“I couldn’t do it. It was the wise thing to do, but I couldn’t do it.”
He looked away; he would not look at me.
“But I was very tired. I had not slept in… how long? I didn’t know. I was afraid I would fall asleep and you might… slip away. So I tied the other end of the rope to my arm. I bound you to me, Will Henry. As a precaution; it seemed the prudent thing to do.”
He was flexing his long fingers, curling them into fists, uncurling them. Fist. Open hand. Fist. Open hand.
“But it wasn’t. It was absolutely the worst thing to do. Perhaps the stupidest thing I have ever done. For if you did slip away, you would have dragged me into the abyss with you.”
Fist. Open hand. Fist.
“I may not have the poet’s gift for words, Will Henry, but I do have his love of irony. Until that night our roles had been reversed. Until that night it had not been me who’d been bound and by virtue of those bindings been in danger of being dragged into the abyss.”
He reached down and slowly unwound the wrappings on my wounded hand. My skin tingled; the air seemed very cold against the exposed flesh.
“Make a fist,” he said.
I complied, though my fingers were very stiff; the muscles along the back of my hand seemed to groan in protest.
“Here.” He picked up his teacup from the table beside the bed. “Take the cup. Drink.”
My hand was shaking; a drop plopped upon the covers as I brought the cup, shaking, to my lips.
He took the cup with his right hand and held out his left.
“Take my hand.”
I pressed my palm into his. My whole body was trembling now. This man whose every nuance I could instinctively read had become a cipher.
The doctor said you’d want to see this.
“Squeeze. Squeeze my hand, Will Henry. Harder. As hard as you can.”
He smiled. He seemed pleased.
“There. Do you see?” Holding my hand tight. “Part of it’s gone, but it’s still your hand.”
The monstrumologist released me and stood up, and my fingers ached from his grip.
“Go back to sleep, Will Henry. You need your rest.”
“So do you, sir.”
“It is not your place to worry about me.”
He strode to the doorway, into the bar of light, and his shadow stretched across the floor and climbed up the wall. I lay back and closed my eyes. Two breaths, three, four, and then slowly opened them again, but not very much, just enough to peek.
He had not moved from the doorway. He had not left me. Not yet.
My hand throbbed; his hold had been strong. I felt a maddening itch where my index finger should have been. I flexed my thumb into empty space to scratch it.
Folio VIII: Exile
Chapter Thirteen: “The Space Between Us”
Warthrop had booked out passage for the next morning on the SS City of New York, the swiftest ship in the Inman Line. As first-class passengers we could expect to endure the most trying of passages—subsisting in a private suite comprising a bedroom and separate sitting room, decorated in the most gaudy of Victorian excesses, with hot and cold running water and electric lighting; forced to take our evening meals at tables shabbily draped in crisp white linen and decorated with crystal vases laden with fresh flowers every evening, under the great glass dome of the first-class dining saloon; trapped for hours in the walnut-paneled library with its eight hundred volumes; or being constantly pestered by the obsessively attentive staff and crew, white-jacketed and always, according to the doctor, at your elbow, ever eager to deliver the most mundane of services.
“Think of it, Will Henry,” he had said in our rooms at the Plaza, before bidding me a good night for the first time, before I’d dreamed of the Locked Room and the box, before his shadow had hung on the wall.
“It took our forebears more than two months to cross the Atlantic, two months of deprivation and disease, scurvy, dysentery, dehydration. It shall take us less than a week, in regal splendor. The world is shrinking, Will Henry, and by no miracle, unless we alter our definition of what makes a miracle.”
His eyes had been misty, his tone wistful. “The world grows smaller, and little by little the light of our lamps chases away the shadows. All shall be illuminated one day, and we will wake with a new question: ‘Yes, this, but now… what?’” He laughed softly. “Perhaps we should turn back and go home.”
“It will be a seminal moment in the history of science, Will Henry, the finding of the magnificum, and not without some ancillary benefit to me personally. If I succeed, it will bring nothing short of immortality—well, the only concept of immortality that I am prepared to accept. But if I do succeed, the space between us and the ineffable will shrink a little more. It is what we strive for as scientists, and what we dread as human beings. There is something in us that longs for the indescribable, the unattainable, the thing that cannot be seen.”
And then he fell silent.
And the next morning he was gone.
Something was wrong; I knew it the moment I woke. I understood instantly—not in the trivial sense, not intellectually, but with my heart. Nothing had changed. There was the bed in which I lay and the chair in which he’d sat watching me and the large dressing table and the wardrobe and even his teacup on the table. Nothing had changed; everything had changed. I jumped from the bed and raced down the hall into the empty sitting room. Nothing had changed; everything had changed. I stepped over to the windows and threw back the curtains. Eight stories below, Central Park glistened, a white landscape ablaze in sunlight beneath a cloudless sky.
His trunk. His valise. His field case. I ran to the closet and yanked open the door. Empty.
Everything had changed.
I was getting dressed when the knock came. I would have been dressed already, but I was having trouble with the buttons on my trousers. I’d never realized how helpful my finger had been in the procedure. For one irrational moment I was sure the doctor had returned to fetch me.
Ah, good. You’re up. I went downstairs for some breakfast before we board. What is it, Will Henry? Did you really think I would leave without you?
Or, what was more likely:
Snap to, Will Henry! What the devil are you doing? Why is your fly hanging open like that? Come along, Will Henry. I will not miss the most important crossing of my life on account of a thirteen-year-old’s inability to dress himself! Snap to, Will Henry, snap to!
It was not the doctor, though. You have deduced that by now.
“Guten Morgen, Will! I am sorry to be so late, but my carriage dropped an axle, and my driver—he is a Dummkopf. He couldn’t fix a broken smile. I would fire him, but he has a family, which unfortunately is part of my family, being a third or fourth cousin, I cannot remember—”
“Where is Dr. Warthrop?” I demanded.
“Where is Warthrop? What, did he not tell you? Surely he told you.”
I grabbed my coat and muffler from the rack, and the hat he had given me—the only thing he’d ever given me.
“Take me to him.”
“I cannot, Will.”
“I am going with the doctor.”
“He is not here—”
“I know he isn’t here! That’s why you’re taking me to him!”
“No, no, he is not here, Will. His ship departed an hour ago.”
I stared up into von Helrung217;s kind face, and then punched him as hard as I could in his round belly. He grunted softly from the punch.
“I thought he told you,” he gasped.
“Take me,” I said.
“Take you where?”
“To the docks; I must go with him.”
He leaned over, placing his square, pudgy hands upon my shoulders and looking deeply into my eyes.
“He has left for England, Will. The ship is not there.”
“Then, I will take the next ship!” I shouted. I pulled free from his grasp and pushed past him, into the hall, throwing my muffler round my neck, yanking on my hat, fumbling with the buttons of my coat. The floor vibrated with the heaviness of his tread as he followed me to the elevator, where he caught up with me.
“Come, Kleiner. I will take you home.”
“I don’t want you to take me home; my place is with him.”
“He would have you safe—”
“I don’t want to be safe!”
“And he charged me with your safety until he returns. Will. Pellinore has left, and where he has gone you cannot follow.”
I shook my head. I was confounded to the core of my being. The sun vanishes in the wink of an eye and the universe collapses; the center cannot hold. I searched for the answer in his kindly eyes.
“He went without me?” I whispered.
“Do not worry, dear Will. He will come back for you. You are all he has.”
“Then, why did he leave me behind? Now he doesn’t have anyone.”
“Oh, no; do you think his Meister Abram would allow such a thing? Nein! Thomas is with him.”
I was speechless. Thomas Arkwright! It was too much. I remembered the doctor’s words in the cab the night before: Truly a remarkable young man, Will Henry. He will make a fine addition to our ranks one day. That day, it seemed, had come… at my expense. I had been discarded—and for what? What had I done?
Von Helrung was pressing my face against his chest. His vest smelled of cigar smoke.
“I am sorry, Will,” he murmured. “He should have at least told you good-bye.”
It is not your place to worry about me.
“He did,” I answered. “But I didn’t hear him.”
And after this my exile.
“Here, this will be your room, and you see, it is a very comfortable bed, much larger than the bed you’re used to, I’ll wager. And look, here is a nice chair for you to sit in by the fireplace, very cozy, and a lamp for you to read by, and here is the chest for your clothes. And look out there, Will. There is Fifth Avenue, such hustle and bustle and the goings on and doings. Here, look at that man on the bicycle! He’s going to hit that truck! Now, you must be hungry. What would you like? Here, let’s put your bag on the bed. Would you like to sit on the bed? It has a feather mattress and feather pillows; it is very soft. So you are hungry, ja? My chef is excellent, from France—doesn’t understand a word of English—or German—but he understands food!”
“I’m not hungry.”
“But you must be. Why don’t you put down your bag? I will send up your food. You can eat here, by the little fire. I thought later I would show you the library.”
“I don’t want to read anything.”
“You’re right. It’s too fine a day to sit inside. Perhaps the park later, ja? Or we could—”
“Why did the doctor take Arkwright with him?”
“Why? Well, for the obvious reasons. Arkwright is young and very strong and quite clever.” He changed the subject. “But come, you must eat. You’re withered halfway down to nothing, Will.”
“I’m not hungry,” I said again. “I don’t want to eat or read or go to the park or anything else. Why did you let him go without me?”