The Adventures of Dick Maitland A Tale of Unknown Africa

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The Catastrophe.

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....