The Crime Doctor
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Alfred Croucher was a free man: that was the great thing. There were moments when it was an even greater thing than Lady Armagh's convalescence. But there was later and greater news yet for Lady Vera to gloat over in the train. Not only was poor Croucher a free man, but that dear Doctor Dollar had hopes of him at last! He had said so the day she left for Paris; he had never said anything of the kind before. Nothing could have been more pessimistic than the crime doctor's first report on his latest patient; nothing franker than the way he had made room for him in the home, merely and entirely to gratify her whim. Alfred Croucher was "not his style," and there had been an end of him but for the fact that Lady Vera was.
She belonged to the class that he was pleased to consider as potentially the most criminal of all. She was well aware of it, and the knowledge provided her with a considerable range of feelings as the train flew on and on. She felt herself the object of a purely pathological interest; she felt almost as small as a specimen under a microscope; she felt lonelier than ever in her life before…
Lonely she was in the way that mattered least. She was traveling for once without a maid. The faithful creature (a would-be militant of the blood-thirstiest, in her day) had been with her dear ladyship over the Sunday in Paris (hobnobbing with certain exiles for the Cause); but just as they were leaving their hotel a telegram had come to summon her to a bucolic death-bed. Esther would have let her old father die without her, but her beloved ladyship, still quick with her own filial awakenings, had sent her about her dismal business with a kiss.
The compartment was overheated; they always are unless you complain in time. Lady Vera had made her efficient little fuss too late, and the result was not apparent before the small hours and Modane. During the long wait there she lay awake, though she had duly entrusted her keys to the conductor, and the voices of those who had omitted that precaution caused a welcome change in her "long, long thoughts." She put her mind to her fellow-passengers, and kept it on them with native resolution.
She was in decent company: a moderately well-known man and wife in one adjoining compartment, a white-haired ecclesiastic in the other. She wove a romance about the venerable gentleman, and speculated on the well-being of the other pair. In such innocent ways could she amuse herself when out of muddle-headed mischief in the name of God knows what. In all else she was sweet and sane enough – unless it was just one tiny matter that annoyed her memory before she fell asleep to the renewed lullaby of the express. It was the utterly unimportant matter of a youngish man in a loud suit, one of a brace of incredibly common Englishmen, who had nevertheless been staying at the hotel in Paris, had "passed a remark" to Esther in the lift, and certainly stared with insolence at Esther's mistress, not only in Paris but in passing along the corridor of this very train, before and after the hour for dinner.
To Vera Moyle there seemed no time at all between her passing thought of this creature and the vile glare that woke her up.At first it blinded her, for she was in the upper berth, within inches of the excruciating blaze. It came almost as a relief when a head bobbed between the glare and her eyes.
Lady Vera blinked her indignation. She was too sleepy to do more at first, and too old a traveler to make much fuss about a mere piece of stupidity. She could not see the man's face, but his head was of the type which occasions the inevitable libel on the bullet, and its hideousness hardly mitigated by the Rembrandtesque effect of the electric light behind it. She conceived it to belong to some blundering official, and ordered him out in pretty sharp French. But the man did not move. And in another short moment Vera Moyle had become aware of three very horrible things: it was the creature in the loud suit, and he had shut the door behind him, and was holding an automatic pistol to her breast.
"One syl'ble that anybody else can 'ear," he muttered as her mouth opened, "an' it's yer larst in life! 'Old yer noise an' I won't be 'ard on you – not 'alf as 'ard as you been on me!"
"It isn't – oh, surely it isn't Croucher?" cried the girl, with an emotion made up of every element but fear.
"It is Croucher," said he in brutal mimicry. "That bein' just so, I puts away the barker – see? – no decepshun!" The pistol dropped into a loud tweed pocket. "I reckon I can do me own bit o' barkin' – yuss! an' bitin', too!" concluded Croucher, with an appropriate snarl.
"Will you please go out?" said Lady Vera, still with sorrow in her steady eyes.
"No, I will not please. I'll see you damned first!" said Croucher, with sudden ferocity – "like you very near seen me! If we're over'eard, you'll be thought no better'n you ought to be; but by Gawd they won't think you as bad as wot you are!"
Lady Vera took no advantage of a studious pause. The ruffian was making his points with more than merely ruffianly effect; the whole thing might have been carefully rehearsed. But to the girl in the upper berth it was now no more than she deserved. It was a light enough punishment for the dreadful deed by her committed – no matter how unconscious, in how fine a frenzy or how just a cause – and on him visited with all but the last dread vengeance of the criminal law. He had a right to say what he liked to her after that, even to say it then and there, with all his natural and acquired brutality. Was it not she who had done most of all to brutalize him?
"That is, until I tell 'em," added Croucher, with crafty significance. His hearer had to recall the words before the pause; when she had done so, he was again requested to leave the compartment, and there was a harder light in her eyes.
"I'll see you in the morning," she promised. "I'm going on to Rome."
He laughed scornfully. "You needn't tell me where you're goin'! I know all about you, and 'ave done for some time. I been on yer tracks, my dear! You seen me. It's your own fault we didn't 'ave it out before. This ain't quite the pitch – but it's a better place than the one you got me into!"
"I got you – out again," was what Lady Vera had begun to say, but something about him made her stop short of that. "I was doing my best for you," she continued humbly. "I thought you were going to let me give you a fresh start in life."
"A fresh start! I want a bit more than that, lidy!"
"Well, what do you want?"
He rolled his eyeballs over the racks laden with her hand-luggage.
"Your jewel-case," said he promptly. "Which is it?"
"That one, in this corner, over my feet."
Her equal alacrity might have been the mere measure of her eagerness to get rid of him; but Alfred Croucher was far too old in deception to be himself very easily deceived.
"Then you can keep it, with my love!" said he. "I'll trouble you for them rings instead —and the rest wot you're 'idin' be'ind 'em!"
The girl turned paler in the electric light She was sitting up in her suspicious readiness to point out the jewel-case; the other hand, with most of her rings on it, had flown instinctively to her throat; for she was traveling, as ladies will, with her greatest treasures – her diamond necklace and pendant, and a string of pearls – on her neck for safety.
"Suppose I refuse and – "
She glanced toward the bell.
"Then I'll say what I know."
"And what do you know?" Her back was to the wall.
"What I see that night! What I see an' was mug enough not to twig till I come out an' 'eard all the talk! Is that good enough? If not, the rest'll keep; but it'll put you in the jug all right, I don't care 'oo's on your side. It's one law for the rich and one for the pore. 'Ang me as never done it, an' 'ush you up, as did! But I've heard tell that murder will out, an' you'll find that murderers will in – to prison – even when they're titled lidies with the King on 'is throne be'ind 'em! It'll ruin you, if it does no more – ruin you an' yours – an' break all your 'earts!"
It was enough. She stripped her neck, she stripped her fingers; rings and necklace, pearls and pendant, all lay in a shimmering heap in his capacious palm, held for a moment's triumph under the electric light, reflected for that moment in a mirror which his bulky frame had hidden until now.
It was the mirror on the door of the miniature dressing-room between every two compartments in the train de luxe; but in the very moment of his exultation it ceased to reflect either Alfred Croucher or his ill-gotten spoil. The door had opened; it framed a sable figure crowned with silvery locks; lean hands flew out from the black shoulders, and met round the neck of Croucher with the fell dexterity of a professional garroter.
The pair backed together without a word. The one had murder in his set teeth, the other death in the bulging eyes and darkening face, with its collar of interlaced fingers white to the nails with their own pressure. Lady Vera watched the two men as the fawn might watch the python struck to timely death, until the communicating door shut upon them both, and only her own unearthly form remained in the mirror. And the train ran on and on, and the whole coach creaked and trembled, as coaches will even in a train de luxe, only in that particular compartment it had not been noticeable for some time.
Presently, as her nerve came back, one or two further observations of a negative order were gradually made by Vera Moyle. She may be said to have noticed that she did not notice one or two things she might have expected to notice by now. The chief thing was that there was no sound whatever from the compartment beyond the looking-glass door, no fuss or undue traffic in the corridor. What had happened? Only too soon she knew.
They had stopped at some nameless station between the tags of the Italian boot. It was a chance of peeping out, and out peeped the shaken girl from her window overlooking the line. And there, skipping on to the next low platform, bag in hand, went the loud trousers under Alfred Croucher's equally new and noisy ulster; and there at his elbow went the venerable ecclesiastic, even holding him by the sleeve!
It was a long road to Rome for Lady Vera Moyle, but toward the end there came another stage in which the wagon-lit forgot to swing and sing like humbler coaches, and the pale Campagna swam past unseen. It began with a knock behind the drawn blind of her compartment – now but a mirrored divan of Utrecht velvet and stamped leather – as unsuggestive of a good night's rest as the white face and the bright eyes behind the tiny table in the corner.
"Entrez!" she cried with nervous irritation.
The door opened and shut upon the somber face and long athletic limbs of John Dollar.
"Doctor Dollar! I had no idea you were in the train!"
Her voice had broken with very joy; her hand trembled pitifully during its momentary repose in his.
"You have never shown up, you see," said he. "I have been in the next compartment all the way from Paris."
"The next compartment on which side?"
He jerked his head at his own reflection in the looking-glass door.
"But there was a priest in there!" cried the girl.
"There was the high priest of a new religion in which you'll never believe any more," said Dollar with a wry smile. "May he sit down for a minute, Lady Vera?"
She looked at him with cooling eyes. "Certainly, Doctor Dollar, if it makes an explanation any easier."
"I didn't intend to explain at all," he had the nerve to tell her. "I meant my ecclesiastical body to do that for me – but its wig was blown out of the window on the other side of Genoa. I've been hanging about all day in the hope of catching you. I couldn't leave it any longer. I had to give you these."
And he placed upon the table between them the diamond necklace and pendant, the string of pearls, and the handful of rings she had been wearing in the night.
"You made him give them up!" she cried, in thankful tears that never fell, but only softened and sweetened her indescribably.
"Naturally," he laughed. "It wasn't very difficult."
"And I thought you were a confederate when I saw you crossing the line together!"
"I was putting the fear of a foreign jail upon him to the last. But he had a confederate in the train; he was in reserve outside your berth until I lured him into mine and laid him out. Otherwise I should have been with you sooner; but in one way it was better to take our man with your jewels on him – there was no getting out of it. The two of them were only too glad to be kicked out at the first station. And the other fellow was a man who broke into my house to see Croucher the first night we had him there."
"Did they tell you so?"
"No. I knew it at the time. I heard the whole thing, even to fragments of a conversation from which it was possible to reconstruct the plan they actually brought off last night. I make it a rule not to listen at patients' doors, any more than one would at other people's, but I'm not going to blush for this particular exception."
Her soft wet eyes were looking him through and through.
"Yet you kept him on – for my sake!"
"Not altogether, Lady Vera." They were an honest couple. "It put me on my mettle; it gave me something to prevent. At first – as I'm afraid you knew – I really didn't want to touch the fellow with a pole. He was an obvious incurable; he would have been better hanged – justly or unjustly."
"Don't speak of that – or do!" exclaimed the girl. "It makes me forgive him everything!"
"Well, my first idea was about right. He was beyond reclaim. But I never thought he would give me a definite move to block; that, as you know; is one's chief job after all, and it put a new complexion on the case. It was as though – as though one took a man on for cancer and found him plotting to shoot the Chancellor of the Exchequer before he died! I apologize for the analogy, Lady Vera," said Dollar, making the most of their laugh, "but the man became a new proposition on the spot. And the funny thing is that I believe I almost might have cured him after all – done him some good, anyhow – but for the very thing that bucked me up!"
Lady Vera looked out at a flying brake of naked trees, the color of cigar-ash. He had lost her attention for the moment.
"I was a little fool," she said at length. "I should have listened to you, and been content to help in some other way. I am sorry."
"I'm not!" replied Doctor Dollar. "It was a very sporting folly – but everything you ever did was that!"
She shook her head sadly, as a brown river, girt with olives, flashed under the train like a child's skipping-rope.
"I haven't changed my opinions," she said, just a trifle aggressively. "But I would give my life to undo many of my actions – not only that one – many, many!" and she looked him bravely and humbly in the eyes. "So the whole thing has served me right, and will if it happens all over again."
"If what does?"
"This blackmailing of me by that poor man!"
"It won't. I've frightened him."
"He will think of some subtler way."
"There's no subtlety in him, no power, no initiative, no anything but mere brute force," said Dollar, with a touch of that same strength and weakness in his unusually emphatic assertion. "The fellow is a deadly tool and nothing more. He knuckled under to me in a moment."
Lady Vera shook her head again, but this time she was looking firmly in his face.
"I feel," she said, with a stoical conviction, "that I shall be fair game to him as long as we are both in the world. And it's what I deserve."
Dollar abandoned his attempt at disingenuous disabuse; the extreme to which he flew instead was a little startling, but these two knew each other.
"You must marry, Lady Vera," he was moved to say. But his manner was eminently uninspired. He might have been telling her she must hand her keys to the hotel porter at Rome. That was in fact the note he meant to take, only he sang it louder than he knew.
"I can never marry," she answered calmly. "I have blood upon my hands."
"You can marry a man who knows!"
And the unaltered note took on a tremolo of which he was both aware and ashamed; but still their eyes were frankly locked.
"I can marry nobody, Doctor Dollar."
"The man I mean isn't fit to black your boots! But he'd protect you, he'd help you, and you would be the making not only of him but of his dream – and not only his little dream – "
It was her hand that stopped him. It had taken his across the little table.
"The man you mean is worth ten million of me! But I can never marry him or anybody. And you, and you alone, know why!"
She bent her brave eyes back on the Campagna; a pale tufted heath was swimming by; gum-trees hardly heightened the prevailing neutral tint; a modern corrugated roof, pinned in place by a few primeval boulders, held her attention on its swift course across the window-panes; and when she looked round, Lady Vera was all alone.