Summers’ End: A Tale of Madness (excerpt)

The third-story bedroom window overlooked the ornate gardens, the walk lined with neatly clipped boxwoods, and the tall wrought iron fence that divided Ravenswood from the rest of the world. It also offered a clear view of the doctors’ departure as the two gentlemen left the house by way of the cobbled walkway that led through the gate and to the street beyond, where two carriages waited. The first gentleman, eager to get to his next appointment, was quickly in the cab that waited for him and on his way. The second, stopping a moment at the carriage door, turned back to cast one last, reproachful look at the house before climbing in and giving the driver his directions. A moment later he, too, was gone.

Myra, still peering down from her bedroom window, observed her father as he stepped out onto the walk. He, too, watched as the carriages and their respective passengers departed. He had not been pleased by the results of the examination. The two doctors had failed to come to an agreement. And an agreement was necessary. If only he could find another doctor whom he could persuade to sign the certificate. And he would, Myra knew well. Whatever it cost him.

But Myra was not unwell. Her lowness of spirit, which the first doctor had declared to be a touch of melancholia, was deemed by the second to be nothing more than the strain of recent disappointment. It was true she had the occasional nightmare. It was true she sometimes talked in her sleep. But what the first doctor insisted were signs of mania, the second attributed to the loss of her mother, and then her longtime intended, in such quick succession. On rare occasion she lost her temper. She had once, imprudently, made some wild accusations in regards to her mother’s death, and had raved at her father in consequence of the sudden and unexplained renouncement of her intended’s proposal. Mr. Thorpe, as a result, feared she was suffering from fits of hysteria, and the first doctor had agreed. The second doctor, however, professed his belief that she was merely displaying the natural frustrations of a jilted heart bereft of the means to find consolation from a father who had no patience for female sentimentality.

But Mr. Thorpe insisted his daughter was as mad as was her mother before her. He knew the signs, he said, and he knew them well, for he had lived with them before. But the concurrence of two doctors was required in order to obtain the writ of commitment. Another doctor must be sent for.

And when might that be?

Myra’s father had returned indoors. Perhaps he was writing the letter even now. Perhaps before the day ended she would be on her way to an asylum, far away and off her father’s hands. He would dispose of her as readily and heartlessly as he had disposed of her mother. Where had he sent her? And what, exactly, had become of her? How she wished to have that question answered! And yet she dreaded to know at the same time.

The room was shaking. Or perhaps it was she who was being jostled about. Voices spoke in whispers above her head and all around her. She tried to sit up, to raise her head at least, but her body was so heavy she could not move. She was being poked and prodded—experimented upon. She’d had this dream before, but it was no easier to bear for it being familiar.

They were there, surrounding her, discussing her, arguing over the state of her mind and what was the best treatment to be tried. Ought they to attempt blistering? She might be bled, or leeched. She was not lucid enough to be spun or soaked in a tepid bath, but it might be worth a night in the tranquilizer chair if it meant preventing another episode of hysteria.

The voices grew lower, almost too low to hear. A question was asked. “No,” was the answer. “It’s too soon for that. Too risky. And if it should prove unnecessary after all…”

All grew quiet. The doctors had left. A faint pulsing remained in the air, a rhythmic rocking, the sound of a muffled metronome—a sort of clack-clacking—like that of a train’s wheels against the rails. It lulled her for a time, and her dreaming grew more peaceful.

The room was so dark she could not see her hand in front of her face. But she found, as she actually tried to do it, that though she could raise her hand before her, she could raise it no further, and to do so produced so loud a commotion of noise that she immediately abandoned the effort. Her heart pounded in her chest as she realized she was bound to her bed. She could move almost freely within it, but was prevented from rising from it. Each hand was shackled to her headboard, each movement sending the chains banging and clanging against the bed’s frame. Had she been moved in the night? And why would she be chained to the bed? Had John Wooding decided she was mad and restrained her for his own safety?

It was desperately cold in the room. A thin blanket covered her, but in her struggling it had shifted and now left her half exposed. She tried to readjust it with her legs, but every noise of her movement echoed in the dark. She was thirsty. Desperately so, and hungry, too. With one hand she felt around her bed, as far as the chains would allow her to reach, looking for the table that had been beside her bed just a few hours ago. Perhaps with her spectacles she might be able to see something, even in the darkness.

Though she could not find her eyeglasses, she did find a cup. She took a sip, and then another, and then threw the cup away from her with the realization it was badly soured milk. She retched over the side of the bed, but her stomach was too empty to comply. She lay for a moment, still and breathing hard, and trying to understand what had happened. She had gone to bed so comfortably, so happy and safe. How had she awakened to this? She tried once more to free her hands from their bonds. The noise shook the air.

“Quiet down in there!” a voice said, and the light of a lantern appeared, shining through a window, wavering in the air and lighting her room just enough to allow her a dim examination of her surroundings. Only it was not so dim; she could see remarkably well. It was a small room, perfectly square, with four gray and unadorned walls, and without a single window but the one situated in the top half of a heavy iron door. The voice was muffled and seemed to be attached to the lamp itself. Then the lamp moved, and the menacing face of a mustachioed stranger peered within.

“This is all a mistake. I should not be here! Let me out!”

He laughed. “To be sure. That’s what they all say! Be quiet, you, or I’ll call the doctor and he’ll give you something that will quiet you for a good long while.”

The light remained for a moment longer, and then retreated from the doorway to move along the corridor beyond.

Where was she? None of this made any sense at all. Dread and panic settled over her with the realization that, by some means she could not recall or imagine, and despite all her efforts to escape, she had been locked up in the asylum.

Wrestling once more against her bonds, she sent the air ringing with the echoing clatter and clang that had previously summoned the guard. She heard his footsteps once more approaching.

The lantern reappeared. The jangling of keys was heard, and the door opened. A bedraggled and impatient doctor entered, his eyes obscured behind the large lenses of his spectacles. An assistant accompanied him.

“Good evening, Miss Thorpe,” the doctor said. “Or is it Mrs. Thorpe? I forget.” He did not wait for her answer. She was not certain she could give it if he had, so confused was she. “It’s of little matter. When we get to know each other better, I will call you by your Christian name, as one would address anyone who behaves as a naughty child. And how are we this evening?”

“Where am I? How did I come to be here? I can’t remember.”

“Ah…” he said, as if that were the answer to his question. “A bit out of sorts, are we?”

“This is not right! There must be some mistake!”

“Yes, yes, of course there is,” the doctor answered sardonically. “Now I’m going to pour you a nice draught, and you’ll soon be off to sleep again.”

He examined the bottle through his thick spectacles, and made a face as he poured the dark liquid into a shot glass. She was determined that she would not drink it, however they tried to make her.

Resistance, however, proved futile. While the assistant held her head steady, the doctor forced her mouth open. The draught was administered. Laudanum. She coughed and sputtered and tried not to swallow, but her mouth was held shut now. There was no other option but to swallow or inhale and drown in it. She swallowed.

It was the smell she noticed first. Like human waste and unwashed bodies and vomit and opium. And it crowded in around her, like the noise that filled the air. She could see nothing. It was as if all four walls of the room were little more than an inch from her face. Try as she might, she could not move at all. She was sitting upright, her arms, legs, and torso strapped to a large and very uncomfortable chair. A box had been placed over her head. The closeness of it only magnified the screaming, the incoherent babbling that was all around her. Her chest hurt, her lungs were heavy, desperate for fresh air. And her arms… They ached so badly. Her wrists and ankles burned as she fought to free herself from the leather restraints. Her back, against the hard, oaken seat, felt bruised and raw.

She stopped her struggling to take in a breath, gasping for air, and nearly choked for the staleness and stench of it. It was then, in the silence of her breathing, that she realized it was she who had been screaming. It was her own incoherent ranting, though her voice sounded altered, deeper, raspy from ill use and frustration—older. Her lungs full, she began again. She wanted to stop. She knew what would come if she could not bring herself to be quiet. The leeches, if she were lucky. The bleeder’s knife that left scars on her wrists and arms. There was the chair, suspended from a ceiling, which was spun at maddening speeds until she vomited or lost consciousness. There were the burning cups that drew blisters, and the whip that stung and sliced.

And there was worse. Far, far worse. But these she had not experienced. Yet.

She must quiet herself!

But her body would not obey. Was this what it meant to be mad? Was it to be completely without control over one’s own thoughts and actions? If she were not mad already, such would surely drive her there. She wanted out—away! Was there no escape at all? She strained against her bonds, trying to make her wrists as small as possible. If she folded her thumb inward, even if it meant dislocating it, would that then allow her to pull her hand from the leather cuff? It might if she had the use of her other hand. It seemed quite impossible without it.

At last the door was opened. Of course he would come.

“Dr. Summers, help me,” she cried, and did not know how she knew with such certainty that it was he.

“Trust me, Myra. I am helping you.”

“I need to go home. I have to go home. This is all a mistake! I want to go home…” Her last words dissolved into wracking sobs.

“When you are better, Myra. When you are better, then you may return home. But you are a danger to others in this state. And you are a danger to yourself. Now let’s just give you something to calm you, shall we? And if tomorrow you are not quieter, perhaps we will try something a little more…persuasive.”

The box was removed from her head, and she saw him. His shock of white blond hair protruding out at odd angles. His eyes, huge and insect-like, were magnified grotesquely through the thick lenses of his spectacles.

He approached her, an insipid, simpering smile on his face. He held the shot glass to her lips, tipping it so she could sip the strong elixir. He did not need to force her this time. She drank willingly. It was the means, her only means, of escape. The opiate brought such pleasant dreams, dreams of friends who loved and cared for her, dreams of countryside cottages and places of safety and sanctuary. They were welcome dreams, happy dreams… Dreams she longed for, like the draught that freed her from the burdens of this reality, and swept her into a sanctuary of her mind’s creation. It did not matter that it was not real. It was real enough.

The slamming of a metal door awoke her. The rattling of keys followed, and soon one wrist was freed and then the other. She rubbed them in an attempt to get the blood flowing again but found that her skin was raw from the effort of trying to free herself. At least the wounds from her last bleeding had healed. Her legs were released as well, and the box removed from her head. She blinked as her eyes adjusted to the light, but it was impossible to make out anything but the vaguest impression of her surroundings.

“You have a visitor,” said the man who stood before. It was not the doctor but rather the guard.

“A visitor?” she asked, peering through squinting eyes. “Might I have my spectacles?”

“No spectacles allowed. You might hurt yourself.”

“Hurt myself? How?”

“You might cut yourself, try to do yourself in. Don’t tell me you haven’t thought about it.”

“I haven’t!”

She was raised from the tranquilizer chair, which was trundled out of the room, and given a clean gown to change into and a small bowl tepid water—not enough to drown herself in—with which to wash.

The guard returned with a pair of armchairs. Her bed was made up and pushed against the wall. A small table was brought, but no cloth and nothing to put on it. The guard left again, and when he returned, he brought with him her spectacles–and a visitor, Mr. Thorpe.

“Father!” she said, rising to greet him. And then remembering his cruelty: “Why have you done this? Why would you do this to me?”

“I understand you have not been behaving yourself,” he said, ignoring her question. “It does not surprise me, but I am nevertheless disappointed. Why won’t you let them help you, Myra? You know that as soon as you are well I can bring you home. Don’t you want that?”

“Do you really mean to bring me home, Papa?” she asked him, unbelieving. “If I’m good, do you promise I might be released from here?”

“Of course, Myra. If you are very good.”

“Or if I can prove I wasn’t mad?” “Myra,” he said and tsked at her. She wished she could see his face. She might make her way with him better if she could read his expression and what lay beneath it. She felt the helplessness of the situation, sensed that her father’s determination to keep her here was fixed. She slipped from the chair and fell to her knees before him, grasping onto his arm as she plead. “Please, Father,” she said, “… take me home. I’ll be ever so good. I’ll be a help to you. We might be so happy together, you will see!”

“My dear,” her father said with an air of concern that was too simpering to be sincere. “I fear your illness is more severe than I realized. Perhaps I should get the doctor. He’ll give you something to calm you, and then we can talk sensibly.” Mr. Thorpe rose, freeing himself from his daughter’s pleading grasp.

“No! Don’t go. Don’t leave me here! They will kill me if I stay!”

“Myra, this is nonsense,” he said, and raised his daughter up and placed her in her chair. “You must calm yourself. This behavior is most unbecoming.”

She was not doing a very good job of convincing him she was well, it seemed. She must calm herself. She must, at least, try harder to appear reasonable and unemotional, even if she did not feel it. “Please, sir,” she said. “I can be good. I was perfectly well behaved with the Woodings. They will tell you so if you ask them.”

Her father released a derisive scoff and rose to leave. “I’ll return, Myra, and you’ll see what a foolish girl you have been and how reasonably I have dealt with you.” He turned and was gone.

Myra sat and waited for the doctor to return, for him to chain her once more to her bed. But when the door opened a quarter of an hour later, it was not laudanum he brought with him this time, but a bottle that contained a thick syrup—an opiate in a more concentrated form. She did not argue this time, did not fight. She had learned by now that there was little point.

The doctor poured the thick syrup onto a large spoon, and the substance was placed into her mouth. She sucked the bitter syrup until the spoon was clean, but it was not enough, not nearly enough to satisfy her. She coughed and sputtered. The doctor, concerned, put his bottle down on the table and patted her back to ease her coughing.

“Forgive me,” she said. “I seem to have swallowed it wrong. Might I have a little water?”

The doctor nodded for the nurse to attend to the errand, and followed her as far as the door to watch for her return. The screaming and ranting of a female patient passing by in the corridor arrested his attention, and he stepped into the hallway to speak with the nurse who attended her. And while he was thus distracted, Myra took the bottle he had set upon the table and raised it to her mouth. Slowly the syrup ran onto her tongue and down her throat, swallow after sappy swallow. It kept coming, kept coming, and she kept swallowing.

A moment later, a gasp was heard. “Doctor! Look! The patient!” the nurse was heard to say. She dropped the cup of water she had brought with her, and it fell clattering to the floor as it spilled its contents.

“What have you done!” the doctor said. But it was too late. The opium was taking effect. The nurse and doctor both tried to raise her, with fingers down her throat they attempted to gag her into vomiting, but she was holding onto every drop. Others came to assist. There were so many, and they were so frantic and insistent that she could not ignore them. They were slapping her cheeks, dousing her with water. She opened her eyes, but the room was nothing more than a blur of hazy images. The doctor and his assistants were heatedly discussing what more they might try in their efforts to save her. Was it too late for syrup of ipecac? Might magnesium or charcoal be administered in time?

One nurse alone watched her. At first Myra observed her only from the corner of her eye as she removed her eyeglasses and held them in one hand. A moment later, the spectacles, one lens missing, dropped to the floor.

Leaving the doctor’s side, the nurse stooped to look more closely at the fallen object—at the bent wire frame, at the single lens that remained. And then something else dropped to the floor. One drop and then another. Little splashes of red.

Drop, drop, drop.

The asylum disappeared, fading away into the abyss of forgotten memory. Myra’s escape was absolute and final. She had returned to her beloved home—not to her father, no, but to that in which her mother resided, happy and safe in eternal peace and comfort, and no one and nothing could ever divide her from it again.

***Art by B. Lloyd. Excerpt from Summers’ End, published in 2013 as a short story in the collection, “16 Seasons”. Presently out of print.

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