Friday, 1 June 2018

Dr. Marlow's Home for the Sanity-Challenged: Part Six - Sickness, Soup and Secrets

28th November 1889

Over the last fortnight, several of the Asylum's inmates have been in the grip of a most dangerous and frightful fever. Their bodies severely weakened, their limbs shaking, and rivers of sweat constantly breaking forth on their brows, I have had no choice but to confine the invalids to their rooms: the best treatment I am able to prescribe with my limited resources being bed rest, broths and herbal brews.

As horrific as the circumstances are, this foul blight has ultimately brought out the best in the inmates. Those unaffected by the sickness have taken it upon themselves to help care for their ill fellows. 

In addition to providing medical care for all of the sick, I myself attend to Lawrence's personal needs. Giving his history of maladies, he is especially vulnerable, and is suffering greatly. He sleeps now almost every hour of the day - rarely stirring, moving or talking, with his fever alarmingly high. I frequently dab his body with a cooled wet cloth, resting it upon his brow, but it has had little effect thus far. At this stage, I can only pray that he awakes soon. 

Fifi is cared for exclusively by Lucian. Whilst she is more often awake, and can talk still - albeit with strained voice  - she is unable to walk, and so, Lucian carries her everywhere, assisting her with her bathing and toilette. I had originally planned for ladies to care for fellow ladies, but given that Lucian already has intimate knowledge of Fifi's body, I deemed him an appropriate carer... particularly when he himself began to insist upon it.  He takes his role most seriously, and is incredibly devoted to his beloved patient -  forever at her side, and determined to help her get well. 

Sister Marie-Catherine's condition is somewhere between the two. She sleeps often, but has woken on occasion and held conversations - usually with Clarice, who has become her caregiver, and in recent days, her friend and confidante. (Sammy, of course, volunteered to care for Marie-Catherine, but despite whatever may be commencing between them, she remains a woman of the cloth. Thus, I firmly insisted that a fellow woman assist her with intimate care.) 

In addition to bathing Marie-Catherine, Clarice often sits at her bedside, and reads to her from the Holy Bible: the word of the Lord bringing great peace to both of them. Clarice has confided in me that, although she was not raised with religion, her new experiences with the Good Book have awakened a warm, passionate spark within her. Some days, she has gladly read to Marie-Catherine for several hours, her bliss removing any concept of the passage of time. 

"Learning of the Lord's love for me and all mankind," she once said, "is helping me forget the heartbreak I felt as a jilted bride. It is nice to know that at least one being in this universe will care for me and cherish me eternally. I think Marie-Catherine is foolish, putting her heart into Sammy's hands - especially after I told her about everything I've been through. That said, I like them both greatly... and if she does choose him, then I wish them well."

Clarice has also begun to discuss Bible passages with Marie-Catherine's confessor, Fr. O'Leary, who I have asked to come to the Home regularly at the nun's own request. Chiefly, though, he visits his charge, passing the time of day with her, and hearing her confession. Two evenings ago, when Catherine's fever rose incredibly fast and we feared the worst, he was summoned to administer the Last Rites. But, God be praised - the young nun survived the night, and had returned to her previous state by the morning. 

Yesterday, after Fr. O'Leary had spoken with Marie-Catherine and was leaving her room, he was approached by a most anxious Sammy - his hands clasped in a gesture of supplication, his tongue tripping over his words as he fearfully struggled to say them.

"Father, please..." he stammered, "Marie-Catherine. If... if the worst should happen... will - will she go to Hell because of me?"

Rather than providing the comfort that Sammy so desperately needed in that moment, the priest merely looked at him with a cold, steely gaze.

"It is a great shame when a man chooses to live the life of a sinner," he said gravely. "Worse still is when that sinner chooses to endanger the mortal soul of an innocent. Marie-Catherine's fate is now in the hands of the Lord... but if, heaven forbid, she is now damned, then you, as her tempter, will suffer even greater punishment at the Almighty's hands."

With those words, he stormed away - not even giving Sammy a second glance. 

The Irishman, despite his many acts of thievery, had been raised in the faith, and did still retain a conscience. Crumbling under the weight of such a severe burden, he rushed into Catherine's chamber to make his desperate apology. When he saw her sleeping body shivering and sweating in the throes of the malady, he broke down completely, and wept bitterly.


It is fair to say I never was particularly skilled in the kitchen. In my youth, my mother did all the cooking, and during my medical studies and working years, I had a housekeeper - although I am told Marlow has now dismissed her following my confinement here, just to spite me further. However, my ill inmates were relying on me to provide them with nourishment, and by hook or by crook, I simply had to do so.

As I spent hour upon hour over a hot stove, cobbling together some sort of soup from whatever ingredients I could scramble together - and struggling immensely in the process - the temperature continued to grow until it was utterly stifling. 

Not anticipating any visitors to the kitchen, and with sweat flowing down my brow, I elected to throw modesty and propriety to the winds: stripping off my jacket and outer layers of my clothing in order to remain cool whilst I continued my culinary labours. Indeed, I was so consumed by this work that I could not rightfully say how much time passed before I heard a soft voice calling from behind me.

"Do you need help, Doctor?"

Looking over my shoulder, I was most startled to find Deirdre DeMille watching me from the doorway. Gravely embarrassed, I rushed away from the stove and scrambled to redress myself properly - but she stepped forward, smiling weakly, and waving a hand dismissively.

"Oh, please, Doctor!" she said, almost laughing. "I am a woman who knows something of the world, and of men. It is exceedingly warm in here, and it is not as if you stand before me as Adam did in the Garden of Eden!"

I could not help but smile at this amusing response as I lay my suit jacket back down.

"How can I be of assistance, Ms. DeMille?" I asked.

"On the contrary, Doctor - I am offering to assist you," she replied. "You are busy enough caring for the others in their sick beds without needing to preparing their meals also. I am still in good health, and I know something of cookery - "

"You do?" I asked, genuinely surprised.

"Why, yes. I used to cook very often... preparing Sunday roasts, and whatnot. I baked from time to time, as well."

As she spoke, her immaculate royal accent began to waver - broader, more common tones emerging on certain words... the truth of her life and background leaking through the illusion of nobility. I had always suspected Deidre may have worked as a maid or hired help of some sort, her witnessing of the luxurious life of those she served later fueling her delusions, and it seemed that my theory held some water. However, as she noticed me observing her, she cleared her throat, and transformed back into the Duchess before my eyes.

"Of course, one has staff to do such things for one these days."

"Of course," I concurred, deciding it best to avoid an argument just as Deirdre was beginning to warm to someone here.

"That said," she went on, much to my surprise, "the skills one has gained in cookery may be of use to you, here and now. Needs must, after all."

And thus, Deidre DeMille henceforth assumed the position of asylum sous-chef... although, I must confess, I was really more her assistant than she was mine. I did my best to prepare good dishes - the Duchess watching me with some interest and offering me advice firmly, yet always politely - but in the end, I elected to let the true mistress take the reins. 

After all, took many cooks spoil the broth.

Grateful to be relieved of the extra duty and the pressures it brought, I would happily spend a few spare minutes chopping vegetables and boiling water for Deidre so she could make the most exquisite soups, masterfully flavoured with the limited spices we had growing in the gardens. She constructed luxurious, nourishing meals from the scarcest of ingredients.

From time to time, she somehow scraped together enough leftover components to bake a little something. On these occasions, when I had finished my rounds of bedside visits for the evening, and she had served the meals and cleaned the kitchen, we would find ourselves sat together in the drawing-room, where she would bring in her platter of treats, and we'd chat to one another as we nibbled away contently.

As the days went by, I observed a change in my newfound companion. She wore less and less of her expensive jewellery (to prevent them being tarnished by spills and steam, she claimed), and took on a more relaxed composure. 

Occasionally, due to the clammy, overwhelming heat from the stove, strands of her hair would unravel from its tight bun, falling flowing down her shoulders... and yet, in this unkempt state, she excluded a wild, Amazonian beauty. This appearance took years off her, and reminded me that she was, in fact, slightly younger than myself. 

Further, it stirred some deep, hidden longing within me.. something strange, unfamiliar, passionate... a secret and improper emotion I dare not convey.. and my heart would sink a little whenever she caught me looking at her and instantly fixed her coiffure, embarrassed.

As for her voice, this was unaltered to begin with - her accent still able to cut diamonds, never mind glass - but one particular night, as we were discussing our respective childhoods, all that would change.

I had told a story about observing my haberdasher father at work in his shop in my youth, and took the opportunity to ask Deidre about her own childhood.

"Oh, my father was in the Army," she told me. "An officer, quite naturally - very well-to-do. My mother was the daughter of a duke. They were married at a young age. I grew up on a substantially-sized estate just north of Cornwall, and was mainly cared for by my nanny until the time came for me to beginning my schooling."

"You attended Harrow, I assume?" I asked. "Surely nothing less would be fitting for someone of your noble background."

"Quite right. I was schooled there."

I allowed myself a small, knowing smile.

"Even though Harrow is a boys' institution?"

In an instant, I knew I had pulled the rug out from under her feet. Her face fell, and she began to stammer as she scrambled for a response.

"Well... well, I..."

"Deirdre," I said - with conviction, but not too harshly. "Everything I have told you about myself up to now has been the truth. And, to be frank, over these last few days... I have come to see you as something as a friend, not just a fellow inmate. I know you respect me as a doctor, as someone who is educated. Now, I am asking you to respect me as a confidant. To trust me as your confidant."

As she continued to hesitate, I broke every good rule of manners and protocol, and dared to reach for her hand, grasping it lightly.

"The only way you can ever be free of this horrible place is to admit the truth," I said softly. "Please... let that begin with me."

Hanging her head, she complied.

"I was born in the East End of London," she began in her true voice - her accent almost identical to Lucian's and Fifi's. "We lived in the slums. My dad worked on the docklands - steady work, but 'e drank the wages. Came 'ome late, shouted at my mum, knocked 'er about... all that nasty stuff."

I made no reply - merely sat there in respectful silence as Deidre's words continued to flow from her, and tears with them.

"Mum managed to get a job working for some posh lady," she said. "'Ousemaid. Moppin' floors, beatin' rugs, just bein' an all-round skivy. We could live on what she brought 'ome, but - well, she and Dad kept 'avin' kids. I 'ave six siblings. I went to a parish school, learned 'ow to read and write, but when I was fourteen, I had to start working with Mum to keep us out of the work'ouse. I was a scullery maid. It was 'ard, but... well, the cook was a nice lady. She taught me everything I needed to know about food."

"So... you're not a duchess?"

She shook her head.

"No more than you are... guv," she replied, allowing herself a chuckle.

"Then why did you... that is, I mean to say... how did you end up here?"

She sighed.

"I used to look at the mistress in all 'er finery every day," she told me. "All them pretty dresses, them bright jewels, that nice big 'ouse. And then there was us in some shack that was barely standin' with no money for food, let alone treasures. I just wanted what she 'ad... to 'ave a better life. It was just a silly daydream, at first, but then... I fell in with this moneylender, and saw my chance. I just borrowed anythin' I could get my 'ands on and started to live like a queen. Only I couldn't pay 'im back."

She grasped my hand tighter.

"I knew in my 'eart what I was doin' was wrong," she confessed, "but... I told myself that if I just believed enough, if I just bought the right jewels or the right dress, spoke in the right voice, moved in the right way, then my dream would come true. In the end, I believed in it so much that... well, I just left the real world behind."

"Only the real world came back for you," I probed. "Or, at least, the debts did."

She nodded.

"That bastard took everything my family 'ad," she sobbed. "But that weren't enough for 'im and 'is lackeys. They wanted me. For me to do... things I don't want to talk about. I couldn't. I wouldn't. And by then, I was so wrapped up in the lie, I couldn't see the truth anymore. I was a duchess. My mum just wanted to keep me safe from them. She called for Dr. Marlow, 'e declared me mad, and well... 'ere I am."

She hid her face in her hands.

"All I wanted was to feel like I mattered," she wailed. "Just for one, god-forsaken moment..."

"You do matter, Deidre," I told her. "Not because of birthright or rank, or what you own, but because of your character. Your true nature - not this part you insist on playing. I mean, good gracious... the help you've given me in these last few days has been invaluable. I respect you far more for that than for any jewels you wear or title you claim.!

I paused.

"And the others would, too."

"No, Doctor!" she shrieked in horror.

"Deidre, please - "

"No, Dr. Tripp," she pleaded, calmer. "I implore you. Not yet. I... I am simply not ready."

I relented.

"Very well," I said. "But you must reveal your true self to them someday. Someday soon."

My mind turned back to today. It had been a long one indeed. Overcome with exhaustion, I stifled a yawn.

"It's getting late," Deidre said, noticing. "You should retire for the night... get some rest."

"Capital idea. I think I shall... once I write up my notes."

"Perhaps," she suggested in soft tones, "you would care to sleep in the double bed?"

I felt all the blood rushing away from my face - my breath catching in my throat as waves of shock crashed down upon me.

"Surely... you... you are not suggesting - ?" I croaked.

Seeing my horror, Deidre realised what she had implied, and swiftly corrected herself.

"Oh, no, Dr. Tripp!" she cried, equally alarmed. "I was not saying that we should - ! Good Lord, no! No, I was simply offering you that particular bed. It is very soft and comfortable, and would help you sleep better. I will retire elsewhere."

This was indeed progress. Never before had Deidre offered to surrender her prized place to someone else. I was truly privileged.

And yet, at the same time... I felt strangely disappointed.

Damn it, Tripp, compose yourself! You are a gentleman, not a beast! 

"That is most kind," I told Deidre, rising to my feet and approaching the door. "Thank you. And good night."

After I'd collected the rest of my attire, I ascended the staircase to my study, only to be suddenly overcome by a bizarre feeling of light-headedness... my hand shaking as it gripped the banister. Now, as I sit here, writing up my journal, I can feel sweat breaking out upon my brow - tremors passing through my body.

Wait what is this no please I need help

Sweet Jesus have mercy on my soul