Excerpt from “Trixy: A Novel” by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

Saturday, April 24 marks World Day for Laboratory Animals. “Instituted in 1979, World Day for Laboratory Animals has been a catalyst for the movement to end the suffering of animals in laboratories around the world and their replacement with advanced scientific non-animal techniques.” Today, NUP would like to share an excerpt from Trixy: A Novel by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, edited by Emily E. VanDette (October 2019).

Trixy is a 1904 novel by the best-selling but largely forgotten American author and women’s rights activist Elizabeth Stuart Phelps. The book decries the then common practice of vivisection, or scientific experiments on live animals. In Trixy, contemporary readers can trace the roots of the early animal rights movement in Phelps’s influential campaign to introduce legislation to regulate or end this practice. Phelps not only presents a narrative polemic against the cruelty of vivisection but argues that training young doctors in it makes them bad physicians. Emily E. VanDette’s introduction demonstrates that Phelps’s protest writing, which included fiction, pamphlets, essays, and speeches, was well ahead of its time.

The sun struggled to enter the windows of the lecture-room. The tall adjoining building prevented this. The shaft of light stopped on the window sill, and wavered with an uncertain and troubled air.

It was November, and one bare bough from a neighboring tree pointed straight at the glass. Beyond, the sky was blue and beneficent. The wind was quietly rising, and the bough moved like a finger extended in silent admonition.

Some such thought as this occurred to the second student in the tenth row. The lecture-room was in the form of an amphitheatre, the seats rising in tiers. Young Steele could see the professor’s desk and table quite distinctly, as, in fact, could every man in the room. Our student was twenty-one. He was rather a handsome fellow in his way, with a good head, and forehead well developed over the eyes. These were gray and kindly, but set a little near together. His face was more finished than the faces of the students about him. His mouth was not coarse, and his features were agreeable. He had the bearing of good birth and breeding. At this time he was not destitute of imagination, and his heart surged with the fervors of youth and of science. He was at the beginning of his professional career. He had graduated at a neighboring college with honors, not five months ago. He had been but a few weeks a member of the medical school. His studies up to this time had been of a rather pleasant, preliminary nature. He had made as yet no friends in the upper classes, and few in his own, so that he knew little of what was going on in other parts of the building.

Olin Steele had not chosen his profession lightly. He was capable of ideals, and at this period of his life he cherished them. Nor had he abandoned what is known as religious aspiration. By healing men’s bodies, he meant to heal their souls. How could human utility rise to finer heights? By nature gentle and tender, he felt that he loved science for her nobler possibilities, and would rejoice in all those investigations in which he elected to be led. To this lad, life was not only sacred, it was adorable. The vital spark was the bond between God and man. To preserve this bond he believed to be a holy privilege. Steele considered himself fortunately fitted for the profession which he had chosen. He was like a worshiper between whom and his idol a faint cloud floats. His attitude towards his calling was at once aesthetic and devout. His professor was his high priest.

The lecture-room was filling rapidly. The boys came in laughing and talking. Some had their cigarettes in their mouths, for the professor had not yet arrived. There was a certain tension in the air that would have been noticeable to a fine observer. Some of the students had a constrained look, and others exhibited a species of nervousness.

Olin Steele sat very quietly. Now and then he glanced at the door by which the lecturer would enter. Some of the fellows chaffed him for his silence, but he scarcely replied. He was absorbed in the subject of the morning’s lecture.

He was aroused from his reverie by a small, sharp pain in his neck. A broadside of laughter from the students brought him to his full senses. He then became aware that he was at once scratched and caressed. A little claw clung to his collar, and something fuzzy and soft nestled under his ear. Putting up his hand with the instinct to protect the small, he clutched a puff of warm life, and was greeted in return by a little purr.

“What the—” began Steele. “Who’s putting kittens down my back?”

He turned completely around, and his eyes met those of a classmate who regarded him mockingly. The newcomer was short, ill-favored, and muscular. His hair was red and coarse, and stood up like a broom from his forehead. His eyebrows and lashes were too pale to be visible. His complexion was muddy, his ears prominent, and his mouth low.

“Oh, it’s you, is it, Bernard? I might have known it,” said Steele without cordiality. At the same moment he drew the kitten from his neck to his lap, and began to stroke it. He was rather fond of cats, and the kitten knew it. It began to purr loudly. It was a beautiful maltese kitten, clean and well-brushed; a broad pink ribbon was tied around its gray neck.

“What’s this?” demanded Steele, “a class mascot? Where shall we keep it? Where did you get it, Bernard?”

“Oh,” said Bernard, “I—it—I picked it up; that is, it followed me.”

“Couldn’t keep away from you?” suggested one of the fellows. “Where did it matriculate?” asked another.

“Never you mind,” retorted Bernard, with an unpleasant wink. “It will matriculater.”

The kitten was now quite at home with Steele, who began to analyze his classmate’s pun with vague apprehension. Olin’s hand closed over the little creature protectingly. With a sinuous motion it turned on its back, and daintily began to claw. It exhibited all the graceful and exasperating coquetry of its race. It withdrew, it challenged, it kissed, it purred, it scratched, with that bewildering inconsistency which makes a kitten the most fascinating and inconsequent creature in the animal kingdom.

“What are you going to do with it?” asked Steele abruptly.

The students had now formed a circle about him, and the kitten looked confidingly from face to face.

“Oh, I don’t know,” replied Bernard. “I haven’t made up my mind.”

“I understand we’re short of material,” observed a man carelessly. “The frogs have struck.”

“What!” cried Steele.

Several hands had stretched out to caress the kitten, who, pleased with the hospitality of the lecture-room, was now playing from shoulder to shoulder, like a squirrel from bough to bough.

“Let me have it.” Steele got to his feet.

“No, you don’t!” replied Bernard. “Whose cat is it, anyhow?” “Not yours!” said Steele quickly. “Tell me where you got it. I’ll take it back. It must live right around here. It is a lady’s pet. Look at the ribbon!—Let me have it!” urged Steele, appealing from Bernard to the students.

These glanced from the happy kitten to their red-headed classmate doubtfully. Over their faces warring expressions chased. Most of them looked troubled and sorry.

“Oh, come off, Bernard,” said one of the fellows. “Let him have the cat!”

The speaker held the kitten towards Steele’s outstretched hands; but Bernard’s cold fingers, interrupting, closed upon the little shrinking creature.

“I’ll take care of it,” he said sullenly.

The kitten hesitated a moment, and then looked into the young man’s mutinous face, and purred insinuatingly.

“There!” cried Steele, dropping to his seat. “It trusts you. Now take it back.”

His clouded face cleared as Bernard turned away. When the kitten was taken from the room, some of the students applauded slightly; others exchanged significant looks, and were silent.

The room was now full. The lecturer was already overdue. He appeared suddenly in a fresh, white blouse. He began to talk at once, without any preliminaries, upon the subject of the day.

It was the first time that the class had met the professor of physiology in the amphitheatre, and they were singularly attentive. The subject of the lecture was elementary, and one which textbooks have always amply illustrated.

Steele listened conscientiously. He had been a high-honor man, and his industrious pencil flew over his notebook. He did not find the topic abstruse, and he was rather disappointed at its simplicity. He glanced at some of the nearest students to see if the subject seemed as clear to them. Meanwhile Bernard had returned to the room, and had resumed his seat, which was directly behind Steele. The kitten was gone, and Steele drew a breath of relief. His eyes sought the window, and he noticed that the November sun had clouded. The wind had now risen, and the bare bough knocked on the glass. A pair of white pigeons flew across, and one of them, pausing, dropped to the sill of the window, and seemed to peer for a moment into the room.

“Look at the dove!” whispered one of the boys.

“That’s no dove. That’s a pigeon,” sneered Bernard, from behind.

The professor, annoyed by the whisperings paused and shot a reproving glance at the class. The white bird flew away.

“And now, gentlemen,” continued the professor, “we have reached a point in our studies where experimental illustration becomes a clear necessity. I have endeavored up to this time to impress upon your minds the fundamental nature of the great discovery with which we deal. I have tried to show you how”—he proceeded to explain learnedly what he had tried to do. “But,” he pursued, “in our profession, gentlemen, unsupported theory—I might add, unsupported fact—may confuse the mind of the student more than it enlightens. I have now been lecturing to you for half an hour upon this basic principle, yet probably many of you, possibly most of you, have received but an obscure impression of the beautiful workings of this great law. Gentlemen, am I right? Is this not so?”

“Yes, sir!” came from various parts of the room.

Steele looked about him with a touch of intellectual scorn on his parted lips.

“Why, no, sir,” he said respectfully. “If you will excuse me for saying so, I have found your explanation of the subject remarkably clear. I think I understand it.”

“I should like to see it demonstrated,” interpolated Bernard, in a strident voice.

The professor smiled blandly. He paused, laid aside his notes, and beckoned to his assistant. This person left the room, and passed into the adjoining laboratory. The professor examined his instruments and apparatus. He touched them with deft and craving fingers.

“Ah, gentlemen,” he announced with an expression of something like pleasure, “here is our subject.”

The laboratory door opened silently. The returning assistant, who held something before him in his outstretched hands, reached the professor’s table before young Steele had seen what the man carried. Half a hundred students caught their breaths. It was their first experience of this sort, and most of them were still soft, kind-hearted lads, fresh from their homes, where dogs sprang down the doorsteps to meet them, and kittens played with skeins of yarn held on mother’s or on sisters’ hands.

But Steele, unconscious that he did so, got to his feet. His face had blanched. His lips, drawn over his teeth, quivered. A vein in his temple throbbed.

Before him, on the operating board, strapped down, lay a little downy form. Seeing it in its unnatural position, one’s sense of its beauty gave way to a sense of its color and size. The kitten was gray and small. It seemed to Steele’s horrified eyes the smallest kitten he had ever seen. By some mistake on the part of the assistant, a ribbon, caught under the body of the animal, hung over the edge of the board. This ribbon was pink.

“No! No!” gasped Steele. “Not that one!”

“Oh, shut up, and sit down!” growled Bernard from behind.

But Steele did not sit down. He swayed slightly on his feet. A sick faintness surged upon him. Every fibre of his body and soul protested. For the medical student had a soul, and it was young and sensitive.

The professor, who had been regarding his subject critically, now took up his instruments. Steele stood staring. The kitten swam before his gaze. It seemed to him to turn its eyes (for it could not turn its head) towards him. He felt that it sought protection of him. He wheeled, and scorched Bernard with a look. The room grew dark about him, and he made for the door.

“Damn you!” he said.

Swaying and groping, he tried the handle. The door was locked. The professor laid down his instruments. In taking up this department with his junior classes he was not without experience in the reflex action of unsullied natures. He was always considerate of this juvenile weakness which he knew that time and himself would train away.

“Go for the janitor,” he whispered to his assistant. “The boy is ill. Let him out.”

Excerpted from Trixy: A Novel by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, edited by Emily E. VanDette.

ELIZABETH STUART PHELPS (1844–1911) wrote more than fifty works of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Throughout her entire career, Phelps infused her writings with her social consciousness; she was best known for challenging traditional gender roles, including her advocacy for women’s clothing reform, and for her stance against vivisection.
EMILY E. VANDETTE is an associate professor of English at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

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