- Text Font:
- Text Size:
- Line Height:
- Line Break Height:
He fell onto his back, head cradled in his hands, eyes fixed on the blank and ready canvas above him. The possibilities of what might be painted there were bounded only by the limits of his hyperbolic imagination. Our ignorance of our fellows throws wide the gate to our galloping suppositions, even if that fellow is our own father. Into that existential vacuum rushes our wishes and doubts, our longings and regrets, for the father-that-was and the father-that-might-have-been. Though mine had not been a cold and distant man like his, we were brothers in that one instance: Our fathers had bequeathed us nothing but memories. A fire had stripped me of all tangible tokens, save my little hat; Alistair Warthrop had taken most of what had belonged to Pellinore. What remained of them was simply us, and when we departed, so would they. We were the tablets upon which their lives were writ.
“Nothing else,” the monstrumologist said. “Nothing at all.”
I remained at his bedside throughout the night, in a grueling vigil different only in kind from the one the night previous, while the doctor drifted in and out of a light and restless sleep. Inevitably, as I started to nod off, he would jerk awake and call out in a voice bordering on panic, “Will Henry! Will Henry, are you asleep?”
To which I would answer, “No, sir; I’m awake.”
“Oh,” he would reply. “You should rest, Will Henry. We’ll need all our strength in the coming hours. By now he must have my letter, and if I know John Kearns, he will be on the earliest train.”
“Who is John Kearns?” I asked. “Is he a monstrumologist?”
He laughed dryly. “Not in the strictest definition of the term, no. By profession he is a surgeon-and a brilliant one, I might add. By temperament he is something altogether different. I would have preferred Henry Stanley, if I knew where to find him. Both have hunted Anthropophagi in the wild, and Stanley is a gentleman from the old school, nothing like Kearns.”
“He’s a hunter?”
“I suppose one might call him that, in a manner of speaking. He certainly has more experience than I, for I have none at all in regard to Anthropophagi. I should caution you, Will Henry,” he added, his tone becoming grave, “not to tarry too long in the dominion of John Kearns’s philosophy. Avoid him if you can.”
“Why?” I asked with a child’s natural curiosity, tweaked, as is all childlike curiosity, by sober admonition.
“He reads too much,” was the doctor’s odd reply. “Or not quite enough. I have never been certain. At any rate, steer clear of Dr. John Kearns, Will Henry! He is a dangerous man, but the hour calls for dangerous men, and we must use every tool at our disposal. It’s been two nights since they last fed; they will hunt again, and soon.”
“What if they already have?” I asked, the thought bringing me fully to my senses. The room seemed to shrink and fill with menacing shadows.
“I assure you that they haven’t. The unfortunate Mr. Gray should keep them satisfied, at least for another day or two.”
I did not give voice to the objection that immediately leapt to mind: But what if you’re wrong? I’d tried that tack before, and had paid dearly for it. So I held my tongue. May God forgive me, I said nothing. Perhaps if I had spoken up, he might have questioned his assumption. Perhaps if I had insisted, perhaps if I had been unrelenting in my doubt and negligent in my trust and deference, six innocent people might not have suffered nearly unimaginable deaths. For, even as he was speaking these soothing words, a family was being slaughtered. While we drowsily whiled away the deadest hours of the night, the beasts were busy imbuing them with blood.
EIGHT.“I Am a Scientist”
Dawn had broken by the time I finally stumbled off to bed. I stripped out of my clothes and crawled beneath the covers, but the hours of sleep I snatched were scant, and teemed with vivid visions of voracious vermin: worms and maggots and the sightless, nameless, colorless creatures that dwell in the dark beneath rocks and wet, rotting logs. I woke feeling more exhausted than when I’d first lain down, with a sour taste upon my tongue and the dead weight of dread in my heart. Above me the midmorning sky was a cloudless, brilliant blue, a joyful spring mockery of my morbid mood. Try as I might, I could not shake the feeling that something terrible lurked just over the horizon. I resolved not to mention my foreboding to the doctor; he would dismiss it with a laugh, followed by a lecture on superstition as echo of our primitive past, when premonitions were efficacious responses to an environment populated by predators only too happy to oblige our apprehensions.
I shuffled downstairs to the kitchen, groggily noting the basement door ajar and the lights on below. I set the water on for tea and leaned against the countertop, wrestling the twin demons of extreme physical and mental fatigue. I may be forgiven by those empathetic souls who, having trod upon a parallel path, may remember how their very thoughts seemed foreign and their bodies commandeered. They will understand how the sharp rapping on the door did not at first grab my attention, as I wavered by the stove, waiting for the water to boil. They will find it not surprising at all the little cry that escaped my lips a moment later, not from the harsh knocking a few feet away but from the doctor’s bellowing from the basement beneath me.
“Will Henry! Answer the door! Answer the door!”
“Yes, sir!” I returned. “Right away, sir!”
I threw open the door. A tall, thin figure slouched upon the stoop, his head enshrouded in the cloud of sweet-smelling smoke ascending leisurely from his meerschaum pipe, his fragile frame propped precariously upon a cane. The morning sun glinting off the lenses of his pince-nez spectacles, combined with the nearly perfect oval of his face and the bushiness of his mustache, produced a distinctly owlish appearance.
“Ah, so it’s Will Henry, then. Good, good!” Constable Morgan cried in a soft voice, traversing over the transom in a trembling trespass. “Where is Warthrop? I must speak to him!”
The doctor appeared in the basement doorway, his face devoid of expression. The unexpected appearance of the town’s chief law enforcement officer seemed not to faze him in the least.
“What is it, Robert?” the doctor asked in a quiet, level tone. His complete calm played counterpoint to the constable’s obvious agitation.
“An abomination!” the constable replied. Spittle flew from his lips and clung to the hairs of his mustache. “That’s what it is. Horrible! Totally outside the range of my experience.”
“Though not, you presume, outside mine.”
The constable nodded with a jerk of his head.
“Something has happened,” he said breathlessly. “You must come at once.”
Within moments we were inside the constable’s carriage, dashing pell-mell through the narrow cobblestone streets of New Jerusalem. The two men raised their voices to be heard over the clatter of wheels and the thunder of hooves and the whistling wind streaming through the open windows.
The constable, whose purpose no doubt had been to wrest answers from the doctor concerning the troublesome imponderables of the morning’s gruesome discovery, forthwith found himself, as so many who confronted him with similar intent, the object of the intended interrogation. He was pressed, prodded, and pummeled in the flood of the doctor’s keen inquisitorial powers. As one having suffered through similar inundations, I was not unsympathetic to the confounding of the constable’s purpose. The questions came rapidly, barked in a hammering rhythm.
The doctor: “When was the crime reported?”
The constable: “This morning, shortly after dawn.”
“Yes. One-the sole survivor. Until I saw the scene with my own eyes, I thought, as any reasonable man would, he was not only witness but must also be perpetrator. His tale was so outlandish it had to be a lie.”
“You arrested him?”
The constable nodded, nervously tapping the tip of his cane upon the boards between his boots. Pressed against him, I could not fail to detect the sickening odor rising like a pall from his clothing, the by now too-familiar smell of death, which the smoldering bowl of his pipe could not completely camouflage.
“And hold him still,” said the constable. “For his protection, Warthrop, not for our prosecution. Once I examined the scene… No human being is capable of so foul a crime. And I fear what he saw has completely broken his reason.”
“What did he see?”
“That tale I’ll leave to him, but what I saw in that house corroborates his story. It is… beyond words, Warthrop, beyond words!”
The doctor said naught. He turned away to face the landscape, awash in the golden light of spring, rolling green hills and lush meadows bursting with blooms. They’ve discovered the old man-or what remains of him-and the girl-or what remains of her, I thought, and wondered if the doctor was thinking the same. He is taking us back to the cemetery.
I was surprised when the driver swung upon a little lane that branched from the Old Hill Cemetery Road, taking us past the boneyard-though its western wall remained in sight-slowing our pace as the lane narrowed and the ground rose before us. The maturing sun was warm and the breeze gentle through the open window. Slight as it was, it bore away the sickly stench emanating from my other side. I could smell honeysuckle. Relieved, I breathed in deep.
The respite was short lived. The driver drew rein at the top of the hill. Warthrop leaped from the cab before we could come to a complete stop. More from a sense of duty (my services were, after all, indispensable to him) than eagerness to face what the constable had called an “abomination,” I trotted a few feet behind. Before us, at the apex of the hill, were a church and, a stone’s throw away, its rectory made of stone and a gable roof, the flower beds bursting with spring bulbs in riots of white, pink, indigo, and gold, as quaint-and ominous-as the house in which poor Hansel and Gretel were nearly roasted alive. At its door two men stood, rifles cradled in their arms. They stiffened upon our approach, their fingers caressing the triggers of their weapons, until they spied the constable struggling up the path behind us. Their demeanor changed again, however, upon recognizing the doctor; dark looks of distrust and fear darkened their faces: Warthrop was not a popular man in New Jerusalem. In another age I’ve no doubt he would have been accused of consorting with the devil and been burned alive.
“Thank God it isn’t Sunday!” gasped Morgan, arriving winded from his hike. “The good reverend’s flock would be hard pressed for evidence of the Lord’s loving providence upon this unholy day.”
Behind his spectacles his eyes, in all ways owlish save one, for they lacked the ethereal serenity of those audacious avian hunters, fell upon my face, and he said, “Though no doubt in his travels Warthrop has seen worse, you are but a child, Will Henry, unaccustomed to such things. You should not go in with us.”
“He most certainly will go in with us,” the doctor said impatiently.
“But why?” demanded the constable. “What purpose could it possibly serve?”
“He is my assistant,” rejoined Warthrop. “He must become accustomed to ‘such things.”’