Artabanzanus/Chapter 8

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His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of the World did not come alone. He grasped by the collar of his long cloak, which, like his master's, now hung in tatters about his person, my especial friend, Astoragus of the luxurious couch.

'Glad to see you, my lord Demon—I mean your Majesty,' said the Doctor with great coolness; 'we were just talking about that incurable villain Astoragus, who I see is a safe prisoner in your royal hands.'

'Oh, were you?' growled the Demon huskily.

'Yes, sir, we were; my young friend here, who has marvellously recovered from the fearful injuries sustained in your late battle of the justly infuriated nations, thanks to the potency of my wonderful drugs, especially to——'

'Hold!' roared the Demon in a terrible voice; 'I came not to hear you praise your abominable physic to the skies which you are never tired of doing; I came to command you——'

'To take every care of this gentleman, sir? Yes, I am doing that; I have cured him, I have brought him back to life, I have given him a taste for existence which he never felt before; I have talked to him about the charms of your beautiful city, your gold, your castles, your kindness; have I not, Mr. —— But I believe I have forgotten to ask him his name,' said the Doctor with animation.

'His name is Ubertus,' said the Demon loftily, and with the air of a patron. 'He is the owner of the mountain on which lies the Great Lake of Tasmania, and the proprietor of all the fish.' (It need not be said that this was wholly untrue.)

'Mr. Ubertus,' continued the Doctor, 'has been giving me an account of an extraordinary luxurious couch, which he had the pleasure of lying upon at the corner of a street, and in consequence thereof I expected you to come every moment with Astoragus.'

'Oh, did you?' said the Demon sharply.

'Yes, sir, I did,' answered the unabashed Doctor, 'and I have the irons hot; shall I operate on his eyes?'

'No!' roared the Demon; 'I have sworn by the fire-tipped spear of my favourite minister Giovanni Maria, who used to course the streets of Milan at midnight with bloodhounds, that I'll boil him in the venom of crotalus horridus' (rattlesnake) 'and rackarock, and I'll get you to do it.'

'Very well, sir,' said the Doctor coolly; 'I'll do it.'

'And you won't mind his howls?'

'Not at all, sir; they'll be music to my very soul.'

Then here he is—hold him fast; if he escapes you will have some trouble to find him again. He has a particular talent, or genius, for turning himself into a flea, and I shall not wonder if he eludes even a clever man like you, while you are looking for him as a flea, by quietly slipping away from you. Put your spell upon him at once.'

'It is done already, sir; he is fixed. May I ask you, my gracious Sovereign, why, in the plenitude of your wisdom, you ever thought of appointing a fellow like him to be the General of your Larrikin Brigade?'

'Ask me no questions, Doctor,' replied the Demon, 'and I'll tell you no—— You know the rest. As for this fellow, as soon as you have boiled him well, he shall be publicly drummed out of my army. I offered Ubertus the privilege of beating the drum on that occasion, and he said he would do so with the greatest possible pleasure.' (This was untrue.)

'I understand, sir,' said the Doctor, giving me a significant glance, 'I believe you implicitly, my lord; I shall certainly boil him according to your wish, and let you know when he can be put through the ceremony of drumming out; but I fear my friend Mr. Ubertus will not be able to beat the drum for some time yet.'

'I want Ubertus to come with me now,' said the Demon emphatically. 'He has been with you long enough—too long, I fear, for all the good he is likely to learn from you, but which I thank my stars I can counteract. In another week he returns to the place he came from; but you need not be sorry for that, we shall see him again soon.'

'I beg your pardon, my lord,' replied the Doctor, 'he cannot go just yet. He is not by any means restored to health; in fact, he is weaker than milk-and-water; it would be most dangerous to his soul and spirit, to say nothing of his precious body, to take him from my care so soon.'

'Well, if you say so, Doctor, I shall submit,' said the Demon graciously. 'Have him ready here where we are now on the eighth day from this time.'

'And, my lord Demon, if you will, with your usual goodness, pardon me once more, may I beg that you will take me with you on your next trip. You have often promised me this favour, and I have a very powerful desire to know what the world is like now, and Mr. Ubertus will introduce me to his family and friends.'

'You are very well off where you are,' answered the Demon curtly.

'So I am, sir, and well aware that I enjoy many happy privileges through your condescending kindness; but remember your own promises. You have often said that I really was due for a holiday, and richly deserved one. I have worked night and day in your service for nearly two hundred years, and have not had a good holiday yet. A little shooting in a green forest, or boating on a lake with the sun shining on the waves, or swimming in the sea with the fishes playing round and round; or even a quiet stroll through the streets of London or Paris with the fine ladies and gentlemen, would set me up wonderfully, and give me strength to serve you with redoubled energy and faithfulness for another two hundred years. And in addition to that, sir—do not be impatient, I beg of you—I shall be able to do you immense service on the earth just now: now is the happy time for extending your empire. I can give splendid lectures on the beauty and wisdom of free-thinking philosophy, and can prove by actual experiment the truth of evolution, and show people a sweet little chattering monkey growing in a few hours into a charming girl who dances like an angel, and sings like a nightingale. I can do a thousand things in your interest which you do not trouble yourself to think of. I hope you will remember my past services, and the number of times I have saved your most amiable daughter—the true ornament and delight of your Majesty's Court—from long and painful illnesses by reason of her own little indiscretions, through being rather too fond of creature comforts; and remember, sir——'

'Oh, enough, enough!' broke in the Demon angrily; 'do you mean to assassinate me with that jaw-breaking tongue of yours? You would drive an army of old women and parsons mad. I acknowledge your cleverness, and your faithful services, but really you must spare me now; your extraordinary eloquence is too overpowering. Give me a cordial at once, or I shall faint away on the spot, if I don't die altogether.'

'With pleasure, my lord, and with many apologies for not having offered you one before. What say you to a glass of my great revivifying antiarthritic taxacorum puffinalis?'

'No objection, Doctor, so long as it is not your cursed taxacorum squeezatalis, which you administer to my daughter Bellagranda so often.'

When the Demon had quaffed the effervescing cordial which the Doctor set before him, he prepared to depart, saying:

'I'll think about what you have said touching the holiday, Doctor, and will endeavour, as a particular friend of yours, to make it possible, but I am afraid you cannot be spared just now, the hospitals are full.'

'I can discharge a hundred thousand patients to-morrow morning, sir,' said the Doctor.

'And who will undertake your duties while you're away working for me above ground?'

'My Assistant Inspector, sir—Doctor Horatio Mancus, a careful and clever man.'

'Well, I shall not say "no" at present,' said the Demon with a dubious cough and a chuckle; 'but mind, my clever friend, I have not said "yes" yet,' and he stalked out of the room with the air of a conquering hero.

'Now, General Astoragus,' said the Doctor, seizing that hopeful gentleman by the collar, 'now for you, my boy—were you ever boiled before in rattlesnake's poison and rackarock, eh? are you ready for that interesting experiment in chemistry, eh? If you have howls prepare to howl them now! See the Bard of Avon, who is responsible for everything nowadays. Come along, sir.'

When he heard these words the chief of the larrikins, trying in vain to escape from the Doctor's grasp, commenced to howl in the most frightful manner I ever listened to.

'Please, Doctor,' said I, raising my voice above the awful din, 'don't boil the poor fellow! let him off this time with a caution, admonish him to be more careful in future; over-severity in punishment will surely defeat itself, and it is cruel. Make him promise not to do so any more and forgive him; I forgive him. I never bear malice. I never bore malice in my life.'

'Oh yes, of course,' replied the Doctor severely. 'I could not think of boiling or hurting a hair of the "poor fellow's" head; he never thinks of hurting anyone, man, woman, or child, at all. Oh no! You will "poor fellow" him with your very last sigh when you are on your bed of death. Your "poor fellow" will cover your million of sins, I have no doubt. But keep your mind easy. I'll only tickle him a little. I'll simmer him very gently for your sake. He will soon be ready—and willing, too—to sting you again, my dear boy; do not distress yourself on his account, I beg of you. Have you no larrikins in your part of the world?'

'We have a good many, Doctor.'

'Well, I suppose you make perfect pets of them; you keep some of them in glass cases in grand shop windows, and fatten them on butter and honey, and Stilton cheese, and lollipops, and strawberries and cream, and ham and eggs. But I need not bother you with my chatter, although we were all born to be bothered and stung to madness, and many of us to be butchered like pigs in a sty. Never mind, don't let your heart get too low or too soft, and take care, you will tell me, not to let yours require a brickbat to soften it. Stick to the happy medium, that's my motto. What ho, Florian!'

The attendant bearing that name entered the room immediately.

'Here,' said his master, 'take this fellow to Doctor Mancus and Chief Inspector Squabblequash; tell them he is to be boiled for one hour in the venom of crotalus horridus and rackarock—here, what are you afraid of? He won't hurt you. I have made him innocuous—lay hold!'

'My master,' said Florian, to my great astonishment, as I had not hitherto heard him say a word. 'I hope your warrant will bear out the deed.'

'What!' shouted the Doctor. 'Are you a larrikin, too? Are you going to be the new General of the Larrikin Guards, eh? Do you dare to quote Shakespeare, or anybody else to me, you rascal! Go and obey my orders, or I'll show you a warrant which will turn you into a dancing goat before you're one minute older.'

'I said very little, sir, and all on the side of mercy,' said Florian humbly. 'I beg your pardon; the quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth——'

'Death and fury!' roared the Doctor. 'Shakespeare again!'

But here I took it upon myself to interpose:

'For the love of heaven, Doctor, or my dear friend and benefactor, if you will allow me to call you so, do not permit the evil spirit to take possession of you in this way; remember that you are yourself an erring mortal,' I said solemnly, but I forgot to whom I was speaking.

'Eh! what's that you say? I an erring mortal! No, sir, I am an unerring immortal at your service. As for you, Florian, I forgive you—see that you do not offend me again. Take Astoragus to the tenth dungeon and lock him up.'

Florian left the apartment hastily, dragging the howling General after him.

'Now, Ubertus,' said the Doctor, lighting his pipe, 'I must have some serious talk with you, private and confidential, you must remember. Our friend the Demon has the power to insinuate himself unseen through a keyhole into any company he pleases; but I have a privilege which he knows nothing about, one that I found out by long study and many experiments, and it is this—I can detect his presence. He may be totally invisible, or he may appear in the shape of man, woman, or child, or as a bird, beast, or fish, but I shall know the fact. He is not here now, and we may speak our minds freely. What agreement exists between you and him? Tell me without prevarication and hide nothing. What did he bring you here for?'

'He brought me here, my dear Doctor, if I do not presume to offend you, for the purpose of getting me to consent to be his private secretary, and he offers me a salary of a million pounds per annum.'

'A million rabbits' tails per annum! What else?'

'As many fine castles to live in as I like.'

'As many fine dog-kennels and pigsties to live in as you like! Anything else?'

'Nothing else, sir, except pleasure and happiness for ever.'

'Yes—for ever—the pleasure and happiness of the cursed and the damned for ever. You saw his lovely daughter, Bellagranda; did you dine with her?'

'I neither tasted the dainties nor the wine which she and her maids offered me, Doctor.'

'That was well,' said he, stroking his beard; 'that was very well, and a great point gained. Have you consented to be ins private secretary?'

'No, sir, not yet.'

'Did you tell him you would take time to consider his proposal?'

'No ; I did not lead him for a moment to suppose that I would accept his proposals.'

'That's right. I think I shall be instrumental in saving you from him, and from that female fiend Bellagranda. Have nothing to do with either of them! Ubertus, I fear that you are rather a weak kind of man. Are you fond of wine? I am not impertinent; my profession, position, and the fact that you are under my especial medical care, do away with the suspicion of impertinence and idle curiosity.'

'I acquit you of all ideas of the kind, Doctor. But why do you think I am a weak kind of man?'

'I cannot tell you why. I am not gifted with the power of reading men's thoughts; they are only to be guessed at by visible signs, and frequently the guesses are erroneous, and evil opinions are formed because we delight in tearing holes in each other's coats. I shall not give you any advice. Somebody has said that no one is ever the better for good advice. Some day perhaps I may give you some, but not now; you are not ripe for it. This only I will say: Beware how you sign articles with the Demon, and beware how you encourage his daughter. If she should assail you again, here is an antidote for her poison.'

He took from one of the pockets of his doublet a small packet, and, opening it, displayed a curious shining powder. 'Take a pinch of this,' he said, 'and sprinkle it before her—on her face if possible.'

'And what will be the result, Doctor? It might be terrible!' I exclaimed.

'She will then know that you are protected by a superior power, and will not trouble you again. I have asked you if you are fond of wine, but you did not answer me, I think because the volubility of my own precious tongue precluded the possibility of your doing so.'

'My good friend,' I answered, 'I beg to assure you that I am not fond of wine. You may make yourself easy on that score. I never was fond of wine, or any other intoxicating drink. It is one of the greatest blessings I have ever enjoyed, and one for which I have always been most deeply grateful, that I am able even to reside in a house where intoxicating liquors are sold without feeling the slightest temptation to partake of them myself. In the present state of our world, the desire for stimulating beverages is a prominent and gloomy feature. There is no greater cause of dishonour, dishonesty, lasciviousness, violence, and even downright murder itself. The love of it reduces thousands of men and women, who were once clever and beautiful, aye, and good and true, to degrading, wretched poverty, and associates them with hardened criminals and revolting crime. What will they say, I wonder, when they stand before the judgment-seat of God, and hear the sentence of perpetual banishment from His presence pronounced because they could not or would not resist that vile temptation! Yet we must hope and pray for the mercy of God for the poor, weak, deluded creatures.'

'You can lecture well on temperance, Ubertus,' said the Doctor, 'and you have improved your knowledge by your residence here. You saw the multitudes of people in the Pleasure Department of this city; if you called all those people together in the great primordial abyss, which is more than ten miles in diameter, the place would be crowded to suffocation, and I believe if you asked them all what had brought them to ruin, ninety-nine out of every hundred would answer that it was love of wine, or gin, or brandy, or rum, or whisky.'

'It is, indeed, most astonishing,' I replied, 'to perceive how this gigantic disease keeps spreading, and is ever on the increase. Among men and women, too, who ought to have sense and discretion, who are in possession of their intellectual faculties, who have wit and talents to guide them through the world, and perhaps genius to astonish and delight their fellow men. They may be the children of honest and sober parents, reared in the lap of the heart's best and noblest affections, loaded with blessings and the abundant enjoyments of life from their very cradle, educated and brought up as ladies and gentlemen, the centres of attraction in peaceful and happy homes, the future hope and joy of those who love them; and yet we see them day by day falling into the horrible pit dug for them by this deceitful, cruel, earthly god! all unhappy examples in the past, all solemn warnings for the future, unheeded or despised; husbands robbing and starving their wives and children; wives insanely driving their husbands away from their hearths and homes; children arrayed against their parents! See the terrible conflagration in which lives are lost, and hundreds of thousands of pounds' worth of merchandise destroyed, caused by one miserable drunkard trying to get into his bed. Read of the dreadful war which has arisen between two friendly nations through the unreasonable obstinacy of a king or a minister inflamed by wine. What a long list of abominable crimes, of vicious folly, of malicious injury to peaceful and innocent people, of poverty and degradation, has intemperance to show us! And to think that it ruins the peace of thousands of families, and makes a hell where we should expect, not a heaven, indeed, but a comparatively happy home. Was this the curse that made Absalom a rebel and a traitor to his father and his king; bade him listen to the parricidal counsel of Ahitophel, and drove the wretched David to cry out in the bitterness of his heart, "O my son, Absalom——"'

'Stop, stop, for Heaven's sake!' broke in the Doctor. 'You are enough to drive any ordinary man wild. I'll have to clap you into the tenth dungeon with Astoragus if you go on much longer. I thought I was a bit of an elephant at speech-making, but you're a perfect whale. I can't stand any more,' and so saying he ran out of the room.

I sat still in dismal silence for a couple of hours, and when the time came for us to partake of our frugal supper he returned and took his seat. We ate in quiet reserve; he, perhaps, unwilling to obtrude his usual table-talk on me, who might have some serious cause for grief, and I from a growing determination to keep all further manifestations of weakness to myself. What right have I, was my reflection, to bore people with my griefs; for what are those griefs to them? They may have their own, with which they do not trouble me. Their sympathy, be it ever so kind and real, will not cure what may or may not be curable. No; henceforth I will be strong, not weak. This strange and strong-minded friend of mine shall see that, as long as we remain together, I can be as firm, as strong, or as hard-hearted, if he wills it, as he is himself. So away with heart-breaking cares, and 'hence loathed melancholy'! I am Oliver Ubertus, and will not identify myself with any other man in any part of the habitable world.

The Doctor lit his pipe, and smoked for a long time in perfect silence; and I sat still, afraid to move lest I should disturb the current of his thoughts. At last, when I had become thoroughly tired of silence, he suddenly spoke, and his words alarmed me exceedingly.

'That confounded Astoragus!'

'What of him, Doctor, for Heaven's sake? Has he escaped? Has he become a flea?' I asked with bated breath.

'He has not escaped, Ubertus, and you are safe so far; but he has made me guilty of an act of cruelty which my very soul abhors.'

'Gracious powers! You surely have not boiled him in serpents' poison and rackarock, have you, Doctor?'

'Well, no, not exactly, although the Demon ordered me to do so; but I sometimes take the liberty of modifying that worthy person's commands. I will tell you what I did. I had him tied up to a post, and made Florian, as a punishment for his own late misbehaviour, administer fifty lashes to his bare back, another of my servants standing by with a whip to make the flagellator do his duty properly. Then we put him to bed, and rubbed his body all over with strong mustard and vinegar, and left orders that when he woke up in the morning he should be dusted with powder of Spanish flies and cayenne pepper.'

'Oh, Doctor! how could you do it? I can scarcely believe it—but the latter part at least you can revoke. Do so, do so, for mercy's sake, and for my sake!'

'Hush, hush!' he said hurriedly; 'are you going into one of your fits again? You haven't got the gizzard or the heart of a chicken. I am ashamed of you, upon my soul.'

'Remember, sir, he is a fellow-creature, though a fallen one—a human being; he may be misguided, he may be hardened; if you are cruel to him, it will only harden him still more.'

'Fiddlesticks,' said the Doctor.

'I beg your pardon, sir,' I replied. 'So far as I may dare to speak, but not to dictate, I recommend moderation. Nothing was ever gained by going to violent extremes, but a great deal has been lost, and lost without hope of recovery, by that unwise policy. I do not want to provoke an argument, or ruffle your temper, or interfere with your duties. You know what our great bard says about mercy; let no future poet or historian have to say, even of this place, that mercy was denied to such fallen creatures as Astoragus.'

The Doctor seemed moved by my appeal, and responded: 'Well, well, I will arrange that the dusting shall not be carried out; but let him not fall into my hands again—he may not have you here to beg him off. I believe you'd beg him off if he murdered your wife and family, of which I think he is fully capable. I will tell you what you are, Ubertus. I don't mince matters or bite you on your back. You are a fool, an ass—you're as soft as butter; you haven't got the hardness of a flea. If you want to get on in the world, you must be as hard as iron, as cruel as a bear, and as selfish as a pig. Now, after that, off with you to bed. Take this physic with you; drink it when you lie down; it will make you dream pleasantly.'

As he spoke he mixed seven drops of a very dark fluid with water, and, putting the vessel containing it into my hand, wished me good-night.

'May I presume to ask you one question, Doctor, before I go?' said I deferentially.

'My dear boy,' he replied, 'at any other time I would give you leave to ask me a dozen, but I have an engagement to-night—I am going to see Helen.'

'To see Helen! Who is Helen, Doctor?' I asked in surprise.

'You do not know Helen,' he answered gravely. 'I will introduce you to her before you go hence. Your question quickly—one only.'

'Dear sir,' said I—'my dear benefactor, I hope you will not be offended. You know my name—Oliver Ubertus, of Tiger Gully, Tasmania, but you have not favoured me with yours, and I am very desirous of knowing it.'

'My name,' he replied, while a smile of subdued astonishment illuminated his handsome face—'my name, Ubertus? do you really do me the honour to ask after my name? Why, you will be inviting me to a small bottle-jack party soon, if I do not take care. My name is not to be found in your Tasmanian Directory, or whatever you call it. My name—I believe I have forgotten my name. Let me try to remember—Smith, Brown, Jones—no—Johnson, Tom, Jack, Harry—no, none of these—stay—yes, I have it at last—my name, sir, is Doctor Julius Rabbitonius, M.D.M., R.C.S.L., etc., etc., Director General, etc., etc., Minister of Scientific Possibilities in the city of Pandapolis, and Premier;' and, with a loud laugh, he hurried from the apartment.