The Curse of the Wendigo
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“If you are finished gorging yourself,” the doctor said, consulting his watch, “we are late for our appointment.”
“They won’t allow us to leave until they speak to you, and I am anxious to quit this charming little backcountry outpost as soon as possible.”
“They” turned out to be two detectives with the North-West Mounted Police. The doctor had reported the deaths of Larose and Sergeant Hawk immediately, and Hawk’s body had been quickly recovered where we had abandoned it, less than ten miles from the northern shore of the Lake of the Woods. A party had been dispatched to locate Larose’s makeshift grave with the aid of a crude map sketched by Warthrop. He wasn’t sure of the precise location, he told his interrogators, but he knew it was off the main trail about a day’s hike from the Sucker camp at Sandy Lake.
The doctor was accustomed to dealing with all varieties of law enforcement; it was an inherent part of his work, since monstrumology was, in a way, the study of the criminal side of nature. He answered their questions forthrightly, his responses becoming vague only to the questions about the purpose of John Chanler’s journey.
“Research,” he replied cagily.
“Research of what, Dr. Warthrop?” the detectives asked.
“Of certain indigenous belief systems.”
“Could you be more specific?”
“Well, he certainly didn’t consult me about it,” Warthrop said, a bit testily. “If you’d like to know more, I suggest you ask Dr. Chanler.”
“We have. He claims to remember nothing.”
“I’ve no doubt he’s telling the truth. He has been through a terrible ordeal.”
“Making out a little better than his guide, though.”
“If you are suggesting he had something to do with Larose’s murder, you are sadly mistaken, Detective Sergeant. I am not telling you how to execute your duties, but the person you should be asking these questions is Jack Fiddler.”
“Oh, we’ll be talking to Mr. Jack Fiddler. We’ve had reports about the strange goings-on up there at Sandy Lake.”
Then it was my turn. The detectives politely asked the doctor to leave. He staunchly refused. They asked again with noticeably less politeness, and he, seeing that further recalcitrance would serve only to delay our departure, reluctantly agreed.
For the next hour they walked me through the story, from first day to terrifying last, and I answered their questions as thoroughly as I could, omitting only those things the doctor had told me were borne of “dehydration, sleep deprivation, hunger, physical trauma, exhaustion, exposure, and extreme fear”—everything, that is, that smacked of Outiko.
“Do you know what Chanler went up there for?” they asked me.
“I think it was research.”
“Research, yes, yes; we’ve heard that.” Then, abruptly, they shifted gears. “What kind of doctor is he?”
“He is a . . . natural philosopher.”
“What does he study?”
“N-natural things,” I stuttered.
“And Dr. Chanler, he’s the same kind of philosopher?”
“And what are you? Are you a philosopher too?”
“I’m an assistant.”
“You’re an assistant philosopher?”
“I provide services to the doctor.”
“What kind of services?”
“Services of the . . . indispensable kind. Is the doctor in trouble?” I asked, hoping to change the subject.
“A sergeant of the NWMP is dead, boy. Somebody is going to be in trouble.”
“But I told you—he left us. He disappeared one night and he was dead when we found him.”
“Bush fever—climbed a tree and froze to death. A local boy who grew up in those woods, who hunted in them and fished in them, who’s hiked them from here to the arctic circle. Just runs off, hauls himself up a tree in the middle of the first big storm of the season . . . You see how it doesn’t add up, Will.”
“Well, that’s what happened.”
I was practically giddy with relief when they escorted us outside without metal bracelets adorning our wrists.
“We shall be in touch, Dr. Warthrop,” said they, rather ominously.
Having just survived my first interrogation as a detained foot soldier in the service of science, I was subjected to another by my master, who demanded to know every question and hear every answer.
“‘Assistant philosopher’! What the devil is that, Will Henry?”
“The best I could come up with, sir.”
We were walking toward the waterfront, away from our hotel.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Chanler,” replied the monstrumologist curtly. “For some unfathomable reason, he’s gotten it into his head he owes you a word of gratitude.”
He was recuperating in the private residence of the town’s apothecary and sole dentist. The residence was located on the second story directly above the business establishment, in a precarious-looking structure across the street from the wharf.
I will confess my ascent to John Chanler’s room was fraught with no small measure of apprehension. Perhaps sensing my distress, the doctor drew me aside before we entered.
“He remembers nothing, Will Henry. His physical recovery has been nothing short of remarkable, but mentally . . . At any rate, try to control your tongue, and remember he has suffered more than either of us.”
John Chanler was sitting in a rocking chair by the window. The late afternoon sun bathed his face with a kind of washed-out radiance, as sometimes the dead will seem to glow in their coffin. I noticed first that he, like the doctor, had had a shave and a trim. The fullness of his face made his eyes appear smaller, more in proportion with the rest. Of course, he was still horribly thin. His head seemed to be balanced precariously upon his spindly neck.
“Well, hullo there!” he called softly, motioning me closer with a freshly manicured claw. “And you must be Pellinore’s Will Henry! I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced.”
His hand was icy cold, though his grip was hard.
“I am John,” he said. “I am so glad to meet you, Will—and I’m delighted to see you up and about. Pellinore told me you’ve been under the weather.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied.
“And now you’re feeling much better.”
“Glad to hear it!” His eyes had lost their yellow hue. The last time I had looked into those eyes, they’d seemed to burn with golden fire.
“You look just like him,” Chanler said softly. “Your father. The resemblance is remarkable.”
“You knew my father?” I asked.
“Oh, everyone knew James Henry. He was practically attached to Warthrop’s hip. A terrible loss, Will. I am sorry.”
In the awkward silence that ensued, we stared at each other across a space that felt far greater than the few feet that separated us. There was an odd blankness about him, a flatness to his inflection, like a poor actor reading from a script, or like the parroting of words in a language he did not comprehend.
“Will Henry,” the doctor said. “John wanted to thank you.”
“Yes! Pellinore tells me your services were indispensable to my rescue.”
“It was Dr. Warthrop,” I said quickly. “He rescued you from Jack Fiddler and he carried you, sir; he carried you all the way. For miles and miles he carried you—”
“Will Henry,” the doctor said. He shook his head slightly and mouthed the word “no.”
“Well! You are your father’s son, William James Henry! Glad to be of service, honored to be in his august company, et cetera, et cetera.” He turned to my master. “What is this magic you work on underlings, Pellinore? Why can’t they see you for the irascible old mossback you are?”
“Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that my company happens to be august.”
Chanler laughed, producing a rattle deep in his chest. He wiped the resulting spittle from his chin with the back of his hand.
“That was my chief mistake,” he said. “I should have brought you with me on the expedition, Pellinore.”
“I would have refused.”
“Even for old times’ sake?”
“Even for that, John.”
“It doesn’t matter that I failed, you know. The old man won’t give it up.”
“I’m prepared to deal with von Helrung.”
“You know who’s to blame for all this, don’t you? That damned Irishman Stokely.”
“Stokely? Who is he?”
“Or Stockman . . . Stickler . . . Stoker . . . Stocker? Oh, I don’t know what’s the matter; got moss on the brain or something. His first name is Abraham, but he doesn’t go by that.”
“I’ve never heard the name—or any variant of it. Is he a monstrumologist?”
“Good God, no. He’s in the theater. The theater, Pellinore! Met the old man through his patron, that British actor—Harold Lerner—is that it?”
Warthrop was shaking his head. “I’ve no idea, John.”
“He’s very famous. Been knighted by the queen and everything. Over here on a tour last year and . . . Henry! That’s the first name. Sir Henry—”
“That’s it! Sir Henry Irving. Stickman is his personal clerk or something. Sir Henry introduced him to von Helrung, and ever since the two have been as thick as two peas in a pod.”
“Thieves,” the doctor said. “The expression is as ‘thick as thieves.’”
“Yes, I know that.” Chanler’s face darkened. “I misspoke, professor. Thank you so much for correcting me, though.” He looked at me. “He does it to you, too; you don’t have to tell me.”
“So this personal secretary of Sir Henry convinced von Helrung of the Wendigo’s existence?” Warthrop seemed dubious.
“Did I say that? You aren’t listening to me. A vain man has no room in his head for the thoughts of others—remember that, little Bill! No, I don’t think Stockman knows a Wendigo from a Welshman—but he’s positively obsessed with all things monstrumological—even wants to write a book about it!”
The doctor’s eyebrow rose. “A book?”
“He’s an aspiring novelist, too. Fixated on the occult, native superstitions, that sort of thing.”
“None of which has anything to do with monstrumology.”
“That’s what I told the old man! But he’s slowing down; you know he’s been slipping over the past couple of years. And this Stroker won’t leave him in peace. Back in England now and writing letter after letter, forwarding von Helrung what he called ‘eyewitness accounts,’ excerpts from personal diaries and such, some of which von Helrung showed me. I told him, ‘You can’t trust this man. He’s in the theater. He’s a writer. He’s making it up.’ Well, the old man won’t listen. Goes off and writes this damn paper to present to the congress and asks me to head up here—because proof of one lends credence to the existence of the other.”