The Isle of Blood

Page 23

I sighed. I felt her eyes on me as I studied the board. I willed myself not to look up. The breeze tickled the new leaves of the trees; the spring air was soft and smelled of her lavender soap. Her dress was yellow, and she wore a white hat with a yellow ribbon and a large yellow bow. Even with a new wardrobe and a fresh haircut, next to her I felt shabby.

“Still no word from your doctor?”

“I wish you wouldn’t say it like that,” I said without looking up. “He isn’t ‘my’ doctor.”

“Well, if he isn’t yours, I’d like to know whose he is. And don’t try to change the subject.”

“One of the benefits about thinking too much,” I said, “is that you notice the little things, things other people miss. You say ‘your doctor’ like that on purpose, because you know it annoys me.”

“And why would I want to do that?” I heard a smile in her voice.

“Because you enjoy annoying me. And before you ask why you enjoy annoying me, I suggest you ask yourself that question. I don’t know why.”

“You’re in a mood.”

“I don’t like losing.”

“You were in a mood before we started playing.”

I moved my king out of danger. She barely glanced at the board before swooping in and capturing my last bishop. Inwardly I groaned. It was only a matter of time now.

“You can always concede,” she suggested.

“I shall fight on until the last drop of blood is spilt.”

“Oh! How so very un-Will-Henry-like! You sounded very much like a doer just then. Like Leonidas at Thermopylae.”

My cheeks were warm. I should have known not to become too pleased with myself, though.

“And all this while I thought of you as Penelope.”

“Penelope!” My cheeks grew hotter, albeit for an entirely different reason.

“Pining away in your bridal chamber, waiting for Odysseus to return from the war.”

“Do you enjoy being mean, Lilly, or is it something you can’t help, like a nervous tic?”

“You shouldn’t talk to me that way, William,” she said, laughing. “I’m to be your big sister soon.”

“Not if the doctor has anything to say about it.”

“I would think your doctor would be relieved. I was not around him much, but I got the feeling he didn’t like you.”

She had gone too far, and knew it. “That was cruel,” she said. “I’m sorry, Will. I—I don’t know what comes over me sometimes.”

“No,” I said with a wave of my wounded hand. “It’s your move, Lilly.”

She moved her knight, exposing her queen to my pawn. A pawn! I glanced up at her. Speckles of sunlight shimmered in her dark hair, a strand of which had come loose from her hat and fluttered, a fitful black streamer, in the soft springtime wind.

“Why do you think you haven’t heard from him, Will?” she asked. The quality of her voice had changed, was as soft as the wind now.

“I think something terrible has happened,” I confessed.

We stared into each other’s eyes for a long moment, and then I was up from the bench and trotting across the park, and the world had gone watery gray, bleached of its springtime vibrancy. She caught up to me before I reached the exit at Fifth Avenue, and pulled me round to face her.

“Then, you must do something,” she said angrily. “Not think about how frightened you are or lonely you are or whatever it is you think you are. Do you really think something terrible has happened? Because if I thought something terrible had happened to someone I loved, I would not mope around thinking about it. I would be on the next boat to Europe. And if I had no money for a ticket, I would stow away, and if I couldn’t stow away, I would swim there.”

“I don’t love him. I hate him. I hate Pellinore Warthrop more than I hate anything. More than I hate you. You don’t know, Lilly. You don’t know what it’s been like, living there in that house, and what happens in that house and what happens because I live in that house.…”

“Like this?” She gathered my left hand into hers.

“Yes, like that. And that isn’t all, not everything.”

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“What? No, he doesn’t beat me. He… he doesn’t see me. Days go by, weeks sometimes… and then I can’t escape him; I can’t get away. As if he’s taken a rope and tied us together with it. And it’s him and me and the rope, and there is no undoing it. That’s the thing you don’t understand, that your mother doesn’t understand, that no one understands. He is thousands of miles away—maybe even dead—and it doesn’t matter. He’s right here, right here.” I slapped my open palm hard against my forehead. “And there’s no getting away. It’s too tight, too tight.”

My knees gave way. She threw her arms around me and held me up. She kept me from falling.

“Then, don’t try, Will,” she whispered into my ear. “Don’t try to get away.”

“You don’t understand, Lilly.”

“No,” she said. “I don’t. But I am not the one who has to.”

Chapter Sixteen: “Be Still and Listen”

I had discovered it during one of my recent forays into the formidable library of the Monstrumologist Society, a slim volume covered in a fine sheen of dust, some of its pages still uncut, its spine creaseless. Apparently no one had bothered to read it since its publication in 1871. What drew my eye to that little book, out of the sixteen thousand others surrounding it, I do not know. But I remember distinctly the small jolt of recognition when I opened to the title page and saw the author’s name. It was like turning the corner in a crowded city and bumping into a long-lost friend you’d given up hope of ever seeing again.

It was late in the day when I found it—no time to read it before the library closed—and there was a strict no-lending policy toward nonmembers. So I filched it. Tucked it under the back of my coat and walked out, right past Mr. Vestergaard, the head librarian, whom most monstrumologists called (behind his back) the Prince of Leaves—a rather weak bit of whimsy, I thought, but a monstrumologist’s sense of humor, if he had one at all, tended toward the macabre. Efforts at anything lighter of heart invariably fell flat.

Though the slim volume had been composed when Warthrop was only eighteen—a mere five years older than I when I discovered it—as part of his final examination before the Admitting Committee of the Society, as a dissertation of sorts, the writing was remarkably sophisticated, if characteristically prolix. The title alone made my eyes glaze over: Of Uncertain Origin: The Case for Interdisciplinary Openness and Intellectual Collectivism Between All Disciplines of the Natural Sciences, Including Studies in the Field of Aberrant Biology, with Extended Notes upon the Development of Canonical Principles from Descartes to the Present Day.

But I read it—most of it, anyway—because the subject matter wasn’t the thing I was after. Reading his words was the nearest I could get to hearing his voice. The Warthropian diction was there, the authoritative tone, the rigorous—some might say ruthless—logic. Every line held echoes of the older Warthrop’s voice, and reading them, sometimes aloud, late at night in my room, when the house was quiet and it was just Warthrop’s words and me, opened a door for him to return and talk a little while. I caught myself murmuring after certain passages, “Really, sir?” and “Is that so, Dr. Warthrop?” as if we were back in the library at Harrington Lane and he was boring me with some arcane text written a hundred years ago by someone I’d never heard of, a form of mental cruelty that sometimes lasted for hours.

The night of my near-collapse in Washington Square Park, I picked up the book again, because I could not sleep, and I thought, with a little bit of spite, that the book would have definitely found a wider audience if it had been marketed to insomniacs. I opened it to a random page, and my eye fell upon this passage:

A thing is either true (real) or it is not. There is no such thing as a half-truth in science. A scientific proposition is like a candle. The candle can be said to have two states or modes—lit and unlit. That is, a candle is either one or the other; it cannot be both; it cannot be “half-lit.” If a thing is true, to put it colloquially, it is true through and through. If false, then false through and through.

“Is that so, Dr. Warthrop?” I asked him. “What if the candle has a wick at both ends? One is lit, the other not. Could not one say in that hypothetical circumstance that the candle is indeed both lit and unlit, and your argument false through and through?” I chortled sleepily to myself.

You cannot change the central element of an analogy to make it false, Will Henry, his voice spoke into my ear. Is this why you’re reading this old monograph of mine? To make yourself feel better at my expense? After all I’ve done for you!

“And to me. Let’s not forget that.”

How could I? I am constantly reminded of it.

“I’m doomed, like Mr. Kendall. Just doomed.”

What do you mean?

“Even when you’re gone, I can’t get rid of you.”

I don’t see how that is analogous to Mr. Kendall’s fate.

“Once touched, infected. Just tell me, please, if you are dead. If you’re dead, there is hope for me.”

I’m right here. How could I be dead? Really, Will Henry, was there some childhood accident of which I’m not aware? Did you fall down a flight of stairs, perhaps? Did your mother drop you as an infant or suffer a fall while she carried you in her womb?

“Why do you insult me all the time?” I asked him. “To make yourself feel better at my expense? After all I’ve done for you!”

What have you done for me?

“Everything! I do everything for you. I wash and cook and launder and run errands and—and everything except wipe your arse!” I laughed. My heart felt thrillingly light, no heavier than a grain of sand. “Arse wipe.”

Will Henry, did I hear you call me a name?

“I would never call you a name—to your face. I was remembering something Adolphus said. He mistook ‘Arkwright’ for ‘arse wipe.’”

Ah, Arkwright. That’s the perfect alternative to my candle analogy.

“I don’t understand.”

If you will be still and listen, I will explain. Thomas Arkwright is the candle. He is either who he claims to be or he is not. He cannot be both. Either von Helrung is right or you are. You cannot both be.

“I know that, Dr. Warthrop.”

Didn’t I just now, no more than thirty seconds ago, ask you to be still and listen? Seriously, Will Henry—perhaps an accident in the stable? Or milking the irascible family cow? Let us assume for a moment that von Helrung is correct. Mr. Thomas Arkwright is who he claims to be, a brilliant young man with a passion for all things monstrumological, who happens to be enamored with a certain doctor of natural philosophy, so enamored, in fact, that he writes not once, not twice, not three times, but a total thirteen times, begging for a position to study with this modern-day Prometheus, this colossus that bestrides the scientific landscape.

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