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Doyle, Arthur Conan

«« Previous page · ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: The Adventure of The Sussex Vampire · ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: The Five Orange Pips · ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: A False Start (Round the Red Lamp #05) · ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: THE THIRD GENERATION (Round the Red Lamp #04) · ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: A STRAGGLER OF ’15 (Round the Red Lamp #03) · ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: HIS FIRST OPERATION (Round the Red Lamp #02) · ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: BEHIND THE TIMES (Round the Red Lamp #01)

ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: The Adventure of The Sussex Vampire

doyleconanarthr-fdmThe Adventure of The Sussex Vampire
by Arthur Conan Doyle

Holmes had read carefully a note which the last post had brought him. Then, with the dry chuckle which was his nearest approach to a laugh, he tossed it over to me.

“For a mixture of the modern and the medieval, of the practical and of the wildly fanciful, I think this is surely the limit,” said he. “What do you make of it, Watson?”

I read as follows:

46, OLD JEWRY,
Nov. 19th.
Re Vampires

SIR:

Our client, Mr. Robert Ferguson, of Ferguson and
Muirhead, tea brokers, of Mincing Lane, has made some
inquiry from us in a communication of even date concerning
vampires. As our firm specializes entirely upon the as
sessment of machinery the matter hardly comes within our
purview, and we have therefore recommended Mr. Fergu
son to call upon you and lay the matter before you. We
have not forgotten your successful action in the case of
Matilda Briggs.

We are, sir,
Faithfully yours,
MORRISON, MORRISON, AND DODD.
per E. J. C.

“Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson,” said Holmes in a reminiscent voice. “It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared. But what do we know about vampires? Does it come within our purview either? Anything is better than stagnation, but really we seem to have been switched on to a Grimms’ fairy tale. Make a long arm, Watson, and see what V has to say.”

I leaned back and took down the great index volume to which he referred. Holmes balanced it on his knee, and his eyes moved slowly and lovingly over the record of old cases, mixed with the accumulated information of a lifetime.

“Voyage of the Gloria Scott,” he read. “That was a bad business. I have some recollection that you made a record of it, Watson, though I was unable to congratulate you upon the result. Victor Lynch, the forger. Venomous lizard or gila. Remarkable case, that! Vittoria, the circus belle. Vanderbilt and the Yeggman. Vipers. Vigor, the Hammersmith wonder. Hullo! Hullo! Good old index. You can’t beat it. Listen to this, Watson. Vampirism in Hungary. And again, Vampires in Transylvania.” He turned over the pages with eagerness, but after a short intent perusal he threw down the great book with a snarl of disappointment.

“Rubbish, Watson, rubbish! What have we to do with walking corpses who can only be held in their grave by stakes driven through their hearts? It’s pure lunacy.”

“But surely,” said I, “the vampire was not necessarily a dead man? A living person might have the habit. I have read, for example, of the old sucking the blood of the young in order to retain their youth.”

“You are right, Watson. It mentions the legend in one of these references. But are we to give serious attention to such things? This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply. I fear that we cannot take Mr. Robert Ferguson very seriously. Possibly this note may be from him and may throw some light upon what is worrying him.”

He took up a second letter which had lain unnoticed upon the table while he had been absorbed with the first. This he began to read with a smile of amusement upon his face which gradually faded away into an expression of intense interest and concentration. When he had finished he sat for some little time lost in thought with the letter dangling from his fingers. Finally, with a start, he aroused himself from his reverie.

“Cheeseman’s, Lamberley. Where is Lamberley, Watson?”

“lt is in Sussex, South of Horsham.”

“Not very far, eh? And Cheeseman’s?”

“I know that country, Holmes. It is full of old houses which are named after the men who built them centuries ago. You get Odley’s and Harvey’s and Carriton’s — the folk are forgotten but their names live in their houses.”

“Precisely,” said Holmes coldly. It was one of the peculiarities of his proud, self-contained nature that though he docketed any fresh information very quietly and accurately in his brain, he seldom made any acknowledgment to the giver. “I rather fancy we shall know a good deal more about Cheeseman’s, Lamberley, before we are through. The letter is, as I had hoped, from Robert Ferguson. By the way, he claims acquaintance with you.”

“With me!”

“You had better read it.”

He handed the letter across. It was headed with the address quoted.

DEAR MR HOLMES [it said]:

I have been recommended to you by my lawyers, but
indeed the matter is so extraordinarily delicate that it is most
difficult to discuss. It concerns a friend for whom I am
acting. This gentleman married some five years ago a Peruvian
lady the daughter of a Peruvian merchant, whom he had
met in connection with the importation of nitrates. The lady
was very beautiful, but the fact of her foreign birth and of
her alien religion always caused a separation of interests and
of feelings between husband and wife, so that after a time
his love may have cooled towards her and he may have
come to regard their union as a mistake. He felt there were
sides of her character which he could never explore or
understand. This was the more painful as she was as loving
a wife as a man could have — to all appearance absolutely
devoted.
Now for the point which I will make more plain when we
meet. Indeed, this note is merely to give you a general idea
of the situation and to ascertain whether you would care to
interest yourself in the matter. The lady began to show
some curious traits quite alien to her ordinarily sweet and
gentle disposition. The gentleman had been married twice
and he had one son by the first wife. This boy was now
fifteen, a very charming and affectionate youth, though
unhappily injured through an accident in childhood. Twice
the wife was caught in the act of assaulting this poor lad in
the most unprovoked way. Once she struck him with a stick
and left a great weal on his arm.
This was a small matter, however, compared with her
conduct to her own child, a dear boy just under one year of
age. On one occasion about a month ago this child had
been left by its nurse for a few minutes. A loud cry from the
baby, as of pain, called the nurse back. As she ran into the
room she saw her employer, the lady, leaning over the baby
and apparently biting his neck. There was a small wound in
the neck from which a stream of blood had escaped. The
nurse was so horrified that she wished to call the husband,
but the lady implored her not to do so and actually gave her
five pounds as a price for her silence. No explanation was
ever given, and for the moment the matter was passed over.
It left, however, a terrible impression upon the nurse’s
mind, and from that time she began to watch her mistress
closely and to keep a closer guard upon the baby, whom she
tenderly loved. It seemed to her that even as she watched
the mother, so the mother watched her, and that every time
she was compelled to leave the baby alone the mother was
waiting to get at it. Day and night the nurse covered the
child, and day and night the silent, watchful mother seemed
to be lying in wait as a wolf waits for a lamb. It must read
most incredible to you, and yet I beg you to take it seri
ously, for a child’s life and a man’s sanity may depend
upon it.
At last there came one dreadful day when the facts could
no longer be concealed from the husband. The nurse’s nerve
had given way; she could stand the strain no longer, and
she made a clean breast of it all to the man. To him it
seemed as wild a tale as it may now seem to you.He knew
his wife to be a loving wife, and, save for the assaults
upon her stepson, a loving mother. Why, then, should
she wound her own dear little baby? He told the nurse that
she was dreaming, that her suspicions were those of a
lunatic, and that such libels upon her mistress were not to be
tolerated. While they were talking a sudden cry of pain was
heard. Nurse and master rushed together to the nursery.
Imagine his feelings, Mr. Holmes, as he saw his wife rise
from a kneeling position beside the cot and saw blood upon
the child’s exposed neck and upon the sheet. With a cry of
horror, he turned his wife’s face to the light and saw blood
all round her lips. It was she — she beyond all question –
who had drunk the poor baby’s blood.
So the matter stands. She is now confined to her room.
There has been no explanation. The husband is half de
mented. He knows, and I know, little of vampirism beyond
the name. We had thought it was some wild tale of foreign
parts. And yet here in the very heart of the English Sussex –
well, all this can be discussed with you in the morning. Will
you see me? Will you use your great powers in aiding a
distracted man? If so, kindly wire to Ferguson, Cheeseman’s,
Lamberley, and I will be at your rooms by ten o’clock.

Yours faithfully,
ROBERT FERGUSON

P. S. I believe your friend Watson played Rugby for
Blackheath when I was three-quarter for Richmond. It is the
only personal introduction which I can give.

“Of course I remembered him,” said I as I laid down the letter. “Big Bob Ferguson, the finest three-quarter Richmond ever had. He was always a good-natured chap. It’s like him to be so concerned over a friend’s case.”

Holmes looked at me thoughtfully and shook his head.

“I never get your limits, Watson,” said he. “There are unexplored possibilities about you. Take a wire down, like a good fellow. ‘Will examine your case with pleasure.’ “

“Your case!”

“We must not let him think that this agency is a home for the weak-minded. Of course it is his case. Send him that wire and let the matter rest till morning.”

Promptly at ten o’clock next morning Ferguson strode into our room. I had remembered him as a long, slab-sided man with loose limbs and a fine turn of speed which had carried him round many an opposing back. There is surely nothing in life more painful than to meet the wreck of a fine athlete whom one has known in his prime. His great frame had fallen in, his flaxen hair was scanty, and his shoulders were bowed. I fear that I roused corresponding emotions in him.

“Hullo, Watson,” said he, and his voice was still deep and hearty. “You don’t look quite the man you did when I threw you over the ropes into the crowd at the Old Deer Park. I expect I have changed a bit also. But it’s this last day or two that has aged me. I see by your telegram, Mr. Holmes, that it is no use my pretending to be anyone’s deputy.” .

“It is simpler to deal direct,” said Holmes.

“Of course it is. But you can imagine how difficult it is when you are speaking of the one woman whom you are bound to protect and help. What can I do? How am I to go to the police with such a story? And yet the kiddies have got to be protected. Is it madness, Mr. Holmes? Is it something in the blood? Have you any similar case in your experience? For God’s sake, give me some advice, for I am at my wit’s end.”

“Very naturally, Mr. Ferguson. Now sit here and pull yourself together and give me a few clear answers. I can assure you that I am very far from being at my wit’s end, and that I am confident we shall find some solution. First of all, tell me what steps you have taken. Is your wife still near the children?”

“We had a dreadful scene. She is a most loving woman, Mr. Holmes. If ever a woman loved a man with all her heart and soul, she loves me. She was cut to the heart that I should have discovered this horrible, this incredible, secret. She would not even speak. She gave no answer to my reproaches, save to gaze at me with a sort of wild, despairing look in her eyes. Then she rushed to her room and locked herself in. Since then she has refused to see me. She has a maid who was with her before her marriage, Dolores by name — a friend rather than a servant. She takes her food to her.”

“Then the child is in no immediate danger?”

“Mrs. Mason, the nurse, has sworn that she will not leave it night or day. I can absolutely trust her. I am more uneasy about poor little Jack, for, as I told you in my note, he has twice been assaulted by her.”

“But never wounded?”

“No, she struck him savagely. It is the more terrible as he is a poor little inoffensive cripple.” Ferguson’s gaunt features softened as he spoke of his boy. “You would think that the dear lad’s condition would soften anyone’s heart. A fall in childhood and a twisted spine, Mr. Holmes. But the dearest, most loving heart within.”

Holmes had picked up the letter of yesterday and was reading it over. “What other inmates are there in your house, Mr. Ferguson?”

“Two servants who have not been long with us. One stablehand, Michael, who sleeps in the house. My wife, myself, my boy Jack, baby, Dolores, and Mrs. Mason. That is all.”

“I gather that you did not know your wife well at the time of your marriage?”

“I had only known her a few weeks.”

“How long had this maid Dolores been with her?”

“Some years.”

“Then your wife’s character would really be better known by Dolores than by you?”

“Yes, you may say so.”

Holmes made a note.

“I fancy,” said he, “that I may be of more use at Lamberley than here. It is eminently a case for personal investigation. If the lady remains in her room, our presence could not annoy or inconvenience her. Of course, we would stay at the inn.”

Ferguson gave a gesture of relief.

“It is what I hoped, Mr. Holmes. There is an excellent train at two from Victoria if you could come.”

“Of course we could come. There is a lull at present. I can give you my undivided energies. Watson, of course, comes with us. But there are one or two points upon which I wish to be very sure before I start. This unhappy lady, as I understand it, has appeared to assault both the children, her own baby and your little son?”

“That is so.”

“But the assaults take different forms, do they not? She has beaten your son.”

“Once with a stick and once very savagely with her hands.”

“Did she give no explanation why she struck him?”

“None save that she hated him. Again and again she said so.”

“Well, that is not unknown among stepmothers. A posthumous jealousy, we will say. Is the lady jealous by nature?”

“Yes, she is very jealous — jealous with all the strength of her fiery tropical love.”

“But the boy — he is fifteen, I understand, and probably very developed in mind, since his body has been circumscribed in action. Did he give you no explanation of these assaults?”

“No, he declared there was no reason.”

“Were they good friends at other times?”

“No, there was never any love between them.”

“Yet you say he is affectionate?”

“Never in the world could there be so devoted a son. My life is his life. He is absorbed in what I say or do.”

Once again Holmes made a note. For some time he sat lost in thought.

“No doubt you and the boy were great comrades before this second marriage. You were thrown very close together, were you not?”

“Very much so.”

“And the boy, having so affectionate a nature, was devoted, no doubt, to the memory of his mother?”

“Most devoted.”

“He would certainly seem to be a most interesting lad. There is one other point about these assaults. Were the strange attacks upon the baby and the assaults upon yow son at the same period?”

“In the first case it was so. It was as if some frenzy had seized her, and she had vented her rage upon both. In the second case it was only Jack who suffered. Mrs. Mason had no complaint to make about the baby.”

“That certainly complicates matters.”

“I don’t quite follow you, Mr. Holmes.”

“Possibly not. One forms provisional theories and waits for time or fuller knowledge to explode them. A bad habit, Mr. Ferguson, but human nature is weak. I fear that your old friend here has given an exaggerated view of my scientific methods. However, I will only say at the present stage that your problem does not appear to me to be insoluble, and that you may expect to find us at Victoria at two o’clock.”

It was evening of a dull, foggy November day when, having left our bags at the Chequers, Lamberley, we drove through the Sussex clay of a long winding lane and finally reached the isolated and ancient farmhouse in which Ferguson dwelt. It was a large, straggling building, very old in the centre, very new at the wings with towering Tudor chimneys and a lichen-spotted, high-pitched roof of Horsham slabs. The doorsteps were worn into curves, and the ancient tiles which lined the porch were marked with the rebus of a cheese and a man after the original builder. Within, the ceilings were corrugated with heavy oaken beams, and the uneven floors sagged into sharp curves. An odour of age and decay pervaded the whole crumbling building.

There was one very large central room into which Ferguson led us. Here, in a huge old-fashioned fireplace with an iron screen behind it dated 1670, there blazed and spluttered a splendid log fire.

The room, as I gazed round, was a most singular mixture of dates and of places. The half-panelled walls may well have belonged to the original yeoman farmer of the seventeenth century. They were ornamented, however, on the lower part by a line of well-chosen modern water-colours; while above, where yellow plaster took the place of oak, there was hung a fine collection of South American utensils and weapons, which had been brought, no doubt, by the Peruvian lady upstairs. Holmes rose, with that quick curiosity which sprang from his eager mind, and examined them with some care. He returned with his eyes full of thought.

“Hullo!” he cried. “Hullo!”

A spaniel had lain in a basket in the corner. It came slowly forward towards its master, walking with difficulty. Its hind legs moved irregularly and its tail was on the ground. It licked Ferguson’s hand.

“What is it, Mr. Holmes?”

“The dog. What’s the matter with it?”

“That’s what puzzled the vet. A sort of paralysis. Spinal meningitis, he thought. But it is passing. He’ll be all right soon — won’t you, Carlo?”

A shiver of assent passed through the drooping tail. The dog’s mournful eyes passed from one of us to the other. He knew that we were discussing his case.

“Did it come on suddenly?”

“In a single night.”

“How long ago?”

“It may have been four months ago.”

“Very remarkable. Very suggestive.”

“What do you see in it, Mr. Holmes?”

“A confirmation of what I had already thought.”

“For God’s sake, what do you think, Mr. Holmes? It may be a mere intellectual puzzle to you, but it is life and death to me! My wife a would-be murderer — my child in constant danger! Don’t play with me, Mr. Holmes. It is too terribly serious.”

The big Rugby three-quarter was trembling all over. Holmes put his hand soothingly upon his arm.

“I fear that there is pain for you, Mr. Ferguson, whatever the solution may be,” said he. “I would spare you all I can. I cannot say more for the instant, but before I leave this house I hope I may have something definite.”

“Please God you may! If you will excuse me, gentlemen, I will go up to my wife’s room and see if there has been any change.”

He was away some minutes, during which Holmes resumed his examination of the curiosities upon the wall. When our host returned it was clear from his downcast face that he had made no progress. He brought with him a tall, slim, brown-faced girl.

“The tea is ready, Dolores,” said Ferguson. “See that your mistress has everything she can wish.”

“She verra ill,” cried the girl, looking with indignant eyes at her master. “She no ask for food. She verra ill. She need doctor. I frightened stay alone with her without doctor.”

Ferguson looked at me with a question in his eyes.

“I should be so glad if I could be of use.”

“Would your mistress see Dr. Watson?”

“I take him. I no ask leave. She needs doctor.”

“Then I’ll come with you at once.”

I followed the girl, who was quivering with strong emotion, up the staircase and down an ancient corridor. At the end was an iron-clamped and massive door. It struck me as I looked at it that if Ferguson tried to force his way to his wife he would find it no easy matter. The girl drew a key from her pocket, and the heavy oaken planks creaked upon their old hinges. I passed in and she swiftly followed, fastening the door behind her.

On the bed a woman was lying who was clearly in a high fever. She was only half conscious, but as I entered she raised a pair of frightened but beautiful eyes and glared at me in apprehension. Seeing a stranger, she appeared to be relieved and sank back with a sigh upon the pillow. I stepped up to her with a few reassuring words, and she lay still while I took her pulse and temperature. Both were high, and yet my impression was that the condition was rather that of mental and nervous excitement than of any actual seizure.

“She lie like that one day, two day. I ‘fraid she die,” said the girl.

The woman turned her flushed and handsome face towards me.

“Where is my husband?”

“He is below and would wish to see you.”

“I will not see him. I will not see him.” Then she seemed to wander off into delirium. “A fiend! A fiend! Oh, what shall I do with this devil?”

“Can I help you in any way?”

“No. No one can help. It is finished. All is destroyed. Do what I will, all is destroyed.”

The woman must have some strange delusion. I could not see honest Bob Ferguson in the character of fiend or devil.

“Madame,” I said, “your husband loves you dearly. He is deeply grieved at this happening.”

Again she turned on me those glorious eyes.

“He loves me. Yes. But do I not love him? Do I not love him even to sacrifice myself rather than break his dear heart? That is how I love him. And yet he could think of me — he could speak of me so.”

“He is full of grief, but he cannot understand.”

“No, he cannot understand. But he should trust.”

“Will you not see him?” I suggested.

“No, no, I cannot forget those terrible words nor the look upon his face. I will not see him. Go now. You can do nothing for me. Tell him only one thing. I want my child. I have a right to my child. That is the only message I can send him.” She turned her face to the wall and would say no more.

I returned to the room downstairs, where Ferguson and Holmes still sat by the fire. Ferguson listened moodily to my account of the interview.

“How can I send her the child?” he said. “How do I know what strange impulse might come upon her? How can I ever forget how she rose from beside it with its blood upon her lips?” He shuddered at the recollection. “The child is safe with Mrs. Mason, and there he must remain.”

A smart maid, the only modern thing which we had seen in the house, had brought in some tea. As she was serving it the door opened and a youth entered the room. He was a remarkable lad, pale-faced and fair-haired, with excitable light blue eyes which blazed into a sudden flame of emotion and joy as they rested upon his father. He rushed forward and threw his arms round his neck with the abandon of a loving girl.

“Oh, daddy,” he cried, “I did not know that you were due yet. I should have been here to meet you. Oh, I am so glad to see you!”

Ferguson gently disengaged himself from the embrace with some little show of embarrassment.

“Dear old chap,” said he, patting the flaxen head with a very tender hand. “I came early because my friends, Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson, have been persuaded to come down and spend an evening with us.”

“Is that Mr. Holmes, the detective?”

“Yes.”

The youth looked at us with a very penetrating and, as it seemed to me, unfriendly gaze.

“What about your other child, Mr. Ferguson?” asked Holmes. “Might we make the acquaintance of the baby?”

“Ask Mrs. Mason to bring baby down,” said Ferguson. The boy went off with a curious, shambling gait which told my surgical eyes that he was suffering from a weak spine. Presently he returned, and behind him came a tall, gaunt woman bearing in her arms a very beautiful child, dark-eyed, golden-haired, a wonderful mixture of the Saxon and the Latin. Ferguson was evidently devoted to it, for he took it into his arms and fondled it most tenderly.

“Fancy anyone having the heart to hurt him,” he muttered as he glanced down at the small, angry red pucker upon the cherub throat.

It was at this moment that I chanced to glance at Holmes and saw a most singular intentness in his expression. His face was as set as if it had been carved out of old ivory, and his eyes, which had glanced for a moment at father and child, were now fixed with eager curiosity upon something at the other side of the room. Following his gaze I could only guess that he was looking out through the window at the melancholy, dripping garden. It is true that a shutter had half closed outside and obstructed the view, but none the less it was certainly at the window that Holmes was fixing his concentrated attention. Then he smiled, and his eyes came back to the baby. On its chubby neck there was this small puckered mark. Without speaking, Holmes examined it with care. Finally he shook one of the dimpled fists which waved in front of him.

“Good-bye, little man. You have made a strange start in life. Nurse, I should wish to have a word with you in private.”

He took her aside and spoke earnestly for a few minutes. I only heard the last words, which were: “Your anxiety will soon, I hope, be set at rest.” The woman, who seemed to be a sour, silent kind of creature, withdrew with the child.

“What is Mrs. Mason like?” asked Holmes.

“Not very prepossessing externally, as you can see, but a heart of gold, and devoted to the child.”

“Do you like her, Jack?” Holmes turned suddenly upon the boy. His expressive mobile face shadowed over, and he shook his head.

“Jacky has very strong likes and dislikes,” said Ferguson, putting his arm round the boy. “Luckily I am one of his likes.”

The boy cooed and nestled his head upon his father’s breast. Ferguson gently disengaged him.

“Run away, little Jacky,” said he, and he watched his son with loving eyes until he disappeared. “Now, Mr. Holmes,” he continued when the boy was gone, “I really feel that I have brought you on a fool’s errand, for what can you possibly do save give me your sympathy? It must be an exceedingly delicate and complex affair from your point of view.”

“It is certainly delicate,” said my friend with an amused smile, “but I have not been struck up to now with its complexity. It has been a case for intellectual deduction, but when this original intellectual deduction is confirmed point by point by quite a number of independent incidents, then the subjective becomes objective and we can say confidently that we have reached our goal. I had, in fact, reached it before we left Baker Street, and the rest has merely been observation and confirmation.”

Ferguson put his big hand to his furrowed forehead.

“For heaven’s sake, Holmes,” he said hoarsely; “if you can see the truth in this matter, do not keep me in suspense. How do I stand? What shall I do? I care nothing as to how you have found your facts so long as you have really got them.”

“Certainly I owe you an explanation, and you shall have it. But you will permit me to handle the matter in my own way? Is the lady capable of seeing us, Watson?”

“She is ill, but she is quite rational.”

“Very good. It is only in her presence that we can clear the matter up. Let us go up to her.”

“She will not see me,” cried Ferguson.

“Oh, yes, she will,” said Holmes. He scribbled a few lines upon a sheet of paper.”You at least have the entree, Watson. Will you have the goodness to give the lady this note?”

I ascended again and handed the note to Dolores, who cautiously opened the door. A minute later I heard a cry from within, a cry in which joy and surprise seemed to be blended. Dolores looked out.

“She will see them. She will leesten,” said she.

At my summons Ferguson and Holmes came up. As we entered the room Ferguson took a step or two towards his wife, who had raised herself in the bed, but she held out her hand to repulse him. He sank into an armchair, while Holmes seated himself beside him, after bowing to the lady, who looked at him with wide-eyed amazement.

“I think we can dispense with Dolores,” said Holmes. “Oh, very well, madame, if you would rather she stayed I can see no objection. Now, Mr. Ferguson, I am a busy man wlth many calls, and my methods have to be short and direct. The swiftest surgery is the least painful. Let me first say what will ease your mind. Your wife is a very good, a very loving, and a very ill-used woman.”

Ferguson sat up with a cry of joy.

“Prove that, Mr. Holmes, and I am your debtor forever.”

“I will do so, but in doing so I must wound you deeply in another direction.”

“I care nothing so long as you clear my wife. Everything on earth is insignificant compared to that.”

“Let me tell you, then, the train of reasoning which passed through my mind in Baker Street. The idea of a vampire was to me absurd. Such things do not happen in criminal practice in England. And yet your observation was precise. You had seen the lady rise from beside the child’s cot with the blood upon her lips.”

“I did.”

“Did it not occur to you that a bleeding wound may be sucked for some other purpose than to draw the blood from it? Was there not a queen in English history who sucked such a wound to draw poison from it?”

“Poison!”

“A South American household. My instinct felt the presence of those weapons upon the wall before my eyes ever saw them. It might have been other poison, but that was what occurred to me. When I saw that little empty quiver beside the small birdbow, it was just what I expected to see. If the child were pricked with one of those arrows dipped in curare or some other devilish drug, it would mean death if the venom were not sucked out.

“And the dog! If one were to use such a poison, would one not try it first in order to see that it had not lost its power? I did not foresee the dog, but at least I understand him and he fitted into my reconstruction.

“Now do you understand? Your wife feared such an attack. She saw it made and saved the child’s life, and yet she shrank from telling you all the truth, for she knew how you loved the boy and feared lest it break your heart.”

“Jacky!”

“I watched him as you fondled the child just now. His face was clearly reflected in the glass of the window where the shutter formed a background. I saw such jealousy, such cruel hatred, as I have seldom seen in a human face.”

“My Jacky!”

“You have to face it, Mr. Ferguson. It is the more painful because it is a distorted love, a maniacal exaggerated love for you, and possibly for his dead mother, which has prompted his action. His very soul is consumed with hatred for this splendid child, whose health and beauty are a contrast to his own weakness.”

“Good God! It is incredible!”

“Have I spoken the truth, madame?”

The lady was sobbing, with her face buried in the pillows. Now she turned to her husband.

“How could I tell you, Bob? I felt the blow it would be to you. It was better that I should wait and that it should come from some other lips than mine. When this gentleman, who seems to have powers of magic, wrote that he knew all, I was glad.”

“I think a year at sea would be my prescription for Master Jacky,” said Holmes, rising from his chair. “Only one thing is still clouded, madame. We can quite understand your attacks upon Master Jacky. There is a limit to a mother’s patience. But how did you dare to leave the child these last two days?”

“I had told Mrs. Mason. She knew.”

“Exactly. So I imagined.”

Ferguson was standing by the bed, choking, his hands outstretched and quivering.

“This, I fancy, is the time for our exit, Watson,” said Holmes in a whisper. “If you will take one elbow of the too faithful Dolores, I will take the other. There, now,” he added as he closed the door behind him, “I think we may leave them to settle the rest among themselves.”

I have only one further note of this case. It is the letter which Holmes wrote in final answer to that with which the narrative begins. It ran thus:

BAKER STREET,
Nov. 21st.
Re Vampires

SIR:
Referring to your letter of the 19th, I beg to state that I
have looked into the inquiry of your client, Mr. Robert
Ferguson, of Ferguson and Muirhead, tea brokers, of Minc
ing Lane, and that the matter has been brought to a satisfac
tory conclusion. With thanks for your recommendation, I
am, sir,

Faithfully yours,
SHERLOCK HOLMES.

Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 – 1930)
The Adventure of The Sussex Vampire
fleursdumal.nl magazine

More in: Archive C-D, Arthur Conan Doyle, Doyle, Arthur Conan, Sherlock Holmes Theatre, Tales of Mystery & Imagination


ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: The Five Orange Pips

doyleconanarthr-fdmThe Five Orange Pips
by Arthur Conan Doyle

When I glance over my notes and records of the Sherlock Holmes cases between the years ’82 and ’90, I am faced by so many which present strange and interesting features that it is no easy matter to know which to choose and which to leave. Some, however, have already gained publicity through the papers, and others have not offered a field for those peculiar qualities which my friend possessed in so high a degree, and which it is the object of these papers to illustrate. Some, too, have baffled his analytical skill, and would be, as narratives, beginnings without an ending, while others have been but partially cleared up, and have their explanations founded rather upon conjecture and surmise than on that absolute logical proof which was so dear to him. There is, however, one of these last which was so remarkable in its details and so startling in its results that I am tempted to give some account of it in spite of the fact that there are points in connection with it which never have been, and probably never will be, entirely cleared up.

The year ’87 furnished us with a long series of cases of greater or less interest, of which I retain the records. Among my headings under this one twelve months I find an account of the adventure of the Paradol Chamber, of the Amateur Mendicant Society, who held a luxurious club in the lower vault of a furniture warehouse, of the facts connected with the loss of the British bark Sophy Anderson, of the singular adventures of the Grice Patersons in the island of Uffa, and finally of the Camberwell poisoning case. In the latter, as may be remembered, Sherlock Holmes was able, by winding up the dead man’s watch, to prove that it had been wound up two hours before, and that therefore the deceased had gone to bed within that time — a deduction which was of the greatest importance in clearing up the case. All these I may sketch out at some future date, but none of them present such singular features as the strange train of circumstances which I have now taken up my pen to describe.

It was in the latter days of September, and the equinoctial gales had set in with exceptional violence. All day the wind had screamed and the rain had beaten against the windows, so that even here in the heart of great, hand-made London we were forced to raise our minds for the instant from the routine of life and to recognize the presence of those great elemental forces which shriek at mankind through the bars of his civilization, like untamed beasts in a cage. As evening drew in, the storm grew higher and louder, and the wind cried and sobbed like a child in the chimney. Sherlock Holmes sat moodily at one side of the fireplace cross-indexing his records of crime, while I at the other was deep in one of Clark Russell’s fine sea-stories until the howl of the gale from without seemed to blend with the text, and the splash of the rain to lengthen out into the long swash of the sea waves. My wife was on a visit to her mother’s, and for a few days I was a dweller once more in my old quarters at Baker Street.

“Why,” said I, glancing up at my companion, “that was surely the bell. Who could come to-night? Some friend of yours, perhaps?”

“Except yourself I have none,” he answered. “I do not encourage visitors.”

“A client, then?”

“If so, it is a serious case. Nothing less would bring a man out on such a day and at such an hour. But I take it that it is more likely to be some crony of the landlady’s.”

Sherlock Holmes was wrong in his conjecture, however, for there came a step in the passage and a tapping at the door. He stretched out his long arm to turn the lamp away from himself and towards the vacant chair upon which a newcomer must sit.

“Come in!” said he.

The man who entered was young, some two-and-twenty at the outside, well-groomed and trimly clad, with something of refinement and delicacy in his bearing. The streaming umbrella which he held in his hand, and his long shining waterproof told of the fierce weather through which he had come. He looked about him anxiously in the glare of the lamp, and I could see that his face was pale and his eyes heavy, like those of a man who is weighed down with some great anxiety.

“l owe you an apology,” he said, raising his golden pince-nez to his eyes. “I trust that I am not intruding. I fear that I have brought some traces of the storm and rain into your snug chamber.”

“Give me your coat and umbrella,” said Holmes. “They may rest here on the hook and will be dry presently. You have come up from the south-west, I see.”

“Yes, from Horsham.”

“That clay and chalk mixture which I see upon your toe caps is quite distinctive.”

“I have come for advice.”

“That is easily got.”

“And help.”

“That is not always so easy.”

“I have heard of you, Mr. Holmes. I heard from Major Prendergast how you saved him in the Tankerville Club scandal.”

“Ah, of course. He was wrongfully accused of cheating at cards.”

“He said that you could solve anything.”

“He said too much.”

“That you are never beaten.”

“I have been beaten four times – three times by men, and once by a woman.”

“But what is that compared with the number of your successes?”

“It is true that I have been generally successful.”

“Then you may be so with me.”

“I beg that you will draw your chair up to the fire and favour me with some details as to your case.”

“It is no ordinary one.”

“None of those which come to me are. I am the last court of appeal.”

“And yet I question, sir, whether, in all your experience, you have ever listened to a more mysterious and inexplicable chain of events than those which have happened in my own family.”

“You fill me with interest,” said Holmes. “Pray give us the essential facts from the commencement, and I can afterwards question you as to those details which seem to me to be most important.”

The young man pulled his chair up and pushed his wet feet out towards the blaze.

“My name,” said he, “is John Openshaw, but my own affairs have, as far as I can understand, little to do with this awful business. It is a hereditary matter; so in order to give you an idea of the facts, I must go back to the commencement of the affair.

“You must know that my grandfather had two sons — my uncle Elias and my father Joseph. My father had a small factory at Coventry, which he enlarged at the time of the invention of bicycling. He was a patentee of the Openshaw unbreakable tire, and his business met with such success that he was able to sell it and to retire upon a handsome competence.

“My uncle Elias emigrated to America when he was a young man and became a planter in Florida, where he was reported to have done very well. At the time of the war he fought in Jackson’s army, and afterwards under Hood, where he rose to be a colonel. When Lee laid down his arms my uncle returned to his plantation, where he remained for three or four years. About 1869 or 1870 he came back to Europe and took a small estate in Sussex, near Horsham. He had made a very considerable fortune in the States, and his reason for leaving them was his aversion to the negroes, and his dislike of the Republican policy in extending the franchise to them. He was a singular man, fierce and quick-tempered, very foul-mouthed when he was angry, and of a most retiring disposition. During all the years that he lived at Horsham, I doubt if ever he set foot in the town. He had a garden and two or three fields round his house, and there he would take his exercise, though very often for weeks on end he would never leave his room. He drank a great deal of brandy and smoked very heavily, but he would see no society and did not want any friends, not even his own brother.

“He didn’t mind me; in fact, he took a fancy to me, for at the time when he saw me first I was a youngster of twelve or so. This would be in the year 1878, after he had been eight or nine years in England. He begged my father to let me live with him and he was very kind to me in his way. When he was sober he used to be fond of playing backgammon and draughts with me, and he would make me his representative both with the servants and with the tradespeople, so that by the time that I was sixteen I was quite master of the house. I kept all the keys and could go where I liked and do what I liked, so long as I did not disturb him in his privacy. There was one singular exception, however, for he had a single room, a lumber-room up among the attics, which was invariably locked, and which he would never permit either me or anyone else to enter. With a boy’s curiosity I have peeped through the keyhole, but I was never able to see more than such a collection of old trunks and bundles as would be expected in such a room.

“One day — it was in March, 1883 — a letter with a foreign stamp lay upon the table in front of the colonel’s plate. It was not a common thing for him to receive letters, for his bills were all paid in ready money, and he had no friends of any sort. ‘From India!’ said he as he took it up, ‘Pondicherry postmark! What can this be?’ Opening it hurriedly, out there jumped five little dried orange pips, which pattered down upon his plate. I began to laugh at this, but the laugh was struck from my lips at the sight of his face. His lip had fallen, his eyes were protruding, his skin the colour of putty, and he glared at the envelope which he still held in his trembling hand, ‘K. K. K.!’ he shrieked, and then, ‘My God, my God, my sins have overtaken me!’

” ‘What is it, uncle?’ I cried.

” ‘Death,’ said he, and rising from the table he retired to his room, leaving me palpitating with horror. I took up the envelope and saw scrawled in red ink upon the inner flap, just above the gum, the letter K three times repeated. There was nothing else save the five dried pips. What could be the reason of his over-powering terror? I left the breakfast-table, and as I ascended the stair I met him coming down with an old rusty key, which must have belonged to the attic, in one hand, and a small brass box, like a cashbox, in the other.

” ‘They may do what they like, but I’ll checkmate them still,’ said he with an oath. ‘Tell Mary that I shall want a fire in my room to-day, and send down to Fordham, the Horsham lawyer.’

“I did as he ordered, and when the lawyer arrived I was asked to step up to the room. The fire was burning brightly, and in the grate there was a mass of black, fluffy ashes, as of burned paper, while the brass box stood open and empty beside it. As I glanced at the box I noticed, with a start, that upon the lid was printed the treble K which I had read in the morning upon the envelope.

” ‘I wish you, John,’ said my uncle, ‘to witness my will. I leave my estate, with all its advantages and all its disadvantages, to my brother, your father, whence it will, no doubt, descend to you. If you can enjoy it in peace, well and good! If you find you cannot, take my advice, my boy, and leave it to your deadliest enemy. I am sorry to give you such a two-edged thing, but I can’t say what turn things are going to take. Kindly sign the paper where Mr. Fordham shows you.’

“I signed the paper as directed, and the lawyer took it away with him. The singular incident made, as you may think, the deepest impression upon me, and I pondered over it and turned it every way in my mind without being able to make anything of it. Yet I could not shake off the vague feeling of dread which it left behind, though the sensation grew less keen as the weeks passed and nothing happened to disturb the usual routine of our lives. I could see a change in my uncle, however. He drank more than ever, and he was less inclined for any sort of society. Most of his time he would spend in his room, with the door locked upon the inside, but sometimes he would emerge in a sort of drunken frenzy and would burst out of the house and tear about the garden with a revolver in his hand, screaming out that he was afraid of no man, and that he was not to be cooped up, like a sheep in a pen, by man or devil. When these hot fits were over however, he would rush tumultuously in at the door and lock and bar it behind him, like a man who can brazen it out no longer against the terror which lies at the roots of his soul. At such times I have seen his face, even on a cold day, glisten with moisture, as though it were new raised from a basin.

“Well, to come to an end of the matter, Mr. Holmes, and not to abuse your patience, there came a night when he made one of those drunken sallies from which he never came back. We found him, when we went to search for him, face downward in a little green-scummed pool, which lay at the foot of the garden. There was no sign of any violence, and the water was but two feet deep, so that the jury, having regard to his known eccentricity, brought in a verdict of ‘suicide.’ But I, who knew how he winced from the very thought of death, had much ado to persuade myself that he had gone out of his way to meet it. The matter passed, however, and my father entered into possession of the estate, and of some 14,000 pounds, which lay to his credit at the bank.”

“One moment,” Holmes interposed, “your statement is, I foresee, one of the most remarkable to which I have ever listened. Let me have the date of the reception by your uncle of the letter, and the date of his supposed suicide.”

“The letter arrived on March 10, 1883. His death was seven weeks later, upon the night of May 2d.”

“Thank you. Pray proceed.”

“When my father took over the Horsham property, he, at my request, made a careful examination of the attic, which had been always locked up. We found the brass box there, although its contents had been destroyed. On the inside of the cover was a paper label, with the initials of K. K. K. repeated upon it, and ‘Letters, memoranda, receipts, and a register’ written beneath. These, we presume, indicated the nature of the papers which had been destroyed by Colonel Openshaw. For the rest, there was nothing of much importance in the attic save a great many scattered papers and note-books bearing upon my uncle’s life in America. Some of them were of the war time and showed that he had done his duty well and had borne the repute of a brave soldier. Others were of a date during the reconstruction of the Southern states, and were mostly concerned with politics, for he had evidently taken a strong part in opposing the carpet-bag politicians who had been sent down from the North.

“Well, it was the beginning of ’84 when my father came to live at Horsham, and all went as well as possible with us until the January of ’85. On the fourth day after the new year I heard my father give a sharp cry of surprise as we sat together at the breakfast-table. There he was, sitting with a newly opened envelope in one hand and five dried orange pips in the outstretched palm of the other one. He had always laughed at what he called my cock-and-bull story about the colonel, but he looked very scared and puzzled now that the same thing had come upon himself.

” ‘Why, what on earth does this mean, John?’ he stammered.

“My heart had turned to lead. ‘It is K. K. K.,’ said I.

“He looked inside the envelope. ‘So it is,’ he cried. ‘Here are the very letters. But what is this written above them?’

” ‘Put the papers on the sundial,’ I read, peeping over his shoulder.

” ‘What papers? What sundial?’ he asked.

” ‘The sundial in the garden. There is no other,’ said I; ‘but the papers must be those that are destroyed.’

” ‘Pooh!’ said he, gripping hard at his courage. ‘We are in a civilized land here, and we can’t have tomfoolery of this kind. Where does the thing come from?’

” ‘From Dundee,’ I answered, glancing at the postmark.

” ‘Some preposterous practical joke,’ said he. ‘What have I to do with sundials and papers? I shall take no notice of such nonsense.’

” ‘I should certainly speak to the police,’ I said.

” ‘And be laughed at for my pains. Nothing of the sort.’

” ‘Then let me do so?’

” ‘No, I forbid you. I won’t have a fuss made about such nonsense.’

“It was in vain to argue with him, for he was a very obstinate man. I went about, however, with a heart which was full of forebodings.

“On the third day after the coming of the letter my father went from home to visit an old friend of his, Major Freebody, who is in command of one of the forts upon Portsdown Hill. I was glad that he should go, for it seemed to me that he was farther from danger when he was away from home. In that, however, I was in error. Upon the second day of his absence I received a telegram from the major, imploring me to come at once. My father had fallen over one of the deep chalk-pits which abound in the neighbourhood, and was lying senseless, with a shattered skull. I hurried to him, but he passed away without having ever recovered his consciousness. He had, as it appears, been returning from Fareham in the twilight, and as the country was unknown to him, and the chalk-pit unfenced, the jury had no hesitation in bringing in a verdict of ‘death from accidental causes.’ Carefully as I examined every fact connected with his death, I was unable to find anything which could suggest the idea of murder. There were no signs of violence, no footmarks, no robbery, no record of strangers having been seen upon the roads. And yet I need not tell you that my mind was far from at ease, and that I was well-nigh certain that some foul plot had been woven round him.

“In this sinister way I came into my inheritance. You will ask me why I did not dispose of it? I answer, because I was well convinced that our troubles were in some way dependent upon an incident in my uncle’s life, and that the danger would be as pressing in one house as in another.

“It was in January, ’85, that my poor father met his end, and two years and eight months have elapsed since then. During that time I have lived happily at Horsham, and I had begun to hope that this curse had passed way from the family, and that it had ended with the last generation. I had begun to take comfort too soon, however; yesterday morning the blow fell in the very shape in which it had come upon my father.”

The young man took from his waistcoat a crumpled envelope, and turning to the table he shook out upon it five little dried orange pips.

“This is the envelope,” he continued. “The postmark is London — eastern division. Within are the very words which were upon my father’s last message: ‘K. K. K.’; and then ‘Put the papers on the sundial.’ “

“What have you done?” asked Holmes.

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“To tell the truth” — he sank his face into his thin, white hands — “I have felt helpless. I have felt like one of those poor rabbits when the snake is writhing towards it. I seem to be in the grasp of some resistless, inexorable evil, which no foresight and no precautions can guard against.”

“Tut! tut!” cried Sherlock Holmes. “You must act, man, or you are lost. Nothing but energy can save you. This is no time for despair.”

“I have seen the police.”

“Ah!”

“But they listened to my story with a smile. I am convinced that the inspector has formed the opinion that the letters are all practical jokes, and that the deaths of my relations were really accidents, as the jury stated, and were not to be connected with the warnings.”

Holmes shook his clenched hands in the air. “Incredible imbecility!” he cried.

“They have, however, allowed me a policeman, who may remain in the house with me.”

“Has he come with you tonight?”

“No. His orders were to stay in the house.”

Again Holmes raved in the air.

“Why did you not come to me,” he cried, “and, above all, why did you not come at once?”

“I did not know. It was only today that I spoke to Major Prendergast about my troubles and was advised by him to come to you.”

“It is really two days since you had the letter. We should have acted before this. You have no further evidence, I suppose, than that which you have placed before us — no suggestive detail which might help us?”

“There is one thing,” said John Openshaw. He rummaged in his coat pocket, and, drawing out a piece of discoloured, blue-tinted paper, he laid it out upon the table. “I have some remembrance,” said he, “that on the day when my uncle burned the papers I observed that the small, unburned margins which lay amid the ashes were of this particular colour. I found this single sheet upon the floor of his room, and I am inclined to think that it may be one of the papers which has, perhaps, fluttered out from among the others, and in that way has escaped destruction. Beyond the mention of pips, I do not see that it helps us much. I think myself that it is a page from some private diary. The writing is undoubtedly my uncle’s.”

Holmes moved the lamp, and we both bent over the sheet of paper, which showed by its ragged edge that it had indeed been torn from a book. It was headed, “March, 1869,” and beneath were the following enigmatical notices:

4th. Hudson came. Same old platform.

7th. Set the pips on McCauley, Paramore, and John Swain, of St. Augustine.

9th. McCauley cleared.

10th. John Swain cleared.

12th. Visited Paramore. All well.

“Thank you!” said Holmes, folding up the paper and returning it to our visitor. “And now you must on no account lose another instant. We cannot spare time even to discuss what you have told me. You must get home instantly and act.”

“What shall I do?”

“There is but one thing to do. It must be done at once. You must put this piece of paper which you have shown us into the brass box which you have described. You must also put in a note to say that all the other papers were burned by your uncle, and that this is the only one which remains. You must assert that in such words as will carry conviction with them. Having done this, you must at once put the box out upon the sundial, as directed. Do you understand?”

“Entirely.”

“Do not think of revenge, or anything of the sort, at present. I think that we may gain that by means of the law; but we have our web to weave, while theirs is already woven. The first consideration is to remove the pressing danger which threatens you. The second is to clear up the mystery and to punish the guilty parties.”

“I thank you,” said the young man, rising and pulling on his overcoat. “You have given me fresh life and hope. I shall certainly do as you advise.”

“Do not lose an instant. And, above all, take care of yourself in the meanwhile, for I do not think that there can be a doubt that you are threatened by a very real and imminent danger. How do you go back?”

“By train from Waterloo.”

“It is not yet nine. The streets will be crowded, so l trust that you may be in safety. And yet you cannot guard yourself too closely.”

“I am armed.”

“That is well. To-morrow I shall set to work upon your case.”

“I shall see you at Horsham, then?”

“No, your secret lies in London. It is there that I shall seek it.”

“Then I shall call upon you in a day, or in two days, with news as to the box and the papers. I shall take your advice in every particular.” He shook hands with us and took his leave. Outside the wind still screamed and the rain splashed and pattered against the windows. This strange, wild story seemed to have come to us from amid the mad elements — blown in upon us like a sheet of sea-weed in a gale — and now to have been reabsorbed by them once more.

Sherlock Holmes sat for some time in silence, with his head sunk forward and his eyes bent upon the red glow of the fire. Then he lit his pipe, and leaning back in his chair he watched the blue smoke-rings as they chased each other up to the ceiling.

“I think, Watson,” he remarked at last, “that of all our cases we have had none more fantastic than this.”

“Save, perhaps, the Sign of Four.”

“Well, yes. Save, perhaps, that. And yet this John Openshaw seems to me to be walking amid even greater perils than did the Sholtos.”

“But have you,” I asked, “formed any definite conception as to what these perils are?”

“There can be no question as to their nature,” he answered.

“Then what are they? Who is this K. K. K., and why does he pursue this unhappy family?”

Sherlock Holmes closed his eyes and placed his elbows upon the arms of his chair, with his finger-tips together. “The ideal reasoner,” he remarked, “would, when he had once been shown a single fact in all its bearings, deduce from it not only all the chain of events which led up to it but also all the results which would follow from it. As Cuvier could correctly describe a whole animal by the contemplation of a single bone, so the observer who has thoroughly understood one link in a series of incidents should be able to accurately state all the other ones, both before and after. We have not yet grasped the results which the reason alone can attain to. Problems may be solved in the study which have baffled all those who have sought a solution by the aid of their senses. To carry the art, however, to its highest pitch, it is necessary that the reasoner should be able to utilize all the facts which have come to his knowledge; and this in itself implies, as you will readily see, a possession of all knowledge, which, even in these days of free education and encyclopaedias, is a somewhat rare accomplishment. It is not so impossible, however, that a man should possess all knowledge which is likely to be useful to him in his work, and this I have endeavoured in my case to do. If I remember rightly, you on one occasion, in the early days of our friendship, defined my limits in a very precise fashion.”

“Yes,” I answered, laughing. “It was a singular document. Philosophy, astronomy, and politics were marked at zero, I remember. Botany variable, geology profound as regards the mud-stains from any region within fifty miles of town, chemistry eccentric, anatomy unsystematic, sensational literature and crime records unique, violin-player, boxer, swordsman, lawyer, and self-poisoner by cocaine and tobacco. Those, I think, were the main points of my analysis.”

Holmes grinned at the last item. “Well,” he said, “I say now, as I said then, that a man should keep his little brain-attic stocked with all the furniture that he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber-room of his library, where he can get it if he wants it. Now, for such a case as the one which has been submitted to us to-night, we need certainly to muster all our resources. Kindly hand me down the letter K of the American Encyclopaedia which stands upon the shelf beside you. Thank you. Now let us consider the situation and see what may be deduced from it. In the first place, we may start with a strong presumption that Colonel Openshaw had some very strong reason for leaving America. Men at his time of life do not change all their habits and exchange willingly the charming climate of Florida for the lonely life of an English provincial town. His extreme love of solitude in England suggests the idea that he was in fear of someone or something, so we may assume as a working hypothesis that it was fear of someone or something which drove him from America. As to what it was he feared, we can only deduce that by considering the formidable letters which were received by himself and his successors. Did you remark the postmarks of those letters?”

“The first was from Pondicherry, the second from Dundee, and the third from London.”

“From East London. What do you deduce from that?”

“They are all seaports. That the writer was on board of a ship.”

“Excellent. We have already a clue. There can be no doubt that the probability — the strong probability — is that the writer was on board of a ship. And now let us consider another point. In the case of Pondicherry, seven weeks elapsed between the threat and its fulfillment, in Dundee it was only some three or four days. Does that suggest anything?”

“A greater distance to travel.”

“But the letter had also a greater distance to come.”

“Then I do not see the point.”

“There is at least a presumption that the vessel in which the man or men are is a sailing-ship. It looks as if they always sent their singular warning or token before them when starting upon their mission. You see how quickly the deed followed the sign when it came from Dundee. If they had come from Pondicherry in a steamer they would have arrived almost as soon as their letter. But, as a matter of fact, seven weeks elapsed. I think that those seven weeks represented the difference between the mail-boat which brought the letter and the sailing vessel which brought the writer.”

“It is possible.”

“More than that. It is probable. And now you see the deadly urgency of this new case, and why I urged young Openshaw to caution. The blow has always fallen at the end of the time which it would take the senders to travel the distance. But this one comes from London, and therefore we cannot count upon delay.”

“Good God!” I cried. “What can it mean, this relentless persecution?”

“The papers which Openshaw carried are obviously of vital importance to the person or persons in the sailing-ship. I think that it is quite clear that there must be more than one of them. A single man could not have carried out two deaths in such a way as to deceive a coroner’s jury. There must have been several in it, and they must have been men of resource and determination. Their papers they mean to have, be the holder of them who it may. In this way you see K. K. K. ceases to be the initials of an individual and becomes the badge of a society.”

“But of what society?”

“Have you never –” said Sherlock Holmes, bending forward and sinking his voice –“have you never heard of the Ku Klux Klan?”

“I never have.”

Holmes turned over the leaves of the book upon his knee. “Here it is,” said he presently:

“Ku Klux Klan. A name derived from the fanciful resemblance to the sound produced by cocking a rifle. This terrible secret society was formed by some ex-Confederate soldiers in the Southern states after the Civil War, and it rapidly formed local branches in different parts of the country, notably in Tennessee, Louisiana, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. Its power was used for political purposes, principally for the terrorizing of the negro voters and the murdering and driving from the country of those who were opposed to its views. Its outrages were usually preceded by a warning sent to the marked man in some fantastic but generally recognized shape — a sprig of oak-leaves in some parts, melon seeds or orange pips in others. On receiving this the victim might either openly abjure his former ways, or might fly from the country. If he braved the matter out, death would unfailingly come upon him, and usually in some strange and unforeseen manner. So perfect was the organization of the society, and so systematic its methods, that there is hardly a case upon record where any man succeeded in braving it with impunity, or in which any of its outrages were traced home to the perpetrators. For some years the organization flourished in spite of the efforts of the United States government and of the better classes of the community in the South. Eventually, in the year 1869, the movement rather suddenly collapsed, although there have been sporadic outbreaks of the same sort since that date.

“You will observe,” said Holmes, laying down the volume, “that the sudden breaking up of the society was coincident with the disappearance of Openshaw from America with their papers. It may well have been cause and effect. It is no wonder that he and his family have some of the more implacable spirits upon their track. You can understand that this register and diary may implicate some of the first men in the South, and that there may be many who will not sleep easy at night until it is recovered.”

“Then the page we have seen –“

“Is such as we might expect. It ran, if I remember right, ‘sent the pips to A, B, and C’ — that is, sent the society’s warning to them. Then there are successive entries that A and B cleared, or left the country, and finally that C was visited, with, I fear, a sinister result for C. Well, I think, Doctor, that we may let some light into this dark place, and I believe that the only chance young Openshaw has in the meantime is to do what I have told him. There is nothing more to be said or to be done to-night, so hand me over my violin and let us try to forget for half an hour the miserable weather and the still more miserable ways of our fellowmen.”

It had cleared in the morning, and the sun was shining with a subdued brightness through the dim veil which hangs over the great city. Sherlock Holmes was already at breakfast when I came down.

“You will excuse me for not waiting for you,” said he; “I have, I foresee, a very busy day before me in looking into this case of young Openshaw’s.”

“What steps will you take?” I asked.

“It will very much depend upon the results of my first inquiries. I may have to go down to Horsham, after all.”

“You will not go there first?”

“No, I shall commence with the City. Just ring the bell and the maid will bring up your coffee.”

As I waited, I lifted the unopened newspaper from the table and glanced my eye over it. It rested upon a heading which sent a chill to my heart.

“Holmes,” I cried, “you are too late.”

“Ah!” said he, laying down his cup, “I feared as much. How was it done?” He spoke calmly, but I could see that he was deeply moved.

“My eye caught the name of Openshaw, and the heading ‘Tragedy Near Waterloo Bridge.’ Here is the account:

“Between nine and ten last night Police-Constable Cook, of the H Division, on duty near Waterloo Bridge, heard a cry for help and a splash in the water. The night, however, was extremely dark and stormy, so that, in spite of the help of several passers-by, it was quite impossible to effect a rescue. The alarm, however, was given, and, by the aid of the water-police, the body was eventually recovered. It proved to be that of a young gentleman whose name, as it appears from an envelope which was found in his pocket, was John Openshaw, and whose residence is near Horsham. It is conjectured that he may have been hurrying down to catch the last train from Waterloo Station, and that in his haste and the extreme darkness he missed his path and walked over the edge of one of the small landing-places for river steamboats. The body exhibited no traces of violence, and there can be no doubt that the deceased had been the victim of an unfortunate accident, which should have the effect of calling the attention of the authorities to the condition of the riverside landing-stages.”

We sat in silence for some minutes, Holmes more depressed and shaken than I had ever seen him.

“That hurts my pride, Watson,” he said at last. “It is a petty feeling, no doubt, but it hurts my pride. It becomes a personal matter with me now, and, if God sends me health, I shall set my hand upon this gang. That he should come to me for help, and that I should send him away to his death –!” He sprang from his chair and paced about the room in uncontrollable agitation, with a flush upon his sallow cheeks and a nervous clasping and unclasping of his long thin hands.

“They must be cunning devils,” he exclaimed at last. “How could they have decoyed him down there? The Embankment is not on the direct line to the station. The bridge, no doubt, was too crowded, even on such a night, for their purpose. Well, Watson, we shall see who will win in the long run. I am going out now!”

“To the police?”

“No; I shall be my own police. When I have spun the web they may take the flies, but not before.”

All day I was engaged in my professional work, and it was late in the evening before I returned to Baker Street. Sherlock Holmes had not come back yet. It was nearly ten o’clock before he entered, looking pale and worn. He walked up to the sideboard, and tearing a piece from the loaf he devoured it voraciously, washing it down with a long draught of water.

“You are hungry,” I remarked.

“Starving. It had escaped my memory. I have had nothing since breakfast.”

“Nothing?”

“Not a bite. I had no time to think of it.”

“And how have you succeeded?”

“Well.”

“You have a clue?”

“I have them in the hollow of my hand. Young Openshaw shall not long remain unavenged. Why, Watson, let us put their own devilish trade-mark upon them. It is well thought of!”

“What do you mean?”

He took an orange from the cupboard, and tearing it to pieces he squeezed out the pips upon the table. Of these he took five and thrust them into an envelope. On the inside of the flap he wrote “S. H. for J. O.” Then he sealed it and addressed it to “Captain James Calhoun, Bark Lone Star, Savannah, Georgia.”

“That will await him when he enters port,” said he, chuckling. “It may give him a sleepless night. He will find it as sure a precursor of his fate as Openshaw did before him.”

“And who is this Captain Calhoun?”

“The leader of the gang. I shall have the others, but he first.”

“How did you trace it, then?”

He took a large sheet of paper from his pocket, all covered with dates and names.

“I have spent the whole day,” said he, “over Lloyd’s registers and files of the old papers, following the future career of every vessel which touched at Pondicherry in January and February in ’83. There were thirty-six ships of fair tonnage which were reported there during those months. Of these, one, the Lone Star, instantly attracted my attention, since, although it was reported as having cleared from London, the name is that which is given to one of the states of the Union.”

“Texas, I think.”

“I was not and am not sure which; but I knew that the ship must have an American origin.”

“What then?”

“I searched the Dundee records, and when I found that the bark Lone Star was there in January, ’85, my suspicion became a certainty. I then inquired as to the vessels which lay at present in the port of London.”

“Yes?”

“The Lone Star had arrived here last week. I went down to the Albert Dock and found that she had been taken down the river by the early tide this morning, homeward bound to Savannah. I wired to Gravesend and learned that she had passed some time ago, and as the wind is easterly I have no doubt that she is now past the Goodwins and not very far from the Isle of Wight.”

“What will you do, then?”

“Oh, I have my hand upon him. He and the two mates, are as I learn, the only native-born Americans in the ship. The others are Finns and Germans. I know, also, that they were all three away from the ship last night. I had it from the stevedore who has been loading their cargo. By the time that their sailing-ship reaches Savannah the mail-boat will have carried this letter, and the cable will have informed the police of Savannah that these three gentlemen are badly wanted here upon a charge of murder.”

There is ever a flaw, however, in the best laid of human plans, and the murderers of John Openshaw were never to receive the orange pips which would show them that another, as cunning and as resolute as themselves, was upon their track. Very long and very severe were the equinoctial gales that year. We waited long for news of the Lone Star of Savannah, but none ever reached us. We did at last hear that somewhere far out in the Atlantic a shattered stern-post of the boat was seen swinging in the trough of a wave, with the letters “L. S.” carved upon it, and that is all which we shall ever know of the fate of the Lone Star.

Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 – 1930)
The Five Orange Pips
(from: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes )
fleursdumal.nl magazine

More in: Archive C-D, Arthur Conan Doyle, Doyle, Arthur Conan


ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: A False Start (Round the Red Lamp #05)

ACDOYLE_REDLAMP12A False Start
by Arthur Conan Doyle

“Is Dr. Horace Wilkinson at home?”

“I am he. Pray step in.”

The visitor looked somewhat astonished at having the door opened to him by the master of the house.

“I wanted to have a few words.”

The doctor, a pale, nervous young man, dressed in an ultra-professional, long black frock-coat, with a high, white collar cutting off his dapper side-whiskers in the centre, rubbed his hands together and smiled. In the thick, burly man in front of him he scented a patient, and it would be his first. His scanty resources had begun to run somewhat low, and, although he had his first quarter’s rent safely locked away in the right-hand drawer of his desk, it was becoming a question with him how he should meet the current expenses of his very simple housekeeping. He bowed, therefore, waved his visitor in, closed the hall door in a careless fashion, as though his own presence thereat had been a purely accidental circumstance, and finally led the burly stranger into his scantily furnished front room, where he motioned him to a seat. Dr. Wilkinson planted himself behind his desk, and, placing his finger-tips together, he gazed with some apprehension at his companion. What was the matter with the man? He seemed very red in the face. Some of his old professors would have diagnosed his case by now, and would have electrified the patient by describing his own symptoms before he had said a word about them. Dr. Horace Wilkinson racked his brains for some clue, but Nature had fashioned him as a plodder—a very reliable plodder and nothing more. He could think of nothing save that the visitor’s watch-chain had a very brassy appearance, with a corollary to the effect that he would be lucky if he got half-a-crown out of him. Still, even half-a-crown was something in those early days of struggle.

Whilst the doctor had been running his eyes over the stranger, the latter had been plunging his hands into pocket after pocket of his heavy coat. The heat of the weather, his dress, and this exercise of pocket-rummaging had all combined to still further redden his face, which had changed from brick to beet, with a gloss of moisture on his brow. This extreme ruddiness brought a clue at last to the observant doctor. Surely it was not to be attained without alcohol. In alcohol lay the secret of this man’s trouble. Some little delicacy was needed, however, in showing him that he had read his case aright—that at a glance he had penetrated to the inmost sources of his ailments.

“It’s very hot,” observed the stranger, mopping his forehead.

“Yes, it is weather which tempts one to drink rather more beer than is good for one,” answered Dr. Horace Wilkinson, looking very knowingly at his companion from over his finger-tips.

“Dear, dear, you shouldn’t do that.”

“I! I never touch beer.”

“Neither do I. I’ve been an abstainer for twenty years.”

This was depressing. Dr. Wilkinson blushed until he was nearly as red as the other. “May I ask what I can do for you?” he asked, picking up his stethoscope and tapping it gently against his thumb-nail.

“Yes, I was just going to tell you. I heard of your coming, but I couldn’t get round before——” He broke into a nervous little cough.

“Yes?” said the doctor encouragingly.

“I should have been here three weeks ago, but you know how these things get put off.” He coughed again behind his large red hand.

“I do not think that you need say anything more,” said the doctor, taking over the case with an easy air of command. “Your cough is quite sufficient. It is entirely bronchial by the sound. No doubt the mischief is circumscribed at present, but there is always the danger that it may spread, so you have done wisely to come to me. A little judicious treatment will soon set you right. Your waistcoat, please, but not your shirt. Puff out your chest and say ninety-nine in a deep voice.”

The red-faced man began to laugh. “It’s all right, doctor,” said he. “That cough comes from chewing tobacco, and I know it’s a very bad habit. Nine-and-ninepence is what I have to say to you, for I’m the officer of the gas company, and they have a claim against you for that on the metre.”

Dr. Horace Wilkinson collapsed into his chair. “Then you’re not a patient?” he gasped.

“Never needed a doctor in my life, sir.”

“Oh, that’s all right.” The doctor concealed his disappointment under an affectation of facetiousness. “You don’t look as if you troubled them much. I don’t know what we should do if every one were as robust. I shall call at the company’s offices and pay this small amount.”

“If you could make it convenient, sir, now that I am here, it would save trouble——”

“Oh, certainly!” These eternal little sordid money troubles were more trying to the doctor than plain living or scanty food. He took out his purse and slid the contents on to the table. There were two half-crowns and some pennies. In his drawer he had ten golden sovereigns. But those were his rent. If he once broke in upon them he was lost. He would starve first.

“Dear me!” said he, with a smile, as at some strange, unheard-of incident. “I have run short of small change. I am afraid I shall have to call upon the company, after all.”

“Very well, sir.” The inspector rose, and with a practised glance around, which valued every article in the room, from the two-guinea carpet to the eight-shilling muslin curtains, he took his departure.

When he had gone Dr. Wilkinson rearranged his room, as was his habit a dozen times in the day. He laid out his large Quain’s Dictionary of Medicine in the forefront of the table so as to impress the casual patient that he had ever the best authorities at his elbow. Then he cleared all the little instruments out of his pocket-case—the scissors, the forceps, the bistouries, the lancets—and he laid them all out beside the stethoscope, to make as good a show as possible. His ledger, day-book, and visiting-book were spread in front of him. There was no entry in any of them yet, but it would not look well to have the covers too glossy and new, so he rubbed them together and daubed ink over them. Neither would it be well that any patient should observe that his name was the first in the book, so he filled up the first page of each with notes of imaginary visits paid to nameless patients during the last three weeks. Having done all this, he rested his head upon his hands and relapsed into the terrible occupation of waiting.

Terrible enough at any time to the young professional man, but most of all to one who knows that the weeks, and even the days during which he can hold out are numbered. Economise as he would, the money would still slip away in the countless little claims which a man never understands until he lives under a rooftree of his own. Dr. Wilkinson could not deny, as he sat at his desk and looked at the little heap of silver and coppers, that his chances of being a successful practitioner in Sutton were rapidly vanishing away.

And yet it was a bustling, prosperous town, with so much money in it that it seemed strange that a man with a trained brain and dexterous fingers should be starved out of it for want of employment. At his desk, Dr. Horace Wilkinson could see the never-ending double current of people which ebbed and flowed in front of his window. It was a busy street, and the air was forever filled with the dull roar of life, the grinding of the wheels, and the patter of countless feet. Men, women, and children, thousands and thousands of them passed in the day, and yet each was hurrying on upon his own business, scarce glancing at the small brass plate, or wasting a thought upon the man who waited in the front room. And yet how many of them would obviously, glaringly have been the better for his professional assistance. Dyspeptic men, anemic women, blotched faces, bilious complexions—they flowed past him, they needing him, he needing them, and yet the remorseless bar of professional etiquette kept them forever apart. What could he do? Could he stand at his own front door, pluck the casual stranger by the sleeve, and whisper in his ear, “Sir, you will forgive me for remarking that you are suffering from a severe attack of acne rosacea, which makes you a peculiarly unpleasant object. Allow me to suggest that a small prescription containing arsenic, which will not cost you more than you often spend upon a single meal, will be very much to your advantage.” Such an address would be a degradation to the high and lofty profession of Medicine, and there are no such sticklers for the ethics of that profession as some to whom she has been but a bitter and a grudging mother.

Dr. Horace Wilkinson was still looking moodily out of the window, when there came a sharp clang at the bell. Often it had rung, and with every ring his hopes had sprung up, only to dwindle away again, and change to leaden disappointment, as he faced some beggar or touting tradesman. But the doctor’s spirit was young and elastic, and again, in spite of all experience, it responded to that exhilarating summons. He sprang to his feet, cast his eyes over the table, thrust out his medical books a little more prominently, and hurried to the door. A groan escaped him as he entered the hall. He could see through the half-glazed upper panels that a gypsy van, hung round with wicker tables and chairs, had halted before his door, and that a couple of the vagrants, with a baby, were waiting outside. He had learned by experience that it was better not even to parley with such people.

“I have nothing for you,” said he, loosing the latch by an inch. “Go away!”

He closed the door, but the bell clanged once more. “Get away! Get away!” he cried impatiently, and walked back into his consulting-room. He had hardly seated himself when the bell went for the third time. In a towering passion he rushed back, flung open the door.

“What the——?”

“If you please, sir, we need a doctor.”

In an instant he was rubbing his hands again with his blandest professional smile. These were patients, then, whom he had tried to hunt from his doorstep—the very first patients, whom he had waited for so impatiently. They did not look very promising. The man, a tall, lank-haired gypsy, had gone back to the horse’s head. There remained a small, hard-faced woman with a great bruise all round her eye. She wore a yellow silk handkerchief round her head, and a baby, tucked in a red shawl, was pressed to her bosom.

“Pray step in, madam,” said Dr. Horace Wilkinson, with his very best sympathetic manner. In this case, at least, there could be no mistake as to diagnosis. “If you will sit on this sofa, I shall very soon make you feel much more comfortable.”

He poured a little water from his carafe into a saucer, made a compress of lint, fastened it over the injured eye, and secured the whole with a spica bandage, secundum artem.

“Thank ye kindly, sir,” said the woman, when his work was finished; “that’s nice and warm, and may God bless your honour. But it wasn’t about my eye at all that I came to see a doctor.”

“Not your eye?” Dr. Horace Wilkinson was beginning to be a little doubtful as to the advantages of quick diagnosis. It is an excellent thing to be able to surprise a patient, but hitherto it was always the patient who had surprised him.

“The baby’s got the measles.”

The mother parted the red shawl, and exhibited a little dark, black-eyed gypsy baby, whose swarthy face was all flushed and mottled with a dark-red rash. The child breathed with a rattling sound, and it looked up at the doctor with eyes which were heavy with want of sleep and crusted together at the lids.

“Hum! Yes. Measles, sure enough—and a smart attack.”

“I just wanted you to see her, sir, so that you could signify.”

“Could what?”

“Signify, if anything happened.”

“Oh, I see—certify.”

“And now that you’ve seen it, sir, I’ll go on, for Reuben—that’s my man—is in a hurry.”

“But don’t you want any medicine?”

“Oh, now you’ve seen it, it’s all right. I’ll let you know if anything happens.”

“But you must have some medicine. The child is very ill.” He descended into the little room which he had fitted as a surgery, and he made up a two-ounce bottle of cooling medicine. In such cities as Sutton there are few patients who can afford to pay a fee to both doctor and chemist, so that unless the physician is prepared to play the part of both he will have little chance of making a living at either.

“There is your medicine, madam. You will find the directions upon the bottle. Keep the child warm and give it a light diet.”

“Thank you kindly, sir.” She shouldered her baby and marched for the door.

“Excuse me, madam,” said the doctor nervously. “Don’t you think it too small a matter to make a bill of? Perhaps it would be better if we had a settlement at once.”

The gypsy woman looked at him reproachfully out of her one uncovered eye.

“Are you going to charge me for that?” she asked. “How much, then?”

“Well, say half-a-crown.” He mentioned the sum in a half-jesting way, as though it were too small to take serious notice of, but the gypsy woman raised quite a scream at the mention of it.

“‘Arf-a-crown! for that?”

“Well, my good woman, why not go to the poor doctor if you cannot afford a fee?”

She fumbled in her pocket, craning awkwardly to keep her grip upon the baby.

“Here’s sevenpence,” she said at last, holding out a little pile of copper coins. “I’ll give you that and a wicker footstool.”

“But my fee is half-a-crown.” The doctor’s views of the glory of his profession cried out against this wretched haggling, and yet what was he to do? “Where am I to get ‘arf-a-crown? It is well for gentlefolk like you who sit in your grand houses, and can eat and drink what you like, an’ charge ‘arf-a-crown for just saying as much as, ”Ow d’ye do?’ We can’t pick up’ arf-crowns like that. What we gets we earns ‘ard. This sevenpence is just all I’ve got. You told me to feed the child light. She must feed light, for what she’s to have is more than I know.”

Whilst the woman had been speaking, Dr. Horace Wilkinson’s eyes had wandered to the tiny heap of money upon the table, which represented all that separated him from absolute starvation, and he chuckled to himself at the grim joke that he should appear to this poor woman to be a being living in the lap of luxury. Then he picked up the odd coppers, leaving only the two half-crowns upon the table.

“Here you are,” he said brusquely. “Never mind the fee, and take these coppers. They may be of some use to you. Good-bye!” He bowed her out, and closed the door behind her. After all she was the thin edge of the wedge. These wandering people have great powers of recommendation. All large practices have been built up from such foundations. The hangers-on to the kitchen recommend to the kitchen, they to the drawing-room, and so it spreads. At least he could say now that he had had a patient.

He went into the back room and lit the spirit-kettle to boil the water for his tea, laughing the while at the recollection of his recent interview. If all patients were like this one it could easily be reckoned how many it would take to ruin him completely. Putting aside the dirt upon his carpet and the loss of time, there were twopence gone upon the bandage, fourpence or more upon the medicine, to say nothing of phial, cork, label, and paper. Then he had given her fivepence, so that his first patient had absorbed altogether not less than one sixth of his available capital. If five more were to come he would be a broken man. He sat down upon the portmanteau and shook with laughter at the thought, while he measured out his one spoonful and a half of tea at one shilling eightpence into the brown earthenware teapot. Suddenly, however, the laugh faded from his face, and he cocked his ear towards the door, standing listening with a slanting head and a sidelong eye. There had been a rasping of wheels against the curb, the sound of steps outside, and then a loud peal at the bell. With his teaspoon in his hand he peeped round the corner and saw with amazement that a carriage and pair were waiting outside, and that a powdered footman was standing at the door. The spoon tinkled down upon the floor, and he stood gazing in bewilderment. Then, pulling himself together, he threw open the door.

“Young man,” said the flunky, “tell your master, Dr. Wilkinson, that he is wanted just as quick as ever he can come to Lady Millbank, at the Towers. He is to come this very instant. We’d take him with us, but we have to go back to see if Dr. Mason is home yet. Just you stir your stumps and give him the message.”

The footman nodded and was off in an instant, while the coachman lashed his horses and the carriage flew down the street.

Here was a new development. Dr. Horace Wilkinson stood at his door and tried to think it all out. Lady Millbank, of the Towers! People of wealth and position, no doubt. And a serious case, or why this haste and summoning of two doctors? But, then, why in the name of all that is wonderful should he be sent for?

He was obscure, unknown, without influence. There must be some mistake. Yes, that must be the true explanation; or was it possible that some one was attempting a cruel hoax upon him? At any rate, it was too positive a message to be disregarded. He must set off at once and settle the matter one way or the other.

But he had one source of information. At the corner of the street was a small shop where one of the oldest inhabitants dispensed newspapers and gossip. He could get information there if anywhere. He put on his well-brushed top hat, secreted instruments and bandages in all his pockets, and without waiting for his tea closed up his establishment and started off upon his adventure.

The stationer at the corner was a human directory to every one and everything in Sutton, so that he soon had all the information which he wanted. Sir John Millbank was very well known in the town, it seemed. He was a merchant prince, an exporter of pens, three times mayor, and reported to be fully worth two millions sterling.

The Towers was his palatial seat, just outside the city. His wife had been an invalid for some years, and was growing worse. So far the whole thing seemed to be genuine enough. By some amazing chance these people really had sent for him.

And then another doubt assailed him, and he turned back into the shop.

“I am your neighbour, Dr. Horace Wilkinson,” said he. “Is there any other medical man of that name in the town?”

No, the stationer was quite positive that there was not.

That was final, then. A great good fortune had come in his way, and he must take prompt advantage of it. He called a cab and drove furiously to the Towers, with his brain in a whirl, giddy with hope and delight at one moment, and sickened with fears and doubts at the next lest the case should in some way be beyond his powers, or lest he should find at some critical moment that he was without the instrument or appliance that was needed. Every strange and outre case of which he had ever heard or read came back into his mind, and long before he reached the Towers he had worked himself into a positive conviction that he would be instantly required to do a trephining at the least.

The Towers was a very large house, standing back amid trees, at the head of a winding drive. As he drove up the doctor sprang out, paid away half his worldly assets as a fare, and followed a stately footman who, having taken his name, led him through the oak-panelled, stained-glass hall, gorgeous with deers’ heads and ancient armour, and ushered him into a large sitting-room beyond. A very irritable-looking, acid-faced man was seated in an armchair by the fireplace, while two young ladies in white were standing together in the bow window at the further end.

“Hullo! hullo! hullo! What’s this—heh?” cried the irritable man. “Are you Dr. Wilkinson? Eh?”

“Yes, sir, I am Dr. Wilkinson.”

“Really, now. You seem very young—much younger than I expected. Well, well, well, Mason’s old, and yet he don’t seem to know much about it. I suppose we must try the other end now. You’re the Wilkinson who wrote something about the lungs? Heh?”

Here was a light! The only two letters which the doctor had ever written to The Lancet—modest little letters thrust away in a back column among the wrangles about medical ethics and the inquiries as to how much it took to keep a horse in the country—had been upon pulmonary disease. They had not been wasted, then. Some eye had picked them out and marked the name of the writer. Who could say that work was ever wasted, or that merit did not promptly meet with its reward?

“Yes, I have written on the subject.”

“Ha! Well, then, where’s Mason?”

“I have not the pleasure of his acquaintance.”

“No?—that’s queer too. He knows you and thinks a lot of your opinion. You’re a stranger in the town, are you not?”

“Yes, I have only been here a very short time.”

“That was what Mason said. He didn’t give me the address. Said he would call on you and bring you, but when the wife got worse of course I inquired for you and sent for you direct. I sent for Mason, too, but he was out. However, we can’t wait for him, so just run away upstairs and do what you can.”

“Well, I am placed in a rather delicate position,” said Dr. Horace Wilkinson, with some hesitation. “I am here, as I understand, to meet my colleague, Dr. Mason, in consultation. It would, perhaps, hardly be correct for me to see the patient in his absence. I think that I would rather wait.”

“Would you, by Jove! Do you think I’ll let my wife get worse while the doctor is coolly kicking his heels in the room below? No, sir, I am a plain man, and I tell you that you will either go up or go out.”

The style of speech jarred upon the doctor’s sense of the fitness of things, but still when a man’s wife is ill much may be overlooked. He contented himself by bowing somewhat stiffly. “I shall go up, if you insist upon it,” said he.

“I do insist upon it. And another thing, I won’t have her thumped about all over the chest, or any hocus-pocus of the sort. She has bronchitis and asthma, and that’s all. If you can cure it well and good. But it only weakens her to have you tapping and listening, and it does no good either.”

Personal disrespect was a thing that the doctor could stand; but the profession was to him a holy thing, and a flippant word about it cut him to the quick.

“Thank you,” said he, picking up his hat. “I have the honour to wish you a very good day. I do not care to undertake the responsibility of this case.”

“Hullo! what’s the matter now?”

“It is not my habit to give opinions without examining my patient. I wonder that you should suggest such a course to a medical man. I wish you good day.”

But Sir John Millbank was a commercial man, and believed in the commercial principle that the more difficult a thing is to attain the more valuable it is. A doctor’s opinion had been to him a mere matter of guineas. But here was a young man who seemed to care nothing either for his wealth or title. His respect for his judgment increased amazingly.

“Tut! tut!” said he; “Mason is not so thin-skinned. There! there! Have your way! Do what you like and I won’t say another word. I’ll just run upstairs and tell Lady Millbank that you are coming.”

The door had hardly closed behind him when the two demure young ladies darted out of their corner, and fluttered with joy in front of the astonished doctor.

“Oh, well done! well done!” cried the taller, clapping her hands.

“Don’t let him bully you, doctor,” said the other. “Oh, it was so nice to hear you stand up to him. That’s the way he does with poor Dr. Mason. Dr. Mason has never examined mamma yet. He always takes papa’s word for everything. Hush, Maude; here he comes again.” They subsided in an instant into their corner as silent and demure as ever.

Dr. Horace Wilkinson followed Sir John up the broad, thick-carpeted staircase, and into the darkened sick room. In a quarter of an hour he had sounded and sifted the case to the uttermost, and descended with the husband once more to the drawing-room. In front of the fireplace were standing two gentlemen, the one a very typical, clean-shaven, general practitioner, the other a striking-looking man of middle age, with pale blue eyes and a long red beard.

“Hullo, Mason, you’ve come at last!”

“Yes, Sir John, and I have brought, as I promised, Dr. Wilkinson with me.”

“Dr. Wilkinson! Why, this is he.”

Dr. Mason stared in astonishment. “I have never seen the gentleman before!” he cried.

“Nevertheless I am Dr. Wilkinson—Dr. Horace Wilkinson, of 114 Canal View.”

“Good gracious, Sir John!” cried Dr. Mason.

“Did you think that in a case of such importance I should call in a junior local practitioner! This is Dr. Adam Wilkinson, lecturer on pulmonary diseases at Regent’s College, London, physician upon the staff of the St. Swithin’s Hospital, and author of a dozen works upon the subject. He happened to be in Sutton upon a visit, and I thought I would utilise his presence to have a first-rate opinion upon Lady Millbank.”

“Thank you,” said Sir John, dryly. “But I fear my wife is rather tired now, for she has just been very thoroughly examined by this young gentleman. I think we will let it stop at that for the present; though, of course, as you have had the trouble of coming here, I should be glad to have a note of your fees.”

When Dr. Mason had departed, looking very disgusted, and his friend, the specialist, very amused, Sir John listened to all the young physician had to say about the case.

“Now, I’ll tell you what,” said he, when he had finished. “I’m a man of my word, d’ye see? When I like a man I freeze to him. I’m a good friend and a bad enemy. I believe in you, and I don’t believe in Mason. From now on you are my doctor, and that of my family. Come and see my wife every day. How does that suit your book?”

“I am extremely grateful to you for your kind intentions toward me, but I am afraid there is no possible way in which I can avail myself of them.”

“Heh! what d’ye mean?”

“I could not possibly take Dr. Mason’s place in the middle of a case like this. It would be a most unprofessional act.”

“Oh, well, go your own way!” cried Sir John, in despair. “Never was such a man for making difficulties. You’ve had a fair offer and you’ve refused it, and now you can just go your own way.”

The millionaire stumped out of the room in a huff, and Dr. Horace Wilkinson made his way homeward to his spirit-lamp and his one-and-eightpenny tea, with his first guinea in his pocket, and with a feeling that he had upheld the best traditions of his profession.

And yet this false start of his was a true start also, for it soon came to Dr. Mason’s ears that his junior had had it in his power to carry off his best patient and had forborne to do so. To the honour of the profession be it said that such forbearance is the rule rather than the exception, and yet in this case, with so very junior a practitioner and so very wealthy a patient, the temptation was greater than is usual. There was a grateful note, a visit, a friendship, and now the well-known firm of Mason and Wilkinson is doing the largest family practice in Sutton.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 – 1930)
Round the Red Lamp: Being Facts and Fancies of Medical Life
A False Start (#05)
fleursdumal.nl magazine

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ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: THE THIRD GENERATION (Round the Red Lamp #04)

ACDOYLE_REDLAMP12The Third Generation
by Arthur Conan Doyle

Scudamore Lane, sloping down riverwards from just behind the Monument, lies at night in the shadow of two black and monstrous walls which loom high above the glimmer of the scattered gas lamps. The footpaths are narrow, and the causeway is paved with rounded cobblestones, so that the endless drays roar along it like breaking waves. A few old-fashioned houses lie scattered among the business premises, and in one of these, half-way down on the left-hand side, Dr. Horace Selby conducts his large practice. It is a singular street for so big a man; but a specialist who has an European reputation can afford to live where he likes. In his particular branch, too, patients do not always regard seclusion as a disadvantage.

It was only ten o’clock. The dull roar of the traffic which converged all day upon London Bridge had died away now to a mere confused murmur. It was raining heavily, and the gas shone dimly through the streaked and dripping glass, throwing little circles upon the glistening cobblestones. The air was full of the sounds of the rain, the thin swish of its fall, the heavier drip from the eaves, and the swirl and gurgle down the two steep gutters and through the sewer grating. There was only one figure in the whole length of Scudamore Lane. It was that of a man, and it stood outside the door of Dr. Horace Selby.

He had just rung and was waiting for an answer. The fanlight beat full upon the gleaming shoulders of his waterproof and upon his upturned features. It was a wan, sensitive, clear-cut face, with some subtle, nameless peculiarity in its expression, something of the startled horse in the white-rimmed eye, something too of the helpless child in the drawn cheek and the weakening of the lower lip. The man-servant knew the stranger as a patient at a bare glance at those frightened eyes. Such a look had been seen at that door many times before.

“Is the doctor in?”

The man hesitated.

“He has had a few friends to dinner, sir. He does not like to be disturbed outside his usual hours, sir.”

“Tell him that I MUST see him. Tell him that it is of the very first importance. Here is my card.” He fumbled with his trembling fingers in trying to draw one from his case. “Sir Francis Norton is the name. Tell him that Sir Francis Norton, of Deane Park, must see him without delay.”

“Yes, sir.” The butler closed his fingers upon the card and the half-sovereign which accompanied it. “Better hang your coat up here in the hall. It is very wet. Now if you will wait here in the consulting-room, I have no doubt that I shall be able to send the doctor in to you.”

It was a large and lofty room in which the young baronet found himself. The carpet was so soft and thick that his feet made no sound as he walked across it. The two gas jets were turned only half-way up, and the dim light with the faint aromatic smell which filled the air had a vaguely religious suggestion. He sat down in a shining leather armchair by the smouldering fire and looked gloomily about him. Two sides of the room were taken up with books, fat and sombre, with broad gold lettering upon their backs. Beside him was the high, old-fashioned mantelpiece of white marble—the top of it strewed with cotton wadding and bandages, graduated measures, and little bottles. There was one with a broad neck just above him containing bluestone, and another narrower one with what looked like the ruins of a broken pipestem and “Caustic” outside upon a red label. Thermometers, hypodermic syringes bistouries and spatulas were scattered about both on the mantelpiece and on the central table on either side of the sloping desk. On the same table, to the right, stood copies of the five books which Dr. Horace Selby had written upon the subject with which his name is peculiarly associated, while on the left, on the top of a red medical directory, lay a huge glass model of a human eye the size of a turnip, which opened down the centre to expose the lens and double chamber within.

Sir Francis Norton had never been remarkable for his powers of observation, and yet he found himself watching these trifles with the keenest attention. Even the corrosion of the cork of an acid bottle caught his eye, and he wondered that the doctor did not use glass stoppers. Tiny scratches where the light glinted off from the table, little stains upon the leather of the desk, chemical formulae scribbled upon the labels of the phials—nothing was too slight to arrest his attention. And his sense of hearing was equally alert. The heavy ticking of the solemn black clock above the mantelpiece struck quite painfully upon his ears. Yet in spite of it, and in spite also of the thick, old-fashioned wooden partition, he could hear voices of men talking in the next room, and could even catch scraps of their conversation. “Second hand was bound to take it.” “Why, you drew the last of them yourself!”

“How could I play the queen when I knew that the ace was against me?” The phrases came in little spurts falling back into the dull murmur of conversation. And then suddenly he heard the creaking of a door and a step in the hall, and knew with a tingling mixture of impatience and horror that the crisis of his life was at hand.

Dr. Horace Selby was a large, portly man with an imposing presence. His nose and chin were bold and pronounced, yet his features were puffy, a combination which would blend more freely with the wig and cravat of the early Georges than with the close-cropped hair and black frock-coat of the end of the nineteenth century. He was clean shaven, for his mouth was too good to cover—large, flexible, and sensitive, with a kindly human softening at either corner which with his brown sympathetic eyes had drawn out many a shame-struck sinner’s secret. Two masterful little bushy side-whiskers bristled out from under his ears spindling away upwards to merge in the thick curves of his brindled hair. To his patients there was something reassuring in the mere bulk and dignity of the man. A high and easy bearing in medicine as in war bears with it a hint of victories in the past, and a promise of others to come. Dr. Horace Selby’s face was a consolation, and so too were the large, white, soothing hands, one of which he held out to his visitor.

“I am sorry to have kept you waiting. It is a conflict of duties, you perceive—a host’s to his guests and an adviser’s to his patient. But now I am entirely at your disposal, Sir Francis. But dear me, you are very cold.”

“Yes, I am cold.”

“And you are trembling all over. Tut, tut, this will never do! This miserable night has chilled you. Perhaps some little stimulant——”

“No, thank you. I would really rather not. And it is not the night which has chilled me. I am frightened, doctor.”

The doctor half-turned in his chair, and he patted the arch of the young man’s knee, as he might the neck of a restless horse.

“What then?” he asked, looking over his shoulder at the pale face with the startled eyes.

Twice the young man parted his lips. Then he stooped with a sudden gesture, and turning up the right leg of his trousers he pulled down his sock and thrust forward his shin. The doctor made a clicking noise with his tongue as he glanced at it.

“Both legs?”

“No, only one.”

“Suddenly?”

“This morning.”

“Hum.”

The doctor pouted his lips, and drew his finger and thumb down the line of his chin. “Can you account for it?” he asked briskly.

“No.”

A trace of sternness came into the large brown eyes.

“I need not point out to you that unless the most absolute frankness——”

The patient sprang from his chair. “So help me God!” he cried, “I have nothing in my life with which to reproach myself. Do you think that I would be such a fool as to come here and tell you lies. Once for all, I have nothing to regret.” He was a pitiful, half-tragic and half-grotesque figure, as he stood with one trouser leg rolled to the knee, and that ever present horror still lurking in his eyes. A burst of merriment came from the card-players in the next room, and the two looked at each other in silence.

“Sit down,” said the doctor abruptly, “your assurance is quite sufficient.” He stooped and ran his finger down the line of the young man’s shin, raising it at one point. “Hum, serpiginous,” he murmured, shaking his head. “Any other symptoms?”

“My eyes have been a little weak.”

“Let me see your teeth.” He glanced at them, and again made the gentle, clicking sound of sympathy and disapprobation.

“Now your eye.” He lit a lamp at the patient’s elbow, and holding a small crystal lens to concentrate the light, he threw it obliquely upon the patient’s eye. As he did so a glow of pleasure came over his large expressive face, a flush of such enthusiasm as the botanist feels when he packs the rare plant into his tin knapsack, or the astronomer when the long-sought comet first swims into the field of his telescope.

“This is very typical—very typical indeed,” he murmured, turning to his desk and jotting down a few memoranda upon a sheet of paper. “Curiously enough, I am writing a monograph upon the subject. It is singular that you should have been able to furnish so well-marked a case.” He had so forgotten the patient in his symptom, that he had assumed an almost congratulatory air towards its possessor. He reverted to human sympathy again, as his patient asked for particulars.

“My dear sir, there is no occasion for us to go into strictly professional details together,” said he soothingly. “If, for example, I were to say that you have interstitial keratitis, how would you be the wiser? There are indications of a strumous diathesis. In broad terms, I may say that you have a constitutional and hereditary taint.”

The young baronet sank back in his chair, and his chin fell forwards upon his chest. The doctor sprang to a side-table and poured out half a glass of liqueur brandy which he held to his patient’s lips. A little fleck of colour came into his cheeks as he drank it down.

“Perhaps I spoke a little abruptly,” said the doctor, “but you must have known the nature of your complaint. Why, otherwise, should you have come to me?”

“God help me, I suspected it; but only today when my leg grew bad. My father had a leg like this.”

“It was from him, then——?”

“No, from my grandfather. You have heard of Sir Rupert Norton, the great Corinthian?”

The doctor was a man of wide reading with a retentive, memory. The name brought back instantly to him the remembrance of the sinister reputation of its owner—a notorious buck of the thirties—who had gambled and duelled and steeped himself in drink and debauchery, until even the vile set with whom he consorted had shrunk away from him in horror, and left him to a sinister old age with the barmaid wife whom he had married in some drunken frolic. As he looked at the young man still leaning back in the leather chair, there seemed for the instant to flicker up behind him some vague presentiment of that foul old dandy with his dangling seals, many-wreathed scarf, and dark satyric face. What was he now? An armful of bones in a mouldy box. But his deeds— they were living and rotting the blood in the veins of an innocent man.

“I see that you have heard of him,” said the young baronet. “He died horribly, I have been told; but not more horribly than he had lived. My father was his only son. He was a studious man, fond of books and canaries and the country; but his innocent life did not save him.”

“His symptoms were cutaneous, I understand.”

“He wore gloves in the house. That was the first thing I can remember. And then it was his throat. And then his legs. He used to ask me so often about my own health, and I thought him so fussy, for how could I tell what the meaning of it was. He was always watching me—always with a sidelong eye fixed upon me. Now, at last, I know what he was watching for.”

“Had you brothers or sisters?”

“None, thank God.”

“Well, well, it is a sad case, and very typical of many which come in my way. You are no lonely sufferer, Sir Francis. There are many thousands who bear the same cross as you do.”

“But where is the justice of it, doctor?” cried the young man, springing from his chair and pacing up and down the consulting-room. “If I were heir to my grandfather’s sins as well as to their results, I could understand it, but I am of my father’s type. I love all that is gentle and beautiful—music and poetry and art. The coarse and animal is abhorrent to me. Ask any of my friends and they would tell you that. And now that this vile, loathsome thing—ach, I am polluted to the marrow, soaked in abomination! And why? Haven’t I a right to ask why? Did I do it? Was it my fault? Could I help being born? And look at me now, blighted and blasted, just as life was at its sweetest. Talk about the sins of the father—how about the sins of the Creator?” He shook his two clinched hands in the air—the poor impotent atom with his pin-point of brain caught in the whirl of the infinite.

The doctor rose and placing his hands upon his shoulders he pressed him back into his chair once more. “There, there, my dear lad,” said he; “you must not excite yourself. You are trembling all over. Your nerves cannot stand it. We must take these great questions upon trust. What are we, after all? Half-evolved creatures in a transition stage, nearer perhaps to the Medusa on the one side than to perfected humanity on the other. With half a complete brain we can’t expect to understand the whole of a complete fact, can we, now? It is all very dim and dark, no doubt; but I think that Pope’s famous couplet sums up the whole matter, and from my heart, after fifty years of varied experience, I can say——”

But the young baronet gave a cry of impatience and disgust. “Words, words, words! You can sit comfortably there in your chair and say them—and think them too, no doubt. You’ve had your life, but I’ve never had mine. You’ve healthy blood in your veins; mine is putrid. And yet I am as innocent as you. What would words do for you if you were in this chair and I in that? Ah, it’s such a mockery and a make-believe! Don’t think me rude, though, doctor. I don’t mean to be that. I only say that it is impossible for you or any other man to realise it. But I’ve a question to ask you, doctor. It’s one on which my whole life must depend.” He writhed his fingers together in an agony of apprehension.

“Speak out, my dear sir. I have every sympathy with you.”

“Do you think—do you think the poison has spent itself on me? Do you think that if I had children they would suffer?”

“I can only give one answer to that. ‘The third and fourth generation,’ says the trite old text. You may in time eliminate it from your system, but many years must pass before you can think of marriage.”

“I am to be married on Tuesday,” whispered the patient.

It was the doctor’s turn to be thrilled with horror. There were not many situations which would yield such a sensation to his seasoned nerves. He sat in silence while the babble of the card-table broke in upon them again. “We had a double ruff if you had returned a heart.” “I was bound to clear the trumps.” They were hot and angry about it.

“How could you?” cried the doctor severely. “It was criminal.”

“You forget that I have only learned how I stand to-day.” He put his two hands to his temples and pressed them convulsively. “You are a man of the world, Dr. Selby. You have seen or heard of such things before. Give me some advice. I’m in your hands. It is all very sudden and horrible, and I don’t think I am strong enough to bear it.”

The doctor’s heavy brows thickened into two straight lines, and he bit his nails in perplexity.

“The marriage must not take place.”

“Then what am I to do?”

“At all costs it must not take place.”

“And I must give her up?”

“There can be no question about that.”

The young man took out a pocketbook and drew from it a small photograph, holding it out towards the doctor. The firm face softened as he looked at it.

“It is very hard on you, no doubt. I can appreciate it more now that I have seen that. But there is no alternative at all. You must give up all thought of it.”

“But this is madness, doctor—madness, I tell you. No, I won’t raise my voice. I forgot myself. But realise it, man. I am to be married on Tuesday. This coming Tuesday, you understand. And all the world knows it. How can I put such a public affront upon her. It would be monstrous.”

“None the less it must be done. My dear lad, there is no way out of it.”

“You would have me simply write brutally and break the engagement at the last moment without a reason. I tell you I couldn’t do it.”

“I had a patient once who found himself in a somewhat similar situation some years ago,” said the doctor thoughtfully. “His device was a singular one. He deliberately committed a penal offence, and so compelled the young lady’s people to withdraw their consent to the marriage.”

The young baronet shook his head. “My personal honour is as yet unstained,” said he. “I have little else left, but that, at least, I will preserve.”

“Well, well, it is a nice dilemma, and the choice lies with you.”

“Have you no other suggestion?”

“You don’t happen to have property in Australia?”

“None.”

“But you have capital?”

“Yes.”

“Then you could buy some. To-morrow morning would do. A thousand mining shares would be enough. Then you might write to say that urgent business affairs have compelled you to start at an hour’s notice to inspect your property. That would give you six months, at any rate.”

“Well, that would be possible. Yes, certainly, it would be possible. But think of her position. The house full of wedding presents—guests coming from a distance. It is awful. And you say that there is no alternative.”

The doctor shrugged his shoulders.

“Well, then, I might write it now, and start to-morrow—eh? Perhaps you would let me use your desk. Thank you. I am so sorry to keep you from your guests so long. But I won’t be a moment now.”

He wrote an abrupt note of a few lines. Then with a sudden impulse he tore it to shreds and flung it into the fireplace.

“No, I can’t sit down and tell her a lie, doctor,” he said rising. “We must find some other way out of this. I will think it over and let you know my decision. You must allow me to double your fee as I have taken such an unconscionable time. Now good-bye, and thank you a thousand times for your sympathy and advice.”

“Why, dear me, you haven’t even got your prescription yet. This is the mixture, and I should recommend one of these powders every morning, and the chemist will put all directions upon the ointment box. You are placed in a cruel situation, but I trust that these may be but passing clouds. When may I hope to hear from you again?”

“To-morrow morning.”

“Very good. How the rain is splashing in the street! You have your waterproof there. You will need it. Good-bye, then, until to-morrow.”

He opened the door. A gust of cold, damp air swept into the hall. And yet the doctor stood for a minute or more watching the lonely figure which passed slowly through the yellow splotches of the gas lamps, and into the broad bars of darkness between. It was but his own shadow which trailed up the wall as he passed the lights, and yet it looked to the doctor’s eye as though some huge and sombre figure walked by a manikin’s side and led him silently up the lonely street.

Dr. Horace Selby heard again of his patient next morning, and rather earlier than he had expected. A paragraph in the Daily News caused him to push away his breakfast untasted, and turned him sick and faint while he read it. “A Deplorable Accident,” it was headed, and it ran in this way:

“A fatal accident of a peculiarly painful character is reported from King William Street. About eleven o’clock last night a young man was observed while endeavouring to get out of the way of a hansom to slip and fall under the wheels of a heavy, two-horse dray. On being picked up his injuries were found to be of the most shocking character, and he expired while being conveyed to the hospital. An examination of his pocketbook and cardcase shows beyond any question that the deceased is none other than Sir Francis Norton, of Deane Park, who has only within the last year come into the baronetcy. The accident is made the more deplorable as the deceased, who was only just of age, was on the eve of being married to a young lady belonging to one of the oldest families in the South. With his wealth and his talents the ball of fortune was at his feet, and his many friends will be deeply grieved to know that his promising career has been cut short in so sudden and tragic a fashion.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 – 1930)
Round the Red Lamp: Being Facts and Fancies of Medical Life
The Third Generation. (#04)
fleursdumal.nl magazine

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ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: A STRAGGLER OF ’15 (Round the Red Lamp #03)

ACDOYLE_REDLAMP12A Straggler of ‘15
by Arthur Conan Doyle

It was a dull October morning, and heavy, rolling fog-wreaths lay low over the wet grey roofs of the Woolwich houses. Down in the long, brick-lined streets all was sodden and greasy and cheerless. From the high dark buildings of the arsenal came the whirr of many wheels, the thudding of weights, and the buzz and babel of human toil. Beyond, the dwellings of the workingmen, smoke-stained and unlovely, radiated away in a lessening perspective of narrowing road and dwindling wall.

There were few folk in the streets, for the toilers had all been absorbed since break of day by the huge smoke-spouting monster, which sucked in the manhood of the town, to belch it forth weary and work-stained every night. Little groups of children straggled to school, or loitered to peep through the single, front windows at the big, gilt-edged Bibles, balanced upon small, three-legged tables, which were their usual adornment. Stout women, with thick, red arms and dirty aprons, stood upon the whitened doorsteps, leaning upon their brooms, and shrieking their morning greetings across the road. One stouter, redder, and dirtier than the rest, had gathered a small knot of cronies around her and was talking energetically, with little shrill titters from her audience to punctuate her remarks.

“Old enough to know better!” she cried, in answer to an exclamation from one of the listeners. “If he hain’t no sense now, I ‘specs he won’t learn much on this side o’ Jordan. Why, ‘ow old is he at all? Blessed if I could ever make out.”

“Well, it ain’t so hard to reckon,” said a sharp-featured pale-faced woman with watery blue eyes. “He’s been at the battle o’ Waterloo, and has the pension and medal to prove it.”

“That were a ter’ble long time agone,” remarked a third. “It were afore I were born.”

“It were fifteen year after the beginnin’ of the century,” cried a younger woman, who had stood leaning against the wall, with a smile of superior knowledge upon her face. “My Bill was a-saying so last Sabbath, when I spoke to him o’ old Daddy Brewster, here.”

“And suppose he spoke truth, Missus Simpson, ‘ow long agone do that make it?”

“It’s eighty-one now,” said the original speaker, checking off the years upon her coarse red fingers, “and that were fifteen. Ten and ten, and ten, and ten, and ten—why, it’s only sixty-and-six year, so he ain’t so old after all.”

“But he weren’t a newborn babe at the battle, silly!” cried the young woman with a chuckle. “S’pose he were only twenty, then he couldn’t be less than six-and-eighty now, at the lowest.”

“Aye, he’s that—every day of it,” cried several.

“I’ve had ‘bout enough of it,” remarked the large woman gloomily. “Unless his young niece, or grandniece, or whatever she is, come to-day, I’m off, and he can find some one else to do his work. Your own ‘ome first, says I.”

“Ain’t he quiet, then, Missus Simpson?” asked the youngest of the group.

“Listen to him now,” she answered, with her hand half raised and her head turned slantwise towards the open door. From the upper floor there came a shuffling, sliding sound with a sharp tapping of a stick. “There he go back and forrards, doing what he call his sentry go. ‘Arf the night through he’s at that game, the silly old juggins. At six o’clock this very mornin there he was beatin’ with a stick at my door. ‘Turn out, guard!’ he cried, and a lot more jargon that I could make nothing of. Then what with his coughin’ and ‘awkin’ and spittin’, there ain’t no gettin’ a wink o’ sleep. Hark to him now!”

“Missus Simpson, Missus Simpson!” cried a cracked and querulous voice from above.

“That’s him!” she cried, nodding her head with an air of triumph. “He do go on somethin’ scandalous. Yes, Mr. Brewster, sir.”

“I want my morning ration, Missus Simpson.”

“It’s just ready, Mr. Brewster, sir.”

“Blessed if he ain’t like a baby cryin’ for its pap,” said the young woman.

“I feel as if I could shake his old bones up sometimes!” cried Mrs. Simpson viciously. “But who’s for a ‘arf of fourpenny?”

The whole company were about to shuffle off to the public house, when a young girl stepped across the road and touched the housekeeper timidly upon the arm. “I think that is No. 56 Arsenal View,” she said. “Can you tell me if Mr. Brewster lives here?”

The housekeeper looked critically at the newcomer. She was a girl of about twenty, broad-faced and comely, with a turned-up nose and large, honest grey eyes. Her print dress, her straw hat, with its bunch of glaring poppies, and the bundle she carried, had all a smack of the country.

“You’re Norah Brewster, I s’pose,” said Mrs. Simpson, eyeing her up and down with no friendly gaze.

“Yes, I’ve come to look after my Granduncle Gregory.”

“And a good job too,” cried the housekeeper, with a toss of her head. “It’s about time that some of his own folk took a turn at it, for I’ve had enough of it. There you are, young woman! In you go and make yourself at home. There’s tea in the caddy and bacon on the dresser, and the old man will be about you if you don’t fetch him his breakfast. I’ll send for my things in the evenin’.” With a nod she strolled off with her attendant gossips in the direction of the public house.

Thus left to her own devices, the country girl walked into the front room and took off her hat and jacket. It was a low-roofed apartment with a sputtering fire upon which a small brass kettle was singing cheerily. A stained cloth lay over half the table, with an empty brown teapot, a loaf of bread, and some coarse crockery. Norah Brewster looked rapidly about her, and in an instant took over her new duties. Ere five minutes had passed the tea was made, two slices of bacon were frizzling on the pan, the table was rearranged, the antimacassars straightened over the sombre brown furniture, and the whole room had taken a new air of comfort and neatness. This done she looked round curiously at the prints upon the walls. Over the fireplace, in a small, square case, a brown medal caught her eye, hanging from a strip of purple ribbon. Beneath was a slip of newspaper cutting. She stood on her tiptoes, with her fingers on the edge of the mantelpiece, and craned her neck up to see it, glancing down from time to time at the bacon which simmered and hissed beneath her. The cutting was yellow with age, and ran in this way:

“On Tuesday an interesting ceremony was performed at the barracks of the Third Regiment of Guards, when, in the presence of the Prince Regent, Lord Hill, Lord Saltoun, and an assemblage which comprised beauty as well as valour, a special medal was presented to Corporal Gregory Brewster, of Captain Haldane’s flank company, in recognition of his gallantry in the recent great battle in the Lowlands. It appears that on the ever-memorable 18th of June four companies of the Third Guards and of the Coldstreams, under the command of Colonels Maitland and Byng, held the important farmhouse of Hougoumont at the right of the British position. At a critical point of the action these troops found themselves short of powder. Seeing that Generals Foy and Jerome Buonaparte were again massing their infantry for an attack on the position, Colonel Byng dispatched Corporal Brewster to the rear to hasten up the reserve ammunition. Brewster came upon two powder tumbrils of the Nassau division, and succeeded, after menacing the drivers with his musket, in inducing them to convey their powder to Hougoumont. In his absence, however, the hedges surrounding the position had been set on fire by a howitzer battery of the French, and the passage of the carts full of powder became a most hazardous matter. The first tumbril exploded, blowing the driver to fragments. Daunted by the fate of his comrade, the second driver turned his horses, but Corporal Brewster, springing upon his seat, hurled the man down, and urging the powder cart through the flames, succeeded in forcing his way to his companions. To this gallant deed may be directly attributed the success of the British arms, for without powder it would have been impossible to have held Hougoumont, and the Duke of Wellington had repeatedly declared that had Hougoumont fallen, as well as La Haye Sainte, he would have found it impossible to have held his ground. Long may the heroic Brewster live to treasure the medal which he has so bravely won, and to look back with pride to the day when, in the presence of his comrades, he received this tribute to his valour from the august hands of the first gentleman of the realm.”

The reading of this old cutting increased in the girl’s mind the veneration which she had always had for her warrior kinsman. From her infancy he had been her hero, and she remembered how her father used to speak of his courage and his strength, how he could strike down a bullock with a blow of his fist and carry a fat sheep under either arm. True, she had never seen him, but a rude painting at home which depicted a square-faced, clean shaven, stalwart man with a great bearskin cap, rose ever before her memory when she thought of him.

She was still gazing at the brown medal and wondering what the “Dulce et decorum est” might mean, which was inscribed upon the edge, when there came a sudden tapping and shuffling upon the stair, and there at the door was standing the very man who had been so often in her thoughts.

But could this indeed be he? Where was the martial air, the flashing eye, the warrior face which she had pictured? There, framed in the doorway, was a huge twisted old man, gaunt and puckered, with twitching hands and shuffling, purposeless feet. A cloud of fluffy white hair, a red-veined nose, two thick tufts of eyebrow and a pair of dimly questioning, watery blue eyes—these were what met her gaze. He leaned forward upon a stick, while his shoulders rose and fell with his crackling, rasping breathing.

“I want my morning rations,” he crooned, as he stumped forward to his chair. “The cold nips me without ’em. See to my fingers!” He held out his distorted hands, all blue at the tips, wrinkled and gnarled, with huge, projecting knuckles.

“It’s nigh ready,” answered the girl, gazing at him with wonder in her eyes. “Don’t you know who I am, granduncle? I am Norah Brewster from Witham.”

“Rum is warm,” mumbled the old man, rocking to and fro in his chair, “and schnapps is warm, and there’s ‘eat in soup, but it’s a dish o’ tea for me. What did you say your name was?”

“Norah Brewster.”

“You can speak out, lass. Seems to me folk’s voices isn’t as loud as they used.”

“I’m Norah Brewster, uncle. I’m your grandniece come down from Essex way to live with you.”

“You’ll be brother Jarge’s girl! Lor, to think o’ little Jarge having a girl!” He chuckled hoarsely to himself, and the long, stringy sinews of his throat jerked and quivered.

“I am the daughter of your brother George’s son,” said she, as she turned the bacon.

“Lor, but little Jarge was a rare un!” he continued. “Eh, by Jimini, there was no chousing Jarge. He’s got a bull pup o’ mine that I gave him when I took the bounty. You’ve heard him speak of it, likely?”

“Why, grandpa George has been dead this twenty year,” said she, pouring out the tea.

“Well, it was a bootiful pup—aye, a well-bred un, by Jimini! I’m cold for lack o’ my rations. Rum is good, and so is schnapps, but I’d as lief have tea as either.”

He breathed heavily while he devoured his food. “It’s a middlin’ goodish way you’ve come,” said he at last. “Likely the stage left yesternight.”

“The what, uncle?”

“The coach that brought you.”

“Nay, I came by the mornin’ train.”

“Lor, now, think o’ that! You ain’t afeard o’ those newfangled things! By Jimini, to think of you comin’ by railroad like that! What’s the world a-comin’ to!”

There was silence for some minutes while Norah sat stirring her tea and glancing sideways at the bluish lips and champing jaws of her companion.

“You must have seen a deal o’ life, uncle,” said she. “It must seem a long, long time to you!”

“Not so very long neither. I’m ninety, come Candlemas; but it don’t seem long since I took the bounty. And that battle, it might have been yesterday. Eh, but I get a power o’ good from my rations!” He did indeed look less worn and colourless than when she first saw him. His face was flushed and his back more erect.

“Have you read that?” he asked, jerking his head towards the cutting.

“Yes, uncle, and I’m sure you must be proud of it.”

“Ah, it was a great day for me! A great day! The Regent was there, and a fine body of a man too! ‘The ridgment is proud of you,’ says he. ‘And I’m proud of the ridgment,’ say I. ‘A damned good answer too!’ says he to Lord Hill, and they both bu’st out a-laughin’. But what be you a-peepin’ out o’ the window for?”

“Oh, uncle, here’s a regiment of soldiers coming down the street with the band playing in front of them.”

“A ridgment, eh? Where be my glasses? Lor, but I can hear the band, as plain as plain! Here’s the pioneers an’ the drum-major! What be their number, lass?” His eyes were shining and his bony yellow fingers, like the claws of some fierce old bird, dug into her shoulder.

“They don’t seem to have no number, uncle. They’ve something wrote on their shoulders. Oxfordshire, I think it be.”

“Ah, yes!” he growled. “I heard as they’d dropped the numbers and given them newfangled names. There they go, by Jimini! They’re young mostly, but they hain’t forgot how to march. They have the swing-aye, I’ll say that for them. They’ve got the swing.” He gazed after them until the last files had turned the corner and the measured tramp of their marching had died away in the distance.

He had just regained his chair when the door opened and a gentleman stepped in.

“Ah, Mr. Brewster! Better to-day?” he asked.

“Come in, doctor! Yes, I’m better. But there’s a deal o’ bubbling in my chest. It’s all them toobes. If I could but cut the phlegm, I’d be right. Can’t you give me something to cut the phlegm?”

The doctor, a grave-faced young man, put his fingers to the furrowed, blue-corded wrist.

“You must be careful,” he said. “You must take no liberties.” The thin tide of life seemed to thrill rather than to throb under his finger.

The old man chuckled.

“I’ve got brother Jarge’s girl to look after me now. She’ll see I don’t break barracks or do what I hadn’t ought to. Why, darn my skin, I knew something was amiss!

“With what?”

“Why, with them soldiers. You saw them pass, doctor—eh? They’d forgot their stocks. Not one on ’em had his stock on.” He croaked and chuckled for a long time over his discovery. “It wouldn’t ha’ done for the Dook!” he muttered. “No, by Jimini! the Dook would ha’ had a word there.”

The doctor smiled. “Well, you are doing very well,” said he. “I’ll look in once a week or so, and see how you are.” As Norah followed him to the door, he beckoned her outside.

“He is very weak,” he whispered. “If you find him failing you must send for me.”

“What ails him, doctor?”

“Ninety years ails him. His arteries are pipes of lime. His heart is shrunken and flabby. The man is worn out.”

Norah stood watching the brisk figure of the young doctor, and pondering over these new responsibilities which had come upon her. When she turned a tall, brown-faced artilleryman, with the three gold chevrons of sergeant upon his arm, was standing, carbine in hand, at her elbow.

“Good-morning, miss,” said he, raising one thick finger to his jaunty, yellow-banded cap. “I b’lieve there’s an old gentleman lives here of the name of Brewster, who was engaged in the battle o’ Waterloo?”

“It’s my granduncle, sir,” said Norah, casting down her eyes before the keen, critical gaze of the young soldier. “He is in the front parlour.”

“Could I have a word with him, miss? I’ll call again if it don’t chance to be convenient.”

“I am sure that he would be very glad to see you, sir. He’s in here, if you’ll step in. Uncle, here’s a gentleman who wants to speak with you.”

“Proud to see you, sir—proud and glad, sir,” cried the sergeant, taking three steps forward into the room, and grounding his carbine while he raised his hand, palm forwards, in a salute. Norah stood by the door, with her mouth and eyes open, wondering if her granduncle had ever, in his prime, looked like this magnificent creature, and whether he, in his turn, would ever come to resemble her granduncle.

The old man blinked up at his visitor, and shook his head slowly. “Sit ye down, sergeant,” said he, pointing with his stick to a chair. “You’re full young for the stripes. Lordy, it’s easier to get three now than one in my day. Gunners were old soldiers then and the grey hairs came quicker than the three stripes.”

“I am eight years’ service, sir,” cried the sergeant. “Macdonald is my name—Sergeant Macdonald, of H Battery, Southern Artillery Division. I have called as the spokesman of my mates at the gunner’s barracks to say that we are proud to have you in the town, sir.”

Old Brewster chuckled and rubbed his bony hands. “That were what the Regent said,” he cried. “‘The ridgment is proud of ye,’ says he. ‘And I am proud of the ridgment,’ says I. ‘And a damned good answer too,’ says he, and he and Lord Hill bu’st out a-laughin’.”

“The non-commissioned mess would be proud and honoured to see you, sir,” said Sergeant Macdonald; “and if you could step as far you’ll always find a pipe o’ baccy and a glass o’ grog a-waitin’ you.”

The old man laughed until he coughed. “Like to see me, would they? The dogs!” said he. “Well, well, when the warm weather comes again I’ll maybe drop in. Too grand for a canteen, eh? Got your mess just the same as the orficers. What’s the world a-comin’ to at all!”

“You was in the line, sir, was you not?” asked the sergeant respectfully.

“The line?” cried the old man, with shrill scorn. “Never wore a shako in my life. I am a guardsman, I am. Served in the Third Guards—the same they call now the Scots Guards. Lordy, but they have all marched away—every man of them—from old Colonel Byng down to the drummer boys, and here am I a straggler—that’s what I am, sergeant, a straggler! I’m here when I ought to be there. But it ain’t my fault neither, for I’m ready to fall in when the word comes.”

“We’ve all got to muster there,” answered the sergeant. “Won’t you try my baccy, sir?” handing over a sealskin pouch.

Old Brewster drew a blackened clay pipe from his pocket, and began to stuff the tobacco into the bowl. In an instant it slipped through his fingers, and was broken to pieces on the floor. His lip quivered, his nose puckered up, and he began crying with the long, helpless sobs of a child. “I’ve broke my pipe,” he cried.

“Don’t, uncle; oh, don’t!” cried Norah, bending over him, and patting his white head as one soothes a baby. “It don’t matter. We can easy get another.”

“Don’t you fret yourself, sir,” said the sergeant. “‘Ere’s a wooden pipe with an amber mouth, if you’ll do me the honour to accept it from me. I’d be real glad if you will take it.”

“Jimini!” cried he, his smiles breaking in an instant through his tears. “It’s a fine pipe. See to my new pipe, Norah. I lay that Jarge never had a pipe like that. You’ve got your firelock there, sergeant?”

“Yes, sir. I was on my way back from the butts when I looked in.”

“Let me have the feel of it. Lordy, but it seems like old times to have one’s hand on a musket. What’s the manual, sergeant, eh? Cock your firelock—look to your priming—present your firelock—eh, sergeant? Oh, Jimini, I’ve broke your musket in halves!”

“That’s all right, sir,” cried the gunner laughing. “You pressed on the lever and opened the breech-piece. That’s where we load ’em, you know.”

“Load ’em at the wrong end! Well, well, to think o’ that! And no ramrod neither! I’ve heard tell of it, but I never believed it afore. Ah! it won’t come up to brown Bess. When there’s work to be done, you mark my word and see if they don’t come back to brown Bess.”

“By the Lord, sir!” cried the sergeant hotly, “they need some change out in South Africa now. I see by this mornin’s paper that the Government has knuckled under to these Boers. They’re hot about it at the non-com. mess, I can tell you, sir.”

“Eh—eh,” croaked old Brewster. “By Jimini! it wouldn’t ha’ done for the Dook; the Dook would ha’ had a word to say over that.”

“Ah, that he would, sir!” cried the sergeant; “and God send us another like him. But I’ve wearied you enough for one sitting. I’ll look in again, and I’ll bring a comrade or two with me, if I may, for there isn’t one but would be proud to have speech with you.”

So, with another salute to the veteran and a gleam of white teeth at Norah, the big gunner withdrew, leaving a memory of blue cloth and of gold braid behind him. Many days had not passed, however, before he was back again, and during all the long winter he was a frequent visitor at Arsenal View. There came a time, at last, when it might be doubted to which of the two occupants his visits were directed, nor was it hard to say by which he was most anxiously awaited. He brought others with him; and soon, through all the lines, a pilgrimage to Daddy Brewster’s came to be looked upon as the proper thing to do. Gunners and sappers, linesmen and dragoons, came bowing and bobbing into the little parlour, with clatter of side arms and clink of spurs, stretching their long legs across the patchwork rug, and hunting in the front of their tunics for the screw of tobacco or paper of snuff which they had brought as a sign of their esteem.

It was a deadly cold winter, with six weeks on end of snow on the ground, and Norah had a hard task to keep the life in that time-worn body. There were times when his mind would leave him, and when, save an animal outcry when the hour of his meals came round, no word would fall from him. He was a white-haired child, with all a child’s troubles and emotions. As the warm weather came once more, however, and the green buds peeped forth again upon the trees, the blood thawed in his veins, and he would even drag himself as far as the door to bask in the life-giving sunshine.

“It do hearten me up so,” he said one morning, as he glowed in the hot May sun. “It’s a job to keep back the flies, though. They get owdacious in this weather, and they do plague me cruel.”

“I’ll keep them off you, uncle,” said Norah.

“Eh, but it’s fine! This sunshine makes me think o’ the glory to come. You might read me a bit o’ the Bible, lass. I find it wonderful soothing.”

“What part would you like, uncle?”

“Oh, them wars.”

“The wars?”

“Aye, keep to the wars! Give me the Old Testament for choice. There’s more taste to it, to my mind. When parson comes he wants to get off to something else; but it’s Joshua or nothing with me. Them Israelites was good soldiers—good growed soldiers, all of ’em.”

“But, uncle,” pleaded Norah, “it’s all peace in the next world.”

“No, it ain’t, gal.”

“Oh, yes, uncle, surely!”

The old corporal knocked his stick irritably upon the ground. “I tell ye it ain’t, gal. I asked parson.”

“Well, what did he say?”

“He said there was to be a last fight. He even gave it a name, he did. The battle of Arm—Arm——”

“Armageddon.”

“Aye, that’s the name parson said. I ‘specs the Third Guards’ll be there. And the Dook—the Dook’ll have a word to say.”

An elderly, grey-whiskered gentleman had been walking down the street, glancing up at the numbers of the houses. Now as his eyes fell upon the old man, he came straight for him.

“Hullo!” said he; “perhaps you are Gregory Brewster?”

“My name, sir,” answered the veteran.

“You are the same Brewster, as I understand, who is on the roll of the Scots Guards as having been present at the battle of Waterloo?”

“I am that man, sir, though we called it the Third Guards in those days. It was a fine ridgment, and they only need me to make up a full muster.”

“Tut, tut! they’ll have to wait years for that,” said the gentleman heartily. “But I am the colonel of the Scots Guards, and I thought I would like to have a word with you.”

Old Gregory Brewster was up in an instant, with his hand to his rabbit-skin cap. “God bless me!” he cried, “to think of it! to think of it!”

“Hadn’t the gentleman better come in?” suggested the practical Norah from behind the door.

“Surely, sir, surely; walk in, sir, if I may be so bold.” In his excitement he had forgotten his stick, and as he led the way into the parlour his knees tottered, and he threw out his hands. In an instant the colonel had caught him on one side and Norah on the other.

“Easy and steady,” said the colonel, as he led him to his armchair.

“Thank ye, sir; I was near gone that time. But, Lordy I why, I can scarce believe it. To think of me the corporal of the flank company and you the colonel of the battalion! How things come round, to be sure!”

“Why, we are very proud of you in London,” said the colonel. “And so you are actually one of the men who held Hougoumont.” He looked at the bony, trembling hands, with their huge, knotted knuckles, the stringy throat, and the heaving, rounded shoulders. Could this, indeed, be the last of that band of heroes? Then he glanced at the half-filled phials, the blue liniment bottles, the long-spouted kettle, and the sordid details of the sick room. “Better, surely, had he died under the blazing rafters of the Belgian farmhouse,” thought the colonel.

“I hope that you are pretty comfortable and happy,” he remarked after a pause.

“Thank ye, sir. I have a good deal o’ trouble with my toobes—a deal o’ trouble. You wouldn’t think the job it is to cut the phlegm. And I need my rations. I gets cold without ’em. And the flies! I ain’t strong enough to fight against them.”

“How’s the memory?” asked the colonel.

“Oh, there ain’t nothing amiss there. Why, sir, I could give you the name of every man in Captain Haldane’s flank company.”

“And the battle—you remember it?”

“Why, I sees it all afore me every time I shuts my eyes. Lordy, sir, you wouldn’t hardly believe how clear it is to me. There’s our line from the paregoric bottle right along to the snuff box. D’ye see? Well, then, the pill box is for Hougoumont on the right—where we was—and Norah’s thimble for La Haye Sainte. There it is, all right, sir; and here were our guns, and here behind the reserves and the Belgians. Ach, them Belgians!” He spat furiously into the fire. “Then here’s the French, where my pipe lies; and over here, where I put my baccy pouch, was the Proosians a-comin’ up on our left flank. Jimini, but it was a glad sight to see the smoke of their guns!”

“And what was it that struck you most now in connection with the whole affair?” asked the colonel.

“I lost three half-crowns over it, I did,” crooned old Brewster. “I shouldn’t wonder if I was never to get that money now. I lent ’em to Jabez Smith, my rear rank man, in Brussels. ‘Only till pay-day, Grig,’ says he. By Gosh! he was stuck by a lancer at Quatre Bras, and me with not so much as a slip o’ paper to prove the debt! Them three half-crowns is as good as lost to me.”

The colonel rose from his chair laughing. “The officers of the Guards want you to buy yourself some little trifle which may add to your comfort,” he said. “It is not from me, so you need not thank me.” He took up the old man’s tobacco pouch and slipped a crisp banknote inside it.

“Thank ye kindly, sir. But there’s one favour that I would like to ask you, colonel.”

“Yes, my man.”

“If I’m called, colonel, you won’t grudge me a flag and a firing party? I’m not a civilian; I’m a guardsman—I’m the last of the old Third Guards.”

“All right, my man, I’ll see to it,” said the colonel. “Good-bye; I hope to have nothing but good news from you.”

“A kind gentleman, Norah,” croaked old Brewster, as they saw him walk past the window; “but, Lordy, he ain’t fit to hold the stirrup o’ my Colonel Byng!”

It was on the very next day that the old corporal took a sudden change for the worse. Even the golden sunlight streaming through the window seemed unable to warm that withered frame. The doctor came and shook his head in silence. All day the man lay with only his puffing blue lips and the twitching of his scraggy neck to show that he still held the breath of life. Norah and Sergeant Macdonald had sat by him in the afternoon, but he had shown no consciousness of their presence. He lay peacefully, his eyes half closed, his hands under his cheek, as one who is very weary.

They had left him for an instant and were sitting in the front room, where Norah was preparing tea, when of a sudden they heard a shout that rang through the house. Loud and clear and swelling, it pealed in their ears—a voice full of strength and energy and fiery passion. “The Guards need powder!” it cried; and yet again, “The Guards need powder!”

The sergeant sprang from his chair and rushed in, followed by the trembling Norah. There was the old man standing up, his blue eyes sparkling, his white hair bristling, his whole figure towering and expanding, with eagle head and glance of fire. “The Guards need powder!” he thundered once again, “and, by God, they shall have it!” He threw up his long arms, and sank back with a groan into his chair. The sergeant stooped over him, and his face darkened.

“Oh, Archie, Archie,” sobbed the frightened girl, “what do you think of him?”

The sergeant turned away. “I think,” said he, “that the Third Guards have a full muster now.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 – 1930)
Round the Red Lamp: Being Facts and Fancies of Medical Life
A Straggler of ‘15 (#03)
fleursdumal.nl magazine

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ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: HIS FIRST OPERATION (Round the Red Lamp #02)

ACDOYLE_REDLAMP12His First Operation
by Arthur Conan Doyle

It was the first day of the winter session, and the third year’s man was walking with the first year’s man. Twelve o’clock was just booming out from the Tron Church.

“Let me see,” said the third year’s man. “You have never seen an operation?”

“Never.”

“Then this way, please. This is Rutherford’s historic bar. A glass of sherry, please, for this gentleman. You are rather sensitive, are you not?”

“My nerves are not very strong, I am afraid.”

“Hum! Another glass of sherry for this gentleman. We are going to an operation now, you know.”

 

The novice squared his shoulders and made a gallant attempt to look unconcerned.

“Nothing very bad—eh?”

“Well, yes—pretty bad.”

“An—an amputation?”

“No; it’s a bigger affair than that.”

“I think—I think they must be expecting me at home.”

“There’s no sense in funking. If you don’t go to-day, you must to-morrow. Better get it over at once. Feel pretty fit?”

“Oh, yes; all right!” The smile was not a success.

“One more glass of sherry, then. Now come on or we shall be late. I want you to be well in front.”

“Surely that is not necessary.”

“Oh, it is far better! What a drove of students! There are plenty of new men among them. You can tell them easily enough, can’t you? If they were going down to be operated upon themselves, they could not look whiter.”

“I don’t think I should look as white.”

“Well, I was just the same myself. But the feeling soon wears off. You see a fellow with a face like plaster, and before the week is out he is eating his lunch in the dissecting rooms. I’ll tell you all about the case when we get to the theatre.”

The students were pouring down the sloping street which led to the infirmary—each with his little sheaf of note-books in his hand. There were pale, frightened lads, fresh from the high schools, and callous old chronics, whose generation had passed on and left them. They swept in an unbroken, tumultuous stream from the university gate to the hospital. The figures and gait of the men were young, but there was little youth in most of their faces. Some looked as if they ate too little—a few as if they drank too much. Tall and short, tweed-coated and black, round-shouldered, bespectacled, and slim, they crowded with clatter of feet and rattle of sticks through the hospital gate. Now and again they thickened into two lines, as the carriage of a surgeon of the staff rolled over the cobblestones between.

“There’s going to be a crowd at Archer’s,” whispered the senior man with suppressed excitement. “It is grand to see him at work. I’ve seen him jab all round the aorta until it made me jumpy to watch him. This way, and mind the whitewash.”

They passed under an archway and down a long, stone-flagged corridor, with drab-coloured doors on either side, each marked with a number. Some of them were ajar, and the novice glanced into them with tingling nerves. He was reassured to catch a glimpse of cheery fires, lines of white-counterpaned beds, and a profusion of coloured texts upon the wall. The corridor opened upon a small hall, with a fringe of poorly clad people seated all round upon benches. A young man, with a pair of scissors stuck like a flower in his buttonhole and a note-book in his hand, was passing from one to the other, whispering and writing.

“Anything good?” asked the third year’s man.

“You should have been here yesterday,” said the out-patient clerk, glancing up. “We had a regular field day. A popliteal aneurism, a Colles’ fracture, a spina bifida, a tropical abscess, and an elephantiasis. How’s that for a single haul?”

“I’m sorry I missed it. But they’ll come again, I suppose. What’s up with the old gentleman?”

A broken workman was sitting in the shadow, rocking himself slowly to and fro, and groaning. A woman beside him was trying to console him, patting his shoulder with a hand which was spotted over with curious little white blisters.

“It’s a fine carbuncle,” said the clerk, with the air of a connoisseur who describes his orchids to one who can appreciate them. “It’s on his back and the passage is draughty, so we must not look at it, must we, daddy? Pemphigus,” he added carelessly, pointing to the woman’s disfigured hands. “Would you care to stop and take out a metacarpal?”

“No, thank you. We are due at Archer’s. Come on!” and they rejoined the throng which was hurrying to the theatre of the famous surgeon.

The tiers of horseshoe benches rising from the floor to the ceiling were already packed, and the novice as he entered saw vague curving lines of faces in front of him, and heard the deep buzz of a hundred voices, and sounds of laughter from somewhere up above him. His companion spied an opening on the second bench, and they both squeezed into it.

“This is grand!” the senior man whispered. “You’ll have a rare view of it all.”

Only a single row of heads intervened between them and the operating table. It was of unpainted deal, plain, strong, and scrupulously clean. A sheet of brown water-proofing covered half of it, and beneath stood a large tin tray full of sawdust. On the further side, in front of the window, there was a board which was strewed with glittering instruments—forceps, tenacula, saws, canulas, and trocars. A line of knives, with long, thin, delicate blades, lay at one side. Two young men lounged in front of this, one threading needles, the other doing something to a brass coffee-pot-like thing which hissed out puffs of steam.

“That’s Peterson,” whispered the senior, “the big, bald man in the front row. He’s the skin-grafting man, you know. And that’s Anthony Browne, who took a larynx out successfully last winter. And there’s Murphy, the pathologist, and Stoddart, the eye-man. You’ll come to know them all soon.”

“Who are the two men at the table?”

“Nobody—dressers. One has charge of the instruments and the other of the puffing Billy. It’s Lister’s antiseptic spray, you know, and Archer’s one of the carbolic-acid men. Hayes is the leader of the cleanliness-and-cold-water school, and they all hate each other like poison.”

A flutter of interest passed through the closely packed benches as a woman in petticoat and bodice was led in by two nurses. A red woolen shawl was draped over her head and round her neck. The face which looked out from it was that of a woman in the prime of her years, but drawn with suffering, and of a peculiar beeswax tint. Her head drooped as she walked, and one of the nurses, with her arm round her waist, was whispering consolation in her ear. She gave a quick side-glance at the instrument table as she passed, but the nurses turned her away from it.

“What ails her?” asked the novice.

“Cancer of the parotid. It’s the devil of a case; extends right away back behind the carotids. There’s hardly a man but Archer would dare to follow it. Ah, here he is himself!”

As he spoke, a small, brisk, iron-grey man came striding into the room, rubbing his hands together as he walked. He had a clean-shaven face, of the naval officer type, with large, bright eyes, and a firm, straight mouth. Behind him came his big house-surgeon, with his gleaming pince-nez, and a trail of dressers, who grouped themselves into the corners of the room.

“Gentlemen,” cried the surgeon in a voice as hard and brisk as his manner, “we have here an interesting case of tumour of the parotid, originally cartilaginous but now assuming malignant characteristics, and therefore requiring excision. On to the table, nurse! Thank you! Chloroform, clerk! Thank you! You can take the shawl off, nurse.”

The woman lay back upon the water-proofed pillow, and her murderous tumour lay revealed. In itself it was a pretty thing—ivory white, with a mesh of blue veins, and curving gently from jaw to chest. But the lean, yellow face and the stringy throat were in horrible contrast with the plumpness and sleekness of this monstrous growth. The surgeon placed a hand on each side of it and pressed it slowly backwards and forwards.

“Adherent at one place, gentlemen,” he cried. “The growth involves the carotids and jugulars, and passes behind the ramus of the jaw, whither we must be prepared to follow it. It is impossible to say how deep our dissection may carry us. Carbolic tray. Thank you! Dressings of carbolic gauze, if you please! Push the chloroform, Mr. Johnson. Have the small saw ready in case it is necessary to remove the jaw.”

The patient was moaning gently under the towel which had been placed over her face. She tried to raise her arms and to draw up her knees, but two dressers restrained her. The heavy air was full of the penetrating smells of carbolic acid and of chloroform. A muffled cry came from under the towel, and then a snatch of a song, sung in a high, quavering, monotonous voice:

“He says, says he,

If you fly with me

You’ll be mistress of the ice-cream van.

You’ll be mistress of the——”

It mumbled off into a drone and stopped. The surgeon came across, still rubbing his hands, and spoke to an elderly man in front of the novice.

“Narrow squeak for the Government,” he said.

“Oh, ten is enough.”

“They won’t have ten long. They’d do better to resign before they are driven to it.”

“Oh, I should fight it out.”

“What’s the use. They can’t get past the committee even if they got a vote in the House. I was talking to——”

“Patient’s ready, sir,” said the dresser.

“Talking to McDonald—but I’ll tell you about it presently.” He walked back to the patient, who was breathing in long, heavy gasps. “I propose,” said he, passing his hand over the tumour in an almost caressing fashion, “to make a free incision over the posterior border, and to take another forward at right angles to the lower end of it. Might I trouble you for a medium knife, Mr. Johnson?”

The novice, with eyes which were dilating with horror, saw the surgeon pick up the long, gleaming knife, dip it into a tin basin, and balance it in his fingers as an artist might his brush. Then he saw him pinch up the skin above the tumour with his left hand. At the sight his nerves, which had already been tried once or twice that day, gave way utterly. His head swain round, and he felt that in another instant he might faint. He dared not look at the patient. He dug his thumbs into his ears lest some scream should come to haunt him, and he fixed his eyes rigidly upon the wooden ledge in front of him. One glance, one cry, would, he knew, break down the shred of self-possession which he still retained. He tried to think of cricket, of green fields and rippling water, of his sisters at home—of anything rather than of what was going on so near him.

And yet somehow, even with his ears stopped up, sounds seemed to penetrate to him and to carry their own tale. He heard, or thought that he heard, the long hissing of the carbolic engine. Then he was conscious of some movement among the dressers. Were there groans, too, breaking in upon him, and some other sound, some fluid sound, which was more dreadfully suggestive still? His mind would keep building up every step of the operation, and fancy made it more ghastly than fact could have been. His nerves tingled and quivered. Minute by minute the giddiness grew more marked, the numb, sickly feeling at his heart more distressing. And then suddenly, with a groan, his head pitching forward, and his brow cracking sharply upon the narrow wooden shelf in front of him, he lay in a dead faint.

When he came to himself, he was lying in the empty theatre, with his collar and shirt undone. The third year’s man was dabbing a wet sponge over his face, and a couple of grinning dressers were looking on.

“All right,” cried the novice, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. “I’m sorry to have made an ass of myself.”

“Well, so I should think,” said his companion.

“What on earth did you faint about?”

“I couldn’t help it. It was that operation.”

“What operation?”

“Why, that cancer.”

There was a pause, and then the three students burst out laughing. “Why, you juggins!” cried the senior man, “there never was an operation at all! They found the patient didn’t stand the chloroform well, and so the whole thing was off. Archer has been giving us one of his racy lectures, and you fainted just in the middle of his favourite story.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 – 1930)
Round the Red Lamp: Being Facts and Fancies of Medical Life
His First Operation (#02)
fleursdumal.nl magazine

More in: Doyle, Arthur Conan, Doyle, Arthur Conan, DRUGS & MEDICINE & LITERATURE, Round the Red Lamp


ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: BEHIND THE TIMES (Round the Red Lamp #01)

ACDOYLE_REDLAMP15

Round the Red Lamp: Being Facts and Fancies of Medical Life by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Table of Contents

ACDOYLE_REDLAMP11

The Preface

Behind the Times. (#01)
His First Operation. (#02)
A Straggler of ‘15. (#03)
The Third Generation. (#04)
A False Start. (#05)
The Curse of Eve. (#06)
Sweethearts. (#07)
A Physiologist’s Wife. (#08)
The Case of Lady Sannox. (#09)
A Question of Diplomacy. (#10)
A Medical Document. (#11)
Lot No. 249. (#12)
The Los Amigos Fiasco. (#13)
The Doctors of Hoyland. (#14)
The Surgeon Talks. (#15)

The Preface.
[Being an extract from a long and animated correspondence with a friend in America.]

I quite recognise the force of your objection that an invalid or a woman in weak health would get no good from stories which attempt to treat some features of medical life with a certain amount of realism. If you deal with this life at all, however, and if you are anxious to make your doctors something more than marionettes, it is quite essential that you should paint the darker side, since it is that which is principally presented to the surgeon or physician. He sees many beautiful things, it is true, fortitude and heroism, love and self-sacrifice; but they are all called forth (as our nobler qualities are always called forth) by bitter sorrow and trial. One cannot write of medical life and be merry over it.

Then why write of it, you may ask? If a subject is painful why treat it at all? I answer that it is the province of fiction to treat painful things as well as cheerful ones. The story which wiles away a weary hour fulfils an obviously good purpose, but not more so, I hold, than that which helps to emphasise the graver side of life. A tale which may startle the reader out of his usual grooves of thought, and shocks him into seriousness, plays the part of the alterative and tonic in medicine, bitter to the taste but bracing in the result. There are a few stories in this little collection which might have such an effect, and I have so far shared in your feeling that I have reserved them from serial publication. In book-form the reader can see that they are medical stories, and can, if he or she be so minded, avoid them.

Yours very truly,
A. CONAN DOYLE

P.S.—You ask about the Red Lamp. It is the usual sign of the general practitioner in England.

ACDOYLE_REDLAMP12Behind the Times
by Arthur Conan Doyle

My first interview with Dr. James Winter was under dramatic circumstances. It occurred at two in the morning in the bedroom of an old country house. I kicked him twice on the white waistcoat and knocked off his gold spectacles, while he with the aid of a female accomplice stifled my angry cries in a flannel petticoat and thrust me into a warm bath. I am told that one of my parents, who happened to be present, remarked in a whisper that there was nothing the matter with my lungs. I cannot recall how Dr. Winter looked at the time, for I had other things to think of, but his description of my own appearance is far from flattering. A fluffy head, a body like a trussed goose, very bandy legs, and feet with the soles turned inwards—those are the main items which he can remember.

From this time onwards the epochs of my life were the periodical assaults which Dr. Winter made upon me. He vaccinated me; he cut me for an abscess; he blistered me for mumps. It was a world of peace and he the one dark cloud that threatened. But at last there came a time of real illness—a time when I lay for months together inside my wickerwork-basket bed, and then it was that I learned that that hard face could relax, that those country-made creaking boots could steal very gently to a bedside, and that that rough voice could thin into a whisper when it spoke to a sick child.

And now the child is himself a medical man, and yet Dr. Winter is the same as ever. I can see no change since first I can remember him, save that perhaps the brindled hair is a trifle whiter, and the huge shoulders a little more bowed. He is a very tall man, though he loses a couple of inches from his stoop. That big back of his has curved itself over sick beds until it has set in that shape. His face is of a walnut brown, and tells of long winter drives over bleak country roads, with the wind and the rain in his teeth. It looks smooth at a little distance, but as you approach him you see that it is shot with innumerable fine wrinkles like a last year’s apple. They are hardly to be seen when he is in repose; but when he laughs his face breaks like a starred glass, and you realise then that though he looks old, he must be older than he looks.

How old that is I could never discover. I have often tried to find out, and have struck his stream as high up as George IV and even the Regency, but without ever getting quite to the source. His mind must have been open to impressions very early, but it must also have closed early, for the politics of the day have little interest for him, while he is fiercely excited about questions which are entirely prehistoric. He shakes his head when he speaks of the first Reform Bill and expresses grave doubts as to its wisdom, and I have heard him, when he was warmed by a glass of wine, say bitter things about Robert Peel and his abandoning of the Corn Laws. The death of that statesman brought the history of England to a definite close, and Dr. Winter refers to everything which had happened since then as to an insignificant anticlimax.

But it was only when I had myself become a medical man that I was able to appreciate how entirely he is a survival of a past generation. He had learned his medicine under that obsolete and forgotten system by which a youth was apprenticed to a surgeon, in the days when the study of anatomy was often approached through a violated grave. His views upon his own profession are even more reactionary than in politics. Fifty years have brought him little and deprived him of less. Vaccination was well within the teaching of his youth, though I think he has a secret preference for inoculation. Bleeding he would practise freely but for public opinion. Chloroform he regards as a dangerous innovation, and he always clicks with his tongue when it is mentioned. He has even been known to say vain things about Laennec, and to refer to the stethoscope as “a new-fangled French toy.” He carries one in his hat out of deference to the expectations of his patients, but he is very hard of hearing, so that it makes little difference whether he uses it or not.

He reads, as a duty, his weekly medical paper, so that he has a general idea as to the advance of modern science. He always persists in looking upon it as a huge and rather ludicrous experiment. The germ theory of disease set him chuckling for a long time, and his favourite joke in the sick room was to say, “Shut the door or the germs will be getting in.” As to the Darwinian theory, it struck him as being the crowning joke of the century. “The children in the nursery and the ancestors in the stable,” he would cry, and laugh the tears out of his eyes.

He is so very much behind the day that occasionally, as things move round in their usual circle, he finds himself, to his bewilderment, in the front of the fashion. Dietetic treatment, for example, had been much in vogue in his youth, and he has more practical knowledge of it than any one whom I have met. Massage, too, was familiar to him when it was new to our generation. He had been trained also at a time when instruments were in a rudimentary state, and when men learned to trust more to their own fingers. He has a model surgical hand, muscular in the palm, tapering in the fingers, “with an eye at the end of each.” I shall not easily forget how Dr. Patterson and I cut Sir John Sirwell, the County Member, and were unable to find the stone. It was a horrible moment. Both our careers were at stake. And then it was that Dr. Winter, whom we had asked out of courtesy to be present, introduced into the wound a finger which seemed to our excited senses to be about nine inches long, and hooked out the stone at the end of it. “It’s always well to bring one in your waistcoat-pocket,” said he with a chuckle, “but I suppose you youngsters are above all that.”

We made him president of our branch of the British Medical Association, but he resigned after the first meeting. “The young men are too much for me,” he said. “I don’t understand what they are talking about.” Yet his patients do very well. He has the healing touch—that magnetic thing which defies explanation or analysis, but which is a very evident fact none the less. His mere presence leaves the patient with more hopefulness and vitality. The sight of disease affects him as dust does a careful housewife. It makes him angry and impatient. “Tut, tut, this will never do!” he cries, as he takes over a new case. He would shoo Death out of the room as though he were an intrusive hen. But when the intruder refuses to be dislodged, when the blood moves more slowly and the eyes grow dimmer, then it is that Dr. Winter is of more avail than all the drugs in his surgery. Dying folk cling to his hand as if the presence of his bulk and vigour gives them more courage to face the change; and that kindly, windbeaten face has been the last earthly impression which many a sufferer has carried into the unknown.

When Dr. Patterson and I—both of us young, energetic, and up-to-date—settled in the district, we were most cordially received by the old doctor, who would have been only too happy to be relieved of some of his patients. The patients themselves, however, followed their own inclinations—which is a reprehensible way that patients have—so that we remained neglected, with our modern instruments and our latest alkaloids, while he was serving out senna and calomel to all the countryside. We both of us loved the old fellow, but at the same time, in the privacy of our own intimate conversations, we could not help commenting upon this deplorable lack of judgment. “It’s all very well for the poorer people,” said Patterson. “But after all the educated classes have a right to expect that their medical man will know the difference between a mitral murmur and a bronchitic rale. It’s the judicial frame of mind, not the sympathetic, which is the essential one.”

I thoroughly agreed with Patterson in what he said. It happened, however, that very shortly afterwards the epidemic of influenza broke out, and we were all worked to death. One morning I met Patterson on my round, and found him looking rather pale and fagged out. He made the same remark about me. I was, in fact, feeling far from well, and I lay upon the sofa all the afternoon with a splitting headache and pains in every joint. As evening closed in, I could no longer disguise the fact that the scourge was upon me, and I felt that I should have medical advice without delay. It was of Patterson, naturally, that I thought, but somehow the idea of him had suddenly become repugnant to me. I thought of his cold, critical attitude, of his endless questions, of his tests and his tappings. I wanted something more soothing—something more genial.

“Mrs. Hudson,” said I to my housekeeper, “would you kindly run along to old Dr. Winter and tell him that I should be obliged to him if he would step round?”

She was back with an answer presently. “Dr. Winter will come round in an hour or so, sir; but he has just been called in to attend Dr. Patterson.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 – 1930)
Round the Red Lamp: Being Facts and Fancies of Medical Life
Behind the Times. (#01)
fleursdumal.nl magazine

More in: Doyle, Arthur Conan, Doyle, Arthur Conan, DRUGS & MEDICINE & LITERATURE, Round the Red Lamp


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