Prologue: A Confidential History of the Brooklyn Asylum Itself (1)
by Brian Phillips · April 27, 2010
It happened in the early years of the City of Brooklyn that a man called Salzach, a German of Bavarian descent, lost his mind. He was ripping apart old sacks in the yard behind the hostelry when it happened. The innkeeper, who glanced out from the kitchen window a few minutes later, was alarmed to see him shaking his fist and furiously addressing a cat that was sunning itself on the tree stump. Evidently harboring some inkling of suspicion against Herr Salzach already, the innkeeper wasted no time in dispatching the Irish boy, Michael, to the police.
The constable was dozing on his stool.
“Mr. O’Connell,” Michael urged, tugging at his sleeve, “please, sir, come awake, won’t you, Mr. Merrick says I’m to tell you the ostler’s run mad, sir, please.”
Mr. O’Connell roused himself with a snort and peered down at the boy over his mustache and his bulk. “Mad, then, is he? Mad, do you say?” He reflected on the information, by which he appeared suitably impressed. “Mad, it is. My, my. I never thought I’d see the day in Brooklyn. Well, which of the stablemen is it, Jem the ginger idler, or that other fellow, with the starveling crucified look?”
“The other fellow, sir,” said Michael. “That Salzach.”
When they had walked a short way toward the hotel Mr. O’Connell came to an abrupt halt and seized Michael by the shoulder. “Now, say, Michael,” he began. “You don’t mention whether this ostler fellow is one of them dangerous lunatic types.”
“He’s dangerous, I think. Mr. Merrick said he was angling to slaughter the cat.”
“You’re sure about that, then? You’re sure he couldn’t be one of them peaceful, gentle fools?”
Michael shook his head firmly. No event of this magnitude had occurred within his memory, and he was determined that the moment should not be diminished.
“One of them peaceful, gentle fools, Michael, like they put on display at St. Pancras?”
“Mr. Merrick said about the cat, sir.”
The constable appeared seriously impressed with this reply. They set out again, this time at a substantially reduced pace resulting from what Mr. O’Connell inwardly described as a need to rally his forces.
At the hotel they found a small crowd gathered in the stable-yard. Michael’s eyes followed the general gaze upward to the roof, where he saw Salzach balanced on a dormer, scowling at a large sheet of paper that he held outstretched in one hand. Michael wondered what had become of the cat. He looked around, but didn’t see her about. Mr. Merrick was coming toward him across the yard. To send him out on another errand, likely. Michael ducked through the crowd and slipped in at the stable. He climbed expertly up to the loft—his loft—where through a crack in the wall he could survey the whole of the main house. As he curled up to put his eye to the opening, his foot disturbed something in the straw. It was the yellowing copy of Captain Wainscot’s Voyages and Travels that he had kept hidden here since last summer. Without looking away from Salzach, he replaced the loose straw around the old volume and patted it down for concealment. Salzach had always been a bit queer, though he could play the fiddle and seldom raised his voice. Now he had finally snapped. Michael wondered what could be written on the paper in the madman’s hand.
The constable’s arrival had created a minor sensation in the crowd, and Mr. O’Connell, his forces rallying before the agreeable activity, was dispensing plans and advice. “Now, Tom Merrick,” he said, ostensibly to the innkeeper but really to the whole crowd, “what we have here is a dangerous sort of lunatic. It’s no use telling me; I can see it myself. I had thought—I had thought”—he blew a burst of resigned air into his mustache—“that we might have the good fortune of observing one of them peaceful fools of the sort I have long ago scrutinized. But this Mr. Salzach of yours has done two things here which guard against that finding. He has took to the roof unbidden, and he has seemingly savaged a cat. Now, I’m no lawyering type, Tom Merrick, you well know”—the crowd chuckled—“but them are not the actions of a gentle, peaceful fool. Disgraceful, wild-haired fellow as he is, he must be handled as dangerous. I’ll need three strong men to wrestle him while I give the orders.”
Mr. O’Connell’s brave speech having served, briefly, to attract attention away from the man on the roof, Michael was the only person who noticed when Salzach began to read from his strange paper. He read as if aloud, but silently, moving his lips and gesticulating as if he were delivering a severe oration, but without producing any audible sound. It was a sight that made Michael shiver. The madman was possessed by an aura of utter certitude, of wisdom, even—Michael thought fleetingly of the one-eyed preacher Captain Wainscot had encountered at Port Royal—but whatever message he was trying to articulate remained locked in his own head.
A renewed stir below heralded the arrival of a tall ladder carried by Jem, the hostelry’s sole sane stable-hand, and Abraham, the black carpenter. The ladder was placed against the wall, whereupon the two carriers and the rest of the crowd backed away from it, forming a small circle of empty space in which Mr. O’Connell—who had failed to attract any volunteers with his vision of lunatic-wrestling—stood blinking forlornly. Shifting his considerable weight from one small foot to the other, he stared up at the eave with a feeling that his forces had deserted him. “Well, William O’Connell,” he said to himself, “such was ever the lonely fate of the law.” And with a great deal of care, and of tottering, and of blowing huge puffs of air into his mustache, he began the process of surmounting the roof, in glacial pursuit of his oblivious intended victim.
Salzach continued to pantomime the act of declaiming from his paper. He showed no interest even when Mr. O’Connell began edging toward him along the steep and, to Mr. O’Connell’s mind, quite plainly lethal shingles of the rooftop. “Now, mind, sir,” said the constable, in what he took for a soothing voice. “Be a good little lunatic, now. No struggling please with them scrawny wicked arms. I mean to tackle you and put you in the jail, where you may rot away as happy as the sun. And the less you struggle and resist, the less chance there is of my valuable brains being dashed out on them nasty stones underneath. I’ve seen plenty such good lunatics at St. Pancras, where they sat about like angels, so pale and uncertain you’d have thought they were proper lambs. Don’t you reckon, Mr. Salzach?” And he collared him.
The second Salzach was touched, however, he ceased his dumb show and sprang savagely upon Mr. O’Connell, who, startled to be faced with the very action he had been expecting, flung himself backward in self-defense, causing both men to go tumbling down the slope of the roof, then over the edge and onto the ground. This had the effect of shocking the men in the crowd into action more successfully than Mr. O’Connell’s earlier speech had done, and a battle ensued, during which the madman, his paper crushed into a ball and stripped from his hands, briefly managed to keep it away from his tormentors by kicking it in circles around them. Eventually, however, he was restrained, and Mr. O’Connell (who had spent the exciting minutes of the fight rallying his forces from a supine position) was hoisted to his feet, and Salzach was loaded onto a sled and carted off to the jail. The crowd trailed after him, murmurously agreeing that Salzach had never been quite right, you could say it was just being a German but there was more to it than that, something odd about him from the beginning, they had always felt it, they should have foreseen this day.
Salzach’s paper, now sadly crumpled, was left unnoticed in the corner by the pump. Michael came down out of his stable-loft and took it.
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