Authors: Vitezslav Nezval
Valerie fell to her knees and looked imploringly heavenward.
“Oh, those knees,” the cleric growled.
“I beg you once more.”
“It is for me to do the begging.”
“What do you want from me?” she asked and stepped back towards the high Gothic window.
“I want to see you in all your virginal glory.”
“God will never forgive the crime you are committing against me.”
“Let that last garment fall,” said the priest, his hand that held the candle shaking. At that point Valerie, fighting for her last solace, took the crucifix down from the wall and, holding it out towards the missionary, whose chin was aquiver, said in a heartrending voice:
“In the name of Christ, leave!”
The missionary laughed aloud and attempted to seize Valerie by the hand that was gripping the cross. But she stepped back and her eyes lighted on the window.
“You will have my death on your conscience, Father,” she said.
“What I desire from you is sweet.”
“You are ever more ravishing.”
“Go away, you devil!”
“You look as if you’d like to slap my face.”
“You disgust me.”
“You are proud.”
“I will defend myself against you, coward.”
Valerie dropped the crucifix and took a few quick steps towards the door. The priest would have stopped her, but in self-defense she pushed him away so hard that the candle fell from his hand. Now he had both hands free and tried to grab her in an embrace. He failed. As the girl fought, the shift fell from her breasts and she stood there naked.
“What a miracle, a miracle!” the priest exclaimed, and now he flung himself on his knees.
“Get away from me!”
“Do not drive me away. Never have I seen such beauty ...”
Valerie had a crazy idea. She lunged towards the window-ledge where the phial Orlík had given her stood. Come what may, she thought, if only I may be rid of this fiend from hell.
She opened the phial and drank its contents so quickly the missionary could not prevent her. Then she cast the phial aside and waited for something to happen.
“What have you done?” asked the priest, and a look of horror broke out on his face.
“You have me on your conscience,” Valerie replied, grabbing the curtains as she felt the ground shake beneath her.
“I wished you no harm,” the missionary stuttered.
“I will surely be avenged,” said the girl. She thought she could see the great fiery eyes of the Polecat approaching.
“God have mercy on me,” cried the missionary, for Valerie had staggered and fallen to the ground.
The missionary picked up the candlestick with the burning candle and knelt down over the beautiful naked body, which showed no signs of life. He opened the window since he was the one now gasping for breath. Shouting drifted in from outside, though at first he did not understand it. Then he recognized terrified voices shouting:
“Fowl pest! Fowl pest!”
He fell to his knees and touched the girl’s arm. It was cold and stiff.
“What have I done, what have I done?” he lamented in a quavering voice.
Once more he touched the lifeless girl and, having assured himself that she was cold and stiff, clasped his hands together and said:
“I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
“Amen,” sounded quite loud somewhere in the room.
The missionary yelped: “Help!” and dashed out of the room so fast that the candle in his hand went out.
After having drunk its contents, Valerie had tossed the phial into a corner of the room. It now released a dense smoke that crawled across the carpet, past the bizarre legs of the bed and touched the body of the girl where she lay motionless next to the Gothic window. It crawled over her, and the denser it became the less distinct became the figure of the prostrate girl.
The missionary sat in his cell and hung his head. His hands clawed at the table as if to crumple it like paper. That “Amen” still rang in his ears and he was afraid to raise his head lest he see the man who had uttered it.
As he sat there with his horror, with neither thought nor prayer, it seemed he heard the click of the door handle close-by. He looked in terror towards the door and for a moment his heart stopped beating. The door opened slowly and into the room crept a shadow. Yet it was not a shadow, more a haze, even more precise, a broad, tall column of smoke.
“Mercy,” cried the missionary and sank to his knees.
The smoke floated lazily about the room and, having completed a circuit of it, left by the way it came.
This horrified the missionary more than if some avenger had come and forced him to look down the barrel of a rifle.
At the very brink of despair, he said “mercy” once more and began to recite from his breviary.
“A fine place you’ve chosen, Richard,” said the grandmother as they entered the stable of the landowner who was celebrating his wedding.
“Don’t pester me with your moods, Elsa,” the Polecat replied. “We certainly cannot spread out our papers in the banquet hall.”
“We could have settled the matter in my house.”
“You might not feel so bad about the house if we do it here.”
“Well, let’s get to work then!”
“It seems you can hardly wait to see yourself in the mirror.”
“What a mess this farm is! They’ve got smoke coming all the way into the stables,” said the old lady, staring at the column of thick smoke swirling in the doorway.
“You are an oversensitive woman, Elsa. Just concentrate for now on the points of the contract instead of the state of the landowner’s chimneys,” said the Polecat, not deeming the cause of the woman’s complaints worth investigating for himself.
“By this deed I transfer house No. 27, of which I am the legal owner, along with its adjacent buildings, to its previous owner, and I agree that it should be re-entered under his name in the land registry,” the constable dictated.
“You have forgotten to put in: ‘at my death,’ ” said the grandmother.
“No, Elsa, that is not the way to phrase it. The authorities might consider me your murderer.”
“But that means I lose the house as of this moment, without even being sure that you will honor your promise.”
“The contract is not finished yet. Be patient. I believe you’ll be entirely satisfied with its wording.
“So continue writing.
“For as long as I am alive,” the Polecat continued, “I am entitled to enjoy the use of the property and take from it any profit with the sole proviso that its former owner shall be able to have free access to it.”
“You are forgetting that I have a granddaughter.”
“As you will, I am prepared to make some allowance for her,” said the man.
“My selfishness is causing me more and more pangs of conscience.”
“We will never get the contract written like this. Would you mind keeping quiet?”
“Finish it, Richard. I feel very ill at ease here.”
“In the event of the death of the person into whose ownership I am transferring my house, it shall pass to my sole granddaughter, Valerie,” the constable dictated, accenting each word in turn.
“So, are you satisfied, Elsa?”
“I think I might sign your paper.”
“Read it through.”
“I’m not so distrustful of my old friends,” said the old lady and put her signature under the contract.
“But now,” she said, “it’s your turn to act.”
“The moment when I’ll be able to return to you your former beauty does not depend entirely on me.”
“How so, sir?”
“Everything depends on when the bride and groom take to their nuptial bed.”
“Ah, more delays! The anxiety will age me completely,” she said, handing him the signed paper.
“It is customary for newlyweds to take to their bed at the stroke of twelve. And it is not long now to midnight.”
“So am I still condemned to be stuck here in this stable?”
“No. We have to be in the nuptial bedroom before the newlyweds.”
“I can scarcely imagine sneaking into a bedroom in someone else’s house.”
“It’s necessary, my dear.”
“So let’s move quickly!”
“I’m dying of hunger,” said the Polecat.
“You aren’t going to leave me, are you?” the old lady asked.
Before the Polecat and the old lady left the stable, the smoke, which had been standing in the door, could be seen withdrawing towards a shed, and if the grandmother had not been in such a hurry, she would have heard Valerie’s voice saying:
“Oh God, I wonder what’s happened to Orlík.”
The wedding guests were drunk. Several were still seated at the table where the food had been served, but most of them were watching the dancing. The groom was observing, with half-closed eyes, the actions of those he employed on his estates. The bride was sad, but took care not to let it show. Her father, the corn chandler, was standing next to the band and, in high spirits thanks to the beer, was chatting to the musicians and beating time with his foot.
“Your father,” the groom said to the bride, “isn’t acting like one of the family.”
“Let him enjoy chatting to the musicians,” his bride replied.
“I’d much rather be in bed now,” said the landowner.
“I’m also tired. But we must observe custom and sit here until midnight.”
“Do you love me?” asked the miser.
“I told you so today in front of a host of witnesses,” Hedviga replied and smiled.
“My wedding will be remembered for a long time.”
“Indeed. It’s very lively.”
“Though I don’t know why the windows aren’t open. The smoke is choking.”
“It’s burning my eyes.”
“As groom, I can’t give too many orders today.”
They had just finished dancing a galop. One dancer, who was sweating more than the others, opened the door and wiped his brow with his handkerchief.
Suddenly, the mysterious column of smoke that had so frightened the missionary slipped through the door and into the room.
“Look at that,” remarked the bass player, “either my sight’s gone, or a ghost has graced the wedding with its presence.”
“In all honesty,” said the corn chandler, “I’ve never seen a cloud come floating into a room.”
Several of the guests noticed the peculiar cloud, which was moving about like a living being. No one dared give voice to what he was seeing lest he were thought drunk or scared.
“What is it?” the bride asked, standing up.
The groom took her hand and said:
“Quiet. I’ll take a closer look.”
Then suddenly someone was heard to shout:
“Fowl pest! We’ve been hit by fowl pest!”
Panic broke out. One of the guests, drunk and renowned for invariably being the first to pick a fight, grabbed a chair and hurled it at the phantom.
The phantom dodged it.
“Kill the fowl pest!” some shouted.
Others crossed themselves and whispered that it was the Devil, and in their minds the landowner had signed a compact with him.
The phantom resisted the attacks of the drunken revelers, steering so skillfully around the room there was no doubt who was lurking behind it.
“Calm down!” called the groom.
“It must be the fowl pest!” one old woman shrieked.
“Strike up a fanfare,” the host ordered the band, afraid his panicky guests might ransack his home.
“Let the fowl pest dance a polka!” someone called out.
“Come on, musicians, didn’t you hear me?” the host repeated.
The only one who made to play was the drummer. His drumstick thundered down on the drum, and his drumming seemed to become progressively more frightful as, rather than being a signal to the trumpets and violins to join in, it was all that could be heard, thereby heightening the confusion.
“I’m going to get my rifle,” shouted the landowner’s neighbor.
“We’ll teach that spook a lesson in manners.”
“Stay here!” cried the bride.
But the neighbor ran out as fast as his legs could carry him.
There was a crash: someone had thrown a glass at the floating cloud and missed. The glass had smashed against a wall. Three guests stood by the door, guarding it to stop the cloud from slipping back out. Several of the women started crying.
“Play! I want you to play!” said the host once more, his mood turning sour by the beating of the drum.
Finally the band struck up a march. But no one formed a ring to dance. Only the landowner, who was genuinely afraid of a brawl breaking out in his house, kept his presence of mind. He asked the bride for a dance. No one joined in, so they danced alone.
“See?” the old woman whispered. “Didn’t I say he was in league with the Devil?”
The neighbor ran in with his rifle.
The landowner stopped dancing, rushed over to him, grabbed him by the arm and, in a rage, said:
“Do you want to cause an accident?”
“He’s protecting the Devil,” shrieked the old woman. “He’s in league with the Devil, that’s how he gets all his money!” she shouted for all to hear.
“Out!” bellowed the landowner.
Several of the revelers joined forces with the old woman and made offensive remarks at the groom’s expense.
“Out!” he shouted once more.
Suddenly the cloud started moving towards the door. The men watching the door were concentrating on their host’s confrontation with the neighbor who had brought in the rifle. Thus the cloud, the cause of the mayhem, was able to slip through the door and disappear.
“He’s let the Devil escape. He’s let the fowl pest escape!” several of the guests cried in indignation.
“All out!” the landowner bellowed once more, wrenching the rifle from his neighbor’s hands.
“Now he’s going to shoot us, the devil,” the tipsy old woman rattled on. With each successive word she piled on the insults.