Authors: Steve Hayes
Steve Hayes & David Whitehead
This is for our good friend John Saxon
‘You can file it in our archives, Watson.
Some day the true story may be told.’
– Sherlock Holmes,
The Retired Colourman
hey said he was mad, but of course he wasn’t. He was just … different.
He was bright, studious and conscientious – everyone said so. But more than that, he was an individual with ideas of his own. And that’s what scared them.
He had never been one to follow the crowd. He was like his uncle in that respect. That was why they had gravitated towards each other. They understood each other’s needs.
And that was the other problem. Their close affection, along with his potential brilliance, had inspired jealousy in those around him – a jealousy that gnawed away at them until
they could no longer stand to have him around.
So they sent their poor little Gaston –
, they said – to the alienists, who bombarded him with obscure tests and questions and then, despite his insightful answers, said simply what they had been paid to say: that he was suffering from a ‘melancholy madness and monomania of persecution’ that was incurable.
With the willing – no, the
– cooperation of his family, they had locked him away here, in this stately sanatorium in the heart of the densely wooded Forêt de Russy, far from prying eyes. They could disown him now; pretend he had never existed. He would never embarrass them again.
, he thought grimly,
we shall see about that
Gaston had never slept well, not even when he lived at home. Here, in this grey stone prison that masqueraded as an
asylum, sleep was practically impossible. At night they came to life, those poor unfortunates who really
fell there came a palpable sense of expectancy that had nothing to do with imagination. Some nights you could
it in the air. A grim, heavy silence would drape itself across the building like a shroud. It seemed as if the whole world held its breath and waited.
And then, as the moon rose beyond his barred window, it would begin: the cacophonous symphony of gibbering, screeching, screaming and sobbing. It echoed through the building, mingled with the incessant, hyena-like peals of insane laughter. The rest was a mixture of shouting from inmates like himself, protesting their sanity, trying to make the warders realize there had been a terrible mistake; that they should never have been confined here in the first place; that they were sane –
– just as he was.
But of course, no one ever listened. They weren’t paid to listen. They were paid to pronounce man, woman or child insane and take them off the hands of those who were ashamed of them.
Gaston turned onto his side and pulled the sheet over his head. He shivered. There was no heating here, not even on the bitterest nights. There was no need, they said. Mad people didn’t feel the cold, so why waste money keeping them warm?
God, how little they knew – or cared.
Beneath him the springs of his narrow cot squeaked with every move he made. It was a sound he had heard a thousand times before, a sound he normally ignored. But tonight, for some unknown reason, it triggered a reaction in him and suddenly he started sobbing.
The days here were bad enough, but it was so much worse at night. At least during the day they tried to keep the patients occupied. At night, unable to sleep for all the screaming and wailing, Gaston had plenty of time to think, to remember – to plot his revenge.
But even with the sheet over his head he couldn’t blot out the noise. Fighting back tears, he lowered the sheet, rolled onto his back and stared up at the shadowy ceiling. He could hear the warders hurrying along the wood-panelled corridors above and below him. He heard the clomp-clomping of their hob-nailed boots on the stone floor, the heavy, echoing slam of their batons against locked doors and their callous, angry threats to whip patients who did not stop yelling. It never worked. Threats fell on deaf ears here. The moaning and weeping would continue until dawn.
Gaston wondered what his family would say if they knew what had become of him. Would they finally understand just how they had condemned him? Or even
? The mean little room, barely three metres square, had stolen away whatever dignity he had left. A cot, a chair, a scratched lowboy were his only companions.
Suddenly he stiffened. Heavy footsteps came echoing along the corridor outside. Two men were approaching quickly and with purpose.
Sitting up, he listened intently. In one respect he was
. The inmates on this floor had always been quieter than the rest. He suspected the staff had put all those of a certain class together; people like himself who had been raised well and knew how to behave themselves in company, but who had alienated themselves from their so-called loved ones and now had to pay the price.
The footsteps drew closer. He wondered what anyone was doing here at this late hour. And who were they coming for?
When the footsteps stopped outside his door, he panicked. Why were they bothering him, especially in the dead of night? After an initial period of rebellion, he had learned to keep to himself and cause no trouble. That way the warders left him alone.
As he retreated into the corner – as if that could somehow protect him! – he heard the grinding click of a key turning in
the lock. Then the door opened. Two men appeared in the frame, no more than bulky silhouettes against the weak glow of the incandescent mantles that lit the corridors.
‘Who’s there?’ Gaston asked. ‘What do you want with me?’
Wordlessly they closed in on him and tried to grab his arms. Panic claimed him. He had heard so many awful stories about insanity and the way the so-called experts pretended to treat it – by letting blood whole litres at a time, by water-shock or purgatives, emetics or the claustrophobic horror of the so-called tranquillizer chair – that he couldn’t even
to control his fear. Was that why they were coming to drag him away at this ungodly hour?
The cold night air was filled with sounds of struggling as they tried to subdue him. Rough hands grasped his throat, choking him. He vaguely heard their muttered curses as they fought to restrain him. He lashed out blindly, punching and kicking at his assailants. He struck one of them. The man staggered away, his flat black coachman’s hat falling to the cold tile floor. By the light from the corridor Gaston saw that the man was dressed in a plain black suit – not the uniform of a warder.
He was a
‘W-What do you want with me?’ Gaston asked.
‘Bastard!’ growled the man he’d hit. Rubbing his jaw, he made a crude gesture and added: ‘Put him to sleep!’
Then he came at Gaston again, faster, more determined, his fists swinging. One blow hit Gaston on the chin. He fell back, hitting his head against the wall. Stunned, he fought to remain conscious. But now the second man brought out a kerchief and a small green-glass bottle. Quickly, efficiently, he doused the handkerchief in a thick, viscous liquid and then clamped it over Gaston’s nose and mouth.
His words came out muffled, barely distinct. He
struggled desperately, fighting not to inhale the sickly-sweet chloroform. But his attackers, knowing it was only a matter of time before he had to breathe, kept him pinned down and waited.
Half a minute passed. At last he could hold his breath no longer. He opened his mouth and instinctively tried to gulp in air. Instead he took in a draught of the anaesthetic. His head immediately began to swim and he screamed … or thought he did. He was suddenly consumed by a sense of unreality, as if he were in a dream where the walls and floor appeared to be melting. Gradually he went limp. The handkerchief was removed. He was dimly aware of being pulled up. He tried to struggle but his body wouldn’t respond. Vaguely, he saw the man bending to retrieve his hat; then felt himself being dragged from the room.
The two men half-carried, half-dragged him along the corridor. He felt his bare toes scraping on the tiled floor. The cries of his fellow inmates were louder now, though no clearer; just mindless zoo-like sounds that articulated an awful, inescapable terror.
At the end of the corridor they stopped. Here, the larger of the two men hefted him roughly across one shoulder. In this fashion they descended a creaking wooden staircase to the ground floor. Gaston, arms dangling loosely, saw the steps sliding backwards beneath him. He tried to scream for help, but the chloroform had robbed him of all strength.
On the ground floor he heard someone hiss:
With great effort he turned his head as he was rushed past the speaker towards a rear exit. He knew the man. He was one of the kitchen staff. His name was … what
his name? …
, Bertrand. Bertrand Joncas. But what was he doing here at this time of night?
‘Calm down!’ snarled the first man. ‘You’ve earned your money. Your part in this is over now.’
Outside, in the dark bitter night, the man carrying Gaston
crunched purposefully across the gravel drive. Presently he stopped and set Gaston down. Swaying unsteadily, Gaston felt the cold night air numbing his sweated skin. He shivered; tried to hug his thin nightshirt closer to him. Why were they taking him from this place? Had his family had a change of heart? Did they want him back? Or were these men simply moving him from one madhouse to another? Perhaps one that was even worse?
He lost his balance and thought he was going to fall. Instead he slammed against the side of a black coach. He reached out blindly, grabbed a glossy red-spoke wheel and steadied himself. A horse whinnied and stamped its hoofs. Someone draped a coarse blanket over Gaston. Then a new voice inside the carriage said: ‘Quickly! Get him inside!’
The voice belonged to a woman.
Gaston frowned. Did he know her? Was it his sister, Marie? The question formed on his lips but he was still sluggish from the chloroform and his tongue felt like a sleeping slug in his mouth.
The two men now manhandled him into the coach and climbed in beside him. He vaguely became aware of the woman’s perfume. It smelled of orange blossom, lavender and honeysuckle. Then one of the men rapped against the roof of the coach. A whip cracked and the coach jerked into motion.
The asylum fell behind them, and the coach was soon lost among the great, silent oaks of Forêt du Russy.