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“Perhaps you could make one in my case,” said the doctor calmly, holding out his card. “Tell Dr. Starr that Pellinore Warthrop has come to see him.”
“Dr. Starr has retired for the evening,” she said, “with strict instruction he is not to be disturbed.”
“My good woman, I assure you the doctor would not desire that you turn us away.”
“The doctor is asleep.”
“Then wake him!” the doctor cried, losing patience. “My errand is one of the utmost urgency.”
She squinted at the card, her eyes nearly disappearing in the plethora of flesh surrounding them.
“‘Dr. Warthrop,’” she read. “Heh! Dr. Warthrop is dead; I know that for a fact. You must be an imposter.”
“No, I am his son.”
Her mouth moved soundlessly for a moment, and the old eyes darted from the card to his face and back again.
“He never mentioned having a son,” she said at last. “I am certain there are many things of a personal nature he failed to confide in you,” said the doctor dryly. “As I have pointed out, I am here on a matter of extreme importance, so if it’s not too much trouble, could you, in the most expeditious manner in which one of your advancing years is able, relay to your employer my presence and my earnest desire to speak with him, preferably some time before the night becomes the morrow.”
She slammed the door abruptly in our faces. The doctor heaved an exaggerated sigh. As the seconds turned to minutes, he did not move but stood as still as a statue, leaning upon his cane, head bowed, eyes half-closed, as if he were preserving his energy and gathering his wits for an imminent trial.
“Is she coming back?” I said when I could bear it no longer. It felt as if we’d been standing on that porch for hours. He said nothing. I asked again, “Is she coming back?”
“She didn’t throw the bolts,” he said. “Therefore, I am hopeful.”
At last I heard hurried footsteps approach, and the door flew open, revealing an old man-though not quite as ancient as the crone who slumped in the hall a few steps behind him. He had hastily dressed, throwing a dusty frock coat over his nightshirt, but had neglected to address the issue of his bed-matted hair: The wispy white strands hung down nearly to his shoulder, a diaphanous curtain falling over his enormous ears, exposing his mottled scalp. His nose was long and sharp, his rheumy blue eyes small, his chin weak and speckled with stubble.
“Dr. Starr,” said the monstrumologist. “My name is Pellinore Warthrop. I believe you knew my father.”
“It is a pitiful case,” the old man said, lowering his cup with a tremulous hand. The china rattled and a brown tear of tea traced a path down the side of the cup. “Of particular interest to your father.”
“Not only to him,” said the doctor.
We were sitting in the small parlor just off the front hall. The room was like the rest of the house, chilly, ill-lit, and poorly ventilated. A strange, sickly-sweet odor hung in the air. I had noticed it when we’d stepped inside-that and the indistinct, muffled noise of unseen people somewhere in the shadow-stuffed old house: moans, coughs, screams, cries of desperation, cries of anger, cries of fear, and, floating in faint counterpoint to this cacophony, hysterical peals of high-pitched laughter. Both my master and Dr. Starr ignored the offstage bedlam, acknowledging it only in the minor elevation of their voices. I, however, found myself unnerved to the point of distraction and was forced to dip into the very bottom of my well of stoic fortitude to resist asking the doctor if I could wait outside with the horses.
“So you have taken up his odd profession,” ventured the alienist. “I shall be honest with you, Dr. Warthrop: I did not know until this night that he even had a son.”
“My father was an intensely private man,” offered the doctor. “He found human intimacy… distasteful. I was his only child, and I hardly knew him.”
“As is too often the case with a man like your father,” observed Starr. “His work was everything.”
“I always assumed it owed more to the fact that he didn’t like me.”
Dr. Starr laughed, and something rattled deep in his chest.
“Excuse me,” he said. Producing a stained white handkerchief from his pocket, he spat a copious wad of phlegm into the soiled cloth. He brought it within an inch of his watery eyes and carefully examined the contents. He glanced the doctor’s way and gave a rueful smile. “I beg your pardon, Dr. Warthrop. I fear I am dying.”
“What is the diagnosis?” Warthrop asked politely. He was the model of forbearance, but his foot tapped rapidly upon the worn carpeting.
“There is none,” said Starr. “I didn’t say I am. I said I fear that I am.”
“A fear to which all are susceptible from time to time.”
“In my case it is nearly constant. Yet my reluctance to seek a diagnosis increases in direct proportion with the fear.”
“Interesting,” said the doctor without much conviction.
“And unlike your father and, by all appearances, your boy, I have no one to pick up the torch when I am gone.”
“Will Henry is not my ‘boy,”’ Warthrop said.
“He is my assistant.”
“Your assistant! He is quite young for such an important position, is he not?” The weak eyes fell upon me, and I at once looked away, the doctor’s words echoing in my ears: You are not to look anyone directly in the eye. If someone should speak to you, you are to say nothing.
“He was pressed upon me by the unfortunate loss of his parents.”
“Ah, a charity case.”
“Far from it. He may be young, but the boy has potential.”
“I am sorry for your loss,” Dr. Starr directed at me, but I refused to raise my head or even nod my appreciation for the condolence. Ignore them, the doctor had admonished. He had not made an exception for the proprietor of Motley Hill Sanatorium.
“Now, Warthrop,” Starr continued. “You wish to speak to Captain Varner.”
“I would not presume to ask if the matter were not of the utmost necessity.”
“Oh, I’ve no doubt only an emergency would draw you here at this late hour, unbidden and unannounced! The patient has not kept secret these many years his bizarre tale of cannibalism and murder. If he had, he might be a free man-or a dead one, for no doubt he would have been executed upon conviction.”
“My father never spoke of the case,” said the monstrumologist. “I stumbled upon a reference to it in his private papers.”
“And curiosity brought you to my door.”
“A singular curiosity,” said the doctor carefully.
“Indeed it must be, my dear Dr. Warthrop! Singularly curious indeed!” His frail form was racked a second time in a fit that lasted a good minute. He repeated the ritual of removing the filthy kerchief and depositing the effluvia into its reeking folds. “But mere curiosity, even an intense or a singular curiosity of the kind to which you confess, could not be construed by even the most lax linguist as a necessity or, as you put it to Mrs. Bratton, “a matter of extreme importance.”’
“My father apparently believed in the veracity of his claim.”
“Well, given his profession, no doubt he would.”
“To the extent he felt compelled to come here, as I have tonight. I know the patient is old and not in good health…”
“And so you rode three hours from New Jerusalem without making the proper inquiries first, because you were compelled… by what precisely?”
“As I have said,” replied the doctor carefully, “Varner’s condition, the advanced age of the case, and other pertinent factors compelled me to-”
“Ah, yes! That’s it! “Pertinent factors.” That is what tweaks my curiosity, Dr. Warthrop. What, pray tell, might those ‘pertinent factors’ be?”
The doctor took a deep breath, straightened in his chair, and said tightly, “I am not at liberty to say.”
“Then you will forgive me if I take the liberty to say it,” said Dr. Starr sarcastically. ‘Anthropophagi. Anthropophagi, yes? Did you think I’d never heard of them? The old salt has repeated his tale for any and all who were willing to listen-even to those who were not! I am not an ignorant man, Warthrop; I know my Shakespeare: “The Anthropophagi … men whose heads / Do grow beneath their shoulders.’ Oh, yes, I know well enough what has brought you to my doorstep!”
“Very well, then,” rejoined the monstrumologist calmly. “May I see him now?”
Dr. Starr cast an eye toward the parlor door, and then back to the doctor: “He is, as you surmised, quite old, and his health is more tenuous than even my own. I may fear I am dying; Captain Varner is dying. And his mind is nearly spent as well, I’m afraid. Your quest has been in vain, Dr. Warthrop.”
“Are you refusing to let me see him?” demanded Warthrop, nearing the end of his patience. “I have come merely to clear up a few lingering questions on an old case of my father’s, but I can be content to let them linger. It is of no special interest to me.”
“That is not the impression you gave my housekeeper, and it is certainly not the impression you gave me, Dr. Warthrop.”
“Nevertheless,” growled the doctor. He rose from his chair, shoulders thrown back, hands clinched into fists at his sides. “Come, Will Henry. We are wasting our time here.”
“I did not mean to give you that impression,” said Starr with a sly smile. “I was only pointing out that your time and the interest of science might be better served by speaking to me about the case. Captain Varner has been, as you know, under my care for twenty-three years. I’ve heard his story hundreds of times, and I doubt there is a detail of which I am not as conversant as he. I would venture that I am more conversant, given the deterioration of his faculties.”
Warthrop said, “I wish to hear it from the captain.”
“Though I have informed you he is hardly lucid?”
“I will be the judge of that.”
“You certainly are an accomplished fellow, Warthrop. A doctor of psychology as well as a doctor of-what is your so-called science?-monstrumology.”
Warthrop did not answer. In the pregnancy of that taut moment, I feared he might lose all self-control, leap across the room, and throttle the old man. The ancient alienist did not know the doctor as I did: Though by outward sign Warthrop appeared completely calm and collected, within him a fire burned, as hot as the sun, and only by the supreme effort of his inestimable will was the doctor able to contain it.
Again Starr glanced toward the door, as if he were expecting something. He went on, still wearing that secretive smile. “I mean no offense, Warthrop. My area of expertise is held in no greater regard than yours. I do not mean to mock or ridicule your life’s work, for in one way at least it mimics my own: We have dedicated our lives to the pursuit of phantoms. The difference is the nature of those phantoms. Mine exist between other men’s ears; yours live solely between your own.”