And Still I Cheat the Gallows - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

And Still I Cheat the Gallows ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim

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Opis

A series of stories telling about the graceful crimes of a high class robber, a forger, a robber, a murderer. Stories in each of which are the same criminal, but under different names travels around the world, assuming new identities, avoiding militias and theft of fate. In one story, he helps the British intelligence in restoring critical documents from a foreign state. In another, he uses his skills to help a servant in trouble. In general, stories are of average quality, but they cover interesting situations. One in Jamaica, several others in Paris and London.

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Liczba stron: 278

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Contents

FOREWORD

I. OH, FAIR DELILAH!

II. THE PHANTOM THIEF

III. AN INEXPENSIVE KISS

IV. SHOCKING BAD LUCK ON THE BARON

V. PHILANTHROPY SOMETIMES PAYS

VI. THE MURDER TRIANGLE

VII. THE PRICE OF FELICITY

MISS FISKE, SIR SOMERVELL GLYDE AND TWO MIRACLES

IX. MY HUNCH WASN’T SO BAD AFTER ALL

THE PRINCESS OF HEBOR AND THE MAN FROM SMITH’S

FOREWORD

THE four men, shaken from the dignified composure of their day-by-day life, too nervous even to remain seated, were grouped together at the end of the long table in the board-room of the famous publishing house. Henderson, the general manager, a dour Scotsman, cautious, but a man of brains, was the first to speak.

“I would take a chance,” he declared, banging the table with his fist, “I would publish the man’s stuff just as you have read it to us, Steele. I wouldna’ hesitate the fraction of a second, even if it were the devil himself who had dropped the manuscripts down on our counter. Wrong he may have done, and that he admits, but he is repentant and that is the great thing, after all.”

Fairfax, sandy-haired, youthful, with an almost uncanny reputation for recognising with unerring judgment exactly what the world of fiction-readers demanded, screwed up his eyes. He was a big man with an unexpectedly gentle voice.

“We should be mad, Steele, if we let that stuff go,” he pronounced. “The style may be rotten, the stories may sound commonplace, but, my God, the man who tells them has been through it! They get you just in the place we want to get our readers.”

“What do you say, sir?” Steele, the editor-in-chief of the world-renowned magazine, asked Sir James Brusson, the chairman of the board.

Sir James, portly, dignified, genial, a man of presence and very nearly a peer, hesitated for several moments.

“I should like, Steele,” he said, “to have you read again the message which accompanied these stories.”

Steele took up the square sheet of notepaper which had already been passed round to each member of the little assembly and read the typewritten words slowly and distinctly. There was no address–only the date:

“The accompanying manuscripts are for publication in the ‘Piccadilly Magazine,’ if the editor should find them suitable. It has occurred to the sender that readers of modern magazines must be weary of the cut-and-dried detective story of the present day, in which the Scotland Yard man or the amateur sleuth is inevitably successful.

“These stories are criminal records written from a different angle. They are a true account of ten events in the life of one who here makes sorrowful and ashamed confession that he has devoted his career to crime and has never yet had his finger-prints taken, or entered a police court. In the ten stories, you will find the solution of at least two undiscovered murders and the truth about four of the most famous jewel robberies of recent days.

“I, the narrator, am leading at the present moment a life seemly and dignified in the eyes of all my acquaintances and neighbours. I am truly repentant. I am rapidly earning the reputation of being a good citizen, interested in good works and charitable to the full extent of my means. I continue to be, as I always was, a model husband and an excellent father to my children. I am aware that I run a certain risk in addressing you. You will probably give Scotland Yard an opportunity of studying the finger-prints upon this parcel, the string with which it was secured, the paper itself and the typing. Do so, by all means. My career of crime is ended and with that ingenuity which sometimes I am inclined to bitterly regret, I have destroyed completely every shred of evidence which could connect me with my past misdemeanours.

“The matter or payment presents no difficulty. Wherever it has been possible to do so safely, I have repaid the victims of my various exploits to the last farthing. To do so has cost me a large fortune but it has brought me peace of mind and it has cleared my conscience. Provided you use the stories, I shall ask that great philanthropist who presides over your destinies to select the hospital in London which he considers to be the most deserving and the most in need, and to pay over to them the full amount of their indebtedness to me.

“In case you decide not to publish the stories, kindly destroy the manus class=“typewriter”cripts. You will understand the reason for my adopting a pseudonym and I shall sign myself simply

“LESTER GROVES.”

Sir James stroked his beard thoughtfully.

“This appears to me,” he observed, “to be a queer position for the editor and proprietors of a famous periodical to find themselves in, but so far as I am concerned, I am in favour of publishing.”

Steele, an elderly man with a fine face–heavy, almost leonine in type–drew a breath of relief. An ample conscientiousness, however, forced him to add a few words.

“You understand what we shall be doing, sir,” he pointed out, gripping the manuscripts a little tighter in his hands. “These stories were left in our reception bureau by a person who simply laid them on the counter and disappeared. There’s not a soul in the place who could identify him. If we publish them we shall be dealing with a man whose words ring most terribly and fearfully like the truth, and who has been probably, if he is to be believed, the greatest undetected criminal Scotland Yard has ever had upon its books. Are we justified in having dealings with such a person?”

Sir James Brusson tapped a cigarette upon the table and lit it.

“So far as we are concerned,” he pronounced, “I consider that the complete repentance of the criminal and the restitution which he has made to his victims and the fact that the money we shall pay over is to go to charity, completely absolves us. So far as regards the matter between the law and ourselves,” he went on, “you must preserve the letter and the manuscripts and every scrap of communication which we ever receive from the soi-disant Lester Groves. Every word we receive from him, direct or indirect, must be imparted, if they desire it, to the police. It is their job to hunt the fellow down if they can–not ours. Following scrupulously along these lines, I can only repeat that you have my permission to publish the stories.”

The word of James Brusson, as the word of a millionaire usually does, prevailed. The first story contained in the manuscripts which Steele was still gripping, appeared in a forthcoming number of the magazine for which these men were responsible.

I. OH, FAIR DELILAH!

IF the girl’s hair had had a little more of that bronze tint and fewer of those threads of gold, Ronald Magnay might have been alive to-day and it is doubtful whether the girl and I would ever have exchanged a single word. The trouble was that never in the course of a misspent life, devoted chiefly, in those days of my folly, to yielding to suitable temptations, have I been able to resist eyes that drooped from underneath a flame of gold. The girl called to me, too, as eloquently as lips can call that remain speechless. I obeyed the summons. I finally brought my Lancia coupé to rest by the side of the kerbstone, a few yards beyond where the taxicab had deposited the man and the girl, and I, too, after a few seconds delay, made my way up the ill-lit passage along which the two had passed and disappeared. I could see no door any form of entrance, at first, and those were the days in which London was a strange city to me. I turned quickly round before the taxicab had had time to disappear, and hailed the driver.

“Can you tell me what this place is?” I asked him. “Is it a night club or anything of that sort?”

He looked at me strangely.

“What are you doing coming here, if you don’t know?” he asked pertinently.

I slipped a half-crown into his grimy but not unwilling hand.

“I am a stranger to London,” I explained.

“Then keep away from that place,” he advised me. “They wouldn’t let you in, anyway.”

“I might wangle my way in if I knew what sort of a place it was,” I argued smoothly.

The man leaned a little from his seat. His engine was a noisy one.

“We taxicab drivers,” he confided, “pick up a bit here and there, especially when we are on night duty. One thing I have learnt is that when I bring people here I keep my mouth shut about it.”

I dropped another half-crown into his hand just as his foot was playing with the clutch.

“Is it a club?” I persisted.

“Maybe.”

“What’s it called?”

“I know what us chaps call it,” he answered, leaning a little forward and gazing up the tunnel-like entrance. “We call it the ‘Murder House.’”

My hand went once more into my pocket but I was too late. The man had slipped in his clutch mid his taxi was already coughing its way down the street. I hailed him, but in vain. If I had shouted loudly enough to wake the dead, I don’t believe that he would have come back, and somehow or other, as I looked up and down, it seemed to me that this might indeed have been a street of the dead. The houses had blank windows; the shop fronts–miserable little affairs–were closely barred and showed no lights behind. We were barely a hundred yards from the Tottenham Court Road, but we might as well have been in another world. All the same, from my point of view, the criminal’s, I found the place intriguing.

I was not out for business myself, that night, but there are two things I was never accustomed to be without after dark. One was the little pug-nosed friend I patted in my sleeve pocket, the other the torch which I took into my hand as I retraced my steps down the entry. I easily found the door, but it was evidently no ordinary entrance, for I heard no sound from behind it nor did there come from anywhere a glimmer of light. I listened more intently. It was queer but I fancied that every now and then I could catch the sobbing of a violin, then it died away and there was silence. A few moments later it was the rhythm of dance music of which I seemed to detect a far-off echo. The sound, however, was so faint that I could scarcely decide whether it was real or imaginary. I examined once more the solid front of the entrance. This time I found at last what I had been searching for–the small knob of a bell-push, painted exactly the same colour as the panel and carefully arranged on the same level. I pressed it and the double door slid open in front of me, and closed automatically as I passed the threshold. I stepped into a small, dimly lit waiting-room. There was a divan in the corner, two easy chairs, a thick handsome carpet and some sporting prints upon the wall. Almost immediately, the curtains in front of me were pushed aside and a young man came forward. He closed the doors behind him so quickly that I had barely time to catch the sound of the tinkling of glasses and the rhythm of music. He was an unpleasant looking person and there was no welcoming smile upon his lips.

“What is it that you require, sir?” he asked.

“Someone to take my coat and hat and show me into the place,” I told him. “I arrived with some friends who passed in while I was parking my car.”

The young man looked at me suspiciously. He must have trodden on a bell or something of the sort because the doors behind him reopened and a tall attendant, dressed in sombre black, came noiselessly out and took up a threatening attitude in the background. I looked from one to the other.

“Not exactly hospitable, are you?” I observed.

“Why should we be?” was the curt retort. “This is a club where only members are admitted.”

“What of it?” I demanded with a sudden illuminative flash of memory. “I am a member.”

My vis-à-vis was on the verge of being angry. He glanced over his shoulder at the attendant, who took a step forward. A nasty looking fellow, that attendant, six foot four at least, broad, with the florid, clean-shaven face of a Ukrainian peasant.

“Perhaps you can tell me the name of this club to which you claim to belong,” the young man sneered.

My rejoinder was a piece of blind inspiration, but it came off.

“If you are an official here you should study your membership list now and then,” I told him. “What about this?”

I carried always a large pocket-book with me for various reasons. From an inner compartment I drew a small, oblong black envelope. It had remained where it was undisturbed for over a year. I passed it over to him and he stared at it as though his eyes were falling from his head.

“That contains a Life Membership ticket,” I pointed out. “It was given me in New York by your principal.”

The young man lifted the flap of the envelope, withdrew the strip of gelatinous ivory with its gold lettering and glanced at the mystic sign in the corner which indicated my qualifications. He wrapped it up again with trembling fingers.

“Stay where you are, please,” he begged.

He disappeared. I spoke to the attendant, who took not the slightest notice. Presently the inner doors rolled open again and a tall, broad-shouldered man made his appearance. He was dark complexioned, he wore a red carnation in the buttonhole of his dress coat and his almost jet-black hair and overhanging eyebrows gave him an almost sinister appearance.

“I am Major Ronald Magnay,” he announced, “secretary here. I understand that you carry a badge of Life Membership presented to you by the Chief.”

“And well earned, believe me,” I assured him, with a faint smile which seemed to cause him some perturbation.

“I have no doubt of it,” he replied with chill politeness. “Your first visit?”

“My first,” I admitted. “London is not one of my favourite cities. I am beginning to doubt,” I added, “whether it quite deserves its reputation for hospitality.”

“I offer you my apologies, sir,” was the somewhat nervous reply. “Your visit was so entirely unexpected. Let me show you round. John, take the gentleman’s coat and hat.”

I followed my guide through the inner doors. The place at first sight was disappointing. Its heavy magnificence was inartistic. The people, though, were interesting. I know my world as well as most men but at first I could not place them.

“A whisky-and-soda?” my companion suggested.

I walked to the bar with him. By degrees I was getting my bearings. After all, it was between three and four o’clock in the morning and the limelight was wearing off. I began to recognise one or two of the people by whom I was surrounded. There was no one I knew. I had been a student of the picture papers all my life but my own photograph has never yet appeared in either the Tatler or the Bystander.

“Over here for long?” my host asked curiously.

“I never stay anywhere for long,” I told him. “I was in Bagdad three weeks ago and I hope to be in Buenos Ayres in a fortnight if the German plane is still running.”

He finished his drink.

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