I had an hour and a half before I met with Colvin, so I finished some paperwork, then went for dinner. The newspaper’s office was only a half-mile from my office, and I tried a wandering path to get there, occasionally doubling back and crossing the street in an effort to see if anyone was following me. Not that I could tell. But I kept telling myself that they, whoever they might be, would likely be trained not to be fooled by my amateurish attempts at espionage. But I could not stop myself. It was a scab I could not resist picking.
It also occurred to me that all they had to do was read my letters and telegrams to know where I was going to be tonight. Would they, could they, do that? Correspondence was supposed to be private. You just did not read other people’s mail or telegrams. It would be such a violation of social norms. It would be so rude. But then, why wouldn’t they read my correspondence? It would be a straightforward way to gather information about anyone they were interested in. Who would suspect? No one, since reading another’s mail just was not done.
It was a reasonable assumption. I was going to have to be cautious about what I put in the mail and in telegraphs. And I would have to check my mail for tampering. But how would I know if it had been tampered with?
More paranoid second-guessing. This was nuts. I was either getting in way over my head, or my imagination was running as amok as the Cholera, with the same output. To add to the cloak-and-dagger, I decided to enter the offices of the newspaper through the loading dock in the back of the building. I watched. No one seemed to notice or care.
I asked one of the workers for the office of Blair Colvin.
He shrugged. “Somewhere on the third floor. That is where all the reporters are.”
I opened the door to an enormous room filled with desks, some separated by shoulder-high partitions. The room was empty, but in the back left was a partially open door with light streaming out of the crack. There was the sound of a typewriter clattering; it paused with a “hell,” resumed briefly, then stopped with a “bloody hell.” It looked like someone was having a tough time with their typewriter. I headed in that direction and knocked on the door as I stuck my head in the crack.
“The same. Excuse me if we don’t shake,” he said, holding up ink-stained fingers. “I keep tangling up the keys in the typewriter ribbon. I have the unique talent of typing quickly and inaccurately, so what I lack in flawless content, I make up with key repair. Please, have a seat. May I offer you a drink?” He gestured at a bottle on his desk.
“Before we begin,” I said, ’this is going to be off the record. No contemporaneous notes. I suspect that my correspondence is compromised, being read by the Crown. So, what we say is between us and does not leave this room.”
There was another pause as he thought and then gave a small nod. “Agreed. I have similar suspicions, so perhaps we are in a position to both help each other and stop the Cholera.” He threw the pad on the desk, then leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. “So, Mr. Bruno, how can I be of assistance?”
I shook my head vigorously. “I did not. When I read your recent article in the River Weekly, it occurred to me that we should meet, but I had yet to send an invitation. I found the request from you for a meeting this morning on my desk.”
He held up a finger. “Entice us into doing something that might stop the Cholera.” He held up a thumb. “To entice us into doing something that would allow the Crown to squash us.” He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together as if he was destroying a nit. “And the two are not mutually exclusive. But this is so heavy-handed I suspect the former. If they wanted to crush us, they would be far more subtle. No, someone in high places is supporting our efforts and wants us to know that we have their tacit approval.”
For the next half hour, I told him about the Cholera, the issues with the Societies, the Skeptics in the Pub, the Mesmer report, and the Méthode Empirique. I suggested it was because of the Méthode Empirique and the Mesmer report that I was under the observation of the Crown—and my worry, now confirmed, that my correspondence was being read.
“The most important issue is the Cholera,” I concluded. “It is killing people. And it is only going to get worse. The Societies do not know what they are doing and are of no help. We have no clue what the cause of the Cholera is or what to do about it. I suspect that our best bet for understanding may be the Méthode Empirique. And your report gives a hint that there is even more from the Continent that could be important. Something that could really help with the Cholera and more.”
As I spoke, Colvin remained impassive. He had quite the whist face. “You have quite the problem list,” he said. “And it appears that you are of interest to the Crown. I will be shocked if your correspondence is not being read. I know mine is. If you look carefully at the seals of your letters, you can tell they were steamed open and resealed. Once you know it is being done, it is obvious.
“Telegrams, I think, are being read at the source. They are never sealed, and there are plenty of opportunities to look at their content. I think you are wise to be careful with all your correspondence going forward—although if the Crown really wants to get you, there is nothing to do. They will get you. Trust me on that.”
There was another pause as he considered. “But they haven’t gone after us. I think whoever is pulling our strings wants us to combine our efforts concerning the Cholera and investigate using Continental solutions. They just want to make sure that the Continent and the French get no credit.”
“Then you know it is well named. Fevers, intractable coughing fits, the episodes of coughing up blood, the slow wasting away as the disease consumes the victim. Consumption. A fitting name. For the eight years she was ill, we probably saw Philosophers from every Society in the Portland area and a few beyond. And not a few of the Guild members as well. Each one offered a novel explanation and treatment, endless hope, and promises. This time the disease would be arrested, and a cure was just around the corner if she did everything as directed.
“And we did everything they asked, at great expense. As you know, the Societies are not cheap and not prone to charity work. For a short time, her spirits would get better, then she would relapse to her prior condition and resume her slow, painful decline. And every Society Philosopher would say the same thing—some version of we did not follow their plan exactly, or we came to them too late to alter the course of the Consumption.
“If only you had come to us earlier, they would say. If only you had followed our remedy more fastidiously. Then there might have been a cure. As if it were our fault, the Consumption was advancing. And with every failure, she grew more despondent as she blamed herself for her failure to improve. Never that, perhaps, there was less in their Medical Philosophies than they dreamt of.
“That is how it went for years. A new provider. Hope. Failure. Progression. Until three years ago when the consumption took her. She bled into her lungs, drowning in her own blood. I still see her in my dreams, gasping bloody foam, her eyes looking at me in terror and pain.”
There was silence while Colvin paused, staring at nothing, remembering his wife’s death. “So, after I recovered, somewhat, from the grief of her loss, I did what I know best. I am a journalist. I look for the truth. I investigate, so, I investigated. My conclusions?
“None of the Medical Societies or the Guilds have the slightest idea what they are doing. They have as much understanding of disease and health as a pig does of the telegraph. They are charlatans, every last one. And while they did not kill my wife, they poisoned her spirit and made her final years those of regret and guilt. The Medical Societies persist because they enrich the Crown through taxes and grants, and they jealously protect their position. And, most importantly, the Societies thrive because there is nothing to challenge them.
“I have discovered that there are options to what the Societies have to offer, an alternative Philosophy, but it is only found on the Continent, and the Crown has been very effective in keeping those ideas and approaches originating on the Continent from reaching the Empire. Our leaders are not keen on change and new ideas, especially those that originate in our historical enemy. Even if it could save thousands of lives. Although it looks like that approach may have changed because of the Cholera.”
He stretched, stood up, and walked over to the door and looked out. “No one there,” he said. “I have cultivated connections with the Continent. I will spare you the details. What you don’t know can’t come back to hurt you. But there is a flow of information from North America to French Canada to the Continent and back.
“I had some inkling of the Méthode Empirique and other continental discoveries. Mostly half-formed rumors and ideas. I think the remedies offered by the Societies need to be tested and validated with the same rigor and reproducibility of a mathematical proof. Why do you smile?”
“Huh. That is someone I would like to meet. But not only does the Continent have a method for testing the effectiveness of a Medical Philosophy, but I get hints that they have a whole new idea for the cause of some diseases, and it is radically different from the malarkey of the Societies.”
Colvin looked dismissive. “They may be true believers,” he said. “But the greatest evil is often produced by the righteous who think they are doing God’s work. That’s who burn heretics and witches. And it does not mean what the Societies are doing is actually effective. Belief does not make it so.”
“Mind you, I have just the outlines. Besides the Méthode Empirique, there are hints that the French are of the opinion that some illnesses are caused by animalcules, small creatures that may cause diseases like pneumonia and the Consumption. There is a professor, a Dr. Pasteur, who thinks there is a unique animalcule for each illness, although there is still much debate on the issue. It is by no means settled. There are reports that the creatures can be seen by using a microscope, a device that looks like a telescope but looks inward rather than out.”
“Well,” I said, very slowly. “By what I thought was happenstance, when I was recently back east, I came into the possession of a French microscope. I brought it back with me. Now I wonder just how and why it landed in my hands.”
“Well, what you say sounds fantastical.” I continued. “Disease caused by creatures that cannot be seen by the naked eye? How do these animalcules cause the Cholera? Or Consumption? That does sound a bit crazy. It flies in the face of the Societies and their insistence that every disease has one true cause.” I paused, considering. “But I can no longer think my microscope has ended in my hands by mere coincidence.”
“Yes,” said Colvin. “Animalcules do sound fantastical. I would have to see it to believe it. But if you start from the position that I do, that everything—and I mean everything—that the Societies and Guilds do and say is false, then any new idea, any new explanation, has to be better by comparison. Or at least worthy of careful evaluation. That is a reasonable initial approach to evaluate the ideas from the Continent. The more ludicrous it sounds, the further from the Societies it is, the closer to the truth it is likely to be.”
“That I do not know. I am not even sure that there are animalcules, much less than the Cholera is caused by them. Portland is a long way from Paris. Information, while I think it is accurate, is sketchy. But maybe the Cholera is due to some sort of animalcule. It is something to consider. It is not like any of the other ideas from the Societies have made any impact on the Cholera.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “That is why Providence has seen fit to provide you with a microscope,” he said. “No one said this was going to be easy. If the Societies find out about this, they will use their influence to make our lives, let’s say, interesting, and my life is interesting enough as it is.
“But someone, somewhere, with a lot of power, pushed us together. If they wanted to ruin us, there are easier ways to do it. Someone knows what we know, knows more than we know in all likelihood, and are trying to get us to go after the Cholera. And maintain deniability for themselves.
“Here is the hypothesis: an animalcule causes the Cholera. If true, you might be able to see the animalcule with a microscope. And if we had a remedy or idea for how this so-called animalcule is spread, we can test those ideas with the Méthode Empirique.”
“Not really. I have been investigating the Societies and alternative approaches to Medical Philosophy for years. This is not new for me. What is new is the opportunity to apply these ideas to the Cholera. And that there is someone who knows far more than us about Philosophical advances on the Continent and, I think, wants them applied to the Cholera, just as long as he or she does not get the credit. Or the Continent. Someone is giving us a huge nudge, and I think we go where we are being pushed.”
“I don’t think we should be seen together, but thank you,” Colvin said. “And no more letters or telegrams. If you have to meet, send a messenger. We can at least inquire of them if they were asked about us by a third party.”
I stood up, and this time we shook hands. I left the office and walked home by the most direct route, the whole time seeing no one watching me but convinced I was observed every step of the way. When I reached the door of my apartment and started to unlock the front door, I thought I heard, very softly, someone say, “Bruno.”
I whirled around, heart pounding. No one. The street was empty—no movement in the doorways. I stood for a few minutes, listening and looking intently in the dark for the source of the voice. Straining to hear … nothing. The breeze pushing leaves, the distant yowl of a cat. The cat did not sound like it was yowling my name. Was it my imagination? I did not think so; I was not prone to auditory hallucinations. But where did the voice come from? I waited another few minutes. Nothing. But I was again unsettled by the thought that I might be spied upon.