“You miss them, don’t you?” he asked softly.
I nodded, unable to speak around my gut-wrenching sobs.
He nodded, hypothesis confirmed. “As do I, Will Henry,” he said. “As do I.”
He was quite sincere. Both my parents had been in his employ; my mother had kept the doctor’s house, and my father, as I would after he was gone, his secrets. At their funeral the doctor had laid a hand upon my shoulder and said, “I don’t know what I shall do now, Will Henry. Their services were indispensable to me.” He seemed oblivious to the fact that he was speaking to the child left orphaned and homeless by their demise.
It would not be an exaggeration to say my father had worshipped Dr. Warthrop. It would be more than an exaggeration-indeed, it would be an egregious lie-to say my mother had. Now, with the acuity that comes with the passage of many years, I can state unequivocally that the chief cause of friction between them was the doctor, or rather, Father’s feelings for him and Father’s intense loyalty to him, a loyalty that trumped all others, including any sense of obligation toward his wife or his only child. That Father loved us, I have never had any doubt; he had simply loved the doctor more. This was the root of my mother’s hatred for Dr. Warthrop. She was jealous. She was betrayed. And it was that sense of betrayal that led to the most vehement quarrels between them.
Many a night before the fire stole them from me, I had lain awake listening to them through the thin walls of my room on Clary Street, the sound of their voices crashing against the plaster like storm surges smashing against a seawall, the culmination of the conflict that had begun hours earlier, usually when Father arrived late for dinner-late because the doctor had kept him. There were times when Father did not return for dinner, times when he did not return for days. When he at last came home, after my joyful greetings at the door, he would raise his eyes from my adoring ones to the decidedly less than adoring pair belonging to my mother, give a sheepish grin and a helpless shrug, and say, “The doctor needed me.”
“What of me?” she would cry. “What of your son? What of our needs, James Henry?”
“I am all he has,” was the unwavering reply.
“And you are all we have. You disappear for days without a word to anyone about where you are going or when you’ll return. And when you do finally drag your thoughtless carcass through the door, you will not say where you have been or what you’ve been doing.”
“Now, do not go on with me, Mary,” Father would caution her sternly. “There are some things I can tell you and some things I can’t.”
“Some things you can? What might those things be, James Henry, for you tell me nothing!”
“I tell you what I can. And what I can tell you is the doctor is engaged in very important work and he needs my help.”
“But I do not? You force me into sin, James.”
“Sin? What sin are you talking about?”
“The sin of false witness! The neighbors ask, ‘Where is your husband, Mary Henry? Where is James?’ and I must lie for you-for him. Oh, how it galls me to lie for him!”
“Then don’t. Tell them the truth. Tell them you don’t know where I am.”
“That would be worse than a lie. What would they say about me-a wife who doesn’t know where her husband’s gone?”
“I don’t understand why it should gall you, Mary. If it weren’t for him, what would you have? We owe everything to him.”
She could not deny that, so she ignored it. “You don’t trust me.”
“No. I simply cannot betray his trust.”
“An honorable man has no need for secrets.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Mary. Dr. Warthrop is the most honorable man I have ever known. It is a privilege to serve him.”
“Serve him in what?”
“He is a scientist.”
“A scientist of what?”
“Of… of certain biological phenomena.”
“And what does that mean? What ‘biological phenomena’ are you talking about? Birds? Is Pellinore Warthrop a bird-watcher, James Henry, and you the porter of his field glasses?”
“I will not discuss this, Mary. I will not tell you any more of the nature of his work.”
“Because you do not wish to know!” For the first time, Father raised his voice. “I am telling you in truth that there are days when I wish I didn’t know! I have seen things that no living man should ever see! I have been to places where the angels themselves would fear to tread! Now push no more upon this, Mary, for you do not know of what you speak. Be grateful for your ignorance and take comfort in the false witness it forces you to bear! Dr. Warthrop is a great man engaged in great business, and I shall never turn my back upon him, though the fires of hell itself arise to contend against me.”
And that would be the end of it, at least for a time; usually it began again after he put me to bed. Before joining her in the parlor to face her fire, a fire only negligibly less intense than that of hell, he always kissed me on the forehead, always ran his hand through my hair, always closed his eyes with me as I said my bedtime prayer.
My entreaties to heaven complete, I would open my eyes and stare into the kind face and gentle eyes of my father, secure in that tragically naïve way of all children that he would always be with me.
“Where do you go, Father?” I asked him once. “I won’t tell Mother. I won’t tell anyone.”
“Oh, I have been so many places, Will,” he answered. “Some so strange and marvelous you would think you were dreaming. Some strange and not so marvelous, as dark and frightening as your very worst nightmare. I have seen wonders that poets can only imagine. And I have seen things that would turn grown men into squalling babes at their mother’s feet. So many things. So many places…”
“Will you take me with you the next time you go?”
He smiled. A sad and knowing smile, understanding, with the intuitive knowledge of a man who knows his luck is not inexhaustible, that the day would come when he would embark upon his last adventure.
“I’m old enough,” I said when he did not answer. “I’m eleven, Father, nearly twelve-practically a man! I want to go with you. Please, please take me with you!”
He laid a hand upon my cheek. His touch was warm.
“Perhaps one day, William. Perhaps one day.”
The monstrumologist left me to suffer my sorrow in solitude. He did not go to his room to rest; I heard his footfalls upon the stairs and, after a moment, the faint creak of the door leading to the basement. He would not sleep that day: The fever of the hunt was upon him.
My sobs petered out. A few feet above my head was a little window set in the ceiling, and I could see diaphanous clouds sailing like stately ships across the bright sapphire sky. At the schoolhouse my former chums were in the yard playing stickball, squeezing in the last at bat before Mr. Proctor, the headmaster, called them back inside for their afternoon lessons. Then, at the last ringing of the bell, the excited race for the door, the explosion into the soft spring air, the bedlam of a hundred voices shouting in unison, “Freedom! Freedom! The day is ours!” Perhaps the stickball game would be resumed, mid-inning, the minor distraction of afternoon lessons dismissed with. I was small for my age and not a very good batter, but I was fast. When I left the school for the private instruction of Dr. Warthrop, I was the fastest runner on my team and the holder of the most stolen bases. I had stolen home a record thirteen times.
I closed my eyes and saw myself taking the lead on third, scooting along the baseline, eyes darting from pitcher to catcher and back again, heart high in my chest as I waited for the pitch. Scoot, another foot. Scoot, still another. The pitcher hesitates; he sees me out of the corner of his eye. Should he whip the ball to third? He waits for me to run. I wait for him to pitch.
And I am still waiting when a voice speaks sharply in my ear.
“Will Henry! Get up, Will Henry!”
I opened my eyes-how heavy the lids felt!-and spied the doctor standing in the opening to my little alcove, holding a lantern, with cheeks unshaven, with hair disheveled, and dressed in the same clothes from the night before. It took a moment for my mind to register that he was covered head to toe in blood. Alarmed, I sprang up with a cry.
“Doctor, are you all right?”
“Whatever do you mean, Will Henry? Of course I’m all right. You must have had a bad dream. Now come along. The hour grows late and there is much to do before dawn!”
He rapped his knuckles against the wall as if to emphasize his point, and disappeared down the ladder. Quickly I donned a fresh shirt. What time was it? I wondered. Above me the stars seared the obsidian canopy of the sky; there was no moon. I felt along the wall, found my little hat on its hook, and put it on. It was quite snug, as I’ve said, but somehow that brought great comfort to me.
I found him in the kitchen, stirring a pot of noxious liquid, and it took me a moment to realize he was preparing dinner and not boiling flesh off a bone belonging to the Anthropophagus. Perhaps it wasn’t blood after all, I thought. Perhaps he’s covered with my dinner. He may have been a genius, but, like most geniuses, his brilliance illuminated a very narrow spectrum: The doctor was a terrible cook.
He ladled some of the noxious mixture into a bowl and slapped it upon the table.
“Sit,” he said, motioning to the chair. “Eat. We shall not have the opportunity later.”
I gave the gruel an experimental stir with my spoon. A grayish-green object floated upon the surface of the thick brown broth. A bean? It was too large for a pea.
“Is there any bread, sir?” I dared to ask.
“No bread,” he said curtly. Then he bounded down the stairs to the basement without another word. I rose at once from the table and checked the basket by the cupboard. A single roll, perhaps a week old, lay fermenting inside. I looked about and spied no second bowl, and sighed. Of course he had not eaten. Returning to my soup or stew or whatever the concoction might have been called, I chased down a few swallows with a glass of water and a few anxious words of prayer-not in thanksgiving, but in supplication.
“Will Henry!” floated his call through the open basement door. “Will Henry, where are you? Snap to, Will Henry!”
My prayers were answered. I dropped my spoon into the bowl-it gave a little bounce when it hit the spongy liquid-and hurried down the stairs.
I found him pacing to and fro, from the workbench, where the girl’s body rested, to the examining table, now empty and wiped clean. I cast my eye about the room in an irrational bit of panic, as if somehow the thing had risen from the dead and might be lurking in the shadows. I spied it hanging upside down, between the bench and the shelves that housed its organs, the rope suspending it from the ceiling creaking from the enormous weight, and, beneath, a large tub filled with the foul-smelling black sludge of its partially congealed blood. Here was the explanation for the offal on the doctor’s clothing: He had been draining the carcass. Later it would be embalmed, wrapped in linen, and shipped by private carrier to the Society in New York, but for now it hung like a slaughtered hog in a butcher’s shop, its heavily muscled arms dangling on either side of the tub, the tips of its claws scraping upon the floor as the rope slowly twisted and groaned with its weight.