Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Devil and Miss Prym: A Novel of Temptation, Page 2

Paulo Coelho

  He was making things too complicated; he was talking about his own life, about the night that had changed his destiny, about the lies he had been obliged to believe because he could not accept reality. He needed, rather, to use the kind of language the young woman would understand.

  Chantal, however, had understood just about everything. Like all older men, he was obsessed with the idea of sex with a younger woman. Like all human beings, he thought money could buy whatever he wanted. Like all strangers, he was sure that young women from remote villages were naive enough to accept any proposal, real or imaginary, provided it offered a faint chance of escape.

  He was not the first and would not, alas, be the last to try and seduce her in that vulgar way. What confused her was the amount of gold he was offering: she had never imagined she could be worth that much, and the thought both pleased her and filled her with a sense of panic.

  "I'm too old to believe in promises," she said, trying to gain time.

  "Even though you've always believed in them and still do?"

  "You're wrong. I know I live in paradise and I've read the Bible and I'm not going to make the same mistake as Eve, who wasn't contented with her lot."

  This was not, of course, true, and she had already begun to worry that the stranger might lose interest and leave. The truth was that she had spun the web, setting up their meeting in the woods by strategically positioning herself at a spot he would be sure to pass on his way back--just so as to have someone to talk to, another promise to hear, a few days in which to dream of a possible new love and a one-way ticket out of the valley where she was born. Her heart had already been broken many times over, and yet she still believed she was destined to meet the man of her life. At first, she had let many chances slip by, thinking that the right person had not yet arrived, but now she had a sense that time was passing more quickly than she had thought, and she was prepared to leave Viscos with the first man willing to take her, even if she felt nothing for him. Doubtless, she would learn to love him--love, too, was just a question of time.

  "That's precisely what I want to find out: are we living in paradise or in hell?" the man said, interrupting her thoughts.

  Good, he was falling into her trap.

  "In paradise. But if you live somewhere perfect for a long time, you get bored with it in the end."

  She had thrown out the first bait. She had said, though not in so many words: "I'm free, I'm available." His next question would be: "Like you?"

  "Like you?" the stranger asked.

  She had to be careful, she mustn't seem too eager or she might scare him off.

  "I don't know. Sometimes I think that and sometimes I think my destiny is to stay here and that I wouldn't know how to live far from Viscos."

  The next step: to feign indifference.

  "Right, then, since you won't tell me anything about the gold you showed me, I'll just thank you for the walk and return to my river and my book."

  "Just a moment!"

  The stranger had taken the bait.

  "Of course I'll explain about the gold; why else would I have brought you here?"

  Sex, money, power, promises. But Chantal decided to pretend that she was expecting some amazing revelation; men take the oddest satisfaction in feeling superior, without knowing that most of the time they are being utterly predictable.

  "You're obviously a man with a great deal of experience, someone who could teach me a lot."

  That was it. Gently slacken the rope and then lavish a little light praise on your prey so as not to frighten him off. That was an important rule to follow.

  "However, you have a dreadful habit of making long speeches about promises or about how we should behave, instead of replying to a simple question. I'd be delighted to stay if only you'd answer the questions I asked you at the start: who exactly are you? And what are you doing here?"

  The stranger turned his gaze from the mountains and looked at the young woman in front of him. He had worked for many years with all kinds of people and he knew--almost for certain--what she must be thinking. She probably thought he had shown her the gold in order to impress her with his wealth, just as now she was trying to impress him with her youth and indifference.

  "Who am I? Well, let's say I'm a man who, for some time now, has been searching for a particular truth. I finally discovered the theory, but I've never put it into practice."

  "What sort of truth?"

  "About the nature of human beings. I discovered that confronted by temptation, we will always fall. Given the right circumstances, every human being on this earth would be willing to commit evil."

  "I think..."

  "It's not a question of what you or I think, or of what we want to believe, but of finding out if my theory is correct. You want to know who I am. Well, I'm an extremely rich and famous industrialist, who held sway over thousands of employees, was ruthless when necessary and kind when I had to be.

  "I'm a man who has experienced things that most people never even dream of, and who went beyond all the usual limits in his search for both pleasure and knowledge. A man who found paradise when he thought he was a prisoner to the hell of routine and family, and who found hell when he could at last enjoy paradise and total freedom. That's who I am, a man who has been both good and evil throughout his life, perhaps the person most fitted to reply to my own question about the essence of humanity--and that's why I'm here. I know what you're going to ask next."

  Chantal felt she was losing ground. She needed to regain it rapidly.

  "You think I'm going to ask: 'Why did you show me the gold?' But what I really want to know is why a rich and famous industrialist would come to Viscos in search of an answer he could find in books, universities, or simply by consulting some illustrious philosopher."

  The stranger was pleased at the girl's intelligence. Good, he had chosen the right person--as ever.

  "I came to Viscos because I had a plan. A long time ago, I went to see a play by a writer called Durrenmatt, whom I'm sure you know..."

  His comment was merely intended to provoke her: obviously a young woman like her would never have heard of Durrenmatt, and he knew that she would again try to appear indifferent, as if she knew whom he was talking about.

  "Go on," said Chantal, feigning indifference.

  "I'm glad to see you know his work, but let me just remind you about the particular play I mean." He measured his words carefully so that his remarks would not sound too sarcastic, but would also make it clear that he knew she was lying. "It's about a woman who makes her fortune and then returns to her hometown with the sole intention of humiliating and destroying the man who rejected her in her youth. Her life, her marriage and her financial success have all been motivated by the desire to take revenge on her first love.

  "So then I thought up my own game: I would go to some remote place, where everyone looked on life with joy, peace and compassion, and I would see if I could make the people there break a few of the Ten Commandments."

  Chantal looked away and stared at the mountains. She knew the stranger had realized that she had never heard of the author he was talking about and now she was afraid he would ask her about those ten commandments; she had never been very religious and had not the slightest idea what they were.

  "Everybody in this village is honest, starting with you," the stranger went on. "I showed you a gold bar, which would give you the necessary financial independence to get out of here, to travel the world, to do whatever it is young women from small, out-of-the-way villages dream of doing. The gold is going to stay there; you know it's mine, but you could steal it if you wanted. And then you would be breaking one of the commandments: 'Thou shalt not steal.'"

  The girl turned to look at the stranger.

  "As for the other ten gold bars," he went on, "they are worth enough to mean that none of the inhabitants of this village would ever need to work again. I didn't ask you to rebury the gold bars, because I'm going to move them to a place only I will know about. W
hen you go back to the village, I want you to say that you saw them and that I am willing to hand them over to the inhabitants of Viscos on condition that they do something they would never ever dream of doing."

  "Like what, for example?"

  "It's not an example, it's something very concrete. I want them to break the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill.'"


  Her question came out like a yell.

  "Exactly what I said. I want them to commit a murder."

  The stranger saw the young woman's body go rigid and realized she might leave at any moment without hearing the rest of the story. He needed to tell her his plan quickly.

  "I'm giving them a week. If, at the end of seven days, someone in the village is found dead--it could be a useless old man, or someone with an incurable illness, or a mental defective who requires constant attention, the victim doesn't matter--then the money will go to the other villagers, and I will conclude that we are all evil. If you steal the one gold bar but the village resists temptation, or vice versa, I will conclude that there are good people and evil people--which would put me in a difficult position because it would mean that there's a spiritual struggle going on that could be won by either side. Don't you believe in God and the spiritual world, in battles between devils and angels?"

  The young woman said nothing, and this time he realized that he had mistimed his question and ran the risk of her simply turning on her heel and not letting him finish. He had better cut the irony and get to the heart of the matter.

  "If I leave the village with my eleven gold bars intact, then everything I wanted to believe in will have proved to be a lie. I will die having received an answer I would rather not have received, because I would find life more acceptable if I was proved right and the world is evil.

  "I would continue to suffer, but knowing that everyone else is suffering too would make the pain more bearable. But if only a few of us are condemned to suffer terrible tragedies, then there is something very wrong with Creation."

  Chantal's eyes filled with tears, but she managed to fight them back.

  "Why are you doing this? Why did you choose my village?"

  "It's nothing to do with you or with your village. I'm simply thinking of myself; the story of one man is the story of all men. I need to know if we are good or evil. If we are good, God is just and will forgive me for all I have done, for the harm I wished on those who tried to destroy me, for the wrong decisions I took at key moments, for the proposition I am putting to you now--for He was the one who drove me towards the dark.

  "But if we're evil, then everything is permitted, I never took a wrong decision, we are all condemned from the start, and it doesn't matter what we do in this life, for redemption lies beyond either human thought or deed."

  Before Chantal could leave, he added:

  "You may decide not to cooperate, in which case, I'll tell everyone that I gave you the chance to help them, but you refused, and then I'll put my proposition to them myself. If they do decide to kill someone, you will probably be their chosen victim."

  The inhabitants of Viscos soon grew used to the stranger's routine: he woke early, ate a hearty breakfast and went off walking in the mountains, despite the rain that had not stopped falling since his second day in the village and which eventually turned into a near-continuous snowstorm. He never ate lunch and generally returned to his hotel early in the afternoon, shut himself in his room and, so everyone supposed, went to sleep.

  As soon as night fell, he resumed his walks, this time in the immediate surroundings of the village. He was always the first into the restaurant, he ordered the finest dishes and--never taken in by the prices--always ordered the best wine, which wasn't necessarily the most expensive; then he would smoke a cigarette and go over to the bar, where he had begun to make friends with the regulars.

  He enjoyed listening to stories about the region, about the previous generations who had lived in Viscos (someone told him that once it had been a far bigger village than it was today, as you could see from the ruined houses at the far end of the three surviving streets), and about the customs and superstitions that were part of rural life, and about the new techniques in agriculture and animal husbandry.

  When the time came for him to talk about himself, he told various contradictory stories, sometimes saying he had been a sailor, at others mentioning the major arms industries he had been in charge of, or talking of a time when he had abandoned everything to spend time in a monastery in search of God.

  When they left the bar, the locals argued over whether or not he was telling the truth. The mayor believed that a man could be many different things in his lifetime, although the people of Viscos always knew their fate from childhood onwards; the priest was of a different opinion and regarded the newcomer as someone lost and confused, who had come there to try and find himself.

  The only thing they all knew for certain was that he was only going to be there for seven days; the hotel landlady reported that she had heard him phoning the airport in the capital, confirming his departure--interestingly enough, for Africa not South America. Then, after the phone call, he had pulled out a bundle of notes from his pocket to settle the bill for his room as well as to pay for the meals he had taken and those still to come, even though she assured him that she trusted him. When the stranger insisted, the woman suggested he pay by credit card, as most of her guests usually did; that way, he would have cash available for any emergency that might arise during the remainder of his trip. She thought of adding that "in Africa they might not accept credit cards," but felt it would have been indelicate to reveal that she had listened in on his conversation, or to imply that certain continents were more advanced than others.

  The stranger thanked her for her concern, but refused politely.

  On the following three nights, he paid--again in cash--for a round of drinks for everyone. Viscos had never seen anything like it, and they soon forgot about the contradictory stories, and the man came to be viewed as friendly, generous and open-minded, prepared to treat country folk as if they were the equals of men and women from the big cities.

  By now, the subject of the discussions had changed. When it was closing time in the bar, some of the late drinkers took the mayor's side, saying that the newcomer was a man of the world, capable of understanding the true value of friendship, while others agreed with the priest, with his greater knowledge of the human soul, and said that the stranger was a lonely man in search either of new friends or of a new vision of life. Whatever the truth of the matter, he was an agreeable enough character, and the inhabitants of Viscos were convinced that they would miss him when he left on the following Monday.

  Apart from anything else, he was extremely discreet, a quality everyone had noticed because of one particular detail: most travelers, especially those who arrived alone, were always very quick to try and strike up a conversation with the barmaid, Chantal Prym, possibly in hopes of a fleeting romance or whatever. This man, however, only spoke to her when he ordered drinks and never once traded seductive or lecherous looks with the young woman.

  Chantal found it virtually impossible to sleep during the three nights following that meeting by the river. The storm--which came and went--shook the metal blinds, making a frightening noise. She awoke repeatedly, bathed in sweat, even though she always switched off the heating at night, due to the high price of electricity.

  On the first night, she found herself in the presence of Good. Between nightmares--which she was unable to remember--she prayed to God to help her. It did not once occur to her to tell anyone what she had heard and thus become the messenger of sin and death.

  At one point, it seemed to her that God was much too far away to hear her, and so she began praying instead to her grandmother, who had passed away some time ago, and who had brought her up after her mother died in childbirth. She clung with all her strength to the notion that Evil had already touched their lives once and had gone away forever.

  Despite all
her personal problems, Chantal knew that she lived in a village of decent men and women who honored their commitments, people who walked with their heads held high and were respected throughout the region. But it had not always been so. For over two centuries, Viscos had been inhabited by the very dregs of humanity, and everyone took this for granted, saying it was the consequence of a curse put on the village by the Celts when they were vanquished by the Romans.

  And so things remained until the silence and courage of a single man--someone who believed not in curses, but in blessings--redeemed its people. Chantal listened to the clattering metal blinds and remembered the voice of her grandmother recounting what had happened.

  "Once, many years ago, a hermit--who later came to be known as St. Savin--lived in one of the caves hereabouts. At the time, Viscos was little more than a frontier post, populated by bandits fleeing from justice, by smugglers and prostitutes, by confidence tricksters in search of accomplices, even by murderers resting between murders. The wickedest of them all, an Arab called Ahab, controlled the whole village and the surrounding area, imposing extortionate taxes on the local farmers who still insisted on maintaining a dignified way of life.

  "One day, Savin came down from his cave, arrived at Ahab's house and asked to spend the night there. Ahab laughed: 'You do know that I'm a murderer who has already slit a number of throats, and that your life is worth nothing to me?'

  "'Yes, I know that,' Savin replied, 'but I'm tired of living in a cave and I'd like to spend at least one night here with you.'

  "Ahab knew the saint's reputation, which was as great as his own, and this made him uneasy, for he did not like having to share his glory with someone so weak. Thus he determined to kill him that very night, to prove to everyone that he was the one true master of the place.

  "They chatted for a while. Ahab was impressed by what the saint had to say, but he was a suspicious man who no longer believed in the existence of Good. He showed Savin where he could sleep and then continued menacingly sharpening his knife. After watching him for a few minutes, Savin closed his eyes and went to sleep.