Ernest Hornung.

The Crime Doctor



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And the animated remains wiped a forehead wet already with the throes of deglutition, and eyes that were not wet at all, before applying a flickering light to his neglected Upmann.

"What you say is perfectly fair," observed the doctor, in a sadly unimpassioned tone; "but it is also fair to remember that others have been saying it for you for some time past, and that you are free this morning as the result. I confess I feared they might keep you longer; but I evidently had not your grasp of the niceties of your actual offense. As to your mental and bodily sufferings, I can see some of the effects for myself, and those at least I could undo. That was the idea in meeting you, and perhaps I ought to say at once that it was not my idea. It was that of the unknown friend of whom I have already spoken; but I am prepared to carry it out. I run a kind of nursing home, here in my house, and there's a bed ready for you if you care to occupy it."

"A nursing 'ome!" said Croucher, shrinking from a vision of lint and ligatures. "There's nuffunk so much the matter with me that I want to go into an 'ome."

"Nothing that rest could not cure – rest and diet – I agree," said the doctor, with an eye on the empty dishes.

"But won't it cost a lot?" inquired Croucher, thinking of the kidneys especially. "I'm stony-broke, you see," he explained with increased bitterness.

"Our friend insists on paying the bill," said the doctor, grimly.

"And who is our wonderful friend, doctor, when 'e or she's at 'ome?"

Doctor Dollar laughed as he pushed back his chair. "That's the one thing you mustn't ask me; but come up and see the room before you make up your mind against it."

It was at the top and back of the house, less lofty than those into which the Home Secretary had peeped on a previous occasion, but similarly appointed, and more attractive in the morning light and that of a fire already crackling in the grate. By the fireside stood a white wicker chair and a glass table strewn with the newest and lightest of monthly and weekly literature; ash-trays and match-boxes were in comfortable evidence; a bed of vestal purity was turned down in readiness, and a suit of gay pajamas airing with a bathgown on a set of bright brass pipes.

"The bathroom is next door," explained the doctor; "you would have it practically to yourself, but your room would be your castle."

And he pointed out an efficient bolt upon the door.

"You wouldn't lock me in on the other side?" suggested Croucher suspiciously.

"Certainly not; you may have the key; but I should expect you to keep to your own floor, and, of course, to the house. You would not be a prisoner in any sense; but if you went out, Croucher, I'm afraid you would have to stay out. Otherwise my treatment would not have a fair chance; what you require, in the first instance, is absolute rest and no more truck with the outside world than you had where you have been."

"An' good 'olesome grub?" suggested Croucher with another slant of his goggle eyes.

"And plenty of square meals.

Perhaps not so square as this morning's, because you won't have any exercise; but that sort of thing."

"A little drop of anythin' to drink, doctor?"

"With your meals, and in moderation, by all means; but don't ask me for nightcaps, and don't try to smuggle anything in."

"I wouldn't do such a thing!" exclaimed Croucher, with virtuous decision. "Doctor, I'm your man, and ready to turn in as soon as ever you like."

And a shabby waistcoat hung unbuttoned at the swoop of a horned thumb.

"One moment," said the doctor. "If you are really coming to me, and coming to stay, I am to telephone to my tailor, who will take some little time getting here."

"Your tailor!" cried Croucher. "Where the dooce does 'e come in?"

"You may well ask!" replied Dollar with involuntary candor. "That friend in need, who was the first to assert your innocence, and to whom you owe more than you will ever know, is anxious to give you a fresh start in life, and an entire new outfit in which to make it."

"Well! I call that 'andsome," declared Alfred Croucher, for once without reserve. "I won't arst 'oo it is no more, but I shall live in 'opes o' findin' out an' sayin' thanky like a man. Not but wot it's right," he added after all, "for them as is rich to 'old out an 'elpin' 'and to them as is pore and 'ave been tret like I've been, through no fault o' their own. But it ain't everybody as sees it like that, an' it makes you think better o' the world when you strike them as does."

"I agree," said the doctor, in a tone entirely lost on his expansive patient.

"I'm griteful to 'im," that worthy went so far as to assert, "and to you too, sir, if it comes to that."

Doctor Dollar took the opportunity of being no less explicit in his turn.

"There's no reason why it should come to that, Croucher, I assure you. I can not too strongly impress on you that anything I do for you is by business arrangement with the friend who takes this extraordinary interest in your career."

In this statement, but especially in its relative clause, there was a note of sheer resentment which recalled other notes and other clauses to the retentive memory of Mr. Croucher. In a flash the lot had fused in his suspicious mind, and so visibly that Dollar was relieved to find himself the object of suspicion.

"You talk as if it went against your grain," said Croucher, with a growl and a show of growler's teeth. "I 'ope you don't think I went an' done it all the time, do yer?"

"I don't follow you, Croucher."

"I mean the big job – the first job – the one I very near swung for!" muttered the fellow, hoarse and hot with evident emotion.

"No; indeed I don't," responded the doctor, in an unexpected voice; and he sighed, as though to think that his sentiments toward his patient should have been so misunderstood.

Such at least was the patient's final interpretation of all that was unsatisfactory in the doctor's manner; and if a doubt still rankled in his mind, it was but the crumpled petal in what was almost literally a bed of roses. Bed and room alike were the most luxurious in which Alfred Croucher had ever lain; after prison they were as the seventh heaven after the most excruciating circle of Dante's Inferno. He stretched his great limbs in peace ineffable, fell asleep dreaming of the fine flash suits for which they had been duly measured, and was never decently awake until the evening.

A substantial tea, when he did wake up, was the least they could provide after neglecting to rouse a man for his midday meal; but a distinct grievance on that score was forgot in the appetite that accrued for dinner, and the infinitely tactful choice of the eventful viands. Steak and onions was the strong act of a romantic drama after the very heart of this transpontine rough. If he had been shown a bill of fare, Alfred Croucher would have chosen steak and onions, with Welsh rarebit to follow; and Welsh rarebit did follow, as if by magic. There was rather less to be said for the drink; the patient could have done with a longer and a stronger draught. But it was a drop of good stuff, if Mr. Croucher was any judge; and he decided not to create a possibly prejudicial impression by complaints of quality or quantity.

"You done me top-'ole," he murmured, rolling his bulbs of eyes when the doctor stood over him once more. "Top-'ole, you 'ave, and no error. I never struck a nicer bit o' fillet. Saucy glass o' wine that, too. Not that I was ever much 'and at the liquor, but there are times w'en it seems to do yer good."

"You shall continue to take it, medicinally," returned Dollar, gravely; "but don't count on the type of fare you've had to-day. Three meals in future, but rather lighter ones. The first day was different, I tried to put myself in your place, and am glad I seem to have succeeded on the whole. But remember you are here to lie low, and that doesn't do on fighting food. Sufficient for the day, Croucher! Here are some flowers from the friend who works by stealth, and these are the weeds I promised you this morning. You might do worse than judge the givers by their gifts."

It was perhaps as well that Alfred Croucher did not pause to puzzle out that saying, for the rare blooms were as pearls before his kindred of the sty, but the box of Upmanns as a trough of offal. One was ignited without delay; yet it was hardly a matter of hours before the chartered sluggard was blissfully asleep once more, his door locked and bolted on principle, and a red fire dying in the grate.

II

It might have been a falling coal that woke him up. Such was the innocent Croucher's first impression. But in that case it was nothing less than a shower of coals, a gentle but continuous downpour, and they fell with a curiously crisp and metallic tinkle. Moreover, the sound was not from the fire after all, but apparently from the window on the opposite side of the room.

Croucher lay listening until his quickened senses could no longer be deceived. Somebody was at his window, the dormer window that anybody could get at over the leads, that ought to have been securely barred but wasn't, as he suddenly remembered with aggrieved dismay. He had himself considered that unprotected window and those conducive leads, in one of his last waking moments, as a not impossible solution of the whisky problem.

But this was different; this was awful; this was a case for alarming the house without scruple or delay. It should have been a great moment for a bit of an expert, who had once served the humane equivalent of seven years for an ambitious burglary of his own; but the defect of character which had spelled failure on that occasion, when an elderly householder had held him up with an unloaded revolver, rendered Mr. Croucher incapable of appreciating the present situation as it deserved. He was far too shaken to think of the former affair, or to feel for a moment like a 'busman on his proverbial holiday or an actor at the front of the house. He did feel bitterly indignant that a patient in a nursing home should be exposed to such terrors by night; and he had got as far as his elbow toward a display of spirit (and incipient virtue) when the catch flew back with as much noise as he might have made himself. Before more could happen, Mr. Croucher had relapsed upon his pillow with a stentorian snore.

Then a sash went up too slowly, limbs crossed the sill and felt the floor with excessive caution, and for a little lifetime Alfred Croucher suffered more exquisitely than toward the end in the condemned cell. The monster was leaning over him, breathing hotly in his face, all but touching his frozen skin.

"Alfie!" said a blessed voice, as a tiny light struck through the compressed eyelids. "Alfie, it's me!"

And once more Alfred Croucher was a man and a liar. "Shoddy!" he croaked with a sepulchral sob. "An' me asleep an' dreamin' like a bloomin' babby! Why, wot the 'ell you doin' 'ere, Shod?"

"Come to see you, old son," said Shoddy. "But it's more like me arskin' what you're up to in a 'ouse like this?"

"'Avin the time o' me life!" whispered the excited patient. "Livin' like a fightin' cock, on the fat o' the teemin' land, at some ruddy old josser's expense!"

And he poured into the still adjacent ear the true fairy tale of his first day's freedom, from his introduction to Doctor Dollar in the precincts of that very jail which was to have been his place of execution and obscene sepulcher.

"I know. I seen you come out with him," said Shoddy, "an' drive off in yer car like a hairy lord. I was there with a taxi meself – "

"There to meet me, Shod?"

"That's it. That's 'ow I tracked you to this 'ere 'ouse. The room took more findin'; but there's an old pal o' mine a shover in the mews. 'E showed me the back o' the 'ouse, an' blowed if I didn't spot yer at yer winder first go off!"

"That must've been early on, old man? I bin in bed all day. Oh, such a bed, Shoddy! I'm goin' to sleep me 'ead into a pulp afore I leave it."

"You ain't," said Shoddy firmly. "You're comin' along o' me, Alfie. That's why I'm 'ere."

"Not me," replied Alfie, with equal firmness. "I know w'en I'm well off – and it's time I was."

"I'm wiv yer there!" Shoddy nodded in adroit sympathy; he had kept his electric lamp burning all the time; and an extra prominence of eye and cheek-bone, a looseness of lip and a flickering glance, were not inarticulate in the chastened countenance of his friend. "It must've been 'ell, Alfie, real, old red-'ot 'ell!"

"And all for wot I never done," he was reminded with some stiffness.

"That's it," the other agreed, with perfunctory promptitude. "But that's exactly why I'm 'ere, Alfie. You didn't think I done a job like this for the sake o' tikin' 'old o' yer 'and, didger? It's just because it seems you didn't commit yerself, Alfie, that I'd got to see yer by 'ook or crook before the day was out."

"Where's the fire?" inquired Alfie, idiomatically; but his professional friend, like other artists in narration, and all givers of real news, was not going to surrender the bone of the situation until his audience sat up and begged for it.

Mr. Croucher literally did sit up, while the exasperating Shoddy interrupted himself to make a stealthy tour of the room, in the course of which his electric torch illumined the comfortably bolted door, and the delectable box of Upmanns. To one of these he helped himself without permission, but a brace were in blast before he resumed his position on the bed.

"The fire?" said he, as though seconds and not minutes had elapsed since the cryptic question. "There's no fire anywhere as I know of – not to-night – but there soon may be, that's why I want you out o' this. If you didn't commit yourself, Alfie, don't you see as somebody else must 'ave done?"

"Oh, bring it up!" cried Croucher under his breath.

"Well, if you didn't stiffen that copper on the night o' the sufferygite disturbance – an' we know you didn't – then somebody else did!"

"You don't mean to tell me you know who did?"

There had been a tense though tiny pause; there was another while Shoddy changed the torch to his right hand, and blew a cloud over the head of his now recumbent companion.

"I know what everybody says, Alfie."

"More than their prayers, I'll bet, like they did before. Wot do they say?"

"One o' the sufferygites – "

"Corpsed the copper?"

"That's it, old man."

"And I never thought of it!"

"It bears some thinkin' about, don't it?" said Shoddy. "Why, you're trem'lin' like a blessed leaf!"

"I should think I was trem'lin'! So would you if you'd been through wot I been … Shod!"

"Yuss, Alfie?"

"I see the 'ole blessed thing!"

"I thought you would."

"It was 'er wot broke the jooler's winder for me!"

"That's wot they say."

"They? Who?"

"Lots o' people. I 'eard it down some mews: some o' the pipers 'ave 'inted at it. Topham's in fair 'ot water all round; they say 'e's 'ushed it up because she's in serciety."

"Wot's 'er nime, Shod?"

"Lidy Moyle – Lidy Vera Moyle, I think it is. And 'ere's another thing, a thing that I was forgettin'."

"Out with it."

"I see 'er come 'ere this afternoon, whilst I was watchin' the 'ouse in case you come out."

"My Gawd, Shoddy! Let me sit up. I can't breathe lyin' down."

"She 'ad some flowers wiv 'er," said Shoddy, pursuing his reminiscences. "Looks as though she's got a friend in the 'ome."

"I'm the friend," said Mr. Croucher grimly. "Take and run yer light over that wash-stand; the guv'nor brought 'em up 'isself wiv these 'ere smokes."

"Roses, in the month o' March!" murmured Shoddy, as a bowl of beauties filled the disk of light; "'ot'ouse flowers for little Alfie! Why, the girl's fair struck on you, cully!"

"I'll strike 'er!" said Alfie, through teeth that chattered with emotion. "I very near 'anged for the little biter, and don't you forget it!"

"Not me," said Shoddy, steering for the bed with his headlights of white-hot filament and red-hot cigar. "That's wot brought me 'ere through thick and thin."

"So she's the great unknown!" said Croucher more than once, but not twice in the same tone. "So it was 'er, was it?" he inquired as often, until Shoddy insisted on a hearing.

"Don't I keep tellin' yer?" said Shoddy. "That's wot brings me, at the gaudiest risks you ever see – only to 'ear you gas! Can't you listen for a change? There's a big thing on if you've guts enough for the job."

It was a simple thing, however, like most big things; the projector had it at his finger-ends; and in a very few minutes Mr. Croucher was considering a complete, crude, and yet eminently practical proposition.

"There's money in it," he was forced to admit, "if there ain't the big money you flatter yerself. But I believe she thinks o' givin' me a start in life any'ow."

"This'd be a start an' a finish, Alfie! Besides, it'd be your revenge; don't you forget wot you've been through," urged the other.

"Catch me!" said Croucher, eagerly. "But – don'cher see? I been through so much that I was lookin' forward to dossin' down 'ere a bit. I ain't the man I was. It's wot I need. Where's the fire, as I said afore? The gal won't run away."

"That's just wot she will, Alfie; goin' abroad any day – an' might get married any day, a piece like 'er. Then you might find it more of a job. There's another 'old we've got, an' might lose any old day."

The other hold appealed with peculiar power to the character and temperament of Alfred Croucher, and not less strongly to a certain sagacity which added more to his equipment. But he had never been quite so comfortable in his life; comfort had never been so decidedly his due; and the substance of present luxury (with a fresh start in the near future) was not lightly to be exchanged for a gold-mine, with all a gold-mine's gambling chances, including the proverbial optimism of prospectors.

The discussion ended in a compromise and the withdrawal of Shoddy by the catlike ways and means of his arrival. But he did not depart without pointing, through the open window and a forest of chimney-stacks, to a lighted but uncurtained square on a lower level. And thither, at certain appointed hours, the patient might have been caught peeping, or even in the act of rude and furtive signals, for several days to come.

Handled as it deserves, the tale of those days would make a psychological chapter of dual interest, and for reasons that may yet appear. But for the moment Alfred Croucher holds the stage, and soliloquies are out of vogue. Yet even his objective life had points of interest. He slept less than he had planned to sleep, but read more than he had ever read in all his life; and his reading, if not a sign of grace, was at least a straw that showed the way the wind might have blown but for the intrusive Shoddy.

Out of the doctor's little typewritten list, the patient in the top-floor-back began by choosing For the Term of His Natural Life. It held him – with a tortured brow that sometimes glistened. When the book was finished, he was advised that It Is Never Too Late to Mend was a better thing of the same kind; "In spite of its name," added Dollar, in studied disparagement. Croucher took the hint, and was soon breathing as hard as he had done before he knew that Shoddy was Shoddy; was heard blaspheming over Hawes in his solitude, and left wondering what Tom Robinson's creator would have made of Alfred Croucher. Something of that speculation found its way into words, with the return of the book, and was the cause of lengthier visitations from the doctor, whose eye began to brighten when it fell on Croucher, as that of a man put on his mettle after all.

And then one morning he came in with a blue review and a new long poem, which might have hurt but might have helped; only it had no chance of doing either, because the top back room was empty of Alfred Croucher, who had walked out of the house in the loudest of his brand-new clothes.

III

The Rome Express had left Paris sprinkled with the green flakes of a precocious spring; and it hummed through a mellow evening into a night of velvet clasped with a silver moon. The famous train was not uncomfortably crowded; it is not everybody who will pay two pounds, eight shilling, seven pence for a berth in a sleeper which in Switzerland, say, would cost some twenty francs. Most of those who had committed the extravagance seemed by way of getting their money's worth; even the lady traveling alone in the foremost wagon-lit, though she refrained from dining in the restaurant-car, would have struck an acquaintance as in better spirits than for some months past. And so she was. But she was still far from being the Lady Vera Moyle of last year's fogs.

She was going to her mother, who had been seriously ill since Christmas, but was now completing her recovery in Rome. And yet her illness had meant less to Lady Armagh than to the wayward child who had been told (by the rest of the family) to consider herself its cause; it might indeed have been a direct dispensation to tie Lady Vera's hands and tongue; and in the train de luxe, perhaps for the first time, she herself recognized the merciful wisdom of Providence in the matter.



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