Category Archives: Czech Republic

From Czech: BECAUSE by Karel Čapek

(My translation – in the form of a play – of Karel Čapek‘s short story Zločin v chalupě, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929.)

Dramatis Personae

MR VONDRÁČEK, the accused
Other jurors

Pronunciation: Joudal (Yohdal); Vondráček (Vondrahchek)

Scene 1: Courtroom


The accused will stand.

[VONDRÁČEK stands up.]

You’ve been charged with murdering your father-in-law František Lebeda. In the police interview you admitted you hit him three times on the head with an axe, with the intention of killing him. How do you plead?


[Shivers, gulps.] Not guilty.


Did you kill him?




So, you are pleading guilty or not?


No, I’m not.


Now look, Mr Vondráček, it’s already been established that you tried to kill him once before. You put rat poison in his coffee. Is that correct?




From which it follows that you’ve been seeking to kill him for some time. Do you understand me?


[Sniffs and shrugs his shoulders.] It… it was… it was coz of the clover. He sold the clover, even though I told him, “Dad, don’t sell that clover, I’m gonna buy some rabbits…”


Hold on. Was the clover his or yours?


His. But why would he be awanting clover. And I says to him, “Dad, at least leave me the field where you’ve got the alfafa.” But he says, “When I dies, Mařka – that’s like me wife – Mařka will have it. And then you can do what you likes with it, you greedy bastard.”


And that’s why you wanted to poison him?


Yeah, sort of.


Because he swore at you?


No. It was the field. He said he’d sell the field.


But, for heavens’ sake, man! It was his field, wasn’t it? Why shouldn’t he have sold it?


[Looking reproachfully at the judge.] Well, beside that field I got a sort of line of potatoes. I bought it so’s I could combine it one day with his field. But he said, “What do I care about your line of potatoes?! I’m gonna sell it to Joudal.”


So you were continually arguing.


[Frowning.] Yeah, kind of. Coz of the goat.


What goat?


He milked it dry. I says to him, “If you’re gonna keep the goat, give us that meadow by the stream.” But he sold the meadow.


And what did he do with the money?


What d’ya think? He kept it in his trunk. “When I dies,” he says, “you can have it.” But he din’t have no intention of dying, even though he were already over seventy.


So you mean to say it was your father-in-law who was responsible for all the disagreements?


Yeah… He din’t want to hand nuffing over. “As long as I’m alive,” he says, “I’m in charge and that’s that!” So I says to him, “If you buys a cow, Dad, I’ll plough the field and then you won’t have to sell it.” But he says, “When I dies, you can buy two cows for all I care, but I’ll sell the field to Joudal.”


Now listen, Mr Vondráček, did you kill him on account of the money in the trunk?


That was for a cow. We reckoned, when he dies, that’ll be for a cow. A cottage like that can’t be without a cow, can it? Where was I gonna get manure?


We’re not talking about a cow, we’re talking about a man’s life. Why did you kill your father-in-law?


Coz of the field.


That isn’t an answer!


He wanted to sell the field…


But the money would still be there after he died!


Yeah, but he din’t wanna die, did he? If he’d died like he oughta of done, Yer Honour… I treated h’im like he was me own father. [Turns to the public gallery.] The whole village can attest to that, can’t you?

[Murmurs of agreement from VILLAGERS.]


Yes, and that’s why you wanted to poison him, isn’t it?


[Mumbling.] Poison… He shouldn’t of sold that clover. Anyone can tell you, Yer Honour, that clover oughta stay home. [Turning to the public gallery.] That’s no way to manage things, is it now?

[More murmurs of agreement.]


Turn and face me, or I’ll have the public gallery cleared… Now tell us, how did the murder happen?


Well… It was on a Sunday and I could see he was talking with that Joudal again. “Don’t go selling the field, Dad,” I says to him. And all he says is, “I din’t ask your advice, did I, blockhead?” So then I thinks to meself, it’s high time, innit? So I goes off to chop wood.


With the axe at Exhibit A?






That evening I says to me missus, “Take the kids over to Auntie’s.” And she starts to cry. But I says, “Don’t cry. I’m just gonna have a chat with him.” But when he comes into the shed, he says, “That’s my axe, give it here!” An’ then he tries to grab it off me. So I gives him a whack with it.




Coz of the field.


And why did you hit him three times?


[Shrugging his shoulders.] Well, Yer Honour… Where I comes from, we’re used to hard work.


And then?


And then I goes to bed.


Did you manage to get to sleep?


No. I was thinking how much a cow would cost, and how I’d exchange the meadow for that bit by the path. Then it’d be all together.


And your conscience didn’t trouble you?


No. What troubled me was that them fields wasn’t together. And then I’d have to repair the cowshed for the cow. That’d cost a few hundred. My father-in-law din’t even have a cart. “Dad,” I says to him, “God help us, but this isn’t no way to run a farm. The two fields need to be together. That’d be more like it.”


And did you have no sympathy for the old man?!


Well… Well… He wanted to sell that strip to Joudal, din’t he?


So you murdered him out of avarice!


[Tremulously.] No. It was coz of the field! If the fields had been together…


You don’t feel guilty?




So, murdering an old man is a matter of nothing as far as you’re concerned?


[Almost in tears.] But it’s like I says, it was coz of that field. That isn’t no murder! Jesus, Mary and Joseph, anyone can see that! It was a family matter, Yer Honour! I wouldn’t of done it to no one outside the family… I never stealed nuffin… You can ask anyone… An’ they drags me off like a thief! … Like a thief!


No, not like a thief. Like a patricide. You do know, Mr Vondráček, that the punishment for that is death?


[Sobbing.] It was coz of the field.

[The hearing continues: witnesses, prosecuting council, defence council… The jury retire to make their decision.]

Scene 2: The judge’s office

Deep in thought, the judge is staring out of a window.


All a bit weak, I’d say. Neither the prosecution nor the defence felt the need to say much… In short, open and shut. Guilty as charged.


“Guilty as charged” you say. Listen, my friend: that man feels just as innocent as you or I. It’s as if I were judging a butcher for killing a cow, or a mole for making molehills. At times I felt like it shouldn’t be up to us, you know – shouldn’t be up to our justice. [Sighs and takes off his robe.] God! I need a break from it. You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if the jury find him not guilty, ridiculous as that sounds… And that’s because… Let me tell you something. I was born and bred in the country, and when that fellow said, “Those fields need to be together,” it was as if I could see the two fields and I thought, you know, if we had to judge… by some sort of divine law… we’d have to judge those two fields. You know what I’d have liked to do? Stand up, take off my cap and say, “In the name of God, Mr Vondráček, because spilt blood cries to heaven for vengeance, you shall sow those two fields with hawthorn and henbane, so that, until your dying day, you’ll have that wasteland of hate in front of your eyes…” I wonder what the prosecuting counsel would have to say to that. My friend, sometimes God should do the judging. He’d be able to impose such terrific sentences. Although we judge in God’s name, we’re nothing in comparision… What’s that? The jury have already decided? [Sighs and puts his robe back on.] Right, let’s go. Call them back in.


"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

From Czech: WORLD RECORD by Karel Čapek

My translation – in the form of a play – of Karel Čapek‘s short story Rekord, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929.

Dramatis Personae

HEJDA, police sergeant
TUČEK, magistrate
VÁCLAV (Vašek Lysický), the accused

SCENE: Magistrate’s office.

TUČEK is sitting behind his desk. Enter HEJDA.


I’ve got a case of grievous bodily harm here, sir… My God, isn’t it hot!”


Just take it easy, Hejda.


[Puts a bundle on the floor by the door, chucks his helmet down beside it, puts his firearm on a table in the corner of the room and unbuttons his coat.] Phew! The wretched scoundrel! I’ve never had a case like it, sir. Just take a look at this. [Picks up bundle, places it on Tuček’s desk and undoes it.]


[Pokes the stone with a pencil.] What’s that meant to be? A cobblestone or something?


Yes, a big one, 5 kilo 940 grams. It’s like this, sir. This Václav Lysický, bricklayer, nineteen years old, lives in the brickworks, right? He hits František Pudil, landlord, No. 14 Dolní Újezd, right? in left shoulder, causing breakage of clavical and shoulder joint with accompanying bleeding wound and torn muscles, tendons and surronding tissue. Right?


Right. But what’s so unusual about all that?


Just you wait and see, sir. I’ll tell you precisely what’s so unusual about all that. Three days ago that Pudil sends for me. You know him, don’t you, sir?


I do. He was here once on account of extortion, and then… hm…


That was the poker game. Yes, that Pudil. He’s got a cherry orchard going down to the river, right? That’s where the Sázava bends, so it’s wider there. So, Pudil sends for me one morning, saying something’s happened. I find him in bed, groaning and cursing. He says he went down the orchard the previous evening, to have a look at the cherries, and he catches this boy up a tree, stuffing his pockets with cherries. Well, you know what a ruffian that Pudil is. He takes off his belt, grabs the lad’s leg, pulls him down from the tree and whips him with the belt. But then someone yells at him from across the river: “Leave that boy alone, Pudil!” Well, Pudil, he doesn’t see too well – on account of his drinking, I think. All he can see is someone standing on the other bank staring at him. So, just to make sure, he shouts, “What’s it got to do with you, bonehead?!” and carries on whipping the boy even harder. “Pudil!” shouts the fellow on the other bank. “Leave that boy alone, I tell you!” Well, Pudil thinks to himself he can’t do much, over there, so he shouts, “Get stuffed, you interfering idiot!” But no sooner has he said that than he’s lying on the ground with a terrible pain in his left shoulder. And the fellow on the other bank says, “I’ll show you what for, you big bully!” So, listen, they have to carry Pudil away, coz he can’t stand up. And lying on the ground beside him is this here stone. They send someone to get the doctor that same night, and the doctor wants to send Pudil to the hospital, but Pudil won’t go, on account of it being harvest time. So he sends for me this morning and tells me I’ve got to arrest that scumbag, that toerag. So…

Listen, I was gobsmacked when he shows me the stone. It’s got some sort of mineral in it, so it’s heavier than it looks. Here, feel it yourself, sir. I’d say it’s about 6 kilo. Maybe just 51 grams short of 6 kilo. Jesus! you’d have to know what you was doing to throw a stone like this. So, I goes to look at the orchard and the river. Where the grass is all flattened is where he fell. It was 2 metres from the water. And the river, sir – at first sight the river is at least 14 metres wide. Coz that’s where it bends. So, I gets excited and shouts, “Bring me an 18-metre length of string. Right away!” And then I puts a stake in the ground where Pudil fell, I ties the string to it and I swims across to the other bank with the other end of the string in my mouth. And do you know, sir: the string just about reaches the other bank. And then there’s an embankment and a path above it. I measures it three times: from the stake to the path is exactly 19 metres and 27 centimetres.”


Look, Hejda. That has to be impossible. Nineteen metres is quite some distance. Are you sure the fellow wouldn’t have been standing in the water? In the middle of the river, say?


That did occur to me as well, sir. But the middle of the river is 2 metres deep at that point coz of the bend. And there’s a hole in the embankment where that stone was. You see, they built up the embankment a bit there to stop flooding. The fellow pulled this stone out of it and he must have thrown it from the path coz the river was too deep and he’d have slipped if he was standing on the embankment. So, that means he threw it 19.27 metres. What do you say to that?


Erm… Perhaps he used a sling?


[Looking askance at Tuček.] You’ve never used a sling, have you, sir? Just try shooting a 12-pound stone from a sling. It would have to be some sling! I tried it out over two days, sir. I made one and tried, but that stone would fall out of any sling, sir. No, it was thrown by hand. And do you know… do you know what that means? A world record! That’s what it means!


[Amazed.] Steady on!


Yes, a world record. The ball used in shot put is heavier – 7 kilo. And this year’s shot-put record is just a few centimetres short of 16 metres. The previous record of 15.5 metres had lasted for nineteen years, sir. But, this year, some American, can’t remember his name, Kuck or Hirschfeld or something, did a throw of almost 16. So, with a 16-kilo ball that would mean 18 or 19 metres. And here we have 0.27 of a metre more! That fellow, sir, would be able to throw a shot put at least 16.25 metres, even without training. Jesus! Sixteen and a quarter metres! I used to do shot putting myself, sir. In Siberia, the lads were always shouting, “Hejda, throw it over there.” A handgrenade, that’s to say. And in Vladivostok I threw with American sailors. I managed 14 metres, but their chaplain did 15.5. Fourteen and a half was all I could manage. So, 19 metres! Damn it, I said to myself, I have to find that chap. He’ll get us a world record. Just imagine, snuffing out the Americans’ record!”


And what about Pudil?


Sod Pudil! The man I’m searching for, sir, is the unknown fellow who – so to speak – has infringed the world record. That’s a matter of national interest, wouldn’t you say? So, the first thing I do is guarantee him immunity for what happened to Pudil.


I beg your pardon?


Hold on, Sir. Immunity on condition he really can throw a 6-kilo stone across the Sázava. I told the local mayors what an extraordinary achievement that is – one that’d be famous throughout the world. He’d make thousands of pounds from it. And, upon my soul, no sooner had I let it be known, than lads from the whole region left off havesting and hurried off to that river bank to try and throw stones across to the other side. There are hardly any stones left in the embankmnet wall now, so they’re searching for more from field boundaries. They’ve even started knocking down walls. And little boys – the rascals – have started throwing stones in their villages. Lots of chickens killed as a consequence. And of course I goes to the embankment to watch, but none of them manage to throw further than half way across. The river must be half-full of stones by now, sir.

Yesterday afternoon they brings me a lad who, they says, is the one who hit Pudil with the stone. You’ll see the rascal in a minute, sir, he’s waiting outside. “So, Lysický,” I says to him. “Was it you who threw this stone at Pudil?” “Yeah,” he says. “Pudil swore at me, so my blood gets up and I grabs it and throws it.” “Right,” says I, “so now come with me and throw it across the river. And if you can’t I’ll give you what for.” So, off we goes, he stands there on the bank, I gives him the stone – he’s got hands like shovels – he stands there and aims… I must say, no points for technique or style, he don’t even move his legs or his hips. And then – plop! – he throws it maybe 14 metres. Not bad, but… Alright, so I shows him. “Look here, you good-for-nothing! You have to stand like this, right shoulder back, and when you throws you got to whip the shoulder forward, understand?” “Yeah,” he say. Then he twists himself up like St Jan Nepomucký, and – plop! Ten metres.You know, that really made me mad. “You bastard!” I shouts at him. “So, you hit Pudil, did you?! Lying bastard!” “As God is my witness, Sergeant,” he says, “I did hit him. Honest. If he was standing there now I’d hit him again, the swine.” So, when I hears that, sir, I runs round to Pudil and says to him, “Please, Mr Pudil, look, there’s a chance of a world record. Come and swear again from your side of the bank, and that bricklayer will have another go.” But, you’d hardly believe it, sir, Pudil says no, he won’t go there for love nor money. You see, that sort of person only thinks about themselves.So I goes to talk to that Vašek again, the bricklayer. “You swindler,” I says to him. “It weren’t you who knocked down Pudil. Pudil says it were someone else.” Lysický says that’s not true, it really were him. “Show me then,” says I, “that you really can throw that far.” At which, Vašek scratches his head and laughs. “Sergeant,” he says, “I can’t do it cold. I’d have to have Pudil standing there. If he was, I’d hit him every time.” So, I puts it to him straight: “Vašek,” I says, “If you manage it, I’ll let you go. If you don’t, you’ll be done for grievous bodily harm, for crippling Pudil. That’d see you behind bars for half a year, you brute.” And all he says is, “That’s alright, Sergeant. I don’t mind spending the winter in prison.” At which I arrests him in the name of the law.

He’s waiting in the corridor now, sir. Maybe you could find out if he really did throw the stone, or if he’s just boasting. I think you might put the fear of God in him and he’ll admit it weren’t him. In which case, the scoundrel should get at least a month in jail for deceiving the statumentary authorities. Sportsmen aren’t allowed to lie and they should be properly punished if they does. I’ll bring him in.

[Exit HEJDA, returning with VAŠEK.]


So, you’re Václav Lysický. You admit that you threw this stone at František Pudil with the intention of harming him, do you?


Let me explain, Yer Honour. It was like this: That Pudil is beating a boy and I shouts at him across the river to stop it and he starts swearing at me…


Did you throw the stone or not?


Yes, Yer Honour, but he were swearing at me and so I grabs the stone…


Blast it! Why are you lying, man? Don’t you know it’s a serious crime to obstruct the course of justice? We are well aware that you didn’t throw the stone.”


But I did, Yer Honour. Coz Pudil told me to go and get…


[Pointing at Vašek.] Take off your clothes.

[VAŠEK starts to undress.]

And your trousers.

[VAŠEK takes off his trousers. Shivers.]

Look at his deltoids, Hejda. And that long muscle… What do you call it?


That one’s alright, but the muscles of his abdomen aren’t defined enough. You need those muscles for shot putting, sir, for swinging your body. If you’d allow me to show you my abdomen…


No, I don’t think that will be necessary. Well, never mind his stomach, but – my God! – just look at his chest. [Poking his finger into the abundant hairs on Vašek’s chest.] But his legs are weak. These country boys always have bad legs.


Coz they don’t bend them, sir. They’re no good. A shot putter has to have really strong legs.


Turn round…

[VAŠEK turns round.]

What about his back, Hejda?


The upper half is good, but the lower half… far from it. His torso isn’t strong enough. I think it can’t have been him who threw it, sir.


[To Vašek.] Get dressed then.

[VAŠEK gets dressed.]

One last chance: did you throw this stone or not?


[Mumbling, recalcitrant.]

Yes. I did.


You ass! You threw it, so that’s grievous bodily harm and that means the regional court, where they’ll sentence you to several months, do you understand? So, stop this boasting and admit it: you made it all up. I’ll sentence you to three days for obstruction of justice and then you can go. So, for the very last time, did you strike Pudil with this stone or not?”


Yes. Coz he starts swearing at me from…


Take him away. The damned liar!

[Exit HEJDA with VAŠEK.]


[Sticking his head through the door.] You forgot to add damage to other people’s property, sir. He took the stone from the embankment, didn’t he? And now there’s none left.


"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

From Czech: THE FORTUNE TELLER by Karel Čapek

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





nyone with half a brain will realise that this incident couldn’t have happened here or in France or Germany. As is well known, here and in those countries judges are required to punish wrong-doers according to the letter of the law rather than according to their ineffable acuity as superior gentlemen. This story involves a judge who made a judgement based not on the relevant sections of law but on his trusty common sense. So, as you will see, it has to do with England or, to be more precise, London, or, to be even more precise, Kensington; or perhaps Brompton or Bayswater – anyway, somewhere thereabouts. The judge was His Honour Judge Kelly and the woman who was the object of his ineffable acuity was Mrs Edith Myers.

I should explain that this otherwise respectable lady had aroused the suspicions of Police Inspector McCleary. “My dear,” said McCleary one night to his wife. “I can’t get that Mrs Myers out of my head. I’d love to know how she makes her money. Just imagine: even though it’s winter, she’s still sending her servant to buy asparagus! I’ve also discovered she has about fifteen visitors every day – everything from Covent Garden stall-holders to countesses. And I’m well aware it could all be a front for something else: prostitution, spying or whatever. I need to find out what’s going on.”

“Why don’t you just leave it to me, Bob,” said the redoubtable Mrs McCleary. And so it came to pass that, the very next day, that good lady went to visit Mrs Myers in Bayswater or Marylebone or wherever. Of course she’d taken the precaution of removing her wedding-ring and doing herself up like a young girl – in a mutton-dressed-as-lamb sort of way, I might add. And she pretended to be appropriately nervous as, having rung the bell, she waited to be shown in to Mrs Myers.

“Sit down, my dear child,” said the old lady, after having had a good look at her simpering visitor. “What can I do for you?”

“I…,” spluttered Mrs McCleary. “I… I would like… I’ll be twenty tomorrow and I’d be awfully glad to know what the future holds in store for me.”

“But, Miss… Miss?” asked Mrs Myers, picking up a pack of cards at the same time, and immediately beginning to shuffle them.

“Jones,” said Mrs McCleary, almost in a whisper.

“My dear Miss Jones,” Mrs Myers continued. “I think you’re mistaken. I don’t do card-readings – except, of course, here and there, for old friends, as us old women tend to do. But if you’d like to split the pack into five with your left hand… That’s right… So I do do card readings from time to time, of course, but just for pleasure. Oh look!” she said, as she turned up the first pile. “Diamonds. That means money. And the jack of hearts! That’s a lovely card.”

“Ah,” said Mrs McCleary. “And what next?”

“The jack of diamonds,” said Mrs Myers, as she turned over the second pile. “And the ten of spades. That means travel. But then,” she exclaimed, “we’ve got clubs! Clubs always mean adversity, but here’s the queen of hearts at the end!”

“And what does that mean?” asked Mrs McCleary, trying her hardest to look amazed.

“Diamonds again,” muttered Mrs Myers, turning over the third pile. “My dear child, you’re in for a lot of money. But I’m still not sure whether it’s you who’ll be travelling, or someone close to you.”

“I do have to go and visit my aunt in Southampton,” said Mrs McCleary.

“Oh, it will be further than that,” said Mrs Myers, turning over the fourth pile. “And somebody’s going to try to stop you. An elderly man…”

“Probably my father!” Mrs McCleary exclaimed.

“So there we have it!” said Mrs Myers triumphantly, looking at the upturned fifth pile. “Dear Miss Jones, this is the most beautiful spade I’ve ever seen. Within the year you’ll be married to a fabulously wealthy young man, a millionaire, a businessman – because he travels a lot – but before that you’ll have to overcome difficult obstacles: an elderly gentleman will try to prevent your marriage. So you’ll have to be obstinate. And after you’ve got married you’ll move far away from here, overseas most likely… That will be one guinea, please, for the Christian missions amongst the poor Africans.”

“I’m so grateful to you,” said Mrs McCleary, taking one pound and one shilling from her purse. “Very very grateful. But may I ask, Mrs Myers, what it would cost without the adversity?”

“You can’t bribe a fortune-teller,” the old lady said in a tone of injured dignity. “What does your father do, by the way?”

“He works for the police,” lied the young lady, looking as innocent as she could. “He’s a secret agent.”

“Aha!” said the old lady. She pulled three cards out from the pack. “That’s bad, very bad. Please tell him, my dear child, that he’s in grave danger. He should come to see me to find out more. A lot of Scotland Yard people come and ask me to read the cards for them. And they tell me everything that’s worrying them. So, send him to see me. You say he’s in the political department? Mr Jones? Tell him I’ll be expecting him. Goodbye, my dear Miss Jones… Next please!”

“I don’t like the sound of it,” Mr McCleary said, rubbing the back of his head. “Not at all, Katy. That woman was far too interested in your late father. And apart from that her name isn’t Myers: it’s Meierhof and she’s from Lübeck. A damn German!” he grumbled. “What shall we do about her? I don’t doubt for a moment she’s getting stuff out of people that’s none of her business… I know! I’ll report her to the high-ups.”

And that’s what Mr McCleary did. Somewhat surprisingly the high-ups took it all seriously, and thus it was that Mrs Myers was eventually summoned to appear before His Honour Judge Kelly.

“So, Mrs Myers,” said he, “what’s all this business with the cards?”

“Why do you ask?” said the old lady. “One has to earn one’s keep somehow. At my age I’m hardly going to go and dance in vaudeville!”

“That’s all very well,” said Judge Kelly, “but I’ve had a complaint that you’re not reading the cards properly. And that, my dear Mrs Myers, is just the same as if you were selling bars of clay instead of chocolate. If they’re going to pay a guinea, people are entitled to expect a proper reading. Would you kindly tell me why you’ve set yourself up as a fortune teller when you don’t know how to do it properly?”

“But people don’t complain,” the old lady replied. “The thing is, I tell them things they like to hear. And the pleasure they get from that is surely worth a few shillings. And sometimes I even get it right. Just the other day a lady said to me, ‘No-one has ever read the cards and given me such good advice as you, Mrs Myers!’ She lives in St John’s Wood and is getting a divorce from her husband…”

“But,” said His Honour, “here we have a witness to what you’ve been getting up to. Please tell us about it, Mrs McCleary.”

“Mrs Myers read the cards for me,” said Mrs McCleary. “She told me that within a year I’d be married, that my husband would be a wealthy young man and that we’d move overseas…”

“Why overseas, exactly?” asked the judge.

“Because there was a ten of spades in the second pile, and that means travel,” said Mrs Myers.

“Nonsense!” said the judge. “The ten of spades means good fortune. It’s the jack of spades that means travel; when it comes together with the seven of diamonds, that’s when it means travel to far-away places and good fortune. You can’t pull the wool over my eyes, Mrs Myers! And you told our witness here that within the year she’d marry a wealthy young man. But Mrs McCleary is already married; she married Police Inspector McCleary three years ago, and a fine man he is too. So how do you explain this nonsense, Mrs Myers?”

“Well now,” said the old lady, perfectly calmly. “That’s how it goes sometimes. This person came to me all dolled-up like a silly girl. But I noticed that her left glove was torn. So, someone who’s not rolling in money but wants to give the appearance that she is. And she told me she was twenty, whereas in fact she’s twenty-five…”

“Twenty-four!” interrupted Mrs McCleary forcefully.

“Well, it’s all the same. So she’d like to get married – that’s to say, she made out she was single. So I foresaw a wedding for her and a rich bridegroom. That’s what seemed to me the most appropriate.”

“And what about the adversity?” demanded Mrs McCleary. “The elderly gentleman and the journey abroad?”

“For something more to say,” was Mrs Myers’ simple reply. “For a guinea you have to say more than just a couple of things.”

“I’ve heard all I need to hear,” said the judge. “There’s no getting out of it, Mrs Myers: reading the cards like that is a swindle. Fortune tellers have to understand the cards. It’s true there are various theories about it, but the ten of spades never – and I emphasise the word ‘never’ – means a journey. You will pay a fine of fifty pounds, just like tradespeople who wrongly describe their wares. There’s also a suspicion that you’re a spy, Mrs Myers, but you’re hardly going to own up to that, are you?”

“As God is my witness…,” Mrs Myers began, but His Honour interrupted her. “Never mind: we’ll leave that to one side. But, because you’re a foreigner without proper employment, I shall order the police authorities to expel you from this country. Goodbye, Mrs Myers, and thank you, Mrs McCleary. Fraudulent fortune telling is cynical and dishonest behaviour, Mrs Myers. I hope you’ll learn your lesson.”

About a year later, Judge Kelly happened to meet Police Superintendent McCleary. “Lovely weather we’re having,” said His Honour. “By the way, how’s Mrs McCleary?”

Mr McCleary grimaced. “Well… the thing is, Mr Kelly,” he said, clearly embarrassed, “Mrs McCleary…the thing is… we got divorced.”

“No! Really?” said the judge. “Such an attractive young woman.”

“That was just the problem,” muttered Mr McCleary. “A young dandy took a shine to her. Some sort of millionaire businessman from Melbourne… Of course, I tried to talk sense into her, but…” He waved his hand. “They left for Australia last week.”


"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

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