Artabanzanus/Chapter 17

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CHAPTER XVII.

THE DOCTOR'S APPARENT FATE.

It was early morning when we emerged from the abyss. The gibbous moon was sinking behind the long chains of mountains in the west, and the stars were shining brightly. A grand comet, which added intense interest to the wonderful scene, hung like a splendid jewel in the sky. The cold would have been unendurable by an ordinary mortal, but, owing to some merciful dispensation, I was not affected by it. I shall not attempt the impossible task of describing my own mental sensations or personal feelings.

My three companions did not altogether escape my watchful observation, and by the light of the moon, stars, and comet I could see them distinctly. The Demon sat opposite to me, his head resting against the top rail of the car, with part of his hedgehog robe wrapped closely around it. Obeltub nodded—Homer sometimes nods—but was careful enough to keep his hand on the driving wheel. His thoughts, half sleeping, half waking, appeared to be of an amusing character, for he smiled and showed his pointed fangs, and twisted the muscles of his face into all kinds of contortions. The Doctor sat by my side; he seemed to be rather dazed and stupefied, though perfectly awake; opening his eyes at short intervals, but only keeping them open for a few seconds at a time. The morning was still too obscure for me to see the landscape now below, and the driver still directed the balloon upward, lest it should be dashed to pieces upon the tops of the mountains of Mongolia and the Burmese Empire. We had a long journey before us, but our rate of travelling was rapid in the extreme; and if no accident happened we might reasonably expect to arrive at our destination before night.

The faint glow of dawn began to appear in the sky, which was one vast, dark, ethereal expanse without a cloud. Beneath us there seemed to be gathering a white mantle over the earth, like a boundless sheet of snow. My attention was all at once arrested by a strange increase of light. I t was behind me, and as I was contemplating my friend the Doctor, who had saved my life no less than four times, wondering what was to be his future destiny and my own, I saw the rays of this extraordinary light illuminating the back of his head. I turned round in renewed astonishment, mingled with fear and awe, and beheld suspended in the sky, like a beautiful pale-red lamp, and not very far from us, the Star of Victory!

I had been thinking very much within the last two or three days of this glorious vision, which had only appeared to the Doctor and myself in dreams. It seemed to be the harbinger of some unspeakable pleasure, or inestimable happiness, yet in store for us both; and taught us plainly that, no matter how great our fall when we did fall, or how dark and deep the abyss into which we had fallen, there is still, if our agony and despair will permit us to see it, the load-star of hope and consolation shining upon us. The ineffable brightness of the mercy of our Almighty Creator is not withdrawn so long as we have life to animate, or sense to enlighten us. It is only, as far as we in our ignorance can possibly know, when Death interposes his grim visage between us and our hoped-for day of repentance, that the gates of paradise shall be closed against us. And yet may there not still be a blessed hope, that those gates will not be rigidly closed to the entrance of many thousands who did not, while they lived, appear to have altogether abandoned the pomps and vanities of this wicked world; but whose wishes to be endowed with strength to do so were strong, and, to their deep regret, only partially successful. The career of the friend who sat by my side illustrates this thought.

The appearance of the grand and wonderful star brought with it also most joyous remembrances of what I had seen and heard of the Doctor's lovely friend Helen. The sympathetic reader who takes the trouble to read this book will, I am sure, take almost as much interest in her as I did. Still, she was a total stranger. I knew nothing of her, and had foolishly thrown away the excellent opportunity lately afforded me for acquiring that desirable knowledge. If she had not been the Doctor's actual wife, she certainly was his betrothed bride, prevented probably from being his wife by one or more of those unforeseen, perhaps tragic, incidents which sometimes intervene between our expected happiness and its fulfilment. The love and reverence due to her in the former relation was admirably foreshadowed by his passionate adoration of her in the latter. He had himself darkly hinted that such an event had occurred, and had mentioned the name of a man whose machinations had destroyed the happiness of them both. My interest in him and in her, on account of my dream, had been so powerfully excited that I felt myself longing to know more; and my pain when he snatched up the papers referring to her, and carried them away, was excessive. Her exquisite beauty, as I had seen her both in my dream and in the enchanted hall, was certainly sufficient to command adoration. The difference between her and Bellagranda was at once apparent. Both were magnificent young creatures, but the beauty of Helen alone was fit, and appeared to be designed to adorn, the regions of Heaven.

I aroused my half-insensible companion, and in a whisper bade him look at the star, which still shone brightly in the north eastern quarter of the firmament. A strong convulsion shook him from head to foot when he saw it, and he pressed my hand so tightly that the pressure gave me actual pain. But no sound passed his lips; he opened his eyes for a moment, and I saw its red light reflected in them, and then he closed them again, as if satisfied now, and at rest for ever. A terror took possession of me. He had talked about his second death as a possible event. What if he were to die with us in the balloon? It is true that in such a case my responsibility for him would cease; but the departure of such a noble soul would be not the less a pain which I could hardly endure.

Our wonderful conveyance travelled on rapidly. Obeltub or his master seemed to have a supernatural power of creating a hurricane in the air, and it was blown along in the right direction at a speed of which it was impossible for me to estimate the velocity. The bright and glorious morning was breaking slowly, the Star of Victory had faded from view, and the sun rose in indescribable grandeur. Below us, as far as the eye could reach, nothing was to be seen but a vast ocean as white as snow, bounded only by the rosy sky. Here and there, indeed, we saw the tops of high mountains making their appearance above this fleecy mantle. The sun rose higher, and I began to feel his welcome, genial heat. I felt as if I were soaring through the blue vault of heaven on the wings of a powerful bird, and thought it strange that no sensation of fear affected me. Was it all a sublime, mysterious dream? My courage and faith seemed to increase.

As the day advanced, the Demon roused himself up, and partly unrolled his majestic form from his hedgehog robe. His keen eyes wandered restlessly from the rigging of his balloon down to the earth beneath his feet. He was now literally, as far as I could see, the monarch of all he surveyed Obeltub also became more animated. He condescended to notice me occasionally with sly nods, winks, and grins; and shook his black fist now and then at the semi-insensible Doctor.

The condition of the latter gave me increasing anxiety. I was alarmed to perceive that he sat rigidly, never moving hand or foot. His face was uncovered, and had assumed an unnatural bluish colour; and he kept hi eyes closely shut, as if he feared to open them upon the enchanting world. In good truth the sight of such a world, although we could not yet see its loveliness, was, after the dismal pit from which we had emerged, almost enough to turn the strongest brain into the most foolish. I noticed too with some disturbance, that the Demon stared fixedly at his rigid form. I could hear my poor, but entirely helpless, friend breathing stertorously, and was thus assured he was not actually dead.

In the meantime the sun was gliding over our heads hour after hour, at his usual pace, and we were still careering through the air at lightning speed. The dense mass of clouds beneath us was becoming gradually broken up into detached but confused fragments. The surface of the earth began to appear, but, being still at a great height, I could see nothing distinctly. The balloon seemed to be travelling over an immense continent, which I conjectured to be the largest island in the world. My eyes were constantly strained to see if I could obtain a glimpse of the narrow sea which cut off my beloved little Tasmania from its gigantic neighbour. But no, all was confusion worse confounded. To add to my uneasiness, the sun had long passed the meridian. Evening was approaching, and I was terrified at the idea of arriving at the Great Lake at night, and perhaps being unceremoniously dismissed by the Demon. The remembrance of previous adventures, scrambling over logs, falling among rocks, tumbling into stony creeks, or being torn by the prickly pear-tree, with its fruit akin to stones, came upon me with vivid force. And then what could be done with Doctor Julius? The prospect before me was almost as maddening as the scenes which I had left—I hoped and prayed—for ever far behind me.

On and on we swept, like a proud bird, through the air; as proud indeed, but hardly as happy and secure. I could not help reflecting, with a most painful feeling, that we were entirely at the mercy of the Demon and his diabolical driver; and what extraordinary or bloodthirsty notions might they not take into their heads? The most barbarous murder was to them no more than a puff of smoke. The balloon itself, though strongly constructed, was nothing but a child's toy in the strength of the elements of Nature. If it encountered a thunderstorm, a flash of lightning could annihilate it in a moment. If its machinery or tackling should give way, what would become of the poor Doctor and myself; or what would be our condition should we be suddenly hurled into the opposing track of another tempest?

On and on we swept, like a ray of light from Arcturus or the Dog-Star; around us the vapours of everlasting space gurgling and hissing, below us——

Come, come, that will do, give us something more substantial, Mr. Ubertus, if you please.

We were gradually sinking down closer to the earth, for the objects below became more and more distinct. The rays of the afternoon sun were lighting up sea and shore and mountain and forest with beautiful rainbow tints before leaving them shrouded in the blackness of night. I became agonized with unutterable anxiety. Could I only see Tasmania once more before the darkness should steal upon us! Tasmania! A little, weak, insignificant spot on the face of the earth; even but a pin's point compared to the vastness of the British Empire itself; and yet it contained my little fraction of property, most of the few friends I had, and was all the world to me. There were extensive banks of clouds here and there between us and the earth still, and down into one of these we plunged, and were instantly enveloped in a dense fog.

My attention, hitherto absorbed by the earth beneath us, was now directed to the condition of the unfortunate Doctor. My alarm for him increased tenfold. He was visibly swelling to an extraordinary size. I looked at the Demon; his grape-shot eyes were fixed upon the sick passenger in a deadly stare, and while I looked he spoke.

'Obeltub, the Doctor is going to die, look at him swelling, growing bigger and bigger! I ought to have foreseen this : he will burst the balloon, and send us all to destruction! We must throw him out, and do it quickly.'

The fiendish driver grunted some unintelligible jargon. I had no time to think.

'Come on then!' shouted the Demon, and before I could interpose by even a single word, these two atrocious devils actually seized the miserable Doctor, and commenced their murderous endeavour to hurl him over the rail of the car. It was no easy task even for them, though they were as powerful as gorillas. They puffed and strained, but their victim, with all his remaining consciousness and bodily strength, resisted their efforts to the last. I was petrified with horror, and roused to a fury which I have no words to describe. What could I do to help him? Absolutely nothing. Was it possible that, after all our plotting and planning, and within sight of my happy home, I was destined to lose him in this shocking way? I bellowed and blubbered with fear and pity, and frantically seized one of his legs.

Obeltub gave me a vicious kick, and the Demon roared:

'Come and help us, you Ubertus; the balloon will be lost.'

But I flatly and positively refused to raise my hand against my friend and benefactor. If I could do nothing to save him, I certainly would not help them to destroy him. I called them fiends and wretches, and every other brutal epithet to which I could lay my tongue.

'If you don't help us,' roared the Demon, 'we'll pitch you out too!'

'Do your worst!' I roared in return; 'I am in your power; you cannot murder me more than once, and God will take care of my soul.'

While I was speaking, and groaning, and shouting with impotent rage and terror, the annihilation of the wretched Julius was completed. His murderers compelled him to relinquish his hold on the ropes and sides of the car, and he fell sheer into the awful space below us.

The balloon, relieved of his weight, now commenced to roll and plunge violently. The Demon began to haul on various ropes like a distraught sailor in a cyclone, and trumpeted out at the same time:

'Choke up the lightning, Obeltub—choke up, I say, or we shall go slap-dash into the blazing sun—steady, not too sharp—steady she goes, ease her off—warily, old girl, gently, bring her to—luff, luff, you son of a ——; round she comes, let it on now—half blast; you have not ballast enough; but who on earth would have thought of our being obliged to throw that son of perdition overboard?'

As for me, I was overwhelmed with horror and indignation. I lay down in the bottom of the car, and shed a torrent of tears. Alas! my poor friend Julius, to be taken from me thus, when I had so few friends left! Was this to be the cruel, the bitter end of your career?

Gradually recovering my self-possession and intellectual strength, I ventured to peep over the side of the car, and take a view of our environment. We had emerged from the stratum of cloud, and were descending with velocity to the earth, getting into thicker air, and I, at least, owing to its influence, beginning to feel in better spirits. My grief, if continued until doomsday, could not recall Julius to life; and I determined to seek relief from my misery by letting my mind dwell on other subjects. I looked out upon the surrounding landscape, and was delighted with the scene. Though still about ten thousand feet above the ground, the rocky hills, plains, and rivers came distinctly to my view. If, I reflected, the immortal soul of man shall be permitted to soar in this way, not only through the regions of the atmosphere, but into the remotest recesses of space, to have the privilege of surveying Jupiter and his satellites within the distance of a hundred miles, or perching on one of Saturn's rings, or flying through the labyrinth of coloured stars at the Southern Cross—what an existence it will be! But it is vain to call the attention of men to these things; give them what they desire most on earth, that is all they care about.

As we approached nearer to our destination I began to recognise several important landmarks which had but lately become familiar to me. Lakes Sorell and Crescent, and the two Arthur's Lakes, I knew from their close proximity to each other; the Wild-dog Mountain, the Wild Horse of the Great Lake, the Ironstone, the Split Rock, and lo! my lovely mirror, the Great Lake itself; the evening sun, shining through a rift in the clouds, lighting it up with a rosy glow exactly like that of the Star of Victory. It was a magnificent picture of fairyland itself.

Obeltub, notwithstanding his forbidding exterior, was a very skilful balloon-driver; the Demon could not have suited himself better had he searched the whole universe for a driver or a murderer. He now steered his formidable vessel down to the margin of the lake, to the very place whence we had started. I knew it well; a belt of forest extended for some distance along the shore on one side, and on the other a wide open marsh lay between the water and the adjacent rocky hills. At the opposite side of this marsh stood a solitary shepherd's hut; not the one which I had made my temporary home, but one whose occupants I knew to be hospitable people. At the edge of the forest a gigantic tree had measured its length upon the ground some ten or twenty years before, and there it lay still, blackened by successive fires, yet not consumed. Within twenty yards of this fallen giant the balloon-car touched the stones, and I was requested to alight.

This I did with the greatest alacrity, thanking Heaven in my inmost soul that I was again permitted to touch the solid earth; but the dreadful fate of poor Julius still rankled in my breast. Nevertheless, I began to indulge in the hope that I should also see the last of my patronizing friend, the Demon. Alas! why is it that our wishes, even if they are the wild ones of doing the greatest good in the world, or the simple ones of being allowed to live in peace with our friends and enemies alike, are so seldom gratified? He jumped from the car with the agility of an ape, muttering something to his obsequious servant, and waved his club in the air. The balloon shot up again with a roar; Obeltub roared out his usual sardonic laugh, and his master and I were left alone facing each other. The téte-à-téte was but a short one, but the contest was sharp and decisive. The conquering power did not belong to me; never shall I claim the slightest merit either for my victory, or for my weak ability to make my reader acquainted with it.

'Come now,' said he in a wheedling tone, speaking slowly and distinctly, and smiling as sweetly as his rabbittrap jaws would let him, 'you will be my private secretary, won't you? You know my power; you have seen the power I gave the Doctor. I will give you far greater. I was never unkind to him. His death—ah, yes, his death! Well, he brought it on himself. I'll bet my existence that the cunning rogue swelled himself up on purpose, so that I might throw him out, and thus release him from his engagements, and that he is hiding somewhere as much alive as ever. But woe betide him if I ever catch him again! Will not Flambo Combustius and Cashup Humbuggins satiate their vengeance! Perpetual roasting in molten lava will be nothing to it. But you'll be my private secretary, I know? You can bring your wife and family, and all your friends, too—a million sterling British pounds a year, as many grand castles to live in as you like, gardens and parks, libraries, hunters and hounds, and as many fine, beautiful——'

'Away! begone! Demon of hell!' I shouted in a perfect fury of rage; 'away, liar and murderer! tempt me no more! What! was I, an intellectual being, born into this grand world, of a God-fearing mother, for nothing better than to help you to fill it with wickedness, violence, brutality, and bloodshed; with spite and malice, and hatred and jealousy; with pride, avarice, adultery, drunkenness, and every other abomination? Away, fiendish author of our rebellion and our madness! That human soul cannot exist which will not for ever curse you and the spirits that serve you. I refuse your service, I scorn and defy you!'

To this passionate outburst the Demon did not answer a single word. He stared at me in apparently stunned astonishment, but, recovering himself immediately, and before I had time to perceive his intention, he unwound his tail from his arm, and struck me a savage blow with it above the region of the heart I fell and rolled over on the stones in an agony of pain and shame, but, gifted with sudden, almost supernatural strength, I sprang up in an instant with a heavy stone in my hand, and hurled it at him with all my might. It caught him fairly between his leaden stony eyes. 'Now,' was my startling thought; 'now for the battle of the giant and the dwarf; now for utter annihilation at least!' But, to my surprise, and infinite relief, he turned slowly round and commenced howling, and walked deliberately into the lake, whose waters opened to receive him, and closed over him, and he troubled me no more.

*****

'Ha! ha! hurrah! Bravo, well done, Ubertus!' shouted a well-known voice, with a loud laugh. 'Well done, my boy; you've given that fellow a salute which he will not get over in a hurry; bravo! hurrah!' and while I gazed in transfixed astonishment I saw the burly form of Doctor Julius rising from the ground at the other side of the fallen tree. I was struck dumb.

'Hurrah!' he continued, still laughing uproariously, and beginning to dance as he advanced towards me, 'you're a hero, Ubertus; you've done the trick! I never saw a neater or a better thing done in all my life; why, the slaughter of Partigan was nothing to it. We are both heroes, and jolly fine fellows! I have outwitted the Demon, and you have conquered him. Hurrah, hurrah! our agreement is null, you are witness to that—he pitched me out himself, and dismissed me of his own free will; he cannot claim me again, and you are free and I am free; we are both free to go where we like—hurrah, hurrah!'

'Doctor Julius,' I managed to ask at length, ' how in the name of a thousand wonders did you get here? I thought you were dashed to pieces on the rocks, or buried in the lake.'

He sat down on the fallen tree, took off his hat, wiped the perspiration from his forehead, and looked all around him. He could hardly make any reply, for his fits of joyous laughter nearly choked him. At length he said:

'I am bewildered, stunned, electrified; am I in my senses? I came here, my dear boy, sooner and easier than you did. When those two black villains threw me out of their car in spite of my pretended resistance—for I was suffering from a dreadful attack of taxacorum puffinalis, to an enormous dose of which I had slily helped myself—I fell rapidly at first, but, when I came to a denser stratum of air, I floated down here just like a snowflake—and here I am; and here I would stay for ever, but I must go and look for Helen. I have risen to a kind of glory here, and the scene for me is glorious—most glorious beyond description; but I must rise higher still, I must find Helen—I will find my darling.'

'And behold, an omen of success, my dear friend! Do you see that pretty island out there? That is Helen Island.'

'I accept the omen? said he joyfully. 'Helen Island! I am in a world of wonders. I never saw such a ravishing, enchanting scene. What charming mountains! what lovely trees! what a splendid silvered mirror of water! It is a heavenly scene! What is the name of this grand lake?'

'It is the Great Lake of Tasmania, Doctor. It has no other name that I ever heard of; and it has borne it now for nearly one hundred years.'

'No name but the Great Lake! Why, you amaze me! Great lakes are common enough in the world. I will give it a more definite name—one that will stick to it until the mountain on which it reposes so majestically shall be dissolved into the boiling steam that makes the wheels of the world go round—and I christen it now, with all due solemnity. LAKE UBERTUS!'

'Oh no, no, sir!' said I, blushing like a schoolgirl. 'I am entirely unworthy of such an honour. A humble man, not troubled by worldly ambition; unknown to, and uncared for, by the world—unknown even to the small world of Tasmania, and, for all I know to the contrary, condemned and despised by those who do know me. I decline the honour with thanks. To accept it would only expose me to derision and contempt. A very slight thing, Julius, if I may dare to call you by your Christian name, will often raise up for us a tempest of indignation when we least expect it, and the friend of years will suddenly become our bitterest enemy. And while we are on the subject of names, why may not I give this magnificent lake, which is, to borrow the exclamation of a classical friend, Lacus Superbus rather than Lacus Magnus—a name which will stick to it until the trees around us shall become so many balloons, to waft all good men and women to realms of eternal bliss—why not, I say, call it Lake Julius Rabbitonius?'

He roared with laughter, and exclaimed: 'No; that would be too absurd altogether. Lake Ubertus let it be for ever and ever, amen! I have said it, I am entitled to respect; I am the oldest man in your beautiful and romantic island.'

We were now approaching the lonely shepherd's hut, where we hoped to procure food and lodging for the night. Before we entered it, however, the Doctor stopped suddenly, and, with a solemn air, addressed me thus:

'Ubertus, before our spiritual intercourse shall be, as it must soon be, broken in upon by the earthly language and opinions of men still in the flesh, and by the presence of to whom our lamp of knowledge and experience is nothing but a dark shadow, or an impenetrable veil, I will be serious, and make this confession for the good of my soul. I have been too light and vain, and too fond of the world. For every loud laugh I have enjoyed at the expense of my fellow men I have paid the full price in tears, as it were, of blood. For every evil desire and impure thought a certain penalty has been exacted. Even when an overwarm heart, or a feeling of sympathy for distress, or gratitude for a passing kindness, seduced me into an innocent departure from the conventional rules, I was visited with a fierce and cruel retribution. Take these lessons from me, my friend: beware of wolves in sheep's clothing beware of wine: there is deadly poison in the cup; and oh, Ubertus, beware of women! They are our sweetest companions and most delightful advisers; but if we are guilty of any folly they become whips to scourge us and they can strike without mercy. I need say no more. I must leave you to-morrow. You want to know more about Helen? Ah! you lost what you shall never find again when you rejected those papers I offered you, and preferred going to the Demon's Parliament. But you must forgive me; I will tell you more about her as we walk round Lake Ubertus. Is it not a grand name? It only wants the de to it to make it worthy of the days of William the Conqueror. And now, before we go in, let us unite our voices and hearts in saying fervently: "Blessed be God, who has in mercy brought us out of that pit of darkness into His marvellous light!"'

'I heard you telling the Demon, Julius, that you would write a fashionable book against Christianity, and secure a million of valuable souls."

'Hush! hush! not another word! Did you really think me serious? For whatever lies I have told that malignant being, for the purpose of making my escape from his toils I hold myself pardoned and justified. I am not such a fool as to write a book against a religion which, in the full conviction of my heart, I now know to be true. And of this I am sure: for whatever we have done we need not look for any reward in this world. There is no Jubilee medal reward for you, my boy, or for me either.'

'No, indeed,' said I, laughing. 'Why should there be?'