The Curse of the Wendigo
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Near the end of August, a large package arrived from Menlo Park, and for a few moments he was his old self again, delighting in the gift from his friend. Enclosed with it was a brief note: All my thanks for your help with the design, Thos. A. Edison. He played with the phonograph for the space of an hour, and then touched it no more. It sat upon the table beside him like a silent rebuke. Here was the dream made real of Thomas Edison, a man who was destined to be lauded as one of the greatest minds of his generation, if not in all history, a true man of science whose world would be forever changed for his having lived in it.
“What am I, Will Henry?” the doctor asked abruptly one rainy afternoon.
I answered with the literalness of a child, which, of course, at the time I was.
“You’re a monstrumologist, sir.”
“I am a mote of dust,” he said. “Who will remember me when I am gone?”
I glanced at the mountain of letters upon his desk. What did he mean? It seemed he knew everyone. Just that morning a letter had arrived from the Royal Society of London. Sensing he meant something deeper, I answered intuitively, “I will, sir. I will remember you.”
“You! Well, I suppose you won’t have much choice in the matter.” His eyes wandered to the phonograph. “Do you know it was not always my desire to be a scientist? When I was much younger, my great ambition was to be a poet.”
If he had stated that his brain were made of Swiss cheese, I would not have been more flabbergasted.
“A poet, Dr. Warthrop?”
“Oh, yes. The desire is gone, but the temperament, you may have noticed, still lingers. I was quite the romantic, Will Henry, if you can imagine it.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“I grew up.”
He placed one of his thin, delicate fingers upon the ceresin cylinder, running the tip along the pits and grooves like a blind man reading braille.
“There is no future in it, Will Henry,” he said pensively. “The future belongs to science. The fate of our species will be determined by the likes of Edison and Tesla, not Wordsworth or Whitman. The poets will lie upon the shores of Babylon and weep, poisoned by the fruit that grows from the ground where the Muses’ corpses rot. The poets’ voices will be drowned out by the gears of progress. I foresee the day when all sentiment is reduced to a chemical equation in our brains—hope, faith, even love—their exact locations pinned down and mapped out, so we may point to it and say, ‘Here, in this region of our cerebral cortex, lies the soul.’”
“I like poetry,” I said.
“Yes, and some like to whittle, Will Henry, so they will always find trees.”
“Have you kept any of your poems, Doctor?”
“No, I have not, for which you should be grateful. I was horrible.”
“What did you write about?”
“What every poet writes about. I fail to understand it, Will Henry, your uncanny gift for seizing upon the most tangential aspect of the issue and drubbing it to death.”
To prove him wrong, I said, “I will never forget you, sir. Ever. And neither will the whole world. You’ll be more famous than Edison and Bell and all the rest put together. I’ll make sure of it.”
“I will pass into oblivion, to the vile dust from whence I sprung, unwept, unhonored, and unsung. . . . That is poetry, in case you’re wondering. Sir Walter Scott.”
He stood up, and now his countenance shone with the profundity of his passion, at once terrifying and strangely beautiful, the look of the mystic or the saint, transported from the constraints of ego and all fleshy desires.
“But I am nothing. My memory is nothing. The work is everything, and I will not see it mocked. Though the cost be my very life, I will not let it pass, Will Henry. If von Helrung should succeed—if we allow our noble cause to be reduced to the study of the silly superstitions of the masses—so that we jibber-jabber on about the nature of the vampire or the zombie as if they sat at the same table as the manticore and the Anthropophagus, then monstrumology is as dead as alchemy, as ridiculous as astrology, as serious as one of Mr. Barnum’s sideshow freaks!
“Grown men, educated men, men of the highest sophistication and social refinement, cross themselves like the most ignorant peasant when they pass this house. ‘What queer and unnatural goings-on in there, the house of Warthrop!’ When you yourself can attest that there is nothing queer or unnatural about it, that what I deal in is altogether natural, that if it weren’t for me and men like me, these fools might find themselves choking on their own entrails or being digested in the belly of some beast no more queer than the lowly housefly!”
He drew a breath deeply, the pause before the start of the next movement in his symphony, then suddenly he became very still, head cocked slightly to one side. I listened, but heard nothing but the rain’s gentle kiss upon the window and the metronomic tick-tick of the mantel clock.
“Someone is here,” he said. He turned and peered through the blinds. I could see nothing but the reflection of his angular face. How hollow his cheeks! How pale his flesh! He had spoken boldly of his ultimate fate—did he know how close he seemed to that vile dust from whence he came?
“Quickly, to the door, Will Henry. Whoever it is, remember I am indisposed and can’t receive visitors. Well, what are you waiting for? Snap to, Will Henry, snap to!”
A moment later the bell rang. He closed the study door behind me. I lit the jets in the front hall to chase away the preternatural shadows lying thick in the entryway, and threw wide the door to behold the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in all the years of my exceedingly long life.
“There Is Nothing I Can Do for You”
“Why, hello there,” she said with a puzzled smile. “I’m afraid I may be lost. I am looking for the house of Pellinore Warthrop.”
“This is Dr. Warthrop’s house,” I returned, in a voice only moderately steady. More stunning than her extraordinary looks was her very presence upon our doorstep. In all the time I had lived with him, the doctor had never received a lady caller. It simply did not happen. The doorstep of 425 Harrington Lane was not the sort of place upon which a proper lady appeared.
“Oh, good. I thought I might have come to the wrong place.”
She stepped into the vestibule without my asking, removed her gray traveling cloak, and adjusted her hat. A strand of her auburn hair had escaped from its pin and now clung, dripping, to her graceful neck. Her face was radiant in the glow of the lamps, rain-moist and without defect—unless the fine spray of freckles across her nose and cheeks might be called thus—though I will admit it may not have been the lighting that painted her with perfection.
It is exceedingly strange to me that I, who have no difficulty in describing the multifarious manifestations of the doctor’s gruesome craft, the foul denizens of the dark in all their grotesque aspects to the smallest detail, now struggle with the lexicon, reaching for words as ephemeral as the will-o’-the-wisp to do justice to the woman I met that summer afternoon seventy years ago. I might speak of the way the light played along her glittering tresses—but what of that? I might go on about her hazel eyes flecked with flashing bits of brighter green—but still fall short. There are things that are too terrible to remember, and there are things that are almost too wonderful to recall.
“Could you tell him that Mrs. Chanler is here to speak with him?” she asked. She was smiling warmly at me.
I stammered something completely unintelligible, which did nothing to diminish her smile.
“He is here, isn’t he?”
“No, ma’am,” I managed. “I mean, yes, he is, but he is not. . . . The doctor is indisposed.”
“Well, perhaps if you told him I’m here, he might be disposed to make an exception.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, and then quickly added, “He is very busy, so—”
“Oh, he is always busy,” she said with a delighted little laugh. “I’ve never known him not to be. But where are my manners? We haven’t been properly introduced.” She offered her hand. I took it, only later wondering if her intent had been for me to kiss it. I was woefully ignorant in the social graces. I was being raised, after all, by Pellinore Warthrop.
“My name is Muriel,” she said.
“I’m William James Henry,” I responded with awkward formality.
“Henry! So that’s who you are. I should have realized. You’re James Henry’s son.” She placed her cool hand upon my arm. “I am terribly sorry for your loss, Will. And you are here because . . . ?”
“The doctor took me in.”
“Did he? How extraordinarily uncharacteristic of him. Are you certain we’re speaking of the same doctor?”
Behind me the study door came open and I heard the monstrumologist say, “Will Henry, who was—” I turned to discover a look of profound shock upon his face, though that was quickly replaced by a mask of icy indifference.
“Pellinore,” Muriel Chanler said softly.
The doctor spoke to me, though his eyes did not abandon her. “Will Henry, I thought my instructions were unambiguous.”
“You mustn’t blame William,” she said with a note of playfulness. “He took pity upon me, standing on your stoop like a wet cat. Are you ill?” she asked suddenly. “You look as if you might have a fever.”
“I have never been better,” returned the doctor. “I can complain of nothing.”
“That’s more—or less—than I might say. I am soaked to the skin! Do you suppose I might have a cup of hot cider or tea before you toss me out the door? I did come a very long way to see you.”
“New York is not that far,” Warthrop replied. “Unless you came on foot.”
“Is that a no, then?” she asked.
“Saying no would be foolish on my part, wouldn’t it? No one says no to Muriel Barnes.”
“Chanler,” she corrected him.
“Of course. Thank you. I believe I remember who you are. Will Henry, show Mrs. Chanler”—he spat out the name—“to the parlor and put on a pot of tea. I’m sorry, Mrs. Chanler, but we’ve no cider. It isn’t in season.”
Returning from the kitchen with the serving tray a few minutes later, I paused outside the parlor, for within I could hear a vehement discussion in progress, the doctor’s voice high-pitched and tight, our guest’s quieter but no less urgent.
“Even if I accepted it on its face,” he was saying, “even if I believed such claptrap . . . no, even if it existed regardless of my belief . . . there are a dozen men to whom you could turn for help.”
“That may be,” she allowed. “But there is only one Pellinore Warthrop.”
“Flattery? I am astounded, Muriel.”
“A measure of my desperation, Pellinore. Believe me, if I thought anyone else could help me, I would not ask you.”
“Ever the diplomat.”
“Ever the realist—unlike you.”
“I am a scientist, and therefore an absolute realist.”