The people of the village had never drunk enough courage to go see what the special madness was or why the wife had vanished, tear-stained, leaving a vacuum into which atmospheres had rushed to thunder-clap.
And yet …
On a sweltering hot day with no cloud to offer shadow comfort and no threat of rain to cool man or beast, the Searcher arrived. Which is to say, Dr. Mortimer Goff, a man of many parts, most of them curious and self-serving, but also traveling the world for some baroque event, or miraculous revelation.
The good doctor came tramping up the hill, stumbling over cobbles that were more stone than paving, having abandoned his coach-and-horses, fearful of crippling them with such a climb.
Dr. Goff it turned out, had come from London, inhaling fogs, bombarded by storms, and now, stunned by too much light and heat, this good if curious physician stopped, exhausted, to lean against a fence, sight further up the hill, and ask:
“Is this the way to the lunatic?”
A farmer who was more scarecrow than human raised his eyebrows and snorted, “That would be Elijah Wetherby.”
“If lunatics have names, yes.”
“We call him crazed or mad, but lunatic will do. It sounds like book learning. Are you one of those?”
“I own books, yes, and chemical retorts and a skeleton that was once a man, and a permanent pass to the London Historical and Scientific Museum-“
“All well and good,” the farmer interrupted, “but of no use for failed crops and a dead wife. Follow your nose. And when you find the fool or whatever you name him, take him with you. We’re tired of his shouts and commotions late nights in his iron foundry and anvil menagerie. Rumor says he will soon finish some monster that will run to kill us all.”
“Is that true?” asked Dr. Goff.
“No, it lies easy on my tongue. Good day, Doctor, and God deliver you from the lightning bolts that wait for you above.”
With this the farmer spaded the earth to bury the conversation.
So the curious doctor, threatened, climbed on, under a dark cloud which did not stop the sun.
And at last arrived at a hut that seemed more tomb than home, surrounded by land more graveyard than garden.
Outside the ramshackle sod-and-brick dwelling a shadow stepped forth, as if waiting, and became an old, very old, man.
“Well, there you are at last!” it cried.
Dr. Goff reared back at this. “You sound, sir, as if you expected me!”
“I did,” said the old man, “some years ago! What took you so long?”
“You are not exactly cheek by jowl with London, sir.”
“I am not,” the old man agreed and added, “The name is Wetherby. The Inventor”
“Mr. Wetherby, the Inventor. I am Dr. Goff, the so-called Searcher, for I move in behalf of our good Queen, turning rocks, digging truffles, curious for stuffs that might delight her Majesty or fill her museums, shops, and streets in the greatest city in the world. Have I reached the right place?”
“And just in time, for I am now in my eightieth year and of inconsequential vigor. If you had arrived next year, you might have found me in the churchyard. Do come in!”
At this moment, Dr. Goff heard a gathering of people behind him, all with a most unpleasant muttering, so at Mr. Wetherby’s beckoning, he was glad to enter, sit, and watch an almost rare whiskey being poured without invitation. When he had quaffed the glass, Dr. Goff swiveled his gaze about the room.
“Well, where is it?”
“Where is what, sir?”
“The lunatic device, the insane machine that goes nowhere but in going might run down a child, a lamb, a priest, a nun, or an old blind dog, where?”
“So I am that famous, am I?” The old man let a few crumbs of laughter fall from his toothless mouth. “Well, sir. I keep it locked in the goats’ shed behind: the outhouse of machines. Finish that to strengthen your sanity when you at last behold the delight and grievance of my long inventive life. So!”
The doctor drank, was replenished and soon out the door, across a small, smooth circle of turf, and to a shed whose door was triple-kept with numerous padlocks and keys. Old Wetherby entered, lit many candles, and beckoned the good doctor in.