(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.
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.