Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (5 page)

BOOK: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
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“Who did this to you, my poor innocent creature?” she said and looked away from the dead bird.

Suddenly she saw the full extent of the destruction. There were so many dead hens in the henhouse that she shrieked in terror and covered her eyes.

It appeared the Polecat was not the one to blame for this work of death; after all, he hadn’t even climbed inside.

Valerie fled in fright from the strange poultry graveyard, where Orlík had claimed she was safe. Under her arm she gripped the clothes she had so imprudently, as if suffering from blindness, lent the young man, and timidly followed her grandmother’s footsteps, a woman she no longer saw as a kindly, virtuous woman, but as a grasping monster. Now she was supposed to meet her. She would not know how to look at her. Her face flushed red at the thought that she would have to call the old woman “Grandma.” She felt the victim of a conspiracy.

The stars were shining brightly. How wonderful it would be to sit in a carriage and have it take her far away, to someplace without these strange beings who terrified her!

As she reached the steps, she thought she heard a noise like a piece snapping off the metallic firmament. She held her breath and listened intently. The noise came again. Only then did she realize that it was the sound of bells set swinging by some inept person’s unsteady hand.

“They’re looking for me in the tower,” she thought, and though her shame would not permit her to view her home as affording solace, she crossed the threshold and went into the house, which the old lady had resolved to transfer to the superhuman old brute, whose gaze Valerie was unable to shake.

“Oh, Miss Valerie,” said the maid, “your grandmother’s expecting you, she’s in the dining room. Though I think you ought to get changed first,” she added with a hint of mockery, glancing sideways at the cobwebs clinging to the girl’s sleeves.

 

 

Chapter X
DINNER

 

Grandmother threw Valerie a hateful look. At the table sat the missionary, fingering his rosary.

“This is my granddaughter,” she said dryly.

“Sit down, my dear,” said the cleric.

“Where have you been?” Grandmother asked.

“I lost my way coming back from church.”

“She never goes out on her own,” the old lady observed by way of explanation.

“You are so like your mother.”

“I’ve never noticed. But her mother was dark-haired.”

The serving maids brought in several bowls of food.

“What’s going on in the tower today?” said the missionary, helping himself from one of the bowls. “That’s the third time the bells have started ringing and then stopped.”

“I expect it’s the drunken wedding guests unsettling the town.”

“Let us pray,” said the man, his nostrils having been tickled by the smell of soup.

They all rose and started to move their lips.

Then they began to eat.

Neither Grandmother nor Valerie had any appetite.

The cleric ate quickly and never stopped chattering.

He told them about the missions he had been on among the cannibals.

“It was in a region,” he said, “where no white man had ever set foot. Our expedition was accompanied by a native; he had previously been taken into captivity by a neighboring tribe, who already knew the name of Christ. From him we learned the most essential expressions in the cannibals’ dialect and, armed with revolvers, we entered their village. I will never forget our arrival there. The cannibals were in the middle of a ceremony during which they were going to sacrifice a black girl they had managed to capture in a battle with a civilized tribe. She was tied to a tree and, since she was a Christian, she was praying aloud. God complied with her soul’s desire. When she spotted us, she pleaded with us to save her.

“ ‘We bring you peace,’ I cried, but suddenly some cannibals charged towards us. We had to use our weapons.

“As the first shot rang out and one of the cannibals fell to the ground bleeding, the tribe was seized with an indescribable panic. Then the native who was accompanying us, and thus far he had remained hidden, stepped forward and addressed his brothers, telling them we were agents of God. We stood a little way off from him, waiting for the right moment to raise the cross. We had several gold crosses with us. As soon as they blazed and glittered above our heads, the cannibals threw themselves face down on the ground. The girl was saved. But the cannibals were not converted at once. The made several attempts at attacking our tent, but only after many of them fell did they give up trying to attack us.”

“What became of the girl?” asked Valerie, captivated by the story.

“We took her into our tent, gave her more instruction in the true faith and prepared her mind for entry into a convent.”

“Did she actually become a nun?”

“Regrettably no. One day, after we arrived in the port of Marseilles, we lost her, never to see her again.”

“Do help yourself, Father. Mutton goes cold quickly,” Grandmother said. “And where is that other wine? Wretched servants, they don’t know how to do things properly.”

Grandmother rose and went to berate the serving maids. The missionary wiped his lips with a napkin and whispered to Valerie:

“I’ll tell you later what happened at Marseilles to the black girl we saved. Incidentally, it strikes me that you are interested in the cloistered life, so it will be good if I give you some instruction to this effect one day.”

Valerie said nothing. Her eyes were fixed meekly on the ground. She still had not eaten a single bite. She was trying to locate the hole through which she had been looking up into this room a few hours before. Then she realized that she had not been looking from the cellar into the dining room, but into the room adapted as the missionary’s cell. This somewhat restored her calm, as she feared she was being observed by the eyes of him who was likely to deprive her of this house.

“Do you know your mother’s story?” the missionary asked.

“Grandma has told me some things about her.”

“Your father was a remarkable man,” said the missionary, returning to his meal.

“Your real father,” he added, tapping his finger meaningfully on the table.

“In his diocese,” he went on, “there was never any harassing of the priests. The bishop was a man of the most delicate taste and considerable erudition. He was handsome and never put on weight. Truth to tell, you bear a great resemblance to him. My impression is that his greatest love was for the arts, and his library contained the rarest works of poetry. His delicacy was such that he would faint if, in his presence, the priests sprinkled too much incense onto the burner. He was adored by all the most beautiful women, even way back as a theology student in Rome. He was a most unusual man. But I’ll tell you more another time.”

“Father, I’d like to know how many children he had,” said Valerie as if in a dream.

“At the same time you were born, a certain very beautiful woman gave birth to a baby boy, sired by the bishop. That is what led your mother to leave the convent.”

“Do you happen to know the boy’s name?”

“How could I not know? At the time we drank a toast to the bishop’s son at a rectory somewhere. He was christened Orlík.”

“Orlík?” said the girl, and the blood rushed to her face. But at that moment Grandmother came back in, carrying a pitcher of red wine.

“I’ve developed a headache, Grandma,” said Valerie. “May I leave the table to go lie down?”

“No! Dinner is not over yet.”

Her grandmother frowned with the same severity as when the girl had come into the dining room from the twilight of her adventures.

“Oh, forgive me. I didn’t know ...”

“Drink a toast with us,” said the missionary. He poured the girl a glass of the red wine himself.

“I’ve never tasted wine.”

“It’s tart, but sweetens on the tongue like contrition,” said the tall man.

“Make today an exception,” said Grandmother, her gaze straying up to the clock.

“So then, to the late bishop!”

Valerie touched the glass with her lips. She could not fail to see the throat of the man who had revealed to her a secret she had not suspected, and she could not fail to see that throat, monstrous with a bulging Adam’s apple, joggle as the drink was swallowed. And suddenly, as if acting under someone’s suggestion, she drained her entire glass.

“Now dinner is over,” said Grandmother. “You may leave.”

Valerie made a curtsy to the missionary. Then, fearful lest she never see her grandmother ever again, she tried to catch her eye. But Grandmother was staring sternly at the ground.

Valerie curtsied once more and left the dining room.

 

 

Chapter XI
ALARM

 

Valerie stood at the high Gothic window of her bedroom and, gripping the long curtains, looked towards the church tower. The wine she had taken pounded at her temples and sharpened her senses. The clock was floating up there on the tower, glowing in the moonlight and showing nine.

“Poor Orlík, I wonder what’s happening to him,” the girl whispered. Then from her pocket she produced the phial he had given her. Thanks to him she was alone in her room. Raising the liquid against the moonlight, she thought it looked like that very evening, thin and volatile.

“Perhaps I should have obeyed him,” occurred to her.

“But no, no, there’s no reason why I should drink it. After all, I’m safe here.”

The window was ajar and quite high above the ground, so Valerie did feel safe. The room was stifling and the girl saw no danger in opening the window wide and breathing in the garden.

A soothing noise in the distance colored her voiceless dream. Every now and then the errant tones of the wedding guests’ singing reached her ear.

“I don’t expect I’ll get any sleep tonight,” she thought. Before long, she saw the housemaids leaving. They were bare-headed and chattering away.

She caught the following snatch of conversation:

“I happened to enter his cell just as he was washing his feet. I’ve never seen anyone so hairy. I wouldn’t want to be
his
housekeeper.”

“You silly, just the opposite, I bet he’s quite the devil,” the other one replied.

“I wouldn’t care to find out.”

“I expect he could floor our boyfriends.”

At that point the talk disappeared under the arcade.

Talk of the missionary’s hairiness reminded Valerie vividly of the Polecat. She tried to give his animal face something human, but her imagination refused to oblige, and all she could see before her were the fiend’s eyes.

“What was he trying to tell me? Why did he take me down there? How did Orlík discover where I had been taken to, and what’s happening to him now?”

But the bells slept and there seemed to be no reason to gaze out in consternation towards the square, where the boy had been tied up like the damned.

The quarter-hour struck. As cleanly as at any other time, it left its bell and spun over the little town.

Almost at once, Valerie heard several voices approaching, growing ever more menacing. Then she made out a number of people gesticulating wildly and coming ever closer to her window.

“Believe me.”

“You drank too much at the wedding and you’re seeing things.”

“And not just at one house.”

“You’ll soon see.”

The knot of speakers was joined by a man who came running up coatless and shouting for all the town to hear:

“Fowl pest! Fowl pest!”

“See, another witness!” said one of those who had been arguing.

“Fowl pest,” shouted the running man, and he hurried past as if in a relay race.

Valerie again imagined the poultry graveyard and her hands trembled.

“Fowl pest,” echoed from the part of the town that lay beyond the arcade.

A number of windows opened, and people came running out of their houses, seized with panic. The one phrase that terrified Valerie was these endlessly reverberating words about the fowl pest.

Fortunately, the frightened citizenry did not stop at talk. They rushed about the town, spreading the alarm about the plague. In a moment all was quiet beneath the windows. When the clock struck the half-hour, the front door rattled and Valerie saw an old woman in a headscarf leaving their house.

“Grandma,” she said to herself.

The girl was so agitated that she feared she would faint.

She closed the window. She stood there a while longer, her forehead pressed to the cold pane. Her hand gripped the phial given by the boy who was likely her brother. She felt the blood pounding her temples.

“I’m tired,” she thought and started to undress. As she was setting aside the last garment, there was a knock at the door. Valerie clasped her shift to her breasts and shuddered.

 

 

Chapter XII
HELP AT HAND

 

In the doorway stood the monk with a candle in his hand.

“I’ve come to see you, my child, so that I might speak to you without witnesses.”

“At this hour, Father?” said the frightened maiden.

“There is no better time for meditation.”

“I was just getting ready to go to bed.”

“I want to tell you about your marvelous father.”

“What I have already learned of him I think has caused me enough concern.”

“Sit down, my child, and continue as if I were not here.”

“You know, Father, shame will not allow me to bear your visit without tears.”

“I have seen virtually the entire world. I have seen many things on this earth.”

“While I approach it with the deepest misgiving.”

“What lovely breasts you have!”

“Leave, Father.”

“I suspect we have the house entirely to ourselves.”

“So much the worse for my anxiety.”

“Do you really not know what a man is?”

“I don’t have the housemaids’ experience.”

“You are a wicked child!”

“I am obliged by respect for you not to be one.”

“Feel free to be!”

The missionary looked around for a place to stand the candle.

“Leave, Father.”

“You are beautiful.”

BOOK: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
10.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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