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  ― 195 ―

My Sister—A Story for a Wintry Night.

At the door of Life, by the gate of Breath,
There are worse things waiting for men than Death.

We may well call a spade a spade; it was a madhouse, a Bedlam, and I was going there to see my sister. The word “asylum” has a hideous sound in my ears. I wouldn't mind “Dottyville,” but that is sacred to Phil May.

This was last year, and it was my first visit to such a mental museum. To see my sister.

Charles Lamb's sister was a lunatic, and stabbed her mother with a dinner knife in a fit of homicidal frenzy. And Elia devoted his life to taking care of her. When she knew her dark hour was coming on, brother and sister used to walk off tearfully hand in hand to the “asylum.”

Surely it is better to be laughing mad than crying mad, though that is better than dumb mad.

On my way to see her, a year ago, I remember I got thinking of little things that had happened long, long ago. We were known in County Cork as the “Mad M's.” Little, far-off things came back to me. I was cheerful, but pensive.

I remember how “blueful” Mitty used to get here in Australia. “Mitty” was her baby name. The heat stifled her, and the grass was never green. She was here some years, and I've often heard her say she had never seen real grass in New South Wales. “Very far gone,” you will think.

She went home five years ago. Hadn't been herself for many months. “Coming events cast their shadows before”—it must have been so. When I kissed her “good-bye” on board the boat, she put her arm round my neck and whispered—

“Ah! Jim, if they shut me up, you'll make them put me where I can see a green tree.”

It was the last time I saw her before they did shut her up. I made the arrangement from this side of the world. Memory now harked back a quarter of a century to when she used to take care, or try to take care, of me.

When I was young, like a fool, I took opium: and she found it out. Possibly I told her. After the first year I was beginning to look pretty seedy on it. One day she asked me to go for a walk with her to the “gravel-pit,” and she took me out to take me in with a vengeance.

The “gravel-pit” was a huge crater-like depression on the top of a rise in one of our fields. It had a circular fence round it, and was planted with young


  ― 196 ―
larch-firs. How is it that larches always seem young—all those, at any rate, that I remember having seen? Here there were woodcocks in the winter, and bullfinches—literally flocks of them—in the spring; and in summer, wild strawberries all up the steep sides. No one, until he has tasted wild strawberries and cream, can understand the reverend doctor's pronouncement: “Doubtless, God might have made a better berry than the strawberry, but, doubtless, God never did.”

There was a scene in the gravel-pit, all right. She cried, not offensively.

She knew I was “killing myself with morphia.”

I was cynical. Didn't think I was a particularly valuable citizen.

“Oh, it's we want you, Jim!”

And for the only time in my life I experienced that romantic commonplace—a female creature “flinging” her arms round my neck. It was very embarrassing.

I stroked her down, and thought it was all right, but she began to whisper something. She “had some muriate of morphia.”

I jumped. “Where the devil did you get it?”

“I stole it from you.”

We might be a mad family, but we never condescended to tell lies. (By jingoes, for the first time it occurs to me that probably this is a striking proof of our madness.)

“Oh!” I was a good deal relieved. The fact was that the last ounce of morphia had gone so quickly that I was almost frightened; thought I must have been taking it in a waking sleep.

She went on whispering. The kernel of it was that if I didn't give it up, “I could do anything I tried,” she said—a flattering faith, surely—she would swallow all she had.

“It's beastly, nasty,” I hinted.

“I know. I tasted it.”

“Good heavens! How much did you take?”

“Oh! I didn't swallow it, silly!”

I saw the storm was blowing over, so I temporised.

“You'll have to give me five weeks to taper off,” I suggested.

“Oh! I'm so glad. You'll do it, honour bright?”

I don't think I hesitated perceptibly before I pledged myself, “Honour bright!”

Perhaps the story should rest at that.

Did I give it up? you want to know.

No, I didn't. But I said I did. Luckily, I was looking bad enough for it to be true.

There or four days later, fortunately, I left home, and never went back again, before I came out to Australia.

I got to the madhouse.




  ― 197 ―

She was brought in to see me, and her face lighted up at once—dropped some mask of dulness and decay.

“Oh, Jim! you've come for me! Oh! you're good!”

They let me take her away. The doctor told me she would be all right for some time. No hope of a permanent cure. As we shook hands I asked: “How about her health generally?”

“Sound as a bell. Might live to ninety,” he answered curtly.

Mitty and I lived quietly and happily together for nearly a year. She got quite young again. We had a big cottage, some sixteen miles from Killarney. No one knew us. It was one of the loveliest spots on earth, surely. I began to think the doctor a pessimistic old bird. We used to talk sometimes about her experience in the asylum, but not much; it seemed to excite her. When that happened she always made me promise, “You'll never, never let me go back there, Jim, dear?”

I patted her hand and said: “Never, Mitty.”

Then she would smile and whisper: “Morphia!”

I hadn't taken any for seventeen years, and it was the only thing in heaven or earth, or under it, that I was really afraid of. But I nodded.

Then, as the autumn was coming round again, I saw the dulness and abstraction growing in her eyes which the doctor had told me to watch for.

She knew it, too, though we never spoke of it in any way. Only at last, every night when she kissed me, I heard a whisper like a breath, very low: “Another day! One more day!”

I pretended not to hear, took no notice; but she knew I understood, because if I hadn't I should have asked.

By heaven! I hear that now sometimes, and it wakes me in the night.

I believe she thought that my saying nothing was a tacit promise of the “one day more,” and that I would tell her when the time came. A tradition of never condescending to tell lies is a valuable asset in any family. Perhaps she really wasn't competent to think rationally at all.

I did it one night after tea. Morphia, of course, was altogether too crude. But there is a pleasing laboratory experiment. You take a kitten by the scruff of his neck—lift him up. He mews. You spurt four or five minims of a certain drug into the back of his throat; and at the same time let him drop to the floor. He's dead before he touches it.

She was lying on the sofa asleep, with her mouth half open.

I put ten minims in a hypodermic, and shot it into the back of her throat. That was all.

After a few minutes, I kissed her, and went out for a walk. The hypodermic syringe and a half-ounce bottle, that had travelled twice round the world with me, lie as far out in Bantry Bay as I could throw them.

The servant found her about ten o'clock. There was no inquest nonsense.

“A cynical brute!” you think. “A heartless, mocking devil!”

Man! man! Put your head in a bag. Know this truth, a truth too deep for tears, that before some mysterious terrors the devils also believe and tremble. Perhaps if I splash in the Fountain of Laughter, it is that I may not drown in the Fountain of Tears.




  ― 198 ―

I buried her in the greenest spot I could think of in all Ireland—outside the walls of an old monastery garden, that only a lonely road divided from the graveyard. We had played out our childhood in the garden, and were born in the old house that it surrounded, once a bishop's palace. Under the big elms and horse-chestnut trees there is half an acre of bluebells in the spring.

There, in the sleepy hollow of the hills, may her rest be deep. She was one of earth's gentlest, saddest souls, always; too finely fibred to bear the stress and strain and dulness of it all.

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