A brilliant new Gothic thriller from the acclaimed author of The Ghost Writer and The Seance.
"Author of The Seance and The Ghost Writer, Harwood, master of creeping Victorian horror , does it again in his latest tale of pervasive evil and madness. . . Twisted in every sense of the word and wonderfully atmospheric, this dark psychological tale shocks by degree until truth of a sort is revealed."Booklist
"Harwood evokes Charles Palliser and Louis Bayard in his engrossing third stand-alone Victorian thriller. . . .. The crisp prose and twisty plot will encourage many to read this in one sitting."Publishers Weekly
"There are mirrors here, an insane asylum, and enough startling coincidences to make you think Harwood was actually writing this in late Victorian England, where the novel is set. There are even a dark, brooding hero and a diabolical villain, assuming they are who they appear to be. . . . The Asylum is as dark and suspenseful as any good Gothic romance."Australian Book Review
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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- 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)
Read an Excerpt
Georgina Ferrars’ Narrative
I WOKE, AS IT SEEMED, from a nightmare of being stretched on the rack, only to sink into another dream in which I was lying in a strange bed, afraid to open my eyes for fear of what I might see. The smell and the texture of the blanket against my cheek felt wrong, and I was clad, I became aware, in a coarse flannel nightgown that was certainly not my own. I knew that I must still be dreaming, for I had gone to sleep as usual in my bedroom at home. Every joint in my body ached as if I had been stricken with fever; yet I had felt perfectly well the night before.
I lay still for a little, waiting for the dream to dissolve, until my eyes opened of their own accord. The ceiling above me was a dull white; the bare walls, a dismal shade of green. Grey light filtered through a metal grille; the glass behind it was clouded and streaked with moisture.
I sat up, wincing at the pain, to find myself in what appeared to be a prison cell. The door to my left was solid oak, with a narrow aperture at eye level, closed by a wooden shutter. The air was damp and chill, and smelt of cold ashes and chloride of lime. A small fireplace was, like the window, entirely covered by a stout metal grille. There was no furniture beyond a bedside table, a single upright chair, a washstand, and a small closet; there were no ornaments, no looking glass; not so much as a candlestick.
It was impossible; I could not be here. But neither could I deny that I was wide awake. And I was not, I realised, at all feverish; my forehead was cool, my skin was dry, and my breath came freely. So why did my body protest at the slightest movement? Had I fallen somehow? or been attacked? — or worse? Trembling, I threw off the bedclothes and examined myself, but I could find no trace of injury, except for some bruises on my upper arms, as if someone had gripped them tightly.
Was it some sort of hallucination? If I lie down, I thought, and pull the covers over my head and try to go to sleep again, perhaps I will find myself back in my own bed. But my feet, seemingly of their own volition, were already on the floor. I moved unsteadily to the door and tried the handle, but it would not budge.
Should I call out? And who would come if I did? I turned toward the window, wondering if this was what sleepwalkers experienced. Half a dozen paces brought me to the grille. The world beyond was obscured by grey, swirling mist, with faint, unidentifiable forms — walls? houses? trees? — hovering at the edge of visibility.
I returned to the door and tried the handle again. This time the panel shot open, and two eyes appeared in the slot.
“Where am I?” I cried.
“The infirmary, miss,” replied a young woman’s voice. “Please, miss, I’m to say you’re to get back into bed, and the doctor will be here directly.”
The panel slid shut, and I heard the muffled sound of footsteps receding. Shivering, I did as she had asked, relieved at least to discover that I was in a hospital. But what had happened to me, and why had they locked me in? I waited apprehensively until another, heavier tread approached. A lock rasped, the door swung inward, and a man stepped into the room. From his dress — a tweed suit and waistcoat, somewhat rumpled, a white collar which had sprung loose at one side, a tie of dark blue silk, carelessly knotted — and a certain humorous glint in his eye, you might have taken him for an artist, but there was an air of authority about him, of a man accustomed to being obeyed. He looked somewhere between forty and fifty, not especially tall, but broad-shouldered and trim. His eyes were pale blue, accentuating the blackness of the pupils, deep-set and piercing beneath heavy brows, with dark pouches beneath; his nose strong and aquiline and straight as a blade, the nostrils flared above chiselled lips. A long, lean face, clean-shaven except for a fringe of side-whiskers, tapering down to a creased, prominent chin. He stood silent, surveying me appraisingly.
“Where am I?” I said again. “Who are you? Why am I here?”
A gleam of satisfaction showed in his eyes.
“Do you mean you don’t know? — I see you do not. This is most inter — that is to say, most distressing for you. Forgive me: my name is Maynard Straker, and I am the superintendent and chief medical officer here at Tregannon House — on Bodmin Moor, in Cornwall,” he added, seeing that my bewilderment had not lessened. “Have no fear, Miss Ashton, I am entirely at your ser — ”
He stopped short at the expression on my face.
“Sir, my name is not Ashton! I am Miss Ferrars, Georgina Ferrars; I live in London, with my uncle; there has been a terrible mistake.”
“I see,” he said calmly. “Well, never fear. Let me order you some toast and tea, and we shall talk it all through in comfort.”
“But sir, I should not be here! Please, I wish to go home at once!”
“All in good time, Miss — Ferrars, if you prefer. The first thing you must understand is that you have been very ill. I know” — he held up his hand to silence me — “I know you do not remember: that is a consequence of your illness. Now please; first you must allow me to examine you, and then I shall explain what has happened to you.”
Such was the force of his personality that I waited in silence whilst he murmured instructions to someone outside the door. He took my pulse, listened to my heartbeat, tested my reflexes, and seemed quite satisfied with the result. Then he settled himself on the wooden chair so that he was facing me directly.
“You arrived here yesterday morning; without notice, which is most unusual. You gave your name as Lucy Ashton and said that you wished to consult me on an urgent and confidential matter. As I was away on business, the maid referred you to my assistant, Mr. Mordaunt. You were, he says, in an agitated state, though striving to conceal your distress. He explained that I would not be back until the evening, and that you would therefore have to stay here overnight, and register as a voluntary patient in order to see me, and to this you very reluctantly agreed. You would not admit to any disturbance of mind; only to extreme fatigue, and, after giving him a few cursory details, asked if you might complete the admission forms later.
“Mr. Mordaunt found you a room in the voluntary wing and left you there, assuming you would rest. But several times that afternoon he saw you walking about the grounds in what he described — my assistant is something of a poet — as a trance of desolation.
“I returned at about nine o’clock, and, upon hearing Mr. Mordaunt’s account of you, called briefly at your room to arrange an appointment for this morning; I had too many calls upon my time to speak to you last night. You were plainly in a state of extreme nervous exhaustion, but again you refused to concede anything beyond fatigue. I naturally ordered you a sedative, which you promised to take, though I fear you did not. Voluntary patients are, I should say, under no compulsion to accept any particular treatment here. So long as they pose no danger to themselves or others, they are free to do as they wish: it is part of our philosophy.
“Early this morning you were found unconscious on the path behind this building; you must have slipped out without anyone noticing. It was evident to me that you had suffered a seizure, which, though rare, is not unheard of in cases such as yours, where extreme mental agitation induces something like an epileptic fit, or, in those actually prone to epilepsy, a grand mal episode. It is nature’s way of discharging excessive mental energy. Upon waking, the patient commonly remembers nothing of the preceding days, or even weeks, and is at a loss to account for the extreme soreness of joints and muscles, which is due to the violence of the spasms. Such episodes are, of course, more common in women, whose faculties are more delicate, and more readily overstrained, than those of men — ”
“Sir,” I broke in, as the full horror of realisation dawned, “am I in a madhouse?”
“It is not a term I favour; say rather you are in the care of a private establishment for the cure of diseases of the mind. An enlightened institution, Miss — Ferrars, run on the most humane principles, dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the comfort of our patients.
“Now, you assured me at our first interview that you had never suffered from epilepsy, or any form of mental disturbance — but I take it you cannot recall that interview?”
“And you have no idea of how, or why, you presented yourself to us as Lucy Ashton?”
“None whatever, sir.”
“What is the last thing — the very last thing — you can recall?”
I had clung, throughout his recital, to the belief that this was all a ghastly mistake, and that I should be escorted home to London as soon as I could persuade him that I was Georgina Ferrars and not Lucy Ashton. But his question provoked a sort of landslip in my mind. My memory, as it had seemed, of going to bed at home the night before, wavered and collapsed, leaving only a dreadful, buzzing confusion. I must, I thought desperately, must be able to remember. If not last night, then the day before? Memories — if they were memories — spilled from my grasp like playing cards, even as I tried to order them. I saw my life dissolving before my eyes. The room swayed like the deck of a ship; for a moment I felt sure I should faint.
Dr. Straker regarded me calmly.
“Do not be alarmed; the confusion will pass. But you see now why I hesitate to address you as Miss Ferrars. It is possible — I have seen such cases — that you are in fact Lucy Ashton; that Miss Ferrars — Georgina, did you say? — that Georgina Ferrars is your friend or relation, or even just a figment of your disordered imagination. The mind, after an insult such as this, can play the most extraordinary tricks upon us.”
“But sir, I am Georgina Ferrars! You must believe me! I live in Gresham’s Yard, in Bloomsbury, with my uncle, Josiah Radford, the bookseller. You must wire to tell him I am here — ”
Dr. Straker held up his hand to stop the rush of words.
“Steady, steady, Miss . . . Ferrars, let us say. Of course we shall wire. But before we do so, you should at least consider the evidence of your own possessions . . . Ah, here is tea.”
A young maidservant in a neat grey uniform entered with a tray.
“You will be pleased to see, Bella, that our patient is recovering,” said Dr. Straker.
“Yes indeed, sir,” she said. “Very glad to see you looking better, Miss Ashton. Will there be anything else, sir?”
“Yes; run down to Miss Ashton’s room, and bring all of her things up here. Ask one of the porters if you need assistance. We can manage the tea.”
“Yes sir; right away, sir.”
“You see?” said Dr. Straker wryly as she hurried out. “Miss Ashton is, at least, not just a figment of my imagination. Milk? Sugar?”
If Dr. Straker had betrayed the slightest anxiety on my behalf, I think I should have given way to hysteria. But his nonchalance had a strangely calming, or rather numbing, effect upon me. I had come here calling myself Lucy Ashton: so much seemed undeniable, though utterly incomprehensible. I felt certain I knew no one of that name, and yet it seemed vaguely familiar. He has promised to wire, I told myself. I shall be going home soon, and must cling to that thought. I sipped my tea mechanically, grateful for the warmth of the cup in my cold hands.
My mother’s birthday! It had been a warm autumn day.
“Sir, I have remembered something,” I said. “The twenty-third of September, my mother’s birthday — she died ten years ago, but I vowed I would always do something that we should have enjoyed together. It was a Saturday, and I walked up to Regent’s Park, and ate an ice, and felt very ill afterward.”
“I see . . . and after that?”
I strove to pick up the thread, but beyond that one glimpse, I could not be sure. I could go backward with some confidence, over the events of the summer, and the spring, and indeed all the way back to my childhood — or so it seemed — but when I tried to advance, I could summon only blurred images of myself in my uncle’s house; the power of ordering them seemed to have deserted me.
“I — I cannot be sure,” I said at last.
“Most interesting. Let us say, then, that your last clear recollection is — or appears to be — of the twenty-third of September. Would you care to hazard a guess at today’s date?”
I knew then what had been troubling me about the chill, the damp, even the quality of the light.
“I cannot guess the time, sir, let alone the date.”
“It is two o’clock in the afternoon of Thursday, the second of
November. In the year of our Lord 1882,” he added, raising one eyebrow.
“November!” I exclaimed. “Where have I . . . How could I have . . . Sir, you must wire my uncle at once; he will be desperately worried.”
“Not necessarily. If a Georgina Ferrars had been missing for the past week, let alone the past month, we should have been informed. Asylums, like the hospitals and the police, are kept up to date with news of missing persons; and there is no one of that name — indeed, no one resembling you — on any of our lists. You may have told your uncle that you were going away; though not, presumably, to a lunatic asylum under a false name. So before we trouble him, let us try to set the record straight.”
He drew a piece of paper from his coat pocket.
“This is all the information you gave my assistant when he admitted you yesterday morning. ‘Name: Lucy Ashton. Address: Royal Hotel, Plymouth. Date of birth: the fourteenth of February 1861. Place of birth: London. Parents: deceased. Next of kin: none living. No history of serious physical or mental illness. No person to be advised in case of illness or decease. “Patient says she is quite alone in the world,” Mr. Mordaunt has noted. Interesting, is it not?”
“Sir, I have never even been to Plymouth!”
“I think we can safely say that you have. Amnesia is the most difficult of all conditions for a patient to grasp, Miss Ashton, because there is literally nothing to hold on to. You do not recognise any of those details, then?”
“None, sir. I cannot imagine why — ”
“I can think of at least two explanations,” he said, producing a notebook and pencil. “But before we come to that . . . Your full name?”
“Georgina May Ferrars, sir.”
“And your date and place of birth?”
“March third, 1861, at Nettleford, in Devon.”
“That is near Plymouth, is it not?”
“I believe so, sir; I have no memory of it. We — my mother and I — moved to a cottage on the cliffs near Niton, on the Isle of Wight, to live with my aunt Vida — my great-aunt, I mean — when I was only an infant.”
He listened to this halting explanation with an air of polite amusement, as if to say, And why should we believe you this time?
“I see . . . And your father?”
“His name was Godfrey Ferrars, sir; I never knew him. He died before I was two years old.”
“I am sorry to hear it. What was his profession, do you know?”
“He was a doctor, sir — ” I almost said, “like yourself,” but checked myself. “A medical officer, in London.”
“What part of London?”
“Clerkenwell, sir. But he became very ill and had to move to the country; he was convalescing in Nettleford when I was born.”
“And did not recover, I take it?”
“He did recover, sir, but then he insisted on taking another situation, in Southwark — ”
“Again as a medical officer?”
“Yes, sir. My mother took me to Niton — we were to follow as soon as he had settled in — but he came down with typhoid fever and was dead before news of his illness reached us.”
“Do you know the date?”
“No, sir; only that it was summer.”
“Well, let us say the summer of 1862.” He scribbled in his notebook. “And your mother’s maiden name?”
“She died, I think you said, ten years ago?”
“Yes, sir. She had some weakness of the heart — an aneurism, we were told. It was not discovered until after her death.”
“A melancholy history. Are you her only child?”
Dr. Straker regarded me curiously.
“Do you know, I wonder, whether the weakness was hereditary? Your own heart seems sound enough, on a brief examination, but have you ever suffered from palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, fainting fits . . . ?”
“No, sir, I was a very healthy child. She and my aunt were always anxious that I should take plenty of rest and exercise, and not become over-excited, but they never mentioned my heart.”
“That, at least, is reassuring,” he said, making another note. “And after that?”
“I remained with my great-aunt, Vida Radford, on my mother’s side, until we lost — until she died last year. After that I went to London to live with Uncle Josiah — Aunt Vida’s brother, so he is my great-uncle, too — ”
Again I heard myself faltering.
“And has your uncle any children of his own?”
“No, sir. Like my aunt, he never married.”
“I see. And — if you will forgive me — what are your financial circumstances? Have you money of your own, or expectations of your uncle?”
Something in his tone made me even more fearful.
“I have a small income, sir, about a hundred pounds a year, from my aunt. And my uncle is certainly not rich; he says his estate is worth only a few hundred pounds.”
“I see. And now we come to your mental health. As Miss Ashton” — he glanced again at the paper on his knee — “you told my assistant that you had no history of mental disturbance. But given that you came here under an alias, and have since suffered a seizure, almost certainly brought on by prolonged and violent mental agitation, perhaps there is something you would like to add to Miss Ashton’s account?”
Again the room seemed to revolve around me. There were, I thought, with my heart beginning to pound, several things I ought to add; but if I confessed to them, I might never be allowed to leave. The seconds ticked by under his ironic gaze.
“I — I do not think there is anything out of the ordinary.”
“Very well,” he said, after an uncomfortable pause. “And now I must look in on some of my other patients. In the meantime, you must stay in bed and keep warm; Bella will see to the fire when she returns with your luggage.”
“But sir, you will send that wire to my uncle?”
“By all means. The nearest telegraph office is at Liskeard, a good forty minutes’ ride from here, so we cannot expect a reply until this evening at the earliest. Mr. Josiah Radford, of Gresham’s Yard, Bloomsbury, is it not?” he added, glancing at his notebook.
You must be able to remember, I told myself as the echo of his footsteps died away. It is like a door that sticks; you have forgotten the trick of it; that is all. Or a name that will not come to you, and then you find it upon your lips a few minutes later. But no matter how hard I strained, I could not even discern a gap where memory should have been. Was it possible that the real Lucy Ashton — where had I heard that name before? — looked just like me? Could we have been confused with each other? But that did nothing to explain what I was doing in a private asylum in Cornwall, a part of the world I had never visited . . . and so my thoughts went spiralling on, until Bella reappeared, struggling under the weight of a stout leather valise, a hatbox, and a dark blue travelling-cloak, none of which I recognised.
“I am afraid those are not my things.”
The girl regarded me with, I thought, a certain compassion.
“Beg pardon, miss, but you was wearing that cloak when you come here yesterday. And look,” she added, setting down the case and opening it. “Here’s your wrap, miss, the one you asked me to look out when you was cold later on.”
She held up a blue woollen shawl — the pattern was certainly one I might have chosen myself — and draped it around my shoulders. I watched numbly as she opened the closet and began to unpack the case — which had “L.A.” stamped in faded gold lettering below the handle. Everything she took out of it looked like clothes I might have chosen myself, but none of them were mine. It struck me that my own wardrobe, in its entirety, would fit into a case not much larger than this.
“Wait!” I cried. “I am not staying here; I must return to London as soon as — ” My voice trailed away; the fog of confusion seemed suddenly to lift. Why on earth was I waiting for the answer to Dr. Straker’s wire? He had said I was a voluntary patient, and regardless of how and why they had mistaken me for Lucy Ashton — regardless, indeed, of what had happened to my memory — the sooner I was back in London, the better.
“In fact,” I said firmly, “I wish to leave immediately. Would you please help me to dress, and — ”
“I’m sorry, miss, but I can’t, not without the doctor’s say-so.” She had a soft country accent which would, in other circumstances, have been pleasing to my ear.
“Then I shall dress myself. Please go at once and find Dr. Straker, and ask him to order me” — I was about to say, “a cab” — “a conveyance, to take me to the nearest railway station. You do understand,” I added, hearing my voice beginning to tremble, “that I am a voluntary patient here.”
“I’ll go and see, miss. But please, miss, doctor’s orders was for you to stay in bed.”
She hurried out, closing the door behind her. I slipped out of bed, suddenly afraid that she might have locked me in. But the door opened readily, onto a dark-panelled corridor, in which Bella’s receding figure was the only sign of life.
I closed the door again and turned to the closet. Lucy Ashton’s taste in clothing was almost identical to my own; like me, she favoured the aesthetic style; her blue woollen travelling-dress was the twin of one that I possessed in grey, and when I held it up against myself, it was plain, even without a mirror, that it would fit me perfectly. Even the laundry marks were exactly the same as mine: small cotton tags stitched into the lining, with “L.A.” sewn into them in neat blue lettering. If I had been asked to outfit myself for a journey, I could not have chosen better.
Again I found myself clutching at the idea that Lucy Ashton must be my double, only to remember that this did nothing to explain why I was here. Once more I strove to penetrate the void shrouding my mind, until something brought me back to the immediate present, and the awareness that Lucy Ashton’s case contained no purse or pocketbook; no jewellery, no rings, and no money.
And two other things were missing — though of course they were missing, since these were not my things: the dragonfly brooch my mother had bequeathed to me, which I would never have left behind; and my writing case, a present from Aunt Vida, containing the journal I had kept since my sixteenth birthday. It was a quarto-sized case made of soft blue leather, with two gold clasps, and a key, which I always kept on a fine silver chain around my neck, but which was certainly not there now.
The loss of that key somehow brought home the extremity of my plight. My strength deserted me, and I sank down upon the edge of the bed, just as Dr. Straker reappeared in the doorway, followed by Bella with a pail of coals.
“Miss — Ferrars,” he said sternly, “you must get back into bed and stay there. As your physician, I command it. There can be no question of your leaving; you are far too ill.”
“But sir — ”
“No more, I pray you. The wire has been dispatched as you requested; as soon as we have an answer, I shall let you know,” he said, and strode from the room.
“Bella,” I said as she arranged the blankets over me, “I can’t find my purse, or my brooch — in a small red plush box; it is quite valuable; or my writing case — a blue leather one. Have you see them anywhere?”
“No, miss, I ’aven’t. This is all there was, miss, when I packed up your room just now.”
“But I must have had money,” I said desperately. “How else could I have got here?”
“You gave me a sixpence, miss, when you was still wearing your cloak. P’raps it’s there.”
She tried the pockets but found only a pair of gloves.
“You don’t think I took it, miss?” she said, with a look of alarm.
“No, Bella. But someone must have, and my brooch and writing case; I would never travel without them.”
“I don’t know, miss, I’m sure. We’re all honest girls here. Might you have put them away somewhere yourself, miss, and — and forgotten? Now please, miss, I must get on.”
To this there was plainly no answer. I gave up all hope of escaping that day, and lay with my mind spinning, and a sick feeling of dread gnawing at the pit of my stomach, while daylight slowly faded from the room, until I woke with the glare of a lantern in my eyes, to find Dr. Straker standing beside my bed.
“I am afraid, Miss Ashton, that you must prepare yourself for a shock. As well as conveying your message to Josiah Radford, I took the liberty of asking him whether he had ever heard of a Lucy Ashton. This is his reply.”
NO KNOWLEDGE LUCY ASHTON STOP GEORGINA FERRARS HERE STOP YOUR PATIENT MUST BE IMPOSTER STOP JOSIAH RADFORD.
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