The Stark Munro Letters, by Arthur Conan Doyle

XVI. OAKLEY VILLAS, BIRCHESPOOL, 4th November, 1884.

I face my study window as I write, Bertie. Slate-coloured clouds with ragged fringes are drifting slowly overhead. Between them one has a glimpse of higher clouds of a lighter gray. I can hear the gentle swish of the rain striking a clearer note on the gravel path and a duller among the leaves. Sometimes it falls straight and heavy, till the air is full of the delicate gray shading, and for half a foot above the ground there is a haze from the rebound of a million tiny globules. Then without any change in the clouds it cases off again. Pools line my walk, and lie thick upon the roadway, their surface pocked by the falling drops. As I sit I can smell the heavy perfume of the wet earth, and the laurel bushes gleam where the light strikes sideways upon them. The gate outside shines above as though it were new varnished, and along the lower edge of the upper bar there hangs a fringe of great clear drops.

That is the best that November can do for us in our dripping little island. You, I suppose, sitting among the dying glories of an American fall, think that this must needs be depressing. Don’t make any mistake about that, my dear boy. You may take the States, from Detroit to the Gulf, and you won’t find a happier man than this one. What do you suppose I’ve got att his{sic — at this} moment in my consulting room? A bureau? A bookcase? No, I know you’ve guessed my secret already. She is sitting in my big armchair; and she is the best, the kindest, the sweetest little woman in England.

Yes, I’ve been married six months now — the almanack says months, though I should have thought weeks. I should, of course, have sent cake and cards, but had an idea that you were not home from the Islands yet. It is a good year since I wrote to you; but when you give an amorphous address of that sort, what can you expect? I’ve thought of you, and talked of you often enough.

Well, I daresay, with the acumen of an old married man, you have guessed who the lady is as well. We surely know by some nameless instinct more about our futures than we think we know. I can remember, for example, that years ago the name of Bradfield used to strike with a causeless familiarity upon my ear; and since then, as you know, the course of my life has flowed through it. And so when I first saw Winnie La Force in the railway carriage, before I had spoken to her or knew her name, I felt an inexplicable sympathy for and interest in her. Have you had no experience of the sort in your life? Or was it merely that she was obviously gentle and retiring, and so made a silent claim upon all that was helpful and manly in me? At any rate, I was conscious of it; and again and again every time that I met her. How good is that saying of some Russian writer that he who loves one woman knows more of the whole sex than he who has had passing relations with a thousand! I thought I knew something of women. I suppose every medical student does. But now I can see that I really knew nothing. My knowledge was all external. I did not know the woman soul, that crowning gift of Providence to man, which, if we do not ourselves degrade it, will set an edge to all that is good in us. I did not know how the love of a woman will tinge a man’s whole life and every action with unselfishness. I did not know how easy it is to be noble when some one else takes it for granted that one will be so; or how wide and interesting life becomes when viewed by four eyes instead of two. I had much to learn, you see; but I think I have learned it.

It was natural that the death of poor Fred La Force should make me intimate with the family. It was really that cold hand which I grasped that morning as I sat by his bed which drew me towards my happiness. I visited them frequently, and we often went little excursions together. Then my dear mother came down to stay with me for a spell, and turned Miss Williams gray by looking for dust in all sorts of improbable corners; or advancing with a terrible silence, a broom in one hand and a shovel in the other, to the attack of a spider’s web which she had marked down in the beer cellar. Her presence enabled me to return some of the hospitality which I had received from the La Forces, and brought us still nearer together.

I had never yet reminded them of our previous meeting. One evening, however, the talk turned upon clairvoyance, and Mrs. La Force was expressing the utmost disbelief in it. I borrowed her ring, and holding it to my forehead, I pretended to be peering into her past.

“I see you in a railway carriage,” said I. “You are wearing a red feather in your bonnet. Miss La Force is dressed in something dark. There is a young man there. He is rude enough to address your daughter as Winnie before he has ever been ——”

“Oh, mother,” she cried, “of course it is he! The face haunted me, and I could not think where we had met it.”

Well, there are some things that we don’t talk about to another man, even when we know each other as well as I know you. Why should we, when that which is most engrossing to us consists in those gradual shades of advance from friendship to intimacy, and from intimacy to something more sacred still, which can scarcely be written at all, far less made interesting to another? The time came at last when they were to leave Birchespool, and my mother and I went round the night before to say goodbye. Winnie and I were thrown together for an instant.

“When will you come back to Birchespool?” I asked.

“Mother does not know.”

“Will you come soon, and be my wife?”

I had been turning over in my head all the evening how prettily I could lead up to it, and how neatly I could say it — and behold the melancholy result! Well, perhaps the feeling of my heart managed to make itself clear even through those bald words. There was but one to judge, and she was of that opinion.

I was so lost in my own thoughts that I walked as far as Oakley Villa with my mother before I opened my mouth. “Mam,” said I at last, “I have proposed to Winnie La Force, and she has accepted me.”

“My boy,” said she, “you are a true Packenham.” And so I knew that my mother’s approval had reached the point of enthusiasm. It was not for days — not until I expressed a preference for dust under the bookcase with quiet, against purity and ructions — that the dear old lady perceived traces of the Munros.

The time originally fixed for the wedding was six months after this; but we gradually whittled it down to five and to four. My income had risen to about two hundred and seventy pounds at the time; and Winnie had agreed, with a somewhat enigmatical smile, that we could manage very well on that — the more so as marriage sends a doctor’s income up. The reason of her smile became more apparent when a few weeks before that date I received a most portentous blue document in which “We, Brown & Woodhouse, the solicitors for the herein and hereafter mentioned Winifred La Force, do hereby”— state a surprising number of things, and use some remarkably bad English. The meaning of it, when all the “whereas’s and aforesaids” were picked out, was, that Winnie had about a hundred a year of her own. It could not make me love her a shade better than I did; but at the same time I won’t be so absurd as to say that I was not glad, or to deny that it made our marriage much easier than it would otherwise have been.

Poor Whitehall came in on the morning of the ceremony. He was staggering under the weight of a fine Japanese cabinet which he had carried round from his lodgings. I had asked him to come to the church, and the old gentleman was resplendent in a white waistcoat and a silk tie. Between ourselves, I had been just a little uneasy lest his excitement should upset him, as in the case of the dinner; but nothing could be more exemplary than his conduct and appearance. I had introduced him to Winnie some days before.

“You’ll forgive me for saying, Dr. Munro, sir, that you are a —— lucky fellow,” said he. “You’ve put your hand in the bag, sir, and taken out the eel first time, as any one with half an eye can see. Now, I’ve had three dips, and landed a snake every dip. If I’d had a good woman at my side, Dr. Munro, sir, I might not be the broken half-pay skipper of an armed transport today.”

“I thought you had been twice married, captain.”

“Three times, sir. I buried two. The other lives at Brussels. Well, I’ll be at the church, Dr. Munro, sir; and you may lay that there is no one there who wishes you better than I do.”

And yet there were many there who wished me well. My patients had all got wind of it; and they assembled by the pew-full, looking distressingly healthy. My neighbour, Dr. Porter, was there also to lend me his support, and old General Wainwright gave Winnie away. My mother, Mrs. La Force, and Miss Williams were all in the front pew; and away at the back of the church I caught a glimpse of the forked beard and crinkly face of Whitehall, and beside him the wounded lieutenant, the man who ran away with the cook, and quite a line of the strange Bohemians who followed his fortunes. Then when the words were said, and man’s form had tried to sanctify that which was already divine, we walked amid the pealings of the “Wedding March” into the vestry, where my dear mother relieved the tension of the situation by signing the register in the wrong place, so that to all appearance it was she who had just married the clergyman. And then amid congratulations and kindly faces, we were together, her hand on my forearm, upon the steps of the church, and saw the familiar road stretching before us. But it was not that road which lay before my eyes, but rather the path of our lives;— that broader path on which our feet were now planted, so pleasant to tread, and yet with its course so shrouded in the mist. Was it long, or was it short? Was it uphill, or was it down? For her, at least, it should be smooth, if a man’s love could make it so.

We were away for several weeks in the Isle of Man, and then came back to Oakley Villa, where Miss Williams was awaiting us in a house in which even my mother could have found no dust, and with a series of cheering legends as to the crowds of patients who had blocked the street in my absence. There really was a marked increase in my practice; and for the last six months or so, without being actually busy, I have always had enough to occupy me. My people are poor, and I have to work hard for a small fee; but I still study and attend the local hospital, and keep my knowledge up-to-date, so as to be ready for my opening when it comes. There are times when I chafe that I may not play a part upon some larger stage than this; but my happiness is complete, and if fate has no further use for me, I am content now from my heart to live and to die where I am.

You will wonder, perhaps, how we get on — my wife and I— in the matter of religion. Well, we both go our own ways. Why should I proselytise? I would not for the sake of abstract truth take away her child-like faith which serves to make life easier and brighter to her. I have made myself ill-understood by you in these discursive letters if you have read in them any bitterness against the orthodox creeds. Far from saying that they are all false, it would express my position better to say that they are all true. Providence would not have used them were they not the best available tools, and in that sense divine. That they are final I deny. A simpler and more universal creed will take their place, when the mind of man is ready for it; and I believe it will be a creed founded upon those lines of absolute and provable truth which I have indicated. But the old creeds are still the best suited to certain minds, and to certain ages. If they are good enough for Providence to use, they are good enough for us to endure. We have but to wait upon the survival of the truest. If I have seemed to say anything aggressive against them, it was directed at those who wish to limit the Almighty’s favour to their own little clique, or who wish to build a Chinese wall round religion, with no assimilation of fresh truths, and no hope of expansion in the future. It is with these that the pioneers of progress can hold no truce. As for my wife, I would as soon think of breaking in upon her innocent prayers, as she would of carrying off the works of philosophy from my study table. She is not narrow in her views; but if one could stand upon the very topmost pinnacle of broad-mindedness, one would doubtless see from it that even the narrow have their mission.

About a year ago I had news of Cullingworth from Smeaton, who was in the same football team at college, and who had called when he was passing through Bradfield. His report was not a very favourable one. The practice had declined considerably. People had no doubt accustomed themselves to his eccentricities, and these had ceased to impress them. Again, there had been one or two coroner’s inquests, which had spread the impression that he had been rash in the use of powerful drugs. If the coroner could have seen the hundreds of cures which Cullingworth had effected by that same rashness he would have been less confident with his censures. But, as you can understand, C.‘s rival medical men were not disposed to cover him in any way. He had never had much consideration for them.

Besides this decline in his practice, I was sorry to hear that Cullingworth had shown renewed signs of that curious vein of suspicion which had always seemed to me to be the most insane of all his traits. His whole frame of mind towards me had been an example of it, but as far back as I can remember it had been a characteristic. Even in those early days when they lived in four little rooms above a grocer’s shop, I recollect that he insisted upon gumming up every chink of one bedroom for fear of some imaginary infection. He was haunted, too, with a perpetual dread of eavesdroppers, which used to make him fly at the door and fling it open in the middle of his conversation, pouncing out into the passage with the idea of catching somebody in the act. Once it was the maid with the tea tray that he caught, I remember; and I can see her astonished face now, with an aureole of flying cups and lumps of sugar.

Smeaton tells me that this has now taken the form of imagining that some one is conspiring to poison him with copper, against which he takes the most extravagant precautions. It is the strangest sight, he says, to see Cullingworth at his meals; for he sits with an elaborate chemical apparatus and numerous retorts and bottles at his elbow, with which he tests samples of every course. I could not help laughing at Smeaton’s description, and yet it was a laugh with a groan underlying it. Of all ruins, that of a fine man is the saddest.

I never thought I should have seen Cullingworth again, but fate has brought us together. I have always had a kindly feeling for him, though I feel that he used me atrociously. Often I have wondered whether, if I were placed before him, I should take him by the throat or by the hand. You will be interested to hear what actually occurred.

One day, just a week or so back, I was starting on my round, when a boy arrived with a note. It fairly took my breath away when I saw the familiar writing, and realised that Cullingworth was in Birchespool. I called Winnie, and we read it together.

“Dear Munro,” it said, “James is in lodgings here for a few days. We are on the point of leaving England. He would be glad, for the sake of old times, to have a chat with you before he goes.

“Yours faithfully,

“HETTY CULLINGWORTH.”

The writing was his and the style of address, so that it was evidently one of those queer little bits of transparent cunning which were characteristic of him, to make it come from his wife, that he might not lay himself open to a direct rebuff. The address, curiously enough, was that very Cadogan Terrace at which I had lodged, but two doors higher up.

Well, I was averse from going myself, but Winnie was all for peace and forgiveness. Women who claim nothing invariably get everything, and so my gentle little wife always carries her point. Half an hour later I was in Cadogan Terrace with very mixed feelings, but the kindlier ones at the top. I tried to think that Cullingworth’s treatment of me had been pathological — the result of a diseased brain. If a delirious man had struck me, I should not have been angry with him. That must be my way of looking at it.

If Cullingworth still bore any resentment, he concealed it most admirably. But then I knew by experience that that genial loud-voiced John-Bull manner of his COULD conceal many things. His wife was more open; and I could read in her tightened lips and cold grey eyes, that she at least stood fast to the old quarrel. Cullingworth was little changed, and seemed to be as sanguine and as full of spirits as ever.

“Sound as a trout, my boy!” he cried, drumming on his chest with his hands. “Played for the London Scottish in their opening match last week, and was on the ball from whistle to whistle. Not so quick on a sprint — you find that yourself, Munro, eh what?— but a good hard-working bullocky forward. Last match I shall have for many a day, for I am off to South America next week.”

“You have given up Bradfield altogether then?”

“Too provincial, my boy! What’s the good of a village practice with a miserable three thousand or so a year for a man that wants room to spread? My head was sticking out at one end of Bradfield and my feet at the other. Why, there wasn’t room for Hetty in the place, let alone me! I’ve taken to the eye, my boy. There’s a fortune in the eye. A man grudges a half-crown to cure his chest or his throat, but he’d spend his last dollar over his eye. There’s money in ears, but the eye is a gold mine.”

“What!” said I, “in South America?”

“Just exactly in South America,” he cried, pacing with his quick little steps up and down the dingy room. “Look here, laddie! There’s a great continent from the equator to the icebergs, and not a man in it who could correct an astigmatism. What do they know of modern eye-surgery and refraction? Why, dammy, they don’t know much about it in the provinces of England yet, let alone Brazil. Man, if you could only see it, there’s a fringe of squinting millionaires sitting ten deep round the whole continent with their money in their hands waiting for an oculist. Eh, Munro, what? By Crums, I’ll come back and I’ll buy Bradfield, and I’ll give it away as a tip to a waiter.”

“You propose to settle in some large city, then?”

“City! What use would a city be to me? I’m there to squeeze the continent. I work a town at a time. I send on an agent to the next to say that I am coming. I ‘Here’s the chance of a lifetime,’ says he, ‘no need to go back to Europe. Here’s Europe come to you. Squints, cataracts, iritis, refractions, what you like; here’s the great Signor Cullingworth, right up to date and ready for anything!’ In they come of course, droves of them, and then I arrive and take the money. Here’s my luggage!” he pointed to two great hampers in the corner of the room. “Those are glasses, my boy, concave and convex, hundreds of them. I test an eye, fit him on the spot, and send him away shouting. Then I load up a steamer and come home, unless I elect to buy one of their little States and run it.”

Of course it sounded absurd as he put it; but I could soon see that he had worked out his details, and that there was a very practical side to his visions.

“I work Bahia,” said he. “My agent prepares Pernambuco. When Bahia is squeezed dry I move on to Pernambuco, and the agent ships to Monte Video. So we work our way round with a trail of spectacles behind us. It’ll go like clock-work.”

“You will need to speak Spanish,” said I.

“Tut, it does not take any Spanish to stick a knife into a man’s eye. All I shall want to know is, ‘Money down — no credit.’ That’s Spanish enough for me.”

We had a long and interesting talk about all that had happened to both of us, without, however, any allusion to our past quarrel. He would not admit that he had left Bradfield on account of a falling-off in his practice, or for any reason except that he found the place too small. His spring-screen invention had, he said, been favourably reported upon by one of the first private shipbuilding firms on the Clyde, and there was every probability of their adopting it.

“As to the magnet,” said he, “I’m very sorry for my country, but there is no more command of the seas for her. I’ll have to let the thing go to the Germans. It’s not my fault. They must not blame me when the smash comes. I put the thing before the Admiralty, and I could have made a board school understand it in half the time. Such letters, Munro! Colney Hatch on blue paper. When the war comes, and I show those letters, somebody will be hanged. Questions about this — questions about that. At last they asked me what I proposed to fasten my magnet to. I answered to any solid impenetrable object, such as the head of an Admiralty official. Well, that broke the whole thing up. They wrote with their compliments, and they were returning my apparatus. I wrote with my compliments, and they might go to the devil. And so ends a great historical incident, Munro — eh, what?”

We parted very good friends, but with reservations, I fancy, on both sides. His last advice to me was to clear out of Birchespool.

“You can do better — you can do better, laddie!” said he. “Look round the whole world, and when you see a little round hole, jump in feet foremost. There’s a lot of ’em about if a man keeps himself ready.”

So those were the last words of Cullingworth, and the last that I may ever see of him also, for he starts almost immediately upon his strange venture. He must succeed. He is a man whom nothing could hold down. I wish him luck, and have a kindly feeling towards him, and yet I distrust him from the bottom of my heart, and shall be just as pleased to know that the Atlantic rolls between us.

Well, my dear Bertie, a happy and tranquil, if not very ambitious existence stretches before us. We are both in our twenty-fifth year, and I suppose that without presumption we can reckon that thirty-five more years lie in front of us. I can foresee the gradually increasing routine of work, the wider circle of friends, the indentification with this or that local movement, with perhaps a seat on the Bench, or at least in the Municipal Council in my later years. It’s not a very startling programme, is it? But it lies to my hand, and I see no other. I should dearly love that the world should be ever so little better for my presence. Even on this small stage we have our two sides, and something might be done by throwing all one’s weight on the scale of breadth, tolerance, charity, temperance, peace, and kindliness to man and beast. We can’t all strike very big blows, and even the little ones count for something.

So good-bye, my dear boy, and remember that when you come to England our home would be the brighter for your presence. In any case, now that I have your address, I shall write again in a very few weeks. My kindest regards to Mrs. Swanborough.

Yours ever,

J. STARK MUNRO.

[This is the last letter which I was destined to receive from my poor friend. He started to spend the Christmas of that year (1884) with his people, and on the journey was involved in the fatal railroad accident at Sittingfleet, where the express ran into a freight train which was standing in the depot. Dr. and Mrs. Munro were the only occupants of the car next the locomotive, and were killed instantly, as were the brakesman and one other passenger. It was such an end as both he and his wife would have chosen; and no one who knew them would regret that neither was left to mourn the other. His insurance policy of eleven hundred pounds was sufficient to provide for the wants of his own family, which, as his father was sick, was the one worldly matter which could have caused him concern.— H. S.]

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