5th January 1890
"A tragedy, of course," Dr. Marlow said bluntly as he saw the coffin in the chapel. "To lose an inmate to illness. Terrible for my reputation. Still, the other seven are alive, so I suppose one must count one's blessings."
I was used to Marlow's harsh world view, but this time, his callousness shocked even me. Still, I thankfully managed to bite my tongue. His companions, Dr. Addington and the Reverend Mother Marie Hilda Clare, said nothing, but their stiff, vacant expressions showed no hint of sympathy. To a doctor, what was the death of a incurable? And to a nun, what was the death of a sinner?
"I will consider his request with some care," Marlow went on. "Were it my choice, he would of course be buried here, but I supposed some ill-advised family members who'd still consider this sodomite kin may care to mourn him. I am not utterly devoid of mercy."
Now that was a surprise.
"Anyway... enough of the hopeless cases," Marlow said matter-of-factly. "It is the living patients I am concerned with. I wish to see them at once."
"Of course, sir," I replied obediently. "Pray, follow me."
I led them into the lounge, where I knew Fifi and Lucian would be waiting. Following Deidre's prompting, I'd had long discussions with the inmates over recent days. Everything was planned down to the smallest detail. If everything went well, we would all be free citizens before the day was out.
As my visitors entered, there, sat on the chaise longue, were the loving couple.
By sewing together some curtains, Deirdre had created a new, conservative dress for Fifi, and she had washed her face of any make-up - her hair worn simply, but neatly. She was the epitome of the sensible loving wife, the "angel in the house" archetype: precisely the image she needed to project.
"Mr. Claymore and Ms. Richmond," I said, introducing them - taking care to use Fifi's real surname.
It was Lucian who spoke first.
"Good morning, sirs. Reverend Mother. I 'ope the day finds you well?"
His voice was calm, his words chosen with care. No anger or frustration. The slightest hint of rage would be lethal to his case.
"Ah, Mr. Claymore," Dr. Marlow said, with an eerie brightness. "You seem most at peace with this... female companion. Tell me - has she tamed the savage tiger into a pussycat?"
It was a disguised insult - one designed to trigger an outburst. Lucian knew that, and he was ready. Rather than respond, he merely drew a deep breath, and shrugged it off, smiling contentedly.
"Per'aps," he admitted. "Still, rather a tamed and beloved pussycat that a mangy alley scrapper, eh?"
Fifi smiled back, clutching his hand happily.
"You have been eating well, I see," she muttered suspiciously.
Our esteemed guests simply could not know about the baby. Knowing I had allowed pre-martial relations to occur under the Home's roof would destroy any chance of the lover's freedom... and Marlow, most likely, would have my head on a platter.
"Oh... yes," I replied with haste. "Increased rations, following the spate of sickness. To increase the inmates' strength, you see. Keep them thriving."
"Top draw, Tripp!" Dr. Addington said, with some admiration.
"Yes," Marlow conceded. "A responsible path of action. Well... these two appear to have been reformed. They may leave this evening."
As I continued with the tour, leading my visitors towards the garden, I took one quick glance behind me... and saw the couple embracing each other in utter elation.
Beneath the grey January skies, among the plants and greenery, Sister Marie-Catherine Rose and Sammy busied themselves with pruning and weeding.
As I pointed them out to my learned company, explaining how a regime of mild daily labour both lifted spirits and diminished criminal instincts, I was bluntly cut short when Mother Marie Hilda Clare quickly took over - making her way towards the couple urgently. Of course... this was the matter that was of the most concern to her.
Seeing her approach, Catherine and Sammy stopped working at once... the young nun greeting her superior with a modest curtsy.
"So... here they are," the Reverend Mother hissed. "The harlot and the incubus."
The pair said nothing, but everyone could see the burning red blush crossing Catherine's cheek.
"To think you could forsake your vows for one as lowly as him," Marie Hilda went on. "To abandon your Savour for a corrupt sinner... for a false, lustful affair."
"It is not false," Catherine replied - not in anger, but with a firm conviction. "Our love is genuine. I was promised to the Almighty when my heart was not resolved to Him. I see now that I cannot honour my word. My heart lies with Sammy now. Through hard work, he has endeavour to avoid the Devil's path. And I intend to walk alongside him until the day I die."
"And you truly believe," Marie Hilda sneered, "that he will be faithful?"
"I have more faith in him than anything else."
Contrary to expectations, it was the elder nun's temper that now began to flare.
"You foolish, insolent girl!" she cried, pointing an accusing finger squarely at Catherine Rose. "This demon may have led you astray, but I will not allow him to conquer you! I left one of my sisters here to be cared for, and by God, I swear two nuns shall return to the convent tonight!"
"Reverend Mother," called a voice. "I have every intention of helping you fulfil that vow."
We turned as one towards the porch. Standing there, much to my surprise, was Clarice... wearing Sister Catherine's spare habit and wimple.
As she hurried down the steps towards us, she herself curtsied to the Mother Superior, lowering her head and eyes in a modest gesture of respect.
"My name is Clarice Treadmere," she explained to the agog nun. "I was sent here to recover when I fell into despair over a broken engagement - being forsaken on my wedding day. With Catherine Rose's teaching, care and guidance, I have learned of the Lord and His love for mankind... and I believe our meeting here was planned by God. Through His call, I have deduced that the fates we each first believed were our own were, in truth, intended for the other."
She knelt down slowly on the lawn, clasping her hands in a prayerful gesture.
"It is my dearest wish," she continued, "to take holy orders, and to enter the convent in Catherine Rose's place."
Rarely have I felt such admiration for a person as I did for Miss Treadmere in that moment. Turning to the Mother Superior, I could see that she was stunned into silence.
"Please, Reverend Mother," I pleaded. "Surely you could at least consider this proposition?"
The next few moments felt like hours as the aged nun contemplated the situation with care.
"A dispensation must be granted by the Holy Father, of course," she relented. "To free Catherine Rose from her vows."
Taking Clarice's hand, she helped her to her feet.
"And you, young woman," she went on. "Have you truly considered all you will be sacrificing? Are you sure you are fully prepared to embrace a life of poverty, chastity and obedience?"
"Yes," Clarice said, without the smallest hint of doubt. "God has shown me my path. I have no greater desire now than to serve Him."
As I saw Marie Hilda smile, I was flooded with a feeling of relief.
"Then we have much to discuss," she said to Clarice brightly.
She turned to Marlow and Addington, waving them away with a flick of her hand.
"Pray leave us, gentlemen," she said. "You need not concern yourselves with this matter - it lies with me. Besides, I must confer with my potential new postulant."
As I lead my two fellow physicians back into the Home, I myself thanked the Lord for what had occurred. It was nothing short of a miracle.
At the top of the stairs, standing just outside my office, Deidre was waiting for us nervously. When myself, Marlow and Addington came into her view, she began to tremble - swallowing lumps of air as panic set in.
I desperately longed to clutch her hand - to reassure her that everything would go swimmingly, just as she herself had said on Christmas night. But duty demanded that I keep my distance. It was up to her to strengthen her own resolve.
"And finally, sirs," I said warmly, "our last inmate. Miss Deidre DeMille."
"Ah, yes," Marlow chuckled darkly. "The so-called "Duchess". Tell us, Miss DeMille... what has been your experience of my most esteemed Home?"
Deidre made no reply... too terrified to speak. As a crooked wicked grin crossed Marlow's lips, I turned to Deidre with an imploring glare - begging her silently to say anything.
"Come now, my dear," Marlow cooed, his voice oozing with venom. "Pray, don't be shy."
After drawing in a sharp breath, Deidre finally spoke. However, as I heard her words, all of my hopes were dashed.
"Well, of course," she cooed, "one does what one must in the circumstances, doesn't one? Stiff upper lip, best of British, what ho. True, my fellow residents have proved... troublesome at times, but on the whole, I've found their company rather pleasurable."
It wasn't quite the Duchess. To my mind, it was more an attempt at eloquence than a display of arrogance. But all in all... it wasn't the true Deidre. That simple fact was enough to seal her fate.
Smirking, Marlow turned to Addington.
"Still putting on airs, I see," he muttered gruffly - with Silas nodding in agreement. "I knew you'd fail somewhere, Tripp."
As Deidre realised what she had done, her face fell - her skin fading to ghostly white, her shaking growing more violent.
"Do you know what I would do with an ignorant, deluded old maid like this one, Tripp?" Marlow asked me teasingly. "Make her be my servant. Work her like a horse, feed her bread and water, and punish her severely if she ever tried such fancy talk again. That would teach her humility rather swiftly, do you not agree?"
He stared Deidre down with the lethal glare of Medusa.
"And how would I punish her?" he continued, the malice building. "I would beat her, of course. Beat her until she bled... until her bones were broken. And if she failed to stand up again, why... I'd simply beat her until she did so - or until she lay there dead!"
As my own stomach churned, I could only imagine how terrified Deidre was. Indeed, it proved too much for her. Bursting into tears, she pushed me aside, and fled into my office - slamming the door behind her sharply as Marlow burst into a mad cackle.
I could feel myself trembling now. Not with fear, but with pure, frothing rage. As my hands balled up into tight fists, I wondered if this is how Lucian had felt when he'd grown angry in the past. It was a strong, powerful emotion - almost beyond a person's control. Perhaps he would feel it again if someone ever tried to hurt his dearest Fifi.
Is this why I felt it now? Because Marlow had treated Deidre so callously?
I could have killed the bastard right there. But, God be praised - I didn't. I didn't throw one single punch, or even say one wrong word. It took every inch of my good character and sensibilities to let the rage go. But, I had to. For everyone's sake. Instead, I allowed a wondrous idea entered my brain... and looked my employer straight in the eye.
"Very well, sir," I said flatly.
"Excuse me, Tripp?" he asked, confused.
"I will take Deidre in as my servant," I explained. "My housekeeper. I will work her hard, just as you say, and punish her severely for her hubris. All you need do is release us both tonight. I can take care of the rest."
"You are learning, Barnaby," he said proudly. "Perhaps there is hope for you, after all. You will soon see my methods are superior to your crazed theories. As you wish. You may return home this evening, and take that deluded harpy with you. Make sure she gets exactly what is coming to her."
As he headed down the stairs, Dr. Addington in tow, he turned back to me with an afterthought.
"Oh, and you may bury that sodomite wherever he wishes. I want this Asylum empty by nightfall. After all, there are plenty of other lunatics out there that require my care."
The second I heard the front doors closing, indicating my unwelcome guests had finally left, I rushed into my office, eager to check on Deidre.
I found her sat upon my couch beside the window, weeping bitterly. As I approached her, she looked up at me, trembling still.
"I've ruined everything," she sobbed. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Dr. Tripp..."
I tried to speak, but she babbled on relentlessly in an anguished frenzy.
"I wasn't putting on airs!" she cried. "I swear it! I was just... so nervous. I wanted to make a good impression - that was all! I swear I - I never meant to - "
I reached out towards her, longing more than ever to comfort her. But, as she noticed my outstretched arms, she jumped to her feet in panic: hunching herself up defensively, and shielding her face with her hands.
"I 'eard what was said," she mumbled. "If you wish to strike me, Dr. Tripp, then please go ahead, but I.... I beg you, be swift..."
As I took hold of her forearm with a feather-light touch, she screamed in utter terror. I shushed her gently: stroking the spot as one might pet a cat, until she had calmed herself.
"Why the devil would I strike you?" I asked quietly. "The last thing I want to do in this world is harm you. Surely you realise that?"
"But... but Marlow..." she stammered. "What - what you said out there..."
"A ruse, Deidre," I explained. "That's all. I saw a chance to get us both out of here, and I took it. A chance to win Marlow over. What else could I have done?"
"Then... then you do not wish to beat me?"
"Not in the least."
"And... and you do not wish for me to become your 'ousekeeper?"
Here, I hesitated. In truth, I would have given anything to have Deidre in my life beyond today. But how could I take away her newly-won freedom?
"Well, I..." I stammered, "I - I would very much like to have you working for me, but I could never - "
"Truly?" Deidre said, to my surprise - and with no small amount of delight. "You would employ me?"
Overjoyed at how eager she was, I nodded.
"Of course," I told her. "You would sleep in a spare room in my home. Meals would be provided, and I'd pay you a fair wage. Enough to save up and start repaying your debtors. And, of course, I would treat you like a perfect gentleman. No berating or beatings... I promise you."
Deirdre's eyes widened. I swore I could see them sparkling.
"So," I asked, "would you be interested?"
At first, she said nothing. Instead, she threw her arms around me, and embraced me excitedly.
"Yes!" she cried. "Of course I would! God bless you, Dr. Tripp! God bless you!"
I was taken aback by her passionate expression at first... but within moments, that feeling of contented warmth from Christmas night flooded me once more, and I returned her embrace.
Part of me wondered if I truly had gone mad.
But, if this was insanity... then I never wanted to be sane again.