The Sinister Man - Edgar Wallace - ebook
Kategoria: Sensacja, thriller, horror Język: angielski Rok wydania: 1924

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Edgar Wallace

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About
Chapter 1 - A Proposal
Chapter 2 - The House of Amery
Chapter 3 - The Menace of Soyoka
Chapter 4 - Dr. Ralph Hallam

About Wallace:

Richard Horatio Edgar Wallace (April 1, 1875–February 10, 1932) was a prolific British crime writer, journalist and playwright, who wrote 175 novels, 24 plays, and countless articles in newspapers and journals. Over 160 films have been made of his novels, more than any other author. In the 1920s, one of Wallace's publishers claimed that a quarter of all books read in England were written by him. (citation needed) He is most famous today as the co-creator of "King Kong", writing the early screenplay and story for the movie, as well as a short story "King Kong" (1933) credited to him and Draycott Dell. He was known for the J. G. Reeder detective stories, The Four Just Men, the Ringer, and for creating the Green Archer character during his lifetime. Source: Wikipedia

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Chapter 1 A Proposal

"You have beauty," said Mr. Maurice Tarn carefully, "you have youth. You will in all probability survive me by many years. I am not the kind of man who would object to your marrying again. That would be sheer selfishness, and I am not selfish. When I die you will have great property; whilst I live you shall enjoy my wealth to its full. Possibly you have never looked upon me in the light of a husband, but it is not unusual for a guardian to marry his ward, and the disparity in our ages is not an insuperable obstacle."

He spoke like one who was reciting a carefully rehearsed speech, and Elsa Marlowe listened, stunned.

If the old-fashioned sideboard had of its own volition stood on end, if Elgin Crescent had been suddenly transported to the suburbs of Bagdad, she could not have been more astounded. But Elgin Crescent was in Bayswater, and the gloomy dining-room of Maurice Tarn's maisonette remained undisturbed; and here was Maurice Tarn himself, sitting on the other side of the breakfast table, an unshaven, shabby man of fifty-six, whose trembling hand, that went automatically to his shaggy grey moustache, was an eloquent reminder of his last night's carouse (there were three empty bottles on the table of his study when she looked in that morning), and he was proposing marriage.

She could only gaze at him open-eyed, scarcely believing the evidence of her senses.

"I suppose you think I am mad," he went on slowly. "I've given a lot of thought to it, Elsa. You are heart-free, as I know. There is no reason in the world, except—except the difference in our ages, why this should not be."

"But—but, Mr. Tarn," she stammered, "I had no idea… of course it is impossible!"

Was he still drunk? she wondered, without a tremor of apprehension, for fifteen years of association with Maurice Tarn had not tended to increase her awe for him; if she had not been so staggered by this proposal which had come like a bolt from the blue, she might have been amused.

"I don't want to marry you, I don't want to marry anybody. It is very—very kind of you, and of course I feel"—she could hardly bring her lips to say the word—"honoured. But it is too ridiculous!" she burst forth.

His tired eyes were watching her, and he did not even flinch at the word.

"I'm going away to—somewhere. I've got to go away for—for my health. Since Major Amery has come into the firm it is impossible to continue."

"Does Ralph know this—that you're going away?" she asked, curiosity overcoming her amazement.

"No!" He almost shouted the word. "He doesn't, he mustn't know! You understand, Elsa? Under no circumstances must Ralph know—what I have said to you is confidential. Think it over."

With a gesture he dismissed the subject, to her great relief. For fully ten minutes she sat staring out of the window. Mr. Maurice Tarn's dining-room looked out upon the garden of Elgin Crescent, a garden common to all the houses that backed upon it. It was not a garden in the strictest sense of the word, being no more than a stretch of worn grass, intersected by brown paths; and its chief value was best appreciated by the parents of very young children. On sunny days the shade of the big tree in the centre of the garden was a favourite resting-place for nursemaids and their tiny charges. At this hour the garden was deserted. The pale yellow sunlight, slanting through the big window, lit a diagonal patch on the table, and gave to the spring flowers that, by a movement of her chair, mercifully hid Mr. Maurice Tarn from her view, the glory which belonged to them.

She stole a glance at him past the flowery screen. He was wearing yesterday's collar—he invariably made a collar last three days; and his rusty black cravat was fastened behind with a tarnished buckle. The lapels of his ancient frock-coat shone with much wear; his cuffs showed ragged threads. Speculatively and, for her, cold-bloodedly, she examined him in the light of a possible bridegroom and shuddered.

Elsa had preserved toward her guardian and his habits an attitude of philosophical patience. She had grown tired of urging the purchase of clothes. He had a fairly good income, and once she had surprised the information that he had a substantial balance at his bank. But by nature and habits he was miserly. She owed him something… but not much: an education at the cheapest boarding-school he could find; a dress allowance reluctantly given; an annual holiday at Clacton—a fortnight in a crowded boarding-house; and a post-graduate course in short hand and typewriting which was to fit her for the position of a private secretary to old Amery. In addition to these things, Maurice Tarn gave her what he was pleased to call "a home."

She had often wondered what freak of generosity had induced him to adopt the orphan child of a distant cousin, but the nearest she had ever reached to explaining that fit of altruism was when he told her, one evening, that he hated complete loneliness and preferred a child in the house to a dog.

He was apparently absorbed in the devilled chicken he was cutting into microscopic pieces, for presently he asked:

"Is there anything in the paper?"

He himself never read the newspapers, and it had been part of her duty for years to supply him with the principal items of the morning's news.

"Nothing," she said. "You know about the parliamentary crisis?"

He growled something under his breath, and then:

"Nothing else?"

"Nothing, except the drug scandal," she said.

He looked up suddenly.

"Drug scandal? What do you mean?"

She picked up the newspaper from the floor where she had dropped it.

"It is about two gangs that are importing drugs into this country—I didn't think you'd be interested in that," she said, searching for the paragraph.

She happened at that moment to look across at him, and nearly dropped the paper in her surprise. Mr. Maurice Tarn's complexion was one of consistent sallowness, but now his face was a deathly white. His jaw had dropped, his eyes were staring.

"Two gangs?" he croaked. "What do you mean? Read it, read it!" he commanded huskily.

"I thought—" she began.

"Never mind what you thought, read it!" snarled Tarn.

Masking her astonishment, she found the item. It was a half-column on the top of the principal page:

"Yesterday morning Detective-Inspector Bickerson, accompanied by half a dozen police officers, made a raid upon a small warehouse in Whitechapel, and, after arresting the caretaker, conducted a search of the premises. It is understood that a considerable quantity of opium and a package containing 16 pounds of cocaine were seized and removed, and it is believed that the warehouse was a distributing centre used by one of the two gangs which are engaged in putting illicit drugs upon the market, both here and in America. The police believe that one of these nefarious associations is conducted by a Japanese merchant named Soyoka, who, however, is the merest figure-head in the business, the operations being carried out by a number of unknown men, said to occupy good social positions, and two of whom are believed to be officials in the Indian Civil Service. The composition of the second gang, which during the past two years has amassed a considerable fortune, is not so well known. Behind these two organisations are hundreds of agents, and a small army of desperadoes are employed to cover the gangs' workings. The recent arrest of a Greek in Cleveland, Ohio, and his confession to the Federal authorities has enabled Scotland Yard to get a line on the British branch of the 'business.' From the statement of the Greek Poropoulos, it is believed that the heads of the second gang include an English doctor and a leading merchant of the City of London—"

"Ah!"

It was not a groan, it was not a sigh, but something that combined the quality of both. Elsa looked up and saw her guardian's head sinking over the table, and sprang to her feet.

"What is the matter?" she asked.

He waved her aside.

"Get me some brandy—in the cupboard of my study," he mumbled, and she hurried into the stuffy little room, returning with a tumbler half-filled, the contents of which he swallowed at a gulp.

Slowly the colour came back to his face, and he could force a smile.

"You're responsible," he grunted, with heavy pleasantry. "A fellow of my age doesn't propose at this time of the morning without feeling the effects—eh? A little too old for love-making, I guess. Think it over, Elsa. I've been a good friend of yours."

"Do you want me to read any more?"

He stopped her with a gesture.

"Stuff! A newspaper invention: these fellows are always out for sensation. They live on it."

He rose to his feet with an effort.

"I shall see you at the office," he said. "Think it over, Elsa." The door of his study slammed behind him—he was still in his locked room when the girl boarded an eastward bound 'bus that carried her almost to the door of the Amery Corporation.


Chapter 2 The House of Amery

THE house of Amery & Amery stands where it stood in the days when its founder marshalled his apprentices and clerks to fight the Great Fire of London, so that, when the holocaust had smouldered to ashes, the cramped old house alone raised its head amidst the blackened ruins of Wood Street. Improvements had come with the years, an exigent City Council had demanded certain structural alterations, but in appearance the Amery building remained what it was in the days when the "Mayflower" set forth from Plymouth Harbour and narrowly missed fouling the "Pleasant Endeavour," the first of the Amery Brothers' fleet of East Indiamen.

The centuries had seen many fluctuations in the fortunes of the house. One evening at White's, in the days of the Regency, an Amery had diced the fleet out of existence; later, another Amery had won back its equivalent in the tea trade; but the narrow-fronted house, with its uneven floors, its poky little cupboards and presses, its low ceilings and tortuous stairways, defied the passage of time.

Above the thick green glass window panes that admitted light and distorted vision the faded inscription "Amery & Amery, Shippers & Importers," appeared in the identical lettering that an Amery had chosen on the day George the Third went to his rest. The little room where Elsa Marlowe attended to the private correspondence of the newest proprietor had been furnished in his youth by a chief clerk who, as an old man, had seen the first policeman on the streets of London.

Elsa, sitting before her worn writing-table one morning in late spring, when the sunlight poured into the room, seemed as much out of place in the grim setting as the bunch of lilies of the valley she had arranged in a cheap glass vase beside the typewriter.

There was a sculptor in Paris who specialised in dainty statuettes of slim Parisiennes, and she might have posed for M. Milliere, a straight-backed, long-limbed girl, with the tilted chin, the straight nose, the large, enquiring eyes and the confusion of spun gold hair he loved.

She had that complexion which made wise and sceptical women look twice at her; yet her pink and white owed nothing to artifice, and the rich red of her mouth was as everlasting as the deep grey-blue of her eyes.

Her forehead was puckered as she listened to her voluble companion. She was never quite comfortable when Miss Dame came to her favourite topic of discussion, though the gaunt woman expressed much that she thought.

Elsa Marlowe was not prepared to accept Miss Dame's judgment on any other subject than stenography. Her views on human affairs were inclined to be coloured by the peculiar brand of romance she had absorbed overnight. But when she described the house of Amery & Amery as "creepy," and spoke of Paul Roy Amery as a "sinister figure," Elsa found herself ranged on the side of Romance.

"You can laugh about the pitchers," said Miss Dame earnestly, "but you get ideas of Life out of 'em… types, characters, if you understand me? It's experience to a young girl like me. The villains I've seen!… My Gawd! But I've never seen anybody like the Major. Sinister! You've only to look at him, Miss Marlowe. And why your dear good uncle, the finest gentleman that ever breathed—more like The'dore Roberts 'n anybody I know—should let you stay in this place, is more'n I can understand. See what I mean?"

Miss Dame glared fearfully through her big rimless spectacles. Her large mouth was grotesquely open, her little button of a nose redder than ever. She was tall, round-shouldered, awkwardly made. Her hands and feet were large; her bobbed hair, refusing to behave as bobbed hair should, spread fan-wise from her head.

"I wouldn't call him 'sinister,'" said Elsa thoughtfully; "he is certainly unpleasant. I don't think he is used to dealing with white people—"

"That's what I say," broke in Miss Dame. "Niggers and black people an' Injuns! I'll bet he lashes 'em to death. I've seen it done. Do you remember the 'Monster of the Marsh'? Anna Conseuello was in it. Oh, it was perfectly marvellous! This monster took her to an 'ut and tied her up, and Frank—that was her fiancy, that was misjudged by her owing to her seeing him kiss his sister that she didn't know anything about—he rode all night with a sheriff's possy—the way they flew across the hills was perfectly marvellous—"

Elsa's soft laughter interrupted her.

"Anyway, he's sinister," said Miss Dame firmly, "and so is this building. Hundreds of years old—there ain't a floor that's level or a door that fits; and look at the poky little windows and the beams over the ceiling. And there's no proper washing place, and in the heart of the City too! Where did he come from, anyway? Old Mr. Amery never said he had a nephew, and your dear uncle was that surprised when the will was read that he could have dropped. He told me so himself."

For the moment her "dear uncle" was as unpleasant a subject as the sinister Mr. Amery. It was accepted by the employees of Amery's that Mr. Tarn and she were uncle and niece, and she never attempted to correct that erroneous impression.

"We shall get used to him," she said with a half sigh. "New people are always awkward at first. And probably he isn't used to business. He had an official position in India. I know that—"

She stopped. Here she was going beyond the bounds of propriety. She could not tell of the mysterious letters which Paul Amery dictated, letters in which whole lines were made up of unintelligible code words.

"Mr. Tarn knows something about him," Miss Dame nodded vigorously. "They were together hours yesterday—I heard 'em! Gee! The noise they made!"

Elsa turned startled eyes to the other.

"Quarrelling?" she said incredulously.

"Quarrelling!" repeated Miss Dame triumphantly. "You never heard anything like it! It was when you were out at lunch. When I say 'hours' I mean twenty minutes. I never saw your dear uncle so upset in my life."

Elsa was not impressed. Mr. Maurice Tarn was easily upset in these days. Was she responsible for that? she thought whimsically. But a quarrel! Why should Amery quarrel with his general manager? They hardly knew one another, for Paul Amery had not occupied the presidential chair a month as yet, was new to the business and scarcely acquainted with its routine.

"Are you sure?" she asked.

Before Miss Dame could answer, a bell shrilled and Elsa hastily gathered her notebook and pencil and passed into the lair of her ogre.

It was a pleasant room, carpeted in a dull blue that showed the polished black panelling to advantage. Over an old fireplace, a solemn-faced clock ticked sedately. The leaded windows were curtained with dark blue velvet; the only touch of gay colour in the room was the scarlet leather of the fender and seats.

The man at the big writing-table was glowering at a letter on his blotting-pad, and, seemingly oblivious to her presence, was reading it over to himself, his thin lips moving silently as he assimilated every line, every word. A minute passed, and then Paul Amery looked up with that expression on his saturnine face which never failed to rouse in her breast something that was akin to fury. Not that he was consciously offensive—her resentment would have been excusable if he were.

There was just the faintest hint of a sneer, a downward droop of the corners of his mouth that coincided with the lift of his upper lip, and a something—a cold, appraising something in his blue eyes that was altogether and yet indefinably insulting.

She had surprised that expression before—invariably followed upon the interruption of a reverie. And Paul Amery's day-dreams were not pleasant. Only for a second did that twisted smile disfigure his thin, dark face. In another second, it set like a mask of fate; except that the black brows had met in a frown that hardened and almost dehumanized him.

"Yes?"

His voice had the quality of granite. Instantly he had passed through the stage of transition between dreams and reality, and his eyes were searching hers suspiciously. There were people who would think he was good-looking, she thought, and was sufficient of a woman to concede this advantage to him. The hot sun of India had tanned his face to a permanent brown; it had given him, too, something of the character of the jungle beasts he had stalked—she never saw him come noiselessly, almost furtively, through the outer office without thinking of a cat—and she loathed cats.

"Yes?"

He never raised his voice; he did not display his impatience, but his "Yes?" was like the flick of a whip in her face.

"You rang for me and you wished to see the bills of lading… Chi Fung and Lee, Mr. Amery," she stammered and despised herself for her deference.

Without a word he reached out his hand and took the papers she had brought to him. Silently he examined them and then put them aside.

"Why are you afraid of me?"

The question stunned her; it was so unexpected, so utterly unanswerable that she could only stand and stare at him until, before the masterful blaze of his eyes, she lowered her own.

"I'm not afraid of you, Mr. Amery," she said, and tried hard to keep her voice level. "What a queer thing to say! I'm—I'm not afraid of anybody." This defiantly.

He did not speak. His very silence gave her the lie as plainly as if he had spoken.

"Besides," she went on with the ghost of a smile, "isn't it the proper attitude of a secretary toward her employer? A wholesome respect ."

She finished lamely, feeling a fool. He was looking through the window into the dusty sunlight of Wood Street. Apparently his attention was absorbed in the laden trucks that lined the narrow road; in the red-faced City policeman who was engineering a passage for a steam trolley; in the drab fascia of the office block opposite—in anything but one pink and white girl with a mop of fine, browny hair that defied regulation.

"You are five feet three inches, he said, going off at a tangent.

"Sixty-three inches! The little finger of your left hand is crooked—you must have broken it when you were a child. You live constantly in association with somebody who is deaf: your voice is just a little too strong. Of course, Mr. Maurice Tarn! I have noticed that he is deaf."

Elsa drew a long breath.

"Shall I leave the bills of lading, please?" she asked.

His eyes were no longer on her face. They had dropped moodily to the blotter.

"No… I wanted you. Take this letter to Fing Li T'sin, 796 Bubbling Well Road, Shanghai—'Tang chiang chin ping ch'ang—' I beg your pardon, you do not understand Chinese, of course?"

He was not joking. She saw him flush with annoyance at his mistake—at the possibility that she might think he was being funny at her expense.

"He reads and speaks English better than you—or I, for the matter of that," he added hurriedly. "Take this. 'I am looking for a trustworthy man to cover the Nangpoo province. Feng Ho has arrived—you may send letters to him here. When you see the Long Sword of Sun Yat tell him—"

Here he paused, and passed a slip of paper across to her. Carefully pencilled in capital letters were the words:

"Barrow Tendency Makeshift Warlike Candle Stencil Pendant Maple Crest Hamlet Desire."

He was looking at her as she read, a thin hand caressing the little black moustache that covered his upper lip, and as she raised her head she met his glance and went hot.

"Nice job, this?" he asked absently. "Not too much work? Wages good?"

It was the first time he had displayed the slightest interest in her. Hitherto she had had the feeling that he had regarded her as part of the movable fixtures of the establishment.

"Yes, it is a good job," she said awkwardly, and added (fatuously, as she told herself): "I hope my work is satisfactory?"

He did not answer, and she added boorishness to his sins.

"You knew my great-uncle, Bertram Amery, of course?"

He was not looking at her; his eyes were still on the street below. "Slightly," she said. "I was here during the last few months of his life. He only came in for a few minutes each day."

He nodded slowly.

"The ancient ran the business, of course?"

"The ancient?" She frowned, and then realised that his flippant reference was to Mr. Maurice Tarn. "Mr. Tarn has always helped to run the business," she said, a little stiffly, though heaven knew she was in no mood to feel offended because he spoke slightingly of her very distant relative.

"'Mr. Tarn always helped to run the business,'" he repeated absently, and then jerked his head round to face her. "Thank you, that will do," he said.

She was at the door when his voice arrested her.

"How much does the Stanford Corporation pay you?" he asked.

She turned round, staring at him in wonder.

"The Stanford Corporation, Mr. Amery?" His keen eyes searched her face.

"I'm sorry," he said simply. "I see you do not know that enterprising business."

He nodded to the door, and she was back at her desk before she realized the indignity of her dismissal.


Chapter 3 The Menace of Soyoka

STANFORD Corporation! What did he mean? Did he suggest that she was secretly working for some other house? If she had been on better terms with her uncle, she might have solved the puzzle; but for the moment their relationship was more than a little strained.

She was typing the letter when she heard the door of her room opened and closed, and, looking up, saw the tall, hollow-eyed man whom she had particularly wished to avoid that day.

He stood for a while, fingering his bristling grey moustache, his small, faded eyes fixed moodily upon her, and then he came slowly across the room and towered above her. He was an unusually tall man, and, for the general manager of a prosperous business, shabbily attired. His cuffs were ragged at the ends, his black cravat rusty with age.

"Where's Amery?" he asked, lowering his voice.

"In his room, Mr. Tarn."

"Humph!" He fingered his bristly chin. "Did he say anything?"

"About what?"

"About anything," impatiently.

She shook her head. It was in her mind to tell him about Major Amery's enquiry, but she could not bring herself to the point of taking him into her confidence.

"Have you thought over the matter I spoke about this morning?" He stole a quick glance at her, and read her answer before she spoke.

"No, it—it doesn't bear thinking about."

He blinked at her, and his face twisted to an expression of pain.

"Too old, I suppose? I'll make any arrangement you like, only I want company. I hate being alone. I want somebody I can talk to—a wife. Somebody I know I can trust. I've got to get things off my mind. They can't make a wife tell—you understand? Any arrangement," he emphasised the words and she grasped his meaning. But he was not looking at her as he spoke. That "any arrangement" promise was a lie. He wanted more than a trustworthy listener.

She drew a long impatient sigh.

"We needn't go back to that, need we?" she asked. "I wish you wouldn't, Mr. Tarn. It worries me terribly, and it is going to make life insupportable."

He was still fingering his chin nervously, his eyes straying to the door of Paul Amery's room.

"Is anything wrong?"

He shook his head irritably.

"Wrong? What should there be wrong?" He glanced apprehensively toward the door. "I'm going in to see him."

There was a note of defiance in his voice which surprised her. She had not seen this side of Maurice Tarn's character. She knew him best as a most self-possessed business man without imagination. At his worst, he was a slovenly domestic tyrant, with a passion for secret drinking. Yet here he was, bracing himself as for a great ordeal, the hand that touched his moustache trembling, his eyes fearful.

"I've got to go away." His voice was lowered. "I don't know where, but—but—somewhere."

He heard the turn of the handle and looked round affrighted. Paul Amery stood in the doorway, that hateful smile of his upon his thin lips.

"I—I wanted to see you, Major Amery."

Without a word, Paul Amery opened the door a little further and his general manager went in. Amery closed the door behind him and walked slowly to his desk. He did not sit down but stood, his hands in his pockets, his head slightly bent forward, his cold eyes scrutinising the man.

"Well?"

Twice the lips of the older man moved, and presently, in a half-unreal voice, he spoke.

"I feel I owe you an apology for that—that scene which occurred yesterday, Major Amery. I fear I lost my temper; but you can quite understand that one who has held a trusted position in the house of Amery, who was respected, I venture to say, by your uncle—"

"Sit down."

Mechanically the man obeyed.

"Mr. Tarn, I'm new to this business. I ought to have come over eight months ago, when my uncle died and the property passed in to my possession. There were certain things that I did not realise, but which I realise now. I looked upon Amery & Amery as a corporation that could get along very well without me. I never looked upon Amerys as—an enemy I should have to fight."

Maurice Tarn stared at him.

"Fight? I don't understand you. An enemy, Major Amery?" he said tremulously.

"Who is the Stanford Corporation?"

The question rang out like a pistol shot, and Mr. Tarn winced, but did not answer.—

"There is a business being carried on in a block of offices in Threadneedle Street," said Amery slowly; "not a very flourishing business, for the Stanford Corporation occupy one large room and employ no clerks. All the work is done by a mysterious individual who comes after most of the other offices are closed, and leaves just after midnight. He types his own letters, of which he keeps no copies; he has interviews with strange and disreputable people; and although the name of the Stanford Corporation does not appear in the books of Amery & Amery, I am satisfied that our very reputable business"—his lips curled again—"built up by the labour of years, and founded on the honesty and integrity of my dead relatives, is a screen behind which a certain traffic is in progress."

"Major Amery!" For a second Maurice Tarn's pose of virtuous indignation held, and then, before the glittering eyes of the other, he wilted. "If you feel that," he mumbled rapidly, "the best thing I can do is to get out. I've served this firm faithfully for thirty-five years, and I don't think you're treating me well. What traffic? I know the Stanford Corporation: I've just remembered them. They're a perfectly straightforward firm."

The lifted lips, the hard, smiling eyes silenced him.

"You'll bluff to the last, eh? Well, so be it! Tarn, you're doing something of which I do not approve, and that is a mild way of putting it. And I'm going to stop you—I'm going to stop you if it means killing you! Do you get that? You know what I am—you guess a whole lot more than you know! You're in my way, Tarn. I didn't expect to find this obstacle here." He pointed to the floor, and Tarn knew that he was speaking about the house of Amery. "I'm going to put the matter plainly to you," he went on. "Fortunes are to be made, and are being made, by two gangs, who are running a dope industry. Maybe you saw something about it in the morning paper. Two gangs! There isn't room for two—is that clear to you?"

Tarn's face had gone ashen; he was incapable of speech. The man by the writing-table was not looking at him: his eyes were fixed on the street below—he seemed to find in the life and hurry of Wood Street something of overpowering interest.

"Not room for two—hardly room for one," he repeated. "The second gang had better shut up business and get out whilst the going's good. There are many dangers—Soyoka's crowd aren't going to take competition lying down. I am telling you this as a friend."

Tarn licked his dry lips but did not answer.

"The girl isn't in it?"

"No." The older man blundered into this partial admission, "You're… Soyoka!" he breathed. "God! I didn't dream… I knew they were working from India and the East… but I never guessed… "

His voice sank to an indistinguishable rumble of sound. Amery did not answer him: with a sideways jerk of his head he dismissed the man. Elsa saw him stagger through his office like one in a dream, and wondered what was the reason for his white face and trembling hands.

Left alone, Amery walked slowly to his desk and sat down, his chin on his hands: Facing him on the wall hung a picture in an old-fashioned gilt frame—a portrait of an elderly man in a long, flowing wig; he wore a coat of homely brown, lace ruffles swelled under his ample chin, and in his hand was a half-unrolled map of the world. The first of the Amerys! The last of the race looked up into the hard grey eyes of his ancestor, and he nodded.

"Illustrious forbear"—with mock gravity—"the crooked house of Amery salutes you!"


Chapter 4 Dr. Ralph Hallam

IT was the custom of Amery's, and had been the custom from immemorial times, to allow the staff an hour and twenty-five minutes for luncheon. Nobody knew why this extra twenty-five minutes had been granted. It was a tradition of the house, and was a very welcome one to Elsa Marlowe that day, for she had decided to take counsel of the only man in the world who could help solve her problems.

On the stroke of one o'clock she was out of the office and was hurrying toward Cheapside. Taxis there were in plenty, and with in fifteen minutes she was alighting at the door of a small house in Half Moon Street. Scarcely had she paid the driver than the door was opened and a good-looking man of thirty was half way across the sidewalk to meet her.

"This is a miracle! Has the noble house of Amery gone bust?"

She preceded him into the house, and not until she was in the sedate little dining-room did she answer.

"Everything has gone bust, Ralph—no, my dear, I couldn't eat. Go on with your lunch and I will talk."

"I have had my lunch—bring something for Miss Marlowe," ordered Dr. Ralph Hallam, and, when his man had gone, he asked anxiously: "What is wrong?"

She had known Ralph Hallam in the days when she was a lank school-girl. A friend of her "uncle's" and a frequent visitor to their house in Bayswater, they had grown up together. He was, by his own confession, so inefficient a doctor that he had never practised since the day he left hospital. A keen business man, he had employed the small fortune which his mother had left to him to such advantage that he could afford to dispense with the problematical income which might have come to him from his profession.

A fair-haired, clear-eyed man of something over thirty, his boyish, clean-shaven face and irrepressible good-humour gave him the impression of one who had not left his teens very far behind.

"You're not ill, are you?" he asked, and when she shook her head smilingly he sighed his relief. "Thank heavens! I should be obliged to call in a real doctor if you were."

All the time he was speaking he was disposing of her fur, her gloves, her handbag, in his helpless way.

"You know that Mr. Tarn isn't really my uncle?"

"Eh?" He stared at her. "Oh, yes—your cousin or something, isn't he? Queer old devil—doesn't he bore you?"

"Ralph—he wants to marry me!" she said tragically.

He had taken a wine-glass from the sideboard and was putting it on the table when she spoke. The glass dropped from his fingers and splintered to a thousand pieces. Looking at him, she saw his face go suddenly white.

"I'm a clumsy fool." His voice was very steady. "Say that again. He wants to marry you—that—that—?"

She nodded.

"Exactly—that! Isn't it hideously unbelievable? Oh, Ralph, I'm worried. Something queer has come over him in this past week. He has quarrelled with Mr. Amery—"

"Steady, steady, old girl. Sit down. Now tell me all about it. Quarrelled with Amery—that's the Indian fellow?"

She told him as coherently as she could of the scene that had occurred that morning. Ralph Hallam whistled.

"The old villain!" he said softly. "But what is the idea? Why this sudden desire for matrimony? He never struck me as a marrying man. And to be mistress of the menage at Elgin Crescent is not the most pleasant of prospects—"

"He is going abroad," she interrupted. "That is why he wants to marry in such a hurry—oh, I ought not to have told you that!"

Too late, she remembered her guardian's injunction. But if Ralph Hallam was surprised by the news he did not betray himself.

"You'll not marry him, of course. That kind of December doesn't belong to your kind of May, Elsa."

It seemed to her that he was going to say something but checked himself. For a second she had a spasm of fear that the day would bring her a second proposal, for a meaning light had kindled in his expressive eyes. She liked Ralph Hallam… but not that way. He was so good, so kind, such a good pal, and it would spoil everything if the unspoken message was delivered. To her intense relief he spoke of Amery.

"What kind of man is the Indian?" he asked. "Wasn't he in the Civil Service?"

She shook her head.

"I know very little about him," she said. "None of us do. He was in India for years. They say he isn't even English—he belongs to the American branch of the Amerys, and it was old Mr. Amery who found him his position in India. He is so strange."

Ralph Hallam smiled.

"Mad, probably—most of these Indian fellows go daft. It is the sun."

She shook her head.

"No, he isn't mad. His manners are awful—he is abrupt to the point of rudeness. And yet—Ralph, there is something queerly fascinating about him. I find myself wondering what his life must have been, what his recreations are: he seems to move in an atmosphere of mystery. I can't tell you what happens at the office—that wouldn't be fair—but his correspondence is so unusual. And he's magnetic. When he looks at me sometimes, I have the feeling that I'm… out of control. That sounds alarming, doesn't it?"

"It certainly does," smiled her puzzled companion. "Does he hypnotize you?"

"Ye-es," she hesitated. "Perhaps that is it. He reminds me of some beautiful sleek animal, though he isn't at all beautiful! Sometimes his eyes are so cruel that I shudder, and sometimes they are so sad that I could weep—and generally he is so hateful that I loathe him." She laughed softly at her own inconsistency. "Jessie Dame calls him 'the sinister man,' and perhaps she is right. Sometimes I feel, when I am in his presence, that he has the burden of some terrible crime on his mind. He is so suspicious, so horribly unbelieving. When he asks you a question he gives you the impression that he is prepared for you to tell a lie. You feel that he is watching you all the time. Everything about him is that way. He wears shoes with thick rubber soles, and when he moves it is with a sort of stealthiness that makes you jump. Mr. Tarn hates him."

"A singularly unpleasant person," said Ralph with a chuckle, "but impressive—don't lose your young heart to him. As to Tarn, I think it would be a good idea if you went away for a while. You have never met my sister-in-law?"

"I didn't know that you had one," she said, and he smiled.

"You will like her," he said simply. "I'll get her to invite you over for a few days."

The servant came in with a tray at that moment and, until they were alone, neither spoke. She had finished her lunch and had risen to go, when the sound of a taxi stopping at the door brought his eyes to the street.

"Wait."

She followed his glance, but from the angle at which she stood she could not see the figure that was paying the cabman.

"Who is it?" she asked.

"The admirable Tarn," he said. "I don't think he'd better see you here. Go into the library—you know your way. When I show him into the dining-room you can make your escape. I'll take care that he doesn't see you."

There came the sound of the doorbell and she hurried into the little study and presently heard Maurice Tarn's deep voice in the passage. She waited a second, then, tiptoeing along the passage, opened the door and let herself out.

Tarn, his nerves on edge, heard the thud of the closing door and looked round suspiciously.

"What was that?"

"My man going out," said Ralph coolly. "What is your trouble?" For a while the other man did not answer; then, with a groan, he dropped into an easy chair and covered his face with his hands.

"As bad as that, eh?" Ralph Hallam nodded.

"He knows," said the muffled voice of Tarn.

"Which 'he' is this? The Indian gentleman? he knows?"

"Everything. Hallam, he is Soyoka!"

Hallam looked at him open-mouthed. "You're mad—Soyoka?"

"He's either Soyoka or he's somewhere high up in the gang. Why shouldn't he be? The profit of Amery's isn't eight thousand a year. We know what profit there is in Soyoka's—they're making millions whilst we're making thousands. He's been living in India, not guessing that old Amery would leave him this business. We've always known that Indian officials were hand in glove with Soyoka's gang. Otherwise, how would he have known where to look in the books for the consignments we've had? The first thing he did was to put his finger on a case of fancy goods we had from Stein of Leipsic and ask for particulars. He told me to get, and I'm getting. Hallam, it's death to fight Soyoka! They'll stop at nothing. I can't stand any more, Hallam. I am too old for this kind of business."

"Not too old to marry, they tell me."

Tarn looked up quickly.

"What do you mean?"

"Just what I say. I understand that you contemplate making a get-away with a lady, who shall be nameless."

Maurice Tarn shrugged his shoulders.

"I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm scared."

"Scared you may be." There was nothing pleasant in Ralph Hallam's voice; his face had hardened, the underlip pouted ominously. "And if you feel like getting away, why, you can go. You've enough money to get your nerves in order. South America, of course? I thought so. Go and be blessed! You've lost your nerve and so far as I am concerned you're valueless. You're worse than that—you're a danger. We'll have a quick division and then you can go—to the devil if you like."

Slowly he crossed to the broken man and stood looking down at him.

"But you go alone. I want a partner."

"Elsa?" gasped the other.

"Elsa," said Ralph Hallam. "I can talk her into my way of thinking. That will be easy. I want her, Maurice. She is altogether adorable. I don't blame you for wanting her. She is divine! But I want her too. There is a world of happiness in that slim lady, Maurice!"

"But—but—" Tarn was looking at him, horror-stricken. Some solitary cell in his brain, where decency had once dwelt, was operating powerfully—"but you can't, Ralph! You're married—know that you're married. You can't marry Elsa!"

"I said nothing about marriage," said Ralph Hallam testily. "For God's sake don't be so respectable!"