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The Enthusiast in Anatomy by John Oxenford

The youth whom we shall call "Tom"—and nothing but "Tom," was one of those individuals who labor with a fierce, burning anxiety to burst through the trammels imposed upon them by a limited education,—one of those votaries of science, whose energy seems to grow all the more, because it has nothing to feed upon. He was very slightly formed, and had eyes so bright and shining that when one gazed on him, one was inclined to overlook all his other thin, sharply defined features. Never was there a more complete appearance of a clear intelligence in a corporeal form.

The few half-pence which Tom was enabled to save from his scanty earnings at a laborious trade, he regularly expended at the bookstall; and on one occasion was highly delighted at picking up a small book on anatomy. The work was one of those that had long been superseded by more modern and better treatises, and the little plates were as ill and coarsely done as possible. Nevertheless, with him it had not the disadvantage of comparison. He thought it a mine of science yet unexplored, and he suffered his whole soul to be absorbed by it.

In a few weeks he had transferred the entire contents of the work into his own brain; and though he invariably carried the book in his pocket, it was more out of respect to it, as an old friend, than from any further benefit to be derived from it. The names of eery bone, cartilage, ligament, and muscle of which he had read, were deeply imprinted in his mind; and he could have passed with glory through the sharpest examination, provided it had been based on the contents of the little book.

But Tom, in spite of his knowledge, was too intelligent not to perceive the defective state of his acquirements. He soon felt that his anatomy was after all, a science of names, rather than of things—that though he could have described accurately all the intricate bones of the skull, and all the muscles of the extremities, his descriptions would have been little more than a repetition of words committed to memory. He had not seen a single real object connected with his science. If he could but have set eyes upon a skeleton, what an advantage it would have been.

We once read of a celebrated anatomist, who, far from admiring human beauty, regarded the skin, as an impertinent obstacle to the acquisition of science, concealing, as it does, the play of the muscles. Whether such a clear notion as this ever entered the mind of our hero, we cannot say, but certainly if some tall, lean beggar passed him on the road, he would clutch convulsively at his knife, and follow the man with a sad, wistful look.

One autumnal evening he sat in the ale-house parlor, watching the smoke of his pipe, and indulging in his own reflections; for though the conversation in the room was noisy and animated, it had no interest for him. Devoted to his own pursuits, births, deaths and marriages were to him things of nought, and he paid no heed to the constant discussions which were held in the village, on the extraordinary case of old Ebenezer Grindstone, who had been thought extremely rich, but in whose house not a farthing had been found after his decease, to the great disappointment of his creditors.

Soon, however, there was such a violent dash of rain against the window, that even Tom was compelled to start, when he saw the door open, and a stranger enter, completely muffled in a cloak. The new comer stood before the fire as if to dry himself, and seemed to be of the same taciturn disposition as Tom, for he made no answer to the different questions that were addressed to him, nor did he even condescend to look at the speakers. The shower having ceased, the moon shining brightly through the window, the stranger walked out again, without the sign of leave-taking.

"That be a queer chap," said the ostler, "I'll run and see where he's going," and he followed the stranger, who had awakened a curiosity in every one except Tom. Scarcely five minutes had elapsed, when the ostler rushed into the room, pale as death.

"Udds buddikins!" said he, and it was not before a glass of spirits had been poured down his throat, that he could state the cause of his alarm. "Old chap just gone out got no proper face like—only a death's head—he just looked around on me in the moonlight."

"Do you mean to say," exclaimed Tom, "that he is nothing but a skeleton?"

"Aye, sure I do," said the ostler.

"And which way did he go?"

"Why, towards the church-yard, sure," said the ostler. Tom waited for no more, but, dashing down his pipe, he rushed out of the room, and tore along the road to the churchyard. When he had got there, he saw the stranger standing by the tomb of old Ebenezer Grindstone. The moon was shining full upon him, and, as Tom approached, the cloak fell down, leaving nothing but a bare skeleton before him.

"Thank my stars!" exclaimed Tom, "I have seen a skeleton at last!"

"Young man!" said the skeleton, in a hollow voice, while it hideously moved its jaws, "attend!"

"How beautifully," cried Tom, enraptured, "can I see the play of the lower maxillary!"

"Attend!" repeated the skeleton; "but, rash man! what are you about?" it added, turning suddenly round. The fact is, Tom was running his fingers down the vertebrae, and counting to see if their number corresponded with that given in his book. "Seven cervical, twelve dorsal!" he cried with immense glee.

The skeleton lost all patience, and, raising its arm, shook its fist angrily at Tom, who, with his eyes fixed on the elbow, merely shouted his joy, at perceiving the "ginglymoid" movement.

The skeleton, who had been accustomed to terrify other people, was completely amazed at the scientific position taken by the young anatomist. In fact, the most extraordinary scene that can be conceived presently occurred; for the apparition, feeling panic-struck at Tom's coolness and scientific spirit, darted away from him, and endeavored to escape by dodging among the tomb-stones. Tom was too anxious to pursue his studies to allow himself to be baffled in this way; and putting forth all his strength, soon overtook the skeleton, and held him tight, a conversation ensued, in the course of which the skeleton explained that he was old Grindstone himself, who had buried a quantity of money underground, and could not rest in peace till it was dug up and distributed among the creditors. This office he requested Tom to perform.

"It will be some trouble," said Tom, "and the affair is none of mine— but lookye—I'm willing to comply with your request, if, as a reward, you will allow me to come and study you every night for the next month. You may then retire to rest for as long a time as you please."

"Agreed," said the skeleton; and, quite recovered from his alarm, he shook hands with Tom in ratification of the bargain.

Tom found the money, distributed it among the creditors, and passed every night for the next month in the old churchyard, observing his beloved skeleton, which as it moved into any position he desired, gave him an opportunity of studying the motion of the bones, in a way that had not been enjoyed by any other anatomist.

The young enthusiast, sitting at midnight with the strange assistant to his pursuits, would have been a delightful sight, had any one possessed the courage to stop and look at the party. When the month had expired, Tom and his good friend shook hands and parted with great regret; but Tom had completely retained in his mind all he had seen and laid the foundation of that profound anatomical science by which he was afterwards so much distinguished.

It is needless to add that this is the true account of the early career of the celebrated Dr.——, and that all others are baseless fabrications.

JOHN OXENFORD.