‘You will not find your father greatly changed,’ remarked Lady Moping, as the car turned into the gates
of the County Asylum.
‘Will he be wearing a uniform ?’ asked Angela,
“No, dear, of course not. He is receiving the very best attention.’
It was Angela’s first visit and it was being made at her own suggestion.
Ten years had passed since the showery day in late summer when Lord Moping had been taken away; a day of confused but bitter memories for her; the day of Lady Moping’s annual garden party, always bitter, confused that day by the caprice of the weather which, remaining clear and brilliant with promise until the arrival of the first guests, had suddenly blackened into a squall. There had been a scuttle for cover; the marquee had capsized; a frantic carrying of cushions and chairs; a table-cloth lofted to the boughs of the monkey-puzzler, fluttering in the rain; a bright period and the cautious emergence of guests on to the soggy lawns; another squall; another twenty minutes of sunshine. It had been an abominable afternoon, culminating at about six o’clock in her father’s attempted suicide.
Lord Moping habitually threatened suicide on the occasion of the garden party; that year he had been found black in the face, hanging by his braces in the orangery; some neighbours, who were sheltering there from the rain, set him on his feet again, and before dinner a van had called for him. Since then Lady Moping had paid seasonal calls at the asylum and returned in time for tea, rather reticent of her experience.
Many of her neighbours were inclined to be critical of Lord Moping’s accommodation. He was not, of course, an ordinary inmate. He lived in a separate wing of the asylum, specially devoted to the segregation of wealthier lunatics. These were given every consideration which their foibles permitted.
They might choose their own clothes (many indulged in the liveliest fancies), smoke the most expensive brands of cigars and, on the anniversaries of their certification, entertain any other inmates for whom they had an attachment to private dinner parties.
The fact remained, however, that it was far from being the most expensive kind of institution; the uncompromising address, ‘COUNTY HOME FOR MENTAL DEFECTIVES’, stamped across the notepaper, worked on the uniforms of their attendants, painted, even, upon a prominent hoarding at the main entrance, suggested the lowest associations. From time to time, with less or more tact, her friends attempted to bring to Lady Moping’s notice particulars of seaside nursing homes, of ‘qualified practitioners with large private grounds suitable for the charge of nervous or difficult cases’, but she accepted them lightly; when her son came of age he might make any changes that he thought fit; meanwhile she felt no inclination to relax her economical regime; her husband had betrayed her basely on the one day in the year when she looked for loyal support, and was far better off than he deserved.
A few lonely figures in great-coats were shuffling and loping about the park.
‘Those are the lower-class lunatics,’ observed Lady Moping. There is a very nice little flower garden for people like your, father. I sent them some cuttings last year.’
They drove past the blank, yellow brick facade to the doctor’s private entrance and were received by him in the ‘visitors room’, set aside for interviews of this kind. The window was protected on the inside by bars and wire netting; there was no fireplace; when Angela nervously attempted to move her chair further from the radiator, she found that it was screwed to the floor.
“Lord Moping is quite ready to see you,’ said the doctor.
‘How is he?’
‘Oh, very well, very well indeed, I’m glad to say. He had rather a nasty cold some time ago, but apart from that his condition is excellent He spends a lot of his time in writing.”
They heard a shuffling, skipping sound approaching along the flagged passage. Outside the door a high
peevish voice, which Angela recognized as her father’s, said: ‘I haven’t the time, I tell you. Let them come back later.’
A gentler tone, with a slight rural burr, replied, ‘Now come along. It is a purely formal audience. You need stay no longer than you like.’
Then the door was pushed open (it had no lock or fastening) and Lord Moping came into the room. He was attended by an elderly little man with full white hair and an expression of great kindness.
‘That is Mr Loveday who acts as Lord Moping’s attendant.’
‘Secretary,’ said Lord Moping. He moved with a jogging gait and shook hands with his wife.
‘This is Angela. You remember Angela, don’t you?’“No, I can’t say that I do. What does she want?’
“We just came to see you.’
‘Well, you have come at an exceedingly inconvenient time. I am very busy. Have you typed out that letter to the Pope yet, Loveday ?’
‘No, my lord. If you remember, you asked me to look up the figures about the Newfoundland fisheries first ?’
‘So I did. Well, it is fortunate, as I think the whole letter will have to be redrafted. A great deal of new information has come to light since luncheon. A great deal … You see, my dear, I am fully occupied.’
He turned his restless, quizzical eyes upon Angela. ‘I suppose you have come about the Danube. Well, you must come again later. Tell them it will be all right, quite all right, but I have not had time to give my full attention to it. Tell them that.’
‘Very well, Papa.’
‘Anyway,’ said Lord Moping rather petulantly, ‘it is a matter of secondary importance. There is the Elbe and the Amazon and the Tigris to be dealt with first, eh, Loveday? … Danube indeed. Nasty little river. I’d only call it a stream myself. Well, can’t stop, nice of you to come. I would do more for you if I could, but you see how I’m fixed. Write to me about it That’s it. Put it in black and white.’
And with that he left the room.
“You see,’ said the doctor, “he is in excellent condition. He is putting on weight, eating and sleeping excellently. In fact, the whole tone of his system is above reproach.’
The door opened again and Loveday returned.
‘Forgive my coming back, sir, but I was afraid that the young lady might be upset at his lordship’s not knowing her. You mustn’t mind him, miss. Next time he’ll be very pleased to see you. It’s only today he’s put out on account of being behindhand with his work. You see, sir, all this week I’ve been helping in the library and I haven’t been able to get all his lordship’s reports typed out. And he’s got muddled with his card index. That’s all it is. He doesn’t mean any harm.’
‘What a nice man,’ said Angela, when Loveday had gone back to his charge.
‘Yes. I don’t know what we should do without old Loveday. Everybody loves him, staff and patients alike.’
‘I remember him well It’s a great comfort to know that you are able to get such good warders,’ said Lady Moping; ‘people who don’t know, say such foolish things about asylums.’
‘Oh, but Loveday isn’t a warder,’ said the doctor.
‘You don’t mean he’s cuckoo, too?’ said Angela.
The doctor corrected her.
‘He is an inmate. It is rather an interesting case. He has been here for thirty-five years.’
‘But I’ve never seen anyone saner,’ said Angela.
‘He certainly has that air,’ said the doctor, ‘and in the last twenty years we have treated him as such. He is the life and soul of the place. Of course he is not one of the private patients, but we allow him to mix freely with them. He plays billiards excellently, does conjuring tricks at the concert, mends their gramophones, valets them, helps them in their crossword puzzles and various – er- hobbies. We allow them to give him small tips for services rendered, and he must by now have amassed quite a little fortune. He has a way with even the most troublesome of them. An invaluable man about the place.’
‘Yes, but why is he here?’
“Well, it is rather sad. When he was a very young man he killed somebody – a young woman quite unknown to him, whom he knocked off her bicycle and then throttled. He gave himself up immediately afterwards and has been here ever since.’
‘But surely he is perfectly safe now. Why is he not let out?’
‘Well, I suppose if it was to anyone’s interest, he would be. He has no relatives except a step-sister who lives in Plymouth. She used to visit him at one time, but she hasn’t been for years now. He’s perfectly happy here and I can assure you we aren’t going to take the first steps in turning him out. He’s far too useful to us.’
‘But it doesn’t seem fair,’ said Angela.
‘Look at your father,’ said the doctor. ‘He’d be quite lost without Loveday to act as his secretary.’
‘It doesn’t seem fair.’
Angela left the asylum, oppressed by a sense of injustice. Her mother was unsympathetic.
‘Think of being locked up in a looney bin all one’s life.’
‘He attempted to hang himself in the orangery,’ replied Lady Moping, ‘in front of the ChesterMartins.’
‘I don’t mean Papa. I mean Mr Loveday.’‘I don’t think I know him.’
‘Yes, the looney they have put to look after Papa.’
“Your father’s secretary. A very decent sort of man, I thought, and eminently suited to his work.’
Angela left the question for the time, but returned to it again at luncheon on the following day.
‘Mums, what does one have to do to get people out of the bin?’
“The bin? Good gracious, child, I hope that you do not anticipate your father’s return here.’
‘No, no. Mr Loveday.’
‘Angela, you seem to me to be totally bemused. I see it was a mistake to take you with me on our little visit yesterday.’
After luncheon Angela disappeared to the library and was’ soon immersed in the lunacy laws as represented in the encyclopaedia.
She did not re-open the subject with her mother, but a fortnight later, when there was a question of taking some pheasants over to her father for his eleventh Certification Party she showed an unusual willingness to run over with them. Her mother was occupied with other interests and noticed nothing suspicious.
Angela drove her small car to the asylum, and after delivering the game, asked for Mr Loveday. He was busy at the time making a crown for one of his companions who expected hourly to be anointed Emperor of Bra2il, but he left his work and enjoyed several minutes’ conversation with her. They spoke about her father’s health and spirits. After a time Angela remarked, ‘Don’t you ever want to get away ?’
Mr Loveday looked at her with his gentle, blue-grey eyes. ‘I’ve got very well used to the life, miss. I’m fond of the poor people here, and I think that several of them are quite fond of me. At least, I think they would miss me if I were to go.’
‘But don’t you ever think of being free again?’
‘Oh yes, miss, I think of it – almost all the time I think of it.’
‘What would you do if you got out? There must be something you would sooner do than stay here.’
The old man fidgeted uneasily. ‘Well, miss, it sounds ungrateful, but I can’t deny I should welcome a little outing, once, before I get too old to enjoy it. I expect we all have our secret ambitions, and there is one thing I often wish I could do. You mustn’t ask me what…. It wouldn’t take long. But I do feel that if I had done it, just for a day, art afternoon even, then I would die quiet. I could settle down again easier, and devote myself to the poor crazed people here with a better heart. Yes, I do feel that.’
There were tears in Angela’s eyes that afternoon as she drove away. ‘He shall have his little outing, bless him,” she said.
From that day onwards for many weeks Angela had a new purpose in life. She moved about the ordinary routine of her home with an abstracted air and an unfamiliar, reserved courtesy which greatly disconcerted Lady Moping.
‘I believe the child’s in love. I only pray that it isn’t that uncouth Egbertson boy.’
She read a great deal in the library, she cross-examined any guests who had pretensions to legal or medical knowledge, she showed extreme goodwill to old Sir Roderick Lane-Foscote, their Member. The names ‘alienist’, ‘barrister’ or ‘government official’ now had for her the glamour that formerly surrounded film actors and professional wrestlers. She was a woman with a cause, and before the end of the hunting season she had triumphed. Mr Loveday achieved his liberty.
The doctor at the asylum showed reluctance but no real opposition. Sir Roderick wrote to the Home Office. The necessary papers were signed, and at last the day came when Mr Loveday took leave of the home where he had spent such long and useful years.
His departure was marked by some ceremony. Angela and Sir Roderick Lane-Foscote sat with the doctors on the stage of the gymnasium. Below them were assembled everyone in the institution who was thought to be stable enough to endure the excitement.
Lord Moping, with a few suitable expressions of regret, presented Mr Loveday on behalf of the wealthier lunatics with a gold cigarette case; those who supposed themselves to be emperors showered him with decorations and titles of honour. The warders gave him a silver watch and many of the nonpaying inmates were in tears on the day of the presentation.
The doctor made the main speech of the afternoon. ‘Remember,’ he remarked, ‘that you leave behind you nothing but our warmest good wishes. You are bound to us by ties that none will forget. Time will only deepen our sense of debt to you. If at any time in the future you should grow tired of your life in the world, there will always be a welcome for you here. Your post will be open.’
A dozen or so variously afflicted lunatics hopped and skipped after him down the drive until the iron gates opened and Mr Loveday stepped into his freedom. His small trunk had already gone to the station; he elected to walk. He had been reticent about his plans, but he was well provided with money, and the general impression was that he would go to London and enjoy himself a little before visiting his step-sister in Plymouth.
It was to the surprise of all that he returned within two hours of his liberation. He was smiling whimsically, a gentle, self-regarding smile of reminiscence.
‘I have come back,’ he informed the doctor. ‘I think that I now I shall be here for good.’‘But, Loveday, what a short holiday. I’m afraid that you have hardly enjoyed yourself at all.’‘Oh yes, sir, thank you, sir, I’ve enjoyed myself very much. I’d been promising myself one little treat, all these years. It was short, sir, but most enjoyable. Now I shall be able to settle down again to my work here without any regrets.’
Half a mile up the road from the asylum gates, they later discovered an abandoned bicycle. It was a lady’s machine of some antiquity. Quite near it in the ditch lay the strangled body of a young woman, who, riding home to her tea, had chanced to overtake Mr Loveday, as he strode along, musing on his opportunities.