Kenilworth, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter XIII.

Ay, I know you have arsenic,

Vitriol, sal-tartre, argaile, alkaly,

Cinoper: I know all. — This fellow, Captain,

Will come in time to be a great distiller,

And give a say (I will not say directly,

But very near) at the philosopher’s stone.

The Alchemist.

Tressilian and his attendants pressed their route with all dispatch. He had asked the smith, indeed, when their departure was resolved on, whether he would not rather choose to avoid Berkshire, in which he had played a part so conspicuous? But Wayland returned a confident answer. He had employed the short interval they passed at Lidcote Hall in transforming himself in a wonderful manner. His wild and overgrown thicket of beard was now restrained to two small moustaches on the upper lip, turned up in a military fashion. A tailor from the village of Lidcote (well paid) had exerted his skill, under his customer’s directions, so as completely to alter Wayland’s outward man, and take off from his appearance almost twenty years of age. Formerly, besmeared with soot and charcoal, overgrown with hair, and bent double with the nature of his labour, disfigured too by his odd and fantastic dress, he seemed a man of fifty years old. But now, in a handsome suit of Tressilian’s livery, with a sword by his side and a buckler on his shoulder, he looked like a gay ruffling serving-man, whose age might be betwixt thirty and thirty-five, the very prime of human life. His loutish, savage-looking demeanour seemed equally changed, into a forward, sharp, and impudent alertness of look and action.

When challenged by Tressilian, who desired to know the cause of a metamorphosis so singular and so absolute, Wayland only answered by singing a stave from a comedy, which was then new, and was supposed, among the more favourable judges, to augur some genius on the part of the author. We are happy to preserve the couplet, which ran exactly thus —

“Ban, ban, ca Caliban —

Get a new master — Be a new man.”

Although Tressilian did not recollect the verses, yet they reminded him that Wayland had once been a stage player, a circumstance which, of itself, accounted indifferently well for the readiness with which he could assume so total a change of personal appearance. The artist himself was so confident of his disguise being completely changed, or of his having completely changed his disguise, which may be the more correct mode of speaking, that he regretted they were not to pass near his old place of retreat.

“I could venture,” he said, “in my present dress, and with your worship’s backing, to face Master Justice Blindas, even on a day of Quarter Sessions; and I would like to know what is become of Hobgoblin, who is like to play the devil in the world, if he can once slip the string, and leave his granny and his dominie. — Ay, and the scathed vault!” he said; “I would willingly have seen what havoc the explosion of so much gunpowder has made among Doctor Demetrius Doboobie’s retorts and phials. I warrant me, my fame haunts the Vale of the Whitehorse long after my body is rotten; and that many a lout ties up his horse, lays down his silver groat, and pipes like a sailor whistling in a calm for Wayland Smith to come and shoe his tit for him. But the horse will catch the founders ere the smith answers the call.”

In this particular, indeed, Wayland proved a true prophet; and so easily do fables rise, that an obscure tradition of his extraordinary practice in farriery prevails in the Vale of Whitehorse even unto this day; and neither the tradition of Alfred’s Victory, nor of the celebrated Pusey Horn, are better preserved in Berkshire than the wild legend of Wayland Smith.10

The haste of the travellers admitted their making no stay upon their journey, save what the refreshment of the horses required; and as many of the places through which they passed were under the influence of the Earl of Leicester, or persons immediately dependent on him, they thought it prudent to disguise their names and the purpose of their journey. On such occasions the agency of Wayland Smith (by which name we shall continue to distinguish the artist, though his real name was Lancelot Wayland) was extremely serviceable. He seemed, indeed, to have a pleasure in displaying the alertness with which he could baffle investigation, and amuse himself by putting the curiosity of tapsters and inn-keepers on a false scent. During the course of their brief journey, three different and inconsistent reports were circulated by him on their account — namely, first, that Tressilian was the Lord Deputy of Ireland, come over in disguise to take the Queen’s pleasure concerning the great rebel Rory Oge MacCarthy MacMahon; secondly, that the said Tressilian was an agent of Monsieur, coming to urge his suit to the hand of Elizabeth; thirdly, that he was the Duke of Medina, come over, incognito, to adjust the quarrel betwixt Philip and that princess.

Tressilian was angry, and expostulated with the artist on the various inconveniences, and, in particular, the unnecessary degree of attention to which they were subjected by the figments he thus circulated; but he was pacified (for who could be proof against such an argument?) by Wayland’s assuring him that a general importance was attached to his own (Tressilian’s) striking presence, which rendered it necessary to give an extraordinary reason for the rapidity and secrecy of his journey.

At length they approached the metropolis, where, owing to the more general recourse of strangers, their appearance excited neither observation nor inquiry, and finally they entered London itself.

It was Tressilian’s purpose to go down directly to Deptford, where Lord Sussex resided, in order to be near the court, then held at Greenwich, the favourite residence of Elizabeth, and honoured as her birthplace. Still a brief halt in London was necessary; and it was somewhat prolonged by the earnest entreaties of Wayland Smith, who desired permission to take a walk through the city.

“Take thy sword and buckler, and follow me, then,” said Tressilian; “I am about to walk myself, and we will go in company.”

This he said, because he was not altogether so secure of the fidelity of his new retainer as to lose sight of him at this interesting moment, when rival factions at the court of Elizabeth were running so high. Wayland Smith willingly acquiesced in the precaution, of which he probably conjectured the motive, but only stipulated that his master should enter the shops of such chemists or apothecaries as he should point out, in walking through Fleet Street, and permit him to make some necessary purchases. Tressilian agreed, and obeying the signal of his attendant, walked successively into more than four or five shops, where he observed that Wayland purchased in each only one single drug, in various quantities. The medicines which he first asked for were readily furnished, each in succession, but those which he afterwards required were less easily supplied; and Tressilian observed that Wayland more than once, to the surprise of the shopkeeper, returned the gum or herb that was offered to him, and compelled him to exchange it for the right sort, or else went on to seek it elsewhere. But one ingredient, in particular, seemed almost impossible to be found. Some chemists plainly admitted they had never seen it; others denied that such a drug existed, excepting in the imagination of crazy alchemists; and most of them attempted to satisfy their customer, by producing some substitute, which, when rejected by Wayland, as not being what he had asked for, they maintained possessed, in a superior degree, the self-same qualities. In general they all displayed some curiosity concerning the purpose for which he wanted it. One old, meagre chemist, to whom the artist put the usual question, in terms which Tressilian neither understood nor could recollect, answered frankly, there was none of that drug in London, unless Yoglan the Jew chanced to have some of it upon hand.

“I thought as much,” said Wayland. And as soon as they left the shop, he said to Tressilian, “I crave your pardon, sir, but no artist can work without his tools. I must needs go to this Yoglan’s; and I promise you, that if this detains you longer than your leisure seems to permit, you shall, nevertheless, be well repaid by the use I will make of this rare drug. Permit me,” he added, “to walk before you, for we are now to quit the broad street and we will make double speed if I lead the way.”

Tressilian acquiesced, and, following the smith down a lane which turned to the left hand towards the river, he found that his guide walked on with great speed, and apparently perfect knowledge of the town, through a labyrinth of by-streets, courts, and blind alleys, until at length Wayland paused in the midst of a very narrow lane, the termination of which showed a peep of the Thames looking misty and muddy, which background was crossed saltierwise, as Mr. Mumblazen might have said, by the masts of two lighters that lay waiting for the tide. The shop under which he halted had not, as in modern days, a glazed window, but a paltry canvas screen surrounded such a stall as a cobbler now occupies, having the front open, much in the manner of a fishmonger’s booth of the present day. A little old smock-faced man, the very reverse of a Jew in complexion, for he was very soft-haired as well as beardless, appeared, and with many courtesies asked Wayland what he pleased to want. He had no sooner named the drug, than the Jew started and looked surprised. “And vat might your vorship vant vith that drug, which is not named, mein God, in forty years as I have been chemist here?”

“These questions it is no part of my commission to answer,” said Wayland; “I only wish to know if you have what I want, and having it, are willing to sell it?”

“Ay, mein God, for having it, that I have, and for selling it, I am a chemist, and sell every drug.” So saying, he exhibited a powder, and then continued, “But it will cost much moneys. Vat I ave cost its weight in gold — ay, gold well-refined — I vilI say six times. It comes from Mount Sinai, where we had our blessed Law given forth, and the plant blossoms but once in one hundred year.”

“I do not know how often it is gathered on Mount Sinai,” said Wayland, after looking at the drug offered him with great disdain, “but I will wager my sword and buckler against your gaberdine, that this trash you offer me, instead of what I asked for, may be had for gathering any day of the week in the castle ditch of Aleppo.”

“You are a rude man,” said the Jew; “and, besides, I ave no better than that — or if I ave, I will not sell it without order of a physician, or without you tell me vat you make of it.”

The artist made brief answer in a language of which Tressilian could not understand a word, and which seemed to strike the Jew with the utmost astonishment. He stared upon Wayland like one who has suddenly recognized some mighty hero or dreaded potentate, in the person of an unknown and unmarked stranger. “Holy Elias!” he exclaimed, when he had recovered the first stunning effects of his surprise; and then passing from his former suspicious and surly manner to the very extremity of obsequiousness, he cringed low to the artist, and besought him to enter his poor house, to bless his miserable threshold by crossing it.

“Vill you not taste a cup vith the poor Jew, Zacharias Yoglan? — Vill you Tokay ave? — vill you Lachrymae taste? — vill you —”

“You offend in your proffers,” said Wayland; “minister to me in what I require of you, and forbear further discourse.”

The rebuked Israelite took his bunch of keys, and opening with circumspection a cabinet which seemed more strongly secured than the other cases of drugs and medicines amongst which it stood, he drew out a little secret drawer, having a glass lid, and containing a small portion of a black powder. This he offered to Wayland, his manner conveying the deepest devotion towards him, though an avaricious and jealous expression, which seemed to grudge every grain of what his customer was about to possess himself, disputed ground in his countenance with the obsequious deference which he desired it should exhibit.

“Have you scales?” said Wayland.

The Jew pointed to those which lay ready for common use in the shop, but he did so with a puzzled expression of doubt and fear, which did not escape the artist.

“They must be other than these,” said Wayland sternly. “Know you not that holy things lose their virtue if weighed in an unjust balance?”

The Jew hung his head, took from a steel-plated casket a pair of scales beautifully mounted, and said, as he adjusted them for the artist’s use, “With these I do mine own experiment — one hair of the high-priest’s beard would turn them.”

“It suffices,” said the artist, and weighed out two drachms for himself of the black powder, which he very carefully folded up, and put into his pouch with the other drugs. He then demanded the price of the Jew, who answered, shaking his head and bowing,

“No price — no, nothing at all from such as you. But you will see the poor Jew again? you will look into his laboratory, where, God help him, he hath dried himself to the substance of the withered gourd of Jonah, the holy prophet. You will ave pity on him, and show him one little step on the great road?”

“Hush!” said Wayland, laying his finger mysteriously on his mouth; “it may be we shall meet again. Thou hast already the Schahmajm, as thine own Rabbis call it — the general creation; watch, therefore, and pray, for thou must attain the knowledge of Alchahest Elixir Samech ere I may commune further with thee.” Then returning with a slight nod the reverential congees of the Jew, he walked gravely up the lane, followed by his master, whose first observation on the scene he had just witnessed was, that Wayland ought to have paid the man for his drug, whatever it was.

“I pay him?” said the artist. “May the foul fiend pay me if I do! Had it not been that I thought it might displease your worship, I would have had an ounce or two of gold out of him, in exchange of the same just weight of brick dust.”

“I advise you to practise no such knavery while waiting upon me,” said Tressilian.

“Did I not say,” answered the artist, “that for that reason alone I forbore him for the present? — Knavery, call you it? Why, yonder wretched skeleton hath wealth sufficient to pave the whole lane he lives in with dollars, and scarce miss them out of his own iron chest; yet he goes mad after the philosopher’s stone. And besides, he would have cheated a poor serving-man, as he thought me at first, with trash that was not worth a penny. Match for match, quoth the devil to the collier; if his false medicine was worth my good crowns, my true brick dust is as well worth his good gold.”

“It may be so, for aught I know,” said Tressilian, “in dealing amongst Jews and apothecaries; but understand that to have such tricks of legerdemain practised by one attending on me diminishes my honour, and that I will not permit them. I trust thou hast made up thy purchases?”

“I have, sir,” replied Wayland; “and with these drugs will I, this very day, compound the true orvietan, that noble medicine which is so seldom found genuine and effective within these realms of Europe, for want of that most rare and precious drug which I got but now from Yoglan.”11

“But why not have made all your purchases at one shop?” said his master; “we have lost nearly an hour in running from one pounder of simples to another.”

“Content you, sir,” said Wayland. “No man shall learn my secret; and it would not be mine long, were I to buy all my materials from one chemist.”

They now returned to their inn (the famous Bell-Savage); and while the Lord Sussex’s servant prepared the horses for their journey, Wayland, obtaining from the cook the service of a mortar, shut himself up in a private chamber, where he mixed, pounded, and amalgamated the drugs which he had bought, each in its due proportion, with a readiness and address that plainly showed him well practised in all the manual operations of pharmacy.

By the time Wayland’s electuary was prepared the horses were ready, and a short hour’s riding brought them to the present habitation of Lord Sussex, an ancient house, called Sayes Court, near Deptford, which had long pertained to a family of that name, but had for upwards of a century been possessed by the ancient and honourable family of Evelyn. The present representative of that ancient house took a deep interest in the Earl of Sussex, and had willingly accommodated both him and his numerous retinue in his hospitable mansion. Sayes Court was afterwards the residence of the celebrated Mr. Evelyn, whose “Silva” is still the manual of British planters; and whose life, manners, and principles, as illustrated in his Memoirs, ought equally to be the manual of English gentlemen.

10 Legend of Wayland Smith.

The great defeat given by Alfred to the Danish invaders is said by Mr. Gough to have taken place near Ashdown, in Berkshire. “The burial place of Baereg, the Danish chief, who was slain in this fight, is distinguished by a parcel of stones, less than a mile from the hill, set on edge, enclosing a piece of ground somewhat raised. On the east side of the southern extremity stand three squarish flat stones, of about four or five feet over either way, supporting a fourth, and now called by the vulgar Wayland Smith, from an idle tradition about an invisible smith replacing lost horse-shoes there.”— Gough’s edition of Camden’s Britannia, vol.i., p. 221.

The popular belief still retains memory of this wild legend, which, connected as it is with the site of a Danish sepulchre, may have arisen from some legend concerning the northern Duergar, who resided in the rocks, and were cunning workers in steel and iron. It was believed that Wayland Smith’s fee was sixpence, and that, unlike other workmen, he was offended if more was offered. Of late his offices have been again called to memory; but fiction has in this, as in other cases, taken the liberty to pillage the stores of oral tradition. This monument must be very ancient, for it has been kindly pointed out to me that it is referred to in an ancient Saxon charter as a landmark. The monument has been of late cleared out, and made considerably more conspicuous.

11 Orvietan, or Venice treacle, as it was sometimes called, was understood to be a sovereign remedy against poison; and the reader must be contented, for the time he peruses these pages, to hold the same opinion, which was once universally received by the learned as well as the vulgar.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00