The Stark Munro Letters, by Arthur Conan Doyle


You write reproachfully, my dear Bertie, and you say that absence must have weakened our close friendship, since I have not sent you a line during this long seven months. The real truth of the matter is that I had not the heart to write to you until I could tell you something cheery; and something cheery has been terribly long in coming. At present I can only claim that the cloud has perhaps thinned a little at the edges.

You see by the address of this letter that I still hold my ground, but between ourselves it has been a terrible fight, and there have been times when that last plank of which old Whitehall wrote seemed to be slipping out of my clutch. I have ebbed and flowed, sometimes with a little money, sometimes without. At my best I was living hard, at my worst I was very close upon starvation. I have lived for a whole day upon the crust of a loaf, when I had ten pounds in silver in the drawer of my table. But those ten pounds had been most painfully scraped together for my quarter’s rent, and I would have tried twenty-four hours with a tight leather belt before I would have broken in upon it. For two days I could not raise a stamp to send a letter. I have smiled when I have read in my evening paper of the privations of our fellows in Egypt. Their broken victuals would have been a banquet to me. However, what odds how you take your carbon and nitrogen and oxygen, as long as you DO get it? The garrison of Oakley Villa has passed the worst, and there is no talk of surrender.

It was not that I have had no patients. They have come in as well as could be expected. Some, like the little old maid, who was the first, never returned. I fancy that a doctor who opened his own door forfeited their confidence. Others have become warm partisans. But they have nearly all been very poor people; and when you consider how many one and sixpences are necessary in order to make up the fifteen pounds which I must find every quarter for rent, taxes, gas and water, you will understand that even with some success, I have still found it a hard matter to keep anything in the portmanteau which serves me as larder. However, my boy, two quarters are paid up, and I enter upon a third one with my courage unabated. I have lost about a stone, but not my heart.

I have rather a vague recollection of when it was exactly that my last was written. I fancy that it must have been a fortnight after my start, immediately after my breach with Cullingworth. It’s rather hard to know where to begin when one has so many events to narrate, disconnected from each other, and trivial in themselves, yet which have each loomed large as I came upon them, though they look small enough now that they are so far astern. As I have mentioned Cullingworth, I may as well say first the little that is to be said about him. I answered his letter in the way which I have, I think, already described. I hardly expected to hear from him again; but my note had evidently stung him, and I had a brusque message in which he said that if I wished him to believe in my “bona-fides” (whatever he may have meant by that), I would return the money which I had had during the time that I was with him at Bradfield. To this I replied that the sum was about twelve pounds; that I still retained the message in which he had guaranteed me three hundred pounds if I came to Bradfield, that the balance in my favour was two hundred and eighty-eight pounds; and that unless I had a cheque by return, I should put the matter into the hands of my solicitor. This put a final end to our correspondence.

There was one other incident, however. One day after I had been in practice about two months, I observed a bearded commonplace-looking person lounging about on the other side of the road. In the afternoon he was again visible from my consulting-room window. When I saw him there once more next morning, my suspicions were aroused, and they became certainties when, a day or so afterwards, I came out of a patient’s house in a poor street, and saw the same fellow looking into a greengrocer’s shop upon the other side. I walked to the end of the street, waited round the corner, and met him as he came hurrying after.

“You can go back to Dr. Cullingworth, and tell him that I have as much to do as I care for,” said I. “If you spy upon me after this it will be at your own risk.”

He shuffled and coloured, but I walked on and saw him no more. There was no one on earth who could have had a motive for wanting to know exactly what I was doing except Cullingworth; and the man’s silence was enough in itself to prove that I was right. I have heard nothing of Cullingworth since.

I had a letter from my uncle in the Artillery, Sir Alexander Munro, shortly after my start, telling me that he had heard of my proceedings from my mother, and that he hoped to learn of my success. He is, as I think you know, an ardent Wesleyan, like all my father’s people, and he told me that the chief Wesleyan minister in the town was an old friend of his own, that he had learned from him that there was no Wesleyan doctor, and that, being of a Wesleyan stock myself, if I would present the enclosed letter of introduction to the minister, I should certainly find it very much to my advantage. I thought it over, Bertie, and it seemed to me that it would be playing it rather low down to use a religious organisation to my own advantage, when I condemned them in the abstract. It was a sore temptation, but I destroyed the letter.

I had one or two pieces of luck in the way of accidental cases. One (which was of immense importance to me) was that of a grocer named Haywood, who fell down in a fit outside the floor of his shop. I was passing on my way to see a poor labourer with typhoid. You may believe that I saw my chance, bustled in, treated the man, conciliated the wife, tickled the child, and gained over the whole household. He had these attacks periodically, and made an arrangement with me by which I was to deal with him, and we were to balance bills against each other. It was a ghoulish compact, by which a fit to him meant butter and bacon to me, while a spell of health for Haywood sent me back to dry bread and saveloys. However, it enabled me to put by for the rent many a shilling which must otherwise have gone in food. At last, however, the poor fellow died, and there was our final settlement.

Two small accidents occurred near my door (it was a busy crossing), and though I got little enough from either of them, I ran down to the newspaper office on each occasion, and had the gratification of seeing in the evening edition that “the driver, though much shaken, is pronounced by Dr. Stark Munro, of Oakley Villa, to have suffered no serious injury.” As Cullingworth used to say, it is hard enough for the young doctor to push his name into any publicity, and he must take what little chances he has. Perhaps the fathers of the profession would shake their heads over such a proceeding in a little provincial journal; but I was never able to see that any of them were very averse from seeing their own names appended to the bulletin of some sick statesman in The Times.

And then there came another and a more serious accident. This would be about two months after the beginning, though already I find it hard to put things in their due order. A lawyer in the town named Dickson was riding past my windows when the horse reared up and fell upon him. I was eating saveloys in the back room at the time, but I heard the noise and rushed to the door in time to meet the crowd who were carrying him in. They flooded into my house, thronged my hall, dirtied my consulting room, and even pushed their way into my back room, which they found elegantly furnished with a portmanteau, a lump of bread, and a cold sausage.

However, I had no thought for any one but my patient, who was groaning most dreadfully. I saw that his ribs were right, tested his joints, ran my hand down his limbs, and concluded that there was no break or dislocation. He had strained himself in such a way, however, that it was very painful to him to sit or to walk. I sent for an open carriage, therefore, and conveyed him to his home, I sitting with my most professional air, and he standing straight up between my hands. The carriage went at a walk, and the crowd trailed behind, with all the folk looking out of the windows, so that a more glorious advertisement could not be conceived. It looked like the advance guard of a circus. Once at his house, however, professional etiquette demanded that I should hand the case over to the family attendant, which I did with as good a grace as possible — not without some lingering hope that the old established practitioner might say, “You have taken such very good care of my patient, Dr. Munro, that I should not dream of removing him from your hands.” On the contrary, he snatched it away from me with avidity, and I retired with some credit, an excellent advertisement, and a guinea.

These are one or two of the points of interest which show above the dead monotony of my life — small enough, as you see, but even a sandhill looms large in Holland. In the main, it is a dreary sordid record of shillings gained and shillings spent — of scraping for this and scraping for that, with ever some fresh slip of blue paper fluttering down upon me, left so jauntily by the tax-collector, and meaning such a dead-weight pull to me. The irony of my paying a poor-rate used to amuse me. I should have been collecting it. Thrice at a crisis I pawned my watch, and thrice I rallied and rescued it. But how am I to interest you in the details of such a career? Now, if a fair countess had been so good as to slip on a piece of orange peel before my door, or if the chief merchant in the town had been saved by some tour-deforce upon my part, or if I had been summoned out at midnight to attend some nameless person in a lonely house with a princely fee for silence — then I should have something worthy of your attention. But the long months and months during which I listened to the throb of the charwoman’s heart and the rustle of the greengrocer’s lungs, present little which is not dull and dreary. No good angels came my way.

Wait a bit, though! One did. I was awakened at six in the morning one day by a ringing at my bell, and creeping to the angle of the stair I saw through the glass a stout gentleman in a top-hat outside. Much excited, with a thousand guesses capping one another in my head, I ran back, pulled on some clothes, rushed down, opened the door, and found myself in the grey morning light face to face with Horton. The good fellow had come down from Merton in an excursion train, and had been travelling all night. He had an umbrella under his arm, and two great straw baskets in each hand, which contained, when unpacked, a cold leg of mutton, half-a-dozen of beer, a bottle of port, and all sorts of pasties and luxuries. We had a great day together, and when he rejoined his excursion in the evening he left a very much cheerier man than he had found.

Talking of cheeriness, you misunderstand me, Bertie, if you think (as you seem to imply) that I take a dark view of things. It is true that I discard some consolations which you possess, because I cannot convince myself that they are genuine; but in this world, at least, I see immense reason for hope, and as to the next I am confident that all will be for the best. From annihilation to beatification I am ready to adapt myself to whatever the great Designer’s secret plan my be.

But there is much in the prospects of this world to set a man’s heart singing. Good is rising and evil sinking like oil and water in a bottle. The race is improving. There are far fewer criminal convictions. There is far more education. People sin less and think more. When I meet a brutal looking fellow I often think that he and his type may soon be as extinct as the great auk. I am not sure that in the interest of the ‘ologies we ought not to pickle a few specimens of Bill Sykes, to show our children’s children what sort of a person he was.

And then the more we progress the more we tend to progress. We advance not in arithmetical but in geometrical progression. We draw compound interest on the whole capital of knowledge and virtue which has been accumulated since the dawning of time. Some eighty thousand years are supposed to have existed between paleolithic and neolithic man. Yet in all that time he only learned to grind his flint stones instead of chipping them. But within our father’s lives what changes have there not been? The railway and the telegraph, chloroform and applied electricity. Ten years now go further than a thousand then, not so much on account of our finer intellects as because the light we have shows us the way to more. Primeval man stumbled along with peering eyes, and slow, uncertain footsteps. Now we walk briskly towards our unknown goal.

And I wonder what that goal is to be! I mean, of course, as far as this world is concerned. Ever since man first scratched hieroglyphics upon an ostracon, or scribbled with sepia upon papyrus, he must have wondered, as we wonder today. I suppose that we DO know a little more than they. We have an arc of about three thousand years given us, from which to calculate out the course to be described by our descendants; but that arc is so tiny when compared to the vast ages which Providence uses in working out its designs that our deductions from it must, I think, be uncertain. Will civilisation be swamped by barbarism? It happened once before, because the civilised were tiny specks of light in the midst of darkness. But what, for example, could break down the great country in which you dwell? No, our civilisation will endure and grow more complex. Man will live in the air and below the water. Preventive medicine will develop until old age shall become the sole cause of death. Education and a more socialistic scheme of society will do away with crime. The English-speaking races will unite, with their centre in the United States. Gradually the European States will follow their example. War will become rare, but more terrible. The forms of religion will be abandoned, but the essence will be maintained; so that one universal creed will embrace the whole civilised earth, which will preach trust in that central power, which will be as unknown then as now. That’s my horoscope, and after that the solar system may be ripe for picking. But Bertie Swanborough and Stark Munro will be blowing about on the west wind, and dirtying the panes of careful housewives long before the half of it has come to pass.

And then man himself will change, of course. The teeth are going rapidly. You’ve only to count the dentists’ brass plates in Birchespool to be sure of that. And the hair also. And the sight. Instinctively, when we think of the more advanced type of young man, we picture him as bald, and with double eye-glasses. I am an absolute animal myself, and my only sign of advance is that two of my back teeth are going. On the other hand, there is some evidence in favour of the development of a sixth sense-that of perception. If I had it now I should know that you are heartily weary of all my generalisations and dogmatism.

And certainly there must be a spice of dogmatism in it when we begin laying down laws about the future; for how do we know that there are not phases of nature coming upon us of which we have formed no conception? After all, a few seconds are a longer fraction of a day than an average life is of the period during which we know that the world has been in existence. But if a man lived only for a few seconds of daylight, his son the same, and his son the same, what would their united experiences after a hundred generations tell them of the phenomenon which we call night? So all our history and knowledge is no guarantee that our earth is not destined for experiences of which we can form no conception.

But to drop down from the universe to my own gnat’s buzz of an existence, I think I have told you everything that might interest you of the first six months of my venture. Towards the end of that time my little brother Paul came down — and the best of companions he is! He shares the discomforts of my little menage in the cheeriest spirit, takes me out of my blacker humours, goes long walks with me, is interested in all that interests me (I always talk to him exactly as if he were of my own age), and is quite ready to turn his hand to anything, from boot-blacking to medicine-carrying. His one dissipation is cutting out of paper, or buying in lead (on the rare occasion when we find a surplus), an army of little soldiers. I have brought a patient into the consulting room, and found a torrent of cavalry, infantry, and artillery pouring across the table. I have been myself attacked as I sat silently writing, and have looked up to find fringes of sharp-shooters pushing up towards me, columns of infantry in reserve, a troop of cavalry on my flank, while a battery of pea muzzle-loaders on the ridge of my medical dictionary has raked my whole position — with the round, smiling face of the general behind it all. I don’t know how many regiments he has on a peace footing; but if serious trouble were to break out, I am convinced that every sheet of paper in the house would spring to arms.

One morning I had a great idea which has had the effect of revolutionising our domestic economy. It was at the time when the worst pinch was over, and when we had got back as far as butter and occasional tobacco, with a milkman calling daily; which gives you a great sense of swagger when you have not been used to it.

“Paul, my boy,” said I, “I see my way to fitting up this house with a whole staff of servants for nothing.”

He looked pleased, but not surprised. He had a wholly unwarranted confidence in my powers; so that if I had suddenly declared that I saw my way to tilting Queen Victoria from her throne and seating myself upon it, he would have come without a question to aid and abet.

I took a piece of paper and wrote, “To Let. A basement floor, in exchange for services. Apply 1 Oakley Villas.”

“There, Paul,” said I, “run down to the Evening News office, and pay a shilling for three insertions.”

There was no need of three insertions. One would have been ample. Within half an hour of the appearance of the first edition, I had an applicant at the end of my bell-wire, and for the remainder of the evening Paul was ushering them in and I interviewing them with hardly a break. I should have been prepared at the outset to take anything in a petticoat; but as we saw the demand increase, our conditions went up and up; white aprons, proper dress for answering door, doing beds and boots, cooking,— we became more and more exacting. So at last we made our selection; a Miss Wotton, who asked leave to bring her sister with her. She was a hard-faced brusque-mannered person, whose appearance in a bachelor’s household was not likely to cause a scandal. Her nose was in itself a certificate of virtue. She was to bring her furniture into the basement, and I was to give her and her sister one of the two upper rooms for a bedroom.

They moved in a few days later. I was out at the time, and the first intimation I had was finding three little dogs in my hall when I returned. I had her up, and explained that this was a breach of contract, and that I had no thoughts of running a menagerie. She pleaded very hard for her little dogs, which it seems are a mother and two daughters of some rare breed; so I at last gave in on the point. The other sister appeared to lead a subterranean troglodytic sort of existence; for, though I caught a glimpse of her whisking round the corner at times, it was a good month before I could have sworn to her in a police court.

For a time the arrangement worked well, and then there came complications. One morning, coming down earlier than usual, I saw a small bearded man undoing the inside chain of my door. I captured him before he could get it open. “Well,” said I, “what’s this?”

“If you please, sir,” said he, “I’m Miss Wotton’s husband.”

Dreadful doubts of my housekeeper flashed across my mind, but I thought of her nose and was reassured. An examination revealed everything. She was a married woman. The lines were solemnly produced. Her husband was a seaman. She had passed as a miss, because she thought I was more likely to take a housekeeper without encumbrances. Her husband had come home unexpectedly from a long voyage, and had returned last night. And then — plot within plot — the other woman was not her sister, but a friend, whose name was Miss Williams. She thought I was more likely to take two sisters than two friends. So we all came to know who the other was; and I, having given Jack permission to remain, assigned the other top room to Miss Williams. From absolute solitude I seemed to be rapidly developing into the keeper of a casual ward.

It was a never-failing source of joy to us to see the procession pass on the way to their rooms at night. First came a dog; then Miss Williams, with a candle; then Jack; then another dog; and finally, Mrs. Wotton, with her candle in one hand and another dog under her arm. Jack was with us for three weeks; and as I made him holystone the whole place down twice a week until the boards were like a quarter deck, we got something out of him in return for his lodging.

About this time, finding a few shillings over and no expense imminent, I laid down a cellar, in the shape of a four and a half gallon cask of beer, with a firm resolution that it should never be touched save on high days and holidays, or when guests had to be entertained.

Shortly afterwards Jack went away to sea again; and after his departure there were several furious quarrels between the women down below, which filled the whole house with treble reproaches and repartees. At last one evening Miss Williams — the quiet one — came to me and announced with sobs that she must go. Mrs. Wotton made her life unbearable, she said. She was determined to be independent, and had fitted up a small shop in a poor quarter of the town. She was going now, at once, to take possession of it.

I was sorry, because I liked Miss Williams, and I said a few words to that effect. She got as far as the hall door, and then came rustling back again into the consulting room. “Take a drink of your own beer!” she cried, and vanished.

It sounded like some sort of slang imprecation. If she had said “Oh, pull up your socks!” I should have been less surprised. And then suddenly the words took a dreadful meaning in my mind, and I rushed to the cellar. The cask was tilted forward on the trestles. I struck it and it boomed like a drum. I turned the tap, and not one drop appeared. Let us draw a veil over the painful scene. Suffice it that Mrs. Wotton got her marching orders then and there — and that next day Paul and I found ourselves alone in the empty house once more.

But we were demoralised by luxury. We could no longer manage without a helper — especially now in the winter time, when fires had to be lit — the most heart-breaking task that a man can undertake. I bethought me of the quiet Miss Williams, and hunted her up in her shop. She was quite willing to come, and saw how she could get out of the rent; but the difficulty lay with her stock. This sounded formidable at first, but when I came to learn that the whole thing had cost eleven shillings, it did not appear insurmountable. In half an hour my watch was pawned, and the affair concluded. I returned with an excellent housekeeper, and with a larger basketful of inferior Swedish matches, bootlaces, cakes of black lead, and little figures made of sugar than I should have thought it possible to get for the money. So now we have settled down, and I hope that a period of comparative peace lies before us.

Good-bye, old chap, and never think that I forget you. Your letters are read and re-read with avidity. I think I have every line you ever wrote me. You simply knock Paley out every time. I am so glad that you got out of that brewery business all right. For a time I was really afraid that you must either lose your money or else risk more upon the shares. I can only thank you for your kind offer of blank cheques.

It is wonderful that you should have slipped back into your American life so easily after your English hiatus. As you say, however, it is not a change but only a modification, since the root idea is the same in each. Is it not strange how the two great brothers are led to misunderstand each other? A man is punished for private libel (over here at any rate), although the consequences can only be slight. But a man may perpetrate international libel, which is a very heinous and far-reaching offence, and there is no law in the world which can punish him. Think of the contemptible crew of journalists and satirists who for ever picture the Englishman as haughty and h-dropping, or the American as vulgar and expectorating. If some millionaire would give them all a trip round the world we should have some rest — and if the plug came out of the boat midway it would be more restful still. And your vote-hunting politicians with their tail-twisting campaigns, and our editors of the supercilious weeklies with their inane tone of superiority, if they were all aboard how much clearer we should be! Once more adieu, and good luck!

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