The Isle of Blood Page 22


“You should not worry yourself over such things,” said von Helrung.

“Did I say I was worried? Bah! I have been surrounded by death for forty-six years, von Helrung. It isn’t the dead that worry me.” Then, turning to me and glowering, he barked, “What are you good at?”

“I can organize your papers—”

“Never!”

“Maintain the files—”

“Won’t happen!”

“Take down dictation—”

“I have nothing to say!”

“Sort the mail—”

“Absolutely not!”

“Well,” I said wearily. “I’m handy with a broom.”

Spring. Blooms break forth from the startled earth. The sky laughs. The trees, abashed, dress themselves in verdant green. And the heavens are lush with stars. Redeem the time, the stars sing down. Redeem the dream.

And the boy waking in the land of broken rocks, the dry land wet with spring rain, waking in the place where two dreams cross—the dream where seeds grow into trees of gold and the dream of the box that he cannot open.

“I shouldn’t tell you this,” Lilly said. “I really shouldn’t tell you.”

I shall be the ship of a thousand sails.

“Last night I heard them talking about you.”

Go on, open it! He wanted you to see.

“And Father did not say yes, but he did not say no.”

I want to go, Father. I want to go.

“I say no,” she said. “I’ve kissed you now, three times.” And the stars sing down, Redeem the time, redeem the dream, in the land of broken rocks where two dreams cross.

“And that’s a horrid thought, kissing my own brother!”

I don’t want you to take me home. My place is with him.

“Well, William, what do you think?” asked Mrs. Bates.

“I think the doctor will be very displeased when he comes back.”

“Dr. Warthrop, if he comes back, will not have a say in the matter. He has no legal claim to you.”

“Dr. Warthrop, when he comes back, wonÙt care about legal claims.”

“Humf!” grunted Mr. Bates. “Cheeky.”

“I’ve no doubt of that, William. But he would acquiesce to your wishes, I think. What is your wish?”

My prey was in sight. I had but to stretch forth my hand and seize it. The boy with the tall glass of milk in the kitchen that smelled like apples and no darkness, no darkness anywhere, no bodies in ash barrels, no blood caked on the soles of his shoes, no screaming of his name in the deadest hours of the night, no unwinding thing that compelled and repulsed, that whispered like the thunder, I AM. Just the laughing sky, and trees adorned in gold and the abundance of stars that sing down and the boy with his milk and the smell of the earth, the undiminished whole of it, like apples.

Chapter Fifteen: “What You See, My God Sees”

The curator of the Monstrumarium tapped my chest with the sneering head of his cane and said, “You are to touch nothing. Ask first. Always ask first!”

I followed him through the snarl of dimly-lit passageways crammed floor-to-ceiling with unopened yet-to-be catalogued crates, walls festooned with cobwebs and coated in fifty years’ worth of grime, his cane going click, click, click on the dusty floor, the smell of preserving solution, the tartness of death upon the tongue, deep pools of shadow, feeble haloes of yellow gaslight, and the awful loneliness of being just one small person in a vast space.

“It may not look it, but there’s a place for everything, and everything is in its place. If a member should happen to ask you for help in finding something, do not help. Find me. I am not hard to find. I am usually at my desk. If I am not at my desk, tell them to come back another time. Tell them, ‘Adolphus is not at his desk. That means he is somewhere in the Monstrumarium, has gone home for the day, or is dead.’”

We paused by an unlabeled door—the Kodesh Hakodashim. He was absently shaking his key ring. It was my dream, down to the jangling of the keys.

“No one is to go in here,” he said. “Off-limits!”

“I know that.”

“Don’t talk back! Better, don’t talk! I do not like chattering children.”

Or quiet children, I thought.

“It’s the nidus, isn’t it?” Adolphus Ainesworth asked suddenly. “The ‘urgent business.’ Hah! Warthrop’s gone after the magnificum. Well, well. Doesn’t surprise me. Always the tilter at windmills. But what about you, Sancho Panza? Why didn’t you go with him?”

“He took another in my place.”

“Another what?”

“Dr. von Helrungnew pupil, Thomas Arkwright.”

“Arse wipe?”

“Arkwright!” I shouted.

“Never met the man. His pupil, did you say?”

“He must have introduced you to him.”

“Why must he? Yesterday was the first time I’ve seen the old fart in six months. He never comes down here. Anyway, what do I care about von Helrung’s pupil or anybody else’s for that matter? Here is the thing, Master Henry. You should never get friendly with a monstrumologist, and I can tell you why. Would you like to know why?”

I nodded. “Yes, I would.”

“Because they aren’t around for very long. They die!”

“Everyone dies, Professor Ainesworth.”

“Not like monstrumologists, they don’t. Now, look at me. I could have been one. Was asked more than once when I was younger to apprentice for one. Always said no, and I shall tell you why. Because they die. They die in droves! They die like turkeys on Thanksgiving Day! And their demise is not the usual untimely type. You know what I mean. A man falls off a boat and drowns. Or a horse kicks him in the head. That’s an accident; that’s natural. Being torn limb from limb by something you went looking for, that’s un natural; that’s monstrumological.”

In the Monstrumarium, in the hall outside the Locked Room, jingling his keys.

“’Tis a pity,” Adolphus said pensively. “I didn’t like Warthrop very much, but I could tolerate him. Not many men know what they’re about. He did and made no apologies for it. Most men have the face they show the world and the other face, the face only God sees. Warthrop was Warthrop down to the marrow of his bones. ‘What you see, my God sees,’ was his motto.” He sighed and shook his withered pate. “’Tis a pity.”

“You shouldn’t say that, Professor Ainesworth. We haven’t heard from him yet, but that doesn’t mean—”

“He went hunting the magnificum, didn’t he? And he’s Pellinore Warthrop, isn’t he? Not the kind of man to limp home with his tail between his legs. Not the kind to give up, ever. No, not him. No, no, no. You won’t be seeing your boss anymore, boy.”

Standing outside the Holy of Holies, jingling his keys.

I found von Helrung in his offices on the second floor. The head of the Monstrumologist Society was shuffling about in a pair of old slippers with a watering can, tending to his philodendrons on the dusty windowsill.

“Ah, Master Henry, has Adolphus sacked you already?”

“Dr. von Helrung,” I said, “did you ever bring Mr. Arkwright down to the Monstrumarium?”

“Did I ever—?”

“Bring Mr. Arkwright to the Monstrumarium8221;

“I do not believe so, no. No, I did not.”

“Or send him there for anything?”

He was shaking his head. “Why do you ask, Will?”

“Professor Ainesworth has never met him. He’s never even heard of him.”

He set down the watering can, leaned against his desk, and folded his thick arms over his chest. He regarded me soberly, bristly white eyebrows furrowing.

“I do not understand,” he said.

“The night he met the doctor, Mr. Arkwright said he knew we’d been to the Monstrumarium because of the smell. ‘The smell floats about you like a foul perfume.’ Remember?”

Von Helrung nodded. “I do.”

“Dr. von Helrung, how would Mr. Arkwright know that it smelled like anything if he’s never been there?”

My question hung in the air for a long time, a different kind of foul perfume.

“You are accusing him of lying?” He was frowning.

“I know he lied. I know he lied about applying to study under Dr. Warthrop, and now I know he lied about knowing we’d been to the Monstrumarium.”

“But you had been to the Monstrumarium.”

“That doesn’t matter! What matters is he lied, Dr. von Helrung.”

“You cannot say that with certainty, Will. Adolphus, may God bless him, is an old man, and his memory is not what it once was. And he often falls asleep at his desk. Thomas could have explored the Monstrumarium at his leisure, and Professor Ainesworth would know nothing about it.”

He cupped my cheek with his hand. “This has been hard for you, I know. All you have in the world, all you understand, all upon which you thought you could rely—poof! Gone in an instant. I know you are worried; I know you fear the worst; I know what terrors may fill the vacuum of silence!”

“Something isn’t right,” I whispered. “It’s been almost four months.”

“Yes.” He nodded gravely. “And you must prepare yourself for the worst, Will. Use these days to steel your nerves for that—not to torture yourself over Thomas Arkwright and these perceptions of perfidy. It is easy to see villains in every shadow, and very hard to assume the best of people, particularly in monstrumology—for our view of the world is skewed, by virtue of the very thing we study. But hope is no less realistic than despair. It is still our choice whether to live in light or lie down in darkness.”

I nodded. His soothing words, however, brought no solace. I was deeply troubled.

I suppose it is a measure of the depths of my disquiet that I confided my greatest fear to the last person I thought could keep any confidence quiet. It slipped out over a game of chess one afternoon in Washington Square Park. Chess was actually my idea. Perhaps if I practiced more, I reasoned, by the time the doctor returned, I might best him—and wouldn’t that be something! Lilly accepted my challenge. She was very competitive, having learned the game from her uncle Abram. Lilly’s style of play was aggressive, impetuous, and intuitive, not so different from the girl herself.

“You take so long,” she complained as I agonized over my rook. He was trapped between her queen and a pawn. “Do you ever just do something? Just do it without thinking about it? Next to you, Prince Hamlet seems positively impulsive.”

“I’m thinking,” I answered.

“Oh, you think all the time, William James Henry. You think too much. Do you know what happens to someone who thinks too much?”

“Do you?”

“Ha, ha. I suppose that was a joke. You shouldn’t joke. People should know their limitations.”

I said good-bye to my rook and advanced my bishop to threaten her knight. She bopped my rook onto its side with her queen.

“Check.”

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