Warthrop nodded again. His head bobbed in counterpoint with his foot tapping nervously upon the carpet. “There is more than one bounty being offered for a nidus,” said the doctor. “I’ve heard that the Ottoman sultan Abdul Hamid has a standing offer of twenty thousand ducats.”
Unable to contain his ardor, the younger monstrumolo-gist leapt to his feet and commenced to pace.
“Think of it, von Helrung. The first credible nidus to be found in a generation! And in pristine condition—no more than a few months old, I would guess. Do you understand what this means? We are close—closer than we have ever been.” His voice fell to a whisper. “Typhoeus magnificum, Meister Abram—the Unseen One—the ultimate prize—the Holy Grail of monstrumology! And this time it may be within my grasp—”
“Your grasp?” interrupted von Helrung softly.
“Our grasp. I meant ours, of course.”
Von Helrung nodded slowly, and I noted a sorrowful look in his eyes when he spoke.
“Many are called, dear Pellinore, but few are chosen. How many have been lost searching for our version of the Questing Beast? Do you know?”
My master waved the questions away impatiently. Von Helrung pressed on. “And how many more come bac in humiliation and defeat, reputations ruined, their careers in ashes?”
“I hardly see what that matters,” answered the doctor angrily. “But yes, I do happen to know. Six, counting Lebroque.”
“Ah, Lebroque. I forgot about him, armes Schwein. And who was that talkative little Scotsman, the one with the lisp?”
“Ja, Bithet.” Von Helrung chuckled. “All arms and chest and the bluster to match!”
“A dilettante,” said Warthrop dismissively. “The rest quixotic adventurers.”
“But not Lebroque.”
“Especially Lebroque. He allowed his ambition to blind him—”
“Ambition will do that,” allowed von Helrung. “And worse.” He rose and went to my master’s side, placing a pudgy hand on his forearm and gently braking his restless pacing.
“But you are exhausting your old master. Please, Pellinore, sit so we might reason together and decide upon our course.”
The doctor pulled free from the old man’s grasp and said, “I already know the course. I will leave for England tomorrow.”
“England?” Von Helrung was taken aback. “Why do you go to England?”
“To find Jack Kearns, of course.”
“Who has vanished like the mist, leaving no trace of himself behind. How will you find him?”
“I will begin by looking under the largest rock on the continent,” answered the doctor grimly.
Von Helrung chuckled. “And if he isn’t there?”
“Then I shall move on to the smaller rocks.”
“And once you find him—if you find him—what if he refuses to tell you what you want to know? Or worse, doesn’t know what you want to know?”
“Know, know, know,” Warthrop savagely mimicked. “You wish to know what I know, Meister Abram? I know Jack Kearns wanted me to have the nidus. He took great pains to make sure I received it quickly. He also wanted me to know he was leaving England—quickly. There can be only one explanation: He knows where the nidus came from. And that is why he let it go. There is only one thing on earth more valuable than an authentic nidus ex magnificum, and that is the magnificum itself. The nidus is a great prize, but the Unseen One is the prize, the prize of all> prizes.” Warthrop was nodding vehemently. “It is the only explanation.”
“But why send anything to you at all? What was the reason for it? Surely he would want no one to know that the prize of prizes was within his grasp, least of all Pellinore Warthrop.”
The doctor nodded. “It has been troubling me a bit. Why did he do it? The only thing that makes sense only makes sense if you know John Kearns.”
Von Helrung thought for a moment. “He is taunting you?”
“I think so. In the cruelest manner possible. You know Kearns, Meister Abram. You know as well as I the depravities to which he will stoop.”
My master then waved the thought away. He did not wish to dwell on Jack Kearns or what drove him. He was too much in the grip of his own demons.
“He is a cruel man,” he said. “Some might say a monster of a man. But that is no concern of mine.”
“Listen to you; listen! My former pupil! Father in heaven, forgive me for my transgressions, for I have failed you—and my dear student! Pellinore, we are men before scientists; it is the human monster we should most concern ourselves with!”
“Why?” the doctor said sharply. “What of monstrous men? I can’t think of anything more banal. I have no doubt—no doubt whatsoever—that once it has obtained the means to do so, the species will wipe itself off the face of the earth. There is no mystery to it. It is in our nature. Oh, one might delve into the particulars, but really, what might we say about the species that invented murder? What can we say?”
Forgetting myself for a moment, I said, “You sound like him.”
Warthrop whirled on me. “What did you say?”
“What you were saying… It sounded like something Dr. Kearns would say.”
“Just because a man is a homicidal maniac doesn’t make him wrong,” the monstrumologist snarled.
“No,” said von Helrung softly, his bright eyes flashing dangerously. “It merely makes him evil.”
“We are scientists, von Helrung; such concepts are alien in our vocabulary. In India it is a sin to kill a cow. Are we Westerners evil for slaughtering them?”
“Human beings, mein Freund,” replied von Helrung, “are not cows.”
Warthrop did not have a ready retort for that, and he listened silently as his old friend begged him to reconsider. Rushing off to England would be premature. Kearns was gone, and, after all, the quest was not for Kearns but for the place where the nidus had been fashioned.
Warthrop hardly listened. He, the caged lion, might have been pacing the floor, but not so his passion—nothing could contain thatsnarled height="0em">
“There are those who live their entire lives in ignorance,” he shouted into the frightened face of his former mentor. “With no inkling of their purpose, who, if pressed, could not answer why they were even born. Many are called, you said. True, and most are deaf! And the majority of them are blind! I am neither. I have heard the call. I have seen the way. I am the one. I am the one.”
He was in the fever’s full grip. It was the call of destiny—his destiny—the reason he had sacrificed so much, endured so much, lost so much. This was fate, to a man who did not believe in fate. This was deliverance, to a man who did not subscribe to any notion of personal salvation. This was redemption, to a man for whom the idea of redemption was a bit of useless esoterica.
Ah, Warthrop! How often you cautioned me to control my passions, lest my passions control me. What now? Do you contain the fire or does the fire contain you? I see it clearly now—not so much then.
Von Helrung saw it, though. Saw it and was powerless against its infernal force. In all his years as master instructor in the art of monstrumology, never had he a finer pupil—and he had taught dozens. Warthrop was his crowning achievement—a monstrumologist without compunction, a scientist without the slightest bias or qualm. And yet! Sometimes our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness: The flame that lit up Pellinore Warthrop’s genius was the same inferno that drove him pell-mell toward the abyss.
Von Helrung saw that abyss, and von Helrung was afraid.
Chapter Eleven: “What Do You Know of My Business?”
Von Helrung, who knew where the true Monstrum horribalis of the case lurked, said, “The call has come, then, and you must answer, but you must not answer alone.”
“Well, of course. Will Henry is coming with me.”
“Of course,” echoed von Helrung. His brilliant blue eyes fell upon me. “Will Henry.”
“Will Henry… what? Do not underestimate him, von Helrung. I would trade a dozen Pierre Lebroques for one William James Henry.”
“No, no, you misunderstand, Pellinore. The boy has proved indispensable to you, his father’s untimely demise a tragic blessing. But your right hand, as it were, has been grievously wounded on his left—”
“He lost a finger. A finger! Why, I once had a Sherpa who guided me across the Himalayas with his small intestines hanging out his gut—in winter!”
“There are many fine monstrumologists who would leap at the chance to—”
“Undoubtedly!” Warthrop laughed harshly. “I am certain I’d have enough volunteers to outnumber the entire magnificum population by ten to one. Do you think I am a complete fool?”
“I do not suggest we place an advertisement in the Journal, Pellinore,” returned von Helrung with exaggerated patience, as a forbearing father to a wayward child. “What of Walker? He is a worthy scientist, and quintessentially British. He won’t breathe a word to anyone.”
“Sir Hiram—that simpleton? He’s always been more concerned about advancing his own interests than those of science.”
“An American, then. You always were fond of Torrance.”
“True. I have a soft spot for Jacob, but he is too headstrong. And a libertine. I’d never get him out of the pubs.”
“Caleb Pelt. Now come, Pellinore, I know you respect Pelt.”
“I do respect Pelt. And I happen to know that Pelt is in Amazonia and is not expected back for another six months.”
Von Helrung straightened, puffed out his thick chest, and said, “Then, I shall go with you.”
“You?” Warthrop started to smile and caught himself when he realized the old man was deadly serious. He nodded gravely instead. “A perfect choice, if only the nidus had come to us fifteen years ago.”
“I am not so old that I cannot handle myself in a pinch,” said the Austrian stoutly. “My knees are not what they were, but my heart is strong—”
The monstrumologist laid a hand on his old friend’s shoulder. “The strongest heart I have ever known, Meister Abram, and the truest.”
“You cannot take the burden solely upon your shoulders,” von Helrung pleaded with him. “Some burdens, dear Pellinore, are impossible to put down once—”
The jangling of the bell interrupted him, and caused my master to whirl toward the door in alarm.
“You are expecting someone?” he demanded.
“I am, but upon his insistence, not my invitation,” replied von Helrung easily. “Do not be concerned, mein Freund. I have told him nothing—only that I expected you today. He wants very badly to meet you, and I am softhearted, as you know; I could not refuse.”
Barely had our host cracked open the door than his caller pushed his way into the vestibule. He did not pause, not even long enough to hand his hat and gloves to von Helrung, but barreled into the parlor to practically hurl himself at the doctor.