“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 youheart 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 hadn̵t 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.
“‘’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.