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Title: The Caretaker in Charge
Author: Edgar Wallace
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1400711h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Feb 2014
Most recent update: Feb 2014

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The Caretaker in Charge


Edgar Wallace

Cover Image

First published in The Novel Magazine (UK), August 1919


A short story featuring the journalist York Symon (aka "Wise Y. Symon"), hero of the series published in book form in 1929 under the title The Reporter. So far as is known, the present story did not appear in any collection published during Edgar Wallace's lifetime.

A POLICE reporter has many interests and many friends, most of them queer. He spends his life in an atmosphere the principal ingredient of which is suspicion. Wise Y. Symon was a great police reporter, a veritable Napoleon of police reporters, and his greatness was due in no small degree to the fact that he preserved his faith in human nature. And, I have observed, that the title to greatness is often based upon the proper admixture of conflicting virtues.

There was a girl who used to go to work in the city office of a firm of lawyers in Waldorf House who interested Wise Symon immensely. He got to know her four years before this story opens, at a time when she was known to every reporter in town, and her portrait, large or small as the exigencies of space dictated, was to be found in almost every morning or evening journal.

The disappearance of her father, Harrigay Ford, was a nine days' wonder, and there came a time when newspapers no longer interviewed his daughter or printed the statements of trans-Atlantic stewards who had recognised him as the mysterious passenger who took his meals in his cabin.

After all. a wealthy man has the right to appear and disappear as he wishes. The story died when his banker, the patriarchal Mr. Borthwick. intervened. Harrigay Ford had gone abroad and had written a hasty note on the letter-heading of the S.S. Creptic saying that he expected to be absent from England for some years, and directing Mr. Borthwick to pay to the daughter of the said Harrigay Ford the sum of £100 per annum, payable quarterly.

It was a pretty mean allowance for a millionaire to make to his motherless child, and his only excuse could have been that he hardly knew he had a daughter. For Mr. Ford was a pillar of alcoholic fire by night and a dopey cloud by day.

Eileen Ford did not grieve for her parent. She lost nothing by his disappearance. She lived in her father's big house and sent the bills to his banker, and the bills were paid. But £100 a year was hardly the income that went with the style in which she lived, and after the Ford Case had disappeared from the scare headings, she went to a school of stenography, learnt the relative positions of Q.W.E.R.T.Y.U.I.O. and P. on the keyboard of a typewriter, and raised her annual income by another £100 in the prim offices of Atkins and Walters, solicitors.

Symon's friendship with the girl survived his newspaper interest in her fortune, and probably that is why the strange behaviour of Mr. Hopper attracted more than its share of his attention, and why the sequel to that attention brought the scoop of scoops to the humming presses of the Telephone Herald.

To say that the office or even the presses of the Telephone Herald hummed is, of course, a picturesque inexactitude. Newspaper offices do not hum. They bang and they squeak and they click-clack-click but they do not hum. Glass doors swing recklessly, wet men buttoned to their chins dash madly in, throwing off their moist coats and saying unprintable things about Great Public Favourites who deliver addresses on 'Labour' at inaccessible places in the most impossible weather.

The carriers in pneumatic tubes whine and plop! The linotypes which, by special arrangement, are invariably sited over the reporters' room, rumble and clack mysteriously, and ever and anon a plaintive voice cries 'Boy!' A small and grimy democrat wipes his jammy mouth with the back of his hand and hurries breathlessly to collect the literature. This literature is written in grey pencil and tastefully decorated with blue strokes by a super-editor.

At a little before midnight one snowy evening Wise Y. Symon drifted into the night editor's presence and lay down on his desk. The wise man invariably lay down on anything he couldn't rest his foot upon. His modus operandi was to get to the end of the desk and, doubling himself up like a foot rule, deposit the upper portion of his body east and west so to speak, resting his chin upon his hands.

The night editor pushed back his chair with a sigh, dropped his shell- rimmed spectacles to the end of his nose, and eyed Wise Symon sadly.

'Where's that story?' he asked at random.

'What story?' demanded Symon.

The night editor sniffed.

'You don't know anything about it, O,' accused Mr. Symon (the night editor's name was Oliver, and he was referred to either as 'O' or 'The Olive.')

'Well, what are you doing here, anyway?' complained Mr. Oliver fretfully. 'There's a newspaper got to go to bed. Have you never heard that such things happen?'

'Could I know anything of the underworld and not know that?' asked Symon reproachfully. 'No, my O, I have not come here to gloat over you. I do not climb into gay clothing for the joy of paying tantalising calls on the slaves of diurnalism. I have a reason for this mysterious visit.'

Wise Symon was in evening dress, and he was beautiful to behold, from the crest of his well-brushed head to the base line of his twinkling shoes.

'I noticed that,' said the patient Oliver, swinging round in his chair and lighting his pipe. 'You can hire these things, I understand—but you have to buy the shirt. Where have you been dining, Y, and on whom?'

Mr. Symon produced with much ostentation a gold case and extracted a large Turkish cigarette.

'I have been dining with a great bank official,' he said carefully, 'a man of infinite charm and sagacity. I have a further appointment with him at one o'clock, at which hour I proceed to his costly and palatial flat where, surrounded by every evidence of refinement and luxury, I shall endeavour to extract the body of a story, the slippery tail of which is already within my hand.'

'Loud cheers!' said the night editor wearily. 'Now, having delivered the speech of the evening, if you will kindly take your elbows out of my ink-pot, I will resume my little job of work refreshed '

'And invigorated,' finished Y. Symon, the star amongst police reporters, 'by the clarity and logic— Here's the old man. O.'

The 'old man' was the managing editor of the Telephone Herald, and at that moment he wore the facial expression peculiar to managing editors at midnight—an expression which may be likened to that of a man who has an engagement with the public executioner and is anxious to commit just another tiny little murder before he dies. He saw Symon, who belonged to the charmed circle which gathers at the daily editorial conference when even matters of policy are discussed, and started back with an affectation of faintness at the sight of Mr. Symon's society kit.

'Hello, Symon—why this disguise?'

'I have been dining with a gentleman,' said Mr. Symon magnificently. 'We had real wine and real cigars.'

'Police reporters should keep their places,' said the editor, 'you'll get your head turned. Who was the swell crook?'

'William Haliburton Hopper,' said Y solemnly.

'Hopper?' The editor frowned. 'He's not on my wine list. I don't even remember that he is in the class. What did he make, aeroplane or margarine?'

'William is no vulgar profiteer.'

Wise Symon sat on the edge of the nearest desk which was unoccupied, and there was a puzzled look in his eyes.

'You can guess that I am not wasting time on any ordinary millionaire,' he said. 'If William had no other recommendation than a taste for bad wine and toothpicks, I should have let him run loose. It's only lately that William has dawned upon the world of fashion. I met him drinking solitary in the grill-room of Petroni's about a week ago. It may have been his rough neck, or the butt of the gun I saw sticking out of his hip pocket, or the saucy talk he was handing to the waiter, but one of these things attracted me. So I palled up with him and we talked a while. He wanted to see life; he had bags of money and an infinite capacity for sweet champagne. Ugh! Well, it was interesting. He has the mentality of a goat, and a vocabulary that's strictly limited to about a hundred nouns and six adjectives.'

'How did he make his money?'

'He said he inherited it from his uncle. But he doesn't look like the kind of man who ever had an uncle. I shadowed him but he slipped me. Tonight we met by appointment—and I saw him home.'

He paused.

'He is the caretaker of Borthwick's Bank.'

'That sounds good for old man Borthwick,' said the editor after a moment's silence. 'Does the caretaker sleep on the premises?'

Wise Symon nodded.

'Yes and no. He rents a flat near the bank in addition. That is where I am meeting him.'

'And he spends his spare time up West loading himself up with champagne?' said Hammond. 'H'm! Well, old Borthwick must know this. His bank has always been a shaky affair, and a hint of this sort of thing might smash him. He nearly went broke four years ago. Are you seeing the caretaker again?'

'Yes. But he told me that he had some business to do before he saw me again, and naturally that piqued my curiosity. I followed him and saw him turn into the side entrance of the bank. Then I remembered him. I had seen him sweeping the steps—I pass the premises every day.'

The editor looked at his watch.

'I was going home, but I think I'll wait for you. When will you be back?'

'Not later than by three,' said Wise Symon. 'It looks a good kind of story to me, and I'd like to get the full facts in type before the police rope him in.'

Mr. Hammond nodded.

'It's a good story, and the public like this kind of case—the working man by day and the millionaire by night stuff. But you'll have to break the news to Borthwick before the police start moving/

It was a quarter to three when Wise Symon came into the managing editor's office.

'It's a rum story.' he said, dropping his soaking hat on the floor. 'Hopper told me nothing except that he could wrestle with the best wrestler in the world, and he could drink three times more than any other man in the world—neither of which items of information was particularly helpful/

He stopped and the editor, stretching back in his chair, looked up at him.

'Out with it—you discovered something you did not expect to discover?'

Wise Symon shook his head.

'No, sir. I'm disappointed. I hoped to make a discovery—and didn't.'

'We're both thinking the same thing, I expect.' said Hammond quietly. 'What have you got on your mind, Symon?'

'I'll tell you what I've got on what passes for my mind,' said Wise Symon, after a little hesitation. 'I associate this disgusting prosperity of Hopper with the disappearance of Harrigay Ford.'

'I thought you were going to say that.' The editor shook his head. 'It's a long time since Ford went, three or four years, and frankly I think your suggestion is fantastic, although I expected it. Did the man say anything which gave you the impression that he knew anything about Ford's disappearance?'

'Nothing,' said Wise Symon.

'What's your theory?'

'Ford was a drunkard and a dope fiend,' said Symon. 'Such men, as we know, are happiest in the most sordid and miserable surroundings, however cultured might have been their upbringing. I suggest that when four years ago Harrigay Ford disappeared he did not leave London. Yes, I know what you are going to say about the letter written on the steamship notepaper, but you or I could have done exactly the same thing. One could have boarded the steamer, written the note, posted it, and have never left the country. My theory is that Harrigay Ford is to be found in some low haunt in this city, that Mr. Hopper is his guardian and treasurer. I made inquiries yesterday, and I found that Hopper got his job at the bank on the recommendation of Ford.'

The editor scratched his chin.

'The thing to do, of course, is to see old Borthwick tomorrow. I happen to know that cheques signed by Ford come through fairly regularly and are cashed by Borthwick—Borthwick being his banker. The old man was telling me at the club only the other day how worried he was about the matter. At any rate, Borthwick would be able to tell you from where these cheques come. I think you will find they come from abroad. As to Ford being concealed in an opium den in this town—why. I'm sceptical! Those sort of things only happen in books.'

It was at half-past ten in the morning that Wise Symon turned into Borthwick's Bank. It was an unimposing little building, but had constituted the premises of some bank or other from time immemorial.

Borthwick's Bank was a private affair with very few clients, and its staff consisted of two elderly men who spent most of their time checking the fluctuations of the Stock Exchange, Mr. Borthwick being by all accounts somewhat overloaded with the collateral of his scanty clientèle.

One of the cashiers took Mr. Symon's card and disappeared with it through a door at the back of the premises. He returned to beckon Symon forward, and old Borthwick rose from behind the leather-covered table, where he spent most of his day reading through a large magnifying glass the press reports of foreign exchanges and transactions, and offered his big hand to the visitor.

He was a man who stood six feet in his stockings. He had one of those massive heads which Raphael loved to paint in such scenes as the apostles appeared. A snowy white beard reached down half way to his waist, a bluff, benevolent, shrewd old gentleman with a thunderous voice that was wholly in keeping with his hearty appearance, he seized Symon's hand in a grip that made that young gentleman wince.

'Sit down, sit down. Mr. Symon,' he bellowed. 'I remember you very well indeed. What have you come to bother me about?'

'I'm afraid I have no pleasant news for you,' smiled Symon. and told the story of the gay caretaker.

Mr. Borthwick listened with a troubled face.

'I am sorry he does that,' he said, when Symon had finished, 'it gets the bank a bad name.'

'But surely—' began the astonished Symon.

'Oh, it's his own money all right!' said Mr. Borthwick. 'He inherited a large sum of money from a brother who died in Australia. As a matter of fact, he has opened an account with us. I tried to persuade him to give up his work at the bank, but so far he has refused. Was he very drunk?' he asked.

'Pretty drunk,' said Symon, a little disappointed as all great artists are when their revelations fail to produce the sensation they anticipated. 'He told me that it was his uncle who had died.'

'Very possibly, very possibly,' said Mr. Borthwick. 'I know it was some sort of relation. And now as to the other matter, Mr. Symon?'

'I want to know if you have any news you can give me about Ford.'

'None, I am afraid,' the old man shook his head sorrowfully. 'What a terrible thing, Mr. Symon, what a terrible thing! Drink and drugs! Surely, that is a lesson which every young man can lay to heart!'

'When did you last hear from him, Mr. Borthwick?'

'About a week ago,' said the old man.

'Can you tell me in what country he can be found?' '

'I cannot tell you where he can be found at all,' replied Mr. Borthwick. 'I should be exceeding my instructions if I did, but I may say that he is in Australia.'

'Are you sure?' asked Symon, disconcerted for the second time.

'Absolutely sure,' said Mr. Borthwick.

He rose, walked to a safe and unlocked it. From a drawer he produced a cheque and handed it to the reporter. Wise Symon, who had a memory like a cash register, noted that its number was 1795, and that it was signed with Ford's signature—with which Symon was familiar. He handed it back.

'It arrived from Australia only two days ago,' said Mr. Borthwick, locking it back in the safe.

Wise Symon rose.

'Well, I think that's about all I have got to ask you,' he said, disguising as best he could his chagrin.

'You wouldn't like to buy a few Southern Pacifics while you are here.' said the jovial old man, 'one of my unfortunate clients has a parcel he would like to dispose of?'

'No, thank you, Mr. Borthwick,' said Wise Symon hurriedly, and he left the old banker chuckling.

His next call was upon the firm of lawyers which employed Ford's daughter, and he had no difficulty in persuading them to allow him to see her.

'No, Mr. Symon,' she replied, in answer to his question, 'I have not heard from my father. Have you?' she asked eagerly.

He shook his head.

'Do you get your allowance regularly?' he asked.

'Yes,' she said, 'such as it is.'

'Doesn't Mr. Borthwick ever give you a message from your father?'

'Never,' she said, a little sadly.

'How long has Mr. Borthwick been your father's banker?'

'Oh, for a very long time, longer than I can remember! They were old friends in the days before daddy was—' Her lips trembled.

'And after?'

'Well, after daddy wasn't very nice to Mr. Borthwick. He used to behave dreadfully to that poor old gentleman. Once he threatened to turn over his account to the National Bank, and that would have ruined Mr. Borthwick.'

'When was this?' asked Wise Symon.

'About a month before daddy went away—or it may not have been so long. I know Mr. Borthwick was very much distressed.'

He asked her a few other questions, but could get no information that was any more helpful than that which he already had. He met his editor at lunch and made a qualified admission of his failure.

'I didn't think Ford was in this town,' said Hammond, 'and the caretaker's legacy rather knocks the bottom out of your theories, my wise lad.'

'My theories are bottomless,' said Wise Symon. 'Anyway. I shan't meet William tonight as I promised. If he is only a vulgar legatee and not the interesting criminal I thought he was he has ceased to fascinate me.'

It so happened that a very commonplace elopement, in which there figured the daughter, the chauffeur, and the cashbox of a Society leader, kept the police reporter fairly busy. He turned in his 'copy' at eleven o'clock that night and had hardly stepped into the night editor's office when that worthy sprung at him, tore the 'copy' from his hands, and pushed him out again.

'Hustle, Y,' he said. 'Your caretaker, William Hopper—'

'What about him?' asked Y quickly.

'He was found shot dead tonight on a bench in the park. We've been looking for you all the evening.'

There were few details that Wise Symon could gather from the police. The man had obviously been murdered, since no weapon had been found near the spot where the body was discovered. A policeman on duty had heard the shot and had run in the direction, but did not meet the murderer.

The caretaker was in his ordinary working costume and was quite dead when he was found. A bunch of keys, a few shillings, and a plug of tobacco were his worldly possessions. Siddon, from Scotland Yard, was in charge of the case, and Siddon was particularly friendly to Wise Symon.

'You are sure nothing else was found on the body?' asked reporter.

'Here is everything,' said Siddon, pointing to the table in his office on which a miscellaneous collection of articles were displayed. 'There is no evidence to support your story that he was a very wealthy man unless you call this wealth.'

He picked up a crumpled scrap of paper and handed it to Symon. It was the half of a torn cheque, and on the back of it was scribbled the ciphers: £10,000.

Symon turned the cheque over and looked at the writing again, and his eyes were a blaze of triumph as he handed the paper back to the police officer.

'Jimmy Siddon,' said he, 'I am going to make your fortune: or, at any rate, I am going to make your name.'

'What do you mean?' asked Siddon. 'Do you know anything?'

'I know everything,' said Wise Symon. 'Let's go along and see old Borthwick. Bring that paper with you, and I think we shall be able to tell him a great deal more about his caretaker that he will just hate to hear.'

'Has the man been robbing him?' asked Siddon, as the taxi sped through the night towards Hampstead, where Mr. Borthwick had his severe but expensive rooms.

'You mean has he been robbing the bank? Honestly, I don't think he has. At any rate, if he had lived that is not the charge I should have made against him. Siddon, this story is mine; and you have got to keep the other journalistic ghouls at bay until I have spun it over a full page of the Telephone Herald.'

'You've got to make it a story yet,' said Siddon, who knew the requirements of the daily Press.

'It's made,' said Wise Symon.

Mr. Borthwick lived with two servants on the third floor of a big block of flats, but Mr. Borthwick was not at home. The housekeeper suggested that he might be found at his club.

'Let's try the bank,' said Wise Symon. 'He may be casting up his accounts.'

The bank was dark and silent.

'If you will condone the offence,' said Wise Symon, producing a bunch of keys from his pocket, 'we will do a little burglary.'

'Where did you get those keys?' demanded the detective chief.

'I smouched 'em when you weren't looking. They were part of Hopper's effects. Ah. here's the key!'

The door swung open noiselessly.

'Have you got an electric lamp?' whispered Symon.

'I don't like this,' growled the other, but produced the lamp.

They stepped into the dark passage and closed the door behind them. It ran parallel with the depth of the outer office. On the right was a stairway leading to the upper portion of the premises and presumably to Hopper's sleeping apartments. At the end was another door, which was only opened after almost every key on the bunch had been tried. They now found themselves in the outer office itself, facing Mr. Borthwick's private office.

Wise Symon touched his companion's arm and pointed. A thin line of light showed beneath the door. He stepped forward on tiptoe, turned the handle cautiously, and threw the door open.

Mr. Borthwick was sitting at the desk, his massive head on his hand, examining a small ledger. Behind him the steel door leading to the vaults of the bank was slightly ajar. At the first sound he leapt to his feet.

'Put that gun down. Borthwick!' said Wise Symon sharply. 'Put it down or I'll kill you a damn sight quicker than you killed Hopper.'

The old man was speechless. No longer benevolent was the light that shone in his eyes. He opened his mouth to speak, but there came an interruption. The door leading to the bank vault opened slowly and there cringed into the room a pallid, bearded figure, with shaking hands and bloodshot eyes, blinking from one to the other.

'Mr. Borthwick,' he piped pitifully, 'Mr. Borthwick, you're quite mistaken. Won't you let me explain? I did promise Hopper £10,000 if he let me loose. I wrote it on one of the cheques and passed it through the bars, but I wasn't going to betray you. Mr. Borthwick,' he sobbed, 'I swear to God I wasn't going to do you any harm.'

'Siddon,' said Wise Symon, 'this is Mr. Harrigay Ford, who, unless I am greatly mistaken, has been a prisoner in the vaults of this bank ever since he threatened to take his account elsewhere.'

'Old Borthwick was a gambler.' said Wise Symon to his chief in the early hours of the morning when the presses of the Telephone Herald were roaring with a note, as it seemed, of exultation at the ingenuity and enterprise of the staff. 'He has always been a speculator, and when Ford threatened to take his account away he knew he would be ruined. He got Ford when he was doped and put him in the vault. Don't you realise that all banks are built so that they make ideal prisons? The caretaker had to be in the secret—nobody else visited the vault. So the caretaker had to be paid. Ford was supplied with food, a chequebook, and a pen, and every time Borthwick's accounts wanted balancing he had to draw the cheque or suffer—the old man was as strong as a horse in spite of his age. I shouldn't think that Hopper had any communication with the prisoner, but apparently Ford tried to bribe him to secure his release, writing the sum he was willing to pay on the back of a cheque and slipping it into the caretaker's hand when the old man wasn't looking. Borthwick must have found this out. He was alarmed by my visit, but probably more alarmed by Hopper's attitude.'

'But how did you guess?'

'I didn't guess, I knew. The slip of paper found on Hopper's body inscribed £10,000 was written on cheque No. 1796, the very next to that which the old man told me had been drawn in Australia, apparently weeks before.'

'You're a real Wise Symon,' said the editor admiringly.

'Has anybody ever honestly doubted it?' said Mr. Symon.


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