R. Austin Freeman.

The Mystery of 31 New Inn online

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Author of "The Red Thumb Mark,"
"The Eye of Osiris," etc.




Commenting upon one of my earlier novels, in respect of which I had
claimed to have been careful to adhere to common probabilities and to
have made use only of really practicable methods of investigation, a
critic remarked that this was of no consequence whatever, so long as the
story was amusing.

Few people, I imagine, will agree with him. To most readers, and
certainly to the kind of reader for whom an author is willing to take
trouble, complete realism in respect of incidents and methods is an
essential factor in maintaining the interest of a detective story. Hence
it may be worth while to mention that Thorndyke's method of producing
the track chart, described in Chapters II and III, has been actually
used in practice. It is a modification of one devised by me many years
ago when I was crossing Ashanti to the city of Bontuku, the whereabouts
of which in the far interior was then only vaguely known. My
instructions were to fix the positions of all towns, villages, rivers
and mountains as accurately as possible; but finding ordinary methods of
surveying impracticable in the dense forest which covers the whole
region, I adopted this simple and apparently rude method, checking the
distances whenever possible by astronomical observation.

The resulting route-map was surprisingly accurate, as shown by the
agreement of the outward and homeward tracks, It was published by the
Royal Geographical Society, and incorporated in the map of this region
compiled by the Intelligence Branch of the War Office, and it formed the
basis of the map which accompanied my volume of Travels in Ashanti and
Jaman. So that Thorndyke's plan must be taken as quite a practicable

New Inn, the background of this story, and one of the last surviving
inns of Chancery, has recently passed away after upwards of four
centuries of newness. Even now, however, a few of the old, dismantled
houses (including perhaps, the mysterious 31) may be seen from the
Strand peeping over the iron roof of the skating rink which has
displaced the picturesque hall, the pension-room and the garden. The
postern gate, too, in Houghton Street still remains, though the arch is
bricked up inside. Passing it lately, I made the rough sketch which
appears on next page, and which shows all that is left of this pleasant
old London backwater.

R. A. F.


[Illustration: New Inn]




Chapter I

The Mysterious Patient

As I look back through the years of my association with John Thorndyke,
I am able to recall a wealth of adventures and strange experiences such
as falls to the lot of very few men who pass their lives within hearing
of Big Ben. Many of these experiences I have already placed on record;
but it now occurs to me that I have hitherto left unrecorded one that
is, perhaps, the most astonishing and incredible of the whole series; an
adventure, too, that has for me the added interest that it inaugurated
my permanent association with my learned and talented friend, and marked
the close of a rather unhappy and unprosperous period of my life.

Memory, retracing the journey through the passing years to the
starting-point of those strange events, lands me in a shabby little
ground-floor room in a house near the Walworth end of Lower Kennington
Lane. A couple of framed diplomas on the wall, a card of Snellen's
test-types and a stethoscope lying on the writing-table, proclaim it a
doctor's consulting-room; and my own position in the round-backed chair
at the said table, proclaims me the practitioner in charge.

It was nearly nine o'clock. The noisy little clock on the mantelpiece
announced the fact, and, by its frantic ticking, seemed as anxious as I
to get the consultation hours over. I glanced wistfully at my
mud-splashed boots and wondered if I might yet venture to assume the
slippers that peeped coyly from under the shabby sofa. I even allowed my
thoughts to wander to the pipe that reposed in my coat pocket. Another
minute and I could turn down the surgery gas and shut the outer door.
The fussy little clock gave a sort of preliminary cough or hiccup, as if
it should say: "Ahem! ladies and gentlemen, I am about to strike." And
at that moment, the bottle-boy opened the door and, thrusting in his
head, uttered the one word: "Gentleman."

Extreme economy of words is apt to result in ambiguity. But I
understood. In Kennington Lane, the race of mere men and women appeared
to be extinct. They were all gentlemen - unless they were ladies or
children - even as the Liberian army was said to consist entirely of
generals. Sweeps, labourers, milkmen, costermongers - all were
impartially invested by the democratic bottle-boy with the rank and
title of armigeri. The present nobleman appeared to favour the
aristocratic recreation of driving a cab or job-master's carriage, and,
as he entered the room, he touched his hat, closed the door somewhat
carefully, and then, without remark, handed me a note which bore the
superscription "Dr. Stillbury."

"You understand," I said, as I prepared to open the envelope, "that I
am not Dr. Stillbury. He is away at present and I am looking after his

"It doesn't signify," the man replied. "You'll do as well."

On this, I opened the envelope and read the note, which was quite brief,
and, at first sight, in no way remarkable.

"DEAR SIR," it ran, "Would you kindly come and see a friend of mine who
is staying with me? The bearer of this will give you further particulars
and convey you to the house. Yours truly, H. WEISS."

There was no address on the paper and no date, and the writer was
unknown to me.

"This note," I said, "refers to some further particulars. What are

The messenger passed his hand over his hair with a gesture of
embarrassment. "It's a ridicklus affair," he said, with a contemptuous
laugh. "If I had been Mr. Weiss, I wouldn't have had nothing to do with
it. The sick gentleman, Mr. Graves, is one of them people what can't
abear doctors. He's been ailing now for a week or two, but nothing would
induce him to see a doctor. Mr. Weiss did everything he could to
persuade him, but it was no go. He wouldn't. However, it seems Mr. Weiss
threatened to send for a medical man on his own account, because, you
see, he was getting a bit nervous; and then Mr. Graves gave way. But
only on one condition. He said the doctor was to come from a distance
and was not to be told who he was or where he lived or anything about
him; and he made Mr. Weiss promise to keep to that condition before he'd
let him send. So Mr. Weiss promised, and, of course, he's got to keep
his word."

"But," I said, with a smile, "you've just told me his name - if his name
really is Graves."

"You can form your own opinion on that," said the coachman.

"And," I added, "as to not being told where he lives, I can see that for
myself. I'm not blind, you know."

"We'll take the risk of what you see," the man replied. "The question
is, will you take the job on?"

Yes; that was the question, and I considered it for some time before
replying. We medical men are pretty familiar with the kind of person who
"can't abear doctors," and we like to have as little to do with him as
possible. He is a thankless and unsatisfactory patient. Intercourse with
him is unpleasant, he gives a great deal of trouble and responds badly
to treatment. If this had been my own practice, I should have declined
the case off-hand. But it was not my practice. I was only a deputy. I
could not lightly refuse work which would yield a profit to my
principal, unpleasant though it might be.

As I turned the matter over in my mind, I half unconsciously scrutinized
my visitor - somewhat to his embarrassment - and I liked his appearance
as little as I liked his mission. He kept his station near the door,
where the light was dim - for the illumination was concentrated on the
table and the patient's chair - but I could see that he had a somewhat
sly, unprepossessing face and a greasy, red moustache that seemed out of
character with his rather perfunctory livery; though this was mere
prejudice. He wore a wig, too - not that there was anything discreditable
in that - and the thumb-nail of the hand that held his hat bore
disfiguring traces of some injury - which, again, though unsightly, in no
wise reflected on his moral character. Lastly, he watched me keenly with
a mixture of anxiety and sly complacency that I found distinctly
unpleasant. In a general way, he impressed me disagreeably. I did not
like the look of him at all; but nevertheless I decided to undertake the

"I suppose," I answered, at length, "it is no affair of mine who the
patient is or where he lives. But how do you propose to manage the
business? Am I to be led to the house blindfolded, like the visitor to
the bandit's cave?"

The man grinned slightly and looked very decidedly relieved.

"No, sir," he answered; "we ain't going to blindfold you. I've got a
carriage outside. I don't think you'll see much out of that."

"Very well," I rejoined, opening the door to let him out, "I'll be with
you in a minute. I suppose you can't give me any idea as to what is the
matter with the patient?"

"No, sir, I can't," he replied; and he went out to see to the carriage.

I slipped into a bag an assortment of emergency drugs and a few
diagnostic instruments, turned down the gas and passed out through the
surgery. The carriage was standing at the kerb, guarded by the coachman
and watched with deep interest by the bottle-boy. I viewed it with
mingled curiosity and disfavour. It was a kind of large brougham, such
as is used by some commercial travellers, the usual glass windows being
replaced by wooden shutters intended to conceal the piles of
sample-boxes, and the doors capable of being locked from outside with a
railway key.

As I emerged from the house, the coachman unlocked the door and held it

"How long will the journey take?" I asked, pausing with my foot on the

The coachman considered a moment or two and replied:

"It took me, I should say, nigh upon half an hour to get here."

This was pleasant hearing. A half an hour each way and a half an hour at
the patient's house. At that rate it would be half-past ten before I was
home again, and then it was quite probable that I should find some other
untimely messenger waiting on the doorstep. With a muttered anathema on
the unknown Mr. Graves and the unrestful life of a locum tenens, I
stepped into the uninviting vehicle. Instantly the coachman slammed the
door and turned the key, leaving me in total darkness.

One comfort was left to me; my pipe was in my pocket. I made shift to
load it in the dark, and, having lit it with a wax match, took the
opportunity to inspect the interior of my prison. It was a shabby
affair. The moth-eaten state of the blue cloth cushions seemed to
suggest that it had been long out of regular use; the oil-cloth
floor-covering was worn into holes; ordinary internal fittings there
were none. But the appearances suggested that the crazy vehicle had been
prepared with considerable forethought for its present use. The inside
handles of the doors had apparently been removed; the wooden shutters
were permanently fixed in their places; and a paper label, stuck on the
transom below each window, had a suspicious appearance of having been
put there to cover the painted name and address of the job-master or
livery-stable keeper who had originally owned the carriage.

These observations gave me abundant food for reflection. This Mr. Weiss
must be an excessively conscientious man if he had considered that his
promise to Mr. Graves committed him to such extraordinary precautions.
Evidently no mere following of the letter of the law was enough to
satisfy his sensitive conscience. Unless he had reasons for sharing Mr.
Graves's unreasonable desire for secrecy - for one could not suppose that
these measures of concealment had been taken by the patient himself.

The further suggestions that evolved themselves from this consideration
were a little disquieting. Whither was I being carried and for what
purpose? The idea that I was bound for some den of thieves where I
might be robbed and possibly murdered, I dismissed with a smile. Thieves
do not make elaborately concerted plans to rob poor devils like me.
Poverty has its compensations in that respect. But there were other
possibilities. Imagination backed by experience had no difficulty in
conjuring up a number of situations in which a medical man might be
called upon, with or without coercion, either to witness or actively to
participate in the commission of some unlawful act.

Reflections of this kind occupied me pretty actively if not very
agreeably during this strange journey. And the monotony was relieved,
too, by other distractions. I was, for example, greatly interested to
notice how, when one sense is in abeyance, the other senses rouse into a
compensating intensity of perception. I sat smoking my pipe in darkness
which was absolute save for the dim glow from the smouldering tobacco in
the bowl, and seemed to be cut off from all knowledge of the world
without. But yet I was not. The vibrations of the carriage, with its
hard springs and iron-tired wheels, registered accurately and plainly
the character of the roadway. The harsh rattle of granite setts, the
soft bumpiness of macadam, the smooth rumble of wood-pavement, the
jarring and swerving of crossed tram-lines; all were easily recognizable
and together sketched the general features of the neighbourhood through
which I was passing. And the sense of hearing filled in the details. Now
the hoot of a tug's whistle told of proximity to the river. A sudden
and brief hollow reverberation announced the passage under a railway
arch (which, by the way, happened several times during the journey);
and, when I heard the familiar whistle of a railway-guard followed by
the quick snorts of a skidding locomotive, I had as clear a picture of a
heavy passenger-train moving out of a station as if I had seen it in
broad daylight.

I had just finished my pipe and knocked out the ashes on the heel of my
boot, when the carriage slowed down and entered a covered way - as I
could tell by the hollow echoes. Then I distinguished the clang of heavy
wooden gates closed behind me, and a moment or two later the carriage
door was unlocked and opened. I stepped out blinking into a covered
passage paved with cobbles and apparently leading down to a mews; but it
was all in darkness, and I had no time to make any detailed
observations, as the carriage had drawn up opposite a side door which
was open and in which stood a woman holding a lighted candle.

"Is that the doctor?" she asked, speaking with a rather pronounced
German accent and shading the candle with her hand as she peered at me.

I answered in the affirmative, and she then exclaimed:

"I am glad you have come. Mr. Weiss will be so relieved. Come in,

I followed her across a dark passage into a dark room, where she set the
candle down on a chest of drawers and turned to depart. At the door,
however, she paused and looked back.

"It is not a very nice room to ask you into," she said. "We are very
untidy just now, but you must excuse us. We have had so much anxiety
about poor Mr. Graves."

"He has been ill some time, then?"

"Yes. Some little time. At intervals, you know. Sometimes better,
sometimes not so well."

As she spoke, she gradually backed out into the passage but did not go
away at once. I accordingly pursued my inquiries.

"He has not been seen by any doctor, has he?"

"No," she answered, "he has always refused to see a doctor. That has
been a great trouble to us. Mr. Weiss has been very anxious about him.
He will be so glad to hear that you have come. I had better go and tell
him. Perhaps you will kindly sit down until he is able to come to you,"
and with this she departed on her mission.

It struck me as a little odd that, considering his anxiety and the
apparent urgency of the case, Mr. Weiss should not have been waiting to
receive me. And when several minutes elapsed without his appearing, the
oddness of the circumstance impressed me still more. Having no desire,
after the journey in the carriage, to sit down, I whiled away the time
by an inspection of the room. And a very curious room it was; bare,
dirty, neglected and, apparently, unused. A faded carpet had been flung
untidily on the floor. A small, shabby table stood in the middle of the
room; and beyond this, three horsehair-covered chairs and a chest of
drawers formed the entire set of furniture. No pictures hung on the
mouldy walls, no curtains covered the shuttered windows, and the dark
drapery of cobwebs that hung from the ceiling to commemorate a long and
illustrious dynasty of spiders hinted at months of neglect and disuse.

The chest of drawers - an incongruous article of furniture for what
seemed to be a dining-room - as being the nearest and best lighted object
received most of my attention. It was a fine old chest of nearly black
mahogany, very battered and in the last stage of decay, but originally a
piece of some pretensions. Regretful of its fallen estate, I looked it
over with some interest and had just observed on its lower corner a
little label bearing the printed inscription "Lot 201" when I heard
footsteps descending the stairs. A moment later the door opened and a
shadowy figure appeared standing close by the threshold.

"Good evening, doctor," said the stranger, in a deep, quiet voice and
with a distinct, though not strong, German accent. "I must apologize for
keeping you waiting."

I acknowledged the apology somewhat stiffly and asked: "You are Mr.
Weiss, I presume?"

"Yes, I am Mr. Weiss. It is very good of you to come so far and so late
at night and to make no objection to the absurd conditions that my poor
friend has imposed."

"Not at all," I replied. "It is my business to go when and where I am
wanted, and it is not my business to inquire into the private affairs of
my patients."

"That is very true, sir," he agreed cordially, "and I am much obliged
to you for taking that very proper view of the case. I pointed that out
to my friend, but he is not a very reasonable man. He is very secretive
and rather suspicious by nature."

"So I inferred. And as to his condition; is he seriously ill?"

"Ah," said Mr. Weiss, "that is what I want you to tell me. I am very
much puzzled about him."

"But what is the nature of his illness? What does he complain of?"

"He makes very few complaints of any kind although he is obviously ill.
But the fact is that he is hardly ever more than half awake. He lies in
a kind of dreamy stupor from morning to night."

This struck me as excessively strange and by no means in agreement with
the patient's energetic refusal to see a doctor.

"But," I asked, "does he never rouse completely?"

"Oh, yes," Mr. Weiss answered quickly; "he rouses from time to time and
is then quite rational, and, as you may have gathered, rather obstinate.
That is the peculiar and puzzling feature in the case; this alternation
between a state of stupor and an almost normal and healthy condition.
But perhaps you had better see him and judge for yourself. He had a
rather severe attack just now. Follow me, please. The stairs are rather

The stairs were very dark, and I noticed that they were without any
covering of carpet, or even oil-cloth, so that our footsteps resounded
dismally as if we were in an empty house. I stumbled up after my guide,
feeling my way by the hand-rail, and on the first floor followed him
into a room similar in size to the one below and very barely furnished,
though less squalid than the other. A single candle at the farther end
threw its feeble light on a figure in the bed, leaving the rest of the
room in a dim twilight.

As Mr. Weiss tiptoed into the chamber, a woman - the one who had spoken
to me below - rose from a chair by the bedside and quietly left the room
by a second door. My conductor halted, and looking fixedly at the figure
in the bed, called out:

"Philip! Philip! Here is the doctor come to see you."

He paused for a moment or two, and, receiving no answer, said: "He seems
to be dozing as usual. Will you go and see what you can make of him?"

I stepped forward to the bedside, leaving Mr. Weiss at the end of the
room near the door by which we had entered, where he remained, slowly
and noiselessly pacing backwards and forwards in the semi-obscurity. By
the light of the candle I saw an elderly man with good features and a
refined, intelligent and even attractive face, but dreadfully emaciated,
bloodless and sallow. He lay quite motionless except for the scarcely
perceptible rise and fall of his chest; his eyes were nearly closed, his
features relaxed, and, though he was not actually asleep, he seemed to
be in a dreamy, somnolent, lethargic state, as if under the influence of
some narcotic.

I watched him for a minute or so, timing his slow breathing by my
watch, and then suddenly and sharply addressed him by name; but the only
response was a slight lifting of the eyelids, which, after a brief,
drowsy glance at me, slowly subsided to their former position.

I now proceeded to make a physical examination. First, I felt his pulse,
grasping his wrist with intentional brusqueness in the hope of rousing
him from his stupor. The beats were slow, feeble and slightly irregular,
giving clear evidence, if any were needed, of his generally lowered
vitality. I listened carefully to his heart, the sounds of which were
very distinct through the thin walls of his emaciated chest, but found
nothing abnormal beyond the feebleness and uncertainty of its action.
Then I turned my attention to his eyes, which I examined closely with
the aid of the candle and my ophthalmoscope lens, raising the lids
somewhat roughly so as to expose the whole of the irises. He submitted
without resistance to my rather ungentle handling of these sensitive
structures, and showed no signs of discomfort even when I brought the
candle-flame to within a couple of inches of his eyes.

But this extraordinary tolerance of light was easily explained by closer
examination; for the pupils were contracted to such an extreme degree
that only the very minutest point of black was visible at the centre of
the grey iris. Nor was this the only abnormal peculiarity of the sick
man's eyes. As he lay on his back, the right iris sagged down slightly
towards its centre, showing a distinctly concave surface; and, when I
contrived to produce a slight but quick movement of the eyeball, a
perceptible undulatory movement could be detected. The patient had, in
fact, what is known as a tremulous iris, a condition that is seen in
cases where the crystalline lens has been extracted for the cure of
cataract, or where it has become accidentally displaced, leaving the
iris unsupported. In the present case, the complete condition of the
iris made it clear that the ordinary extraction operation had not been
performed, nor was I able, on the closest inspection with the aid of my
lens, to find any trace of the less common "needle operation." The
inference was that the patient had suffered from the accident known as
"dislocation of the lens"; and this led to the further inference that he
was almost or completely blind in the right eye.

This conclusion was, indeed, to some extent negatived by a deep
indentation on the bridge of the nose, evidently produced by spectacles,
and by marks which I looked for and found behind the ears, corresponding
to the hooks or "curl sides" of the glasses. For those spectacles which
are fitted with curl sides to hook over the ears are usually intended to
be worn habitually, and this agreed with the indentation on the nose;
which was deeper than would have been accounted for by the merely

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Online LibraryR. Austin FreemanThe Mystery of 31 New Inn → online text (page 1 of 18)