mary felt as if she had an attack of vertigo. She was in the thirties, and this was her first love letter. She had never thought of love, and no one had ever paid her any attention. Lightning darted through her head, blood pounded in her temples, and she breathed with effort. She was not in condition to formulate any sort of thought. Only in midst of the flashing, red lightning, she saw the gloomy-looking Cibulka.

She picked up the letter from the floor and read it a second time. How beautifully it was written, how tender! She could not bring herself to conceal the letter from her friend. Without being able to utter a word she handed it to her.

“See, see”—observed at last Mrs. Nocar. Her face expressed confusion and surprise. “And what are you going to do?”

“I don't know, Louisa.”

“You have time enough to think. Of course it is possible—but, you know how men are— But— And yet why should he not be in love with you? I'll make some inquiries about him.”

Miss Mary was silent.

“Listen! Cibulka is a fine looking fellow! His eyes are like coals, his beard, too, and his teeth—I say his teeth are like pure sugar. He is really very good looking.”

Mrs. Nocar bent over and embraced her speechless friend. Miss Mary was the color of purple. Just one week later on returning from church, Miss Mary found another letter. She read it with increasing astonishment.

Esteemed Miss:

Do not be angry that I make bold to write to you. The reason of it is that I wish to marry, I am in need of a housekeeper and I have no acquaintances. My business does not permit me to devote my time to pleasure. As I look about, it always seems to me that you are a dear, good young lady. Since I am a good man, it would not be a bad match for you to marry me. I have a business, and I can work, and, with God's help, we shall not want for anything. I am thirty one years old. You know me and I know you. I know that you have property, but that will not do any harm. I must state emphatically that my home cannot get on any longer without a mistress, and that I cannot wait, therefore I beg you to give me an answer within fourteen days at the latest, because in case you refuse me, I must look elsewhere. I am no dreamer, I cannot string together fine words, but I am capable of devotion, and until the time expires, I am

Your devoted

John Rechner, Engraver.

“He writes just like any every day man,” observed Mrs. Nocar in the afternoon. “Look here, Mitzi, now you have a choice between the two. What are you going to do?”

“What am I going to do?” echoed Miss Mary like one in a dream.

“Do you like one better than the other? Now be honest— Does one please you? And which one?”

“William,” breathed Miss Mary, blushing.

Cibulka had become William. Rechner was lost. It was decided that Mrs. Nocar, as the more experienced of the two, should write the letter to Rechner, and then Miss Mary was to copy it.

But scarcely had a week passed when Miss Mary came to her friend again with another letter. Her face beamed with satisfaction. The letter read:
Esteemed Miss:

There is nothing that is wrong, everything has its place. If I had known earlier that my dear friend, Cibulka, had asked for your hand, I should not have made a like venture. But he said nothing to me, and, therefore, I knew nothing. I have already told him everything, and I retire because he is so fond of you. I beg you not to laugh at me. That would not be kind; in addition I can look for happiness elsewhere. It is too bad, but that doesn't make any difference.

Please forget that I am your devoted

John Rechner, Engraver.

“Now you are out of the puddle,” affirmed Mrs. Nocar. “God be praised!”

Miss Mary was alone, but today solitude was so sweet. Her thoughts flew to the future, and they were so alluring, that she went over them again and again. Gradually her thoughts achieved a certain plasticity; they wove themselves into unity, and they represented a beautiful life.

The next day Mrs. Nocar found her friend ill. She lay upon the sofa, her face was white, her eyes were blurred and red. The friend was so startled she was hardly in condition to inquire the cause. Tears filled Miss Mary's eyes, then she pointed to the table. Upon the table lay another letter. Mrs. Nocar had foreboding of something amiss. The letter was indeed serious enough.
Esteemed Miss:

I, too, am not permitted to be happy. The dream is over, I press my hand to my brow, my head is dizzy with pain.

But—no—I cannot take the road which has been paved by the hopes of my one, my only friend! Poor friend—as poor as I!

To be sure you have not yet decided, but what decision would be possible now? I could not live in happiness, while I knew that my dear John was in despair. Even if you should now lift to my mouth the cup of joy—I should not dare to take it!

I am determined. I renounce everything. I beg only for one thing: do not think of me with scorn.

Your devoted

William Cibulka.

“That's pure Idiocy,” declared Mrs. Nocar, breaking into uncontrollable laughter. Anxiously she looked across at Miss Mary.

“Well—truly!” repeated Mrs. Nocar, and sank back in her chair in meditation.

“Good people—both—anyone can see that. But you don't know men, Mitzerl! Such nobility does not last; pretty soon men throw everything to the wind and think only of themselves. Let it all rest, Mary. They'll talk it over together. Rechner is practical, but Cibulka—Cibulka is madly in love with you. Cibulka will surely come!”

Mary's eyes took on a dreamy expression. She believed her friend, and her friend believed her own words. They were both so honest, so free from suspicion; so unworldly. They would have been deeply shocked, if they had known it was all a well planned joke.

“Let it alone—he will come. They'll talk it over together!” assured Mrs. Nocar when she went away.

Miss Mary waited and her thoughts wove themselves again into the former visions of happiness.

Miss Mary waited, and month after month passed by. Sometimes when she took her daily walk she met the two friends. Since they were both quite indifferent to her, they paid no attention to the meeting. Now it seemed to her these meetings were too frequent.

“They'll come around—you'll soon see,” reassured Mrs. Nocar.

At first Miss Mary thought it proper to lower her eyes, but after a time she gained courage and looked at them. They described a wide circle about her, each one bowed most politely and then looked down. Did they ever observe and understand the wave of questioning in Miss Mary's eyes? But I do know that she never once noticed how the two rascals bit their lips and attempted to keep from smiling.

Thus a year passed. In the meantime Mrs. Nocar heard all sorts of stories of ill-repute about them. And carefully she told some of them to her friend. They were degenerate men of bad reputation. Everyone said they would come to a bad end.

Miss Mary was deeply grieved at these communications. Was she guilty of any wrong doing herself? Her friend did not know just what to do.

A second long year and they buried Rechner. He died of consumption. Miss Mary was prostrated. The practical Rechner, as Mrs. Nocar always spoke of him—and love, had it killed him?

Mrs. Nocar then remarked with a sigh: “Now you have decided! Now Cibulka will not delay. Now he will come.”

She kissed Mitzerl, who was white and trembling, upon the forehead.

Cibulka did not delay. Four months later he was carried to the graveyard of Koscher. Inflammation of the lungs caused his death.

It is now more than sixteen years since they have both slept there in peace.

On All Souls' Day, for no amount of money in the world, would Miss Mary decide whose grave she should decorate first. An innocent, five year old child must make the decision, and wherever the child leads, there the first wreath is placed.

Beside the graves of Cibulka and Rechner, Miss Mary bought place for a third grave. People say she has a mania for buying the graves of people of whom she never heard. Mrs. Magdalene Topper lies in one of these graves. God rest her soul! She was a good woman. The grave of Mrs. Topper lies right between the graves of Cibulka and Rechner. I should insult the intelligence of the reader if I should tell him, why I think Miss Mary bought the grave.

  1. Frantischek—a place on the right bank of the Moldau.