“Well, I will confess I didn’t know what to think, Dr. Warthrop. What was I to think? In an instant and without warning, all my faculties had been stripped from me, and now I lay dizzy, my thoughts a blur, paralyzed upon his bed, with him leering down at me. What was a man to think?
“‘It is a small matter,’ he went on. ‘A trifle, really. But it should be delivered sooner rather than later. If it is what I suspect it is and represents what I think it represents, he’ll want it quickly. Delay might cost him the entire game and he would never forgive me.’
“‘Who?’ I asked. Understand, I was quite beside myself at this point, for it had at last dawned on me that he was the cause of my sudden and mysterious affliction. ‘Who would never forgive you?’
“‘Warthrop! Warthrop, of course. The monstrumolo-gist. Now, don’t tell me you’ve never heard of him. He’s a very dear friend of mine. You might call us brothers, in a spiritual sense of course, though we couldn’t be more different from each other. He’s entirely too serious, for one, and he possesses a curious romantic streak for someone who fancies himself a scientist. Has a savior complex, if you want my opinion. Wants to save the whole bloody world from itself, while my motto has always been “live and let live.” Why, the other day I killed a large spider, quite without thinking it through—and afterward I was consumed with remorse, for what had that spider ever done to me? What makes me, by virtue of my superior intellect and size, any better than my eight-legged flatmate? I did not choose to be a man any more than he chose to be a spider. Are we both not equal players in the grand design, each fulfilling the role given to us—until I violated the sacred covenant between us and the one who made us? It’s enough to tear a man’s soul in twain.’
“‘You’re mad,’ I told him; I could not help myself.
“‘To the contrary, my dear Kendall,’ the monster replied. ‘It is your great good fortune to be in the company of the sanest man alive. It has taken me years to rid myself of all delusion and pretense, the cloak of self-righteous superiority with which we humans drape ourselves. In this sense the spider is our superior. He does not question his nature. He is not burdened by the sense of self. The mirror is nothing to him but a pane of glass. He is pure, as sinless as Adam before the fall. Even Warthrop, that incorrigible moralist, would agree with me. I’ve no more right to kill the spider than you’ve to judge me. You, sir, are the hare at this tea party; I am Alice.’
“He withdrew for a moment while I lay as if a two-ton boulder pressed down upon me, barely able to draw the next breath. When he returned, he was holding the syringe in his hand. I will confess, Dr. Warthrop, I’d never known fear like that. The room began to spin again, but not from any sleeping draft—from sheer terror. Helplessly I watched as he tapped the glass and pressed upon the plunger. A single drop clung to the needle’s tip, glistening like the finest crystal in the lamplight.
“‘Do you know what this is, Kendall?’ he asked softly, and then he chuckled long and low. ‘Of course you don’t! I wax rhetorical. It’s a very rare toxin distilled from the sap of the pyrite tree, an interesting example of one of the Creator’s more maleficent flora, indigenous to a single island forty nautical miles from the Galápagos Archipelago, called the Isle of Demons. I love that name, don’t you? It’s so… evocative. But now I wax poetical.’
“He drew close—so close I could see my own reflection in the dark, blank pools that were his eyes. Oh, those eyes! If I ever should see them again in a thousand years, it would be too soon! Blacker than the blackest pit, empty—so empty of… of everything, Dr. Warthrop. Not human. Not animal. Not anything.
“‘It’s called tipota,’ he whispered. ‘Remember that, Kendall! When Warthrop asks you what I’ve stuck you with, tell him that. Tell him, “It is tipota. He poisoned me with tipota!” ’”
My master was nodding gravely, but did I detect a hint of amusement in his eyes? I wondered what in this horrible tale the monstrumologist could find the least bit comical.
“He slipped a piece of paper into my pocket—yes! Here it is; I still have it.”
He held it up for the doctor to see.
“Your address—and the name of the poison, lest I forget it. Forget it! As if I will ever forget that accursed name! He told me I had ten days. ‘More or less, my dear Kendall.’ More or less! He proceeded to lecture me—hovering there with that horrid needle glistening an inch from my nose—on how prized this poison was; how the czar of Russia kept a stash of it in the royal safe; how it was valued by the ancients (‘They say it was what really killed Cleopatra’); how it was the method of choice of assassins, preferred because it was so slow-acting, allowing the perpetrator to be miles away by the time the victim’s heart exploded in his chest. That ghastly speech was followed by an extended description of the poison’s effects: loss of appetite, insomnia, restlessness, racing thoughts, palpitations, paranoid delusions, excessive perspiration, constipated bowel in some cases or diarrhea in others—”
The doctor nodded curtly. He had grown impatient. I knew what it was. The box. The package was pulling on him, beckoning him. Whatever Kearns had entrusted to this loquacious Englishman, it was valuable enough (at least in the monstrumological sense) to risk killing a man over its successful delivery.
“Yes, yes,” Warthrop said. “I am familiar with the effects of tipota. As acquainted, if not as intimately, as—”
Now it was Kendall who interrupted, for he was more there than here, and ever would be, lying helpless upon Kearns’s bed while the lunatic leaned over him, leering in the lamplight. I doubt the poor man ever fully escaped that dingy flat in London’s East End, not in the truest sense. To his death he remained a prisoner of that memory, a thrall in service to Dr. John Kearns.
“‘Please,’ I begged him,” Kendall continued. “‘Please, for the love of God!’
“Ill-chosen words, Dr. Warthrop! At the mention of the deity’s name, his entire manner was transformed, as if I had profaned the Virgin herself. His ghoulish grin disappeared, the mouth drew down, the eyes narrowed.
“‘For what, did you say?’ he asked in a dangerous whisper. ‘For God? Do you believe in God, Kendall? Are you praying to him now? How odd. Shouldn’t you rather pray to me, since I now hold death literally an inch from your nose? Who has more power now—me or God? Before you answer “God,” think carefully, Kendall. If you are right and I stab you with my needle, does that prove you right or wrong—and which answer would be worse? If right, then God surely favors me over you. In fact, he must despise you for your sin and I am merely his instrument. If wrong, then you pray to nothing.’ He shook the needle in my face. ‘Nothing!’ And then he laughed.”
As if in counterpoint he paused in his narration and cried bitter tears.
“And then he said, the foul beast, ‘Why do men pray to God, Kendall? I’ve never understood it. God loves us. We are his cron, like my spider; we are his beloved.… Yet when faced with mortal danger, we pray to him to spare us! Shouldn’t we pray instead to the one who would destroy us, who has sought our destruction from the very beginning? What I mean to say is… aren’t we praying to the wrong person? We should beseech the devil, not God. Don’t mistake me; I’m not telling you where to direct your supplications. I’m merely pointing out the fallacy of them—and perhaps hinting at the reason behind prayer’s curious inefficaciousness.’”
Kendall paused to angrily wipe clean his face, and said, “Well, I suppose you can guess what he did next.”
“He injected you with tipota,” tried my master. “And within a matter of seconds, you lost consciousness. When you awoke, Kearns was gone.”
Our tormented guest was nodding. “And in his stead, the package.”
“And you made straightaway to book your passage to America.”
“I considered going to the police, of course…”
“But doubted they would believe such an extravagant tale.”
“Or admitting myself into hospital…”
“Risking that they would not know the antidote for so rare a toxin.”
“I had no choice but to do his bidding and hope he was telling the truth, which it seems he was, for I am feeling myself again. Oh, I cannot tell you what agony these last eight days have been, Dr. Warthrop! What if you were away? What if those two hours’ delay in New York had been two hours too much? What if he’d been wrong and you knew not the antidote?”
“Well, I was not; they weren’t; and I did. And here you are, safe and sound and only slightly worse for wear!” The doctor turned quickly to me and said, “Will Henry, stay with our guest while I have a look at this ‘trifle’ of Dr. Kearns.’ Mr. Kendall might be hungry after his ordeal. See to it, Will Henry. If you’ll excuse me, Mr. Kendall, but Jack did say delay might cost the entire game.”
With that the monstrumologist fled from the room. I heard his hurried footfalls down the hall, the creak of the basement door, and then the thunder of his descent into the laboratory. An awkward silence ensued between my companion and me. I felt slightly embarrassed over the doctor’s abrupt and disrespectful departure. Warthrop was never one to observe the strict protocols of proper Victorian society.
“Would you care for something to eat, sir?” I asked.
Kendall drew a heavy breath, the color high in his cheeks, and said, “I just vomited and shat my way across the entire Atlantic Ocean. No, I would not like something to eat.”
“Another cup of tea?”
“Tea! Oh, dear God!”
So we sat for a few moments with but the ticking of the mantel clock for company, until at last he dozed off, for who knew how long it had been since he last had slept? I tried—and failed—to imagine the unimaginable terror he must have felt, knowing that with each tick of the clock he’d drawn closer to the final doorway, that one-way ingress into oblivion, every delay dangerous, each moment lost perilous. Did he consider himself lucky—or did he think it more than luck?
And then it occurred to me that he’d never given an answer to Kearns’s question: To whom should we pray? With a shudder I wondered to whom he had prayed—and who, precisely, had answered.
Chapter Two: “I Have All That I Need”
I crept from the parlor to the basement door, reasoning that, though unbidden, I would be slightly less useless by the doctor’s side. The laboratory below was ablaze in light, and I could hear the soft, unintelligible exclamations of the monstrumologist. I will confess even I, who thought daily of running away from the house on Harrington Lane as fast as his thirteen-year-old legs could carry him, who more than once wished he could be anywhere in the world other than at the side of a monstrumologist before the necropsy table, who nearly every night prayed to the same holy being—about whose efficacy and existence the unholy Kearns had scoffed—that he might be delivered, somehow, some way, into a life more like the one that had been snatched from him nearly three years before, even I felt the pull of the box, felt the by now familiar morbid regard for all loathsome things… the citizens of our nightmares… the denizens of our darkest dreams. What is in that package? What has been delivered this night?