The Strange Case of the Reverend

From the Van Helsing Chronicles

by Heather Sparrows

The name comes from the Professor in Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula”, although the character in this novel lived one hundred years later. The most remarkable portrayals on film came from Peter Cushing (“The Horror of Dracula”, Terence Fisher, 1958, and others) and Anthony Hopkins (“Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, Francis Ford Coppola, 1992). Van Helsing in this story is based on the Hopkins/Coppola character.

The Van Helsing Chronicles are the diaries of Prof. Dr phil., Dr lit., Dr rer. nat., Dr med. Abraham Van Helsing (1734 – 1812). Van Helsing was born in Amsterdam, from a family of merchants. He worked and lived in Amsterdam, London, where he held the chair of surgical medicine (1769 – 1772), Boston and New York. His work includes books on such varied themes as an expedition into the jungles of Brazil, tropical fruitbats, the phenomenon of “nosferatu” and an early book on deduction and forensic methods. In the latter, published in 1802, there is a drawing of the then 68-year-old. In his diaries, he noted some unusual adventures, mostly from his later years when he was living in New England. Stories based on his notes were published almost 200 years after his death, in 2003, by Heather Sparrows at Jonathan Van Tassel Publishers, Nowhere.

*****

The air was cold and clear, bright sunlight glittering on the snow. The day looked promising, and the Professor was glad to have followed his friend’s invitation to accompany him to a few patients living further away from the village.

Van Helsing enjoyed riding along with Sulllivan, and he was happy that the young doctor talked so much about this and that, about his patients, about the new books he had ordered from Boston, about how good it was to ride, and how much they both would look forward to coming home into the warmth. They would drink some hot wine and enjoy the good food Sarah would prepare. It was pleasant to hear Young Sullivan talk that way, after what had happened almost two years ago, when Patrick and Sarah had lost their only child. Eight-year-old Samuel had drowned in the nearby river.

Abraham Van Helsing had been sad for his friend, because he had lost his family himself, long ago, in another country, on another continent. Pieter had been a toddler when he had been slaughtered to slake a monster’s thirst for blood – and Marie – Pieter would be a young man in his twenties now – well – it should not have been.

The Professor had never told anyone what had been the worst: To find them slaughtered and yet condemned to a life consisting of an insatiable thirst for blood. And that he had been forced to kill his own son and his beloved wife again to end their misery. He had spent his time in a lunatic asylum “to come to terms” with this – long ago, in another country, on another continent.

After his release from the asylum, he had devoted his life to killing the monster responsible for the deaths of his loved ones – the Demon Vampire, the Undead ... He had managed to do so only a year ago – and finally he had gotten back some peace of mind. Revenge is a dish best eaten cold. Van Helsing had been to hell and back, and he was grateful to the force which had given him the strength to remain true to himself – maybe not completely sane – but capable of feeling for others, of enjoying life again.

Of course he had never told his grieving couple of friends that sometimes a loved one just being dead could be almost a blessing ... So he thought it was good that Dr Sullivan and his wife had come to terms with the death of their son fairly soon. As far as one could ever “come to terms” with such a loss ...

The Professor felt good. And yet he did not fully trust the blue sky and the fair, sunny weather. He looked up into the sun, squinting his eyes.

A cloud blocked the sun a moment later, and the temperature seemed to drop a few degrees in an instant.

Van Helsing looked up into the sky again. More clouds coming up rapidly. He did not like them. Once he had crossed the Borgo Pass in Transsylvania – and there such clouds had announced a snowstorm.

“We should ride back.” he said to his companion. “I don’t like what’s brewing in the sky.”

Dr Sullivan looked up as well.

“Maybe you’re right.” he answered. “But my patients –“

“Your patients will know better than to wait for their doctor to visit them in a snowstorm!” the Professor retorted. “We are going back!”

So they turned their horses and headed for home, which meant the small town of Malvern, where Dr Sullivan and his wife lived, about ten miles away.

But the abrupt change in the weather came too fast. The sky rapidly darkened, grey clouds formed, and they had a yellow tinge. Soon the first big snowflakes fell, and cold, sharp gusts of wind made the two men freeze. Silently they made their way through the swirling flakes, fighting against the wind, which bit through their clothes. The swirl became more dense every moment, the wind whipping the cold flakes into their faces like stinging needles. Soon the two horsemen were surrounded by a swirling veil, which bit into their eyes and clung to their hair, eyebrows and lashes. They could no longer make out the path, let alone a signpost, and the young doctor had to admit after a while that he did not know the way any more. Neither did the Professor, because meanwhile the snow had become so dense it had become impossible to make out anything. The two men had to stay close together not to lose each other.

“It doesn’t seem as if it would stop snowing!” Van Helsing shouted over the howling wind. “We must get out of this weather and find shelter somewhere! And damn quick!”

They had reached the top of a small hill. “I see something!” Dr Sullivan shouted back to his companion. “Looks like lights!”

//Well, boy, let’s hope you’re not mistaken!// the Professor thought, but when he reached the hill as well and the wind tore the veil of snowflakes apart for a moment, he could see a few small dots of light, right down the hill, in front of them. The two men rode towards the lights, trying not to lose them from sight.

Half an hour later, when it was completely dark already, they reached a small village.

“Where are we?” the Professor asked. “Do you know that village?”

His companion looked puzzled.

“I have never been here before, because they have their own doctor here, but this must be Troubridge, ten miles north of Malvern. We must have lost our way completely, going north instead of east. – And no way we could get back to Malvern in this snow and in the dark!”

“Well, then. Let’s have a look for some shelter and a place for the night here, and we’ll make our way back tomorrow!” The Professor was unconcerned now. A fire and maybe something hot to eat and drink seemed near. Even shelter in a barn with some straw, just away from these blinding snowflakes – anything would do.

He led his horse though the snow to the first house in sight. A window in the house showed light.

The two men dismounted. In the impatient manner he sometimes showed, the Professor hammered at the door with both fists, hollering “Heda! Hello!” in one of the sudden temperamental outbursts Dr Sullivan had come to know so well.

Van Helsing’s efforts proved successful. “I’m coming, I’m coming!” A sullen female voice. “No need to break down the door!”

Bolts were drawn away, and the door was opened a bit. A lantern was held up, lighting the two men and their horses, all covered in snow. Hardly visible behind the light of the lantern and the still twirling snowflakes was a tall, thin female figure.

“Yes?” the sullen voice again. The hand holding the lamp was a bit unsteady. Obviously the woman did not know what to do about the unwanted visitors.

The Professor stepped forward. Despite the howling wind and the falling snow he took off his hat. Suddenly he had the air of the well-bred, experienced man of the world which he actually was.

“Please excuse our intrusion at this hour, Madam!” he shouted above the wind. “Is this the village of Troubridge?”

“Yes.” the woman admitted morosely. The light of the lantern swayed again over the snow-covered figures.

“My name is Abraham Van Helsing.” the Professor continued. “I am afraid my friend Doctor Sullivan and I have lost our way during the snowstorm. Our destination was the village of Malvern.”

“That’s about ten miles further south.” the woman said.

“My friend told me so.” Van Helsing confirmed. “Not much of a chance to reach it in this weather, though. So my friend and I were wondering –“

“What is it, Miss Avery?” a sharp male voice asked from inside. “Why are you leaving the door open and let the cold get in?”

The woman turned, almost closing the door. The Professor slammed his hat back onto his head and started to stamp his feet. His charming manners had been obviously wasted on this woman. He grinned at the thought. At least she had not closed the door fully, not before the man who had spoken, probably her master, would have decided what to do.

“There are two strangers outside, Reverend Crane.” they heard the woman say. “They say they have lost their way. Wanted to reach Malvern, and I did not know –“

“What are you waiting for?” the male voice interrupted her impatiently. “We have to do our duty as Christians. No one should be outside in this weather. Let the men in!”

//Well spoken!// the Professor thought.

So finally the door was opened, revealing a tall man in black clothing. He had taken the lantern from the woman and swept it again over the two men and the horses which snorted and stamped. They were as tired as the men and seemed to long for some warmth and rest as well.

The man addressed as Reverend Crane took them in for a moment. Van Helsing had seen too much to believe that a member of the clergy, more so if he had talked about his duty as a Christian, should at least try to appear friendly, if not being genuinely jovial, open and caring like Malvern’s Father O’Malley. Nevertheless, he found the difference between the friendly words and the man’s appearance was rather jarring. Reverend Crane seemed very stern, very cold and very distant.

“Where’s the boy, Miss Avery?” he asked, frowning, after he had inspected the two strangers.

The Professor began to feel a bit of annoyance. //I thought we are letting the cold in.// he thought. //And still we haven’t been asked in properly.//

“Ichabod!” their host called. “Ichabod!” His voice became even more sharp than before.

A small, thin shape hurried up to the door. It was a boy, maybe seven, eight years old, also dressed in black, hugging himself against the cold wind. He kept his head bowed, a strange behaviour for a child of this age, meeting people he had never seen before. The two men could only see a mass of unruly dark hair.

“Yes, Father?” the boy said in a low voice.

“How often did I tell you that you are to look at me when I am talking to you?!” the Reverend snapped at the child.

The boy looked up. “Yes, Father.” he repeated.

The light of the lantern now shone on the boy. Huge dark eyes in a pale, heart-shaped face. Frightened. Dr Sullivan thought of the Reverend’s cold, forbearing appearance and could imagine how a small boy must feel in his presence.

The tall man handed the lantern to the boy.

“These gentlemen are staying in our house tonight. Show them to the stable where they can put their horses and see to it that the horses are watered and fed.” he ordered. “Do you understand?”

“Yes, Father.” the boy repeated. He came outside and waited for the guests to follow him.

//Now we are talking sense!// the Professor thought, grumbling. He turned to take the rein of his horse again from his friend, to follow the boy to the stable, but Dr Sullivan put a hand on his arm.

“You go in already, Professor. I’ll look after the horses with the boy.”

“As you wish.” Van Helsing answered. “But wipe that ‘poor-old-man’-look from your face!”

Dr Sullivan only smiled, knowing his friend and mentor. “I only mean well.” he said calmly. “Come, boy.”

“Alright, alright!” the Professor grumbled, watching boy, man and horses disappear around the corner. He shook off the worst snow from his clothing and stamped a few times to get some snow off his boots, before he followed their host into a large room with a low ceiling, a big table and a few upholstered chairs. Bookcases lined the walls, and there was a good fire in the fireplace. Some candles gave sufficient light. The room appeared friendly, something Van Helsing had not expected from their host’s stern, forbearing manner. But there was something else the Professor noticed: He could not tell how, but he got the impression that it was not the Reverend’s influence which made the room friendly. It was as if he had taken it over from someone else and had left it as it was, because it was convenient for him that way or because he did not care.

//Whatever.// Van Helsing thought. The warmth was good! He took off his coat and warmed his hands at the fire for a moment. He made out another male figure, who had been sitting at the fire and now came forward. Then he turned to his host.

“Abraham Van Helsing.” he introduced himself, indicating a short bow while extending his hand. For the first time, he could see their host properly. The man’s features were regular, even handsome, his eyes very dark, in strong contrast to the white wig he wore.

“And my name is Ebenezer Crane.” the Reverend said, bowing as well, taking the hand. “My friend Mr Stewart. Our schoolmaster.” he introduced the other man.

The Professor and the schoolmaster shook hands as well. Mr Stewart also was tall and thin, with a receding hairline, grey hair and a nondescript face. He had pale, unsteady eyes and was dressed in a sombre grey coat. Van Helsing found he did not like him, but he could not say why. Neither did he find their host very agreeable. He did not like Crane’s hard features. The hardness seemed not that of a difficult and bitter life, but a righteous hardness, and the dark eyes seemed cold and impenetrable. Like his friend, the Professor could well understand that the boy must live in fear of his father. And although the Reverend had presented Mr Stewart as his friend, there seemed to be a tension between the two men, they seemed to disagree over an important matter, and both seemed angry and annoyed with each other.

//A tyrant.// the Professor thought. // Crane is a tyrant and he seems to have put off Stewart. But what is it to us? He’ll give us shelter for one night, and that’s about it.//

The woman came in and brought hot wine for the men. She had the puffed face of someone drinking too much. Her pale blue eyes were red-rimmed and swimming, but hidden behind this was a hard, greedy look.

With an air as if he was stealing something from her that was rightfully hers, she handed Van Helsing a goblet. He thanked her and sipped the hot mulled wine. He began to feel a bit better.

*****

Dr Sullivan followed the boy to the stable. It was small, but there was room for two more horses. A small red steed whinnied friendly when the two humans and the two horses entered the stable.

The boy’s movements were slow and heavy for a child, although he was slightly built and small. Dr Sullivan thought that he must be older than he had estimated him at first. He could well be about nine or even ten, but not older. There was still no hint of the gawkyness of beginning adolescence.

The child went over to the steed and stroked her nose, at the same time looking at the doctor, who lead their two horses to the empty boxes and removed their saddles. Then he went over to a trough and carefully removed the thin ice which had formed on the surface of the water. He filled a pail and carried it over to the doctor. Then he went over to a heap and got hay.

“Thank you.” Dr Sullivan said.

The boy looked at him for a moment, his dark eyes wary and questioning. Then he looked away and went over to the small horse in the corner again.

“She’s called Jericho,” he said after a moment, stroking the horse’s muzzle.

“This is Shamrock.” Dr Sullivan said, stroking the nose of the grey steed he had ridden. “And her name is Buttercup.” He patted the flank of the Professor’s sturdy black and white mare.

The boy came over and patted the horses as well. Then he looked at the doctor again.

//His eyes are too old for his face.// Dr Sullivan thought. //And he is much too serious.//

“We should go to the house where it’s warmer.” he said, because he felt the wet cold very distinctly now.

Reluctantly, as it seemed, the child turned away from the horses and took up the lantern again. He carefully closed the stable door, and Dr Sullivan followed him to the house. The boy lead the doctor to the living room where the other men and the woman were, but he shook his head when Sullivan asked him whether he would come in as well.

The boy’s strange behaviour astonished the doctor, but he went over to the other men and introduced himself to Reverend Crane, Mr Stewart, and the woman, whose name was Miss Avery. The Reverend said: “You must be not only thirsty, Gentlemen, but hungry as well. – Miss Avery will prepare some food for you.”

Miss Avery was not pleased about the additional work. She grumbled like a bad-mannered servant at a harbour inn, and the Professor and his companion were astonished that the Reverend let it pass. Nor did Mr Stewart show any surprise about her display of the bad temper of a chronic drunkard, and none of the men said anything when she went outside and shouted at the boy, who must have been around.

“Into the kitchen with you! Move and help me, boy!”

//Strange people.// Van Helsing thought. //Although the boy called our host ‘Father’, he seems to be no better than a servant, more tolerated than treated like the son of the master of the house. Born on the wrong side of the sheets and taken in out of sheer pity?//

Dr Sullivan’s thoughts went into the same direction. //The child surely looks like the Reverend.// he thought. And yet he had sensed more than seen in the small figure, although dishevelled and unkempt, something strange, fine, and exquisite, which was not the Reverend’s heritage. And there seemed to be no Mrs Crane ...

//Crane – I have heard that name somewhere.// the Professor thought. //But I can’t remember where.//

Both men discarded their thoughts when the Reverend asked them to the table, and Miss Avery brought in the food. It was tasty and nourishing, although the housekeeper (which she obviously was) handed the bowls full of stew to them with an air of someone who saw the entire household deprived of food for days to come. They all ate, even the boy now came into the room and sat down at the end of the table, looking as if he did not want to be noticed. Dr Sullivan did not blame him. The mood was heavy and tense.

When they had finished their meal, Reverend Crane led them into prayer for the snowstorm to abate, and for the poor souls who were forced to be outside in this storm. Finally, he thanked for the shelter they had here. The Professor thought the small sermon was not bad, although he did not like the harsh, almost contemptuous diction in which it was spoken, despite the pious words. Van Helsing could hear no true feeling for the poor souls out in the storm, who were mentioned. He was not sentimental, but again he did not like the contradiction.

Both men felt a secret relief when the household retired early, and they were shown up to a small room under the roof by the boy. When they followed the child upstairs, they saw how worn and shabby his suit was. A faint smell of urine was around him. Besides, he was permanently whispering to himself, as if memorising something.

He put the candle he had been carrying on a small table near the door and had vanished into the darkness again like a small ghost, before the two men could even thank him.

They looked around. Two narrow beds, a chair and the table were the only furniture. The beds had quilted blankets, which looked colourful even in candlelight, and Van Helsing for a moment had the idea that this was why they had been put onto the beds in a guest room hardly ever used. The air was stale, and despite the cold, Dr Sullivan took the chair and pried open the small window high up in the gable.

“Sarah will be worried.” he said, climbing off the chair.

The Professor tested the straw-filled mattresses on the beds and choose the bed to his left, putting his coat and hat on it. He had insisted on bringing them with him, guessing rightly their room for the night would be cold. And it was indeed, showing clouds of his breath in front of his mouth, when he spoke.

“She is a sensible woman and will know that we found shelter somewhere.” he answered. “After all, this is not a complete wilderness here. Don’t worry.”

“Do you think the snowstorm will lessen during the night, so we could be on our way again tomorrow?” the young doctor asked in a doubtful voice.

“We’ll see.” Van Helsing answered. “You seem to be eager to leave.” he added, climbing into the narrow bed, pulling his coat up to his chin and wrapping it round himself as an additional blanket. He lowered his voice. “And I think this is not only because your wife doesn’t know where we are and might be worried.”

Dr Sullivan looked at his friend and teacher. It was almost impossible to know what was going on in that massive head behind the high, wide forehead. The clear, blue eyes sometimes had a look which seemed to go right into your heart and mind. It was difficult to hide anything from the Professor’s sharp wit and penetrating gaze.

The young doctor lowered his voice as well.

“I know I should be grateful to our host – but frankly, I have rarely seen people I liked less at first glance. Of course I think we intruded at an inconvenient moment. Crane and the schoolmaster seemed to have an argument. Not that it is any of my business –“

The Professor grunted consent.

“And the boy doesn’t seem to be treated well.” Dr Sullivan continued. “When we brought the horses into the stable, it was as if he didn’t want to be noticed and yet as if he was looking for some attention he does not get from his folk. The same when he came in to eat with us. – Do you know what I mean?”

Van Helsing nodded. He had the same idea.

“Not just a shy child, but very downtrodden and frightened.” he agreed, and with these words, the Professor took out the string with which he had bound his hair back (Dr Sullivan had never seen him wearing a wig), popped his hat back on his head and lay down, indicating that the talk was over.

Dr Sullivan shook his head, climbed into his bed and blew out the candle. His friend and mentor was an eccentric alright. First coaxing something out of his partner in conversation, then all of a sudden losing every interest in the talk, going to sleep. But he knew the Professor’s abrupt manner and did not hold it against him.

Van Helsing himself had the same thoughts as his young friend. He also pitied the child, and he understood why Sullivan must feel drawn to the boy. A boy of perhaps the same age as Samuel had been when he drowned ... But the Professor did not want to get involved. They would be off the next morning anyway. With these thoughts, he settled for sleep.

*****

The day had been strenuous enough, and the two men were exhausted, but sleep would not come easily. Despite all guests and members of the household allegedly having retired to their rooms, there seemed to be a lot of activity going on downstairs.

At first Dr Sulllivan heard slight steps on the stairs and then a knock at a door. A period of silence followed.

Professor Van Helsing started snoring softly. Dr Sullivan took a deep breath and prepared for sleep.

A door was opened downstairs and the slight steps could be heard again, hastily, as if fleeing. One whimper, as if from a small creature in pain or badly frightened.

The Professor’s snoring stopped.

//The boy.// Dr Sullivan thought. He thought of the small pale face with the big frightened eyes. It made him sad to see how thin and neglected the child was. There were enough people with children like these, but poor people, leading hard lives, people who did not know any better and hardly could feed their children. Not learned people like the Reverend, obviously having the means to feed and clothe a child properly – and knowing that a child had to be fed and clothed and taught. And loved. Or perhaps he did not know the last thing...

The Professor groaned and turned to face the wall. Silence again, and Dr Sullivan finally began in earnest to hope for some sleep.

Other steps. More firm ones. Another knock.

Van Helsing mumbled something unintelligible. There was silence again.

Suddenly two male voices raised in angry argument, just when the doctor had slipped off into his first sleep.

The Professor sat up abruptly.

“Good God!” he said. “You might think you’re at an inn in some busy port!”

A door was slammed, angry steps from the corridor below, another door slammed.

“You might as well have said ‘brothel’.” Dr Sullivan said in the dark.

Van Helsing grunted and lay down again. After a while in which no sound was heard he resumed his snoring, and finally also Dr Sullivan found some sleep. The next sound the two men heard only in their sleep. It was something heavy falling down, but to the sleeping men, it might as well have been the wind blowing around the house, maybe throwing back a window shutter which had not been fastened properly.

*****

The Professor awoke early the next morning. Despite the disturbances he had slept soundly for a few hours. But now he felt cold, actually chilled through and through. He had to get up and move around to get the chill out of his bones.

Dr Sullivan was still asleep. Van Helsing dressed as quickly and silently as possible and left the room. He did not want to disturb his companion.

Carefully he went down the narrow stairs to the first floor. Everybody else in the house seemed still asleep. All doors in the corridor were closed. He consulted his watch. Small wonder. It showed five ‘o clock.

The Professor reached the next flight of steps and went down. He thought of the large living room where they had been yesterday. Maybe he could rekindle the fire and have a quiet smoke.

The storm had settled overnight. It was quiet. But it was the muffled silence of a lot of snow. The Professor put his face to a small window in the corridor. Despite the darkness outside, he could make out the thick curtain of falling snow. Their chances for leaving here and reaching Malvern today did not look good.

//But who knows?// Van Helsing thought. //It is still very early. Maybe the snow stops in a few hours, and if we leave early enough, we can reach Malvern before night falls again.//

There was the living room. One of the window shutters had been removed, and dimly lined out against the white curtain of snowflakes stood a thin, small figure, looking out, whispering to himself, or perhaps to the small thing he was holding against one of the panes so it might be able to look out as well.

“Snow, snow, snow.” the Professor heard. “See, Jacob? Snow, snow, snow. It looks so soft, but when they throw snowballs, they can be as hard as stones –“

It was the boy – what was his name again? He had been so taken in by watching the snow that in the first moment he did not notice he had company. Then, hearing steps, he flinched and turned hastily, trying to hide the thing he had spoken to and which must be a small doll of some sort.

//Strange.// Van Helsing thought. He knew some strange people. Alright, they were grown-ups, but why should children be an exception? And children never stayed in bed when they should, he knew that much ...

Turning away from the boy to the fireplace without saying anything, he started to rake the ashes. He wanted to be left in peace. So he ignored the child, hoping he would silently slip away again. The Professor kept himself occupied with rekindling the fire, finding a glowing spot in an ember, putting some dry twigs from a basket next to the fireplace onto it, kneeling down with a grunt and blowing to make the twigs catch fire.

However, the boy – Van Helsing remembered his name now: Ichabod – did not leave. Instead, he came over to watch the Professor’s efforts.

//So much for a bit of peace and quiet.// Van Helsing thought.

Wary about everyone as a rule, the child nevertheless felt strangely drawn to this man, although it was evident that the man had not been happy to find him here. No one ever seemed particularly glad to see him – but the man had not sent him away. So Ichabod stayed and watched.

The man was old. His hair was a mixture of brown and grey. But he looked strong and sturdy. His face was lined and tanned, and he had a big scar from his temple down to his left cheek. He looked wild, like someone who had seen a lot. But also like someone who would perhaps understand things ... His eyes looked calm and friendly. And this was why Ichabod stayed.

Van Helsing’s efforts had finally produced steady flames, so he lifted himself up from his knees with another grunt and put some embers into the fireplace. They caught quickly and soon started to give a good warmth.

Still ignoring the boy, the Professor then pulled one of the chairs away from the table to the fireplace, sat down and started to roam the pockets of his coat for his pipe and tobacco. When he found what he had been searching for, he started to fill his pipe, watching the child from the corner of his eye. He saw the boy smile tentatively at him, but did not respond, occupying himself with his pipe. He wanted these few moments of peace and quiet to himself, dammit! The child’s smile vanished, he shrugged and made a throwaway gesture, as if to say //Always the same, but why would it be different?//

//Strange child.// the Professor thought again. //Looks bright, though. And despite I don’t like children, I begin to like him. Or is it just pity because he looks so unhappy and neglected?//

Finally, he looked directly at the boy and nodded to him. “I didn’t want to startle you.” he said. “I just wanted to have a few moments to myself. Just like you, I think.”

The boy drew up his shoulders, looking at Van Helsing with a thoughtful frown, as if to decide whether he could trust him or not. The man had spoken to him. In a friendly, even voice. No one had spoken to him in this manner for a long time. Usually he was given orders in harsh, demanding tones, or was spoken to in an urging, longing voice that frightened him – but that undemanding, that friendly ... Ichabod took all his courage together. What could happen anyway? The man would laugh at him, perhaps make fun of him, and that would be it. – But perhaps – perhaps he would not laugh ...

“Do people like you?”

The Professor was taken aback for a moment. The child had spoken in his normal voice, not in the hushed whisper as when he had been at the window, looking out into the dark. And what a peculiar question this was for a child to ask a complete stranger! – How old might the boy be anyway? Yesterday he had thought him about Samuel Sullivan’s age when he had died – but he might be older. Because he was so thin and small, his age was hard to estimate.

When Ichabod had thought that Van Helsing would make fun of him, just because he was a child and the Professor was an adult, he could not have been more wrong. It was true, Van Helsing did not particularly like children, but he did not think of them as retarded adults. He treated them no different than the grown people he had to do with – which in most cases was to give a damn about them. He was neither a philanthropist nor a misanthrope, as long as they left him alone he was prepared to leave them alone. Only his few friends knew that he could be also sympathetic and caring.

When his moment of thinking was over, the Professor lit his pipe with a twig from the fire. Talking to the boy might be interesting.

“It depends.” he answered. “Some people surely like me. Others can’t stand my guts. But frankly, I do not care much.”

The boy scratched his nose awkwardly, his dark eyes firmly set on the Professor’s face. It seemed as if he did not know how to go on, and wiped his hands nervously on his coat. Van Helsing saw that they were red and swollen, as if someone had beaten the child’s palms. This was why his gestures were so awkward! The Professor felt anger well up in him and did not quite know why. He had seen the boy only briefly yesterday evening and had not paid attention to his hands, but it seemed to him as if they had not been swollen then. Of course, it was a common punishment for lazy or stubborn children at school as well as at home, he had received more than his fair share of beating when he had been a boy. But it seemed as if some people were too generous with this kind of punishment ...

“It is a matter of age.” he continued, when the child remained silent. “When I was a boy like you, I tried to obey my parents and my teachers –“

Van Helsing spoke the truth. As far as he remembered, this was what he had tried to do, basically being a good-natured, although wild, wilful and temperamental child. A picture rose in his mind from about forty years ago: A clear winter day, the canals of Amsterdam all frozen, a bunch of boys racing along on skates, screaming, shouting, enjoying themselves, the sun, the clear day, just being there, enjoying life ... He had not forgotten this joy of life through all the years and was still able to feel it. And it surely was what especially children should do in his opinion: Enjoy life by just being there. But the boy in front of him did not look as if he had ever known such happiness and freedom.

“- if I didn’t forget.” he finished his sentence.

The boy hung his head. “I try.” he said in a low voice. “I try to be good – but –“

The Professor talked on to bring him to other thoughts. How should he explain to the child that sometimes parents, for some reason or other, did not want and like their children, and that he was nevertheless worth of being loved as much as everybody else? The boy would have to find this out for himself, would have to find love for himself...

“Sometimes people like you when you show you like them. For example with the ladies – in a few years’ time you will know what I’m talking about.” He suppressed a smile. Young Abraham Van Helsing had been a ladies’ man, passionate and with a hot-blooded temper – so many unnecessary duels, just to show off ...

“And did you get a lady to like you?” the boy asked, looking up.

Upstairs, a door was opened and closed again, and then steps came down the stairs. The child flinched, but he stayed.

Unperturbed, the Professor smoked his pipe. Now he smiled, although it was a sad smile.

“Yes.” he answered. “But she died.” – A big part of his life in just four simple words ... //Don’t get philosophical and self-centred, Van Helsing, you old fool!//

The boy hung his head again.

“Like my mother.” he said.

//Which explains the absence of a Mrs Crane in the household.// Van Helsing thought. //Crane – I have read something about someone called Crane a few years ago. But what was it? But then, Crane is a common name here. Hm.//

The clatter of pots and pans from the kitchen. This must be the housekeeper, preparing breakfast.

“Don’t you have friends, Ichabod?” the Professor said to the child’s bowed head. “Boys your age?”

Ichabod shook his head wildly. He did not want to think of chases, of mud and snowballs flying, sometimes stones –

“Have no friends.” He hesitated for a moment, before the next sentences came out of him in a rush. “But why don’t they like me? The don’t want me to play with them. They say my mother was a gypsy. – But the gypsies don’t like me either. They sent me back.”

His head was bowed again. He did not want the man to see his tears.

Van Helsing took the pipe from his mouth. If these words were not the fantasies of a child, how despaired and starving for affection must this boy be, wanting to join a family of gypsies? The Professor was prepared to take the boy’s words as truth. The child was obviously longing for care, for a bit of attention, otherwise he would not have addressed him, a total stranger.

Steps from the kitchen, mounting the stairs again.

“It was right of the gypsies to send you back home.” Van Helsing answered the boy. “If they had taken you with them, they would have been in trouble. Surely your father would not have wanted you to run away with gypsies.”

The boy made the throwaway gesture again and shrugged.

“I thought he would be happy if I went away.”

//Even if he might not give a damn for you, he looks like someone who would gladly state an example if some gypsies took a child from a village away with them.// the Professor thought. Suddenly he had the image of a page from a book in his mind. It had been a treatise about superstition and witchcraft in New England. He saw the words in front of him: “One of the youngest cases in the history of witchcraft trials is that of Ebenezer Crane, a witch hunter in the tradition of Matthew Hopkins. Crane, having retired to the more peaceful life of a Reverend in a small Massachusetts village, accused his wife Elsa after an eight-year marriage of witchcraft and brought her to trial. Elsa Crane confessed and was executed on November 15, 1779.” – Heureka! He still could rely on his memory!

He shook himself and found the boy looking at him.

“Did your father find out that you had been at the gypsies’ camp?” he asked.

The boy’s look almost frightened Van Helsing. The child looked at nothing, his dark eyes full of terror. That was more than an answer. The father must have taken drastic measures to prevent the boy from running away again. Van Helsing saw that his question had frightened the child even more, something which he had not intended. He decided to lead the conversation on to other subjects. His eyes fell on the rows and rows of books along the walls. He had seen them of course the evening before, but his intention this morning had been to have a closer look at them when he was alone and undisturbed. The boy being there had taken his attention away from the books.

Van Helsing got up and went over to the bookcases. A lot of the books, mostly those in the upper shelves, looked as if no one had taken them down in a long time. They were dusty and partly covered with cobwebs. In the lower shelves, the dust and the cobwebs had been partly removed, and it looked as if some books had been taken out and put back again. He could make out books in Latin, French and Spanish titles, Dutch and German books as well. The subjects ranged from novels, books on medicine and natural history, to history and art. A little fortune. A shame they were so dusty and neglected. The Reverend did not seem to set a lot of store by them, something which struck the Professor as odd. He himself liked books. Of course he knew very well that his likes and dislikes did not apply to other people. But a learned man, owning a small library and letting the books just rot away, while other people wanted books, but did not have much money to buy them? His friend Sullivan for example would be delighted. – Strange. Very strange.

He saw a blanket wedged in a dark corner between the bookcases. Someone must try to hide and maybe to sleep here. And the only one wishing to hide, the only one having to do things in secret in the household must be the boy.

He turned around to the child. “Do you like books, Ichabod?”

The boy, who had gone over to the window and had pressed his swollen palms to the cold glass panes, flinched and took his hands away. He nodded.

“Me too.” Van Helsing said. “Your father has some interesting books here.”

The child shook his head.

“They’ve been my grandfather’s. Father never looks at them. He doesn’t want me to read them, because he says they are bad. He makes me read the Bible.”

“The Bible surely is an important book.” the Professor agreed. “But there are other interesting and important books, maybe right here. I don’t think that these books are all bad.”

The boy’s earnest dark eyes searched his face, as if to determine whether the stranger wanted to hear him out and trap him. Van Helsing could read the small face like an open book. He saw that Young Ichabod finally decided to trust him. He nodded, and even smiled a bit.

“There is so much to see, so many pictures – strange countries, wild animals and people! How people lived long ago and how they live in other countries! And tales about knights and kings and ladies and dragons!”

“Exactly.” the Professor agreed. He knocked his pipe on the grate in front of the fireplace.

The boy wiped his nose, smiling again, obviously happy that the stranger seemed to understand. Then his face darkened again.

“Maybe Mr Stewart likes me – sometimes.” he said after a short silence, returning to the subject of being liked.

Before Van Helsing could ask what he meant by that, there was a scream from the upper floor, a long-drawn, wailing howl, which startled both the man and the child.

Ichabod fled to a corner, clasping his hands over his ears, screaming as well with shock and fright, huddling himself together, rocking back and forth. Upstairs, the woman was still screaming.

“My God!”

The Professor was torn between calming down the frightened child and finding out why the woman was screaming. Because her screaming did not cease, he decided to do the latter.

In the upstairs corridor he met his friend, and together they hurried to the room from which the wailing screams came. The door stood open. It was a large room with a big window. An armchair, a small desk with some papers on it, a bookcase with some books, a lectern with an open bible. The room was stern, cold and forbearing. To the left, the door to another, smaller room stood open.

Hasty steps announced that the screams had alarmed others as well. Mr Stewart stormed into the room a moment after the Professor and Dr Sullivan had entered.

The housekeeper was on her knees in front of a narrow bed, still wailing and screaming. Between her and the bed the Reverend lay on his back, his eyes wide open, a brownish-grey fluid smeared round his open mouth, covering his chin and upper body, as well as the floor around his head.

//Damn!// the Professor thought. Their host obviously was dead, he could see this in one glance. He did want no part in this, but it would be their duty as guests to help in some way or other, if so wished. He turned to Stewart. The schoolmaster stood one step behind them, staring at his friend, clutching the doorframe, probably trying to understand what he was seeing.

Van Helsing exchanged a glance with his friend. Dr Sullivan looked as shocked as the schoolmaster, but under the Professor’s gaze he remembered his duties as a doctor, bent down to the woman and gently touched her shoulder.

“Madam,” he said, “my friend and I are doctors. Could you please move and let us see whether we still can do something for the Reverend?”

She did not react, rocking herself back and forth. At least her wailing faded into an exhausted whimper.

The Professor turned to Mr Stewart again. “You know her. Maybe she will listen to you. Could you bring her away from here and look after her?”

The schoolmaster pulled himself together. “Of course. – My God, Ebenezer – What happened to him?”

“This is what we’ll try to find out.” Van Helsing said.

“My God!” Stewart repeated and finally obliged. Gently talking to the woman, he managed to get her to her feet and led her away to the main room. The Professor closed the door behind them.

*****

The two doctors now tended to the Reverend, but it was obvious that the man was dead, and must have been dead for a few hours already.

They looked at each other again.

“Suffocated from what he has thrown up, like someone too drunk or too weak to look after himself.” The Professor said in a low voice.

“He did not impress me as a drunkard or affected with an illness yesterday evening.” Dr Sullivan answered. His friendly, open face had a worried look.

Van Helsing sniffed at the fluid covering the body.

“It strongly smells of alcohol. We all had one or two goblets of mulled wine during the evening meal – so – But what made him empty his stomach? What did not agree with him? We had that stew, and it certainly agreed with me.”

“With me as well.” Dr Sullivan nodded.

Van Helsing looked around. “The smell of alcohol is too strong for what I remember him drinking last night. He must have drunk more, but there is no bottle, pitcher or glass here.” He shrugged.

Dr Sullivan lowered his voice to a whisper.

“Do you think it was an accident?”

“My instincts tell me otherwise.” the Professor answered, in a low voice as well. “But how should I prove it? I’d like to examine the contents of his stomach in detail, and the body for signs of poisoning. But even then I could not tell if it was accidental or intended. For this, I’d have to do some chemical tests, and we obviously don’t have the equipment here for such a thing –”

He had just finished his sentence, when the schoolmaster poked his head through the door without knocking.

“Miss Avery has calmed herself a bit.” he announced. He did not speak on, but remained at the door.

//Does he want to hear what we found out? If we found out something foul? Or does he merely want to hear from us what happened to his friend?// the Professor thought.

“Reverend Crane has been dead for more than six hours.” he said. “Rigor mortis is fully developed. He had not undressed for the night yet, as you can see. And obviously he did not die in his sleep.”

The schoolmaster flinched at these blunt words, and Dr Sullivan threw his friend a shocked glance.

“But how could this happen?” Mr Stewart stammered. “He was in perfect health yesterday evening!”

“He seemed well enough last night.” Dr Sullivan agreed.

“But what in God’s name happened, Gentlemen?” The man’s pale eyes darted to and fro between the two doctors as he repeated his question.

//He seems a bit too eager to know what we found out.// Van Helsing thought. //I may be mistaken, but he looked a bit surprised when he heard me tell the woman that we are doctors, and he was rather reluctant to get her out. And now he is breathing down our necks again.//

“Without a proper autopsy, everything will have to remain mere guesswork.” he answered crossly. “He might have suffered from epileptic fits, but you as his friend might know this better than we could. He also might have drunk more than he could stand, become unconscious, and in his unconscious state have been unable to empty his stomach sitting up or kneeling. So he suffocated.”

The schoolmaster opened his mouth to say something, but the Professor went on relentlessly. “He might have been prone to a seizure as well – as far as we can estimate. All of these reasons might have caused his death – but as I said, without an autopsy, everything will have to remain pure guesswork!”

He got up and walked past the astonished schoolmaster, who had not yet managed to cope with this outburst.

“You will not cut him up! I forbid this!” he finally brought out.

Van Helsing turned at the door, just looking at the man.

“I’m hungry.” was all he said, when he went out, leaving the task of calming the schoolmaster down to his friend.

Dr Sullivan looked a bit embarrassed.

“We aren’t police officers, Mr Stewart.” he explained. “A doctor only can perform an autopsy when authorised by the police. So no one will disturb his peace.”

He himself began to think in the same line as the Professor. Was the schoolmaster just concerned about his friend’s dead body being tampered with, or was he rather afraid the unannounced, unwelcome guests, who most inconveniently happened to be doctors, would find out something he wanted to hide? He seemed insecure and ungainly, but at the same time somehow cunning. On the other hand he could be genuinely shocked.

The Professor had gone into the main room, where he found the housekeeper sitting in the armchair. She had stopped crying altogether, just sat there erect, her lips pursed tightly, looking out the window, where the snow was still falling, as Van Helsing noticed, following her gaze.

“Miss Avery,” he addressed her. “Unfortunately, Reverend Crane is beyond our help.”

He had not expected her to react to his words, but her red-rimmed eyes in the blotched face darted to him immediately. Evidently, her mood had changed. She was sober and in a foul temper. Van Helsing asked himself whether her earlier outburst had been genuine.

//Goodness – why do I constantly think the worst of these people? What does set me so against them? Is it how they treat the boy? – My God, I have forgotten the boy ...//

He turned away, and in leaving the room threw over his shoulder: “I know the circumstances are sad, but I think we all could do with a cup of tea and something to eat.”

In an instant she had jumped up and was behind him.

“This is all you can think of in the face of death?!” she screamed. “Stuffing yourself?!”

The Professor turned to her again, meeting the furious look of her pale eyes.

“I would gladly fast if this would help Reverend Crane in any way.” he answered in a firm, even voice. “But the truth is, it won’t help him. He is in another world now, where he no longer is in need of food and drink. But we are still alive, and I for my part am hungry!”

He stared back at her with blazing blue eyes, until she lowered hers, brushed past him and stormed out of the room, downstairs, screaming for the boy. The Professor followed her hurriedly into the living room. She had found the child, still crouched in a corner, and descended on him like a harpy, dragging him up.

“Get yourself into the kitchen!” she screamed, clutching the boy’s hair, tearing him up, when she found the wrist of her clutching hand gripped by fingers much stronger than hers.

“Let him go!” the Professor demanded, and before she could protest against the stranger touching her, the schoolmaster, who had hurried down as well with Dr Sullivan, intervened. He put one hand on the woman’s upper arm.

“We are all upset, Miss Avery, but let’s not take it out on the boy. He does not even know what has happened, and he has a right to know. I will speak to him.”

The housekeeper released her grip on Ichabod’s hair, and the Professor let go of her wrist. Mr Stewart took the boy around the shoulders, leading him away, upstairs. Miss Avery stormed off into the kitchen, and the two doctors heard her clattering with pots and pans and muttering angrily to herself.

Dr Sullivan shook his head, as if to clear his thoughts.

“I mean – of course it is a shock for all of us – but – is this a madhouse?”

Van Helsing gave him a quizzical look from clear blue eyes.

“No, dear friend. Believe me – a madhouse is worse. Far, far worse.”

*****

“What now?” the young doctor asked next.

The Professor indicated the stairs with his head.

“Let’s have a closer look.”

The two men went upstairs to the corpse again. The schoolmaster and the boy were nowhere to be seen. Obviously Stewart wanted to spare the boy the look of his father’s dead body.

Dr Sullivan moved up to the window in the big room and opened it. The snow had not let up, still covering and silencing everything. No one was to be seen outside. And the leaden sky did not give away how much more snow would fall or whether it would ever stop ...

“This is all so weird.” the young doctor said. “A sudden snowstorm, we lose our way and are forced to seek shelter here, and now our host has suddenly died in a mysterious way.”

He went into the small room and knelt next to the Reverend’s body again. He tried to close the dead man’s eyes. Rigor mortis was still too strong to close his mouth.

The Professor carefully examined the room and the dead man’s clothes.

“Before the woman started screaming,” he remarked, “it had just occurred to me who our host really is. Or better was.”

Dr Sullivan got up.

“What do you mean?”

“I remembered having read his name. I furthermore remembered having read about a witch hunter. You know, these things interest me. He accused his own wife of witchcraft about three years ago. She was tried, found guilty and executed. – The man who gave up his wife to the authorities was one Ebenezer Crane.”

Dr Sullivan grew pale.

“So the boy –?”

“Most probably is the fruit of his marriage to the unhappy woman.” Van Helsing finished his friend’s sentence.

“Which would explain the bad treatment of the child.” Dr Sullivan continued. “The sins of the fathers – the mother in this case. – Do you actually think it possible that the Reverend's death was no accident?”

“We have seen for ourselves that Reverend Crane has not been the most pleasant person to deal with.” the Professor answered. “Could well be there are people who wished him ill –“ He stopped himself, looking to the door.

The small figure of the boy stood at the threshold, not daring to enter, ready to run away, should one of the men send him off, but the Professor beckoned him in.

“The schoolmaster told you what happened to your father?” he asked.

The boy nodded. The frightened expression on his face had not changed, but he had not cried. He seemed to be very afraid of something, but at the same time determined to get it done. Dr Sullivan believed he knew what it was when the child spoke.

“Is he really dead?” He looked at the Professor as if he needed a confirmation of what the schoolmaster had told him. In his short life, Ichabod had come to know his father as someone who was master, someone who made the rules, who dealt out pain, even death, authorised by a merciless God. It was hard to understand that someone so powerful nevertheless could die himself.

“Yes, I am afraid so, Ichabod.” the Professor confirmed the child’s question.

The boy nodded again. Somehow, he trusted this man. He and his friend were easygoing and friendly. There was something about them which his father had forbidden. Ichabod could not name it, but he felt it himself. Something like being alive...

“May I see him?” he asked. “Please.”

Dr Sullivan, who, on noticing the child, had hastily closed the door to the small room, where the body lay, bent down to the boy.

“This would not be a good idea, Ichabod. You should remember him as he was in life.”

As soon as he had spoken these words, he noticed that this was what the child wanted to avoid. For a moment, Ichabod’s eyes met his in a burning, intense stare which frightened the doctor, because of the similarity to the Reverend’s piercing gaze. It was over as quickly as it had come, and the boy lowered his eyes again.

“Please.” he repeated.

Dr Sullivan felt that he had wanted to protect something in the child which had already been destroyed. He looked at his friend for help, but the Professor gave a nod. So the young doctor shrugged helplessly and moved aside to let the boy enter the room where his father’s body lay.

Ichabod went in slowly, hesitatingly, and Dr Sullivan saw that he shivered. A frightened look over his shoulder between unruly strands of hair at the two men –

//Will you help me if he sits up and grabs me?// - then he stood next to the body. Carefully, he touched one leg with the tip of his shoe. When the man who had been his father did not move, he knelt down next to the body and put one finger tentatively on one of the stiff hands.

“Cold.” he whispered – and suddenly his small features distorted into a mask of hatred. He dug his nails into the body’s face. It must be painful for him to bend his swollen fingers, but he clawed at the dead face, leaving scratch marks on the cheeks.

Dr Sullivan and the Professor rushed forward at the same time to pull the boy away from the corpse, but it was already over. With a shrill cry, Ichabod fled from the body and was caught by the young doctor, who swept him up into his arms without thinking. Ichabod did not resist. He clung to Sullivan, trembling, putting his head onto the doctor’s shoulder. No one had held him, really held him, since his mother had gone, and he had almost forgotten how good it felt. – So his father was dead. Really, really dead. He was glad about it, because his father could not beat him anymore. And he was sad and did not know why.

Dr Sullivan hardly noticed that the boy smelled unwashed and had wet himself. He felt the heartbeat, fast like that of a bird or another small animal. Mechanically, he stroked the boy’s unkempt hair. The child was fragile. Small and fine-boned, he weighted next to nothing. Dr Sullivan became aware that the last time he had held a child in his arms, it had been the cold, wet body of Samuel, his drowned son –

His grip must have become too firm. They boy began to struggle, and the doctor released him. Ichabod smiled at him fleetingly, then made his throw-away gesture again. But he stayed with the two men, watching intently what the Professor did now.

Van Helsing went once more to the dead man, then to the bed, the wardrobe, the washstand, then back to the door. And to the body again.

“What are you doing?” Dr Sullivan asked.

“I try to find out what happened before the Reverend died.” the Professor answered. “I suppose he sat at his desk for a while, reading the Bible there.”

“Bible lesson.” the boy murmured. “Father gives me a Bible lesson every evening. –Used to –“ he added and stopped himself.

“Ah.” Van Helsing said. He opened a desk drawer, and the first thing that fell into his hands was a cane.

//This explains the boy’s swollen palms.//

He took the cane out and saw Ichabod flinch.

Dr Sullivan gave his friend a questioning and annoyed look, and the Professor looked back at him angrily.

“I know what you think, Patrick.” he said. “You think I’m sticking my nose to deep into other people’s affairs. But I am closed up here with no chance to leave at the moment –“ he indicated the ever-falling snow outside with the cane – “and my brain needs a bit of exercise.” He looked at the boy as if to ask him if the Reverend used the cane on him, but a look at the frightened face and the swollen hands answered this question before he could ask it.

“Forgot a verse.” Ichabod murmured, looking at his hands.

//This could well be.// Van Helsing thought. //I heard light steps last night, which went away again later, and something like a whimper. Might have been the boy who had been punished for failing to learn the chapter properly.// Fleetingly, he thought of another fine afternoon in his childhood, which he had spent indoors, writing again and again the biblical verses in which his namesake, Abraham the Patriarch, is prevented from sacrificing his son Isaac by divine intervention. He had forgotten the verses again, but what he remembered strongly was the grudge of the ten-year-old at having to be indoors, instead of being outside, playing with his friends.

“I’ve never been good at learning things by heart either.” he said. “Did your father look unwell during the Bible lesson? Was he any different?”

Ichabod shook his head, his eyes on the cane, which the Professor still held in his hand. Van Helsing realised that he was frightening the child and put the cane back into the drawer again. He went on thinking aloud.

“The Reverend went to bed. Into the next room – on his way to the washstand or the wardrobe – and then he must have become unwell all of a sudden. Maybe he had felt it all evening, but it had not been so bad that he would have been unable to suppress it. But now it must have become extremely bad. He must have become dizzy, tried to grab the chair to steady himself, but it fell over, and he went to the ground as well. I remember having heard something falling down downstairs.”

“Do you think he did become unconscious by his fall or from –?” Dr Sullivan stopped himself, thinking of the boy.

Van Helsing went over to the dead man again and examined his head, very closely this time.

“The skull is intact, so he may not have become unconscious by the fall. But his eyes were bloodshot. We could not be sure without opening the cranium –“

“Professor!” Dr Sullivan admonished him. There was no doubt that the boy understood a lot of what Van Helsing was saying. He seemed, however, less shocked by the Professor’s words than fascinated.

“- but I think he also suffered a sudden stroke, and internal bleeding in the head, maybe from the strain of coping with a very strong sudden pain in his intestines. The bleeding in the head must have rendered him unconscious and thus unable to remove the bile from his respiratory tract. So he suffocated.” the Professor ended his observations without paying attention to his friend’s interjection.

Ichabod had followed the Professor’s explanations with keen interest. He even seemed to have forgotten his fear for a while.

//A strange child if there ever was one, to be sure.// Dr Sullivan thought. //He listens so eagerly to what Abraham is saying. I wonder how much he understands. It is obvious that Ichabod did not feel very much for his father. But his outburst frightened me. How much can be destroyed in a child ...?//

*****

Steps on the stairs, and Miss Avery entered the room. She seemed to have calmed herself by being at the bottle, but what she said made sense.

“It is not right to have him lie like that all the time. He should at least be laid out properly. And there isn’t even a minister to say some prayers!”

“You are right, Miss Avery.” Dr Sullivan said firmly, his tone indicating his friend that his time for examining the body was over now. Van Helsing got the message, and the young doctor could see a short gleam of amusement in the older man’s blue eyes.

“It is not proper that he is still lying on the ground.” he continued. “If you need any help –“

“Don’t you touch him any more!” the housekeeper snapped. “Mr Stewart can help me!” With a venomous look she added: “First, I’m pestered to prepare something to eat, then nobody will eat from it!”

“Well, thank you for your efforts, Miss Avery.” the Professor joined in. “We will eat now.”

“Fine.” she answered curtly, turning to the child. “And you get yourself next door and fetch the schoolmaster! He can help me with your father instead of praying.”

Hesitatingly, the boy retreated, the worried, fearful but at the same time determined expression on his face again.

The Professor left the unpleasant woman to her task and motioned his friend to follow him downstairs.

*****

The table was laid in the living room, but the fire had almost died down again. Dr Sullivan rekindled it and joined the Professor at the table.

“If we put aside what you said when the boy was present – do you still think the Reverend’s death was no accident? That someone put something into his food or drink?” he asked in a whisper.

The Professor nodded, because he had his mouth full of bread and cold meat.

“The housekeeper is the one who prepares the food. And yet you eat what she provides?”

The Professor swallowed a bite.

“In my opinion, the woman would be the last one to harm her master. She has a good position here, and hardly a master would be so tolerant of her drinking and her rude behaviour as the Reverend seemed to be.”

“And yet –“

“I don’t think cold meat and bread will be dangerous. And if you don’t trust the tea, drink water. I for my part will have something hot.”

Dr Sullivan still looked doubtful.

“What do we know? She might bear a secret grudge –“

Van Helsing emptied the cup of tea in one swallow.

“There are other people in this household, who bear more obvious grudges.” he said.

“The schoolmaster? But –“

“The Reverend presented him as his friend.” the Professor said. “Nevertheless, the tension between the two men was obvious last evening. You noticed it yourself. And during the night, I think I heard an argument from downstairs. Two male voices. Because of the weather and because I heard no other noises, I exclude another visitor. And the only men in the house apart from us were the Reverend and the schoolmaster. Maybe they continued the argument we had interrupted the evening before. I suppose the schoolmaster was the last one to have seen Crane alive. – But I was not only thinking of Stewart.”

Dr Sullivan put down his knife and fork.

“You mean the boy? But he is only a child!”

“You have seen how he hated his father.” The Professor had finished his meal and took out tobacco and pipe again. “And possibly he has a good reason. Have you seen his hands? And the cane in the drawer? Have you seen the fear in his eyes when his father spoke to him last evening? I believe the Reverend was a cruel man, who found joy in letting others feel his power, preferably a defenceless boy . I think he used the Bible lessons to beat and humiliate the child.”

“The boy looks neglected.” Dr Sullivan said. “No doubt about that. But it is the housekeeper who treats him badly.”

“And would she do so if the Reverend had told her otherwise?” Van Helsing asked. He had filled his pipe and lit it with a twig he held into the flames in the fireplace.

“Furthermore, we don’t know what he knows about his mother’s death and his father’s part in it.”

“But how on earth should he have poisoned his father?”

The Professor blew a cloud of smoke away.

“Don’t get upset, Patrick. These are merely idle thoughts of mine, nothing else. – I do not believe Mrs Crane was a witch in the true sense of the word. But I think she had a certain knowledge about herbs and plants which can heal used one way and kill used another. And the boy might have learned some of it.”

“Really, Professor!” Dr Sullivan objected. “How old might the boy be? Let’s say not older than ten years at the most!”

Van Helsing grunted consent. He was occupied with his pipe.

“So. And when did his mother die, you said?”

“Three years ago.”

“So he was perhaps seven when she died. I beg of you! Do you actually think a ten-year-old boy would have learned enough more than three years ago to prepare a poison and to give it to his father?!”

The Professor shrugged.

“I told you: Just idle thoughts.”

Dr Sullivan threw his hands up in an exasperate gesture.

“And if you were right –“ he hissed – “what would you do?”

The Professor looked at him through the smoke of his pipe.

“Nothing, young man.”

Dr Sullivan gave him a despaired, bewildered look, but before he could comment on Van Helsing’s latest answer, the housekeeper came into the living room, followed by the schoolmaster and the boy.

Miss Avery and Mr Stewart joined the two men at the table. The child wanted to follow suit, when the housekeeper said sharply: “Someone has to look after the horses.”

Ichabod got up again at once. When he passed Mr Stewart, the schoolmaster held him back at one arm, and combed the boy’s unkempt hair away from his forehead.

“It is cold outside.” he said. “Take my coat.”

The boy nodded and retreated hastily. The Professor pushed his chair back and excused himself. Mr Stewart gave him an angry look.

//What is all this?// Dr Sullivan thought. //I can’t make head nor tail of it, that’s for sure.//

*****

The Professor followed the child, who obediently struggled with the schoolmaster’s coat, but abandoned it, because it was much too big for him. He shrugged and put it back on the nail in the wall where it had been.

When Ichabod opened the back door, a lot of snow fell inside. In the turmoil following the discovery of Reverend Crane’s dead body, no one had thought about shovelling snow. And it was still snowing.

Van Helsing looked at Ichabod.

“We’ll have to do a bit of shovelling to the stable.” he said. “Let me do it.”

He took a shovel which stood inside, and the boy took a broom and swept the snow out of the corridor. Then he cleared the passage to the stables behind the shovelling Professor. His hands were still badly swollen and giving him trouble, and the cold made them even worse. He hardly could hold the broom, as Van Helsing saw, but he seemed determined to sweep. And there was still that frightened but determined look on his face.

//As if he were about to pass an important exam, deciding about his future.// Van Helsing thought. //And the schoolmaster is so kind to him all of a sudden! He did not give me the impression of caring much for the boy before. Maybe it is to help him overcome the shock of his father’s death. The Reverend after all called him his friend.// There was something else in his mind, something which struck him as odd, but he could not name it at the moment.

//If it only would stop snowing ...//

The way to the stable was not far, just across the open yard. But the snow was wet and heavy, muffling every sound.. Despite the bodily work, the Professor was cold when they reached the stable, and the boy was shivering in his thin coat. The snowflakes caught in his hair, melting.

The Professor opened the stable door. It was warm inside. Van Helsing’s horse, the sturdy brown mare, whinnied happily when she saw him. The Professor stroked her nose.

“Sorry, old girl, doesn’t seem as if we would be on our way again today.” he said. He patted Shamrock, Dr Sullivan’s horse, and also the Reverend’s horse.

“Jericho.” the boy introduced the horse, as he had done the evening before when he had been here with the young doctor.

Van Helsing stroked Jericho’s nose as well, then they fed and watered the horses.

“Jericho is a good horse.” the Professor said after a while.

Ichabod nodded. Suddenly he started to cry.

Van Helsing just stood patiently and waited till the boy spoke again.

“Some days ago there was a dog. I had not seen him before. He came up to me and licked my hands and wanted to play with me. It made me a bit happy. And the next day, when I saw him again and tried to touch him, he was angry and almost bit me.”

“Was he a stray dog?” the Professor asked. What the child had told him had been completely unexpected, but Van Helsing was accustomed to abrupt changes in conversation. He himself was a master in this art.

“Think so.” Ichabod pushed the wet strands of hair away from his face.

“Animals are not much different from people.” Van Helsing explained. “A lot of them will be happy and friendly when treated well. And most of them will become confused and angry, if some people treat them badly. And then sometimes they’ll try to bite you when you only mean well.”

//He tells me the story with the dog, but it seems to me as if he wanted to tell me something else. He seems to fight with something which is too big for him, and at the same time he is determined about something. – What if my thought that he might have to do with is father’s death was true? What would I do? What would I do indeed?//

The child sighed and took a deep breath, before he gave the conversation a turn in yet another direction.

“Mr Stewart says he will take me in – if –“ He stopped.

“If what?” the Professor encouraged him calmly. He was sure the boy had almost given away something important, but Ichabod had noticed his lapse himself and stopped.

“He will take me in!” he repeated instead, as if to assure himself that his words were true.

“And do you like Mr Stewart?” Van Helsing asked.

The boy looked at him, unsure what to say, probably unsure what to think of the schoolmaster himself. Finally he helplessly repeated a third time: “He will take me in.” To the Professor it sounded a bit like //He will take me in, so he must be a good man and he must like me. And if he doesn’t, it doesn’t matter. I will belong somewhere and I have to be grateful to him.// He saw that he would not learn more from the boy – if there was to learn more at all. Perhaps the boy’s uneasiness just came from realising he had become an orphan, dependent on the mercy of strangers. This was something Van Helsing could understand. Perhaps he was only imagining hidden messages ...

“It is cold.” he said. “Come, let’s go back to the house.” He went to the stable door, but the boy remained standing where he was. Van Helsing turned around to him, impatient to get back into the warmth.

“Come on, boy!”

“I’m afraid.” the child suddenly said, his head bowed, his voice so low the Professor could hardly hear him. “Of Mr Stewart. He does things –“

With these words he ran away from the stable, across the yard, slipping on the cobblestones, almost falling down, and vanished into the house.

Van Helsing followed slowly, absentmindedly kicking the snow from his boots before entering the house. The boy’s last words were in his head.

//What did he mean by “things”? Did he probably know that the schoolmaster had something to do with his father’s death?//

He entered the living room, where his friend was still sitting with Mr Stewart and Miss Avery.

“It is a trying time for us all.” he heard the schoolmaster say. “And the circumstances are most unhappy. But I think I am saying what my poor friend would have said in my place. There is no way you and your friend will be able to leave in this weather, Dr Sullivan. It is the least thing we can do as Christians to give you shelter until the weather will calm down.”

“It is well to give hospitality which isn’t yours to give!” the housekeeper grumbled.

The Professor was repelled by the schoolmaster’s sanctimonious tone, but he said in a friendly way: “You must be a good Christian, Mr Stewart. The boy told me you would take him in.”

// So let’s see what they say. Let’s see whether Stewart actually said something to the boy, and whether she knows something about it.//

Miss Avery nodded morosely.

“At least that worry is taken off my back!”

Mr Stewart modestly looked down at the table. “Reverend Crane was my friend. He would have wished me to look after his only son.”

“Did he make a will?” Van Helsing asked bluntly.

He saw Dr Sullivan’s reproaching look and the annoyed look of the schoolmaster.

//Of course this is none of my business. I know I’m uncomfortably inquisitive, but no one is forced to answer me.//

The schoolmaster seemed not only annoyed, but uneasy as well, as if he thought that the unwanted guest suspected him of hiding something, and that it was better to answer his questions to prove his honesty.

“Not that I know of.” he answered. “I told him to be prepared, for no one knows when his hour will come. But he would not listen. Well – he had no reason. He was as healthy as he could be. This is why I do not understand –“ He shook his head.

//If you say yourself he had no reason, because he was so healthy, why did you ask him to make a will then? Just to be prepared?// Van Helsing thought.

Miss Avery joined into the conversation.

“Many things would be a lot easier if he had made a will. – Now the congregation will quarrel about what they’ll leave for the new Reverend and what they’ll take for themselves and how things will be settled at all!”

She was still upset, and most probably about her own future. It might well be that a new Reverend would bring his own family or his own housekeeper and would have no use for her. Or he would disapprove of her drinking and send her away.

“At least the boy will be in good hands –“ Dr Sullivan threw in, leaving the end of the sentence open, not as a question, but as if a bit in doubt about his own statement.

“Where is he, anyway?” Miss Avery looked around. “He’s finished with the horses, isn’t he? Could make himself useful in the kitchen, as there won’t be no school today, as I take it.” She left the room, calling the boy’s name.

The schoolmaster chose to ignore her. The Professor looked at him. //”He does things.” – “I’m afraid of Mr Stewart.” – Perhaps it is all in the boy’s mind, and there is no reason for him to be afraid of anything. Perhaps ...//

After a few moments he said: “The child seems to be frightened.”

Did he just think he had seen a flicker of unease in the schoolmaster’s face? It was over before he could be sure about it.

“Well, naturally he is bewildered and upset by this father’s death.” Mr Stewart answered.

“He looks a bit neglected.” The Professor continued casually, ignoring Dr Sullivan’s warning kick against his boot and the slight shake of his head.

Mr Stewart frowned.

“To be honest, I do not approve of my friend’s choice of Miss Avery as a housekeeper. You may have noticed that she is – prone to drinking, and I am sure she used the money he gave her to use for the boy’s care to buy her brandy.” His voice had become very low. “I have to say that my friend did not care much for Ichabod after his disappointment with the child’s mother.”

//A nice understatement.// Van Helsing thought grimly. //If you drag someone before the authorities under the accusation of witchcraft, you must be more than “disappointed” in this person!//

“Disappointment?” he asked.

Too late the schoolmaster noticed that he might have said too much. His embarrassment was obvious.

“Well, Mrs Crane, she was – she was – she had a different idea about religion than we have. This is not done for a Reverend’s wife, of course. My friend talked to her about it again and again, to convince her of the necessity to read our Holy Bible. She would not listen and practised her heathen chants, drew her symbols and brewed her potions. Not that she had been lazy and neglected the household, she also was friendly to everyone here. But she remained a stranger and had strange ways, roaming through the woods for hours, taking the boy with her!” Stewart still seemed indignant about the dead woman.

“Do you know how your friend met her and came to marry her, when they were so different?” Dr Sullivan asked.

The schoolmaster looked grim. “I have no logical explanation.” he said. “She was beautiful, yes, Young Ichabod is her very image. She was a gypsy, and maybe her strange beauty attracted him, defying all logic and reason. But we cannot always explain why two people feel attracted to each other, can we? –”

“Of course not." the Professor agreed and repeated Dr Sullivan’s question. “Do you know where he met her and came to marry her?”

“I do not know where he met her. He never told me.” the schoolmaster answered. “There was a time when he travelled a lot, ten, fifteen years ago. And when he returned from one of his travels, she was with him. She suddenly was there, and he married her a few days after his return.”

“How long ago was this?” Van Helsing asked.

“Hm. About eleven years ago, I think.”

“So she could not have been pregnant at that time?”

“Of course not!” Mr Stewart seemed indignant again. “My friend would not have married her if he had thought her to be wanton!”

The Professor did not explain that he thought that maybe two people had been wanton, and the Reverend had been forced to marry the girl because she had been pregnant.

“But she became pregnant.” he continued patiently.

“Yes. But that was some months after they had been married! And she became strange. She started her unholy roaming through the woods, her incantations.”

“In the open?” the Professor sounded astonished. “She must have known that she would estrange her neighbours.”

The schoolmaster shook his head. “It was as if she did not know. She did not make a fuss about it, no one noticed at first. But at the same time she did not hide it. It was as if – as if she did not know that what she did was sinful.”

Van Helsing thought about some gypsy tribes he had met in the wilderness of Transsylvania. These people had been wild, passionate, and loyal, and he had met Christianity mixed with magic and much older beliefs. And there were tribes of gypsies in New England as well. No one knew much about them, but a lot of people were quite ready to believe that they were devils and heathens and stole everything and abducted children – all things an upright Christian could imagine to pursue them, bring them to prison, accuse them of witchcraft – Ichabod’s mother must have been a member of one of these families – and probably abandoned by her relatives. Otherwise she would never have married a man who was not a gypsy.

“And what happened to her?” he asked aloud. He wanted to hear in the schoolmaster’s own words what he knew already.

“People began to talk.” Mr Stewart continued. “A horse became ill, then another, someone broke a leg, another man fell from a ladder and died. It was talked behind my friend’s back that his wife might have had her hands in this. She made potions and ointments and gave them to people who believed they would help, but as far as I know, she never took any money from them. Then an old man who had taken one of her potions died, and his family blamed Mrs Crane. It had gone far enough. My friend had to put an end to it. He delivered her to the authorities, to have the case examined. She was found guilty. It was a severe blow to him. But she had brought it all on herself.” The schoolmaster pursed his lips in a defiant righteousness.

Dr Sullivan shook his head. So Van Helsing had been right. Poor woman! He did not believe that she had harmed someone on purpose, but she had been foolish enough to think she would be accepted by the community as the Reverend’s wife, and they would leave her alone, if she was friendly and tried to help. That they would overlook that she was different ...

“And the child had to suffer for his father’s error and his mother’s faults.” Van Helsing concluded. “Did you ever mention your doubts about Miss Avery being suitable as a housekeeper and being in care of the boy to your friend?”

“I did, but he would not listen. He himself was very strict with the boy, and he never said a thing when she was hard on him. – I think Miss Avery does not like children in general. And Ichabod surely is difficult. As I said, he is the very image of his mother, he does not only look like her, but he also has her strange ways, retreating into himself, running away to the woods alone. His mother spoiled him.”

“Did he realise what happened to his mother?” Dr Sullivan asked, thinking by himself that the boy’s “strange ways” might as well come from how he was treated by his father and the housekeeper.

“Of course not! He was told she had contracted a contagious disease and had been taken to the hospital in Boston, where she died, unfortunately.”

“And do you think he believed that story? How did he react when he heard that his mother was dead?” The Professor again.

The schoolmaster frowned. “Not well. He fell ill with a nervous fever. And when he recovered, he was worse than before. You know what I mean? High-strung. Nervous. Full of fear.”

//Small wonder.// Van Helsing thought. //Probably he knew more about why his mother vanished than you think. And maybe he thought he was next.//

“It is not easy for a child to lose his mother.” Dr Sullivan said.

“Of course not. But, sad as it is, his fearful manners annoyed his father. He beat him a lot. More than once I argued with him about being too strict with the boy.”

//How good of you.// the Professor thought ironically. //I do not believe a word about that the child’s fears solely stem from his nervous fever and from his father’s beatings. If I could only think of what “things” you do, which make the child afraid! Did you steal from Crane and make the boy your accomplice?//

*****

Van Helsing was about to answer, but stopped himself, when the boy shyly looked into the room.

“Snow’s stopped.” he said to the two doctors.

The three men looked out of the window. It had stopped snowing indeed.

“And of course we won’t make it to Malvern today.” The Professor said testily. “There is maybe one hour of daylight left, and I want to go in daylight in case it starts snowing again."

It was perhaps only his imagination, but he thought he saw disappointment in the schoolmaster’s face for a moment, which quickly changed into a smile which tried to be friendly.

“I have told Dr Sullivan already that you can stay another night. And maybe we could put the rest of the daylight to good use, Gentlemen, as guests in this house, clearing away some snow?” he suggested.

The young doctor was glad about some bodily exercise, and Van Helsing joined him (although he was sure that his bones would not take well to the wet cold and would protest later). Mr Stewart ordered Ichabod to join them, and they followed the schoolmaster to a shed which was accessible from the house. They took out more shovels and brooms and started to clear the snow away, first around the house and the stable to the road, then up to the nearby church.

*****

Van Helsing and his friend worked in silence, the Professor deeply immersed in his thoughts. Ichabod’s words had rung a bell, and he was looking for the connection, following the bell rope, so to speak. His thoughts went back to the asylum in Amsterdam, where he had spent two years after what had officially been the violent deaths of his wife and son by the hand of a young nobleman from the East – a guest in his house ... and which had driven him violently mad. Much of it had always been in a haze and would remain so, Van Helsing hoped. And yet there was one image now, vividly and fresh, as if it had not been twenty years ago, on another continent. A lucid moment for some reason: The day of his commitment to this place, two wardens marching him to his cell, laced in a straitjacket. They had crossed a hall, where some of his fellow inmates had sat around apathetically or walked around with jerky movements of hands and heads like the automaton he had seen on a fair once a long time ago – a Turk playing chess – patients categorised as harmless. One of them, a young man, had come up to him, quickly hissing something which must be of great importance, before one of the guards pushed him away, so that he tumbled against the nearest wall. The young man’s words had made no sense at all at that moment, but later on, they had made a lot of sense: “Careful of Willem, he does things –“ Willem had been one of the wardens, a giant of a man, but with nothing of the gentleness which some big and strong people show. He had bullied and humiliated the patients and had forced them –

“Phew!” Dr Sullivan interrupted the Professor’s thoughts. He leaned on his shovel, looking around. “Where is Stewart with the boy? I don’t see them outside any more.”

Somehow they had separated into two groups without talking it over or thinking much about it. Sullivan and Van Helsing had taken the path to the church, while Mr Stewart and Ichabod had begun to clear a path around the house, yard and stable. As the path to the church led a bit uphill, Dr Sullivan and the Professor, standing at the church gate, had a good view on the houses, sheds and stables, but the man and the boy were nowhere to be seen.

//Damn! I’ve been too lost in thoughts to realise –//

Van Helsing was gripped by a sudden anxiety mixed with anger, which made him throw away the shovel and sent him hurrying, slithering down the path he and his friend had just shovelled, back to the house. He did not register that Dr Sullivan called after him in surprise, then followed him.

//Utter nonsense, Van Helsing, utter nonsense! You will upset people for no reason and make a fool of yourself! – Why would he do it now? Why not wait until we’ll be safely on our way tomorrow? But something was odd. His mood became better and better. He seemed more and more satisfied, content. What if it gets to his head, he wants to triumph right here and now? – In the presence of the oh so clever doctores?//

Reaching the house, the Professor slowed down a bit, and Dr Sullivan caught up with him.

“What –?”

Van Helsing put a finger to his lips. The young doctor shook his head, but then he shrugged and followed his friend into the house.

The Professor hurried along the corridor, and with a remarkable agility for his sturdiness, mounted the stairs to the upper corridor, almost without noise. There was a door at the end of the corridor, past the stairs leading up to the attic, where the two doctors had slept.

Halfway through the corridor, Van Helsing surprised his friend again. He started to run and threw himself at the said door with his full weight. The lock gave way, and the door sprang open.

//Wish I was just a silly old man, making a fool of myself, seeing ghosts were there are none, suspecting an innocent man in my dirty, twisted mind ...//

But his wild connection between the words of the young inmate at the asylum and the same words from the boy had proved true.

Mr Stewart knelt on the narrow bed at the opposite wall from the door. When the Professor burst into the room, he hastily tried to conceal his manhood, before Van Helsing was upon him, tearing him away from the bed. Having been wild in his youth, never the one to avoid a brawl or a duel, the Professor was still surprisingly strong. He pushed the baffled schoolmaster against the nearest wall, pinning him there.

Dr Sullivan left Mr Stewart to his irate friend and hurried to the bed.

The child was there, naked, lying on his side, curled up, his fingers clawed into his upper arms, his eyes wide open and empty, his small features wrinkled in a grimace of pain and disgust.

“Ichabod.” Dr Sullivan addressed him softly.

“No please.” Mechanically. The dark eyes looking at the doctor and not seeing him. Another boy drowning ...

//Oh God, no!//

“Hurts ...”

The doctor spoke gently. “Ichabod. It’s me, Doctor Sullivan. No one will hurt you any more. It is over. Please look at me.” He stood helpless in front of the bed, not daring to touch the child. And it was only when the Professor started to speak, that the boy’s empty eyes focused again.

Van Helsing’s voice was surprisingly calm, though he did not loosen his iron grip on the schoolmaster’s arms.

“How long has this been going on?”

Stewart was the perfect image of a person caught in the act. He was deadly pale, and his colourless eyes darted to and fro between the two men, unable to look at one of them for more than a moment. He licked his dried lips with the pale tip of his tongue. And yet, it was as if part of him enjoyed the whole situation, sickly triumphing.

“The boy – he is not in his right mind.” he brought out after a while. “I told you that he is strange.” He spoke faster now, more fluently. “Not that I want to say it’s his fault. It is his strange blood. I told you that his mother was strange, a gypsy, and she spoiled him. She was vile and wanton. And the boy is the same.”

The child sat up awkwardly, his eyes focused on the man who was still held at the shoulders by the Professor. He pushed himself into a corner, his fingers clawing at his upper arms leaving bloody scratches. There was no doubt that he understood the schoolmaster’s words.

“Wanton like a little demon.” Stewart continued, when the Professor did neither change his stance nor his stern look. “I know, I should have resisted, but he – he took me by my weakest point. I tried to withstand, honestly, I tried, I informed his father, who punished him severely.”

//The last thing you said is true, you bastard.// Dr Sullivan thought, looking at the boy’s thin body. He could not see the back, but the child’s narrow shoulders and even the thin arms and legs were covered with bruises and vicious-looking welts. But the pain in his eyes was much more cruel to see, as the man whom he had trusted at least to a certain degree, the man who had been his hope for a bit of warmth and care, although he frightened him as well, dragged his mother into the dirt and betrayed him, calling him insane, scheming and vile.

“But he would not leave me alone.” the schoolmaster whined on. “Even today he – and I admit, I could not withstand his wanton advances. I know I am weak – I am in the clutches of this little fiend –“

He stopped, because the look from Van Helsing’s blazing blue eyes promised trouble, and the pressure of his hands on Stewart’s shoulders had increased.

Dr Sullivan caught himself. //I have to get the boy out of here!//

“Can you get up and dress, Ichabod?” he asked gently. He had to repeat his question twice, before the boy scrambled from the bed and stood there, shivering, fumbling with his clothes.

“Is true.” he whispered in such a low voice that Dr Sullivan could barely hear him. “Wanted him to hold me. He said he would take me in –“ He could not speak on and started to sob.

“Come on, get dressed.” Dr Sullivan said, calm and friendly. “Listen: It was not your fault.”

Ichabod looked at him, his hair hanging in his face. He suppressed his sobs as well as he could and went on dressing. But Dr Sullivan could not say whether the boy had registered his last sentence at all. He seemed to obey a grown-up who had told him to stop crying and get dressed. As for the rest –

“It was not the other way round?” the Professor, who had heard the short change of sentences between the child and his friend, now asked the schoolmaster. His voice was still even, calm, although he felt a strong urge to shake Stewart, to wipe that gleam of excitement from his face. “It was not that the youth and innocence of the child aroused your appetites? That you sneaked into the trust of a boy, suffering from the loss of a loved one, from a strict, unfeeling father, a boy starving for a friendly word, for a bit of care?”

He paused. The child was fully dressed now, and Dr Sullivan left the room with him. They did not look at the two men again. Van Helsing’s voice became sharper.

“You did not turn his father consciously against him, taking advantage of the Reverend’s religious fanaticism to paint his son as a depraved little demon from hell, begotten by a wanton witch?”

“What are you talking about?” the schoolmaster protested. His smugness began to vanish.

The Professor slammed him against the wall again, but his voice remained calm and even. “You had to be careful.” he continued. “You had to make the father believe that the son could still be saved – ‘he who spares the rod, hates his child’ – and at the same time you presented yourself to the boy as the only person showing a bit of friendliness, the only person he could trust. You never beat him. You were understanding. You showed him how much you liked him. But nothing was for free. You asked little favours of him –“

“Fantasies!” Stewart screamed. “It is as I say! He is vile and wanton, clever and advanced for his age, but evil! But I did not want him to end like his mother! I only want the best for him – you’re hurting me!”

Van Helsing now shook the man violently, before he caught himself and finally released him. He took a deep breath, but did not move out of Stewart’s way. The schoolmaster remained where he was, not daring to get away from the wall.

“You promised to protect the boy, if he did what you wanted.” the Professor continued. “But it went out of hand, didn’t it? Maybe the Reverend finally found out that you had willingly succumbed to the temptation, and he forbade you his house? Maybe this was only yesterday, and only the snowstorm held him back from throwing you out?”

“Fantasies!” the schoolmaster repeated. “I do not have to hear the ravings of a madman! Let me go! At once!” He tried to make for the door, but Van Helsing grabbed his upper arm, holding him back.

“I have not finished yet. What if I said – just a thought of mine, the ravings of an old madman, as you were nice enough to call me – that you are responsible for the Reverend’s sudden death, because he had found out about what you did with his son?”

The schoolmaster tore himself free and made another lunge for the door, but again the Professor stepped into his way. Stewart’s face was a mask of hatred and disgust.

“You are madder than I thought!” he spat. “You would never be able to prove this!”

“Maybe you are right.” Van Helsing said. “But both my friend and I witnessed you having fleshly intercourse with a male child. And maybe it would be more difficult to convince the Boston Magistrate of your innocence as well as the police, with two doctors testifying against you.”

Stewart resorted to violence and tried to kick the Professor, to punch him into the stomach, but Van Helsing had foreseen an attack, maybe even waited for it. When met with resistance and a fierce blow from the Professor’s fist, the schoolmaster stopped fighting at once. He fell down on the bed, holding his jaw, while Van Helsing leaned against the door, taking a deep breath.

“And what do you want of me?” Stewart asked a while later in a small voice. No triumphant smugness was left in him.

Van Helsing breathed deeply again. //A nasty game to play. But the only chance.// With his decision, he would possibly endanger other children, but this was a possibility, whereas the danger for Ichabod was immediate, and it was the only way go get him away from here.

“I’ll make you an offer.” he said. “My silence and the silence of my friend. And we’ll take the boy with us.”

Anger and fear chased each other in the schoolmaster’s face. He knew that he had no other choice but to trust the two strangers, God damn them, and that he was not in a good position to argue, but he tried nevertheless, if only to make sure that Van Helsing was serious.

“People will ask –“

“They will give as much thought to the witch’s offspring as they gave to the woman’s own fate.” the Professor cut him short. “And if someone asks, you will tell them that it was the Reverend’s wish that we took the child with us. We were no strangers. Our visit was expected.”

“But the Reverend is dead!”

“Unhappy circumstances, nothing else.”

“And Miss Avery –?”

The Professor smiled grimly.

“You managed to estrange a father from his son. So don’t tell me it would be difficult for you to convince Miss Avery that the boy is a sickly child and has to be looked after by a doctor for a long time. You yourself said that he is not in his right mind.”

Stewart squirmed. There was something else on his mind.

“You want me to pay for the expenses you’ll have with the boy?”

Van Helsing suddenly felt nauseated, disgusted about what had happened, about the game he played with Stewart, sick and tired of the whole situation. – Now it was the money that troubled the schoolmaster.

He shook his head, and his voice was rich with the disgust he felt, could not help feeling. “Suddenly this would be too much, I see. Getting nothing for your money in return. No small hairless body, no frightened eyes and soft skin, no tight –“

“You devil!” Mr Stewart screamed, almost sobbing.

“Quiet!” the Professor thundered. “No, “ he continued in a normal voice, “rest assured that we don’t want your money, Mr Stewart.”

//Why did I say this? I did not want to get that involved. Sullivan will have to look after the boy, not me. Sullivan will have to cope with what Stewart destroyed in the boy. But if he does not want to, I will!//

The schoolmaster still sat on the bed, his shoulders hunched, wiping his eyes.

“He threatened to chain the boy in the cellar.” he said after a while, more to himself. “He did it once, already, when Ichabod had tried to join a band of gypsies.”

//Such a threat should be taken seriously from someone who accused his own wife of witchcraft and gave her over to the authorities – if what you say is true.// Van Helsing thought. //Supposed it is true, and because you knew you could not leave the boy alone, his father would do what he had said. A horrible situation, and I give you that much: this was not what you wanted for the boy.//

“So do you agree to my offer?” he asked the schoolmaster.

Stewart got up from the bed. “Hell, yes! Do I have a choice?!”

“Thank you.” The Professor stepped away from the door. “I will make out the Reverend’s death certificate. A sudden stroke.”

Mr Stewart breathed deeply, but when he passed him on his way from the room, Van Helsing added: “One thing more. Rest assured as well that if you ever so much as touch another child indecently, I will know it.”

He spoke with such authority that Stewart retreated from him and stammered “Ridiculous!”, but his voice gave away that in truth he did not doubt Van Helsing’s words. Actually, the Professor knew a wealthy, influential and unscrupulous man in Boston, whose connections would even reach as far as a small Massachusetts village. This man had children of his own, whom he loved dearly. If someone would find ways to observe someone like Mr Stewart, it would be this man. He owed Van Helsing more than one favour ...

Stewart abruptly turned and left the room. The Professor followed.

*****

He found his friend with the child in the living room. Ichabod had curled up in one of the chairs, sobbing, rocking back and forth, wiping his eyes and nose with his swollen hands, licking the snot from his fingers. Dr Sullivan, affected by the boy’s misery, stood next to him, looking a bit helpless. He had never seen a child who had gone through what Ichabod had gone through, and he was not sure whether he should touch the boy, take him into his arms to comfort him or not.

“Let him cry.” Van Helsing said. “He’ll calm down.”

He was right. Ichabod’s sobbing stopped after a while. “Wanna sleep.” he murmured drowsily, sounding like a boy half his age. He was still young enough to be able to retreat to that stage, to leave hurt and pain behind. Drowsily, he left the chair and stumbled to the door.

“Where are you going?” the Professor asked gently. He was not prepared to leave the child alone, upset and bewildered as the boy was.

Ichabod turned again, looking around

“Don’t know.” he murmured.

Dr Sullivan went over to him and took his hand. The child let it happen, either too exhausted to fight the adult off or trusting him enough to realise that no harm would come from him.

They went upstairs to the room the two men shared, and the doctor put the child into his bed, covering him with the blankets. Ichabod let it happen, curling up, the events of the day taking their toll. In a few moments he breathed regularly, fast asleep.

When they had satisfied themselves that Ichabod was sleeping deeply, the Professor recounted in brief sentences to his friend the agreement he had come to with the schoolmaster.

“The boy has to get away from here.” he finished.

“You know where he could find a home.” his friend said.

“I knew you would say that, Patrick, and I honour your intentions. But it won’t be easy.” Van Helsing warned. “The boy probably has not seen a good day since his mother died. He has been abused and beaten. He has probably been trained by Stewart to touch him or to suffer being touched in exchange for some affection. And his father beat and despised him for the same things Stewart asked of him.”

Dr Sullivan looked at the sleeping child.

“He must be at a complete loss how to behave.” he said in a low voice.

“You bet!” Van Helsing confirmed. “And he is frightened. He is very intelligent, and I like him as you do, but it won’t be easy with him.”

“What do you think? What would Sarah and I have to expect?” Dr Sullivan asked.

“You know, I have seen certain hospitals from both sides, as a patient and as a doctor. No one can know for sure what to expect, I don’t know the boy very well and my experience from similar cases is limited. But he might try to get attention and affection from others in the way he has learned from Stewart. He might become angry after a while – a natural reaction to what has happened to him. He might try to relieve his own pain by passing it on – to smaller children, to animals. In a few years he’ll start to become a man – and everything might become even more difficult. I do not want to frighten you off, Patrick. But you and Sarah should know that you will not get a second Samuel, who was a happy child, easier to handle. I ask you to consider this for Ichabod’s sake as well.”

Dr Sullivan thought his friend’s words over for a while.

“Do we ever know what people our children will become?” he asked. “We can only do our best and try to see the good in them and bring it out. I talked about this subject with Sarah once, about taking in a child, and I know she agrees with me. So I think we’ll try our best and love him as he is. I know, Abraham, we cannot be selfish and expect a substitute for Samuel to heal our own pain. But we want to be parents.”

The Professor wrapped himself in his overcoat and sat down on the chair.

“You are both still young. You might get other children of your own, children who might be more to your liking, more outgoing, less difficult than Ichabod. Think this over as well. Would you be able to give both parts what they need?”

Dr Sullivan shook his head. His eyes were sad.

“We tried. Since we lost Samuel, Sarah was pregnant twice. But she lost the children at an early stage.”

Van Helsing looked embarrassed, but Dr Sullivan now smiled. “You want to put me off, don’t you? You want to play the advocatus diaboli. But you won’t succeed, dear friend. You won’t succeed.” he went on, before the older man could say anything. So the Professor just smiled back.

“Well,” he said, “it’s time for me to keep my part of the bargain now. The death certificate for the Reverend.”

He went downstairs to the Reverend’s room in the dark and came back soon with a folded sheet of paper, which he carefully stored in one of the pockets of his overcoat.

“How’s the boy?”

“Still asleep.” his friend answered.

The Professor opened the small window. The night was clear and cold, full of stars.

“Too cold for snow.” he said. “I think the weather will hold. Get some sleep as well. I want to leave early in the morning.”

“And you?”

“I’ll stay awake for a while.” Van Helsing answered. “I want to record this remarkable day.”

“Wake me when you get too sleepy.” his friend advised him, before he lay down on the Professor’s bed.

The Professor took out a small diary and a piece of crayon, recording the events of the strange day, surely one of the strangest days in his life. And God knew, he had seen some strange days ...

Unlike the night before, the house was quiet. It seemed that both the schoolmaster and the housekeeper had retired to bed early.

A few hours later, the boy was still sleeping peacefully, Van Helsing woke his friend and tried to get a short nap himself.

*****

It was still dark when Dr Sullivan woke him again. Their candle had burned down to a small stump. Young Ichabod sat in bed, looking at the Professor with interest.

“You were snoring.” he said. “Why did you bring me here?”

“We wanted you to have a good night’s rest.” the Professor answered. “Did you sleep well?”

“Yes.” Ichabod said, but then his small face darkened.

“He lied.” he whispered. “He said bad things about my mother. That was mean. – He doesn’t really like me, and I don’t want him to take me in any more.”

“He won’t.” Dr Sullivan said.

The child nodded, as if to say //Didn’t I know it?//

“Look, Ichabod, “ the young doctor continued, kneeling down next to the bed. “My wife and I had a son, Samuel. He would be your age now. But he died two years ago. I would like to take you in as my child, provided my wife agrees. But I am sure she will like you, as I do.”

Ichabod shook his head.

“I’m bad.” he said. “Father says I’m bad, and Mr Stewart says I’m bad. That’s no lie. And other people say I’m bad and good for nothing. No one likes me.”

“And what if we said all these people are wrong?” the Professor asked.

The boy looked puzzled.

“You can be what you want to be.” The Professor continued.

“How?” the child asked. “I don’t know what I want to be.”

“But you don’t want to be here, where people call you bad?” Van Helsing asked.

Ichabod shook his head. “Don’t want him to put his thing into me again.” he whispered, barely audible.

“And you think it might be better for you somewhere else?”

Ichabod shrugged. In his shocked and bewildered state it was not easy for him to hope for something better.

“You cannot find out what you are and how people are without trying.” the Professor continued. “Won’t you give it a try?”

The boy hung his head. “What if his wife doesn’t like me?” he asked.

“I doubt it.” the Professor answered. “I know Mrs Sullivan well. But if against all odds she shouldn’t want you, I will take you in.”

Without thinking, Ichabod had taken out his wooden doll. He clutched it tightly, disappointment, distrust, fear and a faint hope gliding over his small, pale face.

“Have to ask Jacob.” he said, looking at the two men defiantly. For a while, he sat motionless, clutching the wooden soldier to his small chest.

Dr Sullivan got up from his place beside the bed to leave the child more room. Finally Ichabod looked up.

“I’ll try.” he whispered, nodding. “But you’ll see, I’m bad. You won’t want me for long.”

Dr Sullivan shook his head. “You are not bad, you will see. You said that you will try, and this is all I ask of you.”

The boy shrugged, still doubtful, but the glimmer of hope on the small, pinched face and in the dark eyes had become brighter.

“We should be off now.” the Professor admonished them. He wanted to avoid a scene between the schoolmaster and the child. At least there was no doubt that the farewell from Miss Avery would be an easy one for both Ichabod and the lady in question.

*****

They went down into the kitchen. The housekeeper was still snoring in a wooden armchair, next to the burned-down fire in the hearth, an empty bottle next to her.

The Professor shook her awake, not too gently.

“Pack a few clothes for the boy. We are leaving and taking him with us.”

She staggered to her feet, bleary-eyed.

“What?”

“Pack a few clothes for the boy. My friend and I are leaving as long as the weather will hold, and we are taking Ichabod with us.” the Professor repeated.

Miss Avery was fully awake now.

“Who are you to give me orders? Who said you are taking the boy along?” she demanded angrily.

The Professor, not in the mood to have their departure delayed further, turned on his heels and was prepared to leave without any of the boy’s belongings, when the schoolmaster entered the kitchen. He was more pale than ever and could not meet anyone’s eyes, least of all Ichabod’s, who himself kept his head down.

“It is alright, Miss Avery.” Mr Stewart said. “Professor Van Helsing and I talked it over last night. It has been a bit too much for the boy, and it is better that he leave.”

“Did you get second thoughts?” the housekeeper asked. “Yes Sir, such a boy grows, he eats a lot, let alone that he doesn’t take care of his clothes! And everything costs a lot of money! Then he’s sick, and the medicines cost another lot of money! Yes, Sir!”

“That will do, Miss Avery.” the Professor said calmly. But the underlying threat in his voice made her leave the room and do his bidding. She returned with a small shirt and a pair of stockings. Van Helsing frowned at them and put them into his saddle bag.

“Is there something else you would like to take along, Ichabod?” Dr Sullivan asked the child.

Only now the boy seemed to realise fully that the two men actually would take him along. He lifted his head, smiled – a shy, brief smile, which gave his fine features a rare beauty, despite his ragged, neglected appearance.

To make completely sure he would not be left behind, he took Dr Sullivan’s hand, dragging him along into the living room, taking the blanket from behind the bookcase. He stood in front of the shelves for a moment, then he took out a book and showed it to the doctor. It was a voluminous book about the journeys of Captain Cook, with a lot of drawings depicting people and animals from the South Sea.

“You will have to ask Mr Stewart if you can take it, I’m afraid.” the doctor said. He knew it was hard for the boy. But his own father had taught him at a very early age that you had be responsible for yourself (which had been necessary in a family with five brothers and six sisters), and if you wanted something you had to ask for it yourself. Besides, you learned to estimate better if you really wanted it.

The schoolmaster had followed them to the living room. Ichabod went to him and showed him the book. First his head was bowed, then he looked into Stewart’s face. All the schoolmaster could do was not squirm under the boy’s look. It was strange, inscrutable and not the look of a ten-year-old child. Had it been hateful or reproaching, Mr Stewart would have been able to bear it. But the only things he could make out in that look were disappointment and a certain contempt. If the schoolmaster had been stupid enough to assume that the child would not have fully understood what he had said and done, this contemptuous look made him think better of it.

He sighed. “Yes, take the book. Take it.” he said hastily, eager to escape that look on the boy’s face, eager to have the two doctors and the child on their way.

“Thank you.” Ichabod said and turned away. He was ready now. He had the blanket and his book, and Jacob the wooden soldier was safely stored in one of his pockets. He went over to Dr Sullivan and took his hand again.

“Say good-bye.” Dr Sullivan told the child. Obediently, Ichabod went to Miss Avery, who had come out of her kitchen, and bowed.

Over his head, Miss Avery shot her last darts at the Professor.

“Such a hurry to take him away? It’s not Christian, that’s for sure! Before his father is even decently buried!”

“Maybe.” Van Helsing answered. “But actually you are glad to have him off your back! – Besides, the boy said good-bye to you.”

She turned away angrily, and hurried back into the kitchen without a further word.

“Farewell, Ichabod.” the schoolmaster managed.

“Sir.” Ichabod turned to him and bowed again. He did not extend his hand. Dr Sullivan and the Professor silently admired his courage.

Before Stewart could say more, the Professor handed him a sealed document. It was the death certificate for Reverend Crane. Then, with a brief nod to the schoolmaster, he followed his friend and the boy outside.

In the stable, Ichabod stroked the muzzle of the Reverend’s horse.

“Good-bye, Jericho.” he whispered. Turning to Dr Sullivan he asked: “Do you think they’ll find a new home for him?”

“There’s always a home for a good horse.” the doctor answered, and he was convinced of that. “It would be easier to find another decent owner and a new home in Troubridge for the Reverend’s horse than a good place for the Reverend’s son ...

The two men saddled their horses and lead them outside. The horses seemed glad to get out of the narrow stable. They snorted happily. The air was cold and clear, and a pale wintry sun made the snow glisten.

With a sigh, Ichabod wiped his face with his sleeve. Dr Sullivan lifted him up and helped him put the blanket round his shoulders. Then he climbed into the saddle behind the boy.

They rode away from the village, which just now awoke from its sleep. People were outside, shovelling the snow away. The horses carefully ploughed their way through to the main road.

A few children were outside, playing, enjoying the sun, throwing snowballs at each other. When they passed the small group, Dr Sullivan felt Ichabod’s body stiffen. The Professor had been right. It would not be easy with him, if bad experiences had made him that afraid of other children. But maybe everything would be better in Malvern ...

*****

When they had left the village behind, they turned south. In broad daylight and without falling snow impeding their sight, they reached their home village before noon.

A young man and two boys were shovelling snow when the two men and the boy rode into the village. They looked strong, sturdy and friendly. All three of them had flaxen hair and open faces.

“Good morning, James.” Dr Sullivan greeted him.

“Patrick Sullivan! Where have you been? And the Professor! – Joseph, call Aunt Sarah! Quickly!”

The elder and taller of the two boys ran away, so fast that small clouds of snow drifted up after him. He vanished in one of the small houses along the street and reappeared quickly, running up to them again. He was followed by a slender young woman wrapped tightly in a dark green woollen scarf. She was not running, but walking steadily, purposefully towards them through the path cleared from snow on the main street.

When she had reached the small group, she hugged Dr Sullivan and he hugged her back. To Ichabod, it seemed to last an eternity until they finally let go of each other. He had never seen people show so much affection.

The other man cleared his throat. “Well then, boys,” he said with a curious but not unfriendly look at Ichabod, “we’re finished here. Let’s get in. Mother will be waiting. – Sarah – Patrick – Professor – boy.” He nodded at the group and went along the street. The two children were running ahead, playfully pushing each other.

Mrs Sullivan had left her husband’s arms and embraced the Professor as well. Then she saw the boy, who had retreated a few steps from the scene, unsure what to do. It made him feel awkward to witness all these embraces, and he thought of slipping away silently. He would not have known where to go, so anywhere would do. Maybe it would be even better to stay...

The woman looked at him. Her hair was bound up in tight bun, from which little strands and curls the colour of shiny copper had escaped. A round, freckled face with a small nose and fine lips, big green eyes, framed by long dark lashes. Her look was interested and friendly.

“And who are you?” Her voice was as friendly as her look, and Ichabod felt that perhaps he would want to stay.

He bowed. “Ichabod Crane, Madam.”

“You must be freezing, Ichabod Crane.” she said. “What about some hot milk with honey? And maybe you are hungry as well?”

Ichabod could hardly believe his ears. “Thank you, Madam.” he murmured. She led him into the house, while the men looked after the horses. There was a warm, cosy small kitchen, everything shiny and clean, but everything also showed that people were living here. The woman asked him to sit down at the big table, and there actually was hot milk with honey for him. When she turned her back facing the hearth to prepare bacon and eggs and to cut fresh bread, Ichabod pinched himself. Nothing happened. He bit his wrist and pulled his hair, but the warm room did not vanish, nor did the nice lady. The smell of frying eggs and bacon, of fresh bread, of hot milk was still there, and it was still warm. He had stopped shivering. So he decided he was perhaps not dreaming.

Mrs Sullivan watched the boy. Thin and small as wisp, a finely sculpted face, exhausted and frightened, huge dark eyes, black hair, too long, unkempt, clothes shabby and worn. She did not ask herself why her husband had brought the boy with him. He was so different from Samuel, who had been tall and strong for his age, with her copper hair and Patrick’s grey eyes – but she knew that her husband liked the strange child with the sad, bewildered look. And she did as well. Nevertheless, the gentlemen would have to answer some questions...

The men came in, and she served the food. They ate in silence, because they all were hungry. The Professor, his friend and the boy had left very early and had had no breakfast, and Sarah had not been hungry, as long as she had not known the whereabouts of her husband and his friend.

Finally, when they had finished their meal and the Professor had lit his pipe, she spoke.

“Now I want to hear everything.”

Once again Dr Sullivan thought that he had a jewel of a wife. Instead of a lot of questions, of reproach and bad feelings, she had looked after the boy and waited patiently until they had eaten and warmed themselves.

“We were foolish and the snowstorm surprised us.” he answered his wife. “But we found shelter.”

“We were in Troubridge, ten miles from here.” the Professor added. His eyes met those of the woman. //Not in front of the boy.//

She took the sign.

“Well, Ichabod, would you like to see the house?”

Ichabod, who had taken in the warm, cosy kitchen with stealthy looks, avoiding to gape openly, looked at her.

“Yes please.” he answered politely.

So the doctor and his wife took him with them on a tour of the small, friendly house, while the Professor stayed in the living room next to the kitchen, smoking and reading. Ichabod liked the house, although he was not sure whether he would stay for long. To be able to stay would be too good to be true ... and too wonderful ... The doctor had a lot of books. Maybe he would be allowed to read some of them ...

The nice lady then prepared a lot of hot water, and he took a bath in the doctor’s room. Only the doctor was present, and that was alright. The lady came in just once, and brought another kettle with hot water.

Sarah Sullivan had already noticed the boy’s swollen hands, and now she saw that his back was covered with welts and bruises. Her open face darkened.

“Now she’s angry.” Ichabod said in a worried voice when the doctor’s wife had left the room again.

“She is not angry about you.” the doctor assured him. “She is angry because she saw that someone has beaten you. Now clean yourself.”

Ichabod did as he was told. He even washed his hair without a word of protest, and when he had finished and dried himself, the doctor gave him ointment for the welts. He only applied it where Ichabod could not put it himself. The doctor also asked him whether he was in pain because of what Mr Stewart had done to him, and he said no. Dr Sullivan left it at that, asking the child to tell him if it should begin to hurt, and not to be ashamed. Ichabod promised, hoping it would not be necessary.

Then the nice lady combed and cut his hair. He did not say a word, just enjoyed being close to her, so close that he could smell her clean, healthy body. He leaned against her, and she took him into her arms and hugged him. For a moment, he forgot the last three years which had not been good, three years – a long time for a child – he thought of it just as a long time – and each day had made it more difficult to remember the other, better time, before his mother had died. The last three years had made him frightful and wary of people, three years which had made him think he was an outcast, something bad and hateful – but in this moment he forgot about being bad and being sent away if they found out how bad he was.

Sarah Sullivan felt the child’s fear to trust and his need for love and firm but gentle guidance. And she was as prepared as her husband to give the shy little stranger what he needed. Samuel was with the other angels, he did not need her any longer, but he would have wanted that she cared for another child who would need what she had to give.

Ichabod was given new clothes. Surely they came from the doctor’s dead boy. He felt awkward, but the lady promised she would mend and clean his other clothes. He believed her. There was something so calm and good around her that he began to think that maybe she would not start to scream at him and to beat him, even if he would wet the bed at night, or worse: when it would happen during the day.

The doctor showed him some books from his collection which he thought suitable for a child of Ichabod’s age, and then Young Ichabod’s first day at the Sullivan’s home ended. He was allowed to take the books with him when he said good night to the doctor and the Professor, and Mrs Sullivan showed him up to a small room under the roof. He had seen it before. It was the smallest room in the house, but it was as friendly and cosy as the other rooms, with a small bed and a nightstand. He undressed to his shirt, and she covered him and said a few words to thank God for the good day and to ask him for another good one tomorrow. She spoke with God as if he was a good friend, not like some horrible almighty Being, who just waited for the right moment to punish the sinners. She sounded as if it was natural to speak to God that way, nothing to make a fuss about. As if everyone could do it.

Ichabod was still young enough to hope for the best. He decided that if he would wake up in this room in Dr Sullivan’s house tomorrow morning, instead of under his blanket in the living room in his father’s house in Troubridge, it would definitely not be all a dream. And as soon as he had put his head on the pillow, he was fast asleep, clutching his wooden soldier.

She looked for a moment at the sleeping boy, then she went downstairs, rejoining the Professor and her husband. Now the time for questions and answers had come.

“Where did you find the boy?” she asked the two men. “How is it that you could bring him with you? And who treated him so badly that he is so frightened?”

“He lived with his father.” the Professor answered. “I heard about his father a few years ago. He accused his wife, the boy’s mother, of witchcraft, and as far as I know she was executed.”

“Who is this man?” Sarah Sullivan asked, horror and disbelief in her eyes and voice.

“He was the local reverend in Troubridge.” her husband answered.

“Was?”

“Unfortunately he died the first night when we were there.” The Professor again.

She shook her head.

“How –?”

“He was not a healthy man.” Van Helsing said firmly. “Though he himself and the people around him did not know.”

“And no one else was there to look after the child?”

“There was the local schoolmaster.” her husband answered. “He was the Reverend’s friend.”

“And he satisfied his lust with the boy.” the Professor continued, before she could ask another question, his broad features darkening at the thought again.

“No!” Sarah looked to her husband as if to make him tell her this was not true, but he nodded.

“Yes. His father had found out about the schoolmaster’s interest in the boy and beat Young Ichabod whenever he got hold of him.”

Sarah sat down in a chair, as if her legs were no longer able to support her. “He blamed the child for it ...” she said in a low voice. “But how did you find out about all this?” Again she looked at her husband, but it was the Professor who answered, his face darkening even more.

“The boy told me, but I did not understand. Who would think of something like that? And when I finally understood – I had underestimated the schoolmaster. Who would have thought that he would touch the boy while his friend’s body was still unburied, while Patrick and I were still guests in the Reverend’s house?”

Dr Sullivan sighed. “But we caught him at it. “ he added grimly. “This enabled us to bring the boy here and to ensure that such a thing will never again happen to him. I wish we had been earlier –“

Sarah had never heard about such things in her life, but she was not a faint-hearted woman. “Did you inform someone about what he did to the boy?” she interrupted her husband.

“No.” the Professor answered. “But I have the means to ensure that this schoolmaster will never touch a child again.”

She looked doubtful, but said nothing. She knew that Van Helsing did not talk lightly about such matters or give promises he would not keep. He meant what he said. She could not imagine how it would be possible for him to keep that promise, and she found out that she did not want to know. But she knew he would. She for her part knew that Young Ichabod had won her heart, and that she would do everything in her power to help him, to give him a home, to make him feel wanted and loved. So she only nodded to the Professor’s words.

*****

Before the Sullivans retired for the night, they looked in on the boy. He slept peacefully, although he still looked exhausted and worried. He did not even stir when Sarah tucked him in more firmly again.

“The Professor says it will not be easy.” the doctor said to his wife when they had retired to their bedroom. “And I believe him. We’ll have to be patient. And maybe nothing will turn out as we want it to turn out.”

Sarah shrugged. “You were called to Sean O’Groat last summer.” she reminded her husband. “Everyone knows that he has been a good-for-nothing, charming, but a gambler and after each skirt he saw.” She crossed herself. “His age did not change him. And look at his three sons. Honest, sober, friendly young men, good husbands, loving fathers. All of them. – Now look at the Farrens. Seamus Farren and his wife are nice enough people. And what happens? One of their sons runs away, no one knows why, and it is said that he has become a criminal, although I’m not really convinced of that rumour. – So what can we say about a child? We can only do our best, and I am prepared to do my share, Patrick Sullivan!”

He kissed her.

“I knew you would say this. I would not have brought the boy along had I not known that you think that way.”

*****

//No, it will not be easy.// the Professor thought when he entered the small room which was his home in his friend’s house. //Young Ichabod is afraid of other children, the schoolmaster has taught him things he might offer to others in all innocence, and I do not know what else he might do. But I know one thing: he is intelligent and compassionate. I don’t think he will torture animals or other human beings to reduce his own pain. He is in good hands now, and he will find his way. It will be a good way, I’m sure of that, although no one will be able to say at the moment what way it will be. Most probably not the way Patrick and Sarah will imagine for their boy, but nevertheless, it will be a good one.//

He smiled and sat down at the small desk to write a letter to his friend in Boston, who owed him more than one favour.

 

~the end~

 

Tales of Romance

Sleepy Hollow