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Old 12-21-2020, 07:17 PM   #8 (permalink)
Trollheart
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It was a much changed group who exited the cell about thirty minutes later. The small passageway was abuzz with heated conversation as they made their way back down the corridor, heading towards the steps that would take them back up into the light and out of such a forbidding and ugly place. Stillman was scowling, as he had been the entire duration of the tour, a condescending look on his face as he peered around to ensure the others shared his view.

“Stuff and nonsense!” he snorted. “The very idea!”

The aged Sir Mark Haversham was at least in agreement with the schoolteacher. “I saw some strange bods in the jungles of Africa when I was younger,” he muttered in his low, croaky voice, the cold and damp down here not helping his already ailing health, and making him cough and bark so hard that his young companion had to pat him on the back, “but that chap there takes the biscuit.” He tapped his temple meaningfully. “Fellow's in the right place, if you ask me.”

Lady Fairfax was more charitable, asking “Is there no hope for the poor man, Doctor?” Their guide replied with a shrug.

“Well, that's why we need to keep places like these open, Your Ladyship,” he told her, jerking his head back at the cell behind them. “You ought to have seen him when he first came to us, over a year ago now. Quite shocking it was. He has really improved under the care of the doctors here, I do assure you all.”

“Improved?” The incredulous, unimpressed voice of the rough-and-ready daughter of the Lord Chief Justice held no pity or sympathy for the man they had just visited. “I'd say he ought to be locked up,” she grinned, tickled by her own attempt at a joke, “but he already is!”

Notwithstanding the outrage of the others at her lack of compassion, she guffawed like a common docker, and stalked off down the passage, the stone walls almost shaking under her tread. The man with the great beard, who yet remained at the back of the party, now spoke up.

“We are all very quick to judge,” he noted, “but how do we know for certain he is mad?”

Lord Fairfax and Stillman both fixed him with a steely glare. It was clear neither liked him, or believed he should be in their company. “Oh come now, sir!” said His Lordship, with the kind of tone that brooked no debate. “Ghosts? Travelling in time? Man says he saw his own damned grave, for heaven's sake! How can you not consider him insane with such a tale as he has related?”

“There are more things in Heaven and Earth,” replied the bearded man quietly, “than are dreamed of in your philosophy, Lord Fairfax.”
Stillman snapped “Rubbish! The man's clearly mad, and in the right place. The true meaning of Christmas, indeed!”

“So you will vote to continue funding this establishment, Mr. Stillman?” the doctor's question seemed to catch the schoolmaster off guard, and he looked to His Lordship for his lead.

“I – I shall vote as the board of governors direct,” he said, uncertainly. The doctor nodded.

“Then let us hope that they vote wisely,” he observed as they climbed the stairs, going two abreast, Sir Mark's young handsome aide helping him up the steps, which were much harder for the old man to ascend than they had been to descend. He had to stop every few steps, coughing and sputtering like a steam train attempting a steep hill. “Should this place not receive the funding to allow it to remain open, people like Mr. Scrooge would have to be turned out onto the streets, or end his days in the workhouse. Here, he can at least get the help he needs, and in doing so, help doctors and scientists to understand the nature of madness.”

“Quite so.” There was a twinkle in the eye of the bearded man that many would have described as merry. “After all, we wouldn't want his tales of rich men being punished in Hell by being weighed down with golden chains to be believed by anyone, would we? It wouldn't do if the wealthy and the powerful started worrying about what happens to them if they don't help the poor, surely?”

A loud harrumph! was all the response that came from Lord Fairfax as he helped his wife up the cracked stone staircase, the light beginning to seep in as they neared the ground level of the sanitorium. Behind him, the doctor felt a tug on his sleeve, and turned to see the bearded man beckon to him. He stopped in his tracks.

“I say, Doctor,” the bearded man said, two sovereigns glinting brightly in the dim light as he held them out towards the other man, “there wouldn't be any chance of my spending a little time with that fellow back there alone, would there? Scratch, was it?”

Reflecting the glow from the coins – more money than he would earn in several months - the doctor grinned, opening his hand to receive the bribe.
“Scrooge, sir,” he corrected the generous donor to his own personal Christmas fund. “Of course, sir.” He pocketed the coins with the adroitness of a street urchin taking a wallet. “Anything for you, Mr. Dickens. Doing some research, is it? I'm a great admirer of yours, sir,” he confided, a slight flush heating his cheeks. “Had a patient once, can't recall her name right now; couldn't sleep until she had been read a passage from your Oliver Twist, sir. A wonderful tale, if I may say so.”

“Ah yes,” nodded Dickens. “One of my better works, or so the critics say. I did enjoy writing that one. Glad you enjoyed it.”

“Oh I did sir,” nodded the doctor enthusiastically, though his face held a look of concern, or perhaps it might be more accurate to say mild annoyance. “As did my patient. I do wish I could remember her name: on the tip of my tongue, as they say.” He spread his hands apologetically, as if his failure to remember the name of some woman he had treated was a matter for apology.

Dicken nodded, dismissing the matter. “Memory, Doctor.” He tapped his temple, the same way as Sir Mark had a moment ago, but with a vastly different meaning. “Plays the damndest tricks on a man. Like this Scrooge character. No doubt he's suffered some terrible trauma and his mind has invented this story to shield him from what actually happened. Interesting tale though. Sounds perfect for an idea I've been tinkering with, thought of getting it out in time for Christmas, don't you know? Maybe A Christmas Story? No, that sounds a little trite, doesn't it? A Christmas Tale?”

“Carol!.”

“What?”

“Oh, sorry sir.” The doctor looked a trifle mortified, having blurted out like that. “I just recalled that patient's name, Mr. Dickens. I just knew her as Carol. Never got her surname.”

“Of course.” But there was a strange look now in the eyes of Charles Dickens, and his voice had taken on an excited tone. “So then,” he went on. “Shall I make my way back down then?”

The doctor nodded. “Just let me see our rich and charitable friends out, sir,” he said, the two adjectives dripping with sarcasm and contempt, “and I'll conduct you back down myself.”

A few moments later he was back, having seen out the party. As they approached the cell door again and he produced his set of keys, the doctor turned towards Dickens, a concerned look on his face.

“I understand you're something of a student of the human condition yourself, sir, and I do commend that – if only more men paid heed to such unfortunates instead of just brushing them aside. I must caution you though.” He raised a warning finger. “This man has, so far as we can judge, lost his mind. He isn't usually violent but if provoked he may turn nasty. If that happens, just pull the bell and myself or a warden will be there directly.”

Dickens smiled. “Thank you doctor. Who knows, I may just find a place for you in my story. I fancy it needs a sympathetic character, perhaps... hmm, yes. Perhaps a child. A child with... hmm. Might I ask your name, sir?
“It's Cratchit, sir,” the doctor told him. “Doctor Robert Cratchit. But all my friends call me Bob.”

“As, then, with your permission, shall I,” agreed Dickens, shaking his hand. “Thank you, Bob, and a very Merry Christmas to you and your family.”
“And to you and yours, sir,” returned Dr. Cratchitt, limping away. “God bless you.”

“God bless you, too, Bob,” murmured Dickens as he ducked to enter the cell, holding the torch high like – like what? A beacon? A shining light of humanity that would, God willing, in time spread its message of hope and understanding and kindness throughout the world? “God bless you, and me, and, indeed, all of us, every one.”
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