The Skilful Physician by Anonymous

Some few years ago, being in company with a large party of noble ladies and cavaliers, the novel of Gismonda, daughter of Tancredi, Prince of Salerno, was read by one of them, and the catastrophe having damped the spirits of most of the guests, a gentleman present, in order to enliven the company, began his tale in the following terms:—

It has always seemed to me, noble lady, that the ancient Greeks have surpassed our Italians in nobleness of heart and humanity, and having heard in the last Novella of the cruelty of Tancredi, Prince of Salerno, who had bereft himself of every sort of happiness, and condemned his daughter to death, a story of a Greek nobleman occurs to my mind, who was much more humane and wise than Tancredi. You must know, that among the successors of Alexander the Great, there was a very powerful baron, called Seleucus, who was afterwards king of Syria. When young, he took to his wife a daughter of Ptolomæus, king of Egypt, by name Cleopatra, by whom a short time after he had a son named Antiochus, and several daughters, whom I will not now mention. When Antiochus was about fourteen, it happened that Cleopatra, his mother, fell ill and died, consequently his father Seleucus remained a widower. Being advised and stimulated by his friends, he took another lady, the daughter of Antipater, king of Macedonia, called Stratonica, whom after the usual festivities on those great occasions, he brought home to his court, and lived most happily with her. Stratonica's person was beautiful, and her conversation, surpassed every thing one can conceive. Being very accessible in her court, she often was in company with the young Antiochus, sometimes sporting, riding, and sharing other amusements with him, and without being conscious of it, or having even a thought about it, she excited an ardent passion in the youth, which daily increased. Antiochus, then about eighteen, but of a very reserved character, and of a noble-minded disposition, knowing that his love was not allowable on account of his father, kept his passion so secret, that no one ever suspected it. In proportion as the flame was kept under, the more it consumed him and increased; so that in a very few months he grew quite pale, and his person, which formerly was stout and vigorous, became weak and emaciated, in so much that he was often asked by his father and friends, what could be the matter with him? whether he was ill? to which the youth answered first one thing, then another, ever misleading them as to the true cause. At length he got some one to beg his father to send him to the army, saying, that bearing arms, and the toil of a military life, would be a cure for his illness; that too much ease and idleness had brought it on. This and other arguments induced his father to send him to the army, attended by old men, veterans in arms. The remedy might have proved efficacious, had the youth been able to bear his heart with him; but that being fixed in its attachment to the divine features of the beautiful lady, it may truly be said, his body followed the army, but his soul dwelt at home; nor could he bestow a thought on arms, but only thought of her, and sleeping, even, he thought he was with her, and often wept at his folly in having left her. In the course of two months, such was his afflicted state, that he was taken dangerously ill, became unable to quit his bed, and was obliged to be carried home in a litter, to the no small grief of all his father's subjects, who had great hopes in the virtues of the youth, expecting, at his father's death, to have a worthy successor to the throne. A consultation of the medical men was held upon his complaint, and although they were men of the first rate talents, and used every means in their power, they were unable to do him any good, because the root of the evil was perfectly unknown to them, nor could they heal the secret wound which love had made, but merely aimed at the cure of the body. At last, weary with useless medical assistance, they found they could not remove this unknown cause of disease. Among them was a very learned and judicious physician, by name Philip, he was the king's doctor, and a citizen of the place. As he was zealously endeavouring to find out the youth's complaint, it occurred to his mind, and this suspicion grew upon him, that it might be the passion of love, which the others called consumption.

Philip, full of this thought, and extremely anxious, used to remain long in the sick chamber, noticing with particular attention every movement of the patient. He then said to the king, that in order to divert the youth, it was necessary that the queen, and some other ladies of the court, should go at least once a day to see him, and afford him some little amusement. Upon which the king ordered that it should be attended to. The doctor, seated by the patient's bed, held his left arm, applying his fingers to his pulse, in order to notice any sudden change that might take place. By this prudent and wise conduct, he discovered the disease of the youth; for although, when many beautiful ladies came in to pay him a visit, the doctor never observed the least variation in the feeble pulse of his patient; yet, when the queen entered the room, he felt an extraordinary and strong palpitation, and struggle of nature; and when the queen had sat down near the youth, and soothed him by her kind conversations, the pulse seemed to grow still and regular; but when she arose and left the room, the pulsation grew so violent, that the doctor began to fear some dreadful consequences. The physician, looking in the face of his patient, found melancholy seated in that countenance, where but a moment before happiness had seemed peaceably to dwell; upon which the doctor became more convinced that the disease was seated in the heart, but he would not determine, till he had tried three or four times the same experiment. When he found it produced the very same effects, he determined to speak to the youth, and acquaint him with what he had discovered. Having taken a proper opportunity, and sent every body out of the room, he thus addressed him:—"I thought, Antiochus, that you had so much reliance in me, that not only you would confide in me in a medical capacity, where your very existence depended, but even in any other affair, private or public, and that you would not disguise any occurrence that should concern you; but now I find I have been egregiously mistaken, and that my faithful services have not merited this proof of esteem, the which I cannot help complaining of, considering that in other respects, though you might have kept me in the dark, yet, in my profession, and in what concerned your immediate health, you ought not to have deceived me thus. Know, that the root of thy disease, which from false shame thou hast concealed, is perfectly evident to me; what it is, and by whom caused, is well known to me, nor am I so unfeeling not to be aware that youth is subject to the frailties of love, and often deprived of the object of its affection; but take comfort, and you will find to a certainty that my medicine will prove an effectual cure to your disease: not by means of pills or draughts, but by inducing your father to yield his wife to you, rather than lose his son."

Whilst the doctor spoke, the youth burst into a flood of tears, and sobbing violently, entreated the doctor to let him die quietly, and thus end his sorrows; for which the doctor strongly reproved him, pointing out to him the grief his death would cause to his afflicted father, and the regret that the people, indeed the whole kingdom, would feel at the loss of him—they who had conceived such hopes of him, and of his virtues. The prudent doctor pointed out to him, that this was not a circumstance that ought to make him wish for death, particularly as there was an easy remedy; that he was convinced of it, and bade him be comforted, and rely on him. In such a manner did the doctor afford every consolation he could to his patient; and after making him take such nourishing food as he thought necessary in his debilitated state, he went forth to the king. The moment the doctor entered, the king anxiously inquired how his son was, and whether he had hopes of him. The doctor humbly begged to speak in private to his majesty, and having both retired to the king's closet, the doctor thus addressed him:—"My liege, I have discovered the disease of your son, which we all have sought in vain; yet I certainly Wish I had not, since it has no cure."

"How!" said the king; "is it such as admits of no remedy?"

"Thus it is, my liege, and there are no means to cure it." The king insisting on knowing the case, the doctor replied, "the passion of love it is, and she whom he loves is my wife, and I will keep her to myself, and would suffer every torture rather than resign her; therefore, there are no hopes, although I am certain that possessing her would save his life." Upon which the king, weeping bitterly, said, "Oh, Philip! wilt thou be so hardhearted as to suffer me to lose such a son for the sake of thy wife? Dost thou think, that in parting with her thou wilt not be able to meet with another equally handsome, nobly born, and as pleasing to thee as she? Thou knowest that a divorce may take place under various causes and circumstances, nor could there be, perhaps, a better reason for dissolving your marriage than the present. I therefore pray thee, by the trust I repose in thee, by the honours and benefits thou hast received at my hands, the which I mean greatly to increase to thy full satisfaction, that thou wilt make up thy mind to consent to the restoring of this son of mine, my only hope, and that of my kingdom; for thou must be aware what my fate would be should he die, and how I must hereafter feel towards thee; how look upon thee! With what face wilt thou be able to approach me, when thou recollectest that for the sake of a woman, where thousands might be found to charm thee, thou wilt have been the cause of such a son's death, and my everlasting misery." In proportion as the king's reasons and entreaties were irresistible, the greater was the delight of the doctor; as the very pressing reasons he urged would avail the more against himself. Therefore, as soon as the king had ceased to speak, still looking towards the doctor, in hopes he had persuaded him, the doctor said, "My liege, your reasons are such and so conclusive, that had I ten wives, however dear to me, I would part with them to preserve your son's life; but I must needs use the same powerful and convincing arguments with you, my sovereign, and inform you of the real and true state of the case, which is, that your son has no other disease but that of a violent and unconquerable passion, and the object of which is Stratonica, your wife. Now, if I, who am not his father, ought to give up my wife and seek another, ought you not, my lord, who are his father, doubly to feel you should yield yours to save your own son's life?"

The king, upon hearing this, was struck with amazement, and desired the doctor to tell him how he had come to the knowledge of these things, and being assured that the queen knew nothing of the fact, and the youth, through shame and reverence for his father, had resolved rather to die than reveal his unlawful passion, moved by pity, and being unable to refute his own arguments, he determined, for the sake of his son, to part with his wife. In consequence, the separation having taken place, he most kindly and generously bestowed the lady on his son. The youth, who at first was in the utmost despair, as soon as he heard the kind intentions of his father, and saw the pleasure he seemed to feel at the happiness he blessed him with, soon began to cheer up, and in a few days was restored to health and spirits; and having received the hand of Stratonica, lived with her in the greatest happiness, and soon had a son and other children. The father, beholding his son saved from threatening danger, and himself surrounded by his grand-children, which secured the succession of his race, lived perfectly happy, daily thankful to Providence for the resolute step he had taken, and particularly grateful to the doctor who had been the means, by his judgment and prudence, to effect so great a purpose. Thus the humanity and tenderness of the Grecian king, who saved the life of his son, and secured happiness to himself, presents a striking contrast with the conduct of Tancredi.