Patrañas; or, Spanish Stories, Legendary and Traditional | Annotated Tale

COMPLETE! Entered into SurLaLune Database in October 2018 with all known ATU Classifications.

Starving John the Doctor

NO ONE was ever more appropriately named than 'Starving John.' He had nothing to live upon, yet he had a wife and a whole tribe of children to support: how to feed them all he knew not; and as for himself it was seldom enough he got a morsel to eat!

               One day the cat caught a hare, and John's wife managed to take it from him; and having made a savoury mess of it, she put it into a wallet and said to John, "Here, take this hato [1]; it's a lucky taste of something nice, such as you don't often get; and go out into the fields with it before those sharks of children snatch it out of your mouth."

               John, who was ready to die of hunger, didn't wait to be told twice, but set off running as fast as his legs would carry him. At last he came to an olive-grove; and there, making an easy-chair of a hollow olive-tree, he sat down to eat his hare, as happy as a king.

               Somehow however--he could never tell how--there suddenly stood before him a dreadful old woman, all dressed in black: she had sunken eyes as dull as a blown-out candle, or a lamp-wick when the oil fails; her skin was as withered and yellow as a Simancas [2] parchment; her mouth like a clothes-basket; and her nose I don't know how to describe--for she had no nose at all to speak of.

               "A pretty figure this to fall from heaven, like God's rain, on a poor fellow!" said John to himself; but as he was polite and hospitable, as a Spanish peasant always is, he nevertheless asked if she would share his meal.

               This was just what the old creature wanted; down she sat, and at once attacked the hare. But it was not like ordinary eating, it was regular devouring; and, en un decir tilin [3], she had stowed away the whole mess between her heart and her shoulders!

               John was too polite to grumble out aloud, but he said to himself, "Why, the children had better have had the hare than this old hag! but ¡el que tiene mala fortuna nada le sale derecho [4]!"

               When his visitor had finished her meal--not leaving so much as the tail of the hare in the ollita [5]--she exclaimed, "Do you know, John, your hare was very good!"

               "So I see," said John, who could not repress a little bitterness. And he added, ironically, in honour of her decrepit appearance, "¡viva Usted mil años [6]!"

               "So I shall," answered the hag; "I have lived many thousands already, for I have to tell you I am no less a person than Death!"

               John gave a start, and was like one struck dumb at this announcement.

               "Don't be afraid, John," she continued, "I don't want to hurt you; and what is more, as you have treated me so well, I'll give you a good counsel in return. Make yourself a doctor--there's nothing like it for making money!"

               "I am much obliged to you, Mistress Death," answered John, very respectfully, "but it will be quite return enough, if you'll promise to leave me alone for a good number of years. As to being a doctor, I've no notion how to set about it. I know neither Latin nor Greek; I can't write because my hand is palsied; and I can't read because I hate poring over those little black figures!"

               "Go along with you, you silly fellow!" answered Mrs. Death; "you don't suppose any of this is necessary? It's I who lead the doctors, not they me. You are not such a goose as to think I go and come because they hiss me or call me, are you? when I get tired of any one, I take him by the ear and drag him off, doctor or no doctor. When the world began there were no doctors, and men lived to a good old age. But since they invented doctors there have been no more Methuselahs! You make yourself a doctor, as I advise you; and if you are perverse and obstinate, I'll carry you off with me, mas fijo que el reloj [7]! Don't prate!" she added, as she saw he was going to urge some objection; "this is all you have to do--when they call you into a bed-room look out for me. If you see me standing at the head of the bed, you'll know it's all up--you have only to say so, and they'll find you're a wise prophet. If, on the other hand, you don't see me, you have only to prescribe a dose of clean water, with any thing harmless you like in it, and the sick person will recover."

               With that the ugly old lady took herself off, courtesying like a French dancing-mistress.

               "I hope your worship won't forget, Mistress Death, what I asked you!" John cried after her--"your worship won't visit me again for a long time to come, eh?"

               "Don't be afraid, John," she answered, as she disappeared, "until your house crumbles to pieces you won't have a visit from me."

               John returned home to his wife, and told her all that had happened; and his wife, being sharper than he, determined to make use of Mrs. Death's advice, and in spite of his remonstrances spread about every where the news that her husband was a famous doctor--that he had only to look at a patient to tell whether he would live or die.

               All the neighbours, however, only laughed at the idea of Starving John turning doctor in his old age, and called him "Don John" in ridicule.

               One Sunday they went so far as to arrange a practical joke to show off his ignorance. A number of girls were to sit round a basket of figs, as they often did of a holiday afternoon in the fruit season, when, all of a sudden, one of them was to give a terrible cry as if taken ill, and some of the others were to carry her off to bed, while the rest ran for Starving John the Doctor.

               John had no great faith in Mrs. Death's promises, and was loath to expose himself to the ridicule of the girls, but at his wife's urging he went along with them, when, lo and behold, he no sooner entered the room of the pretended patient, than he saw Mrs. Death herself standing at the head of the bed! "The girl is very ill indeed--too ill for me to save. She'll die before night!" pronounced John, in a knowing tone. And he went home amid the laughter of the assembled neighbours, who knew what the girls were playing at. But it so happened that the unfortunate girl had been eating the fruit too freely--that she was taken ill and died that very night!

               As you will readily guess, this made Starving John's fortune.

               Far or near, there was no patient slightly or dangerously ill to whom he was not called; fees flowed in like rain. No longer was he dressed in rags; his clothes were properly made by a tailor. Instead of his pinched, woebegone look, his face grew as ruddy as the sun; his withered hands, as smooth as pork-sausages; his shaking legs, as firm as marble columns; and his empty stomach assumed dimensions to vie with the dome of a church. For his children he bought honourable employments, and badges of office to sew on in front, and keys [8] to hang out behind.

               But what he spared least of all was the money required to keep his house in good repair. He even salaried a bricklayer, whose business it was to see there was never so much as a tile loose, remembering that Mrs. Death had said she would never come to visit him till his house crumbled to pieces.

               Years rolled by as John's fortune increased, but as prosperous years always roll away--fast; and then came less fortunate years. First his hair fell off, and then he lost his teeth; then his spine got curved like a reaping-hook; and then he grew halt in one of his legs. One day, when he was ill, Mrs. Death sent him a bat, with her compliments, to inquire after him; but John didn't like the look of the creature, and drove it away. After that he had a cough; and Mrs. Death sent an owl, to say she would come and see him very soon, and John drove him away too. After that he had a fit; and Mrs. Death sent a dog, to give him to understand, by howling at his door, that she was on her way, and John drove him away also. But he got ill for all that, and then he got worse, and then Mrs. Death knocked at the door, so John hobbled out of bed, and locked it and put up the bar; but Death contrived to creep in under the door.

               "Mrs. Death!" said John, indignantly, "this isn't fair. You told me you wouldn't come so long as my house was not crumbling to pieces."

               "Oh!" answered Death, "isn't your body your house--and hasn't that been crumbling to pieces? Didn't your strength fail first, and then your hair, and then your teeth, and then your limbs; haven't they all been crumbling away?"

               "I certainly didn't understand you so!" answered John, dolefully, "and relying on your word, your coming now takes me by surprise."

               "That is your fault, John," answered Death. "Men ought to be always prepared for my coming, and then I should never take them by surprise."



[1] Hato, a portion of provisions taken out with them by shepherds when they have to be absent from home in the mountains for several days together. 

[2] Simancas is situated at the confluence of the Douro and Pisuergo, not far from Valladolid. The archives of Spain were kept there for centuries, in a strong alcázar originally built by the Moors. 

[3] An equivalent for our “Before you could say ‘Jack Robinson,’” though I have never been able to make out the derivation of either tilin or “Jack Robinson.” 

[4] “Nothing goes right with the unlucky.” 

[5] Little earthen pot. 

[6] “May your worship live a thousand years!”—a common salutation, equivalent to “God grant you long life!” 

[7] “More surely than the clock,” i.e., as irrevocably as time as we should say, “as sure as a gun.” 

[8] There used to be several sinecure offices in Spain, the symbol of which was a silver key slung over the pocket-flap on the left side.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Starving John the Doctor
Tale Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel
Book Title: Patrañas; or, Spanish Stories, Legendary and Traditional
Book Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel
Publisher: Griffith and Farran
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1870
Country of Origin: Spain
Classification: ATU 332: Godfather Death

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