Hard Cash, by Charles Reade

Chapter 34

SAMPSON’S placard was on Barkington walls, and inside the asylum Alfred was softening hearts and buying consciences, as related; so, in fact, he had two strings to his bow.

But mark how strangely things turn; these two strings got entangled. His father, alarmed by the placard, had called at the pawnbroker’s shop, and told him he must move Alfred directly to a London asylum. Baker raised objections; Mr. Hardie crushed them with his purse, i.e., with his son’s and victim’s sweetheart’s father’s money. So then, as Baker after all could not resist the project, but only postpone it for a day or two, he preferred to take a handsome present, and cooperate. He even connived at Mr. Hardie’s signing the requisite name to the new order. This the giddy world calls forgery; but, in these calm retreats, far from the public’s inquisitive eye, it goes for nothing. Why, Mrs. Archbold had signed Baker’s name and Dr. Bailey’s more than a hundred several times to orders, statements, and certificates; depriving Englishmen of their liberty and their property with a gesture of her taper fingers; and venting the conventional terms, “Aberration,” “Exaltation,” “Depression,” “Debility,” “Paralysis,” “Excitable,” “Abnormal,” as boldly and blindly as any male starling in the flock.

On the very night, then, of Alfred’s projected escape, two keepers came down from Dr. Wycherley’s asylum to Silverton station: Baker met them and drove them to Silverton House in his dog-cart. They were to take Alfred up by the night train; and, when he came into the kitchen with Brown, they suspected nothing, nor did Baker or Cooper, who presently emerged from the back kitchen. Brown saw, and recovered his wits partially. “Shall I go for his portmanteau, sir?” stammered he, making a shrewd and fortunate guess at what was up. Baker assented; and soon after went out to get the horse harnessed. On this Mrs. Archbold, pale, sorrowful, and silent hitherto, beckoned Alfred into the back kitchen, and there gave him his watch and his loose money. “I took care of them for you,” said she; “for the like have often been stolen in this place. Put the money in your shoes; it may be useful to you.”

He thanked her somewhat sullenly; for his disappointment was so deep and bitter that small kindnesses almost irritated him.

She sighed. “It is cruel to be angry with me,” she said: “I am not the cause of this; it is a heavier blow to me than to you. Sooner or later you will be free — and then you will not waste a thought on me, I fear — but I must remain in this odious prison without your eyes and your smile to lighten me, yet unable to forget you. Oh, Alfred, for mercy’s sake, whisper me one kind word at parting; give me one kind look to remember and dote upon.”

She put out both hands as eloquently as she spoke, and overpowered his prudence so far that he took her offered hands — they were as cold now as they were burning hot the last time — and pressed them, and said —

“I shall be grateful to you while I live.”

The passionate woman snatched her hands away. “Gratitude is too cold for me,” she cried; “I scorn even yours. Love me or hate me.”

He made no reply. And so they parted.

“Will you pledge your honour to make no attempt at escape on the road?” asked the pawnbroker on his return.

“I’ll see you d —— d first,” replied the prisoner.

On this he was handcuffed, and helped into the dog-cart.

They went up to town by the midnight train; but, to Alfred’s astonishment and delight did not take a carriage to themselves.

However, station after station was passed, and nobody came into their carriage. At last they stopped at a larger station, and a good many people were on the platform: Alfred took this opportunity and appealed in gentle but moving terms to the first good and intelligent face he saw. “Sir,” said he, “I implore your assistance.”

The gentleman turned courteously to him. The keepers, to Alfred’s surprise, did not interrupt.

“I am the victim of a conspiracy, sir; they pretend I am mad: and are taking me by force to a madhouse, a living tomb.”

“You certainly don’t appear to be mad,” said the gentleman.

The head keeper instantly showed him the order and a copy of the certificates.

“Don’t look at them, sir,” cried Alfred; “they are signed by men who were bribed to sign them. For pity’s sake, sir, judge for yourself. Test my memory, my judgment, by any question you please. Use your own good sense; don’t let those venal rogues judge for you.”

The gentleman turned cold directly.

“I could not take on me to interfere,” said he. The unsworn affidavits had overpowered his senses. He retired with a frigid inclination. Alfred wrung his handcuffed hands, and the connecting chain rattled.

The men never complained: his conduct was natural; and they knew their strength. At the next station he tested a snob’s humanity instead of a gentleman’s. He had heard they were more tender-hearted. The answer was a broad grin, repeated at intervals.

Being called mad was pretty much the same thing as being mad to a mind of this class: and Alfred had admitted he was called mad.

At the next station he implored a silvery-haired old gentleman. Old age, he had heard, has known griefs, and learned pity.

The keeper showed the certificates.

“Ah!” said Senex; “poor young man. Now don’t agitate yourself. It is all for your good. Pray go quietly. Very painful, very painful.” And he hobbled away as fast as he could. It is by shirking the painful some live to be silvery old.”

Next he tried a policeman. Bobby listened to him erect as a dart.

The certificates were shown him.

He eyed them and said sharply, “All right.” Nor could Alfred’s entreaties and appeals to common sense attract a word or even a look from him. Alfred cried “Help! murder! If you are Englishmen, if you are Christians, help me.”

This soon drew a crowd round him, listening to his fiery tale of wrong, and crying “Shame, shame! Let him go.” The keepers touched their heads, winked, and got out and showed the certificates; the crowd melted away like wax before those two suns of evidence (unsworn). The train moved on.

It was appalling. How could he ever get free? Between his mind and that of his fellows there lay a spiritual barrier more impassible than the walls of fortified cities.

Yet, at the very next station, with characteristic tenacity of purpose, he tried again; for he saw a woman standing near, a buxom country woman of forty. Then he remembered that the Naked Eye was not yet an extinct institution among her sex. He told her his tale, and implored her to use her own eyes. She seemed struck, and did eye him far more closely than the men had: and told the keepers they ought to be ashamed of themselves; he was no madman, for she had seen madmen. They showed her the certificates.

“Oh, I am no scholar!” said she contemptuously; “ye can’t write my two eyes out of my head.”

The keeper whipped off Alfred’s cap and showed his shaven crown.

“La! so he is,” said she, lowering her tone; “dear heart, what a pity. And such a pretty young gentleman.” And after that all he could say only drew the dew of patient pity to her eyes.

The train went on, and left her standing there, a statue of negative clemency. Alfred lost heart. He felt how impotent he was. “I shall die in a madhouse,” he said. He shivered in a corner, hating man, and doubting God.

They reached Dr. Wycherley’s early in the morning. Alfred was shown into a nice clean bedroom, and asked whether he would like to bathe or sleep. “Oh, a bath,” he said; and was allowed to bathe himself. He had not been long in the water when Dr. Wycherley’s medical assistant tapped at the door, and then entered without further ceremony — a young gentleman with a longish down on his chin, which, initiated early in the secrets of physiology, he was too knowing to shave off and so go to meet his trouble. He came in looking like a machine, with a note-book in his hand, and stood by the bath side dictating notes to himself and jotting them down.

“Six contusions: two on the thorax, one on the abdomen, two on the thighs, one near the patella; turn, please.” Alfred turned in the water. “A slight dorsal abrasion; also of the wrists; a severe excoriation of the ankle. Leg-lock, eh?”

“Yes.”

“Iron leg-lock. Head shaved. Large blister. Good! Any other injuries external or internal under old system?”

“Yes, sir, confined as a madman though sane, as you, I am sure, have the sense to see.”

“Oh, never mind that; we are all sane here — except the governor and I.”

He whipped out, and entered the condition of the new patient’s body with jealous minuteness in the case-book. As for his mind, he made no inquiry into that: indeed he was little qualified for researches of the kind.

At breakfast Alfred sat with a number of mad ladies and gentlemen, who by firmness, kindness, and routine, had been led into excellent habits: the linen was clean and the food good. He made an excellent meal, and set about escaping: with this view he explored the place. Nobody interfered with him; but plenty of eyes watched him. The house was on the non-restraint system. He soon found this system was as bad for him as it was good for the insane. Non-restraint implied a great many attendants, and constant vigilance. Moreover, the doors were strong, the windows opened only eight inches, and that from the top: their framework was iron, painted like wood, &c. It was next to impossible to get into the yard at night: and then it looked quite impossible to get any further, for the house was encompassed by high walls.

He resigned all hope of escape without connivance. He sounded a keeper; the man fired at the first word. “Come, none of that, sir; you should know better than tempt a poor man.”

Alfred coloured to the eyes and sighed deeply. To have honour thrown in his face, and made the reason for not aiding him to baffle a dishonourable conspiracy! But he took the reproof so sweetly, the man was touched, and by-and-bye, seeing him deeply dejected, said good-naturedly, “Don’t be down on your luck, sir. If you are really better, which you don’t look to have much the matter now, why not write to the Commissioners and ask to be let out?”

“Because my letters will be intercepted.”

“Ay, to your friends; but not to the Commissioners of Lunacy. Not in this house, any way.”

“God bless you!” cried Alfred impetuously. “You are my benefactor; you are an honest fellow; give me your hand.”

“Well, why not? Only you mustn’t excite yourself. Take it easy.” (Formula.)

“Oh, no cant among friends!” said Alfred: “wouldn’t you be excited at the hope of getting out of prison?”

“Well, I don’t know but I might. Bound I am as sick of it as you are.”

Alfred got paper and sketched the letter on which so much depended. It took him six hours. He tore up two; he cooled down the third, and condensed it severely: by this means, after much thought, he produced a close and telling composition. He also weeded it of every trait and every term he had observed in mad people’s talk, or the letters they had shown him. So there was no incoherency, no heat, no prolixity, no “spies,” no “conspiracy,” no italics. A simple, honest, earnest story, with bitter truth stamped on every line; a sober, strong appeal from a sore heart but hard head to the arbiters of his fate.

To the best of my belief no madman, however slightly touched, or however cunning, ever wrote a letter so gentle yet strong, so earnest yet calm, so short yet full, and withal so lucid and cleanly jointed as this was. And I am no contemptible judge; for I have accumulated during the last few years a large collection of letters from persons deranged in various degrees, and studied them minutely, more minutely than most Psychologicals study anything but Pounds, Shillings, and Verbiage.

The letter went, and he hoped but scarcely expected an answer by return of post. It did not come. He said to his heart, “Be still;” and waited. Another day went by; and another: he gnawed his heart and waited: he pined, and waited on. The Secret Tribunal, which was all a shallow legislature had left him, “took it easy.” Secret Tribunals always do.

But, while the victim-suitor longed and pined and languished for one sound from the voice of Justice and Humanity, and while the Secret Tribunal, not being in prison itself all this time, “took it easy,” events occurred at Barkington that bade fair to throw open the prison doors and bring father and son, bride and bridegroom, together again under one roof.

But at what a price.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 15:33