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He dropped the rope into the hole, swung his legs over the edge, and scooted on his backside until he teetered on the opening’s lip. Taking the rope in both hands, he looked up at me, and for some reason gave me a wink before dropping down. The rope went taut in its human anchors’ white-knuckled grips, jerking this way and that as Kearns lowered himself, hand over hand, into the death chamber. I heard the sickening crunch of his landing in the skeletal rubble, and the rope went limp.
“Next!” he called softly. The flare’s blue light sputtered and spat, causing his shadow to flitter and lurch over the confusion of bones.
Before the doctor could move, Malachi grabbed the rope. He looked at me and said “I’ll see you soon, Will” before disappearing from view.
Now it was the doctor’s turn. I confess the words were on my lips, Take me with you, sir, but I spoke them not. He would refuse-or worse, agree. Or would that be worse? Were not our fates inextricably bound together? Had not they been entwined since the night my father and mother, embracing, had died in that fire’s devouring embrace? You are indispensable to me, he had said earlier. Not “your services,” as it had always been since I had come to live with him, but “you.”
As if he could read my mind, he said, “Wait for me here, Will Henry. Don’t leave until I return.”
I nodded, my eyes stinging with tears. “Yes, sir. I’ll wait right here for you, sir.”
He fell out of sight, into the devil’s manger.
Their lamps were lowered next, and our anxious vigil commenced. I remained by the opening in the chamber floor, watching the dance of the flare’s fire until it died, straining at the feeble yellow glow of their lamps until that too was swallowed up by the dark. Brock sat upon the bottom step and stoically cleaned his fingernails with his pocketknife. Morgan puffed noisily on his empty pipe and obsessively took off and put back on his pince-nez, rubbing the lenses nervously with his handkerchief before shoving them back upon his nose and slapping the kerchief back over his mouth.
After several minutes of this annoying ritual-puff, puff, rub, rub-his restless eyes fell upon me, and he whispered, “There will be a reckoning, Will Henry, I promise you that. Oh, yes. The guilty will answer for their crimes; I will make sure of it!”
“The doctor didn’t do anything wrong,” I said.
“Well, I beg to differ, boy. He had knowledge, and did nothing. And his inaction resulted in murder, plain and simple. He may tell you and himself his course was prudent, that he was following the dictates of his so-called science, but this was no scientific inquiry or intellectual exercise. This was a matter of life and death, and we both know which he chose! And we both know the real reason he tried to keep this abomination secret. To protect the good name of Warthrop, out of misguided loyalty to a man gone clearly mad!”
“I don’t think so, sir,” I said as politely as I could. “I don’t think he believed his father was to blame until we found the hidden door.”
“Humph!” snorted the constable. “Even if that’s true, it doesn’t exonerate him, William Henry. Your loyalty is admirable, if tragically misplaced. I know you, who have lost so much, must fear losing him, too, but I shall personally see to it that you are found a decent home no matter how this horrid business is resolved. You have my word: I will not rest until you are placed in the proper environment.”
“I don’t want to be placed. I want to stay with him.”
“Assuming he survives, where he is going, you cannot follow.”
“You’re going to arrest him? For what?” I was appalled.
“And that abhorrent Cory or Kearns or whatever his name is. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a more loathsome human being. He better pray that poor woman survives the unthinkable ordeal he put her through. Why, I believe he actually enjoyed doing it. I think seeing her suffer gave him pleasure. Well, it shall give me the utmost pleasure to see him standing upon the gallows! Let him crack his profane jokes and smirk his damnable blasphemies with the noose around his neck! If it costs my entire allotment of moments, I will gladly spend them to witness the morality of that one.”
“It was a mistake,” I insisted, speaking still of the doctor. I cared little what happened to John Kearns. “You can’t arrest him for making a mistake,” I pleaded.
“Oh, I most certainly can!”
“But the doctor is your friend.”
“My first duty is to the law, Will Henry. And the truth is, though I have known him always, I hardly know him at all. You have spent an entire year under his roof, his sole and constant companion. Can you say with any conviction that you know him or understand the demons that drive him?”
It was true, of course, as I have heretofore confessed: I did not know him any better than he had known his own father. Perhaps that is our doom, our human curse, to never really know one another. We erect edifices in our minds about the flimsy framework of word and deed, mere totems of the true person, who, like the gods to whom the temples were built, remains hidden. We understand our own construct; we know our own theory; we love our own fabrication. Still… does the artifice of our affection make our love any less real? Not that I ever loved the monstrumologist; I do not say that. I’ve fealty to neither the man nor his memory, though of the first I have been bereft these many years, and by the second I am admittedly consumed. Not a day passes when I do not think of him and our many adventures together, but that is not evidence of love. Not a night goes by without my seeing his lean, handsome face in my mind’s eye, or my hearing the distant echo of his voice in the acoustical perfection of my memory, but that proves nothing. I did not then-nor do I now-nor ever-I will say it again-I do not think I protest too much-I never loved the monstrumologist.
“Someone is calling,” Brock spoke up, his laconic announcement in counterpoint to the frantic snapping of the rope as someone yanked upon its end. I looked through the opening and saw the doctor standing below, his lamp held high.
“Will Henry!” he called. “Where is Will Henry?”
“Here, sir,” I called back.
“We need you. Come down at once, Will Henry.”
“‘Come down’?” the constable said. “What do you mean, ‘come down’?”
“Here, Robert. Lower him down to us immediately. Snap to, Will Henry!”
“If you need an extra pair of hands, Brock can come,” Morgan shouted through the hole. Brock looked up from his manicure with a comical expression of surprise.
“No,” answered Warthrop. “It has to be Will Henry.” He gave the rope another impatient snap. “At once, Robert!”
Morgan chewed on his pipe stem indecisively for a moment. “I won’t force you to go,” he whispered.
I shook my head, at once relieved and apprehensive. “I have to go,” I said. “The doctor needs me.”
I reached for the rope. Morgan grabbed my wrist and said, “Go to him, then, but not that way, Will.”
He hauled up the rope and tied it twice about my waist. The chute was narrow enough for me to press my back against one side and my feet against the other, and I thought of Saint Nick coming down the chimney. Then all at once I was through, dangling in midair, turning slowly at the end of the twisting tether. At the halfway point I looked up, and saw the constable’s face framed in the oval outline of the opening, lamplight glowing in his spectacles, making his eyes appear perfectly round and too large for his face, the most owlish-looking I had ever seen this owlish-looking man.
Then my toes scraped the floor of the chamber, followed by a sickening crunch when my full weight came down among the bones. Death’s odor at ground level was chokingly intense, and my eyes filled with tears; I watched the doctor untie me through a watery veil.
“Morgan!” he called softly. “We will need shovels.”
“Shovels?” returned the constable. His face, so far above us, was nearly lost in the murk. “How many?”
“There are four of us, so… four, Robert. Four.”
Warthrop took my elbow and urged me forward, saying quietly, “Watch your step, Will Henry.”
The chamber was smaller than I’d anticipated, perhaps only forty or fifty yards in circumference. Its walls, like the walls of the tiny landing over our heads, had been reinforced with wide wooden planks, the boards warped by humidity, bearing dents, gouges, and scratch marks. Remains crowded against the chamber’s base, a foot high in some spots, like flotsam washed up by a storm’s surge. Not all broke their legs in the fall, as Kearns had surmised. Some must have been ambulatory, and had scrambled to these walls in their frenzy to escape. I pictured them, the poor desperate, doomed creatures clawing and scratching at the impassive wood in the instant before the blow landed from out of the dark-and the teeth smashed their skull apart with the force of a two-ton truck.
I tried to avoid stepping on them-they had been like me once-but it was impossible; there were simply too many of them. The ground was soft, yielding to even my slight weight, and in spots water bubbled around my sole-water and a reddish-black sludge. Here, where no sun shone and no breeze stirred, their bodily fluids had soaked into the ground and been trapped there. I was walking in a literal swamp of blood.
We stopped at the far end of the chamber. There Kearns and Malachi waited by the mouth of a tunnel, the only other access to the pit that I could see besides the trapdoor. There was no door to this aperture, however: The tunnel’s open mouth yawned seven feet tall and six wide.
“At last: our scout,” said Kearns, beaming down at me, his lamp casting hard shadows across his soft features.
“The access tunnel has collapsed, Will Henry,” the doctor informed me.
“Or been made to,” suggested Kearns. “Dynamited would be my guess.”
“Follow me,” Warthrop instructed. About twenty yards in, a wall of jumbled earth and broken timbers confronted us, a confusion of dirt and rock and the shattered remnants of the huge joists that had once held the ceiling aloft. The doctor squatted at the base and drew my attention to a small opening in the rubble, supported by one of the fallen crosspieces.
“Too small for any of us to squeeze through,” he pointed out. “But it appears to go on for a little way at least, perhaps even all of it. What do you think, Will Henry? We must know how wide this wall is… if we can dig our way through it with reasonable alacrity or if we must attack the problem another way.”
“Dynamite!” exclaimed Kearns. “I knew I should have brought some.”
“Well?” the doctor asked me. “Are you up for it?”
Of course I would not say no. “Yes, sir.”
“Good boy! Here, take the lamp. And here, you might as well take my revolver, too. No, tuck it into your belt there; the safety’s on. Careful now, Will Henry. Careful, and not too quick. Come back at the least sign of trouble. There must be several hundred tons of earth above you.”
“And if you do make it to the other side, it would be helpful to the cause if you peeked around a bit,” put in Kearns.