A Rival of Fallopius

by Eugene Lee-Hamilton

Eugene Lee-Hamilton

Princeps jubet ut nobis dent hominem, quem nostro modo interficimus et illum anatomisamus . — Fallopius, AD 1550

He was undoubtedly awake; but where? —

As consciousness had gradually returned,

It had, at first, assumed the shape of dreams.

It seemed to him that in a block of ice,

His body was fast locked; and that in vain

He tried to move his limbs, while chill on chill

Ran through his very marrow. Then anon

It seemed to be a coffin dark and cold,

In which he was enclosed deep underground.

And yet how could it be? His arms were stretched

Like Christ's upon the cross. Was it a cross

To which he fast was nailed — a cross laid flat;

For certainly he lay upon his back;

And now was most undoubtedly awake.

He felt his eyelids open in the dark.

He gave a shout, and to his shout there came,

A sort of moan in answer, like the whine

Of some dumb dying animal; and then

There rose a chorus of short wheezing yelps,

Unutterably frightful and grotesque.

Where could he be?

He tried to fix his thoughts;

And recollect what things he last had seen,

And where he last had stood. Where had it been?

Ah, now he had it! — Yes; he saw himself,

Carelessly, idle, sitting on the wall,

Watching the lizards in the evening sun,

Peeping from holes and darting at the flies;

And, as he so was sitting, there had passed

Along the street a sickly looking man,

Robed like a man of medicine or of law;

Who, stopping, with a nod had said, " My lad,

I see thee daily sitting on this wall:

Hast thou no work or calling? What's thy name? "

That he had answered that his name was John,

That, as for work he cared not much for that,

But loved the sun and nutting in the woods;

That he oft earned a trifle by odd jobs,

Or running errands: and that then the man

Had said, " I have a job for thee to do,

I will return and fetch thee after dark. "

Which he had done, and led him to a house,

Where he had given him to eat and drink,

That then he had felt drowsy; this was all

He could remember. Oh how cold he felt,

How cold and stiff! Again he tried to move,

To burst the unseen bonds which held him down.

He wore himself with shouting; all in vain,

No answer came, save that strange wheezing sound.

By slow degrees he then became aware

Of something like a whiteness overhead

Which faintly grew and seemed to be the light,

The light of morning such as it descends

Through cellar windows; and from out the gloom

Surrounding things emerged. What first he saw

Was his own body, white and wholly stripped,

Strapped down upon a table. Then the light,

In creeping slowly onward to the left,

Showed him another form still indistinct,

Upon the selfsame table. Like himself,

It lay upon its back and seemed strapped down;

The head alone moved ever and anon

From side to side. 'Twas smaller than a man;

It surely was a woman or a child,

But all deformed and like those goblin shapes

Which jutted from the old cathedral's sides.

He strained to see the features; very strange

The shape they took: How long appeared the face!

The light increased; he saw it was a dog.

From underneath its back a thin red rill

Was slowly trickling o'er the table's edge,

Where lay strange knives and tweezers and — O God —

He saw no more, could look no more, a weight

Of horror closed his eyes, until a sound,

As of a gently opening door, disturbed

The silence of the place; he raised his lids.

There stood that same bent, sickly-looking man,

With high bald forehead and with thin white lips.

A boundless joy o'erfilled the captive's heart.

" Quick, quick, " he cried, " Untie, untie me quick!

Oh, quick unstrap the thong! Who tied me down?

What place is this? "

But strange to say,

The other answered not, nor nearer came;

But, going to a drawer some paces off,

Began to rummage slowly in its depths;

And though the captive never ceased to call,

Seemed not to heed him; only once he paused,

And fixed upon him one long vacant look

Such as we fix on some inanimate thing

When lost in thought — O Christ, what could it mean?

Why did he stand and rummage in the drawer

And not untie him? he who over night

Had been so kind and friendly. And the joy,

The hope of prompt release, began to change

Into a weird and undefinable fear.

And when he saw him close the drawer at last,

And silently approach, he straightway shrank,

He knew not why; a thin white hand was laid

Upon the thong; but 'twas to readjust,

To tighten, not to free. The captive saw,

And understood the action, for he gave

A sort of wail, and cried " What have I done?

What do you want? What is this dreadful place?

Oh, let me go; I am an orphan lad

Who lives from hand to mouth, and does no harm.

Is this a torture room? Oh, I will speak,

But do not hurt me, — I will answer all,

I will reveal, I will reveal. "

The man

Who until now had seemed absorbed in thought;

Mute and as unattentive to his words

As to the fitful moaning of the dog,

Upon his human captive fixed his eyes,

Where flashed a sudden fervour, and exclaimed

Half to himself: " Reveal? ay, that thou shalt.

Thou shalt reveal inestimable truths

Of which thou knowest nothing; thou shalt tell

Secrets unknown to men, but guessed by me;

Thou shalt confirm what these dumb dogs have told

Beneath the scalpel; thou shalt be the last

And chiefest witness; " and he laid his hand

Upon the heap of little shining knives

Which lay upon the table.

Strange and vague

As were his words, the victim understood

Their terrible significance; they meant

The imminence of torture; for he burst

Into a loud and deafening appeal

For help, for mercy, for delay; he yelled

For God, for men; he shouted and he sobbed;

He prayed, he threatened, offered to reveal

He knew not what, betray he knew not whom.

God answered not.

The man seemed not to hear

The ever louder, ever wilder cries

Which shook the vault; but paced the room in thought.

" Must he be gagged? " he muttered; " it impedes

The action of the organs; with the gag

He will not last so long; but I foresee

His unfamiliar and articulate yells,

Will make my hand unsteady; will distract

My mind in ticklish moments, and defeat

My nicest observations; — shall I cut

His vocal organs? That hath objections too,

Which on the whole are greater. " And he took

A gag from out a case.

But with a roar,

Like some wild beast, the captive bit his hand

Just as he placed the gag upon his mouth.

The pain was great, it made him clench his teeth,

And stand one moment helpless; but what made

His brow contract was pain alone, not wrath.

Now word escaped him, and his face put on,

Almost at once, his former look again,

Inexorably placid. He resumed

The process with more caution. When 'twas o'er,

And not a sound could pass the captive's lips,

He washed his bitten hand and bound it up;

And as he did so muttered to himself:

" 'Tis lucky 'tis the left; his teeth are sharp;

He bites, he bites; methinks he almost barked.

Oh, who shall draw the line betwixt this man,

This human animal, who nothing knows

Of what makes man immortal, and this dog?

That he can shriek for mercy? and the dog,

Hath he not shrieked for mercy long and loud?

That he can call on an unhelpful God?

So doth the dog perchance, if we but knew.

That he hath got a soul? I doubt it much;

But granting for a moment that he hath,

He's by so much the luckier than the dog,

Who suffers and relapses into nought.

O Prejudice, if I did let thee speak,

And stop my hand on this auspicious day,

When I can verify the work of years,

I were not what I am. Ay, ay, 'tis well

That 'twas the left he bit. Ye little dream,

Ye proud protected slaves who dub me quack

How soon ye shall be humbled. Have a care,

Fallopius, thou that thinkest thou art safe,

Because the Tuscan Duke gives thee alone

Live convicts to dissect. A man like me

Finds other ways. So crow not overloud:

My day at last has come. "

He then approached

Once more the table where his victim lay;

Surveyed him for a while, and felt his pulse;

Then raised his eyes towards the hole through which

The scanty light descended, falling straight

Upon the naked body, and began

To pace the cellar slowly up and down;

Probably waiting for the light to grow

As morning should advance. No sound was heard

Except the measured creaking of his step;

And through the tight compression of the gag

The other's stifled breathing — up and down

And up and down. At first no sign betrayed

The workings of his mind — but by-and-bye,

Just like a laden cloud about to burst,

Which ever and anon lets slip a flash;

He, laden with excitement long repressed,

Gave vent to muttered words with flashing eye

And rapid gestures, till at last his thoughts

Poured forth coherent though he spoke them low

And hurriedly, as if before some judge

Whom he alone could see, and who, to hear

Needed no louder pleading. " Who forbids?

Who dares to step between this deed and me?

'Tis God, perchance? Then let him first restrain

The dark destructive forces he has made:

First let him order that the deep no more

Shall every year engulf a thousand crews;

First let him chain the whirlwind or appease

The tiger's inborn rage, and put an end

To Nature's countless crimes. — Or is it Man

And Man alone? He strews his battle-fields

Year after year with heaps of mangled dead,

Without a why or wherefore; he doth let

His inconvenient rivals rot away

In dungeon cells, that he may sleep at ease,

Or roll in wealth and power. Shall he dare

To grudge me what I need — a single life

For Science, for the only thing I love

On this wide earth? And do I not deserve

To be at last rewarded? I whose life

Has been one boundless sacrifice — whose sight

Is prematurely dim from midnight work;

Whose back is bent from stooping o'er this work-board;

Whose youth knew nought of pleasure, but was spent

In solitary study, in the track

Of war and plague and famine, and where'er

Disease and death were teachers; and whose prime

Has gone in seeking knowledge in the corpse,

And in live dogs. Yea, did I not begin

By trampling with a firm relentless foot

On my own nature, making nerves as weak

As any woman's, stand the sight of things

From which the sickened hangman, growing pale,

Would turn away? Is there a risk,

However great, which I have feared to run

To get the bodies which the law refused?

Have I not snatched the newly-buried dead

And braved the dread resentment of despair,

Of mourning lovers and of outraged sons?

Have I not prowled at midnight with the wolf

About the gallows, where, had I been caught,

I should myself have dangled? Year by year

Have I not, thief-like, skulked from town to town,

From land to land, pursued with stones and jeers,

Until the very houses seemed to hoot

As I slunk by? And such a life as mine

Is to be cheated of its sole reward,

To save the squeaks of such a thing as this ,

Which thinks not, reads not, writes not, knoweth nought

Of noble speculations, and but cares

For sunshine and for nutting in the woods,

Like any squirrel? Granted, he's a man:

But in his vitals lies concealed the drop

Of knowledge which I thirst for with a thirst

More irresistible than is the lust

For woman, or for power, or for gold.

Is not all Nature framed upon the plan

Of strength devouring weakness? Shall I be

More kind than Nature? He is in mine hands;

And mine is his existence by the right

Of paramount intelligence and power;

And if Mankind should ever learn this deed,

Would it avenge it for the victim's sake,

Or from its own intolerable fear

Of a like fate? Would it avenge the dog

Who lies on yonder table? O Mankind,

Thy charity is great! — And now to work.

Last updated October 28, 2017