MRS. SYKES

By Nathaniel Deering

One dark, stormy night in the summer of —— finding my system had lost much of its humidum radicale, or radical moisture, in truth a very alarming premonitory, I directed Mrs. Tonic in preparing my warm aqua fontana to infuse a quantum sufficit of Hollands; of which having taken a somewhat copious draught, I sought my cubiculum. Let no one imagine however, that I give the least countenance to the free use of alcoholic mixtures. They are undoubtedly poisonous, and like other poisons, which hold a high rank in our pharmacopeia, it is only when taken under the direction of those deemed cunning in our art, that they exert a healing power, and as one Shakspeare happily expresses it, "ascend me to the brain." Now as the radical moisture is essential to vitality and as this moisture is promoted in a wonderful degree by potations of Hollands, we of the Faculty hold with Horatius Flaccus "omnes eodem cogimur"—we may all cogue it. But to return to my narratio or story as it may be called. I had hardly "steep'd my senses in forgetfulness" as some one quaintly says, when I was effectually aroused by a loud knocking at the window. The blows were so heavy and frequent that Mrs. Tonic though somewhat unadorned, it being her hour for retiring, yet fearful of fractured glass, hurried to the door. I might here mention, in order to show the reason of Mrs. Tonic's fears, that my parlor front-window had been lately beautified with an enlarged sash containing not seven by nine, the size generally used, but eight by ten—panes certainly of a rare and costly size and which Mrs. Tonic had the honor of introducing. The cause of this unseasonable disturbance proved to be a messenger from Deacon Sykes stating that good Mrs. Sykes was alarmingly ill and desiring my immediate attendance. Now in the whole range of my practice there was no one whose call was sooner heeded than Mrs. Sykes's; for besides being an ailing woman and of course a profitable patient, she had much influence in our village as the wife of Deacon Sykes. But I must confess that on this occasion I did feel an unwillingness to resume my habiliments, that night as I before remarked, being uncommonly stormy and myself feeling sensibly the effects of the sudorific I had just taken. Still I should willingly have exposed myself had not Mrs. Tonic gathered from the messenger that it was only a return of Mrs. Sykes's old complaint, that excruciating pain, the colic; for Mrs. Sykes was flatulent. As the medicine I had hitherto prescribed for her in such aliments had been wonderfully blessed, I directed Mrs. Tonic to bring my saddle-bags, from which having prepared a somewhat smart dose of tinct. rhei. with carb. soda, I gave it to the messenger bidding him return with all speed. In the belief that this would prove efficacious, I again turned to woo the not reluctant Somnus, but scarcely had an hour elapsed when I was again alarmed by repeated blows first at the door and then at the window. In a moment I sat bolt upright, in which attitude I was soon imitated by Mrs. Tonic, on hearing the crash of one of her eight by tens. Through the aperture I now distinctly recognized the voice of Sam Saunders, who had hired with the Deacon, stating that good Mrs. Sykes was absolutely in extremis, or as Sam himself expressed it, "at her last gasp." On hearing this, you may be assured I was not long in naturalibus; but drawing on my nether integuments, I departed despite the remonstrances of Mrs. Tonic, without my wrapper and without any thing in fact except a renewed draught of my philo humidum radicale. My journey to the Deacon's was made with such an accelerated movement that it was accomplished as it were per saltum. This was owing to my great anxiety about Mrs. Sykes, though possibly in a small degree I might have dreaded an obstruction of the pores in my own person. Howbeit, on arriving at the Deacon's, I saw at once that she was beyond the healing art. There lay all that remained of Mrs. Sykes—the disjecta membra, the fragmenta—the casket! But the gem, the mens divinior was gone and forever. There she lay, regardless of the elongated visage of Deacon Sykes on the one side, and of the no less elongated visage of the widow Dobble on the other side, who had been some time visiting there, and who now hung over her departed friend in an agony of woe. "Doctor," cried the Deacon, "is there no hope?" "Is there no hope?" echoed the widow Dobble. I grasped the wrist of Mrs. Sykes, but pulsation had ceased; the eye was glazed and the countenance livid. "A caput mortuum, Deacon! defuncta! the wick of vitality is snuffed out." The bereaved husband groaned deeply; the widow Dobble groaned an octave higher.

On my way home my mind was much exercised with this sudden and mysterious dispensation. Had Sam Saunders blundered in his statement of her complaint? Had I myself—good Heavens! it could'nt be possible! I opened my bags—horresco referens! it was but too palpable! Owing either to the agitation of the moment when so suddenly awakened, or to the deep solicitude of Mrs. Tonic, who, in preparing my philo humidum radicale, had infused an undue portion of the Hollands—to one of these the lamented Mrs. Sykes might charge her untimely exit; for there was the vial of tinct. rhei. full to the stopple, while the vial marked "laudanum," was as dry as a throat in fever. I hesitate not to record that at this discovery, I lost some of that self-possession which has ever been characteristic of the Tonics. I was not only standing on the brow of a precipice, but my centre of gravity seemed a little beyond it. There were rivals in the vicinity jealous of my rising reputation. The sudden death might cause a post mortem examination, and the result would be as fatal to me as was the laudanum to Mrs. Sykes. A thought, occurring, doubtless through a special Providence, suddenly relieved my mind. At break of day I retraced my footsteps to the chamber of the deceased. Accompanied by the Deacon I approached to gaze upon the corpse; when, suddenly starting back, I placed one hand upon my olfactories and grasping with the other the alarmed mourner, I hurried towards the door. "In the name of heaven!" cried the Deacon, "what is the matter?" "The matter!" I replied, "the matter! Deacon, listen. In all cases of mortality where the radical moisture has not been lessened by long disease, putrefaction commences on the cessation of the organic functions and a miasma fatal to the living is in a moment generated. This is the case even in cold weather, and it being now July, I cannot answer for your own life if the burial be deferred; the last sad offices must be at once attended to." Deacon Sykes consented. Not, he remarked, on his own account, for, as to himself, life had lost its charms, but there were others near on whom many were dependent, and he could not think of gratifying his own feelings at their expense—sufficient, says he, for the day is the evil thereof. I hardly need add, that, when my advice to the Deacon got wind, the neighbors with one accord rallied to assist in preparing Mrs. Sykes for her last home; and their labors were not a little quickened by the fumes of tar and vinegar which I directed to be burnt on this melancholy occasion. Much as I cherished Mrs. Sykes, still I confess that my feelings were much akin to those called pleasurable, when I heard the rattle of those terrene particles which covered at the same time my lamented friend and my professional lapsus.

But after all, as I sat meditating on the ups and downs of life during the evening of the funeral, the question arose in my mind, is all safe? May not some unfledged Galens remove the body for the purpose of dissection?—Worse than all, may not some malignant rival have already meditated a similar expedition? The more I reflected on this matter and its probable consequences, the more my fears increased, till at last they became too great for my frail tenement. There was at this period a boarder in my family, one Job Sparrow, who having spent about thirty years of his pilgrimage in the "singing of anthems," concluded at length to devote the residue thereof to the study of the human frame, to which he was the more inclined, probably, as he could have the benefit of my deep investigations. His outward man, though somewhat ungainly, was exceedingly muscular, and he had a firmness of nerve which would make him willingly engage in any enterprise that would aid him in his calling. Conducting him to my sanctum or study, a retired chamber in my domicil, "Job," I remarked, "I have long noticed your engagedness in the healing art, and I have lamented my inability of late to further your progress in the study of anatomy from the difficulty of procuring subjects. An opportunity, however, is at length afforded, and I shall not fail to embrace it though at the sacrifice of my best feelings. The subject I mean, is the lamented Mrs. Sykes. Bring her remains at night to this chamber, and I with my venerable friend Dr. Grizzle will exhibit what, though often described, are seldom visible, those wonderful absorbents, the lacteals.—It is only in very recent subjects, my dear Job, that it is possible to point them out." My pupil grinned complacently at this manifestation of kindly feelings towards him in one so much his superior, and hastened to prepare himself for the expedition. It was about nine of the clock when the venerable Dr. Grizzle, whom I had notified of my intended operations through Job, came stealthily in. Dr. Grizzle, though from his appearance one would conclude that he was about to "shuffle off this mortal coil," was a rara avis as to his knowledge of the corporeal functions. There were certain gainsayers, indeed, who asserted that his intellectual candle was just glimmering in its socket; but it will show to a demonstration how little such statements are to be regarded when I assert that the like slanders had been thrown out touching my own person. The profound Grizzle, above such malignant feelings, always coincided with my own opinion, both as to the nature of the disease we were called to counteract, and as to the mode of treatment; and so highly did I value him, that he was the only one whom I called to a consultation when that course was deemed expedient. We had prepared our instruments and were refreshing our minds with the pages of Chesselden, a luminous writer, when to my great satisfaction the signal of my pupil was heard below. Hitherto our labors seemed to have been blest; but a difficulty occurred in this stage of our progress which threatened not only to render these labors useless, but to retard, if I may so say, the advance of anatomical science. It was this; the stairway was uncommonly narrow, and the lamented Mrs. Sykes was uncommonly large. As it was impossible, then, for Job to pass up at the same time with the defunct, it was settled after mature deliberation, that he and myself, should occupy a post at each extreme, while Grizzle assisted near the lumbar region. "Now," cried Job, "heave together;" but the words were hardly uttered, when a shreak from Grizzle, paralized our exertions. Our muscular efforts had wedged my venerable friend so completely between Mrs. Sykes and the wall, that his lungs wheezed like a pair of decayed bellows; and had it not been for the Herculean strength of Job, who rushed as it were in medias res, the number of the dead would have equalled that of the living. At length, after repeated trials, we effected, as I facetiously remarked, our "passage of the Alps;" an historical allusion which tended much to the divertisement of Grizzle and obliterated in no small measure, the memory of his recent peril. And now, having directed Job to go down and secure the door, Grizzle and myself advanced to remove the bandages that confined her arms, previous to dissection. But scarcely was the work accomplished when a sepulchral groan burst from the defunct, the eyes glared, and the loosened arm was slowly lifted from the body. That I am not of that class who can be charged with any thing like timidity, is, I think well proved by my consenting to act for several years as regimental surgeon in our militia, a post undoubtedly of danger. But I must concede that at this unexpected movement, both Grizzle and myself were somewhat agitated. From the table to the stair-way, we leaped, as it were by instinct, and with a velocity at which even now I greatly marvel. This sudden evidence of vitality in my lamented friend, or I might say rather an unwillingness to be found alone with her in such a peculiar situation, also induced me to prevent if possible the retreat of Grizzle, and I fastened with some degree of violence upon his projecting queue. It was fortunate, in so far as regarded Grizzle, that art in this instance had supplanted nature. His wig, of which the queue formed no inconsiderable portion, was all that my hand retained. Had it been otherwise, such was the tenacity of my grasp on the one hand, and such his momentum on the other, that Grizzle must have left the natural ornament of his cerebrum, while I, though unjustly, must have been charged with imitating our heathenish Aborigines. As it was, his bald pate shot out from beneath it with the velocity of a discharged ball; nor was the similitude to that engine of carnage at all lessened when I heard its rebounds upon the stairs. How long I remained overwhelmed by the wonderful scenes which I had just witnessed, I cannot tell; but on recovering, I found that Mrs. Sykes had been removed to my best chamber, and Job and Mrs. Tonic both busily engaged about her person. They had, as I afterwards ascertained, by bathing her feet and rubbing her with hot flannels, wrought a change almost miraculous; and the effects of the laudanum having happily subsided she appeared, when I entered, as in her pristine state. At that moment they were about administering a composing draught, which undoubtedly she needed, having received several severe contusions on the stairway in our endeavors to extricate Grizzle. But rushing forward, I exclaimed, "thanks to Heaven that I again see that cherished face! thanks that I have been the instrument under Providence of restoring to society its brightest ornament! Be composed, my dear Mrs. Sykes, ask no questions to night, unless you would frustrate all my labors." Then presenting to her lips an opiate, in a short time I had the satisfaction of seeing her sink into a tranquil slumber.

As I considered it all important that the matter should be kept a profound secret till I had arranged my plans; and as Mrs. Tonic had in a remarkable degree that propensity which distinguishes woman—I was under the necessity of making her privy to the whole transaction; trusting that the probable ruin to my reputation consequent on an exposure would effectually bridle her unruly member. My venerable friend too, I invited for a few days to my own mansion lest the bruises he received during his exodus from the dissecting room might have deprived him of his customary caution. The last and most difficult step was to prepare the mind of Mrs. Sykes, who was yet in nubibus as to her new location. With great caution I gradually unfolded the strange event that had just transpired,—her sudden apparent death, the alarm of the village touching the miasma, and the consequent sudden interment. 'Your exit, my dear Mrs. Sykes,' I continued, 'seemed like a dream—I could not realize it. Such an irreparable loss! I thought of all the remedies that had been applied in such cases. Had any thing been omitted that had a tendency to increase the circulation of the radical fluid! There was the Galvanic battery,—it had been entirely overlooked, and yet what wonders it had performed! No sooner had this occurred to my mind than I was impressed with the conviction that you were to revisit this mundane sphere, and that I was the chosen instrument to enkindle the vital spark. No time was lost in obeying this mysterious impulse. The grave was opened, the battery was applied secundem artem—and the result is the restoration to society of our beloved Mrs. Sykes.' In proportion to her horror at the idea, that she must have rested from her labors but for my skill, was her gratitude for this timely rescue. She fell on my neck and clung like one demented, till a gathering frown on the face of my spouse warned me of the necessity of repelling her embraces. Mrs. Sykes was now desirous of returning immediately home, to restore as it were to life her bereaved consort, who was no doubt mourning at his desolation, and refusing to be comforted. But here I felt it my duty to interpose. 'My dear Mrs. Sykes,' said I, 'your return at this moment would overwhelm him. The sudden change from the lowest depths of woe to a state of ecstacy, would consign him to the tenement you have just quitted. No! this extraordinary Providence must be gradually unfolded.' She yielded at last to my sage councils and consented to wait till the violence of his grief had somewhat abated, and his mind had become sufficiently tranquil to hear that tale which I was cautiously to relate. On the following day however, her anxiety to return had risen to a high pitch, and truly by evening it was beyond my control. She was firm in the belief that I could make the disclosure without essential injury to the Deacon; 'besides,' as she remarked, 'there was no knowing how much waste there had been in the kitchen.' It was settled at last that I should immediately walk over to the Deacon's, and by a judicious train of reflection, for which I was admirably fitted, prepare the way for this joyous meeting. When I arrived at the house of mourning, though perhaps the last person in the world entitled to the name of evesdropper, yet as my eye was somewhat askance as I passed the window, I observed a spectacle that for a time arrested my footsteps. There sat the Deacon, recounting probably the virtues of the deceased partner, and there, not far apart, sat the widow Dobble sympathizing in his sorrows. It struck me that Deacon Sykes was not ungrateful for her consolatory efforts; for he took her hand with a gentle pressure and held it to his bosom. Perhaps it was the unusual mode of dress now exhibited by the widow Dobble, that led him to this act; for she was decked out in Mrs. Sykes's best frilled cap, and such is the waywardness of fancy, he might for the moment have imagined that his help-mate was beside him. Be that as it may, while I was thus complacently regarding this interchange of friendly feelings, the cry of 'you vile hussy' suddenly rang in my very ear, and the next instant, the door having been burst open, who should stand before the astonished couple but the veritable Mrs. Sykes. The Deacon leaped as if touched in the pericardium, and essayed to gain the door; but in his transit his knees denied their office, and he sank gibbering as his hand was upon the latch. As to the terrified widow Dobble, I might say with Virgilius, steteruntque comae, her combs stood up; for the frilled cap was displaced with no little violence, and with an agonizing shriek she fell, apparently in articulo mortis, on the body of the Deacon. What a lamentable scene! and all in consequence of the rashness and imprudence of Mrs. Sykes. No sooner had I left my own domicil than Mrs. Sykes, regardless of my admonitions, resolved on following my steps, and was actually peeping over my shoulder at the moment the Deacon's hand came in contact with the widow Dobble's. It was truly fortunate for all concerned that a distinguished member of the faculty was near at this dreadful crisis. In ordinary hands nothing could have prevented a quietus. Their spirits were taking wing, and it was only by extraordinary skill that I effected what lawyer Snoodles said was a complete 'stoppage in transitu.' I regret to state that this was my last visit to Deacon Sykes's. Unmindful of my services in resuscitating Mrs. Sykes, he remarked that my neglect to prepare him for the exceeding joy that was in store, had so far shattered his nervous system that his usefulness was over; and in fine, had built up between us a wall of separation not to be broken down. I always opined, however, and of this opinion was Mrs. Tonic, that the Deacon's coldness arose in part from an incipient warmth for Mrs. Dobble, which was thus checked in its first stages. It was even hinted that on her departure, which took place immediately, he manifested less of resignation than at the burial of Mrs. Sykes. The coldness of the widow Dobble towards me, certainly unmerited, was also no less apparent, till I brought about what I had much at heart, viz: a match between her and Major Popkin. He was a discreet, forehanded man, a Representative to our General Court, and kept the Variety Store in that part of our town that was named in honor of him, 'Popkins's Corner.'