The Bravo of London - Ernest Bramah - ebook

The Bravo of London ebook

Ernest Bramah



The Bravo of London” is a book in the Max Carrados series. Also, Max Carrados will be followed by „The eyes of Max Carrados” in 1923, „The Specimen Case” in 1924, „Max Carrados Mysteries” in 1927, and „The Bravo of London” in 1934. Max Carrados is a blind detective who uses his remaining senses in such a way that his blindness is often not immediately apparent to others. Working with his old friend, Louis Carlyle, a private investigator, the wealthy Carrados pursues his talent for detection whenever he pleases without accepting a fee. It is the first appearance of the blind sleuth Max Carrados whom, accompanied by his faithful but not always insightful Carlyle, was created as a rival to Sherlock Holmes and quickly found a strong following amongst readers.

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“A TOLERABLY hard nut to crack, of course,” said the self-possessed young man with the very agreeable smile–an accomplishment which he did not trouble to exercise on his associate in this case, since they knew one another pretty well and were strictly talking business; “or you wouldn’t be so dead keen about me, Joolby.”

“Oh, I don’t know; I don’t know, Nickle,” replied the other with equal coolness, “There are hundreds–thousands–of young demobs like yourself to be had to-day for the asking. All very nice chaps personally, quite unscrupulous, willing to take any risk, competent within certain limits, and not one of them able to earn an honest living. No; if I were you I shouldn’t fancy myself indispensable.”

“Having now disclosed our mutual standpoints and in a manner cleared the ground, let’s come down to concrete foundations,” suggested Nickle. “You’re hardly thinking of opening a beauty parlour at this benighted Tapsfield?”

The actual expression of the man addressed as Joolby at this callous thrust did not alter, although it might be that a faint quiver of feeling played across the monstrous distortion that composed his face, much as a red-hot coal shows varying shades of incandescence without any change of colour or surface. For such was Joolby’s handicap at birth that any allusion to beauty or to looks made in his presence must of necessity be an outrage.

He was indeed a creature who by externals at all events had more in common with another genus than with that humanity among which fate had cast him, and his familiar nickname of “The Toad” crudely indicated what that species might be. Beneath a large bloated face, mottled with irregular patches of yellow and brown, his pouch-like throat hung loose and pulsed with a steady visible beat that held the fascinated eyes of the squeamish stranger. Completely bald, he always wore a black skull-cap, not for appearance, one would judge, since it only heightened his ambiguous guise, and his absence of eyebrows was emphasised by the jutting hairless ridges that nature had substituted.

Nor did the unhappy being’s unsightliness end with these facial blots, for his shrunken legs were incapable of wholly supporting his bulky frame and whenever he moved about he drew himself slowly and painfully along by the aid of two substantial walking sticks. Only in one noticeable particular did the comparison fail, for while the eye of a toad is bright and gentle Joolby’s reflected either dull apathy or a baleful malice. Small wonder that women often turned unaccountably pale on first meeting him face to face and the doughty urchins of the street, although they were ready enough to shrill “Toady, toady, Joolby!” behind his back, shrieked with real and not affected terror if chance brought them suddenly to close quarters.

“The one thing that makes me question your fitness for the job is an unfortunate vein of flippancy in your equipment, Nickle,” commented Joolby without any display of feeling. “No doubt it amuses you to score off people whom you despise, but it also gives you away and may put them on their guard about something that really matters. This is just a friendly warning. What sort of business should I be able to do with anyone if I ever let them see my real feelings towards them–yourself, for instance?”

“True, O cadi,” admitted Nickle lightly. “People aren’t worth sticking the manure fork into–present company included–but it’s frequently temptatious. Proceed, effendi.”

“The chap who has been at Tapsfield already was a wash-out and I’ve had to drop him. He’ll never come to any good, Nickle–no imagination. Now that’s where you should be able to put something through, and I have confidence in you. You’re a very convincing liar.”

“You are extremely kind, Master,” replied Nickle. “What had your dud friend got to say about it?”

“He came back sneeping that it was impossible even to get in anywhere there because they are so suspicious of strangers.”

“To do with the mill, I suppose?”

“Of course–what else? He couldn’t stay a night–not a bed to be had anywhere for love or money unless someone can guarantee you bona fide. The fool fish simply dropped in on them with a bag of golf clubs–and there wasn’t a course within five miles. You’ll have to think out something brighter, Nickle.”

“Leave that to me. Just exactly what do you want to know, Joolby?”

“Everything that there is to be found out–position, weaknesses, precautions, routine, delivery and despatch: the whole business. And particularly any of the people who are open to be got at with some sort of inducement. But for God’s sake–”

“I beg your pardon?”

“No need to, Nickle. I only want to emphasise that whatever you do, not a shadow of suspicion must be risked. We haven’t decided yet on what lines the thing will go through and we can’t have any channel barred. I can give you a fortnight.”

“Thanks; I shall probably take a month. And it’s understood to be five per cent on the clean-up and all exes meanwhile?”

“Reasonable expenses, Nickle. You can’t spend much in a backwash like this Tapsfield.”

“My expenses always are reasonable–I mean there is always a reason for them. But I notice that you don’t kick at the other item. That doesn’t look as if you were exactly optimistic of striking a gold mine, Joolby.”

“In your place I might have thought that, but I shouldn’t have said it. Now I know that you will make it up in exes. Well, let me tell you this, Mr. Nickle: no, on the whole I won’t. But what should you say if I hinted not at hundreds or thousands but millions?”

“I should say much the same as the duchess did–‘Oh, Hell, leave my leg alone!” languidly admitted Mr. Nickle.

*     *


The road from Stanbury Junction to Tapsfield was agreeably winding– assuming, of course, that you were at the time susceptible to the graces of nature and not hurrying, for instance, to catch a train–pleasantly shady for such a day as this, and attractively provided, from the leisurely wayfarer’s point of view, with a variety of interesting features. For one stretch it fell in with the vulgarly babbling little river Vole and for several furlongs they pursued an amicable course together, until the Vole, with a sudden flirt like the misplaced coquetry of a gawky wench, was half way across a meadow and although it made some penitent advances to return, the road declined to make it up again and even turned away so that thereafter they meandered on apart: a portentous warning to the numerous young couples who strolled that way on summer evenings, had they been in the mood to profit by the instance. Its place was soon taken by a lethargic, weed-clogged dyke, a very different stream but profuse of an engaging medley of rank grass and flowers–tall bulrushes and swaying sedge, pale flags, saffron kingcups and incredibly artificial-looking pink and white water-lilies, and the sure resort of countless dragon flies of extraordinary agility and brilliance. This channel at one point gave occasion for a moss-grown bridge whereon the curious might inform themselves by the authority of a weather-beaten sign that while the road powers of the county of Sussex claimed the bridge and all that appertained to it, they expressly disclaimed liability for any sort of accident or ill that might be experienced there, and in fact held you strictly responsible and answerable in amercement.

Everywhere was peaceful shade and a cool green smell and the assurance that anything that was happening somewhere else didn’t really matter. A few small, substantial clouds, white and rotund like the puffs of smoke from a cannon’s mouth in an old-type print, floated overhead but imposed on no one to the extent of foretelling rain. Actually, it was the phenomenally dry summer of 1921.

The single pedestrian who had come that way when the 3.27 down train steamed on appeared to be amenable to these tranquil influences, for he continually loitered and looked about, but the frequency with which he took out his watch and the alert expectancy of his backward glances, would soon have discounted the impression of aimless leisure had there been anyone to observe his movements. And, in truth, nothing could have been further from casualness or lack of purpose than this inaction, for on that day, at that hour and in that place, the first essential move was being made in a design so vast and far-reaching that the whole future course of civilization might well hang on its issue. So might one disclose a tiny rill in the uplands of Thibet–and thousands of miles away the muddy yellow waters of the surging Whang Ho obliterate an inoffensive province.

Presently, following the same route, the distant figure of another pedestrian had come into sight, and swinging along the road at a fine resolute gait (indicative perhaps, since he wore a clerical garb, of robust Christianity) promised very soon to overtake the laggard. It is only reasonable to assume that in his case there was less inducement to examine the surroundings, for while the first could be dismissed at a glance as a stranger to those parts, the second was the Rev. Octavius Galton, vicar of Tapsfield, who, as everyone could tell you, paid a weekly visit on that day to an outlying hamlet with its little tin mission hall, straggling at least a mile beyond the Junction.

With the first appearance of this new character on the scene the behaviour of the loitering man underwent a change–trifling indeed, but not without significance. His progress was still slow, he continued to take interest in the unfolding details of his way, but he studiously refrained from looking round, and his watch had ceased to concern him. It was, if one would hazard a speculative shot, as though something that he had been expecting had happened now and he was prepared to play a part in the next development.

“Good afternoon,” called out the vicar as he went past–he conscientiously greeted every wayfarer encountered on his rounds, tramp or esquire, and few were so churlish as to be unresponsive.

“Glorious weather, isn’t it?–though of course rain is really needed,” The after-thought came from over his shoulder, for the Rev. Octavius did not carry universal neighbourliness to the extent of encouraging prolonged wayside conversation.

“Good afternoon,” replied the stranger, quite as genially. “Yes, isn’t it. Splendid.”

He made no attempt to enlarge the occasion and to all appearance the incident was over. But just when it would have been, Mr. Galton heard a sharp exclamation–the instinctive note of surprise–and turned to see the other in the act of stooping to pick up some object.

“I don’t suppose this is likely to be yours”–he had stopped automatically and the finder had quickened his pace to join him–“but if you live in these parts you might hear who has lost it. Looks more like a woman’s purse, I should say.”

“Dear me,” said the vicar, “how unfortunate for someone! No, it certainly isn’t mine. As a matter of fact, I never really use a purse–absurd of me I am often told, but I never have done. Have you seen what is in it?”

Obviously not, since he had only just picked it up and had at once offered it for inspection, but at the suggestion the catch was pressed and the contents turned out for their mutual examination. They were strictly in keeping with the humdrum appearance of the purse itself–no pretty trifle but a substantial thing for everyday shopping–a ten-shilling note, as much in silver and bronze, the stub of a pencil, two safety pins and a newspaper cutting relating to an infallible cough cure.

“Dropped by one of my poorer parishioners doubtless,” commented Mr. Galton, as the collection was replaced by the finder; “but unluckily there is nothing to show which. You will, of course, leave it at the police station?”

“Well,” was the reply, given with thoughtful deliberation, “if you don’t mind I’d rather prefer to leave it with you, sir.”

“Oh!” said the vicar, not unflattered, “but the usual thing–”

“Yes, so I imagine. But I have an idea that you would be more likely to hear whose it is than anyone else might. Then in these cases I believe that there is some sort of a deduction made if the police have the handling of it–not very much, I daresay, but to quite a poor woman even the matter of a shilling or two–eh?”

“True; true. No doubt it would be a consideration. Well, since you urge it, I will take charge of the find and notify it through the most likely channels. Then if we hear nothing of the loser within say a week I think I shall have to fall back on the local constabulary.”

“Oh, quite so. But I hardly think that in a little place–I take it that this is only a village?”

“Tapsfield? A bare five hundred souls at the last census. Of course, the parish is another matter, but that is really a question of area. You are a stranger, I presume? And, by the way, you had better favour me with your address if you don’t mind.”

“I should be delighted,” said the stranger with his charming smile–an accomplishment he did not make the mistake of overdoing–“but just at the moment I haven’t got such a thing–not on this side of the world, I should say. My name is Dixson–Anthony Dixson–and I am over from Australia for a few weeks, a little on business but mostly as a holiday.”

“Australia? Really; how very interesting. One of our young men–a member of the choir and our best hand-bell ringer, as a matter of fact–left for Australia only last month: Sydney, to be explicit.”

“My place is Beverley in West Australia,” volunteered the Colonial. “Quite the other side of the Continent, you know.”

“Still, it is in the same country, is it not?” The vicar put this unimpeachable statement reasonably but with tolerant firmness. “However: the question of an address. It is only that after a certain time, if no one comes forward, it is customary to return anything to the finder.”

“I don’t think that need trouble anyone in this case, sir. I expect that there are several good works going on in the place that won’t refuse a few shillings. If no one puts in a claim perhaps you wouldn’t mind–?”

“Now that’s really very kind and generous of you; very thoughtful indeed, Mr. Dixson. Yes, we have a variety of useful organisations in the parish, and most of them, as you tactfully suggest, are not by any means self-supporting. There is the Social Centre Organisation, the Literary, Dramatic and Debating Society, a Blanket and Clothing Fund, Junior Athletic Club, the C.L.B. and the C.E.G.G., and half a dozen other excellent causes, to say nothing of a special effort we are making to provide the church heating apparatus with a new toiler. Still, an outsider can’t be interested in our little local efforts, but it’s heartening–distinctly heartening–quite apart from the amount and the–er–slightly speculative element of the contribution.”

“Well, perhaps not altogether an outsider, in a way,” suggested Dixson a little cryptically.

“Oh, really? You mean that you have some connection with Tapsfield? I did not gather–”

“Actually, that’s what brought me here. My father was never out of Australia in his life, and this is the first time that I have been, but we always understood–I suppose it was passed down from generation to generation–that a good many years ago we had come from a place called Tapsfield somewhere in the south of England.”

“This is the only place of the name that I know of,” said the vicar. “Possibly the parochial records–”

“One little bit of evidence–if you can call it that–came to light when I went through my father’s things after his death last year,” continued Dixson. “Plainly it had been kept for its personal association, though it’s only brass and can’t be of any value. I mean, no one called Anthony Dixson would be likely to throw it away and by what I’m told one of us always has been called Anthony, and very few people nowadays spell the name D-i-x-s-o-n.”

“A coin–really?” The vicar put on his reading glasses and took the insignificant object that Dixson had meanwhile extracted from a pouch of his serviceable leather belt. “I have myself–”

“I don’t see that it can be a coin because that should have the king–Charles the Second wouldn’t it be?–on it. In fact I don’t understand why–”

“Oh, but this is quite all right,” exclaimed Mr Galton with rising enthusiasm, as he carefully deciphered the inscription, “It is one of an extensive series called the seventeenth century tokens. I speak as a collector in a modest way, though I personally favour the regal issues–‘Antho Dixson, Cordwainer, of Tapsfield in Susex,’ and on the other side ‘His half peny 1666,’ with a device–probably the arms of the cordwainers’ company.”

“Yes,” said the namesake of Antho Dixson of 1666 carelessly. “That’s what it seems to read isn’t it?”

“But this is most interesting; really most extra ordinarily interesting,” insisted the now thoroughly intrigued clergyman. “In the year when the Great Fire of London was raging and–yes–I suppose Milton would be writing ‘Paradise Lost’ then, your remote ancestor was issuing these halfpennies to provide the necessary shopping change here in Tapsfield. And now, more than two hundred and fifty years later, you turn up from Australia to visit the birthplace of your race. Do you know, I find that a really suggestive line of thought, Mr. Dixson; most extraordinarily impressive.”

“I can hardly expect to discover any Dixson here,” commented Anthony, with a speculative note of inquiry, “and even if there were they would be too remote to have any actual relationship. But possibly there are some of the old houses standing–”

“There are no Dixsons now,” replied Mr. Galton with decision. “I know every family and can speak positively. Even in the more common form we have no one of that surname. As for old houses–well, Tapsfield is scarcely a show-place, one must admit. ‘Model’ perhaps, but not picturesque. The church is practically the only thing remaining of any note: if you can spare the time I should be delighted to take you over the building where your forebears worshipped. We are almost there now. Was there any particular train back that you were thinking of catching?”

“As a matter of fact,” said Dixson readily, “I came intending to stay a few days and look around here. I’ve always had a hankering to see the place properly, and in any case I don’t find that living in London suits me. So I shall hope to see over the church when it’s most convenient to you.”

“Oh, you intend staying? I didn’t–I mean, not seeing any luggage, I inferred that you were just here for the afternoon. Of course–er–any time I shall be really delighted.”

“I left my traps up at the station. I must find a room and then I can have them sent over. To tell you the truth, I couldn’t stand London any longer. I have hardly slept a wink for the last two nights. Perhaps you could put me in the way of a place where they let apartments?”

It was a very natural request in the circumstances–nothing could have been more so–but for some reason the vicar did not reply at once, nor did his expression seem to indicate that he was considering the most suitable addresses. Actually, one might have guessed that he had become slightly embarrassed.

“Almost any sort of a place would suit me–just simple meals and a bedroom,” prompted Dixson, without apparently noticing his acquaintance’s difficulty. “On the whole I prefer a private house–even a workman’s–to an inn, but that is only a harmless fancy.”

“Awkwardly enough, a room is practically unobtainable either at a private house or even at one of the inns,” at length admitted Mr. Galton with slow reluctance. “It’s an unusual state of things I know, but there are special circumstances and the people here have always been encouraged to refuse chance visitors. The consequence is that nobody sets out to let apartments.”

“‘Special circumstances?’ Does that mean–”

“Evidently you have not heard of the Tapsfield paper mill, Mr. Dixson. The particular circumstance is that all the paper used in the printing of Bank of England notes is made here in the village.”

“You surprise me. I should have imagined that they would be printed in a strong room at the Bank itself or something of that sort. Surely–”

“Printed, yes,” assented the vicar. “I believe they are. But the peculiar and characteristic paper is all made within a stone’s throw of where we are. It is really our only local industry and practically all the people are either employed there or dependent on the business. Of course it is a very important and confidential–I might almost say dangerous–position, and although there is no actual rule, new-comers do not find it practicable to settle here and strangers are not accommodated.”

“New-comers and strangers, eh?” The visitor laughed with a slightly wry good humour.

“I know, I know,” admitted the vicar ruefully. “It is we who are really the interlopers and newcomers compared with your status. But the difficulty is that owing to the established order of things it is out of these good people’s power to make exceptions.”

“But what am I to do about it?” protested Mr. Dixson rather blankly. “You see how I am placed now?…I can’t go back to London for another wretched night, and it would be too late to get on to some other district…I never dreamt of not finding any sort of lodgings. Surely there must be someone with a room to spare, even if they don’t make it a business. Then if you wouldn’t mind putting in a word–”

“Now let me think; let me think,” mused the good-natured pastor. “It would be really deplorable if you of all people should find yourself cold-shouldered out of Tapsfield. As you say, there may be someone–”

Since the moment when chance had brought them into conversation, the two men had been walking together towards the village of which the only evidence so far had been an ancient tower showing above a mass of trees, where a querulous congregation of rooks incessantly put resolutions and urged amendments. Now a final bend of the devious lane laid the main village street open before them, and so near that they were in it before Mr. Galton’s cogitation had reached any practical expression.

“There surely might be someone–” he repeated hopefully, for by this time, what with one slight influence and another, the excellent man felt himself almost morally bound to get Dixson out of his dilemma. “I have it!–at least, there’s really quite a good chance there–Mrs. Hocking.”

“Splendid,” acquiesced Dixson with an easy assumption that this was as good as settled. “Mrs. Hocking by all means.”

“She is an aunt of the youth I mentioned–the one who has gone to Sydney. He lived there, so that she ought to have a bedroom vacant. And I expect that she would like to hear about Australia, so that might make it easier.”

“Quite providential,” was Dixson’s comment, and rather inconsequently he could not refrain from adding: “How lucky that I didn’t come from Canada! I am sure that if you would kindly introduce me and put in a good word on the score of respectability, that–coupled with a willingness to pay in advance–would make it all right with Mrs. Hocking.”

“We can but see,” agreed Mr. Galton. “I will use my utmost powers of persuasion. She is really a most hospitable woman–I believe she provides the buns for the Guild Working Party tea regularly every other Wednesday.”

“I happen to be very fond of buns,” said Dixson gravely. “I am sure that we shall get on together famously.”

“Oh, really? As a matter of fact, I never touch them–flatulence. However, her cottage is only just there over the way. Now, had we better–no, perhaps on the whole if you waited by the gate while I broached the matter–what do you think?”

“I am entirely in your hands,” said Dixson diplomatically. “It’s most tremendously good of you. Is there only a Mrs. Hocking?”

“Oh, no. She has a husband and a daughter as well–an extremely worthy family–but as they work at the mill, like nearly everyone else here, she will probably be the only one at home just now.”

“Perhaps I had better wait as you suggest then,”–really a non sequitur, thought the vicar–“and, if it’s any inducement, I’m doing pretty well at home, you know, so that I shouldn’t mind something above the ordinary in the circumstances.”

The gesture that Mr. Galton threw back as he turned into the formal little garden of a painfully modern cottage might have implied that it would be or it wouldn’t–or indeed any other meaning. Dixson strolled on as far as an intersecting lane. It began with a couple of rows of hygienic cottages on the severe plan of Mrs. Hocking’s, but in the distance a high wall indicated premises of a different use, and from this direction came the regular but not too discordant beat of machinery at work. Less in keeping with the rural scene than this mild evidence of industry was the presence of a sentry-box before what was apparently the principal gate of the place. Plainly a strict guard was kept, but the picket himself was too far away or not sufficiently in view for the actual force he was drawn from to be determined. It was the first indication that Tapsfield held anything particular to safeguard and Dixson experienced a momentary flicker of excitement.

“So that’s that,” he summarised as he turned back without betraying any further symptom of interest. He had not long to wait for his new acquaintance’s reappearance.

“Our efforts have been crowned with success,” announced Mr. Galton, beaming with satisfaction. “Mrs. Hocking only stipulates for no late cooking.”

“Famous,” replied Dixson, a little more careless of his speech now that he had secured quarters. “I never tackle a heavy meal after sunset myself– insomnia.”

“The question of terms I have left for your own arrangement. But I do not think that you will find Mrs. Hocking too exacting.”

“I’m sure. And you’ll remember your promise? I’m dying to see the celebrated twelfth century canopied sedilia.”

“You have heard of our unique Norman feature? Oh, really!” It would have been impossible to strike a better claim on the vicar’s favour. “Really, Mr. Dixson, I had no idea that you took an actual interest in ecclesiastical architecture.”

“Well, naturally, I felt a deep regard for the church where my forefathers worshipped. Way out at home someone happened to be able to lend me a sort of guide to Sussex. I simply lapped it. Now I want to go over every nook and cranny in Tapsfield.”

“So you shall; so you shall,” promised the clergyman. “I will answer for it. We’ll arrange about the church as soon as you are settled.” He had turned to go, but before Dixson was through the gate he heard his name called with a rather confidential import. “And, by the way, while I think of it. We have a little informal entertainment in the school house once a week–a, er, ‘penny reading’ we call it.”

“A sort of sing-song, I suppose?”

“Precisely; but not in any way–er–boisterous. Well, we find it increasingly difficult sometimes–not that everyone isn’t most willing; quite the contrary, indeed, but what handicaps us with our limited material is to provide variety. Now I was wondering if you could be persuaded to give a little talk–it need only be quite short, of course–on ‘Life and Adventure in the Land of the Wombat,’ or naturally, any other title that commends itself to you. You–? Well, think it over, won’t you?”

“That was a tolerably soft shell,” reflected Dixson, as he discreetly avoided discovering any of the interested eyes that had been following the details of his arrival from behind stealthily arranged curtains. “Now for Mrs. Hocking–and the husband and daughter who work at the paper mill.”

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