by Bryon L. Havranek
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
I. An Unusual Case
“The dismal truth of reality is one of contradiction, where opposing forces are ever at war with one another, each striving towards an absolute that is unattainable. For light there is darkness, for life there exists death. Ever the great cosmic pendulum swings to and fro, the weight swinging towards one extreme before losing its forward momentum and beginning its resurgence towards the other.
“Thus has been the way of things since the beginning of time, an unimaginable tug-of-war wherein all that exists is merely an endless series of pawns moving about upon an appalling chessboard, ever seeking, never finding that comfort of permanence which is illusion.
“Yet we press on, having no real choice in the matter. We continue to strive for the unattainable knowing that we are doomed to fail, yet we try anyway. And there is the real tragedy of life.”
Dr. Rosseter Mather leaned back in his leather upholstered chair and ran his stubby fingers through his graying beard, quite taken aback by the words of this most singular of patients. When he had assumed the directorship of the Plymouth mental asylum he had personally interviewed each resident and found all of the usual maladies to be expected within the confines of such an establishment. All, that is, but for one.
He removed his spectacles and wiped the lenses clean on his handkerchief. He looked across at the man seated opposite his desk and pondered this strange enigma. The fellow was youngish in appearance: long hair neatly combed and tied back with a black ribbon that emulated a fashion from a bygone era, and his hazel eyes glimmered with a clarity of focus highly unusual for a mental patient. His speech was clear and concise, and he was able to carry a train of thought far beyond the ability of most who were considered sane.
Yet here he was, having voluntarily locked himself away in a madhouse! Name unknown, origins unknown, a baffling cypher that had defied all attempts at a solution. This man had certainly proven beyond the abilities of the previous director to analyze. But Dr. Mather placed his glasses back on his narrow face and resolved to get to the bottom of the matter one way or another.
“Quite a startling observation, my good fellow,” said Dr. Mather in a neutral voice. “It sounds like you are a student of history with a penchant for philosophy. Very profound, what you’ve just said.”
The patient merely nodded his head, a look of extreme melancholy warping his handsome features into a mask of utter sadness. “Aye. But as a learned man yourself, have you ever found yourself in a situation where you knew too much, where the knowledge you possessed weighed like millstones upon your soul?” Having said this, the man blinked back a tear and looked down at the manicured hands folded neatly in his lap.
“By Jove, what on earth are you going on about?” whispered the doctor. “What sort of knowledge do you possess that would lead you to sequester yourself away in such a place as this?” Dr. Mather’s heart began to beat faster as excitement raced through him. Already he had learned more from this unusual man in the initial interview than had his predecessor after many months of effort, and there was every indication that this Sphinx was at last willing to answer its own riddle. This turn of events might result in a breakthrough for a career gone stagnant and could quite possibly make his reputation in the burgeoning field of mental medicine.
“Secrets,” the patient muttered, glancing to his left at the clock that ticked away on the mantel. “Oh so many secrets. In a life as long as mine has proven, they accumulate like cobwebs in a neglected house.”
Curiosity aroused, the doctor began to make notes in the ledger resting before him, the fountain pen scribbling away on the blank paper as he made some learned observations: “Patient suffers from melancholia bordering on chronic depression, yet personal care has not once been neglected. Highly educated and of sufficient wealth to maintain a suite of rooms at this institution, complete with servants and private library.
“Dr. Hilson, my predecessor, allowed this patient to operate a laboratory on the premises, though no chemical experiments were observed and recorded. Accent alludes to a continental origin, possibly France or maybe Spain, though his command of the English language is quite excellent.” Mather paused for a moment, frowning down at his notes. “But what has led this man to imprison himself here of all places? And who is he?”
A soft chuckle caused the doctor to look up, and he noticed that the patient was smiling sadly at him. “What is so entertaining, if I may ask?” said Dr. Mather, a little angry at being a source of amusement.
“Oh, you’ve just reminded me of someone that I once knew, long ago. He was a learned man, like you, with a similar flair for satire and an irreverent attitude that led him into no small amount of trouble.”
A wave of unease washed over Mather. He sat back once more in his chair, his pen falling unnoticed from his fingers. “How in the... how do you know all this about me? We have never met before, of that I am quite sure.”
The patient merely brushed aside the question like an annoying gnat. “That is irrelevant. What is important now is that I unburden myself of certain matters while I still have time to do so.” Again he glanced up at the clock above the fireplace, its ornate golden face glittering in the gaslight like a miniature sun. “I hope that you are a good listener, for I wish to tell you a tale that may prove to be most unique in its nature. But not here, in your office. I suddenly feel a need for the comfort of familiar things and so would retire to my rooms. There we shall continue.”
“Oh, very well,” said the doctor, rising from his seat. “But if I may ask, why this sense of urgency? You had so many months with Dr. Hilson, yet all of a sudden you wish to talk with me? I’m honored, yes, but also puzzled.”
“For the answer to those questions, firstly I feel a certain bond with you though we are now just chance-met. And secondly, my time on this earth is almost at an end, as I hinted before, and so would like to depart with a clearer conscience.”
The doctor looked over at his patient who stood near the door. The man looked hale and strong and in no way like someone who was dying. “You confound me, sir. You say that you are dying, yet you look more hearty than many a man I know who has decades left to him. Do yo suffer from some ailment to which I am unaware?”
“Certes,” came the antiquated response, curious in itself. “But such an ailment that few on God’s good Earth have ever suffered through before. I shall explain once we are ensconced in my rooms.” With that the patient turned to the door, which opened as if by magic.
Outside awaited a servant dressed in the livery of a footman from a century past, complete with powdered wig and knee stockings. The servant silently led the way down the hall towards the south wing of the hospital, where the mysterious patient maintained his suite of apartments. The corridor was poorly lit, since gaslight was not installed anywhere that a patient might gain access to open flames and, as the three men silently proceeded, the distant cries of the other patients arose in a chaotic chorus of whimpers, laughter and the cries of the damned.
Dr. Mather, no stranger to asylums in general, nonetheless shuddered at the hellish symphony that haunted the dismal halls of Plymouth. And the eerie footman leading the way only augmented the atmosphere of disquietude, for the colonial-era Virgil looked ghostly and insubstantial in the stygian gloom.
Soon they came to a tall double-door, which opened from within, and a flood of rosy light flooded out to bathe them in the sanguine luminescence of an abattoir. Dr. Mather’s stomach did an involuntary lurch at the not-so-subtle suggestions, but he followed his new patient into the parlour nonetheless, determined to hear the man’s story and so learn more about who and what he was.
The footman turned to close the doors behind them, and then moved to the fireplace where he began to stoke up the fire, for the air in the high-ceilinged room was deathly cold. Mather looked around and saw with relief that the reddish light originated from a set of scarlet curtains that hung before the windows and not from some more sinister source. Perhaps, he silently told himself, the aura of unnaturalness that he was experiencing was simply being caused by an overactive imagination? Perhaps, yes, but perhaps not, for something very queer seemed to hover in the very air of that strange chamber.
In the meantime, the patient had moved over to a pair of chairs that rested near the fire and sat down in one, lazily gesturing towards the vacant one as he stared into the dancing flames. Mather took the offered seat and settled his spare frame into the velvety embrace of the antique chair.
Almost immediately, a second servant appeared from the shadowy recesses, bearing a tray upon which rested a crystal decanter and a pair of fluted glasses. Without prompting, the footman filled the glasses and handed them to the waiting men, then moved back to await further need. The patient rolled the amber-colored liquid around in his tall glass for a moment before taking a drink, then sighed with satisfaction.
Dr. Mather sat forward, ignoring his own glass for the moment. “You certainly do know how to set the stage for a story,” he confided. “I am all at attention, eager to hear what you have to say.”
The patient nodded and looked sideways at the doctor. “Very well, I shall now begin. First, though, I think that introductions are in order. I never declared myself when I moved into this institution, and with the proper sum the lack of a name proved to be of no great importance. But now I think that it is time to reveal myself, so that you may more fully appreciate what I am about to impart to you.” He took another sip from his glass and held out his right hand. “Dr. Mather, I am Francois-Marie Arouet, better known by my nom de plume as Voltaire.”
Copyright © 2019 by Bryon L. Havranek