The Autobiography of a Quack


Just as I was at my worst and in despair something always turned up, but it was sure to be risky; and now my aunt refused to see me, and Peninnah wrote me goody-goody letters, and said Aunt Rachel had been unable to find certain bank-notes she had hidden, and vowed I had taken them.This Peninnah did not think possible.I agreed with her.The notes were found somewhat later by Peninnah in the toes of a pair of my aunt's old slippers.Of course I wrote an indignant letter.My aunt declared that Peninnah had stolen the notes, and restored them when they were missed.Poor Peninnah!

This did not seem to me very likely, but Peninnah did love fine clothes.

One night, as I was debating with myself as to how I was to improve my position, Iheard a knock on my shutter, and, going to the door, let in a broad-shouldered man with a whisky face and a great hooked nose.He wore a heavy black beard and mustache, and looked like the wolf in the pictures of Red Riding-hood which I had seen as a child.

``Your name's Sanderaft?'' said the man.

``Yes; that's my name--Dr.Sanderaft.''

As he sat down he shook the snow over everything, and said coolly: ``Set down, doc;I want to talk with you.''

``What can I do for you?'' said I.

The man looked around the room rather scornfully, at the same time throwing back his coat and displaying a red neckerchief and a huge garnet pin.``Guess you're not overly rich,'' he said.

``Not especially,'' said I.``What's that your business?''

He did not answer, but merely said, ``Know Simon Stagers?''

``Can't say I do,'' said I, cautiously.Simon was a burglar who had blown off two fingers when mining a safe.I had attended him while he was hiding.

``Can't say you do.Well, you can lie, and no mistake.Come, now, doc.Simon says you're safe, and I want to have a leetle plain talk with you.''

With this he laid ten gold eagles on the table.I put out my hand instinctively.

``Let 'em alone,'' cried the man, sharply.

``They're easy earned, and ten more like 'em.''

``For doing what?'' I said.

The man paused a moment, and looked around him; next he stared at me, and loosened his cravat with a hasty pull.``You're the coroner,'' said he.

``I! What do you mean?''

``Yes, you're the coroner; don't you understand?'' and so saying, he shoved the gold pieces toward me.

``Very good,'' said I; ``we will suppose I'm the coroner.What next?''

``And being the coroner,'' said he, ``you get this note, which requests you to call at No.9Blank street to examine the body of a young man which is supposed--only supposed, you see--to have--well, to have died under suspicious circumstances.''

``Go on,'' said I.

``No,'' he returned; ``not till I know how you like it.Stagers and another knows it;and it wouldn't be very safe for you to split, besides not making nothing out of it.But what I say is this, Do you like the business of coroner?''

I did not like it; but just then two hundred in gold was life to me, so I said: ``Let me hear the whole of it first.I am safe.''

``That's square enough,'' said the man.

``My wife's got''--correcting himself with a shivery shrug--``my wife had a brother that took to cutting up rough because when I'd been up too late I handled her a leetle hard now and again.

``Luckily he fell sick with typhoid just then--you see, he lived with us.When he got better I guessed he'd drop all that; but somehow he was worse than ever--clean off his head, and strong as an ox.My wife said to put him away in an asylum.I didn't think that would do.At last he tried to get out.He was going to see the police about--well--the thing was awful serious, and my wife carrying on like mad, and wanting doctors.I had no mind to run, and something had got to be done.So Simon Stagers and I talked it over.The end of it was, he took worse of a sudden, and got so he didn't know nothing.Then I rushed for a doctor.He said it was a perforation, and there ought to have been a doctor when he was first took sick.

``Well, the man died, and as I kept about the house, my wife had no chance to talk.

The doctor fussed a bit, but at last he gave a certificate.I thought we were done with it.

But my wife she writes a note and gives it to a boy in the alley to put in the post.We suspicioned her, and Stagers was on the watch.After the boy got away a bit, Simon bribed him with a quarter to give him the note, which wasn't no less than a request to the coroner to come to the house to-morrow and make an examination, as foul play was suspected--and poison.''

When the man quit talking he glared at me.I sat still.I was cold all over.I was afraid to go on, and afraid to go back, besides which, I did not doubt that there was a good deal of money in the case.

``Of course,'' said I, ``it's nonsense; only I suppose you don't want the officers about, and a fuss, and that sort of thing.''

``Exactly,'' said my friend.``It's all bosh about poison.You're the coroner.You take this note and come to my house.Says you: `Mrs.File, are you the woman that wrote this note? Because in that case I must examine the body.' ''

``I see,'' said I; ``she needn't know who Iam, or anything else; but if I tell her it's all right, do you think she won't want to know why there isn't a jury, and so on?''

``Bless you,'' said the man, ``the girl isn't over seventeen, and doesn't know no more than a baby.As we live up-town miles away, she won't know anything about you.''

``I'll do it,'' said I, suddenly, for, as I saw, it involved no sort of risk; ``but I must have three hundred dollars.''

``And fifty,'' added the wolf, ``if you do it well.''

Then I knew it was serious.

With this the man buttoned about him a shaggy gray overcoat, and took his leave without a single word in addition.

A minute later he came back and said:

``Stagers is in this business, and I was to remind you of Lou Wilson,--I forgot that,--the woman that died last year.That's all.''

Then he went away, leaving me in a cold sweat.I knew now I had no choice.Iunderstood why I had been selected.

Henry James