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The question haunts me still, and will, I suppose, until I join my parents in our final reunion. If the doctor had known what horrors awaited us not only at the cemetery that night, but in the days to come, would he still have insisted upon my company? Would he still have demanded that a mere child dive so deep into the well of human suffering and sacrifice-a literal sea of blood? And if the answer to that question is yes, then there are more terrifying monstrosities in the world than Anthropophagi. Monstrosities who, with a smile and a comforting pat on the head, are willing to sacrifice a child upon the altar of their own overweening ambition and pride.
THREE.“It Seems I Must Reconsider My Original Hypothesis”
Old Hill Cemetery lay upon a rise of ground on the outskirts of New Jerusalem, behind black wrought-iron gates and a stone wall designed to discourage the very act that had brought Erasmus Gray to our door the previous night. Laid to rest there were settlers from the earliest days of the colony who had received death’s dark embrace in the opening decades of the eighteenth century. My own parents had been buried there, as well as the doctor’s clan; in fact, the Warthrop mausoleum was the largest and most impressive edifice on the grounds. It sat at the highest point, at the very top of the hill, visible from every marker and tombstone in the cemetery, a brooding Gothic castle-in-miniature that seemed to lord over the lesser sites like the abode of a medieval prince. And, in a sense, the Warthrops were the princes of New Jerusalem. The doctor’s great-great-grandfather, Thomas Warthrop, had made a fortune in shipping and textiles and was one of the city’s founding fathers. His son, the doctor’s great-grandfather, served six terms as mayor. I have no doubt that if not for the labors and hard-headed, tightfisted New England pragmatism of his forebears, Dr. Warthrop would not have had the luxury of abandoning all mundane pursuits to become a “philosopher of monstrumology.” He simply could not have afforded it otherwise. His peculiar “calling” was an open secret in town, much whispered about, much maligned by one quarter and feared by the rest. But they left him alone, with few exceptions-owing, I believe, more to the respect afforded by the great, nearly inexhaustible wealth accumulated by his ancestors than to any esteem for his philosophical pursuits. This attitude was perfectly reflected by the cold stone monument that dominated Old Hill Cemetery.
Erasmus Gray drew rein at the iron gates, and we sat for a moment while the old nag struggled to regain its breath after the long, winding climb to the entrance.
“My revolver, Will Henry,” the doctor said sotto voce.
The old man watched me pass it to him, and then, with a swipe of his tongue across his lips, he looked quickly away.
“You brought a weapon, I trust,” the doctor said to him.
“My Winchester,” rejoined Erasmus Gray. “Never shot anything bigger than a grouse with it,” he added wistfully.
“Aim for the stomach,” the doctor said calmly. “Just below the mouth.”
“I’ll do that, doctor,” Erasmus answered dryly, “if I can aim true while running in the opposite direction!”
Again, he cast a backward glance at my huddled form.
“What of the boy?”
“I shall manage Will Henry.”
“He should stay here at the gates,” the old man said. “We’ll need a lookout.”
“I cannot think of any place worse for him to be.”
“He can have my rifle.”
“He stays with me,” the doctor said firmly. “Will Henry, open the gate.”
I hopped from the cart. Before me were the gates, and beyond those was the hill with its row upon row of markers marching upward to the summit, which was hidden behind the boughs of mature oak and ash and poplar. Behind me, completely gripped by the fog, lay New Jerusalem, its inhabitants slumbering in sweet oblivion. Little did they know and less could they suspect that upon that elevated lay of land, that island of the dead rising from the sea of gentle spring mist embracing the living, dwelled a waking nightmare against which all sleep-born nightmares paled in comparison.
Erasmus Gray kept the cart upon the little lane that hugged the wall encircling the grounds. To our right was the wall, to our left, the dead, and above us, the moonless heavens, awash with stars. The night air was still, not a breath of breeze, and quiet beneath the measured clop-clop of the horse’s hooves, the creak and groan of the wheels, and the low thrum of crickets. The lane was uneven, causing the cart to rock from side to side as we traversed; the corpse beside me swayed back and forth in what struck me as an obscene parody of a babe in its cradle. The grave-robber stared straight ahead, holding the reins loosely in his lap; the doctor was leaning forward, peering anxiously into the trees. At places they crowded the lane, their massive limbs arching over us, and at those places the doctor would throw back his head and stare upward into the foliage.
“Sharp eyes now, Will Henry,” he whispered over his shoulder. “They are accomplished climbers. If one should drop, go for her eyes, where she is most vulnerable.”
I pulled a wooden stake from the bundle and followed his gaze upward. In the darkness that dwelled between the tangled limbs over my head, my imagination painted humanoid silhouettes with dripping fangs, and enormous arms clinging to the hoary boughs, black eyes gleaming with malevolent intent.
We were nearing the eastern boundary of the cemetery-squinting against the gloom I could make out the intersecting wall looming before us-when Erasmus turned the cart onto a tiny rutted path that twisted through the trees, leading into the heart of the graveyard. Our passing disturbed some woodland creature, perhaps a squirrel or a bird, and as it scrambled and scratched in the underbrush, the doctor swung the revolver around, but there was nothing at which to take aim, only shadows.
“The enemy!” I heard him whisper.
We emerged from the trees into a clearing dotted with tombstones, their silky marble gleaming in the starlight. After a half dozen yards Erasmus brought us to a halt. I rose from my crouch and peered at the closest marker, a large stone emblazoned with the name of the family who owned the plot: BUNTON.
“There it is,” the old man said, pointing a gnarled finger at the headstone nearest the path. “That one, Doctor.”
Dr. Warthrop hopped from the cart and strode to the grave site. He made a full circle around the plot, scanning the ground, muttering unintelligibly to himself while Erasmus Gray and I remained rooted to our spots, watching him.
My eye was drawn to the stone about which he paced, and the name etched upon it. ELIZA BUNTON. BORN MAY 7, 1872. DIED APRIL 3, 1888. A month shy of her sixteenth birthday when consumed by the indifferent indignity of death’s cold embrace, in the first gentle flush of her budding womanhood, only to be pulled into a far less indifferent embrace for a consummation more foul than even the ultimate effrontery of death. In the space of a fortnight, Eliza Bunton had transformed from death’s virgin bride to the incubator for a monster’s progeny. I turned my gaze from the cold stone to the cold form beneath the white sheet, and my heart ached, for suddenly she was no longer a nameless corpse, an anonymous victim. She had a name-Eliza-and a family who must have loved her, for they had dressed her in the finest raiment and buried her in a necklace of the purest pearls, even arranging her luxurious curls with the utmost care, when all the while her destiny was not to lie in unbroken rest among her brethren, but to be eaten.
Erasmus Gray must have sensed my distress, for he laid a hand upon my shoulder and said, “There, there, child. There, there.” His tone changed abruptly, from sympathy to indignation. “He shouldn’t have brought you. A dark and dirty business is this; no place for any God-fearing Christian, much less a child.”
I shrugged his hand from my shoulder. I desired no sympathy from a man of his ignominious profession.
“I’m not a child,” I said.
“Not a child, eh? Then these old eyes make a liar of Erasmus Gray! Let me have a closer look…”
He lifted my tattered little hat and squinted down at my face, a smile playing on his lips, and, despite myself, so comical was his expression of earnest study, I caught myself smiling back.
“Ack! You’re right, not a child-a fine young man, then! D’ye know what I think it is that fooled me, William Henry? It’s this hat! It’s much too small for a strapping young man such as yourself. A fully grown man should have a man’s full-grown hat!”
With one hand he held my little hat, and with the other he dropped his large floppy hat onto my head. It fell over my eyes and nose, much to his delight; his chuckles grew louder, and the cart quivered with the aftershocks of his mirth. I pushed back the hat and saw him looming above me, his spectral frame silhouetted against the velvet sky, my own tiny hat now perched upon his balding head. I found myself giggling right along with him.
“What do ye think, Will Henry? Is it true the clothes make the man? For now I do feel fifty years younger-by Jehoshaphat I do!”
The doctor’s impatient call interrupted our revelry.
“Will Henry, fetch the torch and bring the stakes! Snap to, Will Henry!”
“Back to business, Mr. Henry,” the old man said with a touch of sadness in his voice. He switched our hats, giving mine a sharp tug once it was on my head, then gently lifting my chin to look me in the eye.
“You watch my back and I’ll watch yours, Will Henry. Right, then? Do we have a bargain?”
He offered his hand, which I grasped and pumped quickly before hopping to the ground. The doctor had called, and of course I would go. I reached into the cart and pulled a torch and the bundle of stakes from the stack of supplies. When I joined him at the foot of Eliza Bunton’s grave, Warthrop was on his hands and knees, his nose two inches from the freshly turned earth, sniffing like a bloodhound after an elusive quarry. A bit out of breath, I stood before him, unacknowledged, torch in one hand, stakes in the other, awaiting further instruction, while he drew breath to the bottom of his lungs, eyes closed, forehead knotted in concentration.
“I am a fool, Will Henry,” he said at last, without lifting his head or opening his eyes. “For a fool takes for granted what a wise man leaves for fools.”
He cocked his head toward me without rising an inch, and his eye popped open.
“A lighted torch, Will Henry.”
Abashed, I turned on my heel, only to turn again upon his barking, “Leave the stakes, light the torch, and bring it back to me. Snap to, William Henry!”
Old Erasmus Gray had disembarked and was leaning against the side of the cart upon my breathless return, his Winchester rifle cradled in his arms. Expressionlessly he watched as I fumbled through the supply sack for the box of matches. He drew a pipe and pouch from his pocket and commenced to packing his bowl with tobacco as I with rising panic clawed through the contents of the sack, my memory of picking up the box from the fireplace mantel painfully distinct. But did I drop the box into the bag, or did I leave it by the back door?
“What is it you’re after, boy?” inquired Erasmus, fishing a match from his pocket and striking it upon the sole of his old boot. I glanced up at him and shook my head, tears welling in my eyes. Of all things to leave behind-the matches! The old man touched the flame to his bowl, and the sweet aroma of his leaf suffused the air.