“Yes, rope. Twenty-four or -five feet should be enough; we can cut it to fit. Well, what are you waiting for? Snap to, Will Henry. Oh, and one more thing,” he called after me. I paused at the door. “Just as a precaution… get my revolver.”
Chapter Four: “It Is Human to Turn Round”
In another half hour it was done. Wymond Kendall lay spread-eagled upon a bare mattress, stripped to his undergarments, bound by wrists and ankles to the four posters, and beside him was the monstrumologist, who had decided to postpond his uher dose of morphine, though he kept the syringe close—in case, he confessed, his faith in the probity of our species was misplaced.
Kendall moaned deep in his throat. Then his eyes fluttered open. Warthrop rose from his chair, his hand dropping casually into his coat pocket, where I’d seen him slip the gun. He offered the disoriented soul what I call the Warthropian smile—thin-lipped, awkward; more of a grimace than a grin.
“How are you feeling, Mr. Kendall?”
“I am cold.”
He tried to sit up. That he could not came home to him slowly, the realization exposed in his expression, which was nearly comical in its glacial shift from shock to unalloyed terror. He jerked hard on the ropes. The bedposts creaked. The frame shook.
“What is the meaning of this, Warthrop? Release me! Release me at once!”
It was too much for the poor man to bear. In less than a fortnight he’d found himself in the same position he’d been in at the beginning of this strange and unexpected nightmare. It must have seemed to him that he had escaped one madman only to be captured by another.
“I have no intention of harming you,” my master tried to reassure him. “What I’ve done is for your own protection—as well as my own. I will gladly release you when I am satisfied that neither of us is in danger.”
“Danger?” the panicked victim squeaked. “But you gave me the antidote!”
“Mr. Kendall, there is no antidote for the danger of which I speak. You must tell me the truth now. Though all men lie, and most men more than they should or even must… the truth in this instance could literally set you free.”
“What are you talking about? I’ve told you the truth; I’ve told you everything exactly as I remember it. Dear God, how could I invent such a tale?”
Spittle flew from his lips. Warthrop took a step back and calmly held up his hand, waiting for the man to calm himself before the doctor continued.
“I’m not accusing you of admission, Kendall; I am accusing you of omission. Tell me the truth. Did you touch it?”
“‘Touch it? Touch what? What did I touch? I didn’t touch anything.”
“He told you not to touch it. I’m sure he did. He couldn’t suffer his courier to touch it and risk it being lost or destroyed. He must have warned you not to touch it.”
“Are you talking about the package? You think I opened it? Why would I open it?”
“You couldn’t bear it. The not knowing. Why would Kearns go to such bizarre lengths to send me this package? What was in it that was so valuable he was willing to commit murder rather than see it go undelivered? You were terrified; you didn’t want to open it, but you had to open it. Your desire is understandable, Mr. Kendall. It is human to turn round, to stare into Medusa’s face, to tie ourselves to the mainmast to hear the sirens’ song, to turn back as Lo7;s wife turned back. I am not angry at you for looking. But you did look. You did touch it.”
Kendall had begun to cry. His head rocked back and forth on the bare mattress. He twisted his arms, his legs, and I heard the rope scratching against his flesh.
The monstrumologist snatched the lamp from my hand and brought it close to the tormented man’s face. Kendall recoiled; his right arm jerked as he instinctively attempted to cover his eyes.
“You are sensitive to light, aren’t you, Mr. Kendall?”
Warthrop handed the lamp back to me. The doctor grasped Kendall’s right index finger with his gloved hand, and the man winced in pain, teeth clamping down hard on his bottom lip to stifle the sob of pain.
“This was the hand, wasn’t it? The hand that touched the thing inside the box. The hand that touched what no hand should touch.”
The doctor rolled the man’s fingers within his loosely closed hand.
“Your joints ache terribly, don’t they? All over, but particularly in this hand. You’ve been telling yourself it’s the cold or the tipota, perhaps, or both. It is neither.”
He closed his fist around the base of Kendall’s fingers and said, “They’re growing numb, aren’t they? The numbness began at the tips of the ones with which you touched it, but the numbness is spreading. You are telling yourself the rope is cutting off the circulation or the room is very cold. It is neither.”
Warthrop released his hand. “I cannot say with any reasonable certainty how badly you will suffer, Mr. Kendall. As far as I know, yours is the first verifiable exposure known to science.”
“Exposure, you say? Exposure to what?”
“The Welsh call it pwdre ser. The rot of stars.”
“Star rot? What the bloody hell is that?”
“A rather poetic description of a substance that is neither rot nor from the stars,” the doctor said. His voice had assumed that maddening dry, lecturing tone I’d heard a thousand times before. “It is actually part of the digestive system, like our own saliva, but unlike our saliva, it is highly toxic.”
“All right! All right, damn you, yes, yes, I touched it—I did touch it! I reached into that blasted box and gave it a pinch, but that was all! I didn’t take it out and cuddle with it—just a little touch, a tiny poke to see what it was! That’s all. That’s all!”
The doctor was nodding gravely. His expression was one of profound pity.
“That was probably enough,” he said.
“Why am I bound to this bed?”
“I have told you.”
“Why have you taken my clothes?”
“So I may examine you.”
“What is the thing in the box?”
“It is called a nidus ex magnificum.”
“What is it for?”
“Its name explains its function.”
“Where does it come from?”
“Well, that is the riddle, isn’t it, Mr. Kendall? What did John Kearns say?”
“He’s a viper, I would agree, but as far as I know his sputum is not venomous or even particularly sticky; he did not make the nidus. Did he happen to mention by any chance where the maker might be?”
“No. No, he did not. I told you… everything he said.… Ah, God, the light. The light burns my eyes.”
“Here, I shall lay this cloth over them. Is that better?”
“Yes. Please untie me.”
“I wish I could. Would you like something to eat?”
“Oh, God, no. No. My stomach. Hurts.”
“Mr. Kendall, I’m going to extract a small sample of your blood. Slight pinch.… Good. Will Henry, another vial please. Where’s the other one? Did you lose it? Ah, there it is.… Slow, deep breaths, Mr. Kendall. Would you like another shot of morphine for your nerves?”
“I want you to untie me from this bloody bed.”
“Will Henry, will you turn off the light please? And close the door.” The doctor removed the cloth. “Mr. Kendall, I want you to open your eyes. Do you see me clearly?”
“Yes. Yes, I can see you.”
“Really? I can’t see you. The room is pitch dark. Tell me, how many fingers am I holding up?”
“It is called Oculus Dei, Mr. Kendall. I do not know who gave it that colorful sobriquet.”
“What does it mean?”
“The eyes of God.”
“I know that. I did manage to pick up a bit of Latin in school, Dr. Warthrop. I am asking what it means.”
The monstrumologist did not know the answer, or if he did, he kept it to himself.
He drew me into the hall and shut the door.
“An extraordinary development, Will Henry, and not without its fair share of irony. He is poisoned—not by Kearns’s hand but by his own… literally!”
“Is he going to die?”
Warthrop confessed he didt know“We are in uncharted waters, Will Henry. No victim of pwdre ser ex magnificum has ever been recovered, much less studied.” Though his expression was grave, his voice betrayed his excitement. “He may die; he may fully recover. I have some hope. After all, his exposure was minuscule, and there are some anecdotal reports that suggest pwdre ser loses some of its potency over time. It could depend upon the age of the nidus.”
“Shouldn’t we… Would you like me to fetch a doctor, sir?”
“To what purpose? Mr. Kendall is not suffering from a head cold, Will Henry. The unfortunate fool has managed to find his greatest fortune by coming to the one person who best understands his misfortune. Ha! Now I must have a look at this sample. Stay with him until I return, Will Henry. Do not leave. Under no circumstances is Mr. Kendall to be left alone. And do not doze off or allow your mind to wander! I expect to know everything he does or says while I am away. Do not touch him; do not allow him to touch you. And pay attention, Will Henry. You are a witness to history!”
“Yes, sir,” I responded dutifully.
“I shan’t be long. Here, just in case, you had better have this.”
He pressed the revolver into my hand.
“Who is there?” Kendall cried upon my stepping back into the room. The doctor had covered his eyes again before leaving and turned back on the light.
“It’s me. Will Henry,” I answered.
“Where is the doctor? Where is Warthrop?”
“He’s downstairs in his laboratory, sir.”
“Trying to find a cure?”
“I… I don’t know, Mr. Kendall.”
“What do you mean?” he cried. “Is he a doctor or isn’t he?”
“He is but he isn’t.”
“What? What did you say? He is but he isn’t?”
“He is not a medical doctor.”
“Not a medical doctor? What sort of doctor is he, then?”
“He is a monstrumologist, sir.”
“Monstrumologist,” I said.
“Monstrumologist! That’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard of. What sort of nonsense is that?”
“It’s a scientist,” I said. “A doctor of natural philosophy.”
“Oh, good Christ!” he moaned loudly. “I have been kidnapped by a philosopher!” His chest heaved. “Why am I tied to this bed? Why aren’t you taking me to hospital?”
I made no reply. I did not think it would serve any purpose to tell him the truth. I caressed the barrel of the doctor’s gun nervously. Why was Kendall tied to the bed? Why had the monstrumologist given me the gun?