Thus lost in reverie, I failed to hear the closing of the back door or the footfalls of the monstrumologist as he strode toward the room. I was unaware of his return until he appeared in the doorway, cheeks flushed, hair plastered to his head with dirt and grime, shoes caked in mud, a battered straw hat in his hand. I recognized that hat; it had been placed on my head by an old man whose brains a few hours before I had washed from my hair.
“Will Henry,” said the doctor quietly. “What are you doing?”
Feeling the color rise in my cheeks, I said, “Nothing, sir.”
“That is obvious,” he returned dryly. “Did you post the letters?”
“Straight there and back again?”
“And spoke to no one?”
“Just the postmaster, sir.”
“And you mailed both by express delivery?”
He nodded. He fell mute for a moment more, as if his mind had wandered. His gaze was unfocused, and, though he stood perfectly still, agitation seemed to exude from every pore. I noticed a scrap of filthy cloth in his other hand, which at first I took to be a rag, but I quickly realized it was a shredded swatch of Eliza Bunton’s burial gown.
“And what are you doing now?” he asked.
“Yes, yes,” he snapped. “So you have told me, Will Henry.”
“I didn’t know where you were, so I was-”
“Looking for you.”
“You thought perhaps I had taken refuge in my father’s trunk?”
“I thought you might have left a note.”
“Why would I do that?” The notion that he might owe me an explanation of his whereabouts was completely foreign to him.
“You went to the cemetery?” I inquired. Best to change the subject, I thought. When aroused, his temper could be terrible, and I could tell he was already distressed.
My ploy worked, for he nodded and said, “There were at least two dozen distinct sets of prints. Assuming four to five immature juveniles sequestered in wherever their warren may be hidden, a total of thirty to thirty-five. An alarming and extraordinary number, Will Henry.”
Seeing the hat in his hand reminded me of my own little cap, my sole possession, lost in our mad flight the night before. Dare I ask him if he found it? He saw my stare, and said, “I’ve cleaned it up the best I could. Filled her grave. Recovered most of our supplies and scattered the broken pieces of the cart in the woods. With a little luck we may finish this business before we are discovered.”
I might have asked why discovery was undesirable in this instance, but everything in his demeanor suggested the answer to that question was obvious. I suspect now the answer had more to do with his discovery of his father’s possible involvement than with the hazard of setting off a firestorm of panic. The doctor was more concerned with his father’s reputation- and, by extension, his own-than the public welfare.
Perhaps I judge him too harshly. Perhaps he believed the cost of discovery far outweighed the benefit of adequate warning before the monsters could strike again. Perhaps. Though, after many years to consider the matter, I doubt it. The monstrumologist’s ego, as I have noted, like the immeasurable universe, seemed to know no boundaries. Even during those periods of intense melancholia to which he was prone, nothing mattered more to him than his perception of himself, his worthiness as a scientist and his place in history. Self-pity is egotism undiluted, after all-self-centeredness in its purest form.
“I’m going upstairs to wash up,” he went on. “Pack up the trunk, Will Henry, and put it away. Saddle the horses and fix yourself something to eat. Snap to, now.”
He started down the hall, thought of something, turned, and tossed the old hat and bloody cloth into the room.
“And burn these.”
“Burn them, sir?”
He hesitated for a moment, and then he strode into the room and picked up his father’s diary from the table. He pressed it into my hand.
“And this, Will Henry,” he said. “Burn this, too.”
Burn it I did, with the bloody scrap of burial gown and the battered straw hat, and I squatted for a moment before the crackling blaze in the library’s fireplace, feeling its heat against my knees and cheeks, the tip of my nose, my forehead, which felt tight from the intense heat, as if the skin were being pulled back from my skull. After the fire that had claimed the lives of my parents, I had imagined I could smell smoke on me for days, in my hair and on my skin. With lye soap I had scrubbed myself until the flesh was red and raw. I had imagined that the smoke lingered about my person like a pall, and it would not be until weeks afterward that the sensation finally abated. For those few weeks, however, I was no doubt the cleanest twelve-year-old boy in New England.
Though I was thoroughly exhausted and very hungry, I was determined to finish in the library before repairing to the kitchen to prepare our repast. I righted the old trunk, emptied of everything but a dozen or so old letters still in their envelopes. Curiosity got the better of me, for upon one I saw his name above the return address: Pellinore Warthrop, Esq. Directed to the Dr. A. F. Warthrop of 425 Harrington Lane, the letter was postmarked London, England. The handwriting was clearly the doctor’s, only much neater than the specimens I had seen, as if a concerted effort had been made toward legibility. The envelope bore the original wax seal, unbroken, as did the others I examined, a total of fifteen in all, each with the same return address. Having traveled vast distances, these letters from a son to his father had been tossed unread into an old trunk and stored in a dank and dusty corner. Ah, Warthrop! Ah, humanity! Did he know? He had read the diary, had remembered it well enough to find the entry referencing Captain Varner; had he ever noticed, while inventorying this old box, that these letters had never been opened, and would he notice if one should now be?
It was impertinent, disobedient, an outrageous invasion of his privacy. Should I? Dare I? I glanced toward the doorway, holding my breath. No sound but for the ticking of the mantel clock and the roaring of blood in my ears. So much about this man, with whom I shared every waking moment and to whose life mine was now inextricably bound, was a mystery to me. I knew next to nothing about him and absolutely nothing about his past. The letter in my hand would undoubtedly contain clues. Now or never, Will Henry, I told myself. Drop it or open it-now or never!
I opened it.
The envelope contained a single sheet of foolscap, composed by the same hand that addressed the envelope. Dated March 14, 1865, it read:
As it has been nearly three weeks since I last wrote, I thought I would write again so you will not think I have been negligent in my thoughts of home. Not much has happened here since last I wrote, except Ive developed a very bad cold, with fever and a cough, et cetera, but you would be satisfied to know I have not missed a single day of class because of it. The headmaster says he is very pleased with my progress and went on to say he intends to send you a personal note as to my general welfare, et cetera. Please look for it and, if it isn’t too much trouble, extend to him the courtesy of a reply. He thinks a great deal of you, as, of course, do I and all who know you.
I wish you would write to me. Letters arrive every week from America, and I stand in line with the rest of my classmates, and every week I wait for my name to be called, and every week it is not. I am not complaining, Father, and hope you do not take this awkward confession as such. I am quite lonely at times and do not feel entirely at home here. When not in class I mostly keep to my room, and sometimes, like today, when it is cold and cloudy, refusing to rain or snow but remaining dismal withal, as if a shroud lays upon the world, I am very lonely. A letter from you would brighten the gloom, for as you know I tend toward that familial disposition of dourness. I know you are quite busy with your research and your travels. I imagine my letters piling up in the entryway awaiting your return. And of course I worry that something may have happened to you and no one has bothered to send me word. If you do receive this, could you take but a moment or two to jot back a quick reply?
It would mean the world to me. I remain, et cetera,
I heard the floorboards creak upstairs. Quickly I folded the letter, stuffed it back into its envelope, and pressed my thumb down hard upon the wax seal, a hopeless act, since it was as hard as a nail after twenty-three years. The flap popped up half an inch. I dropped it into the trunk and scattered a few of its unsullied companions over it.
It would mean the world to me. Apparently, to his father it had not. What the son wrote, the father ignored. Was he indeed away on some adventure during that time when Warthrop was in London, a boy about my age, lonely and bereft of the familiar, longing to hear some news from his far-flung home? If so, why hadn’t the elder Warthrop opened these letters upon his return? Why had he kept them at all if he’d cared not for his son? The irony does not escape me that I opened that letter searching for clues, only to deepen the mystery to which I’d sought insight.
But reading it did accomplish one thing. As is so often the case, the insights we seek are not those we find: I could see him clearly in my mind’s eye, huddled in his nightshirt upon his little cot, feverishly writing this letter between fits of coughing, a boy not unlike me, torn from his family and friends, with no one and nothing to console him. For the first time I felt something other than awe and fear toward the monstrumologist. For the first time I felt pity. My heart ached for the sick little boy so far from home.
My feelings would be short lived. Barely had I buried the offended missive when the doctor bounded down the stairs and spun into the room.
“Will Henry! What are you doing?”
“Nothing-nothing, sir,” I stammered.
“Nothing! Again when I ask what you’re doing, you are doing nothing! It seems to be your chief occupation, Will Henry.”
“Yes, sir. I mean, no, sir! I’m sorry, sir. I’ll stop.”
“You are no use to me, Will Henry, if every time I give you something to do, you choose to do its opposite. Snap to! It is a good three hours’ hard ride to Dedham.”
He did not tarry for a response, but fled down the hall toward the kitchen. I heard the basement door slam shut. My face on fire from so close a call, I hurried to finish, tossing the curios and keepsakes back into the trunk, intolerant of my native squeamishness as I unhesitantly plucked the shrunken head from the floor. It was much lighter than I’d expected. I wondered at the history of this poor fellow of origin undeterminable. Was it another gift to the elder Warthrop from some savage tribal chief befriended in his wanderings, or was there a more personal connection? It was impossible to determine its sex and age, and its race had been erased by the process and the passage of time, that great equalizer that makes a mockery of our temporal distinctions, king and serf; man and woman; hero, knave, and fool. Back into your box, anonymous Yorick, with your sutured eyes and frozen scream! The indignity of your internment is no worse than ours.