Warnings to the Curious III
With the Great Tragedy only days past, Dr. Samuel Norwood had no justifiable cause to focus on one patient. Several hundred suffering men, women, and children lay in stages of unrest upon the cots lined up wall-to-wall in every room throughout the three floors of St. Louis Hospital.
For almost seventy-two hours, Dr. Norwood had allowed himself little sleep or rest. With morphine, a quickly dwindling supply of thin bandages, and an ever-changing stream of volunteer nurses, he tended the endless wounded, their raw and seeping burnt skin, their palsy and delirium of shock, and their invisible injuries, the internal damage to organs for which he could do little except schedule exploratory surgery a patient might not live to undertake and most probably would not live to see through.
The dead, so many that a count had not yet been attempted, he sent to the morgue by the cart load until the entire basement floor overflowed with their presence.
He sent the hopeless to the morgue, the wounded to the cots, and he returned, time and again, though he had no excuse to do so, to the room of one man. One man, who had a room to himself guarded by two police sheriffs accessible only to Dr. Norwood for the man’s medical treatment. This one man was probably the least injured in the entire building, and yet Dr. Norwood went to this man’s room at least once upon the hour to see if he had yet woken, if he was yet lucid and able to explain.
For an explanation was desperately needed.
Three nights past, the Mississippi River had been electrified by some means and at distances yet unknown but suspected to be for miles both north and south of the city of Fort Charles, Missouri. Some concluded that lightning struck the water during the late-summer storm that night. Others suspected some human involvement. Not an act of God, but the machinations of one man, this man who might have gone too far with scientific experiment of the power of electricity.
The New Influence of galvanism was a new and misunderstood power and therefore inspired fear in most. Dr. Norwood, as a man of science, knew enough to fear it and in that fear he held fascination.
He understood the man in the guarded room also held his own fear and fascination of electricity. The man in the guarded room was suspected of horrific behavior under the guise of science but truly in the satisfaction of his own curiosity.
Dr. Norwood understood curiosity, too.
Exhausted and starving, he finished examining a man unconscious but with a weak pulse. He ordered the nurse to change the man’s bandages.
“Yes, Doctor,” came the whispered reply, and he turned to recognize the face of the present nurse in the ever-changing and anonymous supply of female volunteers that stood beside him through those endless dark hours. Holding lamps to their pale faces, clutching their aprons, their hair pulled back under their caps except for the pieces that fell over their eyes and stuck to their foreheads with perspiration, their appearance blended into one.
And yet, with surprise, he realized that he recognized this woman. She had a pale complexion with dark hair, a notable combination in its rarity. She had returned often to his side, or perhaps never left, taking only short breaks as he had done, visiting one cot after another, whispering comfort, reassurances, prayers, always whispering. He remembered the whispering.
“What’s the big secret?” Marie would have said. She would have spoken loudly with these sad, desperate souls. She would have smiled at them, told them a joke, perhaps made them laugh.
“Lend me the lamp,” he told the nurse. “I must check upstairs.”
She knew what he meant and nodded, handed him the lamp, then turning away to retrieve another from a nearby table. Dr. Norwood walked briskly down the row, looking not at the tortured faces that moaned and called out for help but kept his eyes straight ahead until he was out in the hall and upon the stairs.
As he ascended, the glass panes of the large staircase window rattled under pressure of the sheets of rain. Lightning flashed, followed a breath of a moment later by the boom and rumble of thunder. A summer storm continued in fits and starts. Just when the nurses began to say the storm had ceased, that it had exhausted itself, it would again build and rage, the skies roiling with dark blue-gray, the rain washing down the mud roads. Then they began to fear the storm would never cease, that they were under punishment from God for what this one man in the guarded room on the third floor might have done. But as no one could say yet what had exactly happened, no one could yet predict to what extent that punishment might come.
The police deputies on guard duty were the same as his last visit. He nodded to them from the top of the stairs, and the one to the right stepped over and opened the door. Dr. Norwood nodded again in thanks and stepped through the threshold. The deputy closed the door with a loud click behind him.
The room smelled of ammonia, beef tea, and faintly of the starch used in the bed linens. A deep and heavy silence filled the room lit by only one wall lamp opposite the bed. The patient lay in shadow, still as stone, his head turned toward the door. Dr. Norwood held up his lamp. The light fell upon the pale face, the half-open eyes, and he knew at once that the man was dead.
Exhaling at length, three days’ worth of tension and dread left Dr. Norwood’s body. He set the lamp upon the side table, lifted the man’s wrist and checked the radial pulse with two fingers. Then he checked the carotid too, to be sure.
The sheet was tucked beneath the man’s arms. He leaned forward to pull it free and cover the man’s face when he saw the side table and the objects upon it.
A fountain pen and inkwell.
Norwood snapped the sheets back. There, grasped in the man’s stiffening fingers, he found the folded stack of papers, at least a dozen sheets.
He snatched the papers, unfolded them, and read the first lines:
Hereby, the final testimony and confession of Michael Faraday, written in his own hand from his last residence at Fort Charles Hospital, and submitted to history forthwith, asking but humble favour that it might be kind to his memory from this day of August 24, 1867.
So it was true. All of it. The rumors, the whispers. All true.
God help me, Marie.
Quickly, Norwood hid the letter away in the pocket of his coat. He covered the man’s face, retrieved the lamp, and hurried out the door.
“Your watch may soon be over,” he told the guards. “The patient has succumbed to his injuries.”
The deputies glanced at each other.
“Hold your post for now. I’ll notify your superior. And I’ll send a clerk to telegraph his wife. I assume she’ll have arrangements for the body. Until then, he’ll still need guard.”
Without waiting for their reply, Dr. Norwood left the guards and swiftly descended the stairs, all three flights, strode down the main hall to the back corridor, opened the last wooden door at the end, and sunk into the dark and fetid depths of the basement morgue. Here, the wall torches lit a short corridor that opened into an open holding room as large as the floor above it.
Quickly, Dr. Norwood passed through this enormous room which overflowed with bodies, stacked upon tables and laid out upon the stone floor. He took a wall torch and went through another door, closing it behind him as he entered a narrow corridor, barely more than a tunnel. Orange light glowed at the far end, and heat radiated from it. With haste, Dr. Norwood followed the tunnel.
The temperature rose rapidly and intensified as Dr. Norwood approached the crematory, until the heat seemed to push against his skin. Perspiration beaded along his hairline, and he dabbed at it with his handkerchief.
Allen looked up when Dr. Norwood burst into the crematory. He was pushing a cart in which at least four shrouded corpses lay. Sweat glistened on his freckled face, which was almost as deeply red as his hair. When Allen saw who the intruder was, he resumed pushing the cart toward the furnace.
“You could’ve at least rolled a full cart down with ya,” he said. “No sense making more trips than need be.”
Dr. Norwood pressed his handkerchief again to his hairline. Allen dropped the cart handles at the furnace with a loud thud and turned to him.
“What’s wrong? What’s happened? I said ‘ya’ instead of ‘you’ and you didn’t correct me.”
Norwood held the torch out to him. “I will make an exception in your grammar education for today, Allen. You are obviously overheated and exhausted. Take a break. Go lie down on the cot in my office for a few hours. Get some sleep.”
He had never suggested the shared use of his office before with anyone, let alone his assistant. Allen stared at him a moment, but then he shrugged and untied his apron strings. “Yeah...all right, then.” He took the torch and walked briskly up the corridor, whistling.
This blind obedience was precisely the reason Allen had been his assistant for nearly seven years now, since Dr. Norwood donated at the orphanage and took his pick of apprentice from the boys there. Allen accepted the great many strange tasks asked of him with little to no inquiries.
When Dr. Norwood heard the door to the corridor close, he unfolded the letter and standing in the bright orange light from the roaring crematory furnace, began to read.
When he had finished, Dr. Norwood folded the letter carefully and then clutched it, crushing the papers in his fist. The situation was as he suspected. The man, Michael Faraday, had been experimenting with resurrection, reanimation of lifeless matter.
In all his years in dealing with human corpses, Norwood came across such intention more often than he would have believed possible.
At least, he consoled himself, his involvement and identity was hidden behind the ruse of “Dr. Allen,” a role he assigned to all of his assistants for just such delicate affairs as the selling of corpses. The first “Dr. Allen” had been a student of his during the war who smuggled countless numbers of dead soldiers out of the morgue and to the medical college where they were desperately needed to practice dissection.
Unfortunately, any small amount of detective work would lead the police to the present assistant “Allen” and possibly, quite probably, to the doctor giving him orders. And then all sorts of legally and ethically questionable practices might be brought under scrutiny. No, that event must be avoided at all cost.
Faraday had succeeded in his experiment. But no one must know. And most importantly, no one must discover his involvement. His reputation as a doctor, and the continuation of his work, depended upon secrecy. Michael Faraday had failed to understand this completely.
Norwood understood secrecy most of all. He could keep a secret. Faraday had achieved what Norwood had sought for years. He could perhaps protect the secret, continue Faraday’s work. But first he must find this resurrected woman. He must see how this miracle was achieved. He must find her before the secret spread, before rumor became accepted truth, before anyone else could interfere with his intention.
He must find her before anyone else did. They would seek to destroy her.
We can’t let that happen, Marie. Not before she helps us.
Dr. Norwood stepped up to the furnace. The heat pushed against him, but he stepped closer until he could feel nothing but the fire, hear nothing but the roar of burning flesh and bones. The orange light flickered over his face.
He threw the letter into the flames.