The Worst Man in the Word - Edgar Wallace - ebook

The Worst Man in the Word ebook

Edgar Wallace



Edgar Wallace was a prolific author of crime, adventure and humorous stories, whose best known creations include „The Four Just Men”, „Sanders of the River”, and „J. G. Reeder”. Although Wallace wrote many „stand alone” novels it is, perhaps, for his series based material always popular with readers that he remains best known. „The Worst Man in the World” is an entertaining tale of mystery and intrigue, this volume constitutes a must-read for lovers of crime fiction. Although these experiences are told in story form, they represent the personal narrative of one who served many terms of penal servitude, and were related to the author, who met with this remarkable convict a few days after his last release from prison.

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WHEN I left Dartmoor prison some seven years ago, the Deputy saw me in the governor’s pokey little office hung around with the art exhibits of former convicts.

“Smith,” he said, “I suppose there is no use my saying that I hope I shall never see you here again?”

“No, sir,” said I. “I should hate to disappoint you, and the chances are that I shall be back in a year or two. I used to under-rate the intelligence of Scotland Yard, but my views have undergone a change.”

The Deputy laughed.

“I think you’re the worst man in the world,” he said, “because you commit crimes deliberately, and it seems to me that you have as deliberately chosen your career; I have never known another prisoner who has cold-bloodedly set himself to go wrong as you have. And yet you were a gentleman, you have education and natural gifts, and you can’t go straight.”

“I can go straight, sir, but I don’t,” said I.

We walked up the sloping hill to the big steel gates, and I stepped out into the space before the guard-room.

“I was reading up your record yesterday,” he said. “You have been in prison six times. You have been flogged and punished in other ways, and yet none of these things have a deterrent effect upon you. I am afraid that one of these days you’ll toe the chalk line.”

“That I shall never do,” said I, for if he had but known, the only thing I ever saw in prison which filled me with fear was that little T drawn in chalk on the trap of the scaffold where a condemned man puts his feet.

And sitting in my little bungalow on the Sussex shore, with a somewhat adventurous life behind me, and no further desire or need for going on the dodge, I think it is unlikely that I shall ever be hanged. For murder is a cheap and cowardly business, and I do not think it is in me to commit so beastly a crime, even if I had not helped strip a few men who had been “hanged by the neck until they were dead.”

Executions have always put the wind up me, and I’ve never known anybody who was so callous that they were not affected. I have seen a hangman reeling along the exercise ground drunk with the horror of his job, and I have looked one famous young killer of men in the eyes–one of the Billingtons had hanged twenty-one men before his twenty-first birthday!–and read the gloomy terror of his soul.

And I have known a warder who went white in twenty-four hours. There was a man hanged in a northern gaol, and the fellow was a brute. He tried to kill one of the warders in charge, the man I am speaking about, and spent the last three days of his life in a straight-jacket.

And as the procession formed up, and he came out of his cell, he turned to the warder and said:

“I hate you! I’ll hate you after I’m dead!”

And when the drop fell, and the man was undoubtedly past all knowledge of life, he seemed to shake his upturned face–masked as it was with the linen “cap”–at the horrified warder as he gazed down.

And now let me begin the somewhat uninteresting preamble to the story of my life.

For the past three months I have been wallowing in criminal apologia. In other words, I have been reading the very many volumes which have been constructed by eminent criminals who were sufficiently in the public eye at the time of their conviction to justify enterprising editors in securing their reminiscences.

They are unconsciously humorous, these recollections, for they are apparently written by white-souled creatures, who committed no crime, and who were quite innocent of the charges brought against them. Not a small portion of these volumes, varying in size and importance from library editions to paper-backed, ill-printed sixpenny brochures, is devoted to an indignant refutation of the charges which brought them into penal servitude. They “never done it”–it was always the other fellow.

The writers contribute nothing to the world’s knowledge of the criminal classes, and precious little to our faith in humanity. Their books and recollections are hypocritical twaddle, sometimes amusing, more often sickening, and in more cases than one these wretched autobiographies are employed as a peg upon which to hang charges against the unhappy officials who do their best, and their honest best, to administer the law.

In four cases out of five the autobiographies are written up by professional writers who introduce their own elegant language somewhat incongruously.

The remarkable thing about these recollections of mine is that they are recollections of an admitted criminal, and a man who takes pride in the fact that he was never adequately punished for his breaches of the law, and who recalls with a complacent satisfaction that, despite the punishment which he has undergone, he has missed that which, if every man had his due, would have been his in addition.

Since most of the volumes of reminiscences start with a genealogical-tree, and an exposition of the respectability of the writer’s forbears, I will be so far conventional as to say that my father was a very excellent man. He was, in fact, a peer of the realm, which seems a somewhat melodramatic and unconvincing claim, but it is one which must be made because it is the truth. My brother was and my nephew is the present holder of the title, and it is a queer fact that had my nephew died in France–as he nearly did–I should have been “my lord.” Happily he lives and has, I hope, many years of vigorous life before him,

I was educated at a famous school, which it will serve no useful purpose to mention, and at a military school, whence I was gazetted to the first cavalry regiment which left these shores for South Africa after the outbreak of war. I do not purpose giving you the story of my adventures in South Africa, but it is sufficient to say that I made a fool of myself over a woman in Cape Town, had a row with the senior major of my regiment, and another row with yet another superior, and was out of the Army before the war had comfortably settled down.

I came home, and was received by my male parent at Southampton. We had lunch, and he was as nice as the circumstances allowed. He explained to me that he was not a very rich man, but I was the first of the family who had ever disgraced his name. He thanked his Maker that my mother was dead, and said most of the things that a man with a limited vocabulary and a dearth of original ideas would say under the circumstances. He wound up with a suggestion that I should go back to South Africa, join the South African Light Horse as a trooper, and extinguish myself in a blaze of glory.

I thought it was a good idea, and it was certainly advice which I should have passed on to somebody else, but so far as I was concerned it did not raise so much as a thrill. I told him so.

The upshot was that he gave me £500 and told me to go to hell. Those were his exact words.

I suppose that I should say here that I have been through many brands of hell since that beautiful morning in June, 1901. But if I said that I should be a hypocrite, too, for hell is only the unendurable and the unimaginable, and my worst experiences have deserved neither of these descriptions.

I left Southampton by the night boat for Havre, and gravitated to Paris. I had been there three days when I got into a row at one of the night-places. The row ended in my arrest and my being fined, and I was instructed to leave Paris as soon as possible.

I left France by way of Monte Carlo and the Riviera and I was back again in England on September 13th, 1901, arriving in London with exactly four shillings and tuppence-halfpenny, a five-franc piece, and no immediate prospects of making a decent living with a minimum of hard labour.

It was here, at Charing Cross railway station at half-past eleven o’clock at night, that I resolved to be a criminal. I reached this decision calmly and deliberately. After all, I come from a long line of criminals. The founder of my house was a robber who stole land, the reviver of our ancestral glories was a woman who was a very close friend indeed of one of the Stuart princes.

It is true that very few men resolve upon a career which involves a total disregard for the law. Men drift into crime as, with more happy results, other men drift into other professions. It is largely a matter of early training and environment. What are known as the “criminal classes” are people whose natural and instinctive predatory impulses are unchecked by discipline. Every babe is born into the world a conscienceless thief, and is taught by nurses and mother, by schoolmaster and father, and, finally, by an appreciation of the law’s true majesty that of all the goods in the world only a very few are his, and even those must be consumed or employed in accordance with the ritual of behaviour.

The idea which is behind all the Prisoners’ Aid Societies and the like, that crime is the phenomenon of good people becoming suddenly bad people, and the further absurd belief that these suddenly bad people can be turned back into good people is as fallacious as would be the suggestion that a snub nose can be converted into a Roman nose on the impulse of a moment.

This digression is by-the-way. I was in London. I was broke. I had no desire to “work,” because work implied a fixity of habit and a certain drab sameness of existence. I declare to-day that I regard prison life as infinitely more satisfying to the romantic soul than the most comfortable of Government jobs. In prison a man of culture and imagination cannot stagnate nor be content with his lot. If it is only the ambition to be a free man he at least is the possessor of aspirations. Moreover, he dreams, and that is very blessed.

I drove to an hotel in the City, and was shown to a dull and gloomy room, uglier than any of those bright and cheery apartments in which delinquency is stored for recuperation and renewal. And I remember I sat until the day broke puzzling out how best I could begin.

Has this ever struck you–that for hundreds of years architects, tailors, builders of all kinds, iron-masters and the like, have devoted their best energies to the frustrating of thieves! The dominant note of civilisation is suspicion. Billions of money have been spent not only to induce mankind to the paths of virtue but to take jolly good care that it did not stray. The first essential of all houses is that none shall be able to enter except authorised persons. The steel-makers produce bars for the windows and locks for the doors. The tailor contrives cunning pockets which cannot be picked. Corporations have been formed to keep the loose cash of the community in safe keeping–it seems that the first essential of manufacture shall be security against the thief.

All night long I planned and thought, and always I came up against locks, bolts, and bars.

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