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A gang of burglars, bank-robbers, and thieves is plaguing the river Thames in London; their distinctive disguises of rubber masks and rubber gloves giving them the name "The India-rubber Men". What is the connection of the gang with the seedy "Mecca" club?
Richard Horatio Edgar Wallace (1 April 1875 – 10 February 1932) was an English writer.
Born into poverty as an illegitimate London child, Wallace left school at 12. He joined the army at 21 and was a war correspondent during the Second Boer War for Reuters and the Daily Mail. Struggling with debt, he left South Africa, returned to London and began writing thrillers to raise income, publishing books including The Four Just Men (1905). Drawing on time as a reporter in the Congo, covering the Belgian atrocities, Wallace serialised short stories in magazines, later publishing collections such as Sanders of the River (1911). He signed with Hodder and Stoughton in 1921 and became an internationally recognised author.
After an unsuccessful bid to stand as Liberal MP for Blackpool (as one of David Lloyd George's Independent Liberals) in the 1931 general election, Wallace moved to Hollywood, where he worked as a script writer for RKO studios. He died suddenly from undiagnosed diabetes, during the initial drafting of King Kong (1933).
A prolific writer, one of Wallace's publishers claimed that a quarter of all books then read in England were written by him. As well as journalism, Wallace wrote screen plays, poetry, historical non-fiction, 18 stage plays, 957 short stories and over 170 novels, 12 in 1929 alone. More than 160 films have been made of Wallace's work. He is remembered for the creation of King Kong, as a writer of 'the colonial imagination', for the J. G. Reeder detective stories, and the Green Archer. He sold over 50 million copies of his combined works in various editions and The Economist describes him as "one of the most prolific thriller writers of [the 20th] century", although few of his books are still in print in the UK.
Wallace was born at 7 Ashburnham Grove, Greenwich, to actors Richard Horatio Edgar and Mary Jane "Polly" Richards, née Blair.
Wallace's mother was born in 1843, in Liverpool, to an Irish Catholic family. Mary's family had been in show business and she worked in the theatre as a stagehand, usherette and bit-part actress until she married in 1867. Captain Joseph Richards was also born in Liverpool in 1838, also from an Irish Catholic family. He and his father John Richards were both Merchant Navy captains, and his mother Catherine Richards came from a mariner family. When Mary was eight months pregnant, in January 1868, her husband, Joseph Richards died at sea. After the birth, destitute, Mary took to the stage, assuming the stage name "Polly" Richards. In 1872, Polly met and joined the Marriott family theatre troupe, managed by Mrs. Alice Edgar, her husband Richard Edgar and their three adult children, Grace Edgar, Adeline Edgar and Richard Horatio Edgar. Richard Horatio Edgar and Polly ended up having a "broom cupboard" style sexual encounter during an after-show party. Discovering she was pregnant, Polly invented a fictitious obligation in Greenwich that would last at least half a year, and obtained a room in a boarding house where she lived until her son's birth on 1 April 1875. During her confinement she had asked her midwife to find a couple to foster the child. The midwife introduced Polly to her close friend, Mrs Freeman, a mother of ten children, whose husband George Freeman was a Billingsgate fishmonger. On 9 April 1875, Polly took Edgar to the semi-literate Freeman family and made arrangements to visit often.
Wallace, then known as Richard Horatio Edgar Freeman, Polly's young son, had a happy childhood, forming a close bond with 20-year-old Clara Freeman who became a second mother to him. By 1878, Polly could no longer afford the small sum she had been paying the Freemans to care for her son and instead of placing the boy in the workhouse, the Freemans adopted him. Polly never visited him again as a child. His foster-father George Freeman was determined to ensure Richard received a good education and for some time Wallace attended St. Alfege with St. Peter’s, a boarding school in Peckham, however he played truant and then left full-time education at the age of 12.
By his early teens, Wallace had held down numerous jobs such as newspaper-seller at Ludgate Circus near Fleet Street, milk-delivery boy, rubber factory worker, shoe shop assistant and ship’s cook. A plaque at Ludgate Circus commemorates Wallace's first encounter with the newspaper business. He was dismissed from his job on the milk run for stealing money. In 1894, he became engaged to a local Deptford girl, Edith Anstree, but broke the engagement, enlisting in the Infantry.
Wallace registered in the army under the adopted name Edgar Wallace, taken from the author of Ben-Hur, Lew Wallace. At the time the medical records register him as having a 33-inch chest and being stunted from his childhood spent in the slums. He was posted in South Africa with the West Kent Regiment, in 1896. He disliked army life but managed to arrange a transfer to the Royal Army Medical Corps, which was less arduous but more unpleasant, and so transferred again to the Press Corps, which he found suited him better.
Wallace began publishing songs and poetry, much inspired by Rudyard Kipling, whom he met in Cape Town in 1898. Wallace's first book of ballads, The Mission that Failed! was published that same year. In 1899, he bought his way out of the forces and turned to writing full-time. Remaining in Africa, he became a war correspondent, first for Reuters and then the Daily Mail (1900) and other periodicals during the Boer War.
In 1901, while in South Africa, Wallace married Ivy Maude Caldecott (1880?–1926), although her father, a Wesleyan missionary, Reverend William Shaw Caldecott, was strongly opposed to the marriage. The couple's first child, Eleanor Clare Hellier Wallace died suddenly from meningitis in 1903 and they returned to London soon after, deep in debt. Wallace worked for the Mail in London and began writing detective stories in a bid to earn quick money. A son, Bryan, was born in 1904 followed by a daughter, Patricia in 1908. In 1903, Wallace met his birth mother Polly, whom he had never known. Terminally ill, 60 years old, and living in poverty, she came to ask for money and was turned away. Polly died in the Bradford Infirmary later that year.
Unable to find any backer for his first book, Wallace set up his own publishing company, Tallis Press, which issued the thriller The Four Just Men (1905). Despite promotion in the Mail and good sales, the project was financially mismanaged and Wallace had to be bailed out by the Mail's proprietor Alfred Harmsworth, who was anxious that the farrago would reflect badly on his newspaper. Problems were compounded when inaccuracies in Wallace's reporting led to libel cases being brought against the Mail. Wallace was dismissed in 1907, the first reporter ever to be fired from the paper, and he found no other paper would employ him, given his reputation. The family lived continuously in a state of near-bankruptcy, Ivy having to sell her jewellery for food.
During 1907 Edgar travelled to the Congo Free State, to report on atrocities committed against the Congolese under King Leopold II of Belgium and the Belgian rubber companies, in which up to 15 million Congolese were killed. Isabel Thorne of the Weekly Tale-Teller penny magazine, invited Wallace to serialise stories inspired by his experiences. These were published as his first collection Sanders of the River (1911), a best seller, in 1935 adapted into a film with the same name, starring Paul Robeson. Wallace went on to publish 11 more similar collections (102 stories). They were tales of exotic adventure and local tribal rites, set on an African river, mostly without love interest as this held no appeal for Wallace. His first 28 books and their film rights he sold outright, with no royalties, for quick money. Critic David Pringle noted in 1987 "The Sanders Books are not frequently reprinted nowadays, perhaps because of their overt racism".
The period from 1908 to 1932 were the most prolific of Wallace's life. Initially he wrote mainly in order to satisfy creditors in the UK and South Africa. The success of his books began to rehabilitate his reputation as a journalist and he began reporting from horse racing circles. He wrote for the Week-End and the Evening News, becoming an editor for Week-End Racing Supplement and started his own racing papers Bibury's and R. E. Walton's Weekly, buying many racehorses of his own. He lost many thousands gambling and despite his success spent large sums on an extravagant lifestyle he could not afford. During 1916, Ivy had her last child, Michael Blair Wallace by Edgar and filed for divorce in 1918.
Ivy moved to Tunbridge Wells with the children and Wallace drew closer to his secretary Ethel Violet King (1896–1933), daughter of banker Frederick King. They married in 1921 and Penelope Wallace was born to them in 1923. Wallace began to take his fiction writing career more seriously and signed with publishers Hodder and Stoughton in 1921, organising his contracts, instead of selling rights to his work piecemeal in order to raise funds. This allowed him advances, royalties and full scale promotional campaigns for his books, which he had never before had. They aggressively advertised him as a celebrity writer, ‘King of Thrillers’, known for this trademark trilby, cigarette holder and yellow Rolls Royce. He was said to be able to write a 70 000 word novel in three days and plough through three novels at once and indeed the publishers agreed to publish everything he wrote as fast as he could write it. In 1928 it was estimated that one in four books being read in the UK had come from Wallace's pen. He wrote across many genres including science fiction, screen plays, a non-fiction ten-volume history of the First World War. All told, he wrote over 170 novels, 18 stage plays and 957 short stories, his works translated into 28 languages. The critic Wheeler W. Dixon suggests that Wallace became somewhat of a public joke for this prodigious output.
Wallace served as chairman of the Press Club, which continues to present an annual 'Edgar Wallace Award' for excellence in writing. Following the great success of his novel The Ringer, Wallace was appointed chairman of the British Lion Film Corporation in return for giving British Lion first option on all his output. Wallace's contract gave him an annual salary, a substantial block of stock in the company, plus a large stipend from everything British Lion produced based on his work, plus 10% of British Lion's overall annual profits. Additionally, British Lion employed his elder son Bryan E. Wallace as a film editor. By 1929, Wallace's earnings were almost £50,000 per annum, (equivalent to about £2 million in current terms). He also invented at this time the 'Luncheon Club', bringing together his two greatest loves of journalism and horse-racing.
Wallace was the first British crime novelist to use policemen as his protagonists, rather than amateur sleuths as most other writers of the time did. Most of his novels are independent stand-alone stories; he seldom used series heroes, and when he did he avoided a strict story order, so that continuity was not required from book to book. On 6 June 1923, Edgar Wallace became the first British radio sports reporter, when he made a report on the Epsom Derby for the British Broadcasting Company, the newly founded predecessor of the BBC.
Wallace's ex-wife Ivy was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1923 and though the tumour was successfully removed, it returned terminally by 1925 and she died in 1926.
Wallace wrote a controversial article in the mid-1920s entitled "The Canker In Our Midst" about paedophilia and the show business world. Describing how some show business people unwittingly leave their children vulnerable to predators, it linked paedophilia with homosexuality and outraged many of his colleagues, publishing associates and business friends including theatre mogul Gerald du Maurier. Biographer Margaret Lane describes it as an "intolerant, blustering, kick-the-blighters-down-the-stairs" type of essay, even by the standards of the day.
Wallace became active in the Liberal Party and contested Blackpool in the 1931 general election as one of a handful of Independent Liberals, who rejected the National Government, and the official Liberal support for it, and strongly supported free trade. He also bought the Sunday News and edited it for six months, writing a theatre column, before it closed. In the event, he lost the election by over 33,000 votes. He went to America, burdened by debt, in November 1931. Around the same time, he wrote the screenplay for the first sound film adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1932) produced by Gainsborough Pictures.
Moving to Hollywood, he began working as a "script doctor" for RKO. His later play, The Green Pack had also opened to excellent reviews, boosting his status even further. Wallace wanted to get his own work on Hollywood celluloid, adapting books such as The Four Just Men and Mr J G Reeder. In Hollywood he met Stanley Holloway's scriptwriter, his own half-brother Marriott Edgar. Wallace's play On the Spot, written about gangster Al Capone, would prove to be the writer's greatest theatrical success. It is described as "arguably, in construction, dialogue, action, plot and resolution, still one of the finest and purest of 20th-century melodramas". (The Independent, 2000). It launched the career of Charles Laughton who played the lead Capone character Tony Perelli.
In December 1931, Wallace was assigned work on the RKO "gorilla picture" (King Kong, 1933) for producer Merian C. Cooper. By late January, however, he was beginning to suffer sudden, severe headaches and was diagnosed with diabetes. His condition deteriorated within days. Violet booked passage on a liner out of Southampton, but received word that Edgar had slipped into a coma and died of the condition, combined with double pneumonia, on 10 February 1932 in North Maple Drive, Beverly Hills. The flags on Fleet Street's newspaper offices flew at half-mast and the bell of St. Bride's tolled in mourning. He was buried at Little Marlow Cemetery, Fern Lane, Buckinghamshire, not far from his UK country home, Chalklands, in Bourne End.
Despite his later success, Wallace had amassed massive debts, some still remaining from his years in South Africa, many to racing bookies. The large royalties from his greatly popular works allowed the estate to be settled within two years. Violet Wallace outlived her husband by only 14 months, dying suddenly in April 1933 at the age of 33 while the estate was still deep in debt.
THE INDIA-RUBBER MEN
Arcadia ebook 2016
Design and graphic: facilebook
In the murk of a foggy morning a row-boat moved steadily downstream. Two pairs of oars moved as one, for the rowers were skilled watermen. They kept to the Surrey shore, following the slightly irregular course imposed by the vital necessity of keeping to the unrevealing background formed by moored barges.
Somewhere in the east the sun was rising, but the skies were dark and thick; lamps burnt on river and shore. Billingsgate Market was radiant with light, and over the wharves where cargo-boats were at anchor white arc lights stared like stars.
The river was waking; the "chuff-chuff" of donkey engines, the rattle and squeak of swaying derricks, the faint roar of chains running through came to the men in the skiff.
They were clear of a long barge line, and the nose of the boat was turned to the northern shore, when on the dark background grew a darker object. The stroke rower jerked round his head and saw the lines of the launch which lay across his course, and dropped his oars.
"Wade!" he grunted.
Out of the blackness came a cheerful hail.
"Hallo, sweetheart! Whither away?"
The police launch, skilfully manoeuvred, edged alongside the skiff. Somebody caught the gunwale with a boat-hook.
"It's only me, Mr. Wade. We was takin' the skiff down to Dorlin's to lay it up," said the bow oarsman. He had a high falsetto voice and punctuated his speech with involuntary sniffs.
"Not Mr. Offer?" The voice in the police boat was charged with extravagant surprise. "Not Sniffy Offer? Why, sweetheart, what are you doing at this hour? A raw morning, when the young and the ailing should be tucked up in their little beds. Let me have a look at you."
A powerful light was switched on and flooded the interior of the skiff with devastating thoroughness. The two men sitting, oars in hand, blinked painfully.
"Little case of something here," said the hateful voice of Inspector John Wade. "Looks like a case of whisky—and, bless my life, if there isn't another one!"
"We found 'em floating in the river," pleaded the man called Sniffy. "Me an' Harry fished 'em out."
"Been fishing? I'll bet you have! Make fast your boat and step into the launch—and step lively, sweetheart!"
The two river thieves said nothing until they were on the launch and headed for the riverside police station.
"You don't have to be clever to catch us, Wade, do you? Here's London full of undiscovered murders an' robberies, an' all you can do is to pull a coupla river hooks! Look at that woman found in Cranston Gardens with her throat cut—look at the Inja-Rubber Men—"
"Shut up!" growled his companion.
"Proceed, Sniffy," said Mr. Wade gently. "I am not at all sensitive. You were talking of the India-Rubber Men? You were reproaching me—you were trying to make me and the Metropolitan Police Force feel exceedingly small. Go right ahead, Sniffy. Whip me with scorpions."
"Shut up, Sniffy!" warned the second prisoner again, and Sniffy was silent through all the gibes and taunts and provocative irony which assailed him.
"Now, where was this whisky going—tell me that? The destination of whisky, cases of whisky—stolen cases of whisky—interests me. Sniffy. I am in training for a bootlegger. Spill the truth, Sniffy, and I'll keep it locked in my bosom."
There was no other answer than a succession of indignant sniffs.
"Come, sweetheart, tell papa." They could not see the grin on the dark, lean face of John Wade, but they could hear the chuckle in his voice, "Was it to gladden the hearts of poor sailormen at the 'Mecca'? That would be almost an admirable act. Poor fellows who sail the seas are entitled to their comforts. Now, was it for dear old Golly—"
The worm turned.
"You ain't entitled to ask these questions under the Ac', Wade, you know that! I could have your coat off your back for questionin' me. An' castin' asper—" He boggled at the word.
"Asparagus!" suggested Wade helpfully.
"Committin' libel, that's what you're doin'."
The launch pulled up beside a heaving float and was hauled tight. Somebody in the darkness asked a question.
"Only two young fishermen, Sergeant," said Wade. "Put 'em on ice!"
That day Wade made a call at the Mecca Club, and on its manager, Mrs. Annabel Oaks.
Mrs. Oaks had been compelled by an interfering constabulary to register her 'club' as a common lodging-house, a disadvantage of which was that it was subject to police supervision. At any hour of the day or night it was competent for an inspector of police to walk in and look round, which could be, and on many occasions was, extremely inconvenient.
She complained savagely to her guests.
"Nice thing, eh? A club for officers, and any flat-footed copper can walk in and look you over!"
It might be conceived that Mrs. Oaks was indiscreet in publishing a truth that might scare away a percentage of her boarders. But the 'Mecca' was conveniently placed for under-officers of the Mercantile Marine. Here men were near to the dock offices of various steamship lines, and the living, if plain, was cheap, while many of the clients who patronised her establishment found the 'club' convenient in another respect. Suppose one got a ship out of London, it was possible to owe the money due for keep until the debtor returned from his voyage.
'Mum' Oaks was very obliging, especially if the man were likeable. He was likeable if he did not give himself airs and sound his 'h's' too punctiliously, or if he took his drop of drink like a man and didn't raise hell and want to fight Golly or anybody else who happened to be around.
The Marine Officers' Club and Recreation Rooms had not always been a club. Because of its initials it had come to be known as the 'Moccer', and from 'Moccer' to 'Mecca' was an easy transition. Not, as Mum said virtuously, that they'd ever take in a sea-going gentleman who was not white, and if, as by all accounts was the case, Mecca was a foreign country inhabited by niggers, well, any so-called Mecca people who came to the club for lodgings would get a pretty saucy answer—either from herself or Golly!
Golly seemed wholly incapable of giving anybody a saucy answer. He was a mild little man, rather spare of frame and short. A reddish moustache drooped over an unmasterful chin. He had once been a ship's steward; in moments of inebriation his claims rose as high as a purser, and once, on a terrific occasion, he stated that he had been the captain of an Atlantic liner; but he was very ill after that.
He sang sentimental ballads in a high falsetto voice, and it was his weakness that he found a resemblance in himself to the popular idol of the screen; and, in moments when he was free from observation he did a little quiet and dignified acting, following the instructions of 'Ten Steps to Stardom', by a Well Known Screen Favourite of Hollywood—so well known that it was not necessary to put his name of this interesting work.
Mr. Oaks had aspirations to opera as well as to the screen. The tenants of Mecca often threw up their windows and commented upon Golly's voice—for he sang best when he was chopping wood, and he seemed always to be chopping wood.
Mum was hardly as motherly as her name. She was spare, not to say thin. Her greying hair was bobbed, which did not add to her attractiveness, for the face which the lank hair framed was hard, almost repulsive. A section of her guests called her (behind her back) Old Mother Iron Face, but mostly she was Mum to a hundred junior officers of cargo ships which moved up and down the seas of the world.
The premises of 'Mecca' were half wooden and half brick. The brick portion had been the malt-house of a forgotten brewery, and was by far the more comfortable. Before the club was a strip of wharfage, covered with rank grass and embellished with two garden seats. Every year Golly sowed flower seeds in a foot-wide border under the house, and every year nothing happened. It was almost as ineffectual as his fishing.
The wharf edge was warped and rotten; the ancient baulks of timber that supported what Mum called 'the front' split and crumbled. There was some talk of building a stone wall for patrons to lean against, but nothing came of it.
The view was always fine, for here the Pool was broad and the river crowded with shipping. There was generally a cable boat tied at Penny's on the Surrey side, and the German ships had their moorings near by. You could see scores of sea-going barges moored abreast, with their house pennants fluttering at the tops of tall masts, and at the wharves up and down the river there were generally one or two cargo boats.
Lila Smith used to stand, fascinated, at the big window of the dining-room and watch the slow-moving steamers come cautiously up river. She had seen the lights of the eel-boats and the G.T.C. Fish-carriers and the orange-ships from Spain, and got to know them by their peculiar lines. She knew the tugs, too, the tugs, Johnny O and Tommy O, and the John and Mary and Sarah Lane and the Fairway—those lords of the river—and she could tell them. Even at nights.
Club lodgers who had returned from long voyages remarked that Lila was no longer a child. She had never lacked dignity; now there was a charm which none had observed before, and which it was difficult to label. She had always been pretty in a round-faced, big-eyed way. But the prettiness had grown definite; nature had given the face of the child new values.
She often stood at the window, a shabby figure in a rusty black dress and down-at-heel shoes, gazing thoughtfully at the river pageant: the sound of a deep siren brought her there, the impatient toot-toot of a tugboat, the rattle and roar of anchor chains.
"That new feller in seven wants some tea, Lila—don't stand mooning there like a stuck pig; get your wits about you, will you?"
Thus Mum, who came into the loom and caught the girl at her favourite occupation.
Lila Smith flew to the kitchen. That rasping, complaining voice terrified her—had always terrified her. She wished sometimes for another kind of life; had a vague idea that she knew just what that life was like. It had trees in it, and great spaces like Greenwich Park, and people who were most deferential. More often than not she was dreaming of this when she was watching the ships go up and down the river.
She was dreaming now, as she poured out the tea and sent the slatternly maid into No 7 with the thick cup and the thicker slabs of bread and butter.
The small square window which brought air into the stuffy kitchen was wide open. Outside the morning was cold, but the primrose sun laced the river with waggling streaks of pale gold Suddenly she looked up.
A man was looking at her from the wharf: a tall man, with a brown, attractive face. He was bareheaded, and his close-cropped brown hair had a curl in it. "Good morning, princess!"
She smiled in her frightened way—a smile that dawned and faded, leaving her face a little more serious. "Good morning, Mr Wade!"
She was a little breathless. He was the one being in the world who had this effect upon her. It was not because she was frightened, though she was well aware of his disgraceful profession—Mum always said that policemen were crooks who hadn't the pluck to thieve—nor yet because of the furtive character of these rare meetings.
He had a tremendous significance for her, but the reason for his importance was confusingly obscure. For a long time she had regarded him as an old man, as old as Golly; and then one day she grew old herself and found him a contemporary.
He never asked her awkward questions, nor sought information on domestic affairs, and Mum's fierce cross-examinations which followed every interview produced no cause for disquiet in the Oaks household.
"Why do they call you 'busy', Mr. Wade?"
She asked the question on the impulse of the moment and was frightened before the words were out.
"Because I am busy, princess," he said gravely—she never quite knew when he was being serious and when he was laughing at her when he used that tone and inflection of voice. "I am so busy that I am an offence in the eyes of all loafers. Industry is my weakness." He paused and looked at her oddly. "Now as to that experience?" he suggested.
She was instantly agitated.
"I wish you'd forget I ever said it," she said, with a quick, fearful look at the door. "It was silly of me… I—I wasn't telling the truth, Mr. Wade. I was just trying to make a sensation—"
"You couldn't tell a lie," he interrupted calmly. "You're trying to tell one now but you can't. When you said: 'Don't think I have a bad time— sometimes I have a wonderful experience', you meant it." He raised his hand with a lordly gesture. "We'll not discuss it. How are you keeping in these days?"
She, too, had heard Mum's heavy footfall and drew back a pace. She was gazing past him and was conscious of her deceitfulness when Mum came scowling into the room.
"Hallo, Mr. Wade—got nothing better to do than keep my gel gossiping?"
Her voice was high and venomously vibrant. Of all hateful faces, John Wade's was the most loathsome in her eyes.
With a gesture she sent Lila from the room and slammed the door behind the girl.
"Don't come here cross-questioning children. Be a man and knock at the front door."
"You haven't got a front door," said Mr. Wade reproachfully. "And why so angry, child? I came in the friendliest spirit to interview Golly— "
"He's on the wharf—an' don't call me 'child'!" snapped the woman savagely.
Mr. Wade, whose weakness was the employment of endearing epithets, shrugged his shoulders. "I go," he said simply.
Golly he had seen, and was well aware that Golly had seen him. The little man was chopping wood, and, as the detective approached, he put down his hatchet and rose with a painful expression, which deepened when he heard the detective's drawling inquiry.
"Whisky? What do I know about whisky?… Yes, I know Sniffy. A common longshore loafer that I wouldn't have in this here club. A low man with low companions." He spoke very rapidly. "The Good Book says: 'As a bird is known by his note, so is a man by the company he keeps—'"
"I don't believe it," said Mr. Wade. "Heard anything about the India- Rubber Men lately?"
Mr. Oaks spread out his arms in a gesture of patient weariness.
"I don't know no more about the Inja-Rubber Men, than what the organs of public opinion, to wit, the newspapers, talk about. We got the police; we pay 'em rates 'n' taxes, we feed 'em—"
"And well fed they are," agreed John Wade, his eyes twinkling. "I never see a fat policeman without thinking of you, Golly."
But Golly was not to be turned aside.
"Inja-Rubber Men! Burglars 'n' bank robbers! Would I know 'um? Am I a bank? Am I a safe deposit? Am I rollin' in millions?"
"Unanswerable," murmured Mr. Wade, and went back to the question of stolen whisky, and, when Mr. Golly Oaks closed his eyes and delivered an oration on the probity of all associated with the Mecca Club, this brown-faced, young-looking man listened in silence, staring at the orator as an owl might stare if owls had big, blue eyes.
"Encore!" he said when Golly reached the end of his apologia. "You ought to be in Parliament, angel-face. Gosh! I'd like to hear you on the subject of Prohibition."
With a nod, he turned and went back to the police launch, hidden under the crazy face of the wharf.
THREE nights later…
The engineer, who was also the steersman of the police launch, remarked mechanically that it was cold, even for that time of the year; and John Wade, to whom the remark was not altogether unfamiliar, answered sardonically.
He often referred to himself as an old man; he was, in point of fact, thirty-five, which is not a great age, and indeed is rather young in an inspector of Thames police.
"I've often thought, sir—" began the engineer sentimentally, as the launch shot under Blackfriars Bridge and edged towards the Embankment.
"I doubt it," said Mr. Wade. "I very much doubt it, sergeant. Maybe when you're off duty—"
"I've often thought," continued the unperturbed sergeant, "that life is very much like a river—"
"If you feel mawkish, sergeant, restrain yourself until we tie up. I am not in a sentimental mood to-night."
"It will come," said the sergeant, unabashed, "when you've met the girl of your heart. Bachelors don't know what sentiment is. Take babies— "
Wade did not listen. The launch was running close to the Embankment side of the river. It was a night of stars, and there was no sign of the thin fog which was to descend on London the following night. He had spent the most annoying evening, searching evil-smelling barges. That afternoon he had removed a dead body from the river. The morning had been occupied at the Thames Police Court, prosecuting a drunken tug skipper, who, in a moment of delirium, had laid out his little crew and would have laid out the tug too—for it was headed straight for a granite-faced wharf—if a police-boat had not ranged alongside, and Wade, with his own hands and a rubber truncheon, put the drunken skipper to sleep, and spun the wheel only just in time to avert disaster.
Now, on top of these minor disasters, he had been stopped on his way to a comfortable bed with instructions to report at Scotland Yard; and he was perfectly sure what was the reason for that call—the India-Rubber Men. As a reader of crime reports in which he had no particular part, he was interested in the India-Rubber Men; as a police officer he carried out certain inquiries concerning them; and for the past week they had become something of a nuisance. It was perhaps a fatal error to advance a theory— he had done this and was now to suffer for meddling.
They called these marauders the India-Rubber Men because there was no other name that fitted them. They were certainly elastic in their plans and in their movements; but the nickname developed after the one and only glimpse which brief authority had had of the ruthless bank smashers. They wore rubber gas-masks and rubber gloves and crepe rubber shoes. Each man, when seen, carried a long automatic in his belt, and three dangling cylinders which the experts described as gas-bombs. This latter was probably their principal armament.
They had been seen the night they cleared out Colley & Moore, the Bond Street jewellers; and that week-end when they opened the vault of the Northern and Southern Bank and left behind them a night watchman, who was dead before the police arrived. The reason for his death was apparent; in his clasped hand was a portion of a rubber gas-mask, which he had torn from one of the robbers. He had seen the face of the rubber man and had been killed for his enterprise.
"I shouldn't be surprised," said the sergeant steersman, bringing the launch a little nearer the Embankment's edge, "if the Wapping lot weren't in this India-Rubber business. That gang wouldn't think twice—"
Wade, looking ahead, had seen indistinctly something which might be human leaning over the parapet of the Embankment. The launch was not twenty yards away when he saw the bulk of the figure increase, and realised that whoever it was was standing on the parapet. In another second it had disappeared, and he saw a splash of white where it had fallen into the water.
The steersman had seen it too. The little boat shuddered as the engines went astern.
"On your right, sir. You'll reach him with your hands."
Wade was on his knees now, leaning over the edge of the boat, the steersman throwing his weight on the opposite side of the boat and bracing himself to keep it balanced.
For a second the tiny black thing on the water vanished. It reappeared right under the gunwale of the launch, and, reaching down, John Wade gripped an upflung arm and dragged the whimpering thing into the boat. It was a woman.
"Must you commit suicide, my good wench, when I'm on my way to an important conference?" he demanded savagely. "Give a light here, sergeant!"
A lantern flashed. He looked down into a pair of wild eyes. A grey-haired woman, whose face was terribly thin and lined, and in whose wide-open eyes glared an unearthly fire.
"You mustn't have it… I must take it with me!" she gasped.
She was clutching something tight to her bosom. It looked like a piece of sodden paper.
"I'm not going to take anything from you," he said soothingly.
The sergeant passed him a brandy flask, and he forced the neck between the woman's teeth. She struggled and choked.
"Don't… give me that… I want to go to my baby… The colonel said— "
"Never mind what the soldier said," snarled the inspector. "Get this hooch into you—it killed auntie, but why shouldn't it make you dance?"
He pulled a blanket from a locker and threw it over her, and in doing so he caught a glimpse of the thing that she held. It was the photograph of a child's face. He only saw it for a second in the light of his lantern, bat never after did he forget that picture. Until that moment he had thought all children were alike; but there was something very distinctive, something very unusual, in that portrait of round-eyed childhood. And then he recognised the photograph and gasped.
"Lord help us! Who is that?"
He saw the likeness now—distinct, beyond question. It was. Lila Smith! A baby's face, but Lila Smith.
"Who is this?" he repeated.
"You shan't have it! You shan't have it!" She struggled feebly. "You wicked man… "
Her voice sank to a murmur, and then the tired fingers relaxed.
"Rush for the pier, Toller. I think she's gone."
When he tried to take the photograph from the clenched hand, it squeezed up into an indistinguishable mass.
As to the identity of this unknown woman he did not even speculate. Such cases as these were common. Sometimes the police launch was not in time, and there were nights spent manipulating long drag-ropes. Strange things come up from the bed of old Thames: once they had hooked the wheel of a Roman chariot; once they brought to light what remained of a man chained from head to foot, and bearing unmistakable evidence of murder. The live ones appeared at the police court and were conventionally penitent; the dead ones filled unknown graves, and occupied half an hour of a busy coroner's time.
Lila Smith? He tried to restore the photograph to a recognisable form, but it was too far gone.
The launch ran under the pier, and a Thames policeman caught the painter scientifically and tied it up. Another policeman vanished in the gloom and brought back a wheeled hand ambulance, and into this the woman was lifted, and whisked away to Westminster Hospital.
Wade was still frowning when he came into the superintendent's room and found the Big Four in conference.
"I'm sorry I'm late, sir," he said. "A lady decided to end her life right under my nose, and that held me up."
The Chief Constable sat back in his chair and yawned. He had been working since six o'clock that morning.
"What is this yarn of yours of the Rubber Men?" he asked briefly. He took a paper from a dossier and opened it. "Here's your report. You say there's a racing boat been seen working up and down the river—about the time of these robberies. Who has seen it distinctly?"
John Wade shook his head.
"Nobody, sir—it has not been seen, except at a distance. I have an idea it is painted black; it certainly carries no lights, and there's no question at all that it goes at a devil of a speed. The first clue we had that it was working was when bargemen complained of the wash it made. It's been heard, of course; but even here, whoever is running it has used mufflers, which is very unusual in a motor-boat."
"She carries no lights?"
"No, sir. The only two men who've ever had a close view of her are a river thief named Donovan, whom I took for breaking cargo two months ago, and another. He said that he and another man were in a small boat one night, and they were crossing the river—innocently, he claims, but I should imagine to get aboard a lighter—when this launch came out of the blue and they had a very narrow escape from being run down. If the boat hadn't been moving at a terrific speed and hadn't turned off in its own length, Mr. Donovan would have been stoking sulphur! As far as I could End out, he could give no description of the boat, except that he said it was very short and hadn't the lines of a motor-boat at all. I have checked up the appearance of this craft as well as I can, and it has generally coincided with one of the robberies."
"Where has it been seen?" asked the Chief Constable. He was a long-faced man who had the appearance of being half asleep and never was.
"As far west as Chelsea Bridge," said Wade. "It was seen there by the second man, who is also a river thief in a mild way, but is more likely to be a receiver. He has a sort of warehouse in Hammersmith, which we raided a little time ago—his name is Gridlesohn. I'm fairly sure he's a receiver because he's so ready to squeak—apparently he resents these land thieves taking to the river, because it means extra vigilance and extra danger to his own 'rats'. In that respect he has my sympathy. I've caught three of them in the last month."
Jennings, one of the big chiefs, blew a cloud of smoke up to the ceiling and shook his head. "Why should the Rubber Men take to the river? That's what I want to know. There are twenty ways out of London, and the river's the slowest. You can go from Scotland Yard to any part of the town in a taxi, and not one policeman in a thousand would I dream of taking the slightest notice of it. My own opinion is that after their last big job the Rubber Men are not going to operate again for years."
A third member of the party, a studious-looking man of fifty who was in control of the Foreign Branch, interrupted here.
"This is certainly the work of an international crowd. The New York police have had rubber men working there; and in France the Bank of Marseilles was smashed and the cashier killed, in exactly similar circumstances to the busting of the Northern and Southern Bank. As to their being finished in London—"
The telephone buzzer sounded. The Chief Constable took up the phone and listened.
"When?" he asked. A long pause, and then: "I'll come right away."
"The constable on point duty reports that the lights have gone out in the manager's office of Frisby's Bank. He put his lamp on to the side of the window and thought he saw a man in the room. He has had the intelligence to phone through to his divisional inspector—mark that constable's name for promotion, will you, Lane?"
Two of the four were already out of the room. By the time Wade got to the courtyard, three police tenders were drawn up by the kerb and detectives were still climbing aboard when the cars moved off.
Frisby's Bank was in the lower end of St. Giles's Street; it was one of the few private banks that had branches in the West End. It was a small, modern building, connected by a bridge across a courtyard with an older house, and stood on the corner of a block, practically under the eye of a constable on point duty—it was he who had phoned.
By the time they reached the place the street was alive with police officers and a cordon had already been established round the bank. The manager's office faced a side street, and here was the general safe of the office. Two lights burnt day and night, and the safe was visible from the point where the policeman controlled the traffic.
The constable's story was quickly told. He was standing on the corner of the street, waiting for his relief, and Big Ben was striking the last note of twelve, when he saw the two lights go out. He ran across the road, tried the door and hammered with his fist on the panel. He then went back to the cashier's office, and, climbing on to the railings which surrounded that side of the bank and protected a small area, he turned the light of his electric lamp on to the window. It was then that he saw, or thought he saw, a man move quickly into the shadow of the safe.
A big crowd had assembled, attracted by the cordon even at the late hour; traffic had been diverted, and the streets within fifty yards of the bank had been cleared. While the constable had been telling what had happened, the bank manager, who had been telephoned for, arrived with the keys. There was, he said, a night watchman on duty, and the fact that he had not answered the repeated knockings was ominous. Detectives had already entered buildings to the left and right of the bank, and were stationed on the roof.
The premises were in a sense unique; there was a courtyard guarded by two big gates at the side of the building, and this separated the modern premises from an old Georgian house, also the property of the bank, in which, was housed the staff. The top floor was in the occupation of the night watchman, a widower of fifty, and his daughter, who controlled the office cleaners. The only value of the courtyard, explained the manager, was that it gave a certain privacy to the bank's collecting van, and it also served to park his own and his assistants' cars during the daytime.
All these explanations were given very hurriedly, the while he was fitting, with a trembling hand, the key in the door—for he was pardonably nervous, though, as the Chief Constable explained, there was no need, for he would not be asked to enter the bank after it was opened.
At last the door swung back.
"You had better take charge of the search, Wade—give Mr. Wade a gun."
Somebody thrust an automatic into his hand, and he entered the dark outer office. The door leading to the manager's room was fastened; the key had been turned on the other side; but the Flying Squad had brought the necessary tools, and in a few minutes the lock was smashed and the manager's office was open to them.
Wade stepped quickly in, a gun in one hand and an electric torch in the other. The room was empty, but a second door, leading, he gathered, in the direction of the courtyard, was ajar. He pushed this open, stopped…
A bullet went past him, smashed into the surface of the wall and covered his face with powdered plaster. He kicked the door open farther. The second shot came nearer. He thrust his hand round the jamb of the door and sprayed the interior with ten shots. He did not hear the answering fire, and would not have known that the burglars had replied if he had not found his sleeve ripped to rags.
In a whisper he demanded a pistol from the detective who had crept to his side, passing his own back. As he did so, he heard the sound of quickly moving footsteps, and a door slam. Again he put his pistol inside and fired two shots; this time there was no answer, and when he pushed in the lamp to draw the fire, the provocation was unrewarded.
It might be a trap, but he must take the risk. In a moment he was in the room, his lamp flashing quickly from left to right. It was a small office below the level of the manager's: a plain room, lined with steel shelves on which were a number of boxes. In one corner was a steel door; behind that he could hear the soft purr of a motorcar. He tried the door; it yielded a little. He had the sensation that it was being held by somebody on the other side, and tugged. It opened suddenly—he had a glimpse of a car moving swiftly towards the gates, and then:
It was the quick stammer of a machine gun. A big black car swept into the street, and from its interior came the staccato rattle of automatic rifles. The police, taken by surprise, fell back; the crowd behind the cordon scattered, and the long car flew forward, venomously spitting fire from the back seat. The bullets whistled and smacked against the building; glass crashed; there was a wild scurry of people to cover. Before they could realise what had happened, the car had disappeared into St. James's Park.
IT was not until the next morning that Wade remembered the would-be suicide and her photograph. Business took him to Scotland Yard, and he went on to the near-by hospital to make inquiries. To his amazement he found that the woman had left. By a mistake, which might have been the sergeant's, no charge had been preferred against her, and when she had demanded that she should be allowed to leave, no obstacle was offered.