"So speak in God's name", the countess spoke, "I will hear you out, but shan’t believe a word".
The count leaned back in his large armchair: "And why not?” he asked.
She shrugged her shoulders. "Probably you don't devise in a convincing manner"
"I'm not devising anything, I'm reminiscing. The memory is my muse."
"A one-sided flattering muse! She only remembers things that fit her agenda. And yet there are many things of beauty and interest on earth beside the – nihilism".
She had raised her crochet hook and fired the last word as a shot towards her old lover. He didn't wince when he heard it but stroked his beard and looked almost thankful at the countess with his wise eyes.
"I wanted to tell you something about my grandmother", he spoke, "On the way here, in the middle of the forest, I remembered it."
The countess bowed her head over her work and mumbled "It'll be a cock-and-bull story".
"Oh, not at all! It is peaceful like the being whose appearance woke this memory, namely Mischka IV, a great-grandson of the first Mischka, who gave cause to a little precipitation on my grandmother's side, one she regretted later", said the count, with affected carelessness, and then continued eagerly: "A clean gamekeeper, my Mischka, credit where credit is due! Alas, his terror was not light when I encountered him. I had observed him for a while… he crawled about like a beetle collector, his eyes fixed at the ground, and what was sticking out from the muzzle of his gun? You guess: a bunch of strawberries!"
"Very nice!" the countess said. "Mind you, they will soon cross over to me through the steppe, because they will have carried all the forest away."
"At least Mischka won't prevent it."
"And you just watch?"
"And I just watch, yes. Yes, it is terrible. The weakness is in my blood – from my ancestors". He sighed ironically and looked at the countess with a certain malice.
She swallowed her impatience, forced herself to smile and tried to sound as indifferent as possible when she said: "What do you think about having another cup of tea and leave the shadows of your forefathers unsworn today? I have something else to discuss with you before you leave today."
"Your court case against the municipality? You will win it."
"Because I'm right."
"Because you're absolutely right."
"Explain that to the farmers, Advise them to withdraw the charges."
"They will not."
"They prefer to bleed.. To take their last penny to their lawyers… and what kind of lawyer, good God! A heinous pettifogger. They believe him, not me, and it seems to me they don't believe you either, despite all your fishing for popularity."
The countess rose and took a deep breath. "Admit, that for these people, who so foolishly trust and mistrust, it would be better if they had no freedom to choose their advisors."
"Of course it would be better. An arranged advisor and, of course also arranged, their belief in you."
"Foolishness!" growled the countess.
"Why? Do you think belief cannot be arranged? I tell you, forty years ago, if I had given my servant an order to get twelve strokes with a stick, and to go to the office to receive them, he wouldn't come up with the idea, not even for a moment, that he could do anything better than to follow this order!"
"Oh, you old grouse! And I hoped that, for once, I could bring you to a sensible conversation tonight!"
The old man gloated over her anger for a while before he said: "Excuse me, my dear friend. I admit to have talked nonsense. No, belief cannot be arranged, but obedience without belief can be. And that was the mishap of this poor Mischka and so many others, and that's why, nowadays, people insist to choose their own way to misery."
The countess raised her pitch-black, still beautiful, eyes towards the sky, before she lowered the same towards her work and said, with a resigned sigh "Thus, the story of Mischka."
"I want to keep it as brief as possible", the count said “and start with the moment when he caught my grandmothers attention for the first time. He must have been a good-looking boy. I remember a picture of him, drawn by an artist who once stayed in the castle. I regret not having found it in the inheritance of my father, although I know he had kept it for a long time, in reminiscence of the time we executed the Ius gladii."
"Oh my God", the countess interrupted him. "The Ius Gladii plays a role in your story?"
The storyteller made a gesture of polite dismissal and continued: "It was on a harvest festival, and Mischka was one of the wreath-bearers, and he gave his wreath in silence, albeit not with lowered eyes, but rather looked at the high arbitress earnestly and unbiased, while an attendant held a speech in the name of the workers.
My grandmother enquired after the boy and heard he was the son of a cottager, twenty years old, quite well-behaved, quite hard-working, and so quiet that he was considered voiceless when he was a child – he was still considered a bit dumb.
"Why", my grandmother wanted to know, "was he still considered dumb?". But the village elders could utter nothing more than "Well, that's how it is" or, "Just like that".
my grandmother had a manservant, a real pearl of a human. If he talked about an
accomplishment, his face glowered of joy. This man was sent by my grandmother
to tell the parents of Mischka that their son was promoted from field worker to
garden worker, and was due to begin his new assignment the next morning. So the
servant, the most lively of all, ran up and down and
soon returned to his ruler.
"You were there?" the countess asked.
"Not in this instance, but in later, similar instances", the count answered, and didn't let himself to be distracted. "So, he stretched his leg, collapsed with esteem, and said that the parents were swimming in tears of thankfulness.
"Oh he", and now his other leg was stretched outward with a endearing grace, "Oh he, he sends a hand kiss."
The servant did not mention that a paternal beating had been necessary to wake even the thought of a hand kiss in the boy. The details of the reasons why Mischka preferred the work in the fields to that in the garden would have not befitted a lady's ear. Enough, Mischka reported for his new duties and performed them rough and ready.
"I wouldn't mind if he worked a bit harder", said the gardener, and my grandmother remarked the same when she stood on the balcony one day and watched how he mowed the castle lawn. What she noticed too, was that the other mowers took a gulp of something from a little flask, which they retrieved from under a bunch of clothes and then hid it there again. Mischka was the only one who, scorning this source of regalement, refreshed himself from a little earthenware flask that he hid in the shadow of the bushes. My grandmother called the servant.
"What do the mowers have in their flasks?"
"Brandy, my countess."
"And what has Mischka in his flask?"
The servant rolled his eyes, cocked his head to the side, much like our old parrot, to which he looked similar like one brother to the other, and answered with a melting voice: "God, my high countess - Water!"
My grandmother, in a fit of compassion, ordered brandy for all garden workers after their days work. "For Mischka too", she added.
The order caused exultation among the workers. The fact that Mischka did not drink Brandy was one of the reasons why the people considered him dumb and now, with the orders of the countess at hand, there was an end to his wanting or not wanting. On his first simple-minded resistance, his co-workers picked on him, much to the amusement of the young and old. Then they threw him to the ground, and a large gardener pushed a wedge between his fiercely clenched teeth, while another kneeled on his chest and poured brandy in his mouth until Mischka's face was so red, and his expression was so terrible, that even the slaphappy tormenters were disgusted. They gave him some air and he immediately set himself free, jumped up and clenched his fists… but suddenly his arms sank, he wobbled, and fell to the ground. There he moaned, cursed, tried to get up and, at last, fell asleep on the spot, in the courtyard, in front of the barn, slept until the next morning and just when he woke because the sun shone on his nose the gardener who had poured the brandy in his mouth the previous day, passed by him. He wanted to flee, expecting nothing else than that Mischka would avenge the mistreatment of the previous day. Instead the boy stretched his arm, looked dreamily at the gardener and babbled: “another gulp!”.
His loathing of brandy was cured
Soon thereafter it happened that my grandmother, enticed by a pretty countryside lane on her Sunday trip, alighted from her carriage and witnessed an idyllic scene during her hike. She saw Mischka seated under an apple tree at the lynchet, with a small child in his arms. Just like himself, the child had a head full of dark brown curls, the well-formed body on the other hand was a light brown, and the paltry shirt that covered it was of a shade in between them. The little brat was roaring with laughter every time Mischka threw him up in the air, kicked with his little feet against his breast, and tried to poke in his father’s eye with his finger. And Mischka laughed and seemed to enjoy himself as much as the little boy. A young girl observed them; also a brown thing and so tender and petite as if her cot had stood at the Ganges. Over her patched short skirt she wore an apron, similarly patched, in which she had a small supply of spiked woodrush. She broke one of them from the stem, sneaked up on Mischka and dropped the woodrush between his shirt and his neck. He shook, put the child on the ground and jumped after the girl, who lightly and briskly fled away, almost as if she were dancing; once straight, then circling a garden tool, full of fear yet full of banter and at all times graceful. A certain inborn grace is no rarity in the people of this country, but these two young creatures displayed, in their harmless merriness, such a pleasant spectacle that my grandmother enjoyed it thoroughly. The effect of her appearance on Mischka and the girl was a very different one, however. They stood still, as though suddenly turned to stone, when they discovered the lady of the manor. He, composed, almost bowed to the earth, she let her apron slip and covered her face in her hands.
supper, which, like every meal, was attended by the royal household, composed
of some poor relatives and the top of the committal authorities, my grandmother
said to the director, seated next to her: “the sister of Mischka, the new
gardener, seems to be a nice and deftly girl, and I wish that a job will be
created for her, so she can earn something.”
unwilling listener of this story had an increasingly hard time to restrain
herself and now called out to him: “You claim you haven’t been present, when
these remarkable words were exchanged? How would you know not just every word,
but also every expression and gesture?”
quite something that you now even feel what Mischka feels, as if you were in
his skin”, the countess retorted.
This promise was enough for the noble valet, he returned to the palace and reported, happy about the felicitous fulfillment of his mission, with the usual genuflections and the usual humbleness and the usual beaming of joy: “He sends a hand-kiss, he will put an end to it.”
“Ridiculous”, said the countess.
ridiculous!”, confirmed the count, “my dear, trusting grandmother considered
the case closed and didn’t think about it anymore. She was very consumed by the
preparation for the great parties, which were held every year on the 10th
of September, her birthday, at the palace and which were accompanied by other,
smaller, parties in the days before and after. The entire neighborhood gathered
and breakfasts on the green carpet of the meadows, hunts, excursions in
horse-drawn carriages, suppers in beautifully lit forests, balls, and so on
were held in a happy succession… you must admit that our old folks knew how to
take place and make noise in the world. God knows how boring and barren our
daily lives must seem to those in the palace.”
“Although there were a large number of servants in the palace, during the festivities their numbers were too small still, and people from the village had to be acquired to help out. How it happened that this time Mischka’s lover was among them I do not know, but it was the case, and the two people who should avoid each other, crossed each other’s way in the service of the mistress even more often than they did on the field. He, trusted with an errand, walked from the garden to the kitchen, she from the kitchen to the garden – sometimes they met on the way and chattered for a few minutes..”
“How interesting!” jeered the countess, “If only we knew what they told each other.”
“Oh how curious you have become! But I tell you only that which is relevant to my story. One morning the lady of the manor strolled through the gardens with her guests. Coincidentally the company took a turn into a rarely used path, romantically canopied by ivy, and spotted a young couple at the end of the path which, coming from different sides, were presently surprised by their encounter. The boy, no other than Mischka, took the girl in his arms and kissed her, and she was happy to let him. A roaring laughter erupted from the group – from some gentleman and, I’m afraid, also some of the ladies – that had been made witness of the scene by coincidence. Only my grandmother did not take part in the gaiety. Mischka and his lover obviously ran away. The boy – they told me, the count mischievously cornered the expected protest from the countess – thought in that instant he’d hate the poor girl. The same evening however, he was proved the opposite, as he learned that the girl and her child were sent to another dominion of the countess; two days of travel for a man, for a woman who also had to carry a child probably another two days. Mischka could not utter more than “Oh god, oh god, oh my dear god”, acted like a dreamer, and didn’t understand what was wanted from him when he was commanded to work. He threw his rake, which another worker had given him, on the ground and ran to the village, to the cottage in which his lover lived with her ill mother, that is to say had lived, because her living there had come to an end. The girl stood, all prepared for her journey, at the bed of the debilitated elderly woman, who couldn’t even touch her head to say goodbye, and who cried bitterly. “Stop it, my dear mother. Who will wipe away your tears when I’m gone?”
She dried her mother’s cheeks and then her own with her apron, took her child by the hand and flung the bundle with her wee belongings on her back and went her way past Mischka, not daring even to look at him. He on the other hand followed her from a distance and when the farmhand, who was tasked to make sure she started her journey, left her alone at the road behind the village, Mischka was soon by her side, took the bundle off of her, took the child on his arm and walked beside her.
The field workers who were laboring nearby, wondered “What is he doing, that droplet? He joins her? Does he really think, because he ‘s so stupid, that he can just go with her?” Soon the father, wheezing and wailing, caught up with them. “Oh you holy ones! Holy mother of God! I thought so – he’s running after his harlot, calls misery over all of us… Mischka! My son, my boy.. ! Never-do-well! Son of a devil” he moaned and cursed absentmindedly.
When Mischka heard the voice of his father and saw him approaching with a threatening stick, he started to flee, much to the amusement of the little boy who cheered “Hott! Hott!”. But soon he realised that he deserted his companion, who couldn’t follow him so quickly, and returned to her. His father already reached her and kicked her on the ground. Like a lunatic he beat her with his feet and his stick and let all the anger about his son out on the defenseless creature. Mischka threw himself on his father and a terrible fight broke out between the two, which ended with the complete defeat of the weaker one, the boy. His father beat the living daylight out of him and, bleeding from his forehead, he gave up the fight and resistance. The cottager took him by the collar and dragged him along, but to the poor little girl he called “Get on your way!”
She complied silently, and even the workers on the field, numb, resigned people, felt pity and looked after her as she staggered away with her child, so in need and so deserted.
the palace Mischka and his son met the gardener, whom the father addressed with
“My lord” and beseeched him to have an hour patience with his son. In an hour
Mischka would surely be back at work; now he just had to go home to wash
himself and his shirt. The gardener asked “What’s wrong with him? He is all
This mother”, the count paused, “you my dear friend know her like I know her.”
“I’m supposed to know her? She’s still alive?”, the countess asked unbelievingly.
“She’s alive; not as the original, but in many pictures. The small, weakly, perpetually shivering little woman with the soft face, aged by time, with the movements of a beaten dog, who subserviently falls to the ground when a noble lady like yourself, or a noble man like me, calls to her “How are you?” and with humble kindness answers: “Thank god – as good as it can be. Good enough for the likes of us, is His opinion, for a pack animal in the form of a human. What else can you ask for, and if you asked, who would give? Not you, noble lady, and not you, noble man”.
“Go on, go on!”, said the countess ”will you finish soon?”
“Soon.” - One day the father of Mischka came to his cottage at an unusual hour and found his boy. So to your mother you can come, not to me, he yelled, called them both traitors and conspirators and started to beat Mischka, which he tolerated. When the cottager started to mistreat his wife, the boy intervened. Strange enough, why this time? If one asked him, how often he saw his father beat his mother, he’d have to answer: “So many years as I can remember her, multiplied with threehundredandsixtyfive, that makes the number.” All those years he had kept silent, but that day the familiar view awoke a flaring anger in him. For the second time he sided with the weaker gender, and this time he remained victorious. But Mischka seemed to have felt horror rather than pleasure over his victory. With quivering lips he shouted at his father, who was ready to surrender, shouted at his crying mother: “Farewell, you will not see me again!” and stormed out. For fourteen days his parents hoped for his return, in vain, as he remained missing. Word of his flight reached the palace; my grandmother was informed that Mischka beat his father half-dead and ran off. Now after the violation of the sixth commandment, breaking the fourth commandment was what my grandmother cursed the most; she showed no lenience to bad or thankless children. She ordered a search for Mischka, to get hold of him and bring him home for an exemplary punishment.
The sun came up and went down a few times until one morning Mister Fritz stood at the gate of the garden and looked out over the countryside road. The wind, soft and tepid, blew over fields, the air was full of dust, lit by the sun to a golden shimmer. Her rays created endearing little milkyways, in which billions of little stars lit up. And now through this flickering dancing atomic swarm came a heavy, gray column of clouds, moving ever closer and finally came so close to the gate that Fritz could see whom it enveloped: Two hajduks and Mischka.He looked pale and hollow-eyed and swayed as he walked. In his arms his child, with its hands around his neck and its head on his shoulders, was sleeping. Fritz opened the gate, joined the group, quickly gathered some information and hovered to the palace, up the stairs, into the saloon where my grandmother was presiding over the Saturday council. The valet, overcome by the happiness that servant souls feel while conveying the latest news, stretched his arms and spoke, almost erupting with delight: “Mischka sends a hand-kiss. He is back”.
“Where was he?” asked my grandmother.
God,” lisped Fritz, clacked his tongue on his palate a few times and looked at
the lady of the manor with as much affection as the deepest servitude allowed
My grandmother said “I really fancy having him hanged!”
All civil servants bowed silently; only the head forester, after some hesitation, interjected: “But thy shalt not do that, your highness.”
“How does he know that?” asked my grandmother with the stern sovereign look that is so admirably depicted on her painting and that gives me the creeps every time I pass through the ancestral portrait gallery, “just because I never exercised my power over life and death doesn’t guarantee that I never will”
Again all civil servants bowed silently, again the silence filled the room until it was eventually broken by the inspector, as he asked the lady for a decision in an important matter. Only after the conference he enquired, quasi privately, about her decision concerning Mischka.
And now my grandmother committed the precipitance I mentioned at the beginning.
“Fifty beatings with the cudgel” was her rapid judgement, “Right now, today, it’s Saturday anyhow.”
Saturday was in those days, which you – and the count intonated these words in a specially roguish manner – can impossibly remember, the day of the executions. They put the bench in front of the deanery.
“Get on with it, get on with it”, said the countess, “don’t waste my time with useless details!”.
“Alright then! – on that same Saturday the last guests would leave, my grandmother , who was busy preparing a farewell surprise for the outgoing guests, was late preparing herself for dinner, and hurried her chambermaid. In this unfavorable moment the doctor announced his presence. Among all the dignitaries he was the one who enjoyed the least of her favour, didn’t deserve it either, since a more boring, cumbersome pedant had never existed.
My grandmother ordered to have him sent away, but he didn’t care and sent the chambermaid another time for an audience with the highborn countess, all he wanted was a few words about Mischka.
“What does he want with that boy?” said the countess, “Leave me alone, I have other sorrows.”
The importunate doctor grumbled and disappeared.
The sorrows of which my grandmother had talked were not frivolous but the most painful ones, sorrows that you, my dear friend, would fail to understand and therefore would fail to pity: poetic sorrows.
“Oh my God!” said the countess diminutively, and the narrator responded: “You may despise it as much as you want, but my grandmother had a poetic talent, clearly manifested in the theatrical play “Les adieux de Chloe” which she herself wrote and studied with the performers. The piece was to be performed after dinner, which was to be held in open air, and the poetess, although rather confident of its success, was overcome more and more, as the deciding moment approached, by a displeasing restlessness. At the dessert, after a celebratory toast on the lady of the manor, she gave a sign. The ivy-covered walls, which hid an arched hedge of trimmed beech, rolled apart and revealed an improvised stage. The guests saw the home of shepherdess Chloe, the mossy bench covered with rose petals on which she slept, the milkvetch-coated altar on which she prayed, and the distaff with the pink-colored ribbon on which she spun the wool of her lambs. As an idyllic shepherdess Chloe knew the secret of this art. Now she appeared from beyond a yew, followed by her entourage, among which was her lover, the shepherd Myrtill. They all carried flowers, and in excellent alexandrines the tender Chloe told the intently listening audience that these are the flowers of memory, picked on the field of fidelity and destined to be offered on the altar of friendship. Right after this opening the auditorium was filled with loud cheers, which became ever louder with each verse. Some ladies, who knew Racine, declared he could hide from my grandmother and some gentlemen, who didn’t know him, confirmed it. My grandmother didn’t doubt the sincerity of the enthusiasm. The ovations continued even as the ladies and gentlemen mounted their carriages or their horses, and even when their equipages, their steeds and light carriages rolled or galloped out the gates.
The countess stood under the portal of the palace and waved at the departing guests, greeting and thanking them for their cheers. She felt as peaceful and happy as an autocrat of even the smallest empire could be when, just as she was about to withdraw, she saw an old hag kneeling in respectful distance from portal. She had taken advantage of a favorable moment and found her way in among the chaos of the departing guests. Only now some of the lackeys noticed her and ran, headed by Fritz, to get rid of her. To their surprise my grandmother halted them and ordered to ask her who she was and what she wanted. At that moment a throat was cleared behind the countess, and she heard a sneeze and then the doctor, with his hat in one hand and the other hand quickly hiding his snuffbox in his breast-pocket, said: “It’s, hm hm, your highness will excuse me, it’s the mother of Mischka”.
“Again this Mischka, is there no end to his Mischka story? And what does the old woman want?”
“What could she possible want, your highness? She’ll want to plea for him, nothing else.”
“Plea for what? There’s nothing to plea for.”
“Of course not, I told her already, but what’s the point? She wants to plea already, hm hm”
“It’s in vain, tell her that. Can’t I leave the house anymore without witnessing the gardeners embracing their lovers?”
The doctor cleared his throat again, and the countess continued “he also beat his father almost to death.”
“Hm hm, he didn’t really do anything to his father, didn’t even want to, only to prevent him beating the living daylight out of his mother”.
“Yes, your highness. The father, you’ll pardon my words, is a damned animal, he hates Mischka because he sometimes gives the mother of his lover a few pennies”.
“The mother of his lover, your highness, an incapacitated woman who was cut off the means of living… because her daughter was sent away.”
“Alright, alright! Spare me the private matters of the common people doctor, that’s none of my concern.”
The doctor put his hat under his arm, pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and discreetly blew his nose.
“So I will tell the old woman that her plea is in vain” and made what the French call une fausse sortie after adding: “of course, if it was only because of the father…”
“Not just the father, he also beat out one of Janko’s eyes.”
The doctor made a stern face, pulled up his eyebrows so far that his forehead formed bulges and said: “concerning his eye, it sits solid in its socket and will serve Janko very well for many more years to come after the suggillation from the punch has cleared. It would have surprised me anyway if Mischka would have been capable of such a thing after the treatment he got from the hajduks. Those hajduks, your highness, battered him pretty badly.”
“Self inflicted. Why didn’t he just follow them voluntarily?”
“Of course, of course, why wouldn’t he? Probably because they took him from the deathbed of his lover, it was hard to get away from that… the girl, hm, hm, was in difficult conditions, she was mangled by Mischka’s father before she started her trek. And then, the long hike and her girl, hm, hm, who was always a bit feable… no wonder that she collapsed in the end.”
My grandmother listened to every word of these discontinued sentences, even though she tried to look like she was only superficially interested in what she heard.
“A peculiar chain of fatalities”, she said, “maybe a punishment from heaven.”
“Well, well”, nodded the doctor, whose face was at all times resigned but had gradually turned to a purplish red. “Well, well, from heaven, and when the heavens have done their bit, your highness might be inclined to let them handle the rest of the case… just saying!” the doctor scolded, excused his impertinent conclusion and, pointing carelessly at Mischka’s mother, he said: “maybe just graciously grant this beggars plea!”
The kneeling hag had tried to follow the conversation without uttering a word herself. Her teeth clattered with fear, and she shrank and shrank by the minute.
“What does she want?” asked my grandmother.
“Eight days respite, she asks of your highness, of the punishment dictated to her son and I, your highness, support the request which, if you honor it, will serve justice better than it could today.”
“Because the delinquent will hardly survive the punishment in his present state.”
My grandmother made a reluctant gesture and slowly descended the stairs of the portal. Fritz approached her and offered his support but she shooed him away. “Go to the deanery, Mischka is pardoned!”
“Ah!” gasped the servant admiringly and ran off, while the doctor thoughtfully took his clock from his pocket and muttered to himself: “Hm hm, it’s about time, the execution might just have started.”
The old woman had understood the word “pardoned”; a whimpering of affection, of delight came from her lips, she fell down and pushed, as the lady approached, her face on the earth as if, in the face of so much greatness and highness, she tried to level herself with the earth.
My grandmother glanced at this picture of embodied humility with a certain shyness.
“Stand up”, she said and - winced and listened… and all those present listened with a shudder, some rigid, others with the grimace of horror. From the direction of the deanery the wind hat carried an atrocious bellow. It seemed to have stirred an echo in the breast of the old hag, as it lifted its head and murmured a prayer…
“Well?” asked my grandmother a few minutes later when Fritz came running on his last breath: “Have you conveyed the pardon?”
“At your service”, answered Fritz who this time, instead of a sweet smile, could only muster a miserable grin. “He sends a hand-kiss. He is already dead!”
“Terrible!” exclaimed the countess”and that’s what you call a peaceful story?”
“Pardon my strategy, but you wouldn’t have listened to me otherwise”, the count answered. “But maybe now you understand why I don’t release the docile descendants of Mischka from their service, even though he acts on my interests rather sloppy.”