His replies, however, were reassuring. The house was still to let. It was not quite the quarter yet, but I could enter into possession. I must sign an agreement to take it for one year, and it was usual to pay a quarter’s rent in advance.

I don’t know whether I turned colour a little.

“In advance!” I said, as carelessly as I could.

“It is usual.”

“Or references?”

“Well, that depends, of couse{sic}, upon the references.”

“Not that it matters much,” said I. (Heaven forgive me!) “Still, if it is the same to the firm, I may as well pay by the quarter, as I shall do afterwards.”

“What names did you propose to give?” he asked.

My heart gave a bound, for I knew that all was right. My uncle, as you know, won his knighthood in the Artillery, and though I have seen nothing of him, I knew that he was the man to pull me out of this tight corner.

“There’s my uncle, Sir Alexander Munro, Lismore House, Dublin,” said I. “He would be happy to answer any inquiry, and so would my friend Dr. Cullingworth of Bradfield.”

I brought him down with both barrels. I could see it by his eyes and the curve of his back.

“I have no doubt that that will be quite satisfactory,” said he. “Perhaps you would kindly sign the agreement.”

I did so, and drew my hind foot across the Rubicon. The die was cast. Come what might, 1 Oakley Villas was on my hand for a twelve-month.

“Would you like the key now?”

I nearly snatched it out of his hands. Then away I ran to take possession of my property. Never shall I forget my feelings, my dear Bertie, when the key clicked in the lock, and the door flew open. It was my own house—all my very own! I shut the door again, the noise of the street died down, and I had, in that empty, dust-strewn hall, such a sense of soothing privacy as had never come to me before. In all my life it was the first time that I had ever stood upon boards which were not paid for by another.

Then I proceeded to go from room to room with a delicious sense of exploration. There were two upon the ground floor, sixteen feet square each, and I saw with satisfaction that the wall papers were in fair condition. The front one would make a consulting room, the other a waiting room, though I did not care to reflect who was most likely to do the waiting. I was in the highest spirits, and did a step dance in each room as an official inauguration.

Then down a winding wooden stair to the basement, where were kitchen and scullery, dimly lit, and asphalt-floored. As I entered the latter I stood staring. In every corner piles of human jaws were grinning at me. The place was a Golgotha! In that half light the effect was sepulchral. But as I approached and picked up one of them the mystery vanished. They were of plaster-of-Paris, and were the leavings evidently of the dentist, who had been the last tenant. A more welcome sight was a huge wooden dresser with drawers and a fine cupboard in the corner. It only wanted a table and a chair to be a furnished room.

Then I ascended again and went up the first flight of stairs. There were two other good sized apartments there. One should be my bedroom, and the other a spare room. And then another flight with two more. One for the servant, when I had one, and the other for a guest.

From the windows I had a view of the undulating gray back of the city, with the bustle of green tree tops. It was a windy day, and the clouds were drifting swiftly across the heavens, with glimpses of blue between. I don’t know how it was, but as I stood looking through the grimy panes in the empty rooms a sudden sense of my own individuality and of my responsibility to some higher power came upon me, with a vividness which was overpowering. Here was a new chapter of my life about to be opened. What was to be the end of it? I had strength, I had gifts. What was I going to do with them? All the world, the street, the cabs, the houses, seemed to fall away, and the mite of a figure and the unspeakable Guide of the Universe were for an instant face to face. I was on my knees—hurled down all against my own will, as it were. And even then I could find no words to say. Only vague yearnings and emotions and a heartfelt wish to put my shoulder to the great wheel of good. What could I say? Every prayer seemed based on the idea that God was a magnified man—that He needed asking and praising and thanking. Should the cog of the wheel creak praise to the Engineer? Let it rather cog harder, and creak less. Yet I did, I confess, try to put the agitation of my soul into words. I meant it for a prayer; but when I considered afterwards the “supposing thats” and “in case ofs” with which it was sprinkled, it must have been more like a legal document. And yet I felt soothed and happier as I went downstairs again.

I tell you this, Bertie, because if I put reason above emotion I would not have you think that I am not open to attacks of the latter also. I feel that what I say about religion is too cold and academic. I feel that there should be something warmer and sweeter and more comforting. But if you ask me to buy this at the price of making myself believe a thing to be true, which all that is nearest the divine in me cries out against, then you are selling your opiates too high. I’m a volunteer for “God’s own forlorn hope,” and I’ll clamber up the breech as long as I think I can see the flag of truth waving in front of me.

Well, my next two cares were to get drugs and furniture. The former I was sure that I could obtain on long credit; while the latter I was absolutely determined not to get into debt over. I wrote to the Apothecaries’ Company, giving the names of Cullingworth and of my father, and ordering twelve pounds’ worth of tinctures, infusions, pills, powders, ointments, and bottles. Cullingworth must, I should think, have been one of their very largest customers, so I knew very well that my order would meet with prompt attention.

There remained the more serious matter of the furniture. I calculated that when my lodgings were paid for I might, without quite emptying my purse, expend four pounds upon furniture—not a large allowance for a good sized villa. That would leave me a few shillings to go on with, and before they were exhausted Cullingworth’s pound would come in. Those pounds, however, would be needed for the rent, so I could hardly reckon upon them at all, as far as my immediate wants went. I found in the columns of the Birchespool Post that there was to be a sale of furniture that evening, and I went down to the auctioneer’s rooms, accompanied, much against my will, by Captain Whitehall, who was very drunk and affectionate.

“By God, Dr. Munro, sir, I’m the man that’s going to stick to you. I’m only an old sailor-man, sir, with perhaps more liquor than sense; but I’m the Queen’s servant, and touch my pension every quarter day. I don’t claim to be R. N., but I’m not merchant service either. Here I am, rotting in lodgings, but by ——, Dr. Munro, sir, I carried seven thousand stinking Turks from Varna to Balaclava Bay. I’m with you, Dr. Munro, and we put this thing through together.”

We came to the auction rooms and we stood on the fringe of the crowd waiting for our chance. Presently up went a very neat little table. I gave a nod and got it for nine shillings. Then three rather striking looking chairs, black wood and cane bottoms. Four shillings each I gave for those. Then a metal umbrella-stand, four and sixpence. That was a mere luxury, but I was warming to the work. A job lot of curtains all tied together in a bundle went up. Somebody bid five shillings. The auctioneer’s eye came round to me, and I nodded. Mine again for five and sixpence. Then I bought a square of red drugget for half-a-crown, a small iron bed for nine shillings, three watercolour paintings, “Spring,” “The Banjo Player,” and “Windsor Castle,” for five shillings; a tiny fender, half-a-crown; a toilet set, five shillings; another very small square-topped table, three and sixpence. Whenever I bid for anything, Whitehall thrust his black-thorn up into the air, and presently I found him doing so on my behalf when I had no intention of buying. I narrowly escaped having to give fourteen and sixpence for a stuffed macaw in a glass case.

“It would do to hang in your hall, Dr. Munro, sir,” said he when I remonstrated with him.

“I should have to hang myself in my hall soon if I spent my money like that,” said I. “I’ve got as much as I can afford now, and I must stop.”

When the auction was over, I paid my bill and had my goods hoisted on to a trolly, the porter undertaking to deliver them for two shillings. I found that I had over-estimated the cost of furnishing, for the total expense was little more than three pounds. We walked round to Oakley Villa, and I proudly deposited all my goods in the hall. And here came another extraordinary example of the kindness of the poorer classes. The porter when I had paid him went out to his trolly and returned with a huge mat of oakum, as ugly a thing as I have ever set eyes upon. This he laid down inside my door, and then without a word, brushing aside every remonstrance or attempt at thanks, he vanished away with his trolly into the night.

Next morning I came round to my house—MY house, my boy!—for good and all, after paying off my landlady. Her bill came to more than I expected, for I only had breakfast and tea, always “dining out” as I majestically expressed it. However, it was a relief to me to get it settled, and to go round with my box to Oakley Villas. An ironmonger had fixed my plate on to the railings for half-a-crown the evening before, and there it was, glittering in the sun, when I came round. It made me quite shy to look at it, and I slunk into the house with a feeling that every window in the street had a face in it.

But once inside, there was so much to be done that I did not know what I should turn to first. I bought a one-and-ninepenny broom and set to work. You notice that I am precise about small sums, because just there lies the whole key of the situation. In the yard I found a zinc pail with a hole in it, which was most useful, for by its aid I managed to carry up all the jaws with which my kitchen was heaped. Then with my new broom, my coat hung on a gas-bracket and my shirt sleeves turned to the elbow, I cleaned out the lower rooms and the hall, brushing the refuse into the yard. After that I did as much for the upper floor, with the result that I brought several square yards of dust down into the hall again, and undid my previous cleaning. This was disheartening, but at least it taught me to begin at the furthest point in future. When I had finished, I was as hot and dirty as if it were half-time at a football match. I thought of our tidy charwoman at home, and realised what splendid training she must be in.

Then came the arranging of the furniture. The hall was easily managed, for the planks were of a dark colour, which looked well of themselves. My oakum mat and my umbrella stand were the only things in it; but I bought three pegs for sixpence, and fastened them up at the side, completing the effect by hanging my two hats upon them. Finally, as the expanse of bare floor was depressing, I fixed one of my curtains about halfway down it, draping it back, so that it had a kind of oriental look, and excited a vague idea of suites of apartments beyond. It was a fine effect, and I was exceedingly proud of it.

From that I turned to the most important point of all—the arrangement of my consulting room. My experience with Cullingworth had taught me one thing at least,—that patients care nothing about your house if they only think that you can cure them. Once get that idea into their heads, and you may live in a vacant stall in a stable and write your prescriptions on the manger. Still, as this was, for many a day to come, to be the only furnished room in my house, it was worth a little planning to get it set out to the best advantage.

My red drugget I laid out in the centre, and fastened it down with brass-headed nails. It looked much smaller than I had hoped,—a little red island on an ocean of deal board, or a postage stamp in the middle of an envelope. In the centre of it I placed my table, with three medical works on one side of it, and my stethoscope and dresser’s case upon the other. One chair went with the table, of course; and then I spent the next ten minutes in trying to determine whether the other two looked better together—a dense block of chairs, as it were—or scattered so that the casual glance would get the idea of numerous chairs. I placed them finally one on the right, and one in front of the table. Then I put down my fender, and nailed “Spring,” “The Banjo Players,” and “Windsor Castle” on to three of the walls, with the mental promise that my first spare half-crown should buy a picture for the fourth. In the window I placed my little square table, and balanced upon it a photograph with an ivory mounting and a nice plush frame which I had brought in my trunk. Finally, I found a pair of dark brown curtains among the job lot which I had bought at the sale, and these I put up and drew pretty close together, so that a subdued light came into the room, which toned everything down, and made the dark corners look furnished. When I had finished I really do not believe that any one could have guessed that the total contents of that room came to about thirty shillings.

Then I pulled my iron bed upstairs and fixed it in the room which I had from the first determined upon as my bedchamber. I found an old packing case in the yard—a relic of my predecessor’s removal—and this made a very good wash-hand stand for my basin and jug. When it was all fixed up I walked, swelling with pride, through my own chambers, giving a touch here and a touch there until I had it perfect. I wish my mother could see it—or, on second thoughts, I don’t; for I know that her first act would be to prepare gallons of hot water, and to holystone the whole place down, from garret to cellar—and I know by my own small experience what that means.

Well, that’s as far as I’ve got as yet. What trivial, trivial stuff, interesting to hardly a soul under heaven, save only about three! Yet it pleases me to write as long as I have your assurance that it pleases you to read. Pray, give my kindest remembrances to your wife, and to Camelford also, if he should happen to come your way. He was on the Mississippi when last I heard.