The Final Descent
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“It’s worth three times that to the men we’ve been talking about,” Maeterlinck pointed out. “Even at two million it would be a bargain, Doctor. One million is a steal.”
Warthrop was nodding. “I agree it has all the characteristics of a theft.”
He rose from his chair. He towered over Maeterlinck, who seemed to shrink before my eyes, dwindling down to a nub of his regal self, like a bit of kindling thrown into a crackling fire.
“Out!” Warthrop roared, his self-control slipping. “Get out, get out, get out and do it now, at once, with all alacrity, you despicable scoundrel, you perfidious, pretentious rascal, before I toss you out on your avaricious ass! Science is not some two-penny whore for your buying and selling, nor are those who practice it patsies and fools—well, not all of them, anyway, or at least not this one. I do not know who sent you—if anyone sent you—but you may tell your client that Warthrop will not take the bait. Not because the asking price is too high—which, by the way, it is—but because he does not bargain with self-important, half-witted swindlers who believe, unwisely, that a student of aberrant biology would be ignorant of aberrance of the human kind!” He turned to me, eyes burning with righteous indignation. “Will Henry, show this . . . this . . . salesman to the door. Good day to you, sir—and good riddance!”
He stormed from the room, into which a distinctly uncomfortable silence descended.
“Actually, I expected a counteroffer,” Maeterlinck confessed quietly. I noticed his hands were shaking.
“It wasn’t the asking price,” I said. The doctor could easily afford it. “It’s an enormous sum to bandy about with no product to justify it.”
“I thought we could negotiate as gentlemen.”
“Oh, you’ll find very few of those in monstrumology,” I answered with a smile. “Living ones, that is.”
I walked him to the door, helped him on with his cloak.
“Should I return with it?” he wondered aloud, perhaps seeing the wisdom of my observation. “If he saw it with his own eyes . . .”
“I’m afraid he would refuse to even examine it. The bridge of trust has been burned.”
His shoulders slumped. A desperate look came to his eyes. “I could sell it—and get a nice price, too, if they don’t kill me instead.”
“Who? If who doesn’t kill you?”
He seemed shocked that I asked. “Profiteers.”
“Oh. Yes, they are despicable. Profiteers.”
I opened the door and he stepped outside. Night had fallen. I joined him on the stoop, closing the door behind us.
“I’ve made a tactical error,” he acknowledged. “I wonder if I might find some other philosopher to consider . . .”
“That heartens me,” I confessed. “It renews my faith that you are willing to sell to science what you could sell to profiteers at three times the price. It speaks to your good character, Maeterlinck.” I glanced around and lowered my voice, as if the doctor might be hunkered down in the bushes, spying on us. “Do not rush off just yet. It so happens I manage the finances as well as every other aspect of the doctor’s life. Are you staying in town?”
He eyed me warily. Then nodded: First impressions, after all, can be deceiving. Perhaps he had misjudged me.
“At the Publick House.”
“Excellent. Give me an hour or so. I will speak to the doctor—he spoke true when he confessed his trust in me. I may be able to convince him to at least have a look at it.”
“Why not speak to him now? I will wait. . . .”
“Oh, not now. I’ll have to let him cool down a bit. He’s got his dander up. In his current mood you couldn’t convince him the sky was blue.”
“I suppose . . .” He rubbed his quivering hand over his lips. “I suppose I could bring it here for him to have a look, but what assurances . . . ?”
“Oh, no, no, no. Your instincts were quite right not to bring it here—if it is as valuable as you say. This place is watched, you know, by all sorts of rough characters. The house of Warthrop is known to attract unsavory business—not that your business is unsavory; that’s not what I meant. . . .”
His eyes were wide. “I must tell you, I didn’t even know what monstrumology was a fortnight ago.”
“Maeterlinck.” I smiled. “I’ve been up to my eyeballs in it for more than five years and I still am not entirely certain. In an hour, then, at the Publick. I shall meet you in the drawing room—”
“Best if we meet privately,” he whispered, now my coconspirator. “Room thirteen.”
“Ah. Lucky thirteen. If we aren’t there in an hour, you may assume we are not coming. And then you must do what your conscience and your business interests dictate.”
“They are not mutually exclusive,” he said with great pride. “I am no swindler, Mr. Henry!”
And I am no fool, I thought.
While Warthrop fumed and pouted in the library, nursing his wounded pride and wrestling with the one adversary that ever threatened to undo him—self-doubt—I gathered my supplies for the expedition, loading them into my jacket pocket, where they fit nicely with no untoward bulges. Then I brewed another pot of tea and carried it into the library, setting the tray before him on the large table, over which he slouched, paging through the latest edition of the Encyclopedia Bestia, the authoritative compendium of all creatures mean and nasty. Muttering under his breath. Running restless fingers through his thick hair until it framed his lean face like the halo of a byzantine icon. He flinched when I set the tray down and said, “What is this?”
“I thought you might like another cup.”
“Tea. Will Henry, the last known specimen of T. cerrejonensis was killed by a coal miner in 1801. The species is extinct.”
“A charlatan who let his avarice get the better of him. You were right to throw him out, sir.”
I dropped two sugars into his tea and gave it a swirl.
“Do you know I once paid six thousand dollars for the phalanges of an Immundus matertera?” he asked. There was an uncharacteristic pleading tone in his voice. “It isn’t as if I’m above paying for the furtherance of human knowledge.”
“I’m not familiar with the species,” I confessed. “Say he actually did have a living specimen. Would it be worth his asking price?”
“How can one put a price on something like that? It would be beyond price.”
“In the furtherance-of-human-knowledge sense or . . . ?”
“In nearly every sense.” He sighed. “There is a reason it was hunted to extinction, Will Henry.”
“What does that mean, ‘ah’? Why do you say ‘ah’ like that?”
“I take it to mean a reason beyond the usual one of eradicating a threat to life and limb.”
He shook his head at me. “Where did I fail? Maeterlinck—if that’s his real name, which I doubt—spoke true about one thing: an actual living specimen of T. cerrejonensis would have the potential to make its captor richer than all the robber barons combined.”
“Really! Then a million is not so outlandish an asking price.”
He stiffened. “It would be, in all likelihood, the last of its kind.”
“Clearly you do not. You know next to nothing about the matter, and I would appreciate it if you dropped it and never brought it up again.”
“But if there is even a possibility that—”
“What have I said that you fail to understand? You ask questions when you should be quiet and hold your tongue when you should ask!” He slammed the hefty book closed. The attending wallop was loud as a thunderclap. “I wish my father were alive. If my father were alive, I would apologize to him for failing to understand the Solomon-like wisdom of shipping off a teenager until he’s fully grown! Don’t you have anything better to do?”
“Yes,” I replied calmly. “I must go to the market before it closes. The larder is completely bare.”
“I am not hungry,” he snapped with a dismissive wave.
“Perhaps not. I, however, am famished.”
The Publick House was the finest establishment of its kind in town. With its well-appointed rooms and attentive staff, the inn was a favorite gathering place and stopover point for wealthy travelers on their way east along the Boston Post Road. John Adams had slept there, or so the proprietor claimed.
Number 13 was located at the end of the first-floor hall, the last room on the left. Maeterlinck’s practiced but entirely genuine smile quickly faded when he realized I had come alone.
“But where is Dr. Warthrop?”
“Indisposed,” I replied curtly, stepping past him and into the room. A nice little fire spat and popped in the hearth. A snifter of brandy and a pot of steaming tea rested on the small table opposite the bed. The window overlooked the spacious grounds, though the view was hidden by night’s dark curtain. I shrugged out of my overcoat, draped it over the chair between the table and the fire, decided a drink would warm me up and steady my nerves, and poured myself a glass from the snifter.
“The doctor has given me discretionary authority over the matter,” I said to him. “The issue for him, as I guessed, is not the price of the thing but the thing’s authenticity. You must understand you are not the first so-called broker who has appeared at his door wanting to sell certain oddities of the natural world.” I smiled—warmly, I hoped. “When I was younger, I used to think of the doctor’s subjects as mistakes of nature. But I’ve come to understand they are precisely the opposite. These things he studies—they are nature perfected, not mistakes but masterpieces, the pure form beyond the shadow on Plato’s metaphorical wall. This is excellent brandy, by the way.”
Maeterlinck was frowning; he was not following me at all. “So Warthrop is willing to reconsider my offer?”
“He is willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.”
“Then let us go to him at once!” he cried. “There is something altogether unnerving about this whole business, and I’m beginning to think I shouldn’t have taken it on. The sooner I get rid of this . . . masterpiece, as you call it, the better.”
I nodded, downed the rest of the brandy in a single swallow, and said, “There is no need to go to him. I have full discretion in the transaction. I believe I explained that, Maeterlinck. All that remains is for me to authenticate the find. Where is it?”
His eyes cut away. “Not far from here.”
I laughed. Poured another glass for myself and one for him. He accepted it without comment, and I said, “I will wait here while you fetch it, then.”
His eyes narrowed. He sipped the brandy nervously. “There is no need,” he said finally.
“I thought not,” I countered, falling into the chair and stretching out my legs. “So let’s pull it out and have done with it. The doctor is expecting me.”