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by Rupert Penny



HILARY PEAKE stared at the lunatic dispassionately for a moment, and then permitted himself to smile.

“How are you feeling, Simon? he asked kindly. “Is there anything you would like to tell me?”

Simon Selby did not answer for perhaps half a minute. He sat huddled up in a chair, one hand fingering his mop of flaxen hair and the other his foot-long beard. Only his eyes and nose were visible: mouth and chin and ears and cheekbones could only be guessed at, since he had used neither scissors nor razor for three years.

“I feel well, Professor,” he replied at last, speaking in a low deliberate tone. “Yes, very well. It’s kind of you to ask.”

Peake nodded, and repeated his former question.

“Is there anything you’d like to tell me?”

Selby shrugged his shoulders.

“I’ve been reading, and thinking, and drawing a little,” he said.

“What did you read?”

“A book by an American—Rascoe, I think his name is. About Villon and Homer and Dante and people like that. He’s very good on Milton—very good indeed. I’ll ask Lavinia if I may lend it to you when I’ve finished.”

“Thank you. And what did you think?” asked Peake; but Selby ignored the question, turning his head towards the window and the setting sun.

The room was small, and its only furniture a chair and table securely clamped to the felt-covered floor. The walls too were lined with felt, and the high window barred; from this the dying sun beyond caused shadows to radiate like spokes across the lunatic’s body, so that for a moment to Peake’s fancy he looked like some striped shaggy beast in a cage.

“Rascoe is very good on Milton,” he repeated. “He says all the things I always felt at school, but didn’t know I was feeling. I learnt a little bit off by heart—would you listen to it? ‘Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained are horrible examples of what may occur when a man with a displeasing type of mind happens to be an expert versifying technician in what is loosely called the biblical style.’ Don’t you think that’s fine? Doesn’t it make you feel lighter, somehow?”

“It might if I thought about it,” agreed Peake gravely. He knew that Selby liked to be commended on his literary judgements, and he knew also that today it was as well to humour him, since the end of the month was approaching, and the lunatic soon due for one of his periodical attacks. Although in many ways a highly educated man, and an expert in his own line, the study of obscure mental diseases, Peake was almost totally ignorant of literature. He had heard of Milton, he knew, of Paradise Lost, he believed, and without realizing the dimensions of the task he was setting himself he made a mental note to read the book.

“And what did you think?” he asked once more.

“Oh, about a lot of things. When I was small, and my sister tried to stop me catching spiders. But I’ve told you about that before.”

Peake nodded. It was unlike Selby to be so reticent, but consistent of him to mention the spiders: it was his way of saying that he did not wish to be questioned about his thoughts.

“And what did you draw?”

The other drew in his breath sharply.

“Nothing,” he said decisively—“nothing at all I can’t show you—I burnt them. They were not nice pictures at all.”

Immediately Peake’s glance went to the grate, normally unused because the room was heated by a steam radiator, and in it he saw a little pile of ashes. He frowned, staring at Selby with some surprise.

“You burnt them?” he queried; and at once the lunatic’s eyes shifted, and his hand went instinctively to his coat pocket.

“Please let me keep them,” he begged, in a strangely humble voice. “I haven’t many left—only three, and they’re so hard to get. You can’t imagine how hard.”

But Peake shook his head sternly.

“You must give them back,” he declared. “Otherwise you’ll get me into serious trouble, and I can’t think that you would like that. At least, I hope not.”

“Oh no, of course not, Professor. But I did so want to keep them. Oh dear, I suppose I must give them to you.”

By now his hand was in his pocket, fingering something. Then he took it out, and peered slyly at what lay concealed in his palm.

“Please,” said Hilary Peake.

“If you’re sure you’d get into trouble if I didn’t—”

“Quite sure, unfortunately.”

“Oh dear, very well then, there they are, and now please go away.”

Averting his head he held out a packet of book matches, which Peake took.

“Thank you,” he said. “I’ll remember your kindness.”

And then, after a thoughtful glance at the lunatic’s bowed head, he opened the door silently with his key and went out.

Esther Spence opened her eyes very wide.

“But of course not, Professor,” she said emphatically. “Give Mr. Selby matches! I hope I should be the last to do such a wicked thing. Not that he doesn’t ask for them often enough, though, to be sure. Never a day goes by but he doesn’t try to get round me one way or another. ‘Oh, Nurse’ he’ll say, as friendly as you please, which he isn’t always, ‘Oh Nurse, I thought I’d like a candle this evening for later, when it gets dark. Perhaps you could let me have one, and some matches, so I can light it when the dusk comes.’ But as true as I’m standing here, Professor, never a match have I given him all the years he’s been here, and how—”

“Very well, Nurse,” Peake broke in. “I only asked, just in case: somebody must have let him have them, you know. When you look at him last thing, see what you think, and if necessary perhaps you’ll sleep in the next room. I fancy he’s got one of his bad turns coming on soon. How’s Miss Vining? I haven’t been along to see her yet.”

“Just the same as ever, poor soul, full of slaughter and dead bodies and swords.”

“That would be Ezekiel,” murmured Peake. “Where’s Bellamy?”

“I don’t know for sure, sir. He was due off at half past seven, but I haven’t seen him go out yet.”

At that moment footsteps were heard outside the door, and the subject of his question entered: a tall dour-looking man, a head higher than Peake, and towering as much again above the dumpy figure of Nurse Spence.

“Ah, Bellamy,” said Peake. “I just wanted to ask if you’ve been giving matches to Mr. Selby?”

“No sir, I have not.”

The answer was quiet but positive, and the simple denial, Peake reflected, carried quite as much weight as the Nurse’s volubility.

“Then that’s all right: but somebody has, all the same. He had this in his pocket.”

As he spoke he held out the almost empty packet, and Bellamy moved forward to look. Then his bushy eyebrows went up, and he gave one of his rare smiles.

“Have you asked the doctor?” he suggested. “He might know.”

There was no particular animation about the words, but nevertheless Peake frowned. From Bellamy that was a pretty broad hint.

“Thank you,” was all he said. “Shall you be late tonight?”

“No sir—are you expecting trouble?”

“Possibly—he seems a little restless. Let me know at once if you should happen to hear anything—but I’d be there first, I dare say.”

“Yes sir,” agreed the male nurse gravely, but with the suspicion of another smile: his habit of sleeping heavily was the subject of frequent comment.

Professor Peake, as he liked to be called in due recognition of his many American degrees, had at present only two patients in his charge: Simon Selby and Mary Vining, a young girl suffering from religious melancholia. That she would recover in time he had little doubt, but at the moment she was far from normal. Not once in the six months she had been there, however, had she shown any suicidal tendencies, and that was something to be thankful for, though of course there was no question of relaxing precautions. With melancholies there is always that danger: they imagine themselves to be too depraved to live, meriting only the basest tortures of hell; or they believe they hear a voice which tells them their time is come.

Yes, he knew the nature of Mary Vining’s affliction, as a medical man can recognize measles, though her case had certain features which interested him; and scarcely a day passed when he did not wish that Simon Selby’s trouble was as simple. The man was definitely neither an idiot nor an imbecile: he was not a cretin, nor a melancholic. He did not suffer from hallucinations, he was afflicted with remarkably few illusions, even fewer delusions, and he was not an epileptic. One eminent English alienist, invited by Peake to study the case, had declared himself still baffled at the end of three months. “He’s a sane person who behaves like a maniac at peculiarly regular intervals,” was his final word: “yet he isn’t a maniac in the accepted sense of the term.” “An intermittent maniac,” Peake had murmured, and smiled a trifle bitterly, for after four years of watchful study he was still disappointed. He could not classify Simon Selby’s complaint with reference to the known varieties of insanity, and he could not explicitly state in what respects it differed from them.

And yet, he consoled himself at times, it would be untrue to say that he had been able to do nothing for Selby: on the contrary, he had done a lot. After only a year’s patient investigation he had discovered that his charge’s periodic attacks could be considerably lessened in force if his hair were allowed to grow unrestricted; and, a little later, that a haircut had a more deleterious effect than a shave. By denying Selby the attentions of a barber he had succeeded in giving him longer intervals of comparative sanity; sometimes as long as two months. In general, however, at the end of every five weeks or so there came a day when his patient was restless and irritable; and a second day when he sobbed bitterly like a hurt child; and two more days when he behaved quite abnormally, at one moment stalking his shadow, and the next biting and scratching and tearing at the wall in a frenzy of uncontrolled energy. Sometimes, though, the symptoms varied: for twenty-four hours on end he would hammer on the floor with his fist, gently but incessantly, until he fainted from the pain of his blistered hand. If he were asked what he was doing he would momentarily look up and say ‘Not long now—he’s nearly deaf’. Once, too, he had done nothing but draw interlocking triangles on endless sheets of paper, beginning with small ones very carefully done in the top left-hand corner, and ending with a hurried scrawl of the pencil that approximated to a circle; but usually he was violent. During the rest of his existence Selby seemed almost sane. Meeting him at a friend’s house, without his unnatural growth of hair, you might have thought him perhaps a little odd, but only if you were observant. At all times, however, he was sure to be collecting something. Occasionally the objects of his searching were harmless—labels from potted-meat containers, orange papers, photographs of Cabinet ministers born between 1850 and 1893; and occasionally, as now, they were a probable source of danger, which meant that his desires had to be discouraged. For three months it had been matches: or more strictly, Peake believed, match flames. Whenever he got the chance Selby would obtain a box—once from Peake’s own pocket unperceived and once from his sister’s handbag. He would conceal it until he felt free from observation, and then strike the contents one by one, blowing the flame out after a second or two and placing a dot in a notebook against the particular make of match. Peake, looking one evening through the secret spyhole in the door, had been horrified to see him striking and extinguishing and noting down, until the lunatic became impatient with a match that remained alight, and threw it down on the felt-covered floor. After that the strictest precautions were taken.

Peake paused outside another door, listened a moment, and then knocked.

“Come in,” said a girl’s voice, and a moment later he faced Mary Vining. As always, her appearance surprised him, accustomed to it as he was: she looked so utterly normal. It was not till she opened her mouth that she gave her state of mind away: up to then she might have been, to the ignorant eye, a smart young private secretary coming obviously from a well-bred family, her interests perhaps dancing and skating and golf at the weekend, and her soul, so far as she was concerned, no more than something she audibly blessed when mildly put out.

“Good evening,” she greeted him. “It’s nice to see you again, Professor—I was hoping you’d come before it was too late.”

“Too late, Miss Vining?” he queried gently.

“Yes,” she answered, her face suddenly tense and serious, and her voice taking on a sombre tone: the voice of someone who spoke truly of doom and desolation to unbelieving ears.

“The time is come, the day draweth near: let not the buyer rejoice, nor the seller mourn: for wrath is upon the multitude thereof. Yes, Professor, you had best be prepared. It’s my duty to warn you, because you’ve been kind to me—very kind. I don’t know what I should have done without you. Behold the day, behold, it is come; the morning is gone forth; the rod hath blossomed, pride hath budded. Make a chain: for the land is full of bloody crimes, and the city is full of violence.

“Professor, I must make a chain at once, and when I have made it I must go to the city. You never know—I might be able to do something, and I have had most definite instructions to try. It must be a long chain, and then I will go about looking for righteous people, and I will chain them together for their protection. Yes, that’s what I’ll do—but woe to the women that sew pillows to all armholes! Professor, that puzzles me a little. That’s what it says, clearly—see, verse eighteen. ‘Woe to the women that sew pillows to all armholes, and make kerchiefs upon the head of every stature to hunt souls!’ Oh dear, I do hope there aren’t many of them. You’ll help me, won’t you?”

Peake nodded sadly: she was so very earnest and bewildered.

“Oh, thank you: and you’ll remember about the chain? I don’t expect I’ll be able to do it all by myself, because I’m wicked too. Often I simply can’t think why somebody better wasn’t chosen; but I suppose the responsibility is a kind of punishment. Do you think that’s likely? I believe it must be. You will help, won’t you?”

“I’ll always do everything I can for you, Miss Vining,,” he promised; and as he walked back along the corridor, and slowly up the stairs towards his study, he sighed deeply several times, wishing that he could do more. Long years of experience had not hardened him to the pitifulness of mental derangement: sometimes he felt that it troubled him more acutely now than when he had been young. Compared with others he might have done much, it was true, but compared with what still remained to be done, and with his own anticipatory hopes, he seemed to have accomplished nothing, and there was in fact but little time left. Supposing he died before he had discovered the secret of Simon Selby’s abnormality? It might well happen, for he was sixty-five, and he knew that his heart was none too strong. For a moment he stopped on the landing, considering the matter. Would it not be better almost that Selby himself should die, rather than be delivered into the hands of some narrow-minded know-all who would cut his hair and shave his beard and tie him up in a strait waistcoat every time he became restless, as likely as not?

He sighed again, shook his head at himself, and went on his way. Perhaps after all it would be better if he, Peake, were to die first: at least, then, he could dream no more of Thomas Jefferson Jay.


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