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Title: Death in the Consulting Room Author: Arthur Gask * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 2000991h.html Language: English Date first posted: September 2020 Most recent update: September 2020 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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One evening Dr. Wilkie was staying late at his consulting rooms on North terrace, in Adelaide, the beautiful city of the plains. It was getting on for half-past 6, and his nurse had been gone some time. The big building of Kensington House was by then almost emptied of its usual tenants.
The doctor was a good-looking young fellow of eight and twenty, but just now his face was puckered into a worried and uneasy frown. It was the end of the month, and he was making up his accounts. Unhappily, there were not many to go out, and, more unhappily still, he knew there would be a good many coming in.
Things had not been been going too well with him lately, and he was thankful he was a bachelor, with no one depending upon him. He was quite aware he was under a cloud. Some six months previously a great misfortune had overtaken him, and done his practice a lot of harm. When single-handed, he had lost a patient under an anaesthetic, and, although his professional brethren were unanimous, it had not been his fault, and would have happened with anyone, people generally blamed him, because there had not been another medical man present when he had been attending to the patient.
He had been called in suddenly to a little girl who had dislocated her shoulder. It was quite a simple dislocation, and he knew it would take only a few seconds to replace, but, to save the child any pain he had given her a whiff of chloroform. Then, to his horror, she had all at once stopped breathing, and, though he had tried everything, he had not been able to bring her to.
It had been a ghastly business, with the father and mother standing by, and the most terrible moment of all his life. He would never forget it, however long he lived.
The post-mortem had shown most conclusively that the child's death had been due to status lymphaticus, a rather rare diseased condition in which the lymphatic tissues have become greatly overgrown. By no possibility could the death have been foreseen and prevented, and in any case, it was not likely the child would have lived long. Although apparently in the best of health, she was yet living in a dangerous state, and even a slight shock might have had fatal consequences.
The whole matter had been most unfortunate for him, particularly so as the parents were wealthy and influential society people. It would be a long time before things were forgotten.
He was working on at his accounts when suddenly the bell up on the waiting-room door pinged loudly. "Confound it!" he exclaimed. "Now who on earth can it be at this time? I can't make out I'm not here, as, of course, he's seen the light."
Opening the door, he was confronted with an elderly-looking man in a long overcoat and a thick scarf round his neck.
"The doctor!" exclaimed the man. "Well, my name is Harris, but you don't know me, and I'm sorry I've come so late. I've only just made up my mind to see someone, and I've been ringing all the doctors' doors in the building. I'd given it up as hopeless until I saw your light. Now, I shall be so much obliged if you'd give me a few minutes. I shan't keep you long."
Dr. Wilkie frowned. It was annoying to be disturbed when he was so busy, but, then, his circumstances were certainly not flourishing enough to warrant his turning away any patient at whatever time they happened to arrive.
"Come in," he said. "It's a bit late," he smiled, "but then we doctors are supposed to be ready any time. Sit down and tell me what's the matter."
"It's my neck," said the man. "I've got a nasty boil there and I think it ought to be lanced."
The doctor made a quick examination. "Yes, it should be done at once," he nodded.
"But I shall want something to send me to sleep," said the man. "I'm a great baby where pain is concerned."
"Well, we'll give you a whiff," said the doctor. "Now when did you last have anything to eat?"
"This morning, about seven o'clock, and then it was only a cup of coffee and a bit of bread and butter. I haven't felt inclined to eat anything with this boil."
"All right, then," said the doctor. "I'll lance it straight away. It's a small matter, and you need not go into any hospital to have it done. I'll do it at your home. Now who would you like to give you the anaesthetic, and where do you live?"
The man laughed. "I don't live anywhere, and I don't know anybody, let alone any doctor. I'm only just passing through Adelaide on a boat, the Nerbudda. We arrived this morning from Melbourne, and we're leaving tomorrow at five a.m. I'm going to England."
Dr. Wilkie frowned. "But where do you come from? Where do your relations live?"
"I've come from Townsville just now," replied the man, "but I've no relations there. In fact, I don't know whether I've got any relations at all. I rather think not, but if I have they're in Norwich, in England, from where I came a good many years ago." He spoke persuasively, "Look here, doctor, couldn't you do the whole business on the spot, here now, and then I'd go straight back to the boat in a taxi. The skipper would look after me once I got on board."
"But hasn't the boat got a proper medical man?" asked Dr. Wilkie.
The patient shook his head. "No, we're only a small cargo boat, and when we're sick the skipper's our only standby," he replied. He began taking off his collar. "Come on, doctor, let's get it over."
The doctor still hesitated. "How are you in general health?" he asked. "Ever had any trouble with your heart?"
"Never!" said the patient emphatically, and Dr. Wilkie remembered afterwards how quickly he had spoken. "I've been as fit as a fiddle all my life, and now I'm only fifty-one."
The doctor examined him and found nothing wrong. "Well, I'll want that belt off," he said. "You won't be able to breathe properly with it on," and he turned round and busied himself with getting everything ready. The patient, with a movement which to an observer might, perhaps, have seemed unnecessarily quick, snapped off the belt referred to and thrust it furtively under his coat and waistcoat, which he had already placed upon a chair.
"Now make yourself quite comfortable upon this couch," said the doctor, "and breathe naturally, in the ordinary way," and in a minute, at latest, the anaesthesia should have begun. The instant, however, the inhaler was over the patient's face, he uttered a groan of dreadful agony, and, pulling up his hands, gripped fiercely at his chest. He groaned dreadfully again, his face, from which the doctor had snatched the inhaler, was contorted in spasm, and then, with a long, deep sigh, all his muscles seemed to relax to nothingness and—he was dead. It had all happened in less than ten seconds.
"God," exclaimed Dr. Wilkie with his own face as white as death; "it's angina!"
And angina pectoris it undoubtedly was; that dread disease of the heart which may hover over its victims for years and years and never strike, and yet may strike suddenly and bring death almost in the twinkling of an eye.
Dr. Wilkie saw it was all over, and realised nothing could be done. He sank back into a chair and wiped the beads of sweat from his ghastly face. "God," he exclaimed again, "what a tragedy! Another death when I have been giving the anaesthetic alone by myself! It will mean ruin for me!"
And then suddenly he heard footsteps in the corridor just outside his room, loud laughing voices and his bell was pinged again.
"What luck," he heard someone say; "so he's in after all, and we can get him to make the fourth! He won't mind playing for five bob a hundred. He's a real gambler at cards."
The doctor swallowed hard. The speaker was well known to him. It was young Bentley of the Stock Exchange. It couldn't be worse, he groaned. The man was one of the biggest gossips in the city, and, if he were one of the first to learn what had just happened, would make a fine tale of it for weeks and weeks. He sat silent and made no sound.
The bell was pinged again. Then the same voice came in disappointment, "Gad, he's not in! The beggar's gone off, forgetting to switch off his lights," and after a few more moments of waiting the late callers returned up the corridor the way they had come.
Dr. Wilkie was much calmer now. He had thought out what he would do. He would take the dead man with him in his car almost straight away to the hospital and, arriving there, make out he must have died on the way. Anything better than that he should have to give out there had been a death in his consulting rooms. Then he would say nothing about having started to give him an anaesthetic. It would be quite simple, the body was not heavy, and he could carry it down to his car through the back entrance of the building. His car was parked in the yard beyond, and no one would be likely to be there if he waited a further few minutes.
Realising, of course, that the body must be fully clothed when it reached the hospital, he started to replace all the dead man's garments. Lifting up the waistcoat, a small tin box dropped out of one of the pockets, and picking it up his eyes opened very wide as they fell on the label on the lid.
"Nitrite of amyl capsules!" he gasped. His face puckered up in furious anger. "Then he was subject to angina attacks! The wretch—he lied to me so that I should give him the anaesthetic! What a dirty trick!"
Putting on the waistcoat, he snatched up the jacket, and the belt which had been tucked underneath came into view. He lifted up that, too, and instantly the expression upon his face underwent a startling change. The belt was heavy, very heavy, as heavy as gold!
His hands shook as he proceeded to examine what it contained. Two of its four pockets were filled with well wrapped-up Australian sovereigns and the others were stuffed hard with Australian and English bank notes!
An hour later Dr. Wilkie was still in his consulting room, which now, however, was in complete darkness. He was sitting back in the chair he always occupied when he was interviewing patients. He was no longer frowning, his expression being only a very thoughtful one. The dead man, fully clothed again, was lying extended upon the couch, but the belt he had been wearing was now locked in one of the drawers of the doctor's desk. Every now and then the doctor flashed a little torch to see how the time was passing. He was waiting to be almost absolutely sure the building was deserted.
At last 9 o'clock struck, and he rose stealthily to his feet. The time for action had come.
Now, in after years, although he knew that what he did that night by sudden decision was absolutely wrong and contrary to all moral code, Dr. Wilkie always tried to make excuses for himself. To begin with, he argued, the patient had treated him most dishonorably in deceiving him and making out he had never suffered from any form of heart trouble, whereas by the carrying about of those capsules with him he must have been aware he had a very grave disease and was living always on the precipice side. And he had lied there, deliberately and selfishly, so that he might receive an anaesthetic straight away, when there was only one doctor to attend him. He had given no thought to the injury it would be doing to the doctor's reputation if anything went wrong. So Dr. Wilkie argued that in bare justice he was entitled to substantial compensation for the predicament he was now in. And in what way could he obtain that compensation, he went on, except by appointing himself the dead man's heir and appropriating what was in the belt. Another thing, the man had said he didn't think he had any living relations, and so, really, no one was actually being robbed.
Of course, it was all very crooked reasoning, but to some extent it eased the doctor's conscience and prevented him regarding himself as an undoubted member of the criminal classes.
The following afternoon a paragraph appeared in the evening newspaper announcing that that morning the body of an unknown man had been found at the entrance to a small by-road leading off the main one to Mount Lofty, and that an inquest would be held on the morrow.
With the inquest duly taking place, it was found the man had died from natural causes. Nothing had been discovered as to his identity, but it was mentioned £10, plus a few shillings, had been found in his pockets. In the same issue of the evening newspaper which gave an account of the inquest was a stop-press message announcing that a steamship, believed to be the Nerbudda, had founded in a tremendous storm in the Great Australian Bight, and it was feared all hands had been lost. Neither then or later did it enter into anybody's mind that the man whose body had been found near Mount Lofty was to have been one of her passengers.
There was exactly £2,105 in the belt which had come off the dead man, £325 in gold and £1,700 in notes, and the money put Dr. Wilkie well upon his feet. He was, however, most cautious how he handled it, paying none of the notes in large amounts into his bank. Instead, he kept them in the safe in his house and, for the most part, drew upon them as he wanted for expenses. They were all in tens and fives, and of no sequence. From appearance, too, they had been well in circulation, and so he had no fear that any of the numbers had been kept.
He did not touch any of the sovereigns until nearly a whole year had gone, and then, finding they were worth more than their face value, sent two hundred of them to the Mint in Melbourne. The remaining one hundred and twenty-five he was intending to retain, with some idea at the back of his mind that they should be kept handy for some unexpected emergency.
It seemed, however, that the tide of prosperity for him had definitely set in. Moving to a good house in North Adelaide, and buying one of the best cars, was evidence to the majority of people that his practice must be increasing, and that, therefore, he must know his work well and be a good doctor. So he began to be talked about as one of the rising young physicians of the city, and more and more patients started to come in.
Then prosperous, good-looking, and with very nice manners, he was considered a most eligible candidate for matrimony, but, although partial to the society of the other sex, he never showed a preference for any particular girl. As the price of success, he knew he would have to marry one day, for no one cares too much for an elderly bachelor doctor. But he told himself there was plenty of time, and when he did marry it would be his head more than his heart which would guide him. His marriage would be one of convenience, and he would probably marry for money. He had not much belief in love, as distinct from the state of passion into which most men could work themselves when intrigued with a pretty girl.
His conscience continued to worry him a little about that money he had taken, and the knowledge of how he had been tempted and fallen made him feel very sorry for those who had done wrong and been caught. One day he read in the newspaper how a middle-aged clerk, with a wife and young family, after struggling for years and years under an ever-increasing load of debt, had at last succumbed to temptation and embezzled his employer's money. The embezzlement had been going on for longer than a year, and the amount involved had mounted up to more than £200. At last the man had been caught, and, brought before the magistrate, had been committed for trial, bail being refused.
Dr. Wilkie sought the family out, saw to it that they were in no want while the breadwinner was away, and employed a first class lawyer to defend him. Then, when the case came up for trial and the man pleaded guilty, to everyone's amazement it was learnt that every penny of the embezzled money had been refunded by the wife. This made things look not nearly so black, and, after an impassioned appeal by the lawyer for mercy, the presiding judge allowed the prisoner to go free under the First Offender's Act. Added to that, it never came out who, someone provided the man with a motor car and some small amount of capital to enable him to start as a travelling salesman himself.
In many other instances when, through their own weakness and folly, people were down and out, the young doctor helped them to their feet again, and gave them back their self-respect. "Part of my atonement," he told himself. He made a grimace. "But I'm doing it very comfortably and easily for myself, and it's really nothing of the punishment I ought to have. In fact, it's no punishment at all. I can afford the money and don't miss it at all." He sighed. "If the mills of God grind slowly, then I'm certainly getting off very lightly."
About a year later, however, he got a nasty jar, and realised, that though one's wrongdoing might have been most carefully buried very deep down, it's ghost was liable to rise at any moment.
One night he was dining out and his hostess suddenly remarked. "Oh, Dr. Wilkie, have you noticed that pretty little new nurse they've got at the Children's Hospital?" She laughed. "But there, of course, you have! You men are all the same, although some of you try to make out we women have no appeal to you except at patients."
Dr. Wilkie smiled. "To which nurse do you refer, particularly?" he asked. "There are quite a lot of pretty ones there."
"To the little one with that auburn hair and those lovely eyes. Nurse Harris, she's called. You must have seen her. She's a quiet, gentle little thing."
"Yes, I know her," nodded the doctor. "She seems very shy."
"Well, I met her at a small tea party this afternoon," went on his hostess, "and she told us quite a little romance. She's only come over from England a few weeks, and thinks she's got a rich uncle somewhere here. They've heard nothing about him for many years, but someone at home told them a little while ago that they'd met him, and he was very wealthy. He'd made a fortune in sheep or cattle on shares or something."
"Well, why doesn't she look him up?" asked Dr. Wilkie. He smiled. "That seems the reasonable thing for her to do."
"But she doesn't know where he is and the man who brought the news couldn't tell her. All he knew was that he met this supposed uncle once when upon a holiday cruise to New Guinea. He hadn't the remotest idea where he lived, except that it was somewhere in Australia."
"But how does he know the man was this girl's uncle?"
"He doesn't know at all, but it certainly looks like it, the same name, about the right age, and them both coming out here about 30 years ago from the same place in England. Norwich, in Norfolk."
Dr. Wilkie felt a horrible shiver run down his spine. "God, then this girl must be the dead man's niece! His name had been Harris, and he said he came from Norwich. So he had had relations to leave his money to, and, in taking it, he, Derek Wilkie, was just a common thief!"
However, when he got home that night and was thinking everything over, Dr. Wilkie was by no means so certain that the patient who had come to him that fateful evening could have been the girl's uncle. The man had hardly been the type to go on a holiday cruise to New Guinea. Also, he had not seemed as if he were accustomed to riches. Rather, he appeared to have lived rough and not to have made a big success in life. Probably, he had spent all his time in scraping together that money he had in the belt, and had ruined his health in doing so. Besides, a really rich man would not have been carrying so much money on him, and, certainly, would not have been travelling home in a small cargo vessel. Another thing, too, and here the doctor smiled ever so slightly, the man who died was of much too coarse and rough a fibre to have a niece of the daintiness of little nurse Harris now at the Children's Hospital.
Of course, as his hostess that evening had rightly surmised, he had noticed Nurse Harris! Indeed, what man who came to the hospital had not? She was unusually pretty, with eyes of a rare forget-me-not color, and with nice features, a good complexion and rich auburn hair and had a most attractive personality.
The following morning, when visiting the hospital, the very first nurse with whom he was brought in contact was this one, who was occasioning him so much thought. She did some slight services for him, very deftly with her beautifully moulded small hands, and, upon preparing to leave the ward, he stopped for a few moments to ask her how she was getting on. It amused him to notice how deeply she blushed. She was not very intellectual, he thought, but she was certainly very pretty and of the clinging type which so appeals to the other sex. It made him most uncomfortable to think that there was even the most remote possibility he had taken money which, rightly, belonged to her. He, in part, however, consoled himself with the thought that her future was assured. With her prettiness she was sure to get married, and, if she played her cards well—he was inclined to be a little uncertain there—marry well.
He would have been thunderstruck if he had known what was then passing through Annabel St. Clair Harris's mind. She had certainly decided she would get married, and for her future husband she had chosen a young medical man, one Derek Wilkie, of North terrace. She knew she would have her work cut out to get him, but for all that she was quite confident in her ultimate success. Her mirror told her several times a day that her chances were good.
And then, in the succeeding weeks, followed an interesting little struggle between the two, with one of the participants in the fight being quite unaware that he was taking part in any contest at all.
At first matters proceeded very quietly, all that happened being it had become quite the natural thing for Nurse Harris to catch Dr. Wilkie's eye whenever he came into her ward, and quite natural, too, for him to give her a nod and pleasant smile. Also, whenever they were attending some little patient alone together, he would nearly always make some small chatty remark to her. He was interested to learn how she liked Australia, if she found the climate too hot, and if her work were too tiring for her.
At the annual Nurses' Ball he had two dances with her and took her into supper. On the whole, however, she was disappointed, as she had been half hoping he would have wanted to sit out one of the dances with her in the garden. But nothing happened like that. He was just very pleasant and friendly with her, but there was not the very suggestion of any flirtation.
Still, all the same, Annabel would have, undoubtedly, been not a little heartened had she known he was thinking quite a lot about her after he got home. "A fascinating little girl, that," he told himself with a frown, "and I shall certainly have to be careful. Now, if only I were a marrying man——," but he shook his head and stopped himself from contemplating the possibility. Still, he dreamed about her during the night.
The next morning, however, she went completely out of his mind, for upon opening his paper at breakfast time he received a most terrible shock, with the vision of penal servitude flashing up instantly into his mind.
He read that a number of sovereigns had been found to be missing from the gold reserves of a certain Queensland bank and that, although the theft had only just been discovered, it must have taken place about two years previously. The announcement went on to state that from the number of the stolen sovereigns involved the police were hopeful of being able to trace whoever had disposed of them.
"And what if they were the ones I took from that belt," exclaimed Dr. Wilkie with a face as white as death. His heart beat like a sledge-hammer. "Good God, they will trace me by my having sold them direct to the Melbourne Mint! Oh, what a fool I've been!"
That day he went through the greatest mental torture he thought it possible for him to endure. He had sowed the wind and now he would reap the whirlwind. His punishment loomed up before him. Ruin and disgrace were staring him in the face. The police might be coming for him any moment now and the only tale he could think of to tell them would sound flimsy and improbable in the extreme.
He was going to make out that his last remaining relation, the old aunt who had died a little less than two years previously, had given him the sovereigns. It was quite true he had been her heir, but, for many years she had been living upon a small annuity, and all that had come to him at her death had been some odd bits of old furniture.
In the first moment of panic he had snatched the remaining one hundred and twenty-five sovereigns out of his safe and, making certain neither of his two maids was about, had thrust them, wrapped round a thick sock, deep in the soft earth under the wood-heap. He realised he would have no explanation at all to give if exactly 325 sovereigns had been stolen and that number traced to him.
With a dreadful anguish in his heart, he yet went about his work that day with his usual smiling face, and no one could have dreamt the trouble he was in. It was his morning at the hospital, and to everyone he was as bright as ever. He was cheerful with the little patients, chatted to the sisters and gave Nurse Harris his nicest smile. His rounds of his wards over, he was just upon the point of going out of the hospital when Nurse Harris came running out after him with his stethoscope which, in his abstraction, he had inadvertently left behind. Then, as he was thanking her, she interrupted hastily, in an intense whisper, "Oh, doctor, here are the parents of that little girl with the bad pneumonia. Do speak to them. They'll think so much of anything coming from you. They know how desperately sick she is and they're terribly worried."
Dr. Wilkie turned sharply to find a man and a woman almost at his elbow. The man was older than the woman, who was, obviously, still in her early twenties. They both looked absolutely worn out with anxiety.
"Mrs. Benson," said Nurse Harris sweetly, "this is the doctor who's looking after your little Dorothy. He'll tell you how she's getting on."
"Oh, doctor, " burst out the woman, almost in tears. "Do tell me she's going to get well!"
"Get well!" smiled Dr. Wilkie. "Of course, she is!" His face sobered down. "She's a very sick little girl now, but she's responding beautifully to that wonderful new drug we've given her, and tomorrow I expect to see a great change for the better." His nice smile came again. "Now, don't you worry. If your little daughter belonged to the Queen of England she couldn't be better looked after than she is now. Good-bye."
"And Heaven forgive me, for being so sure," he sighed, as he drove away in his car. "The poor kid's deuced bad, but at any rate she's no worse this morning."
That afternoon he got through his patients somehow, but he was devoutly thankful when the last appointment was through. He was just preparing to leave for home, when his nurse came in quickly with the announcement that an Inspector Benson wanted to see him. Then she went on to add, "He says he only just wants to speak to you for one minute about his little girl in the Children's Hospital." She smiled. "He's brought you a lovely bunch of carnations."
The doctor felt almost faint in his relief. With her first words he had been quite sure the police had come for him, but now he remembered that that morning Nurse Harris had addressed the mother of the very sick child as "Mrs. Benson."
"Show him in," he said a little huskily, "but if anyone else comes now, say I've gone."
The inspector was most apologetic for coming to the rooms so late, but was venturing, he said, to bring him some carnations for his kindness to them that morning. "I've just come from the hospital, sir," he went on, "and the sister told me my little girl is decidedly better this afternoon." His voice choked. "Oh, how you relieved our minds this morning sir! My poor wife hadn't eaten a thing for days, but after you had spoken to us she went home and had a good meal. We were so grateful to you."
"Not at all!" smiled the doctor. "They are happy moments for us when we can give our patients and and their friends some hope." A sudden thought struck him and he went on to ask a question, the asking of which was to alter the whole course of his life. "Oh, by the by, he said, "have you, by chance, heard anything officially about those sovereigns which I read in this morning's newspaper had been stolen from a Queensland bank?"
The inspector nodded. "Yes, sir, we heard about it last night, and we're to look out for a possible confederate of the thief. It is thought the sovereigns may have been sold over here. At the time when they are supposed to have been stolen they were worth about twenty-five shillings. Of course, they're worth more than that now."
He went on, "The story's rather interesting. It appears an officer in the All Consolidated Bank in Brisbane died suddenly last week, and the idea came to somebody to go through the bags of gold which, at one time, had been under his special charge. Then it was found that one of the bags had been tampered with by taking out some of the sovereigns and substituting two-shilling pieces to make up the correct weight." He laughed. "An old trick which ought to have been foreseen and guarded against."
"But how do they know, as the papers say, that the stealing took place two years ago?" frowned the doctor.
The inspector smiled. "Because it happens that two years ago all the bags had been taken away from this particular officer who's just died and put under seal. No one had any access to them since. So, they know they were tampered with when he held them."
"Very bad management, I should say," nodded the doctor. "Do you know if the bank lost much?"
"No, only two hundred sovereigns. Those were all which had been taken."
The doctor's mind functioned slowly. Then he asked sharply, and with rising excitement, "Are you sure it was only two hundred? Not any more?"
"No, no more, sir. They're all we've got to enquire about over here to find out, as I say, if that officer passed them over to some South Australian confederate to get rid of." He shrugged his shoulders contemptuously. "And a lot of chance we've got after all these months."
The inspector took his leave, and Dr. Wilkie lost no time in getting away. He saw a way out of everything and how, whatever happened now, he could place himself in a position of no danger at all.
Still for all that, he was to learn within an hour that he had had one of the narrowest escapes possible, and that it had been by only a matter of minutes that he had managed to save himself.
He had been back home less than half an hour, occupying himself feverishly in taking certain precautions in case the police ever should come to question him, when he heard a car pull up in the road, and from his study window saw two men, who were strangers to him, getting out. They looked big and hefty, exactly, he told himself with a dreadful pang, like policemen.
His heart beat furiously and he could hardly get his breath. Then, all in the flash of a second, his confidence came back and he smiled. He was sure he had the situation well in hand if only he met it boldly.
A maid knocked at the door and came in. "Two gentlemen to see you, sir," she said. "They say they're not patients and won't give their names. They say the matter is important. I've shown them into the breakfast room."
Dr. Wilkie went into them at once. "Good evening," he said pleasantly, "and what is it you want?"
One of the strangers handed him his card. "I'm Inspector Brandon," he said, "and this gentleman is Inspector Williams." His voice was grim and hard. "We've come to ask you some questions."
To their amazement the doctor looked very amused. "But you're quick, aren't you?" he asked smilingly. "Why it was only this morning that I read about it in the newspapers!" He nodded. "Of course, you've come to ask me about those 200 sovereigns I sold to the Mint in Melbourne last year!"
The inspector scowled. He had certainly not expected quite so cheerful a reception. "That's it!" he nodded back quickly. "You've hit the nail on the head, right enough." He looked very stern. "Then you admit you sold them?"
"Certainly!" laughed Dr. Wilkie. "Didn't I sell them in my own name, and give my proper North terrace address?" It might have been almost a joke from the way he was taking it. "You didn't have any difficulty in finding me, did you?"
The inspector was looking rather annoyed. Evidently, he had thought he was on a soft thing, and now he was note quite so sure. He ignored the doctor's question, and, instead, asked one himself. "Where did you get the 200 sovereigns from? That's what we want to know."
The doctor was still smiling. "And I'll tell you," he replied. "An aunt of mine, the late Mrs. Stone, of Port Augusta, gave them to me. She had died about two months before I sold them."
The inspector spoke with heavy sarcasm. "Ah, and that'll clear up everything, as, of course, they were set down in the probate. She left them to you in her will!"
"No, she didn't," corrected the doctor. "She made me a present of them soon after I qualified, which was nearly six years ago. I was not to sell them until after she was dead, and I didn't do so."
It was the inspector who looked amused now. "And, of course, you will be able to produce ample evidence to prove all this?" he asked.
Dr. Wilkie shook his head. "No, not a soul was told about it." He scoffed. "Who'd want it known he's got a lot of sovereigns in the house, particularly so as I'd got no safe then?"
The two inspectors looked at each other, and then the one who'd been doing all the talking turned back to the doctor and said reprovingly, "Come, come, Dr. Wilkie, all this a little bit thin, isn't it? You don't really expect us to believe it, do you?" He raised his voice harshly. "Two hundred sovereigns were stolen from the Brisbane bank, and you are known to have been in the possession of the same number. You, now, want us to believe that your——"
"I don't want you to believe anything," retorted the doctor angrily. "I'm not interested in your beliefs in the very slightest degree."
"Those two hundred sovereigns," went on the inspector, raising his hand impressively, "were——"
"My own lawful property," broke in Dr. Wilkie hotly, "equally as are the other ones I have in my safe now. They belong definitely to me, and——"
The inspector's words came like the strike of a snake. "What other ones?" he demanded, in an angry tone. "What do you mean? Are you making out you've got any more? How many? Then show us them."
A few minutes later it was a decidedly disgusted pair of detectives who left the doctor's house. They had both seen and handled the other hundred and twenty-five sovereigns, which had been done up in a faded piece of old newspaper, dated seven years before, and which were tucked in an old work-box, from its appearance, made many years before either of them had been born. They had had to admit that their whole case had fallen down, and, rather grudgingly, had apologised to Dr. Wilkie for having entertained suspicions of his honesty. They were most annoyed that to get all the credit of the arrest for themselves they had persuaded the authorities in Melbourne to send them all this long distance upon what had turned out to be a wild-goose chase.
Poor fellows, how were they to know how badly they had been deceived? How they were to know the sovereigns had been put in that work-box only a bare ten minutes before they had arrived, and that the faded piece of old newspaper had been hurriedly snatched from the lining of a drawer in his aunt's very ancient wardrobe, reposing derelict in the lumber-room.
As they were driving away from the doctor's house, the elder inspector remarked frowningly to his colleague, "But there's no getting away from it, Thomas; that tale he told us must be true."
"I suppose so," admitted the other grudgingly. He shook his head. "Still I'd like very much to know why those blessed sovereigns smelt so strong of fresh earth. No, you needn't grin. I'm not a smoker like you and can depend upon my good old nose anywhere." He looked puzzled. "I don't understand it at all."
Dr. Wilkie never heard anything more about the stolen Brisbane sovereigns and, in a few days, the matter had ceased to trouble him and he was picking up the threads of his old carefree life again. He felt under a great debt of gratitude to Nurse Harris for her making the two Bensons known to him that morning outside the hospital. But for that encounter, the father would not have visited him later and furnished him with the information which had enabled him deal so effectively with the detectives from Melbourne. With all his gratitude to the nurse, however, he told himself he was not going to let it drift into any feeling of romance.
In the meantime Annabel had been thinking quite a lot about him, and boldly making up her mind to make him take more interest in her. So one morning she rang up his professional rooms and told his nurse she was wanting to see him about herself. She said she had got neuritis and was also bothered with insomnia.
Accordingly, the next afternoon she showed him a very nicely-moulded little arm and pointed out where she was getting the pain. He examined the arm carefully, rather annoyed, however, that the thought had entered into his mind how smooth and soft it would feel if he put it against his cheek. Still it was only in a most correct professional way that he advised her what to do, and gave her a prescription for something to make her sleep.
"And come back to me in a fortnight," he told her, "and I'll see how you've been getting on."
Annabel had no intention of getting the sleeping tablets, but that night she wished devoutly that she had. She was deeply in love with the doctor and the thinking about him kept her awake for many hours. She was very despondent, for it seemed now so evident to her there was not the slightest tender feeling on his side. With all his pleasantness towards her he was only regarding her in just the same light as all the other girls he met. He would never fall in love with her.
And then chance came to her help in a most unexpected way.
Upon the afternoon of the day before she was due to pay him the next professional visit she went down to Seacliff to take a little child of some very poor parents some vests she had knitted for him. Upon her way back to the railway station, coming to a café she thought she would go in for a quick cup of tea. As she entered she heard a car draw up outside, and her heart began bumping violently when she saw Dr. Wilkie come in after her. He caught sight of her at once, and, after the very briefest hesitation, came and sat down beside her. He ordered tea for them both, and said there was no hurry for her to catch any train, as he would drive her back to the hospital.
"And it's lucky I met you," he smiled, "for there's a big shower coming over and you'd have certainly got wet before you reached the railway station."
Then for half an hour they sat talking and, of set purpose, he drew her out about her life in England. She told him her father had been a doctor and it was his death a year previously which had determined her to come to Australia. She had now no relations in England, but believed her late father's brother was alive somewhere in Australia. She said nothing, however, about this uncle being supposed to be a very rich man. The doctor listened most interestedly and, regarding her critically, thought many times how attractive she was.
The rain held off and at last they got up to leave. They had not, however, gone very far before the sky blackened and big drops of rain began to fall. "Hullo," exclaimed the doctor, peering through the windscreen, "but it looks as if a real cloudburst were coming right over us," and, turning into a small bye-road almost arched above with thick branches of trees, he pulled up in the lee of a high wall. "I think we'll stop here for a minute or two," he went on. "It'll only be a shower and will soon pass. Still, it's no good driving through a deluge of rain if one can avoid it."
It was not long before lighting-up time, and with the heavy cloud hanging over, everything became very dark. The rain began to pour down in torrents, and even in part sheltered as they were, it crashed thunderously upon the roof of the car. The air became bitterly cold and Annabel shivered. Dr. Wilkie smiled round at her. "Feeling cold?" he asked. "And so am I." He leant over to the back of the car and pulled up a rug. "It's not a very big one," he called out above the noise of the rain, "but it'll be large enough for us both if you come a bit closer to me. That's it," and he reached out and pulled her near to him.
Annabel shivered, but, it was no longer from cold. "Not feeling warm yet?" laughed the doctor. "Then come nearer still. Don't be afraid," and this time he drew her very close to him. Then what was more natural than that he should look down to see if she were quite comfortable, what was more natural still, when realising the closeness of her face to his, that he should kiss her? Her lips were soft and moist and he thought it quite a nice kiss. Then, to adopt the phraseology of the profession, he took another dose of the same medicine, finding it this time even more to his liking, as the kiss was now returned. A third kiss was exchanged and then, to his horror he realised what he had done.
His regret was instantaneous and profound, but—and he was always most thankful for it afterwards— he did not let Annabel see it. He disengaged himself gently from her, and, bending his head down, peered intently through the windscreen. All his interest now was, apparently, to see how the storm was going. He was trying to act now so that the girl beside him should think his kissing had been just a casual and careless happening, with no real significance. Externally he was quite calm, but inwardly he was furious with himself. Although he admired Annabel, he was not a scrap in love with her, and it simply horrified him to think he might have led her to admit she had some deeper feelings for him. It was a really dreadful thing for him to have done.
An awkward silence followed, and then, the storm beginning to die down, he said briskly, "Well, I think we'd better be getting on. I've got an appointment in North Enfield at six."
They talked very little during the rest of the journey, both being busy with their own thoughts. Annabel could not rightly analyse hers, being thrilled and dejected at the same time. A hopeful tremor went through her when, in parting, the doctor remarked with a smile that he would be seeing her again on the morrow when she came to him about her arm. Later, when he was putting his car back in the garage, he noticed she had left her purse on the seat. Hesitating a moment, for he was wondering if it were important enough for him to ring her up, and that he most certainly did not want to do and let everybody learn she had been with him in his car, he opened it. It contained the return half of her railway ticket and just over three shillings in money.
"Poor little thing," he frowned, "and perhaps that's all she's got until next pay-day when, as a probationer, she'll only be getting a few shillings a week!" He sighed. "And there's just the chance that this car, as well as almost everything else I've got, by rights belongs to her. Really, it's not nice knowing oneself to be a sort of thief and meeting the very person one, perhaps, has robbed!"
That night his thoughts kept him awake until well into the small hours, and his conscience told him that the very least he could do was to marry Nurse Harris. Then, as he remembered how pretty she had looked when he was bending down over her in the car, he knew that if only he were a marrying man it would be no hardship. She was certainly the prettiest girl he had come across, and, if he were any judge of character, one of the very nicest ones, too. He feel asleep at last and dreamed he was being put in prison. It was a truly dreadful dream, and he woke up bathed in perspiration.
Many times during the next morning he considered how he would meet Annabel when she came to him that afternoon but, in the end, could come to no conclusion. One moment, he was relieved to think his own nurse would be hovering about, and the next he was annoyed that she would be.
Then chance took a hand in the game again and played a strong card in Annabel's favor. At half-past four Dr. Wilkie's nurse came in to him, looking rather flustered. "Oh, doctor," she exclaimed, "I wonder if you would mind if I went off now. I've just had a message that my sister's been taken ill, and I want to go to her as soon as I can. There are only two more patients to come. Nurse Harris at five, and Mrs. Mornington at a quarter past."
Of course he let her go. Then, when Annabel duly arrived at five, she was kept waiting and the patient who had come after her taken in, first. She trembled when at length the doctor himself came to usher her into the consulting room.
His manner was quiet and very professional. He examined the arm gravely and pronounced it all right. Then he leant back to his chair and regarded her critically. "And so, Nurse Harris," he said, "for the time, at all events, I've finished with you as a patient." His face broke into a pleasant smile. "And now I'm going to speak to you as a friend." He raised his hand warningly. "But, first, can I depend upon you to give a message to matron when you get back?"
Poor little Annabel's heart was all of a flutter. His words were very ordinary, but somehow she sensed something behind them, and she noticed his hand was shaking. She steadied her voice with an effort. "Of course, you can," she laughed. "As a nurse, am I not being trained not to forget anything? What's the message?"
He moved his chair a little closer to her and she felt her legs shaking under her. "You're to tell her," he said slowly, "that you'll be leaving the hospital very shortly, as soon as its convenient for her."
Annabel reddened furiously. There was no misunderstanding what he meant, but, with all the thrill of happiness which stirred in her, came also the woman instinct not to surrender herself without some sort of struggle. She rose to her feet to get farther from him and with a little bow, asked mockingly, "And am I to take that, please sir, as an offer of marriage?" She smiled archly. "Because, if so, I shall require time to think it over, and get advice from my friends. I shall have to enquire also, into your charac——," but that was as far as she got before he had taken her in his arms, and for quite a long minute, made speech impossible.
There was surely no happier or more triumphant young woman in all the world than was Nurse Harris when she went to give her message to matron that night. "I've come to tell you," she said very demurely, "that I shall be leaving you very shortly, whenever it is convenient for you after a fortnight from now."
The matron's face fell. "Oh, I'm sorry, nurse," she said. "I'm quite pleased with you, and thought you were getting on so nicely. Why do you want to leave?"
Annabel blushed. "I'm going to be married, matron, as soon as I can get away."
"Oh, and pray to whom?" smiled the matron. ''Who's the fortunate man?"
"Dr. Wilkie," replied Annabel. She looked shy and cast down her eyes. "We became engaged this afternoon."
The matron gasped, "Oh, you sly little puss!" Her face beamed. "And this has been going on under our own eyes, and yet I'm sure none of us have noticed it. I congratulate you, dear. Your doctor's a very nice man."
In about ten minutes everybody in the hospital had heard of the engagement, in a quarter of an hour it was beginning to filter round outside, and long before midnight it had been discussed at scores of bridge tables in society circles.
They were married within the month and went to the Blue Mountains for their honeymoon. If the doctor had not been in love with his wife when he took her away, that was certainly not the case when he returned home with her. All the honeymoon long he had been wanting to kick himself for having dared to imagine there was going to be any sacrifice on his part in marrying her. Over and over again, he told himself he was one of the most fortunate of men, and that, surely, never had there been a sweeter or prettier girl for a wife.
After six months of marriage, too, his general view of matrimony can be best realised by his telling Annabel one morning that the happiest moment for him of all the day was when he came home at night and saw her waiting for him in the hall.
The months passed on and then came one of the most astonishing happenings to the chain of events following upon the coming of the man with the belt to Dr. Wilkie upon that fateful night.
It was getting on towards Melbourne Cup time, and one day the doctor said to his wife, "Look here, sweetheart, what about us going to see the Cup run? That'll be your last outing for a long time, and then you'll have to begin to take things easier."
Annabel was delighted and so the great day found them upon the historic racecourse. They lost their money on the Cup, but in the race following Annabel saw there was a horse of the unusual name of "Pride of Yare" down to run.
"Oh, do let's back him, dear!" she exclaimed excitedly. "The Yare is the name of the river which runs round my home to dear old England. I've often swum in it as a girl."
So they each invested a pound and, with no one seeming to think the horse stood much chance, the bookmaker gave them twenty to one.
To their great delight the horse won easily, and it was a thrilling moment for Annabel when she saw her husband collect £42. Later, passing the stall where "Pride of Yare" was standing to have his aluminium running shoes taken off, they saw a good-looking, well-dressed man of about fifty talking smilingly to the "boy" who was holding the horse's head. "That's the owner, of course," said the doctor, and, looking down at their race-card, he saw that his name was Montague.
That night after dinner, in the lounge of their hotel, they saw the same man again, standing talking to some friends. "Oh, doesn't he look pleased!" exclaimed Annabel. "I suppose he won a lot of money."
A waiter at that moment came up to bring them their coffee, and the doctor asked casually. "Does that Mr. Montague over there own many horses, do you know?"
The waiter looked in the direction he indicated. "Oh, yes, sir, quite a number! He won the Caulfield Cup the other day with Yarmouth, and, they say, got a fortune out of it, too." He smiled. "Of course, his real name is not Montague. In private life he's Mr. John Harris. He owns Wongalla, one of the biggest sheep stations in New South Wales."
The waiter moved off, and Annabel exclaimed faintly, "Oh, Derek, Yare and Yarmouth, both Norfolk names, and a John Harris was my father's brother! I do believe he's my uncle!"
Dr. Wilkie frowned. He was inclined to be cautious. "Is he like your father to look at?" he asked sharply.
Annabel looked troubled. "N-o, he's not," she replied hesitatingly. "He's fair, and father was dark. He's much bigger, too, than poor father was. Still——"
But the object of their conversation at that moment left the men he had been talking to and moved up the lounge to pass quite close to where they were sitting. In passing, as most men did the doctor had noticed with pride, he glanced interestedly at Annabel and then, with a quick look from her to her husband. Then he moved on across the lounge and went and sat down by himself.
"By Jove!" exclaimed Dr. Wilkie excitedly. "Did you see his eyes?" he could hardly get his breath. "They are the same forget-me-not color as yours." He jumped to his feet. "You stay there and I'll go and give him the surprise of his life."
He walked briskly across the lounge and addressed the good-looking man sitting down. "Excuse me, sir," he said, "but does it happen you come from Norwich, in England?"
"I do," nodded the man, looking rather puzzled.
"And did you have a brother, a doctor, whose names were Edward Harris, and who practised in Norwich?"
"I did," was the reply.
Dr. Wilkie laughed happily. "Then come along, sir, and I'll introduce you to your niece, my wife."
For just a moment Mr. Harris appeared to hesitate, and then he rose up and followed the doctor. When he came up to Annabel he took a long look at her and then his face broke into an expression of great delight. "Yes, you're the little Annabel I've heard about," he exclaimed joyfully. "You're the very spit of your mother, the Isabel Bevan I knew thirty years ago, although, like me, you've got my dear mother's forget-me-not colored eyes. Now, how on earth did you find me out? Tell me all about it. I'm a lonely old bachelor and just thrilled to meet one of my own flesh and blood."
A few days later, they all returned to Adelaide together, and the next morning it appeared in the social columns of "The Advertiser" that Mr. John Harris, of Wongalla Station, New South Wales, and the owner of the Caulfield Cup winner, was staying with his niece, Mrs. Derek Wilkie.
A great flutter was caused in society circles, and those important dames who had been inclined to cold-shoulder Mrs. Dr. Wilkie because in her maiden days she had been only a nurse at the Children's Hospital, now tumbled over one another to be quickest on her doorstep. No one was told how Annabel had come to find her uncle, and it was believed she had known about him all along. It was generally conceded that the doctor had been a very clever fellow to have annexed so quietly such a rich prize as the heiress of John Harris for his wife.
When Mr. Harris was bidding them good-bye to return to New South Wales, he gave Annabel a sealed envelope. "A little present between you both," he said, "but you're not to open it until I have gone.
The envelope contained a cheque for £10,000.
A few days later, the treasurer of the Children's Hospital received an anonymous donation, all in bank notes, and the exact sum they amounted to was two thousand, one hundred and five pounds.
At last Dr. Wilkie thought he was purged of his offence, and his opinion was that he had got off very lightly. His conscience was now at rest.