The Trumpeter of Krakow

The Trumpeter of Krakow

Eric P. Kelly (1929)

Read to: 3rd - 5th grade

Read independently: 6th - 8th grade

Mr. Kelly reportedly began his love-affair with Poland when he was a relief worker in World War I. I am so impressed that he wrote such a beautiful, long-standing story about a country which was not native to him. I have four or five stories written (in my head - one day I'll put them "on paper") yet none of them occur in my beloved but non-native Brazil. I've never even considered setting an entire story there! I think I'd be nervous about doing it justice but I'm so glad Mr. Kelly took the challenge and gave us this entertaining and inspiring tale. The Prologue is set in 1241 and begins with war refugees fleeing Kiev and traveling into Krakow.

They were so numerous that it took days for the whole horde to pass any one given point, and for miles behind the army itself rumbled carts bearing slaves, provisions, and booty - usually gold.

Before them went always a long, desperate procession of country people driven from their humble homes by the news of the coming terror; they had already said farewell to the cottages where they lived, the parting from which was almost as bitter as death. So it has always een on time of war that the innocent suffer most - these poor, helpless peasants with their carts and horses and geese and sheep trudging along through the dust to escape, if God so willed, the terrible fate which would befall them were they left behind. There were old people in that procession too feeble to be stirring even about a house, mothers nursing children, women weak with sickness, and men broken hearted at the loss of all that a lifetime of labor had brought. ...

To this company Krakow opened her gates, and prepared for defense. (p. 2-3)

Because of the unfamiliar setting and customs as well as vocabulary and writing style of almost a century ago I found this story to be mildly challenging. A lot happens in this story. Looking back at it after several months I'm surprised at how much of it I remember - especially because at the time I didn't feel like it was making much sense.

The main story begins in 1461 with peasants and merchants going to market in Krakow. No detail is left unmentioned, including that, "...every man in that caravan carried some sort of weapon, either a short knife at the belt, ..., or huge-headed ax at the bottom of the wagon. For thieves were abroad in great number at times of market, ..." (p. 9).

Fifteen year old Joseph Charnetski and his parents have been traveling for days by wagon to get to the Krakow market place. it is so nice to see that, at least in four places, there are footnotes throughout the book. The first appears on page 13 and explains Polish civility. The other three appear much later in the book and provide translations for symbols or Latin phrases. Well - at least we get one cultural insight.

And speaking of cultural insights, there is a beautiful cultural tradition that is a significant party of the story. A song known as the Heynal that always ends with a broken note in memory of the time it was used as a signal in a time of trouble. After several things occur, it winds up that Joseph and his father learn how to play the song when the father gets a position as the trumpeter of Krakow and indeed Joseph winds up using it as a signal of trouble. The town security system is described through the eyes of a church caretaker on page 132, "Thieves seldom troubled churches in this period, and the cemetery itself was guard enough against marauders in a period full of superstition. Up above him the trumpeter kept a much stricter vigil, and all about the town, the watch tried house doors and questioned late passers-by."

My first time through the book I missed some back story on page 25 in which Mr. Charnetski states that he is the proprietor of an estate in the Ukraine and is seeking his cousin, Andrew Tenczynski, in Krakow. He learns that his cousin is dead as a result of a dispute over some armor he had commissioned and was dissatisfied with. Now, in a strange city with no connections the family decides they will trust in God for their next direction. So as Joseph is walking through the city he sees a beautiful girl and moments later saves the girl from a dog attack. The girls' grateful uncle helps the Charnetski family get settled with lodging.

There is a mysterious pumpkin that Mr. C is very protective of. Someone has pursued them from the Ukraine for this pumpkin and in an attempt to overtake it, decries the Charnetskis as witches in the marketplace. This gets the attention of a highly respected priest and scholar, Jan Kanty. He befriends the family and Mr. Charnetski confides in him. Jan Kanty helps ensure the family's safety and financial security until Mr. Charnetski can get an audience with the King of Poland to directly hand over the treasure he guards. While they wait, the uncle, Pan Kreutz, who helped them get the apartment, is an alchemist who gets sweet talked by a student, Tring, who also lives in the building, to essentially use his powers for evil, to make gold that is not natural.

After several months, which pass more as a sentence than with the turning of pages, Joseph is recognized by the pursuer who aligns himself with Stas, the landlord's son, to gain access to the building. Peter is the villain who invades the apartment building with his henchmen. Home invasions are never gentle fairy tales and this one is no exception. It is rough and long - but not bloody. it is suspenseful but not scary. i excerpt a passage here for your own judgement:

"Then up, every mother's son of you," ordered the leader. "There is a man there. Put a knife in his throat and descend quickly."

The rest pulled themselves up and entered the loft. After a few minutes of impatient waiting Peter climbed the steps himself and pushed himself across the dark threshold.

"What have you found?" he demanded impatiently.

"Nothing," the answer came faintly from one corner of the loft.


Like a bolt of lightning out of a clear sky the loft was suddenly illuminated with a glow of red fire as there leaped into existence out of the blackness of the night the very incarnation of the Evil One in his worst mood. Clad in fiery garments ..., he moved slowly forward, waving in his right hand a scepter of flaming red..., while from its end little balls of fire were dripping. (p. 119)

The reader should be aware that the supposed "Evil One" is Pan Kreutz but, of course, the criminals don't know that so it is much more scary to the characters than to the reader. Pan Kreutz uses science tricks in his lab to scare off the men - but not before a fire breaks out and a staircase collapses (which, by the way, had been foreshadowed). Sadly, the treasure that Mr. Charnetski was guarding is missing after all the commotion. I do appreciate that all the accomplices are punished:

Those of Peter's band who had been injured in the fall of the stairs or had been unable to escape from the court were taken to jail and sentenced to various punishments. Several were put away into dungeons, where they could do no more harm, two were banished "for a period of ninety-nine years," and the rest were delivered to justice in other towns, where they had committed previous crimes. But the most vigorous questioning could get no information from them, and it was concluded that they knew little of the designs of the leader upon Pan Andrew. As for Stas, his mother would have naught of him after this act of treachery. She lost little time in turning him out of her house, and never would she receive him back again. It was heard some time later that he had become a water in the Inn of the Golden Elephant, but after the robbery of a guest there one night, he disappeared and was never heard of in Krakow again. (p. 126)

But since Peter had escaped, he went back to his home country and fell in with a new bunch of thieves. When Peter captures Joseph and his father in the tower one night, Mr. Charnetski says he knows they are the ones who have been after the Great Tarnov Crystal, but doesn't know why they are here now. The criminal is shocked that Mr. Charnetski no longer has the crystal - Mr. C had assumed it had been taken by the criminal. So Peter proposes to go with Joseph and retrieve the crystal, leaving Mr. C with the goons, and if they aren't back soon - Kill Mr. Charnetski. Ah - but first, its time to play the Heynal. Joseph steps up and adds three notes at the end - as a signal of trouble. There is even a piece of musical score comparing the usual and signal versions. Again Peter runs off when he hears the watch coming but the other criminals are caught and the good guys rescued (although this time we are not advised as to the punishments).

Meanwhile the student Tring and the alchemist have continued to work every day on their project in the lab. Several weeks after the attack in the tower, Pan Kreutz reveals to Tring that he's been hiding the crystal. Things get out of hand and a fire breaks out. This creates chaos in the city since this was a time when there were no fire extinguishers, no fire hydrants, no fire trucks - and tearing down buildings was an effective fire-fighting strategy.

After a few more twists and turns, like a movie that just won't end, the story finally ties up all loose ends and wraps up nicely.