Chapter XIV. The Black Doctor
 

My mail, neatly readdressed by Coates, was awaiting me when I returned to the Abbey Inn. The postal deliveries in Upper Crossleys were eccentric and unreliable, but having glanced through the cuttings enclosed, I partook of a hasty lunch and sat down to the task of preparing a column for the Planet which should not deflect public interest from the known central figures in the tragedy but which at the same time should hint at new developments.

Many times in the intervals of writing I glanced through my open window across the valley to where the upstanding wing of Friar's Park jutted above the trees. Strange and terrible ideas flocked to my mind--ideas which must be carefully excluded from the Planet article. But at last the manuscript was completed and I determined to walk into the neighboring town, some miles distant, to post it and at the same time to despatch a code telegram to Inspector Gatton. The long walk did me good, helping me to clear my mind of morbid vapors; therefore, my business finished, and immune from suspicion in my character of a London pedestrian, I set out to obtain that vital information which I lacked.

A natural taciturnity rendered mine host of the Abbey Inn a difficult subject for interrogation. Moreover that patriarchal outlook which had been evidenced in his attitude towards the uncouth Edward Hines clearly enough deterred him from imparting to me any facts detrimental to the good name of Upper Crossleys. But on the highroad and just before entering the outskirts of the little country town, I had observed an inn which had seemed to be well patronized by the local folks, and since your typical country tap-room is a clearing-house for the gossip of the neighborhood, to "The Threshers" I made my way.

The doors had only just been opened; nevertheless as I set my foot upon the step I met the very gossip that I sought.

"Hope you wasn't caught in the shower, this morning, sir?" said an old man seated solitary in an armchair in the corner of the bar-parlor. "But the country'll be all the better for the rain." He eyed me, and: "There's many a fine walk hereabouts," he averred. "There's lots conies down from London, especially of a Sunday."

"No doubt," said I encouragingly, stepping up to the counter.

"There's Manton-on-the-Hill," continued the ancient. "You can see the sea from there in clear weather; and many's the time in the war I've heard the guns in France from Upper Crowbury of a still night. Then, four mile away, there's the old Friar's Park; though nobody's allowed past the gate. Not as nobody wants to be," he added reflectively.

"How is that? I understood that Friar's Park was of great interest."

"Oh, ah!" murmured my acquaintance. "Oh, ah! Maybe you was thinkin' of lookin' over it like?"

"I was--yes."

"Oh, ah! Well--there's some likes a bit o' danger."

"Danger?" I echoed. "To what danger do you refer?"

He surveyed me with cunning, old rheumy eyes, and:

"What about man-traps?" he inquired. "Ain't man-traps dangerous? And what about shot-guns? Shot-guns can make a party feel sick, can't they? Oh, ah!"

"But," I exclaimed, "you surely don't mean that there are traps laid in the grounds of the Park? It isn't legal. And why should any one shoot at visitors?"

"Maybe 'cause they're told to," he shouted. "Aye--that's the reason as like as not; 'cause they're told to."

"Who are 'they'?"

"Old Gipsy Hawkins as used to be Sir Burnham's under-keeper. What's he doin' of up there at Park all day? Layin' traps and such--that's what he's doin' of. My son Jim knows it, he do. My son Jim found one of 'em--and left best part of a pair of trousers in it, too!"

These statements if true would seem to cast an unpleasant sidelight upon the character of my acquaintance of the Abbey Inn. I wondered if the "Jim" referred to was that "young Jim Corder" whose name seemed to be a standing joke with the man Hawkins (I learned later that it was so). And I wondered if Martin's mysterious references to certain patrons, whose patronage had damaged his business, might not have referred to the game-keeper. Moreover I now put a new construction upon Hawkins' sly amusement when I had inquired about the "shooting" in the neighborhood.

I began to grow keenly interested, and:

"Surely you took some steps in the matter?" I asked.

"Oh, ah. My son Jim did. He lay for days for that there Gipsy Hawkins--but Hawkins was too wise for him."

"But," said I, "you could legally have claimed damages."

"Maybe," was the reply; "but I reckon they'd have asked what my son Jim was doing in the Park. Oh, ah, I reckon they would."

This point of view had not hitherto presented itself to me, but that it was a just one I did not doubt.

"What is the object of all this?" I asked. "Does Lady Coverly object to any one entering the grounds?"

"'Tain't Lady Coverly," confided the old man; "it's that there black doctor."

"What black doctor?" I exclaimed.

"Him they call Doctor Greefe."

"Oh," said I, "you call him the black doctor. Is he a negro?"

"He's black," was the reply, "black he is although his hair is white. Oh, ah, there's black blood in him all right."

"And what has he to do with the man-traps in the Park?"

"Has 'em put there--has 'em put there, he does;"

"But what for? Surely the property belongs not to Dr. Greefe but to Lady Coverly."

"Belongs to her! Her own soul don't belong to her!"

I was conscious of a growing excitement. I thought that I was about to learn the very fact which I was seeking, and accordingly:

"What is the age of Lady Burnham Coverly?" I asked.

"Lady Burnham? Well, let me see; she were not more'n about twenty-five, I reckon, when Sir Burnham first brought her to the Park. Them was the days, them was. These parts 'as changed cruel since I was a young man. Then it was soon after as Sir Burnham went off to Egypt for government, and eleven years afore he come back again."

"Did Lady Burnham accompany him to Egypt?" I asked, interestedly.

"Oh, ah, for sure she did. Poor Mr. Roger was born in Egypt. It was eight years come October they returned home to Park, and six years come September poor young Mr. Roger died."

"Then Lady Coverly must be something over forty years of age," said I musingly.

One of my theories, a wild one, I must confess, was shattered by this piece of information. In short I had conceived the idea (and the news that Lady Coverly had resided for some years in Egypt had strengthened it) that the woman in the case was none other than the mistress of Friar's Park! Her antipathy towards the late baronet had seemed to suggest a motive for the crime. But it was impossible to reconcile the figure of this lonely and bereaved woman with that of the supernormally agile visitant to my cottage in London, in short, with the possessor of those dreadful green eyes. I determined to try a new tack, and remembering that the real object of my journey to Upper Crossleys was to learn particulars respecting the early death of Roger Coverly:

"Did Mr. Roger Coverly die in England?" I inquired.

"Oh, no, sir; he died in foreign parts, but they brought him home to bury him, they did."

"Do you know of what he died?"

"Oh, ah. I have heard tell it was some foreign fever like--took him off sudden, and him only a lad. It killed poor Sir Burnham, it did."

"Then Sir Burnham died shortly afterwards?"

"Two years afterwards, and these parts has never been the same since."

"But what has Dr. Greefe to do with all this?"

"Ah, now you're asking. Seven years ago he settled here in the big house up by the Park; part of the Park estate it is; and there he's been ever since, him and his black servant."

"Black servant!" I exclaimed.

"Oh, ah, real black he is--not half-and-half like his master, but as black as a lump o' coal, an' ugly--oh, ah, he's ugly right enough. Goes up to the Abbey Inn of a night he do, him and that there Gipsy Hawkins, the prettiest pair o' rascals in Upper Crossleys. Drove all the decent folk away from the place, and Martin keeps the best beer about here, too. If I was Martin," continued the ancient, truculently, "I'd know what to say to them two, I would; aye, and what to do to 'em," he added with great ferocity.

"Oh," said I; for this unexpected clearing up of so many minor mysteries had rather taken me aback. "Then Dr. Greefe is not popular?"

"Popular!" echoed the old man.

He drained his tankard and set it down on the table with a bang.

"He's been the ruin o' these parts, he has. He's worse than the turnip-fly."

"But in what way is he responsible for these evils of which you complain?"

The old man peered into his empty mug with a glance of such eloquence that I could not mistake its import. Accordingly, I caused it to be refilled, thus preventing any check in the flow of his eloquence, and:

"In what way?" he asked, his voice raised in a high quavering note. He laughed, and his laughter was pitched in the same time-worn key. "That doctor is a blot on the country. When Sir Burnham was alive--and afore he went to Egypt--it was different; although, mind you, it's my belief--oh, ah, it is indeed--that him coming here had as much to do with Sir Burnham's death as the loss of his son what I told you about. That's my belief."

I took a sip from my replenished mug, and:

"I cannot understand," I said, "why the presence of Dr. Greefe should have brought about the death of Sir Burnham or the death of anybody else."

"No," said the old man, cunningly; "you can't, eh? Well, there be things none of us can understand and things some of us can. If you ever clap eyes on that there black doctor, like enough this'll be one of the things you'll be able to understand."

With the idea of drawing yet more intimate confidences:

"You suggest that Dr. Greefe had some hold upon the late Sir Burnham?"

"I don't suggest nothing."

"Some hold upon Lady Burnham, then?"

"Oh, ah, like enough."

"Don't think," I added solicitously, "that I doubt the truth of your statements in any way, but what could this black doctor, as you call him, have to gain by persecuting these people?"

"There be things," replied my aged friend, "what none of us can understand, but there be things that all of us do. Oh, ah, there be; and all of us in these parts knows as Upper Crossleys ain't been the same since that black doctor settled here. Besides, first Mr. Roger went, then Sir Burnham went. Now I do read in this 'ere paper as another of 'em is gone."

He held up two gnarled and twitching fingers crossed before him.

"Did you ever hear tell of the evil eye?" he asked, and peered at me cunningly. He took a long drink from his mug. "But maybe you'll laugh at that" he added.

"I am in no way disposed to laugh at anything you have told me," I assured him; "and as to the evil eye, I have certainly heard of such a thing, although I must admit, and I am glad to admit, that I have never met with it."

"I do trust, sir," responded the ancient, "that such a kind-hearted gent may never meet with it. Ah, I do trust that you never may, which is to say, so to speak, as I do trust as you'll never meet that black doctor. If ever a man, had the evil eye, that black doctor's got it, and old Mother Shale what lives in the cottage on the heath down against the windmill, she warned me, she did, three days after he come here. 'Mr. Corder,' she says, 'that black doctor has the evil eye!' And never was a truer word spoke. He's been the bane and blight of this 'ere place, he has."

He paused from sheer lack of breath, and having allowed him some little interval of repose:

"But what has the evil eye to do with the laying of man-traps and the shooting of visitors who may chance to cross the estate?" I inquired.

"Ah, that's it! But the evil eye, I'm told, goes with the evil heart, and that man's heart's as black as his face. Blacker," he added, on second thoughts.

"Yet you have no positive evidence that Dr. Greefe is responsible for the setting of these man-traps and the attitude of Hawkins?"

"Nobody has," declared my acquaintance earnestly. "If anybody had, we'd have had the law on him long ago."

"And is Lady Burnham often seen about?" I inquired.

"Never!" was the reply. "She ain't passed the gates of the Park this twelve months and more."

He looked about him covertly, and:

"It's my belief," he affirmed, lowering his quavering voice almost to a whisper, "that she'll never pass them gates again alive."

"Oh," said I. "This seems to be a very cheerful neighborhood. Yet in spite of your wishes on my behalf, I must confess I should like a glimpse of this black doctor. Does he practice about here?"

"Practice? Is it likely?"

"Then he has private means?"

"His house belongs to the estate," was the reply; "and you can't tell me he ever pays any rent. As to his means I don't know nothing about that."

I gathered little more of interest from my acquaintance of "The Threshers," but indeed I had gathered enough, and as I wended my way back to the Abbey Inn, I was turning over in my mind the extraordinary story that he had related to me concerning Dr. Damar Greefe.

Clearly the man lived the life of a pariah and I knew not whether to pity him or otherwise. In an ignorant community it is a dreadful thing to earn such a reputation as that which evidently attached to the Eurasian doctor; and this talk of the evil eye took me back automatically to the early days of this quaint spot, where, cut off from the larger things of life, the simple folk continued to hold the same beliefs which had stirred their forefathers. In those remote times when the white brethren from the neighboring Abbey had held absolute sway in that country-side, the life history of one accused, as Dr. Damar Greefe was now accused, of possessing the evil eye, would very probably have terminated upon a pile of faggots, by order of Mother Church. It was all very strange, and apart from its importance in the eyes of the ignorant country folk, seemed to contain a nucleus of something more germane to the object of my mission than the imaginings of ancient sorcery which still lingered in the minds of the people of Upper Crossleys.

I thought how I had looked out of my window and had found in the moon-bathed landscape something which had translated my ideas to that strange picture of Wiertz. Then I had known nothing of this nebula of witchcraft which, according to popular tradition, rested upon the vicinity; yet I had pictured the night as "a curtain 'broidered with luminous eyes"--and I could only suppose that my mind had become impressed by a picture conjured up by this focusing of local thought. In short, the people of the neighborhood had created this atmosphere of desolation and of something more sinister, which I had observed in the very hour of my arrival at the little village.

So my thoughts ran as I proceeded back to the Abbey Inn; and as I had collected much new and valuable information, I determined to embody it in a long report to Gatton. Furthermore, I was doubtful as to my next step, the bold move which I made later not having yet presented itself to my mind.

Twice during the evening, however, I looked into the bar-parlor, but neither "Gipsy" Hawkins nor the black servant appeared. But when at last I turned in, I closed my windows and drew the curtains. I desired no repetition of the dreams which had made hideous my first night at the Abbey Inn.