Confessions of a Drunkard

Charles Lamb

First published in 1813.

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Table of Contents

  1. Confessions of a Drunkard
  2. Notes

Confessions of a Drunkard

Dehortations from the use of strong liquors have been the favourite topic of sober declaimers in all ages, and have been received with abundance of applause by water-drinking critics. But with the patient himself, the man that is to be cured, unfortunately their sound has seldom prevailed. Yet the evil is acknowledged, the remedy simple. Abstain. No force can oblige a man to raise the glass to his head against his will. ’Tis as easy as not to steal, not to tell lies.

Alas! the hand to pilfer, and the tongue to bear false witness, have no constitutional tendency. These are actions indifferent to them. At the first instance of the reformed will, they can be brought off without a murmur. The itching finger is but a figure in speech, and the tongue of the liar can with the same natural delight give forth useful truths, with which it has been accustomed to scatter their pernicious contraries. But when a man has commenced sot——

O pause, thou sturdy moralist, thou person of stout nerves and a strong head, whose liver is happily untouched, and ere thy gorge riseth at the name which I have written, first learn what the thing is; how much of compassion, how much of human allowance, thou may’st virtuously mingle with thy disapprobation. Trample not on the ruins of a man. Exact not, under so terrible a penalty as infamy, a resuscitation from a state of death almost as real as that from which Lazarus rose not but by a miracle.

Begin a reformation, and custom will make it easy. But what if the beginning be dreadful, the first steps not like climbing a mountain but going through fire? what if the whole system must undergo a change violent as that which we conceive of the mutation of form in some insects? what if a process comparable to flaying alive be to be gone through? is the weakness that sinks under such struggles to be confounded with the pertinacity which clings to other vices, which have induced no constitutional necessity, no engagement of the whole victim, body and soul?

I have known one in that state, when he has tried to abstain but for one evening,—though the poisonous potion had long ceased to bring back its first enchantments, though he was sure it would rather deepen his gloom than brighten it,—in the violence of the struggle, and the necessity he has felt of getting rid of the present sensation at any rate, I have known him to scream out, to cry aloud, for the anguish and pain of the strife within him.

Why should I hesitate to declare, that the man of whom I speak is myself? I have no puling apology to make to mankind. I see them all in one way or another deviating from the pure reason. It is to my own nature alone I am accountable for the woe that I have brought upon it.

I believe that there are constitutions, robust heads and iron insides, whom scarce any excesses can hurt; whom brandy (I have seen them drink it like wine), at all events whom wine, taken in ever so plentiful measure, can do no worse injury to than just to muddle their faculties, perhaps never very pellucid. On them this discourse is wasted. They would but laugh at a weak brother, who, trying his strength with them, and coming off foiled from the contest, would fain persuade them that such agonistic exercises are dangerous. It is to a very different description of persons I speak. It is to the weak, the nervous; to those who feel the want of some artificial aid to raise their spirits in society to what is no more than the ordinary pitch of all around them without it. This is the secret of our drinking. Such must fly the convivial board in the first instance, if they do not mean to sell themselves for term of life.

Twelve years ago I had completed my six and twentieth year. I had lived from the period of leaving school to that time pretty much in solitude. My companions were chiefly books, or at most one or two living ones of my own book-loving and sober stamp. I rose early, went to bed betimes, and the faculties which God had given me, I have reason to think, did not rust in me unused.

About that time I fell in with some companions of a different order. They were men of boisterous spirits, sitters up a-nights, disputants, drunken; yet seemed to have something noble about them. We dealt about the wit, or what passes for it after midnight, jovially. Of the quality called fancy I certainly possessed a larger share than my companions. Encouraged by their applause, I set up for a profest joker! I, who of all men am least fitted for such an occupation, having, in addition to the greatest difficulty which I experience at all times of finding words to express my meaning, a natural nervous impediment in my speech!

Reader, if you are gifted with nerves like mine, aspire to any character but that of a wit. When you find a tickling relish upon your tongue disposing you to that sort of conversation, especially if you find a preternatural flow of ideas setting in upon you at the sight of a bottle and fresh glasses, avoid giving way to it as you would fly your greatest destruction. If you cannot crush the power of fancy, or that within you which you mistake for such, divert it, give it some other play. Write an essay, pen a character or description,—but not as I do now, with tears trickling down your cheeks.

To be an object of compassion to friends, of derision to foes; to be suspected by strangers, stared at by fools; to be esteemed dull when you cannot be witty, to be applauded for witty when you know that you have been dull; to be called upon for the extemporaneous exercise of that faculty which no premeditation can give; to be spurred on to efforts which end in contempt; to be set on to provoke mirth which procures the procurer hatred; to give pleasure and be paid with squinting malice; to swallow draughts of life-destroying wine which are to be distilled into airy breath to tickle vain auditors; to mortgage miserable morrows for nights of madness; to waste whole seas of time upon those who pay it back in little inconsiderable drops of grudging applause,—are the wages of buffoonery and death.

Time, which has a sure stroke at dissolving all connexions which have no solider fastening than this liquid cement, more kind to me than my own taste or penetration, at length opened my eyes to the supposed qualities of my first friends. No trace of them is left but in the vices which they introduced, and the habits they infixed. In them my friends survive still, and exercise ample retribution for any supposed infidelity that I may have been guilty of towards them.

My next more immediate companions were and are persons of such intrinsic and felt worth, that though accidentally their acquaintance has proved pernicious to me, I do not know that if the thing were to do over again, I should have the courage to eschew the mischief at the price of forfeiting the benefit. I came to them reeking from the steams of my late over-heated notions of companionship; and the slightest fuel which they unconsciously afforded, was sufficient to feed my old fires into a propensity.

They were no drinkers, but, one from professional habits, and another from a custom derived from his father, smoked tobacco. The devil could not have devised a more subtle trap to retake a backsliding penitent. The transition, from gulping down draughts of liquid fire to puffing out innocuous blasts of dry smoke, was so like cheating him. But he is too hard for us when we hope to commute. He beats us at barter; and when we think to set off a new failing against an old infirmity, ’tis odds but he puts the trick upon us of two for one. That (comparatively) white devil of tobacco brought with him in the end seven worse than himself.

It were impertinent to carry the reader through all the processes by which, from smoking at first with malt liquor, I took my degrees through thin wines, through stronger wine and water, through small punch, to those juggling compositions, which, under the name of mixed liquors, slur a great deal of brandy or other poison under less and less water continually, until they come next to none, and so to none at all. But it is hateful to disclose the secrets of my Tartarus.

I should repel my readers, from a mere incapacity of believing me, were I to tell them what tobacco has been to me, the drudging service which I have paid, the slavery which I have vowed to it. How, when I have resolved to quit it, a feeling as of ingratitude has started up; how it has put on personal claims and made the demands of a friend upon me. How the reading of it casually in a book, as where Adams takes his whiff in the chimney-corner of some inn in Joseph Andrews, or Piscator in the Complete Angler breaks his fast upon a morning pipe in that delicate room Piscatoribus Sacrum, has in a moment broken down the resistance of weeks. How a pipe was ever in my midnight path before me, till the vision forced me to realize it,—how then its ascending vapours curled, its fragrance lulled, and the thousand delicious ministerings conversant about it, employing every faculty, extracted the sense of pain. How from illuminating it came to darken, from a quick solace it turned to a negative relief, thence to a restlessness and dissatisfaction, thence to a positive misery. How, even now, when the whole secret stands confessed in all its dreadful truth before me, I feel myself linked to it beyond the power of revocation. Bone of my bone——

Persons not accustomed to examine the motives of their actions, to reckon up the countless nails that rivet the chains of habit, or perhaps being bound by none so obdurate as those I have confessed to, may recoil from this as from an overcharged picture. But what short of such a bondage is it, which in spite of protesting friends, a weeping wife, and a reprobating world, chains down many a poor fellow, of no original indisposition to goodness, to his pipe and his pot?

I have seen a print after Correggio, in which three female figures are ministering to a man who sits fast bound at the root of a tree. Sensuality is soothing him, Evil Habit is nailing him to a branch, and Repugnance at the same instant of time is applying a snake to his side. In his face is feeble delight, the recollection of past rather than perception of present pleasures, languid enjoyment of evil with utter imbecility to good, a Sybaritic effeminacy, a submission to bondage, the springs of the will gone down like a broken clock, the sin and the suffering coinstantaneous, or the latter forerunning the former, remorse preceding action—all this represented in one point of time.—When I saw this, I admired the wonderful skill of the painter. But when I went away, I wept, because I thought of my own condition.

Of that there is no hope that it should ever change. The waters have gone over me. But out of the black depths, could I be heard, I would cry out to all those who have but set a foot in the perilous flood. Could the youth, to whom the flavor of his first wine is delicious as the opening scenes of life, or the entering upon some newly discovered paradise, look into my desolation, and be made to understand what a dreary thing it is when a man shall feel himself going down a precipice with open eyes and a passive will,—to see his destruction, and have no power to stop it, and yet to feel it all the way emanating from himself; to perceive all goodness emptied out of him, and yet not to be able to forget a time when it was otherwise; to bear about the piteous spectacle of his own self-ruins:—could he see my fevered eye, feverish with last night’s drinking, and feverishly looking for this night’s repetition of the folly; could he feel the body of the death out of which I cry hourly with feebler and feebler outcry to be delivered,—it were enough to make him dash the sparkling beverage to the earth in all the pride of its mantling temptation; to make him clasp his teeth,

and not undo ’em

To suffer WET DAMNATION to run through ’em.

Yea, but (methinks I hear somebody object) if sobriety be that fine thing you would have us to understand, if the comforts of a cool brain are to be preferred to that state of heated excitement which you describe and deplore, what hinders in your own instance that you do not return to those habits from which you would induce others never to swerve? if the blessing be worth preserving, is it not worth recovering?

Recovering!—O if a wish could transport me back to those days of youth, when a draught from the next clear spring could slake any heats which summer suns and youthful exercise had power to stir up in the blood, how gladly would I return to thee, pure element, the drink of children, and of child-like holy hermit. In my dreams I can sometimes fancy thy cool refreshment purling over my burning tongue. But my waking stomach rejects it. That which refreshes innocence, only makes me sick and faint.

But is there no middle way betwixt total abstinence and the excess which kills you?—For your sake, reader, and that you may never attain to my experience, with pain I must utter the dreadful truth, that there is none, none that I can find. In my stage of habit (I speak not of habits less confirmed—for some of them I believe the advice to be most prudential) in the stage which I have reached, to stop short of that measure which is sufficient to draw on torpor and sleep, the benumbing apoplectic sleep of the drunkard, is to have taken none at all. The pain of the self-denial is all one. And what that is, I had rather the reader should believe on my credit, than know from his own trial. He will come to know it, whenever he shall arrive at that state, in which, paradoxical as it may appear, reason shall only visit him through intoxication: for it is a fearful truth, that the intellectual faculties by repeated acts of intemperance may be driven from their orderly sphere of action, their clear day-light ministeries, until they shall be brought at last to depend, for the faint manifestation of their departing energies, upon the returning periods of the fatal madness to which they owe their devastation. The drinking man is never less himself than during his sober intervals. Evil is so far his good.1

1 When poor M—— painted his last picture, with a pencil in one trembling hand, and a glass of brandy and water in the other, his fingers owed the comparative steadiness, with which they were enabled to go through their task in an imperfect manner, to a temporary firmness derived from a repetition of practices, the general effect of which had shaken both them and him so terribly.

Behold me then, in the robust period of life, reduced to imbecility and decay. Hear me count my gains, and the profits which I have derived from the midnight cup.

Twelve years ago I was possessed of a healthy frame of mind and body. I was never strong, but I think my constitution (for a weak one) was as happily exempt from the tendency to any malady as it was possible to be. I scarce knew what it was to ail any thing. Now, except when I am losing myself in a sea of drink, I am never free from those uneasy sensations in head and stomach, which are so much worse to bear than any definite pains or aches.

At that time I was seldom in bed after six in the morning, summer and winter. I awoke refreshed, and seldom without some merry thoughts in my head, or some piece of a song to welcome the new-born day. Now, the first feeling which besets me, after stretching out the hours of recumbence to their last possible extent, is a forecast of the wearisome day that lies before me, with a secret wish that I could have lain on still, or never awaked.

Life itself, my waking life, has much of the confusion, the trouble, and obscure perplexity, of an ill dream. In the daytime I stumble upon dark mountains.

Business, which, though never particularly adapted to my nature, yet as something of necessity to be gone through, and therefore best undertaken with cheerfulness, I used to enter upon with some degree of alacrity, now wearies, affrights, perplexes me. I fancy all sorts of discouragements, and am ready to give up an occupation which gives me bread, from a harassing conceit of incapacity. The slightest commission given me by a friend, or any small duty which I have to perform for myself, as giving orders to a tradesman, &c. haunts me as a labour impossible to be got through. So much the springs of action are broken.

The same cowardice attends me in all my intercourse with mankind. I dare not promise that a friend’s honour, or his cause, would be safe in my keeping, if I were put to the expense of any manly resolution in defending it. So much the springs of moral action are deadened within me.

My favourite occupations in times past, now cease to entertain. I can do nothing readily. Application for ever so short a time kills me. This poor abstract of my condition was penned at long intervals, with scarcely any attempt at connexion of thought, which is now difficult to me.

The noble passages which formerly delighted me in history or poetic fiction, now only draw a few weak tears, allied to dotage. My broken and dispirited nature seems to sink before any thing great and admirable.

I perpetually catch myself in tears, for any cause, or none. It is inexpressible how much this infirmity adds to a sense of shame, and a general feeling of deterioration.

These are some of the instances, concerning which I can say with truth, that it was not always so with me.

Shall I lift up the veil of my weakness any further? or is this disclosure sufficient?

I am a poor nameless egotist, who have no vanity to consult by these Confessions. I know not whether I shall be laughed at, or heard seriously. Such as they are, I commend them to the reader’s attention, if he finds his own case any way touched. I have told him what I am come to. Let him stop in time.



The Philanthropist, No. IX., 1813. Some Enquiries into the Effects of Fermented Liquors, 1814; second edition, 1818. London Magazine, August, 1822. Last Essays of Elia, second edition, 1835.

The first appearance of this paper was in a quarterly magazine entitled The Philanthropist; or, Repository for Hints and Suggestions calculated to promote the Comfort and Happiness of Man. Vol. III., No. IX., 1813. It was there unsigned and addressed “To the Editor of The Philanthropist.” The editor of this magazine was William Allen (1770–1843), the Quaker, and his chief associate was James Mill, the Father of John Stuart Mill. Lamb’s friend, Basil Montagu (1770–1851), was among the contributors; and another prominent name was that of Benjamin Meggot Forster (1764–1829), who, like Montagu, opposed capital punishment, and was zealous in the cause of chimney-sweepers.

In its original Philanthropist form the essay differs from its later appearances. Concerning the differences I should like to quote from an interesting article by Mr. Thomas Hutchinson in The Athenæum of August 16, 1902:—

The text of the “Confessions,” as it stands in The Philanthropist, bears evident traces of Mill’s editorial hand; the verbal changes smack of those precise and literal modes of thought and expression which Lamb found so uncongenial in the Scotsman. “They seemed to have something noble about them,” writes Lamb of the friends of 1801. “But moral qualities are not external to us, they are resident in us,” objects Mill; and so “about” is struck out and “in” substituted. “Avoid the bottle as you would fly your greatest destruction,” says Lamb. “But,” interposes the precisian, “the idea of destruction does not admit of more or less; besides, ‘to fly’ is properly a verb intransitive”—and thus the sentence is rewritten: “ . . . fly from certain destruction.” “The pain of the self-denial is all one”—“is equal,” substitutes the Scot. “I scarce knew what it was to ail anything”—“to have an ailment,” corrects the lover of plain words; and so on. Of the sixth paragraph of the essay only the opening sentence (“Why should I hesitate,” etc.) is suffered to stand. The rest is cancelled—doubtless as at variance with Utilitarian views. Again the close of the fourteenth paragraph (“But he is too hard for us,” etc., onwards) is struck out—either by Mill, as too broadly implying the existence of the “muckle deil,” or by Allen, as too flippant an allusion to that fearsome personage. Lastly, the second paragraph is wanting and the third reduced by half, the conclusion (from “Trample not,” etc., on), in which the miracle of the raising of Lazarus is referred to, being omitted.

I cannot, however, quite accept Mr. Hutchinson’s theory that Lamb wrote the “Confessions” as a joke at the expense of the seriousness of the Quaker editor and his Benthamite assistant. Mr. Hutchinson writes: “We can fancy with what glee the sly humorist, who found the world as it was so lovable and good to live in, prepared to hoax the fussy John Amend–All of Plough Court and his fiery lieutenant, James Mill,” and he adds later, “An amusing feature of the ‘Confessions’ is the introduction, twice over, of the sacred Benthamite catchword, ‘Springs of Action,’ and, once, of its equivalent, the ‘Springs of the Will,’ a plausible device to bribe the judgment of the editors.” But Lamb’s jokes were always jokes, and it is difficult, sitting down to these “Confessions” with what anticipation we will of humour or whimsicality, to rise from them in anything but sadness. They are too real for a “flam.” Of this, however, more below.

The “Confessions” made their second appearance in Basil Montagu’s collection of arguments in favour of teetotalism—Some Enquiries into the Effects of Fermented Liquors. By a Water Drinker. 1814; and second edition, 1818. This volume was divided into sections, Lamb’s contribution being ranged under the question, “Do Fermented Liquors Contribute to Moral Excellence?” Montagu’s book was reprinted in 1841, when Lamb’s contribution was acknowledged as from the Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb (more properly the Last Essays). Lamb’s “Confessions” were also reprinted separately in a series of tracts called “Beacon Lights,” in 1854, as being a true statement of their unhappy author’s case, under the title, “Charles Lamb’s Confessions.” This misrepresentation led to some correspondence in the press, and the tract was withdrawn, a new edition being substituted in 1856 with the harrowing story of poor Hartley Coleridge in the place of Lamb’s essay.

The “Confessions” were reprinted in the London Magazine, August, 1822, under the following circumstances. In the summer of 1822 Lamb and his sister visited the Kenneys at Versailles—an absence which interrupted the regular course of the Elia essays. The Editor therefore reprinted one or two of Lamb’s old papers, the first being these “Confessions,” advising his readers of his action in a note in which Lamb’s own hand is plainly apparent. This is the note:—

Reprints of ELIA.—Many are the sayings of Elia, painful and frequent his lucubrations, set forth for the most part (such his modesty!) without a name, scattered about in obscure periodicals and forgotten miscellanies. From the dust of some of these, it is our intention, occasionally, to revive a Tract or two, that shall seem worthy of a better fate; especially, at a time like the present, when the pen of our industrious Contributor, engaged in a laborious digest of his recent Continental Tour, may haply want the leisure to expatiate in more miscellaneous speculations. We have been induced, in the first instance, to reprint a Thing, which he put forth in a friend’s volume some years since, entitled the Confessions of a Drunkard, seeing that Messieurs the Quarterly Reviewers have chosen to embellish their last dry pages with fruitful quotations therefrom; adding, from their peculiar brains, the gratuitous affirmation, that they have reason to believe that the describer (in his delineations of a drunkard forsooth!) partly sate for his own picture. The truth is, that our friend had been reading among the Essays of a contemporary, who has perversely been confounded with him, a paper in which Edax (or the Great Eater) humorously complaineth of an inordinate appetite; and it struck him, that a better paper—of deeper interest, and wider usefulness—might be made out of the imagined experiences of a Great Drinker. Accordingly he set to work, and with that mock fervor, and counterfeit earnestness, with which he is too apt to over-realise his descriptions, has given us—a frightful picture indeed—but no more resembling the man Elia, than the fictitious Edax may be supposed to identify itself with Mr. L., its author. It is indeed a compound extracted out of his long observations of the effects of drinking upon all the world about him; and this accumulated mass of misery he hath centered (as the custom is with judicious essayists) in a single figure. We deny not that a portion of his own experiences may have passed into the picture, (as who, that is not a washy fellow, but must at some times have felt the after-operation of a too generous cup?)—but then how heightened! how exaggerated!—how little within the sense of the Review, where a part, in their slanderous usage, must be understood to stand for the whole!—but it is useless to expostulate with this Quarterly slime, brood of Nilus, watery heads with hearts of jelly, spawned under the sign of Aquarius, incapable of Bacchus, and therefore cold, washy, spiteful, bloodless.——Elia shall string them up one day, and show their colours—or rather how colourless and vapid the whole fry—when he putteth forth his long promised, but unaccountably hitherto delayed, Confessions of a Water-drinker.”

The remarks in the Quarterly Review, to which Lamb very naturally objected, and which are believed to have been written by Dr. Robert Gooch (1784–1830), a friend of Southey, had occurred in an article, in the number for April, 1822, on Reid’s Essays on Hypochondriasis and other Nervous Affections. There, in a passage introducing quotations from Lamb’s “Confessions of a Drunkard,” the reviewer says:—

In a collection of tracts “On the Effects of Spirituous Liquors,” by an eminent living barrister, there is a paper entitled the “Confessions of a Drunkard,” which affords a fearful picture of the consequences of intemperance, and which we have reason to know is a true tale.

It was, we may suppose, as a kind of challenge to this statement that Lamb authorised the republication of his “Confessions.” It cannot be denied, however, that the circumstantiality of the story gave a handle to the Quarterly’s theory. For example, twelve years before 1813 (when the essay was probably first written), Lamb had completed his twenty-sixth year. He was known to have an impediment in his speech. He was known also to have been in bondage to tobacco. The two sets of friends (see pp. 156 and 157) correspond to Fenwick, Fell & Co., and the Burney whist players.

If a portion of the “Confessions” was true, it was more likely to be true in 1812–1813 than at any time in Lamb’s life. He was then between thirty-seven and thirty-nine, a critical age. He had apparently abandoned most of his literary ambition and was beginning the least productive period of his life; if a man is at all given to seeking alcoholic stimulant he resorts to it more when his ambition sleeps than when it is lively. In 1812–1813 Lamb was hard worked at the East India House; and with the failure of The Reflector, to which he was an important contributor, immediately behind him, the failure of John Woodvil (in which he had believed) more remotely behind him, his children’s book vein dry, and little but office routine and disappointment to look forward to, he may conceivably have indulged now and then, after a festive night with his friends, in some such gloomy thoughts as are expressed in this essay. Crabb Robinson, indeed, who saw much of Lamb at this season, records in his unpublished Diary that the “Confessions” seemed to him sadly true. Robinson, however, was disposed to be rather a severe judge of any weakness, and we may perhaps discount such an impression; but the fact remains that among Lamb’s friends there was one who, wishing him all happiness, looked on the “Confessions” in this way.

Yet whatever proportion of truth may have been in the “Confessions” when they were written (possibly when Mary Lamb was ill and hope was with Lamb at its lowest) Lamb soon recovered. We may feel confident of that. He remained to the end conscious of the stimulating effect of wine and spirits and too easily influenced by them, as are so many persons of sensitive habit and quick imagination: that is all. As Talfourd wrote:—

Drinking with him Lamb, except so far as it cooled a feverish thirst, was not a sensual but an intellectual pleasure; it lighted up his fading fancy, enriched his humour, and impelled the struggling thought or beautiful image into day.

One of the best proofs of the untruth of the “Confessions” is urged by Charles Robert Leslie, the painter, and it becomes particularly cogent when we remember the case of Tommy Bye, described by Lamb in two of his letters, who was reduced to a paltry income at the East India House as a punishment for insobriety. Leslie wrote in his Autobiographical Recollections, 1860:—

I have noticed that Lamb sometimes did himself injustice by his odd sayings and actions, and he now and then did the same by his writings. His “Confessions of a Drunkard” greatly exaggerate any habits of excess he may ever have indulged. The regularity of his attendance at the India House, and the liberal manner in which he was rewarded for that attendance, proved that he never could have been a drunkard. Well, indeed, would it be for the world if such extraordinary virtues as he possessed were often found in company with so very few faults.

In all modern editions of Lamb the “Confessions of a Drunkard” are included with the Last Essays of Elia. But Lamb did not himself originally place them there. Apparently his intention was not to reprint them after their appearance in the London Magazine in 1822. When, however, the Last Essays of Elia was published, in 1833, the paper called “A Death–Bed” was objected to by Mrs. Randal Norris, as bearing too publicly upon her poverty. When, therefore, the next edition was preparing, “A Death–Bed” was taken out, and the “Confessions” put in its place, but whether Lamb made the substitution, or whether it was decided upon after his death, I do not know.

Page 160. Footnote. Poor M——. Probably George Morland, who died a drunkard in 1804. In The Life of George Morland, by George Dawe (Lamb’s “Royal Academician”), we read: “When he Morland arose in the morning his hand trembled so as to render him incapable of guiding the pencil, until he had recruited his spirits with his fatal remedy.”

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