Part Three: The Message Chapter Twenty-Five


The Philadelphia pike was sometimes a road and sometimes a wish. as Matthew and Greathouse followed its progress across the hilly and wooded Jersey landscape, they passed through a world in flux: here was a fledgling village of perhaps a dozen houses and a central church hacked out of the forest, there the remnants of a previous village being reclaimed by green vines and underbrush. Many farms had thrived and were impressive with their orderly fields of corn and beans, but some farms had also withered. There stood a bare stone chimney, its structure burned to black ruin around it. at the edge of another village-this one with a score of houses, a stable, blacksmith's shop, and white-painted tavern-a sign announced Welcome to New Town and a little army of children came running out to tag along with the riders, asking them questions about where they were from and where they were going until the road curved again into the forest and the children stopped following.

The air was still heavy and wet, tendrils of fog caught in the heights of the tallest trees. Occasionally deer halted in the woods to watch the riders go by or ran across the track before them. Matthew noted that some of the stags had antlers so big it was amazing the animals could stay upright. Greathouse and Matthew urged their horses into a gallop when the road was good enough, trying to make as much time as possible. about four hours into the journey, near a roadsign that had painted upon it Inian's Ferry 8 miles, they met a family travelling by wagon on their way to New York. Greathouse spoke to the father and learned that Westerwicke was twelve miles away, on the other side of the ferry that crossed the Raritan River.

They pressed on. as they approached the river, the forest gave way to more farms and industries such as a sawmill, lumberyard, cooper's shop, and, at the edge of a huge apple orchard, a brewery. Houses stood clustered together. Wooden frames were going up for other buildings. The influence of the river, and of river traffic moving inland, was steadily constructing a town. Matthew and Greathouse came to the ferry crossing at the Raritan and had to wait twenty minutes for the next boat, but they were intrigued to see four silent Indians in colorful beads and other tribal regalia come off the barge and begin to head northeast at a pace that would have left the palefaces gasping for breath within a hundred yards.

at last, as the hazy daylight began to further weaken, a sign announced the town of Westerwicke. The pike became Westerwicke's main street, with houses of wood and brick standing on both sides. Beyond the dwellings were well-groomed farmfields and orchards. Horses and cattle shared fenced pastures and sheep grazed on a distant hillside. Westerwicke had two churches, two taverns, and a small business district where residents paused their errands or conversations to watch the strangers pass. Greathouse pulled his horse up in front of one of the taverns, its sign depicting an offered hand and the legend The Constant Friend, and called to a young man who had just come out. Directions to the Publick Hospital indicated that their journey would end in another half-mile at a road branching off to the right.

It was with great relief to Matthew's tailbone when that final half-mile was history. The branch road took them through a grove of trees to three buildings. The first, constructed of wood and painted white, stood near a well and was about the size of a normal house. Before it was a horse trough and hitching-post, and a lighted lantern hung on a nail beside the front door. The second structure, connected to the first by a well-worn pathway, was much larger and made of rough stones with a steeply angled roof from which protruded two chimneys. Some of the windows were shuttered. Matthew thought that this was where the patients must be housed, yet the building looked as if it might have been meant for an original purpose of serving as a grain warehouse or even a meeting-hall. He wondered if a village had preceded Westerwicke, had perished due to fever or some other misfortune and this was all that remained of it except possibly some ruins in the forest.

The third building was fifteen or twenty yards beyond the stone structure. It was a little larger than the first and also painted white. He noted that two of its windows were also shuttered. a flowering garden complete with statuary and benches tucked amid the foliage stood nearby. another road led back to what appeared to be a stable and several other small outbuildings. all in all, this was certainly not the place of misery and confusion that Matthew had imagined they would find. Birds were singing their late-afternoon songs in the trees, the light was fading to blue, and the atmosphere of the hospital and its grounds were far more restful than the squalid scenes of madness Matthew had read about London's asylums in the Gazette. Still, he did see bars on some of the unshuttered windows of the stone building, and now a few white faces peered through and hands came out to grasp the bars but the inspection of the visitors was made in silence.

Greathouse dismounted and tied his horse to the hitching-post. as Matthew did the same, the front door of the stone building opened and a man in gray clothes emerged. He paused to do something at the door-lock it behind him, Matthew guessed-and then he gave a start as he saw the new arrivals. He lifted his hand in greeting and came walking rapidly toward them.

"Hello!" Greathouse called. "are you Dr. Ramsendelli"

The man continued right up to them. When he got within an arm's-length of Matthew he abruptly stopped and said with a crooked grin and a mangled voice, "I'm Jacob. Have you come to take me homei"

Matthew reckoned that the man was only five or six years elder than himself, though it was hard to tell for his face was deeply lined with hardship. His temple on the right side was crushed inward. an old jagged scar began at his right cheek and sliced up across a concave patch on his scalp where the hair no longer grew. His eyes were bright and glassy and there was something both hideous and pitiful about his fixed grin.

"I'm Jacob," he said again, in exactly the same way it had already been spoken. "Have you come to take me homei"

"No." Greathouse's voice was firm but careful. "We've come to see Dr. Ramsendell."

Jacob's grin never faltered. He reached up and touched the scar on Matthew's forehead before Matthew could think to step back. "are you mad like mei" he asked.

"Jacob! Give them some room, please." The door to the first building had opened and another man came out, followed by a second, both of them wearing dark breeches and white shirts. Instantly Jacob retreated two paces but kept staring at Matthew. The man who'd spoken was tall and slim with a thatch of reddish-brown hair and a neatly trimmed beard. He also wore a tan-colored waistcoat. He said, "I heard my name called. What may I do for you gentlemeni"

"I think this one's mad." Jacob pointed at Matthew. "Somebody broke his head."

Greathouse continued on his verbal path with only a quick sidelong check to make sure Jacob, who was obviously a resident here, did not move any closer. "I'm Hudson Greathouse and this is Matthew Corbett. We represent the Herrald agency. We've come from New York to-"

"Excellent!" said the bearded man with an expression of joy. He glanced at his companion, who was shorter and stockier, had gray hair, and wore spectacles perched on a hooked nose. "I told you they'd come! Oh ye of little faith!"

"I stand corrected and reproved," the second man answered, speaking to Greathouse and Matthew. "also much impressed by your speed in this matter, gentlemen."

"I was in New York today," Jacob offered. "I flew on a bird."

"Pardon my bad manners." The bearded man held out his hand first to Greathouse and then to Matthew. "I am Dr. Ramsendell and this is Dr. Curtis Hulzen. Thank you for coming, gentlemen. I can't thank you enough. I know you've had a long trip. May I invite you into the office for a cup of teai"

Greathouse showed him the envelope. "I'd like to know about this."

"ah. Yes, the letter. I left it at the Dock House Inn yesterday. Come, let's talk in the office." Ramsendell motioned them toward the door. Matthew was acutely aware of Jacob walking almost on his heels.

"I was on a bird," Jacob said, to no one in particular. "It was fat and shiny and took people in its stomach."

"Jacobi" Ramsendell paused at the door. He spoke kindly to the afflicted man, rather as one would speak to a wayward child. "The gentlemen, Dr. Hulzen, and I have some important business to discuss. I'd like for you to complete your task."

"I have bad dreams," said Jacob.

"Yes, I know you do. Go along now. The sooner you finish, the sooner you can have your supper."

"You're going to talk about the Queen."

"That's correct, we are. Go on, now. The laundry won't fold itself."

Jacob seemed to ponder this for a few seconds, and then he gave a nod and a grunt and turned away, walking past the stone structure in the direction of the road that led to the outbuildings.

"Three years ago he was foreman at the sawmill by the river," Ramsendell explained quietly as Matthew and Greathouse watched Jacob leave. "Had a wife and two children. One careless accident-not his doing, by the way-and his injury reduced him to a second childhood. He does make improvement and he takes responsibility for small jobs, but he can never live out there again."

Out there. Matthew thought he'd spoken that as if the world beyond was the frightful place instead of this asylum.

"Please, come in." Ramsendell held the office door open for them.

The front room might have been any legal office in New York, as there were two desks, a larger conference table with six chairs, a file cabinet, shelves full of books, and on the plank floor a simple dark green woven rug. another door at the back was open, and through it Matthew could see what appeared to be an examination table and a cupboard where he presumed drugs or medical instruments were stored. He caught movement back there and saw a gray-dressed woman with long black hair cleaning glass vials with a blue cloth. She seemed to sense she was being watched, for her head swiveled and for a few seconds she regarded Matthew with dull, sunken eyes. Then she focused again on her labor as if no one else existed in the world and no task was more vital.

"Sit down, won't youi" Ramsendell waited until Matthew, Greathouse, and Hulzen had taken chairs at the table. "May I offer you some teai"

"If you don't mind," Greathouse said, "I could use something a bit stronger."

"Oh, I'm sorry. We have no drinking alcohol on the premises. We do have some apple cider left, though. Would that suit youi"

"Fine," Greathouse said, though Matthew knew the man was wishing for a tankard of stout black ale.

"Cider for me also," Matthew said.

"Mariahi" Ramsendell called, and the black-haired woman ceased her cleaning and peered out. Her mouth was slack and her left eye twitched. "Would you please go to the kitchen and pour two cups of apple cider for our guestsi Use the pewter cups, if you will. anything for you, Curtisi" Hulzen shook his head; he was busy loading tobacco from a deerskin pouch into a clay pipe with a diamond design on its sides. Ramsendell added, "a cup of tea for me, please."

"Yes sir," the woman replied, and went off toward the rear of the house.

"They need tasks," Ramsendell offered as he took a seat at the table. "To keep their dexterity up and give them a challenge. Some can't use their hands very well, though. and of course there are some who either cannot or will not move from their beds. Every case is different, you see."

Greathouse cleared his throat. Matthew thought that for all the man's toughness he looked ready to jump out of his skin. "I'm afraid I don't see. Where do these people come fromi and how many are herei"

"Well, at present our patients number twenty-four men and eight women. They're kept in separate sections of the hospital, of course. and then there are holding areas for those who exhibit violence or who...how shall I put thisi...choose to ignore their chamberpots. What we're trying to teach them here is that, even in their state of disarray, they still have the power to make choices. They can learn."

"Unfortunately, not all still retain that ability." Hulzen had fired a match and was lighting his pipe. Blue smoke spilled from his lips as he spoke. "There are some who are beyond help. Those we must constrain, so as not to hurt themselves or others, but at least here they do have food and shelter."

"The point is, we don't treat our patients as animals." Ramsendell looked from Greathouse to Matthew in order to emphasize his statement. "Curtis and I both have experience in the mental health system as practised in London, and we both abhor the idea of shackles and chains as a common method of control."

"The patients come from wherei" Matthew asked, repeating Greathouse's query.

"Some from New Jersey, some from New York, some from Pennsylvania," said Ramsendell. "From small villages and larger towns alike. Some are wards of the court, others have been placed here by relatives. Some, like Jacob, are the victims of accidents that have affected the mental fluid. Others were born, it would seem, under unfortunate stars. In the last few years, with the financial reversals in Philadelphia, the asylum run there by the Quakers has come upon hard times; therefore we've taken in several of their patients. Then there are the people who are simply found wandering in woods or fields, and no one knows their names or histories. In some of those cases, a terrible shock of some kind-witnessing an accident, violence, or even a murder-has blanked the mind, so they may eventually be returned to normal lives if the care is successful."

Greathouse frowned. "Must be a tremendous expense to keep all these people up."

"This property was given to us by the colony and we have generous Christian benefactors who help with our costs," Hulzen said through his shifting blue cloud. "The town of Westerwicke has been very supportive, as well. Their physician, Dr. Voormann, sees to the medical problems of our patients for a nominal fee. Some of the women there prepare the meals, again for a small fee. So yes, there is some expense involved, but we know that if this hospital were to fail, it would mean putting our patients out upon the road."

"Well," Greathouse said, and perhaps only Matthew could detect his unease, "I'm sure no one would want that."

"We are modern in our approach," said Ramsendell as Mariah returned bearing a tray with two pewter cups of cider and a wooden cup of tea. She set it down upon the table, Ramsendell thanked her, and then he returned his attention to Greathouse as she went back to her work. "You'll note neither Curtis nor I wear checked shirts."

Greathouse had already plucked up his cider and taken a drink. "Pardoni" he asked.

"Checked shirts," Ramsendell repeated. "Medieval physicians wore checked shirts when they approached an insane person. They believed the demonic spirits of madness couldn't get through the checked cloth into the soul."

"Nice to know," Greathouse said, with a quick grimace that had meant to serve as a polite smile.

"Your work here is very beneficial, I'm sure," Matthew spoke up, "but I don't see what we can do for you."

"First things first." Ramsendell drank from his tea and turned the cup between his hands. "again, we appreciate the speed of your response, but I think Curtis and I would like to hear something about your agency before we go any further."

Matthew nodded and remained silent while Greathouse held forth for the next five minutes on the history and purpose of the Herrald agency, emphasizing their high standards and tradition of success in the field of "problem solving." He recounted cases involving recovered jewels, artwork, stolen legal documents, missing persons, forged diplomatic papers, and also gave mention of an assassination attempt in London undone by himself just the past December. "But I have to inform you gentlemen," he concluded, "that our professional services do not come cheaply. Our time, like yours, is valuable. We charge a flat fee for investigations and also require the payment of all expenses. Of course the fee will vary, according to the task."

"Do you charge to hear the particulars of the problemi" Hulzen asked, puffing on his second pipeful.

"No sir," Greathouse said. "We begin only when a contract of agreement is signed."

The two doctors were silent. Matthew finished off his cider while waiting for them to speak again. Hulzen stared at the ceiling as he smoked his pipe and Ramsendell twined his fingers together before him on the table.

"We're not sure you can help," Ramsendell said at last. "Not sure at all, really."

"You must have at least thought we could." Greathouse leaned back in his chair, making the legs creak. "We've come a long way. We'd at least like to hear the problem."

Ramsendell started to speak and then looked at Hulzen, who took one more draw from the pipe, expelled smoke in a thin stream, and said, "We have a young man-a resident of Westerwicke-who goes to New York to buy medical supplies for us at the Smith Street apothecary. His last trip was on Thursday. He stayed overnight, at a boarding house in your town, and came back on Friday. He brought something with him that...well..." He glanced at Ramsendell as a prompt to continue.

"He had breakfast in a tavern there," Ramsendell said, "and brought back a copy of your broadsheet."

"The Earwigi" Matthew asked.

"The very same." Ramsendell offered a tight smile that faded. "We have a patient who likes to be read to. a special patient, I suppose you could say."

Greathouse tensed at that one. "Speciali Howi"

"Oh, certainly not violent. In fact, she's extremely docile. The others call her the Queen."

"The Queeni" Matthew recalled Jacob using that term outside.

"That's correct." Ramsendell watched Matthew's eyes for a reaction. "Did you ever think that here you might meet a queeni The Queen of Bedlam, as it werei"

"Our problem," said Hulzen, "is that we wish to find out who she is. Her proper name, and where she comes from. Her history, and...why she's in her current state."

"What state would that bei" Greathouse almost flinched as he waited for a response.

"Locked," Ramsendell replied.

There was a silence. Smoke still drifted at the ceiling, and beyond in the other room the black-haired woman continued to diligently polish the gleaming glass vials.

"I think we ought to meet her," Matthew said.

"Yes." Ramsendell pushed his chair back and stood up. "I'll make the introductions."

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