The Steward - Edgar Wallace - ebook

The Steward ebook

Edgar Wallace

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This early work by Edgar Wallace was originally published in 1932. Wallace was an extremely prolific writer who wrote over 175 novels, plus numerous plays, essays and journalistic articles. During the peak of his success during the 1920’s, it was said that a quarter of all books read in England were written by him. In England, in the 1920s, Wallace was said to be the second biggest seller after the Bible. Many of his novels were made into films and TV dramas. „The Steward” is a collection of short stories that include „The left Pass”, „The Little Baroness”, „Solo and the Lady”, and many more. The stories are fast-paced with some surprising twists, well written and great to read and definitely a product of their time and place.

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Liczba stron: 249

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Contents

1. The Steward and the Sharps

2. Overdue

3. The Buoy That Did Not Light

4. The Left Pass

5. The Ghost of John Holling

6. The Little Baroness

7. Solo and the Lady

8. The Barons of the Nimble Pack

9. Bonus Story: Blooming Aloes

I. THE STEWARD AND THE SHARPS

YOU must imagine the steward–a dapper little man, in a white, short jacket, rather thin-faced, with what I would describe as a quick-change expression. His home is at Southampton, but obviously he was born in the Metropolitan Police area. He is very shrewd, rather voluble, and he has a cockney sense of humour.

You can imagine him giving his reminiscences with a duster in his hand, leaning negligently against the stateroom door. Behind him are thirty years of ocean-going experience.

“A ship (the steward speaking) is like a woman; you think you know all about her–the captain, the engineer, the fellow who launched her–and then one day she goes mad and does things that turn the captain’s hair grey and drive the engineer to drink.

“I’m thinking of the Tiberia. I’ve sailed the Western Ocean in the Tiberia more often than I can count. She was a timetable boat, who could slip through fog and punch her way through bad weather and make Ambrose Light to the tick. You knew just when and why she’d roll, and you couldn’t make a mistake about putting fiddles on the table. Usually it was like going to sea in the 9.35 to town, for a steadier boat never came down a slipway–except in a following wind, and then she rolled like a barrel of beer running downhill.

“Most boats want a cross sea before they start laying over, and a following wind to keep them as steady as the Rock of Gibraltar, but this Tiberia was made different.

“Any ship is a reliable ship if she behaves the same way in the same circumstances, and nobody worried about her rolling, till one day she changed her habits and started to pitch in a following sea and to roll in a cross sea, the same as every other ship did. That turned the captain grey, and he was right! Three voyages after that, in a sea as calm as the lake in

Regent’s Park, she lay over on her side in mid-Atlantic. They got the passengers away in boats, and they were picked up by a Blue Cross ship without the loss of so much as the captain’s cat. And only just in time, for she turned turtle, and that was the last of the Tiberia.

“Nobody knew why. There was time for the engineers to find out that the cargo hadn’t shifted, none of the pumps were broken–she just decided to do what she wanted to do. That’s the way of a ship and the way of a woman.

“I don’t know much about the United States, except the bit that’s called New York City–that’s an education in itself. I know there is an interior, where people go, but what it’s like I only know from the talkies.

“All the best broadsmen I know come from New York City. When I say ‘broadsmen’ I am referring to card-sharps–the only people who make travelling pay. I have known a few of them, too : Harry the Valet, Johnny Dickins, Jo Extein, Doc Wilder, Do Simmering, Long Bill Patton from Missouri–oh, I can give you a list of them as long as your arm. Let’s have a look at your arm. Longer!

“Naturally, I’ve met real criminals, but they aren’t clever. But I have never met a broadsman who wasn’t clever. In the old days, they used to have an agent in every big town who supplied the crowds with information about the swell families that were coming to Europe, where they were born, what were their hobbies, how they made their money, and a list of their personal friends. It wasn’t difficult for a man with this information to stroll up to a big hardware merchant and say: ‘Aren’t you Mr. Schmidt of Minneapolis? Mr. Tom B. Jackson told me to look out for you. Oh yes, he’s an old friend of mine. I’ve done a whole lot of business with him. By the way do you still breed Angora rabbits?’–or whatever his hobby was.

“Almost the first thing Mr. Schmidt would be told was that there were a lot of card-sharpers on board, and that he must be very careful with whom he played. Naturally, Mr. Schmidt didn’t want to play with anybody except this bird who knew his friend Jackson, and after that it was easy.

“They’ve got psych–what is the word? I never can remember it. Psychology? That’s right. I don’t know what it means, but they’ve got it.

“We had a reporter travelling with us when I was on the Olympic, one of the fliest of them–at least he thought so. I can’t remember his name for the minute, but you must have read his books. He writes in his sleep. And if you haven’t read him, you’ve heard him on the wireless. Well, this fellow could have written a book on card-sharpers and yet they got him two days before he arrived in England. They got him by psych–psychology. Thank you very much. I don’t suppose I shall ever use it again, but I am much obliged to you for the loan of it.

“He got to know two or three elderly men, and on Sunday night, before we reached Southampton, one of them suggested a game of bridge. Naturally, he would have been suspicious, only another one–a fellow with white hair and the face of Peter the well-known Hermit–said: ‘No, I don’t play cards on Sunday. I’ve got an old mother who objects to it. You may think I am crazy, but those are my principles, and naturally the reporter’s heart went out to him, so that when he played cards on Monday he lost £80 before he knew which way the ship was moving.

“The card men are the only gangs that are gangs. They come on board a ship, and as far as you can tell, they don’t know one another. You never see them speaking together; when they are drinking in the smoke room they drink solitary. Naturally, I know them, and the smoke room steward knows them. But the point is : should a steward tell? It’s a moot point, and has been debated by some of the brainiest people in the world. When I say ‘brainiest people’ I mean stewards.

“The card gangs are not all men. Sometimes they travel a beautiful lady, and it is wonderful what a sugar daddy will do to impress somebody who he thinks is a, good woman, but hopes he’s wrong. Especially daddies over fifty, who leave their wives, responsibilities and careful habits in Pittsburg.

“I saw a crowd take twenty thousand pounds, or a hundred thousand dollars– as it used to be in the good old days– from a business man who was so clever that nobody would do a deal with him except in the presence of his lawyer and a private detective. And all for the sake of a girl he had only met three days ago, who thought he was wonderful and said so, and kept asking where he had been all her life.

“There’s not a ship that sails that hasn’t got a big notice up in its smoke- room, asking the passengers to beware of playing cards with strangers or saying that there are notorious card-sharps on board. If that notice wasn’t up the gangs that worked the Atlantic would go with a deputation to the captain and complain. As one of them said to me:

“‘It’s our best advertisement, because usually we are the only honest-looking people on board the ship, and as for being strangers, why, we get our living by making boy friends!’

“Shore folks have got a queer idea of how sharps work. They think they go chasing you round the ship, begging you to come and play poker, and that they carry cards up their sleeves. The real sharp doesn’t attempt to palm a card–he palms the whole blooming pack, and I have seen one of them hand a pack of cards to a mug, ask him to cut it, and as he drew it back towards him to deal, change the whole pack under the eyes of the table.

“No, they don’t go chasing you. They let you chase them. Their job is to get your confidence. The easiest way, especially on the homeward voyage, is to tell some obvious Englishman–and there never was an Englishman who wasn’t obvious–how glad they are to be back in the only country worth living in, and to be under the only set of laws that are worth while, and what wonderful fellows the London policemen are. Nothing gets an Englishman, and especially a Londoner, more surely than saying what good policemen we have and how polite they are, because he takes credit for it himself.

“There was one fellow who worked the boats for thirty-seven years, who made friends by telling middle-aged people what a bad liver he had and how he hoped he would be cremated and not buried. They used to give him advice about it.

“Another good way is to lend a fellow a book, not one of these trashy detective novels that are so popular by all accounts, but really good books on life and how to bear it, and the memoirs of ladies whose husbands have friends who know royalty. Naturally, you don’t think that a man who loves what is termed literature is a man who could draw one to a royal flush and get it.

“Believe me, there is brains in that profession and there is money, too. And what is more, there is organisation, and that is why they are very seldom caught. Card-sharping on ocean-going ships is big business.

“I don’t want you to get any wrong ideas about these fellows. One of our captains used to call them ‘The Barons of the Nimble Pack,’ and another commander used to call them ‘Senators of Sin,’ but they are big.

“How do they do it? There’s a dozen ways, but you might say that the whole secret is that the quickness of the hand deceives the eye. If you searched their cabins you’d find dozens of packs of cards, exactly similar to the kind you could buy from the smoke-room bar, and they are all set in different ways, so that when they are palmed they can deal you just the kind of hand you don’t want.

“Now, usually broadsmen keep to their own line : the Western Ocean crowd works the Western Ocean, and the Pacific crowd never know any other sea than the Pacific. There is the crowd that works the boats to the Cape, and the crowd that goes from London to Colombo as regular as clockwork.

“Which naturally brings to my mind a fellow called Linbach.

“The first time I met him was when a crowd called the Calderwood gang was making some good killing on the packet I was working in–the Milentia, one of the crack boats of the fleet. Jo Calderwood was what you might describe as a master man. He worked on such a big scale that he would take a couple of trips across to Europe and pay all the expenses of his crowd, and there were four others beside him, and never touch a card if there was nobody on board big enough to kill. He used to say to me: ‘Felix, I am not in the petty cash business. I can’t afford it:

“Jo was a very tall, good-looking man, rather inclined to fat. He was what they called a good doer, but very gentlemanly. I believe he went to college. The only trouble with him, from what I have heard from some of his crowd, was that he was a bit romantic. Harry Perter, who used to work with him, said once: ‘Jo’s got the makings of a sugar daddy. It’s lucky for him he’s not honest.’

“The crowd had just made a big clean up. It was in the days when Hollywood had so much money that three leading ladies travelling on a boat put up the company’s dividends. Jo’s mob had taken about a hundred thousand dollars out of a crowd of saps who knew everything about the picture business and nothing else, and naturally they were feeling grand about it. It pleased Jo, because he was an artist who loved his profession, and when he heard that a man called Kindell, who worked the Vancouver-Shanghai route, had taken nearly a million dollars from a rich Chinese, he did not sleep sound for weeks. Kindell was a pretty good sharp, who worked two-handed, had a grand house in San Francisco, with a bathing pool and a beach house, and everything that a gentleman required. The fact that Jo had made such a good cleaning cheered him up, and ‘Anyway,’ he said to me, ‘the reporters were probably exaggerating about the amount that Kindell took.’ I can say that there is a lot of professional jealousy in that business, and I have a good reason for knowing that Kindell felt just as bad about Jo. They had never met.

“This particular voyage I shall never forget. We pulled out of New York harbour at midnight, with a real classy crowd, the kind that waits in queues till the bar opens, for the privilege of paying ten dollars a bottle for real champagne. Jo Calderwood was on board, and, as a matter of fact, in one of my state-rooms. As a rule he didn’t make a quick trip back, and I wondered what was on board worth chasing, till I found there were two men who were anybody’s fortune. One of these was a steel man from Pittsburg–a good sport who played the races and who had been well introduced and inspected before he started. The other was Linbach.

“Now, I knew Linbach. He’d taken a trip before. I didn’t know whether he was a New Yorker or whether he was a real American. My luck was out, so I had him in one of my staterooms on both occasions. He was a tall man, red-faced and fair-haired, and he was Jewish. I used to say he was the first Jew I had ever met. From what his wife’s maid told me–a very high-class girl, who spoke perfect French, as a matter of fact she was French–you ought to have been able to shake gold dust out of his socks, though I never had that pleasure. According to what I heard, he was the head of a diamond agency and controlled about a thousand jewellery stores in America, Paris and London. I had several conversations with him on the first trip, and from what I gathered, though I think he was a happy man, what really made him miserable was the thought that somebody else was making money besides him. He used to sit for hours in the smoke-room, watching the gangs operate.

“‘I’ve never played cards in my life, Felix,’ he told me once, ‘and it is disgraceful that the company allows these gamblers to travel the ships. They must have cleared up ten thousand dollars tonight. It ought to be stopped.’

“He had the best suite at reduced terms, and as he dined in the restaurant and got an allowance from the company, he made money out of that too. He only had one meal a day, but had a hearty tea, which was supplied free to the passengers.

“He was the sort of man who wanted a million dollars’ worth of service for a five-dollar trip. He said that the company ought to pay the stewards a good salary and abolish tipping. He said it was degrading to a man to have to depend on the charity of passengers. He wouldn’t have degraded me at all, only I always kept a sharp eye on him the morning he landed,

“I don’t know where he got his wife from, but I believe from somewhere in New England. She was a lovely, scared-looking little thing–the last woman in the world you’d expect would make the supreme sacrifice of marrying a fat man. I can tell you that holding down the job of a rich man’s wife is no cinch, and all my ideas about the cleverness of American women went west after they’d sailed with me.

“The first time I saw her covered with diamonds, emeralds, pearls and what-nots, I thought that Linbach had one good habit at least. I didn’t think it strange that every night he used to take her jewel case to the purser and lock it up in the safe, until her maid told me that he did that even on shore, and that her jewellery was only loaned to her on special occasions, and that he took her diamonds away every night.

“A polite steward, who doesn’t knock at a state-room until he’s sure that he’s wanted, can hear a lot of things; and from what I heard I gathered that Mrs. Linbach hadn’t a dollar when she married her husband, that she was the luckiest woman in the world, and that her mother and her young sister would starve if Mr. Linbach didn’t keep them. He told her all these things pretty often. It got so monotonous that I stopped listening and used to knock right away. Anyway, there was no need, for he started telling me things.

“It’s a curious thing that people tell their stewards and their barbers more than they would tell their dearest friends. There’s a certain type of man that always likes to stand well with his servants. He opens his heart to them, and tells them things that his business partners doesn’t know. And that’s how he came to tell me all that I’d heard before.

“As a matter of fact, he told everybody–he told the stewardess, he told the smoke-room waiter, and we hadn’t been three days out before Jo Calderwood came to me.

“‘Who’s that bird Linbach?’ he said. ‘I heard he treats his wife like a dog. Say, there’s no kind of trouble that man ought not to be in. What’s his weight, Felix?’

“I told him all I knew.

“‘Never played cards, eh?’ said Joe thoughtfully. ‘Do you know what I’d like to do, Felix? I’d like to take every dollar that fellow’s got and go fifty-fifty with the poor little woman that married him when she wasn’t feeling quite herself.’

“That same day he met Mrs. Linbach and went down before her. There was nothing queer about that. If you didn’t drop in your tracks when you saw Mrs. Linbach you were no gentleman.

“Linbach used to sleep in the afternoon, and it was in the afternoon that Jo got acquainted with her. He had all the time in the world, because the Pittsburg man was feeling seasick. The Western Ocean was as smooth as a sheet of glass, but he was seasick. There are lots of people who couldn’t come on board a ship and not feel seasick, so Jo put aside the pleasure of skinning and scalping him until they met in London.

“The Pittsburg man used to come up to the smoke-room and sit looking as well as could be expected, and Linbach found himself introduced to Jo, for apparently he knew the Pittsburg man too.

“When Linbach said he never touched cards he was probably boasting, for he understood picquet, and Jo, who knew picquet backwards and forwards, and up and down, got him into a game for five cents a hundred. He lost a dollar to Jo, and looked as if he hated it. You’d think that Jo would have let him win, but that’s where the psycho–whatever the word is– came in.

“The next day he came up to the smoke-room with his wife. She sat looking like something you are supposed to dream about, but don’t, and this sort of fired Jo, and he worked Linbach into playing picquet for a cent a point, and this time Linbach won. Not much, but he won.

“‘I got a feeling,’ said Jo, ‘that my luck’s out. It’s funny how luck runs in streaks. I always get a hunch when I’m going wrong, and I have got it now. Thank heavens I’m not playing bridge for my usual stakes!’

“Linbach was interested in money.

“‘What are your usual stakes?’ he said.

“‘Anything up to a hundred dollars a point,’ said Jo, ‘but I don’t like playing that stake with perfect strangers.’

“Well, apparently Mr. Linbach played bridge too, and they got a four, his wife being the fourth, and the way he bullied that poor girl was a shame. He was one of the inquest men, who wanted to know why you didn’t lead your ace of spades when he discarded a diamond.

“It was two nights before we reached Southampton when the play began to get high. Linbach became reckless. At about eleven o’clock at night they started playing bridge at a hundred dollars a point.

“Now, I should have said that a man who was sitting in with Jo Calderwood and Harry Perter was doomed to explain matters to his bank manager. For these two lads knew the game so well that every time they passed a pack of cards it used to stand up and bow to them.

“The Pittsburg man was watching, and that made it rather hard, because he was a prospective client.

“Linbach’s partner was his frightened little wife, who was always doing the wrong thing and looking appealingly at her husband before she played.

“At two o’clock, when the smoke-room lights were extinguished by order, Jo Calderwood and his partner were sixty thousand dollars on the wrong side. You wouldn’t think it possible, but in those days the big men like Calderwood would carry more than that amount with them, and he paid cash on the spot.

“He was a bit bewildered, for something must have gone wrong, but there was another day to get it back. Naturally he suggested a cheque, but as they had both agreed to pay cash before the game started, the idea fell through. Jo could not afford to make any fuss–there was the Pittsburg man, who was a handsome killing in the offing.

“They arranged to meet the next morning and play from Cherbourg to Southampton, and I should say that Jo and his gang spent the whole night doing curious things to cards.

“In the morning Linbach sent up word that he was not feeling well.

“I took their baggage down on to the quay and into the car. They were not going up by train, and I got the shock of my life when Linbach handed me two hundred dollars as a tip. I couldn’t believe my eyes. After I had seen the car go off, I went back to look after Jo and his baggage.

“When I came up to him I found one of our Scotland Yard men talking to him. There’s generally a Yard man watching the ships as they come in. He knew Jo. In fact, he knew almost every sharp there was in the world.

“‘Had a good trip, Jo?’ he said.

“‘Not so bad,’ said Jo.

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