The Gaunt Stranger - Edgar Wallace - ebook

The Gaunt Stranger ebook

Edgar Wallace

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Inspector Wembury’s day turns from bad to worse when a legendary assassin who was supposed dead in Australia returns to England seeking vengeance for the murder of his sister. The detective teams up with Lomond, a police doctor, to try to find „The Ringer” who is a mysterious, revenge-driven serial killer and master of disguise. When a lawyer receives a bouquet with a note informing him that he’ll be dead in forty-eight hours, Wembury and his men embark on a frantic quest to uncover the killer’s identity... An exiting book full of intrigue and mystery, „The Gaunt Stranger” is a must-read for all fans of thrilling crime fiction. Edgar Wallace provides a thrill of another sort!

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Liczba stron: 311

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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 I

FLANDERS LANE, DEPTFORD, is narrow and dingy. If you crowd the houses of Fitzroy Square into a breathless thoroughfare, wherein two taxis cannot pass one another without danger to paint and certainty of profane exchanges; leave the resplendent woodwork of door and sash to blister in the sun and grow streaky with rain-carried grime; strip the entrance lobbies of their carpets and the rooms of their furniture, and substitute the crazy household gods of the worse than poor; crowd every room with a family–with sometimes more than one; let the stairs be broken and holes gape in the floors and roofing so that on rainy days every wall shows blotches of grey; fill passage and stairs and rooms and the roadway between these kennels with shrieking, whooping children in every stage of uncleanliness, you would have Flanders Lane, that leads crookedly to the Creek Bridge and eventually to Greenwich.

There are certain forms of architecture, just as there are certain types of humanity, from which the pristine beauty of design cannot be wholly worn, and the houses of Flanders Lane maintain something of their faded dignity.

Mr. Evelyn, the diarist, walked the narrow sidewalk and saw the leather-breeched workmen fitting the lead gutterings. Peter the Great, working in a shipyard near-by, got drunk at The Pretty Maid Inn at the corner.

Poverty began to trickle this way in the forties, when the gentry moved up to Blackheath; and poverty, being rat-like, burrowed itself into cellars and basements and could not be ousted; crept gradually upward until it reached the attic rooms, where it stole the lead gutterings, whilst a lower strata removed all superfluous panelling and closet doors and used the wood to kindle its fires.

Here came the police in twos, sometimes carrying their clubs conveniently up their sleeves; here at odd moments in the dusk and the night the screams of women were a disturbance to light sleepers.

Sometimes a big police car would dart into Flanders Lane, disgorging the Flying Squad from head-quarters, and there would be a howling and a yelling in some dark interior, the blubbering sobs of a girl bereft of her man, and the squad car would go silent away, carrying an extra passenger, and as like as not there would be a red-eyed woman waiting at Mr. Meister’s forbidding front door long before he was up the next morning.

Mr. Meister’s house was most unexpectedly different from all the rest. It stood back from the street and was entirely surrounded by a high wall, which on the Lane side was punctured by a stout black door. Behind this door was a short paved path, protected above by a glass awning invisible from the road. It was a very old house, but was distinct from its fellows in this respect: the windows were clean and neatly curtained. The sashes were painted white, the wooden sunshades a bright green. A fair-sized lawn was spread behind the wall, and two big apple trees foamed with blossom above the May daisies. The little boys of Flanders Lane never stole his apples, or broke the glass of his awning; or yet spoke disrespectfully to the slim girl in black who opened the front door with her key as the clock struck nine every morning. Most of the people in Flanders Lane knew that she was Johnny Lenley’s sister, and she had the title to their respect which is offered to the relatives of people in trouble, but this was not the sole reason for her immunity.

Mr. Meister was a lawyer. He was more than this: he was a philanthropist. Many a man had “gone away” and left his wife and children to starve–as they would have starved but for the little allowance they received in Meister’s gaunt reception-room on the entrance floor.

He defended clients in the courts and never asked a penny for his services. In some cases he employed great advocates to plead for the liberty of a big man taken in crime. He did this for Johnny Lenley–though Johnny could not, by any stretch of imagination, be called big, for he fell at his second burglary and was sent down to the Awful Place for seven long and bitter years.

Mr. Meister had helped Mary a lot: had made her a substantial allowance, and at last, fearing (as he said) that she fretted after her brother, had her taught shorthand and typewriting and took her into his office at a generous wage.

Flanders Lane did not love him. Nor did Old Mill Lane, nor Little Holland Street, nor other of these ungracious places. But for some reason they were afraid of him. Men who got too fresh with Lewis Meister were often arrested by the police and charged with crimes which they themselves had almost forgotten. It was regarded as unlucky to quarrel with this good man.

There was once a lag who shot a policeman at Eastbourne and got away without leaving so much as a fingerprint. He quarrelled with Meister months after. And the very next day two busy men from head-quarters pulled him. And he was hanged. It was (all agreed) very unlucky to quarrel with a philanthropist who not only charged his clients nothing for defending them, but actually supported their dependents during their regrettable absence.

That you cannot touch pitch without being defiled, is one of the three wisest sayings. His zeal on behalf of unfortunate people had twice brought him into conflict with the Law Society. He had on each occasion nearly escaped expulsion for unprofessional conduct. Other lawyers were jealous of him, since he had the best practice in Deptford. He told friends and clients that this was the cause of his unpopularity with his own cloth, and since the psychology of envy was a phenomenon familiar enough, they thought it was very likely that Mr. Meister stated the fact.

He had one real enemy: one man who actively hated him. All Deptford knew this; the police knew this; Mr. Meister knew it best of all. It was brought home to him one warm autumn day (before Mary Lenley was a regular visitor), when he lounged in a deep cane chair under the grateful shade of an apple tree, a long tumbler filled with sparkling amber and tinkling ice at his side, a new novel on his knees, his soul at peace with the world. A stout and placid man, with a pink face and a slightly bald head, his teeth were clenched on a long cigar when his old housekeeper came hobbling rheumatically into the garden with a telegram.

“Put it down,” said Mr. Meister, not raising his eyes from the book.

She had been gone some time when out of the tail of his eye he saw the envelope on the table and caught just a glimpse of a word scrawled across the corner.

“Urgent!”

Mr. Meister frowned. Telegrams so inscribed are a rarity in England. They come only on Government service. Even Mr. Meister in all his experience had never received one before. He put down his book deliberately, fixed a pair of folding glasses to his nose and tore open the telegram. First came his name and address:

VERY URGENT. CLEAR THE LINE. ON HIS MAJESTY’S SERVICE. BEGINS. HENRY ARTHUR MILTON, A CONVICT UNDER SENTENCE OF FOURTEEN YEARS’ PENAL SERVITUDE, ESCAPED FROM PARKHURST CONVICT ESTABLISHMENT LAST EVENING AT 6.35 P.M. STOP…”

Mr. Meister lifted his glass with a shaking hand and drank the contents at a gulp.

SUCCEEDED IN LEAVING THE ISLAND THIS MORNING ON STOLEN MOTOR LAUNCH STOP. MILTON HAS UTTERED THREATS AGAINST YOU AND MAY MAKE FOR YOUR HOUSE STOP. SENDING INSPECTOR ALAN WEMBURY CONSULT WITH YOU. TYLER ASSISTANT COMMISSIONER CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION. MESSAGE ENDS.

The Ringer was free!

The pink of Mr. Meister’s countenance had gone; he was all grey. With a groan he got up jerkily to his feet and cast a fearful glance at the high wall. From the street without came the shrill squawks of children at play, and the high-pitched cockney whine of a boy placating an enraged parent who was seeking him.

He had no woman secretary in those days; an elderly clerk lived on the premises, and he, with the housekeeper, who was also cook, and a youthful and homely housemaid, comprised the establishment.

Returning to the room that served as office, study and sitting-room, he found a tall, good-looking man of thirty awaiting him, and in his state of anguish Meister could have fallen on his neck.

“Captain Wembury, isn’t it?” he gasped. The hand that grasped Alan Wembury’s was cold and damp. “Is there any–any news about … about …?”

“You’ve had a wire, I suppose?” Meister nodded and swallowed. “I doubt if The Ringer will bother you: he has been seen in the neighbourhood of Southampton Docks. At least, a dock policeman, who, we have since discovered, knew the man, was found clubbed insensible behind one of the dock stores. He isn’t conscious yet–but we guess The Ringer.”

“The Ringer uses a knife–he always uses a knife,” said Meister, and his full lower lip trembled.

“Maybe he hasn’t a knife,” replied Inspector Wembury dryly. “He’s an adaptable man. What makes you say he uses a knife?”

He was scrutinising the quaking figure closely.

“I don’t know … what in hell’s the use of asking me?” answered Meister, distracted to foolish anger. “They say he … he killed somebody who tried to shop him?”

“Betray him? Forgive my ignorance of the new argot–I was attached to the Embassy at Washington until a month ago, and my vocabulary has been purified.” Wembury laughed softly. “He’s that kind of bird, is he?”

“That kind!” Meister almost shrieked the words. “He’s a killer–everybody knows that! Everybody except you!”

Then he took a hold of himself and proceeded more calmly.

“I’m sorry … this fellow gets me rattled. He threatens me! After all I did for him! I defended him in the magistrate’s court, fought tooth and nail for him, and when he was sent to trial I engaged the two biggest men at the bar to look after him. And not a cent did I get for it, Wembury! And now he’s threatening me. My God, is there any justice in the world, any gratitude?”

He mopped his face; the grey had deepened to an angry red and was moist.

The days that followed remained with Mr. Lewis Meister all his life, a poignant memory. A man respited at the foot of the scaffold might as easily have forgotten the horrid second of time when death leered at him through a dangling noose. And respited Mr. Meister was. Months later the news came through that the escaped prisoner had reached an Australian port. Then Cora Milton disappeared from London, to be seen again on Flemington race-track; and was around, The Ringer was not far away, for she was reputedly his wife, a wild girl from Gary, Indiana.

Flanders Lane, agitated and agog for the moment by his escape, slowly settled back to apathy again. The Ringer would never be caught. He was a master of disguise, the greatest since the passing of Charles Peace, the legendary hero of the street. His very name labelled his graft. He was a ringer of changes.

Forgathering in their frowsy parlours, the Laners talked with hushed voices of the day when The Ringer walked into the Bank of England, an anaemic-looking parson, and walked out again in the uniform of a bank messenger with half a million dollars’ worth of American bills taken from under the cashier’s nose.

He would never be caught; and as the days went on, Mr. Meister was seen abroad again, and the plain-clothes policemen who guarded his house were withdrawn, and nothing stayed behind except the recollection of a telegram marked “Urgent” and the reeling terror of a second’s space of time. That Mr. Meister could not wholly banish from his mind. Not even the grace and charm of Mary Lenley and all his thoughts of her excluded The Ringer from his daily thoughts.

Mary Lenley was regarded by Flanders Lane as being excessively ladylike. The drab women who supported most doorposts on fine mornings and occupied the front steps on warm nights were in agreement, and since she gave smile for smile and nod for nod, “Good morning, Mrs. Timms” for “Good morning, Miss Lenley,” the general approval had no reservations as to haughtiness. Invariably she looked as if she had stepped from the show window of Higgins & Jones’ Select Mantle House & Ladies’ Outfitters, and achieved, in point of appearance, the ideal of every scrawny and sophisticated maiden of Deptford.

She was a pretty, slim-bodied, straight-backed girl, who walked humanly, for she was of a class which neither envied nor copied the mannequin or the chorus girl.

Alan came face to face with her exactly eleven months to the day after their previous meeting, and it was an embarrassing moment for Mr. Wembury, whose lean, tanned face grew redder as the distance between them decreased. He raised his hat and would have passed on, but she stopped.

“Good morning, Mr. Wembury–this is the third time in a month you have tried to ‘cut’ me!”

Alan Wembury was a little incoherent in his protestation, and she laughed and, laughing, all the pale sadness went out of her face, and she was the mischievous little girl he had known ten–fifteen years ago, when the bracken under the elms of Lenley Court was his favourite playground.

“I saw you in the High Street and I saw you again on the Hilly Fields. And each time you hurried away as though you had a very pressing engagement elsewhere!” she challenged him.

“Well, Miss Lenley”–awkwardly–“I am afraid that is a true bill. Naturally I thought …”

She nodded and was serious again.

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