“And using the pwdre ser was your idea?”
“No, sir. Frightening him with it was my idea. It was Dr. Torrance’s idea to actually use it.”
“Still. There was only one person in that room who had witnessed firsthand what pwdre ser does to a human being.”
“Yes, sir. That’s why I suggested we use it.”
“That is why you…?” He took a deep breath. “It is a very thin line between us athe abyss, Will Henry,” he said. “For most it is like that line out there, where the sea meets the sky. They see it. They cannot deny the evidence of their eyes, but they never cross it. They cannot cross it; though they chase it for a thousand years, it will forever stay where it is. Do you realize it took our species more than ten millennia to realize that simple fact? That the line is unreachable, that we live on a ball and not on a plate? Most of us do, anyway. Men like Jacob Torrance and John Kearns… Those kinds of men still live on a plate. Do you understand what I mean?”
I nodded. I thought I did.
“The very strange and ironic thing is that I left you behind so you wouldn’t have to live on that plate with them.”
I thought of the signet ring of Jacob Torrance and lifted my chin defiantly. “I’m not afraid.”
“Are you not?” He closed his eyes and drew in deep the smell of the sea.
Early the next morning we boarded the first ship out, and some of Warthrop’s anxiety lost its bite, though it still continued to nibble around the edges of his relief to be on our way at last. He paced the foredeck, never looking back at the receding English shore. He was not interested in what lay behind.
But I was. I wanted to hear what had happened, how he’d found the origin of the nidus ex magnificum; how, or if, he’d found John Kearns; and the particulars of how he’d been betrayed by Thomas Arkwright. Every time I broached the subject, however, he deflected it with a shake of his head or ignored my entreaties altogether. I came to realize that the affair was an embarrassment to him. It wounded his ego, and his was not the sort of ego that recovered easily from even the slightest scratch.
At Maritime railway station in Calais, we secured berths in a private sleeping car for the passage south to Lucerne, where we would switch trains for the final leg of our overland journey to Brindisi on the Adriatic Sea. The remainder of our expedition to Socotra would be undertaken by boat, an unhappy prospect; the memory of my recent bout of mal de mer was still quite fresh.
The train was a crowded, rolling city of Babel—English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, with a smattering of Egyptian, Farsi, and Hindi thrown in. Every race, religion, and class was represented, from the well-to-do English family on extended holiday, to the poorest Indian immigrant returning to Bombay to visit the family he had left behind. There were businessmen and Gypsies, soldiers and peddlers, old men in wide hats and newborn babes in bonnets. And everywhere the smell of smoke and human sweat, shouts, laughter, singing and music—a din of accordions and violins, harmonicas and sitars. It enchanted and frightened me, this rolling makeshift village, this rich sampling of humanity. While the doctor holed up in our car, leaving it only thrice a day for meal service, I took to wandering the length and breadth of the train. That was far more preferable to enduring the eerie silence that enveloped him like a pall of doom. Warthrop did not complain of my wanderings; he merely observed that I should be careful lest I become exposed to some rare contagion. “A passenger train is a traveling circus of pestilence, Will Henry. A smorgasbord of human meat. Take care you are not placed upon the menu.”
I was dispatched on the occasional errand, for tea and pastries (the doctor’s profound disappointment that there was not a single scone on board would have been comical, if I had not been the one to bear the brunt of his displeasure) and newspapers, any and all I could find, in any language (the monstrumologist was conversant in more than twenty). He read, he drank copious amounts of Darjeeling tea, he paced the compartment like a caged tiger, or stared out the window, pulling and pinching on his lower lip until it grew fat and red. He muttered under his breath, he started when I opened the door, dropping his hand into his coat pocket, where he kept his revolver—he never ventured anywhere without it. He slept with the light on, he started growing a beard, and he ate constantly and in vast amounts, putting on several pounds on the thirteen-hundred-mile journey to the southern tip of Italy. At one meal service I witnessed him consume two beefsteaks, a half loaf of bread, an entire pie, and four glasses of rich buttermilk. He took note of my wide-eyed astonishment at this gluttonous accomplishment and said, “I am building reserves.” I puzzled over this remark. What should I expect in the coming days—famine? Was there nothing to eat on the island of Socotra?
By the time we reached the Italian Alps, the wound to his pride had entered the contraction stage, and late one night, at the precise moment I’d drifted off, he woke me with the question he reserved for those moments.
“Will Henry, are you asleep?”
“No, Dr. Warthrop, I am not.” Not now, Dr. Warthrop!
“I cannot sleep either. I can’t stop thinking about Torrance. He was twenty-nine—less than a year to go until his Magic Thirty. Do you know most monstrumologists become as reclusive as Tibetan monks during their twenty-ninth year? Rarely do they take to the field or engage in any pursuit that might jeopardize their chances of reaching their thirtieth birthday. There was one colleague of mine who spent the last six months of his twenty-ninth year locked in his room with boards over the windows and without even a book to pass the time. He was afraid of cutting his finger on a page and dying of infection.”
“Dr. Torrance said he became a monstrumologist because he liked to kill things.”
“He was not alone in that, just in his willingness to admit it. But he was a very good scholar and completely fearless intellectually; he was not afraid to tread where wiser men trembled. You could not have chosen a better man to break Thomas Arkwright.”
I heard him rise from his bunk. I raised my head and saw his silhouette against the window and then his face reflected in the glass. His face had changed—the cheeks were fuller, the lower half dark with his new beard—all but the eyes, which still shone with the same cold backlit fire.
“I didn’t know what he was going to do,” I protested. “It happened so fast—”
He raised his hand. Let it fall. “It is part and parcel of the business, Will Henry. Arkwright’s, Torrance’s… ours. Eventually the luck runs out. I suppose I would feel less conflicted about Arkwright if the man had not worked so hard to save my life.”
“That’s what he told Dr. Torrance—right before Dr. Torrance killed him. How did he save your life?”
The monstrumologist clasped his hands behnd his back and spoke to my reflection in the glass. “By presenting a compelling case that I was more trouble dead than alive.”
“It was those Russian agents in Paddington, wasn’t it? Rurick and…”
“Plešec. Yes. Tailing us from the moment we arrived in London. I am not so disappointed in myself that I did not know—but Arkwright, he should have known. He is a professional, after all. It is hard to conceive of a more conspicuous pair of spies—big Rurick with that red hair, and short little Plešec and his shiny scalp.”
He closed his eyes. “I am sure Arkwright thought the worst was over, that all that remained was to convince von Helrung that I had died on the quest. He hadn’t had much trouble selling von Helrung everything else—‘Thomas Arkwright of the Long Island Arkwrights’!”
“It was me, sir. Arkwright lied about the Monstrumarium, and that meant he lied about everything else. It meant he knew about the nidus before he even met you, and that meant—”
His eyes came open and fixed upon my image in the window. “You suspected him? Not von Helrung? Not Torrance? You?”
I nodded. “Dr. von Helrung wouldn’t listen at first, but then the telegram arrived saying you were dead. I didn’t believe it. And Dr. Torrance didn’t either, once I explained it to him. He told me I would make a fine—”
“Yes, that troubled me too—Arkwright’s seemingly serendipitous arrival upon Meister Abram’s doorstep around the time Mr. Kendall showed up on ours. I’ve been kicking myself for missing the many subtle blunders Arkwright committed, but I was understandably distracted and completely focused on the task at hand—finding Jack Kearns and the home of the magnificum.”
“Did you find him—Dr. Kearns?”
He shook his head. “Kearns vanished the day after he dispatched Mr. Kendall with his special delivery. I am uncertain where he went first—most likely it was Saint Petersburg to make the necessary arrangements—but I am fairly certain where he is now. We will see our old friend on the isle of Socotra.”
Chapter Twenty-Seven: “An Interesting Dilemma”
Upon their arrival in London, Warthrop and Arkwright had stopped by their hotel only long enough to drop their bags, and then they’d split up—Arkwright to Dorset Street in Whitechapel to locate Kearns’s flat and discover what, if any, clues he may have left behind; Warthrop to the Royal London Hospital to question Kearns’s colleagues and interview the hospital director, the man responsible for overseeing Kearns’s work. Warthrop learned how well-liked Kearns had been, how popular with the staff—particularly the female staff—how admired by the other doctors, what a fine physician he was, in addition to being one of the best trauma surgeons the director had ever seen. No, Dr. Kearns had not given notice or any indication whatsoever he was leaving. One day he was there; the next he was not. My master, posing as an old chum of Kearns’s from the States, informed the director he had been asked by Kearns to consult on a most unusual case, one he was certain the director would remember.
“It had been nagging at me since the night we’d met Mr. Kendall,” the doctor told me. “The remark about the yeoman with the case of ‘tropical fever.’ The director remembered the case well. ‘Baffling and tragic,’ he called it, though he did not recall the man being a seaman. He then went on to describe the symptoms, and I knew I had found the owner of the nidus.”
“Pwdre ser,” I whispered.
“Yes. He was in the final stages of exposure when he was brought in—was quite beyond coherent thought or speech. There was nothing on his person to identify who he was, and he refused to give—or could not remember, probably—his own name. The only thing the director recalled the man saying was the words, ‘The nest! The bloody human nest!’ It obviously piqued Kearns’s curiosity. He is no monstrumolo-gist; I’ve no idea if he had ever heard of the nidus ex magnificum, but the sailor’s anguished cries and dramatic symptoms probably alerted Kearns that he was dealing with something of a monstrumological nature.”
The man died within hours of his arrival at the hospital. Kearns signed the order to have the body cremated, the usual precaution when dealing with an unknown disease.