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


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