Halliday Sutherland

"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.

The Sleepless Night

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At a Midsummer Eve’s Ball in the Botanic Gardens, Halliday Sutherland encountered “the Sleepless Night”.

The trees around the the lawn of the Botanic Gardens were festooned with coloured fairy lights for the fancy dress ball on Midsummer Eve. I went as a matador, and soon realised that no matador could dance or fight with comfort in the heavy costume hired from the theatre costumiers. The girl whom I met there for the first time had a simpler dress—a nightdress—and her black hair fell half-way down her back. Her features showed breeding and she walked like a queen. As we danced I asked her name, and she answered: “I am the Sleepless Night.” That shall be her name in this book, because even at the coroner’s inquest her real name was suppressed.

We walked in the gardens and talked of books. She praised Shaw and H.G. Wells, and I said that each had destroyed more than he could ever create. The writer about whom we agreed was the half-mad George Borrow, but she took him literally and said it was her ambition to wander penniless through England from door to door begging for food. A strange ambition for a débutante—for so she was, having been presented at the previous Court. Society did not interest her, and, being of age, she was determined to go on the stage.

A week later I was sitting in my consulting room at the St. Marylebone Tuberculosis Dispensary at four in the afternoon. There were no more patients to be seen, and the porter announced that a lady had called to see me. I did not like the grin on the man’s face. “Show her in,” I said, and a moment later the “Sleepless Night” entered my room. No wonder the man had grinned. Even for a chorus girl her face was over painted, and her dress was untidy.

I showed her over the place and explained the work. Her comment was: “Don’t you think you are wasting your time trying to help people? People don’t wish to be helped. To give them money is all one can do.”

“Let me give you tea,” I said.

“I don’t want tea, but I’d like a whisky and soda.”

“You can’t have that here, but we’ll go out.”

And out we went and walked the length of the Marylebone Road and down Tottenham Court Road until we came to the Bedford Head. As we walked she saw I had noticed a white scar on the right side of her face. “You’ve seen one blemish. I did that myself when I was twelve. A fit of temper, and I slashed myself with a carving knife to spite my mother.”

At the Bedford Head I bought two whiskies and soda to the table where we were sitting, and she showed me the book she was reading. It was Racine, and she knew French well. She had been educated at a well-known boarding school in England, followed by six months in Paris. At the end of an hour she said: “You must have a pretty rotten time living in a boarding house with your sister, and I’ve got an idea. There are cheap flats near Kings Cross. Let’s go there and live. I don’t want any money, and we can each pay half. Think it over and write to me. No, not to-night. As a matter of fact I’m dining with another man tonight. You must think it over. I’m not an expensive girl, and at least I am educated. I know you won’t write, You are too middle class. You are afraid of convention, although no one need ever know what you are doing.”

I never wrote. It was neither morality nor convention that decided me, but the scar on her face. The girl was insane.

A year later I went to dine at Lincoln’s Inn on a guest night. Along the Strand boys were shouting about the sensation of the day. It was the death of the “Sleepless Night.” Her requiem was an inquest, and the story occupied a couple of columns. As I entered the gates of Lincoln’s Inn I was in a sober mood. I had done nothing to drag the girl down—and had done nothing to help her. We were ships that passed in the night.

My friend was a junior barrister, and we dined in the oak-panelled hall. On the walls are portraits of judges who once were benchers of the Inn. The benchers dine at a long table on raised daïs at the end of the hall, and each, as he enters through a curtained doorway at the back, stops and bows gravely to the assembled company who are standing. Each barrister may bring one guest, and dinner is served at oak tables seating four. It is a well-cooked four-course English dinner, and the allowance of wine is generous—a bottle per man. With the joint you are also offered a tankard of ale. This two bottles of claret and two of port may be shared by four. The first glass of wine is raised to the man diagonally opposite, and the second to your neighbour, and the third to your host, who is your vis-à-vis. These customer are very old, because the laws of England and the Inns of Court have survived revolutions and the fall of monarchies. Another custom is that the host is served with food before his guest. The meaning of many things is lost, but had I ever dined with the Borgias, I would have thought it the height of hospitality if Lady Borgia had been served first.

During dinner my companions discussed the inquest. I said nothing, and was startled when my friend asked: “Did you know her?”

“Over a year ago,” I answered. “But why would you ask?”

“Well, it’s curious that we both know her. I only met her once, a month ago. It was after the last guest-night here. Old Mac, the parson, was my guest. He was up from Scotland and wanted to see the night-life here. We went to a café where these girls go, and she came to our table. She was drunk, but anyone could see she’d been a lady. I told her that I was disgusted that any girl of her education should use such foul language. At the end we gave her a pound, She thought we meant business, and said ‘The tariff is five pounds.’ I’m not surprised that she killed herself.”

At the inquest the pathologist deposed that the girl was four months pregnant, and suffering from double venereal disease. Her mother told how she had sent four mental specialists to see her daughter in the hope that they could certify her insane. The girl’s letter, written after taking eighty grains of veronal, was also read:

My Dear Mother, This is my last letter as I have decided to kill myself. I am sorry your have had such a dull life. If ever you meet any of my friends, don’t think too badly of them. Some were quite decent.—Your affectionate daughter.

From Arches of the Years.

The Bedford Head still stands today, now known as the Jack Horner. See: https://whatpub.com/pubs/WLD/15980/jack-horner-london).

Photo credit: Artem Saranin

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This entry was posted on 1 May 2019 by in London, The Arches of the Years.

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