Category Archives: Karel Čapek

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

From Czech: RELEASED by Karel Čapek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me, please would you…”

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

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

“Excuse me, please would you…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Name?” The voice is unpleasant and cold.

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

“I said, ‘What’s your name?’”

“Antonín Záruba,” he wheezes.


Helplessly, he shrugs his shoulders.

“Pankrác. Solitary.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

From Czech: A STAR VANISHES by Karel Čapek

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

Jan Benda disappeared on the second of September. He’d been known as The Brilliant Benda ever since he shot to fame as a young actor.

Nothing had seemed out of the ordinary on the second of September. The cleaner had arrived at 9 a.m. and had found the bedclothes all over the place and the flat like a pigsty. Which was perfectly normal. Jan wasn’t at home, but that wasn’t unusual either, so she gave everything a quick once-over and continued on her way. All fine, except that, from that time onwards, there was neither sight nor sound of The Brilliant Benda.
Even that, however, didn’t particularly surprise Mrs Marešová – that was her name. These actors, they’re like gypsies: here today, gone tomorrow, off performing or galavanting God knows where.
But on the tenth of September there was cause for concern. Jan should have turned up at the theatre for the rehearsals for King Lear. Apprehension turned to panic when he didn’t even appear for the dress rehearsal. The theatre phoned Jan’s friend Dr Goldberg to see if he knew what was going on.
Dr Goldberg was a surgeon who’d made a fortune out of inflamed appendixes. (Inflamed appendixes were a sort of Jewish speciality.) He was a stout man with thick, gold-framed glasses and an equally stout heart of gold. He was passionate about art, the walls in his flat were full of pictures, and he was a devotee of Jan – to which the actor responded with benevolent contempt, mixed with magnanimity in allowing Dr Goldberg to foot the bill. The sight of The Brilliant Benda’s tragic mask of a face alongside the doctor’s beaming smile had become a fixture of their Sardanapalian excursions. That was the flip side of the great actor’s fame. (To be fair to the doctor, it should be pointed out that he only drank water.)
So, they phoned Dr Goldberg to find out where Jan was. The doctor didn’t have a clue, but he did offer to try and find out. What he didn’t say was that he himself had been searching for him for a week, looking in all the night spots and excursion hotels with mounting apprehension. He had a nasty feeling that something untoward had happened.
As far as Dr Goldberg could make out, he was the last person who’d seen The Brilliant Benda. Some time at the end of August, the two of them had gone on an epic pub crawl through Prague. But then Jan had stopped turning up at any of their regular meeting places. Thinking that Jan might be unwell, the doctor went to his flat one evening – that would have been the first of September. No one came to the door when the doctor rang the bell, but he could hear a sort of rustling sound inside. He rang repeatedly for a good five minutes before there was the sound of footsteps, the door opened, and there was The Brilliant Benda in a dressing-gown. The famous actor was unkempt: dirty, tired-looking, unshaven and his hair a mess.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said. “What do you want?”
“What’s happened to you, for God’s sake?” the doctor blurted out in amazement.
“Nothing. I’m not going anywhere, do you understand? Leave me in peace.”
Whereupon The Brilliant Benda slammed the door in Dr Goldberg’s face. And the very next day, he disappeared.
The doctor squinted behind his thick lenses. Something wasn’t right. All he’d managed to find out, from the caretaker of the block of flats where Jan lived, was that, later that same night, about 3 a.m., a car had stopped in front of the building. No one had got out, but the driver had given a blast of the horn. After which, the caretaker had heard someone leaving the building and shutting the front door, and the car driving away. No, he hadn’t seen what sort of car it was. At 3 a.m., you don’t get out of bed if you don’t have to. But, by the sound of the horn, the driver was in an awful hurry.
Mrs Marešová had said that, before his disappearance, the famous actor hadn’t left his flat for a week (unless at night). He looked as if he hadn’t shaved and hadn’t even washed. He had food brought to him in the flat, he drank cognac, and he lounged about on the sofa. That’s all.
But now that other people were beginning to worry about Jan’s disappearance, Dr Goldberg went to see her again.
“Do you remember what Mr Benda was wearing when he left the flat?”
“Nuffin,” said Mrs Marešová. “That’s exacly what I don’ like about it. ’e weren’t wearin’ no clothes. I knows all ’is clothes, an’ they’re all ’angin’ in the flat. There ain’t a thread missin’.”
“You don’t mean to say he left in his underwear?!”
“Not even in ’is underwear, an’ not even in ’is shoes. It’s very odd, sir. You know, I’ve got a list of all ’is clothes coz I takes ’em to the laundry. They’ve just washed ’em, and I checked it all afterward. Eighteen shirts, not one missin’. Not one single ’ankerchief. Nuffin. Jus’ one little case missin’, what ’e always takes with ’im. If ’e left, ’e mus’ve been stark naked.”
The doctor’s brow wrinkled.
“My dear madam, when you came next day in the morning, hadn’t something been disturbed? You know, something knocked over, or a door broken down…?”
“No, jus’ the same mess as always. ’e kep’ the place like a pigsty, that Mr Benda, sir. But there weren’ no, like, special mess, nuffin like that. But where could ’e ’ave gorn, when ’e din’ even ’ave ’is braces on ’im?!”
Doctor Goldberg, of course, didn’t know any more than she did. So, as a last resort, he turned to the police.

“Alright,” said the police inspector, after the doctor had told him everything he knew. “we’ll look into it, Doctor. But according to what you’ve just told me, a whole week locked in his flat, unshaven and unwashed, lounging on the sofa, knocking back the cognac, and then disappearing, naked as Adam in the Garden of Eden, I’d say it all points to… erm…”

“Yes. Could be suicide whilst out of his mind. And, you know what? When it comes to The Brilliant Benda, that wouldn’t surprise me at all.”
“But, in that case, wouldn’t his body be found, at least? And then, how far could he get, start naked?! And why would he take his case with him? And that car, waiting outside…? Doesn’t it look more like deliberate disappearance?”
“Debts,” said the police officer all of a sudden. “Did he have any debts?”
“No… Or rather, he had debts coming out of his ears, but he never gave them a second thought.”
“Or… what about a skeleton in the cupboard? A love affair gone terribly wrong? Or anything at all weighing on his mind?”
Dr Goldberg hesitated for a fraction of a second before replying, “No, nothing I’m aware of.”
He did remember a couple of things, but he kept them to himself. In any case, they could scarcely have anything to do with the actor’s disappearance. I’m sure the police will do all they can, he told himself.

But when he got home, he had a good think about what he knew of Jan in that respect. Not that there was much:
1. He had a lawfully wedded wife somewhere abroad, but that was as far as that went.
2. He had a mistress in Holešovice.
3. He had a relationship – indeed, what is commonly called a “scandalous relationship” – with Gréta Korbelová, the wife of the prominent industrialist. Gréta desperately wanted to be a famous actress, so Mr Korbel had stumped up the money for some films in which his wife had, of course, a starring role. So, it was known that Jan and Gréta were lovers, that Gréta visited him regularly and wasn’t even bothering to be circumspect any more. But Jan never talked about such things. He dismissed the whole thing with hauteur and with a cynicism that Dr Goldberg, truth to tell, found chilling. No, no one could make head nor tail of Jan’s personal affairs. How could the doctor know if there was something terribly unsavoury behind it all? But, in any case, it was up to the police now.

Of course, the doctor didn’t know how the police would go about investigating the matter, and so he waited, with growing disquiet, for some news. A month had already passed since the actor’s disappearance, and people had started talking about The Brilliant Benda in the past tense.

One evening Dr Goldberg bumped into old Mr Lebdušek, the actor. In the course of their conversation, the subject of Jan’s disappearance popped up, naturally enough.

“My goodness! What an actor he was!” said Mr Lebdušek. “I remember him when he was about twenty-five. I tell you, the way he played Osvald! So convincing that even young medical students went, to see what paralysis really looks like. It was round about then that he first played King Lear. Although, to tell you the truth, I can’t really comment on his acting, because I was so fascinated by his hands. He had the hands of an 80-year-old. Withered, dessicated, pitiable. I still don’t understand how he did it. I can do make-up, of course, but no one could do it like Jan. Only an actor can really appreciate it.”
Dr Goldberg felt a melancholic glow at listening to this thespian appreciation of The Brilliant Benda.
“A proper actor, Doctor! I remember the rollicking he gave the wardrobe director that time. ‘How can I play the king,” he bellowed, “if you’re going to put that awful lacy stuff on the coat?! He wouldn’t put up with any nonsense. When he was going to play Othello, he searched through all the antique shops until he found just the right genuine Renaissance ring. He had to wear it on his finger if he was going to be Othello! He always said he performed better if he was wearing something original. It wasn’t really even acting any more, it was… transmogrification!”
It seemed that Mr Lebdušek wasn’t quite sure if that was the correct word, but he continued:
“Between scenes, he was as foul-mouthed as a butcher’s boy, and he’d lock himself in his dressing-room so that no one could bother him. It all got on his nerves really. That’s why he drank so much… I’m going to see a film in the cinema here, Doctor. Nice to meet you. Good night.”
“Do you mind if I go with you?” asked Dr Goldberg, who had no plans for the evening.

It was some kind of seafaring film, but he didn’t have much idea of what it was about because he was listening, almost with tears in his eyes, as Mr Lebdušek carried on talking, sotto voce, about The Brilliant Benda.

“He wasn’t an actor; he was the very devil! One life wasn’t enough for him, that’s what it was. In real life, he was a pig, but on the stage, he was the most kingly king or the most trampish tramp. He could gesture, doctor, as if ordering people about came as naturally to him as breathing. And yet his father was a travelling knife sharpener… Look at that ship-wrecked fellow: he’s on a desert island, but his finger nails are perfectly manicured, the idiot! And you can see how his beard’s been stuck on. If Jan had the role, he’d have grown a proper beard, and he’d have long, dirty finger nails… What’s the matter, Doctor?! Are you unwell?”
“You’ll have to excuse me,” the doctor muttered as he got to his feet. “I’ve just remembered something. Lovely to meet you.”
As he headed for the exit, he kept thinking, Jan would have grown a proper beard. Jan was growing a proper beard. Why didn’t it occur to me sooner?!

“The police headquarters!” he shouted, as he climbed into the nearest taxi; and when he was finally standing in front of the desk sergeant, he alternately demanded and begged, for the love of God, that a check be made immediately as to whether the body of a tramp had been found anywhere on the second of September. Somewhat to the doctor’s surprise, the desk sergeant promptly went off to check, or to ask someone, although probably more to relieve his boredom than out of real zeal, or even interest. Meanwhile, the doctor had started sweating, because something awful had occurred to him.

“Well, sir,” said the desk sergeant when he returned, “a gamekeeper found the body of an unidentified vagrant, about forty years old, in the Křivoklátsko Woods on the morning of the second. On the third, the body of an unidentified man, about thirty years old, was pulled out of the Elb. He’d been in the water for maybe two weeks. In Německý Brod, on the tenth, an unidentified man, about sixty years old, was found hanging…”
The doctor interrupted him. “Have you got any more details about the vagrant?”
The desk sergeant looked him in the eyes. “Murder. According to the report from the local police station, his skull had been bashed in with a blunt instrument. The postmortem found that he was an alcoholic and that the cause of death was injury to the brain. Here’s the photograph… They made a right mess of him.”
The photograph showed the body of the man from the waist up. He was dressed in rags, and his calico shirt was open. Where the forehead and eyes should have been, there was just a dreadful tangled mass of hair and something else that could have been either skin or bone. Only the man’s stubbly chin still looked human. Dr Goldberg started shaking uncontrollably. Was that… Could it be Jan?
When he felt able to speak, he asked, “Did he… did he have any distinctive features?”
The desk sergeant looked into a folder.
“Hm. One metre eight, grey hair, decayed teeth…”
The doctor sighed loudly with relief: “It can’t be him then. Mr Benda’s teeth were as healthy as a wild animal’s. It’s not him. Forgive me for troubling you, but it can’t be him. That’s out of the question.”

Out of the question, he repeated to himself when he got home. He might still be alive. Perhaps he’s sitting in the Olympus or the Black Duck at this very moment.

That night he went walking through Prague again. He drank his glass of water in all the pubs where The Brilliant Benda used to be the centre of attention, and he peered through his gold-rimmed glasses into every corner. But Jan was nowhere to be seen. In the small hours, pale and wan, he told himself, aloud, that he was an idiot, and he slunk off home.

The next morning, he went to a regional council office and asked to see the director. Fortunately, it turned out that, at some time in the past, the doctor had excised the man’s inflamed appendix, sewn up the wound and presented him with the offending object in a little bottle of alcohol. And thanks to that by no means superficial aquaintance, two hours later, with a warrant for exhumation in his hand, he was observing, alongside a very disgruntled local doctor, the body of the unknown tramp being dug up.

“The Prague police have already enquired about it, Dr Goldberg. There’s no chance of it being Mr Benda. It’s just a filthy nobody.”
“Did he have lice, Dr Černý?” Dr Goldberg asked.
“I don’t know. You won’t be able to make out anything, Dr Goldberg. His body’s been buried for over a month…”
When the soil was dug out, Dr Goldberg had to order some spirits: the only way to get the gravediggers to lift and carry to the mortuary the object that was lying, sewn into a sack, at the bottom of the grave.
Dr Černý stopped outside the mortuary and took a packet of cigarettes out of his jacket pocket.
“I’ll leave you to go and look at it yourself, Dr Goldberg.”
After a while, Dr Goldberg came stumbling out. He was deathly pale.
“Come and look, Dr Černý.”
Inside he pointed to the place where the man’s head had been. Then, with a pair of tweezers, he rolled back what used to be the man’s lips, revealing the dreadfully decayed black and yellow teeth.
“And now…” he said.
He poked the tweezers between two teeth and pulled out a piece of the black decay. This revealed that the teeth were actually strong and shiny. But that was all that Dr Goldberg could stand; he hurried from the mortuary with his hands clasped to his head.
Eventually, pale and crestfallen, he came back in.
“So there you have it, Dr Černý. Bitumen, that actors stick to their teeth when they play decrepit old men or tramps. Your ‘filthy nobody’ was an actor.” He waved his hand impatiently. “And a great actor, at that.”

That evening, Dr Goldberg went to see Mr Korbel, the industrialist. He was a big, strong man with a square jaw and a body like a heavyweight boxer.

They were sitting in armchairs in the lounge. The curtains were drawn, and the only light came from a lamp on the wall.
“I’ve come about… about the actor Jan Benda, Mr Korbel.”
“Ah!” the industrialist placed his hands behind his head. “Has The Brilliant Benda turned up again?”
“Sort of. I think you should be interested… because of that film you wanted to make with him… or rather, to finance.”
“What film? I don’t know anything about a film.”
“I mean the film in which Mr Benda was meant to play a tramp… and in which your wife would be the female lead. That was the real reason for it, your wife.”
“That’s none of your business. I suppose Benda told you some story… There was nothing definite… Benda told you, didn’t he?”
“Not at all! You told him not to tell anyone. You wanted to keep it all under wraps. But you do know that Jan had started letting his hair and beard grow, so that he’d end up looking like a tramp. He took details like that very seriously, didn’t he?”
“I don’t know what you’re on about,” Mr Korbel barked. “I haven’t got anything else to…”
“Filming was due to start on the second of September, wasn’t it? The first scene was scheduled for the Křivoklátsko Woods at daybreak: a tramp wakes up at the edge of a glade… in the mist… he brushes the leaves and pine needles from his rags… I’m imagining how Jan would have played it. I know he’d have got into character by wearing the worst rags and the most battered old shoes possible. He had a box full of that sort of stuff in the loft. That’s why after his… disappearance, none of his clothes were missing. It’s amazing it didn’t occur to anyone! It might have been expected he’d have turned himself into a real tramp, the tattered sleeves, the rope around the waist… it was what he did: getting the costume right.”
“So what?” said the big man, leaning back in his armchair so that the light from the lamp no longer fell on his face. “I don’t understand why you’re telling me all this.”
“Because,” the doctor continued imperturbably, “at about 3 a.m. on the second of September, you stopped for him in… probably in a hired car. I think your brother would have been driving, him being reliable and all that. As you’d arranged with Jan, you didn’t go up to the flat but just tooted the horn. After a while, he emerged… or rather, a dirty, dishevilled old tramp emerged. You told him to hurry up, because the director had already gone ahead. And you drove to the Křivoklátsko Woods.”
“I don’t suppose you know the car’s registration number,” Mr Korbel said sarcastically.
“If I knew that, they’d already have arrested you. You were at the place by daybreak. It’s a sort of glade, or rather a grove of ancient oak trees. A beautiful scenario, I’ll grant you that. I think your brother would have stayed in the road by the car and pretended to be mending something in the engine. After leading Jan four hundred paces from the path, you said, ‘This is the place.’ He’d have asked where the director was. And that’s when you gave him the first blow.”
“With what?” came the voice from the shadows.
“With a lump hammer. Because a monkey wrench would have been too light for a skull like Jan’s, and you wanted to make it completely unrecognisable. After you’d killed him, you went back to the car. ‘All done?’ your brother asked. And you said nothing, because, after all, murdering someone is no small thing.”
“You’re mad,” said the voice in the shadows.
“No, I’m not. I just wanted to let you know how I think it might have happened. You wanted to put an end to Jan because of the scandal with your wife. It was all becoming too public…”
“You stinking Jew!” thundered Mr Korbel. “How dare you!”
Dr Goldberg adjusted his glasses, to make himself look sterner.
“I’m not afraid of you, Mr Korbel. It doesn’t matter how wealthy you are, you can’t do anything to me. How could you harm me, anyway? By refusing to let me remove your appendix perhaps? But I wouldn’t recommend that anyway.”
A chuckle came from the shadows.
“Listen. If you were convinced about just a tenth of what you’ve just been blabbering about, you wouldn’t have come to me, you’d have gone to the police, wouldn’t you?”
“But that’s the point,” said Dr Goldberg. “If I could prove even a tenth of it, I wouldn’t be here. But I don’t think it will be proven. It won’t even be proven that that dirty old tramp was The Brilliant Benda. That’s precisely why I’ve come.”
“To threaten me, eh?”
Mr Korbel reached for the electric bell.

“No, just to scare you. You don’t have much of a conscience, Mr Korbel. You’re too rich for that. But knowing that someone else knows the full horror, knowing that someone else knows you’re a murderer, and that your brother’s a murderer, that you both murdered Jan Benda, a knife-sharpener’s son, an actor – that will disturb your smug equanimity. You won’t have any peace for as long as I live. I’d prefer to see you on the gallows, Mr Korbel, but while I’m alive, I’ll make the lives of you and your brother a misery. Mr Benda was a bad lot. I should know better than anyone how evil he was, how vain, how cynical, how shameless and whatever else. But he was an actor. None of your millions can equal that drunken actor, nor compare with that regal gesture. That pretend, but amazing, magnificence.”
Dr Goldberg clasped his hands.
“How could you do it? You’ll never have peace. I’ll never let you forget. Till my dying day, I’ll remind you. What an artist! Do you hear?”


"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

From Czech: FOOTPRINTS by Karel Čapek

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

Mr Rybka was on his way home that night. He was in a very good mood, mainly because he’d won his game of chess (An excellent checkmate with the knight), but also because it had been snowing and he loved how it crunched under his boots amidst that marvellous, pure silence. Dear God, how beautiful! The town seems to shrink and slip back in time. Conjures up nightwatchmen and stagecoaches. Strange, how snow looks old-fashioned and rustic.

Crunch, crunch. He sought out untrodden snow, just for the pleasure of that crunching sound; and because he lived in a quiet, leafy lane, the further he went, the fewer the footprints in the snow. Well, well! Two sets of footprints ending at this gate – a man and a woman, probably a married couple. I wonder if they’re young. Anyway, may God go with them… A cat’s left its pawprints in the snow here. Like little flowers. I hope your paws aren’t too cold, pussy cat. And now there’s just one set of footprints. A man’s. Deep. A chain of them, straight and clear. A walker out on his own. I wonder which of my neighbours it could be. So few people walk along here. No wheel marks. Out on the edge of things. By the time I get home, the lane will have pulled its snowy eiderdown right up, and it’ll be thinking it’s just a children’s playground. Pity that the old newspaper lady will be criss-crossing all over it in the morning. Like a hare…

Suddenly he stopped. He was just about to cross over the snow-white lane to his front gate when he noticed that the single set of footprints he’d been following had left the pavement and headed towards his gate. Who could it be? He stared at the clear footprints.

There were five of them; and right in the middle of the lane, they came to a halt with a sharp print of the left foot. Beyond it, there was nothing, just snow. Undisturbed, untouched.

I must be going doolally! Or perhaps he came back to the pavement.

But the pavement in front of Mr Rybka was completely covered with a layer of smooth, fresh snow.

Well I’m blowed! Don’t say the footprints carry on on the other pavement.

Skirting round the unfinished chain of footprints, he went over to the other side. But there wasn’t a single mark on the pavement over there. The whole lane ahead shone with silky, pristine snow. A wonderful sight. No-one had been there since the snow had started falling.

Well I never! Perhaps whoever it was went back to the pavement stepping into his own footprints. But in that case, he’d have had to walk backwards because they all aim… Why would he do that? And even if he did walk backwards, how would he have managed to fit his boots precisely into those footprints?

Shaking his head, he unlocked the gate and entered his house. Although he knew it was nonsense, he looked around to see if there weren’t any snowy footprints. But of course, that was nonsense.

Maybe I imagined it.

He opened a window and leant out. The five sharp, deep footprints – coming to a halt in the middle of the lane – could clearly be seen in the light of the streetlamp. He rubbed his eyes.

God damn it! I read a story once about a single footprint in the snow, but here there’s five of them, and then nothing. Where could the fellow have gone?

Shaking his head once more, he started to get undressed. But then he stopped all of a sudden and went to the telephone.

“Hello! Sergeant Bartošek? There’s something strange here. Very strange… If you could send someone. Or even better, come yourself… Thank you. I’ll wait at the corner… It’s too difficult to explain over the phone… No, I don’t think there’s any danger… It’s just these footprints that stop all of a sudden… I haven’t the faintest idea whose footprints they are! … Fine, I’ll be waiting for you.”

He got dressed and went out again, taking care not to disturb the footprints either in the road or on the pavement. Shivering with cold and impatience, he waited for Sergeant Bartošek on the corner of the lane. All was quiet, and our planet shone in the universe.

“Nice and quiet here,” said Sergeant Bartošek, sounding fed-up. “I’ve had one fisticuffs and one drunk so far. Great fun… So, what’s been going on here then?”

“Follow those footprints, Sergeant,” said Mr Rybka, his voice quavering. “Just over there.”

The Sergeant turned on his torch.

“A beanpole of a man. Almost one metre eighty, I’d say, from the depth of the prints and the length of the steps. Good shoes – hand-made most likely. Not drunk, walking deliberately. Can’t see what’s the problem, sir.”

Mr Rybka pointed at the unfinished line of steps in the lane. “That is!”


Without more ado, the Sergeant headed to the last footprint, where he squatted and shone his lamp at it.

“It’s nothing special. Perfectly normal. A firm footstep. His weight was mainly on the heel. If he’d taken another step, or a jump, his weight would have transferred to the ball of the other foot. Do you see?”

“So that means…?” Mr Rybka asked impatiently.

“That means… That means he didn’t go any further.”

“So where did he go?” spluttered Mr Rybka.

The Sergeant shrugged. “Not a clue, sir. Do you have any idea?”

“Do I have any idea?! All I want is to know where he went. Look! Here’s his last step, and where’s the next? There isn’t any next step!”

“I can see that. But why should it bother you where he went? Is it somebody from your house? Is somebody missing? Why should it worry you, for heaven’s sake!”

“B… but there has to be an explanation. Do you think he might have walked backwards in his own footsteps?”

“No chance. When a man walks backwards, he takes shorter steps and he keeps his legs further apart, for balance. And he doesn’t raise his feet so much, so he’d have scraped the snow with his heels. These footprints have been made only once. You see how sharp they are?”

“But if he didn’t go back, where did he go?”

“That’s his business. Look! As long as he didn’t break the law, it’s no business of ours. We’d need to have an accusation of some sort, so that we could carry out an initial investigation…”

“So, are you telling me someone can simply disappear in the middle of a lane?!”

“You’ll just have to wait, sir. If he’s gone missing, I’m sure his family or someone will report it in due course. And then we’d search for him. But until that happens, it’s no business of ours. That’s not how it works.”

Mr Rybka was beginning to get angry.

“Don’t get me wrong, but I’d think the police should be a teeny-weeny bit interested if someone walking calmly along disappears all of a sudden in the middle of a lane!”

“Calm down, sir. Nothing happened to him. There are no signs of a struggle. If someone had attacked or kidnapped him, there’d be signs of it in the snow. So, I’m sorry, sir, but there’s nothing for me to do here.”

Mr Rybka clasped his hands together. “But Sergeant, at least explain to me… It’s a complete mystery!”

“That it certainly is, sir. You’ve no idea how many mysteries there are in this world of ours. Each house, each family, is a mystery. As I was on my way here, I could hear a young woman sobbing in that little house over there. But mysteries… Mysteries aren’t our business, sir. We’re paid to keep order. I hope you don’t think we hunt down criminals out of mere curiosity! We hunt them down so that we can lock them up, sir. Law and order is what we’re about.”

“In that case, is it law and order if someone in the middle of the lane… if someone in the middle of the lane goes straight up into the sky?”

“That depends on the case, sir. According to the regulations, if someone’s in danger of falling from a great height, they should be secured. The first time is a warning, the second time’s a fine… If this man rose up into the sky voluntarily, a policeman would have warned him to attach a safety belt. But in this case, I’m sorry to say there was no policeman on hand. If there had been, you’d be able to see the footprints of the policeman. And, in any case, it’s possible that the man disappeared in another way, isn’t it?”

“What other way?”

“Difficult to say. Maybe a sort of ascension, or Jacob’s ladder… Ascension could be considered kidnapping. If it was accompanied by violence, that is. But I think it normally occurs with the agreement of the person concerned. It’s possible that the man knows how to fly. Haven’t you ever felt as if you’re flying, sir? Someone just lifts their feet a little bit, and off they go… Some fly like a balloon, but me, when I dream that I’m flying, I have to keep pushing myself away from the ground with a foot every now and then. I think it’s the effect of the heavy uniform and the sword. Perhaps the man fell asleep and began flying in his sleep. There’s no law against that, sir. Except if it was a busy road, of course. In that case an officer would need to have a word. Or… I’ve got it! … levitation. The transcendentals believe in levitation, and transcendentalism’s not illegal. A certain Mr Baudyš told me once that he’d seen it with his own eyes. Who knows whether there’s any truth in it?”

“But surely, you’re not telling me, Sergeant, that you believe in it yourself! That would be against the laws of nature…”

Sergeant Bartošek gave a shrug.”

“Yes, I know, I know. But people break all sorts of rules and regulations. If you were a policeman, sir, you’d know more about that sort of thing…”

He waved his hand.

“So, I wouldn’t be surprised if they break natural laws as well. Nothing as strange as folks. Anyway, good night, sir. Getting proper cold now.”

“Wouldn’t you like a cup of tea… or a glass of slivovice before you go?”

“Why not? Why not, indeed? When a body’s wearing this uniform, he can’t even go into a pub, you know. That’s why policemen drink so little.”

“A mystery,” he said, as he sat on the settee watching the snow melting on the tips of his boots. “Ninety-nine percent of people would walk beside those footsteps and not notice anything. And you yourself wouldn’t notice ninety-nine percent of things that are devilish mysterious. Order isn’t mysterious. The law isn’t mysterious. And therefore, sir, the police aren’t mysterious. But everyone else walking down the street is mysterious by the very fact that we haven’t got anything on them. Except if they steal something. Then they stop being mysterious because we lock them up and that’s that. At least we know what they’re doing, and we can keep an eye on them through the little window, can’t we? You know how you see in the newspapers ‘Mysterious discovery of body’? What’s so mysterious about the discovery of a body? When we come across one, we measure it, photograph it and dissect it. We know every thread of clothing, what the person last ate, what the cause of death was etcetera etcetera. Not only that, but we’ll know if it’s most likely that the person was killed for money. It’s all clear and documented… I like my tea nice and strong, please… All crimes are clear, sir. You can see the motives and everything connected to them. Mysterious, on the other hand, is what your cat’s thinking, or your servant, or why your wife looks so wistfully out of the window. Everything, sir, is mysterious except for criminal cases. A criminal case is a cut and dried piece of reality, a sort of extract that we’ve shone a light on. You know, if I was to have a look around here, I’d find out all sorts of things about you. But instead, I’m looking at the toe caps of my boots because I’ve got no official reason to take an interest in you. That’s to say, you haven’t been accused of anything.”

The sergeant took a sip of his hot, strong tea.

“It’s a strange misconception,” he continued, “that the police – and particularly detectives – are interested in mysteries. We couldn’t care two hoots about mysteries. What we’re interested in is what’s not right. We’re not interested in crime because it’s mysterious, sir. We’re interested in it because it’s forbidden. We don’t hunt down scoundrels out of intellectual curiosity, we do it so we can arrest them in the name of the law. Take, for instance, road sweepers. They don’t sweep the streets so as to read human traces in the dust. They do it to clean up the dirt and filth of everyday life. Order isn’t mysterious, not one little bit. But keeping order, sir, is a pig of a job. Anyone who wants to do it has to be prepared to stick his fingers into all sorts of mess. But someone has to do it, just like someone has to slaughter calves. To slaughter calves out of curiosity would be barbarous. It has to be done as a trade. When something is someone’s duty, at least he knows he’s entitled to do it. For instance, justice has to be beyond doubt, just like the times table. I don’t know if you could prove that every theft is bad, but I could prove to you that every theft is forbidden, because I’d keep arresting you. If you scattered pearls on the road, a policeman would order you not to make a mess. But if you started performing miracles, we couldn’t do anything unless it gave rise to public scandal or a disorderly crowd. In short, for us to get involved, there has to be some sort of impropriety.”

“But, Sergeant,” Mr Rybka objected, shuffling disconsolately in his chair, “is that all? This case concerns… concerns something so strange… so mysterious… and you…”

The sergeant shrugged. “…and I let it be. If you like, sir, I’ll get the footprints removed so you can go to bed without worrying. More than that I can’t do for you. Listen! Do you hear those footsteps? That’s our patrol. And it’s now two hours and seven minutes after midnight. Good night, sir.”

Mr Rybka accompanied the sergeant to the gate, from which the unfinished and inexplicable line of footprints could still be seen.

A policeman was approaching on the opposite pavement.

“Anything new, Mimra?” the sergeant shouted over to him.

“Nothing really, sir. In No. 17 over there, the cat was meowing outside, so I knocked them up to let it in. At No. 9, they hadn’t closed the gate properly. On the corner, where they’d been digging the road, they forgot to leave a red light. And one of the shop signs at Maršík the grocer’s has come loose. They’ll need to take it down in the morning so that it doesn’t fall on someone’s head.”

“That’s all?”

“That’s all,” replied Mimra. “They’ll need to grit the pavements in the morning so someone doesn’t break their leg. The bells should be rung everywhere at six.”

“That’s good,” said Sergeant Bartošek. “Good night!”

Mr Rybka looked once more at the footprints leading nowhere. But where the last prints were, there were now the very definite prints of PC Mimra’s service boots. And those prints continued from there in a regular and clearly visible line.

“Thank God for that,” Mr Rybka muttered to himself as he went back in.


"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

From Czech: LAST JUDGMENT by Karel Čapek

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

Kugler was a notorious criminal who had several murders to his account. Despite being the subject of various arrest warrants and being pursued by a whole army of policemen and detectives, he vowed he’d never be taken alive. And he wasn’t. That’s to say, not alive. His final – ninth – murderous exploit was shooting a policeman who was trying to arrest him. Before he died, the policeman fired seven bullets at Kugler, three of which were perfectly lethal. And thus, our man escaped earthly justice.

His death was so sudden that he didn’t even have time to feel any particular pain. As his soul left his body, it might have wondered at the marvels of the other world, a world beyond space, a dim and endlessly deserted world. But it didn’t wonder. For a man who’s even been in jail in America, the other world is simply a new environment where, with a bit of pluck, he’ll get by like anywhere else.

Finally, there came the inevitable Last Judgment. Because there’s permanent martial law in Heaven, his case was decided directly by the judges, rather than a jury, which – with his record – he might have expected. The courtroom was simply arranged, just like on earth; for reasons that will become evident, there was no cross by which witnesses might stand to take their oath. The judges were three old, meritorious officials who looked strict and thoroughly miserable. The formalities were boring: Ferdinand Kugler, unemployed, born on such and such a date, died… Here it became apparent that Kugler didn’t know the date of his death; and it became apparent to him that this didn’t help his case.

“What are you guilty of?” asked the presiding judge.

“Nothing,” came Kugler’s resolute reply.

The judge sighed: “Call the witness!”

A huge, powerfully built and extraordinary-looking old man sat down opposite Kugler. He was wearing a blue cloak that was studded with golden stars. When he entered, the judges had got to their feet, as had Kugler, who couldn’t help but be awe-struck. And it was only after the old man had sat down that the others resumed their seats.

“Witness,” said the presiding judge, “Almighty God, this Court of Last Judgment has called you to testify in the case of Ferdinand Kugler. Being All-Truthful, you don’t have to swear. All we ask, for the purposes of the hearing, is that you keep to the point and don’t wander off into matters that aren’t relevant to the law. And no interruptions from you, Kugler! As He knows everything, there’s no point in contesting anything. Witness, please testify.”

Having said all that, the presiding judge placed his elbows comfortably on the desk in front of him and took off his gold-rimmed spectacles, evidently prepared for a rather long speech from the witness. The older of the two other judges arranged himself comfortably for sleep. The recording angel opened the Book of Life.

God, the witness, cleared his throat and began:

“Yes, Ferdinand Kugler, the son of a factory worker, was spoilt ever since he was little. You were a very naughty boy! He loved his mother to bits but was ashamed to show it because he was rebellious and disobedient. Do you remember how you bit your father’s thumb when he was trying to smack you for stealing roses from the notary’s garden?”

“They were for Irma, the tax inspector’s daughter,” said Kugler.

“I know,” said God. “She was seven years old at the time. And do you know what happened to her afterwards?”

“No, I don’t.”

“She married Oskar, the factory owner’s son. He passed on an infection to her, and she died during a miscarriage… Do you remember Ruda Zárubov?”

“What happened to him?”

“He went to sea and died in Bombay. The two of you were the worst boys in the whole town. At the age of ten, Ferdinand Kugler was a confirmed liar and thief; he got into bad company, people like Dlabol, that alcoholic beggar, with whom he shared his food.”

The presiding judge waved his hand to indicate that this probably wasn’t relevant; but Kugler himself asked shyly, “And… what happened to his daughter?”

“To Marka?” said God. “She went off the rails altogether. She became a prostitute at the age of fourteen and died when she was twenty; she remembered you when she was in her death throes. When you were fourteen, you used to get drunk and run away from home. Your father worried himself sick, and your mother couldn’t stop crying. You dishonoured your home, and not a single young man would come into the house of a thief to woo your pretty sister Mamička. She’s still living all alone in poverty, trying to make ends meet with the meagre earnings from the little jobs that kind people deign to give her.”

“What’s she doing at the moment?”

“Right now, she’s at the Vlčeks’ shop buying thread so that she can sew until it gets dark. Do you remember that shop? You bought a rainbow-coloured marble there once; and on the very first day you lost it and couldn’t find it anywhere. Do you remember how you blubbed about it?”

“Where did it roll off to?” Kugler asked eagerly.

“Into the drain under the gutter. And it’s still there, thirty years later. It’s raining there now, and that glass marble is shivering in the cold, gurgling water.”

Overcome, Kugler bowed his head; but the presiding judge put his glasses back on and said:

“We must get to the point, witness. Did the accused commit murder?”

God the witness shook his head.

“He killed nine people. The first one in a brawl. For that, he was sent to prison. The second was an unfaithful girlfriend. He was sentenced to death for that, but he escaped. The third was an old man he robbed. The fourth was a night watchman.”

“Did he die?” Kugler blurted out.

“Yes, after three days,” said God. “He died in terrible pain, and he left behind six children. The fifth and the sixth victims were an old married couple; he killed them with an axe and discovered only sixteen crowns, even though they had twenty thousand hidden away.”

“Where?” shouted Kugler. “Where?”

“Under the straw mattress,” said God. “In a canvas sack, where they kept the money they made from usury and avarice. He killed the seventh person in America – an immigrant, a fellow-countryman, as helpless as a child.”

“So it was under the mattress,” Kugler muttered in amazement.

“Yes,” continued the witness. “The eighth got in Kugler’s way when he was being chased. Kugler’s arthritis was playing up at the time, and he was crazy with pain. My, how you suffered! The last one was the policeman he shot dead just before he died himself.”

“Why did he commit the murders?” asked the presiding judge.

“Like other people,” answered God, “from anger, from lust for money, sometimes with malice aforethought, sometimes on the spur of the moment. He was generous and he helped people sometimes. He was kind to women, he loved animals and he kept his word. Do you want me to list his good deeds?”

“No thank you,” said the presiding judge. “That won’t be necessary. Accused, do you have anything to say in your defence?”

“No,” said Kugler indifferently. It was all one to him by this stage.

“The court will withdraw to consider the matter,” said the presiding judge, and the three judges left the courtroom. God and Kugler remained in the courtroom.

“Who are they?” asked Kugler, nodding towards the judges as they left.

“People like you,” said God. “They were judges on earth, so they carry on judging here.”

Kugler bit his fingers.

“I thought… I mean, it’s no concern of mine, but… I’d have thought you’d do the judging, given that…, given that…”

“Given that I’m God,” the large old man completed the sentence. “But that’s the point, isn’t it? Because I know everything, I can’t be the judge. That wouldn’t be right. You don’t know who turned you in that time, do you, Kugler?”

“No, I don’t,” said Kugler, surprised.

“It was Lucka, the waitress. She did it out of jealousy.”

“Excuse me,” Kugler interrupted, “but you forgot to mention I shot that scoundrel Teddy in Chicago.”

“Not at all!” God objected. “He just about survived. He’s still alive. I know he’s an informer, but he’s a good man otherwise. He loves children. You mustn’t think that everyone is a complete and utter scoundrel.”

“Why don’t you… why don’t you, God, do the judging on your own?” asked Kugler, perplexed.

“Because I know everything. If the judges knew everything – absolutely everything –, they wouldn’t be able to judge either. All they could do would be to understand everything, so much so that their hearts would break. So how could I judge you? The judges only know about your crimes. I know everything about you. Everything, Kugler. And that’s why I can’t judge you.”

“But why do those people… why do they carry on judging… in Heaven as well.”

“Because people belong to people. As you can see, I’m just the witness. But when it comes to punishment, you know, it’s people who decide here in Heaven as well. Believe me, Kugler, it’s quite OK: human beings shouldn’t face any justice other than human justice.”

At that moment, the judges returned from their deliberations, and the presiding judge declared the last judgment in a firm voice:

“Ferdinand Kugler, for nine crimes of murder, including murder aforethought and murder with robbery, for the crime of carrying a gun, and for the theft of roses, the court condemns you to a lifetime in Hell. Next case, please. Is the accused František Machát here?”


"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925