Again The Ringer/IV
|III|| Again The Ringer
written by Edgar Wallace
Once upon a time, in those absurd days of war, when the laws governing the sanctity of human life were temporarily suspended, a flying officer, making a reconnaissance to the north-west of Baghdad, saw the solitary figure of a man lying in the desert land. By his side was a dead camel.
The flying officer, whose name was Henry Arthur Milton, dipped down to take a closer view, and as he did so he saw the man's hand raised feebly as though signalling for help.
Captain Milton shut off his engines, having found a likely landing-place, and five minutes later was examining the wounded man, a person of some importance, to judge by the trappings of his camel and his own raiment.
He was wounded in the shoulder, half delirious with thirst, and proved to be one Ibn el Masjik. He had been wounded in a skirmish with British troops, and after the rescuer had made him comfortable El Masjik had a request to make.
"I am the chief of a fighting clan and I could not survive the disgrace of being taken prisoner. Therefore I ask you as a favour that you take me to the city of my father, and I will give you my parole that I will not fight against your people, nor shall any of my tribe fight."
Milton spoke Arabic as though it were his mother-tongue. He was also a man of unconventional habits, and although he had no more authority to carry out the wishes of his prisoner than he had to take upon himself the command of the British Army in Mesopotamia, he did not hesitate.
His aeroplane made a journey of a hundred and seventy miles, landed within half a mile of the walled city of Khor, and at some risk to himself (for the local inhabitants were unaware of his errand of mercy) delivered the wounded man to the care of his friends.
"Come to me when this war is ended," said Ibn el Masjik; "and, though all the world be against you, I shall be for you. If you are poor, I will make you rich. My father's city is for your asking."
This time he spoke in English, for he had in his youth been educated at a preparatory school in Bournemouth, his father being a rich man with a leaning to Western ideals.
Henry Arthur Milton remembered this promise some years later, when he was hard pressed, and for six months was the guest of Ibn el Masjik, whose father was now dead. Mr. Milton saw the administration of an Eastern city and a Near Eastern people who snapped their scornful fingers at authority which was too far away to be effective.
This white-walled city stood on the edge of the wilderness, and time had passed it by. Raiding parties went out unashamed and returned laden with booty and slaves. Milton saw men and women sold in the market-place, saw life unchanged from what it had been in the days when Mahomet's uncle was guardian of the Template:W, and the Prophet's disciples were praying in Medina.
One night Henry Arthur expostulated about certain practices, and the thin, ascetic face of Ibn el Masjik lit up in a smile. He tossed a half-smoked cigarette into a silver vase, lit another, and settled himself more comfortably on the cushions.
They were in the dining-room of his palace—a tall, bare apartment, with lime-washed walls and vivid, silken colourings—and a Circassian girl sat at his feet and ate sweetmeats noisily.
"My friend," he said, "it is a far cry to Bournemouth, Hampshire. Slavery is merely a name for service, and it is a matter of form whether it takes the shape you see here in Khor or in some dingy northern town where men and women have to leave their beds at the sound of a whistle and hurry through rain and sleet to the prison-houses you call factories. My slaves are more pleasantly treated: they have the sunshine; they are well fed: they sleep in their own houses."
He was perfectly frank about the traffic. There was a little port on the Ked Sea where one could buy, under the very noses of a British administration, this kind of artisan—at a price.
"Not always can I buy what I desire," he explained. "My women ask me all the time for such a man, and where may he be found?" He sighed heavily. "Yes, the West is creeping upon us, and Kemal's new law concerning women has reached even here."
He shrugged his shoulders, smoothed his white silken robe more decorously about his knees, and smiled reminiscently.
"I do not object. There is a piquancy in the new custom which is very amusing. And we differ from most other tribes in that our women are never veiled, and have rights of choice."
After Milton came back to Western Europe he frequently corresponded with his blood brother, and at the back of his mind he always had Khor as a final sanctuary in case things went wrong.
The police might suspect that Henry Arthur Milton, whom they called The Ringer, had many homes, but they did not know where. There was, for example, a villa on the outskirts of Cannes, very convenient for a man who wished to make a rapid exit from one country to another. He rented a small flat overlooking the little Sok in Tangier; he had certainly a house which was a semi-detached residence in Norbury, and here he spent a greater part of his time than any of his enemies imagined.
There was a small garden at the back of the house which he cultivated, and across the dividing wall it often happened that he discussed with his neighbour such mundane matters as the depredations of cats.
He had few opportunities, for Captain Oring, that grey-bearded man who had dreamed for forty years of a shore life was captain of a small tramp vessel which traded between London and Suez. He was not only captain but part proprietor, he and his sons holding three-quarters of the shares in this little vessel.
One of the "boys" was his chief officer, another his chief engineer, a third attended to the business end in London. He had, also, a daughter, a floridly-pretty girl, who kept the home for her brother and did an immense amount of housework in such time as she could spare from the pictures.
On an occasion when The Ringer was absent from London the girl disappeared. Her father was at sea, and it was from him, months later, that The Ringer heard the story.
Captain Orin did not tell him coherently—it was not the sort of story that a father could tell straightforwardly—and Henry Arthur Milton listened to the broken narrative with a cold-bloodedness which was his chief characteristic.
"My boy found her after a lot of trouble … she's with my sister now, in the country. Naturally, I've tried to find the people, but what chance had I got in London? I can't go to the police … I don't want her name in the papers, do I? If I ever meet this man …"
"You won't," said The Ringer. "But perhaps I shall—I travel about a lot."
(In the neighbourhood he was registered as Mr. Ernest Oppenton, and his profession was described as "commercial traveller.")
Captain Oring went away to sea, with his sons and his grief and his patched-up little steamer; and Henry Arthur Milton had certain urgent business which took him to Berlin—so urgent that you might imagine that the matter of Lucy Oring had entirely slipped from his mind.
But nothing ever escaped him, and on his return to London he became a great frequenter of that type of West End club which appears on and is struck from the register so very rapidly that you might not know it had ever existed.
He overheard a little; waiters told him something. It is extraordinary how confidential an Italian waiter will become to a man who speaks his language. Women told him most of all, for he paid for drinks with great munificence.
On a certain afternoon a scene was enacted at one of the great London termini which was so commonplace that only very keen observation would have noted it as being out of the ordinary.
The nice-looking old lady with the white hair and the cameo brooch saw the train come slowly along the platform of Victoria Station, and moved nearer to the barrier.
Presently, the passengers began to trickle past the ticket-collector, not in the hurried way of suburban season-ticket holders, but with the leisure which is peculiar to travellers from a distance. She watched carefully, and after a while she saw the pretty girl with the black suitcase. She was dressed in dark brown and carried in her other hand a bunch of autumnal flowers.
The nice old lady intercepted her.
"My dear, are you Miss Clayford? I thought so! I am Mrs. Graddle. I thought I would come along and see you safely across London."
The girl nodded gratefully.
"I was wondering what I should do. Are you from the agency?"
The nice old lady smiled.
"Oh, dear no! But a friend of mine at the agency keeps me informed about the engagements. I like to do what I can for young people. Now, you must come along and have tea with me. I understand it is a perfectly awful place you are going to! Forty pounds a year for a nursery governess is scandalous! And in a little country village where there is nothing to see and nothing to do …!"
She rattled on as she accompanied the girl through the booking-hall to the station yard, and Elsie Clayford listened dismally. Forty pounds a year was a small sum, but she understood that her new employers were very nice people, and that the home was comfortable. It was her first engagement.
"I'd like you to stay a few days with me," said Mrs. Graddle, as she signalled a cab. "I've got a lovely little house in St. John's Wood, and we have young society. I have already telephoned to Lady Shene, and she agrees. You might do a theatre or two …"
Elsie had not the vaguest idea who Mrs. Graddle was. She guessed that the old lady was a member of one of those organisations which undertake the care of young girls. It was a matter for satisfaction that such societies existed.
For instance, as she had met her white-haired guardian she had noticed a lank-looking man with long black hair and large horn-rimmed spectacles; and this sinister-looking individual had looked at her so oddly that she felt a queer little thrill of fear. And now he was standing at her elbow as the cab drew up at the kerb.
"Get in, my dear," said Mrs. Graddle, as Elsie pushed in her suitcase. The girl obeyed, and the old lady was following when the man with the spectacles caught her arm, and, drawing her gently aside, shut the cab door.
"King's Cross," he said to the driver, and, still holding Mrs. Graddle's arm, he pushed his head through the open window space. "Your train leaves at 5.32. Lady Shene will probably meet you at Welwyn Station. Have you money for the cab fare?"
"Ye-es," said the panic-stricken Elsie.
"Good. Don't talk to people unless you know them; especially angelic old birds like this one."
He waved the cab on.
"What's the idea?" demanded Mrs. Graddle, breathlessly.
The man had already called another cab.
"Get in," he said; and she obeyed tremblingly. The man followed.
"I've told him to drive through the park. I'll drop you at the end of Birdcage Walk."
"I've a good mind to give you in charge!" There was a whimper in the old woman's voice. "Who do you think you are?" He did not answer this question.
"You've been convicted twice—once in Leeds and Manchester," he said; "and for a number of offences. You get acquainted with somebody in a registry office who keeps you supplied with information regarding the movement of servants. I understand that you're not above touting and using the cinemas to discover stage-struck girls."
"You can't prove anything," she interrupted. "And even if you arrest me—but you're not going to do a thing like that."
She opened her bag with trembling fingers, groped in the interior and took out a wad of bank-notes.
"Be a good man and don't make any trouble," she pleaded.
The Ringer took the notes from her hand, counted them deliberately.
"Sixty-five pounds doesn't seem a very adequate bribe," he remarked.
She opened an inner purse, and sorted out two notes, each for a hundred pounds.
"That's all I've got." Old Mrs. Graddle was inclined to be hysterical. "You 'busies' can't keep your noses out of anything!"
The Ringer tapped at the window and the cab stopped. It was now raining heavily, and there were few pedestrians about.
"Have you any children?" he asked.
"No," she said quickly.
"Apart from the beastliness of your job, do you ever realise what it feels like to be a father or a mother, to be waiting and hoping for somebody to come back … to be uncertain about their fate?"
"I don't want any argument with you," she said, with surprising savagery for so picturesque an old lady. "You've got your money, and that's all you care about! I've got no children!"
"I think you're right," he said, cryptically; and opened the door for her.
"Let him drive on to the Tube station," she demanded; but he shook his head.
"You can get out and walk. You'll be wet through, probably, and die—and if you do I shan't stop laughing!"
She said something which no angelic old lady should have said. The Ringer smiled. As she moved quickly towards Parliament Square, he paid the cabman.
"Turn round and go back," he said, slipped on a mackintosh which he carried over his arm, took off his glasses, and wiped away his small moustache before the cabman had turned the nose of his machine in the other direction. He was taking no risks—the more so since he was well aware for what destination Mrs. Graddle was bound.
In the circumstances she went to a lot of unnecessary trouble in taking an Underground train to South Kensington and doubling back by taxi. Eventually she reached her pleasant home in St. John's Wood in a condition of semi-exhaustion.
It was a very nice house, with a beautiful dancing floor; this was necessary, for Mrs. Graddle gave select parties. The peculiar servants she employed were decorating the ballroom when she arrived, but she was not interested in the coming festivities of the evening.
She went upstairs to the small study, where her son was eating greasy toast and reading the evening newspaper.
"Hullo! Did you get her?" he asked pleasantly.
He was a lethargic man of thirty, heavy-featured, heavy-eyed, and decidedly plump. On one finger he wore a diamond ring of great value; stones sparkled from his ornate cravat. He listened while she told her breathless story, stroking his small moustache.
"That's pretty bad," he said. "Who was he? Do you know him? A 'busy'? It's awkward—damned awkward! They know about the Leeds and the Manchester affair too; that's rotten!"
He had reason for his perturbation. Only by the skin of his teeth had he succeeded in keeping clear of the Manchester charge, and it would have been much more serious for him than for his mother.
"What are you scared about—I paid the feller, didn't I?" She rang the bell viciously, and when the servant came: "We shan't want the room for that girl; she's not coming," she snapped, and when the servant had closed the door: "For God's sake don't sit there shaking like a jelly, Julian! There's nothing to be afraid of!"
But Julian thought there were many things to be afraid of, and enumerated a few.
"I've been dreading this," he quavered, "ever since that Oring girl was found. Let's go down into the country, mother—what about Margate? We could stay there for a month or two till this affair blew over——"
"It has blown over," she interrupted, and went upstairs to change from her street clothes, which were most uncomfortably damp.
Julian Graddle never felt less like following his legitimate profession. He had to go into the West End to attend to two clients for he was a ladies' hairdresser—an extremely useful trade to his mother: for women gossip to one another. They talk of servants who are leaving them, of girls who have got into scrapes. Some of his mother's best "finds" had been located by Julian in the course of his working day.
He was certainly not at his best after a series of sharp admonitions from his best client—a lady whose temper was by no means equable at the best of times, and he came to his second call more rattled than ever. The next day he had to attend at the shop which employed him, and he lived on tenterhooks, growing bolder, however, as the day progressed without a sign of a policeman.
In the evening, as he was leaving, the clerk at the desk handed him a slip of paper.
"Miss Smith, 34, Grine Mews, telephoned for you specially."
He frowned at the paper, but the time was convenient. "Six-thirty," said the note. "Miss Smith, very urgent. Pay on completion of work."
He was not at all surprised to be called to a Template:Wikt. So many fashionable people had converted garages into artistic flats, and in the course of a normal week he made acquaintance with at least three.
The occupant of 34, Grine Mews, was obviously terminating her occupation. There was a board displayed, informing the world that "this handsome and commodious flat" was to let. He knocked at the narrow door, which was immediately opened.
"Come in," said a man's voice pleasantly. "Are you the hairdresser? Miss Smith has been waiting for you."
Julian stumped wheezily up the steep stairs. They were uncarpeted, and so was the landing. There was also the queer smell which attaches to houses that have been long unfurnished. Possibly Miss Smith was only just moving in, and was the victim of that enticing notice.
His conductor opened a door.
"This way. It is rather dark, but I'll get a light."
Julian entered unsuspectingly. The door slammed behind him—then there was a click, and a bare lamp hanging from the ceiling glowed dimly. The room was empty of furniture; the floor and mantelpiece were covered with dust. Over the little window a heavy horse-rug had been fastened with forks.
"Don't move," said the stranger.
His face was covered with a half-mask: a habit of The Ringer's when he was not wearing disguise.
"If you raise a bleat I shall shoot you through the stomach, and you will die in great agony," he said, calmly; and Julian's face went green at the sight of the pistol in the man's hand.
"What—what——?" he began.
"Don't ask questions. Go through that doorway."
Like a man in a dream, the prisoner obeyed. The inner room had a rickety table and a dark-coloured sofa, evidently left by a former tenant. On the table was a glass of red wine, and to this The Ringer pointed.
"Drink," he said, curtly.
The man turned an agonised face to him.
"Is it poisoned?" he whimpered.
"No, but I will tell you very frankly it is drugged. I'm not going to kill you—I promise you."
Julian gulped down the draught.
"Who are you?" he asked hollowly.
"People call me The Ringer," said Henry Arthur Milton.
It was the last word Julian Graddle remembered.
That night The Ringer had a long consultation with Captain Oring.
"He is the man all right, so we need not distress your daughter by bringing her up to identify him. Where is your ship lying?"
"She's lying at Keeney's Wharf, Rotherhithe," said Captain Oring, pondering the problem before him. "If I thought this was the man——"
"He is the man; but you're to do nothing drastic. He is to be kept alive and in good health. You will arrive at El Sass on the 23rd as I reckon the time—a day or two more or less doesn't matter, because you will be expected. You will arrange to hand him over at night to a crew of Arabs who will come out in a boat for him. Here is the money for his passage—two hundred and sixty-five pounds. His mother is paying the fare."
His two sons were with Captain Oring, and one of them spoke.
"If this is the man, Mr. Oppenton, we don't want any payment. I'd like to take the swine and beat his head off, but if you say no—well, your word goes."
What really was to happen to the man was explained before, in the middle of the night, they went down to the little garage at the end of the garden, where Mr. Julian Graddle was sleeping soundly, and bundled him into an old car. He was taken to Keeney's Wharf when the night watchman was dozing, and laid in a bumpy berth in a very uncomfortable little cabin …
To Ibn el Masjik The Ringer wrote a letter, and sent it overland by a series of aeroplane posts. It began:
He gave the most minute instructions for the disposal of Mr. Julian Graddle—instructions that he knew would be obeyed to the letter.
A fortnight later he saw an advertisement in the agony columns of three daily newspapers:
- Will Julian Graddle, who disappeared from London, please communicate with hie anxious and sorrowing mother?
And when he read this The Ringer laughed. He had read such appeals before, addressed by parents who sought daughters. And where those daughters had gone, and why they did not answer, the angelic Mrs. Graddle knew best.
|Works by this author are in the public domain in countries where the copyright term is the author's life plus 84 years or less.|