The Stark Munro Letters, by Arthur Conan Doyle

VII. THE PARADE, BRADFIELD, 9th March, 1882.

Well, you see I am as good as my word, Bertie; and here is a full account of this queer little sample gouged out of real life, never to be seen, I should fancy, by any eye save your own. I have written to Horton also, and of course to my mother; but I don’t go into detail with them, as I have got into the way of doing with you. You keep on assuring me that you like it; so on your own head be it if you find my experiences gradually developing into a weariness.

When I woke in the morning, and looked round at the bare walls and the basin on the packing case, I hardly knew where I was. Cullingworth came charging into the room in his dressing gown, however, and roused me effectually by putting his hands on the rail at the end of the bed, and throwing a somersault over it which brought his heels on to my pillow with a thud. He was in great spirits, and, squatting on the bed, he held forth about his plans while I dressed.

“I tell you one of the first things I mean to do, Munro,” said he. “I mean to have a paper of my own. We’ll start a weekly paper here, you and I, and we’ll make them sit up all round. We’ll have an organ of our own, just like every French politician. If any one crosses us, we’ll make them wish they had never been born. Eh, what, laddie? what d’you think? So clever, Munro, that everybody’s bound to read it, and so scathing that it will just fetch out blisters every time. Don’t you think we could?”

“What politics?” I asked.

“Oh, curse the politics! Red pepper well rubbed in, that’s my idea of a paper. Call it the Scorpion. Chaff the Mayor and the Council until they call a meeting and hang themselves. I’d do the snappy paragraphs, and you would do the fiction and poetry. I thought about it during the night, and Hetty has written to Murdoch’s to get an estimate for the printing. We might get our first number out this day week.”

“My dear chap!” I gasped.

“I want you to start a novel this morning. You won’t get many patients at first, and you’ll have lots of time.”

“But I never wrote a line in my life.”

“A properly balanced man can do anything he sets his hand to. He’s got every possible quality inside him, and all he wants is the will to develop it.”

“Could you write a novel yourself?” I asked.

“Of course I could. Such a novel, Munro, that when they’d read the first chapter the folk would just sit groaning until the second came out. They’d wait in rows outside my door in the hope of hearing what was coming next. By Crums, I’ll go and begin it now!” And, with another somersault over the end of the bed, he rushed from the room, with the tassels of his dressing gown flying behind him.

I daresay you’ve quite come to the conclusion by this time that Cullingworth is simply an interesting pathological study — a man in the first stage of lunacy or general paralysis. You might not be so sure about it if you were in close contact with him. He justifies his wildest flights by what he does. It sounds grotesque when put down in black and white; but then it would have sounded equally grotesque a year ago if he had said that he would build up a huge practice in a twelvemonth. Now we see that he has done it. His possibilities are immense. He has such huge energy at the back of his fertility of invention. I am afraid, on thinking over all that I have written to you, that I may have given you a false impression of the man by dwelling too much on those incidents in which he has shown the strange and violent side of his character, and omitting the stretches between where his wisdom and judgment have had a chance. His conversation when he does not fly off at a tangent is full of pith and idea. “The greatest monument ever erected to Napoleon Buonaparte was the British National debt,” said he yesterday. Again, “We must never forget that the principal export of Great Britain to the United States IS the United States.” Again, speaking of Christianity, “What is intellectually unsound cannot be morally sound.” He shoots off a whole column of aphorisms in a single evening. I should like to have a man with a note book always beside him to gather up his waste. No; you must not let me give you a false impression of the man’s capacity. On the other hand, it would be dishonest to deny that I think him thoroughly unscrupulous, and full of very sinister traits. I am much mistaken, however, if he has not fine strata in his nature. He is capable of rising to heights as well as of sinking to depths.

Well, when we had breakfasted we got into the carriage and drove off to the place of business.

“I suppose you are surprised at Hetty coming with us, said Cullingworth, slapping me on the knee. Hetty, Munro is wondering what the devil you are here for, only he is too polite to ask.”

In fact, it HAD struck me as rather strange that she should, as a matter of course, accompany us to business.

“You’ll see when we get there,” he cried chuckling. “We run this affair on lines of our own.”

It was not very far, and we soon found ourselves outside a square whitewashed building, which had a huge “Dr. Cullingworth” on a great brass plate at the side of the door. Underneath was printed “May be consulted gratis from ten to four.” The door was open, and I caught a glimpse of a crowd of people waiting in the hall.

“How many here?” asked Cullingworth of the page boy.

“A hundred and forty, sir.”

“All the waiting rooms full?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Courtyard full?

“Yes, sir.”

“Stable full?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Coach-house full?”

“There’s still room in the coach-house, sir.”

“Ah, I’m sorry we haven’t got a crowded day for you, Munro,” said he. “Of course, we can’t command these things, and must take them as they come. Now then, now then, make a gangway, can’t you?”— this to his patients. “Come here and see the waiting-room. Pooh! what an atmosphere! Why on earth can’t you open the windows for yourselves? I never saw such folk! There are thirty people in this room, Munro, and not one with sense enough to open a window to save himself from suffocation.”

“I tried, sir, but there’s a screw through the sash,” cried one fellow.

“Ah, my boy, you’ll never get on in the world if you can’t open a window without raising a sash,” said Cullingworth, slapping him on the shoulder. He took the man’s umbrella and stuck it through two of the panes of glass.

“That’s the way!” he said. “Boy, see that the screw is taken out. Now then, Munro, come along, and we’ll get to work.”

We went up a wooden stair, uncarpeted, leaving every room beneath us, as far as I could see, crowded with patients. At the top was a bare passage, which had two rooms opposite to each other at one end, and a single one at the other.

“This is my consulting room,” said he, leading the way into one of these. It was a good-sized square chamber, perfectly empty save for two plain wooden chairs and an unpainted table with two books and a stethoscope upon it. “It doesn’t look like four or five thousand a year, does it? Now, there is an exactly similar one opposite which you can have for yourself. I’ll send across any surgical cases which may turn up. To-day, however, I think you had better stay with me, and see how I work things.”

“I should very much like to,” said I.

“There are one or two elementary rules to be observed in the way of handling patients,” he remarked, seating himself on the table and swinging his legs. “The most obvious is that you must never let them see that you want them. It should be pure condescension on your part seeing them at all; and the more difficulties you throw in the way of it, the more they think of it. Break your patients in early, and keep them well to heel. Never make the fatal mistake of being polite to them. Many foolish young men fall into this habit, and are ruined in consequence. Now, this is my form”— he sprang to the door, and putting his two hands to his mouth he bellowed: “Stop your confounded jabbering down there! I might as well be living above a poultry show! There, you see,” he added to me, “they will think ever so much more of me for that.”

“But don’t they get offended?” I asked.

“I’m afraid not. I have a name for this sort of thing now, and they have come to expect it. But an offended patient — I mean a thoroughly insulted one — is the finest advertisement in the world. If it is a woman, she runs clacking about among her friends until your name becomes a household word, and they all pretend to sympathise with her, and agree among themselves that you must be a remarkably discerning man. I quarrelled with one man about the state of his gall duct, and it ended by my throwing him down the stairs. What was the result? He talked so much about it that the whole village from which he came, sick and well, trooped to see me. The little country practitioner who had been buttering them up for a quarter of a century found that he might as well put up his shutters. It’s human nature, my boy, and you can’t alter it. Eh, what? You make yourself cheap and you become cheap. You put a high price on yourself and they rate you at that price. Suppose I set up in Harley Street tomorrow, and made it all nice and easy, with hours from ten to three, do you think I should get a patient? I might starve first. How would I work it? I should let it be known that I only saw patients from midnight until two in the morning, and that bald-headed people must pay double. That would set people talking, their curiosity would be stimulated, and in four months the street would be blocked all night. Eh, what? laddie, you’d go yourself. That’s my principle here. I often come in of a morning and send them all about their business, tell them I’m going off to the country for a day. I turn away forty pounds, and it’s worth four hundred as an advertisement!”

“But I understood from the plate that the consultations were gratis.”

“So they are, but they have to pay for the medicine. And if a patient wishes to come out of turn he has to pay half-a-guinea for the privilege. There are generally about twenty every day who would rather pay that than wait several hours. But, mind you, Munro, don’t you make any mistake about this! All this would go for nothing if you had not something, slid behind — I cure them. That’s the point. I take cases that others have despaired of, and I cure them right off. All the rest is only to bring them here. But once here I keep them on my merits. It would all be a flash in the pan but for that. Now, come along and see Hetty’s department.”

We walked down the passage to the other room. It was elaborately fitted up as a dispensary, and there with a chic little apron Mrs. Cullingworth was busy making up pills. With her sleeves turned up and a litter of glasses and bottles all round her, she was laughing away like a little child among its toys.

“The best dispenser in the world!” cried Cullingworth, patting her on the shoulder. “You see how I do it, Munro. I write on a label what the prescription is, and make a sign which shows how much is to be charged. The man comes along the passage and passes the label through the pigeon hole. Hetty makes it up, passes out the bottle, and takes the money. Now, come on and clear some of these folk out of the house.”

It is impossible for me to give you any idea of that long line of patients, filing hour after hour through the unfurnished room, and departing, some amused, and some frightened, with their labels in their hands. Cullingworth’s antics are beyond belief. I laughed until I thought the wooden chair under me would have come to pieces. He roared, he raved, he swore, he pushed them about, slapped them on the back, shoved them against the wall, and occasionally rushed out to the head of the stair to address them en masse. At the same time, behind all this tomfoolery, I, watching his prescriptions, could see a quickness of diagnosis, a scientific insight, and a daring and unconventional use of drugs, which satisfied me that he was right in saying that, under all this charlatanism, there lay solid reasons for his success. Indeed, “charlatanism” is a misapplied word in this connection; for it would describe the doctor who puts on an artificial and conventional manner with his patients, rather than one who is absolutely frank and true to his own extraordinary nature.

To some of his patients he neither said one word nor did he allow them to say one. With a loud “hush” he would rush at them, thump them on the chests, listen to their hearts, write their labels, and then run them out of the room by their shoulders. One poor old lady he greeted with a perfect scream. “You’ve been drinking too much tea!” he cried. “You are suffering from tea poisoning!” Then, without allowing her to get a word in, he clutched her by her crackling black mantle, dragged her up to the table, and held out a copy of “Taylor’s Medical Jurisprudence” which was lying there. “Put your hand on the book,” he thundered, “and swear that for fourteen days you will drink nothing but cocoa.” She swore with upturned eyes, and was instantly whirled off with her label in her hand, to the dispensary. I could imagine that to the last day of her life, the old lady would talk of her interview with Cullingworth; and I could well understand how the village from which she came would send fresh recruits to block up his waiting rooms.

Another portly person was seized by the two armholes of his waistcoat, just as he was opening his mouth to explain his symptoms, and was rushed backward down the passage, down the stairs, and finally into the street, to the immense delight of the assembled patients, “You eat too much, drink too much, and sleep too much,” Cullingworth roared after him. “Knock down a policeman, and come again when they let you out.” Another patient complained of a “sinking feeling.” “My dear,” said he, “take your medicine; and if that does no good, swallow the cork, for there is nothing better when you are sinking.”

As far as I could judge, the bulk of the patients looked upon a morning at Cullingworth’s as a most enthralling public entertainment, tempered only by a thrill lest it should be their turn next to be made an exhibition of.

Well, with half-an-hour for lunch, this extraordinary business went on till a quarter to four in the afternoon. When the last patient had departed, Cullingworth led the way into the dispensary, where all the fees had been arranged upon the counter in the order of their value. There were seventeen half-sovereigns, seventy-three shillings, and forty-six florins; or thirty-two pounds eight and sixpence in all. Cullingworth counted it up, and then mixing the gold and silver into one heap, he sat running his fingers through it and playing with it. Finally, he raked it into the canvas bag which I had seen the night before, and lashed the neck up with a boot-lace.

We walked home, and that walk struck me as the most extraordinary part of all that extraordinary day. Cullingworth paraded slowly through the principal streets with his canvas bag, full of money, outstretched at the full length of his arm. His wife and I walked on either side, like two acolytes supporting a priest, and so we made our way solemnly homewards the people stopping to see us pass.

“I always make a point of walking through the doctor’s quarter,” said Cullingworth. “We are passing through it now. They all come to their windows and gnash their teeth and dance until I am out of sight.”

“Why should you quarrel with them? What is the matter with them?” I asked.

“Pooh! what’s the use of being mealy-mouthed about it?” said he. “We are all trying to cut each other’s throats, and why should we be hypocritical over it? They haven’t got a good word for me, any one of them; so I like to take a rise out of them.”

“I must say that I can see no sense in that. They are your brothers in the profession, with the same education and the same knowledge. Why should you take an offensive attitude towards them?”

“That’s what I say, Dr. Munro,” cried his wife. “It is so very unpleasant to feel that one is surrounded by enemies on every side.”

“Hetty’s riled because their wives wouldn’t call upon her,” he cried. “Look at that, my dear,” jingling his bag. “That is better than having a lot of brainless women drinking tea and cackling in our drawing-room. I’ve had a big card printed, Munro, saying that we don’t desire to increase the circle of our acquaintance. The maid has orders to show it to every suspicious person who calls.”

“Why should you not make money at your practice, and yet remain on good terms with your professional brethren?” said I. “You speak as if the two things were incompatible.”

“So they are. What’s the good of beating about the bush, laddie? My methods are all unprofessional, and I break every law of medical etiquette as often as I can think of it. You know very well that the British Medical Association would hold up their hands in horror if it could see what you have seen today.”

“But why not conform to professional etiquette?”

“Because I know better. My boy, I’m a doctor’s son, and I’ve seen too much of it. I was born inside the machine, and I’ve seen all the wires. All this etiquette is a dodge for keeping the business in the hands of the older men. It’s to hold the young men back, and to stop the holes by which they might slip through to the front. I’ve heard my father say so a score of times. He had the largest practice in Scotland, and yet he was absolutely devoid of brains. He slipped into it through seniority and decorum. No pushing, but take your turn. Very well, laddie, when you’re at the top of the line, but how about it when you’ve just taken your place at the tail? When I’m on the top rung I shall look down and say, ‘Now, you youngsters, we are going to have very strict etiquette, and I beg that you will come up very quietly and not disarrange me from my comfortable position.’ At the same time, if they do what I tell them, I shall look upon them as a lot of infernal blockheads. Eh, Munro, what?”

I could only say again that I thought he took a very low view of the profession, and that I disagreed with every word he said.

“Well, my boy, you may disagree as much as you like, but if you are going to work with me you must throw etiquette to the devil!”

“I can’t do that.”

“Well, if you are too clean handed for the job you can clear out. We can’t keep you here against your will.”

I said nothing; but when we got back, I went upstairs and packed up my trunk, with every intention of going back to Yorkshire by the night train. He came up to my room, and finding what I was at, he burst into apologies which would have satisfied a more exacting man than I am.

“You shall do just exactly what you like, my dear chap. If you don’t like my way, you may try some way of your own.”

“That’s fair enough,” said I. “But it’s a little trying to a man’s self-respect if he is told to clear out every time there is a difference of opinion.”

“Well, well, there was no harm meant, and it shan’t occur again. I can’t possibly say more than that; so come along down and have a cup of tea.”

And so the matter blew over; but I very much fear, Bertie, that this is the first row of a series. I have a presentiment that sooner or later my position here will become untenable. Still, I shall give it a fair trial as long as he will let me. Cullingworth is a fellow who likes to have nothing but inferiors and dependants round him. Now, I like to stand on my own legs, and think with my own mind. If he’ll let me do this we’ll get along very well; but if I know the man he will claim submission, which is more than I am inclined to give. He has a right to my gratitude, which I freely admit. He has found an opening for me when I badly needed one and had no immediate prospects. But still, one may pay too high a price even for that, and I should feel that I was doing so if I had to give up my individuality and my manhood.

We had an incident that evening which was so characteristic that I must tell you of it. Cullingworth has an air gun which fires little steel darts. With this he makes excellent practice at about twenty feet, the length of the back room. We were shooting at a mark after dinner, when he asked me whether I would hold a halfpenny between my finger and thumb, and allow him to shoot it out. A halfpenny not being forthcoming, he took a bronze medal out of his waistcoat pocket, and I held that tip as a mark. “Kling!” went the air gun, and the medal rolled upon the floor.

“Plumb in the centre,” said he.

“On the contrary,” I answered, “you never hit it at all!”

“Never hit it! I must have hit it!”

“I am confident you didn’t.”

“Where’s the dart, then?”

“Here,” said I, holding up a bleeding forefinger, from which the tail end of the fluff with which the dart was winged was protruding.

I never saw a man so abjectly sorry for anything in my life. He used language of self-reproach which would have been extravagant if he had shot off one of my limbs. Our positions were absurdly reversed; and it was he who sat collapsed in a chair, while it was I, with the dart still in my finger, who leaned over him and laughed the matter off. Mrs. Cullingworth had run for hot water, and presently with a tweezers we got the intruder out. There was very little pain (more today than yesterday), but if ever you are called upon to identify my body you may look for a star at the end of my right forefinger.

When the surgery was completed (Cullingworth writhing and groaning all the time) my eyes happened to catch the medal which I had dropped, lying upon the carpet. I lifted it up and looked at it, eager to find some topic which would be more agreeable. Printed upon it was —“Presented to James Cullingworth for gallantry in saving life. Jan. 1879.”

“Hullo, Cullingworth,” said I. “You never told me about this!”

He was off in an instant in his most extravagant style.

“What! the medal? Haven’t you got one? I thought every one had. You prefer to be select, I suppose. It was a little boy. You’ve no idea the trouble I had to get him in.”

“Get him out, you mean.”

“My dear chap, you don’t understand! Any one could get a child out. It’s getting one in that’s the bother. One deserves a medal for it. Then there are the witnesses, four shillings a day I had to pay them, and a quart of beer in the evenings. You see you can’t pick up a child and carry it to the edge of a pier and throw it in. You’d have all sorts of complications with the parents. You must be patient and wait until you get a legitimate chance. I caught a quinsy walking up and down Avonmouth pier before I saw my opportunity. He was rather a stolid fat boy, and he was sitting on the very edge, fishing. I got the sole of my foot on to the small of his back, and shot him an incredible distance. I had some little difficulty in getting him out, for his fishing line got twice round my legs, but it all ended well, and the witnesses were as staunch as possible. The boy came up to thank me next day, and said that he was quite uninjured save for a bruise on the back. His parents always send me a brace of fowls every Christmas.”

I was sitting with my finger in the hot water listening to this rigmarole. When he had finished he ran off to get his tobacco box, and we could hear the bellowing of his laughter dwindling up the stair. I was still looking at the medal, which, from the dents all over it, had evidently been often used as a target, when I felt a timid touch upon my sleeve; it was Mrs. Cullingworth, who was looking earnestly at me with a very distressed expression upon her face.

“You believe far too much what James says,” said she. “You don’t know him in the least, Mr. Munro. You don’t look at a thing from his point of view, and you will never understand him until you do. It is not, of course, that he means to say anything that is untrue; but his fancy is excited, and he is quite carried away by the humour of any idea, whether it tells against himself or not. It hurts me, Mr. Munro, to see the only man in the world towards whom he has any feeling of friendship, misunderstanding him so completely, for very often when you say nothing your face shows very clearly what you think.”

I could only answer lamely that I was very sorry if I had misjudged her husband in any way, and that no one had a keener appreciation of some of his qualities than I had.

“I saw how gravely you looked when he told you that absurd story about pushing a little boy into the water,” she continued; and, as she spoke, she drew from somewhere in the front of her dress a much creased slip of paper. “Just glance at that, please, Dr. Munro.”

It was a newspaper cutting, which gave the true account of the incident. Suffice it that it was an ice accident, and that Cullingworth had really behaved in a heroic way and had been drawn out himself insensible, with the child so clasped in his arms that it was not until he had recovered his senses that they were able to separate them. I had hardly finished reading it when we heard his step on the stairs; and she, thrusting the paper back into her bosom, became in an instant the same silently watchful woman as ever.

Is he not a conundrum? If he interests you at a distance (and I take for granted that what you say in your letters is not merely conventional compliment) you can think how piquant he is in actual life. I must confess, however, that I can never shake off the feeling that I am living with some capricious creature who frequently growls and may possibly bite. Well, it won’t be very long before I write again, and by that time I shall probably know whether I am likely to find any permanent billet here or not. I am so sorry to hear about Mrs. Swanborough’s indisposition. You know that I take the deepest interest in everything that affects you. They tell me here that I am looking very fit, though I think they ought to spell it with an “a.”

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