The Stark Munro Letters, by Arthur Conan Doyle

V. MERTON ON THE MOORS, 5th March, 1882.

I was so delighted, my dear chap, to have your assurance that nothing that I have said or could say upon the subject of religion could offend you. It is difficult to tell you how pleased and relieved I was at your cordial letter. I have no one to whom I can talk upon such matters. I am all driven inwards, and thought turns sour when one lets it stagnate like that. It is a grand thing to be able to tell it all to a sympathetic listener — and the more so perhaps when he looks at it all from another standpoint. It steadies and sobers one.

Those whom I love best are those who have least sympathy with my struggles. They talk about having faith, as if it could be done by an act of volition. They might as well tell me to have black hair instead of red. I might simulate it perhaps by refusing to use my reason at all in religious matters. But I will never be traitor to the highest thing that God has given me. I WILL use it. It is more moral to use it and go wrong, than to forego it and be right. It is only a little foot-rule, and I have to measure Mount Everest with it; but it’s all I have, and I’ll never give it up while there’s breath between my lips.

With all respect to you, Bertie, it is very easy to be orthodox. A man who wanted mental peace and material advancement in this world would certainly choose to be so. As Smiles says —“A dead fish can float with the stream, but it takes a man to swim against it.” What could be more noble than the start and the starter of Christianity? How beautiful the upward struggle of an idea, like some sweet flower blossoming out amongst rubble and cinders! But, alas! to say that this idea was a final idea! That this scheme of thought was above the reason! That this gentle philosopher was that supreme intelligence to which we cannot even imagine a personality without irreverence!— all this will come to rank with the strangest delusions of mankind. And then how clouded has become that fine daybreak of Christianity! Its representatives have risen from the manger to the palace, from the fishing smack to the House of Lords. Nor is that other old potentate in the Vatican, with his art treasures, his guards, and his cellars of wine in a more logical position. They are all good and talented men, and in the market of brains are worth perhaps as much as they get. But how can they bring themselves to pose as the representatives of a creed, which, as they themselves expound it, is based upon humility, poverty, and self-denial? Not one of them who would not quote with approval the parable of the Wedding Guest. But try putting one of them out of their due precedence at the next Court reception. It happened some little time ago with a Cardinal, and England rang with his protests. How blind not to see how they would spring at one leap into the real first place if they would but resolutely claim the last as the special badge of their master!

What can we know? What are we all? Poor silly half-brained things peering out at the infinite, with the aspirations of angels and the instincts of beasts. But surely all will be well with us. If not, then He who made us is evil, which is not to be thought. Surely, then, all must go very well with us!

I feel ashamed when I read this over. My mind fills in all the trains of thought of which you have the rude ends peeping out from this tangle. Make what you can of it, dear Bertie, and believe that it all comes from my innermost heart. Above all may I be kept from becoming a partisan, and tempering with truth in order to sustain a case. Let me but get a hand on her skirt, and she may drag me where she will, if she will but turn her face from time to time that I may know her.

You’ll see from the address of this letter, Bertie, that I have left Scotland and am in Yorkshire. I have been here three months, and am now on the eve of leaving under the strangest circumstances and with the queerest prospects. Good old Cullingworth has turned out a trump, as I always knew he would. But, as usual, I am beginning at the wrong end, so here goes to give you an idea of what has been happening.

I told you in my last about my lunacy adventure and my ignominious return from Lochtully Castle. When I had settled for the flannel vests which my mother had ordered so lavishly I had only five pounds left out of my pay. With this, as it was the first money that I had ever earned im{sic} my life, I bought her a gold bangle, so behold me reduced at once to my usual empty pocketed condition. Well, it was something just to feel that I HAD earned money. It gave me an assurance that I might again.

I had not been at home more than a few days when my father called me into the study after breakfast one morning and spoke very seriously as to our financial position. He began the interview by unbuttoning his waistcoat and asking me to listen at his fifth intercostal space, two inches from the left sternal line. I did so, and was shocked to hear a well-marked mitral regurgitant murmur.

“It is of old standing,” said he, “but of late I have had a puffiness about the ankles and some renal symptoms which show me that it is beginning to tell.”

I tried to express my grief and sympathy, but he cut me short with some asperity.

“The point is,” said he, “that no insurance office would accept my life, and that I have been unable, owing to competition and increased expenses, to lay anything by. If I die soon (which, between ourselves, is by no means improbable), I must leave to your care your mother and the children. My practice is so entirely a personal one that I cannot hope to be able to hand over to you enough to afford a living.”

I thought of Cullingworth’s advice about going where you are least known. “I think,” said I, “that, my chances would be better away from here.”

“Then you must lose no time in establishing yourself,” said he. “Your position would be one of great responsibility if anything were to happen to me just now. I had hoped that you had found an excellent opening with the Saltires; but I fear that you can hardly expect to get on in the world, my boy, if you insult your employer’s religious and political view at his own table.”

It wasn’t a time to argue, so I said nothing. My father took a copy of the Lancet out of his desk, and turned up an advertisement which he had marked with a blue pencil. “Read this!” said he.

I’ve got it before me as I write. It runs thus: Qualified Assistant. Wanted at once in a large country and colliery practice. Thorough knowledge of obstetrics and dispensing indispensable. Ride and drive. £70 a year. Apply Dr. Horton Merton on the Moors, Yorkshire.”

“There might be an opening there,” said he. “I know Horton, and I am convinced that I can get you the appointment. It would at least give you the opportunity of looking round and seeing whether there was any vacancy there. How do you think it would suit you?”

Of course I could only answer that I was willing to turn my hand to anything. But that interview has left a mark upon me — a heavy ever-present gloom away at the back of my soul, which I am conscious of even when the cause of it has for a moment gone out of my thoughts.

I had enough to make a man serious before, when I had to face the world without money or interest. But now to think of the mother and my sisters and little Paul all leaning upon me when I cannot stand myself — it is a nightmare. Could there be anything more dreadful in life than to have those whom you love looking to you for help and to be unable to give it? But perhaps it won’t come to that. Perhaps my father may hold his own for years. Come what may, I am bound to think that all things are ordered for the best; though when the good is a furlong off, and we with our beetle eyes can only see three inches, it takes some confidence in general principles to pull us through.

Well, it was all fixed up; and down I came to Yorkshire. I wasn’t in the best of spirits when I started, Bertie, but they went down and down as I neared my destination. How people can dwell in such places passes my comprehension. What can life offer them to make up for these mutilations of the face of Nature? No woods, little grass, spouting chimneys, slate-coloured streams, sloping mounds of coke and slag, topped by the great wheels and pumps of the mines. Cinder-strewn paths, black as though stained by the weary miners who toil along them, lead through the tarnished fields to the rows of smoke-stained cottages. How can any young unmarried man accept such a lot while there’s an empty hammock in the navy, or a berth in a merchant forecastle? How many shillings a week is the breath of the ocean worth? It seems to me that if I were a poor man — well, upon my word, that “if” is rather funny when I think that many of the dwellers in those smoky cottages have twice my salary with half my expenses.

Well, as I said, my spirits sank lower and lower until they got down into the bulb, when on looking through the gathering gloom I saw “Merton” printed on the lamps of a dreary dismal station. I got out, and was standing beside my trunk and my hat-box, waiting for a porter, when up came a cheery-looking fellow and asked me whether I was Dr. Stark Munro. “I’m Horton,” said he; and shook hands cordially.

In that melancholy place the sight of him was like a fire on a frosty night. He was gaily dressed in the first place, check trousers, white waistcoat, a flower in his button hole. But the look of the man was very much to my heart. He was ruddy checked and black eyed, with a jolly stout figure and an honest genial smile. I felt as we clinched hands in the foggy grimy station that I had met a man and a friend.

His carriage was waiting, and we drove out to his residence, The Myrtles, where I was speedily introduced both to his family and his practice. The former is small, and the latter enormous. The wife is dead; but her mother, Mrs. White, keeps house for him; and there are two dear little girls, about five and seven. Then there is an unqualified assistant, a young Irish student, who, with the three maids, the coachman, and the stable boy, make up the whole establishment. When I tell you that we give four horses quite as much as they can do, you will have an idea of the ground we cover.

The house, a large square brick one, standing in its own grounds, is built on a small hill in an oasis of green fields. Beyond this, however, on every side the veil of smoke hangs over the country, with the mine pumps and the chimneys bristling out of it. It would be a dreadful place for an idle man: but we are all so busy that we have hardly time to think whether there’s a view or not.

Day and night we are at work; and yet the three months have been very pleasant ones to look back upon.

I’ll give you an idea of what a day’s work is like. We breakfast about nine o’clock, and immediately afterwards the morning patients begin to drop in. Many of them are very poor people, belonging to the colliery clubs, the principle of which is, that the members pay a little over a halfpenny a week all the year round, well or ill, in return for which they get medicine and attendance free. “Not much of a catch for the doctors,” you would say, but it is astonishing what competition there is among them to get the appointment. You see it is a certainty for one thing, and it leads indirectly to other little extras. Besides, it amounts up surprisingly. I have no doubt that Horton has five or six hundred a year from his clubs alone. On the other hand, you can imagine that club patients, since they pay the same in any case, don’t let their ailments go very far before they are round in the consulting room.

Well, then, by half-past nine we are in full blast. Horton is seeing the better patients in the consulting room, I am interviewing the poorer ones in the waiting room, and McCarthy, the Irishman, making up prescriptions as hard as he can tear. By the club rules, patients are bound to find their own bottles and corks.

They generally remember the bottle, but always forget the cork. “Ye must pay a pinny or ilse put your forefinger in,” says McCarthy. They have an idea that all the strength of the medicine goes if the bottle is open, so they trot off with their fingers stuck in the necks. They have the most singular notions about medicines. “It’s that strong that a spoon will stand oop in’t!” is one man’s description. Above all, they love to have two bottles, one with a solution of citric acid, and the other with carbonate of soda. When the mixture begins to fizz, they realise that there is indeed a science of medicine.

This sort of work, with vaccinations, bandagings, and minor surgery, takes us to nearly eleven o’clock, when we assemble in Horton’s room to make out the list. All the names of patients under treatment are pinned upon a big board. We sit round with note books open, and distribute those who must be seen between us. By the time this is done and the horses in, it is half-past eleven. Then away we all FLY upon our several tasks: Horton in a carriage and pair to see the employers; I in a dog cart to see the employed; and McCarthy on his good Irish legs to see those chronic cases to which a qualified man can do no good, and an unqualified no harm.

Well, we all work back again by two o’clock, when we find dinner waiting for us. We may or may not have finished our rounds. If not away we go again. If we have, Horton dictates his prescriptions, and strides off to bed with his black clay pipe in his mouth. He is the most abandoned smoker I have ever met with, collecting the dottles of his pipes in the evening, and smoking them the next morning before breakfast in the stable yard. When he has departed for his nap, McCarthy and I get to work on the medicine. There are, perhaps, fifty bottles to put up, with pills, ointment, etc. It is quite half-past four before we have them all laid out on the shelf addressed to the respective invalids. Then we have an hour or so of quiet, when we smoke or read, or box with the coachman in the harness room. After tea the evening’s work commences. From six to nine people are coming in for their medicine, or fresh patients wishing advice. When these are settled we have to see again any very grave cases which may be on the list; and so, about ten o’clock, we may hope to have another smoke, and perhaps a game of cards. Then it is a rare thing for a night to pass without one or other of us having to trudge off to a case which may take us two hours, or may take us ten. Hard work, as you see; but Horton is such a good chap, and works so hard himself, that one does not mind what one does. And then we are all like brothers in the house; our talk is just a rattle of chaff, and the patients are as homely as ourselves, so that the work becomes quite a pleasure to all of us.

Yes, Horton is a real right-down good fellow. His heart is broad and kind and generous. There is nothing petty in the man. He loves to see those around him happy; and the sight of his sturdy figure and jolly red face goes far to make them so. Nature meant him to be a healer; for he brightens up a sick room as he did the Merton station when first I set eyes upon him. Don’t imagine from my description that he is in any way soft, however. There is no one on whom one could be less likely to impose. He has a temper which is easily aflame and as easily appeased. A mistake in the dispensing may wake it up and then he bursts into the surgery like a whiff of cast wind, his checks red, his whiskers bristling, and his eyes malignant. The daybook is banged, the bottles rattled, the counter thumped, and then he is off again with five doors slamming behind him. We can trace his progress when the black mood is on him by those dwindling slams. Perhaps it is that McCarthy has labelled the cough mixture as the eye-wash, or sent an empty pillbox with an exhortation to take one every four hours. In any case the cyclone comes and goes, and by the next meal all is peace once more.

I said that the patients were very homely. Any one who is over-starched might well come here to be unstiffened. I confess that I did not quite fall in with it at once. When on one of my first mornings a club patient with his bottle under his arm came up to me and asked me if I were the doctor’s man, I sent him on to see the groom in the stable. But soon one falls into the humour of it. There is no offence meant; and why should any be taken? They are kindly, generous folk; and if they pay no respect to your profession in the abstract, and so rather hurt your dignity, they will be as leal and true as possible to yourself if you can win their respect. I like the grip of their greasy and blackened hands.

Another peculiarity of the district is that many of the manufacturers and colliery owners have risen from the workmen, and have (in some cases at least) retained their old manners and even their old dress. The other day Mrs. White, Horton’s mother-inlaw, had a violent sick headache, and, as we are all very fond of the kind old lady, we were trying to keep things as quiet as possible down-stairs. Suddenly there came a bang! bang! bang! at the knocker; and then in an instant another rattling series of knocks, as if a tethered donkey were trying to kick in the panel. After all our efforts for silence it was exasperating. I rushed to the door to find a seedy looking person just raising his hand to commence a fresh bombardment. “What on earth’s the matter?” I asked, only I may have been a little more emphatic. “Pain in the jaw,” said he. “You needn’t make such a noise,” said I; “other people are ill besides you.” “If I pay my money, young man, I’ll make such noise as I like.” And actually in cold blood he commenced a fresh assault upon the door. He would have gone on with his devil’s tattoo all morning if I had not led him down the path and seen him off the premises. An hour afterwards Horton whirled into the surgery, with a trail of banged doors behind him. “What’s this about Mr. Usher, Munro?” he asked. “He says that you were violent towards him.” “There was a club patient here who kept on banging the knocker,” said I; “I was afraid that he would disturb Mrs. White, and so I made him stop.” Horton’s eyes began to twinkle. “My boy,” said he, “that club patient, as you call him, is the richest man in Merton, and worth a hundred a year to me.” I have no doubt that he appeased him by some tale of my disgrace and degradation; but I have not heard anything of the matter since.

It has been good for me to be here, Bertie. It has brought me in close contact with the working classes, and made me realise what fine people they are. Because one drunkard goes home howling on a Saturday night, we are too apt to overlook the ninety-nine decent folk by their own firesides. I shall not make that mistake any more. The kindliness of the poor to the poor makes a man sick of himself. And their sweet patience! Depend upon it, if ever there is a popular rising, the wrongs which lead to it must be monstrous and indefensible. I think the excesses of the French Revolution are dreadful enough in themselves, but much more so as an index to the slow centuries of misery against which they were a mad protest. And then the wisdom of the poor! It is amusing to read the glib newspaper man writing about the ignorance of the masses. They don’t know the date of Magna Charta, or whom John of Gaunt married; but put a practical up-to-date problem before them, and see how unerringly they take the right side. Didn’t they put the Reform Bill through in the teeth of the opposition of the majority of the so-called educated classes? Didn’t they back the North against the South when nearly all our leaders went wrong? When universal arbitration and the suppression of the liquor traffic comes, is it not sure to be from the pressure of these humble folks? They look at life with clearer and more unselfish eyes. It’s an axiom, I think, that to heighten a nation’s wisdom you must lower its franchise.

I often have my doubts, Bertie, if there is such a thing as the existence of evil? If we could honestly convince ourselves that there was not, it would help us so much in formulating a rational religion. But don’t let us strain truth even for such an object as that. I must confess that there are some forms of vice, cruelty for example, for which it is hard to find any explanation, save indeed that it is a degenerate survival of that war-like ferocity which may once have been of service in helping to protect the community. No; let me be frank, and say that I can’t make cruelty fit into my scheme. But when you find that other evils, which seem at first sight black enough, really tend in the long run to the good of mankind, it may be hoped that those which continue to puzzle us may at last be found to serve the same end in some fashion which is now inexplicable.

It seems to me that the study of life by the physician vindicates the moral principles of right and wrong. But when you look closely it is a question whether that which is a wrong to the present community may not prove to have been a right to the interests of posterity. That sounds a little foggy; but I will make my meaning more clear when I say that I think right and wrong are both tools which are being wielded by those great hands which are shaping the destinies of the universe, that both are making for improvement; but that the action of the one is immediate, and that of the other more slow, but none the less certain. Our own distinction of right and wrong is founded too much upon the immediate convenience of the community, and does not inquire sufficiently deeply into the ultimate effect.

I have my own views about Nature’s methods, though I feel that it is rather like a beetle giving his opinions upon the milky way. However, they have the merit of being consoling; for if we could conscientiously see that sin served a purpose, and a good one, it would take some of the blackness out of life. It seems to me, then, that Nature, still working on the lines of evolution, strengthens the race in two ways. The one is by improving those who are morally strong, which is done by increased knowledge and broadening religious views; the other, and hardly less important, is by the killing off and extinction of those who are morally weak. This is accomplished by drink and immorality. These are really two of the most important forces which work for the ultimate perfection of the race. I picture them as two great invisible hands hovering over the garden of life and plucking up the weeds. Looked at in one’s own day, one can only see that they produce degradation and misery. But at the end of a third generation from then, what has happened? The line of the drunkard and of the debauchee, physically as well as morally weakened, is either extinct or on the way towards it. Struma, tubercle, nervous disease, have all lent a hand towards the pruning off of that rotten branch, and the average of the race is thereby improved. I believe from the little that I have seen of life, that it is a law which acts with startling swiftness, that a majority of drunkards never perpetuate their species at all, and that when the curse is hereditary, the second generation generally sees the end of it.

Don’t misunderstand me, and quote me as saying that it is a good thing for a nation that it should have many drunkards. Nothing of the kind. What I say is, that if a nation has many morally weak people, then it is good that there should be a means for checking those weaker strains. Nature has her devices, and drink is among them. When there are no more drunkards and reprobates, it means that the race is so advanced that it no longer needs such rough treatment. Then the all-wise Engineer will speed us along in some other fashion.

I’ve been thinking a good deal lately about this question of the uses of evil, and of how powerful a tool it is in the hands of the Creator. Last night the whole thing crystallised out quite suddenly into a small set of verses. Please jump them if they bore you.



God’s own best will bide the test,
And God’s own worst will fall;
But, best or worst or last or first,
He ordereth it all.


For ALL is good, if understood,
(Ah, could we understand!)
And right and ill are tools of skill
Held in His either hand.


The harlot and the anchorite,
The martyr and the rake,
Deftly He fashions each aright,
Its vital part to take.


Wisdom He makes to guide the sap
Where the high blossoms be;
And Lust to kill the weaker branch,
And Drink to trim the tree.


And Holiness that so the bole
Be solid at the core;
And Plague and Fever, that the whole
Be changing evermore.


He strews the microbes in the lung,
The blood-clot in the brain;
With test and test He picks the best,
Then tests them once again.


He tests the body and the mind,
He rings them o’er and o’er;
And if they crack, He throws them back,
And fashions them once more.


He chokes the infant throat with slime,
He sets the ferment free;
He builds the tiny tube of lime
That blocks the artery.


He lets the youthful dreamer store
Great projects in his brain,
Until he drops the fungus spore
That smears them out again.


He stores the milk that feeds the babe,
He dulls the tortured nerve;
He gives a hundred joys of sense
Where few or none might serve.


And still he trains the branch of good
Where the high blossoms be,
And wieldeth still the shears of ill
To prune and prune His tree.


So read I this — and as I try
To write it clear again,
I feel a second finger lie
Above mine on the pen.


Dim are these peering eyes of mine,
And dark what I have seen.
But be I wrong, the wrong is Thine,
Else had it never been.

I am quite ashamed of having been so didactic. But it is fine to think that sin may have an object and work towards good. My father says that I seem to look upon the universe as if it were my property, and can’t be happy until I know that all is right with it. Well, it does send a glow through me when I seem to catch a glimpse of the light behind the clouds.

And now for my big bit of news which is going to change my whole life. Whom do you think I had a letter from last Tuesday week? From Cullingworth, no less. It had no beginning, no end, was addressed all wrong, and written with a very thick quill pen upon the back of a prescription. How it ever reached me is a wonder. This is what he had to say:—

“Started here in Bradfield last June. Colossal success. My example must revolutionise medical practice. Rapidly making fortune. Have invention which is worth millions. Unless our Admiralty take it up shall make Brazil the leading naval power. Come down by next train on receiving this. Have plenty for you to do.”

That was the whole of this extraordinary letter; it had no name to it, which was certainly reasonable enough, since no one else could have written it. Knowing Cullingworth as well as I did, I took it with reservations and deductions. How could he have made so rapid and complete a success in a town in which he must have been a complete stranger? It was incredible. And yet there must be some truth in it, or he would not invite me to come down and test it. On the whole, I thought that I had better move very cautiously in the matter; for I was happy and snug where I was, and kept on putting a little by, which I hoped would form a nucleus to start me in practice. It is only a few pounds up to date, but in a year or so it might mount to something. I wrote to Cullingworth, therefore, thanking him for having remembered me, and explaining how matters stood.

I had had great difficulty in finding an opening, I said, and now that I had one I was loth to give it up save for a permanency.

Ten days passed, during which Cullingworth was silent. Then came a huge telegram.

“Your letter to hand. Why not call me a liar at once? I tell you that I have seen thirty thousand patients in the last year. My actual takings have been over four thousand pounds. All patients come to me. Would not cross the street to see Queen Victoria. You can have all visiting, all surgery, all midwifery. Make what you like of it. Will guarantee three hundred pounds the first year.”

Well, this began to look more like business — especially that last sentence. I took it to Horton, and asked his advice. His opinion was that I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. So it ended by my wiring back accepting the partnership — if it is a partnership — and tomorrow morning I am off to Bradfield with great hopes and a small portmanteau. I know how interested you are in the personality of Cullingworth — as every one is who comes, even at second hand, within range of his influence; and so you may rely upon it that I shall give you a very full and particular account of all that passes between us. I am looking forward immensely to seeing him again, and I trust we won’t have any rows.

Goodbye, old chap. My foot is upon the threshold of fortune. Congratulate me.

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