A lazar-house it seemed, wherein were laid Numbers of all diseased.--MILTON.
After the Captain had finished his business, amongst which he did not forget to have his recruit regularly attested, as a candidate for glory in the service of the Honourable East India Company, the friends left Edinburgh. From thence they got a passage by sea to Newcastle, where Hillary had also some regimental affairs to transact, before he joined his regiment. At Newcastle the Captain had the good luck to find a small brig, commanded by an old acquaintance and school-fellow, which was just about to sail for the Isle of Wight. "I have arranged for our passage with him," he said to Middlemas--"for when you are at the depot, you can learn a little of your duty, which cannot be so well taught on board of ship, and then I will find it easier to have you promoted."
"Do you mean," said Richard, "that I am to stay at the Isle of Wight all the time that you are jigging it away in London?"
"Ay, indeed do I," said his comrade, "and it's best for you too; whatever business you have in London, I can do it for you as well, or something better than yourself."
"But I choose to transact my own business myself, Captain Hillary,' said Richard.
"Then you ought to have remained your own master, Mr. Cadet Middlemas. At present you are an enlisted recruit of the Honourable East India Company; I am your officer, and should you hesitate to follow me aboard, why, you foolish fellow, I could have you sent on board in hand-cuffs."
This was jestingly spoken; but yet there was something in the tone which hurt Middlemas's pride and alarmed his fears. He had observed of late, that his friend, especially when in company of others, talked to him with an air of command or superiority, difficult to be endured, and yet so closely allied to the freedom often exercised betwixt two intimates, that he could not find any proper mode of rebuffing, or resenting it. Such manifestations of authority were usually followed by an instant renewal of their intimacy; but in the present case that did not so speedily ensue.
Middlemas, indeed, consented to go with his companion to the Isle of Wight, perhaps because if he should quarrel with him, the whole plan of his Indian voyage, and all the hopes built upon it, must fall to the ground. But he altered his purpose of intrusting his comrade with his little fortune, to lay out as his occasions might require, and resolved himself to overlook the expenditure of his money, which, in the form of Bank of England notes, was safely deposited in his travelling trunk. Captain Hillary, finding that some hint he had thrown out on this subject was disregarded, appeared to think no more about it.
The voyage was performed with safety and celerity; and having coasted the shores of that beautiful island, which he who once sees never forgets, through whatever part of the world his future path may lead him, the vessel was soon anchored off the little town of Ryde; and, as the waves were uncommonly still, Richard felt the sickness diminish, which, for a considerable part of the passage, had occupied his attention more than any thing else.
The master of the brig, in honour to his passengers, and affection to his old school-fellow, had formed an awning upon deck, and proposed to have the pleasure of giving them a little treat before they left his vessel. Lobscous, sea-pie, and other delicacies of a naval description, had been provided in a quantity far disproportionate to the number of the guests. But the punch which succeeded was of excellent quality, and portentously strong. Captain Hillary pushed it round, and insisted upon his companion taking his full share in the merry bout, the rather that, as he facetiously said, there had been some dryness between them, which good liquor would be sovereign in removing. He renewed, with additional splendours, the various panoramic scenes of India and Indian adventures, which had first excited the ambition of Middlemas, and assured him, that even if he should not be able to get him a commission instantly, yet a short delay would only give him time to become better acquainted with his military duties; and Middlemas was too much elevated by the liquor he had drank to see any difficulty which could oppose itself to his fortunes. Whether those who shared in the compotation were more seasoned topers--whether Middlemas drank more than they--or whether, as he himself afterwards suspected, his cup had been drugged, like those of King Duncan's body-guard, it is certain that, on this occasion, he passed with unusual rapidity, through all the different phases of the respectable state of drunkenness--laughed, sung, whooped, and hallooed, was maudlin in his fondness, and frantic in his wrath, and at length fell into a fast and imperturbable sleep.
The effect of the liquor displayed itself, as usual, in a hundred wild dreams of parched deserts, and of serpents whose bite inflicted the most intolerable thirst--of the suffering of the Indian on the death-stake--and the torments of the infernal regions themselves; when at length he awakened, and it appeared that the latter vision was in fact realized. The sounds which had at first influenced his dreams, and at length broken his slumbers, were of the most horrible, as well as the most melancholy description. They came from the ranges of pallet-beds, which were closely packed together in a species of military hospital, where a burning fever was the prevalent complaint. Many of the patients were under the influence of a high delirium, during which they shouted, shrieked, laughed, blasphemed, and uttered the most horrible imprecations. Others, sensible of their condition, bewailed it with low groans, and some attempts at devotion, which showed their ignorance of the principles, and even the forms of religion. Those who were convalescent talked ribaldry in a loud tone, or whispered to each other in cant language, upon schemes which, as far as a passing phrase could be understood by a novice, had relation to violent and criminal exploits.
Richard Middlemas's astonishment was equal to his horror. He had but one advantage over the poor wretches with whom he was classed, and it was in enjoying the luxury of a pallet to himself--most of the others being occupied by two unhappy beings. He saw no one who appeared to attend to the wants, or to heed the complaints, of the wretches around him, or to whom he could offer any appeal against his present situation. He looked for his clothes, that he might arise and extricate himself from this den of horrors; but his clothes were nowhere to be seen, nor did he see his portmanteau, or sea-chest. It was much to be apprehended he would never see them more.
Then, but too late, he remembered the insinuations which had passed current respecting his friend the Captain, who was supposed to have been discharged by Mr. Lawford, on account of some breach of trust in the Town-Clerk's service. But that he should have trepanned the friend who had reposed his whole confidence in him--that he should have plundered him of his fortune, and placed him in this house of pestilence, with the hope that death might stifle his tongue--were iniquities not to have been, anticipated, even if the worst of these reports were true.
But Middlemas resolved not to be awanting to himself. This place must be visited by some officer, military or medical, to whom he would make an appeal, and alarm his fears at least, if he could not awaken his conscience. While he revolved these distracting thoughts, tormented at the same time by a burning thirst which he had no means of satisfying, he endeavoured to discover if, amongst those stretched upon the pallets nearest him, he could not discern some one likely to enter into conversation with him, and give him some information about the nature and customs of this horrid place. But the bed nearest him was occupied by two fellows, who, although to judge from their gaunt cheeks, hollow eyes, and ghastly looks, they were apparently recovering from the disease, and just rescued from the jaws of death, were deeply engaged in endeavouring to cheat each other of a few half-pence at a game of cribbage, mixing the terms of the game with oaths not loud but deep; each turn of luck being hailed by the winner as well as the loser with execrations, which seemed designed to blight both body and soul, now used as the language of triumph, and now as reproaches against fortune.
Next to the gamblers was a pallet, occupied indeed by two bodies, but only one of which was living--the other sufferer had been recently relieved from his agony.
"He is dead--he is dead!" said the wretched survivor.
"Then do you die too, and be d--d," answered one of the players, "and then there will be a pair of you, as Pugg says."
"I tell you he is growing stiff and cold," said the poor wretch--"the dead is no bed-fellow for the living--For God's sake help to rid me of the corpse."
"Ay, and get the credit of having done him--as may be the case with, yourself, friend--for he had some two or three hoggs about him"--
"You know you took the last rap from his breeches-pocket not an hour ago," expostulated the poor convalescent--"But help me to take the body out of the bed, and I will not tell the jigger-dubber that you have been beforehand with him."
"You tell the jigger-dubber!" answered the cribbage player. "Such another word, and I will twist your head round till your eyes look at the drummer's handwriting on your back. Hold your peace, and don't bother our game with your gammon, or I will make you as mute as your bedfellow."
The unhappy wretch, exhausted, sunk back beside his hideous companion, and the usual jargon of the game, interlarded with execrations, went on as before.
From this specimen of the most obdurate indifference, contrasted with the last excess of misery, Middlemas became satisfied how little could be made of an appeal to the humanity of his fellow-sufferers. His heart sunk within him, and the thoughts of the happy and peaceful home, which he might have called his own, rose before his over-heated fancy, with a vividness of perception that bordered upon insanity. He saw before him the rivulet which wanders through the burgh-muir of Middlemas, where he had so often set little mills for the amusement of Menie while she was a child. One draught of it would have been worth all the diamonds of the East, which of late he had worshipped with such devotion; but that draught was denied to him as to Tantalus.
Rallying his senses from this passing illusion, and knowing enough of the practice of the medical art, to be aware of the necessity of preventing his ideas from wandering if possible, he endeavoured to recollect that he was a surgeon, and, after all, should not have the extreme fear for the interior of a military hospital, which its horrors might inspire into strangers to the profession. But though he strove, by such recollections, to rally his spirits, he was not the less aware of the difference betwixt the condition of a surgeon, who might have attended such a place in the course of his duty, and a poor inhabitant, who was at once a patient and a prisoner.
A footstep was now heard in the apartment, which seemed to silence all the varied sounds of woe that filled it. The cribbage party hid their cards, and ceased their oaths; other wretches, whose complaints had arisen to frenzy, left off their wild exclamations and entreaties for assistance. Agony softened her shriek, Insanity hushed its senseless clamours, and even Death seemed desirous to stifle his parting groan in the presence of Captain Seelencooper. This official was the superintendent, or, as the miserable inhabitants termed him, the Governor of the Hospital. He had all the air of having been originally a turnkey in some ill-regulated jail--a stout, short, bandy-legged man, with one eye, and a double portion of ferocity in that which remained. He wore an old-fashioned tarnished uniform, which did not seem to have been made for him; and the voice in which this minister of humanity addressed the sick, was that of a boatswain, shouting in the midst of a storm. He had pistols and a cutlass in his belt; for his mode of administration being such as provoked even hospital patients to revolt, his life had been more than once in danger amongst them. He was followed by two assistants, who carried hand-cuffs and strait-jackets.
As Seelencooper made his rounds, complaint and pain were hushed, and the flourish of the bamboo, which he bore in his hand, seemed powerful as the wand of a magician to silence all complaint and remonstrance.
"I tell you the meat is as sweet as a nosegay--and for the bread, it's good enough, and too good, for a set of lubbers, that lie shamming Abraham, and consuming the Right Honourable Company's victuals--I don't speak to them that are really sick, for God knows I am always for humanity."
"If that be the case, sir," said Richard Middlemas, whose lair the Captain had approached, while he was thus answering the low and humble complaints of those by whose bed-side he passed--"if that be the case, sir, I hope your humanity will make you attend to what I say."
"And--who the devil are you?" said the Governor, turning on him his single eye of fire, while a sneer gathered on his harsh features, which were so well qualified to express it.
"My name is Middlemas--I come from Scotland, and have been sent here by some strange mistake. I am neither a private soldier, nor am I indisposed, more than by the heat of this cursed place."
"Why then, friend, all I have to ask you is, whether you are an attested recruit or not?"
"I was attested at Edinburgh," said Middlemas, "but"--
"But what the devil would you have then?--you are enlisted--the Captain and the Doctor sent you here--surely they know best whether you are private or officer, sick or well."
"But I was promised," said Middlemas, "promised by Tom Hillary"--
"Promised, were you? Why, there is not a man here that has not been promised something by somebody or another, or perhaps has promised something to himself. This is the land of promise, my smart fellow, but you know it is India that must be the land of performance. So, good morning to you. The Doctor will come his rounds presently and put you all to rights."
"Stay but one moment--one moment only--I have been robbed."
"Robbed! look you there now," said the Governor--"everybody that comes here has been robbed.--Egad, I am the luckiest fellow in Europe--other people in my line have only thieves and blackguards upon their hands; but none come to my ken but honest, decent, unfortunate gentlemen, that have been robbed!"
"Take care how you treat this so lightly, sir," said Middlemas; "I have been robbed of a thousand pounds."
Here Governor Seelencooper's gravity was totally overcome, and his laugh was echoed by several of the patients, either because they wished to curry favour with the superintendent, or from the feeling which influences evil spirits to rejoice in the tortures of those who are sent to share their agony.
"A thousand pounds!" exclaimed Captain Seelencooper, as he recovered his breath,--"Come, that's a good one--I like a fellow that does not make two bites of a cherry--why, there is not a cull in the ken that pretends to have lost more than a few hoggs, and here is a servant to the Honourable Company that has been robbed of a thousand pounds! Well done, Mr. Tom of Ten Thousand-you're a credit to the house, and to the service, and so good morning to you."
He passed on, and Richard, starting up in a storm of anger and despair, found, as he would have called after him, that his voice, betwixt thirst and agitation, refused its office. "Water, water!" he said, laying hold, at the same time, of one of the assistants who followed Seelencooper by the sleeve. The fellow looked carelessly round; there was a jug stood by the side of the cribbage players, which he reached to Middlemas, bidding him, "Drink and be d----d."
The man's back was no sooner turned, than the gamester threw himself from his own bed into that of Middlemas, and grasping firm hold of the arm of Richard, ere he could carry the vessel to his head, swore he should not have his booze. It may be readily conjectured, that the pitcher thus anxiously and desperately reclaimed, contained something better than the pure element. In fact, a large proportion of it was gin. The jug was broken in the struggle, and the liquor spilt. Middlemas dealt a blow to the assailant, which was amply and heartily repaid, and a combat would have ensued, but for the interference of the superintendent and his assistants, who, with a dexterity that showed them well acquainted with such emergencies, clapped a straight-waistcoat upon each of the antagonists. Richard's efforts at remonstrance only procured him a blow from Captain Seelencooper's rattan, and a tender admonition to hold his tongue, if he valued a whole skin.
Irritated at once by sufferings of the mind and of the body, tormented by raging thirst, and by the sense of his own dreadful situation, the mind of Richard Middlemas seemed to be on the point of becoming unsettled. He felt an insane desire to imitate and reply to the groans, oaths, and ribaldry, which, as soon as the superintendent quitted the hospital, echoed around him. He longed, though he struggled against the impulse, to vie in curses with the reprobate, and in screams with the maniac. But his tongue clove to the roof of his mouth, his mouth itself seemed choked with ashes; there came upon him a dimness of sight, a rushing sound in his ears, and the powers of life were for a time suspended.