The Final Descent
- Text Font:
- Text Size:
- Line Height:
- Line Break Height:
“Well, it would be rather extraordinary if you did.”
Turning, turning, under the glittering chandeliers. He isn’t a bad dancer, her partner. He does not watch his own feet; his eyes are upon her upturned face; and her face follows the turn of her bare shoulders as he spins her lightly over the floor.
Dear Will, I pray this finds you well.
“Why?” I asked the monstrumologist. “And what business is it of yours?”
With dark eyes glittering: “As long as you are in my care, it is entirely my business. You must trust me in this. There is no light at the end of that particular tunnel, Will Henry.”
I stared back at him for a long moment, and then snorted, and the edge of the glass was cold against my bottom lip. “You would be the first to tell me not to take lessons from failure.”
He stiffened and replied, “I did not fail in love. Love failed in me.”
What nonsense! I thought. Typical Warthropian gibberish posing as profundity. There were times when smashing my fist into his face was a temptation nearly impossible to resist. I set down my glass and straightened my cravat and ran my palm over my splendidly gelled hair, while across the room one who danced far better than I spun her across the floor: black jacket, purple dress. Loud music poorly played, the coerced laughter from boring men, and white linen stained with the drippings of slaughtered beasts.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“I am not going anywhere,” I answered, and launched myself into the breach, getting knocked about like a bit of flotsam in the churning tide, then tapping him on his broad shoulder, and across the hall Warthrop checked his watch again. Her partner turned about, and his thin lips drew back from his crooked yellow teeth.
“Next song, chum,” he said in a slickly refined English accent. Lilly said nothing, but her startling blue eyes danced more merrily than she.
Dearest Will, Please forgive me for not writing more often.
“You’ve hogged her enough, I think,” I said. Then a direct appeal to her: “Hello, Lilly. Spare a single dance for an old friend?”
“Don’t you see she’d rather with someone who actually can? Why don’t you crack open another oyster and leave the dancing to real gentlemen?”
“Quite so.” I smiled. And then I smashed my right forearm into his Adam’s apple. He dropped straight down, clutching his throat. I finished the job with a quick downward jab to his temple. Hit a man hard enough in that spot and you can kill him. He crumpled into a ball at my feet. He might have been dead; I did not know or care. I seized Lilly’s wrist as all around us the fists began to fly.
“This way!” I whispered in her ear. I shoved through the throng, dragging her behind me, toward the buffet tables, where I spied a red-faced Warthrop stamping his foot in frustration. It was not quite a quarter past ten. He had lost again. A chair sailed across the room; a man bellowed, “Dear God, I think you’ve broken it!” over the din; and the music broke apart into a confusion of discordant shrieks, like a vase shattering; and then we were out the side door into the narrow alley, where a trash fire burned in a barrel: gold light, black smoke, and the smell of lavender as she struck me across the cheek.
“I am your deliverer,” I corrected her, trying out my most rakish grin.
“Samuel happens to be a very good dancer.”
“Samuel? Even his name is banal.”
“Not like the extraordinarily exotic William.”
Her cheeks were flushed, her breath high in her chest. She tried to push past me; I didn’t let her.
“Where are you going?” I asked. “It’s positively reckless going back in there. If you’re not struck by a serving platter, the police will be here soon to clear the place out. You don’t want to be arrested, do you? Let’s go for a drive.”
I wrapped my fingers around her elbow; she pulled away easily. My mistake: I should have used my right hand.
“Why did you hit him?” she demanded.
“I was defending your honor.”
“All right, my honor, but he really should have yielded. It’s bad form.”
In spite of herself she laughed, and the sound was like coins tossed upon a silver tray, and that at least had not changed.
I was urging her toward the mouth of the alley. The cobblestones were slick from an early afternoon rain, and the night had turned cold. Her arms were bare, so I shrugged out of my jacket and dropped it over her shoulders.
“First you’re a brute; then you’re a gentleman,” she said.
“I am the evolution of man in microcosm.”
I hailed a cab, gave the driver the address, and slid into the seat beside her. The black jacket went well with her purple gown, I thought. Her face flickered in and out of shadow as we rattled past the streetlamps.
“Have I been kidnapped?” she wondered aloud.
“Rescued,” I reminded her. “From the clutches of mediocrity.”
“That word again.” Nervously smoothing the folds in her gown.
“It is a lovely word for a terrible thing. Down with mediocrity! Who is Samuel?”
“You mean you don’t know him?”
“You failed to introduce us.”
“He’s Dr. Walker’s apprentice.”
“Sir Hiram? Imagine that. Well, it isn’t too hard to imagine. Like attracts like, they say.”
“I thought the saying was quite the opposite.”
I waved my hand. The gesture came from the monstrumologist; the disdain was wholly my own. “Clichés are mediocrities. I strive to be wholly original, Miss Bates.”
“Then I shall alert you the moment it happens.”
I laughed and said, “I have been drinking champagne. And I wouldn’t mind another taste.” We were close to the river. I could smell the brine and the faint tartness of decaying fish common to all waterfronts. The cold wind toyed with the ends of her hair.
“You’ve taken to alcohol?” she asked. “How do you hide it from your doctor?”
“For as long as I’ve known you, Lillian, you’ve called him that, and I really wish you’d stop.”
“Because he isn’t my doctor.”
“He doesn’t mind that you drink?”
“It’s none of his business. When I return to our rooms tonight, he will ask, ‘Where have you been, Will Henry?’” Lowering my voice to the appropriate register. “And I will say, ‘From walking up and down the earth, and to and fro in it.’ Or I may say, ‘It’s none of your damn business, you old mossback.’ He’s become quite the fussbudget lately. But I don’t want to talk about him. You’ve grown out your hair. I like it.”
Something had been loosed within me. Perhaps the alcohol was to blame, perhaps not; perhaps it was something much harder to define. Upon her face, light warred with shadow, but within me there was no such conflict.
“And you’ve grown up,” she said, touching the ends of her hair. “A bit. I did not recognize you at first.”
“I knew you right away,” I replied. “From the moment you walked in. Though I’d no idea you were back in the States. How long have you been home? Why did you come home? I thought you weren’t coming back for another year.”
She laughed. “My, haven’t you become the loquacious one! It is so un–Will Henry–like. What’s gotten into you?”
She was teasing me, of course, but I did not miss the hint of fear in her voice, the tiny quiver of uncertainty, the delicious thrill of confronting the unknown. We were kindred spirits in that: What repelled attracted; what terrified compelled.
“The ancient call,” I said with a laugh. “The overarching imperative!”
The cab jerked to a halt. I paid the driver, tipping him handsomely in a gesture of contempt for the doctor’s parsimony, and helped her to the curb. Sound carries better in colder air, and I could hear the rustle of her skirts as she stepped down and the whisper of lace against bare skin.
“Why have you brought me here, Will?” Lilly asked, staring at the imposing edifice, the hunkered gargoyles snarling down at us from the cornices.
“I want to show you something.”
She gave me a wary look. I laughed. “Don’t worry,” I said. “It won’t be like our last visit to the Monstrumarium.”
“That wasn’t my fault. You chose to pick the thing up.”
“As I recall, you asked me to sex it, knowing very well the creature was hermaphroditic.”
“And as I recall, you decided that handling a Mongolian Death Worm was better than admitting your ignorance.”
“Well, my point is we’re both perfectly safe tonight, as long as Adolphus doesn’t catch us.”
We stepped inside the building. She laid a hand on my arm and said, “Adolphus? Surely he’s gone home for the evening.”
“Sometimes he falls asleep at his desk.”
I pushed opened the door beneath the sign that read ABSOLUTELY NO ADMITTANCE TO NONMEMBERS. The stairs were dimly lit and quite narrow. A musty odor hung in the air: a hint of mold, a touch of decay.
“People forget he’s down here,” I whispered, leading the way; the stairs were too narrow to walk abreast. “And the cleaning staff never ventures lower than the first floor—not for fear of anything in the catalog; they’re terrified of Adolphus.”
“Me too,” she confessed. “The last time I saw him, he threatened to bash my head in with his cane.”
“Oh, Adolphus is all right. He’s just spent too much time alone with monsters. Sorry. Not supposed to call them that. Unscientific. ‘Aberrant biological specimens.’”
We reached the first landing. Stronger now the smell of preserving chemicals flimsily covering the sickly-sweet tincture of death that hung in the Monstrumarium like an ever-present fog. One more flight and we would be steps from the old Welshman’s office.
“This better not be some kind of trick, William James Henry,” she whispered in my ear.
“I’m not one for revenge,” I murmured in return. “It isn’t in my nature.”
“I wonder what Dr. John Kearns would say to that.”
I turned back to her. She recoiled, startled by my angry expression. “I confessed that to you in confidence,” I said.
“And I’ve kept it,” she retorted, defiantly jutting out her chin at me, a gesture echoing her childhood.
“That isn’t the sort of confidence I meant, and you know it. I didn’t kill Kearns to avenge.”
“No.” Her eyes seemed very large in the dim lighting.
“No. Now may we proceed?”
“You’re the one who stopped.”
I took her hand and drew her down the remaining steps. Peered around the corner into the curator’s office. The door was open, the light on. Adolphus was slumped behind his desk, head thrown back, mouth agape. Behind me Lilly whispered, “I won’t go another step until you tell me—”