Marietta, or the Two Students/Chapter 1

Chapter I: The Dissecting RoomEdit

“How pale and still is the face of this fair corpse; what a mild, softened expression lingers about the yet fair mouth, how indicative of rest.

See the eyelids, with their dark fringes closed fast over the sightless balls; mark the “rapture of repose” upon the changeless brow; note how quietly those jetty tresses of hair lay on the colorless cheek. This little white hand, with its long taper fingers, which has been, doubtless, clasped in, and returned the warm pressure of a lover's, lays like a lump of ice in mine, or falls inertly to the table. —And these beautifully rounded limbs, which bespeak the highest effort of a creative power, how unconsciously they rest here.

Gods! how lovely. And yet this is death; but never before gazed I upon death in such a guise;—never saw so much calm beauty pictured upon the features of the dead.

I shrink from, and falter in my purpose; I would not mar such a model of human loveliness. How can I disfigure that angelic face—how can I cut, piece meal, the flesh from those delicate limbs, and observe daily the ravages of the scalpel, coupled with the wasting progress of decay, converting it—that corpse—into all that is loathsome.

And yet, forsooth, I must do it. The noble study which I am pursuing demands it, though the gentler impulses revolt from the procedure.

Why should I hesitate? Would not the foul lips of the worm, and the chill breath of the tomb produce more awful changes upon this symmetrical clay?—Aye! the primeval curse still rests upon it, and it shall crumble again to its dust, although the protection of a score of leaden coffins were thrown about it. I feel this mode of reasoning is correct, yet I shudder at the idea of mutilating the body of this young girl.”

Having uttered slowly, and with a saddened expression these words, the medical student—for so it was—seated himself thoughtfully beside the subject, over which he had been standing. He was a young man of twenty-three years, of the nervous temperament,—with light hair, and dark blue eyes. His face was pale, indicating much firmness, and self-control, while the contour of his person was slight, not very tall, nor ungraceful.

He was evidently a deep and continual thinker, and though so young, there were thought-furrows legibly imprinted upon his forehead. He wore, as is often the case among medical students, a frock, or garb of india-rubber cloth, fastened loosely about the middle by a belt, with the sleeves buttoned closely about the wrist. Gloves of oiled silk were upon his hands, and between the thumb and fingers of the right he held, with gentle grasp, a common scalpel, the bright blade of which seemed slow to perform its accustomed work. A case of dissecting instruments lay open upon the table, near his left, consisting of tenacula, scissors, small forceps, knives of various shapes, adapted to the various uses into which they might be called, with needles, etc. etc.

Two lamps were burning, by the aid of which he was to perform his not enviable task. The room was small, and the upper one of a three story building. Directly over the body was a window, which during the day admitted sufficient light to serve the purpose of the student, or students, as the case might be. The door was carefully closed and locked, for reasons obvious.

“Ah death!” resumed the student, “thou art a mysterious thing,—a change whether for good or evil I am puzzled to know, and cannot even guess. But in this instance I feel that thou art no unfriendly visitant, else thou wouldst not leave such peaceful, benignant lines upon this young face.

Death! I have looked upon thee often, and in every form, but never knew thee stripped of thy terrors, and mild, and smiling on me thus. When the numbers whose aggregate tells the sum of my existence, shall be counted upon the dial of life, then, inscrutable power, visit me thus, and I will not curse thy approach.”

Here the pale student was interrupted in his soliloquy by several raps on the door, repeated at regular intervals.—Without a word he arose, unlocked and opened it. Two persons entered, threw off their overcoats, and with a glance towards the corpse seated themselves by a small stove, apparently for the purpose of warming their hands; for a cold December night was that.

The eldest of the two was about thirty-five years of age. His height, the width of his chest, and the size of his limbs, would have done credit to an athlete in the Olympic games, and been the boast of the Gymnasium, had it been his fortune to move in that particular sphere.

But it was not to be thus; he was to be a doctor of medicine; and it is in this very reputable capacity that we have the honor to make his acquaintance.

His hair was of an ebony blackness, very long, and without the least inclination to curl, which is so frequently the case in romances, and legends, while his face was broad and swarthy; his eyes corresponded admirably with the color of his locks, and were restless and piercing.

His person was a perfect model of muscular development and manliness. There was an expression of good humor upon his open countenance, which would invariably win one’s confidence and good will at first sight. Dr. Frene—this was his name—was deeply versed in the knowledge of his profession, and had neglected no opportunity to become thoroughly acquainted with its various branches. Consequently he enjoyed the reputation of being very skillful in the healing art, which reputation he really merited.

If the Doctor had any failings—which is an immunity few can boast—they were towards “virtue’s side,” that is towards “the sex.” There had been certain vague rumors in circulation, among the gossips of the vicinity, in regard to intrigues with married ladies, assignations &c., in the absence of the deceived and much to be commiserated husbands.—But let this pass, and suffice it to say, that the doctor was a man of noble and generous impulses, and possessed of a soul, which, if not sin-less was capacious, and destitute of meanness. With this remark, which I could not conscientiously make of all his acquaintance, I proceed.

The other individual who accompanied the doctor, was a student much younger, less powerful in form, of fairer complexion, yet more elegant in person, softer in manners, and by some would have been considered more comely. His hair was dark a brown, his countenance more ruddy, and his temperament partook more of the sanguine, than either of his companions.

“You have a second subject,” said the Doctor, after holding his hands to the stove for a moment, addressing himself to the first student.

“I have,” replied Levator, who had again resumed his seat beside the table as before, with the scalpel in his hand.

“Have you commenced the dissection?”

“No ; and I do not think I shall.”

“Do not think you shall! What is the matter with you now? Another fit of melancholy, I expect.”

“Nothing of the kind, doctor.”

“Why do you sit there then, as moodily as though you were listening to a sermon on future punishment?”

“Doctor,” replied the latter, rising, and looking him calmly in the face, and with great seriousness, “you are a feeling man, and sensitive; look at this corpse,” And drawing gently aside the white cloth which covered the dead, he folded his arms upon his chest, and stepped back to give the doctor and his fellow student an opportunity of seeing.

The doctor gazed for a few moments in silence upon the face of the dead, then with a softened expression turned away, saying,

“Lovely, very lovely! death sits lightly and pleasantly upon those features.”

“I cannot mutilate that form, doctor. I have essayed to do so several times, and as often relinquished the attempt.—I have reasoned myself into the belief that I could, and would commence, and when I have with the scalpel in my hand turned towards the body, I have relented, and shrunk from the self-imposed task.”

“’Tis quite natural that you should not wish to mar the strange beauty of this subject, it being a female too. Still I do not think it should prevent you from making the dissection.”

“I cannot, and I will not carry the edge of this instrument across this fair form,” was the firm rejoinder of Levator.

“Then I suppose I must,” said the second student, advancing to the table, and examining the edge of a scalpel. – With your assistance and directions, doctor, I shall, I imagine, make a very decent dissection, although I am astonished at the scruples of Levator. I will now disfigure the face, in order that it may not be recognized, providing it should be discovered by any of the friends of the deceased.”

“Eugene,” exclaimed Levator with energy, as he beheld him raise the knife, in the attitude of making an incision transversely across the brow, “desist; you shall not disfigure a single lineament of that face. That subject, you will allow, is mine, so far as the purchase of it can make it so; and I presume you will not hesitate to affirm that I have a right to dispose of it as I shall think proper.”

Eugene threw down his scalpel, and looked at his friend as though he were doubting the question of his sanity.

“Am I to understand you to say that I am not to proceed with the dissection, as we intended in the first instance?”

“Exactly, Eugene ; nothing more nor less than this. Do you question my right to do so !”

“Certainly not; but permit me to assure you that I think your conduct most singular, not to say absurd.”

“Undoubtedly you do, but you have heard my determination.”

Eugene turned and looked inquiringly at the doctor, as if entreating him to determine if he could, the questionable point of his friend’s rationality. But he appeared equally at a loss to solve the doubt.

“Levator,” said the latter, “I can form an idea of the probable cause of your curious resolution. But—no offence—I believe you carry your sensibility too far. What possible harm can it do that body—fair and delicate it is I allow—to dissect it? Will it feel the keen edge of the knife? Will the tender limbs shrink from it, and give intimations of torture? Do you fear that those closed eyes there, will start open, and that clod-like hand will raise itself, and that still tongue will throw off the spell of death, at the first incision, and entreat you to desist? Fie! where is your manhood?”

“Doctor,” said Levator, “I will not say that you are unkind in your remarks, for it would be unlike you to be so: but you can scarcely mean what you have last uttered. Have you not seen me, without anything like fear or hesitation, look upon death in all its awful phases—in the form of wrinkled old age—smiling infancy—and at every point between these extremes? Have I not seen it in every stage of decomposition, and in all its loathsome details? Have you not seen me sever joint from joint, and muscles from muscle a score of times, without the least symptoms of emotion?—Speak ? “

“I have; and no one can do it with more address and coolness, and it is this fact, contrasted with your present conduct that astonishes me. I have often thought that I never knew a student so indifferent to the “disagreeables” of a dissecting room as yourself ; but to-night you are a woman.”

“Hold, doctor,” said Eugene gaily, “you are wrong this time. If he were a woman you would hardly disagree with him. Confess it, doctor.”

“You are not far from the truth, in this instance, Eugene,” replied the doctor, good humoredly. “And it is not impossible that you might be on better terms with him, if he were in good faith what I have said.”

“Wrong again, Doctor, I have not advanced so far in the “profession” as that; but under your tuition, I hope to make wonderful progress.”

“No doubt of it,” retorted the doctor, drily, with a twinkle of the eye, which I believe is peculiar to no other man, and wincing slightly, as though he had experienced a sudden pain somewhere about the mouth.

He then stepped to the table, upon which lay the subject, and seemed examining it attentively, as though determining internally where he should commence operations.

He took the scalpel, carried the back of it longitudinally across the chest, apparently for the purpose of giving accuracy to the stroke he should make with the edge.

“Doctor,” said Levator calmly, “you have heard what I have said; I need scarcely repeat it.”

“I heard, but could not believe that you really intended what you gave utterance to. It was so unlike you.”

“I repeat it then: that body shall not be mutilated with a dissecting knife.”

“You are beside yourself.”

“I am, on the contrary, perfectly sane.”

“What will you do with it then.”

“I will return it to the quiet grave from whence it was taken, and get another. A form like this should not be rudely gazed upon, by the curious eye of the vulgar. Oh! no: it shall be laid gently away again in its earthy home, and feel the rough touch of the student at work with its limbs never. The coarse jest of the thoughtless and unfeeling shall never be uttered over it, or fall—unheard though it be—even upon these dead ears!”

While speaking, the form of the pale student seemed to dilate to an unusual size. He was more erect and dignified than he was wont to be; and his companions were struck with his determined air, and such an extraordinary exhibition of firmness in him.

“I perceive that you are really in earnest, and mean to do just what you have said, so I suppose it is of no use to reason with you on the absurdity of your resolve. But I am, I acknowledge, dissatisfied with you. However, let it pass, and when you get another, I shall be at your service, and happy to assist.”

Saying this, the doctor and the student departed, leaving Levator alone with his subject.

“They will think I am doing a foolish thing, but no matter, I feel that I am not obstinate, nor wrong in my intentions, and this consoles me. I know not the reason why, yet something I know not what, tells me not to mar this body with the ruthless knife, and I obey the mysterious impulse, even at the hazard of ridicule. I will now find the resurrectionist. He shall place it safely in the tomb, from whence it was taken, unscathed in body or limbs, where it may crumble and mingle peacefully, and in obedience to natural laws with its kindred atoms. Let me look upon it again, the body of that girl—is it possible that it can feel the desolating touch of putrefaction. I could hope not, and yet it must.”

Saying this, he bent over the corpse, and took the cold hand in his. On one of the stiff fingers were two plain rings. Drawing one gently from its place, he replaced it by one of his own ; then carefully covering it again, he locked the door, put the key in his pocket, and passed into the street.