The Final Descent
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“That’s the other thing!” I cried. “Thank you, sir, for reminding me! I should have seen it then—you saw it almost immediately—that Pellinore Warthrop would never give up something so important so easily. ‘Give it to him!’” I laughed. “You did want me to give it to him—you had hired him, after all, to take it!”
“Enough!” he cried, uncoiling from the chair and lunging toward me. “It is one thing to insult my honor, sir—quite another to cross the line into insulting my intelligence! I suppose it assuages your guilt to lay the blame upon my shoulders—to transfer the blood, as it were, onto my hands. It was you who snuck into the Monstrumarium with Lilly Bates that night! It was you who murdered two men in cold blood over the sum of ten thousand dollars! It was you who brought about the death of my dearest and only friend! It was you who in some warped sense of justice executed a king to inaugurate a war!” He took a long, shuddering breath. His voice died away nearly to nothing. “And it was you who sacrificed upon the altar of your selfish need . . .”
The monstrumologist turned away. He left the rest of it—and all of it—unfinished for another time.
“Now see what you’ve done,” he muttered at the door. “You’ve upset me again, at the worst possible time—again. Tomorrow I must preside over the opening session, and I am weary and distracted beyond words. When we get back to New Jerusalem—”
“I’m not going back to New Jerusalem!” I shouted at him. He raised his hand, allowed it to fall to his side: a gesture of resignation.
“As you wish,” he said. There was nothing left in his voice. No anger, no sorrow, no silly sentimental thing at all. “I have saved you from yourself for the last time.”
He closed the door behind him. The creak of the floorboards faded. He did not return to his room; I could tell that. Probably went to brood in the sitting room, in the dark, his natural habitat. I seethed, my nausea and light-headedness forgotten. I didn’t think I was right; I knew it. He had lied to me, the one who had called lying the worst kind of buffoonery. And worse: He had twisted the facts to justify endangering Lilly and all the inadvertent carnage that followed. If I’d known the truth, Competello and his men would be alive, von Helrung, too. His deception was the monster here, not me. No, not that—the lie was merely the progeny of his colossal ego and his willingness to place an abomination above human life. I’d always thought him vain and arrogant and without normal human emotion. I’d never considered, though, that he might be evil.
The floorboards creaked again. He had gone into his room. A minute passed, then five, and now the creaks were softer, as if he were tiptoeing down the hall. I threw back the covers and stumbled to the armoire to find some clothes. The room teetered; I nearly fell. I had not eaten in days.
I knew where he was going—or thought I did. And if he didn’t go there, I would while he was gone. I was sure I knew where he had hidden it. I would find it and chop off its foul head and stuff it into his lying mouth.
The only thing I could not understand was why he wouldn’t confess. What did it matter now?
“Evil man,” I muttered. “Evil!”
The night was freezing cold. In my haste I’d forgotten my coat. I jammed my bare hands into my trouser pockets and trotted along with my shoulders hunched, and the city lights pushed back against the sky, dimming the stars. My vision was cloudy, my thoughts muddled. No matter the hour, the streets are never truly deserted in the city. There are the white-coated sanitation workers and the seamen wandering in drunken clumps looking for an open bar and the pickpockets and whores who prey on them and the occasional homeless restless wanderer digging through trash barrels and the lonely patrolman walking his beat.
The dark buildings cut off the horizon; here it was impossible to discern the edge of the world. My quarry was well ahead of me, out of sight, like the horizon he guarded: In Egypt, I have told you, he was called Mihos, the one whose sacred charge was to keep me from falling over that edge.
I entered the Society’s headquarters through the same side door Lilly and I had used the night of the dance. Black jacket, purple dress, raven-colored ringlets, and now she was gone, back in England, and who cares? To hell with her. There is something missing. Something that should be there but isn’t anymore. No, Lilly. There is nothing missing. I am complete. I am whole. I am the evolution of man in microcosm. The chrysalis breaks, the amniotic fluid oozes from the fissure, and the amber eye opens, unblinking in a shadowless world.
And now the stairs leading down, narrow, serpentine, dark, like those in Warthrop’s dream. The gas jets had been turned on below, and the light like a creeping seaside fog rose up to greet me. The Beastie Bin, the House of Monsters, Kodesh Hakodashim, the Holy of Holies, and Isaacson saying You’ll be an exhibit there one day.
Voices floated along the dusty passageways, twisting around corners, squeezing between the crates and cases that listed precariously against the walls, the words muffled and indistinct, two voices, male, one undeniably Warthrop’s, the other harder to place, though it sounded vaguely familiar. I slowed as I came close. I could hear something else now—someone else—a soft mewling, the unmistakable moans of a human being in agony.
And then I heard Samuel Isaacson say, “How much longer?”
Then Warthrop: “Impossible to predict. Hours, days . . . it could come in a few minutes; it may never come. Fetch me the syringe. Let’s take another sample.”
“Perhaps we should end it now, sir. The suffering, it’s . . .”
“Would you play God, Isaacson? I am a scientist: a student of nature, not its master. Ours is to observe and record, not judge and execute. Is she doomed? Most likely. There is no remedy, no antidote . . . here, take this now and set it over there on the bench. Another hot cloth now, and step lively.”
“He’ll burn in hell for this.”
“What? Have you not been listening? Where did Sir Hiram find you, anyway? If you want to fiddle with notions of heaven and hell, get thee to a seminary! The world is round, Isaacson: a ball, not a plate. If something should happen while I am occupied upstairs tomorrow, you are not to force the issue, do you understand? I shall decide if and when to end her misery. Now take this sample to the curator’s office and prepare the slides. I’ll be there directly.”
I ducked between two stacks of crates and pressed my body deep into the narrow space. Isaacson hurried past; I glimpsed his face screwed up with worry and fear, a syringe loaded with blood clutched in his hand. Now there was silence but for the feverish moans.
“There, there.” Warthrop’s voice broke through, oddly tender. “It comes in waves. This too shall pass.”
And now a quiet sobbing, hopeless and heart-wrenching. Then Warthrop again: “Here, hold this. When the next wave hits, squeeze as hard as you can; it will help. I won’t be long . . .”
I held my breath as he emerged. He walked with his shoulders rounded, his head down, like a man bearing a thousand-pound burden.
Then I stepped out from my hiding place and hurried to the open doorway. I knew what I would find. I knew who Warthrop’s patient must be. There was only one female in the entire world who would venture into the Monstrumarium. She must not have gotten on that ship after all. And she must have found Warthrop’s precious “prize.” Or it had found her. Evil, evil. There seemed to be no limit to his unintentional cruelty. Another victim in his wake. Another sacrifice upon the altar of his unbounded ambition.
A layer of old blankets covered a long, waist-high dissection table. A smaller table had been set at one end, upon which a bowl of hot water steamed. Beside the bowl an array of instruments, vials, and two syringes, one empty, the other loaded with an amber-colored liquid. A large bucket marked HANDLE WITH CARE—CAUSTIC sat in the corner. Sulfuric acid was an indispensable tool in aberrant biology, used primarily for stripping bones to prepare them for study and for cleaning instruments.
A sheet lay crumpled upon the floor next to the drain used to carry runoff of blood and body fluids into the city sewers. She must have kicked off the sheet in her distress, and I saw that she was naked, and sweat glimmered on her exposed flesh; it pasted her dark hair to her scalp; it pooled in the hollow between her breasts. She was clutching a rubber ball, Warthrop’s parting gift, and she squeezed it rhythmically, as if to keep time with music only she could hear.
I stepped closer. Drawn. Repulsed. She was covered head to toe with splotches of red, a patchwork quilt of inflamed skin; in the center of the angry white boils glistened like the chrysalis in the basement, on the brink of hatching. I recognized what this was. I knew what she suffered from.
Drawn, repulsed: closer . . . closer.
Her eyes rolled back in her head. Her dark lashes fluttered. Her delicate, childlike features were clear of boils, but I knew what monster lurked just beneath the surface. I knew what was in her.
The same was in me.
Would you like to try?
What I would really like is something indescribably euphoric—orgasmic, for lack of a better word.
You will like it.
I stumbled backward, and my mind recoiled as well. A black roaring tide smashed into my chest, stopping my heart. The most chaste of kisses. The most chaste of kisses! From a great distance, as the dark tide drove me into suffocating depths, I could hear someone wailing: Someone’s soul was being torn in half. It was mine. It was not mine. Faceless thing, nameless thing, thing that dances in the flames.
And then I smack into his chest, and he wraps his long arms around me, and there is his face overwhelming my vision, filling it to the last centimeter, dark eyes in pale death mask, Mihos, the guardian, but he is too late to save me: I’ve fallen over the edge; my corruption chews on the last of my bones. No room no place no point in mercy or forgiveness or sorrow or any human thing. Just the weeping chrysalis and the perfection of the ancient call, the overarching imperative contained in the most chaste of kisses.
“I am not a physician,” the monstrumologist said. “I am a philosopher. But her mother dragged me into the sickroom regardless. No, no, I said, I have come for the boy, only the boy. But she was a mother and her child was sick and, after I examined the girl, I asked her how long she’d been sick and what were her symptoms, and I suspected—I did not know, of course—the underlying cause of her distress. It posed a serious conundrum. If allowed to run its course, her affliction could result in a wildfire of infection: her sister, her mother, the denizens of the opium joint. From there it might spread throughout the entire city before the outbreak could be contained. She could not go to the hospital—the risk of a serious outbreak was only marginally slighter there. Was it arawakus? I did not know. But better to err on the side of caution.
“Undoubtedly she is infected. There is nothing to be done, as you know, beyond making her comfortable. I’ve been giving her morphine and treating the boils with hot cloths. There is little left of her mind; the organism has infiltrated her cerebral cortex. I don’t believe she knows where she is or what is happening to her, and that is a mercy. A mercy.