Laying a Ghost
George Manville Fenn, 1891
First appeared in The Strand Magazine, Vol. II, No. 10, July-December, 1891.
“It is of no use for you to talk, Mary,” I said, quite angrily; “a professional man has no right to sit still taking his patients’ fees without constantly striving after higher knowledge for their benefit.”
“Of course not, dear,” said my wife, gently—by the way, she always does speak gently—”but you study too much.”
“Indeed, dear, but you do. Your forehead is growing full of lines, and your hair is turning quite grey.”
“All the better. People do not like young-looking doctors.”
“But you do work too hard, dear.”
“Absurd! I feel as if I must be a mere idler, Mary; and at a time, too, when it seems as if medicine was quite at a stand. Surgery has made wonderful strides, but the physician is nowhere.”
“What nonsense, dear, when everybody says that you are the cleverest doctor for fifty miles round; and at such times I feel as if I could kiss the person who said so.”
“Everybody is a goose; and, goose or no, don’t you let me catch you kissing them. There, be off, little one, and let me get on with my work.”
“Work, work, always work,” she said, with a pretty pout of the lips which invited what they received, with the result that my happy young wife went out smiling whileI sat down to think.
I was young and very enthusiastic in those days. Rather vain, too, and disposed to look down upon what I called the “old fogies of the profession.” I meant to make great discoveries in medicine for the benefit of suffering humanity, and for my own benefit too, I’m afraid. Consequently—I confess it—I was a dangerous kind of doctor, and always itching to try experiments.
At the time of which I am speaking, I was mad upon a new remedy which I believed I had discovered for the nervous state consequent upon the failure of the digestive powers in people of middle age; and it was upon this remedy that I now sat down to think in my little consulting-room and dispensary combined.
I had been pondering over the subject then for months, and the more I thought, the more convinced I was that my remedy would work wonders, but for want of test cases, I was completely in the dark. I had got so far, though, that I had give myself full confidence in the correctness of my deductions; all I wanted was trial—experiment on the vile body of man, so as to make sure.
“How to proceed?” I said to myself, as I sat amongst my bottles and drugs, tapping the table with my finger nails—”how to proceed? I must try it upon a patient, but it is not fair or just to try experiments upon one who confides in you. Suppose my ideas are wrong—suppose it is a fallacy?”
These thoughts troubled me so that I grew feverish, and my head burned.
Jumping up from my chair, I took a clean tumbler from a shelf, half filled it from a seltzogene(1) which stood on the table, tossed off the sparkling water, put back the tumbler and resumed my seat, feeling decidedly better and clearer.
“How to proceed?” I said again. “I cannot, I must not try it upon a patient. It would not be just. Upon whom, then? Mary!”
“Perish the thought!” I cried dramatically.” To deceive her would be ten times worse.”
“But I might tell her first. She would take it—bless her!—if I told her.”
“No—no—no—no!” I cried; and then, half aloud, “If the experiment must be tried, and you have so much faith in it, try it upon yourself, like a man!
“ I sprang up once more with all kinds of unpleasant notions beginning to haunt me. Suppose the dose failed—suppose it proved fatal—suppose I were suddenly called away without having time to explain to a brother medical man what I had taken. ”
Why, they would bring it in suicide, and my wife would be a widow,” I exclaimed with a chill of horror seeming to make my blood run sluggishly through my veins.
But this was momentary. I recovered my strength of mind directly, and, unlocking my desk, I took out a bottle containing a white powder, which I shook and held up to the light. ”
“I’ll try one drachm first,” I said. “Too much. No: it would be absurd to trifle with it. How can I get a satisfactory result if I do not proceed boldly with my test? Am I going to play the coward after all?”
I went to the shelf where the bottles stood, and took down the one labelled “Sp.Vin.”, having determined to combine a stimulant with the drug, which would, I knew, from former experience, dissolve in spirit, but, to my chagrin, the bottle was completely empty.
“Brandy will do,” I said to myself; and, after replacing the bottle, I went out and into the dining-room to fetch one of the three from the spirit stand, but found that its contents were confined to about a wine-glassful. “That would be enough,” I thought, and going back into my consulting room, I set the little decanter down, removed the stopper, and my hand trembled a little as I poured in the white powder, a mere pinch, but full of potency.
“You are a coward,” I said to myself contemptuously. “You would have given that to a patient without a qualm, but you are all on the shiver because you are goingto take it yourself.”
And myself seemed to answer, as if I then led a dual existence.
“I am no coward,” it said half aloud.” For the benefit of medical science I am going to take that drug as soon as it is dissolved; and if it destroys my life, I have died in a great cause as bravely as any soldier who ever faced the deadly breach.”
As I spoke I replaced the stopper, crumpled up the paper, and threw it in the waste basket. I then shook up the brandy, which looked turbid at first, but which rapidly began to clear, as I set it down, took paper and pen, and was about to write a few lines to my wife telling her what I had done, and why, lest in the case of accident I might be supposed to have committed suicide; but I had only just written down the date when I heard a ring, and directly after there was a tap at the door, and our servant ushered in a patient.
I motioned him to a seat, and in the rapid look which a doctor gives to his visitors, formed my own impressions as to his ailments, the gorged veins of the eyes, the flushed face, the pimpled and reddened nose, telling their own tale—a story confirmed by the trembling of his hands as he removed his gloves.
“Morning, doctor,” he said; “I’m very bad. I want you to over-haul me, and see if you can set me right. Can’t eat—no appetite—no digestion; I’m a prey to the horrors—my nerves are absolutely shattered, and life has become such a burden that if I don’t soon mend, I know I shall make an end of myself. I’m afraid I shall,” he continued, getting more and more excited in his speech, and gesticulating as I sat back scanning him intently, and seeing in him the very object for my experiment if I cared to administer my remedy. But honor held me back, and I vowed I would resist the temptation, come what might.
“Be calm,” I said, quietly, “and tell me” but before I could get anyfarther, he burst out— ”Calm ? Who is to be calm, suffering as I do! haunted. Do what I will, go where I will, I am haunted.”
“As all men are,” I said quietly, “who persist in flying to the bottle.”
“No,” he cried fiercely, “not as they are. Do you think I am one of the idiots who see snakes and imps and all kinds of imaginary creatures dancing before their eyes? I am haunted, I tell you, and it is by a man I know well—I must tell you now—-I can’t keep it back. We were friends out in Australia—years ago.”
“Australia, eh?” I cried.
“Yes. Do you know Australia?” he said wonderingly.
“I passed my boyhood and my early man- hood there,” I replied quietly.
“I came to England to finish my studies, and settled down. So you are haunted, eh?”
“Haunted! Did I say haunted?” he cried uneasily. “Oh, no: a mere fancy,” and he laughed unpleasantly.
“Of course,” I said. “My dear sir, as a medical man I must be plain with you. I will give you the best advice, and will help you in any way I can; but the cure for your complaint is in your own hands. Leave all liquors alone, and you will mend fast. Go on as you are now, drinking heavily, and in six months you will be in your grave.”
He started violently, and grasped the elbows of the chair as he leaned forward, gazing wildly in my face.
“Drink!” he gasped; “you think I drink—am a drunkard?”
“I know you drink, sir,” I replied quietly. “It is plainly written in your face, and in your trembling hands. I do not say you are a drunkard. Possibly you are never drunk, but you are constantly flying to stimulants, and they are wrecking you hopelessly.”
“Don’t say hopelessly, doctor,” he panted. “I will leave off—I will, indeed, for”—he shuddered—”I dare not die. It is too horrible. But I’ve been obliged to fly to the brandy to keep myself up. Haunted, night and day, for years now. Can’t you give me something—some tonic—to set me right ? Can’t you cure me—make me strong?”
“Yes, I think I can, sir,” I replied, “if you will obey my directions.”
“I will, I will,” he cried excitedly. “I won’t touch another drop. Now, then, quick; what will you give me?”
“Your chance!” something seemed to whisper to me. “Digestion ruined, nerves shattered, hopeless unless you set him right. The very man for your experiment.”
It was a terrible temptation, but I fought against it.
“No,” I said to myself,” it would be a cowardly breach of confidence, with an untried medicine; keep to your manly, honest plan.”
“Well,” he continued, passing his tongue over his dry lips, with the peculiar noise made by a thirsty man, “don’t be so long thinking, doctor. I want you to begin. Give me something to make me sleep in peace without jumping up in the dark, bathed in perspiration, with him there. I mean, fancying things, you understand. What will you give me? Ah! there it is again!”
He uttered a wild cry, and started from his seat to creep cowering into a corner as a rushing, tearing noise came down the street, accompanied by cries; and as I ran to the window, a cart draw by a frightened horse tore by, to be followed a few seconds later by a crash, and then the rattle of hoofs as the horse, evidently freed from the cart, galloped on.
“A bad accident,” I said. “Come and see.”
It was unprofessional, of course, but for the moment I could think of nothing but the poor creatures who had been in the cart, and who were probably now lying almost close to my door, waiting for surgical help. My wife, looking white as the proverbial sheet, was already in the passage, speechless, and pointing to the door; and directly after I was superintending the removal off our poor fellows suffering from broken bones, cuts, and contusions, and so busy was I for the next hour with a colleague, that I forgot all about my patient in my consulting room.
“How stupid!” I said, as I went back. “The poor fellow will be gone.”
My wife was at the door waiting, and I answered her eager questions by another.
“That gentleman I left, is he still in the consulting-room?”
“Gentleman?” she faltered; “I don’t know.”
I hurried into the room to find him sitting back in one of the easy-chairs, looking quite calm and contented.
“Ah! doctor,” he said; “the accident—anybody much hurt?”
“Yes, poor fellows! two, badly,” I replied. “Really, my dear sir, I owe you a thousand apologies, but in such an emergency ”
“Don’t name it, doctor; don’t name it,” he said, smiling. “I know you’ll excuse me not coming to help. My nerves are so shattered that I should have been useless. You saw how it startled me; but I’m a little better now. Will you give me a prescription?”
I looked at him curiously. “Yes,” I said, “you seem calmer now; but there is areason for it. Look here, sir, a patient must have no secrets from his medical man. There is a cause, sir, for this apparent calmness,” and I fixed his eye. “You wish me to cure you?”
“Yes, yes, doctor,” he said, shiftily.
“Then you must keep faith with me,” I cried, firmly, “and obey me, or else go to some other medical man.”
“No, no, doctor, don’t say that,” he half whimpered. “I believe in you. I know you are clever. Don’t throw me over. I will obey you implicitly.”
“Then give me that brandy-flask you have in your pocket.”
“No, no, doctor,” he cried, “I haven’t one—indeed!”
“It is not true, sir. You have partaken of brandy since I left this room.”
“Brandy? Brandy?” he stammered. “How—how did you know?”
“How did I know, sir?” I cried, angrily. “Do you think a medical man is a child? By the effect it has had upon you; by the odour. Why, good heavens!” I roared, as my eyes lit upon the little decanter I had left upon the table, “you have never been so mad as to drink the contents of that?”
“D—don’t be angry with me, doctor,” he faltered, as I stood pointing at the decanter. “I was so unhinged—by that accident—I—I was obliged. I—I wanted a glass of water—anything, but I dared not meddle with any of your bottles—’fraid of poisoning myself. But,” he continued, with a peculiar little laugh, “I saw the gazogene (1) there, and the brandy. Couldn’t be any mistake about them. Capital drop of brandy, doctor, and it did pull me round so well, just as you see.”
I sank back in a chair, staring at him wildly. ”He has taken it, after all,” I thought. “It must be fate.” I could feel a curious sensation as if bells were ringing in my ears, while I sat blankly looking at him now, wondering what the effect of my experiment would be, till he spoke again apologetically:
“It was the last drop I’ll ever take, doctor.”
“The truth, may be!” I said to myself; and I began to think of inquests, loss of professional reputation, a dozen troubles of the future which were coined in my busy brain. What should I do? Give him an antidote at once? Let the drug work its way? Which?
I started up, rang the bell, and hurried to the door, ready to open it as soon as I heard steps, and then, with it held ajar, I said hastily:
“I am out to everybody, and am not to be interrupted on any pretence until I ring.”
Then, closing and bolting the door, I hurried back to my seat.
“What—what’s the matter, doctor?” said my patient with a startled look. “What are you going to do?”
“Study your case, sir,” I said huskily, as I caught hold of his wrist, and then gazed full in his slightly dilated eyes.
“Ah! yes,” he said, sinking back drowsily; “do, doctor, do. I’ll never touch a drop again, but you’ll give me something to take instead. Capital brandy, that. Different to any I get. So soothing.”
“Shall I give him something to counter-act the effect,” I said to myself again, “or let the potion work?”
I sat thinking over the way in which I had studied, and of how confident I had grown in my remedy, even to having been ready to test it on myself, and I could not help resigning myself to the position.
“It is in the cause of science,” I thought, “and I can watch the action in another better than I could in my own person. It is an accident. No: it is fate.”
It would be impossible to describe my feelings then as I sat watching the wretched object before me. Try and picture them for yourselves. A medical man’s position is always painful when he is in doubt as to the result of his remedies in a critical case; but then he is fortified by the feeling that he has done everything in accordance with the precedents set by the wisest of his profession. Then I was face to face with the knowledge that I was trying a desperate experiment, and my patient might be dying before my eyes; in fact, as he sank back with his eyes staring, I felt that he was dying, and I started up to try and get some remedy, but he checked me by his words.
“Ah, it’s you!” he said feebly. “I thought he had come again. He haunts me; he haunts me. All these years now, and no rest.”
Then his face grew very calm; and in a fit of wild desperation I determined to let matters take their course. For what better opportunity could fate have thrown in my way than bringing me into connection with this miserable creature, half demented by delirium tremens, and whose life was not worth a twelve-months’ purchase? ”It is in the cause of science,” I muttered; “and even if his wretched life is sacrificed, it may be for the benefit of thousands. I cannot stop now. I must go on.”
It was as if my muttered words had roused him, for he suddenly caught my hand in his.
“Don’t be hard on me, doctor; I was obliged to drink. I’ve fought against it till I’ve been nearly mad. You people talk, but you don’t know—you don’t know. I’m going to take your stuff now, though ; and it will make me right, doctor?”
He looked round wildly, and with a strange air of apprehension.
“Did you ever see a ghost?” he whispered.
“Never,” I said, for I was obliged to speak.
“I have—hundreds of times. He haunts me. It has been for years now, till I could bear it no longer. That’s why I’ve come. If a man’s in sound health he doesn’t see ghosts, eh?”
“No,” I said; “they are the offspring of a diseased imagination.”
“Yes; a diseased imagination, that’s it. Shouldn’t see him if I was well, eh? ”
“No; it is all fancy.”
“Yes, doctor, but it’s so horribly real. He comes to me, and goes over it all again and again; and as he talks to me the whole scene in the gully comes back, with our fight.”
He sank back as if exhausted, but I was soon able to convince myself that he was only sleeping calmly, and a gentle perspiration broke out on his brow, while his hands felt temperate and moist.
That was hopeful, and I felt more confident as I sat there watching him hour after hour, wondering whether success would attend my remedy, and whether this was the laying of the first stone of a new temple of health. Then as the time went on I grew despondent, and ready to rouse him from the lethargy into which he had fallen, and which might after all be only the prelude toa deeper sleep.
I heard steps come and go, and knew that my poor. little wife must be full of anxiety about me.
“But what is her anxiety to mine?” I muttered; and I still kept watch, noting every change. Now I was buoyed up by hope, and saw triumph—the pinnacle of the mount toward which I tried to climb ; now I was sinking in despair, feeling that through my carelessness I was slowly watching a man glide toward the dark gate through which he could never return.
It must have been about seven o’clock, and it was fast growing dusk in my room. I was thinking about the man’s wandering sand confused talk about being haunted, and trying to piece together his verbal fragments into a whole, when he suddenly opened his eyes again, and began to talk hurriedly, taking up his theme just where he had left off, and as if in utter ignorance of the fact that he had been silent for hours, during which I had passed through a period of agony such as turns men’s hair white.
“Yes, doctor,” he said, “no secrets from your medical man. You will not betray me; and it was a fair fight. He brought it on, I swear to that. He made me mad so that I hit out—hardly knowing what I did, and it was not until he had half killed me that I threw him, and he went over the edge, down, down with a horrible crash into the gully. I could see him lying there dead. But it was not murder, eh? It was not murder, doctor?”
“Are these wanderings of a diseased imagination?” I asked myself; and he looked up as sharply as if I had spoken aloud.
“It’s all true, doctor,” he said. “I threw him down, and he fell, and then I turned and fled, for I knew they would hang me, if I was taken. Doctor,” he cried, fiercely, “I wish they had, for I have suffered ten thousand times more agony in these wretched years. Yes: he has always been with me, always. Haunting me day and night, leering at me, and showing me the whole scene again, till I have drunk, and drunk, and drunk to drown it all—gone on drinking till I am the miserable wretch you see. But you’ll cure me now, for it was all fancy. People who are dead don’t haunt folks, eh?”
“No, sir,” I said, as I watched the strange play on the man’s countenance, and began trying to connect his words with a half-forgotten story of outrage in Western Australia years before.
“No,” he said’, excitedly, “and you’ll cure me now. It has all been fancy.”
“That you killed—murdered a man in Western Australia?”
“Killed, not murdered,” he cried, excitedly; “no, that was no fancy. I mean this constant horror of seeing him night and day.”
I forgot my anxiety respecting the action of the drug for some minutes, as I said—my recollection of some such event coming vividly back— ”You don’t mean the outrage in the Blue Gum Gully?”
His jaw dropped, and he stared at me wonderingly.
“What—what do you know about the Blue Gum Gully?” he stammered at last.
“I remember hearing about the case.”
“Did—did they find him?” he whisperedwith a ghastly look in his face.
“No: I believe he crawled to a shepherd’s hut, and the man fetched a doctor from thirty miles away.”
“Too late—too late.”
“No: I remember now,” I said. “Another surgeon was fetched as well, and they put a silver patch in the man’s fractured skull.”
“What?” cried my patient. “No ; you are telling me that for reasons of your own.”
“I am telling you because it is the truth. I saw the man, and the injured head.”
“No, no, not the same,” he cried.
“Who was he? What was his name?”
“Johnson—Brown—Thomson—Smith,” I muttered, and he started a little at the last word. ”Yes. I remember now,” I cried. “Robert Danesmith.”
My patient literally leaped at me, and caught me by the breast, with his eyes starting, his lips quivering, and the veins about his temples standing out.
“Tell me again,” he panted. “Swear that it is true.”
“There is no need,” I said. “How could I have known?”
“No,” he said, calming down; “there is no need,” and his hands dropped to his side. “Great heavens! And here have I been living this life of torture, hiding away like a criminal, cursed by the horror of the crime, doubly accursed by the drink I have taken to drown my thoughts of being haunted by that man.”
“And all imagination.”
“Yes, and all imagination. Doctor, I have done my penance. Something must have brought me here to-day. I don’t know what; but I felt that you would cure me.”
“More imagination, man,” I said.
“No, sir, you are wrong there, for you—have—cured—”
He reeled, and would have fallen, had not I guided him onto the sofa, where he lay insensible for a few minutes while I bathed his face, my own agony of mind re-turning respecting the action of the potent drug.
At last he opened his eyes, and he looked wonderingly about him. Then re-collection seemed to return, and he caught my hand in his.
“God bless you, doctor!” he cried, and the tears stood in his eyes. Then, after a pause, during which I watched him keenly, “I’m weak and faint. Give me a glass of something.”
“Brandy?” I said bitterly.
“Never again,” he said fervently. “You doctors have something else.”
I mixed a little stimulating medicine, which he drank with avidity, and then rose.
“Thank you, doctor,” he said, with a faint smile . ”You’ve laid the ghost. There: I think I’ll go.”
“No,” I said, “be still for an hour or two. I want to watch your case a little longer.”
“I am your patient, doctor,” he replied, with his whole manner changed; and he lay there till quite late before he left, shaking my hand warmly, and saying that he would come again.
But I could not rest without seeing him to his lodgings, where I stayed till midnight, and then went home more anxious than I can tell.
“A very serious case, darling,” I said to my wife, in answer to her queries. “Don’t talk to me; I am worn out.”
But, weary at heart, I could not sleep for thinking of the preparation this man had taken. I was worried and troubled as to the effect it had produced, and, sooth to say, sanguine as I had been over my discovery, I could trace none. Of course I did not expect to work a cure as by a miracle, still I did expect to have discovered some action onthe part of the drug.
The next morning I was with him early, and still I could see nothing consequent upon the swallowing of the involuntary draught. But he was better, far better, and he welcomed me with eagerness.
“Doctor,” he said, as I was going away, “no disrespect to you, but there’s more in mind than in medicine; you’ve worked a marvellous cure.”
I had; for in a month he was quite another man.
As to my new discovery, I went no farther, and maturer study and greater experience have taught me that I was over-sanguine, and by no means so clever as I thought.
(1) The gasogene (aka. gazogene or seltzogene) is a late-Victorian device used to produce carbonated water. It consisted of two vertically linked glass globes: the lower contained water or other liquid to be made sparkling, the upper a mixture of tartaric acid and sodium bicarbonate that reacts to produce carbon dioxide. The produced gas pushed the liquid from the lower container up through a tube, allowing it to mix with the gas, and then out of the device. As a safety measure, the globes were often encased in a wicker or wire mesh, as they had a tendency to explode.
About the Author
George Manville Fenn (1831 – 1909) was a prolific English novelist, journalist, editor and educationalist. Many of his novels were written for young adults. His final book was a biography of his fellow writer for juveniles, George Alfred Henty. Fenn, the third child and eldest son of a butler, Charles Fenn, was largely self-educated, teaching himself French, German and Italian. After studying at Battersea Training College for Teachers (1851–54), he became the master of a national school at Alford, Lincolnshire. He later became a printer, editor and publisher of short-lived periodicals, before attracting the attention of Charles Dickens and others with a sketch for All the Year Round in 1864. He contributed to Chambers’s Journal and Once a Week. In 1866, he wrote a series of articles on working-class life for the newspaper The Star. These were collected and republished in four volumes. They were followed by a similar series in the Weekly Times. Fenn’s first story for boys, Hollowdell Grange, appeared in 1867. It was followed by a long list of other novels for juveniles and adults. Having become editor of Cassell’s Magazine in 1870, he purchased Once a Week and edited it until it closed in 1879. He also wrote for the theatre.
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