Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 4

On the appointed Monday we were ready to accompany my aunt to the madhouse.

Whether she distrusted her own unaided judgment, or whether she wished to have as many witnesses as possible to the rash action in which she was about to engage, I cannot say. In either case, her first proceeding was to include Mr. Hartrey and Fritz Keller in the invitation already extended to the lawyer and myself.

They both declined to accompany us. The head-clerk made the affairs of the office serve for his apology, it was foreign post day, and he could not possibly be absent from his desk. Fritz invented no excuses; he confessed the truth, in his own outspoken manner. “I have a horror of mad people,” he said, “they so frighten and distress me, that they make me feel half mad myself. Don’t ask me to go with you — and oh, dear lady, don’t go yourself.”

My aunt smiled sadly — and led the way out.

We had a special order of admission to the Hospital which placed the resident superintendent himself at our disposal. He received my aunt with the utmost politeness, and proposed a scheme of his own for conducting us over the whole building; with an invitation to take luncheon with him afterwards at his private residence.

“At another time, sir, I shall be happy to avail myself of your kindness,” my aunt said, when he had done. “For the present, my object is to see one person only among the unfortunate creatures in this asylum.”

“One person only?” repeated the superintendent. “One of our patients of the higher rank, I suppose?”

“On the contrary,” my aunt replied, “I wish to see a poor friendless creature, found in the streets; known here, as I am informed, by no better name than Jack Straw.”

The superintendent looked at her in blank amazement.

“Good Heavens, madam!” he exclaimed; “are you aware that Jack Straw is one of the most dangerous lunatics we have in the house?”

“I have heard that he bears the character you describe,” my aunt quietly admitted.

“And yet you wish to see him?”

“I am here for that purpose — and no other.”

The superintendent looked round at the lawyer and at me, appealing to us silently to explain, if we could, this incomprehensible desire to see Jack Straw. The lawyer spoke for both of us. He reminded the superintendent of the late Mr. Wagner’s peculiar opinions on the treatment of the insane, and of the interest which he had taken in this particular case. To which my aunt added: “And Mr. Wagner’s widow feels the same interest, and inherits her late husband’s opinions.” Hearing this, the superintendent bowed with his best grace, and resigned himself to circumstances. “Pardon me if I keep you waiting for a minute or two,” he said, and rang a bell.

A man-servant appeared at the door.

“Are Yarcombe and Foss on duty on the south side?” the superintendent asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“Send one of them here directly.”

We waited a few minutes — and then a gruff voice became audible on the outer side of the door. “Present, sir,” growled the gruff voice.

The superintendent courteously offered his arm to my aunt. “Permit me to escort you to Jack Straw,” he said, with a touch of playful irony in his tone.

We left the room. The lawyer and I followed my aunt and her escort. A man, whom we found posted on the door-mat, brought up the rear. Whether he was Yarcombe or whether he was Foss, mattered but little. In either case he was a hulking, scowling, hideously ill-looking brute. “One of our assistants,” we heard the superintendent explain. “It is possible, madam, that we may want two of them, if we are to make things pleasant at your introduction to Jack Straw.”

We ascended some stairs, shut off from the lower floor by a massive locked door, and passed along some dreary stone passages, protected by more doors. Cries of rage and pain, at one time distant and at another close by, varied by yelling laughter, more terrible even than the cries, sounded on either side of us. We passed through a last door, the most solid of all, which shut out these dreadful noises, and found ourselves in a little circular hall. Here the superintendent stopped, and listened for a moment. There was dead silence. He beckoned to the attendant, and pointed to a heavily nailed oaken door.

“Look in,” he said.

The man drew aside a little shutter in the door, and looked through the bars which guarded the opening.

“Is he waking or sleeping?” the superintendent asked.

“Waking, sir.”

“Is he at work?”

“Yes, sir.”

The superintendent turned to my aunt.

“You are fortunate, madam — you will see him in his quiet moments. He amuses himself by making hats, baskets, and table-mats, out of his straw. Very neatly put together, I assure you. One of our visiting physicians, a man with a most remarkable sense of humor, gave him his nickname from his work. Shall we open the door?”

My aunt had turned very pale; I could see that she was struggling with violent agitation. “Give me a minute or two first,” she said; “I want to compose myself before I see him.”

She sat down on a stone bench outside the door. “Tell me what you know about this poor man?” she said. “I don’t ask out of idle curiosity — I have a better motive than that. Is he young or old?”

“Judging by his teeth,” the superintendent answered, as if he had been speaking of a horse, “he is certainly young. But his complexion is completely gone, and his hair has turned gray. So far as we have been able to make out (when he is willing to speak of himself), these peculiarities in his personal appearance are due to a narrow escape from poisoning by accident. But how the accident occurred, and where it occurred, he either cannot or will not tell us. We know nothing about him, except that he is absolutely friendless. He speaks English — but it is with an odd kind of accent — and we don’t know whether he is a foreigner or not. You are to understand, madam, that he is here on sufferance. This is a royal institution, and, as a rule, we only receive lunatics of the educated class. But Jack Straw has had wonderful luck. Being too mad, I suppose, to take care of himself, he was run over in one of the streets in our neighborhood by the carriage of an exalted personage, whom it would be an indiscretion on my part even to name. The personage (an illustrious lady, I may inform you) was so distressed by the accident — without the slightest need, for the man was not seriously hurt — that she actually had him brought here in her carriage, and laid her commands on us to receive him. Ah, Mrs. Wagner, her highness’s heart is worthy of her highness’s rank. She occasionally sends to inquire after the lucky lunatic who rolled under her horse’s feet. We don’t tell her what a trouble and expense he is to us. We have had irons specially invented to control him; and, if I am not mistaken,” said the superintendent, turning to the assistant, “a new whip was required only last week.”

The man put his hand into the big pocket of his coat, and produced a horrible whip, of many lashes. He exhibited this instrument of torture with every appearance of pride and pleasure. “This is what keeps him in order, my lady,” said the brute, cheerfully. “Just take it in your hand.”

My aunt sprang to her feet. She was so indignant that I believe she would have laid the whip across the man’s shoulders, if his master had not pushed him back without ceremony. “A zealous servant,” said the superintendent, smiling pleasantly. “Please excuse him.”

My aunt pointed to the cell door.

“Open it,” she said, “Let me see anything, rather than set eyes on that monster again!”

The firmness of her tone evidently surprised the superintendent. He knew nothing of the reserves of resolution in her, which the mere sight of the whip had called forth. The pallor had left her face; she trembled no longer; her fine gray eyes were bright and steady. “That brute has roused her,” said the lawyer, looking back at the assistant, and whispering to me; “nothing will restrain her, David — she will have her way now.”

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30