The Isle of Blood
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When I woke several hours later, for a disoriented instant I thought I was back in my little loft on Harrington Lane, shaken from a deep sleep by his desperate cries beckoning me to his bedside. The doctor had drawn the blinds, the little compartment was as black as pitch, and I found him by the sound of his choked sobs. I reached for him. His body jerked at the touch of my hand.
“It is nothing. Nothing. A dream, that’s all. Nothing. Go back to sleep.”
“Are you sure?” I asked. It did not seem like nothing to me. I’d never heard him sound so terrified.
“What if he killed her, Will Henry?” he cried. “When he discovered our charade, he would have confronted her, don’t you think? Yes, yes. He would be furious; he would express his rage upon her. Oh, what have I done, Will Henry? What have I done?”
“Should we go back?”
“Go back? Go back for what? To bury her? you ever listen to what I say? Do you ever listen to what you say? I have offered her up in my stead, Will Henry. I have killed her!”
“You don’t know that, sir. You can’t know that.” His terror was infectious. I wrapped the covers around my quivering shoulders. Suddenly the compartment was very cold and very small. I could not see his face; he was an insubstantial shade against the darker gray.
“Look not into my eyes,” he muttered feverishly. “For I am the basilisk. Fear my touch, for I am the Midas of annihilation.” He sought out my hand in the dark, for comfort, I thought, but I was wrong. It was for proof. “James and Mary, Erasmus and Malachi, John and Muriel, Damien and Thomas and Jacob and Veronica, and the ones whose names I have forgotten and the ones whose names I never knew…” He pressed the spot where my finger should have been. “And you, Will Henry. You have given yourself in service to ha-Mashchit, the destroyer, the angel of death whom God created on the first day, the same day he said, ‘Let there be light.’
“And when I step upon the shore of the Isle of Blood to plant the conqueror’s flag, when I attain the summit of the abyss, when I find the thing that all of us fear and all of us seek, when I turn to face the Faceless One, whose face will I see?”
In the darkness he raised my hand and pressed it against his cheek.
His face is beatific when I picture it now, frozen in an attitude of godlike serenity, like a Greek statue of an ancient hero—Hercules, perhaps—or the bust of Caesar Augustus in the Musei Capitolini. The face of the living Warthrop has petrified in my memory, and his eyes, like those of a statue, are blank, devoid of detail, devoid of sight. It isn’t a failure of memory—how well I remember those eyes! It is the mercy I grant myself. And it is my gift to him—the absolution of blindness.
He fell silent. I do not think he spoke more than three words to me between Venice and Brindisi. He broke the verbal drought once, while we were standing in the ticket line at the P&O offices to secure our berths for the passage to Port Said.
“We are a few hours ahead of them, Will Henry. Barring the unexpected delay, we may expect to arrive at Aden long before they do. But there they may catch up to us. I don’t know how long it will take to arrange our passage to Socotra.”
He looked down at me. “Unless you wish to turn back.”
“Turn back?” I thought I must have been hallucinating. The monstrumologist was seriously thinking about giving up? It was so uncharacteristic a remark that I wondered if he had lost his mind—if Arkwright had jumped the gun by four months when he’d brought him to Hanwell.
“I can wire von Helrung to meet you in London.”
“And leave you alone? No, Dr. Warthrop.”
He shook his head ruefully. “I don’t think you understand what your no is saying yes to.”
“It’s never stopped me before,” I replied. “Not understanding the yes in ‘no.’”
The monstrumologist laughed.
For the first few hours of the Mediterranean leg of our seven-thousand-mile journey, I feared that the mal de mer I’d suffered in the Atlantic crossing would return, like an unpleasant relative who arrives unexpectedly for dinner. You loathe his company, but you cannot turn him away. The monstrumologist forbade me from remaining belowdecks, saying the atmosphere was foul with coal dust and “the effluvia of four continents,” meaning, I guessed, the other passengers. He brought me up to the forecastle and pointed straight ahead.
“Keep your eyes on the horizon, Will Henry. It’s the only trick that works. Works for almost every ailment, when you think about it.”
“Dr. von Helrung said I should dance.”
The doctor nodded seriously. “Dancing isn’t a bad idea either.”
He leaned his arms upon the rail. The southerly wind whipped his long dark hair back, turned his jacket into a snapping semaphore flag. He closed his eyes and raised his face into the wind. “Not yet, not yet,” he murmured. He looked down at my puzzled expression and explained, “Africa. You can smell it, you know.”
“What does it smell like?”
“I cannot tell you. It would be like trying to describe the color blue to a man blind from birth.” And then, because he was Pellinore Warthrop, he proceeded to try. “Old. Africa smells… old. Not old in the sense of something rotten or gone sour; old in the best sense—old because we’ve yet to make it ‘new.’ ‘Old’ meaning the world as it was before we recast it in our image, before we scarred the land with our plows and cut down the forests with our axes, before we dammed the rivers and drilled great holes into the earth, before we learned to take more than what we needed, before we stood upright, that kind of old, which is another way of saying that Africa smells new.”
He turned again toward the horizon. “On those days when I am at my lowest, when it is all I can do to raise my head from my pillow, and all the world seems black and life itself the idiot’s tale, I think of Africa. And the dark tide as if in fear recedes—it has no answer for Africa.”
“‘The dark tide’?”
He shook his head sharply. He seemed chagrinned to have brought it up.
“My name for something that can’t be named, Will Henry. Or that I am too frightened to name. A part of me and somehow not. It is not unlike a tide—it withdraws gently, it roars back in. Yet not predictable like the tides. Governed, though, as the moon guides the tides…” He shook his head in frustration; the monstrumologist was not accustomed to inarticulateness. “On my better days I am able to drive back the dark tide. On my worst, I am overwhelmed—it drives me. I would flee from it, but it is a part of me, and so where might I run? Oh, never mind. It is impossible to say exactly what I mean.”
“That’s all right, sir. I think I understand.”
I closed my eyes and lifted my nto the hot Mediterranean wind. I wanted very badly to know the smell of Africa.
Our stopover in Port Said, at the northern terminus of the Suez Canal, would be brief—two hours for the ship to take on coal and supplies and transfers. The maelstrom that was a steamer’s coaling operation was enough to drive most passengers ashore for the duration, my master and I among them, though his goal was not so much to escape than to arrange a rescue.
We stopped at the telegraph office first, where Warthrop sent this curt missive to von Helrung:
ARRIVED EGYPT. SHOULD ARRIVE
ADEN BY THE 19TH, INSTANT. WIRE
THERE IF NEWS.
And then this, to the one who had saved him in Venice:
RESPOND TO PORT AUTHORITY
OFFICE ADEN WHEN YOU RECEIVE
The office was hot and stuffy and crowded, mostly with Europeans (the telegraph operator himself was German), and most of them were on their way home from India, already having had their continental fill of exotic lands and the romance of foreign travel. We went outside, where it was not quite as stuffy and crowded but was much hotter, a blast-furnace heat to which I, a boy from New England, was wholly unaccustomed. It felt as if my lungs were being slowly crushed.
“Where is your hat, Will Henry?” the doctor asked. “You can’t go anywhere in Africa without a hat.”
“I left it on the boat, sir,” I gasped.
“Come along, then, but we must hurry. There is someone I must see before we depart.”
He led me down a series of narrow, winding streets, a confusion of intersecting lanes hardly wider than forest paths, except here the trees were thin-trunked and branchless, and the dust puffed and boiled beneath our feet.
We turned a corner and came into an open-air market called a souq, a kind of bazaar where one might find practically anything—candies and curiosities (I saw more than one vendor hawking shrunken heads), liquor, tobacco, coffee, and clothing—including a variety of boater hats, though we could not find one that wasn’t at least three sizes too big for me. There was some comment made that the sun must have boiled all the moisture from my head. I didn’t care. The brim rested on my eyebrows, and the thing jiggled annoyingly when I made the slightest movement, but it blocked the hateful sun.
We left the market and retraced our steps to a smoky café not far from the docks. The patrons—they were all male—sat about in small groups, smoking sisha, a fruit-flavored tobacco, from ornate water pipes. Upon seeing my master, the proprietor rushed forward, clapping his hands furiously and shouting the name “Mihos! Mihos!” He wrapped the doctor in a tremendous rib-cracking hug.
“Look what the wind has blown in from the desert! Hullo, hullo, my old friend!” the man cried in nearly unaccented English.
“Fadil, it is good to see you again,” returned Warthrop warmly. “How is business?”
“As bad as that?”
“Worse! It is terrible! But it is always terrible, so what can I complain? But who is this hiding under the big white umbrella?”
“This is Will Henry,” replied the monstrumologist.
“Henry! James’s boy? But where is James?”
“Dead,” I put in.
“Dead! Oh, but that is terrible! Terrible!” Tears welled in his mud-colored eyes. “When? How? And you are his son?”
I nodded, and the hat bounced back and forth upon my heat-shrunken head.
“And now you take his place. Very large shoes to fill, little William Henry. Very large indeed!”
“Yes,” said Warthrop. “Fadil, my ship leaves in less than an hour, and there is something I must—”
“Oh, but that is terrible! You will come to my house for dinner, Mihos; take the next boat. Say yes; you will wound my feelings if you say no.”
“Then, I’m afraid I must wound them. Perhaps when—or if—I return…”
“If you return? If? What does this mean, if?”
The doctor peered about in the fragrant haze. Fadil’s customers seemed oblivious to our presence. Still…
“I will explain everything—in private.”
We followed him into the back room, a kind of gambling hall in miniature, where a very fat man was conducting a game of dice with two anxious, sweating, clearly overextended Belgians. They plunked down their silver, watched the dice tumble from the fat man’s wooden box, and then watched their silver disappear. Warthrop grunted in disapproval; Fadil waved his objection away.