THE RED CORRIDOR
Its dark crimson, an unnerving colour, was matched by a brown carpet, which led to an oak door on the second floor of our home in George Square in Edinburgh.
The year was 1878 and, as I have said, I was in the second year of my medical studies. It was, I remember, a damp, foul night with gusts of that typically squally Edinburgh wind which sometimes blows before it patches of rain and sometimes just cold air and mist. But it was not the wind that summoned me. I was brought up to that corridor by a scream.
I stood at the far end, staring along it at the door. I do not think I am a coward, but I can tell you it took every ounce of courage I possessed to walk on. Even now, the sound that came from that room, a great howl of pent-up rage and terror, echoes down the years after me. Could there ever, I wonder, be anything so utterly destructive of a home and of the familial relationships within it than such a sound? No matter how often I heard it, I never grew used to it. But on this night in particular the scream was so horrible that it prompted a crucial decision.
Looking back, I feel as if I stood there for hours, watching and fearful. There was no other sound. But in the end I walked slowly down the corridor. I intended to face the occupant of that room. Before I had reached the door with its scratched woodwork around the handle, my mother appeared. Whether she too had heard the scream and was intending to enter I do not know. But, once she saw me, her small figure interposed itself between me and the door. I was determined to go on, but she would not let me.
Later we talked in hushed voices downstairs, for my sisters were already asleep and we did our best to keep them and Innes, then hardly more than a baby, clear of this. I have said my mother was small, but when you looked into her face you forgot that at once. It was a strong, fine-boned face, as formidable in its way as the Doctor’s, though its strength depended on a deep emotion. And it was awful to see how distracted that face was now. I barely remember what was said that night. I know we went and prayed down by the fireplace, and that we both knew what we were praying for, only with no idea what form our deliverance could take. I composed myself as best I could to the prayers, but I was impatient with all of it and she knew that.
‘Arthur, you must keep finding strength,’ she said quietly at last as she returned to the jacket she was carefully mending. I barely replied. Rage and despair were so close to the surface, I knew they could erupt. But in my mind I had decided something. My studies were proving quite barren and it seemed suddenly mad for me to stay at the university. In view of all we faced at home, I must at all costs give up my degree and find some kind of employment. My mother would fight against it, but she could not force me to continue.
Later I went out, sensing that the streets were a better place to work off these feelings. I turned out of George Square down the wynd and soon I was in one of the coarsest thoroughfares of the old town, a place that often worked on my spirit as a relief at that time.
I passed two brightly dressed women in a doorway; one of them came out and did a curious little mock-curtsey that made me smile. I knew, of course, how she earned her money but she was not remotely destitute. Her face was impishly pretty and she wore a bright-green scarf. She asked where I was going and, when I said I was out for a walk, she roared with laughter. ‘You liar, sir, you are for Madame Rose’s.’
She pointed along the street but I had never heard of the place and said so. She stared at me. Then, seeing I was telling the truth, her smile became deliciously mischievous. She put her face close to me, and I could feel her soft breath on my cheek.
‘Why, then you had better come up with me. Here is a reward for being so sweet.’ And she kissed me. After a moment I pulled away awkwardly, feeling a confusion of flushed embarrassment and desire.
It was an affecting little meeting and it stays with me for good reason. Less than a year later I saw the same woman lying in a hideously over-furnished room. There was a fire that had spilled out of the grate, burning an old newspaper, there was a bed and some splashed wine and shadows. She was bleeding from shallow cuts that had only just missed her vein and there was a figure crouched over her …
But no, I will not come to that yet. I want to be sure the reader understands my world, before its darkest and most miserable corners are revealed. It will be hard enough to expose all of them even then.
On the night I describe I returned home, knowing it was fruitless to tell my mother of my decision to quit the university. First I must make it official and so the following morning, with the frost still thick on Meadow Walk, I made my way to the university to say my farewell to the students, who had become friends. There were not more than two or three of those and, as for the staff, they cared little who came or went. But I knew my mother’s determination and, before telling her, I must make it official. Then there could be no going back.
I came through the arch into the small square of irregular ramshackle buildings known as Surgeon’s Square, where a crowd of medical men were gathered outside one of the lecture halls. A few of the women stood to one side, looking a little apprehensive but for once nobody was troubling them. Colin Stark, a cheerful student from Dundee, waved at me. They were waiting to enter a clinical surgery class.
It was then, and only then, that I remembered. I had stumped up an advance of two guineas to attend that class just the previous week. I had not formally enrolled, for a friend handed over my money, but it made no difference. The rules on such matters were typically mean: once fees had been paid, they were never in any circumstances returned. I knew it was hopeless but in view of our straitened circumstances at home I felt I must at least try to get the money back. And so it was that I walked over to the rear of the hall in search of the enrolment office of clinical surgery.
With its dark stone corridors and vault-like rooms, much of the building was quite a labyrinth, and I was totally unfamiliar with the warren of doors and passageways behind this lecture hall. I wandered somewhat aimlessly, my footsteps echoing on the grey flagstones. There was nobody to ask and at last I came to a large room with an open door, which I assumed was the office of clinical surgery.
The mistake was obvious as soon as I entered. Indeed, as my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, it was like no other room I had seen in the university. The door opened on to a kind of tunnel between huge shelves of various compounds and chemicals. The tunnel ended at an enormous tank, which ran halfway to the ceiling. In its watery depths a very grisly exhibit was on display. A blood-splattered shirt and vest covered a human torso that appeared to have been severed from the rest of the body. Much later I learned some bloodstained clothes had been draped around a wax impression to give the bulk of a body. But to me then it looked fearful.
Staring around, all I saw were chemical and anatomical and surgical instruments, many of a highly unfamiliar kind. A huge shelf of books towered to my left and, though the room extended well beyond that, the volumes blocked my view. Ahead of me was a door and I walked to it quickly, not wishing to be accused of loitering in this place. Here I assumed was the office at last and I turned the handle eagerly. It did not open.
‘That door is always locked.’
The voice seemed to come from nowhere. It was distinctive, firm but also a little languid.
To find its owner I peered round the bookcase obscuring my view. A tall, wiry man with silver hair, in a filthy lab coat, stood in a shadowy corner of the room. He had a raised stick in his hand and was consulting a watch.
This was obviously one of the many lab assistants, who prowled around the medical buildings. Quite often, they were of an eccentric nature and a few had given up better jobs to follow their whims.
‘I’m sorry. I was looking for Dr Bell’s office to enrol …’ But my words tailed away as he brought the stick down hard on something before him with a great crack.
He hit it again. And again. Though advanced in years, his movement was lithe and the force he used was considerable. You would almost have thought the man was fighting some deadly creature. I moved closer to see what exactly it was he was hitting so violently. And started in shock and disgust. For below him was the grey and pathetic cadaver of a middle-aged man.
‘In heaven’s name, what are you doing?’ I said and he did not even turn.
Was I dealing with a madman? But as he moved eagerly to inspect the corpse, I realised there must be some method in this madness.
‘He is dead?’
The man looked up quite jovially. His face was sharp-featured and intelligent. ‘Oh, yes, he died about fourteen hours ago. Of a burst blood vessel. He was a soldier, I believe. But see how little trace is made. Not a bruise, not the slightest mark.’
‘But why in the world would it matter to a soul? This man is past curing anyway.’
The lab man gave me a quick look as he moved past me. ‘In one sense,’ he replied. ‘Now, I would ask you to step to one side.’ And he pointed something at the corpse.
There was a sharp report, which made me jump as, to my astonishment, a bullet from a revolver slammed into the sternum. I sprang back, bewildered. ‘My God, you take a risk! The bullet could easily ricochet.’ I was starting to wonder if I would have to report this man before there was a serious injury.
‘Oh, I am a great believer in risk,’ he said calmly, his eyes gleaming with anticipation as he moved forward to study the result of his shot. ‘Especially if care is taken over the angle of entry.’
I had been aghast. Now, as I marked the loving care with which he observed the result of his actions, I became slightly amused. There was no real danger. He was merely the most eccentric lab man I had yet encountered. But he might prove useful.
‘Tell me,’ I said, ‘do you work for Dr Bell?’
The man shook his head, as he put his finger over the bullet wound and produced an instrument of some kind to measure its diameter.
‘Then I can speak freely. Should I bother to take his class? I am aware he has a reputation, but to my cost I have begun to find that means little here.’
The lab man studied the wound. ‘Little to show,’ he mused. ‘But I want to try another angle …’ Then he seemed to register my question. ‘The standard is rather low, I agree. So you are not impressed?’
I was quite glad of a chance to unburden myself. ‘I hoped I would be enlightened,’ I said. ‘And I am being bored to death. To tell you the truth, sir, I am on the point of giving up. I have nothing else to follow and it will cause a lot of grief to my people, but if I am truly honest, why I never dreamed there could be such … imbeciles.’
I normally reserved such harsh comments about our teachers for my friends, but I had a feeling they would not trouble my new acquaintance and I was right.
‘Medicine attracts them, I find,’ he replied, as he shook out some bullets to prepare his revolver for another round. ‘It is one of the problems of the profession.’
‘Yes,’ I said, warming to him now. ‘And this Dr Bell seems quite as ridiculous as the rest. I am only here because I paid my fees and cannot get them back. Have you read his twaddle? I saw one article where the man claims to be able to distinguish personality and occupation by someone’s fingernails and boots! What a charlatan! I’d like to set him down in a third-class carriage and make him try to list the trades of his fellow travellers.’
‘Perhaps you should suggest it,’ he said with just the hint of a twinkle. ‘He’s probably arrogant enough to accept.’
I laughed. I was beginning to enjoy this strange new acquaintance, but before I could continue berating my teachers, something that I did frequently enough, he seemed to lose interest and cut me short. ‘Well, let me show you where to go to enrol. If you paid, it would be folly not to see at least one of his lectures now you are here, even if it is only for the fun of it.’
And he marched off with a long stride that left me running to catch up. Once out of the place, he pointed down the corridor to a door at the end and then disappeared back into the room with the merest nod of goodbye.
A few minutes later I was conversing with a lugubrious clerk, who confirmed my fees were strictly non-returnable but he was quite happy to enrol me. As usual, his tone made it perfectly clear that neither he nor anyone else cared a jot whether I actually attended.
And so, after a few minutes, I walked gloomily back to Surgeon’s Square, reflecting that the lab man was the first person in the whole university, other than a few fellow students, who had shown the slightest interest in what I felt.
Twenty minutes later I sat high up in the Cairns lecture hall, amidst a growing throng of chattering students, feeling slightly cheated. I had intended to make a grand gesture and now, here I was, awaiting yet another dull lecture.
My friends Colin Stark and James Cullingworth were on either side of me, both equally oblivious of the fact that I had come to say goodbye to them. Stark was a solid, twinkling character from Dundee who managed to enjoy himself despite everything and was always generous-spirited. Cullingworth, the tall and wiry son of a Borders doctor, possessed a very high intelligence and an even higher opinion of himself. While we were talking Neill, a dark good-looking man from the colonies, sat down behind us. He was in some ways my closest companion for we shared a love of stories, especially Poe.
‘It is all fixed,’ Cullingworth was announcing with his usual sweep of the arms. ‘We are going to dress a tailor’s dummy tomorrow and wheel it out before Dr Peterson. The man’s half blind, Croom is taking bets on the diagnosis.’
‘Arthritis,’ said Neill from behind. ‘Two years ago they put a waxwork into the class of the oldest surgeon here. He described it as having an arthritic condition.’
‘Then perhaps a corpse would be better if we dressed it,’ said Cullingworth, vexed. The hubbub began to fade and he turned to me. ‘Your first time? Well, prepare yourself. He’s quite a performer.’
I looked down as a solemn man of nearly sixty with a monocle, entered carrying a medical bag. The sight made me groan aloud, though I will admit some of my mood had lifted. I felt more cheerful. I turned to my friends. ‘He looks like just another pompous ass.’
‘No, that’s Dr Carmichael,’ said Cullingworth. ‘Bell has quite a retinue. Here.’
Now there was a real hush. A majestic figure swept forward through the doorway on to the platform and turned to face the audience. I can recall my shock at the sight of him to this day.
For there, in front of my eyes, transformed and resplendent in a dark suit and tie, every inch of him exuding authority, was my lab man.
Having been so caught up in my own thoughts, I had failed to see what should have been obvious. No assistant would ever have been granted such liberties. I shrank back in my seat. Indeed, I would have bolted for the door if I could. But no such action was possible. I was pinned in the middle of a row and Bell was now scanning every one of these rows like an eagle.
Soon enough he had seen me. He took a step forward. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Mr Doyle. I am glad you have condescended to come and say good morning to us.’ My friends turned in amazement. ‘Gentlemen,’ he continued, ‘Mr Doyle here is a little concerned he may be in the presence of yet another Edinburgh charlatan.’
He spoke the last two words with soft relish. There was a great roar of laughter. Faces were turned eagerly in my direction. ‘But I have something rather serious to tell you, Mr Doyle.’ He paused. A ripple ran through the audience. Was I to be ejected, solving my problem at one stroke?
‘Be careful. From the astrologer came the astronomer. From the alchemist, the chemist. From the mesmerist, the psychologist. The charlatan is always the pioneer. The quack of yesterday is the professor of tomorrow. Who knows what strangeness the future brings? And now …’
A cadaver was being wheeled behind him and one of his retinue pulled back the sheet to reveal the corpse of a woman. ‘The knife …’ Bell grinned at his audience as he raised his gleaming scalpel, preparing to begin his dissection. ‘Or … is it a wand?’ And with the same agility I had witnessed earlier, he plunged the blade home.
When the lecture was over there was much mockery from my fellow students, yet I had changed my mind about leaving. It was not that I was impressed by Bell or his teaching. He struck me as just another plausible but bogus egotist with a fancy line in oratory. That kind of spiel might well impress elderly Morningside ladies and naive students, but I was not about to be fooled.
No, I felt as if a challenge had been made to me. Who, exactly, was this man to tell me what a wonder he was? And to mock all my misgivings, when in private he had virtually agreed with them? I would see his course through, since I had paid for it, and find out if it amounted to more than claptrap. I had my doubts on the subject.
THE PATIENT’S EYES. Copyright © 2001 by David Pirie. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.