Ernest Hornung.

The Crime Doctor



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"Remember the concert at Winterwald, doctor," he went on, "and our talk afterward, and the last talk we ever had there? He thought I had two tries to kill a fellow, Lady Vera – two bites at such a green young nut! Better to finish 'em off at one fell blow, isn't it? Not such fun for the widow, or the poor innocent devil who nearly swings for the job, but great work for the militant Millies and their lady leader! Splendid for you all until the truth comes out – as it will the minute a policeman shows his nose!"

It was Lady Vera who had obtained him this hearing. She had stepped up to Dollar, had taken his arm, had even put her other hand in front of her own revolver.

"Let him go on; we may as well know where we are," she had said in the middle of Scarth's speech. And now she asked him what he proposed, as if she were inquiring the price of a dress, with the civility doubly due to an inferior.

"You have had my proposal," said Scarth. "It's not the kind that one repeats before a third party."

"I may as well ring them up," said Lady Vera, trying to disengage her arm; but Dollar's had closed upon it, and his left hand held hers as in a vise.

"You shan't!" he ground out. "It's all bluff. They have no evidence."

"They are welcome to all I can give them," she answered. "I have always regretted I didn't come forward in the beginning. But there was more excuse than there is now – then there was no question of letting a worse person go for the second time."

But this was not said for the worse person's benefit; for the Vera Moyles it is impossible to speak at the worst person in the world. The point was merely urged as an argument for Dollar's private ear. But the Mostyn Scarths are expert listeners; not a syllable was lost upon the consummate chieftain of that foul family; and he grinned gaily through as much of the open door as he could see from this point.

"So you admit that you administered his coup de grace to the late lamented Sergeant Simpkins?"

But the heavy shaft was not winged by one of Mostyn Scarth's feathered glances. His grinning gaze still sped past them to the landing.

"I have never denied it in my life."

"Hear that, Croucher?" cried Scarth. "'Full confession by Lady Vera Moyle – extry spechul.'"

The pair stood closer as one of them looked round; and there, indeed, on the threshold, bulked Alfred Croucher, larger than life in a white bathgown that sat better on him than his loudest clothes. And his unwholesome face looked only a shade less white than all the rest of him, but for the little red sleepless eyes fixed on Mostyn Scarth, who still enjoyed the crime doctor's undivided attention.

"'Ow the 'ell did you get 'ere?" said Croucher huskily.

"I'm obliged to you for asking. Our virtuous friends are so ready to take a felony for granted, that it seems never to have occurred to them that I walked in at the door – partly to see you – chiefly to bowl them out." Lady Vera could not help smiling at that which seemed never to have occurred to her; nothing else left any mark, save upon John Dollar, on whom Scarth now trained his ivory grin.

"The worst of a Yale lock, doctor," he went on, "is that all the keys are numbered; the worst of a Turkish bath is that your enemy may do that thing, and have a look at your latch-key if you will leave it in your pocket on its chain. Northumberland Avenue may be a good place after a bad night, but that's where I really found my way into your house. You didn't see me because I had the bad taste to prefer the cave of electricity to the public hot-rooms and your capital company."

The note of insolence had been forced for Croucher's benefit, the libretto elaborated to impress that elemental mind, and it was to Croucher that Scarth turned for applause. It might have been more articulate; there was little merriment in the guttural laugh; and it was not in open mockery, if not with any visible respect, that the little red eyes sought the silent object of these insults.

Dollar met them for a moment with a sidelong flash; that was as much as the little red eyes could stand. Scarth glowered, but Mr. Croucher was not looking up any more. Between the two strong men, one spitting insults with his tongue, the other darting questions with his eyes, flabby Croucher found it convenient to study the toes of his bedroom slippers. But his right hand shook deep in the far pocket of the voluminous bathgown. None of them saw that but Mostyn Scarth, and him it filled with gleaming confidence.

"Come, Alfred," said he, "get into your street clothes, if they haven't been taken away from you. If they have, go down as you are and call a taxi. I'm going to take you out of this hole. You look more dead than alive. I thought you might; that's one reason why I came."

"Croucher is going to do something for me first," said the crime doctor. "Then he can do what he likes."

"Sorry you haven't got a soul to call your own, Alfred."

"Who says I haven't?"

"Doctor Dollar. Didn't you hear him?"

"If he does, he's a – "

"Croucher! Croucher!" said the doctor. "All I want you to do is to hand me the razor case from the dressing-table. In fact you needn't do all that; just arm yourself with the weapon you ought to find there. Then somebody will be more of a match for me. And Mr. Scarth isn't raising any further objection, you will notice."

What Croucher noticed, as the red eyes came up at last, was that Mostyn Scarth had suddenly lost a little of his usual healthy tan; but the bedroom slippers remained planted where they were.

And then without a word Lady Vera stepped from the doctor's side, took the razor-case in both her hands, pulled it in two and exhibited the empty halves.

"Which of you has borrowed my razor?" said John Dollar.

"Not me!" cried Croucher with tremendous emphasis. But his right hand was still in his far pocket, as only Mostyn Scarth could see; and the sight restored a little of that healthy tan which so becomes dark faces.

"Not you, Croucher?"

"No, not me, by Gawd!"

"Yet I believe your original mission in this house was to possess yourself of that razor – and – use it?"

Dollar did not finish the sentence without feeling for a little hand with his left; that little hand met it half-way, and was the first to give a reassuring squeeze.

"You were to do something to me with it, I believe, and to leave it in my hand to show I'd done it myself?"

And then, under another sidelong flash, that steadied down into a will-destroying gleam, Croucher came out with a dreadful phrase.

"To guide yer 'and!" said he, hoarsely.

"To guide my hand! Exactly! But it was not exactly your idea?"

"No. It was – "

But here his eyes rolled into Mostyn Scarth's, and dropped once more.

"Exactly!" repeated Dollar. "But you didn't quite feel like doing it, so at last your master had to come in to do it for you?"

"He ain't my master now, blast 'im!"

"Steady, Croucher. May I ask what that is in your hand?"

It was a letter. Only a letter out of that far pocket, after all! Scarth's eyes started, and he found his tongue once more.

"You – give – that – to me, Croucher!"

Croucher wavered at his voice; it was terribly threatening, each subtle tone a poisoned barb.

"What if I don't?"

"You know what!"

"The game deepens," said the crime doctor; and he did not know that his left hand had dropped the hand of hands for him.

"Your game's up if you show that letter!" cried Scarth to Croucher, who only showed him the broad of his back.

"Can you be tried twice for the same thing, doctor?" he began – but in the same breath he desperately added: "I don't care whether you can or you can't! You read that, whether or no!"

The letter was in an envelope superscribed "To the Coroner," in a wonderful imitation of Dollar's handwriting; but the letter itself, written on his own stamped paper, was a still more marvelous forgery, in which the crime doctor bade farewell to the world before stultifying his own life's work by the crime of suicide.

"That's better than anything you did in Switzerland," said Dollar, nodding to the livid man between the curtains.

"But it ain't the best thing 'e's done," cried Croucher, and stopped to roll his eyes and gloat. "The bounder's best bit was squeezin' two people for the same job – the guilty an' the innercent – 'er as thought she must 've done it, an' 'im as knew 'e done it all the time!"

"That's the end of you," said Scarth, with sardonic satisfaction.

"It's the beginning of us all!" said the crime doctor, in a voice they hardly knew. "Do you – can you mean yourself and this lady?"

That lady shook her head and smiled.

"I do, if I swing to-morrow!" swore Alfred Croucher. "I told 'im" – with a truculent thrust of the bullet head – "one night in me cups; an' fust 'e starts squeezin' 'er to marry 'im, an' then squeezin' me to do yer in before yer forbids 'is banns! Oh, 'e's a nut, I tell yer – though we've been the nuts an' 'im the cracker!"

Lady Vera looked like a little ghost, still unable to believe her ears, still staring into space as if the trouble were rather with those great Irish eyes of hers.

But the doctor was the doctor an instant longer. His left hand went out to his patient first.

"You'll sleep to-night! I'll give you the other when it's free," he said, still covering the man with his hands in his pockets, the curtains on each side of him, and a back window just behind.

Then two things happened in quick succession; but the first brought the lover back to life with such a throb that the second was not even seen.

Just saying, "I'm afraid I'm going to make a fool of myself," all that he loved on earth collapsed at his feet. The doctor was down on his knees beside her, getting the girl into his arms. And even Mr. Croucher did not see the curtains close, or hear anything happen behind them; for he, too, was on his knees, holding out a dripping sponge, and babbling faster than the drops pattered on the floor.

"It's right! I done it … that pore copper in the fog! She sent 'im reelin' – into me arms – but I done all the rest. Never meant to, mind yer, but that's neither here nor there. Ready to swing, I was, an' don't care now if I do! She saved me – little knock-out – an' look 'ow I went an' tret 'er for it!.. Gawd, doctor, wot a fair swine I was!"

But the crime doctor had even less time to listen to him now; for the eyes of eyes had opened, were gazing up into his; and not one of them had heard the window raised behind the curtains, or the clanging thud upon the iron steps just underneath.

THE END

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