All that is left is men.
Chapter One: “A Very Dangerous Poison”
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 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?”