The Crime Doctor
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Dollar sat beside him, in the shelter of a wind-screen that glazed and framed a continuous study in nocturnal values. Now the fine shades would be broken by a cluster of lights, soon to scatter and go out like sparks from a pipe; now only by the acetylene lamps that kept the foreground in a blaze between villages. Often a ghostly portent appeared hovering over the road ahead; but this was only the doctor's own anxious face, seen dimly in the screen.
And yet he was not really anxious for those first fifty miles. At the start he was too thankful to be under way, and the road was never empty of exciting and diverting possibilities. But at Bedford they stopped for supper: it was Dollar's sudden idea, the hour being now between eight and nine; but the treasure at the wheel professed his readiness to push on, and it would have been better for Dollar to have taken him at his word. The break in the run also broke up the dreamy lull induced by the keen air and the low smooth hum of the car. In the warm hotel, all holly and Christmas cheer, he came back to real life with a thud, and its most immediate problem beset him all the rest of the way.
Hitherto his one anxiety had been to get at the Home Secretary that night; henceforth he was having the interview over and over again, with a different result every time. He knew, indeed, what he meant to say himself; he had known that before he said good-by to Lady Vera Moyle. But what would the Home Secretary say? Was it conceivable that the blood-stained life-preserver would be enough for him? It would be supported by the sworn statement of a man whom he had learned to trust. But was such utterly indirect evidence in the least likely to upset a decision already taken, if not already communicated to the man in the condemned cell?
The very thought of that hapless wretch was fraught with definite and vivid horror. The crime doctor had once seen the inside of a condemned cell; he could see it still. The door was open, the pitiful occupant at exercise in an adjacent yard. He had looked in. The cell was not so gloomy as it should have been. Texts on the walls, sunlight through the bars, and on the fixed flap of clean worn wood, a big open book.
Dollar recalled every detail with morbid fidelity. He had gone in to look at the book, and found it a bound volume of Good Words, open at a laudable serial by a lady then in vogue with the virtuous. Yet that particular reader had cut a woman's throat over a quarrel about a shilling, and Dollar had seen him striding jauntily up and down the narrow yard, cracking some joke with the attendant warders, a smile on his scrubby lips and in his bold blue eyes. He could see the fellow as he had seen him for ten seconds years ago. Yet his pity for one in the same awful case, for a crime he had not committed, was as nothing to his infinite sorrow and compassion for her who had committed it unawares, comparatively light as the punishment for such a deed was bound to be.
But was it? Not for Lady Vera Moyle, at all events! Either she would go scot-free, or her punishment might well be worse than death.It might easily kill her mother; then the tragedy would be a double tragedy after all, and Lady Vera would still be its author. Supposing she had not discovered her own crime! Croucher would have been no loss to the community; life-long criminals like Croucher were best out of the way, murderers or no murderers. The crime doctor was convinced of that. They were the incurables; extermination was the only thing for them.
"I would shut up my penitentiaries, but enlarge my lethal chamber," he sometimes said, and would be quite serious about it. Yet not for a moment could he have carried his ideas to their logical conclusion in the concrete case of Alfred Croucher and Lady Vera Moyle. He could have let a man of that stamp go technically innocent to the gallows – or he thought he could just then. But he could not have allowed the greatest monster to suffer for Lady Vera's sins – and that he felt in his bones. It was the personal equation as supplied by her that made the thing impossible. Such a load on such a soul! Better any punishment than that!
At Kettering a right-hand turn led up-hill and down-dale into little Rutland, and Dollar ceased glaring at his own ghost in the wind-screen; a healthily immediate anxiety kept him peering at his watch instead. But now they were skirting one of the longest and stumpiest stone walls in feudal England, and all of a sudden it parted in twin turrets joined by triple gates. Over the central arch heraldic monsters pawed the stars; underneath an arc lamp hung resplendent; all three gates were open, and the drive beyond was a perspective of guiding lights. It was evidently a case of Christmas festivities on a suitable scale at Stockersham Hall.
Miles up the drive, a semicircle of motor-cars fringed a country edition of the Horseguards Parade, dominated by an escaped hotel; and the car that really was from London had becoming palpitations in the zone of light. Before a comparatively simple portico a superlatively splendid menial looked askance at the doctor's borrowed furs, but was not unimpressed by a curt inquiry for Mr. Topham Vinson, and consented to inquire in his turn.
"Be quick and quiet, and give him this card," said the doctor, slipping half-a-sovereign underneath it. "I want to see Mr. Vinson – no one else – on urgent business from the Home Office."
Yet the next minute merely brought forth an imposing personage whom the dapper driver did not fail to salute; even Dollar was not positive whether it was the Duke or his butler until summoned indoors with the subtle condescension of the supreme servitor. He went as he was, in hirsute coat and goggles, the butler stalking at arm's length, with an air of personal repudiation happily not lost upon the little London lynx in charge of the car.
That artist would have been an endless joy to eyes not turned within. His silent endurance and efficiency, his phlegmatic zest in an adventure which might have a professional interest for him, but obviously did not engage his curiosity, were qualities which even the tormented Dollar had appreciated at intervals on the road. But now he missed a treat. The little Cockney ran his engine till the first flunkey returned and said things through the noise. Then he looked under his bonnet, as a monkey into its offspring's head. But the climax arrived with sandwiches on a lordly tray, when a glass of beer was sent back, and one of champagne brought instead to this choice specimen of a contemporary type. It was scarcely down before the passenger reappeared, accompanied by another swollen figure in motoring disguise, as well as by my Lord Duke, who saw them off himself, and did look less ducal than the butler after all.
The many lights of Stockersham dwindled and disappeared into the night and one long wave of incandescence flowed back as it had come, by finespun hedge and wirework thicket, through dead villages and sleeping towns, like phosphorescent foam before a vessel's bows. And in the torpedo body of the Invincible Talboys, where Dollar now sat behind his companion of the outward trip, and the Home Secretary of England behind a fat cigar, there was a strained silence through two entire counties, but something like an explosion on the confines of the third.
"Do you still refuse to give her name?" demanded Topham Vinson, exactly as though they had been talking all the time. The stump of his second cigar was so short that angry light and angry mouth were one.
"I must," said Dollar, in a muffled voice, and he pointed to the hunched shoulders within a yard of their noses.
"In that case we have no secrets," replied the Home Secretary with a sneer. "But why must you, Dollar? She seems to have made no reservations with you, yet you would make this enormous one with me."
"It's a secret of the consulting-room, Mr. Vinson; those of the confessional are not more sacred, as you know perfectly well."
"And you expect me to eat my decision on the strength of a hearsay anonymous confession?"
"I do – in the first instance," said Dollar decidedly. "An immediate respite would commit you to nothing, but I don't ask even for that on the unsupported strength of what I told you at Stockersham. You know what you've got in your overcoat pocket. Hand it over to your own analyst; have an exhumation, if you like, and see if the weapon doesn't actually fit the wound; if it doesn't, hang your man."
"I'm much obliged for your valuable advice. But it's got to be one thing or the other, once for all; the poor devil has been on tenter-hooks quite long enough."
"And have you forgotten how nearly you decided in his favor, Mr. Vinson, without all this to turn the scale?"
It was perhaps an ominous feature of their mushroom intimacy that the younger man had not yet been invited to drop the formal prefix in addressing his senior by a short decade. But this would not have been the moment even for a familiarity encouraged in happier circumstances. And yet Dollar dared to pat the great man's arm as he spoke; and the gesture was as the button on the foil; it prevented a shrewd thrust from drawing blood, and if anything it improved Topham Vinson's temper.
"It's no good, my dear fellow!" he exclaimed in friendly settlement of the general question. "I must have the lady's name, unless she's determined to defeat her own ends."
"Do you mean to say that it's her name or Croucher's life?"
Topham Vinson had not meant to say any such thing – in so many words – and it was annoying to have them put into his mouth. But he had decided not to be annoyed any more. It did not pay with this fellow Dollar; at least, it had not paid on that occasion; but anybody might be at a disadvantage after a heavy political strain, a lengthy journey, an excellent dinner, and a development as untimely as it was embarrassing. Mr. Vinson relapsed into silence and an attitude unconsciously modeled on that of the gallant little driver. His body sank deep into the rugs, his head as deep between his shoulders. It was almost Hertfordshire before he spoke again.
"Vera Moyle was one of the Oxford Street division," he remarked at last. "I know all about her movements on the night of battle; otherwise I should want to know about them now. If I thought she was the woman – "
"What's that?" said Dollar lethargically. "I was almost asleep."
The remarks did not gain weight by repetition, but the broken sentence was finished with some effect: "I'd let her drain the cup."
"I don't wonder," rejoined Dollar, sympathetically.
"Yet you would have me risk my political existence for one of her kidney!"
"I don't follow."
"You would reprieve the apparent murderer, and let the real one continue militant here on earth?"
"I believe she has had her fill of militancy."
"I'll go bail for her if you like. It was an accident She is heart-broken about it – and you don't know her – I do! I'd back her not to run the risk of such another accident!"
"And what if she rounded on me? However such a thing came out, it would be my ruin, Dollar."
"It wouldn't come out through her!"
A certain fervor crept into the doctor's voice. It was obviously unconscious, and Topham Vinson was far too astute a person to engender consciousness and caution by so much as a rallying syllable. But he did hazard a leading question, subtly introduced as nothing of the sort.
"I'm not trying to get at what I want in a roundabout way," he had the nerve to state. "I've given up trying to pump you, Dollar; but – would it make a very great scandal if we had to fix this thing on this particular young lady?"
"I can't answer about scandals," replied the still not unwary doctor. "It would break hearts – probably cause death – make her a double murderer in her own eyes, and God knows what else as a result! And it wouldn't do anybody the least bit of good, because you would still have to give Croucher a suitable term for his authentic offense."
It was three o'clock on Christmas morning when they saw the lights of London from the top of Brockley Hill; a minute later they were on the tram-lines at the foot, and almost immediately in the purlieus of the town.
The trip did not end without a telling taste of Mr. Vinson's very individual quality. In Maida Vale he suddenly announced his intention of having the life-preserver identified in those very small hours by the pawnbroker who had sold it on the morning of the autumn raid. The crime doctor was terrified; for aught he knew the man might be well aware that he had sold it to Lady Vera Moyle. She was notorious enough, in all conscience; his only hope lay in the fact that he himself had not known her by sight before that day. In vain he raised various objections; they were well met by his own previous arguments for the immediate reprieve of Alfred Croucher, and he feared to press them. He knew only the name of the pawnbroker's street, but here Cockney sharpness came in again, and they were pounding on the right shutters by half past three. An up-stairs window flew alight, up went a sash, and out came an angry head.
"My name is Topham Vinson," said one of the swaddled men in a sepulchral voice. "I'm the Home Secretary, but I can't force you to come down and speak to me because of that. I can only make it more or less worth your while."
He was fishing for his sovereign-case as he spoke. In another minute the private door had shut behind him and Doctor Dollar, and an obsequious sack of humanity shuffled before them into a sanctum still redolent of a somewhat highly-seasoned meal.
"I remember 'aving it in the thop," said the unkempt head protruding from the sack. "But I can't thay 'ow it came here – that I can thwear in a court of juthtith, my lord! It'th a narthy, beathly thing, but I thwear it wath here when I took over the bithneth."
"I don't care how or when it came here," said Topham Vinson, counting the sovereigns in the gold case attached to the watch-chain of other memories. "I want to know if you remember selling this life-preserver?"
"Yeth, I do!"
"It would be – let me thee – thome time lartht October or November."
"Do you remember who bought it?"
"Yeth – a young lady!"
Dollar breathed again. The man did not know her name; at first he was extremely shaky on the point of personal appearance. But the doctor assisted him by unscrupulously suggesting a number of marked characteristics which Lady Vera Moyle did not happen to possess. The man fell straight into the trap, recalled every imaginary feature, and finally earned big gold by quite convincingly connecting the sale of the life-preserver with the date of the great women's raid. Mr. Vinson looked very stern as he led the way out into the street; and it was he who sharply woke the little chauffeur, who was snoring heartily over his wheel.
"I like that lad," he muttered in the car. "He does nothing by halves. No more do I! Do you mind dropping me first at Portman Square?"
Dollar gave the order, and they slid through the empty streets as though man and car were fresh from the garage. There was not a soul in Portman Square, or a light in any of the houses except the Home Secretary's. They had telephoned through from Stockersham after his departure, and the door opened as he emptied his remaining sovereigns into the chauffeur's hand, before taking Dollar's with no lack of warmth.
"I can't ask you in this time," said Topham Vinson, smiling. "Apart from the hour, I've got to go straight to the telephone, get through to Pentonville, and spoil the Governor's night!"
"Reprieved?" gasped the doctor. It was the one word that would come.
The Home Secretary nodded rather grimly, but was smiling as he shut the door almost on the hand with which John Dollar would have seized his once more. There was a shooting of bolts inside.
Dollar turned slowly round, wondering if at last he could tell the little driver something about the night's enterprise in which he had played so heroic a part. There was no need. The driver had kept eyes and ears wide open – and collapsed once more over the wheel. This time it was not in sleep, but in a dead faint; and the driving goggles were all awry, the driver's hat had tumbled off, the driver's hair had broken bounds.
It was a girl's hair, and the girl was Lady Vera Moyle.