The Lady of Ascot - Edgar Wallace - ebook

The Lady of Ascot ebook

Edgar Wallace

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She could not yet be called a woman, but she was no longer a child under any circumstances. Curiosity spreads in the small village of Ascot when a wealthy Countess settles there. Even the private investigator John Morlay is enraptured by the young and beautiful Marie Fioli. When he is surprisingly hired by former nanny Maries Beschutzer, he sees a chance to get closer to the Countess. But his mission serves a completely different purpose... As the novel is rather short and quite fast-paced with a lot of scenery-changes and adventures, this nice. „The Lady of Ascot” is one of the most successful book of the 30s’, the golden age of mysteries. Recommended for Edgar Wallace fans and fans of old-time, classic crime thrillers.

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Liczba stron: 274

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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 XXVII

CHAPTER XXVIII

CHAPTER XXIX

CHAPTER XXX

CHAPTER XXXI

CHAPTER I

CURIOSITY being one of the besetting sins of John Morlay, it was impossible that he should pass the entrance to the lodge or fail to witness the signs of activity which were there to hold and detain the attention of the idle. He saw Little Lodge through a narrow gap in a trim box-hedge–a little too narrow for the curse-mumbling workmen who were carrying in a wardrobe and were expressing their views accordingly. Yet the gap was not accidental.

Behind, folded back, he saw a pair of even narrower ironwork gates; beyond those, a little shaven lawn, something that might have been a lily-pond, and a tiny house.

It was a pseudo-Queen Anne manor, so small that it might have been built by some plutocrat to give his young and pampered daughter the joys of a practicable doll’s house. It was very red, had little iron lanterns at the door, and trim windows with chintz curtains.

This was Little Lodge, discoverable only to such explorers as John Morlay, who preferred by-ways to the roaring, smelling high road. And this was not even an ordinary by-road, but a cul-de-sac from a rambling blind alley that led nowhere. There are scores of such places in and around Ascot.

Obviously a new tenant was moving in–or was it a new proprietor? He followed the workmen staggering with their load up a gravelled path, recently weeded. The baby lily-pond was full of ridiculously clean water. A gardener leaned on the crossbar of his mowing-machine, wiped his brow automatically, and greeted John with that odd mixture of respectfulness and freedom which servants employ to strangers who might, for all they know, be their new employers, and, on the other hand, might be nobody worth so much as giving a “sir” to.

“There were seven million tadpoles in that pond,” he said extravagantly.

“I only counted six million,” said John, and the man was baffled. “I’ll meet you half-way–six and a half.” Mr. Morlay was in his most generous mood.

“When I came here this grass was so high,” the gardener attempted again. His hand wavered between his waist and his knees.

“That’s nothing,” said John. “I often get lost in the grass round my house. Who are these people–some new tenants?”

“Them?” The man jerked his head towards the open doorway. “No, bought it. Old Lady Coulson lived here for years. Always wore green hats for Ascot. You remember her?”

John felt that the inquiry called for cogitation. “No,” he said at last. “How many green hats did she wear?”

The man looked at him suspiciously.

“A countess has got it now,” he said reflectively.

“One of the hats? Oh, you mean the house.”

“A young countess,” said the gardener. “I ain’t seen her. She’s coming here from school. There’s a maid and a cook coming down, and a woman in for the day–I’m tempor’y.”

“Temporary what?” asked John, interested.

“Gardener. Two days a week.” He shook his head. “You can’t do it on two days a week; you’ve got to have a man pottering about all the time. There’s no greenhouse–nothing. What about the winter? You’ve got to pot ‘em out–”

“Pot what out?” asked John.

“Flowers.”

John Morlay looked round.

“What flowers?” he asked.

The gardener drew a long breath, then emitted a string of names such as one might choose at random from a seed catalogue. When he had finished, breathless, John suggested buttercups. The gardener looked at him as at an enemy, and resumed his mowing, if, indeed, he had ever started mowing.

The visitor strolled over to the door, looked down the passage, on which a strip of grass matting had been laid. There was a smell of new paint. A white-coated workman in the hall dropped six feet of wire to survey him. Turning, he walked slowly round the house. It was, he decided, a delightful, unreal little place, the very home for a countess–a young countess–and he wondered which of the many countesses he knew or had heard about was the fortunate proprietor.

He became aware that there was another man in the garden–a tall, broad-shouldered, shabby-looking old man, with a grey, forbidding face. He was scowling at the house from the garden adjoining; hesitating, like one who expected to be ordered away, before he took courage to come slowly towards the visitor.

“Any chance of a job here, guv’nor?”

His voice was harsh and loud.

The other surveyed him curiously. Over the shoulder of his shabby jacket he carried a soldier’s haversack; his boots were big and broken, the trousers frayed at the heel; his collarless shirt was open at his sunburnt throat. John recognized the style of the suit, knew the shabby grey material; the clothes did not fit at any part of the man.

“I’ve no job for you, my son,” he said. “How long have you been out?”

The man blinked at him; his unshaven face puckered for a moment in an expression of supreme resentment.

“Hey?”

“How long have you been out?”

The man turned his eyes to the garden, to the house, to the sky, to everywhere except John.

“I don’t know what you mean,” he said.

“How long have you been out of gaol?”

“Six months”–defiantly. And then: “Are you a busy?”

“A sort of one,” said John with a little smile. “What were you in for?”

The man was eying him steadily now.

“That’s my business. You’ve got nothing on me, guv’nor. I haven’t got to report or anything. I’m not even on ticket-of-leave; I’ve served my sentence.” The man’s voice grew strident. “Every day, every hour of it. See? No remission, nothing. They treated me like a dog–I treated them like dogs–that’s me!”

As they were watching, two of the furniture men came past one of them was carrying an oil painting. It was difficult, from the glimpse John had of it, to distinguish either its portrait or its artistic value. He saw vaguely that it was a young girl, dressed in blue. Her hair was yellowish, and there was a bunch or a bowl of flowers or a bouquet or something near her hand.

The ex-convict shuffled his feet uneasily. It was obvious that he was anxious to be gone. The habit of years held him, to be questioned further by authority. Morlay, recognizing the symptoms, dismissed him with a “Good day”, and he went stalking across the lawn into the lane.

Morlay waited for a while before going back to the house, approved of everything, and came back to the gardener.

“Countess who?” he asked.

The man shook his head.

“I haven’t got it right–it’s foreign–Eye-talian. It begins with an ‘M’.”

“Thank you for telling me so much,” said John.

He made his way across to the narrow gateway, stepped to the side to allow the workmen to pass, and went out into the pleasant cul-de-sac. At the end was the big furniture van he had noticed before. He had come up to this when he saw a car stop and a woman alight; middle-aged, rather plump. He thought she might be the housekeeper, but the gardener had not mentioned a housekeeper, and, anyway, John’s curiosity did not extend to the domestic staff.

He strolled back to the main road, looked up and down for Peas, presently spied him in the distance, and went to meet him.

Romance coloured this dull spot, and romance was the young countess. This Lady of Ascot was probably one of those butterflies who would flick into view for the race week, entertaining gaily, and then, drawing down the white blinds and locking the front door, would flit away to Deauville and the Lido until fashion beckoned her back to her little mansion, all aired and repainted for her arrival.

Peas, walking rapidly towards him, brought him to the rough realities of life.

This youngish-looking sub-inspector from Scotland Yard seldom rejoiced in but rather bore with patience the name of Pickles. He was more generally known as “Peas”, and for a curious reason. He was red-haired, and that made it worse, for it was a natural transition from Pickles to Mustard Pickles, and thence to Mustard. So generally was he called by this name that quite staid people like Under-Secretaries of State fell into the vulgar error of referring to him as “Inspector Mustard”.

From the standpoint of the criminal community the name had a special significance, and he was helped to a reputation, not wholly unfounded, of being a cunning and a dangerous man.

“That Mustard is hot,” they said, and so he became, in their strange rhyming argot, “peas in the pot”, which was reduced, by their as strange economies, to “Peas”.

Peas had come down to Ascot at the request of the Berkshire police to investigate a commonplace ladder larceny, and had invited John Morlay’s companionship partly because he needed an audience, partly because John Morlay’s big car was a convenience.

Though it wanted a little time to the period when every house in Ascot would be occupied, there was in residence quite a number of important people, including a belted earl whose young wife had a weakness for sapphires. She had sapphire rings and clips and bracelets of an incredible value, and she “travelled” them, as they say in theatrical circles.

One night when she was entertaining a select party to dinner some person or persons unknown put up a ladder, mounted to her bedroom, smashed the safe which was on the right-hand side of her bed, and took three precious cases of stones. The intruder would have escaped unobserved, but a maid entered the bedroom. She did not at first see the intruder, and, when she did, saw little that would help in identification, for a black silk stocking covered the face. The girl opened her mouth to scream, but a hand “like a vice”, as she dramatized it, caught her by the throat and “strangled her scream”.

She read fiction of an exciting kind, and knew the clichés of violence by heart. She fainted. She said she was “choked into insensibility”, but obviously she fainted. And any nice-minded girl is entitled to faint in such alarming circumstances.

Peas interviewed her. He was a thin, freckled man, who was over forty, but seemed too young for his job. The maid resented his questions, and complained to her employers that he had no manners, and that, instead of getting on with the matter of the burglary, he had wasted his time in inquiring into her personal and private affairs. As, for example, who was her young man? what was his trade? did he live at Ascot? and had he ever been to the house?

“The girl is quite respectable,” protested her mistress.

“So far as I am concerned there isn’t anybody who is respectable,” retorted Peas wearily.

He was rather ruffled by the time he came up with Mr. Morlay.

“It’s the usual ladder larceny,” he said, “with the usual bat-headed servant-gel who bursts into tears the moment you ask her whether’s she’s walking out with a feller she’s known for years or one of those flash pick-ups that do all the good work for a gang. Where’s that Ford of yours?”

“In the royal stables,” said John. “I would have put it away in a vulgar garage, but somebody recognized you. ‘Isn’t that the great Mustard Pickles?’ they said. ‘We can’t allow his friend’s car to mix with common flivvers–’”

“Laugh and the world laughs with you,” said Peas complacently. “When you consider my natural ability, it’s a crime to send me on a case like this.”

John Morlay had never discovered whether Peas’ extravagant claims to excellence were part of a rather ponderous jest, or whether he really believed that nature had been more than usually prodigal when she had fashioned his mentality. You either liked Peas very much or you loathed him. It needed a sense of humour to find him tolerable–John Morlay had that, and more.

“There’s nothing in the case that a child of six couldn’t understand.” Peas sniffed as they went in search of the car, which was standing in the garage of a small hotel. “It might trouble a local bumpkin, but not a man with my experience and reputation. It’s the same crowd that has been working country houses for weeks. There’s no sense in explaining the matter to you, Mr. Morlay, because you’re not a regular–”

“By the way, I saw a man in the neighbourhood who is obviously an ex-convict,” interrupted John, and told of his meeting.

Peas listened and shook his head.

“Don’t know him–anyway, it wouldn’t be an old man. I’ve got an idea that the bird who did this job is working solitary.”

Peas knew Ascot very well, he confessed, as they were driving back to Town; but as he claimed to know all places and all men very well, his companion did not at first take the statement seriously.

“I know all the old crowd,” said Peas, “but there’s a lot of new villas goin’ up–people moving out and movin’ in. I don’t know this Countess Fioli–”

“Countess Fioli!”

The car swerved. Mr. Morlay had an unpleasant habit of communicating his emotions to his steering-wheel. “Good lord! I know her–slightly.”

“Don’t drive to the common danger,” said Peas. “It’s a curious thing, but nothing ever upsets me when I’m driving. If a feller was to jump up from the side of the road and shoot at me I wouldn’t bat a lid–”

“Stop talking about yourself for a minute, Peas. Is she the countess who is taking that new house?”

Peas nodded.

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