The String of Pearls/Chapter 27
XXVII Tobias Makes an Attempt to Escape From the MadhouseEdit
We cannot find it in our hearts to force upon the mind of the reader the terrible condition of poor Tobias.
No one, certainly, of all the dramatis personae of our tale, is suffering so much as he; and, consequently, we feel it to be a sort of duty to come to a consideration of his thoughts and feelings as he lay in that dismal cell, in the madhouse on Peckham Rye.
Certainly Tobias Ragg was as sane as any ordinary Christian need wish to be, when the scoundrel, Sweeney Todd, put him in the coach, to take him to Mr Fogg's establishment; but if by any ingenious process the human intellect can be toppled from its throne, certainly that process must consist in putting a sane person into a lunatic asylum.
To the imagination of a boy, too, and that boy one of vivid imagination, as was poor Tobias, a madhouse must be invested with a world of terrors. That enlarged experience which enables persons of more advanced age to shake off much of the unreal, which seemed so strangely to take up its abode in the mind of the young Tobias, had not reached him; and no wonder, therefore, that to him his present situation was one of acute and horrible misery and suffering.
He lay for a long time in the gloomy dungeon-like cell, into which he had been thrust, in a kind of stupor, which might or might not be the actual precursor of insanity, although, certainly, the chances were all in favour of its being so. For many hours he moved neither hand nor foot, and as it was a part of the policy of Mr Fogg to leave well alone, as he said, he never interfered, by any intrusive offers of refreshment, with the quiet or the repose of his patients.
Tobias, therefore, if he had chosen to remain as still as an Indian fakir, might have died in one position, without any remonstrances from anyone.
It would be quite a matter of impossibility to describe the strange visionary thoughts and scenes that passed through the mind of Tobias during this period. It seemed as if his intellect was engulfed in the charmed waters of some whirlpool, and that all the different scenes and actions which, under ordinary circumstances, would have been clear and distinct, were mingled together in inextricable confusion.
In the midst of all this, at length he began to be conscious of one particular impression or feeling, and that was, that someone was singing in a low, soft voice, very near to him.
This feeling, strange as it was in such a place, momentarily increased in volume, until at length it began, in its intensity, to absorb almost every other; and he gradually awakened from the sort of stupor that had come over him. Yes, someone was singing. It was a female voice, he was sure of that; and as his mind became more occupied with that one subject of thought, and his perceptive faculties became properly exercised, his intellect altogether assumed a healthier tone.
He could not distinguish the words that were sung, but the voice itself was very sweet and musical; as Tobias listened, he felt as if the fever of his blood was abating, and that healthier thoughts were taking the place of those disordered fancies that had held sway within the chambers of his brain.
'What sweet sounds!' he said. 'Oh, I do hope that singing will go on. I feel happier to hear it; I do so hope it will continue. What sweet music! Oh, mother, mother, if you could but see me now!'
He pressed his hands over his eyes, but he could not stop the gush of tears that came from them, and which would trickle through his fingers. Tobias did not wish to weep, but those tears, after all the horrors of the night, did him a world of good, and he felt wonderfully better after they had been shed. Moreover, the voice continued singing without intermission.
'Who can it be,' thought Tobias, 'that don't tire with so much of it?'
Still the singer continued; but now and then Tobias felt certain that a very wild note or two was mingled with the ordinary melody; and that bred a suspicion in his mind, which gave him a shudder to think of, namely, that the singer was mad.
'It must be so,' said he. 'No one in their senses could or would continue to sing for so long a period of time such strange snatches of song. Alas! alas, it is someone who is really mad, and confined for life in this dreadful place; for life do I say, and am I not too confined for life here? Oh! help, help, help!'
Tobias called out in so loud a tone, that the singer of the sweet strains that had for a time lulled him to composure, heard him, and the strains which had before been redolent of the softest and sweetest melody, suddenly changed to the most terrific shrieks imaginable.
In vain did Tobias place his hands over his ears to shut out the horrible sounds. They would not be shut out, but ran, as it were, into every crevice of his brain, nearly driving him distracted by their vehemence.
But hoarser tones came upon his ears, and he heard the loud, rough voice of a man say,-
'What, do you want the whip so early this morning? The whip, do you understand that?'
These words were followed by the lashing of what must have been a heavy carter's whip, and then the shrieks died away in deep groans, every one of which went to the heart of poor Tobias.
'I can never live amid all these horrors,' he said. 'Oh, why don't they kill me at once? It would be much better, and much more merciful. I can never live long here. Help, help, help!'
When he shouted this word 'help', it was certainly not with the most distant idea of getting any help, but it was a word that came at once uppermost to his tongue; and so he called it out with all his might, that he should attract the attention of someone, for the solitude, and the almost total darkness of the place he was in, were beginning to fill him with new dismay.
There was a faint light in the cell, which made him know the difference between day and night; but where that faint light came from, he could not tell, for he could see no grating or opening whatever; but yet that was in consequence of his eyes not being fully accustomed to the obscurity of the place; otherwise he would have seen that close up to the roof there was a narrow aperture, certainly not larger than anyone could have passed a hand through, although of some four or five feet in length; and from a passage beyond that, there came the dim borrowed light, which made darkness visible in Tobias's cell.
With a kind of desperation, heedless of what might be the result,
Tobias continued to call aloud for help, and after about a quarter of an hour, he heard the sound of a heavy footstep.
Someone was coming; yes, surely someone was coming, and he was not to be left to starve to death. Oh, how intently he now listened to every sound, indicative of the nearer approach of whoever it was who was coming to his prison-house.
Now he heard the lock move, and a heavy bar of iron was let down with a clanging sound.
'Help, help!' he cried again, 'help, help!' for he feared that whoever it was might even yet go away again, after making so much progress to get at him.
The cell-door was flung open, and the first intimation that poor Tobias got of the fact of his cries having been heard, consisted in a lash with a whip which, if it had struck him as fully as it was intended to do, would have done him serious injury.
'So, do you want it already?' said the same voice he had heard before.
'Oh, no, mercy, mercy,' said Tobias.
'Oh, that's it now, is it? I tell you what it is, if we have any more disturbance here, this is the persuader to silence that we always use: what do you think of that as an argument, eh?'
As he spoke, the man gave the whip a loud smack in the air, and confirmed the truth of the argument by reducing poor Tobias to absolute silence; indeed the boy trembled so that he could not speak.
'Well, now, my man,' added the fellow, 'I think we understand each other. What do you want?'
'Oh, let me go,' said Tobias, 'let me go. I will tell nothing. Say to Mr Todd that I will do what he pleases, and tell nothing, only let me go out of this dreadful place. Have mercy upon me - I'm not at all mad - indeed I am not.'
The man closed the door, as he whistled a lively tune.