Barbara on Her Own - Edgar Wallace - ebook

Barbara on Her Own ebook

Edgar Wallace



The name, Edgar Wallace, threads through early twentieth century crime fiction like a stream that turns out to be a lot deeper and wider than you thought. This is one of his works. A thrilling tale of commerce and intrigue starring Barbara, god-daughter and Private Secretary to Mr. Maber. Unlike the old-fashioned Maber & Maber department store, the modern Atterman’s store is a successful, profitable business. At a take-over meeting Barbara gives Messers Atterman and Minkey a piece of her mind. On the evening before the deal is to be finalized something happens to Mr. Maber... the police summon Barbara – now she is on her own!

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Liczba stron: 221

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ON that day of fate, when, it seemed, nothing human could save the house of Maber & Maber from absorption by its rival; when the snowy façade of Atterman Brothers leered across the street at its stagnant competitor and said, as plainly as though the words were written in letters of brass, “You’re my next annexe”; when Mr Maber himself was rather preoccupied by the dinner he was giving to the Cambridge crew than with the forthcoming dissolution of his century-old business: on that day of all days in the year Barbara Storr got out of bed the wrong side.

The bed was against the wall, so that really she could not get out any other way without damage to the brickwork. And as she dressed she thought, and Myrtle, seeing the frown on her face, wondered whether the bacon had been too salt, for she was a materialist who traced all human emotions to the eccentricities of digestion.

“Myrtle,” said Barbara tragically, “I’m unpopular!”

“Lor’, miss!” said Myrtle.

Her real name was Polly Oaks, but Barbara had views about names.

“I’m not only unpopular, but I’m darned unpopular,” said Barbara as she stooped to put on her shoes. “If it wasn’t for Mr Maber you and I would sleep in the workhouse tonight–I hope you don’t snore.”

Myrtle, who stood exactly four feet in height, made an oo-ing noise to express her amazement and incredulity.

“But, miss,” she said in alarm, “I thought you had a bit of money of your own? I’d never have come to London–”

“London is bigger than Ilchester,” Barbara broke in moodily, “which means that you meet a thousand undesirables here to every one you see in that Deadly Hole.”

Myrtle shivered.

“I must say, miss, that I was surprised that you ever come up,” she said. “You do see a bit of life in Ilchester, what with the fair and market days. I don’t know a soul except the policeman–”

“If you were a modest woman you wouldn’t even know the policeman,” said Barbara severely; and Myrtle, nineteen next birthday and regarding London policemen as gods, went patchily red.

“Look out of the window and see if that young man has gone,” said Barbara, a little inconsistently, as it appeared to the maid.

“Yes, miss”–Myrtle peered through the curtains into the gloom of Doughty Street–“no, miss.”

“Make up your mind,” said Barbara.

“He’s there–standing at the corner. He’s got a pair of grey trousis–”

“I want to know nothing about his trousers,” interrupted her mistress. “Is he there?”

“Yes, miss.”

“Well, blow him to blazes!” hissed Barbara.

Myrtle, undecided as to whether this was an instruction or whether it was merely an objurgation, gazed in awe at her young lady. She had always thought Barbara was lovely without exactly knowing why Barbara was lovely, for she was no carping analyst. She knew that Barbara had a good skin and wonderful hair, and in a vague way realised that the effect of big, grey eyes, a perfect mouth and a straight nose might have something to do with it.

But she knew complexion and hair were inseparable from the sum of perfect beauty, because she had read soap advertisements and hair advertisements, which told her intimately just what attracts young men to young women.

“Is he waiting for you, miss?” she asked, not without malice.

“Of course he’s waiting for me,” said Barbara icily. “You know very well that he is Mr Stewart, The Man Who Sells Space.”

“Space, miss?” Myrtle was staggered. Then, remembering vaguely certain information acquired at the village school: “The sky, miss?”

“He’d sell that if you’d buy it.”

Myrtle peeped again.

“Don’t he know the number of the house, miss?” she asked cunningly, and Barbara gave her one look which appalled and terrified her.

She slipped on her coat, picked up her bag and umbrella, and passed out into Doughty Street as the clock was striking nine. The young man who stood against the lamp-post turned quickly at the sound of her step and lifted his hat.

“I wondered if you were–”

She silenced him with a dignified gesture.

“I don’t know whether you realise the fact that you have placed me in a false position with Myrtle,” she said, and talked through his apologies. “Myrtle has an aunt in Ilchester, which is my home town, and Myrtle’s aunt was famous before loudspeakers were invented. Although the views of Ilchester do not disturb me in the slightest, I should like you to know that Mr Maber is a churchwarden there, and as he was responsible for bringing me to London I must protect his name.”

“I am terribly sorry,” said Alan Stewart penitently, “but it seems absurd to walk alone to the office when we live round the corner, so to speak.”

“Couldn’t you take a bus?” she asked frigidly. “Really, Mr Stewart, whilst I appreciate that you have the welfare of my employer at heart, I’d very much rather you walked to the office with him and told him so. And if your livelihood depends upon Mr Maber buying space in the newspaper you represent, or any old newspaper, you’ll be sitting on the Embankment tonight gnawing your knuckles.”

Mr Stewart started to protest his disinterestedness, but changed his mind.

“I have been rather a nuisance, I’m afraid. Who is Myrtle–your sister?”

“Not mine. She’s somebody’s, I believe. I remember seeing a whole family of large and small Myrtles.”

“Your maid?” he said quickly. “I am terribly sorry.”

Barbara sniffed.

“As for publicity,” said Mr Alan Stewart, with the haughty indifference of one who controls the advertising revenue of three great dailies, “I’ve ceased to bother Mr Maber. The gentleman who thinks that having his name painted on the roof of Noah’s Ark gives him sufficient publicity to last him for all eternity is no longer alive. To me he is ‘the late Mr Maber.’ I never pass his shop without taking off my hat and dropping a silent tear.”

“Did he have his name painted on the Ark?” she asked, interested.

“It was a mere figure of speech,” said Alan carelessly. “He advertises –yes. Half-page advertisements in the exclusive magazines. They are not so much advertisements as memorial notices, and what is the consequence? Whilst Maber & Maber dwindle and decay on one side of the street, the noble firm of Atterman Brothers raises its lofty head to the clouds on the other–Attermans have been established eight years; Maber & Maber have been a traffic block in the path of progress for a hundred and fifty. And that is all the business I wish to talk.”

“Don’t stop,” she begged. “I like you in those poetical moments. When I say ‘like you’” she added hastily, “I mean you are more tolerable. We don’t need advertising. The name of Maber on our goods is a guarantee of purity and honest dealing.”

“That would be all right if people were buying your goods,” he said pointedly.

“Our place is as big as Attermans.” She stopped in her walk to challenge him, a deadly frown on her face, hostility in her eyes.

“Superficially, yes. Morally, no,” he said. “I like Mr Maber as a man. In point of breeding and birth he is to the Attermans as an orchid to a cauliflower.”

Barbara nodded. She did not think it was necessary to tell him that Mr Maber was her god-father, and he never knew that she had bullied him into bringing her to London, or that when he had, with the greatest reluctance, put her in his office as his private secretary, she had, by sheer capability, made herself indispensable.

“As to Mr Julius Colesberg, the junior partner of your moribund business, he is about as much use to Mr Maber as a cooking-stove in–well, any hot place you can think of.”

Here again she reluctantly agreed with him. She looked round at him: straight-backed, broad-shouldered.

“Why are you an advertising man?” she asked bluntly. “You look more like a soldier.”

“I was an advertising man before I was a soldier,” he said diplomatically, “and one must live.”

“Why?” asked Barbara.

“I suppose there is no reason why one shouldn’t live–” he began.

“No, I don’t mean that,” she interrupted. “Haven’t you heard the call of the great open spaces that comes to all young heroes?”

“The only open spaces that interest me–” he began.

“Don’t let us talk shop,” she begged. “Have you heard of the wide lands under God’s sky where men are men?”

He nodded bravely.

“Not only heard, but read,” he said. “I’ve just sold three half-pages to the Western Albert Development Company. And, anyway, I see as many films as you–and I couldn’t very well miss that wide lands stuff. By the way” –his voice was serious now–“Atterman had a conference with Mr Maber this morning.”

“How do you know?” she asked in surprise.

“I know everything. You can’t keep things from Fleet Street.”

“Where is that?” she asked, and he could afford to smile.

He left her at the corner of Marlborough Avenue and she went on alone, past the sedate windows of Maber & Maber, with their exquisite materials, so pretty to see, so difficult to sell, and she stopped at the big swing-doors and looked across at the glaring white façade of Attermans, five stories high and bristling with flags, to advertise the fact that, no matter what was your nationality, Mr Atterman and his staff would be glad to take your money.

Three men were busy in one of the store windows, preparing a new display. Attermans frequently figured as defendants in the police court, charged with obstruction, for their window shows invariably collected crowds which made the sidewalk impassable. Almost every other bus that passed by bore the magic legend, “Attermans means Happy Shopping.”

“Curse them!” said Barbara cold-bloodedly, passing through the doors.

She went up to the office, observed by the scowling Mr Lark, who held the dual position of chief buyer and accountant–an amazing circumstance: he buys best who knows not the shallowness of the purse. And just now Mabers’ official coffers sounded rather hollow.

Mr Lark paused in his work as Barbara came in, and his pale eyes surveyed her malignantly.

“Ten minutes late,” he said tremulously. “If I had my way I’d take that girl and put her straight into the street! I’d say to her, ‘Miss Barbara Storr, here’s your money–beat it! I don’t want you round this office giving yourself almighty airs. Go and find another job.’ I would, indeed!”

The audience, his stenographer, made a clicking noise which expressed both her sympathy and her awe at the latent strength of the man.

“I’d no more think of saying ‘you’re fired’ than I’d think of–of anything,” the gaunt accountant went on. “What’s a private secretary but a menial? A sort of domestic servant, like my housemaid. That’s what she is –a menial! Runs and carries for Tom, Dick and Harry.”

“It’s dreadful,” agreed his typist vaguely.

“Dreadful?” snarled the gentleman to whom Barbara Storr invariably referred as “Hark, hark, the Lark.” “Why, she treats even Mr Julius like a dog! She does! Treats him like a dog! A partner! Socialism’s the ruin of the age.”

“Is she a Socialist?” asked Miss Leverby, interested.

“I know nothing about her,” said the accountant and buyer testily. “Those kind of people I don’t meet–socially. If I saw her in the street I wouldn’t so much as raise my hat to her. I’m vindictive. When anybody gets in wrong with me I just give ‘em–hell!”

Miss Leverby shivered appropriately at the great word.

“She’s always going on about advertising–one of the lowest things that ever came into business. Nags Mr Maber! I’ve heard her. And then she wants to know why we don’t stock this, that and the other. I says to her the other day ‘Miss S.,’ I says, ‘if people don’t like what we sell they can go somewhere else.’ ‘They do,’ she says. ‘Look at Attermans–you can buy anything there from a pie to a pistol’–those were her very words. I says to her, ‘Miss S.–this is a quality house–we’ve been established a hundred and fifty years. Everybody knows us–we don’t have to do anything vulgar, or sell anything shoddy.’ ‘You have to,’ she says, ‘but you don’t know how to,’ she says. My Gawd! These people go on as if they owned the place.”

“T-t!” said the audience, shocked.

“That girl’s got some hold over Maber,” concluded Mr Lark darkly. “Mark my words. There was a case like it in the Sunday newspapers. You may have seen the headline–‘Young girl holds Aged Millionaire in a Grip of Iron.’ That’s her!”

It was part of the cussedness of things that Barbara’s covert antagonism to the junior partner should come to a head that morning.

His secretary was away with a cold, and Barbara went in to take down a letter. She disliked Julius instinctively. He was a suave, young-looking man in the thirties, sallow of face and somewhat perfumed. Barbara loathed men who used scent and wore diamond rings, but never, until that morning, had the dislike taken active shape.

“Morning, Miss Storr.” He looked up from the Empire desk where he was sorting over his letters. “Old man here?”

“Mr Maber hasn’t arrived yet,” she said.

Julius unfolded an exquisite cambric handkerchief and wiped his lips thoughtfully.

“That conference is coming on today,” he said. “Attermans are making a –very–fair–offer. Mr Maber is getting old–I think he’d be foolish not to take a price.”

Julius had come straight from Atterman’s house in Regent’s Park that morning. They had breakfasted together and certain agreements had been reached. Such things are done. Mr Colesberg had a one-twenty-fifth share in the business and no active management. A sale at Atterman’s figure would give him a large holding and the direction. Such things happen.

Barbara opened her notebook and poised her pencil suggestively.

“Now listen, child.” Julius in a fatherly mood made her feel a little faint. “You’ll be at the conference and you’ll be doing yourself and everybody a good turn if you use your undoubted influence.”

“Toward what?”

“The sale. The business is going down; it wants activity, it wants advertising–it wants everything that an old-fashioned man won’t give it.”

Her lips curled offensively.

“Is this the man who told Mr Maber that advertising would vulgarise Mabers” she demanded.

“In the circumstances I was right,” he said hastily. “Mabers couldn’t do it–Attermans could. Do you see what I mean, little girl?”

“Don’t call me ‘little girl’–it makes me feel old,” she said. “And when Atterman takes charge of this place, will he start a Ladies’ Lusiana Orchestra?”

An innocent and seemingly pointless remark, but for the affair of the beautiful blonde solo player. In justice to the man with whom he had breakfasted, Julius uttered a grave protest.

“The jury gave a verdict to Atterman,” he said, “And, anyway, she should have been ashamed of herself to bring an action for breach of promise against a man like Mr Atterman–a magnate!”

“Maudie loved him,” said Barbara outrageously, “She lives near me – I often walk home with her. She’s so upset she can’t play anything but hymns.”

“I wonder she plays at all,” said Julius primly. “It is very unwomanly to play on the cornet.”

“She’ll be playing on the harp soon unless something happens,” said Barbara ominously. “Now what about these letters?”

She had taken down two of his epistles and she was waiting for the third, when, absent-mindedly, he laid his long and bony hand on hers. Barbara got up slowly.

“Is that all, Mr Colesberg?”

“That is all,” he said, and then, as he walked to the door and stood aside to let her go out of the room, he murmured something about “a little bit of dinner and a show.”

“Is this invitation from Mrs Colesberg?” she asked.

“Not married,” said Julius, nibbling at his nails. “Can’t stand marriage. You know what I mean…being tied up to some woman… positively dreadful. I’ll meet you at the corner of Haymarket. Make it eight–I don’t like to rush my dressing. And wear something quiet…see what I mean? A girl looks best in black. If she starts to wear colours she gets conspicuous and makes a fellow noticed…”

“Which end of the Haymarket?” asked Barbara.

“Top end–corner of Jermyn Street. You’ll recognise me–”

“I might possibly mistake you for a wireworm,” interrupted Barbara gently. “I think you had better have your name in electric lights–round your hat! Or perhaps if you carried a banner–blue is my favourite colour –or came in a pink golfing suit. I should hate to miss you.”

Colesberg’s sallow face turned a dark crimson.

“You’ve a nerve to talk to me like that!” he spluttered. “You–you –if I’ve any authority in the place I’ll have you out of this office today! You give yourself the airs of a duchess and go on as if you… I’ll not stand it! I’ll–I’ll see Maber as soon as he arrives…”

“I’ll ring you just the minute he comes in,” said Barbara with great politeness.

She was hardly in her room before Mr Maber’s bell rang and, gathering up her notebook and pencil, she opened the door and went in.

Mr Maber was a large man both up and down and backwards and forwards. It was difficult to believe that he had ever rowed six except in a lifeboat, which is built to stand almost any kind of strain. Yet as a brawny youth he had occupied that position in the Cambridge eight–the year they beat Oxford so unexpectedly.

He called himself old-fashioned when he was really lethargic; he abhorred modern tendencies in business and sugariness in church music. He was a churchwarden of St Asaph’s, Ilchester, and took his duties seriously.

His life, he was apt to say, sometimes proudly, sometimes regretfully, was an open book. If there were two pages that were scientifically gummed together, the deliquency thus concealed was a fairly little one. It had to do with a dinner given to the combined crews on Boat Race night. It was the Saturday before Marcus Elbury, the stroke and his school friend, went to the United States; and after the dinner he and Marcus had paid a visit to the Empire Theatre. They went in at nine-forty-five singing a cheery song – in those days it was a music-hall and a song was not out of place. At nine-fifty they came out, accompanied by four commissionaires, three policemen and a cloak-room attendant. At this point of the story a lady came into it; but the open book was gummed very securely. He simply refused to think of what followed. If he thought at all, it was as a man thinks of his end: momentarily, and then a scramble of mind to get to something more pleasant.

Mr Maber had found himself musing on those strange days. He had been a comfortably situated young man and could well afford to pay forty shillings and to compensate the policemen both for their torn tunics and certain transitory damage to their features. The sequel he could not afford…however, he never thought of that.

And Marcus was coming back for Saturday’s dinner. Mr Maber was entertaining the Cambridge eight; he wondered whether this 1911 wine was as good as people said it was.

Now and again, as he came nearer to Marlborough Avenue, a thought of business intruded into his pleasing meditations, and he shuddered. He would be glad to have done with it all; the vulgar proximity of Attermans alone was sufficient to sicken him. In a vague way he wished he could keep abreast of the times and maintain in flower the seedling five generations of Mabers had tended. Mr Maber sighed. He was a rich man, but somehow he could never bring himself to selling out real securities and reinvesting in Mabers.

He came gloomily to his office, hung up his hat and umbrella and allowed Barbara to help him out of his coat.

“Well, Barbara,” he said glumly, “we shall soon be out of this – back in Ilchester. No place like it, Barbara.”

He shook his head sorrowfully. The thought did not seem to arouse any hilarious sense of happiness.

“You won’t stay, of course,” he said. “We’ll find a job for you at Knapp House. What would you like to be?”

“If I’m going back to Ilchester I should rather like to be dead,” she said calmly.

He was mildly shocked.

“It is a great old town,” he said in a hushed voice, as though he feared that Ilchester might overhear him and get all puffed up; “a grand old town. That dear old carillon from the Minster!”

“And those dear old mosquitoes that breed in the horse-pond,” she said; “and those dear old ladies who have nothing to do but tell you why people marry in a hurry!”

“Barbara!” He murmured. He was (he remembered at odd moments) a churchwarden.

She gave him his letters and he glanced at them.

“What time is the conference?” he asked.

“In twenty minutes.”

He pinched his lip.

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