Oh, for a draught of power to steep
The soul of agony in sleep!
We have shown the secrets of the confessional; those of the sick chamber are not hidden from us. The darkened apartment, where salves and medicines showed that the leech had been busy in his craft, a tall thin form lay on a bed, arrayed in a nightgown belted around him, with pain on his brow, and a thousand stormy passions agitating his bosom. Everything in the apartment indicated a man of opulence and of expense. Henbane Dwining, the apothecary, who seemed to have the care of the patient, stole with a crafty and catlike step from one corner of the room to another, busying himself with mixing medicines and preparing dressings. The sick man groaned once or twice, on which the leech, advancing to his bedside, asked whether these sounds were a token of the pain of his body or of the distress of his mind.
“Of both, thou poisoning varlet,” said Sir John Ramorny, “and of being encumbered with thy accursed company.”
“If that is all, I can relieve your knighthood of one of these ills by presently removing myself elsewhere. Thanks to the feuds of this boisterous time, had I twenty hands, instead of these two poor servants of my art (displaying his skinny palms), there is enough of employment for them — well requited employment, too, where thanks and crowns contend which shall best pay my services; while you, Sir John, wreak upon your chirurgeon the anger you ought only to bear against the author of your wound.”
“Villain, it is beneath me to reply to thee,” said the patient; “but every word of thy malignant tongue is a dirk, inflicting wounds which set all the medicines of Arabia at defiance.”
“Sir John, I understand you not; but if you give way to these tempestuous fits of rage, it is impossible but fever and inflammation must be the result.”
“Why then dost thou speak in a sense to chafe my blood? Why dost thou name the supposition of thy worthless self having more hands than nature gave thee, while I, a knight and gentleman, am mutilated like a cripple?”
“Sir John,” replied the chirurgeon, “I am no divine, nor a mainly obstinate believer in some things which divines tell us. Yet I may remind you that you have been kindly dealt with; for if the blow which has done you this injury had lighted on your neck, as it was aimed, it would have swept your head from your shoulders, instead of amputating a less considerable member.”
“I wish it had, Dwining — I wish it had lighted as it was addressed. I should not then have seen a policy which had spun a web so fine as mine burst through by the brute force of a drunken churl. I should not have been reserved to see horses which I must not mount, lists which I must no longer enter, splendours which I cannot hope to share, or battles which I must not take part in. I should not, with a man’s passions for power and for strife, be set to keep place among the women, despised by them, too, as a miserable, impotent cripple, unable to aim at obtaining the favour of the sex.”
“Supposing all this to be so, I will yet pray of your knighthood to remark,” replied Dwining, still busying himself with arranging the dressings of the wounds, “that your eyes, which you must have lost with your head, may, being spared to you, present as rich a prospect of pleasure as either ambition, or victory in the list or in the field, or the love of woman itself, could have proposed to you.”
“My sense is too dull to catch thy meaning, leech,” replied Ramorny. “What is this precious spectacle reserved to me in such a shipwreck?”
“The dearest that mankind knows,” replied Dwining; and then, in the accent of a lover who utters the name of his beloved mistress, and expresses his passion for her in the very tone of his voice, he added the word “REVENGE!”
The patient had raised himself on his couch to listen with some anxiety for the solution of the physician’s enigma. He laid himself down again as he heard it explained, and after a short pause asked, “In what Christian college learned you this morality, good Master Dwining?”
“In no Christian college,” answered his physician; “for, though it is privately received in most, it is openly and manfully adopted in none. But I have studied among the sages of Granada, where the fiery souled Moor lifts high his deadly dagger as it drops with his enemy’s blood, and avows the doctrine which the pallid Christian practises, though coward-like he dare not name it.”
“Thou art then a more high souled villain than I deemed thee,” said Ramorny.
“Let that pass,” answered Dwining. “The waters that are the stillest are also the deepest; and the foe is most to be dreaded who never threatens till he strikes. You knights and men at arms go straight to your purpose with sword in hand. We who are clerks win our access with a noiseless step and an indirect approach, but attain our object not less surely.”
“And I,” said the knight, “who have trod to my revenge with a mailed foot, which made all echo around it, must now use such a slipper as thine — ha?”
“He who lacks strength,” said the wily mediciner, “must attain his purpose by skill.”
“And tell me sincerely, mediciner, wherefore thou wouldst read me these devil’s lessons? Why wouldst thou thrust me faster or farther on to my vengeance than I may seem to thee ready to go of my own accord? I am old in the ways of the world, man; and I know that such as thou do not drop words in vain, or thrust themselves upon the dangerous confidence of men like me save with the prospect of advancing some purpose of their own. What interest hast thou in the road, whether peaceful or bloody, which I may pursue on these occurrents?”
“In plain dealing, sir knight, though it is what I seldom use,” answered the leech, “my road to revenge is the same with yours.”
“With mine, man?” said Ramorny, with a tone of scornful surprise. “I thought it had been high beyond thy reach. Thou aim at the same revenge with Ramorny?”
“Ay, truly,” replied Dwining, “for the smithy churl under whose blow you have suffered has often done me despite and injury. He has thwarted me in counsel and despised me in action. His brutal and unhesitating bluntness is a living reproach to the subtlety of my natural disposition. I fear him, and I hate him.”
“And you hope to hind an active coadjutor in me?” said Ramorny, in the same supercilious tone as before. “But know, the artisan fellow is too low in degree to be to me either the object of hatred or of fear. Yet he shall not escape. We hate not the reptile that has stung us, though we might shake it off the wound, and tread upon it. I know the ruffian of old as a stout man at arms, and a pretender, as I have heard, to the favour of the scornful puppet whose beauties, forsooth, spurred us to our wise and hopeful attempt. Fiends that direct this nether world, by what malice have ye decided that the hand which has couched a lance against the bosom of a prince should be struck off like a sapling by the blow of a churl, and during the turmoil of a midnight riot? Well, mediciner, thus far our courses hold together, and I bid thee well believe that I will crush for thee this reptile mechanic. But do not thou think to escape me when that part of my revenge is done which will be most easily and speedily accomplished.”
“Not, it may be, altogether so easily accomplished,” said the apothecary; “for if your knighthood will credit me, there will be found small ease or security in dealing with him. He is the strongest, boldest, and most skilful swordsman in Perth and all the country around it.”
“Fear nothing; he shall be met with had he the strength of Sampson. But then, mark me! Hope not thou to escape my vengeance, unless thou become my passive agent in the scene which is to follow. Mark me, I say once more. I have studied at no Moorish college, and lack some of thy unbounded appetite for revenge, but yet I will have my share of vengeance. Listen to me, mediciner, while I shall thus far unfold myself; but beware of treachery, for, powerful as thy fiend is, thou hast taken lessons from a meaner devil than mine. Hearken — the master whom I have served through vice and virtue, with too much zeal for my own character, perhaps, but with unshaken fidelity to him — the very man, to soothe whose frantic folly I have incurred this irreparable loss, is, at the prayer of his doating father, about to sacrifice me, by turning me out of his favour, and leaving me at the mercy of the hypocritical relative with whom he seeks a precarious reconciliation at my expense. If he perseveres in this most ungrateful purpose, thy fiercest Moors, were their complexion swarthy as the smoke of hell, shall blush to see their revenge outdone. But I will give him one more chance for honour and safety before my wrath shall descend on him in unrelenting and unmitigated fury. There, then, thus far thou hast my confidence. Close hands on our bargain. Close hands, did I say? Where is the hand that should be the pledge and representative of Ramorny’s plighted word? Is it nailed on the public pillory, or flung as offal to the houseless dogs, who are even now snarling over it? Lay thy finger on the mutilated stump, then, and swear to be a faithful actor in my revenge, as I shall be in yours. How now, sir leech look you pale — you, who say to death, stand back or advance, can you tremble to think of him or to hear him named? I have not mentioned your fee, for one who loves revenge for itself requires no deeper bribe; yet, if broad lands and large sums of gold can increase thy zeal in a brave cause, believe me, these shall not be lacking.”
“They tell for something in my humble wishes,” said Dwining: “the poor man in this bustling world is thrust down like a dwarf in a crowd, and so trodden under foot; the rich and powerful rise like giants above the press, and are at ease, while all is turmoil around them.”
“Then shalt thou arise above the press, mediciner, as high as gold can raise thee. This purse is weighty, yet it is but an earnest of thy guerdon.”
“And this Smith, my noble benefactor,” said the leech, as he pouched the gratuity —“this Henry of the Wynd, or what ever is his name — would not the news that he hath paid the penalty of his action assuage the pain of thy knighthood’s wound better than the balm of Mecca with which I have salved it?”
“He is beneath the thoughts of Ramorny; and I have no more resentment against him than I have ill will at the senseless weapon which he swayed. But it is just thy hate should be vented upon him. Where is he chiefly to be met with?”
“That also I have considered,” said Dwining. “To make the attempt by day in his own house were too open and dangerous, for he hath five servants who work with him at the stithy, four of them strong knaves, and all loving to their master. By night were scarce less desperate, for he hath his doors strongly secured with bolt of oak and bar of iron, and ere the fastenings of his house could be forced, the neighbourhood would rise to his rescue, especially as they are still alarmed by the practice on St. Valentine’s Even.”
“Oh, ay, true, mediciner,” said Ramorny, “for deceit is thy nature even with me: thou knewest my hand and signet, as thou said’st, when that hand was found cast out on the street, like the disgusting refuse of a shambles — why, having such knowledge, went’st thou with these jolterheaded citizens to consult that Patrick Charteris, whose spurs should be hacked off from his heels for the communion which he holds with paltry burghers, and whom thou brought’st here with the fools to do dishonour to the lifeless hand, which, had it held its wonted place, he was not worthy to have touched in peace or faced in war?”
“My noble patron, as soon as I had reason to know you had been the sufferer, I urged them with all my powers of persuasion to desist from prosecuting the feud; but the swaggering smith, and one or two other hot heads, cried out for vengeance. Your knighthood must know this fellow calls himself bachelor to the Fair Maiden of Perth, and stands upon his honour to follow up her father’s quarrel; but I have forestalled his market in that quarter, and that is something in earnest of revenge.”
“How mean you by that, sir leech?” said the patient.
“Your knighthood shall conceive,” said the mediciner, “that this smith doth not live within compass, but is an outlier and a galliard. I met him myself on St. Valentine’s Day, shortly after the affray between the townsfolk and the followers of Douglas. Yes, I met him sneaking through the lanes and bye passages with a common minstrel wench, with her messan and her viol on his one arm and her buxom self hanging upon the other. What thinks your honour? Is not this a trim squire, to cross a prince’s love with the fairest girl in Perth, strike off the hand of a knight and baron, and become gentleman usher to a strolling glee woman, all in the course of the same four and twenty hours?”
“Marry, I think the better of him that he has so much of a gentleman’s humour, clown though he be,” said Ramorny. “I would he had been a precisian instead of a galliard, and I should have had better heart to aid thy revenge. And such revenge! — revenge on a smith — in the quarrel of a pitiful manufacturer of rotten cheverons! Pah! And yet it shall be taken in full. Thou hast commenced it, I warrant me, by thine own manoeuvres.”
“In a small degree only,” said the apothecary. “I took care that two or three of the most notorious gossips in Curfew street, who liked not to hear Catharine called the Fair Maid of Perth, should be possessed of this story of her faithful Valentine. They opened on the scent so keenly, that, rather than doubt had fallen on the tale, they would have vouched for it as if their own eyes had seen it. The lover came to her father’s within an hour after, and your worship may think what a reception he had from the angry glover, for the damsel herself would not be looked upon. And thus your honour sees I had a foretaste of revenge. But I trust to receive the full draught from the hands of your lordship, with whom I am in a brotherly league, which —”
“Brotherly!” said the knight, contemptuously. “But be it so, the priests say we are all of one common earth. I cannot tell, there seems to me some difference; but the better mould shall keep faith with the baser, and thou shalt have thy revenge. Call thou my page hither.”
A young man made his appearance from the anteroom upon the physician’s summons.
“Eviot,” said the knight, “does Bonthron wait? and is he sober?”
“He is as sober as sleep can make him after a deep drink,” answered the page.
“Then fetch him hither, and do thou shut the door.”
A heavy step presently approached the apartment, and a man entered, whose deficiency of height seemed made up in breadth of shoulders and strength of arm.
“There is a man thou must deal upon, Bonthron,” said the knight. The man smoothed his rugged features and grinned a smile of satisfaction.
“That mediciner will show thee the party. Take such advantage of time, place, and circumstance as will ensure the result; and mind you come not by the worst, for the man is the fighting Smith of the Wynd.”
“It Will be a tough job,” growled the assassin; “for if I miss my blow, I may esteem myself but a dead man. All Perth rings with the smith’s skill and strength.”
“Take two assistants with thee,” said the knight.
“Not I,” said Bonthron. “If you double anything, let it be the reward.”
“Account it doubled,” said his master; “but see thy work be thoroughly executed.”
“Trust me for that, sir knight: seldom have I failed.”
“Use this sage man’s directions,” said the wounded knight, pointing to the physician. “And hark thee, await his coming forth, and drink not till the business be done.”
“I will not,” answered the dark satellite; “my own life depends on my blow being steady and sure. I know whom I have to deal with.”
“Vanish, then, till he summons you, and have axe and dagger in readiness.”
Bonthron nodded and withdrew.
“Will your knighthood venture to entrust such an act to a single hand?” said the mediciner, when the assassin had left the room. “May I pray you to remember that yonder party did, two nights since, baffle six armed men?”
“Question me not, sir mediciner: a man like Bonthron, who knows time and place, is worth a score of confused revellers. Call Eviot; thou shalt first exert thy powers of healing, and do not doubt that thou shalt, in the farther work, be aided by one who will match thee in the art of sudden and unexpected destruction.”
The page Eviot again appeared at the mediciner’s summons, and at his master’s sign assisted the chirurgeon in removing the dressings from Sir John Ramorny’s wounded arm. Dwining viewed the naked stump with a species of professional satisfaction, enhanced, no doubt, by the malignant pleasure which his evil disposition took in the pain and distress of his fellow creatures. The knight just turned his eye on the ghastly spectacle, and uttered, under the pressure of bodily pain or mental agony, a groan which he would fain have repressed.
“You groan, sir,” said the leech, in his soft, insinuating tone of voice, but with a sneer of enjoyment, mixed with scorn, curling upon his lip, which his habitual dissimulation could not altogether disguise —“you groan; but be comforted. This Henry Smith knows his business: his sword is as true to its aim as his hammer to the anvil. Had a common swordsman struck this fatal blow, he had harmed the bone and damaged the muscles, so that even my art might not have been able to repair them. But Henry Smith’s cut is clean, and as sure as that with which my own scalpel could have made the amputation. In a few days you will be able, with care and attention to the ordinances of medicine, to stir abroad.”
“But my hand — the loss of my hand —”
“It may be kept secret for a time,” said the mediciner. “I have possessed two or three tattling fools, in deep confidence, that the hand which was found was that of your knighthood’s groom, Black Quentin, and your knighthood knows that he has parted for Fife, in such sort as to make it generally believed.”
“I know well enough,” said Ramorny, “that the rumour may stifle the truth for a short time. But what avails this brief delay?”
“It may be concealed till your knighthood retires for a time from the court, and then, when new accidents have darkened the recollection of the present stir, it may be imputed to a wound received from the shivering of a spear, or from a crossbow bolt. Your slave will find a suitable device, and stand for the truth of it.”
“The thought maddens me,” said Ramorny, with another groan of mental and bodily agony; “yet I see no better remedy.”
“There is none other,” said the leech, to whose evil nature his patron’s distress was delicious nourishment. “In the mean while, it is believed you are confined by the consequences of some bruises, aiding the sense of displeasure at the Prince’s having consented to dismiss you from his household at the remonstrance of Albany, which is publicly known.”
“Villain, thou rack’st me!” exclaimed the patient.
“Upon the whole, therefore,” said Dwining, “your knighthood has escaped well, and, saving the lack of your hand, a mischance beyond remedy, you ought rather to rejoice than complain; for no barber chirurgeon in France or England could have more ably performed the operation than this churl with one downright blow.”
“I understand my obligation fully,” said Ramorny, struggling with his anger, and affecting composure; “and if Bonthron pays him not with a blow equally downright, and rendering the aid of the leech unnecessary, say that John of Ramorny cannot requite an obligation.”
“That is spoke like yourself, noble knight!” answered the mediciner. “And let me further say, that the operator’s skill must have been vain, and the hemorrhage must have drained your life veins, but for the bandages, the cautery, and the styptics applied by the good monks, and the poor services of your humble vassal, Henbane Dwining.”
“Peace,” exclaimed the patient, “with thy ill omened voice and worse omened name! Methinks, as thou mentionest the tortures I have undergone, my tingling nerves stretch and contract themselves as if they still actuated the fingers that once could clutch a dagger.”
“That,” explained the leech, “may it please your knighthood, is a phenomenon well known to our profession. There have been those among the ancient sages who have thought that there still remained a sympathy between the severed nerves and those belonging to the amputated limb; and that the several fingers are seen to quiver and strain, as corresponding with the impulse which proceeds from their sympathy with the energies of the living system. Could we recover the hand from the Cross, or from the custody of the Black Douglas, I would be pleased to observe this wonderful operation of occult sympathies. But, I fear me, one might as safely go to wrest the joint from the talons of an hungry eagle.”
“And thou mayst as safely break thy malignant jests on a wounded lion as on John of Ramorny,” said the knight, raising himself in uncontrollable indignation. “Caitiff, proceed to thy duty; and remember, that if my hand can no longer clasp a dagger, I can command an hundred.”
“The sight of one drawn and brandished in anger were sufficient,” said Dwining, “to consume the vital powers of your chirurgeon. But who then,” he added in a tone partly insinuating, partly jeering —“who would then relieve the fiery and scorching pain which my patron now suffers, and which renders him exasperated even with his poor servant for quoting the rules of healing, so contemptible, doubtless, compared with the power of inflicting wounds?”
Then, as daring no longer to trifle with the mood of his dangerous patient, the leech addressed himself seriously to salving the wound, and applied a fragrant balm, the odour of which was diffused through the apartment, while it communicated a refreshing coolness, instead of the burning heat — a change so gratifying to the fevered patient, that, as he had before groaned with agony, he could not now help sighing for pleasure, as he sank back on his couch to enjoy the ease which the dressing bestowed.
“Your knightly lordship now knows who is your friend,” said Dwining; “had you yielded to a rash impulse, and said, ‘Slay me this worthless quacksalver,’ where, within the four seas of Britain, would you have found the man to have ministered to you as much comfort?”
“Forget my threats, good leech,” said Ramorny, “and beware how you tempt me. Such as I brook not jests upon our agony. See thou keep thy scoffs, to pass upon misers [that is, miserable persons, as used in Spenser and other writers of his time, though the sense is now restricted to those who are covetous] in the hospital.”
Dwining ventured to say no more, but poured some drops from a phial which he took from his pocket into a small cup of wine allayed with water.
“This draught,” said the man of art, “is medicated to produce a sleep which must not be interrupted.”
“For how long will it last?” asked the knight.
“The period of its operation is uncertain — perhaps till morning.”
“Perhaps for ever,” said the patient. “Sir mediciner, taste me that liquor presently, else it passes not my lips.”
The leech obeyed him, with a scornful smile. “I would drink the whole with readiness; but the juice of this Indian gum will bring sleep on the healthy man as well as upon the patient, and the business of the leech requires me to be a watcher.”
“I crave your pardon, sir leech,” said Ramorny, looking downwards, as if ashamed to have manifested suspicion.
“There is no room for pardon where offence must not be taken,” answered the mediciner. “An insect must thank a giant that he does not tread on him. Yet, noble knight, insects have their power of harming as well as physicians. What would it have cost me, save a moment’s trouble, so to have drugged that balm, as should have made your arm rot to the shoulder joint, and your life blood curdle in your veins to a corrupted jelly? What is there that prevented me to use means yet more subtle, and to taint your room with essences, before which the light of life twinkles more and more dimly, till it expires, like a torch amidst the foul vapours of some subterranean dungeon? You little estimate my power, if you know not that these and yet deeper modes of destruction stand at command of my art. But a physician slays not the patient by whose generosity he lives, and far less will he the breath of whose nostrils is the hope of revenge destroy the vowed ally who is to favour his pursuit of it. Yet one word; should a necessity occur for rousing yourself — for who in Scotland can promise himself eight hours’ uninterrupted repose? — then smell at the strong essence contained in this pouncet box. And now, farewell, sir knight; and if you cannot think of me as a man of nice conscience, acknowledge me at least as one of reason and of judgment.”
So saying, the mediciner left the room, his usual mean and shuffling gait elevating itself into something more noble, as conscious of a victory over his imperious patient.
Sir John Ramorny remained sunk in unpleasing reflections until he began to experience the incipient effects of his soporific draught. He then roused himself for an instant, and summoned his page.
“Eviot! what ho! Eviot! I have done ill to unbosom myself so far to this poisonous quacksalver. Eviot!”
The page entered.
“Is the mediciner gone forth?”
“Yes, so please your knighthood.”
“Alone or accompanied?”
“Bonthron spoke apart with him, and followed him almost immediately — by your lordship’s command, as I understood him.”
“Lackaday, yes! he goes to seek some medicaments; he will return anon. If he be intoxicated, see he comes not near my chamber, and permit him not to enter into converse with any one. He raves when drink has touched his brain. He was a rare fellow before a Southron bill laid his brain pan bare; but since that time he talks gibberish whenever the cup has crossed his lips. Said the leech aught to you, Eviot?”
“Nothing, save to reiterate his commands that your honour be not disturbed.”
“Which thou must surely obey,” said the knight. “I feel the summons to rest, of which I have been deprived since this unhappy wound. At least, if I have slept it has been but for a snatch. Aid me to take off my gown, Eviot.”
“May God and the saints send you good rest, my lord,” said the page, retiring after he had rendered his wounded master the assistance required.
As Eviot left the room, the knight, whose brain was becoming more and more confused, muttered over the page’s departing salutation.
“God — saints — I have slept sound under such a benison. But now, methinks if I awake not to the accomplishment of my proud hopes of power and revenge, the best wish for me is, that the slumbers which now fall around my head were the forerunners of that sleep which shall return my borrowed powers to their original nonexistence — I can argue it no farther.”
Thus speaking, he fell into a profound sleep.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00