John Nicholson studies law and lives in Edinburgh with his father, Mr Nicholson, and younger siblings Maria and Alexander. One day John is sent on business to the bank to deposit £400. On the way, he visits a billiard hall to call on his friend Alan Houston, a friendship John’s father forbids. Alan asks John to pawn his watch and lend him the money. He promises to pay him later that evening at Collette’s, a disreputable bar. John agrees, but once he’s pawned the watch he finds the bank is closed and he cannot deposit the £400
Deciding to sort it all out later, he enjoys an evening with the woman he loves, Flora Mackenzie. Later that night, in the Calton Hill area of the city, he is robbed of the £400. Miserable, he goes to Collette’s to meet Alan. Unfortunately, he is arrested for attending an unlicensed establishment.
John goes to his father and ashamedly confesses to the arrest, the stolen money, the pawned watch (his dead mother’s), and his recent fraternizing with Alan.
Furious and hurt by his son’s actions, his father leaves the house. John cannot bear the suspense, and taking some of his father’s money, leaves a note saying he will pay it back.
John then leaves for San Francisco, where he lives for ten years without ever communicating with his family. He is now successful and wealthy: he has a job as a bank clerk, and he also befriends a man who gives him good advice on the stock market. Significantly, he keeps his money in a bank other than the one he works for. John now vows to visit his father, return the money he borrowed, and ask forgiveness.
Having left some clerking business unfinished, he gives a fellow clerk, Kirkman, a letter to give to the bank explaining he is returning to Edinburgh. He also encloses £300 of bonds, but the unreliable Kirkman becomes so intoxicated he is sent to convalesce in Sacramento. As a result, the bank does not receive the letter and bonds for two and a half months.
When John does not return to work and £300 is found missing, the bank becomes suspicious. They discover John’s other bank account where he has amassed his fortune from the stocks. Assuming he embezzled funds and fled, they wire to Edinburgh to send the police for him. MacEwen, a friend of Mr Nicholson, receives the message and immediately informs him of his son’s problems. Mr Nicholson writes a cheque for £300, hoping this will save the family from scandal.
Meanwhile, John is blissfully unaware of all of the events unfolding around him. However, when he returns home his father tells him he never wants to see him again. He also warns him that the law is after him.
Devastated, and confused about his father’s warnings, John drowns his sorrows at a bar. He then drunkenly takes a cab to Alan’s house. Alan behaves very peculiarly, and assuming he is also drunk, John goes to bed. He awakes to find the corpse of a strange man in the dining room. Alan has meanwhile fled.
Accidentally getting blood on his trousers, John changes and flees the house to search for a cab. Unfortunately, John is unable to pay the cabbie as his wallet is still in the bloodied trousers at Alan’s house. Worse still, the cabbie now recognizes him from his youth in Edinburgh – and could bear witness to him fleeing the scene of a murder.
Panicked, John flees and returns home. There he finds Flora, now a sick nurse, who has been caring for his sister Maria. He tells both Flora and his brother Alexander all his woes and when they ask him about the embezzlement he explains that Kirkman has the money.
Alexander wires to San Francisco and the bank confirm John’s innocence. With the help of explanations from Flora and Alexander, Mr Nicholson forgives his son.
Alan turns out to be quite mad and is taken to Morningside Asylum. He had murdered the man in his house, an evicted tenant of his, because he had pursued and threatened him relentlessly. At the end of the story, John and Flora marry.
Image courtesy of Capital Collections