The Best Continental Short Stories of 1923-1924/The Imprint

Originally two stories (Šlépěj and Elegie) published in the collection of short stories Boží muka.

3195592The Best Continental Short Stories of 1923–1924 — The Imprint1924Karel Čapek

 This work is a translation and has a separate copyright status to the applicable copyright protections of the original content.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1938, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 85 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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This work was published before January 1, 1929 and is anonymous or pseudonymous due to unknown authorship. It is in the public domain in the United States as well as countries and areas where the copyright terms of anonymous or pseudonymous works are 95 years or less since publication.

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PEACEFULLY, endlessly, snow was falling on the frozen countryside. “Silence always falls with the snow,” reflected Boura, who had taken shelter in a shed.

His isolation amid the vastness of nature made him feel both sad and solemn. So far as his eye could see, the earth was becoming simplified, unified, amplified, ordered into a succession of great white waves. It was unseared by the confused furrows of life. At first, the only movement in this universal silence, the downward fluttering of the snow flakes, grew slower, rarer, and ceased altogether. Timidly the wayfarer trod on the virgin snow, and felt it was strange he should be the first to mark a line of steps on the white expanse. Some one, however, is passing along the main road, a black, snow-spotted figure, walking in the opposite direction. There will be two lines of footprints now, running parallel, then crossing and bringing to this pure, unsullied place the first troubling mark of man.

The oncomer stops, his beard clotted with snow; he is contemplating attentively something over there, by the side of the road.

Boura slowed down and turned searching looks in the same direction; the two lines of footprints meet and stop side by side.

“Do you see that imprint over yonder?” the man asked, pointing to a footprint some six yards from the road they were both standing on.

“Perfectly. It is the footprint of a man.”

“Quite. But where the devil does it come from?”

“Suppose some one must have gone by there,” Boura was going to say, but he stopped, puzzled. The imprint was isolated in the middle of a field; there was no other before or behind; it was a sharp imprint on the white surface of the snow, but no footsteps led either to or from it.

“How is this thing possible?” he said in his astonishment, and made a movement as if to go near it.

“Hold on!” cried the man, stopping him. “You would just make a lot of other footprints around it and spoil it all.”

He added in an irritated tone, “There must be some explanation for it. A solitary footprint is absurd. Suppose he had jumped from here into the middle of the field. That would account for the absence of other footprints. But who could have jumped so far and land on one foot only? He would have lost his balance; he would have had to have leant on the other leg; I imagine he would have had to have run a little, as one does when jumping off a tram when it is going. But here there is no trace of the other foot!”

“It is utterly absurd,” said Boura, “for, had he jumped from here, he would have left traces on this road, and you see the only tracks here are yours and mine. No one has been here before us. The imprint of the heel is turned towards the road. The man who left it must have been going in that direction; had he been going to the village, he would have turned to the right. On this side there are only fields, and what the devil should any one be looking for in the fields at a time like this?”

“Excuse me, but he who placed his foot there must have left again some way or other. I maintain that since there are no other footsteps he cannot have left at all. It is logical. No one has gone by here. One must seek for some other explanation of the imprint.”

Boura was exercising his thinking powers.

“There may have been a natural hollow in the earth or in the frozen mud, which the snow has covered. Or . . . wait a moment! There may have been an old shoe abandoned there which a bird has taken away since the snow began to fall. In that case there would be a spot, in the shape of a single footprint, where there was no snow. One must seek a natural explanation.”

“Had the shoe been there before the snowfall, it would be a black spot, but I see snow in it.”

“Perhaps the bird took away the shoe while it was still snowing or let it fall in its flight and picked it up again. It cannot be an actual footprint; that is clearly impossible.”

“I say, does your hypothetical bird eat shoes? Or make his nest with shoes? A small bird is not strong enough to carry a shoe. One must approach this problem from a broad starting point. I believe it really is a footprint, and, that, since it clearly did not get there in the usual way along the earth, it must have come from above. You suppose a bird: it is possible it may have been a . . . yes, why not? . . . off a balloon. Someone must have got himself suspended from a balloon and made this imprint with his foot just to pull people’s legs. Don’t laugh. I find it very awkward myself to have to imagine such fantastic explanations. . . . I declare I would be glad to know it is not the imprint of a foot.”

The two men drew near to the footprint. No case could have been clearer. An uncultivated field rose in gentle incline from the road and the suspicious mark was almost right in the middle of it. The space between it and the road was virgin snow, bearing not the slightest indication of contact with anything whatsoever. The snow was smooth, soft and friable, there having been no sharp frost.

As to the nature of the mark, no doubt was possible: it was that of a big shoe, of American shape, with very broad sole and five nails on the heel. The snow had been cleanly pressed down and was quite unbroken, there was in the hollow no sign of fresh snowflakes, so the print must have been made since the snowfall had ceased. It was a deep, strong print; the weight that had been brought to bear in the making of it was superior to that of either of the two men examining it.

The hypothesis of a bird carrying a shoe dropped away into silence. Just above the place a tree extended a few thin branches still padded with snow, none of which had fallen off. Yet the slightest tremor would have sufficed for this snow to tumble down in packets. So the hypothesis of a drop from above had to be abandoned too. It was quite impossible to drop anything from above without displacing the snow from the tree.

The only hard, naked fact in the whole thing was the existence of the imprint.

Beyond, the white surface was unbroken.

The two men went up the slope and explored the summit of the ridge; on the other side the incline was equally smooth, of an equally unbroken white, spreading out far to another hillock, still larger and whiter. For miles around there was no sign of the second foot.

They came back and found the line of their own steps, neat and regular as if designed. Between the two tracks, in the center of a trodden circle lay, in cynical solitude still, that imprint of a powerful foot. They both felt an impulse to tread it under foot, to obliterate it, to get rid of it, but something seemed to keep them back.

Exhausted, confused, Boura sat down on a milestone.

“Somebody has been pulling our leg,” he concluded.

“It’s positively disgusting,” said the other man. “The joke is too silly . . . and yet . . . but, great heavens, there are physical limits. This is sheer impossibility. . . . Tell me,” he jerked out suddenly, “since there is but one foot, might it not be that of a one-legged man? Don’t laugh at me; I know it is silly, but one must find some explanation. One’s reason is called in question. It is an onslaught by . . . I don’t know what . . . I am completely at sea. Either we are both mad, or I am having a waking dream, under the influence of fever . . . or else one must find some natural solution.”

Boura gave his opinion pensively: “We are both mad. We are both looking for a natural explanation; we are clinging desperately to the most complicated, the most violently unreasonable suppositions provided they be only natural. It might be much simpler and indeed more . . . natural, if we were to say we are in presence of something supernatural. Then we would merely express our astonishment and go our several ways contentedly. We might even conceivably be satisfied.”

“I certainly should not. If this imprint had served some great purpose, if it could have been of use to anybody, I would cheerfully lead the way and kneel down and cry: It is a miracle! But this thing . . . it is awful, it is idiotic, it is trivial. Why make a single imprint when it is so much easier to make the habitual track?”

“Let us suppose some one were to make a young girl to rise from the dead, here before your eyes. You would kneel down and worship. But before the snow on your knees had melted you would be saying to yourself: nonsense, it was a feigned death. Here, however, there is nothing feigned. Let us admit a miracle has taken place under simplified conditions, like some physical experiment.”

“I may not believe in the kind of resurrection you speak of. But I, too, want to be saved. I, too, am waiting for a miracle, for something that will happen along and change the course of my life. It is not an imprint like this that could save and convert me; it will not solve my doubts. It does nothing but puzzle me. It is fixed there, in my brain. I cannot get rid of it. And yet I do not believe in it. A miracle might satisfy me, but this imprint merely marks a first step towards uncertainty. It would have been much better had I not noticed it at all.”

For a long time the two men were silent. Snow began to fall again, with increasing force.

Boura started speaking once more: “I remember reading in Hume a passage relating to an isolated footprint in the sand. So this is not the first of its kind. There may be thousands of them, and we merely pass them by without noticing them because of our way of living by rule. Another man would have passed by this one without seeing it, never thinking that here was a kind of solitary oddity, that there are some things in this world that bear no relation to any other. Our footprints are all about alike, but you see this solitary footprint is larger and deeper than ours . . . When I get thinking about my own life, it seems to me that I recognise in it tracks that come from nowhere and lead to nowhere. It happens to one to learn or to feel of a sudden something which never had its like before, which never could have its like again. There are human things that are related to nothing, that always and in all places do nothing but prove their own isolation. I know of happenings that had no sequence nor consequence, that achieved nothing and helped nobody and that yet. . . . There are incidents that never recurred, that helped no one to live and yet were perhaps the most important events in one’s life. Have you not got a feeling that this imprint is the finest of any you have seen hitherto?”

The other man replied: “I am thinking of the Seven League Boots. Perhaps such footprints have been found before and perhaps people thought of that explanation. Who knows? Perhaps these other footprints are near Pardubice or Kolin. Perhaps the next similar ones will be in the neighborhood of Rakovnik. But I can also imagine that the next footprint is no longer on snow, but in the midst of a crowd, mixed up with some event or accident that has already happened or that may yet come to pass, in short that this footprint is one of a continuous series of such footprints. Suppose such a series. If the press had a perfect reporting system we might find in the police court or local or miscellaneous news the other footprints and thus trace out the unknown’s journey. Some demigod on his rounds? Marching on incoherently, spasmodically. Some sort of guide, of leader, to be followed? We might then follow up the divine track step by step. That might be the way of salvation. All these things are possible. . . . It is terrible to think that here is one of these steps and that one cannot follow it up.”

Boura started. He rose. The snow was falling ever more thickly and the trodden field, with its great central footprint, was being buried under a new layer of snow.

“I will never let this go,” said the man.

“What? This imprint that is no more and never will be . . .” added Boura pensively.

And they went their opposite roads.


That evening, Boura was giving a lecture to the “Aristotelian Society.” Although there was but a sparse audience, he was feeling exhausted and absent-minded. He felt his hearers were not convinced and that he would have to engage on a debate for which he had a vague antipathy. For a moment he listened to his own voice; it sounded thick and veiled to him, heavy in cadence and affected in accent. In vain did he try to correct and get it under control; he heard it with displeasure.

Then his audience embarrassed him. He had the sensation of their being on the other side of a wall from him, an infinite distance away, and he was angry with himself for his failure to get into mental relation with them. Their faces seemed all alike, annoyingly alike. The whole thing was so lifeless that he lost all sense of reality and was revolving in a kind of void which he could neither dispel nor fill with his words. He made an effort to concentrate on one or two of these faces; he recognised people he knew, but he felt himself a stranger to them and was even surprised at a thousand details about them that struck him for the first time. He said to himself, vaguely, while repeatinghis argument: “What is the matter? How is it I feel soindifferent to my own words?”

He had the ground plan of his lecture cut and dried; he was speaking fluently and unhesitatingly; he was expounding an opinion he had long held, that had come to him as an inspiration and had grown into a conviction. But today, listening to himself in the silence of that hall, he felt utterly estranged.

“Yet this is all true, that I am saying. Truth so naked and evident that it is no longer peculiar to myself,” he thought from time to time. “I am only relating facts that have no relation to myself.”

He remembered how familiar these ideas were to him, how much they had meant to him, long ago, when they had still been at the inspiration stage. He had suffered then from their instability; he had greeted each new argument as a valued personal friend; they made up the sum of his real being. Today, they were but abstract truths, something external, impersonal, with which he had nothing to do, something so inanimate that he had haste to be rid of it. The more he tried, the more his own words tortured him. They seemed so distant, so utterly different from their former meaning. And yet every one of these phrases was familiar and sounded in his ears with the heavy, almost painful tread of a repetition. His only thought was how to bring it to an end; he chose each word with a view to its being a short cut to the close. The audience was now hanging on his lips. Boura thought: “Now I have got them. I will give them my proofs, submit my main reasons. Let there be no faltering now, no apathy.”

Then, suddenly, he skipped a whole series of arguments and brusquely brought the lecture to an end, as if he had cut it with a knife. The Aristotelians were not satisfied; several speakers arose to put questions and submit objections.

Boura only half understood them; hearing his own ideas from the lips of others, they appeared still more unfamiliar and yet self-evident.

“What is the use of defending them?” he asked himself sullenly. “Since this bears no relation to me, since it is just truth and has nothing to do with my own personality.” He was speaking with difficulty now, with artificial concentration, but he felt his arguments were going home and he was winning new adherents to his views.

“But they are not my views,” he reflected with astonishment.

A new opponent sprang up: with tousled hair, he looked particularly ferocious.

He spoke combatively: “I beg of you to give us your definition of truth.”

“This is not a noetical lecture,” retorted Boura.

“Yet,” persisted the man sarcastically, “it would interest me vastly.”

“Don’t get off the subject,” shouted the Aristotelians.

The hirsute fellow smiled: “Excuse me, my question is relevant to the subject.”

“Nonsense,” growled the Society.

“The gentleman is perfectly right,” said Boura.

“In that case, please answer,” repeated the opponent.

Boura rose: “I beg the Society to close the debate.”

The Aristotelians were astonished.

The President said: “It would be better to go on with the discussion to the end. I am only observing precedent in the Society, however, and have no desire to dictate to you.”

Boura said brusquely: ““I have nothing to add to my lecture.”

The Aristotelians laughed.

The sitting had become a fiasco and the President had to adjourn the meeting, which he did with the remark that he “regretted they had been deprived of the pleasure of discussing so absorbing a subject.”

His throat dry and his mind empty, Boura ended by escaping. It was a mild winter evening, though snow appeared likely. The bells and the noise of the cars sounded muffled. Boura heard hurried steps behind him and slipped behind a tree. His follower, quite out of breath, stopped and addressed him rapidly:

“My name is Holecek and I recognised you in the course of the lecture. Do you remember me?”

“No,” replied Boura somewhat uncertainly. “Do you remember, last year, the imprint in the snow?”

“Ah, yes,” said Boura, reassured, “so it was you! I am very happy, to . . . yes, really. I have often thought of you. Well, did you ever come across the other footprints?”

“No. Yet I looked hard. . . . But why would you not answer that last question at the meeting of the Society?”

“I don’t know. I did not feel inclined to answer it.”

“Listen. There is no harm in my telling you. You nearly convinced me. When that hairy fellow got up, I felt inclined to get up and shout to him: ‘What? For a whole hour, Sir, you have been listening to truth, and you now ask what is truth? You have heard arguments to which no objection could be taken. There were no gaps or errors among them. Nothing from beginning to end that was not rational.’ Why, then, not have answered him?”

“What would have been the use?” asked Boura contritely. “I know very well that all I said was self-evident, logical, just, anything you like to call it. But, when first I reasoned it out, it seemed neither evident nor logical to me. At that time, these ideas were so odd that they made me laugh occasionally. To myself I appeared mad. I was infinitely happy. Yet there was not one atom of reason in it all. I don’t know where I got it . . . it was without object.”

“Tracks that come from nowhere and that lead to nowhere . . .” Holecek suddenly recollected.

“Yes. Well, now I have built it up into a system, or perhaps into a truth. It is all beautifully clear and logical. But I don’t quite know how to put it—it was finer, more marvelous, more miraculous in those days. Nothing came out of it then and it served no purpose. I knew one might have many ideas, different, even contrary, and all be just as beautiful and as amazing. I had the feeling of a limitless freedom. One cannot prove the opposite of perfection. But when I started making truth out of it, I felt it was all materialising. To keep one single thing: truth, it is necessary to have much evidence of the contrary. One must prove and persuade, be logical and clear. . . . But today, while speaking, I suddenly understood. I was in that instant nearer to something else, yet more perfect. And so, when that insistent madman asked me what was truth, I was going to retort that it is not truth that matters.”

“That was better left unsaid,” remarked Holecek politely.

“But there really is something superior to truth, something that does not fetter, but frees. There have been days when I have lived as in an ecstatic dream: how free I was then! Nothing seemed more natural than miracles. Miracles are merely freer and more perfect events than the others. They are the successful cases among thousands of failures and chance shots. How that imprint seemed familiar then! And, later, when I placed myself on the ground of reason, I hated it. Tell me. Did we really see it?”

“Yes, really.”

Boura was exultant. “I am so glad to have met you again. At bottom, I was expecting you. Let us go somewhere for a drink. After that lecture my throat feels as dry as a country road. Just think of it, there were moments when I could see myself sitting down there, amid my own audience!”

The chance direction of their walk took them to a winecellar, which they entered. Boura was excited. He was talking a lot and poking fun at the Aristotelians, while Holecek twisted silently the stem of his glass between his fingers. Looking at Boura, he was saying to himself, “Well, anxious one, what in reality are you seeking? You have seen a miracle and that did not save you. You have known truth and did not submit to it. You have had great inspirations and they have not lit up your life for the centuries to see. . . . Oh, could one but have wings! Winged spirit, what do thy wings help thee do save quit everything? Have neither home nor sleep? Launch out into the void to play with space and steep thy breast in nothingness? If I had been given a miracle, I should be saved. If I had been given to know truth, I should clasp it so hard! And if the tiniest of divine sparks were to fall upon me, would I not be as a chapel in which burns a lamp eternal? Were the Burning Bush itself to speak to thee, it could not save thee. But thine eyes are inflamed and thou wouldst recognise God in the bush, aye, even in the nettles, whereas I am deaf and blind and unable to see miracles! What you lack is an Egyptian prison that you might be saved by faith. But who could fetter thee, winged spirit of atheism?”

“Do you remember,” said Boura, “last year, in connection with the imprint, your saying: ‘Perhaps a god has passed by here, and one might follow him’?”

“No, no,” replied Holecek, “one cannot find God by applying the methods of the detective force.”

“By no method at all. One can only wait till God’s axe cuts our roots. Only then will we come to understand that we are only here through a miracle and then we will remain fixed forever in wonder and in proper balance.”

“And you . . . your roots. Are they already cut?”


A man rose from a table in the corner and walked towards them. A big, strong man, with a broad face, red hair, an open and thoughtful expression. He stood in front of them, head slightly to the side, and was contemplating Boura as if from afar.

Boura was astonished:

“What’s the matter?”

The man made no answer. His eyes gave an odd impression of drawing nearer, becoming more attentive, more penetrating, more searching. Suddenly he spoke: “Are you not M. Boura?”

Boura rose.

“I am.”

“Have you not got a brother?”

"Yes . . . I have one . . . abroad, I don’t know where. What do you . . .

The man sat down at their table. He started vaguely: “Well, it’s just this, you see . . .” Then, suddenly raising his eyes, he said:

“I am your brother.” Boura felt an immense confused joy.

“Really you? Really?"

The man was smiling. “Yes, really. How are you?”

He was using the more formal mode of address, instead of the second person singular usual among brothers or intimate friends.

“You . . . Why do you speak like that?”

“Lack of habit, I suppose,” replied the man with an attempt at a cordial smile, but his face remained watchful. With his finger he sketched out the contour of Boura’s features:

“Mother,” he said, “Mother all over . . .

“I should never have recognised you,” Boura went on eagerly. “My God, after all these years. Let me have a good look at you. You are like Father . . . yes, like Father.”

“That is quite possible.”

Boura was rejoicing. “What luck! It is by sheer chance we came in here, I and . . . my friend Holecek.”

“Delighted, Sir,” said the man with dignity, tendering Holecek his large, hot hand.

“And, what are you doing?” asked Boura, with a certain hesitation.

“Nothing. I am on a business journey. I have a thing on hand over there, in the South, an industrial undertaking. I just thought I would take a turn round here in our own countryside.”

“True . . . you have not been here since our parents died. The old home has been pulled down and they have set up something in its place, a school I think, something ugly anyway, a brick building. I went in and they asked me what I wanted there. The people were so stupid; seemed to know nothing at all. But, opposite, there still stands the wee house . . . that height,” and he made a gesture of indication. “I don’t remember who . . .” Boura was searching his memory.

The redhaired man bent towards him, evoking memories, energetically, his eyes staring and drawn together in concentration of thought:

“It was . . . let me see . . . Hanousek, yes, Hanousek the beggar who lived there!” he exclaimed suddenly.

“With his daughters,” added Boura joyfully.

“That’s it. They had small reddish eyes . . . and I used to eat there.”

“Hallo! I did not know that!” said Boura in surprise.

“Yes. They toasted bread for me, all the old beggar used to bring home, crusts, remains, beans . . . all sorts of horrible things. I ate them all. Then I used to lie down on the beggar’s bed and feed his bugs.”

“So that’s how we often had such trouble in finding you,” said Boura with a smile.

“No, when you called me, I was generally buried in the tall grass on the top of the ridge. No one knew that place and I had a regular hare’s den there from which, far down, I could see our house. I could see Mother go out and call me, hear her weep for love and anxiety. It gave me a sensation of wickedness and sweetness together. Not for the world would I have given sign of life. I was afraid she might see me and yet I made signs to her. I only wanted to show myself just a little, not enough for her to recognise me.”

“Yes, she used often to search for you.”

“Aye, often. I wanted to try, to see whether she would search. I crouched in my hole, holding my breath, waiting for her to come. She called, she searched, but she no longer cried. Then, one day she never came out at all. That day I waited till evening, although I was rather afraid alone up there. But she did not come, and I never went back to the ridge after that. I started wandering further afield.”

“Where are you living now?”

“In Africa. I thought no one cared for me. That is why I set out wandering. I wanted to see whether anything would happen to me. That was the kind of sensation I liked. Then, at home, no one ever spoke to me and I used to go and talk with the stonebreakers. Old Hanousek never spoke, he only swore a little. But his daughters talked a lot, and so gently . . .

Boura, somehow, was almost intimidated. “What did you do then?”

“Well . . . what?” But the redheaded man was thinking. Boura waited sullenly. Perhaps he would speak of his own accord. So much time, so vast a distance, had separated them that endless words would have found it hard to bridge the abyss.

He was thinking: “See, brother, we will stay for years thus, side by side, talking of trivial everyday things, all we know. An infinite number of trivialities is required for men to understand each other.” But the big brother was content to sit and smoke, and spit and stare at the floor. A childish feeling awoke in Boura: “It is he, the big brother who can do what he wants and who possesses secrets. I should like to know all he has done, but he will not tell me all. I should like to tell him all I have done, but he will not ask me. Ah, never will I get to understand him!

“How many times have I not seen him come home with absentminded, sated, mysterious face, like a cat that has just greedily and cruelly eaten up a bird in the loft and comes back dirty, conscious of crime, with flashing eyes! How many times I went to the places you had just left to see what you had discovered or what you were hiding there, and, having searched every corner, found only the reverse side of things!

“Today, again I see you with the old remembered expression. Again you come home, mysterious now as then, like the cat rolling over in its mind the memory of past delights while getting a foretaste of future escapades.”

“Well,” suddenly said this big brother, as if relieved, “I must run. I am very, very happy to have seen you.”

Boura rose in some confusion.

“I too, have been very glad. But remain a little while. We have not seen each other for so many years!”

The big brother was taking up his overcoat. “Yes, that’s true . . . many years. Life is a long business.”

The two brothers were standing, embarrassed, not knowing how to take leave of each other. The big brother bent his head as if seeking something, some good, pure word. He was making an effort to smile, he was moving his lips quietly.

“Do you need money?” he suddenly said. “I have enough.”

“No, no,” replied Boura, moved and happy, “no, thank you, it is not worth while. But it is nice of you all the same. God be with you!”

The big brother grumbled hesitatingly: “Come, why not? I don’t need it myself. Well, as you like. Then, good-bye!”

He was going away, tall and straight. Holecek followed him with his eyes as far as the door and saw his last farewell gesture.

Boura had lowered his eyes.

“He has forgotten his stick,” said Holecek, and ran to follow the departing one. Besides, he was glad of an excuse to leave Boura to himself for a moment. He heard footsteps in the staircase above him.

“Here! Sir!”

Only two leaps and he had climbed to the entrance door, but the street was empty as far along as he could see. A wet snow was falling that melted on touching the ground.

Astounded, he looked in the lobby. Nothing. Two figures detached themselves from the wall: two policemen.

“Has some one not just rushed out?” asked Holecek, quite blown.

“What has he stolen?”

“Nothing. Where did he go to?”

“Nobody went out,” said one of the policemen. “Since we have been here no one has come out of the cellar.”

“We have been here fully ten minutes,” volunteered the other.

“He must be within still.”

“No!” retorted Holecek. “He was just in front of me. He had forgotten his stick.”

The policeman repeated profoundly, “His stick. No, no one came out.”

Holecek was getting angry: “But a man cannot disappear like that!”

“You are right, there,” the policeman said in a conciliatory tone.

“Better get back inside,” said the other, “it is snowing.”

Holecek understood; they thought him drunk, but he had hardly drunk one glass. What can this new mystery be?

He repeated his explanation, irritably: “He was just in front of me. He cannot have vanished like that, yet had he gone out you would have seen him, would you not?”

The policeman took out his notebook. “Now don’t start any nonsense,” said Holecek. “What are you going to do?”

“One does not know what may not have happened. An accident, or else, maybe a . . .

Holecek bit his lips with rage. “If that were all!” he cried, slammed the door and went down again. Boura was sipping out of an empty glass. He had hardly noted Holecek’s absence. He was in a brown study.

“Your brother has disappeared,” announced Holecek, all atremble with cold and emotion.

“Just like him,” commented Boura, shaking his head.

“Excuse me,” said Holecek impatiently. “He was going up the stairs and suddenly vanished. He did not go out: he simply disappeared as if the earth had swallowed him up.”

“Just so . . . as if the earth had swallowed him up. Just like him. He used to go, and no one knew whither, and then come back with a curious, careworn expression, as if he had seen more things than his philosophy could understand.”

“The Devil! But listen to me. He did not go. He vanished. In the lobby. Two policemen were standing at the door and did not see him go out.”

“An original . . . from childhood up. Always been like that . . . yes, solitary, odd, terribly inconstant, cruel, absorbed. You see you don’t know him.”

“But how is it you do not understand . . .” Holecek was giving himself a lot of trouble. “He disappeared like a shadow, as if he had passed through the wall.”

“I quite understand. Always lacked balance, in everything, always inconstant. He never enquired whether a thing was allowed, as if he had neither conscience nor limits. How many times did he not astound us!”

“But is it possible to vanish?”

“I don’t know. My brother is not learned, has no notion of science, no idea of what is possible and what is not possible. Truly, he always showed supreme contempt for all instruction.”

Holecek banged the table with his fist. “Is it then of no moment?”

“What is of moment?” asked Boura calmly, raising his eyes.

“No man can vanish . . . you see . . . there are . . .

“Physical limits, you were going to say. Yes, I know. You had already told me so in connection with the imprint on the snow. Physical limits! Set great store by them, eh? See here: I have seen many things and read about many more, and of the lot the thing I understand best of all is the resurrection of the daughter of Jairus. I have seen a dead girl. . . . Oh, in this miserable world of machinery one single thing were truly natural: the supernatural, a miracle. That alone would answer to all man has most deeply . . .

“Miracles, yes, that’s all right,” said Holecek. “To save some one, to cure the sick, above all to give life again to those who have died young. . .. But of what use is what I have just witnessed? Whom does it profit? If there is a miracle, why has it no purpose? Nothing comes out of it . . . nothing.”

“And even supposing nothing did come out of it . . . it remains a miracle all the same. In ourselves too, there happen things at times that serve no obvious end . . . except their own perfection. They are unexpected bursts of freedom . . . even though they last but an instant. If events were shaped as is natural within our souls, miracles would happen all the time!”