The Talisman

by Sir Walter Scott

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Chapter VIII

A wise physician, skilled our wounds to heal,
     Is more than armies to the common weal.

“This is a strange tale, Sir Thomas,” said the sick monarch, when he had heard the report of the trusty Baron of Gilsland. “Art thou sure this Scottish man is a tall man and true?”

“I cannot say, my lord,” replied the jealous Borderer. “I live a little too near the Scots to gather much truth among them, having found them ever fair and false. But this man’s bearing is that of a true man, were he a devil as well as a Scot; that I must needs say for him in conscience.”

“And for his carriage as a knight, how sayest thou, De Vaux?” demanded the King.

“It is your Majesty’s business more than mine to note men’s bearings; and I warrant you have noted the manner in which this man of the Leopard hath borne himself. He hath been full well spoken of.”

“And justly, Thomas,” said the King. “We have ourselves witnessed him. It is indeed our purpose in placing ourselves ever in the front of battle, to see how our liegemen and followers acquit themselves, and not from a desire to accumulate vainglory to ourselves, as some have supposed. We know the vanity of the praise of man, which is but a vapour, and buckle on our armour for other purposes than to win it.”

De Vaux was alarmed when he heard the King make a declaration so inconsistent with his nature, and believed at first that nothing short of the approach of death could have brought him to speak in depreciating terms of military renown, which was the very breath of his nostrils. But recollecting he had met the royal confessor in the outer pavilion, he was shrewd enough to place this temporary self-abasement to the effect of the reverend man’s lesson, and suffered the King to proceed without reply.

“Yes,” continued Richard, “I have indeed marked the manner in which this knight does his devoir. My leading-staff were not worth a fool’s bauble had he escaped my notice; and he had ere now tasted of our bounty, but that I have also marked his overweening and audacious presumption.”

“My liege,” said the Baron of Gilsland, observing the King’s countenance change, “I fear I have transgressed your pleasure in lending some countenance to his transgression.”

“How, De Multon, thou?” said the King, contracting his brows, and speaking in a tone of angry surprise. “Thou countenance his insolence? It cannot be.”

“Nay, your Majesty will pardon me to remind you that I have by mine office right to grant liberty to men of gentle blood to keep them a hound or two within camp, just to cherish the noble art of venerie; and besides, it were a sin to have maimed or harmed a thing so noble as this gentleman’s dog.”

“Has he, then, a dog so handsome?” said the King.

“A most perfect creature of Heaven,” said the baron, who was an enthusiast in field-sports—“of the noblest Northern breed—deep in the chest, strong in the stern—black colour, and brindled on the breast and legs, not spotted with white, but just shaded into grey—strength to pull down a bull, swiftness to cote an antelope.”

The King laughed at his enthusiasm. “Well, thou hast given him leave to keep the hound, so there is an end of it. Be not, however, liberal of your licenses among those knights adventurers who have no prince or leader to depend upon; they are ungovernable, and leave no game in Palestine.—But to this piece of learned heathenesse—sayest thou the Scot met him in the desert?”

“No, my liege; the Scot’s tale runs thus. He was dispatched to the old hermit of Engaddi, of whom men talk so much—”

“‘Sdeath and hell!” said Richard, starting up. “By whom dispatched, and for what? Who dared send any one thither, when our Queen was in the Convent of Engaddi, upon her pilgrimage for our recovery?”

“The Council of the Crusade sent him, my lord,” answered the Baron de Vaux; “for what purpose, he declined to account to me. I think it is scarce known in the camp that your royal consort is on a pilgrimage; and even the princes may not have been aware, as the Queen has been sequestered from company since your love prohibited her attendance in case of infection.”

“Well, it shall be looked into,” said Richard. “So this Scottish man, this envoy, met with a wandering physician at the grotto of Engaddi—ha?”

“Not so my liege,” replied De Vaux? “but he met, I think, near that place, with a Saracen Emir with whom he had some MELEE in the way of proof of valour, and finding him worthy to bear brave men company, they went together, as errant knights are wont, to the grotto of Engaddi.”

Here De Vaux stopped, for he was not one of those who can tell a long story in a sentence.

“And did they there meet the physician?” demanded the King impatiently.

“No, my liege,” replied De Vaux; “but the Saracen, learning your Majesty’s grievous illness, undertook that Saladin should send his own physician to you, and with many assurances of his eminent skill; and he came to the grotto accordingly, after the Scottish knight had tarried a day for him and more. He is attended as if he were a prince, with drums and atabals, and servants on horse and foot, and brings with him letters of credence from Saladin.”

“Have they been examined by Giacomo Loredani?”

“I showed them to the interpreter ere bringing them hither, and behold their contents in English.”

Richard took a scroll, in which were inscribed these words: The blessing of Allah and his Prophet Mohammed [“Out upon the hound!” said Richard, spitting in contempt, by way of interjection], Saladin, king of kings, Saldan of Egypt and of Syria, the light and refuge of the earth, to the great Melech Ric, Richard of England, greeting. Whereas, we have been informed that the hand of sickness hath been heavy upon thee, our royal brother, and that thou hast with thee only such Nazarene and Jewish mediciners as work without the blessing of Allah and our holy Prophet [“Confusion on his head!” again muttered the English monarch], we have therefore sent to tend and wait upon thee at this time the physician to our own person, Adonbec el Hakim, before whose face the angel Azrael [The Angel of Death.] spreads his wings and departs from the sick chamber; who knows the virtues of herbs and stones, the path of the sun, moon, and stars, and can save man from all that is not written on his forehead. And this we do, praying you heartily to honour and make use of his skill; not only that we may do service to thy worth and valour, which is the glory of all the nations of Frangistan, but that we may bring the controversy which is at present between us to an end, either by honourable agreement, or by open trial thereof with our weapons, in a fair field—seeing that it neither becomes thy place and courage to die the death of a slave who hath been overwrought by his taskmaster, nor befits it our fame that a brave adversary be snatched from our weapon by such a disease. And, therefore, may the holy—”

“Hold, hold,” said Richard, “I will have no more of his dog of a prophet! It makes me sick to think the valiant and worthy Soldan should believe in a dead dog. Yes, I will see his physician. I will put myself into the charge of this Hakim—I will repay the noble Soldan his generosity—I will meet Saladin in the field, as he so worthily proposes, and he shall have no cause to term Richard of England ungrateful. I will strike him to the earth with my battle-axe—I will convert him to Holy Church with such blows as he has rarely endured. He shall recant his errors before my good cross-handled sword, and I will have him baptized on the battle-field, from my own helmet, though the cleansing waters were mixed with the blood of us both.—Haste, De Vaux, why dost thou delay a conclusion so pleasing? Fetch the Hakim hither.”

“My lord,” said the baron, who perhaps saw some accession of fever in this overflow of confidence, “bethink you, the Soldan is a pagan, and that you are his most formidable enemy—”

“For which reason he is the more bound to do me service in this matter, lest a paltry fever end the quarrel betwixt two such kings. I tell thee he loves me as I love him—as noble adversaries ever love each other. By my honour, it were sin to doubt his good faith!”

“Nevertheless, my lord, it were well to wait the issue of these medicines upon the Scottish squire,” said the Lord of Gilsland. “My own life depends upon it, for worthy were I to die like a dog did I proceed rashly in this matter, and make shipwreck of the weal of Christendom.”

“I never knew thee before hesitate for fear of life,” said Richard upbraidingly.

“Nor would I now, my liege,” replied the stout-hearted baron, “save that yours lies at pledge as well as my own.”

“Well, thou suspicious mortal,” answered Richard, “begone then, and watch the progress of this remedy. I could almost wish it might either cure or kill me, for I am weary of lying here like an ox dying of the murrain, when tambours are beating, horses stamping, and trumpets sounding without.”

The baron hastily departed, resolved, however, to communicate his errand to some churchman, as he felt something burdened in conscience at the idea of his master being attended by an unbeliever.

The Archbishop of Tyre was the first to whom he confided his doubts, knowing his interest with his master, Richard, who both loved and honoured that sagacious prelate. The bishop heard the doubts which De Vaux stated, with that acuteness of intelligence which distinguishes the Roman Catholic clergy. The religious scruples of De Vaux he treated with as much lightness as propriety permitted him to exhibit on such a subject to a layman.

“Mediciners,” he said, “like the medicines which they employed, were often useful, though the one were by birth or manners the vilest of humanity, as the others are, in many cases, extracted from the basest materials. Men may use the assistance of pagans and infidels,” he continued, “in their need, and there is reason to think that one cause of their being permitted to remain on earth is that they might minister to the convenience of true Christians. Thus we lawfully make slaves of heathen captives. Again,” proceeded the prelate, “there is no doubt that the primitive Christians used the services of the unconverted heathen. Thus in the ship of Alexandria, in which the blessed Apostle Paul sailed to Italy, the sailors were doubtless pagans; yet what said the holy saint when their ministry was needful?—‘NISI HI IN NAVI MANSERINT, VOS SALVI FIERI NON POTESTIS’—Unless these men abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved. Again, Jews are infidels to Christianity, as well as Mohammedans. But there are few physicians in the camp excepting Jews, and such are employed without scandal or scruple. Therefore, Mohammedans may be used for their service in that capacity—QUOD ERAT DEMONSTRANDUM.”

This reasoning entirely removed the scruples of Thomas de Vaux, who was particularly moved by the Latin quotation, as he did not understand a word of it.

But the bishop proceeded with far less fluency when he considered the possibility of the Saracen’s acting with bad faith; and here he came not to a speedy decision. The baron showed him the letters of credence. He read and re-read them, and compared the original with the translation.

“It is a dish choicely cooked,” he said, “to the palate of King Richard, and I cannot but have my suspicions of the wily Saracen. They are curious in the art of poisons, and can so temper them that they shall be weeks in acting upon the party, during which time the perpetrator has leisure to escape. They can impregnate cloth and leather, nay, even paper and parchment, with the most subtle venom. Our Lady forgive me! And wherefore, knowing this, hold I these letters of credence so close to my face? Take them, Sir Thomas—take them speedily!”

Here he gave them at arm’s-length, and with some appearance of haste, to the baron. “But come, my Lord de Vaux,” he continued, “wend we to the tent of this sick squire, where we shall learn whether this Hakim hath really the art of curing which he professeth, ere we consider whether there be safety in permitting him to exercise his art upon King Richard.—Yet, hold! let me first take my pouncet-box, for these fevers spread like an infection. I would advise you to use dried rosemary steeped in vinegar, my lord. I, too, know something of the healing art.”

“I thank your reverend lordship,” replied Thomas of Gilsland; “but had I been accessible to the fever, I had caught it long since by the bed of my master.”

The Bishop of Tyre blushed, for he had rather avoided the presence of the sick monarch; and he bid the baron lead on.

As they paused before the wretched hut in which Kenneth of the Leopard and his follower abode, the bishop said to De Vaux, “Now, of a surety, my lord, these Scottish Knights have worse care of their followers than we of our dogs. Here is a knight, valiant, they say, in battle, and thought fitting to be graced with charges of weight in time of truce, whose esquire of the body is lodged worse than in the worst dog-kennel in England. What say you of your neighbours?”

“That a master doth well enough for his servant when he lodgeth him in no worse dwelling than his own,” said De Vaux, and entered the hut.

The bishop followed, not without evident reluctance; for though he lacked not courage in some respects, yet it was tempered with a strong and lively regard for his own safety. He recollected, however, the necessity there was for judging personally of the skill of the Arabian physician, and entered the hut with a stateliness of manner calculated, as he thought, to impose respect on the stranger.

The prelate was, indeed, a striking and commanding figure. In his youth he had been eminently handsome, and even in age was unwilling to appear less so. His episcopal dress was of the richest fashion, trimmed with costly fur, and surrounded by a cope of curious needlework. The rings on his fingers were worth a goodly barony, and the hood which he wore, though now unclasped and thrown back for heat, had studs of pure gold to fasten it around his throat and under his chin when he so inclined. His long beard, now silvered with age, descended over his breast. One of two youthful acolytes who attended him created an artificial shade, peculiar then to the East, by bearing over his head an umbrella of palmetto leaves, while the other refreshed his reverend master by agitating a fan of peacock-feathers.

When the Bishop of Tyre entered the hut of the Scottish knight, the master was absent, and the Moorish physician, whom he had come to see, sat in the very posture in which De Vaux had left him several hours before, cross-legged upon a mat made of twisted leaves, by the side of the patient, who appeared in deep slumber, and whose pulse he felt from time to time. The bishop remained standing before him in silence for two or three minutes, as if expecting some honourable salutation, or at least that the Saracen would seem struck with the dignity of his appearance. But Adonbec el Hakim took no notice of him beyond a passing glance, and when the prelate at length saluted him in the lingua franca current in the country, he only replied by the ordinary Oriental greeting, “SALAM ALICUM—Peace be with you.”

“Art thou a physician, infidel?” said the bishop, somewhat mortified at this cold reception. “I would speak with thee on that art.”

“If thou knewest aught of medicine,” answered El Hakim, “thou wouldst be aware that physicians hold no counsel or debate in the sick chamber of their patient. Hear,” he added, as the low growling of the staghound was heard from the inner hut, “even the dog might teach thee reason, Ulemat. His instinct teaches him to suppress his barking in the sick man’s hearing. Come without the tent,” said he, rising and leading the way, “if thou hast ought to say with me.”

Notwithstanding the plainness of the Saracen leech’s dress, and his inferiority of size when contrasted with the tall prelate and gigantic English baron, there was something striking in his manner and countenance, which prevented the Bishop of Tyre from expressing strongly the displeasure he felt at this unceremonious rebuke. When without the hut, he gazed upon Adonbec in silence for several minutes before he could fix on the best manner to renew the conversation. No locks were seen under the high bonnet of the Arabian, which hid also part of a brow that seemed lofty and expanded, smooth, and free from wrinkles, as were his cheeks, where they were seen under the shade of his long beard. We have elsewhere noticed the piercing quality of his dark eyes.

The prelate, struck with his apparent youth, at length broke a pause, which the other seemed in no haste to interrupt, by demanding of the Arabian how old he was?

“The years of ordinary men,” said the Saracen, “are counted by their wrinkles; those of sages by their studies. I dare not call myself older than a hundred revolutions of the Hegira.” [Meaning that his attainments were those which might have been made in a hundred years.]

The Baron of Gilsland, who took this for a literal assertion that he was a century old, looked doubtfully upon the prelate, who, though he better understood the meaning of El Hakim, answered his glance by mysteriously shaking his head. He resumed an air of importance when he again authoritatively demanded what evidence Adonbec could produce of his medical proficiency.

“Ye have the word of the mighty Saladin,” said the sage, touching his cap in sign of reverence—“a word which was never broken towards friend or foe. What, Nazarene, wouldst thou demand more?”

“I would have ocular proof of thy skill,” said the baron, “and without it thou approachest not to the couch of King Richard.”

“The praise of the physician,” said the Arabian, “is in the recovery of his patient. Behold this sergeant, whose blood has been dried up by the fever which has whitened your camp with skeletons, and against which the art of your Nazarene leeches hath been like a silken doublet against a lance of steel. Look at his fingers and arms, wasted like the claws and shanks of the crane. Death had this morning his clutch on him; but had Azrael been on one side of the couch, I being on the other, his soul should not have been left from his body. Disturb me not with further questions, but await the critical minute, and behold in silent wonder the marvellous event.”

The physician had then recourse to his astrolabe, the oracle of Eastern science, and watching with grave precision until the precise time of the evening prayer had arrived, he sunk on his knees, with his face turned to Mecca, and recited the petitions which close the Moslemah’s day of toil. The bishop and the English baron looked on each other, meanwhile, with symptoms of contempt and indignation, but neither judged it fit to interrupt El Hakim in his devotions, unholy as they considered them to be.

The Arab arose from the earth, on which he had prostrated himself, and walking into the hut where the patient lay extended, he drew a sponge from a small silver box, dipped perhaps in some aromatic distillation, for when he put it to the sleeper’s nose, he sneezed, awoke, and looked wildly around. He was a ghastly spectacle as he sat up almost naked on his couch, the bones and cartilages as visible through the surface of his skin as if they had never been clothed with flesh. His face was long, and furrowed with wrinkles; but his eye, though it wandered at first, became gradually more settled. He seemed to be aware of the presence of his dignified visitors, for he attempted feebly to pull the covering from his head in token of reverence, as he inquired, in a subdued and submissive voice, for his master.

“Do you know us, vassal?” said the Lord of Gilsland.

“Not perfectly, my lord,” replied the squire faintly. “My sleep has been long and full of dreams. Yet I know that you are a great English lord, as seemeth by the red cross, and this a holy prelate, whose blessing I crave on me a poor sinner.”

“Thou hast it—BENEDICTIO DOMINI SIT VOBISCUM,” said the prelate, making the sign of the cross, but without approaching nearer to the patient’s bed.

“Your eyes witness,” said the Arabian, “the fever hath been subdued. He speaks with calmness and recollection—his pulse beats composedly as yours—try its pulsations yourself.”

The prelate declined the experiment; but Thomas of Gilsland, more determined on making the trial, did so, and satisfied himself that the fever was indeed gone.

“This is most wonderful,” said the knight, looking to the bishop; “the man is assuredly cured. I must conduct this mediciner presently to King Richard’s tent. What thinks your reverence?”

“Stay, let me finish one cure ere I commence another,” said the Arab; “I will pass with you when I have given my patient the second cup of this most holy elixir.”

So saying he pulled out a silver cup, and filling it with water from a gourd which stood by the bedside, he next drew forth a small silken bag made of network, twisted with silver, the contents of which the bystanders could not discover, and immersing it in the cup, continued to watch it in silence during the space of five minutes. It seemed to the spectators as if some effervescence took place during the operation; but if so, it instantly subsided.

“Drink,” said the physician to the sick man—“sleep, and awaken free from malady.”

“And with this simple-seeming draught thou wilt undertake to cure a monarch?” said the Bishop of Tyre.

“I have cured a beggar, as you may behold,” replied the sage. “Are the Kings of Frangistan made of other clay than the meanest of their subjects?”

“Let us have him presently to the King,” said the Baron of Gilsland. “He hath shown that he possesses the secret which may restore his health. If he fails to exercise it, I will put himself past the power of medicine.”

As they were about to leave the hut, the sick man, raising his voice as much as his weakness permitted, exclaimed, “Reverend father, noble knight, and you, kind leech, if you would have me sleep and recover, tell me in charity what is become of my dear master?”

“He is upon a distant expedition, friend,” replied the prelate—“on an honourable embassy, which may detain him for some days.”

“Nay,” said the Baron of Gilsland, “why deceive the poor fellow?—Friend, thy master has returned to the camp, and you will presently see him.”

The invalid held up, as if in thankfulness, his wasted hands to Heaven, and resisting no longer the soporiferous operation of the elixir, sunk down in a gentle sleep.

“You are a better physician than I, Sir Thomas,” said the prelate—“a soothing falsehood is fitter for a sick-room than an unpleasing truth.”

“How mean you, my reverend lord?” said De Vaux hastily. “Think you I would tell a falsehood to save the lives of a dozen such as he?”

“You said,” replied the bishop, with manifest symptoms of alarm—“you said the esquire’s master was returned—he, I mean, of the Couchant Leopard.”

“And he IS returned,” said De Vaux. “I spoke with him but a few hours since. This learned leech came in his company.”

“Holy Virgin! why told you not of his return to me?” said the bishop, in evident perturbation.

“Did I not say that this same Knight of the Leopard had returned in company with the physician? I thought I had,” replied De Vaux carelessly. “But what signified his return to the skill of the physician, or the cure of his Majesty?”

“Much, Sir Thomas—it signified much,” said the bishop, clenching his hands, pressing his foot against the earth, and giving signs of impatience, as if in an involuntary manner. “But where can he be gone now, this same knight? God be with us—here may be some fatal errors!”

“Yonder serf in the outer space,” said De Vaux, not without wonder at the bishop’s emotion, “can probably tell us whither his master has gone.”

The lad was summoned, and in a language nearly incomprehensible to them, gave them at length to understand that an officer had summoned his master to the royal tent some time before their arrival at that of his master. The anxiety of the bishop appeared to rise to the highest, and became evident to De Vaux, though, neither an acute observer nor of a suspicious temper. But with his anxiety seemed to increase his wish to keep it subdued and unobserved. He took a hasty leave of De Vaux, who looked after him with astonishment, and after shrugging his shoulders in silent wonder, proceeded to conduct the Arabian physician to the tent of King Richard.


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