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This meticulously edited collection of Edgar Wallace's famous Ringer Series has been designed and formatted to the highest digital standards. Table of Contents: The Ringer - The Gaunt Stranger Again the Ringer The Man With the Red Beard Case of the Home Secretary A Servant of Women The Trimming of Paul Lumière The Blackmail Boomerang Miss Brown's £7,000 Windfall The End of Mr. Bash — the Brutal The Complete Vampire The Swiss Head Waiter The Escape of Mr. Bliss The Man With the Beard The Accidental Snapshot The Sinister Dr. Lutteur The Obliging Cobbler The Fortune of Forgery A "Yard" Man Kidnapped Edgar Wallace (1875-1932) was an English writer. 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.
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My dear Gerald, This book is “The Gaunt Stranger” practically in the form that you and I shaped it for the stage. Herein you will find all the improvements you suggested for “The Ringer” — which means that this is a better story than “The Gaunt Stranger.”
Yours, EDGAR WALLACE
The Assistant Commissioner of Police pressed a bell on his table, and, to the messenger who entered the room a few seconds after: “Ask Inspector Wembury if he will be good enough to see me,” he said.
The Commissioner put away into a folder the document he had been reading. Alan Wembury’s record both as a police officer and as a soldier was magnificent. He had won a commission in the war, risen to the rank of Major and had earned the Distinguished Service Order for his fine work in the field. And now a new distinction had come to him.
The door opened and a man strode in. He was above the average height. The Commissioner looked up and saw a pair of good-humoured grey eyes looking down at him from a lean, tanned face.
“Good morning, Wembury.”
“Good morning, sir.”
Alan Wembury was on the sunny side of thirty, an athlete, a cricketer, a man who belonged to the out-of-doors. He had the easy poise and the refinement of speech which comes from long association with gentlemen.
“I have asked you to come and see me because I have some good news for you,” said the Commissioner.
He had a real affection for this straight-backed subordinate of his. In all his years of police service he had never felt quite as confident of any man as he had of this soldierly detective.
“All news is good news to me, sir,” laughed Alan.
He was standing stiffly to attention now and the Commissioner motioned him to a chair.
“You are promoted divisional inspector and you take over ‘R’ Division as from Monday week,” said the chief, and in spite of his self-control, Alan was taken aback. A divisional inspectorship was one of the prizes of the C.I.D. Inevitably it must lead in a man of his years to a central inspectorship; eventually inclusion in the Big Four, and one knows not what beyond that.
“This is very surprising, sir,’” he said at last. “I am terribly grateful. I think there must be a lot of men entitled to this step before me—”
Colonel Walford shook his head.
“I’m glad for your sake, but I don’t agree,” he said. And then, briskly: “We’re making considerable changes at the Yard. Bliss is coming back from America; he has been attached to the Embassy at Washington — do you know him?”
Alan Wembury shook his head. He had heard of the redoubtable Bliss, but knew little more about him than that he was a capable police officer and was cordially disliked by almost every man at the Yard.
“‘R’ Division will not be quite as exciting as it was a few years ago,” said the Commissioner with a twinkle in his eye; “and you at any rate should be grateful.”
“Was it an exciting division, sir?” asked Alan, to whom Deptford was a new territory.
Colonel Walford nodded. The laughter had gone out of his eyes; he was very grave indeed when he spoke again.
“I was thinking about The Ringer — I wonder what truth there is in the report of his death? The Australian police are almost certain that the man taken out of Sydney Harbour was this extraordinary scoundrel.”
Alan Wembury nodded slowly.
The very name produced a little thrill that was unpleasantly like a shiver. Yet Alan Wembury was without fear; his courage, both as a soldier and a detective, was inscribed in golden letters. But there was something very sinister and deadly in the very name of The Ringer, something that conjured up a repellent spectacle…the cold, passionless eyes of a cobra.
Who had not heard of The Ringer? His exploits had terrified London. He had killed ruthlessly, purposelessly, if his motive were one of personal vengeance. Men who had good reason to hate and fear him, had gone to bed, hale and hearty, snapping their fingers at the menace, safe in the consciousness that their houses were surrounded by watchful policemen. In the morning they had been found stark and dead. The Ringer, like the dark angel of death, had passed and withered them in their prime.
“Though The Ringer no longer haunts your division, there is one man in Deptford I would like to warn you against,” said Colonel Walford, “and he—”
“Is Maurice Meister,” said Alan, and the Commissioner raised his eyebrows in surprise.
“Do you know him?” he asked, astonished. “I didn’t know Meister’s reputation as a lawyer was so widespread.”
Alan Wembury hesitated, fingering his little moustache.
“I only know him because he happens to be the Lenley’s family lawyer,” he said.
The Commissioner shook his head with a laugh. “Now you’ve got me out of my depth: I don’t even know the Lenleys. And yet you speak their name with a certain amount of awe. Unless,” he said suddenly, “you are referring to old George Lenley of Hertford, the man who died a few months ago?”
“I used to hunt with him,” mused the Commissioner. “A hard-riding, hard-drinking type of old English squire. He died broke, somebody told me. Had he any children?”
“Two, sir,” said Alan quietly.
“And Meister is their lawyer, eh?” The Commissioner laughed shortly. “They weren’t well advised to put their fortune in the hands of Maurice Meister.”
He stared through the window on to the Thames Embankment. The clang of tram bells came faintly through the double windows. There was a touch of spring in the air; the bare branches along the Embankment were budding greenly, and soon would be displayed all their delicate leafy splendour. A curious and ominous place, this Scotland Yard, and yet human and kindly hearts beat behind its grim exterior.
Walford was thinking, not of Meister, but of the children who were left in Meister’s care.
“Meister knew The Ringer,” he said unexpectedly, and Wembury’s eyes opened.
“Knew The Ringer, sir?” he repeated.
“I don’t know how well; I suspect too well — too well for the comfort of The Ringer if he’s alive. He left his sister in Meister’s charge — Gwenda Milton. Six months ago, the body of Gwenda Milton was taken from the Thames.” Alan nodded as he recalled the tragedy. “She was Meister’s secretary. One of these days when you’ve nothing better to do, go up to the Record Office — there was a great deal that didn’t come out at the inquest.”
Colonel Walford nodded.
“If The Ringer is dead, nothing matters, but if he is alive” — he shrugged his broad shoulders and looked oddly under the shaggy eyebrows at the young detective— “if he is alive, I know something that would bring him back to Deptford — and to Meister.”
“What is that, sir?” asked Wembury.
Again Walford gave his cryptic smile.
“Examine the record and you will read the oldest drama in the world — the story of a trusting woman and a vile man.”
And then, dismissing The Ringer with a wave of his hand as though he were a tangible vision awaiting such a dismissal, he became suddenly the practical administrator.
“You are taking up your duties on Monday week. You might like to go down and have a look round, and get acquainted with your new division?”
“If it is possible, sir, I should like a week’s holiday,” he said, and in spite of himself, his tanned face assumed a deeper red.
“A holiday? Certainly. Do you want to break the good news to the girl?” There was a good-humoured twinkle in Walford’s eyes.
“No, sir.” His very embarrassment seemed to deny his statement. “There is a lady I should like to tell of my promotion,” he went on awkwardly. “She is, in fact — Miss Mary Lenley.”
The Commissioner laughed softly.
“Oh, you know the Lenleys that much, do you?” he said, and Alan’s embarrassment was not decreased.
“No, sir; she has always been a very good friend of mine,” he said, almost gently, as though the subject of the discussion were one of whom he could not speak in more strident tones. “You see, I started life in a cottage on the Lenley estate. My father was head gardener to Squire Lenley, and I’ve known the family ever since I can remember. There is nobody else in Lenley village” — he shook his head sadly— “who would expect me — I—” He hesitated, and Walford jumped in.
“Take your holiday, my boy. Go where you jolly well please! And if Miss Mary Lenley is as wise as she is beautiful — I remember her as a child — she will forget that she is a Lenley of Lenley Court and you are a Wembury of the gardener’s cottage! For in these democratic days, Wembury,” — there was a quiet earnestness in his voice— “a man is what he is, not what his father was. I hope you will never be obsessed by a sense of your own unworthiness. Because, if you are” — he paused, and again his eyes twinkled— “you will be a darned fool!”
Alan Wembury left the room with the uneasy conviction that the Assistant Commissioner knew a great deal more about the Lenleys than he had admitted.
It seemed that the spring had come earlier to Lenley village than to grim old London, which seems to regret and resist the tenderness of the season, until, overwhelmed by the rush of crocuses and daffodils and yellow-hearted narcissi, it capitulates blandly in a blaze of yellow sunshine.
As he walked into the village from the railway station, Alan saw over the hedge the famous Lenley Path of Daffodils, blazing with a golden glory. Beyond the tall poplars was the roof of grey old Lenley Court.
News of his good fortune had come ahead of him. The baldheaded landlord of the Red Lion Inn came running out to intercept him, a grin of delight on his rubicund face.
“Glad to see you back, Alan,” he said. “We’ve heard of your promotion and we’re all very proud of you. You’ll be Chief of the Police one of these days.”
Alan smiled at the spontaneous enthusiasm. He liked this old village; it was a home of dreams. Would the great, the supreme dream, which he had never dared bring to its logical conclusion, be fulfilled?
“Are you going up to the Court to see Miss Mary?” and when he answered yes, the landlord shook his head and pursed his lips. He was regret personified. “Things are very bad up there, Alan. They say there’s nothing left out of the estate either for Mr. John or Miss Mary. I don’t mind about Mr. John: he’s a man who can make his way in the world — I wish he’d get a better way than he’s found.”
“What do you mean?” asked Alan quickly. The landlord seemed suddenly to remember that if he was speaking to an old friend he was also speaking to a police officer, and he became instantly discreet.
“They say he’s gone to the devil. You know how people talk, but there’s something in it. Johnny never was a happy sort of fellow; he’s forgotten to do anything but scowl in these days. Poverty doesn’t come easy to that young man.”
“Why are they at the Court if they’re in such a bad way? It must be an expensive place to keep up. I wonder John Lenley doesn’t sell it?”
“Sell it!” scoffed the landlord. “It’s mortgaged up to the last leaf on the last twig! They’re staying there whilst this London lawyer settles the estate, and they’re going to London next week, from what I hear.”
This London lawyer! Alan frowned. That must be Maurice Meister, and he was curious to meet the man about whom so many strange rumours ran. They whispered things of Maurice Meister at Scotland Yard which it would have been libel to write, slander to say. They pointed to certain associations of his which were unjustifiable even in a criminal lawyer, whose work brought him into touch with the denizens of the underworld.
“I wish you’d book me a room, Mr. Griggs. The carrier is bringing my bag from the station. I’ll go to up the Court and see if I can see John Lenley.”
He said “John,” but his heart said “Mary.” He might deceive the world, but he could not deceive his own heart.
As he walked up the broad oak-shaded drive, the evidence of poverty came out to meet him. Grass grew in the gravelled surface of the road; those fine yew hedges of the Tudor garden before which as a child he had stood in awe had been clipped by an amateur hand; the lawn before the house was ragged and unkempt. When he came in sight of the Court his heart sank as he saw the signs of general neglect. The windows of the east wing were grimy — not even the closed shutters could disguise their state; two windows had been broken and the panes not replaced.
As he came nearer to the house, a figure emerged from the shadowy portico, walked quickly towards him, and then, recognising, broke into a run.
In another second he had both her hands in his and was looking down into the upturned face. He had not seen her for twelve months. He looked at her now, holding his breath. The sweet, pale beauty of her caught at his heart. He had known a child, a lovely child; he was looking into the crystal-clear eyes of radiant womanhood. The slim, shapeless figure he had known had undergone some subtle change; the lovely face had been moulded to a new loveliness.
He had a sense of dismay. The very fringe of despair obscured for the moment the joy which had filled his heart at the sight of her. If she had been beyond his reach before, the gulf, in some incomprehensible manner, had widened now.
With a sinking heart he realised the gulf between this daughter of the Lenleys and Inspector Wembury.
“Why, Alan, what a pleasant sight!” Her sad eyes were brightened with laughter. “And you’re bursting with news! Poor Alan! We read it in the morning newspaper.”
He laughed ruefully.
“I didn’t know that my promotion was a matter of world interest,” he said.
“But you’re going to tell me all about it.” She slipped her arm in his naturally, as she had in the days of her childhood, when the gardener’s son was Mary Lenley’s playmate, the shy boy who flew her kite and bowled and fielded for her when she wielded a cricket bat almost as tall as herself.
“There is little to tell but the bare news,” said Alan. “I’m promoted over the heads of better men, and I don’t know whether to be glad or sorry!”
He felt curiously self-conscious and gauche as they paced the untidy lawn together.
“I’ve had a little luck in one or two cases I’ve handled, but I can’t help feeling that I’m a favourite with the Commissioner and that I owe my promotion more to that cause than to any other.”
“Rubbish!” she scoffed. “Of course you’ve had your promotion on merit!”
She caught his eyes looking at the house, and instantly her expression changed.
“Poor old Lenley Court!” she said softly. “You’ve heard our news, Alan? We’re leaving next week.” She breathed a long sigh. “It doesn’t bear thinking about, does it? Johnny is taking a flat in town, and Maurice has promised me some work.”
Alan stared at her.
“Work?” he gasped. “You don’t mean you’ve got to work for your living?”
She laughed at this.
“Why, of course, my dear — my dear Alan. I’m initiating myself into the mysteries of shorthand and typewriting. I’m going to be Maurice’s secretary.”
The words had a familiar sound. And then in a flash he remembered another secretary, whose body had been taken from the river one foggy morning, and he recalled Colonel Walford’s ominous words.
“Why, you’re quite glum, Alan. Doesn’t the prospect of my earning a living appeal to you?” she asked, her lips twitching.
“No,” he said slowly, and it was like Alan that he could not disguise his repugnance to the scheme. “Surely there is something saved from the wreck?”
She shook her head.
“Nothing — absolutely nothing! I have a very tiny income from my mother’s estate, and that will keep me from starvation. And Johnny’s really clever, Alan. He has made quite a lot of money lately — that’s queer, isn’t it? One never suspected Johnny of being a good business man, and yet he is. In a few years we shall be buying back Lenley Court.”
Brave words, but they did not deceive Alan!
He saw her look over his shoulder, and turned. Two men were walking towards them, Though it was a warm day in early summer, and the Royal Courts of Justice forty miles away, Mr. Meister wore the conventional garb of a successful lawyer. The long-tailed morning coat fitted his slim figure faultlessly, his black cravat with its opal pin was perfectly arranged. On his head was the glossiest of silk hats, and the yellow gloves which covered his hands were spotless. A sallow, thin-faced man with dark, fathomless eyes, there was something of the aristocrat in his manner and speech. “He looks like a duke, talks like a don and thinks like a devil,” was not the most unflattering thing that had been said about Maurice Meister.
His companion was a tall youth, hardly out of his teens, whose black brows met at the sight of the visitor. He came slowly across the lawn, his hands thrust into his trousers pockets, his dark eyes regarding Alan with an unfriendly scowl.
“Hallo!” he said grudgingly, and then, to his companion: “You know Wembury, don’t you, Maurice — he’s a sergeant or something in the police.”
Maurice Meister smiled slowly.
“Divisional Detective Inspector, I think,” and offered his long, thin hand. “I understand you are coming into my neighbourhood to add a new terror to the lives of my unfortunate clients!”
“I hope we shall be able to reform them,” said Alan good-humouredly. “That is really what we are for!”
Johnny Lenley was glowering at him. He had never liked Alan, even as a boy and now for some reason, his resentment at the presence of the detective was suddenly inflamed.
“What brings you to Lenley?” he asked gruffly. “I didn’t know you had any relations here?”
“I have a few friends,” said Alan steadily.
“Of course he has!” It was Mary who spoke. “He came to see me, for one, didn’t you, Alan? I’m sorry we can’t ask you to stay with us, but there’s practically no furniture left in the house.”
John Lenley’s eyes snapped at this.
“It isn’t necessary to advertise our poverty all over the kingdom, my dear,” he said sharply. “I don’t suppose Wembury is particularly interested in our misfortunes, and he’d be damned impertinent if he was!”
He saw the hurt look on his sister’s face, and his unreasonable annoyance with the visitor was increased. It was Maurice Meister who poured oil upon the troubled water.
“The misfortunes of Lenley Court are public property, my dear Johnny,” he said blandly. “Don’t be so stupidly touchy! I, for one, am very glad to have the opportunity of meeting a police officer of such fame as Inspector Alan Wembury. You will find your division rather a dull spot just now, Mr. Wembury. We have none of the excitement which prevailed when I first moved to Deptford from Lincoln’s Inn Fields.”
“You mean, you’re not bothered with The Ringer?” he said.
It was a perfectly innocent remark, and he was quite unprepared for the change which came to Meister’s face. He blinked quickly as though he had been confronted with a brilliant light. The loose mouth became in an instant a straight, hard line. If there was not fear in those inscrutable eyes of his, Alan Wembury was very wide of the mark.
“The Ringer!” His voice was husky. “Ancient history, eh? Poor beggar, he’s dead!”
He said this with almost startling emphasis. It seemed to Alan that the man was trying to persuade himself that this notorious criminal had passed beyond the sphere of human activity.
“Dead…drowned in Australia.”
The girl was looking at him wonderingly.
“Who is The Ringer?” she asked.
“Nobody you would know anything about, or ought to know,” he said, almost brusquely. And then, with a little laugh: “We’re all talking ‘shop,’ and criminal justice is the worst kind of ‘shop’ for a young lady’s ears.”
“I wish to heaven you’d find something else to talk about,” growled John Lenley fretfully, and was turning away when Maurice Meister asked: “You are at present in a West End division, aren’t you, Wembury? What was your last case? I don’t seem to remember seeing your name in the newspapers.”
Alan made a little grimace.
“We never advertise our failures,” he said. “My last job was to inquire into some pearls that were stolen from Lady Darnleigh’s house in Park Lane on the night of her big Ambassadors’ party.”
He was looking at Mary as he spoke. Her face was a magnet which lured and held his gaze. He did not see John Lenley’s hand go to his mouth to check the involuntary exclamation, or the quick warning glance which Meister shot at the young man. There was a little pause.
“Lady Darnleigh?” drawled Maurice. “Oh, yes, I seem to remember…as a matter of fact, weren’t you at her dance that night, Johnny?”
He looked at the other and Johnny shook his shoulder impatiently.
“Of course I was…I didn’t know anything about the robbery till afterwards. Haven’t you anything else to discuss, you people, than crimes and robberies and murders?”
And, turning on his heel, he slouched across the lawn.
Mary looked after him with trouble in her face.
“I wonder what makes Johnny so cross in these days — do you know, Maurice?”
Maurice Meister examined the cigarette that burnt in the amber tube between his fingers. “Johnny is young; and, my dear, you mustn’t forget that he has had a very trying time.”
“So have I,” she said quietly. “You don’t imagine that it is nothing to me that I am leaving Lenley Court?” Her voice quivered for a moment, but with a resolution that Alan could both understand and appreciate, she was instantly smiling. “I’m being very pathetic; I shall be weeping on Alan’s shoulder if I am not careful. Come along, Alan, and see what is left of the rosery — perhaps when you have seen its present condition, we will weep together!”
Johnny Lenley looked after them until they had disappeared from view. His face was pale with anger, his lips trembled.
“What brings that swine here?” he demanded.
Maurice Meister, who had followed across the lawn, looked at him oddly.
“My dear Johnny, you’re very young and very crude. You have the education of a gentleman and yet you behave like a boor!”
Johnny turned on him in a fury.
“What do you expect me to do — shake him cordially by the hand and bid him welcome to Lenley Court? The fellow’s risen from the gutter. His father was our gardener—”
Maurice Meister interrupted him with a chuckle of malicious enjoyment.
“What a snob you are, Johnny! The snobbery wouldn’t matter,” he went on in a more serious tone, “if you would learn to conceal your feelings.”
“I say what I think,” said Johnny shortly.
“So does a dog when you tread on his tail,” replied Maurice. “You fool!” he snarled with unexpected malignity. “You halfwit! At the mention of the Darnleigh pearls you almost betrayed yourself. Did you realise to whom you were talking, who was probably watching you? The shrewdest detective in the C.I.D.! The man who caught Hersey, who hanged Gostein, who broke up the Flack Gang.”
“He didn’t notice anything,” said the other sulkily, and then, to turn the conversation to his advantage: “You had a letter this morning, was there anything about the pearls in it — are they sold?”
The anger faded from the lawyer’s face; again he was his suave self.
“Do you imagine, my dear lad, that one can sell fifteen thousand pounds’ worth of pearls in a week? What do you suppose is the procedure — that one puts them up at Christie’s?”
Johnny Lenley’s lips tightened. For a while he was silent. When he spoke his voice had lost some of its querulous quality.
“It was queer that Wembury was on the case — apparently they’ve given up hope. Of course, old Lady Darnleigh has no suspicion—”
“Don’t be too sure of that,” warned Meister. “Every guest at No. 304, Park Lane, on that night is suspect. You, more than any, because everybody knows you’re broke. Moreover, one of the footmen saw you going up the main stairs just before you left.”
“I told him I was going to get my coat,” said Johnny Lenley quickly, and a troubled look came to his face. “Why did you mention that I was there to Wembury?”
“Because he knew; I was watching him as I spoke. There was the faintest glint in his eyes that told me. I’ll set your mind at ease; the person at present under suspicion is her unfortunate butler. Don’t imagine that the case has blown over — it hasn’t. Anyway, the police are too active for the moment for us to dream of disposing of the pearls, and we shall have to wait a favourable opportunity when they can be placed in Antwerp.”
He threw away the end of the thin cigarette, took a gold cigarette-case from his waistcoat pocket, selected another with infinite care and lit it, Johnny watching him enviously.
“You’re a cool devil. Do you realise that if the truth came out about those pearls it would mean penal servitude for you, Maurice?”
Maurice sent a ring of smoke into the air.
“I certainly realise it would mean penal servitude for you, my young friend. I fancy that it would be rather difficult to implicate me. If you choose for your amusement to be a robber baron, or was it a Duke of Padua? — I forget the historical precedent — and engage yourself in these Rafflesish adventures, that is your funeral entirely. Because I knew your father and I’ve known you since you were a child, I take a little risk. Perhaps the adventure of it appeals to me—”
“Rot!” said Johnny Lenley brutally. “You’ve been a crook ever since you were able to walk. You know every thief in London and you’ve ‘fenced’—”
“Don’t use that word!” Maurice Meister’s deep voice grew suddenly sharp. “As I told you just now, you are crude. Did I instigate this robbery of Lady Darnleigh’s pearls? Did I put it into your head that thieving was more profitable than working, and that with your education and entry to the best houses you had opportunities which were denied to a meaner — thief?”
This word was as irritating to Johnny Lenley as “fence” had been to the lawyer.
“Anyway, we are in, the same boat,” he said. “You couldn’t give me away without ruining yourself. I don’t say you instigated anything, but you’ve been jolly helpful, Maurice. Some day I’ll make you a rich man.”
The dark, sloe-like eyes turned slowly in his direction. At any other time this patronage of the younger man would have infuriated Meister; now he was only piqued.
“My young friend,” he said precisely, “you are a little overconfident. Robbery with or without violence is not so simple a matter as you imagine. You think you’re clever—”
“I’m a little bit smarter than Wembury,” said Johnny complacently.
Maurice Meister concealed a smile.
It was not to the rosery that Mary led her visitor but to the sunken garden, with its crazy paving and battered statuary. There was a cracked marble bench overlooking a still pool where water-lilies grew, and she allowed him to dust a place for her before she sat down.
“Alan, I’m going to tell you something. I’m talking to Alan Wembury, not to Inspector Wembury,” she warned him, and he showed his astonishment.
“Why, of course…” He stopped; he had been on the point of calling her by name. “I’ve never had the courage to call you Mary, but I feel — old enough!”
This claim of age was a cowardly expedient, he told himself, but at least it was successful. There was real pleasure in her voice when she replied: “I’m glad you do. ‘Miss Mary’ would sound horribly unreal. In you it would sound almost unfriendly.”
“What is the trouble?” he asked, as he sat down by her side.
She hesitated only a second.
“Johnny,” she said. “He talks so oddly about things. It’s a terrible thing to say, Alan, but it almost seems as though he’s forgotten the distinction between right and wrong. Sometimes I think he only says these things in a spirit of perversity. At other times I feel that he means them. He talks harshly about poor, dear father, too. I find that difficult to forgive. Poor daddy was very careless and extravagant, but he was a good father to Johnny — and to me,” she said, her voice breaking.
“What do you mean when you say Johnny talks oddly?”
She shook her head.
“It isn’t only that: he has such strange friends. We had a man here last week — I only saw him, I did not speak to him — named Hackitt. Do you know him?”
“Hackitt? Sam Hackitt?” said Wembury in surprise. “Good Lord, yes! Sam and I are old acquaintances!”
“What is he?” she asked.
“He’s a burglar,” was the calm reply. “Probably Johnny was interested in the man and had him down—”
She shook her head.
“No, it wasn’t for that.” She bit her lip. “Johnny told me a lie; he said that this man was an artisan who was going to Australia. You’re sure this is your Sam Hackitt?”
Alan gave a very vivid, if brief, description of the little thief.
“That is he,” she nodded. “And, of course, I know he was an unpleasant sort of man. Alan, you don’t think that Johnny is bad, do you?”
He had never thought of Johnny as a possible subject for police observation. “Of course not!”
“But these peculiar friends of his — ?”
It was an opportunity not to be passed.
“I’m afraid, Mary, you’re going to meet a lot of people like Hackitt, and worse than Hackitt, who isn’t a bad soul if he could keep his fingers to himself.”
“Why?” she asked in amazement.
“You think of becoming Meister’s secretary — Mary, I wish you wouldn’t.”
She drew away a little, the better to observe him.
“Why on earth, Alan…? Of course, I understand what you mean. Maurice has a large number of clients, and I’m pretty sure to see them, but they won’t corrupt my young mind!”
“I’m not afraid of his clients,” said Alan quietly. “I’m afraid of Maurice Meister.”
She stared at him as though he were suddenly bereft of his senses.
“Afraid of Maurice?” She could hardly believe her ears. “Why, Maurice is the dearest thing! He has been kindness itself to Johnny and me, and we’ve known him all our lives.”
“I’ve known you all your life, too, Mary,” said Alan gently, but she interrupted him.
“But, tell me why?” she persisted. “What do you know against Maurice?”
Here, confronted with the concrete question, he lost ground.
“I know nothing about turn,” he admitted frankly. “I only know that Scotland Yard doesn’t like him.”
She laughed a low, amused laugh.
“Because he manages to keep these poor, wretched criminals out of prison! It’s professional jealousy! Oh, Alan,” she bantered him, “I didn’t believe it of you!”
No good purpose could be served by repeating his warning. There was one gleam of comfort in the situation; if she was to work for Meister she would be living in his division. He told her this.
“It will be rather dreadful, won’t it, after Lenley Court?” She made a little face at the thought. “It will mean that for a year or two I shall have no parties, no dances — Alan, I shall die an old maid!”
“I doubt that,” he smiled, “but the chances of meeting eligible young men in Deptford are slightly remote,” and they laughed together.
Maurice Meister stood at the ragged end of a yew hedge and watched them. Strange, he mused, that never before had he realised the beauty of Mary Lenley. It needed, he told himself, the visible worship of this policeman to stimulate his interest in the girl, whom in a moment of impulse, which later he regretted, he had promised to employ. A bud, opening into glorious flower. Unobserved, he watched her; the contour of her cheek, the poise of her dark head, the supple line of her figure as she turned to rally Alan Wembury. Mr. Meister licked his dry lips. Queer that he had never thought that way about Mary Lenley. And yet…
He liked fair women. Gwenda Milton was fair, with a shingled, golden head. A stupid girl, who had become rather a bore. And from a bore she had developed into a sordid tragedy. Maurice shuddered as he remembered that grey day in the coroner’s court when he had stood on the witness stand and had lied and lied and lied.
Turning her head, Mary saw him and beckoned him, and he went slowly towards them.
“Where is Johnny?” she asked.
“Johnny at this moment is sulking. Don’t ask me why, because I don’t know.”
What a wonderful skin she had — flawless, unblemished! And the dark grey eyes, with their long lashes, how adorable! And he had known her all her life and been living under the same roof for a week, and had not observed her values before!
“Am I interrupting a confidential talk?” he asked.
She shook her head, but she did not wholly convince him. He wondered what these two had been speaking about, head to head. Had she told Alan Wembury that she was coming to Deptford? She would sooner or later, and it might be profitable to get in first with the information.
“You know, Miss Lenley is honouring me by becoming my secretary?”
“So I’ve heard,” said Alan, and met the lawyer’s eyes. “I have told Miss Lenley” — he spoke deliberately; every word had its significance— “that she will be living in my division…under my paternal eye, as it were.”
There was a warning and a threat there. Meister was too shrewd a man to overlook either. Alan Wembury had constituted himself the girl’s guardian. That would have been rather amusing in other circumstances. Even as recently as an hour ago he would have regarded Alan Wembury’s chaperonage as a great joke. But now…
He looked at Mary and his pulse was racing.
“How interesting!” his voice was a little harsh and he cleared his throat. “How terribly interesting! And is that duty part of the police code?”
There was the faintest sneer in his voice which Alan did not miss.
“The duty of a policeman,” he said quietly, “is pretty well covered by the inscription over the door of the Old Bailey.”
“And what is that?” asked Meister. “I have not troubled to read it.”
“‘Protect the children of the poor and punish the wrongdoer,’” said Alan Wembury sternly.
“A noble sentiment!” said Maurice. And then: “I think that is for me.”
He walked quickly towards a telegraph messenger who had appeared at the end of the garden.
“Is Maurice annoyed with you?” asked Mary.
“Everybody gets annoyed with me sooner or later. I’m afraid my society manners are deplorable.”
She patted the hand that lay beside hers on the stone bench.
“Alan,” she said, half whimsically, half seriously, “I don’t think I shall ever be annoyed with you. You are the nicest man I know.”
For a second their hands met in a long, warm clasp, and then she saw Maurice walking back with the unopened telegram in his hand.
“For you,” he said jovially. “What a thing it is to be so important that you can’t leave the office for five minutes before they wire for you — what terrible deed has been committed in London in your absence?”
Alan took the wire with a frown. “For me?” He was expecting no telegram. He had very few personal friends, and it was unlikely that his holiday would be curtailed from headquarters.
He tore open the envelope and took out the telegram. It was closely written on two pages. He read: “Very urgent stop return at once and report to Scotland Yard stop be prepared to take over your division tomorrow morning stop Australian police report Ringer left Sydney four months ago and is believed to be in London at this moment message ends.”
The wire was signed “Walford.”
Alan looked from the telegram to the smiling old garden, from the garden to the girl, her anxious face upturned to his.
“Is anything wrong?” she asked.
He shook his head slowly.
The Ringer was in England!
His nerves grew taut at the realisation. Henry Arthur Milton, ruthless slayer of his enemies — cunning, desperate, fearless.
Alan Wembury’s mind went back to Scotland Yard and the Commissioner’s office. Gwenda Milton — dead, drowned, a suicide!
Had Maurice Meister played a part in the creation of that despair which had sent her young soul unbidden to the judgment of God? Woe to Maurice Meister if this were true!
The Ringer was in London!
Alan Wembury felt a cold thrill each time the thought recurred on his journey to London.
It was the thrill that comes to the hunter, at the first hint of the man-slaying tiger he will presently glimpse.
Well named was The Ringer, who rang the changes on himself so frequently that police headquarters had never been able to circulate a description of the man. A master of disguise, a ruthless enemy who had slain without mercy the men who had earned his hatred.
For himself, Wembury had neither fear nor hatred of the man he was to bring down; only a cold emotionless understanding of the danger of his task. One thing was certain — the Ringer would go to the place where a hundred bolts and hiding places were ready to receive him.
Alan Wembury gave a little gasp of dismay. Mary Lenley was also going to Deptford — to Meister’s house, and The Ringer could only have returned to England with one object, the destruction of Maurice Meister. Danger to Meister would inevitably mean danger to Mary Lenley. This knowledge took some of the sunlight of the spring sky and made the grim facade of Scotland Yard just a little more sinister.
Though all the murderers in the world were at large, Scotland Yard preserved its equanimity. He came to Colonel Walford’s room to find the Assistant Commissioner immersed in the particulars of a minor robbery.
“You got my wire?” said Walford, looking up as Alan came in. “I’m awfully sorry to interrupt your holiday. I want you to go down to Deptford to take charge immediately und get acquainted with your new division.”
“The Ringer is back, sir?”
Watford nodded. “Why he came back, where he is, I don’t know — in fact, there is no direct information about him and we are merely surmising that he has returned.”
“But I thought—”
Walford took a long cablegram from the basket on his table. “The Ringer has a wife. Few people know that,” he said. “He married her a year or two ago in Canada. After his disappearance, she left this country and was traced to Australia. That could only mean one thing. The Ringer was in Australia. She has now left Australia just as quickly as she left this country; she arrives in England tomorrow morning.”
Alan nodded slowly.
“I see. That means that The Ringer is either in England or is making for this country.”
“You have not told anybody?” the Commissioner asked. “I’d forgotten to warn you about that. Meister was at Lenley Court, you say? You didn’t tell him?”
“No, sir,” said Alan, his lips twitching. “I thought, coming up in the train, that it was rather a pity I couldn’t — I would like to have seen the effect upon him!”
Alan could understand how the news of The Ringer’s return would flutter the Whitehall dovecotes, but he was unprepared for the extraordinarily serious view which Colonel Walford took of the position.
“I’ll tell you frankly, Wembury, that I would much rather be occupying a place on the pension list than this chair at Scotland Yard when that news is published.”
Alan looked at him in astonishment; the Commissioner was in deadly earnest.
“The Ringer is London’s favourite bogy,” Colonel Walford said, “and the very suggestion that he has returned to England will be quite sufficient to send all the newspaper hounds of Fleet Street on my track. Never forget, Wembury, he is a killer, and he has neither fear nor appreciation of danger. He has caused more bolts to be shot than any other criminal on our list! The news that this man is at large and in London will arouse such a breeze that even I would not weather it!”
“You think he’ll be beyond me?” smiled Alan.
“No,” said Walford surprisingly, “I have great hopes of you — and great hopes of Dr. Lomond. By the way, have you met Dr. Lomond?”
Alan looked at him in surprise. “No, sir, who is he?”
Colonel Walford reached for a book that lay on his table, “He is one of the few amateur detectives who have impressed me,” he said. “Fourteen years ago he wrote the only book on the subject of the criminal that is worth studying. He has been in India and Tibet for years and I think the UnderSecretary was fortunate to persuade him to fill the appointment.”
“What appointment, sir?”
“Police surgeon of ‘R’ Division — in fact, your new division,” said Walford. “You are both making acquaintance with Deptford at the same time.”
Alan Wembury turned the closely-set pages of the book. “He is a pretty big man to take a fiddling job like this,” he said and Walford laughed.
“He has spent his life doing fiddling jobs — would you like to meet him? He is with the Chief Constable at the moment.”
He pressed a bell and gave instructions to the messenger who came. “Lomond is rather a character — terribly Scottish, a little cynical and more than a little pawky.”
“Will he help us to catch The Ringer?” smiled Alan and he was astonished to see the Commissioner nod.
“I have that feeling,” he said.
The door opened at that moment and a tall bent figure shuffled in. Alan put his age at something over fifty. His hair was grey, a little moustache drooped over his mouth and the pair of twinkling blue eyes that met Alan’s were dancing with good-humour. His homespun suit was badly cut, his high-crowned felt hat belonged to the seventies.
“I want you to meet Inspector Wembury who will be in charge of your division,” said Walford and Wembury’s hand was crushed in a powerful grip.
“Have ye any interesting specimens in Deptford, inspector? I’d like fine to measure a few heids.”
Alan’s smile broadened.
“I’m as ignorant of Deptford as you — I haven’t been there since before the war,” he said.
The doctor scratched his chin, his keen eyes fixed on the younger man, “I’m thinkin’ they’ll no’ be as interesting as the Lolos. Man, there’s a wonderful race, wi’ braci-cephalic heads, an’ a queer development of the right parietal…”
He spoke quickly, enthusiastically when he was on his favourite subject.
Alan seized an opportunity when the doctor was expounding a view on the origin of some mysterious Tibetan tribe to steal quietly from the room. He was not in the mood for anthropology.
An hour later as he was leaving Scotland Yard he met Walford as he was coming out of his room and walked with him to the Embankment, “Yes — I got rid of the doctor,” chuckled the colonel, “he’s too clever to be a bore, but he made my head ache!” Then suddenly: “You’re handing over that pearl case to Burton — the Darnleigh pearls I mean. You have no further clue?”
“No, sir,” said Alan. He had almost forgotten that there was such a case in his hands.
The Commissioner was frowning. “I was thinking, after you left, what a queer coincidence it was that you were going to Lenley Court. Young Lenley was apparently at Lady Darnleigh’s house on the night of the robbery,” and then, seeing the look that came to his subordinate’s face, he went on quickly: “I’m not suggesting that he knew anything about it, of course, but it was a coincidence. I wish we could clear up that little mystery. Lady Darnleigh has too many friends in Whitehall for my liking and I get a letter from the Home Secretary every other day asking for the latest news.”
Alan Wembury went on his way with an uneasy mind. He had known that Johnny was at the house on the night of the robbery but he had never associated “the Squire’s son” with the mysterious disappearance of Lady Darnleigh’s pearls. There was no reason why he should, he told himself stoutly. As he walked across Westminster Bridge he went over again and again that all too brief interview he had had with Mary.
How beautiful she was! And how unapproachable! He tried to think of her only, but against his will a dark shadow crept across the rosy splendour of dreams: Johnny Lenley.
Why on earth should he, and yet — the Lenleys were ruined… Mary was worried about the kind of company that Johnny was keeping. There was something else she had said which belonged to the category of unpleasant things. Oh, yes, Johnny had been “making money” Mary told him a little proudly. How?
“Rot!” said Alan to himself as an ugly thought obtruded upon his mind. “Rubbish!”
The idea was too absurd for a sane man to entertain. The next morning he handed over all the documents in the case to Inspector Burton and walked out of Scotland Yard with almost a feeling of relief. It was as though he had shaken himself clear of the grisly shadow which was obscuring the brightness of the day.
The week which followed was a very busy one for Alan Wembury. He had only a slight acquaintance with Deptford and its notables. The grey-haired Scots surgeon he saw for a minute or two, a shrewd old man with laughing eyes and a fund of dry Scottish humour, but both men were too busy in their new jobs to discuss The Ringer.
Mary did not write, as he had expected she would, and he was not aware that she was in his district until one day, walking down the Lewisham High Road, somebody waved to him from an open taxicab and turning, he saw it was the girl. He asked one of his subordinates to find out where she and Johnny were staying and with no difficulty located them at a modern block of flats near Malpas Road, a building occupied by the superior artisan class. What a tragic contrast to the spacious glories of Lenley Court! Only his innate sense of delicacy prevented his calling upon her, and for this abstention at least one person was glad.
“I saw your copper this morning,” said Johnny flippantly. He had gone back to lunch and was in a more amiable mood than Mary remembered having seen him recently.
She looked at him open-eyed.
“My ‘copper’?” she repeated.
“Wembury,” translated Johnny. “We call these fellows ‘busies’ and I’ve never seen a busier man,” he chuckled. “I see you’re going to ask what’ busy’ means. It is a thieves’ word for detective.”
He saw a change come to her face.
“‘We’ call them?” she repeated. “You mean ‘they’ call them, Johnny.”
He was amused as he sat down at the table.
“What a little purist you’re becoming, Mary,” he said. “We, or they, does it matter? We’re all thieves at heart, the merchant in his Rolls and the workman on the tram, thieves every one of them!”
Very wisely she did not contest the extravagant generalisation.
“Where did you see Alan?”
“Why the devil do you call him by his Christian name?” snapped Johnny. “The man is a policeman, you go on as though he were a social equal.”
Mary smiled at this as she cut a round of bread into four parts and put them on the bread plate.
“The man who lives on the other side of the landing is a plumber, and the people above us live on the earnings of a railway guard. Six of them, Johnny — four of them girls.”
He twisted irritably in his chair. “That’s begging the question. We’re only here as a temporary expedient. You don’t suppose I’m going to be content to live in this poky hole all my life? One of these days I’ll buy back Lenley Court.”
“On what, Johnny?” she asked quietly.
“On the money I make,” he said and went back to his bete noire. “Anyway, Wembury isn’t the sort of fellow I want you to know,” he said. “I was talking to Maurice about him this morning, and Maurice agrees that it is an acquaintance we ought to drop.”
“Really?” Mary’s voice was cold. “And Maurice thinks so too — how funny!”
He glanced at her suspiciously.
“I don’t see anything amusing about it,” he grumbled. “Obviously, we can’t know—”
She was standing facing him on the other side of the table, her hands resting on its polished surface.
“I have decided to go on knowing Alan Wembury,” she said steadily. “I’m sorry if Maurice doesn’t approve, or if you think I’m being very common. But I like Alan—”
“I used to like my valet, but I got rid of him,” broke in Johnny irritably.
She shook her head.
“Alan Wembury isn’t your valet. You may think my taste is degraded, but Alan is my idea of a gentleman,” she said quietly, “and one cannot know too many gentlemen.”
He was about to say something sharp, but checked himself, and the matter had dropped for the moment.
The next day Mary Lenley was to start her new life. The thought left her a little breathless. When Maurice had first made the suggestion that she should act as his secretary the idea had thrilled her, but as the time approached she had grown more and more apprehensive. The project was one filled with vague unpleasant possibilities and she could not understand why this once pleasing prospect should now have such an effect upon her.
Johnny was not up when she was ready to depart in the morning, and only came yawning out of his bedroom when she called him.
“So you’re going to be one of the working classes,” he said almost jovially. “It will be rather amusing. I wouldn’t let you go at all, only—”
“Only?” she waited.
Johnny’s willingness that she should accept employment in Maurice’s office had been a source of wonder to her, knowing his curious nature.
“I shall be about, keeping an eye on you,” he said good-humouredly.
A few minutes later she was hurrying down crooked Tanners Hill toward a neighbourhood the squalor of which appalled her. Flanders Lane has few exact parallels in point of grime and ugliness, but Mr. Meister’s house was most unexpectedly different from all the rest.
It stood back from the street, surrounded by a high wall which was pierced with one black door which gave access to a small courtyard, behind which was the miniature Georgian mansion where the lawyer not only lived but had his office.
An old woman led her up the worn stairs, opened a heavy ornamental door and ushered her into an apartment which she was to know very well indeed. A big panelled room with Adam decorations, it had been once the drawingroom of a prosperous City merchant in those days when great gentlemen lived in the houses where now the poor and the criminal herded like rats.
There was an air of shabbiness about the place and yet it was cheerful enough. The walls were hung about with pictures which she had no difficulty in recognising as the work of great masters. But the article of furniture which interested her most was a big grand piano which stood in an alcove. She looked in wonder at this and then turned to the old woman.
“Does Mr. Meister play this?”
“Him?” said the old lady with a cackle of laughter. “I should say he does!”
From this chamber led a little doorless anteroom which evidently was used as an office, for there were deed boxes piled up against one wall and a small desk on which stood a covered typewriter.
She had hardly taken her survey when the door opened and Maurice Meister came quickly in, alert and smiling. He strode toward her and took both her hands in his.
“My dear Mary,” he said, “this is delightful!”
His enthusiasm amused her.
“This isn’t a social call, Maurice,” she said. “I have come to work!”
She drew her hands free of his. Had they always been on these affectionate terms, she wondered. She was puzzled and uneasy. She tried to reconstruct from her memory the exact relationship that Maurice Meister had stood to the family. He had known her since she was a child. It was stupid of her to resent this subtle tenderness of his.
“My dear Mary, there’s work enough to do — title deeds, evidence,” he looked vaguely round as though seeking some stimulant to his imagination.
And all the time he looked he was wondering what on earth he could find to keep her occupied.
“Can you type?” he asked.
He expected a negative and was amazed when she nodded.
“I had a typewriter when I was twelve,” she smiled. “Daddy gave it to me to amuse myself with.”
Here was relief from a momentary embarrassment. Maurice had never wished or expected that his offer to employ the girl should be taken seriously — never until he had seen her at Lenley Court and realised that the gawky child he had known had developed so wonderfully.
“I will give you an affidavit to copy,” he said, searching feverishly amongst the papers on his desk. It was a long time before he came upon a document sufficiently innocuous for her to read. For Maurice Meister’s clientele was a peculiar one, and he, who through his life had made it a practice not to let his right hand know what his left hand did, found a difficulty in bringing himself to the task of handing over so much of his dubious correspondence for her inspection. Not until he had read the paper through word by word did he give it to her.
“Well, Mary, what do you think of it all?” he demanded, “and do, please, sit down, my dear!”
“Think of it all? This place?” she asked, and then, “You live in a dreadful neighbourhood, Maurice.”
“I didn’t make the neighbourhood. I found it as it is,” he answered with a laugh. “Are you going to be very happy here, Mary?”
She nodded. “I think so. It is so nice working for somebody one has known for so long — and Johnny will be about. He told me I should see a lot of him.”
Only for a second did the heavy eyelids droop. “Oh,” said Maurice Meister, looking past her. “He said you’d see a lot of him, eh? In business hours, by any chance?”
She did not detect the sarcasm in his tone.
“I don’t know what are your business hours, but it is rather nice, isn’t it, having Johnny?” she asked. “It really doesn’t matter working for you because you’re so kind, and you’ve known me such a long time, but it would be rather horrid if a girl was working for somebody she didn’t know, and had no brother waiting on the doorstep to see her home.”
He had not taken his eyes from her. She was more beautiful even than he had thought. Hers was the type of dainty loveliness which so completely appealed to him. Darker than Gwenda Milton, but finer. There was a soul and a mind behind those eyes others; a latent passion as yet unmoved; a dormant fire yet to be kindled. He felt her grow uncomfortable under the intensity of his gaze, and quick to sense this, he was quicker to dispel the mist of suspicion which might soon gather into a cloud.
“I had better show you the house,” he said briskly, and led her through the ancient building.
Before one door on the upper floor he hesitated and finally, with an effort, slipped the key in the lock and threw open the door.
Looking past him, Mary saw a room such as she had not imagined would be found in this rather shabby old house. In spite of the dust which covered everything it was a beautiful apartment, furnished with a luxury that amazed her. It seemed to be a bed and sittingroom, divided by heavy velvet curtains which were now drawn. A thick carpet covered the floor, the few pictures that the room contained had evidently been carefully chosen. Old French furniture, silver light brackets on the walls, every fuse and every fitting spoke of lavish expenditure.
“What a lovely room!” she exclaimed when she had I recovered her breath.
“Yes…lovely.” He stared gloomily into the nest which had once known Gwenda Milton, in the days before tragedy had come to her. “Better than Malpas Mansions, Mary, eh?” The frown had vanished from his face; he was his old smiling self. “A little cleaning, a little dusting, and there is a room for a princess — in fact, my dear, I shall put it entirely at your disposal.”
“My disposal!” she stared at him. “How absurd, Maurice! I am living with Johnny and I couldn’t possibly stay here, ever.”
“Johnny? Yes. But you may be detained one night — or Johnny may be away. I shouldn’t like to think you were alone in that wretched flat.”
He closed and locked the door and followed her down the stairs.
“However, that is a matter for you entirely,” he said lightly. “There is the room if you ever need it.”
She made no answer to this, for her mind was busy with speculation. The room had been lived in, she was sure of that. A woman had lived there — it was no man’s room. Mary felt a little uneasy. Of Maurice Meister and his private life she knew nothing. She remembered vaguely that Johnny had hinted of some affair that Meister had had, but she was not curious.
She remembered the name with a start. Gwenda Milton, the sister of a criminal. She shivered as her mind strayed back to that gorgeous little suite, peopled with the ghost of a dead love, and she had the illusion that a white face, tense with agony, was peering at her as she sat at the typewriter. She looked round with a shudder, but the room was empty and from somewhere near at hand she heard the sound of a man humming a popular tune.
Maurice Meister did not believe in ghosts.
On the afternoon of the day that Mary Lenley went to Meister’s house the Olympic was warped into dock at Southampton. The two Scotland Yard men who had accompanied the ship from Cherbourg, and who had made a very careful scrutiny of the passengers, were the first to land and took up their station at the foot of the gangway. They had a long time to wait whilst the passport examinations were taking place, but soon the passengers began to straggle down to the quay.
Presently one of the detectives saw a face which he had not seen on the ship. A man of middle height, rather slight, with a tiny pointed beard and a black moustache appeared at the ship’s side and came slowly down.
The two detectives exchanged glances and as the passenger reached the quay one of them stepped to his side and said: “Excuse me, sir, I did not see you on the ship.” For a second the bearded man surveyed the other coldly. “Are you making me responsible for your blindness?” he asked.
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