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After several years of service to the monstrumologist, I approached him with the idea of recording, in the interest of posterity, one or two of his more memorable case studies. I waited, of course, until he was in one of his better moods. Approaching Pellinore Warthrop while he wallowed in one of his frequent bouts of melancholia could be hazardous to one’s physical well-being. Once, when I made that ill-advised approach, he hurled a volume of Shakespeare’s tragedies at my head.
The moment presented itself at the delivery of the day’s mail, which included a letter from President McKinley, thanking Warthrop for his service to the country upon the satisfactory conclusion of “that peculiar incident in the Adirondacks.” The doctor, whose ego was as robust as any of Mr. P. T. Barnum’s sideshow strong men, read it aloud three times before entrusting it to my care. I was his file clerk, among other things—or, I should say, as well as every other thing. Nothing outside his work could brighten the monstrumologist’s mood more than a brush with celebrity. It seemed to satisfy some deep yearning in him.
Beyond elevating his moribund spirits and thus ensuring—momentarily, at least—my physical safety, the letter also provided the perfect entrée for my suggestion.
“It was quite peculiar, wasn’t it?” I asked.
“Hmmm? Yes, I suppose.” The monstrumologist was absorbed in the latest issue of the Saturday Evening Post, which had also arrived that day.
“It would make quite a tale, if someone were to tell it,” I ventured.
“I have been thinking of preparing a small piece for the Journal,” replied he. The Journal of the Society for the Advancement of the Science of Monstrumology was the official quarterly of the Society.
“I was thinking of something for more widespread consumption. A story for the Post, for example.”
“An interesting idea, Will Henry,” he said. “But wholly impractical. I made a promise to the president that the matter would remain strictly confidential, and I’ve no doubt that, if I should break my vow, I might find myself locked up in Fort Leavenworth, not exactly the ideal place to pursue my studies.”
“But if you published something in the Journal…”
“Oh, who reads that?” he snorted, waving his hand dismissively. “It is the nature of my profession, Will Henry, to labor in obscurity. I avoid the press for a very good reason, to protect the public and to protect my work. Imagine what the publication of that affair would do—the firestorm of panic and recriminations. Why, half the state of New York would empty out, and the rest would appear on my doorstep to hang me from the nearest tree.”
“Some might say your actions were nothing short of heroic,” I countered. If I could not appeal to his reason, I would plead to his ego.
“Some have,” he replied, referring to the president’s letter. “And that must be enough.”
But not quite enough; I knew what he meant. More than once he had seized my hand at his bedside, staring beseechingly at me with those dark backlit eyes nearly mad with desperation and sorrow, begging me to never forget, to bear his memory past the grave. You are all I have, Will Henry. Who else will remember me when I am gone? I will sink into oblivion, and the earth shall not note or care at my passing!
“Very well. Another case, then. That matter in Campeche, at Calakmul…”
“What is this, Will Henry?” He glared at me over the magazine. “Can’t you see I am trying to relax?”
“Holmes has his Watson.”
“Holmes is a fictional character,” he pointed out.
“But he is based on someone real.”
“Ah.” He was smiling slyly at me. “William James Henry, do you have literary ambitions? I am astounded.”
“That I might have literary ambitions?”
“That you have any ambition at all.”
“Well,” I said, taking a deep breath. “I do.”
“And all this time I had allowed myself to hope you might follow in my footsteps as a student of aberrant biology.”
“Why couldn’t I be both?” I asked. “Doyle is a physician.”
“Was,” he corrected me. “And not a very successful one at that.” He laid down the magazine. I had at last gotten his full attention. “I will confess the idea intrigues me, and I would have no objection to your trying your hand at it, but I retain the right to review anything you set to paper. Beyond my own reputation, I have the legacy of my profession to protect.”
“Of course,” I said eagerly. “I wouldn’t dream of publishing anything without obtaining your approval first.”
“But nothing of our difficulties in the Adirondacks.”
“I was actually thinking of that case from a few years ago—the incident in Socotra.”
His face darkened. His eyes burned. He leveled a finger at my face and said, “Absolutely not. Do you understand? Under no circumstances are you ever to do such a thing. The temerity, Will Henry, to even suggest it!”
“But why, Dr. Warthrop?” I asked, taken aback by the ferocity of his reaction.
“You know very well the answer to that question. Oh, I should have guessed it. I should have known!” He rose from his chair, shaking with the force of his passion. “I see it now, the true fount of your ambition, Mr. Henry! You would not immortalize but humiliate and degrade!”
“Dr. Warthrop, I would do nothing of the kind—”
“Then, I ask you, of all the cases we have investigated, why did you choose the one that casts me in the worst possible light? Ha! See, I have caught you. There is only one reasonable answer to that question. Revenge!”
I could not hide my astonishment at his accusation. “Revenge? Revenge for what?”
“For your perceived mistreatment, of course.”
“Why do you think I have been mistreated?”
“Oh, that is very clever of you, Will Henry—parsing my words to mask your perfidy. I did not confess to mistreating you; I pointed out your perception of mistreatment.”
“Very well,” I said. There were very few arguments anyone could win with him. In fact, I had never won any. “You pick the case.”
“I don’t wish to pick the case! The entire idea was yours to begin with. But you’ve shown your hand in this, and rest assured I will disavow anything you dare to publish under the guise of preserving my legacy. Holmes had his Watson, indeed! And Caesar had his Brutus, didn’t he?”
“I would never do anything to betray you,” I said evenly. “I suggested Socotra because I thought—”
“No!” he cried, taking a step toward me. I flinched as if expecting a blow, though in all our years together he had never struck me. “I forbid it! I have labored too long and too hard to banish the memory of that accursed place from my mind. You are never to speak that name again in my presence, do you understand? Never again!”
“As you wish, Doctor,” I said. “I shall never speak of it again.”
And I didn’t. I dropped the matter and never brought it up again until now. It would be extremely difficult—no, impossible—to immortalize someone who denied the very facts reported. Years passed, and as his powers waned with them, my duties expanded to include the composition of his papers and letters. I took no credit for my efforts and received none from the monstrumologist. He ferociously edited my work, striking out anything that, in his opinion, smacked of poetic indulgence. In science, he told me, there is no room for romantic discourse or ruminations upon the nature of evil. That he himself was a poet in his youth drenched the exercise in irony and pathos.
It has often puzzled me, what pleasure he derived from denying himself those very things that gave him pleasure. But I am not the first to point out that love is a complicated thing. It is true the monstrumologist loved his work—it was, besides me, all he had—but his work was merely an extension of himself, the firstborn fruit of his towering ambition. His work may have brought him to that strange and accursed island, but it was his ambition that nearly undid him.
It began on a freezing February night in 1889 with the arrival of a package to the house on Harrington Lane. The delivery was unexpected but not unusual. Having been an apprentice to the monstrumologist for almost three years, I was accustomed to the midnight knock upon the back door, the furtive exchange of the portage charge, and the doctor acting like a boy on Christmas morn, his cheeks ablaze with feverish anticipation as he bore his present to the basement laboratory, where the box was unwrapped and its foul contents revealed in all their macabre glory. What was unusual about this particular delivery was the man who brought it. In the course of my service to the monstrumologist, I had seen my fair share of unsavory characters, men who, for a dollar and a dram of whiskey, would sell their own mothers—willing mercenaries in service to the natural science of aberrant biology.
But this was not the sort who stood shivering in the alleyway. Though bedraggled from a journey of many miles, he wore an expensive fur-lined coat that hung open to reveal a tailored suit. A diamond ring glittered on the little finger of his left hand. More striking than his regalia was his manner; the poor fellow seemed nearly mad with panic. He abandoned his cargo on the back stoop, pushed his way into the room, seized the doctor by his lapels, and demanded to know if this was number 425 Harrington Lane and if he—the doctor—was Pellinore Warthrop.
“I am Dr. Warthrop,” said my master.
“Oh, thank God! Thank God!” the tormented man cried in a hoarse voice. “Now I’ve done it. It’s right out there. Take it, take it. I’ve brought you the blasted thing. Now give it to me! He said you would—he said you had it. Quickly, before it’s too late!”
“My good man,” replied the doctor calmly. “I would gladly pay the charge, if the price is reasonable.” Though he was a man of substantial means, the monstrumologist’s parsimony soared to near operatic heights.
“The price? The price!” The man laughed hysterically. “It isn’t you who’ll pay, Warthrop! He said you had it. He promised you would give it to me if I brought it. Now keep his promise!”
Our uninvited guest let loose a banshee howl and doubled over, clutching his chest. His eyes rolled back into his head. The doctor caught him before he hit the floor, and eased him into a chair.
“Damn him to hell—too late!” the man whimpered. “I am too late!” He wrung his hands in supplication. “Am I too late, Dr. Warthrop?”
“I cannot answer that question,” replied the doctor. “For I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“He told me you would give me the antidote if I brought it, but I was delayed in New York. I missed the train and had to wait for the next one—more than two hours I had to wait. Oh, God! To come all this way only to die at the end of it!”
“The antidote? The antidote to what?”
“To the poison! ‘Bring my little gift to Warthrop in America if you wish to live,’ he told me, the devil, the fiend! So I have, and so you must. Ah, but it is hopeless. I feel it now—my heart—my heart—”
The doctor shook his head sharply and with a snap of his fingers directed me to fetch his instrument case.
“I will do all within my power,” I heard him say to the poor man as I scampered off. “But you must get a grip on yourself and tell me simply and plainly…”
Our tormented courier had fallen into a swoon by the time I returned, eyes rolling in his head, hands twitching in his lap. His face had drained of all color. The doctor removed the stethoscope from the case and listened to the man’s heart, bending low over the quivering form, his legs spread wide for balance.
“Galloping like a runaway horse, Will Henry,” the monstrumologist murmured. “But no abnormalities or irregularities that I can detect. Quickly, a glass of water.”
I expected him to offer the distressed man a drink; instead Warthrop dumped the entire contents of the glass over his head. The man’s eyes snapped open. The mouth formed a startled O.
“What sort of poison did he give you?” demanded my master in a stern voice. “Did he say? Answer!”
“Tip… tipota… from the pyrite tree.”
“Tipota?” The doctor frowned. “From what kind of tree?”
“Pyrite! Tipota, from the pyrite tree of the Isle of Demons!”
“The Isle of Demons! But that is… extraordinary. Are you quite certain?”
“Bloody hell. I think I would remember what he poisoned me with!” the man sputtered vehemently. “And he said you had the antidote! Oh! Oh! This is it!” His hands clawed at his chest. “My heart is exploding!”
“I don’t think so,” said the doctor slowly. He stepped back, studying the man carefully, dark eyes dancing with that eerie backlit fire. “We still have a few moments… but only a few! Will Henry, stay with our guest while I mix up the antidote.”
“Then, I am not too late?” the man inquired incredulously, as if he could not dare to allow himself to hope.
“When was the poison administered?”
“On the evening of the second.”
“Of this month?”
“Yes, yes—of course this month! I would be as dead as a doornail if it had been last month, now, wouldn’t I!”
“Yes, forgive me. Tipota is slow-acting, but not quite that slow-acting! I shall be back momentarily. Will Henry, call me at once should our friend’s condition change.”
The doctor flew down the stairs to the basement, leaving the door slightly ajar. We could hear jars knocking against each other, the clink and clang of metal, the hiss of a Bunsen burner.
“What if he’s wrong?” the man moaned. “What if it is too late? My eyesight is failing—that’s what goes just before the end! You go blind and your heart blows apart—blows completely apart inside your chest. Your face, child. I cannot see your face! It is lost to the darkness. The darkness comes! Oh, may he burn for all eternity in the lowest circle of the pit—the devil—the fiend!”
The doctor bounded back into the room, carrying a syringe loaded with an olive-green-colored liquid. The dying man jerked in the chair upon the doctor’s entrance and cried out, “Who is that?”
“It is I, Warthrop,” answered the doctor. “Let’s get that coat off. Will Henry, help him, please.”
“You have the antidote?” the man asked.
The doctor nodded curtly, pulled up the man’s sleeve, and jabbed the needle home.
“There now!” Warthrop said. “The stethoscope, Will Henry. Thank you.” He listened to the man’s heart for a few seconds, and I thought it must be a trick of the light, for I spied what appeared to be a smile playing on the doctor’s lips. “Yes. Slowing considerably. How do you feel?”
A bit of color had returned to the man’s cheeks, and his breathing had slowed. Whatever the doctor had given him was having a salutary effect. He spoke hesitantly, as if he could hardly believe his good fortune. “Better, I think. My eyesight is clearing a bit.”
“Good! You may be relieved to know that…,” the monstrumologist began, and then stopped himself. It had occurred to him, perhaps, that the man had already suffered enough distress. “It is a very dangerous poison. Always fatal, slow-acting, and symptom-free until the end, but its effects are entirely reversible if the antidote is administered in time.”
“He said you would know what to do.”
“I’m quite certain he did. Tell me, how did you come by the acquaintance of Dr. John Kearns?”
Our guest’s eyes widened in astonishment. “However did you know his name?”
“There is only one man I know—and who knows me—who would play such a fiendish prank.”
“Prank? Poisoning a man, hurling him to the threshold of death’s doorway, for the purpose of delivering a package— that’s a prank to you?”
“Yes!” the doctor cried, forgetting himself—and what this suffering soul had been through—for a moment. “The package! Will Henry, carry it down to the basement and put on a pot for tea. I’m sure Mr.—”
“Kendall. Wymond Kendall.”
“Mr. Kendall could do with a cup, I think. Snap to now, Will Henry. I suspect we’re in for a long night.”
The package, a wooden box wrapped in plain brown paper, was not particularly heavy or cumbersome. I toted it quickly to the laboratory, placed it on the doctor’s worktable, and returned upstairs to find the kitchen empty. I could hear the rise and fall of their voices coming from the parlor down the hall while I made the tea, my thoughts a confusion of dreadful anticipation and disquieted memory. It hadn’t been quite a year since my first encounter with the man named Jack Kearns—if that was his name. He seemed to have more than one. Cory he had called himself, and Schmidt. There was one other name, the one he’d given himself in the fall of the previous year, the one by which history would remember him, the one that best described his true nature. He was not a monstrumologist like my master. It was not clear to me then what he was, except an expert in the darker regions of the natural world—and of the human heart.
“He was renting a flat from me on Dorset Street in Whitechapel,” I heard Kendall say. “He was not the usual kind of tenant one finds in the East End, and clearly he could afford better, but he told me he liked to be close to his work at the Royal London Hospital. He seemed very dedicated to his work. He told me he lived for nothing else. Do you know, the funny thing is, I liked him; I liked Dr. Kearns very much. He was quite the conversationalist… a marvelous, if slightly skewed, sense of humor… very well-read, and he’d always been on time with his rent. So when he came up two months late, I thought something must have happened to him. This is Whitechapel, after all. Dr. Kearns kept very late hours, and I was afraid he might have been waylaid by ruffians—or worse. So more out of concern for his welfare than the arrears, I decided to check up on him.”
“I take it you found him well,” offered the doctor.
“Oh, he was the picture of soundness and good cheer! The same old Kearns. Invited me in for a spot of tea as if nothing were amiss, told me he had been distracted lately by a particularly troublesome case, a yeoman with the British Navy who was suffering from some mysterious tropical fever. Kearns seemed completely taken aback—though touched—by my concern for his welfare. When I brought up the matter of the rent, he expressed his mortification, blaming it on this case of his and assuring me I would have it, plus interest, by the end of the week. So soothed was I by his silver-tongued rationale, and also a bit embarrassed to intrude upon his important work, I actually apologized for coming to collect what was rightfully mine. Oh, he is the devil’s own progeny, this Dr. John Kearns!”
“He has a way with words,” the doctor allowed. “Among other things. Ah, but here is Will Henry with the tea.”
The monstrumologist was standing by the mantel when I entered, running a finger contemplatively up and down the nose of the bust of the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno. Our guest reclined on the divan, his lean face still flushed from his ordeal. He reached for his cup with a quivering hand.
“The tea,” he murmured. “It must have been the tea.”
“The medium for the poison?” asked the doctor.
“No! He injected that once I had come to my senses.”
“Ah, you mean he slipped you some sort of sleeping draft.”
“That must have been the case. There can be no other explanation. I thanked him for the tea—oh, how he must have relished my appreciation!—and was no more than two steps from the door when the room began to spin and all went black. When I awoke, many hours had passed—night had fully come on—and there he was beside me, smiling ghoulishly.
“‘You’ve had a bit of a spell,’ he said.
“‘I fear so,’ said I. I felt utterly drained and entirely helpless, emptied of all vitality. Just turning my head to look at him required every ounce of strength in my body.
“‘Lucky for you it struck in the presence of a doctor!’ he observed with a perfectly straight face. ‘I thought something was the matter when I first saw you, Kendall. A bit green around the gills. Of course, you’ve probably been working too hard exploiting the poor and downtrodden, collecting rents on hovels a rat would be ashamed to call home—a case of slumlord exhaustion is my guess. I would suggest you consider a holiday in the countryside. Get some fresh air. The atmosphere of these neighborhoods is absolutely putrid, infused as it is with the funk of human suffering and despair. Take a trip. A change of scenery would work wonders.’
“I protested vehemently these offensive remarks. I am no slumlord, Dr. Warthrop. I provide a necessary service, and only once or twice have I put someone out for not paying the rent. So complete was my outrage, I would have struck him for these repugnant jibes upon my character, but I could not raise my hand even an inch from the bed.
“‘I am exceedingly glad you dropped by,’ he went on in that maddeningly chipper tone of his. ‘God himself must have sent you—God, or something very much like him. You see, I can’t trust it to the mails, and I can’t go myself—I must take my leave of this blessed isle tomorrow—and finding a reliable courier in this milieu has proved more difficult than I anticipated. You simply cannot rely upon anyone from the ghetto—but I don’t have to tell you that. And now here you are, Kendall! Delivered unto me like the best of presents—wholly satisfactory and completely unexpected. The answer to a prayer of a man who never prays! It is serendipitous to say the least, don’t you think?’”
Kendall paused, sipped his tea, and stared silently for a moment into space. He possessed the haunted look of a man who had barely escaped a brush with death’s angel, which, literally, he had.
“Well, I will confess I didn’t know what to think, Dr. Warthrop. What was I to think? In an instant and without warning, all my faculties had been stripped from me, and now I lay dizzy, my thoughts a blur, paralyzed upon his bed, with him leering down at me. What was a man to think?
“‘It is a small matter,’ he went on. ‘A trifle, really. But it should be delivered sooner rather than later. If it is what I suspect it is and represents what I think it represents, he’ll want it quickly. Delay might cost him the entire game and he would never forgive me.’
“‘Who?’ I asked. Understand, I was quite beside myself at this point, for it had at last dawned on me that he was the cause of my sudden and mysterious affliction. ‘Who would never forgive you?’
“‘Warthrop! Warthrop, of course. The monstrumolo-gist. Now, don’t tell me you’ve never heard of him. He’s a very dear friend of mine. You might call us brothers, in a spiritual sense of course, though we couldn’t be more different from each other. He’s entirely too serious, for one, and he possesses a curious romantic streak for someone who fancies himself a scientist. Has a savior complex, if you want my opinion. Wants to save the whole bloody world from itself, while my motto has always been “live and let live.” Why, the other day I killed a large spider, quite without thinking it through—and afterward I was consumed with remorse, for what had that spider ever done to me? What makes me, by virtue of my superior intellect and size, any better than my eight-legged flatmate? I did not choose to be a man any more than he chose to be a spider. Are we both not equal players in the grand design, each fulfilling the role given to us—until I violated the sacred covenant between us and the one who made us? It’s enough to tear a man’s soul in twain.’
“‘You’re mad,’ I told him; I could not help myself.
“‘To the contrary, my dear Kendall,’ the monster replied. ‘It is your great good fortune to be in the company of the sanest man alive. It has taken me years to rid myself of all delusion and pretense, the cloak of self-righteous superiority with which we humans drape ourselves. In this sense the spider is our superior. He does not question his nature. He is not burdened by the sense of self. The mirror is nothing to him but a pane of glass. He is pure, as sinless as Adam before the fall. Even Warthrop, that incorrigible moralist, would agree with me. I’ve no more right to kill the spider than you’ve to judge me. You, sir, are the hare at this tea party; I am Alice.’
“He withdrew for a moment while I lay as if a two-ton boulder pressed down upon me, barely able to draw the next breath. When he returned, he was holding the syringe in his hand. I will confess, Dr. Warthrop, I’d never known fear like that. The room began to spin again, but not from any sleeping draft—from sheer terror. Helplessly I watched as he tapped the glass and pressed upon the plunger. A single drop clung to the needle’s tip, glistening like the finest crystal in the lamplight.
“‘Do you know what this is, Kendall?’ he asked softly, and then he chuckled long and low. ‘Of course you don’t! I wax rhetorical. It’s a very rare toxin distilled from the sap of the pyrite tree, an interesting example of one of the Creator’s more maleficent flora, indigenous to a single island forty nautical miles from the Galápagos Archipelago, called the Isle of Demons. I love that name, don’t you? It’s so… evocative. But now I wax poetical.’
“He drew close—so close I could see my own reflection in the dark, blank pools that were his eyes. Oh, those eyes! If I ever should see them again in a thousand years, it would be too soon! Blacker than the blackest pit, empty—so empty of… of everything, Dr. Warthrop. Not human. Not animal. Not anything.
“‘It’s called tipota,’ he whispered. ‘Remember that, Kendall! When Warthrop asks you what I’ve stuck you with, tell him that. Tell him, “It is tipota. He poisoned me with tipota!” ’”
My master was nodding gravely, but did I detect a hint of amusement in his eyes? I wondered what in this horrible tale the monstrumologist could find the least bit comical.
“He slipped a piece of paper into my pocket—yes! Here it is; I still have it.”
He held it up for the doctor to see.
“Your address—and the name of the poison, lest I forget it. Forget it! As if I will ever forget that accursed name! He told me I had ten days. ‘More or less, my dear Kendall.’ More or less! He proceeded to lecture me—hovering there with that horrid needle glistening an inch from my nose—on how prized this poison was; how the czar of Russia kept a stash of it in the royal safe; how it was valued by the ancients (‘They say it was what really killed Cleopatra’); how it was the method of choice of assassins, preferred because it was so slow-acting, allowing the perpetrator to be miles away by the time the victim’s heart exploded in his chest. That ghastly speech was followed by an extended description of the poison’s effects: loss of appetite, insomnia, restlessness, racing thoughts, palpitations, paranoid delusions, excessive perspiration, constipated bowel in some cases or diarrhea in others—”
The doctor nodded curtly. He had grown impatient. I knew what it was. The box. The package was pulling on him, beckoning him. Whatever Kearns had entrusted to this loquacious Englishman, it was valuable enough (at least in the monstrumological sense) to risk killing a man over its successful delivery.
“Yes, yes,” Warthrop said. “I am familiar with the effects of tipota. As acquainted, if not as intimately, as—”
Now it was Kendall who interrupted, for he was more there than here, and ever would be, lying helpless upon Kearns’s bed while the lunatic leaned over him, leering in the lamplight. I doubt the poor man ever fully escaped that dingy flat in London’s East End, not in the truest sense. To his death he remained a prisoner of that memory, a thrall in service to Dr. John Kearns.
“‘Please,’ I begged him,” Kendall continued. “‘Please, for the love of God!’
“Ill-chosen words, Dr. Warthrop! At the mention of the deity’s name, his entire manner was transformed, as if I had profaned the Virgin herself. His ghoulish grin disappeared, the mouth drew down, the eyes narrowed.
“‘For what, did you say?’ he asked in a dangerous whisper. ‘For God? Do you believe in God, Kendall? Are you praying to him now? How odd. Shouldn’t you rather pray to me, since I now hold death literally an inch from your nose? Who has more power now—me or God? Before you answer “God,” think carefully, Kendall. If you are right and I stab you with my needle, does that prove you right or wrong—and which answer would be worse? If right, then God surely favors me over you. In fact, he must despise you for your sin and I am merely his instrument. If wrong, then you pray to nothing.’ He shook the needle in my face. ‘Nothing!’ And then he laughed.”
As if in counterpoint he paused in his narration and cried bitter tears.
“And then he said, the foul beast, ‘Why do men pray to God, Kendall? I’ve never understood it. God loves us. We are his creation, like my spider; we are his beloved.… Yet when faced with mortal danger, we pray to him to spare us! Shouldn’t we pray instead to the one who would destroy us, who has sought our destruction from the very beginning? What I mean to say is… aren’t we praying to the wrong person? We should beseech the devil, not God. Don’t mistake me; I’m not telling you where to direct your supplications. I’m merely pointing out the fallacy of them—and perhaps hinting at the reason behind prayer’s curious inefficaciousness.’”
Kendall paused to angrily wipe clean his face, and said, “Well, I suppose you can guess what he did next.”
“He injected you with tipota,” tried my master. “And within a matter of seconds, you lost consciousness. When you awoke, Kearns was gone.”
Our tormented guest was nodding. “And in his stead, the package.”
“And you made straightaway to book your passage to America.”
“I considered going to the police, of course…”
“But doubted they would believe such an extravagant tale.”
“Or admitting myself into hospital…”
“Risking that they would not know the antidote for so rare a toxin.”
“I had no choice but to do his bidding and hope he was telling the truth, which it seems he was, for I am feeling myself again. Oh, I cannot tell you what agony these last eight days have been, Dr. Warthrop! What if you were away? What if those two hours’ delay in New York had been two hours too much? What if he’d been wrong and you knew not the antidote?”
“Well, I was not; they weren’t; and I did. And here you are, safe and sound and only slightly worse for wear!” The doctor turned quickly to me and said, “Will Henry, stay with our guest while I have a look at this ‘trifle’ of Dr. Kearns.’ Mr. Kendall might be hungry after his ordeal. See to it, Will Henry. If you’ll excuse me, Mr. Kendall, but Jack did say delay might cost the entire game.”
With that the monstrumologist fled from the room. I heard his hurried footfalls down the hall, the creak of the basement door, and then the thunder of his descent into the laboratory. An awkward silence ensued between my companion and me. I felt slightly embarrassed over the doctor’s abrupt and disrespectful departure. Warthrop was never one to observe the strict protocols of proper Victorian society.
“Would you care for something to eat, sir?” I asked.
Kendall drew a heavy breath, the color high in his cheeks, and said, “I just vomited and shat my way across the entire Atlantic Ocean. No, I would not like something to eat.”
“Another cup of tea?”
“Tea! Oh, dear God!”
So we sat for a few moments with but the ticking of the mantel clock for company, until at last he dozed off, for who knew how long it had been since he last had slept? I tried—and failed—to imagine the unimaginable terror he must have felt, knowing that with each tick of the clock he’d drawn closer to the final doorway, that one-way ingress into oblivion, every delay dangerous, each moment lost perilous. Did he consider himself lucky—or did he think it more than luck?
And then it occurred to me that he’d never given an answer to Kearns’s question: To whom should we pray? With a shudder I wondered to whom he had prayed—and who, precisely, had answered.
© 2011 Rick Yancey