My dear old chap, things have been happening, and I must tell you all about it. Sympathy is a strange thing; for though I never see you, the mere fact that you over there in New England are keenly interested in what I am doing and thinking, makes my own life in old England very much more interesting to me. The thought of you is like a good staff in my right hand.
The unexpected has happened so continually in my life that it has ceased to deserve the name. You remember that in my last I had received my dismissal, and was on the eve of starting for the little country town of Stockwell to see if there were any sign of a possible practice there. Well, in the morning, before I came down to breakfast, I was putting one or two things into a bag, when there came a timid knock at my door, and there was Mrs. Cullingworth in her dressing-jacket, with her hair down her back.
“Would you mind coming down and seeing James, Dr. Munro?” said she. “He has been very strange all night, and I am afraid that he is ill.”
Down I went, and found Cullingworth looking rather red in the face, and a trifle wild about the eyes. He was sitting up in bed, with the neck of his nightgown open, and an acute angle of hairy chest exposed. He had a sheet of paper, a pencil, and a clinical thermometer upon the coverlet in front of him.
“Deuced interesting thing, Munro,” said he. “Come and look at this temperature chart. I’ve been taking it every quarter of an hour since I couldn’t sleep, and it’s up and down till it looks like the mountains in the geography books. We’ll have some drugs in—eh, what, Munro?—and by Crums, we’ll revolutionise all their ideas about fevers. I’ll write a pamphlet from personal experiment that will make all their books clean out of date, and they’ll have to tear them up and wrap sandwiches in them.”
He was talking in the rapid slurring way of a man who has trouble coming. I looked at his chart, and saw that he was over 102 degrees. His pulse rub-a-dubbed under my fingers, and his skin sent a glow into my hand.
“Any symptoms?” I asked, sitting down on the side of his bed.
“Tongue like a nutmeg-grater,” said he, thrusting it out. “Frontal headache, renal pains, no appetite, and a mouse nibbling inside my left elbow. That’s as far as we’ve got at present.”
“I’ll tell you what it is, Cullingworth,” said I. “You have a touch of rheumatic fever, and you will have to lie by for a bit.”
“Lie by be hanged!” he cried. “I’ve got a hundred people to see to-day. My boy, I must be down there if I have the rattle in my throat. I didn’t build up a practice to have it ruined by a few ounces of lactic acid.”
“James dear, you can easily build up another one,” said his wife, in her cooing voice. “You must do what Dr. Munro tells you.”
“Well,” said I, “you’ll want looking after, and your practice will want looking after, and I am quite ready to do both. But I won’t take the responsibility unless you give me your word that you will do what you are told.”
“If I’m to have any doctoring it must come from you, laddie,” he said; “for if I was to turn my toes up in the public square, there’s not a man here who would do more than sign my certificate. By Crums, they might get the salts and oxalic acid mixed up if they came to treat me, for there’s no love lost between us. But I want to go down to the practice all the same.”
“It’s out of the question. You know the sequel of this complaint. You’ll have endocarditis, embolism, thrombosis, metastatic abscesses—you know the danger as well as I do.”
He sank back into his bed laughing.
“I take my complaints one at a time, thank you,” said he. “I wouldn’t be so greedy as to have all those—eh, Munro, what?—when many another poor devil hasn’t got an ache to his back.” The four posts of his bed quivered with his laughter. “Do what you like, laddie—but I say, mind, if anything should happen, no tomfoolery over my grave. If you put so much as a stone there, by Crums, Munro, I’ll come back in the dead of the night and plant it on the pit of your stomach.”
Nearly three weeks passed before he could set his foot to the ground again. He wasn’t such a bad patient, after all; but he rather complicated my treatment by getting in all sorts of phials and powders, and trying experiments upon his own symptoms. It was impossible to keep him quiet, and our only means of retaining him in bed was to allow him all the work that he could do there.
He wrote copiously, built up models of his patent screen, and banged off pistols at his magnetic target, which he had rigged tip on the mantelpiece. Nature has given him a constitution of steel, however, and he shook off his malady more quickly and more thoroughly than the most docile of sufferers.
In the meantime, Mrs. Cullingworth and I ran the practice together. As a substitute for him I was a dreadful failure. They would not believe in me in the least. I felt that I was as flat as water after champagne. I could not address them from the stairs, nor push them about, nor prophesy to the anaeemic women. I was much too solemn and demure after what they had been accustomed to. However, I held the thing together as best I could, and I don’t think that he found the practice much the worse when he was able to take it over. I could not descend to what I thought was unprofessional, but I did my very best to keep the wheels turning.
Well, I know that I am a shocking bad story-teller, but I just try to get things as near the truth as I can manage it. If I only knew how to colour it up, I could make some of this better reading. I can get along when I am on one line, but it is when I have to bring in a second line of events that I understand what C. means when he says that I will never be able to keep myself in nibs by what I earn in literature.
The second line is this, that I had written to my mother on the same night that I wrote to you last, telling her that there need no longer be a shadow of a disagreement between us, because everything was arranged, and I was going to leave Cullingworth at once. Then within a couple of posts I had to write again and announce that my departure was indefinitely postponed, and that I was actually doing his whole practice. Well, the dear old lady was very angry. I don’t suppose she quite understood how temporary the necessity was, and how impossible it would have been to leave Cullingworth in the lurch. She was silent for nearly three weeks, and then she wrote a very stinging letter (and she handles her adjectives most deftly when she likes). She went so far as to say that Cullingworth was a “bankrupt swindler,” and that I had dragged the family honour in the dirt by my prolonged association with him. This letter came on the morning of the very last day that my patient was confined to the house. When I returned from work I found him sitting in his dressing-gown downstairs. His wife, who had driven home, was beside him. To my surprise, when I congratulated him on being fit for work again, his manner (which had been most genial during his illness) was as ungracious as before our last explanation. His wife, too, seemed to avoid my eye, and cocked her chin at me when she spoke.
“Yes, I’ll take it over to-morrow,” said he. “What do I owe you for looking after it?”
“Oh, it was all in the day’s work,” said I.
“Thank you, I had rather have strict business,” he answered. “You know where you are then, but a favour is a thing with no end to it. What d’you put it at?”
“I never thought about it in that light.”
“Well, think about it now. A locum would have cost me four guineas a week. Four fours sixteen. Make it twenty. Well, I promised to allow you a pound a week, and you were to pay it back. I’ll put twenty pounds to your credit account, and you’ll have it every week as sure as Saturday.”
“Thank you,” said I. “If you are so anxious to make a business matter of it, you can arrange it so.” I could not make out, and cannot make out now, what had happened to freeze them up so; but I supposed that they had been talking it over, and came to the conclusion that I was settling down too much upon the old lines, and that they must remind me that I was under orders to quit. They might have done it with more tact.
To cut a long story short, on the very day that Cullingworth was able to resume his work I started off for Stockwell, taking with me only a bag, for it was merely a prospecting expedition, and I intended to return for my luggage if I saw reason for hope. Alas! there was not the faintest. The sight of the place would have damped the most sanguine man that ever lived. It is one of those picturesque little English towns with a history and little else. A Roman trench and a Norman keep are its principal products. But to me the most amazing thing about it was the cloud of doctors which had settled upon it. A double row of brass plates flanked the principal street. Where their patients came from I could not imagine, unless they practised upon each other. The host of the “Bull” where I had my modest lunch explained the mystery to some extent by saying that, as there was pure country with hardly a hamlet for nearly twelve miles in every direction, it was in these scattered farm-houses that the Stockwell doctors found their patients. As I chatted with him a middle-aged, dusty-booted man trudged up the street. “There’s Dr. Adam,” said he. “He’s only a new-comer, but they say that some o’ these days he’ll be starting his carriage.” “What do you mean by a new-comer?” I asked. “Oh, he’s scarcely been here ten years,” said the landlord. “Thank you,” said I. “Can you tell me when the next train leaves for Bradfield?” So back I came, rather heavy at heart, and having spent ten or twelve shillings which I could ill afford. My fruitless journey seemed a small thing, however, when I thought of the rising Stockwellite with his ten years and his dusty boots. I can trudge along a path, however rough, if it will but lead to something; but may kindly Fate keep me out of all cul-de-sacs!
The Cullingworths did not receive me cordially upon my return. There was a singular look upon both their faces which seemed to ME to mean that they were disappointed at this hitch in getting rid of me. When I think of their absolute geniality a few days ago, and their markedly reserved manner now, I can make no sense out of it. I asked Cullingworth point blank what it meant, but he only turned it off with a forced laugh, and some nonsense about my thin skin. I think that I am the last man in the world to take offence where none is meant; but at any rate I determined to end the matter by leaving Bradfield at once. It had struck me, during my journey back from Stockwell, that Birchespool would be a good place; so on the very next day I started off, taking my luggage with me, and bidding a final good-bye to Cullingworth and his wife.
“You rely upon me, laddie,” said C. with something of his old geniality, as we shook hands on parting. “You get a good house in a central position, put up your plate and hold on by your toe-nails. Charge little or nothing until you get a connection, and none of your professional haw-dammy or you are a broken man. I’ll see that you don’t stop steaming for want of coal.”
So with that comforting assurance I left them on the platform of the Bradfield station. The words seem kind, do they not? and yet taking this money jars every nerve in my body. When I find that I can live on bread and water without it, I will have no more of it. But to do without it now would be for the man who cannot swim to throw off his life-belt.
I had plenty of time on my way to Birchespool to reflect upon my prospects and present situation. My baggage consisted of a large brassplate, a small leather trunk, and a hat-box. The plate with my name engraved upon it was balanced upon the rack above my head. In my box were a stethoscope, several medical books, a second pair of boots, two suits of clothes, my linen and my toilet things. With this, and the five pounds eighteen shillings which remain in my purse, I was sallying out to clear standing-room, and win the right to live from my fellow-men. But at least there was some chance of permanency about this; and if there was the promise of poverty and hardship, there was also that of freedom. I should have no Lady Saltire to toss up her chin because I had my own view of things, no Cullingworth to fly out at me about nothing. I would be my own—my very own. I capered up and down the carriage at the thought. After all, I had everything to gain and nothing in the whole wide world to lose. And I had youth and strength and energy, and the whole science of medicine packed in between my two ears. I felt as exultant as though I were going to take over some practice which lay ready for me.
It was about four in the afternoon when I reached Birchespool, which is fifty-three miles by rail from Bradfield. It may be merely a name to you, and, indeed, until I set foot in it I knew nothing of it myself; but I can tell you now that it has a population of a hundred and thirty thousand souls (about the same as Bradfield), that it is mildly manufacturing, that it is within an hour’s journey of the sea, that it has an aristocratic western suburb with a mineral well, and that the country round is exceedingly beautiful. It is small enough to have a character of its own, and large enough for solitude, which is always the great charm of a city, after the offensive publicity of the country.