CHAPTER ONE: London, 1890
“Dr. Watson, may I introduce you to Dr. Cullen?”
Dr. Aubrey had summoned me from my practice in Paddington to consult with him on a rather thorny case of his at Saint Thomas’s Hospital in Southwark. The patient, a retired lieutenant colonel, complained of stomach pains. He insisted that the cause was a jezail bullet in his abdomen which he obtained when he was wounded during a skirmish in the Khyber Pass. Since the onset of his current pain was sudden and excruciating, Dr. Aubrey surmised that the cause could not in fact be the old bullet, but the lieutenant colonel obstinately refused surgery because he’d been told that the bullet was lodged dangerously near his spine.
In desperation, Dr. Aubrey consulted me, knowing that I too had served in her majesty’s forces in Afghanistan, and guessing rightly that his patient was more likely to be convinced by a fellow veteran of the Afghan campaign than by a civilian doctor. Together we prevailed upon the man to have the surgery necessary to remove the appendix which Dr. Aubrey was certain was the cause of his discomfort. No surgical rooms were available this late in the day since they were already scheduled for other procedures, so the surgery would commence first thing the next morning, and I agreed to drop by later after my consulting hours to check on the patient.
We’d just exited the lieutenant colonel’s room and were embarking on our journey down the hall when Aubrey spoke to me. A gaggle of young doctors stood talking in front of a room, consulting their notes. Aubrey lowered his voice as he walked towards them, dodging a nursing sister with a cart as he spoke.
“I’m indebted to you, Dr. Watson, for not even the persuasive Dr. Cullen could move my patient into consenting to the surgery which I am sure will save his life, and Dr. Cullen can usually charm the birds from the trees.”
I could see no signs of prepossessing charm in any of the doctors huddled together. To the contrary, all appeared tired and glum, the natural condition for doctors during their long hours of training as I well remembered from my days at Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital.
Just beyond them, however, stood a man bidding farewell to a woman in a green wool walking gown. She was holding the hand of a small golden haired child at her side. The similar hue of the mother’s coiffure, peeking out from under her hat, pronounced them mother and daughter. The woman smiled as she shook the doctor’s hand, the expression briefly lightening features drawn with pain, before she led the child away towards the stairs.
As she left, the man turned to watch her go. Gaslight from a fixture on the wall illuminated a visage both handsome and pensive as he gazed after his retreating patient. His hair was robustly flaxen in a manner that argued Viking or Anglo-Saxon ancestors in his distant past. A noble nose, classically appointed features and the pallor common to many during our long English winters reminded me of a statue of a young Adonis from a museum, unaccountably transported in modern dress to the halls of Saint Thomas’s hospital. Here was an impressive example of English manhood, and it was no wonder his patient had smiled at him despite her pain.
“Dr. Cullen, I presume?” I muttered back to Dr. Aubrey, indicating the gentleman as we drew near.
Aubrey either didn’t hear me or pretended not to as he called out a hearty greeting.
“Cullen, my good man. I’ve brought Dr. Watson to meet you.”
The man stepped forward smiling, for very few can resist Aubrey’s particular brand of cheerfulness. In his eyes there was an expression of kindness and ready compassion that one very much likes to see in young doctors. Too often the unavoidable failures experienced in our profession can instill a certain clinical jadedness. There was none of that in Cullen.
Aubrey stopped at Dr. Cullen’s side and continued. “Dr. Carlisle Cullen is one of the best surgeons Saint Thomas’s Hospital can boast.”
“How do you do, Dr. Cullen?”
We shook hands briefly. He had a firm grip, and looked me straight in the eye as he did so. His hands were cold. These old hospitals were notorious for their lack of good central heating.
“Very well indeed, Dr. Watson. May I ask if you are the Dr. Watson who wrote the stories of Sherlock Holmes?”
“Why yes,” I replied, surprised and pleased, for I’d only just published the two of them, ‘A Study in Scarlet’ first and ‘The Sign of the Four’ last year.
An even warmer smile graced Dr. Cullen’s face. “Then I am more than pleased to meet you, Dr. Watson, for I am an avid reader and your account of Mr. Holmes’ methods of detection quite captivated me. I hope you plan to write more?”
Aubrey smiled apologetically and moved to join the younger doctors down the hall as their conversation grew heated. It wouldn’t do to have doctors seen arguing. I was rather glad he’d gone for I was new to publishing, though not to writing, and the intersection of my medical and creative pursuits was not something I was entirely comfortable with. Most doctors, if they publish at all, stick to medical treatises, but my adventures with Sherlock Holmes were just too invigorating to keep to myself. Not that Holmes understood. It was the thrill of the chase that moved him, not the recording thereof.
“Yes, well, perhaps,” I allowed. “There are plenty more tales where those came from,” I hinted. Whether Holmes would allow me to publish them, I neglected to add, was another matter.
“You encourage my hopes,” said Cullen. “I find Mr. Holmes’ abilities fascinating, and your writing style most engaging.”
I felt myself growing pink with embarrassment so I hurried to change the subject.
“And what of you, Dr. Cullen? Dr. Aubrey tells me you are a very good surgeon. Will you undertake Lieutenant Colonel Waverly’s surgery tomorrow morning?”
An expression of regret crossed Dr. Cullen’s perfect features.
“I’m afraid I cannot. I work the night shift. I only came in a little earlier than usual to see some patients.”
“Don’t let him fool you,” Dr. Aubrey said, returning to our side. “Since the winter months commenced Dr. Cullen has been coming in earlier and earlier. He’s practically taken over our emergency patients in the late afternoon. My only regret is that I leave work just as he is coming in, so we aren’t able to consult together as often as I’d like.”
With a few more complimentary remarks on all sides, the conversation ended and I thought no more of the encounter until the next day when I returned to Saint Thomas’s Hospital to check on the lieutenant colonel. It was later than I’d planned, and the winter’s sun was ready to sink beneath the horizon out the window when I left Waverly’s room. Aubrey had very likely saved his life by insisting on surgery. The appendix was near to bursting when the surgeon removed it that morning, but so long as infection did not set in, Waverly stood a fair chance of survival.
It was with a slight thrill of fear that I heard my name emanating from the shadows as I descended the steps of Saint Thomas’s, until I saw that it was Dr. Cullen detaching himself from the side of the building. He moved with a sort of soundless grace that reminded me uncomfortably of a mountain lion stalking its prey. I shook off my fanciful impression and came forward to shake his hand.
“I must speak with you,” he intoned in a low voice, glancing up at the main entrance to the hospital.
“Of course, of course, shall we go inside?”
“No, if you don’t mind,” he answered, and with surprising firmness he took my elbow and drew me away from the hospital, turning the corner just as Aubrey’s voice, coupled with some of his fellow doctors, came boisterously from behind us. Aubrey was a good fellow, but difficult to resist and many was the time ‘just one drink’ turned into five or six before I could detach myself from his brand of conviviality.
Cullen led me to a small pub frequented by the working class, dockworkers and fishermen mostly. It was clean and relatively quiet. Cullen brought us two pints and watched as I tasted mine and pronounced it drinkable. I noticed that he barely touched his, but chalked it up to his emotional state as he told his tale.
“Dr. Watson, I have a problem and I don’t know who to turn to. With the…peculiarities of my schedule I can’t seem to solve it myself and I am at a loss.”
The poor fellow was obviously unused to feeling stymied. We doctors often fall prey to the idea that our word is law in the medical field, and I’ve noticed that surgeons especially tend to acquire a certain arrogance that comes from holding life and death in their skilled hands. However, Cullen did not strike me as having that sort of arrogance.
“Just have it out, my dear chap, and I promise I’ll do what I can.”
He seemed to pull himself together at my words and began his story.
“Do you remember the woman and child I was speaking to before you met me? The woman gave her name as Mrs. Peterson, and her daughter is Emily. She came into the hospital complaining of headaches, awful debilitating headaches. I examined her and in the course of my examination it came out that she was the widow of a first mate on a ship that went down less than a year ago. She and her daughter are alone in the world as both she and her husband were orphaned in their teens, and were both only children. Her financial situation is precarious. She has a small annuity from a grandparent, and works as a singing teacher to supplement her meager income now that her husband is no longer present to provide for her. I tell you this to explain why I believe it is the stress of her situation rather than physical causes which brought upon her headaches. She also felt for some time that a malevolent presence has been watching her, but I thought it part and parcel of her pain and discounted it.”
I hmmed in agreement. The fairer sex often has fancies that we mere men can not comprehend. My own wife, Mary, has a disproportional aversion to insects.
Dr. Cullen drew his hand through his hair and stared moodily at his pint of ale.
“I wish now that I’d taken her a bit more seriously for she’s disappeared.”
“What? Good God!”
The man gave a small bitter smile. “This very morning at the end of my shift I walked out of the hospital and saw Emily sitting on the steps. She’d tried all night long to drum up the courage to go in and find me but wasn’t able to so she waited for me to come out. It’s a mercy it didn’t snow last night, for she would have surely frozen out there.”
“Dreadful!” I murmured. The thought of a little girl freezing to death on the very steps of a hospital was all too horrifically possible in a busy institution such as Saint Thomas’s where a child could easily be overlooked by those coming and going.
“Quite,” Cullen agreed. “She said that a ‘wrong’ man had taken her mother away, and since Emily didn’t know how to get home without her mother, she’d retraced her steps to the hospital and waited for me. Her mother told her never to cross London Bridge without her, so she couldn’t try to get home without going against her mother’s wishes even had she remembered the way. I knew Mrs. Peterson and Emily were alone in the world so without much other choice I took the child to my rooms and prevailed upon my part-time housekeeper to move in temporarily to keep an eye on her as I tried to find out what happened to her mother. I’ve spent the day speaking to Mrs. Peterson’s landlord, a most disagreeable person, but all he told me was that Mrs. Peterson was a respectable woman who would never leave her child alone, but that for the first time in years she did not return home last night. He seemed more concerned with the loss of her rent money than her safety and well-being. I did some digging and found the address of a cousin of Mrs. Peterson’s in America and I’ve written to her explaining the situation, but it will be some time before I hear back.”
Considering the state of the mails overseas, it was likely that Cullen would indeed be forced to care for the child for more than a few days. He seemed young for a surgeon, and young bachelors and small children do not usually mesh well.
“I need to engage the services of Mr. Holmes to find out what happened to Mrs. Peterson,” said Cullen. “And I need it done discreetly. You know what gossips hospital staffs are, and if it gets out that I am caring for a motherless child…”
“Quite, quite,” I said hurriedly. Cullen was right. People would immediately jump to the conclusion that Emily was perhaps Cullen’s own illegitimate child. It was to his credit that he was willing to take in the girl rather than send her to the uncaring bosom of the police, but then again…
“Why not consult the police?” I asked. “Not that Holmes couldn’t solve your case, but the police are used to searching for missing persons.”
Cullen’s hands tightened on his pint. I thought for a moment that I heard the glass begin to crack, but his fingers loosened immediately as he answered.
“I don’t wish to cause Mrs. Peterson any embarrassment or anxiety if it turns out that there is a perfectly innocent and logical explanation for her disappearance. Her migraines could get worse in such a case, and besides, I don’t think she’s been gone long enough for the police to treat the situation as seriously as it deserves.”
“I see your point,” I conceded. “But surely, reuniting a mother and her child…”
“That’s why I wish to hire Mr. Holmes, anonymously, to look into the case. He is certainly more skilled than the police at finding answers to near-impossible cases, isn’t he?”
What could I do but assent? I more than anyone knew the talents of Sherlock Holmes. When all seemed lost, when the best minds Scotland Yard had to offer were at a complete loss, Holmes always came through.
“I’ll do it,” I told him. “I’ll take your case to Sherlock Holmes.”
TO BE CONTINUED