The Land of Mist, by Arthur Conan Doyle

14. In Which Challenger Meets a Strange Colleague

PROFESSOR CHALLENGER was not a man who made friends easily. In order to be his friend you had also to be his dependant. He did not admit of equals. But as a patron he was superb. With his Jovian air, his colossal condescension, his amused smile, his general suggestion of the god descending to the mortal, he could be quite overpowering in his amiability. But he needed certain qualities in return. Stupidity disgusted him. Physical ugliness alienated him. Independence repulsed him. He coveted the man whom all the world would admire, but who in turn would admire the superman above him. Such a man was Dr. Ross Scotton, and for this reason he hat been Challenger’s favourite pupil.

And now he was sick unto death. Dr. Atkinson of St. Mary’s who had already played some minor part in this record, was attending him, and his reports were increasingly depressing. The illness was that dread disease disseminated sclerosis, and Challenger was aware that Atkinson was no alarmist when he said that a cure was a most remote and unlikely possibility. It seemed a terrible instance of the unreasonable nature of things that a young man of science, capable before he reached his prime of two such works as The Embryology of the Symibathetic Nervous System or The Fallacy of the Obsonic Index, should be dissolved into his chemical elements with no personal or spiritual residue whatever. And yet the Professor shrugged his huge shoulders, shook his massive head, and accepted the inevitable. Every fresh message was worse than the last, and, finally, there was an ominous silence. Challenger went down once to his young friend’s lodging in Gower Street. It was a racking experience, and he did not repeat it. The muscular cramps which are characteristic of the complaint were tying the sufferer into knots, and he was biting his lips to shut down the screams which might have relieved his agony at the expense of his manhood. He seized his mentor by the hand as a drowning man seizes a plank.

“Is it really as you have said? Is there no hope beyond the six months of torture which I see lying before me? Can you with all your wisdom and knowledge see no spark of light or life in the dark shadow of eternal dissolution?”

“Face it, my boy, face it!” said Challenger. “Better to look fact in the face than to console oneself with fancies.”

Then the lips parted and the long-pent scream burst forth. Challenger rose and rushed from the room.

But now an amazing development occurred. It began by the appearance of Miss Delicia Freeman.

One morning there came a knock at the door of the Victoria flat. The austere and taciturn Austin looking out at the level of his eyes perceived nothing at all. On glancing downwards, however, he was aware of a small lady, whose delicate face and bright bird-like eyes were turned upwards to his own.

“I want to see the Professor,” said she, diving into her handbag for a card.

“Can’t see you,” said Austin.

“Oh, yes, he can,” the small lady answered serenely. There was not a newspaper office, a statesman’s sanctum, or a political chancellory which had ever presented a barrier strong enough to hold her back where she believed that there was good work to be done.

“Can’t see you,” repeated Austin.

“Oh, but really I must, you know,” said Miss Freeman, and made a sudden dive past the butler. With unerring instinct she made for the door of the sacred study, knocked, and forthwith entered.

The lion head looked up from behind a desk littered with papers. The lion eyes glared.

“What is the meaning of this intrusion?” the lion roared. The small lady was, however, entirely unabashed. She smiled sweetly at the glowering face.

“I am so glad to make your acquaintance,” she said. “My name is Delicia Freeman.”

“Austin!” shouted the Professor. The butler’s impassive face appeared round the angle of the door. “What is this, Austin. How did this person get here?”

“I couldn’t keep her out,” wailed Austin. “Come, miss, we’ve had enough of it.”

“No, no! You must not be angry — you really must not,” said the lady sweetly. “I was told that you were a perfectly terrible person, but really you are rather a dear.”

“Who are you? What do you want? Are you aware that I am one of the most busy men in London?”

Miss Freeman fished about in her bag once more. She was always fishing in that bag, extracting sometimes a leaflet on Armenia, sometimes a pamphlet on Greece, sometimes a note on Zenana Missions, and sometimes a psychic manifesto. On this occasion it was a folded bit of writing-paper which emerged.

“From Dr. Ross Scotton,” she said. It was hastily folded and roughly scribbled — so roughly as to be hardly legible. Challenger bent his heavy brows over it.

Please, dear friend and guide, listen to what this lady says. I know it is against all your views. And yet I had to do it. You said yourself that I had no hope. I have tested it and it works. I know it seems wild and crazy. But any hope is better than no hope. If you were in my place you would have done the same. Will you not cast out prejudice and see for yourself? Dr. Felkin comes at three.

J. Ross Scotton.

Challenger read it twice over and sighed. The brain was clearly involved in the lesion: “He says I am to listen to you. What is it? Cut it as short as you can.”

“It’s a spirit doctor,” said the lady.

Challenger bounded in his chair.

“Good God, am I never to get away from this nonsense!” he cried. “Can they not let this poor devil lie quiet on his deathbed but they must play their tricks upon him?”

Miss Delicia clapped her hands and her quick little eyes twinkled with joy.

“It’s not his deathbed. He is going to get well.”

“Who said so?”

“Dr. Felkin. He never is wrong.”

Challenger snorted.

“Have you seen him lately?” she asked.

“Not for some weeks.”

“But you wouldn’t recognise him. He is nearly cured.”

“Cured! Cured of diffused sclerosis in a few weeks!”

“Come and see.”

“You want me to aid and abet in some infernal quackery. The next thing, I should see my name on this rascal’s testimonials. I know the breed. If I did come I should probably take him by the collar and throw him down the stair.”

The lady laughed heartily.

“He would say with Aristides: ‘Strike, but hear me’. You will hear him first, however, I am sure. Your pupil is a real chip of yourself. He seems quite ashamed of getting well in such an unorthodox way. It was I who called Dr. Felkin in against his wish.”

“Oh, you did, did you? You took a great deal upon yourself.”

“I am prepared to take any responsibility, so long as I know I am right. I spoke to Dr. Atkinson. He knows a little of psychic matters. He is far less prejudiced than most of you scientific gentlemen. He took the view that when a man was dying, in any case it could matter little what you did. So Dr. Felkin came.”

“And pray how did this quack doctor proceed to treat the case?”

“That is what Dr. Ross Scotton wants you to see.” She looked at a watch which she dragged from the depths of the bag. “In an hour he will be there. I’ll tell your friend you are coming. I am sure you would not disappoint him. Oh!” She dived into the bag again. “Here is a recent note upon the Bessarabian question. It is much more serious than people think. You will just have time to read it before you come. So good-bye, dear Professor, and au revoir!”

She beamed at the scowling lion and departed.

But she had succeeded in her mission, which was a way she had. There w as something compelling in the absolutely unselfish enthusiasm of this small person who would, at a moment’s notice, take on anyone from a Mormon Elder to an Albanian brigand, loving the culprit and mourning the sin. Challenger came under the spell, and shortly after three he stumped his way up the narrow stair and blocked the door of the humble bedroom where his favourite pupil lay stricken. Ross Scotton lay stretched upon the bed in a red dressing-gown, and his teacher saw, with a start of surprised joy, that his face had filled out and that the light of life and hope had come back into his eyes.

“Yes, I’m beating it!” he cried. “Ever since Felkin held his first consultation with Atkinson I have felt the life-force stealing back into me. Oh, chief, it is a fearful thing to lie awake at night and feel these cursed microbes nibbling away at the very roots of your life! I could almost hear them at it. And the cramps when my body — like a badly articulated skeleton — would all get twisted into one rigid tangle! But now, except some dyspepsia and urticaria of the palms, I am free from pain. And all on account of this dear fellow here who has helped me.”

He motioned with his hand as if alluding to someone present. Challenger looked round with a glare, expecting to find some smug charlatan behind him. But no doctor was there. A frail young woman, who seemed to be a nurse, quiet, unobtrusive, and with a wealth of brown hair, was dozing in a corner. Miss Delicia, smiling demurely, stood in the window.

“I am glad you are better, my dear boy,” said Challenger. “But do not tamper with your reason. Such a complaint has its natural systole and diastole.”

“Talk to him, Dr. Felkin. Clear his mind for him,” said the invalid.

Challenger looked up at the cornice and round at the skirting. His pupil was clearly addressing some doctor in the room and yet none was visible. Surely his aberration had not reached the point when he thought that actual floating apparitions were directing his cure.

“Indeed, it needs some clearing,” said a deep and virile voice at his elbow. He bounded round. It was the frail young woman who was talking.

“Let me introduce you to Dr. Felkin,” said Miss Delicia, with a mischievous laugh.

“What tomfoolery is this?” cried Challenger.

The young woman rose and fumbled at the side of her dress. Then she made an impatient gesture with her hand.

“Time was, my dear colleague, when a snuff-box was as much part of my equipment as my phlebotomy case. I lived before the days of Laennec, and we carried no stethoscope, but we had our little chirurgical battery, none the less. But the snuff-box was a peace-offering and I was about to offer it to you, but, alas! it has had its day.”

Challenger stood with staring eyes and dilated nostrils while this speech was delivered. Then he turned to the bed.

“Do you mean to say that this is your doctor — that you take the advice of this person?”

The young girl drew herself up very stiffly.

“Sir, I will not bandy words with you. I perceive very clearly that you are one of those who have been so immersed in material knowledge that you have had no time to devote to the possibilities of the spirit.”

“I certainly have no time for nonsense,” said Challenger.

“My dear chief!” cried a voice from the bed. “I beg you to bear in mind how much Dr. Felkin has already done for me. You saw how I was a month ago, and you see how I am now. You would not offend my best friend.”

“I certainly think, Professor, that you owe dear Dr. Felkin an apology,” said Miss Delicia.

“A private lunatic asylum!” snorted Challenger. Then, playing up to his part, he assumed the ponderous elephantine irony which was one of his most effective weapons in dealing with recalcitrant students.

“Perhaps, young lady — or shall I say elderly and most venerable Professor?— you will permit a mere raw earthly student, who has no more knowledge than this world can give, to sit humbly in a corner and possibly to learn a little from your methods and your teaching.” This speech was delivered with his shoulders up to his ears, his eyelids over his eyes, and his palms extended in front — an alarming statue of sarcasm. Dr. Felkin, however, was striding with heavy and impatient steps about the room, and took little notice.

“Quite so! Quite so!” she said carelessly. “Get into the corner and stay there. Above all, stop talking, as this case calls for all my faculties.” He turned with a masterful air towards the patient. “Well, well, you are coming along. In two months you will be in the class-room.”

“Oh, it is impossible!” cried Ross Scotton, with a half sob.

“Not so. I guarantee it. I do not make false promises.”

“I’ll answer for that,” said Miss Delicia. “I say, dear Doctor, do tell us who you were when you were alive.”

“Tut I tut! The unchanging woman. They gossiped in my time and they gossip still. No! no! We will have a look at our young friend here. Pulse! The intermittent beat has gone. That is something gained. Temperature — obviously normal. Blood pressure — still higher than I like. Digestion — much to be desired. What you moderns call a hunger-strike would not be amiss. Well, the general conditions are tolerable. Let us see the local centre of the mischief. Pull your shirt down, sir! Lie on your face. Excellent!” She passed her fingers with great force and precision down the upper part of the spine, and then dug in her knuckles with a sudden force which made the sufferer yelp. “That is better! There is — as I have explained — a slight want of alignment in the cervical vertibrae which has, as I perceive it, the effect of lessening the foramina through which the nerve roots emerge. This has caused compression, and as these nerves are really the conductors of vital force, it has upset the whole equilibrium of the parts supplied. My eyes are the same as your clumsy X-rays, and I clearly perceive that the position is almost restored, and the fatal constriction removed. I hope, sir,” to Challenger, “that I make the pathology of this interesting case intelligible to you.”

Challenger grunted his general hostility and disagreement.

“I will clear up any little difficulties which may linger in your mind. But, meantime, my dear lad, you are a credit to me, and I rejoice in your progress. You will present my compliments to my colleague of earth, Dr. Atkinson, and tell him that I can suggest nothing more. The medium is a little weary, poor girl, so I will not remain longer today.”

“But you said you would tell us who you were.”

“Indeed, there is little to say. I was a very undistinguished practitioner. I sat under the great Abernethy in my youth, and perhaps imbibed something of his methods. When I passed over in early middle age I continued my studies, and was permitted, if I could find some suitable means of expression, to do something to help humanity. You understand, of course, that it is only by serving and self-abnegation that we advance in the higher world. This is my service, and I can only thank kind Fate that I was able to find in this girl a being whose vibrations so correspond with my own that I can easily assume control of her body.”

“And where is she?” asked the patient.

“She is waiting beside me and will presently re-enter her own frame. As to you, sir,” turning to Challenger, “you are a man of character and learning, but you are clearly embedded in that materialism which is the special curse of your age. Let me assure you that the medical profession, which is supreme upon earth for the disinterested work of its members, has yielded too much to the dogmatism of such men as you, and has unduly neglected that spiritual element in man which is far more important than your herbs and your minerals. There is a life-force, sir, and it is in the control of this life force that the medicine of the future lies. If you shut your mind to it, it can only mean that the confidence of the public will turn to those who are ready to adopt every means of cure, whether they have the approval of your authorities or not.”

Never could young Ross Scotton forget that scene. The Professor, the master, the supreme chief, he who had to be addressed with bated breath sat with half-opened mouth and staring eyes, leaning forward in his chair, while in front of him the slight young woman shaking her mop of brown hair and wagging an admonitory forefinger, spoke to him as a father speaks to a refractory child. So intense was her power that Challenger, for the instant, was constrained to accept the situation. He gasped and grunted, but no retort came to his lips. The girl turned away and sat down on a chair.

“He is going,” said Miss Delicia.

“But not yet gone,” replied the girl with a smile. “Yes, I must go, for I have much to do. This is not my only medium of expression, and I am due in Edinburgh in a few minutes. But be of good heart, young man. I will set my assistant with two extra batteries to increase your vitality so far as your system will permit. As to you, sir,” to Challenger, “I would implore you to beware of the egotism of brain and the self-concentration of intellect. Store what is old, but be ever receptive to what is new, and judge it not as you may wish it, but as God has designed it.”

She gave a deep sigh and sank back in her chair. There was a minute of dead silence while she lay with her head upon her breast. Then, with another sigh and a shiver, she opened a pair of very bewildered blue eyes.

“Well, has he been?” she asked in a gentle feminine voice.

“Indeed, yes!” cried the patient. “He was great. He says I shall be in the class-room in two months.”

“Splendid! Any directions for me?”

“Just the special massage as before. But he is going to put on two new spirit batteries if I can stand it.”

“My word, he won’t be long now!” Suddenly the girl’s eyes lit on Challenger and she stopped in confusion.

“This is Nurse Ursula,” said Miss Delicia. “Nurse, let me present you to the famous Professor Challenger.” Challenger was great in his manner towards women, especially if the particular woman happened to be a young and pretty girl. He advanced now as Solomon may have advanced to the Queen of Sheba, took her hand, and patted her hair with patriarchal assurance.

“My dear, you are far too young and charming for such deceit. Have done with it for ever. Be content to be a bewitching nurse and resign all claim to the higher functions of doctor. Where, may I ask, did you pick up all this jargon about cervical vertebrae and posterior foramina?”

Nurse Ursula looked helplessly round as one who finds herself suddenly in the clutches of a gorilla.

“She does not understand a word you say!” cried the man on the bed. “Oh, chief, you must make an effort to face the real situation! I know what a readjustment it means. In my small way I have had to undergo it myself. But, believe me, you see everything through a prism instead of through plate-glass until you understand the spiritual factor.”

Challenger continued his paternal attentions, though the frightened lady had begun to shrink from him.

“Come now,” said he, “who was the clever doctor with whom you acted as nurse — the man who taught you all these fine words? You must feel that it is hopeless to deceive me. You will be much happier, dear child, when you have made a clean breast of it all, and when we can laugh together over the lecture which you inflicted upon me.”

An unexpected interruption came to check Challenger’s exploration of the young woman’s conscience or motives. The invalid was sitting up, a vivid red patch against his white pillows, and he was speaking with an energy which was in itself an indication of his coming cure.

“Professor Challenger!” he cried, “you are insulting my best friend. Under this roof at least she shall be safe from the sneers of scientific prejudice. I beg you to leave the room if you cannot address Nurse Ursula in a more respectful manner.”

Challenger glared, but the peacemaking Delicia was at work in a moment.

“You are far too hasty, dear Dr. Ross Scotton!” she cried. “Professor Challenger has had no time to understand this. You were just as sceptical yourself at first. How can you blame him?”

“Yes, yes, that is true,” said the young doctor. “It seemed to me to open the door to all the quackery in the Universe — indeed it does, but the fact remains.”

“’ One thing I know that whereas I was blind now I see’,” quoted Miss Delicia. “Ah, Professor, you may raise your eyebrows and shrug your shoulders, but we’ve dropped something into your big mind this afternoon which will grow and grow until no man can see the end of it.” She dived into the bag. “There is a little slip here ‘Brain versus Soul’. I do hope, dear Professor, that you will read it and then pass it on.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53