A Christmas tale…
Winter came hard that year. The Castle Bonhomme and its village were blanketed in thick drapes of snow, trees froze, even the stones of the castle walls froze. The winter quickly became the worst in memory, the worst ever.
In the castle, the King did his best to keep his people happy. He was a jolly man, so jolly, and enormously fat. He made his servants laugh as they performed their duties, and he was well-loved in the village. He lived by his personal rule that his people should always be content and looked-after, and as the villagers began to freeze, he would send men with sacks of grain from his none too full stores to help them survive.
But as the snow fell deeper and the days grew darker, even the jolly King Bonhomme found it harder to keep his people happy. The food began to run out, even though the deep snow meant that sending supplies to the village was now out of the question. But by now even the King and servants in the castle were facing a hungry winter.
Perhaps the lowering of rations affected him the most, being a man of huge size, or perhaps the effort of trying to keep his servants’ spirits up exhausted him, but the good King became tired, and eventually he sank into illness and was forced to take to his bed.
The very next day, the determined old doctor from the village arrived at the castle, banging on the icy wooden doors, his whiskers drooping with icicles. How he had struggled through the snow was a miracle, such determination! He would never be able to get back to the village – for better or worse he was stuck with them now in the castle.
The doctor, a serious man, tended carefully to the stricken King for several days, and his concern grew. He did what he could, but every day his frown deepened. “Doctor,” gasped the King one day, “I will… get better, won’t I?” The old doctor was reassuring, soothing, and the King drifted into fevered sleep, disturbed only by the murmur of whispered conferences.
The next day something in the air had changed. In the fevered imagination of the sick man, the doctor and servants seemed to be circling around like great birds, desperate to bring some news but still scared of landing.
Through the day, the biggest snowfall yet attacked the castle. By dusk the snow stopped falling, revealing that all sign of the road and the village had disappeared, and the castle lay alone in the cold under an evil sky. The doctor and servants seemed to find strength to break bad news to their King.
“You have a disease of the blood,” the doctor told him gently. Your leg is badly infected, there is only one thing left to do if we are to prevent the poison from spreading into your body.”
The King moaned in pain and tried to get up, but the doctor restrained him with a gentle hand on his forehead. “I have the equipment here my lord – the knives, the needle and thread, and the saw…”
The King moaned quietly. “You must not, dear doctor. Give me more medicine, I have faith that you may yet cure me. I have every confidence. At least try.”
And so the doctor consented to a final attempt to treat his patient with medicine. He produced a new preparation in a tiny black bottle, and carefully added a drop to the sick man’s tongue with a glass stopper every hour, sitting by the bed all the while to keep a careful watch on his patient. The doctor held his King’s hand the whole night, never thinking to leave his side to rest or eat.
There was almost no food remaining in the castle in any case, and sleep was impossible with the howling gnawing wind.
If anything, the King’s pain became worse. He tried to hide the greater agonies which wracked him, but at the end of a night of hell, he weakly told the doctor to do what must be done.
Shaking with emotion, the doctor left his patient’s bedside for the first time in hours, returning quickly with a leather bag, from which he produced cutters, a wicked handsaw and a length of twisted rope. On his command, the oldest servant brought in the final three bottles of brandy left in the castle. The King was made to drink a whole bottle, gulping and shuddering as the hot liquid hit his empty stomach. Before he could speak, the rope was clamped between his teeth, the servants held him down and the doctor began to saw, shouting a song at the top of his voice to cover the awful noise of metal grinding on bone.
The King awoke to dull pain and the doctor mopping his face with a cold wet cloth. “The poison is gone, my King, and I have injected you with a new preparation to prevent it returning. Rest now, the snow shows no sign of stopping and all there is to do is wait in this castle. When we are no longer cut off, I will send for the most skilful artificial leg makers, so that you may regain your mobility. The King murmured his thanks, and drifted back into sleep.
For a few days the sick man seemed to be recovering. The snow had stopped falling outside, and the doctor would sit by his side and they would talk, and even manage a joke together. But after a few days the black clouds returned, and once more the sky filled with thick blinding flakes. As if his condition were connected to the weather, the King quickly began to fall back into sickness. The pain in his stomach returned, worse than before, far worse. Within the first day of the snow returning, the King was screaming in renewed agony.
After quickly examining his writhing patient, the doctor announced sadly that the infection had returned, this time in the other leg. There was no time to lose, this time there could be no discussion or delay. The second bottle of brandy was brought out, the sobbing King was made to drink, and the rope and saw were again produced. Again the terrible grinding.
Afterwards, the King did not recover so quickly. He lay in a shivering fevered daze, delirious and screaming. Such was his hallucinating state, he even believed once or twice he could smell bacon cooking, but there was no meat left in the castle now.
The next day it was his arms. The doctor woke him abruptly, telling him there was no time to lose – he was dying, his arms must be amputated immediately or he would not survive the day. Before he could argue, the last bottle of brandy was opened, two servants held his head and poured the burning liquid into him, and the rag was forced into his mouth. The doctor worked the saw in a frenzy, but the sound it made was as bad as ever.
When the doctor has finished his awful work, he injected the last of his opium into the unconscious King and called to the old butler. “Here – two fat arms. Should see us through until the snow melts. We might not even need to get on to the liver…”
As they feasted on the rich fatty flesh, they drank to their King. They loved him, and he had never let them go hungry.