I looked down at the hat. A silly gift, she had called it. Perhaps it was silly compared to the ultimate gift. What gift would not be? And perhaps I was silly to feel any attachment to it or to the man who had given it to me. Little good can come of this, Will Henry. I looked at the spot where my finger should have been. That was nothing, the smallest of losses. In the warm kitchen a woman bakes her little boy an apple pie. A man lies upon the floor, spreads his arms, and transforms himself into a ship of a thousand sails.
And in the arena are two identical doors…
She reached out and laid her hand upon my cheek. She knew. She never doubted, in the spot where doubt matters, which door I would choose.
Chapter Twenty: “I Choose to Serve the Light”
Jacob Torrance filled the majority of his time during the six-day crossing with three things: carousing, philandering, and poker—in that order, with the occasional argument with Dr. von Helrung thrown in to break up the monotony. I suppose he slept a bit as well, but he did not share my state-room. I bunked with the old Austrian monstrumologist, who, I quickly discovered, shed most of his dignity when he put on his nightshirt (he was quite bandy-legged and a little potbellied), though that is true of almost everyone.
I missed one or two of their opening skirmishes. Hardly had Lady Liberty slipped beneath the horizon than I came down with a horrible case of mal de mer, the bane of land-lubbers, forcing me to become more intimately acquainted with a toilet than any person ought to be. Von Helrung put me to bed, gave me some salt crackers, and suggested, very seriously, that the best cure for seasickness was dancing.
“No, it’s olives,” countered Torrance. “Or gingerroot. You should gnaw on a root, Mr. Henry.”
“On every voyage my wife would suffer the same as Will,” von Helrung returned. “We would go dancing, and all would be fine.”
“So you would like to take Will dancing?”
“It makes more sense for him to dance than to gnaw on a root.”
“Maybe he should do both—gnaw on a root while he danced.”
“I’d rather not dance or eat,” I croaked. “Ever again.”
On the second day I was feeling a little better—well enough to try out my sea legs, anyway, and left the stateroom to explore the liner. After an hour of wandering the labyrinthine corridors and miles of decks, I discovered von Helrung and Torrance on the upper promenade, sitting in rocking chairs, the ever-present tumbler of Scotch by Torrance’s elbow. He had an annoying habit of smoothing his perfectly trimmed mustache after every sip.
“… not consistent. Not consistent at all, Jacob,” von Helrung was scolding his former student as I approached. So engrossed were they in the debate that my presence at first went unnoticed.
“I’m not saying it is there, Meister Abram—merely that we should look into it.”
“And I ask again, why would Arkwright lie about all things except the most important thing?”
“He wasn’t lying about Warthrop,” Torrance pointed out. “Well, not on the third go around, anyway.”
Von Helrung had received the news via telegram on the morning of our departure. His source had reported that the doctor was indeed where Arkwright had said he was—alive and well, or as well as might be expected, if you were Pellinore Warthrop and woke one day to find yourself in a decidedly un-Warthropian milieu. Von Helrung had been beside himself with joy; he actually danced a little jig on the dock when he read the cable. Perhaps he thought it odd, my somewhat muted reaction, but I had never lost hope, not really. You may call me a mystic or attribute my faith to the magical thinking of a child. Still, whatever one might say of mystics or faith or the thoughts of children, I believed if the doctor were really dead I would know it; I would feel it. Though fear for his life had sent me running on a river of blood and fire to save him, when I’d read the words in von Helrung’s vestibule, Warthrop is dead, I’d known them to be a lie—had known it in the way a child knows things only God himself could have told him.
“But why there of all places?” von Helrung had wondered after his impromptu celebratory dance.
“It’s perfect!” Torrance had exclaimed. “Can’t think of a more perfect place. Perfectly escape-proof and perfectly poetic. Kearns’s idea, I’m sure. I will give the man his due. The dirty louse has panache.”
“No, it must have been part of the deceit. It is not Masirah,” von Helrung was now insisting. “It could not be. Too far north and too close to the mainland. Oman is but ten miles to the west.”
Torrance was not going to give up easily, though. It was difficult to tell with Jacob Torrance. I wondered if he really believed everything he said or if he played devil’s advocate just for the childish thrill of it.
“But it could work, Meister Abram—sparsely populated, surrounded by treacherous currents, a rough and rocky coastline, a rugged inhospitable terrain. It could work.” He jiggled the ice in his tumbler. “The general area is right. Maybe our quarry has expanded its territory or migrated northward. It has been nearly forty years since the Lakshadweep discovery. Masirah is how far from Agatti? A thousand or so miles? That’s an average migration rate of twenty-five miles per year, very reasonable, particularly if the flying version of the magnificum turns out to be the right one.”
“I am not saying it is false from a monstrumological standpoint, Torrance,” von Helrung snapped. “If you are correct and the British government is involved, why would its agent reveal the one thing thould most want hidden, and hide all the rest? No. They choose Masirah for Pellinore to meet his Waterloo because it would seem a reasonable nesting ground to us and it was far from the real one.”
The old man’s face darkened, and he added, “Of course, the entire issue would be moot if you had kept your head in the Monstrumarium.”
“I didn’t ask Arkwright, because I didn’t need to, Meister Abram,” returned Torrance.
“I see! You are adept at mind reading as well as torture.”
“You’re just trying to get under my skin. That’s all right. The reason I didn’t ask Arkwright is Warthrop. I didn’t need Arkwright to tell me something I can get straight from the horse’s mouth.”
“And what convinces you that—”
“Why put the hound back in its kennel unless you’ve bagged the fox? Warthrop had served his purpose. He’d found the home of the magnificum. Now the really interesting question is—”
His head came round; he must have seen me out of the corner of his eye.
“And here he is!” he said. “Like Lazarus three days dead from the tomb. Only Lazarus had better coloring. Stand back there, Mr. Henry, and head for the railing if you’re going to be sick again. I’ve just shined these shoes. Now, where is that steward? My glass is empty and my whistle’s dry.”
He excused himself and strode off without the slightest sway in his step. The more he drank, it seemed, the sturdier he became.
Von Helrung patted the arm of the rocker Torrance had vacated, and I sat down. Why people would find it pleasant to sit in a rocking chair on a rolling deck of an ocean liner was perplexing, to say the least.
“Dr. Torrance sounds like him sometimes,” I said.
Von Helrung nodded; his expression was sad. “I am sorry to say I agree with you, mein Freund Will. When I was younger, I often wondered if monstrumology brought out the darkness in men’s hearts or if it attracted men with hearts of darkness. I think now it is not the nature of monstrumology but the nature of man. The truth makes us uncomfortable, as truth often does. In every heart, there lives a Jack Kearns.”
What he is, that’s what you are inside, I had told the monstrumologist.
On our final night at sea, unable to sleep and no longer able to endure the rumbling of my roommate’s tummy (von Helrung complained regularly of indigestion), I slipped out of the stateroom and headed for the foredeck. The North Atlantic was restless that night; driven by a sharp southwest wind, the waves smashed and ground angrily against the prow. The deck rose and fell, rose and fell, up toward the cloud-covered sky, then down toward the dark, cold water, as if our ship were balanced upon a fulcrum, teeter-tottering between heaven and hell. I spied two gul flitting in and out of the running lights, but that was the only life—and only light—I saw. There was no horizon; the world was black from top to bottom. I had the vertiginous sense of being very small in an immense space, like a speck of dust floating in the proto-universe, before the sun was born, before the light pushed back the darkness.
The world is large, dear Will, and we, no matter how much we would like to pretend otherwise, we are quite small.
The next day, my exile would end. But that was the only thing that would. If Torrance was right and Warthrop knew where to find the magnificum, our rescue was not the end.
I choose to serve the light, he once told me. Though that bondage often lies in darkness.
Right now was the time of equilibrium between light and dark, the time between before and after.
I was leaving something behind. It had been within my grasp. I had only had to stretch forth my hand and seize it. Instead I’d watched it burn in the fireplace of the bedroom on Riverside Drive, when the woman who had sung to comfort me in the lightless, unwinding place had tossed an envelope into the flames.
I was approaching something. I thought I understood what it was. My place is with the doctor, I had said—a statement of fact, and a promise, too. I thought I knew what to expect after the end of our exile, the doctor’s and mine. I understood—or thought I understood—the cost of service to the monstrumologist. I was reminded of it every time I washed my hands.
That night on the foredeck, under the starless sky, in the space between before and after, I looked out and saw darkness. He would go into that darkness in service to the light. And where he went, I would follow.
I thought I knew the cost of service to the one whose path lies in darkness.
I did not.
He thought he knew what he would find in that darkness.
He did not.
Its name is Typhoeus magnificum, the Magnificent Father, the Faceless One we cannot help but turn and face. The One of a Thousand Faces that is there when we turn to look, and then looks back at us.
It is the magnificum. It lives in that space between spaces, in that spot one ten-thousandth of an inch outside your range of vision. You cannot see it. It sees you. And when it sees you, it does not see you. It has no conception of you. There is magnificum and nothing else.
You are the nest. You are the hatchling. You are the chrysalis. You are the progeny. You are the rot that falls from stars.
You may not understand what I mean.
Chapter Twenty-One: “A Pleasure to Meet You”
A sallow-faced little man was waiting for us in the lobby of our hotel, the Great Western at Paddington Station, upon our arrival in London. He wore a topcoat of Harris Tweed over a cashmere suit and sported the worst haircut I had ever seen; his hair looked as if someone had hacked at it with a dull knife. I would later learn that Dr. Hiram Walker had been a barber—among other things; he’d once made a go of sheep farming—before entering the field of aberrant biology. He had bid adieu to all of his customers except one: himself. He smoked a pipe, walked with a cane, hummed nervously through his nose, and regarded the world through small, shifty eyes, like a cornered rat. Those eyes lighted for a moment upon the powerful physique of Jacob Torrance with undisguised distaste; clearly he was not pleased.