She responded stiffly, “I’ve no idea what you mean, Dr. Warthrop.”
“Regrettably that very well might be so,” acknowledged the doctor icily. “And all the more appalling if it is! To view your shameful neglect as altogether fitting and humane is beyond deplorable-it is inhuman. You may inform your master that I am not finished here. I am not finished, but Motley Hill is. I shall personally see to it that he is punished to the full extent of the law for the homicide of Hezekiah Varner.”
He stepped toward her. She flinched, shrinking back in the fiery face of his righteous indignation.
“And I pray-as he should not-that the law shows him-and you- the same mercy you have shown these poor souls entrusted to your care.”
He brushed past her cowering form without waiting for a reply. He threw open the heavy front door with such force that it slammed into the wall with a reverberating crash. Halfway across the overgrown lawn, the doctor drew rein and turned in his saddle to regard the old house with its peeling paint and sagging roof, brooding in the bright morning light.
“Though Varner himself might argue it about his life,” he mused, “it cannot be said about his death, Will Henry. His death shall not be in vain. There will be justice for Hezekiah Varner and all those who suffer inside those accursed walls. I will see to that. By God, I will see to that!”
“You Have Failed Me”
I did not know what to expect upon our return to 425 Harrington Lane, beyond something for my empty stomach and a pillow for my weary head. From the curt summons I had posted by express mail the day before, I suspected the doctor intended to await the arrival of John Kearns before proceeding against the Anthropophagi, but I dared not ask him, for he had quickly fallen into one of his taciturn moods, growing more uncommunicative with each passing mile.
He left me to stable our horses while he disappeared inside the house. Once they were watered and fed and the dusty miles brushed from their coats, and after a brief visit with ol’ Bess, I dragged myself inside, indulging in a tiny, flickering hope that the table might be laid with something of passing palatability. It was a vain hope. The basement door hung open, the lights below burned brightly, and ascending the narrow staircase was a clamor of slamming drawers and heavy objects being dragged or shoved across the stone floor. After a few minutes of this violent upheaval, he came bounding up the stairs, gasping for breath, cheeks ablaze. Ignoring me, he barreled down the hall and into the study, wherein another ruckus of slamming drawers began. When I peeked through the doorway, he was sitting at the desk, rifling through a drawer.
“Must be something,” he muttered to himself. “A letter, a bill of lading, a contract for services, something…”
I jumped when he slammed shut the drawer. He looked up with a startled expression, as if I, his sole companion in life, were the last person he expected to see.
“What is it?” he demanded. “Why are you hovering there like that, Will Henry?”
“I was going to ask-”
“Yes, yes. So ask. Ask.”
“Yes, sir. I was going to ask, sir, if you’d like me to run to the market.”
“The market? Whatever for, Will Henry?”
“For something to eat, sir. We’ve nothing in the house, and you haven’t eaten since-”
“For the love of God, boy, is that all you ever think about?”
“What else, then?”
“What else, sir?”
“Yes, what else. Besides food, what else do you think about?”
“Well, I… I think about many things, sir.”
“Yes, but what are they? That was my question.”
He glowered at me, thin fingers drumming on the polished desktop.
“You know what gluttony is, Will Henry.”
“Yes, sir. And hunger, too, sir.”
He fought back a smile. At least I told myself that; he may very well have been fighting an urge to hurl the handiest heavy object at my head.
“Well?” he asked.
“Sir?” I asked.
“What else occupies your thoughts?”
“I try to… understand, sir.”
“What I am to… the purpose of… the things you are trying to teach me, sir… but mostly, to be honest, sir, for lying is the worst kind of buffoonery, I try not to think of more things than the things I try to, if that makes sense, sir.”
“Not much, Will Henry,” said the doctor. “Not much.”
With a dismissive wave he added, “You know where we keep the money. To the market if you like, but straight there and straight back, Will Henry. Speak to no one, and if anyone speaks to you, all is well; I am busy with my latest treatise, whatever seems most natural to you, as long as it is not the truth. Remember, Will Henry, some falsehoods are borne of necessity, not foolishness.”
With a much lighter heart I left him to his rummaging. Glad was I for this brief respite-it was not an easy thing, being an apprentice to a monstrumologist of the doctor’s temperament-and doubly glad for the very mundanities that most laymen take for granted and even bemoan in their shortsightedness. The simple chores and errands that filled my days were welcome reprieves from the nights’ dark business, filled with unexpected callers and mysterious packages, midnight sojourns in the laboratory and pilgrimages to farflung forgotten regions of the world where the natives had not suffered to be civilized to the point where they forgot to fear what might lurk in the dark. The everyday drudgeries of life were not so to me. After cataloguing the internal organs of a creature from a nightmare, washing the cutlery was a joyous exercise.
So I fairly bounded up the stairs to wash up. I changed my shirt. (It smelled faintly of Captain Varner’s room, a peculiar and distinct amalgamation of bleach and decomposition.) But one small item was missing, and before leaving I sought out the doctor. I found him in the library, pulling books at random from the shelves, flipping through the pages before tossing them helter-skelter upon the floor.
“Are you back, then? Good; I need your help,” he said. “Start at the far end of that shelf over there.”
“Actually, sir, I haven’t left yet.”
“I beg to differ, Will Henry. You’ve been gone for some time.”
“Only to wash up, sir.”
“Why, were you dirty?” He did not wait for a response. “So you’ve decided you’re not hungry after all?”
“You’re not hungry?”
“I am hungry, sir.”
“Yet you just said you were not.”
“I asked if you had decided you were not hungry after all, and you replied, ‘No, sir.’ That is my memory of it, at any rate.”
“No, sir. I mean, yes, sir. I mean… I was wondering… That is, I’ve been meaning to ask if you found my hat.”
He stared at me uncomprehendingly, as if I were speaking an exotic foreign tongue.
“Yes, sir. My hat. I think I lost it at the cemetery.”
“I didn’t know you owned a hat.”
“Yes, sir. I wore it to the cemetery that night, and it must have fallen off when they… when we left, sir. I was wondering if you might have found it when you returned to… to tidy things up there.”
“I didn’t see any hats, except the one I gave you to destroy. Whenever did you acquire a hat, Will Henry?”
“It was mine when I came, sir.”
“When you came… where?”
“Here, sir. To live here. It was my hat, sir. My father gave it to me.”
“I see. Was it his hat?”
“No, sir. It was my hat.”
“Oh. I thought perhaps it held some sentimental value.”
“It did, sir. I mean, it does.”
“Why? What is so special about a hat, Will Henry?”
“My father gave it to me,” I repeated.
“Your father. Will Henry, may I give you a piece of advice?”
“Yes, sir. Of course, sir.”
“Don’t invest too much of yourself in material things.”
“Of course, that bit of wisdom is not original to me. Still, much more valuable than any hat. Have we satisfied your inquiry, Will Henry?”
“Yes, sir. I suppose it’s lost for good.”
“Nothing is ever truly lost, Will Henry. Unless we are talking about the evidence my father must have left behind regarding this unholy business. Or the reason you remain standing there uselessly while I look for it.”
“Sir?” He had completely lost me.
“Either get yourself to the market or help me, Will Henry! Snap to it! I don’t know how you manage to draw me into these philosophical diversions.”
“I just wanted to know if you found my hat,” I said.
“Well, I did not.”
“That’s all I wanted to know.”
“If you’re looking for my permission to purchase a new one, get thee to a haberdasher, Will Henry, with the caveat that you do so sometime today.”
“I don’t want a new hat, sir. I want my old hat.”
He sighed. I scampered away before he could fashion a reply. It had seemed a very simple matter to me. Either he had found my hat at the cemetery or he had not. A simple No, I did not find your little hat, Will Henry would have sufficed. I did not feel altogether responsible for the circuitous nature of our discourse. There were times when the doctor, despite being America-born and England-educated, seemed flummoxed by the precepts of normal conversation.
I arrived in town hatless but happy. For a few precious minutes, at least, I was free of all things monstrumological. Particularly trying had been the last two days. Had it been only two days since the old grave-robber had appeared at our door with his ghastly burden? It seemed like two times twenty. Hurrying along the cobblestone streets of New Jerusalem’s bustling center, breathing deep the crisp, clean air of early spring, I thought, for a fleeting moment, as I’d thought more than once since I had come to live with him (as anyone in my position might think), of escape.
The doctor had not thrown bars over the windows; he did not lock me inside my little alcove like a caged bird by night, or shackle me to a post by day. Indeed, when not in need of my “indispensable” services, he hardly took notice of me at all. If I fled while he wallowed in the malaise of one of his melancholic spells, a month might pass before he realized I was gone. Like the afflicted slave laboring in the cotton fields of the old South, I did not worry about where I would go or how I would get there or what I would do once there. Those concerns seemed but trivialities. The point of freedom, after all, is freedom itself.
Often over the years I have asked myself why I never ran away. What bound me to him beyond the inertia to which all humans are susceptible? I was not bound by blood. Not by oath. Not by law. Yet every time the thought of flight flittered across my consciousness, it disappeared as ephemerally as a will-o’-the-wisp, an ignis fatuus, an elusive glow over the marshland of my psyche. To leave him was not unthinkable-I confess I thought of it often-but to be away from him was. Was it fear that kept me by his side, fear of the unknown, fear of being adrift and alone, fear that I might meet a fate far more frightening than service to a monstrumologist? Was it that an unpleasant “known” is preferable to any unpredictable “unknown”?