Format: Trade Paperback, 224 pages
Publisher: Anchor Canada
ISBN: 978-0-385-67088-3 (0-385-67088-5)
Pub Date: August 30, 2011
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Stres was still in bed when he heard the knocking at the door. He was tempted to bury his head in the pillow to blot out the noise, but the sound came again, louder this time.
“Who the Devil would pound on my door before daybreak?” he grumbled, throwing off the blanket.
He was on his way down the stairs when he heard the hammering for the third time, but now the rhythm of the metal knocker told him who it was. He slid back the bolt and opened the door. There was no need to say, “And what possesses you to wake me before dawn?” for the look on his face and his bleary eyes conveyed the message well enough.
“Something’s happened,” his deputy hastened to say. Stres stared at him sceptically, as if to say, “It better be good to justify a visit at this ungodly hour.” But he was well aware that his aide rarely blundered. Indeed, whenever he had been moved to rebuke him, he had found himself compelled to hold his tongue. Still, he would have been delighted had his deputy been in the wrong this time, so that he could work off his ill humour on him.
The deputy glanced at his chief’s eyes for an instant, then stepped back and spoke.
“The dowager Vranaj and her daughter, Doruntine, who arrived last night under very mysterious circumstances, both lie dying.”
“Doruntine?” said Stres, dumbfounded. “How can it be?”
His deputy heaved a sigh of relief: he had been right to pound on the door.
“How can it be?” Stres said again, rubbing his eyes as if to wipe away the last trace of sleep. And in fact he had slept badly. No first night home after a two-week mission had ever been so trying. One long nightmare.
“How can it be?” he asked for the third time. Doruntine had married into a family that lived so far from her own that she hadn’t been able to come back even when they were in mourning.
“How, indeed,” said the deputy. “As I said, the circumstances of her return are most mysterious.”
“Well, both mother and daughter have taken to their beds and lie dying.”
“Strange! Do you think there’s been foul play?” The deputy shook his head. “I think not. It looks more like the effect of some dreadful shock.”
“Have you seen them?”
“Yes. They’re both delirious, or close to it. The mother keeps asking, ‘Who brought you back, daughter?’ And the daughter keeps saying, ‘My brother Kostandin.’”
“Is that what she says: Kostandin? But, good God, he died three years ago, he and all his brothers ...”
“According to the local women now gathered at their bedsides, that is just what the mother told her. But the girl insists that she arrived with him last night, just after midnight.”
“How odd,” said Stres, all the while thinking how ghastly.
They stared at each other in silence until Stres, shivering, remembered that he was not dressed. “Wait for me,” he said, and went back in.
From inside came his wife’s drowsy “What is it?” and the inaudible words of his reply. Soon he came out again, wearing the regional captain’s uniform that made him look even taller and thinner.
“Let’s go see them,” he said.
They set out in silence. A handful of white rose petals fallen at someone’s door reminded Stres somehow of a brief scene from the dream that had slipped so strangely into his fitful sleep.
“Quite extraordinary,” he said.
“It beggars belief,” replied his deputy, raising the stakes.
“To tell you the truth, I was tempted not to believe it at first.”
“So I noticed. It’s unbelievable, isn’t it. Very mysterious.”
“Worse than that,” Stres said. “The more I think about it, the more inconceivable it seems.”
“The main thing is to find out how Doruntine got back,” said the deputy.
“The case will be solved if we can find out who accompanied her, or rather, if we can uncover the circumstances of her arrival.”
“Who accompanied her,” Stres repeated. “Yes, who and how . . . Obviously she is not telling the truth.”
“I asked her three times how she got here, but she offered no explanation. She was hiding something.”
“Did she know that all her brothers, including Kostandin, were dead?” Stres asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
“It’s possible she didn’t know,” Stres said. “She married so far away . . .” To his surprise his jaw suddenly felt as heavy as lead, making it difficult for him to speak. What’s wrong with me? he wondered. He could feel a heaviness in his lungs too, as if they had filled with coal dust.
He pressed forward, and the exercise helped to clear his dulled mind.
“What was I saying? Oh, yes . . . She married so far abroad that she’s not been able to return home since her wedding. As far as I know this is the first time she’s been back.”
“She can’t have known about the death of her nine brothers or she would have come then,” said the deputy.
“The dowager complained often enough about her daughter not being at her side during those grief-stricken days.”
“The forests of Bohemia where she lives lie at least two weeks’ journey from here, if not more,” Stres observed.
“Yes, if not more,” repeated his deputy. “Almost at the heart of Europe.”
As they walked, Stres noticed more white rose petals strewn along the path, as if some invisible hand had scattered them during the night. Fleetingly he recalled seeing them somewhere before. But he couldn’t really remember his dream. He also had a faint pain in his forehead. At the exact spot where his dream must have entered last night, he thought, before exiting the same way later on, towards dawn perhaps, irritating the wound it had already made.
“In any event, someone must have come with her,” he said.
“Yes, but who? Her mother can’t possibly believe that her daughter returned with a dead man, any more than we can.”
“But why would she conceal who she came back with?”
“I can’t explain it. It’s very unclear.”
Once again they walked in silence. The autumn air was cold. Some cawing crows flew low. Stres watched their flight for a moment.
“It’s going to rain,” he said. “The crows caw like that because their ears hurt when a storm is coming.”
His deputy looked off in the same direction, but said nothing.
“Earlier you mentioned something about a shock that might have brought the two women to their deathbed,” Stres said.
“Well, it was certainly caused by some very powerful emotion.” He avoided the word terrible, for his chief had commented that he tended to overuse it. “Since neither woman shows any mark of violence, their sudden collapse must surely have been caused by some kind of shock.”
“Do you think the mother suddenly discovered something terrible?” Stres asked.
His deputy stared at him. He can use words as he pleases, he thought in a flash, but if others do, he stuffs them back down their throats.
“The mother?” he said. “I suspect they both suddenly discovered something terrible, as you put it. At the same time.”
As they continued to speculate about the shock mother and daughter had presumably inflicted on one another (both Stres and his deputy, warped by professional habit, increasingly tended to turns of phrase better suited to an investigative report), they mentally reconstructed, more or less, the scene that must have unfolded in the middle of the night. Knocks had sounded at the door of the old house at an unusual hour, and when the old lady called out – as she must have done – “Who’s there?” – a voice from outside would have answered, “It’s me, Doruntine.” Before opening the door, the old woman, upset by the sudden knocking and convinced that it couldn’t be her daughter’s voice, must have asked, to ease her doubt, “Who brought you back?” Let us not forget that for three years she had been desperate for some consolation in her grief, waiting in vain for her daughter to come home. From outside, Doruntine answered, “My brother Kostandin brought me back.” And the old woman receives the first shock. Perhaps, even shaken as she was, she found the strength to reply, “What are you talking about? Kostandin and his brothers have been in their graves for three years.”
Now it is Doruntine’s turn to be stricken. If she really believes that it was her brother Kostandin who had brought her back, then the shock is twofold: finding out that Kostandin and her other brothers were dead and realising at the same time that she had been travelling with a ghost. The old woman then summons up the strength to open the door, hoping against hope that she has misunderstood the young woman’s words, or that she has been hearing voices, or that it is not Doruntine at the door after all. Perhaps Doruntine, standing there outside, also hopes she has misunderstood. But when the door swings open, both repeat what they have just said, dealing each other a fatal blow.
“No,” said Stres. “None of that makes much sense either.”
“I agree with you,” said his deputy. “But one thing is certain: something must have happened between them for the two women to be in such a state.”
“Something happened between them,” Stres repeated.
“Of course something happened, but what? A terrifying tale from the girl, a terrifying revelation for the mother. Or else . . .”
“There’s the house,” said the deputy. “Maybe we can find out something.”
The great building could be seen in the distance, standing all forlorn on the far side of an open plain. The wet ground was strewn with dead leaves all the way to the house, which had once been one of the grandest and most imposing of the principality, but now had an air of mourning and desertion. Most of the shutters on the upper floors were closed, the eaves were damaged in places, and the grounds before the entrance, with their ancient, drooping, mossy trees, seemed desolate.
Stres recalled the burial of the nine Vranaj brothers three years earlier. There had been one tragedy after another, each more painful than the last, to the point that only by going mad could one erase the memory. But no generation could recall a calamity on this scale: nine coffins for nine young men of a single household in a single week. It had happened five weeks after the grand wedding of the family’s only daughter, Doruntine. The principality had been attacked without warning by a Norman army and, unlike in previous campaigns, where each household had had to give up one of their sons, this time all eligible young men were conscripted. So all nine brothers had gone off to war. It had often happened that several brothers of a single household went to fight in far more bloody conflicts, but never had more than half of them fallen in combat. This time, however, there was something very special about the enemy army: it was afflicted with plague, and most of those who took part in the fighting died one way or another, victors and vanquished alike, some in combat, others after the battle.
Many a household had two, three, even four deaths to mourn, but only the Vranaj mourned nine. No one could recall a more impressive funeral. All the counts and barons of the principality attended, even the prince himself, and dignitaries of neighbouring principalities came as well. Stres remembered it all quite clearly, most of all the words on everyone’s lips at the time: how the mother, in those days of grief, did not have her only daughter, Doruntine, at her side. But Doruntine alone had not been told about the disaster.
Stres sighed. How quickly those three years had passed! The great double doors, worm-eaten in places, stood ajar. Walking ahead of his deputy, he crossed the courtyard and entered the house, where he could hear the faint sound of voices. Two or three elderly women, apparently neighbours, looked the newcomers up and down.
“Where are they?” Stres asked.
One of the women nodded towards a door. Stres, followed by his deputy, walked into a vast, dimly lit room where his eyes were immediately drawn to two large beds set in opposite corners. Beside each of these stood a woman, staring straight ahead. The icons on the walls and the two great brass candelabra above the fireplace, long unused, cast flickers of light through the atmosphere of gloom. One of the women turned her head towards them. Stres stopped for a moment, then motioned her to approach.
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