The Monstrumologist
Page 26

 Rick Yancey

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“Will Henry! Will Henreeeee!”
Groggy from the brief sip of sleep’s sweet sapor, I slid out of bed with an acquiescent sigh. I knew that tone; I had heard it many times before. I crawled down the ladder to the second floor.
“Will Henry! Will Henreeeee!”
I found him in his room, lying on top of the bedcovers fully clothed. He spied my silhouette in the doorway and bade me enter with an impatient snap of his wrist. Still smarting from our row, I did not come to his bedside; I took a single step into the room and stopped.
“Will Henry, what are you doing?” he demanded.
“You called for me.”
“Not now, Will Henry. What were you doing out there?” He waved his hand toward the hallway to demonstrate out there.
“I was in my room, sir.”
“No, no. I distinctly heard you bumping about in the kitchen.”
“I was in my room,” I repeated. “Perhaps you heard a mouse.”
“A mouse clattering pots and pans? Tell me the truth, Will Henry. You were cooking something.”
“I am telling the truth. I was in my room.”
“You’re suggesting I’m hallucinating.”
“No, sir.”
“I know what I heard.”
“I’ll go downstairs and check, sir.”
“No! No, stay here. It must have been my imagination. I may have been asleep; I don’t know.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “Is that all, sir?”
“I am not used to it, as you know.”
He fell silent, waiting for me to ask the obvious question, but I was a tired player in this tired drama: He had fallen into one of his frequent black moods, his psyche borne down in the crush of his peculiar proclivities. My role was well defined, and usually I played it with all the pluck I could muster, but the events of the last few days had sapped my spirits. I simply did not feel up for it.
“Sharing the house with someone,” he offered when I did not ask. “I have been thinking of soundproofing this room. Every little noise…”
“Yes, sir,” I said, and pointedly yawned.
“I might have imagined it,” he conceded. “The mind can play tricks when denied the proper rest. I cannot remember the last time I slept.”
“At least three days,” I said.
“Or eaten a decent meal.”
I said nothing. If he couldn’t come right out and ask, I would make no offer. If he was going to be stubborn, well, so could I.
“Do you know, Will Henry, when I was younger, I could go a whole week with no sleep and a loaf of bread. I once hiked across the Andes with only an apple in my pocket… You’re quite certain, then, you were not downstairs?”
“Yes, sir.”
“The noise stopped after I called for you. Perhaps you were walking in your sleep.”
“No, sir. I was in my bed.”
“Of course.”
“Is that all, sir?”
“Do you need anything else?”
“Perhaps you don’t wish to tell me because of the scones.”
“The scones, sir?”
“You snuck downstairs for a midnight snack, and you know how much I fancy them.”
“No, sir. We still have the scones.”
“Ah. Well, that’s good.”
There was no escaping it. He was not going to go himself and he was not going to ask me. If I simply returned to bed, he would wait until I was on the brink of sleep again, and then my name would echo throughout the house, Will Henreeee! until my will was broken. Down to the kitchen, then, I trooped, where I set a pot of water on to boil and plated the scones. I prepared his tea, leaning against the sink and yawning incessantly while it steeped. I loaded the tray and carried it back to his room.
The doctor had sat up in my absence. He leaned against the headboard with his arms crossed and head bowed, lost in thought. He looked up when I set the tray on the small table beside him.
“What is this? Tea and scones! How thoughtful of you, Will Henry.”
He waved me toward a chair. With an inward sigh I sat: There was no escaping this, either. If I retreated, in a moment he would call me back to sit with him. If I nodded off, he would raise his voice and snap his fingers and then, with perfect ingenuousness, ask me if I was tired.
“These are quite good scones,” he opined after a delicate bite. “But I can’t eat both. Have one, Will Henry.”
“No, thank you, sir.”
“You see, I could consider your lack of an appetite as evidence that you were downstairs earlier. Did you see anything, by the way?”
“No, sir.”
“It may have been a mouse,” he said. “Did you set a trap while you were down there?”
“No, sir.”
“Don’t go now, Will Henry,” he said, though I hadn’t moved a muscle. “It can wait till morning.” He sipped his tea. “Although to make such a racket, he must have been some mouse! I was thinking that while you were away. Perhaps, like Proteus, he possesses the power to change his form, from mouse to man, and he was whipping up a bit of cheesy sauce for his family. Hah! That is a ludicrous thought, isn’t it, Will Henry?”
“Yes, sir.”
“I am not mirthful by nature, as you know, unless I’m tired. And I am very tired, Will Henry.”
“I am tired too, sir.”
“Then why are you sitting there? Go to bed.”
“Yes, sir. I think I will.”
I rose, bidding him goodnight without much conviction, for I well knew mine was not the curtain line. I left the room but not the hallway without. I began to count, and by the time I reached fifteen, he called me back.
“I neglected to finish my thought,” he explained after waving me back to the chair. “Thinking of our hypothetical mouse brought to mind Proteus anguinus.”
“No, sir, you mentioned Proteus,” I reminded him.
He shook his head impatiently, frustrated by my obtuseness. “Proteus anguinus, Will Henry, a species of blind amphibians found in the Carpathian Mountains. And that of course brought to mind Galton and the matter of eugenics.”
“Of course, sir,” I said, though, of course, I had no idea where I was in the dense thicket of his thoughts: I had never heard of Proteus anguinus or Galton or eugenics.
“Fascinating creatures,” the monstrumologist said. “And excellent examples of natural selection. They dwell deep in lightless mountain caves, yet retain vestigial eyes. Galton brought the first specimens back to his native England after his expedition to Adelsberg. He was a friend of my father’s-and of Darwin ’s, of course. Father was a devotee was his work, particularly in eugenics. There is a signed copy of Hereditary Genius in the library.”
“There is?” I murmured mechanically.
“I know they corresponded regularly, though it appears that, like his diaries and practically every letter he received over his lifetime, he destroyed the evidence of it.”
Practically every letter. I thought of the bundle of notes to father from son, unopened missives of faded ink on yellowed parchment, at the bottom of an old, forgotten trunk. I wish you would write to me.
“ When I returned from Prague in ’83 to bury him, there was little but his books left. Just his trunk and some notes on various species of particular interest to him, notes that I suppose he could not bring himself to destroy. He destroyed or discarded nearly all his personal effects, down to his last sock and shoelace, and would have the old trunk as well, I’m sure, had he remembered tucking it away beneath the stairs. It is as if in the waning days of his life he sought to eradicate all evidence of it. At the time, I attributed it to that morbid self-loathing to which he had fallen victim in his later years, that corrosive mix of inexplicable remorse and religious fervor. It brought his life full circle, if you will: He was found lying upon his bed one morning by the housekeeper, uncovered, and curled in the fetal position, completely naked.”
The doctor sighed. “I was startled by the intelligence. I had no idea how far he had fallen.” He closed his eyes briefly. “He was a very dignified man in his prime, Will Henry, quite particular in his appearance, to the point of vanity. The idea that he would end his life in such a demeaning manner was unthinkable. At least, unthinkable to me.”
He fell silent, staring at the ceiling, and I thought of Hezekiah Varner, who had had no choice in the matter. “But he was trapped in the amber of my memory; it had been nearly ten years since I’d last seen him, and that Alistair Warthrop was a different human being, not the bare shell of one found five years ago.”
Warthrop shook himself from his melancholic reverie. He rolled onto his side to face my chair and rested his head on his open palm. His dark eyes glittered in the lamplight.
“Drifted off-course again, didn’t I, Will Henry? You must read Hereditary Genius sometime. After Origin of Species but before The Descent of Man, for that is its place both thematically and chronologically. Its influence can be seen throughout Descent. The idea that both mental and physical features are passed on to an organism’s progeny is revolutionary. Father saw it at once and even wrote to me about it. One of the few letters he ever sent; I still have it somewhere. Galton had shared an early draft with him, and Father believed the theory had applications in his own field of study, an exciting alternative to capture or eradication of the more malevolent species, like our friends the Anthropophagi. If desirable traits could be encouraged and undesirable ones suppressed through selective breeding, it could transform our discipline. Eugenics could be the key to saving our subjects from extinction, for the rise of man had numbered their days, unless, Father believed, a way could be found to ‘domesticate’ them, much as the treacherous wolf was transfigured into the faithful dog.”
He paused, apparently waiting for some response from me. When none was forthcoming, he sat up and cried excitedly, “Don’t you see, Will Henry? It answers the question of Why? That’s why he desired a breeding pair of Anthropophagi-to put Galton’s theory into practice, to breed out its savagery and taste for human blood. A daunting enterprise, enormous in scope and staggering in cost, well beyond his means, which may explain why he met with these mysterious agents in ’62. That is only a guess, impossible to prove, unless we can find these men, if they still live, or some record of their agreement, if one exists-or ever existed. At any rate, it’s the only reason I can think of to explain why he would meet with such men, if he thought their evil cause might advance his just one.”
He stopped, again waiting for my reaction. He slapped his hand upon the mattress and said, “Well, don’t just sit there. Tell me what you think!”
“Well, sir,” I began slowly. The truth was I did not know what to make of it. “You knew him and I didn’t.”
“I hardly knew him at all,” he said matter-of-factly. “Less so than most sons their fathers, I would venture, but the theory fits what I do know about the facts. Only passion for his work could compel him to associate with traitors. It was all he had; he loved nothing else. Nothing.”