Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Stark Munro letters: being a series of sixteen letters written by J. Stark his friend and former fellow-student, Herbert Swanborough, of Lowell, Massachusetts, during the years 1881-1884; online

. (page 1 of 21)
Online LibraryArthur Conan DoyleThe Stark Munro letters: being a series of sixteen letters written by J. Stark his friend and former fellow-student, Herbert Swanborough, of Lowell, Massachusetts, during the years 1881-1884; → online text (page 1 of 21)
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Starr MAnro

A. Con AIM Doyle


On the sofa was stretched our unfortunate host.









The letters of my friend Mr. Stark Munro appear
to me to form so connected a whole, and to give so
plain an account of some of the troubles which a
young man may be called upon to face right away at
the outset of his career, that I have handed them
over to the gentleman who is about to edit them.
There are two of them, the fifth and the ninth, from
which some incisions are necessary ; but in the main
I hope that they may be reproduced as they stand.
I am sure that there is no privilege which viy friend
would value more highly than the thought that some
other young man, harassed by the needs of this world
and doubts of the next, should have gotten strength
by reading how a brother had passed down the valley
of shadow before him.


Lowell, Mass.




30th March, 1881.

I HAVE missed you very much since your
return to America, my dear BeHie, for you
are the one man upon this earth to whom I
have been able to unreservedly open my whole
mind. I don't know why it is ; for, now
that I come to think of it, I have never enjoyed
very much of your confidence in return. But
that may be my fault. Perhaps you don't
find me sympathetic, even though I have every
wish to be. I can only say that I find you in-
tensely so, and perhaps I presume too much
upon the fact. But no, every instinct in my
nature tells me that I don't bore you by my

Can you remember Cullingworth at the
University ? You never were in the athletic
set, and so it is possible that you don't. Any-
way I'll take it for granted that you don't, and
explain it all from the beginning. I'm sure
that you would know his photograph, however,
for the reason that he was the ugliest and
queerest-looking man of our year.
ti (1)


Physically he was a fine athlete - one of the
fastest and most determined Rugby forwards
that I have ever known, though he played so
savage a game that he was never given his
international cap. He was well-grown, five
foot nine perhaps, with square shoulders, an
arching chest, and a quick jerky way of v/alk-
ing. He had a square strong head, bristling
with short wiry black hair. His face was
wonderfully ugly, but it was the ugliness of
character, which is as attractive as beauty.
His jaw and eyebrows were scraggy and rough-
hewn, his nose aggressive and red -shot, his
eyes small and near set, light blue in colour,
and capable of assuming a very genial and also
an exceedingly vindictive expression. A slight
wiry moustache covered his upper lip, and his
teeth were yellow, strong, and overlapping.
Add to this that he seldom wore collar or
necktie, that his throat was the colour and
texture of the bark of a Scotch fir, and that
he had a voice and especially a laugh like a
bull's bellow. Then you have some idea (if
you can piece all these items in your mind)
of the outward James Cullingworth.

But the inner man, after all, was what was
most worth noting. I don't pretend to know
what genius is. Carlyle's definition always
seemed to me to be a very crisp and clear


statement of what it is not. Far from its
being an infinite capacity for taking pains,
its leading characteristic, as far as I have
ever been able to observe it, has been that
it allows the possessor of it to attain results
by a sort of instinct which other men could
only reach by hard work. In this sense
CuUingworth was the greatest genius that
I have ever known. He never seemed to
work, and yet he took the anatomy prize over
the heads of all the ten-hour-a-day men. That
might not count for much, for he was quite
capable of idling ostentatiously all day and
then reading desperately all night ; but start a
subject of your own for him, and then see his
originality and strength. Talk about tor-
pedoes and he would catch up a pencil, and on
the back of an old envelope from his pocket he
would sketch out some novel contrivance for
piercing a ship's netting and getting at her
side, which might no doubt involve some tech-
nical impossibility, but which would at least be
quite plausible and new. Then as he drew, his
bristling eyebrows would contract, his small
eyes would gleam with excitement, his lips
would be pressed together, and he would end
by banging on the paper with his open hand,
and shouting in his exultation. You would
think that his one mission in life was to invent


torpedoes. But next instant, if you were to
express surprise as to how it was that the
Egyptian workmen elevated the stones to the
top of the pyramids, out would come the pencil
and envelope, and he would propound a scheme
for doing that with equal energy and convic-
tion. This ingenuity was joined to an ex-
tremely sanguine nature. As he paced up and
down in his jerky quick-stepping fashion after
one of these flights of invention, he would take
out patents for it, receive you as his partner
in the enterprise, have it adopted in every
civilised country, see all conceivable applica-
tions of it, count up his probable royalties,
sketch out the novel methods in which he
would invest his gains, and finally retire with
the most gigantic fortune that has ever been
amassed. And you would be swept along by
his words, and would be carried every foot of
the way with him, so that it would come as
quite a shock to you when you suddenly fell
back to earth again, and found yourself trudg-
ing the city street a poor student, with Kirk's
Phjnology under your arm, and hardly the
price of your luncheon in your pocket.

I read over what I have written, but I can
see that I give you no real insight into the
demoniac cleverness of Cullingworth. His
views upon medicine were most revolutionary,


but I daresay that if things fulfil their promise
I may have a good deal to say about them in
the sequel. With his brilliant and unusual
gifts, his fine athletic record, his strange way of
dressing (his hat on the back of his head and
his throat bare), his thundering voice, and his
ugly, powerful face, he had quite the most
marked individuality of any man that I have
ever known. ' -

Now, you will think me very prolix about
this man ; but, as it looks as if his life might
become entwined with mine, it is a subject of
immediate interest to me, and I am wanting all
this for the purpose of reviving my own half
faded impressions, as well as in the hope of
amusing and interesting you. So I must just
give you one or two other points which may
make his character more clear to you.

He had a dash of the heroic in him. On
one occasion he was placed in such a position
that he must choose between compromising a
lady, or springing out of a third-floor window.
Without a moment's hesitation he hurled him-
self out of the window. As luck would have
it, he fell through a large laurel bush on to a
garden plot, which was soft with rain, and so
escaped with a shaking and a bruising. If I
have to say anything that gives a bad impres-
sion of the man, put that upon the other side.


He was fond of rough horse-play ; but it was
better to avoid it with him, for you could never
tell what it might lead to. His temper was
nothing less than infernal. I have seen him in
the dissecting-rooms begin to skylark with a
fellow, and then in an instant the fun would go
out of his face, his little eyes would gleam with
fury, and the two would be rolling, worrying
each other like dogs, below the table. He
would be dragged off, panting and speechless
with fury, with his wiry hair bristling straight
up like a fighting terrier's.

This pugnacious side of his character would
be worthily used sometimes. I remember that
an address which was being given to us by an
eminent London specialist was much inter-
rupted by a man in the front row, who
amused himself by interjecting remarks. The
lecturer appealed to his audience at last.
'' These interruptions are insufferable, gentle-
men," said he ; '' will no one free me from this
annoyance?" ''Hold your tongue — you, sir,
on the front bench," cried Cullingworth, in his
bull's bellow. '' Perhaps you'll make me,"
said the fellow, turning a contemptuous face
over his shoulder. Cullingworth closed his
note-book, and began to walk down on the
tops of the desks, to the delight of the three
hundred spectators. It was fine to see the


deliberate way in which he picked his way
among the ink bottles As he sprang down
from the last bench on to the floor, his
opponent struck him a smashing blow full in
the face. CuUingworth got his bulldog grip
on him, however, and rushed him backwards
out of the class-room. What he did with him
I don't know, but there was a noise like the
delivery of a ton of coals ; and the champion of
law and order returned, with tlie sedate air of
a man who had done his work. One of his
eyes looked like an over-ripe damson, but we
gave him three cheers as he made his way
back to his seat. Then we went on with
the dangers of Placenta Praevia.

He was not a man who drank hard, but a
little drink would have a very great effect
upon him. Then it was that the ideas would
surge from his brain, each more fantastic and
ingenious than the last. And if ever he did
get beyond the borderland he would do the
most amazing things. Sometimes it was the
fighting instinct that would possess him, some-
times the preaching, and sometimes the comic,
or they might come in succession, replacing
each other so rapidly as to bewilder his com-
panions. Intoxication brought all kinds of
queer little pecuHarities with it. One of them
was that he could walk or run perfectly straight.


but that there always came a time when he
unconsciously returned upon his tracks and
retraced his steps again. This had a strange
effect somtimes, as in the instance which I am
about to tell you.

Very sober to outward seeming, but in a
frenzy within, he went down to the station
one night, and, stooping to the pigeon-hole, he
asked the ticket-clerk, in the suavest voice,
whether he could tell him how far it was to
London. The official put forward his face to
reply when Cullingworth drove his fist through
the little hole with the force of a piston. The
clerk flew backwards off* his stool, and his yell
of pain and indignation brought some police
and railway men to his assistance. They
pursued Cullingworth ; but he, as active and
as fit as a greyhound, outrao^d them all and
vanished into the darkness, down the long,
straight street. The pursuers had stopped,
and were gathered in a knot talking the matter
over, when, looking up, they saw, to their
amazement, the man whom they were after,
running at the top of his speed in their
direction. His little peculiarity had asserted
itself, you see, and he had unconsciously
turned in his flight. They tripped him up,
flung themselves upon him, and after a long
and desperate struggle dragged him to the police


station. He was charged before the magistrate
next morning, but made such a briUiant speech
from the dock in his own defence that he
carried the Court with him, and escaped with
a nominal fine. At his invitation, the witnesses
and the police trooped after him to the nearest
hotel, and the affair ended in universal whisky-
and- sodas.

Well, now, if, after all the^ illustrations, I
have failed to give you some notion of the
man, able, magnetic, unscrupulous, interest-
ing, many-sided, I must despair of ever doing
so. I'll suppose, however, that I have not
failed ; and I will proceed to tell you, my most
patient of confidants, something of my personal
relations with Cullingworth.

When I first made a casual acquaintance
with him he was a bachelor. At the end of a
long vacation, however, he met me in the
street, and told me, in his loud-voiced volcanic
shoulder-slapping way, that he had just been
married. At his invitation, I went up with
him then and there to see his wife ; and as we
walked he told me the history of his wedding,
which was as extraordinary as everything else
he did. I won't tell it to you here, my dear
Bertie, for I feel that I have dived down too
many side streets already ; but it was a most
bustling business, in which the locking of a


governess into her room and the dyeing of
CiiUingworth's hair played prominent parts.
Apropos of the latter he was never quite able
to get rid of its traces ; and from this time
forward there was added to his other peculi-
arities the fact that w^hen the sunlight struck
upon his hair at certain angles, it turned it
all iridescent and shimmering.

Well, I went iip to his lodgings with him,
and was introduced to Mrs. Cullingworth.
She was a timid, little, sweet-faced, grey-eyed
woman, quiet-voiced and gentle-mannered.
You had only to see the way in which she
looked at him to understand that she was
absolutely under his control, and that do what
he might, or say what he might, it would
always be the best thing to her. She could
be obstinate, too, in a gentle, dove-like sort of
way ; but her obstinacy lay always in the
direction of backing up his sayings and doings.
This, however, I was only to find out after-
wards; and at that, my first visit, she impressed
me as being one of the sweetest little women
that I had ever known.

They w^ere living in the most singular style,
in a suite of four small rooms, over a grocer's
shop. There was a kitchen, a bedroom, a
sitting-room, and a fourth room, which Cul-
lingworth insisted upon regarding as a most


unhealthy apartment and a focus of disease,
though I am convinced that it was nothing
more than the smell of cheeses from below
which had given him the idea. At any rate,
with his usual energy he had not only locked
the room up, but had gummed varnished paper
over all the cracks of the door, to prevent the
imaginary contagion from spreading. The
furniture was the sparest possible. There
were, I remember, only two chairs in the
sitting-room ; so that when a guest came (and
I think I was the only one) CuUingworth used
to squat upon a pile of yearly volumes of the
British Medical Journal in the corner. I can
see him now levering himself up from his lowly
seat, and striding about the room roaring and
striking with his hands, while his little wife
sat mum in the corner, listening to him with
love and admiration in her eyes. What did
we care, any one of the three of us, where we
sat or how we lived, when youth throbbed hot
in our veins, and our souls were all aflame with
the possibilities of life ? I still look upon those
Bohemian evenings, in the bare room amid the
smell of the cheese, as being among the happiest
that I have known.

I was a frequent visitor to the Cullingworths,
for the pleasure that I got was made the
sweeter by the pleasure which I hoped that I


gave. They knew no one, and desired to
know no one ; so that socially I seemed to be
the only link that bound them to the world.
I even ventured to interfere in the details of
their little menage, Cullingworth had a fad at
the time, that all the diseases of civilisation
were due to the abandonment of the open-air
life of our ancestors, and as a corollary he
kept his windows open day and night. As
his wife was obviously fragile, and yet would
have died before she would have uttered a
word of complaint, I took it upon myself to
point out to him that the cough from which
she suffered was hardly to be cured so long as
she spent her life in a draught. He scowled
savagely at me for my interference ; and I
thought we were on the verge of a quarrel,
but it blew over, and he became more con-
siderate in the matter of ventilation.

Our evening occupations just about that
time were of a most extraordinary character.
You are aware that there is a substance,
called waxy matter, which is deposited in the
tissues of the body during the course of certain
diseases. What this may be and how it is
formed has been a cause for much bickering
among pathologists. Cullingworth had strong
views upon the subject, holding that the waxy
matter was really the same thing as the glycogen


which is normally secreted by the liver. But
it is one thing to have an idea, and another to
be able to prove it. Above all, we wanted some
waxy matter with which to experiment. But
fortune favoured us in the most magical way.
The Professor of Pathology had come into pos-
session of a magnificent specimen of the condi-
tion. With pride he exhibited the organ to us
in the class-room before ordering his assistant
to remove it to the ice-chest, preparatory to
its being used for microscopical work in the
practical class. Cullingworth saw his chance,
and acted on the instant. Slipping out of the
class-room, he threw open the ice-chest, rolled
his ulster round the dreadful glistening mass,
closed the chest again, and walked quietly
away. I have no doubt that to this day the
disappearance of that waxy liver is one of the
most inexplicable mysteries in the career of
our Professor.

That evening, and for many evenings to
come, we worked upon our liver. For our
experiments it was necessary to subject it all
to great heat in an endeavour to separate the
nitrogenous cellular substance from the non-
nitrogenous waxy matter. With our limited
appliances the only way we could think of was
to cut it into fine pieces and cook it in a frying
pan. So night after night the curious spectacle


might have been seen of a beautiful young
woman and two very earnest young men busily
engaged in making these grim fricassees. No-
thing came of all our work ; for though Culling-
worth considered that he had absolutely estab-
lished his case, and wrote long screeds to the
medical papers upon the subject, he was never
apt at stating his views with his pen, and he
left, I am sure, a very confused idea on the
minds of his readers as to what it was that he
was driving at. Again, as he was a mere student
without any letters after his name he got scant
attention, and I never heard that he gained over
a single supporter.

At the end of the year we both passed our
examinations and became duly qualified medi-
cal men. The Cullingworths vanished away,
and I never heard any more of them, for he
was a man who prided himself upon never
writing a letter. His father had formerly a
very large and lucrative practice in the West
of Scotland, but he died some years ago. I
had a vague idea, founded upon some chance
remark of his, that Cullingworth had gone to
see whether the family name might still stand
him in good stead there. As for me I began,
as you will remember that I explained in my
last, by acting as assistant in my father's
practice. You know, however, that at its best


it is not worth more than £500 a year, with
no room for expansion. This is not large
enough to keep two of us at work. Then,
again, there are times when I can see that my
religious opinions annoy the dear old man.
On the whole, and for every reason, I think
that it would be better if I were out of this.
I applied for several steamship lines, and
for at least a dozen house surgeonships ; but
there is as much competition for a miserable
post with a hundred a year as if it were the
Viceroyship of India. As a rule, I simply get
my testimonials returned without any comment,
which is the sort of thing that teaches a man
humility. Of course, it is very pleasant to live
with the mater, and my little brother Paul is a
regular trump. I am teaching him boxing ; and
you should see him put his tiny fists up, and
counter with his right. He got me under the
jaw this evening, and I had to ask for poached
eggs for supper.

And all this brings me up to the present
time and the latest news. It is that I had
a telegram from CuUingworth this morning —
after nine months' silence. It was dated from
Avonmouth, the town where I had suspected
that he had settled, and it said simply, ''Come
at once. I have urgent need of you. CuUing-
worth." Of course, I shall go by the first train


to-morrow. It may mean anything or nothing.
In my heart of hearts I hope and beheve that
old CulHngworth sees an opening for me either
as his partner or in some other way. I always
beheved that he would turn up trumps, and
make my fortune as well as his own. He
knows that if I am not very quick or bril-
liant I am fairly steady and reliable. So that's
what I've been working up to all along, Bertie,
that to-morrow I go to join Cullingworth, and
that it looks as if there was to be an opening
for me at last. I gave you a sketch of him
and his ways, so that you may take an interest
in the development of my fortune, which you
could not do if you did not know something of
the man who is holding out his hand to me.

Yesterday was my birthday, and I was two
and twenty years of age. For two and twenty
years have I swung around the sun. And in
all seriousness, without a touch of levity, and
from the bottom of my soul, I assure you that
I have at the present moment the very vaguest
idea as to whence I have come from, whither I
am going, or what I am here for. It is not for
want of inquiry, or from indifference. I have
mastered the principles of several religions.
They have all shocked me by the violence
which I should have to do to my reason to
accept the dogmas of any one of them. Their


ethics are usually excellent. So are the
ethics of the common law of England. But
the scheme of creation upon which those
ethics are built ! Well, it really is to me the
most astonishing thing that I have seen in
my short earthly pilgrimage, that so many
able men, deep philosophers, astute lawyers,
and clear-headed men of the world should
accept such an explanation of' the facts of
life. In the face of their apparent con-
currence my own poor little opinion would
not dare to do more than lurk at the back
of my soul, were it not that I take courage
when I reflect that the equally eminent law-
yers and philosophers of Rome and Greece
were all agreed that Jupiter had numerous
wives and was fond of a glass of good wine.

Mind, my dear Bertie, I do not wish to run
down your view or that of any other man. We
who claim toleration should be the first to ex-
tend it to others. I am only indicating my
own position, as I have often done before.
And I know your reply so well. Can't I hear
your grave voice saying '' Have faith ! " Your
conscience allows you to. Well, mine won't
allow me. I see so clearly that faith is not a
virtue, but a vice. It is a goat which has been
herded with the sheep. If a man deliberately
shut his physical eyes and refused to use them,


you would be as quick as any one in seeing that
it was immoral and a treason to Nature. And
yet you would counsel a man to shut that far
more precious gift, the reason, and to refuse to
use it in the most intimate question of life.

'' The reason cannot help in such a matter,"
you reply. I answer that to say so is to give
up a battle before it is fought. My reason shall
help me, and when it can help no longer I shall
do without help.

It's late, Bertie, and the fire's out, and I'm
shivering ; and you, I'm very sure, are heartily
weary of my gossip and my heresies, so adieu
until my next.



lOth April, 1881.

Well, my dear Bertie, here I am again in your
postbox. It's not a fortnight since I wrote
you that great long letter, and yet you see I
have news enough to make another formidable
budget. They say that the art of letter- writing
has been lost ; but if quantity nmy atone for
quality, you must confess that (for your sins)
you have a friend who has retained it.

When I wrote to you last I was on the eve
of going down to join the Cullingworths at
Avonmouth, with every hope that he had
found some opening for me. I must tell
you at some length the particulars of that

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Online LibraryArthur Conan DoyleThe Stark Munro letters: being a series of sixteen letters written by J. Stark his friend and former fellow-student, Herbert Swanborough, of Lowell, Massachusetts, during the years 1881-1884; → online text (page 1 of 21)