Again The Ringer/II

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I Again The Ringer
II
written by Edgar Wallace
III




CHAPTER II   CASE OF THE HOME SECRETARY


There were two schools of thought at Scotland Yard. There were those who believed that The Ringer worked single-handed, and those who were convinced that he controlled an organisation and had the assistance of at least half a dozen people.

Inspector Bliss was of the first school, and instanced the killing of Miska Guild in proof.

"He's entirely on his own," he said. "Even his helper in that case was an innocent man who had no idea he was being used to attract the attention of the police."

"By the way, is there any news of him?" asked the Assistant Commissioner.

Bliss shook his head.

"He's in London; I was confident of that—now I know. If you had told me, sir, a few years ago, that any man could escape the police by disguise, I should have laughed. But this man's disguises are perfect. He is the character he pretends to be. Take Wally the Nose, with his rabbit's teeth and his red eyes. Who would have imagined that a set of fake teeth worn over his others and a little colouring to his eyelids, plus the want of a shave, would be sufficient to hide him from me? I am one of the few people who have seen him without make-up, and yet he fooled me."

"Why do you think he is in London?"

Chief Inspector Bliss took out his pocket-case and, opening this, searched the papers it contained for a letter.

"It came this morning."

Colonel Walford stared up at him.

"From The Ringer?"

Bliss nodded. "Typewritten on the same machine he used when he wrote to Miska Guild—the 's' is out of alignment and the tails of the 'p's' are worn."

Colonel Walford put on his glasses and read:


Michael Benner, now under sentence of death, is innocent. I think you knew this when you gave evidence against him at the Old Bailey, for you brought out every point in his favour. Lee Lavineki killed the old man, but was disturbed by Benner before he could get the loot. Lee left for Canada two days after the murder. Be a good fellow and help save this man.


There was no signature.

"What's the idea?" The Commissioner looked up over his glasses.

"The Ringer is right," said Bliss quietly. "Benner did not kill old Estholl—and I have discovered that Lavinski was in England when the murder was committed."

The crime of which he spoke was one of those commonplace crimes which excite little interest, since the guilt of the man accused seemed beyond doubt and the issue of the trial a foregone conclusion. Estholl was a rich man of seventy, who lived in a small Bloomsbury hotel. He was in the habit of carrying around large sums of money—a peculiar failing of all men who have risen from poverty to riches by their own efforts.

At four o'clock one wintry morning a guest at the hotel, who had been playing cards in his sitting-room with a party of friends, came out into the corridor, and saw Benner, who was the night porter, emerge from the old man's room, carrying in his hand a blood-stained hammer. The man's face was white, he seemed dazed, and when challenged was speechless.

Rushing into the room the guest saw old Estholl lying on the bed in a pool of blood, dead. The porter's story after his arrest was that he had heard the old man's bell ring and had gone up to his room and knocked. Having no answer he opened the door and went in. He saw the hammer lying on the bed and picked it up mechanically, being so horrified that he did not know what he was doing.

· · · · ·

Benner was a young married man and in financial difficulties. He was desperately in need of money and had tried that evening to borrow seven pounds from the manageress of the hotel. Moreover, he had said to the head porter, "Look at old Estholl! If I had half of the money that he has in his pocket I shouldn't be worrying my head off to-night!"

Protesting his innocence, Benner went to the Old Bailey, and, after a trial which lasted less than a day, was condemned.

"The hammer was the property of the hotel, and Benner, had access to the workroom where it was usually kept," said Bliss; "but, as against that, the workroom, which is in the hotel basement, was the easiest to enter from the outside, and the window was, in fact, found open in the morning."

"Is there any hope for Benner?"

Bliss shook his head.

"No. The Court has dismissed his appeal—and Strathpenner is not the kind of man who would have mercy; old Estholl was, unfortunately, a friend of his."

The Commissioner looked at the letter again, and ran his fingers through his hair irritably. "Why should The Ringer bother his head about Benner?" he asked, and the ghost of a smile appeared on the bearded face of the detective.

"The trouble with The Ringer is that he can't mind his own business," he said. "That little note means that he is in the case—he doesn't drop letters around unless he's vitally interested; and if he's vitally interested in Benner, then we're going to see something rather dramatic. By the way, the Home Secretary has sent for me in connection with this affair."

"Is he likely to be influenced by you, Inspector?" asked Colonel Walford dryly.

"If I agree with him, yes; if I don't, no," said Bliss.

He went back to his room to learn that a visitor had called, and before his secretary told him her name he guessed her identity.

She was a pretty girl, despite the haggard lines which told of sleepless nights. She was dressed much better than when he had seen her at the Old Bailey.

"Well, Mrs. Benner," he said kindly, "what can I do?"

Her lips quivered.

"I don't know, sir … I know Jim is innocent. He's incapable of doing such a horrible thing. I called at the Home Office, but the gentleman wouldn't see me."

Again Bliss looked at her clothes: they were obviously new. As though she read his thoughts: "I'm not in a bad way, sir—for money, I mean. A gentleman sent me twenty five-pound notes last week, and that paid off all poor Jim's debts and left me enough to live on for a bit."

"Who sent the money?" asked Bliss quickly, but here she could not give him information. It had arrived by post and was unaccompanied by any card or name.

"It might have been a woman who sent it?" suggested Bliss, though he knew better. "There was no letter at all?"

She shook her head.

"Only a piece of paper. I've got it here."

She fumbled in her bag and produced a strip of paper torn off the edge of a newspaper, on which was typed "DON'T LOSE HOPE."

· · · · ·

The "s" was out of alignment, the tail of the "p" was faint. Bliss smiled to himself, but it was a grim smile.

"You're under distinguished patronage," he said ironically, and then, in a more serious tone: "I'm afraid I can do very little for you. I am seeing one of the officials at the Home Office this morning, but I'm afraid, Mrs. Benner, you'll have to resign yourself to——"

He did not finish his sentence, as he saw her eyes close and her face grow a shade paler.

Bliss pulled out a chair and bade her sit down; and somehow the sight of this woman in her agony brought a pang to a heart not easily touched.

"No hope?" she whispered, and shook her head in anticipation of his answer.

"A very faint one, I'm afraid," said the detective.

"But you don't think he's guilty, Mr. Bliss? When I saw Jim in Pentonville he told me that you didn't think so. It is horrible, horrible! He couldn't have done such an awful thing!"

Bliss was thinking rapidly. He had a dim idea of The Ringer's methods, and now he was searching here and there to find the avenue by which this ruthless man might approach the case.

"Have you any relations?"

She shook her head.

"No brothers?"

Again she gave him the negative.

"Good! Now, Mrs. Benner, I'll do the best I can for you, and in return I want you to do something for me. If the man who sent you that money approaches you, or if anybody who is unknown to you calls on you or asks you to meet them, I want you to telephone me here."

He scribbled down the number on a slip of paper and passed it across to her. "If anybody comes to you purporting to be from Scotland Yard, or to have any position of authority whatever, I want you to telephone to me about that also. I'm going to do what I can for your husband, and, though I'm afraid it isn't much, it will be my best."

It was half-past two when he arrived at the Home Office, and, by some miracle, Mr. Strathpenner had arrived. He was the despair of his subordinates, a man without method or system. There were days when he would not come to the office at all; other and more frequent days when he would put in an appearance an hour before the staff left, with the result that they were kept working into the night.

The Eight Honourable William Strathpenner, His Majesty's principal Secretary of State, was a singularly unpopular man, both in and outside his party. He was pompous, unimaginative, a little uncouth of speech, intolerable. He had worn his way into the Cabinet as other men had done before him; not by genius of oratory or by political character, but the sheer weight of him had rubbed a place through which he had fallen, first to a minor office under the Crown, and then, by a succession of lucky accidents, to the highest of the subordinate Cabinet positions.

A thin man, short-necked, broad-shouldered, he had the expression of one who was constantly smelling something unpleasant. Political cartoonists had helped to make his face familiar, for his was an easy subject for caricature. The heavy, black, bristling eyebrows, the thick-lens spectacles, the bald head with the black wisps brushed across, his reddish nose—a libel on him, since he was a lifelong abstainer—made him unpleasant to look upon. He was almost as unpleasant to hear, for he had a harsh, grating voice and punctuated his sentences with an irritating little cough.

He kept Bliss waiting twenty minutes before he was admitted to the august presence; and there seemed no reason for the delay, for Mr. Strathpenner was reading a newspaper when he came in. He looked at the slip which announced the name of his visitor.

"Bliss, Bliss? Of course. Yes, yes, you're a police officer—ahem! This Benner case … yes, I remember now; I asked you to see me—ahem!"

He blinked across the table at Bliss, and his face had more than ever that unpleasant-smell expression.

"Now what do you know about this, hey? I haven't seen the Judge, but there's no doubt in my mind that this blackguard should suffer the extreme penalty of the law. This report, of course, is bunkum." He tapped the newspaper with his finger. "The usual bunkum—ahem! I don't believe in confessions—you don't believe in confessions?"

"Confessions, sir?" The inspector gazed at him in astonishment.

"Haven't you seen it?" Strathpenner threw the paper across the table. "There it is. Use your eyes … third column …"

· · · · ·

It was not in the third, but the fifth column, and the item of news was headed: "Hotel Murder Confession. Remarkable Statement by Red-handed Murderer."


Template:Italic block


Bliss looked up and met the Home Secretary's gaze.

"Well? Bunkum, eh? You've had no official notification at Scotland Yard?"

"No, sir."

"I thought not; I thought not—ahem! An old trick, eh, Inspector? You've had that sort of thing played on you before. It won't save Benner, I assure you—ahem! I assure you!"

Bliss gaped at him. "But you're not going to hang this man until you get this statement over from Canada?"

"Don't be absurd, Inspector, don't be absurd! If a Secretary of State were to be influenced by newspaper reports where would he be, eh? Did you read the last paragraph?"

Bliss took up the paper again and saw, later:


The man Lavinski died before he could sign the statement he had made before Mr. Prideaux.


"Let me tell you, sir"—Mr. Strathpenner wagged an admonitory finger—"His Majesty's Secretary of State is not to be influenced by wild-cat stories of this kind … by newspaper reports, by—ahem —hearsay evidence as it were! What are we to do? I ask you! On the unsigned deposition of a—er—convicted murderer caught in the act. Release this man Benner?"

"You could grant him a respite, sir," interrupted Bliss.

Mr. Strathpenner sat back in his chair and his tone became icy.

"I am not asking your advice, Template:SIC … If I lose my pocket-book or my watch I have no doubt your advice will be invaluable—ahem —to secure its recovery. Thank you, inspector."

He waved Bliss from the room. The detective went across to Scotland Yard, but Walford had gone. The only thing he knew was that the death- warrant had not been signed. It is part of the Home Secretary's duty to affix his name to a document that will send a fellow-creature from this life, and one of the bravest men who ever sat in a Cabinet refused the second offer of the office for this reason.

Mr. Strathpenner, at any rate, was not in any way distressed by his duty. He had summoned the Judge who had tried the case to meet him the next day, and he went back to his house in Crowborough that night without a single qualm or misgiving.

· · · · ·

He was a widower; lived alone—except for a large staff of servants, which included a French chef, and he dined, a solitary figure in the big mahogany-panelled dining-room, a large German philosophical work propped up before him for he was an excellent linguist and had a weakness for shallow philosophies if they were propounded with sufficient pretentiousness.

He was so reading at the end of his meal when the visitor was announced. Mr. Strathpenner looked at the card suspiciously. It read: "Mr. James Hagger, 14, High Street, Crouchstead."

Now, Crouchstead was the West of England constituency which had the honour of being represented in Parliament by the Home Secretary, and, since he held his seat by the narrowest of majorities, he resisted the temptation to send the message which rose too readily to his lips.

"All right, show him in here."

He looked at the card again. Who was Mr. Hagger? Probably somebody very important in Crouchstead; somebody he had shaken hands with, probably. An important member of the Crouchstead Freedom Club, likely enough. Sir. Strathpenner loathed Crouchstead and all its social manifestations; yet he screwed a smile into his face when Mr. Hagger was ushered to his presence.

The visitor proved to be a very respectably dressed man, with a heavy black moustache which drooped beneath chin level.

"You remember me, sir?" His voice was deep and solemn. "I met you at the Freedom banquet. I'm the secretary of the Young Workers' League."

Oh, it was the Young Workers' League, was it, thought Mr. Strathpenner. He had almost forgotten its existence.

"Of course … naturally … sit down, Mr. Hagger. Will you have a glass of port?"

Mr. Hagger deposited his hat carefully on the floor.

"No, sir, thank you, I'm a lifelong abstainer. I neither touch, taste, nor handle. Of course, I realise that a gentleman like you has to have likker in the 'ouse. It's about this man Benner …"

The Minister stiffened.

"We've been 'aving a talk, some of the leaders of the party in Crouchstead, and we've come to the conclusion it'd be a great mistake to hang that man——"

Mr. Strathpenner shook his head sadly. "Ah Mr. Hangar, you've no idea how deeply I have considered this subject, and with what reluctance I have been compelled, or shall be compelled, to allow the law to take its course. You realise that a man in my position …"

He continued his justification in terms which he had applied before to stray members of Parliament who had strolled into his room in the House of Commons, and had expressed views similar to those which Mr. Hagger was on the point of enunciating.

"Now, let us leave this—er—unpleasant subject. Will you take some coffee with me? By the way, how did you come?"

"I was brought up from the station in a fly," said Mr. Hagger.

He was very apologetic.

"You quite understand, Mr. Strathpenner, that I had to do my duty. The committee paid my fare up, and I thought it'd be a good chance of seeing you. I've heard about your wonderful house, and I didn't want to miss the chance of seeing it."

Here he touched the Home Secretary on his soft side. The house had an historic as well as an artistic value; it was one of the innumerable John o' Gaunt hunting lodges that stud the county of Sussex. It was indubitably pre-Elizabethan. Mr. Strathpenner was prouder of his home than of any of his attainments. He led the visitor from room to room and was almost genial in his response the visitor's interest.

"… Haunted, of course—all these old places are haunted. There's a dungeon … the previous owner used it as a coal-cellar! A Philistine, sir—a boor—ahem—or something objectionable. Come this way."

He opened a stout oak door and preceded his visitor down a flight of stone stairs; showed him not only the dungeon, which had been carefully restored to its earlier grimness, but a lower prison chamber, six feet by six, approached through a stone trapdoor.

"Let me show you …"

He went before the other down the ladder.

"We have ringbolts here, almost worn through with age, where the unfortunate prisoners were chained. And yet the place is fairly well ventilated."

"It's a funny thing," said Mr. Hagger, as he carefully descended the ladder, "that the flyman who brought me up from the station told me to be sure to ask you to show me your dungeon."

"Extraordinary," said Mr. Strathpenner, not ill-pleased. "But the place has quite a local reputation."

· · · · ·

His Majesty's judges are not to be kept waiting. Sir Charles Jean, the senior Common Law Judge, looked at his watch and closed the case with a vicious snap.

"The Home Secretary said that he would be here at half-past four."

"I'm very sorry, sir," said the official who was with him. "I've been on the phone to Mr. Strathpenner. He left the house an hour ago and should be here at any moment. It's rather foggy, and he's a very nervous traveller."

"Where is his secretary, Mr. Cliney?"

"He has gone down to Crowborough with some documents for signature—he had only gone ten minutes when Mr. Strathpenner 'phoned through."

"I'm afraid I can wait no longer. I will see him in the morning. I hope you'll impress upon Mr. Strathpenner that there is, in my mind, a very grave doubt about Benner's guilt."

He might have added that he did not think that would have very much influence with the Minister, who had on a previous occasion ignored the recommendation of a judge.

He had hardly gone before the official heard the rasping voice and nervous cough of his chief, and hurried into the secretary's office.

"Sir Charles Jean, eh? And gone? Ahem! Well, well, well! I can't be at the beck and call of judges, my dear man. Or Ringers either, my friend, eh?—ahem! Or Ringers either!"

"Ringers, sir?" said the astonished official.

There was a dry, rasping chuckle.

"Visited me last night, the scoundrel—ahem! That will be something to tell Mr. What's-his-name—Bliss. By the way, call him up and tell him that when I return from Paris on Friday I should like to see him."

"Paris, sir?" asked the startled official. "There's a meeting of the Cabinet on Friday morning."

"I know, I know," testily.

He opened a portfolio, took out a sheet of paper and stared at it owlishly. The official saw the document and thought it a moment to pass along the message.

"Sir Charles asked me to tell you that he is very doubtful as to whether this man should be executed——"

But the other was scrawling his name.

"There will be a respite of fourteen days," he said. "The matter may come up for consideration next Wednesday after the arrival of the depositions from Canada."

He blotted the sheet and pushed it across to the Under-Secretary.

"The respite may be announced in the newspapers," he said.

· · · · ·

"I ought to have known," said Bliss ruefully, "that Strathpenner was the easiest man in the world to impersonate. The curious thing is, it did strike me when I was talking to him."

"How is he?" asked Walford.

"When they released him from his lower dungeon," said Bliss, with the ghost of a smile in his eyes, "he was slightly insane, but not, I think, quite so insane as Mr. Hagger of Crouchstead, who is no longer a life-long abstainer. Mr. Strathpenner used the lower dungeon as a wine cellar, and they had to live on something. They might be living there still if The Ringer hadn't been obliging enough to send me a wire."


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