by Justin Teerlinck
The story so far: Mrs. Amanita, with her children Galerina and Agaric, tours the Bethlehem Hospital for the Insane on Christmas Day, 1860. After meeting a strange half-lucid lunatic named Bingo, Agaric discovers, in a secret room, a tea-pot-headed armored body that seems to move by steam. The tour guide, the raucous Mr. Pigg, threatens to incarcerate him as Bingo’s cellmate if he tells a soul.
“I say Dr. Brandywine, do come in and take a glass of sherry with me,” said Dr. Poppit.
“Much obliged sir,” said the young physician. He found a place in a plush chair in the spacious office. Reverend Loving removed his pipe, greeted the young man, and returned to his seat. Dr. Poppit poured them both a glass of sherry and gestured out the window.
“Sometimes I gaze at this view of the fine gardens here at Bethlehem, all the order and beauty we have imparted out there in nature, and I wonder why we have not yet done so for the human mind.”
“If only our charges were as pliable and docile as plants, then we should be able to effect great change,” stated Dr. Brandywine.
“Plants do not have souls,” said Reverend Loving, “and neither do these wretches. One expects they shall be shuttled to hell come the Judgment Day. They are God’s mistakes, after all.”
“Have you read Dr. Pinel’s writings?” asked Brandywine. “He says that the mad can reason, but that they merely do so using a different mental scheme, and if we can but show them their errors in understanding, we may begin to bring them round to a more enlightened mode of thought. It is quite a hopeful philosophy, I should think.”
Dr. Poppit chuckled. “Why do you waste your time on that deluded, hashish-smoking Frenchman, Brandywine? Reread your physik, your basic anatomy. That sort of bosh may take with melancholics, but not hysterics, idiots or those with native propensities for imbalanced minds. Their very constitutions defy any innate ability to reason.”
Reverend Loving cleared his throat. “Gentleman, while one appreciates your art, one must conclude that it is doomed to have but limited effect on the betterment of these unfortunates for whom moral degeneration is the root cause of an infirmity of mind. Indeed, while we may hope to ameliorate the worst of their suffering, our primary aim must be to check the unhealthy influence of the mad on the rest of society until such time as mysterious and almighty God sees fit to intervene. Until such time, we are the first bulwark against the societal destruction that would inevitably ensue, should these depraved animals escape to spread their contagious lunacy beyond the walls of this venerable institution. We may at least take courage that we have at our disposal all the tools of stern, fatherly correction as well as motivating words of persuasion required in order to purify their minds and bodies for Judgement, even if their souls be forever lost.”
“Good sentiments, Reverend,” said Dr. Poppit. “Stern correction and harsh discipline are the forms of love that a responsible father must mete out to his children, and, as I am the father of this hallowed institution, I must redouble my efforts to correct my errant charges. Gentleman, we may not be able to cure these unfortunates, but we remand them to a caring hand that is just, compassionate, efficient and economical!”
“Economical, sir?” asked Dr. Brandywine.
“Indeed! These are hard times for the Crown, and the Queen expects all of her subjects to take measures to cut costs and reduce the burden on her coffers. As such, beginning next week, all of our inmates will be required to perform ten hours of service every day growing those fundamentals that are required for their own daily sustenance, as well as an enterprise which I hope will bring greater revenue to ourselves in order to expand and fund what I affectionately term, the Poppit Research Program For the Hopeless and Problematically Insane.” Here, Dr. Poppit rubbed his hands together gleefully. “It is my expectation that this institute will discover new means of pacifying and warehousing the insane, using industrialized methods and new technology made possible by advances in our great Modern Age. By such means we shall increase their productivity, and correct the mistakes that nature has made.”
“What is this enterprise you speak of?” asked the dowdy Reverend. “Will it remediate their errors?”
“Why, it is good for them and for all English people,” said Poppit. “I have purchased a sizable acreage nearby in order to grow tea! No longer will her Majesty’s people be reliant upon the whims of her far-flung colonies in order to obtain the essentials and daily comforts of civilized life.”
“Begging your pardon sir, I am no botanist, but…has it not been established by some leading experts that tea will only flourish in tropical climes?” said Dr. Brandywine.
Dr. Poppit chuffed in frustration. “This is the problem with the middle classes today, Brandywine. You have no imagination, no thirst for discovery and progress. You do not feel the press of history and destiny as those of us who would re-make the entire world into an arm—nay, a closed fist—of the Empire. You are correct, my boy. Camellia will not grow in this clime, but hark, for I have designed a new hybrid species that loves England and Englishmen as much as we love it, namely: Fog Tea.”
“Fog Tea, sir?”
“Indeed, this species of tea is not only impervious to fog and cold, but certain strains of it contain a mildly soporific effect on disordered minds. Between the patents and utilizing our own labor force here to cultivate and distribute it, we will have the funds to craft many more inventions which will revolutionize our society, and lift the common man out of the gutter!”
“Good show, sir! I never would have thought the constitution of tea could be so changed.”
“Indeed, Brandywine, unlike that of those unfortunates we break our backs to care for. But…that is not all. There is an invention that I have already made great progress toward, one that will render all human care of the insane obsolete, for it will replace the need for all human contact with them, thus greatly reducing the chance of spreading contaminating effluvias by their contact. Gentleman, follow me please.”
With that, Dr. Poppit led Dr. Brandywine and Reverend Loving from his office by means of a dark and seldom-used corridor to the same room that little Agaric had found himself at by mistake. The same blue light glowed and undulated just as before. The small gathering spoke amongst themselves in hushed whispers. Dr. Poppit unlocked the door and ushered them inside quickly, locking it once again behind them. He pulled on a rusty chain that fired several large gaslights, and parted a red-velvet curtain, revealing the massive, iron-clad figure. “Behold! Excalibur!” he cried.
An unearthly blue light commenced a steady glow in what appeared to be the thing’s head. “Excalibur ready. What is your command?” asked a flat, tinny voice.
“Excalibur, rise!” shouted Dr. Poppit.
The iron creature stood up slowly on two legs. It had a roughly humanoid appearance with legs, and arms terminating in lobster-claw-like pinchers, and—
“Great Scott,” gasped Brandywine, “does that thing have a giant tea pot for a head?”
Dr. Poppit smiled self-assuredly. “It most certainly does, my boy. A three gallon teapot with a spout through which it pours tea, sniffs the air, sees the world and produces speech from a vocal box. Excalibur is animated by means of a coal-fired furnace in his breeches that turns a complex series of cogs and levers by boiling tea in its stomach and sending the tea steam through small, copper pipes to various vital organs. Along with a little oil to lubricate its gears, Excalibur has all it needs to function so long as its tea reservoir is filled and its coal furnace is stoked.”
“Ha!” ejaculated Reverend Loving, “Just like any self-respecting Englishman, it runs on coal and tea! Wonderful!”
“I say, could you describe its functions in greater detail?” said Dr. Brandywine, who had already encircled the automaton several times while stroking his prodigious whiskers in awe.
“With pleasure,” said the self-satisfied Dr. Poppit, “though it must be stated that a demonstration will provision you with a clearer understanding than my inadequate words could.” With that, he turned to the automaton.
“Excalibur, produce phrenological appendage.” The automaton lurched forward and a door opened outward from his abdominal region on two hinges. An intricate set of spidery, metallic digits attached to a set of springs slowly extended on a stalk, clicking mysteriously as they did so. Both Dr. Brandywine and Reverend Loving instinctively took a step back. “Gentlemen, do not be put off by the strange appearance of the phrenological examination tool. It is merely one of Excalibur’s many instruments for deciphering the contents of men’s minds. Now, without further ado, Excalibur, commence phrenological examination.” He pointed toward Dr. Brandywine, who took two more steps back as the automaton approached.
“Have no fear, Brandywine. I have calibrated all of Excalibur’s instruments for perfect accuracy and to provide no discomfort to the patient. Now then, please remove your hat and remain perfectly still.”
Reluctantly, Dr. Brandywine did as he was bid. Excalibur approached to within a few feet, then placed the appendage over the top of Brandywine’s cranium. A loud crack was heard, and the digits of the instrument suddenly split in half from a hinge to reveal even more digits. The entire appendance grasped Brandywine’s head like a spectral hand, caressing his skull like a set of blindly groping, bony fingers that ended in sharpened points. Soft but furious clicks and clacks were heard from the hand as well as from inside the machine, as though it was thinking intensely and processing the information it was receiving. “Are you feeling any discomfort?” inquired Dr. Poppit.
“Not at all sir, just a strange sensation.”
“Very good. Remain still. It’s nearly finished.” Just then, Excalibur retracted the appendage.
“Propensities: adhesiveness, love of life, compassion. Sentiments: brotherhood, ideality, gentleness, sensitivity. No criminal tendencies detected. No lunatic tendencies detected. No trace of idiocy detected. Organs in 78% balance. Would you like a printed report?”
By now, Poppit was broadly beaming at his stunned colleagues. “Yes, I would. Thank you Excalibur.”
“You are welcome.” A small hatch opened and a long piece of ticker tape emerged with a typed report of Excalibur’s findings.
“In addition to everything else, Excalibur also has a miniature typewriter which he can use to type reports, take dictation and write poetry.”
“Write poetry? Really, sir?”
Poppit laughed. “Well, I jest. Not quite yet. Soon though. Would you care for another demonstration?”
Reverend Loving and Dr. Brandywine shifted their feet and laughed uncomfortably. “Of course.”
“I must offer you fair warning, this demonstration shall be a trifle more, shall we say … intense?” They nodded their assent.
“Very well. Excalibur, restrain these dangerous lunatics.”
“Excalibur, obeys,” said the automaton. Just as Dr. Brandywine quickly stepped back, the monster’s chest opened again and a set of leather restraints sprang forward and bound him so tight he could not raise his arms. Reverend Loving got as far as the door, when the tea pot head rotated around. Another hatch opened and a cable projected forward like a spider’s silken thread as it encumbers its prey, binding the churchman’s arms and legs before he could take another step. Excalibur turned toward its master, Dr. Poppit. “Lunatics, restrained. Shall I correct them?”
“What is the meaning of this? Cease this immediately!” stated the Reverend. A hatch opened, and a platform with a series of spikes and needles issued forward, along with an iron chair. Excalibur began tugging Dr. Brandywine, who by now was vociferously protesting this ill treatment, forward.
Just before he was to be seated in the chair, the needles moved forward toward his head. Dr. Poppit raised a hand. “Excalibur, cease this action. These men are not lunatics. Release them.” The automaton seemed to hesitate a moment and Dr. Poppit repeated his order louder and less ambiguously. “Do as I command! Release them!” Upon this second entreaty, the iron-clad beast released them and retracted its tools of correction.
“Gentlemen, I do apologize. I merely wished you to see how effective Excalibur is at obtaining compliance and offering correction to the more irascible of our inmates.”
“Your point is abundantly clear,” said Dr. Brandywine somewhat coolly as he straightened his tie and replaced his top hat.
“Unfortunately, the one function Excalibur does presently not excel at, is demonstrating compassion. I am working feverishly to assuage his aggressive tendencies.”
“What is your plan for the application of this strange and terrible machine?” asked Dr. Brandywine.
“Excalibur is the ultimate custodian of the insane, my young friend. Like the legend upon which it is based, Excalibur holds great power, power that may only be harnessed by a watchful and upstanding guardian. Excalibur will provide stern, yet compassionate correction to incurables, prodding them to perform their daily labors, removing from them any instruments of harm, identifying their uncontrolled predilections and impulses before they themselves are aware of them. But most of all, Excalibur shall provide a barrier between the lunatic and society, one day eliminating them all together.”
“Eliminating them, what can you mean by that, sir?” asked Brandywine, who had retreated against a wall, barely able to conceal his look of disgust and horror toward the creature.
“One day, Excalibur, or a group of Excaliburs will see to it that lunatics will no longer exist.”
“Really, sir! Surely I misunderstand the intent of your words. You do not mean to imply that this monstrosity is designed to exterminate human life?”
“Brandywine, your naivety is appalling. Why do you delude yourself so? While you and your favorite Frenchmen Philippe Pinel would propose to spend the next thousand years trying to understand the mind of the lunatic, I propose to eliminate it entirely within a generation, and thereby cut the weeds of the weak so that the roots of the strong may grow stronger. Just because you are burdened with a woman’s constitution, do not think me cruel or that I am not motivated by the highest compassionate ideals. For Excalibur does not and will not ever be trained to commit that most heinous and unforgivable of actions. Instead, it will perform a simple, harmless surgery that shall prevent today’s degenerates from breeding the degenerates of tomorrow. Secondary to that, it will take the worst sufferers, the most energetic ranters, the most bilious and dangerous, and mollycoddle them into a sleep from which they shall not awake. During this process, they will be given milk of the poppy from Excalibur’s own reservoirs, and once asleep, the loving pinchers of Excalibur will place a silken pillow over the head of the insane, and hold it there while singing a soothing lullaby to send them into the next life—all with the care and attention of a nurse maid.”
During this speech, Dr. Poppit’s voice and countenance made no change that would indicate he sensed the gravity of his suggestions, or felt any inner turmoil as a result of them. He was perfectly at peace. Indeed, a wan smile remained on his lips. Seeing Dr. Brandywine’s open-mouthed, slack-jawed disbelief, he patted the younger man’s shoulder in a fatherly way and sighed, “It is for the best, you know.”
Brandywine shook off the elder physician’s hand roughly and took a step back. “I had hoped that this was a mere expression of a macabre or perhaps eccentric sense of mirth on your part, sir. I see now that it is far worse. You design to transgress inviolable laws of both man and nature. I thank God that at least I am in company with an upstanding member of the clergy. Reverend, please explain to our dear leader as you would to any schoolboy why his proposed actions send him inexorably and irrevocably on the path to perdition.”
To this entreaty, Reverend Loving smiled and shook his head slowly. “I had hoped you would understand, dear boy. What Dr. Poppit has proposed is pure genius. Do you call it ‘murder’ when you dispatch an animal, a flower or plant for the good of mankind? God only endowed souls to one type of creature: sane Englishmen; and it is only to this aforenoted creature that the laws of God and man apply. When a good horse has been lamed by an accident or disease, does one do all one can to try to understand the horse, to spend thousands of pounds trying to keep the lamed horse alive in a facility with other lamed horses, prolonging their suffering for years and decades? No! One shoots the horse! We are charged to be compassionate stewards of God’s creatures, and to alleviate their pain and suffering whenever we can.”
Dr. Brandywine took off his top hat and threw it to the ground. He was shaking with rage. He pointed a trembling finger at Dr. Poppit. “We took an oath sir, as medical men. First, do no harm! Have your forgotten? Is your conscience so utterly atrophied by your vainglorious designs? And you, Reverend, supposed representative of the Almighty. What would God say to your removing the power of life and death from His hands and placing it at your own disposal, for your own ends? You usurp the very deity that you purport to obey.”
At this, the Reverend removed a white glove from his waist pocked and slapped the young doctor squarely across the cheek. “Hold your tongue, boy! Do you not know your place here? You are a junior physician, fresh from the academy. You come perilously close to the venting of a spleen that best be kept in check.”
Dr. Poppit waved his hand casually and laughed. “Now, now, Reverend. No need for all that. Indeed, we have exposed him in the raw to the exhilarating ideas of the future, for which only a few, visionary men such as ourselves are fully prepared to cogitate. The boy will come round in due time.”
“Absolutely never, I’m afraid,” said Dr. Brandywine defiantly. “I will not shirk my duty to explain everything I have seen herein to Her Majesty’s Commission on the Insane. I will personally see to it that this devilish monster you have constructed is never deployed for the fiendish ends you would propel it toward. I do not know whose conscience is more impaired, yours or that of the beast you have created. Good day, gentlemen.”
“Really, Brandywine, you would throw away a promising career on a whim because of a petty difference of opinion? That seems unlike a rational member of our profession,” said Dr. Poppit.
“I would rather remain penniless and in tatters with unsullied virtue, than build a reputation under false pretenses with blackguards and would-be killers. Again, I bid you good day.”
“Sit down, boy,” Dr. Poppit commanded ominously. “We aren’t through yet.”
“Do you intend to have your iron devil restrain me?”
“To the contrary, I merely wish to show you that we are not the blackguards you take us to be. You must understand our perspective. Let me help you understand. Please, take a spot of tea.”
“Tea? Don’t be absurd. I have no desire to sup with you. Detain me no longer!”
“Really? Wouldn’t you like some tea? I think you’re feeling very, very hot, Dr. Brandywine. You are parched. Focus on my voice, boy. Listen to my voice. Come, sit beside me.” Dr. Poppit had removed a silver pocket watch attached by a long chain. He was dangling it before Dr. Brandywine, whose eyes were suddenly wide and watery. He hesitated a moment, then, staring at the undulating watch, he stepped back into the room and sat down. He swallowed hard and loosened the knots of his tie, and undid the top button of his tunic. “That’s it, Dr. Brandywine. See the swirls on the watch. Focus. Focus your attention. With every undulation of my watch, you are deeper and deeper in my trance. Your will is my will. Your mind is my mind. Do you understand, Dr. Brandywine?”
“You are very parched. You are alone, alone wandering in the Sahara desert. The sun is shining down on you. It is unbearably hot, and you are unspeakably thirsty. The only relief is a cup of tea. Only a cup of tea will assuage your severe thirst.”
Dr. Brandywine was moaning and fidgeting uncomfortably. “Please,” he begged. “Might I have a cup of tea? Just one? Please?”
“Of course! Excalibur, tea and sympathy, extra sympathy. Help the doctor sleep. He is very tired.” By that command, the automaton knew to mix the tea with milk of the poppy as well as Mrs. Right-Away’s Tincture of Opium Cure All. Excalibur stood up and bent his gargantuan tea pot head forward toward a cup he held in his lobster-claw hands. Just then, his pincher fumbled the cup to the ground. Momentarily distracted by this event, the iron devil poured scalding water all over Dr. Brandywine’s face and hands. The doctor tried to scream, but it was too late.
“Would you like some tea and sympathy?” said Excalibur as he continued pouring.
“Stop!” cried Dr. Poppit. “Cease tea and sympathy! Cease!”
Dr. Brandywine lay on the ground, moaning and writhing unconsciously, whether still in a trance or because of shock from his severe burns, no one knew. His mouth and lips had fused shut, and his face was a mess of burnt and partially-melted flesh. His fingers were also fused and partially destroyed. They twitched at his sides in an expression of severe, torturous pain.
“My God! What have you done?” said the Reverend, putting a hand to his mouth.
“Quick, get him to the surgery. I must operate immediately if I am to save him. Excalibur, carry him!”
They rushed to the surgery with the badly injured doctor and laid him on the operating table. “Excalibur, hypodermic needle. Twenty cubic centimeters of morphia sulphate, intravenous route.” The automaton projected a needle from one of its claws and complied. “Excalibur, ether.” After the automaton placed the mask, Dr. Poppit opened the gravely injured doctor’s lips with a scalpel. His chest rose and fell with violent paroxysms.
“He cannot breathe!” said Reverend Loving, who began a panicked benediction for the life before them.
“His tongue is swollen. It blocks the air passage. I must operate now if he is to live.”
“My God, no!”
“Yes, hand me the scalpel.”
By the end of the operation, Dr. Brandywine lay nearly comatose, his face and head completely bandaged. His bloody, severed tongue rested in a steel tray on one side of the table, his mangled hands in the other. A tube protruded through the bandages from his mouth. Dr. Poppit sighed and wiped the sweat from his brow and the blood from his hands. “With the tube in place, he will be able to take nutrients. I will take him to my chambers to complete his recovery. I think he will live.”
Reverend Loving shook his head wretchedly. “Live? What kind of a life? He has nothing but death to look forward to now.”
This raised Dr. Poppit’s ire. “Do not doubt that I did all that was in my power to do. I merely wanted to persuade the boy. I never intended to maim him. My bungling automaton is to blame. Could I have known Excalibur, with all his exquisiteness and precision, would initiate such a disaster? Never! What’s done is done. We must never speak of this incident again. Can I have your word on that Reverend, your solemn oath?”
“Very well, but what of his family? What of his friends?”
“I will see to those details. Trouble yourself with this matter no more, and remember, speak of it never again ... or do so at your own peril.”
A few days later, Dr. Brandywine’s labored respirations and fitful paroxysms ceased. Without having regained consciousness, he left the corporeal world. Dr. Poppit stole out at midnight under a full moon to Bedlam’s cemetery. On the crumbing tombstones were marked numbers, not names, for none of the forlorn inmates were claimed by any in life or death. Not so the promising young Dr. Brandywine, whose family had made inquiries but hours after he failed to return home to a fine dinner of stout and shepherd’s pie. With constant, backwards, furtive glances, Dr. Poppit opened the grave nearest the back entrance, from which shadows he anxiously emerged. He placed the young doctor’s body atop the moldering bones of the nameless inmate who already occupied the spot and reburied them both, and so marked the unholy transformation of young Dr. Brandywine to inmate number 5091. Then, Dr. Poppit betook himself to return to his office and penned a letter he hoped that his family would believe.
My dearest family, how it pains me to pen this missive. Unfortunately, I have harbored in my breast a dark secret that I have always lacked the courage to tell you. The profession of medicine, while richly rewarding in status, has filled me with horror, having brought me into contact with those human frailties that bind our existence and mark us as mortal. I know you had pinned great hopes on my becoming a medical man, but a recent phrenological test proved that I have a woman’s delicate temperament, and thus am unsuited to work or intellectual pursuits of any kind. Indeed, I nearly faint as I write this, so weak and dainty have I become!
Nay, I shall no more practice the medical arts. Instead, I shall pursue a career tending furry, gentle things. In short, I have left the country with a band of gypsies and I am studying the art of training performing rabbits for the circus while I read fortunes using pink cystals. I have always had a fondness of pink cystals, though every time I attempted to raise the subject, some one would ask me a question about physik or anatomy, leaving me alone in my appreciation of those enigmatic, clear stones. For me, lagomorphs are even more key to the contents of a man’s soul—even a womanly man such as myself. I could stare into a bunny’s eyes for hours and feel I am looking into my own soul, or the face of God.
My final piece of medical advice to you is thus: apply Mrs. Right-A-Way’s Tincture of Opium Cure-All to whatever ails you, for it tightens the bowels and ends the filthy urge to self-abuse. Indeed, it helped me choose this path. You’ve been like a mother to me, Mrs. Right-A-Way (sorry mother!).
Farewell for now, dear ones. If you ever run across Fonso and Ferka’s Traveling Bunny Crystal Show, feel free to ask Fonso for the whereabouts of Shandor, Master of the Furry Hoppers, and I shall be glad to see you. Until then, dear family,
I am your humble, loving relation,
Dr. Brandywine (a.k.a. Shandor, Master of the Furry Hoppers)