William Fryer Harvey (1885-1937) is a member of that distinguished group, doctors who became writers, in such company as Arthur Conan Doyle, Weir Mitchell, and David H. Keller. He’s probably best known for the uber-creepy tale “The Beast With Five Fingers”, and the disquieting “August Heat,” but he wrote a lot of other macabre stories, both supernatural and otherwise. His style is brisk, with a dry humor; I like him a lot. If you’ve never read him before — and too many people haven’t — you should.
Today’s winter tale, “Account Rendered,” is part of his series Twelve Strange Tales, or as I like to think of it, the “Nurse Wilkie series,” which was published posthumously in 1951 as part of the collection The Arm of Mrs. Egan and other stories. The stories record the various macabre experiences that the nurse narrator (identified in a few of the stories as Nurse Wilkie) experiences in the course of her professional life. Most of the stories are crime stories, but there are a few supernatural tales as well, including this one.
Nurses at the time of Harvey’s medical practice seem to have occupied a limbo space between servant and gentlewoman (much like governesses and tutors, I imagine), and as members of an (at the time) all-female profession were largely undervalued. Dr. Harvey seems to have paid attention to his nurses, as people as well as colleagues; he voices Wilkie in a really empathetic and convincing way. He must have been a good doctor to work with (and to hear Wilkie talk, not all of them were).
In “Account Rendered,” our nurse and her uncle, a physician, meet a man with a strange desire: to be anesthetized on a certain December date, at midnight. And he’s willing to pay a lot for it. But why?
As the clock struck one Mr. Tolson stirred uneasily and began to mutter to himself. A little later he opened his eyes.
“Where am I?” he asked. “Where has he gone to?”
“Dr. Parkinson has been called out to a case,” I replied. “He will be back very soon.”
“It’s all over then,” he said. “it’s all safely over,” and he closed his eyes with a weary sigh of satisfaction….
Needless to say, this evening was not the last time that the narrator hears about Mr. Tolson.