Death and Doctor Hornbook

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Death and Doctor Hornbook
by Robert Burns

Death and Doctor Hornbook. A True Story


SOME books are lies frae end to end,
And some great lies were never penn’d:
Ev’n Ministers they hae been kenn’d,
In holy rapture,
A rousing whid, at times, to vend,
And nail’t wi’ Scripture.

But this that I am gaun to tell,
Which lately on a night befel,
Is just as true ’s the Deil’s in hell,
Or Dublin city:
That e’er he nearer comes oursel
’S a muckle pity.

The Clachan yill had made me canty,
I was na fou, but just had plenty;
I stacher’d whyles, but yet took tent ay
To free the ditches;
An’ hillocks, stanes, an’ bushes kenn’d ay
Frae ghaists an’ witches.

The rising Moon began to glowr
The distant Cumnock hills out-owre;
To count her horns, wi’ a’ my pow’r,
I set mysel,
But whether she had three or four,
I cou’d na tell.

I was come round about the hill,
And todlin down on Willie’s mill,
Setting my staff wi’ a’ my skill,
To keep me sicker;
Tho’ leeward whyles, against my will,
I took a bicker.

I there wi’ Something does forgather,
That pat me in an eerie swither;
An awfu’ scythe, out-owre ae shouther,
Clear-dangling, hang;
A three-tae’d leister on the ither
Lay, large an’ lang.

Its stature seem’d lang Scotch ells twa,
The queerest shape that e’er I saw,
For fient a wame it had ava,
And then its shanks,
They were as thin, as sharp an’ sma’
As cheeks o’ branks.

»Guid-een«, quo I; »Friend! hae ye been mawin,
When ither folk are busy sawin[1]
It seem’d to mak a kind o’ stan’,
But naething spak;
At length, says I, »Friend, whare ye gaun,
Will ye go back?«

It spak right howe – »My name is Death,
But be na’ fley’d.« – Quoth I, »Guid faith,
Ye’re maybe come to stap my breath;
But tent me, billie;
I red ye weel, tak care o’ skaith,
See, there’s a gully!«

»Gudeman«, quo’ he, »put up your whittle,
I’m no design’d to try its mettle;
But if I did, I wad be kittle
To be mislear’d,
I wad na’ mind it, no that spittle
Out-owre my beard.«

»Weel, weel!« says I, »a bargain be’t;
Come, gies your hand, an’ sae we’re gree’t;
We’ll ease our shanks an’ tak a seat,
Come, gies your news!
This while[2] ye hae been mony a gate,
At mony a house.«

»Ay, ay!« quo’ he, an’ shook his head,
»It’s e’en a lang, lang time indeed
Sin’ I began to nick the thread,
An’ choke the breath:
Folk maun do something for their bread,
An’ sae maun Death.

Sax thousand years are near hand fled
Sin’ I was to the butching bred,
And mony a scheme in vain’s been laid,
To stap or scar me;
Till ane Hornbook’s[3] ta’en up the trade,
And faith, he’ll waur me.

Ye ken Jock Hornbook i’ the Clachan,
Deil mak his king’s-hood in a spleuchan!
He’s grown sae weel acquaint wi’ Buchan[4]
And ither chaps,
The weans haud out their fingers laughin,
And pouk my hips.

See, here’s a scythe, and there’s a dart,
They hae pierc’d monie a gallant heart;
But Doctor Hornbook, wi’ his art
And cursed skill,
Has made them baith no worth a fart,
Damn’d haet they’ll kill!

Twas but yestreen, nae farther gaen,
I threw a noble throw at ane;
Wi’ less, I’m sure, I’ve hundreds slain;
But deil-ma-care!
It just play’d dirl on the bane,
But did nae mair.

Hornbook was by, wi’ ready art,
And had sae fortify’d the part,
That when I looked to my dart,
It was sae blunt,
Fient haet o’t wad hae pierc’d the heart
Of a kail-runt.

I drew my scythe in sic a fury,
I nearhand cowpit wi’ my hurry,
But yet the bauld Apothecary
Withstood the shock;
I might as weel hae try’d a quarry
O’ hard whin-rock.

Ev’n them he canna get attended,
Altho’ their face he ne’er had kend it,
Just shit in a kail-blade an send it,
As soon’s he smells ’t,
Baith their disease, and what will mend it,
At once he tells’t.

And then a’ doctor’s saws and whittles,
Of a’ dimensions, shapes, an’ mettles,
A’ kinds o’ boxes, mugs, an’ bottles,
He’s shure to hae;
Their Latin names as fast he rattles
As A B C.

Calces o’ fossils, earths, and trees;
True Sal-marinum o’ the seas;
The Farina of beans and pease,
He has’t in plenty;
Aqua-fontis, what you please,
He can content ye.

Forbye some new, uncommon weapons,
Urinus Spiritus of capons;
Or Mite-horn shavings, filings, scrapings,
Distill’d per se;
Sal-alkali o’ Midge-tail clippings,
And monie mae.«

»Waes me for Johnny Ged’s-Hole[5] now«,
Quoth I, »if that thae news be true!
His braw calf-ward whare gowans grew,
Sae white an’ bonie,
Nae doubt they’ll rive it wi’ the plew;
They’ll ruin Johnie!«

The creature grain’d an eldritch laugh,
And says, »Ye needna yoke the pleugh,
Kirk-yards will soon be till’d eneugh,
Tak ye nae fear:
They’ll a’ be trench’d wi’ monie a sheugh,
In twa-three year.

Whare I kill’d ane, a fair strae-death,
By loss o’ blood, or want o’ breath,
This night I’m free to tak my aith,
That Hornbook’s skill
Has clad a score i’ their last claith,
By drap and pill.

An honest Wabster to his trade,
Whase wife’s twa nieves were scarce weel-bred,
Gat tippence-worth to mend her head,
When it was sair;
The wife slade cannie to her bed,
But ne’er spak mair.

A countra Laird had ta’en the batts,
Or some curmurring in his guts,
His only son for Hornbook sets,
And pays him well,
The lad, for twa guid gimmer-pets,
Was Laird himsel.

An bonie lass, ye kend her name,
Some ill-brewn drink had hov’d her wame,
She trusts hersel, to hide the shame,
In Hornbook’s care;
Horn sent her off to her lang hame,
To hide it there.

That’s just a swatch o’ Hornbook’s way,
Thus goes he on from day to day,
Thus does he poison, kill an’ slay,
An’s weel pay’d for’t;
Yet stops me o’ my lawfu’ prey,
Wi’ his damn’d dirt!

But hark! I’ll tell you of a plot,
Tho’ dinna ye be speakin o’t;
I’ll nail the self-conceited Sot,
As dead’s herrin:
Niest time we meet, I’ll wad a groat,
He gets his fairin!«

But just as he began to tell,
The auld kirk-hammer strak the bell
Some wee, short hour ayont the twal,
Which rais’d us baith:
I took the way that pleas’d mysel,
And sae did Death.

References[edit]

  1. This rencounter happened in seed-time 1785.
  2. An epidemical fever was then raging in that country.
  3. This gentleman, Dr Hornbook, is professionally a brother of the sovereign Order of the Ferula; but, by intuition and inspiration, is at once an Apothecary, Surgeon, and Physician.
  4. Buchan’s Domestic Medicine.
  5. The grave-digger.
This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.