The Comte du Malfait burst into the library of his villa overlooking the sea. Behind him, his servant Jacques followed. The Comte violently pulled off his coat and waistcoat, and tossed them behind him. Jacques did his best to catch them before they came to rest upon the floor. By the time the servant had retrieved these two items, his master had torn open the neck of his shirt.
After collapsing onto an ornate divan, Malfait said, “Madeira!”
“My lord?” Jacques said.
“Fetch me a bottle of Madeira,” Malfait said in a tone that caused Jacques to scurry out of the room. In a short time the servant had returned with a bottle and an crystal goblet. Jacques set the goblet down on a small table, filled it with wine, and then handed it to his master. Malfait drank the contents of the glass in one long draught, and then held out the empty glass towards Jacques who quickly filled it again.
This time Malfait slowly sipped the fortified wine. “Jacques, open the doors to the garden please.”
“Begging your pardon, my lord,” Jacques said. “But there seems to be a storm moving in.”
“I know,” Malfait said, staring at the darkness beyond the French doors.
Jacques carefully set down the bottle of wine and opened the French doors. A cold breeze rushed into the room threatening to blow out the candles perched in the golden candelabra that illuminated the room. Jacques moved to the doorway and said, “Will there be anything else my lord.”
Malfait sat silently and took several more sips of wine before answering. “No, Jacques. That will be all for the night.”
“Very good, my lord,” Jacques said but he did not leave the room.
Malfait finished his second glass and was pouring his third when he noticed Jacques. “No, you should not begin to pack my things,” the Comte said.
“Begging you pardon my lord,” Jacques said. “I didn’t mean to presume. But I do pride myself on being a superior servant. One that can anticipate my master’s needs–“
“What are you going on about, man?” Malfait snapped.
Jacques looked at the floor and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “It’s just that, well, the storm and the lost ship. It was a lot of money.” Jacques paused and looked at the floor again. Malfait motioned him to continue. “Also, my lord, when the army of the Bourbons arrives, if they capture the city. Well, it might be discovered that the Comte du Malfait disappeared many years ago, and that his ancestral home has been abandoned for some time.” Jacques shrugged. “And while it’s true that here in the Kingdom of Sardinia no one knows about the ancestral lands of the Malfaits. Someone in the French army would surely know.”
Malfait drain the goblet, sat up straight, and then smiled at Jacques. “As to your first concern,” Malfait began, “there is lead in the cellar is there not?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Well, alchemy is one of the easier pieces in my repertoire.” Malfait waved a hand in the air. “And as to your other concern. Well. Among the ruins of the Temple of Bacchus, I have supped with every notable of Villefranche.”
Jacques opened his mouth as if to speak, but Malfait continued. “None of them would dare raise a hand against me.” The Comte stood up and walked to the open French doors. “Jacques I have traveled a very long road. And you have traveled it with me.” He drained the last of his wine. “I am tired Jacques. I do not foresee-” Malfait cocked his head to one side.
“Be silent,” Malfait hissed. He took two steps outside of the open French doors, cocked his head again, and then sniffed the air. “Fetch me the cloak.”
Jacques shuddered. “Begging your pardon,” he croaked.
Malfait turned and glared silently at his servant.
Jacques looked away from his master’s gaze and cleared his throat. “Begging your pardon,” he said again. “Your lordship commanded me to remind you of the Baron Bisclavret if ever again you should request the cloak.”
“Very well. You have fulfilled that command,” Malfait said. “Now. Bring me the cloak.”
Jacques hurriedly left and as he did so he produced a chain that hung around his neck. Hanging upon the chain was an antique key.
Malfait did not wait long. Jacques returned to the library – his coat dusted with cobwebs – with a tattered cloak over his arm. Some time in the distant past, it must have been an impressive mantle indeed. But now, its deep green color had faded to the color of moss and its fur lining was in places dull and bare.
Jacques handed the cloak to Malfait.
“That will be all,” the Comte said, but then stopped his leaving servant. “There is nothing to fear. It is simply that the next act has begun, and I missed my cue. All shall be well. Thank you Jacques.”
Jacques silently bowed and left the room closing the door behind him.
Malfait draped the cloak over his arm and walked through the French doors into the growing storm.
Isabel opened her eyes. She was certain that she had closed them only a moment before. However, the candle upon her nightstand was now extinguished. She considered relighting it, but decided against it. It shall be dawn soon, she thought.
Isabel held her breath for a moment hoping to hear the soothing sound of the mourning dove’s call. She did not hear any bird outside of the house. Rather, she heard a noise inside the house. Distinctly she heard someone coming up the mansion’s marble stairwell. The footfalls continued down the hall toward her door and stopped just outside of it. The late night stroller could have been a servant or her father, but a fancy grew in Isabel’s mind that something terrible was outside of her door. She endeavored to rise up from her bed and to call out, but discovered that she was unable to move. Indeed, Isabel could not even move her head. All she could do was look at the extinguished candle upon the nightstand and the door beyond.
Silently, the door opened just a crack and as it did so, the clouds parted and the moon shone brightly into Isabel’s room. Again she tried to call out, but still could not make a sound. Presently, a shadow entered the room – for that is the only way to describe it. There upon the wall was the shadow of a man, and yet there was no one standing in the room causing the shadow to be cast.
Isabel shivered and squeezed her eye shut. She opened them up, hoping this horrid fancy would be gone. But it remained, and to her horror, the phantasm transmuted into a shape even more horrid. From some dim and dusty corner of Isabel’s mind came the memory of when she knocked an inkwell off her father’s desk. At the time, she watched the inkwell slowly fall to the floor and reflected that it seemed to fall no faster than an Autumn leaf. But when it hit the floor an irregular shape materialized and and black tendrils shot out from it.
A counterfeit of that spilled ink with its multiplying appendages now greeted Isabel’s eyes – except this inky blot was the size of a man.
Frantically Isabel tried to move her limbs and to cry out for help. The writhing shadow approached the edge of her bed, its inky tentacles writhing like over-grown vines blown by a strange wind. Or like a mass of serpents.
Upon reaching her bed, one of the appendages oozed out, took hold of the bedclothes, and pulled them to one side. It then grabbed hold of Isabel’s calf, and began to pulled her out of her bed. The spot where the creature had taken hold of her burned. The pain returned her voice to Isabel for she was finally able to scream. As she did so, the noise of her scream was joined by the sound of breaking glass. A large black shape bounded over the bed and the shadow thing released its grip on Isabel before being wrestled to the ground by this second phantom.
Isabel clutched her leg. A purple welt in the shape a hand had appeared on her calf. A screech drew her eyes to floor beside her bed. The thing of black mist had lost its human shape and had transmuted into long black coil. It slipped through Isabel’s door which slammed shut behind it. Slowly the the second phantom rose from the floor. Its haunches and head belonged to those of a beast. Its chest and arms were those of a man’s.
The half beast, half man went to Isabel’s bedside and sniffed the hand-shaped wound on her leg. In an instant, it took hold of Isabel’s leg and began to lick the wound. She cried out in pain and thrashed about, but the beast’s strong hands did not lose their grip on Isabel’s leg. She reached for the candlestick holder but only knocked it to the floor.
But then the pain began to recede and Isabel stopped her struggle. The beastly man released her leg. Isabel sighed and looked down at her leg. The wound faded before her very eyes.
Then she gazed upon the creature that had provided her healing and saw clearly the beast’s horrid visage. Its eyes glowed like those of cat at midnight, and its lips were pulled back revealing large fangs. Without thought, Isabel began to push herself away from it, for although it had evidently healed her, Isabel fancied it might pounce upon her and sink its teeth into her bare neck.
Then the door to her room swung open and a mob composed of Isabel’s parents and a multitude of servants bearing candles spilled into the room. There was a cacophony of voices shouting different things. “Are you hurt?” “What is the matter?” “Look! The window!” “A tree has fallen through the window!”
Isabel looked around her room. Indeed, the limbs a tree now dominated the space where her window had once been and on the floor was shattered glass and bits of broken wood. Isabel turned back to her mother and nurse who now clutched her tightly. Over their shoulders she could see her leg and it was without a mark, and gazing about the room there was no sign of the beast.