Ernest Hornung.

The Crime Doctor



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"I never did think you were more than a second murderer, Croucher!"

"Wot's that?"

The whites of those quick, furtive eyes were showing quite horribly in a moment.

"Only a technical expression, Croucher, meaning the minor malefactor."

And he returned rather slowly into the eager presence of Lady Vera Moyle.

"I suppose I mustn't fawn, either," she said, in the softened tone of one of her rare rebukes. "But —do you think you can make anything of him – this time?"

"I hope so; but I shall be very glad to have him back, even if I fail again."

"Why?"

The crime doctor gave her another of his oblique smiles.

"I shall be all the better able to watch Scarth's latest move," he said.

II

Over against the back windows of a nice new street of tall red houses, beyond the high red wall enclosing their common strip of shrubs and gravel, runs a humbler row of windows in connection with a mews. In one you may still catch a coachman shaving for the box, but more likely a chauffeur's lady engrossed in her novelette; and on the next sill are pots of geraniums, while the next but one keeps the evening's kippers nice and fresh. Most of the windows have muslin curtains, and in some the lights are on all night. Last October there was only one without any kind of covering, except a newspaper stuck across a broken pane.

It was the scandal of the row; a battered billycock lay rotting on the roof above; strange fragments of song were always liable to burst from within, as of a gentleman roistering in his sleep, and at times a bristly countenance would roll red eyes over the backs of the red houses, beginning and ending with the flats at the bottom of the street. If a dark handsome face appeared simultaneously at a top flat window, the chances were that both would vanish, but it would have been difficult to detect the exchange of actual signals.

On the return of Alfred Croucher, shaven and collared, from the audience in Welbeck Street, he went so far as to wink and wave from the window that disgraced the mews to the one that crowned the flats. His rolling eyes still had their whites about them; his wrists were still in unaccustomed cuffs; and Mostyn Scarth was at his elbow before it could be lifted with the bottle brought in to celebrate the occasion.

"Just one!" said Croucher, pitching his mongrel whine in the key of comic extravaganza. "I deserve all ten fingers for what I got to tell yer!"

"Not a drop, my Lazarus!" said Scarth. "When do you move in?"

"To-day – now."

"You shall have the whole bottle when you come out. You may want it. What about that stamped note-paper?"

"Couldn't lay 'ands on a scrap."

"Hadn't you the waiting-room to yourself?"

"My witin'-room was the street, gov'nor."

"Well, I must have a sheet or two as soon as you can stick them in the post; three or four would be safer, and at least a couple of his envelopes, in case of accidents.

Now tell me everything that happened; and perhaps you shall have a drink before you go."

There was no light that night in the window with the broken pane pasted over with newspaper; next day it was mended properly, and the sodden billycock removed from the roof before Alfred Croucher awoke from his innocent and protracted slumbers in the crime doctor's patent chamber of perpetual peace.

His first impression was that some mysterious miracle had been performed expressly for his behoof. He must have been drunk to have slept so sound, and yet he had none of the disagreeable sensations which a long experience associated with the ordinary orgy. He felt profoundly rested and refreshed; never had he lain in so luxurious a bed; and the air was faintly scented, subtly soothing, and there was plenty of it, yet not a sound except the gentle stirring of his own breathing body between the sheets. His palate was clean and cool beyond belief. He opened his eyes, and saw a plain room sharp as crystal to the sight: not the bronze bedchamber that he suddenly remembered, but the same place steeped in purest sunshine, and ten thousand times fairer for the change.

Then he knew where he was, and precisely why he was there; and it was the mental equivalent of what Mr. Croucher called "'ot coppers," only this made him hot all over. He might have been in a fever; he hoped violently that he was. He remembered his cough, and began to practise it. A determined paroxysm revived his spirits; he was not fit to get up, and other people would just have to wait until he was, and serve 'em jolly well right!

Other people couldn't get at him there; yet one other person could, and did, to Mr. Croucher's mingled discomfort and relief. The doctor duly kept him in bed; but there was too much of the doctor; and yet the time hung heaviest when he was not there, and there were heavier burdens even than the time. The patient had lost his liking for a book. Conversation was more to his taste this time. His mind would wander when he read. It would follow the doctor down-stairs to his consulting-room, or across the landing to the room in which he slept. The man haunted him; it was better to have him there in the flesh, than to see him as Croucher continually saw him when he was not there at all.

Better, again, to talk of some things than to dwell on them night and day, especially when those subjects seemed to possess an equally awful fascination for the crime doctor. Of course, they were in his line; that accounted for the doctor's morbid taste, and the patient's most terrible experience was quite enough to account for his. There was nothing unnatural in their talks. They had the thing in common, only from opposite poles of experience, which enormously enhanced the mutual interest. If there was one subject they were bound to have discussed, with no false delicacy on either side, each being what he was, it was the subject of the sixth commandment.

"Of course you think about it," said Dollar, dismissing an incoherent excuse on the second day. "It must haunt you; it's only natural that it should. All I should like you to do, since you never committed one, and are the last man in the world to commit one now, is to take a rather lighter view of that particular misdeed."

"A lighter view!" repeated Croucher, goggling; and he added with a shuddering inconsequence: "The lor o' the land don't make light of it!"

"Literature has been known to," rejoined the doctor, with as little apparent point. "But you are not the reader you were last year; otherwise there's a little thing, On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts, that I should like to lend you."

"One o' the 'ow much?" said Mr. Croucher, uncertain whether to grin, or frown, and meanwhile glaring more than he supposed.

Dollar went for the book, and read a few extracts aloud. They appeared to afford him extraordinary enjoyment; they were altogether over the bullet head on the pillow. Croucher could only gather that some people seemed to imagine it was good sport to commit a murder. Funny fools! Let them try a fortnight in the condemned cell, for one they never did commit, and see how they took to that!

But he could understand them that knew nothing about it writing a lot of rot like this; what beat him was that the crime doctor, of all people, and with all his uncanny knowledge of the subject, that even he was able to view the worst of crimes in a light which would never have dawned on the independent intellect of Alfred Croucher. It seemed to him a more lurid light than any in which he himself, at his worst, had ever seen such things; horrible, to his mind, that one who ran every risk of being murdered should sit there gloating over "the shades of merit" in one murder, and over others as "the sublimest and most entire in their excellence that ever were committed." What was more horrible, however, was the hollow note of Mr. Croucher's own laughter, and the furtive gleaming of his restless eyes, while his body twitched between the sheets.

He asked for the book when Dollar rose to go; and was discovered, in due course, bathed in a perspiration which he made less effort to conceal.

"It ain't all like them funny bits," he assured the doctor, with an open shudder. "There's a bit I struck about a servant gal, on one side of a door, an' a bloke wot's done the 'ole bloomin' family in on the other. My cripes! I 'ad to 'old me breff over that, and it's made me sweat like a pig."

"On which side of the door were you?"

"Wot's that?"

"In your mind's eye, my good fellow!"

Mr. Croucher had seldom found it easier to tell the truth, and he made the most of his opportunity.

"I felt as if I was the gal," said he. "Shouldn't wonder if I dreamt I was 'er to-night!"

"Ah! I always find myself on the inside," said Dollar, with extraordinary gusto. "I'd much rather have been the girl. She had the open street behind her, and the street-lamps; he had only his own handiwork in the dark, and hardly room enough to step out of the way of it. She got away, too, whereas he had to make away with himself. But I always would rather be the victim; he doesn't know what's coming; and it's not a thousandth part as bad as – the other thing – when it does come… I'm sorry, Croucher! You shouldn't have asked me to leave you the book; but there's nothing like looking at a thing from all sides, and it may console you to know that you've perspired over the best description of a murder ever written."

Yet that was not the last of their morbid conversations; they would hardly be five minutes together before the noxious subject would crop up, nearly always through some reluctant yet irresistible allusion on the patient's part. The doctor might come in overflowing with deliberate gaiety; there was something about him that set the bulbous eyes rolling with uneasy cunning, the cockney tongue wagging in its solitary strain, as it were under protest from the beaded brow.

On one occasion Dollar was the prime offender. It was the day after Croucher's introduction to De Quincey and the first bad night spent by anybody in the Chamber of Peace. He declared he had not slept a wink, and was advised to get up and go for a walk.

"Alone?" said Croucher in a low voice.

"Why not? This isn't prison, and I never hear you cough. You are not going to die just yet, Croucher!"

"I 'ope nobody is, not 'ere," said Croucher, with a horrid twitch. "I feel as it might buck me up – a breff of air on a nice fine day like this." His eyes rolled undecidedly, and the oil ran out of his voice. "But it ain't no fun goin' out alone."

"Haven't you any friends you could go and see?"

"No!" cried Croucher, with an emphasis that pulled him up. "I – I might write a letter, though – if you could spare me a bit o' paper wiv the address."

It was a very short letter that Alfred Croucher wrote, but a remarkably thick envelope that he himself took to the post, after looking many times up and down the street. And at the pillar-box, which was not many yards from the door, he again hesitated sadly before thrusting it in.

In the afternoon Dollar took him out in the car, and then it was that for once the poisonous topic was not introduced by Mr. Croucher.

"See that house?" said Dollar, pointing out one of the most modest in the purlieus of Park Lane. "There was no end of a murder there once. Swiss valet cut his master's throat, made what he flattered himself were the hall-marks of burglars, and had the nerve to go into the room to wake the dead man up next morning."

"Fair swine, eh?" said Mr. Croucher, with all the symptoms of disgust.

"A very fair artist, too," rejoined the disciple of De Quincey. "That wasn't his only good touch. He cut the old gentleman's throat from ear to ear, and yet there wasn't a spot of blood on his garments. How do you suppose he managed that? It's a messy operation, Croucher; you or I would have made a walking shambles of ourselves!"

"How did he manage it?" asked Croucher, in a shaky growl.

"By taking off every stitch before he did the trick. How about that for a tip?"

Croucher made no reply. His teeth were clenched like those of a man bearing physical pain. They were nearly out of town, and Dollar had discoursed upon autumn tints and the nip in the air before being abruptly interrogated as to the "fair swine's" fate.

"Need you ask?" said he. "The poor devil was too clever by half, and made a big mistake for each of his strokes of genius. He was taken, tried, condemned, and all the rest of it! And a greater writer than the gentleman who kept you awake last night wrote the best description of – all the rest of it – in existence. But don't you ask me to lend you that!"

"They always seem to forget somefink," said Alfred Croucher, another long mile out of town.

"The first thing being that the best murders oughtn't to look like murders," the criminologist agreed. "They ought to look like accidents, or suicides at the most. But it takes a Mostyn Scarth to cut as deep as that."

"Wot the 'ell mikes yer fink of 'im?" cried Croucher, in a fury at the very name.

"Well, among other things, the fact that he saw us off in the car just now. Do you mean to say you didn't see through the false beard of the gentleman who was picking up his umbrella as we turned into Wigmore Street?"

III

Never again did Alfred Croucher venture out alone, even as far as the pillar-box; not another letter had he to post, though he received one, wrapped round a stone, once when his window was open, and literally devoured every word. He did go out, but only with the crime doctor in his car, for an hour or two in the afternoon.

More than once they got out at Richmond Park, sent the car across to one of the other gates, and followed at a brisk walk, shoulder to shoulder, with Croucher often peeping over his, but Dollar never. The walk was sometimes broken for as long as it took Croucher to smoke a pipe in one or another of the beautiful wooded enclosures which are the inner glory of the most glorious of all public parks. There, under red canopies of dying leaves, their feet upon a russet carpet of the dead, the smoker would rest in a restless silence, because the one subject which had made him eloquent was now tabooed. Even in the Chamber of Peace there was no peace for Alfred Croucher, and but little sleep, although the doctor had walked him off his legs and would sit beside him till all hours. So the literary and conversational treatment had been altered once for all; and now the patient would hardly read or speak a word.

Late one night, in the second half of the month, the crime doctor, seated like a waxwork in a chair that never creaked, had just made sure that his man was asleep at last. He decided to steal out and write some letters, and take them to the post himself before locking up; and was getting by inches to his catlike feet, when some sense held him bent like a bow. It could hardly have been his hearing, in his own sound-proof sanctuary between double windows and triple doors. Yet suddenly he was all on edge, listening with nerves laid bare by forced vigils in that slumberous room, brown as an Arab in its weird lighting; the silver patch in his hair changed from a florin to a new penny, the whites of his eyes like broad gold rings; their one flaw augmented by an infinite fatigue, their one care the human wreckage on the bed – shattered utterly by him, to be by him built up afresh, but not in the midst of excursions and alarms. And here was the inmost door opening, so softly, so slowly, at deadliest dead of night!

It was a woman who entered like a ghost, and he knew her step, though he could not hear it even now. And though her cloak and head-dress were those of a trained nurse, he knew, rather than saw, that the wearer was Lady Vera Moyle.

"Hush!" she was the first to whisper, and very softly closed the last door, through which he would have hurried her out again. Already her soundless movements, her air of vast precaution, puzzled him even more than her presence or her dress; but he still had anxieties on this side of the door.

"Just asleep," he whispered, pointing to the bed. "Bad time I've given him, poor brute, but a better one coming, I do believe. Did you come to see how he was doing?" Even in the stained light she looked so beaming now, so frankly triumphant, he made sure that was it. "I'd have written, but thought you were away. Who let you in?"

"This!"

And she held up a new Yale key.

"Where did you get it?"

"Specially cut for me." Every line in his red man's face was a note of blank interrogation. "Mostyn Scarth has another – cut specially for him! I've had him watched."

"Vera!"

"I was watching for him – from the nursing home opposite – suffrage friends of mine."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"You had enough to do."

He shook his head. "Well?"

"He's somewhere in the house."

"This house?"

"Why didn't you tell me?"

She nodded. "Hiding – in your room, I think."

"I'll soon have him out!"

"Wait!" She had eyes for the amber bed at last. "Are you sure he's asleep?"

Dollar stole across and back. The great frame was breathing gently and evenly as a child. "But he's a terribly light sleeper; we mustn't disturb him, if we can help it."

"Disturb him!" She clutched his hand for the first time. "I wish to God I had never brought him to you! There's a plot between them, doctor – I know there's some plot!"

"There was, of course," he said, smiling, but wincing at his own "of course" that instant. "I'm delighted you brought him," he reassured her. "I've taken some of the plot out of him – and now for Mr. Scarth!"

He reached past her to open the door. In a flash she put something in his hand. It was a showy little revolver, the handle mother-of-pearl, the barrel golden in that light.

"Thanks," he said-briefly – but there was a whole novel in his look. "Now will you do something more for me?"

"No!" she said flatly, and was at his elbow when he opened his own door across the landing.

It was such a plain little room that there was indeed small danger of a surprise from the concealed intruder. The only possible cover was under the bed, behind the curtains, or in the wardrobe. Dollar just went through the form of glancing under the bed, as he whipped up the poker in his left hand; with it he parted the curtains, and in the same second had his man comfortably covered at arm's length.

"Well done!" cried the girl.

Scarth repaid her with a gleam of saturnine enlightenment; it was the first change in his swarthy, unemotional, unconquerable visage. On the Balkan battle-fields there may have been myriads of such faces, not with the unique intellectual quality of this one, but alike in their fierce contempt of battle, murder, and sudden death, as little matters not worth a qualm, whether in the active or the passive party to the business. Among educated Englishmen the temperament is rare, and rarer still the mental attitude; in the combination lie the makings of the hell-born villain, and Mostyn Scarth was the finished article.

Stoical in his discomfiture, he saw his opening with no more than a glitter of his insolent eyes, and took it as though he had never foreseen anything else.

"So I've caught you both out, my virtuous friends!" said he. "And you dare to present that thing at me, as though I were here for a felonious purpose!"

"I shall not empty it into you, Scarth, however much you may tempt me," replied the crime doctor. "What do you say to clasping both hands behind your head and leading the way down-stairs?"

"I'll see you damned first," said Mostyn Scarth.

"Good! It's exactly the same to me, only you may find it harder not to take one of those hands out of your trousers pockets, and the moment you show a finger I shall cripple you for life. I thought, too, that you might like to hear what we say to the police."

"I don't take the faintest interest in what you say to them," returned Scarth, with a broader gleam to light his meaning.

"Good again! Do you mind going down and ringing up New Scotland Yard, Lady Vera? On your way you might please see if all three doors are shut in the room opposite; then, perhaps – no! I should leave this one open after all, I think." Three seconds had sufficed to close the triple doors, one more quickly than another, behind them.

"I should, if I were you," said Scarth. "And I should think a good many times before carrying out your other instructions – if I were the lady at the bottom of one of the few mysteries that still puzzle Scotland Yard."

There was a pause, in which Dollar heard only a sharp intake of breath on the threshold just behind him; but that was enough.

"I believe I shall have to shoot you, after all," said he, and the hammer of the mother-of-pearl revolver clicked to full cock.

"Won't that rather spoil your game?" said Scarth, blandly.

"Mine is not the game that matters at the moment – yours is. As, however, you have been fool enough to have a key cut expressly to fit my front-door lock, and have been discovered in my room at midnight – "

"In the most distinguished company! Go on, Dollar. Nothing extenuate – bang the field-piece – twang the lyre!"

His teeth were showing as they had shown on the platform at Winterwald nine months before; the tag from his famous impersonation had slipped out with all the snap and gusto which had captivated an unruly audience then; and it was not without a slight mesmeric effect on the man who had him at his mercy. If Scarth in turn had not held Vera Moyle at his mercy, and if John Dollar had not known him to be utterly devoid of that quality, he could have admired the cool daredevil, swaggering at bay.



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