A Simpleton by Charles Reade
"Thank God!" why, according to his theory, it should have been "Thank Nature." But I observe that, in such cases, even philosophers are ungrateful to the mistress they worship.
Our philosopher not only thanked God, but being on his knees, prayed forgiveness for his late ravings, prayed hard, with one arm curled round the upright, lest the sea, which ever and anon rushed over the bottom of the raft, should swallow him up in a moment.
Then he rose carefully, and wedged himself into the corner of the raft opposite to that other figure, ominous relic of the wild voyage the new-comer had entered upon; he put both arms over the rail, and stood erect.
The moon was now up; but so was the breeze: fleecy clouds flew with vast rapidity across her bright face, and it was by fitful though vivid glances Staines examined the raft and his companion.
The raft was large, and well made of timbers tied and nailed together, and a strong rail ran round it resting on several uprights. There were also some blocks of a very light wood screwed to the horizontal timbers, and these made it float high.
But what arrested and fascinated the man's gaze was his dead companion, sole survivor, doubtless, of a horrible voyage, since the raft was not made for one, nor by one.
It was a skeleton, or nearly, whose clothes the seabirds had torn, and pecked every limb in all the fleshy parts; the rest of the body had dried to dark leather on the bones. The head was little more than an eyeless skull; but in the fitful moonlight, those huge hollow caverns seemed gigantic lamp-like eyes, and glared at him fiendishly, appallingly.
He sickened at the sight. He tried not to look at it; but it would be looked at, and threaten him in the moonlight, with great lack- lustre eyes.
The wind whistled, and lashed his face with spray torn off the big waves, and the water was nearly up to his knees, and the raft tossed so wildly, it was all he could do to hold on in his corner: in which struggle, still those monstrous lack-lustre eyes, like lamps of death, glared at him in the moon; all else was dark, except the fiery crests of the black mountain-billows, tumbling and raging all around.
What a night!
But, before morning, the breeze sank, the moon set, and a sombre quiet succeeded, with only that grim figure in outline dimly visible. Owing to the motion still retained by the waves, it seemed to nod and rear, and be ever preparing to rush upon him.
The sun rose glorious, on a lovely scene; the sky was a very mosaic of colors sweet and vivid, and the tranquil, rippling sea, peach- colored to the horizon, with lines of diamonds where the myriad ripples broke into smiles.
Staines was asleep, exhausted. Soon the light awoke him, and he looked up. What an incongruous picture met his eye: that heaven of color all above and around, and right before him, like a devil stuck in mid-heaven, that grinning corpse, whose fate foreshadowed his own.
But daylight is a great strengthener of the nerves; the figure no longer appalled him--a man who had long learned to look with Science's calm eye upon the dead. When the sea became like glass, and from peach-color deepened to rose, he walked along the raft, and inspected the dead man. He found it was a man of color, but not a black. The body was not kept in its place, as he had supposed, merely by being jammed into the angle caused by the rail; it was also lashed to the corner upright by a long, stout belt. Staines concluded this had kept the body there, and its companions had been swept away.
This was not lost on him: he removed the belt for his own use: he then found it was not only a belt, but a receptacle; it was nearly full of small, hard substances that felt like stones.
When he had taken it off the body, he felt a compunction. "Ought he to rob the dead, and expose it to be swept into the sea at the first wave, like a dead dog?"
He was about to replace the belt, when a middle course occurred to him. He was a man who always carried certain useful little things about him, viz., needles, thread, scissors, and string. He took a piece of string, and easily secured this poor light skeleton to the raft. The belt he strapped to the rail, and kept for his own need.
And now hunger gnawed him. No food was near. There was nothing but the lovely sea and sky, mosaic with color, and that grim, ominous skeleton.
Hunger comes and goes many times before it becomes insupportable. All that day and night, and the next day, he suffered its pangs; and then it became torture, but the thirst maddening.
Towards night fell a gentle rain. He spread a handkerchief and caught it. He sucked the handkerchief.
This revived him, and even allayed in some degree the pangs of hunger.
Next day was cloudless. A hot sun glared on his unprotected head, and battered down his enfeebled frame.
He resisted as well as he could. He often dipped his head, and as often the persistent sun, with cruel glare, made it smoke again.
Next day the same: but the strength to meet it was waning. He lay down and thought of Rosa, and wept bitterly. He took the dead man's belt, and lashed himself to the upright. That act, and his tears for his beloved, were almost his last acts of perfect reason: for next day came the delusions and the dreams that succeed when hunger ceases to torture, and the vital powers begin to ebb. He lay and saw pleasant meadows with meandering streams, and clusters of rich fruit that courted the hand and melted in the mouth.
Ever and anon they vanished, and he saw grim death looking down on him with those big cavernous eyes.
By and by, whether his body's eye saw the grim skeleton, or his mind's eye the juicy fruits, green meadows, and pearly brooks, all was shadowy.
So, in a placid calm, beneath a blue sky, the raft drifted dead, with its dead freight, upon the glassy purple, and he drifted, too, towards the world unknown.
There came across the waters to that dismal raft a thing none too common, by sea or land--a good man.
He was tall, stalwart, bronzed, and had hair like snow, before his time, for he had known trouble. He commanded a merchant steamer, bound for Calcutta, on the old route.
The man at the mast-head descried a floating wreck, and hailed the deck accordingly. The captain altered his course without one moment's hesitation, and brought up alongside, lowered a boat, and brought the dead, and the breathing man, on board.
A young middy lifted Staines in his arms from the wreck to the boat; he whose person I described in chapter one weighed now no more than that.
Men are not always rougher than women. Their strength and nerve enable them now and then to be gentler than buttery-fingered angels, who drop frail things through sensitive agitation, and break them. These rough men saw Staines was hovering between life and death, and they handled him like a thing the ebbing life might be shaken out of in a moment. It was pretty to see how gingerly the sailors carried the sinking man up the ladder, and one fetched swabs, and the others laid him down softly on them at their captain's feet.
"Well done, men," said he. "Poor fellow! Pray Heaven, we may not have come too late. Now stand aloof a bit. Send the surgeon aft."
The surgeon came, and looked, and felt the heart. He shook his head, and called for brandy. He had Staines's head raised, and got half a spoonful of diluted brandy down his throat. But there was an ominous gurgling.
After several such attempts at intervals, he said plainly the man's life could not be saved by ordinary means.
"Then try extraordinary," said the captain. "My orders are that he is to be saved. There is life in him. You have only got to keep it there. He must be saved; he shall be saved."
"I should like to try Dr. Staines's remedy," said the surgeon.
"Try it, then what is it?"
"A bath of beef-tea. Dr. Staines says he applied it to a starved child--in the Lancet."
"Take a hundred-weight of beef, and boil it in the coppers."
Thus encouraged, the surgeon went to the cook, and very soon beef was steaming on a scale and at a rate unparalleled.
Meantime, Captain Dodd had the patient taken to his own cabin, and he and his servant administered weak brandy and water with great caution and skill.
There was no perceptible result. But at all events there was life and vital instinct left, or he could not have swallowed.
Thus they hovered about him for some hours, and then the bath was ready.
The captain took charge of the patient's clothes: the surgeon and a sailor bathed him in lukewarm beef-tea, and then covered him very warm with blankets next the skin. Guess how near a thing it seemed to them, when I tell you they dared not rub him.
Just before sunset his pulse became perceptible. The surgeon administered half a spoonful of egg-flip. The patient swallowed it.
By and by he sighed.
"He must not be left, day or night," said the captain. "I don't know who or what he is, but he is a man; and I could not bear him to die now."
That night Captain Dodd overhauled the patient's clothes, and looked for marks on his linen. There were none.
"Poor devil " said Captain Dodd. "He is a bachelor."
Captain Dodd found his pocket-book, with bank-notes, two hundred pounds. He took the numbers, made a memorandum of them, and locked the notes up.
He lighted his lamp, examined the belt, unripped it, and poured out the contents on his table.
They were dazzling. A great many large pieces of amethyst, and some of white topaz and rock crystal; a large number of smaller stones, carbuncles, chrysolites, and not a few emeralds. Dodd looked at them with pleasure, sparkling in the lamplight.
"What a lot!" said he. "I wonder what they are worth!" He sent for the first mate, who, he knew, did a little private business in precious stones. "Masterton," said he, "oblige me by counting these stones with me, and valuing them."
Mr. Masterton stared, and his mouth watered. However, he named the various stones and valued them. He said there was one stone, a large emerald, without a flaw, that was worth a heavy sum by itself; and the pearls, very fine: and looking at the great number, they must be worth a thousand pounds.
Captain Dodd then entered the whole business carefully in the ship's log: the living man he described thus: "About five feet six in height, and about fifty years of age." Then he described the notes and the stones very exactly, and made Masterton, the valuer, sign the log.
Staines took a good deal of egg-flip that night, and next day ate solid food; but they questioned him in vain; his reason was entirely in abeyance: he had become an eater, and nothing else. Whenever they gave him food, he showed a sort of fawning animal gratitude. Other sentiment he had none, nor did words enter his mind any more than a bird's. And since it is not pleasant to dwell on the wreck of a fine understanding, I will only say that they landed him at Cape Town, out of bodily danger, but weak, and his mind, to all appearance, a hopeless blank.
They buried the skeleton,--read the service of the English Church over a Malabar heathen.
Dodd took Staines to the hospital, and left twenty pounds with the governor of it to cure him. But he deposited Staines's money and jewels with a friendly banker, and begged that the principal cashier might see the man, and be able to recognize him, should he apply for his own.
The cashier came and examined him, and also the ruby ring on his finger--a parting gift from Rosa--and remarked this was a new way of doing business.
"Why, it is the only one, sir," said Dodd. "How can we give you his signature? He is not in his right mind."
"Nor never will be."
"Don't say that, sir. Let us hope for the best, poor fellow."
Having made these provisions, the worthy captain weighed anchor, with a warm heart and a good conscience. Yet the image of the man he had saved pursued him, and he resolved to look after him next time he should coal at Cape Town, homeward bound.
Staines recovered his strength in about two months; but his mind returned in fragments, and very slowly. For a long, long time he remembered nothing that had preceded his great calamity. His mind started afresh, aided only by certain fixed habits; for instance, he could read and write: but, strange as it may appear, he had no idea who he was; and when his memory cleared a little on that head, he thought his surname was Christie, but he was not sure.
Nevertheless, the presiding physician discovered in him a certain progress of intelligence, which gave him great hopes. In the fifth month, having shown a marked interest in the other sick patients, coupled with a disposition to be careful and attentive, they made him a nurse, or rather a sub-nurse under the special orders of a responsible nurse. I really believe it was done at first to avoid the alternative of sending him adrift, or transferring him to the insane ward of the hospital. In this congenial pursuit he showed such watchfulness and skill, that by and by they found they had got a treasure. Two months after that he began to talk about medicine, and astonished them still more. He became the puzzle of the establishment. The doctor and surgeon would converse with him, and try and lead him to his past life; but when it came to that, he used to put his hands to his head with a face of great distress, and it was clear some impassable barrier lay between his growing intelligence and the past events of his life. Indeed, on one occasion, he said to his kind friend the doctor, "The past!--a black wall! a black wall!"
Ten months after his admission he was promoted to be an attendant, with a salary.
He put by every shilling of it; for he said, "A voice from the dark past tells me money is everything in this world."
A discussion was held by the authorities as to whether he should be informed he had money and jewels at the bank or not.
Upon the whole, it was thought advisable to postpone this information, lest he should throw it away; but they told him he had been picked up at sea, and both money and jewels found on him; they were in safe hands, only the person was away for the time. Still, he was not to look upon himself as either friendless or moneyless.
At this communication he showed an almost childish delight, that confirmed the doctor in his opinion he was acting prudently, and for the real benefit of an amiable and afflicted person, not yet to be trusted with money and jewels.