“Will Henry,” called the doctor. I turned to find him shirtless, holding a burgundy cravat. “Where is my cravat?”
“You’re—It’s in your hand, sir.”
“Not this cravat. My black cravat. I specifically asked if you packed it before we left. My memory is quite clear on that.”
“I did pack it, sir.”
“It isn’t in our luggage.”
“It must be, sir.”
I found it right away, and he snatched it out of my hand as if I’d pulled it from my back pocket.
“Why aren’t you changing, Will Henry?” he asked querulously. “You know we have less than an hour.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t know, sir. Less than an hour to what?”
“And for goodness’ sake run a comb through that mop of yours.” With black-rimmed eye and unkempt hair tortured into cyclonic waves by his restless fingers, he added, “You look terrible.”
On the eve of every congress, a reception was held in the grand ballroom at Charles Delmonico’s restaurant on Fourteenth Street. Attendance was not mandatory, but few members failed to make an appearance. Food and libation were provided in abundance, and it was the rare monstrumologist who could resist free provender. A band was always hired to play the latest in popular music (“Over the Waves” and “Where Did You Get That Hat?”), and it was the sole function—formal or informal—in which women were allowed to participate. (The first female monstrumologist, Mary Whiton Calkins, would not be admitted to the Society until 1907.) Fewer than half of the men brought their wives, only because most monstrumologists were committed bachelors, like my master. This is not to say they were indifferent to the fairer sex or misogynistic in their perceptions—rather, monstrumology attracted men who were solitary by nature, risk-takers for whom the thought of hearth and home and the unending demands of domesticated bliss were anathema. Most, like Pellinore Warthrop, had fallen in love long ago with an enchantress whose face they were doomed to never clearly see.
Hardly had we been relieved of our hats and overcoats when a little man materialized out of the milling crowd. He wore a black swallowtail coat over a vest of the same color, black trousers, a white shirt with a high, stiff collar, and patent leather pumps that added an inch or so to his diminutive height. His mustaches were waxed, twirled into points that curved upward toward his cheeks.
He greeted the monstrumologist in the typical continental fashion—faisant la bise, a peck on either cheek—and said, “Pellinore, mon cher ami, you do not look well.” His dancing dark eyes fell upon me.
“Damien, this is my assistant, Will Henry,” the doctor said, ignoring his colleague’s observation. “Will Henry, Dr. Damien Gravois.”
“Delighted,” said Gravois. He squeezed my hand. “Comment vas-tu?”
“He is saying ‘How are you?’” Warthrop informed me.
Gravois added, “And you say ‘Ça va bien’—‘I’m doing well.’ Or ‘Pas mal ’—‘Not bad.’ Or to show what a polite boy you are—‘Bien, et vous?’”
I struggled to form the last suggestion, and either the awkwardness of my attempt or the futility of the attempt itself amused him, for he chuckled and gave my shoulder a consoling, if slightly patronizing, pat.
“Pas de quoi, Monsieur Henry. La chose est sans remède. You are an American, after all.”
He turned back to Warthrop. “Have you heard the latest?” He was grinning wickedly. “Oh, it is terrible, mon ami. Scandalous!”
“If it involves scandal, I’m sure you will share it, Gravois,” replied the doctor.
“I have it upon good authority that our esteemed president intends to shock us at the conclusion of this congress.”
“Really?” Warthrop raised an eyebrow, feigning surprise. “In what way?”
“He intends to introduce the mythological into the lexicon!”
Gravois smiled smugly, anticipating, no doubt, Warthrop’s dismay at this “news.”
“Well,” said my master after a weighty pause. “We will have to do something about that, won’t we? Excuse me, Damien, but I haven’t eaten anything all day.”
We loaded our plates from a long buffet table groaning with food. Never before I had seen so much gathered in one place—smoked salmon and raw oysters, chicken gumbo and sweet pea puree, soft-shelled crab and broiled bluefish, stuffed shoulder of lamb and braised beef with noodles, broiled quail and blue-winged teal duck served in a sauce espagnole, mushrooms on toast and pigeon with peas, stuffed eggplant, stewed tomatoes, parsnip cakes sautéed in butter, hash brown potatoes baked in cream. . . . I wondered if the doctor, tipping back his head to slip the oyster into his mouth, was thinking like me of hickory bark and bitter wolf’s claw and the pungent taste of toothwort. One might think my recent intimacy with starvation might have made me appreciate this cornucopia all the more, but it produced the opposite effect. The display appalled and offended me. It made me angry. As I looked about the richly appointed ballroom—the enormous crystal chandelier from England, the rich velvet curtains from Italy, the priceless artwork from France—and looked at the women glittering in their finest jewels, the silk trains of their imported gowns skimming the floor as they danced in the arms of their well-dressed escorts—and saw the waiters in their morning suits gliding through it all with groaning trays held high—I felt slightly sick to my stomach. In a tree that raised its boughs high in the trackless wilderness, a man crucified himself, his belly engorged with ice—his eyeless sockets seeing more than I, and I more than these ignorant fools who drank and danced and chattered drunkenly about the latest cause célèbre. I could not put it into words; I was but a child then. What I felt, though, was this: Jonathan Hawk’s frozen entrails came closer to the ultimate reality than this beautiful spectacle.
A familiar voice shook me from my melancholic reverie. I looked up and stared with slightly opened mouth into the most luminous eyes I have ever seen.
“William James Henry, imagine finding you here among all these old fuddy-duddies!” Muriel Chanler exclaimed, flashing a smile briefer than a wink toward the doctor. “Hello, Pellinore.” Then to me: “What’s the matter, aren’t you hungry?”
I looked down at my untouched plate. “I guess not, ma’am.”
“Then you must do me the honor of this dance—unless your card is full?”
The band had taken up a waltz. I turned a desperate eye to the doctor, who seemed to have discovered some riveting aspect of his crab.
“Mrs. Chanler, I don’t know how to dance . . . ,” I began.
“Neither does any other male here, I’m sorry to say. You’ll be in excellent company, Will. They can dissect a Monstrum horribalis but they can’t master the two-step!”
She seized my sweaty hand and, without pausing for a reply, said, “May I, Pellinore?”
She pulled me to the floor, whereupon I immediately stepped on her toe.
“Put your right hand here,” she said, gently placing it upon the small of her back. “And hold out your left like this. Now, to lead me, just a tiny pressure with your right—No need to crush my spine or shove me around like a rusty-wheeled cart. . . . Oh, you are a natural, Will. Are you sure you’ve never danced before?”
I assured her I had not. I did not look at her, but kept my head turned discreetly to one side, for my eyes were level with the bodice of her gown. I smelled her perfume; I moved in an atmosphere suffused in lilac.
My waltz with the lovely Muriel Chanler was clumsy—and infused with grace. Self-conscious—and self-effacing. All eyes were upon us; we danced in perfect solitude. As she gently turned me—I cannot in honesty claim I did much leading—I caught glimpses of the doctor through the shifting bodies, standing where we’d left him by the buffet table, watching us . . . or her, rather. I do not think he was watching me.
Never before had I desired that a moment end as much as I desired that it go on. She extended her hand, curtsied, and thanked me for the dance. I turned away abruptly, anxious to return to the familiar orbit of one who was not quite so heavenly. She stopped me.
“A proper gentleman escorts his partner from the floor, Master Henry,” she informed me, smiling. “Otherwise she is set adrift to effect a most embarrassing exit. Lift your arm, elbow bent, like this.”
She laid her hand upon my raised forearm, and we paraded from the floor. I tell myself now it was my imagination—the slight favoring of her right foot as we negotiated our way back to the table.
“Will Henry, you do not look well,” the doctor observed. “Are you going to be sick?”
“He is naturally graceful, Pellinore,” Muriel said. “You should be proud.”
“Why would I be proud of that?”
“Aren’t you his surrogate father now?”
“I am nothing of the sort.”
“Then I feel sorry for him.”
“You shouldn’t. I understand from a highly respected expert in the field that his atca’k flies like the hawk.” He smiled tightly and abruptly changed the subject. “Where is your husband?”
“John did not feel up to attending.”
“So you came alone?”
“Would that disappoint you, Pellinore?”
“Actually, I am pleased to find you here.”
“I sense a thinly veiled insult coming.”
“It must mean he’s much improved—for you to abandon his bedside to dance the night away with other men.”
“Do you know it isn’t your lack of humor that makes you so boring, Pellinore. It’s your predictability.”
She was smiling, but her banter was forced, the lines delivered from an actress who could not identify with her character. The doctor, of course, detected her discomfiture at once.
“Muriel,” he said, “what is it?”
“It’s nothing. Really.” She looked directly into his dark eyes and said beseechingly, “Tell me what happened. John says he doesn’t remember, but I don’t know whether I can . . .”
“I can speak only of the aftermath,” the doctor answered. “The rest—the part I suppose you’d like to know—is speculation, Muriel.”
She waited for him to go on. A few feet away the dance went on, a confusion of whirling color, black and white, red and gold.
“And I do not speculate,” he added.
“He’s changed,” she said.
“I’m aware of that.”
“I don’t mean physically. Though that, too. . . . He hasn’t eaten a decent meal since we returned. He tries . . . and gags to the point of choking. And he won’t . . . He doesn’t want to keep himself properly groomed. You know what a stickler he was about hygiene, Pellinore. I have to bathe him after he falls asleep. But the worst . . . I don’t know how to describe it . . . The vacancy, Pellinore . . . He is there . . . and he is not there.”