Category Archives: Karel Čapek

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?”


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.


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?”


From Czech: A MURDEROUS ATTACK by Karel Čapek

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

That evening, Councillor Tomsa was sitting downstairs enjoying listening, through his headphones, to a beautiful recording of Dvořák’s Dances on the radio. But no sooner had he said to himself, Now, that’s what I call music!, when there were two loud bangs outside and glass came raining down on his head from the window just above him.

Whereupon he did what I suppose any of us would do: first he waited to see what would happen next, then – when nothing else did happen – he took off the headphones and glowered as he tried to work out what had actually happened. And it was only at that point that he really took fright, because he realised that someone had fired two shots through the window. A bullet had lodged itself in the door opposite. His first impulse was to run out into the street and grab hold of the hooligan by the collar; but when you’re getting on in years and cultivate a certain dignity, that impulse tends to give way quite rapidly to a second: call the police.

“Hello, send an officer immediately. Someone just tried to murder me.”

“Where are you?” said the sleepy, indifferent voice.

“I’m here, at home,” shouted Mr Tomsa, as if it were the policeman’s fault. “It’s scandalous – to shoot out of the blue at a peaceable citizen who’s sitting at home minding his own business! This has to be investigated most rigorously, Officer! It would be a fine state of affairs if…”

“OK,” said the sleepy voice. “I’ll send someone.”

The councillor’s impatience knew no bounds; it seemed that he was waiting for hours, but in fact it was only after about twenty minutes that a cool, calm and collected police officer turned up, who proceeded to inspect the holes in the window with great interest.

“Someone shot at the window, sir,” he said matter-of-factly.

“I already know that!” spluttered Mr Tomsa. “I was sitting by the window, wasn’t I!”

“Seven millimetres calibre,” said the officer, as he prised the bullet out of the door with a knife. “It looks like from an old army revolver. Look, the fellow must have been standing on the fence. If he’d been on the pavement the bullet would have lodged itself higher up. That means he was aiming at you, sir.”

“How odd!” Mr Tomsa replied sourly. “I was almost convinced he only wanted to hit the door.”

“And who did it?” asked the officer, without missing a beat.

“You’ll have to forgive me,” said the councillor. “I can’t give you his address; I didn’t actually see him, and I forgot to invite him in.”

“That makes it difficult,” the officer replied calmly. “So who do you suspect?”

That did it for Mr Tomsa. “Suspect!” he growled. “I didn’t even see the scoundrel, man! And even if he’d waited for me to blow him a kiss through the window, I wouldn’t have recognised him in the dark. Do you really think I’d have bothered you if I’d known who it was?”

“I quite understand,” said the officer soothingly, “but maybe you could think of someone who, say, would have something to gain from your death, or who’d want revenge for something… I mean, it wasn’t an attempted robbery; a robber doesn’t shoot if he doesn’t have to. But perhaps someone’s got it in for you. It’s up to you to tell us, sir, and then we can investigate it.”

That stopped Mr Tomsa in his tracks; he hadn’t thought about that side of things.

“I haven’t a clue,” he said hesitantly, as he contemplated his quiet life as an official and a bachelor.

“Who could possibly have it in for me? On my honour, I’m not aware of having any enemies at all.”

He shook his head.

“No, it’s out of the question. I don’t have any disputes with anyone, Officer. I live alone, I don’t go anywhere, I don’t stick my nose into anybody’s business… Why would anyone want to take revenge on me?”

The officer shrugged his shoulders. “That I can’t answer, sir. But perhaps something will occur to you by tomorrow. You won’t be afraid here, will you?”

“I won’t,” said Mr Tomsa.

How strange! he thought when the officer had left. Why, indeed, would someone want to shoot me? I’m virtually a recluse; I do my work in the office, and I go home – I don’t really have anything to do with anyone. So why would they want to shoot me?

He was starting to feel very sorry for himself. And very bitter.

The ingratitude! There I am working my socks off, taking work home, hardly spending anything on myself, not living it up, like a snail in its shell, and – bang! – someone wants to kill me. Dear God! Where do people get such anger? What have I ever done to anyone? How could someone hate me like that?

But then – sitting on the bed and with the shoe hed just taken off in his hand – another thought occurred to him:

Perhaps it was a mistake. Yes, of course! A mistake. They got the wrong person. Whoever it was thought I was someone else, someone he had it in for!

He sighed with relief.

But the original thought returned: Why would someone hate me so much?

The shoe fell out of his hand.

Well, there was that, he remembered, feeling a little embarrassed. That stupid thing I said the other day, but it was just something I said without thinking. Roubal is my friend, after all. I shouldn’t have said that about his wife. But everyone knows she’s seeing other men. He even knows it himself. It’s just that he pretends not to. But I shouldn’t have let that slip, idiot that I am…!

The councillor remembered how Roubal has swallowed heavily and had dug his fingernails into the palm of his hand.

Dear me, how I must have hurt him! He loves his wife. Loves her like crazy! Of course, I immediately changed the subject. But the way he was biting his lips! He certainly has cause to hate me.

Councillor Tomsa felt like a heap of woe.

But I know he didn’t try to shoot me. That’s impossible! Even though, I could hardly wonder if…

Councillor Tomsa stared gloomily at the floor. And then he remembered something else, something he’d have preferred not to remember.

The tailor! Fifteen years he’d been doing my tailoring, and then they told me he was very ill with TB. It’s natural, isn’t it? that you wouldn’t want to keep taking clothes so that a consumptive can cough all over them. So I stopped going to him… And then he came begging, that he hadn’t got any work, that his wife was ill, that he needed to find places for his children. Please would I give him my custom once more?

Christ! How pale he was, and how the sweat was running down him! “Mr Kolinský, I said, look, it’s no good, I need a better tailor, I wasn’t happy with your work.”

“I’ll try to do better, sir,” he muttered, sweating with fear and embarrassment. It’s a wonder he didn’t burst into tears! And I… I of course sent him away with a “We’ll see” – something these poor fellows must be only too familiar with.

Mr Kolinský might well hate me. How awful, to have to go and beg someone to help keep body and soul together, only to be dismissed with such indifference. But what was I meant to do?

I’m certain it couldn’t have been him, but…

The councillor’s conscience was weighing him down more and more. And something else he remembered:

That was awkward as well, the way I laid into the office servant. I couldn’t find that file, so I called the old fellow up and shouted at him as if he was a naughty boy. And in front of the others! “What a mess, you idiot! I said. It’s like a pigsty! I’ve a good mind to sack you.”

And then I found the file in the drawer of my own desk! And the old man just stood there, stood there trembling and blinking…

The councillor came out in a hot sweat.

But you don’t apologise to subordinates, even if you’ve been a bit unfair. Although you could hardly be surprised if they hate their superiors! How about if I give him some old clothes? Except that would be humiliating for him…

The councillor couldn’t lie down anymore; even the blanket was suffocating him. He sat on the bed with his arms round his knees and stared into the dark. And then he remembered something else:

That incident with that young Moravian in the office. He’s educated and writes poetry. But when he didn’t draw up that document properly, I said “Do it again” and I meant to throw it on his desk, but it fell under his legs, and he went all red – even his ears – as he bent down to pick it up… I could kick myself! After all, I rather like the young fellow, and to humiliate him like that, even if unintentionally…

Then another face popped up in his mind: the pale and puffy face of his colleague Wankl.

Poor old Wankl! He wanted to be office manager, the job I had. He’d have got a couple of hundred crowns a year more, and he has six children… Apparently he’d have liked to have paid for singing lessons for his daughter, but he couldn’t afford it. But I got the job because he’s such a plodding old workhorse – and his wife’s a real old shrew, terribly thin from all that scrimping and saving. All Wankl eats at midday is a dry bread roll.

Poor old Wankl! How must he feel when he sees me, with no family to look after, so much better off than him? But is that my fault? I always feel rotten when he gives me those resentful looks…

The councillor wiped the anxious sweat from his brow. And then he remembered something else:

Yes, the other day the waiter in the pub swindled me out of a few crowns, and I called the manager, who sacked him on the spot. “You thief,” he hissed at him, “I’ll make sure you never get a job in any other pub in Prague!” And the fellow sloped off without saying a word… You could see his shoulder blades under his coat.

The councillor couldn’t even endure sitting on the bed any longer; he went and sat by the radio and put on his headphones. But the radio was mute, there were no programmes at this time of night, so he put his head in his hands and remembered the people he’d met, all those strange people, all those young people, who he’d never understood and never thought about.

In the morning he stopped at the police station, rather pale and embarrassed.

“So,” asked the officer. “Have you remembered someone who might have something against you?”

The councillor shook his head.

“I don’t know,” he said hesitantly. “You see, there are so many of them, so many, that…”

He waved his hand disconsolately.

“Look, a fellow has no idea how many people he’s wronged. I certainly won’t be sitting by that window anymore, that I can tell you. But I just dropped by to ask you to forget about it.”


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 Miss Edith Myers.

Continue reading From Czech: THE FORTUNE TELLER by Karel Čapek

From Czech: GOOD LUCK by Karel Čapek

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


The Mr Janík I’m talking about isn’t Dr Janík from the ministry, or the Janík who shot dead Jirsa the landowner, nor the Janík who’s reputed to have performed 326 consecutive cannons at billiards, but rather the Janík who was the boss of Janík & Holeček’s, paper and cellulose wholesalers – the polite little man who, after unsuccessfully wooing Miss Severa, resolved never to marry. So, to put it in a nutshell and for the avoidance of doubt, that Janík. The paper merchant.

Well, this particular Mr Janík became a paper merchant by sheer chance. It was when he was spending his summer holiday by the River Sázava, just at the time when they were searching for the body of Růžena Regnerová, who was murdered by her fiancé Jindřich Bašta, who poured petrol over her body, set it alight and buried it in the woods. Although Bašta was found guilty of her murder, they weren’t able to find her body. The police combed the woods for nine days, with Bašta telling them it was here or it was there, but they never found anything. It was clear that, at his wits’ end, he was either trying to confuse them or to gain time, or both.

Jindřich Bašta was a young man from a respectable and wealthy family but, when he was born, the doctor probably squeezed the forceps around his head too much, because something about him wasn’t quite right; that’s to say, there was something perverse and strange about him. So, as white as a ghost, and with his nystagmic eyes flitting nervously here and there – a sorry sight –, he led the police hither and thither through the woods for nine days. The police trudged alongside him through bilberry undergrowth and through mud, becoming more and more furious and more and more determined to wear the beast out so much that sooner or later he’d lead them to the right place. Bašta became so exhausted that he could scarcely stand on his feet, and he kept sinking to the ground and croaking, “Here! I buried her here!”

At which point one of the policemen would bellow, “On your feet, Bašta! It’s not here! Get going!” And Bašta would obediently haul himself up and stagger on for a bit, before collapsing once more with exhaustion. So it was quite a procession: four policemen, two detectives, a few gamekeepers, and some old men with hoes; not to mention that wreck of a man, Jindřich Bašta.

Mr Janík had got to know the policemen in the pub. As a result, he too was allowed to accompany that tragic procession, without anyone demanding to know what the hell he was doing there. And it should be noted that he carried with him some boxes containing sardines, salami, a bottle of cognac and similar things, which the other searchers had no objection to partaking of. But the ninth day was so dire that Mr Janík had decided he wouldn’t return on the morrow. The policemen kept shouting in anger, the gamekeepers declared they’d had enough and had better things to do, the old men with the hoes grumbled that twenty crowns a day was a pittance for such drudgery, and Jindřich Bašta lay collapsed on the ground, trembling uncontrollably and no longer even attempting to respond to the yelling and abuse from the policemen.

But at that very moment – that desperate and desolate moment –, Mr Janík did something that wasn’t exactly in the script: he knelt down beside the young man, shoved a cheese roll into his hand and said sympathetically, “Look, Mr Bašta… Come now, Mr Bašta… Can you hear me, Mr Bašta?”

Mr Bašta howled, before bursting into tears. “I’ll find it…,” he sobbed, “I’ll find it, sir.” He tried to stand up, and one of the detectives came and helped him, almost gently.

“Just lean on me, Mr Bašta. Mr Janík will help you on the other side. That’s it! So, Mr Bašta, you’ll show Mr Janík where she’s buried now, won’t you?”

An hour later, Jindřich Bašta was standing, smoking a cigarette, above a shallow grave, out of which a thigh bone was sticking.

“Is that the body of Růžena Regnerová?” asked PC Trnka between gritted teeth.

“It is,” replied Jindřich Bašta calmly, as he tapped the ash from his cigarette into the hole. “Do you need anything else?”


“You know,” said PC Trnka to Mr Janík in the pub that evening, “you’re quite a psychologist, I’ve got to give you that. Your good health! The fellow softened up as soon as you said, “Mr Bašta.” All he wanted was a bit of respect, the miserable so-and-so! And to think of the trouble we’d gone to with him… How did you know politeness would do the trick?”

The hero of the hour blushed slightly. “Well, it’s like this, you know. I… that’s how I speak to everyone, you know. The thing is, I felt sorry for him, for Mr Bašta, so I wanted to give him that cheese roll…”

“Instinct!” declared PC Trnka. “That’s what I call sixth sense and psychology. Your very good health, Mr Janík! You’re wasted! You should have been a detective…”


Some time later, Mr Janík was travelling in the night train to Bratislava, where the annual general meeting of shareholders in a Slovak papermill was going to take place, and because he had some shares in it himself, he was anxious to be there.

“Please wake me before we get to Bratislava,” he asked the conductor. “I don’t want to miss my stop.” Whereupon he headed for his comparment in the sleeping car and crawled into the bottom bunk. As he was alone, he made himself as comfortable as he could, thought for a while about various business matters, and fell asleep.

He had no idea what the time was when the conductor opened the door for another man, who immediately got undressed and climbed up to the top bunk. As he did so, Mr Janík caught a glimpse of a pair of trousers and a pair of unusually hairy legs. Then he heard grunting as the man snuggled beneath the blanket, and then the man turned the light off, leaving darkness again and the rattling and clanking of the train.

Mr Janík dreamt about this and that, but mainly that he was being pursued by a pair of hairy legs. Then he woke up because it was unusually quiet all of a sudden and someone was shouting, “See you in Žilina!” Mr Janík scrambled hurriedly out from his bunk, looked out of the window, and saw that the train was already standing at Bratislava station. The conductor had forgotten to wake him up! He didn’t even have time to swear; instead he got dressed, feverishly, over his pyjamas, stuffed his belongings into his pockets and managed to jump down on to the platform just as the station master was raising his hand for the train to leave.

“Damn you!” he shouted, shaking his fist at the departing train.

Then he went to the gents’ toilets to get dressed properly. And it was when he’d just started to sort out the items in his pockets that he froze: instead of one wallet in his breast pocket, there were two; in the bulkier one, which wasn’t his, there were sixty new Czechoslovak 500-crown banknotes. The wallet clearly belonged to his nocturnal fellow-traveller; but the still sleepy Mr Janík couldn’t begin to think how it had got into his pocket.

It goes without saying that the first thing he did was to find a policeman so that he could give him the stranger’s wallet. And the policeman left Mr Janík dying with hunger while he telephoned Galanta for them to inform the passenger in Couch 14 that his wallet with his money in it was at the police station in Bratislava. Whereupon, after providing his personal details, Mr Janík went to have breakfast. But then someone from the police station came looking for him and asked whether it wasn’t some sort of mistake: the man in Couch 14 said he hadn’t lost his wallet. So Mr Janík had to go to the police station again and explain once more how he came by it. Meanwhile two men in civies took the sixty banknotes somewhere, leaving him to wait for half an hour. When they came back, they took him to some higher-up policeman.

“Sir,” said the higher-up policeman, “we’re just sending a telegraph to Parkány-Nána to ask them to arrest the passenger in Couch 14. Can you give me a precise description of him?” But Mr Janík could only say that the passenger in question had remarkably hairy legs. Which wasn’t a satisfactory answer as far as the higher-up policeman was concerned. “The thing is,” he said all of a sudden, “those banknotes are counterfeit. You’ll have to wait here until we can bring you face to face with your fellow-passenger.”

In his head, Mr Janík cursed the conductor who hadn’t woken him up on time and hence has caused him, in his haste, to put that wretched wallet into his pocket. It wasn’t until about an hour later that a message came back from Parkány-Nána that the passenger in Couch 14 had got out at Nové Zámky and, at the moment, no one knew where he’d gone from there.

“Mr Janík,” the higher-up policeman announced eventually, “we won’t detain you any longer for the time being. We’ll refer the matter to Inspector Hruška in Prague – he deals with counterfeiting. But I can tell you this is serious. Return to Prague as soon as possible and they’ll give you a call. In the meantime, please accept my thanks for so successfully getting hold of these fakes. It won’t be a coincidence, believe you me.”


Mr Janík had hardly got back to Prague before they called him to the police headquarters. There he was greeted by an extraordinarily large man – who everyone called Mr President – and a sinewy, yellowish fellow, who turned out to be the aforementioned Inspector Hruška.

“Have a seat, Mr Janík,” said the large man, as he opened the seal on a small packet. “Is this the wallet that you… erm, that you found in your pocket at Bratislava station?”

“It is,” answered Mr Janík, wearily.

The large man took the banknotes out of the wallet and counted them. “Sixty,” he said. “They all have the serial number 27451. The office in Cheb asked us to look out for that number.”

The sinewy man took hold of one of the notes, closed his eyes and rubbed it between his fingers. Then he sniffed it.

“These are from Štýrský Hradec. The ones from Geneva aren’t so sticky.”

“Štýrský Hradec,” mused the large man. “That’s where they make these things for Pešť, isn’t it?”

The sinewy man only blinked. “I’d need to go to Vienna,” he said. “But the police there won’t hand him over.”

“Hm,” said the large man. “So try to get him here somehow. If that’s not possible, tell them we’ll give them Leberhardt in exchange. Good day, Hruška. And you, sir” – turning to Mr Janík – “I can’t thank you enough. You’re the one who found Jindřich Bašta’s fiancée, aren’t you?”

“It was purely a coincidence,” said Mr Janík emphatically. “I really… I didn’t have any intention…”

“You have the gift of luck,” said the large man, nodding his head. “It’s a gift from God, Mr Janík. One person doesn’t come across anything during his whole life; another stumbles upon the best cases as if by chance. You should join us, Mr Janík.”

“That’s not possible,” said Mr Janík. “I… that’s to say, I have my own business… a successful business that I inherited from my grandfather…”

The large man sighed. “As you wish, but you’d be sorely missed. It’s not everyday you come across someone as damned lucky as you. We’ll meet again, Mr Janík.”


About a month later, Mr Janík was dining with a business friend from Leipzig. Of course, these business lunches are quite something. The cognac, in particular, was of the best. In short, Mr Janík definitely did not wish to go home on foot, so he signalled to the wine waiter: “A taxi, please!”

When he left the hotel, he saw the taxi already waiting at the entrance. He climbed in, shut the door and – rather the worse for wear – forgot to tell the driver his address. Nevertheless, the taxi set off and, comfortably ensconced in the corner, Mr Janík fell asleep.

He had no idea how long they’d been driving, but he woke up when the car stopped and the driver opened the door for him.

“We’re here, sir. You need to go upstairs, sir.”

Mr Janík had no idea where he was, but because the cognac had dulled any concern he might otherwise have had, he went up the stairs and opened a door behind which loud conversation could be heard. There were about twenty people there, who all turned impatiently towards the door. Suddenly there was a strange silence. One of the men stook up and approached Mr Janík.

“What do you want here, sir? Who are you?”

“Mr Janík looked around in amazement. He recognised five or six of the men – rich people who were said to have some sort of special interest in politics. But Mr Janík kept out of politics.

“Goodness gracious!” he said in a friendly tone. “There’s Mr Koubek, and there’s Mr Heller. Hello, chaps! I wouldn’t say No to a drink, lads.”

“Where’s this fellow come from?” one of the men shouted angrily. “He’s not one of us, is he?”

Two of them pushed Mr Janík back out to the landing.

“How did you get here?” asked one of them. “Who invited you?”

All this rough treatment brought Mr Janík to his senses.

“Where am I?” he demanded. “Where the devil have I been taken?”

One of the men ran down the stairs and button-holed the driver.

“Where did you pick up this man, you idiot?”

“In front of the hotel, of course,” said the driver. “They told me in the evening to wait for a gentleman in front of the hotel at ten o’clock and bring him here. That gentleman got into the taxi at ten o’clock without saying anything. So I brought him here…”

“Christ Almighty!” shouted the other. “It’s somebody else! You’ve dropped us right in it!”

Mr Janík sat down resignedly on the top step.

“Ah,” he said, sounding rather amused. “It’s some sort of secret meeting, isn’t it? Now you’ll have to strangle me and bury my body somewhere. A glass of water, please!”

“No,” said the one who’d stayed with him at the top of the stairs. “You’re wrong. Neither Mr Koubek nor Mr Heller are inside there, do you understand? It’s a mistake. We’ll get you taken back to Prague. You’ll have to forgive us. It was a misunderstanding.”

“It’s no problem,” said Mr Janík graciously. “I know that, on the way, the driver will shoot me and bury my body in a wood somewhere. It doesn’t matter. My fault for forgetting to give him my address. What a fool I am!”

“You’re drunk, aren’t you?” said the man, sounding rather relieved.

“Slightly,” agreed Mr Janík, remaining seated on the top step. “The thing is, I was at dinner with Meyer, from Dresden. My name’s Janík, by the way – wholesale paper and cellulose. A well-established company. Founded by my grandfather. Pleased to meet you.”

“Go and sleep it off,” said the other. “Once you’ve had a good sleep, you won’t even remember that… hm, that we treated you so badly.”

“Quite right,” said Mr Janík in a dignified manner. “Go to bed, sir. Where is my bed?”

“At home,” said the other. “The driver will take you home. Allow me to help you to your feet.”

“No need,” said Mr Janík. “I’m not as drunk as you. Go to bed. Driver!”

The car set off back, and Mr Janík made a point of observing where they were going.


The next morning he telephoned the police headquarters to inform them of his night-time adventure. The voice from the other end came after a few moments of silence.

“That’s remarkably interesting, Mr Janík. We’d be most grateful if you’d come over immediately.”


When Mr Janík arrived, four men, including the large, corpulent fellow, were waiting for him. Mr Janík had to repeat what had happened and who he’d seen.

“The car had registration number N XX 705,” said the large man when Mr Janík had finished speaking. “A private car. I don’t know three of the six men Mr Janík recognised. Gentlemen, I’ll leave you now. Mr Janík, come with me, please.”

Mr Janík soon found himself sitting in complete silence in the office of the large man, who was walking up and down, deep in thought.

“Mr Janík,” he said eventually. “I really need to ask you not to say a word about this to anyone. Reasons of state – you understand?”

Mr Janík nodded silently. Jesus Christ! he thought. What have I got myself into now?

But the large man was speaking again.

“Mr Janík. I’m not exaggerating when I say we need you. You’re incredibly lucky. They can talk all they like about methodology, but a detective who doesn’t have plain, down-to-earth luck is of no use. We need people who are lucky. It’s not that we’re not intelligent, but you can’t buy good luck. Join us!”

“But what about my business?” whispered Mr Janík, not looking at all happy.

“Your partner will look after it. You and your extraordinary gift are wasted on it. What do you say?”

“I… I’ll need to think about it,” stuttered Mr Janík. “I’ll come back in a week, but if there’s no avoiding it… and if I’ve got the capability… I don’t know. I’ll come back and tell you.”

“Good,” said the large man, offering his large hand. “You needn’t have any doubts about yourself. I’ll see you next week.”


A whole week had not gone by before Mr Janík returned, looking decidedly happier.

“I’m back,” he announced breezily.

“And you’ve made up your mind?” asked the large man.

“Yes, thank goodness! I’ve come to tell you I’m not the person you’re looking for.”

“Really? Why not?”

“Just imagine!” said Mr Janík. “My chief clerk’s been embezzling from my business for five years, and I’ve only just found out. What an idiot I am! So, you tell me, sir, what good I’d be as a detective. God in heaven! I’ve been working with that joker for five years, and I didn’t know anything! So you can see how useless I am! And it was making me sick with worry! Mary, Mother of God! I’m so glad nothing will come of it. I’m off the hook now, aren’t I? Thanks anyway!”


From Czech: THE POET by Karel Čapek

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


It was an entirely routine case: at four in the morning a car had run over a drunk old woman in Žitná Street and had sped off. And now the young Trainee Detective Inspector Mejzlík was tasked with finding out which car it was. A trainee inspector takes something like that seriously.

“Hm,” said Detective Inspector Mejzlík to Police Constable 141, “so you saw, from a distance of three hundred yards, the car speeding away and a body lying in the road. What did you do first of all?”

“First of all, I ran to provide first aid to the lady who’d been run over, sir.”

“First of all, you should have observed the car and only then have taken care of the old granny. But perhaps” – Inspector Mejzlík scratched his head – “perhaps I’d have done the same. So you didn’t get the number of the car. But did you get anything else about it?”

Constable 141 hesitated. “I think it was a sort of dark colour. sir. Maybe blue or red. It wasn’t easy to see, because of the smoke from the exhaust.”

Inspector Mejzlík frowned. “Jesus Christ! How am I supposed to locate the car? Am I meant to run up to every driver and ask, ‘Did you run over an old granny by any chance?’ Well, what would you do?”

Constable 141 shrugged his shoulders in lower-rank helplessness. “Well, one witness appeared, sir, but he doesn’t know anything either. He’s waiting over there, sir.”

Inspector Mejzlik was feeling more and more annoyed. “Well, bring him over.”

When the witness came over, the inspector looked at his crib sheet and, without even looking at him, asked mechanically, “Name and address?”

The answer came loud and clear. “Jan Králík, mechanical engineering student.”

“So you were present at four o’clock this morning when an unidentified car ran over Božena Macháčková.”

“Yes, and I can confirm that the driver was culpable. You see, Inspector, there was no other traffic on the road. If the driver had slowed down at the crossroads…”

How far away were you standing?”

“About ten yards. I was accompanying my friend from… from a café, and when we got to Žitná Street…”

“What’s your friend’s name? I haven’t got a note of that.”

“Jaroslav Nerad, the poet,” the witness replied, with a note of pride. “But he wouldn’t be able to tell you anything.”

Inspector Mejzlík realised he was clutching at straws. “Why not?”

“Because he… he’s a poet. When the accident happened, he burst into tears and ran off home like a little child. The thing is, we were in Žitná Street when, all of a sudden, a car came speeding up behind us…”

“What was its number?”

“Sorry, Inspector. I didn’t notice. I was just watching as it sped towards us, and I was just saying to myself that…”

“What make of car was it?”

 “A four-stroke combustion engine, but I don’t know anything about makes of cars.”

“And what colour was it? Who was in it? Was it open-top or not?”

The witness looked confused. “I don’t know. I think it was black, but I didn’t really notice because, when the accident happened, I was saying to Nerad, ‘Look! Those scoundrels have run someone over, and they’re not going to stop.”

Inspector Mejzlík wasn’t happy. “Hm… That’s certainly an understandable and ethically correct reaction, but I’d have been happier if you’d noticed the car number. It’s amazing, sir, how inattentive people are. Of course you know the driver is guilty, and you know those people are scoundrels, but you don’t think to look at the number plate. Everyone can judge, but to observe things really closely… Thank you, Mr Králík. I won’t detain you any longer.”

An hour later, Constable 141 rang the doorbell at the house of Jaroslav Nerad’s landlady. Yes, the poet was at home, but he was sleeping.

A few moments later his little, anxious eyes were peeping round the door at the constable. Somehow he couldn’t remember exactly what had happened, but he did understand, eventually, why he needed to go to the police station. But he wasn’t keen on the idea. “Do I have to? The thing is, I can’t remember anything. Last night I was a bit…”

“Pissed?” suggested Constable 141 sympathetically. “I understand, sir. I’ve known a lot of poets. So, get yourself dressed, please. Shall I wait for you?”

This led to a discussion between the poet and the constable about the best places to go at night, about life in general, about unusual phenomena in the skies, and many things besides. Politics was the only subject neither of them was interested in. So their journey to the police station was accompanied by a friendly and informative conversation.

Inspector Mejzlík was waiting for him. “You are Mr Jaroslav Nerad, poet. And you witnessed an unidentified car running over Božena Macháčková.”

The poet took a deep breath. “Yes.”

“Could you tell me what the car looked like? Was it open-top or closed? What colour was it? Who was inside it? What was its registration number?”

The poet racked his brains for a few moments. “I don’t know. I didn’t notice.”

But the inspector was insistent. “Don’t you remember any details at all?”

“None at all. I never pay any attention to details.”

The inspector assumed an ironic tone. “So if you didn’t observe the details, would you care to say what you did observe?”

“The general mood. You know, the empty street… the beginnings of daybreak… the woman lying there…”

And then it struck him. “I’ve just remembered I wrote something about it when I got home!” He rummaged in his pockets and pulled out a quantity of envelopes, bills and suchlike. “No, that’s not it,” he muttered. “Nor this… Hold on, maybe this.” He was staring at the back of an envelope.

“Would you be so good as to show me that?” asked Inspector Mejzlík.

“It’s nothing,” said the poet. “But if you like, I’ll read it to you.” At which point his eyes bulged and, drawing out the long syllables in a sing-song voice, he recited the following:

Dark houses march left right halt

dawn plays its mandolin

girl why do you blush

let’s go 120 horse-power

to the end of the world

or Singapore

Stop stop the car flies

our great love bites the dust

trampled girl flower

swan’s neck breasts

the drum sticks drum

why do I cry so

“That’s it.”

“Would you mind awfully,” said the inspector, “to tell me what that’s supposed to mean?”

The poet looked surprised. “Well, of course it’s that terrible accident. Don’t you understand it?”

The inspector frowned. “I think not. Surprisingly enough, I didn’t manage to recognise in it that, on Žitná Street at 4 a.m. on the 15th of July,  a car with registration number such and such ran over a sixty-year-old beggar called Božena Macháčková; and that she was taken to the General Hospital, where she is in a critical condition. As far as I am aware, sir, your poem makes no allusion to those facts. So, no, I didn’t understand it.”

The poet rubbed his nose. “The details you’ve just mentioned are just the raw, outward reality, Inspector. But a poem is the inner reality. A poem contains free, surreal ideas that evoke reality in the mind of the poet. Do you see? Visual and aural associations, for instance. If the reader surrenders to them, he’ll understand.”

A note of admonishment had crept into Jaroslav Nerad’s voice.

“What nonsense, Mr Nerad! Let me have your masterpiece for a moment, would you? Thank you. Right, here we have, hm… ‘Dark houses, march left right halt.’ Kindly tell me what that’s meant to mean.”

“Well, that’s Žitná Street,” explained the poet calmly. “Two rows of houses, you know?”

“And why couldn’t it be the Národní Avenue just as well? … Eh?”

The answer was immediate. “Because that’s not so straight.”

“Well, continuing… ‘Dawn plays its mandolin’… That’s fair enough. ‘Girl, why do you blush’… Where did she come from?”

“The blush of dawn,” said the poet laconically.

“Ah! Sorry… ‘Let’s go 120 horse-power to the end of the world’… What about that, eh?”

“The car must have been coming.”

“And was it 120 HP?”

“That I can’t say, but it means it was going fast. As if the driver wanted to fly to the end of the world.”

“Ah, like that. ‘Or to Singapore’… Why on earth to Singapore exactly?”

This was met with a shrug. “I don’t know. Maybe because Malaysians live there.”

“And what did that car have to do with Malaysians? What, I ask you?”

For a while, the poet knitted his brow and shifted about uncomfortably as if that one had really got him cornered. But eventually he said, “Maybe the car was brown. Something was definitely brown. Why would I have said Singapore otherwise?”

“So there you have it,” said the inspector. “The car was red, blue or black. What am I meant to make of it all?”

“Choose brown,” said the poet. “It’s a pleasant colour.”

Inspector Mejzlík read on: “Our great love bites the dust. Trampled girl flower.” That’s the drunken beggar woman, is it?”

The poet became annoyed. “I’m not going to say ‘drunken beggar woman,’ am I? She was simply a woman. Don’t you understand?”

“Oh! Right! … And what about ‘swan’s neck breast, the drum sticks drum’? Is that what you call ‘free association’?

Here the poet felt really confused himself. “Let me see it again.” He gazed at the piece of paper. ‘Swan’s neck breast, the drum sticks drum.’ What’s that meant to mean?”

“That’s exactly what I’m asking,” muttered the inspector rather contemptuously.

“Hold on.” The poet frowned again. “There must have been something there that reminded me of… Listen! Doesn’t the number two remind you of a swan’s neck?” He pulled a pencil out of his pocket and wrote a 2.

“Ah!” Now it was Inspector Mejzlík’s turn to frown. “And what about ‘breasts’?”

“That’s easy, isn’t it? Number 3 – two semicircles.”

“And then you’ve got ‘The drum sticks drum’.” A note of excitement was entering the inspector’s voice.

The poet thought again for a moment. “A drum and drum sticks… A drum and drum sticks… That could be number 5, couldn’t it? Look!” and he drew a number 5. “The belly is like a drum, and above it are the drum sticks…”

“Wait!” said Inspector Mejzlík. He wrote down 235. “Are you sure the car’s number was 235?”

“I didn’t notice the number at all,” said Jaroslav Nerad. “But there must be something in it. Where else could it have come from?” He gazed at the poem again. “And, you know what? That’s the best part of the whole poem.”

Two days later, Inspector Mejzlík paid a visit to the poet. The poet wasn’t asleep this time. He had a young woman with him, and his efforts to find a free chair for the inspector proved fruitless.

“Don’t worry!” said the inspector. “I only popped in to say that the car really did have registration number 235.”

The poet looked non-plussed. “Which car?”

“Swan’s neck breasts, the drum sticks drum,” said the inspector, without stopping for breath. “And Singapore as well!”

“Ah! I wondered what you were talking about for a moment,” said the poet. “So you see – inner meaning. Would you like me to read you some other poems, now that you’ll be able to understand them?”

“Not just now,” said Inspector Mejzlík hurriedly. “When I’ve got another knotty case.”