《ALIAS GRACE》YOUNG MAN'S FANCY
YOUNG MAN'S FANCY
Among these raving maniacs I recognised the singular face of Grace Marks. No longer sad and despairing, but lighted up with the fire of insanity, and glowing with a hideous and fiend-like merriment. On perceiving that strangers were observing her, she fled shrieking away like a phantom into one of the side rooms. It appears that even in the wildest bursts of her terrible malady, she is continually haunted by a memory of the past. Unhappy girl! When will the long horror of her punishment and remorse be over? When will she sit at the feet of Jesus, clothed with the unsullied garments of his righteousness, the stain of blood washed from her hand, and her soul redeemed, and pardoned, and in her right mind?...
Let us hope that all her previous guilt may be attributed to the incipient workings of this frightful malady.
-- SUSANNA MOODIE,
in the Clearings, 1853.
Simon sits at his writing table, gnawing the end of his pen and looking out the window at the grey and choppy waters of Lake Ontario. Across the bay is Wolfe Island, named after the famous poetic general, he supposes. It's a view he does not admire - it is so relentlessly horizontal - but visual monotony can sometimes be conducive to thought.
A gust of rain patters against the windowpane; low tattered clouds are scudding above the lake. The lake itself heaves and surges; waves are pulled in against the shore, recoil, are pulled in again; and the willow trees below him toss themselves like heads of long green hair, and bend and thrash. Something pale blows past: it looks like a woman's white scarf or veil, but then he sees it is only a gull, fighting the wind.
The mindless turmoil of Nature, he thinks; Tennyson's teeth and claws.
He feels none of the jaunty hopefulness he has just expressed. Instead
he is uneasy, and more than a little dispirited. His reason for being
here seems precarious; but it's his best chance at the moment. When he entered upon his medical studies, it was out of a young man's perversity. His father was a wealthy mill owner then, and fully expected Simon to take over the business in time; and Simon himself expected the same thing. First, however, he would rebel a little; he would slip the traces, travel, study, test himself in the world, and
also in the world of science and medicine, which had always appealed to him. Then he would return home with a hobby-horse to ride, and the comfortable assurance that he need not ride it for money. Most of the best scientists, he knows, have private incomes, which allows them the possibility of disinterested research.
He hadn't expected the collapse of his father, and also of his father'stextile mills - which came first he's never been sure. Instead of anamusing row down a quiet stream, he's been overtaken by a catastrophe at sea, and has been left clinging to a broken spar. In other words he has been thrown back on his own resources; which was what, during his adolescent arguments with his father, he claimed to most desire.
The mills were sold, and the imposing house of his childhood, with its large staff of domestics- the chambermaids, the kitchen maids, the parlout maids, that ever-changing chorus of smiling girls or women with names like Alice and Effie, who cosseted and also dominated hischildhood and youth, and whom he thinks of as having somehow been soldalong with the house. They smelled like strawberries and salt; they had long rippling hair, when it was down, or one of them did; it was Effie, perhaps. As for his inheritance, it's smaller than his mother thinks,and much of the income from it goes to her. She sees herself as livingin reduced circumstances, which is true, considering what they have been reduced from. She believes she is making sacrifices for Simon, and he doesn't want to disillusion her. His father was self-made, but his
mother was constructed by others, and such edifices are notoriouslyfragile.
Thus the private asylum is far beyond his reach at present. In order toraise the money for it he would have to be able to offer somethingnovel, some new discovery or cure, in a field that is already crowdedand also very contentious. Perhaps, when he has established his name,
he will be able to sell shares in it. But without losing control: hemust be free, absolutely free, to follow his own methods, once he has decided exactly what they are to be. He will write a prospectus: large and cheerful rooms, proper ventilation and drainage, and extensive grounds, with a river flowing through them, as the sound of water is soothing to the nerves. He'll draw the line at machinery and fads, however: no electrical devices, nothing with magnets. It's true that
the American public is unduly impressed by such notions - they favourcures that can he had by pulling a lever or pressing a button - butSimon has no belief in their efficacy. Despite the temptation, he must refuse to compromise his integrity.
It's all a pipe dream at present. But he has to have a project of somesort, to wave in front of his mother. She needs to believe that he'sworking towards some goal or other, however much she may disapprove of it. Of course he could always marry money, as she herself did. Shetraded her family name and connections for a heap of coin fresh from themint, and she is more than willing to arrange something of the sort for impoverished European aristocrats and upstart American millionaires isnot unknown, on a much smaller scale, in Loomisville, Massachusetts. Hethinks of the prominent front teeth and duck-like neck of Miss Faith Cartwright, and shivers.
He consults his watch: his breakfast is late again. He takes it in hisrooms, where it arrives every morning, carried in on a wooden tray by Dora, his landlady's maid-of-all-work. She sets the tray with a thump and a rattle on the small table at the far end of the sitting room,where, once she has gone, he seats himself to devour it, or whatever
parts of it he guesses to be edible. He has adopted the habit ofwriting before breakfast at the other and larger table so he may be seen
bent over his work, and will not have to look at her.
Dora is stout and pudding-faced, with a small downturned mouth like that of a disappointed baby. Her large black eyebrows meet over her nose, giving her a permanent scowl that expresses a sense of disapproving outrage. It's obvious that she detests being a maid-of-all-work; he wonders if there is anything else she might prefer. He has triedimagining her as a prostitute - he often plays this private mental gamewith various women he encounters - but he can't picture any man actually paying for her services. It would be like paying to be run over by a wagon, and would be, like that experience, a distinct threat to thehealth. Dora is a hefty creature, and could snap a man's spine in twowith her thighs, which Simon envisions as greyish, like boiled sausages, and stubbled like a singed turkey; and enormous, each one as large as a piglet.
Dora returns his lack of esteem. She appears to feel that he has rentedthese rooms with the sole object of causing trouble for her. Shefricassees his handkerchiefs and overstarches his shirts, and loses the buttons from them, which she no doubt pulls off routinely. He's even suspected her of burning his toast and overcooking his egg on purpose. After plumping down his tray, she bellows, "Here's your food," as if calling a hog; then she stumps out, closing the door behind her just one note short of a slam.
Simon has been spoiled by European servants, who are born knowing their places; he has not yet reaccustomed himself to the resentfifi ao,,,
There are better lodgings than these to he had in Kingston, but hedoesn't wish to pay for them. These are suitable enough for the shorttime he intends to stay. Also there are no other lodgers, and he valueshis privacy, and the quiet in which to think. The house is a stone one,and chilly and damp; but by temperament - it must be the old NewEnglander in him - Simon feels a certain contempt for material self-indulgence; and as a medical student he became habituated to a monkish austerity, and to working long hours under difficult conditions.
He turns again to his desk. Dearest Mother, he begins. Thank you foryour long and informative letter. I am very well, and makingconsiderable headway here, in my study of nervous and cerebral diseases among the criminal element, which, if the key to them may be found, would go a long way towards alleviating...
He can't go on; he feels too fraudulent. But he has to write something,or she will assume he has drowned, or died suddenly of consumption, or
been waylaid by thieves. The weather is always a good subject; but hecan't write about the weather on an empty stomach.
From the drawer of his desk he takes out a small pamphlet that datesfrom the time of the murders, and which was sent to him by Reverend Verringer. It contains the confessions of Grace Marks and James McDermott, as well as an abridged version of the trial. At the front is an engraved portrait of Grace, which could easily pass for the heroine of a sentimental novel; she'd been just sixteen at the time, but thewoman pictured looks a good five years older. Her shoulders are swathedin a tippet; the brim of a bonnet encircles her head like a darkaureole. The nose is straight, the mouth dainty, the expressionconventionally soulful - the vapid pensiveness of a Magdalene, with the
large eyes gazing at nothing.
Beside this is a matching engraving of James McDermott, shown in the overblown collar of those days, with his hair in a forward-swept arrangement reminiscent of Napoleon's, and meant to suggest tempestuousness. He is scowling in a brooding, Byronic way; the artist must haveBeneath the double portrait is written, in copperplate: Grace Marks,alias May Whitney;James McDermott. As they appeared at the Court House. Accused of Murdering Mr. Thos. Kinnear Nancy Montgomery. The whole thing bears a disturbing resemblance to a wedding invitation; or itwould, without the pictures.
Preparing himself for his first interview with Grace, Simon haddisregarded this portrait entirely. She must be quite different by now,he'd thought; more dishevelled; less self-contained; more like a
suppliant; quite possibly insane. He was conducted to her temporarycell by a keeper, who'd locked him in with her, after warning him thatshe was stronger than she looked and could give a man a devilish bite,and advising him to call for help if she became violent.
As soon as he saw her, he knew that this wouldn't happen. The morning light fell slantingly in through the small window high up on the wall, illuminating the corner where she stood. It was an image almost mediaeval in its plain lines, its angular clarity: a nun in a cloister,a maiden in a towered dungeon, awaiting the next day's burning at thestake, or else the last-minute champion come to rescue her. Thecornered woman; the penitential dress falling straight down, concealing feet that were surely bare; the straw mattress on the floor; thetimorous hunch of the shoulders; the arms hugged close to the thin body,the long wisps of auburn hair escaping from what appeared at firstglance to be a chaplet of white flowers - and especially the eyes,enormous in the pale face and dilated with fear, or with mute pleading -all was as it should be. He'd seen many hysterics at the Salptrire inParis who'd looked very much like this.
He approached her with a calm and smiling face, presenting an image of goodwill - which was a true image, after all, because goodwill was what he felt. It was important to convince such patients that you, at least,did not believe them to be mad, since they never believed it themselves.
But then Grace stepped forward, out of the light, and the woman he'dseen the instant before was suddenly no longer there. Instead there was
a different woman - straighter, taller, more self-possessed, wearing theconventional dress of the Penitentiary, with a striped blue and whiteskirt beneath which were two feet, not naked at all but enclosed inordinary shoes. There was even less escaped hair than he'd thought:most of it was Her eyes were unusually large, it was true, but they werefar from insane. Instead they were frankly assessing him. It was as ifshe were contemplating the subiect of some unexplained experiment; as if it were he, and not she, who was under scrutiny.
Remembering the scene, Simon winces. I was indulging myself, he thinks. Imagination and fancy. I must stick to observation, I must proceed with caution. A valid experiment must have verifiable results. I mustresist melodrama, and an overheated brain.
There's a scuffling outside the door, then a thumping. It must be his breakfast. He turns his back, and can feel his neck retracting down into his collar like a turtle's into its shell. "Come in," he calls, and thedoor flies open.
"Here's your food," bawls Dora. The tray bumps down; she marches out,and the door bangs shut behind her. Simon has a fleeting and unbidden image of her, strung up by the ankles in a butcher-shop window, with cloves stuck into her and a rind on her like a sugared ham. The association of ideas is truly remarkable, he thinks, once one begins to observe its operations in one's own mind. Dora - Pig - Ham, for instance. In order to get from the first term to the third, the second
term is essential; though from the first to the second, and from thesecond to the third, is no great leap.
He must make a note of it: Middle term essential. Perhaps a maniac is simply one for whom these associative tricks of the brain cross the line that separates the literal from the merely fanciful, as may happen under the influence of fevers, and of somnambulistic trances, and of certain drugs. But what is the mechanism? For there must be one. Is the clue to be found in the nerves, or in the brain itself? To produce insanity, what must first be damaged, and how?
His breakfast must be getting cold, if Dora has not deliberately chilled
it in advance. He levers himself out of his chair, disentangling hislong legs, stretches himself and yawns, and goes over to the othertable, the one with the tray on it. Yesterday his egg was like
india-rubber; he'd mentioned it to his landlady, the wan Mrs. Humphrey, and she must have admonished Dora, because today the egg is so undercooked as to be scarcely jellied, with a blueish tinge to it likean eyeball.
Curse the woman, he thinks. Sullen, brutish, vengeful; a mind thatexists at a sub-rational level, yet cunning, slippery and evasive.
There's no way to corner her. She's a greased pig.
A piece of toast cracks like slate between his teeth. Dearest Mother,he composes in his head. The weather here is very good; the snow is almost gone, spring is in the air, the sun is warming the lake, and already the vigorous green tips of Of what? He has never known much about flowers.
TO BE CONTIUNUED...