This story is by Sue Larkins Weems and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Obituary, The Daily Times, September 14, 1874.
Dr. Leonard Glumson died yesterday of natural causes. He treated those afflicted with the disease known as the great imitator but is perhaps best known for his eccentric No Nose Society. An unnamed source described the members who at first meeting, “stared at one another with unaccustomed bashfulness and confused oddness, as if every sinner beheld his own iniquities in the faces of his companions.” Glumson leaves behind no surviving family.
Henrietta couldn’t conceal a grin reading the obituary of her former employer. They had printed her words verbatim— not a censor or adjustment made, but then, she’d followed expectations. It astonished her how men avoided using the word “syphilis” at all costs. Dr. Glumson often said it turned men into monsters, taking noses and stealing a man’s vitality. Henrietta disagreed silently, believing it exposed the monsters willing to infect women again and again. She snipped the square from the thin newsprint and pinned it beside her dressing mirror.
Sweeping back her hair, she marveled at her transformation since she had begun her treatments. The thrill of creation shuddered through her. Syphilis would not claim her— not her nose and not her mind. Unlike others she might name—nay, would name! Nothing left to do but finish clearing the doctor’s office, attend the funeral, and exact her justice before leaving the city for good. She sniffed and headed downstairs.
Dr. Glumson’s office was only three blocks from Henrietta’s house, or more properly, her father’s, a revered doctor who had died five years ago, leaving her everything including his laboratory. Henrietta had more skill than most physicians, a fact her father used to get her a place with Dr. Glumson after Andrew had jilted her, but Glumson had treated her as a secretary.
Such a disappointment, she thought, entering Dr. Glumson’s medical office. She settled in with a cup of tea, and made quick work of sorting his active patient files. She knew their names well. They had slunk into the office in hoods and discreet hats and nose pieces for years. Now, she said their names aloud as she sorted them into two stacks: treat and release.
“Eugene Grey,” she grimaced. “Known lecher. Release.” She plopped his file to the left.
“Lord Francis Shell. Remained celibate after infection. Treat.” She smiled, remembering the gentleman who always brought her peppermints. She placed his file on her right.
“George Doyle, release.” He always smelled of ale and leered at her.
She proceeded through the files, making notes. By mid-morning, she only had four files stacked to her right.
Henrietta took a break, nibbling her biscuit and sipping the bean soup she’d warmed. A heavy knock made her jump in her seat.
“Coming!” she called.
She cracked the outer door to see a man she hadn’t seen in over ten years, Andrew’s servant, Davis.
“Miss Wollstone?” He remembered. Fear clouded his eyes.
“I… I’m here to collect a…package Dr. Glumson left.”
Henrietta’s mind raced. Did Andrew have a file here? “Everything was posted directly after his death. I didn’t see…”
Davis backed down the steps. “My mistake. Thank you.”
Henrietta closed the door, listening. No one knocked and she headed back into the office.
She pulled the final drawer of archived patients. Most of the archives were dead, but she needed to make sure.
Dead. Dead. Dead.
In short order, the drawer was empty. At the bottom, she noticed a small red ribbon. As she tugged, the drawer bottom lifted. She held her breath to see a tidy stack of files.
The names swirled before her and she collapsed into a chair. A bishop. A retired member of parliament. A royal. And Viscount Andrew Gordon. Her Andrew. The one who had left her at the altar in disgrace. All infected with syphilis.
She flipped through the notes and dates in Andrew’s file, pausing only long enough to confirm the suspicions she had carried for years. He had known. He knew he had syphilis and still…
Her one indiscretion! The old rage bubbled up and spread through her arms until her hands shook. She rummaged through the rest of the drawers, checking for any other red-ribboned false bottoms. Nothing.
Urgency thrummed through her. These were powerful men who had managed to keep their disease a secret, and like Andrew, they must be uneasy after Glumson’s death. She had to get these files out of the office now— before any of them came looking.
Henrietta plucked off the ribbon and replaced the false bottom. She stuffed the files in her bag.
Within minutes, she’d finished tidying the office and donned her coat and hat, peeking out the side window to check the street.
Drawing the sash, she took a final look around the room.
“Goodbye, Dr. Glumson. If only you’d believed a woman could develop a treatment.” She stepped outside and didn’t look back.
At home, she hurried inside, stopping only to hand off her coat.
“Mr. Lawrence called while you were out, Ma’am. He’ll be late.”
“Thank you.” Henrietta headed to the laboratory with her bag, and only relaxed once she had the files locked in the safe. She wondered how much they might be worth.
Upstairs, she changed into her dinner clothes, stewing about the files and the injustice of those able to hide their indiscretions.
Lawrence arrived for dinner. He droned on about the trust, and her plan to move to the country. Her mind was elsewhere. She’d planned to expose all the patients to their families via private letters, but now, that seemed too risky. They must pay! she thought. Wait.
“Henrietta?” Lawrence interrupted her reverie. She met his eyes. “I asked if you’d finished your personal business?”
She wiped her mouth with the napkin and folded it carefully beside her plate.
“I wish there was a way for our final triumph to be realized by the doctor’s patients.”
Lawrence cocked his head. “I don’t understand.”
“There is a cure.”
Lawrence dropped his fork onto the china with a clatter. “He developed a cure?”
Henrietta smoothed the table cloth, refusing to give him credit.
Lawrence stammered, stood, and returned to his seat. “Where is it?” His voice was barely a whisper.
“It’s locked in father’s lab. I wondered if we could gather the No Nose Society one final time. It’s not foolproof, which is why Glumson didn’t release it before his death.”
Lawrence blinked. “I’m not sure it’s eth…”
“And letting good people suffer is ethical?” She challenged his rebuttal using the very phrase she’d spat at Glumson when he’d dismissed her experiments. “Will you send the letters and arrange the necessary affidavits?”
Lawrence quietly agreed. “You’ll administer the injections?”
Lawrence never picked up his fork again. He pulled a notepad from his pocket and wrote names as Henrietta spouted them by heart, and she added one. “Nils Davis.”
Lawrence raised an eyebrow. “The Viscount’s man? Are you sure?”
Henrietta nodded. “He came by the office today.”
Lawrence marked it down and for the first time in ten years, her chest felt less tight.
Two days later, Henrietta arrived at the tavern where the No Nose Society met. She had four vials of treatment and twenty-seven vials of saline with arsenic, the treatment her father had administered to her with little effect. She set up in a room behind the bar.
Each man would receive one injection.
Henrietta would administer justice.
She took her station and called out each man’s name on her list, smiling and listening to them hail Glumson’s triumph.
Soon, Lawrence signaled her that the final man had arrived. “It wasn’t Davis,” he whispered. “It’s the Viscount.”
“If he wants the injection, I will administer it.” She raised her chin.
Lawrence disappeared into the main room and returned with a man in a hood.
He sat before her. Henrietta’s stomach lurched at the familiar smell of cloves. How does a nose awaken memories over a decade old?
“Arm out then,” she said, tightening a wrap on his upper arm. “Won’t hurt much.”
She stuck him, mesmerized by the impotent fluid draining from the syringe.
“Henrietta, have you forgot me?” his voice was low.
She looked into the face obscured by the hood, her gaze hardening. “I have my reminders.”
“But you look well.”
Henrietta could barely trace the outline of the face she’d once loved beneath the shrouded hood. His nose was gone, his upper lip shriveled away.
“Once healed, I have a man in Italy who has promised to restore my nose. Perhaps you’d like to…”
“No.” She extracted the syringe and bandaged the arm. “I don’t expect to see you again.”
He tried to speak, but she dismissed him with an infectious smile that he tried to return.
“Indeed.” She packed her kit and headed home, her justice complete.