I DO not know whether it was true or not, but as it was told to me so I tell it to you.
There used to pass through the goodly streets, whether of Constantinople or Babylon I am not sure which—however, it makes no difference to my story—a quack doctor who, while beating a drum and clashing a pair of cymbals, announced his medicines and practised his cures.
You must place the action of this story in a place where there are no medical men, for if there were, certainly they would put the quack in prison where he would not see daylight for a long time. And the fact is that, with all his quackery, the man had acquired great fame in the difficult art to which he devoted himself. His adaptability was extraordinary. It was just the same to him to extract a big man’s tooth as to pull out a knife and cut off anybody’s leg without stopping for a moment.
For shamelessness this man could not be beaten. It is related that in the times when our quack wandered through the streets and towns, the emperor’s son fell ill of a great and persistent melancholy. The youth was sad and weak, and even when he felt no pain his depression was alarming. The court doctors, who were important people, held a consultation, and, as always happens in these cases, each one put forward a different opinion from that of his companions.
"It appears to me," said one, putting on his spectacles, "saving the estimable opinion of my fellow-professors, that his highness the hereditary prince is suffering from his liver. Broth of green beans would be a good thing."
"Gently, wise companion," exclaimed another. "I maintain that his highness suffers from his spleen; and as what is good for the liver is bad for the other organ, I do not believe that green beans would be any good; roasted chick peas are wanted."
"Well, gentlemen, may I be hanged if the prince’s illness is not in his feet. Ask him if he has chilblains, and, in that case, we all know what to do: wool, plenty of wool, and watercress, plenty of watercress."
The discussion took a threatening turn; each doctor, in support of what he affirmed, cited three or four authorities and even brought books to prove and demonstrate it. The dispute waxed so hot that it ended by the doctors throwing the books at each other’s heads. A book broke the spectacles of one of the doctors, and a little more would have knocked out one of his eyes; another fell like a mace on the bald head of the oldest and crashed into his brain, his skull not being of the hardest.
At this moment the emperor entered the room where the three Hippocrates were killing each other, and when informed of the cause of the dispute became cold all over.
"It is a bad sign when you do not agree. My son is in danger of dying."
And the poor father went away, saddened and disheartened, to his apartments.
History says that not a bit of the doctors remained. On seeing the emperor so grief-stricken there was no lack of courtiers who had the courage to speak to him of the advisibility of calling in the quack.
"Impossible," said the monarch. "If those three shining lights of medicine could not save him, how can I possibly expect that the quack can cure him?"
However, the courtiers were so persistent that the emperor consented to call in the quack, but on one condition: before taking up the cure of the prince, he must heal five sick people who had been given up by the doctors.
They looked for the five invalids and had them brought into the palace. The quack, obeying the emperor’s orders, arrived shortly after. The latter said to him:
"Do you dare to undertake the prince’s cure?"
"Well, in order to convince me of what you know, you will heal five men who are seriously ill and whom I will show you. If you do not cure them I will have your head cut off, but if you make them well I will thenceforward put his highness’ health in your charge."
"Can you not make it four instead of five, sire?"
"No, five; and if not, you know what to expect."
"Well, then, I will cure them. Where are they? I must speak to them alone."
With the emperor’s permission he went to the room where the hopeless cases were. Even the most healthy of them had only two or three days to live.
On seeing them our quack almost fell in a faint.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I am going to cure you in the only possible way. The great magician Faramalla has taught me a wonderful system of curing. There is no invalid who cannot be healed by it. Hear it:
"It is necessary for me to kill one of you and burn his heart. Its ashes serve to make such a pomade that on applying it to any diseased part it heals as if by magic, without any need of medicine. You," he added, facing one of the hopeless ones, "are very ill, what does it matter to you if you die now or within two days? I shall kill you and burn your heart to cinders in order to cure the rest."
"I say, good friend," cried the threatened man, "do you say I am very ill? Why, there is nothing the matter with me. My family persists in saying that I am consumptive, but, thank God, I am as sound as a bell."
"All right, all right," said the quack, "it makes very little difference to me; but you leave on this condition, that you tell the emperor that you are cured."
The consumptive, hardly noticing the half-opened door, dashed madly homewards.
"How are you?" the emperor asked him.
"I am sound and well," exclaimed the consumptive, without ceasing to run.
"This is marvellous," thought the emperor.
"He is a very learned man," said the courtiers.
The other invalids did the same as the first. Provided that they were not killed at once, they swore by all they held sacred that they had never felt stronger and better in their lives. And they darted out of the palace like arrows from a bow, leaving the emperor and the doctors amazed.
The monarch then thought of trusting him with the cure of his son, when a loud burst of laughter interrupted the grave and ceremonious etiquette of the court. Who was the daring man who thus failed in due respect?
The emperor in person, full of ire, went out into the ante-room and there met the disturber. It was the imperial prince himself, who was rolling on a sofa unable to restrain his outbursts of laughter. The emperor was delighted to see the sadness, which had so alarmed him, dissipated so unexpectedly. To what was this extraordinary event due?
The prince told him. "On seeing those unhappy invalids run out so quickly, I asked the quack the cause of their flight, and the latter told me with a wealth of detail."
It had amused him so much that the black melancholy which was undermining his existence was dissipated.
"You will remain with my son," said the emperor to the quack, "not as a doctor but as a friend. You are a witty man and wit deserves to be rewarded."