Ernest Hornung.

The Crime Doctor



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A vile male member of the common criminal classes had not only taken occasion to loot a jeweler's window, broken by some innocent lady, but had coolly murdered a policeman who interfered with him in the perpetration of his selfish crime. Fortunately the wretch had been traced through the stolen trinkets, expeditiously committed and condemned, and was on the point of paying the supreme penalty. No sane person could doubt his guilt, and yet there were those who sought to fix a certain responsibility on the women! The charge of moral complicity had disgraced and stultified both Press and platform, and the Home Secretary, pestered for a reprieve, had only sealed the murderer's fate at the eleventh hour. Even the steel nerves of the Vinsons had suffered under a complex strain: it was just as well that he was on the point of departure for the holidays.

A deplorable circumstance was the way the Minister's last hours in town had been embittered by his implacable tormentor, Lady Vera Moyle. That ingrate had celebrated her release by trying to invade the Home Office, and by actually waylaying the Secretary of State in Whitehall. An unobtrusive body-guard had nipped the annoyance in the bud; but it had caused Topham Vinson to require champagne at his club, whither he was proceeding on the arm of his last ally and most secret adviser, Doctor John Dollar of Welbeck Street. And before dark the doctor had been invaded in his turn.

"You must blame the Home Secretary for this intrusion," began Lady Vera, with all the precision of a practised speaker who knew what she had to say. "He refused, as you heard, to listen to what I had to say to him this morning; but the detective-in-waiting informed me that you were not only a friend of Mr. Vinson's, but yourself a medical expert in criminology. I have therefore a double reason for coming to you, Doctor Dollar, though it would not have been necessary if Mr. Topham Vinson had treated me with ordinary courtesy."

"I am very glad you have done so, Lady Vera," rejoined the doctor in his most conciliatory manner. "Mr. Vinson, to be frank with you, is not in a fit state for the kind of scene he was afraid you were going to make. He is in a highly nervous condition for a man of his robust temperament. Truth, Lady Vera, compels me to add that you and your friends have had something to do with this, but the immediate cause is a far more unhappy case which he has just settled."

"Has he settled it?" cried Lady Vera, turning paler than before between her winter sables and a less seasonable hat.

"This morning," said Dollar, with a very solemn air.

"He isn't going to hang that poor man?"

No breath came between the opened lips that prison had bleached and parched, but neither did they tremble as the doctor bowed.

"If you mean Alfred Croucher," said he, "convicted of the murder of Sergeant Simpkins during the last suffragist disturbance, I can only say there would be an end of capital punishment if he had been reprieved."

"Doctor Dollar," returned Lady Vera, under great control, "it was about this case, and nothing else, that I wanted to speak to the Home Secretary.

I never heard of it until this morning, for I have been out of the way of newspapers, as you may know; and it is difficult to take in a whole trial at one hurried reading. Do you mind telling me why everybody is so sure that this man is the murderer? Did anybody see him do it?"

The crime doctor smiled as he shook his head.

"Very few murders are actually witnessed, Lady Vera; yet this would have been one of the few, but for the fog. Croucher was plainly seen through the jeweler's window, helping himself one moment, then struggling with the unfortunate sergeant."

"Was the struggle seen as plainly as the robbery?"

"Not quite, perhaps, but the evidence was equally convincing about both. Then the stolen goods were found, some of them, still in Croucher's possession; and the way he tried to account for that, in the witness-box, was only less suicidal than his fatal attempt at an alibi."

"Poor fool!" exclaimed Lady Vera, with perhaps less pity than impatience. "Of course he was there – I saw him!"

Dollar was not altogether unprepared for this.

"You were there yourself, then, Lady Vera?"

"I should think I was!"

"It – it wasn't you who broke the window for him?"

"Of course it was! Yet nobody tried to find me as a witness! It is only by pure chance that I come out in time to save an innocent man's life, for innocent he is of everything but theft. I know – too well!"

Her voice was no longer under inhuman control; and there was something in its passionate pitch that sent a cold thrill of conviction down Dollar's spine. He gazed in horror at the unhappy girl, in her luxurious sables, drawn up to her last inch in the pitiless glare of his electric light; and even as he gazed – and guessed – all horror melted into the most profound emotion he had ever felt. It was she who first found her voice, and now it was calmer than it had been as yet.

"One thing more about the trial," she said. "What was the weapon he is supposed to have used?"

"His knife."

"Yet it seems to have been a small wound?"

"It had a small blade."

"But was there any blood on it?"

She had to press him for these details; any squeamishness was on his side, and he a doctor!

"There was," he said. "Croucher had an explanation, but it wasn't convincing."

"The truth often isn't," said Lady Vera, bitterly. "You may be surprised to hear that the blow wasn't struck with a knife at all. It was struck with – this!"

Her right hand flew from her glossy muff; in it was no flashing steel, but a short, black, round-knobbed life-preserver, that she handed over without more words.

"But his skull wasn't smashed!" exclaimed John Dollar, and for an instant he looked at his visitor with the eye of the alienist. "It was a puncture of the carotid artery, and you couldn't do that with this if you tried."

"Hit the floor with it," said Lady Vera, "but don't hold it quite by the end."

Dollar bent down and did as directed; at the blow, a poniard flew out of the opposite end to the round knob; the point caught in his sleeve.

"That's how it was done," continued Lady Vera. "And I am the person it was done by, Doctor Dollar!"

"It was – an accident?" he said, hoarsely. He could look at her as though the accident had not been fatal; he had less command of his voice.

"I call it one; the law may not," said she resignedly. "Yet I didn't even know that I possessed such a weapon as this; it was sold to me as a life-preserver, and nothing else, out of a pawnbroker's window, where I happened to see it on the very morning of the raid. I thought it would be just the thing for smashing other windows, especially with that thong to go round one's wrist. I thought, too – I don't mind telling you – that, if I were roughly handled, it was a thing I could use in self-defense as I couldn't very well use a hammer."

And here she showed no more shame than a soldier need feel about his bayonet after battle; and Dollar met her eyes on better terms. He had been making mechanical experiments with the life-preserver. Some spring was broken. That was why it became a dagger at every blow, instead of only when you gave it a jerk.

"And you were roughly handled by Sergeant Simpkins?" he suggested eagerly.

"Very," she said, with a certain reluctance. "But I expect the poor fellow was as excited as I was when I tried to beat him off."

"I suppose you hardly knew what you were doing, Lady Vera?"

"Not only that, Doctor Dollar, but I didn't know what I had done."

"Thank God for that!"

"But did you imagine it for a moment? That's the whole point and explanation of everything that has happened. The worst was over in a few seconds, in the thick of that awful fog, but, of course I never dreamt what I had done. I did think that I had knocked him out. But that was all that ever entered my head until this very morning."

"Were you close to your broken window at the time?"

"Very close, and yet out of sight in the fog."

"And you had seen nothing of this man Croucher, and his hand in the affair?"

"Not after I'd done my part. I did just before. I'm certain it was the same huge man that they describe. But I heard the whole thing while we were struggling. They were blowing a police-whistle and calling out 'Thieves!' I remember hoping that the policeman would hear them, and let me go. But I suppose his blood was up, as well as mine."

"And after you had – freed yourself?" said the doctor, trying not to set his teeth.

"I ran off, of course! I knew that I had done much more than I ever intended; but that's all I knew, or suspected, even when I found this horrid thing open in my hand. I tried to shut it again, but couldn't. So I hid it in my dress, and ran up Dover Street to my club, where I put it straight into a bag that I had there. Then I made myself decent and – turned out again with a proper hammer."

The doctor groaned; he could not help it. Yet it was his first audible expression of disapproval; he had restrained himself while all the worst was being told; and the girl's face acknowledged his consideration. Her color had come at last. Thus far, in recounting her intentional misdeeds, as though they were all in the great day's work, she had shown a divine indifference to his opinion of her or her proceedings. There had been nothing aggressive about it – he merely doubted whether the question of his views had ever entered her mind. But now he could see that it did; he had shown her something that she did not want to lose, and her fine candor hid that fact as little as any other.

"I didn't know what I'd done, remember!" she said with sharp solicitude. "I never did know until this morning, when I heard of the case for the first time, and for the first time saw the stains on the dagger – at which you've been trying so hard not to look! Do look at them, Doctor Dollar. Of course, there can be no doubt what they are, but I shall be only too glad for you to prove it to everybody's satisfaction."

"'Only too glad,' Lady Vera?"

They gazed at each other for several seconds. Her face was tragic to him now; but emotion, apparently, was the one thing she would condescend to hide. But for her eyes, she might have been incredibly callous and cold-blooded; her blue Irish eyes were great and glassy with a grief not soluble in tears.

"Doctor Dollar," she said, tensely, "nothing can undo this hideous thing, though I hope to live long enough to make such poor amends as a human being can. But in this other direction they must be made at once. It's no use thinking of what can't be undone till we have undone what we can – if we are quick! That's why I tried to go straight to the Home Secretary, and why I have come straight to you. Take me to him, Doctor Dollar, and help me to convince him that what I have told you is the whole truth and nothing else! If you think it will make it easier, satisfy yourself about those blood-stains. Then we can take the dagger with us."

The doctor applied a crude test on the spot. He stooped over the fire, heated the stained steel between the bars, cooled it at the open window, picked off a scale and examined it briefly under a microscope. All this was done with tremendous energy tempered by extreme precision and nicety. And Lady Vera followed the operation with an impersonal interest that could not but include the operator, so intent upon his task, so obviously thankful to have a task of any sort in hand. But when he rose from his microscope it was with a shrug of the shoulders, an almost angry shake of the head.

"Of course, this is all no good, you know!" he cried, as if it were her test. "It would take hours to make the analysis that's really wanted."

"But as far as you have gone, Doctor Dollar?"

"As far as I have gone – which isn't a legal or medical inch – it certainly does look like blood, Lady Vera."

"Of course it is blood. There's another thing that will help us, too."

"What's that?"

"One of the best points in the defense, so far as I've had time to make out, was about the prisoner's knife. Now, if we take this with us, either to the Home Secretary, or, if he still refuses to see me, to New Scotland Yard – "

"Lady Vera!" the doctor interrupted, aghast at her suicidal zeal. "Is it possible that you realize the position you are in? It isn't only a situation that you've got to face; that you have already done, superbly! But have you any conception of the consequences?"

"I think I have," said Lady Vera, smiling. "I don't believe they will hang me; it would be affectation to pretend I did. But, of course, that's their business – mine is to change places with an innocent man."

"That you will never do," replied the doctor warmly. "There's no innocent man in the case; this Croucher is a thief and a perjurer, besides being an old convict who has spent half his life in prison! He would have had five years for the other night's work, without any question of a murder; they'll simply pack him off to Dartmoor or Portland when we've saved his miserable neck. And save it we will, no fear about that; but at what a price – at what a price!"

"I don't see that you need trouble about it," said Lady Vera, concerned at his distress, "beyond putting me in touch with Mr. Vinson. The rest will be up to him, as they say; and, after all, it won't be anything so very terrible to me. I am an old prisoner myself, you must remember!"

There was a gleam of her notorious audacity with all this; but it was like the glow of flowers on a grave. The horror of things to happen had never possessed her valiant eyes, and yet it must have been there, for all at once Dollar missed it. He read her look. He had relieved her mind about the man in the cell, only to open it at last to the man in his grave. Grief crippled her as horror had not; prisons could be broken, but not the prison to which her hand had sent a fellow creature. Yet her grief was mastered in its turn, forced out of sight before his eyes, even while her flippant speech rang through him as the bravest utterance he had ever heard.

It blew a bugle in the man's brain, and the call was clear and definite. He knew his own mind only less instantaneously than he had penetrated hers. Never in all his days had he known his mind quite so well as when she thought better of the very words which had enlightened him, and went on to add to them in another key:

"So now, Doctor Dollar, will you crown all your great kindness by taking me to see the Home Secretary at once?"

"Lady Vera," he exclaimed, with unreasonable irritation, "what is the good of asking impossibilities? I couldn't take you to Topham Vinson even if I would. He would begin by doubting your sanity; there would be all manner of silly difficulties. Moreover, he's not in town."

She showed displeasure at the statement of fact only.

"Doctor Dollar, are you serious?"

"Perfectly."

"Have you forgot that I saw you together at almost two o'clock?"

"I think not quite so late as that. The Home Secretary left Euston at 2:45."

"Where for?"

She looked panic-stricken.

"I'll tell you, Lady Vera, if you promise not to follow him by the next train."

"When does it go?"

"Not for some time. There's only one more; we debated which he should take. But you mustn't take the other, Lady Vera; you must leave that to me. I want you to leave the whole thing to me – from this very moment till you hear from me again."

"When would that be, Doctor Dollar?"

"As soon as I have seen Mr. Vinson."

"You would undertake to tell him everything?"

"Every detail, exactly as you have told me."

"Will it seem credible at second-hand?"

"Quite enough so to justify a respite. That's the first object; and this is the first step to it, believe me! There's plenty of time between this and – Tuesday."

"Oh! I know that," she returned, bluntly disdainful of a well-meant hesitation. "There's still not a moment to lose while that poor man lies facing death."

"I'm not sure that he does, Lady Vera. The decision's only just been made; it won't be out till the day after to-morrow. I don't believe they would break it to Croucher on Christmas Day."

"They can break the good news instead. Where is Mr. Vinson? It's all right, I won't attempt to tackle him till you have. That's a promise – and I don't break them like windows!"

John Dollar ignored that boast with difficulty. He saw through her tragic levity as through a glass, and his heart cried out with a sympathy hard indeed to keep to himself; but it was obviously the last thing required of him by Lady Vera Moyle. He gave her the required information in a voice only less well managed than her own. And he thought her eyes softened with the faintest recognition of his restraint.

"I thought the Duke had washed his hands of his notorious nephew," she remarked. "Well, we shall have to spoil the family gathering, I'm afraid."

"That's my job, Lady Vera."

"And I never thanked you for taking it on! Nor will I, Doctor Dollar; thanks don't meet a case like this!" Very frankly she took his hand instead: it was hotter and less steady than her own. "And now what about your train?"

"I'm afraid there's not one till seven o'clock. Vinson talked of going down by it at first."

The time-table confirmed his fear; he threw it down, and plunged into the telephone directory instead. Lady Vera watched him narrowly. He had dropped into his old oak chair, and the sheen of age on the table betrayed his face as though it were bent over clear brown water. She could see its anxiety as he had not allowed her to see it yet.

"I suppose you wouldn't care to face it in a motor?"

She was faltering for the first time.

"That's exactly what I mean to do," he answered, without looking up from the directory. "I'm just going to telephone for a car."

"Then you needn't!" she cried joyfully. "We have at least two eating their bonnets off in our mews. I'll go home in a taxi, and send one of them straight round with a driver who knows the way, and a coat that you must promise to wear, Doctor Dollar. All my people are away except my mother, and she won't know; she isn't strong enough to use the cars. But I mustn't speak of poor mother, or I shall make a fool of myself yet. It's partly my fault as it is, you see, and of course all this will make her worse. But I'm not so sure of that, either! My mother is the kind of person who has all the modern ailments and no modern ideas – but she could show us all how to play the game at a pinch. She will be the first to back me up in the only conceivable course."

This speech had not come quite so fluently as might be supposed, though Dollar had only interrupted it to send for a taxicab. It had interrupted itself when Lady Vera Moyle was betrayed into speaking of poor Lady Armagh, whose heart-felt disapproval of her daughter's escapades was public property. Dollar had heard from Topham Vinson – that very day at lunch – that the last one had made her seriously ill; then what indeed of impending resolutions, and the nine days' tragic scandal which was the very least that could come of them unless —

"Unless!"

In the doctor's mind so many broken sentences began with that will-o'-the-wisp among words, that others really spoken fell upon stony ears, and he knew as little what he said in reply. In a dream he saw a small hand wave as the taxicab vanished round the corner to the right; in a dream he sprang up-stairs, hiding under his coat the weapon with which that little hand had dealt out death; and awoke in his wintriest clothes, his greatest coat, to find himself called upon to top the lot with another of unkempt fur sent with the car.

That aluminum clipper – a fifteen-horse-power Invincible Talboys – was indeed at the door in incredibly quick time. Twin headlights lit long wedges of London mud; two pairs of goblin goggles mounted up behind them – one sent with the coat and a message that was more than law. The dapper chauffeur huddled down behind the wheel; the passenger sat bolt upright at his side; the Barton family, his faithful creatures, carried out an impromptu tableau in the background. Mother and son – those unpresentable features of a former occasion – now appeared as immaculate cook and page at the top of the area steps and on the lighted threshold respectively. Barton himself leaned out of an upper window, still in his white suit – it was the typically muggy Christmas of a degenerate young century – but with all the black cares of the strange establishment quite apparent on his snowy shoulders. The dapper driver gave his horn a spiteful pinch. And then they were off, only to be held up in Oxford Street by the Christmas traffic, but doing better in the Edgware Road, and soon on the way to Edgware itself, and Elstree and St. Albans, and all the lighted towns and pitch-dark roads that lie by night between the capital of England and her smallest county.

"Least trem-lines this wye," said the dapper one, a mile or two out; and said no more for another fifty. But he drove like a little genius, and the car responded to his cunning hands as a horse that knows its master. She proved to be a sound roadster whose only drawback was a lack of racing speed; the lad had her in prime condition, and the good road ran from under her like silk from a silent loom.



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