Again The Ringer/XVI

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XV Again The Ringer
XVI
written by Edgar Wallace
XVII




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The man who reclined with his arms upon the parapet, looking down upon the dark water, was shabbily dressed. A "down-and-out", thought Henry Arthur Milton, smoking an after-dinner cigar, and promenading in the unexpected warmth of an early spring night along the Embankment.

He saw the man make a sudden jump upwards, gripped him by the arm, and swung him round.

"If you go into the water I shall have to jump in after you," said The Ringer pleasantly; "which means that I shall be very wet, very uncomfortable, and attract attention which I have no desire to attract."

The man was trembling from head to foot. His thin, unshaven face was gaunt and hollow. The shabby collar about his throat was frayed and ragged at the edges.

"I am very much obliged to you," he said.

It was the voice of an educated man, and his thanks were mechanical. He was obviously a gentleman; none but a gentleman would have received such a piece of unwarranted interference without resentment, without whining his troubles and his woes abroad.

"Come for a little walk," suggested The Ringer.

The man hesitated.

"I do not want any money," he said, "or charity of any kind."

The Ringer laughed softly. "And I am not at all in a philanthropic mood," he replied.

He was, in truth, in a pretty bad temper. It was his peculiar complex and eccentricity that he hated reading letters to the editor in the daily newspapers abusing the police for their failure to arrest him. There had been three in a morning journal, and that which annoyed him most had been written by one Ferdinand Goldford, of Crake Hall, Bourne End.

The Ringer had his own views about coincidences. He regarded them as part of the normal processes of life. For example, if he picked up a ten-franc piece in the Strand he would expect to pick up a five-franc piece in the Lewisham High Road on the same day. He did not think such things were remarkable, and was only astounded when they did not happen.

    

The coincidence in this case was that he was very annoyed with Mr. Ferdinand Goldford, and that he should have rescued this human wreck from self-destruction.

"I think you ought to know," said the shabby man walking by his side, "that I was released from prison this morning, after serving two months for burgling a house in the country. I broke in to get what I thought was my own. The chief witness against me was the butler, who does not know me. The rest of the family are abroad."

"I hope they were having a good time," said The Ringer politely. "And as to your having been released from prison, believe me, I am so grateful that I have never been admitted into one that you may regard me as a spiritual complement."

The name of the wayfarer was Lopez Burt. He had once been an officer of a cavalry regiment in India. Mr. Milton was not surprised to learn this. He had been the heir-presumptive of a rich and eccentric father, whose eccentricities took serious shape while Burt was in India. He had left the whole of his fortune, no inconsiderable amount, to a cousin.

Lopez Burt might have contested the will, but he was not in a position, until months afterwards, to discover that his father had been "rather strange" in his manner for two years before his death, that he had lived with the fortunate cousin, and had made a new will at a period when he was quite incapable of any intellectual effort.

"I'm not kicking," he said philosophically. "The poor old governor came a cropper on his head in the hunting field, and was never the same after that. The Goldfords kept this fact from me——"

"The who-fords?" asked The Ringer, immensely interested. "Not, by any chance, the Goldfords of Crake Hall, Bourne End?"

The man walking by his side nodded.

"That's the place I burgled," he said, almost cheerfully. "I came an awful mucker in the Army. You see, I got into debt, never dreaming but that I should have pots of money some day. Then there was some trouble over card debts, and I had to clear out.

"There was a lady in it, too," he added vaguely, "but I needn't mention her. Anyway, I landed in England with about fourpence-ha'penny, and after that … well, I hadn't any desire to see the Goldfords and throw myself upon their tender mercies. And I hadn't the evidence then about the governor being of unsound mind. Sounds like an Template:Wikt's story, doesn't it?"

The Ringer shook his head. "It sounds remarkably unlike any old lag's story that I've heard," he said. "I have a top floor flat in the Adelphi. Will you come up and have a bite and a bath?"

"No," said the other, with emphasis.

The Ringer shook his head.

"Then I'm afraid I shall have to give you a punch on the nose," he remarked regretfully. "I am rather touchy on the subject of people refusing my invitations."

He heard the man chuckle.

"All right, I'll take your charity. I'm so hungry that I haven't any spirit left. My last meal was a piece of bread I scrounged from a garbage tin last night. That sounds picturesque, but it wasn't."

    

The Ringer had a new furnished flat, which he had taken from a gentleman who had gone to Canada for a year: a pleasant, simply-furnished apartment, with hair carpets and stuff covers, and two or three cupboards containing valuables tightly locked—the usual "let".

"There is the bathroom." He threw open the door and switched on the light. "You had better eat something terrifically digestible. Try some sandwiches. I have a supply sent in to me every day."

He found a suit of clothes, a shirt, a collar, a pair of old shoes and the requisite etceteras, opened the bathroom door and threw them in on to the floor.

"Thank me when you come out, but don't be effusive," he said, and went out to hunt up sheets for the bed in the spare room.

At two o'clock in the morning The Ringer, who was a very good listener, came to the subject which was nearest his heart.

"These Goldbugs—Goldfords, is it?—seem to be a pretty unpleasant family."

He looked up at the ceiling thoughtfully and whistled.

"I suppose you've none of your former belongings? Have you any letters from your father?"

Lopez Burt looked at him quickly. "Why do you ask that? Yes, I have quite a lot. They are in a box at my old Army bankers, with one or two other documents of no particular value."

The Ringer nodded.

"Is it possible to get those letters?"

Again Burt cast an odd look at his host.

"Will you tell me what the idea is?" he asked quietly.

Henry Arthur Milton stretched back in his chair and looked past him.

"I think I ought to tell you that I'm clairvoyant," he said. "Most of us are. The moment I saw you I had a feeling that you were the heir to a great fortune, and I naturally wondered why a man so favoured by the gods was contemplating such an early retirement from life."

"Great fortune!" scoffed the other. "What rot you're talking!"

The Ringer inclined his head graciously.

"That's one of my weaknesses," he said. "The truth is, I am talking rot! I have absolutely no knowledge in regard to the law affecting wills and such things. I presume that your cousins are now enjoying their ill- gotten gains and are rolling in wealth. How much money was there?"

"Seventy thousand pounds," said the other with a wry face. And then, with a shrug of his thick shoulders: "What does it matter?"

"How was the money left?" interrupted The Ringer.

"It had been left in equal parts to Mr. Ferdinand Goldford, Miss Lena Goldford, his sister, and Mr. Anthony Goldford, his brother. The funny thing about it was that the names were not specified.

    

"The poor old governor simply wrote, 'To the children of my late brother-in-law, Tobias Goldford', and that is where the dispute came in."

"Dispute?" said The Ringer quickly. "Was the will disputed?"

His visitor made a grimace of weariness.

"Don't let us talk about it."

"But I very much want to talk about it," said The Ringer. "Hasn't the will been made absolute, or whatever happens to these things?"

"Probate hasn't been granted—no. I thought of popping in, but a lawyer fellow I met on my tramp to London told me I hadn't a dog's chance. The trouble is that there's a fourth son by a former wife of Tobias, and in persuading the old man to make the will they'd forgotten all about him.

"He's been in South America and he claims to have a share. Old Tobias, by the way, was married the first time in South America and had this one son. There was a devil of a delay while they collected evidence. Naturally, the other Goldfords were furious with this fellow, and there have been all sorts of lawsuits——"

"Is Ferdinand Goldford a very offensive man?" asked The Ringer gently.

"He's an utter cad," was the prompt reply.

"I am clairvoyant," murmured Henry Arthur Milton, and a beatific smile dawned on his face.

Next morning The Ringer was early abroad pursuing his inquiries. He saw a copy of the will; it had been witnessed by two old servants of the deceased man, and was signed three months before his death. The Ringer returned from Somerset House primed with this information.

"Who was Jessica Brown and William Brown?" he asked.

"You mean the witnesses to the will?" Mr. Burt stopped in the middle of a very hearty breakfast to look up in some surprise. "You've been pretty early at the job!"

"Where are they to be found?"

"In Heaven," said Lopez Burt grimly. "They only survived the poor governor by about five months. My lawyer pal—by the way, I met him in prison again—told me that there might be a chance of upsetting the will if they were alive. They were a nice old couple. They used to write to me regularly in India. They knew me when I was a child. I suppose I've dozens of their letters——"

"Are they in the box, too?" asked The Ringer quickly.

Lopez Burt considered.

"Yes; I don't think there is anything but letters."

"Splendid!" said his host. "This morning you will go along and collect that box and bring it here."

    

A week later a smart-looking man of middle age, with an iron-grey moustache, alighted from an expensive motor-car before the porch of Crake Hall, and the florid Ferdinand, who had been playing clock golf on the lawn, loafed across to discover the identity of the visitor.

"Good morning," said the caller brusquely. "I'm Colonel St. Vinnes. Is Burt anywhere about?"

"Burt?" said Ferdie in amazement. "Do you mean my cousin, Lopez Burt? Good Lord! I thought everybody knew about him. He got into serious trouble in India and had to clear out——"

"I know, I know," snapped the other. "But that was before the Lal Singh affair—the lucky young devil! If he wastes that fortune I'll never forgive him. I thought he had come back from America——"

Ferdinand Goldford was very much interested. Money fascinated him.

"Is that old Lope you're talking about?" he asked, not concealing his astonishment. "Got a lot of money, has he? We haven't heard from him."

The Colonel's face expressed astonishment. "He's not here, then? Dear, dear, dear, that's extremely awkward!"

Ferdinand was impressed.

"Won't you come in?" he invited, and the visitor followed him through the large square hall into the drawing-room, and found himself being introduced to Ferdie's brother and sister—florid replicas of Ferdie, with the same fresh, round faces and small, blue eyes. Mr. Burt had described them as "pig-cunning", and this was not an inapt description.

"Friend of old Lope's," said Ferdinand loudly, as though he were prepared in advance to drown their protests. "Colonel—um——"

The visitor supplied his name.

"Old Lope's made a lot of money … in America now."

Mr. Goldford spoke rapidly. They eyed the visitor suspiciously, incredulously. Apparently the idea of Lope making money was a paralysing one.

"The point is," said the Colonel, looking at his watch, "how can I get in touch with him? I had a cable saying that he would call here in the course of the day, but I've got to go back to London. Is it possible for me to leave a letter for him?"

It was not only possible, but Ferdie was most anxious to facilitate the process. "Come this way. Colonel."

They passed down a broad passage into a lovely old room, the walls covered with bookshelves.

"This was the old fellow's library. We don't use it much now. Here's a table; there is no ink, but perhaps you'd like to use my fountain-pen?"

The Colonel had a pen of his own. Ferdie bustled out to get the necessary stationery. He came back in a few minutes and explained that this room was seldom used.

"Too many books, too smelly, too dismal," he said, as he laid the paper before the visitor. "We can't clear it out till this will business is settled. That ought to happen in a couple of weeks."

"It seems rather a nice library," said the Colonel, glancing round.

Ferdie smiled. "Don't you believe it! There isn't a book here worth reading. Look at 'em?"

Certainly the bookshelves had a very solid appearance. There was one filled with ancient tomes, the covers of which were considerably dilapidated.

The Colonel wrote his letter, with Mr. Goldford standing over him. He had sharp eyes and could read "My dear Lope" and "terribly sorry I missed you …" but he really wasn't trying hard to discover the contents of the letter. That could easily be steamed open after this military-looking gentleman had left. Indeed, the Colonel was hardly out of the grounds before the family were perusing the four-page letter that he had written.

"Nothing—absolutely nothing," said Ferdinand, and his brother agreed.

Certain shares were referred to, but not specifically mentioned. Ferdie re-sealed the letter and put it aside for his cousin when he called.

    

"What do I do now?" asked Lopez Burt, when The Ringer joined him at dinner that night in the little Adelphi flat.

"You will emulate the rabbit who laid low, and maintain a discreet silence," said Henry Arthur Milton. "I am thoroughly enjoying this little adventure. You went to the tailors?"

Lope nodded.

"It wasn't as ghastly as I thought," he replied, "and I'm getting almost used to ready-made clothes. They didn't fit me very well in prison. They're making a few alterations and delivering them to-night. I suppose you realise I have already spent over a hundred pounds of your money?"

"You will spend more," said The Ringer cheerfully. "As soon as your clothes arrive you will pack them, take a taxi and drive to the Ritz-Carlton. I've already reserved your room in advance. When you get there you will write to your lawyer, Mr. Stenning-Stenning and Stenning, isn't it?

"You will say that you have arrived, and you'll be glad if he will come to dinner one night. He won't come, because he's one of those old gentlemen who never go out. I have written to him already."

"You've written to him?" said the other incredulously. "Why?"

"You promised to ask no questions," said The Ringer, with one of his rare smiles. "All I want you to do is to establish the fact that you're living in luxury somewhere in London."

Lopez Burt shook his head in bewilderment.

"I don't know what the idea is——" he began.

"Don't try. All you have to do is to sit tight and wait for good fortune," said The Ringer. "I didn't like Mr. Goldford before I saw him. Why, I cannot explain. When I saw him I loathed him. I made a few inquiries—some tradesmen are very talkative—and there's no doubt that these people descended on your unfortunate father at a period when he was unable to resist their influence.

"He was not staying with them, as you supposed. They were staying with him. It is an extraordinary piece of good luck that they are constantly dismissing and engaging servants."

"Where's the luck in that?"

But The Ringer did not explain.

"Another bit of good luck," he went on, "was that there was no stationery in the library. If there had been I should have taken another course."

"I'm not going to ask any more questions," said Lopez Burt. "You've been a brick to me, and if ever I can repay you——"

"Not only can you repay me, but you will. I'm trusting you to say nothing about myself. Here is an address in Berlin: I want you to keep that by you and never lose it. As soon as you're in a position to do so you can send me £6,000, which I shall regard as commission well earned."

Lopez Burt smiled.

"You'll have to wait a very long time for that!" he said.

"Not so long," said The Ringer cryptically.

    

That morning, Mr. Samuel Stenning, the senior partner of Stenning and Stenning, received a letter. It was addressed to him personally, expressed, and certain words in the ill-written and illiterate communication were heavily underlined.


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The letter bore the signature "A Friend." Mr. Stenning was not unused to anonymous letters, and ordinarily would have dropped it in the waste-paper basket; but he, too, disliked the Goldfords exceedingly, and had been secretly pleased when a new heir had appeared on the scene and had disputed their share of their ill-won possessions.

Unfortunately he had been a semi-invalid in the south of France when the will was made, and had no knowledge of its circumstances; but he was satisfied in his own mind that old man Burt was not in a condition to dispose of his property, and if he had had the slightest evidence on which the will could have been opposed he would have combed the earth for Mr. Burt's unfortunate son.

It was a remarkable coincidence that that morning he should receive a note from the Ritz-Carlton announcing the arrival of Lopez Burt in London.

"Humph!" said Mr. Stenning. "That's queer!"

He turned the matter over in his mind all day, and the following morning, instead of going to the office, he and his clerk went down in his car to Bourne End. Mr. Goldford was not so surprised to see him as he had imagined he would be.

"Good morning, Mr. Stenning. Have you seen anything of Lope?"

"I believe he is in London," said Stenning, himself astonished. "Did you know?"

Ferdinand grinned.

"No, I haven't heard from him. Somebody called here for him yesterday and left a note. You might give it to him if you see him. Is anything wrong?"

"No; I've had some information on which I feel compelled to act," said Mr. Stenning. "Have you found any documents belonging to your uncle?"

A look of alarm came to the round face of Ferdie. "Documents?" he squeaked. "No—what documents could there be?"

"Has the place been searched thoroughly?"

"We've had his desk and boxes opened, and most of the letters he left behind were sent to your office," said Ferdinand. "There has been nothing else. What do you expect?"

"Can I look in the library?"

Ferdinand hesitated.

"Certainly," he said.

He went in first and must have communicated the news to his brother and sister, for when Mr. Stenning and his clerk reached the drawing-room their reception was a chilly one.

"What's the idea of all this nonsense?" asked Ferdinand irritably. "What documents could he have left? I know you don't think he was in his right mind, but there's the will, signed and witnessed——"

"By two people who are now dead," said Stenning drily.

Ferdinand's face flushed an angry red.

"That doesn't invalidate the will, does it?" he demanded angrily. "Of course they're dead. You saw them when they were alive; didn't they tell you that Mr. Burt was perfectly normal …?"

"What's the use of arguing, Ferdie?" said the shrill voice of his sister. "Let's go in and see the library."

The lawyer and his clerk accompanied the family into the gloomy room. Stenning walked up and down, examining the books on the third shelf. Presently his hand went up. It was Cruden's Concordance.

"I am informed there is something here," he said.

He took down the book, laid it on the table, and it opened on a faded sheet of paper. Ferdie saw the heading, gasped, and his jaw dropped.

"Good God!" he said.

It was headed "The Last Will and Testament," and was written in the crabbed hand of old Mr. Burt. The lawyer read the document carefully. It revoked all former wills, and "particularly the will I made on the seventeenth of February last, and which I now regard as being neither just nor equitable," and left the whole of his property to Lopez Henry Martin Burt, "my dear son."

The signature was undoubtedly that of the dead man. Beyond any question the witnesses were those who had witnessed the other will—and it had been made three weeks later!

"I'll dispute this," stormed Ferdinand, pale and quavering. "The thing's a forgery—there are no witnesses——"

"The same people witnessed the will in your favour," said the lawyer with quiet malice. "I am afraid this document will make a great difference to you."

He put the will in his pocket. For a second Ferdie's attitude suggested that he would take it from him by force.

"It's a forgery!" he bellowed. "I'll dispute it, by God! if I have to spend every penny …"

"You haven't many pennies to spend of your own, Mr. Goldford," said the lawyer acidly.

    

Seven months later Lopez Burt enclosed an open draft for six thousand pounds in a letter he posted to an address in Berlin. He wrote:


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The Ringer purred at this. He was rather proud of his draughtsmanship, and he had reason to be. He had forged that will in four hours, which was something of an achievement.


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