The War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

Chapter 10

Town Carnival in Nové Strašací

Mister Povondra, the butler in the Bondy household, was spending this holiday in his native town. There was to be a carnival the following day; and when Mister Povondra went out he led his eight year old son, Frank, by the hand. The whole of Nové Strašací was filled with the scent of cakes and pastries and across the street were women and girls coming and going to the bakers with cakes. Two tents had already been set up on the square selling sweets and cakes and coffee, and a hardware dealer was there with his glass and porcelain, and a woman was shouting that she had embroidery and knitwear of every sort you could think of. And then there was a hut made of canvas covered in cloth on all sides. A lightly built man stood there on a ladder fixing on a sign at the top of it.

Mister Povondra stopped so that he could see what it said.

The thin man climbed down from his ladder and looked up contentedly at the sign he had just put up. And Mister Povondra, with some surprise, read:

CAPTAIN J. VAN TOCH

and his performing newts

Mister Povondra thought of the big fat man with the captain’s cap who he had once shown in to see Mister Bondy. And now look where he is, the poor man, thought Mister Povondra in sympathy; a captain he was, and now he’s travelling about with some pitiful circus act! Such an impressive and healthy man he was! Maybe I should go in and see how he is, thought the compassionate Mister Povondra.

Meanwhile, the thin man had hung up a second sign at the entrance to the tent:

!! TALKING LIZARDS!!

!! THE GREATEST SCIENTIFIC SENSATION!!

Entrance 2 koruny. Children (accompanied by parents) half price!

Mister Povondra hesitated. Two koruny and another koruna for the lad, that was not cheap. But Frank liked to learn things, and it would all be part of his education to learn about animals in other parts of the world. Mister Povondra was willing to sacrifice something for the boy’s education, and so he walked up to the thin man. “Hello,” he said, “I’d like to talk to Captain van Toch if that’s alright.” The little man’s chest expanded in his stripey teeshirt.

“I’m Captain van Toch, sir.”

“You’re Captain van Toch?” answered Mister Povondra in surprise.

“Yes sir,” said the little man, and showed him the anchor tattooed on his wrist.” Mister Povondra blinked in surprise. How could the captain have shrunk down so small? Surely that’s not possible.

“I am personally acquainted with Captain van Toch,” he said. “My name is Povondra.”

“Ah, that’s different, then,” said the little man. “But these newts really are Captain van Toch’s. Guaranteed genuine Australian lizards. Come and have a look inside. Were just starting the main show now,” he said as he lifted the sheet at the entrance.

“Come along, Frank,” said Frank’s father, and in they went. An exceptionally big and fat woman quickly sat down behind a little table. An odd couple they make, thought Mister Povondra as he paid his three koruny. Inside the tent there was nothing but a rather unpleasant smell and a tin bath.

“Where are the newts?” Mister Povondra asked.

“In that bathtub,” yawned the enormous woman.

“Now, don’t be afraid, Frank,” said Mister Povondra, and he stepped up to the bath. In the water lay something black and immobile, about the size of a fully grown catfish; except that its head seemed to be slightly flat and the skin behind it swollen.

“That’s the prehistoric newt they’ve been writing about in all the papers,” said Mister Povondra to his son didactically, not letting the boy see his disappointment. (Cheated again, he thought, but id better not let the boy see it. Three koruny down the drain!)

“Dad, why’s it sitting in a tub of water?” Frank asked.

“Because that’s where newts live, in water.”

“And what do newts eat?”

“Fish and that sort of thing,” suggested Mister Povondra to his son. (Well they had to eat something, he supposed.)

“And why’s it so ugly?” Frank continued. Mister Povondra didn’t know what to say to that; but at that moment the spindly little man came into the tent.

“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,” he began in his cackling voice.

“Don’t you have more than just one newt?” Mister Povondra asked accusingly. (If there were at least two of them we’d be more like getting our moneys worth.)

“The other one died,” said the man. “This, ladies and gentlemen, is the famous Andrias, the rare and poisonous lizard from the islands of Australasia. In its native environment it grows to the size of a man and walks on two legs. Come on then,” he said as he turned to the black and listless thing in the bathtub, jabbing at it with a stick. The black thing stirred itself and, with some effort, raised itself from the water. Frank recoiled a little but Mister Povondra held his hand tightly, don’t be afraid, Daddy’s here.

The newt stood on its hind legs and supported itself against the side of the tub with its front paws. The gills on the back of its head twitched spasmodically and it breathed with difficulty through its black snout. Its skin was too loose and covered in warts and bloody sores, its eyes were round like a frog’s and it seemed in pain when it blinked with some kind of membrane from under the eye.

“As you see, ladies and gentlemen,” the man continued in his cracked voice, “this is an animal that lives in water; which is why it is equipped with both gills and with lungs to breathe with when it comes out onto land. It has five toes, but only four fingers, but can nonetheless hold various items.  Here.” The animal closed its fingers around the mans stick and held it in front of itself like a pitiful sceptre. “It can also tie knots in a piece of rope,” the man declared as he took the stick away and gave the newt a piece of dirty rope. It held the rope in its hands for a moment and then did indeed tie a knot. “It can also play on a drum and dance,” the man cackled as he gave the animal a children’s drum and drumstick. The animal struck the drum a few times and twisted the upper half of its body round; then it dropped the stick into the water. “What d’ye do that for, vermin?” the man snarled as he fished the stick out. “And this animal,” he declared, raising his voice back to its showman’s level and clapping his hands, “is so intelligent and gifted that it is able to speak like a human being.”

“Guten Morgen,” the animal rasped, painfully blinking with its lower eyelids. “Good morning.” Mister Povondra was startled, but it seemed to make no great impression on Frank.

“What do you say to our honoured public?” the man asked sharply.

“Welcome to our show,” said the newt with a bow as his gills twitched round. “Willkommen. Ben venuti.”

“Can you do arithmetic?”

“I can.”

“How much is six times seven?”

“Forty-two,” croaked the newt with some effort.

“There, you see Frank?” Franks father pointed out. “It can do arithmetic.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the skinny man crowed, “you are invited to ask questions of your own.”

“Ask him something, Frank,” Mister Povondra suggested. Frank squirmed.

“How much is eight times nine?” he finally shouted out; it clearly seemed to him to be one of the hardest questions possible. The newt thought for a while.

“Seventy-two.”

“What’s the day today?” Mister Povondra asked.

“Saturday,” said the newt. Mister Povondra was very impressed.

“Just like a human being. What’s the name of this town?” The newt opened its mouth and blinked.

“It’s getting a bit tired now,” the man interjected. “Now what do you say to the ladies and gentlemen?” The newt bowed.

“I am honoured. Thank you very much. Goodbye. Au revoir.” And it quickly hid back in the water.

“That . . . that’s a very remarkable animal,” said Mister Povondra in wonderment; but three koruny was quite a high price to pay, so he added, “What else do you have to show the boy?” The skinny man was perplexed and pulled on his lower lip.

“That’s all,” he said. “I used to have some monkeys and all,” he explained uncertainly, “but they were too much trouble. I could show you me wife if you like. The fattest woman in the world, she used to be. Maruška, come over here!” Maruška heaved herself onto her feet.

“What is it?”

“Let the gentlemen have a look at you.” The fattest woman in the world put her head coquettishly to one side, raised one leg in front of her and lifted her skirt above the knee. This revealed her red knitted stocking which contained something pale and massive, like a leg of ham. “The upper part of the leg has a circumference of eighty-four centimetres,” the desiccated little man explained, “only there’s so much competition these days that Maruška isn’t the fattest woman in the world any more.” Mister Povondra pulled his astonished Frank away.

“Glad to meet you,” a voice rasped from the bathtub. “Do come again. Auf wiedersehen.”

“What did you think of that, then, Frank?” Mister Povondra asked, once they were outside. “Did you learn something?”

“Yes Dad,” said Frank. “Dad, why was that lady wearing red stockings?”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/capek/karel/newts/chapter10.html

Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:34