What the Doctor Ordered
ONCE upon a time there was a young man named Watson Prior and he didn’t yearn for anything in particular. He had been sort of slowing down ever since he was six years old. From an almost hysterically excitable child he had become a normally eager and enthusiastic prep-school boy and then a rather bored honor student in college. After college, with the large quarterly income payments made him by the trustees of his father’s estate, neither interest nor necessity counseled work. There was a house on Long Island, and an apartment in town, and there were cars and girls and horses and foreign plages and mixed drinks and everything on earth to entertain him. But after five years of it he had no more zest for life than a squash.
So he went to see a doctor. The doctor punched and poked and pried and peered, and then he had Mr. Prior put his shirt on and took him into the front office and told him there was nothing the matter. ‘Nothing, that is,’ he said, ‘except that you’ve got the mind of a man of eighty in the body of a man of twentyfive.’ ‘Oh,’ said Mr. Prior without much interest. ‘Well, what should I do?’ ‘If you had a little romance in your system — ‘ said the doctor. ‘ Romance! ‘ said Mr. Prior. ‘Pshaw!’ ‘Quite so,’ said the doctor. ‘Well, you’re away behind the times. We used to get a lot of cases like yours thirty years ago. Too much security. People can’t stand it. But the world to-day—’ Then he glanced at his watch. ‘Do?’ he said. ‘Get mad. Get scared. Get into a mess that you can’t buy your way out of. Not just something dangerous. Both dangerous and dishonorable. It’s difficult to counsel you. Thirty years ago it would have been enough to palm an ace or wear a flannel shirt to a wedding. But that’s not even remarkable nowadays. And crime — well, I can’t counsel crime. You’ll have to pick your own. Fifty dollars, please.’
Well, Mr. Prior wasn’t very enthusiastic about the advice, though he thought it good. He spent the evening at the club looking up crimes in a set of books about famous trials, but they were all either too bloody or too complicated, like bride-in-the-bath murders or counterfeiting. And then he remembered that his choice of a life’s work at the age of eleven had been burglary. So he thought of burglary for a while, feeling that if he could revive the childhood thrill he would be on the right track. But he just went to sleep.
The next morning he had about decided to give up the idea of crime, but as he looked back on it he saw that there had been a certain amount of interest in going to the doctor, and in contrast with the day that stretched ahead of him it looked almost lurid. He was to have dinner that evening with Miss Cornelia Vetch, who is best known, perhaps, for her cigarette endorsements. Miss Vetch had a sort of synthetic gayety which showed up well in photographs, perhaps because it really was only two-dimensional, being put on with her make-up. But Mr. Prior had been brought up with her and liked her because she respected his moods — which meant that she never said anything that needed an answer. There was nothing so definite as an understanding between them, but there was a sort of vague feeling that they might some day marry. So he sent Miss Vetch a wire saying that he was called out of town, and then, without telling even the servants, he drove out to his house on Long Island.
As it was late fall, the house was closed for the season. There was no one to see Mr. Prior drive up, for the caretaker had died two years ago and he hadn’t bothered to get another. He went in and pulled down the shades and built a fire and began to check in the phone book the names of such local people as didn’t know him by sight. And that evening he changed to a cap and a pair of sneakers and put a flashlight in his pocket and went out.
As a crime Mr. Prior’s first burglary was hardly a success, for he was treed by a dog before he had got ten yards inside the grounds of the house he had picked out. Fortunately he remembered an imitation for which he had won some fame as a schoolboy and he answered the dog in his own language, hoping that his owner would conclude the cause of the racket to be merely a disagreement with a neighbor over a bone. Before Mr. Prior had barked himself into a coma the dog got sick of it and trotted back to the house, and Mr. Prior was able to slip down and across the wall and so home.
Well, Mr. Prior had always taken comfort and safety for granted, but now, having been without them for an hour or so, they seemed very fine things. And so did the warm fire and the drink trickling down a throat raw with barking. He felt more alive than he’d felt in years. Even up the tree he’d felt alive, though pretty silly.
But next morning the zest had vanished. Not entirely. There was still a perceptible savor in the remembered events of last evening. But present and future were as flat as cold potato soup. ‘Lord!’ said Mr. Prior to himself. ‘Do I have to do it again?’ And at the thought a thrill of terrified excitement fluttered his heart. ‘I guess I’d better,’ he said.
That evening Mr. Prior picked out a near-by house inhabited by a Mr. Frank Hamilton. He knew nothing about Mr. Hamilton, but it was a nice house and he supposed there’d be something worth stealing. Anyway it was embosomed in shrubbery, which was all to the good from a burglar’s point of view. At least it seemed so until he got into the shrubs, which were mostly barberry. His clothes were shredded and even his skin was pretty well lacerated when he had finally wormed his way up to a lighted window.
It was a dining room, and three people were finishing dinner and quarreling. Mr. Prior judged them to be father, mother, and daughter, and the daughter was certainly getting told things, though the window was shut and he couldn’t hear them. But at last she got up angrily and threw down her napkin and left the room. Mr. Prior was aware that he missed her as soon as she was gone. He wondered if he would have thought her as attractive if he had met her at a dinner or a dance instead of seeing her across the romantic chasm between burglar and victim.
But it was no time for psychological self-probings. He crawled on through a rather muddy flower bed past the kitchen windows, where the servants were busy, and around a corner to a terrace and some unlighted French windows. One of them was ajar. He sighed and slipped in.
Voices and a little light came through the half-open dining-room door. If he were any sort of burglar Mr. Prior knew he should make for the upstairs rooms and priceless jewelry left carelessly on dressing tables. And of course he did have to steal something. But this, he realized, was one of those cases where it is not so much the intrinsic value of the object as the thought behind it. He snatched up a little silver box from a table and moved cautiously nearer to the dining-room door.
Evidently the girl had come back, for he heard her say, ‘Mother, I’m simply not going to argue any more. I’m simply not going to do it.’ ‘You’d have to if we insisted,’ said the woman, and the man said, ‘But what’s your objection to John? I thought you liked him.’ ‘I like him well enough,’ she said, ‘but that doesn’t mean I want to be with him all the time. A man of sixty! What sort of life is that for me? I — oh, I’m not going to argue.’ She was silent for a minute. Then she said abruptly, ‘I’m going out.’ And she came swiftly through the door behind which Mr. Prior was standing and went out through the open French window, closing it behind her.
‘Damsel in distress, eh?’ said Mr. Prior to himself. ‘Marrying her off to some gold-encrusted fossil, I suppose. Well, I’m no knight-errant.’ And he took two cautious steps toward the window and fell with an almighty crash over a little stand with an aquarium on it.
As he got up he heard chairs pushed back and a bell ringing somewhere. The girl had shut the window, and he spent ten dreadful seconds trying to work the patent catch, and then, as running footsteps seemed to converge on him from all parts of the house, he dashed for a door he had noticed. It gave on a little dim hall. There were three doors, and he ducked through the one on the left just as the one on the right began to open, and found himself three seconds later sitting in some confusion at the foot of the cellar stairs.
But, confusion or no confusion, Mr. Prior couldn’t stay there. He got up and advanced through the darkness waving his hands before him. By great good luck he fell next into the coalbin. The coal had come in, presumably, through a window. He found it and scrambled through, and after another scuffle with a barberry bush came out behind the garage. He opened the door and went in, and the lights of a car that was facing him suddenly went on.
Well, thorns and aquarium water and coal dust make a poor top dressing for any gentleman. They had certainly made a bum out of Mr. Prior. ‘What are you doing here?’ said the girl in the car. ‘Stand right where you are.’ ‘Please, lady,’ said Mr. Prior, ‘I wasn’t doing any harm. I — I was just looking for something to eat and if you turn me in they’ll send me to jail.’ With some idea of cleaning off his face so that he would look more honest, Mr. Prior pulled a wet handkerchief out of his breast pocket. A goldfish flew out with it, which was lucky for him, for it made the girl laugh. ‘You didn’t get much,’ she said. ‘Were you planning to have fish chowder?’
There were footsteps outside and a voice said, ‘Miss Carol, have you seen anybody round? There was a tramp got in the house and escaped through the cellar window.’ ‘No,’ said the girl, ‘I haven’t seen anybody. Did he steal anything, George?’ ‘Not as far as we know,’ said the man. ‘He’s probably gone by now,’ said the girl. ‘But you might wait outside until I get down the drive. I don’t like tramps around.’
Mr. Prior had ducked down between the headlights. The girl got out of the car and opened the door of a closet in the corner of the garage. ‘I’m going to lock you in here for a while,’ she said. ‘If I find you haven’t taken anything I’ll let you go when I get back. Quick!’
So we will pass over the next hour, for there was nothing in it but Mr. Prior’s thoughts, which were painful but not specially interesting. And then the girl came back and let him out and said, ‘Well, there seems to be nothing missing, so you’d better beat it.’ And then she suddenly pointed to his vest and said, ‘For heaven’s sake, where’d you get that?’ and Mr. Prior looked down and saw his Phi Beta Kappa pin glittering on his besmeared front like a jewel in a pigpen.
So he stuttered and stammered and finally said it was his. ‘That’s likely,’ said the girl. ‘And I thought you were just an unfortunate tramp and now I see you really are a thief.’ ‘No, ma’am,’ said Mr. Prior, ‘it really is mine, for I went to — well, I would rather not tell you the name of the college, for that past is now gone beyond recall, but it is true I went to it.’ ‘Well,’ said the girl doubtfully, and then she said, ‘But I just can’t understand — You do have some relics of cultured speech. How could you have come down to — to this?’ So there was nothing for Mr. Prior to do but say in a low shamed voice that it was drink.
Well, for most women there is certainly a phosphorescent glamour about moral decay — provided, of course, that it has begun on a high social level and hasn’t yet worked any marked physical alterations. And Mr. Prior was obviously good-looking even under the dirt and scratches. She sat down on the running board and gave him a lecture.
Mr. Prior enjoyed it very much. The girl was very pretty and she made him feel devilish, and what more can you ask of a girl? It was over much too soon. ‘Well,’ she said, getting up, ‘I don’t know why I should try to show you — if you can’t see for yourself. You can go right down the drive. They’ve stopped hunting for you now and the coast is clear.’ ‘Thank you, miss,’ said Mr. Prior. ‘You’re very kind.’ And he mumbled something to the effect that if perhaps he’d only had the influence of a good woman in his life — ‘No doubt,’ said the girl coldly, and switched off the car lights and went into the house.
Well, the effect of this second burglary on Mr. Prior was really remarkable. For several days he took pleasure in the simplest things, and every time he thought of the adventure an authentic thrill twanged his spine. A week ago the thought of living alone in the house without servants would have been horrible to him, but he found he was really enjoying it.
But on the third evening he felt restless. It wasn’t so much that he was bored as that he felt uneasy. He wanted something and he didn’t know what it was. But at least he wanted it. And that was all to the good. Perhaps another burglary?
That evening he broke into the house of a Mr. C. W. Dowson and stole a small hooked rug. It was almost too easy, for the servants had gone to the movies and Mr. Dowson was having a fight with his wife and Mr. Prior roamed over the house at will. Once he fell over a priedieu in one of the upper bedrooms, for the Dowsons were very religious people, and he crept trembling into the hall to listen, for the fighting had stopped and Mr. Dowson had shouted, ‘Who’s there?’ But then Mrs. Dowson accused Mr. Dowson of trying to sneak off, and the battle was resumed.
But though Mr. Prior continued to feel alive the Dowson burglary did not cure his unrest. He tried another burglary, but with his leg halfway through the second-story window of a Mr. Rufus Blatchford he suddenly decided to give it up, and he turned around and went home. He just wasn’t getting anything out of it.
He spent several days in thought after this and finally decided that it was his conscience that was bothering him, for his mind kept coming back to the Hamilton burglary and the little silver box he had stolen. He felt he should return it. You’d think he’d have felt the same way about the Dowsons’ hooked rug, particularly as it wasn’t a very good one, but he didn’t.
So in the afternoon he drove over and sent in his name, and when Mrs. Hamilton came down she said, ‘How do you do, Mr. Prior. You’re a neighbor of ours, I think?’ Mr. Prior said, ‘Yes, and I have come on rather an odd errand. Is this yours?’ And he held out the silver box. ‘Why, yes,’ said Mrs. Hamilton. ‘That is, it looks like it, but—’ She stopped and called ‘Carol!’ and in a minute the girl came into the room. ‘This is our neighbor, Mr. Prior, Carol,’ said Mrs. Hamilton, and the girl smiled and said something and then her eyes popped open and she stared indignantly at Mr. Prior, who blushed.
But Mrs. Hamilton said, ‘Carol, you know that little silver box I missed the other day? Didn’t you tell me you’d taken it up to your room?’ ‘It’s up there now,’ said Miss Hamilton, and Mrs. Hamilton said, ‘How very queer! But then this one —’ ‘Perhaps I had better explain where I got it,’ said Mr. Prior hastily. And he went into a long involved story about waking up with a light flashed in his eyes and pursuing a burglar who before he jumped through the window dropped the silver box. ‘And so,’ he said, ‘I called the police and they said yours was the only house where there had been any burglary recently, and so I naturally assumed — But what an odd coincidence!’
Mrs. Hamilton thought it was odd, but a credulity nourished on popular fiction can take a heavy strain and Mrs. Hamilton was a great reader. She said, ‘Carol, go up and get our box. Probably Mr. Prior would like to see how much alike they are. It’s really extraordinary. Oh, dear me, I must fly. I have a meeting at four. So nice to have met you, Mr. Prior.’
‘And now, perhaps,’ said Miss Hamilton, ‘you’ll tell me why—?’ ‘Two reasons,’ said Mr. Prior. ‘One — I really did want to bring the box back. And two — I wanted to show you that I had given up drink,’ ‘Very funny,’ she said. ‘And why are you pretending to be Watson Prior?’ ‘I’ve been doing that for years,’ said Mr. Prior. ‘Very successfully, too. You see, I really believe I am Watson Prior!’ ‘Listen,’ she said. ‘You’re cleaner now, but frankly I prefer you as a tramp. I know the Prior house. It has been closed for a month. I drove past it yesterday.’ ‘Look,’ he said, ‘here’s my wallet — Watson Prior in gold letters — driver’s license — five feet eleven, brown hair, blue eyes, and so on — checkbook — Watson Prior in gold letters a little larger — receipt for club dues—’ ‘You could have stolen all those,’ said Miss Hamilton. ‘Ah, here’s the thing,’ said Mr. Prior. ‘Passport. See the picture? I couldn’t have stolen the face.’ ‘No,’ said Miss Hamilton slowly, ‘you wouldn’t have stolen that face.’
‘Listen,’ said Mr. Prior eagerly, and he wondered at himself as he did so, for he hadn’t felt eagerness for probably fifteen years. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘I want to explain.’ And he did. Miss Hamilton took it very quietly. It’s pretty hard to surprise girls nowadays. All she said when he had finished was ‘Well.’
‘Well,’ said Mr. Prior, ‘I guess that’s all. I wonder what I do now? Burglary I can’t get interested in — it doesn’t even scare me.’ ‘Isn’t there anything that seems romantic?’ said Miss Hamilton. ‘I hesitate to ask personal questions, but isn’t there a girl anywhere— a romantic attachment?’ ‘I don’t think you hesitate,’ said Mr. Prior, ‘but it’s all right. No,’ he said, thinking about Miss Vetch, ‘I can’t seem to feel the pull of any romantic attachment. In fact, I don’t quite understand what is meant by romance. But there’s one thing you can tell me,’ he went on. ‘Why did you tell your mother you had taken that box to your room?’
Well, Miss Hamilton looked as if she were going to blush, but I can’t for the life of me tell you whether she did it deliberately or not. ‘I didn’t want to get the police after you,’ she said. ‘I thought you ought to have a chance. I guess I was sorry for you.’ ‘I don’t see why you can’t go right on being sorry for me,’ said Mr. Prior. ‘Only on different grounds.’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘I don’t think I can.’ And when he asked her why, she said, ‘Because I don’t believe it. Well, yes — I do believe your story. But I don’t believe you’re not enjoying life.’ ‘Well, I’m not,’ said Mr. Prior. And then he looked puzzled and said, ‘Why, yes, I am too!’
‘Look here,’ said Miss Hamilton, ‘nobody knows but you whether you are or not, and frankly I doubt if anybody else cares. How about extroverting a little and playing a couple of sets of tennis?’ ‘You’ll really let me stay and play tennis with you?’ said Mr. Prior, and she said, ‘Why not? I’ve nothing to do this afternoon.’ So she got him a pair of her father’s shoes and they played two sets and came back to the terrace and had a drink. And then Mr. Prior went home with blisters on his heels but with joy in his heart.
Now, although Mr. Prior was so exclusively occupied with watching the fluctuations of his interest in life, he was yet able to realize that Miss Hamilton liked him, and so during the next two weeks he saw a good deal of her. And each time his interest in life went to a new high. It was plain she had succeeded where crime had failed. And he thought, ‘I ought to be with her all the time. But then we’d have to be married. Well, why not?’ So one evening when he had driven her home after the theatre he asked her about it.
They were sitting in the car, and Miss Hamilton laughed. She laughed harder than Mr. Prior thought necessary, but at last she stopped and said, ‘No, Watson. You haven’t a romantic mind. I couldn’t marry a man without a romantic mind.’ ‘Is that why you wouldn’t marry John?’ said Mr. Prior angrily. ‘John?’ she said, and he said, ‘Yes, John.’ And he told her what he had overheard the night he broke into her house.
‘But, Watson!’ cried Miss Hamilton. ‘You have got a romantic mind! Poor old Uncle John! He’s my uncle — he invited me to take a trip around the world. That’s what we were rowing about. Imagine being able to weave a romance about Uncle John!’ ‘Well, if I’m so romantic,’ said Mr. Prior, ‘why won’t you marry me?’ ‘Why won’t I marry you?’ she burst out. ‘Because you’re a mental cripple and all you want is a crutch. Because you think I’m good for you — like medicine. Because I don’t love you. Do you want any more reasons? Oh, go away!’ And she jumped out of the car.
But Mr. Prior caught her. ‘Just a minute, Carol,’ he said quietly, ‘and then I’ll go. I’ve put this thing all wrong. It isn’t an interest in life I want to marry. It’s you.’ And he went on to develop this. He made a darn good speech.
But Miss Hamilton was still mad. ‘That’s just swell,’ she said. ‘I’d like to marry you to show you how wrong you are. Why, I bet I could bore you to death in a week! Well, are you enjoying life now?’ ‘No!’ shouted Mr. Prior. ‘You know damn well I’m not. Will you quit harping on that?’ ‘Let me go!’ yelled Miss Hamilton, and Mr. Prior yelled back, ‘I will not! I love you, you darn little fool!’
And the front door opened and Mrs. Hamilton’s voice said, ‘Children! Please! What on earth . . .’ And then after a minute she said, ‘Well, really,’ and went back into the house. And Miss Hamilton stopped kissing Mr. Prior and said, ‘Gosh, Watson, do you really?’ and Mr. Prior said, ‘Sure. I just found out. But don’t waste time.’ And he kissed her some more.
So they were married and I’d like to say that they lived happily ever after, but of course they didn’t, for the boredom of security would get Mr. Prior every now and then and his zest-for-life curve would take a nose dive. But experience had taught him how to correct this. For, since an interest in life grows out of the effort to get security, it doesn’t flourish in security. So he would sneak off and do a little burglary, and that usually fixed him up. Of course Mrs. Prior got bored sometimes too. But she didn’t seem to mind so much. I guess women don’t.