The Adventures of Dr. Whitty/Chapter 12

 

XII
DR. WHITTY'S PATIENT

"I CALLED on you this morning," said Dr. Whitty, "about a purely personal matter. But perhaps you're busy?"

"I'm thankful to say," said Colonel Beresford, "that I'm past the age at which men think they can preserve their self-respect only by being busy."

"It has occurred to me," said Dr. Whitty, "since I got engaged to be married to Miss Mulhall, that, though my income is all right for the quiet kind of life we intend to lead, I haven't got the amount of capital ready to hand that I ought to have, if we are to go on a proper honeymoon."

"Some men," said the colonel, "would have thought of that before they got engaged."

Dr. Whitty ignored this remark.

"It seems to me, therefore," he went on, "that it's my duty to get a hold of some ready money. I'm sure I can count on your help."

"If you expect me to become a chronic invalid or poison my servants——"

"Not at all. The idea in my mind——"

"I once offered you a present of twenty pounds," said the colonel, "and you practically threw the cheque back in my face."

"I'm not begging," said Dr. Whitty; "all I want of you is your name as a reference."

"What for?"

"I'm thinking of starting a sanatorium. Hold on a minute—here's the advertisement: 'Nervous Patients'—that, of course, means habitual drunkards; it's put in that way to save unpleasantness for their relatives—'received in a doctor's house. Bracing neighbourhood. Gravel soil. Personal supervision. References kindly permitted to——' Then comes your name, and, after it, Father Henaghan's and Mr, Jackson's. I have them both, so as to show that the religion of the patient will be properly attended to, whatever sort it is."

"And what do you expect to make out of that?"

"I shall ask £10 a week," said the doctor, "and, if I light on the right kind of drunkard, I dare say I shall get it."

"Is there much choice? I should have thought they were all rather disgusting."

"There is a choice, of course. The best kind is a young man whose father has made a large fortune honestly, and so clings to the idea of respectability. The son, having been educated expensively, gets into what is supposed to be good society. There, he acquires habits which—— Well, the father, after doing his best for a time, determines to put the young man under control in some rather distant place. That's the really strong point about my advertisement. If you live in the English Midlands, as the man I have in mind almost certainly does, nowhere seems farther off than Western Connacht. I shall get my £10 a week to a certainty if I have the luck to light on a man of that sort."

"I dare say you will," said Colonel Beresford. "I'm told that advertising is the one sure means of making money; and your effort is no more immoral than the rest."

"I'm not quite sure," said Dr. Whitty, "that I understand what you mean. Where does the immorality come in?"

"Well, advertisements, as a rule, lie like Ananias and Sapphira. Yours, for instance, says 'Bracing neighbourhood.'"

"That's not a lie. It's simply a formula, like 'Dear Sir' at the beginning of a letter."

"'Gravel soil,' then, is like 'very sincerely yours'?"

"Precisely, and the rest of the advertisement is true."

"Considering," said the colonel, "that every shop in Ballintra except one is a public-house, it seems to me it would have been wiser to have aimed at some other kind of patient."

"I might have done that, of course; but a drunkard is much the most likely sort to get."

"He'll need a good deal of 'personal supervision,'" said the colonel.

"I don't mean to be the person who supervises. I couldn't spare the time."

"Ah! You mean to engage a sort of keeper."

"Certainly not. In the first place, those fellows are frightfully expensive and I'm trying to make money. In the next place, men of that sort irritate the patient. What I mean to do is to hire Michael Geraghty's little girl, the eldest one, Molly, who is about fourteen. I can get her for five shillings a week, and she'll find the greatest pleasure in walking round with the drunkard."

"But she won't be able to stop him drinking."

"Oh yes, she will. You may not have observed it, colonel, but men who drink are invariably kind-hearted and fond of children. Molly will appeal to his better nature. That's part of my system. No man would touch more than he ought while a nice little girl was holding him by the hand."

Ten days later. Colonel Beresford received a letter marked "Private and Confidential."


"Dear Sir,"—he read,—"you will, I feel sure, excuse my troubling you, when I mention that I write to make inquiries about the character and position of Dr. Whitty of your town, whose advertisement gives your name among others as a reference. I am particularly anxious to know whether Dr. Whitty is a man of cheerful disposition. It has become necessary, in consequence of a serious nervous breakdown, to secure for my son a period of complete rest and quiet. I think it desirable that he should be under the supervision of a competent medical man, although I trust he will not require actual treatment, and it is absolutely necessary that his surroundings should be bright and cheerful. I shall feel obliged if you will give me your candid opinion of Dr. Whitty, and I shall regard anything you write as strictly confidential.—I am, yours truly,

"J. Hatfield"


The notepaper bore the name of a firm, "Hatfield & Co., Engineers and Contractors," with a business address; but this was scratched out and "Cedar Lawn, Edenberry, Newcastle-on-Tyne," substituted.

Colonel Beresford replied cautiously. He said he held the highest opinion of Dr. Whitty's personal character and medical skill, absolutely guaranteed his gaiety, and gave it as his opinion that rest and quiet would be obtainable in Ballintra if anywhere in the world. He added, that he did not in any way vouch for the value of Dr. Whitty's methods of dealing with nervous patients. Three days later, he received a call from Dr. Whitty.

"Thanks, colonel," he said. "Your letter did the trick for me. Old Hatfield is evidently a British merchant of the most superior possible kind. He offered—actually offered—eight guineas a week, and his son is just the kind of man I want."

"Nervous breakdown?" asked the colonel.

"Precisely. The old boy was frightfully nice about it. You could see at once that he is really fond of Herbert—Herbert is the son's name."

"Of course," said the colonel. "It was sure to be."

"He wrote me a long letter and put the whole thing down to Herbert's artistic temperament and the nerve strain which that involved. It appears that he did uncommonly well at Oxford—Herbert, I mean, not the engineer and contractor—and won a prize for writing poetry. Then he went up to London, and there, apparently, things began to get serious, though they'd evidently been bad enough at Oxford, and old Hatfield connects the trouble in some way with the prize poem. Herbert himself is quite willing to try the experiment of placing himself under my care for a while. He is, so his father says, a young man of very amiable disposition who makes friends wherever he goes. I expect he'll take to Molly Geraghty at once. I dare say I shall have him for as much as three months, and at the end of that time——"

He paused and was evidently engaged in multiplying eight guineas by thirteen, a sum difficult to do without a pencil and a piece of paper.

"You'll be in a position to marry," said the colonel.

"Yes," said Dr. Whitty, when he had finished his sum, "I shall."

A week later Herbert Hatfield arrived, and for some days Colonel Beresford saw nothing of the doctor. He felt a good deal of curiosity about the progress of the new cure for inebriety, and, meeting Michael Geraghty on the road, took the opportunity of trying to find out what was going on.

"I hear," he said, "that Dr. Whitty has engaged your eldest girl as housemaid, Michael. How does she like it?"

"It isn't housemaid she is," said Michael, "nor yet cook."

"What is she, then?"

"I wouldn't wonder," said Michael, "if she's what they call a companion. Anyway, all she has to do is to walk about along with a strange gentleman the doctor has with him, and for that she's getting five shillings a week and her dinner."

"It sounds an easy job."

"You may say that."

"And is he a nice gentleman?"

"As quiet as ever you seen, barring an odd time when his temper would be riz, and, even with that, Molly says she never heard a curse out of him—not what you'd call a proper curse. It was only this morning he said to her, 'Child, there's half a crown for you. Go and buy dolls and sweets,' he says, 'and leave me in peace by myself.' You wouldn't call that cursing?"

"I would not," said the colonel. "I suppose she took the half-crown?"

"She did, of course. Is it likely she'd vex him worse than he was vexed?"

"Was he vexed?"

"He was. Didn't I tell you he was? The two eyes were starting out of him with the rage he was in, and, with every look he took at Molly, he got worse instead of better."

"Did she go away?"

"She did not. She'd be in dread to do the like; for the doctor said he'd chastise her if ever she let the gentleman out of her sight, and the most of the time she was to be holding his hand, if so be he'd let her."

Colonel Beresford's curiosity was intensely excited by this account of Herbert Hatfield's dealings with Molly Geraghty. He made up his mind to call on Dr. Whitty and find out further details about the behaviour of the inebriate stranger. He was aware that he was acting in an undignified way by openly pursuing gossip which was not offered to him; but he consoled himself by reflecting that he had not much dignity to lose, and that, in any case, Dr. Whitty had none. He found, as he expected, that the doctor was quite ready to talk freely.

"I'm sorry, colonel," he said, "that I haven't been able to go up to see you since poor Herbert arrived. I simply wasn't able to get away. Molly manages admirably and sticks to him like a leech; but, of course, I'm responsible. Herbert arrived here this day last week, a frightful wreck, face haggard, eyes sunken, hands shaking like what-do-you-call-'em leaves."

"Aspen?"

"Yes, aspen; that's what he said himself. Being a poet, he'd be bound to say something of the sort. I can't recollect ever having noticed an aspen leaf, but——"

"The aspen tree, I believe, is the same thing as a poplar," said the colonel. "But it doesn't grow in this part of the world."

"All I can say is that if its leaves are anything like poor Herbert's hands they can't be much use to it. His body was frightfully emaciated."

"Nose red?"

"No, pale grey. A nose doesn't get red except after a long course. Herbert, apparently, has only been really going it for about a year. Well, I gave him a bit of dinner, and, seeing the state he was in, offered him a bottle of porter. What do you think he said? He had the nerve to assure me that he never touched alcohol in any form. I call that rather a bad sign. I'd rather have a man who owned up frankly. However, I did not say anything, but, as soon as dinner was over, I introduced him to Molly, who was waiting in the hall. He didn't seem as much interested in her as I had hoped. However, he went for a walk and she followed him. The next day the trouble began."

"Ah! At Thady Glynn's, I suppose?"

"No. It's a curious instance of the crafty way these poor fellows go about things; he didn't show the smallest wish to go near the town. He went down and sat on Michael Geraghty's pier and looked at the sea. Molly, of course, sat beside him. At first, he didn't take any notice of her; but, after a while, he inquired why she wasn't at school. From that on, he made a series of efforts to get rid of her. He tried walking fast, and even running, but Molly is an active child, so he didn't make much by that. Then he tried climbing up rocks and places, where he thought she wouldn't be able to follow him. He soon found out his mistake. A child of that age is an extraordinarily good climber as a rule. Then he fell back on the school idea and made his way up to Michael Geraghty's workshop. He had inquired, of course, from Molly who her father was. He didn't make much by that. Michael listened to all he had to say about the advantages of education for the young and the duty of parents. Then he told Herbert that Molly was half-witted and couldn't be taught anything, so there was no use sending her to school. Herbert apparently didn't believe that. He went off the next day to the schoolmaster and made further inquiries. The master, of course, was prepared to back up anything Michael had said, but somehow he took the matter up wrong. He thought it was Herbert Hatfield who had been accusing Molly of being half-witted, and that Michael had been defending his daughter's reputation."

"I don't blame him," said the colonel. "Nobody would expect a father to be giving away his own child like that to a perfect stranger."

"I dare say. Anyway, he said that Molly was the smartest girl he had, and that the only reason she didn't go regularly to school was that her education was practically complete.

"That seems to have roused Herbert's suspicions worse than ever. He went straight up to the Presbytery and asked Father Henaghan to tell him the truth about Molly. Father Henaghan wanted to do the best he could to make things pleasant for Herbert, but didn't know what either Michael or the schoolmaster had told him. He said that, owing to an outbreak of measles among the other Geraghty children, he had strictly forbidden Molly to go to school, hoping in that way to prevent the spread of infection. Herbert then inquired for the school attendance officer."

"Thinking, I suppose, that we had compulsory education in this country?"

"Apparently. When he found out that there was no such person he gave up the idea of trying to get rid of Molly by sending her to school."

"What did he do next?"

"He threatened her with the police," said the doctor. "Molly was frightened at first, and told her father when she went home that night. Michael said she needn't mind, because, even if she was arrested, nothing would be done to her afterwards. He said that you were a magistrate, and generally got your own way on the Bench, and that you wouldn't send anyone to prison for following Herbert Hatfield about, because you were as keen as everybody else on having him properly watched."

"I wish he hadn't said that. I don't like being dragged into this business."

"It's all right," said the doctor. "Molly didn't tell Herbert what her father had said. She simply turned up smiling the next morning."

"Then he tried bribing her," said the colonel. "Michael told me all about that."

"It will be very interesting to see what he does next, now that bribery has failed. In the meanwhile the thing is working out splendidly. He hasn't, to my certain knowledge, had a drop of any kind of drink, except water and tea, since he came here; and he's beginning to fatten already. His hands are not half as shaky as they were at first—— Hullo! Here he is."

A minute later Herbert Hatfield, having banged the hall door behind him, entered the room.

"Dr. Whitty," he said, "I must ask you for some explanation of the extraordinary way——"

"My friend, Colonel Beresford—Mr. Hatfield," said the doctor, performing the ceremony of introduction.

The colonel and Herbert Hatfield bowed.

"Perhaps," said Herbert, "I could speak to you in private for a few minutes, if Colonel Beresford will excuse us."

"If it's Molly Geraghty you want to talk of," said the doctor, "there's not the least necessity for a private interview. The colonel knows all about it, and strongly approves——"

"No; I don't," said the colonel.

"Of course you don't," said Herbert Hatfield. "No sane man——"

"Keep as calm as you can," said Dr. Whitty, "and tell us exactly what your grievance is."

"My grievance? I am followed about day and night——"

"Don't exaggerate," said Dr. Whitty. "She goes home at night."

"I'm followed about all day," said Herbert Hatfield, "by a horrid little girl. There she is sitting on the window-sill waiting for me."

Dr. Whitty glanced at Molly.

"She looks to me a nice little girl," he said. "She's quite pretty."

"I don't like her," said Herbert Hatfield; "and, even if I did like her, I shouldn't want to have her always treading on my heels."

"I'll tell her not to do that, if you like."

"Tell her to go away and leave me at peace."

"No, I won't. You are here to be cured of a dangerous and highly objectionable kind of disease, and, in my opinion, Molly Geraghty is doing you a lot of good."

"She's making me worse. I'm going mad. I shall become a raving lunatic if she follows me any more."

"Not at all. So long as you keep off the whisky, you'll be as sane as any man living."

"Whisky! I never touch whisky."

"Well, gin, or brandy, or rum, or absinthe, or whatever it is you do drink. I expect it's some queer, out-of-the-way foreign spirit."

"I tell you, I don't drink at all, and never did."

"Your father told me," said Dr. Whitty, "that you were a pretty nearly hopeless case of nervous breakdown. If that doesn't mean drink, I don't know what it does mean."

"And do you mean to say that you've set that child on to follow me about in order to prevent my going into public-houses?"

"Exactly," said Dr. Whitty, "and, what's more, the treatment is doing you a lot of good. You couldn't have stood up to me and argued the way you're doing when you came here a week ago. Look at your hands now, man. Are they aspen leaves?"

Herbert Hatfield stretched out one of his hands and stared at it. Then he laughed suddenly.

"By Jove!" he said, "I believe you're right. It is doing me good. I slept last night too: the whole night."

"That's Molly Geraghty," said the doctor.

"All the same," said Herbert Hatfield, "I'm not a drunkard. I'm—it may seem rather absurd to you, but my nervous breakdown really was the consequence of great mental strain. I am engaged in writing—surely my father must have told you that I am a poet."

"If you prefer to call it poetry," said Dr. Whitty, "I don't mind. All I want to impress on you is that Molly Geraghty is the best means I know of getting you well again. So long as she is after you, you can't give way——"

"He means," said the colonel, "that she'll keep your mind off poetry."

"She certainly has done that," said Herbert Hatfield.

"Then stick to her," said the doctor, "or, rather, let her stick to you. And if I were you, I should allow her to hold your hand as you walk about."

Herbert Hatfield stayed in Ballintra for six weeks. After he left, he sent Molly Geraghty a present of an immense doll's house, fully furnished and crowded with inhabitants. Some months later Dr. Whitty made a confession to Colonel Beresford.

"Do you know," he said, "that fellow, Herbert Hatfield, really was a teetotaller after all. I asked his father the question straight, when I was acknowledging his cheque."

"And poet?"

"I didn't inquire. But I dare say he was. After all, there must have been something to account for the horrid state he was in when he arrived. If it wasn't drink, it's as likely to have been poetry as anything else."