It was in late February, when the melting mountain snows had swollen the banks of the Vltava. That great river normally forms a placid mirror for Prague’s famous silhouette of golden-tipped spires, onion domes, and the gables and roofs of the fanciful houses of the age of the Empress Marie-Theresa — the view crowned by the old royal palace of the Castle. But presently the river had become an untameable monster. Its waters rushed like the torrents of hell through the genteel city and the ancient Charles Bridge was saved only by its stronger rebuilding after the great flood twelve years past.
For four days whilst these torrents tore through like express trains, ten or twelve or twenty abreast as if in some devilish race, those good citizens of this metropolis who ventured out had their curiosity aroused by the corpse of a man whose progress through the rushing waters had been arrested by the wooden staves stationed in the river to break winter ice and to prevent the flotsam of such a flood as this from damaging the Old Town Mills or indeed the new masonry of the Charles Bridge itself. Those on the bridge with opera-glasses could see little more than those without: his was just a gaunt shape, draped with weed from the river, in an attitude of accidental crucifixion on the staves.
And finally, on the last day of February, that is February 29th in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and four, the anger of the waters subsided, their level dropped and the water became calm enough for the watermen to go about their business again. Dimly lit by the moon-round gaslamps on the embankment — for the Superintendent of Police did not want to excite a crowd by retrieving the body in daylight — the crucified form was pulled down and dragged on a boathook towards the shore.
An early spring mist lapped like milk on the surface of the river and was feeling its way insidiously into all the nooks and crannies of the water’s edge which included the ancient slipway now bridged by the Františkovo Esplanade.
Two officers of the police were distinguishable by their stiff hats from the knot of watermen ready to pull in the boat and heave ashore the burden it was towing, a sodden heap of wet garments, barely recognisable as having once been a living being. It was dragged onto the cobbles.
Thus began the grand mystery which ended my solving of petits mystères as a sort of innocuous parlour game and took me into the darker nightshades of excitement — and fear — such as I had never experienced before and from which, as a woman of Society, I had been all the time protected.
In my mother’s house even the tops of the piano legs were given little ruffled skirts so as not to arouse the sensibilities of polite young people in the upward mental progress of thighs to varnished wooden loins. Anything to do with Nature and the Lower Classes (a somehow inseparable combination) was completely hidden from us. ‘Life’ outside our Society merely came to us by way of tradesmen’s tittle-tattle relayed by the servants or sensational articles in the newspapers which I had to steal from my brother. But then my mother was English, an explanation all in one. At least in Bohemia one felt nearer — according to her rather vivid imagination, at any rate — to the depravities of the luxuriant East or the wild Slavic splendours of Russia and beyond. The Turks had arrived at the walls of Vienna, after all, and even in Bohemia the coffee served in many establishments is what one would call Turkish.
Half of this exoticism flowed in my veins as the blood of an old Czech family; and half of it was purebred English, thirsting to cut the prim bonds of my stays and see…an adventure. But I must not dwell on myself. By and by I am sure the reader will learn enough — perhaps too much — of my own foibles. It is the narrative of this whole extraordinary affair which is of interest, hardly me. The corpse with its disfigured face pulled from the flood, seemingly without an identity, was just the beginning…