The Isle of Blood Page 24


What is required for this one proposition to be true? That you, the said Prometheus’s arse wiper, were so neglectful of your ancillary duties as file clerk that you missed his application not once, not twice, not three times, but a total of thirteen times. That, or you are simply a liar and destroyed them, lest you be replaced by a more convivial or efficient or passionate arse wiper, one who takes his arse wiping seriously, who considers a finely wiped arse a work of art.

Now, you know, of course, that you are neither neglectful nor deceitful, and the candle, as it were, is as cold as a wedge. What does this mean? It means Arkwright is the liar, though his motives may be pure. In other words, he lies because he actually is enamored with our doctor. It does not mean he has insidious intentions; he is not Iago, but more like Puck. Are you following this so far, or would you like for me to speak more slowly and less polysyllabically?

“I am, Dr. Warthrop. I’m following you, sir.”

Excellent! Now to the more recent and infinitely more troublesome development—the second candle, we shall call it. Mr. Arkwright, Adolphus, and the “foul perfume” of the Monstrumarium. Let us assume, for the sake of our argument, that this second candle is lit—in other words that you are correct and von Helrung is wrong. Arkwright is indeed playing false; he has never stepped foot inside Professor Ainesworth’s realm; he would no more recognize the “foul perfume” than a blind man would the color blue. On its surface, a rather innocuous slip—almost trivial. Who cares that he pretended to recognize a smell he could not possibnow? Another attempt to impress his idol with his powers of observation, as he tried to impress him earlier by his overabundance of applications.… We may stop now, yes? Your troubled heart has been assuaged, so you may sleep and I may go?

“I’m not sleepy,” I said. “Don’t go.”

Very well. I will stay. For your heart should not be assuaged, Will Henry. Your unease is justified, though you cannot articulate why.

“But why can’t I, Dr. Warthrop?” My eyes stung with tears of frustration. “I know it’s important, but I couldn’t convince Dr. von Helrung it was. I couldn’t say why.”

That’s it precisely, Will Henry! You have been focusing on the wrong question. You’ve been asking “Why is he lying?” instead of “What does this lie mean?” What does it mean, Will Henry?

“It means…” The truth was I did not know what the lie meant. “Oh, I hate myself; I’m so stupid—”

Oh, stop it. Self-pity is like self-abuse—it may feel good in the moment, but the final result is a disgusting mess. I’ve given you one hint. Here’s another: Mr. Arkwright is like the foolish man who built his house upon sand.

“And the rains came and washed the foundation away. So his slip-up about the smell—that’s the rain—”

Oh, good God! No, no, Will Henry. Not the rain. Why did you bring up the rain? I didn’t even mention it! You are the rain, or would be if you used your head for something other than a hat stand.

I closed my eyes and plugged my ears to remove all distraction. If I was the rain, what was Arkwright? The house? The foundation? Oh, why couldn’t Warthrop just tell me and be done with it? Did he enjoy making me feel like a cretin? Most people do not like to think, Will Henry, he told me once. If they did, we would have fewer lawyers. (He had just been given notice that he was being sued—a common occurrence and occupational hazard.)

Oh, Will Henry, what shall I do with you? You are like the ancient Egyptians, who believed the seat of thought lay in the heart. The foundation is not the object of your jealousy.

“Not Arkwright,” I whispered into the dark, for the light had finally come on. “The lie! His lie is the foundation, isn’t it? And the house is…” Think, think! To think is to be human, the doctor always said, so be human and think. “The house is the conclusion based on the lie… the nidus. The nidus is the house! He couldn’t have deduced you had the nidus, because his deduction began with a lie—that he knew we’d been to the Monstrumarium! He knew about the nidus before he walked through the door!”

I bolted upright and swung my legs over the side of the bed. I fumbled in the drawer of the bedside table for the box of matches.

“And there’re only two ways he could have known. Dr. von Helrung told him…”

Which he said he did not, and we’ve no reason to assume he did.

“… or Jack Kearns told him.” I lit the match and touched it to the candlewick. “He’s working with Kearns!”

Or someone else who knows what Kearns sent me, came Dr. Warthrop’s voice again. Kearns could have told someone, but it is difficult to imagine who and nearly impossible to understand why.

I was on my feet, tugging on my trousers. “Either way, he’s false, but why? What is his game?” I watched the flame sputter in the draft coming from the open window across the room. I could smell the river, and heard, in the distance, a tugboat’s throaty call. The voice within had fallen silent. “It was a trick. He tricked you, Dr. Warthrop. You! He needed to come with you to find Kearns, so he lowered your guard and puffed you up with flattery and made you think he was the perfect replacement.” Yanking on my shirt, searching for my shoes—what had happened to my shoes? “I have to tell Dr. von Helrung, before it’s too late.”

And the voice spoke up again, and said:

It is already too late.

Chapter Seventeen: “Too Late”

I ran, barefooted, along Riverside Drive, south to Seventy-second Street and then east to Broadway, running as if the devil himself were after me, along a narrow mountain pass and, on either side, the abyss, das Ungeheuer, the tightly wound thing unwinding, and the unspooling refrain repeating until the words became a gibbering howl, It is already too late It is already too late It is already too late It is already too late It is already too late It is already too late It is already too late, the granite pavement scraping and clawing the soles of my naked feet, the smeared blobs of streetlamps in the early morning mist, and the hellish glow of the ash barrels where you can warm yourself over a dead man’s bones, and the bloody footprints left behind; now the park and there the shadows between trees and the wet rocks and the sensuous whisper of leaf brushing leaf and the silence in between, and then Broadway, the glittering blade thrust into the city’s heart; along its garish edges shrieks of hysterical laughter from darkened doorways and the smell of stale beer, tramps in doorways, whores hanging from second-story windows of bawdy houses, and the tinny music of the dance hall, the drunken cries of sailors, the white coats of the sanitation workers, the thing unwinding pulling me as if by a silver cord, my blood the breadcrumbs marking the way back, but there is no going back now; It is already too late It is already too late It is already too late It is already too late It is already too late It is already too late It is already too late;Redeem the time, redeem the dream, singing, singing down, between the lightless divide, the vacuity on either side, careening onto Fiftieth, where Broadway’s garish light fades and the buildings are dark and a dog furiously barks, maddened by the blood-smell, bloody rock against bloody bone, and the snarling river of fire that I breathe, the river of fire on which I run, a fire fed by blood, river of fire, river of blood, and the unquiet voice, the silver cord, It is already too late It is already too late It is already too late It is already too late It is already too late It is already too late It is already too late; praying that we not be suffered to perish in the fire, praying we are not divided like the man in the ash barrel, praying, Merciful God, let my prayer come unto thee out of the fire. Let my prayer come unto thee between the division, from the fire that bisects the abyss; turning on Fifth Avenue, six blocks, snap to, snap to!, the sick wet slap of bloody feet on hard pavement, blood black in the yellow streetlights, and do not suffer us to die unrelieved and divided, do not consign us to the ash barrel, headwater of this fiery river upon which I run, where the melting muscles sizzle and the bones sing back to the stars singing down, And after this, our exile, and the river eddies at the foot of the brownstone, and I leap onto shore, and the house is ablaze with light, every window a glowing featureless eye; banging on the door that opens at once, suddenly, like the yanking back of a curtain, and I am there.

I fell into the vestibule like a landed trout gasping for air, clutching my stomach, my bare, bloody toes curling on the wooden planks. Von Helrung’s kindly face swam into view; he pulled me to my feet and held me for a long time.

“Will, Will, what are you doing here?” he murmured.

“It’s the doctor,” I managed to get out after several attempts. “Something… something is… ruh… wrong.” He would listen to me this time. I would make him listen.

To my surprise the old monstrumologist was nodding, and then I saw his wet cheeks, fresh tears welling in his blue eyes, his cottony white hair worried into tangled knots.

“It is late. I was going to call in the morning. Wait for the morning. But now God has brought you here. Ja, it is his will. His will. And his will be done!”

He stumbled away in a gait wobbly like a drunkard’s, muttering to himself, “Ja, ja, his will be done,” leaving me to shiver in the vestibule, sweating, my lungs and feet on fire. A crumpled piece of paper fell from his hand; he did not stop to pick it up. I do not think he realized he’d dropped it.

It was a Western Union telegram; I recognized the yellow paper. He had signed for it but an hour before, around the same time as my lesson with the monstrumologist three miles away on Riverside Drive.

The cable read:

CONFIDENTIAL—

LEAVING LIVERPOOL TOMORROW.

ARRIVING NY THURS. TERRIBLE

NEWS. FAILURE ON ALL FRONTS.

WARTHROP IS DEAD.

It was signed “Arkwright.”

Chapter Eighteen: “The Best of Us”

Jacob Torrance downed his glass of whiskey, smoothed his neatly trimmed mustache, and then proceeded to drum his fingers aggressively on the arm of the wingback chair. His ruby red signet ring, stamped with the motto of the Society (Nil timendum est), sparked and spat back the light. His shoes shone as brilliantly as his ring, and besides the ones in his trousers, there was not a crease anywhere on him; he looked like a man carved out of stone, a Greek statue wearing a perfectly tailored suit. He had the face of a statue too, or rather the face of someone who might model for one—jaw square, chin strong, nose straight, eyes large and soulful, if a little too close together, which gave him a perpetually angry look, as if at any moment he might rear back and bash you in the face.

At twenty-nine Jacob Torrance was one year shy of what monstrumologists called “the magic thirty,” a reference to the average life expectancy of a scholar in the field of aberrant biology. (The average life expectancy in the United States at the time was a little more than forty-two years.) Reaching “the magic thirty” meant you had beaten the odds. Usually your colleagues threw you a party. Magic Thirties, as these bacchanals were called, could last for days and were said to rival the debaucheries of Caligula’s court in ancient Rome. There was nothing a monstrumologist delighted in more than cheating death, unless it was discovering some creature that delighted in dealing it out. Warthrop’s Magic Thirty was celebrated before I came to live with him, but by all accounts it put all others before it to shame; in fact, for years afterward many of his colleagues did not dare set foot inside the city limits of Boston for fear of being arrested.

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