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A pair of spectacles. A velvet purse containing a man’s watch and wedding ring. A weathered pipe, the wood of its bowl rubbed to the color of cream by decades of use. A small wooden box containing a collection of ivory figurines, which the doctor turned over and over, the objects clicking together within his partially closed hand, as he rifled through the few remaining items at the bottom of the trunk.
“There is no university that offers instruction in the science of monstrumology, Will Henry,” he said. “The Society regularly hosts seminars, by invitation only, in which the preeminent practitioners of our profession lecture on the finer points of their field of particular expertise. Most, if not all, of us apprentice in the art under the tutelage of a master officially recognized by the Society. Ah, here it is!”
Triumphantly he held aloft a leather-bound book, wrapped in fraying twine, its cover and spine worn to a shiny finish from years of handling.
“Here, Will Henry, take these for a moment,” he said, dropping the ivory figures into my hand. He tore the twine from the book as I examined the figurines I now held, still warm from his hand. There were six in total, intricately carved and skeletal in representation, with disproportionally large, grimacing skulls, arms crossed over their rib cages, which were not cylindrical like cigars but flat on the front and back like dominoes. Though he was absorbed in the old book-which appeared to be a diary or daybook of sorts, written in elegant script with an occasional sketch filling in the margins-the doctor must have noted my curiosity, for he said, “Divining bones, from New Guinea. In his later years my father was fascinated by the occult practices of certain shamanistic tribes. Those were fashioned by a priest from the bones of a rival.”
Not whale bone, then. Human. The doctor continued, “Though ‘fascinated’ is too mild a word for it. ‘Obsessed’ is more accurate. He was terrified of his own mortality; like many, he saw his impending death as an affront to his dignity, the ultimate insult, and his last few years were consumed by his desire to cheat the natural order, or at least wrest from death’s icy embrace a scant moment or two beyond his due. The bones in your hand supposedly can predict the future of the one who casts them, like the proverbial roll of the cosmic dice. Interpreting the meaning of how they fall-the various combinations of skull up or skull down-is a complicated business that he never fully mastered, but he spent hours at it; he was anything but negligent in his struggle to do so. I can’t recall much of the formulae, though I do remember that rolling six faceup skulls has dire import, imminent death or everlasting damnation or some such nonsense.”
He rose suddenly with a celebratory shout. Startled, I fell back a step or two, and the bones slipped from my hand, cascading to the carpet with a rattle and a pop. With trepidation I bent to gather them up, for I feared seeing six grinning skeletons leering up at me. Four up. Two down. I did not know, of course, how to interpret my inadvertent roll, but I was relieved nevertheless. Without thinking, I dropped the bones into my pocket.
“ Dedham!” cried the monstrumologist. “I knew I had seen it before! Here it is, Will Henry, in the entry dated November 19, 1871: ‘ Dedham. I have been to Motley Hill for the last time. I simply cannot bring myself to go there again, to look upon his tortured visage and see in his face perfectly reflected the perfidy of my sin. Upon my arrival he became quite agitated, demanding that I once and for all corroborate his tale of suffering and woe, thus winning him full pardon and possible release, but, by the bitter necessity of the interests of science and of self, I was forced to decline. To relent and make such a confession might have the opposite effect. It might, in all likelihood, ensure his imprisonment for the rest of his days-as well as the rest of my own. This I could not risk, and tried to explain, at which point he threatened me bodily and I was forced to take my leave… Poor tormented creature! Forgive me, V, forgive me! Thou art not the first to pay for the sins of another! Forgive me for my transgression, neither the first nor the last of many, I fear. I shall see thee again upon the Judgment Day. I shall answer for what I have done to thee…
“‘I cannot continue… The witching hour approaches, “When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out / Contagion.” Though I am sickened to the depths of my marrow, I must answer the dreaded summons. The bell rings, the hour comes, and Christ himself is mocked…’”
Warthrop stopped reading and closed the book upon his finger. Something dark passed over his lean face. He sighed, raised his eyes toward the ceiling, and gently scratched beneath his chin.
“It goes on. More tiresome drivel, more gnawing upon the bone of self-recrimination and blame. In his prime my father had few equals, Will Henry. His intellect was exceeded only by his restless curiosity, his relentless quest for knowledge and truth. Our discipline owes much to the work of his younger years, but as he grew older and the fear of his own mortality began to overwhelm him, he fell farther and farther into the pit of silly superstition and useless guilt. He died a frightened and foolish man, a stranger to the brilliant scientist he once was, consumed by fear, maddened by guilt, borne to his reward upon an ark of fabricated shame.”
He sighed again, a much longer, sadder exhalation. “And he died quite alone. My mother had succumbed to consumption twenty years before; I was in Prague; and one by one his colleagues had abandoned him over the years, as he’d slipped into doddering senility and religious mania. I returned to America to settle his affairs, in the course of which I discovered this”-he held up the old journal-“a startling record of my father’s slow descent into madness, evidently merely one of many volumes, though this is the only one he did not, for reasons I still do not fathom, choose to destroy. I’ve long puzzled over the meaning of this particular entry, and until now I was not entirely convinced that it, like many that precede and follow it, might not be the ravings of a once-fine mind crumbling from the onslaught of regret and the debilitating disease called doubt.
“He never mentions Dedham, Motley Hill, or this mysterious V again in this diary, and I have not seen it in any of his published treatises or reports to the Society.” He picked up a newspaper from the top of the stack before him. “I’ve seen no reference to it anywhere, until today, here, in this paper, in my possession for more than three years. Three years, Will Henry! And now I fear the father’s sin has come to rest upon the shoulders of the son.”
He dropped the newspaper onto the pile and pressed hard his knuckles into his eyes. “If one could call it ‘sin,”’ he murmured. “A concept foreign to science, though not so much to scientists! For here is the critical, scientific question, Will Henry: How many Anthropophagi immigrated to these shores? The answer to that is the key to everything, for without it we cannot know how many there now may be, not just here in New Jerusalem, but throughout all of New England. The infestation easily could be more extensive than our encounter in the cemetery indicates.”
He studied the map for a few seconds more, then whirled from the table, kicking over the old trunk as he flung himself away, as if he had perceived the Gorgon’s eyes in the lines he had plotted, in the article unnoticed for three years, in the tormented calligraphy of a dead man from an autumn long since gone, and was forced to look away lest he be turned to stone.
“The hour grows late,” said the monstrumologist. “We have no more than two, perhaps three, days before they strike again. Go now, Will Henry, quickly, and post the letters. Stop for nothing and speak to no one. Straight there and back again. We leave tonight for Dedham.”
FIVE.“I Am Quite Lonely at Times”
Less than an hour later, having followed his orders to a T-straight to the post office and back, making no stops along the way, although my route took me past the bakery, where the odors of muffins and fresh bread tempted me with their succulent perfume-I returned to the house on Harrington Lane, where I made straight for the library, expecting to find my master, but finding him not. There was the worktable littered with his research, the tipped-over trunk, its lid yawning like an open mouth, its contents strewn around it, the regurgitated effluvia of his father’s life, and the shrunken head resting on its side, its mouth frozen open in the apogee of a scream-but no Pellinore Warthrop. I had entered through the back door, passing through the kitchen on my way to the library, and had not seen him. To the kitchen I returned, hesitated before the half-closed basement door, but no light burned below and no sound rose from its black bowels. Just in case, I softly called his name. No answer returned. Perhaps he had given into the same bone-aching fatigue that now plagued his assistant and had retreated upstairs to his bed, though that possibility seemed ridiculously remote. As I have recorded, the doctor, when spurred to action, seemed unwilling or unable to indulge in the normal human needs for respite and rations. He lived off some hidden reserve unsuspected by a casual observer of his rather lean and angular frame. Nevertheless I trooped upstairs to his room. The bed was empty.
Remembering my irrational dread earlier upon the basement steps-had some spawn of the monster hanging below somehow survived?-I returned hastily downstairs to the half-opened door and again called his name.
“Doctor Warthrop? Doctor Warthrop, sir, are you down there?”
Silence. I turned and trotted down the hall, bypassing the library and entering the study. That favored retreat in times of crisis too was deserted, as was the drawing room and every other room downstairs. Surely if he had left the house, he would have left a note to explain his absence. I returned to the library. As I stood before his worktable, my eyes fell upon the article he had circled, the same article that had sparked his remarkable memory-I knew I had seen it before!-and I picked it up to read:
CAPT. VARNER RETURNED TO THE ASYLUM
Yesterday, nearly twenty years to the day of his incarceration, the General Court of Appeals handed down its decision in the final clemency hearing of Capt. Hezekiah Varner. Capt. Varner was convicted in March of 1865 of blockade-running and dereliction of duty on the high seas when his ship, the cargo vessel Feronia, foundered off the coast near Swampscott. At his original trial, Capt. Varner gave testimony he had been employed by certain Confederate sympathizers to supply the Rebellion with “goods and chattel” and that his entire cargo and crew had been overcome at sea by “creatures not of this Earth but from the very Bowels of Hell.” At his hearing Capt. Varner, now seventy-two years old and in poor physical health, spoke on his own behalf, repudiating his earlier testimony and stating the two days lost at sea after abandoning his vessel had afflicted him with a severe case of sunstroke. Capt. Varner produced no other witnesses on his behalf. Dr. J. F. Starr spoke for the State, giving testimony that in his opinion Capt. Varner was not in his right mind. “He was insane twenty years ago, and he is insane today,” said Dr. Starr. Upon the conclusion of the Court, Capt. Varner was returned to Motley Hill Sanatorium, Dr. Starr’s private asylum, in Dedham, where he has been confined since the conclusion of his original trial.
Creatures not of this Earth but from the very Bowels of Hell. I thought of the thing hanging on a hook in the room over which I stood, of the pale, muscular arm bursting through the loose soil of Eliza Bunton’s grave, of the sickening squish of its paw puncturing the leg of the old man, of the mass of sickly white flesh and glittering black eyes and drooling mouths laced with row upon row of triangular teeth glittering in the glow of the April stars, of huge, hulking, headless monstrosities issuing from every shadow, leaping and bounding with enormous strides, of Eliza Bunton’s corpse being ripped limb from limb and her head stuffed into the mouth of a creature that any rational man would indeed deem from hell. Having read the article and heard the cryptic entry from the diary, I had no doubt Dr. Warthrop was correct in his assessment: This Captain Varner (V, the elder Warthrop had called him) had had an encounter with Anthropophagi. But that had been twenty-three years before! How had these bizarre and terrifying predators managed to survive-nay, thrive and reproduce-undetected for so long?