The Fate of Fenella/Chapter 18

CHAPTER XVIII.

BY CLEMENT SCOTT.

"WITHIN SIGHT OF HOME."

"How will it end? In sorrow or in pain?
It all depends, sweetheart, it all depends."
"We may be parted, we may meet again;
It all depends, it all depends."

Of all forms of mental torture to which a sane human being can be subjected, say which is the worst? To hear the door of your prison cell close behind you, with hope gone, friends alienated, love ruined, home wrecked, and the awful prospect of seven years' unutterable silence and solitude, knowing before God you are an innocent man? Or to discover, and beat your brains into discord with the knowledge, that being sane, you are the inmate of a lunatic asylum; that, having reason, you are classed with idiots; and that every explanation you can offer will be treated with a mocking laugh?

The borderland between sanity and insanity is slighter than many believe or would care to own. If ever man's brain had been tested to its utmost limits of tension, that brain beat and throbbed in the head of the wretched Frank Onslow. He had lost his adored wife and had found her; he had been granted the supreme hour of reconciliation and rapture, and it was turned into the dull agony of expected death. He had been told that if she awakened from her dull brain stupor, and could mingle her kisses with those of her husband and her child, her life might be spared, and he knew that when she did awake and discovered that her lover and her lord had vanished without a word, she might be dead even now. He might have killed her. He who would have died to give her life, might, for aught he knew, have struck her once more, just as she was tottering into the very arms of death. Everything had failed; utterly, completely failed. Frank Onslow had become gray with grief.

The child who should have been in his arms was lost, God knows where. The wife whose life depended upon his honor was either dying or dead. The woman who had by him been changed from a companion into a fiend was triumphant. And he, the hapless victim, was under lock and key, powerless to move, impotent for good or evil.

The more the poor creature protested his sanity the more mad he seemed to be. The very situation, the ghastly surroundings, the hideous objects he met on every side, were enough to turn the brain of the strongest man. Insanity is bred in the air like a pestilence. Mad doctors become mad. Nurses, attendants, porters, and servants connected with lunatic asylums in time are devoid of reason. Put a madhouse, private or public, in any given neighborhood, and in the course of years the surrounding villages and neighbors will become as cracked as King Lear himself, as suicidal as Ophelia.

When Frank Onslow awoke from the stupor of surprise, he found to his horror that he was surrounded by gibbering madmen and crack-brained women. They sneaked round him, pulled him by the sleeve, and babbled nonsense into his ears. They believed that everyone was mad but themselves. They were deceitful, cruel, treacherous, hysterical, and maudlin.

Here was an old man driven mad by gluttony, a wild weird, wolf-like man, who, after every meal, chattered for the next like a monkey. Scarcely had he swallowed his dinner before he stamped up and down the corridor muttering, "I want my nice tea and cut bread and butter. I tell you I want my nice tea and brown bread and butter." And after tea was swallowed he whined for his supper. Here was the young lover who was driven mad because he could not marry the girl he had met night after night in the stalls of the opera. Every night he dressed himself up in his evening clothes, put an artificial flower in his button-hole, and sitting on an old wooden chair, looked into space and warbled the music of Faust's love scene. Here was a woman driven mad by the bad man who had deserted her, whose hair had turned gray in her long imprisonment, but who ever since wept tears all day over the love letters thrust into her bosom and reduced to a pulp with much weeping. Here was the man who believed he had a millstone on his head; here the woman who was convinced that every means was being taken to accomplish her dishonor; out they all came, mumbling, maundering, making faces at one another, pulling and picking at one another's coat sleeves, defiant, blasphemous, hysterical, howling, and weeping, men and women cursing, men and women rending the air with their piteous cries. Men glared at him with features distorted with rage, women hissed at him with lips polluted with blasphemies. It was enough to make anyone mad to talk to them. This was no home for the afflicted. It was a veritable hell upon earth.

The worst of it was that there was no humane desire to cure the insane. In public institutions they attempt to cure, too often in private homes they do not hesitate to kill the last vestige of reason. The doctors, instead of soothing their patients, irritated them. The mad point was not avoided, it was insisted upon. The consequence was that the wards, comparatively quiet before the medical attendants went their rounds, became a pandemonium after they left them. It would never have done to cure a paying patient. The object was to make him day by day madder and madder still.

In order to save his distracted brain, Frank Onslow relapsed into solemn and sullen silence. He was tortured with their mocking laughs. If he appealed to the doctors they laughed at him; if he consulted the attendants they turned away with a grin. If he hoped to obtain sympathy from the patients, the fitful gleam of intelligence turned into the animal laughter that was hideous.

"I shall go mad," said the wretched man to himself, "unless I hold my peace. Henceforward I will be dumb. It is my only safety."

There were regular visiting days at this particular establishment. The proprietor of it did not dare to run counter to public opinion, and he was artful enough to encourage these visits of inspection in order to show how admirable and infallible was his system. The patients were driven mad in private, and petted in public. They were literally fawned upon and thrashed.

Frank Onslow was saved by a miracle. In his darkest hour of distress he had lost hope in everything but prayer for help, prayer for deliverance, prayer that he might be rescued in order to protect the helpless. He was sitting moodily in his room, tortured with the sense that his reason would soon be lost to him, when he remembered that this was the day when visitors were admitted. He had prayed until his brow dripped with agony. His experience of the curious visitors so far had not been very encouraging. Whenever he attempted to get into conversation with any of them, or to pass a letter into their hands, he was greeted with a smile, or one of those mocking laughs. "Poor fellow," they whispered, "how dreadfully mad he is." If not, they shrank from him as if he had been a wild beast.

The great iron bell pealed at the asylum gates. There were voices in the hall. Frank Onslow listened and listened again. It was an English voice talking to an American. Where had he heard that voice before? They were coming upstairs. The voices, indistinct before, became louder and louder. Yes; he knew both their voices. They were perfectly familiar to him.

"My God, is it possible? Can it be true? Are my unworthy prayers answered at last?"

The door of the room opened, and before the imprisoned man stood Lord Castleton and the very American detective who had been consulted when Frank arrived from England.

Here was an unexpected discovery. It was a miracle of miracles. There had been no search for the missing man. There was no hue and cry. Lord Castleton, like most Englishmen of an inquiring turn of mind, wanted to see the sights of New York, in order to record his impressions when he returned home. He had employed the services of one of the sharpest detectives in the city to show him round, and by a miracle he had discovered and probably saved the life and reason of his old friend.

In an instant the officer of police understood and grasped the situation. Once given the clew, and difficulties melt into thin air. It took very little time to procure an order for the release of the unfortunate Englishman, and before night-time the medical proprietor of the fashionable madhouse was safely lodged in a New York prison, and available for evidence on the subject of Mrs. Senator Clutterbuck, and, more important still, the safety and whereabouts of the unfortunate child Ronny.

At one time it appeared as if the troubles of Frank Onslow would end in an unsuspected manner. The drama was becoming a tragedy. He was released, it is true; he was safe once more. The discovery of his child was now more than probable. The discomfiture of his enemy, Mrs. Clutterbuck, was nearly complete, but the reaction after all this mental and physical strain nearly cost Frank Onslow his life. The strongest men break down at a given point, and now it was Frank's turn to succumb.

Once outside the asylum he appeared to be more insane than when he was in it. He wanted to face his enemy, and swore he would kill her. He pleaded to scour New York for the boy. He rushed off to the telegraph office to inform the wretched mother that he was true, and she might yet hope, but the strain was too much for even his strong constitution, and when he had placed in the hands of the detective every atom of information he possessed, and had almost imperatively been urged to leave the work of discovery to the hands of others, he went back reluctantly to his hotel, half-hysterical with excitement, but utterly dead beat. Lord Castleton found his friend, next morning, raging in the delirium of fever. At one time he cried piteously for Fenella, and kissed the pillow where he believed she had rested; in another instant he was twisting the bedclothes into a knot and imagined he was strangling Mme. de Vigny. In the intervals he was sobbing, as if his heart would break, "Ronny, Ronny, my boy, my boy!"

No woman could have tended a sick man with greater devotion than did Lord Castleton. Night and day he never left his friend except to receive reports from the head office of the detectives, who once more proved themselves the finest officers in connection with any police service in the world. By constant care and devoted nursing the crisis was past. Reluctantly the doctors gave the permission for a move to be made, and on a certain bright morning Lord Castleton, with the aid of an invalid carriage, took his worn and wasted friend down to the docks, where he had secured berths for England on board one of the fastest steamers of a prominent line. The journey to the sea seemed to revive the patient. As yet he had not been allowed to see any friends save Castleton, or to ask any questions. But the mists gradually disappeared from his eyes, and a smile of happiness played on his wan features.

"God bless you, old boy," he said to Castleton as they drove slowly to the ship. "God reward you. Never did man find a truer friend. I should have been under the turf, old man, if it had not been for your tender care."

Castleton was anxious not to excite his friend too much. For the day was not over, and he knew that the drama of it was not yet complete.

On board they found Jacynth, who had been as loyal to his trust as Castleton.

The two men, when they met, whispered for a second to one another, and there was a look of distressed suspense on Frank Onslow's face.

"Is all well?" whispered Castleton.

"More than well," answered Jacynth.

"Where is he?"

"In the cabin."

"Do you think we dare risk it?"

"We must and shall," muttered Lord Castleton. "He can't break down now. It may save his life."

Gently these two brave gentlemen led their poor sick friend to his cabin, placed him on his couch, but before they left him in a half-dream they uncovered the sleeping form of a little child who was resting in an opposite berth, the fingers of one hand twisted in his sunny locks and the others clasped over a woman's portrait. The faithful Jacynth had taken it from next his heart and placed it in the child's hands.

It was Ronny, who had gone to sleep kissing his mother's picture, which had fallen from his baby hands.

For hours the sick man slept, and his friends stood, sentinel-like, loyal hearts at the cabin door. The sun had sunk, the stars were out, and the steamer was already miles at sea, plowing through the waves, lessening the journey between America and dear old England.

Still the true friends watched at the sick man's door.

Suddenly they heard a passionate cry, a wild cry of pleasurable pain, a cry that faded into a moan of relief.

"Ronny, Ronny darling—my child, my son—oh! how good is God. Let us thank God together."

Quietly the two friends opened the cabin door and saw father and son on their knees in an attitude of prayer. The child was looking up into his father's eyes, and the wasted man with streaming eyes was kissing his wife's portrait, and murmuring, "I have kept my oath. Beloved one, I'm bringing Ronny home to his mother's arms."

The stars went out and darkness fell upon the sea. There was silence in the cabin now, for father and boy were wrapped in a profound sleep. Castleton and Jacynth had finished their cigars and turned in.

Close upon midnight two figures came upon deck from the steerage part of the steamer, and walked backward and forward without exchanging a single word. But they never separated.

It was a detective from Scotland Yard, and Mme. de Vigny was in his custody, cursing her fate.

As the huge ship plunged through the green Atlantic waves, bearing homeward the fatal lives of so many interested in this eventful history, poor Fenella, worn almost to a shadow, sat dreaming in her garden in "the island of carnations."

She knew, at any rate, that Frank was faithful, and that her boy was safe.