After I bought cans of food, salami, and a huge round loaf of bread in the store, I would stop off at the pub, and the pubkeeper and villagers would come and sit down at my table and ask how I liked it here in the mountains, in all this solitude. I was enthusiastic and told them stories of things that no one had ever seen before but were actually there, and I told the stories as if I were only passing through by car, or had come for two or three days, I talked as though I were on vacation, like a nature lover, like a city person who babbles romantic drivel whenever he comes to the country about how beautiful the woods are and the mountain peaks in the mist, and how it is all so perfect that he would like to settle here for good. And I talked in a jumbled way about how beauty had another side to it, about how this beautiful countryside, like a round loaf of bread, was all related to whether you could love even what was unpleasant and abandoned, whether you could love the landscape during all those hours and days and weeks when it rained, when it got dark early, when you sat by the stove and thought it was ten at night while it was really only half past six, when you started talking to yourself, speaking to the horse, the dog, the cat, and the goat, but best of all to yourself, silently at first — as though showing a movie, letting images from the past flicker through your memory — and then out loud, as I had done, asking yourself questions, inquiring of yourself, interrogating yourself, wanting to know the most secret things about yourself, accusing yourself as if you were a public prosecutor and then defending yourself, and so arriving, in this back-and-forth way, at the meaning of your life. Not the meaning of what used to be or what happened a long time ago, but discovering the kind of road you’d opened up and had yet to open up, and whether there was still time to attain the serenity that would secure you against the desire to escape from your own solitude, from the most important questions that you should ask yourself.
My great-grandfather was born in the year eighteen thirty, and in eighteen forty-eight he was a drummer in the army, and as a drummer boy he took part in the fighting on Charles Bridge. The students dug out cobble-stones from the paving there to throw at the soldiers, and they hit Great-grandfather on the knee and crippled him for life. From that time on he was granted this disability pension, one gold piece every day, and every day he spent it on a bottle of rum and two packets of tobacco, but instead of sitting quietly at home to do his drinking and smoking, he went off limping about the streets and the field paths, taking a special delight in turning up wherever there were people slaving away at some hard labor. And there he’d grin and gloat over those workers, and drink this rum of his, and smoke his tobacco, and what with one thing and another, never a year passed without Great-grandfather Luke getting beaten up somewhere, and Grandfather having to wheel him home in the wheelbarrow.
But Great-grandfather only bobbed up as fresh as ever and soon was off again bragging about who was the better off everywhere he went, until somebody beat him up again in the same unchristian way. Until the fall of Austria put a stop to this disability pension he’d been drawing for seventy years. Until his allowance under the republic dwindled so much that it wouldn’t run to his bottle of rum and his two packets of tobacco any longer.
But even then, never a year passed without somebody beating Great-grandfather Luke unconscious, because he still went on dragging himself around the district flaunting those seventy years when he’d had his bottle of rum and his tobacco every day. Until the year nineteen thirty-five Great-grandfather did his bragging in front of some quarrymen whose stone quarry had just been closed down on them, and they beat him up so badly that he died. The doctor said he might very well have been with us a good twenty years yet. That was why there was no other family that stuck in the town’s gullet like ours did.
The station-master rode away on his horse, accompanied by the groom. He crossed the tracks, and the two white horses trotted along the hard field-path; you could hear the ring of their hooves, but their whiteness merged into the whiteness of the snowy plane, and all that was to be seen was an absurd rear view of the station-master and the groom, those dark clothes and splayed figures sitting, as it were, on empty air.
“Viktoria Freie.” She bowed and held out her hand.
“Viktoria Freie?” repeated Hubička in wonder.