Three Episodes in the Life of Mr Cowlishaw, Dentist by Arnold Bennett
They all happened on the same day. And that day was a Saturday, the red Saturday on which, in the unforgettable football match between Tottenham Hotspur and the Hanbridge F.C. (formed regardless of expense in the matter of professionals to take the place of the bankrupt Knype F.C.), the referee would certainly have been murdered had not a Five Towns crowd observed its usual miraculous self-restraint.
Mr Cowlishaw--aged twenty-four, a fair-haired bachelor with a weak moustache--had bought the practice of the retired Mr Rapper, a dentist of the very old school. He was not a native of the Five Towns. He came from St Albans, and had done the deal through an advertisement in the Dentists' Guardian, a weekly journal full of exciting interest to dentists. Save such knowledge as he had gained during two preliminary visits to the centre of the world's earthenware manufacture, he knew nothing of the Five Towns; practically, he had everything to learn. And one may say that the Five Towns is not a subject that can be "got up" in a day.
His place of business--or whatever high-class dentists choose to call it--in Crown Square was quite ready for him when he arrived on the Friday night: specimen "uppers" and "lowers" and odd teeth shining in their glass case, the new black-and-gold door-plate on the door, and the electric filing apparatus which he had purchased, in the operating-room. Nothing lacked there. But his private lodgings were not ready; at least, they were not what he, with his finicking Albanian notions, called ready, and, after a brief altercation with his landlady, he went off with a bag to spend the night at the Turk's Head Hotel. The Turk's Head is the best hotel in Hanbridge, not excepting the new Hotel Metropole (Limited, and German-Swiss waiters). The proof of its excellence is that the proprietor, Mr Simeon Clowes, was then the Mayor of Hanbridge, and Mrs Clowes one of the acknowledged leaders of Hanbridge society.
Mr Cowlishaw went to bed. He was a good sleeper; at least, he was what is deemed a good sleeper in St Albans. He retired about eleven o'clock, and requested one of the barmaids to instruct the boots to arouse him at 7 a.m. She faithfully promised to do so.
He had not been in bed five minutes before he heard and felt an earthquake. This earthquake seemed to have been born towards the north-east, in the direction of Crown Square, and the shock seemed to pass southwards in the direction of Knype. The bed shook; the basin and ewer rattled together like imperfect false teeth in the mouth of an arrant coward; the walls of the hotel shook. Then silence! No cries of alarm, no cries for help, no lamentations of ruin! Doubtless, though earthquakes are rare in England, the whole town had been overthrown and engulfed, and only Mr Cowlishaw's bed left standing. Conquering his terror, Mr Cowlishaw put his head under the clothes and waited.
He had not been in bed ten minutes before he heard and felt another earthquake. This earthquake seemed to have been born towards the north-east, in the direction of Crown Square, and to be travelling southwards; and Mr Cowlishaw noticed that it was accompanied by a strange sound of heavy bumping. He sprang courageously out of bed and rushed to the window. And it so happened that he caught the earthquake in the very act of flight. It was one of the new cars of the Five Towns Electric Traction Company, Limited, guaranteed to carry fifty-two passengers. The bumping was due to the fact that the driver, by a too violent application of the brake, had changed the form of two of its wheels from circular to oval. Such accidents do happen, even to the newest cars, and the inhabitants of the Five Towns laugh when they hear a bumpy car as they laugh at Charley's Aunt. The car shot past, flashing sparks from its overhead wire and flaming red and green lights of warning, and vanished down the main thoroughfare. And gradually the ewer and basin ceased their colloquy. The night being the night of the 29th December, and exceedingly cold, Mr Cowlishaw went back to bed.
"Well," he muttered, "this is a bit thick, this is!" (They use such language in cathedral towns.) "However, let's hope it's the last."
It was not the last. Exactly, it was the last but twenty-three. Regularly at intervals of five minutes the Five Towns Electric Traction Company, Limited, sent one of their dreadful engines down the street, apparently with the object of disintegrating all the real property in the neighbourhood into its original bricks. At the seventeenth time Mr Cowlishaw trembled to hear a renewal of the bump-bump-bump. It was the oval-wheeled car, which had been to Longshaw and back. He recognized it as an old friend. He wondered whether he must expect it to pass a third time. However, it did not pass a third time. After several clocks in and out of the hotel had more or less agreed on the fact that it was one o'clock, there was a surcease of earthquakes. Mr Cowlishaw dared not hope that earthquakes were over. He waited in strained attention during quite half an hour, expectant of the next earthquake. But it did not come. Earthquakes were, indeed, done with till the morrow.
It was about two o'clock when his nerves were sufficiently tranquillized to enable him to envisage the possibility of going to sleep. And he was just slipping, gliding, floating off when he was brought back to realities by a terrific explosion of laughter at the head of the stairs outside his bedroom door. The building rang like the inside of a piano when you strike a wire directly. The explosion was followed by low rumblings of laughter and then by a series of jolly, hearty "Good-nights." He recognized the voices as being those of a group of commercial travellers and two actors (of the Hanbridge Theatre Royal's specially selected London Pantomime Company), who had been pointed out to him with awe and joy by the aforesaid barmaid. They were telling each other stories in the private bar, and apparently they had been telling each other stories ever since. And the truth is that the atmosphere of the Turk's Head, where commercial travellers and actors forgather every night except perhaps Sundays, contains more good stories to the cubic inch than any other resort in the county of Staffordshire. A few seconds after the explosion there was a dropping fusillade--the commercial travellers and the actors shutting their doors. And about five minutes later there was another and more complicated dropping fusillade--the commercial travellers and actors opening their doors, depositing their boots (two to each soul), and shutting their doors.
And then out of the silence the terrified Mr Cowlishaw heard arising and arising a vast and fearful breathing, as of some immense prehistoric monster in pain. At first he thought he was asleep and dreaming. But he was not. This gigantic sighing continued regularly, and Mr Cowlishaw had never heard anything like it before. It banished sleep.
After about two hours of its awful uncanniness, Mr Cowlishaw caught the sound of creeping footsteps in the corridor and fumbling noises. He got up again. He was determined, though he should have to interrogate burglars and assassins, to discover the meaning of that horrible sighing. He courageously pulled his door open, and saw an aproned man with a candle marking boots with chalk, and putting them into a box.
"I say!" said Mr Cowlishaw.
"Beg yer pardon, sir," the man whispered. "I'm getting forward with my work so as I can go to th' fut-baw match this afternoon. I hope I didn't wake ye, sir."
"Look here!" said Mr Cowlishaw. "What's that appalling noise that's going on all the time?"
"Noise, sir?" whispered the man, astonished.
"Yes," Mr Cowlishaw insisted. "Like something breathing. Can't you hear it?"
The man cocked his ears attentively. The noise veritably boomed in Mr Cowlishaw's ears.
"Oh! That!" said the man at length. "That's th' blast furnaces at Cauldon Bar Ironworks. Never heard that afore, sir? Why, it's like that every night. Now you mention it, I do hear it! It's a good couple o' miles off, though, that is!"
Mr Cowlishaw closed his door.
At five o'clock, when he had nearly, but not quite, forgotten the sighing, his lifelong friend, the oval-wheeled electric car, bumped and quaked through the street, and the ewer and basin chattered together busily, and the seismic phenomena definitely recommenced. The night was still black, but the industrial day had dawned in the Five Towns. Long series of carts without springs began to jolt past under the window of Mr Cowlishaw, and then there was a regular multitudinous clacking of clogs and boots on the pavement. A little later the air was rent by first one steam-whistle, and then another, and then another, in divers tones announcing that it was six o'clock, or five minutes past, or half-past, or anything. The periodicity of earthquakes had by this time quickened to five minutes, as at midnight. A motor-car emerged under the archway of the hotel, and remained stationary outside with its engine racing. And amid the earthquakes, the motor-car, the carts, the clogs and boots, and the steam muezzins calling the faithful to work, Mr Cowlishaw could still distinguish the tireless, monstrous sighing of the Cauldon Bar blast furnaces. And, finally, he heard another sound. It came from the room next to his, and, when he heard it, exhausted though he was, exasperated though he was, he burst into laughter, so comically did it strike him.
It was an alarm-clock going off in the next room.
And, further, when he arrived downstairs, the barmaid, sweet, conscientious little thing, came up to him and said, "I'm so sorry, sir. I quite forgot to tell the boots to call you!"
That afternoon he sat in his beautiful new surgery and waited for dental sufferers to come to him from all quarters of the Five Towns. It needs not to be said that nobody came. The mere fact that a new dentist has "set up" in a district is enough to cure all the toothache for miles around. The one martyr who might, perhaps, have paid him a visit and a fee did not show herself. This martyr was Mrs Simeon Clowes, the mayoress. By a curious chance, he had observed, during his short sojourn at the Turk's Head, that the landlady thereof was obviously in pain from her teeth, or from a particular tooth. She must certainly have informed herself as to his name and condition, and Mr Cowlishaw thought that it would have been a graceful act on her part to patronize him, as he had patronized the Turk's Head. But no! Mayoresses, even the most tactful, do not always do the right thing at the right moment.
Besides, she had doubtless gone, despite toothache, to the football match with the Mayor, the new club being under the immediate patronage of his Worship. All the potting world had gone to the football match. Mr Cowlishaw would have liked to go, but it would have been madness to quit the surgery on his opening day. So he sat and yawned, and peeped at the crowd crowding to the match at two o'clock, and crowding back in the gloom at four o'clock; and at a quarter past five he was reading a full description of the carnage and the heroism in the football edition of the Signal. Though Hanbridge had been defeated, it appeared from the Signal that Hanbridge was the better team, and that Rannoch, the new Scotch centre-forward, had fought nobly for the town which had bought him so dear.
Mr Cowlishaw was just dozing over the Signal when there happened a ring at his door. He did not precipitate himself upon the door. With beating heart he retained his presence of mind, and said to himself that of course it could not possibly be a client. Even dentists who bought a practice ready-made never had a client on their first day. He heard the attendant answer the ring, and then he heard the attendant saying, "I'll see, sir."
It was, in fact, a patient. The servant, having asked Mr Cowlishaw if Mr Cowlishaw was at liberty, introduced the patient to the Presence, and the Presence trembled.
The patient was a tall, stiff, fair man of about thirty, with a tousled head and inelegant but durable clothing. He had a drooping moustache, which prevented Mr Cowlishaw from adding his teeth up instantly.
"Good afternoon, mister," said the patient, abruptly.
"Good afternoon," said Mr Cowlishaw. "Have you ... Can I ..."
Strange; in the dental hospital and school there had been no course of study in the art of pattering to patients!
"It's like this," said the patient, putting his hand in his waistcoat pocket.
"Will you kindly sit down," said Mr Cowlishaw, turning up the gas, and pointing to the chair of chairs.
"It's like this," repeated the patient, doggedly. "You see these three teeth?"
He displayed three very real teeth in a piece of reddened paper. As a spectacle, they were decidedly not appetizing, but Mr Cowlishaw was hardened.
"Really!" said Mr Cowlishaw, impartially, gazing on them.
"They're my teeth," said the patient. And thereupon he opened his mouth wide, and displayed, not without vanity, a widowed gum. "'Ont 'eeth," he exclaimed, keeping his mouth open and omitting preliminary consonants.
"Yes," said Mr Cowlishaw, with a dry inflection. "I saw that they were upper incisors. How did this come about? An accident, I suppose?"
"Well," said the man, "you may call it an accident; I don't. My name's Rannoch; centre-forward. Ye see? Were ye at the match?"
Mr Cowlishaw understood. He had no need of further explanation; he had read it all in the Signal. And so the chief victim of Tottenham Hotspur had come to him, just him! This was luck! For Rannoch was, of course, the most celebrated man in the Five Towns, and the idol of the populace. He might have been M.P. had he chosen.
"Dear me!" Mr Cowlishaw sympathized, and he said again, pointing more firmly to the chair of chairs, "Will you sit down?"
"I had 'em all picked up," Mr Rannoch proceeded, ignoring the suggestion. "Because a bit of a scheme came into my head. And that's why I've come to you, as you're just commencing dentist. Supposing you put these teeth on a bit of green velvet in the case in your window, with a big card to say as they're guaranteed to be my genuine teeth, knocked out by that blighter of a Tottenham half-back, you'll have such a crowd as was never seen around your door. All the Five Towns'll come to see 'em. It'll be the biggest advertisement that either you or any other dentist ever had. And you might put a little notice in the Signal saying that my teeth are on view at your premises; it would only cost ye a shilling.... I should expect ye to furnish me with new teeth for nothing, ye see."
In his travels throughout England Mr Rannoch had lost most of his Scotch accent, but he had not lost his Scotch skill in the art and craft of trying to pay less than other folks for whatever he might happen to want.
Assuredly the idea was an idea of genius. As an advertisement it would be indeed colossal and unique. Tens of thousands would gaze spellbound for hours at those relics of their idol, and every gazer would inevitably be familiarized with the name and address of Mr Cowlishaw, and with the fact that Mr Cowlishaw was dentist-in-chief to the heroical Rannoch. Unfortunately, in dentistry there is etiquette. And the etiquette of dentistry is as terrible, as unbending, as the etiquette of the Court of Austria.
Mr Cowlishaw knew that he could not do this thing without sinning against etiquette.
"I'm sorry I can't fall in with your scheme," said he, "but I can't."
"But, man!" protested the Scotchman, "it's the greatest scheme that ever was."
"Yes," said Mr Cowlishaw, "but it would be unprofessional."
Mr Rannoch was himself a professional. "Oh, well," he said sarcastically, "if you're one of those amateurs--"
"I'll put you the job in as low as possible," said Mr Cowlishaw, persuasively.
But Scotchmen are not to be persuaded like that.
Mr Rannoch wrapped up his teeth and left.
What finally happened to those teeth Mr Cowlishaw never knew. But he satisfied himself that they were not advertised in the Signal.
Now, just as Mr Cowlishaw was personally conducting to the door the greatest goal-getter that the Five Towns had ever seen there happened another ring, and thus it fell out that Mr Cowlishaw found himself in the double difficulty of speeding his first visitor and welcoming his second all in the same breath. It is true that the second might imagine that the first was a client, but then the aspect of Mr Rannoch's mouth, had it caught the eye of the second, was not reassuring. However, Mr Rannoch's mouth happily did not catch the eye of the second.
The second was a visitor beyond Mr Cowlishaw's hopes, no other than Mrs Simeon Clowes, landlady of the Turk's Head and Mayoress of Hanbridge; a tall and well-built, handsome, downright woman, of something more than fifty and something less than sixty; the mother of five married daughters, the aunt of fourteen nephews and nieces, the grandam of seven, or it might be eight, assorted babies; in short, a lady of vast influence. After all, then, she had come to him! If only he could please her, he regarded his succession to his predecessor as definitely established and his fortune made. No person in Hanbridge with any yearnings for style would dream, he trusted, of going to any other dentist than the dentist patronized by Mrs Clowes.
She eyed him interrogatively and firmly. She probed into his character, and he felt himself pierced.
"You are Mr Cowlishaw?" she began.
"Good afternoon, Mrs Clowes," he replied. "Yes, I am. Can I be of service to you?"
"That depends," she said.
He asked her to step in, and in she stepped.
"Have you had any experience in taking teeth out?" she asked in the surgery. Her hand stroked her left cheek.
"Oh yes," he said eagerly. "But, of course, we try to avoid extraction as much as possible."
"If you're going to talk like that," she said coldly, and even bitterly, "I'd better go."
He wondered what she was driving at.
"Naturally," he said, summoning all his latent powers of diplomacy, "there are cases in which extraction is unfortunately necessary."
"How many teeth have you extracted?" she inquired.
"I really couldn't say," he lied. "Very many."
"Because," she said, "you don't look as if you could say 'Bo!' to a goose."
He observed a gleam in her eye.
"I think I can say 'Bo!' to a goose," he said. She laughed.
"Don't fancy, Mr Cowlishaw, that if I laugh I'm not in the most horrible pain. I am. When I tell you I couldn't go with Mr Clowes to the match--"
"Will you take this seat?" he said, indicating the chair of chairs; "then I can examine."
She obeyed. "I do hate the horrid, velvety feeling of these chairs," she said; "it's most creepy."
"I shall have to trouble you to take your bonnet off."
So she removed her bonnet, and he took it as he might have taken his firstborn, and laid it gently to rest on his cabinet. Then he pushed the gas-bracket so that the light came through the large crystal sphere, and made the Mayoress blink.
"Now," he said soothingly, "kindly open your mouth--wide."
Like all women of strong and generous character, Mrs Simeon Clowes had a large mouth. She obediently extended it to dimensions which must be described as august, at the same time pointing with her gloved and chubby finger to a particular part of it.
"Yes, yes," murmured Mr Cowlishaw, assuming a tranquillity which he did not feel. This was the first time that he had ever looked into the mouth of a Mayoress, and the prospect troubled him.
He put his little ivory-handled mirror into that mouth and studied its secrets.
"I see," he said, withdrawing the mirror. "Exposed nerve. Quite simple. Merely wants stopping. When I've done with it the tooth will be as sound as ever it was. All your other teeth are excellent."
Mrs Clowes arose violently out of the chair.
"Now just listen to me, please," she said. "I don't want any stopping; I won't have any stopping; I want that tooth out. I've already quarrelled with one dentist this afternoon because he refused to take it out. I came to you because you're young, and I thought you'd be more reasonable. Surely a body can decide whether she'll have a tooth out or not! It's my tooth. What's a dentist for? In my young days dentists never did anything else but take teeth out. All I wish to know is, will you take it out or will you not?"
"It's really a pity--"
"That's my affair, isn't it?" she stopped him, and moved towards her bonnet.
"If you insist," he said quickly, "I will extract."
"Well," she said, "if you don't call this insisting, what do you call insisting? Let me tell you I didn't have a wink of sleep last night!"
"Neither did I, in your confounded hotel!" he nearly retorted; but thought better of it.
The Mayoress resumed her seat, taking her gloves off.
"It's decided then?" she questioned.
"Certainly," said he. "Is your heart good?"
"Is my heart good?" she repeated. "Young man, what business is that of yours? It's my tooth I want you to deal with, not my heart."
"I must give you gas," said Mr Cowlishaw, faintly.
"Gas!" she exclaimed. "You'll give me no gas, young man. No! My heart is not good. I should die under gas. I couldn't bear the idea of gas. You must take it out without gas, and you mustn't hurt me. I'm a perfect baby, and you mustn't on any account hurt me." The moment was crucial. Supposing that he refused--a promising career might be nipped in the bud; would, undoubtedly, be nipped in the bud. Whereas, if he accepted the task, the patronage of the aristocracy of Hanbridge was within his grasp. But the tooth was colossal, monumental. He estimated the length of its triple root at not less than 0.75 inch.
"Very well, madam," he said, for he was a brave youngster.
But he was in a panic. He felt as though he were about to lead the charge of the Light Brigade. He wanted a stiff drink. (But dentists may not drink.) If he failed to wrench the monument out at the first pull the result would be absolute disaster; in an instant he would have ruined the practice which had cost him so dear. And could he hope not to fail with the first pull? At best he would hurt her indescribably. However, having consented, he was obliged to go through with the affair.
He took every possible precaution. He chose his most vicious instrument. He applied to the vicinity of the tooth the very latest substitute for cocaine; he prepared cotton wool and warm water in a glass. And at length, when he could delay the fatal essay no longer, he said:
"Now, I think we are ready."
"You won't hurt me?" she asked anxiously.
"Not a bit," he replied, with an admirable simulation of gaiety.
"Because if you do--"
He laughed. But it was a hysterical laugh. All his nerves were on end. And he was very conscious of having had no sleep during the previous night. He had a sick feeling. The room swam. He collected himself with a terrific effort.
"When I count one," he said, "I shall take hold; when I count two you must hold very tight to the chair; and when I count three, out it will come."
Then he encircled her head with his left arm--brutally, as dentists always are brutal in the thrilling crisis. "Wider!" he shouted.
And he took possession of that tooth with his fiendish contrivance of steel.
He didn't know what he was doing.
There was no three. There was a slight shriek and a thud on the floor. Mrs Simeon Clowes jumped up and briskly rang a bell. The attendant rushed in. The attendant saw Mrs Clowes gurgling into a handkerchief, which she pressed to her mouth with one hand, while with the other, in which she held her bonnet, she was fanning the face of Mr Cowlishaw. Mr Cowlishaw had fainted from nervous excitement under fatigue. But his unconscious hand held the forceps; and the forceps, victorious, held the monumental tooth.
"O-o-pen the window," spluttered Mrs Clowes to the attendant. "He's gone off; he'll come to in a minute."
She was flattered. Mr Cowlishaw was for ever endeared to Mrs Clowes by this singular proof of her impressiveness. And a woman like that can make the fortune of half a dozen dentists.