I did not see the monstrumologist, but I saw other patients tending shrubbery with pruning shears and watering cans, some carrying loads of laundry and baskets of bread from the washhouse and bakery, and some in leisurely perambulation about the well-tended lawn, deep in earnest conversation or convulsed in carefree laughter, as if they were holiday campers out for a Sunday stroll in the park rather than patients in a lunatic asylum. I did not know it then, but Hanwell was well ahead of its time in the treatment of the mentally ill. Plop a poor soul from an American asylum—Blackwell’s Island, for example—into Hanwell, and he might have thought he had died and gone to heaven.
I do not think Warthrop would agree with me, though.
Our coconspirator signed us in at the front office.
“Dr. Hiram Walker, Mr. Abraham Henry, and grandson, to see the superintendent,” he informed the clerk. “And please tell him Dr. Conan Doyle is with them.”
Chapter Twenty-Two: “I Would Gladly Die”
“Arthur Conan Doyle! It is indeed a pleasure, sir,” the superintendent of Hanwell Lunatic Asylum said as he ushered us into his private office. “I must confess to you that I am quite the ardent admirer of your writing. My wife, too. She will be green with envy when I tell her I’ve met the creator of the great Sherlock Holmes!”
Conan Doyle accepted the praise humbly; in fact, he seemed almost embarrassed by it, and quickly changed the subject.
“I hope you’ve had the opportunity to read my note this morning,” he said.
“Yes, I have it here somewhere,” said the superintendent, rifling through the stacks of papers on his desk. “I shall keep it, if you don’t mind, as a memento of… Yes, here it is; I have it. Ah, yes, William Henry. A very interesting case.”
“This is Dr. Walker, a good friend of mine and Mr. Henry’s personal physician,” said Conan Doyle. “And this gentleman is Mr. Abraham Henry, William’s father, and this is his grandson, William’s eldest child, William Jr.”
“Billy,” von Helrung piped in. “The family calls him Billy, Herr Doctor.”
“You are German, Mr. Henry?”
“I am Austrian, but my son William was born in America.”
The superintendent was surprised. “But Mr. Boatman claimed your son was a British citizen.”
“He is, he is,” said von Helrung quickly. “Noah did not deceive you, Herr Doctor. William was born in America but immigrated to this country when he was twenty to study medicine—at the University of…” He was drawing a blank. So hasty had been our preparations, we had not thought to fill in every page in Warthrop’s fictitious history.
“Edinburgh,” Conan Doyle. “A year or so after I left.”
“And then he falls in love with a girl here, gets married, and becomes citizen,” von Helrung finished with a loud sigh of relief.
“Ah, Annabelle,” the superintendent said.
“Annabelle, Mr. Henry’s wife, your daughter-in-law.”
“Ack! Forgive an old man for the paucity of his faculties. I thought you said something else about… something else. Yes, poor, dear Annabelle! He loved her with a love that was more than love, in this kingdom by the sea.”
“Yes,” the superintendent concurred with a slight frown. “Though Mr. Boatman never mentioned there were children by the marriage. In fact, he told us that he, Mr. Boatman, was the only family William had.”
“Well, my grandson Noah is correct, in a manner of speaking.”
“In a manner of speaking?”
“I will explain.”
“I am anxious that you do,” the superintendent replied with a puzzled look toward Conan Doyle, who was smiling noncommittally. The author drummed his fingers nervously on his bowler hat.
Von Helrung tried his best. “Noah’s mother—William’s only sibling—died tragically at the age of twenty-two, when Noah was but three years old—the consumption. He was her only child. At the time, I was living with my wife, Helena, in Massachusetts, where we had raised William and Gertrude—”
“Gertrude?” The superintendent had begun taking notes. It was not an encouraging development.
“Ja, she is William’s sister, Noah’s mother, and my dear, dead daughter, Helena.”
“I mean Gertrude. She was the spitting image of her mother; often I called her Helena by mistake.” He scratched his head, shrugged his shoulders, sighed. “Now I do not know where I am.”
Walker chimed in helpfully, “Gertrude has just died.”
“Gertrude, yes.” Von Helrung nodded somberly. “She was too young. Too young!”
“Then Noah was raised by his father, your son-in-law?”
“For a time, until he died, when Noah was seventeen.”
“How did he die?”
“He had too much to drink one night and fell off his fishing boat into the Thames—he’d never recovered from Helena’s death, you see—”
“Gertrude,” Walker corrected him. “Helena hasn’t died yet.”
“William’s mother is still alive?”
“Oh, no, I just haven’t gotten to her yet. My darling wife passed away last year of the dropsy—and that is what began it, I would say.”
“William’s slow march into darkness. He was very close to his mother, more so than most sons, I would say. And then when the tiger tore his sweet Annabelle limb from limb!” Von Helrung’s lower lip quivered; he tried to force a tear. “Oh, may God have mercy on my boy! May I see him now, Herr Doctor?”
“I’m afraid I’m still a bit confused, Mr. Henry, about the family history. You see this? This is the admission form signed under oath by your grandson, stating Mr. Henry had no living relatives other than himself. It’s a discrepancy that must be resolved before we can release him.”
“Hemmm. If I may.” Walker rested a hand on von Helrung’s arm. “Noah Boatman has not been in touch with the family in years.”
“The blackest of sheep,” von Helrung interjected tearfully.
“I would not wish to cast aspersions upon Mr. Boatman’s character,” Walker went on. “It is entirely plausible he thought he was the sole surviving relative, having neither seen nor heard from Abraham in decades.”
“But surely he would know about William’s children.” The superintendent was now looking at me. I squirmed in my chair.
“I was raising the children, in America,” von Helrung said hastily.
“You were raising them? Why?”
“Because they were…” Von Helrung was beginning to panic.
“It is delicate; I hope you can understand,” Walker said, stepping into the breach.
“I am trying very hard to, Dr. Walker.”
“They are the children of William’s first marriage,” von Helrung said. Beside him Walker stiffened suddenly, as if someone had just hit him very hard in the back.
“His first marriage?” the superintendent asked.
“In America, before he came here and met Isabel.”
“Annabelle,” Walker corrected him. “
Ja. The children live with us—me. My wife is dead of the dropsy.” Von Helrung swung his thick arm around my shoulder. “The dropsy.”
“Well,” the superintendent said slowly. “I suppose the only way to clear this up is to speak with Mr. Boatman.”
“Ahhh! Mein Gott!” von Hlrung cried out. He slumped forward in his chair.
“You are about to tell me that Mr. Boatman is dead, aren’t you?” asked the superintendent.
It was ironic, I later thought, that this was the one nugget of truth in the entire passel of lies.
If not for our recruitment of the superintendent’s literary idol, I do not think our ill-conceived and worse-executed plan would have succeeded. The presence of Conan Doyle probably kept us from being booted from the asylum forthwith—or locked up there until a qualified visiting physician could examine us.
“I’m afraid I must share a bit of the responsibility for William Henry’s condition,” Conan Doyle confessed.
“You, Dr. Doyle?”
“It appears from what Dr. Walker has told me that a portion at least of his delusions are based upon my stories.”
“Which portion might that be? I have interviewed the patient at length, and I do not recall…”
“Well, his occupation for one. There is not so much difference between a consulting detective and a hunter of monsters—a distinction more than a difference. And, of course,” he added casually with a shrug of powerful shoulders (Conan Doyle was a star cricket player and avid golfer), “the name.”
“Mr. Henry’s. Not his real name. The name he chose for himself, Pellinore Warthrop.”
“I am sorry, Dr. Doyle. I don’t recall seeing that name in your work.”
“Because you are not an American. In the States, Holmes’s name is Warthrop.”
“It’s not uncommon to change a character’s name to suit the tastes of a particular culture.”
The superintendent expressed his surprise. He’d had no idea that Great Britain’s Sherlock Holmes was America’s Pellinore Warthrop. It seemed to shake him to his existential marrow, for if Holmes were not, well, Holmes, then he would not be Holmes!
“Can I see him now?” von Helrung pleaded. “I assure you, sir, he will know me, his father, and if not me, Billy here, his son. We would take him back to America with us, but if you say no, we cannot. Have mercy and do not send us away without at least the chance to say good-bye!”
The superintendent relented then. I doubt he believed for a second one word of our outlandish story, but he was curious now—intensely curious—to see how this bizarre play might end. He rang for the keeper of Warthrop’s ward, who appeared a moment later.
“Where is Mr. Henry this morning?” the superintendent inquired.
“In his room, sir, as usual. After breakfast I asked if he’d care for a walk in the garden, but he refused again.”
“Did he eat his breakfast this morning?”
“Sir, he hurled it at my head.”
“He’s in one of his moods today.”
“Yes, sir, one of the bad ones.”
“Perhaps his visitors will lighten his spirits. Please let him know. We shall be up momentarily.” He turned to us. “Last week Mr. Henry ended a hunger strike—his third since coming to Hanwell. ‘I would gladly die,’ he told me. ‘But I will be damned to give you the satisfaction!’ I must say, Dr. Walker, your patient has developed a highly sophisticated delusion, the most detailed and intricate that I’ve ever encountered. A ‘philosopher in the natural science of aberrant biology,’ he calls himself, a ‘monstrumologist,’ one of several hundred around the world who devote themselves to the study and eradication of certain malevolent species, upon which he claims to be the foremost expert. He claims to belong to a ‘society’ of these so-called monstrumologists, based in New York City, the president of which—”