Ravenshoe, by Henry Kingsley

Chapter 56.

Scutari.

Alas! poor Charles. While they were all dividing the spoil at home, thinking him dead, where was he?

At Scutari. What happened to him before he got there, no one knows or ever will know. He does not. remember, and there is no one else to tell. He was passed from hand to hand and put on board ship. Here fever set in, and he passed from a state of stupid agony into a state of delirium. He may have lain on the pier in the pouring rain, moistening his parched lips in the chilling shower; he may have been jolted from hospital to hospital, and laid in draughty passages, till a bed was found for him: as others were. But he happily knew nothing of it. Things were so bad with him now that it did not much matter how he was treated. Read Lord Sidney Osborne’s “Scutari and its Hospitals,” and see how he might have been, and probably was. It is no part of our duty to dig up and exhibit all that miserable ismanagement. I think we have learnt onr lesson. I think I will go bail it don’t happen again. Before Charles knew where he was, there was a great change for the better. The hospital nurses arrived early in November.

He thinks that there were faint gleams of consciousness in his delirium. In the first, he says he was lying on his back, and above him were the masts and spars of a ship, and a sailor-boy was sitting out on a yard in the clear blue, mending a rope or doing something. It may have been a dream or not. Afterwards there were periods, distinctly remembered, when he seemed conscious — conscious of pain, and space, and time — to a certain extent. At these times he began to understand, in a way, that he was dead, and in hell. The delirium was better than this at ordinary times, in spite of its headlong incongruities. It was not so unbearable, save at times, when there came the feeling, too horrible for human brain to bear, of being millions and millions of miles, or of centuries, away, with no road back; at such times there was nothing to be done but to leap out of bed, and cry aloud for help in God’s name.

Then there came a time when he began, at intervals, to see a great vaulted arch overhead, and to wonder whether or no it was the roof of the pit. He began, after studjdng the matter many times, to find that pain ad ceased, and that the great vaulted arch was real. And he heard low voices once at this time — blessed voices of his fellow-men. He was content to wait.

At last, his soul and consciousness seemed to return to him in a strange way. He seemed to pass out of some abnormal state into a natural one. For he became aware that he was alive; nay, more, that he was asleep, and dreaming a silly, pleasant dream, and that he could wake himself at any time. He awoke, expecting to awake in his old room at Ravenshoe. But he was not there, and looked round him in wonder.

The arch he remembered was overhead. That was real enough. Three people were round his bed — a doctor in undress, a grey-haired gentleman who peered into his face, and a lady.

“God bless me!” said the doctor. “We have fetched him through. Look at his eyes, just look at his eyes. As sane an eye as yours or mine, and the pulse as round as a button.”

“Do you know us, my man?” said the gentleman.

It was possible enough that he did not, for he had never set eyes on him before. The gentleman meant only, “Are you sane enough to know your fellow-creatures when you see one? “Charles thought he must be some one he had met in society in old times and ought to recognise. He framed a polite reply, to the ffect tliat he hoped he had been well since he met him last, and that, if he found himself in the west, he would not pass Ravenshoe without coming to see him.

The doctor laughed. “A little abroad, still, I daresay; I have pulled you through. You have had a narrow escape.”

Charles was recovered enough to take his hand and thank him fervently, and whispered, “Would you tell me one thing, sir? How did Lady Hainault come here?”

“Lady Hainault, my man?”

“Yes; she was standing at the foot of the bed.”

“That is no Lady Hainault, my man; that is Miss Nightingale. Do you ever say your prayers?”

“Say them tonight before you go to sleep, and remember her name in them. Possibly they may get to heaven the quicker for it. Goodnight.”

Prayers forgotten, eh! How much of all this misery lay in that, I wonder? How much of this dull, stupid, careless despair — earth a hopeless, sunless wilderness, and heaven not thought of? Read on.

But, while you read, remember that poor Charles had had no domestic religious education whatever. The vicar had taught him his catechism and his prayers. After that, Shrewsbury and Oxford. Read on, but don’t condemn — at least not yet.

That he thanked God with all the earnestness of his warm heart that night, and remembered that name the doctor told him, you may be sure. But, when the prayer was finished, he began to think whether or no it was sincere, whether it would not be better that he should die, and that it should be all over and done. His creed was, that, if he died in the faith of Christ, bearing no ill will to anyone, having repented of his sins, it would not go ill with him. Would it not be better to die now that he could fulfil those conditions, and not tempt the horrible black future? Certainly.

In time he left watching the great arch overhead, and the creeping shadows, and the patch of light on the wall, which shaped itself into a faint rhomboid at noon, and crept on till it defined itself into a perfect square at sundown, and then grew golden and died out. He began to notice other things. But till the last there was one effect of light and shadow which he always lay awake to see — a faint flickering on the walls and roof, which came slowly nearer, till a light was in his eyes. We all know what that was. It has been described twenty times. I can believe that story of the dying man kissing the shadow on the wall. When Miss Nightingale and her lamp are forgotten, it will be time to consider whether one would prefer to turn Turk or Mormon.

He began to take notice that there were men in the eds beside him. One, as we know, bad been carried out dead; but there was another in bis place now. And one day there was a great event; when Charles woke, both of them were up, sitting at the side of their beds, ghastly shadows, and talking across him.

The maddest musician never listened to the “vox humana ” stop at Haarlem, with such delight as Charles did to these two voices. He lay for a time hearing them make acquaintance, and then he tried to sit up and join. He was on his left side, and tried to rise. His left arm would not support him, and he fell back, but they crept to him and set him up, and sat on his bed.

“Eight again, eh, comrade?” said one. “I thought you was gone, my lad. But I heard the doctor say you’d get through. You look bravely. Time was when you used to jump out of bed, and cry on God A’mighty. Many a time I’ve strove to help ye. The man in Ms bed died while you was like that: a Fusilier Guards man. What regiment?”

“I am of the 140th,” said Charles. “We had a bit of a brush with the enemy on the twenty-fifth. I was wounded there. It was a pretty little rattle, I think, for a time, but not of very much importance, I fancy.”

The man who had first spoken laughed; the other man, a lad who had a round face once, perhaps, but which now was a pale death’s head, with two great staring eyes, peaking with a voice which Charles knew at once to he a gentleman’s, said, ”Don’t yon know then that that charge of yours is the talk of Europe? That charge will never be forgotten while the world is round. Six hundred men against ten battalions. Good God! And you might have died there, and not known it.”

“Ah, is it so 1 ” said Charles. “If some could only know it 1 ”

“That is the worst of it,” said the young man. “I have enlisted under a false name, and will never go home any more. Never more. And she will never know that I did my duty.”

And after a time he got strong again in a way. A bullet, it appears, had struck the bone of his arm, and driven the splinters into the flesh. Fever had come on, and his splendid constitution, as yet untried, save by severe training, had pulled him through. But his left arm was useless. The doctor looked at it again and again, and shook his head.

The two men who were in the beds on each side of him were moved before him. They were only there a fortnight after his coming to himself The oldest of the two went first, and two or three days after the younger.

The three made all sorts of plans for meeting in England. Alas, what chance is there for three soldiers to meet again, unless by accident? At home it would have taken three years to have made these three men such hearty friends as they had become in a fortnight. Friendships are made in the camp, in the bush, or on board ship, at a wonderful rate. And, moreover, they last for an indefinite time. For ever, I fancy: for these reasons. Time does not destroy friendship. Time has nothing whatever to do with it. I have heard an old man of seventy-eight talking of a man he had not seen for twelve years, and before that for twenty-five, as if they were young men together. Craving for his company, as if once more they were together on the deck of the white-sailed yacht, flying before the easterly wind between Hurstcastle and Sconce Point. Mere continual familiarity, again, does not hurt friendship, unless interests clash. Diversity of interests is the death-blow of friendship. One great sacrifice may be made — two, or even three; but, after the first, two men are not to one another as they were before. Where men are thrown intimately together for a short time, and part have only seen the best side of one another, or where men see one another frequently, and have not very many causes of difference, friendship will flourish for ever. In the case of love it is very different, and for this obvious reason, which I will explain in a few pages

I entered into my own recognisances, in an early chapter of this story, not to preach. I fear they are escheated after this short essay on friendship, coming, as it does, exactly in the wrong place. I must only throw myself on the court, and purge myself of my contempt by promising amendment.

Poor Charles after a time was sent home to Fort Pitt. But that mighty left arm, which had done such noble work when it belonged to No. 3, in the Oxford University eight, was useless, and Charles Simpson, trooper in the 140th, was discharged from the army, and found himself on Christmas Eve in the street in front of the Waterloo Station, with eighteen shillings and ninepence in his pocket, wondering blindly what the end of it all would be, but no more dreaming of begging from those who had known him formerly than of leaping off Waterloo Bridge. Perhaps not half as much.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44