30 October 2010

An Unprofitable Servant

            “Poor Old Parkes,” he was generally called when we were fellow-students together at St. Chad’s Hospital, and, by those who knew him best. “Poor old Tom.” He was such a funny, original sort of fellow—a queer mingling of the casual and the hard working. It was several times more than once hinted to him that he might be wiser in adopting some other than the medical profession: but he always shook his head over such a proposition. “No, no! It’s the finest profession in the world, and I’m going to stick to it.”
            He had some lofty notions about a doctor’s work and the moral influence a doctor ought to have over his patients, and I couldn’t help wondering what sort of influence poor old Tom would have over his patients, if he ever got any.
            I left him behind me at St. Chad’s when my hospital days were over, and for eight years I did not set foot in London.
            Shortly after my return I called upon the Dean of the Medical School, and asked him if he could give me any news of Parkes. He gave me the address of a street about half an hour’s walk from St. Chad’s, and thither I repaired on the following evening with a laudable determination to find Tom Parkes and cheer him up a bit. “For it must be precious dull living in these slums,” I thought, as I walked down a forlorn little street. The dwellers on Paradise Street evidently used the road as their dust bin and general rubbish heap. It bore no resemblance to any paradise. Each house exactly resembled its neighbor in grayness and dreariness, but over one door was a red lamp, and upon the door a small brass plate, bearing the words, “Tom Parkes, Surgeon.”
            The door was opened almost at once, and Tom himself stood before me. His face was older, and thinner, and whiter. His eyes grew bright when he caught sight of me.
            “Why, Marlowe,” he exclaimed, “I am jolly glad to see you! Do you mind coming in? My landlady is out today, and we’re in a bit of a muddle. I’m free just this minute, but I expect some patients will drop in presently and I may be sent for, too.”
            “Making your fortune, eh, Parkes?” I asked, as I followed him down a grimy passage into a small, dingy room.
            “Not much,” he answered. “You see, you can’t take fees much from people who—well, who are starving themselves.”
            I glanced sharply at him. His own face was terribly thin, and his eyes had a curious sunken look. I had not been with him more than a quarter of an hour when a knock came at the door. Tom answered it in person and returned, accompanied by an old lady. “That’s another doctor, Grannie,” he said, nodding towards me; “You don’t mind, do you?”
            The old lady, having signified that she had no objection to my presence, proceeded to give a lengthy account of her ailments. Parkes listened to it all with a patient interest. Having taken up a half hour of his time, she arose to go.
            “Oh, doctor dear,” she whispered, as he told her to send up in the morning for some fresh medicine, “and I ain’t got nothin’ to give you for your kindness. Will you let it go till next time? Jem, he’s heard of a job, and if he was to get it—“ a faint smile shone in Tom’s eyes. “All right, Grannie,” he said gently. “Times are hard, just now aren’t they?”
            The same thing happened over and over again that evening. Half-starved looking men and women shamefacedly asked to be let off any payment, and the same answer met them all, in a cheery voice, which did not seem to go with Tom’s thin, bent form.
            “Oh, that will be all right. We’ll settle up when times are better, won’t we?”
            When the last patient had gone he turned to me, his face flushing. “I say, Marlowe,” he said, “I’m awfully sorry I can’t offer you supper; but the truth is my landlady is out, and—and so I shan’t have my supper at home.” He tried to speak jocosely, but my own impression was that he did not expect to have any supper anywhere.
            “Look here, old fellow,” I said, “I’m going to have something somewhere. Come with me for auld lang syhn.”
            “I’d like to come,” he said, “I’ve got a lot of patients to see later—and I’d be glad of a snack of something first.”
            Before we parted I tried to persuade him to let me help him a little, putting it as nicely as I could, saying I knew that doctoring in a poor neighborhood was uphill work. But he shook his head. “It’s awfully good of you, but I don’t know when I could pay back, and I shouldn’t like a debt.”
            A summons to a distant part of England kept me out of town for three weeks, and when next I went to the house in Paradise Street, poor old Parkes did not open the door to me. A frowsy landlady confronted me. “The Doctor, Sir? ‘E’s awful bad. ‘E’s got up, though I persuaded him not to, with such a cough. But ‘e says, ‘I must see to my patients, an’ so ‘es sittin’ in his room as ought to be in bed. ‘E bin and starved ‘isself, and many’s the time I’ve brought ‘im in a bite of somethin’ we’ve bin ‘avin’, and ‘e always says so cheery, “now that’s kind of you, Mrs. Jones’, and never missed paying the rent, neither, though land knows ‘ow ‘e got it.”
            I pushed past her into the consulting room, and there sat Tom in the arm chair beside an apology for a fire, coughing, gasping for breath. A wonderful relief came into his face when he saw me.
            “I’m—I’m awfully glad to see you,” he whispered. “I’ve got—a touch of the flu—I think--such a lot about—such bad nights—so many sick—and dying—and dying----
            He rambled on while the landlady and I brought his bed into the room and I lifted him upon it.
            We did our best for him, but the Physician I brought only shook his head significantly and said, “Absolutely hopeless.”
            I sat with him that same night. Towards morning his restlessness ceased, and he turned clear eyes upon me and said;
            “I’ve made a poor thing of it—and I meant to do big things. I say—what’s that about—an unprofitable servant? I—meant to do—a lot. I’ve done nothing—nothing—an unprofitable servant.”
            “There’s something else in the Book,” I answered, “isn’t there about a good and faithful servant? That’s nearer the mark for you.”
            A smile crept over his face. “Unprofitable or—faithful? Which?” he murmered. They were the last words I heard from poor old Parkes’ lips.
            I was obliged to go out of town again for the three days after his death, but made all arrangements that the funeral should be a decent one, and I determined to be present, for I couldn’t bear to think of his going lonely to his last, long rest.
            There was a gleam of wintry sun upon London as I walked quickly through The Boro’ on the morning of Tom’s funeral, a bunch of white flowers in my hand. I didn’t like to think that no one would put a flower on his coffin, and I knew he had no relations.
            As I entered the thoroughfare out of which Paradise Street opens, I was surprised to find myself upon the outskirts of a dense crowd of people. The traffic was at a stand still; the few policemen present were powerless to do anything with the mass of human beings that stretched as far down the street as I could see and blocked every corner. In fact, the police had given up attempting to do anything but keep order, which was not difficult, for a more silent, well-behaved crowd I never saw. I looked in vain for its cause. No signs of a fire were visible.
            As I pressed my way into the crowd I noticed that many eyes were filled with tears and I heard remarks such as “He saved my little Willie,” “He came the night Mary died when no other doctor would step a foot into that awful storm.” And then I knew that this mass of humanity was giving its verdict on ‘Poor Old Parkes.’
            Yes, he had been a faithful and a profitable servant, but the verdict and the earthly reward had come too late.
                        --From the collection of Mrs. C. W. Dortch

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