The Isle of Blood
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“Well, what do I expect? You are a child, and children are natural-born liars. Some grow out of it; some don’t! And what do you mean, you’re leaving?”
“I am sailing to England in the morning with Dr. von Helrung.”
“Dr. von Helrung! Why is Dr. von Helrung going to England? And why are you going to England?” He was a very old man, but his intellect had not faded with his youth. It took only a moment for him to piece the puzzle together. “The magnificum! You have found it.”
“No, but we’ve found Dr. Warthrop.”
“You’ve found Dr. Warthrop!”
“Yes, Professor Ainesworth. We have found Dr. Warthrop.”
“He isn’t dead?”
I shook my head. “No.”
“Why are you smiling like that?” He bared his dead son’s teeth to mock my grin. “Well, I will be sorry to miss the joyous reunion. His gain is my gain, I will say.”
“I said his gain is my gain!” He leaned across the desk to shout in my face. “Don’t you know I’m the one who’s supposed to be deaf? Well. Good-bye!”
He bver some papers on his desk and shooed me toward the door with a wave of his gnarled hand.
I paused in the doorway. It occurred to me that I might not see him again.
“I enjoyed working for you, Professor Ainesworth,” I said.
He did not look up from his work. “Keep moving, William James Henry. Always keep moving, like the proverbial stone, or you’ll end up an old mossback like Adolphus Ainesworth!”
I started into the hall. He called me back.
“You are a slave,” he said. “Or you must think you are, not to be asking for your pay. Here,” he added gruffly, shoving two crumpled dollar bills across the desk.
“Take it! Don’t be a fool when it comes to money, Will Henry. Be a fool about everything else—religion, politics, love—but never be a fool about money. That bit of wisdom is your bonus for your long minutes of heavy toil!”
“Thank you, Professor Ainesworth.”
“Shut up. Go. Wait. Why the devil are you going again?”
“To save the doctor.”
“Save him from what?”
“Whatever he needs saving from. I’m his apprentice.”
As I packed my things that evening, Lilly approached me with her request. Oh, very well, I shall admit it: It wasn’t a request.
“I am going with you.”
I did not choose the answer von Helrung had given me. I was tired and anxious, my nerves were shot, and the last thing I wanted was a row.
“Your mother won’t let you.”
“Mother says she won’t let you.”
“The difference is that she isn’t my mother.”
“She’s already been to Uncle, you know. I’ve never seen her so angry. I thought her head might burst—literally burst and roll off her shoulders. I’m very curious to see what happens.”
“I don’t think her head will burst.”
“No, I meant with you. I’ve never known her not to get her way.”
She flopped onto the bed and watched me shove clothing into my little bag. Her frank stare unnerved me. It always did.
“How did you find him?” she asked.
“Another monstrumologist found him.”
“I—I am not sure.”
She laughed—spring rain upon the dry earth. “I don’t know why you lie, William James Henry. You’re very bad at it.”
“The doctor says lying is the worst kind of buffoonery.”
“Then, you are the worst kind of buffoon.”
I laughed. It brought me up short. I could not remember the last time I had laughed. It felt good to laugh. And good to see her eyes and smell the jasmine in her hair. I had the impulse to kiss her. I’d never experienced that particular urge before, and the feeling was not unlike standing on the edge of an abyss of an entirely different sort. This was no knot in my chest unwinding; this was the air itself, the whole atmosphere, expanding at speeds unimaginable. I didn’t know quite what to do about it all—except perhaps to kiss her, but actually kissing Lilly Bates entailed… well, kissing her.
“Will you miss me?” she asked.
“I will try.”
She found my answer to be extraordinarily witty. She rolled onto her back and howled with laughter. I blushed, not knowing whether to be flattered or offended.
“Oh!” she cried, sitting up and digging into her purse. “I nearly forgot! Here, I have something for you.”
It was her photograph. Her smile was slightly unnatural, I thought, though I liked her hair. It had been styled into corkscrew ringlets, which more than made up for the smile.
“Well, what do you think? It’s for luck, and for when you get lonely. You’ve never told me, but I think you are lonely a great deal of the time.”
I might have argued; bickering was our normal mode of discourse. But I was leaving, and she had just given me her photograph, and a moment before I’d thought of kissing her, so I thanked her for the present and went on with my packing—that is, rearranging what was already packed. Sometimes, when Lilly was around me, I felt like an actor who did not know what to do with his hands.
“Write me,” she said.
“A letter, a postcard, a telegram… write to me while you’re away.”
“All right,” I said.
“I promise, Lilly. I will write to you.”
“Write me a poem.”
“Well, it doesn’t have to be a poem, I suppose.”
“Why is that good? You don’t want to write a poem?” She was pouting.
“I’ve just never written one. The doctor has. The doctor was a poet before he became a monstrumologist. I bet you didn’t know that.”
“I bet you didn’t know I did know that. I’ve even read some of his poems.”
“Now you the liar. The doctor said he burned them all.”
Being caught in a lie did not faze Lillian Bates. She simply moved on, remorseless. “Why did he do that?”
“He said they weren’t very good.”
“Oh, that’s nonsense.” She was laughing again. “If one burned every bad poem that’s been written, the smoke would blot out the sun for a week.”
She watched as I tugged my hat from the top shelf of the closet. Watched as I turned it in my hands. Watched my face as I ran my finger over the stitching on the inside band: W.J.H.
“What is it?” she asked.
“It’s my hat.”
“Well, I can see it’s a hat! It looks too small for you.”
“No,” I said. I stuffed the hat into my bag. It had been his first—no, his only—gift to me. I was determined never to misplace it.
“It fits,” I said.
I had the dream that night—my last night in New York and the last night I would have it.
The Locked Room. Adolphus fumbling with his keys.
The doctor said you’d want to see this.
The box on the table and the lid that won’t come off.
I can’t open it.
The box trembles. It mimics the beat of my heart. What is in the box?
Thickheaded boy! You know what it is. You’ve always known what’s in the box. It isn’t what’s inside he wanted you to see: It’s the box!
I pick it up. The box trembles in my hand. It beats in time with my heart. I’d been wrong; it was not the doctor’s. It belonged to me.
I was not down for breakfast promptly at six the next morning. Mrs. Bates came up to check on me; I heard her hurrying up the stairs, and then the bedroom door burst open and she stood gasping in the doorway. I noticed she was holding an envelope.
“William! Oh, thank God. I thought you had left.”
“I wouldn’t leave without saying good-bye, Mrs. Bates. That wouldn’t be proper.”
She beamed. “No! No, it most certainly would not. And here you are, and here is your bag with all your things, and I suppose you have not changed your mind?”
I told her that I had not. An awkward silence came between us.
“Well,” I said finally, and cleared my throat. “I’d better go.”
“You must say good-bye to Mr. Bates,” she instructed me. “And thank him for all he’s done.”
“And, forgive me, William, but really, you must think I’ve gone mad if you think you’re leaving this house with your hair looking like that.”
She found the comb beside the washbasin and ran it through my hair several times. She did not seem pleased with the outcome.
“Do you have a hat?”
I dug into my bag for the hat with my initials. I heard what sounded like the soft cry of a wounded animal and looked over at her.
“William, I must apologize,” she said. “I do not have a bon voyage present for you, but, I will say in my defense, I had hardly any notice that you were leaving. It was literally sprung on me at the last moment.”
“You don’t need to give me anything, Mrs. Bates.”
“It is… customary, William.”
She sat on the bed. I remained standing beside my little bag, turning the hat in my hands. She was tapping the envelope upon her lap.
“Unless you would consider this a gift,” she said, nodding to the envelope.
“What is it?”
“It is a letter of acceptance to Exeter Academy, one of the most prestigious preparatory schools in the country, William. Mr. Bates is an alumnus; he arranged it for you.”
“Your acceptance! For the fall term.”
I shook my head; I didn’t understand. The hat turned; the envelope tapped.
“Stay with us,” she said. And then, as if she were correcting herself, “Stay with me. I know it may be too soon to call you ‘son,’ but if you stay, I promise I will love you as my son. I will protect you; I will keep you safe; I will let no harm come to you.”
I sat beside her. My hat in my hands, the envelope in her lap, and the absent man between us.
“My place is with the doctor.”
“Your place! William, your place is wherever the good Lord decides it is. Have you thought of that? In life there are the silly gifts we give one another and there are the real gifts, the gifts beyond all temporal value. It is no accident of circumstance that you’ve come to me. It is the will of God. I believe that. I believe that with all my heart.”
“If it’s God’s will,” I said, “wouldn’t he make sure I couldn’t leave?”
“You’re forgetting his greatest gift, William. That gift does not imprison; it frees. I could refuse to let you go. I could hire a lawyer, report the matter to the police. I could truss you up like a turkey and lock you in this room, but I will not. I will not force you to stay. I am asking you to stay. If you like, William, I will fall on my knees and beg you.” Mrs. Bates began to cry. She cried like she did everything else, with great dignity; there was a stateliness about her tears, a grandness that transcended the mundane—operatic, I would call them, and I mean that in the best sense of the word.