The Stark Munro Letters, by Arthur Conan Doyle

IX. THE PARADE, BRADFIELD, 23rd April, 1882.

I have some recollection, my dear Bertie, that when I wrote you a rambling disconnected sort of letter about three weeks ago, I wound up by saying that I might have something more interesting to tell you next time. Well, so it has turned out! The whole game is up here, and I am off upon a fresh line of rails altogether. Cullingworth is to go one way and I another; and yet I am glad to say that there has not been any quarrel between us. As usual, I have begun my letter at the end, but I’ll work up to it more deliberately now, and let you know exactly how it came about.

And first of all, a thousand thanks for your two long letters, which lie before me as I write. There is little enough personal news in them, but I can quite understand that the quiet happy routine of your life reels off very smoothly from week to week. On the other hand, you give me plenty of proof of that inner life which is to me so very much more interesting. After all, we may very well agree to differ. You think some things are proved which I don’t believe in. You think some things edifying which do not appear to me to be so. Well, I know that you are perfectly honest in your belief. I am sure you give me credit for being the same. The future wilt decide which of us is right. The survival of the truest is a constant law, I fancy, though it must be acknowledged that it is very slow in action.

You make a mistake, however, in assuming that those who think as I do are such a miserable minority. The whole essence of our thought is independence and individual judgment; so that we don’t get welded into single bodies as the churches do, and have no opportunity of testing our own strength. There are, no doubt, all shades of opinion among us; but if you merely include those who in their private hearts disbelieve the doctrines usually accepted, and think that sectarian churches tend to evil rather than good, I fancy that the figures would be rather surprising. When I read your letter, I made a list of all those men with whom I ever had intimate talk upon such matters. I got seventeen names, with four orthodox. Cullingworth tried and got twelve names, with one orthodox. From all sides, one hears that every church complains of the absence of men in the congregations. The women predominate three to one. Is it that women are more earnest than men? I think it is quite the other way. But the men are following their reason, and the women their emotion. It is the women only who keep orthodoxy alive.

No, you mustn’t be too sure of that majority of yours. Taking the scientific, the medical, the professional classes, I question whether it exists at all. The clergy, busy in their own limited circles, and coming in contact only with those who agree with them, have not realised how largely the rising generation has outgrown them. And (with exceptions like yourself) it is not the most lax, but the BEST of the younger men, the larger-brained and the larger-hearted, who have shaken themselves most clear of the old theology. They cannot abide its want of charity, it’s limitations of God’s favours, its claims for a special Providence, its dogmatism about what seems to be false, its conflict with what we know to be true. We KNOW that man has ascended, not descended; so what is the value of a scheme of thought which depends upon the supposition of his fall? We KNOW that the world was not made in six days, that the sun could never be stopped since it was never moving, and that no man ever lived three days in a fish; so what becomes of the inspiration of a book which contains such statements? “Truth, though it crush me!”

There, now, you see what comes of waving the red rag! Let me make a concession to appease you. I do believe that Christianity in its different forms has been the very best thing for the world during all this long barbarous epoch. Of course, it has been the best thing, else Providence would not have permitted it. The engineer knows best what tools to use in strengthening his own machine. But when you say that this is the best and last tool which will be used, you are laying down the law a little too much.

Now, first of all, I want to tell you about how the practice has been going on. The week after I wrote last showed a slight relapse. I only took two pounds. But on the next I took a sudden jump up to three pounds seven shillings, and this last week I took three pounds ten. So it was steadily creeping up; and I really thought that I saw my road clear in front of me, when the bolt suddenly fell from the blue. There were reasons, however, which prevented my being very disappointed when it did come down; and these I must make clear to you.

I think that I mentioned, when I gave you a short sketch of my dear old mother, that she has a very high standard of family honour. She really tries to live up to the Percy-Plantagenet blend which is said to flow in our veins; and it is only our empty pockets which prevent her from sailing through life, like the grande dame that she is, throwing largesse to right and left, with her head in the air and her soul in the clouds. I have often heard her say (and I am quite convinced that she meant it) that she would far rather see any one of us in our graves than know that we had committed a dishonourable action. Yes; for all her softness and femininity, she could freeze iron-hard at the suspicion of baseness; and I have seen the blood flush from her white cap to her lace collar when she has heard of an act of meanness.

Well, she had heard some details about the Cullingworths which displeased her when I first knew them. Then came the smash-up at Avonmouth, and my mother liked them less and less. She was averse to my joining them in Bradfield, and it was only by my sudden movement at the end that I escaped a regular prohibition. When I got there, the very first question she asked (when I told her of their prosperity) was whether they had paid their Avonmouth creditors. I was compelled to answer that they had not. In reply she wrote imploring me to come away, and saying that, poor as our family was, none of them had ever fallen so low as to enter into a business partnership with a man of unscrupulous character and doubtful antecedents. I answered that Cullingworth spoke sometimes of paying his creditors, that Mrs. Cullingworth was in favour of it also, and that it seemed to me to be unreasonable to expect that I should sacrifice a good opening on account of things with which I had no connection. I assured her that if Cullingworth did anything from then onwards which seemed to me dishonourable, I would disassociate myself from him, and I mentioned that I had already refused to adopt some of his professional methods. Well, in reply to this, my mother wrote a pretty violent letter about what she thought of Cullingworth, which led to another from me defending him, and showing that there were some deep and noble traits in his character. That produced another still more outspoken letter from her; and so the correspondence went on, she attacking and I defending, until a serious breach seemed to be opening between us. I refrained from writing at last, not out of ill temper, but because I thought that if she were given time she would cool down, and take, perhaps, a more reasonable view of the situation. My father, from the short note which he sent me, seemed to think the whole business absolutely irregular, and to refuse to believe my accounts of Cullingworth’s practice and receipts. This double opposition, from the very people whose interests had really been nearest my heart in the whole affair, caused me to be less disappointed than I should otherwise have been when it all came to an end. In fact, I was quite in the humour to finish it myself when Fate did it for me.

Now about the Cullingworths. Madam is as amiable as ever; and yet somehow, unless I am deceiving myself, she has changed somewhat of late in her feelings towards me. I have turned upon her suddenly more than once, and caught the skirt of a glance which was little less than malignant. In one or two small matters I have also detected a hardness in her which I had never observed before. Is it that I have intruded too much into their family life? Have I come between the husband and the wife? Goodness knows I have striven with all my little stock of tact to avoid doing so. And yet I have often felt that my position was a false one. Perhaps a young man attaches too much importance to a woman’s glances and gestures. He wishes to assign a definite meaning to each, when they may be only the passing caprice of the moment. Ah, well, I have nothing to blame myself with; and in any case it will soon be all over now.

And then I have seen something of the same sort in Cullingworth; but he is so strange a being that I never attach much importance to his variations. He glares at me like an angry bull occasionally; and then when I ask him what is the matter, he growls out, “Oh, nothing!” and turns on his heel. Then at other times he is so cordial and friendly that he almost overdoes it, and I find myself wondering whether he is not acting. It must seem ungracious to you that I should speak so of a man who has been my benefactor; and it seems so to me also, but still that IS the impression which he leaves upon me sometimes. It’s an absurd idea, too; for what possible object could his wife and he have in pretending to be amiable, if they did not really feel so? And yet you know the feeling that you get when a man smiles with his lips and not with his eyes.

One day we went to the Central Hotel billiard-room in the evening to play a match. Our form is just about the same, and we should have bad an enjoyable game if it had not been for that queer temper of his. He had been in a sullen humour the whole day, pretending not to hear what I said to him, or else giving snappy answers, and looking like a thunder-cloud. I was determined not to have a row, so I took no notice at all of his continual provocations, which, instead of pacifying him, seemed to encourage him to become more offensive. At the end of the match, wanting two to win, I put down the white which was in the jaws of the pocket. He cried out that this was bad form. I contended that it was folly to refrain from doing it when one was only two off game, and, on his continuing to make remarks, I appealed to the marker, who took the same view as I did. This opposition only increased his anger, and he suddenly broke out into most violent language, abusing me in unmeasured terms. I said to him, “If you have anything to say to me, Cullingworth, come out into the street and say it there. It’s a caddish thing to speak like that before the marker.” He lifted his cue, and I thought he was going to strike me with it; but he flung it clattering on the floor, and chucked half a crown to the man. When we got out in the street, he began at once in as offensive a tone as ever.

“That’s enough, Cullingworth,” I said. “I’ve stood already rather more than I can carry.”

We were in the bright light of a shop window at that moment. He looked at me, and looked a second time, uncertain what to do. At any moment I might have found myself in a desperate street row with a man who was my medical partner. I gave no provocation, but kept myself keenly on the alert. Suddenly, to my relief, he burst out laughing (such a roar as made the people stop on the other side of the road), and passing his arm through mine, he hurried me down the street.

“Devil of a temper you’ve got, Munro,” said he. “By Crums, it’s hardly safe to go out with you. I never know what you’re going to do next. Eh, what? You mustn’t be peppery with me, though; for I mean well towards you, as you’ll see before you get finished with me.”

I have told you this trivial little scene, Bertie, to show the strange way in which Cullingworth springs quarrels upon me; suddenly, without the slightest possible provocation, taking a most offensive tone, and then when he sees he has goaded me to the edge of my endurance, turning the whole thing to chaff. This has occurred again and again recently; and, when coupled with the change in Mrs. Cullingworth’s demeanour, makes one feel that something has happened to change one’s relations. What that something may be, I give you my word that I have no more idea than you have. Between their coldness, however, and my unpleasant correspondence with my mother, I was often very sorry that I had not taken the South American liner.

Cullingworth is preparing for the issue of our new paper. He has carried the matter through with his usual energy, but he doesn’t know enough about local affairs to be able to write about them, and it is a question whether he can interest the people here in anything else. At present we are prepared to run the paper single-handed; we are working seven hours a day at the practice; we are building a stable; and in our odd hours we are practising at our magnetic ship-protector, with which Cullingworth is still well pleased, though he wants to get it more perfect before submitting it to the Admiralty.

His mind runs rather on naval architecture at present, and he has been devising an ingenious method of preventing wooden-sided vessels from being crippled by artillery fire. I did not think much of his magnetic attractor, because it seemed to me that even if it had all the success that he claimed for it, it would merely have the effect of substituting some other metal for steel in the manufacture of shells. This new project has, however, more to recommend it. This is the idea, as put in his own words; and, as he has been speaking of little else for the last two days, I ought to remember them.

“If you’ve got your armour there, laddie, it will be pierced,” says he. “Put up forty feet thick of steel; and I’ll build a gun that will knock it into tooth-powder. It would blow away, and set the folk coughing after I had one shot at it. But you can’t pierce armour which only drops after the shot has passed through. What’s the good of it? Why it keeps out the water. That’s the main thing, after all. I call it the Cullingworth spring-shutter screen. Eh, what, Munro? I wouldn’t take a quarter of a million for the idea. You see how it would work. Spring shutters are furled all along the top of the bulwarks where the hammocks used to be. They are in sections, three feet broad, we will say, and capable when let down of reaching the keel. Very well! Enemy sends a shot through Section A of the side. Section A shutter is lowered. Only a thin film, you see, but enough to form a temporary plug. Enemy’s ram knocks in sections B, C, D of the side. What do you do? Founder? Not a bit; you lower sections B, C, and D of Cullingworth’s spring-shutter screen. Or you knock a hole on a rock. The same thing again. It’s a ludicrous sight to see a big ship founder when so simple a precaution would absolutely save her. And it’s equally good for ironclads also. A shot often starts their plates and admits water without breaking them. Down go your shutters, and all is well.”

That’s his idea, and he is busy on a model made out of the steels of his wife’s stays. It sounds plausible, but he has the knack of making anything plausible when he is allowed to slap his hands and bellow.

We are both writing novels, but I fear that the results don’t bear out his theory that a man may do anything which he sets his will to. I thought mine was not so bad (I have done nine chapters), but Cullingworth says he has read it all before, and that it is much too conventional. We must rivet the attention of the public from the start, he says. Certainly, his own is calculated to do so, for it seems to me to be wild rubbish. The end of his first chapter is the only tolerable point that he has made. A fraudulent old baronet is running race-horses on the cross. His son, who is just coming of age, is an innocent youth. The news of the great race of the year has just been received.

“Sir Robert tottered into the room with dry lips and a ghastly face.

“‘My poor boy!’ he cried. ‘Prepare for the worst!’

“‘Our horse has lost!’ cried the young heir, springing from his chair.

“The old man threw himself in agony upon the rug. ‘No, no!’ he screamed. ‘IT HAS WON!’”

Most of it, however, is poor stuff, and we are each agreed that the other was never meant for a novelist.

So much for our domestic proceedings, and all these little details which you say you like to hear of. Now I must tell you of the great big change in my affairs, and how it came about.

I have told you about the strange, sulky behaviour of Cullingworth, which has been deepening from day to day. Well, it seemed to reach a climax this morning, and on our way to the rooms I could hardly get a word out of him. The place was fairly crowded with patients, but my own share was rather below the average. When I had finished I added a chapter to my novel, and waited until he and his wife were ready for the daily bag-carrying homewards.

It was half-past three before he had done. I heard him stamp out into the passage, and a moment later he came banging into my room. I saw in an instant that some sort of a crisis had come.

“Munro,” he cried, “this practice is going to the devil!”

“Ah!” said I. “How’s that?

“It’s going to little pieces, Munro. I’ve been taking figures, and I know what I am talking about. A month ago I was seeing six hundred a week. Then I dropped to five hundred and eighty; then to five-seventy-five; and now to five-sixty. What do you think of that?”

“To be honest, I don’t think much of it,” I answered. “The summer is coming on. You are losing all your coughs and colds and sore throats. Every practice must dwindle at this time of year.”

“That’s all very well,” said he, pacing up and down the room, with his hands thrust into his pockets, and his great shaggy eyebrows knotted together. “You may put it down to that, but I think quite differently about it.”

“What do you put it down to, then?”

“To you.”

“How’s that?” I asked.

“Well,” said he, “you must allow that it is a very queer coincidence — if it is a coincidence — that from the day when your plate was put up my practice has taken a turn for the worse.”

“I should be very sorry to think it was cause and effect,” I answered. “How do you think that my presence could have hurt you?”

“I’ll tell you frankly, old chap,” said he, putting on suddenly that sort of forced smile which always seems to me to have a touch of a sneer in it. “You see, many of my patients are simple country folk, half imbecile for the most part, but then the half-crown of an imbecile is as good as any other half-crown. They come to my door, and they see two names, and their silly jaws begin to drop, and they say to each other, ‘There’s two of ’em here. It’s Dr. Cullingworth we want to see, but if we go in we’ll be shown as likely as not to Dr. Munro.’ So it ends in some cases in their not coming at all. Then there are the women. Women don’t care a toss whether you are a Solomon, or whether you are hot from an asylum. It’s all personal with them. You fetch them, or you don’t fetch them. I know how to work them, but they won’t come if they think they are going to be turned over to anybody else. That’s what I put the falling away down to.”

“Well,” said I, “that’s easily set right.” I marched out of the room and downstairs, with both Cullingworth and his wife behind me. Into the yard I went, and, picking up a big hammer, I started for the front door, with the pair still at my heels. I got the forked end of the hammer under my plate, and with a good wrench I brought the whole thing clattering on to the pavement.

“That won’t interfere with you any more,” said I.

“What do you intend to do now?” he asked.

“Oh, I shall find plenty to do. Don’t you worry about that,” I answered.

“Oh, but this is all rot,” said he, picking up the plate. “Come along upstairs and let us see where we stand.”

We filed off once more, he leading with the huge brass “Dr. Munro” under his arm; then the little woman, and then this rather perturbed and bemuddled young man. He and his wife sat on the deal table in the consulting room, like a hawk and a turtle-dove on the same perch, while I leaned against the mantelpiece with my hands in my pockets. Nothing could be more prosaic and informal; but I knew very well that I was at a crisis of my life. Before, it was only a choosing between two roads. Now my main track had run suddenly to nothing, and I must go back or find a bye-path.

“It’s this way, Cullingworth,” said I. “I am very much obliged to you, and to you, Mrs. Cullingworth, for all your kindness and good wishes, but I did not come here to spoil your practice; and, after what you have told me, it is quite impossible for me to work with you any more.”

“Well, my boy,” said he, “I am inclined myself to think that we should do better apart; and that’s Hetty’s idea also, only she is too polite to say so.”

“It is a time for plain speaking,” I answered, “and we may as well thoroughly understand each other. If I have done your practice any harm, I assure you that I am heartily sorry, and I shall do all I can to repair it. I cannot say more.”

“What are you going to do, then?” asked Cullingworth.

“I shall either go to sea or else start a practice on my own account.”

“But you have no money.”

“Neither had you when you started.”

“Ah, that was different. Still, it may be that you are right. You’ll find it a stiff pull at first.”

“Oh, I am quite prepared for that.”

“Well, you know, Munro, I feel that I am responsible to you to some extent, since I persuaded you not to take that ship the other day.”

“It was a pity, but it can’t be helped.”

“We must do what we can to make up. Now, I tell you what I am prepared to do. I was talking about it with Hetty this morning, and she thought as I did. If we were to allow you one pound a week until you got your legs under you, it would encourage you to start for yourself, and you could pay it back as soon as you were able.”

“It is very kind of you,” said I. “If you would let the matter stand just now, I should like just to take a short walk by myself, and to think it all over.”

So the Cullingworths did their bag-procession through the doctors’ quarter alone today, and I walked to the park, where I sat down on one of the seats, lit a cigar, and thought the whole matter over. I was down on my luck at first; but the balmy air and the smell of spring and the budding flowers soon set me right again. I began my last letter among the stars, and I am inclined to finish this one among the flowers, for they are rare companions when one’s mind is troubled. Most things on this earth, from a woman’s beauty to the taste of a nectarine, seem to be the various baits with which Nature lures her silly gudgeons. They shall eat, they shall propagate, and for the sake of pleasing themselves they shall hurry down the road which has been laid out for them. But there lurks no bribe in the smell and beauty of the flower. It’s charm has no ulterior motive.

Well, I sat down there and brooded. In my heart I did not believe that Cullingworth had taken alarm at so trifling a decrease. That could not have been his real reason for driving me from the practice. He had found me in the way in his domestic life, no doubt, and he had devised this excuse for getting rid of me. Whatever the reason was, it was sufficiently plain that all my hopes of building up a surgical practice, which should keep parallel with his medical one, were for ever at an end. On the whole, bearing in mind my mother’s opposition, and the continual janglings which we had had during the last few weeks, I was not very sorry. On the contrary, a sudden curious little thrill of happiness took me somewhere about the back of the midriff, and, as a drift of rooks passed cawing over my head, I began cawing also in the overflow of my spirits.

And then as I walked back I considered how far I could avail myself of this money from Cullingworth. It was not much, but it would be madness to start without it, for I had sent home the little which I had saved at Horton’s. I had not more than six pounds in the whole world. I reflected that the money could make no difference to Cullingworth, with his large income, while it made a vast one to me. I should repay him in a year or two at the latest. Perhaps I might get on so well as to be able to dispense with it almost at once. There could be no doubt that it was the representations of Cullingworth as to my future prospects in Bradfield which had made me refuse the excellent appointment in the Decia. I need not therefore have any scruples at accepting some temporary assistance from his hands. On my return, I told him that I had decided to do so, and thanked him at the same time for his generosity.

“That’s all right,” said he. “Hetty, my dear, get a bottle of fez in, and we shall drink success to Munro’s new venture.”

It seemed only the other day that he had been drinking my entrance into partnership; and here we were, the same three, sipping good luck to my exit from it! I’m afraid our second ceremony was on both sides the heartier of the two.

“I must decide now where I am to start,” I remarked. “What I want is some nice little town where all the people are rich and ill.”

“I suppose you wouldn’t care to settle here in Bradfield?” asked Cullingworth.

“Well, I cannot see much point in that. If I harmed you as a partner, I might do so more as a rival. If I succeeded it might be at your expense.”

“Well,” said he, “choose your town, and my offer still holds good.”

We hunted out an atlas, and laid the map of England before us on the table. Cities and villages lay beneath me as thick as freckles, and yet there was nothing to lead me to choose one rather than another.

“I think it should be some place large enough to give you plenty of room for expansion,” said he.

“Not too near London,” added Mrs. Cullingworth.

“And, above all, a place where I know nobody,” said I. “I can rough it by myself, but I can’t keep up appearances before visitors.”

“What do you say to Stockwell?” said Cullingworth, putting the amber of his pipe upon a town within thirty miles of Bradfield.

I had hardly heard of the place, but I raised my glass. “Well, here’s to Stockwell!” I cried; “I shall go there tomorrow morning and prospect.” We all drank the toast (as you will do at Lowell when you read this); and so it is arranged, and you may rely upon it that I shall give you a full and particular account of the result.

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