No triumphal procession awaited Helsing’s return to Karlstadt. The only colleague who’d shared his belief in the true nature of Count Dracula was gone. He’d had no need to hasten back.
The castle was remarkable, a perfect reflection of both the Count’s savagery and his cultivation. He had clearly made no error in identifying the Count from history. At every step, there was some memento of past centuries, the era when a ruler had been expected to be a warrior as well. He’d touched the cold iron of maces, turned the pages of gorgeously illuminated manuscripts, and fingered the faded silk of captured Turkish banners. In that chill atmosphere, the progress of the centuries seemed but a distant dream.
But he was himself, after all, a man of progress. He would leave it to other scholars to catalog the treasures. He’d drunk a toast to Jonathan Harker in the library that had been his doom. He’d shut and barred the crypt, hoping no other creatures would creep in. And he’d stopped at the Cross-Keys in Clausenburg on the way back to thank the rosy-cheeked Inga for her help.
“And your friend? Did you find the nice gentleman?”
“Yes,” he’d said.
She’d read his expression. “Oh.”
The landlord, Gustavus, not far off, gave him a sharp glance. “You were right,” Helsing told him quietly. “It was too much for him.”
Gustavus glowered. “And now we’ve more troubles?”
“No. He is at rest.”
He should never have let Harker be the one to go. They had drawn straws, and Harker had looked so quietly proud when he had won. But Harker had a fiancee, the prospect of a university career. Whereas Helsing…
Gustavus was not satisfied. “Still—“
“In fact,” he drew out Dracula’s ring and set it on the table, “they are all at rest. You’re safe now.”
The crowd had gathered around and stared at it, whispering amongst themselves. They gave him looks of admiration, well-mixed with fear. He sighed. He should have known that it would make no difference in their minds. The truths of folk wisdom were far more stubborn than any scientific conclusions. He slipped the ring back into his breast pocket and left.
Inga caught him outside. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I wish—“
“Inga!” came the call from the inn.
She whirled about and darted inside.
It was rare that any of Helsing’s particular patients wished to continue relations with him after the danger had passed. He did not blame them. Dwelling too much on such experiences was hardly compatible with the lives they were meant to lead: the respectable marriages, the comfortable houses, all the blessings of their century.
The Holmwoods were no exception. He did not expect to see them again, and, for five months, he did not. But then, in June, they invited him to dinner. Arthur Holmwood was bluff and cheerful, apparently having forgotten the basis of their acquaintance, telling him of the improvements he was making on his country property. Mrs. Holmwood shone in green velvet at the other end of the table with her mild, mysterious smile, gently prompting her husband when he wandered off the point of one of his stories. The food was heavy and unimaginative, the sitting room afterwards dull, but they made for a more comfortable evening than his own bachelor quarters would have.
He was not ungrateful.
“I still think of Lucy,” Mrs. Holmwood confided in him softly after dinner, when Holmwood had gone to fetch the port. “Do you believe she might have been saved?”
He sighed. “Rescuing a…a victim against her own will is extraordinarily difficult.”
(“Why are you so cruel?” Lucy had asked, suddenly, from her coffin.
He had held himself steady. “The cruelty is not mine, Miss Lucy.”)
Mrs. Holmwood flushed a little, and he wondered what she was remembering. Rising from her bed to seek out the Count, waiting for her below? He chided himself for the indelicacy of his speculation. “I only wish we could have done more.”
“Perhaps I should have told you the whole truth. But so few believe. You might have refused to adopt my methods altogether.”
“I don’t know what I would’ve thought,” she admitted, “then. But…”
Tania raced into the sitting room, her eyes full of innocent delight. “Dr. van Helsing! Dr. van Helsing! You’re here!”
It seemed he had made a friend that night. He smiled at her.
The housekeeper hastened in after her. “Tania!”
“It’s all right,” he said. “I’d wondered how this teddy bear was getting along. Have you been a good girl?”
“Yes,” she declared, with the emphasis of childhood. “Why shouldn’t I be?”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” he said, and brushed the hair back from her forehead.
Mrs. Holmwood was watching them.
She will forget, he thought, or hoped.
Two weeks later, the porter brought in Mrs. Holmwood’s card. He hastily put away a few books before having her brought in. She was wearing a day dress of blue silk, with a close-fitted bodice and embroidery over the skirts, and a little hat with a veil.
“This is an unexpected pleasure, Mrs. Holmwood,” he said, ushering her to a seat. “What brings you here?”
She sat with a curious stiffness, looking around the room. “I’ve wanted to talk to you for some time.”
“Professionally, that is.”
He frowned. She looked healthy enough, bright-eyed and smooth-skinned. “Are you feeling unwell?”
“Perhaps you had better tell me what you mean, then,” he said, drawing a notebook and pen to him.
She didn’t answer for a moment, but worried at her lip with her teeth. “How many others have there been?” she finally asked.
“Like me. Recovered.”
She got up and moved around the room restlessly, her dress rustling over the rugs. “What were the sequelae?”
He watched her move. “You’ve been reading.”
“You want to know if they were able to resume their normal occupations,” he said.
“More than that.” She was twisting a handkerchief in her hands now. “If they were ever troubled afterwards.”
“I’m afraid I know very little. I haven’t remained in communication with them.” If he were honest with himself, it was a subject he had preferred not to pursue. He had come to understand the biology of vampirism, to a certain degree. When it came to what some of his colleagues would now call the psychology of it, he was less certain. “Are you troubled, Mrs. Holmwood?”
“I still have dreams,” she said. “Dreams of that wild night’s ride, the strange and lonesome country. Dreams of—“ She broke off, breathing faster, and visibly settled herself. “Yes. Yes, I suppose I am.”
He looked down and pushed the notebook away. Better that there be no record of this. “I advise you to throw yourself into your family life. Domestic occupations are the best tonic for a disturbed mind.”
She smiled wryly. “Spoken like a bachelor.”
He surprised himself by gesturing around at the room: the piles of books, the heavy glass of scientific apparatus, the peculiar supplies of his profession. “The occupations of men are not always preferable.”
Her eyes followed the sweep of his hand, but arrested themselves at a particular glass case. She paled, and he cursed himself for not thinking to hide it before her entrance. “That’s his ring.”
“Yes,” he said, and rose. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have left it open to view.”
She rose also, putting out a hand to stop him. Her fingers rested lightly on his wrist. “You needn’t hide it on my account. But tell me, why did you keep it?”
“A…token, I suppose,” he said. “He was an extraordinary creature. We won an extraordinary victory.”
Her eyes remained fixed on it. “There’s nothing very extraordinary in Karlstadt.”
She caught something in his tone, and turned back to him. “Are you troubled, then?” she challenged.
His eyes travelled over her involuntarily. She had a lovely figure and a sensible mind. Arthur Holmwood had lacked the will to do what might have spared her entirely.
“At times, perhaps,” he said. “But one can’t give way.”
She studied him closely. It had been a long time since a woman had looked at him thus. “Can’t one?”
One could, perhaps; but one mustn’t. He gently pulled his hand away. “I’m sorry I can’t help you more, Mrs. Holmwood.”
She looked at him a moment longer, then nodded. “I understand,” she said, and took up her bag to go. Then she glanced back. “But we may expect you to tea next Thursday, mayn’t we?”
Helsing’s father had been a surgeon. It was from him that Helsing had learned that the quickest cut, be it only with a steady hand, was by far the kindest.
“Yes,” he said, nonetheless.