THE VAMPIRE STORIES
Jacques opened the heavy wooden door and stepped into the corridor. The dark wooden panelling, carved in the intricate patterns of the baroque period when the chateau had been built, cast weird patterns as the shadows flickered and guttered in the erratic light of the candle Jacque carried. Rain and wind slammed into the windows making their wooden shutters rattle and bang. Occasionally a flash of lightning illuminated the corridor, showing its length and faded grandeur.
In the distance above the sound of the storm outside Jacques could still make out the dull crump-crump of the carpet barrages raining down on the troops holed up in the trenches along the line of the Ancre. The last Jacques had heard was that the British were on the attack once more, pushing the German troops away from the River and up towards the Thiepval ridge but that the Germans had launched a counter-attack and were back in command of Albert. Since July the British and French had pushed the front east by about half a mile in the north and the Germans had pushed the front west by about 400 feet in the west. Jacques had no idea how many men had died, but in the Sanatorium where he was an orderly there were around 150 new patients per day. The chateau was bursting at the seams and the front was only a mile or so away now.
This wing of the Sanatorium always made Jacques uneasy. The rooms off this corridor held the worst cases. Not bloody bodily injuries, but mental injuries which would take a lot longer to heal. The men in these rooms could not be cared for in the general wards which occupied the chateaus large halls, these men were too violent and too disturbed. With each flash of lightning someone in one of these rooms howled and screamed into the darkness. Of course, some of them had deteriorated since Jacques had made his arrangement.
It was this arrangement that Jacques was here to fulfil on this terrible night when he would have much preferred to stay in the general wards playing cards with the injured troops, waiting for the next battered ambulance to slosh through the mud outside carrying more wounded. But a deal was a deal, even if you had made it with a being such as the one Jacques had made his arrangement with, perhaps even more so - for ones own safety.
Another flash of lightning and more howling from the inmate of the room down the corridor. Jacques candle guttered and went out in a little puff of smoke. With shaking fingers he extracted a match from his pocket and struck it against the striking plate on his tinder box. It flared cobalt blue and bright and lit the features of the man Jacques had come to meet. He was standing about three feet from Jacques with his back to the window. Even though he had been expecting something like this it didnt stop Jacques dropping the match in shock. Panicking he fumbled with the box and it fell to the floor with a hard metallic clatter.
"Allow me." Said the quiet, cultured voice and another candle flared into life.
Bony hands took Jacques candle from his shaking grasp and it was re-lit and returned to the Frenchman.
"Bonsoir, Jacques. A very unpleasant evening is it not?" The mans features held that same smugly cynical expression they always did. His small mean eyes glinted darkly in the candlelight. A slight smile on his thin lips.
"Bonsoir." Jacques managed to say quietly, licking his lips in an attempt to get some moisture back into his mouth which seemed to have dried up completely.
"Jacques, really! So reticent. Anyone would think you werent pleased to see me." The mans smile became wide and his incisors glinted, which, of course, was the intention. Jacques knew he only smiled like that to unnerve him, unfortunately, it always worked.
The man didnt wait for Jacques to respond. "I trust that you havent forgotten our arrangement? But no, of course, you cant have done or you certainly wouldnt be here. To which of your unfortunate charges am I paying a visit tonight?"
Mention of the arrangement stirred Jacques into action and he pulled his ring of keys from his pocket. He went to the room nearest.
"No. 3 again? Thats three nights in a row Jacques - I hope he isnt going stale."
Jacques swallowed but said nothing. He knew full well that his unpleasant visitor was trying to get him to react and he had long since become dulled to the sarcasm, it was nothing to the other things this man did. Jacques started to push the door open, but something was blocking it. He pushed hard and slowly the door gave way. He stepped inside.
"Oh Jesus!" he said quietly as he looked at what had been blocking the door.
The vampire slipped into the room behind Jacques. On the floor, laying face up, was the occupant of the cell. His face was quite literally torn up, you could make out the gouges where the poor lunatic had plunged his own fingers into the orifices of his face and pulled it apart. His fingers were curled into fists holding large globs of fleshy material which Jacques didnt want to examine too closely. The vampire though had no such qualms and knelt down beside the corpse, reaching out a thin hand.
"Colder than me." He said with very little expression in his voice. "I guess three times in a row was a little much for even this ones mind."
He stood up again, and looked over at Jacques who could feel beads of sweating running down his face like the raindrops on the window outside. "Shall we go next door?"
The vampire turned to leave the cell just as the door slammed shut, caught by a freak gust of wind.
"Open the door, Jacques, theres a good chap."
Jacques had, if anything, gone even paler and licked his dry lips impotently. "I cant."
"I cant. The doors. They only open from outside, I I cant "
For the first time in the whole encounter the expression on the vampires face turned from one of complacent superiority.
"So, we are stuck in here?" He took a step towards the terrified Frenchman.
"Yes, until morning. Someone will let us out then."
Until morning? Perhaps it had been a bad idea to come into this building after all. At the time it had seemed so much easier than wading around in the mud feeding on the soldiers in the field, so much more dignified.
"Morning, Im afraid, will be too late, my friend. Too late for me, and quite certainly too late for you." Lightning flashed as the storm battered the battlefields of the Somme outside and the howling of the inmate of the room in the Chateau dAuthuille drowned out those of Jacques as his worst fears became bloody reality.
The sun broke through the Picardy skies for the first time in nearly two weeks. It shone down on a scene of horror and devastation. Where once had stood farms, fields, woods and villages now just a wasteland of shattered trees and mud remained. A small group of huddled figures, sliding on the mud picked their way towards the waiting tumbrel with its line of beleaguered horses waiting patiently in what was once a pleasant wooded clearing and was now a small piece of pockmarked but basically flat mud in a sea of churned up and impassable quagmire. The men whose uniforms, masks and skin were an identical colour to the surrounding mud hefted the man off the stretched that they carried between them and placed him with the other four on the cart already. The man cried out in pain, although there was no obvious injury on his body; only the tell tale burns around his eyes, nose and mouth. The gas attack had come suddenly in the early hours and few of the men had been able to get the masks on in time.
Wearily the men got onto the cart and with a slap of the reigns the tired horses, all wearing gas masks of their own, started to trudge through the ruined landscape, heading for the distant chateau which stood on the ridge near the River. It was once a proud example of the architecture of the reign of Louis XIV, but now it was a shattered hulk, still standing, but marked with the impact of many thousands of pieces of shrapnel, one corner was crumbling from a direct shell hit and the hurried wooden scaffolding around it made it look as if the whole building was lopsided and sinking into the slush around it.
The tumbrel came to a halt outside the chateau and the men began to unload their charges. One casualty was left on the cart, he had died on the way from the trenches to the hospital here.
Sergeant Thomas Johns pulled the mask from his mud-caked but still handsome features as soon as he was inside the chateau. He wiped the back of his hand across his forehead where his reddish-brown hair flopped down in straggly clumps. His eyes were ringed in shadow and he looked gaunt and tired. A milliner from Shaftesbury he had been in the Somme for nearly a year. Many people said he was lucky, he was still alive. Sergeant Johns was of the opinion that those left alive were possibly more unlucky than the dead.
One of those unlucky souls was his brother, Richard, who was in this Sanatorium, upstairs in a single cell, raging and crying against the world one minute, sitting in stony silence the next. Every day, when possible, Thomas visited Richard. Some days he was quite lucid, but talked of people wandering through the battlefields and night and feeding off the soldiers from both sides; people who still visited him in the Sanatorium. Other days he didnt recognise his own brother. The last few days had been very bad, it seemed as if Richard was on a downward spiral.
With a sigh Thomas turned once more into the corridor which led to Richards room. The sun was streaming in through the big chateau windows, casting a bright and gay look down the corridor, picking out the detail in the wood carving on the panels. Thomas took a deep breath and knocked on Richards door, not knowing what reaction hed get.
"Go away!" came the voice from inside.
"Richard?" It hardly even sounded like his brother.
"Dont open the door."
"If you open that door I will die." The voice sounded emphatic, but there was no trace of Richards Dorset accent, it was almost like someone else was speaking through him.
A frown crossed Thomas features and he went to open the door. It was then he noticed the keys already in the lock. That was careless, he thought, and not a little stupid. He would have to have words with the orderlies, the French were always so slap-dash. Thomas opened the door.
A bright segment of white sunlight flooded into the room and a figure on the floor inside screamed and leapt to his feet. He bundled towards Thomas screaming for the door to be shut. It wasnt Richard. Thomas didnt recognise who it was, but as he got closer he seemed to be smoking, not in the cigarette sense of the word, but from inside. Big whirls of black smoke were curling up from inside the mans clothes. Then he noticed the mans skin, it was grey and getting greyer as Thomas watched. Then his skin began to crumble away like a sandcastle caught in the incoming tide. The man just had time to lay and insubstantial hand on Thomas shoulder before he had crumbled away to nothing but a pile of dust.
Thomas stood for a moment stunned. Then someone stirred in the corner of the room.
"Theyre everywhere. And theyre hungry." There was a figure hunched in the corner, and another laying on his back in front. The figure laying down Thomas recognised as his brother with horrible injuries to his face and quite obviously dead. The other person was dressed in the uniform of an orderly but had a wild look about him.
"You have to let me warn people!" Jacques said, jumping to his feet and running towards Thomas.
Thomas caught him as he passed and held him fast. "I dont think so, mate. Looks to me like youve done for my poor bastard of a brother. Youre staying right here." He threw the crazed man onto the floor and quickly backed out of the room, locking it behind him.
As Thomas walked down the corridor for the last time he could hear the man screaming in French behind him. To be honest, Thomas thought to himself, even if "they" were out there feeding off the men battened down in the trenches they couldnt possibly be any worse than the horrors that normal human beings were inflicting upon each other.
Thomas left the Chateau dAuthuille and got back on his ambulance tumbrel. Out there in the trenches were thousands more dead and dying just because they were English - or German - or Austrian - or whatever they were and Thomas had no other duty left to him now but to them.
And in the night, as soldiers up and down the western front set up watches, or tried to sleep amid the dull thunder of the barrages, dark figures walked with no concern across No Mans Land into the trenches and barracks and fed under the cover of the bloodiest conflict the world had ever seen.
Another of Andrew's stories set in World War I is "Mud and Water"
A revised version of this story appears in BeWrite Book's "Chill" published in 2002.
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