The Stark Munro Letters, by Arthur Conan Doyle

XIII. OAKLEY VILLAS, BIRCHESPOOL, 12th June, 1882.

When I wrote my last letter, my dear Bertie, I was still gasping, like a cod on a sand-bank, after my final dismissal by Cullingworth. The mere setting of it all down in black and white seemed to clear the matter up, and I felt much more cheery by the time I had finished my letter. I was just addressing the envelope (observe what a continuous narrative you get of my proceedings!) when I was set jumping out of my carpet slippers by a ring at the bell. Through the glass panel I observed that it was a respectable-looking bearded individual with a top-hat. It was a patient. It MUST be a patient! Then first I realised what an entirely different thing it is to treat the patient of another man (as I had done with Horton) or to work a branch of another man’s practice (as I had done with Cullingworth), and to have to do with a complete stranger on your own account. I had been thrilling to have one. Now that he had come I felt for an instant as if I would not open the door. But of course that was only a momentary weakness. I answered his ring with, I fear, rather a hypocritical air of insouciance, as though I had happened to find myself in the hall, and did not care to trouble the maid to ascend the stairs.

“Dr. Stark Munro?” he asked.

“Pray step in,” I answered, and waved him into the consulting-room. He was a pompous, heavy-stepping, thick-voiced sort of person, but to me he was an angel from on high. I was nervous, and at the same time so afraid that he should detect my nervousness and lose confidence in me, that I found myself drifting into an extravagant geniality. He seated himself at my invitation and gave a husky cough.

“Ah,” said I— I always prided myself on being quick at diagnosis —“bronchial, I perceive. These summer colds are a little trying.”

“Yes,” said he. “I’ve had it some time.”

“With a little care and treatment ——” I suggested.

He did not seem sanguine, but groaned and shook his head. “It’s not about that I’ve come,” said he.

“No?” My heart turned to lead.

“No, doctor.” He took out a bulging notebook. “It’s about a small sum that’s due on the meter.”

You’ll laugh, Bertie, but it was no laughing matter to me. He wanted eight and sixpence on account of something that the last tenant either had or had not done. Otherwise the company would remove the gas-meter. How little he could have guessed that the alternative he was presenting to me was either to pay away more than half my capital, or to give up cooking my food! I at last appeased him by a promise that I should look into the matter, and so escaped for the moment, badly shaken but still solvent. He gave me a good deal of information about the state of his tubes (his own, not the gas company’s) before he departed; but I had rather lost interest in the subject since I had learned that he was being treated by his club doctor.

That was the first of my morning incidents. My second followed hard upon the heels of it. Another ring came, and from my post of observation I saw that a gipsy’s van, hung with baskets and wickerwork chairs, had drawn up at the door. Two or three people appeared to be standing outside. I understood that they wished me to purchase some of their wares, so I merely opened the door about three inches, said “No, thank you,” and closed it. They seemed not to have heard me for they rang again, upon which I opened the door wider and spoke more decidedly. Imagine my surprise when they rang again. I flung the door open, and was about to ask them what they meant by their impudence, when one of the little group upon my doorstep said, “If you please, sir, it’s the baby.” Never was there such a change — from the outraged householder to the professional man. “Pray step in, madam,” said I, in quite my most courtly style; and in they all came — the husband, the brother, the wife and the baby. The latter was in the early stage of measles. They were poor outcast sort of people, and seemed not to have sixpence among them; so my demands for a fee at the end of the consultation ended first in my giving the medicine for nothing, and finally adding fivepence in coppers, which was all the small change I had. A few more such patients and I am a broken man.

However, the two incidents together had the effect of taking up my attention and breaking the blow which I had had in the Cullingworth letter. It made me laugh to think that the apparent outsider should prove to be a patient, and the apparent patient an outsider. So back I went, in a much more judicial frame of mind, to read that precious document over again, and to make up my mind what it was that I should do.

And now I came to my first real insight into the depths which lie in the character of Cullingworth. I began by trying to recall how I could have torn up my mother’s letters, for it is not usual for me to destroy papers in this manner. I have often been chaffed about the way in which I allow them to accumulate until my pockets become unbearable. The more I thought about it the more convinced I was that I could not have done anything of the sort; so finally I got out the little house jacket which I had usually worn at Bradfield, and I examined the sheaves of letters which it contained. It was there, Bertie! Almost the very first one that I opened was the identical one from which Cullingworth was quoting in which my mother had described him in those rather forcible terms.

Well, this made me sit down and gasp. I am, I think, one of the most unsuspicious men upon earth, and through a certain easy-going indolence of disposition I never even think of the possibility of those with whom I am brought in contact trying to deceive me. It does not occur to me. But let me once get on that line of thought — let me have proof that there is reason for suspicion — and then all faith slips completely away from me. Now I could see an explanation for much which had puzzled me at Bradfield. Those sudden fits of ill temper, the occasional ill-concealed animosity of Cullingworth — did they not mark the arrival of each of my mother’s letters? I was convinced that they did. He had read them then — read them from the pockets of the little house coat which I used to leave carelessly in the hall when I put on my professional one to go out. I could remember, for example, how at the end of his illness his manner had suddenly changed on the very day when that final letter of my mother’s had arrived. Yes, it was certain that he had read them from the beginning.

But a blacker depth of treachery lay beyond. If he had read them, and if he had been insane enough to think that I was acting disloyally towards him, why had he not said so at the time? Why had he contented himself with sidelong scowls and quarrelling over trivialities — breaking, too, into forced smiles when I had asked him point blank what was the matter? One obvious reason was that he could not tell his grievance without telling also how he had acquired his information. But I knew enough of Cullingworth’s resource to feel that he could easily have got over such a difficulty as that. In fact, in this last letter he HAD got over it by his tale about the grate and the maid. He must have had some stronger reason for restraint. As I thought over the course of our relations I was convinced that his scheme was to lure me on by promises until I had committed myself, and then to abandon me, so that I should myself have no resource but to compound with my creditors-to be, in fact, that which my mother had called him.

But in that case he must have been planning it out almost from the beginning of my stay with him, for my mother’s letters stigmatising his conduct had begun very early. For some time he had been uncertain how to proceed. Then he had invented the excuse (which seemed to me at the time, if you remember, to be quite inadequate) about the slight weekly decline in the practice in order to get me out of it. His next move was to persuade me to start for myself; and as this would be impossible without money, he had encouraged me to it by the promise of a small weekly loan. I remembered how he had told me not to be afraid about ordering furniture and other things, because tradesmen gave long credit to beginners, and I could always fall back upon him if necessary. He knew too from his own experience that the landlord would require at least a year’s tenancy. Then he waited to spring his mine until I had written to say that I had finally committed myself, on which by return of post came his letter breaking the connection. It was so long and so elaborate a course of deceit, that I for the first time felt something like fear as I thought of Cullingworth. It was as though in the guise and dress of a man I had caught a sudden glimpse of something sub-human — of something so outside my own range of thought that I was powerless against it.

Well, I wrote him a little note — only a short one, but with, I hope, a bit of a barb to it. I said that his letter had been a source of gratification to me, as it removed the only cause for disagreement between my mother and myself. She had always thought him a blackguard, and I had always defended him; but I was forced now to confess that she had been right from the beginning. I said enough to show him that I saw through his whole plot; and I wound up by assuring him that if he thought he had done me any harm he had made a great mistake; for I had every reason to believe that he had unintentionally forced me into the very opening which I had most desired myself.

After this bit of bravado I felt better, and I thought over the situation. I was alone in a strange town, without connections, without introductions, with less than a pound in my pocket, and with no possibility of freeing myself from my responsibilities. I had no one at all to look to for help, for all my recent letters from home had given a dreary account of the state of things there. My poor father’s health and his income were dwindling together. On the other hand, I reflected that there were some points in my favour. I was young. I was energetic. I had been brought up hard, and was quite prepared to rough it. I was well up in my work, and believed I could get on with patients. My house was an excellent one for my purpose, and I had already put the essentials of furniture into it. The game was not played out yet. I jumped to my feet and clenched my hand, and swore to the chandelier that it never should be played out until I had to beckon for help from the window.

For the next three days I had not a single ring at the bell of any sort whatever. A man could not be more isolated from his kind. It used to amuse me to sit upstairs and count how many of the passers-by stopped to look at my plate. Once (on a Sunday morning) there were over a hundred in an hour, and often I could see from their glancing over their shoulders as they walked on, that they were thinking or talking of the new doctor.

This used to cheer me up, and make me feel that something was going on.

Every night between nine and ten I slip out and do my modest shopping, having already made my MENU for the coming day. I come back usually with a loaf of bread, a paper of fried fish, or a bundle of saveloys. Then when I think things are sufficiently quiet, I go out and brush down the front with my broom, leaning it against the wall and looking up meditatively at the stars whenever anyone passes. Then, later still, I bring out my polishing paste, my rag, and my chamois leather; and I assure you that if practice went by the brilliancy of one’s plate, I should sweep the town.

Who do you think was the first person who broke this spell of silence? The ruffian whom I had fought under the lamp-post. He is a scissors-grinder it seems, and rang to know if I had a job for him. I could not help grinning at him when I opened the door and saw who it was. He showed no sign of recognising me, however, which is hardly to be wondered at.

The next comer was a real bona fide patient, albeit a very modest one. She was a little anaemic old maid, a chronic hypochondriac I should judge, who had probably worked her way round every doctor in the town, and was anxious to sample this novelty. I don’t know whether I gave her satisfaction. She said that she would come again on Wednesday, but her eyes shifted as she said it. One and sixpence was as much as she could pay, but it was very welcome. I can live three days on one and sixpence.

I think that I have brought economy down to its finest point. No doubt, for a short spell I could manage to live on a couple of pence a day; but what I am doing now is not to be a mere spurt, but my regular mode of life for many a month to come. My tea and sugar and milk (Swiss) come collectively to one penny a day. The loaf is at twopence three-farthings, and I consume one a day. My dinner consists in rotation of one third of a pound of bacon, cooked over the gas (twopence halfpenny), or two saveloys (twopence), or two pieces of fried fish (twopence), or a quarter of an eightpenny tin of Chicago beef (twopence). Any one of these, with a due allowance of bread and water, makes a most substantial meal. Butter I have discarded for the present. My actual board therefore comes well under sixpence a day, but I am a patron of literature to the extent of a halfpenny a day, which I expend upon an evening paper; for with events hurrying on like this in Alexandria, I cannot bear to be without the news. Still I often reproach myself with that halfpenny, for if I went out in the evening and looked at the placards I might save it, and yet have a general idea of what is going on. Of course, a halfpenny a night sounds nothing, but think of a shilling a month! Perhaps you picture me as bloodless and pulled down on this diet! I am thin, it is true, but I never felt more fit in my life. So full of energy am I that I start off sometimes at ten at night and walk hard until two or three in the morning. I dare not go out during the day, you see, for fear that I should miss a patient. I have asked my mother not to send little Paul down yet until I see my way more clearly.

Old Whitehall came in to see me the other day. The object of his visit was to invite me to dinner, and the object of the dinner to inaugurate my starting in practice. If I were the kind old fellow’s son he could not take a deeper interest in me and my prospects.

“By ——, Dr. Munro, sir,” said he, “I’ve asked every —— man in Birchespool that’s got anything the matter with him. You’ll have the lot as patients within a week. There’s Fraser, who’s got a touch of Martell’s three star. He’s coming. And there’s Saunders, who talks about nothing but his spleen. I’m sick of his —— spleen! But I asked him. And there’s Turpey’s wound! This wet weather sets it tingling, and his own surgeon can do nothing but dab it with vaseline. He’ll be there. And there’s Carr, who is drinking himself to death. He has not much for the doctors, but what there is you may as well have.”

All next day he kept popping in to ask me questions about the dinner. Should we have clear soup or ox-tail? Didn’t I think that burgundy was better than port and sherry? The day after was the celebration itself, and he was in with a bulletin immediately after breakfast. The cooking was to be done at a neighbouring confectioner’s. The landlady’s son was coming in to wait. I was sorry to see that Whitehall was already slurring his words together, and had evidently been priming himself heavily. He looked in again in the afternoon to tell me what a good time we should have. So-and-so could talk well, and the other man could sing a song. He was so far gone by now, that I ventured (in the capacity of medical adviser) to speak to him about it.

It’s not the liquor, Dr. Munro, sir,” said he earnestly. It’s the —— relaxing air of this town. But I’ll go home and lie I’ll down, and be as fresh as paint to welcome my guests.”

But the excitement of the impending event must have been too much for him. When I arrived at five minutes to seven, Turpey, the wounded lieutenant, met me in the hall with a face of ill omen.

“It’s all up with Whitehall,” said he.

“What’s the matter?”

“Blind, speechless and paralytic. Come and look.”

The table in his room was nicely laid for dinner, and several decanters with a large cold tart lay upon the sideboard. On the sofa was stretched our unfortunate host, his head back, his forked beard pointing to the cornice, and a half finished tumbler of whisky upon the chair beside him. All our shakes and shouts could not break in upon that serene drunkenness.

“What are we to do?” gasped Turpey.

“We must not let him make an exhibition of himself. We had better get him away before any one else arrives.”

So we bore him off, all in coils and curves like a dead python, and deposited him upon his bed. When we returned three other guests had arrived.

“You’ll be sorry to hear that Whitehall is not very well,” said Turpey. “Dr. Munro thought it would be better that he should not come down.”

“In fact, I have ordered him to bed,” said I.

“Then I move that Mr. Turpey be called upon to act as host,” said one of the new comers; and so it was at once agreed.

Presently the other men arrived; but there was no sign of the dinner. We waited for a quarter of an hour, but nothing appeared. The landlady was summoned, but could give no information.

“Captain Whitehall ordered it from a confectioner’s, sir,” said she, in reply to the lieutenant’s cross-examination. “He did not tell me which confectioner’s. It might have been any one of four or five. He only said that it would all come right, and that I should bake an apple tart.”

Another quarter of an hour passed, and we were all ravenous. It was evident that Whitehall had made some mistake. We began to roll our eyes towards the apple pie, as the boat’s crew does towards the boy in the stories of shipwreck. A large hairy man, with an anchor tattooed upon his hand, rose and set the pie in front of Turpey.

“What d’you say, gentlemen,— shall I serve it out?”

We all drew up at the table with a decision which made words superfluous. In five minutes the pie dish was as clean as when the cook first saw it. And our ill-luck vanished with the pie. A minute later the landlady’s son entered with the soup; and cod’s head, roast beef, game and ice pudding followed in due succession. It all came from some misunderstanding about time. But we did them justice, in spite of the curious hors d’oeuvre with which we had started; and a pleasanter dinner or a more enjoyable evening I have seldom had.

“Sorry I was so bowled over, Dr. Munro, sir,” said Whitehall next morning. “I need hilly country and a bracing air, not a —— croquet lawn like this. Well, I’m —— glad to hear that you gentlemen enjoyed yourselves, and I hope you found everything to your satisfaction.”

I assured him that we did; but I had not the heart to tell him about the apple pie.

I tell you these trivial matters, my dear Bertie, just to show you that I am not down on my luck, and that my life is not pitched in the minor key altogether, in spite of my queer situation. But, to turn to graver things: I was right glad to get your letter, and to read all your denunciations about dogmatic science. Don’t imagine that my withers are wrung by what you say, for I agree with almost every word of it.

The man who claims that we can know nothing is, to my mind, as unreasonable as he who insists that everything has been divinely revealed to us. I know nothing more unbearable than the complacent type of scientist who knows very exactly all that he does know, but has not imagination enough to understand what a speck his little accumulation of doubtful erudition is when compared with the immensity of our ignorance. He is the person who thinks that the universe can be explained by laws, as if a law did not require construction as well as a world! The motion of the engine can be explained by the laws of physics, but that has not made the foregoing presence of an engineer less obvious. In this world, however, part of the beautiful poise of things depends upon the fact that whenever you have an exaggerated fanatic of any sort, his exact opposite at once springs up to neutralise him. You have a Mameluke: up jumps a Crusader. You have a Fenian: up jumps an Orangeman. Every force has its recoil. And so these more hide-bound scientists must be set against those gentlemen who still believe that the world was created in the year 4004 B. C.

After all, true science must be synonymous with religion, since science is the acquirement of fact; and facts are all that we have from which to deduce what we are and why we are here. But surely the more we pry into the methods by which results are brougt{sic} about, the more stupendous and wonderful becomes the great unseen power which lies behind, the power which drifts the solar system in safety through space, and yet adjusts the length of the insects proboscis to the depth of the honey-bearing flower. What is that central intelligence? You may fit up your dogmatic scientist with a 300-diameter microscope, and with a telescope with a six-foot speculum, but neither near nor far can he get a trace of that great driving power.

What should we say of a man who has a great and beautiful picture submitted to him, and who, having satisfied himself that the account given of the painting of the picture is incorrect, at once concludes that no one ever painted it, or at least asserts that he has no possible means of knowing whether an artist has produced it or not? That is, as it seems to me, a fair statement of the position of some of the more extreme agnostics. “Is not the mere existence of the picture in itself a proof that a skilful artist has been busied upon it? one might ask.” “Why, no,” says the objector. “It is possible that the picture produced itself by the aid of certain rules. Besides, when the picture was first submitted to me I was assured that it had all been produced within a week, but by examining it I am able to say with certainty that it has taken a considerable time to put together. I am therefore of opinion that it is questionable whether any one ever painted it at all.”

Leaving this exaggerated scientific caution on the one side, and faith on the other, as being equally indefensible, there remains the clear line of reasoning that a universe implies the existence of a universe maker, and that we may deduce from it some of His attributes, His power, His wisdom, His forethought for small wants, His providing of luxuries for His creatures. On the other hand, do not let us be disingenuous enough to shirk the mystery which lies in pain, in cruelty, in all which seems to be a slur upon His work. The best that we can say for them is to hope that they are not as bad as they seem, and possibly lead to some higher end. The voices of the ill-used child and of the tortured animal are the hardest of all for the philosopher to answer.

Good-bye, old chap! It is quite delightful to think that on one point at least we are in agreement.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/doyle/arthur_conan/stark/letter13.html

Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 21:33