Warnings to the Curious VI
Hallinger House was the closest boarding house to the river still standing. Norwood had the entire place to himself, especially since the proprietress fled the town the very morning he arrived within minutes of accepting his bank check for room and board through the end of the year.
“You can arrange meals at the hotel, Doctor,” she had told him, wringing her gloved hands, the feather on her hat trembling, as her carriage waited, “and staples to stock the pantry. They have a boy who’ll bring them over. Just until you can arrange to hire a woman for your housekeeping. I’m sorry, but I’ve had to let mine go. She just didn’t want to stay after...”
“Very well, Mrs. Hallinger. Don’t let me keep you.” He had waved her off without concern. In fact, eager to see her go. The entire three-floor Victorian mansion two blocks from the main river port was to be his alone for the foreseeable future, until other travelers, and Mrs. Hallinger herself, found courage enough to abide the altered landscape of the Fort Charles riverfront.
He could have walked home from the old mortuary where he and the doctor had just inspected the laboratory of Michael Faraday. Without the usual road traffic, the carriage the sheriff sent him off in arrived at Hallinger within a few minutes. Norwood gave the driver a few coins and entered the dark house.
He had not hired a maid, and so he built a fire himself, kneeling on the hearth in his good trousers and covering them in ash. He did not notice such trivial matters. He felt only the small weight in his inner coat pocket, the beat of the pocket watch swinging back and forth against his chest as he worked. Only when the fire caught and was drawing nicely did he press his hand to the pocket, reach inside and pull the watch out to inspect it in the firelight.
The gold had warmed to his touch, he was sure of it. It felt warm now, but perhaps only because of the heat of the fire. He lit the lamp by his chair and sat down, the watch open in his palm.
Help me, Marie. How does this device work?
The timepiece had suffered no visible alterations, no strange buttons or wires. It looked normal, although well-made and obviously owned by a gentleman. In his letter, Faraday had described an almost magical purpose for this device. Norwood could feel the warmth from it now. Yes, it was there: heat. Subtle, but definitely generated within the device.
As the minute hand moved so slowly as to be imperceptible, so did an invisible power move within this object. Norwood stared at it, willing the object to reveal its secret. Nothing unusual...except...
The winding knob at the base protruded slightly more than he was used to seeing on such an intricate and well-made timepiece. Norwood touched the pad of his thumb to the knob and pressed. The knob clicked inward, and the gears within the small window on the face began to rotate quickly. The sped up, faster and faster, until they were spinning, humming. And then, the whole of the watch face began to glow. Stronger and stronger, the glow brightened until it overpowered the light of the hearth. Norwood shielded his eyes from the intensity of it, yet he could not look away.
He brought his forefinger to the watch’s face. As he came within a few inches of touching it, a spark shot up and connected with his skin. It crackled there a moment, blue-white energy, a tiny lightning bolt at his fingertips.
Faraday was a magician! To read of such power described in a letter was far lesser than seeing the proof of it, holding the device in his hands. The old scientist had built a generator of electrical power packaged in the smallest instrument imaginable. With an inconspicuous source of electrical power and a body of water large enough to provide unlimited conduction and surge to that power, Faraday could create enough voltage to power his final device...the destroyed “buzzy,” the vital instrument of his experiment that located the body’s vital energy in the aether and attracted it back to the physical form of his subject.
Norwood did not have the buzzy. And as far as he knew, the destroyed bit of machinery left in Faraday’s laboratory was the only one of its kind in existence.
But we have our own devices, don’t we? Our own methods. With practice, with what we know now of Faraday’s work, we could remake his machine, recreate his experiment. We could even surpass his achievements.
But first, the woman. He must find the woman.
Replacing the watch inside his pocket, Norwood hurried to his own laboratory, rushing up three flights of stairs into the servants’ rooms, and then through a trapdoor to the attic floor above. Here, his own equipment was carefully set up. He had not dared to bring any of his electrical equipment with him from the city, not with the fear of electricity so rampant, and so he had built equipment for his makeshift laboratory from what materials he could gather and purchase.
From the table, he lifted the electroscope, a basic model enhanced by some methods he discovered during his own experimentation with electricity. The instrument appeared deceptively simple, fabricated from ordinary materials: a wooden candlestick with a thin dowel attached to the top upon which a spongy pith ball hung from a thread of silk. It looked like a child’s plaything, a toy made to swing around for amusement. But the ball was not swinging. It floated away from the base, lifted as if by magic, tethered by the silken thread, quivering ever so slightly.
Norwood stepped toward the work table. The ball twitched, dropped a bit, then rose, again pointing northeast, directly below the window. With haste, Norwood hopped up to the table top and stretched to peer out the grime-coated glass.
A half-mile north, the town dissolved and the river curved around the high limestone cliffs. The highest, Tower Cliff, was a landmark known to all those who traveled the Mississippi. It meant they had left most civilization behind for the time being, the crowds and commerce of St. Louis, and had entered the southern country. The electroscope detected a strong electrical current of the same frequency as the pocket watch generator coming from the limestone cliffs. Could the woman have fled there? Why?
The pirate cove.
Of course. She would need water, food, shelter from the elements, concealment from law officers. The caves offered all such necessities to the river pirates of the previous century, the bandits and outlaws of the present, and now, to a woman desperate enough to seek their confines.
A travel bag lay abandoned on the floor. Norwood opened it and hastily packed what equipment he anticipated might be of use. Before leaving the laboratory, he stopped and opened the large cabinet by the trapdoor. This cabinet was empty of any instruments, electrical or not. All it contained was a small, locked chest on a shelf at eye-level. He dropped his travel bag to the floor. Reaching out to the chest, he touched a fingertip to the silver lock, and at the same time, placed his other hand over his heart, covering the silver key that hung there from a cord around his neck at all times, warm against his skin.
Besides his medical bag, the chest was all he had brought with him to Fort Charles. Daring, yes, but necessary. He had never left its presence. He had the box with him always. For seventeen years it had not left his possession. He dared not travel so far from home without bringing it with him.
The chest was approximately the size of a hat box. He clutched the key. With his time at the hospital, he had not opened it in days. But no, there was not time now. He placed his hands on either side, as if cradling a woman’s face.
“Soon,” he whispered.
Shutting the cabinet doors softly but firmly, he retrieved the travel bag and descended into the main house. In the pantry, all he found was coffee, crackers, and a half-bag of bruised apples. He must send word to the hotel manager to restock his supplies. He tucked the cracker tin in the bag amongst the instruments, threw the bag of apples over his shoulder, and walked out into the empty street as the sun set over the west bank of the river.
Norwood had seen the cliffs many years ago. Before Henry was born, traveling south by riverboat to New Orleans with Marie to visit her family, a deck hand had pointed out the pirate cove as they drifted past the Fort Charles harbor. Only from the water could the small, low opening in the cliff be seen. By land, the entrance to the secret cave was not visible unless one was directly before it.
Using the electroscope, Norwood trudged through the river mud and tall grass straight to the cave. Around the entrance, the tall reeds were bent, broken in two spots, like someone or something had fallen. Norwood stopped when he saw bootprints in the mud. Small, narrow, close together. A woman. Not running...perhaps stumbling. His idea was almost embarrassingly simplistic, but he had no time for clever contraptions. In the bag he found his hand spade and set to work in the soft mud, digging a hole.
The muscles in his arms warmed as he worked, and within minutes he was enjoying the labor. He had chosen a spot in the shadows of the cliff, and as the last of the afternoon sun dissolved behind the rock, he had dug deeply enough to lower himself into the hole and continue. Darkness descended completely, the half-moon hidden by a cloudy perpetually stormy night sky, by the time he was satisfied. The hole was as deep as he was tall. he climbed out with some struggle, his arms tired from digging, and dumped the rest of the contents of the travel bag into the mud. Then, as the air cooled and the frogs chanted, he filled the bag with water at the river dozens of times and dumped the water into the hole until it was soft, muddy, and swamped with about six inches of water.
He covered the hole with the broken reeds and some loose grass, and then, breathing heavily now from the hours of effort, he gathered his equipment into the bag again and found the cave entrance.
The river was high from all the rain, the current swift. A tangle of sticks and river muck collected on the inlet a few steps away. Low to the ground, concealed by tall grass, the cave entrance was low. One had to crawl to enter. Norwood lowered his lamp to the damp mud near the cave entrance and crawled inside, dragging his pack. Once inside, the space opened large enough to stand and about the size of his parlor. When he ducked back through to retrieve the lamp, he heard a rustle, a whisper of grass, or maybe the wind. He froze. The water lapped against the shore. Slowly, on his knees he backed into the cave.
Inside, he extinguished the lamp and crouched down near the opening to listen and wait.
He did not wait long.
Within minutes, he heard the rustle of wet reeds and the squelch of mud beneath boots. A shriek and hiss of an animal, followed by a thump. Had he trapped a wild dog by mistake?
Then a loud curse, unmistakably a human voice. A woman’s voice, a low wail, and then more rustling. She was trying to climb out of the trap.
Norwood scrambled through the opening, dragging the lamp with him. As he ran to the trap, he switched on the lamp, and its weak light pooled over the trampled grass onto the hole he dug in the earth. A clump of grass and twigs fell was dragged back into the hole, and then...a hand clawed out, dragging more grass, but then finding hold on the earth’s edge and pulling. The other hand grasped and held. The top of her head covered in tangled white hair emerged.
The arms were covered in mud, the hair matted and filthy, but as her face rose into the light, Norwood saw the pale, blue electric eyes. And her skin...it glowed and shimmered as if beneath moonlit water. He gasped. She looked directly at him, and he saw there the slight widening of her eyes. She recognized him.
Clenching the handle of the lamp, breathing in and filling his chest with all his courage, he strode forward and pushed the flat toe of his boot against her forehead and she fell back with a splash into the water-filled hole.
She screeched again like an animal, but then cursed him with well-formed human words. Shaking in terror, he held the lamp over the pit. Her eyes found him again. They flashed with light. Slowly, she lifted a trembling hand into the air. Norwood was frozen to the spot. He stood his ground not from courage, but from an inability in terror to move or speak. Here he would find out if his theory were true. He waited as she slowly, slowly lifted her hand. A pulse of light began beneath the bodice of her mud-caked dress. It flashed through the vein of her arm, but as it did so, a violent tremor ran through her entire body. The light faded. Her hand fell with a splash into the water.
“Fascinating,” Norwood murmured.
She looked up at him and actually bared her teeth. She clenched them and breathed heavily, her chest heaving, her nostrils flared.
“Don’t try again,” he told her. “Not while you’re in the water. I’m afraid the charge will harm you.”
She cursed him again, but she did not raise her hand. Her chin fell to her chest, the dank hair falling across her face. Behind the wet clothing, the mud, and her hair, he could not see the glowing skin, the electric eyes. She was a pitiful, trapped creature.
“Do you remember me?” he asked.
She did not lift her head. “Please...food.”
“Answer my questions, and I’ll give you food. As much as you like.” He tossed an apple down, and it splashed beneath the water. The woman pounced on the spot, found the apple and devoured it.
“More,” she said, chewing the apple, eating it core and all. “Please.”
“How have you sustained yourself thus far?”
She swallowed. “The river. Fish. And I hunt.”
“You hunt? How?”
Finally, she looked up at him. Her breathing had returned to normal. “Please...let me out.”
“You may climb out as you wish. Only the water is stopping you from releasing a strong electrical charge. I only want to help you. I have more food. I can get you dry clothes.”
She rose from the water on unsteady legs and reached up to the edge. Norwood backed away. Grasped in his palm was the gold watch.
“I warn you, though,” he said. At the edge of the pit, the woman’s hands froze, clutched in the dirt. “I have my own means of electrical charge. I am not defenseless.”
A moment passed, and the hands began to move again. He heard a splash of water, a grunt, and then the woman’s head emerged from the pit. She pulled herself out onto the ground and rolled over on her back. She did not seem in a hurry to stand. She lay there as if exhausted.
“Are you all right? Do you have a name?”
At this last question, she she sat up. “Of course…” her voice caught. She coughed, tried again. “I have a name. Susanna.”
“Susanna,” he repeated. “I am Samuel Norwood. I am the doctor that examined you the night...the night you died.”
“I remember.” She stretched out her hand, palm up.
He tossed her another apple.
She caught the fruit in her fist and, looking up at him, squeezed it, her knuckles turning white. Her glowing skin brightened, and a thin vein of white shot down her arm to her shaking fist. The fruit exploded, sending bits of it flying up into Norwood’s face.
“That’s how I hunt.”
He watched her eat the charred remains of the apple, and when she was finished, tossed her another one and asked, “Do you remember what has happened to you?”
She held the fruit with both hands, biting into it and chewing without pulling it away from her mouth. She hook her head, and her hair fell over her hands clutching the apple. As she did so, the glow that emanated from her skin faded, and then altogether extinguished. She became an ordinary, though dirty and exhausted, woman that once cleaned up and dressed appropriately might fit in amongst a crowd.
“Your glow has extinguished,” he said.
Still chewing the apple clutched in her hands, her eyes slid upward to meet his. A great feeling of pity overcame the doctor. A great sense of guilt at the mud caked over her dress, around her neck. He had set a trap for this poor creature when clearly she was in need.
He took one step toward her, offered his hand. “I want to help you. I can take you to Hallinger House. I have the place to myself, half a dozen rooms empty, the proprietress has fled. No one would find you there.”
She did not stop eating. She stared at him with cold eyes. Then a man’s shout carried from across the water.
Norwood spun around, cursed, extinguished his lamp, but knew it was too late. His light had been seen from a boat on the river. He saw the vessel coming toward the shore at a steady pace, a torch held high by a man standing while the other rowed.
“We must hide. Quick, into the cave.” He spun around to offer the woman his hand again, but she was gone, not a sound, not a shimmer of light. Not even an apple core remained.