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I set the lamp upon the floor, and the shadow thrown over the bed obscured the doctor’s face and the man over whom he hovered: a dark shroud for dark business. I left them frozen thus in that melancholy tableau, closing the door behind me, and I sucked the air of the hallway to the very bottom of my starved lungs, like a swimmer breaking the steely clutch of a tide most cruel. I pressed my back against the wall between Varner’s door and his neighbor’s and slowly slid down, wrapping my arms around my folded legs and pushing my wet face into my closed knees. There was a scratching sound behind the neighbor’s door, and the same guttural voice I had heard before spoke again, saying, “Hello again, little one. Are you back to see me? Don’t be shy. I know you’re there.” The person behind the door sniffed a horrid skin-crawling snuffle. “I can smell you. Come now, be a good child and open the door. We can play. I’ll be nice; I promise.”
I let go my knees and pressed my hands over my ears.
How long I huddled in that miserable hallway while the disembodied voice whispered and pleaded for me to open his door, I cannot say. I was comfortless, inconsolable, haunted by the memories of the maddening buzz and pop of the flies against the windowpane and the gurgling cry of Hezekiah Varner- Not my boots. Please not my boots! Time passes differently in places like the Motley Hill Sanatorium. Like during the ill-fated expedition of the Feronia, an hour there seemed longer than a day, and the nights longer than a year. What comfort could be taken in the surety that day follows night in a place such as that, when the day is composed of the same tedious routine, a purgatory of selfsame hours? What meaning has an hour when that hour is indistinguishable from any other? A new day dawns, another season comes and goes, a year passes and then another, and another, until twenty-three years have slipped into oblivion. Ah, Hezekiah, no wonder you remember your final voyage as if just yesterday you had thrown yourself upon the mercy of the briny deep! The intervening years are sucked down these acheronian halls like light into a black hole while you helplessly teeter upon the event horizon, where time is measured by the beating of a fly’s wing in the stagnant air.
How foolish I now felt to have judged the doctor for taking the life of Erasmus Gray. No more absurd or insidious a precept has ever been laid down than “Where there is life, there is hope,” he had averred, and what further proof was required beyond the case of Hezekiah Varner, captain of the doomed Feronia? Life he had, but what hope? His fate was no different from that of the fair virgin thrown into the sacrificial pit of the Oba-nay, it was worse, for that savage feeding frenzy lasted but a few seconds, while the maggots’ endured for weeks. Could any fate be more hopelessly horrifying than that? To be eaten while cognizant of your own consumption? No doubt Erasmus would have begged as Varner did, Kill me, and, no doubt, as the doctor had said, he would have thanked him if he could.
It came as a surprise, then, when the doctor opened the door-his long shadow thrown by the lamplight across the floor and up the opposite wall-lowered himself beside me to assume a similar pose of weary resignation, pressed his fists against his black-rimmed eyes, and said, “I cannot do it, Will Henry.”
He laughed humorlessly and added, “I cannot decide which it is, a triumph of will or its failure. Perhaps it is both. You see why I prefer science to morals, Will Henry. What is is. What might be only might be. They allowed him to lie in that bed unmoved until his own weight produced the infected sores into which the flies laid their eggs, and now that infection has reached his bones. He is doomed, Will Henry; there is no hope of recovery.”
“Then why can’t you…?” I whispered.
“Because I do not trust my own motives. I do not know whose hands would hold the pillow, his… or mine.”
He stood up with a rueful shake of his head and bade me rise. “Come, Will Henry. We’ve one final piece of business here. The theme of this affair is shaping up to be one of accounting and recompense. What of the flies indeed! The maggots that feed upon Varner’s body; the worms of doubt and guilt that fed upon my father’s soul. There are monsters like the Anthropophagi, and then there are the monsters of a more banal bent. What is still is, Will Henry, and will always be!”
He strode down the hall without a backward glance. I scurried after him, light-headed with relief that our sojourn there was nearing its end. Down the long hall, in which even at this late hour rang the calls and cries, the screeches and screams of the house’s confined “guests,” down the narrow, creaking stairs to the first floor hall, where the dour Mrs. Bratton waited, a splotch of white powder on her hooked, witchlike nose. She had donned both an apron and a pained, unnatural-looking smile.
“Are you finished with the patient, then, Doctor?” she asked.
“I am not finished,” snapped Warthrop. “Though he nearly is. Where is Starr?”
“Dr. Starr has retired for the evening,” she answered stiffly, clearly taking issue with his tone. “It is very late.”
The monstrumologist barked a bitter laugh. “Without a doubt, my good woman! What do you keep here for pain?”
A stern frown, much more natural than her smile, appeared. “For pain, Doctor?”
“Laudanum… or morphine, if you have it.”
She shook her head. “We have aspirin. Or if the patient is particularly uncomfortable, the doctor allows them a sip or two of whiskey.”
“Neither will do much good in this case,” said Warthrop.
“Is he feeling poorly?” wondered she with a perfectly straight face. “He hasn’t complained to me.”
“He will not live out the morrow,” the doctor said, his cheeks flushed. It took every ounce of his inestimable self-control to keep from seizing her by her scrawny neck and throttling her. “Fetch me the whiskey.”
“I can’t do that without the doctor’s approval,” she protested. “And he left strict instructions not to be disturbed.”
“You have my permission to ‘disturb’ him, Mrs. Bratton,” snarled Warthrop. “Or I’ll have the town constable do it for you.”
He turned on his heel and marched back toward the stairs. My heart sank. I thought our stay, like that night, would never end. As we passed the parlor, Warthrop directed me to grab the small rocking chair by the mantel. I followed him up the stairs, lugging the chair.
“The whiskey, Mrs. Bratton!” he shouted over his shoulder. “And a bottle of aspirin!”
We returned to Varner’s room. Warthrop had covered him again, but the smell of human decay still lingered in the air. I placed the chair beside the bed, Warthrop sat down, and the deathwatch began. Mrs. Bratton arrived with the whiskey and the aspirin, refusing to cross the threshold, staring daggers at Warthrop as I took the tray from her.
With casualness bizarre in this dolorous circumstance, she asked, “I’ve baked a batch of cranberry muffins. Would you or your boy care for one, Doctor?”
“No, thank you,” replied the doctor. He swallowed hard. “I’m not hungry.”
“As you like,” she said archly. “Will you be needing anything else, Doctor?”
He ignored her. She glanced at me. I looked away. She left us.
“Close the door, Will Henry,” he said softly. He lifted Varner’s head and slipped four aspirin into his half-open mouth. He pressed the mouth of the bottle against his discolored lips. “Drink, Hezekiah. Drink.”
For the next hour the captain slipped in and out of consciousness, muttering incoherently whether awake or passed out, groaning and sighing, grunting and moaning, eyes, even when closed, ever moving. Dr. Starr never appeared.
“We’ve a Hydra in this affair, Will Henry,” Warthrop said as he stroked Varner’s brow. “For every puzzle solved, two more rise in its place. We now know only two of the creatures were brought to our shores. Given an average birthrate of two offspring per year and accounting for losses owing to accident and disease-and the occasional male lost during the breeding season-it appears both must have survived the grounding of the Feronia, and the pod we encountered is the sole progeny of the original pair. Thirty to thirty-five individuals, then… and no more.”
He sighed. “Which raises the question of why. Why did my father desire more than one? If he wished to study the species, either in the wild or in the captivity of the Benin, why did he not go to Africa himself? My mother was dead; I was away at school in London; there were no ties to keep him in New Jerusalem. He had shown no hesitation in the past to go wherever his inquiries led him, and was no stranger to hazardous expeditions. He wanted living specimens brought here, and he paid a king’s ransom for it. Why?”
He stroked the old man’s brow absently as if his ministrations could coax out the answer. “Why?”
Neither the dying man nor I could offer a plausible explanation: He was unconscious and I had reached the end of my endurance. I sat upon the floor with my back pressed against the wall, unable to stifle my yawns or keep my heavy lids from drooping. The doctor swam in and out of focus, and the sound of his voice receded into the pooling shadows of the little room. The hum of the flies, the captain’s ragged breath, the rhythmic creak of the rocking chair, even the muffled symphony of the afflicted in the hall without-all merged in my ears to a lulling drone. I fell asleep as dawn approached, but not the doctor. With bowed back he bore the burden his father had bequeathed to him. He did not rest; he kept the vigil. Though his body was still, his mind furiously worked on.
I awoke with a stiff neck and a very bad headache. The filthy windowpane filtered the meritorious morning sun, whose light broke like waves against the seawall of dust and grime. In the gloom I could make out the doctor, still sitting in the small rocking chair, fully alert, chin cupped in his hand as he considered with bloodshot eye the immotile form before him. Between the sleeping and the waking, Warthrop had drawn the covers over the captain’s head.
Hezekiah Varner was no more.
I rose upon wobbly legs, using the wall behind me for support. The doctor looked not my way, but sighed loudly and rubbed his face. I could hear the palm of his hand scratching against his unshaven cheek.
“It is finished, Will Henry,” he said.
I offered meekly, “I’m sorry, sir.”
“Sorry? Yes, I too am sorry. All of this”-he gestured toward the bed-“is exceedingly sorry, Will Henry.”
He pushed himself to his feet and swayed for a moment on legs that did not seem much sturdier than mine. I followed him from the room. Together we walked somnolently down the long hallway, crowded as ever with the calls and cries of the tormented. Mrs. Bratton was waiting for us at the foot of the stairs. She gave the doctor an impassive nod.
“And how is the captain this morning, Doctor Warthrop?” she asked.
“Dead,” replied Warthrop. “Where is Starr?”
“Dr. Starr has been called away on urgent business.”
The monstrumologist stared at her for a long moment, and then laughed mirthlessly. “No doubt he has!” he exclaimed. “And you will be quite busy in his absence, I am sure. There is much to be done once I’ve notified the state police, isn’t there, Mrs. Bratton?”