First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 7 August 1885
Sussex Scrapbooks 28/2, p. 21
(A Study in a Sick Room)
A brisk canter in May on a pulling horse; violent perspiration, followed by a twenty minutes’ lounge at the public gardens, where the flooded tennis courts reek like so many witches’ cauldrons, and the Enemy is upon you. Neither Mrs Lollipop’s banalities, the maturer charms of the Colonel’s wife, nor the fascinations of a gin and tonic at the peg table will keep him at bay. With the dreary foreknowledge, born of many previous experiences, you shall recognize that, for the next twelve hours at least, you are ‘in for it’; and shall communicate the fact with a sickly smile to your friends. The instinct of the stricken wild beast for rest and retirement drives you to your bachelor quarters. Man’s wisdom recommends quinine and an early retreat bedward. Your pony, finding that you sit much after the fashion of a sack of flour, and are to be dislodged at any moment, mercifully forbears putting his knowledge to practical use, and walks home in the twilight soberly. He is stepping, you can swear, on wool; the reins thickening and lengthening in the most marvellous manner throughout the journey. Finally four ponderous hawsers control a huge head twenty feet away, and there is no end to the white line of the mall. It runs straight as an arrow into the sunset, whence hot breezes, bearing on their wings the choking savour of a hundred brick kilns, fly out to meet and buffet you in the saddle. A grey backed, red bellied cloud closes the vista; and, as you gaze, you are conscious of a feeling of irritation. Somehow or other it has got into your head, and lies like a red-hot bar just below your hat-brim. Decidedly to-night’s experiences will be lively.
The stifling breezes have turned to marrow-freezing blasts as the pony stops at your door. One last test remains — though you yourself know that it will only render your certainty more assured. If the gorge rises at a tea-ripened, vanilla-scented ‘super’, if the mind turn with loathing from a well loved consolation, then indeed lie down and wait with what patience you may for the morning. Alas! nerveless fingers drop the match ere it is well alight. One half — nay, one quarter puff, is sufficient to convert you, for the time being, to the views of King James of blessed memory. ‘Bearer, Sherry sharab quinine ke botal lao! Khana ne chahseay.’ [‘Bearer, a bottle of sherry and quinine. I don’t want dinner.’] Kurim Buksh guessed as much from your face when you half tumbled, half slid off the pony three minutes ago, and has already communicated the joyful news to his familiars. The Sahib is bokhar (feverish), and there will be an evening party in the servants’ quarters to-night. Meantime his countenance expresses nothing save dumb grief. He pours out the wineglassful of sherry, and departs with the decanter — to be seen no more.
As you have not ordered the lamps, or given any express instructions about iced water being placed by your bedside, he has not thought fit to perform either of these offices himself. The fever has you bound hand and foot for the night; and your voice, even at its most powerful pitch, will be far too weak an hour hence to disturb the revellers in the serai (caravanserai, with stalls for travellers and their animals). It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good!
The great red cloud has faded out behind the ferashes, the moon looks down through the dusty heat haze, and the circalas are hard at work outside. Crick! crick! crick! crick! in the silence of the evening; and some miserable ragamuffin returning from the bazaar joins his notes to theirs. Every howl, chuckle and quaver echoes and re-echoes in your head like whispers in the gallery of St. Paul’s. Have patience, for, as you yourself well know, your torments are but beginning. When those thirty grains of quinine shall have effected a lodgment in the sick brain, and wrestle with the phantoms there, the play will be at its height. A present you are merely hot and cold by turns; the moods varying so rapidly that you dare not regulate the punkah by them. Scarcely has the ‘zor se kencho’ [‘pull hard’] left your lips, than the burning wave has rolled by, and your teeth are chattering like castenets. If you told the coolie to ‘chor do’ [‘let go’] now, he would probably curl up to slumber, and be beyond your reach before the cold fit had passed. By knocking the books off the table and appropriating the tablecloth for a wrapper, something may be done; but above all things it is advisable not to look at the punkah. It has an unpleasant knack of growing big and little with exasperating rapidity; of retiring anon to the beams on which it is slung, and thereafter descending till it sweeps the floor. Moreover, it is iridescent at the edges, as long as the half light lasts. When that has gone, you had best follow the sun’s example, and sink to rest — though this is a brutal sarcasm — at once. Wait, if possible, till the cold fit has overtaken you, or the sheets will strike icily chill on first getting into bed. Thus you may snatch a little comfort out of the jaws of pain.
You were to have dined out to-night, and by this time should have been in your trap on the way to Mrs Lollipop’s. But man proposes and the fever disposes. You have sailed far out of the reach of such mundane matters as dinners and flirtations, and are alone in that strange phantasmal world that lies open to us all in time of sickness — on the first stage of your journey towards the Purgatory of sizes and distances. Of this you are dimly conscious, for the racking pains in legs and trunk have given place to pains in the eyes and head only. The cold fits have passed away, and you have been burning steadily for the last ten minutes, preparatory to a final glissade down a rolling bank of black cloud and thick darkness, and out into the regions beyond. Here you are alone, utterly alone on the verge of a waste of moonlit sand, stretching away to the horizon. Hundreds and thousands of miles away lies a small silver pool, not bigger than a splash of rain water. A stone is dropped into its bosom, and, as the circles spread, the puddle widens into a devouring, placid sea, advancing in mathematically straight ridges across the sand. The silver lines broaden from east to west, and rush up with inconceivable rapidity to the level of your eyes. You shudder and attempt to fly. The innumerable lines retreat with a long drawn ‘hesh-sh’ across the levels, and the terrible sea is contracted to the dimensions of a little puddle once more. A moment’s breathing space, and the hideous advance and retreat recommences. The unstricken observer would tell you, if you cared to listen (which you do not, for you are deep in a struggle for life), that this phenomenon is simply the result of the quinine taken a few hours ago. But it is a very real Hell to you, for the advancing and receding tide gives place to all manner of strange dreams, wherein you are eternally progressing between infinite parallel straight lines, as eternally being driven back in terror by a something that advances and retreats at the further end of the passage, or overwhelmed by immense agitations of the solid earth, all directed against your poor Personality. Mountains are riven from top to bottom, that their fall may block up the ravine in which you are trapped. Rivers are diverted from their beds to pursue you across doabs (sands between two rivers) of never-ending quicksands; and when you have shaken yourself free from these horrors, the round globe herself opens to let you down into the darkness of her central depths, or it may be to lap you in her central fires. You are alone on some way-side railway station, planted amid burning sands. A tropical sun is searing your brain as you pace up and down the platform waiting for the train that is to bear you away from your pain. At length it comes. Shewing first as a tiny speck on the polished burning metals, nearer, nearer, nearer, in a reverberating crescendo, till it halts hotter even than the mid-day sun, a monster of winking brasswork and roaring fires. From the foot-plate, where he had hidden himself till now, leaps off a royal Bengal tiger with yellow eye balls and opened jaws, and as he springs at your throat, the masterless train flies away out of your reach, and disappears as rapidly as it came. The sands bubble and heave with the under-pressure of some volcanic power and — you have a brief respite before entering on the second stage of your journey — the Purgatory of Faces. Your cheeks are deep purple, your eyes blood-shot, and your lips cracked and dry. Kurim Buksh has forgotten the iced-water, for the table by your bedside is empty; and if your life depended upon it, you could never raise your voice above a whisper. Nevertheless, you imagine that your shouts for peene ka paney [a drink of water] would raise the dead. As a matter of fact, they have not reached the punkah coolie outside. The thirst will pass off in a little — or at least you will have other things to do than to cry, as Dives did, for a little cold water to moisten your tongue. So far quinine has bred the visions you have seen. From midnight till about two o’clock you must deal with the delirium of fever by itself, and the second circle of your torment will be followed, as you well know, by a third and a worse.
Even now, the space of unadorned white-washed wall between the almirah (wardrobe) and the gun cases at the end of the room is filling up with your visitors. Ladies and gentlemen, who call at unseasonable hours, and are not to be hastened but by the law of nature, which jealously watches the tension on the silver cord, and relaxes it when the strain becomes too severe. If your mind is an active one, and your habit of life — I will be considerate — tumultuous, I scarcely envy you what you will see. At the best, the Purgatory of Faces is a weary and profitless experience. At the worst, only those that have been driven through its lowest circles can testify what it is. The six square feet of whitewash at which you are staring so piteously, frames, it may be, a truthful but none the less unpleasant epitome of your past life.
Phantasmagoria of the mind’s magic lantern — each slide projecting its image clearly, thanks to the limelight of a brain that just now cannot lie even to itself. What they represent to you, it would surely be bitterly unfair of me to say — and would, moreover, impel you to denials unbefitting the character of an English gentleman. Your voice has recovered its volume, and your language, forgive me for saying so, is unparliamentary and even profane. As that queer frieze on the wall slides by, thickens, dissolves and reforms, you are giving away with both hands much that it would have been well to keep to yourself — if you could. But the delirium has opened your lips, so that you cannot close them, or even cloak your thoughts with the decent conventionalities that our respectable life here below demands. The recurrence of that one face, in spite of the jostling crowd behind it, is exceedingly annoying, but capable of explanation on the simplest psychological grounds. The punkah coolie, whom your ravings have attracted to the chick (screen), argues that the sahib has, for the time being, gone pagal (mad), and will consequently not notice whether the punkah is pulled or not. Once more it is an ill-wind that blows nobody any good. Peroo, Dalloo, or whatever his name is, has disposed himself for a nap, while you fight your way out of the purgatory, or lose consciousness of its horrors through sheer exhaustion. The time is not far off, and, if you only knew, your skin is beginning to show signs of moisture. Violent declamation, accompanied with fantastic gestures, leads, by a natural law, to violent perspiration — and it is now close upon two o’clock. That uncanny picture frame fills less quickly than it did, and it is dawning upon you that your visitants were nothing more than idle shadows, and not, as you first held, an avenging army of embodied sins. You have dropped your voice to something a little above a sigh, and are slowly coming to. The last face dies out on the wall, raging thirst has returned, and but one more purgatory remains, wherein the half awakened mind shall scourge you with irrational terrors, and you shall be broken in spirit as children are broken at the prospect of impending and inevitable punishment.
The Purgatory of Vain Imaginings has opened to receive you, and already you are deep in its labyrinths. You are working against time at some hopeless task, which, in spite of your exertions, unfolds itself before your wearied eyes like the endless paper reel of a telephone. Official displeasure, the contempt of your juniors, degradation, forfeiture of your pension, and beggary are staring you in the face; and the burden of your daily work rides you like the nightmare. In a glimmering sort of way you can reason and elaborate consequences. You have embezzled money, taken bribes, sold appointments, betrayed your friend, and the judgment for these acts is even now at hand. The past six hours have broken your self-control, and ludicrous and pitiable delusions force you to sob like a child whose sum ‘won’t come right’. For a married man, terrors are reserved far more formidable than any that can assail the bachelor. His wife and children are starving, have disgraced themselves for ever; he is repudiated by those he held dearest, and so on till the inevitable climax is reached — hopeless despair and (the woman’s refuge) tears. With these last, and the protracted mental strain, comes the end of the penance — in the prosaic form of a violent sweat till dawn, and the night’s experiences are drowned in that first deep draught of iced water that Kurim Buksh — taught by experience — brings with chota hazree (breakfast). What was it Byron said about hock and seltzer after a night’s debauch? You will answer that the crisp tinkle of the ice against the glass, those three or four deep delicious gulps of cold water, when the sparrows in the rose bushes are beginning their day’s quarrels and intrigues, are worth a thousand times all the liquors that ever human ingenuity brewed or compounded. Have you not just explored the three circles of your fiery inferno, and returned unscathed; or at the most, if your journey has been a long one, only so weak as a little child? Entitled by right of past sufferings to the delights of an unmitigated Europe morning and the protracted pleasures of an after breakfast cheroot — those six inch incense sticks which you may burn this morning with a clear conscience in honour of the Joss of Idleness, wondering how it was that they tasted so villainously last evening. By the time that the first honey coloured darling was burnt to the stump, you will be prepared to swear that I, your faithful historian, have, to put it gently, wilfully and falsely exaggerated. ‘Of course I was a bit light in my head and all that. Every fellow with fever is.
But all that stuff about infernos and pictures is awful bosh. Man’s a 1——’; and Mrs Lollipop, on whom fever once laid no gentle hand, will lispingly back you up in the assertion; for out of her mind too, as out of yours, has passed all recollection of the time when an evening’s chill ‘drove the delighted spirit’ a wanderer through the caverns of that very Inferno whose existence is so impiously denied, and that with lips still blue and parched from the vehemence of its fires.