Ernest Hornung.

The Crime Doctor



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Here, to an inch, he had caught her gazing out of that window, out and down into the chase – rolling right up to the house on this side – beating against a breakwater of a sunk fence just underneath, and dotted with leafy sail. Deer in the distance, and swallows darting across and across the window, like shuttles weaving the scene in silk, brought the picture back to good dry land. But the wide sky was still rather like a sea-sky; and it had lightened again with the approach of evening; there were silver rims to the clouds, as John Dollar tore himself from the enchanted scene.

It was nearly dark when he returned unsteadily, with a face like a cheer – with a face that would have lighted up a tomb. In his hands he clasped a pair of innocent little gloves, that anybody might have found, and somebody traced to their beloved little owner. But that was not all. A wall had spoken, in certain handwriting hastily rubbed out, and a whole bathroom had told a yet more eloquent tale!

Hours later they were speaking still, wafting sweet music through the corridors, filling the honored room with strains of joy for the enchanted man on the broken window-seat, all in the dark at dead of night. There might have been a moon; he did not know. There might have been a stealthy advance, in very open order – a taking of cover behind trees wide apart – a joining of forces down there in the dark, that was not so dark if one was used to it. But Dollar had been for hours gazing into his own heart, and that was still so dazzlingly alight that he might not have seen anything if he had looked out; it still sang so loud that he heard nothing down-stairs until there was noise enough to wake a deeper dreamer out of actual sleep.

Even then he scarcely knew what had brought him so suddenly to feet grown numb, but not more numb than the whole outer man in the endless inner joy of that which he believed himself to have discovered along with his dear lady's gloves. Those sacred relics he still clasped in his hands, and that fond belief he was still hugging in his heart, when a louder sound pricked his undertaking to the quick. It was the sound of voices in the empty house. He tore off his shoes, limped over to the door, opened it as softly, and stood listening in a heavy horror. They were women's voices, accompanied by the scuttle of women's feet!

In an instant, but still with an instinctive stealth, he was out on the landing at the head of the stairs. And there, but only there, his fond dream ended in an awakening as terrible as any nightmare; for one woman stood on the half-landing between the two prongs of the forked staircase; all attention she stood, as if on guard; hair silvered by a shaft of moonshine through the staircase window, shoulders hunched intently, but the head itself just tilted as if in sudden alarm, and full in the moonlight the wicked unmistakable little hat of Lady Vera Moyle.

Her gloves dropped out of his hands. Did she hear them fall? She looked as if she had; he had not the heart to make sure.

He had nothing like the heart to confront and shame her first – at her worst a passive party to the crime – when her guiltier companions were even then at their vile work lower down. The ladder was the thing! Then he could scare those others first, and she and he need never meet at all. Better never again than at this hideous juncture! And as for him, better death itself than such a death to such a dream!

It was a sheer stampede the man made now, back along the landing with great heavy strides, even shouting as he went to put the she-devils to flight. It was what he called them as he ran; had they not dragged an angel into this. And they heard him, and he heard them – scuttling and clucking in headlong flight.

This time they could afford to fly; their second attempt was no failure like the first. The little new landing was like a gridiron over a flickering glare from the well beneath. Dollar flung his full length on the brink – hung dangling from the armpits – hung lashing out for the ladder like a boy on a horizontal bar with a mattress just underneath. The top rung took some finding in his reckless haste; and then his hands had to change places with his feet; and it was all a pretty desperate business for no light-weight, in a frenzy of excitement, at the tip-top of a tremulous ladder that leaned against thin air. But his very recklessness saw him down somehow with unbroken bones, and on the threshold of the burning room before the fire had really taken hold. And there he stopped, instead of dashing in; there he stood shrinking from the red light within.

For again one of the women had stayed behind the rest; and through a forest of scaffolding poles, and a swirl of smoke and steam, he beheld her in a glow already dying by her hand, under a hissing stream flung right and left, in glittering coils and spirals, as coolly as a gardener waters the grass. It was his very dream, come true in the end! And Dollar stood there because he was ashamed to look Vera Moyle in the face – after fearing for one moment that it was nothing but a dream!

But last of all the stream played through the darkness and the smoke, upon the threshold even at his feet, and a dry voice cried:

"I see you all right! I saw you up-stairs; come round and tell me why you ran away."

But it was no moment for going round. He went to her through sparks and splinters in his socks, and felt the pain no more than the relief when he stood beside her on the cool flags of the corridor, with both her hands in his.

"I might have known!" he spluttered through the smoke. "I might have known it even from the first!"

"It's jolly bad luck that you should know it at all," said Lady Vera, in the same dry little voice. "I'm not proud of it, I can tell you."

"Not of stopping an absolutely wanton crime?"

"Not of turning against my old lot – and I haven't, either!" cried Lady Vera, with more passion than he had ever heard from her. "I feel everything I said up-stairs. I think we've all been treated more abominably than ever. I don't blame them a bit for all this sort of thing – "

"Vera, you do – you know you do!"

"I don't; how can I? Haven't I done worse? I may think they're going rather far, and I may put in my spoke – "

"This is not the first time!" he exulted, still only with her hands in his, yet little knowing how he hurt them.

"That's my business," she said, with a sudden laugh that broke her voice. "It's the least I can do – after two years ago."

"And I knew you'd done it!" he was quick to cry. "I knew it hours back, though you did frighten me again just now. I found the hose-pipe in the bathroom with your gloves, and their rotten message rubbed out on the wall! I knew the hose was yours, because I'd just been told there wasn't such a thing in the house. But I was looking for something of the kind. I knew there was something to be found, that the whole thing wasn't what it seemed. And ever since it's been the happiest night of my life, on top of my most miserable hour!"

"I'll motor you back to town for that," said Lady Vera, with another poor little laugh. "I – I'm sorry I didn't tell you this afternoon."

"I'm not!"

"Somehow it didn't seem quite the game by the others, though of course I hoped you would guess that I had only come in after them as a kind of scarecrow. Of course I don't know if it will make you the least bit less miserable – " But there she stuck.

"If what will?"

And now it was she who held his hands the faster – only across a gulf of darkness like a solid wall – only with a kindness that reminded him it was nothing else – only with a glow more dear than an embrace.

"If it makes you the very least bit happier," she whispered, "why, of course it was only just your own game, doctor, that I was trying to play!"

VIII
THE SECOND MURDERER

It was yet another Lady Vera who brought her own sunshine out of the weeping dusk of that October morning. To veil embarrassment on either side, Dollar had switched off the light by which he had just read the line scribbled on her card; but there was no sanction for his nervous sensibility in the little picture he beheld next moment. An audacious study in Venetian red – a tripping fashion-plate with a practical waist – it was only Vera by virtue of the radiant face between the donkey-eared toque and the modish modicum of fur. And though the radiance was lovely as ever in his eyes, and lovelier still as a surprise, this frivolous modernity was pain and puzzledom to Dollar until their hands met, and the one in the tight glove trembled.

"It's no use beating about the bush," said Vera Moyle, and there was no sort of tremor in her voice. "Do you mind telling me exactly what you know of a Mr. Mostyn Scarth?"

"Mostyn Scarth!" cried Dollar. "Do you know him?"

"Only too well!"

"I was afraid of it."

"But I want your opinion and experience of him first. I believe you saw something of each other in Switzerland?"

"We did," replied Dollar weightily. "He was supposed to be looking after a young temporary lunatic, who was of age, rich, and not irresponsible in the eye of the law. Scarth induced the boy to leave him vast sums of money in a will, and then made two distinct attempts to murder him."

"No!"

"He did. You ask what I know of this man, and I make no bones about telling you. It's a thing the whole world ought to know for its protection. He made two separate attempts on the lad's life, the last more ingenious than the first; first he tried to poison him by means of a forged prescription, and next to break his neck by tampering with his toboggan."

"In Switzerland, when you were there?"

"I was sent for after the first effort; the second was made under my nose."

"And yet you did nothing?"

Lady Vera's indignation was not confined to the absent miscreant; her demigod came in for his share.

"There was not much to be done," he protested humbly. "We were in a foreign country; the evidence wouldn't have been overwhelming under our own law. I let Scarth know that I had found him out, got the boy out of his clutches – pulled him together all right – and laid the whole case before Topham Vinson when I came home. He consulted his law officers; they thought I had so little to go upon that our man wasn't even marked down for surveillance by the police. I had to keep my own eye on him when he turned up in town again. Scarth made that easy by immediately getting on my tracks, and discovering in Mr. Croucher another old friend who had his knife in me. They tried between them to pervert my chauffeur; then I lost sight of them; and it was then I wanted to put you on your guard, but you were never in, and my letters seemed to miscarry."

"They didn't," said Lady Vera, with frank contrition. "I am ashamed to tell you why I never answered them; but I will in a minute. So it was Mr. Scarth you meant when you told me the other day that poor Croucher had fallen into such bad hands?"

"Poor Croucher! Yes, it was; and there really is no comparison between them. One was born in the scarlet, so to speak, but the other's the only really educated and quite cold-blooded villain I have ever met."

Vera Moyle sat forward in the patient's chair, in the very attitude of two years before, with the same firelight illumining the same steadfast look of moral and intellectual honesty; and the fuller health upon her cheek, the deeper wisdom in her eyes, made no more difference to Dollar than her superfluous smartness now. She was the same utterly candid creature, about to tell him the whole truth about some fresh trouble, and extenuate nothing that concerned herself.

"I don't want to waste many words on Mr. Scarth," she began, in the least vindictive of human voices; "but I ought to tell you that I quite liked him until the other day. I met him first at a country house where he was supposed to be tutoring the boys, but was really the life and soul of the whole party. It was extraordinary how he ran everything and everybody for those people; we were all devoted to him, and he says I asked him to come and see us in town, but he certainly never came until near the end of this last season. Then he made up for lost time; he's capital company, as you know, and we had him to dinner, and my eldest brother asked him down to stay in August when I was there. That was when we saw most of each other, and Mr. Scarth asked me to marry him – "

"Good God!"

"Of course I didn't like him well enough for that, though he had put me against you!"

"How?" said Dollar grimly. She was still peering into the fire; but he flattered himself there was more than firelight in the flush that almost rivaled the Venetian red still nearer to the bars.

"He knows what I did two years ago."

"Croucher, of course?"

"He said it was you – that you gave me away to him in Switzerland!"

"And you believed him?"

"He made it just credible. He said you told him in confidence; he showed me a letter in which you reminded him not to let it go any further."

"A forgery!"

"I see that now; but it was a very good one, written on your club paper."

"The man's an expert forger. Anybody can go into a club to write a note and steal some stationery. If only you had tackled me about it!"

"I promised I wouldn't. I could hardly believe it of you, all the same – not that you were the first to tell him. But – but it did put me off – in spite of everything – and that was only in July."

"Just when I was trying to see you, to put you on your guard!"

She gave him her eyes at last, and they were wet but beaming. "I doubted it still more from one or two things he said when we had our little scene in the country; but I knew there wasn't a word of truth in it before you said a dozen words to me the other Sunday! It was all a plot to keep us apart – to get me under his thumb."

"Did he threaten you when you – had your little scene?"

"Not in so many words."

"He will. That's where I shall come in."

"His position was that I and my secret would only be safe with him."

"As it never was with me?"

"That was it; but now he knows that I don't believe him. I told him so when he called last week."

"So you have had another little scene?"

"I cut it short at that."

"And there the matter ended?"

"Between him and me."

"Don't make too sure. You don't know your Mostyn Scarth as well as I do. I wonder what his next move will be!"

The wonder lit the doctor's face with eager interest, but brighter still was the answering light under the toque with the ass's ears of watered silk.

"I don't know about his next, but I can tell you what his latest move is," said Lady Vera. "He has taken to dogging me all over the place, to see if I don't commit another crime! He was one of the alleged detectives at Pax Monktons Chase!"

"Never!" cried Dollar, taken fairly by surprise. He had forgot almost every feature of the affair in question, except how magnificently Vera Moyle had come out of it. The episode remained in his mind only as the one great dream of his that had come true as yet; the details had disappeared like those of any other dream.

"I happen to know it," said Lady Vera, with some little embarrassment. "I had it from – the other detective."

"Not – " and Dollar stopped to frown – "not Croucher himself?"

"Yes."

"He has dared to speak to you!"

"For the very first time since that night in the train; now do listen, and be fair to the poor fellow. He never was as bad as you thought him; you say yourself that he's a saint compared with Mr. Scarth." Dollar was too savage to smile at this free version of what he had said. "Well, they have fallen out, and Croucher's in a bad way altogether; and he has turned to me for a helping hand – not for money or anything of that kind."

"Not the least little hint of blackmail?"

"Not a word or a sign of anything of the sort, except that he asked me to forgive him for the other time, and of course I did."

"Of course you would, though he actually robbed you under arms!" cried Dollar, as sardonically as he felt he must.

But he was let off with the caution of a frown that would have escaped attention on a face less consistently serene than Lady Vera Moyle's.

"You forget what he had been through first," said she, gently. "Within forty-eight hours of execution, for something he had never done! Thinking what he thought, and I neither denied nor admitted, then or at any time, the wonder is not that he behaved as badly as he did that night, but as well as he has ever since. However much you frightened him at the time, he might have gone on blackmailing me without your knowledge, and that's the last thing he's trying to do now. But I want to do something for him! You say yourself that he has fallen into the worst of hands – well, I want to get him out of them. You once told me that, when you had him here before, you found yourself trying to make a decent being of him, and beginning to feel that you might almost succeed. Doctor, I want you to try again, for my sake! He is frightfully sorry for what he did before, and he has been very badly used by Mostyn Scarth. He looks ill. I want you to save his life, and more than his life! He has told me with tears in his eyes that he was never so happy as when you had him here before. Dear man, do take him in again, and give him one more chance, to please me!"

Her voice had broken, and for once her eyes had played her false as well, and Dollar had waited grimly while she recovered her voice or dried her eyes. But he could not answer grimly when in her turn she waited for him to speak. In her frivolous little blazing skirt, in the toque that he liked even less; over-dressy as he dared to think her in his simple heart of hearts, she appealed to him the more profoundly for those very vanities, so far from vanity were the letter and the spirit of her intercession.

"So you really came to see me about Alfred Croucher?" said Dollar, but very gently, without the faintest accent of reproach.

"It was about both of them, but chiefly about him," she admitted. "Of course I wanted to check his account of Mr. Scarth. If you had given him a good character, that would have been the end; but you gave him a much worse one than I expected. Croucher seems almost immaculate by comparison; honestly, I shouldn't wonder if he were less lost to decency through his very association with a man so much worse than himself."

"Did he tell you so?"

"He said it had brought him up with a round turn."

"It's possible," said Dollar, not more dryly than he could help. "The psychology is all right." He was smiling and nodding now. "And where is Mr. Croucher at the moment?"

"Walking up and down outside."

"Until we call him in?"

"If only you will let me!"

She was on her feet, to take him at his word as soon as spoken; but he said that was Barton's job, and, wondering aloud how Barton would like it, went out presumably to see. He was not gone long, and in another minute Alfred Croucher was cringing before them like a beaten cur.

But few curs whine as this one did that morning, while the crime doctor listened and their little lady winced. She was right about one thing. He did look ill; his cough was not altogether put on. He had been "tret somefink crool," he declared, but without entering into particulars, for which Dollar did not press; but on the character of Mostyn Scarth there were no such reservations. Croucher denounced that monster with the white hatred of a holy warrior, casting up his eyes with all manner of passionate and pious invocations.

"Only take me away from 'im, before it's too late!" he implored, reluctant murder in the whites of his rolling eyes. "'E's a bad man, a very bad man 'e is! The 'appiest days o' me life was wot I spent in 'ere eighteen munf ago. It seems more like eighteen years – 'ard. I never should've quit but for Shod, wot's got a good long stretch for 'is pines. 'E's another bad man; but for 'im you 'ad me in the 'oller of yer 'and, and might 've made a man o' me in no time."

"Yet you went straight from me to threaten and rob the lady who sent you here!"

It was a dangerous opening, but Croucher did not take it. In ignoble emotion he fell upon the knees of a flash pair of trousers, which still showed the track of an ineradicable crease, and once more sued for the mercy and forgiveness already vouchsafed to him. And Lady Vera turned from the sly, leering, blinking, darting eyes to a pair turned hard as nails, and the harder for an oblique inner twinkle all their own.

"All right!" snapped Dollar, to her intense relief. "I'll take you in, Croucher, for better or worse. Well make it for better, if we can; but do get to your two legs, man, instead of fawning on all four! Are you free to stop as you are, or is there anything you want to settle up first?"

"There's me rooms," said Croucher, eagerly. "There's nuffink worth fetching, but I shouldn't like to bilk the people, 'speshly w'en 'er lidyship's gawn an' give me the money, Gawd bless 'er!"

Dollar precipitated the creature's exit, on the verge of fresh saurian tears, of which there were further signs for his benefit on the mat. He might be a bad man, too, might Mr. Croucher, but he wasn't as bad as Mostyn Scarth. And in that modest claim, at least, there was a bitter sincerity which received its due in a nod of keen acknowledgment.



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