"It's very bad luck on the trout."
"After getting the bacillus into their system, they blunder on to a hook and meet their death straight away."
"The bacillus is not proof against death by violence," replied Sarakoff gravely. "That is a factor that will always remain constant. We are agreed in looking on all disease as eventually due to poisons derived from germ activity, but a bang on the head or asphyxiation or prussic acid or a bullet in the heart are not due to a germ. Yes, these poor trout little knew what a future they forfeited when they took the bait."
"The bacillus is in Birmingham by now," I said suddenly. I passed my hand across my brow nervously, and glanced at the manuscript lying before Sarakoff. "You had better keep those papers locked up. I spent an awful day at the hospital. It dawned on me that the whole medical profession will want to tear us in pieces before the year is out."
"In theory they ought not to."
"Who cares for theory, when it is a question of earning a living? As I walked along the street to-day, I could have shrieked aloud when I saw everybody hurrying about as if nothing were going to happen. This is unnerving me. It is so tremendous."
Sarakoff picked up his pen, and traced out a pattern in the blotting-pad before him.
"The Water Committee of Birmingham are investigating the matter," he observed. "It will be amusing to hear their report. What will they think when they make a bacteriological examination of the water in the reservoir? It will stagger them."
The next morning I was down to breakfast before my friend and stood before the fire eagerly scanning the papers. At first I could find nothing that seemed to indicate any further effects of the bacillus. I was in the act of buttering a piece of toast when my eye fell on one of the newspapers lying beside me. A heading in small type caught my eye.
"The measles epidemic in Ludlow." I picked the paper up.
"The severe epidemic of measles which began last week and seemed likely to spread through the entire town, has mysteriously abated. Not only are no further cases reported, but several doctors report that those already attacked have recovered in an incredibly short space of time. Doubt has been expressed by the municipal authorities as to whether the epidemic was really measles."
I adjusted my glasses to read the paragraph again. Then I got up and went into my study. After rummaging in a drawer I pulled out and unrolled a map of England. The course of the aqueduct from Elan to Birmingham was marked by a thin red line. I followed it slowly with the point of my finger and came on the town of Ludlow about half-way along. I stared at it.
"Of course," I whispered at length, my finger still resting on the position of the town. "All these towns on the way are supplied by the aqueduct. I hadn't thought of that. The bacillus is in Ludlow."
For about a minute I did not move. Then I rolled up the map and went up to Sarakoff's bedroom. I met the Russian on the landing on his way to the bathroom.
"The bacillus is in Ludlow," I said in a curiously small voice. I stood on the top stair, holding on to the bannister, my big glasses aslant on my nose, and the map hanging down in my limp grasp.
I had to repeat the sentence before Sarakoff heard me.
I sank on my knees and unrolled the map on the floor and pointed directly with my finger.
Sarakoff went down on all fours and looked at the spot keenly.
"Ah, on the line of the aqueduct! But how do you know it is there?"
"It has cut short an epidemic of measles. The doctors are puzzled."
Sarakoff nodded. He was looking at the names of the other towns that lay on the course of the aqueduct.
"Cleobury-Mortimer," he spelt out. "No news from there?"
"And none from Birmingham yet?"
"We'll have news to-morrow." He raised himself on his knees. "Trout and then measles!" he said, and laughed. "This is only the beginning. No wonder the Ludlow doctors are puzzled."
The same evening there was further news of the progress of the bacillus. From Cleobury-Mortimer, ten miles from Ludlow, and twenty from Birmingham, it was reported that the measles epidemic there had been cut short in the same mysterious manner as noticed in Ludlow. But next morning a paragraph of considerable length appeared which I read out in a trembling voice to Sarakoff.
"It was reported a short time ago that the trout in the Elan reservoirs appeared to be suffering from a singular disease, the effect of which was to tint their scales and flesh a delicate bluish colour. The matter is being investigated. In the meanwhile it has been noticed, both in Ludlow and Cleobury-Mortimer, and also in Knighton, that the peculiar bluish tint has appeared amongst the inhabitants. Our correspondent states that it is most marked in the conjunctivae, or whites of the eyes. There must undoubtedly be some connection between this phenomenon and the condition of the trout in the Elan reservoirs, as all the above-mentioned towns lie close to, and receive water from, the great aqueduct. The most remarkable thing, however, is that the bluish discolouration does not seem to be accompanied by any symptoms of illness in those whom it has affected. No sickness or fever has been observed. It is perhaps nothing more than a curious coincidence that the abrupt cessation of the measles epidemic in Ludlow and Cleobury-Mortimer, reported in yesterday's issue, should have occurred simultaneously with the appearance of bluish discolouration among the inhabitants."
On the same evening, I was returning from the hospital and saw the following words on a poster:-- "Blue Disease in Birmingham."
I bought a paper and scanned the columns rapidly. In the stop-press news I read:-- "The Blue Disease has appeared in Birmingham. Cases are reported all over the city. The Public Health Department are considering what measures should be adopted. The disease seems to be unaccompanied by any dangerous symptoms."
I stood stock-still in the middle of the pavement. A steady stream of people hurrying from business thronged past me. A newspaper boy was shouting something down the street, and as he drew nearer, I heard his hoarse voice bawling out:-- "Blue Disease in Birmingham."
He passed close to me, still bawling, and his voice died away in the distance. Men jostled me and glanced at me angrily.... But I was lost in a dream. The paper dropped from my fingers. In my mind's eye I saw the Sarakoff-Harden bacillus in Birmingham, teeming in every water-pipe in countless billions, swarming in the carafes on dining-room tables, and in every ewer and finger-basin, infecting everything it came in contact with. And the vision of Birmingham and the whole stretch of country up to the Elan watershed passed before me, stained with a vivid blue.
THE MAN FROM BIRMINGHAM.
The following day while walking to the hospital, I noticed a group of people down a side street, apparently looking intently at something unusual. I turned aside to see what it was. About twenty persons, mostly errand boys, were standing round a sandwich-board man. At the outskirts of the circle, I raised myself on tip-toe and peered over the heads of those in front. The sandwich-board man's back was towards me.
"What's the matter?" I asked of my neighbour.
"One of the blue freaks from Birmingham," was the reply.
My first impulse was to fly. Here I was in close proximity to my handiwork. I turned and made off a few paces. But curiosity overmastered me, and I came back. The man was now facing me, and I could see him distinctly through a gap in the crowd. It was a thin, unshaven face with straightened features and gaunt cheeks. The eyes were deeply sunken and at that moment turned downwards. His complexion was pale, but I could see a faint bluish tinge suffusing the skin, that gave it a strange, dead look. And then the man lifted his eyes and gazed straight at me. I caught my breath, for under the black eye brows, the whites of the eyes were stained a pure sparrow-egg blue.
"I came from Birmingham yesterday," I heard him saying. "There ain't nothing the matter with me."
"You ought to go to a fever hospital," said someone.
"We don't want that blue stuff in London," added another.
"Perhaps it's catching," said the first speaker.
In a flash everyone had drawn back. The sandwich-board man stood in the centre of the road alone looking sharply round him. Suddenly a wave of rage seemed to possess him. He shook his fist in the air, and even as he shook it, his eyes caught the blue sheen of the tense skin over the knuckles. He stopped, staring stupidly, and the rage passed from his face, leaving it blank and incredulous.
"Lor' lumme," he muttered. "If that ain't queer."
He held out his hand, palm downwards. And from the pavement I saw that the man's nails were as blue as pieces of turquoise.
The sun came out from behind a passing cloud and sent a sudden flame of radiance over the scene in the side street--the sandwich-board man, his face still blank and incredulous, staring stupidly at his hands; the crowd standing well back in a wide semi-circle; I further forward, peering through my spectacles and clutching my umbrella convulsively. Then a tall man, in morning coat and top-hat, pushed his way through and touched the man from Birmingham on the shoulder.
"Can you come to my house?" he asked in an undertone. "I am a doctor and would like to examine you."
I shifted my gaze and recognized Dr. Symington-Tearle. The man pointed to his boards.
"How about them things?"
"Oh, you can get rid of them. I'll pay you. Here is my card with the address. I'll expect you in half-an-hour, and it will be well worth while your coming."
Symington-Tearle moved away, and a sudden spasm of jealousy affected me as I watched the well-shaped top-hat glittering down the street in the strong sunlight. Why should Symington-Tearle be given an opportunity of impressing a credulous world with some fantastic rubbish of his own devising? I stepped into the road.
"Do you want a five-pound note?" I asked. The man jumped with surprise. "Very well. Come round to this address at once."
I handed him my card. My next move was to telephone to the hospital to say I would be late, and retrace my footsteps homewards.
My visitor arrived in a very short time, after handing over his boards to a comrade on the understanding of suitable compensation, and was shown into my study. Sarakoff was present, and he pored over the man's nails and eyes and skin with rapt attention. At last he enquired how he felt.
"Ain't never felt so well in me life," said the man. "I was saying to a pal this morning 'ow well I felt."
"Do you feel as if you were drunk?" asked Sarakoff tentatively.
"Well, sir, now you put it that way, I feel as if I'd 'ad a good glass of beer. Not drunk, but 'appy."
"Are you naturally cheerful?"
"I carn't say as I am, sir. My profession ain't a very cheery one, not in all sorts and kinds of weather."
"But you are distinctly more cheerful this morning than usual?"
"I am, sir. I don't deny it. I lost my temper sudden like when that crowd drew away from me as if I'd got the leprosy, and I'm usually a mild and forbearin' man."
"Sit down," said Sarakoff. The man obeyed, and Sarakoff began to examine him carefully. He told him once or twice not to speak, but the man seemed in a loquacious mood and was incapable of silence for more than a minute of time.
"And I ain't felt so clear 'eaded not for years," he remarked. "I seem to see twice as many things to what I used to, and everything seems to 'ave a new coat of paint. I was saying to a pal early this morning what a very fine place Trafalgar Square was and 'ow I'd never seemed to notice it before, though I've known it all my life. And up Regent Street I begun to notice all sort o' little things I'd never seen before, though it was my old beat 'afore I went to Birmingham. O' course it may be because I been out o' London a spell. But blest if I ever seed so many fine shop windows in Regent Street before, or so many different colours."
"Bless you, no, sir. Just the opposite, if you understand." He looked round suddenly. "What's that noise?" he asked. "It's been worryin' me since I came in here."
We listened intently, but neither I nor Sarakoff could hear anything.
"It comes from there." The man pointed to the laboratory door. I went and opened it and stood listening. In a corner by the window a clock-work recording barometer was ticking with a faint rhythm.
"That's the noise," said the man from Birmingham. "I knew it wasn't no clock, 'cause it's too fast."
Sarakoff glanced significantly at me.
"All the senses very acute," he said. "At least, hearing and seeing." He took a bottle from the laboratory and uncorked it in one corner of the study. "Can you smell what this is?"
The man, sitting ten feet away, gave one sniff.
"Ammonia," he said promptly, and sneezed. "This 'ere Blue Disease," said the man after a long pause, "is it dangerous?"
He spread out his fingers, squeezing the turquoise nails to see if the colour faded. He frowned to find it fixed. I was standing at the window, my back to the room and my hands twisting nervously with each other behind me.
"No, it is not dangerous," said Sarakoff. He sat on the edge of the writing-table, swinging his legs and staring meditatively at the floor. "It is not dangerous, is it, Harden?"
I replied only with a jerky, impatient movement.
"What I mean," persisted the man, "is this--supposin' the police arrest me, when I go back to my job. 'Ave they a right? 'Ave people a right to give me the shove--to put me in a 'orspital? That crowd round me in the street--it confused me, like--as if I was a leper." He paused and looked up at Sarakoff enquiringly. "What's the cause of it?"
"A germ--a bacillus."
"Same as what gives consumption?"
Sarakoff nodded. "But this germ is harmless," he added.
"Then I ain't going to die?"
"No. That's just the point. You aren't going to die," said the Russian slowly. "That's what is so strange."
I jumped round from the window.
"How do you know?" I said fiercely. "There's no proof. It's all theory so far. The calculations may be wrong."
The man stared at me wonderingly. He saw me as a man fighting with some strange anxiety, with his forehead damp and shining, his spectacles aslant on his nose and the heavy folds of his frock-coat shaken with a sudden impetuosity.
"How do you know?" I repeated, shaking my fist in the air. "How do you know he isn't going to die?"
Sarakoff fingered his beard in silence, but his eyes shone with a quiet certainty. To the man from Birmingham it must have seemed suddenly strange that we should behave in this manner. His mind was sharpened to perceive things. Yesterday, had he been present at a similar scene, he would probably have sat dully, finding nothing curious in my passionate attitude and the calm, almost insolent, inscrutability of Sarakoff. He forgot his turquoise finger nails, and stared, open-mouthed.
"Ain't going to die?" he said. "What do yer mean?"
"Simply that you aren't going to die," was Sarakoff's soft answer.
"Yer mean, not die of the Blue Disease?"
"Not die at all."
"Garn! Not die at all." He looked at me. "What's he mean, Mister?" He looked almost surprised with himself at catching the drift of Sarakoff's sentence. Inwardly he felt something insistent and imperious, forcing him to grasp words, to blunder into new meanings. Some new force was alive in him and he was carried on by it in spite of himself. He felt strung up to a pitch of nervous irritation. He got up from his chair and came forward, pointing at Sarakoff. "What's this?" he demanded. "Why don't you speak out? Yer cawn't hide it from me." He stopped. His brain, working at unwonted speed, had discovered a fresh suspicion. "Look 'ere, you two know something about this blue disease." He came a step closer, and looking cunningly in my face, said: "That's why you offered me a five-pound note, ain't it?"
I avoided the scrutiny of the sparrow-egg blue orbs close before me.
"I offered you the money because I wished to examine you," I said shortly. "Here it is. You can go now."
I took a note from a safe in the corner of the room, and held it out. The man took it, felt its crispness and stowed it away in a secure pocket. His thoughts were temporarily diverted by the prospect of an immediate future with plenty of money, and he picked up his hat and went to the door. But his turquoise finger nails lying against the rusty black of the hat brought him back to his suspicions. He paused and turned.
"My name's Wain," he said. "I'm telling you, in case you might 'ear of me again. 'Erbert Wain. I know what yours is, remember, because I seed it on the door." He twisted his hat round several times in his hands and drew his brows together, puzzled at the speed of his ideas. Then he remembered the card that Symington-Tearle had given him.