“Will Henry!” came the doctor’s voice from below. “Will Henry, where the devil are you? Snap to, Will Henry!”
I found him in the library, halfway up the ladder affixed to the floor-to-ceiling shelves, still clad in his traveling cloak and mud-caked shoes; apparently he could not afford the time to change and wash. Without a word he pointed to the shelves on his right, and I rolled the ladder to the spot. Behind us, upon the large table that dominated the room, four stacks of books sat upon the corners of a large map of New Jerusalem and its environs.
“Now, where is it?” he muttered, running his thin finger along the cracked spines in a row of ancient tomes. “Where? Ah, here it is! Catch, Will Henry!” He pulled a large volume from the shelf and let it fall ten feet, where it landed with a heavy thud upon the carpet beside me. I looked up at him as he glared down at me, one side of his face smeared with dirt, his hair falling over his forehead, as matted and filthy as a cur’s.
“I told you to catch it,” he said in a low, level voice.
“Sorry, sir,” I mumbled, scooping the book from the floor and carrying it to the table. I glanced at the title: The Histories of Herodotus. I flipped through the thin pages. The text was in the original Greek. I looked from the book to the monstrumologist.
The doctor scampered down the ladder. “Why are you staring at me like that?”
“Mr. Gray-,” I began, but the doctor cut me off.
“We are slaves, all of us, Will Henry,” he said, pulling the book from my hand and placing it upon the nearest stack. “Some are slaves to fear. Others are slaves to reason-or base desire. It is our lot to be slaves, Will Henry, and the question must be to what shall we owe our indenture? Will it be to truth or to falsehood, hope or despair, light or darkness? I choose to serve the light, even though that bondage often lies in darkness. Despair did not drive me to pull that trigger, Will Henry; mercy guided my hand.”
I said nothing, but swallowed hard, eyes welling with tears. He made no move to comfort me, and I doubt comforting me was his purpose. He cared not whether I forgave him for taking the life of the old man. He was a scientist. Forgiveness mattered not; understanding was all.
“He was doomed the moment the creature struck,” he went on. “No more absurd or insidious a precept has ever been laid down than ‘Where there is life, there is hope.’ Just as the trout is doomed once the bait is taken, there was no hope for him once the barbs were set. He would thank me if he could. As I would thank you, Will Henry.”
“Thank me, sir?”
“If one day I should meet the same fate, I pray you would do the same for me.”
Left unspoken but conveyed in his dark eyes was the corollary to his blasphemous prayer: As you should pray I would for you. If, in that hole, the monster had seized me instead, no doubt he would not have hesitated to grant me the mercy of the bullet. I did not argue with him, though; I did not have the words to argue. I, at twelve, had only the inarticulate protests of a child whose acute sense of justice has been offended by the pious rationalizations of an authoritarian adult. I did not-only because I could not-argue. So, I nodded. Nodded! Even as my face burned with righteous indignation. Perhaps I was a slave to something he believed to be silly and superstitious: the idea that all life was worth defending and that nothing justified surrender to the forces of destruction. Had I known that night what was to come from deep in the dark belly of the earth, I might have felt less like pummeling his smug countenance with my little fists and more like throwing myself into his arms for the comfort that only one who has trod the dark path can give.
“But enough philosophy! On to more practical and pressing concerns, Will Henry!” he cried, brushing my body aside as casually as he had my troubled soul. He went round to the other side of the long table and peered at the map; already he had drawn a red circle around New Jerusalem. “Obviously the events of this evening prove my original hypothesis incorrect. This is a mature pod of Anthropophagi, whose alpha male now hangs in our basement. Twenty to twenty-five breeding females and a handful of juveniles. Perhaps thirty in all, though the circumstances made it difficult to ascertain their exact number.”
He looked up from the map. “Did you manage to get a count, Will Henry?” he asked, in all seriousness, as if it were plausible I might have counted them while simultaneously running for my life.
“No, sir,” I said.
“But does that seem close to the mark?” he asked. “Twenty-five to thirty? Based upon your observation.”
One hundred thirty was closer to the mark based on my observation, but that skill had been tarnished by terror. The cemetery had seemed to overflow with them, pouring from every shadow and from behind every tree.
“Yes, sir,” I replied. “I would say twenty-five. Twenty-five to thirty.”
“Nonsense!” he cried, slapping his open hand upon the tabletop. The resulting retort caused me to flinch. “Never tell me what you think I wish to hear, Will Henry. Never! I cannot rely upon you if you chose to be a parrot. It is a detestable vice not entirely limited to children. Always speak the truth, all the truth in all things at all times! No man ever rose to greatness on the wings of obsequious deceit. Now be honest. You’ve really no idea whether there were thirty or fifty or two hundred and fifty.”
I bowed my head. “Yes, sir,” I said. “I could not tell.”
“Nor could I,” he admitted. “I can only make an educated guess, based on the literature.” He picked up the Herodotus from the stack and flipped rapidly through the ancient pages until he came upon a passage and read it quietly to himself in the original Greek. After a moment or two he slapped the book closed, replaced it upon the stack, and returned to the map. He produced a ruler from his pocket, measured the shortest distance between New Jerusalem and the coast, and then proceeded to make calculations in a small notebook, muttering to himself the entire time, while I, so recently the object of his full attention, stood entirely forgotten. His was a concentration more complete and exhausting in its force than that in any other man I have met in my long life. I felt, after the dazzling light of his focus had shifted away, like a person falling into a well, plunging from bright sunlight into utter darkness.
He made several measurements, from the borders of our county to various seaports along the coast, carefully noting each one in his notebook and tracing faint connecting lines along the edge of the ruler. Our town lay but a day’s ride from the coast, and soon the parchment was filled with dozens of intersecting lines that reminded me of the intricate design of a spider’s web. I was not entirely sure, but thought he had to be trying to discover the route taken by the monsters into New Jerusalem.
It struck me, I confess, as exceedingly odd, after our narrow escape, that he would be wasting precious time in an interesting but pointless exercise. What did it matter where these things came from or how they had come to be there? Would not our time have been more valuably spent rounding up all the able-bodied men in town for an impromptu hunt? The Anthropophagi were loose among us-and clearly hungry. I could not chase from my mind’s eye Eliza Bunton’s hair spilling from the snapping jaws of the ravenous Anthropophagi. Why did we tarry there reading old books, studying maps, and taking measurements while a pack of thirty sojourners from a nightmare roamed the countryside? We should have roused the residents to flee the creatures’ onslaught or throw up barricades against the coming siege. The time to unravel the puzzle of their presence in New Jerusalem was after their eradication, not then, when our very survival hung in the balance. Who else, I wondered, might perish this night in the same unspeakable manner as Erasmus Gray, while the doctor draws his lines and reads his Greek and jots in his little book? Who else will be sacrificed upon the altar of science? If such questions occurred to a twelve-year-old boy, surely they occurred to a man of Warthrop’s intellect.
I pondered this riddle, remembering his earlier admonitions upon the dangers of fear. Was that it? Was this man, the greatest monstrumologist of his day, overcome by dread, and were these frivolous (to my mind) pursuits at this desperate hour a means of avoiding the stark truth that circumstances had forced upon him? In short, was he, the great Pellinore Warthrop, afraid?
Telling myself it was not for my own selfish comfort, but for my fellow man, I spoke up at last. For those slumbering innocents unaware of the mortal danger in their midst, for the old man asleep in his bed and the tender babe at peace in her crib, I finally spoke.
“Dr. Warthrop, sir?”
He did not pause in his task. “What is it, Will Henry?”
“Should I fetch the constable now?”
“The constable? To what purpose?”
“To-to help,” I stammered.
“Help whom? With what?”
“Help us, sir. With the… the infestation…”
He waved dismissively in my direction, still absorbed in his measurements. “The Anthropophagi will not feed again this night, Will Henry,” he said. His dark hair fell over his forehead as he leaned over the map, lips pursed in concentration.
I would have dropped the matter had it not been for the folly of his original hypothesis: the predication that there could not have been more than one or two of the man-eaters lurking in the vicinity of New Jerusalem, an error that had cost a man his life, at the time pronounced with the same absolute conviction.
So I pressed him as never before.
“How do you know, sir?” I asked.
“How do I know what?”
“How do you know they won’t attack again?”
“Because I can read.” A bit of annoyance had crept into his tone. He patted the nearest stack of books. “Two thousand years of observation support my conclusion, Will Henry. Read Herodotus; peruse Pliny, the writings of Walter Raleigh. Anthropophagi are gorge eaters, hunting, feasting, and then resting-for days, sometimes weeks-before killing again.”
He looked over at me. “What are you suggesting, Will Henry? It is my fault? The blood of the grave-robber is on my hands? Perhaps it is. Was I mistaken about their numbers? Obviously. But it was an estimate based upon all available data, rooted in logic. Given the same facts again, I would take the same gamble, for I deemed time to be of the essence. His discovery forced me into action quicker than I may have liked, and I am certain with more time for careful reflection I would have confronted the possibility that they may have adapted to their new environment in unforeseen ways, which undoubtedly they have. But you must understand, Will Henry, ‘possibility’ is not ‘probability.’ It is possible the sun will rise in the west on the morrow, but hardly probable. I stand by my decision, though I have been proven wrong in the premise that led to it.”
And now the monstrumologist laid a hand upon my shoulder, and the force behind his eyes softened somewhat. “I regret his passing. If it brings any comfort to you, remember he was an old man who had lived a long life-a life long in suffering and deprivation, I might add. He fully understood; he fully accepted the danger; and I asked nothing of him that I did not demand of myself. I did not force him to accompany us tonight or ask him to accept any greater risk than I myself was willing to take.”