XII. OAKLEY VILLAS, BIRCHESPOOL, 5th June, 1882

Stark Munro Letters

When I had made all those dispositions which I described with such painful prolixity in my last letter, my dear Bertie, I sat down on my study chair, and I laid out the whole of my worldly wealth upon the table in front of me. I was startled when I looked at it,—three half-crowns, a florin, and four sixpences, or eleven and sixpence in all. I had expected to hear from Cullingworth before this; but at least he was always there, a trusty friend, at my back. Immediately upon engaging the house I had written him a very full letter, telling him that I had committed myself to keeping it for one year, but assuring him that I was quite convinced that with the help which he had promised me I should be able to hold my own easily. I described the favourable position of the house, and gave him every detail of the rent and neighbourhood. That letter would, I was sure, bring a reply from him which would contain my weekly remittance. One thing I had, above all, determined upon. That was that, whatever hardships might lie before me, I would fight through them without help from home. I knew, of course, that my mother would have sold everything down to her gold eye-glasses to help me, and that no thought of our recent disagreement would have weighed with her for an instant; but still a man has his feelings, you know, and I did not propose to act against her judgment and then run howling for help.

Stark Munro Letters
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I sat in my house all day, with that ever-present sense of privacy and novelty which had thrilled me when I first shut the street door behind me. At evening I sallied out and bought a loaf of bread, half a pound of tea (“sweepings,” they call it, and it cost eightpence), a tin kettle (fivepence), a pound of sugar, a tin of Swiss milk, and a tin of American potted meat. I had often heard my mother groan over the expenses of housekeeping, and now I began to understand what she meant. Two and ninepence went like a flash, but at least I had enough to keep myself going for some days.

There was a convenient gas bracket in the back room. I hammered a splinter of wood into the wall above it, and so made an arm upon which I could hang my little kettle and boil it over the flame. The attraction of the idea was that there was no immediate expense, and many things would have happened before I was called upon to pay the gas bill. The back room was converted then into both kitchen and dining room. The sole furniture consisted of my box, which served both as cupboard, as table, and as chair. My eatables were all kept inside, and when I wished for a meal I had only to pick them out and lay them on the lid, leaving room for myself to sit beside them.

It was only when I went to my bedroom that I realised the oversights which I had made in my furnishing. There was no mattress and no pillow or bed-clothes. My mind had been so centred upon the essentials for the practice, that I had never given a thought to my own private wants. I slept that night upon the irons of my bed, and rose up like St. Lawrence from the gridiron. My second suit of clothes with Bristowe’s “Principles of Medicine” made an excellent pillow, while on a warm June night a man can do well wrapped in his overcoat. I had no fancy for second-hand bed-clothes, and determined until I could buy some new ones, to make myself a straw pillow, and to put on both my suits of clothes on the colder nights. Two days later, however, the problem was solved in more luxurious style by the arrival of a big brown tin box from my mother, which was as welcome to me, and as much of a windfall, as the Spanish wreck to Robinson Crusoe. There were too pairs of thick blankets, two sheets, a counterpane, a pillow, a camp-stool, two stuffed bears’ paws (of all things in this world!), two terra-cotta vases, a tea-cosy, two pictures in frames, several books, an ornamental ink-pot, and a number of antimacassars and coloured tablecloths. It is not until you own a table with a deal top and mahogany legs, that you understand what the true inner meaning of an ornamental cloth is. Right on the top of this treasure came a huge hamper from the Apothecaries’ Society with the drugs which I had ordered. When they were laid out in line, the bottles extended right down one side of the dining-room and half down the other. As I walked through my house and viewed my varied possessions, I felt less radical in my views, and begun to think that there might be something in the rights of property after all.

And I added to my effects in a marvellous way. I made myself an excellent mattress out of some sacking and the straw in which the medicine bottles had been packed.

Again, out of three shutters which belonged to the room, I rigged up a very effective side-table for my own den, which when covered with a red cloth, and ornamented with the bears’ paws, might have cost twenty guineas for all that the patient could say to the contrary. I had done all this with a light heart and a good spirit before the paralysing blow which I shall have to tell you about, came upon me.

Of course it was obvious from the first that a servant was out of the question. I could not feed one, far less pay one, and I had no kitchen furniture. I must open my door to my own patients—let them think what they would of it. I must clean my own plate and brush down my own front; and these duties must be thoroughly done, come what might, for I must show a presentable outside to the public. Well, there was no great hardship in that, for I could do it under the cover of night. But I had had a suggestion from my mother which simplified matters immensely. She had written to say that if I wished she would send my little brother Paul to keep me company. I wrote back eagerly to agree. He was a hardy cheery little fellow of nine, who would, I knew, gladly share hard times with me; while, if they became unduly so, I could always have him taken home again. Some weeks must pass before he could come, but it cheered me to think of him. Apart from his company, there were a thousand ways in which he might be useful.

Who should come in on the second day but old Captain Whitehall? I was in the back room, trying how many slices I could make out of a pound of potted beef, when he rang my bell, and I only just shut my mouth in time to prevent my heart jumping out.

How that bell clanged through the empty house! I saw who it was, however, when I went into the hall; for the middle panels of my door are of glazed glass, so that I can always study a silhouette of my visitors before coming to closer quarters.

I was not quite sure yet whether I loathed the man or liked him. He was the most extraordinary mixture of charity and drunkenness, lechery and self-sacrifice that I had ever come across. But he brought into the house with him a whiff of cheeriness and hope for which I could not but be grateful. He had a large brown paper parcel under his arm, which he unwrapped upon my table, displaying a great brown jar. This he carried over and deposited on the centre of my mantel-piece.

“You will permit me, Dr. Munro, sir, to place this trifle in your room. It’s lava, sir; lava from Vesuvius, and made in Naples. By ——, you may think its empty, Dr. Munro, sir, but it is full of my best wishes; and when you’ve got the best practice in this town you may point to that vase and tell how it came from a skipper of an armed transport, who backed you from the start.”

I tell you, Bertie, the tears started to my eyes, and I could hardly gulp out a word or two of thanks. What a crisscross of qualities in one human soul! It was not the deed or the words; but it was the almost womanly look in the eyes of this broken, drink-sodden old Bohemian—the sympathy and the craving for sympathy which I read there. Only for an instant though, for he hardened again into his usual reckless and half defiant manner.

“There’s another thing, sir. I’ve been thinking for some time back of having a medical opinion on myself. I’d be glad to put myself under your hands, if you would take a survey of me.”

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“Dr. Munro, sir,” said he, “I am a walking museum. You could fit what ISN’T the matter with me on to the back of a —— visiting card. If there’s any complaint you want to make a special study of, just you come to me, sir, and see what I can do for you. It’s not every one that can say that he has had cholera three times, and cured himself by living on red pepper and brandy. If you can only set the —— little germs sneezing they’ll soon leave you alone. That’s my theory about cholera, and you should make a note of it, Dr. Munro, sir, for I was shipmates with fifty dead men when I was commanding the armed transport Hegira in the Black Sea, and I know —— well what I am talking about.”

I fill in Whitehall’s oaths with blanks because I feel how hopeless it is to reproduce their energy and variety. I was amazed when he stripped, for his whole body was covered with a perfect panorama of tattooings, with a big blue Venus right over his heart.

“You may knock,” said he, when I began to percuss his chest, “but I am —— sure there’s no one at home. They’ve all gone visiting one another. Sir John Hutton had a try some years ago. ‘Why, dammy, man, where’s your liver?’ said he. ‘Seems to me that some one has stirred you up with a porridge stick,’ said he. ‘Nothing is in its right place.’ ‘Except my heart, Sir John,’ said I. ‘Aye, by ——, that will never lose its moorings while it has a flap left.'”

Well, I examined him, and I found his own account not very far from the truth. I went over him carefully from head to foot, and there was not much left as Nature made it. He had mitral regurgitation, cirrhosis of the liver, Bright’s disease, an enlarged spleen, and incipient dropsy. I gave him a lecture about the necessity of temperance, if not of total abstinence; but I fear that my words made no impression. He chuckled, and made a kind of clucking noise in his throat all the time that I was speaking, but whether in assent or remonstrance I cannot say.

He pulled out his purse when I had finished, but I begged him to look on my small service as a mere little act of friendship. This would not do at all, however, and he seemed so determined about it that I was forced to give way.

“My fee is five shillings, then, since you insist upon making it a business matter.”

“Dr. Munro, sir,” he broke out, “I have been examined by men whom I wouldn’t throw a bucket of water over if they were burning, and I never paid them less than a guinea. Now that I have come to a gentleman and a friend, stiffen me purple if I pay one farthing less.”

So, after much argument, it ended in the kind fellow going off and leaving a sovereign and a shilling on the edge of my table. The money burned my fingers, for I knew that his pension was not a very large one; and yet, since I could not avoid taking it, there was no denying that it was exceedingly useful. Out I sallied and spent sixteen shillings of it upon a new palliasse which should go under the straw mattress upon my bed. Already, you see, I was getting to a state of enervating luxury in my household arrangements, and I could only lull my conscience by reminding myself that little Paul would have to sleep with me when he came.

However, I had not quite got to the end of Whitehall’s visit yet. When I went back I took down the beautiful lava jug, and inside I found his card. On the back was written, “You have gone into action, sir. It may be your fate to sink or to swim, but it can never be your degradation to strike. Die on the last plank and be damned to you, or come into port with your ensign flying mast-high.”

Was it not fine? It stirred my blood, and the words rang like a bugle call in my head. It braced me, and the time was coming when all the bracing I could get would not be too much. I copied it out, and pinned it on one side of my mantel-piece. On the other I stuck up a chip from Carlyle, which I daresay is as familiar to you as to me. “One way or another all the light, energy, and available virtue which we have does come out of us, and goes very infallibly into God’s treasury, living and working through eternities there. We are not lost—not a single atom of us—of one of us.” Now, there is a religious sentence which is intellectually satisfying, and therefore morally sound.

This last quotation leads to my second visitor. Such a row we had! I make a mistake in telling you about it, for I know your sympathies will be against me; but at least it will have the good effect of making you boil over into a letter of remonstrance and argument than which nothing could please me better.

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