Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (13 page)

BOOK: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
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“But you’re as dry as old bread crust.”

“Yet I’ll teach you to moan!”

The girls laughed.

At that point three men came into the room. The puppets dispersed. Hissing like geese, they ran towards the new arrivals.

The Polecat downed his wine and asked for another.

One of the girls came back to him. The others sat down with the three young men.

“I didn’t say you could go, you hussies,” the old man shouted and pounded the table with his fist.

“Just look at him, the old capon,” said the redhead, and she burst out laughing.

The three young men were amused.

“He’s got a face like a louse-ridden horse blanket.”

“What do you say to that?” asked the Polecat, twisting the hand of the girl who had sat down next to him so viciously that she let out a yelp.

“Stop that!”

“Silence, you ugly bitch!”

“I’m too good for you!”

“Tell them they’re all sluts.”

“Go to hell if you’re not going to talk nicely,” she retorted and went about her business.

“Wine!” the Polecat thundered again and thumped the table.

“You shouldn’t swear and shout like that in here,” the girl in the apron rebuked him.

Several more men arrived. The Polecat took a deep swig and inspected the arrivals with contempt.

“What a bunch of cripples.”

One man heard him.

“Ever had a good thrashing?” he asked and measured the old man from head to foot.

“Thrashing?” asked the Polecat, feigning puzzlement.

He stood up, and before the man knew what hit him he was flat on the ground.

“Just so you watch your tongue next time,” said the old brawler, and he took a drink of his wine.

The redhead came back to the old man laughing and said:

“I’m starting to like you.”

The man who had been made a fool of scowled at the redhead and muttered something. He went and sat with his friends close to the curtain where Valerie was standing. She managed to catch the conversation between the three men:

“He’s not going to get away with that,” said the man the Polecat had slammed to the floor.

“Just ignore him.”

“You take me for a wimp?”

“He’s a rough customer. Don’t start anything with him.”

“What?” blustered the infuriated man, and a knife glinted in his hand.

“Put that blade away! You’ll end up in the joint again.”

“I’ll teach him a lesson.”

Valerie shuddered in terror at the sight of the glittering steel.

The Polecat sat the redhead on his lap.

“Come here!” the possessor of the knife yelled at the old man’s companion.

“He’s calling you,” said the Polecat, and he started to laugh.

The man paled. His friends tried to calm him down.

“Just watch him scream!”

Valerie was sure a scuffle was about to erupt. Suddenly, she realized that she was still holding half of the wonder-working pellet. Moving cautiously along the wall towards the table where the Polecat was sitting, she tossed it into his wine. Then she stepped back behind the curtain and waited in trepidation for what would happen next.

“Come here!” Blade called out again.

“Who do you think you’re talking to, you cripple?” said the Polecat.

The man with the knife jumped up, ready to launch himself at the old man. His friends grabbed him by the coattails and tried to prevent the fight. The redhead fled squealing into a corner.

“Let him come, my beauties,” said the Polecat. “I’ll make short work of him.”

The old man rose, picked up his glass, drank it down, and hurled it towards his adversary’s table. The latter broke away from his friends and charged the old man. The Polecat dodged, let out a yell, and sank to the ground.

“He’s stabbed him!” screamed the redhead.

“No!” said the infuriated man, staring down at the writhing old man.

“You’ve stabbed him!”

“See for yourselves,” said the youth and tossed the knife on the table.

The knife passed from hand to hand.

“There’s not a drop of blood on it,” everyone present had to admit.

“Now we’re going to have trouble with the police,” said the girl in the apron.

Valerie was dying in anguish.

“You must take him away,” someone said. “He can’t stay here.”

“Let’s go,” said the rowdy. “I don’t want anything to do with this. He must’ve had a heart attack.”

The customers rose and paid.

“Come on then, take him out of here,” the girl in the apron repeated.

But no one seemed inclined. No one paid any more attention to the lifeless body. The girls, disgruntled at the loss of their customers, stared dully ahead of them and frowned.

“He didn’t even pay,” said the waitress and bent down over the prostrate shadow. Then she suddenly cried out:

“Look! Look!”

The girls jumped up out of curiosity and went across to her.

On the ground lay clothes without a body.

“Do you see? Do you see that?”

Tensely, Valerie watched the girls’ shocked expressions.

“He’s disappeared. All that’s left are his togs.”

“How can that be?”

“Put all the lights on. We might be mistaken.”

The lights in the room came on. Now Valerie could see the pile of bodiless clothes quite plainly.

“Where’s he gone to?”

“It defies explanation.”

“I can’t believe my eyes.”

“But I never took my eyes off him.”

“Who’s brave enough to pick this rag up?”

“There’s nothing to fear,” said the redhead.

Her friends all scattered and, as if fearing an explosion, watched in horror from afar to see what would happen when the redhead picked up the garments.

The girl stooped and, as if it were a bit of fluff, plucked up the sorry remnants of the man whose strong, bony hands she could still feel on her arms. But in the same instant she jumped back as if stung. Underneath crouched a small animal with piercing eyes.

“A polecat,” squeaked the waitress.

Valerie stood frozen to the spot. She, too, saw the piercing eyes of the frightened creature. Suddenly, the animal broke into a run and darted from corner to corner, looking for a hole through which to escape out of sight of the trembling girls. None of them felt brave enough to pursue this strange phantom.

Valerie thought her strength was leaving her. She passed along the wall of the rooms with their fantastical décor and opened a door. But what a shock she had when she felt the polecat slip out between her feet. She shrieked and fled into the night.

 

 

Chapter XXXII
HOMELESS

 

Valerie arrived back at the square where so much had befallen her already. The spot where the stake on which she was to have been burnt had stood earlier that evening was swept clean. Not a trace of her adventure remained. Valerie was exhausted. She sat on the edge of the plinth of the statue and looked at the dove with the bunch of grapes in its beak above the old palace façade. Here Orlík had been bound, and here she had read his letter of farewell. She burst into tears. She felt abandoned as never before. But her sorrow was not to last long. It gave way to vigilance.

“What’s that?” she asked herself, straining her ears.

She could hear a dull thudding and a number of voices. Valerie went in the direction of the noise and eventually reached the rectory. Three carriages and a cart stood in front. Two men were carrying traveling bags out of the house and tossing them onto the cart. When the job was done, the rector appeared in the door accompanied by seven or eight men attired in canonicals.

“By morning you will be far away and out of all danger,” he said.

“We thank you for everything, Brother,” said one priest. “It is a shame Brother Gratian committed such a folly. We would certainly have stayed several days longer.”

“The faithful are outraged. I have my work cut out to convince them it was a misunderstanding.”

“I was totally inebriated,” Gratian admitted.

“It was an unfortunate idea you had, Brother,” said the rector, taking leave of him with an embrace.

The missionaries boarded the carriages and the horses set off.

The cart also moved off. The rector cast a glance around the sky and locked the rectory with a sigh.

Valerie was exhausted and sleepy.

“This has been going on for almost a week now!”

She wanted to go home. She walked past the gardens like a sleepwalker.

The garden gate creaked. She was about to enter the yard when she suddenly thought she could see a light glimmering in the greenhouse. In the light of a guttering candle she saw a wide bench and a man asleep. The longer she looked, the more definitely she made out his features. There could be no doubt that the fellow sleeping there was Orlík.

“I have nothing to fear if he is this close-by,” she thought and fearlessly entered the yard.

“But I’m invisible,” she was reminded.

She opened the door, went down the hallway, entered her room, lay down, and fell fast asleep.

 

 

Chapter XXXIII
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

 

Valerie awoke beautiful and refreshed. Her room was awash with sunlight, woven by the curtains. Her heart was buoyed by courage. The maids were clattering the dishes and their voices sounded like a little avian opera. The postman was walking the square and ringing doorbells. Valerie was hungry. As if nothing had happened, she dressed and headed for the dining room.

In the dining room sat her grandmother.

“Grandma!”

“That’s no way to come in, child,” Grandmother said.

“Good morning, Grandma!”

“Good morning.”

“When did you get back?”

“Where would I come back from, child?”

Valerie could not trust her senses.

“Coffee’s on the table. Eat,” said the old lady.

The girl sensed that she would have to tread carefully. It would be better to talk of ordinary things.

“Have the missionaries left?” she asked.

“Missionaries? What missionaries?”

“Her memory’s going,” the girl thought. “Well, I’ll just have to be very cautious.”

“The missionaries,” she said diffidently.

“You’re all muddled.”

“I’ll ask the maids,” the girl thought and took a sip of coffee.

“What day is it, Grandma?”

“You haven’t been saying your prayers properly if you don’t know it’s Wednesday.”

“Of course I knew it was Wednesday, I was just checking.”

In her mind Valerie asked herself if it really was Wednesday. On Friday evening she had gone out back with a lamp and seen the fateful pair of men. On Saturday she had received a letter, been to the service for virgins, rescued Orlík and was rescued by him from the underground vault. Then with the aid of a magic potion she had escaped the missionary, who had sought to defile her. She had witnessed her grandmother’s metamorphosis and fallen asleep in her own bed. She had slept through Saturday and Sunday in the loft, escaped from a fire, and spent several hours with Orlík. On Monday she had stolen some chickens at the market, saved her father’s life, almost fallen victim to her own act of charity, and come to in a coffin along with Gratian, the missionary. She and Hedviga had received a talisman and she had slept alongside Hedviga. On Tuesday she had had a miraculous escape from being burned at the stake and witnessed the transformation of the old man into an animal. Today was Wednesday.

“It really is Wednesday,” she said.

“What is the matter with you, child?” Grandmother asked anxiously.

“I’m all right.”

“Why do you keep stirring your coffee. You’ve got sugar already.”

“So Hedviga’s married.”

“Hedviga who?” the old lady asked.

“Hedviga, the corn chandler’s daughter.”

“Don’t know anything about it.”

“But on Saturday morning we saw the wedding party. Don’t you remember that ludicrous masked procession that passed under our windows?”

“Ridiculous. You’re being silly.”

“But, Grandma, do try and remember.”

“Stop trying to frighten me.”

After her double metamorphosis a great change had come over Grandmother. She had lost her memory and could remember nothing. What was Valerie to talk about if she were not to scare her unnecessarily?

“Has the fowl pest passed?” she asked timidly.

“Fine books you must be reading,” said Grandmother. “I’ll have to keep a closer eye on what you read.”

“Don’t you know about the fowl pest that’s broken out in the town?”

“Please, Valerie, do stop making fun of me,” the old lady said with severity.

None of the wonders the girl had experienced seemed so bizarre as this conversation with her grandmother. She wanted to be alone.

Her eyes strayed to the square. But she was more than a little amazed to spot Orlík on the pavement.

“Look, Grandma. That young man ... Oh, do have a look.”

The old lady did.

“Well, what’s caught your eye? He’s one of the actors from the troupe who’ve been in town the past few days.”

Valerie dared say nothing to contradict her. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“Look, Grandma, he’s coming this way.”

“Stay here. I’ll speak to him myself. It isn’t fitting for a young girl to talk to strange men.”

Grandmother rose and went out. Valerie suspects the old lady has been dissembling. She feels sorry for her, and afraid she will lapse back into the grip of wonders. Only the thought of Orlík gives her courage and raises her spirits.

Shortly, Grandmother returned and said:

“Poor things. They are hungry and wretched. You can’t help but take pity on them. I took a couple of tickets from him. If you start talking more sense than you have been, I’ll let you come to the theater with me this evening.”

“Thank you, Grandma. It will make me very happy if you take me with you. What’s the play?”


Joan of Arc
. It’s a play about a courageous Christian girl who sacrificed her life and saved her nation.”

Valerie again saw the pyre to which half the town had condemned her. She blushed at the idea that she, too, was a heroine. Because she was afraid of alarming her grandmother by asking awkward questions, she spoke of ordinary things. Then it again came to her that Orlík had been in the house a moment before, and she felt certain he had brought an important message. And she began to suspect that the tickets he sold Grandmother perhaps contained a hidden communication. She said:

BOOK: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
5.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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