Incontrovertible, by Karel Čapek

(My translation of the short story Naprostý důkaz, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929.)

“The thing is, Tondo,” said investigating magistrate Slavík to his best friend, “it’s a question of experience. I don’t believe any excuses, any alibis or any blah-blah-blah. I don’t believe either the accused or the witnesses. People lie, even when they don’t mean to. Say a witness swears blind he’s got nothing against the accused… it’s quite possible that, deep down, so deep down he’s not even aware of it himself, he hates him for whatever deep-down reason. And everything the accused says has been plannned to the last jot and tittle. And everything the witness says might very well be governed by a conscious or unconscious desire to help or hinder the accused. You can’t believe anyone, that’s what I say.

“Chance, that’s what I believe in, Tondo. People’s unintentional, willy-nilly movements, acts or words. You can falsify anything, dress up anything. Everything is pretence and ulterior motives. But not chance: that’s something that’s immediately obvious. “This is how I do it. I sit there and let people blah-blah-blah about all the stuff they’ve already thought up. I make out I believe them, I even help them along so their blah-blah-blah goes even better. And I wait till they let slip an  unintentional, willy-nilly matter-of-nothing. And then I pounce.

“Yes, you have to be a psychologist. Some investigating magistrates always try to confound the accused. So they’re for ever interrupting and confusing them, so that in the end the poor souls would even confess to murdering the Empress Alžběta. But me… I want complete certainty. And so, patience. Softly, softly, catchee monkey. That way, from the web of lies and deceit that goes under the name of ‘testimony’, you’ll eventually catch a chance glimpse of a little bit of the truth. The thing is, in this vale of tears, ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’ only appears by mistake – when your man lets slip something he didn’t mean to.

“Listen, Tondo, you know I don’t keep anything from you. We’ve been mates since we were knee-high to a grasshopper. You remember how you got beaten after I broke that window?.. Well, I wouldn’t normally tell anyone, but there’s something I’ve got to get off my chest. I just have to. And it’s to do with how my method came up trumps in my own private life. Or, to be more precise, in my marriage. And then tell me what a fool and a brute I was. It’ll serve me right.

“Well, I… I suspected my wife was unfaithful. In other words I was as jealous as a Barbary pigeon. Somehow I got it into my head that she had a thing going with that… that young fellow… I’ll call him Artur. I don’t think you know him anyway. But don’t get me wrong. I’m not a savage. If I was sure she loved him I’d have said, ‘Martička, I think we should get a divorce.’ But the trouble was, I wasn’t sure at all. You’ve got no idea what torture that can be, Tondo! What an awful year it’s been! I’m sure you know the kinds of stupidity a jealous husband is capable of: stalking, spying, questioning the maids, making a scene. And add to that that I’m an investigating magistrate. Christ! My family life during the past year has been one long cross-examination, from morning till… till bedtime.

“The accused – or rather, Martička – put up a stout defence. But through it all, through the tears, the sulks, the explanations of where she’d been and what she’d been doing all day, I was on the look out for one slip. I couldn’t help myself. Of course she used to lie a lot. I mean, she usually lied, but that’s just what women do. A woman can’t even tell you straight out that she’s just spent two hours at the milliner’s. She’d rather say she’s been to the dentist’s or visiting her mother’s grave. The more I went on at her – a jealous man, Tondo, is worse than a rabid dog –, the more I pestered her, the less certainty I had. I kept turning over in my head every word she said, and each of her little manoeuvres. But I couldn’t find anything other than the normal half-truths-half-lies that are the stuff of everyday human relations, and particularly of the marital relationship. I was in a dreadful state but, when I think how poor Martička must have suffered from all that… I tell you, I could kick myself.

“Earlier this year she went to Františkové Lázně – women’s problems, you know, but she really did look ill. It goes without saying I got someone to keep an eye on her. I paid a wretched little chap to do it. He seemed to spend half of his spare time in the pubs.

“It’s funny how, if just one single thing isn’t going right, it can feel as if your whole life is coming apart at the seams. Just one blemish and you can’t help feeling dirty all over.

“Martička wrote to me… rather timidly, as if she didn’t know what to write about. And of course I looked at her letters every which way… Until I got one that was addressed, as usual, to ‘František Slavík, Investigating Magistrate’ etc. but, when I opened it and took out the letter, what did I see?.. ‘Dear Artur’!

“Well, I tell you, I couldn’t stop my hands shaking. Here it was, finally! That’s what happens when you write letters to various people – you end up putting one in the wrong envelope. A silly little mistake, eh, Martička? I almost felt sorry for her that she’d finally tripped up.

“Don’t get the wrong idea, Tondo. My first inclination was not to read that letter, addressed as it was to that… that Artur, but to send it back to Martička. But jealousy is a rotten blackguard of a master, my friend, and it soon got the better of me, and I read the letter. And I’ll show it to you, because I’ve got it here. Have a look!

Dear Artur,

 

Please don’t be annoyed that I’ve taken so long to reply to you. I was worried that Frantík hadn’t written for ages. I know he’s got lots of work but, when a wife hears nothing about her husband for such a long time, it’s as if the lifeblood drains out of her. (I know you won’t understand any of that, Artur.) Frantík will be coming here next month, so you could come too. He wrote to say he’s got a very interesting case on, but he didn’t say what it was. I think it must be the murder of that Hugon Müller. I’d love to know all about it! I’m really sorry Frantík’s been a bit offish with you, but that’s only because he has so much work. If things were as they used to be you’d be able to get him out and about more often – maybe take him out for a drive. You were always so good to us and you still haven’t forgotten us, even though things aren’t what they were. Frantík is so strange and jumpy. But you haven’t told me about your girlfriend. Frantík complains about the heat in Prague. He should come here and relax instead of working late into the night at the office. When are you going to the sea? I hope you’re taking your girlfriend with you. You’ve no idea what it’s like for us women when we’re lonely.

 

With warmest best wishes from

 

Marta Slavíková

“So, what do you say to that, Tondo? I know it’s a pretty limp effort, rather lacking as to style and interest, but what a light it throws on to Martička and her relationship to poor little Artur! I’d never have believed her if she’d told me herself, but here I had, in my hand, something so unwitting, so involuntary… Don’t you just see how the truth, the plain, incontrovertible truth, is revealed only by accident. I tell you, I could have cried with joy – but also with shame, that I’d been so stupidly jealous!

“What did I do afterwards?.. Well, I tied up the files about the murder of Hugon Müller, shut them into a drawer, and the next day I was in Františkové Lázně. When Martička saw me she blushed and started sobbing like a little girl. She looked exactly as if she’d done something dreadful! But I didn’t say anything.

“After a while she says, ‘Did you get my letter, Frantík?’ ‘What letter?’ says I, pretending to be surprised. ‘You hardly send me any letters!’ Martička looks at me, perplexed, but then she sighs, as if with relief. ‘Oh, I must have forgotten to send it!’ she says. Then she rummages in her handbag and fishes out a rather cumpled-up piece of paper. The first words on it are: ‘Dear Frantík’!

“I couldn’t help laughing. Our Artur must have immediately returned the letter that wasn’t for him.

“Well, we didn’t say another word about it. Instead, as I’m sure you can understand, I had to tell her everything about the case of Hugon Müller, which she found fascinating. I think that, even now, she thinks I never got that letter.

“And that’s everything. And thank goodness there’s peace and tranquillity once more at home. So tell me: I was an idiot, wasn’t I, to be so jealous? Of course, I do everything I can now to make up for it. I could see from the letter how poor Martička was so worried about me. Oh, well! No fool like an old fool, eh?

“Nevertheless, it is a classic case, wouldn’t you agree, of the power of a random item of evidence?”

At about the same time as the above conversation was taking place, the young man who has gone under the name of Artur was saying to Mrs Slavíková, “So, my darling, did it help?”

“Did what help, my dear?”

“The letter you made out you’d sent him by mistake.”

“It did,” said Mrs Slavíková, frowning. “And the thing is, my dear, I almost feel ashamed that Frantík trusts me so unshakeably now. And ever since then he’s been so kind… Would you believe he carries that letter with him wherever he goes?” She shivered. “Isn’t it really terrible that… that I’m deceiving him like this?”

But Artur thought not. At least, that’s what he said.

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