Ernest Hornung.

The Crime Doctor



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The crime doctor smiled as he raised his glass and returned compliments across the bubbles. It was the smile of a man with bigger fish to fry. Yet it was he who came back to the subject of young Laverick, asking if he had not a tutor or somebody to look after him, and what the man meant by not doing his job.

In an instant both the Edenboroughs had turned upon their friend. Poor Mr. Scarth was not to blame! Poor Mr. Scarth, it appeared, had been a master at the preparatory school at which Jack Laverick and George Edenborough had been boys. He was a splendid fellow, and very popular in the hotel, but there was nothing but sympathy with him in the matter under discussion. His charge was of age, and in a position to send him off at any moment, as indeed he was always threatening in his cups. But there again there was a special difficulty: one cup was more than enough for Jack Laverick, whose weak head for wine was the only excuse for him.

"Yet there was nothing of the kind last year," said Mrs. Edenborough, in a reversionary voice; "at least, one never heard of it And that makes it all the harder on poor Mr. Scarth."

Dollar declared that he was burning to meet the unfortunate gentleman; the couple exchanged glances, and he was told to wait till after the concert, at which he had better sit with them. Was there a concert? His face lengthened at the prospect, and the bride's eyes sparkled at his expense. She would not hear of his shirking it, but went so far as to cut dinner short in order to obtain good seats. She was one of those young women who have both a will and a way with them, and Dollar soon found himself securely penned in the gallery of an ambitious ballroom with a stage at the other end.

The concert came up to his most sardonic expectations, and he resigned himself to a boredom only intensified by the behavior of some crude humorists in the rows behind. Indifferent song followed indifferent song, and each earned a more vociferous encore from those gay young gods. A not unknown novelist told dialect stories of purely territorial interest; a lady recited with astounding spirit; another fiddled, no less courageously; but the back rows of the gallery were quite out of hand when a black-avised gentleman took the stage, and had not opened his mouth before those back rows were rows of Satan's reproving sin and clapping with unsophisticated gusto.

"Who's this!" asked Dollar, instantly aware of the change behind him. But even Lucy Edenborough would only answer, "Hush, doctor!" as she bent forward with shining eyes. And certainly a hairpin could not have been dropped unheard before the dark performer relieved the tension by plunging into a scene from Pickwick.

It was the scene of Mr. Jingle's monologue on the Rochester coach – and the immortal nonsense was inimitably given. Yet nobody could have been less like the emaciated prototype than this tall tanned man, with the short black mustache, and the flashing teeth that bit off every word with ineffable snap and point.

"Mother – tall lady, eating sandwiches – forgot the arch – crash – knock – children look round – mother's head off – sandwich in her hand – no mouth to put it in – " and his own grim one only added to the fun and swelled the roar.

He waited darkly for them to stop, the wilful absence of any amusement on his side enormously increasing that of the audience.

But when it came to the episode of Donna Christina and the stomach-pump, with the culminating discovery of Don Bolaro Fizzgig in the main pipe of the public fountain, the guffaws of half the house eventually drew from the other half the supreme compliment of exasperated demands for silence. Mrs. George Edenborough was one of the loudest offenders. George himself had to wipe his eyes. And the crime doctor had forgot that there was such a thing as crime.

"That chap's a genius!" he exclaimed, when a double encore had been satisfied by further and smaller doses of Mr. Jingle, artfully held in reserve. "But who is he, Mrs. Edenborough?"

"Poor Mr. Scarth!" crowed the bride, brimming over with triumphant fun.

But the doctor's mirth was at an end.

"That the fellow who can't manage a bit of a boy, when he can hold an audience like this in the hollow of his hand?"

And at first he looked as though he could not believe it, and then all at once as though he could. But by this time the Edenboroughs were urging Scarth's poverty in earnest, and Dollar could only say that he wanted to meet him more than ever.

The wish was not to be gratified without a further side-light and a fresh surprise. As George and the doctor were repairing to the billiard-room, before the conclusion of the lengthy program, they found a group of backs upon the threshold, and a ribald uproar in full swing within. One voice was in the ascendent, and it was sadly indistinct; but it was also the voice of the vanquished, belching querulous futilities. The cold steel thrusts of an autocratic Jingle cut it shorter and shorter. It ceased altogether, and the men in the doorway made way for Mr. Scarth, as he hurried a disheveled youth off the scene in the most approved constabulatory manner.

"Does it often happen, George?" Dollar's arm had slipped through his former patient's as they slowly followed at their distance.

"Most nights, I'm afraid."

"And does Scarth always do what he likes with him – afterward?"

"Always; he's the sort of fellow who can do what he likes with most people," declared the young man, missing the point. "You should have seen him at the last concert, when those fools behind us behaved even worse than to-night! It wasn't his turn, but he came out and put them right in about a second, and had us all laughing the next! It was just the same at school; everybody was afraid of Mostyn Scarth, boys and men alike; and so is Jack Laverick still – in spite of being of age and having the money-bags – as you saw for yourself just now."

"Yet he lets this sort of thing happen continually?"

"It's pretty difficult to prevent. A glass about does it, as I told you, and you can't be at a fellow's elbow all the time in a place like this. But some of Jack's old pals have had a go at him. Do you know what they've done? They've taken away his Old Etonian tie, and quite right too!"

"And there was nothing of all this last year?"

"So Lucy says. I wasn't here. Mrs. Laverick was, by the way; she may have made the difference. But being his own master seems to have sent him to the dogs altogether. Scarth's the only person to pull him up, unless – unless you'd take him on, doctor! You – you've pulled harder cases out of the fire, you know!"

They had been sitting a few minutes in the lounge. Nobody was very near them; the young man's face was alight and his eyes were shining. Dollar took him by the arm once more, and they went together to the lift.

"In any case I must make friends with your friend Scarth," said he. "Do you happen to know his number?"

Edenborough did – it was 144 – but he seemed dubious as to another doctor's reception after the tragedy that might have happened in the adjoining room.

"Hadn't I better introduce you in the morning?" he suggested with much deference in the lift. "I – I hate repeating things – but I want you to like each other, and I heard Scarth say he was fed up with doctors!"

This one smiled.

"I don't wonder at it."

"Yet it wasn't Mostyn Scarth who gave Doctor Alt away."

"No?"

Edenborough shook his head as they left the lift together. "No, doctor. It was the chemist here, a chap called Schickel; but for him Jack Laverick would be a dead man; and but for him again, nobody need ever have heard of his narrow shave. He spotted the mistake, and then started all the gossip."

"I know," said the doctor, nodding.

"But it was a terrible mistake! Decigrams instead of milligrams, so I heard. Just a hundred times too much strychnine in each pill."

"You are quite right," said John Dollar quietly. "I have the prescription in my pocket."

"You have, doctor?"

"Don't be angry with me, my dear fellow! I told you I had heard one version of the whole thing. It was Alt's. He's an old friend – but you wouldn't have said a word about him if I had told you that at first – and I still don't want it generally known."

"You can trust me, doctor, after all you've done for me."

"Well, Alt once did more for me. I want to do something for him, that's all."

And his knuckles still ached from the young man's grip as they rapped smartly at the door of No. 144.

II

It was opened a few inches by Mostyn Scarth. His raiment was still at concert pitch, but his face even darker than it had been as the crime doctor saw it last.

"May I ask who you are and what you want?" he demanded – not at all in the manner of Mr. Jingle – rather in the voice that most people would have raised.

"My name's Dollar and I'm a doctor."

The self-announcement, pat as a polysyllable, had a foreseen effect only minimized by the precautionary confidence of Doctor Dollar's manner.

"Thanks very much. I've had about enough of doctors."

And the door was shutting when the intruder got in a word like a wedge.

"Exactly!"

Scarth frowned through a chink just wide enough to show both his eyes. It was the intruder's tone that held his hand.

"What does that mean?" he demanded with more control.

"That I want to see you about the other doctor – this German fellow," returned Dollar, against the grain. But the studious phrase admitted him.

"Well, don't raise your voice," said Scarth, lowering his own as he shut the door softly behind them. "I believe I saw you down-stairs outside the bar. So I need only explain that I've just got my bright young man off to sleep, on the other side of those folding-doors."

Dollar could not help wondering whether the other room was as good as Scarth's, which was much bigger and better appointed than his own. But he sat down at the oval table under the electrolier, and came abruptly to his point.

"About that prescription," he began, and straightway produced it from his pocket.

"Well, what about it?" the other queried, but only keenly, as he sat down at the table, too.

"Doctor Alt is a very old friend of mine, Mr. Scarth."

Mostyn Scarth exhibited the slight but immediate change of front due from gentleman to gentleman on the strength of such a statement. His grim eyes softened with a certain sympathy; but the accession left his gravity the more pronounced.

"He is not only a friend," continued Dollar, "but the cleverest and best man I know in my profession. I don't speak from mere loyalty; he was my own doctor before he was my friend. Mr. Scarth, he saved more than my life when every head in Harley Street had been shaken over my case. All the baronets gave me up; but chance or fate brought me here, and this little unknown man performed the miracle they shirked, and made a new man of me off his own bat. I wanted him to come to London and make his fortune; but his work was here, he wouldn't leave it; and here I find him under a sorry cloud. Can you wonder at my wanting to step in and speak up for him, Mr. Scarth?"

"On the contrary, I know exactly how you must feel, and am very glad you have spoken," rejoined Mostyn Scarth, cordially enough in all the circumstances of the case. "But the cloud is none of my making, Doctor Dollar, though I naturally feel rather strongly about the matter. But for Schickel, the chemist, I might be seeing a coffin to England at this moment! He's the man who found out the mistake, and has since made all the mischief."

"Are you sure it was a mistake, Mr. Scarth?" asked Dollar quietly.

"What else?" cried the other, in blank astonishment. "Even Schickel has never suggested that Doctor Alt was trying to commit a murder!"

"Even Schickel!" repeated Dollar, with a sharp significance. "Are you suggesting that there's no love lost between him and Alt?"

"I was not, indeed." Scarth seemed still astonished. "No. That never occurred to me for a moment."

"Yet it's a small place, and you know what small places are. Would one man be likely to spread a thing like this against another if there were no bad blood between them?"

Scarth could not say. The thing happened to be true, and it made such a justifiable sensation. He was none the less frankly interested in the suggestion. It was as though he had a tantalizing glimmer of the crime doctor's meaning. Their heads were closer together across the end of the table, their eyes joined in mutual probation.

"Can I trust you with my own idea, Mr. Scarth?"

"That's for you to decide, Doctor Dollar."

"I shall not breathe it to another soul – not even to Alt himself – till I am sure."

"You may trust me, doctor. I don't know what's coming, but I shan't give it away."

"Then I shall trust you even to the extent of contradicting what I just said. I am sure – between ourselves – that the prescription now in my hands is a clever forgery!"

Scarth held out his hand for it. A less deliberate announcement might have given him a more satisfactory surprise; but he could not have looked more incredulous than he did, or subjected Dollar to a cooler scrutiny.

"A forgery with what object, Doctor Dollar?"

"That I don't pretend to say. I merely state the fact – in confidence. You have your eyes upon a flagrant forgery."

Scarth raised them twinkling. "My dear Doctor Dollar, I saw him write it out myself!"

"Are you quite sure?"

"Absolutely, doctor! This lad, Jack Laverick, is a pretty handful; without a doctor to frighten him from time to time, I couldn't cope with him at all. His people are in despair about him – but that's another matter. I was only going to say that I took him to Doctor Alt myself, and this is the prescription they refused to make up. Schickel may have a spite against Alt, as you suggest, but if he's a forger I can only say he doesn't look the part."

"The only looks I go by," said the crime doctor, "are those of the little document in your hand."

"It's on Alt's paper."

"Anybody could get hold of that."

"But you suggest that Alt and Schickel have been on bad terms?"

"That's a better point, Mr. Scarth, that's a much better point," said Dollar, smiling and then ceasing to smile as he produced a magnifying-lens. "Allow me to switch on the electric standard, and do me the favor of examining that handwriting with this loop; it's not very strong, but the best I could get here at the photographer's shop."

"It's certainly not strong enough to show anything fishy, to my inexperience," said Scarth, on a sufficiently close inspection.

"Now look at this one."

Dollar had produced a second prescription from the same pocket as before. At first sight they seemed identical.

"Is this another forgery?" inquired Scarth, with a first faint trace of irony.

"No. That's the correct prescription, rewritten by Alt at my request, as he is positive he wrote it originally."

"I see now. There are two more noughts mixed up with the other hieroglyphs."

"They happen to make all the difference between life and death," said Dollar gravely. "Yet they are not by any means the only difference here."

"I can see no other, I must confess." And Scarth raised his eyes just as Dollar's fell from his broad brown brow.

"The other difference is, Mr. Scarth, that the prescription with the strychnine in deadly decigrams has been drawn backward instead of being written forward."

Scarth's stare ended in a smile.

"Do you mind saying all that again, Doctor Dollar?"

"I'll elaborate it. The genuine prescription has been written in the ordinary way —currente calamo. But forgeries are not written in the ordinary way, much less with running pens; the best of them are written backward, or rather they are drawn upside down. Try to copy writing as writing, and your own will automatically creep in and spoil it; draw it upside down and wrong way on, as a mere meaningless scroll, and your own formation of the letters doesn't influence you, because you are not forming letters at all. You are drawing from a copy, Mr. Scarth."

"You mean that I'm deriving valuable information from a handwriting expert," cried Scarth, with another laugh.

"There are no such experts," returned Dollar, a little coldly. "It's all a mere matter of observation, open to everybody with eyes to see. But this happens to be an old forger's trick; try it for yourself, as I have, and you'll be surprised to see how much there is in it."

"I must," said Scarth. "But I can't conceive how you can tell that it has been played in this case."

"No? Look at the start, 'Herr Laverick,' and at the finish, 'Doctor Alt.' You would expect to see plenty of ink in the 'Herr,' wouldn't you? Still plenty in the 'Laverick,' I think, but now less and less until the pen is filled again. In the correct prescription, written at my request to-day, you will find that this is so. In the forgery the progression is precisely the reverse; the t in 'Alt' is full of ink, but you will find less and less till the next dip in the middle of the word 'Mahlzeit' in the line above. The forger, of course, dips oftener than the man with the running pen."

Scarth bent in silence over the lens, his dark face screwed awry. Suddenly he pushed back his chair.

"It's wonderful!" he cried softly. "I see everything you say. Doctor Dollar, you have converted me completely to your view. I should like you to allow me to convert the hotel."

"Not yet," said Dollar, rising, "if at all as to the actual facts of the case. It's no use making bad worse, Mr. Scarth, or taking a dirty trick too seriously. It isn't as though the forgery had been committed with a view to murdering your young Laverick."

"I never dreamed of thinking that it was!"

"You are quite right, Mr. Scarth. It doesn't bear thinking about. Of course, any murderer ingenious enough to concoct such a thing would have been far too clever to drop out two noughts; he would have been content to change the milligrams into centigrams, and risk a recovery. No sane chemist would have dispensed the pills in decimals. But we are getting off the facts, and I promised to meet Doctor Alt on his last round. If I may tell him, in vague terms, that you at least think there may have been some mistake, other than the culpable one that has been laid at his door, I shall go away less uneasy about my unwarrantable intrusion than I can assure you I was in making it."

It was strange how the balance of personality had shifted during an interview which Scarth himself was now eager to extend. He had no longer the mesmeric martinet who had tamed an unruly audience at sight; the last of Mr. Jingle's snap had long been in abeyance. And yet there was just one more suggestion of that immortal, in the rather dilapidated trunk from which the swarthy exquisite now produced a bottle of whisky, very properly locked up out of Laverick's reach. And weakness of will could not be imputed to the young man who induced John Dollar to cement their acquaintance with a thimbleful.

III

It was early morning in the same week; the crime doctor lay brooding over the most complicated case that had yet come his way. More precisely it was two cases, but so closely related that it took a strong mind to consider them apart, a stronger will to confine each to the solitary brain-cell that it deserved. Yet the case of young Laverick was not only much the simpler of the two, but infinitely the more congenial to John Dollar, and not the one most on his nerves.

It was too simple altogether. A year ago the boy had been all right, wild only as a tobogganer, lucky to have got off with a few stitches in his ear. Dollar heard all about that business from Doctor Alt, and only too much about Jack Laverick's subsequent record from other informants. It was worthy of the Welbeck Street confessional. His career at Oxford had come to a sudden ignominious end. He had forfeited his motoring license for habitually driving to the public danger, and on the last occasion had barely escaped imprisonment for his condition at the wheel. He had caused his own mother to say advisedly that she would "sooner see him in his coffin than going on in this dreadful way"; in writing she had said it, for Scarth had shown the letter addressed to him as her "last and only hope" for Jack; and yet even Scarth was powerless to prevent that son of Belial from getting "flown with insolence and wine" more nights than not. Even last night it had happened, at the masked ball, on the eve of this morning's races! Whose fault would it be if he killed himself on the ice-run after all?

Dollar writhed as he thought upon this case; yet it was not the case that had brought him out from England, not the reason of his staying out longer than he had dreamed of doing when Alt's telegram arrived. It was not, indeed, about Jack Laverick that poor Alt had telegraphed at all. And yet between them what a job they could have made of the unfortunate youth!

It was Dollar's own case over again – yet he had not been called in – neither of them had!

Nevertheless, when all was said that could be said to himself, or even to Alt – who did not quite agree – Laverick's was much the less serious matter; and John Dollar had turned upon the other side, and was grappling afresh with the other case, when his door opened violently without a knock, and an agitated voice spoke his name.



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