The Crime Doctor
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The distractions were a peculiarly repulsive gilded idol, squatting with its tongue out, as if at the amateur author, and a heathen sword on the wall behind it. Nothing more; but Dollar also had served in India in his day, and his natural interest was whetted by a certain smattering of lore. He was still standing on a newspaper and a chair when a voice hailed him in no hospitable tone.
"Really, Captain Dollar! I should have asked the servants for a ladder while I was about it!"
Of course it was Mrs. Dysone, and she was not even pretending to look pleased. He jumped down with an apology which softened not a line of her sallow face and bony figure.
"It was an outrage," he owned. "But I did stand on a paper to save the chair. I say, though, I never noticed it was this week's Field."
Really horrified at his own behavior, he did his best to smooth and wipe away his footmarks on the wrapper of the paper. But those subtle eyes, like blots of ink on old parchment, were no longer trained on the offender, who missed yet another look that might have helped him.
"My husband's study is rather holy ground," was the lady's last word. "I only came in myself because I thought he was here."
Mercifully, days do not always go on as badly as they begin; more strangely, this one developed into the dullest and most conventional of country-house Sundays.
General Dysone was himself not only dull, but even a little stiff, as became a good Briton who had said too much to too great a stranger overnight. His natural courtesy had become conspicuous; he played punctilious host all day; and Dollar was allowed to feel that, if he had come down as a doctor, he was staying on as an ordinary guest, and in a house where guests were expected to observe the Sabbath. So they all marched off together to the village church, where the General trumpeted the tune in his own octave, read the lessons, and kept waking up during the sermon. There were the regulation amenities with other devout gentry of the neighborhood; there was the national Sunday sirloin at the midday meal, and no more untoward topics to make the host's forehead glisten or the hostess gleam and lower. In the afternoon the whole party inspected every animal and vegetable on the premises; and after tea the visitor's car came round.
Originally there had been much talk of his staying till the Monday; the General went through the form of pressing him once more, but was not backed up by his wife, who had shadowed them suspiciously all day. Nor did he comment on this by so much as a sidelong glance at Dollar, or contrive to get another word with him alone. And the crime doctor, instead of making any excuse to remain and penetrate these new mysteries, showed a sensitive alacrity to leave.
Of the nephew, who looked terribly depressed at his departure, he had seen something more, and had even asked two private favors. One, that he would keep out of that haunted garden for the next few nights, and try going to bed earlier; the other an odd request for an almost middle-aged man about town, but rather flattering to the young fellow.It was for the loan of his Panama, so that Dollar's hatter might see if he could not get him as good a one. Paley's was the kind that might be carried up a sleeve, like the modern handkerchief; he explained that the old General had given it him.
Dollar tried it on almost as soon as the car was out of sight of Valsugana – while his young chauffeur was still wondering what he had done to make the governor sit behind. It was funny of him, just when a chap might have been telling him a thing or two that he had heard down there at the coachman's place. But it was all the more interesting when they got back to town at seven in the evening, and he was ordered to fill up with petrol and be back at nine, to make the same trip over again.
"I needn't ask you," the doctor added, "to hold your tongue about anything you may have heard at General Dysone's. I know you will, Albert."
And almost by lighting-up time they were shoulder to shoulder on the road once more.
But at Valsugana it was another dark night, and none too easy to find one's way about the place on the strength of a midsummer day's acquaintance. And for the first time Dollar was glad the dog of the house was dead, as he finished a circuitous approach by stealing through the farther wood, toward the jagged lumps of light in the ivy-strangled bedroom windows; already everything was dark down-stairs.
Here were the pale new sods; they could just be seen, though his feet first felt their inequalities. His cigarette was the one pin-prick of light in all the garden, though each draw brought the buff brim of Jim Paley's Panama within an inch of his eyes, its fine texture like coarse matting at the range. And the chair in which Jim Paley had sat smoking this time last night, and dozing the night before when the shot disturbed him, was just where he expected his shins to find it; the wickers squeaked as John Dollar took his place.
Less need now not to make a sound; but he made no more than he could help, for the night was still and sultry, without any of the garden noises of a night ago. It was as though nature had stopped her orchestra in disgust at the plot and counterplot brewing on her darkened stage. The cigarette-end was thrown away; it might have been a stone that fell upon the grass, and Dollar could almost hear it sizzling in the dew. His aural nerves were tuned to the last pitch of sensitive acknowledgment; a fly on the drooping Panama-brim would not have failed to "scratch the brain's coat of curd." … How much less the swift and furtive footfall that came kissing the wet lawn at last!
It was more than a footfall; there was a following swish of some long garment trailing through the wet. It all came near; it all stopped dead. Dollar had nodded heavily as if in sleep; had jerked his head up higher; seemed to be dropping off again in greater comfort.
The footfalls and the swish came on like thunder now. But now his eyelids were only drooping like the brim above them; in the broad light of their abnormal perceptivity, it was as if his own eyes threw a dreadful halo round the figure they beheld. It was a swaddled figure, creeping into monstrosity, crouching early for its spring. It had draped arms extended, with some cloth or band that looped and tightened at each stride: on the rounded shoulders bobbed the craning head and darkened face of General Dysone.
In his last stride he swerved, as if to get as much behind the chair as its position under the tree permitted. The cloth clapped as it came taut over Dollar's head, but was not actually round his neck when he ducked and turned, and hit out and up with all his might. He felt the rasp of a fifteen-hours' beard, heard the click of teeth; the lawn quaked, and white robes settled upon a senseless heap, as the plumage on a murdered pigeon.
Dollar knelt over him and felt his pulse, held an electric lamp to eyes that opened, and quickly something else to the dilated nostrils.
"O Jim!" shuddered a voice close at hand. It was shrill yet broken, a cry of horror, but like no voice he knew.
He jumped up to face the General's wife.
"It's not Jim, Mrs. Dysone. It's I – Dollar. He'll soon be all right!"
"Captain – Dollar?"
"No – doctor, nowadays – he called me down as one himself. And now I've come back on my own responsibility, and – put him under chloroform; but I haven't given him much; for God's sake let us speak plainly while we can!"
She was on her knees, proving his words without uttering one. Still kneeling speechless, she leaned back while he continued: "You know what he is as well as I do, Mrs. Dysone; you may thank God a doctor has found him out before the police! Monomania is not their business – but neither are you the one to cope with it. You have shielded your husband as only a woman will shield a man; now you must let him come to me."
His confidence was taking some effect; but she ignored the hands that would have helped her to her feet; and her own were locked in front of her, but not in supplication.
"And what can any of you do for him," she cried fiercely – "except take him away from me?"
"I will only answer for myself. I would control him as you can not, and I would teach him to control himself if man under God can do it. I am a criminal alienist, Mrs. Dysone, as your husband knew before he came to consult me on elaborate pretenses into which we needn't go. He trusted me enough to ask me down here; in my opinion, he was feeling his way to greater trust, in the teeth of his terrible obsession, but last night he said more than he meant to say, so to-day he wouldn't say a word. I only guessed his secret this morning – when you guessed I had! It would be safe with me against the world. But how can I take the responsibility of keeping it if he remains at large as he is now?"
"You can not," said Mrs. Dysone. "I am the only one."
Her tone was dreamy and yet hard and fatalistic; the arms in the wide dressing-gown sleeves were still tightly locked. Something brought Dollar down again beside the senseless man, bending over him in keen alarm.
"He'll be himself again directly – quite himself, I shouldn't wonder! He may have forgot what has happened; he mustn't find me here to remind him. Something he will have to know, and you are the one to break it to him, and then to persuade him to come to me. But you won't find that so easy, Mrs. Dysone, if he sees how I tricked him. He had much better think it was your nephew. My motor's in the lane behind these trees; let him think I never went away at all, that we connived and I am holding myself there at your disposal. It would be true – wouldn't it – after this? I'll wait night and day until I know!"
"Doctor Dollar," said Mrs. Dysone, when she had risen without aid and set him to the trees, "you may or may not know the worst about my poor husband, but you shall know it now about me. I wish you to take this – and keep it! You have had two escapes to-night."
She bared the wrist from which the smallest of revolvers dangled; he felt it in the darkness – and left it dangling.
"I heard you had one. He told me. And I thought you carried it for your own protection!" cried Dollar, seeing into the woman at last.
"No. It was not for that" – and he knew that she was smiling through her tears. "I did save his life – when my poor dog saved Jim's – but I carried this to save the secret I am going to trust to you!"
Dollar would only take her hand. "You wouldn't have shot me, or any man," he assured her. "But," he added to himself among the trees, "what a fool I was to forget that they never killed women!"
It turned almost cold beside the motor in the lane; the doctor gave his boy a little brandy, and together they tramped up and down, talking sport and fiction by the small hour together. The stars slipped out of the sky, the birds began, and the same cynic shouted "Pretty, pretty, pretty!" at the top of its strong contralto. At long last there came that other sound for which Dollar had never ceased listening. And he turned back into the haunted wood with Jim Paley.
The poor nephew – still stunned calm – was as painfully articulate as a young bereaved husband. He spoke of General Dysone as of a man already dead, in the gentlest of past tenses. He was dead enough to the boy. There had been an appalling confession – made as coolly, it appeared, as Paley repeated it.
"He thought I knocked him down, and I had to let him think so! Aunt Essie insisted; she is a wonder, after all! It made him tell me things I simply can't believe… Yet he showed me a rope just like it – meant for me!"
"Do you mean just like the one that – hanged the gardener?"
"Yes. He did it, so he swears … afterward. He'll tell you himself – he wants to tell you. He says he first … I can't put my tongue to it!" The lapse into the present tense had made him human.
"Like the Thugs?"
"Yes – like that sect of fiendish fanatics who went about strangling everybody they met! They were what his book was about. How did you know?"
"That's Bhowanee, their goddess, on top of his bureau, and he has Sleeman and all the other awful literature locked up underneath. As a study for a life of sudden idleness, in the depths of the country, it was enough to bring on temporary insanity. And the strong man gone wrong goes and does what the rest of us only get on our nerves!"
Dollar felt his biceps clutched and clawed, and the two stood still under more irony in a gay contralto.
"Temporary, did you say? Only temporary?" the boy was faltering.
"I hope so, honestly. You see, it was just on that one point … and even there … I believe he did want his wife out of the way, and for her own sake, too!" said Dollar, with a sympathetic tremor of his own.
"But do you know what he's saying? He means to tell the whole world now, and let them hang him, and serve him right – he says! And he's as sane as we are now – only he might have been through a Turkish bath!"
"More signs!" cried Dollar, looking up at the brightening sky. "But we won't allow that. It would undo nothing and he has made all the reparation.
" … Come, Paley! I want to take him back with me in the car. It's broad daylight."