The Servant Problem
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by Robert F. Young
Category: Science Fiction
Description: Selling a whole town, and doing it inconspicuously, can be a little difficult. People don't quite believe it.... A tale from the Golden Age of science fiction, edited by the legendary John W. Campbell, Jr!
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 1962 USA
eBookwise Release Date: November 2007
7 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [52 KB]
Reading time: 30-42 min.
If you have ever lived in a small town, you have seen Francis Pfleuger, and probably you have sent him after sky-hooks, left-handed monkey-wrenches and pails of steam, and laughed uproariously behind his back when he set forth to do your bidding. The Francis Pfleugers of the world have inspired both fun and laughter for generations out of mind.
The Francis Pfleuger we are concerned with here lived in a small town named Valleyview, and in addition to suffering the distinction of being the village idiot, he also suffered the distinction of being the village inventor. These two distinctions frequently go hand in hand, and afford, in their incongruous togetherness, an even greater inspiration for fun and laughter. For in this advanced age of streamlined electric can openers and sleek pop-up toasters, who but the most naïve among us can fail to be titillated by the thought of a buck-toothed, wall-eyed moron building Rube Goldberg contrivances in his basement?
The Francis Pfleuger we are concerned with did his inventing in his kitchen rather than in his basement; nevertheless, his machines were in the Rube Goldberg tradition. Take the one he was assembling now, for example. It stood on the kitchen table, and its various attachments jutted this way and that with no apparent rhyme or reason. In its center there was a transparent globe that looked like an upside-down goldfish bowl, and in the center of the bowl there was an object that startlingly resembled a goldfish, but which, of course, was nothing of the sort. Whatever it was, though, it kept growing brighter and brighter each time Francis added another attachment, and had already attained a degree of incandescence so intense that he had been forced to don cobalt-blue goggles in order to look at it. The date was the First of April, 1962--April Fool's Day.
Actually, the idea for this particular machine had not originated in Francis' brain, nor had the parts for it originated in his kitchen-workshop. When he had gone out to get the milk that morning he had found a box on his doorstep, and in the box he had found the goldfish bowl and the attachments, plus a sheet of instructions entitled, DIRECTIONS FOR ASSEMBLING A MULTIPLE MÖBIUS-KNOT DYNAMO. Francis thought that a machine capable of tying knots would be pretty keen, and he had carried the box into the kitchen and set to work forthwith.
He now had but one more part to go, and he proceeded to screw it into place. Then he stepped back to admire his handiwork. Simultaneously his handiwork went into action. The attachments began to quiver and to emit sparks; the globe glowed, and the goldfishlike object in its center began to dart this way and that as though striking at flies. A blue halo formed above the machine and began to rotate. Faster and faster it rotated, till finally its gaseous components separated and flew off in a hundred different directions. Three things happened then in swift succession: Francis' back doorway took on a bluish cast, the sheet of instructions vanished, and the machine began to melt.
A moment later he heard a whining sound on his back doorstep.
Simultaneously all of the residents of Valleyview heard whining sounds on their back doorsteps.
Naturally everybody went to find out about the whining. * * * *
The sign was a new one. At the most it was no more than six months old. YOU ARE ENTERING THE VILLAGE OF VALLEYVIEW, it said. PLEASE DRIVE CAREFULLY--WE ARE FOND OF OUR DOGS.
Philip Myles drove carefully. He was fond of dogs, too.
Night had tiptoed in over the October countryside quite some time ago, but the village of Valleyview had not turned on so much as a single streetlight--nor, apparently, any other kind of light. All was in darkness, and not a soul was to be seen. Philip began to suspect that he had entered a ghost town, and when his headlights darted across a dark intersection and picked up the overgrown grass and unkempt shrubbery of the village park, he was convinced that he had. Then he saw the girl walking the dog.
He kitty-cornered the intersection and pulled up alongside her. She was a blonde, tall and chic in a gray fall suit. Her face was attractive--beautiful even, in a cold and classic way--but she would never see twenty-five again. But then, Philip would never again see thirty. When she paused, her dog paused too, although she did not have it on a leash. It was on the small side, tawny in hue, with golden-brown eyes, a slender white-tipped tail, and shaggy ears that hung down on either side of its face in a manner reminiscent of a cocker spaniel's. It wasn't a cocker spaniel, though. The ears were much too long, for one thing, and the tail was much too delicate, for another. It was a breed--or combination of breeds--that Philip had never seen before.
He leaned across the seat and rolled down the right-hand window. "Could you direct me to number 23 Locust Street?" he asked. "It's the residence of Judith Darrow, the village attorney. Maybe you know her."
The girl gave a start. "Are you the real-estate man I sent for?"
Philip gave a start, too. Recovering himself, he said, "Then you're Judith Darrow. I'm ... I'm afraid I'm a little late."
The girl's eyes flashed. The radiant backwash of the headlights revealed them to be both green and gray. "I specified in my letter that you were supposed to be here at nine o'clock this morning!" she said. "Maybe you'll tell me how you're going to appraise property in the dark!"
"I'm sorry," Philip said. "My car broke down on the way, and I had to wait for it to be fixed. When I tried to call you, the operator told me that your phone had been disconnected. If you'll direct me to the hotel, I'll stay there overnight and appraise your property in the morning. There is a hotel, isn't there?"
"There is--but it's closed. Zarathustra--down!" The dog had raised up on its hind legs and placed its forepaws on the door in an unsuccessful attempt to peer in the window. At the girl's command, it sank obediently down on its haunches. "Except for Zarathustra and myself," she went on, "the village is empty. Everyone else has already moved out, and we'd have moved out, too, if I hadn't been entrusted with arranging for the sale of the business places and the houses. It makes for a rather awkward situation."
She had leaned forward, and the light from the dash lay palely upon her face, softening its austerity. "I don't get this at all," Philip said. "From your letter I assumed you had two or three places you wanted me to sell, but not a whole town. There must have been at least a thousand people living here, and a thousand people just don't pack up and move out all at once." When she volunteered no explanation, he added, "Where did they move to?"
"To Pfleugersville. I know you've never heard of it, so save the observation." Then, "Do you have any identification?" she asked.
He gave her his driver's license, his business card and the letter she had written him. After glancing at them, she handed them back. She appeared to be undecided about something. "Why don't you let me stay at the hotel?" he suggested. "You must have the key if it's one of the places I'm supposed to appraise."
She shook her head. "I have the key, but there's not a stick of furniture in the place. We had a village auction last week and got rid of everything that we didn't plan on taking with us." She sighed. "Well, there's nothing for it, I guess. The nearest motel is thirty miles away, so I'll have to put you up at my house. I have a few articles of furniture left--wedding gifts, mostly, that I was too sentimental to part with." She got into the car. "Come on, Zarathustra."
Zarathustra clambered in, leaped across her lap and sat down between them. Philip pulled away from the curb. "That's an odd name for a dog," he said.
"I know. I guess the reason I gave it to him is because he puts me in mind of a little old man sometimes."
"But the original Zarathustra isn't noted for his longevity."
"Perhaps another association was at work then. Turn right at the next corner."
A lonely light burned in one of number 23 Locust Street's three front windows. Its source, however, was not an incandescent bulb, but the mantle of a gasoline lantern. "The village power-supply was shut off yesterday," Judith Darrow explained, pumping the lantern into renewed brightness. She glanced at him sideways. "Did you have dinner?"
"As a matter of fact--no. But please don't--"
"Bother? I couldn't if I wanted to. My larder is on its last legs. But sit down, and I'll make you some sandwiches. I'll make a pot of coffee too--the gas hasn't been turned off yet." * * * *
The living room had precisely three articles of furniture to its name--two armchairs and a coffee table. After Judith left him, Philip set his brief case on the floor and sat down in one of the chairs. He wondered idly how she expected to make the trip to Pfleugersville. He had seen no car in the driveway, and there was no garage on the property in which one could be concealed. Moreover, it was highly unlikely that buses serviced the village any more. Valleyview had been bypassed quite some time ago by one of the new super-duper highways. He shrugged. Getting to Pfleugersville was her problem, not his.
He returned his attention to the living room. It was a large room. The house was large, too--large and Victorianesque. Judith, apparently, had opened the back door, for a breeze was wafting through the downstairs rooms--a breeze laden with the scent of flowers and the dew-damp breath of growing grass. He frowned. The month was October, not June, and since when did flowers bloom and grass grow in October? He concluded that the scent must be artificial.
Zarathustra was regarding him with large golden eyes from the middle of the living-room floor. The animal did somehow bring to mind a little old man, although he could not have been more than two or three years old. "You're not very good company," Philip said.
"Ruf," said Zarathustra, and turning, trotted through an archway into a large room that, judging from the empty shelves lining its walls, had once been a library, and thence through another archway into another room--the dining room, undoubtedly--and out of sight.