Semper Idem by Jack London
Doctor Bicknell was in a remarkably gracious mood. Through a minor
accident, a slight bit of carelessness, that was all, a man who might have
pulled through had died the preceding night. Though it had been only a
sailorman, one of the innumerable unwashed, the steward of the receiving
hospital had been on the anxious seat all the morning. It was not that the
man had died that gave him discomfort, he knew the Doctor too well for
that, but his distress lay in the fact that the operation had been done so
well. One of the most delicate in surgery, it had been as successful as it
was clever and audacious. All had then depended upon the treatment, the
nurses, the steward. And the man had died. Nothing much, a bit of
carelessness, yet enough to bring the professional wrath of Doctor
Bicknell about his ears and to perturb the working of the staff and nurses
for twenty-four hours to come.
But, as already stated, the Doctor was in a remarkably gracious mood. When
informed by the steward, in fear and trembling, of the man's unexpected
take-off, his lips did not so much as form one syllable of censure; nay,
they were so pursed that snatches of rag-time floated softly from them, to
be broken only by a pleasant query after the health of the other's
eldest-born. The steward, deeming it impossible that he could have caught
the gist of the case, repeated it.
"Yes, yes," Doctor Bicknell said impatiently; "I understand. But how about
Semper Idem? Is he ready to leave?"
"Yes. They're helping him dress now," the steward answered, passing on to
the round of his duties, content that peace still reigned within the
It was Semper Idem's recovery which had so fully compensated Doctor
Bicknell for the loss of the sailorman. Lives were to him as nothing, the
unpleasant but inevitable incidents of the profession, but cases, ah,
cases were everything. People who knew him were prone to brand him a
butcher, but his colleagues were at one in the belief that a bolder and
yet a more capable man never stood over the table. He was not an
imaginative man. He did not possess, and hence had no tolerance for,
emotion. His nature was accurate, precise, scientific. Men were to him no
more than pawns, without individuality or personal value. But as cases it
was different. The more broken a man was, the more precarious his grip on
life, the greater his significance in the eyes of Doctor Bicknell. He
would as readily forsake a poet laureate suffering from a common accident
for a nameless, mangled vagrant who defied every law of life by refusing
to die, as would a child forsake a Punch and Judy for a circus.
So it had been in the case of Semper Idem. The mystery of the man had not
appealed to him, nor had his silence and the veiled romance which the
yellow reporters had so sensationally and so fruitlessly exploited in
divers Sunday editions. But Semper Idem's throat had been cut. That was
the point. That was where his interest had centred. Cut from ear to ear,
and not one surgeon in a thousand to give a snap of the fingers for his
chance of recovery. But, thanks to the swift municipal ambulance service
and to Doctor Bicknell, he had been dragged back into the world he had
sought to leave. The Doctor's co-workers had shaken their heads when the
case was brought in. Impossible, they said. Throat, windpipe, jugular, all
but actually severed, and the loss of blood frightful. As it was such a
foregone conclusion, Doctor Bicknell had employed methods and done things
which made them, even in their professional capacities, shudder. And lo!
the man had recovered.
So, on this morning that Semper Idem was to leave the hospital, hale and
hearty, Doctor Bicknell's geniality was in nowise disturbed by the
steward's report, and he proceeded cheerfully to bring order out of the
chaos of a child's body which had been ground and crunched beneath the
wheels of an electric car.
As many will remember, the case of Semper Idem aroused a vast deal of
unseemly yet highly natural curiosity. He had been found in a slum
lodging, with throat cut as aforementioned, and blood dripping down upon
the inmates of the room below and disturbing their festivities. He had
evidently done the deed standing, with head bowed forward that he might
gaze his last upon a photograph which stood on the table propped against a
candlestick. It was this attitude which had made it possible for Doctor
Bicknell to save him. So terrific had been the sweep of the razor that had
he had his head thrown back, as he should have done to have accomplished
the act properly, with his neck stretched and the elastic vascular walls
distended, he would have of a certainty well-nigh decapitated himself.
At the hospital, during all the time he travelled the repugnant road back
to life, not a word had left his lips. Nor could anything be learned of
him by the sleuths detailed by the chief of police. Nobody knew him, nor
had ever seen or heard of him before. He was strictly, uniquely, of the
present. His clothes and surroundings were those of the lowest labourer,
his hands the hands of a gentleman. But not a shred of writing was
discovered, nothing, save in one particular, which would serve to indicate
his past or his position in life.
And that one particular was the photograph. If it were at all a likeness,
the woman who gazed frankly out upon the onlooker from the card-mount must
have been a striking creature indeed. It was an amateur production, for
the detectives were baffled in that no professional photographer's
signature or studio was appended. Across a corner of the mount, in
delicate feminine tracery, was written: "Semper idem; semper fidelis." And
she looked it. As many recollect, it was a face one could never forget.
Clever half-tones, remarkably like, were published in all the leading
papers at the time; but such procedure gave rise to nothing but the
uncontrollable public curiosity and interminable copy to the
For want of a better name, the rescued suicide was known to the hospital
attendants, and to the world, as Semper Idem. And Semper Idem he remained.
Reporters, detectives, and nurses gave him up in despair. Not one word
could he be persuaded to utter; yet the flitting conscious light of his
eyes showed that his ears heard and his brain grasped every question put
But this mystery and romance played no part in Doctor Bicknell's interest
when he paused in the office to have a parting word with his patient. He,
the Doctor, had performed a prodigy in the matter of this man, done what
was virtually unprecedented in the annals of surgery. He did not care who
or what the man was, and it was highly improbable that he should ever see
him again; but, like the artist gazing upon a finished creation, he wished
to look for the last time upon the work of his hand and brain.
Semper Idem still remained mute. He seemed anxious to be gone. Not a word
could the Doctor extract from him, and little the Doctor cared. He
examined the throat of the convalescent carefully, idling over the hideous
scar with the lingering, half-caressing fondness of a parent. It was not a
particularly pleasing sight. An angry line circled the throat—for
all the world as though the man had just escaped the hangman's noose—and,
disappearing below the ear on either side, had the appearance of
completing the fiery periphery at the nape of the neck.
Maintaining his dogged silence, yielding to the other's examination in
much the manner of a leashed lion, Semper Idem betrayed only his desire to
drop from out of the public eye.
"Well, I'll not keep you," Doctor Bicknell finally said, laying a hand on
the man's shoulder and stealing a last glance at his own handiwork. "But
let me give you a bit of advice. Next time you try it on, hold your chin
up, so. Don't snuggle it down and butcher yourself like a cow. Neatness
and despatch, you know. Neatness and despatch."
Semper Idem's eyes flashed in token that he heard, and a moment later the
hospital door swung to on his heel.
It was a busy day for Doctor Bicknell, and the afternoon was well along
when he lighted a cigar preparatory to leaving the table upon which it
seemed the sufferers almost clamoured to be laid. But the last one, an old
rag-picker with a broken shoulder-blade, had been disposed of, and the
first fragrant smoke wreaths had begun to curl about his head, when the
gong of a hurrying ambulance came through the open window from the street,
followed by the inevitable entry of the stretcher with its ghastly
"Lay it on the table," the Doctor directed, turning for a moment to place
his cigar in safety. "What is it?"
"Suicide—throat cut," responded one of the stretcher bearers. "Down
on Morgan Alley. Little hope, I think, sir. He's 'most gone."
"Eh? Well, I'll give him a look, anyway." He leaned over the man at the
moment when the quick made its last faint flutter and succumbed.
"It's Semper Idem come back again," the steward said.
"Ay," replied Doctor Bicknell, "and gone again. No bungling this time.
Properly done, upon my life, sir, properly done. Took my advice to the
letter. I'm not required here. Take it along to the morgue."
Doctor Bicknell secured his cigar and relighted it. "That," he said
between the puffs, looking at the steward, "that evens up for the one you
lost last night. We're quits now."