AFTER a defiance so bitter and deadly, Alfred naturally drew away from his inamorata. But she, boiling with love and hate, said bitterly, "We need not take Mr. Rooke into our secrets. Come, sir, your arm!"
He stuck it out ungraciously, and averted his head; she took it, suppressed with difficulty a petty desire to pinch, and so walked by his side. He was as much at his ease as if promenading jungles with a panther. She felt him quiver with repugnance under her soft hand; and prolonged the irritating contact. She walked very slowly, and told him with much meaning she was waiting for a signal. "Till then," said she, "we will keep one another company;" biting the word with her teeth as it went out.
By-and-by a window was opened in the asylum, and a table-cloth hung out. Mrs. Archbold pointed it out to Alfred; he stared at it; and after that she walked him rapidly home in silence. But, as soon as the door was double-locked on him, she whispered triumphantly in his ear —
"Your mother-in-law was expected to-day; that signal was to let me know she was gone."
"My mother-in-law!" cried the young man, and tried in vain to conceal his surprise and agitation.
"Ay; your mother-in-law, that shall never be. Mrs. Dodd."
"Mrs. Dodd here!" said Alfred, clasping his hands. Then he reflected, and said coolly: "It is false; what should she come here for?"
"To see your father-in-law."
"My father-in-law? What, is he here, too?" said Alfred with an incredulous sneer.
"Yes, the raving maniac that calls himself Thompson, and that you took to from the first: he is your precious father-in-law — that shall never be."
Alfred was now utterly amazed, and bewildered. Mrs. Archbold eyed him in silent scorn.
"Poor man," said he at last; and hung his head sorrowfully. "No wonder then his voice went so to my heart. How strange it all is! and how will it all end?"
"In your being a madman instead of an insolent fool," hissed the viper.
At this moment Beverley appeared at the end of the yard. Mrs. Archbold whistled him to her like a dog. He came running zealously. "Who was that called while I was out?" she inquired.
"A polite lady, madam: she said sir to me, and thanked me."
"That sounds like Mrs. Dodd," said the Archbold quietly.
"Ah, but," continued Frank, "there was another with her a beautiful young lady; oh, so beautiful!"
"Miss Julia Dodd," said the Archbold grimly.
Alfred panted, and his eyes roved wildly in search of a way to escape and follow her; she could not be far off.
"Anybody else, Frank?" inquired Mrs. Archbold.
"No more ladies, madam; but there was a young gentleman all in black. I think he was a clergyman — or a butler."
"Ah, that was her husband that is to be; that was Mr. Hurd. She can go nowhere without him, not even to see her old beau."
At these words, every one of them an adder, Alfred turned on her furiously, and his long arm shot out of its own accord, and the fingers opened like an eagle's claw. She saw, and understood, but never blenched. Her vindictive eye met his dilating flashing orbs unflinchingly.
"You pass for a woman," he said, "and I am too wretched for anger." He turned from her with a deep convulsive sob, and, almost staggering, leaned his brow against the wall of the house.
She had done what no man had as yet succeeded in; she had broken his spirit. And here a man would have left him alone. But the rejected beauty put her lips to his ear, and whispered into them, "This is only the beginning." Then she left him and went to his room and stole all his paper, and pens, and ink, and his very Aristotle. He was to have no occupation now, except to brood, and brood, and brood.
As for Alfred, he sat down upon a bench in the yard a broken man: up to this moment he had hoped his Julia was as constant as himself. But no; either she had heard he was mad, and with the universal credulity had believed it, or perhaps, not hearing from him at all believed herself forsaken; and was consoling herself with a clergyman. Jealousy did not as yet infuriate Alfred. Its first effect resembled that of a heavy blow. Little Beverley found him actually sick, and ran to the Robin. The ex-prizefighter brought him a thimbleful of brandy, but he would not take it. "Ah no, my friends," he said, "that cannot cure me; it is not my stomach; it is my heart. Broken, broken!"
The Robin retired muttering. Little Beverley kneeled down beside him, and kissed his hand with a devotion that savoured of the canine. Yet it was tender, and the sinking heart clung to it. "Oh, Frank!" he cried, "my Julia believes me mad, or thinks me false, or something, and she will marry another before I can get out to tell her all I have endured was for loving her. What shall I do? God protect my reason! What will become of me?"
He moaned, and young Frank sorrowed over him, till the harsh voice of Rooke summoned him to some menial duty. This discharged, he came running back; and sat on the bench beside his crushed benefactor without saying a word. At last he delivered this sapient speech: "I see. You want to get out of this place."
Alfred only sighed hopelessly.
"Then I must try and get you out," said Frank. Alfred shook his head.
"Just let me think," said Frank solemnly; and he sat silent looking like a young owl: for thinking soon puzzled him, and elicited his intellectual weakness, whereas in a groove of duties he could go as smoothly as half the world, and but for his official, officious Protector, might just as well have been Boots at the Swan, as Boots and Chambermaid at the Wolf.
So now force and cunning had declared war on Alfred, and feebleness in person enlisted in his defence. His adversary lost no time; that afternoon Rooke told him he was henceforth to occupy a double bedded room with another patient.
"If he should be violent in the middle of the night, sing out, and we will come — if we hear you," said the keeper with a malicious smile.
The patient turned out to be the able seaman. Here Mrs. Archbold aimed a double stroke; to shake Alfred's nerves, and show him how very mad his proposed father-in-law was. She thought that, if he could once be forced to realise this, it might reconcile him to not marrying the daughter.
The first night David did get up and paraded an imaginary deck for four mortal hours. Alfred's sleep was broken; but he said nothing, and David turned in again, his watch completed.
Not a day passed now but a blow was struck. Nor was the victim passive; debarred writing materials, he cut the rims off several copies of the Times, and secreted them: then catching sight of some ink-blots on the back of Frank's clothes-brush, scraped them carefully off, melted them in a very little water, and with a toothpick scrawled his wrongs to the Commissioners; he rolled the slips round a half-crown, and wrote outside, "Good Christian, keep this half-crown, and take the writing to the Lunacy Commissioners at Whitehall, for pity's sake." This done, he watched, and when nobody was looking, flung his letter, so weighted, over the gates; he heard it fall on the public road.
Another day he secreted a spoonful of black currant preserve, diluted it with a little water, and wrote a letter, and threw it into the road as before: another day, hearing the Robin express disgust at the usage to which he was now subjected, he drew him apart, and offered him a hundred pounds to get him out. Now the ex-prizefighter was rather a tender-hearted fellow, and a great detester of foul play. What he saw made him now side heartily with Alfred; and all he wanted was to be indemnified for his risk.
He looked down and said, "You see, sir, I have a wife and child to think of."
Alfred offered him two hundred pounds.
"That is more than enough, sir," said the Robin; "but you see I can't do it alone. I must have a pal in it. Could you afford as much to Garrett? He is the likeliest; I've heard him say as much as that he was sick of the business."
Alfred jumped at the proposal: he would give them two hundred apiece.
"I'll sound him," said the Robin; "don't you speak to him, whatever. He might blow the gaff. I must begin by making him drunk, then he'll tell me his real mind."
One fine morning the house was made much cleaner than usual; the rotatory chair, in which they used to spin a maniac like a teetotum, the restraint chairs, and all the paraphernalia were sent into the stable, and so disposed that, even if found, they would look like things scorned and dismissed from service: for Wolf, mind you, professed the non-restraint system.
Alfred asked what was up, and found all this was in preparation for the quarterly visit of the Commissioners: a visit intended to be a surprise; but Drayton House always knew when they were coming, and the very names of the two thunderbolts that thought to surprise them.
Mrs. Archbold communicated her knowledge in off-hand terms. "It is only two old women: Bartlett and Terry."
The gentlemen thus flatteringly heralded arrived next day. One an aged, infirm man, with a grand benevolent head, bald front and silver hair, and the gold-headed cane of his youth, now a dignified crutch: the other an ordinary looking little chap enough, with this merit — he was what he looked. They had a long interview with Mrs. Archbold first, for fear they should carry a naked eye into the asylum. Mr. Bartlett, acting on instructions, very soon inquired about Alfred; Mrs. Archbold's face put on friendly concern directly. "I am sorry to say he is not so well as he was a fortnight ago — not nearly so well. We have given him walks in the country, too; but I regret to say they did him no real good; he came back much excited, and now he shuns the other patients, which he used not to do." In short, she gave them the impression that Alfred was a moping melancholiac.
"Well, I had better see him," said Mr. Bartlett, "just to satisfy the Board."
Alfred was accordingly sent for, and asked with an indifferent air how he was.
He said he was very well in health, but in sore distress of mind at his letters to the Commissioners being intercepted by Mrs. Archbold or Dr. Wolf.
Mrs. Archbold smiled pityingly. Mr. Bartlett caught her glance, and concluded this was one of the patient's delusions. (Formula.)
Alfred surprised the glances, and said, "You can hardly believe this, because the act is illegal. But a great many illegal acts, that you never detect, are done in asylums. However, it is not a question of surmise; I sent four letters in the regular way since I came. Here are their several dates. Pray make a note to inquire whether they have reached Whitehall or not."
"Oh, certainly, to oblige you," said Mr. Bartlett, and made the note.
Mrs. Archbold looked rather discomposed at that.
"And now, gentlemen," said Alfred, "since Mrs. Archbold has had a private interview, which I see she has abused to poison your mind against me, I claim as simple justice a private interview to disabuse you."
"You are the first patient ever told me to walk out of my own drawing-room," said Mrs. Archbold, rising white with ire and apprehension, and sweeping out of the room.
By this piece of female petulance she gave the enemy a point in the game; for, if she had insisted on staying, Mr. Bartlett was far too weak to have dismissed her. As it was, he felt shocked at Alfred's rudeness: and so small a thing as justice did not in his idea counterbalance so great a thing as discourtesy; so he listened to Alfred's tale with the deadly apathy of an unwilling hearer. "Pour on: I will endure," as poor Lear says.
As for Dr. Terry, he was pictorial, but null; effete; emptied of brains by all-scooping-Time. If he had been detained that day at Drayton House, and Frank Beverley sent back in his place to Whitehall, it would have mattered little to him, less to the nation, and nothing to mankind.
At last Mr. Bartlett gave Alfred some hopes he was taking in the truth; for he tore a leaf out of his memorandum-book, wrote on it, and passed it to Dr. Terry. The ancient took it with a smile, and seemed to make an effort to master it, but failed; it dropped simultaneously from his finger and his mind.
Not a question was put to Alfred; so he was fain to come to an end; he withdrew suddenly, and caught Mrs. Archbold at the keyhole. "Noble adversary!" said he, and stalked away, and hid himself hard by: and no sooner did the inspectors come out, and leave the coast clear, than he darted in and looked for the paper Mr. Bartlett had passed to Dr. Terry.
He found it on the floor: and took it eagerly up; and full of hope, and expectation, read these words:
WHAT IS THE NAME OF THE STUFF THE MATRON'S GOWN IS MADE OF? I SHOULD LIKE TO BUY MRS. BARTLETT ONE LIKE IT.
Alfred stood and read this again, and again he searched for some hidden symbolical meaning in the words. High-minded, and deeply impressed with his own wrongs, he could not conceive a respectable man, paid fifteen hundred a year to spy out wrongs, being so heartless hard as to write this single comment during the earnest recital of a wrong so gigantic as his. Poor Alfred learned this to his cost, that to put small men into great places is to create monsters. When he had realised the bitter truth, he put the stony-hearted paper in his pocket, crept into the yard, and sat down, and, for all he could do, scalding tears ran down his cheeks.
"Homunculi quanti sunt!" he sobbed; "homunculi quanti sunt!"
Presently he saw Dr. Terry come wandering towards him alone. The Archbold had not deigned to make him safe; senectitude had done that. Alfred, all heart — sick as he was, went to the old gentleman out of veneration for the outside of his head — which was Shakespearian — and pity for his bodily infirmity; and offered him an arm. The doctor thanked him sweetly, and said, "Pray, young man, have you anything to communicate?"
Then Alfred saw that the ancient man had already forgotten his face, and so looking at him with that rare instrument of official inspection, the naked eye, had seen he was sane; and consequently taken him for a keeper.
How swiftly the mind can roam, and from what a distance gather the materials of a thought! Flashed like lightning through Alfred's mind this line from one of his pets, the Greek philosophers:
"And this is the greatest stroke of art, to turn an evil into a good."
Now the feebleness of this aged Inspector was an evil: the thing then was to turn it into a good. Shade of Plato, behold how thy disciple worked thee! "Sir," said he, sinking his voice mysteriously, "I have: but I am a poor man: you won't say I told you: it's as much as my place is worth."
"Confidence, strict confidence," replied Nestor, going over beaten tracks; for he had kept many a queer secret with the loyalty which does his profession so much honour.
"Then, sir, there's a young gentleman confined here, who is no more mad than you and I; and never was mad."
"You don't say so."
"That I do, sir: and they know they are doing wrong, sir, for they stop all his letters to the Commissioners; and that is unlawful, you know. Would you like to take a note of it all, sir?"
The old fogie said he thought he should, and groped vaguely for his note-book: he extracted it at last like a loose tooth, fumbled with it, and dropped it: Alfred picked it up fuming inwardly.
The ancient went to write, but his fingers were weak and hesitating, and by this time he had half forgotten what he was going to say. Alfred's voice quavered with impatience; but he fought it down, and offered as coolly as he could to write it for him: the offer was accepted, and he wrote down in a feigned hand, very clear —
"DRAYTON HOUSE, Oct. 5. — A sane patient, Alfred Hardie, confined here from interested motives. Has written four letters to the Commissioners, all believed to be intercepted. Communicated to me in confidence by an attendant in the house. Refer to the party himself, and his correspondence with the Commissioners from Dr. Wycherley's: also to Thomas Wales, another attendant; and to Dr. Wycherley: also to Dr. Eskell and Mr. Abbott, Commissioners of Lunacy."
After this stroke of address Alfred took the first opportunity of leaving him, and sent Frank Beverley to him.
Thus Alfred, alarmed by the hatred of Mrs. Archbold, and racked with jealousy, exerted all his intelligence and played many cards for liberty. One he kept in reserve; and a trump card too. Having now no ink nor colouring matter, he did not hesitate, but out penknife, up sleeve, and drew blood from his arm, and with it wrote once more to the Commissioners, but kept this letter hidden for an ingenious purpose. What that purpose was my reader shall divine.