Category Archives: Czech Republic

From Czech: THE SELVIN CASE by Karel Čapek

(My translation of Karel Čapek’s short story Případ Selvinův, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929)

What was my greatest success? Hm… Well, the success of which I’m most proud…

[As well as being old, Leonard Unden was a famous poet, a Nobel Laureat etc.]

When you get to my age, my young friends, you no longer care about honours, applause, lovers and suchlike nonsense. All of that is in the distant past. When you’re young, you’re up for all sorts of fun and you’d be stupid not to be. But – here’s the rub – when you’re young you hardly have the means to enjoy anything. That’s why life should really be the other way round. You should start off old and put in a full stint of proper work, because that’s all you’re good for. And only after that should you become young, so you can enjoy the fruits of your long life. So, there you have it – an old man’s confession.

But what was I talking about… Ah, yes, my greatest success. And I can tell you this: it wasn’t any of my books or plays, even though there was a time – believe it or not – when people did actually read them! No, my greatest success was the Selvin case.

Well, of course, you won’t know what that was all about: it happened twenty-six years ago – no, more, twenty-nine. So, one fine day twenty-nine years ago, a little white-haired lady in a black dress came to see me. I used to be renowned for my affability in those days, but before I could ask her how I could help she sank to her knees before me and burst into tears. (I don’t know about you, but I can’t bear to see a woman cry.)

After I’d calmed her down a bit, the words poured out of her:

“You’re a poet, sir, and you’re a good man. Please, I beg you, save my son! You must have read about him in the papers. Frank Selvin…”

I think I must have looked like a bearded baby back then. I did read the papers, but I hadn’t noticed anything about a Frank Selvin. What I could make out, in between all her whimpering and sniffling, was that her only son, Frank Selvin, who was twenty-two years old, had just been sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering his aunt Sofie while trying to rob her. And the jury had considered his plea of innocence nothing more than an aggravation of the crime.

“But he really is innocent, sir. I can swear to it. That fateful evening he said to me, ‘I’ve got a headache, Mum, so I’m going for a walk out in the fields.’ That’s why he couldn’t prove his alibi, sir. Who would notice a young lad in the night, even if he met him? My Frantík was a bit of a gad-about – I won’t deny it – but you were young once too, sir. He’s only twenty-two. And all that life ahead of him has been destroyed.”

And so she continued. Listen, if you’d seen that broken, white-haired mother, you’d have realised what I realised: that impotent sympathy is a terrible thing. Well, what can I say? It ended up with me assuring her I’d do absolutely everything I could to get to the truth of the matter. And that I believed her son was innocent. When she got to her feet again and made the sign of the cross over me, I almost felt like kneeling down in front of her. You probably know how soppy one can look when turned into an object of such reverence.

So, I made it my job to look into the Frank Selvin case. First of all, of course, I studied the files. And I have to say, I’d never come across such a catalogue of errors. It was simply scandalous. The case was really quite straightforward: one night, Miss Sofie’s maid, fifty-year old Anna Solarová – who, let’s say, wasn’t exactly the brightest button – heard someone walking in Miss Sofie’s bedroom. So she went to see why the lady wasn’t asleep and, when she entered the room, she saw the window wide open and a man jumping out of it into the garden. Whereupon she screamed blue murder, and when the neighbours came with a torch they found Miss Sophie’s body on the bedroom floor – strangled with her own towel. The cupboard where she kept her money was open, the clothes had been thrown about, but the money was still there – evidently the maid had disturbed the murderer at that very moment. So, those were the facts of the case.

Frank Selvin was arrested the next day, the maid having testified that she’d recognised the man who jumped from the window. It was ascertained he wasn’t at home at the time: he’d returned about half an hour later and had gone straight to bed. It also came to light that the careless fellow had got into debt. And not only that, but a local gossip, who was flattered to find herself in the limelight, testified that, a few days before the murder, Miss Sofie told her something in confidence: namely, that her nephew Frank had visited her to beg for a few hundred crowns. And when she refused – she was a terrible old skinflint – Frank had said to her, “Just you be careful, Auntie; something’s awful’s going to happen.”

And that was everything as far as Frank was concerned.

Now the trial. It was all over in half a day. Frank pleaded innocence, claiming he’d gone out for a walk and had returned straight home and gone to bed. None of the witnesses were cross-examined, and the defence barrister – who was provided by the court gratis, given that Mrs Selvinová couldn’t afford to pay for a better one – was a harmless old fool, who merely appealed to the jury, with tears in his eyes, to bear in mind the tender age of his imprudent client. Even the prosecution barrister didn’t go to too much trouble: he just reminded the jury they’d let off the two previous defendents, and what would happen to society if every criminal was found not guilty because of a lack of backbone on the part of the people’s judges? And it looks like the jury were impressed with that argument and were only too anxious to demonstrate that each and every one of them really did have a backbone. Anyway, Frank Selvin was found guilty by unanimity. And that was that.

When I discovered all this I was furious, even though I’m not a lawyer – or perhaps precisely because I’m not a lawyer. Just imagine: the star witness is a bit dim; the night – as I discovered later – was very dark, so she couldn’t have had any certainty about the man’s identiity. I know very well that, in the dark, it’s even difficult to ascertain how big a person is. And not only that, but Anna Solarová absolutely hated Frank Selvin – evidently he uses to call her ‘fair Hebe,’ which she, for some reason, regarded as an unforgivable insult.

Secondly, Miss Sofie hated her sister, so much so that they no longer spoke to each other, and Miss Sofie wouldn’t even mention Frank’s mother by name. If she did say Frank had threatened her, it could very well have been no more than yet another way for the old spinster to belittle her sister. As for Frank himself, he’d been doing reasonably well: he was an office clerk; he had a girlfriend, to whom he wrote sentimental letters and poor poems, and he fell into debt through – as one says – no fault of his own, or rather, because he was inclined to get sentimentally drunk. His mother was a wonderful woman, but ground down by cancer, poverty and sorrow.

So, that’s how things were when one took a closer look.

Of course, you won’t have any idea what a terrier I was in those days! When my blood was up, nothing could stop me. So I wrote a series of articles for the newspapers, titled ‘The Frank Selvin Case,’ in which I set out, point by point, the unreliability of the witnesses, especially the star witness; I analysed the discrepancies and bias in their testimonies; I showed how absurd it was to think the star witness could have recognised the murderer; and I demonstrated the utter incompetence of the judge and the crude demagogery of the prosecution barrister. But even all that didn’t satisfy me: I began attacking the whole justice system – the criminal code, the way juries were organised, the indifference and arrogance of the authorities.

Well, you won’t be surprised that this caused quite a brouhaha. I was pretty well known in those days, and the young people were firmly on my side. One evening, there was even a demonstration outside the courthouse. And that’s when Selvin’s defence barrister hurried over to see me: what on earth was I up to?! He’d appealed on the grounds of procedural irregularity and was confident the sentence would be reduced to just a few years. But now, not wishing to look as if it was giving in to the mob, the court would almost certainly refuse his appeal.

I told that bumptious barrister that, for me, it was no longer just a matter of the Selvin case: it was a matter of truth and justice. But he was right: the appeal was refused.

Nevertheless, the judge had to retire. And that’s when I really got stuck into it. Even today, I’d still say it was a crusade for justice. Many things have improved since those days of course. I think people who have a long memory might admit I’ve had some part in helping to bring that about. The Selvin case got mentioned in the press around the world; I gave lectures to workers in pubs and to delegates at international congresses. ‘Justice for Selvin’ became just as familiar a slogan as ‘No more war’ or ‘Votes for Women.’ But, for me, it was always a struggle against the state. With the young people on my side. When Selvin’s mother died, seventeen thousand people followed the coffin of that careworn little lady. And I spoke, like I’ve never spoken before or since, above the open grave. God knows, my friends, inspiration is a strange and awful thing.

I spent seven years fighting for justice, and it finished me off. It was the Selvin case, not my books, that gained me a certain world renown. People call me ‘The Sword of Justice’, ‘The Truth Sayer’ etcetera, and maybe something of that will appear on my gravestone in due course. And maybe, say, fourteen years after my death, children will be taught how the poet Leonard Unden fought for the truth. And then it will all be forgotten.

Seven years after the event, Anna Solarová, the star witness, died, but not before tearfully confessing that her conscience was weighing on her: she’d given false testimony at the trial; she couldn’t say with any certainty that the murderer in the window was Frank Selvin. The priest – a kindly fellow – came to tell me, but by then I had a better idea about the way things are in this world. So, instead of going to the press with it, I sent the priest to the court. Within a week, the case against Frank Selvin was reconvened, and within a month he was standing before a jury once more. One of the best barristers in the country took on the case for free and smashed the charges to smithereens. After which the prosecution barrister recommended the jury to free the accused. And all twelve members of the jury decided Frank Selvin was innocent.

So there you have it: my greatest achievement. No other success gave me such satisfaction – or, at the same time, such a feeling of emptiness. You see, the truth is that, a day after the original verdict was overturned, I was told a man wanted to speak to me.

“I’m Frank Selvin,” he said, standing in the door of my study. And, difficult though it is to explain, I felt a sort of disappointment: a disappointment that my Mr Selvin looked like… like a lottery agent – rather tubby, and pale, balding, sweating slightly and perfectly ordinary. Not to mention that he stank of beer.

“Maestro,” he stuttered – Can you imagine he actually addressed me as “Maestro”! I felt like kicking him. – “I’ve come to thank you… as my greatest benefactor… I’m indebted to you for my whole life. Any words of thanks will be inadequate…” (He seemed to have learnt all this off by heart.)

“But it was no more than my duty,” I interrupted, “as soon as I became convinced they’d condemned you unjustly.”

Frank Selvin shook his head. “Maestro,” he muttered, “I don’t want to lie to my benefactor. I did kill that old crow.”

I leapt up from my chair. “So why didn’t you admit it in court?!”

Frank Selvin gave me a cunning look. “But that was my right, wasn’t it, Maestro? The accused has the right to deny the charge, doesn’t he?”

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you I felt completely deflated. “So what do you want?” I growled.

“I’ve just come to thank you for your kindness,” he replied, in a voice of feigned gratitude. “You looked after my poor mother as well. May God bless you, noble bard.”

“Get out!” I yelled, at which he was down the stairs and away in no time.

Three weeks later he stopped me in the street. He was rather drunk and I couldn’t manage to get shot of him, let alone understand what he wanted. Keeping a firm grip of one of the buttons of my coat, he said I’d spoilt it for him. If I hadn’t written about his case in the first place, the barrister’s appeal on the grounds of procedural irregularity wouldn’t have been refused and he wouldn’t have had to spend seven years in prison. So I should, at the very least, be aware of the reduced circumstances he now found himself in as a result of my poking my nose in.

In short, I couldn’t manage to get rid of him until I gave him a couple of hundred crowns.

“God bless you, my benefactor,” said Mr Selvin, with tears in his eyes.

The next time I met him he was rather more threatening: thanks to his case, I’d garnered some fame and fortune, so how come he’d got nothing out of it himself? I tried to convince him I didn’t owe him anything but, in the end, I handed over some more money.

Ever since then he started turning up more frequently. Sitting on my sofa and sighing, complaining that he was wracked with guilt for snuffing out the old crow. “I’d hand myself in, Maestro, if it wasn’t that you’d be publicly shamed at the same time. So, I don’t know how I can find peace.”

Believe you me, his guilty conscience must have been the most terrible torment for him, judging by how much I had to cough up to help him bear that load. In the end I bought him a ticket to sail to America. Whether he finally found peace there or not, I don’t know.

So that was the greatest success of my life. When you come to write my obituary, dear friends, please say that the Selvin case is engraved in gold letters, undying gratitude etc.


"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

From Czech: MAN TO MAN by Karel Čapek

(My translation of Karel Čapek‘s short story Oplatkův konec, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929)

Just before 3 a.m., Community Policeman Krejčík noticed that the shutter of the bakery at 17 Neklanova Street had been forced up a bit. Although Krejčík wasn’t on duty, he rang the janitor’s bell and looked under the shutter. At that moment, a man scrambled out from under it, shot Krejčík in the stomach at point-blank range, and took to his heels.

In the nearby Jeronýmova Street, PC Bartoš, who was on his usual beat, heard a shot and ran in that direction. On the corner of Neklanova Street he was almost knocked off his feet by the running man. Before he could even shout “Halt!”, the man shot him in the stomach too and carried on running.

The din of police whistles awoke the street, as officers came running from the surrounding areas. Three, who’d come straight from the police station, were still buttoning their coats. After a few minutes, a car from headquarters sped up and an inspector jumped out. But PC Bartoš was dead, and Krejčík – still holding his stomach – was dying.


By morning, about twenty arrests had been made – randomly, it should be said, because no one had seen the killer. On the one hand, the police were driven by a compulsion to avenge their dead colleagues. On the other, it wasn’t that unusual: if a few known criminals are randomly arrested, there’s always a chance one of them will know something and spill the beans.

The interviews continued through the whole day and the whole night. Even worse, for the criminals, was the bit when, after the interview, two large, unsympathetic policemen took them to one side. The killer had ruptured the normal familiar relationship between career police officers and career criminals. Shooting, OK, but point-blank in the stomach?! You don’t even do that to animals.


The following morning, all the police in Prague knew it was Oplatka who did it. One of those arrested, Valta, had coughed up: “Yeah, it was Oplatka what done it. An’ ’e’d do some more given ’alf a chance. ’e ain’ bovered. ’e’s got consumption.”

Valta was kept in custody. Oplatka’s girlfriend was arrested, together with three young men from his gang. But none of them could, or would, say where he was.
Dozens of constables and detectives were sent out to find him. And each of them, even when his shift had ended, would only have a quick bite to eat at home, mutter something to his wife, and head off to continue the search on his own account.
Everyone knew Oplatka: the little, pale-faced bloke with the skinny neck.


Just before eleven o’clock that night, PC Vrzal, who returned home from work at 9 p.m., changed into civvies and told his wife he was going to have a nosey around. At Rajská Gardens he noticed a little man who seemed to be loitering in the shadows. Although the constable was no longer on duty and wasn’t armed, he went to take a closer look. But when he’d approached to within a few paces, the little man reached into his pocket, took out a gun, shot Vrzal in the stomach and ran off. Clutching his stomach, PC Vrzal started to chase him but, after about a hundred yards, he collapsed.

It wasn’t long before police whistles could be heard, and several officers were pursuing that shadowy figure. More shots rang out at František Rieger Park and, fifteen minutes later, a number of cars with policemen on the running boards could be seen driving at full speed up Vítkov Hill. Meanwhile, teams of four or five policemen scoured the buildings that had recently been built at the foot of the hill.
At 1 a.m., a further shot could be heard from the direction of Olšanský Lake. It turned out that a running figure had shot at, but missed, a young man who was on his way back from his girlfriend’s place in Vackov.
By 2 a.m., the police had encircled Židovské Pece Park and were closing in step by step. It was cold and damp and had begun to rain.


At dawn it was reported that the tollgate keeper in Malešice, at the city limits, had been shot at. The bullet had missed, and the toll man had started to give chase before deciding – sensibly enough – that it wasn’t worth his while. It was clear that Oplatka had escaped the police cordon.

The nearly seventy men who trudged down from Židovské Pece Park in their helmets or bowler hats were soaked through and – God Almighty! – furious beyond words. That bastard had killed three police officers, Bartoš, Krejčík and Vrzal, and now they’d have to leave him to the rural police. Both the uniformed and the plainclothes police were of one voice that the miserable little wretch should have been theirs. Listen, if ’e shot at us, it’s our business, ain’ it? The country plods shouldn’ ’ave nuffing to do wiv it. They should jus’ push the bastard back into Prague.”


The whole of that day was cold and drizzling. In the evening, rural policeman Mrázek was making his way on foot from Čerčany, where he’d been to buy a battery for his radio, to Pyšely. He was unarmed and was whistling nonchalantly. At one point he saw a small man walking towards him. Nothing unusual about that, except that the man stopped, as if uncertain. Mrázek had scarcely had time to think Who can it be? when there was a flash, and he fell to the ground, clutching his side.

It wasn’t long before all of the rural police had been alerted.


“Listen, Mrázek,” said Captain Honzátko to his dying colleague. “Don’ worry. I give you my word of honour: we’ll catch the bastard. It’s that Oplatka, an’ I’d bet my las’ crown ’e’s trying to get to Soběslav, coz that’s where ’e was born. God knows why them villains always ’ead for ’ome when they got a price on their ’ead. So don’ worry, Václav, ’ere’s me ’hand. I promise yer by all that’s ’oly we’ll nail the bastard, no matter what it cost us.”

Václav Mrázek tried to smile. He was thinking of his three children. But then he imagined how his colleagues would be drawing in from all sides… Maybe Toman from Černý Kostelec… Závada from Votice, he’d definitely be there… Kousek from Sázava as well. My comrades! My comrades! … ’ow beautiful! All of ’em togeva. Then pain extinguished his smile.


That night, Sergeant Závada from Votice decided to check the night train to Benešov. Who knows? Perhaps he’d find that Oplatka sitting in one of the carriages, although it would take a bit of gall for the murderous bastard to get on a train. The lights were flickering in the carriages, and the passengers were dozing in their seats like weary cattle. The constable walked slowly down the aisle of each carriage. As he did so, he was thinking, Gawd! ’ow am I gonna reconise someone I ain’ never seen?

Suddenly a young man with a hat pulled down over his eyes jumped out in front of him, there was a bang, and before the constable could pull the gun from his shoulder strap, the man – waving his gun wildly about him – hurried out of the carriage. The constable just had time to shout, “Stop ’im!” before falling flat on his face.
The young man was already running in the direction of the goods waggons. The railwayman Hrůša, lantern in hand, happened to be walking towards them at the same time. Once 26 ’as gone, he was thinking to himself, I’ll go an’ ’ave a lie-down in the lamp room.
Before he knew it, a man came running towards him. Without blinking, old Hrůša blocked his path – he used to be a police constable and wasn’t one to take fright easily. The last thing he saw was a flash of light.
Old Hrůša got to lie in the lamp room even before No. 26 had departed, but he was lying on his back on a trestle table, and his colleagues were removing their caps as they entered.
Several men had run, panting, after the culprit, but it was too late: he’d probably crossed the tracks and got into the fields. But what did happen was that a wave of panic spread from the station, with its flickering lights, and from that huddle of horrified people, out into the comfortable autumnal slumber of the surrounding area. People who weren’t already at home hurried back and didn’t even think about going out again. It was said that a wild-looking man had been seen here and there. He was sort of tall and thin, or he was sort of little and wearing a fur coat. The postman had seen someone hiding behind a tree. Someone in the road had waved at Lebeda, the coachman, to stop, but Lebeda had whipped the horses into a gallop.


The next morning, a boy had been walking to school when an exhausted man stopped him and, growling “Give it ’ere,” stole the little bag containing his slice of bread, before disappearing. From that moment, everyone in all the villages round about bolted their doors and hardly dared breathe, for the sheer horror of it. The most courage they could summon was to press their noses occasionally against the window panes and scan the grey, deserted landscape.

But something else was happening at the same time. In ones and twos, and from all directions, policemen were arriving. God knows where they all came from!
“Chris’ Almighty!” roared Captain Honzátko at a rural constable from Čáslav. “What the ’ell dya fink yer up to?! ’oo sent yer? Dya fink I need policemen from the ’ole country to catch one single miserable sodding little bastard?! Eh?!”
The policeman from Čáslav took off his helmet and scratched the back of his neck nervously. “Well, yer know, Cap’n. Závada was me friend… I couldn’ not be ’ere, could I?”
“Sod it!” the captain thundered. “That’s what they all says! I’ve already got fifty of ’em ’ere, without no one ordring or inviting ’em. What’s I suppose’ to do wiv ’em all?!”
The captain started chewing his moustache.
“Well… you can patrol the lane from that crossroads to the wood. An’ tell Voldřich from Benešov you’ve come to replace ’im.”
“That ain’ gonna work, Cap’n. ’e’ll jus’ tell me ’e ain’ going nowhere. What about if I take the lane from the edge of the wood. ’oo’s there?”
“Semerád from Veselka. But listen – What’s yer name, by the way – Listen ’ere, Jenda, you shoot firs’ if yer sees someone, right? No messing. On my ’ead be it. I ain’ ’aving no more of my people shot. Right! Off yer goes!”
Then the station sergeant turned up. “Another firty of ’em ’ave arrived, Cap’n.”
“Firty of ’oo.”
“Railwaymen. You know, coz of ’růša. ’e used to be one of ours, so they’ve all come to offer…”
“Send ’em back! I don’ need no civilians!”
The sergeant shifted his weight awkwardly from foot to foot. “Look, Cap’n. They’s come all the way from Prague an’ Mezimostí. It’s good they’re all ’olding togeva. They ain’ gonna let it go jus’ like that, when that Oplatka killed one of ’em, is they?! … Do ’em a favour an’ let ’em stay, Cap’n.”
Captain Honzátko grumbled his consent.


During the rest of the morning, the policemen and railway workers stood guard, patrolled and searched. In the afternoon, the commander from the nearest barracks telephoned to ask if they needed military backup. “No fank you,” replied the captain. “We got it under control.”

In the meantime, some plainclothes detectives had arrived from Prague and were arguing with the sergeant at the station, who’d told them they weren’t needed.
“What?!” said Detective Inspector Holub. “What do you mean, ‘Not needed’? He killed three of ours and only two of you bumpkins! We’ve got more right to be here than you blockheads!”
Hardly had this dispute been more or less patched up, than another one broke out on one of the lanes, between the rural police and some gamekeepers from thereabouts.
“Clear off!” shouted one of the policemen. “This ain’ abou’ chasing ’ares.”
“We ain’ going nowhere,” said one of the gamekeepers. “These are our woods, an’ we can go where we likes in ’em.”
Kousek from Sázava tried to calm things down: “All we’re saying is this is our business, an’ we don’ wan’ no one else getting in the way. If yer don’ mind.”
“Well, we does mind. That kid, what that bloke stole ’is bread, ’e’s the son of me colleague ’ere from ’ůrka. So it is our business an’ that’s that!”


Come the evening, the whole area was encircled, by police, detectives, railwaymen and gamekeepers. When it got dark, each one of them could hear the husky breathing of the man on his left and the man on his right, and the glutinous sound of boots treading mud. Every now and then a whispered “Keep quiet!” could be heard.

A heavy, oppressive silence descended, interrupted only by the rustling of leaves, the murmur of occasional drizzle, the shuffling of feet, or a clicking sound that could have come from a strap or the butt of a rifle.


At midnight, someone shouted, “Halt!” and fired, which was followed by about thirty gunshots. Everyone ran towards the sound, but suddenly someone cried “Stop! Not a step furva!”

Somehow things calmed down, and the circle re-established itself. But now they were fully aware that, hiding somewhere in the dark in front of them, was a desperate man, awaiting his chance to attack. Something like an electric current made each of them shiver, and at times they seemed to hear silent steps. God, if only they could see in front of them! If only there was light!


Slowly it began to dawn. They could make out the outlines of the men standing nearest to them – much closer than they’d realised in the dark. Inside the chain of men, there could be seen the outline of thick scrubland or a wood – it was where the hares were hunted. But it was so quiet there! So quiet!

Captain Honzátko pulled at his moustache as he shivered in the cold. “Chris’! Do we stay ’ere or do we…?”
“I’ll go and look,” said Inspector Holub.
The captain turned to the nearest policeman. “You go wiv ’im.”
In the end, five of them went over and entered the scrubland. The cracking of broken branches could be heard. Followed by silence.
“Stay ’ere,” Captain Honzátko shouted at his men as he cautiously approached the bushes and then disappeared.


After a few minutes, the broad back of one of the rural policemen emerged. He was dragging a floppy body, the feet of which were being held by a walrus-moustached gamekeeper. Then a bedraggled Captain Honzátko scrambled out from the bushes.

“Lay ’im ’ere,” he croaked. Rubbing his forehead, he stared at the circle of men before shouting, “Why’re yer standing there gawping?!”
Rather hesitantly, the men approached the crumpled body. It was Oplatka. A thin hand poking out from a sleeve. His little, sickly, rain-beaten face. His skinny neck. God, how little there was of that wretched Oplatka! Here’s a bullet hole in his back, and here’s one behind his sticky-out ear, and here… Four, five, seven bullets got him.
Captain Honzátko, who’d been kneeling by the body, got to his feet and cleared his throat. Then he looked, almost dreamily, around him. At the policemen with their rifles on their shoulders, the bayonets gleaming at the top of them. Gawd! Fellows like tanks, standing dead-quiet, like on a parade groun’. At the plain-clothes detectives, also stout chaps, revolvers bulging in their pockets. At the railwaymen in their blue overalls, most of them small and wiry. At the gamekeepers in their green uniforms – tall, red-faced, bearded and muscular.
Like some glorious bloody funeral, thought the captain. All it need is them to fire a salute over ’im.
He chewed his lower lip. For a few moments he felt overwhelmed, nonsensically, by sadness. That scrap of a human being, mangled and rigid, shot like a sick crow, and surrounded by so many hunters.
“Sod it!” he said between clenched teeth. “Fin’ a sack or somefing! Cover ’is body!”


It was about two hundred men who set off in all directions. They hardly exchanged a word, apart from the odd “That’s ’im done then. Won’ be getting no more trouble from ’im.”

The rural policeman who’d been left to guard the body took short shrift with any of the locals who came to stare. “What’yer wan’ ’ere?! Ain’ nuffing to see. Min’ yer own business!”


On his way back to Sázava, rural PC Rousek spat at the ground before saying to his colleagues, “Load of yeller-bellies! Jesus Chris’! They should’ve lef’ that Oplatka to me. Man to man.”


"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

From Czech: COLD CASE by Karel Čapek

(My translation of Karel Čapek‘s short story Pád rodu Votických, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929)

A worried-looking little man with gold-rimmed spectacles presents himself in the office of Chief Inspector Mejzlík, who invites him to take a seat.

“My name’s Divíšek. Divíšek the archivist. I’ve come to you for advice, Chief Inspector Mejzlík… as a renowned investigator… The thing is, I was told that… that somehow… especially in more complex cases… The thing is, this is an unusually difficult case.”

The inspector picks up a pencil and pad.

M. Fire away.

D. We have to find out who murdered Petr Berkovec! And how his brother Jindřich died! And what happened to his wife Kateřina!

M. Hm… Berkovec… Petr… As far as I know, we haven’t been notified of his death. You want to report it, do you?

D. No, no, I’ve just come for advice. Something terrible must have happened.

M. When did it happen? Let’s start with the date.

Mr Divíšek, looks at the inspector over his spectacles

D. Well… in 1465. Surely you know. During the reign of King Jíří of Poděbrady of blessed memory.

The inspector lays aside his pencil and pad, and smiles benignly at the archivist.

M. Aha! It’s probably a matter for Dr Knobloch in that case. He’s our medical expert, you know. Shall I call him?

D. That’s a shame. Everyone said I need to see you. You see, I’m writing a historical work about the reign of Jíří of Poděbrady, and this business has presented me with an insurmountable obstacle.

M. I’m afraid I wouldn’t be of much use to you in that case. I’m hopeless at history.

D. Well, you shouldn’t be. History’s important. But, anyway, no matter, even if you’re not already familiar with the relevant historical material, I can acquaint you with the circumstances insofar as they’re known – which is not much, unfortunately. But, crucially, there’s the letter from Ladislav Pcháč to Jan Boršovský of Čerčany. You must know about that letter.

M. I regret to say…

D. But, Inspector! The historian Šebek published it more than seventeen years ago in his Hussite Annals. Surely you’re at least aware of that?! Although, of course…

The archivist adjusts his spectacles.

D. …neither Šebek, nor Pekař, nor Novotný, nor anyone else gave due attention to it. And yet, it’s precisely that letter – which you really ought to have been aware of – that gave me a clue to resolving this case.

M. Aha! Do continue.

D. Well, the letter… Unfortunately I don’t have a copy with me, but that doesn’t matter because there’s only one thing in it that has to do with our case. That’s to say, the bit where Ladislav Pcháč mentions to Jan Boršovský of Čerčany – this being the year of Our Lord 1465 – that, after the tragic events in Votice Velenov, his – that’s to say Jan’s – uncle, Ješek Skalický of Skalice, isn’t expected at the Royal Court of Justice in Prague because His Royal Highness, writing in his own hand – as Jan points out –, His Royal Highness orders him not to attend the court any more, but to pray God forgiveness for his violent temper and to await divine justice. In other words, His Royal Highness is confining Ješek to his own estates. That tells you something, doesn’t it, Inspector? Eh?

The inspector looks up from the rather complicated spiral shape he’s been drawing on a piece of paper.

M. Not at the moment.

D. Exactly! That’s just the point. Šebek didn’t get it either. You see, what stands out from the whole episode, is that His Royal Highness isn’t summoning Ješek to any duly established earthly court, but is referring him to divine justice. Because the crimes are of such a nature that the King himself excludes them from any earthly jurisdiction. And if you knew His Highness, Inspector, you’d know that’s something quite exceptional, King Jiří, of blessed memory, being particularly concerned with the proper – and properly strict – execution of justice.

M. Perhaps he was afraid of Ješek. You know, in those days…

D. Inspector! What are you saying?! That King Jiří would be afraid of anyone?! And, what’s more, of a mere knight?!

M. Favouritism? You know how things go here…

The archivist turns red in the face.

D. Favouritism?! I’ll admit you could talk of favouritism in King Vladislav’s reign, but not in King Jiří’s. No, not favouritism, Inspector. There must have been something highly unusual about those tragic events for His Majesty to leave it to divine justice.

The inspector sighs.

M. And what exactly were those events?

The archivist turns even redder in the face.

D. What?! And you call yourself a criminologist?! Why do you think I’ve come to see you?!

M. For God’s sake, Mr Divíšek! …

D. You need to know the facts first of all. So, when I saw that vague remark, I began to search for information about those tragic events in Votice Velenov. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any documents, but I did find the tomb of Petr Berkovec in the local church. And, inspector, the inscription gives a date of 1465! Now, Petr Berkovec was the son-in-law of Ješek Skalický, having married Skalický’s daughter Kateřina. Here’s a photograph of the tomb… Do you notice anything peculiar there, inspector?

The inspector looks at the photograph. It shows the tomb of a knight, lying with his hands folded on his chest, surrounded by a Gothic inscription.

M. No… But hold on a minute. There’s a fingerprint on it.

D. That’s probably mine, but look at the inscription!.

The inspector puts on his spectacles and peers at the photograph.

M. Anno Domini MCCCCLXV. The year of Our Lord 1465. That’s when he died, isn’t it?

D. Of course, but don’t you notice something else? Some of the letters are bigger. Look!

The archivist takes a pencil and a piece of paper from his pocket. He writes down ANNO DOMINI MCCCCLXV.

D. The sculptor deliberately made the O and two of the Cs bigger. It’s a cryptogram, isn’t it? Write down those letters, OCC, yourself. Do you notice anything?

M. OCC, OCC… That could be… Aha! An abbreviation for OCCISUS. Is that it? Murdered?

The archivist sits forward in his chair.

D. Exactly! That’s how the sculptor indicated to future generations that the noble knight Sir Petr Berkovec de Votice Velenov had been murdered aforethought. So there we have it!

The inspector sits forward in his chair.

M. And it was that Ješek Skalický, his father-in-law, who murdered him!

D. Nonsense! If Ješek had murdered Petr Berkovec, His Majesty would have had Ješek executed. And that’s not all. Right beside his tomb is that of his brother, Henricus Berkovec de Votice Velenov. And that tomb has the same year, 1465, but without the cryptogram! And Henricus – that’s to say Jindřich – is holding a sword. Evidently the sculptor wanted to show that he died honourably in battle. So now, inspector, by all that’s holy, tell me what’s the connection between the two of them dying in the same year!

M. …A coincidence?

The archivist turns even redder in the face.

D. A coincidence?! Inspector, we historians have no time for coincidence. Where would that get us? There has to be some causal relationship here. A year later, in 1466, Ješek Skalický went to meet his maker, and his properties in Skalice and Hrádek were inherited by his nephew, Jan Boršovský of Čerčany – you remember? So what does that mean? That means that his daughter Kateřina, who – as every child knows – married Petr Berkovec in 1464, was also no longer alive! And there’s no tomb stone for Katuše – that’s to say Kateřina – anywhere! I suppose you’ll say, inspector, that it’s also a coincidence that Katuše disappears from the record immediately after the death of her husband. Yes? You call that coincidence? And why is there no tomb? Coincidence? Or are we rather faced, once more, with those tragic events that caused His Royal Highness to refer Ješek to divine justice?

M. I suppose that’s possible.

D. Not only possible, Inspector, but beyond doubt. So now, you’ll understand, it remains for us to determine who killed who and how it all hangs together. We don’t need to concern ourselves with Ješek’s death because he survived the “tragic events.” Otherwise King Jiří wouldn’t have told him to beg God’s forgiveness. What does concern us is who killed Petr, how Jindřich came to die, what happened to Kateřina, and what Ješek Skalický’s got to do with it all.

M. Hold on a mo. Let’s make a list of the names:

1. Petr Berkovec – murdered.

2. Jindřich Berkovec – died in battle. That’s right, isn’t it?

3. Katuše – disappeared without trace.

4. Ješek Skalický – left to divine justice. Yes?

The archivist glances at the list.

D. Yes. Although you should really say Sir Petr Berkovec, Sir Ješek etc., but carry on.”

The inspector scratches his head.

M. You’re excluding the possibility that Ješek murdered his son-in-law, Petr Berkovec? Because in that case he’d have been in front of a jury.

D. “Sent before the Royal Court of Justice” is the correct expression. But yes.

M. So – hold on –, that just leaves Petr’s brother Jindřich, who… who most likely murdered his brother…

D. Impossible! If he’d murdered his brother, they wouldn’t have built a tomb to him in the church – at least, not right beside his murdered brother.

M. Aha! So Jindřich must have ordered his brother’s killing and then died, himself, in some battle or other. Is that right?

The archivist shuffles impatiently in his chair.

D. In which case, why would the king have chided Ješek for his violent temper? And what happened to Kateřina, eh?”

M. That’s true… Look, it’s clearly a complicated case. Let’s suppose Petr caught Kateřina in flagrante delicto with Jindřich and killed her. Her father found out and, in a fit of anger, murdered his son-in-law…

D. That won’t do either. If Petr killed Kateřina for adultery, her father would have condoned the killing. They were very strict about that sort of thing in those days, you know.

M. Right, hold on… Let’s say he killed her on the spur of the moment. Maybe an argument…

D. But then they wouldn’t have built him a monument. That doesn’t lead anywhere. I’ve been wracking my brains about it for a year, Inspector, and I just can’t work it out.

The inspector looks once more at the list of names.

M. Hm… What a puzzle! Perhaps we’re missing a fifth person.

D. Why on earth would you want a fifth, person?! You can’t even make head or tail of it with four!

M. In that case it must be one of the two who killed Berkovec: either his father-in-law or his brother… Ah! Damn it! Why didn’t I see?! It was Kateřina!

D. Jesus, Mary and Joseph! … That never occurred to me! Kateřina who did it?! But what then?

The inspector is thinking so hard that his ears turn red.

M. One moment…

The inspector springs out of his chair and prowls up and down the office. Eventually he stops and stands stock-still.

M. Aha! Aha! I’m beginning to see it! Damn it! What a case! Yes, that makes sense… Ješek is the key player. Aha! The noose is tightening. And that’s why Jiří … I see it now! Listen, he wasn’t daft, that King Jiří!

D. No, he certainly wasn’t. He was a very wise ruler, and is rightly held in reverence by specialists like myself.

The inspector sits himself down on top of the inkwell on his desk.

M. Right, now listen. The most probable thing is this. I’d bet my back teeth on it! The Kateřina hypothesis must be compatible with all the facts as we know them. Secondly, those facts, taken together, must make a coherent story. The simpler, the more compact, the more coherent, the more likely it will be that the hypothesis is correct. We call it “event reconstruction,” you know. Hypotheses have to stand up to scrutiny, you know. That’s the central plank of our methodology.

D. Yes.

M. So the hypothesis we need to scrutinise is as follow:

1. Petr Berkovec marries Kateřina.
2. Petr Berkovec is murdered.
3. Kateřina disappears, and no tomb is built for her.
4. Jindřich dies in some battle or other.
5. The king has a go at Ješek Skalický on account of his violent temper.
6. but the king doesn’t summon him to court. So, somehow or other, Ješek must have been in the right.

Those are the facts as we know them, aren’t they? Yes? So, when looked at as a whole, those facts suggest that neither Jindřich nor Ješek murdered Petr. So who murdered him? Evidently Kateřina. Which would be confirmed by the non-existence of a tomb for her. Her body was most likely dumped into an unmarked grave. And why wasn’t she arrested and tried? Probably because some furious avenger more or less killed her on the spot. Was it Jindřich? I think not. If Jindřich had put her to death, Ješek would no doubt have approved. And why would the king have admonished him for his temper in that case? From which it follows that it was Kateřina’s enraged father who killed her. Which leaves the question: Who killed Jindřich in battle? Who was it?

The archivist looks flummoxed.

D. I don’t know.

M. Come, come! Ješek! It couldn’t be anybody else. You see, it’s the only way of squaring the circle… Look, Kateřina, the wife of Petr Berkovec… hm… – How does one say? – conceives an illicit passion for his younger brother Jindřich.

The archivist sits even further forward in his chair.

D. But where’s the documentary proof?

M. Logic, Mr Divíšek. The logic of events. Either follow the money, or cherchez la femme, eh? Elementary! I don’t know to what extent Jindřich might have reciprocated her passion, but the thing is… a motive. Did our Kaťa have a motive to kill her husband? And I’m telling you, yes, she did.

D. It does rather look like it.

M. And now her father, Ješek Skalický, appears on the scene, in the role of avenging angel. He kills his daughter because he doesn’t want to hand her over to the executioner. And then he challenges Jindřich to a duel, because he considers, rightly or wrongly, the unfortunate young man to be complicit in the crime and the downfall of his daughter. In the duel, Jindřich falls, mortally wounded, still holding his sword. Of course, there’s another possibility: Jindřich shields Kateřina with his own body against his enraged father and is killed in the process. But I think the first alternative is better. So, there you have the “tragic events.” And then King Jiří decides no earthly court would be competent to judge such a just, albeit brutal, act and leaves that dreadful father, that furious avenger, to divine justice. In those times, a decent jury might have done the same. Within a year, old Ješek dies of remorse, loneliness and heart failure.

The archivist is rubbing his hands in delight.

D. Yes! That’s exactly how it must have been. From my knowledge of King Jiří, he couldn’t have done otherwise. But that Ješek! A magnificent historical figure in his stupendous fury, isn’t he?! So, it’s all clear now. It’s almost as if I can see it right in front of me. And the way it all hangs together! You’ve provided a valuable service to our historical science, Inspector. It throws such a dramatic light on the people of those times, and indeed…

Overwhelmed with gratitude, the archivist is momentarily lost for words.

D. When my History of the Reign of King Jiří of Poděbrady is published, I’ll send you a copy. Just wait till you see how I deal with this fascinating episode!


Some time later, Chief Inspector Mejzlík receives a tome with that title and with an effusive dedication to himself. He reads the whole lot, from A to Z, because – let’s be honest – who wouldn’t be proud to have contributed to such a prestigious publication. But all he could find was the following, in the biographical index:

Šebek, Jaroslav, Records of 14th and 15th centuries, p.213; letter from Ladislav Pcháč of Olešné to Jan Boršovský of Čerčany. An interesting but obscure mention of Ješek Skalický.


"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

From Czech: KEEP THE RECEIPT by Karel Čapek

(My translation of Karel Čapek‘s short story Kupón, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929)

It’s a hot August evening, and Střelecký Island, by the river bank in Prague, is crowded. So it looks like Minka and Pepa have no choice other than to sit at a table where a gentleman with a bushy, drooping moustache is sitting.

“Are these chairs free?” asks Pepa.
The gentleman just nods.
Jus’ our luck, thinks Minka, to ’ave to sit with a misery guts.
Pepa wipes the seat of a chair for Minka, who sits down with all the dignity of a duchess. Then she takes her powder puff out of her handbag and dabs her nose so that – Heaven forfend! – it won’t turn red and shiny in the heat. But, in doing so, a little, crumpled piece of paper falls out of the bag. The gentleman with the moustache bends down, picks it up and returns it to her.
“You might wanna ’ang on to this, miss.”
Minka blushes. “Fank you.”
She turns to Pepa. “It’s the receipt from that shop where I bought them tights.”
“Why keep useless bits of paper like that?” says he. “You’ll end up with pockets full of ’em.”
“That ain’ no problem,” says the man with the moustache. “Sometime’ jus’ such a piece of paper can be priceless.”
Minka frowns. How dare that unpleasant fellow butt in. We should’ve looked for anuva table.
Pepa is also frowning. “Priceless ’ow?”
My Pepa’s so manly when ’e gets angry, thinks Minka.
“As evidence,” the misery guts mutters. “The name’s Souček, by the way. Detective Constable Souček. We recently ’ad a similar case that rarva proves my point… People often got no idea what’s in their pockets.”

P. What ‘similar case’?
S. The case of the woman they foun’ at Roztyly.
M. What woman?
S. You know, the one they foun’ there the uva day.

The constable takes a cigarette out of his pocket. Pepa proffers his cigarette lighter.

S. Fanks… Some farm workers come across ’er body when they was harvesting a cornfield between Roztyly an’ Krč.
M. I didn’ ’ear nuffing about that… Do you remember when we was in Krč, Pepa? … What ’appen’ to ’er?
S. Strangled. The rope was still ’roun’ ’er neck. Too awful to describe. July. She’d been lying there for almos’ two munf’.

The constable exhales cigarette smoke.

S. You’ve no idea ’ow dreadful a body looks in those circumstances. ’er own muva wouldn’ve recognised ‘er. An’ the flies!

The constable shakes his head.

S. Miss, beauty really is only skin-deep. But identification, you know, that’s the problem. When there’s still a nose an’ eyes, you might recognise… But when it’s been lying in the sun for over a munf…
P. But she mus’ve ’ad ’er initials somewhere on ’er cloves.
S. No chance. You see, sir, unmarried girls fink they’ll be married in no time. So what’s the point of initials?! No chance.”
M. ’ow old was she?
S. The doctor said about twenty-five, judging by the teef an’ that sort of fing. An’ ’er clothes suggested she’d ’ave been a factory worker or an ’ousemaid. Most likely an ’ousemaid coz ’er blouse was more like a country girl’s. An’, if she’d been a factory worker they’d’ve been looking for ’er right from the start, coz factory workers normally stay in the same digs or, at leas’, the same area. But when an ’ousemaid changes job, she disappears an’ no-one gives ’er a secon’ fought, you know. So we decided if no-one’s been looking for ’er for two munf’, she mus’ve been an ’ousemaid. But the main fing was the receipt.
P. What receipt?

Pepa has perked up, imagining himself as a brilliant detective. The constable is staring at the ground.

S. It’s like this. Nuffing was found on ’er. Nuffing at all. ’ooeva killed ’er took everyfing of any value. But in ’er left ’an’ she was still ’olding the strap of ’er ’anbag. The bag was foun’ a little way off. ’e was probably trying to grab it from ’er but, when the ’andle come off, ’e mus’ve frown it away. After removing the contents, of course. That’s to say, everyfing except – tucked away in a sort of a fold – a ticket for tram No. 7 an’ a receipt for fifty-five crown’ from a china shop. That’s all we foun’.
P. But the rope roun’ ’er neck. You mus’ve investigated that!

The constable shakes his head.

S. It was jus’ a bit of clovesline. No use at all. All we ’ad to go on was the tram ticket an’ the receipt. Of course, we puts it in the papers: woman’s body foun’, about twenty-five years old, grey skirt, stripey blouse, an’ if anyone knows of an ’ousemaid ’oo’s been missing for two munf’, please get in touch. Over an ’undred people did. As you probably knows, ’ousemaids ten’ to change jobs in May. God knows why! But it turn’ out all of them leads was dud. An’ the work involved in following ’em all up! It can take an ’ole day jus’ to track down a maid ’oo used to work in Dejvice but moved to somewhere in Vršovice or Košíře. An’ in the end, it’s all useless. She’s alive an’ kicking an’ will probably laugh at you for yer efforts.”

The constable nods towards the bandstand, where The Ride of the Valkyries is being played.

S. That’s a nice piece they’re playing. A bit sad though, ain’ it? I like sad music. That’s why I goes to all the big funerals. The music. An’ to catch pickpockets.
P. But the murderer must ’ave left some traces.
S. You see that smartly dress’ fellow over there… ’e steals from the poor boxes in churches. I wonder what ’e’s doing ’ere… No, the murderer left no traces. Listen, when you comes across a murdered girl, you can be pretty sure it were ’er lover ’oo done it. That’s what usually ’appen’… No worries about that, miss. We’d know ’oo done it. But firs’ we needs to know ’oo she is. An’ that were the problem, of course.
P. But surely the police have their mefods!
S. Well, if you call looking for needles in ’aystacks a mefod. It takes an ’ell of a lot of patience, sir. You know, I enjoy reading detective stories, where they use microscopes an’ all that. But ’ow would a microsope ’ave ’elp’ in the case of that poor girl? Unless you wanna closer look at the big fat worm that’s taking its wormlings out for a nice sliver. Begging yer pardon, miss. But it always annoy me when people goes on abou’ mefods. It’s not like reading a book an’ guessing ’oo done it. It’s more like if they gives yer a book an’ says, ’ere you are, Souček, you’ve gotta read this book an’, wherever you fine the word ‘although,’ you gotta make a note of the page number… So, that’s what it’s really like. There ain’ no mefods or eurekas are gonna ’elp you. You jus’ ’as to read an’ read an’ read until you discovers there ain’ no although in the book. Or the detective ’as to flit about Prague trying to fine an ’undred Anduls or Mařeks to see if any of ’em is dead… Sumfing should be written abou’ that sorta fing, rarva than ’oo stole Princess La-de-da’s necklace. Coz that sorta fing, I tells yer, is proper, honest detective work.”
P. So ’ow did yer go aboud it?
S. ’ow did we go aboud it? … Well, we ’ad to start somewhere of course. So, firs’ of all, we got the Tram 7 ticket. Let’s suppose, if the girl was an ’ousemaid, that she work’ somewhere near the tramline. Although that don’ ’ave to be the case. She could’ve jus’ ’appen’ to take Tram No. 7. If you don’ make some sort of assumption, you’ll never get nowhere, will yer? But the No. 7 tram goes right across Prague, from Břevnov, down fru Malá Strana an’ Nové Město, all the way to Žižkov. Which is all a bit much. So, then there’s the receipt. That, at leas’, shows she’d bought sumfing in a china shop for fifty-five crowns. So we goes to the shop.
M. An’ they remembered ’er there?
S. Remembered ’er, miss?! No chance. But our Chief Inspector Mejzlík goes to ask what fings they sell for fifty-five crown’. The only item we got for fifty-five crown’, they says, is this little English teapot for one person. I’ll take one, says our chief. Or if you got any seconds, I’ll take one of them, so’s it’s not so expensive.

Then the chief calls me an’ says, ’ere, Souček, ’e says, I’ve got sumfing for you. Let’s suppose the girl was an ’ousemaid. Well, ’ousemaids are always breaking fings, ain’t they, an’ when that ’appen’, the lady of the ’ouse says to ’er, You silly goose! she says, Now you can go an’ buy a new one wiv yer own money. So the maid goes an’ buys a new one. An’ all there is for fifty-five crown’ is this teapot.

That’s a lotta money, I says to ’im, but ’e says, Look, that’s the point. That’s why she kep’ the receipt. Coz it’s an awful lotta money for ’er, an’ maybe she fink’ the lady of the ’ouse will reimbursify ’er one day. An’ what’s more, listen, it’s a teapot for jus’ one person. Which mean’ aiva the maid work’ for jus’ one person, or there’s a lodger, an’ the lodger ’as to be a woman coz a man wouldn’ buy such a nice, expensive teapot, would ’e? Men don’ usually notice what they’re drinking out of. So if we assume it’s a fastijous lady in lodgings all on ’er own, she’s gonna wanna ’ave sumfing of ’er own that’s nice an’ expensive, ain’ she? So she’ll buy sumfing ridiculously expensive like an English teapot.

M. That’s true! … I got that lovely vase at ’ome, ain’ I, Pepa?
S. Exacly. But you probably ain’ got the receipt for it no more… An’ then the chief says to me, Now let’s extrapoliate, Souček, ’e says. It’s a shot in the dark, but you gotta start somewhere. Someone ’oo fritters away fifty-five crown’ for an English teapot ain’ gonna be living in Žižkov, is they? (The chief’s talking about the ticket for Tram No. 7, you remembers.) There ain’ that many lodgers in central Prague, an’ the lodgers ’oo live in Malá Strana only drink coffee. So I’d ’azard a guess at between ’radčany an’ Dejvice. I’d even go so far as to say a young lady ’oo drinks tea from an English teapot ’as to live in an ’ouse wiv a little garden. That’s a bitta Hinglish culture, you know, Souček.

You ’ave to understan’ our chief tend’ to ’ave rarva odd ideas sometime’. You know what, Souček? ’e says, take the teapot wiv you an’ ask aroun’ that area where them kind of better-off young ladies live. An’ if one of ’em ’appen to ’ave such a teapot, ask ’er if an ’ousemaid didn’ leave the landlady’s employ sometime in May. As I say, it’s a shot in the dark, but why not? So, off you go, Souček. It’s your case now.

Well, listen, I’m not keen on guesswork of that sort. After all, a proper detective ain’ some sort of astrologist or clairvoyant, is ’e? A detective shouldn’ speculate too much. Granted, once in a while ’e’ll guess right. But relying on chance all the time ain’ honest work. At leas’ the tram ticket an’ the teapot are fings I can see, but the res’ is jus’… jus’ imaginification.

An’, believe it or not, when I comes to the firty-sevenf ’ouse, the ’ousemaid says, Gosh, the young lady ’oo lodges ’ere ’as a teapot jus’ like that! So I announces myself to the landlady, ’oo turns out to be the widow of a general an’ is renting two of the rooms to young ladies. An’ one of the young ladies, a Miss Jakoubková, ’oo teaches English, ’as jus’ such a teapot. Madam, I says, did you use’ to ’ave an ’ousemaid ’oo left yer employ sometime in May? Yes, she says. We call’ ’er Mařka, but I carn’ remember ’er surname.

Shortly before she left, I says, did she ’appen to break a teapot? Why yes, says the lady, an’ I made sure she paid for a new one ’erself. But ’ow on urf did you know that?! Well, there you are, Madam, I says. There ain’ nuffing we carn’ find out.

An’ it was all plain sailing after that. Firs’ of all, I says to the ’ousemaid, ’oo was a friend of Mařka, Listen, every ’ousemaid ’as a friend ’oo she confide’ in… An’ so I fine out the girl’s real name were Marie Pařízková an’ that she were from Dřevíče. But what I wanted to know mos’ of all was weva she ’ad a boyfriend. An’ she did – Franta. The maid didn’ know what sort of work ’e did, but she was in Eden once wiv the two of ’em, an’ this fellow calls out to ’im, Well, well, well, if it ain’ Ferda!

So I ’ands that information over to Mr Frýba, ’oo’s our expert on aliases. An’, quick as a flash, Frýba says, Franta, uvawise Ferda, uvawise Kroutil from Košíře, but ’is real name is Pastyřík. I’ll go an’ get ’im chief, but I’ll need Souček wiv me.

So me an’ Frýba, we goes off an’ arrest’ that Franta or Pastyřík, or whatever ’e’s called, at ’is new girlfriend’s place. ’e weren’ ’appy aboud it at all. Tried to shoot us.

So then we ’ands ’im over to the chief, an’ – Gawd knows ’ow ’e does it – but, after sixteen ’ours ’e’s got the fellow to confess everyfing. That ’e strangled Marie Pařízková an’ stole the couple of ’undred crown’ she ’ad, jus’ after she’d left ’er job. ’e’d promised to marry ’er, of course. That’s what they all do.”

M. Pepa… that’s dreadful!”
S. Well, it were dreadful, but you know what were really dreadful? When we was standing over ’er in that there field, an’ all we could fine was the receipt an’ the tram ticket. Two piddling little pieces of paper… but they did ’elp us avenge ’er. An’ that’s why I says, Never, never frow nuffing away. Even the mos’ useless fing can be a clue, a piece of evidence. People often got no idea what’s in their pockets.


Minka has been staring at the constable, her eyes full of tears. And now she turns devotedly to her Pepa. In the process, she lets slip the little crumpled receipt she’s been kneading in the palm of her hand all this time. Pepa doesn’t notice because he’s gazing at the stars, but Constable Souček notices. His smile is sad but sympathetic.


"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

From Czech: POSTMORTEM by Karel Čapek

(My translation of Karel Čapek‘s short story Zločin na poště, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929)

“Justice,” said Police Constable Brejcha. “I’d like to know why it’s shown as a blindfolded woman carryin’ scales, as if she was sellin’ pepper. I’m more inclined to fink Justice looks more like a policeman. You can’ imagine ’ow many fings we policemen decide without all that fussin’ with judges an’ scales an’ all that. In less serious cases we smack ’em across the gob, in more serious we use the strap. In ninety cases out of an ’undred, that’s the beginnin’ an’ the end of justice. An’ would you believe, on one occasion I meself convicted two people of murder, an’ I meself passed sentence on ’em, an’ I meself carried it out… I’ll tell you about it, if you like.

Well, you remember that young lady ’oo used to work in the local pos’ office. ’elenka, that was ’er name. A lovely girl, pri’y as a picture… Maybe you don’ remember… Well, anyway, she drowned ’erself last year, in the summer. She jumped into the lake an’ waded about fifty metres until she got out of ’er depf. An’ do you know why she done it? That very day, before she wen’ an’ drowned ’erself, the inspectors turned up at the pos’ office, from Prague, an’ they discovered that ’elenka ’ad two ’undred missin’ from ’er till. I ask you! A measly two ’undred. The chief inspector said ’e’d ’ave to report it an’ that it’d be investigated as a case of fraud. Well, that evenin’ ’elenka wen’ an’ drowned ’erself. From the shame of it.

When they pulled ’er to the bank, I ’ad to stand by ’er body until the specialists come. The poor fing weren’ a pri’y sight any more, but all I could fink of was ’er smilin’ behind the counter in the pos’ office. Everyone liked ’er, an’ she liked everyone. Sod it! I says to meself. That girl didn’ steal two ’undred. Firs’ly, coz I don’ believe it an’, secondly, coz she didn’ need to steal.

’er father was the miller, over there on the other side of the village. The only reason she went to work at the pos’ office was the same as all the young women ’oo want to go to work nowadays – to be independent. I knew ’er dad well. A bit of a writer, an’ an evangelical an’, I tell you, them evangelicals an’ spiritualists an’ the like round ’ere, they don’ never steal. If there was two ’undred missin’ at the pos’ office, the fief ’ad to be someone else. So I promised that dead girl, as I stood by ’er on the bank, that I wouldn’ leave it at that.

Well, in the meantime they sent this young fellow from Prague to take ’er place in the pos’ office. Filípek ’e was called. A toofy, clever chap. So I goes to see this Filípek in the pos’ office, so as I can ’ave a look around. Of course, it’s like any little pos’ office. A stool on the other side of the window an’ a drawer with money an’ stamps under the counter. An’ at the back there’s a shelf with all the bumf about prices an’ tariffs, an’ a scale for weighin’ parcels.

Mr Filípek, I says to ’im, ’ave a look what a telegram to Buenos Aires costs, if you would.

Three crowns a word, says Filípek, without even lookin’.

An’ what would a telegram to ’ong Kong cost, I asks ’im again.

I’ll ’ave to ’ave a look, says Filípek, an’ ’e gets up an’ goes over to the shelf. An’ while ’e’s lookin’ at the prices, an’ ’is back’s turned, I squeezes me shoulder through the gap in the window, I stretches out me arm, an’ I opens the drawer with the money. Dead easy. Not a sound.

Aha! I says to meself. So that’s ’ow it could’ve ’appened. Suppose ’elenka ’ad been lookin’ for summut on the shelf. Someone could’ve whipped two ’undred ou’ of the drawer, no trouble.

Mr Filípek, would you ’ave a look ’oo sent summut from ’ere in the past few days.

Mr Filípek scratches ’is ’ead an’ says, I can’ do that, Constable. It’s confidential. Unless you was legally authorised. An’ I’d ’ave to report it to me superiors.

’old on, I says to ’im. I wouldn’ want to do that jus’ at the moment. But look, Mr Filípek, what about if… when you’ve got a minute or two… you ’as a look in them there registers to see ’oo ’ad some business that might’ve caused ’elenka, say, to go an’ look on the shelf…

Well, says Filípek, there’s the sent telegram forms. But, for the registered letters an’ the parcels, we’ve only got ’oo they was sent to, not ’oo sent ’em. I’ll write you down all the names I can find there. I shouldn’ really, but I’ll do it for you. But I fink it will be a fat lot of use, to be honest.

An’ ’e was dead right, that Filípek. ’e brought me about firty names – of course, there’s not much goes through a village pos’ office. The odd little parcel for a lad ’oo’s away with the army, that sor’ of fing. An’ I couldn’ get nuffin’ at all from the names ’e give me. So there was me wrackin’ me brains an’ worryin’ meself that I weren’ gonna keep me promise to the dead girl.

But, about a week ago, I goes back to the pos’ office. Filípek grins at me an’ says, No time for skittles. I’m packin’ up. There’s a new young lady comin’ tomorra, from the Pardubice pos’ office.

Aha! I says. That’ll be punishment, sendin’ ’er from a town to a piddlin’ little village.

No, not at all, says Filípek, givin’ me a funny look. The young lady is muvin’ ’ere at ’er own request, Constable.

That’s strange, I says. Seein’ as ’ow young ladies want to move up in the world nowadays.

It is, says Filípek, still givin’ me that look. An’ what’s even stranger is the anonymous tip-off that led to the surprise inspection, it also came from Pardubice.

I gives a little whistle through me teeth. I was probably lookin’ at Filípek like ’e was lookin’ at me. When suddenly U’er, the postie, ’oo was standin’ there arrangin’ ’is sack, says: The estate manager writes to some missy at the pos’ office there almost every day. Mus’ be love, eh?!

’old on, says Filípek. Would you ’appen to know the young lady’s name. Julie Touf… Toufar… Touferová. Yes? Well, she’s the one ’oo’s comin’ ’ere.

Mr ’oudek, like the estate manager, says the postie, also gets a letter from Pardubice almost every day. Mr Manager, I says to ’im, ’ere’s another letter from yer beloved. (Mr ’oudek always comes to meet me ’alfway, to save me ’avin’ to walk all the way down the drive like.) An’ today I’ve got a little box or summut for ’im, but it’s from Prague. An’, looky ’ere, it’s been returned. Address unknown. Mr Manager must’ve got the address wrong. So I’ll take it back to ’im.

Give it ’ere, says Filípek. It was addressed to a Dr Novák, Spálená Street, Prague. Two kilos of butter. Date stamp fourteenf of July.

Miss ’elenka were still ’ere then, says the postie.

Let me ’ave a look, I says to Filípek, an’ I sniffs the little box. That’s strange, Mr Filípek, I says, the butter was sent ten days ago, an’ it don’ smell. Off you go, postie, we’ll keep this ’ere.

’ardly ’ad the postie gone, when Filípek says to me: it’s not really right, Constable, but ’ere’s a chisel. An’ ’e clears off, so’s ’e won’ ’ave to look.

Well, I opens the box an’ inside there’s two kilo of soil. So I goes after Filípek an’ I says to ’im: Don’ say nuffin’ to no one about this, OK? I’ll sort it meself.

It goes without sayin’, I ups an’ goes straight off to see ’oudek at the estate. ’e was sittin’ on a pile of logs, lookin’ at the ground. Mr Manager, I says, there’s been a mix-up in the post. Do you remember where you sent a box like this a couple of weeks ago?

’oudek goes a little pale an’ says: It don’ matter. I can’ remember ’oo I sent it to meself.

An’ what sort of butter was it, Mr Manager? I says.

At which, ’oudek jumps up, white as a sheet. What’s the meanin’ of this, ’e shouts. Why are you botherin’ me?!

Mr Manager, I says to ’im. It’s like this. You murdered ’elenka, from the pos’ office. You took a box there with a made-up address, so’s she’d ’ave to go an’ weigh it. An’ while she was weighin’ it, you leans over the counter an’ steals two ’undred crowns from the drawer. ’elenka drowned ’erself coz of them two ’undred crowns. That’s why I’m botherin’ you, Mr Manager.

Well, Mr ’oudek starts shakin’ like a leaf. That’s a lie! ’e shouts. Why would I steal two ’undred?

Coz you wanted to get Miss Tauferová, yer sweetheart, over to the pos’ office ’ere. An’ yer sweetheart sent an anonymous letter, sayin’ ’elenka ’ad money missin’. The two of yous drove ’elenka into the lake. The two of yous killed ’er. You ’ave a crime on yer conscience, Mr ’oudek.

’oudek collapsed on to the logs an’ ’id ’is face. I never ever seen a man cry like that. Christ Almighty! ’e wails. I couldn’ ’ave known she’d drown ’erself. I jus’ thought she’d get the sack… She could’ve jus’ gone ’ome. All I wanted was to marry Julie, Constable. But one of us would’ve ’ad to give up work if we’d married… An’ then we wouldn’ ’ave been able to cope with jus’ one wage… That’s why I wanted so much for Julie to work at the pos’ office ’ere. We’ve been waitin’ five years for it… We was so much in love, Constable!

I won’ go on about it. It was already night, the fellow was kneelin’ in front of me, an’ I meself ’ad tears rollin’ down me cheeks like an old softie. Weepin’ for ’elenka an’ everyfin’.

That’ll do, I says to ’im in the end, I’ve ’ad it up to ’ere. Give me them two ’undred crowns… Right. An’ if you even fink of goin’ to see Miss Tauferová before I sort it all out, I’ll ’ave you arraigned for feft, understand? An’ if you shoot yerself or summut of that sort, I’ll let everyone know why you done it. As sure as sure!

That night, my friend, I sat under the stars in judgment on them two. I asked God ’ow I should punish ’em, an’ I understood the bitterness an’ the joy of justice. If I ’anded ’em over, ’oudek would get sentenced, conditionally, to a couple of weeks in prison. If that. ’e killed that girl, but ’e wasn’ a common fief. Any sentence seemed too much an’ too little. That’s why I judged ’em meself.

The next mornin’, I goes to the pos’ office. A tall, pale young lady with rather piercin’ eyes is sittin’ behind the counter. Miss Tauferová, I says, I’ve got a recorded letter ’ere.

I gave ’er the letter, addressed to ‘The Directorate of Posts & Telegraphs, Prague.’ She looks at me an’ sticks a stamp on the envelope.

One moment, Miss, I says. The letter tells ’em ’oo stole two ’undred crowns from yer predecessor… ’ow much does it cost?

Well, I tell you, she seemed pri’y unflappable at first. Until she went ash-pale an’ rigid as a stone. Free crowns fifty, she whispered. I counts out free crowns fifty, an’ I says: ’ere you are, Miss. An’ if these two ’undreds – ’ere I puts on the counter the two stolen banknotes – if these two ’undreds are found ’ere or ’ereabouts, understand? – so that it’s clear the late ’elenka didn’ steal ’em… well, in that case, I won’ send the letter. What do you fink?

She didn’ say nuffin’. Jus’ stared an’ stared into the distance. The postie will be ’ere in five minutes, Miss, I says. So do you wan’ me to take this letter away with me or not?

She nods ’er ’ead quickly.

I picks up the letter, walks out of the pos’ office an’ waits outside. A bag of nerves.

After twenty minutes, old U’er, the postie, runs out an’ shouts: Constable, Constable! They’ve found them two ’undred Miss ’elenka was missin’! The new lady found ’em in one of the books! What a coincidence!

Thank goodness for that, postie! I says. Do us a favour an’ tell everyone you meet that they’ve been found. So they all knows ’elenka didn’ steal ‘em. OK?

So that was the first fing. The second was, I goes to the old fellow ’oo owns the estate. You won’ know ’im. A count. A bit touched in the ’ead, but very nice. Count, I says to ’im, don’ ask me no questions. It’s summut important, an’ I jus’ need you to trus’ me. Call yer manager, Mr ’oudek, an’ tell ’im you’re transferrin’ ’im to yer estate in Morava. An’ if ’e don’ like it, that you’re givin’ ’im immediate notice to quit.

The old count raises an eyebrow an’ looks at me for a while. Of course, there’s me lookin’ as serious as serious can be.

Well, alright, says the count. I won’ ask nuffin’.

An’ ’e gets ’em to summon ’oudek. When ’oudek sees me with the count, ’e goes as white as the driven snow.

’oudek, says the count. Tell ’em to get the carriage ready to take you to the station. You’ll take up work tonight at me estate in ’ulín. I’ll send ’em a telegram for ’em to expect you. Alright?

Yes, says ’oudek. So quiet you could ’ardly ’ear ’im, an’ ’e stares at me with eyes like… like a lost soul in ’ell.

Do you ’ave any objections, says the count.

No, says ’oudek in a gruff voice, an’ still not takin’ ’is eyes off me. I didn’ like ’is eyes, I can tell you.

Alright, you may go, says the count. An’ that was that.

After a while, I see ’em takin’ ’oudek off in the carriage. ’e’s sittin’ there like a wooden doll.

When you go to the pos’ office next time, you’ll see the tall, pale lady. Nasty. Nasty to everyone, an’ she’s gettin’ nasty, old woman wrinkles. I don’ know if she ever meets up with ’er manager friend. Maybe she goes to see ’im sometimes but, if she does, she comes back even more bitter an’ nasty. An’ when I looks at ’er, I finks: Justice.

I’m a police constable, my friend, an’ I’ll tell you this from me own experience: I don’ know whether there’s some all-knowin’ an’ all-powerful God. But if there is, it ain’ no use to us. But let me tell you: There ’as to be someone ‘oo’s as fair as fair can be. Oh yes! All we can do is punish, but there ’as to be someone ’oo forgives. An’ I’ll tell you sumfin for nuffin’: That real an’ ’ighest justice will – strange as it may seem – be summut like love.”


"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925


(My translation of Karel Poláček’s short story Nejdříve mluvili o vzdělanosti a pak jí hodil lampu na hlavu, which was published in Večerní České slovo on 26 June 1929 and, in book form, in Soudničky [Little Stories from the Courts] in 1999)


“My, oh my!” cooed Mrs Klinkáčová, gazing tenderly at her husband. “Those were the days! Yes, indeed. When my hubby was courting me,” – here she gestured towards her husband, who had a corn on his toe and was soaking his foot in a basin of hot water – “we had a fine old time. We went on excursions, we ate bread and butter and drank coffee, and in the evenings we hit the town, didn’t we, sweetheart?”

“Uh,” muttered the man with the corn.

“And sometimes… Sometimes, if it was raining, we’d go to a pub where they played lovely music, didn’t we, sweetheart?”

The man with the corn made a sound like distant thunder.

Mrs Klinkáčová continued as if in a trance: “Ah, young love… What fond memories! It’s no fun for youngsters nowadays, all those modern goings-on. It was different for us. My hubby didn’t have the courage even to ask me for a kiss! As I say, the youngsters of today won’t have any nice memories, and it’s so nice to have nice memories, isn’t it, sweetheart?”

The man with the corn glanced at his wife and made a sound rather like a groan. His wife understood it to be agreement.

“And we took trouble to educate ourselves at the same time. The money we spent on theatre tickets! Once – I can remember it as if it was yesterday – we saw such a wonderful show. The young ladies were all holding hands and dancing on the stage, and the men were clapping along to the music. What was it called, now? Garmen, I think, wasn’t it, sweetheart?”

“No, it wasn’t,” growled the man with the corn. “It was A Waltz Dream. And it’s not Garmen, it’s Carmen.”

“Well, Garmen, Carmen, whatever, it’s all the same to me. I’m just a silly woman…”

“If I say it’s Carmen,” bellowed the man with the corn, banging his fist on the table, “it’s Carmen!”

Seeing that things were heading towards a domestic misunderstanding, their visitor stood up.

“I better be going,” she said. “It seems there’s going to be a domestic misunderstanding…”

The lady who didn’t care whether it was Garmen or Carmen, bristled:

“I beg your pardon! Misunderstanding?! I’ll have you know we never ever argue. We’re like a pair of turtle doves. Loving and faithful. Off you go, you old trout!”

“Excuse me!” said the departing visitor, “I didn’t know you have a mouth like a fishwife’s.”

“What?!” roared the man with the corn. “No one calls my wife a fishwife.”

At which, he grabbed the lamp from the shelf beside him and hurled it at the departing visitor.


Yesterday he appeared in court, accused of defamation and actual bodily harm. He was sentenced to three days, suspended for a year.


"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

From Czech: THE ENMITY OF X AND Y by Karel Poláček

(My translation of Karel Poláček’s short story Potyčka jistého rolníka s jistou bábou, which was published in České slovo on 11 June 1933 and, in book form, in Soudničky [Little Stories from the Courts] in 1999)

Prague Regional Court


This is about two villages not far from the town of Příbram. I won’t give their names because I don’t want to get into trouble, so I’ll just call them X and Y.

There are lots of similar villages in our country, but the point about X and Y is that they detest each other, even though the residents of X can’t explain why, and nor can the residents of Y. The origins of this enmity are lost in the mists of time – which doesn’t stop X and Y still being as nasty as possible to each other.




On the fifth of April this year – how could we forget?! – Farmer Prouříslo, from X, met Babička Pejšáková from Y. Babička Pejšáková was carrying a basket of alfafa on her back and was unable to avoid Farmer Prouříslo. As soon as he saw Babička Pejšáková, Farmer Prouříslo started making obscene gestures and shouting offensive remarks.

“Babička Pejšáková!” he hollered. “When shall we get married? I can’t live without you. I dream about you all the time.”

Now, Babička Pejšácka is as deaf as a post, but she guessed that Farmer Prouříslo was insulting her in public by casting aspersions upon her chastity. What helped her to guess correctly was that, a little way off, she could see some other residents from X, who were nearly pissing themselves with laughter.

Enfuriated, she lifted her skirt.

“Here’s what I think of you, you sack of shite!” she screeched.




It ended up in court, each accusing the other of defamation.

One of Babička Pejšáková’s witnesses was a young woman from Y who would have liked nothing better than to see Farmer Prouříslo rotting in prison. Under her oath on the Bible, she testified that it was completely untrue that Babička Pejšáková had lifted her skirt. She was an upstanding resident of Y. Whereas Farmer Prouříslo was a foul-mouthed swine.

That caused the plot to thicken, because Farmer Prouříslo’s lawyer laid a charge of false testimony against the witness. So the witness found herself sitting in the dock alongside Babička Pejšáková, who was being accused by Prosecuting Attorney Urban of offending public morals.

It was a very difficult hearing. At first, Judge Hraba thought he was speaking loud enough for Babička Pejšáková to understand what he was saying. Not a chance! And even when he raised his voice so high that the windows started to rattle, she still shook her head.

In the end, the judge lifted the charges against the two women. In doing so, he took into account the enmity between X and Y, and the fact that Babička Pejšáková had a basket of alfafa on her back: it would have been difficult for her to lift her skirt so high as to offend public morality.


"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

From Czech: RUSTIC REVELS by Karel Poláček

(My translation of Karel Poláček’s short story Radovánky lidu venkovského, which was published in České slovo on 30 April 1931 and, in book form, in Soudničky [Little Stories from the Courts] in 1999)

Prague Regional Court


Yay! What fun there was that day in Lochov, a charming little village not far from Prague. On the fifteenth of September 1930, six of the residents had met up in the pub. Three of them were bricklayers, and the others were the miller, the barber and the blacksmith. Once they’d settled down to their drinks, it occurred to them they might have a bit of fun, liven things up, so to speak.

On the other side of the pub, there was a hurdy-gurdy man who was – forgive the expression – so pissed that he didn’t know what year it was, let alone what day of the week. He was lying flat-out on the floor by the wall and wouldn’t have stirred a muscle even if a cannon had gone off right over his head. Alcohol had got the better of him, the beer had won out, drink held him firmly in its grip.

What occurred to the six drinking companions was that a funeral for the hurdy-gurdy man would be just the thing. And the landlady was all for it too; she lent them a table and a tablecloth, the blacksmith putting the latter round his shoulders to look like the priest. They placed the hurdy-gurdy man on the table, the three bricklayers lifted it on to their shoulders, and they shuffled out of the pub.

The blacksmith walked behind the deceased, holding some scraps of paper and mumbling Latin words as if he were reciting the funeral rites. The miller was playing a funeral march on his accordion. And off they went over the village green.

People – boggle-eyed – came spilling out of their cottages, and in no time there was a crowd of youngsters and children accompanying the dear deceased and making a merry din. The older villagers, too, said they couldn’t remember such fun. Some of them were doubled-up with laughter.

But, as they say, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Some of them were scandalised at the sight of such depravity and dissipation. It wasn’t right. It was the road to ruin. A fine example for the youngsters. And one of them went straight off to the authorities.


The six drinking companions and the landlady were charged with sacrilege on account of publicly making fun of the teachings, customs and decrees of the Roman Catholic Church or, at least, of disrespecting the same. At the end of the hearing, His Honour Dr Masák sentenced all seven of them to fourteen days in jail. The prosecutor was Dr Stibral.


"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

From Czech: OPERATICS by Karel Poláček

(My translation of Karel Poláček’s short story Studující zpěvu, which was published in České slovo on 2 February 1932 and, in book form, in Soudničky [Little Stories from the Courts] in 1999)

Prague Regional Court


He’s about forty-five years old. He’s wearing a rusty-coloured raglan sweater. His bald pate is shiny. He’s standing before Judge Nedvěda in the Regional Court. In response to a question from the judge, he says he’s a student.

The judge sounds surprised: “A student?!”

Unphased, the man replies, “Yes, Your Honour, a student.”

“And what are you studying? You look rather too old to be studying…”

The man looks taken aback: “You’re never too old to learn something new, Your Honour. I’m a qualified pharmacist, but I gave that up for health reasons. I’ve always had an inclination for the arts. So I’m currently taking singing lessons in order to become an opera singer.”

The judge sounds even more surprised: “An opera singer?!”

The man in the rusty-coloured sweater nods enthusiastically: “Yes, Your Honour. What’s so unusual about that?”

(Indeed, why shouldn’t the man in the rusty-coloured sweater become an opera singer?)

“My friends tell me,” he continues, “that I’ve got a wonderful voice, that I’d be excellent as a heroic tenor. I can easily convince Your Honour of that.”

And, as good as his word, he opens his mouth and out comes: “Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do, Do-Ti-La…”

He’s interrupted by the guard rushing into the court to find out what’s going on. The judge tells the man in the rusty-coloured sweater that the courtroom is a place for speaking, not singing. So…

“How do you plead?”

“Not guilty, Your Honour.”

“So what about Miss Kristýna?”

“Oh, she made it all up. She was voluntarily supporting me in my studies. I was going to pay it all back when I become a successful opera singer. I’d applied to the Royal Theatre but, before I even got a reply, I was arrested. So I wasn’t able to pay it back.”

“Did you promise to marry her?”

“Well, erm… Well, erm… I… I… She kept going on about marriage, so I didn’t want to disappoint her. I was looking for a flat for the purposes of marital cohabitation but, as Your Honour will understand, the problem with getting a flat nowadays… I spent a lot of money in the process.”

“How could you offer to marry her, when you’re already married and have two teenage sons?!”

“I was aware of that, Your Honour. A man can’t have two wives at the same time – that would be a crime. But she kept going on about marriage and I was too reluctant to hurt her feelings. I didn’t want to break her heart. I thought it would be better to break it to her slowly, she’d have a cry about her dreams coming to nothing, and I’d repay everything when I become a success.”

“Alright, but what about Miss Jindřiška?”

The man in the rusty-coloured sweater frowns: “She can speak! She offered me sixteen thousand and only gave me six. She was really demanding. I had to keep shelling out for her. And she kept going on about marriage as well. Whereas Kristýna… she was something else! She gave me twenty thousand straight up, she didn’t whinge, she was satisfied with a coffee and a bread roll. She was another story altogether! If I was single and ten years younger, I’d have married her in the blink of an eye. But she was unlucky, that’s all I can say. It’s no use going on about it, it’s fate.”

When the hearing concludes, the accused, Václav Sedmera, is found guilty of fraud and sentenced to eight months in jail. When the judge asks whether he wants to say anything, he thinks for a few moments before replying:

“Eight months is a bit much, but I’ll accept it, just to show willing. However, I’d like to ask for a slight delay, Your Honour.”


“The singing. I’m working on a difficult aria at the moment.”

He’s told he can sing in jail, and the guard leads him away.


"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

From Czech: DICK’S DINNER JACKET by Karel Poláček

(My translation of Karel Poláček’s short story Osudy jednoho smokingu, which was published in Lidové noviny on 5 March 1939 and, in book form, in Soudničky [Little Stories from the Courts] in 1999)

Prague Regional Court

4 March 1939


Dick Sakulajda is a good-looking young fellow who has recently graduated from business school. At present he’s selling typewriters, playing second fiddle in a group, and supporting his mother financially. He’s a good lad and deserves better luck than he’s had so far.

Bessie – full name: Alžběta Vyťápla – is a personable young lady. Slim, blue-eyed, and with a turned-up nose, she sews gloves, loves modern dance and had started learning English but gave that up in favour of trying to become a film star. Her father, however, threatened to give her what for if she dared do such a thing, and her mother said they hadn’t brought her up to be a floozy. So, as film stardom was a no-go, she would have liked to date an airman but, as no airmen were available at that moment, she made do with Dick, who took her to the cinema and tea dances.

And so their courtship continued. Dick, who was straightforward but rather sentimental, loved her to bits. Bessie intimated to her friends that she could have had any number of suitors, but she wasn’t bothered about them, even though Dick wasn’t all that much fun and certainly wasn’t a man of the world. So she kept going to see him. He’d make a pot of tea and play some of the latest records on his gramophone.



Time went by, until the day when Dick’s flat was burgled. Amongst other things, the thief had stolen his opera glasses, his How to Do Magic book, his watch, and several items of clothing, including his dinner jacket. Whoever had done it evidently knew where to find what.

Dick was furious, but eventually managed to calm himself down a bit: no use crying over spilt milk etc. But it was difficult, in particular, to get over the loss of his dinner jacket. Just to think of everything he’d been through with that coat! … sweating in it when he did his final exams, going to his friend’s wedding, being photographed with his fellow musicians. It was imbued with so many memories – too many to tell. It was as if he’d lost a close family member. He just couldn’t get it out of his head.


Once more, time went by until the day when something remarkable happened. Dick had taken Bessie to a 5 o’clock tea dance. In between stepping out for foxtrot, swing and other such delights, they sat at a little table, where she drank vermouth and he sipped a grenadine cocktail. And while he was sipping his grenadine cocktail, and watching the couples dancing, he noticed a little fellow with a slight limp, who was doing his best to guide his large, stunningly beautiful partner round the dancefloor. The little fellow seemed familiar, or rather, not exactly the little fellow himself, but something about him – something that seemed very familiar. Dick couldn’t work out what it was, so he just kept staring and racking his brain.

Then he thought he heard a plaintive voice:“Dick, my old friend! Don’t you remember me?!”

Dick turned around to try and locate where the voice was coming from, until he realised it was coming from the little fellow’s dinner jacket. The jacket continued:

“Dick, Dick! I don’t deserve this. You soaked me with sweat when you couldn’t work out that actuarial maths question in your exam, and now you don’t even want to know me. Well, that’s nice, isn’t it?!”

Now, Dick’s not one to be ashamed of his old dinner jacket, so he got up, stopped the little fellow in his twirling and whirling, and asked him how he came to be wearing that jacket. At first, the little fellow was indignant: what sort of manners was that? he’d come here to enjoy a dance, to forget everyday cares, and here he was, all of a sudden, being interrogated as if he was in a police station! But it wasn’t long before the little fellow said he had nothing to hide and that he bought the dinner jacket at Jakub Parťas’s junk shop. He then gave Dick the address of the shop and wished him well, before leading his partner into a tango.

When Dick returned to Bessie, he found her out of sorts. She said she wasn’t enjoying it any more and that she had to meet a lady friend; and off she went. Whereupon Dick went straight to the police.


It should be pointed out that Mr Parťas was notorious for buying and selling stolen goods; and, indeed, almost all of Dick’s things were found in his shop. But Dick was in for an unpleasant surprise, not to say disillusionment: it turned out it was Bessie who’d stolen his things and sold them to Mr Parťas.

Today, both Bessie and Mr Parťas were before Judge Petřík. Bessie was sentenced, unconditionally, to two months’ hard labour, and Mr Parťas, for buying and selling suspect goods, to a month in prison – also unconditionally.


"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

From Czech: RELEASED by Karel Čapek

(My translation of Karel Čapek‘s short story Propuštěný, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929)

“Do you understand, Záruba?” asked the prison director, after he’d read out the decision from the Ministry of Justice in an almost ceremonial voice. “It means you’ve had the remainder of your life sentence conditionally remitted. You’ve served twelve and a half years, during the whole of which time your behaviour has been… erm, yes, exemplary. We gave you the best possible reference and… ah… the fact of the matter is, you can go home. Do you understand? But remember, Záruba, if you put a foot wrong, the conditional remittance will be revoked and you’ll have to serve out the rest of your life sentence for murdering your wife Marie. And then not even God himself would be able to help you. So be careful, Záruba. The next time, life will really mean life.”

Moved by the situation, the prison director paused and blew his nose.

“Although we liked having you here, Záruba, I wouldn’t want to see you here again. So, goodbye. The administrator will give you your money. You can go.”

Záruba, a six-and-a-half-foot tall beanpole, shifted awkwardly from foot to foot and muttered something that suggested he was so happy that it hurt; and something rattled and rustled inside him that suggested he was sobbing.

“There now, there now,” the director said gruffly. “You’re not going to burst into tears here, are you?! We’ve prepared some clothes for you, and Málek the builder promised me he’d give you a job… What’s that? You want to take a look back home first? Ah, at your wife’s grave. Well, that’s commendable… So, all the best, Mr Záruba. And, for God’s sake, be careful. Don’t forget it’s just conditional release.”

“What a nice man!” the director said, as soon as he’d shut the door. “You know what, Formánek? Murderers can be very decent people. Not like fraudsters – they’re never satisfied when they’re in jail. I’ll miss Záruba.”


Once Záruba had left behind the courtyard and the iron gates of the Pankrác prison, he couldn’t rid himself of the uneasy feeling that, at any moment, a guard would appear and take him back. He slowed down, so it wouldn’t look like he was escaping.

When he got to the road, it made his head spin. So many people! A group of children chasing each other over there. Two chauffeurs having an argument. Dear God! There didn’t used to be so many people. Where should I go? Doesn’t matter. Vehicles all over the place, and so many women. Is anyone following me? No. But all those vehicles!

He wandered down into Prague, trying to get as far away from Pankrác as possible. He could smell salami from a butcher’s, but not now, not yet. And now he could smell a building site. He used to be a bricklayer before he was imprisoned. He stopped and breathed in the smell of mortar and wooden beams. He looked at an old fellow who was mixing lime; he’d have liked to have a chat with him, but he couldn’t summon his voice – you get out of the habit of talking when you’ve been in solitary a long time.

He carried on down into Prague. Goodness gracious! So many new buildings! Made entirely of concrete. It wasn’t like that twelve years ago, not in my day. But the pillars are so narrow! Surely they’ll collapse!

“Watch out! Are you blind or something?!”

A car had almost run him over, and then he nearly got hit by a clanging and clanking tram. Jesus! You don’t even know how to walk down the street after twelve years!

He wanted to ask someone what that big building was; and how to get to the North-Western Station. A lorry full of iron rods rumbled past, so he took the opportunity to practise saying aloud: “Excuse me. Please would you tell me the way to the North-Western Station.” No, that won’t do. It doesn’t sound at all like a human voice. Your voice box goes rusty and mute up there in Pankrác. You ask about something here and there during the first three years, but then it stops.

“Excuse me, please would you…”

Something crackled in his throat, but it wasn’t a human voice.

He stepped out and hurried into the tangle of streets. He felt as if he were drunk or dreaming. Everything was completely different from twelve years ago: it was all bigger, noisier and more confusing. Just the people! So many of them! It made him feel sad: as if he were in a foreign country and wouldn’t be able to make himself understood. If only he could get to the station and take a train home. Home… His brother had got a cottage there, and children.

“Excuse me, please would you…”

But only his lips moved. Oh well! I’ll get over it when I’m back home. I’ll start speaking again. If only I can find the station.

Suddenly someone shouted at him and pulled him back on to the pavement.

“Why don’t you walk on the pavement, you idiot?!”

He wanted to reply but couldn’t. He just coughed and hurried forward. Kept to the pavement, but the pavement was so narrow. People, I’m in a hurry! I want to be back home! Please, how do I get to the North-Western Station? Probably through the busiest street, over there with all the trams. Where have all these people come from?! Crowds and crowds of them, all going the same way. The station must be that way. That’s why they’re running, so they won’t miss the train.

Záruba the Beanstalk sped up once again, so he wouldn’t be left behind. And just look at that! These people can’t keep on the pavement either! Rolling along down the middle of the road. What a packed and noisy crowd! And new people appearing all the time. Running and shouting something. And then the voices became one mighty voice.

The din makes Záruba dizzy. Dear God, how beautiful! So many people! Up ahead they’ve started singing a marching song. He gets into step with the others and feels happy, marching alongside them. Yay! Everyone’s singing now!

His throat is thawing, and something’s pushing its way through it. It has to come out. And it’s song. He’s singing. Singing without words. Humming. Da-da-da-ing in a deep bass. What’s the song? It doesn’t matter. I’m going home, I’m going home.

He’s got to the front row. He’s singing. Not words. But it’s so beautiful. “Da-da-da,” he trumpets, arm raised. Trumpeting like an elephant. The song resounding throughout his body, his stomach like a drum, his chest like a double-bass. And it feels so good in his throat, so good. As if he’s been drinking, or crying for joy.

Thousands of people are shouting “Throw them out! Throw them out!” but Záruba can’t make out the words. He just trumpets “Da-da-da!” At the head of the marchers, head and shoulders above the rest, he waves his arm, braying like a donkey, shouting, singing, thundering, beating his chest, and the noise he makes is like a great big banner. “Roo! Dey! Ow!” is what comes blasting out of his mouth. He’s totally immersed. He’s crowing like a cockerel. “Ow! Aah! Hoorah!”

And now the crowd’s come to a halt because something’s blocking the way. They retreat like a seething wave flung back on itself. But Záruba holds his ground, eyes closed, lost in that great, liberating voice from deep within. “Ow! Aah! Hoorah!”

Suddenly someone grabs him, and a breathless voice hisses into his ear, “I’m arresting you in the name of the law!”

His eyes open wide. A policeman is dragging him by the arm, away from the panicking crowd. Záruba cries out in horror and tries to pull his arm away. The policeman twists it. Záruba yells with pain and punches the policeman in the head with his free fist. The policeman’s face turns red. He lets go of Záruba, but then a truncheon hits Záruba on the head. And again. And again. And again. Záruba’s fists wheel round like a windmill, connecting with various heads. Two men in helmets are hanging on to him like bulldogs. Grunting in terror, Záruba tries to shake them off, kicking and wriggling like mad. But the two policemen are dragging and pushing him somewhere, his arms twisted behind him, through an empty street. Left, right! Left, right!

And now he’s like a lamb. Excuse me. Please would you tell me the way to the North-Western Station. I need to go home.

In the police station, they almost throw him in front of the desk.

“Name?” The voice is unpleasant and cold.

“Záruba,” Záruba wants to answer, but all he does is move his lips.

“I said, ‘What’s your name?’”

“Antonín Záruba,” he wheezes.


Helplessly, he shrugs his shoulders.

“Pankrác. Solitary.”


It was highly irregular, of course, but this is how it was. The judge, the state prosecutor and the defence counsel got together to discuss how to get Záruba off.

“Best if he just denies it,” said the prosecutor.

“That won’t do,” said the judge. “In the interview, he admitted fighting with the police. What an idiot!”

“What if the police say they can’t be sure it was him?” said the defence counsel. “That it could have been someone else?”

“Do me a favour!” objected the prosecutor. “You want us to teach the police to lie?! When it’s clear as clear could be they recognised him? … I’d go for insanity. Suggest he undergo a mental examination.”

“Well,” said the defence counsel. “I’ll suggest it. But what if the doctors don’t find him to be mad?”

“I’ll have a word with them,” said the judge. “It’s highly irregular, of course, but – damn it! – I wouldn’t want Záruba to spend the rest of his life in jail for something stupid like that. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. I’d give him six months without batting an eyelid, but, colleagues, I’d hate to see him spend the rest of his life in prison.”

“But if insanity won’t work,” said the prosecutor, “it’s not looking at all good. For Christ’s sake! I’ll have to prosecute it as a crime. What else can I do?! If only the fool had dropped off somewhere in a pub! Then we could put together some sort of defence of inebriation…”

“Colleagues,” pleaded the judge. “Please think up some way of me letting him off. I’m an old man, and I wouldn’t want to be responsible for… You understand.”


But there was no hearing. That night, Antonín Záruba hung himself, evidently from dread of returning to jail. Because he was so tall, his corpse was hanging in a weird way. Almost as if he were sitting on the ground.

“A wretched business,” muttered the state prosecutor. “A damned stupid business. But at least it wasn’t our fault.”


"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

From Czech: MIDNIGHT MASS by Jan Neruda

(My translation of the short story Svatováclavská mše by Jan Neruda, which was published in Povídky malostranské in 1877)

Portrait by Jan Vilímek

I  was sitting at the bottom of the steps leading up to the choir lofts and could hardly breathe. Through the iron grill of the door, which stood ajar, I had a good view of the nave – as far as the silver tomb of St Jan on the right and the sacristy on the left. Benediction had finished a long time ago and St Vít’s cathedral was empty except for two people: my mother, who was kneeling at the tomb, lost in prayer; and the old sacristan, who was making his last round before locking up. He walked past me, only a few paces away, and turned to the exit under the royal oratory, where I could hear him turning the key in the door and then trying the handle to make sure it was locked. Then he carried on and, as he did so, my mother got to her feet, made the sign of the cross and walked off beside him, and both of them were soon hidden from view by the tomb. For a few moments I could only hear the echo of their footsteps and snatches of conversation before they reappeared over by the sacristy. I heard him shut the door and, once again, there was the sound of locking and making sure with the handle. Then they continued to the exit on the right. There were two metalic clicks, after which I was alone in the cathedral and unable to get out. A wave of heat seemed to sweep across my back – a strange feeling, but not unpleasant.