From Czech: THE LOST LETTER by Karel Čapek

(My translation of the short story Ztracený dopis, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929.)

“Boženka,” said the minister of state to his wife as he took another generous helping of salad, “I got a letter this afternoon that I think will interest you. I’ll have to present it to the council of ministers. If people get to know about it, a certain political party will find itself in a pretty pickle. Take a look at it yourself.”

The minister reached into his left breast pocket and then into his right. “Hold on! Where have I put it?” he muttered, as he reached once more into his left breast pocket. Then he laid down his fork and began to search in all his other pockets with both hands. An astute observer would be able to notice, while this was going on, that a minister of state has the same, surprisingly high, number of pockets as any other proper man; that they contain keys, pencils, notebooks, evening newspapers, wallets, official bumf, watches, a handkerchief, matches, old cinema tickets, a fountain pen and many other items of daily use; and that, while searching his pockets, he kept mumbling, “Where could I have put it?”, “Well, I’m blowed!” and “Wait a minute,” just as any other human creature would do whilst searching its own pockets. But the minister’s wife didn’t pay much attention to it; rather, she just said, as any other woman would: “Just get on with your supper, won’t you? It’ll get cold.”

“Alright,” said the minister, as he put all the contents of his pockets back into their respective places, “I’ve probably left it on the table in the office; that’s where I read it. Just imagine!”, he spluttered, while putting a slice of roast beef on his plate, “Just imagine! Someone actually sent me a hand-written letter from… I won’t be a moment.”

He stood up. “I’m just going to look in the office. I probably left it on the table.” And off he went.

After ten minutes had passed without him returning, Mrs Božena went to look in the office. The minister was sitting on the floor in the middle of the office and going, page by page, through piles of documents and letters that’d he pulled out from the drawers of the writing table.

“Shall I get your supper heated up?” Mrs Božena asked, sounding slightly annoyed.

“In a minute,” replied the minister absent-mindedly. “I probably put it somewhere in these papers. It must be here somewhere… It can’t have disappeared!”

“Well, wouldn’t it be better if you finished your supper first and then have a look afterwards,” said his wife.

“Yes, yes,” replied the minister, likewise with a tone of slight annoyance in his voice. “As soon as I’ve found it. It was in a sort of yellow envelope… Well, I’m blowed!”, he muttered, as he searched through another pile of papers. “I read it at this very table, and I didn’t go anywhere until they called me to supper… Where on earth could it be?”

“I’ll send your supper here,” said his wife and she left the minister sitting on the floor surrounded by the piles of paper. Then silence descended, whilst outside the trees rustled and stars fell from the sky. It was almost midnight when Mrs Božena began to yawn and went, carefully, to take a look in the office.

The minister, minus his coat, was standing in the middle of a scene of devastation: there were piles of paper all over the floor, the furniture had been pulled away from the walls, the carpets lay crumpled up in a corner, and the plate with his untouched supper was still on the writing table.

“What on earth are you doing?” she said, in amazement.

“Ruddy hell!”, he barked. “Can’t I have a moment’s peace?” But he immediately realised how unreasonable he was being, so he added, more calmly: “The thing is, one has to go about it systematically. Do you understand? Bit by bit. It has to be somewhere here, because no-one’s been in here except me. If only I didn’t have so much damned bumf!”

“Would you like me to help you?” said Mrs Božena sympathetically.

“No, no,” you’d only spread it all over the place,” said the minister, waving his arms at the indescribable untidiness around him. “You go to bed, I’ll follow in a moment…”

At three o’clock the minister, sighing heavily, went to bed. It can’t be possible, he said to himself as he lay there. The letter arrived in the post at five o’clock. It was in a yellow envelope. I read it at the writing desk, where I worked up until eight o’clock, which is when I went to have my supper, and it was only about five minutes later that I ran back to the office to look for it. In those five minutes no-one would have been able…

At that point he jumped out of bed and rushed off to the office. Of course, the windows were open, but it was on the first floor and, not only that, but it directly overlooked the street.

Surely, he said to himself, no-one could have climbed in through the window! But I’d better investigate that in the morning nevertheless.

He returned to his bedroom and, once again, lowered his great bulk on to the bed. Hold on! he thought. Didn’t I read somewhere that you’re least likely to notice something like that when it’s right in front of your nose! Damn and blast it that that didn’t occur to me earlier!

Once more he ran to the office, to look at what was right in front of his nose. And what was right in front of his nose were piles of papers that had been pulled out from the drawers – the vast and hopeless mess created by his searching.

Swearing under his breath he returned to his sleepless bed.

This time he could only manage it until six o’clock, when he was once more up, and shouting for them to wake up the minister of the interior: “It’s an important matter! You hear me?”

When the operator eventually managed to put him through, the words streamed out of him: “Good morning, colleague minister, please send me – but immediately – about two or three of your most able people… well, yes, detectives… of course, the most reliable ones. An important document has got lost… I tell you, it’s inexplicable… Yes, I’ll wait for them… Leave everything as I found it? You think that’s necessary?… Right… Theft? I don’t know… Needless to say, all in confidence. Don’t tell anyone… So, thank you, and forgive me for… My regards, colleague minister.”

At eight o’clock it was revealed that the number of most able and most reliable detectives was precisely seven, because seven men, in bowler hats, arrived at the minister’s flat.

“I’d like you to have a look, gentlemen,” the minister explained as he led the seven most reliable men into his office, “here, in this office. Yesterday I left a sort of letter… erm, a very important letter… in a yellow envelope… the address was in violet ink…”

One of the most able men whistled knowingly through his teeth. “A right mess!” he said, with professional admiration, “What a swine!”

“Who exactly?” said the minister, somewhat taken aback.

“The thief,” said the detective, as he continued to cast a critical eye over the devastation in the office.

The minister blushed slightly. “Well,” he hastened to explain, “I did throw things around a bit myself when I was looking for it. That’s to say, I… erm, I can’t completely rule out the possibility that the letter is still here somewhere, in amongst the other papers or fallen down somewhere… Or, to put it more precisely, it can’t be anywhere else other than in this room. I think… yes, I think I can definitely say that this room needs to be thoroughly searched. But that, gentlemen, is your business, to undertake… whatever lies within the scope of human power.”

All sorts of things lie within the scope of human power. So three of the most able men shut themselves in the office in order to search it thoroughly, whilst two of the other most able men interrogated the maid, the cook, the janitor and the chauffeur, and the final two most able men went off somewhere into the city to – as they said – begin the search.

On the evening of that day the first three most able men pronounced that it was completely impossible that the lost letter could be found in the minister’s office. They had even taken the paintings out of their frames, dismantled the furniture and numbered every piece of paper. The other two most able men had found out that the only person who had entered the minister’s office was the maid when, on the order of Mrs Božena, she had taken his supper there as he sat on the floor surrounded by his papers. But, as it couldn’t be ruled out that she might have picked up the letter on her way out, they had wanted to know who her boyfriend was – it turned out he was employed at the telephone exchange. A detective was, at that very moment, keeping a discreet eye on him.

The last two most able men were searching somewhere in an unknown place.

That night, try as he might, the minister couldn’t get to sleep for a very long time. He kept repeating to himself: The letter arrived, in a yellow envelope. I read it at my writing desk and I didn’t leave the office until I went for supper. So the letter has to be there, but it isn’t there.

The utter mystery of it all made him feel sad and uneasy and irritated all at the same time, so he took a sleeping tablet and slept until the morning.

And, in the morning, he discovered that one of the most able men was mooching about – God knows why – outside the house. The other most able men had probably set about searching the whole of the Republic.

“The matter’s in hand,” the minister of the interior told him on the telephone. “I’m hoping to receive a report very soon. From what you’ve told me about the contents of that letter, colleague minister, we can say who would probably be interested in it… If we could carry out a search under warrant of a certain secretariat or a certain newspaper office we’d know more. But, as I say, the matter’s in hand.”

The minister mumbled his thanks. He was completely fed up, and very tired.

That evening he muttered something along those lines and went off early to bed. At about one o’clock – it was a clear, moonlit night – Mrs Božena heard steps in the library.

The redoubtable lady summoned up all her courage and went, on tiptoe, to the library. The door was wide open, one of the bookcases was open as well, and the minister was standing in front of it in his nightgown, looking very grave and muttering something to himself as he turned the pages of some tome or other.

“What on earth are you doing here?” exclaimed his wife, sighing.

“I just wanted to have a look,” the minister said sheepishly.

“In the dark?” said Mrs Božena, in amazement.

“I can still see,” said the minister, and he put the book back in its place. Then, murmuring “Good night”, he went off slowly to his bedroom.

Mrs Božena shook her head sadly. “Poor fellow,” she said to herself. He can’t get to sleep, and all because of that wretched letter.”

In the morning the minister looked in good health and almost happy. “Tell me,” asked his wife, “what were you looking for in the library in the night?”

The minister put down his spoon and stared at her in disbelief: “Me? What are you talking about? I wasn’t in the library. I was sleeping like a baby.”

“But Vláda, don’t you remember me talking to you? You were looking in some book and you told me you wanted to find something!”

“Nonsense,” said the minister, warily. “You must have dreamt it. I didn’t wake up at all last night.”

“You were standing by that bookcase in the middle,” said his wife, “and, not only that, but you hadn’t even turned the light on. You were turning the pages of that book in the dark and you told me you could see.”

The minister caught his head in his hands. “My dear,” he spluttered, “do you think I’m a sleepwalker? Whatever next!” Then he repeated, more calmly, “You must have dreamt it.”

“It was at one o’clock,” Mrs Božena insisted, adding, a little irritably, “Are you trying to say I’m mad?”

The minister stirred his tea in silence before saying, all of a sudden, “Please show me where it was.”

Mrs Božena led him off to the library: “You were standing here by this bookcase and you put some book back on that shelf.”

Embarrassed, the minister shook his head. The shelf in question contained a complete and venerable set of “Collected Laws and Decrees.”

“Well I never!” he said, scratching the nape of his neck before, almost mechanically, pulling out one of the volumes, which had been put there upside down. The book opened in his hands and there, within it, was a yellow envelope on which the address was written in violet ink.

“Well, well, well, Boženka,” said the minister, scarcely able to believe his eyes. “I could have sworn I never left the office. But, now I mention it, I vaguely remember that, when I read the letter, I said to myself: I must go and look up an act from 1923. Then I must have carried the book to the writing table and I wanted to write myself a note, but because the book kept closing I must have put the letter in it – and then I must have closed the book and automatically taken it back to the library… But, to think that I would have gone to look at the book unconsciously, in my sleep, that would be… hm… Better not mention it to anybody. People might think that… They don’t make a good impression, strange psychological things of that sort.”

Moments later the minister was speaking cheerfully on the phone to the minister of the interior: “Hello, colleague minister! Well, that blinking letter… No, not at all! You’re on the wrong track. I’ve got it here in my hand! … How did I find it? Well, do you really think I’m going to tell you, colleague minister? There are certain methods that you, in the ministry of the interior, haven’t even come across yet… Yes, I know, your people did what they could. It’s not their fault they don’t have the best… Not at all, not at all… My regards, colleague minister!”


"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925


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