The Crime Doctor
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"What about her?"
"I've got her," said Dale-Bulmer, with sepulchral excitement.
"Got her prisoner?"
"I should hope so! Why, I caught her on the very point of setting fire to that very heap of shavings – and me without a hose-pipe in the house! Those are her matches on the floor; she wasn't going to turn tail till she'd done her job – and didn't till I nearly trod on it! You could hardly expect me to bow her out of the front door after that!"
Dollar could only stare into the jovial face wreathed in rubicund grins, but no longer free from a certain serio-comic compunction and concern.
"But, my dear sir – "
"Don't pitch into me!" pleaded Dale-Bulmer, pathetically. "I had to do something; if I hadn't thought of you, and one or two things I've heard about you, doctor, I should only have telephoned to the police; and what's the good of putting these young women in the jug, to be poured out again within a week? I heard you ran a nursing-home for criminals, worth all the prisons in the world."
"But I don't run people into it," said the doctor; "they've got to come in of their own free will. What have you done with this young woman?"
"I? Nothing; it's her own doing entirely. She chose her cover – I only turned the key."
"You've locked her up in some room?"
"Yes – more or less – rather more."
And Dale-Bulmer laughed a rather nervous, guilty laugh.
"Yes – look you here! She was picking up those matches when I spotted her from this door, and out she streaked through that one over there. Come and have a look at her line of country, doctor."
It led into an anteroom or inner hall, or the well of some staircase still to come, with a lashed ladder towering in its midst, but not quite reaching a skeleton landing of yawning joists. Dale-Bulmer gazed aloft, wagging a horizontal beard.
"Surely she didn't go up there?" said Dollar.
"Like a lamplighter, doctor! I went the way we'll both go now, if it's all the same to you."
A fine forked staircase bore them from the lower corridor to its counterpart above. And here the leader trod gently, a finger laid across his lips.
"That's the room," he whispered, pointing to a shut door in a side passage. "I – I almost think I'll leave her to you, doctor. It's not locked – not the door."
"I thought she was your prisoner?"
"Yes – but you'll see where she's hidden herself. I did turn that key, doctor, but that's all I did. Still, I think I'd rather you let her out."
There was nothing facetious in his droll air of guilt; he seemed really rather ashamed of his impetuous measures, as if long in doubt as to their gallantry, and abashed by the unspoken criticisms of the man whom he had brought so far afield on the spur of a flustering moment. But the truth was that Dollar did not blame him in the least, as he turned the handle softly, and heard a pusillanimous step retreating down the corridor.
It was a light and lofty room, with a broad bay-window overlooking the park; and in the bay a window-seat forming a coffer, which had been broken open from within; and just clear of the splinters, her hands raised to her disheveled hair, hat awry and country clothes begrimed, a young woman risen like Aphrodite from the foam.She had been gazing out as she put herself to rights; but at the opening of the door she turned with a light disdain, and the pair of them stood rooted to the floor.
"Lady – Vera!" he could only gasp.
She made him an abrupt little bow; then her head went back to the truculent angle necessitated by a jelly-bag hat worn almost as a mask; and her eyes hung under the brim like great blue rain-drops, grim and gleaming, but with little of his blank amazement, and nothing of the shame that shook his soul.
"No wonder you would never see me!" he muttered more to himself than to her. "Not a word even when I wrote – and I wondered what I'd done! I thought of heaps of things – but I never thought of this!"
She shook her head as abruptly as she had bowed; the blue rain-drops looked frozen where they hung, but the firm lips parted impulsively. Instinct prepared him for something inconceivable. But her self-restraint was a lesson and a reproof; and, in laying it to heart and listening to what she did say he for the moment ceased from wondering what it was that she had just kept back – what charge she had deferred against him.
"Tell me one thing, Doctor Dollar." Her voice was all that it had been in other emergencies, only colder by some degrees. "Have you been following me, or is this pure chance?"
"Not chance – pure Fate!"
"Did you dog me down here, or did you not?"
"Not consciously. Do I look as if I had?"
"You look as if you'd seen a ghost," she told him, with a sudden twinkle of the big blue drops.
"So I have!" he cried in passionate earnest. "I've seen the ghost of everything I held most – "
"Thank you," she said quietly, when he had checked himself on her model. "I know what you must think – what you really have a special right to think – after two years ago. Do be generous and don't say it! This isn't altogether fun for me, you know, much less after being buried alive for hours!" She just turned her head toward the broken window-seat, and his eyes devoured the light upon her profile. "What's going to happen to me? Is my natural enemy a friend of yours? Has he sent for the police?"
"No – for me instead."
"Did he know who it was at sight?"
"He didn't, and he doesn't, and he never shall unless you tell him!" exclaimed Dollar vehemently. "O Vera, when I was longing to see you, to warn you against your enemies, that you should go the way to put yourself more than ever in their power!"
A glitter under the tilted hat had unconsciously rebuked an unconscious liberty; yet once this man had begged this woman to marry him, and once she had practically said she would but for the burden on her soul. Ceremony, at least, they had foregone of old. Was it merely her new lease of error that had come between them of late months? He was beginning to ask himself the question when she broke in with one of her own:
"What enemies do you mean, Doctor Dollar?"
"We are not to speak of two years ago."
"Croucher!" She shuddered almost like a law-abiding lady. "I haven't heard of him since that night in the train."
"I said you wouldn't But I also said, if you remember, that Croucher was only deadly as a tool. Well, he has fallen into the deadliest hands I know – that's all."
It was not, and Lady Vera knew that it was not. The angle of her hat was all amicable attention now, and her eyes shone clear of the brim, with a softer light that made her all at once incredible in her latest incarnation. Dollar's feelings flew back into his face; she read them with a smile that made him wince, by its cynical resemblance to one or two that still enriched his dreams.
"You think I'm as bad as any of them," she divined aloud.
"I think the crime of arson is worse than most crimes," he made sturdy answer, standing up to the little body with the strangest difficulty, as though he were the culprit and she the man. "It's a thing absolutely nothing on earth can possibly excuse. I think you'd have died rather than descend to it – two years ago!"
He had heard a step behind him, and lowered his voice; but Lady Vera raised hers as a burly form halted shyly on the threshold; and her tone was like none that she had taken hitherto.
"Two years ago," she declaimed, "women had not been treated quite so shabbily as they have been since. Then this miserable Government – "
"Look you here!" blustered Dale-Bulmer, striding out of his shyness into the center of the stage.
"Two years ago," she reiterated for his benefit, "it wasn't war to the handle of the knife! Now it would be fire and sword, if we were any good with the sword; as we are not, it's simply fire!"
"You really think you can burn your way to political power?" cried the man of extremes, with ungovernable indignation.
"Political existence is all we ask."
"As a first instalment! I know you! I come from a country where you started just like that!"
"As you told your audience the other night, if you are Mr. Dale-Bulmer," said Lady Vera, with an explosive little sigh.
"I am; and for that I'm to have a house like this burned to the ground; and you ladies think that's the way to advance your cause, to prove your value to the State! Well, I suppose you know your own business best. It's no use reasoning with you; but it really is enough to set one off, after what I caught you doing down-stairs."
"I wish to goodness you hadn't caught me," cried Lady Vera, with quite extraordinary simplicity.
But neither of them took her up; the doctor could only shake his head in professional despair, while the injured householder recovered his composure, and the little criminal looked as if she were trying not to look the mistress of the situation.
"I only came," resumed Dale-Bulmer, rather as one who had no right in the room, "to say that a run-about car has been found in the yard behind one of the empty lodges. As I fancy your friends were on bicycles, it struck me that the two-seater might perhaps be yours?"
Was it just the nature of the man to change his whole manner in a moment, or had the quality of the woman something to do with it? He seemed unconscious of the change himself – unaware that he had dropped into a tone of courteous consideration bordering almost on the apologetic. But the corners of her little mutinous mouth showed that nothing was lost upon Lady Vera.
"It sounds like mine," she confessed without indecent amusement. "But I hope you don't think, because there's room for two, that there's another of us still concealed about the premises? I came down quite by myself, in the car you have discovered. And who's to drive it back to town again, I'm sure I don't know!"
Dale-Bulmer glanced defiantly at Dollar, a flash-light in his eyes.
"I do," he cried. "Yourself!"
"Myself, Mr. Dale-Bulmer? In – handcuffs?"
And it was not her worst smile that was subdued in deference to the full glow of his shamefaced magnanimity.
"Don't talk nonsense!" said he gruffly. "Your car is ready waiting for you at the door."
"Of course. I buried you alive, didn't I?" His eyes came from the wrecked window-seat. "Won't that meet the immediate case for martyrdom?" And he managed another twinkle after all.
It was a last amenity. He had been thanked, but without the smile which had been ready enough when it was out of place; now that she had cause to smile, the perversity of these women came out, as of course it would! Not that this one took everything quite for granted; on the contrary, she caused an explosion by offering to pay for the damage to the window-seat. The militant party would have wished him to secure ample compensation from his insurance people, she asserted, if the place had been burned down. "Then I might have built the kind of house I really want, instead of trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear!" he had retorted in his better manner, as though he had been a fool to interfere.
But it was not his best manner; it was almost as unrepresentative as the calm self-centered way in which the released prisoner spent the last minutes looking for her gloves, and, when she failed to find them, held out her bare hand with a brazen air of innocence, and no more thanks than would have become a parting guest.
Even John Dollar felt a new pang of disappointment as the two-seater shrank panting out of sight and ear-shot, beneath the bronzed timber of the disappearing drive, and Dale-Bulmer turned on his heel under the arch.
"Doesn't that take the cake?" he cried, when he had swallowed his pique with a chastened chuckle. "A real well-bred 'un – if ever there was one – playing the very devil, and carrying it off like a little angel of light! That's what did me – the way she carried it off! I wanted to give her a fatherly word, to tell her not to go on making such a wicked little fool of herself. But she simply wouldn't look the part, would she? I hadn't even the cheek to ask her name – had you?"
"No. I don't know why you let her off," said Dollar, irritably; but at the moment he hated Dale-Bulmer for extorting his common gratitude at the expense of his sacred flame.
"Why?" cried that cavalier. "Didn't you guess how I found out about her car?"
"Reported to me by the police!"
"The police? Were there any about?"
Dollar felt as cold down the back as though his sacred flame had never flickered behind iron bars.
"Two blighters," said Dale-Bulmer. "I caught sight of 'em just after I had left you to have it out with her. That's what they had to say for themselves when I went out to let off steam; swore they were from Scotland Yard, and trumped up the two-seater when I pretended not to believe them. Nor did I till I'd run them down to the lodge and seen it for myself."
"I swore it belonged to a friend, of course, and sent them both to the devil."
"And – and you were man enough not to say a word about it to – to her?" It was as much as Dollar could do to keep his enthusiastic respect within bounds of discretion.
"Man enough? I wasn't going to have that sort of carrion coming in and spoiling your job!"
Then he perceived how he had spoilt it himself; hung his great head like an elderly elephantine schoolboy; turned his broad back with an inimitable shrug, and stood shaken to the pit with sobs of mirth. Dollar joined him with a shout that relieved them both. And they roared together until a gaunt caretaker appeared on the scene, with a face expressive of such crass bewilderment that their poor clay quaked with a second shock.
"He lives in the bowels of the house," moaned Dale-Bulmer. "He doesn't know a thing that's happened. If he did I might have to double his screw. And – and I'd much rather treble your fee!"
He was solemn once more in his remorse, but not so solemn as the doctor had become within a minute.
"I would pay a fee to take his place till to-morrow morning! I mean it, my dear sir. If you think you owe me any little amends, let me do this, for my own satisfaction!"
This from a Dollar at whom the other stared as though they had only just met. It was the crime doctor come at last.
"Stay here for the night, Doctor Dollar?"
"Yes – alone."
"But why, my good fellow?"
"I can hardly tell you; only let me stay, if you can trust me!"
"You know it isn't that."
"Then do let me! It isn't so much for your sake – I won't pretend it is – yet what if there should be a second attempt on the house? Then I might even earn the fee you talk about; otherwise, not a brass farthing! I wouldn't have missed the case for anything, even as it stands. And you only took my treatment out of my mouth; you did the very thing I was going to beg you to do, but not more earnestly than I beg of you now to leave me in charge here to-night."
"But not without this man of mine to look after you?"
"Especially without that man of yours! He gave me the idea – he's my own height and build – we can change places beautifully. I want him to put on my cap and coat and goggles, and to drive away in my car, so that anybody looking would think they had seen the last of me."
"But who should be looking? Surely not that little – "
"God forbid! But perhaps somebody on her side – or perhaps only somebody on her tracks. Curious about those two detectives; but the whole business bristles with curiosities, which I long to investigate in peace, unknown to the whole outside world. This is the only way it can be done; and this, my dear Mr. Dale-Bulmer, is the one and only thing that you can do for me!"
The boy with the beard gave way by inches. As long as there was a dog's chance of any further excitement, he did not see why he should be out of it, much less in his own house, and after the humdrum life he had led since Labor and the Ladies had driven him home from Australia. But the man with the stronger will seemed perfectly sincere in his further asservations that there were features in the case which he wanted to study for his own private and professional ends; that he honestly believed, they had no more to fear from their friends the enemy, but that somebody ought to remain on guard, that he was the obvious man. All this rang true enough; and but for Dollar's strange anxiety in the matter, and Dale-Bulmer's sudden discovery that he squinted, the plan might have gained earlier acceptance than it did. It was settled, however, by a timely telephone call from the Australian's furnished house at Esher, to ask if anything had happened to him, and was he never going to tear himself away from Pax Monktons Chase?
Thus it was nearly five o'clock before the crime doctor was alone at last, with certain plain quarters and plainer fare at his disposal, but with every nook and cranny of a country mansion to himself until next morning. The situation had the intrinsic charm of all lonely vigils; even if nothing was likely to come of this one, it would at least afford that continuous possibility of a thrill which becomes more thrilling than the thrill itself. And the whole business was supremely after John Dollar's heart; nothing could have been more congenial to him; and yet, though he did look forward to the night, and whatever the night might still bring forth, it was not for the night's sake that he had maneuvered to remain in the empty house. It was for the residue of daylight, and the systematic investigations it would enable him to make.
On these he started, with the precaution of a seaman marooned on a desolate island, not indubitably uninhabited, as soon as the front door shut upon Dale-Bulmer and the two chauffeurs, with the gaunt caretaker his muffled image in his own car. And these motorists were not followed out of sight or hearing, from the fading pile that looked so empty in the drooping eye of heaven. But it very soon seemed to the man within as if the whole house were a-hum with its own abysmal silence, and his lightest breath a stertorous disturbance of its ponderous peace.
He began by searching the unfurnished room in which the fire would have originated. There could be no doubt about the fell attempt so nearly made. It would have been diabolically certain of success. The scaffolding, like sticks in a gigantic grate; the draft through the joists, where the floor had been taken up; the natural flue formed by the adjoining well, so lofty that an ordinary ladder was too short to reach the landing – all these were as bellows and chimney, and the best of fuel ready laid for lighting. And here were the shavings, all nicely swept together, and the matches spilled at the last moment; as Dollar put them back into the box, his finger-tips ached for all they might have learned from that which they held – for the whole truth about the guilty hand which had let the match-box fall.
It was the whole truth, too, that he was seeking next upon his knees, in the rubble down between the joists; some fresh fact, still inconceivable as a concrete discovery, that he hoped against hope to find and to set against the facts beyond dispute. Facts could not lie, but they might exaggerate; somewhere, surely, there must be something to extenuate, something to redeem even this atrocious attempt, if only the silent walls could speak up for one who never made excuses for herself!
It was a childish instinct, a quite babyish yearning to undo what has once been done, and yet this had been the spring of that dense desire to be left behind in the house at all costs. Then he had only felt it, like a dull ache; now it became a dear and poignant conviction that there was some discovery still to make, and that he was the man to make it; that one of these walls had a word to say to him, and to him alone.
But it was none of the new bricks and mortar, wanting even their first coat of plaster; it was nothing under the lofty rafters of a quiet baronial hall where the builder had not been turned loose, nor any intruder left a trace; it was not in the round room, filled with a first instalment of the Dale-Bulmer furniture, nor yet anywhere else down-stairs, in spite of the shrill tale told by the scullery window. There the Amazons had entered, after breaking a pane like journeymen burglars. They had fled incontinently by the door. But what else had they done, and where else had they been, within those sardonically silent walls?
Had they been up-stairs before Vera Moyle ran up the ladder? Dollar returned to that speaking spot, and climbed up gingerly, in an agony of enthusiasm for her misused pluck. The gap between the top rung and the new landing was unpleasant even for him, and he was at least a foot taller than the little fool. The little fool! A pretty way to think of her, even now; but there was a worse way; and still there was a better, vaguely haunting him all the time, but almost ceasing to be vague in the room where he had found her in the flesh. He could see her there again. She had not faced him like a little fool, but a little heroine, God forgive her! Not so much as a pout about her horrible imprisonment under the window-seat! Not a moment's loss of dignity, even after that; not a moment's loss of temper. Head up, and eyes shining in the shadow of her wicked little hat!
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