ALFRED thus encouraged told his story with forced calmness, and without a word too much. Indeed, so clear and telling was the narrative, and the logic so close, that incoherent patients one or two stole up and listened with wonder and a certain dreamy complacency; the bulk, however, held aloof apathetic: inextricably wrapped in fictitious Autobiography.
His story told, Alfred offered the Dodds in evidence that the fourteen thousand pounds was no illusion, and referred to his sister and several friends as witnesses to his sanity, and said the letters he wrote were all stopped in the asylum: and why? That no honest man or woman might know where he was.
He ended by convincing Mr. Vane he was a sane and injured man, and his father a dark designing person.
Mr. Vane asked him whether he had any other revelations to make. Alfred replied, "Not on my own account, but for the sake of those afflicted persons who are here for life. Well, the beds want repaving; the vermin thinning; the instruments of torture want abolishing, instead of hiding for an hour or two when you happen to come: what do the patients gain by that? The madmen dare not complain to you, sir, because the last time one did complain to the justices (it was Mr. Petworth), they had no sooner passed through the iron gate, than Cooper made an example of him; felled him with his fist, and walked up and down him on his knees, crying, 'I'll teach you to complain to the justices.' But one or two gentlemanly madmen, who soon found out that I am not one of them, have complained to me that the attendants wash them too much like Hansom cabs, strip them naked, and mop them on the flag-stones, then fling on their clothes without drying them. They say, too, that the meat is tough and often putrid, the bread stale, the butter rancid, the vegetables stinted, since they can't be adulterated. And as for sleep, it is hardly known; for the beds are so short your feet stick out; insects, without a name to ears polite, but highly odoriferous and profoundly carnivorous, bite you all night; and dogs howl eternally outside; and, when exhausted nature defies even these enemies of rest, then the doctor, who seems to be in the pay of Insanity, claps you on a blister by brute force, and so drives away sleep, Insanity's cure, or hocuses you by brute force as he did me, and so steals your sleep, and tries to steal your reason, with his opium, henbane, morphia, and other tremendous brain-stealers. With such a potion, sir, administered by violence, he gave me in one night a bursting fever, headache, loss of sight, and bleeding at the nose; as Mrs. Archbold will tell you. Oh, look into these things, sir, in pity to those whom Heaven has afflicted: to me they are but strokes with a feather. I am a sane man torn from love and happiness, and confined among the mad; discomfort is nothing to me; comfort is nothing; you can do nothing for me but restore me to my dignity as a man, my liberty as a Briton, and the rights as a citizen I have been swindled out of by a fraudulent bankrupt and his tools, two venal doctors, who never saw me but for one five minutes, but came to me ready bribed at a guinea apiece, and so signed away my wits behind my back."
"Now, Mr. Baker," said Vane, "what do you say to all this?"
Baker smiled with admirable composure, and replied with crafty moderation, "He is a gentleman, and believes every word he says; but it is all his delusions. Why, to begin, sir, his father has nothing to do with putting him in here; nothing on earth. (Alfred started; then smiled incredulous.) And, in the next place, there are no instruments of restraint here, but two pair of handcuffs and two strait jackets, and these never hardly used; we trust to the padded rooms, you know. And, sir," said he, getting warm, which instantly affected his pronunciations "if there's a hinsect in the ouse, I'll heat im."
Delusion is a big word, especially in a mad-house; it overpowers a visitor's understanding. Mr. Vane was staggered. Alfred, whose eager eyes were never off his face, saw this with dismay, and feeling that, if he failed in the simpler matter, he should be sure to fail in establishing his sanity, he said with inward anxiety, though with outward calmness, "Suppose we test these delusions?"
"With all my heart," said Vane.
Baker's countenance fell.
"Begin with the instruments of restraint. Find me them."
Baker's countenance brightened up; he had no fear of their being found.
"I will," said Alfred: "please to follow me."
Baker grinned with anticipated triumph.
Alfred led the way to a bedroom near his own; and asked Mr. Baker to unlock it. Baker had not the key; no more had Cooper. The latter was sent for it; he returned, saying the key was mislaid.
"That I expected," said Alfred. "Send for the kitchen poker, sir: I'll soon unlock it."
"Fetch the kitchen poker," said Vane.
"Good gracious! sir," said Cooper; "he only wants that to knock all our brains out. You have no idea of his strength and ferocity."
"Well lied, Cooper," said Alfred ironically.
"Fetch me the poker," said Vane.
Cooper went for it, and came back with the key instead.
The door was opened, and they all entered. Alfred looked under the bed. The rest stood round it.
There was nothing to be seen but a year's dust
Alfred was dumb-foundered, and a cold perspiration began to gather on his brow. He saw at once a false move would be fatal to him.
"Well, sir," said Vane grimly. "Where are they?"
Alfred caught sight of a small cupboard; he searched it; it was empty. Baker and Cooper grinned at his delusion quietly, but so that Vane might see that formula. Alfred returned to the bed and shook it. Cooper and Baker left off grinning; Alfred's quick eye caught this, and he shook the bed violently, furiously.
"Ah!" said Mr. Vane, "I hear a chink."
"It is an iron bedstead and old," suggested Baker.
Alfred tore off the bed-clothes, and then the mattress. Below the latter was a framework, and below the framework a receptacle about six inches deep, five feet long, and three broad, filled with chains, iron belts, wrist-locks, muffles, and screw-locked hobbles, etc.; a regular Inquisition.
If Baker had descended from the Kemble family, instead of rising from nothing, he could not have acted better. "Good Heavens!" cried he, "where do these come from? They must have been left here by the last proprietor."
Vane replied only by a look of contempt, and ordered Cooper to go and ask Mr. Tollett to come to him.
Alfred improved the interval. "Sir," said he, "all my delusions, fairly tested, will turn out like this."
"They shall be tested, sir; I give you my word."
Mr. Tollett came, and the two justices commenced a genuine scrutiny — their first. They went now upon the true method, in which all these dark places ought to be inspected. They did not believe a word; they suspected everything; they examined patients apart, detected cruelty, filth and vermin under philanthropic phrases and clean linen; and the upshot was they reprimanded Baker and the attendants severely, and told him his licence should never be renewed, unless at their next visit the whole asylum was reformed. They ordered all the iron body-belts, chains, leg-locks, wrist-locks, and muffs, to be put into Mr. Tollett's carriage, and concluded a long inspection by inquiring into Alfred's sanity: at this inquiry they did not allow Baker to be even present, but only Dr. Bailey.
First they read the order; and found it really was not Alfred's father who had put him into the asylum. Then they read the certificates, especially Wycherley's. It accused Alfred of headache, insomnia, nightly visions, a rooted delusion (pecuniary), a sudden aversion to an affectionate father; and at the doctor's last visit, a wild look (formula), great excitement, and threats of violence without any provocation to justify them. This overpowered the worthy squires' understandings to begin. But they proceeded to examine the three books an asylum has to keep by law: the visitor's book, the case book, and the medical journal. All these were kept with the utmost looseness in Silverton House as indeed they are in the very best of these places. However, by combining the scanty notices in the several books, they arrived at this total:
"Admitted April 11. Had a very wild look, and was much excited. Attempted suicide by throwing himself into a tank. Attacked the keepers for rescuing him, with prodigious strength and violence. Refused food."
And some days after came an entry with his initials instead of his name, which was contrary to law. "A. H. Much excited. Threats. Ordered composing draught."
And a day or two after: "A. H. Excited. Blasphemous. Ordered blister."
The first entry, however, was enough. The doctor had but seen real facts through his green spectacles, and lo! "suicide," "homicide," and "refusal of food," three cardinal points of true mania.
Mr. Vane asked Dr. Bailey whether he was better since he came.
"Oh, infinitely better," said Dr. Bailey. "We hope to cure him in a month or two."
They then sent for Mrs. Archbold, and had a long talk with her, recommending Alfred to her especial care: and, having acted on his judgment and information in the teeth of those who called him insane, turned tail at a doctor's certificate; distrusted their eyesight at an unsworn affidavit.
Alfred was packing up his things to go away; bright as a lark. Mrs. Archbold came to him, and told him she had orders to give him every comfort; and the justices hoped to liberate him at their next visit.
The poor wretch turned pale. "At their next visit!" he cried, "What, not to-day? When is their next visit?"
Mrs. Archbold hesitated: but at last she said, "Why you know; I told you; they come four times every year."
The disappointment was too bitter. The contemptible result of all his patience, self-command, and success, was too heart-breaking. He groaned aloud. "And you can come with a smile and tell me that; you cruel woman." Then he broke down altogether and burst out crying. "You were born without a heart," he sobbed.
Mrs. Archbold quivered at that. "I wish I had been," said she, in a strange, soft, moving voice; then, casting an eloquent look of reproach on him, she went away in visible agitation, and left him sobbing. Once out of his sight she rushed into another room, and there, taking no more notice of a gentle madwoman, its occupant, than of the bed or the table, she sank into a chair, and, throwing her head back with womanly abandon, hid her hand upon her bosom that heaved tempestuously.
And soon the tears trickled out of her imperious eyes, and ran unrestrained.
The mind of Edith Archbold corresponded with her powerful frame, and bushy brows. Inside this woman all was vigour: strong passions, strong good sense to check or hide them; strong will to carry them out. And between these mental forces a powerful struggle was raging. She was almost impenetrable to mere personal beauty, and inclined to despise early youth in the other sex; and six months spent with Alfred in a quiet country house would probably have left her reasonably indifferent to him. But the first day she saw him in Silverton House he broke through her guard, and pierced at once to her depths; first he terrified her by darting through the window to escape: and terror is a passion. So is pity; and never in her life had she overflowed with it as when she saw him drawn out of the tank and laid on the grass. If, after all, he was as sane as he looked, that brave high-spirited young creature, who preferred death to the touch of coarse confining hands!
No sooner had he filled her with dismay and pity, than he bounded from the ground before her eyes and fled. She screamed, and hoped he would escape; she could not help it. Next she saw him fighting alone against seven or eight, and with unheard-of prowess almost beating them. She sat at the window panting, with clenched teeth and hands, and wished him to beat, and admired him, wondered at him. He yielded, but not to them: to her. All the compliments she had ever received were tame compared with this one. It thrilled her vanity. He was like the men she had read of, and never seen: the young knights of chivalry. She glowed all over at him, and detecting herself in time was frightened. Her strong good sense warned her to beware of this youth, who was nine years her junior, yet had stirred her to all her depths in an hour; and not to see him nor think of him too much. Accordingly she kept clear of him altogether at first. Pity soon put an end to that; and she protected and advised him, but with a cold and lofty demeanour put on express. What with her kind acts and her cold manner he did not know what to make of her; and often turned puzzled earnest eyes upon her, as much as to say, Are you really my friend or not? Once she forgot herself and smiled so tenderly in answer to these imploring eyes, that his hopes rose very high indeed. He flattered himself she would let him out of the asylum before long. That was all Julia's true lover thought of.
A feeling hidden, and not suppressed, often grows fast in a vigorous nature. Mrs. Archbold's fancy for Alfred was subjected to this dangerous treatment; and it smouldered, and smouldered, till from a penchant it warmed to a fancy, from a fancy to a passion. But penchant, fancy, or passion, she hid it with such cunning and resolution, that neither Alfred nor even those of her own sex saw it; nor did a creature even suspect it, except Nurse Hannah; but her eyes were sharpened by jealousy, for that muscular young virgin was beginning to sigh for him herself, with a gentle timidity that contrasted prettily with her biceps muscle and prowess against her own sex.
Mrs. Archbold had more passion than tenderness, but what woman is not to be surprised and softened? When her young favourite, the greatest fighter she had ever seen, broke down at the end of his gallant effort and began to cry like a girl, her bowels of compassion yearned within her, and she longed to cry with him. She only saved herself from some imprudence by flight, and had her cry alone. After a flow of tears, such a woman is invincible; she treated Alfred at tea-time with remarkable coldness and reserve. This piece of acting led to unlooked-for consequences: it emboldened Cooper, who was raging against Alfred for telling the justices, but had forborne from violence for fear of getting the house into a fresh scrape. He now went to the doctor, and asked for a powerful drastic. Bailey gave him two pills, or rather boluses, containing croton oil — inter alia; for Bailey was one of the farraginous fools of the unscientific science. Armed with this weapon of destruction, Cooper entered Alfred's bedroom at night, and ordered him to take them: he refused. Cooper whistled, and four attendants came. Alfred knew he should soon be powerless. He lost no time, sprang at Cooper, and with his long arm landed a blow that knocked him against the wall, and in this position, where his body could not give, struck him again with his whole soul, and cut his cheek right open. The next minute he was pinned, handcuffed, and in a straitjacket, after crippling one assailant with a kick on the knee.
Cooper, half stunned, and bleeding like a pig, recovered himself now, and burned for revenge. He uttered a frightful oath, and jumped on Alfred as he lay bound and powerless, and gave him a lesson he never forgot.
Every art has its secrets: the attendants in such madhouses as this have been for years possessed of one they are too modest to reveal to justices, commissioners, or the public; the art of breaking a man's ribs, or breast-bone, or both, without bruising him externally. The convicts at Toulon arrive at a similar result by another branch of the art: they stuff the skin of a conger eel with powdered stone; then give the obnoxious person a sly crack with it; and a rib backbone is broken with no contusion to mark the external violence used. But Mr. Cooper and his fellows do their work with the knee-joint: it is round, and leaves no bruise. They subdue the patient by walking up and down him on their knees. If they don't jump on him, as well as promenade him, the man's spirit is often the only thing broken; if they do, the man is apt to be broken bodily as well as mentally. Thus died Mr. Sizer in 1854, and two others quite recently. And how many more God only knows: we can't count the stones at the bottom of a dark well.
Cooper then sprang furiously on Alfred, and went kneeling up and down him. Cooper was a heavy man, and his weight crushed and hurt the victim's legs; but that was a trifle: as often as he kneeled on Alfred's chest, the crushed one's whole framework seemed giving way, and he could scarcely breathe. But Brown drew Cooper back by the collar, saying, "D'ye want to kill him?" And at this moment Mrs. Archbold, who was on the watch, came in with Hannah and another nurse, and the three women at a word from their leader pinned Cooper simultaneously, and, taking him at a disadvantage, handcuffed him in a moment with a strength, sharpness, skill, and determination not to be found in women out of a madhouse — luckily for the newspaper husbands.
The other keepers looked astounded at this masterstroke; but, as no servant had ever affronted Mrs. Archbold without being dismissed directly, they took their cue and said, "We advised him, ma'am, but he would not listen to us."
"Cooper," said Mrs. Archbold as soon as she recovered her breath, "you are not fit for your place. To-morrow you go, or I go."
Cooper, cowed in a moment by the handcuffs, began to whine and say that it was all Alfred's fault.
But Mrs. Archbold was now carried away by two passions instead of one, and they were together too much for prudence. She took a handful of glossy locks out of her bosom and shook them in Cooper's face.
"You monster!" said she; "you should go, for that, if you were my own brother."
The two young nurses assented loudly, and turned and cackled at Cooper for cutting off such lovely hair.
He shrugged his shoulders at them, and said sulkily to Mrs. Archbold, "Oh, I didn't know. Of course, if you have fallen in love with him, my cake is burnt. 'Tisn't the first lunatic you have taken a fancy to."
At this brutal speech, all the more intolerable for not being quite false, Mrs. Archbold turned ashy pale, and looked round for a weapon to strike him dead; but found none so handy and so deadly as her tongue.
"It's not the first you have tried to MURDER," said she. "I know all about that death in Calton Retreat: you kept it dark before the coroner; but it is not too late, I'll open the world's eyes. I was only going to dismiss you, sir: but you have insulted me. I'll hang you in reply."
Cooper turned very pale and was silent; his tongue clove to the roof of his mouth.
But a feeble, unexpected voice issued from the bed and murmured cheerfully, though with some difficulty, a single word —
At an expression so out of place they all started with surprise.
Alfred went on: "You are putting the saddle on the wrong horse. The fault lies with those villains Baker and Bailey. Cooper is only a servant, you know, and obeys orders."
"What business had the wretch to cut your hair off?" said Mrs. Archbold, turning on Alfred with flashing eyes. Her blood once up, she was ready to quarrel even with him for taking part against himself.
"Because he was ordered to put on a blister, and hair must come off before a blister can go on," replied Alfred soberly.
"That is no excuse for him beating you and trying to break your front teeth."
She didn't mind so much about his side ribs.
"No," replied Alfred. "But I hit him first: look at the bloke's face. Dear Mrs. Archbold, you are my best friend in this horrid place, and you have beautiful eyes; and, talk of teeth, look at yours! But you haven't much sense of justice, forgive me for saying so. Put the proposition into signs; there is nothing like that for clearing away prejudice. B. and C. have a scrimmage: B begins it, C. gets the worst of it; in comes A. and turns away — C. Is that justice? It is me you ought to turn away; and I wish to Heaven you would: dear Mrs. Archbold, do pray turn me away, and keep the other blackguard."
At this extraordinary and, if I may be allowed the expression, Alfredian speech, the men first stared, and then laughed; the women smiled, and then were nearer crying than laughing.
And so it was, that justice handcuffed, straitjacketed, blistered, and impartial, sent from its bed of torture a beam through Cooper's tough hide to his inner heart. He hung his head and stepped towards Alfred: "You're what I call a man," he said. "I don't care a curse whether I stay or go, after what she has said to me. But, come what may, you're a gentleman, and one as can put hisself in a poor man's place. Why, sir, I wasn't always so rough; but I have been twenty years at it; and mad folk they'd wear the patience out of Jove, and the milk of human kindness out of saints and opossums. However, if I was to stay here all my life, instead of going to-morrow, I'd never lift hand to trouble you again, for you taking my part again yourself like that."
"I'll put that to the test," said Mrs. Archbold sharply. "Stay — on your probation. Hannah!"
And Baby-face biceps at a look took off his handcuffs; which she had been prominent in putting on.
This extraordinary scene ended in the men being dismissed, and the women remaining and going to work after their kind.
"The bed is too short for one thing," said Hannah. "Look at his poor feet sticking out and cold as a stone: just feel of them, Jane."
"No, no; murder!" cried Alfred; "that tickles."
Hannah ran for a chair, Jane for another pillow. Mrs. Archbold took off his handcuffs, and, passing her hand softly and caressingly over his head, lamented the loss of his poor hair. Amongst them they relieved him of his straitjacket, set up his head, covered his feet, and he slept like a top for want of drastics and opiates, and in spite of some brilliant charges by the Lilliputian cavalry.
After this the attendants never molested Alfred again; nor did the doctor; for Mrs. Archbold got his boluses, and sent them up to a famous analysing chemist in London, and told him she had; and said, "I'll thank you not to prescribe at random for that patient any more." He took the lady's prescription, coming as it did in a voice quietly grim, and with a momentary but wicked glance shot from under her black brows.
Alfred was all the more miserable at his confinement: his melancholy deepened now there was no fighting to excite him. A handsome bright young face clouded with sadness is very pitiable, and I need not say that both the women who had fallen in love with him had their eyes, or at least the tails of their eyes, for ever on his face. The result varied with the characters of the watchers. That young face, ever sad, made Mrs. Archbold sigh, and long to make him happy under her wing. How it wrought on the purer and more womanly Hannah will be revealed by the incident I have to relate. Alfred was sitting on a bench in the corridor bowed down by grief, and the Archbold lurking in a room hard by, feasting her eyes on him through an aperture in the door caused by the inspection plate being under repair — when an erotic maniac was driven past. She had obtained access — with marvellous cunning — to the men's side; but was now coming back with a flea in her ear, and faster than she went; being handcuffed and propelled by Baby-face biceps. On passing the disconsolate Alfred the latter eyed him coyly, gave her stray sheep a coarse push — as one pushes a thing — and laid a timid hand, gentle as falling down, upon the rougher sex. Contrast sudden and funny.
"Don't be so sad, sir," she murmured, cooing like the gentlest of doves. "I can't bear to see you look like that."
Alfred looked up, and met her full with his mournful honest eyes. "Ah, Hannah, how can I be anything but sad, imprisoned here, sane amongst the mad?"
"Well, and so am I, sir; so is Mrs. Archbold herself."
"Ay, but you have not been entrapped, imprisoned on your wedding-day. I cannot even get a word sent to my Julia, my wife that ought to be. Only think of the affront they have made me put on her I love better, ten times better, than myself. Why, she must have been waiting for me; humiliated perhaps by my absence. What will she think of me? The rogues will tell her a thousand lies: she is very high spirited, Hannah, impetuous like myself, only so gentle and so good. Oh, my angel, my angel; I shall lose you for ever."
Hannah clasped her hands, with tears in her eyes: "No, no," she cried; "it is a burning shame to part true lovers like you and her. Hush! speak low. Brown told me you are as well as he is."
"God bless him for it, then."
"You have got money, they say; try it on with Brown."
"I will. Oh you darling. What is the matter?"
For Baby-face was beginning to whimper.
"Oh, nothing, sir; only you are so glad to go; and we shall be sorry to part with you: but you won't care for that — oh! oh! oh!"
"What, do you think I shall forget you and your kindness? Never: I'll square accounts with friends and foes; not one shall be forgotten."
"Don't offer me any of your money," sobbed Hannah, "for I wouldn't touch it. Good-bye," said she: "I shan't have as much as a kiss for it I'll be bound: good-bye," said she again, and never moved.
"Oh, won't you, though," cried Alfred gaily. "What is that? and that? and that? Now, what on earth are you crying about? Dry your tears, you dear good-hearted girl: no, I'll dry them for you."
He took out a white handkerchief and dried her cheeks gently for her, and gave her a parting kiss. But the Archbold's patience was exhausted: a door opened nearly opposite, and there she stood yellow with jealousy and sombre as night with her ebon brows. At sight of this lowering figure Hannah uttered a squawk, and fled with cheeks red as fire. Alfred, not aware of Mrs. Archbold's smouldering passion, and little dreaming that jealous anguish and rage stood incarnate before him, burst out laughing like a mischievous boy! On this she swept upon him, and took him by both shoulders, and awed him with her lowering brows close to his. "You ungrateful wretch," she said violently, and panted.
His colour rose. "Ungrateful? That I am not madam. Why do you call me so?"
"You are — you are. What have I done to you that you run from me to the very servants? However, she shall be packed off this very night, and you to thank for it."
This was the way to wound the generous youth. "Now it is you that are ungenerous," he said. "What harm has the poor girl done? She had a virtuous movement and pitied me for the heartless fraud I suffer by; that is all. Pray, do you never pity me?"
"Was it this virtuous movement set her kissing you?" said the Archbold, clenching her teeth as if the word stung her, like the sight.
"She didn't, now," said Alfred; "it was I kissed her."
"And yet you pretend to love your Julia so truly?"
"This is no place for that sacred name, madam. But be sure I have no secrets from her, and kiss nobody she would not kiss herself."
"She must be a very accommodating young lady."
At this insult Alfred rose pale with anger, and was about to defy his monitor mortally; but the quick-witted woman saw and disarmed him. In one moment, before ever he could speak, she was a transformed creature, a penitent; she put her hands together supplicatingly, and murmured —
"I didn't mean it; I respect her; and your love for her; forgive me, Alfred: I am so unhappy, oh forgive me.
And behold she held his hand between her soft, burning palms, and her proud head sank languidly on his shoulder, and the inevitable tears ran gently.
Morals apart, it was glorious love-making.
"Bother the woman," thought Alfred.
"Promise me not to do it again," she murmured, "and the girl shall stay."
"Oh, lord, yes, I promise; though I can't see what it matters to you."
"Not much, cruel boy, alas! but it matters to her; for — — " She kissed Alfred's hand gently, and rose to her feet and moved away; but at the second step turned her head sudden as a bird and finished her sentence — "if you kiss her before me, I shall kill her before you."
Here was a fresh complication! The men had left off blistering, torturing, and bullying him; but his guardian angels, the women, were turning up their sleeves to pull caps over him, and plenty of the random scratches would fall on him. If anything could have made him pine more to be out of the horrid place, this voluptuous prospect would. He hunted everywhere for Brown. But he was away the day with a patient. At night he lay awake for a long time, thinking how he should open the negotiation. He shrank from it. He felt a delicacy about bribing Beelzebub's servant to betray him.
As Hannah had originated the idea, he thought he might very well ask her to do the dirty work of bribing Brown, and he would pay her for it; only in money, not kisses. With this resolution he sank to sleep, and his spirit broke prison: he stood with Julia before the altar, and the priest made them one. Then the church and the company and daylight disappeared, and her own sweet low moving voice came thrilling, "My own, own, own," she murmured. "I love you ten times more for all you have endured for me;" and with this her sweet lips settled on his like the dew.
Impartial sleep flies at the steps of the scaffold and the gate of Elysium: so Alfred awoke at the above; but doubted whether he was quite awake; for two velvet lips seemed to be still touching his. He stirred, and somebody was gone like the wind, with a rustle of flying petticoats, and his door shut in a moment. It closed with a catch-lock; this dastardly vision had opened it with her key, and left it open to make good her retreat if he should awake. Alfred sat up in bed indignant, and somewhat fluttered. "Confound her impudence," said he. But there was no help for it; he grinned and bore it, as he had the blisters, and boluses, etc., rolled the clothes round his shoulders, and off to the sleep of the just again. Not so the passionate hypocrite, who, maddened by a paroxysm of jealousy, had taken this cowardly advantage of a prisoner. She had sucked fresh poison from those honest lips, and filled her veins with molten fire. She tossed and turned the livelong night in a high fever of passion, nor were the cold chills wanting of shame and fear at what she had done.
In the morning, Alfred remembered this substantial vision, and determined to find out which of those two it was. "I shall know by her looks," said he; "she won't be able to meet my eye. Well, the first he saw was Mrs. Archbold. She met his eye full with a mild and pensive dignity. "Come, it is not you," thought Alfred. Presently he fell in with Hannah. She wore a serene, infantine face, the picture of unobtrusive modesty. Alfred was dumbfoundered. "It's not this one, either," said he. "But then, it must. Confound her impudence for looking so modest." However, he did not speak to her; he was looking out for a face that interested him far more: the weather-beaten countenance of Giles Brown. He saw him once or twice, but could not get him alone till the afternoon. He invited him into his room: and when he got him there, lost no time. "Just look me in the face, Brown," said he quietly. Brown looked him in the face.
"Now, sir, am I mad or sane?"
Brown turned his head away. Alfred laughed. "No, no, none of your tricks, old fellow: look me in the face while you answer."
The man coloured. "I can't look a gentleman like you in the face, and tell him he is mad."
"I should think not. Well, now; what shall I give you to help me escape?"
"Hush! don't mention that, sir; it's as much as my place is worth even to listen to you."
"Well! then I must give you as much as your place is worth. Please to calculate that, and name the figure."
"My place! I wouldn't lose it for a hundred pounds."
"Exactly. Then I'll give you a hundred guineas."
"And how am I to get my money, sir?"
"The first time you are out, come to Albion Villa, in Barkington, and I'll have it all ready for you."
"And suppose you were to say, 'No: you didn't ought ever to have been confined'?"
"I must trouble you to look in my face again, Mr. Brown. Now, do you see treason, bad faith, avarice, ingratitude, rascality in it?"
"Not a grain of 'em," said Brown, with an accent of conviction. "Well, now, I'll tell you the truth; I can read a gent by this time: and I'm no more afeared for the money than if I had it in my hand. But ye see, my stomach won't let me do it."
This was a sad disappointment; so sudden, too. " Your stomach?" said Alfred ruefully. "'What do you mean?"
"Ay, my stomach. Wouldn't yourstomach rise against serving a man that had done you the worst turn one man can do another — been and robbed you of your sweetheart?"
Alfred stared with amazement.
Brown continued, and now with some emotion: "Hannah Blake and I were very good friends till you came, and I was thinking of asking her to name the day; but now she won't look at me. 'Don't come teasing me,' says she, 'I am meat for your master.' It's you that have turned the girl's head, sir."
"Bother the women!" said Alfred cordially. "Oh, what plagues they are! And how unjust you are, to spite me for the fault of another. Can I help the fools from spooning upon me?" He reflected a moment then burst out: "Brown, you are a duffer, a regular duffer. What, don't you see your game is to get me out of the place? If you do, in forty-eight hours I shall be married to my Julia, and that dumpling-faced girl will be cured. But if you keep me here, by Gee, sir, I'll make hot love to your Hannah, boiling hot, hotter than ever was — out of the isles of Greece. Oh do help me out, and I'll give you the hundred pounds, and I'll give Hannah another hundred pounds, on condition she marries you: and, if she won't marry you, she shan't have a farthing, only a good hiding."
Brown was overpowered by his maniac's logic. "You have a head," said he; "there's my hand; I'll go in, if I die for it."
They now put their heads together over the means. Brown's plan was to wait, and wait, for an opportunity. Alfred's was to make one this very night.
"But how can I?" said Brown. "I shan't have the key of your room. I am not on watch in your part to-night."
"Hannah's? She has got no key of the male patients rooms."
"Oh yes, she has; of mine, at all events."
"What makes you think that, sir?" said Brown suspiciously.
Alfred didn't know what to say: he could not tell him why he felt sure she had a key.
"Just go quietly and ask her for it" said he: "don't tell her I sent you, now."
Brown obeyed, and returned in half-an-hour with the key of the vacant bedroom, where the hobbles and chains were hidden on the arrival of the justices.
She tells me this is the only key she has of any room in this corridor. But dear heart," said Brown, "how quicksighted the women are. She said, says she, 'If it is to bring sorrowful true lovers together again, Giles, or the like of that I'll try and get the key you want off Mrs. Archbold's bunch, though I get the sack for it,' says she. 'I know she heaves them in the parlour at night' says Hannah. She is a trump, you must allow."
Alfred coloured up. He suspected he had been unjust.
"She is a good, kind, single-hearted girl," said he; "and neither of you shall find me ungrateful."
It was evident by the alacrity Brown now showed, that he had got his orders from Hannah.
It was agreed that Alfred should be down at night in his clothes, ready to seize the right moment; that Hannah should get the key, and watch the coast clear, and let him out into the corridor; and Brown get him down by a back stairs, and out on the lawn, There he would find a ladder close by the wall, and his own arms and legs must do the rest.
And now Alfred was a changed creature: his eye sparkled; he walked on air, and already sniffed the air of liberty.
After tea Brown brought in some newspapers, and made Alfred a signal, previously agreed on, that the ladder was under the east wall. He went to bed early, put on his tweed shooting-jacket and trousers, and lay listening to the clock with beating heart.
At first, feet passed to and fro from time to time. These became less frequent as the night wore on.
Presently a light foot passed, stopped at the door, and made a sharp scratch on it with some metal instrument.
It was the key. The time was not ripe to use it, but good Hannah had taken this way to let him know she had got it.
This little scratch outside his door, oh it made his heart leap and thrill. One great difficulty was overcome. He waited, and waited, but with glowing, hopeful heart; and at last a foot came swiftly, the key turned, and Hannah opened the door. She had a bull's-eye lantern.
"Take your shoes in your hand," she whispered, "and follow me."
He followed her. She led him in and out, to the door of the public room belonging to the second-class patients. Then she drew her whistle, and breathed very softly. Brown answered as softly from the other end. He was waiting at the opposite door.
"All right," said she; "the dangerous part is over." She put a key into the door, and said very softly, "Good-bye."
"God bless you, Hannah," said Alfred, with deep emotion. "God in heaven bless you for this!"
"He will, He does," said the single-hearted girl, and put her other hand to her breast with a great gulp. She opened the door slowly. "Good-bye, dear. I shall never see you again."
And so these two parted; for Hannah could not bear the sight of Giles at that moment. He was welcome to Alfred, though, most welcome, and conducted him by devious ways to the kitchen, lantern in hand.
He opened the kitchen door softly, and saw two burly strangers seated at the table, eating with all their souls, and Mrs. Archbold standing before the fire, but looking towards him: for she had heard his footsteps ever so far off.
The men looked up, and saw Alfred. They rose to their feet, and said, "This will be the gentleman, madam?"
"Yes," said Mrs. Archbold.
"Your servant, sir," said the man very civilly. "If you are ready we are."