But within that thing inside unwinding, das Ungeheuer, also dwelled the loathing—the counterbalancing force of revulsion that screamed for me to remain in the parlor with Kendall.
My charge had moved not a muscle in nearly an hour and did not look as if he would for several more. If I remained a moment more, my heart might explode. By that point I did not merely want to look at Kearns’s special gift. I had to look.
I crept down the hall and peeked into the library, where I spied the monstrumologist seated at the table, his head resting on his folded arms. Softly I called his name. He did not move.
Well, thought I, he’s either sleeping or he’s dead. If the former, I dare not wake him. If the latter, I cannot!
I shuffled quickly and quietly to the basement door, hesitating but half a breath before making the descent.
And within me, the unwinding.
Just one little look, I promised myself. I reasoned it must be a very curious prize indeed for my master to be so secretive about it. And, to be honest, my pride was wounded. I interpreted his caginess as ak of trust—after all we had been through together! If he could not trust me, the one person in the world who endured him, whom could he trust?
A black cloth covered the worktable. Beneath it lay the prize of Dr. John Kearns; I could see the outline of the box in which it had arrived. Now, why had the monstrumolo-gist covered it? To hide it from prying eyes, obviously—and there was only one pair of eyes in the house that would pry.
My anger and shame doubled. How dare he! Had I not proved myself time and again? Had I not always been the model of unquestioning loyalty and steadfast devotion? And this was my recompense? The gall of the man!
I did not gingerly lift one corner and furtively glance at what lay beneath. I flung back the black cloth; it snapped angrily in the cold atmosphere as it fell away.
Chapter Three: “The Answer to a Prayer Unspoken”
I gasped; I could not help it. I might have perversely prided myself on my transformation from naïve boy to world-weary apprentice to a monstrumologist, morbidly happy with the carapace that had grown around my tender sensibilities, but this laid me bare, exposing the aboriginal protohuman that still dwells within us all, the one who regards in terror the vast depths of the evening sky and the unblinking eye of the soulless moon. The doctor’s word for it had been “magnificent.” That was not the word I would have chosen.
From a greater distance and in weaker light, it might have resembled a bit of ancient earthenware—a large clay serving bowl, perhaps—though one fashioned by a blind man or a potter still learning the craft. It was, for lack of a better word, lumpy. The sides bulged; the rim was uneven; and the bottom was slightly convex, causing it to lean precariously toward one side.
But the distance was not great and the light not weak; I saw close up and clearly the material with which this odd container was constructed. I’d learned enough anatomy from Warthrop to identify some of the things that constituted this confusing morass of remains, woven together with mind-boggling intricacy—there a proximal phalanx, here a mandible snapped in half, but others were as mysterious—and nearly meaningless—as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle scattered to the four corners of a room. Rip a human being apart, shred him into pieces no larger than the length of your thumb, and see how much of him you can recognize. Is that a tuft of hair—or a muscle’s stringy sinew turned black? And that blob of purplish substance there—a piece of his heart, or perhaps a chunk of his liver? The difficulty was compounded by the interweaving of the various parts. Imagine an enormous robin’s nest fashioned not from twigs and leaves but from human remains.
Yes, I thought, not a bowl. A nest. That’s what it reminds me of.
It puzzled me at first, how the monstrous artisan, whoever—or whatever— he was, had managed to achieve it. Lifeless tissue rots quickly when exposed to the elements, and without some bonding agent the entire gruesome sack would no doubt have collapsed into a chaotic mass. The thing did glisten like fired clay in the harsh electrified lighting of the laboratory. Perhaps that’s how my first impression of it was formed, for it was coated in a slightly opaque, gelatinous substance resembling mucus.
In his mad rush to confront Kendall—Did you open it, Kendall? Did you touch what was inside?—the doctor had abandoned his notes. At the top of the page was this notation:
London, 2 Feb ’89, Whitechapel. John Kearns. Magnificum???
Below this line was a word I did not recognize, for my studies in the classical languages had languished under the doctor’s care. He had written it in large block letters that dominated the page:
The rest of the page was blank. It was as if, once he had committed that one word to paper, he could think of nothing else to write.
Or, I thought, there was nothing else he dared to write.
This was deeply troubling, more so than what he had hidden beneath the black cloth. Though still a boy, I could, as I’ve confessed, endure with stoic fortitude the grotesque manifestations of nature’s villainous side. This was far worse; it shook the foundations of my devotion to him.
The man with whom—for whom—I lived, the one for whom I had risked my life and would again without hesitation at the slightest provocation, the man whom in my mind I called not “the monstrumologist” but “the monstrumolo-gist,” was acting less like a scientist and more like a conspirator to a crime.
There remained but one thing to do before I made good my escape from the basement.
I did not want to, and nothing required that I do it. In fact, every good impulse in me urged an expeditious retreat. But there are thoughts we think in the forward part of our brains, and then there are those whose origins are much deeper, in the animal part, the part that remembers the terrors of the open savanna at night, the oldest part that was there before the primordial voice that spoke the words “I AM.”
I did not want to look into that glistening sack of dismembered remains; I had to look.
Leaning on the edge of the table for balance, I went onto my tiptoes to peer inside. If function followed form, there could be but one purpose for this strange—and strangely beautiful—objet trouvé.
“Will Henry!” a sharp voice cried behind me. In two strides he was upon me, pulling me back as if from a precipice, whipping me round to face him. His eyes shone with fury and—something I rarely witnessed—fear.
“What the devil are you doing, Will Henry?” he shouted into my upturned face. ̴Did you touch it? Answer me! Did you touch it?”
He grabbed my wrists as he’d done Kendall’s and brought my fingertips close to his nose, sniffing noisily, anxiously.
“N-no,” I stammered. “No, Dr. Warthrop; I didn’t touch it.”
“Do not lie to me!”
“I’m not lying. I swear I didn’t; I didn’t touch it, sir. I was just—I just—I’m sorry, sir; I fell asleep, and then I woke up, and I thought I heard you down here…”
His dark eyes searched mine intently for several agonized moments. Gradually some of the fear I saw reflected there faded. His hands dropped to his sides. His shoulders relaxed.
He stepped around me to the table and said briskly, sounding more like his old self, “Well, what’s done is done. You’ve seen it; you might as well lend a hand. And to answer your question—”
“My question, sir?”
“The one you did not ask. It is empty, Will Henry.”
He set to work methodically, his excitement betrayed only in his eyes. Oh, how those dark eyes danced with delight! He was wholly in his unholy element now. This was his raison d’être, the world of blood and umbrage that is monstrumology.
“Hand me the loupe, and I’ll need you to hold the light for me, Will Henry. Close now, but not too close! Here, put on these gloves. Always wear gloves. Don’t forget.”
He slipped on the loupe and cinched the headband tight. The thick lens made his eye appear absurdly large in proportion to his face. He leaned over the “gift” from John Kearns while I directed the light upon its glistening irregular surface.
He did not move the object; we rotated around it. He stopped several times in our circuit around the table, bringing his nose dangerously close to the surface of the thing, transfixed by minutiae invisible to my naked eye.
“Beautiful,” he murmured. “So beautiful!”
“What is?” I wondered aloud. I couldn’t help myself. “What is this thing, Dr. Warthrop?”
He straightened, pressing his hands against the small of his back, wincing, for he had been stooping for nearly an hour.
“This?” he asked, his voice quavering with exhilaration. “This, William Henry, is the answer to a prayer unspoken.”
Though I hardly understood what he meant, I did not press him to elaborate. Monstrumologists, I had learned, do not pray to the same gods we do.
“Come along,” he cried, turning abruptly on his heel and racing up the stairs. “And bring the lamp. The morphine should be wearing off soon, and it’s imperative that we eliminate Mr. Kendall as a suspect.”
A suspect? I wondered. A suspect of what?
In the parlor the doctor candhed before the supine man, who was now groaning, arms crossed over his chest, eyes rolling beneath the fluttering lids. Warthrop pressed his gloved fingers against the man’s neck, listened to Kendall’s heart, and then pried open both of the man’s eyelids to stare into his jittery, unseeing eyes.
“Beside me, here, Will Henry.”
I went to my knees beside him and shone the light into Kendall’s jerking orbs. The doctor bent very low, so close, their noses almost touched, creating the absurd tableau of a kiss suspended. He murmured something; it sounded like Latin. “Oculus Dei!”
“What are you looking for?” I whispered. “You said he wasn’t poisoned.”
“I said he wasn’t poisoned by Kearns. There are three distinct sets of fingerprints infixed in the sputum coagulate. Someone has handled it—three ‘someones,’ apparently—and I doubt John was one of them. He knows better.”
“To put it mildly,” the doctor answered. “If the stories have an ounce of truth.”
He did not turn from his task, but he sighed heavily. The doctor was like most men in this at least. He was not adept in performing two things at once.
“The stories of the nidus, Will Henry, and of the pwdre ser. Now you are going to ask, ‘What is a nidus?’ and ‘What is pwdre ser?’ But I beg you to hold your questions for now; I’m trying to think.”
After a moment he stood up. He regarded his accidental patient for another moment or two. Then he turned and stared silently at me for another two or three.
“Yes, sir?” I said with a tremulous little gulp. The heavy silence and his unreadable expression unnerved me.
“I don’t see that we have a choice, Will Henry,” he said matter-of-factly. “I don’t know for certain he’s touched it, and the stories may be nothing more than superstition and tall tales, but it’s better to err on the side of caution. Run upstairs and strip the bed in the guest room, and we’re going to need some sturdy rope. I should give him another dose of morphine, I suppose.”