Doctor Scribble in Hell

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One warm summer evening Dr. Scribble was sitting in his room by an open window reading a fairy tale book. It was getting late. From time to time a rustling leaf would fall from the sleeping chestnut tree onto the deserted sidewalks, and then the street would again be silent. Scribble read fairy tales right up until midnight when the city hall clock began to strike the hour.

But no sooner had the last chime died away on the air when a peculiar fluttering of wings was heard outside – it seemed as though some exceptionally huge bird was flying by. The flapping wings were getting closer and closer until they came right up to Dr. Scribble's house and stopped. A frightening red flash appeared in the street, harshly illuminating the houses for an instant and then going out.

Scribble went closer to the window, curious and anxious. Nothing could be seen in the street; but the odor of sulphur hung in the air.

"That’s strange," he mumbled to himself and returned to the table to finish the story about devils he was reading.

He was just about to sit down in his chair when he heard a loud knock on his door.

"Who’d be calling at this time of night?" the doctor wondered, his forehead wrinkling uneasily. “And on the stroke of midnight too!”

He opened the door.

On the threshold stood a figure with a dark face, wearing strange black clothes with a big red flower pinned to the lapel.

He slowly entered the room and said in a hollow voice:

“Does the famous Dr. Scribble live here?”

“Yes he does," the confused doctor answered. "I am him … although I am not as famous as you seem to think.”

“Don’t be so modest," the odd visitor said with a smirk. “We don't like modesty. Your fame has even reached us...yes, even us." He raised his gloved hand.

Here, the visitor suddenly became silent, glanced at Scribble with his black eyes and then continued:

“I was sent by my master. He is very sick now and has asked that you come to examine him. My master does not want his name to be revealed, and that is why I will have to conduct you to him.”

Dr. Scribble glanced uneasily at his caller, who was sniffing his red flower, then he looked over at the medicine cabinet and said:

“Well, all right ... I’ll go. I have refused my help to no one as yet.” And taking his medicine bag, he went out through the door with his visitor.

They strode down the darkened street between the softly rustling chestnut trees without saying a word. After they had passed the ice cream store and the apothecary's shop, they turned down a narrow, crooked street toward the Nemunas River.

The stranger stopped in front of a dismal house in Gardinas Street and began searching through his pockets. It was a tall red brick house with bronze bars over the windows, apparently vacant. Scribble's visitor put a silver key in the lock of the black wood door and it creaked open.

Both of them went inside.

The room was cold and damp and dark, lighted only by a few candles in a silver candelabrum. Thick cobwebs hung from the ceiling and glow worms glimmered in the corners.

"Please excuse us for the disorder here; further on it wi11 be neater," the stranger said and began to descend into the basement on a black marble stairway.

Scribble followed him.

They went downward for a long time. The further down they went, the hotter it became, and the doctor had to mop his brow with his white handkerchief more and more often.

Finally the stairs ended. The visitor started unlocking the big heavy doors, and Scribble said:

“It's as hot as hell around here!"

The stranger just snickered peculiarly and opened the door.

They found themselves in a large hall with a low ceiling where it was extremely hot. On the walls, which were covered with red cloth, hung sooty mirrors and archaic pictures portraying devils with long tails and small horns. Big black kettles stood by the walls with fires burning under them. A three-pronged fork, such as Scribble had never seen before, leaned against each kettle.

While Scribble was looking around the hall, his visitor took off his gloves. His hairy hands and stubby fingernails came into view; then he took off his hat and two small horns could be seen on his forehead.

"Just a moment, doctor," he said to Scribble. "I will find out if my master will see you now." And he bounded off down the hall, the long tail that appeared suddenly from under his coat waving behind him. He disappeared behind a heavy, faded velvet curtain.

Scribble felt a cold shiver run down his back.

“It is hell!” he whispered to himself, retreating a few steps on trembling legs.

His shoulder bumped accidentally against one of the kettles and the lid fell to the floor with a loud clang. Steam billowed from the kettle, a few drops of boiling water splashed out, and in the next instant a disheveled man jumped out and landed on the floor.

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"I’m out at last!" he said to himself and began shaking the water from his steaming clothes. He stopped suddenly when he noticed Dr. Scribble.

“Doctor!” he exclaimed. “Doctor, how did you get to hell?'

“Why, if it isn’t the pharmacist, Chichiukas!" cried the doctor as he shook his hand. “So, you’re in hell now? How did it happen?”

“It was all a terrible misunderstanding, Doctor. A mistake!” the pharmacist insisted, nodding his head woefully. “No sooner had I died than a pack of devils squeezed down the chimney into my room and dragged me along to hell. They maintain that I have sold my soul to them.”

"Is it true?" the doctor asked anxiously.

"They’re entirely mistaken!" the pharmacist persisted. “They’re entirely mistaken! I haven’t sold my soul to them, -- I told them that right off. But the devils don't believe me. The first thing I knew, an inky devil popped up with a thick, tattered book under his arm. The name of everyone who has sold his soul to the devil is recorded in it. Well, in it they found some name written illegibly: something like Chichiukas, something like Chichinskas." *[1]

[1] Translator’s note: Chichinskas was a nobleman in the old days of Lithuania. He was notorious for his collaboration with the Tsarist oppressors of the country, for his unsrestrained debauchery and shameless impiety. According to legend, he was struck by lightning but no one could bury his corpse for the earth would always reject him and throw him back.

The pharmacist heaved a great sigh, remembering the many troubles that were his.

"In all probability, it was the name of Chichinskas that was written there,” he continued. “But do you think that devils have had an education? That they know how to write correctly? They know nothing." And made a sweeping gesture with his arm.

Then he went on:

"Of course, I defend myself at every opportunity. But the devils just tell me: 'If that's the case, why don’t you write a letter to Saint Peter in heaven? But you'll have to sit here in hell until you receive an answer.’ And you know the postal service between heaven and hell is in very poor condition these days. So the devils told me: ‘Nowadays letters are seldom delivered to heaven. Maybe after you’ve waited one or two hundred years we’11 mail it out. So I've been stewing here for a year already, and I have at least ninety-nine more to wait.

“And all this time in this kettle?” the doctor asked, shocked at the very thought.

“Why, of course not,” the pharmacist laughed. “When Beelzebub isn’t looking, they let me out to play cards with them. Did you think there was law and order in hell? The devils are always playing cards and drinking hot pitch. They don’t even tend the fires under the kettles properly. And how they cheat at cards! That’s why we play liar most of the time. Of course, the devils almost always win, -- since nobody can lie better than a devil.”

Was my guide also a real devil then?” asked the frightened doctor.

“Sure,” Chichiukas explained. “He is the worst devil in hell. That’s why he’s always sent to earth on various errands, you see, so that he will keep up the bad reputation of hell there.”

While they were chatting, the black curtain parted and Scribble's guide appeared again.

"My master, Beelzebub, anxiously awaits you," he announced, bowing before the doctor. "And how did you get out?" he angrily shouted when he caught sight of the pharmacist. "Back to the kettle. March! At once!'

The pharmacist would have jumped back in if Dr. Scribble had not caught him by the sleeve.

"Just a moment!" the doctor exclaimed. "Just a moment! This is my pharmacist. He is most likely very experienced in the ways of hell by this time and could help me brew the medicine. He is indispensable."

''Well, all right," the devil agreed, making a sour face. “Both of you go inside."

They entered an ornate room lighted by black candles and decorated with silver statues of devils. Tall red flowers grew in cracked marble pots, and small devils went back and forth watering them with pitch. In the very middle of the room, on a soft bed, lay Beelzebub, wearing a rusty crown on his head and loudly moaning.

“Thank hell you came doctor!' he said, overjoyed at seeing Scribble. “A terrible thing has happened to me. When I was traveling through hell the other day, making a routine inspection to see that there were no holes in the kettles, the devil Blacktail was so clumsy about taking off one of the lids that he let it fall right on my tail. It was crushed horribly--so that I haven't had a moment's peace since. It hurts like blazes day and night …”

“Hm! Hm!” said Dr. Scribble as he peered through his spectacles to examine the tail. “Pretty badly smashed. We’ll check your temperature right away.”

After he had examined the thermometer, he said, “You have a temperature of two hundred and twelve degrees. For a devil that’s quite normal. There’s no infection. I’ll be able to cure you, but only under one condition.”

“I agree to everything!" Beelzebub exclaimed.

“You'll have to release pharmacist Chichiukas from hell."

“Release Chichiukas from hell?!” Beelzebub shouted so loudly that his rusty crown rolled off his head. "Release from hell? Don't you realize that whoever gets in here never gets out? Don't you know that this is the place of eternal punishment?"

“But for what sins has he been put here?”

“Sins?” Beelzebub roared with laughter. “Do you think a fellow is stuck in hell because of sins? Saint Peter allows even sinners into heaven if only they have done a couple of good deeds in their lives. But Chichiukas has sold us…” and here Beelzebub raised one of his black fingers, “...his soul! And that is quite a different matter.”

"But I didn’t sell it. My name isn't even in the book," Chichiukas interrupted.

"Not in the book?" Beelzebub said, his face wrinkled in disbelief. "Call the scribe!"

A hunchbacked devil immediately hopped up and stood there, shifting quickly from one foot to the other.

"Check at once the place where the name of Chichiukas is written!” Beelzebub shouted at him.

The bent devil, trembling with fear, began to leaf through the book with inky fingers. He opened to the letter "C” and searched for the pharmacist’s name.

“Master, there is something illegible inscribed here,” he lisped. “Maybe this is Chichiukas…”

And he fidgeted around, unable to decipher the name yet not daring to look up, until he was drenched in perspiration.

“What kind of order do you maintain here in hell?” the pharmacist demanded finally, becoming angry and waving a thermometer in the air. “You can’t even read your own writing. I’m not brewing any medicine for you. Tend to your flattened tail yourself.”

At this Beelzebub winced and darted an angry glance around the room. Then, having found no other solution, he spoke:

“Well, all right. I agree. You'll be able to go on your way with the doctor,--just hurry up and fix my tail."

Overjoyed, the doctor and the pharmacist began their work. First they bandaged Beelzebub's tail and then they asked for a kettle in which to brew the medicine.

"Bring a kettle" Beelzebub commanded.

"But, master," one devil timidly mumbled, “practically all our kettles have holes in them.”

"Still not mended!" Beelzebub raged. "You lazy lout! Bring the kettle in which Chichiukas was cooking."

 

Soon four groaning devils dragged in the heavy kettle.

The doctor dug into his medicine bag and brought out a strongly fragrant medicine which he poured into the kettle.

"I wonder, doctor," the pharmacist asked while he stirred the medicine with a three-pronged fork, “does human medicine work on devils? Don't you think we should add some pitch for him?”

"It's all right to pour some in," asserted the doctor, after having weighed the matter for a moment. And so they poured a pail of hot pitch into the kettle.

At last they were finished.

”Now drink a full ladle three times a day and twice at night," Dr. Scribble directed his patient,

Then he picked up his medicine bag and left Beelzebub’s chamber with the pharmacist.

When they reached the hall, devils came running from all directions to open the doors of hell for them.

"Sorry to see you go," the devils told the pharmacist. "We could have another game of cards. What will we do here without people?"

But Chichiukas only shook his head.

“As if anyone would want to live here among these smudged faces," he laughed. "After all, I'm not a devil..." he added, as he began to ascend the stairs with the doctor.

Scribble’s guide accompanied them as far as the vestibule and there unlocked the black door.

Scribble and Chichiukas came out on the sidewalk. It was still dark and the street was empty, save for the hazy fog that filled it.

"Lucky for us it's such a misty morning," said the pharmacist. "Nobody will be able to see us. It would be quite embarrassing for me, since I'm dead, to be seen strolling about town.”"

And they turned down an empty sidestreet.

When they ' reached the city hall, the pharmacist stopped. The colorful stained glass windows of the cathedral sparkled in the rising sun, and the top of the high steeple was submerged in dense mist.

The pharmacist sadly extended his hand to the doctor.

"So we have to part," he said. "Up this steeple is the way to paradise, and from there, of course, it is not much farther to heaven. Thank you, doctor, for not being afraid to visit hell-- otherwise, there's no telling how long I’d have remained cooking in that kettle.”

They bade one another a fond farewell, and the pharmacist entered the cathedral where his coat, which was still damp, shone with the radiant colors of the windows.

The doctor stood in the square by the kiosk of the Tartar and watched the steeple. In its one small window the pharmacist appeared once more, waved his hand to the doctor, and then disappeared forever, high above in the mist.

Dr. Scribble turned homeward, deep in thought. He walked along the empty sidewalk upon which tired chestnut leaves now and then fell.

“What a strange thing to happen,” he kept repeating to himself.

When he arrived home, he sat down at the table and resumed reading the book of fairy tales. But it was not long before he fell sound asleep, -- he was so weary.

And blowing through the open window, the wind began to leaf through the book looking for a fairy tale about hell.

Daktaras Kripstukas Pragare (Doctor Scribble in Hell) - copyright Julius Kaupas, Dalia Kaupiene Auguniene
English translation copyright Aldona and Robert Page