Doctor Julian Humphreys was spoken of by those who believed that they knew him best as an eccentric; because, being a physician and surgeon of quite unusual ability, he chose—possessing a small independence amounting to a bare three hundred pounds per annum—to establish himself in the East-End of London, and there devote himself with zeal and enthusiasm to the amelioration of the sufferings of the very poor, instead of capitalising his income and setting up in Harley Street, where his exceptional qualifications would speedily and inevitably have brought him a handsome fortune.
An income of three hundred pounds per annum—out of which one has to feed, clothe, and house oneself—does not afford very much scope for the practice of philanthropy, as Dr Humphreys very well knew; his establishment, therefore, was of very modest dimensions, consisting merely of three rooms with the usual domestic offices, one room—the front and largest one—being fitted up as surgery, dispensary, and consulting room, while, of the other two, one served as a sleeping apartment for himself and his pupil, Mr Richard Maitland, the third being sacred to Polly Nevis, a sturdy and willing, but somewhat untidy person, who discharged the united functions of parlour maid, housemaid, chamber maid, cook, and scullery maid to the establishment.
The large red lamp which shone over Dr Humphreys’ door at night was the one and only picturesque feature of Paradise Street—surely so named by an individual of singularly caustic and sardonic humour, for anything less suggestive of the delights of Paradise than the squalid and malodorous street so named it would indeed be difficult to conceive—and in the course of the four years during which it had been in position that lamp had become a familiar object to every man, woman, and child within a radius of at least a mile; for the Doctor’s fame had soon spread, and his clientele comprised practically everybody within that radius.
The apparently insignificant event that initiated the extraordinary series of adventures, of which this is the narrative, occurred about the hour of 8 a.m. on a certain day of September in the year of our Lord 19—; and it consisted in the delivery by the postman of a letter addressed to Mr Richard Maitland, care of Dr J. Humphreys, 19 Paradise Street, Whitechapel, E. The letter was addressed in the well-known handwriting of Dick’s mother; but the recipient did not immediately open it, for he was at the moment engaged in assisting the Doctor to dress and bind up the wounds of Mrs William Taylor, whose husband, having returned home furiously drunk upon the closing of the public houses on the previous night, had proceeded to vent his spleen upon his long-suffering wife, because, having no money and nothing that she could pawn, she had failed to have a hot supper ready for him upon his arrival.
When, however, Mrs Taylor, scarcely recognisable because of the voluminous bandages that swathed her head and face, and carrying with her a powerful odour of iodoform, was bowed out of the surgery by Dr Humphreys, with a reminder—in reply to a murmur that she had no money just then—that she was one of his free patients, and a message from the Doctor to Mr William Taylor, which the poor woman had not the remotest intention to deliver, Dick drew his mother’s letter from his pocket and opened it. As he mastered its contents he went white to the lips, as well he might; for this is what he read:
The Cedars, 14 South Hill, Sydenham.
September 10th, 19—.
“My dear Dick,—
“I am sorry to be obliged to call you away from your work, but I must ask you to please come home to me as soon as you can possibly get away, for I have just received news of so disastrous a character that I dare not put it upon paper. Besides, I am so distracted that I scarcely know what I am writing, as you will no doubt understand when I tell you that we are ruined—absolutely and irretrievably ruined! Come as soon as you can, my dear, for I feel as though I shall go out of my senses if I cannot soon have someone to counsel me as to what is the best thing to be done under these dreadful circumstances.
“Your loving but distracted mother,—
“Hillo, Dick! what’s the matter?” exclaimed the Doctor, catching a glimpse of his assistant’s drawn face and pallid lips as Maitland stared incredulously at the letter in his hand. “Nothing wrong, I hope. You look as though you had just seen a ghost!”
“So I have; the ghosts of—many things,” answered Dick. “Unless this letter is—but no, it is the dear Mater’s own handwriting beyond a doubt. Read it, Doctor; there are no secrets in it.” And Dick passed the letter over to Humphreys.
“Phew!” whistled the Doctor, when he had read the letter twice—from the date to the signature; “that sounds pretty bad. You had better be off at once, and get at the rights of the thing. And when you have done so— By the way, have you any friends with whom you can consult, should you need help or advice of any sort?”
“Not a soul in the world, so far as I know, unless I may call you a friend, Doctor,” answered Dick. “Of course there is Cuthbertson, the family solicitor and the sole executor of my father’s will; but the suggestion conveyed by this letter from my mother is that something has somehow gone wrong with him, and he may not be available.”
“Quite so; he may not, as you say,” agreed the Doctor. “In that case, my dear Dick, come back to me after you have become acquainted with all the facts, and we will discuss the matter together. That you may call me your friend goes without saying, as you ought to know by this time; and although I am only an obscure East-End practitioner I am not wholly without friends able and willing to do me, or any friend of mine, a good turn, if necessary. So come back here when you have threshed out the matter, and we will see what—if anything—can be done.”
“Right! I will. And a thousand thanks to you for this fresh evidence of your kindly feeling toward me,” exclaimed Dick, grasping the doctor’s hand. “Are you quite sure that you will be able to get along without me for a few hours?”
“Absolutely certain,” was the cheery reply. “You are a very clever young fellow, Dick, and have proved a marvellously apt pupil since you have been with me, but I managed this practice single-handed before you came to me, and I have no doubt I can do it again, if needs be. So be off with you at once, my lad; for your mother seems to be in sore need of you.”
Five minutes later Dick Maitland had boarded a tramcar, on his way to London Bridge railway station, from whence he took train for the Crystal Palace, the nearest station to his mother’s home, which he reached within two hours of his departure from Number 19 Paradise Street.
Now, as Dick Maitland happens to be the hero of this story it is necessary he should be properly introduced to the reader, and this seems as appropriate a moment as any.
To begin with, then, when we caught our first glimpse of him, assisting Dr Humphreys to dress and bind up those tokens of affection which Mr William Taylor had bestowed upon his wife, Dick Maitland was within three months of his eighteenth birthday, a fine, tall, fairly good-looking, and athletic specimen of the young public-school twentieth-century Englishman. He was an only son; and his mother was a widow, her husband having died when Dick was a sturdy little toddler a trifle over three years of age. Mrs Maitland had been left quite comfortably off, her husband having accumulated a sufficient sum to bring her in an income of close upon seven hundred pounds per annum. The provisions of Mr Maitland’s will stipulated that the income arising from his carefully chosen investments was to be enjoyed by his widow during her lifetime, subject to the proper maintenance and education of their only son, Dick; and upon the demise of Mrs Maitland the capital was to go to Dick, to be employed by the latter as he might deem fit. But a clause in the will stipulated that at the close of his school career Dick was to be put to such business or profession as the lad might choose, Mr Maitland pithily remarking that he did not believe in drones. But since Mrs Maitland, although a most excellent woman in every respect, had no head for business, her husband appointed honest old John Cuthbertson, his own and his father’s solicitor, sole executor of his will; and so died happily, in the full conviction that he had done everything that was humanly possible to assure the future welfare of his widow and infant son. And faithfully had John Cuthbertson discharged his trust, until in the fullness of years he had laid down the burden of life, and his son Jonas had come to reign in the office in his father’s stead. This event had occurred some three years previously, about the time when Dick, having completed his school life, had elected to take up the study of medicine and surgery.
This important step had involved many interviews between Mrs Maitland and “Mr Jonas”, as the clerks in his father’s office had learned to call him; for the said Mr Jonas had succeeded to the executorship of many wills—Mr Maitland’s among them—as well as the other portions of his father’s business; and so great had been the zeal and interest that he had displayed during the necessary negotiations, that Mrs Maitland had been most favourably impressed. Indeed Jonas Cuthbertson had honestly earned the very high opinion that Mrs Maitland had formed of him, displaying not only interest and zeal but also a considerable amount of acumen in the matter of Dick’s placing. For, when Mrs Maitland, perhaps very naturally, expressed the wish that Dick should begin his studies under the guidance of some eminent Harley Street specialist, the solicitor strenuously opposed the idea, not only upon the score of expense, but also because, as he argued, Dick would certainly acquire a wider knowledge of diseases and their cure—and acquire it much more quickly—under some hard-working practitioner among the East-End poor of London; and that, as he very truly pointed out, was the great desideratum in such a case as Dick’s, far outweighing the extra hard work and the sordid surroundings to which Mrs Maitland had at first so strenuously objected. Moreover, Dick agreed with the solicitor; and in the end the maternal objections were overcome, careful enquiries were instituted, and finally Dick found himself installed as a pupil in the somewhat Bohemian establishment of Doctor Julian Humphreys, M.D., M.R.C.P., M.R.C.S., and several other letters of the alphabet. And, queer though the arrangement was in many respects, it proved eminently satisfactory to Dick; for Dr Humphreys was not only an extraordinarily able physician and surgeon, but also marvellously clever and learned outside the bounds of his profession, gentle and tender-hearted as a woman, and a thoroughly good fellow all round, in the best and highest sense of the term. As for Dick, he displayed from the outset a quite exceptional aptitude for the noble profession which he had chosen; study, instead of being irksome, was a pleasure—almost a passion—with him; his nerves were steel, he never for a moment lost his head even when assisting at the most sickening operation; his touch was light and sure; and knowledge seemed to come to him intuitively. No wonder that Doctor Humphreys persistently predicted a brilliant and successful career for his pupil.
Upon his arrival home Dick found his mother in such an acute state of distress that for the first few moments of their interview she seemed to be quite incapable of making any intelligible statement: she could do nothing but weep copiously upon her stalwart son’s shoulder and gasp that they were ruined—utterly and irretrievably ruined! At length, however, the lad managed to extract from Mrs Maitland the statement that she had seen, in the previous morning’s papers, an account of the suicide of Mr Jonas Cuthbertson, a solicitor; and, judging from the name and other particulars given in the published account, that it must be their Mr Cuthbertson, she had hurried up to town and called at Cuthbertson’s chambers, where her worst apprehensions had received complete and terrible confirmation. From the particulars supplied by Mr Herbert, Cuthbertson’s chief clerk, it appeared that “Mr Jonas”, after walking worthily in his father’s footsteps for two years, had become infected with the gambling craze, and, first losing all his own money, had finally laid hands upon as much of his clients’ property as he could obtain access to, until, his ill luck still pursuing him, he had lost that also, and then had sought to evade the consequences of his misdeeds by blowing out his brains with two shots from a revolver. This final act of folly had been perpetrated two days before the account of it in the papers had fallen under Mrs Maitland’s notice, and in the interim there had, of course, been time only to make a very cursory examination into the affairs of the suicide, but that examination had sufficed to reveal the appalling fact that every available security, both of his own and of his clients, had disappeared, while sufficient evidence had been discovered to show pretty clearly what had led to their disappearance.
This was the sum and substance of Mrs Maitland’s somewhat incoherently told story, and when Dick had heard it through to the end he had no reason to doubt its truth; but manifestly it was not at all the sort of story to be taken upon trust, it must be fully and completely investigated, if only for the purpose of ascertaining whether or not anything, however small, was to be saved from the wreck; accordingly, after partaking of a hasty lunch, young Maitland wended his way to the City, and there had a most discouraging interview with Mr Herbert, who was by this time busily engaged upon the preparation of a detailed statement of the position of affairs, for the information of his late employer’s clients and creditors. This, Mr Herbert explained, was proving a task of much less difficulty than he had anticipated, since Cuthbertson had apparently kept an accurate account of all his gambling transactions—some of which had, latterly, been upon a gigantic scale—with the evidently desperate resolution of recovering his former losses, or ruining himself in the attempt, while he had not destroyed any of his papers, as so many suicides do before perpetrating the final act of folly. The position of affairs, as outlined by Mr Herbert, was gloomy enough, but he made it clear to Dick that for the moment he was speaking with reserve, as it was impossible for him to say anything of an absolutely definite character until the investigation—which was being conducted with the aid of a firm of chartered accountants of high standing—should be complete.
Having now ascertained all in connection with the deplorable business that was for the moment possible, Dick returned to his mother and did his best to comfort and encourage her; but, as might have been expected, his efforts met with no very great measure of success, seeing that there was practically nothing of a comforting or encouraging character in the story told him by Jonas Cuthbertson’s chief clerk.
The next morning Dick Maitland returned to Number 19 Paradise Street, where he found his friend Humphreys as busily engaged as ever in his work of healing the sick and comforting the sorrowing poor, and received a welcome from the cheery, genial medico that seemed to ease his shoulders of at least half their load of anxiety. But it was not until well on towards evening that the claims upon the Doctor’s time and attention slackened sufficiently to afford an opportunity for Dick to tell his story, which, after all, was only an amplified edition of the story originally told in Mrs Maitland’s letter.
When at length the tale was fully told, and Humphreys had, by dint of much cross-questioning, fully mastered all its miserable details, he sat for half an hour or more, smoking diligently and silently as he considered in what way he could best help his young friend. At length, however, an idea seemed to occur to him, for he looked up and said:
“Well, Dick, my friend, it sounds about as bad as anything that I have heard of for many a long day! Why in the world did that fool of a lawyer want to meddle with gambling? Why could he not have been content to devote his energies to the conduct of the business—a first-class one, according to his chief clerk’s account—which his father left him, and which would have provided him with a very comfortable living all his days and, probably, a snug competency to retire upon when he found himself getting too old for work? I tell you what it is, my boy: this mad craving to get rich quickly is one of the great curses of these latter days. When it once gets a firm grip upon its victim it quickly converts the honest, upright man into a conscienceless rogue, who soon becomes the centre of a widespread circle of ruin and untold misery! Look at this fellow Cuthbertson. He had an honest and honourable father; and, as I understand you, was, to start with, himself perfectly honest and honourable; yet look at him now! What is he? Why, simply a dishonoured corpse, hastily huddled away into a suicide’s grave; a man who, having utterly spoiled his life, has presumptuously and prematurely hurried into the presence of his Maker, burdened not only with the heavy load of his own sin but also with the responsibility for all the ruin and misery which he has left behind him! Moralising, however, will not help you, my boy; for if I know anything at all about you it is that you are not the sort of character to make such a horrible mess of your life as that poor wretch has done. But now, the question is: What can I do to help you and your respected mother out of this slough into which another man’s weakness and sin have plunged you both? Not very much, I am afraid; for I cannot restore to you the property of which you are robbed. That appears to be gone beyond recall. But I can do this for you—and it may possibly help you a little—I can give you a letter of introduction to a man who is under very heavy obligations to me, and who—being a thoroughly good fellow—will be more than glad to discharge those obligations if I will only afford him the opportunity to do so. You shall go to him and give him full and complete particulars of this terrible misfortune that has befallen you; and if there is anything at all to be saved out of the wreckage, he will save it for you, without fee and without reward—for my sake. He, too, is a solicitor, but an honest one, as many still are, thank God; and it is a solicitor whose aid will be most useful to you in the unravelling of this tangled skein.”
“I say, Doctor, that is awfully good of you,” exclaimed Dick, struggling to conceal his emotion of gratitude, after the manner of the Englishman, but not altogether succeeding. “If the matter concerned myself alone,” he continued, “I would not let you do this thing for me; but I must think of my poor mother, and for her sake must humble my pride and suppress the assertion of my independence so far as to accept your help, so kindly and generously offered. And here let me say that there is no man on earth whose help I would so willingly accept as yours,” he blundered on, dimly conscious that there had been something of ungraciousness in his speech; and so stopped dead, overcome with shame and confusion.
“That is all right, my dear boy,” returned Humphreys, smilingly laying his hand on Dick’s shoulder; “I know exactly how you feel, and very heartily respect your sense of sturdy independence, which is very estimable in its way, so long as it is not carried too far. But, as a matter of fact, Dick, none of us is absolutely independent in this world, for almost every moment of our lives we are dependent upon somebody for assistance, in one shape or another, and it is not until that assistance is withheld that we are brought to realise the extent to which we are individually dependent upon our fellow creatures. But I am moralising again—a habit which seems to be growing upon me since I came among these poor folk down here, and have been brought face to face with such a vast amount of misery that can be directly traced to ignorance and crime. Just pass me over that stationery cabinet, will you? Thanks! Now I will write to my friend Graham at once, and you had better call upon him at his chambers in Lincoln’s Inn to-morrow morning at ten o’clock sharp, which is about the only hour of the day when you can be reasonably certain of finding him.”
When Dick called upon Humphreys’ friend Graham, upon the following morning, and sent in his letter of introduction, he soon had abundant evidence that the rising young solicitor was quite as busy a man as the Doctor had represented him to be; yet he was not too busy to respond promptly to his friend’s claim upon him, actually leaving an important-looking client waiting in his outer office while he interviewed Dick and listened with the utmost patience to the story which the latter had to tell, questioning him occasionally, and making notes of his answers upon a writing pad. At length, after an interview of over half an hour’s duration, Graham closed the pad sharply and, rising, extended his hand to Dick, saying:
“Thank you, Mr Maitland. I believe I have now all the essential facts; and you may assure my friend Humphreys that I will take up the case with the utmost pleasure, and without loss of time; also that I will do my best for you and your mother. From what you tell me I am inclined to imagine that the wreck of Cuthbertson’s affairs will prove to be pretty complete, therefore I very strongly advise you not to reckon upon my being able to save anything for you out of the wreckage; but if there should by any chance be anything, you shall have it. And now, good morning! I am very pleased to have made your acquaintance; and as soon as I have anything definite to communicate I will write to you. Remember me very kindly to Humphreys. Good morning!”
The interview was certainly not very encouraging; but on the other hand it was by no means disappointing; for Dick had already quite made up his mind that every penny of his mother’s money was lost. It was, therefore, a very pleasant surprise to him when, about a fortnight later, a letter came from Graham announcing that he had succeeded in rescuing close upon five hundred pounds for Mrs Maitland from the ruins of Cuthbertson’s estate, and that the good lady could have the money by presenting herself at the writer’s office and going through certain formalities.
Categories: English Literature