In White Raiment - William Le Queux - ebook

In White Raiment ebook

William Le Queux

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So strange, indeed, were all the circumstances, and so startling the adventures that befell me in my search after truth, that until to-day I have hesitated to relate the narrative, which is as extraordinary as it is unique in the history of any living man. If it were not for the fact that a certain person actively associated with this curious drama of our latter day civilisation, has recently passed to the land that lies beyond the human ken, my lips would have perforce still remained sealed.

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Liczba stron: 384

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Contents

PROLOGUE.

I. MAINLY ABOUT PEOPLE.

II. THE THIRD FINGER.

III. CONCERNING A COMPACT.

IV. THE NOTE OF INTERROGATION.

V. OUTWARD BOUND.

VI. CAPTAIN BANFIELD EXPLAINS.

VII. MY NEW PATIENT.

VIII. WHAT HAPPENED TO ME.

IX. A MAZE OF MYSTERY.

X. THE MAJOR.

XI. VOICES OF THE NIGHT.

XII. THE MORNING AFTER.

XIII. I PRACTISE A NEW PROFESSION.

XIV. A THEORY.

XV. THE GREY HOUSE.

XVI. THE VEILED LADY.

XVII. IN PERIL.

XVIII. THE MYSTERY OF THE MORNING-ROOM.

XIX. HOEFER'S STRANGE METHODS.

XX. THE CHILL HAND.

XXI. TWO HEARTS.

XXII. A SAVANT AT HOME.

XXIII. A COUNTER-PLOT.

XXIV. FACE TO FACE.

XXV. THE WOMAN IN BLACK.

XXVI. HUSBAND AND WIFE.

XXVII. THE TEMPTER.

XXVIII. SOUGHT OUT.

XXIX. PUT TO THE TEST.

XXX. "LA GIOIA."

XXXI. CONCLUSION.

PROLOGUE.

YES; it was utterly inexplicable.

So strange, indeed, were all the circumstances, and so startling the adventures that befell me in my search after truth, that until to-day I have hesitated to relate the narrative, which is as extraordinary as it is unique in the history of any living man.

If it were not for the fact that a certain person actively associated with this curious drama of our latter day civilisation, has recently passed to the land that lies beyond the human ken, my lips would have perforce still remained sealed.

Hitherto, my literary efforts have been confined to the writing of half-illegible prescriptions or an occasioned contribution to one or other of the medical journals; but at the suggestion of the one who is dearest to me on earth, I have now resolved to narrate the whole of the astonishing facts in their due sequence, without seeking to disguise anything, but to lay bare my secret, and to place the whole matter unreservedly before the reader.

Every doctor has a skeleton in his cupboard. I am no exception.

Any dark or mysterious incident, however trivial, in the life of a medical man, is regarded as detrimental by his patients. It is solely because of that I am compelled to conceal one single fact–my true name.

For the rest, reader, I shall be quite straightforward and open in my confession, without the affectation of academic phrases, even though I may be a physician whose consulting-room in Harley Street is invariably full, whose fees are heavy, and whose name figures in the public prints as the medical adviser of certain leaders of society. As Richard Colkirk, M.D., M.R.C.S., M.R.C.P., F.R.S., specialist on nervous disorders, I am compelled to keep up appearances and impress, with a sense of superior attainments, the fashionable world who seek my advice; but as Dick Colkirk, the narrator of this remarkable romance, I can at all times be frank and sometimes confidential.

In the wild whirl of social London there occur daily incidents which, when written down in black and white, appear absolutely incredible. Amid the fevered rush of daily life in this, our giant city of violent contrasts, the city where one is oftentimes so lonely among millions, and where people starve and die in the very midst of reckless extravagance and waste, one sometimes meets with adventures quite as astounding as those related by the pioneers of civilisation–adventures which, if recounted by the professional novelist, must of necessity be accepted with considerable reserve.

Reader, I am about to take you into my confidence. Think for a moment. Have you not read, in your daily paper, true statements of fact far stranger than any ever conceived by the writer of fiction? Have you not sat in a dull, dispiriting London police-court and witnessed that phantasmagoria of comedy, tragedy, and mystery as presented to that long-suffering public servant, the Metropolitan Stipendiary?

If you have, then you will agree that romance is equally distributed over Greater London. Love is as honest and hearts beat as true in Peckham, Paddington, or Plaistow as in that fashionable half-mile area around Hyde-park Corner; life is as full of bitterness and broken idols in Kensington as it is in Kentish Town, Kennington, or the Old Kent Road. The two worlds rub shoulders. All that is most high and noble mingles with all that is basest and most criminal; therefore it is not surprising that the unwary frequently fall into the cunningly-devised traps prepared for them, and even then most prosaic persons meet with queer and exciting adventures.

I. MAINLY ABOUT PEOPLE.

MY worst enemy–and, alas! I have many–would not accuse me of being of a romantic disposition.

In the profession of medicine any romance, acquired in one’s youth or college days, is quickly knocked out of one by the first term at the hospital. The medical student quickly becomes, in a manner, callous to human suffering, and by the time he obtains his degree he is generally a shrewd and sympathetic observer, but with every spark of romance crushed dead within his heart. Thus, there is no bachelor more confirmed than the celibate doctor.

I had left Guy’s a year. It is not so very long ago, for I am still under forty–young, they say, to have made my mark. True, success has come to me suddenly, and very unworthily, I think, for I confess that my advancement has been more by good luck than by actual worth.

At Guy’s I had been under Lister and other great men whose names will ever remain as medical landmarks, and when I left with my degree I quickly discovered that the doctor’s calling was anything but lucrative.

My first engagement was as assistant to a country practitioner at Woodbridge, in Suffolk; a man who had a large but very poor practice, most of his patients being club ones. Upon the latter I was allowed to exercise my maiden efforts in pills and mixtures, while my principal indulged freely in whisky in his own room over the surgery. He was a hard drinker, who treated his wife as badly as he did his patients, and whose habit it was to enter the cottages of poor people who could not pay him, and seize whatever piece of family china, bric-a-brac, or old oak which he fancied, and forcibly carry it away as payment of the debt owing. By this means he had, in the course of ten years, made quite a presentable collection of curios, although he had more than once very narrowly escaped getting into serious trouble over it.

I spent a miserable year driving, by day and by night, in sunshine and rain, far afield over the Suffolk plains, for owing to my principal’s penchant for drink, the greater part of the work devolved upon myself. The crisis occurred, however, when I had been with him some eighteen months. While in a state of intoxication he was called out to treat a man who had met with a serious accident in a neighbouring village. On his return he gave me certain instructions, and sent me back to visit the patient. The instructions–technical ones, with which it is useless to puzzle the reader–I carried out to the letter, with the result that the poor fellow’s life was lost. Then followed an inquest, exposure, censure from the coroner, a rider from the jury, and my employer, with perfect sang froid, succeeded in fastening the blame upon myself in order to save the scanty reputation he still enjoyed over the countryside.

The jury were, of course, unaware that he was intoxicated when he attended the man and committed the fatal blunder, while I, in perfect innocence, had obeyed his injunctions. It is useless, however, to protest before a coroner; therefore I at once resigned my position, and that same night returned to London, full of indignation at the treatment I had received.

My next practice was as an assistant to a man at Hull, who proved an impossible person, and through the five years that followed I did my best to alleviate human ills in Carlisle, Derby, Cheltenham, and Leeds respectively.

The knowledge I obtained by such general and varied practice, being always compelled to dispense my own prescriptions, was of course invaluable. But it was terribly uphill work, and a doctor’s drudge, as I was, can save no money. Appearances have always to be kept up, and one cannot put by very much on eighty or one hundred pounds a year. Indeed, one night, seven years after leaving Guy’s, I found myself again in London, wandering idly along the Strand, without prospects, and with only a single sovereign between myself and starvation.

I have often reflected upon that memorable night. How different the world seemed then! In those days I was content to pocket a single shilling as a fee; now they are guineas, ten or more, for as many minutes of consultation. It was an unusually hot June, and the night was quite stifling for so early in summer. Although eight o’clock, it was not yet dark; but, as I strolled westward past the Adelphi, there was in the sky that dull purple haze with which Londoners are familiar, the harbinger of a storm. I had sought several old friends of hospital days, but all were out of town. June was running out, and the season was at an end.

London may be declared empty, and half a million persons may have left to disport themselves in the country or by the sea, yet the ebb and flow in that most wonderful thoroughfare in the world–the Strand–is ever the same, the tide in the dog-days being the same as in December. It is the one highway in London that never changes.

I had strolled along to the corner of Bedford Street, down-hearted and low-spirited, I must confess. Ah! to know how absolutely lonely a man can be amid those hurrying millions, one must be penniless. In the seven years that had passed, most of my friends had dispersed, and those who still remained cared little for a ne’er-do-well such as myself. In that walk I calmly reviewed the situation. Away in quiet old Shrewsbury my white-haired, widowed mother lived frugally, full of fond thoughts of her only boy. She had brought herself to the verge of poverty that I might complete my studies and become a doctor. Poor mother! She believed, like so many believe, that every doctor makes a comfortable income. And I had worked–nay, slaved–night and day, through seven whole years, for less wage than an average artisan.

I had not dined, for, truth to tell, I had hesitated to change my last sovereign; but the pangs of hunger reminded me that nothing had passed my lips since the breakfast in my dingy lodgings, and knowing of a cheap eating-house in Covent Garden, I had paused for a moment at the corner.

Next instant I felt a hearty slap on the back, and a cheery voice cried–

“Why, Colkirk, old fellow, what’s up? You look as though you’re going to a funeral?”

I turned quickly and saw a round, fresh-coloured, familiar face before me.

“By Jove!” I exclaimed in pleasant surprise. “Raymond! is it really you?” And we grasped hands heartily.

“I fancy so,” he laughed. “At least, it’s what there is left of me. I went out to Accra, you know, got a sharp touch of fever, and they only sent back my skeleton and skin.”

Bob Raymond was always merry and amusing. He had been the humourist of Guy’s, in my time: the foremost in practical joking, and the most backward in learning. The despair of more than one eminent lecturer, he had, nevertheless, been one of the most popular fellows in our set, and had occupied diggings in the next house to where I lodged in a mean street off Newington Butts.

“Well,” I laughed, “if you left your flesh behind you on the West Coast, you’ve filled out since. Why, you’re fatter than ever. What’s your beverage? Cod-liver oil?”

“No; just now it’s whisky-and-seltzer with a big chunk of ice. Come into Romano’s and have one. You look as though you want cheering up.”

I accepted his invitation, and we strolled back to the bar he had mentioned.

He was a short, fair-haired, sturdily-built fellow with a round face which gave him the appearance of an overgrown boy, a pair of blue eyes that twinkled with good fellowship, cheeks that struck me as just a trifle too ruddy to be altogether healthy, a small mouth, and a tiny, drooping, yellow moustache. He wore a silk hat of brilliant gloss, a frock-coat, as became one of “the profession,” and carried in his hand a smart ebony cane with a silver crook. I noticed, as we stood at the bar, that his hat bulged slightly on either side, and knew that in it was concealed his stethoscope. He was therefore in practice.

Over our drinks we briefly related our experiences, for we had both left the hospital at the same term, and had never met or heard of each other since. I told him of my drudgery, disappointment, and despair, to which he listened with sympathetic ear. Then he told me of himself. He had gone out to Accra, had a narrow squeak with a bad attack of fever, returned to London to recover, and became assistant to a well-known man at Plymouth.

“And what are you doing now?” I inquired.

“I’ve started a little practice over in Hammersmith,” he answered. “I’ve been there a year; but Hammersmith seems such a confoundedly healthy spot.”

“You haven’t got many patients–eh?” I said, smiling.

“Unfortunately, no. The red lamp doesn’t seem to attract them any more than the blue lamp before the police-station. If there was only a bit of zymotic disease, I might make a pound or two; but as it is, gout, indigestion, and drink seem to be the principal ailments at present.” Then he added, “But if you’re not doing anything, why don’t you come down and stay a day or two with me? I’m alone, and we’d be mutual company. In the meantime you might hear of something from the Lancet. Where’s your diggings?”

I told him.

“Then let’s go over there now and get your traps. Afterwards we can go home together. I’ve got cold mutton for supper. Hope you don’t object.”

“Very digestible,” I remarked. And, after some persuasion, he at length prevailed upon me to accept his hospitality.

He had established himself, I found, in the Rowan Road–a turning off the Hammersmith Road–in an ordinary-looking, ten-roomed house: one of those stereotyped ones with four hearth-stoned steps leading to the front door, and a couple of yards of unhealthy-looking, ill-kept grass between the bay window and the iron railings.

The interior was comfortably furnished, for Bob was not wholly dependent upon his practice. His people were brewers at Bristol, and his allowance was ample. The dining-room was in front, while the room behind it was converted into a surgery with the regulation invalid’s couch, a case of second-hand books to lend the place an imposing air, and a small writing-table whereat my hospital chum wrote his rather erratic ordinances.

Bob was a good fellow, and I spent a pleasant time with him. Old Mrs Bishop, his housekeeper, made me comfortable, and the whole day long my host would keep me laughing at his droll witticisms.

Patients, however, were very few and far between.

“You see, I’m like the men in Harley Street, my dear old chap,” he observed one day, “I’m only consulted as a last resource.”

I did not feel quite comfortable in accepting his hospitality for more than a week; but when I announced my intention of departing he would not hear of it, and therefore I remained, each week eager for the publication of the Lancet with its lists of assistants wanted.

I had been with him three weeks, and assisted him in his extremely small practice, for he sometimes sought my advice as to treatment. Poor old Bob! he was never a very brilliant one in his diagnoses. He always made it a rule to sound everybody, feel their pulses, press down their tongues and make them say, “Ah?”

“Must do something for your money,” he would say when the patient had gone. “They like to be looked at in the mouth.”

One afternoon, while we were sitting together smoking in his little den above the surgery, he made a sudden suggestion.

“Do you know, Dick–I scarcely like to ask you–but I wonder whether you’d do me a favour?”

“Most certainly, old chap,” I responded.

“Even though you incur a great responsibility?”

“What is the responsibility?”

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