The Isle of Blood
Page 17

 Rick Yancey

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It was true. A delivery had arrived at the kitchen door the night before he sacked her, and the cook, a kindly old woman named Paulina, who was nearly blind (Warthrop considered this deficiency a plus), had mistaken it for an order she had placed with Mr. Noonan the butcher. That evening we unknowingly dined upon the carcass of the rare Hallux turpis of Cappadocia, which Paulina had transformed into a hearty stew. The doctor fired her, of course, the moment he realized, to his horror, that he had consumed one of monstrumology’s most sought after prizes. Afterward, after he had calmed down, he acknowledged that it wasn’t a total loss to science. We had discovered that Hallux turpis tasted remarkably like chicken.
“I do everything for him,” I said with an uncomfortable knot of pride and resentment in my heartShe b220;All the cooking and cleaning, and the washing, and I write his letters and run the errands and keep his files, and take care of the horses, of course, and assist him in the laboratory—that too. Especially that.”
“Well! I am surprised you have time for your studies.”
“My studies, sir?”
“You do not go to school?”
“Not since I came to him.”
“Then, he tutors you, yes? He must tutor you. No?”
I shook my head. “No, I don’t think so.”
“You don’t think so!” He clucked in disapproval.
“He doesn’t sit me down with books and pencils and teach me lessons—nothing like that. But he does try to teach me things.”
“Things? What things does he try to teach you, Will? What have you learned from him?”
“I’ve learned…” What had I learned? My mind went blank. What had the monstrumologist taught me? “I’ve learned that half the world prays they will be given what they deserve, and the other half that they will not.”
“Mein Gott!” cried my teacher’s former teacher. “I do not know whether to laugh or cry at your answer! But that is the way of truth.”
He went to the stove and returned with the pot of hot chocolate, topped off my cup, and then filled his to the brim, lowering his nose close to the mud-colored surface to breathe in the aroma; the steam painted his cheeks rosy. He looked at me through the steam, and smiled.
“I love chocolate. Don’t you?”
For the briefest of moments, I wanted to throw my arms around him and hug him tight.
“Dr. von Helrung, sir?”
I lowered my voice. I did not think about it; it seemed appropriate somehow. “What is Typhoeus magnificum?”
His smile disappeared. He pushed his cup away and folded his hands on the tabletop. I had the sense of the space shrinking between us, until I was but a hairsbreadth from his transcendent visage.
“That is hard to say—very hard. Only his victims have seen him, and, forever mute, they keep his secrets.
“We know he lives, for we have held the nidus in our hands, and we’ve seen—you have seen, ah, too much!—the victims of his terrible venom. But his form is hidden from us. There are stories… that he stands twenty feet tall, that his teeth are mobile like a spider’s, which he uses to fashion his ungodly nest, that he swoops down from the blackest sky borne on wings ten feet across to snatch his prey, carrying them past the highest clouds to rip them apart, and the leavings fall back to earth in a rain of blood and spit, what is called the pwdre ser, the rot of stars.” He shuddered violently and breathed deep the soothing scent rising from his mug.
“It sounds like a dragon,” I said.
“Ja, that is one of his faces; he has many more, as many as there are those who have suffered his wrath. And so we call him the Faceless One and the One of a Thousand Faces.
“We are the sons of Adam. It is in our nature to turn and face the faceless, to name the nameless thing. It drives us to greatness; it brings us to ruin. I only pray Pellinore understands this. Many brave men have sought it, all have failed, and now I do not know what I fear more—that the dragon will go unseen or that Pellinore will find it.”
“Why is it so hard to find, though?” I asked.
“Perhaps it is like the devil himself—never seen, always there!” He laughed softly, breaking the somber spell. “The world is large, dear Will, and we, no matter how much we would like to pretend otherwise, we are quite small.”
Chapter Twelve: “The Most Terrifying Monster of All”
“Will Henry, you’re quiet tonight—even for you,” observed my master in the cab ride back to the Plaza.
“I’m sorry, sir.”
“Sorry for what?”
“For being quiet.”
“It wasn’t a criticism, Will Henry. It was merely an observation.”
“I’m tired, I suppose.”
“That is not something one supposes. Are you tired or are you not?”
“I am tired.”
“Then, say so.”
“I just said so.”
“You don’t strike me as tired. More like angry.” He turned away. His angular profile flitted in and out of shadow as we rattled down the granite street. The fresh snowdrifts glittered diamond-bright in the glow of the arc lights lining Fifth Avenue.
“It’s Mr. Arkwright, isn’t it?” he asked. On those infrequent moments when the monstrumologist decided to take actual note of my existence, he missed very little.
“Dr. Warthrop, he lied to you.”
“What do you mean?” He turned from the window. Light and shadow warred upon the landscape of his face.
“He knew you had an apprentice. Dr. von Helrung told him.”
“Well, he must have forgotten.”
“And he never applied to you. I would have seen the letters.”
“Perhaps you did.”
The implication that I was lying could not have hurt more than if he had physically struck me.
ot making an accusation,” he went on. “I just don’t know why Mr. Arkwright would lie about it. To me, more striking than his mental acuity—which is truly extraordinary—is his sincerity. Truly a remarkable young man, Will Henry. He will make a fine addition to our ranks one day. There is very little of import that escapes his notice.”
“He forgot you already had an apprentice,” I pointed out, not without a note of triumph.
“As I said, of import—” He stopped himself and took a deep breath. “Anyway, I’m surprised to hear you use the word ‘apprentice.’ I was under the impression you detested monstrumology.”
“I don’t detest it.”
“So you love it?”
“I know how important it is to you, Dr. Warthrop, so I…”
“Ah, I see. It is not monstrumology you love, then.” He considered the white world outside the cab. The wheels crunched in the newly fallen snow. The snap of our driver’s whip was muffled in the hard wind coming over the East River.
“Oh, Will Henry,” he cried softly. “I should never have taken you in. It was not what either of us desired. I should have known little good would come of it.”
“Don’t say that, sir. Please don’t say that.” I reached over to touch his arm with my wounded hand, and then withdrew. I did not think he would approve of my touching him.
“Oh, no,” he said. “It is an unfortunate habit of mine to say things that probably shouldn’t be said. Little good can come of this, Will Henry; I have known it for quite some time. What I do will kill me one day, and you will be abandoned again. Or worse, what I love will kill—”
His gaze fell to my left hand, and then he continued. “I am a philosopher in the natural sciences. Matters of the heart I leave to the poets, but it has occurred to me, as a failed poet myself, that the cruelest aspect of love is its inviolable integrity. We do not choose to love—or I should say, we cannot choose not to love. Do you understand?”
He leaned very close to me, and my world became the dark fire burning in his eyes. I was overcome with dizziness, as if I teetered on the very edge of a lightless abyss.
“I shall put it this way,” he said. “If we monstrumologists were serious at all about our vocation, we would give up the study of biological aberrations to concentrate on the most terrifying monster of all.”
In my dream I am standing before the Locked Room in the Monstrumarium with Adolphus Ainesworth, and he is fumbling with his keys.
The doctor said you’d want to see this.
But I’m not allowed.
The doctor said.
He unlocks the door, and I follow him inside.
Now, let’s see… Where did I put it? Ah, yes. Here it is!
He’s pulling a container the size of a shoe box from its niche, setting it upon a table.
Go on, open it! He wanted you to see.
My fingers are trembling. The lid doesn’t want to come off. Is the box quivering, or is it my hand?
I can’t open it.
There is something in the box. It is alive. It vibrates against my fingers.
Thickheaded boy! You can’t open it because you’re asleep! You want to know what’s in the box, you have to wake up. Wake up, Will Henry, wake up!
I did as he commanded, breaking the surface between my dream and the dark room with a startled cry, my heart racing in panic; for a moment I could not remember where I was—could not remember who I was… until a voice beside the bed reminded me.
“Will Henry.”
“Dr. Warthrop?”
“You were dreaming, I think.”
“Yes… I was.”
The light in the hall was on; it was the only light. It streamed across the floor and up the wall beside the bed. The monstrumologist stood on the side opposite the light.
“What was your dream?” he asked.
I shook my head. “I—I don’t remember.”
“‘Between the sleeping and the waking, it is there.… Between the rising and resting, it is there.… It is always there.’”
There was the bar of light on the floor and the column of light on the wall, but the bar and the column bled their substance into the room; I could see his face dimly, but I could not read his eyes.
“Is that from a poem?” I asked.
“From a very anemic attempt at one, yes.”
“You wrote it, didn’t you?”
His hand rose, fell. “How is your hand?”
“It doesn’t hurt.”
“Will Henry,” he gently chided.
“Sometimes it throbs a little.”
“You must hold it above your heart.”
I tried it. “Yes, sir. It does help. Thank you.”
“Do you still feel it? As if the finger were still there?”
“I had no choice.”
“I know.”
“The risk was… unacceptable.”
He sat on the edge of the bed. More light upon his face, nothing more illuminated. Why had he been standing in the dark, watching me?
“You do not know this, of course. But afterward I took the rope, and I was going to tie you up—only as a precaution…”
I opened my mouth to say, I know. I saw you. But he held up his finger to stop me.