Authors: Mark C. King
Charlotte’s arm was bruising from the hard grip of the orderly. She twisted, not to escape, but to try and relieve some of the pain. The sound of Arthur, the blue-eyed constable, driving away was still in her ears as she was dragged into the lobby of Bedlam Asylum. The surroundings inside the building were not much more inviting than the outside. She found herself in a large open area that had several doors along the back wall, a set of double doors to her left and right, and twin staircases that looped up to a second floor landing. The old tile floor was dirty and cracked and made crunching sounds beneath their feet from crumbled pieces of mortar. There were couches that rested on the side walls of the lobby that looked like they were once expensive, but had fallen into disrepair many years back. The only light seemed to be the greyness that the front windows allowed in, which made the drab walls even more sorrowful. There were a few paintings, portraits of unknown men, that added an uncomfortable feeling of watchfulness. Charlotte shivered and realized that the temperature was not much warmer than it had been outside.
With his hand still painfully gripping her arm, the orderly kept walking and pulling her along. After only a few steps, Charlotte froze in fear at the sound of a horrifying scream. The orderly ignored it and yanked her forward. That first terrifying cry was followed by others. Mournful wails echoed through the lobby, sending terror through her own mind and body. Hysterical laughter accented the wails and frightened her even more. The utter pain and lack of inhibition in these calls were unlike anything she had ever heard. It was her very first experience of insanity.
The orderly pressed on, dragging Charlotte across the lobby and stopped at one of the far doors, opposite the entrance. Inside was a small, bare room that contained two chairs, a small wooden cabinet, a lit oil lamp, and nothing else. The only décor to speak of was the yellowing white paint peeling from the large brick walls. Without a word, the orderly pushed her in the room and into a chair. He stood over her and asked, “What is your story? You don’t look familiar to me. You are not faking are you? Trying to get a free place to stay, perhaps?”
Charlotte didn’t respond, she looked forward as if she were alone in the room.
“Alright then,” the orderly said and walked over to the small cabinet. When he turned around, he had a small flask and a box of matches in his hands. Charlotte saw this out of her peripheral vision but still did not acknowledge his presence.
He approached her and grabbed her right wrist and pushed back the sleeve to expose her arm. Inwardly she was quite alarmed, but showed nothing more than a casual glance. The man poured a little bit of unknown liquid from the flask onto her wrist. It took a moment, but then the smell reached her nose. It was lamp oil. As unthinkable as it should be, the meaning of this act seemed clear. Terror grew inside her as she fought to keep a calm demeanor.
He wasn’t really going to go through with this, was he?
“I’m going to be very clear,” said the orderly. “If you are faking, let me know, otherwise I will set this oil on fire.”
“Faking what, sir?” Charlotte responded casually, hoping to project enough insanity to convince this man. Somehow, she continued to look calm on the outside, but inside, her heart was beating fast.
This was only a test.
She told herself.
He was bluffing.
“Miss, one last chance. Are you faking?”
“Suit yourself,” he said and awkwardly placed the box of matches in the hand that was holding her wrist and fumbled with it until he got a match out. The orderly’s stare could be felt as he looked for signs of awareness. She gave him nothing, but she was beyond scared now.
The sound of the match as it struck against the box was as frightening as any of the sounds she had heard so far. Whereas the other sounds scared her for the sadness and the unknown they represented, what the match sound represented was clear – pain.
The flame was slowly brought closer to her arm, evidently giving her as much time as possible to change her mind. However, the slowness served only as torturous anticipation. She kept thinking, certainly hoping, that he would extinguish the match before it reached the oil.
And then it happened.
The oil on her forearm ignited. She was on fire.
Her initial reaction was panic followed quickly by confusion as there was no immediate pain. Evidently the nerves took a moment to transfer the heat, for the pain came suddenly and sharply. She tried to bat her arm with her hand to put out the flame, but the oil did not extinguish. The pain was intense and the batting actually splashed a little of the oil and small drops of flame fell to the floor and on to her dress. Beyond the white hot hurt, her terror grew as the fire not only wasn’t going out, but seemed to be spreading. She started to scream.
“Admit it!” screamed the orderly. “Admit it! You are faking!”
The door to the room opened, Charlotte hardly noticed, and a new individual yelled, “What is going on in here?” Then, when this new person saw the situation, he grabbed a handkerchief from his pocket and used it to smother the flame on her arm and put out any drops of fire that her flailing caused.
“Mr. Pegg!” the new person said angrily. “Doctor Madfyre has strictly forbidden these tests of yours! Step outside the room now!”
“Yes, Mr. Thursby,” said the orderly with no hint of remorse. “But you know as well as I do that we get people looking for free room and board in this kind of weather.”
“I shall report you to the Queen!” Charlotte yelled with true anger but also trying to stay in character. “This is no way to treat a lady!”
“That is true,” the orderly commented on his way out. “But you are no lady. You’re crazy.”
“That is enough, Mr. Pegg!” said Thursby, the new individual. “Now, where did she come from?”
“A constable brought her here. He said that he believed her to have escaped.”
“That seems unlikely.” commented Thursby. “I’m assuming you have not checked with Doctor Madfyre or Mrs. Rathbone?”
“No. This looney was just delivered. I can take her to Mrs. Rathbone now if you like.”
“No thank you, Mr. Pegg. I’ll take her myself. You can go.”
Charlotte did not look up during this conversation. She stayed seated and rocked back and forth with her hand over her wound. It was hard to notice anything beyond the pain.
When a hand touched her shoulder, she jumped in surprise, and a voice said, “Miss, please come with me. I need to take you to the infirmary.”
Without looking at him, she stood up and followed wordlessly. He walked to one of the double set of closed doors off the lobby and unlocked them. What Charlotte saw on the other side made her forget her arm for a moment. There was a long hallway with doors all along the right side of it; but it was the people, the patients, that had her attention. There were men sitting in chairs, some talking, some staring off into nothing, others walking around in an apparent haze, patients interacting, some to other patients, some to no one – this was her second experience of the actual insides of an insane asylum.
“This way, miss.” the orderly said as he directed her into the first door of the hallway, interrupting her observations. As she walked into the room, what looked like a small doctor’s office, the distractions stopped keeping her arm pain at bay. The fire may have been out, but it did not feel like it.
“Doctor Exton,” said the orderly. “I have a patient for you.”
An older man sat in the corner, he had white hair and a thick white mustache, and looked up from the paper he was reading. He took the spectacles that were resting on his head and put them in place on his nose. “What have we here, Mr. Thursby?” he asked.
“This woman has suffered a burn on her forearm.”
Doctor Exton sighed and asked, “Mr. Pegg?”
Mr. Thursby, nodded in answer.
Could this not be discussed later?
thought Charlotte, her arm starting to throb.
Addressing Charlotte, Doctor Exton said, “Please have a seat, my dear. Let’s take a look at that arm.”
He indicated a small bed for her and she sat on its thin cushion. The doctor carefully lifted her arm and examined it closely. She smelled peppermint on his breath as he said, “Please accept my apologies for this, my dear. We don’t all view our patients as Mr. Pegg does.” Without releasing her arm, he reached over to the counter and pulled a jar off of it. Inside the jar was some kind of ointment that smelled a bit like tea. He put some on his fingers and gently applied it to her wound. The touch hurt and she winced, but the ointment had a cooling affect.
“This should help some.” Exton said. “Does that feel a little better?”
Charlotte didn’t speak, just nodded. Her arm still hurt but the pain was much more tolerable.
“Now, just wait a moment while I put a bandage on it. You are fortunate. It looks as if Mr. Pegg didn’t get much time with you.”
This is fortunate?
How far would he have gone?
While the doctor was rummaging through his cabinets, Mr. Thursby, the orderly, knelt in front of Charlotte and asked, “Your name, miss?”
Charlotte looked blankly over his shoulder and said nothing.
He maneuvered his face so that he could make eye contact with her. His smile was kind and reassuring. The dark brown eyes that looked at her seemed small as his smile caused them to squint. His dress was similar to the other orderly, although much cleaner.
He asked again, “Miss, I am very sorry for what happened. I will not let it happen again. I am Mr. Thursby. May I please have your name?”
Charlotte looked back into his eyes, blinked a few times as if realizing for the first time that someone was in front of her, and said with a small voice, “Charlotte Caine, sir.”
“Miss Caine, do you know where you are?”
Not knowing how far she should carry her performance, she decided to keep it simple. “Home,” she replied.
Mr. Thursby rested his chin on his hand. She was being examined once again. Was this the life of a patient, endless judgment? It made sense, but was not something she had anticipated. It would make for an interesting part of her article – not as interesting, however, as her arm being set on fire.
Doctor Exton started to gently wrap her injury while Thursby kept considering her. After her arm was completely bandaged, Mr. Thursby said, “Well, you are a bit of a mystery to me, Miss Caine, but I think this
the home for you. We are going to visit Mrs. Rathbone. She will find you a place.”
Another test passed
, thought Charlotte.
“Come with me, please.” Mr. Thursby stood up and held his hand out in an invitation to exit the room. “We will find Mrs. Rathbone and see about a bed. Thank you, Doctor Exton.”
“Of course. It is why I’m here,” he sat back down and returned to reading his paper.
Charlotte walked out the door and waited for Mr. Thursby to lead the way. She couldn’t help but stare at the patients once more before reluctantly turning and following the orderly as he exited the double doors and entered the lobby once again. He led her to the left stairway and said, “I think we will find her near our community area.”
He walked up the stairs at a leisurely pace, not rushing Charlotte at all. “My apologies for the cold, Miss Caine,” Mr. Thursby commented. “This is a rather old building and does not heat very well.”
Charlotte didn’t respond, just kept following him up the stairs and to the second level.
Was it cold?
She couldn’t feel anything beyond her arm. At the second floor landing, there were doors on the far wall and double doors on either side of it, much like the first floor. Behind these entrances were, no doubt, more patient areas. “Wait here,” he said as he walked across the landing. He opened a door and Charlotte could hear him call inside, “Mrs. Rathbone, may I have a minute of your time?”