Home > The Asylum (The Vampire Diaries: Stefan's Diaries #5)(9)

The Asylum (The Vampire Diaries: Stefan's Diaries #5)(9)
Author: L.J. Smith

Watching Damon use compulsion reminded me of when, as a child, he would turn a magnifying glass on the ants that marched around the porch of Veritas. They’d be minding their own business when all of a sudden, they’d be caught and writhing in Damon’s grasp. It was as terrible to watch then as it was now, even though I knew it was necessary.

“One thousand pounds!” Sister Benedict gasped. “Why, that would do so much for our girls. And, of course, for this girl you found, whom we’re most eager to assist,” she said, shooting a look at Cora, who kept her eyes downcast. “We have much experience reclaiming the souls of the wicked.”

“The girl’s name is Co… Cordelia,” I lied. Cordelia had been our maid back in Mystic Falls. She’d been wise and watchful, and I’d always suspected she knew of Katherine’s true nature. In many ways, Cora had similar attributes. “And she’s not wicked. Not like that. We found her outside a tavern where she worked as a barmaid. She had been thrown out on the street for refusing the tavern owner’s advances.”

“Well, I do appreciate two generous, God-fearing men like you taking an interest in her and in our mission. We’ll set her on the path to a better way of life. And to thank you for your generous donation, of course you’re invited to our benefit at the end of the week.”

“A benefit?” Damon asked, leaning toward her. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a photograph on the wall, underneath a picture of a sorrowful Saint Anthony. The photograph was of Samuel, smiling triumphantly as he cut a ribbon in front of the same heavy black doors.

“Why, yes,” Sister Benedict said. “All the girls get to go; it’s a very exciting event. Samuel Mortimer arranges it. I’m sure you know of him?” she asked expectantly.

Damon’s mouth twisted into a grimace. “I do. Mr. Mortimer is a shining beacon of philanthropy, a truly inspiring man. Unfortunately, our family got into a bit of a messy disagreement years back, and there’s still some bad blood between our clans. I’d just as rather be … silent donors,” Damon explained.

“Of course,” Sister Benedict said quickly.

“Thank you,” Damon said as I pulled at my collar. The room was boiling, and I felt uncomfortable in more ways than one.

“I know you’re both busy, so let’s get Cordelia taken care of and up on her feet.” Sister Benedict snapped her fingers, and immediately I heard the clicking sounds of footsteps on the wood floor. A tall nun, nearly my height and twice my girth, stormed into the room. Her face was long and horselike, with a pointy nose and lips so thin and pale they almost disappeared into her face. She had a few errant black whiskers sticking out from her chin. I recoiled. Nun or not, she was the ugliest woman I’d ever seen.

“Sister Agatha, we have another girl. And she’s come to us in the nick of time.” Sister Benedict pointed at Cora. “Don’t worry, gentlemen. You did well to bring her to us. By the time she’s rehabilitated, no one will even recognize her.”

“Please take good care of her,” I said as Sister Agatha escorted Cora out of the room. The nun glanced at me over her shoulder disdainfully, and I felt my stomach sink. Cora was in for a rough time.

Cora turned to us from the doorway. “Thank you so much, sirs. I hope to one day repay your kindness.” She gazed straight at me and smiled sweetly.

I nodded, and she gave me an almost imperceptible wink.

“Sister Agatha will take great care of her,” Sister Benedict said haughtily.

“Of course,” Damon said soothingly. “My brother sometimes takes the concept of turning the other cheek and being kind to the needy a bit too far. But there are worse vices. To set his mind at ease, and for our own consideration as we allocate funds for the Magdalene Asylum, may we have a tour? We always like to feel invested in the causes we support, and we’d like to make sure young Cordelia is in the place most appropriate to her needs.”

I had to hand it to Damon: When it came to getting his way, he was good.

Sister Benedict rose from her chair. “It’s normally against policy to allow gentlemen inside. But considering your generosity, as well as your clear commitment to the poor, lost girls of Whitechapel, I suppose I could show you around. But I do have to warn you. The girls are not fully rehabilitated, and seeing a member of the opposite sex sometimes overexcites them.”

“Thank you for letting us know,” Damon said seriously. “We’ll be careful.”

“Just don’t be alarmed. Follow me,” she directed. “Sister Agatha will take Cordelia on her own tour and get her settled. I’m certain you’ll feel it’s the right place for her,” Sister Benedict said as she swept out the door, hardly looking back to see if we were following as she led us deeper into the Asylum.

The more steps we took into the basement, the hotter it became. Damon had been wrong. The tunnel wasn’t the closest we could get to hell—the basement of the Magdalene Asylum was.

At the end of the staircase was a single wooden door. Sister Benedict, seemingly unaffected by the temperature, twisted the knob and instantly, I realized why it was so hot. Vast metal tubs full of scalding water crowded the room, each one lined with girls in gray smocks, their sleeves rolled up as they washed pile after pile of soiled linen.

“This is our laundry room, where the girls work. They clean the linens from the Magdalene Sisters of Charity hospital. We find that physical labor prevents idle thoughts. And since idle thoughts lead to evil deeds, they are literally scrubbing their minds clean of sin,” she explained proudly, gesturing to the rows of girls bent over scrub boards. Their faces were bright red and shiny with sweat, and none of them acknowledged one another, nor the fact that we were watching and talking about them as though they were animals in a zoo.

Just then, Sister Benedict turned and directed her gaze toward a small, dark-haired girl in the corner. The girl’s shoulder blades stuck out from beneath her gray cotton smock like wings.

“Daphne,” she barked. The girl turned toward us, blinking in fear. “Idle hands are the devil’s tools.”

I suddenly regretted our decision to bring Cora here. When she had first told us about the Magdalene Asylum, I’d imagined it to be similar to the rooming houses above the Ten Bells: full of girls who’d fallen on hard times, but who had a roof over their heads and friends to commiserate with. I wasn’t expecting it to be some sort of workhouse. Even the tunnel seemed better than this. I wondered if it was too late to free Cora; I didn’t want her to have to endure even a day of this torment.

“I’m sorry, Sister!” the girl said as she went back to rubbing a sheet against the board.

“May we see the rest of the facility?” I asked, wanting to spare the girl another moment of Sister Benedict’s presence.

“See the rest of the facility?” Sister Benedict repeated, her glasses sliding down her nose. “Well, it wouldn’t be appropriate to allow gentlemen into the living quarters, where the girls change and sleep. We do want to protect our charges.”

I was tempted to argue, but didn’t. Instead, I stared into her watery eyes, concentrating on a single white speck embedded in her left iris. In a young woman, the mark would have been fascinatingly beautiful, but on Sister Benedict it looked sinister.

“I understand that,” I said slowly. “But it’s nowhere near nightfall. We simply want to see whether we should add an additional donation for the improvement of the facilities.”

Sister Benedict’s eyes lit up greedily. “Oh! Well, in that case, I’m sure we can make an exception,” she said. “All right. But only briefly,” she allowed as she turned on her heel, her long robe sweeping the path we were to follow.

As we walked up the stairs, I heard a far-off shriek. It was a heartwrenching cry, but Sister Benedict didn’t seem the least bit perturbed.

“Did you hear that?” I asked Damon softly, but Damon only shrugged.

“How many girls are here?” I asked.

“We usually have fifty or so at a time. And of course, our hope is that they will all be rehabilitated. But some…” Sister Benedict shook her head. “Some are too far gone by the time they get to us. Imagine a pigeon getting stuck on a slick of tar. If you got it out right away, brushed off its feathers, and cleaned its feet, it’d be right as rain. But wait too long, and it’s stuck. Ruined. We hope to get the girls before that point. And of course, before anything else gets them,” she added.

“Such as Jack the Ripper?” I asked.

“Shh!” She turned to me sharply. “We don’t speak of him here. We don’t want to frighten the girls.”

At the top of the stairs, she took an iron key from a ring hidden in the voluminous folds of her robe, and opened a large wooden door.

I blinked. The room was ballroom-sized and lined with fifty identical cots pushed close together. Some were occupied even though it was daytime. I saw a girl at the far end of the room writhing back and forth, as if in terrible pain. Her hands were over her face and she was making low, guttural sounds.

“What happened to her?” Damon asked.

“She has bad dreams, that one. Doesn’t talk to anyone. We’re waiting for the doctor to come and see what’s wrong.” Sister Benedict sighed heavily.

Just then, a door at the opposite end of the room opened and Cora shuffled in, followed by Sister Agatha. Cora was dressed in the same floor-length shapeless gray smock all the other girls wore, and her hair was covered by a dingy gray bonnet. Her eyes were wide with fright, and even from across the room I could tell she was no longer acting.

“Well, that was everything. Are you satisfied with our facilities?” Sister Benedict asked.

I stole a glance at Cora, who nodded and tried to look more confident.

“Yes,” I said, hoping I wouldn’t regret it.

“Good,” Sister Benedict’s face broke into a smile. “Now, if you’ll be so kind as to come back downstairs, we’ll discuss the specifics of your donation.”

“Please,” I said. “Before we depart, I want to say goodbye to Cordelia. I’d like to leave her with some encouraging words, if that’s all right, ma’am… I mean, Sister,” I said, catching myself.

“Of course,” Sister Benedict agreed. I crossed the room, grateful that Sister Agatha took the hint and stepped a few paces away. Damon did his part by distracting the nuns with questions about how the Asylum was founded.

“Cora,” I said, making sure I stood far enough away that our conversation wouldn’t arouse the suspicion of the nuns. I took in her new attire, my gaze landing on her bare neck.

“Where’s your charm?” I asked urgently.

“They made me take it off, but I have it in my pocket.” She gave me a crooked smile. “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine. I can handle myself. And these nuns seem harsh, but they’re nothing like the ones that taught us at the parish school back in Ireland,” she said, trying to assuage my fears.

She was brave, but that didn’t mean we needed to be reckless. “If it ever gets to be too much, or too dangerous … we can track Samuel another way. We can—”

“I’ll be fine. We don’t have much time now. Meet me across from the gates tomorrow morning at six-thirty sharp. The girls all go to the morning mass at seven. I’ll sneak away.”

Just then, I heard the insistent sound of rosary beads clicking closer toward me. I whirled around.

“Are you ready?” Sister Agatha asked, arching one of her dark eyebrows. Damon trailed after her.

“Yes,” I said.

Damon cleared his throat. “We’ll be back soon. And remember, you’ve already received our first check,” Damon said, pinning the nun with his eyes. Sister Benedict nodded once as she escorted us out of the room, down the stairs, and back outside.

“We’ll take good care of Cordelia,” Sister Benedict said as she closed the door on us. “And of course, the invitation to the benefit is an open one. I know the world of business can be godless, but in good deeds there’s always unity. And with such a handsome check, I can’t imagine that our benefactor, Mr. Mortimer, wouldn’t want to thank you himself.”

“I agree, and when the time is right, we’ll be delighted to meet with him,” Damon said, sarcasm so heavy in his voice I shot a warning glance at him. There was a chill in the air, and the sky was filled with large black rain clouds. A few drops spattered against my coat. I glanced up, trying to gauge when the clouds would break.

All I could hope was that the storm wasn’t a warning of things to come.

8

I glanced back at the imposing door of the Magdalene Asylum, wondering if Cora was being put straight to work in the laundry or whether our fake generosity would inspire leniency. For Cora’s sake, I hoped so.

“Let’s have a drink. A tumbler of whiskey might calm your nerves,” Damon suggested as soon as we turned the corner.

I considered the offer. I was hungry, and whiskey often worked well to quench a craving. But whiskey had a less predictable effect on Damon. Sometimes, he could drink it and seem relaxed, as though he didn’t have a care in the world. Other times, he’d drink it and seem edgy and violent. I decided to take my chances.

“That’d be nice,” I said.

Damon nodded as he turned away from Whitechapel. “You know, brother, there was a time I thought we’d never speak civilly to each other again. But now look at us. You’ve changed.”

What about last night? I wanted to ask. I didn’t. It was funny the way that just the mention of Katherine’s name could unhinge him, even after all these years. But if he wasn’t bringing up her name now, I certainly wouldn’t either. Instead, I indulged in his belief that we were getting along exceptionally well. Maybe the more I tried to believe it, the more it would be true.

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