Artabanzanus/Chapter 7

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CHAPTER VII.

THE MILITARY HOSPITAL.

There is music, delicious music, in the air; it is not the blare of trumpets and trombones, nor the beating of war-like drums that I hear, but a soft, sweet kind of music, which whispers of temporary, if not eternal, peace. It is such music as we might imagine was played by Ariel among the shipwrecked mariners of The Tempest; it is now here, now there, now under my pillow, now rolling beneath the roof, now rising into loud strains, and now sinking into lower and gentler tones. I was about to open my eyes, perhaps in a world more fair and dazzling than that in which I was born; possibly in the kingdom of darkness where the glorious light of heaven and the sweet rays of the twinkling stars never shine. For a long time I dared not open them. What shall I do, I asked myself with apprehension, if they open upon scenes of happiness and love; or what if, on the contrary, I find myself still in the lost and ruined world, or even somewhere worse than that?

The music continued; a strange kind of music it was, like nothing that I had ever heard before. There was no harshness or grating in the strains: and yet the harmony which I had so often heard in our churches, homes, and concert-halls seemed to be lacking. It is impossible to describe that music. The instruments seemed to be somewhat out of tune. It sounded like a machine band. If it was played by keys it was certainly played by the performers with taste and skill. I felt sure that voices of men or women accompanied the instruments. The tune was a plaintive one, and reminded me of the old favourite 'Believe me, if all these endearing young charms,' played with appropriate variations.

If the ineffable, cloudless glory should burst upon me, I mused, how could I ever bear it? Had I a thousand eyes they would not be sufficient to take it in. But I am not worthy of it, I could not look upon it and live: a poor creature of pitiable weakness; a helpless being of dust and ashes. Without supernatural help what human being could look upon it? I came slowly to my senses, and tried to collect a few scattered ideas. My eyes opened for a moment, and then closed again in another long period of partial insensibility; then they opened and closed as before. My mind was bereft of all power to realize where I was, and I seemed to be a drifting cloud, without either aim or control. The pains in all my limbs, in my chest, and in my head, were most intense. My breath came and went in short convulsive gasps, and I could not stir, for bandages were wound around me from my neck to my feet. The excruciating agony of bones cracking, and seeming to fly and then knitting together again; of nerves which had been thrown together in tangled bunches slowly unravelling themselves; of sinews which had been loosened and unstrung being pulled, and screwed into concert pitch of muscles that had been pounded into jelly being hardened and strengthened into vigour and elasticity once more, was terrible to bear. Were not my tortures yet over? I could endure them no longer, and groaned aloud.

The music instantly ceased, and I opened my eyes wide. I was not in heaven, and could see no light of day. Despair, with gruesome face, darted into the centre of my heart. I was in a low vaulted room, which was dimly lit by a solitary lamp standing on a black table which was placed beside my bed. An open door at the foot of the bed communicated with a larger and better lit apartment, and while I gazed into it with intense curiosity, I heard an extraordinary noise for which I could not possibly account. It was like the scuffling of a number of cats, or dogs, or other creatures, scurrying out in haste at a narrow doorway. While my eyes were thus fixed, I was startled by an apparition, one of the very last I expected to see in that place. A man, or an angel in disguise perhaps, strangely and grotesquely dressed it is true, but middle aged, fresh coloured, and handsome in countenance, with a benevolent smile of interest and encouragement, in figure straight and perfect as a guardsman, in appearance portly and dignified, stood there gazing upon me. He was dressed in an old-fashioned suit of clothes of various colours—old-fashioned I may well say, as no living person has ever seen the fashion, except, perhaps, at a fancy dress ball. He wore a once elegant Vandyke costume, toned down to the style of Charles the Second's time, much faded and the worse for wear, and in many places stained with blood. A buff jerkin, with red sleeves and shoulder bands, a short doublet of green satin open in front where, down to his waistband, the remains of a rich shirt could be seen, petticoat breeches adorned with ribbons down the sides, lace collar and ruffles at his wrists; a cloak hanging at his left shoulder, and a Spanish rapier by his side, made up a costume which I contemplated with unspeakable pleasure, from the contrast between it and that worn by some of the fiends I had recently seen. Instead of a high-crowned hat he wore a strange-looking yellow smoking cap. His breeches, being tied at the knees, exhibited a very handsome pair of legs in dark silk or velvet stockings. Altogether I found that my heart was warming to him before he spoke a word.

He advanced to my bedside, bent over me quietly and in perfect silence, and gazed long and earnestly into my face. My eyes closed; oh the joy, the rapture of having a fellow creature, a being of flesh and blood, capable of feelings of consideration, of pity, near me again! I felt him feeling my pulse, and placing his hand lightly on my heart, then he felt my cheeks, and I think he held some kind of polished metal over my nose and lips. Without the slightest warning I saluted him with a loud and violent sneeze. It racked me through and through like an electric shock.

'Good, that's a capital sign,' said the stranger, 'but it's far too severe; we must stop that, but you're getting on splendidly; it's miraculous!' He spoke in a soft and, pleasing voice, and rubbed my nose with some kind of ointment which put an end to all inclination to sneeze.

'Do not speak,' he continued, 'you are not strong enough; you must be silent, and keep perfectly quiet for another week, and then you will be as right as ever; yes, stronger than you were before, and better able to fight your enemies, and write your adventures in a dozen volumes for the everlasting wonder, and incredible delight, of posterity. At present you must not even think: I will give you sedatives, and tonics, and febrifuges, and plenty of doses of my famous medicines, taxacorum squeezetalis and t. puffinalis, to pull you down and build you up again; and you will not have to pay through the nose, as you must whenever an apothecary above ground catches you by that useful organ. Drink some more of this—it is bracing you up in grand style, and giving new life to your blood.' He gently raised my head, and held a crystal cup to my lips; the liquor it contained tasted like delicious tea: I instantaneously felt its invigorating qualities.

'Now,' said the doctor, for such I concluded him to be, 'I must leave you; duty must be done. Keep yourself very quiet. I am overwhelmed with work just now—and such work!—after that cursed battle. I never saw the like of it before; it must have been fought in your honour. A million of men mowing each other down like hay! Old Arty is growing worse. But I must not excite you with my childish prattle. I will come again soon, and when you are well enough we will have a long chat together. I am a rare fellow to talk. I bother Old Arty himself out of his wits when he comes here, which is not very often. He says he can stand everything but the clack of my infernal tongue. But to whom am I talking? I believe I was born to be a magpie. No more at present—no more, or your life won't be worth a farthing candle; no fretting or fuming, or flying through the air on fiery dragons; put away that sort of thing altogether. You'll be stronger when I come back; bye-bye for the present.

This extraordinary chatterbox withdrew accordingly into the adjoining room, and I immediately heard another door grating on its hinges, and the air was filled with horrid cries of agony and despair, and the yells of people in the last extremities of torture and anguish. The door was mercifully shut again, but did that mercy reach the sufferers themselves? This was one of the certain bitter consequences of war—how many others there are it is impossible to say.

The chamber in which I found myself was a small dark room, a single lamp, as I have said, burning on a small table beside me. Being obliged to lie in an immovable position I could not see anything more in the room, and could do nothing but think and dream, in spite of the good doctor's injunctions to the contrary. Ah! what a relief death—annihilation—would have been to me then; but it was not to be. My mind was in a perfect state of confusion. Occasionally I heard a distant door being opened and shut, and again and again the frightful yells, horrid oaths, howls, roars, and screams smote on my ears. What could it all mean? The Doctor was evidently a kind man; he spoke to me in the gentlest manner, and laid his hand, which was like that of a sensitive woman, lightly on my heart, and called me his dear boy. Where was I, then, and who was this mysterious doctor? Ha! the whole truth like a bright light flashed upon me—a great battle had been fought. I was in one of the military hospitals, and the Doctor was the man whom I had seen driving furiously past the Demon and myself on his way to see King Charles the Second.

What did the hospitals of the Emperor Valens and those of other potentates do without the ministering angels, the Florence Nightingales, of our day? Perhaps they had them, but there were none here—no Sister Rose Gertrudes, no fair and sweet daughters of love and charity to soothe with gentle hands and words the last moments of the dying, or communicate renewed joy day by day by their presence to those who were being restored to life. There were no flowers to scatter on the ashes of the dead, and no dear young hands to scatter them. There was no drum of the funeral march to proclaim to a sorrowing nation that its greatest warrior was no more. This may be indeed only a world of shadows; the shadows in it may have no sense or feeling, but still I say it is possible that it may turn out to be a more real and substantial world than the one of coarse matter and substance in which we live. For the things which we actually see and feel are temporal, while those which we have never yet seen or known are eternal. Whether for good or for evil there comes no death in that world—even if it be one of shadows—to put an end to its people's pleasures, or to release them from their pain.

Within a reasonable time—that is to say, in about four or five hours—the Doctor returned. He was accompanied by an attendant, a young man to all appearance, dressed in a dark, blue uniform with yellow facings, who bore a tray containing the service of a small dinner-table. This he laid on the table beside my bed, and then left the room without speaking. The Doctor came to my side, and had a long look at my face. 'Are you hungry?' he asked at length.

'A little. Doctor.'

'Thirsty?'

'Very thirsty.'

'Well, drink some of this; now you had better eat something. See, I'm going to dine with you myself, and I'll try to move my jaws to some other purpose than chattering like a monkey's baby.' And he drew a black chair to the side of my bed, and helped me and himself to portions of the food from the tray. Incapable of using my hands, this kind doctor fed me himself with an iron spoon. Eating and drinking what he gave me without asking questions, I knew no more what the viands were than a prisoner in a coal-hole, but I knew that the food which he put into my mouth was soft, pleasant to the taste, and invigorating to the body.

When we were both fully satisfied he called his attendant, Florian by name, who removed the tray, and the Doctor sat still and silent for a considerable time by my bedside. Although a man apparently younger than myself, with a fresh, florid complexion, brown hair and beard, and benevolent blue eyes, still I was mortally afraid of him, and held my breath while he sat near me, lest I should unwittingly provoke some unexpected display of supernatural power. I remembered the Demon himself darting suddenly to my side when sitting, doing no harm to a single soul, on the shore of the Great Lake. Nor had I forgotten his infernal balloon and its horrible driver, or the fiendish general of his larrikin brigade, and his luxurious couch, and the grand review which became a battle worthy of the Pit of Acheron, or the burning castles of the ensanguined park. I remembered the artful Bellagranda, with her dangerous beauty and seductive wiles. What if this kind doctor, now that my strength had left me, with his brown hair, handsome face, honest blue eyes, and soft musical voice, were another of the Demon's instruments of torture, perhaps of temptation? His heart seemed to be overflowing with sympathy, notwithstanding his fearful calling, and mine was filled with respect and gratitude.

Was I to be again deceived? If this was one of the Demon's confidential servants, leagued with him in a nefarious conspiracy to accomplish the destruction of my soul, the dread fiend had only one further step to take, and that I believed he had already taken. He had tried his million of pounds per annum, and his fine castles as many as I pleased; now perhaps he intended to tempt me by means of one of my own sex, whom I could love and honour. Let him complete his work as he had commenced it, notwithstanding his pretended wrath with his offending daughter, let him send me a charming nurse, and enchant me with the wit, the fascinations, the accomplishments, and the loveliness of the opposite sex, and what is to become of poor Ubertus? What can he do indeed but rush into the jaws of destruction, as the harnessed negroes rushed into the raging battle?

These thoughts swept painfully through my throbbing brain, and the Doctor, who perceived my uneasiness, arose from his chair, and bent over me. My eyes were closed as if in sleep. I felt something fall on my forehead which made me start with a thrill of joy. Was it a tear from that singular man's eyes which fell there? And yet how could it be? Demons cannot weep; perhaps he was not a demon. A tear of sorrow or remorse, or vain regret and repentance, in a place like this, from one accustomed to such scenes? It could not be; and yet I distinctly felt it—nay, I think I heard the plash of that tear as it fell.

'Poor fellow!' I heard him say in an audible whisper; 'how on earth did he come here, so young, and apparently so innocent? He never died, or he would have the brand of death upon him, and he has not that of the black angel upon him either. Neither have I, and yet he may be doomed to dwell here as I am. Two negroes brought him here, with a message from their master that I must save his life. He is the devil himself, that Demon; why could he not save him from the battle that he provoked, the doubling and twisting liar? He must have decoyed him here, or else compelled him to come before his time. If so, he has determined on his ultimate destruction. I wish I could save him from the arch-fiend's fangs, but I cannot; although I have great power he has far greater, but I may outwit him yet. Patience, patience, and be watchful and ready, O Julius!'

Here I groaned aloud in absolute terror, and shivered convulsively from head to foot.

'What's the matter?' he asked. 'But I forget, you must not speak. I know what's the matter with you; keep your mind and body quiet, and all may yet be well. In one week's time I will have you up, and then you may speak, and tell me all about everything, and how you came here, and when you are going back to the country you came from. Until then ask me no questions, and don't encourage me to talk, for if you do I shall not know how to leave off, there is so much to talk about in these precious times.' And, smothering a laugh with a great effort, he went away to attend to his duties, leaving me to my heart-breaking meditations.

The week passed by—slowly and painfully if I lay awake rapidly and lightly if I slept. Indeed, I could not say that I slept at all, for what passed over me for sleep was only a half-dreamy state of semi-existence; a mentally frenzied, outrageous, idiotic description of obscure insect life, very slightly removed from oblivion itself. I asked myself, while more sensible than usual, 'Have I been drinking with the shepherds of the Great Lake, and am I suffering from delirium tremens?' That could not be, for I am one of the most temperate of men. No; it was a different kind of thing, something mysterious and inexplicable. It was not insanity; I felt quite certain of that. Now I fancied myself groping like a baboon on all fours among sharp rocks at the bottom of the sea; now I was hovering in mid-air over a vast ocean of milk, changing into a wilderness where there were nothing but icebergs and burning mountains. There was no end to my extraordinary visions. While I lay awake my thoughts were not such a chaos of confusion. But now and then the agony of my mind was intense; the pain of my wounds afflicted me terribly. The Doctor came and examined me several times a day—at least, so I judged; he and his assistants unwound my bandages, and rubbed my body with aromatic ointment, while they observed the strictest silence. He smoothed my pillow, administered medicine, and fed me with his own hands. He was kindness and tenderness of heart personified, and my heart bounded with gratitude whenever he came near me.

On the eighth day, according to his computation of time, which I did not understand, he redeemed his word by bringing in three or four of his attendants, who, under his directions, lifted me out of bed, washed and dressed me with gentleness, carried me into the adjoining apartment, whence had issued the music that had surprised me out of my insensibility, and placed me sitting in a large arm-chair near a table, whereon burned a number of different-coloured lamps, which diffused a pleasing light through the room. This chamber was much larger than the one I had slept in, and my preserver, as I considered him to be, seating himself at the other end of the table, drew from a concealed drawer a large meerschaum pipe, which he proceeded to fill, asking me at the same time if the smell would be likely to disagree with me. I assured him that I would enjoy it more than anything he could mention; that in fact I had sometimes smoked when in the upper world—medicinally, however, and in great moderation.

'Medicinally!' he echoed, 'What may your complaint be, and how does tobacco-smoke act upon it?'

'I find it useful, sir,' I replied, 'as an antidote for the poison of low spirits.'

'It may be of some use for that,' said he, lighting his pipe, 'but I fear of very little. I smoke for company's sake. But I suppose you have a wife and family, and see plenty of company?'

I intimated that, although I had a wife and family, I lived a very retired life, and saw little or no company.

'I did not smoke here,' he continued, 'while you were very ill, thinking it might make you cough or sneeze; but now I believe it will help you to gain strength. Tobacco in moderation, as you wisely observe, is a soother of sorrow, and a stimulus to joy when we have reason to be joyful; but smoked to excess it is a poison, and has a tendency to destroy vital energy. You must not smoke yet except by deputy, and I'll do your smoking for you for another week. You are recovering your strength amazingly fast; your bones are now firmly knit, and your nerves and muscles are acquiring their former consistency and vigour. You have had a narrow escape, and you may thank my powerful medicines for it, especially my taxacorum puffinalis; that's better than a blacksmith's bellows for building up a man. To whom were you talking before you came to your senses? Somebody was lying on your chest, and you were imploring him to get off. Who was it?'

'If it was not Timour the Tartar, Doctor, it must have been ——,' and I mentioned the name of another great conqueror.' He fell on my breast at the close of the battle, and his enemies nicked at him with their swords and lances as they passed by. I got a few good cuts and stabs as I lay under him, but the weight of his murderous carcase nearly killed me.'

'I think it did, and no wonder,' said the Doctor. 'Your whole body was completely mangled, and your breast-bone badly fractured. I never saw such a sight in my life; and as for your outcries, why, as I have been informed, Alexander the Great condescended to pause in one of his grand charges, and ask who it was that was being butchered like a pig. I have that hero whom you mentioned (great Emperor as he calls himself) in the hospital now, and he roars and groans more than any poor soldier there. How did you come to be in that battle? You are not a soldier; you did not die in the world above; you are not one of us.'

'The Demon, sir, or Artabanzanus, which he says is his proper name, took me to see the grand review in his artillery wagonette, drawn by twenty-four gigantic negroes, for whom my very heart bled. A friend, a General, too, to whom the Demon had previously introduced me, calling him Astoragus, got into the dickey by some means, and stung me with his finger at the back of my neck out of pure spite. His master, who had declared that no larrikin should dare to play a trick on him, with his tail hurled him out over my head. He fell with a crashing scramble amongst the negroes, who all took fright, and ran away with the speed of cannon-balls, and took our carriage with them, in spite of the Demon's roars to the contrary, into the thickest of the battle. He was flung out; I saw him flying through the air like an enormous grasshopper, and he fell on a gun at the foot of a pillar, with the inscription upon it "To glory." I was crushed in the ruins of the carriage, and do not know how I escaped instant death.'

The Doctor sat quietly listening to my story, puffing out thick clouds of smoke. When I had finished he stared at me for some time in silence.

At length he spoke.

'It is a great wonder certainly that you were not killed outright. But how on earth did you get down here? It is the most extraordinary thing I ever heard of—a living man to come here without having died, and expect to go back again—for that, I believe, is your expectation?'

'It is,' said I. 'The Demon, who took me by surprise on the shore of the Great Lake in Tasmania, and brought me here against my will in a gigantic balloon, promised to take me back again.'

'What!' said the Doctor, 'was he prowling about so far off? Tasmania is a place many thousands of miles to the south of Cape Horn, isn't it? Or is it off the coast of Spitzbergen? I never heard of it before.'

I explained to the worthy Doctor the true position of our beloved little island, and answered a great number of questions respecting its history, and that of the whole world, of which he was profoundly ignorant. At last his thoughts returned to the place where we then were.

'I suppose,' said he, 'that this Demon, or Artabanzanus, as he calls himself, and he generally adds proudly Emperor of the World, took you to the first or sensual department of his own palace?'

'Yes sir,' I answered, 'he did, and a very remarkable and attractive palace it is, too.'

The Doctor laughed: his laugh was loud, pleasant, and musical; but at present he seemed to labour under some constraint. He spoke in a low voice, as if fearful of being overheard, and looked about him nervously now and then.

'And did he introduce you to his charming, fascinating daughter Bellagranda, whom I take the liberty of calling "Old Cly"?'

'He did not introduce me to her, but she did not fail to introduce herself to me; but why do you call her " Old Cly," Doctor?'

'How old do you think she is?' he asked.

'About eighteen. She looks very young; and at first I thought her very sweet and innocent.'

'That lovely girl, as you thought her,' said the Doctor, is two thousand and fifty years of age. She is the celebrated Clytemnestra, the wife of Agamemnon, whom she murdered with a hatchet while he was trying to put on a tunic the sleeves of which she had sewn up.'

'Gracious and merciful powers! you don't say so, Doctor?' I exclaimed in horror and consternation.

'I do,' he replied calmly: 'but tell me more of your adventures.'

'She made love to me, Doctor.'

'And you did to her: you kissed her, and promised to marry her, and vowed eternal constancy, truth, and all the rest of it, I have no doubt.'

'No upon my honour, I would not let her kiss me; I pushed her away, and refused point-blank to marry her.'

'You did well; you acted like a brave and a strong man. Did she show you her black dogs?'

'Yes; she drilled them in my presence, and told me that, if I persisted in my refusal to marry her, I should be one of their number within twelve hours.'

'You would be one soon if you did marry her; all those dogs were her husbands once, and private secretaries to her dear papa, as she calls him. I fortunately escaped her snares, on account of the strength of a previous attachment, a long-standing affection, which nothing can destroy or weaken. I hope you thought of your lawful wife at home when Bellagranda sat on your knees.'

'I did not say she sat on my knees, Doctor.'

'No, you kept it back, but I know she did: she sat on mine, and kissed me, too, before I could prevent her; but I made her beg my pardon on her knees. I upset her, throne and all, on her own hard floor, and kicked her dogs, in spite of her threats, into the fire. The consequence is, that I am the only one who can manage her: her papa flies from her sometimes like a thief before a bloodhound. But give me some more of your history.'

I accordingly gave him a full account of what I had seen and what I had endured in the Department of Pleasure in the Demon's city, winding up with my lamentable and undignified adventure in the voluptuous couch of Astoragus.

'Ah, I remember!' he replied; 'you mentioned that ruffian before. I am astonished that the cunning Demon should have trusted you to the tender mercies of Astoragus so soon. Age is telling upon him, or he is going off his head; whether or not, he is sure to overreach himself in the long-run. There is not a more malicious toad or vampire in the whole city than that same Astoragus. The Demon knew very well what would be the upshot of that fine couch, and I have no doubt that he saw how quickly you shot up from the thing, and he had a roaring laugh at you. And Astoragus must be made a general forsooth—General of the Larrikin Guards! He found you out, too, while the battle was going on. I expect his kind master will bring him here soon, and order me to boil him in sulphuric acid, or some other devilish compound. I must settle the incurable scamp once for all if he is brought to me; and, between ourselves, I only wish I could settle his master as easily; but he is too cunning too strong, and has too much supernatural power for me: but I may outwit him yet. I never think of the horrible fiend without swearing and cursing in the most fearful manner to myself, and I do not know why he is permitted to exist, and to do all the mischief he does. He is, without exception, the greatest liar, the most abominable deceiver, and the biggest robber and murderer, that ever walked upon the earth, or sailed through the air in a lightning-car. I can't tell why he was ever begotten or born, unless it was to try the children of men, to ascertain whom they are willing to serve. If so, it is a hard trial for them, that they should be exposed to the temptations of a remorseless ruffian, who would think no more of blowing us all into the eternal fire of the sun itself than he does of blowing his own nose.'

A loud 'Hem!' here interrupted the eloquence of the irascible Doctor, for whose safety I began to tremble. We both turned in dismay; and there, in the middle of the room, his Field-Marshal's uniform flying about him in ribbons, stood our great enemy himself.