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.”

TRANSLATIONS FROM CZECH

03/05/2022

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