Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mystic London, by Charles Maurice Davies, 1875 - Chapter V - A Lunatic Ball

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CHAPTER V.

    A  LUNATIC BALL.

    ONE half of the world believes the other half to be mad ;  and who shall decide which moiety is right, the reputed  lunatics or the supposed sane, since neither  party can be unprejudiced in the matter? At present  the minority believe that it is a mere matter of  numbers, and that if intellect carried the day, and  right were not overborne by might, the position of  parties would be exactly reversed. The dilemma  forced itself strongly on my consciousness for a solution  when I attended the annual ball at Hanwell  Lunatic Asylum. The prevailing opinion inside the  walls was that the majority of madmen lay outside,  and that the most hopelessly insane people in all the  world were the officers immediately concerned in the  management of the establishment itself.
    It way a damp, muggy January evening when I  journeyed to this suburban retreat. It rained dismally,  and the wind nearly blew the porter out of his  lodge as he obeyed our summons at the Dantesque  portal of the institution, in passing behind which so  many had literally abandoned hope. I tried to fancy  how it would feel if one were really being consigned [-39-] to that receptacle by interested relatives, as we read  in three-volume novels; but it was no use. I was  one of a merry company on that occasion. The  officials of Hanwell Asylum had been a little shy of  being handed down to fame ; so I adopted the ruse  of getting into Herr Gustav Kuster's corps of fiddlers  for the occasion. However, I must in fairness add  that the committee during the evening withdrew the  taboo they had formerly placed on my writing. I  was free to immortalize them; and my fiddling was  thenceforth a work of supererogation.
    High jinks commenced at the early hour of six; and  long before that time we had deposited our instruments  in the Bazaar, as the ball-room is somewhat incongruously  called, and were threading the Daedalean  mazes of the wards. Life in the wards struck me as  being very like living in a passage; but when that  preliminary objection was got over, the long corridors  looked comfortable enough. They were painted in  bright warm colours, and a correspondingly genial  temperature was secured by hot-water pipes running  the entire length. Comfortable rooms opened out  from the wards at frequent intervals, and there was  every form of amusement to beguile the otherwise  irksome leisure of those temporary recluses. Most of  my hermits were smoking - I mean on the male side  - many were reading ; one had a fiddle, and scraped   acquaintance immediately with him ; whilst another  was seated at the door of his snug little bedroom, [-40-] getting up cadenzas on the flute. He was an old trombone-player in one of the household regiments,  an inmate of Hanwell for thirty years, and a fellow bandsman  with myself for the evening. He looked,  I thought, quite as sane as myself, and played magnificently;  but I was informed by the possibly  prejudiced officials that he had his occasional weaknesses.  A second member of Herr Kuster's band  whom I found in durance was a clarionet-player.  formerly in the band of the Second Life Guards ; and  this poor fellow, who was an excellent musician too,  felt his position acutely. He apologized sotto voce  for sitting down with me in corduroys, as well as for  being an "imbecile." He did not seem to question  the justice of the verdict against him, and had not  become acclimatized to the atmosphere like the old  trombone-player.
    That New Year's night - for January was very  young - the wards, especially on the women's side,  were gaily decorated with paper flowers, and all  looked as cheerful and happy as though no shadow  ever fell across the threshold; but, alas, there were  every now and then padded rooms opening out of the  passage; and as this was not a refractory ward, I  asked the meaning of the arrangement, which I had  fancied was an obsolete one. I was told they were  for epileptic patients. In virtue of his official position  as bandmaster, Herr Kuster had a key; and, after  walking serenely into a passage precisely like the [-41-] rest, informed me, with the utmost coolness, that I  was in the refractory ward. I looked around for the  stalwart attendant, who is generally to be seen on  duty, and to my dismay found he was quite at the  other end of an exceedingly long corridor. I do not  know that I am particularly nervous ; but I candidly  confess to an anxiety to get near that worthy official.  We were only three outsiders, and the company  looked mischievous. One gentleman was walking  violently up and down, turning up his coat-sleeves,  as though bent on our instant demolition. Another,  an old grey-bearded man, came up, and fiercely  demanded if I were a Freemason. I was afraid he  might resent my saying I was not, when it happily  occurred to me that the third in our party, an amateur  contra-bassist, was of the craft. I told our old friend  so. He demanded the sign, was satisfied, and, in the  twinkling of an eye, our double-bass friend was  struggling in his fraternal embrace. The warder,  mistaking the character of the hug, hastened to the  rescue, and I was at ease.
    We then passed to the ball-room, where my musical  friends were beginning to "tune up," and waiting for  their conductor. The large room was gaily decorated,  and filled with some three or four hundred patients,  arranged Spurgeon-wise : the ladies on one side, and  the gentlemen on the other. There was a somewhat  rakish air about the gathering, due to the fact of the  male portion not being in full dress, but arrayed in  [-42-] free-and-easy costume of corduroys and felt boots.  The frequent warders in their dark blue uniforms lent  quite a military air to the scene; and on the ladies'  side the costumes were more picturesque ; some little  latitude was given to feminine taste, and the result was  that a large portion of the patients were gorgeous in  pink gowns. One old lady, who claimed to be a scion  of royalty, had a resplendent mob-cap ; but the belles  of the ball-room were decidedly to be found among  the female attendants, who were bright, fresh-looking  young women, in a neat, black uniform, with perky  little caps, and bunches of keys hanging at their  side like the rosary of a soeur de charité, or the  chatelaines with which young ladies love to adorn  themselves at present. Files of patients kept  streaming into the already crowded room, and  one gentleman, reversing the order assigned to  him by nature, walked gravely in on the palms of  his hands, with his legs elevated in air. He had been  a clown at a theatre, and still retained some of the  proclivities of the boards. A wizen-faced man, who  seemed to have no name beyond the conventional one  of "Billy," strutted in with huge paper collars, like  the corner mail in a nigger troupe, and a tin decoration  on his breast the size of a cheeseplate. He was  insensible to the charms of Terpsichore, except in the  shape of an occasional pas seul, and laboured under  the idea that his mission was to conduct the band,  which he occasionally did, to the discomfiture of Herr [-43-]  Kuster, and the total destruction of gravity on the  part of the executants, so that Billy had to be displaced.  It was quite curious to notice the effect of  the music on some of the quieter patients. One or  two, whose countenances really seemed to justify their  incarceration, absolutely hugged the foot of my music-stand,  and would not allow me to hold my instrument  for a moment when I was not playing on it, so  anxious were they to express their admiration of me  as an artist. " I used to play that instrument afore  I come here," said a patient, with a squeaky voice,  who for eleven years has laboured under the idea that  his mother is coming to see him on the morrow;  indeed, most of the little group around the platform  looked upon their temporary sojourn at Hanwell as  the only impediment to a bright career in the musical  world.
    Proceedings commenced with the Caledonians, and  it was marvellous to notice the order, not to say grace  and refinement with which these pauper lunatics went  through their parts in the "mazy." The rosy-faced  attendants formed partners for the men, and I saw a  herculean warder gallantly leading along the stout old  lady in the mob-cap. The larger number of the  patients of course were paired with their fellow-prisoners,  and at the top of the room the officials  danced with some of the swells. Yes, there were  swells here, ball-room coxcombs in fustian and felt.  One in particular was pointed out to me as an [-44-] University graduate of high family, and on my inquiring how such a man became an inmate of a pauper  asylum the offcial said, " You see, sir, when the mind  goes the income often goes too, and the people become  virtually paupers." Insanity is a great leveller, true ;  but I could not help picturing that man's lucid  intervals, and wondering whether his friends might  not do better for him. But there he is, pirouetting  away with the pretty female organist, the chaplain  standing by and smiling approval, and the young  doctors doing the polite to a few invited guests, but  not disdaining, every now and then, to take a turn  with a patient. Quadrilles and Lancers follow, but  no "round dances." A popular prejudice on the part  of the majority sets down such dances as too exciting  for the sensitive dancers. The graduate is excessively  irate at this, and rates the band soundly for not playing  a valse. Galops are played, but not danced; a  complicated movement termed a " Circassian circle"  being substituted in their place. " Three hours of  square dances are really too absurd," said the graduate  to an innocent second fiddle.
    In the centre of the room all was gravity and  decorum, but the merriest dances went on in corners.  An Irish quadrille was played, and an unmistakable  Paddy regaled himself with a most beautiful jig. He  got on by himself for a figure or two, when, remembering,  no doubt, that "happiness was born a  twin," he dived into the throng, selected a white-[-45-]headed old friend of some sixty years, and impressed  him with the idea of a pas de deux. There they kept  it up in a corner for the whole of the quadrille,  twirling imaginary shillelaghs, and encouraging one  another with that expressive Irish interjection which  it is so impossible to put down on paper. For an  hour all went merry as the proverbial marriage bell,  and then there was an adjournment of the male  portion of the company to supper. The ladies remained  in the Bazaar and discussed oranges, with an  occasional dance to the pianoforte, as the band retired  for refreshment too, in one of the attendants' rooms.  I followed the company to their supper room, as I  had come to see, not to eat. About four hundred sat  down in a large apartment, and there were, besides,  sundry snug supper-parties in smaller rooms. Each  guest partook of an excellent repast of meat and  vegetables, with a sufficiency of beer and pipes to  follow. The chaplain said a short grace before  supper, and a patient, who must have been a retired  Methodist preacher, improved upon the brief benediction  by a long rambling "asking of a blessing,"  to which nobody paid any attention. Then I passed  up and down the long rows with a courteous official,  who gave me little snatches of the history of some of  the patients. Here was an actor of some note in  his day ; there a barrister ; here again a clergyman ;  here a tradesman recently "gone," " all through the  strikes, sir," he added. The shadow - that most [-46-] mysterious shadow of all - had chequered life's sunshine in every one of these cases. Being as they are  they could not be in a better place. They have the  best advice they could get even were they - as some  of them claim to be - princes. If they can be cured,  here is the best chance. If not - well, there were  the little dead-house and the quiet cemetery lying  out in the moonlight, and waiting for them when, as  poor maddened Edgar Allen Poe wrote, the " fever  called living," should be "over at last." But who  talks of dying on this one night in all the year when  even that old freemason in the refractory ward war  forgetting, after his own peculiar fashion, the cruel  injustice that kept him out of his twelve thousand a  year and title? Universal merriment is the rule tonight.  Six or seven gentlemen are on their legs at  once making speeches, which are listened to about as  respectfully as the "toast of the evening" at a public  dinner. As many more are singing inharmoniously  different songs ; the fun is getting fast and furious,  perhaps a little too fast and furious, when a readjournment  to the ball-room is proposed, and readily  acceded to, one hoary-headed old flirt remarking to  me as he went by, that he was going to look for his  sweetheart.
    A long series of square dances followed, the graduate  waxing more and more fierce at each disappointment  in his anticipated valse, and Billy giving  out every change in the programme like a parish [-47-] clerk, which functionary he resembled in many,  respects. It was universally agreed that this was the  best party that had ever been held in the asylum,  just as the last baby is always the finest in the  family. Certainly the guests all enjoyed themselves.  The stalwart attendants danced more than ever with  a will, the rosy attendants were rosier and nattier  than before, if possible. The mob-cap went whizzing  about on the regal head of its owner down the middle  of tremendous country dances, hands across, set to  partners, and then down again as though it had never  tasted the anxieties of a throne, or learnt by bitter  experience the sorrows of exile. Even the academical  gentleman relaxed to the fair organist, though he  stuck up his hair stiffer than ever, and stamped his  felt boots again as he passed the unoffending double-bass  with curses both loud and deep on the subject  of square dances. At length came the inevitable  "God Save the Queen," which was played in one key  by the orchestra, and sung in a great many different  ones by the guests. It is no disrespect to Her Majesty  to say that the National Anthem was received  with anything but satisfaction. It was the signal  that the "jinks" were over, and that was quite enough  to make it unpopular. However, they sang lustily  and with a good courage, all except the old woman  in the mob-cap, who sat with a complacent smile as  much as to say, "This is as it should be, I appreciate  the honour done to my royal brothers and sisters."
    [-48-] This is the bright side of the picture ; but it had its  sombre tints also. There were those in all the wards  who stood aloof from the merriment, and would have  none of the jinks. Lean-visaged men walked moodily  up and down the like caged wild beasts.  Their lucid interval was upon them, and they fretted  at the irksome restraint and degrading companionship.  It was a strange thought; but I fancied they  must have longed for their mad fit as the drunkard  longs for the intoxicating draught, or the opium-eater  for his delicious narcotic to drown the idea of  the present. There were those in the ball-room itself  who, if you approached them with the proffered pinch  of snuff, drove you from them with curses. One fine,  intellectual man, sat by the window all the evening,  writing rhapsodies of the most extraordinary character,  and fancying himself a poet. Another wrapped  round a thin piece of lath with paper, and superscribed  it with some strange hieroglyphics, begging  me to deliver it. All made arrangements for their  speedy departure from Hanwell, though many in  that heart-sick tone which spoke of long-deferred  hope - hope never perhaps to be realized. Most  painful sight of all, there was one little girl there,  a child of eleven or twelve years - a child in a  lunatic asylum! Think of that, parents, when you  listen to the engaging nonsense of your little ones - think  of the child in Hanwell wards! Remember  how narrow a line separates innocence from idiocy; [-49-] so narrow a line that the words were once synonymous!
    Then there was the infirmary full of occupants on  that merry New Year's night. Yonder poor patient  being wheeled in a chair to bed will not trouble his  attendant long. There is another being lifted on his  pallet-bed, and having a cup of cooling drink applied  to his parched lips by the great loving hands of a  warder who tends him as gently as a woman. It  seemed almost a cruel kindness to be trying to keep  that poor body and soul together.
    Another hour, rapidly passed in the liberal hospitality  of this great institution, and silence had fallen  on its congregated thousands. It is a small town in  itself, and to a large extent self-dependent and self-governed.  It bakes and brews, and makes its gas;  and there is no need of a Licensing Bill to keep its  inhabitants sober and steady. The method of doing  that has been discovered in nature's own law of kindness.  Instead of being chained and treated as wild  beasts, the lunatics are treated as unfortunate men  and women, and every effort is made to ameliorate,  both physically and morally, their sad condition.  Hence the bright wards, the buxom attendants, the  frequent jinks. Even the chapel-service has been  brightened up for their behoof.
    This was what I saw by entering as an amateur  fiddler Herr Kuster's band at Hanwell Asylum; and  as I ran to catch the last up-train - which I did as [-50-] the saying is by the skin of my teeth - I felt that I  was a wiser, though it may be a sadder man, for my  evening's experiences at the Lunatic Ball.
    One question would keep recurring to my mind.  It has been said that if you stop your ears in a ballroom,  and then look at the people - reputed sane - skipping  about in the new valse or the last galop,  you will imagine they must be all lunatics. I did  not stop my ears that night, but I opened my eyes  and saw hundreds of my fellow-creatures, all with  some strange delusions, many with ferocious and  vicious propensities, yet all kept in order by a few  warders, a handful of girls, and all behaving as decorously  as in a real ball-room. And the question  which would haunt me all the way home was, which  are the sane people, and which the lunatics ?