"An Oak Coffin" by L. T. Meade & Clifford Halifax, M.D. (from The Strand Magazine, March 1894; reprinted in Stories from the Diary of a Doctor, 1894)
Louisa Thomasina Meade Toulmin Smith (1844-1914) wrote over 250 books in her life, including also 150 volumes written for young readers, mostly girls. She was also a popular mystery writer who authored the classic The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings (1899) and, in collaberation, The Sorceress of the Stand (with "Robert Eustace," 1903) and two volumes of Stories from the Diary of a Doctor (with "Clifford Halifax"). "Halifax" was a pseudonym for an author who true identity was for a long time unknown. It turned out the man behind the name was Dr. Edgar Beaumont (1860-1921), who used the pen name only for collaborations with Meade. Beaumont and '\"Eustace" (real name Dr. Eustice Robert Barton, 1854-1943) both provided medical, scientific, and technical details for Meade in the stories, many of which were published in The Strand, which had declared Meade to be one of their most popular authors.
Stories from the Diary of a Doctor was number 17 in the Queen's Quorum, a chronological listing to the 125 most significant volumes of detective fiction 1854 to 1957. The "Doctor" whose diaries are referred to happened to have the name Clifford Halifax, which gave added verisilimilitude to the tales. "An Oak Coffin" was the ninth in the first series; the complete series (two books) ran to 24 stories.
The story starts off when a widow and her 14-year-old daughter visited Dr. Halifax. The widow, Mtrs. Heathcote, is seeking help for her daughter, Gabrielle, who "is not well." Gabrielle was weaak and depressed, would not eat, slept badly, and took no interest in anything. Gabrielle had a "very sad" expression on her face for such a young girl. Her symptoms appeared to begin with the death of her father, six months before. An examination showed no disease although her condition was below par. Halifax recommended a tonic. Mrs. Heathcote said they had tried tonics to no effect. She also mentioned that neither she nor her daughter had seen their family physician since her husband died. Puzzled, Halifax wrote a prescription and send the pair on their way.
The next day Gabrielle showed uip at Halifax's office alone. The doctor sensed that she was harboring a secret that could explain her case. He was right. The girl told him the her father was not dead. She had seen him on several occasions at night when looking out her bedroom window, butu when she rushed outside the figure was no where to be seen. Halifax suggested that these appearances might be dreams, or perhaps imagination -- something that could be possible from losing her beloved father. Her mother also dismissed the girl's claims. Mrs. Heathcote, according to the young girl, also has been suffering greatly after her husband's death. She is sleeping poorly, cries out at night, and sometimes looks at Gabrielle in fear; she also moved her bedroom to the other side of the house -- away from Gabrielle's room. Gabrielle insists that Halifax prove that her father still lived. The girl then leaves, saying she knows Halifax is wise and very clever, and thus will aid her.
Gabrielle's visit had unsettled the doctor. He still believed the girl was suffering from delusions, but... He decided to call on Dr. Mackenzie, the Heathcote family physician.
Heathcote was a moderately successful solicitor, of comfortable means, and, at just past forty, was a severe consumptive. Mackenzie had examined the man just three months before his death: "Phthisis was present but not to an advanced degree." Mackenzie did not think the patient would die as soon as he did. On the day of his death, the doctor was summoned to the Heathcote residence and was told that the solicitor was dying. Heathcote "was a ghastly sight. His face wore the sick hue of death itself; the sheet, his hair. and even his face was all covered with blood...Hemoptysis had set in, and I felt that his hours were numbered." His pulse was week. Mackenzie packed the man in ice and gave him some ergotine. This seemed to ease the man's suffering a bit and Mackenzie left, promising to return in a couple of hours.
About an hour later the doctor recieved a note from Mrs. Heathcotte that her husband had just had a fresh and very violent hemorrhage and had died. Mackenzie felt no need to view Heathcote's body after death -- the man had been very close to death when Mackenzie had left him and had died a very short time later. Mackennzie did attend the funeral. There was no doubt in his mind that the man was dead. Gabrielle, he said, was an excitable girl of highly strung nerves. She is evidently a victim of delusion caused by the grief of her father's passing. Halifax thanked Dr. Mackenzie and was about to leve when there was an urgent ring at Mackenzie's door. It was Gabrielle, saying her mother was very sick and probably out of her mind. She had come at her daughter with a carving knife. Two servants had restrained the woman. Mackenzie and Halifax and the girl rushed back to Ivy Hall, the Heathcote home, to find the woman in a state of violent delirium, talking to an imaginary Gabrielle and insisting that Heathcote was dead, "No one was ever more dead. I tell you I saw him die." The woman also said such things as, "I tell you it isn't safe. Gabrielle suspects," and, "The coffin is made of oak, That is right. Oak lasts. I can't bear coffins that crumble away very quickly." In her ravings, she told the undertaker's men to place the body in the coffin very carefully. Then she said something about the dishonour and told the undertaker's men to screw the coffin lid on and then to leave her alone with her dead. Soon the poor woman began to sleep.
Mackenzie left to arrange for a nurse to watch over the woman, leaving Halifax there until then. While alone with the sleeping woman, Halifax looked out the window and saw a man in the garden who matched Gabrielle's description of her father. Gabrielle also showed Halifax a picture of her faather. It was the same face...
The solution to "An Oak Casket" was fairly evident, especially after Heathcote's coffin was exhumed and discovered to contain nothing but sacks of flour. But it was, I feel, unique enough for its time to suit The Strand's readers. The magazine devoted a full year's of monthly stories to Stories from the Diary of a Doctor, and later, another full year to the second series of stories.
I made a quick search of the internet and have found no copies of either book available to be read online, although the books are available for purchase. The twenty-four stories, however, are available to read online in individual issues of The Strand. Here is a list of the stories and the dates each appeared in that magazine:
Stories from the Diary of a Doctor
- 1) "My First Patient" (July 1893)
- 2) "My Hypnotic Patient" (August 1893)
- 3) "Very Far West" (September 1893)
- 4) "The Heir of Chartelpool" (October 1893)
- 5) "A Death Ceritifcate" (November 1893)
- 6) "The Wrong Prescription" (December 1893)
- 7) "The Horror of Studley Grange" (January 1894)
- 8) " 'Ten Year's Oblivion' " (February 1894)
- 9) "An Oak Coffin" (March 1894)
- 10) "Without Witness" (April 1894)
- 11) "Trapped" (May 1894)
- 12) "The Ponsonby Diamond" (June 1894)
- 13) "Creating a Mind" (January 1895)
- 14) "The Seventh Step" (February 1895)
- 15) "The Silent Tongue" (March 1895)
- 16) "The Hooded Deaath" (April 1895)
- 17) "The Red Bracelet" (May 1895)
- 18) "Little Sir Noel" (June 1895)
- 19) "A Doctor's Dilemma" (July 1895)
- 20) "On a Charge of Forgery" (August 1895)
- 21) "The Strange Cse of Captain Gascoigne" (September 1895)
- 22) "With the Eternal Fires" (October 1895)
- 23) "The Small House on Steven's Heath" (November 1895)
- 24) " 'To Every One His Own Fear' " (December 1895)