Following Sammy's distressing declaration, myself and the other inmates immediately made haste to Laurence's room. We discovered him laid upon his bed as always, shivering and with sweat pouring from his brow - the curtains drawn, and only the light of a few flickering candles illuminating his cell-like chamber.
Sister Marie-Catherine Rose was already within, knelt at the foot of Laurence's bed: her hands clasped in prayer as she hastily whispered words of Latin, twin trails of tears running down her cheeks. A deep, raspy chuckle broke forth from Lawrence's lips, and with great effort, he propped himself up to look at her.
"There's no need to pray for me, Sister," he said weakly. "It won't help me where I am headed for."
"Don't talk like that!" Catherine chided him. "The Lord is loving and merciful."
As he noticed Sammy coming in alongside me and the others, Laurence nodded.
"Yes, Sister," he went on. "You and Mr. McManus would be wise to keep that in mind."
I sat myself down on a chair beside the bed, and reached out to check Laurence's pulse. However, as I reached for his wrist, he pulled his arm aside.
"Forgive me, Dr. Tripp," he croaked, "but I ask for no treatment. Not now. What must be must be."
Seeing the sincerity in his eyes, I sat back.
"But," he continued, "if you would be willing, you could help me in other ways."
"Of course, Laurence. What do you need?"
With a turn of his head, he indicated the drawers beside the bed.
"There's a letter in there," he explained. "To... to Alphonse."
"Who's Alphonse?" Deidre whispered to me.
Laurence chuckled again.
"He's... he's a friend of mine," he answered, before turning to me with a knowing smile. Clearly, he didn't want to offend a lady's delicate sensibilities. "The letter is... my farewell. Please, make sure it reaches him."
He collapsed into a fit of hacking coughs before he was able to go on.
"I have another request, if you would pray hear it."
"When... when it happens," he pleaded, "I do not want to be buried anywhere around this... this god-forsaken gaol. I don't care how long you have to keep me above ground. Bury me in a city cemetery - one with other artists and poets. Grant a dying man the privileged of being able to rest amongst his own kind."
"Yes, Laurence," I said sincerely. "I'll see to that. I promise."
Falling back onto the pillow, he seemed relieved to have been given my word..
"Thank you," he sighed contentedly.
At the back of the room, Fifi burst into tears - Lucian immediately embracing her tightly. Lawrence, aghast at her sadness, painfully craned his head to watch her weeping, and agonisingly stretched out a hand towards her.
"Oh, my poor, sweet Fifi," he cooed softly. "My little songbird. Won't you come here? Let me comfort you."
"Forgive me," Fifi sobbed in reply, "but... but I can't. I can't risk gettin' sick again."
"Why not, dearest?"
Taking Lucian's hand, Fifi drudged up a soft, slim smile.
"We've just found out," she explained. "Lucian and I are 'avin' a baby."
Laurence gasped in delight, his eyes shining for one brief moment.
"I am so happy for you, my darling," he told her. "Raise them to be creative, won't you? You have such a wondrous talent - it needs to go on. And I need some new artistic prodigy to take my place in this world."
Next, he turned towards the father-to-be.
"Mr. Claymore," he said, "take good care of our songbird and her chick. Let her sing loudly and fly free - never trap her in another cage like this. If you treat her well, she'll be true. I swear it. Fifi is a lovely young woman. Don't lose her through violent caddishness."
Lucian cupped Fifi's hand in his cheek, and then nodded at the poet in understanding.
Next, Laurence turned his attention to the Irishman.
"You take care of your fair lady, too," he advised. "The most exquisite rose, with an angel's heart. People will judge you, just like they judged me. But they won't understand love the way you two do. Hold on to that, and to one another, and you'll endure."
Finally, with a croak, he moved his stiff, suffering body around upon the bedsheets to look me eye to eye.
"And, of course, good doctor," he wheezed, "don't let your own heart grow cold, or you end up like that monstrous Marlow. Books and learning won't alleviate loneliness. Find someone, and treasure them. I implore you. Having plentiful love in your life is not something you'll regret."
With a sharp cry, he collapsed flat on the bed, his breathing growing laboured. As he looked up towards the skies above him, his gaze grew distant, as if some wondrous vision was appearing before him.
"At least..." he breathed, "I certainly don't..."
With these words, he grew still, and breathed his last.
As I softly blew out the candles, Catherine recited the Requiem Æternam - a chorus of sobbing accompanying her prayer.
26th December 1889
Losing Laurence so near to the Yuletide season was a devastating blow. Being locked away from our families on Christmas Day would be difficult enough, but losing a fellow inmate - someone who had become a dear friend - only made things harder.
His coffin, still housed in the Chapel, served as a harsh reminder of what had occurred, but without Marlow's permission to bury him beyond the grounds, we were unable to honour his last request... which I refused to let happen. Even in death, Laurence's fate rested on the outcome of the imminent inspection.
As for the letter, I fully intended to send it to Alphonse, but had elected to not do so until the new year. During a season where our thoughts were so often with those dearest to us, I felt the best gift I could give him would be to let him remember Laurence how he was, just for a short while longer, until he'd have to read the miserable missal, and his world was shattered.
Still, despite our collective sadness, Deidre - God bless her - pulled all of the stops out to make sure we enjoyed a merry Christmas. In an act of utter selflessness, she surprised all of us by rising ridiculously early on the festive day, decked the halls with wondrous artefacts, and even prepared a roast turkey for dinner - moving tables around to ensure we could all dine together. We were completely unaware of what she had done until she called us down for the feast - leaving us all awed, and deeply thankful.
At the table, myself and my fellow inmates found ourselves able to put our grief behind us, and were able to laugh and joke as any loving family would on this most blessed and peaceful of days.
As I sampled the fare, my tastebuds were sent spiralling into salivation as I savoured the exquisite flavours. Deidre's cooking always was a marvel. As she sat there beside me, she smiled as she watched me greatly enjoying her food.. and her happiness made me own heart skip a beat.
Later that evening, Sammy, Lucian and Fifi retired to play a friendly game of cards together, while Catherine and Clarice went to pray in the Chapel, as they did every night. Deidre attended to the dishes: I offered to assist her, but she declined politely, saying I should use this sacred day to rest and forget my duties - reaching into the pantry, and handing me a bottle of port she'd been saving as a special gift.
I took a seat upon the chaise longue, deep in thought. This inspection, I knew, would be the one chance to win everyone's freedom - including my own - that I'd have for a very long time. Maybe the only chance. Fifi had expressed a strong desire for her baby to not be born in an asylum, and she wanted a chance for her union with Lucian to be made legitimate through marriage before their arrival. Sammy and Catherine had their own budding future together that they were keen to build, too.
Lucian was no longer violent, Sammy no longer a thief, Catherine not melancholic, Clarice moving on from her tragic marriage, Deidre not aloof, and Fifi not a nymphomaniac. By all accounts, they were cured, and freedom was what they wanted more than anything. How could I disappoint them? The overwhelming obstacle was... how would I convince that stern codfish Marlow that they were sane, respectable people, given that their ways of life differed so much from his own - the only ways he considered normal?
I groaned, not even knowing where to begin conquering this mountain of a dilemma. As I rubbed my aching temples, I felt a weight dropping down beside me, and turned to see Deidre looking at me with a kind smile.
"Penny for your thoughts, 'guv?" she joked. The cut-glass accent she had donned in her delusions had long been absent from her voice, and in all truth, I had begun to forget what it sounded like.
"Oh, it's nothing you need trouble yourself with," I told her. "I was just contemplating the inspection."
She knew what I was referring to. Out of everyone here, Deidre had become my trusted confidante. After all, even I needed support now and again.
"I've been thinkin' about that, too," she said. "I reckon we should come up with a plan."
This intrigued me.
"A plan?" I asked.
"Yes," she went on. "Talk to all the other inmates - figure out 'ow we're all going to present ourselves. I reckon, if we do this right, Marlow will 'ave no choice but to admit we're sane. After all, we'll 'ave two other witnesses, right? That old nun and that other doctor fella."
"You mean," I said, "we should prepare for this inspection as a group?"
"Absolutely!" Deidre replied energetically. "The inmates all trust you. Maybe you should start puttin' a little trust in them, an' all. I'm sure they 'ave some good ideas. If we're going to pull this off, we all need to work together."
Swiftly, she slid a hand into my own, placing her other hand on top of it in a strong yet tender clasp of reassurance.
"Besides," she went on, "you shouldn't 'ave to face this kind of pressure alone."
I smiled, comforted by her kind words.
"Very well," I told her. "I'll gather them together in the morning for a discussion."
Sighing, she unexpectedly leaned toward me, and rested her head upon my shoulder - her eyelids lowering dreamily as though she was about to fall asleep.
For several minutes, my heart danced a veritable galop behind my ribcage, until eventually, a feeling of warm, soothing contentment flooded through me. I was enjoying this. I was reluctant for it to end.
I had long known that I was in love with this woman. However, unlike the bliss that had unfolded between our fellow inmates, I knew a grand romance between Deidre and I was something that could never be.
Within these walls, I was still, officially speaking, her doctor and caretaker, and I had a professional duty towards her. Friendship was all well and good, but courtship would well and truly be crossing the line of decency. And undoubtedly, once we were free, she would be keen to return to her family and the life she had been forced to leave behind... whilst I would, hopefully, return to my practice - or otherwise set up elsewhere beyond Marlow's criticising gaze - and continue to assist sick and infirm patients from the general public.
Of course, I could confess my feelings. But the prospect of freedom, I knew, brought Deidre so much happiness. Why trouble her now with the burden of a desire that she may not even reciprocate? The poor woman had suffered enough. It was best, I knew, to stay silent, and to merely enjoy these fleeting moments together... even if they would soon be over for good.
Freedom would bring many joys, but it would also bring about our separation. It was the sour aftertaste to a delicious sweetmeat. Yet I had to accept its bitterness - if not for my own sake, then for hers. It was most strange: an asylum was meant to rid you of your insanity, yet now, I felt I was moving closer towards it than I had ever been before.
Outside of the window, I could a few flakes of snow beginning to fall towards the lawn, as Deidre whispered to me sleepily.
"Merry Christmas, Dr. Tripp."
"Merry Christmas, Miss DeMille."
The dawn of Boxing Day would find us there together still.