by Derek Paterson
Appearing in Absolute Visions speculative fiction anthology
Edited by MacAllister Stone
Anthology copyright © 2011 by MacAllister Stone
“The Manservant” illustration copyright © 2011 by Peter Porterfield
Renfield tried not to titter as he hid in the bushes and waited, listening for the mail man's approaching footsteps. He had to admire how the fellow's sense of duty overcame his fear and reluctance. The Transylvania Postal Service certainly knew how to pick its men. Renfield had scared the crap out of dozens this year alone, but still they came, driven by that time-honored maxim: The mail must always be delivered. Even to the brooding castle up on the cliff top above the sleepy little village whose nervous inhabitants never looked up, for fear of seeing something coming down on flapping leathery wings.
Not that that had happened for a while. The Master slept the long sleep and had not arisen for many years. His faithful servant Renfield patiently awaited that joyous day. In the meantime he sought amusement in various ways, not all of them entirely intellectual.
The mail man's black leather shoes moved into view, polished to a mirror finish. They reached the post box at the foot of the main entrance steps, and paused. The mail man reached into his bag and took out a wax-sealed envelope. He was about to push this into the slot when Renfield leapt out, shrieking.
At which point two things happened. The mail man spun round, revealing her sex. And Renfield tripped on a tough root that sent him stumbling headlong past her and into the fish pond. He created a considerable disturbance. The ice-cold water shocked him almost as much as the realization that the mail man was a mail woman, if such a term were allowed to exist. How long had it been since he had seen a woman? Even one from the village? He tried to recall, and was disappointed when he could not. His disappointment was tempered by the fact he was slowly drowning. He emerged spluttering from the pond and dragged himself out onto the paving stones. There he sat, feeling very foolish as the mail woman looked down at him.
"Are you the Count?" she asked, glancing at the envelope she still held in her hand.
"I am his manservant," Renfield said. "I apologize if I startled you. You were about to be stung by a bee."
She nodded thoughtfully, as if accepting his explanation. "Bee stings can be particularly nasty at this time of year, I understand," she said. "The cold weather irritates them."
Renfield stood up and tried not to be embarrassed by the sound of trickling water. A puddle formed around his feet. He felt something wriggling in one of his pockets. He took it out and by chance the fish flopped out of his hand and splashed back into the pond.
The mail woman regarded him with an unreadable expression but the shine in her eyes told him she was amused. Renfield tried to regain his dignity. "If you would kindly complete your task, I shall change my clothing, and then collect the mail."
"As you wish." She posted the letter into the mail box, respectfully touched her finger to her cap brim, and then set off back down the winding path. Renfield watched her go with a touch of regret. Despite the unusual circumstances of their meeting he had found her presence oddly pleasing.
She stopped and looked back over her shoulder. "Do you live here all alone?"
Renfield didn't want to go into detail concerning his Master, and in any case wasn't sure whether the Master's current condition qualified as living. Therefore he answered, "Yes, yes I do."
She looked up at the castle with admiring eyes. "You must be lonely in such a large place. Perhaps you would like company sometime. I don't know. Perhaps for dinner."
Renfield didn't know what to say so he said nothing, as wise men throughout the ages had done. She shrugged and continued on her way, her mail bag swinging with every step she took.
"Dinner would be nice," he called after her.
She was almost at the end of the path and hidden by the gatepost when she replied, "Tonight, at eight?"
"I will have to check my appointments diary," Renfield retorted, "but eight should be fine."
She was gone, heading back down to the village. He hoped she had heard him.
Her distant voice carried to him on the breeze. "Eight it is!"
Renfield shivered, partly with the cold, and partly with a delicious feeling he found difficult to describe. He put it down to the fact that he had just spoken to another human being for the first time in ages. And also to the fact that the human being was a lady. A very beautiful lady who did things for the Transylvanian Postal Service's blue and silver uniform that no post man had ever done before.
Panic set in a moment later, when he realized he hadn't cooked or indeed eaten normal food since the Master had taken him into his service. The castle's plentiful stock of bugs was quite sufficient for him, but he could hardly serve a meal of bugs to a lady. They would crawl off her plate as soon as he lifted the lid, an unforgivable social faux pas.
An hour later, wearing dry clothing plus a hat and scarf to conceal his face, Renfield hurried down to the village. He purchased vegetables and four large chickens. He also bought a bottle of wine, for the Master's dark cellars contained things other than wine bottles. Thus armed, he made his way back up to the castle and began experimenting at once.
The first three chickens perished in horrible laboratory accidents but luckily the fourth survived, and became dinner. For future use, Renfield made a note to keep the lightning generator dial at its lowest voltage setting. The higher settings were perhaps suitable for reanimation of dead tissue, as per the maker's instructions, but certainly not for cooking.
He shaved with a cut-throat razor, then brushed his long white hair straight up and cut it horizontally with shears. Finally he put on his best suit, after smoothing out the creases and throwing away the pungent mothballs. Looking in the hall mirror, he thought he presented quite a dashing figure. The dozen or so shaving scars added a subtle air of manly sophistication to his appearance, he decided.
Almost on the stroke of eight o'clock she arrived by coach, which departed with almost indecent haste as soon as its single passenger had alighted. Renfield met her on the steps and escorted her inside. He helped her take off her coat, and hung it up. She kept hold of her large leather purse. She wore a white dress with shoulder ruffles and looked simply wonderful. He dearly wanted to tell her so, but the words would not come. Her smile told him she did not need verbal compliments, that she could see his pleasure written across his face.
"You have not asked my name," she said. "It is Wilhelmina. Won't you tell me yours?"
"I am Renfield."
"Thank you for inviting me, Renfield. I hope this is the beginning of a wonderful friendship."
Renfield had prepared the table with great care and she complimented him on how grand it looked. She expressed an interest in the castle and so he took her on a quick tour, including the vast library, where she studied the life-size portraits of the Master and his ancestors, the greatest bloodline in all of Europe. It was time to eat. Renfield pushed in her chair as she sat down, and poured wine for them both. He hurried to the kitchen and fetched the first course, a tomato and pepper soup, which she said was delicious. She raised her wine glass and Renfield raised his. He took a sip. It had been so long since he'd tasted wine that it went to his head at once. The room swirled.
"Are you all right?" Wilhelmina asked.
"Perfectly," he replied, deciding to dip his face into his soup plate. Wilhelmina helped him sit up again, and wiped his nose with her napkin.
Renfield experienced a flutter of panic that refused to transmit to his limbs. His body felt numb from the neck down. Was it the soup? He couldn't see how. Wilhelmina had eaten the soup and she was moving. Seeing his puzzlement, Wilhelmina tapped his wine glass. "When you were in the kitchen, I added a powder. It dissolved immediately and is quite tasteless. You may guess its effects. Don't worry, it will wear off soon enough."
She opened her purse and brought forth what appeared to be a hammer, a length of wood sharpened at one end, and a wide-bladed saw. Renfield didn't have any objections to her bringing her own cutlery, she only had to say, but the chicken wasn't going to be that tough.
"If you'll just wait here, I'll go and conclude my business," she said. She tucked the saw under her arm, and took the hammer in one hand and the length of wood in the other. "Back soon. If all goes well, the spell that binds you should be broken. You will be yourself again."
She left the room and he heard her footsteps recede as she went downstairs, into the cellar. He hadn't shown her the cellar. Why was she going down there? He hoped she had the good sense not to touch any of the equipment his Master had bought at reduced cost from that lunatic scientist who'd been forced to leave Europe in a hurry after his monster ran amuck. Some of it was dangerous. It had reduced three chickens to cinders. Renfield wanted to call to her, to warn her, but again the words wouldn't come, for different reasons this time.
A terrible thought occurred to him. There was something else down in the cellar. The Master's crypt, of course. Renfield only went inside once a month, to dust things, and he did so very carefully, on tip-toe, and with a very soft brush, not wanting to disturb the Master's sleep. Not that the Master would have heard much even if Renfield had marched around banging a drum and cymbals, but there was such a thing as respect for the dead. Or, technically, the undead.
A moan escaped Renfield's lips. Wilhelmina hadn't brought her own cutlery. The hammer, the wooden stake and the wide-bladed saw were far more sinister than mere cutlery. Renfield sobbed. He had invited Wilhelmina to dinner, but she'd had much more than dinner on her mind. She had come here, not to eat roasted chicken, but to inflict unspeakable violence upon his Master.
Something inside him suddenly switched off, like the flow of electricity from the lightning generator when he'd thrown the lever. Renfield gave a long sigh. He remembered his life in London before he'd been given the assignment to travel to Transylvania and interview the mysterious Count in preparation for his visit to England. He remembered meeting his Master for the first time, and the mesmerizing light in his fathomless eyes. He remembered swearing an oath of servitude. He remembered eating a lot of bugs.
Renfield bowed his head and wept.
He didn't know how long it was before Wilhelmina returned. She sat down opposite him and snatched up her wine glass. She emptied it in one swallow, then poured herself another glassful and did the same again. Her white dress, Renfield noted, was spattered with blood so dark as to be almost black.
"How are you feeling now?" she asked.
"Fine," he lied. He'd never felt so empty before in his entire life. It was as if the sun had gone out and he'd been cast into darkness.
"Is there anything you would like to know before I leave?"
Renfield just wanted her to go, but curiosity tickled him. He said, "Why did you come here?" Before she could answer he shook his head, that was the wrong question. But he was aware that he could shake his head, and was now able to speak. Whatever she'd tipped into his wine was wearing off, as she'd said it would. "Why did you destroy him?"
Again she fished into her purse. He half-expected her to produce a lamp, or perhaps a coat rack, from this seemingly bottomless accessory, but instead she brought out a book. The gold-threaded title, written in German, suggested it was a collection of fairy tales. Renfield had no clue as to its significance. She nodded as if understanding this, and opened the book, turning to a specific marked page that contained a beautifully detailed woodcut picture of a woman who bore a striking and uncanny resemblance to the young woman who was staring at him over the top of the book.
"He's in here. The immortal vampyr, seeking his lost love. Waiting for her to be reborn. Years ago, my family immigrated to England from Transylvania. That woman is my great-great-grandmother. A dark tragedy, spun into a fairy tale." She snapped the book shut. "I decided not to wait for him to show up at my window. I decided to show up at his first. A crazy old Dutchman told me where to find him. He gave me all the necessary tools. Even arranged the job at the local Post Office. They were so keen to fill the position that they were willing to overlook the fact I am a woman."
She rose from her chair and looked down at Renfield, a measure of sympathy in her eyes. "I'm sorry for the deception. It was necessary. The Count might have sensed someone entering this mausoleum without being invited. He might have awakened before I drove the stake through his shriveled heart and sawed his head off. We couldn't have that, could we?" She smiled brightly and picked up her purse. "All's well that ends well, eh? Goodbye, Mr. Renfield, and good luck."
She left him alone, closing the door behind her on the way out. Such good manners.
Slowly but surely feeling crept back into his limbs, although it was almost morning before he could move from the chair.
Leaning against the walls to keep his balance, Renfield climbed down into the cellar. He found the crypt door ajar. Wilhelmina had pulled the coffin out of the chamber, dragged it along the corridor and up a flight of steps, until she'd found a window, facing east of course. The coffin lid was open. The exposed skeletal remains lay waiting for the sun to rise over the mountain tops, and that time was very near. Wilhelmina was being very thorough.
Renfield pulled the coffin away from the window and replaced its lid. He sat on the box and watched as dawn brightened the sky.
She was right. The spell that had bound him had been broken. He no longer served his Master. He was himself again, just as he'd been before he left London. His life was his own. The world was his oyster, as the saying went. He had decisions to make. He had a bag to pack. He had a coach journey to arrange, to take him back to England and civilization. He had valuables to loot from the castle that he would convert into currency. He was owed a considerable amount of back pay, after all.
No hurry, though. He could take as much time as he liked, really. No one was going to disturb him. Certainly not Wilhelmina, or the villagers.
His stomach grumbled. He realized he hadn't eaten since yesterday. He remembered there was a roasted chicken in the kitchen, untouched from last night. Renfield made his way upstairs. He felt much better now. He boiled some vegetables to accompany the chicken, and brought the meal to the table. He was careful to avoid his own wine glass; he used Wilhelmina's instead. He tied a napkin around his neck and picked up the knife and fork, ready to tuck in. His first feast in years.
A buzzing noise reached his ears. He searched for and found the fly, wandering aimlessly. It almost flew out of the room, but changed course at the last moment and drifted back towards the table. It landed a few feet away from Renfield. Its multi-faceted eyes gleamed with all the colors of the rainbow. The sound of its legs rubbing together seemed to fill the room. Renfield's heart beat faster. Slowly, carefully, without sound or vibration, he put down his knife and fork.
After he had eaten, Renfield returned to the cellar. Yes, Wilhelmina had been thorough. Clearly she knew the traditional methods of destroying the undead. But times were changing. Science was advancing in leaps and bounds, and the Count was wiser than most men. He supposed it was just as well that Wilhelmina had not stopped to examine the equipment. Or had not thought to include him in her violent plans.
Renfield sought the manual for Baron Viktor's Patented Lightning Generator (Dead Things, Reanimation Thereof), and found a quiet corner to sit down and read in. As he turned the pages and understood the instructions, he experienced a sense of relief that bordered on joy. After all, what use was a manservant without his master?
by Derek Paterson
Published in Absolute Visions speculative fiction anthology
Edited by MacAllister Stone
Anthology copyright © 2011 by MacAllister Stone
“The Manservant” illustration copyright © 2011 by Peter Porterfield