“Will Henry,” he said. He sounded weary beyond words. “I hope you fared better in your quest than I have in mine.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied breathlessly. “I would have been back sooner, but I forgot to stop by the baker’s, and I know how much you like his raspberry scones, so I went back. Got the last one, sir.”
“Yes, sir. And I stopped by the butcher’s, too, and Mr. Flanagan’s. He sends his regards, sir.”
“Why are you gasping like that? Are you sick?”
“No, sir. I ran home, sir.”
“You ran? Why? Were you chased?”
“It was something Mrs. Flanagan said.” I was near to bursting. His melancholy would soon be swept away by my intelligence, I was certain.
He grunted. “Something about me no doubt. You should not talk to that woman, Will Henry. Talking to women in general is dangerous, but with that one it is a particular hazard.”
“It wasn’t about you, sir, at least not the important part. It was about your father.”
I told him everything in a breathless rush, of Slidell and Mason and the Pinkerton detectives’ inquiries around town (confirmed by Noonan the butcher and Tanner the baker), of the generally held belief that his father had been a Confederate sympathizer, of his father’s hermetic and heavy-hearted reaction to the South’s fall, all of which coincided with the expedition of the Feronia. The doctor interrupted only once, to have me repeat the names of the men with whom his father was accused of associating; otherwise he listened with unchanging expression, impassively studying me over his folded hands. I waited with bated breath upon the conclusion of my tale, sure he would leap from his chair, throw his arms around me, and bless me for untying the Gordian knot.
Instead, much to my chagrin, he shook his head and said softly, “Is that it? Is that why you rushed here, to tell me this?”
“Did you already know?” I was crestfallen.
“My father was guilty of many things,” he said, “but treason was not one of them. It is possible he met with these men, and it is also possible their errand was of a seditious nature. Perhaps they had some insidious purpose in mind-his peculiar calling was not unknown in certain circles-but any scheme they proposed he would have rejected out of hand.”
“But how can you know that, sir? You weren’t living here.”
He frowned at me. “How would you know where I was living?”
I dropped my head to avoid the intensity of his glare.
“You told me he sent you away to school during the war.”
“I don’t recall telling you that, Will Henry.”
Of course, he had not; I had deduced it from the letter I had purloined from the old trunk. But some lies are borne of necessity.
“It was a long time ago,” I offered meekly.
“Well, it must have been, for I have no memory of it. At any rate, the two events being proximate does not mean one is related to the other, Will Henry.”
“But it could have something to do with it,” I insisted. I was determined to impress him with the elegance of my reason. “If they were Confederate spies, he wouldn’t have told anyone or left any record of his contract with Captain Varner. It’s why you can’t find anything, sir! And it could explain why he wanted more than one of the things brought back. You said they couldn’t have been for study, so what were they for? Maybe they weren’t for your father at all, but for them, Slidell and Mason. Maybe they wanted the Anthropophagi, Doctor!”
“And why would they want that?” he wondered, watching me hop from foot to foot in my agitation.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “To breed them, perhaps. To raise an army of them! Can you imagine the Union troops in the face of a hundred of those things, let loose in their ranks in the dead of night?”
“The Anthropophagi produce only one or two offspring a year,” he reminded me. “It would require quite some time to produce a hundred, Will Henry.”
“It took only two of them to wipe out the entire crew of the Feronia.”
“A lucky circumstance-I mean, of course, for the Anthropophagi. They would not have fared as well against a regiment of battle-hardened soldiers. It is an interesting theory, Will Henry, unsupported as it is by any facts. Even if we assume these mysterious callers sought out my father to supply the rebellion with creatures to kill or terrorize the enemy, there are half a dozen he might have procured for them that did not entail the same risk and expense as a breeding pair of Anthropophagi. Do you follow, Will Henry? If that was their goal, given everything I know about him, he would have rejected it. And even if he had accepted, he would not have chosen this particular species.”
“But you can’t know for sure,” I protested, unwilling to drop the matter. I wanted desperately to be right, not so much to prove the doctor wrong, but to be right.
His reaction was immediate. The doctor shot up from the chair, his angular face contorted in fury. I blenched: I had never seen him so angry. I fully expected him to strike me across the cheek for my recalcitrance.
“How dare you speak to me like this!” he cried. “Who are you to question my father’s integrity? Who are you to besmirch my family’s good name? It’s not enough the entire town spreads calumny against me; now my own assistant, the boy to whom I have shown only kindness and pity, with whom I share my house and my work, for whom I have sacrificed my sacred right to privacy, stoops to join in their slanderous conduct! And if that weren’t enough, the boy who owes me everything, even unto his very life, disobeys the one injunction-the only injunction-I gave to him! What was it, Will Henry? Do you remember, or were you so distracted by your lust for scones that you forgot? What did I say to you before you left?”
I stammered and stuttered, overcome by the ferocity of his diatribe. Towering over my cowering frame, he roared, “What did I say?”
“ Sp-sp-speak to no one,” I whimpered.
“And if anyone should speak to me, all is well.”
“And what impression do you think you left them with, Will Henry, with these questions about Confederate spies and government detectives and the house of Warthrop? Explain.”
“I was only trying… I only wanted… I didn’t bring it up, sir, I swear I didn’t! The Flanagans did!”
He spat through his teeth, “You have failed me, Will Henry.” He turned his back on me and strode across the room, kicking aside the piles of debris as he went. “And worse. You have betrayed me.” He turned back to face me, shouting in the gloom, “And for what? To play the amateur detective, to satisfy your own insatiable curiosity, to humiliate me by participating in the same gossip and backstabbing that drove my father into seclusion and ultimately to his grave a broken and bitter man. You have put me in an untenable position, Master Henry, for now I know your loyalty extends only as far as the bounds of your selfishness, and blind, total, unquestioning loyalty is the one indispensable quality I demand of you. No one asked that I take you into my home or share with you my work. Not even fealty to your father demanded that. But I did it, and this is my reward!… What? Did that make you angry? Have I offended you? Speak!”
“I didn’t ask to come here!”
“And I didn’t ask for the opportunity!”
“There wouldn’t have been one if not for you.”
He stepped toward me. In the gloaming I could not see his face. A shadow was between us.
“Your father understood the risk,” he said softly.
“My mother didn’t! I didn’t!”
“What would you have me do, Will Henry? Raise them bodily from the grave?”
“I hate it here,” I shouted at the shadow of the monstrumologist, my mentor-and my tormentor. “I hate it here and I hate you for bringing me here and I hate you.”
I fled down the hall, flew up the stairs, and raced up the ladder to my little alcove, slamming the door down behind me. I threw myself across the bed and buried my face into the pillow, screaming at the top of my lungs, my being over-flowing with rage and grief and shame. Yes, shame, for he was all I had, and I had failed him. The doctor had his work; I had him; and to each what we had was all.
Above me clouds scuddled across the blue vitriol of the April sky, and the sun slumped toward the horizon, painting the clouds’ soft bellies golden. When my tears were spent, I rolled onto my back and watched the light seep from the world. My body ached for food and rest, my soul for a more permanent respite. I might eat and I might sleep, but what might I do to ease this crushing loneliness, this inconsolable sorrow, this incurable dread? Like Erasmus Gray hip-deep in the grave, locked in the monster’s inescapable grip, or Hezekiah Varner dying in the fermenting stew of his own flesh, had I passed the point of salvation, had all hope already died in the fire that had devoured my parents, as the Anthropophagi had devoured Erasmus, as the maggots Hezekiah? Death had brought an end to their misery. Would nothing but a visitation from that same dark angel bring an end to mine?
I waited for sleep, that gentle mockery of death, to take me. I longed for its effacing grace. But its peace eluded me, and I rose from the bed, my head pounding from the salty torrent of my tears and the ache deep in my stomach. I eased open the trapdoor and tiptoed down the ladder. I made straight for the kitchen, where I found the basement door closed. I had no doubt he was down there; it was, like my little alcove, his refuge of choice. Working as quickly and quietly as I could, I set the pot on to boil and prepared a repast worthy of my ravening appetite, featuring two fine lamb chops courtesy of Noonan the butcher. I cleaned my plate with the same rapidity with which I filled it, for a finer meal I had never had, made all the more delectable by virtue of my having cooked it, though the mouthfuls lingered barely long enough upon the tongue for me to taste them.
As I sopped up the juice of the lamb with a chunk of fresh bread, courtesy of Tanner the baker, the basement door opened and the doctor appeared.
“You cooked something,” he said.
“Yes,” I answered, deliberately omitting the honorific.
“What did you cook?”
I nodded. “And some fresh peas and carrots.”
I carried my plate to the sink. I could feel him watching me as I washed up. I put my cup and plate on the rack to dry and turned around. He had not moved from the basement doorway.
“Do you need me for anything?” I asked.
“I don’t… No, I do not,” he replied.
“I’ll be in my room, then.”
He said nothing as I walked past him, until I reached the bottom of the stairs, when he stepped around the corner and called from the end of the hall, “Will Henry!”
He hesitated, and then said in a resigned tone, “Sleep well, Will Henry.”
Much later, with the same uncanny ability he had demonstrated in the past to disturb me at the very moment when, after hours of tossing and turning, I was just drifting off to sleep, the doctor began to call for me, his voice high-pitched and ethereal as it penetrated my little sanctuary.