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   Chapter 9 THE MAN FROM BIRMINGHAM

The Blue Germ By Maurice Nicoll Characters: 11802

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


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."

"Headache?"

"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.

He pulled it out and examined it. "I'm going across to see this gent," he announced. "It's convenient, 'im living so close. Perhaps he'll 'ave a word to say about this 'ere disease. Fair spread over Birmingham, so they say. It would be nasty if any bloke was responsible for it. Good day to yer." He opened the door slowly, and glanced back at us standing in the middle of the room watching him. "Look 'ere," he said swiftly, "what did 'e mean, saying I was never going to die and--" The light from the window was against his eyes, and he could not see the features of Sarakoff's face, but there was something in the outline of his body that checked him. "Guv'ner, it ain't true." The words came hoarsely from his lips. "I ain't never not going to die."

Sarakoff spoke.

"You are never going to die, Mr. Herbert Wain ... you understand?... Never going to die, unless you get killed in an accident-or starve."

I jerked up my hand to stop my friend.

Wain stared incredulously. Then he burst into a roar of laughter and smacked his thigh.

"Gor lumme!" he exclaimed, "if that ain't rich. Never going to die! Live for ever! Strike me, if that ain't a notion!" The tears ran down his cheeks and he paused to wipe them away. "If I was to believe what you say," he went on, "it would fair drive me crazy. Live for ever-s'elp me, if that wouldn't be just 'ell. Good-day to yer, gents. I'm obliged to yer."

He went out into the sunlit street still roaring with laughter, a thin, ragged, tattered figure, with the shadow of immortality upon him.

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