Mr. Henry Irving and the Stag’s Head—The sense of smell—A personal recollection—Caught “tripping”—The German band—In the pre-Wagnerian days—Another illustration of a too-sensitive imagination—The doctor’s letter—Its effects—A sudden recovery—The burial service is postponed indefinitely.

IT might be as well, I fancy, to accept with caution the statement made in the last lines of the foregoing chapter. At any rate, I may frankly confess that I have always done so, knowing how apt one is to be carried away by one’s imagination in some matters. Mr. Henry Irving told me several years ago a curious story on this very point, and in regard also to the way in which the imagination may be affected through the sense of smell.

When he was very young he was living at a town in the west of England, and in one of the streets there was a hostelry which bore a swinging sign with a stag’s head painted upon it, with a sufficient degree of legibility to enable casual passers-by to know what it was meant to simulate. But every time he saw this sign, he had a feeling of nausea that he could overcome only by hurrying on down the street. Mr. Irving explained to me that it did not appear to him that this nausea was the result of an offended artistic perception owing to any indifferent draughtsmanship or defective technique in the production of the sign. It actually seemed to him that the painted stag possesses some influence akin to the evil eye, and it was altogether very distressing to him. After a short time he left the town, and did not revisit it until he had attained maturity; and then, remembering the stag’s head and the curious way in which it had affected him long before, he thought he would look up the old place, if it still existed, and try if the evil charm of the sign had ceased to retain its potency upon him. He walked down the street; there the sign was swinging as of old, and the moment he saw it he had a feeling of nausea. Now, however, he had become so impregnated with the investigating spirit of the time, that he determined to search out the origin of the malign influence of the neighbourhood; and then he discovered that the second house from the hostelry was a soap and candle factory, on a sufficiently extensive scale to make a daily “boiling” necessary. It was the odour arising from this enterprise that induced the disagreeable sensation which he had experienced years before, and from which few persons are free when in the neighbourhood of tallow in a molten state.

I do not think that this story has been published. But even if it has appeared elsewhere it scarcely requires an apology.

Though wandering even more widely than usual from my text—after all, my texts are only pretexts for unlimited ramblings—I will give another curious but perfectly authentic case of the force of imagination. In this case the imagination was reached through the sense of hearing.

At one time I lived in a town at the extremity of a very fine bay, at the entrance to which there was a small village with a little bay of its own and a long stretch of sand, the joy of the “tripper.” I was a “tripper” of six in those days, and during the summer months an excursion by steamer on the bay was one of the most joyous of experiences. But the steamer was a very small one, and apt to yield rather more than is consistent with modern ideas of marine stability to the pressure of the waves, which in a north-easterly wind—the prevailing one—were pretty high in our bay. The effect of this instability was invariably disastrous to a maiden aunt who was supposed to share with me the enjoyment of being caught “tripping.” With the pertinacity of a man of six carrying a model of a cutter close to his bosom, I refused to “go below” under the circumstances, with my groaning but otherwise august relative, and she was usually extremely unwell. It so happened, however, that the proprietors of the steamboat were sufficiently enterprising to engage—perhaps I should say, to permit—a German band to drown the groans of the sufferers in the strains of the beautiful “Blue Danube,” or whatever the waltz of the period may have been—the “Blue Danube” is the oldest that I can remember. Now, when the “season” was over, and the steamer was laid up for the winter, the Germans were accustomed to give open-air performances in the town; so that during the winter months we usually had a repetition on land of the summer’s répertoire at sea. The first bray that was given by the trombone in the region of the square where we lived was, however, quite enough to make my aunt give distinct evidence of feeling “a little squeamish”; by the time the oboe had joined hands, so to speak, with the parent of all evil, the trombone, she had taken out her handkerchief and was making wry faces beneath her palpably false scalpet. But when the wry-necked fife, and the serpent—the sea-serpent it was to her—were doing their worst in league with, but slightly indifferent to, the cornet and the Saxe-horn, my aunt retired from the apartment amid the derisive yells of the young demons in the schoolroom, and we saw her no more until the master of the music had pulled the bell of the hall-door, and we had insulted him in his own language by shouting through the blinds “schlechte musik!—sehr schlechte musik!” We were ready enough to learn a language for insulting purposes, just as a parrot which declines to acquire the few refined words of its mistress, will, if left within the hearing of a groom, repeat quite glibly and joyously, phrases which make it utterly useless as a drawing-room bird in a house where a clergyman makes an occasional call. For years my aunt could never hear a German band without emotion, since the crazy little steamer had danced to their strains. In this case, it must also be remarked, the feeling was not the result of a highly-developed artistic temperament. The blemishes of the musical performances were in no way accountable for my relative’s emotions, though I believe that the average German band frequenting what theatrical-touring companies call “B. towns,” might reasonably be regarded as sufficient to precipitate an incipient disorder. No, it was the force of imagination that brought about my aunt’s disaster, which, I regret to say, I occasionally purchased, when I felt that I owed myself a treat, for a penny, for this was the lowest sum that the impresario would take to come round our square and make my aunt sick. The sum was so absurdly low, considering the extent of the results produced, I am now aware that no really cultured musician, no impresario with any self-respect, would have accepted it to bring his band round the corner; but when one reflects that the sum on the original scrittura was invariably doubled—for my aunt sent a penny out when her sufferings became intense, to induce the band to go away—the transaction assumes another aspect.

We hear of the enormous increase in the salaries paid to musical artists nowadays, and as an instance of this I may mention that a friend of mine a few months ago, having occasion for the services of a German band—not for medicinal purposes but for a philological reason—was forced to pay two shillings before he could effect his object! Truly the conditions under which art is pursued have undergone a marvellous change within a quarter of a century. I could have made my aunt sick twenty-four times for the sum demanded for a single performance nowadays. And in the sixties, it must also be remembered, Wagner had not become a power.

Strong-minded persons, such as the first Lord Brougham, may take a sardonic delight in reading their own obituary notices, and such persons would probably scoff at the suggestion made in an earlier chapter, that the shock of reading the record of his death in a newspaper might have a disastrous effect upon a man, but there is surely no lack of evidence to prove the converse of “mentem mortalia tangunt.”

I heard when in India a story which seemed to me to be, as an illustration of the effects of imagination, quite as curious as the well-known case of the sailor who became cured of scurvy through fancying that the clinical thermometer with which the surgeon took his temperature was a drastic remedy. A young civil servant at Colombo felt rather fagged after an unusually long stretch of work, and made up his mind to consult the best doctor in the place. He did so, and the doctor went through the usual probings and stethoscopings, and then looked grave and went over half the surface again. He said he thought that on the whole he had better write his opinion of the “case” in all its particulars and send it to the patient.

The next morning the patient received the following letter:—

“My dear Sir,—I think it only due to the confidence which you have placed in me to let you know in the plainest words what is the result of my diagnosis of your condition. Your left lung is almost gone, but with care you might survive its disappearance. Unhappily, however, the cardiac complications which I suspected are such as preclude the possibility of your recovery. In brief, I consider it to be my duty to advise you to lose no time in carrying out any business arrangements that demand your personal attention. You may of course live for some weeks; but I think you would do wisely to count only on days.

“Meantime, I would suggest no material change in your diet, except the reduction of your brandy pegs to seven per diem.”

This letter was put into the hands of the unfortunate man when he returned from his early ride the next morning. Its effect was to diminish to an appreciable degree his appetite for breakfast. He sat motionless on his chair out on the verandah and stared at the letter—it was his death-warrant. After an hour he felt a difficulty in breathing. He remembered now that he had always been uneasy about his lungs—his left in particular. He put his hand over the place where he supposed his heart to lie concealed. How could he have lived so many years in the world without becoming aware of the fact that as an every-day sort of an organ—leaving the higher emotions out of the question altogether—his heart was a miserable failure? Sympathy, friendship, love, emotion,—he would not have minded if his heart were incapable of these, if it only did its business as a blood pump; but it was perfectly plain from the manner in which it throbbed beneath his hand, that it was deserving of all the reprobation the doctor had heaped upon it.

His difficulty of respiration increased, and with this difficulty he became conscious of an acute pain under his ribs. He found when he attempted to rise that he could only do so with an effort. He managed to totter into his bedroom, and when he threw himself on his bed, it was with the feeling that he should never rise from it again.

His faithful Khânsâmah more than once inquired respectfully if the Preserver of the Poor would like to have the Doctor Sahib sent for, and if the Joy of the Whole World would in the meantime drink a peg. But the Preserver of the Poor had barely strength to express the hope that the disappearance of the Doctor Sahib might be effected by a supernatural agency, and the Joy of the Whole World could only groan at the suggestion of a peg. The pain under his ribs was increasing, and he had a general nightmare feeling upon him. Toward evening he sank into a lethargy, and at this point the Khânsâmah made up his mind that the time for action had come; he went for the doctor himself, and was fortunate enough to meet him going out in his buggy to dine.

“What on earth have you been doing with yourself?” he inquired, when he had felt the pulse of the patient. “Why, you’ve no pulse to speak of, and your skin—What the mischief have you been doing since yesterday?”

“How can you expect a chap’s pulse to be anything particular when he has no heart worth speaking of?” gasped the patient.

“Who has no heart worth speaking of?”

The patient looked piteously up at him.

“That’s kicking a man when he’s down,” he murmured.

“What’s the matter with you anyway?” said the doctor. “Your heart’s all right, I know—at least, it was all right yesterday. Is it your liver? Let me have a look at your eyes.”

He certainly did let the doctor have a look at his eyes. He lay staring at the good physician for some minutes.

“No, your liver is no worse than it was yesterday,” said the doctor,

“Do you mean to say that your letter was only a joke?” said the patient, still staring.

“A joke? Don’t be a fool. Do you fancy that I play jokes upon my patients? I wrote to you what was the exact truth. I flatter myself I always tell the truth even to my patients.”

“Oh,” groaned the patient. “And after telling me that I hadn’t more than a few days to live you now say my heart’s all right.”

“You’re mad, my good fellow, mad! I said that you must go without the delay of a day for a change—a sea voyage if possible—and that in a week you’d be as well as you ever were. Where’s the letter?”

It was lying on the side of the bed. The patient had read it again after he had thrown himself down.

“My God!” cried the doctor, when he had brought it over to the lamp. “An awful thing has happened. This is the letter that I wrote to Lois Perez, the diamond merchant, who visited me yesterday just before you came. My assistant must have put the letter that was meant for Perez into the envelope addressed to you, and your letter into the other cover. Great heavens!”

The patient was sitting up in the bed.

“You mean to say that—that—I’m all right?” he gasped.

“Of course you’re all right. You told me you wanted a sea voyage, and naturally I prescribed one for you to give you a chance of getting your leave without any trouble.”

The patient stared at the doctor for another minute and then fell back upon his pillow, turned his face to the wall, and wept.

Only for a few minutes, however; then he suddenly sprang from the bed, caught the doctor by the collar of his coat, looked around for a weapon of percussion, picked up the pillow and forthwith began to belabour the physician with such vehemence that the Khânsâmah, who hurried into the room hearing the noise of the scuffle, fled from the compound, being certain that the Joy of the Whole World had become a maniac.

After the lapse of about a minute the doctor was lying on the floor with the tears of laughter streaming down his cheeks and on to his disordered shirt-front, while the patient sat limp on a chair yelling with laughter—a trifle hysterically, perhaps. At the end of five minutes both were sitting over a bottle of champagne—not too dry—discussing the extraordinary effect of the imagination upon the human frame.

“But, by Jingo! I mustn’t forget poor Lois Perez,” cried the doctor, starting up. “You may guess what a condition he is in when you know that the letter you read was meant for him.”

“By heavens, I can make a good guess as to his condition,” said the patient. “I was within measurable distance of that condition half an hour ago. But I’m hanged if you are going to make any other poor devil as miserable as you made me. Let the chap die in peace.”

“There’s something in what you say,” said the doctor. “I believe that I’ll take your advice; only I must rescue your letter from him. If it were found among his effects after his death next week, I’d be set down as little better than a fool for writing that he was generally sound but in need of a long sea voyage.”

He drove off to the house of the Portuguese dealer in precious stones, and on inquiring for him, learned that he had left in the afternoon by the mail steamer to take the voyage that the doctor had recommended. He meant to call at the Andamans, and then go on to Rangoon, the man in charge of the house said.

“There’ll be an impressive burial service aboard that steamer before it arrives at the Andaman Islands,” said the doctor to his wife as he told her what had occurred. The doctor was in a very anxious state lest the letter which the Portuguese had received should be found among his papers. His wife, however, took a more optimistic view of the situation. And she was right; for Lois Perez returned in due course from Rangoon with a very fine collection of rubies; and five years afterwards he had still sufficient strength left to get the better of me in the sale of a cat’s-eye to which he perceived I had taken a fancy that was not to be controlled.

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