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Looking up, my own vision clouded by sorrow for his plight and-I confess-for my own, I made out O’Brien glaring down at me, his upper lip twisted into a derisive snarl.
“I hope he hangs for this,” he said.
I looked away, into Malachi’s eyes, red-rimmed and wide open. He whispered, “Did you know too?”
I nodded. Lying, the doctor had taught me, was the worst kind of buffoonery.
They returned after what seemed like hours, but it could not have been more than a few minutes. All color had drained from Morgan’s owlish face, and his locomotion to the chair into which he carefully lowered himself was reminiscent of the stiff and awkward movements of a shell-shocked soldier. With trembling fingers he packed his pipe, and two attempts it took to light it. Warthrop, too, having so recently teetered upon death’s black abyss, seemed shaken and stunned, the round wound on his forehead caked in dried blood, perfectly centered an inch above his eyes, like the mark of Cain.
“Will Henry,” he said quietly. “Take Malachi upstairs to one of the spare rooms.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied at once. I helped Malachi to his feet, pulling his arm over my shoulders while he leaned against me, and together we shuffled out of the room, my knees nearing buckling under his weight; he was a good head taller than I. Up the stairs I lugged him, and into the nearest bedroom, the room in which the nude body of Alistair Warthrop had been found five years before. I eased him onto the mattress, where he, like the monstrumologist’s father, rolled himself into a miserable ball, until his knees nearly brushed his chin. I closed the door and collapsed into the chair beside the bed to catch my breath.
“I should not have come here,” he said.
I nodded in response to this obvious observation.
“He offered to take me to his house,” he went on, referring to Morgan. “For I have no place else to go.”
“You have no other family?” I asked.
“All my family is dead.”
I nodded again. “I’m sorry, Malachi.”
“You do everything for him, don’t you? Even apologize.”
“He didn’t mean for it to happen.”
“He did nothing. He knew and he did nothing. Why do you defend him, Will? Who is he to you?”
“It isn’t that,” I said. “It’s what I am to him.”
“What do you mean?”
“I am his assistant,” I said not without a touch of pride. “Like my father. After he… after the fire, the doctor took me in.”
“He adopted you?”
“He took me in.”
“Why did he do that? Why did he take you in?”
“Because there was no one else.”
“No,” he said. “That is not what I meant. Why did he choose to take you in?”
“I don’t know,” I said, a bit taken aback. The question had never occurred to me. “I never asked him. I suppose he felt it was the right thing to do.”
“Because of your father’s service?”
I nodded. “My father loved him.” I cleared my throat. “He is a great man, Malachi. It is…” And now my father’s oft-spoken words fell from my lips, “It is an honor to serve him.”
I attempted to excuse myself. My avowal had reminded me of my place by the doctor’s side. Malachi reacted as if I had threatened to throttle him. He grabbed my wrist and begged me not to go, and in the end I could not refuse him. My failure was not entirely owing to a congenital curse (it seemed my lot in life to sit at the bedsides of troubled people); it resulted too from the painful memory of another bereft boy who lay comfortless in a strange bed night after night, consigned to a little alcove, set aside and forgotten for hours, like an unwanted heirloom bequeathed by a distant relation, too vulgar to display but too valuable to discard. There were times, in the beginning of my service to the monstrumologist, when I was certain he must have heard my keening wails long into the night-heard them, and did nothing. He rarely brought up my parents or the night they died. When he did, it was usually to chastise me, as he had the night we’d returned from the cemetery: Your father would have understood.
So I remained a few minutes more with him, sitting on the edge of Alistair Warthrop’s deathbed, holding Malachi’s hand. Clearly he was exhausted from his ordeal, and I urged him to rest, but he wanted to know everything. How had we discovered the creatures that had overcome his family? What had the doctor done in the interim, between the time of our discovery and the attack? I told him of the midnight visit of Erasmus Gray with his nightmarish cargo, of our expedition to the cemetery and the mad flight that followed, of our sojourn in Dedham and the tale of Hezekiah Varner. I omitted the elder Warthrop’s involvement in the coming of the Anthropophagi to New Jerusalem, but stressed Warthrop’s innocence in the matter as well as his efforts to answer the critical questions presented by their presence. Malachi seemed little satisfied with my defense of the doctor.
“If a rabid hound runs amok, what fool looks instead for the creature that made it sick?” he asked. “Shoot the hound first, and then find the source of its madness if you must.”
“He thought we had time-”
“Well, he was wrong, wasn’t he? And now my family is dead. Me, too, Will,” he added matter-of-factly, without a shred of self-pity or melodrama. “I am dead too. I feel your hand; I see you sitting there; I breathe. But inside there is nothing.”
I nodded. How well I understood! I gave his hand a squeeze.
“It will get better,” I assured him. “It did for me. It will never be the same, but it will get better. And I promise you the doctor will kill these things, down to the last one.”
Malachi slowly shook his head, his eyes ablaze. “He is your master and rescued you from the bleak life of the orphanage,” he whispered. “I understand, Will. You feel bound to excuse and forgive him, but I cannot excuse and I will not forgive this… this… What did you say he was?”
“Yes, that’s right. A monster hunter… Well, he is what he hunts.”
He fell silent after these damning words, and his eyelids fluttered, drooped, then finally closed altogether. He held tightly to my hand, however, even as weariness bore him down; I had to pry his fingers from mine before making my escape.
I flinched on my way down the stairs, for the evening quiet was shattered suddenly by the banging on the front door and the doctor’s bellowing for me to answer it. What has happened? I wondered. Have they struck again? Night was falling; perhaps another nocturnal rampage had begun-or perhaps word of the Stinnets’ demise had leaked out and a party of Warthrop’s fellow townspeople had come calling with hot tar and feathers.
He is what he hunts, Malachi had said. I did not believe that but understood how Malachi might judge him, and the rest of the town as well, once it learned of the Anthropophagi onslaught.
I did not think the doctor was a monster who hunted monsters, but I was about to meet a man who did-and was.
TEN.“The Best Man for the Job”
He was quite tall, well over six feet, the man standing on the doctor’s doorstep, athletic of build and handsome in a boyish way, with rather fine features and stylishly long flaxen hair. His eyes were an odd shade of gray; in the glittering lamplight they appeared nearly black, but later, when I saw them in daylight, his eyes took on a softer shade, the ashy gray of charcoal dust or the hue of an ironclad warship. He wore a traveling cloak and gloves, riding boots and a homburg hat set at a rakish angle. His mustache was small and neatly trimmed, golden like his mane of hair, so diaphanous it appeared to float above his full and sensuous lips.
“Well!” he said with a note of surprise. “Good evening, young man.” He spoke with a refined British accent, a leonine purr of a voice, melodic and soothing.
“Good evening, sir,” I said.
“I am looking for the house of a dear friend of mine and I’m afraid my driver might be lost. Pellinore Warthrop is his name.” With a sparkle in his eye he added, “My friend’s name, not the driver’s.”
“This is Dr. Warthrop’s house,” I offered.
“Ah, so it’s ‘Doctor’ Warthrop now, is it?” He chuckled softly. “And who might you be?”
“I am his assistant. Apprentice,” I corrected myself.
“An assistant apprentice! Good for him. And for you, I’m sure. Tell me, Mr. Assistant-Apprentice-”
“Will, sir. My name is Will Henry.”
“Henry! Now that name sounds familiar.”
“My father served the doctor for many years.”
“Was his given name Benjamin?”
“No, sir. It was-”
“Patrick,” he said with a snap of his fingers. “No. You are much too young to be his son. Or his son’s son, if his son had one.”
“It was James, sir.”
“Was it? Are you quite certain it wasn’t Benjamin?”
From within, the doctor called loudly, “Will Henry! Who is at the door?”
The man in the cloak leaned forward, bringing his eyes to the level of my own, and whispered, “Tell him.”
“But you haven’t told me your name,” I pointed out.
“Is it necessary, Will Henry?” He produced a piece of stationery from his pocket and dangled it before my eyes. I recognized the handwriting at once, of course, for it was my own. “I know Pellinore didn’t write this letter; compose it, yes; write it, impossible! The man’s penmanship is atrocious.”
“Will Henry!” the doctor said sharply behind me. “I asked who-” He froze upon seeing the tall Englishman in the entryway.
“It’s Dr. Kearns, sir,” I said.
“My dear Pellinore,” purred Kearns warmly, brushing past me to seize the doctor’s hand. He pumped it vigorously. “How long has it been, old boy? Istanbul?”
“ Tanzania,” returned the doctor tightly.
“ Tanzania! Has it really been that long? And what the blazes did you do to your bloody forehead?”
“An accident,” murmured the monstrumologist.
“Oh, that’s good. I thought perhaps you’d become a bloody Hindu. Well, Warthrop, you look terrible. How long has it been since you’ve had a good night’s sleep or a decent meal? What happened? Did you fire the maid and the cook, or did they quit in disgust? And tell me whenever did you become a doctor?”
“I’m relieved you could come on such short notice, Kearns,” said the doctor with that same tightly wound tenseness in his tone, ignoring the interrogatories. “I’m afraid the situation has taken a turn for the worse.”
“Hardly avoidable, old boy.”
The doctor lowered his voice. “The town constable is here.”
“As bad a turn as that, then? How many have the rascals eaten since your letter?”
“Six! In just three days? Very peculiar.”
“Exactly what I thought. Extraordinarily uncharacteristic of the species.”