Thus far, in my record of my time here, you will notice that there is one inmate I have neglected to mention: the poet, Mr. Laurence Wilde. There is a reason for this. Due to his weak constitution, his proneness to maladies and his overwhelming sense of melancholy, Mr. Wilde spent the majority of the time in the Home confined to a room, where he more often than not simply passed both the days and nights convalescing in bed.
In his worst periods, regular meals were brought to him by myself or a fellow inmate, and Mr. Claymore (after much... ahem... "lively discussion", and use of terms on his part to describe Mr. Wilde that I shall not repeat) would help carry him to the bathroom so he could perform his toilette. Very occasionally, if he could summon up the strength, Mr. Wilde would venture out towards my desk, and with my blessing, used the typewriter to indulge in his favourite pastime - writing.
For my part, I would visit him within his chamber at least three times each week, to ensure that he could partake in some form of socialising. He appeared to enjoy and anticipate these visits... and in a way, I did, too. Mr. Wilde was an educated man who treated me with respect, which was more than could be said for some of the other inmates.
One morning, when I called upon him, I found him sat upon his bed, fully dressed. He appeared to be in better spirits than in recent days.
"Hello, Mr. Wilde," I said to him. "You look well."
"Oh, call me 'Laurence', please!" he chuckled in reply. "And yes, Dr. Tripp - I am feeling much better. I was even able to go out into the garden yesterday."
"You... you went downstairs? Unassisted?" I asked, stunned.
"It took me half an hour, and I had to hold on to the banister for dear life to stop myself from falling... but yes, I made it, slowly but surely."
"That's... that's excellent!" I said brightly. "But pray tell me - what possessed you to venture outside?"
"Ah, well," Laurence replied knowingly, "it may have escaped your notice, but the flowers are not the only thing there that has been blooming in recent times. I am, of course, referring to a certain nun and her kleptomaniac companion?"
I hung my head bashfully.
"I... I may have heard some rumours."
"Oh, come now, Doctor!" Laurence laughed. "There is no shame in love!"
"Even when one of the people involved has sworn herself to chastity in the name of God?"
"All sin came from a man and a woman in a garden. Not that such things trouble me. I never did pay much heed to the Church, Dr. Tripp."
"In any case," I asked, "how did you become aware of this... predicament?"
"I was at your desk writing the other day, and I felt the sunlight beaming in upon my face," he explained. "Something within me stirred - a Romantic longing, capital R, some might say - and I approached the window. It was then that I looked out and saw Mr. McManus and Sister Marie engaged in conversation... which concluded with an action I am quite sure her Mother Superior would not have approved of."
I gave no response. I fear I may have blushed, but if I did so, Laurence was merciful, and paid it no heed.
"I continued to look out upon them in the following days," he continued. "I suppose it was rather like watching my own private play - a real-life drama unfolding before my eyes. It fascinated me so. But then, yesterday, I noticed the sweet Sister was keeping her distance from Mr. McManus..."
"... and she seemed - out of sorts. She was like a lost player trying to recall her next line. So, I decided to go down there and prompt her, as it were."
From there, Laurence went on to explain how he had struggled down the Home's grand staircase, and slowly made his way into the back garden - happy to once again breathe in the fresh air, and to feel the breeze and sunlight upon his face.
He was greeted cheerfully, and with pleasant surprise, by Sister Marie... and when Laurence lost his footing as he stepped down from the veranda, she immediately rushed to his aid.
"Thank you," he said, as she helped him up.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
"Yes, I shall recover in a moment," he replied. "But I daresay that I should ask the same question of you, Sister. You, who are normally so full of merriment, seem so sad and troubled. Pray, what has upset you?"
Sister Marie turned away, ashamed.
"I... I am afraid to tell you, Mr. Wilde."
"Fear not, my child," he told her reassuringly. "You can confide in me. Come, let us walk together into the trees - they shall lend us some solitude so we can discuss your secret."
Looping his arm in hers, Laurence leaned on Sister Marie for support as they took tender steps across the lawn towards a small cluster of oak trees in the far corner of the garden, close to the gaol-like fence surrounding the asylum. Here, they were away from the prying eyes and ears of other inmates - most notably, Mr. McManus.
"Now, my dear," Laurence prompted, "tell me what is troubling you."
"It's... it's Sammy."
Sister Marie nodded.
"I... I think I may be falling in love with him."
"Oh... I see! A forbidden romance!"
Sister Marie shuddered fearfully.
"Please, Mr. Wilde! I am already deeply concerned for the welfare of my soul: I implore you, do not make it worse!"
As she began to sob, Laurence shushed her gently.
"Calm yourself, Sister. Forgive me - it was merely a turn of phrase. Besides, I do not judge you."
Sister Marie looked at him.
"You... you don't?"
"Of course not. Speaking as a writer, this sort of thing is the crux of drama. Were the world devoid of it, I would have no trade!"
He laughed, but the nun was not amused. Composing himself, Laurence smiled at her.
"And further," he went on, "I, too, understand what it is like to feel a love society has deemed forbidden... albeit in a rather different fashion."
Sister Marie nodded in understanding - but Laurence's empathy did little to ease her anxiety.
"Oh, Mr. Wilde, what am I to do?" she sighed.
"Well, I for one am a big believer in indulging your temptations," Laurence told her, "but I appreciate that method does not suit all people. Still, love is a beautiful thing, so what about this one makes it so fearful?"
"I have already sworn myself to God!"
"But is God not understanding?" Laurence pressed. "The father of mercy? You are but a normal woman, Sister... with all the feelings and desires that brings. Surely the Almighty would want nothing more than for you to be happy? Besides, He has plenty of brides already - I am sure He could see His way to sparring you."
Sister Marie contemplated this.
"I'm... I'm still not sure," she whispered.
"Think it over, Sister," Laurence told her gently. "Just remember that, no matter what you choose, I shall always be the first one to defend you."
"Now, if you would be so kind," Laurence asked, reaching for her, "please help me back into the building. I had some difficulty getting down here, and I should like to return to my room and rest."
"Of course," Sister Marie replied, taking his offered hand. "But please, Mr. Wilde - know that your effort is greatly appreciated."
"I hope you don't mind me giving the young lady some counsel," Laurence said to me. "She seemed to need some comfort, and I do not believe I encouraged her to do anything majorly sinful... at least, not without further contemplation. I have some experience with troubling matters of the heart, but I appreciate you may have wished to advise her yourself."
"On the contrary," I replied. "I owe you a debt of gratitude. If you wish to be Sister Marie's and Sammy's 'gooseberry-picker', as they say, then I shall not interfere. I may have spent years studying the workings of the human body, but love is one subject I have little knowledge of."
Laurence's eyebrows leaped upwards.
"You... are a bachelor, Dr. Tripp?" he asked.
"And you are not currently - calling on anyone?"
"Not now, nor indeed ever," I confessed, a little sadly. "Education and work have always been my two mistresses."
"Well," Laurence sighed, "I must admit that you've surprised me."
He ran a hand through his golden locks as his gaze narrowed upon me.
"After all.... you are a very handsome man."
Reader, I will confide in you that I was both flattered and flustered by this compliment. Yet, before I could respond (which, in truth, I would have struggled to do), and before the poet could say anything more, we were interrupted suddenly by the sound of the most angelic, harmonious singing floating in from the corridor.
I rushed to the doorway, with Laurence slowly staggering along behind me, and followed the sound to my study. Upon our arrival, we were met with the sight of Miss Rococco, sat at my desk, with one of Lawrence's newest pieces in her hands.
Hearing us enter, she turned her head, and froze with alarm upon spotting us - dropping the poem hastily.
"Dr. Tripp, guv! Mr. Wilde! I'm sorry, I was just -"
"What is going on here?" I asked.
"I... I've lost my sheet music somewhere," she explained hastily. "I was 'avin a butcher's for it, and I thought it might be 'ere, on yer desk. I thought this bit of paper was it. As I read it, I clocked on that it was one of Mr. Wilde's poems instead, but it... well, it's the words. They flow so pretty, an' all, that I just started singin' 'em."
"Well, I appreciate you were looking for something else," I said firmly, "but in future, if you find something that isn't yours, I suggest you -"
"Wait a moment, Dr. Tripp," Laurence piped up. "I, for one, thought Miss Rococco's song was very beautiful. Such a divine experience to hear one's words set to a melody - especially when sung in such a heavenly tone. Wouldn't you agree?"
"Yes," I admitted. "Miss Rococco has a very fine voice indeed."
"It is your belief, is it not," Laurence went on, "that people suffering in the way we do should be allowed to take comfort in their hobbies and talents - true?"
"I feel the same. I say Miss Rococco should be allowed to sing my poems if she wishes. In fact, having some music around here would brighten up the place."
His head rapidly filling with ideas, he approached Miss Rococco.
"You sing excellently, my dear. Can you play too?"
"Only a bit of piano."
"Then we must purchase one immediately."
"Now hold on!" I interjected. "Despite my protests, Dr. Marlow provides barely enough money to feed us all. How many meals would we need to sacrifice to acquire a piano?"
"Have no fear about that," Laurence told me, winking.
Reaching into his waistcoat, he produced a bundle of paper banknotes.
"When that old trout Marlow locked me in here, I managed to smuggle this in," he explained. "It should be enough to cover the cost, and buy us a slap-up meal besides."
"But we were strip-searched before we were admitted!" I said. "Where on Earth did you conceal it?"
As Laurence gave me a knowing look, I decided it was best not to pursue that line of questioning.
Thus, the next day, after I'd finished my day's work as a clerk, I stopped by a music shop and purchased a piano for the Home with Laurence's money - along with some extra food to prepare a feast. Laurence's plan was for Miss Rococco to perform his poem-songs in concert for the other inmates, and make the event into a sort of celebration.
When the cart pulled up with the piano, I asked Mr. Claymore and Mr. McManus (as the two strongest and fittest inmates) to carry it in. This laborious, exhausting task damn near killed them, but soon enough, they had done as I'd asked.
Miss Treadmere and Sister Marie placed some chairs around it to form a viewing gallery, and we all swiftly settled into our seats - Miss Rococco alone still standing as she approached the piano glowing with pride and anticipation. Much to my surprise, Ms. DeMille chose to sit next to me... but then, given her attitude to the other inmates, perhaps I was simply the best of a bad lot.
Miss Rococco started the show, and within moments, we were all enthralled by her wondrous voice. Laurence's grin beamed like a lantern - thrilled to be hearing his written words in such a novel and beautiful format. Even Ms. DeMille tapped me on the arm and whispered, "Gracious, she really is rather good, isn't she?" High praise from a woman such as herself.
Our admiration, however, placed in comparison to that of Mr. Claymore, whose eyes remained firmly fixed on his beloved Fifi - his shining gaze, being, I can only imagine, the look of true love. (Having never seen such a look myself, I can only hypothesise.)
Seeing us all together, getting along splendidly, brought me great comfort following the troubled events as of late. My fellow inmates were beginning to feel more like friends. I decided, right then and there, that I would begin to refer to them all by their given names - not just Laurence, who had been the only one to grant me permission thus far. It was time to bring an end to formalities. As long as we all dwelt within these walls, we were equals... even "Duchess" DeMille.
We applauded as the songs came to an end. Fifi rose and turned to her audience, offering us a curtsy - but then, suddenly, she gasped for breath, her hand rushing to her head as she swooned.
We watched, aghast, as she tumbled to the floor unconscious - Lucian rushing to her side and desperately attempting to rouse her.
"Fifi? Fifi, wake up, darlin! Dr. Tripp, you 'ave to 'elp!
As I was about to assist, another sigh and crash followed. This time, it was Sister Marie - who merely croaked "Call my confessor" to Sammy as he knelt down next to her, cupping her cheeks to look into her face as her eyes slowly slid shut.
Next was Laurence. Having forever suffered from illness, it seemed he would not be spared from this new epidemic that was apparently seizing the Home. Clarice screamed in fright as he dropped down from his chair beside her, still and solid as a corpse - with only the faintest of breaths signalling life.
As chaos unfolded before my eyes, I felt terror seizing my heart - my logical mind unable to account for what I was witnessing.
It would seem that my trials, and those of my fellow inmates, were still far from over.