Van Helsing made his way back down the steep cobbled street from Durham’s Palace Green where the cathedral, castle and university buildings were situated, taking the time to glance with mild interest at shop windows as he passed. Catching sight of the three golden balls of a pawnbroker’s down some steps towards the river, he carefully descended down the narrow passage and into the cramped and crowded shop.
He was visiting the city first to give a series of lectures at the university, but also to see his former pupil, John Seward, who was engaged in some post-graduate studies, writing up his work at the County Asylum. Van Helsing had been glad to see him again, of course, and they had had much to discuss, now that John was making his own strides into their shared field, but he was particularly pleased today as he had yesterday evening finally persuaded John to agree to oblige him in taking part in an important experiment regarding the possible medical uses of mesmerism.
John had been dubious, but he had agreed out of respect for his former tutor. That reluctance might hamper matters, van Helsing thought, and so he had come in search of an interesting trinket to use in the experiment – something to distract his friend, even if only briefly.
Van Helsing greeted the proprietor and then glanced around the objects crowding the shelves. Most of them were of such small value that the sight inevitably brought with them feelings of pity – clothing and suits waiting until pay day on Saturday, when their owners would reclaim them in time to step out in their Sunday best, no doubt returning them again on Monday. They were not at all the sort of thing he wanted, so he moved on till he came to the desk, and a collection of watches, chains, and fobs. He looked at them, his attention catching on the last that he examined: a spinner watch fob made from a coin or seal. He passed on, glancing at the watch and chain beside it, but turned back to the other, somehow drawn to give it a second look, and that, he thought, was exactly the effect he was after.
“Nice little piece, isn’t it?” said the pawnbroker, as he pulled it out for Van Helsing to examine more closely.
Van Helsing lifted it up, hanging it from his fingers, studying the design on the seal. It was ideal, yes, he decided.
“I should tell you,” the pawnbroker added suddenly, “it’s unlucky. It’s why it’s such a bargain. I’ve sold it three times before in the ten years or so I’ve been here, and it’s been brought back each time.”
Van Helsing glanced around the shop and its dusty collection of bric-a-brac. “Is that not what you would term a hazard of the trade, eh?”
The man grinned. “True enough, but no, not like this one. What was it now? One fellow died, another couldn’t bear it in the house, and the other – oh, he was in an odd, shaky mood. Wouldn’t say anything, just begged me to take it back. Which I did, because it hasn’t brought me any trouble, not that I’ve noticed. But I couldn’t square it with my conscience not to tell you.”
“Then I thank you,” said Van Helsing. He gave a slight smile. “And how much extra do you charge for the ghost story?”
The man shook his head. “No, no. That’s just God’s honest truth, that is. Cross my heart and hope to die.”
Van Helsing pocketed his purchase as he made his way back down to John’s lodgings. He had to stop once or twice to look behind him as suddenly the presence of cathedral and castle on top of the hill seemed somehow oppressive, casting a shadow they had not previously. It also seemed to have grown colder, although he was sure a fall in temperature had not been predicted for this afternoon. But that was the way with the weather, he thought, as no doubt the English men and women around him would rush to remind him. It could not accurately be predicted; science had not yet come that far.
It was some time later than arranged that John finally returned to his lodgings, having travelled to the County Asylum at Sedgefield to observe and talk with some more of the patients. When he did finally step inside, he was still frowning over a notebook. “You know,” he said, “I’m not sure if this poor fellow is in the same category as the others, after all. What do you think, Professor?”
“Hmm?” said Van Helsing, looking up from the book with which he had been occupying himself in the meantime. “Oh. I daresay – I shall take a look at your notes presently, if you will permit – but I believe you and I had agreed on trying my experiment this evening, eh?”
John put down his notebook and had the grace to look abashed, as he put his hand to his head. “So we had. My apologies, Professor – it had clean gone out of my mind. Can we not put it off until tomorrow?”
“We did agree, John,” said Van Helsing, mildly, but he did not wish for any postponement, having a feeling that John, who was clearly a little uncomfortable over the idea, might have similar excuses for another night, whether consciously or unconsciously. “Come now, do you not want to prove whether or not Dr Mesmer was indeed a charlatan as you maintain?”
John leant back against the door, watching Van Helsing with wary resignation. “You know I have every respect for you, but I am certain no one else believes that a thing that still wants proving.”
“But that is not the way of the scientific mind, John,” said Van Helsing. “If there were good, reliable works on the subject – the tests of others – but I can find none to my satisfaction, so – I make my own tests. As we agreed. You must think as I do of the good that could come from its use, especially for the unfortunates you are so keen to work with. To pin point the origins of a malady of the mind – to calm a disturbed patient without resorting to any harmful medicine –”
John gave a reluctant smile. “Yes, yes, you need not browbeat me again with your arguments, Professor! If there is truth in such a far-fetched idea, it could be extremely useful. Besides, I gave you my word. Let us get this over with, then, shall we?”
“Yes, precisely!” said Van Helsing, taking John by the arm and ushering him over to the nearest armchair, and sitting him down. “We shall give at no more than an hour at the very most – either it will work, or it will not and you may laugh at this old fool and his fantastic notions, eh?”
John shot a look up at him. “Oh, now, I didn’t say that! It’s only that it seems a little ridiculous – something one associates with quacks and stage charlatans.”
“Yes, and what a failed showman I shall be if I fail to produce the rabbit from my hat, indeed,” said Van Helsing, eliciting a small laugh from John. “But for progress, we must also be prepared to make fools of ourselves from time to time.”
John shifted in the chair. “So, er, what should I do?”
“You? Nothing, that is the beauty of it! You shall sit there and simply do as I say. Why not, eh?” Van Helsing slipped his hand into his pocket and pulled out the spinner seal fob, dangling it from his hand, letting it swing a little and catch the light. “And look – I found this in one of your pawn shops. A fascinating piece, yes? But what is very odd is that the man in the shop tried to sell me a story to go with it.”
“A story?” asked John after a pause. His gaze returned to the fob.
Van Helsing continued to hold up the object in John’s line of vision. “Indeed. He told me it was unlucky. I am not sure that it was not all sales, ah, patter, as you say – I think he perhaps believed it. It seems harmless to me, however. But,” he added, softening his voice a little, “you do not want to hear my foolish tale after such a long day. You have been very busy – such a tiresome journey! You must be tired. So tired. So, just look at it for now. Yes, yes, that’s it – look at it catch the light.”
John did so, and then blinked a little, but did not look away, though his gaze was growing a little vacant. Van Helsing waited a while longer, continuing to talk for a few more minutes, his words inconsequential and his tone soothing, letting John’s attention more easily fix on the seal fob, swinging on its short chain.
“Yes, that’s right – such a long day – you need to rest –”
John had not taken his eyes off the fob; now his eyelids fluttered momentarily and he sank deeper into the chair, his hand now falling to rest on the arm.
“Yes, yes, good,” said Van Helsing. “So, for now, you will sleep, and we will talk about everything another time. Not now. Now, you will rest.” He made the last a quiet but firm command, and John’s gaze glazed over, his eyes barely open any more.
Van Helsing paused then to survey the results of his experiment. Well, well, he thought. It had worked. He had felt certain in himself that it would, but such feelings were, of course, unreliable.
“John, can you hear me?” he said. “Say yes, if so.”
“Yes,” said John, after a moment. His voice sounded a little flatter than usual.
Van Helsing gave a nod. “Good! Well done. Now –” He cut himself off abruptly, feeling, in some astonishment, the seal fob in his hand growing ice cold, so much so that at first he thought it was burning him. He dropped it with a muffled cry, and then looked to John, hoping that the incident had not wrecked his so-promising experiment, but John had given no reaction whatsoever, apparently still lost in his trance.
“What is this?” Van Helsing said aloud, reaching for the nearest pencil, and poking at the object. It was glowing brightly now, almost white in its intensity, outshining the gas lamps and casting odd shadows as it illuminated the room. “It seems that perhaps I wronged that shopkeeper. How very strange – how very interesting!”
John stirred and Van Helsing looked up in annoyance, but John’s movements were not yet natural, as if he were being pulled upright in the chair by some force, not his own volition. “A host,” he said, his voice now sounding oddly rusty. “You… have provided me with a ready host.”
Van Helsing took a step back, muttering an oath under his breath. Then he looked again, more sharply, at his former pupil, wondering if this was some trick of John’s in response to the experiment he had been rather unwilling to try, but dismissed it again easily. It was not in John’s nature to do such a thing. And if it was not a trick, why then – why then –
Van Helsing caught his breath and took another step backwards. The world had widened even further than before, if such a thing could truly be a reality. He had always been open-minded – far more so than many of his colleagues, for all they called themselves scientists – but he had never given a great deal of credit to tales of the supernatural. Now, he saw, this was another area that science must investigate and claim, must explain and defeat, as surely as disease and famine.
However, that must wait, he reminded himself. First, there was John to be thought of, whom he had inadvertently placed in what might be terrible danger, possibly even to the peril of his soul. Van Helsing could not allow such an outcome. But, what, he asked himself, did he know of the occult? What was this – this possession, if that was indeed even the term one should use? He backed away still further into the shadows, allowing himself a few moments more to think.
One thing was constant in all such tales, and that was that faith and symbols of faith could banish creatures of darkness. But what such artefact would he find in John’s lodgings? John was no Catholic; he would have no icons or crosses on the wall, and certainly no holy water; that would only be found in a church.
He hit up against a writing desk, watching as, still puppet-like, John stood. What was it that had hold of him, Van Helsing wondered. Demon, ghost, or something other? He tried what he could to find out more. “Do you have a name?”
“I have forgotten,” it said, seemingly finding the words difficult to form, but dropping into a softer tone. It was impossible now to think of this as John at all. “It matters not.”
A lost soul or spirit? Or a demon or monster of great age? He was still not much the wiser, he realised. “You were tied to the seal fob, yes? Are you a spirit?”
“It was too soon,” he said, not entirely seeming to understand the question. “My end. Too soon. I will yet live!”
Van Helsing nodded to himself; it sounded more like a lost spirit, a creature that had held onto life in any form instead of departing when his appointed moment came. There would be little appeal to such a creature, but it was perhaps more human than demonic. He fiddled with the edges of his jacket as he continued his perilous conversation.
“Even at the cost of someone else’s life?” said Van Helsing, drawing himself up. “You would steal my friend John from me, would you?”
“Yes!” it said, and then pulled back, looking around the room suddenly, as if in search of something.
“What is it you need?”
The creature that was not John circled clumsily, although it seemed to be getting better at moving, more used to operating John’s body. “Blood,” it said. “Blood on the watch fob.”
“But there is none,” said Van Helsing, and then realisation dawned: it was looking around for something on which to cut itself – to cut John – to produce the needed blood.
Van Helsing would not have that. He set his face and strode forward at once before it could find a pocket knife or even paper knife that might serve its dark purposes. He had no religious symbols, no knowledge yet of how to battle such creatures, and if it came to a fight, John was younger and stronger than he, so he took and used the only thing he could think of: religious words.
Perhaps, he thought, perhaps commanding the spirits was not so different to mastering mesmerism; perhaps both relied not only on technique but what they called a magnetic personality. There was only one way to find out. He moved further forward still, reciting first the Lord’s Prayer in his native tongue, as he had learned it as a child, then in English, then even, falteringly, in Latin.
It stared at him and pulled John back; it had had some effect at least. Van Helsing straightened himself and continued with renewed determination, no longer feeling an edge of foolishness as he first had, clinging to rote and superstition.
“Deliver us from evil,” he said, repeating the prayer again in any language he could manage it. He moved to the Twenty-Third Psalm: Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me…
It whimpered, and he almost hesitated, not wishing to cause John any distress, but then steeled himself again, bending down to pick up the seal fob and ignoring its coldness, ordered the spirit to be gone in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit; then again, shouting it this time, making himself say it with all the certainty and meaning he could muster – and goodness knew what the landlady below would think if she heard.
The fob became inert again in his hand and John simply and quietly dropped back into the chair.
Was it the prayer, he asked himself, or was it the force of his own convictions that had banished it again? Or could it be both?
Suddenly, he thought, in excitement that almost robbed him of breath, there was so much more to learn and so little time in which to do it.
Then he shook himself and spared a thought for John, hurrying over to him. “My dear fellow, are you all right? I am so sorry. I would not for the world have endangered you so –”
Then he stopped, a more quizzical expression crossing his face. “John?” he said, and then realised that, quite impossibly, the possession did not seem to have broken the mesmeric trance. He took hold of himself, keeping his voice level and firm as he addressed John again. “You are unharmed, yes?”
“Good, good. Well, then, when I tell you to wake, you shall emerge from this trance. And I think, I think that if this experience has proved unpleasant, you may forget it if you choose. Do you understand? Yes?”
John nodded again.
Van Helsing paused to breathe for a moment, beginning to realise that he felt a little shaken from the unearthly incident. His mind was still leaping ahead, thinking through the ramifications – he must find more information, consult an expert, and be certain that he had nullified the threat. And on top of that, he realised with a sigh, it had spoiled his experiment, since he could not now be sure whether or not it had worked only due to the supernatural influence of the seal fob and its occupant. Then he shook himself mentally and turned back to John.
“And now,” he said, “you may wake, my friend.”
John blinked first and then pulled himself up, a little embarrassed. “I’m sorry, Professor – I seem to have simply dozed off instead.”
“No, no,” said Van Helsing. “Look at the clock on the mantelpiece! Would I have let so much time pass before awakening you to continue my experiment? I think not.”
John gave a rueful grin. “No, I suppose not. But I don’t remember – and you said you expected that I should.”
“No,” said Van Helsing. “No, it seems there were complications that arose in this case that should not do so on another occasion. And because of those complications we must indeed try again – but not, I think, tonight.”
“I might have known,” John said, getting up and dusting himself down. “And if I can’t recall – I’m not entirely sure that I care to repeat the experience.”
Van Helsing faced him, gripping his arm. “It is your choice, John, of course, but – do you trust me?”
“Well, yes, but –” John paused with a sigh and then nodded. “Yes, Professor, I do.”
“Then believe me when I say it is as well that you do not remember in this case. Also that I would never dream of repeating the experiment if I thought it would cause you any pain or distress. And now we have had enough excitement for one evening – perhaps you would prefer to retire?”
John opened his mouth to argue, and then stopped. “Yes,” he said eventually, “I feel almost, well, drained, you know. Professor –”
Van Helsing patted his shoulder. “Go, my friend, rest! We will talk again in the morning, eh?”
“Good night, then,” said John, and gathered up his papers and left the room, although not without one last wary look at Van Helsing.
Van Helsing turned as soon as John had gone and scoured his bookcases for any likely volumes, but there were none. John, unsurprisingly, had with him a great many books on medicine and the mind, and a few other standard works, but nothing on the occult. That was hardly surprising, of course, Van Helsing thought, and made do with pulling out a Bible, and pushed the fob seal between its pages. He looked around for some sort of box and found a tin that would do, shutting it inside.
“There,” he murmured. “That should hold you for the night, if you are not yet quite vanquished by my prayers.”
First thing in the morning, he would go out and find a bookshop, or perhaps visit the library, or even a priest. A priest would at the least know in theory how to perform an exorcism.
That, of course, he would not tell John.