Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Doctor's Case

Stephen King

  The Doctor's Case

  By Stephen King

  I believe there was only one occasion upon which I actually solved a crime before my slightly fabulous friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes. I say believe because my memory began to grow hazy about the edges as I entered my ninth decade; now, as I approach my centennial, the whole has become downright misty. There may have been another occasion, but if so I do not remember it.

  I doubt that I shall ever forget this particular case no matter how murky my thoughts and memories may become, and I thought I might as well set it down before God caps my pen forever. It cannot humiliate Holmes now, God knows; he is forty years in his grave. That, I think, is long enough to leave the tale untold. Even Lestrade, who used Holmes upon occasion but never had any great liking for him, never broke his silence in the matter of Lord Hull -- he hardly could have done so, considering the circumstances. Even if the circumstances had been different, I somehow doubt he would have. He and Holmes baited each other, and I believe that Holmes may have harbored actual hate in his heart for the policeman (although he never would have admitted to such a low emotion), but Lestrade had a queer respect for my friend.

  It was a wet, dreary afternoon and the clock had just rang half past one. Holmes sat by the window, holding his violin but not playing it, looking silently out into the rain. There were times, especially once his cocaine days were behind him, when Holmes would grow moody to the point of surliness when the skies remained stubbornly gray for a week or more, and he had been doubly disappointed on this day, for the glass had been rising since late the night before and he had confidently predicted clearing skies by ten this morning at the latest. Instead, the mist, which had been hanging in the air when I arose, had thickened into a steady rain, and if there was anything that rendered Holmes moodier than long periods of rain, it was being wrong.

  Suddenly he straightened up, tweaking a violin string with a fingernail, and smiled sardonically. "Watson! Here's a sight! The wettest bloodhound you ever saw!"

  It was Lestrade, of course, seated in the back of an open wagon with water running into his close-set, fiercely inquisitive eyes. The wagon had no more than stopped before he was out, flinging the driver a coin, and striding toward 22IB Baker Street. He moved so quickly that I thought he should run into our door like a battering ram.

  I heard Mrs. Hudson remonstrating with him about his decidedly damp condition and the effect it might have on the rugs both downstairs and up, and then Holmes, who could make Lestrade look like a tortoise when the urge struck him, leaped across to the door and called down, "Let him up, Mrs. H. -- I'll put a newspaper under his boots if he stays long, but I somehow think, yes, I really do think that..."

  Then Lestrade was bounding up the stairs, leaving Mrs. Hudson to expostulate below. His color was high, his eyes burned, and his teeth -- decidedly yellowed by tobacco -- were bared in a wolfish grin.

  "Inspector Lestrade!" Holmes cried jovially. "What brings you out on such a -- "

  No further did he get. Still panting from his climb, Lestrade said, "I've heard gypsies say the devil grants wishes. Now I believe it. Come at once if you'd have a try, Holmes; the corpse is still fresh and the suspects all in a row."

  "You frighten me with your ardor, Lestrade!" Holmes cried, but with a sardonic little waggle of his eyebrows.

  "Don't play the shrinking violet with me, man -- I've come at the run to offer you the very thing for which you in your pride have wished a hundred times or more in my own hearing: the perfect locked-room mystery!"

  Holmes had started into the corner, perhaps to get the awful gold-tipped cane, which he was for some reason affecting that season. Now he whirled upon our damp visitor, his eyes wide. "Lestrade! Are you serious?"

  "Would I have risked wet-lung croup riding here in an open wagon if I were not?'' Lestrade countered.

  Then, for the only time in my hearing (despite the countless times the phrase has been attributed to him), Holmes turned to me and cried: "Quick, Watson! The game's afoot!"

  On our way, Lestrade commented sourly that Holmes also had the luck of the devil; although Lestrade had commanded the wagon-driver to wait, we had no more than emerged from our lodgings when that exquisite rarity clip-clopped down the street: an empty hackney in what had become a driving rain. We climbed in and were off in a trice. As always, Holmes sat on the lefthand side, his eyes darting restlessly about, cataloguing everything, although there was precious little to see on that day... or so it seemed, at least, to the likes of me. I've no doubt every empty street corner and rain-washed shop window spoke volumes to Holmes.

  Lestrade directed the driver to an address in Savile Row, and then asked Holmes if he knew Lord Hull.

  "I know o/him," Holmes said, "but have never had the good fortune of meeting him. Now I suppose I never shall. Shipping, wasn't it?"

  "Shipping," Lestrade agreed, "but the good fortune was yours. Lord Hull was, by all accounts (including those of his nearest and -- ahem! -- dearest), a thoroughly nasty fellow, and as dotty as a puzzle-picture in a child's novelty book. He's finished practicing both nastiness and dottiness for good, however; around eleven o'clock this morning, just" -- he pulled out his turnip of a pocket-watch and looked at it -- "two hours and forty minutes ago, someone put a knife in his back as he sat in his study with his will on the blotter before him."

  "So," Holmes said thoughtfully, lighting his pipe, "you believe the study of this unpleasant Lord Hull is the perfect locked room of my dreams, do you?" His eyes gleamed skeptically through a rising rafter of blue smoke.

  "I believe," Lestrade said quietly, "that it is."

  "Watson and I have dug such holes before and never struck water," Holmes remarked, and he glanced at me before returning to his ceaseless catalogue of the streets through which we passed. "Do you recall the 'Speckled Band,' Watson?"

  I hardly needed to answer him. There had been a locked room in that business, true enough, but there had also been a ventilator, a poisonous snake, and a killer fiendish enough to introduce the latter into the former. It had been the work of a cruelly brilliant mind, but Holmes had seen to the bottom of the matter in almost no time at all.

  "What are the facts, Inspector?" Holmes asked.

  Lestrade began to lay them before us in the clipped tones of a trained policeman. Lord Albert Hull had been a tyrant in business and a despot at home. His wife had gone in fear of him, and had apparently been justified in doing so. The fact that she had borne him three sons seemed in no way to have moderated his savage approach toward their domestic affairs in general and toward her in particular. Lady Hull had been reluctant to speak of these matters, but her sons had no such reservations; their papa, they said, had missed no opportunity to dig at her, to criticize her, or to jest at her expense... all of this when they were in company. When they were alone, he virtually ignored her. Except, Lestrade added, when he felt moved to beat her, which was by no means an uncommon occurrence.

  "William, the eldest, told me she always gave out the same story when she came to the breakfast table with a swollen eye or a mark on her cheek: that she had forgotten to put on her spectacles and had run into a door. 'She ran into doors once and twice a week,' William said. 'I didn't know we had that many doors in the house.' "

  "Hmmm," Holmes said. "A cheery fellow! The sons never put a stop to it?"

  "She wouldn't allow it," Lestrade said.

  "Insanity," I returned. A man who would beat his wife is an abomination; a woman who would allow it an abomination and a perplexity.

  "There was a method in her madness, though," Lestrade said. "Method and what you might call 'an informed patience.' She was, after all, twenty years younger than her lord and master. Also, Hull was a heavy drinker and a champion diner. At age s
eventy, five years ago, he developed gout and angina."

  "Wait for the storm to end and then enjoy the sunshine," Holmes remarked.

  "Yes," Lestrade said, "but it's an idea which has led many a man and woman though the devil's door, I'll be bound. Hull made sure his family knew both his worth and the provisions of his wijl. They were little better than slaves."

  "With the will as their document of indenture," Holmes murmured.

  "Exactly so, old boy. At the time of his death, Hull's worth was three hundred thousand pounds. He never asked them to take his word for this; he had his chief accountant to the house quarterly to detail the balance sheets of Hull Shipping, although he kept the purse-strings firmly in his own hands and tightly closed."

  "Devilish!" I exclaimed, thinking of the cruel boys one sometimes sees in Eastcheap or Piccadilly, boys who will hold out a sweet to a starving dog to see it dance... and then gobble it themselves while the hungry animal watches. I was shortly to find this comparison even more apt than I would have thought possible.

  "On his death. Lady Rebecca was to receive one hundred and fifty thousand pund'. William, the eldest, was to receive fifty thousand; Jory, the middler, forty; and Stephen, the youngest, thirty.''

  "And the other thirty thousand?" I asked.

  "Small bequests, Watson: to a cousin in Wales, an aunt in Brittany (not a cent for Lady Hull's relatives, though), five thousand in assorted bequests to the servants. Oh, and -- you'll like this, Holmes -- ten thousand pounds to Mrs. HemphilFs Home for Abandoned Pussies."

  "You're joking!" I cried, although if Lestrade expected a similar reaction from Holmes, he was disappointed. Holmes merely re-lighted his pipe and nodded as if he had expected this... this or something like it. “With babies dying of starvation in the East End and twelve-year-old children working fifty hours a week in the mills, this fellow left ten thousand pounds to a... a boarding-hotel for cats?"

  "Exactly so," Lestrade said pleasantly. "Furthermore, he should have left twenty-seven times that amount to Mrs. Hemphill's Abandoned Pussies if not for whatever happened this morning -- and whoever did the business."

  I could only gape at this, and try to multiply in my head. While I was coming to the conclusion that Lord Hull had intended to disinherit both wife and children in favor of a rest-home for felines, Holmes was looking sourly at Lestrade and saying something which sounded to me like a total non sequitur. “I am going to sneeze, am I not?"

  Lestrade smiled. It was a smile of transcendent sweetness. "Yes, my dear Holmes! Often and profoundly, I fear."

  Holmes removed his pipe, which he had just gotten drawing to his satisfaction (I could tell by the way he settled back slightly in his seat), looked at it for a moment, and then held it out into the rain. More dumbfounded than ever, I watched him knock out the damp and smouldering tobacco.

  "How many?" Holmes asked.

  "Ten," Lestrade said with a fiendish grin.

  "I suspected it was more than this famous locked room of yours that brought you out in the back of an open wagon on such a wet day," Holmes said sourly.

  "Suspect as you like," Lestrade said gaily. "I'm afraid I must go on to the scene of the crime -- duty calls, you know -- but if you'd like, I could let you and the good doctor out here."

  "You are the only man I ever met," Holmes said, "whose wit seems to be sharpened by foul weather. Does that perhaps say something about your character, I wonder? But never mind -- that is, perhaps, a subject for another day. Tell me this, Lestrade: when did Lord Hull become sure that he was going to die?"

  "Die?" I said. "My dear Holmes, whatever gives you the idea that the man believed -- "

  "It's obvious, Watson," Holmes said. "C.I.B., as I have told you at least a thousand times -- character indexes behavior. It amused him to keep them in bondage by means of his will..." He looked an aside at Lestrade. "No trust arrangements, I take it? No entailments of any sort?''

  Lestrade shook his head. "None whatever."

  "Extraordinary!" I said.

  “Not at all, Watson.; character indexes behavior, remember. He wanted them to soldier along in the belief that all would be theirs when he did them the courtesy of dying, but he never actually intended any such thing. Such behavior would, in fact, have run completely across the grain of his character. D'you agree, Lestrade?"

  "As a matter of fact, I do," Lestrade replied.

  "Then we are very well to this point, Watson, are we not? All is clear? Lord Hull realizes he is dying. He waits... makes absolutely sure that this time it's no mistake, no false alarm... and then he calls his beloved family together. When? This morning, Lestrade?"

  Lestrade grunted an affirmative.

  Holmes steepled his fingers beneath his chin. "He calls them together and tells them he's made a new will, one which disinherits all of them... all, that is, save for the servants, his few distant relatives, and, of course, the pussies."

  I opened my mouth to speak, only to discover I was too outraged to say anything. The image, which kept returning to my mind, was that of those cruel boys, making the starving East End curs jump with a bit of pork or a crumb of crust from a meat pie. I must add it never occurred to me to ask whether such a will could be disputed before the bar. Today a man would have a deuce of a time slighting his closest relatives in favor of a cat-hotel, but in 1899, a man's will was a man's will, and unless many examples of insanity -- not eccentricity but outright Insanity -- could be proved, a man's will, like God's, was done.

  "This new will was properly witnessed?" Holmes asked.

  "Indeed it was," Lestrade replied. "Yesterday Lord Hull's solicitor and one of his assistants appeared at the house and were shown into Hull's study. There they remained for about fifteen minutes. Stephen Hull says the solicitor once raised his voice in protest about something -- he could not tell what -- and was silenced by Hull. Jory, the middle son, was upstairs, painting, and Lady Hull was calling on a friend. But both Stephen and William Hull saw these legal fellows enter, and leave a short time later. William said that they left with their heads down, and although William spoke, asking Mr. Barnes -- the solicitor -- if he was well, and making some social remark about the persistence of the rain, Barnes did not reply and the assistant seemed actually to cringe. It was as if they were ashamed, William said."

  Well, so much for that possible loophole, I thought.

  "Since we are on the subject, tell me about the boys," Holmes invited.

  "As you like. It goes pretty much without saying that their hatred for the pater was exceeded only by the pater's boundless contempt for them... although how he could hold Stephen in contempt is... well, never mind, I'll keep things in their proper order."

  "Yes, please be so kind as to do that," Holmes said dryly.

  "William is thirty-six. If his father had given him any sort of allowance, I suppose he would be a bounder. As he had little or none, he has spent his days in various gymnasiums, involved in what I believe is called 'physical culture' -- he appears to be an extremely muscular fellow -- and his nights in various cheap coffee-houses, for the most part. If he did happen to have a bit of money in his pockets, he was apt to take himself off to a card-parlor, where he would lose it quickly enough. Not a pleasant man, Holmes. A man who has no purpose, no skill, no hobby, and no ambition (save to outlive his father) could hardly be a pleasant man. I had the queerest idea while talking to him that I was interrogating not a man but an empty vase upon which the face of Lord Hull had been lightly stamped."

  "A vase waiting to be filled up with pounds sterling," Holmes commented.

  "Jory is another matter," Lestrade went on. "Lord Hull saved most of his contempt for him, calling him from his earliest childhood by such endearing pet-names as 'Fish-Face' and 'Keg-Legs' and 'Stoat-Belly.' It's not hard to understand such names, unfortunately; Jory Hull stands no more than five feet tall, if that, is bow-legged, and of a remarkably ugly countenance. He looks a bit like that poet fellow. The pouf."

  "Oscar Wilde?" asked I.
r />   Holmes turned a brief, amused glance upon me. "I think Lestrade means Algernon Swinburne," he said. "Who, I believe, is no more a pouf than you are, Watson."

  "Jory Hull was born dead," Lestrade said. "After he remained blue and still for an entire minute, the doctor pronounced him so and put a napkin over his misshapen body. Lady Hull, in her one moment of heroism, sat up, removed the napkin, and dipped the baby's legs into the hot water, which had been brought to be used at the birth. The baby began to squirm and squall."

  Lestrade grinned and lit a cigarillo with a flourish.

  "Hull claimed this immersion had caused the boy's bowed legs, and when he was in his cups, he taxed his wife with it. Told her she should have left well enough alone. Better Jory had been born dead than lived to be what he was, he sometimes said -- a scuttling creature with the legs of a crab and the face of a cod."

  Holmes's only reaction to this extraordinary (and to my physician's mind rather suspect) story was to comment that Lestrade had gotten a remarkably large body of information in a remarkably short period of time.

  "That points up one of the aspects of the case which I thought would appeal to you, my dear Holmes," Lestrade said as we swept into Rotten Row with a splash and a swirl. "They need no coercion to speak; coercion's what it would take to shut em up. Ihey've had to remain silent all too long. And then there's the fact that the new will is gone. Relief loosens tongues beyond measure, I find."

  "Gone!" I exclaimed, but Holmes took no notice; his mind still ran upon Jory, the misshapen middle child.

  "Is he ugly, then?" he asked Leptrade.

  "Hardly handsome, but not as bad as some I've seen," Lestrade replied comfortably. "I believe his father continually heaped vituperation on his head because -- "

  " -- because he was the only one who had no need of his father's money to make his way in the world," Holmes finished for him.

  Lestrade started. "The devil! How did you know that?"

  "Because Lord Hull was reduced to carping at Jory's physical faults. How it must have chafed the old devil to be faced with a potential target so well armored in other respects! Baiting a man for his looks or his posture may be fine for schoolboys or drunken louts, but a villain like Lord Hull had no doubt become used to higher sport. I would venture the opinion that he may have been rather afraid of his bow-legged middle son. What was Jory's key to the cell door?''