Published: September 5, 2017
I suppose it began when I entered into the service of Dr Reginald Whitcomb. His name is in all the papers now, of course, but at the time I had never heard of him: I thought him a physician, though his practice was small and poorly signposted, consisting more or less of a dark cellar (despite all our best work, his and mine both, with gaslights and mirrors) off a little alley in Shadwell. It did not entirely inspire trust, I must admit, but I was not in much of a position to be choosy: any employment is better than none.
“I shall require three things of you,” Dr Whitcomb said to me when I first presented myself. “Firstly: your assistance. My work is a tricky business, and may often require a second pair of hands, unskilled though they be. That will be in addition to keeping the place clean, of course, and seeing to errands when I ask it. Secondly: your silence. I will not have you distracting me with questions or uneducated opinions; you are here to assist me, not to involve yourself. Thirdly: your complete and utter discretion. You will speak no word of anything you see here to anyone at all beyond these walls: I deal with science not yet published, and I will not have my secrets stolen. Do I have your agreement?”
“You have it, sir,” I answered, and with that my service was sealed.
In the service of Dr Whitcomb I made every effort to appear as a shadow, silent and watchful, ever present, ever ready. I had sworn away my voice; and so he gave no thought to what I witnessed, and though I confess I did not understand much of what he did, I saw near everything.
I had thought him a physician, but it soon became clear that Dr Whitcomb’s art was not for healing. He did bring in patients – where he found them I do not know – but they left his practice in a worse state than when they came; and that, I must say, took some doing. Many of them were dead to start with – freshly dead, by the look of them. Most others were brought in in a stupor: laudanum, no doubt, and quite probably beyond the usual dose. One sees enough of it, after all.
Living or dead, Dr Whitcomb’s patients were strapped tightly into the chair at the centre of the cellar, and if living were given a strip of leather to bite on; whereupon Dr Whitcomb fitted their head into a device of his own design and, by vigorously turning a crank, provided it with an electrical current. This was a task he trusted to no hands but his own. The crank must be turned steadily, without the slightest pause to disrupt the current’s flow.
The device itself fitted neatly around the patient’s head, so that I could not see what was done within it. I did see the sparks, however, and I saw what was extracted and distilled from them, though I could give it no name. Each patient’s session with the device provided Dr Whitcomb with a vial of effervescent fluid, of every conceivable colour: from gold to crimson to violet to rose; and each was carefully labelled – though Dr Whitcomb never explained his shorthand to me, and I did not ask – and stored within a mahogany vitrine, to which no one but Dr Whitcomb was in possession of a key.
The patients, if they had been living to start with, very often were not after it was done. Those who still breathed gave every sign that they would not do so for very much longer: they occupied every position of insanity from gibbering to catatonic to stark raving mad, and could be found to be bleeding from every orifice. They must have died quite near the practice, as often as not – Dr Whitcomb, having finished with them, simply turned them out onto the street – but this was Shadwell, after all, and it was quite some time before the police took note.
I would have protested, but I did not dare. As I have said, I was in no position to be choosy.
What precisely the fluids were I cannot say, but I was witness to other experiments which shewed at least what they did. Dr Whitcomb brought in some of Shadwell’s finest – urchins and dollymops and men without work, all of them desperate for halfpennies – and injected them with variously coloured fluids in order to observe their effects. I was able to see for myself that the crimson fluid turned a man to rage, the dark rose to lust, the gold to an over-joyful mania. There was nuance for every shade, and complex effects when the colours were mixed before injection.
As he had warned me when he first took me into his employ, Dr Whitcomb would not allow rumours of this yet-unpublished science to escape his practice. When he had finished these experiments he disposed of his patients – if, indeed, they can be called such – in the usual fashion.
Again, I did not dare to raise protest.
Though my conscience plagued me, I was not truly frightened of Dr Reginald Whitcomb until quite near the end, mere days before the police came to his door. I had come to his practice a few minutes earlier than was usual, on account of a particularly strong rain, and found him sitting at his mixing table; before him was a vial of fluid which shifted in colour from bloody to golden to pale cerulean, the colour of cold immoral cleverness, and a silver needle syringe. His shirtsleeves were rolled up past his elbows, revealing a forearm blue with bruises and sporting a number of tiny round wounds.
I made some small noise, and the doctor turned to face me: eyes cruel and cunning, mouth twisted in furious laughter.
I ran then, not looking behind me. I did not return to the practice again.