I AM CALLED IN
I remember the fog was particularly thick that February morning.
Pressing its formless face to the steamy window panes, gray and dreary as a specter, it crept down the chimney, dripping and hissing onto the smoking logs.
Drip. Hiss. Drip. Hiss.
An otherwise unremarkable start to the day that was to change my life forever.
Bird, my servant, an ex-sergeant of Marines, was spinning some lengthy and involved yarn about his exploits at Ladysmith while I attempted to read my magazine and finish my breakfast before the business of the day began.
“Those were weary hours. Lying on that hill while the bullets hailed down on us. I can still hear ’em cutting through the air and clacking on the rocks. You couldn’t hear yourself think…”
“One can only imagine,” I murmured.
My name is Armiston. I’m a physician living and working in the West End. This sounds grander than the reality which is a little flat over a grocer’s shop in a small side-street off Piccadilly. My patients are principally the servants (and principally the men-servants—butlers, coachmen, and such) from the big houses and clubs.
“Nine hours we clung to that pile of stones. Cartridges dwindling and men dying. I can tell you hope was fading…”
“I feel as though I’m there beside you.” I turned the page of the paper, studying the dubious claims in the advertisement for Madam Harper’s hair tonic.
In the street below, a couple of news-boys began yelling about exciting information exclusive to the special edition of the Daily Tale. I knew nothing would satisfy Bird till he got a copy. So I sent him out.
Drip. Hiss. Drip. Hiss.
Presently the outer door was flung open, and a man’s voice demanded whether the doctor was in.
“Second door right-hand side of lobby,” I shouted, and the man was in before I could swallow another mouthful.
He was a handsome, well-dressed young fellow, though noticeably lame. He leaned heavily upon an ebony walking stick—I observed he wore no gloves—and his face was bloodless and strained with pain and shock.
I rose at once, ready to go to his aid, but his words stopped me.
“Sorry to come in on you like this,” he said, “but there’s been a sudden death in the Albany—a man I know—and I—we—need you to come round at once.”
His eyes, dark now with emotion, appeared to be gray in color. His hair was black. He was perhaps thirty.
“I see.” I left the paper-knife to mark my place in the magazine. “Are you quite sure he’s dead?”
“I’m afraid there’s no doubt about it.”
“Poor fellow,” I said, and sat down again. “If he’s dead, I may as well finish my breakfast.”
The young man stared as though he could not believe his ears.
I took another mouthful of kippers.
“You damned cold-blooded c-cormorant,” he said very angrily. “Will you come or won’t you?”
I studied him for a moment. Too thin, nervy, and young. Younger than I had first thought. Pain and illness had taken their toll.
“Not unless you want me,” I assured him, “but I’m ready if you are—and it seems you are.” I took one final bite, rising and turning into the lobby for a hat, munching the last of my breakfast as I followed my visitor out.
I didn’t mind his remarks, for though my attitude was both logical and practical, his sentiment was natural enough. I observed his awkward gait as he preceded me down the stairs. He managed to move quickly, which must have hurt considerably.
Instinctively I patted my hip-pocket, to make sure that my hypodermic case was there. It is an old servant, and reminds me of a good many odd things if I sit down to overhaul it. But the queerest had not happened when I felt its comfortable presence that raw February morning.
A taxicab waited at the street door, noxious fumes pooling into the damp fog. We piled inside and the cab pulled away at once.
Maxwell, as he told me his name was, said that he and another man had gone round to breakfast at the Albany, and had found their host lying lifeless on the ground.
“Poor Scrymgeour’s man Seymour knew you,” he said. “He gave me your address.”
The name Scrymgeour was unfamiliar to me, and I could think of no patient named Seymour. I had a number of questions—beginning with why Scrymgeour’s own physician had not been summoned—but it seemed futile to quiz Maxwell when I was about to see for myself.
My companion did not appear to be a talkative man. His profile was grim and withdrawn as he stared at the cab window. The hand clutching his walking stick clenched and unclenched in unconscious anxiety.
In a few minutes we reached the Albany. Maxwell paid the driver, and we hurried inside.
All was quiet. There was no sign of life. And by the same token, no indication that a death had occurred. The gas lamps made a valiant effort to challenge the chilly gloom of the day, but the soft light could not dispel the shadows lurking in the corners.
A long mirror at the end of the hall caught our reflection and for an instant created the unsettling illusion that our doppelgangers rushed to intercept us. I saw myself, a large man, neither old nor young, with a high nose, stern green eyes, and resolute jaw. The man behind me was shorter, slighter, and a great deal more alarmed. My companion and I merged briefly with our alternate selves and flashed past.
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