The Frightened Lady - Edgar Wallace - ebook

The Frightened Lady ebook

Edgar Wallace

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When Inspector Tanner is called in to investigate a ruthless murder at Mark’s Priory, the grand ancestral home of the Lebanon family, he quickly discovers that nothing is quite as it seems. The household is controlled by the family physician, the footmen behave more like guests than servants and the secretary Isla is afraid for her life. Why are these two American „toughs” employed as footmen? Why is Lady Lebanon so unwilling to answer any questions? What he does know is that the only obviously innocent person is utterly consumed with terror. Here is Inspector Tanner’s first real clue. As Tanner moves closer to the heart of the mystery he uncovers a shocking and closely guarded secret.

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Liczba stron: 345

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Contents

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

CHAPTER XIV

CHAPTER XV

CHAPTER XVI

CHAPTER XVII

CHAPTER XVIII

CHAPTER XIX

CHAPTER XX

CHAPTER XXI

CHAPTER XXII

CHAPTER XXIII

CHAPTER XXIV

CHAPTER XXV

CHAPTER XXVI

CHAPTER I

AMERICAN footmen aren’t natural: even Brooks admitted as much to Kelver, the butler, thereby cutting the ground from under his own feet.

He was a stout man, tightly liveried, and wore spectacles. His hair was grey and thin, his voice inclined to be squeaky. Sticking out of the pocket of a red-striped waistcoat, which was part of his uniform, there was visible a broken packet of gum. He chewed most of the time, his jaws moving almost with the regularity of a pendulum. Gilder, of an exact and mathematical turn of mind, had clocked him as fast as fifty-six to the minute, and as slow as fifty-one. In the privacy of his room Mr. Brooks smoked a large pipe charged with a peculiar sugary blend of tobacco that he imported expensively from California.

Neither Mr. Brooks, the footman, nor Mr. Gilder, the footman, fitted the household of Marks Priory, nor did they fit the village of Marks Thornton. They were poor footmen, and never seemed to improve by practice and benefit from experience.

Yet they were nice men, if you can imagine such abnormalities as American footmen being nice. They interfered with none, were almost extravagantly polite to their fellow-servants, and never once (this stood as a monumental credit) did they report any other servants for a neglect of duty, even when neglect worked adversely against their own comfort.

They were liked, and Gilder a little feared. He was a gaunt man with a hollowed, lined face and a deep, gloomy voice that came rumbling up from some hollow cavern inside him. His hair was sparse and black and long; there were large patches on his head which were entirely bald, and he was immensely strong.

There was a gamekeeper who discovered this–John Tilling. He was a big man, red-haired, red-faced, obsessed by suspicion. His wife was certainly pretty, as certainly restless and given to dreams which she never quite realised, though imagination helped her nearly the whole of the journey. For example, she found no olive-skinned Romeo in a certain groom from the village. He was ruddy, rather coarse, smelt of stables and beer, and last Sunday’s clean shirt. He offered her the mechanics of love, and her imagination supplied the missing glamour. But that was an old scandal. If it had reached the ears of Lady Lebanon there would have been a new tenant to Box Hedge Cottage…

Later Mrs. Tilling looked higher than ostlers, but her husband did not know this.

He stopped Gilder one afternoon as he was crossing Priory Field.

“Excuse me.”

His politeness was menacing.

“You bin down to my cottage once or twice lately–when I was over at Horsham?”

An assertion rather than an inquiry.

“Why, yes.” The American spoke slowly, which was his way. “Her ladyship asked me to call about the clutch of eggs that she’s been charged for. You weren’t at home. So I called next day.”

“And I wasn’t at home neither,” sneered Tilling, his face redder.

Gilder looked at him amused. For himself he knew nothing of the unfortunate affair of the groom, for small gossip did not interest him.

“That’s so. You were in the woods somewhere.”

“My wife was at home…You stopped an’ had a cup of tea, hey?”

Gilder was outraged. The smile went out of his grey eyes and they were hard.

“What’s the idea?” he asked.

His jacket was suddenly gripped.

“You stay away–”

So far Tilling got, and then the American footman took him gently by the wrist and slowly twisted his hand free.

If Tilling had been a child he could have offered no more effective resistance.

“Say, don’t do that. Yeah, I saw your wife and I had tea. She may be a beautiful baby to you, but to me she’s two eyes and a nose. Get that in your mind.”

He jerked his forearm very slightly, but very violently. It was a trick of training; the gamekeeper stumbled back and had a difficulty in maintaining his balance. He was a slow-witted man, incapable of sustaining two emotions at one and the same time. For the moment he was too astounded to be anything but astounded.

“You know your wife better than I do,” said Gilder, flexing his back. “Maybe you’re right about her, but you’re all wrong about me.”

When he came back from the village–he had been to the chemist’s–he found Tilling waiting for him almost on the spot where they had parted.

There was no hint of truculence; in a way he was apologetic. Gilder, by repute, had her ladyship’s ear, and exercised a supreme intelligence which had its explanation according to the fancies fair, fantastic or foul, of those who offered a solution to the mystery.

“I’ll be glad if you overlook what I said, Mr. Gilder. Anna an’ me have our little disagreements, an’ I’m a high-handed chap. There’s been too many visits down at Box Hedge, but you, bein’ a family man–”

“I’m not married, but I’ve got a domestic mind,” said Gilder. “Let’s say no more about it.”

Later he told Brooks, and the stout man listened stolidly, his jaws working. When he spoke, he offered an historical parallel.

“Say, have you heard of Messalina? She was an Eyetalian woman, the wife of Julius Caesar or somep’n.”

Brooks read a great deal and had a skimming memory for facts. Still, a footman who was an American citizen and who even knew that Messalina had lived, and could produce her in any recognisable form to illustrate a situation, was phenomenal. Place him and his companion against the background of Mark’s Priory and they became incongruous.

For Mark’s Priory had its footing set by Saxon masons, and the West Keep had gone up when William Rufus was hunting in the New Forest. Tudor Henry had found it a ruin, and restored it for his protege John, Baron Lebanon. It had withstood a siege against the soldiers of Warwick.

It was Plantagenet and Tudor and modern. No eighteenth century builder had desecrated its form; it had survived the rise and fall of the Victorian renaissance which produced so many queerly shaped angels and cherubs and draughty back rooms. There was an age and a mellowness to it that only time and the English climate could bring.

Willie Lebanon found it an irritation and an anodyne; to Dr. Amersham it was a prison and a disagreeable duty; to Lady Lebanon alone it was Reality.

CHAPTER II

LADY LEBANON was slight, petite by strict standards, though never giving you the impression of smallness. Yet people who spoke to her for the first time carried away a sense of the majestic.

She was firm, cold, very definite. Her black hair was parted in the middle and brought down over her ears. She had small, delicate features; the moulding of her cheeks was aesthetic. In her dark eyes burnt the unquenchable fires of the true fanatic. Always she seemed conscious of a duty to aristocracy. The modern world had not touched her; her speech was precise, unextravagant–almost you saw the commas and colons which spaced her sentences. She abominated slang, smoking in women, the vulgarity of ostentation.

Always she was conscious of her descent from the fourth baron–she had married her cousin–and the tremendous significance of family.

Willie Lebanon confessed himself bored with the state in which he lived. Though he was small of stature, he had passed through Sandhurst with distinction, and if his two years’ service in the 30th Hussars had failed to stamp him soldier, the experience had enhanced his physique. The bad attack of fever which brought him home (explained Lady Lebanon, when she condescended to explain anything) was largely responsible for Willie’s restlessness. The unbiased observer might have found a better reason for his exasperation.

He came slowly down the winding tower stairs of Marks Priory into the great hall, determined to “have it out” with his mother. He had made such resolutions before, and half-way through the argument had wearied of it.

She was sitting at her desk, reading her letters. She glanced up as he came into view and fixed him with that long and searching scrutiny which always embarrassed him. “Good morning, Willie.”

Her voice was soft, rich, and yet had in it a certain quality of hardness which made him wriggle inside. It was rather like going before the commanding officer in his least compromising mood.

“I say, can I have a talk with you?” he managed to jerk out.

He tried to recall to himself the formula which was to support him. He was the head of the house, the lord of Marks Priory in the County of Sussex, and of Temple Abbey in the County of Yorkshire…the master! He had only a vague and dismal satisfaction at the knowledge, and certainly was no nearer to the dominating mood which he was trying to stimulate into being.

“Yes, Willie?”

She laid down her pen, settled herself back in the padded chair, her delicate hands lightly clasped on her lap.

“I’ve sacked Gilder,” he said jerkily. “He’s an absolute boor, mother; he really is. And he was rather impertinent…I think it is rather ridiculous, don’t you, having American footmen who really don’t know their jobs? There must be hundreds of footmen you could engage. Brooks is just as bad…”

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