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ISFDB.org Magazine Entry



Weird Tales May, 1948

Each dark, downward pathway of the mind is an adventure, dangerous.... deadly....

CLAY

BY C. HALL THOMPSON

I HAVE not been there since. I am not alone in this. It has come to my knowledge that all the doctors who once held residences in the Institution on the northern lip of Dunnesmouth, have quit the place never to return. It is not strange. Men who shared such memories were bound to run. from the doomed house that spawned them. Wickford could not have stayed on, anymore than I; even that enthusiastic youngster of medicine, Fothering, was badly shaken by the hideous outcome of the case of Jeremy Bone. These men stood in the soundless chapel, and remembered mouldering death discovered in its dim alcoves; they passed the room once occupied by Jeremy Bone, and saw again the foul liquescent thing that rose from lost hells to defy the reasoning of normal minds. Is it a wonder that they left and did not go back?

But, others, who have never heard of the Curse of the Mark of Clay, have ventured once or twice into that ill-reputed region near Dunnesmouth. I have heard them speak of crumbling porticos and eaves sagged in, and boys from the village who come witchhunting by night, tossing stones at the ghost of the moon in shattered windowpanes. They say the road is strangled with brambles and the wrought iron fence leans drunkenly inward; the gate is unhinged and rust has eaten at the brass plaque on the gatepost. But, if one dares come close enough, one may still read the name, Wickford House, and below it, in barren letters, the solitary word: ASYLUM.

In an earlier, happy time, Wickford House was quite different. There was no smell of musty documents hidden away in a teak wood case; there were no stains of clay on a swollen purple throat. The lawns were green and fresh with New England dew; the house was well-kept, with white porticos and green shutters and an air of gentle peace. Boys played at simple sports on the enclosed lawns; their faces were calm, unworried; white-coated attendants moved among them almost unnoticed. At times, even now, the memory of Doctor Gaunt's hearty laughter overshadows the horror of those later days. Peter Gaunt understood the "boys"; he could handle them as none else could. Even Wickford admitted that, under Gaunt's care, the boys never seemed what they were—inmates of an asylum for the insane.

Insane. Perhaps my use of that word is ill-advised. Of late, I cannot hear it spoken without experiencing a sickly mental shudder. It holds forbidding nuances that terrify me as they never could in the old days. It is a word I once thought I understood; today, I am not so sure. It was a word Peter Gaunt hated; a strange statement to make regarding a psychiatrist, is is not? Still, every aspect of this, affair has been strange— horribly strange. Insane. Yes. That was the word Gaunt and Wickford were arguing over the night of the day Jeremy Bone came to Gaunt's ward.

We were finishing our brandy in the leathery seclusion of the library. It was a large room, high-ceilinged, with an antiquated, smoke-grimed fireplace. Booklined walls and velvet portieres drawn across the casements to shut out the whimper of the rain gave it an air of snugness and peace. The boys were settled for the night in their dormitories; occasionally, a man in white passed along the darkened corridors. That' was all. Even the shrill laughter of the boy called Trask, who had spells of hilarity in the loneliness of rainy nights, seemed distant and undisturbing. I dawdled over a volume of Stekel, not really reading; over the booktop, I studied Wickford.

FIRE light made his round face rounder and more ruddy. White hair rose from tlae massive forehead like a leonine mane. Wickford wiped pince-nez on an immaculate handkerchief. He was the portrait of a satisfied successful man of medicine; he had made his mark; in the realm "of psychiatric research, the name Harrison Wickford was one to conjure with; his was a voice to listen to. At sixty-odd, the head of his own sanitarium, author of countless theses, calm, smiling, self-confident. His voice had adopted a sure, pedantic tone.

"...All they require is care, patience, occasional restraint," he was telling Gaunt. "Keeping these in mind, it's easy enough to handle the insane...."

Peter Gaunt winced, turning a weary smile on me. I smiled back.

One of Wickford's eyebrows arched petulantly; he didn't like the thought of being laughed at.

"I wasn't aware I'd said anything humorous...."

"Insane." Gaunt stared at his brandy. "That word is so definite—hopeless...."

Wickford shrugged. "Insanity is a very definite thing."

"Is it?" The bony head moved from side to side. "I'm not at all certain. Can we say definitely that a man is insane because he is unlike us—his mind functions a shade differently? The borderline between the sane and insane, between fact and fantasy, is too shadowy for any explicit delineation. Perhaps we have no right to brand these boys with the cold, irrevocable word, Insane; perhaps they are confused, frightened, pushed too close to that shadowline between to distinguish reality from fantasy.... But, then, at times, aren't we all...?"

Wickford looked vague; his pink soft hand waved indefinitely. He laughed. "Bosh, my dear Gaunt! Sheer bosh! Why if that's how you look at it, there is no way of telling just where sanity ends and insanity begins; no way of being certain of your shadowing of 'fact and fantasy.' ... How could we know exactly who is sane or insane...?"

Dark eyes fastened on Wickford. Peter Gaunt gave him a sharp quizzical grin.

"Precisely," he said. "How?"

Wickford's mouth was a surprised "O." His eyes went blank, then he must have decided it was all a joke, for he laughed and jogged my elbow.

"I say, sometimes I do believe this Gaunt of ours belongs among the boys rather than the doctors...."

The laugh got loud. I smiled politely. Gaunt smiled wearily.

Wickford changed the subject; he turned to Gaunt.

"Speaking of boys, have you seen the new one I had transferred to your ward today...?"

"You mean Bone?" Gaunt nodded thoughtfully. "I've seen him."

There was a hollow tone to the words; they echoed in the silent room. A log-corpse sagged on the grate.

"Bone," Wickford said. "Yes, that's it. Jeremy Bone. Odd name, eh? Decidedly odd case, too. Seemed to be doing very poorly; no progress toward normalcy. Those delusions of persecution persist; he keeps talking of a person he calls Oliver, who tortures him.... I thought you might do something with him. You've a way with stubborn cases...."

My curiosity was peaked. That was the first I'd heard of Jeremy Bone. I wish now I'd never heard the damnable sound of his name. But that night I felt no presentiment of horror; I felt only curiosity.

"Bone?" I leaned forward. "Who is he? What's his history...?"

"That's right," Gaunt said. "I'd forgotten. You haven't seen him...."

He lit his pipe and blew out the match.

"As Doctor Wickford said, it's a fascinating case. This Jeremy Bone is quite young —seventeen, I believe—and, to be quite truthful,...

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