Authors: Vitezslav Nezval
“No, I don’t have the courage to think anything.”
“These are the bones of all the hens whose blood he’s sucked.”
“Let’s be going.”
“Just a moment. Just let me get this sinner buried.”
“What we’re doing is wrong.”
“A little way off to the right is a crypt. All we have to do is raise the stone cover and the body will be buried.”
“Are people also buried here?”
“I don’t wish to frighten you, but if you were a bit braver you would see several human victims.”
“No, no, I don’t want to see.”
“Stay here then. I’ll bury the priest myself.”
“Why have you initiated me into these secrets? I’ll never be able to sleep in peace in this house.”
Orlík lifted the corpse and dragged it through the vault. In horror Valerie watched the shadows cast by the candle flame.
“I wonder what Grandma’s going to say when she notices her guest has disappeared,” she thought.
Orlík was coming back. Looking exhausted, he said: “Now I’d like nothing more than to go to bed.”
They returned to the cellar. Then they replaced the bricks in the hole leading to the vault.
They went quietly up the stairs down which the ghastly phantom of the missionary had disappeared.
“Careful. We’ll be passing Grandma’s door. She’s a light sleeper and I don’t want to wake her.”
“Is my room all the way up in the attic?” Orlík asked.
“Yes, we go up these stairs.”
Dawn was breaking. Valerie had her first sight of Orlík’s face in the early light of day. He was so exhausted his eyelids were drooping with the weight of sleep.
“Here we are,” said Valerie, opening the door to the guest room.
But what was her surprise when a girl of exquisite beauty came forward to meet her.
“Excuse me,” said Valerie. “I didn’t know there was anyone here.”
“I arrived on the night coach,” the other woman replied.
“The night coach?”
“You seem not to recognize me.”
“I don’t know you.”
“I’m your distant cousin.”
“I see ...”
“Just call me Elsa.”
“I’m Valerie and this is my ... brother.”
“I didn’t know you had a brother.”
“Orlík,” the boy introduced himself.
“I seem to have taken your room.”
“I’m not the least bit sorry,” Orlík said.
“I can put it back at your disposal.”
“You’ll find me a different room, won’t you?” the girl asked Valerie.
“I’ll speak to Grandma.”
“Your grandmother has left. She won’t be back for several days.”
“Can I move into her quarters?”
“As you like.”
“So, the room’s yours,” the young woman said.
“Thank you,” said Orlík.
“We shall meet at breakfast,” she added pointedly.
Orlík entered the room.
“Will you see me down?” Elsa asked.
“With pleasure,” said Valerie.
The girls went down the stairs and headed for Grandmother’s part of the house. Valerie felt tense. She couldn’t help comparing herself with this sudden arrival and had to admit that she was not as beautiful as her cousin.
“It’s a gloomy room,” the lady said, turning back the heavy drapes of the grandmother’s bedroom.
“Grandma likes it.”
“I trust we’ll be good friends.”
“I would truly like nothing better.”
“Your brother is young.”
“Yes, very young.”
“Won’t you miss your grandma?”
“I’m surprised she left without saying good-bye.”
“Old people have odd ways.”
“I’ll be rather helpless without her.”
“You really don’t recognize me, Valerie?”
“Not at all.”
“My dear friend, you’re embarrassing me.”
“Of course, how could you recognize me when we’ve only just met?”
“I’ve never seen you before.”
“What a glorious morning. I’d love to go for a ride.”
“I’ll lend you my horse.”
“I’m tired. I’m going to bed.”
“May I give orders to the maids without you?”
“Sleep well then.”
“We still haven’t embraced.”
Valerie offered her cousin her lips. Elsa first touched her lips lightly. Then she pressed her own to them with such fervor that Valerie’s head spun. She tore herself from her cousin’s embrace and made her way limply to her own room. She was so exhausted she didn’t have the strength to undress. She lay down and fell into a deep sleep.
She didn’t even observe the figure who bent over her, took her by the elbows and carried her off.
Valerie came to. She was surrounded by total darkness. No matter how she tried, she could not recognize the place where she lay. She strained to hear at least some sound that would tell her something about the place. Beneath her, as if underground, she distinctly heard the sound of human laughter. Then she caught snatches of a conversation, whose general meaning she sought in vain to comprehend. She heard these words:
“How so, Friday’s surely ...”
“... I’m not wrong to consider you ...”
“That’s not possible.”
“... when girls like that ...”
“Reason plays no ...”
“... as if ...”
No matter how Valerie tried, the conversation’s meaning escaped her.
“Where am I?” she shouted and pulled herself together. Her hand felt a beam covered in cobwebs. Terrified that she might discover something even more horrifying, she lay back down and tried to recall the last things that had happened. Not knowing where she was at that moment, all she had witnessed seemed even more incredible than before. Recalling the young woman and her kiss sent a shudder through her. She had no doubt who Elsa was, and she was afraid her grandmother, transmuted into a young woman, would take revenge on her.
“Wherever I am,” she thought, “I’m not going to wait here idly for a miracle to happen.”
She rose and her bare feet felt the cold, uneven brick floor. Like a blind man groping in the dark, she cautiously advanced. After the first few steps she again touched some cobweb-covered wood. She nearly tripped over an obstacle. It was, she discovered, a heavy beam. She followed it all the way to the slanting of the roof.
“I’m in the loft,” she assured herself.
Then she placed all her efforts into finding the small window that simply had to be there.
She found it and, removing the piece of sacking covering it, managed to open it. She was amazed. Outside it was a starry night.
How long had she been asleep?
She tried to identify any object in the starlit darkness which would confirm where she was and give her some hope that she might eventually escape from this strange bedchamber. But no matter how hard she tried, she could see nothing but one corner of the sky. Yet the voices she had heard at first were becoming more and more distinct. There was the voice of a woman and the voice of a man.
“On Friday,” the man said. “I’m sure it was Friday.”
“It was Saturday. You’re wrong,” said the woman.
“I’ll soon show you, young lady. Here’s the calendar. Look, the full moon was on Friday.”
“Of course,” Valerie said to herself. “I was awakened on Friday by the noise of the hens and I remember the moon was full. But why does it matter so much to them?”
She strained to listen.
“But that’s our coachman, Andrei,” she told herself. “He was due back from town on Sunday evening.”
“You’re right,” said the woman.
“Pity we didn’t bet on it.”
“How much would you want to win?”
“My, isn’t he the greedy one!”
“If I had a million, young lady!”
“What would you do with it?”
“I certainly wouldn’t keep it stashed under the pillow.”
“So what would you do, say, this evening, if you were a millionaire?”
“I’d get all dressed up and court you.”
“Imagine me in a top hat.”
“You look better in a cap. I’d want you to pick me up wearing your cap.”
“You’re so sweet.”
“And what else?”
“You’ve got fabulous eyes.”
“But you haven’t seen them.”
“How true! You came back from your ride at dusk.”
“I envy my cousin’s beautiful horse.”
“She hardly ever takes him out.”
“Now he’s mine. I love him. I’ve already been to the stable three times to have a look at him. But the flies around here ...”
“I’ll buy some flypaper tomorrow. I didn’t know we were to be graced by a visit from a beautiful lady.”
“A stern lady. Don’t let me find you skimping my colt.”
“He’ll live like a king.”
“I’ll give you a nice reward.”
“A rose perhaps, or a fine tobacco pouch.”
“I’d like something better.”
Valerie was frozen to the spot. There could be no doubting the identity of the woman chatting with Andrei, the coachman. And there could be no doubting what was filling the pause in the conversation.
“You’re shameless,” said the woman’s voice after a moment.
“Are you cross?”
“I’m going indoors.”
“What a strange smell there is. I like it though.”
“I can’t smell it any more.”
“Do you usually sleep here?”
“Yes, see, in these horse blankets.”
“Aren’t they heavy?”
“Not at all. Try them!”
There was a girlish yelp.
“I banged my head.”
“No, my bed isn’t hard.”
“It’s so high! Help me down. I don’t want to bang my head again.”
“Don’t run away from me.”
“Take your hands off me.”
“Lie back, I won’t hurt you. Lie down.”
“This is awful.”
“I’ll start to scream.”
“Quiet, quiet, or someone might hear.”
“It doesn’t matter anyway ...”
“And you’re marvelous ...”
Valerie could hear the groaning. Her head was spinning.
Out loud she said:
“I want to live, too!”
Having failed to find any opening through which she might escape from the loft, Valerie was seized with anxiety. The metal-covered door was locked, and she did not dare to shout out. She also noticed her earrings were missing. Although she had opened all the little windows to the night sky, the half-light was still so very poor that she had to move about with caution, like a blind man. After long groping she spotted at the end of the loft a crack in which a light glittered. Yet before she reached it the light had gone out.
“I wonder what it is,” she thought, not abandoning hope of being freed.
Having reached the spot where she had been hailed by the brief signal of light, and having felt the wall, she found to her amazement that there was a doorway set into it, but boarded over with some smooth wood.
She was undoubtedly standing close to the attic room, and the smooth wood was evidently part of the back of the huge wardrobe that took up a whole third of the wall of the room where Orlík had taken up residence that morning. The wood was cracked, and the moment before someone must have opened the wardrobe. Regrettably it was now closed and Valerie could not know what was happening on the other side. And yet the awareness that she was surely close to Orlík bolstered her spirits. “I’ll wait here, come what may,” she said to herself.
Indeed, before long she heard footsteps. Someone was pacing the room. Then there was a knock at the door.
“Come in,” said a man’s voice.
The door squeaked and someone entered.
“I’ve come to ask you for a few matches. The maids have gone to bed.”
“Here you are, I am glad to be able to share them with you,” said Orlík.
“You seem out of sorts,” said Elsa.
“I have no reason to be particularly happy.”
“Is your sister not back yet?” asked the female voice.
“No, she’s not back yet.”
“Has she not gone in pursuit of her grandmother?”
“I doubt it.”
“Well, don’t be so grumpy.”
“I’m extremely tired.”
“Are those a man’s words?”
“You seem fresh.”
“I really don’t feel the least bit like sleeping.”
“It’s stuffy in here.”
“You’re scowling like a storm.”
“Tell me the truth: Where is Valerie?”
“How should I know?”
“You suspect me?”
“And what’s this?”
There was a cry.
“What does this mean?”
“You’ve stolen Valerie’s earrings.”
“She gave them to me as a present.”
“May I have a look at them?”
“On one condition.”
“I love you.”
“I don’t love you.”
“I’ll give you the earrings on one condition.”
“They mean nothing to me. They are worthless now. I wanted to convince you. The contents of their jewel have been removed and are very well hidden. See for yourself.”
“I am no guest of yours. Why should I leave ...”
“I will not.”
“You’ll regret it. I, my dear, have little to lose. You – almost everything.”
“I’m not afraid of your threats.”
“Then I wish you a good night. Wake up well refreshed.”
Valerie heard the door click shut. Before she dared risk knocking on the wardrobe, she thought she heard a key rattle in the door to the loft. She ran to the mattress on which she had slept through part of the night and a whole day. She lay down and pretended to be asleep.
Shortly, a tall figure approached her on tiptoe and bent over her. Valerie felt its breath, her own perfume and the smell of the stables.
The figure stood upright. In the dark Valerie watched its every movement. The woman struck several matches. Valerie smelled acrid smoke. Then the arsonist’s footsteps moved away and the door lock squeaked. When Valerie opened her eyes, she was blinded by a bright light. Some neatly stacked straw had caught fire and was ablaze.