The Adventure at Heath Crest
Author of "The Adventures of Romney Pringle."
The Adventure at Heath Crest.
a complete story.
" I'm sure my husband would prefer you not to cycle much, Dr. Wilkinson. It's quite true you are in the country as soon as you get over the Heath, and out there, of course, it doesn't matter so much; but the Hampstead patients are all carriage people, and I know they wouldn't like their doctor to call on a bicycle."
"Oh, I quite understand the point, Mrs. Walland," I replied. "I only mentioned it with the idea of getting a little exercise when I went out to Finchley, and so on."
"I am confident my husband's interests will be safe in your hands," said the lady majestically. "With a high-class practice like this one cannot be too circumspect; there is so much jealousy among the successful practitioners."
Dr. Walland was attending the International Medical Congress at Vienna. He had not impressed me as being an ardent scientist, but then, as everybody knows, these gatherings are only a species of superior picnics, and Vienna, too, is the gayest capital in the world. Poor man! A very short stay in the house enlightened me as to his motives. Mrs. Walland early remarked that it was only her dread of the Channel, and her fear of what might befall the household in her absence, that had prevented her accompanying her husband; and after but a very few hours of her society I felt sure that the Congress had commended itself to Walland by the distance it put between them. But the solid fee I was earning by the charge of an equally solid practice was some compensation for all I had to suffer in Mrs. Walland's society.
I may remark that I had had a not unsuccessful career at the hospital. As soon as I was qualified I had filled the usual staff appointments of house-surgeon and house-physician, which, at a hospital like Bart.'s, it is no small honour to have held; but when my two years of office were finished, I found that my troubles were only beginning. There were no more scholarships open to me, even if I could have afforded the time to work up for them; my mother's income was sufficient for herself alone, and I steadily set my face against her repeated offer to realise a portion of her small capital for me to buy a practice with. As to this, there is no more speculative investment than the purchase of a practice, and I should never have felt comfortable had any portion of my mother's income depended upon my success or failure, especially as I had had so little experience of private practice—little more, indeed, than was derived from sitting in the consulting room of my old friend, Nosbury, on an occasional evening when he went courting, and either repeating his prescriptions, or staving off those patients who consented to see me with a "placebo" calculated to last them until the day after to-morrow. So, in default of anything more permanent, I determined to go in for what are called locums for the time being.
It must have been about the third day after I took up the work that I was sent for to "Heath Crest." I remember the morning well. I had gone after breakfast to a patient of the poorer class out at Hendon, which was about the periphery of Walland's district, and enjoyed a glorious free-wheel first down the Bishop's Avenue, and then, after a short pull up the North Road, down again by way of Finchley, and passing the house on my way over the Heath I felt a longing to examine it from the inside. It was not for any great beauty it possessed, for
"SHE SAID SHE HAD CALLED FOR THE CERTIFICATE."
of architectural grace it had little, standing four square behind its railing-spears as baldly as a block of unpolished granite. But I was taken by the prim old garden stretching for quite a considerable way beside the road, with a cedar showing above the wall, and especially by just a glimpse of the delicately-fluted columns and double fan-light of the doorway in the Adam style. Mrs. Walland was out when the message came, or doubtless I should have had a minute history of Mr. Fahbwerker, his business, his income and his wife—especially his wife; but, as it happened, this was spared me, and when I tapped the brass knocker at Heath Crest I knew nothing of the patient I was about to see.
The house was luxuriously, even magnificently, furnished; and my steps fell noiselessly on the ankle-deep rugs as I crossed the hall and was shown into a room on the ground floor, where a lady with fluffy yellow hair awaited me. She appeared nervous and agitated as she explained that she was Mrs. Fahbwerker, that she had sent for me on account of her husband, and would I sit down while she told me something about him? And then she related how he was a financier, had been much troubled over affairs on the Gold Coast where he had large business interests, had lately become sleepless and subject to fainting attacks. Dr. Walland had said he might die in one of them. Did I think that excessive worry would be likely to cause them? etc. etc. She seemed, indeed, to carry a perfect diary of her husband's symptoms in her head, so much so that when I expressed a wish to see the patient for myself she continued her history all the way upstairs, and even into the sick-room.
Mr. Fahbwerker was certainly very ill, and when I came to examine him I could make allowances for even a greater degree of excitement than his wife displayed. Cold and almost pulseless, his every movement seemed feeble; and although he was quite conscious, his voice was no more than a hoarse whisper; but, strange to say, I could find not the slightest reason for this alarming state of things, which appeared to be due to heart-failure pure and simple. In any case, his condition was most critical, and I lost no time in giving him a hypodermic injection of ether and prescribing some hot strong coffee. He was so far gone that he took a considerable time to rally. I even thought at one time of applying electricity to the heart; and it was quite an hour before I felt justified in leaving him.
When I got back Mrs. Walland had kept luncheon waiting. She was most curious as to what had detained me, and appeared quite nettled at my reticence. Although she returned again and again to the subject I managed to stave off her inquisitiveness, and at length, finding me inexorable, she ceased to catechise me. I have always made it a point (in common with any other man worthy of professional confidence) to refuse to discuss the affairs of patients with those outside their immediate circle; but from her behaviour on this occasion I feared that Mrs. Walland was accustomed to find her husband more pliable.
In the course of the afternoon I took the opportunity of being close by to look in again at Heath Crest. I found the patient fairly comfortable; but although he had been taking a prescription I ordered in the morning, Mrs. Fahbwerker told me that he had had another, although a slighter, attack not long before. I must confess that he puzzled me very much. As to the reality of his peril when I first saw him there could be no question; but now that he had mended he presented not the slightest sign of disease. Similar attacks are not unknown to arise from acute dyspepsia, but scarcely to such a dangerous extent as this; besides, I could find nothing of the sort about him. For the rest he was a fine, well-built man, of the florid German type, in the prime of life; and I could really advise little more than to continue the treatment and to keep plenty of stimulants at hand.
On my way downstairs I could not resist stopping to admire the magnificent view from the windows. On the one side was the Heath, with its glorious avenue of chestnuts merging in the woods, which stretched unbroken across the Weald to Harrow; on the other, its huge basin rimmed by the heights of Surrey, spread London, St. Paul's and Westminster showing like islands above the grey perpetual haze. I turned to congratulate Mrs. Fahbwerker, perhaps injudiciously, on so priceless an outlook; but she did not seem to notice my remark, asking me the senseless question which stirs in me fresh resentment every time I hear it: "Is there any danger, doctor?"
I took refuge in the historical reply of the physician—a mythical one, for aught I know, but it always satisfies:
"Illness is always dangerous."
I was in the thick of seeing patients that evening when there came an urgent message to visit Mr. Fahbwerker, and then, right on the heels of it, a second one to say that he was dead! I had not time to reflect upon it at the moment, but about an hour afterwards Mrs. Fahbwerker came herself; she said she had called for the death certificate. She did not seem very greatly distressed, and it occurred to me that perhaps the event so long threatened when it did come at last had been rather a relief in view of the perpetual alarms in which she must have been living of late. As I was momentarily expecting a distinguished literary man who was coming by appointment to be examined for life insurance, it was a relief to find her in so slightly sentimental a mood. While I dashed off the certificate she told me all about the fatal attack, of its sudden onset, and of its fatal ending before any remedies could take effect. As I have said, I was desperately busy; and as the literary man arrived, for a wonder, punctually to his time, I was very glad to see the back of Mrs. Fahbwerker. I made a strange discovery when the insurer succeeded the widow. I do not mean to imply that there was anything very remarkable in a literary man insuring his life, but I discovered that Walland did a very fair amount of insurance work; and when I picked up the book in which he laboriously noted the result of his examinations, it opened at a page on which the name of Fahbwerker was prominent. Running through the entry I found it to be the patient who had just died. Walland had passed him as a first-class life, the value of the insurance being five thousand pounds, and, most significant fact of all, the date of examination was a bare six weeks ago!
I hope the literary man was not unfavourably impressed with the manner in which I examined him, but as I gave him a clean bill of health he had little cause to complain. The fact is, I was so astounded with what I had just read concerning Fahbwerker that I could think of little else; and when at the close of the evening's work I learnt that Mrs. Walland had gone out to a concert, I felt inexpressibly thankful at the opportunity to think over my discovery in quiet. That a man who only six weeks ago was in the best of health should suddenly and without cause develop an acute form of heart disease which proved rapidly fatal, was certainly remarkable. I was still worrying over the mystery, when there came an urgent call elsewhere; and as I cycled past Heath Crest and glanced up at the windows, with never a glimmer of light in any of them, I regretted the lateness of the hour which alone prevented me from calling on Mrs. Fahbwerker so that I might clear up some of the doubts which troubled me. My visit was to a poor creature in the last stage of phthisis. When I got to the house I found there had been profuse hemorrhage from the lungs, and was annoyed to find that in the hurry of attending to Fahbwerker that morning the very drug which I now wanted to use must have dropped from my pocket hypodermic case. At least the tiny bottle was missing, and as the patient was practically bleeding to death, I ran on to Walland's chemist, who was fortunately close at hand.
"I hear that Mr. Fahbwerker died tonight," observed the chemist.
I had replenished my case, and was about to hurry back, when the remark, made with all the urbanity of the man's calling, arrested me; for, in spite of my present errand, the dead man was still uppermost in my thoughts.
"Yes, it was rather sudden," I admitted.
"I can't say I am altogether surprised," observed the chemist.
"Why? He always had very good health," said I, ingenuously.
"Yes; but look at the way he was always drugging himself."
"Yes. Why, there was hardly a day that Mrs. Fahbwerker wasn't in here for something or other for him."
"Indeed! What sort of drugs?"
"Oh, antipyrin principally."
"Did she say what she wanted it for?"
"She was always talking about the dreadful headaches her husband used to have, and I was always warning her against antipyrin."
As I listened, I was conscious of a species of vertigo, so impetuous was the rush of ideas; but, recovering myself, I bade the chemist a hasty "good-night," and ran back to the patient.
All the way along the rays of every streetlamp seemed to form the word "antipyrin." When I bared the patient's arm the blue veins traced it on the skin; when I looked away the lines of the hideous wall-paper grouped to spell it there also; and later on, when I had climbed wearily to bed, I still saw it through my closed eyelids. Yes, it was all plain enough now that it was too late to save him. Fahbwerker must have been killed by an overdose of antipyrin—perhaps the most fatally depressing drug known to medicine. The symptoms were conclusive, and I marvelled how so simple a case could have puzzled me so much.
After a night during which I hardly slept an hour altogether, I rose early, intending to call on Mrs. Fahbwerker and explain her criminal folly in assisting her husband in his lavish physicking. I also wanted to get the death certificate from her before she had registered it, since it was clear there would have to be an inquest. But one thing after another conspired to delay me, and it had gone noon before I reached Heath Crest. The place looked very sombre with its drawn blinds, and the servant spoke in the hushed voice peculiar to a household which death has visited. She was doubtful whether Mrs. Fahbwerker would see me; her mistress was at home to no one, but she would inquire if the prohibition extended to me. In a few minutes she returned and showed me to a room, where, indeed, I could hear the voice of Mrs. Fahbwerker as she greeted me, although her figure was a mere suggestion in the gloom of the drawn blinds.
"I am sorry to intrude upon you at such a time, Mrs. Fahbwerker," said I, "but I am afraid I shall have to withdraw the death certificate I gave you last night."
"I don't quite understand you, doctor," came the voice from the other side of the room, with just a little tremor in the tones.
"I have been thinking the matter over, and the certificate no longer expresses my conscientious opinion as to the cause of Mr. Fahbwerker's death."
There was no answer, but I caught the sound of her rapid breathing.
"I was very puzzled all along by your husband's illness," I continued, "and if I had been less busy when you called last night, or if I had had longer to think over it, I should have declined to give you a certificate."
Still no answer, but Mrs. Fahbwerker's dress rustled greatly, as if she experienced some emotion.
"To speak plainly," I went on after another pause, "I am satisfied that Mr. Fahbwerker's death was not due to natural causes. What I should like to know now is this—was he in the habit of taking drugs?"
"Never!" The retort was sharp and vicious as the crack of a rifle.
"You never knew him to take medicine without advice?"
"Antipyrin, for instance?"
"Certainly not! Why are you asking all these questions?"
"Because I found no sign of disease about Mr. Fahbwerker. He ought not to have died, and I can only account for it by his misuse of some such drug as antipyrin."
"He never took it—I am sure of it!"
"You have taken it yourself, perhaps?"
"No—that is, I have occasionally—a long time ago."
"It is very strange," I remarked with meaning.
"It is strange, doctor. Why didn't you tell me all this before? You have deceived me!"
"I have done nothing of the sort, Mrs. Fahbwerker."
"Yes; you certified the death was due to heart-failure."
"I have altered my opinion, and I have come to tell you that I withdraw the certificate."
"Because there must be an inquest."
"I will never consent to it!"
I could hear the swish of her dress as she suddenly rose; she was evidently very agitated.
I had no wish to have a scene with her, so I determined to close the interview.
"Can I see the body?" I asked. It occurred to me it would be as well to do so before I laid the facts before the coroner.
"No; it is impossible!"
"Really, Mrs. Fahbwerker, I must protest against this! No one can regret more than I do that there has been any unpleasantness, but I put it to you whether you are not acting very injudiciously in refusing to let me, as your husband's medical attendant, view the body—if only to certify the fact of death."
"The coffin is screwed down."
"The coffin!" I exclaimed.
"I wish the funeral to be as soon as possible."
I felt that Mrs. Fahbwerker was too strong for me. Why this haste, I wondered. There was no reason for it on sanitary or any other grounds that I could imagine. I knew not what to think of it all. But one thing I saw clearly; although she had practically defied me, Mrs. Fahbwerker could not stop my communicating with the coroner, and, determined to play my trump-card at once, I took a very frigid leave of her.
An idea occurred to me at the hall door, and I inquired the undertaker's address of the servant. It was only in the High Street, and I was lucky enough to find him in.
"I am Dr. Wilkinson. I attended Mr. Fahbwerker on behalf of Dr. Walland," I explained.
The man bowed.
"You are hurrying on the funeral," I suggested.
"I understood the lady to say it was by the doctor's advice."
"Not mine!" I declared.
"Well, sir, we only had the order last night, but we delivered the coffin this morning—we're used to emergencies."
"And you screwed the body down at once."
"Oh, no, sir!"
"Mrs. Fahbwerker said the coffin was screwed down, and that was the reason I couldn't see the body."
"Some mistake," said the undertaker incredulously.
"She certainly said so to me only a few minutes ago."
"Well, all I can say, sir, is that they must have done it themselves! I know nothing about it. Why, you know, sir, it's never done till the very last."
"When is the funeral to be, then?"
"I wrote by Mrs. Fahbwerker's orders to the Necropolis at once, but I don't expect an answer before to-morrow at the soonest."
"Necropolis! Is the funeral to be there, then?"
"The lady said it was her husband's wish, and the doctor advised haste."
I suppressed an exclamation.
"It was you who gave the certificate, wasn't it, sir?"
"Oh, yes, I gave the certificate," and as I left the shop I inwardly exclaimed, "and bitterly do I regret it!"
I wanted to be alone, and the society of Mrs. Walland being unfavourable to reflection, I made a détour in the opposite direction, and striding across the Heath, sat for a little time by the Vale of Health to think seriously over the situation. Here was the procuring of quantities of a dangerous drug, its employment with a fatal result, then hurried funeral preparations, a refusal to allow any examination of the body, and lastly, the hurried interment—of course, to effectually destroy all evidence of foul play. Even the sordid motive was not lacking in the insurance which poor Fahbwerker had just effected on his life. As the full horror of the crime burst upon me I set off homeward at a run. I felt I could not rest until I had set an inquiry going. Suddenly I recalled Mrs. Fahbwerker's statement that Walland had predicted the fatal termination. Could I have judged her too hastily? I hurried to the consulting room the moment I got in, and hunted through the case-book; there was not a word of Fahbwerker since the entry concerning the life insurance. I turned up the day-book and then the visiting list, with equal unsuccess. Could Walland—methodical and careful as I knew him to be—have omitted all reference to such a matter? Incredible! Then this, too, could only be one more in the long string of falsehoods uttered by Mrs. Fahbwerker, whom I now regarded as a callous assassin.
I was too much worried and upset to have any appetite for lunch, so, leaving an apology to Mrs. Walland with the servant, I started for the coroner's office. I calculated to reach there about three, and in order to lose no time, I took some paper with me, and busied myself while in the train by writing a full and complete statement with the aid of my fountain-pen. As I feared, both the coroner and his deputy were engaged at inquests, but I left my statement with an official, who promised to bring it to the coroner's notice as soon as possible, and to let me know the result by the evening. It was a great relief when I had got this disagreeable business over, and satisfied that I had now put a substantial spoke in Mrs. Fahbwerker's wheel, I spent a busy afternoon in picking up the loose threads of the day's work which she and her affairs had somewhat disorganised.
As was only natural, the coroner quite took my view of the case, and in the course of the evening I was waited on by one of his officers with a summons to the inquest he would hold the day after next, and an authority for me to make a post-mortem examination. The officer told me he was on his way to serve a similar summons on Mrs. Fahbwerker, with an order to deliver up the body for removal to the mortuary forthwith. I knew I had a very busy day before me, so I took the opportunity of sending word by the officer that I would hold the post-mortem the next morning at eight. I felt that I had now done all that was possible to assist the ends of justice, and seized an early opportunity of going to bed after a day that had certainly not been the least harassing one of my life.
I rose early, and, snatching a hasty breakfast, cycled down to the coroner's court. It was a little before eight when I arrived, but although the mortuary keeper had everything in readiness, there was no corpse. However, just as eight struck, it arrived in charge of the coroner’s officer and the undertaker.
"Wouldn't Mrs. Fahbwerker give up possession?" I asked him.
"Why, no, sir; she never gave herself the chance," said he, with a grin.
"What on earth do you mean?"
"Why, when I left you, sir, I went and served Mrs. Fahbwerker with the notice, and said I should want to take charge of the body this morning. She gave me the address of the undertaker here, and I went and arranged with him. Well, it seems that I had hardly got out of the house before she took and packed up all her boxes, and sent out for a cab and drove away, and no one's set eyes on her since."
"Where did she go to?" I was profoundly interested in this new development, which simply confirmed my worst suspicions.
"The maids say she told the cabman to go to Hampstead Station, but that must have been a blind, for she couldn't take all her luggage by that line, and when they got there she must have told the cabman to drive somewhere else."
"What time was that?"
"About half-past ten, they said."
Scarcely time, I reflected, to get to the Continent; she would have to wait until this morning.
"And you found the body all right?" I asked.
For answer he slapped his hand on the coffin.
"Well, I suppose it will save a lot of scandal if she manages to get away," I observed. "After all, it's the affair of the police."
"Ha, sir! I tell you there's a lot more behind it," said the coroner's officer, mysteriously. "Strikes me it's going to be one of the rummiest affairs I've ever took a part in, and that's saying a good deal, I can tell you."
"How?" I thought he alluded to the murder, and was anxious to know how much had leaked out by this time.
"Well, sir, I can't help laughing, but it's just
"THE DETECTIVE WENT DOWN ON HIS HANDS AND KNEES." (p. 146).
this way. As I was leaving the house after serving the notice I stopped to tell the servant we should be there about half-past seven, and I was just walking away when who should I see coming up the front path, as hard as he could pelt, but Sergeant Brown, from Scotland Yard, whom I knew from often seeing him at these affairs. 'Why, what do you want?' says I. 'This is none of your business yet awhile; we haven't had our say yet.' 'What do you mean?' says he; 'I've got a warrant to execute.' 'Warrant?' says I. 'Who for?' 'Mr. Fahbwerker,' says he, mysterious like; 'and where's the joke?' For he saw I was laughing fit to split myself. 'You're a day too late,' says I. 'What's that?' says he, quite startled. 'Someone else has been arresting him before you,' I says, jokingly. 'Nonsense,' he says; 'there's no other warrant out against him but the one I've got.' 'Oh, yes,' I says, 'there is.' 'What d'ye mean?' he says. 'A death warrant,' I says. 'Get out,' says he: 'you're joking.' 'Not a bit of it,' says I; 'if you don't believe me, just you go and ask at the house.' 'You don't say so,' says he, struck all of a heap like. 'You're quite sure, are you?' he says presently. 'All I know,' says I, 'is there's going to be an inquest, and I've just served them with the summons to attend, and the body's going to the mortuary to-morrow morning for the doctor to make a post-mortem examination.'"
I said nothing, but I suppose my astonishment must have been palpable, and the officer continued:
"I tell you, sir, it was just about the best thing could have happened to the poor fellow to die when he did, though I don't suppose he'd agree with me if he could speak."
"What did the detective do?" I asked presently.
"Oh, of course he didn't want to go into the house and make a fuss and upset everybody after what I told him, but he said that he'd like to come down here and just inspect the body this morning, so as he could make an official report why the warrant wasn't executed. Ah! here he is! Good-morning, sergeant."
Time was getting on, so as soon as the detective had been admitted I told the undertaker to open the coffin, and he set to work with his screw-driver. I noticed that although he used a brace and centre-bit apparatus, he seemed to have a good deal of trouble in getting the screws out; Mrs. Fahbwerker must have driven them in with the strength of desperation. She was certainly a clever and resourceful woman. At length all the screws were extracted, and while the mortuary keeper pushed the lid aside, the undertaker plucked off the underlying sheet. For a second or two we all gaped stupidly at one another, and then the detective went down on his hands and knees and rapidly strewed the floor with about a hundred-weight of coal and several large books, which were the only contents of the coffin!
It was the coroner's officer who first broke the silence. "Well," he chuckled, "this would have been a good funeral! Have you got your warrant, sergeant? You'll need a coal-van to take your prisoner in."
The laugh (half-hysterical from myself) which we all found for the witticism was an unspeakable relief to my nerves, for so long at their highest tension.
"Yes, I've got it," replied the detective grimly, "and, what's more, I mean to execute it. But, between the lot of you, you've given him twelve hours' start of me! Did you measure the body?" he asked of the undertaker.
"Only under the sheet," the latter admitted. "He seemed stiff enough then, but I wasn't in the room a couple of minutes."
"You never saw the body either, did you, doctor?"
"No," I replied. "Mrs. Fahbwerker came and told me he was dead just when I was very busy and only too glad to get rid of her by giving her the certificate. When I wanted to see the body the next day, she told me the coffin was screwed down."
"A clever dodge, certainly, if it had come off," was Brown's comment.
"But where can he be?" I exclaimed.
"Waiting for his wife on the other side of the Channel, most likely. What's the time now? Eight-thirty. There's time yet! Good-morning, gentlemen," and the door slammed on the detective.
The coroner's officer advised me to call and see the coroner "as soon as possible," but it was late in the afternoon before I was able to get to the office and make a rather shamefaced explanation. As I left a paper-boy outside was howling: "Mysterious affair at Hampstead!" and in some trepidation I bought an evening paper. I ran my eye down the pink column, but this was all I read:—
ARREST OF A DEAD MAN AT DOVER.
Our Dover correspondent wires that Mr. Julius Fahbwerker, late of Old Broad Street, and well known in financial circles, was arrested this morning when about to go on board the Ostend boat. Mr. Fahbwerker, who was accompanied by his wife, was taken into custody by the local police and detained until the arrival of Detective Sergeant Brown from London, who had the warrant for his arrest.
We understand that it was reported in the City yesterday that Mr. Fahbwerker was dead, and inquiries at his residence, Heath Crest, Hampstead, confirmed the statement. Information which our representatives succeeded in obtaining on the spot puts a very sensational aspect on the affair. It appears that preparations were in active progress for a funeral when they were abruptly stopped by the order of the coroner, whose authority had been invoked by certain friends of the family, and arrangements were even made for a post-mortem examination when it was found that no corpse was forthcoming. As the case is sub judice we refrain from any comment upon the extraordinary circumstances, which have naturally created the most profound sensation in the City.
Yes, as the detective had observed, it was certainly a clever dodge. Although I could not help seeing I had been made a fool of, yet it was undeniable that any medical man might have been deceived by such a carefully-prepared train of symptoms. Fahbwerker, when his arrest was impending, must have resolved to disappear, and doubtless experimented until he had found the utmost dose of antipyrin he thought he could take with safety; but he had nearly overdone it—a very little more and he would have killed himself in reality! The Fahbwerkers had probably considered Walland's absence as their golden opportunity, and from my apparent inexperience were unprepared for my insistence on viewing the body, a course which they evidently knew I was under no legal obligation to take. After all, I should never have done this, and the bogus funeral might have been held, if it had not been for the accident which led me to the chemist's shop.