“Don’t exacerbate the matter by lying, Will Henry.”
“And then there is the issue of my profession. It is a dangerous business, our recent difficulties in Rat Portage being a perfect case in point. I’m sure it has occurred to you that associating with a monstrumologist can be hazardous to one’s health.”
I touched the still-tender wound upon my chest.
“I’ve no intention of simply putting you out on the streets, if that’s what is worrying you,” he continued. “I would find a good place for you.”
“This is my place. With you, sir.”
“I’m flattered by your devotion, Will Henry, but—”
“If I left, how would you get along? There is no one to—”
He waved his hand impatiently. “I can always hire a cook and a maid, Will Henry, and you know every week there are applications to apprentice under me, from serious scholars who are actually interested in the craft.”
These words stung. I lowered my head and said nothing.
He snorted softly. “How true that honesty is its own reward. More often than not, its only reward! We should be honest with each other, Will Henry. Your motives for staying here are no more pure than mine for allowing you to.”
“Please, sir, I want to stay.”
He stared intently at me for several long, uncomfortable moments. Was that his game? I wondered. To gauge the depths of my commitment to him? Or were his motives purer than that? Was he concerned for my safety, or troubled by his friend’s demand—I challenge you to name one time in your miserable little life when you gave a damn about anyone but yourself—and this was his way of answering it? What did the monstrumologist really want from me? And what in the name of all that’s holy did I want from him? Did either of us know?
“It is a terrible thing, Will Henry,” he said at last. “To lose a friend.”
“I Am Pleased to Find You Here”
A man of enormous proportions was waiting for us when we arrived at Grand Central Depot the following afternoon. At well over six feet, he towered above the crowd, wide-shouldered, thick-chested, with an untrimmed tangled mass of black hair obscuring the lower half of his large pockmarked face, his bowler hat pulled low, the brim resting just above his bushy eyebrows.
He bowed low to the doctor, an exaggerated show of subservience that struck me as slightly affected, a parody of deep respect, and he greeted the monstrumologist in a thick Slavic accent.
“Dr. Warthrop, I am Augustin Skala.”
He gave Warthrop a card, which the doctor barely glanced at before pressing into my hand.
“Herr Doctor von Helrung welcomes you back to New York and requests that you accept my services.”
“And what, precisely, might those services be, Mr. Skala?” inquired the doctor stiffly.
“To arrive you to hotel, sir.” English clearly was not the Bohemian’s first language.
“Our luggage—” began Warthrop.
“To be arrived by separate coach. All taken care of. No worries for the Dr. Warthrop.”
Like the great ice-breaking prow of an arctic vessel, Augustin Skala plowed a path through the crowd as it bottlenecked before the Forty-second Street doors. We followed him to a black hansom cab hitched to an ebony behemoth of a horse. After opening the curbside door for us, Skala, with exaggerated formality and painfully ludicrous solemnity, dug into his jacket pocket and produced an envelope, which he offered, with equivalent obsequiousness, to my master. Warthrop accepted it without a word and slid into the cab, leaving me for the briefest moment alone with the Bohemian, my senses a bit overwhelmed by the intensity with which he stared down at me from so great a height, with dark, expressionless eyes and the malodorous aroma of sweat, tobacco, and stale beer that orbited his Jovian mass.
“You are who?” he asked.
“My name is Will Henry,” I answered, my voice sounding small to me. “I serve the doctor.”
“We are fellows,” he intoned in his guttural accent. “I serve too.” He dropped a huge paw upon my shoulder, lowering his face until it filled my entire field of vision. “I gladly die for Meister Abram.”
“Will Henry!” Warthrop called from within the hansom. “Snap to!”
Never had my snapping to been happier. I fairly leapt inside, the door swung shut, and the entire rig bounced and shook as Skala took his seat above us.
The whip wickedly popped, and we swung on a single wheel—or so it felt—onto the street, barely missing a policeman and forcing his bicycle directly into the path of an advancing dray loaded with dry goods. The policeman’s shrill whistle was swallowed quickly by the din of the depot—the clop-clop of the carriages and the cries of the vendors and the throaty notes of the six thirty express arriving from Philadelphia. The early evening traffic was heavy, the street clogged with carriages and bicycles, none of which seemed to concern our driver, who drove as one fleeing a fire, all the while cracking his whip and hurling obscenities in his native tongue at any and all with the temerity to cross his path.
Many years have passed since that day, my first in that city of cities, that crowning jewel in America’s financial and cultural coronet, the living symbol of her abundance.
The picture is perfectly preserved in my memory. Look—there he goes now, rounding the corner onto Sixth Avenue! Little William James Henry all the way from his tiny New England hamlet, leaning out the window of that jostling taxi with his little mouth agape, as goggle-eyed as the most buffle-headed bumpkin fresh from the sticks, marveling with bald astonishment at the architectural triumphs of the avenue that dwarfed anything he had ever seen in the confines of the Massachusetts countryside, taller than the tallest church steeple.
See him now, his face lit up with delight at the parade advancing on every side, of cart and carriage, delivery truck and spacious brougham, of ladies in their colorful crinoline and dandies dandier than the foppish fop astride boneshaker bicycles weaving between the vendors’ carts as expertly as rodeo barrel racers. Sunset was still almost two hours hence, but the buildings on the western side cast long engulfing shadows, between which the granite pavement glowed honey gold in smoky shafts of slanting light, the light painting the facades along the eastern side the same Hyblaean hue.
Thus it seemed to this twelve-year-old boy from the country that he had arrived, by means of the oddest and most terrible of circumstances, in a city made of gold, where wonders awaited him around every corner, and where, like the tens of thousands of immigrants who came before and after him, he might shrug off his dolorous past and don the bright and brilliant coat of endless possibility. Do you hear it—I certainly do—his barely suppressed giggles behind that silly grin?
But listen, William James Henry, your joy will be fleeting. This feast of eye and ear will soon be snatched from your table.
The golden light will die, and the plunge into darkness will be swift and unstoppable.
Beside me, the monstrumologist did not share an iota of my joy; he was absorbed in the letter handed to him by the Bohemian. He read it through several times before passing it to me with a pensive sigh. It read:
My Dear Warthrop,
Old friend, I open with the sincerest of apologies—forgive me! I would have met your train in person, but much demands my attention and I cannot get away. Herr Skala is an excellent man, and you may, as I do, trust to him the slightest detail. If he disappoints, tell me and it shall be dealt with!
Words fail to express my eagerness to see you again, for it has been too long, old friend, and there is much that has happened—much that will in the coming days—but that is not to be written, and we have much to discuss.
I regret I cannot greet you properly tonight at the soiree—there are more pressing matters that demand my attention—but as recompense for my disgracious absence, I pray you will accept my invitation to dine tomorrow. Herr Skala will meet you at your hotel a quarter past seven.
I beg to remain,
Your Obt Svt,
A. von Helrung
“I suspect my old master would not be so eager to see me if he knew our plans, Will Henry!” he muttered.
Hardly had the words escaped his lips when the hansom jerked to a violent stop, snapping my head forward with such force that my hat was flung to the floorboards. As I bent to pick it up, the doctor jumped onto the sidewalk, striding away without a backward glance, the breeze whipping his dark cloak about him in a zephyrous dance.
I hopped from the cab, only to be confronted in my egress, as in my ingress, by the large slit-eyed servant of von Helrung. He said nothing at first; he only stared, but it was a stare curiously lacking in curiosity. He simply fixed his black eyes upon me as a man might regard a common insect that had crossed his path. He afforded me a smile noticeably deficient in teeth.
“You sleep goodly enough tonight, Mr. Will Henry,” he said, with a slight emphasis on tonight, implying my subsequent rest might not be so ‘goodly.’
I nodded and mumbled my gratitude. Then I fairly sprinted to the doctor’s side.
We were met inside the lobby by what appeared to be the entire staff of the Plaza Hotel, from manager to lowly bellhop, a half dozen in all, who descended upon Warthrop as if he were the prodigal son. It was not any largess on the doctor’s part that excited them—the doctor had stayed here before, and his parsimony was well known—but his reputation as one of the preeminent natural philosophers of his day. In short, and much to my surprise, the doctor was something of a celebrity, a fact that, given his particular and peculiar field of expertise, seemed counterintuitive, to say the least.
Warthrop, for his part, seemed nothing but annoyed by all the fawning and scraping, further evidence of his distress over the looming battle with von Helrung. Under normal circumstances he would have basked in the glow of their adoration for however long it shone.
So he cut short their slavish greetings, curtly informing the manager that he was tired and wished to be shown directly to his room.
There followed many repetitions of “Yes, Dr. Warthrop” and “Right this way, Dr. Warthrop!” And in a thrice I was aboard the first elevator in which I had ever ridden, operated by a boy not much older than myself, who was wearing a bright red jacket and a pillbox hat.
Our digs, a spacious suite on the eighth floor, with magnificent views of Central Park and Fifth Avenue, were lavishly appointed, if wondrously cluttered, in the Victorian style. How odd it felt, upon crossing that threshold, to have awakened in the dusty, shadow-choked old house on Harrington Lane and then, in a matter of hours, to find oneself in the lap of gilded luxury! I practically skipped to the window and pulled aside the heavy damask curtains to ogle the landscape from my vertiginous perch. The westering sun glittered off the pond nestled in its verdant bower, where toy sailboats bobbed in the gold-tipped swells. Lovers strolled arm in arm along West Fifty-ninth Street, the women with their brightly colored parasols, their beaus with their walking sticks. Oh, thought I, could there be a more pleasurable place than this? Why couldn’t we live here, in this city of wonders?