Again The Ringer/IX

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VIII Again The Ringer
IX
written by Edgar Wallace
X




CHAPTER IX   THE COMPLETE VAMPIRE


There was a skid on the road out of St. Mary Church which, since it came before no court and involved no drawing of plans for the further bewilderment of a dazed jury, need not be described in too great detail.

It is sufficient to say that motor-car A took a hairpin turn at thirty-five miles an hour, saw motor-car B proceeding in the opposite direction at about the same pace, and swerved to avoid a collision, both cars being on the wrong side of the road, but A being more on the wrong side than B.

Dropping all alphabetical anonymity, the Hon. Mr. Bayford St. Main's car kept its balance and suffered no harm, but the other waltzed round in its own length, turned turtle into an over-flooded ditch, and its one occupant would most certainly have been drowned if Bay had not had the wit and the muscle to effect a rescue. His strength was as the strength of ten, not because his heart was pure, but because he was terribly exhilarated over his engagement, and even more exhilarated as a result of a lunch he had had with his rather parsimonious father at Torquay.

"Go easy with that Napoleon brandy, my boy! That cost me a hundred and eighty shillings a bottle—and I only got it as a special favour from a maître d'hôtel at Monte Carlo."

"Everybody does," said Bay.

Straddling the ditch, he lifted the car sufficiently to allow the imprisoned man to escape.

"Dreadfully sorry—I don't know whose fault it was," said Bay with great politeness. The victim smiled weakly.

"Lots of people have predicted various ends for me," he said, "but nobody suggested that I should die in a ditch."

He was—he announced this with rather ridiculous pomposity—Marksen, the explorer.

"Good Lord!" said Bay, in tones of awe.

He had never heard of Marksen the explorer, but he knew exactly the tone that the moist man expected.

"I'd better take you back to Babbacombe in my car," he began, but at this point the gardener came on the scene. He and his mistress had witnessed the accident from the crest of the high bank which was in the main the real cause of the accident.

"If you'll come up to the house, sir, madam will telephone to Babbacombe to a garage and you'll be able to dry yourself."

Mr. Marksen agreed gratefully, but the tall young man who had overturned him insisted upon returning to the nearest point of civilisation to obtain the necessary breakdown gang. They shook hands soberly at the foot of the stone steps which led from the roadway to madam's invisible demesne.

"I hate to say the trite thing, but you've saved my life—undoubtedly," said Mr. Marksen, whose dignity nothing could ruffle. "To think of the perils I have endured, the dangers I have passed, and then to find myself in a Devonshire ditch …"

"Yes, yes; deuced awkward," replied Bay hastily. He had a wholesome dread of scenes.

"Some day I shall be able to repay you, Mr. St. Main," said Marksen.

He followed the gardener into beautifully-ordered grounds. There were close-cropped lawns and flower beds ablaze with the joyous banners of spring, and a red-roofed little house, just as picturesque as a modern house can be when it is masquerading as an old house. Here was a very stately lady of sixty who wore silk mittens, a white cap, and on the bosom of her black alpaca dress, a large ornament which was cameo on the one side and a hand-painted photograph on the other.

It was a beautifully furnished little house, and when Mr. Marksen had enjoyed a hot bath and had attired himself in the brand-new suit of the gardener (rashly purchased for the funeral of an aunt who took a turn for the better the day the clothes were delivered), Mrs. Reville Ross (this was the name of his hostess) conducted him from room to room, exhibiting her treasures with immodest pride.

There were certain incongruous features which Mr. Marksen could not fail to observe. A cheap crayon enlargement of a cheaper kind of photograph seemed out of place in the sunny drawing-room.

"My dear husband," said Mrs. Ross proudly. "He was killed on the railway but was insured. My daughter." She turned the big cameo to reveal the highly coloured portrait of a pretty girl of sixteen. "You must have heard of her." She mentioned the name of a famous American cinema star. "English!" said Mrs. Ross in triumph. "Everybody thinks she's American. She'd lose her job if it was known she was. Betty Ross. I've got a piece of newspaper somewhere—American newspaper—where she says she's never been to England. She comes over secretly every year to stay with me for a month. She worships me, that girl. She bought this house—I got my own servant, shooter, gardener, car—everything. Nothing's too good for me."

Mr. Marksen listened and was interested. He had been interested ever since he had heard the old lady speak in the good old English of Limehouse and realised that the chatelaine of the pseudo-Elizabethan house was not all that she appeared to be.

Coincidences belong to real life rather than to fiction, and there are three coincidences in this story—one of which does not count; the gardener's name was Fate—Herbert Arthur Fate.

Superintendent Bliss, of Scotland Yard, might have fashioned a poem on this odd fact.

    

Nobody would suspect Mr. Bliss of poetical leanings, yet in truth he was, if not a student, a lover of the more robust forms of poetry.

He invariably referred to Louise Makala as "the lady called Lou," and on two occasions had spoken with her for the good of her soul. Louise was not easily impressed, less readily scared: Superintendent Bliss certainly did not frighten her—she regarded him as a bore, thought once that he was on the sentimental side, and attacked him on that flank, only to, discover that what she had thought was mush was really a rigid sense of decency.

Lou had a flat in Grosvenor Street, a magnificent apartment, with an impressive approach. She had a butler and a couple of footmen; a night and a day chauffeur; a cottage in the country which bore the same resemblance to a cottage as a hunting-box bears to a tin of sardines; a flat in the Etoile, and a small house in Leicestershire where she kept half a dozen hunters. She was the most beautiful creature that Bliss and the majority of men had ever seen—to have seen her was the principal experience of any man's day, and her occupation in life, reducible to modern terms, was vampire. Her victims were many and they were all immensely rich. She did not select them: they did their own selection.

"Who is that lady?" asked the Honourable George Cestein of the hotel porter at Felles Hotel.

The hotel porter told him she was Miss Blenhardt, that her father was a very rich Australian, and that she had, at the moment, the best suite at the hotel.

The Honourable George followed her from the hotel and picked up the glove, handkerchief, or whatever it was she dropped, and within twenty-four hours …


"Either you sign a cheque for twenty thousand pounds or I will scream and send for the police."


George had no more than kissed her, but why, oh why, had he chosen his own private suite at the Margravine Hotel for this attention?

He stared at her horrified. Her dress was torn, her hair dishevelled —but these artistic touches were her very own handiwork. George raved but made a quick decision. Louise's own maid put in an appearance. The open cheque was signed and cashed, George threatening to go immediately to Scotland Yard. She had heard such threats before, would hear them again. The substantial fact was a roll of notes valued at £20,000.

    

The first time she met Bliss she had a moment of panic, but it did not last very long. "Do you know Sir Roland Perfenn?" he asked her sternly. And she laughed. For Sir Roland is a Privy Councillor and a great ecclesiastical lawyer, and he was the last person in the world to bear evidence of his very heavy loss.

"Does he say I do?" she asked coolly, and of course Bliss would have to say "No" to that.

"It has come to my notice …" he began, and told the story of the all-too-gallant Sir Roland.

"Produce your Sir Roland, dear my Mr. Bliss," she said. "It is a fairly simple matter—if I remember rightly, his name is in the Telephone Directory."

But Bliss was not in a position to accept her advice. He could, however, talk to her like a father.

"So far you've only caught men who dare not squeal and who would rather pay than look foolish. But sooner or later you'll catch a man who looks like a gentleman and talks like one—but isn't! And you'll go to the Old Bailey, and when the Judge asks what is known about this woman, I shall step up on to the witness stand and say 'This lady is a notorious blackmailer,' and you'll go down for twenty years."

She only laughed.

"When a general loses a battle he's finished," she said, "and if a lion-tamer makes a mistake he's mauled … and, Mr. Bliss, if you pull that one about the pitcher going often to the well, I'll scream for help! No—if I make a mistake I'll pay. But I shan't make a mistake. Will you have a cocktail?"

Bliss smiled grimly and shook his head. She was sitting on the arm of a big and expensively covered settee, and she drooped her head on one side and into her fine eyes came a quizzical smile.

"Instead of warning me you ought to ask my help," she said. "I think I'm the only person in London who could catch The Ringer for you!"

Bliss winced at this: he thought the remark a little indelicate in view of The Ringer's more recent success.

"Mind that he does not catch you!" seemed a feeble retort in the circumstances, but she did not gloat over the weakness of his Template:Wikt.

"The Ringer! Good heavens! If Scotland Yard was officered by women he would have been caught years ago! I wish he would try me—look!"

She went to the fireplace and produced something from nowhere—she did not trust him sufficiently to show him the tiny marble-faced door of the wall cupboard.

"Have you a licence for that pistol?" asked Bliss professionally, and she laughed.

"Don't be silly! Of course I have! And I can use it! I really did live in Australia for two years—I was married to an imitation squatter. He had delirium tremens for six months in the year and was recovering the other six. We lived on a lonely station and I was taught gun work by a man who had killed three policemen in the State of Nevada. If I give you The Ringer what do I get—a medal?"

He shook his head.

"It will stand in your favour when you come in front of a Judge," he said.

Lou was very amused.

She made her big mistake six months after this conversation. It was in the matter of "Bay" St. Main—who was young and harum-scarum, and was, as we know, engaged to be married to Rendlesham's youngest and richest daughter. Let us do justice to Bay—when he was invited to a convenient snuggery to take tea with this beautiful chance acquaintance he had no more in his mind than the possibility of a thrilling lark. He had the vanity of a normal young man, which meant that he was vainer than the average woman; and that this lovely creature should so readily succumb to the kind and admiring glances he shot at her was distinctly flattering.

Quite a number of people thought that the tall, fair-haired and classical-featured Bay was immensely wealthy. His father was worth a million, but his father liked to see his money stay home with him. Bayford's allowance was absurdly small—he realised very clearly that the chance of his father's helping him honour a cheque for fifteen thousand pounds was a poor one.

As a matter of fact, he didn't really think at all; he was in that condition of horror and shock which inhibits thought. He could stare, pale-faced, at this lovely being in her self-made dishevelment, and when he did speak his words were ludicrously inadequate.

"Why, you—nasty creature!" he squeaked. "I didn't! I just kissed you. I think you're foul to—to make such a suggestion—I really do!"

Louise had no more regard for youthful horror than for middle-aged vituperation. She stated her terms for the second time.

"Fifteen thousand? I haven't got fifteen thousand pence——"

And then he remembered and gasped. That morning his father-in-law-to- be had placed to his credit exactly that sum. Bay was buying a partnership in an underwriting business—thirty thousand was the purchase price. Pa St. Main's half was to come on the morrow. Bay was to hold a one-third interest of the whole. Louise had very accurate information about the financial standing of her cases.

"Don't talk nonsense," she said. "I know your credit to a penny. You have over sixteen thousand in the Piccadilly branch of the Western Bank."

It was now that Bay St. Main's brain began to function, and he reviewed dismally the possible items of embarrassment. Item No. 1 was St. Main Senior, who already leaned towards devoting his fortune to the establishment of Sailors' Institutes—he had in his early youth served before the mast. Item No. 2 was Lord Rendlesham, a High Churchman who virtuously deplored the laxity of the age. Item No. 3 was Inez Rendlesham, very lovely and austere and intolerant of vulgarity. It was difficult to discover any expression of popular activity, from cross-word puzzles to shingling, that did not come into that category.

And, thinking, Mr. St. Main grew paler and paler.

Eventually he signed the cheque and waited, imprisoned with the enchantress, until the money was drawn. During that time he told her incoherently what he thought of such women as she. Lou, who had heard everything that could be said on the subject much more eloquently put —Sir Ronald had once moved the Court of Arches to tears—listened and did not listen.

She was too bored to tell him just what was her point of view. She could have recited her formulæ without thinking. Men are born robbers, unscrupulous, remorseless, pitiless. She stood for avenging womanhood. Men must pay sometimes. Et cetera. What she did say was:

"Yours is a sad case—you might apply to the police or you might find The Ringer and tell him all about it. I'd love to meet him."

Which was very foolish of her.

The time came for the return of the maid and his release. He hurled at her one tremulous malediction, but he did not invent the fiction that he was a close personal friend of the Chief Commissioner. For this she was frankly grateful.

    

Mr. Bayford St. Main went out into the busy street and walked aimlessly, unconsciously westward. To whom should the news be broken? To his father? He closed his eyes and shuddered at the thought. To Rendlesham? Picturing Miss Rendlesham's comments, he had a vision of a broken icicle—irregular and frigid lengths of speech, cold, cutting-edged.

His mind searched frantically for rich relations, for wealthy and philanthropic friends. There was nobody in the wide world to whom he could appeal.

"Why—Mr. St. Main, I declare!"

Bay had turned and blinked owlishly at the man who had laid an almost affectionate hand on his arm.

"Hallo … Mr.—um—eh—Marksen, of course." Bay gripped at the murmured reminder, though who Mr. Marksen was—"Oh, yes, the—um—I hope you weren't fearfully ill after that car business?"

He made an instant appraisement of his companion. Mr. Marksen might be very rich—some of these exploring johnnies are: they find buried cities and unbury them, and dig up all sorts of gold things. Unless, of course, they go exploring the North Pole, when they have to be supported by public subscriptions. He looked rather like that kind in his well-worn golf suit, his foul and massive briar pipe, his gold-rimmed spectacles, and little yellow moustache. He had grown the last since they last met, thought Bay. Here, however, he was wrong. Mr. Marksen had the moustache before the accident, but had lost it in the ditch—and his spectacles.

"I could have sworn I saw you coming out of Lethley Court. I used to have a friend who lived in that hotel, and somebody was telling me the other day that—um—quite a notorious—um—person lived there. A lady called … well, well, well, it is no business of mine."

Bay looked at his companion aghast.

"A—a lady?" he stammered.

"More or less," said Mr. Marksen, "more or less. A friend of mine got into serious trouble over—um—a perfectly innocent folly, and I was able to help him; but you couldn't be interested——"

Bay was more than interested—he was enthralled. "Come round to my flat, will you?" he asked urgently.

Mr. Marksen looked at his watch and hesitated before he said "Yes."

    

Remember always that Bliss spoke the truth when he said that The Ringer did not merely dress, but lived the part he played.

His insatiable curiosity had brought him on to the track of the lady called Lou. He had been standing within six feet of the entrance to the Lethley Court Hotel when Lou and her victim had driven up, but, not being quite sure of the method, had missed the maid when she went out to cash the cheque. There was no question at all in his mind when, eventually, Bay had staggered out of the hotel with a face the colour of chalk. Curiously enough, it was only then that he recognised his rescuer. Perhaps Bay's face was that colour after he had fished a brother motorist from beneath an overturned car.

Bay had his apartment near Bury Street, and the man in the golf suit strode by his side, smoking his big pipe furiously, and spoke no word until they were alone in the sitting-room which looks out upon Ryder Street.

"I'm going to tell you something," said Bay with a desperate effort to be philosophical. "I've been fearfully, badly caught—naturally, you'll think I'm a fearful cad and all that sort of thing, but I swear to you that I hadn't any idea of anything—you know what I mean?"

Happily, Mr. Marksen knew what he meant, otherwise, from the disjointed narrative which followed, he might have gained only the scrappiest idea of what Mr. Bayford St. Main rightly described as his fearful predicament.

"Fifteen thousand—humph!" said Marksen. "And the money isn't yours? Do you mind if I say 'humph' again? I don't know what it means, but it seems the correct thing to say. Anyway, I will get the money back."

Bay gaped at him.

"How? … when?"

"I'll ask her for it; the cheque will come to you tonight."

Mr. St. Main did not believe him.

"You need not worry about whether the cheque will be honoured or not —it will be," said Mr. Marksen thoughtfully. "The only doubt I have in my mind is whether she has an heroic streak. You wouldn't be able to tell me much about that. If she has that slither of theatrical heroism in her make-up, everything may be deucedly complicated. However … did she say anything when you were rude to her?"

Bay tried to think.

"Yes—she said I might apply to that johnny who is always doing something ghastly—The Ringer, that was the feller! She said she'd love to meet him."

"Dear me," said Mr. Marksen, shocked. "Whatever will she say next?"

He ambled out without a word of farewell. Bay was not in a condition to protest at his abrupt exit.

    

The lady called Lou rarely left her Grosvenor Street flat after dinner. The theatres and the fashionable restaurants knew her not. Invariably she dined at home, sometimes alone, sometimes with one she had marked for treatment. The vanity of men! Seldom did a victim tell his dearest friend of his experience. There was an occasion when she had caught in successive weeks two close friends neither of whom was aware of the other's misfortune.

This night she had dined alone, and had retired to her beautiful little drawing-room to draw cheques and to examine accounts. Her overhead bill was a heavy one. There was the flat and an apartment very occasionally used, but which was sometimes very handy.

She was, by the ordinary tests, a strictly proper lady. Her "cases" might call her blackmailer—they could not truthfully call her worse. She was businesslike, cool-blooded, and a shrewd investor in real estate; never drank, seldom smoked, and certainly never gambled. So methodical was she that when the second footman came into the room and announced that the Marquis de Crevitte-Soligny was waiting in the little sitting-room, she was thrown off her balance, and consulted her engagement book with a puzzled expression.

"The Marquis de Crevitte—? Show him in, Bennett."

He might be a friend of a friend; the visit a consequence of an enthusiastic description.

She did not know the tall, white-haired man with the trim, grey moustache, who bowed over her hand. He was handsome, tall, soldierly, and in the lapel of his faultless evening coat was the red rosette of an officier.

"Madame does not remember me?" he asked in French.

She shook her head. "I ask a thousand pardons, but I do not, Monsier le Marquis."

"Good!"

This time he spoke in English, turned slowly and, walking to the door, locked it with great deliberation.

In an instant she was at the fireplace, the marble-faced cupboard swung open, but before her hand could close on the butt of the automatic——

"Don't touch that. I am covering you with an ugly little pistol that fires shot—it would not kill you, but it would make such alterations to your face that you would be compelled to go out of business. Turn!"

She turned, empty-handed.

"Who are you?" she asked, and she saw him smile.

"I am the man you expressed a desire to meet—The Ringer!"

She stared at him incredulously.

"The Ringer? That's a wig, is it?"

He nodded. "Sit down, sister brigand! You caught a young friend of mine today for fifteen thousand pounds."

Not a muscle of her face moved.

"I'm afraid you're talking about something that I do not—understand—" she began.

He laughed softly and laid the squat pistol on the table, drew up a chair, and sat down.

"This is going to be a longer business than I thought, Mrs, Rosler."

Now he had got beneath her guard, for he saw her wince.

"I'm not blaming you for preying on naughty-minded men. You deserve all that they lose. You choose them with such care that I can only admire you——"

There was a knock. The Ringer moved silently to the door and as silently turned the key.

"Come in," said Lou breathlessly. Pink spots burnt in her two cheeks —there was a light in her eyes that stood for triumph. It was Bennett, the footman.

"Mr. Bliss, madam."

She looked at The Ringer steadily; he was standing by the table, his hand hiding the pistol.

"Show him up," she said steadily.

Before he could speak the door was opened wider; evidently Bliss was on the landing waiting. He glanced from the girl to the immaculate-looking foreigner.

"I can see you later, Miss Makala—it isn't very important."

"But no," protested The Ringer. "It is I who am Template:Wikt."

"You can wait where you are." Her voice was hard. She stood now close enough to the half-closed cupboard door to reach for the gun, when Bliss crossed between them.

The Ringer shrugged his shoulders delicately. "I am in the way, but it does not matter—this gentleman is——?"

"Inspector Bliss, of Scotland Yard!"

The Ringer inclined his head.

"An extraordinary coincidence! You shall advise me, Inspector. In Devonshire there is an old lady who lives in a nice house—but she is under the impression that her daughter is Miss Stella Maris, the famous cinema star! And her daughter is no such person! Now should one leave the poor lady in her illusion? Or should one say to her: 'No, madam—your daughter is … whatever she is'?"

Lou's face was whiter than any of her victims had been; the hand that came to her quivering lips shook perceptibly.

"I don't know exactly that I am concerned," said Bliss brusquely; and then to Lou, lowering his voice: "I can get my business over in a minute, Miss Makala. Have you ever met a man named Marksen?"

He described Mr. Marksen even as she was shaking her head.

"We believe it is The Ringer—he has been making inquiries about you, and every description we have had is the same. Do you know any private detective of that name?"

"No," she said.

Bliss turned to scrutinise the other occupant of the room. That gentleman was gazing at himself in a mirror, gently smoothing his moustache.

"Who is this gentleman?" he asked.

She cleared her voice.

"The Marquis de Crevitte-Soligny," she said in a low tone. "I have known him for years."

Bliss stayed only long enough to give her instructions as to what she must do if Mr. Marksen called. She listened with apparent absorption.

They heard the street door close on the detective.

"Now," said The Ringer cheerfully, "I want you to draw a cheque for fifteen thousand pounds payable to Bayford St. Main."

"And if I don't——?" she challenged.

He smiled in her face.

"I shall go and tell your mother what a naughty girl you are," he said softly, "and that her darling daughter, so far from being a rich cinema star, is a low little vamp—and that, I think, would hurt her more than the death of her dear husband."

He was watching for the effect of this piece of mimicry and saw her face go livid and the fires of hell come into her eyes.

"Don't insult my dear mother!" she breathed, And then he knew that he had won—he had discovered where the blackmailer could be blackmailed.

    

"Lou's gone out of business," reported Bliss. "She's sold up her flats and gone to live in Devonshire somewhere. I'll bet The Ringer scared her!"

He had: but not in the way Mr. Bliss thought.


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