The War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

Chapter 10

Mr. Povondra Blames Himself

Who would have thought so much time had flowed by? Our Mr. Povondra isn’t even the doorman any more at G.H. Bondy’s house; now, you might say, he is a venerable old man who can enjoy the fruits of his old and industrious life in peace as a pensioner; although his pension doesn’t go very far these times of high wartime prices! He still goes out now and then to do some fishing; sitting in his boat with his fishing rod and watching how the water flows by day after day and all the things that go by with it! Sometimes he hooks a dace, sometimes a bass; there seem to be more of them nowadays, maybe because all the rivers are so much shorter. Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with a nice bass; It’s a bit boney sometimes, but the flesh is nice, tastes a bit like almonds. And mother knows just how to cook it. What Mr. Povondra doesn’t know, though, is that mother usually uses those newspaper cuttings that he used to collect and arrange for the fire to cook the bass. He didn’t keep up his collection, though, not went he started taking his pension; he got himself an fish tank instead where he keeps some goldfish; and he keeps some little newts in there too; sits there for hours, he does, watching them as they lay in the water without moving, or climbing out onto the little bank he made them with some gravel; then hell turn round and say: “Who’d have thought it, mother?” But you’ve got to do more than just sit there and watch, that’s why Mr. Povondra took up keeping fish. Keep yourself busy, you’ve always got to keep yourself busy, thought Mother Povondra contentedly. Better than if he went out drinking or got involved in politics.

A lot of water, truly a lot of water had flowed under the bridges on the Vltava. Even little Frank isn’t at school learning about geography any more, he’s not even a young man tearing his socks as he rushes after the silly things young men rush after. He’s getting older himself, young Frank; he’s got himself a good job at the post office, he has, so it’s turned out quite useful that he did learn all that geography. He’s starting to get a bit of sense too, thought Mr. Povondra as he guided his boat out onto the water by one of the bridges. Hell be coming round, today; it’s Sunday and he won’t be working. I’ll take him out in the boat and we can go upstream up to the tip of Střelecký Island; the fish bite better up there; and Frank can tell me all about what’s in the papers. Then we can go back home to his wife and the two nippers - it wasn’t long since Mr. Povondra had relaxed into the quiet joy of being a grandfather. Mind you, it was already a year now since little Marie had started school, she likes school; and there was little Frank, his grandson, nearly weighs five stone already, he does. Mr. Povondra had a strong and deep feeling that everything was right with the world.

But there was Frank waiting on the bank waving to him, and Mr. Povondra rowed over. “Glad you’ve come, mind you it’s no more than you should do,” he added. “Mind you don’t fall in the water now.”

“Are they biting?” his son asked.

“Not really,” the old man grumbled. “Lets go upstream a bit, shall we?”

It was a pleasant Sunday afternoon; still not time when those madmen and layabouts all come out from their football matches or whatever else they do. Prague was empty and quiet; the few people who wandered along the sides of the river and over the bridges weren’t in any hurry as they ambled along decently and with dignity. They were decent reasonable people, not like those crowds who gather and laugh at the fishermen on the Vltava. Once again, Father Povondra had that nice deep feeling that all was well with the world.

“What’s in the papers then, Son?” he asked with the curtness of a father.

“Nothing much, Dad,” his son answered. “I saw that those newts have got up as far as Dresden, though.”

“Germanys had it then,” Mr. Povondra asserted. “They’re funny people you know, those Germans. They’re well educated, but they’re funny. I knew a German once, chauffeur he was for some factory; and he wasn’t half coarse, this German. Mind you, he kept the car in good condition, I’ll say that for him. And now look, Germanys disappearing from the map of the world,” Mr. Povondra ruminated. “And all that fuss they used to make! Terrible, it was: everything for the army and everything for the soldiers. But not even they were any match for these newts. And I know about these newts, you know that, don’t you. Remember when I took you out to show you one of them when you were only so high?”

“Watch out, Dad,” said his son, “you’ve got a bite.”

“That’s only a tiddler,” the old man grumbled as he twitched on his rod. Even Germany now, he thought to himself. No-one even bats an eyelid at it these days. What a song and dance they used to make at first whenever these newts flooded anywhere! Even if it was only Mesopotamia or China, the papers were full of it. Not like that now, Mr. Povondra contemplated sadly, staring out at his rod. You get used to anything, I suppose. At least they’re not here, though; but I wish the prices weren’t so high! Think what they charge for coffee these days! I suppose that’s what you have to expect if they go and flood Brazil. If part of the world disappears underwater it has its effect in the shops.

The float on Mr. Povondra’s line danced about on the ripples of the water. How much of the world is it they’ve flooded so far then?, the old man considered. There’s Egypt and India and China - they’ve even gone into Russia; and that was a big country, that was, Russia! When you think, all the way up from the Black Sea as far the Arctic Circle - all water! You can’t say they haven’t taken a lot of our land from us! And their only going slowly . . .

“Up as far as Dresden then, you say?” the old man spoke up.

“Ten miles short of Dresden. That means almost the whole of Saxony will soon be under water.”

“I went there once with Mr. Bondy,” Father Povondra told him. “Ever so rich, they were there, Frank. The food wasn’t much good though. Nice people, though. Much better than the Prussians. No comparison.”

“Prussia’s gone now as well, though.”

“I’m not surprised,” the old man said regretfully. “I don’t like those Prussians. It’s good for the French, though, if Germanys in trouble. Give them a chance for some peace, now.”

“I don’t think so, Dad,” Frank objected. “They were saying in the papers not long ago how a good third of France is under water now.” Mr. Povondra sighed deeply.

“There was a Frenchman working for us at Mr. Bondy’s, a servant, Jean his name was. And he was a one for the ladies, ruddy disgrace it was. See, it always comes back to you if you’re not responsible, like that.”

“But they say the newts are within ten miles of Paris,” his son, Frank, told him. “They had tunnels everywhere and then blew the whole place up. They slaughtered two army divisions, they say.”

“They make good soldiers, the French,” said Mr. Povondra with the air of an expert. “That Jean never used to put up with anything either. I don’t what made him like that. Smelt just like a perfume shop, but if he got into a fight he really would fight. But two divisions in the newts’ army - that’s not much really. When you think about it,” the old man considered, “people were better off when they were fighting with other people. And it didn’t take them all this time either. It’s twenty years it’s been going on with the newts, now, and still nothing’s happened, they’re still making preparations for getting the best positions. But when I think of when I was a young man, now those were battles! Three million people there were on one side and three million on the other,” and the old man gesticulated and made the boat rock, “and then it was a Hell of a battle when they got together - but they can’t even get themselves a proper war these days. They’ve always got the same concrete embankments up and never even come together with bayonets. Not a bit of it!”

“But newts and people can’t go into battle like that, Dad,” said Povondra junior in defence of the modern style of warfare. “You just can’t make a bayonet charge underwater.”

“You’re quite right,” grumbled Mr. Povondra with contempt. “They just can’t get together properly. But put an army of people against an army of people, and then you’ll see what they can do. And what do you know about war, anyway?”

“I just hope they don’t come here,” said Frank, rather unexpectedly. “When you’ve got kids, you know . . . ”

“What do you mean, come here,” asked the startled Mr. Povondra senior. “What, here, all the way to Prague, you mean?”

“Not just Prague, anywhere in the country,” the worried Povondra junior replied. “If the newts have already got as far as Dresden then I think . . . ”

“You think too much, you do,” Mr. Povondra reprimanded him. “How would they get here? What, across all these mountains surrounding the country?”

“They could come up the Elbe and from there up into the Vltava.”

At this idea, Father Povondra snorted in disgust. “Don’t talk rubbish! Up the Elbe? They might get some of the way up but not all the way. It’s all rocks and mountains in the way. I’ve been there, I’ve seen them. Not a bit of it, the newts won’t get here, well be alright. And Switzerland too, they’ll be alright too. It’s cause we haven’t got any coastline, see, big advantage that is. It’s if your country borders on the sea, that’s when your in trouble.”

“But there’s sea now as close as Dresden . . . ”

“That’s Germany, that is,” the old man retorted. “That’s their business. But the newts can’t get as far as us, it stands to reason. They’d have to get all the mountains out the way first; and I don’t think you’ve got much idea how much work that’d be!”

“Well that’s nothing for them,” young Mr. Povondra objected gloomily. “They do that sort of thing all the time! Think of Guatemala; they flooded a whole range of mountains there.”

“Down there it’s different,” said the old man confidently. “Don’t talk such rubbish, Frank! That was down in Guatemala, not here in Europe. Things are different here.” Young Mr. Povondra sighed.

“As you say, Dad. But when you think that those horrors have already flooded about a fifth of all the land . . .”

“Only where it’s next to the sea, you daft ha’p’orth, not anywhere else. You just don’t understand about politics. It’s those countries that are next to the sea, they’re the ones that have been at war with the newts, not us. Were neutral, we are, and that’s why they can’t do anything against us. That’s just how it is. And now keep quiet for a bit, else we won’t catch anything.”

Over the water was peace and quiet. The trees on Střelecký Island already cast long and delicate shadows on the surface of the Vltava. Trams jangled over the bridge, nannies pushing prams ambled along the banks, the people out on this Sunday afternoon were gay and friendly . . .

“Dad?” exclaimed young Povondra, almost like a child.

“What is it?”

“Is that a catfish there?”

“Where?” Out of the river, just by the National Theatre, there protruded a large black head moving slowly upstream.

“Is that a catfish,” Povondra junior said again. The old man put down his fishing rod.

“That there?” he exclaimed, pointing at it with a shaking finger. “That?” The black head disappeared under the water. “That wasn’t a catfish, Frank,” explained the old man in a voice that hardly seemed his own. “We might as well go home, now. We’ve all had it.”

“Had what?”

“A newt. That was a newt, they’re here. Lets go home,” he repeated as he fumbled to put his rod away. “We’ve all had it.”

“You’re shaking,” said Frank anxiously. “What’s wrong?”

“Lets just go home,” the old man stuttered crossly as his chin quivered. “I’m cold. I’m cold. That’s all we needed! We’ve had it. They’re here now. Oh Christ it’s cold! I want to go home.”

Young Mr. Povondra glanced at him quizzically and took hold of the oars. “I’ll take there you, Dad,” he said in a worried voice and drove the boat to the island with a few strong strokes of the oars. “Just leave it, I’ll tie the boat up.”

“Whys it so cold?” the old man wondered as his teeth chattered.

“I’ll keep hold of you, Dad. Just come with me,” he urged as he took him by the arm. “I think you must have caught a cold on the water. It was just a piece of wood, that’s all.” The old man was shaking like a leaf.

“Piece of wood? Don’t give me that! I know what I saw! It was a newt! Let go of me!” Mr. Povondra junior did something he had never done in his life before; he hailed a taxi and pushed his father in as he told the driver where to go.

“I’ll take you, Dad, it’s getting late.”

“It’s already too late,” his father raved. “It’s much too late. We’ve all had it, Frank. That wasn’t a piece of wood. That was them!” When they got home, young Mr. Povondra almost had to carry his father up the stairs.

“Get the bed ready, Mum,” he whispered quickly at the door. “We’ve got to put Dad to bed, he’s been taken ill all of a sudden.”

So there was Father Povondra lying under the bedclothes; his nose peeking strangely out from his face and his lips murmuring and mumbling something that could not be understood; how old he looked, how old! Then he became a little calmer . . .

“Are you feeling better now, Dad?” At the foot of the bed was Mother Povondra, her hand to her mouth and weeping into her apron; their daughter in law was tending the stove and the children, Frank and Marie, gazed wide-eyed at their grandfather as if they hardly knew him. “Are you sure you don’t want a doctor, Dad?” Father Povondra looked at the children and whispered something; then his eyes suddenly filled with tears. “Is there anything you need, Dad?”

“Yes, yes there is something,” the old man whispered. “Something you ought to know. It’s all my fault. If only I’d never let that sea captain in to see Mr. Bondy, if I’d never let him in, all this would never have happened . . . ”

“It’s alright, nothing’s happened, Dad,” young Povondra tried to soothe him.

“You don’t understand these things,” the old man gasped. “We’ve all had it, don’t you see that? It’s the end of the world. It’s going to be all sea even here, even here now that the newts are here. And it’s all my fault; I should never have let that sea captain in to see Mr. Bondy. Everyone ought to know, they ought to know whose fault it all is.”

“Nonsense,” his son replied sharply. “You shouldn’t be thinking like this, Dad. It’s everyone’s fault. It’s governments’ fault, it’s big business’s fault. Everyone wanted to have all the newts they could get. We all wanted to get as much out of the newts as we could. That’s why we sent them all those weapons and all that - it’s all our faults.”

Mr. Povondra looked up crossly. “It always used to be nothing but sea, and that’s how it’s going to be again. It’s the end of the world. Somebody told me once that even Prague was seabed once. I think it must have been the newts that did it then as well. I should never have let that sea captain in to see Mr. Bondy. There was something that kept telling me, don’t do it, and then I thought to myself, perhaps I’ll get a tip from this sea captain. And then, he never did. That’s how you destroy the whole world you see, all for nothing . . .” The old man gulped back something like a tear. “I know, I know full well, we’ve all had it. It’s the end of the world, and it’s all my fault . . . ”

“Grandfather, wouldn’t you like to have some tea?” asked the young Mrs. Povondra sympathetically.

“All I want,” the old man sighed, “all I want is for these children to forgive me.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52