Recent illustration for "Two Doctors" by Alistair Wood.

"Two Doctors" is a short ghost story by the British author M.R. James. It was first published in 1919 as part of the anthology A Thin Ghost and Others. It is one of the least popular of M.R. James' stories.

The story is told in the form of witness statements related to a criminal case from the early 18th century. The story's title characters are two physicians named Dr. Abell and Dr. Quinn. They both practice medicine in Islington, which is now a part of London but which would have been a separate small town at the time in which the story takes place. Dr. Abell seems to take an interest in magic and the occult. Dr. Quinn begins to suffer from terrible nightmares. Dr. Abell appears to be implicated in Dr. Quinn's death.

Plot

The narrator buys an old ledger so that he can write on some of its unused leaves. The ledger obviously once belonged to a lawyer because many papers related to legal matters are tucked inside it. The narrator takes great interest in some papers which give incomplete information about a crime that took place in Islington in 1718.

In 18th century Islington, the physician Dr. Abell has some sort of disagreement with his servant Luke Jennett. Luke Jennett leaves the employ of Dr. Abell and eventually finds a position at the home of the town's other physician Dr. Quinn. Although he initially talks to Dr. Quinn's other servants about the problems that he had with Dr. Abell, Luke Jennett soon stops doing so because they are obviously not interested. Jennett says that he never deliberately spread gossip about Dr. Abell. He also says that Dr. Quinn did not set out to poach Dr. Abell's patients, although some patients did leave Dr. Abell for him.

The local clergyman, Dr. Jonathan Pratt, is on friendly terms with both Dr. Abell and Dr. Quinn. Both physicians are regular churchgoers. Unlike Dr. Quinn, Dr. Abell often asks difficult questions about religion. On one occasion, Dr. Abell asks Dr. Pratt what his opinion is on supernatural beings that are neither angels nor demons, such as the satyr that is said to have spoken to Saint Anthony.[1] Dr. Pratt asks Dr. Abell why he believes that such creatures, which are not referred to in the Bible, exist. Dr. Abell replies that there are some passages in the Bible which might refer to them. He goes on to hint that, as someone whose job means that he often has to go out at night to isolated places, he has personal experience of such creatures. Quoting John Milton's Paradise Lost, Dr. Pratt asks Dr. Abell if he believes that we are constantly surrounded by unseen spiritual beings. Dr. Abell replies that he does believe that, although the beings are not necessarily unseen. Dr. Pratt tries to make a joke of this. He says that Dr. Abell should inform an academy of science if he meets a satyr in Islington. Dr. Abell leaves in a huff.

Some time later, Dr. Abell goes over to Dr. Pratt's house one evening. Dr. Abell appears to be in a strange mood. Dr. Pratt jokingly asks him if he has had any meetings of late with his odd friends, meaning satyrs and centaurs. Dr. Abell, who has apparently met up with other people who share an interest in magic, misunderstands the question. He says, "You were never there? I did not see you. Who brought you?' He then tries to explain away his response by claiming that he must have been half asleep when he answered Dr. Pratt's question. Nevertheless, Dr. Abell continues to insist that Dr. Pratt is too skeptical about the supernatural and that he would be less so if he were more familiar with dark lanes. Dr. Pratt says that perhaps Dr. Abell should go to Dr. Quinn for a pill. Dr. Abell becomes angry at the mention of the other physician's name. He accuses Dr. Quinn of stealing his patients and accuses Luke Jennett of spreading gossip about him. Dr. Pratt tries to persuade Dr. Abell that this is not the case, although he knows that some people have been trying to avoid Dr. Abell recently for reasons which the clergyman ignores.

To try to change the subject, Dr. Pratt talks about a magic show that his brother saw at the court of a rajah in India. Dr. Abell responds to this by saying that he would like to have the power to move objects without touching them. As he says this, he moves his hand towards the fireplace and a poker falls towards him. Dr. Pratt hints that he thinks that such powers can only be obtained by making a deal with the Devil.

Servants see Dr. Abell go into Dr. Quinn's house while Dr. Quinn is out. On the pretense of looking for Dr. Quinn, Dr. Abell goes into the study, the dispensing room and Dr. Quinn's bedroom.

Shortly afterwards, Dr. Quinn begins to be severely troubled by nightmares. He dreams that he has to go out on a moonlit night and dig in a certain place in his garden. He finds something which looks like a chrysalis but which is the size of a man. He opens up the chrysalis, which he finds feels like cloth, and sees his own dead face inside it. It occurs to Dr. Quinn that he might stop having nightmares if he changes his bedding. He buys a very soft feather pillow, into which his head sinks completely, and some sheets which have an image of a bird and a coronet sewn onto them. The servants do not know where he bought the pillow and the sheets. After acquiring them, Dr. Quinn sleeps very well.

Luke Jennett sees Dr. Abell in the street. Dr. Abell says that he believes that Jennett will not be in Dr. Quinn's employ for much longer.

Dr. Pratt is asked to come over to Dr. Quinn's house because Dr. Quinn is either dying or already dead. Dr. Pratt finds Dr. Quinn lying in the middle of his bed. The two ends of his feather pillow are folded on top of each other and the pillow completely covers his face. Dr. Quinn has obviously died of suffocation. Dr. Pratt does not believe that the death was accidental. There are, however, no signs of intrusion or a forced entry. Another physician needs to come to examine Dr. Quinn's body. Dr. Abell is found not to be at home.

Attached to the papers about the case of Dr. Quinn's death, the narrator finds a report about a break in at the mausoleum of a noble family in Middlesex. No bodies were taken, although other objects were.

The implication is that the objects which were stolen from the mausoleum were the feather pillow and the sheets with a coronet and a bird sewn onto them. Through the use of magic, Dr. Abell first caused Dr. Quinn to have nightmares and then somehow made sure that he bought the haunted sheets and pillow which killed him.

Footnotes

  1. Saint Anthony the Great (circa 251 - 356 CE) was an Egyptian monk. According to one story about him, he believed that he was the first hermit ever to dwell in the desert. He then had a dream in which he was told to seek out another hermit who had lived in the desert for a longer time. On his journey, Anthony met a satyr and a centaur. The satyr said that it was really a corpse and that its purpose was to trick people into worshiping false gods. It tried to frighten Anthony. The centaur acknowledged that the era of the pagan gods was over and tried to direct Anthony towards his destination. The satyr eventually asked for Anthony's blessing. In Western Christian theology, the two mythical beings are interpreted as being symbols of temptation.

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