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Title: The Best British Short Stories of 1922|
Author: Edward J. O'Brien and John Cournos, editors
WHERE WAS WYCH STREET? By Stacy Aumonier
(From _The Strand Magazine_ and _The Saturday Evening Post_)
THE LOOKING-GLASS. By J.D. Beresford
(From _The Cornhill Magazine_)
THE OLIVE. By Algernon Blackwood
(From _Pearson's Magazine, London_)
ONCE A HERO. By Harold Brighouse
"THE PENSIONER." By William Caine
(From _The Graphic_)
BROADSHEET BALLAD. By A.E. Coppard
(From _The Dial_)
THE CHRISTMAS PRESENT. By Richmal Crompton
SEATON'S AUNT. By Walter de la Mare
(From _The London Mercury_)
THE REAPER. By Dorothy Easton
(From _The English Review_)
THE SONG. By May Edginton
(From _Lloyd's Story Magazine_)
A HEDONIST. By John Galsworthy
(From _Pears' Annual_, 1921 and _The Century Magazine_)
THE BAT AND BELFRY INN. By Alan Graham
(From _The Story-Teller_)
THE LIE. By Holloway Horn
(From _The Blue Magazine_)
A GIRL IN IT. By Rowland Kenney
(From _The New Age_)
THE BACKSTAIRS OF THE MIND. By Rosamond Langbridge
(From _The Manchester Guardian_)
THE BIRTH OF A MASTERPIECE. By Lucas Malet
(From _The Story-Teller_)
"GENIUS." By Elinor Mordaunt
(From _Hutchinson's Magazine_ and _The Century Magazine_)
THE DEVIL TO PAY. By Max Pemberton
(From _The Story-Teller_)
EMPTY ARMS. By Roland Pertwee
(From _The Ladies' Home Journal_)
LENA WRACE. By May Sinclair
(From _The Dial_)
THE DICE THROWER. By Sidney Southgate
THE STRANGER WOMAN. By G.B. Stern
(From _John o'London's Weekly_)
THE WOMAN WHO SAT STILL. By Parry Truscott
MAJOR WILBRAHAM. By Hugh Walpole
(From _The Chicago Tribune_)
WHERE WAS WYCH STREET?
By STACY AUMONIER
(From _The Strand Magazine_ and _The Saturday Evening Post_)
In the public bar of the Wagtail, in Wapping, four men and a woman were
drinking beer and discussing diseases. It was not a pretty subject, and
the company was certainly not a handsome one. It was a dark November
evening, and the dingy lighting of the bar seemed but to emphasize the
bleak exterior. Drifts of fog and damp from without mingled with the
smoke of shag. The sanded floor was kicked into a muddy morass not
unlike the surface of the pavement. An old lady down the street had
died from pneumonia the previous evening, and the event supplied a
fruitful topic of conversation. The things that one could get!
Everywhere were germs eager to destroy one. At any minute the symptoms
might break out. And so--one foregathered in a cheerful spot amidst
friends, and drank forgetfulness.
Prominent in this little group was Baldwin Meadows, a sallow-faced
villain with battered features and prominent cheek-bones, his face cut
and scarred by a hundred fights. Ex-seaman, ex-boxer, ex-fish-porter
--indeed, to every one's knowledge, ex-everything. No one
knew how he lived. By his side lurched an enormous coloured man who
went by the name of Harry Jones. Grinning above a tankard sat a
pimply-faced young man who was known as The Agent. Silver rings adorned
his fingers. He had no other name, and most emphatically no address,
but he "arranged things" for people, and appeared to thrive upon it in
a scrambling, fugitive manner. The other two people were Mr. and Mrs.
Dawes. Mr. Dawes was an entirely negative person, but Mrs. Dawes shone
by virtue of a high, whining, insistent voice, keyed to within half a
note of hysteria.
Then, at one point, the conversation suddenly took a peculiar turn. It
came about through Mrs. Dawes mentioning that her aunt, who died from
eating tinned lobster, used to work in a corset shop in Wych Street.
When she said that, The Agent, whose right eye appeared to survey the
ceiling, whilst his left eye looked over the other side of his tankard,
"Where was Wych Street, ma?"
"Lord!" exclaimed Mrs. Dawes. "Don't you know, dearie? You must be a
young 'un, you must. Why, when I was a gal every one knew Wych Street.
It was just down there where they built the Kingsway, like."
Baldwin Meadows cleared his throat, and said:
"Wych Street used to be a turnin' runnin' from Long Acre into
"Oh, no, old boy," chipped in Mr. Dawes, who always treated the ex-man
with great deference. "If you'll excuse me, Wych Street was a narrow
lane at the back of the old Globe Theatre, that used to pass by the
"I know what I'm talkin' about," growled Meadows. Mrs. Dawes's high
nasal whine broke in:
"Hi, Mr. Booth, you used ter know yer wye abaht. Where was Wych
Mr. Booth, the proprietor, was polishing a tap. He looked up.
"Wych Street? Yus, of course I knoo Wych Street. Used to go there with
some of the boys--when I was Covent Garden way. It was at right angles
to the Strand, just east of Wellington Street."
"No, it warn't. It were alongside the Strand, before yer come to
The coloured man took no part in the discussion, one street and one
city being alike to him, provided he could obtain the material comforts
dear to his heart; but the others carried it on with a certain amount
Before any agreement had been arrived at three other men entered the
bar. The quick eye of Meadows recognized them at once as three of what
was known at that time as "The Gallows Ring." Every member of "The
Gallows Ring" had done time, but they still carried on a lucrative
industry devoted to blackmail, intimidation, shoplifting, and some of
the clumsier recreations. Their leader, Ben Orming, had served seven
years for bashing a Chinaman down at Rotherhithe.
"The Gallows Ring" was not popular in Wapping, for the reason that many
of their depredations had been inflicted upon their own class. When
Meadows and Harry Jones took it into their heads to do a little wild
prancing they took the trouble to go up into the West-end. They
considered "The Gallows Ring" an ungentlemanly set; nevertheless, they
always treated them with a certain external deference--an unpleasant
crowd to quarrel with.
Ben Orming ordered beer for the three of them, and they leant against
the bar and whispered in sullen accents. Something had evidently
miscarried with the Ring. Mrs. Dawes continued to whine above the
general drone of the bar. Suddenly she said:
"Ben, you're a hot old devil, you are. We was just 'aving a discussion
like. Where was Wych Street?"
Ben scowled at her, and she continued:
"Some sez it was one place, some sez it was another. I _know_ where it
was, 'cors my aunt what died from blood p'ison, after eatin' tinned
lobster, used to work at a corset shop----"
"Yus," barked Ben, emphatically. "I know where Wych Street was--it was
just sarth of the river, afore yer come to Waterloo Station."
It was then that the coloured man, who up to that point had taken no
part in the discussion, thought fit to intervene.
"Nope. You's all wrong, cap'n. Wych Street were alongside de church,
way over where the Strand takes a side-line up west."
Ben turned on him fiercely.
"What the blazes does a blanketty nigger know abaht it? I've told yer
where Wych Street was."
"Yus, and I know where it was," interposed Meadows.
"Yer both wrong. Wych Street was a turning running from Long Acre into
"I didn't ask yer what _you_ thought," growled Ben.
"Well, I suppose I've a right to an opinion?"
"You always think you know everything, you do."
"You can just keep yer mouth shut."
"It 'ud take more'n you to shut it."
Mr. Booth thought it advisable at this juncture to bawl across the bar:
"Now, gentlemen, no quarrelling--please."
The affair might have been subsided at that point, but for Mrs. Dawes.
Her emotions over the death of the old lady in the street had been so
stirred that she had been, almost unconsciously, drinking too much gin.
She suddenly screamed out:
"Don't you take no lip from 'im, Mr. Medders. The dirty, thieving
devil, 'e always thinks 'e's goin' to come it over every one."
She stood up threateningly, and one of Ben's supporters gave her a
gentle push backwards. In three minutes the bar was in a complete state
of pandemonium. The three members of "The Gallows Ring" fought two men
and a woman, for Mr. Dawes merely stood in a corner and screamed out:
Mrs. Dawes stabbed the man who had pushed her through the wrist with a
hatpin. Meadows and Ben Orming closed on each other and fought savagely
with the naked fists. A lucky blow early in the encounter sent Meadows
reeling against the wall, with blood streaming down his temple. Then
the coloured man hurled a pewter tankard straight at Ben and it hit him
on the knuckles. The pain maddened him to a frenzy. His other supporter
had immediately got to grips with Harry Jones, and picked up one of the
high stools and, seizing an opportunity, brought it down crash on to
the coloured man's skull.
The whole affair was a matter of minutes. Mr. Booth was bawling out in
the street. A whistle sounded. People were running in all directions.
"Beat it! Beat it for God's sake!" called the man who had been stabbed
through the wrist. His face was very white, and he was obviously about
Ben and the other man, whose name was Toller, dashed to the door. On
the pavement there was a confused scramble. Blows were struck
indiscriminately. Two policemen appeared. One was laid _hors de combat_
by a kick on the knee-cap from Toller. The two men fled into the
darkness, followed by a hue-and-cry. Born and bred in the locality,
they took every advantage of their knowledge. They tacked through
alleys and raced down dark mews, and clambered over walls. Fortunately
for them, the people they passed, who might have tripped them up or
aided in the pursuit, merely fled indoors. The people in Wapping are
not always on the side of the pursuer. But the police held on. At last
Ben and Toller slipped through the door of an empty house in Aztec
Street barely ten yards ahead of their nearest pursuer. Blows rained on
the door, but they slipped the bolts, and then fell panting to the
floor. When Ben could speak, he said:
"If they cop us, it means swinging."
"Was the nigger done in?"
"I think so. But even if 'e wasn't, there was that other affair the
night before last. The game's up."
The ground-floor rooms were shuttered and bolted, but they knew that
the police would probably force the front door. At the back there was
no escape, only a narrow stable yard, where lanterns were already
flashing. The roof only extended thirty yards either way and the police
would probably take possession of it. They made a round of the house,
which was sketchily furnished. There was a loaf, a small piece of
mutton, and a bottle of pickles, and--the most precious
possession--three bottles of whisky. Each man drank half a glass of
neat whisky; then Ben said: "We'll be able to keep 'em quiet for a bit,
anyway," and he went and fetched an old twelve-bore gun and a case of
cartridges. Toller was opposed to this last desperate resort, but Ben
continued to murmur, "It means swinging, anyway."
And thus began the notorious siege of Aztec Street. It lasted three
days and four nights. You may remember that, on forcing a panel of the
front door, Sub-Inspector Wraithe, of the V Division, was shot through
the chest. The police then tried other methods. A hose was brought into
play without effect. Two policemen were killed and four wounded. The
military was requisitioned. The street was picketed. Snipers occupied
windows of the houses opposite. A distinguished member of the Cabinet
drove down in a motor-car, and directed operations in a top-hat. It was
the introduction of poison-gas which was the ultimate cause of the
downfall of the citadel. The body of Ben Orming was never found, but
that of Toller was discovered near the front door with a bullet through
his heart. The medical officer to the Court pronounced that the man had
been dead three days, but whether killed by a chance bullet from a
sniper or whether killed deliberately by his fellow-criminal was never
revealed. For when the end came Orming had apparently planned a final
act of venom. It was known that in the basement a considerable quantity
of petrol had been stored. The contents had probably been carefully
distributed over the most inflammable materials in the top rooms. The
fire broke out, as one witness described it, "almost like an
explosion." Orming must have perished in this. The roof blazed up, and
the sparks carried across the yard and started a stack of light timber
in the annexe of Messrs. Morrel's piano-factory. The factory and two
blocks of tenement buildings were burnt to the ground. The estimated
cost of the destruction was one hundred and eighty thousand pounds. The
casualties amounted to seven killed and fifteen wounded.
At the inquiry held under Chief Justice Pengammon various odd
interesting facts were revealed. Mr. Lowes-Parlby, the brilliant young
K.C., distinguished himself by his searching cross-examination of many
witnesses. At one point a certain Mrs. Dawes was put in the box.
"Now," said Mr. Lowes-Parlby, "I understand that on the evening in
question, Mrs. Dawes, you, and the victims, and these other people who
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