Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Libertine

    "Please," said Mr. Smítek, "what do you ladies know about life? You sit at home in slippers, drink your half-liter of beer, and it's good-night by ten; you pull your blanket up to your chin and just drift off. That's what you call life."
    "So you say, Mr. Smítek," Mr. Rous interrupted, "you live like a king on your wages. But if you had to support a wife and a couple of screaming kids--"
    "Go on with you," Mr. Smítek grumbled distastefully, "on my wages! How could I live at all on my wages? It's barely enough for pocket-money. There are places where you cannot even give the piccolo player fewer than fifty crowns. And for the band? Sirs, you can place a thousand crowns on the table and no one even bats an eye."
    "Don't start with that again, Mr. Smítek," said Mr. Kroll, "I've never heard of a thousand crowns to the musicians; that's hogwash if you give them that much for a bit of fiddling."
    "Listen," Mr. Smítek spoke, "you're still not getting it. Each musician makes like he's just playing his part, but meanwhile he's paying attention to who you are with and what you are doing and what you are talking about, how much is in the pot, and so on. When he makes this motion with his thumb, it means: pay and I'll be quiet. That's the way it is, sir."
    "They are beasts," said Mr. Kroll in wonder.
    "They are. Look, Mr. Rous, today you couldn't get a crown out of me, and this evening I shall spend, on my word, twelve thousand. And you ladies think you have all sorts of troubles when you owe a hundred and twenty to the greengrocer."
    "Twelve thousand?" said Mr. Rous, "sir, I wouldn't like to be in your skin."
    "What of it," Mr. Smítek yawned self-indulgently, "you can't take it with you. Why, yesterday night--oh, what good would it do to tell you! Gentlemen, such is life--"
    "But debts," Mr. Kroll said sharply, "one shouldn't acquire debts; you'll fall into the hands of the usurers and that's it for you. That's how it goes."
    "Debts," Mr. Smítek said unconcernedly, "they don't matter, as long as a man has contacts. A banker once told me that, from Amsterdam--now there were some fantastic women! My God, this one mulatto girl, you have no conception--well, this banker told me: buy Mexican currency, and you will make eighty times your money in a week. You see, a man must have contacts, and you won't find yours at home in bed."
    "And did you buy that currency?" Mr. Rous asked, with interest.
    "Oh, I lost that long ago," Mr. Smítek said evasively. "If it happened once, it can happen again. You see, I just love the excitement. And even if a night like that costs a few thousand, I've experienced a portion of life."
    "But you look it," grumbled Mr. Kroll. "Wait and see how your kidneys or liver will feel in a few years."
    "What of it," Mr. Smítek said with a sinful frivolousness. "So long as I have lived my life."

    That evening Mr. Smítek bought himself a pastry and a hundred grams of Edam, then he went home and made himself tea. His cat Lízinka got a piece of the pastry and the rind of the cheese; then she washed her face with her paw and wanted to go out.
    "You rogue, you frivolous thing," Mr. Smítek petted her, "you want to go out again already? Just sit at home in peace, what are you looking for? You're old enough to know better, you tart," Mr. Smítek said tenderly, lifting Lízinka into his lap; then he brought the receiver to his ear, tuned his crystal to see what was on the radio tonight. Someone was reciting poems; Mr. Smítek tried to keep the beat with his foot, but got bored when the rhythms didn't match, and grabbed Lízinka's tail. Lízinka merely turned briskly and clawed his hand; then for good measure she jumped from his lap and glared at him from under the bed.
    The poems and Lízinka's bad mood ruined Mr. Smítek's evening somewhat; he read through the piece of newspaper he had brought the cheese home in, and was in bed by ten; at ten-thirty Lízinka jumped onto the bed and snuggled onto his foot, but he was already asleep.

    "Aaaaaaah, life." Mr. Smítek yawned the next day, "Guys, what a night what was. Look," he said, showing his hand, "this scratch--now there was a girl for you--a Russian, name of Lízinka--what a wildcat, and what a temper--" Mr. Smítek hopelessly waved his hand. "What good is it to tell you! You old ladies, what do you know about life? Eh, let the courts or death threaten a man, so long as he has known life! But you? Just leave me be with your small-town morality!"

LN, 5 February 1928

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