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Title: Before Witnesses
Author: Edgar Wallace
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Language: English
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Before Witnesses

by

Edgar Wallace

Cover Image

First published in The Story-Teller, February 1924



AN inventor lives mainly in the future, and youth, naturally and inevitably, lives for to-day. So that there was a certain amount of justification for Lydia Manton's gloom. Happily, the teashop was deserted, for the hour was three—that slack time between luncheon and tea—and she could speak without fear that some emissary or employee of John Revill was within earshot to carry news of her indiscretion to that tyrant.

And it was an indiscretion for a very rich young lady to be sitting in a Ludgate Hill teashop with Bobbie Ballard, an undesirable acquaintance from most of the points which appealed to her uncle. Not that Bobbie was unpresentable from any other. He was a clean, good-looking, athletic young man, with all the fine code which the public schools lend to their children; but he was extremely poor, and his prospects were as extremely unfavourable. He thought otherwise personally.

'On Tuesday afternoon at seven o'clock,' he said impressively, 'our troubles are going to be over, Lydia! The GBS* are giving a test to my machine, and if they take it up my fortune's made. And of course they will take it up,' he added, with that enthusiasm which is half the inventor's charm and not a little of his pathos. 'There has never been anything like this. Why, a man came over specially from Berlin to try it out this morning, and he's only waiting for the big test on Tuesday—'

[* General Broadcasting Syndicate.]

'The Germans have got no money,' she said dismally. 'I thought everybody knew that.'

His face fell.

'I don't know,' he said vaguely. 'A lot of people think they have. But that's neither here nor there: I'm not depending on the German patents. Now, if we could only persuade your uncle to be reasonable, it would make all the difference in the world to me.'

She shook her head.

'Bobbie, if by persuading uncle to be reasonable, you mean persuading him to put some of his money or let me put some of mine into the invention, get that idea out of your mind, my dear! Uncle Revill hates you, and when I told him that you had invented a wonderful apparatus, his first thought was to get particulars in order to fight the patent! And John Revill is the greatest of all the patent lawyers.'

Bobbie did not want telling that, nor was Mr Revill's loathing for him any secret.

'I hope he won't,' he said after thought. 'There is one flaw in the patent, and if he comes to it, I'm dished. I've cabled to America to discover how far I am bound by the previous patents, and honestly, that is the only worry I've got. Otherwise, the thing is a certain success. I hoped to have had a reply from New York in time to tell you this afternoon. When are you meeting Revill?—how that miserable devil got his name is one of the mysteries of life.'

She smiled faintly. Life in her guardian's household was not a pleasant existence. Mr Revill had a son, a bored and weedy young man, who made love to her half-heartedly and with an air of condescension and inevitable conquest which was maddening. But the callow attentions of Mr Willie Revill were less of a trial than the unflinching severity of his father.

'I'll be twenty-one in a year's time,' she said with a sigh. 'Oh, Bobbie, I wish it were to-morrow! I wouldn't worry about your silly old inventions—'

'They're neither silly nor old,' said the ruffled Bobbie, and she dropped her hand on his penitently.

'I hate saying it, but I think that we can wait,' he said, squeezing the little hand in his. 'And anyway, you can't be married without your uncle's permission. Whatever induced your father to leave you in his care?'

She shook her head, being unprepared to solve, at a second's notice, a problem that had puzzled her since her twelfth birthday. She glanced up at the clock and uttered a little cry of alarm.

'I'm meeting uncle at his office in five minutes,' she said. 'Bobbie, I will write to you, but I'm afraid you mustn't write to me. Uncle watches the servants like a cat watches mice, and I want to keep my maid; she's rather a dear.'

'I was hoping you would come up on Tuesday to the experiment—couldn't you?'

She thought a while, then shook her head.

'I'm afraid it is impossible,' she said. 'And yet—anyway, it would be impossible, Bobbie. You couldn't meet me, because I shouldn't have time to telegraph you.'

He put his hand in his waistcoat pocket and took out a key. 'Have this in case,' he said, as she rose to go. 'If you can possibly get up, come straight to the office. If I'm not there, let yourself in and wait till I come. If you come early, I can have a little talk with you before the fellows from the GBS come.'

She shook her head again doubtfully.

'I don't think I shall be able to. And yet I'd love to come. Is there no way of letting me know what your news is from America?'

'I may get a cable this afternoon,' he said, 'in which case I'll come to the station—'

'You'll do nothing of the kind,' she said quickly. 'If uncle sees you there will be trouble.'

'He needn't see me. If I get any news, I'll bring a note. I can easily slip it into your hand when he isn't looking; and, lovey, if that news is favourable, there will be one large wedding on the day of your freedom!'

It was five minutes after four when she came into the big and stuffy office in Bedford Row where John Revill sat, surrounded by ancient deed boxes and enveloped in the atmosphere of menace which seemed peculiarly his own. A grim, thin-faced man, with a hard mouth and an out-thrust jaw, he scowled up at her as she was shown into his sanctum. Then, with the greatest deliberation, he looked at his watch.

'Where have you been?' he asked sharply.

'I've been to my dressmaker to be fitted,' she said.

'You left your dressmaker at three o'clock,' said Revill. 'I have been on the telephone to them.'

The girl flushed, and there came a light to her eyes which John Revill had seen once before and was not anxious to see again.

'I have been to see Bobbie Ballard,' she said quietly. 'I shall see him as often as I possibly can. And when I am twenty-one I shall marry him! And I will tell you something else, uncle; unless this bullying to which I am subjected is a little relaxed, I shall come up to town next week and see Dodds and Carr, who were mother's lawyers, and discover if I cannot take some action to relieve you of a guardianship which is becoming hateful to me.'

He stared at her, open-mouthed. For the first time in the period of his guardianship her threat had reached under his skin, and he was panic-stricken. Lydia had promised the one step which he feared, and had feared for many years, she might be driven into taking.

'You are talking foolishly,' he said in a milder tone. 'The courts would not alter the existing state of affairs. I wish they would. After all, I am acting in your best interest when I try to save you from the attentions of fortune-hunting little cads like Ballard.'

'He's not little and he's not a cad,' she said quietly. 'Are you sure that Willie is wholly disinterested in his attentions?'

He dropped his eyes under her steady gaze and shrugged.

'We are catching the four-thirty,' he said. 'If you will amuse yourself for a few minutes, I will finish my work and be ready for you.'

The station hall was crowded when they arrived, and she looked round in vain for a sight of Bobbie's face. He was nowhere to be seen, and, with a sigh, she concluded that no cable, encouraging or otherwise, had come from America in time to be communicated to her. It was when Revill had gone to the bookstall that somebody brushed past her and slipped a note in her hand, and, looking back quickly, she saw the back of Bobbie disappearing as the suspicious Revill, paper in hand, came threading his way through the passengers to join her.

During the first hour of the journey John Revill did not speak to her. She sat in one corner of the compartment, he in the other, his grim, hard face made more unattractive by the frown now permanently imprinted on his forehead. They were within five minutes of Barnham Junction, when—

'I want to see that letter Ballard gave you,' said Revill without preliminary.

She gasped.

'Letter?' she faltered.

'The letter that Robert Ballard slipped into your hand while I was buying a paper. You underrate my keenness of vision, Lydia.' He reached out expectantly.

The letter was crushed in her hand, had been there since the journey started.

'I don't know what you mean,' she said. For once, her acting was so excellent that Revill was deceived.

And then a thought struck her. Suppose the letter contained a story of failure, a confession of some weak point in the patent that would, in the hands of the man who hated him, bring Bobbie's plans to naught? This fearful possibility overwhelmed her for a moment, and then she recovered herself. The hand farthest from him, and hidden by her body, moved slowly till it had passed through the open window. The train had stopped at a signal, and as her fingers relaxed she saw the letter drop into a shallow hole that had evidently been recently dug by railway workmen, for a mound of newly-turned earth was by its side.

'I want the letter that Robert Ballard gave you,' he repeated with marked patience. 'I have told you before I will not allow that man to communicate with you under any circumstances.'

'You are mistaken if you think I have a letter,' she said.

She was frightened of him, however unconcerned she might attempt to appear.

Without a word, he took the bag by her side, opened it and made a quick search.

'You have it somewhere.'

'I tell you I haven't the letter,' she said angrily.

Then, to her relief, the train started moving. He looked at her suspiciously, but said nothing more, either then or in the car; but when they reached the big, rambling house which had been her home for seven years, she knew his first act would be to ring for the housekeeper, who was his willing slave, and that at the earliest opportunity every box and drawer in her room would be searched.

She went up, changed, and, coming down, found Willie in the drawing-room, a cigarette drooping limply from his weak mouth, his attention devoted to the evening paper. He looked up as she came in.

'Hallo, Lydia,' he said. 'The governor's in a terrible rage. What have you been doing to him?'

'I've never known him when he wasn't in a terrible rage,' said the girl.

'Pretty sickening for you,' agreed the young man; 'but he's rather like that. You remember what he said after my accounts came in last Ascot? Lord! Lydia, my girl, you've got to humour him.'

She walked across to the fireplace and stood for a while, looking down into the glowing coals.

'I've spent seven years humouring your father, Willie,' she said quietly, 'and they have been seven of the leanest years that I ever hope to have in my life.'

Willie Revill scratched his receding chin.

'You might do worse,' he said, apropos of nothing, and she turned.

'Worse than what?'

He moved his thin shoulders uncomfortably.

'What I was talking to you about the other day—you know what I'm after.'

'What are you after?'

He grinned.

'A wife,' he said flippantly. 'Dear old thing, what's the good of kicking against the governor? He's Nero and Caligula rolled into one.'

Her lips curled scornfully.

'I might add Heliogobalus to that appalling combination by marrying you,' she said. 'No, my dear Willie, I know you, and to know you is to be without illusions.'

He was silent at that. Probably he was groping back to his knowledge of the classics to identify the qualities of Heliogobalus. It was too wearying a pursuit, for presently he asked:

'What happened to make the governor so sore? Was it Bobbie Ballard?'

She shook her head.

'I told Uncle John that unless my life was made a little easier I was going to consult a firm of lawyers and ask them to make me a ward of Chancery. I don't think even a Chancery judge would be quite as offensive as your father.'

Willie whistled.

'The devil you did!' he said. 'I don't wonder at the old man cutting up rough. Whose idea was it—your fellow's?'

She did not answer, and a little while later the arrival of John Revill, his face like a thunder-cloud, put an end to further conversation.

At six o'clock the next morning, when it was still dark, Lydia came downstairs, unlocked the front door and made her way to the little garage where her two-seater was installed. In the night there had been a heavy fall of snow, a circumstance which did not make her task any easier, since she had to push the car out of the garage and steady it down the steep drive to the road, before she dared start up the engine. In five minutes she was speeding towards Barnham. Passing the station, she stopped her machine by the roadside and looked backward. Beyond the tracks of her car wheels in the snow that had fallen overnight, there was no sign of life or human movement.

The dawn skies were pearl and grey, the countryside a stretch of lavender-tinted snows. Sound there was: the hum and drone of the telegraph wires that ran by the side of the railway.

Light shoes and silk stockings were not the most suitable apparel for her adventure, she realized, as she stepped deep into the frozen whiteness. The snow closed like a ring of ice about her ankles as she plodded to the rear of the car, opened the boot and took a spade.

Suppose somebody had seen the letter and picked it up? She was sure it had fallen into the little hole where workmen had been tinkering with the under-earth mechanism of railway points; she had seen this, and at the moment had been glad.

The wind would not blow it away and the spot would be easier to locate.

Glancing round, she took her bearings. There was the switch, there the red-painted telegraph-pole, but the little mound of earth that had stood beside the hole was gone—it had been filled in. She had expected something like that might happen, for, as the train pulled into Barnham Junction, she had seen three platelayers making their reluctant way back to work.

Ploughing through a drift, she crossed a low fence and walked painfully across the metals. Here—no, here. Under the edge of the spade she felt loose earth and began to dig.

There was nobody in sight. Barnham Junction was a deserted wilderness, and the signal-box was out of sight. Frantically she tossed out the earth, and presently there came a spadeful that showed a corner of grimy paper. She stooped and picked it up. It was the letter!

Smoothing it out, she gave a little cry of dismay. The letter had been opened. Hastily she carried it back to the road, turned the car and drove beyond Barnham before she stopped and took out the contents. It was a sheet of paper, sodden with moisture.

Dear Lydia,—The worst has happened. The coil I am using has been patented by the Keilegg Corporation, but I am not absolutely sure and am consulting the best patent lawyer I can find to-morrow morning—not John Revill, I need hardly tell you! Try to come.—Yours in haste.

She read the letter again with a sinking heart. Poor Bobbie!

But who had opened the letter? Some labourer perhaps, out of curiosity; but then, why had he replaced it in the envelope?

She drew a long sigh. Thank heaven John Revill had not learnt the news which she had instinctively guessed the note contained!

As a rule, her uncle went to town by the nine o'clock train, and when, a quarter after that hour, she strolled into the dining-room, she was aghast to see him sitting in his accustomed place at the head of the table. He gave her a curt good-morning, and then:

'I'm not going to town to-day,' he said. 'Did you have a nice trip?'

He knew she had been out with the car, but she was prepared for that.

'Yes; the roads are rather bad.'

'You should have gone last night before the snow came,' he said. 'Did you have much trouble in finding the place?'

She stared at him.

'The—the place?' she faltered.

'The little hole where you dropped your letter.'

Lydia Manton went white.

'You—you followed me!' she cried, and for once he smiled.

'I preceded you,' he said drily. 'In fact, I was groping about that infernal railway at midnight. I could have saved your getting up early, but I would not deny you the exhilaration and the sense that you were getting the better of me. So his coil is patented? I thought it might be. I went through the specification of the instrument a few days ago, and I marked that as the weak spot. I shall oppose the granting of the patent, of course.'

She was silent. The malignity that shone in his eyes brought to her a sense of nausea.

'I was a fool ever to let you meet Ballard,' he said, 'a fool ever to allow you to have these boy-and-girl tennis parties. I ought to have known something would come of them. But I gave you credit for more sense than to grow infatuated over a penniless adventurer. Lydia, there is no need for me to tell you what I desire. I wish to see you married to Willie, and I am satisfied that he will make you a good husband. You told me that you're tired of being shut up here. Well, there's a way out for you.'

Her lips curled in derision.

'There's a way out of the frying-pan,' she said. 'Somebody made a proverb about it. No, thank you; I would rather sit and suffer for another year. After that—'

'After that I shall sit and suffer, eh?' he said, glowering at her. 'Well, we shall see. I have arranged for you to be married to Willie on Wednesday. You don't want a fashionable wedding, and neither do I. We will walk into the registrar's office at Barnham and walk out again; the thing will be settled in ten minutes. And in days to come you will thank me that I have taken your future in hand.'

'Don't wait till then,' she begged scornfully. 'Let me thank you now! Mr Revill, I will never marry Willie. I wouldn't marry him at the foot of the scaffold, to save his life or mine! I hate you and I hate your family; there is something unclean about you all, something that makes me shudder whenever I look at you.'

His face was grey with passion, but he kept tight hold of himself.

'We shall see,' he said.

Whatever other faults she might find with her uncle's treatment of her, she could not complain about the accommodation which had been allotted for her use. She occupied one wing of the first floor, and she had never before understood the reason for the generosity which gave her a self contained suite. Now she was to discover. One door shut off the rooms from the rest of the house, and when she tried the door to come down to lunch, she found it was locked. She rang the bell, but there was no answer. A quarter of an hour later, her uncle himself came in, carrying a tray.

'I'm afraid this action of mine has a melodramatic appearance,' he said, 'but it is necessary that you should be brought to your senses, Lydia, and until you agree to my suggestion, you will remain in your rooms.'

'A prisoner?' she said.

He nodded.

'A prisoner. I am losing a great deal of valuable time in order to give you my personal attention.'

That his attention was very personal she found when, looking out of her window and speculating upon whether the vine which covered the wall would bear her weight, she found him patrolling the path beneath. At night she saw him again—the red glow of his cigar end was visible in the darkness.

Four days passed, four dreary days, unrelieved by the books he brought to her, and from indignation she passed to a condition bordering upon terror.

It was on the Tuesday afternoon that she put into execution a plan she had made, but which, up till then, she had not had an opportunity of carrying into effect. Looking through her window, she saw her uncle crossing the lawn in the direction of his greenhouse. Horticulture was his passion, and by the apologetic attitude of the gardener who accompanied him, she guessed that the withering blast of winter had brought calamity to his cherished orchids. The greenhouses were beyond the shrubbery, and if, as she guessed, he had taken nobody into his secret, but had been his own sentinel, here was a chance.

She put on her coat quickly, threw open the window, and, gripping the vine, swung herself clear. In a minute she was on the ground and stumbling through the snow towards the garage. It was unlocked, and with trembling hands she started up her little car. Twice, three times she tried, and then she opened the bonnet and looked in. The carburetter had been removed!

By the side of her runabout was John Revill's big limousine. Had he taken the same precaution there, she wondered? She got up into the driver's seat, put her foot on the self-starter, and, to her joy, there was a buzz and a whir. Another few seconds, and the car was running down the drive. The fragile iron gates at the end of the drive were closed, and, looking round, she saw her uncle running towards her through the snow, shouting at her. There was no time to be lost. Setting her teeth, she sent the bonnet at the gates. With a crash they parted, and she felt them scrape against his cherished paintwork. But now she was free. There was no other car with which he could follow her, and she struck the London Road with a sense of exhilaration and joy in her heart.

Where should she go first but to Bobbie's office? It was on the top floor of a high building in the Strand, and she prayed that he would be there.

The journey to London took her longer than she had thought. There were road repairs which necessitated her being constantly held up. Once or twice she looked back fearfully, but there was no other car in sight. The church bells were striking six when she came to the Strand.

The elevator boy carried her up to the fifth floor, but was in some doubt as to whether Bobbie Ballard was in, doubts confirmed when she saw the glass panelling of the office door was dark. But here, at last, was sanctuary. She fitted the key and reached out her hand for the switch and turned it. No light came. She tried another and a third before the lamps blazed up.

It was a little office, furnished mainly with a carpet, a desk, and the walls were draped, with heavy black felt curtains. Bobbie was something of a sybarite, she thought, but she was here.

She turned to close the door and stepped back with a gasp of dismay, for her uncle was standing in the doorway.

'You just made it,' he said, took the key out of the lock, closed the door, slipping in the catch which made it impossible to open the door from the outside. 'Fortunately, I was able to get a taxi from the station, and I hired a car at Barnham. Now, young lady, you and I will have a quiet talk, and I'm going to tell you a few truths that will surprise you. Either you marry Willie to-morrow, or you and I will be dead to-night!'

She shrank back from him, her face white with horror.

'What—what do you mean?' she gasped.

'I'll tell you what I mean.'

And then something in the middle of the room caught his eye, and he smiled. It was a square steel box, curiously perforated at one end, and it stood on a draped pedestal.

'Let me tell you first of all that, if you'll do as I ask you, I can fight any action that they bring against your friend and establish his rights over the patentee. As a matter of fact, there is no patent on the coil, and there is nothing to prevent his using that apparatus.'

He faced her squarely, his hands behind him, his head thrust forward; and for a second she had the illusion that she was confronted by some gigantic bird of prey.

'Lydia, your father left you four hundred thousand pounds, of which I was the trustee. More than half that money is gone.'

'Gone?'

He nodded.

'I have had a very unfortunate time,' he said calmly. 'Investments which promised well have failed miserably. I am, in fact, a fraudulent trustee, and if by any chance you succeeded in persuading the court to hand over my trust—as I think you would—there would follow for me a term of penal servitude. Is that clear?'

She nodded, not capable of speech.

'Naturally, this is not a prospect to which I look forward with any great pleasure, and I think it would be safest to keep you in the family, young lady. You have something like two hundred thousand pounds to play with, and that is quite enough for any woman.'

She recovered herself now.

'I will not marry your son in any circumstances,' she said. 'And as for what you have told me—'

'What I have told you, I have not told before witnesses. It would take months of litigation to prove your words if you took action—which you will not do. And if you were to repeat what I have said to any intelligent person, he would laugh at you. What will you do?'

'I will not marry your son.'

There were voices outside.

'I'm perfectly sure you said seven,' said one—it was Bobbie's. 'No, no,' said a deeper voice, 'six o'clock was the hour arranged. I waited for you downstairs because—'

Then the sound of voices became unintelligible.

Revill looked down at the girl, his hand at his pocket.

'You promise?' he said in a low voice.

Sick with terror, she nodded.

Revill stepped to the door and turned the catch. Bobbie stared from the girl to her uncle in amazement.

'Why, how long have you been here?'

'Oh, Bobbie, Bobbie,' she sobbed, 'don't let him touch me ... he threatened to kill me unless I married ... Bobbie, he said awful things... he has stolen my money!'

Bobbie stared incredulously at the smiling lawyer.

'I'm afraid she is hysterical,' said John Revill quietly. 'In fact, I'm not quite sure that her brain isn't a little affected.'

He looked past Ballard to the two prosperous-looking gentlemen who stood behind him.

'Isn't that Mr Lambourn?' he said. 'You've come to make experiments with our friend's apparatus? I suppose you know that one of his 'inventions' had already received the benison of the United States Patent Office?'

'It hasn't!' The girl turned on him. 'You know it hasn't; you just told me that it wasn't patented!'

'When did he tell you this?' asked Bobbie quickly.

'This very moment, before he threatened to kill me and told me about the money.'

'Here? In this room?' said Bobbie eagerly.

He shut the door quickly and walked to the black instrument on the pedestal.

'Hallo, everybody!' he said. 'Experimental station speaking. I'm sorry to keep you waiting, but I was under the impression that you were to be connected at seven o'clock, instead of which you've been connected up since six.'

His voice was slow and distinct.

'Will everybody who heard a conversation between a Mr Revill and a Miss Lydia Manton communicate with Robert Ballard, 53 Stenson Buildings, Strand.'

He turned to the pallid lawyer.

'My office has been connected up with the station of the General Broadcasting Syndicate since six o'clock,' he said, 'and the statement you made—as you thought without a witness—was heard by three hundred thousand people listening in. And if this doesn't make the fortune of Ballard's Transmitter, then you're an honest man and I'm a rogue!'


THE END

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