The Death-Doctor. Being the Remarkable Confessions of Archibald More D’Escombe, M.D. of Kensington, London, Selected by Laurence Lanner-Brown, M.D - William Le Queux - ebook

Some year and a half ago, my friend and erstwhile neighbour. Dr. Archibald More d’Escombe, died suddenly, and shortly after his decease I received from his solicitors a sealed packet addressed to me in his handwriting, with instructions that it was not to be opened until after his death.

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I AM fully aware, my dear Lanner-Brown, that after my death, when you open these pages, you will be greatly shocked.

The skeleton which for many years has been locked so securely in my cupboard, and which I now at last have courage to reveal, will, I know, stagger you.

I, Archibald More d’Escombe, have enjoyed a lucrative practice in Kensington. I have worked hard, and I believe I have not only earned the esteem of my many patients of both sexes, but also that of my fellow-men.

I have been moderate in my habits, partial perhaps to a really good vintage port, but nevertheless a constant churchgoer; for some years churchwarden of St. Stephen’s, and, in addition, a regular subscriber to all local charities, as far as my means as a medical man would allow.

Outwardly, I suppose, I have differed in no way to the many thousand other men who, having walked the hospitals, have qualified and now practise the science of medicine up and down the country. But when, my dear Lanner-Brown, you have read this plain, matter-of-fact and yet remarkable narrative of my amazing life, it will be for you yourself to judge whether it be best, in the public interest, to suppress it and destroy the manuscript, or whether you will risk the condemnation, which must be hurled upon you by the public and the whole medical profession, and publish it as a warning to others who may, by their expert scientific knowledge, be led into similar temptation.

This matter I leave entirely in your hands, and at your discretion.

Though in the following pages you will, no doubt, discover much that will astound and even appal you, yet many of the circumstances you will yourself recall. I think you will find that in this record I have been entirely frank and open, and agree that I have all along admitted the motive, and have never sought to shield myself, either by excuse or by hypocrisy.

During the last eight years of our pleasant and intimate acquaintance, I have ever held you in the highest esteem. You are a real man. True, you as a confirmed bachelor were always something of a lady-killer, while you believed me to be indeed the quiet-mannered, rather short-sighted, and perhaps somewhat old-fashioned, family-practitioner in whom you so often confided.

Ah! I often wondered what you would actually have thought of me had you but known the ugly, wretched truth. And sometimes–forgive me, my dear fellow–I have smiled at your ignorance.

But here, in moments snatched from the constant hustle of a wide and growing practice, I have written down the secret of my changeful life complete–perhaps you will term it terrible.

You, my old chum, will be the first to judge me. And I know, alas, too well! the nature of your judgment–a bitter judgment, which will be confirmed by any who afterwards may be permitted by you to peruse these pages.

But I offer no apology, either to you or to the public. Indeed, I have none to offer. Whether I regret matters not to you. Neither does the awful, heart-piercing remorse which has, in these last days, so tortured me.

No! all that concerns you is the truth regarding my disgraceful past. My future, now that I am passing in silence to the great Unknown, lies in my own hands.

If I spoke of atonement, you yourself would accuse me of hypocrisy, and dismiss me as a canting humbug. Therefore, upon that one point I am silent.

I intend only to relate hard, solid facts, and leave you to form your own conclusions.

Before dilating on some of the various incidents which occurred in my career after I became a qualified medical man, however, it would be as well, I think, if I gave you a little information about my earlier days. Not that I wish to make any excuses for myself or my doings, but simply to give you an idea as to my more youthful experiences and doings.

As you know, I qualified comparatively late in life. I was twenty-six before I could write those eight letters, M.R.C.S., L.R.C.P., after my name, which not only enabled me to practise medicine and surgery, but also, above all other things, gave me the power to sign a death-certificate.

That is the all-important point. Knowledge is power.

Most students of medicine become qualified at somewhere about twenty-three or four, but when I should have been doing well I had made a rather poor mess of things.

A father who had cut down his own personal expenses to a minimum, and a mother who, late in life, continued to churn her own butter at our Sussex farmhouse-home in order to provide me with a reasonable income, had both been grievously disappointed.

I had been sent up to Oxford, like so many others, with the reputation of a budding scholar; but instead of doing anything of note, I simply obtained a pass-degree which, as you know, means very little indeed; and then, after putting in another couple of years at Guy’s, I found myself no further on, having still my intermediate-final to pass, nor, indeed, could I have answered many simple questions in anatomy or physiology, although my knowledge of billiards, bridge, actors and actresses was remarkably good.

Thus, when my father died suddenly, and with him my income, the chances I possessed of becoming a practitioner of medicine had apparently disappeared, for what he did leave was only just enough to keep my mother and sisters in genteel poverty.

“What the devil am I fit for?” I asked my friend Aitkin one day. “I might become a billiard-marker, or a racing tout; but I’m not fit for much else. I really am a most useless beggar.”

“Poor old chap,” said he, “you’re badly hipped, and well you may be, but don’t chuck up the sponge. Put an advertisement in the Telegraph. Sit down, man, and write it straight away. I’ll see to it for you.”

Poor old Tom! he was a good chap–peace to his ashes–he was shot in a drinking-bar in California.

Well, I wrote as he suggested:

“Young Gentleman; Oxford degree; some knowledge of medicine; accustomed to good society; musical, speaks French well, desires post as secretary or travelling companion–D’Escombe, Telegraph Office, Fleet Street.”

“That’s all right,” laughed Tom, “but you don’t mention your real accomplishments, I notice. You should add, ‘Has taken prizes for consumption of beer; an excellent pool-player; irresistible manner with ladies, and wide experience in card playing.’”

“Don’t be a fool, Tom,” I growled. “Take the infernal scribble away–much good will it do.”

“Farewell!” said Tom dramatically, and the next I heard about the advertisement, three days later, was a letter forwarded to my lodgings from the Telegraph office, asking me to call at a house in Redcliffe Gardens on the following afternoon.

In the interim I had refused my mother’s offer to go home for a while, and had sorted out my goods and chattels, many of which I sold at a great loss, as was but natural.

In the event of the advertisement being a failure I had decided to try my luck in America. However, here was a possibility. I looked at the letter a second and third time–expensive paper, with a faint perfume about it; faint, but very distinctive. It is a curious fact, but one never forgets a smell in the way one loses a name, or a face. The nose is the most reliable of organs. It cannot forget, but always recognizes any odour out of the common which has once been smelt; and this perfume, even to the present day, brings back to me the memory of my bare, untidy lodgings off Tottenham Court Road on that last day of my freedom from serious and worldly affairs.

The letter was written in a feminine hand, neat but unformed, and concluded with a bold masculine signature: “Horatio Augustus Featherson.”

I clothed myself that afternoon in a blue serge suit–luckily my wardrobe was well stocked and in good condition–and looking in the glass to view the tout ensemble saw, not the professional-looking individual whom you have known as More d’Escombe, but a slight, dark young man, with a–I may as well say it–clean-cut, rather handsome face, a small waxed dark moustache, and a clear, almost olive, complexion.

I do not wish to eulogize my appearance as it then was, for after all, good looks are only worth what they will bring to the pocket, and depend upon the country and surroundings in which one lives; a man or woman passing as handsome in one continent may be looked upon as positively ugly in another. It all depends on the standard of beauty in the immediate market.

A smartly-dressed housemaid showed me to the presence of Mr. Featherson, who, immaculately dressed, was sitting reading in a cosily furnished smoking-room.

As I entered, he rose, and I saw that he had greatly the advantage of me in height, and was thin and aristocratic in appearance. He could not have been less than six feet two.

“Good afternoon, Mr. d’Escombe,” he said in a pleasant voice as he shook hands, “it’s very good of you to come at such short notice, I’m sure. Will you smoke?” And as he motioned me to a chair he handed me a box of “Sultans,” such as I had smoked myself in palmier days. “Would you be so kind, Mr. d’Escombe,” he continued rather stiffly, “as to give me some idea why you are seeking such a post as you mention? What references you propose to offer, and what experience, if any, of clerical work you have had?”

My answer to this was, as I had pre-determined, to tell the whole story of my crass stupidity in the past, and thus show my condition in the present.

“You appear to have a rather pleasing capacity for enjoying yourself, Mr. d’Escombe,” said he, with a grim smile on his thin face, which showed two gold-stopped teeth through his drooping grey moustache, and which caused at the same time innumerable tiny wrinkles to appear at the corners of his deep-set, calm grey eyes. “But other things being equal, I think you will do for me excellently. You see, I want a man who, while possessing some common sense, is willing to be instructed by me to do things in my way–fallow ground to work on, as it were–and I gather that by now you have sown and reaped the majority of your wild oats.”

“I think I have,” I laughed. “And I will certainly do my very best to meet your requirements–if you are so good as to give me a chance.” And yet, Laurence, as I said it the curious glitter in the man’s eyes, an undefinable something in his manner, gave me the idea that he was not exactly “straight.” Still, I could do nothing; it would have been sheer madness to refuse.

“I’m going abroad in a couple of days,” he said; “I and my daughter. Could you join me here to-morrow? Oh! and as to salary. I can offer you a hundred a year, and pay all your expenses–reasonable expenses, that is,” and as he smiled his eyes contracted and the thousand tiny wrinkles got deeper, and many others quite unsuspected suddenly appeared.

“I can be here at any time you wish, Mr. Featherson,” was my answer. “I have only to pack a couple of bags.”

“Very well, then; to-morrow for lunch at one-thirty.” He pressed the electric bell, saying, “The maid will show you the way out. Au revoir.” I opened the door expecting to see the maid, but as she did not appear I closed it after me, intending to find my own way out. It was all very curious, I thought. No further word as to references–nothing as to notice. He seemed to have, as it were, jumped at me.

I was on the point of letting myself out of the front door when a girl came into the hall–a girl, I say, but I cannot describe her adequately. She was beyond the limits of my poor powers, but sweet, delicate, wonderfully pretty, were the impressions on my mind at the moment. She appeared to be quite young, and dressed in white. Her great, dark eyes were open widely as she came, her finger suggestively raised, rapidly towards me.

“You are Mr. d’Escombe?” she said in a low, half-frightened whisper, and as she said it the perfume on the writing-paper was no secret, for I now smelt it a second time–a sweet, subtle scent.

“Have you seen my father?” she asked, as I nodded assent to her first question, too taken aback by her attitude and sudden appearance to speak.

“Yes, thank you,” I answered in a low voice, recovering my self-possession; “but what––”

She held up her hand. “S-shh! Please don’t talk, Mr. d’Escombe. I want to warn you. Don’t come back here, on any account.”

She glanced apprehensively at the staircase and continued, “I don’t want my father to know that I’ve seen you, but please, please don’t come back. You’ll regret it very, very deeply.”

And then, as a noise came from somewhere above, she turned, saying, “For your own sake go away, and do not return,” and disappeared quickly through a door near; while I, my brain awhirl, let myself quietly out of the hall door.

Once again I found myself in the street, away from the mysterious house and its strange occupants. I walked on utterly dumbfounded. “Don’t come back–regret it–” what could she mean, and who was she? Featherson’s daughter? He had mentioned a daughter.

Certainly it was a most amazing and curious state of affairs, but one thing I was determined upon. I would go back, and all the more readily if that sweet-faced girl were to be one of the party to go abroad; and besides what could happen? It was certain that I should keep my eyes very wide open after receiving that mysterious warning.

As a matter of fact, I felt bucked up and buoyant in the face of that afternoon’s happenings. “Hurrah,” I thought with glee, “I’m in for a real good thing–with a spice of adventure in it!”

I spent a busy evening writing letters and packing, and next day, at half-past one, ascended the steps of the house of Featherson, a man staggering behind me with two large kit bags and a suit case.

Featherson himself came into the hall as I entered and invited me into his den.

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