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Stealing a Baby
I NEVER was partial to dogs (although I dined some years ago very heartily upon the haunch of one, that a rascally Indian sold to the family for venison - the scoundrel's back gave proof not long after, that it, to him at least, was really dear meat); they have always been my aversion, and the antipathy of my earlier years has not been in the least diminished by the part one took - not only out of my leg - but in breaking off as pretty a love-scrape as ever Cupid rejoiced at.
I was attending my last course of lectures, previous to graduation, in a northern state, and as a matter of course had but very little leisure to devote to amusement or love. But nevertheless, even amidst all my occupation, I found time to renew and continue a friendship bordering closely upon love, even then, which I had formed the previous winter with a young lady residing in the city.
We were both young - alas! that there similarity ceased - she was beautiful - my ugliness was so apparent that I acknowledged it myself. She was wealthy - I had nothing but my profession, it not then secure. She was - but why continue the enumeration of our contrasts? suffice it to say that we were fast approaching the condition when love in a cottage, and thoughts of an annual searching for sentimental and beautiful names occupy so much of the mind, when an infernal dog (not only of a daddy - but a real caniner) jumped - like a swamp gal into a jar of pickles - into the ring of our felicity, and left me to wail him first, and myself afterwards.
I hated dogs, and the father of my beloved had an equal aversion to Southerners, and according to the degree that class stood in his estimation, the old man and myself disliked the same objects; so his daughter and myself had to meet by stealth.
Twice a week the class of medical students attended clinical lectures at the hospital, which was situated in a retired part of the town; thither the young lady, on the appointed evenings, would repair, and awaiting the departure of the class, we, on our walk homewards, could talk over our love affairs without fear or interruption.
This pleasant arrangement had continued until nearly the close of the session, and we had agreed that when graduated, if her father's obduracy did not soften, we would elope, when some good-natured friend kindly informed her father of our intimacy, and that even as he came then to apprise him, he had met her going to keep her appointment.
Highly incensed, the old man started off to pursue her, but unfortunately did not arrive to prevent, but only witness an occurrence which attracted considerable attention at the time. Anatomy has been ever with me a favourite branch of my profession; and when a student, I never let slip an opportunity, time and material permitting, to improve myself in it by dissection. It was a passion with me; and whenever I met with a person extremely emaciated or finely developed, my anatomical eye would scan their proportions, and instead of paying them the usual courtesies of life, I would be thinking what glorious subjects they would be for museum preparations or dissection; and even when my audacious lips were stealing a kiss from the pulpy mouth of my lady-love, instead of floating into ecstasies of delight, my anatomical mind would wonder whether, even in death, electricity, by some peculiar adaptation, might not be able to continue their bewitching suction. When holding her soft hand in mine, and gazing into the star-lit ocean of her soul, I would wonder if there was not some peculiarity in the formation of her optic nerve which gave her eyes such brilliancy. My poetical rhapsodies were mingled with scraps of anatomy, and in attempting to write her some verses, after writing the first line,
"The clouds which clothed yon beauteous shore with garments dark and hazy" -
to save me, the nearest approximation I could make to a rhyme, was:
"Pray use with me not the 'levator labii superioris alaque nasi.' "
To tell the truth, I was becoming clean daft upon the subject, and consumptive people and orphan children began to look on me with suspicion, but Lucy attributed my conduct to the eccentricities of genius and love.
Connected with the hospital the class attended was a dead-house, as is usual in such establishments, where such patients whose constitutions are not strong enough to stand the treatment, are deposited after death for forty-eight hours, in order that their friends may reclaim their bodies. The morgue, in this institution, was directly under the lecture room, but, as the door was kept locked, it was regarded as sufficiently private.
On the day when my intended father-in-law was made acquainted with the clandestine meetings of his daughter and myself, I had, as usual, accompanied the class to the hospital, and, during the delivering of the lecture, becoming suddenly very faint, I was forced to leave the crowded room and seek the fresh air.
As I passed the door of the dead-house on my return, I noticed that it was ajar, and curiosity prompting me to see what was within, I pushed it open and entered, closing it behind me. There were several bodies, male and female, cleanly arrayed upon the table; but the object that attracted my attention the most was an infant a few weeks old lying by the side of its dead mother; they were both so black in the face that I would have suspected foul play, had it not been accounted for by the fact that they were negroes. I strove to depart, but something formed a bond of association between that dead nigger baby and myself, which held me to my place, my gaze riveted upon it.
I wanted just such a subject - one I could carry up in my private room and dissect whilst I was waiting for my meals - something to wile away my tedious hours with - but how to get it was the thing; the rules of the college and hospital were imperative, and I did not wish to be expelled. I could not beg, borrow, or buy - there was but one way left, and that was stealing.
The plan was simple and easily arranged. It was very cold weather, and under the ample folds of my cloak the baby would be concealed effectually.
Separating it from its dead mother's embrace, I rolled it, tenderly as if alive, into as small a space as possible, and tying it up in my handkerchief, I placed it under my cloak, and left the dead-house.
Had I left immediately for home, on the baby's absence being discovered I would have been suspected immediately; so, great as was the danger, I had no other resource than to return to the lecture-room, and await our regular dismissal, running the chances of detection. No one, on looking at me then, would have accused me of feigning sickness; for, manfully as I strove to be composed, the danger of discovery unnerved me completely, and gave me such a tremor as would have passed for a creditable ague.
I have been often enough in imminent danger of my life, to know what cold sweat and minutes appearing hours are; but the longest life, in the shortest space of time I ever led, was when, in the midst of four hundred students, I sat on those hard old benches, with the dead nigger baby under my cloak, waiting for the lecture to conclude.
It had its end at last; and, waiting til the class had pretty well dispersed, I sauntered slowly away towards my boarding-house, hoping that the inclemency of the weather had kept Lucy from keeping our usual appointment.
A sleety rain had fallen the preceding night, and, like Mrs. Blennerhasset's tears, freezing as it fell, had covered the pavement with a thin coat of ice, making the walking for pedestrians very insecure.
Surely, I thought, as a keen gust came round the corner, piercing my marrow with its coldness, her tender frame will not be exposed on such a day as this! 'tis a good thing, too; for she would be horrified if she found what my burden was; - when her smiling face, with her beautiful nose red as an inflamed eye, appeared, and told me I did not possess a proper appreciation of the strength of a Kentucky gal's affection.
Somewhat vexed, and, for the first time in my life, sorry to see her, I wished her (as it was so cold) in the hottest place I knew of; but dissembling my feelings, I vowed, when she came up, that if I had received the appointment of surgeon-general to the angels, it could not give me more pleasure than to see her then. I appeared as unconcerned as I could, and sedulously talked to her of such things as are very interesting to lovers and old maids, but deuced tiresome to all other parties concerned.
We had nearly reached the street corner where we usually parted, when, horror of horrors! who should we see coming round the identical corner but the lady's father, accompanied by a man that bore a marvellous resemblance to the city marshal!
Instead of fainting, Lucy uttered a stifled shriek, and gritting her teeth dragged me into a house, the door of which stood invitingly open; one step more, and if Fate had not been against me, these pages would never have been written, that baby would have been anatomized, and in all probability, instead of being an old rusty swamp doctor, "caring a cuss for nobody, nobody caring for me," I would have been the happy head of a family, and, rolling in my carriage, describe the great operation of extracting two jaw-teeth, I saw performed the last time I was in Paris. But the beautiful hath departed, and never was.
A growl, a loud yell, bow! wow! wow! and with mouth distended like an alligator catching his dessert of flies, a huge bull dog sprang at us, placing us in rather a dilemma; it was the dog of a daddy on one hand, and the daddy of a dog on the other.
Unlike Miss Ullin, who preferred meeting the raging of the skies to an angry father, embarked in a skiff and got drowned, I preferred an angry father to a mad bull dog; so seizing Lucy, I made a spring backwards, forgetting in my haste the slippery pavement; our feet flew up, and down we came in the open street, cross and pile, our inferior extremities considerably intermingled, and her ankles not as well protected from the heat as they might have been.
My cloak flew open as I fell, and the force of the fall bursting its envelope, out, in all its hideous realities, rolled the infernal imp of darkness upon the gaze of the laughing, but now horrified spectators.
The old man had witnessed the whole scene; springing to my feet, I assisted the lady to rise, and handed her over to her father. As he disappeared with her round the corner, I volunteered to whip the crowd, individually or collectively, but nobody seemed disposed to accept of my services. Picking up my baby, I explained the whole to a constable who was on the point of arresting me for child-murder.
I sent the subject back to the dead-room, and came as near being expelled from college as ever a lover of knowledge did, to miss it. I have never seen Lucy since, and my haggard features and buttonless coat testify that the swamp doctor is still a bachelor.
Source: Henry Clay Lewis, Odd Leaves from the Life of a Louisiana Swamp Doctor.