Artabanzanus/Chapter 10

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Artabanzanus by William Moore Ferrar
Chapter X

CHAPTER X.

TALKS WITH THE DOCTOR.

I may now give some more careful details respecting the underground city which it was my good or evil fortune to visit in company with the Demon. My readers may wish to know how the inhabitants got there, for the balloon, notwithstanding its monstrous size, was only provided with four comfortable seats. What, I may be asked, did their food consist of, and how and where did they procure it? How did horses, and other creatures, get there, and how were they fed? Where and how was the gas, which was in constant consumption, manufactured? Where did they get wood to make their furniture? How make their carriages, their cannon? Who supplied them with gunpowder, and the necessary materials for their mysterious existence?

Once for all, in answer to these questions, I must reply that I cannot tell. My adventure seemed to me so like a hideous dream, with a bright gleam of moral sunshine in it here and there, that it did not occur to me to gather all the information which I ought to have collected. It must be remembered that my visit was a very short one, and more than half of it was spent on a bed of sickness.

With the exception of eating a certain kind of food, the ordinary functions of nature were entirely suspended. The food was a kind of porridge, and seemed to have been dug out of the earth. A very small quantity was sufficient at each meal. No drink, except for the hospital patients, was required; but great princesses, like Bellagranda and Cleopatra, had wine like blood. In Doré's Milton there is an illustration of the lines:

'Their summons called,
From every band and squared regiment
By place or choice the worthiest'—

which represents an innumerable host of the armed inhabitants of hell assembling to the sound of trumpets. While looking on splendid masterpieces of art like that, we do not pause to inquire where all the beautiful horses on which the demons are mounted came from, or where they got their dresses, arms, and accoutrements. So I hope my readers will not be hypercritical. I try to describe the scenes that met my view as simply as possible. Of nearly all the mysterious matters connected with the gloomy pit I am entirely ignorant.

There were no children in this place, and the city seemed sad and desolate without them. I questioned Florian as to the number and quality of the patients in the hospital; but he shook his head, and looked round him with a peculiar smile, intimating that he was forbidden to speak. I myself stood too much in awe of the Doctor to question him on that or any other subject, although he had answered some of my inquiries without getting into a rage. He was evidently possessed of some wonderful powers, for he had threatened to turn his faithful servant into a dancing goat. Could he really do so? and if so, how did he come by his power? If he were the Demon's minister, or colleague, he certainly knew how to play the part of a finished hypocrite, He was either a friend to me, and an enemy to the Demon, or the converse. If my enemy, what object had he in view by pretending to be my friend? If his enemy, how was it that the powerful potentate did not find him out, and punish him accordingly? His power was inferior to that of his master, for he could not effect his own release, and return to the earth. He had no jurisdiction over the lightning balloon. There were diseases among the people which he could not cure. His power appeared to me to be a check upon, or a counterpoise to, that of the Demon, but why should the latter permit this? These were tangled webs, which I could not and did not try to unravel.

Another web, as distracting as that of Penelope, remains behind. The Doctor had asked me what mysterious influence bound me to him. And I now asked myself what extraordinary combination of circumstances was binding him to me. I found myself loving and respecting him more than I had ever loved or respected any man on earth, except two or three very near relatives. If he were in reality a hypocrite and a villain, I could not be drawn to him in this remarkable manner. He was certainly true and honourable, and had a noble and generous mind, although doubtless afflicted with various eccentricities. My astonishing dream had touched him most keenly, and opened up a chapter of his secret history, and I burned with a longing desire to know more about him and his beautiful Helen, but felt that it would be great insolence on my part to ask him to tell me what, possibly, he might have good reasons for concealing.

It was most surprising, too, that he should have seen in his visions the same amber-coloured star that I had seen, and that it had been named to him also as the Star of Victory. What could this mean, and what did it portend? The star and Helen appearing to us both; I sailing with her in her little boat, and walking by her side in her magnificent garden; he coming forth from the grand mansion, fresh and young and in shining garments! And now the possible answer flashed upon me. Did it mean that it was to be my glorious privilege to help him to make his escape from this dreadful den? Was it probable that I a poor weak creature who could not save himself, could assist him to outwit the crafty being who held him in durance! Oh, if I could only help him in the smallest possible way, so that with my help he could fly to the ever-open arms of Him who alone can save, I should be happy—happy for evermore!

My preserver came in for the evening while I was absorbed in these meditations. He seemed tired and woebegone as he sat down, and lit his pipe in silence. I sat in deferential silence, too, stealing a furtive glance at him now and again, wondering if it could be really true that a man of his appearance had been actually born before King Charles the First was beheaded! He did not remain silent long, but, after emitting about a dozen whiffs of smoke, which seemed to cheer him up wonderfully, abruptly addressed me thus:

'You are getting on famously, Ubertus: in four days the Demon will be here, and you must be ready; you will be well enough to go up with him then. I fear that we must then part for ever. During our short acquaintance I have learned to regard you as a friend; I might say to love you as a son, or a brother. I shall be glad on your account when you are gone, sorry enough on my own, if I shall be left behind.'

My eyes filled with tears. 'Is there no probability of your being able to come with us, Doctor?' I asked.

'Scarcely any,' he replied. 'If the Demon should take an obstinate fit it will be impossible to move him. He is jealous and suspicious of me, and he fears my power. He thinks that I have some portion of a Spirit within me which is superior to his, and I think he is right. To go no further than your fascinating friend Bellagranda, he, whom she acknowledges to be her "dear papa," cannot control her when she gets into her tantrums, but is obliged to apply to me for assistance. She is powerful, too, and would fly out on the earth with all her dogs, as an innumerable army of fiery serpents, were it not for my spells and physic. It shows you what evolution is. There is hardly a limit to the power and perfection to which we may arrive in the fulness of time. Seeing that our power is divided—he monarch of the upper world, and prince of the power of the air, and I his physician and supreme elder here in his absence—he thinks that his affairs would go to ruin if I made my escape, which he knows I am longing to do. He will not take me up. Every time he goes himself he has the balloon searched, lest I should be there in the shape of a bird or a mouse. He is pleased to set a very high value upon me and my services, and has told me several times that he would sooner lose a million of his ordinary subjects than his great and clever Director-General. Of course he is a gross flatterer, and a liar and deceiver to the back-bone; but we must not speak of him; he may astonish us when we least expect it. What kind of people have you in your world now?'

'I should think they are nearly the same kind of people as you had in yours, sir, in the days of Cromwell and Charles the Second. We are changed, of course—improved, if you will allow it; our minds expanded by a wider sphere of knowledge, and perhaps made wiser, though that is doubtful, by the additional experience of two hundred years. Our outward manners may be more refined, our habits more pacific, and our vices less prominent than they were; but men are still, and I suppose always will be, subservient to their ruling passions. If all men lived to be a hundred years old, two-thirds of them would not live long enough to learn sense and gentlemanly manners. We have good men, men of sterling worth, who abound in charity and benevolence. We have good and upright clergymen who do their duty faithfully. We have hospitals and asylums, where noble-minded men and women minister to the necessities of the sick, and the wounded in battle. What more can I say?

'A great deal more; what is your own history?'

I gave him a résumé of my own history, of my early follies, my great calamities, all my serious troubles, and my wonderful escapes from terrible injuries or death. I told him that I had cause to thank God every waking hour for renewed and undeserved mercies, especially for being saved from mental blindness, debauchery, and dishonour, and the degradation of being a mere money-making machine.

'What place does England hold now among the nations?'

'A greater place than ever. She is greater than all other nations in civilization, and in physical power. All other nations seem to be a compound of hatred and evil passions, with many noble individual exceptions. England alone (though I might also say the United States of America) is calm and free, willing to be friendly with all other nations. She rules over a world-wide empire. Oh that she might remain united, contented, and happy! There sits a Queen on the throne of England whom all her subjects adore, and she has some three or four hundred millions of them. We have great and wonderful men, great in politics, law, science, medicine, and divinity. We have men and women, sir, who are famous authors, poets, historians, novelists, writers on subject you can think of. I could tell you of our generals and admirals, who have fought and conquered the enemies of their country since you were taken from the world—of Marlborough and Wellington, of Benbow and Nelson, and hundreds more. We lived in the reigns of William the Third, Anne, and the four Georges in the heroic age; now we are living in the golden age.'

'Why the golden age?'

'Because people almost worship gold. Everyone, without exception, is thinking of it constantly, and desiring to possess it. The rich are perpetually craving for more. The poor think and dream of it night and day with sighs and tears. And, indeed, we can hardly blame the poor creatures when we know that in our world a man without money is a despised and miserable being. Thousands are rolling in riches and revelling in pomp and luxury, many of them still unsatisfied; tens of thousands cannot get food enough to eat, or clothes to keep them warm in winter.'

'How do they conduct themselves?'

'They have their evil passions, which they nurse and keep hot in their bosoms, as if they were angelic messengers of love, instead of being what they are—venomous destroyers; they have their pride, envy, jealousy, malice and bitterness. We have tyrants and self-worshippers who cannot bear the slightest opposition to their will—despots of society, all the more dangerous because they have the gift of eloquence; political plunderers who are never tired of devising schemes of legalized robbery—insatiable bugbears who keep us in constant hot water.'

'We have plenty of that stamp here,' said the Doctor; 'but they are not allowed to have their own way. A pot of boiling pitch, moral or physical, is not a bad cure for their diseases. You have larrikins too; I think I heard you use that word.'

'Yes, we have larrikins, and larrikins who curse and swear, and insult passers-by, who stand for hours at the corners of streets. And we have liars, and drunkards, and cheats, and villains of all descriptions. And let me not forget that we also have our kind-hearted and talented doctors like you, sir, without whose help in time of need our lives would not be worth a farthing.'

'Well,' said he with a laugh, 'you can flatter and poke fun, I see and hear, Mr. Oliver Ubertus. You will make a capital private secretary to the Demon; that exalted individual knows how to choose his servants. And as a new husband for Bellagranda you will be unrivalled. Tell me something more. What are your social habits? What are your fresh scientific discoveries, and your latest great literary productions. Tell me the names of your wonderful men and women; tell me everything. I believe your world above ground is far more astonishing than this which is below it'

'We are certainly living in a wonderful world, Doctor,' I answered. 'We are living in a plurality of worlds. Our fashionable world is naturally gay, giddy, and thoughtless, but not having been born into it I know but little about it. Of our sporting world I am still more ignorant. Our literary world is more to my taste, but it scarcely reaches so far from England as Tasmania. There is but sorry encouragement for literary men in our quarter of the earth. The world is full of books, and books do not produce wool or even goat's hair. England supplies us with plenty of literature of all kinds, and we have our public libraries and local newspapers to keep us abreast of the times. Our scientific world is indeed a world of wonders. Our electric telegraph flashes intelligence to us from England, a distance of sixteen thousand miles, in a couple of hours. By means of the telephone we can converse with each other while we are many miles apart. The phonograph brings to us again the voices of the dead just as they were spoken, and of the living who are at the other side of the broadest oceans. We can hear the Prince of Wales and Mr. Gladstone speaking in public assemblies, and bands of music playing fifty years ago. It is possible that we can hear the cries of an infant in its cradle who is now the ruler of an empire; or the voice of a darling daughter singing "Meet me by moonlight alone," who has long since departed from our sight. By means of steam, the vapour of boiling water, we can travel in luxurious carriages, which are made to roll along iron rails at the rate of sixty and even seventy miles an hour. The same mighty power enables us to fly in large ships like palaces, without sails, and against wind and tide, at the rate of fifteen or twenty miles an hour. Our ships of war are protected by iron or steel plates from ten to twenty inches thick, and some of them are armed with guns which can send shot or shell of one thousand pounds in weight a distance of six or seven miles. Our torpedoes can blow up the mightiest vessels. Our rams can shatter and sink ships which cost a million of money.'

'Is all this true?' asked the Doctor, laying down his pipe.

'Most certainly, sir; I should never think of telling you a lie.'

'I believe you to be a true man, Ubertus,' he said. 'If I did not so believe, I would say you were the greatest liar that ever put his feet into boots.'

'And now, my dear Doctor,' said I, 'since I have told you so much that is new to you, will you allow me to ask what was that music which aroused me from my insensibility, and which I heard again on that day when I told you—my singular dream.'

'Yes—ha! your dream—your dream! And you dared to dream that my darling Helen embraced and kissed you, and showed you the Star of Victory; and you saw her mansion, and walked in her garden by her side; but, great God! is it to be always thus? Hush, Julius; keep silence, and all may yet be well. It was your own fault; you gave him the elixir, and what is there in a kiss? Nothing; it is possible that it may be pure and innocent. There are men who would sooner die than do a wicked and unclean thing, and I believe this Ubertus is one of them. Did you speak, sir? Music, did you say? What music?'

'The music, Doctor, which I heard played in this room——'

'Aye, that music,' said he, beginning to laugh; 'would you like to see the musicians?'

'I greatly desire that pleasure.'

'Florian!—Florian, I say!—Florian!'

No Florian appeared. The Doctor touched a little speck on the wall; a gong sounded with a stunning sound, and immediately the attendant entered the room.

'Let the band approach,' said his master.

In a few minutes the music commenced at a distance, and gradually came nearer. The Doctor touched another speck on the wall, and to my great surprise a pair of large folding doors, of which I had not suspected the existence, opened before me. The band played a lively march, and came nearer—nearer. I expected to see at least a company of elegantly-dressed men or women, beautiful to the eyes. At length with a loud flourish it entered the room. Oh, powers of mercy! what will my readers say? There before me stood about fifty grotesque and extraordinary creatures, in the likenesses of animals and demons, hairy bears, tigers, apes, bearded goats on their hind legs, sheep, pigs, and a number still more outlandish. I was transfixed with astonishment. The Doctor roared with laughter, while the music continued, and was certainly well worth listening to. The master was a white elephant of great beauty, and he played a trumpet with considerable skill. It is impossible to describe them all; some of the players had no instruments, but appeared to be singing with some kind of whistle in their mouths, and they ranged themselves at one end of the room, and played tune after tune well and in good time.

After playing several overtures and strange fantasies, the greater number of the musicians laid aside their instruments, and took up positions for a dance. This performance speedily gave me aching sides with laughter. A huge bear led out a woolly sheep; an old bearded goat with long horns advanced with a young chattering monkey hanging on his arm, and gracefully holding her tail in her hand; a fine dog led out a handsome smiling cat; a tall ape an interesting young pig. They danced round dances in very quick time, and hugged each other with the greatest affection. When they got tired of dancing they began a series of mock heroic single combats, sparring at and pounding each other like trained prize-fighters. Then they changed their tactics, and ran furious races round the apartment; the apes on bearback, the cats and monkeys on dogback, the opossums and little dogs on goat and kangaroo back. Now and then the bears, apes, and all rolled on the floor in the wildest confusion.

'Now build me up the Tower of Babel,' said the Doctor.

The larger creatures immediately formed a circle, holding each other's paws; then the apes and monkeys mounted on their shoulders, then the pigs and goats clambered up, and then the dogs and opossums climbed higher still, until a sharp cat, with eyes like coals of fire, mounted to the highest place, and waved her paws in the air. The circle then to the sound of a fife and drum began to move round its centre, at first slowly, but presently with accelerated pace, until it suddenly toppled over and fell to pieces with a discordant and deafening explosion of roars, growls, grunts, screams, and yells.

I was convulsed with laughter. The players quickly resumed their instruments, and fell into rank. A few words from the Doctor, I believe of thanks and encouragement, and away they marched to their quarters.

'What do you think of them?' asked the Doctor.

'They are most extraordinary, most astounding; who are they, sir?'

'They are choice specimens of the inhabitants of this place,' he answered; 'my servants and companions: they help me to pass away the gloomy time. They would like to play their music in the merry sunshine, as they did once, but they must be content with fire and lamplight now.'

It will be strongly suspected, no doubt, that this scene was contrived by the Premier of Pandapolis, and intended to be a stinging satire on our own social habits and innocent amusements; and that I, who ought to have known better, aided and abetted him in grossly insulting the civilization of the present age, by reporting such ridiculous and incredible proceedings; but I solemnly protest that I am as guiltless as an infant in its cradle of all intention of satirizing, or ridiculing, my fellow creatures, whom I love, admire, and respect. The pictures I essay to paint, and hold up before the eyes of the generous public, need not be mistaken for mirrors. My simple object is, by hook or by crook, to amuse my readers, for we must all acknowledge that the world must be amused, and kept in good humour. 'Make a man laugh while you pick his pocket,' might be sound advice from Diogenes: to please and instruct at the same time may fall to the lot of a few authors in the general crowd.

I have an affection for you, Ubertus,' the Doctor said to me, shortly after the exhibition of his acrobats, 'and I think I will let you into a few more of the secrets of our prison-house.'

I replied that anything of an amusing or refreshing nature would be most agreeable and acceptable to me; but without wishing or intending to offend him, I hoped to be excused from looking on horrible and repulsive things. They made me ill, very ill indeed, especially in my mind.

Come with me, then, I will keep you well; you must have more pluck: you are afraid of everything—of sickness, of poverty, of the sight of blood, poor cowardly creature! There are many things which you must look upon which will give you pain. You must drink the cup of humiliation to the dregs, and I will have no flinching. You must be discreet and silent, and breathe not a word to the Demon. He is armed with tremendous power; where he got it from Heaven only knows. But he is not omnipotent, and he does not know everything, and in some small things at least I am his match.'

He took up a lamp, and led me out into the hospital, through several gigantic apartments or wards, which were crowded with beds, and to my great surprise nearly all of these were empty. A few groans and sighs issued from some of them. He explained to me as we went on that the wounded soldiers had been healed and discharged, and that those whom I saw lying dead on the battle-field had been brought back to life, and would be ready to fight again.

'When will the next battle be fought, sir?' I asked.

'Whenever the Demon pleases. He summons his armies to a review of peace, as he calls it, but when he sees them gathered around him in all the dread panoply of war, he cannot resist the temptation of setting them by the ears. They know his mind, or suspect his intentions, and take care to come with ball-cartridges. Then the vials of wrath are uncorked, the ammunition boxes of devilish passions opened. Now they will be busy for some time in rebuilding their castles, repairing their arms, mending their carriages, casting new cannon, making rifles, bayonets, and gunpowder. What a fiendish thing is war! How the demons delight in it, and how soon men become demons who indulge in it unjustly. Look, there lies your friend Astoragus!'

I started at the name. On a bed in a remote corner lay a human figure. He was awake, and moaning piteonsly. I pitied him in my heart, and asked my guide if I might speak to him.

'Certainly,' he replied, 'but don't go too near him,'

I went to his bedside and found it necessary to muster up all my courage; the fellow had been so insignificant to look at, and yet had contrived to be so detestably venomous. I addressed him thus:

'Astoragus, I am sorry for you; these are the wages you earn by being a larrikin. Why does the power of inflicting pain on those who are not interfering with you give you pleasure? Would it not be more manly and noble in you, and in those whom you induce to follow your evil example, to try and improve your minds, and so become useful members of society? I come not here to triumph over you, or add to your punishment. The very best of men are liable to fall, but the path of redemption lies open to the very worst. Your treatment of me was undeserved and unnecessary; but I bear you no malice—farewell!'

He seemed entirely subdued, and did not answer a word. When I rejoined the Doctor, he nearly burst out laughing in my face. I thought he was rather cruel, but said nothing.

'You did not "poor fellow" him again, did you?' he asked, as he led the way onward.

I replied: 'Ah! my dear friend, we are all liable to error; I do not like over-severe punishments.'

'What do you say to this, then?' said he, as he opened a secret, door in the wall by which we were passing.

The terror of Bluebeard's wife, when she beheld the mangled remains of that hero's former spouses, lying in ghastly heaps in the forbidden closet, was nothing to mine when I saw the interior of that secret chamber. A gigantic wheel was revolving, filling half the space, its diameter reaching from the floor to the ceiling. Chains and ropes were attached to this, by which the bodies of those miserable beings who were sentenced to undergo this punishment were secured. As the wheel revolves it carries the wretches up with it and down again, mangling them twice in every revolution. In addition to this 'Mangling done here,' every victim receives a sharp electric shock when he is drawn between the wheel and the ceiling, and again between the wheel and the floor. That is why it is called the Electric Wheel.

'Does it not kill them, Doctor?' I presumed to inquire, trembling.

'No,' he replied, 'they cannot be killed, but they can be shocked and flattened. This is how we punish traitors, agitators, and disturbers of the public peace in the city of Pandapolis. The wheel is also frequently turned by back-biters, liars, slanderers, plunderers, and enraged women when they have a victim whom they wish to punish.

'I am about to introduce you,' he resumed as we went on, 'to a number of great persons whom you will be surprised to see and to know, especially in this place; men who achieved their own greatness, and were therefore deserving of the rewards which the world had to bestow, but did not get them in every case; men who were born great; and men who had greatness thrust upon them. It is a strange thing in our eyes that one man should be born a king, another a beggar; one a genius, another a fool; one a good man, another a villain. But these are things we cannot help, and I suppose they are finally settled by the great law of compensation.'