Ernst Weiss (1882-1940)
Jarmila: a Bohemian Love Story
Translated by Sheldon Gilman and Robert Levine
A year ago in the spring, when I was setting out to go to Prague from Paris, I noticed in the car, just before getting to the railroad station, that I had forgotten my watch under the pillow at home. I stopped the car and looked for a watch store, to buy myself a cheap metal watch. There was only one big department store in the neighborhood. It had some pleasant looking watches, which cost no more than 35 francs. I bought one of those watches and carefully observed its movement throughout the rather long trip. First, in the space of 11 hours, it lost a quarter of an hour, but then it galloped along in the next 13 hours, jumping ahead a half an hour. But as soon as I got to Prague and matched it against the big railroad clock, in spite of everything, the watch showed almost exactly the correct time. I went into a hotel. I had time. I took a walk down along the quay of the Moldau. The bridges, which traverse the river, protected by dams, traveled only by a few still, slate-colored row-boats,
are indescribably beautiful, the old ones as well as the new ones.
Of course, I would have been able to throw my watch from the bridge into the river, and I was tempted. I not only resisted the temptation, but I entrusted it, making myself understood with gestures, to a little watchmaker on the left bank of the river, who fixed it, for 39 crowns, in a few hours. That is, fixed to the extent that it stumbled forward or spitefully remained behind, exactly as it pleased, like a stubborn child that permits itself to be dragged along on a walk by its excessively permissive parents, but from whose hands, from time to time, it escapes, to run after other children, or a dog, or to run up to
the window of a toy-store. And as children of any age, dogs of any breed, charm me, ensnare me, make a fool out of me, so the watch also amused me, this miracle of modern technology and testimony for assembly-line productivity, and I admitted to myself that, for a few francs plus 39 Czech crowns, I had already had my money's worth of pleasure.
Only I couldn't count on it. Of course it deceived me, and I missed an important engagement in a café on Wenzel-Place that I had arranged by telephone with a business friend. I had to buy from this agent 30 tons of Bohemian apples, Mittelware (???), and already was counting on this to pay for pressing debts in Paris.
It was already late afternoon. I sat with my third cup of coffee on the terrace of the coffee-house, which was located on the first floor of a fine house. The sun was still shining strongly on the memorial to the sacred hero Wenzel, in front of the museum where the sacred hero was surrounded by a pack of bronze armored horses and knights. Now the slanting rays of the evening sun broke over the thick rear foot of one of the monumental horses, which stood there in its static glory, its eyes turned towards the square that overflowed with slowly increasing numbers of people.
At the edge of a street filled with people, trolleys, and cars (Wenzel-Place is actually only a very broad, fine-looking street, unequaled throughout Europe) street- peddlers thronged, their wares spread out in front of them on the pavement, or on small boards piled up in the entrances to houses. There were itinerant merchants with all kinds of wonderful apples (no Mittelware), but also such thin, combs made of tin, with mirrors without edges, with spherical cheeses from the mountains of Slovakia, red on the outside and honey-colored within, with inexpensive, tightly knit ties, with oranges, bananas, with hand-stitched lace, variegated country-style embroidery, every kind of inexpensive trinket. Of course it was mostly children who stopped and wanted to get their parents to make a purchase, and from my balcony I saw well-dressed, white-gloved children tugging the hands of their mothers or governesses, to say nothing of the poorer children.
At the entrance to the house directly across from me I saw a young, but no longer very young, peddler, with a finely chiseled, only slightly worn face. In front of him on the ground he had placed a finely planed plank, on which a group of mechanical birds moved among each other, scurrying and pecking, driven by an internal machine, with staccato movements, like those hens always make. They certainly were made of wood, but the material disappeared among the artificial feathers, fine downy feathers, white, pale yellow and black. Most of the time the peddler stood there like one lost in thought, and if a child came up, he good-naturedly let the child try it out, for children wanted to know exactly what was going on inside the toy. If they went away shyly, without having bought it, he just smiled at them. There was something special about him, something birdlike, but he did not have the appealing restlessness of chicken-people.
He moved one of the little birds that had fallen back and forth, without turning his gaze from the street. He was probably afraid of being arrested by a policeman for selling merchandise illegally in the street. He often clutched one of the little birds to his chest and pulled out a hidden feather. The animal again began to move, scurrying about awkwardly, pecking at the ground with its fake yellow beak, as though there was something to be found there. The sun went down. For a long time its light gleamed across the fleshy croup of Saint Wencelas' horse down to his swan-like neck. It made no sense to wait any longer for my business associate. The time my watch showed made no sense at all.
When I once again looked at the street, many birds had already been sold, and only six or seven were still doing their tricks. But now the man suddenly gathered them together, stuffed them into a cloth, in which they continued to twitch, took the plank under his arm, and began to move off. But I did not see any policeman from whom he had to flee, and the other "fierce" peddlers continued to work peacefully.
From whom had the bird-seller fled? Certainly not from the fat, round-backed, already gray-haired man, in a mouse-colored coat, with his respectable bowler hat on his head, who was accompanied by a pretty girl about ten years old and a blond, somewhat embittered, sheepish looking woman, wearing a comical "pre-war" hat. These three people were moving along, without speaking, and, as it seemed to me, without suspecting that they would have a disturbing effect on Wenzel Place. They disappeared behind the museum in the park.
The gas lamps burst into flame, producing a magical effect on the crowds in the Place. I was tired, and left. My watch ticked. That was the only thing it was capable of doing. And I had trusted it! I was full of anger.