Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (9 page)

BOOK: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
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Valerie tried to extinguish it. She beat at it with a large rattrap. But the fire spread quickly. With all the strength she could muster she grabbed the blanket that covered the mattress and jumped into the flames. Despite all her best efforts she succeeded in putting out only part of the fire. Since she felt that she could not overcome it by herself, she ran towards the attic and hammered on the wardrobe.

“What’s going on?” asked Orlík.

“Open the wardrobe and smash out its back wall.”

A light from the attic came through the crack into the blazing loft. Valerie could see part of the room and Orlík, standing by the door of the wardrobe.

“Push the wardrobe aside or I’ll be burned to death,” she shouted and fell into a faint.

 

 

Chapter XXII
BROTHER AND SISTER

 

She came to on a bed. Orlík was leaning over her and stroking her shoulder.

“Where are we?” she asked.

“The fire’s out. You’re in my room.”

“She’s gone mad. I can’t explain her behavior in any other way.”

“Just as long as you’re safe.”

“I know she loves you. I heard everything.”

“Do you really think she’s your cousin?”

“I know very well she isn’t. I witnessed her transformation.”

Valerie told Orlík how, swathed in smoke, she had observed the terrible scene when her friend had aged by several years.

“What was in the phial?” she asked.

“Do you remember your earrings being removed on Friday, during the night?”

“Of course. If I’m not mistaken, you yourself put them back in for me.”

“But to be on the safe side I removed the mysterious contents from the jewel. See, in each earring there was a little pellet like this.”

He showed Valerie a tiny, shiny object.

“You’ve only got one.”

“I poured the contents of the other into the phial of water.”

“So the earring saved me from the missionary?”

“Yes. We’ve only one pellet left. I only hope you won’t have to use it. Here it is. I am giving it back to you and beg you not to lose it.”

“Did Grandma know the secret of the earrings?”

“Of that there can be no doubt. As long as she was an old woman, she lacked the courage to steal them from you. Incidentally, it seems to me she now has grounds for being invisible. Otherwise she wouldn’t have stolen your jewelry.”

“Poor Grandma!”

“But you must be on your guard against her. She has changed into a monster and is capable of committing the same atrocities as the Polecat.”

“What has become of the wretch?”

“Don’t pity him.”

“What’s happened to him?”

“He’s dying slowly.”

“Where?”

“Down in that lair into which he lured you.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I saw him a few hours ago. When I didn’t find you in your room at morning, I began to suspect he’d kidnapped you ...”

“Ach, why would he kidnap me?”

“I haven’t the courage to tell you the whole truth. But with your assistance he would definitely become rejuvenated. So I entered his den in the near certainty I would catch him in his evil act and forestall him. I was surprised not to find you. By then the constable must have been too weak to drag himself into the house and seize you. Without revealing myself to him, I saw him writhing and moaning as if he were on the rack.”

“Was your heart not stirred?”

“You are a child.”

“I feel sorry for him.”

“There was a time when I was as sensitive as you. Today, however, I am better steeled against emotion.”

“So I have observed. You were very hard with my cousin.”

“I cannot love two women.”

“I expect your sweetheart is missing you,” said Valerie, blushing.

“I have no sweetheart,” said Orlík and hung his head.

“From what you say it follows that you’re in love.”

“I have made no secret of it.”

Being so disconcerted Valerie could not say another word.

“Don’t you know that I love you?”

“You mustn’t love me.”

“I had guessed your thoughts were with another.”

“That’s not why.”

“Why then?”

“Are we not brother and sister?”

“Where did you get that idea?”

“It was what the missionary told me. My father and yours was the Bishop of –.”

“There’s not a jot of truth in that.”

“I did think you were my brother. I still believe we are children of one and the same father.”

“I cannot have had two real fathers.”

“You wrote me about your father. If you wish, I can remind you; I know your letter by heart.”

“He may well have been the husband of my mother, but he was not my father. My father is the constable.”

“Then I don’t understand why you care so little about saving him.”

“I would rather lose him than lose you.”

“You are cruel. I didn’t think it of you.”

“Don’t be a victim of your own goodness!”

“I am not heartless, it’s true. But for now, farewell. Good night.”

“Don’t go. Something awful is bound to happen to you.”

“I will be careful.”

“Don’t go!”

“I can’t stay here until morning.”

“As long as you are alone, you’re in danger.”

“Good night.”

“Trust me, I’ll stay wide awake all night.”

“Good-bye, my friend.”

Valerie closed the door. She quickly descended the stairs. She slipped past her room and went out into the yard.

“I’ll go through the gardens. That way no one will meet me,” she said to herself, striking out boldly to face her next adventure.

 

 

Chapter XXIII
A COMPASSIONATE VIRGIN

 

Market stallholders were gathering on the square. Day had not yet dawned. Countrywomen were dozing under the hoods of their carts or rubbing their hands beside their stalls. Several were scurrying across to the gin joint just opening its doors. Horses dozed.

Valerie, concealed behind a lamppost, watched the preparations for Monday’s market. Over the meat stalls she saw plucked geese and chickens hanging head down. The stench that spread on all sides made her press her perfumed handkerchief to her nose. Finally she spotted a coop containing a number of live chickens. It was not a big one and could be picked up easily by its grille. The woman to whom it belonged had just gone to fortify herself in the gin joint. Without thinking twice, Valerie picked up the coop and looked around the square. The hens started squawking. The fear of being caught froze the blood in Valerie’s veins. She started running. When, at the corner, she had the courage to look back, she saw she was being pursued by screaming market women. Fortunately, however, she was now right by the poorhouse. She stole inside and wandered through the empty rooms.

She was afraid she might not recognize the floorboards that had to be lifted. Great was her surprise when she found them already raised. She slipped beneath the ground and placed the coop with the still squawking chickens on the damp floor. Then, as far as her strength permitted, she started wrestling with the planks. She blocked up the gap above her in case the costerwomen caught up with her. The planks fell into place and Valerie set off along the dark underground passage. She was exhausted and sat down on the edge of the chicken coop.

“Four days now! If only these awful spells that have been victimizing me would stop.” She took another few steps forward, but, being so worn out, she had to sit down again.

“It’s as if I were in another’s power,” she said with a sigh. “I’m acting like a sleepwalker.”

She picked up the coop and continued on her woeful way. Suddenly, she spotted a light glimmering in the distance. She had reached the point where the passage widened and the carpet began.

What she saw struck her with horror.

An old man was writhing on the floor next to the armchair. His face was skin and bone. He now bore no resemblance to a polecat. His face was human, though furrowed with great torment.

In the armchair sat the beautiful girl.

Valerie had never gazed at her face for so long as now. Scrutinizing her, she saw that the girl resembled her. But she was more beautiful than she. Her eyes blazed so wildly that Valerie shuddered.

“At last you can see what it’s like to be old,” she said to the old man, who was starting to convulse.

“A drink,” said the old man.

“Don’t change the subject, Richard!”

“I can’t think.”

“You see, the house will be of no use to you.”

“I’ll let you have the contract back, Elsa.”

“You make me laugh. Can’t you see you’re dying? And anyway, the house is about to collapse like a paper toy.”

“How so?”

“I started a fire in the loft.”

“Are you out of your mind? Haven’t you a thought for your granddaughter?”

“She’s just a pile of ashes.”

“How so?”

“Burned to death.”

“So I’m doomed. And you’re also doomed. Three days hence you’ll be squirming like I am now. Who would have thought you would be the cause of my death!”

“I, Richard?”

“Of course, you.”

“How so?”

“Your granddaughter might have saved me.”

“Why her exactly?”

“She alone.”

“Why, Richard?”

“We share the same blood.”

“How so, Richard! Surely her father was the Bishop of –.”

“I was that bishop at one stage in my life.”

“The bishop died; I was at his funeral.”

“When I tired of the role, I had the word spread that the bishop had died. Instead of me they buried a priest, whose death mask I wore.”

“You killed him! I’m sure you killed him!”

“He imbibed some poison with his wine.”

“So then, you tortured my daughter to death!”

“I loved her.”

“You must have fathered other children.”

“For a period I thought I had a son. Unfortunately, he is not my son. The woman who bore him confessed to me on her deathbed that she had deceived me with her own husband. I have fathered but one child!”

The old man was assailed by another bout of pain. He writhed in agony and cries of pain struggled up from his throat:

“I’m dying of thirst.”

“I don’t know what I could offer you.”

“There’s some wine at the far end of the cellar. Go and dig a bottle out of the ground.”

“On one condition.”

“I don’t know if I will be able to meet it.”

“Reveal to me the means to prolong youth!”

“That’s impossible. But I will give you an agent that will keep you from dying when you turn into an old woman.”

“I don’t want to live as an old woman.”

“I’m thirsty. If you don’t bring me some wine, I’ll die of convulsions.”

“If you cannot return to me my youth, your life means nothing to me. I won’t waste time on you.”

The Polecat offered no response to her words. He was again convulsed into a ball, but much more terribly than before.

Elsa looked up at the ceiling and noticed the hole.

“What’s that I see? The maid is tidying the room and she’s not acting at all as if the house were on fire. What’s the quickest way to get up there?”

The Polecat explained to the girl the device that would enable her to pass from the vault into the cellar.

“If my daughter’s alive, I’ll save your life.”

“And my youth?” she enquired.

“And your youth,” he replied, and a glimmer returned to his haggard eyes.

“Come back, come back soon,” he pleaded.

“I’ll bring you the strongest wine to be found in the cellar,” said Elsa and turned the wall of the vault, which echoed with the quiet lamentation of the dying man.

 

 

Chapter XXIV
SACRIFICE

 

Valerie had made up her mind. Only now, having learned that the Polecat was her father, could she account for the emotion that this man with the terrible face stirred in her.

“Come what may!” She picked up the coop and the chickens started squawking.

As soon as the old man heard the chickens’ voices, he sat erect and his eyes gleamed.

“It’s me and I bring you liberation.”

“My child,” said the Polecat, tears rushing into his eyes.

“I heard everything. I know you’re my father. I want to sacrifice myself for you.”

“My child,” said the old man tearfully.

Valerie looked into his face. He no longer had the expression of a cruel beast that strangles chickens and sucks their blood.

“As soon as Orlík told me you were sick and weak, I went to the market and stole these poor creatures for you.”

The Polecat reached for a hen, brought its neck up towards his mouth, but his nostrils quivered with revulsion.

“No, I can’t,” he said. “The smell of chickens suddenly repels me. Hand me the mirror, my child.”

Valerie looked around the subterranean room and spotted the shiny object, reached out for it and handed it to the old man.

“I am a man again,” he exclaimed dejectedly. “I must die.” Tears fell from his eyes and ran down onto the hand of the girl as she caressed him.

“The curse upon me has passed. My powers are gone. I am a poor old man who will die.”

“You will not die,” said Valerie.

“I have no strength for crime. My jaws have grown weak. I am condemned to die.”

At those words, Valerie, acting like a madwoman, took the neck of a chicken, bit through its gullet with her little childish teeth and pressed her bloodstained mouth to the mouth of her dying father, who received it gratefully and started sucking at it with a feverish motion.

“More,” he said.

Pale as a whitewashed wall, Valerie sucked again at the gushing wound on the chicken’s neck.

Then she repeated her act of mercy over and over to terrifying effect. One by one the wrinkles vanished from the dying man’s face to be replaced once more by the aspect of a beast.

The revulsion Valerie had felt at first contact with the old man’s mouth receded before a peculiar sensual delight such as she had never known before. She grew ever more listless and looked, as if mesmerized, into his eyes, to which the fire was returning as the mist departed.

BOOK: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
11.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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