. The Dunsany Institution for Social Reform
“How long has this crazyhouse been in town?” Randall Flax asked. “Over ten years now, hasn’t it?” He kept his voice low, barely above a whisper, as though he were in a library or a church. The Dunsany held that same solemn sense; as though it would be a damnable offense to sully such sacrosanct walls with base chatter.
“Closer to twenty, I’d say,” replied Whiskey Jack his gruff voice not lending itself well to hushed tones.
The Dunsany was not so dark as one might expect of a hospital. Whiskey Jack took note of how the morning light shone through the large front windows, highlighting the quality of the fine hardwood floor. Marble pillars, ornately finished in a style consistent with the neoclassical design of the building’s architecture, rose from floor to ceiling at regular intervals giving the walls a sectioned look. At the centre of each section was a marble bust. From the ceiling hung gilded chandeliers polished and bejewelled with fine glass crystals.
“Who do you reckon are all them that got their head and shoulders over along the wall?” Randall pointed to the marble busts in the alcoves between each pillar.
“They be famous men you ignorant sod!” Whiskey Jack spoke a little louder than he’d expected, his voice resounding off all the marble. He hushed right down to a hiss. “You’d be best to shut your mouth and be respectful is all I’m saying.”
After a few moments of quietly shuffling from foot to foot, hat clutched close to his chest, Randall, perhaps out of nervous curiosity wandered over to the wall and examined the busts of both famous and mythological personages. One in particular seemed to catch his attention. “You said they were famous men but I think this one is a woman.” He poked at the large, egg-like helmet. “How do you figure it balances? It looks top heavy.”
“YOU THERE! Don’t touch the bust of Pallas!” The unexpected voice from the Dunsany’s chief matron, Grace Chandler, startled Randall into immediate obedience. “Don’t touch any of the busts for that matter, but particularly not the bust of Pallas. It’s one of his favourites.”
“My apologies, ma’am,” Randall bowed stepping away from the alcove. “I was just admiring them is all. How is the little one?”
“Sleeping comfortable in a bed I just made up for her down in the ward.” The matron’s tone softened. “Dr. Foehammer is tending to her now.”
“He must have come in a back way, did he?” said Whiskey Jack. “I didn’t see him arrive.”
“Door to the cellar,” Mrs. Chandler nodded. “Leads direct to the ward and his operating room.”
“Sweet Bloody Builder!” Randall swore. “I knew it! He cuts people open down there don’t he.”
“Don’t be foolish,” said Mrs. Chandler with a look that conveyed humour as opposed to chastisement. “This is not a surgical facility. I simply meant where he performs whatever medical procedures he deems necessary.”
“What kind of medical procedures?” asked Randall.
“What a fishmonger!” said Whiskey Jack. “Stop worrying over other people’s business. This ain’t the docks.”
“Listen,” Mrs. Chandler turned to Whiskey Jack. “I got something for you, a package and a couple of envelopes Doctor Foehammer wants delivered.”
“We were expecting the package,” said Whiskey Jack. “He mentioned it when we met him down the way.”
“He wants the box taken to the Royal Oak for that wedding.” She held out an envelope. “This letter is to be delivered to a Mr. Ezra Crumb. He lives in a guest cottage on the Foehammer estate in Coronet Gardens. Just ask any of the house staff, they’ll direct you. But Doctor Foehammer says to stay until you see it given to Mr. Crumb with your own eyes.”
“That could take some time,” said Whisky Jack. “What if he’s not there?”
“That’s what this is for.” Mrs. Chandler held out a second envelope. “This here is from the doctor to compensate you for your timely service and utmost discretion.”
“Much obliged to the doctor.” Whisky Jack took the two envelopes and stuffed them in his waistcoat pocket. There was no need to check his envelope, Joseph Foehammer was always generous when paying for services. “Do you have the box?”
“I do,” said the woman. “It is in the back with my belongings. I’ll run and get it now but I was going to ask a small favour first. I’m just off my shift and since you boys are heading west, would you be so kind as to provide me a ride? Even if it’s just part way; I live along Rampart Road.”
“I was just up along that wall this past weekend,” said Whiskey Jack. “In my opinion this the best time of year for the farmer’s markets,”
“Autumn is always their busiest season but they are a touch noisy when I need my sleep,” said Mrs. Chandler. “But I do like the harvest vegetables.”
“Rampart Road,” said Whiskey Jack. “That would be quite a walk after a long night’s work. I’d be happy to give you a lift.”
“I can’t pay you,” Mrs. Chandler added. “But if you want, I’ll make you a mug of tea on the other end.
“Don’t talk no nonsense about paying me. A mug of tea for me and Randall would be fair trade. I have a sack of biscuits in the back of the lorry that might go nice with that tea, especially if you happened to have a bit of cheese in your pantry.”
The trio hadn’t been long after setting off from the Dunsany when they noticed a large crowd milling about the intersection leading to the Harrison Street Quay. Whiskey Jack reined up the lorry for fear of injuring any unwary pedestrians.
“You there!” he called over to a pair of young militiaman doing their best to keep people coraled within the area. “Help me clear the way so I can get by.”
“Ain’t no one getting by right now,” replied one of the militiamen who approached the lorry and glanced into the wagon giving it a cursory inspection.
“What do you mean they ain’t letting nobody get by?” complained Whiskey Jack.
“Look, it ain’t my decision, I just do what they tell me so don’t give me no grief.” The young man’s uniform appeared to be about a size too small. As a result both sleeves had ridden halfway up his arms causing him to be constantly tugging at his cuffs. “A foreign vessel sunk and took half the pier with it. The militia’s investigating. Ain’t supposed to be no one leaving or passing through until then.”
“It was foul play then?” asked Mrs. Chandler.
“They believe it to be, yes ma’am.”
“How long we going to be here?” Whiskey Jack asked, his general lack of patience getting the better of him. “See this poor woman between us. Up all night she was toiling over at her work. You know perfectly well the three of us had nothing to do with the sinking of no foreign ship. So how about you help us to get through these people without crushing no one under hoof or wheel so I can get this good woman home to rest.”
“Ain’t for me to decide – but I guess I could run and ask if you can pass,” said the militiaman, though the manner in which he rocked back on his heels and tugged at his jacket sleeves gave one the impression he had no intention of running anywhere.
“I see how it is,” said Whiskey Jack. He reached into the back of the lorry and grabbed a sack which he pulled up to the front bench. “I have fresh baked biscuits here. Me and Randall picked them up early this morning. We’re delivering them to that fancy wedding over at the Royal Oak later today. Why don’t you take a couple for yourself and your mate.” Whiskey Jack held the sack open.
“Are those from McNettle’s Bakery over in Babbage?” the militiaman asked moving so as to better peer into the sack.
“Not more than two hours out of the oven,” Whiskey Jack assured him. “I love the smell of fresh fired biscuits in the morning.”
The militiaman hesitated just a moment, as if considering his options. “Do you have any cheese to go with them?”
“Not at the present. I like to get my cheese last minute.” Whiskey Jack reached back into another sack. “How about a sweet onion?”
The militiaman, apparently realizing it was the best deal he was going to get, reached into the sack. “From McNettle’s!” he called to his partner across the way. “Catch!” He then tossed a couple of biscuits to his militia mate before pocketing two for himself. “Hold put. I’ll be back in just a few minutes.”
“I’ve been working at the Dunsany since just after my boy Thomas was born so that be fourteen years this past spring.” Mrs. Chandler spoke as it was her natural inclination to fill silence with idle chatter. “Thomas’s father dropped dead of apoplexy six weeks before the boy was born.”
“Oh, damnation!” cursed Randall. “What buggers’ luck!”
“Weren’t it though.” said Mr. Chandler. “ I’m long over it though so don’t fret none.” The Dunsany matron dropped her voice. “Old Dr. Nickerson was the doctor in charge back then. He opened the place originally as a day clinic for women that was prone to hysteria and other such delicate issues.”
“I remember that old bugger,” Whiskey Jack laughed. “Crazy as a codger weren’t he? He had all them tunnels dug underneath the place. Word is, he was always in fear of foreigners coming from outer space.”
“As if foreigners from across the ocean ain’t bad enough,” Randall Flax snorted.
“I remember being hired back then to haul away cartfuls of rubble” Whiskey Jack recalled. “And I wasn’t the only driver hired for the task, let me tell you. It was a big operation.”
“Poor Doc Nickerson was always afraid someone was going to try and kill him one day.” Mrs. Chandler shook her head in grave nostalgia. “He could barely function near the end. He just hid himself away in those tunnels of his, leaving the day to day concerns of the Dunsany in the hands of his young resident Joseph Foehammer.”
“How did that old bugger die again?” asked Whiskey Jack.
“Dr. Foehammer found him dead on the floor one morning,” Mrs. Chandler explained in her same hushed tone. “He performed an autopsy at once. It turns out old Doc Nickerson choked on his own vomit whilst he slept.”
“Was he a drinker?” asked Randall. “Same thing happened to my uncle Lou after a ferocious bender.”
“Never touched a drop of alcohol, Old Doc Nickerson,” said Mrs. Chandler who then dropped her voice. “But it was common knowledge amongst the staff how he liked to sniff on a cloth soaked in a little ether from time to time. He must have passed out flat on his back.”
“Just wait now, am I the only one a touch suspicious here?” said Randall Flax. “The guy that discovers the body has an interest in the old bugger being dead and he’s the one that does the autopsy? That don’t sound right. Who’s to say he didn’t snuff the duffer himself and cover his own tracks by reporting falsely.”
“Randall, I swear you’re as suspicious as a churchman,” said Whiskey Jack. “Hold to now, here comes that militia-bloke so you’d best not befuddle the situation with talk.”
“So what’s the word young fellow?” asked Whiskey Jack feigning good cheer. “Are we all clear to carry on?”
“Yes, you’re free to carry on,” said the militiaman. “Just let my mate clear the way and I’ll walk you through the crowd.”
“Are they any nearer to uncovering their foul play?” asked Mrs. Chandler.
“Pretty much,” said the militiaman. “They’re questioning a girl right now who claims to be friends with the fellow who sunk the ship.”
“She’s admitting that to the authorities?” Randall snorted and looked over at Whiskey Jack. “I hope none of my kids are that stupid.”
“Randall!” Whiskey Jack warned.
“No, don’t get upset,” said the militiaman. “You’re friend has a point. That girl practically begged us to question her. She could have easily wandered off into the crowd. It’s not often so easy to get information.” The militiaman paused as his partner waved from across the roadway. “Look, here we go now.”
They had only begun to move forward however, when from their left came the sound of whistles. “Hold!’ said the militiaman. A moment later three more soldiers stood by the side of the lorry.
“Good morning, my name is Captain Digby,” said the captain of the militia. “Which one of you gentlemen is the owner of this lorry?”
“The name is Whiskey Jack.”
“Mr. Jack, I require transportation for myself and four men,” said Captain Digby. “We have information pertaining to the sinking of the Mont Blanc.” The captain signalled to the men nearby who began climbing into the wagon.
Captain Digby remained by the side of the lorry looking across to Randall Flax. “You there with the pipe,” the captain called out. “Do you mind climbing into the wagon with the men.”
“Are you talking to me?” said Randall, pointing to himself with the stem of his pipe.
“I am an officer of the militia,” said Captain Digby.
“So?” Randall shrugged his shoulders. “Don’t you get a horse with your commission?”
“Mr. Jack, control your man,” said Captain Digby.
“How about you climb in the back of the lorry and I’ll take you to where you are going.” said Whiskey Jack staring right back at Captain Digby. “Randall sits up front with me.”
The captain looked as though he were going to belabour the issue then relented and climbed into the back of the wagon.
“Where to?” Whiskey Jack called back.
“Rampart Road,” replied the captain. “We mean to apprehend a youth by the name of Thomas Chandler.”