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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Heinrich Zschokke (1771–1848)

The Leg

IN the autumn of 1782 the surgeon Louis Thévenet, of Calais, received an unsigned invitation requesting him to come on the following day to a country-house situated on the road to Paris, and to bring with him the instruments necessary for the performance of an amputation. Thévenet was widely known at that time as the most skilful practitioner of his art; it was not uncommon to summon him across the Channel to England for consultation. He had long served in the army, and had kept something brusk in his bearing, but his natural kindliness rendered him universally beloved.

Thévenet was surprised at the anonymous note. Time and place were indicated with the greatest exactitude; he was told where and when he was expected, yet, as has been said, a signature was lacking. “Some young fool,” he thought to himself, “probably wants to send me on a wild-goose chase.” And he did not go.

Three days later he received a similar invitation, more pressing still, and informing him that at nine o’clock on the next morning a carriage would stop at his house to fetch him. And in fact, next morning, at the stroke of nine, a handsome open carriage appeared. Thévenet hesitated no longer, but entered it.

Outside the city gate he asked the coachman, “To whom are you taking me?” The man answered, “I don’t know, and it doesn’t concern me.” These words were spoken in English.

“You are a boor,” replied Thévenet.

The carriage finally stopped before the country-house in question. “To whom am I to go? Who lives here? Who is ill?” Thévenet asked the coachman before he got out of the carriage. The latter gave his previous answer, to which the physician, too, replied as before. At the door of the house a handsome young man, about twenty-eight years old, met him, and led him up a flight of stairs into a large room. The young man’s accent showed him to be an Englishman. Consequently Thévenet addressed him in that language, and received a friendly answer.

“You have summoned me here,” said the surgeon.

“I am very grateful to you for having taken the trouble to come,” answered the Englishman. “Will you not be seated? Here are chocolate, coffee, wine, in case you should care to take something before performing the operation.”

“But, sir, I should first like to see the patient. I must examine the injury, to see whether an amputation is necessary.”

“It is necessary, Mr. Thévenet. Kindly sit down. I have every confidence in you. Therefore, listen: I have in this purse two hundred guineas, which I design to pay you for performing the operation you are to undertake. More will be forthcoming if it is successfully done. If it turns out badly, or if you refuse to accede to my wishes—you see this loaded pistol, and you are in my power—I will shoot you down, so help me God!”

“Sir, I do not fear your pistol. But what do you desire? Speak plainly, without preamble. What am I to do here?”

“You must cut off my right leg.”

“With the greatest pleasure, and, if you wish it, your head too. Only, if I noticed rightly, the leg seems to be in perfectly good condition. You sprang up the stairs before me like a rope-dancer. What is the matter with the leg?”

“Nothing. I want to get rid of it.”

“Sir, you are a fool!”

“That does not concern you, Mr. Thévenet.”

“What sin has your admirable leg committed?”

“None. But have you made up your mind to rid me of it?”

“Sir, I do not know you. Produce witnesses to prove you otherwise sound and healthy in mind.”

“Will you yield to my wishes, Mr. Thévenet?”

“Sir, as soon as you give me a reasonable ground for this mutilation.”

“I cannot tell you the truth now; perhaps I may at the end of a year. But I am willing to bet that, after the space of a year, you yourself will confess that my reasons for getting rid of this leg were the noblest conceivable.”

“I will not bet unless you tell me your name, your place of residence, your family, and your occupation.”

“You shall know all that in the future, but not now. I beg you to consider me a man of honor.”

“A man of honor does not threaten his physician with pistols. I have certain duties even toward you, who are unknown to me. If it will please you to become the murderer of the innocent father of a family, then shoot!”

“Very well, Mr. Thévenet,” said the Englishman, taking up the pistol, “I will not shoot you, but, for all that, I will force you to amputate my leg. What you will do neither as a favor to me, nor from desire of reward, nor for fear of a bullet, you will grant me out of pity.”

“And how so?”

“I will shatter my own leg with a bullet, and that right here and now, before your very eyes.”

The Englishman sat down, took the pistol, and pressed its muzzle close to his knee. Thévenet made a motion to jump up and prevent him.

“Do not move,” said the Englishman, “or I shoot. Answer me this single question: Do you wish to prolong and intensify my pain unnecessarily?”

“Sir, you are a fool, but I will do as you wish. I will rid you of your confounded leg.”

Everything was prepared for the operation. When the knife was set to the leg, the Englishman lit his pipe and swore that he would not let it go out. He kept his word. The dead leg lay on the floor. The Englishman continued to smoke.

Thévenet performed his task in a masterly way. By means of his skill, the sick man was healed in a comparatively short time. He rewarded his physician, whom he esteemed more highly every day, thanked him with tears of joy for the loss of his limb, and sailed off to England with a wooden leg.

About eighteen weeks after his departure Thévenet received a letter from England to the following effect:

  • “Enclosed you will find, as a proof of my profound gratitude, an order on M. Pachaud, the Paris banker, for two hundred and fifty guineas. By ridding me of a limb which stood in the way of my earthly happiness you have made me the happiest of mortals. Excellent man, you may now know the reason for what you called my foolish whim. You declared that there could be no reasonable ground for such voluntary mutilation. I proposed to enter on a bet with you. You did well not to accept it.
  • “After my second return from India I became acquainted with Emily Harley, the most perfect of women. I adored her. Her fortune and connections pleased my family; I cared only for her beauty, for her angelic disposition. I became one of her crowd of admirers. Ah, my dear Thévenet, I was happy enough to become the unhappiest of all my rivals. She loved me, me before all men, made no secret of it, and yet for that very reason she repelled me. In vain did I beg for her hand; in vain did my parents and her friends beg for me. She remained unmoved.
  • “For a long time I could not discover the cause of her aversion to a marriage with me, whom, by her own confession, she loved to distraction. At last one of her sisters revealed the secret to me. Miss Harley was a marvelous beauty, but she had one defect—she was one-legged, and on account of this imperfection she feared to become my wife. She dreaded that I should despise her for it. My mind was immediately made up. I would share her misfortune. Thanks to you, my dear Thévenet, I became able to do it.
  • “I returned home with a deceptive wooden leg. The first thing I did was to visit Miss Harley. The news had gone abroad, and I myself had written to England to say that I had broken my leg by falling from a horse, and that it had been amputated. I was universally pitied. Emily fainted at our first meeting. For a long time she was inconsolable; but she became my wife. Not until the day after our marriage did I tell her the secret of the sacrifice that I had made in order to win her. She loved me the more tenderly for it. Oh, excellent Thévenet, had I ten legs to lose, I would give them all, without pulling a face, for Emily!
  • “As long as I live I shall be grateful to you. Come to London, visit me, become acquainted with my adorable wife, and then still say, if you can, that I am a fool!
  • Thévenet communicated the story and the contents of the letter to his friends, laughing heartily as often as he related it. “For all that, he remains a fool!” cried the doctor. His reply to the letter ran as follows:

  • “SIR: I thank you for your valuable present. I call it thus, for I can hardly call it a reward for my small trouble.
  • “I wish you happiness on your marriage with the most charming of all Englishwomen. It is true, a leg is not much to give in exchange for a beautiful, virtuous, and tender wife, if only in the end one is not deceived in one’s bargain. Adam had to pay a rib of his own body for the possession of a wife; many another man has paid as much, some even their head.
  • “Nevertheless you will permit me humbly to keep to my original opinion. To be sure, at this moment you are in the right. You now dwell in the paradise of love’s springtide. But I, too, am right, with this difference, that the truth of my opinion, like every truth that one hesitates a long time to accept, will be slow to ripen.
  • “Sir, hear what I say. I fear that after two years you will regret having had your leg amputated above the knee. ‘It would have done just as well below,’ you will say to yourself. At the end of three years you will be convinced that the loss of a foot would have been sufficient. At the end of four years you will declare that the sacrifice of the great toe would have been too much. At the end of five, you will assert the same of the little toe. When six years shall have passed, you will confess to me that the paring of the nails would have been quite enough.
  • “All this I say without trying to detract from the merits of your charming wife. Ladies can keep their beauty and their virtues more changeless than men their judgments. In my youth I would at any time have given my life for my beloved; in my life I should never have given a leg. The former sacrifice I would never have regretted, the latter always. For had I made it, I would have said to myself to this very day. ‘Thévenet, you were a fool!’ With which remark, I have the honor to be, sir, your humble servant,
  • “G. THÉVENET.”
  • In the year 1793, during the Reign of Terror, having been brought into suspicion of aristocratic leanings by a younger colleague, Thévenet fled to London, in order to save his life from the leveling guillotine.

    Either because time hung heavily on his hands, or because he wished to seek acquaintances, he went to see Sir Charles Temple.

    He was directed to that gentleman’s mansion. He was announced and received. In an armchair, over a pot of foaming porter, near the chimney, and surrounded by twenty newspapers, sat a stout gentleman, so unwieldy that he could scarcely rise.

    “Ah, welcome, Mr. Thévenet!” cried the stout gentleman, who was no other than Sir Charles himself. “Don’t take it ill that I remain seated, but the infernal wooden leg hinders me in everything. My friend, I suppose you have come to see whether the truth has ripened?”

    “I come as a refugee, seeking protection of you.”

    “You must be my guest, for, on my life, you are a wise man. You must console me. In truth, Thévenet, I might have been an admiral to-day, if this miserable wooden leg had not rendered me unfit for the service of my country. As it is, I read the papers, and curse myself blue in the face on account of my forced inactivity. Come, console me!”

    “Your wife will be better able to console you than I.”

    “Not at all. Her wooden leg prevents her from dancing, and so she has taken to cards and gossip. There is no getting along with her. In other things she is an excellent woman.”

    “And so I seem to have been in the right?”

    “Oh, entirely, my dear Thévenet; but let us be silent on that subject. I acted like an ass. Could I get my leg back, I would not give the paring of a toe-nail! Between you and me, I was a fool! But keep this information to yourself.”