6

THE LYCEUM INCIDENT, PART I

The Strand, London

June 3, 1892

The carriage clattered to a halt on Wellington Street, in front of the tall pillars of the Lyceum Theatre. A fine rain was falling, and the driver pulled his cloak tight around his shoulders as he waited for his passenger to disembark.

“Bring my bags, boy, both of them,” said the old man, impatiently. He stood in the cobbled road, the brim of his wide hat low over his face as he watched the sun descending toward Trafalgar Square.

“Yes, sir,” replied his valet, lifting a black leather surgeon’s bag and a tan briefcase down from the back of the carriage.

The aging black horse that had pulled them through London shifted as the weight was removed and took a step backward into the valet, sending the man down to one knee on the wet cobblestones and the tan briefcase to the ground. A sharpened wooden stake rolled out and settled at the feet of an overweight man in evening dress, who stooped down, grunting at the effort, and picked it up.

“You, boy,” he said, in a superior, goose-fed voice. “Have a care, would you? A man could go full-length with blasted logs rolling around his ankles.”

The valet picked the briefcase out of the road and stood up.

“I’m sorry, sir,” he said.

“See that you are,” said the man, and handed the stake back to the valet while his equally large wife giggled at her husband’s wit.

The valet watched them totter away toward the Strand, then handed the bags to his master, who had watched the exchange with an expression of impatience on his face. He took them without a word, turned, and strode up the steps. The valet waited a respectful second, then followed.

Inside the rich red lobby of the theater the old man waited for the night manager to greet them. Looking around, he took in the wide staircases that led up to the left and the right, the posters for previous productions that lined the walls, the majority of which showed the face of the man who had called him here: the actor Henry Irving.

The handsome, pointed face of the great Shakespearean was as well-known as any in London, and his rich baritone voice equally so. The old man had seen his Othello, two seasons previous, and deemed it entirely satisfactory.

“Professor Van Helsing?”

The old man awoke from his musings and regarded the stout, red-faced fellow who was standing before him.

“That is correct,” he replied. “Mr. Stoker, I presume?”

“Yes, sir,” the man replied. “I’m the night manager here at the Lyceum. Am I right in thinking that Mr. Irving explained why your presence was requested?”

“His message told me that a showgirl was missing, that he suspected foul play, and that I may have some expertise on the type of foul play in question.”

“Quite,” said Stoker. “But this isn’t just any showgirl. There’s. ..” He trailed off.

Van Helsing regarded the night manager more closely. His face was a deep beetroot red, his eyes watery, and his head enveloped in a gentle cloud of alcoholic vapor. He had clearly sought the courage for this night’s work at the bottom of a bottle.

“Mr. Stoker,” Van Helsing said, sharply. “I have traveled from Kensington at the request of your employer, and I wish to be about this business before the sun is long beyond the horizon. Tell me everything that I do not already know.”

Stoker looked up as though stung. “I apologize, sir,” he began. “You see, the girl who has vanished, a chorus girl by the name of Jenny Pembry, is a favorite of Prime Minister Gladstone himself, who has been kind enough to visit us no less than four times this year already. Her absence was mentioned by the prime minister after he attended our production of The Tempest, two days past, and Mr. Irving promised to find out what had become of her. When he reported back to the prime minister that he had been unable to do so, he was told that a telegram to the famous Professor Van Helsing of Kensington might prove useful.”

“And so here we are,” boomed Van Helsing, drawing himself up to his full bearing, his voice suddenly loud and deep. “Standing in an empty theater, with no reason to believe that this missing girl has done anything more mysterious than tire of the stage and choose a more dignified line of work for herself, and certainly nothing to suggest that this affair merits my attention. I fail to see what you expect me to do here, Mr. Stoker.”

The night manager had taken a step backward. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and furiously dabbed his forehead with it.

“Sir, if you would spare the time to examine the dressing rooms,” he said, his voice catching in his throat. “Mr. Irving informs me that the prime minister is most upset by this business, and I do not wish to tell him I have not exhausted all avenues of inquiry. Ten minutes, sir, I beseech you.”

Van Helsing looked at the small red-faced man before him and felt his anger subside, replaced with a deep frustration. Nine months had passed since he and his friends had returned from the mountains of Transylvania, and although none of them had spoken publicly about what had happened, rumor of what had taken place beneath the stone peaks of Castle Dracula had spread, and he had found himself deluged with requests for help, with everything from creaking floorboards to ghostly apparitions and, it now appeared, missing chorus girls.

He longed for the quiet of his surgery, where his research into what he had seen in the East could continue. But there were worrying stories emerging from the Baltic, tales of blood and shadow. Thankfully though, nothing yet suggested that the evil condition that had caused the deaths of two of his friends had found its way back to London, and God was to be praised for that, if for little else.

“I apologize to you, Mr. Stoker,” he said. “If you will lead the way, I will examine the dressing rooms, as you suggest.” He turned and spoke to his valet. “You may return to the carriage, boy. There is nothing here that will require your assistance.”

“Nonetheless, sir, I will accompany you so long as it does not offend.”

Van Helsing waved a hand at him, dismissively. “Do as you wish.”

Stoker led them through the theater, past the long rows of red velvet seats and the orchestra pit, through a door, and into the backstage area. The narrow passages were piled high with props and set furniture from old productions-a wooden tower from Verona, a broken fairy throne, ermine cloaks, rusting helmets and crowns, row upon row of daggers and swords, silver paint peeling from the wood and collecting in small drifts on the floorboards. As the night manager led Van Helsing and the valet through the dusty corridors, he talked nonstop, his confidence refueled by the professor’s apology and the contents of the small hip flask from which he was now openly taking regular sips.

“… Of course Mr. Irving is a great man, a truly great man, as fine an employer and as gracious a companion as he is skilled an actor. He has always encouraged the players to excel, to… improve , has given his time to tutor those with promise and to always gently, most gently, discourage those without. My own small ambitions have always found a sympathetic ear with him, although of course he has so many more important claims upon his time, a great man, truly. He has promised me, one man to another, that he will read my play, should I ever complete the cursed thing. What kindness! What generosity! Although I fear I may never be able to accept his kind offer. The confines of the play confound me endlessly, and I am close to accepting that it may not be the medium to which I am best suited. Perhaps the novel holds the answer? I think it may do. Perhaps I should write of a theater, from which people keep disappearing without a trace? That may entertain, if only for a short while. I may even presume to base the hero on Mr. Irving, such a great man, such a-”

“‘ Keep disappearing’?” Van Helsing interrupted, his voice low.

They had reached a stop. The door in front of them led to a nondescript dressing room, barely larger than a pantry, in which stood three small desks, each facing a dusty mirror, and three hard wooden chairs. In the corners were piled costumes and pages of lyrics and dialogue.

“Sir?”

“‘ Keep disappearing,’ you said. Are you telling me that this girl Pembry is not the first to vanish from the Lyceum without explanation?”

Stoker mopped his brow, the confusion clear in his face. “Well, yes, sir. There have been others. But as you yourself said, the theatrical life is not for everyone. Many choose to pursue their fortune elsewhere.”

“How many others?”

“In total, sir, I do not know. In recent months, four others, to the best of my knowledge. A trumpet player, an understudy to Titania, and two chorus girls whose names I must confess I do not remember.”

“Four others!” bellowed Van Helsing, making Stoker cower back against the open door frame. “You are the manager of this theater, five of your employees disappear in quick succession without an explanation between them, and you do not consider this unusual? And not worthy of mentioning to me, even after I was summoned here to investigate the most recent of them, even now not by you, but rather to satisfy the whim of a politician! Are you an imbecile, sir?”

Stoker stared back at him, his mouth hanging open. He closed his mouth and muttered something too quietly to hear.

“What’s that, man? Speak up if you have something to say,” demanded Van Helsing.

“I’m only the night manager,” replied Stoker, in a small voice.

“That is no kind of excuse, no kind at all, and well you know it. Attend to me now: Has anything notable occurred in recent months that coincides with these disappearances? Think now.”

Stoker turned away from Van Helsing, who looked over at his valet standing several feet away, his face expressionless. They waited for the night manager.

Eventually he turned back to them. His eyes were redder than ever, and a gasp in his breathing suggested he was close to weeping.

“I cannot recall anything of significance, other than the sad business of our conductor Harold Norris.”

“What business?”

“Mr. Norris suffered from a nervous disposition, sir. Six months ago, Mr. Irving granted him a leave of convalescence, in the hopes that an absence from the bustle of London would help with his condition. As I said, sir, Mr. Irving’s generosity knows no-”

Van Helsing cut him off impatiently. “What happened?”

“Sadly, Mr. Norris died. He returned no better for his absence, complaining of fever and hunger, and then no more than two weeks after his return, we received word from his brother that he had passed away. We have only just found a permanent replacement this past month.”

“Where did this Norris take his convalescence?”

“In Romania.”

The valet drew in a breath. Van Helsing spoke in a voice full of menace. “Where did this conductor live?”

Stoker looked at him with open confusion.

“Sir, Harry Norris was a kind, gentle man of more than sixty years and was with the Lyceum for at least twenty of them. He would not have hurt a fly, sir, I assure you. And even if I am wrong, the poor man is dead and cannot possibly be involved with the disappearance that occupies us tonight.”

Van Helsing’s hand shot out from the folds of his cloak and gripped the night manager around his upper arm. Stoker cried out.

“Where did he live?” the old man said.

“I don’t know!” the night manager pleaded. “Truly I don’t. He was always the last to leave the theater, and he lived alone. Now, please, sir, release my arm, I beg you!”

Van Helsing let go of Stoker, who immediately grabbed his arm with his hand and looked at the old doctor with a look of pure terror.

“What is underneath this building?” Van Helsing asked.

“I do not know,” whispered the night manager, still clutching his arm.

“Perhaps it is time you found out. Take us to the orchestra pit, quickly now.”

“It’s this way,” Stoker said, his voice still low and full of fear and pain, and led them into the bowels of the theater.

Their second journey through the backstage of the Lyceum was silent.

The night manager led them through corridors of dressing rooms, past a large door separate from the others upon which was written MR. H. IRVING in elegant script, past doors marked MAKEUP, ATELIER, BRASS, WIND, PERCUSSION, and PRIVATE, down a narrow staircase, and finally through a door that opened into the rear of the orchestra pit. Van Helsing placed a hand on Stoker’s shoulder and entered the pit first, walking quickly through the neat arrangement of chairs and stands, up two shallow wooden steps to the entrance to the conductor’s box. He stayed on the top step, not entering. The valet and the night manager stood behind him on the floor of the pit.

In the box was a circular red rug that covered the floor, an ornate music stand holding the score for The Tempest, and nothing else. Van Helsing ordered Stoker and the valet to stand back. He reached in and gripped the edge of the red rug and then pulled it violently out of the box.

“Sir, I must protest!” cried Stoker. “This is most-”

“Come up here,” interrupted Van Helsing. “And see if your objection still holds.”

Stoker and the valet stepped up into the conductor’s box. In the middle of the floor was a heavy wooden trapdoor.

Van Helsing turned to the night manager and the valet.

“Be very, very careful from here on,” he said.

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