Ernest Hornung.

The Crime Doctor



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Dollar played a while with a queer plain steel ruler, out of keeping with his other possessions, though it too had its history. It stood on end before he let it alone and looked up.

"General Dysone, there must be some sort of reason or foundation for all this. Has anything alarming happened since you have been at – Valsugana?"

"Nothing that firearms could prevent"

"Do you mind telling me what it is that has happened?"

"We had a tragedy in the winter – a suicide on the place."

"Ah!"

"Her gardener hanged himself. Hers, I say, because the garden is my wife's affair. I only paid the poor fellow his wages."

"Well, come, General, that was enough to depress anybody – "

"Yet she wouldn't have even that tree cut down – nor yet come away for a change – not for as much as a night in town!"

The interruption had come with another access of grim heat and further use of the General's handkerchief. Dollar took up his steel tube of a ruler and trained it like a spy-glass on the ink, with one eye as carefully closed as if the truth lay at the bottom of the blue-black well.

"Was there any rhyme or reason for the suicide?"

"One was suggested that I would rather not repeat."

The closed eye opened to find the blue pair fallen. "I think it might help, General. Mrs. Dysone is evidently a woman of strong character, and anything – "

"She is, God knows!" cried the miserable man. "Everybody knows it now – her servants especially – though nobody used to treat them better. Why, in India – but we'll let it go at that, if you don't mind. I have provided for the widow."

Dollar bowed over his bit of steel tubing, but this time put it down so hastily that it rolled off the table. General Dysone was towering over him with shaking hand outstretched.

"I can't say any more," he croaked. "You must come down and see her for yourself; then you could do the talking – and I shouldn't feel such a damned cur! By God, sir, it's awful, talking about one's own wife like this, even for her own good! It's worse than I thought it would be. I know it's different to a doctor – but – but you're an old soldierman as well, aren't you? Didn't I hear you were in the war?"

"I was."

"Well, then," cried the General, and his blue eyes lit up with simple cunning, "that's where we met! We've run up against each other again, and I've asked you down for this next week-end! Can you manage it? Are you free? I'll write you a check for your own fee this minute, if you like – there must be nothing of that kind down there. You don't mind being Captain Dollar again, if that was it, to my wife?"

His pathetic eagerness, his sensitive loyalty – even his sudden and solicitous zest in the pious fraud proposed – made between them an irresistible appeal. Dollar had to think; the rooms up-stairs were not empty; but none enshrined a more interesting case than this sounded. On the other hand, he had to be on his guard against a weakness for mere human interest as apart from the esoteric principles of his practise.

People might call him an empiric – empiric he was proud to be, but it was and must remain empiricism in one definite direction only. Psychical research was not for him – and the Dysone story had a psychic flavor.

In the end he said quite bluntly:

"I hope you don't suggest a ghost behind all this, General?"

"I? Lord, no! I don't believe in 'em," cried the warrior, with a nervous laugh.

"Does any member of your household?"

"Not – now."

"Not now?"

"No. I think I am right in saying that." But something was worrying him. "Perhaps it is also right," he continued, with the engaging candor of an overthrown reserve, "and only fair – since I take it you are coming – to tell you that there was a fellow with us who thought he saw things. But it was all the most utter moonshine. He saw brown devils in flowing robes, but what he'd taken before he saw them I can't tell you! He didn't stay with me long enough for us to get to know each other. But he wasn't just a servant, and it was before the poor gardener's affair. Like so many old soldiers on the shelf, Doctor Dollar, I am writing a book, and I run a secretary of sorts; now it's Jim Paley, a nephew of ours; and thank God he has more sense."

"Yet even he gets depressed?"

"He has had cause. If our own kith and kin behaved like one possessed – " He stopped himself yet again; this time his hand found Dollar's with a vibrant grip. "You will come, won't you? I can meet any train on Saturday, or any other day that suits you better. I – for her own sake, doctor – I sometimes feel it might be better if she went away for a time. But you will come and see her for yourself?"

Before he left it was a promise; a harder heart than John Dollar's would have ended by making it, and putting the new case before all others when the Saturday came. But it was not only his prospective patient whom the crime doctor was now really anxious to see; he felt fascinated in advance by the scene and every person of an indubitable drama, of which at least one tragic act was already over.

There was no question of meeting him at any station; the wealthy mother of a still recent patient had insisted on presenting Doctor Dollar with a fifteen-horse-power Talboys, which he had eventually accepted, and even chosen for himself (with certain expert assistance), as an incalculable contribution to the Cause. Already the car had vastly enlarged his theater of work; and on every errand his heart was lightened and his faith fortified by the wonderful case of the young chauffeur who sat so upright at the wheel beside him. In the beginning he had slouched there like the worst of his kind; it was neither precept nor reprimand which had straightened his back and his look and all about him. He was what John Dollar had always wanted – the unconscious patient whose history none knew – who himself little dreamed that it was all known to the man who treated him almost like a brother.

The boy had been in prison for dishonesty; he was being sedulously trusted, and so taught to trust himself. He had come in March, a sulky and suspicious clod; and now in June he could talk cricket and sixpenny editions from the Hounslow tram-lines to the wide white gate opening into a drive through a Berkshire wood, with a house lurking behind it in a mask of ivy, out of the sun.

But in the drive General Dysone stepped back into the doctor's life, and, on being directed to the stables, he who had filled it for the last hour drove out of it for the next twenty-four.

"I wanted you to hear something at once from me," his host whispered under the whispering trees, "lest it should be mentioned and take you aback before the others. We've had another little tragedy – not a horror like the last – yet in one way almost worse. My wife shot her own dog dead last night!"

Dollar put a curb upon his parting lips.

"In the night?" he stood still to ask.

"Well, between eleven and twelve."

"In her own room, or where?"

"Out-of-doors. Don't ask me how it happened; nobody seems to know, and don't you know anything if she speaks of it herself."

His fine face was streaming with perspiration; yet he seemed to have been waiting quietly under the trees, he was not short of breath, and he a big elderly man. Dollar asked no questions at all; they dropped the subject there in the drive. Though the sun was up somewhere out of sight, it was already late in the long June afternoon, and the guest was taken straight to his room.

It was a corner room with one ivy-darkened casement overlooking a shadowy lawn, the other facing a forest of firs and chestnuts on which it was harder to look without an instinctive qualm. But the General seemed to have forgot his tragedies, and for the moment his blue eyes almost brightened the somber scene on which they dwelt with involuntary pride.

"Now don't you see where Tyrol comes in?" said he. "Put a mountain behind those trees – and there was one the very first time we saw the house! It was only a thunder-cloud, but for all the world it might have been the Dolomites. And it took us back … we had no other clouds then!"

Dollar found himself alone; found his things laid out and his shirt studded, and a cozy on the brass hot-water can, with as much satisfaction as though he had never stayed in a country house before. Could there be so very much amiss in a household where they knew just what to do for one, and just what to leave undone?

And it was the same with all the other creature comforts; they meant good servants, however short their service; and good servants do not often mean the mistress or the hostess whom Dollar had come prepared to meet. He dressed in pleasurable doubt and enhanced excitement – and those were his happiest moments at Valsugana.

Mrs. Dysone was a middle-aged woman who looked almost old, whereas the General was elderly with all the appearance of early middle age. The contrast was even more complete in more invidious particulars; but Dollar took little heed of the poor lady's face, as a lady's face. Her skin and eyes were enough for him; both were brown, with that almost ultra-Indian tinge of so many Anglo-Indians. He was sensible at once of an Oriental impenetrability.

With her conversation he could not quarrel; what there was of it was crisp, unstudied, understanding. And the little dinner did her the kind of credit for which he was now prepared; but she only once took charge of the talk, and that was rather sharply to change a subject into which she had been the first to enter.

How it had cropped up, Dollar could never think, especially as his former profession and rank duly obtained throughout his visit. He had even warned his chauffeur that he was not the doctor there; it could not have been he himself who started it, but somebody did, as somebody always does when there is one topic to avoid. It was probably the nice young nephew who made the first well-meaning remark upon the general want of originality, with reference to something or other under criticism at the moment; but it was neither he nor Dollar who laid it down that monkeys were the most arrant imitators in nature – except criminals; and it certainly was the General who said that nothing would surprise him less than if another fellow went and hanged himself in their wood. Then it was that Mrs. Dysone put her foot down – and Dollar never forgot her look.

Almost for the first time it made him think of her revolver. It was out of sight; and full as her long sleeves were, it was difficult to believe that one of them could conceal the smallest firearm made; but a tiny gold padlock did dangle when she raised her glass of water; and at the end of dinner there was a second little scene, this time without words, which went far to dispel any doubt arising in his mind.

He was holding the door open for Mrs. Dysone, and she stood a moment on the threshold, peering into the far corners of the room. He saw what it was she had forgot – saw it come back to her as she turned away, with another look worth remembering.

Either the General missed that, or the anxieties of the husband were now deliberately sunk in the duties of the host. He had got up some Jubilee port in the doctor's honor; they sat over it together till it was nearly time for bed. Dollar took little, but the other grew a shade more rubicund, and it was good to hear him chat without restraint or an apparent care. Yet it was strange as well; again he drifted into criminology, and his own after-dinner defect of sensibility only made his hearer the more uncomfortable.

Of course, he felt, it was partly out of compliment to himself as crime doctor; but the ugly subject had evidently an unhealthy fascination of its own for the fine full-blooded man. Not that it seemed an inveterate foible; the expert observer thought it rather the reflex attraction of the strongest possible horror and repulsion, and took it the more seriously on that account. Of two evils it seemed to him the less to allow himself to be pumped on professional generalities. It was distinctly better than encouraging the General to ransack his long experience for memories of decent people who had done dreadful deeds. Best of all to assure him that even those unfortunates might have outlived their infamy under the scientific treatment of a more enlightened day.

If they must talk crime, let it be the Cure of Crime! So the doctor had his heart-felt say; and the General listened even more terribly than he had talked; asking questions in whispers, and waiting breathless for the considered reply. It was the last of these that took most answering.

"And which, doctor, for God's sake, which would you have most hope of curing: a man or a woman?"

But Dollar would only say: "I shouldn't despair of anybody, who had done anything, if there was still an intelligence to work upon; but the more of that the better."

And the General said hardly another word, except "God bless you!" outside the spare-room door. His wife had been seen no more.

But Dollar saw her in every corner of his delightful quarters; and the acute contrast that might have unsettled an innocent mind had the opposite effect on his. There were electric lamps in all the right places; there were books and biscuits, a glass of milk, even a miniature decanter and a bottle of Schweppes. He sighed as he wound his watch and placed it in the little stand on the table beside the bed; but he was only wondering exactly what he was going to discover before he wound it up again.

Outside one open window the merry crickets were playing castanets in those dreadful trees. It was the other blind that he drew up; and on the lawn the dying and reviving glow of a cigarette gave glimpses of a white shirt-front, a black satin tie, the drooping brim of a Panama hat. It was the nice young nephew, who had retreated before the Jubilee port. And Dollar was still wondering on what pretext he could go down and join him, when his knock came at the door.

"Only to see if you'd everything you want," explained young Paley, ingenuously disingenuous; and shut the door behind him before the invitation to enter was out of the doctor's mouth. But he shut it very softly, trod like a burglar, and excused himself with bated breath: "You are the first person who has stayed with us since I've been here, Captain Dollar!" And his wry young smile was as sad as anything in the sad house.

"You amaze me!" cried Dollar. Indeed, it was the flank attack of a new kind of amazement. "I should have thought – " and his glance made a lightning tour of the luxurious room.

"I know," said Paley, nodding. "I think they must have laid themselves out for visitors at the start. But none come now. I wish they did! It's a house that wants them."

"You are rather a small party, aren't you?"

"We are rather a grim party! And yet my old uncle is absolutely the finest man I ever struck."

"I don't wonder that you admire him."

"You don't know what he is, Captain Dollar. He got the V.C. when he was my age in Burmah, but he deserves one for almost every day of his ordinary home life."

Dollar made no remark; the young fellow offered him a cigarette, and was encouraged to light another himself. He required no encouragement to talk.

"The funny thing is that he's not really my uncle. I'm her nephew; and she's a wonderful woman, too, in her way. She runs the whole place like a book; she's thrown away here. But – I can't help saying it – I should like her better if I didn't love him!"

"Talking of books," said Dollar, "the General told me he was writing one, and that you were helping him?"

"He didn't tell you what it was about?"

"No."

"Then I mustn't. I wish I could. It's to be the last word on a certain subject, but he won't have it spoken about. That's one reason why it's getting on his nerves."

"Is it his book?"

"It and everything. Doesn't he remind you of a man sitting on a powder-barrel? If he weren't what he is, there'd be an explosion every day. And there never is one – no matter what happens!"

Dollar watched the pale youth swallowing his smoke.

"Do they often talk about crime?"

"Always! They can't keep off it. And Aunt Essie always changes the subject as though she hadn't been every bit as bad as uncle. Of course they've had a good lot to make them morbid. I suppose you heard about poor Dingle, the last gardener?"

"Only just"

"He was the last man you would ever have suspected of such a thing. It was in those trees just outside." The crickets made extra merry as he paused. "They didn't find him for a day and a night!"

"Look here! I'm not going to let you talk about it," said Dollar. But the good-humored rebuff cost him an effort. He wanted to hear all about the suicide, but not from this worn lad with an old man's smile. He knew and liked the type too well.

"I'm sorry, Captain Dollar." Jim Paley looked sorry. "Yet, it's all very well! I don't suppose the General told you what happened last night?"

"Well, yes, he did, but without going into any particulars."

And now the doctor made no secret of his curiosity; this was a matter on which he could not afford to forego enlightenment. Nor was it like raking up an old horror; it would do the boy more good than harm to speak of this last affair.

"I can't tell you much about it myself," said he. "I was wondering if I could, just now on the lawn. That's where it happened, you know."

"I didn't know."

"Well, it was, and the funny thing is that I was there at the time. I used to go out with the dog for a cigarette when they turned in; last night I was foolish enough to fall asleep in a chair on the lawn. I had been playing tennis all the afternoon, and had a long bike-ride both ways. Well, all I know is that I woke up thinking I'd been shot; and there was my aunt with a revolver she insists on carrying – and poor Muggins as dead as a door-nail."

"Did she say it was an accident?"

"She behaved as if it had been; she was all over the poor dead brute."

"Rather a savage dog, wasn't it?"

"I never thought so. But the General had no use for him – and no wonder! Did he tell you he had bitten him in the shoulder?"

"No."

"Well, he did, only the other day. But that's the old General all over. He never told me till the dog was dead. I shouldn't be surprised if – "

"Yes?"

" – if my aunt hadn't been in it somehow. Poor old Muggins was such a bone between them!"

"You don't suppose he'd ended by turning on her?"

"Hardly. He was like a kitten with her, poor brute!"

Another cigarette was lighted; more inhaling went on unchecked.

"Was Mrs. Dysone by herself out there – but for you?"

"Well – yes."

"Does that mean she wasn't?"

"Upon my word, I don't know!" said young Paley, frankly. "It sounds most awful rot, but just for a moment I thought I saw somebody in a sort of surplice affair. But I can only swear to Aunt Essie, and she was in her dressing-gown, and it wasn't white."

Dollar did not go to bed at all. He sat first at one window, watching the black trees turn blue, and eventually a variety of sunny greens; then at the other, staring down at the pretty scene of a deed ugly in itself, but uglier in the peculiar quality of its mystery.

A dog; only a dog, this time; but the woman's own dog! There were two new sods on the place where he supposed it had lain withering…

But who or what was it that these young men had seen – the one the General had told him about, and this obviously truthful lad whom he himself had questioned? "Brown devils in flowing robes" was perhaps only the old soldier's picturesque phrase; they might have turned brown in his Indian mind; but what of Jim Paley's "somebody in a sort of surplice affair"? Was that "body" brown as well?

In the wood of worse omen the gay little birds tuned up to deaf ears at the open window. And a cynical soloist went so far as to start saying, "Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty!" in a liquid contralto. But a little sharp shot, fired two nights and a day before, was the only sound to get across the spare-room window-sill…

The bathroom was next door; in that physically admirable house there was boiling hot water at six o'clock in the morning; the servants made tea when they heard it running; and the garden before breakfast was almost a delight. It might have been an Eden … it was … with the serpent still in the grass!

Blinds went up like eyelids under bushy brows of ivy. The grass remained gray with dew; there was not enough sun anywhere, though the whole sky beamed. Dollar wandered indoors the way the General had taken him the day before. It was the way through his library. Libraries are always interesting; a man's bookcase is sometimes more interesting than the man himself, sometimes the one existing portrait of his mind. Dollar spent the best part of an absorbing hour without taking a single volume from its place. But this was partly because those he would have dipped into were under glass and lock and key. And partly it was due to more accessible distractions crowning that very piece of ostensible antiquity which contained the books, and of which the top drawer drew out into the General's desk.



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