The Curse of the Wendigo
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He swung his eyes to the crowd, and the crowd could not return his righteous glare.
“Take your vote now. I will answer no more of your questions.”
The doctor and I retired to our private box while the vote was taken. It would be, at von Helrung’s request, by secret ballot. Warthrop lay across the divan, arms folded over his chest, head upon the armrest. He stared up at the ornate ceiling and refused to watch the vote.
The silence between us was not of the comfortable variety. Since the death of Chanler, he’d barely spoken to me. When he looked at me, I detected that he was more confounded than angry. The affair had begun with his firm conviction that his friend had been past all salvation—and had ended with the equally steadfast belief that he would save him. That the doctor’s faith had been shattered by me, the last soul on earth bound to him in any way, seemed beyond his ability to comprehend.
So it was with no small amount of courage that I decided to breach the wall he had erected between us.
“Dr. Warthrop, sir?”
He took a deep breath. He closed his eyes. “Yes, Will Henry, what is it?”
“How did—I’m sorry, sir, but I’ve been wondering—how did you know to look for me in the Monstrumarium?”
“How do you think?”
“Someone must have seen us?”
He shook his head; his eyes remained closed. “Try again.”
“Dr. Dobrogeanu—he followed us there?”
“No. He returned straightaway to von Helrung’s after he discovered you missing.”
“Then you must have guessed,” I concluded. It was the only explanation.
“No, I did not guess. I applied the lesson from the Chanler house massacre. What was that lesson, Will Henry?”
Though I gave it my best effort, I could think of nothing instructional in that horrific scene, except the sickening macabre stab at humor scrawled above the bedroom door: Life is.
“John himself told me where to find you,” the monstrumologist explained. “Just as he tried to tell me where to find Muriel. After Dobrogeanu brought us the news, I realized at once where he had taken you. Don’t you remember what he said? ‘He’ll put you on display in the Beastie Bin, where all you nasty things belong.’” He opened his eyes and, raising his head a bit, peeked over the railing. “Hmm. They’re taking their time. I wonder if that’s good or bad.” He lay down again. “They found the Nováková girl, by the way, at the bottom of the sludge, once they drained the cellar.”
I knew she was not the only victim who’d been found in that cellar. He noted my troubled expression and said, “There was nothing you could have done, Will Henry.”
And I answered, “That is what I did, sir. Nothing.”
“Your guilt serves no purpose. Will it resurrect the child or change the past? You did exactly what I would have done—what anyone would have done in the circumstance. Suppose you had picked up the child and left. How many more victims might have fallen that night because of your misplaced altruism? There are hard choices to be made in life, Will Henry, and monstrumology has more than its fair share of them.”
He waited for me to respond. He knew I would agree; I always agreed with him. If the house were on fire and I told you to throw gasoline upon it to quench the flames, you would cry, ‘Yes, sir! Yes, sir!’ and blow us both to kingdom come!
“I should have saved him,” I said.
“Saved him? Saved him from what? You had no idea at the time if John was in that building.”
“I should have saved him,” I repeated.
“Very well. Assume for a moment you did. And assume you managed to find to whom he belonged. And now you may assume he would not live to see his first birthday regardless, for those are the odds, Will Henry; that is the grim fact of the ghetto. You would have saved him from one monster only to deliver him to another no less murderous.”
I shook my head. “I should have saved him,” I said a third time.
His face grew red; his dark eyes flashed. He was not prepared, perhaps, for my obsequious response to his demand that I become less obsequious!
“Why?” he demanded.
“Because I could have,” I answered.
They were laid to rest side by side, my master’s two loves, in the Chanler family plot, for the father of the most wayward son is a father still. The elder Chanler did not speak to Warthrop, except for a few threatening words upon the conclusion of the graveside service, to the effect that he intended to strip him down to his last piece of silver. Warthrop’s reply: “Seems only just, but I beg you to leave me at least my microscope.”
Von Helrung was in attendance, as well as several other monstrumologists, including the survivors of the hunting party. Dobrogeanu shook my hand gravely and pronounced the doctor fortunate to have found a most resourceful and brave assistant.
Lilly had come along too. I was never sure how she’d managed to arrange it, but she hopped out of the hansom wearing a black dress with a matching black ribbon in her curls, and during the service she sat next to me, at one point pulling my hand into hers. I did not try to pull it away.
“So you are leaving,” she said. “Was it your plan to leave without saying good-bye?”
“I serve the doctor,” I answered. “I have no plans of my own.”
“I think that is the most pitifully tragic thing I’ve ever heard anyone say. Will you miss me?”
“You’re just saying that. You won’t really miss me.”
“I will miss you.”
“Are you planning to kiss me good-bye? Oh, sorry. Is your doctor planning for you to kiss me good-bye?”
I smiled. “I shall ask him.”
She wanted to know when she would see me again. Would she have to wait a whole year? “Unless the doctor’s business brings us here sooner,” I answered.
“Well, I can’t promise you anything, Will,” she said. “I may be entirely too busy to fit you in. I will be dating in a year, and I expect my calendar will be quite full.” Her eyes danced merrily. “Are you coming back for the next congress? Or will your doctor leave the Society now that he’s lost his little vote?”
It was true. The doctor had failed. Von Helrung’s resolution had passed by the narrowest of margins, sounding, to Warthrop’s mind at least, the death knell of monstrumology. He might soldier on in exile, a solitary vessel of reason in a sea of superstition—but what would be his reward? What meager solace could he take in his principles when the one thing he’d lived for had been snatched away in the space of an hour?
He took the news as hard as I’d expected—though his reaction took me completely by surprise.
“I have committed a grievous error, Will Henry,” the doctor confessed on the eve of our departure for home. “But unlike yours in the tenement, mine can be rectified. It is not too late.”
His face glowed beneficently in the eldritch autumn light eking through the window that overlooked the park. He spoke with the firmness of one who had perceived his way with untarnished clarity.
“John asked a question of me before he died, a question to which I had no answer: What have we given? I must admit, I am not the kind of man to whom a question like that makes sense. To me, it was just another bit of his gibberish. Your father understood, though, and paid the highest price for his gift. You see, Will Henry, it is not what we give but what we are willing to give. What we can give.
“You abandoned that child in the hall. The gift was within your power, and you withheld your hand. You cannot take that back now, any more than your father can take back his gift to me. But I am not so helpless. I have a choice still—to answer John’s question.”
He drew close to me. “I have lost—everything. John. Muriel. Even my work, the one thing that has given me solace through the lonely years—even that I have lost. You are all that’s left for me, Will Henry, and I fear I will lose you, too.”
“I’ll never leave you, sir,” I said. And I believed it. “Never.”
“You do not understand. Tell me again why you should have saved that child in the hallway.”
“Because I could have.”
He nodded. “And I will save you, Will Henry. Because I can. That is the answer to John’s question.”
I understood then. I backed away on unsteady legs. The room began to spin around me.
“You’re sending me away,” I said.
“You nearly died,” he reminded me. “Three times by my count. If you remain with me, eventually your luck will run out, just like your father’s did. I cannot allow that to happen.”
“No!” I shouted. My voice shook with rage. “That isn’t why you’re doing it. You’re sending me away because I killed him!”
“Don’t raise your voice to me, Will Henry,” he cautioned in a level voice.
“You’re angry and you want to punish me for it! For saving your life! I saved your life!” I could hardly contain my fury. “She was right about you—they were both right! You’re a terrible man. You’re nothing but a . . . You’re full of nothing but yourself, and you don’t know anything! You don’t know anything about . . . about anything!”
“I know this,” he roared back at me, no longer able to contain his temper. “She would be alive now if not for me. The gift was mine to give, and I withheld it—I withheld it!” His face was contorted with self-loathing. He struck his breast like a penitent before the sacrificial altar. “I allowed her to go home—when I knew, I knew she was in danger. I turned away just as you turned away, Will Henry, and what happened? Tell me what happens when we turn away!”
He fell backward onto the sofa, the place where he had tasted, for the briefest of moments, the love he had denied himself by that plunge into the Danube years before.
“Oh, Will Henry,” he cried. “Aren’t we the pitiful pair? What did Fiddler say? ‘What he loves does not know him, and what he knows cannot love.’ He was talking about you, but he might as well have been talking about both of us.” He raised his eyes to me. He seemed so lost, so hopelessly bereft that I stepped toward him in spite of myself.
“Don’t send me away, sir. Please.”
He raised his hand. He let it fall. “Life is,” he murmured. “John filled in that blank, didn’t he? John gave his answer—but is it the answer, Will Henry? Meister Abram claims we are more than what’s reflected in the Yellow Eye, but are we? I carried him the entire way—we almost died, you and I, to bring him out of the wilderness—so he might kill the only woman I have ever loved.”
I sat beside him. “That isn’t why you brought him out.”
He gave a little wave of his hand, dismissing my effort to comfort him. “And the baby died. That isn’t the reason you turned aside. My question remains, Will Henry. Is John’s answer the answer?”
I shook my head. I don’t think he expected me to decipher a riddle that had plagued humankind from its infancy. I am not sure to this day what he expected of me.