Authors: John Harwood
Tags: #Thrillers, #Gothic, #Suspense, #Historical, #Fiction
Table of Contents
First U.S. edition 2013
Copyright © 2013 by John Harwood
All rights reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:
Harwood, John, date.
The asylum / John Harwood.—1st U.S. ed.
1. Gothic fiction. 2. Suspense fiction. 3. Historical fiction. I. Title.
Georgina Ferrars’ Narrative
WOKE, AS IT SEEMED
, from a nightmare of being stretched on the rack, only to sink into another dream in which I was lying in a strange bed, afraid to open my eyes for fear of what I might see. The smell and the texture of the blanket against my cheek felt wrong, and I was clad, I became aware, in a coarse flannel nightgown that was certainly not my own. I knew that I must still be dreaming, for I had gone to sleep as usual in my bedroom at home. Every joint in my body ached as if I had been stricken with fever; yet I had felt perfectly well the night before.
I lay still for a little, waiting for the dream to dissolve, until my eyes opened of their own accord. The ceiling above me was a dull white; the bare walls, a dismal shade of green. Grey light filtered through a metal grille; the glass behind it was clouded and streaked with moisture.
I sat up, wincing at the pain, to find myself in what appeared to be a prison cell. The door to my left was solid oak, with a narrow aperture at eye level, closed by a wooden shutter. The air was damp and chill, and smelt of cold ashes and chloride of lime. A small fireplace was, like the window, entirely covered by a stout metal grille. There was no furniture beyond a bedside table, a single upright chair, a washstand, and a small closet; there were no ornaments, no looking glass; not so much as a candlestick.
It was impossible; I could not be here. But neither could I deny that I was wide awake. And I was not, I realised, at all feverish; my forehead was cool, my skin was dry, and my breath came freely. So why did my body protest at the slightest movement? Had I fallen somehow? or been attacked?—or worse? Trembling, I threw off the bedclothes and examined myself, but I could find no trace of injury, except for some bruises on my upper arms, as if someone had gripped them tightly.
Was it some sort of hallucination? If I lie down, I thought, and pull the covers over my head and try to go to sleep again, perhaps I will find myself back in my own bed. But my feet, seemingly of their own volition, were already on the floor. I moved unsteadily to the door and tried the handle, but it would not budge.
Should I call out? And who would come if I did? I turned toward the window, wondering if this was what sleepwalkers experienced. Half a dozen paces brought me to the grille. The world beyond was obscured by grey, swirling mist, with faint, unidentifiable forms—walls? houses? trees?—hovering at the edge of visibility.
I returned to the door and tried the handle again. This time the panel shot open, and two eyes appeared in the slot.
“Where am I?” I cried.
“The infirmary, miss,” replied a young woman’s voice. “Please, miss, I’m to say you’re to get back into bed, and the doctor will be here directly.”
The panel slid shut, and I heard the muffled sound of footsteps receding. Shivering, I did as she had asked, relieved at least to discover that I was in a hospital. But what had happened to me, and why had they locked me in? I waited apprehensively until another, heavier tread approached. A lock rasped, the door swung inward, and a man stepped into the room. From his dress—a tweed suit and waistcoat, somewhat rumpled, a white collar which had sprung loose at one side, a tie of dark blue silk, carelessly knotted—and a certain humorous glint in his eye, you might have taken him for an artist, but there was an air of authority about him, of a man accustomed to being obeyed. He looked somewhere between forty and fifty, not especially tall, but broad-shouldered and trim. His eyes were pale blue, accentuating the blackness of the pupils, deep-set and piercing beneath heavy brows, with dark pouches beneath; his nose strong and aquiline and straight as a blade, the nostrils flared above chiselled lips. A long, lean face, clean-shaven except for a fringe of side-whiskers, tapering down to a creased, prominent chin. He stood silent, surveying me appraisingly.
“Where am I?” I said again. “Who are you? Why am I here?”
A gleam of satisfaction showed in his eyes.
“Do you mean you don’t know?—I see you do not. This is most inter—that is to say, most distressing for you. Forgive me: my name is Maynard Straker, and I am the superintendent and chief medical officer here at Tregannon House—on Bodmin Moor, in Cornwall,” he added, seeing that my bewilderment had not lessened. “Have no fear, Miss Ashton, I am entirely at your ser—”
He stopped short at the expression on my face.
“Sir, my name is not Ashton! I am Miss Ferrars, Georgina Ferrars; I live in London, with my uncle; there has been a terrible mistake.”
“I see,” he said calmly. “Well, never fear. Let me order you some toast and tea, and we shall talk it all through in comfort.”
“But sir, I should not be here! Please, I wish to go home at once!”
“All in good time, Miss—Ferrars, if you prefer. The first thing you must understand is that you have been very ill. I know”—he held up his hand to silence me—“I know you do not remember: that is a consequence of your illness. Now please; first you must allow me to examine you, and then I shall explain what has happened to you.”
Such was the force of his personality that I waited in silence whilst he murmured instructions to someone outside the door. He took my pulse, listened to my heartbeat, tested my reflexes, and seemed quite satisfied with the result. Then he settled himself on the wooden chair so that he was facing me directly.
“You arrived here yesterday morning; without notice, which is most unusual. You gave your name as Lucy Ashton and said that you wished to consult me on an urgent and confidential matter. As I was away on business, the maid referred you to my assistant, Mr. Mordaunt. You were, he says, in an agitated state, though striving to conceal your distress. He explained that I would not be back until the evening, and that you would therefore have to stay here overnight, and register as a voluntary patient in order to see me, and to this you very reluctantly agreed. You would not admit to any disturbance of mind; only to extreme fatigue, and, after giving him a few cursory details, asked if you might complete the admission forms later.
“Mr. Mordaunt found you a room in the voluntary wing and left you there, assuming you would rest. But several times that afternoon he saw you walking about the grounds in what he described—my assistant is something of a poet—as a trance of desolation.
“I returned at about nine o’clock, and, upon hearing Mr. Mordaunt’s account of you, called briefly at your room to arrange an appointment for this morning; I had too many calls upon my time to speak to you last night. You were plainly in a state of extreme nervous exhaustion, but again you refused to concede anything beyond fatigue. I naturally ordered you a sedative, which you promised to take, though I fear you did not. Voluntary patients are, I should say, under no compulsion to accept any particular treatment here. So long as they pose no danger to themselves or others, they are free to do as they wish: it is part of our philosophy.
“Early this morning you were found unconscious on the path behind this building; you must have slipped out without anyone noticing. It was evident to me that you had suffered a seizure, which, though rare, is not unheard of in cases such as yours, where extreme mental agitation induces something like an epileptic fit, or, in those actually prone to epilepsy, a grand mal episode. It is nature’s way of discharging excessive mental energy. Upon waking, the patient commonly remembers nothing of the preceding days, or even weeks, and is at a loss to account for the extreme soreness of joints and muscles, which is due to the violence of the spasms. Such episodes are, of course, more common in women, whose faculties are more delicate, and more readily overstrained, than those of men—”
“Sir,” I broke in, as the full horror of realisation dawned, “am I in a madhouse?”
“It is not a term I favour; say rather you are in the care of a private establishment for the cure of diseases of the mind. An enlightened institution, Miss—Ferrars, run on the most humane principles, dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the comfort of our patients.
“Now, you assured me at our first interview that you had never suffered from epilepsy, or any form of mental disturbance—but I take it you cannot recall that interview?”
“And you have no idea of how, or why, you presented yourself to us as Lucy Ashton?”
“None whatever, sir.”
“What is the last thing—the very last thing—you can recall?”
I had clung, throughout his recital, to the belief that this was all a ghastly mistake, and that I should be escorted home to London as soon as I could persuade him that I was Georgina Ferrars and not Lucy Ashton. But his question provoked a sort of landslip in my mind. My memory, as it had seemed, of going to bed at home the night before, wavered and collapsed, leaving only a dreadful, buzzing confusion. I must, I thought desperately,
be able to remember. If not last night, then the day before? Memories—if they
memories—spilled from my grasp like playing cards, even as I tried to order them. I saw my life dissolving before my eyes. The room swayed like the deck of a ship; for a moment I felt sure I should faint.
Dr. Straker regarded me calmly.
“Do not be alarmed; the confusion will pass. But you see now why I hesitate to address you as Miss Ferrars. It is possible—I have seen such cases—that you are in fact Lucy Ashton; that Miss Ferrars—Georgina, did you say?—that Georgina Ferrars is your friend or relation, or even just a figment of your disordered imagination. The mind, after an insult such as this, can play the most extraordinary tricks upon us.”
“But sir, I
Georgina Ferrars! You must believe me! I live in Gresham’s Yard, in Bloomsbury, with my uncle, Josiah Radford, the bookseller. You must wire to tell him I am here—”
Dr. Straker held up his hand to stop the rush of words.
“Steady, steady, Miss . . . Ferrars, let us say. Of course we shall wire. But before we do so, you should at least consider the evidence of your own possessions . . . Ah, here is tea.”
A young maidservant in a neat grey uniform entered with a tray.
“You will be pleased to see, Bella, that our patient is recovering,” said Dr. Straker.
“Yes indeed, sir,” she said. “Very glad to see you looking better, Miss Ashton. Will there be anything else, sir?”
“Yes; run down to Miss Ashton’s room, and bring all of her things up here. Ask one of the porters if you need assistance. We can manage the tea.”
“Yes sir; right away, sir.”
“You see?” said Dr. Straker wryly as she hurried out. “Miss Ashton is, at least, not just a figment of
imagination. Milk? Sugar?”
If Dr. Straker had betrayed the slightest anxiety on my behalf, I think I should have given way to hysteria. But his nonchalance had a strangely calming, or rather numbing, effect upon me. I had come here calling myself Lucy Ashton: so much seemed undeniable, though utterly incomprehensible. I felt certain I knew no one of that name, and yet it seemed vaguely familiar. He has promised to wire, I told myself. I shall be going home soon, and must cling to that thought. I sipped my tea mechanically, grateful for the warmth of the cup in my cold hands.
My mother’s birthday! It had been a warm autumn day.
“Sir, I have remembered something,” I said. “The twenty-third of September, my mother’s birthday—she died ten years ago, but I vowed I would always do something that we should have enjoyed together. It was a Saturday, and I walked up to Regent’s Park, and ate an ice, and felt very ill afterward.”