We were talking about some of the older castles in Touraine and we touched upon the iron cage in which Louis XI imprisoned Cardinal La Balue for six years, then upon oubliettes and such horrors. I had seen several of the latter, simply dry wells thirty or forty feet deep where a man was thrown to wait for nothing; since I have such a tendency to claustrophobia that a Pullman berth is a certain nightmare, they had made a lasting impression. So it was rather a relief when a doctor told this story—that is, it was a relief when he began it for it seemed to have nothing to do with the tortures long ago.
There was a young woman named Mrs. King who was very happy with her husband. They were well-to-do and deeply in love but at the birth of her second child she went into a long coma and emerged with a dear case of schizophrenia or “split personality.” Her delusion, which had something to do with the Declaration of Independence, had little bearing on the case and as she regained her health it began to disappear. At the end of ten months she was a convalescent patient scarcely marked by what had happened to her and very eager to go back into the world.
She was only twenty-one, rather girlish in an appealing way and a favorite with the staff of the sanitarium. When she became well enough so that she could take an experimental trip with her husband there was a general interest in the venture. One nurse had gone into Philadelphia with her to get a dress, another knew the story of her rather romantic courtship in Mexico and everyone had seen her two babies on visits to the hospital. The trip was to Virginia Beach for five days.
It was a joy to watch her make ready, dressing and packing meticulously and living in the gay trivialities of hair waves and such things. She was ready half an hour before the time of departure and she paid some visits on the floor in her powder-blue gown and her hat that looked like one minute after an April shower Her frail lovely face, with just that touch of startled sadness that often lingers after an illness, was alight with anticipation.
“We’ll just do nothing,” she said. “That’s my ambition. To get up when I want to for three straight mornings and stay up late three straight nights. To buy a bathing suit by myself and order a meal.”
When the time approached Mrs. King decided to wait downstairs instead of in her room and as she passed along the corridors with an orderly carrying her suitcase she waved to the other patients, sorry that they too were not going on a gorgeous holiday .The superintendent wished her well, two nurses found excuses to linger and share her infectious joy.
“What a beautiful tan you’ll get, Mrs. King.”
“Be sure and send a postcard.”
About the time she left her room her husband’s car was hit by a truck on his way from the city—he was hurt internally and was not expected to live more than a few hours. The information was received at the hospital in a glassed-in office adjoining the hall where Mrs. King waited. The operator, seeing Mrs. King and knowing that the glass was not sound proof, asked the head nurse to come immediately. The head nurse hurried aghast to a doctor and he decided what to do. So long as the husband was still alive it was best to tell her nothing, but of course she must know that he was not coming today.
Mrs. King was greatly disappointed.
“I suppose it’s silly to feel that way,” she said. “After all these months what’s one more day? He said he’d come tomorrow, didn’t he?”
The nurse was having a difficult time but she managed to pass it off until the patient was back in her room. Then they assigned a very experienced and phlegmatic nurse to keep Mrs. King away from other patients and from newspapers. By the next day the matter would be decided one way or another.
But her husband lingered on and they continued to prevaricate. A little before noon next day one of the nurses was passing along the corridor when she met Mrs. King, dressed as she had been the day before but this time carrying her own suitcase.
”I’m going to meet my husband,“she explained. “He couldn’t come yesterday but he’s coming today at the same time.”
The nurse walked along with her. Mrs. King had the freedom of the building and it was difficult to simply steer her back to her room and the nurse did not want to tell a story that would contradict what the authorities were telling her. When they reached the front hall she signaled to the operator who fortunately under-stood. Mrs. King gave herself a last inspection in the mirror and said:
“I’d like to have a dozen hats just like this to remind me to be this happy always.”
When the head nurse came in frowning a minute later she demanded:
“Don’t tell me George is delayed?”
“I’m afraid he is. There is nothing much to do but be patient.”
Mrs. King laughed ruefully. “I wanted him to see my costume when it was absolutely new.”
“Why, there isn’t a wrinkle in it.”
“I guess it’ll last till tomorrow. I oughtn’t to be blue about wait-ing one more day when I’m so utterly happy.”
That night her husband died and at a conference of doctors next morning there was some discussion about what to do—it was a risk to tell her and a risk to keep it from her. It was decided finally to say that Mr. King had been called away and thus destroy her hope of an immediate meeting; when she was reconciled to this they could tell her the truth.
As the doctors came out of the conference one of them stopped and pointed. Down the corridor toward the outer hall walked Mrs. King carrying her suitcase.
Dr. Pirie, who had been in special charge of Mrs. King, caught his breath.
“This is awful,” he said. “I think perhaps I’d better tell her now. There’s no use saying he’s away when she usually hears from him twice a week, and if we say he’s sick she’ll want to go to him. Anybody else like the job?”
One of the doctors in the conference went on a fortnight’s vacation that afternoon. On the day of his return in the same corridor at the same hour, he stopped at the sight of a little procession coming toward him—an orderly carrying a suitcase, a nurse and Mrs. King dressed in the powder-blue-colored suit and wearing the spring hat.
“Good morning, Doctor,” she said. “I’m going to meet my husband and we’re going to Virginia Beach. I’m going to the hall because I don’t want to keep him waiting.”
He looked into her face, clear and happy as a child’s. The nurse signaled to him that it was as ordered so he merely bowed and spoke of the pleasant weather.
“It’s a beautiful day,” said Mrs. King, “but of course even if it was raining it would be a beautiful day for me.”
The doctor looked after her, puzzled and annoyed—why are they letting this go on, he thought. What possible good can it do?
Meeting Dr. Pirie he put the question to him.
“We tried to tell her,” Dr. Pirie said. “She laughed and said we were trying to see whether she’s still sick. You could use the word unthinkable in an exact sense here—his death is unthinkable to her.”
“But you can’t just go on like this.”
“Theoretically no,” said Dr. Pirie. “A few days ago when she packed up as usual the nurse tried to keep her from going. From out in the hall I could see her face, see her begin to go to pieces—for the first time, mind you. Her muscles were tense and her eyes glazed and her voice was thick and shrill when she very politely called the nurse a liar. It was touch and go there for a minute whether we had a tractable patient or a restraint case—and I stepped in and told the nurse to take her down to the reception room.”
He broke off as the procession that had just passed appeared again, headed back to the ward. Mrs. King stopped and spoke to Dr. Pirie.
“My husband’s been delayed,” she said. “Of course I’m disappointed but they tell me he’s coming tomorrow and after waiting to long one more day doesn’t seem to matter. Don’t you agree with me, Doctor?”
“I certainly do, Mrs. King.”
She took off her hat.
“I’ve got to put aside these clothes—I want them to be as fresh tomorrow as they are today.” She looked closely at the hat. “There’s a speck of dust on it, but I think I can get it off. Perhaps he won’t notice.”
“I’m sure he won’t.”
“Really I don’t mind waiting another day. It’ll be this time tomorrow before I know it, won’t it?”
When she had gone along the younger doctor said:
“There are still the two children.”
“I don’t think the children are going to matter. When she ’went under,’ she tied up this trip with the idea of getting well. If we took it away she’d have to go to the bottom and start over.”
“There’s no prognosis,” said Dr. Pirie. “I was simply explaining why she was allowed to go to the hall this morning.”
“But there’s tomorrow morning and the next morning.”
“There’s always the chance,” said Dr. Pirie, “that some day he will be there.”
The doctor ended his story here, rather abruptly. When we pressed him to tell what happened he protested that the rest was anticlimax—that all sympathy eventually wears out and that finally the staff of the sanitarium had simply accepted the fact.
“But does she still go to meet her husband?”
“Oh yes, it’s always the same—but the other patients, except new ones, hardly look up when she passes along the hall. The nurses manage to substitute a new hat every year or so but she still wears the same suit. She’s always a little disappointed but she makes the best of it, very sweetly too. It’s not an unhappy life as far as we know, and in some funny way it seems to set an example of tranquillity to the other patients. For God’s sake let’s talk about something else—let’s go back to oubliettes.”
Published in Esquire magazine (September 1937).
Illustrations by (unknown Esquire artist).