The Holmes-Dracula File
by Fred Saberhagen
There can be little doubt that if the cudgel descending on that old man's skull had been of lead or iron, rather than some stout timber of the English forest, not much would have come of the attempt—at least nothing worthy of your attention and mine at this late date. The street beside the East India docks was very nearly empty in the dawn, and to any assault with mere metal he would have responded vigorously, and then would have gone on his way to meet his love in Exeter, lighthearted with the sense of having done the metropolis of London a good turn en passant, ridding it of one or two of its more rascally inhabitants.
It is however an important fact of history—I do not exaggerate—that the force of that stealthy blow, delivered from behind by an assailant of breathtaking cunning, was borne in wood. The old man fell down senseless on the spot; he felt neither the slime of the street's stones nor the rough hands that lifted him and bore him off, their owners doubtless grumbling at his unexpected weight.
There was a great pain in the old man's head when he awoke, and he awoke to nothing better than a crippled awareness, bereft of useful memories. He was in a poor little bedchamber, quite strange to him. And when the old man tried to move, he found that his arms and legs were fettered with iron, held tight to the peculiar high, narrow bed or cot on which he lay. On making this discovery he began, as you may well imagine, very earnestly to consider his situation. But no, he could neither remember nor guess how he might have come to such a pass.
He had no more than shards of memory, all recent but quite incomplete: a sailing ship, a gangplank, the happy feel of solid land beneath his feet once more, the fog-wreathed dawn… the great pain in his head.
Now here he was locked to his bed, in a small room he did not know. The lone window was heavily blocked with blinds and curtains, but still admitted more light than he required to take stock of his surroundings. Above it on the stained ceiling a smear of reflected daylight quivered, signaling that water lay outside in the sun. On the far side of the room stood a high old chest of drawers in need of paint, holding on its top an unlit candle in a brass stick, a chipped wash-basin, and a pitcher. A stark chair of dark wood waited inhospitably beside the chest, and that completed the room's furnishings save for the bed itself, which seemed to be fashioned almost entirely of heavy metal.
It might be morning still, or afternoon. The Cockney cries of a coster, hawking vegetables, came from somewhere outside and below. The room, though small, was furnished with two doors, set in adjacent walls. One door was fettered by two closed padlocks, which were large and strong, and mounted upon separate heavy hasps. Little splinters of bright, raw wood about these showed that their installation had been recent. The other door was also closed, but had no lock at all, at least not on the old man's side.
Wafting, oozing from somewhere, was a certain smell…
The pain and damage in his head had left his mind confused and wandering. Yes, a whole symphony of smells was in the city's air. Below and beyond the others was the sea, perceptible to a keen nose though miles away. That and his fragmented memory of being recently aboard ship reminded him that this was London. What was he doing here, so far from home? So far from…
Not till his thoughts had reached this point did the old man realize that he no longer knew who he was. If he had been at all susceptible to fear, he would have known it then.
At wrists and ankles, elbows and knees, his arms and legs were clasped to the high, narrow bed by rings of steel, fitted too tightly to leave the smallest chance of wriggling free. When he raised his head as far as possible he could see that his lanky body, still clothed even to elegant frock coat and boots, lay on a sheet of patterned oilcloth. Beneath this, some thin padding covered the hard top and metal frame of this odd cot. It was a sturdy bit of furniture. The old man strained his wiry arms until they quivered, without eliciting so much as a creak from their constraints.
What was that smell? Something to do, he thought, with wild animals. With…
Footsteps were approaching, outside his room, and he lay back as if no more than semiconscious, and quite too weak to move. Presently the unlocked door was swung in, by a heavyset figure in workman's garb: shabby dirt-colored coat over a gray sweater, baggy trousers, drab cloth cap. Below blue eyes and heavy, blackish brows, most of the man's beefy face was hidden behind a mask of white gauze, held on by strings that looped behind his hairy ears. That mask would look familiar to you now, from films and television if not from direct experience in surgery, but it was strange and puzzling to our old man. In 1897, few people had ever seen the like of it.
" 'E's awyke, Guv'nor." The grating voice that came out through the gauze was addressed to another man not yet in sight, whose steps were drawing near across uncarpeted wood floors. "Plyin' peek with us, 'eis."
The rough-voiced workman moved aside to let in a much leaner and somewhat taller man, dressed as a gentleman in frock-coat and dark trousers, but masked in the same mysterious style. "So he is," this newcomer commented, in an upperclass voice that fit his clothes, and came right over to the waist-high bed. His fair hair was well groomed, and his penetrating blue eyes assessed the old man's condition with a professional economy of movement. With skilled fingers he pressed impersonally about the back of the old man's skull, a region which radiated pain as glowing iron sends out heat. "Hit in the usual spot? Quite. Excellently done. No sign of fracture, not even a hematoma. Well, no reason he should not go to the rat at once."
The old man, who had let his eyelids sag completely shut again, liked to think that in the last few years he had gained a certain facility in English. New bits of slang and jargon, however, continually surprised him. Was "rat," in this context, yet another vulgar synonym for latrine? He felt no need for any such facility. Indeed, despite the hurt confusion in his mind, it was for some reason almost amusing to imagine that he might.
The costermonger outside had trundled his leeks into another street; his voice came faintly now. Within, the two masked insiders, experts enjoying the mystification of their patient, conferred in low and cryptic words. They had turned from his bed and, keys in hand, were rattling open the padlocks upon the little bedroom's second door. It was from behind that door that the smell came, the old man now discovered, the smell of… no, it was still impossible for him to think. A hard-wheeled cart assaulted paving stones beneath the window. The cart was being pulled by a big gelded horse whose left front foot felt sore.
Inside the house a third set of human footsteps now drew near. These seemed to be—yes, assuredly they were—the footsteps of a woman, although her shoes clopped the bare floors with authority bold enough for any man. She entered the room, drew near the bed and stopped, and the old man once more cracked an eyelid to observe. She was not large, but held herself erect with the energy of one who lives to dominate. The woman was well dressed in the English style, and it came as no surprise that she should be gauze-masked like the two men.
They must have expected her entrance, for they did not react to it. When the rough-voiced workman had finished taking the locks off the second door, he came over to tie a cloth bag, evidently meant as a blindfold, around the prisoner's head.
The bed, by starting to roll when it was pushed, now proved itself to be a cart. The tall man walked ahead of it, holding open the door that had just been unlocked, while the woman came in the rear, now and then muttering imperious and doubtless unnecessary orders to Rough-voice, on how he should maneuver this strange conveyance into the room adjoining.