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Chapter 61

THE SURGEON OF THE FLEET.

Cadwallader Cuticle, M. D., and Honorary Member of the most
distinguished Colleges of Surgeons both in Europe and America,
was our Surgeon of the Fleet. Nor was he at all blind to the
dignity of his position; to which, indeed, he was rendered
peculiarly competent, if the reputation he enjoyed was deserved.
He had the name of being the foremost Surgeon in the Navy, a
gentleman of remarkable science, and a veteran practitioner.

He was a small, withered man, nearly, perhaps quite, sixty years
of age. His chest was shallow, his shoulders bent, his pantaloons
hung round skeleton legs, and his face was singularly attenuated.
In truth, the corporeal vitality of this man seemed, in a good
degree, to have died out of him. He walked abroad, a curious
patch-work of life and death, with a wig, one glass eye, and a
set of false teeth, while his voice was husky and thick; but his
mind seemed undebilitated as in youth; it shone out of his
remaining eye with basilisk brilliancy.

Like most old physicians and surgeons who have seen much service,
and have been promoted to high professional place for their
scientific attainments, this Cuticle was an enthusiast in his
calling. In private, he had once been heard to say, confidentially,
that he would rather cut off a man's arm than dismember the wing of
the most delicate pheasant. In particular, the department of Morbid
Anatomy was his peculiar love; and in his state-room below he had a
most unsightly collection of Parisian casts, in plaster and wax,
representing all imaginable malformations of the human members, both
organic and induced by disease. Chief among these was a cast, often
to be met with in the Anatomical Museums of Europe, and no doubt an
unexaggerated copy of a genuine original; it was the head of an
elderly woman, with an aspect singularly gentle and meek, but at the
same time wonderfully expressive of a gnawing sorrow, never to be
relieved. You would almost have thought it the face of some abbess,
for some unspeakable crime voluntarily sequestered from human
society, and leading a life of agonised penitence without hope; so
marvellously sad and tearfully pitiable was this head. But when you
first beheld it, no such emotions ever crossed your mind. All your
eyes and all your horrified soul were fast fascinated and frozen by
the sight of a hideous, crumpled horn, like that of a ram, downward
growing out from the forehead, and partly shadowing the face; but as
you gazed, the freezing fascination of its horribleness gradually
waned, and then your whole heart burst with sorrow, as you
contemplated those aged features, ashy pale and wan. The horn seemed
the mark of a curse for some mysterious sin, conceived and committed
before the spirit had entered the flesh. Yet that sin seemed something
imposed, and not voluntarily sought; some sin growing out of the
heartless necessities of the predestination of things; some sin under
which the sinner sank in sinless woe.

But no pang of pain, not the slightest touch of concern, ever
crossed the bosom of Cuticle when he looked on this cast. It was
immovably fixed to a bracket, against the partition of his state-
room, so that it was the first object that greeted his eyes when
he opened them from his nightly sleep. Nor was it to hide the face,
that upon retiring, he always hung his Navy cap upon the upward
curling extremity of the horn, for that obscured it but little.

The Surgeon's cot-boy, the lad who made up his swinging bed and
took care of his room, often told us of the horror he sometimes
felt when he would find himself alone in his master's retreat. At
times he was seized with the idea that Cuticle was a preternatural
being; and once entering his room in the middle watch of the night,
he started at finding it enveloped in a thick, bluish vapour, and
stifling with the odours of brimstone. Upon hearing a low groan
from the smoke, with a wild cry he darted from the place, and,
rousing the occupants of the neighbouring state-rooms, it was
found that the vapour proceeded from smouldering bunches of lucifer
matches, which had become ignited through the carelessness of the
Surgeon. Cuticle, almost dead, was dragged from the suffocating
atmosphere, and it was several days ere he completely recovered
from its effects. This accident took place immediately over the
powder magazine; but as Cuticle, during his sickness, paid dearly
enough for transgressing the laws prohibiting combustibles in the
gun-room, the Captain contented himself with privately remonstrating
with him.

Well knowing the enthusiasm of the Surgeon for all specimens of
morbid anatomy, some of the ward-room officers used to play upon
his credulity, though, in every case, Cuticle was not long in
discovering their deceptions. Once, when they had some sago
pudding for dinner, and Cuticle chanced to be ashore, they made
up a neat parcel of this bluish-white, firm, jelly-like
preparation, and placing it in a tin box, carefully sealed with
wax, they deposited it on the gun-room table, with a note,
purporting to come from an eminent physician in Rio, connected
with the Grand National Museum on the Praca d' Acclamacao,
begging leave to present the scientific Senhor Cuticle--with the
donor's compliments--an uncommonly fine specimen of a cancer.

Descending to the ward-room, Cuticle spied the note, and no
sooner read it, than, clutching the case, he opened it, and
exclaimed, "Beautiful! splendid! I have never seen a finer
specimen of this most interesting disease."

"What have you there, Surgeon Cuticle?" said a Lieutenant, advancing.

"Why, sir, look at it; did you ever see anything more exquisite?"

"Very exquisite indeed; let me have a bit of it, will you, Cuticle?"

"Let you have a bit of it!" shrieked the Surgeon, starting back.
"Let you have one of my limbs! I wouldn't mar so large a specimen
for a hundred dollars; but what can you want of it? You are not
making collections!"

"I'm fond of the article," said the Lieutenant; "it's a fine cold
relish to bacon or ham. You know, I was in New Zealand last
cruise, Cuticle, and got into sad dissipation there among the
cannibals; come, let's have a bit, if it's only a mouthful."

"Why, you infernal Feejee!" shouted Cuticle, eyeing the other
with a confounded expression; "you don't really mean to eat a
piece of this cancer?"

"Hand it to me, and see whether I will not," was the reply.

"In God's name, take it!" cried the Surgeon, putting the case
into his hands, and then standing with his own uplifted.

"Steward!" cried the Lieutenant, "the castor--quick! I always use
plenty of pepper with this dish, Surgeon; it's oystery. Ah! this
is really delicious," he added, smacking his lips over a
mouthful. "Try it now, Surgeon, and you'll never keep such a
fine dish as this, lying uneaten on your hands, as a mere
scientific curiosity."

Cuticle's whole countenance changed; and, slowly walking up to
the table, he put his nose close to the tin case, then touched
its contents with his finger and tasted it. Enough. Buttoning up
his coat, in all the tremblings of an old man's rage he burst
from the ward-room, and, calling for a boat, was not seen again
for twenty-four hours.

But though, like all other mortals, Cuticle was subject at times
to these fits of passion--at least under outrageous provocation--
nothing could exceed his coolness when actually employed in his
imminent vocation. Surrounded by moans and shrieks, by features
distorted with anguish inflicted by himself, he yet maintained a
countenance almost supernaturally calm; and unless the intense
interest of the operation flushed his wan face with a momentary
tinge of professional enthusiasm, he toiled away, untouched by
the keenest misery coming under a fleet-surgeon's eye. Indeed,
long habituation to the dissecting-room and the amputation-table
had made him seemingly impervious to the ordinary emotions of
humanity. Yet you could not say that Cuticle was essentially a
cruel-hearted man. His apparent heartlessness must have been of a
purely scientific origin. It is not to be imagined even that
Cuticle would have harmed a fly, unless he could procure a
microscope powerful enough to assist him in experimenting on the
minute vitals of the creature.

But notwithstanding his marvellous indifference to the sufferings
of his patients, and spite even of his enthusiasm in his
vocation--not cooled by frosting old age itself--Cuticle, on some
occasions, would effect a certain disrelish of his profession,
and declaim against the necessity that forced a man of his
humanity to perform a surgical operation. Especially was it apt
to be thus with him, when the case was one of more than ordinary
interest. In discussing it previous to setting about it, he would
veil his eagerness under an aspect of great circumspection,
curiously marred, however, by continual sallies of unsuppressible
impatience. But the knife once in his hand, the compassionless
surgeon himself, undisguised, stood before you. Such was
Cadwallader Cuticle, our Surgeon of the Fleet.

 

Herman Melville