A Sick-Room Anthology


I CAN hear the old doctor’s voice today, cheery and strong, — but not too cheery and not too strong, — just as it sounded years ago, when he stood up and drew on his gloves ready to leave my sick-room. His voice will be one of the first I shall listen for in that world where there are no sick-rooms, and where we are led to believe there is no need for doctors. “Don’t read anything but Mother Goose,” he would say, “and don’t think.”

I was reminded of these words when I saw, not long ago, in the Contributors’ Club, the pathetic story of the poor woman with the sick nerves, who was soothed and comforted by having the recipes from a cook-book read to her hour after hour; and I was also reminded of a long-cherished wish of my own, the compiling of a sick-room anthology.

Since seeing the article in the Atlantic I have heard of another case of the soothing effects of cook-book literature in illness. In this instance the patient was a man, and he insisted upon hearing the entire volume read and re-read, finding it all equally comforting and restful, from the preparing of soup-stock to the compounding of the most intricate dessert. It seemed an odd choice for the man, whose literary taste when well is fastidious in the extreme. But this is only another instance of nature assuming the defensive, as she would more often do if we left ourselves to her. The weary brain knew that it must not think, and instinctively withdrew as far as possible from its own world of ideas.

As to my old doctor’s compound prescription, “Read Mother Goose and don’t think,” I often smiled over it in secret, for to my mind those immortal melodies have always seemed stimulating to thought. They might well serve as models for that sort of impressionistic literature exemplified by the best short stories of modern French authors. In the old rhymes, as in these stories, the scenes are depicted with a few strong strokes, every unnecessary detail omitted, the denouement merely suggested, and all the rest left to the imagination of the reader.

Take for example that wonderful bit of verse,—

“ Hark ! hark ! the dogs do bark,
The beggars are coming to town.
Some in rags and some in shags
And some in velvet gowns.”

This was usually the first to come to my mind (perhaps because I am a lover of dogs) after the good doctor had left me. I would close my eyes, the better to see the picture.

It is always a stormy twilight scene. The rain has ceased, but the sky is gray and swept by clouds. In the west a band of strange yellow light shows just at the horizon. Lights are beginning to appear in distant farmhouses, and here and there in the streets of the town. The town itself is of the mediæval sort, with massive walls, and gates that will soon be closed for the night.

Suddenly a dog begins to bark, — “Hark! hark!” I find myself whispering, — then another and another. What can have stirred them all at once at this quiet hour ? Now and then a door is heard to open, a face inquiring appears at a window. The sense of mystery deepens, the barking grows louder and louder, until all the beloved dog voices I have ever known join in the chorus.

Then a muffled sound, as of the distant trampling of many feet, and down the road they appear, in the strange, stormy light, the beggars coming to town. I can see them now as they looked to my sick fancy; so many of them, of all ages and all sizes, men, women, and little children; some lame and decrepit, clothed in rags and shags quite as conventional beggars should be. But now more mystery, — in the very midst of the raggedest and dirtiest are a few shining ones, dressed in velvet gowns. And here the author shows her genius. Not another word, all the rest is left to the imagination.

Why they were all arriving in this particular town, at this particular hour; how these special ones came by their beautiful gowns, — whether they had been stolen (in which case would some dreadful nemesis overtake the happygo-lucky wearers ?), or whether they had been presented by some philanthropic society for the promotion of the sense of the beautiful in beggars,—all these things we are never told. But what ground for infinite conjecture!

And then, the finale: — did they reach the town, this motley crowd, before the gates were closed ? What did the dogs say then ? what did the people do ? I usually spent a wakeful night inventing different endings for the story.

No, I should never recommend Mother Goose for the invalid with an overwrought brain. And yet there are other ills of the flesh besides nervous exhaustion, — bronchitis, rheumatism, indigestion,— cases where the fancy craves stimulus: and the Anthology must be broad enough to cover these also. We shall have to include the best rhymes of Mother Goose in our volume, together with the best recipes.

When one enters that strange world of the sick-room, hushed and remote, one realizes that it is a place quite apart from the well-world, with an atmosphere of its own. But we must have gone there sometime as an inhabitant, rather than as a casual visitor, to understand fully the needs and ideals of the place. To be the ruling monarch of this kingdom of quiet and order, where the ordinary and possible are set aside for the time being for the extraordinary and impossible, and all on our account,— this is among the compensations of an invalid’s life. One easily becomes an autocrat where one’s slightest wish is humored, and one’s whims and fancies for once in the world are taken seriously. And in compiling our Anthology all this must be borne in mind.

I have read for hours, day after day, in a low, monotonous voice, Browning’s Translation of the Agamemnon, to an invalid, with wonderful results. When everything else failed, the tired eyes would droop and close after a few pages of this poem. Then how one’s heart beat faster and one’s voice trembled with anxiety—would they stay closed? Not if the reading ceased, I found; but if one went on and on without variation of tone the spell continued to work.

So the Agamemnon shall not be left out of my Anthology. Then the Alice in Wonderland rhymes must have a place, and some of Edward Lear’s; and for children, the Canterbury Tales, in the old English, for they like their Chaucer best when they cannot understand all the words, but are soothed and quieted by the swing and rhythm of the verse.

When the Anthology appears we venture to hope that it will come as a great relief to those who make a study of the needs of the sick. Imagine having in one precious volume all, or many, of the welltried bits of remedial literature.

The success of the book, however, will depend largely upon the skill and tact with which it is used. The question as to what selection from the sick-room Anthology shall be prescribed in a critical case wall surely rank in importance with the prescriptions for medicine and diet. Shall it be left for the doctor to decide, or the nurse ?

Perhaps a good suggestion would be to choose — in that world where all the rules of the game are reversed — just the one thing the patient would not care for when well. For your professional man the soothing monotony of long-tried recipes — which would drive a housekeeper mad; for your middle-aged people, not suffering from nervous exhaustion, the stimulating charm of the Mother Goose stories, or the rhymes from Alice in Wonderland; for your little child the sonorous verse of the old classics; and each and every one read in just the right way, by just the one voice in the world the sick person most cares to hear.