From Czech: Amongst People, by Karel Čapek

(My translation of Karel Čapek‘s short story Muž, který se nelíbil, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929.)

“I’ve got something for you,” said Mr Pacovský to Sergeant Kolda.

Before the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, Mr Pacovský used to be in the mounted police, but after the war he just couldn’t adapt to the new situation. So he retired and travelled a bit before, finally, leasing the Bella Vista inn. Although it’s rather out of the way it’s beginning to become quite popular with tourists.

“Sergeant Kolda,” said Mr Pacovský, “I don’t get it. This fellow Roedl has had a room here for a fortnight. Which is no problem: he’s paying his way, doesn’t get drunk and doesn’t gamble, but… could you come and take a look at him some time?”

“What’s the matter with him?” asked Sergeant Kolda.

“That’s just it!” blurted out Mr Pacovský. “I’m damned if I know. There’s nothing special about him, but… How should I say it? I just don’t like the look of him!”

Sergeant Kolda scratched his head: “Roedl, Roedl… The name doesn’t ring a bell. What does he do?”

“I don’t know,” said Mr Pacovský. “He says he works in a bank, but I can’t get him to say which bank. There’s something fishy about him. He’s polite and everything, but… He never gets sent any post. It’s like he’s hiding from people. And I don’t like it.”

“How do you mean,” asked Sergeant Kolda, “‘he’s hiding from people?’”

“Well… he’s not exactly hiding from people,” said Mr Pacovský, “but… who on earth wants to go to the countryside in September? And whenever a car stops in front of the inn, he’s off to his room like a flash, even if he’s in the middle of his dinner. So, as I say… I don’t like the look of our Mr Roedl.”

Sergeant Kolda scratched his head again. “You know what, Mr Pacovský? How about this? Tell him you’re closing the inn for autumn. Let him go to Prague or wherever and then he can be someone else’s problem. Easy!”

The next day, which was a Sunday, a young Constable called Hurych – aka Márinka or Panenka – was returning from a walk. On the way he thought he might stop off for a drink and so, when he emerged from the woods, he headed directly to the Bella Vista. And, at the very moment when he was lingering at the back door of the inn to take a few puffs on his pipe, he heard a window being opened on the first floor at the rear of the building, and something hitting the ground with a thud. So he ran back to the courtyard and caught hold of a man who’d just jumped out of the window.

“What on earth are you doing?” he demanded. “Jumping out of the window like that?”

Apart from being pale, the man he was holding by the shoulder didn’t look overly concerned.

“Why shouldn’t I jump out of the window?” he replied, almost in a whisper. “I live here.”

“Well, even if you do,” said Constable Panenka after a pause for thought, “it doesn’t seem right to be jumping out of the window.”

“I didn’t know it was illegal to jump out of windows,” said the man, in a matter-of-fact way. “Ask Mr Pacovský. He’ll confirm that I live here. My name’s Roedl.”

“OK,” said Constable Panenka. “But show me your papers first.”

“Papers…?” said Mr Roedl. “I don’t have any papers with me, but I can write off for them.”

“We’ll do that ourselves,” snapped Constable Panenka. “Come with me, Mr Roedl.”

“Where?” said Mr Roedl, who’d gone even paler. “What right… what right have you to arrest me?”

“Because I don’t like the look of you, Mr Roedl,” said Constable Panenka. “Now kindly come quietly.”

At the police station, Sergeant Kolda was sitting behind the desk in his slippers, smoking his long pipe and reading the official bulletin. When he saw Panenka coming in with Mr Roedl, he wasn’t amused:

“Christ Almighty, Márinka! What the hell? Can’t I even have a bit of peace and quiet on a Sunday? Why do you have to bring people in on a Sunday, of all days?”

“Sir,” declared Constable Panenka, unperturbed, “I don’t like the look of this man. When he saw me entering the Bella Vista he jumped down into the courtyard from a window and wanted to get lost in the woods. And he’s got no papers on him. So I arrested him. He says his name is Roedl.”

“Ah!” said Sergeant Kolda, suddenly interested. “Well, well, Mr Roedl. So you’re here at last.”

“But you can’t arrest me,” said Mr Roedl.

“No, we can’t,” agreed Sergeant Kolda. “But we can keep you here, can’t we? Go back to the inn, Márinka, search Mr Roedl’s room and get his things brought over here… Have a seat, Mr Roedl.”

“I… I refuse to say anything,” spluttered Mr Roedl. “I shall make a complaint!… I protest!…”

Sergeant Kolda sighed. “Bloody hell, Mr Roedl! I really don’t like the cut of your jib. So I’m not going to waste my time. Sit there and keep your mouth shut.”

Having said that, he picked up the bulletin again and carried on reading. And it wasn’t until some minutes had passed that he said:

“Do you know, Mr Roedl, I can see in your eyes that’s something’s not right with you. If I were you, I’d spill the beans and have done with it. But if you don’t want to, you can have it you own way.”

Even paler, and with sweat running down his face, Mr Roedl sat there. Sergeant Kolda watched him for a while. Then, harrumphing, he got up and went over to rearrange the mushrooms he was drying under the stove.

“Look, Mr Roedl,” he began again after a while, “we’ll find out who you really are and then you’ll be sitting in the clink with no-one at all to talk to. Don’t be an ass!”

But Mr Roedl remained resolutely silent and Sergeant Kolda, muttering to himself in annoyance, began cleaning his pipe.

“Well,” he said, “look at it this way. It could take up to a month for us to find out who you are. But that month won’t be knocked off your sentence. And that would be a pity, wouldn’t it?”

“And if I talk,” said Mr Roedl, “that would…”

“That would mean you’ll be remanded in custody,” Sergeant Kolda explained, “and that’ll be taken into account. But as you wish. I don’t like the look of you and I’ll be glad when they take you off to the regional court. So that’s how things stand, Mr Roedl.”

Mr Roedl sighed. His eyes flitted around the room and he looked even more woebegone and haunted than before. “Why does everyone say they don’t like me?” he asked, barely audibly.

“Because you’re afraid,” Sergeant Kolda replied calmly. “You’re hiding something, Mr Roedl, and no-one likes that. Why don’t you look people in the eyes? You’re hot and bothered, aren’t you Mr Roedl?”

“Rosner,” came the anxious correction.

Sergeant Kolda thought for a moment. “Rosner, Rosner… Now, which Rosner would that be? The name sounds somehow familiar.”

“Ferdinand Rosner.”

“Ferdinand Rosner,” repeated Sergeant Kolda. “That’s definitely familiar. Ferdinand Rosner…”

“The deposit bank in Vienna,” offered the pale, crestfallen man.

“Ah, yes!” cried Sergeant Kolda. “Now I remember: embezzlement! Yes, yes… Rosner. My dear Mr Rosner, we’ve had an arrest warrant out for you for the last three years!… So you’re Mr Rosner.”

Sergeant Kolda seemed to enjoy repeating the name.

“But why didn’t you tell us straight away? I was almost going to kick you out… Guess what!” he shouted at Constable Hurych, who was just entering, “it’s Rosner, the embezzler.”

“But…” came a single, painful monosyllable from Mr Rosner.

“But you’ll get used to it, Mr Rosner,” said Sergeant Kolda. “You should be glad it’s out in the open. But, dear me, where have you been hiding for the past three years?”

“In sleeping cars and in swish hotels – the sorts of places where they don’t ask who you are and where you’re from.”

“Well I never!” exclaimed Sergeant Kolda, rather more sympathetically. “You were having the life of Riley, weren’t you?”

“Yes and no,” said Mr Rosner. “I couldn’t go into any old pub, where the cops might come and poke around, could I? I had to live beyond my means, like it or not! And I never stayed at a place longer than three nights, except here – and that’s where you caught me.”

“Never mind!” said Sergeant Kolda. “The money had run out, hadn’t it, Mr Rosner? So it was the end of the road, however you look at it.”

“It was,” agreed Mr Rosner. “But let me tell you, I couldn’t have endured carrying on. Christ! This is the first time in three years I’ve had a proper chat with anyone! I couldn’t even have a decent meal in a restaurant – as soon as anyone started staring at me, I’d be looking to take my leave. I imagined every other person was working for the police. Even Mr Pacovský.”

“Well, that’s hardly surprising,” said Sergeant Kolda. “He used to be a policeman.”

“Exactly,” muttered Mr Rosner. “So how can you ever escape? And why did everyone look at me like that? Do I look like a criminal or something?”

Sergeant Kolda took a good look at him. “Well, to tell you the truth, Mr Rosner, I don’t think you do now. Now you look pretty much like an ordinary person. But a while back, my friend, I really didn’t like the look of you. I don’t know, something about you… Well, Márinka will take you to the court. It’s not six yet, so they’ll discount today from your sentence. And if it wasn’t Sunday today I’d take you there myself, so you could see… erm… that I don’t have anything against you. It must have been the result of not having a home to call your own, Mr Rosner. But now you’ll be OK. Arrest him, Márinka!”

“You know what, Márinka?” said Sergeant Kolda later that evening. “I was getting to like that Mr Rosner. Quite a nice fellow, wasn’t he? I don’t think they’ll give him more than a year.”

“I asked them to give him two blankets,” said Constable Panenka, rather sheepishly. “He’s not used to sleeping on planks.”

“Quite right,” said Sergeant Kolda. “And I’ll tell the guard to have a chat with him every now and then. So he can see he’s back amongst people.”

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