The Isle of Blood

Page 25

I had suggested Torrance to von Helrung for his youth and physical prowess. (He was somewhat of a legend in monstrumological circles, nicknamed “John Henry” Torrance by his fellow scientists, after the legendary nail-driving strong man. The doctor had told me a story about Torrance flattening a charging Clunis foetidus with a single blow, hitting it so hard in the snout that it dropped dead at his feet.) I’d also suggested Torrance for the simple reason that he was one of the few monstrumologists that Warthrop liked, though the doctor did not approve of Torrance’s hard drinking and irreformable philandering. “It is a shame, Will Henry,” he told me. “With great gifts there always seem to come great burdens. He would be the best of us, if he only could control his appetites.”

Von Helrung was nervously puffing on the expired stub of a Havana cigar. He looked haggard, eyes swollen from lack of sleep, chin stubbly with a three-day-old growth that he rubbed incessantly with the palm of his pudgy hand.

It had not been the best week of his long life. Or my short one.

“Would you like another whiskey, Jacob?” asked von Helrung.

“Do you think I should? Probably shouldn’t.” Torrance clipped off the ends of his words, bit them hard with his large teeth, as if words had a taste and he liked the way they tasted. He swirled the ice in his glass. “Oh, what the hell.”

Von Helrung shuffled to the liquor cabinet. Among the decanters of sherry and brandy, bottles of wine and liqueurs, was a small blue bottle—the sleeping draught prescribed by Dr. Seward. He stared at it for a moment, brow furrowed, bushy white eyebrows nearly touching above his large nose, before he refilled Torrance’s glass with whiskey and scuffled back.

“Thanks.” Back went the finely sculpted head, the large Adam’s apple bobbed once, and the ice tinkled again in the empty glass.

“That’s enough,” he said to no one in particular. He adjusted the signet ring on his finger and mused, “Maybe I shouldn’t be sitting here when he comes in. Might make him suspicious.”

“He may not come,” von Helrung said. “He says nothing of coming, only that he arrives Thursday—today.” He consulted his pocket watch, snapped it closed. In another minute he would check the time again.

“Then, we’ll go to him,” Torrance said. “I’m up for a hunt. What about you, Will?”

“He’ll come,” I said. “He will have to.”

Von Helrung shook his head in consternation, a gesture Torrance and I had seen repeated since the evening had begun.

“I do not like this. I have said it before; I say it again. I do not like any of this. Ack! It goes against everything I believe in—or have said I believed in—or believed I believed in. It is not the way a Christian gentleman behaves!”

“I’ll take your word for it, Meister Abram,” Torrance returned dryly. “Can’t say I’ve met many of those, and those I have didn’t act very Christlike.”

He pulled out his Colt revolver, and von Helrung cried, “What are you doing? Put that away!”

“It’s only Sylvia,” said Torrance slowly, as if speaking to a half-wit. “All right, I’ll put her away.”

“I never should have trusted him,” moaned von Helrung. “I am a fool—the very worst kind of fool—an old fool.”

“How are you a fool? He came with excellent references and letters of recommendation, and claimed to hail from one of the oldest families in Long Island. Why wouldn’t you trust him?”

“Because I am a monstrumologist!” von Helrung replied, striking his breast. “An old monstrumologist. And a monstrumologist does not get to be my age without a healthy dose of skepticism. The eyes and ears are not to be trusted! I have spent my career stripping off nature’s masks; I should have seen through the ruse. But did I see it? No! It took a child to show the way.”

of theight="0em" width="1em">“Don’t take it so hard, Meister Abram. He fooled Warthrop, too, and Warthrop’s no fool.” His fingers drummed on the chair arm the cadence of a galloping horse.

At the mention of the doctor’s name, von Helrung collapsed into his chair with a loud cry. “Pellinore! Pellinore, forgive me. Thy blood is on my hands!”

“We don’t know if he’s dead,” I spoke up. “Arkwright could be lying about that, too.”

“There is only one reason he would say so—because it is so!”

“You said it yourself, Dr. von Helrung,” I returned. “Hope isn’t any less reasonable than despair. I think he’s alive.”

“You hope that he is.”

“Well, he could be alive,” Torrance put in. “So my money’s with Will’s. I hate to think of a world without Pellinore Warthrop—be a hell of a lot less interesting place.”

He stood up, which seemed to take a very long time—he was well over six feet tall—and opened his powerful arms wide to stretch. “Well, I’m going to find something to eat. I suppose you’ve sent François home for the evening?”

“Ja, and the rest.” And then he added bitterly, “We would not want any witnesses, would we?”

“Speaking of that, I think I will stay out of sight till you’re ready for me. Wouldn’t want the little rat to smell one. That’s a shame, about François I mean. That fellow’s crepes are the finest I’ve ever tasted.”

“Will, I am sorry,” von Helrung said after Torrance had left. “If I had only listened to you—”

He was interrupted by the bell. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath to steel his nerves.

“Our quarry arrives,” he said. “Now we screw our courage to the sticking place, Master Henry. How is my expression? I fear the fly will see me for the spider I am!”

He glanced at himself in the mirror by the front door, tugged at his vest, and ran both hands over his mop of white hair. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught me easing into the vestibule.

“What are you doing?” he cried softly. “No, no. Go back to the parlor.” He waved frantically toward the room. “Lie upon the divan. You have collapsed in grief! You have lost your master—lost everything. Can you feign tears? Rub your eyes, very hard, make them red.”

The bell rang a second time. I scampered back to the parlor, threw myself upon the divan, and practiced a keening wail, softly, but not soft enough, for von Helrung, just before he flung open the door, called out hoarsely, “What is that? What is that? Soft tears—tears of lamentation. You sound like a hog in the slaughterhouse!”

And then: “Thomas! Thank God you hve arrived safely! I was worried.”

“Dr. von Helrung—Meister Abram—that I’ve arrived at all is nothing short of a miracle.”

“But you look terrible—exhausted. Here, I will take your bags; my staff has left for the evening. And we will retire to the parlor, where you may rest from your long and no doubt dangerous journey.”

They stepped into the room. Arkwright started when he saw me, and turned to his host. “Not the boy. I beg you, sir—” He was carrying a worn leather satchel. I recognized it at once, and a dagger pierced my heart. It was the doctor’s field case, an heirloom from his father, who’d received it from his father. Warthrop would never have willingly parted with it.

“I would prefer that Will remain,” von Helrung said stiffly, his jaw tightening. He looked as if he might haul back and coldcock Arkwright; he was not an accomplished actor. “And pray you will indulge me in this, Thomas. The boy has been through much at the side of our fallen friend; I thought he should hear firsthand of his fate.”

Arkwright nodded absently, fell into the chair vacated by Jacob Torrance, cradling the doctor’s field case in his lap as a toddler clutches a favored toy, and promptly forgot my presence. His sole focus was von Helrung, the “mark” of his confidence game.

Von Helrung took a fresh cigar from the humidor and clipped off the tip. He lit a match after rolling the cut end over his tongue; the flare chased all shadowy crevices from his face. For an instant he looked ten years younger.

“So begin at the beginning, and tell me everything,” he said, bluish smoke enveloping his head. “Warthrop is dead?”

“That isn’t the beginning,” Arkwright objected. “It’s the end—and a terrible one. After these months in his company, I am satisfied he was every bit the great man I thought he was before we met. Ten times greater! The loss to science… to me personally… and to you, of course… to all humanity! Incalculable, Dr. von Helrung. A man like Pellinore Warthrop comes along very seldom, perhaps once in a hundred years, and to lose him now, in the prime of life, at the height of his considerable powers—the mind can hardly grasp it.”

“Alas, dear Thomas,” commiserated von Helrung, “such is the fate of many great men in life, but particularly in monstrumology! At least tell me that God granted him, like his prophet Moses, a glimpse of the promised land before his passing? Did he see—have you seen—the Unseen? Did he, before he faced his end, face the Faceless? Otherwise, all has been for naught.”

Arkwright slowly shook his head. “He was taken up, von Helrung. Snatched from our camp in the dead of night as if the hand of God had reached down and grabbed him, and then…” He made a choking sound, as if he were about to be sick. “And then the rain! The rain!” His body folded up in the chair, crushing the case against his stomach; I heard the faint dull clank of the instruments within. “A rain of blood—a red rain of—of—” His voice dropped to a mortified whisper. “Him.”/em>

“What?” Von Helrung seemed genuinely horrified. “Do you mean to say his body was torn asunder?”

Arkwright opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came out. He nodded helplessly. Von Helrung sighed loudly and looked over at me.

“So Dr. Pellinore Warthrop makes seven,” he said softly. “No—eight now, for your news has torn this old man’s heart asunder. He was like a son to me, Thomas—the one with whom I’d cheerfully trade places. Ach, terrible, terrible.” He wiped his palm over his forehead, and no one spoke for a few minutes. Then von Helrung looked at Arkwright, and his gaze was hard. “But you escaped. How is this so?”

“The simplest answer, sir. I ran.”

“And you did not see it? The thing that took him?”

“It was his turn to keep the watch,” Arkwright answered with a note of defensiveness. “I was sleeping. I woke to the snap and pop of the tent canvas, blown by a gale that came straight down, from the very vault of heaven, strong enough to crack the center pole, and then I heard an unearthly roar, like the sound of thunder or the blasting of a thousand pounds of TNT, followed by a screeching loud enough to split a man’s head in half. I grabbed my rifle and crawled to the opening—and saw his legs fly straight up as he was yanked into the sky, and above… a shadow large enough to blot out the stars, as big as a house, and Warthrop ascending like one of the saved on Judgment Day.… That is what I saw, Meister Abram. And I am satisfied to never see it again for as long as I live!”

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