The Crime Doctor
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"And where is this extraordinary establishment?"
"Under my own roof here in Welbeck Street."
"A few hundred yards from where we stand, yet this is the first I hear of it!"
"I can see that. It's not my fault, sir. I have done my best to bring it before your notice."
"By writing many times to tell you all about myself and the home, Mr. Vinson."
"Then I never saw the letters. A Home Secretary stands to be shot at by every crank who can hold a pen. I employ more than one young gentleman expressly to divert that sort of fire. You should have got an introduction to me, Doctor Dollar."
The doctor had smiled at an expression that he could not but take to himself. His smile sweetened under the kindlier tone which succeeded that one unmeasured word.
"I am not sorry I waited for the introduction which time has given me, Mr. Vinson."
"You wanted me to assist the good work, I take it?"
"By your countenance and influence – if you could."
"I must see something of it first. I must inspect this home of yours, Doctor Dollar."
The steel eyes of the Vinsons could seldom have cut deeper at a glance, or been met by a pair more candid and unafraid. And yet there was just that cruel suspicion of a cast, to prejudice both the candor and the courage of the finer face.
"It is open to your inspection day or night," said Doctor Dollar.
"Even at this hour? Even to-night?"
The Home Secretary sounded as keen as he looked; but on the other side there was now just enough hesitation to correspond with that one slight flaw in the finer eyes.
"This minute, by all means," said the doctor, with resolute cordiality. "There's always somebody up, and the patients can be seen without being disturbed."
"Then," said the Home Secretary, "it's a chance at a time when every moment of the day is full. Let us strike, doctor, while the iron is as hot as I can assure you that you have made it."
That deplorable passion for adventure, which had turned the hope of the last Opposition into a guerrilla warrior in South Africa, but which the Home Secretary of England might have subdued before accepting his portfolio, was by no means a dead volcano as Topham Vinson sallied forth with his extraordinary companion. It was to be noticed that he took with him a thick stick instead of an umbrella, though the deserted streets had become moist with a midnight drizzle. What he expected can only be surmised. But the odds are that it did not include the shriek of a police-whistle in the sedate region of Wigmore Street, and the instantaneous bolting of Doctor Dollar round the first corner to the left!
Now, the Secretary of State was one of those men who keep up their games out of a cold-blooded regard for the figure; he considered himself as fit at forty as any man in England, and he gave chase with his usual confidence. But the long-legged doctor would have left him behind with the lamp-posts, but for the fact that he was really tearing toward the sound, not flying from it as his pursuer was so ready to suppose.In a matter of seconds they had both fetched up at a brilliantly lighted house, where a more than usually obese policeman was alternately pounding on the door and splitting the sober welkin with his whistle.
"Stop that infernal row!" cried Doctor Dollar, with incensed authority. "Out of the way with you – this is my house!"
And the Home Secretary arrived on the scene of an imminent assault on his police, just in time to divert the outraged officer's attention by asking what had happened, while the doctor found his key.
"Lord only knows!" said the policeman, kicking some broken glass on one side. "Murder, it sounds like; there's somebody been loosing off – "
And even as he spoke somebody loosed off again! The terrific report was followed by screams within and a fresh shower of glass from the fanlight. But by this time Doctor Dollar had his latch-key in the lock. If the door had opened outward, a tangled trio would have fallen into the street; as it was, it hardly would open for the man in white who was struggling with a woman (in red flannel) and a boy (in next to nothing) on the mat.
Dollar exclaimed "Barton!" in blank amazement. But it was not the unlucky Barton who had run amuck. "They won't let me at him! They'll get the lot of us shot dead!" he spluttered, with ungrateful objurgations; and then the newcomers grasped the situation. On the stairs, at the end of the narrow passage, they beheld an enormous revolver, against a background of pink sleeping-suit, with a ferocious eye looking down the barrel.
The crime doctor slipped in front of the Hogarthian group, and stood between everybody and the armed man – shaking his head with an expression that nobody else could see.
"Ozzie, I'm surprised at you!" they heard him say with severity. "I thought you were a better sportsman than to go playing the fool the one night I'm out. If you want to frighten people, do it where you don't damage their property; if you mean murder, I'm your mark, my lad! Aim at my waistcoat buttons and perhaps you'll get me in the mouth; that's better; now blaze away!"
But the pink-striped miscreant was not lowering his barrel to improve his aim. He lowered it altogether. And his other wild eye was open now, and both were blinking with unlovely woe.
"I – I didn't mean any harm," he faltered. "It was only a rag – and I'll pay for the door."
"It'll be a great rag, won't it, if you fire bang into your own foot? Better give me that thing before you do." Dollar held out the steadiest of hands. "No, t'other way round if you don't mind; 'tisn't manners to pass knives and forks business-end first. Ta! Now make yourself scarce before Barton goes for you by kind permission of his family."
The young man in pink stood wildly staring, then fled up-stairs with a smothered sob.
"After him, Barton, before he does something silly," said the doctor under his breath. "My dear Mrs. Barton, you shall tell me the whole thing from A to Z in the morning; go down to bed like a good soul, and be satisfied that you prevented bloodshed. Bobby, take one of the decanters from the tantalus and give your mother a good nightcap." He turned round as the unpresentable pair made off. The street-door was shut; the Home Secretary had sole possession of the mat. "Why, Mr. Vinson, what's happened to the myrmidon?"
"I thought you would like me to get rid of him," said Topham Vinson dryly. "He's waiting outside to explain matters to the reinforcements – as a joke."
"Rather an unconvincing joke!" said the doctor, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand.
"I'm glad you admit it, Doctor Dollar. Am I to understand that the whole thing was a practical joke, carefully rehearsed for my benefit?"
The doctor opened his shining eyes.
"Does it look like one? Hark back a little, Mr. Vinson!"
"There's no need. I didn't think of it till you put the word into my mouth. But it's well, rather a coincidence, doctor, coming on top of the one about my watch – and you of all men catching the thief!"
"Yet this is the sort of thing that's always liable to happen when one's back is turned, and always will be until – "
"Yes?" said the Home Secretary, as Dollar paused and looked at him.
"Until you make it at least as difficult to buy revolvers and ammunition, Mr. Vinson, as a dose of prussic acid! Here's a young man, unsteady, and an epileptic, who has just been placed under my care. I don't run a private asylum, nor is he ripe for one. I must give him his head a little, and this happens in a minute! If it should lead to fresh revolver regulations – but I mustn't forget myself in my excitement. If you would come in here and smoke a cigarette, I shall have to make a round directly to see how things are quieting down, and should be only too glad to take you with me."
The round was made after further conversation in a dining-room as Spartan as the rest of the crime doctor's characteristic abode. An instructed taste in aged but uncomfortable oak gave it the chill severity of a refectory; and the suggestion was strengthened by a glance into the minute consulting-room next door, which struck the visitor, perhaps in the light of one of Dollar's own similitudes, as a sort of monkish cell and confessional in one. The carven table, rugged yet elaborate, pale with age, might once have been an altar; the chair behind it was certainly an ecclesiastical chair. The cumbrous pieces were yet the fruit of a fastidious eye, and apparently its only fruit. Everything else throughout the house was ultra-sanitary, refreshingly utilitarian, twentieth century. No shred nor thread made for dust on the linoleum, no picture harbored it on the glazed paper. Walls and floors were of the same uncompromising type up-stairs and down. Yet, when a peep was taken through one of the numbered doors above, hothouse flowers bloomed in glass bowls on glass tables, and the bedroom ware was glass again. The very books were bound in glassy vellum; there was a pile of them beside the bed, in which a very young man, swathed in bandages, lay reading under the green glass shade of an electric lamp.
The doctor expressed his sorrow for the occurrence down-stairs; the patient, scarcely looking up, said that since he could not have moved to save his life, he had gone on reading all the time; and they left him at it, obviously glad to be rid of them.
"That," whispered the doctor on the landing, "is a young fellow who will one day be – well, never mind! Until he came to me he had never of his own free will read anything but a bad novel or a newspaper; he is now deep in the immortal work of another weak young man who was swayed by strength, and is himself for the time being under Doctor Johnson's salutary thumb."
"What was his weakness?"
"A passion for setting places on fire. He started it as quite a small boy; they licked it out of him then. All his boyhood he went in fear of the rod, and it kept him straight. Only the other day he goes up to Oxford, and promptly sets fire to his rooms."
"Some form of atavism, I presume?"
"A very subtle case, if I were free to give you its whole history."
"I should be even more interested in your treatment."
"Well, I needn't tell you that he's bandaged up for burns; but you might not guess that he has come by this lot since I've had him, if not almost at my hands."
"At any rate I'm responsible for what happened, and it's going to cure him. It was a case of undisciplined imagination acting on a bonnet with just one bee in it. He had never realized what a hell let loose a fire really was; now he knows through his own skin."
The statesman's eyebrows were like the backs of two mutually displeased cats.
"But surely that's an old wives' trick pushed beyond all bounds?"
"Pushed further than I intended, Mr. Vinson, I must confess. I only meant him to see a serious fire. So I arranged with the brigade to ring me up when there was a really bad one, and with my man to take the boy out at night for all his walks. There was another good reason for that; and altogether nothing can have seemed more natural than the way they both appeared on the scene of this ghastly riding-school affair."
"I know what's coming!" cried the Home Secretary. "This is the fellow who dashed in to help save the horses, and got away afterward without giving his name!"
"That's it. He says he'll hear those horses till his dying hour! He was in the thick of it before Barton or anybody else could stop him – they only succeeded in stopping poor Barton from following. Well, I can take no credit for the very last thing I should have dreamt of allowing; but I fancy the odds are fairly long that the tempting element will never, never again tempt our young friend up-stairs!"
They had drifted down again during this recital; and he who had led the way stood staring at the crime doctor, in his monkish cell, with that intent inscrutability which was one of Topham Vinson's most effective masks; but now it was a mask imperfectly adjusted, with the warm light of admiration breaking through, and the shadow of something else interfering with that light. When Doctor Dollar had marched upon the loaded revolver, talking down the barrel as to an infant pointing a popgun – daring another daredevil to shoot him dead – the same admiring look had come over the face behind him, qualified in precisely the same fashion. But then the doctor had not seen it, and now it made him wince a little, as though he dreaded something that was bound to come.
This was what came:
"Doctor Dollar, I should prefer not to ask you to show me or tell me any more. I know a good man when I see one, and I know good work when I catch him at it. Perhaps that was necessary in the case of such extraordinary work as yours; yet you say it was a sheer coincidence that I caught you at it to-night – or rather that such tough work was waiting for you when we got here?"
"Do you still doubt it? Why, you yourself insisted on coming round to see the place in the middle of this blessed night!"
"Exactly. That establishes your second coincidence; but with all respect, doctor, I don't believe in two of the same sort on the same night to the same two people!"
"What was the other coincidence?" demanded the doctor, huskily.
"Your catching any old pickpocket with my watch – and letting him off! Come, doctor, do one more thing for me, and I'll do all in my power for you and your great work. That is, of course, if you still want me to take the interest I certainly should have taken if I had seen your letters."
"If!" cried the young man from the fulness of his heart. "Your interest is the one thing I do want of you, and you are the one person I want to interest!"
His eyes shone like big brown lamps, straight enough now in their intensity, and dim with the glory of their vision. He could tremble, too, it seemed, where the stake was not dear life, but a life's dearer work. And Topham Vinson was almost moved himself; he really was absorbed and thrilled; but not to the detriment of his penetrative astuteness, his political instinct for a bargain.
"Come, then," said he: "show me the fellow who sneaked my watch."
"Show him to you? What do you mean?"
The doctor had not started. But the injured eye showed its injury once more.
"It was one of your patients who picked my pocket," said the Home Secretary, with as much confidence as though he had known it all the time. "Would you have been in such a hurry to wash your hands of anybody else, and to undo what he'd done?"
Dollar made no answer, no denial; but he glanced at a venerable one-handed clock, whose unprotected pendulum shaved the wall with noisy sweeps. It was two o'clock in the morning, but already night must have been turned into dreadful and disturbing day for all the inmates. The doctor abandoned that excuse unmade, and faced his visitor in desperation.
"So you want to see him – now?"
"I do. I have my reasons. But it shall end at that – if I do see him. That won't nip my goodwill in the bud!" It was obvious what would.
"You shall see him," said the doctor, as though racking his mind once more. "But there are difficulties you perhaps can't quite appreciate. It means giving away a patient – don't you see?"
"Perfectly. It seems to me a very proper punishment, since it's all he'll get. Yet you don't want to lose your hold. Couldn't you send him down here on some pretext, instead of taking me up to him?"
The crime doctor's face lit up as if by electricity.
"I can and I will!" he cried. "Wait here, Mr. Vinson. He's another reader; he shall come down for a book!"
The great man waited with the satisfaction of a slightly overbearing personality for once very nearly overborne. He was now intensely interested in the crime doctor and his unique establishment. It was an interest that he had no intention of sharing with his closest colleague, until he had gone deeper into a theory and practise that were already a revelation to him. They might both prove unworkable on any large scale, and yet they might light the way to sensational legislation of the very type that Topham Vinson was the very man to introduce. Boundless ambition was one of the forces of a nature that responded to the call of any sufficiently dazzling crusade; but the passion for adventure ran ambition hard; and a crusade calculated to gratify both appetites was dazzling even to eyes of triple steel!
Only, he must show this new ally his power before they struck up their alliance; that was the great reason for insisting on seeing the pickpocket. But there was a little reason besides. An excellent memory had supplied Mr. Vinson with a kind of post-impression of the pickpocket. And within one minute of the doctor's departure, and one second of the patient's prompt appearance, a certain small suspicion had been confirmed.
"I think we've met before, my man?" he had begun. His man started stagily – was altogether of the stage – a bearded scarecrow in rags too ragged to be true. Vinson found the switches and made more light. "Not half a bad disguise," he continued, "whoever you may be! I suppose they're supplied on the premises for distinguished patients?"
"How do you know it's a disguise?" croaked the hairy man, with downcast eyes.
"Well, you don't look a distinguished patient, do you?" said the Home Secretary airily. "On the other hand, your kit doesn't convince me at all; looks to me as if it would fall to pieces but for what the ladies call a foundation – eh?"
And he swooped down on the ragged tails as their owner turned a humiliated back. And the "foundation" was a perfectly good overcoat turned inside out; moreover, it was a coat that Topham Vinson seemed to know; it was a coat that he suddenly remembered, as he shot up to his full height and then stood deadly still.
The pickpocket had not turned round. But his wig and beard lay at his elbow on the mantelpiece; his diminished head had sunk into his hands; and the electric light blazed upon a medallion of silver hair, up above one burning ear.
"Doctor – Dollar!" exclaimed Topham Vinson. And the ingenuous ring of his own startled voice only added to his sense of outrage.
"Yes! I was the man… It was only to get at you – you know that!"
It was a hoarse voice muttering to the wall, in a dire discomfiture that had its effect on the insulted Minister.
"So that was your weakness!" The plain comment was icier than any sneer. "Picking and stealing – and your hand still keeps its cunning!"
"Yes. That was how my wound had taken me." There was less shame in the hoarse voice, thanks to the bracing coldness of the other. "It started in the field hospital – orderlies laughed and encouraged me – nurses at Netley just as bad! Everybody treated it as a joke; the doctor used to ask for his watch or his handkerchief after every visit; and the great score was when he thought I had one, and it was really the other – or both – or the keys out of his trousers pocket! It amused the ward and made me popular – made me almost suicidal – because I alone knew that I couldn't help doing it to save my life… And the rest you know."
"I do, indeed!"
"This beastly kit, I had it made on purpose so that I could run after you one minute with what I'd taken from you the minute before! It was a last attempt to gain your ear – to get you interested. And now – "
"And now," said Topham Vinson, with a kind hand on the bent shoulders, yet a keen eye on the bent head – "and now I suppose you think you've put the lid on it? So you have, my dear doctor – on any sneaking doubts I had about you! You've struck a job after my own heart, and you've led me into it as I never was led into anything in my life before. Well, you've just got to keep me in it now; and I'm conceited enough to believe I shall be worth my place. Don't you think you might turn round, Doctor Dollar, and let us shake hands on that?"