Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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In October, 1931, I sat with Edgar Wallace in his suite at the Metropole Hotel, Blackpool, which constituency he was fighting in the Liberal interest.
In furtherance of his candidature I was producing a bi-weekly publication, Wallace's Blackpool Banner, and we were discussing the layout.
"By the way," I said, "can you suggest another title for this article? I'm tired of writing 'Edgar Wallace, by Robert Curtis'."
Wallace considered for a second.
"Call it 'Edgar Wallace, by the Man who Knows Him Best'," he said.
And that is my justification, if any be needed, for this volume.
Edgar Wallace did not write his most thrilling story; he lived it.
From the time when, as a ragged boy, he played truant from school and stood on the kerb outside the Press Club, selling newspapers in an effort to secure financial support for his love of ginger-beer, theatre galleries and "Devona" toffee, up to the time when, as Chairman of the Club, he entertained earls at lunch and drank his champagne from a pint tankard—it was one of the rare occasions when he would drink anything alcoholic—his life was a succession of episodes more thrilling than any serial story that came from his pen. I have often thought that if he had written the true story of his life as a novel, the public would have decided that his imagination had run away with him, and would have refused to swallow it.
"It is impossible not to be thrilled by Edgar Wallace." They print that across the jackets of some of his novels. It is, no doubt, as regards his stories, one of those permissible exaggerations which a publisher may utter without a qualm. There must exist a small number of people who cannot read Edgar Wallace's stories at all; there are doubtless others who read them and are not thrilled; there are, I know, some who devour them in secret and contemptuously decry them in public.
I once met a man—he was a well-known barrister, who must, I think, have been getting into training for a seat on the Bench—who asked me, with a very promising effort at judicial innocence: "Who is Edgar Wallace?"
I told him, with equal innocence, that he was the owner of the Wallace collection, and I am afraid he disbelieved me. But while I had been awaiting him in his chambers, I had counted seven of Wallace's novels among his law books, and I happened to know that on the first night of Wallace's last play the eminent counsel had been in the stalls—with a complimentary ticket. There are many like him.
But though there may be people who find it possible not to be thrilled by reading Wallace's stories, I do not believe there exists a person so phlegmatic, or so blasé, or so completely insulated against the shocks of this mortal coil as to be in close contact with Wallace, for a few days, as I was for many years, without coming to realise the full meaning of the word "thrill." Life within the orbit of Edgar Wallace was a rapid succession of high-powered thrills. During the years of my association with him I did many things—most things—with Wallace. I worked with him, lazed with him, went racing with him, travelled with him, spent money, lost money, made money with him; was broke with him and racked my brains for a likely means of raising the next five pounds; succeeded, failed, laughed, grieved, even grew stout with him—to our common sorrow. But in all the years of our friendship there was one experience which, though I sometimes sighed for it, never came my way: I was never dull with him.
Life to Wallace was all thrills. He loved living. I have heard him say that he never awoke in the morning without thanking God that he was alive. Everything that was happening in the world was of intense interest to him. He saw drama all around him, revelled in being in the midst of it, and was grateful for the chance which each fresh day gave him of plunging into it anew.
Everything which he did, he did intensely, and had little patience with those who lived at low pressure. "If you can't get a kick out of what you're doing, Bob," he once said to me, "you've already got one foot in the grave."
When I was crossing from America a few days after Wallace's sudden death in Hollywood, one of the ship's officers approached me on the Sunday morning and asked me whether, since Edgar Wallace's body was on board, there was any special hymn which I would like sung at the service.
"Yes," I said, "there is. I should like 'Praise to the Holiest in the Height!'"
The officer looked doubtful.
"It's hardly the sort of hymn—" he began.
"It's the right hymn," I assured him. "I have chosen it because, if Edgar Wallace is anywhere now and doing anything, I know he is thanking God for it."
My first meeting with Wallace was in 1913. I was working in those days for the Dictaphone Company, transcribing on a typewriter the matter dictated on to the cylinders; and from time to time there were delivered to me large batches of cylinders containing literary and journalistic matter from someone who, for some reason or other, never divulged his name. All that I knew of the mysterious author was that his voice had a curiously husky quality, that his mispronunciation of various words made me shudder, and that he was always in a desperate hurry for the typescript.
As time went on, I became curious and made inquiries, only to discover that all that was known in the office was that the client in question lived at an address in the Haymarket, and that the manager was as mystified and as curious about his identity as I. It was, I believe, the manager's suggestion that I should personally deliver the next lot of manuscript and see what I could discover. At any rate, I have always given him credit for the suggestion and been duly grateful to him.
A few days later I called at a flat in the Haymarket, and, on the pretext of having various queries to raise in connection with the manuscript, penetrated to the study, where I was received by a short, slim, decidedly good-looking man, with a rather pallid face and a neat upturned moustache.
I told him who I was, but my confidence was not reciprocated; so while we discussed as many points about the manuscript as my ingenuity could invent, my eyes were busy in search of a clue. I noticed that on the bookshelves there was a preponderance of novels by Edgar Wallace, and a number of them lying about the room, and before I left I had a shrewd idea that it was Edgar Wallace to whom I had been talking.
A few days later came the confirmation. Our anonymous client sent in some handwritten manuscript to be copied, and I promptly turned up the Edgar Wallace file in the office, compared the writing of the manuscript with that of several letters which bore his signature, found the handwriting unmistakably the same, and congratulated myself on having solved the mystery in a manner of which even an Edgar Wallace sleuth need not have been ashamed.
Wallace in those days, though he was, of course, well known in Fleet Street, was only just beginning to loom on the horizon of the general public as a writer of fiction, and I was puzzled to see why he should be at such pains to conceal his identity. Later, I discovered that there had been method in his mystery. He had acquired his Dictaphone on the gradual-payment plan, instalments were in arrears, and to reveal himself as the author of the manuscripts would have been to invite a peremptory invitation to pay up—which, since he was in the middle of one of his hard-up patches, he could not do—or return the Dictaphone, which, since he was also in the middle of one of his patches of high-speed writing, was unthinkable. Wallace had found himself in a predicament and had tackled his temporary difficulty in a manner with which I was later to become all too familiar.
The discovery of his identity—I casually addressed him as "Mr. Wallace" at our next meeting, and he only smiled—placed me in a quandary. I had to decide whether, out of loyalty to my firm, I should reveal his identity, or yield to the promptings of the friendship which had already sprung up between us—fostered, I fancy, by our common love of horse-racing, and the fact that we both considered ourselves to be among the cognoscenti of the turf—and allow Wallace to retain the Dictaphone.
Fortunately, I was spared making the decision.
"How much do you earn at your job, Bob?" asked Wallace a few days later.
I told hm.
"You're worth more than that."
"Have you got a typewriter of your own?"
I rapidly decided that the contraption in my possession might, with a little effort of imagination, be truthfully designated a typewriter, and said that I had.
"Then why don't you work for yourself?" said Wallace. "I've got no money, but I'll guarantee you a quid a week more than you're getting now, and you can do all my typing for me. Is it a bet?"
It was. I acquired a Dictaphone. It was, even when it came into my possession, a very ancient model, as different from the modern electric machine as is the modern aeroplane from the boneshaker. It was worked by clockwork, and the spring was so weak that I was lucky to get through a cylinder with less than three windings. But it served its purpose. With my dilapidated typewriter and my debilitated Dictaphone I transcribed hundreds of thousands of words for Wallace.
I shall never forget my first introduction to what I later came to accept, more or less philosophically, as the genuine Wallace method of writing a story. I had been transcribing his Dictaphone dictation for some little time, and was congratulating myself on the fact that I was earning a pound a week more and doing far less work than previously. But any dreams I had of a calm and leisurely fortune were soon to be shattered. I had occasion to call at Wallace's flat one Friday morning. Wallace, Dictaphone mouthpiece in hand, was seated at his desk.
"Hullo, Bob! Know anything?"
Throughout my long association with him that was invariably his first question when we met each morning. Wallace was always eager for a tip, and I have spent many an hour, while editors fumed for overdue contributions, arguing with him over the merits of our respective fancies for a race. If we agreed on the probable winner, it was backed by Wallace as a matter of course; if we did not agree—and as I have a liking for an occasional win I am glad to say that Wallace's selection was not always mine—he would prove to me conclusively that his horse was bound to finish first, that mine had not a dog's chance; after which he would ring up his bookmaker and back them both.
On this occasion we did not agree, and Wallace was in the middle of a most unconvincing demonstration that his horse could not avoid winning by three lengths, when he suddenly broke off.
"By the way," he said placidly, "I've a serial to do—seventy-five thousand words—and I'm going to turn it in by Monday morning. I'm broke and must have the money."
"Monday morning?" It was already midday on Friday and I had an uneasy feeling that Wallace was not being humorous. "Perhaps—by midday on Monday—if you've a good lot ready for me to get to work on—"
"I'm just going to start," said Wallace calmly. "But we'll do it—easily. You live at Hammersmith, don't you?"
I did. But I could not see that living at Hammersmith appreciably brightened the prospect of getting a 75,000-word serial dictated, typed, delivered and paid for by Monday morning. But Wallace saw.
"I'll start dictating right away," he said. "We'll get a corps of district messengers to carry the cylinders to you at Hammersmith as fast as I can dictate them, and we'll work all day and night. You're on a pony."
I was living in those days in furnished apartments, and I am afraid my landlady had three rather disturbed nights. All night long my typewriter clattered—I was in constant dread that either it or my feeble Dictaphone spring might collapse beneath the strain imposed on them—and the arrival every two hours of a district messenger to hand me a fresh batch of cylinders for transcription and take back the typescript to Wallace, must have sadly interfered with her night's rest. Wallace read the first ten pages of my typescript, and by the next messenger came a note:
I don't want to read any more of this. Do the fair copy straight away.
P.S.—Know anything for to-morrow?
I suppose I did sleep some time and eat now and then between the Friday and the Monday; but the only impression of those seventy-two hours that remains with me is of a dilapidated typewriter ceaselessly clattering and of wrists and arms aching abominably. But the story was finished according to plan, and by midday on Monday the manuscript was in the publisher's hands, the payment for it in Wallace's, and my "pony" in mine. We had both earned it.
In this manner were written many of his subsequent stories, and I soon came to recognise in the early stages the symptoms of an impending spasm of high-speed work. While Wallace had money, he could rarely bring himself to settle down to writing, and at the first signs of financial tightness I came to realise that it would not be long before I heard the inevitable "Bob, I'm broke," and we should be plunging again into a whirl of furious activity.
How familiar that "Bob, I'm broke!" was to become! The calm smile with which Wallace invariably said it revealed the nonchalant temperament of the born gambler. Wallace, in everything that he did, was a gambler. Big risks had an irresistible attraction for him; big money lured him; but it was after the thrill of a big adventure that he hankered more than after the money. Money as such did not really interest him very much. It was just something which came along and was spent, but was not of any real importance. Money could always be made with a little effort, and, that being so, it was absurd to hoard it up. If there was money in the bank, Wallace would spend it, gamble with it, lend it, give it away—anything rather than save it. There was no thrill for Wallace in a money-box.
Most authors, I believe, find it impossible to do good work when they are worried, particularly if the cause of their worry is a financial one. If they sit down to plan a story, the vision of a Final Notice from the Gas Company floats before their eyes, and the prospect of the meter being borne away in a handcart effectually banishes inspiration. Truth is stronger than fiction, at least until some means has been found of preserving the continuance of the gas supply.
Fortunately, Wallace did not suffer from that disability. "Fortunately" because, had overdrafts, bills, threats of summonses and such-like prevented his working, many of his stories would never have been written. It seems that most creative workers are innately lazy and can rarely bring themselves to settle down to work until the bank manager becomes recalcitrant or at any rate shows signs of incipient restiveness. Wallace was no exception; and as he was blessed with a bank manager whose views on the matter of overdrafts coincided—almost—with his own, there were sometimes lengthy periods when no stories were written.
He rarely worked until stern necessity in some unpleasant guise was knocking at the door; and then he worked at tremendous pressure and was not in the least disturbed by the knocking. His incurable optimism always persuaded him that the story would be finished and payment for it received before stern necessity kicked the door down.
Unlike most authors, he did his best work under the stress of financial stringency. When he was in funds, work was postponed to that distant date when money would be short again. Having survived one financial crisis, he always seemed to imagine that the next was only a vague possibility of the distant future, and promptly proceeded to do everything most calculated to expedite its arrival. At such times editors might be screaming for stories, but if the voice of the bank manager was silent or not too reproachful, the siren whisper of Epsom or Newmarket would always drown the editorial clamour, and only a very bad day on the racecourse would persuade him to give a sympathetic ear to the outcry.
I have often felt grateful to the providence which ordained that Wallace should not win the Irish Sweepstake. Whatever the state of his finances, he always contrived somehow to have about £40 worth of tickets, but luck never came his way. Had it done so, I am sure that I should have had no work to do for months. Even Wallace, I imagine, would have needed a month or two to dispose of the first prize in the Irish Sweep.
It is not surprising that Wallace, who honestly believed, as I have often heard him say, that money is one of the things in life which do not matter in the least, was frequently in financial difficulties. His temperament made it inevitable that his life should be punctuated at fairly regular intervals by financial crises of varying acuteness, and a graph of his bank balance during almost any selected period of his life would have been a zigzag affair of sudden ups and downs no less erratic than a meteorological chart of an English summer.
Often in my days with him I watched him carelessly wandering deeper and deeper into a jungle of debt from which I could see no hope that he would ever extricate himself and was convinced that Wallace at last had come to the end of his financial tether and that a crash was inevitable.
But that was before I had got to know Wallace and his methods. He was by nature a fighter, and he fought best when the boats had been burnt behind him and he must go forward or surrender, and I never knew him—not, at least, until the last few years, when he began to show unmistakable signs of overwork and nerviness—get rattled or even seriously worried over money matters. There was always a way out of the most bewildering financial maze, and the ingenuity he displayed in discovering the solution, the coolness with which he carried out the hair-raising expedients to which he was sometimes forced, were qualities which, had he chosen to turn his attention to Throgmorton Street instead of Fleet Street, could hardly have failed to win him a place among the world's financial magnates.
Wallace, I am sure, would not have been content to be less than a magnate.
He was incurably generous. It was one of the most lovable traits in the character of the most lovable man I have ever known. He scattered his benevolence with as lavish a hand as he scattered money on any other object. He was lovably and lamentably sentimental. Almost any story of hard luck and poverty, no matter how blatantly untrue, was enough to send his hand groping for his wallet, and there was no lack of unscrupulous spongers to take advantage of his unselfish generosity. It became a by-word with the indigent parasites who always hovered around him, as well as among those who were in genuine need of help, that Wallace was always "good for a fiver."
I was in his study on one occasion when an old friend of his came in with an all too familiar request.
"Can you lend me a tenner, Edgar?"
Wallace, I knew, was at the moment in sore need of money himself, and I expected a regretful refusal.
"Tenner?" said Wallace. "I really don't know, old man. Wait a minute and I'll see how the Pals Account stands."
The friend left with a cheque for fifteen pounds.
It was only then, though I had been closely associated with Wallace for some time, that I discovered about the Pals Account. It was a special account into which, in his periods of affluence, he paid such money as he could spare for the specific purpose of meeting requests of this kind. His quixotic generosity was charming but ruinous. He would have been a much wealthier man if he could have found it in his heart to say "No" to a request for money. But an Edgar Wallace who could refuse a helping hand to one who asked for it would not have been Edgar Wallace.
I think he was fully aware of this improvident streak in his character. I remember the first occasion on which I asked him for a loan. It was only a fiver that I needed to help me through my financial morass, but I approached him very diffidently. I need not have felt any qualms.
"Sure, Bob," said Wallace promptly. "Never be hard up for a fiver. I used to be, so I know what it's like. I'm hard up nowadays for fifties and hundreds. I suppose one day I'll be hard up for thousands."
That, I suppose, was the secret of his inexhaustible generosity: he could never forget the days when he had been poor. Throughout his romantic journey from a courtyard in Deptford to a suite of rooms at the Carlton, the poor and unfortunate were always with him. He used to say humorously that it was the literary fare provided for him at Sunday School in his days of childhood that was chiefly responsible for his inability to say "No" to a request for help. It included a story called "Christie's Old Organ," over which he used to ponder and weep. The moral of the story was that one ought to be kind to people less fortunate than oneself, and Wallace reckoned that the complex introduced into his mental system by that Sunday School reading had cost him many thousands of pounds in the course of his life. How thoroughly he had taken the moral to heart!
With the best will in the world it was not always possible to produce the needed cash for charitable purposes, but I never knew Wallace fail to do something for a friend who was in genuine distress. His name was good security for a bank overdraft, if all else failed, and whatever the state of his own account he would lightheartedly put his signature to the guarantee form. After all, signing one's name was a delightfully simple way of getting fifty pounds for one's friend, and one could not let a pal down, anyway. I wonder how many such forms bearing Wallace's signature there were scattered about the country at the time of his death!
I remember once venturing a mild protest when, in the midst of one of his most perplexing financial tangles, he had casually guaranteed an overdraft of £60 for a man who was a regular applicant for his charity, and who, as Wallace had admitted to me, had never been known to repay a loan.
"He's hard up, Bob," was Wallace's excuse.
"So are you," I reminded him.
"And it's a thousand to one," I added, "that So-and-So will let you down."
"Being let down doesn't matter."
That was always Wallace's attitude. Anyone might let him down—hundreds did—and it was accepted with a shrug and a smile. It was all part of the great gamble, and the true gambler does not squeal when he loses. I never knew Wallace bitter or resentful at being let down by someone whom he had trusted and helped, and the all too frequent experience never hardened his heart.
When he wanted to lend a helping hand he had a charmingly tactful way of doing it. It was he who, when I had been working for him only a month or two, suggested that, instead of working in my lodgings at Hammersmith, I should take an office in the West End and start a typewriting agency of my own. I agreed that it was an excellent plan, but with the small clientele which I then had, renting an office was a risk which I did not dare to take.
"Take the office, Bob," said Wallace, "and I'll pay half the rent."
Protest was useless. It was to suit his own convenience, he assured me, that he wanted me to do it. Hammersmith was a long way from the Haymarket, and he wanted to have me close at hand, so that a telephone call would bring me to his flat within a few minutes. If I wouldn't agree to his suggestion, he would rent an office himself and let me work there.
I took the office, and Wallace paid half the rent, and I pretended to believe that it was entirely for his own benefit that he did so. But I have never forgotten that it was to his generosity that I owed my first start in a business of my own. I did all Wallace's work, and, with that solid foundation on which to build, the business grew apace.
And then came the war. This parted us. One morning in April, 1915, after worrying over the question for months, I suddenly decided to join up, packed away my typewriter and Dictaphone, and, without telling anyone of my intention, put myself at the service of His Majesty. I think I took it for granted that Wallace expected me to go sooner or later, and I did not mention the matter to him until my enlistment was an accomplished fact. Then, in all the glory of my new khaki kit, I called at his flat, confidently expecting his whole-hearted approval both of what I had done and of my soldierly bearing.
I was sadly disappointed. Whatever he may have thought of me as a specimen of England's fighting forces, Wallace certainly did not approve of what I had done. He was hurt and angry. He took the view that I was basely deserting him when he badly needed me, that I should have consulted him before enlisting, that I had shown an utter lack of consideration for him, and that I should make a rotten soldier anyway. He said he would see what he could do to get me out of the Army again immediately, and we would start to work on his new serial on the following Monday. Our relations, when I left him that morning, were decidedly strained.
A few days later, having been warned that I was sailing for Egypt almost immediately, I called again to bid Edgar good-bye—and found a very different Wallace from the one I had last seen. He was all anxiety to do everything possible to enable me to go with an easy mind. My whole family, he assured me, would be under his wing until I returned, and I was to worry over nothing. He was terribly sorry that I should be missing the best part of the flat-racing season.
I shall always remember his words to me as he shook my hand on parting.
"After all, Bob," he said, "you'll be helping to write history, and I only write popular fiction."
When he had spoken of my helping to write history, Wallace had been nearer the truth than he had suspected. I was invalided home from the East in 1916, and in 1917, on my discharge from hospital, was appointed confidential clerk to Field-Marshal Lord French, who at that time was Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces.
Lord French was engaged in writing his famous book "1914," dealing with the war, and my time was almost entirely occupied in taking down the book in shorthand from his dictation and transcribing on the typewriter. Fate seemed to have predestined me to be associated with the writers of thrilling stories.
Lord French, incidentally, had one characteristic in common with Edgar Wallace; he could very easily be distracted from the work of literary composition. With Wallace it needed only a race meeting to make him abandon desk, Dictaphone, secretary and editors and set off lightheartedly for the course; with Lord French it was usually some detail in the events which he was describing that caused him to interrupt his dictation.
He would suddenly pause, get up from his chair and go to a large-scale map of the Western front which hung on the wall, and indicate a spot with his finger. "You see, Curtis, it was like this," he would say.
"We were here, and the enemy was there, and the problem I had to solve..."
And that would be the end of work for that morning. It was intensely interesting, but I must admit that military strategy and tactics were less intelligible to me than the strategy and tactics of Wallace's crooks.
As soon as I was discharged from hospital I called on Wallace, and found him sitting at his desk, with his usual smile, and his Dictaphone mouthpiece in his hand. He might have been sitting just like that ever since I had left him.
"Hullo, Bob!" was his greeting. "Know anything?"
"All I know," I answered, surveying him critically, "is that while I've been away you've added several inches to your waist measurement."
Wallace said that was the worst communiqué from the front that had so far reached him. He added that during my absence he had had nine different typists, only one of whom could spell, or understood the uses of a comma, and he had just started a new serial which he wanted me to type. I must somehow wangle it to get free of my job with Lord French and return to the Wallace fold.
We agreed on a compromise; there should be no attempt at wangling, but I would do all the work I could for Wallace in my spare time. He felt, I think, that he was treating Lord French very well.
Demobilisation set me free in 1919, and I again started my own typewriting business, doing most of Wallace's work for him as I had done before the war. This continued for several years. But reviving a business which had been dead for a long while was no easy matter. For a time I managed to keep it breathing, but only just. Everything at that time went wrong for me, and at last, when I could carry on no longer, I decided that the only thing to be done was to pocket my pride and tell Wallace just how matters stood. Reluctantly one day I went to see him, counting on his ingenuity to suggest some way out of my difficulties.
But I had counted on the wrong quality. His generosity was greater even than his ingenuity. He did not let me get very far with my story.
"You'd better come and join up with me as my secretary, Bob," he said. "I've got no money, but I'll guarantee you four pounds a week."
Still the great-hearted gambler! Wallace told me later that he had always wanted me in his permanent, whole-time employment, but had never till then dared to commit himself to paying even a small regular salary.
So began a still more intimate association with him which was only broken by his sudden death in Hollywood. They were stirring years, full of interest and packed with thrills; and not the least of the thrills were those afforded by Wallace's financial vagaries.
He was a lavish spender. The habit of counting the cost of anything in advance presupposes a measure of prudence and cautiousness which was not included in his make-up. In his heart I think Wallace had a contempt for prudence and cautiousness as virtues of a negative type which had something rather petty about them. He had scant sympathy really for the man who would first dip his toes in the water, and then, if it were not too cold, wade cautiously out and be careful not to swim beyond his depth. The right way was to take a header from the topmost diving-board and trust to providence that the water was deep enough to prevent your skull being cracked on the bottom.
Optimism and self-confidence were two of Wallace's predominant qualities. If he wanted a thing he would never pause to consider whether he could afford it; he bought it. His optimism persuaded him that he would manage to pay for it somehow; his self-confidence never failed to convince him that he could make money just whenever he wanted to. Economy was a word of which he may possibly have heard, but which never intrigued him sufficiently to make him inquire into its meaning.
His motoring was a fair example. Wallace abominated walking. After the war, before the halcyon days of Portland Place, Bourne End and the Carlton, he was living in a flat in Clarence Gate Gardens, Baker Street, which was approached by a flight of, I believe, twelve or thirteen steps; but he invariably went up and down by the lift.
Tubes, 'buses, or even taxis never seemed to commend themselves to him as methods of transport worthy of his serious consideration, and he formed the comfortable but expensive habit of hiring a large and luxurious limousine car on any and every occasion.
His bills from the hire company were appalling, and on the arrival of one such account I prepared two statements which I hoped would so impress Wallace that he might take steps to bring down his motoring expenditure to a more reasonable figure. One statement showed the sum he had spent on car hire during the preceding twelve months, and the other, which set out the cost of running a car of his own, including chauffeur's wages, garage, running expenses, etc., proved conclusively that by becoming a car owner he could effect a very considerably saving.
I showed the statements to Wallace. I am sure he was impressed, because he remarked that I should make a very good accountant. And that, for some years, was as far as it got. I should have known better than to introduce that word "saving" into the conversation. I am sure it scared him off.
Eventually, of course, he bought a car. It was a handsome car, but I never could bring myself to like it, for it was the cause of my unwittingly letting Edgar down. There arrived at the flat one afternoon his bank manager, a charming and long-suffering man. Wallace, in the midst of an overdue instalment of a serial, had heard the call of the turf and gone off to a race meeting, so I entertained the manager with a cup of tea, and sat and chatted with him in the study. In the course of our conversation I casually mentioned that we had just bought a car, and I wondered why the bank manager sighed and looked so wistful.
I understood a few days later, when there arrived a letter from the bank, couched in gently reproachful terms, regarding the amount of Wallace's overdraft.
Up to that time I had not been fully admitted into Wallace's confidence as regards his financial affairs, or I should certainly have conducted his bank manager along some less hazardous conversational path. Edgar, I fancy, realised the risks to which such reticence exposed him, and thereafter in money matters there were no secrets between us.
From that time the standard of our motoring comfort and elegance rose by leaps and bounds. Once Wallace had started buying cars, it was difficult to stop him, and ultimately we arrived, as I knew we were bound to arrive, at the crowning dignity of a Rolls-Royce.
The Ringer, Edgar's most successful play, had been produced a couple of weeks previously by Sir Gerald du Maurier at Wyndham's Theatre. It had met with instant success, and cheques for such heartening sums in respect of royalties had begun to arrive that I began to fear that, as long as the play was running, squeezing blood from a stone would be a simple matter compared with extracting articles or stories from Wallace. He was making bigger money than he had made for a long time—bigger, perhaps, than he had ever made—and I knew that something was bound to happen.
"Bob," said Wallace one sunny morning, after duly inquiring if I "knew anything" and making a bet with his bookmaker over the telephone which sent a cold shiver down my spine, "Bob, we're doing well."
Spring was in the air, but Wallace did not need that stimulus to be himself. I cautiously agreed that the prospects were less gloomy than they had been recently, but doubted if they were sufficiently dazzling to justify the bet he had just made. There was a look in his grey eyes of which I was afraid I knew the meaning.
"Let's play up the luck and buy a car."
"But you've got a car—" I began.
"A good car," said Wallace, and picked up the receiver of his telephone.
His idea of a good car was on a par with his ideas of most other things; what it lacked in prudence it made up for in bigness of conception. There glided up to our doorstep a few days later a luxurious limousine of the most expensive type obtainable—to be superseded a year or so later by another, still more luxurious and expensive, which, as it stood shining and glistening by the kerb, made even Portland Place look poverty-stricken and in need of a fresh coat of paint.
Everyone who saw it admired it—with one exception. Captain Erskine-Bolst, M.P., who was Wallace's political opponent in Blackpool at the last general election, referred to it in one of his speeches as "that yellow horror." Thus can political prejudices blind us to true beauty. To Wallace that remark was, I fancy, the unkindest cut of all in a campaign by no means notable for its freedom from personalities.
Edgar did everything thoroughly. Having turned his attention to cars, he saw the matter through in his usual free-handed way. Every member of his family, with the exception of his youngest daughter, Penelope, whom, since she was only four years of age, he was reluctantly compelled to pass over, was presented with a car, and a whole fleet of vehicles was garaged in the mews behind the house. Wallace at this time was making a very big income, and he continued to play up his luck. He had a beautiful country house at Bourne End, a flat in Portland Place, a furnished flat in the Haymarket, which was used exclusively as an office and was rarely occupied by anyone but myself and an assistant secretary, and a suite of rooms at the Carlton, with a private telephone line to the Haymarket premises.
I remember receiving an urgent summons one Sunday to go down to Bourne End, and drove there in my car. It was a very old car; it had been middle-aged when I had acquired it; its sole claim to survival was that it went.
Edgar's Rolls, with its long, shining body, stood in the drive, and I stopped my contraption beside it with a screeching protest from the brakes which was more than usually strident. Wallace, not unnaturally, came out to discover what was responsible for breaking his Sabbath peace. He strolled around my car, inspected the licence, rubbed the door panel with the tip of a finger, peered at the spot he had laid bare, and gave a quizzical smile.
"According to the licence, Bob, your car is blue," he said laconically, and led the way into the house.
There was work to be done that afternoon—Wallace did much of his work during the week-ends—and no further reference to my car was made. I did notice, however, that as I started up the engine to leave, Edgar sighed and eyed the bonnet reproachfully.
The next morning he called me into his study.
"Bob," he said, "The Squeaker's just being produced in New York, and if it's a success I'm going to buy you a new car."
But he could no more be patient in his generosity than he could be patient in anything else. Within an hour came another summons to his study.
"I've been thinking," said Wallace. "The Squeaker doesn't come on in New York for a month yet, and your car will never hang together till then. You'd better take a stroll along Great Portland Street and buy yourself one."
I began to thank him, but he would not listen. Once again he was only doing it from purely selfish motives. If people saw his secretary in a ramshackle vehicle such as I drove, they would suspect him of paying me a starvation wage. It was a little thin, and no pretence of believing it.
"It's frightfully kind of you—" I began.
"Besides," interrupted Wallace, "you leave the atrocity outside the house, and as a residential district Portland Place is being ruined."
Within an hour I had added yet another saloon, blue beyond all question, to the ever-growing transport facilities which were at our disposal, and Edgar, with his usual nonchalance, signed the cheque.
In those latter days of prosperity Wallace had a large staff of servants—a valet, two footmen, two chauffeurs, several gardeners, a butler, a groom, and the usual complement of housemaids and parlourmaids and cooks and what-not. I wonder, had he lived to return from Hollywood, how many cars he would eventually have had attached to his establishment!
His recklessness in involving himself in financial difficulties was only equalled by his ingenuity in getting out of them. There was, of course, always the final resort of writing a story—either a short story or a serial, according to the exigencies of the crisis. But writing a story, even given the inclination to do so and a day when there was no racing to lure him from his desk, required a certain amount of time; and in the earlier days of my association with him, when the financial crises were of constant occurrence and pronounced acuteness, time was usually an important factor. As an accessory in many of his financial machinations I went through some of the most nerve-racking ordeals of my life. Wallace, even at the most crucial moments, never turned a hair. I used to wish sometimes that a hair or two had been capable of turning.
He walked into my room one morning with his usual smile and made the all too familiar announcement.
"Bob, I'm broke."
I made no comment. I waited to hear whether a story was to be written at breakneck speed or some new ingenious scheme for raising the wind to be put into operation. I was prepared for almost anything—except for Wallace's next remark.
"Write me a cheque on your account for a couple of hundred, will you?"
I stared at him, dumbfounded. He was as well aware of my financial instability as I was of his, and though he might not know, as I knew, that the balance in my account, if the bank had met the last cheque, was £2 on the debit side, he must know that he was asking me to write a cheque for about ten times the largest sum that ever stood to my credit for more than a couple of days.
"It's all right, Bob," he said easily. "I must have two hundred quid this morning, and I can't think of any other way of raising it. But I won't let you down. You shall have the cash to pay in before the cheque is presented."
I wrote the cheque. It was the first cheque for a three-figure sum that I had ever drawn, and there was only an overdraft of £2 to meet it; but I signed my name with an air of nonchalance which must have satisfied Wallace that he had a promising pupil. I would not have signed that cheque for any other man alive.
It was a tribute, I think, even to Wallace's well-known loyalty to his word—"Thou shalt not let anyone down" was his eleventh commandment—that I thought no more about the matter until, the following afternoon, he thrust a wad of five-pound notes into my hand.
"Thanks, Bob," he said. "You'd better go and pay it in at once."
As I entered the bank I had a sensation that something was amiss. The cashier's welcome, never any too cordial, was noticeably chilly; I noted that the clerks were staring at me over their ledgers with unfriendly eyes, and I do not think it was fancy that the bank messenger sniffed as he passed me. Someone tapped my shoulder.
"The manager would like to see you, Mr. Curtis."
The manager, scowling and frigidly distant, had a question to ask. Why, he demanded, when my account was already overdrawn, had I had the criminal temerity to utter a cheque for two hundred pounds? The cheque, of course, had been dishonoured, and he awaited an explanation.
I did my best to give him one, but he was not in the least interested. I flourished my wad of notes, but it was like a red rag to a bull. By some unexpected mischance the cheque had been presented earlier than it should have been in the normal way—Wallace knew to a nicety all details concerning the clearing of cheques, and none was more skilled than he in the tactical use of an account—the money had not been there to meet it, and here was an infuriated manager demanding to know what I meant by it and refusing to let me answer. Finally he intimated that, as soon as I had repaid my £2 overdraft—plus interest—I might consider my account closed.
"Sorry, Bob," said Wallace when I told him what had happened. "But you can open an account at another bank, and I'll guarantee the overdraft."
My bank manager in those days had never shown me any marked affection, and I am afraid that this incident turned his diffidence into something very like hatred. If time has not mellowed him, it may be some slight balm to his outraged feelings to learn that, all unwittingly, he shared in a scheme which, at any rate for a few hours, helped one of the best of good fellows out of a serious difficulty. Had he known Edgar Wallace as I knew him, he would have done the same for him himself.
But Wallace had more original and ingenious methods than that. He was a great opportunist, and none knew better than he how to turn present circumstances to his own advantage.
At one time, when he was writing the racing column for a well-known journal, he struck a more than usually barren patch. It lasted so long without showing any signs of improvement that I began to wonder whether Wallace had lost his skill or was suffering from an unprecedented dearth of ideas.
"Bob," he said one morning, "why shouldn't I be a tipster?"
I had thoughts of pointing out, as a reason why he should not, that the number of winners among the horses he tipped in his racing column was negligible. But I remembered that no tipster would consider lack of winners among his tips a disqualification for his business, and contented myself with expressing the opinion that, if the tipster's business was intended as a money-making project, writing a story would doubtless prove far more remunerative.
"I've got an idea," said Edgar, his eyes alight with excitement.
"Joe Austin" was not the actual name under which Wallace chose to carry on his tipping venture, but it will serve. Not many days later some thousands of persons who were interested in racing received a circular letter from one Joe Austin, setting out in glowing terms the qualifications which entitled Joe to their confident patronage, and the prospects which were theirs if they had vision enough to follow, and, of course, pay for, his advice.
Joe, it appeared, was in the habit of receiving last-minute information from sources of unimpeachable reliability concerning the winners of certain races. He was to receive one such titbit next week—for a race on the Wednesday, let us say. It would be absolutely last-minute information and he would not himself receive it in all probability until the morning of the race, but he undertook that to every person who forwarded him the sum of one shilling the tip should be communicated before midday on the Wednesday. It was a cleverly written circular with the authentic tipster's touch about it. In the subtle way which such circulars have it somehow persuaded one against one's better judgment that Joe Austin was a man with unequalled means of securing secret information and of irreproachable integrity. I have received hundreds of tipsters' circulars in my life, but I have never seen one better calculated to coax a shilling from a punter's pocket.
Wallace showed me the circular—he had spent a long time on its composition—and asked me what I thought of it; and, though experience had made me a very hardened sceptic, if I had not known that Joe Austin was Edgar Wallace, in whose racing tips I had learned to place only the very feeblest confidence, I should have handed him my shilling, ill as I could afford it, there and then.
I had only one criticism of the circular to make. Wallace, like most authors, was not incapable of making grammatical slips, and part of my duty as his secretary was to stand as a watch-dog between Wallace and the purity of the English language, and put such trifling lapses right. I never troubled to point them out to him. But he was sending the circular straight away to be duplicated without my having an opportunity to edit it, and there were two mistakes so glaring that I felt in duty bound to point them out.
"Anything wrong?" inquired Wallace, noting, I suppose, my pained expression.
I handed him the letter.
"If the subject of a sentence is in the plural," I said, not, I am afraid, without a hint of superior knowledge in my manner, "it is invariably followed by a verb in the plural. See paragraph one. And in the second paragraph 'was' should be 'were'."
"I put those mistakes in purposely," he said.
I suppose I showed my perplexity.
"Because," he explained, "Joe Austin is a genuine racing tipster. Did you ever get a letter from a racing tipster which didn't contain a mistake in grammar?"
I was silenced. Wallace, I realised, was right. With his customary thoroughness he had made Joe Austin true to type down to the very smallest detail.
The circulars despatched, we waited for the result—Wallace with his usual optimism, I with decided misgivings. Joe Austin's ungrammatical letter did the trick; letters containing coin, postal orders or a shilling's worth of stamps came pouring in, and my uneasiness increased. At length I ventured to broach with Wallace the cause of my misgivings.
"All these people are sending you money," I said, "which they probably can't afford. They're banking on your giving them a really good tip—"
The look of reproach in Wallace's eyes made me pause.
"That's all right, Bob," he said. "I'm not going to let them down."
"But if you've no real information to hand on to them—"
"I have," he said. "I've a good 'un for the big race on Wednesday. So-and-So"—naming a famous jockey—"gave me the tip a week ago. It's the biggest certainty there's been this season, and he told me to put my shirt on it."
He waved a hand towards the pile of postal orders on the table.
"I'm giving them good value for their shillings," he said, "and they're providing me with the shirt. That's fair enough, isn't it?"
I might have known it. Wallace was incapable of being anything but fair.
By the Monday morning Joe Austin's letter had brought in over £200 in shillings, and Wallace was delighted. I did not share his delight. I could not for the life of me see how the scheme was even to pay its way, let alone show the handsome profit on which Wallace was counting. Each client had forwarded only one shilling; each telegram to be despatched on the Wednesday morning would require a shilling stamp; the printing and postage of the circulars had to be paid for according to all the established rules of book-keeping the net result on Wednesday must inevitably be a balance on the wrong side. I did just hint at the likelihood of such a contingency, but Wallace only grinned.
On the Monday evening I understood. That night Joe Austin posted to all his clients a second letter. It gave the name of the horse which was the "good thing" for the race on Wednesday, and stated that, as the information from the unassailably reliable source had already come to hand, Joe Austin was passing it on to his clients immediately. The tip was the biggest racing certainty of the season, and some of them might wish to indulge in ante-post betting.
Only about a dozen telegrams had to be sent to clients whose shillings arrived too late for a letter to reach them in time, and the difference between the total sum received in shillings and the total expenditure on 1½d. stamps and the circulars, was roughly £200. Wallace, of course, had had it all mapped out ahead and had never intended sending telegrams.
He himself put his shirt on it. On the Tuesday he put the whole £200 on the horse in question, and when, in the afternoon, I went to his study to tell him that the horse had won at 6-1, he only nodded.
"Did you back it, Bob?"
I admitted to a modest bet of 10s.
"That's all right," said Edgar. "I put ten quid on for you."
That was the end of the tipster's business. Wallace was in funds again, there was no further cause for immediate anxiety, and consequently Joe Austin was consigned to those realms of imagination from which he had originally come.
By some such ingenious expedient we weathered in those early days the frequent financial hurricanes that bent us. Wallace was nothing if not ingenious. As an exhibition of ingenuity combined with nerve, I think that one of his bouts with the unfortunate Inland Revenue official to whom fell the arduous task of extracting income tax from Wallace, would take a good deal of beating.
Wallace, at the time in question, was the owner of a certain two-year-old racehorse. In common with many another which later joined his stable, its chief failing was that it was not a very good racehorse; but it cost him a great deal of money to keep and run, and in the hope, I imagine, of making it pay some slight contribution towards its board and lodging, Wallace conceived the idea of claiming a rebate of income tax on the sum which the animal annually cost him. He explained to the income tax collector that, as a racing journalist whose duty it was to supply the readers of an important daily newspaper with information concerning the merits of racehorses, he found it absolutely essential to the efficient execution of his job to keep and run a two-year-old of his own. Only by this means could he satisfactorily get a line on the form of other two-year-olds and give his hundreds of thousands of readers the reliable information which they expected from him. Running a racehorse of his own was therefore a regrettable but necessary expense incurred solely to enable him to carry on his business as a racing journalist, and the total sum spent each year on the animal should be deducted from his rateable income and exempted from tax.
Wallace, however, though I think he deserved to, did not get away with that. The income tax official, seeing visions, I suppose, of a future stable full of thoroughbreds of varying ages, all of which were regrettable but necessary expenses incurred solely to enable Wallace to carry on his business, shook his head and would have none of it.
It is significant, perhaps, that in recent years the would-be collector of Wallace's income tax had a favourite monosyllabic expletive to which he would always resort on the occasions when most of us would indulge in a hearty "Damn!" The expression most frequently on his lips was "Gloom!" How far the daily disappointments of his occupation were responsible for his morose manner of swearing is an open question. If he had many taxpayers like Edgar Wallace on his books his pessimistic taste in expletives is readily explained.
It was typical of Wallace that he always imagined during a fair spell that the weather had permanently changed for the better and that hurricanes were things of the past, and that, when the next one showed signs of approaching, he remained serene and undisturbed until it was in full blast. Only then would he begin to take counsel with himself as to how shipwreck could best be averted.
His schemes were not always successful, but failure seemed as powerless to depress as was success to elate him unduly. The one was met with a shrug and the other with a smile; but neither, I think, was of supreme importance. It was the fight that appealed to him, and if one scheme turned out disastrously, he usually had another no less ingenious with which to replace it.
Wallace had a wide first-hand experience of crooks and their ways, having mixed with and got to know personally criminals of all types, from the petty larcenist to the murderer.
Quite a number of men with a first-hand knowledge of the inside of one or more of His Majesty's prisons visited him from time to time and were interviewed in his study—ferocious-looking customers, some of them, whose appearance at the front door inspired terror in the housemaid. More than once she came to me in grave anxiety and urged me, while "that man" was in the study, to stand outside the door in readiness to lend assistance if Wallace should be in need of it. But they all seemed very docile fellows, and Wallace, in any case, knew how to handle them.
Some of them, at any rate, I found interesting. With one in particular who had recently served a term of imprisonment for doping racehorses, I spent many a pleasant afternoon in Wallace's flat. Edgar, I believe, was proposing to write the man's confessions for some newspaper, and he came to the flat to supply the necessary copy, but Wallace had usually gone racing, and I was delegated to receive the confessions in his stead.
"Confessions" was hardly an apt word. There was nothing of the penitent about the gentleman in question. He was quite frankly proud of the fact that he was considered the most expert doper of horses in the business, and that if a four-year-old were to be substituted for a three-year-old and run in a three-year-old event—a not uncommon occurrence, he assured me—he was among the few skilled craftsmen who could be relied upon so to fake the substituted horse that it could not be distinguished from the animal actually entered for the race.
As a testimonial to his skill he told me that the Cambridgeshire was once won by a substituted horse which had been honoured with his alterations, and that another of his masterpieces even got past the keen scrutiny of Steve Donoghue, who had many times ridden the real animal.
As a sideline he was a cardsharper. His hands were like shoulders of mutton, but it was amazing what he could do with a pack of cards, and though on several afternoons Wallace and I sat one on each side of him and never took our eyes from his hands, neither of us was once able to see anything amiss.
Wallace, I fancy, had helped him on his release from prison, and the man seemed more than anxious to do something to show his gratitude. He was picking up the threads of his horse-doping connection again, he told me, and would soon be in full swing once more. Whenever he was doping or faking a horse for a race he would give Wallace the tip, and he could put his shirt on it.
He kept his word. For several months after he had left London telegrams arrived from him from time to time giving Wallace the promised tips. Usually the horses won. One of them carried off one of the most important events of the year. But Wallace, with that punctilious honesty which characterised him, would never back them. Racing was very dear to his heart and he hated to see it smirched with crooked dealing.
Incidentally, our horse-doping friend expressed to him an opinion which, coming from a man of his experience of the inner mysteries of racing, deserved serious consideration. He stated most emphatically that anyone who backed a horse, as most punters do, without "knowing something" was a mug—plus an adjective. Wallace, of course, paid no heed to that. I daresay he knew it already. I am sure his bookmaker did.
The man, however—Freeman will serve as a name for him, since by those who practise his particular calling publicity is not considered desirable—was useful to Wallace in another way. He was well-known among the racing fraternity, and as Wallace at this time was contemplating a second venture as a racing tipster—the weather was far too fine for serial writing—it struck him that Freeman's name would give a cachet to the firm.
It was, of course, public knowledge that he had been concerned in a case of doping racehorses, and the subtle suggestion, I suppose, which it was intended to convey by using his name for the firm's title was that, whenever one of his faked or doped horses was running, Freeman & Co.'s clients would receive the tip.
Wallace was sufficient of a psychologist to know that, though a man might strongly denounce such malpractices as doping or faking a horse, his robust convictions on the subject would not prevent his backing the horse if he had the tip for it.
Wallace—he was very hard up at the time—accordingly paid Freeman the sum of £250 for the privilege of running the business under his honoured name, and the business was duly started.
It was an altogether more impressive affair than our first venture in the tipping business. The firm of Freeman & Co operated from an office of its own in Regent Street, and had a clerical staff—he called opportunely, I believe, to touch Wallace for 10s., and received the appointment as a bonus—a typewriter and a telephone, and, crowning glory, a tape machine!
Wallace was sure that he had found a gold mine. Story-writing? Bah!
Freeman & Co.'s business career was brief and inglorious. The clerical staff proved unreliable, particularly, I fancy, on the book-keeping side; and if Wallace, who was, of course, responsible for supplying the "good things" for his clients, ever tipped a winner, I feel sure I should have heard the glad tidings.
How far the rapid decline and ultimate decease of Freeman & Co were due to lack of nutritive value in the tips which Edgar supplied, I do not know. At all events, the business faded out, the clerical staff vanished from our ken, and the whole depressing episode was forgotten in a spurt of high-speed serial writing.
It was recalled, however, a few months later by a frantic telephone message from the erstwhile clerical staff. He had been arrested, he said, and fined £2, and he had no money, and if he couldn't pay the fine he would have to go to prison, and what would his wife think then, and would Mr. Wallace pay the fine for him?
I inquired which of his misdemeanours had been discovered and had led to his arrest. He told me, with tears in his voice, that he had stolen a chicken!
I reported to Wallace, who, much to my surprise, said he was hanged if he would pay the fine. The clerical staff had served him a dozen low-down tricks, and he could get out of his trouble as best he might. I wondered if that were the real reason—it was unlike Wallace to be vindictive—or whether it was the pettiness of the theft of a chicken that had stirred him to contempt. I had an idea that if his late employee had only had bigger ideas and purloined a leg of beef or the Crown Jewels, Wallace would have paid the fine without demur.
Later, he came into my room and tossed a couple of one-pound notes on to my desk.
"Go round to the police court, Bob," he said, "and pay that fine for him. I once stole a pair of boots myself."
When I returned from my errand Wallace was deep in thought at his desk.
"They say I'm a criminologist, Bob," he said, "but this beats me. I can't get the man's psychology. Why the devil should he want to steal a chicken?"
I explained that it was a trussed chicken from a poulterer's shop, and that he stole it, so he had said, because he needed food.
Wallace sighed with relief.
"I wish you'd told me that sooner," he said. "I've been wondering all the afternoon why a man should want to keep a live chicken in a two-roomed flat."
Wallace's association with Freeman ended with another disillusionment. He called at the flat one day, got Edgar to cash him a cheque for £15, went off with three fivers in his pocket, and never reappeared.
His cheque did, however—marked "No effects." For years Wallace kept that cheque in one of the drawers of his desk. It was still there when we sailed last year for America. Now and then he would take it out and gaze at it sadly.
For all his self-confidence, Wallace was in reality an extremely sensitive man, and, like most sensitive men, he had his streak of vanity. His dignity—and he could be very dignified when he chose—was all too easily hurt. I do not think that, when big success came to him, he could ever quite manage to forget that he was the famous Edgar Wallace, whose name had become almost a household word, who had been caricatured in Punch as one of the personalities of the day, whose books were read from one remote corner of the world to the other.
Press cuttings concerning him—in recent years we lived in a constant shower of them—gave him immense satisfaction, provided they had something nice to say, and I am not sure that he ever reached the point, which so many authors claim to have reached, where the sight of his name in print gave him no thrill.
He liked to be recognised in public, and Press photographers, reporters and interviewers, though, as part of his rôle as a person of importance, he simulated the conventional dislike of them, can never have found him a very elusive quarry.
He was, though he did his utmost to disguise the fact, super-sensitive as to the opinions others held about him and his work, and it was as easy to hurt him with a perfectly just adverse criticism as it was to flatter him with obviously exaggerated praise. He could absorb flattery in unlimited quantities, and never reach saturation point—a weakness which, during the periods of his prosperity, must have cost him thousands of pounds. It undoubtedly led him into many ventures which, though they benefited the flatterers, brought Wallace nothing but soothing syrup and an overdraft at the bank.
His love of public recognition occasionally produced its humorous incidents. I remember once sitting in the front row of the dress circle on the first night of one of his plays at Wyndham's Theatre, and watching Wallace arrive. He entered his box with that self-complacent smile which I knew so well, and glanced round at the audience as though expecting some sign of recognition. But no one, apparently, had noticed his entrance, and there came neither round of applause nor even buzz of excitement.
The smile vanished from his face, and, knowing how disappointed he was feeling, I was tempted to make myself conspicuous by indulging in a few hearty claps. Wallace sat down—feeling very flat, I am sure—well at the back of the box, where it was almost impossible for anyone to see him, and I was afraid that the lack of a duly demonstrative reception had spoilt his evening for him.
But I should have known better. Inch by inch, as the house filled, Wallace's chair was edged forward; gradually, as he advanced, his smile returned; until at last, with a final movement of the chair, he was right in the front of the box, in full view of the audience. And just as he reached that position came the demonstration for which I knew he was waiting—the buzz of interest, the round of applause, the cheers from the gallery—and Wallace rose, bowed his acknowledgment and sat down again, smiling and satisfied.
I smiled, too, and fervently hoped that Edgar had not noticed, as I had, that not a head had been turned in his direction, and that the applause had not been intended for him at all. The audience had been welcoming Bobby Howes, who just at that moment was taking his seat in the stalls.
It was, I suppose, this streak of vanity in Wallace which led him to rhapsodise on every possible occasion over my perfections as a secretary. I was a very rapid typist—one had to be to cope successfully with Wallace working at full speed—and the fact that I held the typewriting championship of Europe gave him tremendous personal satisfaction. I was the best typist in the country, and I was his secretary. I am afraid his friends must sometimes have grown weary of hearing about "Bob" and his perfections, for Wallace rarely missed a chance of hymning my praises, and I grew resigned to his bringing visitors into my office at any odd moment and asking me to give them an exhibition of my skill on the typewriter. As a rule, on such occasions, I managed more or less to live up to the reputation which I knew he had been giving me, but once...
Wallace at that time was doing the dramatic criticism for the Morning Post, and on the first night of a new play I used to meet him at the theatre as soon as the curtain was down, take down his criticism of the play in shorthand, type it, and deliver it at the Morning Post office so that it could appear in the next morning's issue.
On one such occasion, when I was to meet him at 11 p in at Wyndham's Theatre, I spent the earlier part of the evening at a party. It was a twenty-first birthday affair, and champagne flowed freely; but, remembering my appointment with Wallace, I strictly rationed myself to a couple of glasses. Champagne, I argued, was not a drink which could be relied upon to enhance the speed and accuracy of shorthand and type-writing; it was, moreover, one which I only drank on the rare occasions when a refusal might seem churlish, and its effect on my mental and physical equilibrium was therefore practically an unknown quantity.
I arrived at the theatre, satisfied that its effect had been nil, found Wallace at the back of the stage, produced my fountain pen and prepared to be the perfect secretary.
There was the usual first-night excitement and Wallace was in one of his most genial moods. He introduced me to everybody and insisted that I should have a drink. It was a thing he rarely did. He very infrequently drank either wine, beer or spirits himself, and I never before heard him press anyone to do so. But on this occasion he was most insistent, mixed a whisky and soda for me himself—his ideas of a tot of whisky, as of most other things, were on the grandiose scale—and thrust the glass into my hand.
"Put that down, Bob," he ordered, "and then we'll get to work."
I put it down—and I believe we did get to work. I have a vague recollection of Wallace pouring out words as generously as he had poured out the whisky, and of my making a series of crazy-looking hieroglyphs on the paper as it revolved beneath my pen. Wallace knew nothing about shorthand, however, and I congratulated myself, as I left him, that the results of mixing champagne and whisky had escaped his notice.
I made my way across a surging stage, located a swirling office, seated myself at a swaying typewriter and began to transcribe my shorthand notes.
I had scarcely started when the door opened and Wallace came in; behind him was Sir Gerald du Maurier, and following behind Sir Gerald there came into the room every member of the company playing in the show, who ranged themselves round my table.
"I've just been telling everybody that you're the fastest typist in England, Bob," said Wallace. "Show them what you can do."
My heart sank and I sent an imploring glance to Wallace; but he was smiling his most complacent smile, and evidently had not realised the effects of his heavy-handed way with the tantalus, and there was nothing to be done but make as good a show as possible for the edification of my audience, so I made a tremendous effort to pull myself together and began to type.
My usual working speed on a typewriter is approximately 6,000 words an hour, but to reach that speed it is essential for the machine to be stationary and the number of keys limited.
On this occasion neither of these conditions obtained, and my speed, to say nothing of my accuracy, suffered accordingly. I typed at a rate of which most beginners having their first lesson would have been ashamed, picking out the keys with one finger on each hand, and picking at least once in every three attempts the wrong key. But it was the best I could do, and any attempt to bring more fingers into play and so speed things up a bit only involved me in hopeless chaos.
I do not know how long the ordeal lasted; it seemed an age that I sat there in an oppressive silence, punctuated now and then by the tap of a key. But I came to the end of my notes at last, took the paper from the machine and glanced round nervously at the assembled company. Sir Gerald was watching me with a quizzical smile on his face.
"Wonderful!" was his comment. "How long, Mr. Curtis, did it take you to reach that state?"
The rest of them were quick to take the cue. "Marvellous!"—"Amazing!"—"Incredible!"—"Lucky beggar!" came the chorus, and in the midst of this paean of praise I rose and prepared to go.
There are two distinct versions of my actual exit.
Mine is that I picked up my hat, said "Good night, Mr. Wallace," and went out in a perfectly natural way.
Wallace's version, which he always stuck to tenaciously afterwards, was that I set my hat on my head at a rakish angle, gave him a casual wave of the hand, and with a "Well, good night, Edgar, old cock!" strode out. But that, since I was always most punctilious about calling him "Mr. Wallace" in the presence of others, was, I am convinced, a subsequent effort of his imagination.
Wallace, when I met him the next morning, smiled.
"Find the Morning Post office all right, Bob?"
I assured him that I had.
"Did they grumble that the criticism was too short?"
"There were only six lines of it."
"Is that all?" I sighed. Six lines! I had often typed an 80,000-word novel with less effort.
Thereafter, Wallace, though he never grew weary of boasting of my prowess on the typewriter, was less inclined to ask for an exhibition of my skill. As I have said, he was sensitive to a degree, especially where his work was concerned. Anyone who was prepared to praise his work was assured of a willing and attentive listener; but, like so many other authors, Wallace, even though he might have invited the criticism, really resented it if it were unfavourable.
He was inclined to take it as a personal affront if an adverse opinion were passed on something he had written, and to give the impression, though I am sure that in his own mind he was really far from having any such exaggerated idea, that any story or play from his pen was above criticism.
It was not altogether surprising. There were so many around him who were all too ready to flatter him on the slightest pretext, and to persuade him, not always from disinterested motives, that his play or story was a masterpiece, that it would have been more surprising if, with that vein of vanity running through him, he had not responded to such sympathetic treatment.
Personally, after years of intimate association with him, I was on a privileged footing in this respect. He would frequently invite my criticism of what he had written—latterly it was his invariable rule to do so and he usually listened with a good grace to what I had to say, even if it were unfavourable, and gave it serious consideration.
He never seemed to imagine, as he often did with others, that, because I thought a story had a weak point or two which might advantageously be strengthened, I was casting aspersions on his ability or "knocking" his work for the sole purpose of fault-finding. He told me more than once that I knew whether or no a story was in the true Edgar Wallace vein better than he did. Yet once, persona grata as I was, I, too, came under the shadow of his displeasure for having ventured a candid criticism.
It was in connection with a play called The Mouthpiece. Wallace gave the manuscript to me, and, with the self-satisfied smile which told me that he was confident of having written a winner, asked me to read it and tell him what I thought of it.
I read it and I told him my opinion frankly, but, I think, quite tactfully. I said that to my mind the first act dragged badly and needed speeding up if the audience were not to be bored before the first interval; that the opening lacked clearness and needed revising if the audience were to understand what it was all about; and I pointed out what struck me as a bad anti-climax in the last act. I was convinced that this play, at any rate, was not true Edgar Wallace as it stood.
To my surprise, Wallace, on this occasion, seemed very much hurt by my criticism. He disagreed with me on every point I had raised, and confidently asserted that it was the best play he had ever written and was assured of at least a year's run.
Someone, I guessed, had been administering a dose of flattery, with the result that Wallace's usually keen mind had been doped into believing that the play was what the Americans none too elegantly describe as a "wow." Wallace had already had one recent theatrical failure; I knew that a second might seriously injure his reputation in the theatrical world, and I was desperately anxious that the play should not be produced until he had at least spent some time knocking it into shape. Perhaps my anxiety ran away with my discretion. At any rate, I said that if it ran for a year, then I knew nothing about plays and would henceforth hold my peace. I prophesied a month's run for it at the most.
But Wallace would not listen, and I was undeniably unpopular. For over a week he hardly spoke to me.
The play was produced—more or less as it stood; the unanimous verdict of the Press critics was that it was a bad play, carelessly written, poorly constructed, wrongly cast and inadequately rehearsed. It ran, I believe, for a week.
I said "unanimous," but that is not strictly accurate. There was one exception to the general chorus of disapproval. A journalist on the staff of some obscure provincial newspaper—I cannot now even remember its name—wrote a most flattering notice of the play; so flattering that, when I read his encomium, I instantly suspected that he had not seen the piece at all. It was unbelievable that, had he sat through the wearisome performance, he could really have felt any genuine enthusiasm for it. He even went so far as to say outright that it was the best play Wallace had written.
That was incredible enough, but the sequel to his eulogistic outburst was even more so. I took the cutting to Wallace—his wounded feelings badly needed some balm—and, as he read it, I saw his eyes light up.
"Send this fellow a wire," he said, and proceeded to dictate a long and expensive telegram to the writer of the notice, congratulating him on being the only critic in the whole of England who had a true sense of dramatic values!
Later, when the first disappointment had worn thin, Wallace, I know, came to see that the enthusiastic provincial journalist had been wrong and the rest of the dramatic critics right.
"You were right, Bob, and I was wrong," he admitted frankly one morning soon after the play had been withdrawn. "The Mouthpiece is a bad play. But I'm writing another—I did the first act last night—and it's a sure winner."
I smiled. "I hope it will run for a year," I said.
"It will," said Wallace. "If I turn The Mouthpiece into a novel, Bob, I think I shall dedicate the book to you."
I asked him why.
"I've written a hundred and fifty novels," said Wallace, "twenty or so plays, hundreds of short stories, and thousands of articles, and they can't all be good. There are just three people in the world who have the pluck, or the sense, or both, to criticise my stuff, and you're one of them. By the way, you're coming racing with me this afternoon."
Thus was I received back into grace. Edgar was himself again. As if anxious to reassure me on that point, he backed five losers that afternoon.
Yet at the time he had strongly resented my criticism. He really hated adverse criticism from anyone and usually took it rather badly. To anybody who ventured to suggest an alteration in one of his plays or stories he would write stinging letters or telegrams refusing to make the alterations, would subsequently rewrite them in less truculent vein, and as often as not close the matter by agreeing to make the suggested changes.
Edgar was very human. He loved favourable as much as he hated unfavourable criticism. Of one of his last stories, "When the Gangs Came to London," I remarked, quite honestly, that I thought it was written in his very best vein. He was childishly pleased and sat down at once to write out a telegram to William Blackwood, of the Amalgamated Press, who had commissioned the story:
Story in the post. Bob thinks this is my best for years.
In the case of another serial which the Daily Mail was to have published, but which, for some reason, fell through, he was asked by the Literary Editor to write a preliminary paragraph announcing the story. This is what he wrote:
This is the best story I have ever written. I think so myself, and my wife and Mr. Curtis, my secretary, upon whose judgment I rely implicitly, both concur.
My lapse into disfavour over The Mouthpiece had not seriously distressed me. Wallace, I knew, was by nature incapable of nursing a grievance. He was far too resilient for the mere failure of a play to depress him for long, and far too fair-minded not to realise, when he considered the matter, that my anxiety over the play had been entirely anxiety for his success. Loyal himself, he never failed to appreciate loyalty in others.
I never knew him guilty of a mean or petty action; smallness of mind he abominated as heartily as smallness in anything else. In this respect he was a ruthless censor of his own actions and motives. He had a horror of doing anything which by any stretch of the imagination might be called petty or unsporting; and if he inadvertently did anything which, on reflection, failed to pass his stern self-scrutiny, he was quick to make amends.
"Prodigious" is, of course, the only word that is applicable to Edgar Wallace's output. He was the author of some 150 novels—I doubt if anyone knows the exact number—many hundreds of short stories, about twenty plays, and a constant stream of articles on racing, crime, the drama, and, in fact, any subject upon which he was invited to write.
There is no mystery about his productivity: industriousness and the capacity for fast work were the explanation.
When it is remembered that, in addition to his literary labours, he was producing his own plays, acting as Chairman of the British Lion Film Corporation and at times directing films, occasionally editing a newspaper, and always finding leisure for racing, his sole recreation, it will be understood that his energy and industry must have been phenomenal.
And indeed they were. But for his plots and their developments Wallace admitted that he owed much to inspiration.
The picture of Edgar as a sort of literary robot, sitting down day and night for hours on end, churning out mystery stories at 3,000 words an hour, is only a partially accurate one. I have seen him sitting at his desk hour after hour, and occasionally day after day, his shoulders hunched, his hands lightly clasped, apparently staring into vacancy, his pen idle.
Once—it was in the early years, before I was very familiar with his methods—when the opening instalments of a serial were in peril of becoming overdue, I ventured to break in upon his reverie.
"You might think I'm loafing," he said, "but I'm not: I'm just waiting for it to come. Don't worry—you'll get it on time."
Without having any faith in the tenets and phenomena of spiritualism—indeed, he cordially disliked what he believed to be a farrago of mischievous nonsense—he was firmly convinced that something which he once described to me as "creative thought force" did persist after death, and that it was from these etheric vibrations that he derived a tremendous amount of help.
He wrote once:
"Are we wildly absurd in supposing that human thought has an indestructible substance, and that men leave behind them, when their bodies are 'dead', a wealth of mind that finds employment in a new host?
"I personally do not think we are. I am perfectly satisfied in my mind that I have received an immense amount of help from the so-called 'dead'.
"I have succeeded far beyond the point my natural talents justified. And so have you—and you. I believe that my mind is furnished with oddments of intellectual equipment that have been acquired I know not how."
Edgar also claimed that he dreamed a lot of his stories. In whatever way they came to him, however, he was certainly never at a loss for a plot; indeed, he crowded into some of his more thrilling novels enough material for half-a-dozen full-length books.
It was the transcription of Wallace's Dictaphone dictation that first brought me into contact with him. Without the use of this machine his gigantic output would not have been possible.
He invariably wrote the first few thousand words of a story in manuscript. Almost as invariably he made two or three such starts, until he found the right one. He devoted more attention to the opening chapters of a serial than to the remainder of the book.
"Get the start right, and the story's half written," he was fond of saying.
Once the story was under way, a look of relief came into his face and he dropped his pen.
"Now we can turn to the Dictaphone," he said, and swung half left in his red leather swivel armchair to where the machine stood on a low pedestal.
From that moment everything was plain sailing with a good following wind, and one was then quite safe in promising delivery of the complete manuscript in a few days. It was often difficult to get Edgar to make a start, sometimes even more difficult to persuade him to sustain the effort up to the entrance of the Dictaphone; but once at that point the story "went with a bang." Hour after hour he would sit in a flowered dressing-gown, smoking innumerable cigarettes, drinking large cups of tea about twice an hour, dictating his story evenly, smoothly and almost without hesitation.
He did not make a good record; his voice had a curious, husky quality which did not add to its distinctness; he would slur his words and drop the pitch at the end of a sentence in such a way as made transcription of his cylinders impossible for the average typist. In fact, it is safe to say that only two people in the world could transcribe Edgar's dictation accurately, the other being Mrs. Wallace, whose attainments as a typist were of a very high order.
I have taught scores of people typewriting and Dictaphone transcription, and have had them devote hours to Wallace's dictation, but never found one who could produce anything like an intelligent transcript.
Another circumstance that in early years caused me a little difficulty was his mispronunciation of words. Wallace knew to a grain the exact shade of meaning conveyed by every word he used, but some of his solecisms of pronunciation had to be heard to be believed. Usually I managed to deduce the correct word from the context, but once he beat me, and I reluctantly had to leave a gap. When I subsequently saw him I asked him what the word was. He seemed gratified that there was something I hadn't been able to hear, and smiled complacently.
"Ah, that got you, didn't it? I don't suppose you know the word, Bob," he said loftily. "Nayveet."
I was chagrined.
"I'm afraid I don't," I said. "How do you spell it and what does it mean?"
"It's spelt n-a-i-v-e-t-e," said Edgar. "There's an accent on it somewhere, but I'm not sure where."
"Oh, naïveté!" said I, sternly suppressing a dawning smile.
"Is that how you pronounce it?" asked Edgar. "I always call it nayveet."
He may have persisted in calling it nayveet, but I do not remember that he ever again used the word.
Wallace did not, of course, attempt to punctuate his dictation. For one thing it was not necessary, and secondly his theories of punctuation were novel. If he came across a phrase of more than about six words undisturbed by a comma, he would insert one, and it was a long time before I could dissuade him from this practice.
He had another amusing little weakness. Whenever he happened upon a somewhat unusual word that was new to him, for a week or two that word was made to work overtime. Naturally, when Edgar had made such an acquisition, I kept a very vigilant eye on all his stories and articles, and prepared a list of synonyms for substitution purposes.
Once, however, I was away for a few weeks, sick or on holiday, and Edgar had just come across "psychiatrist." He had recently returned from America, where they love words like that; they even call an undertaker a mortician!
I think it was an article in the Daily Mail I saw first; the word was used three times. Next appeared a Sunday newspaper article; it had been worked twice into that. I believe he even managed to induce it to play an intelligent part in a sentence in one of his racing articles! Luckily, however, he always slackened off when I was away.
If Wallace's mispronunciations were at times confusing, much more so were his efforts at quotations in a foreign language, particularly in French. Although he had a command of English equalled by few fiction writers, he never displayed the smallest aptitude for any other tongue.
Some of the mistakes in his earlier books are amusing, if almost incredible. In one a character speaks thus delightfully in Wallacian French:
"M. Herhault, n'est ce que pas?"
In another, said a French police report on a suspected person, he had "ne pas ami intime."
Wallace's capacity for sustained work was amazing. Doubting the possibility of his finishing a story on time once nearly involved me in financial loss. It was Saturday night, and there were some 50,000 words remaining to be dictated, the delivery date being Monday.
"You can't finish by then, of course," I said.
"What'll you bet. Bob?" asked Edgar quickly.
"Don't bet anything," advised Mrs. Wallace. "He caught me like that once—I lost five pounds and had to do the typing as well."
The surest way of inducing Wallace to "get down to it" was to lay him six to four he could not do it in the time. An editor once came to learn of this idiosyncrasy. He had commissioned a serial; it had been advertised extensively; it was to start on a certain date, and a few days before going to press not a line had been written. The three-year-old form that year was particularly interesting. Letters, telegrams, telephone messages produced no result. At last, with a flash of genius born of desperation, he rang me up.
"For God's sake lay Edgar six to four in fivers he can't write that story in three days," he pleaded. "I'll pay, of course."
He paid—and I did the typing.
Wallace had all the necessary qualities of a great writer save only the wish to write greatly. He wrote stories, as he proclaimed far and wide, to make money. That they should be good stories was essential; that they should be well written was not so necessary, and accordingly he did not trouble over much about style.
An eminent literary agent once declared to me his conviction that if Edgar would only take the trouble he could be a really great writer.
Even as it was, he wrote good, simple, crisp English; he had no liking for the sesquipedalian prose of some of his contemporaries. Still less could he suffer gladly the literary fragility of some of the younger novelists—particularly the female ones.
He had a truly wonderful capacity for dividing his mind into pigeonholes. For instance, I have known him to have three serial stories in process of evolution at the same time, and to come to the second, fresh from a chilling instalment of the first, and take up the thread of the story immediately and without reference to the manuscript. A chapter or two of that, and No. 3 would receive its quota of attention.
Newspaper articles were scarcely allowed to break the continuity of a story. Half-way through a cylinder one would come upon something like the following:
"...Joe Farmer sprawled across the table, a smoking pistol in his nerveless hand, a trickle of blood oozing stickily from the tiny circular wound in his temple. Oh, by the way, Bob, The Star boy will be here at twelve for their article; we'd better do it now. The publication of the weights for the two big back-end handicaps..."
And, the racing article dictated, Edgar would without hesitation continue the story from the very word at which he had left it.
He loved to discuss his plots beforehand, or, rather, the situation from which the plot was to emerge. He would break off in the middle of a conversation, as though the idea had just occurred to him, to outline a story, and seemed to find, in talking about it, considerable aid in building it up.
I remember the first time, many years ago, that he so confided in me. I listened and was duly thrilled.
"But what's the dénouement?" I asked finally.
Wallace fixed me with his clear, grey eyes.
"If you mean how does it end," he said sternly, "that is the only thing that doesn't matter. There are a dozen ways of ending a story like that. The important thing is the situation."
This dictum did not, however, apply to all his stories. In the case of many of his best thrillers he thought out his last chapter first, and then proceeded to mystify his public throughout the whole of the rest of the book. Nearly always, when he was halfway through, he would stroll into my room.
"Have you guessed yet who did the murder, Bob?"
If I had not, or if I guessed incorrectly, Wallace would chuckle.
"If you haven't, no one else will," he would say, and go back to his desk with an intensified zest which was almost childlike.
Now and again I deduced accurately. He was almost annoyed.
"I don't think anyone but you would guess that," he said, "but perhaps I'll strengthen it a bit."
He did. When I came to the final chapter I found that he had altered the whole plot, making an entirely different character the villain, but so ingeniously that none of the earlier chapters had to be rewritten.
In all Edgar Wallace's writings and activities was that touch of originality and ingenuity which placed him high above the rank and file of mystery-mongers. There was an excellent example of this in the way in which he handled his first novel, "The Four Just Men." Publisher after publisher refused the book, and Wallace was broke. This was about twenty-eight years ago, when his financial fragility was more pronounced. But he was never at a loss for an ingenious scheme: somehow he acquired £1,500 or so and published the book himself. He advertised it extensively, offering £500 for a correct solution of the mystery with which it dealt. It left him more broke than ever, and in addition the mystery was solved and he had to pay the £500. I have gathered since that he was more mortified at his failure to deceive every reader than at the financial loss he suffered.
Wallace had a tremendous streak of vanity, and for this reason loathed criticism. If one were asked of a story or a play, "How do you like it?" the answer, if harmony were to be preserved, was "Fine." Unfortunately for many of his plays, that answer was too regularly forthcoming from the sycophants by whom he was surrounded. With regard to his books, however, he was a good deal more tolerant, at any rate as far as I was concerned, and I do not remember that he ever once refused to adopt any suggestion I offered. The first occasion on which I ventured any criticism of his work concerned the very first story with which I had anything to do. I have forgotten its title. I had transcribed the opening instalment, and took it to his flat. "How do you like it?"
"Oh, it's great stuff," I said, "but it moves slowly and there's a lack of incident."
Perhaps the most amusing criticism ever offered on a Wallace thriller! But I was very young.
A pained look came into his face; he seemed almost stunned.
"I'll read through it," he murmured.
The following morning arrived a batch of Dictaphone cylinders with a note:
Dear Bob, I believe you're a—bad critic, but just in
case you're not I've done this over again.
In later years it was not quite so easy. Confidence in his own judgment had, with the coming of success, increased to the point of extreme self-complacency, and only his intimate friends dared, with any hope of their suggestions being adopted, propose alterations in his work.
In the main Wallace wrote his plays in manuscript. Once or twice he dictated scenes, but for some reason these were never as convincing as when he wrote them. He made one or two sporadic attempts to persuade the Dictaphone into playing an intelligent part in the enhancement of the drama, but without success. There is probably a simple psychological explanation of this, but I do not know what it is. Nor did Wallace.
He was never so happy as when writing a story at high pressure. While the plot was evolving in his mind he frequently became a little moody; but, with his pen laid aside and the Dictaphone stage reached, it was as though he had cast aside an oppressive burden and could stride along free and unhampered. In recent years, as his moodiness increased, this metamorphosis became even more striking.
In story-writing alone did he appear to find his natural element, and those days and nights of intensive dictation were amongst the happiest of his life. True, he loved the theatre—it was in his blood—loved writing and producing plays, loved everything connected with the stage; but he was never the supreme master of the drama that he was of the thriller-novel; and it was obvious, with every new story he wrote, that he had at any rate a subconscious appreciation of this fact.
The number of books to his credit cannot be exactly stated, but it is between 150 and 160. The question arose while we were in Hollywood. It was at lunch one Sunday, and, although there was a big programme of work before us, the waffles which accompanied the roast beef had been particularly succulent, and with the arrival of each instalment work receded farther and farther into the future, as it were. We spent the half-hour following lunch in compiling a list of titles. Wallace had written them all; I had read them all, and been concerned in the preparation of a great many; but, try as we did, we could not extend the list beyond 118.
Wallace was certainly the only author of our time who had forgotten the titles of thirty-five or forty of his own books.
He had no illusions about his work. He did not believe, as do many of our younger and even more ephemeral authors, that he was creating great and enduring literature. He had a wholesome scorn of novelists with A Message. He was writing stories to make money, and that was the end of it. He had no hope that any of his work would live after him—though in that respect he may have under-estimated the merit of some of his stories. Only time will tell.
He hated the sex novel, which, he used to say, was the easiest thing in the world to write provided one's mind were dirty enough. Once when he was in Paris en route from Switzerland to London, he bought a copy of D. H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover." When I met him the next day:
"Bob," he said, handing me the volume, "I nearly chucked this into the Channel; it's the most obscene thing I've ever read. But you're a bit of a highbrow—have a go at it and learn the meaning of the word nausea."
Wallace was once asked by a not too intelligent highbrow—the man's chin and forehead receded at equally acute angles—what useful purpose he thought he served in life.
"My lad," said Edgar with a grin, "I've kept more women awake at night than any other living man."
Regarding his work, as he did, as a means of making money, Edgar was at no time either temperamental or tempted to adopt that pose. "Temperament" he dubbed, perhaps a little sweepingly, "temper," and could neither understand nor tolerate it.
He himself could work at any time and in almost any kind of circumstances; though, if there were one thing which, more than any other, was favourable to productivity, it was an editor growing hysterical on the other end of the telephone.
"How's the story going, Bob?" once asked Willie Blackwood, then Editor of Answers, who published some of Wallace's best work.
"Oh, fine!" I answered heartily.
"Is it good? Do you like it?" asked Blackwood.
"Rather. It's one of his best. You'll have a big batch of manuscript any day now."
There was not a line written, but I dared not say so even to that genial Scotsman. I knew it would get done all right at the last moment, as I knew it would be one of his best—he never did any other kind for Blackwood.
Mention of Answers reminds me that only once did Wallace ever publish a story under any other name than his own; and when it is disclosed that the story was given the title "Hearts Asunder," it will be understood why he veiled his identity behind the pseudonym "Richard Cloud." The story was, however, subsequently published in book form as "The Blue Hand," a title which might more fittingly appear under Wallace's own name.
I have often been asked which I consider to be his best book. Of his mystery stories undoubtedly "The Fellowship of the Frog" takes pride of place, and Wallace himself concurred in this view. From a purely literary point of view his best fiction is the "Sanders" series of short stories, of which there are eleven volumes; and nothing funnier has ever been written around the sport of horse racing than the three volumes concerning "Educated Evans."
Even financial stress did not disturb Edgar's output. Had it done so, few stories would have been written, for I came to believe that financial stress was his normal condition. I have never met another author who could produce good work while preoccupied with worry of any kind. Wallace worried, of course, but his mind seemed to be divided into watertight compartments, and he could shut the door of the one which held the worry and open the door of the one which held good stories, almost at will.
He could and did work, too, amidst a veritable avalanche of interruptions. What he could not work without was tea and cigarettes. A large breakfast cup of tea was brought to him about every half-hour of the day. It was his favourite beverage, strange as it always appeared to me. I tried to cultivate the habit at first, drinking cup for cup with him during months, but I gave it up in the end.
Edgar did not drink at all, and loathed those around him to do so. Except on one occasion...
We went together to a somewhat informal function connected with a quasi-Masonic society. Evidently there was a certain amount of local misconception as to Wallace's habits, for, in their wish to please and entertain their distinguished guest, the organising officials had apparently given instructions that a constant supply of drinks should be maintained in front of him, and these appeared as if by magic.
I thought that even I was having more drinks than usual, until I discovered that Wallace, who was sitting next to me, not wishing to appear ungracious, was unobtrusively pushing all his drinks along to me, and taking my empty glasses.
Eventually, capacity rather than toleration becoming exhausted, I ventured a mild protest.
"Look here," I said, a little thickly, "is this secretion a part of my job as your secretary?"
Wallace grinned—not, I am sure, at the pun.
"Yes, Bob. We sink or swim together."
Two more, and I tried what threats would do. After all, I had to drive home that night.
"Perhaps I'd better give you a week's notice," I suggested.
Wallace only smiled, but I caught him emptying his next drink into a convenient flower-pot.
Thirty or forty cups of tea daily was his average consumption; and I imagine he smoked about eighty or a hundred cigarettes through the famous ten-inch holder. He did not inhale the smoke, so I do not suppose the habit did him any harm.
Although, as I say, he could if necessary work at any time and in any place, his favourite hours were from 4 a.m. onwards.
I would see him at night before leaving.
"By the way, So-and-So expects his story to-morrow."
"All right, Bob. Be here early in the morning."
And I knew that when I arrived at nine I would find him at his desk, with dressing-gown and rumpled hair, unshaven—just as he had got out of bed, in fact. He would have been there since four and would have broken the back of the story.
Wallace was not one of those writers who can do their best work anywhere, in any conditions, with a stub of pencil and an odd scrap of paper. Although he could, and often did, dictate an article wherever he happened to be at the moment when further postponement was impossible, he was never happy with a story or a play unless he could work at it at his own desk in familiar surroundings. It was in the study of his flat in Portland Place that the greater part of his most successful work was written or dictated.
His desk was a wonderful affair. It started as quite a plain, business-like mahogany desk; but by the time Wallace had exhausted his ingenuity on it, it was anything but plain. It was enclosed on three sides by a glass partition—the most elaborate and effective contrivance for excluding draughts which I have ever seen; it was flood-lighted by concealed lights above Wallace's head; and on it, I fancy, was every gadget ever invented for the comfort and convenience of a writer. On the left were Dictaphone and telephone; on the right cigarettes, and, at most hours of the day, a cup of tea.
The study was just such an apartment as Wallace would have. It was spacious and lofty, panelled in imitation antique oak, lighted mainly by concealed lamps along the picture moulding. There was a Tudor fireplace, flanked on each side by rows of bookshelves reaching from floor to ceiling. Double sound-proof windows, with heavy tapestry curtains, looked out on to Portland Place. It was a rather sombre room, to which the red leather office armchair, Wallace's purple flowered dressing-gown, in which he usually worked, and a vase of flowers on top of his desk, gave the only touches of colour.
With all his tremendous mental activity it is a little remarkable that physically he was about the laziest man in the world. It was his boast that he did not walk four miles a year, and this was almost literally true. Once, when he went to Tilshead to see some of his horses galloped, it proved necessary to walk a mile across the downs. Wallace never subsequently met his trainer without complaining bitterly of the outrage.
He held a curious theory—which, however, I do not think he ever dared to print. He believed that by conserving all the physical energy used in walking or any other form of exercise, his mental energy was thereby increased in direct ratio.
No one ever loved talking more than did Edgar Wallace—given a congenial companion. With bores he was brief to the point of curtness. He would talk to everyone—his burglar visitors, his servants, his window-cleaner—and usually knew all there was of interest to know in five minutes, for he inspired confidence, and such folk found themselves, at their first meeting with Edgar, unveiling the inmost secrets of their hearts.
I have vivid recollections of many a Sunday morning spent in talking with Wallace.
"Be here early, Bob," he would say, "and we'll get on with that story."
Often we did; but, nearly as often, when at nine o'clock on a Sunday morning I found him sitting at his desk, a blank pad of paper before him and the cover still on his Dictaphone, he would commence to talk about anything and everything save work. I was quite happy about it, for he was the most entertaining conversationalist, when in the mood, that I have ever met. Talk would range for two or three hours over every conceivable topic, from racing to the esoteric aspects, if any, of Methodism; until, about noon:
"This means, of course," I would say, "that you haven't done any work on the story?"
"Also that I'm not going to," he would reply. "Go back to your immoral pursuits, whatever they are."
Those Sunday mornings were not wasted, at any rate as far as I was concerned, for I learned more about this remarkable man in any one of those periods of intimate talk than in a month's casual intercourse.
His passion for a talking confederate was at times a little irksome. We were in Blackpool at the last General Election, alone except for Edgar's valet. It was the busiest fortnight I have ever known, and I was always glad to get to bed, and more so if this were possible before the small hours.
One Sunday evening, after Wallace had preached in a Congregational church, he decided he would do no more that night, and after a stroll I went to bed early. I was awakened at 12.30 by a knock on the door. It was Edgar.
"Not asleep, were you, Bob," he stated rather than asked. "Come along to the study."
Slipping on a dressing-gown, I seized a pipe and went along the corridor to his sitting-room. Something important had evidently cropped up which must be dealt with at once; or perhaps he had a new and ingenious scheme to talk over.
For an hour and a half we talked and talked, commencing with his sermon, touching lightly on Cambridgeshire prospects, Free Trade, Captain Erskine-Bolst (our opponent), occult science and the prospects of the film industry, until, about 2 a.m., I said:
"Did you want to see me about anything special?"
"Oh, no," said Wallace airily. "I just wanted to talk. Better go back to bed now; we'll make an early start in the morning."
You could not possibly be irritated with a man like that; his manner was at once so charming and disarming.
The speed at which he worked was astonishing. Once a story was developing as he wanted it, he would turn to his Dictaphone and dictate cylinder after cylinder at the uniform rate of 2,400 words an hour, keeping up this speed at times for thirty-six hours on end. All his best stories were written thus. There were others...
A close friend of Wallace's rang me up one day, in genuine concern.
"Bob, what's the matter with Edgar?"
"Nothing that I know of. He was all right last night."
"I mean that serial in the—. It's not a bit like his stuff—he's not getting someone else to write it, is he?"
He was not. I explained that it was being written day by day, as instalments were required, and Wallace never did good work that way. The literary editor of the newspaper in question, whose hair turned grey daily for weeks through being kept without a margin of copy, will at length understand why the story was one of Wallace's least happy efforts.
Many were the tales told of his phenomenal capacity for work. The most famous bears retelling.
A man wanted to speak to him on the telephone.
"I'm sorry," I'm supposed to have said, "Mr. Wallace has just started a serial and must not be disturbed."
"All right," was the answer. "I'll hold the line!"
Wallace once paid me the delightful compliment of dedicating a book "To my friend and secretary, R. G. Curtis." The volume, one of his best, was called "Red Aces," and comprises three mystery stories written around that intriguing character J. G. Reeder. The story of how this book got written is amusing, though neither Edgar nor I thought so at the time.
I joined him at the Adlon Hotel in Berlin a few winters ago. While there he wrote the manuscript of the third of these stories, and when we parted, he for Switzerland and I for home, I put the thick wad of copy in my pocket, to be dealt with when I got back.
To my horror, by the time I reached London on Christmas Eve it had vanished. Should I disturb Wallace's Christmas festivities with the harrowing news? After careful consideration I decided that this would be unnecessary cruelty to overworked authors, and that a few days' delay would not matter.
Accordingly I wired him the gloomy tidings a few days after Christmas. It is unnecessary to say that he was furious. His first telegram chided me in no uncertain terms for not having discovered the loss four days earlier—the suggestion being, one imagines, that he would have spent Christmas in rewriting the story. The second, third and fourth wires sent at half-hourly intervals as Edgar thought of something more cutting to say, kept our local telegraph messenger busy all that afternoon.
Six weeks later, when Wallace returned—having for the first time in his life completely rewritten a story, and, incidentally, made a better job of it—his first words to me were:
"Did you ever find that manuscript?"
"No," I replied, waiting for cutting remark No. 5.
"I'm going to dedicate that book to you, Bob," he said with a twinkle.
From time to time Wallace delighted in preparing a schedule of work in hand, allotting a certain number of hours or days to each particular item, and calculating that in, say, three weeks he would have made, say, £7,000. Needless to say, such schedules were never followed.
On one such occasion we found that, beyond a couple of serials and a few short stories—the weekly articles, of course, went on all the time and were never scheduled—there was nothing to be done.
"H'm!" said Edgar thoughtfully. "This won't do: we shall be getting slack. I'll tell you what, Bob—I'll write the story of my life."
I registered enthusiasm.
"I'd let you do it," he went on, "only you know me too well!"
So was written what is probably Wallace's most fascinating book, his autobiography.
A curious coincidence emerged at the very beginning of this task. I read the first paragraph of Wallace's manuscript and went into his study.
"Were you really born in Greenwich?" I asked.
He nodded; and a further question elicited the amazing fact that he and I had been born in adjacent houses.
Rumour was always persistent that Edgar Wallace did not write all the books which appeared under his name. It is a rumour that attacks every well-known prolific author, and is not without foundation in some cases.
Wallace, however, held very strong views on the matter. He deemed it the meanest form of literary dishonesty to publish as his own the work of another man.
"And anyway," he said, "why should I? I can write my own books far better than anyone else can write them for me."
Yet, in spite of his repeatedly published denials that he was guilty of the practice, applications were received regularly from journalists of all grades, as well as from people who could not even write English, for positions as "ghosts" in what one bright gentleman described as Edgar's "literary factory."
The belief had gained currency in certain circles that I had something more to do with the writing of his books than was connoted by secretarial duties. It was a rumour very flattering to my ability if not to my intelligence; for if one could write stories well enough to pass them as by Edgar Wallace, why continue as a humble secretary?
Wallace referred to this in a speech which he made just before leaving England for the last time. The occasion was a farewell dinner given to me by some friends, and was Edgar's last semi-public appearance in this country.
"It has been said," he remarked, "that Bob Curtis writes my books. He does nothing of the sort—I write them myself. All that Bob does for me is to put them into English. He may have his limitations, but he's a whale on commas."
Years before, Wallace had formed the habit, when producing a story in a hurry, of dictating it into the Dictaphone and leaving the rest to me.
One day he was being interviewed by Reginald Pound, the literary editor of the Daily Express, who raised this question of ghosts. Wallace turned to me.
"Don't you think," he asked, "that it's time we scotched this rumour?"
I had thought so for a long time, and said as much.
"Right," he said; then, turning to Pound: "Offer five thousand pounds to anyone who can prove that I've ever published anything under my name which I haven't written."
Only once during my nineteen years' association with him was Wallace ever involved in litigation, and that was when a misguided young man, who had written a book the title of which escapes me, accused him of having taken the plot of that story for his successful play The Calendar.
Libellous letters were no unusual feature of our correspondence, but this offender had gone farther: he had published the libel to a number of eminent literary and dramatic personages; that sort of thing could not be tolerated, and a writ was issued.
At the hearing of the action it was established by Sir Patrick Hastings that The Calendar had been written, though not produced, some four months before the publication of the book. It might be thought that this would have been sufficient to induce the defendant to withdraw, but no; he had set his shoulder to the plough, and, being a young, tenacious Jew, would not turn back. Wallace must have seen his book before publication!
So the case proceeded, and the young cardboard-box manufacturer, as he proved to be, entered the witness-box and endured the ordeal of cross-examination by Sir Patrick. And what an ordeal it was, only those can imagine who have seen a witness with a weak case under the fire of that distinguished counsel's searching questions and scathing wit.
The jury of course returned a verdict in Wallace's favour, awarding him damages of £1,000. As, however, it had transpired that the defendant was entirely without means, no further action was taken in the matter, and we did not, I believe, even trouble to tax our costs.
Racing was a passion with Wallace. A racecourse, with its crowds, its noise, its colour, its excitement, was his true setting, and he was never so happy or so genial as when he was in the midst of these familiar surroundings.
The sport had an irresistible fascination for him, and if a race meeting were in progress it was practically a physical impossibility for him to remain seated at his desk in London and get on with his work. Editors and publishers might be wringing their hands in despair over the non-delivery of a story, but Epsom or Newmarket would draw him as surely as a magnet attracts steel.
I have spent many a harassing afternoon pouring words of comfort and hope into editorial ears while Wallace, care-free and genial, was sporting on the turf. As a result, most of his work was done at breakneck speed, either because editors were clamouring or because the financial position had become unbearably acute; and working all night on a story, with Wallace dictating to his Dictaphone in one room and myself transcribing on the typewriter in another, was an experience which I soon came to recognise as inseparable from the flat-racing season.
I remember that many years ago Wallace was commissioned to write one of his characteristic mystery stories to be published in serial form in a big American newspaper. The price to be paid for the American serial rights was £1,000, payable in London immediately the manuscript was delivered, and Wallace had been obliged to promise delivery by a specified date. This was a big price for Wallace to receive in those days—the biggest price till then which a single story of his had ever commanded—and as the commission synchronised with a bad financial patch which refused with more than usual obstinacy to yield to treatment, I hoped that Wallace would settle down to work and secure payment for the story without delay.
Unfortunately, the commission also synchronised with a particularly attractive period of the racing season, and constant reminders that the days were passing and that no start had yet been made with the writing of the story, fell on ears which were deaf to everything but the thud of horses' hoofs on green turf.
It was not until there remained just a week in which to complete the story that Wallace showed any interest in it; and then, during one fine summer week-end, he decided that he would make a start. I have often felt thankful that in this country there is no Sunday racing.
As luck would have it, the opening chapter of this particular story gave Wallace a great deal of trouble. He was very exacting in his demands on the first chapter of a story, and would often spend as much time writing and rewriting the opening pages as he would devote to all the rest of the book.
Throughout Saturday, Sunday and Monday he sat at his desk, consuming innumerable cigarettes and cups of tea and littering the floor with sheets of discarded manuscript. On the Monday evening when I went home he was still at his desk and the first chapter was still unwritten—and the story, which was to be 120,000 words in length, was to be delivered on the following Saturday.
On the Tuesday morning Wallace greeted me with his usual smile.
"Know anything, Bob?"
"I know we've a hundred and twenty thousand words to get done by Saturday morning—" I began.
"I've got a cert for the two-thirty," interrupted Wallace. "I'm going down to see it win."
Of course he went. He had a cert for the 2.30, a small cheque had come in that morning, and what did a £1,000 serial matter? He did his best to cheer me before leaving by telling me that he had got the opening of the story right and would start work on it that evening when he returned. He remarked that there was plenty of time.
There is no knowing what might have happened had Wallace's cert for the 2.30 won. It is fairly certain that the story would not have been delivered to time and the £1,000 might well have been lost. Fortunately, the cert was unplaced; Wallace returned poorer by the amount of that morning's cheque; and under threat of imminent financial disaster he embarked on his 120,000-word task that evening. He had 3½ days in which to finish it.
We worked day and night; Wallace completed his share of the task in the early hours of Saturday morning; but at nine o'clock, with the manuscript due to be delivered not later than 1 p.m., there still remained some 40,000 words—about 200 pages of typescript—to be typed, in quadruplicate.
I shall never forget the scene in my office that Saturday morning. Mrs. Wallace was a very speedy typist, and on such occasions as these she always came gallantly to the rescue. Wallace would never call in outside help; that would have meant checking the typescript for errors, and there was never time for that luxury.
Throughout the morning the two typewriters buzzed and clattered and banged at a speed of which I am sure neither Mrs. Wallace nor I had ever believed ourselves to be capable—and in those days championship laurels were on my brow.
The whole of the domestic staff was pressed into service and set to the tasks of separating the typed pages as we flung them from our machines, collating them, punching holes in them and fastening them up. Our horny-handed chauffeur, ruthlessly dragged from oiling and greasing the car, manfully struggling, with an occasional surreptitious lick of his fingers, to separate the thin sheets of typing paper, his worried expression as he fumbled at his unaccustomed job, and the glances of mute reproach which he shot at Wallace, are memories which I shall never lose.
Wallace, outwardly composed, lent a hand, only pausing to cast quick, anxious glances at his watch.
A taxicab-driver, rendered terrifyingly reckless by the promise of an absurdly generous tip, got me to the newspaper office at exactly two minutes to one. I handed over the manuscript, received the cheque for £1,000 and returned to Wallace's flat—by 'bus.
"I'll be just in time for the first race at Alexandra Park," was Edgar's complacent comment as I handed him the cheque.
Few people, however strongly they may believe theoretically in the dignity of labour and the vanity of riches, are proof, when it comes to the test, against the lure of big money and easy money, and to Wallace the lure was irresistible.
He was, like the majority of creative artists, innately lazy, and a big cheque from his bookmaker would mean a period of freedom from the irksome necessity of sitting at his desk and pouring words into a Dictaphone. During the flat-racing season work always took on the aspect of uninviting drudgery.
Actually a cheque of any description, let alone a big cheque, from any of his multitude of bookmakers—he ran at one time about thirty credit accounts—was a rarity, but his optimism and confidence never failed him. One day he would have a lucky win, there would be a shower of cheques from the legion of bookies, and he would thereafter forget the existence of editors and publishers and go racing to his heart's content.
But it was not solely, or even chiefly, the possibility of making big money from racing that attracted Wallace, any more than it is solely or even chiefly that possibility that throngs Epsom Downs on Derby Day. The normal human being—the normal Englishman, at any rate—loves a gamble, and few of the unnumbered brotherhood of amateur punters really attend race meetings and make their bets for the sake of their potential winnings. Were that their real object, most of them have a sufficient knowledge of elementary book-keeping to realise that they are chasing a credit balance which is only a will-o'-the-wisp.
I once listened to an eminent psychologist explaining to Wallace, who had been lamenting, in one of his rare moments of depression following a disastrous week at Ascot, his inability to resist the temptation to bet, that the Englishman's passion for betting was in reality the outcropping of his innate spirit of adventure, to which modern life denied expression in its more romantic forms. That, I think, was quite true of Wallace. He had no use for a life without a tang in it. He hungered for thrills, and he found them in plenty on the racecourse.
In other forms of gambling he took no interest. At one period, it is true, he spent many hours a week playing cards at his club, but in his later years he abandoned the habit. He said that card-playing was waste of time, and time seemed to be the one and only thing which Wallace could not waste with an easy conscience.
He did not, of course, consider it waste of time to go racing. During most of the time that I was with him he was writing racing articles for one newspaper or another, and he always had the excuse that it was the bounden duty of a racing journalist to attend as many meetings as was possible and so keep closely in touch with the sport about which he was paid to write. I have said that Wallace was always ingenious.
As a backer Wallace was not fortunate, and many of his misfortunes were due to a degree of credulity on matters pertaining to racing which, in one whose mind in all other respects was remarkable for its keen, shrewd penetration, was a source of constant astonishment to me. He was always eager for a tip, and would accept at its face value any whispered information about a horse race which might find its way to his ears.
Every racing man knows that a bewildering number of tips may be picked up about any race without the least effort, but that it is usually fatal to success to pay attention to them. Wallace, however, could absorb them in unlimited quantities. He got tips from earls, stable boys, owners, trainers, jockeys, his barber, his Income Tax collector, the newsboy at the corner of the street—and he acted on them all. The fact that he might receive tips for three different horses in the same race did not matter; he would back all three.
To ignore a tip, particularly if it came from a jockey, was beyond him. It is proverbial—and it has the additional advantage of being true—that a jockey is the worst possible tipster. But there is something curiously convincing about news whispered in one's ear by the man who is actually going to ride the horse, that "they tried him at level weights with—and he lost him. We can't possibly lose." Unhappily, in most races there may be at least three stables who believe the same about their candidates, but this is what no jockey ever seems to be able to assimilate.
"In the multitude of counsellors there is wisdom," said the Psalmist, but there could not have been any horse racing in those days.
I worked out once, by arduous hours with the book of form, that one of Wallace's horses had an outstanding chance in a race at, I think, Sandown Park. I told Edgar, who seemed convinced. Together we went to the meeting, and saw the horse win. I was rather surprised that it was returned at 10-1. On the way back:
"Did you have a good win over yours?" I asked.
"As a matter of fact," he answered ruefully, "I only had a fiver on it. I met —— just before the race and he told me he was certain to win on ——, so I had a hundred each way."
A tip, whatever its source, was irresistible to Wallace. He once took one from a burglar. It was during a period of financial stringency which was severe even for Wallace. Writs were being served almost daily, the patience of that very patient soul, his bank manager, had been strained almost to breaking point, and Wallace had even been forced to have recourse to a moneylender. He was just a little worried as to how he was to scramble out.
"Something has got to be done about it, Bob," he confided to me one morning, "but I don't quite know what."
Before I could suggest that he might, perhaps, consider the idea of writing a story, there came a knock at the front door of the flat, and I went to open it. On the doorstep, cap in hand, stood a huge, broad-shouldered, bullet-headed man who showed unmistakable signs—I came to know them well—of recent release from gaol. He was, as I discovered later, a very eminent burglar.
"Excuse me, sir," he said, "but can I see the guv'nor?"
Of course he could see the guv'nor.
In those days Wallace was always accessible to anyone who wanted to see him. Later he was reluctantly compelled to erect impassable barriers between himself and the horde of irredeemable crooks who were constantly pestering him. Often, since I knew that few of them left without Wallace being the poorer, I tried to persuade him to become less easy of approach, but it was a long time before he was brought to agree. When at length sheer weight of numbers compelled him to do so, he rewarded my loyalty to his interests by constituting me one of the barriers. It was an interesting, if somewhat nerve-racking, office. On one occasion it cost me my wallet.
Another time I interviewed, on Wallace's behalf, an extremely well-dressed young man, who spoke with an unmistakable Oxford accent. Our business over, we discovered a common interest in horticulture.
His hobby was growing orchids, and though mine took the more utilitarian form of peas, potatoes and scarlet runners, we spent a very pleasant hour together. When, later, I mentioned his visit to Wallace:
"Like him, Bob?"
I said I thought him one of the most charming men I had met for a long time. Wallace grinned.
"He's wanted on the capital charge, but they can't get the evidence," he informed me. "He's a killer."
It all added zest to life.
This particular burglar, however, had come, so he said, on a purely philanthropic mission. He had a marvellous tip—selected, I suspected, with a pin as an excuse for touching Wallace for the pound note with which his charity was rewarded—for a horse which was running that day in the 3.30 race at Nottingham. I gathered that it was sheer goodness of heart that had impelled him to impart it to Edgar.
I buttoned my coat, kept a wary eye on his hands and saw him out. On my return to the study I found Wallace radiant.
"I'm going to back that horse, Bob," he said, before I had closed the door. "How can we get hold of some money?"
We sat together for some minutes, anxiously pondering the crucial question. Had the tip been for the following day, the problem would have presented less difficulty; Wallace, in view of the worthy object to be served, would doubtless have written a story and sold it. But there was no time for that now.
"I've got it!" announced Edgar, and grabbed his telephone.
It was quite simple. He had no story written which he could sell, so he would sell one first and write it afterwards. He had many good friends among editors.
An hour later I was on my way to Nottingham with forty £5 notes in my pocket. I had protested in vain. Providence had sent that burglar to our door, and this was the heaven-sent solution of all our problems. Wallace was confident. I was not.
Opinion at Nottingham was with me. There was not the slightest indication in the betting that anyone felt the least confidence in the horse which I had travelled from London to back. It opened at 100-7, and I began, as furtively as possible, to place my £200. Within ten minutes the price had shortened to 5-2—it is astonishing what a revolution in the betting £200, however furtively placed, will effect at Nottingham—and eventually the horse started at 3-1 in a large field.
My eyes were glued to my race glasses as the horses jumped off. Our horse got away badly, and my heart missed several beats. I was more than ever convinced that our burglar had picked him with a pin; and, as I watched the race, and saw our horse contented to remain in the ruck, or incapable of leaving it, I began to tell myself that, of all the crazy schemes on which Wallace had embarked, there had never been a crazier than this raising money on an unwritten story and risking it on a tip which he had bought for a pound from a bullet-headed burglar.
And then the miraculous happened. Our horse suddenly began to behave like a thorough gentleman, took the lead at the distance and won comfortably by two lengths.
I returned to London, wadded out with notes, to find Edgar sitting at his desk, dictating a story into his Dictaphone. He was quite composed.
"The least we can do, Bob," he said, "is to let old So-and-So"—naming the editor who had advanced the money—"have his story to-morrow morning. I've made a start and we'll work all night."
As a token of his gratitude to the obliging editor—I think it was his old friend Reeves Shaw, of Newnes—we delivered the story the following morning; and as a tribute to the burglar's unerring instinct with a pin, Wallace, when next the burglar called and spoke of his yearning to run straight and do some honest work, decided to satisfy the yearning. He gave him the job of whitewashing the ceiling and papering the walls of one of the rooms in the flat, for which he agreed to pay him a fixed sum per hour.
The experiment was not a success. The decoration of the room cost Wallace nearly £15; the wallpaper, wrinkled like the skin of a shrivelled apple, nowhere achieved the perpendicular, there had been no apparent attempt at matching the pattern, and several strips were upside down; the ceiling was piebald. I have never in any room seen so much whitewash out of place. A beautiful carpet, which Wallace had recently bought—thanks, I believe, to Sansovino—was utterly ruined. The room had to be entirely redecorated.
Edgar, when he inspected his protégé's handiwork, could not restrain a sigh.
"I shall advise him to stick to burglary in future, Bob," he said. "He'll be less dangerous to householders that way."
Several times during the period of his whitewashing and paper-hanging exploits he gave Wallace other marvellous tips; but, though his pin never again achieved its initial success, Edgar could not resist having a flutter on every one of them. The only tips on which he never placed the slightest reliance were those of the professional tipster. He had been a professional tipster himself.
A lack of tips, of course, did not mean that Wallace would make no bets. A day without a few bets would have been even less tolerable to him than a day without his usual three dozen or so cups of tea and his six or seven dozen cigarettes. When inside information failed him, he had methods of his own for finding "winners." Each morning during the racing season, as soon as I reached his flat, I took the racing edition of the evening papers to his study.
"Good morning, Bob. Know anything?"
Usually my answer was "Nothing."
"Nor do I," Wallace would sometimes say; "so we'll have three five-pound doubles and a five-pound treble on—"—naming three horses whose names had happened to catch his eye, or whose form, interpreted by his own particular methods, had convinced him that they must inevitably win their races. "Oh, and put me a tenner to win on—; it owes me money."
One day I ventured a protest. I gave it as my opinion that, in the whole gamut of inadequate and indefensible reasons for backing a horse with which the racing man deludes himself, there was none more inadequate and indefensible than that he had backed it on former occasions and lost. He must surely realise that many a horse retired from racing in a dishonoured old age without ever having won a race.
"I know," agreed Wallace. "You're absolutely right, Bob. Still, this horse does owe me money, and I'm going to back it for a tenner."
That evening he had additional reasons, to the value of £10, for backing it yet again.
In only one respect did he ever show business aptitude as applied to his racing speculations. He had, as I have said, about thirty accounts with different bookmakers, but invariably insisted that his "doubles" and "trebles" should be placed with his friend Douglas Stuart, because, should a long-priced double materialise, "Duggie" paid the full odds, whereas most of the other bookmakers had arbitrary limits of 40-1 or 50-1.
Among the bookmaking fraternity Wallace was one of the most popular figures on the turf.
I do not mean that he never made money from betting. Like anyone else who bets regularly, he sometimes made a little; on one or two occasions he made a lot; but he was one of the most consistent losers I have ever met, and a profit and loss account of his betting transactions during almost any racing season would have been a most discouraging document.
In the early days, with a determination to face hard facts which I vainly tried to get Wallace to share with me, I kept a careful account of his bets for a period of a month, and at the end of that time presented him with one of those convincing financial statements with which I sometimes tried to shock him into a realisation of the true state of affairs. It made it clear beyond all argument that during the last four weeks' racing, without taking any account of the expenses incidental to attending a race meeting, had resulted in a net loss of something like £300.
Wallace was not shocked, but, greatly to my surprise, he was interested. Financial statements, as a rule, bored him and were consigned, after a casual glance, to the waste-paper basket. On this occasion, however, he studied my handiwork with every symptom of aroused interest, and when I left the study he was engrossed in making pencilled calculations on a slip of paper. I congratulated myself that at last I had made an impression.
I can only account for my self-deception by assuming that, by constant contact with Wallace, I had become infected with his chronic optimism. An hour later he called me to the study, and I went in expecting at least some slight promise of reform. I was greeted with a more than usually self-satisfied smile.
"How much do you think I stood to make on racing last month?" he asked.
"What you actually made," I reminded him, "was a loss of three hundred—"
"Nine thousand two hundred and twenty-seven quid," interrupted Edgar. "I've been working it out. If this double hadn't come unstuck"—indicating on my statement the record of a double at which, as one of the cognoscenti of the turf, he should have hung his head in shame—"I'd have made five hundred quid—"
"But it did come unstuck."
I might have saved my breath. True, the double had failed, but only by the sheerest bad luck. One of the horses had got off badly and had not had time to regain the lost ground. If it had got off well, nothing could have prevented its winning. It had been running strongly at the finish, and if the distance had been longer by another furlong...
And so it went on. For each debit item in my statement he had some explanation to prove that it had needed only some trivial change of circumstances to transfer it to the credit side. If the going had not been so heavy; if the going had not been so hard; if this horse had not changed feet; if that one had been correctly handicapped; if another had finished first instead of third, as it must have done if it hadn't been hemmed in and unable to get through...
And so, item by item, my depressing statement, with its net loss of £300, was discredited and his fantastic total of winnings was arrived at. He tried to make me realise that it was only by a hair's breadth that the bookmakers had escaped paying out on each occasion, and that, given even moderate luck, he would have relieved them of over nine thousand pounds. He admitted with composure that it had been a poorish month, but a racing man could not expect to win always. Now, next month...!
That was in the days when Wallace's idea of a reasonable stake was a fiver, and even in those times he can hardly have lost less than £2,000 in a racing season. Later, his ideas expanded with his rapidly growing income, and I never found the courage to calculate the total of his yearly losses. They must have been heavy. If Wallace ever knew how much he lost, I am sure the knowledge did not disturb or depress him. After all, they might just as easily have been gains!
Apart from racing, I do not think that, with one notable exception, he had any superstitions; but when it was a question of backing horses there was no knowing what he might seize upon as being a portent of a successful gamble—he rarely saw portents of failure—and on such occasions the superstitious African native, whom he knew so well and around whom he wrote some of his best stories, ran a very bad second to him. The most commonplace occurrence or the most trifling coincidence would be enough to convince him beyond all argument that the gods of racing were only waiting for him to make some preposterous bet to give them the chance of pouring money into his pocket.
I remember that once, when we were in the middle of a bout of extra-rapid serial writing, I called on him very early in the morning in the expectation of finding the material for a heavy day's typing awaiting me. Wallace was sitting at his desk; he had been there, so he told me, since the small hours of the morning; but he had not written a single line. I must have looked at him reproachfully.
"Yes, I know all you're going to say, Bob," he said with a smile, before I had time to begin my protest, "but there's nothing to worry about. Every number I've seen this morning has added up to twenty-nine. Three cars have gone past with twenty-nine numbers"—he had a trick of standing at his window and adding up the numbers of passing cars—"to-day is the twenty-ninth, and the postman has just brought me a cheque for twenty-nine pounds. Take it to the bank and cash it, and then go down to Lingfield and put it on in the big race."
"On which horse in the big race?" I asked.
"On Number Twenty-nine on the card, of course," said Wallace.
Protest, as usual, was useless. The portent was too obvious to be ignored, and if he did not make the bet he would be letting a small fortune slip through his fingers. So I cashed the cheque, went to Lingfield, found that No. 29 on the card was a rank outsider quoted at 33-1, and sorrowfully distributed the £29 between a few bookmakers in Tattersalls who looked so prosperous already that it seemed a pity to present them with Edgar's precious £29 without asking them to incur the least risk to obtain it.
I was sorely tempted to keep the cash in my pocket. After No. 29 had duly lost, Wallace, I knew, when I returned the money, would praise my foresight; but the horse, by one of those miracles not unknown in racing, might come in first. Wallace, in that event, would be counting on his winnings and might quite possibly have already spent them before I got back to town with the money, and 33 times £29 made a sum which I could not myself pay out. I realised that the prosperous bookmakers must be made more prosperous still.
They were. I watched No. 11 on the card win the race in a canter. No. 29 was somewhere in the ruck.
I got back to the flat to find Wallace furiously dictating to his Dictaphone. As I went into the study he paused and glanced round with a grin.
"Number Twenty-nine," I began, "as anyone who had the slightest knowledge of racing must have known—"
"I know," interrupted Wallace. "Number Eleven won by four lengths. Did it never occur to you, Bob, that two and nine make eleven?"
I handed him some coins.
"Does it occur to you," I said, "that two and nine is just about all that's left out of your cheque?"
We worked all night on the serial.
I do not remember that Wallace ever made his selections with a pin; but, had he ever chanced to notice one on the floor when he was picking his winners for the day, it is moderately certain that he could never have resisted the obvious omen.
Apart from racing, as I have said, Wallace had only one superstition. In all ordinary matters he was eminently level-headed and clear-sighted, and preferred instinctively to trust to himself to deal with circumstances rather than to some vague element of chance over which he had no control.
He had, however, a firm belief in the existence of "Jonahs." Certain persons, he believed, were "carriers" of bad luck and infected all who came into contact with them; and if a period of bad luck came to him, he would always begin casting around to discover who among those associated with him was the cause of it.
Once, during a bad patch, we had a long discussion, on a Sunday at Wallace's house at Bourne End, as to who the Jonah might be; and though I had a shrewd suspicion, I hesitated, since the person I suspected was then closely associated with him in one sphere of his activities, to mention the name to Edgar.
It was not until we were in Hollywood that I ventured to voice my suspicion. There came one week a whole series of troubles. None of them was in itself of tremendous moment, but, occurring as they did one on top of another, they were sufficient in the mass to make Wallace worried and depressed and disinclined to work. He was very easily put out of gear even when the desire to work was on him—particularly so during the last few years, when he was attempting to do more than any man could hope to cope with successfully. I cannot recall every trifling annoyance which occurred during the week in question; but I do remember that a letter arrived from England reporting that something had gone awry with one of Wallace's films, which meant a loss of £2,500, that the drains of his house at Beverly Hills went wrong and we were obliged to pack up and move to an hotel during the repairs, that a scenario which he had written for the film company in Hollywood was rejected as unsuitable, that an actress who Wallace was particularly anxious should play a leading part in the film version of one of his stories was turned down by the film company because she was not, in their opinion, the right type for the part, and that page 73 of a serial story which he had just completed, and which had been typed in quadruplicate and despatched to four different corners of the world, was found to be missing from each of the four manuscripts.
Edgar, as usual, began to search for the Jonah, and was so worried over the matter that I decided to tell him of my suspicion.
"I know who your Jonah is," I said as I sat with him at breakfast one morning. "It's So-and-So. He arrived out here from England last week, and the very next day the bad luck started."
"H'm! Maybe you're right, Bob."
He made no further mention of the subject, and I fancied that, since So-and-So was a man on whom he relied to no small extent, he had, on reflection, dismissed my suggestion from his mind.
Some weeks later, however, the suspected Jonah, before returning to England, sent Wallace a gilt horseshoe for luck. Wallace took it with him into his study, and when, a few minutes later, I joined him there, I found him standing at the open French windows, the horseshoe in his hand, gazing rather wistfully at the distant hills. And then suddenly his arm was drawn back and the gilt horseshoe was hurled savagely out of the window.
"You're right, Bob," he said. "He is the Jonah, and I'm standing no more of it."
It was the last present he was destined to receive. With the exception that he was never, as far as I am aware, either a trainer, a jockey or a tic-tac man, there was no side of racing at which Wallace did not try his hand at some time of his career. From the days of his boyhood, when his only share in the sport which was destined to play so prominent a part in his life was the selling of racing editions of the newspapers on the kerb in Fleet Street, up to the time when he had his own racing stable, he played in turn the parts of punter, tipster, breeder, owner, judge and even bookmaker.
His judging was limited to one race. During his last visit to America he went, with Steve Donoghue and Michael Beary, for a week-end's racing at Agua Caliente, in Mexico, where, in honour of the visit, the executive ran a special Edgar Wallace Handicap, which he judged himself.
His bookmaking activities are worthy of mention. Few people are aware that he ever engaged in them; yet for those who were associated with him in the enterprise they provided a wealth of excitement, and, for some of us, a great deal of hard work and anxiety.
It was shortly after I had presented him with my statement, showing to what a preposterous extent he was supplying the bookmakers with an income, that he one morning made the staggering announcement.
"Bob," he said, "we're going to stop backing 'em and start laying 'em instead."
I recognised the symptoms; he was seeing visions of easy money. It was the bookmaker, he had decided, who made the money at the racing game, and the next step was inevitable. He would be a bookmaker.
Not, of course, an ordinary bookmaker. He could no more be a bookmaker treading the safe path trodden by other bookmakers than he could be a punter, or anything else, working along lines which experience had discovered to be the most prudent. He must evolve some novel scheme, some ingenious plan, which would entail a minimum of trouble and offer the prospect of a maximum of profit.
He conceived the idea of offering odds of 100-1 the double on any two of eight races which he selected each week. In other words, a backer had to pick the winners of two races out of eight to be run during the week to receive £5 for his shilling stake.
Now, 100-1 is an attractive price about any double, and Wallace, knowing how the average punter is always on the look-out for a long-priced bet, was confident that commissions would roll in. He reasoned that, by judicious covering when one leg of a double had won, he was incurring the risk of very little loss, while the chance of making big money was too obvious to be ignored.
A business name, which Wallace thought suggested a combination of speckless honesty and the true sporting spirit, was selected; leaflets explaining the scheme and giving the entries for the eight races selected for the first week's operations were printed and circulated in thousands among punters in all parts of the country; and Edgar sat back to await the first instalment of the fortune which he was confident was at last within his grasp.
It arrived—an enormous flood of letters, which swamped my office and overflowed into the study. Wallace was jubilant, and himself took a hand in emptying the mass of envelopes of the postal orders, Treasury notes and coins which they contained.
"I wonder," I meditated audibly, "how many people will have found a double."
"Never mind about that, Bob," said Wallace, selecting a fat, promising-looking registered letter. "Let's get 'em all opened and count the money."
He was very childish in some respects; he always chose the fattest letters he could find to open. He would rummage among the envelopes until he discovered a fat one, and when the supply of fat ones was exhausted he usually lost interest and left the rest of us to finish the task.
It was a lengthy business, coping with that first rush of commissions, and by the time all the envelopes had been opened and the money counted, my last train home had gone some hours ago.
"Take a taxi," said Wallace largely.
It was a fifteen-mile drive to my house, but over £400 had come in, and the business was therefore flourishing, so why worry over a trifle like a fifteen-mile taxi fare?
During the first few weeks of the venture, things went well. A few backers now and then found a winning double, and were cheerfully paid at the rate of £5 to 1s. Wallace was more than ever convinced that he had found the golden way to wealth. Serial writing stood still.
Nowadays, however, the writers on racing matters are as a rule very well informed in their subject, and in due course there came a day, which every bookmaker knows he must face sooner or later, when the run of good luck showed signs of changing.
A race was won by a certain horse which, coupled with another horse in a race on the following day, had been backed with us to the extent of over £25, and the possibility of the second horse winning, completing the double, and letting us in for payments of over £2,000, had to be considered.
Wallace, on the day of the second race, was going to Ascot. He came into my office, tail coat, lavender gloves and grey top hat complete, to ask if I considered him suitably garbed for the Ascot enclosure—he was extremely particular about his clothes—and, when I had expressed my unqualified approval, I mentioned the matter of the book.
"We stand to lose twenty-five hundred pounds," I said, "and we must lay off some of it. Will you back the horse yourself on the course, or shall I do it at starting price?"
"Neither, Bob," he said, with that self-complacency which must have cost him so much money. "It hasn't got a dog's chance of winning. We'll stand it."
He went off in the best of spirits to Ascot, while I sat in my office brooding over the sword that was suspended above his head.
If this horse were to win its race, the business, I knew, would inevitably be ruined. Wallace could not possibly produce £2,500 with which to pay his clients, and the only course would be an ignominious failure to pay and a closing down of the firm. I reminded myself that at Ascot horses which were thought not to have a dog's chance had a disconcerting habit of confounding the experts and winning, and I was sorely tempted to ignore Wallace's instructions and back the horse on my own responsibility. But he had given his orders, and he liked to be obeyed. I decided to abide by his decision.
It was an anxious afternoon. I spent it studying the form of the horse in question, and was forced to the conclusion that Wallace was right, and that anyone who could credit the animal with a dog's chance of winning was a greater optimist over his betting than even Wallace himself. Still, £2,500 was a lot of money, and I hoped that, on reflection, Wallace might have realised the risk he was running and have backed the horse himself on the course.
At last came the result over the tape machine. The horse had won at odds of 100-8, over 150 of our clients had found the double, and we were liable to the extent of rather more than £2,500. Wallace, it need hardly be added, had not backed it on the course.
How Wallace found the money to pay out, I have never fathomed. But he found it, and paid out as cheerfully as, I imagine, any bookmaker would pay in such circumstances.
On the Monday evening—our bookmaking firm settled on a Monday—Wallace came into my office just as I was leaving.
"Cheques all gone?" he enquired.
I assured him that everyone had been paid.
"That's that, Bob," he said. "Be here early in the morning; we must get on with that serial. Let's stick to something we do understand."
Exactly. Had he only been content to stick to the business of writing stories, which he understood so well, Wallace need never have known what it was to be hard up.
That, at any rate, was the end of the bookmaking venture. Wallace, thereafter, had a tender sympathy for bookmakers. They might wear silk hats and white spats and orchids in their buttonholes, but it was quite possible, nevertheless, that they were at their wits' end to pay their telephone account. He had been a bookmaker, and he knew.
Wallace, whatever else he might be at the same time, was always, during my association with him, a racing journalist. Part of his duty as such was to compile each day one of those lists of horses engaged in the day's racing which, published under the caption "So-and-So's Selections," are presumed to give to those readers of the paper interested in such matters the considered opinion of an expert as to the probable winners of the various races.
This branch of Wallace's journalistic work was marked by a consistency which did not always distinguish his work in other fields. His stories were, on the whole, consistently good, some better than others, but all reaching a certain high level of excellence. The quality of his plays varied enormously; he wrote several very good ones, many mediocre ones, and a few thoroughly bad ones. But in this business of tipping winners his work was consistently bad. He tipped losers with a depressing regularity which was almost incredible, and tipped them with a self-assurance which no succession of failures could shake.
I never had the courage to work out what position he would occupy in a table which showed the comparative merits of the various racing journalists based on the proportion of winners to losers in their selections, but I am sure that he would have been very near the bottom, if not quite there. I am convinced in my own mind that the distinction of being the world's worst tipster rightly belonged to Edgar Wallace.
I suppose he had his adherents among the readers of the paper. The British as a race are notoriously long-suffering, and the loyalty of a backer of horses to the tipster of his choice is an amazing example of the misuse of a noble virtue.
But the followers of Wallace's selections can have gained little from their loyalty but a knowledge of the frailty of a tipster's wisdom and the folly of gambling. It would surely be difficult for any man with a real knowledge of racing to study the form of the horses engaged in 54 consecutive races, make his selections, and fail 54 times in succession to pick a winner. Yet Wallace accomplished it, and was not in the least abashed by his failure.
"You can't pick a winner every time," he remarked easily, when I broke the news to him that his fifty-fourth consecutive tip had finished nowhere.
His failure as a tipster is not hard to explain. There are only three methods of arriving at the likely winner of a race. You must "know something," or you must make a careful study of the form of the horses engaged and balance the chances of one against those of the others in the light of their past achievements, or you can make your selection with the point of a pin.
Sometimes Wallace "knew something;" but I have already spoken of his proneness to accept as worth following any tip from whatever source it came, and the "good things" which he heard of in this way and passed on to his followers must have cost them a tidy penny.
As a racing journalist who was being paid to give his expert opinion, he was prevented by a stern sense of honesty from resorting to the pin method, and as a general rule his selections were the result of method No. 2.
The trouble was, however, that he fondly imagined that finding the winner of a race was as simple a task as writing a story, and one that could be accomplished at the same breakneck speed. He rarely spent more than a couple of minutes in analysing a race and making his selection. A glance down the list of runners, a casual reference to the book of form, a few figures, perhaps, on a slip of paper, and the thing was done.
As an owner of racehorses Wallace was as original in his methods and as unfortunate in their results as he was as a backer, a tipster and a bookmaker. Just as he would accept any tip as being reliable information, so he would accept almost any fantastic exaggeration of the merits of a horse which he was thinking of purchasing. Anybody could sell him anything which he chose to call a horse, providing it possessed the elementary qualification of having four legs; and there were plenty of people ready to take advantage of so easy a victim. If, in addition to his credulity, there could be brought into play a touch of sentiment, the deal was as good as completed.
I remember the occasion when a very well-known racing man, who posed as a great friend of Wallace, paid him what Wallace was doubtless made to feel was a purely friendly visit.
"By the way, Edgar," he said casually, "I've a good horse to sell, and I'm desperately hard up. Will you buy him from me?"
Only that morning Wallace had received an intimation from his bank manager that he had exceeded the limit of his overdraft by some two thousand five hundred pounds, and a request that he would either take immediate steps to reduce it or deposit security to cover it. But here was an old friend who needed help; here, too, was the chance of securing a really good horse for his stable. Overdrafts in such circumstances were readily overlooked.
"Sure," said Wallace. "How much?"
"He's a good colt," said the other, "and is certain to win races. He's by—out of—."
"Yes, yes, old boy. But how much do you want for him?"
"You can have him for five hundred."
There was a gentle emphasis on the "you," and I supposed at the time that the implication was that anyone but Wallace would have had to pay considerably more, but that, since he was an old friend, he could have the colt for £500, which was really a ridiculously low figure.
Wallace bought the horse, and later, when I saw him and watched him perform ingloriously in selling plates, I decided that I had misunderstood that emphasis on the "you" and misjudged the seller. What he must really have meant was that from anyone but Wallace he would have thought himself lucky to get £100 for the animal, but that, since Wallace knew nothing of horses and was notoriously a sentimental fool where his trusted friends were concerned, he could safely be stung for five hundred.
The horse was, I believe, kept in training for a couple of seasons, never won a race, never came within a dozen lengths of winning a race, and was eventually either sold for a song or killed. Had he been mine he would have been killed after his first performance. If at the present moment he has found his proper niche in life and is drawing a coal cart, I am confident that coals in that district are invariably delivered late.
A horse bought by Wallace generally followed much the same routine. It was bought for, say, £500, insured for £1,000, entered in important handicaps, backed every time it ran and lost, and was gradually relegated by easy stages to the selling plate class from which it should never have emerged, and eventually sold, with sighs of relief from owner, trainer and jockey, for £100 or so.
Wallace backed his own horses almost every time they ran, and with the natural prejudice of an owner in favour of his own animals, added to his own peculiar methods of studying a race and selecting the winner, his ventures of this kind usually ended in disappointment.
I do not believe there was ever an owner who so deluded himself, or was so easily deluded by others, about the merits of his thoroughbreds. In every selling plater that he bought he saw a potential winner of the Cambridgeshire, in every moderate handicapper a classic horse.
A newspaper editor once called me on the telephone. His paper was running one of Wallace's serials. Wallace was not at the time particularly broke, and I could not persuade him to put in a day or two at work and finish off the story. Instead, he was producing an instalment day by day, leaving no balance of copy in hand, a habit of some authors which is calculated to turn the brain of any properly constituted editor.
"Unless I can have five thousand more words by this afternoon," said the harassed editor, "we shall have to shut down on the story."
To "shut down" means, of course, to break off publication of a serial before it is finished, and is naturally a very black mark against any author's name.
"The manuscript will be in your hands by five o'clock," I replied, assuming a confidence I did not feel, and went into Edgar's study.
He was leaning back in his red leather armchair, the inevitable cigarette in the long holder, the equally inevitable cup of tea by his side, and he was thumbing the pages of "Racing Up to Date," that volume of racing records indispensable to every follower of the turf. He looked up as I entered.
"I have promised five thousand—" I began.
"I'm going to make five thousand. Have you looked at the weights for the Cambridgeshire?" he asked, the familiar hint of excitement in his voice. "And have you seen how Maugre is handicapped?"
I believe the race was the Cambridgeshire and the horse Maugre, but that is unimportant.
I tried again.
"By five o'clock this afternoon—"
He indicated the place in the book with his forefinger.
"I'll win this race," he said.
He went on to prove, conclusively to anyone less familiar with the anomalies of collateral form, that his mare had been let into the race with 19 lbs too little. It did not matter that such an error is never made by an official handicapper. Here it was. A had once beaten B, who was as good as C, who had beaten D, and here was A receiving a stone from D! You couldn't get away from it.
The fact that B, C or D may not have felt well, or may not have been fully trained, or—impious suggestion—may not have been trying, made no difference to this super-optimist.
"We'll keep this one for the race," he said, "and back her for real money. See what price some of my bookmakers will lay you."
He had about twenty-four accounts at the time.
"Animadverting," said I, "to the subject of this serial..."
Edgar sighed patiently.
"How much do they want—five thousand? Got your book?"
A couple of hours of intensive dictation, then:
"Don't you agree about that race, Bob?"
I temporised. I typed the instalment of the serial and despatched it to the rebellious editor, and then sat down to discover the flaw which I felt sure there must be somewhere in Wallace's reasoning. Discovering such flaws was often a difficult matter, for his deductions on the subject of horse-racing, like those on criminal problems, though frequently illogical, were always ingenious and plausible.
On this occasion it took me some time to detect it, but I found it at last and triumphantly pointed it out to Wallace. He would have none of it.
"I tell you the thing's a handicap certainty," he insisted.
But I had a trump card up my sleeve, and I played it.
"In that case," I said, "Maugre must win if she runs at Doncaster, because she's even better handicapped in that race than in the Cambridgeshire."
A glance at the race in question, and Wallace agreed. Nevertheless, that was no reason why his animal should not win the big handicap, and I took 66-1 to quite a lot of his money. When I left that evening he was working out on paper how much he would win on the race. It ran into five figures.
At Doncaster the mare gave a dreadful exhibition and finished all but last, and on the day of the big back-end handicap it was not in the field. It took a great deal to crack Wallace's confidence, and it is an indication of the hopelessness of the horse's chance that on this occasion it definitely broke.
It had been a lifelong ambition of Wallace's to become an owner of racehorses, but when first I knew him he had not realised it. He was not a man who could wait patiently to realise any ambition; most things which he wanted but could not afford he promptly acquired and somehow afforded afterwards; and the fact that he had not at that time registered his racing colours is sure proof that he was very hard pressed for money. Perhaps the explanation was that racing colours cannot be registered on the instalment plan.
After the war, however, when I joined him permanently as his secretary, I found that he had leased a horse. It is a fairly common thing to do, and would not strike an ordinary man as being fraught with any special significance. But Edgar Wallace was far from being an ordinary man. He was now, to all intents and purposes, an owner, and at Epsom, Newmarket, Lingfield, Sandown Park and Windsor the colours of Edgar Wallace would soon be flashing past the post lengths ahead of a hopelessly outclassed field. The acquisition of this single horse was the first milestone on the road of his triumphant progress towards fame and fortune on the turf, a road by which, with a few quick strides, he would hasten to Epsom and lead in his Derby winner.
Unfortunately it proved to be not so much a milestone on the road of his triumphant progress as a millstone around his neck.
The horse which had been chosen to bear him to fame and fortune on the turf received the name of Sanders—after that delightful character which he created in his series of African tales, and which, among the hundreds of characters with which he peopled his stories, was always Wallace's special favourite.
This Sanders, however, had not the same delightful personality as his prototype, and whatever kindly feelings Wallace may originally have had for him must soon, I imagine, have faded, for the horse never won a race in Wallace's colours. Whether or no it had classic engagements I cannot remember. In view of the glorious career mapped out for it, and of my subsequent knowledge of Edgar's methods as an owner, I should be amazed to hear that it had not.
The next horse leased by Wallace was called Bosambo—after another of the characters in his African stories. What this animal cost him from start to finish I do not care to think. Edgar, I imagine, would have found it less expensive to run a steam yacht.
But in the study of his flat at Clarence Gate Gardens Bosambo was the wonder-horse of the season. On Monday morning Wallace would prove in the most convincing way that in Tuesday's race Bosambo could not possibly avoid winning; on Tuesday evening he would explain quite as convincingly why Bosambo had lost. He was never at a loss to find some ingenious reason for his horse's failure, and the constant demand for such reasons must have severely taxed even his ingenuity.
In those days a large part of our mornings was often devoted to explaining away Bosambo's failures and to convincing ourselves that he must win the next time out. Not unnaturally, I was thrilled to find myself for the first time in a position to get real inside information straight from an owner, and when Wallace enthusiastically foretold an inevitable win for Bosambo in a race, and backed his forecast with his convincing arguments, I was more than ready to be convinced.
But Bosambo did more than any other animal to shake my faith in the reliability of "inside information." The money that horse cost me! Wallace backed him heavily every time he ran—or, rather, performed those capers and contortions which were the closest imitation of running of which he was capable—and I always had a wager over him. I admit that after a time, when Bosambo had given us a glimpse of his capacity for consistent failure, I backed him more from a sense of duty and loyalty to Wallace than from faith in his chances of winning a race.
On the morning of one race in which Bosambo was scheduled to perform, I casually let slip that I did not fancy his chances that day and proposed to back another horse to beat him. Wallace did not say anything, but there was no mistaking the mingled pain and reproach in the look he gave me, and a few moments later I telephoned my bookmaker and spent another pound on Bosambo. "Spent" is the correct word.
Bosambo was a horse which would sap the morale of the most hardened and resolute backer, and there came a time when even Wallace's courage failed. I went one morning to his country house at Marlow.
"Is Bosambo going to win to-day?" I asked, striving to keep my tone free from any hint of sarcasm.
Wallace looked at me with a sad expression in his eyes.
"Probably, Bob," he said wistfully. "I'm not backing him to-day."
With the comfortable feeling that on this occasion I could do so without a hint of disloyalty, I, too, refrained from spending my usual stake.
Whether Bosambo the horse had been given a name which chanced to fit in with his inborn characteristics, or whether, as a result of bearing that name, he became endowed with the qualities of his namesake in Wallace's tales, I have never been able to decide. Certain it is that the Bosambo of the stories, though fascinating readers as surely as Bosambo of the racecourse fascinated Wallace, was a black thief. Equally certain is it that the Bosambo of Epsom, Lingfield, Warwick, Hurst Park and almost every other racecourse in the country, was a black-hearted robber and a lying, shifty scoundrel, without even the crudest sense of the duty which a racehorse owes to its owner. That day at Nottingham, when neither Wallace nor I had backed him, he won his one and only race, and his starting price was 10-1!
With Wallace, money not won was money lost; but we did not on this occasion have to write a serial; a short story the next morning put matters right.
Unlike many small owners, Wallace always ran his horses to win. At any rate, those were his instructions, and that they may not always have been strictly followed is not material.
He detested the practice, unfortunately so common, of running a horse down the course, unbacked, in two or three races, and then one day discovering sufficient confidence in the animal's improvement to back him down to 7-4 and watch him come home alone.
If any of my less sophisticated readers think this practice does not obtain, a study of any season's racing records will enlighten them.
Edgar, however, would not countenance what he denounced as the grossest dishonesty. He held the view that it was the duty of an owner to the vast army of punters who constitute the backbone of racing, to tell them all there was to know about the merits and chances of their horses; and he himself, through the medium of his racing column in The Star, was in the habit of publishing all the information he had about his own horses. At times that information may have been inadequate, but that was not his fault; and when he won a race which he had not intimated that he expected to win, he, in common with all his followers, failed to profit by the adventitious success.
A characteristic that cost him thousands of pounds was his unassailable honesty. He was straightforward in running his own horses, therefore those around him were equally honest, and the sport of horse-racing was clean. As unsound a piece of reasoning as one can imagine, but fairly common.
Any close and unprejudiced observer of racing matters is aware of the considerable amount of knavery and cheating that is associated with the running of racehorses. To refer to this is no reflection on the sport itself, any more than it is a reflection upon a beautiful girl to observe that she has a boil on her nose. It is not only stupid but harmful to the game itself to pretend that this canker of dishonesty does not exist and is not eating into its very heart.
Through close association with Edgar Wallace I naturally came into contact with many and varied racing personages; and, to be candid, there are few—other, of course, than those reputable owners who race for the love of the sport—whom one would altogether trust.
Perhaps on the whole bookmakers are about the pick of the bunch. This is not unnatural, since their activities are conducted on purely business lines for the most part, and roughly speaking they cannot afford not to be honest. But, having sung them this, the only paean of praise ever accorded them, it may be added that they do funny things at times...
Most racing days of his life Wallace had a habit of betting in £5 doubles. Usually he would select his horses during the morning and I would telephone the bets to one of his bookmakers. Need it be added that both horses seldom won?
On Saturday last year I had left early and Wallace had forgotten to make his customary bets. Not caring to entrust the business of telephoning to one of the servants, and being far too physically indolent to look up the number and call it himself, he wrote the bets out and telegraphed them to the bookmaker.
Surprisingly, two of the horses he had coupled won, the odds for the double working out at a hundred and something to one. He had won a little over five hundred pounds, which was, of course, paid. But the next week came a letter from the head of the firm of bookmakers, complaining a little bitterly that Edgar's bets had previously always been telephoned, that his telegram had not arrived in time for them to cover themselves on the second horse—it had been sent early enough but delayed in transmission—and that in future they would be unable to accept telegraphed commissions on doubles and trebles. This from a firm who for monotonous weeks and months and years had had cheques from Wallace! His remarks upon receiving that letter had to be heard to be believed.
But bookmakers are not an integral part of the racing game; they merely provide the machinery by means of which owners, trainers, jockeys and race gangs are enabled to commercialise their capacity for hoodwinking the handicapper, the racing journalist and the public.
How can racing be straight when jockeys bet? Here is an illuminating story told me years ago by a well-known race rider, whose real name for obvious reasons must be suppressed. I will call him Huggins.
He was riding in a race at Epsom, and had backed his mount to win him a considerable sum. To his chagrin, when he thought he had his race won, a small boy on a candidate well fancied by the public came abreast of him and in a few strides would obviously pass him. Huggins is a quick thinker; he is also an artist at riding. His mount "lay on" to the boy's horse just enough to unbalance it and give the race to Huggins by a short head.
Everyone looked for an objection for bumping, but Huggins is full of tricks. He rode towards the unsaddling enclosure side by side with the apprentice whom he had cheated.
"You rode a very good race, my lad," he said kindly.
The boy blushed with pride. Praise from a leading jockey was praise indeed!
"Yes," went on Huggins, "you laid on to me a bit just before the stick, but otherwise you rode well."
Waiting to greet the lad was his trainer-master.
"Huggins bumped you, didn't he? You must object."
"Oh, no, sir," gurgled the boy, dazed with the honeyed words of Huggins: "my horse laid on to his; I couldn't keep him straight."
Thus were the owner, trainer and trustful army of supporting punters all over the country tricked and robbed in order that Huggins might not lose the bets he had made in defiance of the laws of his trade.
It remains but to add that Huggins told me the story not only with amusement but with positive pride.
But Edgar Wallace loved the sport with a consuming passion, and took the view that such incidents were isolated and that in the main it was well conducted and honest.
This was one delusion of his. The other was that you could make money at racing. Now, to keep a racehorse in training costs £5 a week; that at any rate is what the owner has to pay. Added to this are the expenses of entering the horses, of transportation, and of jockeys' fees. Wallace at one time had about twenty-four horses in training, besides a few brood mares and yearlings and foals.
It will thus be readily understood that to make his racing pay it was necessary that he should back his horses on those occasions when it was believed that they held an outstanding chance of winning. Unfortunately it was usually the other occasions which were chosen. I only remember his having one really good win over a horse of his own, and that was when King Baldwin, trained by "Bill" Larkin, won the Welbeck Handicap in March, 1930, by a short head, at the nice odds of 9-1. I forget just how much money Wallace invested on the horse that day, but I remember that it comprised fivers and tenners for nearly everybody closely associated with him.
That was Edgar Wallace; his losses were his own, but his rare wins must be shared with all his friends.
It is curious, remembering his positive, unswerving and unflinching outlook on things generally, that Edgar Wallace never knew where he stood politically.
A staunch imperialist, a real lover of his country, he heartily detested the subversive influences permeating the Labour and some sections of the Liberal parties; yet they—particularly the latter—represented the class from which he had sprung, and sympathy for which he could never lose.
He toyed successively with the idea of fighting a constituency in the Conservative, Labour and Liberal interests. Had the Communist Party any plank in their platform other than the disintegration of the Empire, I am convinced he would have also considered becoming one of them.
Whatever his political creed of the moment, he never once wavered in his sympathy for the battling millions, in his intense admiration for the courage of the poorer classes, for the patriotic spirit of the workers, for the many admirable qualities he discerned in the class amongst which he had been raised. It was therefore inevitable that sooner or later he would consider the idea of standing for Parliament as a Labour candidate.
It was I who dissuaded him from bursting upon the political battlefield in this character. He had been approached on several occasions with this object in view, and he was weakening. It was, I think, the glamour of the thing that attracted him more than anything else. Edgar Wallace, M.P., would be a somewhat more influential figure in the world of men and affairs than plain Edgar Wallace. It is a not uncommon delusion.
"But how could you," I protested one day when he was going all political, "tolerate the bare idea of rubbing intellectual shoulders with the rank and file of the Parliamentary Labour Party? Do you know any of them?"
He had met a few.
"Jimmy Thomas is a regular feller," he replied musingly. "And I like MacDonald. And Arthur Henderson's not so bad..."
It was typical of Wallace that he had already promoted himself to Cabinet rank.
I pointed out that, at any rate until he found his way to the front bench, he would be like a fish out of water, and I implored him to go, if he went at all, among his more or less intellectual equals. It was only because he felt that the Labour Party represented the class which always commanded his sympathy and help that he considered their claims upon his support. I suggested that he would find himself at issue with them upon practically every point in their programme; I mentioned such items as the capital levy, the general strike, the suspicion of subservience to Soviet Russia.
"You couldn't possibly sit in the House as a Socialist Member," I concluded. "In addition to everything else, it would be insincere."
That decided him. He loathed insincerity.
Wallace had no settled political convictions. Only once was he indignant, more or less righteously, about the passing of a political measure, and that was when Winston Churchill introduced the Bets Tax into his Budget. Edgar fulminated for months on its iniquity; he even went so far as to predict that it would lose the Conservatives the next general election. I should not care to say how far this attitude expressed his real political conviction and how far his natural prejudice as a racing man.
Eventually, however, he gravitated somehow into the depleted Liberal ranks. Exactly how or why, I never knew; but I rather suspect that his independent, combative nature was attracted by the Akashic records of the fearlessness and free thinking which distinguished the historic leaders of this once great party. One has to explain it somehow.
Be that as it may, he broke it to me one day that he was about to be adopted as Liberal candidate for Mid-Bucks.
How he ever expected to be able to superimpose Parliamentary duties upon the activities which by this time were making him an overworked and harassed man, I cannot imagine. I think he had a vague idea of saving his reason during those dull, interminable House of Commons debates by writing plays.
It was now that he broke out as a newspaper proprietor. The ostensible purpose of the Bucks Mail (born 1930, died 1931) was to further his political candidature. The real reason for its inception was that Edgar had never been a newspaper proprietor.
I think he had some kind of a half-formed idea that there might be money in it; and certainly he expected a certain amount of kudos. At the back of his complex and yet curiously simple mind he probably had a nebulous notion that he might become the Beaverbrook of Bucks.
I do not know how much money he lost over it. I remember that he did voice a mild protest when the paper was losing him £80 a week, but he was not really concerned about it. He did not think of it as a loss of £4,000 a year. £80 was not much, after all.
Fortunately, he severed his Mid-Bucks connection before the General Election. There was a strong Nonconformist element in the local Liberal party, who held the usual strong prejudice against horse-racing and gambling. In such an atmosphere even Wallace's resilience could not have saved him from stultification.
A fortnight before the General Election of 1931 the telephone bell disturbed my Sunday morning horticultural activities. It was Wallace.
"Bob, we're going up to fight Blackpool. Meet me in the morning at Euston—ten-thirty-five train."
"Are you a Liberal still?" I asked.
Week-end voltes faces were not uncommon phenomena.
"Oh, yes," he answered cheerfully; "an independent Lloyd George Free Trade Liberal."
I dropped the receiver and staggered to the tantalus.
There was never anything more characteristic of Wallace than this decision. He was not content with adopting as his creed of the moment the bare bones of Liberalism, in itself a sufficiently unpopular cause; he must needs choose that section of it which was so unpopular as to be practically non-existent. It is history that four candidates supported Mr. Lloyd George at this election, and that two of those were members of his own family.
Moreover, as if Edgar wished to destroy in advance all possibility of wiser counsels prevailing, he had sent the ex-Liberal leader a telegram, which the Press published the next morning, announcing his intentions.
In addition, he knew practically nothing about the question of Free Trade versus Tariff Reform, as both supporters and opponents in Lancashire soon discovered.
Secretly, however, I was glad, for I knew that Conservative Blackpool was a hopelessly hard nut for a Lloyd George Liberal to crack, and I was convinced that it would be folly for Wallace to add a political burden to those that were already weighing him down.
I knew Edgar far too well, however, to believe that he entertained the slightest doubt of his success. He was as confident of winning Blackpool for Mr. Lloyd George as he was in every other enterprise, promising or hopeless, upon which he embarked.
So we descended upon the playground of the north.
"Are those our colours?" I asked, indicating the blue scarf and tie Wallace was wearing.
"I don't know," he answered. "George (his valet) seems to think so, but I'm not at all sure that George is a sincere Lloyd George Liberal. I caught him reading the Morning Post on the way up."
He could not have been; our colour was red, and the waiting group of earnest Blackpool Liberals had the first of many shocks when their candidate alighted from the train resplendent in the colours of his Conservative opponent. However, a local haberdasher soon put that right.
An atmosphere of gloom was to envelop the local Liberal Association. They had already split over the proposal to invite Wallace to fight the constituency—a proposal which had involved the withdrawal of the very popular and capable Alderman Miles Mitchell. And now came Edgar Wallace, vital, genial, brilliant, enthusiastic—but not the Liberal of their dreams; instead, a quixotic supporter of Mr. Lloyd George, with but one idea politically—No Food Taxes.
Would he not consent to stand as a National Liberal candidate, in which case he could hardly fail to win the seat? No, said Wallace, he would not; he would sit in the House as a Free Trader or not at all. I do not know by what mental process he had arrived at his conclusion, but he was convinced that the alliance between the Conservatives and the saner Labour men was part of an insidious plot to tax the people's food, and he was out to expose the ramp. And once he had decided a point like that he was adamant.
A third gloom-producing circumstance was the presence in the field of a Socialist candidate. Now it was very evident that to win the seat Wallace would have to poll all the Labour vote; and Labour was being represented by a worthy gentleman named Machin.
I had always believed that political intrigue was foreign to Wallace's nature, that it would sicken and disgust him. I soon had occasion to change my view, for Edgar at once began to scheme and plan and wire-pull to remove Mr. Machin from his path.
Local overtures to the Blackpool Labour people proved ineffective; Machin would stand though a hundred Edgar Wallaces blazed through the local political firmament.
Accordingly the telegraph wires began to get busy. Could not Mr. Lloyd George do something about it? And was the Daily Herald without the necessary influence to procure us a straight fight with the Tory? It is true that the Daily Herald is a Labour newspaper, but Wallace was a popular figure...and who was Machin anyway?
A gentleman prominent in Blackpool political circles thought he might succeed in getting Mr. Arthur Henderson, the leader of the recalcitrant Socialists, to use his influence, and visited Burnley for that purpose. At the same time telegraphic communication was established between Wallace and the Labour leader.
The only difficulty, it transpired, was that such decisions were left entirely to the local Socialist associations. Should Mr. Henderson, however, be approached by them on the matter, he would, seeing that Machin obviously had no chance of success, advise withdrawal.
How it was eventually arranged does not matter, but the Labour candidate did not proceed to nomination, leaving Edgar Wallace a straight fight with Captain C. C. Erskine-Bolst, a staunch supporter of the National Government and a very charming man.
Before we left London Wallace had stretched his bank overdraft to the extent of a further £150 for deposit with the Blackpool Returning Officer, and, armed with this, we duly attended the nomination day proceedings in the Council Chamber of the Town Hall, where we met our opponent for the first time and all was peace and harmony and Scotch and cigars.
Edgar handed the Returning Officer his three £50 notes with a smile.
"This is the first time I've ever trusted a perfect stranger with so much money," he said, "except in Tattersalls, and they lay you odds there."
There ensued the most strenuous fortnight I have ever known. Funds were low, and Wallace could not afford to suspend work for the sake of fighting a mere election. There were three short stories to be written, several weekly articles, his broadcast talks to be prepared—he was in the midst of a series—and someone was shrieking for the opening instalments of a new serial.
Harry Boydell, the capable and energetic Liberal agent, succeeded only once in getting Wallace out on a canvassing tour. Meetings could not be avoided, however, and he addressed four a day, and at first enjoyed the experience; later the strain began to tell upon him and the meetings became an ordeal.
On top of all his other work he had to find time to receive three or four deputations each morning. His method with these folks was amusing in its simplicity. He would agree to practically anything.
"Yes, of course I'm in favour of a reduction of the beer tax," he told one such deputation, "and will do all I can to bring about such a reform."
"Certainly I will advocate the taxation of co-operative societies' profits," he assured another delegation.
"Oh, yes, I'm all for the improvement of conditions in slaughter-houses," he replied to a third.
This line of least resistance was, however, a little dangerous. I found him one day filling in answers to a printed questionnaire sent by one of the many organisations who misguidedly pester parliamentary candidates for their views on subjects of which they are usually profoundly ignorant.
"But you can't say this!" I protested when I had glanced through his answers. "You say here that you're in favour of local option, and only yesterday you told a deputation of licensed victuallers that you would do everything you could to help them."
"Oh, all right, Bob," he agreed. "Tear it up. If we can't agree with what they want we won't reply to these people at all."
His meetings were amazingly successful; almost everywhere he had to address overflow gatherings. As a speaker he held and charmed his enormous audiences. As a politician he was not so successful. The truth was that he did not know his subject, and his shrewd Lancashire listeners were very quick to discover and exploit this ignorance. Edgar tried at first to disarm criticism by admitting frankly that he knew nothing about politics; but the obvious retort, very quickly made, rendered unwise the maintenance of this attitude.
He travelled 240 miles or so one day to speak at Llandudno on behalf of Mr. Lloyd George, returning in time for his own evening series of meetings. On none of his platforms was he supported by a single speaker of note. The stalwarts of Blackpool Liberalism did their best, but in the main our meetings, save for Edgar's speeches, were almost intolerably dull, and it says much for the attraction of his personality that the electors of that delightful resort endured hours of local oratory while waiting for the arrival of the Liberal candidate.
As in everything else, so in politics; Wallace would not brook opposition. A certain amount of heckling is of course inseparable from any political meeting, especially in Lancashire, which is the Missouri of England—they will not accept anything at face value; they want to be shown.
Edgar's method with hecklers was, however, effective, if a little disconcerting. At the first sign of interruption he would stop.
"I've broken up more political meetings," he would threaten, "than most of you have attended. If you want your meetings undisturbed, keep mine quiet."
It was when question time was reached that his weakness became apparent. He had little political knowledge; he had a broad point of view on most subjects, but of details or statistics no information whatever; and he knew absolutely nothing about the industries and interests which most affect Lancashire electors. I tried to coach him, providing for his easy assimilation data which would enable him to hold his own against the not too well-informed hecklers; but he could not be bothered to absorb it.
Some of his answers made one distinctly uncomfortable, and it was evident that they did not satisfy his audience. Asked, for instance, how he would propose to remedy or alleviate unemployment, he replied:
"Mr. Baldwin can't tell you; Mr. MacDonald can't tell you. Why do you expect me to tell you?"
When cornered over questions relating to tariffs, he would answer:
"I don't pretend to know much about this sort of thing, but if you will repeat your question in writing and send it to me at my hotel, I will see that you receive a considered reply."
Which of course was not nearly good enough for your north country elector.
He was, however, given an amazingly patient hearing throughout the constituency. Even Lytham St. Anne's, that hotbed of diehard Conservatism, welcomed and listened to him. They are intensely "refeened" in St. Anne's; they dine always in the evening, and would not dream of going to bed—they always "retire for the night." The freedom of thought which is the heritage of Liberalism is not for them; their views are the views of the Morning Post and the Daily Telegraph. A very respectable suburb is Lytham St. Anne's.
Wallace nearly shocked them irreparably; Harry Boydell prevented the disaster only just in time. It was the eve of the poll meeting at the gentlemanly end of the constituency, and Edgar asked his bodyguard—a 20-stone blacksmith whom he had brought up from Buckinghamshire—whether he had "the champagne."
"What's that?" asked Boydell quickly.
"It's the last—meeting and I'm going to have a bottle of champagne on the table before me," said Wallace.
"You're going to do nothing of the kind," said Harry—it was the only time I ever heard him really defiant. "You can have it in the anteroom before or after the meeting, but on the platform you've got to remember you're an earnest Liberal, and they don't drink champagne at public meetings."
Fortunately for Wallace (or so he believed) his opponent, Captain Erskine-Bolst, had a villa in the South of France, and here was an opportunity too good to be missed. It is commonly believed that the South of France shelters an ignoble army of income-tax evaders. And Edgar was paying taxes at the rate of 12s. 6d in the £1!
Enquiries were set afoot to discover any other possibly damaging information about the Conservative candidate. His war record was brilliant—that was no good. His personal character was unimpeachable...
"Oh, well, never mind," said Wallace. "He lives at Eze-sur-Mer, and we'll make something out of that."
"He drives a Willys-Knight car, too, sir," interrupted the chauffeur helpfully.
Edgar's eyes lit up.
"That's American, isn't it?" he gloated. "We'll have something to talk about to-night!"
Thereafter the campaign was fought mainly on personalities. Erskine-Bolst was, according to Wallace, a tax-evader who drove a foreign car and wanted to tax the people's food. Wallace, said Erskine-Bolst, was a political ignoramus, who would fulfil his Parliamentary duties, if elected, by spending the winter in Hollywood.
It was characteristic of Edgar that he persistently refused to correct this mistaken belief. He had in fact signed no contract to go to Hollywood; he did not want to go, and, had he been elected, would not have done so. But he resisted all our endeavours to persuade him to make such an announcement.
He was quixotic in his honesty; he held that it would be in the nature of a bribe for him to announce: "If you send me to Westminster I will not go to Hollywood." It was the same trait which caused him resolutely to refuse to visit any clubs—with the single exception of an ex-servicemen's organisation to which he was specifically invited—or to make any subscriptions whatever to any local charity or cause until after the election.
Constant references at our meetings to the South of France brought up the name of Sir Walter de Frece, formerly Member for Blackpool, who also had been residing in the South of France on account of his wife's health. A heckler was seeking to establish this point.
"You can't tell me anything about Sir Walter de Frece," retorted Wallace. "Walter is an old friend of mine."
"Then tell us why he has a bungalow in the South of France," insisted the questioner.
"To live in," Wallace flashed back, and the hall rocked with laughter.
There was no further reference that evening to Blackpool's former Member.
It was during the course of this campaign that Wallace suffered what was probably the shrewdest blow his vanity ever received. He believed, as he was fully entitled to believe, that his name was a household word all over England at any rate, if not indeed all over Europe. On the Saturday afternoon preceding the election a procession of Liberal motor-cars toured the poorer parts of the constituency, stopping now and then at a convenient corner for Wallace to descend from his yellow Rolls and harangue the crowd which quickly assembled.
He was just stepping out of the car at one such stop, when an old, wrinkled Lancashire crone hobbled out of her front door to see what was the cause of all the commotion. A neighbour told her.
"Edgar Wallace? Is that the 'oosband o' Nellie Wallace?"
Edgar looked startled for a second, came as near to blushing as I ever saw him, then turned to me with a grin.
"Have I come all this—way to be known as Somebody's Husband?" he said.
It was during this election that Wallace appeared in a church pulpit, I believe for the first time in his life. He preached three times, in point of fact, to different Congregational gatherings.
The first occasion was memorable, particularly to our election agent. The front row of the choir seats had been reserved for Wallace's friends, and Harry Boydell and I were sitting together, both feeling very uncomfortable, for we were high up and facing the packed congregation, and Wallace was ill at ease with his sermon and at times floundering rather badly. The environment was perhaps a little unfamiliar to all of us.
"I am not a professing Christian in the literal sense," Wallace was saying. "I am a man-about-town, a racing man, a gambler, a sinner if you like—"
"My God!" hissed Boydell piously in my ear, his face pallid with such anxiety as only a conscientious election agent can feel. "This sort of thing will cost him hundreds of votes. What on earth will he say next?"
He was soon answered.
"And I have never given a bob to a church in my life," proudly declaimed the Liberal candidate.
Boydell groaned aloud.
"And that little speech will cost him twelve thousand!" he wailed sotto voce. "What the devil is he thinking about to talk like that?"
"Don't be impious in church," I counselled, "and don't worry; he'll get out of it somehow."
You could always bank on Wallace's ingenuity. He did get out of it. Agent and candidate had a whispered colloquy immediately the sermon was ended.
"That's easy," said Edgar. "What I meant to say, of course, was that I had never given a bob to church membership."
Which was ingenious if unconvincing, and he never quite lived it down.
Our labours were all to no purpose. Even the glamour of Edgar Wallace's name and the personal charm of the man could not outweigh the fact that he was supporting a leader with whom the country would have nothing to do at any price. Polling day arrived—not a moment too soon for Wallace, who was fast wearing himself out. The Conservative candidate's majority was over 33,000.
Edgar took his defeat very philosophically, though it rankled a bit. Had he been beaten by, say, Rudyard Kipling or Winston Churchill, it would not have mattered—quite so much; but to be vanquished by an Army Captain whose name was unknown and whose achievements were without distinction, was a bitter pill to swallow.
We sat up half the night listening to election results, and consoling ourselves with the fact that "the whole country's gone mad about this National Government bunk," as Edgar put it.
The morning following the declaration of the poll we returned to London. I think we would have gone the same night had it been possible. At nine o'clock I saw Wallace.
"Well, we've saved our deposit, anyway!" he said. "Find out what time the Returning Officer comes on duty, and go and collect it."
Beyond the slightest elevation of his eyebrows at what must have seemed our almost indecent haste to recover the money, the official made no comment, but handed me Wallace's three fifty-pound notes.
"Thanks, Bob," he said when I gave him the money. "Now I can go to Newmarket and see the Cambridgeshire."
He stepped into his long, yellow Rolls and was driven away. A small knot of people stood by the gates of the Metropole, waving and cheering.
"Good-bye, Edgar!" some of them shouted.
"And good riddance!" added one who apparently had no love for the pure flame of Liberalism.
A sharp order to the chauffeur, the car stopped and Wallace got out. He walked up to the group.
"Which of you said that?" he demanded in his most truculent manner.
There was no reply.
"Did you say it?...Was it you?" he challenged them individually.
Evidently, however, the offending gentleman was only courageous at a distance; he must have read assault and battery in Edgar's eyes, and he would not confess.
"If I had found out who that swine was," said Wallace as he returned to his car and was driven rapidly away, "I'd have punched him on the nose."
And for a hundred miles, he told me afterwards, he could not bring his mind to bear upon the important business of the day, and failed to find one of the first three in the Cambridgeshire.
Wallace had the theatre in his blood; his parents were both, so he once told me, in the profession; and even if there had not been this inherited tendency towards the footlights, it is fairly certain that the big money which is sometimes made by a successful play would sooner or later have tempted him to take a hand in the theatrical game.
At the very outset of his theatrical career—it was, I believe, about 1920—Wallace had a lesson which, had the memory of it only persisted, should have kept him permanently out of the hazardous business of theatrical management.
But no slings or arrows could ever put him down for more than a count of nine, and I am confident that, but for the intervention of death, nothing would ever have persuaded him to abandon his theatrical ventures.
The experience to which I refer concerned his first play, M'Lady. In those days when Wallace wrote a serial story he got perhaps £200 or £300 for the serial rights and £100 for the book rights, plus a bit more for the American rights, and £500 or £600 was not much return for the labour involved in writing 80,000 words of more or less good English with a thrill or a chill in each instalment.
It may be mentioned in passing that he almost invariably sold the book rights for a lump sum rather than on a royalty basis. "Take the cash and let the credit go." This was one of the very few quotations I ever heard Wallace make. Usually he scorned to quote other people's words. He did, however, make an occasional concession in the case of the Bible, which he admired tremendously—though I never once saw him reading it.
As I say, £500 was not a lot of money; and a book, moreover, meant two or three weeks' work, even though it might be compressed into two or three days. A play, however, might be written in a week-end, and, if approved by Press and public, bring in thousands of pounds.
One day a more than usually bright idea came to Edgar. I was not in very constant touch with him at the time, but I can well imagine the glint of excitement in his eyes and the hint of thrill in his voice as he said to himself: "There's big money in the theatre; I'll write a play to-day. Why haven't I thought of this before?"
He knew little of stage technique at that time; the unfortunate thing was that, like most budding dramatists, he thought he knew it all. He had, of course, all his life been a keen theatre-goer, but he was to discover, expensively, that more exact knowledge and ripe experience were the sine qua non of dramatic success.
He conscientiously believed M'Lady to be a great play—dashed off though it had been with a careless gesture, and full as it was of dramatic solecisms. I do not remember the story—I think Wallace rather did his best to forget it. The only abiding recollection I have of the piece is that characters wandered on and off the stage in the most bewildering manner. Wallace in those days had a simple method: if he wanted John Brown on the stage he wrote "Enter John Brown;" if it was desirable for Henry Smith to retire for a spell, "Exit Henry Smith" did the trick. Just that. Edgar was nothing if not straightforward. I do not think a single character either went on or off the stage for any other reason than that Wallace wanted the character either to say something or stop saying something.
This first dramatic child of his brain was to make his fortune. But to this end it was necessary that all the immense potential profits should accrue to Wallace, and he had no money. Consequently a syndicate was formed, composed mainly of his friends all over the country, who contributed sums ranging from £20 upwards, and a capital of £1,000 was somehow scraped together.
The play was heralded with such a flourish of Fleet Street trumpets as only Edgar Wallace could inspire. He confessed, frankly and disarmingly, in interviews the reports of which he himself wrote, that he had written the piece in fourteen hours. Questionable advertising this, since the opportunity afforded the critics to be scathing, in the event of the play's failure, is so obvious that it need hardly be indicated.
I forget whether any theatrical correspondents suggested afterwards that it was a pity Wallace had not given the play another half-hour, but I should think most of them would; it is the kind of obvious humour with which certain so-called dramatic critics of our time seek to veil their critical incapacity.
If the title of a play offers any bait for obvious humour or meretricious smartness, several of them are certain to rise to it. A play which was recently produced in London afforded an example of the sort of opportunity which an author, if he dislikes initial pinpricks, is wiser to avoid providing in the title which he chooses. The play was called Man Overboard, and of course the inevitable happened. I daresay more than one critic snapped eagerly at that bait, but one at least remarked that, as far as he was concerned, his evening at the theatre had left him a "man overbored." It is only fair to add that it was the first time I have known that particular critic to blot his page by so obvious a comment.
M'Lady was produced at the Playhouse, with Henrietta Watson, then but little known, in the leading part. I do not remember such unanimity as was displayed the next morning in the Press notices of the play; they were the worst I have read concerning any play.
It must have been a sledge-hammer blow for Wallace; the worst he ever suffered, I imagine, since he did not attempt to write a play during the next six or seven years.
More than once, when his stories were becoming world-famous, I pointed out to him that some of them struck me as having big possibilities if they were dramatised, but Wallace shied at the idea of writing a play or having anything to do with the theatre.
"Nothing doing, Bob; I've had some," was his invariable reply, and he confined himself resolutely to stories and his journalistic work.
But as the years passed the memory of M'Lady must have grown fainter—six or seven years was a long time for the effects of even the sharpest setback to last with Wallace—and one morning in 1925 he outlined to me a plot for a play which had been simmering in his mind for months, as did the plots for most of his best stories before ever a line was written.
He proposed to call the play Police Work, and, except that the title, which was subsequently altered, struck me as a poor one, I agreed that it was a grand story and should make a fine play.
The lesson of M'Lady had evidently not been entirely forgotten, or with the passing of the years, perhaps, Wallace had developed a little more caution. This time, at any rate, he did not attempt to finance the venture or to produce the play. He was content to leave the management to the late Frank Curzon, and the production to Sir Gerald du Maurier. Content? Well, perhaps not. But he was wise enough to do so, anyway.
The result was The Ringer—with one exception undoubtedly the best play that Wallace ever wrote. It was produced at Wyndham's Theatre in May, 1926, on the day which saw the beginning of the General Strike. Press and public were unanimous in proclaiming it a masterpiece, and it is a sufficient indication of the play's quality that, even during the days of the strike, the box office receipts did not suffer.
It was splendidly cast, with Leslie Faber, Franklin Dyall, Gordon Harker and Dorothy Dickson, and produced with that finished artistry of which Sir Gerald du Maurier is a master. It played to capacity for months, and was still showing a profit when, at the end of a year, it was taken off to make room for another production. This was in 1927; had the management been in Wallace's hands, the play would doubtless still lave been running.
The production of The Ringer was a turning-point in Wallace's career. His royalties from it amounted altogether to some £6,000, but the play's success, apart from royalties, was directly responsible for making him very big money in other ways. No sooner was the play an acknowledged success than Wallace's stock rose by leaps and bounds. His book sales increased enormously, and publishers clamoured for more; old stories were resurrected and republished; popular editions were brought out by the million; and, from a merely well-known author with a moderate sale, he had become, almost in one step, a best-seller. Whereas in previous years he had been content to dispose of the book rights of a story for £100 or even less, he now signed contracts under which he received £1,000 in advance of royalties, and within a year or two his book royalties from one publisher alone were in the region of £25,000 a year.
It was brilliant success, brilliantly earned; the fruits of many arduous years of hard and sustained work. There was nothing fortuitous about Wallace's rise to fame and fortune. If ever a mortal deserved success, it was he. By sheer merit and persistence and confidence in himself he had falsified Addison's dictum and commanded success.
He was now a public figure, in every sense of the word. His journalistic work became sought after. In every newspaper office in Fleet Street, were a feature article needed on any subject under the sun, it became the habit to say "Ring up Edgar Wallace." But whereas in the past Wallace had been content, and even glad, to get ten pounds for such an article, by now he did nothing under fifty. Except in the case of old friends, for whom, in any special circumstances, he would still write for next to nothing.
Could he have been content to confine himself to the work of writing plays and to leave to others the financial, and always speculative, side of the theatrical business, he would probably have made far more money than he did. I feel sure, too, that his life would have been a longer one. The worry associated with his theatrical speculations unquestionably hastened his end.
But that would not have been Edgar Wallace. It came to his ears that Frank Curzon had made a profit of £30,000 from The Ringer, and that decided him. £30,000—and he had only netted a paltry £6,000!
"All right," said Wallace, visions of colossal profits floating before his eyes, "in future we'll produce our own plays."
He was implored by those of his friends who knew the pitfalls and the difficulties of theatrical management to keep out of it. They begged him—one of them, I remember, almost with tears in his eyes—to stick to his story-writing, which he understood so well and at which his future was assured. But they might have saved their breath. To tell Wallace that theatrical management was just a tremendous gamble, with the odds heavily against the manager, was the surest way, had his faithful friends but realised it, to whet his appetite, and urge him on to savour it.
Everyone who makes big money seems to imagine that he can go on making it indefinitely, and Wallace was no exception. Even the most successful of theatrical managers must be prepared to face an occasional failure—they say themselves that they can only hope for an occasional success—but that fact counted for nothing with Wallace. He was going to be the great exception, that was all. He had written The Ringer, one of London's most successful plays, and he could write another just as good, and another and another. There was no reason why he should not go on turning out success after success indefinitely—or at least until the supply of London theatres was exhausted. Writing plays was like shelling peas.
He forgot, apparently, in his sudden enthusiasm for the theatre, that The Ringer in its final form was the result of several months of painstaking work. It was, in fact, the most careful piece of work I ever knew him do. Thereafter he adopted his high-speed method of writing plays. He was confident that he could turn out play after play which all London would flock to see. Perhaps he could have done so—but not at the rate of three days to a play. It is not as easy as that.
Wallace's second successful play, The Terror, added fuel to the flame of his theatrical fortune-hunting ambitions. A syndicate of three was formed to produce the piece, the other two being B. A. Meyer and Dennis Neilson-Terry. The play was written in Switzerland one Christmas. Even when on holiday Edgar could not slack.
The total capital was only £1,000, and the play ran successfully for a long time at the Lyceum. Although not so finished or mature a production, technically, as some of his later work, The Terror was, in some respects, one of Wallace's best plays. Undoubtedly it was this additional success which urged him, were urge needed, into single-handed financial management.
Wallace, true to his usual methods, took a headlong plunge into the whirlpool of theatrical management. He leased Wyndham's Theatre for a term of years and set about the task of keeping it supplied with plays. Incidentally, his entry into management gave him the opportunity of setting right, at least in his own case, what he had always considered to be a grave slur on the dramatist. Whereas the leading actor in any play has his name blazoned in electric lights across the front of the theatre and printed in large type on the bills, it is usually difficult without the aid of a magnifying glass to discover the name of the author. An actor or actress who plays the most insignificant part is generally given more alphabetical prominence than the dramatist on both bills and programme, and Wallace always resented it.
"If it weren't for the dramatist," he once said to me, "there would be no actors, yet they print his name in the smallest type and nobody ever notices it. I'm going to alter that."
He did. True, he resisted the temptation of EDGAR WALLACE in electric lights across the front of the theatre, but there was an enormous bill on the side of Wyndham's on which his name was displayed in letters which must have been a foot in height. His name, at any rate, exceeded in stature that of anyone else connected with the play.
As with his racing, so with his theatrical ventures. Wallace sampled every side of the game. Not content with being a dramatist, he was in turn, or simultaneously, manager, producer, dramatic critic, and even actor. There was nothing which he would not try once.
Once was, as far as I know, the limit of his public appearances as an actor. It was during the run of The Calendar at the Lyceum. An extra scene, representing, I believe, the paddock at Ascot, was to be put into the play, the paddock needed peopling with appropriate figures, and Wallace, whose sole make-up consisted of a black moustache and a touch of greasepaint, went on to add to the realism of the scene. With him went Steve Donoghue and Michael Beary, to make their stage débuts. Had the audience known what prominent figures in the racing world were that night playing crowd parts on the stage, there would no doubt have been a round of welcoming applause. But none of the three was recognised. Edgar, I fancy, was a little disappointed that his moustache had proved so effective.
He would, however, have made a good actor. The performances which he sometimes gave at rehearsals were quite convincing proof of his ability in that direction. Usually during rehearsal he would occupy a seat in the stalls, smoking a cigarette, chatting in a whisper to a friend beside him.
Frequently he was chatting to me. At the time when one of his plays was in rehearsal he was writing regular racing articles for The Star, and, as was the case with so much of his work, there was always a last-minute scramble to get the article written and delivered to The Star office in time for publication.
When a play was in rehearsal, and Wallace, consequently, was spending many hours a day at the theatre, it became more difficult than ever to find time to write the racing articles, and he eventually hit on a bright idea. In future, on the days when an article had to be written, I was to go to the theatre at a certain hour, taking with me a book of form, the "Racing Specialist" and the racing editions of the evening papers, and Wallace would dictate his article and selections while he kept an eye on the rehearsal.
The whispering in the stalls when rehearsals were in progress, which must have proved so disconcerting to those who were on the stage, struggling to remember unfamiliar lines, was frequently the voice of Wallace dictating his racing article for the edification of readers of The Star and indicating his selections for the following day. And he wondered why he so rarely tipped a winner!
As far as could be seen, he was entirely engrossed in his journalistic efforts and paying not the slightest attention to what was taking place on the stage. But suddenly, in the middle of a sentence, he would break off and sit upright.
"Just a moment, please," he would call, rise, and make his way to the stage. "You haven't quite got that bit," he would say, addressing the actor or actress whose rendering of some particular line had failed to please him. "This is how I want that done."
And he would say the line and do the business in accordance with his own ideas, and in most cases there was no doubt that he was right. His intonation, his gestures, his facial expression would put life into a line which, spoken as the professional actor had spoken it, had been dull and meaningless.
Even the professional actors, who are inclined to regard an author as a poor sort of fish who has turned out a certain amount of dialogue into which their genius must endeavour to put some meaning, and who are usually chary of crediting him with anything approaching acting ability, admitted that Wallace, had he chosen to become an actor, would have been a credit to their profession. I am sure that Edgar agreed with them.
At rehearsals, whether in the rôle of author or producer, he was a model of patience. I never knew him get rattled—which surprised me. At the risk of incurring the wrath of the profession by the blasphemy, I venture to state, after seeing many rehearsals, that there are such things as stupid actors and actresses. There are, at any rate, actors and actresses who have their moments of stupidity—moments when they may try fifty times to imitate a gesture which the producer has suggested to them, or to repeat a line with the intonation and emphasis which he has used, and fail every time.
Wallace was not an intolerant man; in most things he was as broad-minded and indulgent as any man could be; but if there was one thing of which he was utterly intolerant and impatient, it was stupidity. Anything else he could forgive, but stupidity offended his own acute mind and was the unforgivable sin. Yet, though at times his patience must have been sorely tried, I never saw him give a hint of it. A poor performance by an actor at rehearsal left him as composed as did a poor performance by a horse on the racecourse. He was always tactful and charming, and there was no resisting his charm.
Partly, no doubt, because of this, but chiefly because to know Wallace was to love him, he was very popular in theatrical circles. But, however tolerant and patient he might be when a play was being hammered into shape at rehearsal, once it had been produced before the public he was a severe and outspoken critic.
He had always a very definite conception of his own as to how a part should be played, had unlimited confidence in his own ideas, and, however experienced might be the actor whose conception of the part did not coincide with his, would insist on having it played as he wished. It became a lamentable but regular feature of his productions that sooner or later he quarrelled with his leading artist.
Usually, on such occasions, Wallace got his own way, but not always. I remember that he once came into collision with Robert Loraine, who, besides being a fine actor, has a personality as strong and forceful as was Wallace's. He was playing the lead in Wallace's play The Man Who Changed His Name, and his interpretation of the part was not at all the interpretation which Wallace had wanted. Robert Loraine, accordingly, received a letter telling him that he was playing the part in the wrong way and instructing him how it should be played; and Wallace in his turn received a note from Robert Loraine, couched in forceful terms, telling him that the part would continue to be played as he was playing it, and warning him that his appalling self-complacency would prove his ruin.
The sequel was an example of the lengths to which Wallace would go if the tender spot of his vanity were flicked. He and Robert Loraine were in partnership over the production of this particular play, the piece was not doing well, and an ultimate profit of £200 would, I imagine, have been regarded as a lucky let-off. Yet Wallace bought out Robert Loraine for £2,000, and engaged in his place an actor who would play the part in accordance with Wallace's ideas, but who would himself be the last to claim that, either as an artist or as a box-office draw, he was the equal of Robert Loraine.
After the withdrawal of The Ringer, Wallace embarked on his theatrical management. Whether, before plunging into management, he ever took paper and pencil and calculated what weekly liabilities were involved in the running of a play at a West End theatre, I do not know. It would have been unlike him to do so. Actually, the rent of a West End theatre is from £400 to £500 per week; lighting, heating, cleaning, theatre staff, printing, advertising, etc., have to be reckoned with; there is the weekly salary list for the company to be met, and modern actors of ability—and some merely modern actors—want big money. The box office of an average Edgar Wallace play in the West End had to take about £1,200 a week before there was a penny available for Wallace's profits.
In the succession of plays which he produced after The Ringer, only one, I think, was an outstanding success from the box-office point of view. There were a few—The Squeaker and The Calendar prominent among them—which were successful in every sense save the financial. Many achieved only moderate success, and, had they been financed and presented by anyone but Wallace, would have been taken off after they had consistently lost money for two or three consecutive weeks. But that was not Wallace's way. If the verdict on a play, both from critics and box-office, was that it was utterly and hopelessly bad, such as was the verdict on The Mouthpiece, Wallace, though he agreed, perhaps, with neither critics nor public, would take it off at the end of a week and start writing another at top speed to replace it.
If, however, a play proved even a moderate success, and ran profitably for a month or two before beginning to show a regular weekly loss, he would keep it running for another month or two, and thereby lose far more than the profit the play had already made.
Was it vanity, or lack of business foresight, or just that gambler's instinct urging him to take a chance that the tide might turn and the play still bring him a handsome profit?
Wallace had always a plausible reason for keeping a play running.
"It's better to keep it running than have the theatre dark," he said to me many times; but it was unconvincing.
He had a habit of writing a play during a week-end, so there was no need for the theatre to be dark. I always suspected that the real reason was that he did not want to write another play just then.
He would claim, too, that by keeping the play running he was enhancing the value of the film rights; but it is easy to compute how much more valuable the film rights of a play must become to justify a loss of £300 or £400 per week on its West End production.
I recollect that, in connection with one of his plays, he elaborated one of those ingenious and unorthodox schemes which he was so fond of evolving. The play in question was, I believe, Smoky Cell. Box-office returns were none too good, Wallace wanted money, and he began to cast about for some means of giving the piece the needed fillip.
He came to my room one morning and explained the scheme which he had evolved. I was to insert in the newspaper, in my own name, of course, an advertisement for a canvasser. He must be a cultured, well-educated man of the public school type, he must be prepared to work hard, and he must have a car. His salary would be at the rate of £5 a week.
The idea was that our cultured £5-a-week representative should make a house-to-house canvass, dilate on the doorsteps on the merits of the play, and if possible take orders for seats for the following week. Wallace was going to coach him in the right selling talk.
"If they can sell vacuum cleaners that way, Bob," said he, "why shouldn't they sell theatre seats?"
The advertisement was inserted, and the expected happened. There were over 3,000 cultured, well-educated men of the public school type, prepared to work hard, who saw that offer of a £5-a-week salary and wrote post-haste to apply to me for the job. I spent four days reading the letters, sorting, rejecting and selecting; and when I had reduced the probables to a dozen, I took their letters to Wallace.
"These seem the twelve most promising applications," I said. "The final selection must, of course, rest with you."
Wallace took the letters and threw them on to his desk.
"Thanks, Bob," he said, "but I don't think we'll worry about it, after all. I think I'll write a new play for Wyndham's instead."
So this projected innovation in the conventional methods of theatrical advertising was never tried. It would have been interesting to hear what the theatrical world said about it.
Wallace's losses on his theatrical ventures must have been enormous, for in many cases the money which a play was making on tour—and there were many successful provincial tours—was being lost over the London run. Wallace told me once that he had lost £25,000 in nine months in a single London theatre.
But the chief cause of his theatrical losses was undoubtedly the fact that every play which he wrote was put on, and every theatrical manager knows that no author can hope to produce an unbroken succession of good plays. Wallace might perhaps have been induced to share this knowledge had he not been surrounded by a swarm of sycophants, devoid of all critical ability, eagerly showering praise on all his work, good or bad, and persuading him that every play which he wrote was a masterpiece. His vanity needed no tonic; it could not have been given a more insidious urge.
Most of Wallace's plays were written at breakneck speed; had he been prepared to devote to them the time and care which he had lavished on The Ringer, the proportion of successes must surely have been greater. His capacity for high-speed work was amazing, and his fertility of ideas often staggered me.
I remember one evening I was present when Julian Wylie had called to discuss with Wallace the layout of The Yellow Mask, which was shortly to be produced at the Carlton Theatre. Wallace was in his gayest and most inconsequent mood, telling story after story and talking of everything and anything except the business in hand.
"Page twenty-six, Edgar," Julian Wylie would say. "We must have a lyric in there. I should like something about—"
"Have you heard this one?" Wallace would interrupt, and would proceed to tell another story.
I sat there, with notebook and pencil in readiness for the notes which did not come, wondering who would eventually gain the upper hand—Wallace, who obviously did not want to work and kept slipping away whenever the conversation led him close to it, or Julian Wylie, calm and marvellously patient, who grabbed him whenever he got the chance and dragged him reluctantly back to the point which was presumably under discussion.
"Page twenty-six," said Julian Wylie for the twentieth time. "We must have a lyric—"
Wallace rose with a sigh.
"Come on, Bob," he said, led the way into the study, and seated himself at his desk.
"I'm tired of page twenty-six," he said. "We'd better do that lyric now, and then perhaps he'll turn over."
And there and then, with scarcely a pause and hardly an alteration, he dictated a lyric of four verses and a refrain.
It was useless for anyone to suggest to Wallace that he might with advantage write fewer plays and devote more time and care to them. His answer, which I admit was a disconcerting one, was On the Spot.
On the Spot, which was generally acknowledged to be the finest play Wallace wrote, was one of his most rapid bits of work. As a preliminary to writing the best play about American gangsters which has been written on either side of the Atlantic, he paid a brief visit, lasting in all only thirty-six hours, to Chicago. He was a marvellously keen observer of the most minute details, and he could absorb the facts and atmosphere for a projected story as rapidly as he could pour out the story itself. The writing of the play took him only days, and every word of it was actually written by him. Then why suggest that he could not write a good play without spending weeks on it?
On the Spot proved a brilliant success, to which the fine performances given by Charles Laughton, Emlyn Williams and Gillian Lind contributed in no small measure.
It was fortunate, too, in the time at which it was produced. It had not been running long when Jack Diamond, the notorious gangster, was shot and seriously wounded in America. The story received great prominence in the Press on this side of the Atlantic, and public interest in this country in racketeers, gangsters, gunmen and suchlike became intense. On the Spot dealt with just these themes, and the result was that the bookings, already good, rapidly rose until seats were at a premium.
"Jack Diamond," said Wallace, "deserves at least a letter of thanks."
Wallace, after the first night, was jubilant. He had never written a play so rapidly and never written a play on which had been showered such unanimous praise from all quarters.
"Well, Bob," he asked the next morning, "what do you think of it?"
"It's a triumph," I said—"an absolute triumph."
"H'm!" said Wallace. "I'm glad you feel like that about it. You've been...critical lately."
Actually it was not I who was more critical than usual. The truth is that during the last few years of his life, when overwork and financial losses were beginning to take their toll of his nerves, Wallace became rapidly more and more intolerant of any criticism whatsoever.
This growing intolerance of criticism reached its Zenith during his last trip to America. His new play, The Green Pack, was being produced in London during Wallace's absence in Hollywood, and there came one day a cable from Mrs. Wallace detailing certain rather drastic alterations to the play which Sir Gerald du Maurier wanted made, and asking for Wallace's consent to the suggested revisions.
Wallace, when he read the letter, was furious. I never, in all my years with him, knew him to become so angry over anything. He flung abuse at everybody, designated the mere suggestion of altering his play a piece of intolerable insolence, declared that the proposed alterations would ruin the best play he had written, and vowed that, sooner than agree to their being made, he would call off all the arrangements and keep the theatre dark.
Breakfast with Wallace that morning was a trying meal. He was far too engrossed in keeping up a constant flow of biting invective to eat anything, and when he suddenly left the table and strode to his study, there was the light of battle in his eyes. The Green Pack, I was afraid, would not be produced.
When I joined him later in the study he was seated at his desk, pen in hand, still fuming. He waved a hand towards the dozen or so telegraph forms with which the desk was littered.
"Have a look at those, Bob," he said, with an air of vicious satisfaction. "I'm telling 'em just what I think of their damned impertinence."
I inspected the telegraph forms one by one. They were all addressed to Sir Gerald du Maurier and bore lengthy messages—Wallace had not spared expense to give vent to his feelings—in which he blankly refused, in the most offensive language, to agree to any alterations whatever being made to the play. It was to be produced as he had written it, or it was not to be produced at all.
"Which one shall I send, Bob?"
"You can't send any of these," I told him.
"Why not? They're strong enough, aren't they?"
"Too strong. Any one of them would be bound to offend Sir Gerald."
Wallace took the forms, glanced through them and sighed regretfully as he tossed them into the waste-paper basket.
"I'm not going to stand for it," he said. "I'll keep the theatre dark first. But perhaps you're right about the cables. I'll write another."
He did so. The message was, if anything, even more truculent and abusive than any of those he had discarded.
"Send it off at once," he said, and handed me the form.
I took it without comment and went out to try to decide what I should do. Wallace, I felt, was being utterly unreasonable. It was nothing out of the ordinary, after all, for a producer, particularly a producer of Sir Gerald du Maurier's standing, to suggest alterations to an author. His sole object in making them was to present what he thought would be a better play, and in theatrical matters his experience was ten times that of Wallace and his judgment ten times more reliable.
Yet Wallace had written him a message couched in such terms that, if Sir Gerald were to receive it, the inevitable result would be that, as far as he was concerned, The Green Pack would not be produced. Had I been producing the play and received such a telegram, that would certainly have been the result.
I decided that, at any rate for the moment, I would not despatch the wire, stuffed the form into my pocket and kept away from Wallace for the rest of the morning.
At lunch he had simmered down considerably and was more than usually thoughtful.
"Bob," he said at length, "what about that wire?"
"To Sir Gerald."
I sprang to my feet.
"Good God!" I exclaimed, with what I hoped was convincing consternation in my voice. "I clean forgot to send it off."
Wallace's eyes registered relief.
"All right," he said casually, "don't send it now. I'll get them on the telephone after lunch and tell them what I think of it. You'd better put the call through."
I did so, and that afternoon Edgar spoke to Mrs. Wallace over the transatlantic telephone. I did not hear what he said; I am sure it was something very different from the flaming messages which he had concocted that morning. I do know, however, that after a brief chat the whole affair was amicably settled, that he had agreed to every one of the alterations which Sir Gerald had suggested, that the additional dialogue which the alterations involved was promptly written and cabled to England, and that the revised version was indisputably a far better play than the original. Wallace, when the alterations had been made, admitted to me quite frankly that Sir Gerald had been right and he had been wrong.
The play was produced successfully at Wyndham's Theatre on the evening of the day on which the first reports of Wallace's sudden illness in Hollywood reached this country, and he never sufficiently recovered to inquire how the play had fared on its first night.
Wallace at the time of this incident was an overworked, harassed man—just how harassed the incident itself made clear to me. I had never before known him refuse to consider any reasonable suggestion for improving a play he had written, provided it were tactfully made. Indeed, with some of his plays, he quite cheerfully rewrote scenes many times before he and the producer were both satisfied.
Such was the case with Double Dan, produced by Robert Courtneidge at the Savoy. I believe it was eleven times that the first act of that play was rewritten. I know I went to Robert Courtneidge's office practically every morning for some time, bearing with me a new version of the first act, written on the preceding evening. Wallace always gave me the same message to deliver.
"Tell Courtneidge this one really is the goods," he would say.
"No," he would sigh. "But don't promise that I'll write another first act if you can possibly avoid it. I'm sick of Double Dan."
The play proved one of Wallace's biggest failures. It ran, I believe, no more than a week. Even the friendly first-night audience, eager as they were to show as much appreciation as possible, could only manage half-hearted applause. Wallace came to the theatre during the performance, I remember, saw how things were going, and went home well before the curtain fell.
I am glad he did, for of all Wallace's first nights this was the only one on which I heard an antagonistic remark from the gallery. At the end of the play a few misguided enthusiasts called for the author, and in response one of the actors, after the conventional speech of thanks, announced that Mr. Wallace could not appear himself as he was not in the house.
"And a jolly good job too!" came a hoarse voice from the gods.
I did not tell Wallace. I hoped that nobody would, because, bad as the play was, I knew the remark would make him unhappy for days. But one critic at any rate could not miss a chance like that.
The truth, I think, is that whenever Wallace in his playwriting departed from the "thriller" type of play, he failed. The Mouthpiece ran only a week; The Man Who Changed His Name was at the best only a partial success; The Lad, even with Billy Merson playing lead, was a bad failure, and was, incidentally, the only one of the hundreds of plays I have seen which really sent me to sleep.
A possible exception is The Calendar; but even that had a strong crook interest. Once he got away from the world of crooks and policemen, it seemed that Wallace could never quite hit the nail on the head.
In the case of The Man Who Changed His Name he certainly did not. When he wrote it he was under the impression that he was writing a full-blooded drama; it was accepted, cast and played as a comedy. Nobody was more astonished than Wallace.
When he had finished a play he was always convinced that it was the best he had so far written and was confident of its success. His wonderful self-confidence prevented his suffering the qualms and nervousness on a first night which most authors experience. He would sit on such occasions in his box, quite composed, laughing heartily at his own jokes as they were spoken by the actors, thoroughly enjoying the show, and would usually only leave his seat in time to slip behind the stage and be in readiness to step on to it, hat in hand and overcoat neatly folded over his arm, to make his speech to the audience.
When the curtain had fallen on a first-night performance there was frequently a party. Wallace's parties were famous. They were on the sumptuous scale on which he ran everything which he undertook. As a rule they were held at the Carlton; there were sometimes between three and four hundred guests, including the leading lights of the theatrical, literary and racing worlds; and the chief items of refreshment were invariably caviare and champagne. Wallace did not care much for caviare, and it was only on such festive occasions as these that he drank even a glass of champagne; but I know that he enjoyed his parties as thoroughly as any of his guests.
He was a kindly, generous, hospitable man, who was rarely so happy as when he was giving others a good time at his own expense. And he was a charming host. There was something about his personality, especially at these social functions, which made everyone instinctively want to call him "Edgar."
Once, when he had three plays running simultaneously in London, he gave one of his parties and invited every member of all three companies. I doubt whether the box-office receipts justified anything of the kind; but when I was at one of Wallace's parties I made a hard and fast rule that I would concentrate entirely on the caviare, the champagne and the charming company, and resolutely refuse to mar the night's enjoyment by calculating how many weeks of his profits from the theatre the party would absorb.
Edgar Wallace was not a religious man in the commonly accepted meaning of the words; that is to say, he professed adherence to no particular religious sect and subscribed to no particular set of doctrines. No one who knew him well could imagine his doing so. He had a mind which could never have brooked that confinement within the rigid bounds of dogma which allegiance to any formal religion imposes, and lip-service to anything in which he did not wholeheartedly believe is a form of hypocrisy of which he was temperamentally incapable.
A man like Wallace, who would give a crook a dozen chances of making a fresh start in life, though he knew in his heart that he was a crook beyond redemption, could never have subscribed to such a doctrine as the eternal damnation of even an unrepentant sinner.
On such occasions as it was necessary for him to attach a distinguishing label to his religious convictions he styled himself, for some inscrutable reason, a Wesleyan Methodist; but the only connection I was ever able to trace between Wallace and Wesley was his marriage to his first wife, who was the daughter of a Wesleyan Methodist minister in South Africa.
How deeply he was versed in the doctrines of Wesleyan Methodism I do not know. I have a shrewd suspicion that he would not have faced the stake for them, and I am fairly certain he would have recanted rather than suffer another ninety-six hours in a military prison.
I once tried to probe the mystery of his alleged membership of the Wesleyan Methodist denomination. It was during our stay in Hollywood. Marie, our coloured cook, fat, fifty and voluble as only a Southern negress can be, was showering thanks on Wallace for having given her permission to leave very early one Sunday so that she might go to church—thanks so profuse and sustained that, had she been allowed to run on without interruption, she would certainly have missed the band.
"You know, Mr. Wallace, sir," she confided, "I'm a Methodist—"
"That's curious; so am I," averred Edgar, without the flicker of an eyelid. "I'm a Wesleyan Methodist."
Marie glowed with vicarious glory, and turned eagerly towards me.
"And are you a Wesleyan Methodist, too, Mr. Curtis?" she asked, clearly anxious to be able to number me among the faithful flock to which she and Edgar belonged.
I am not a Wesleyan Methodist; but I wanted to get rid of Marie, and I feared a voluble and protracted attempt to open my eyes to the truth.
"Just a plain Methodist, Marie," I replied.
That seemed to satisfy her. Wallace, being a famous man, would naturally have a hyphenated religion, but simple Methodism was all that could be aspired to by the likes of Marie and me.
When she had gone, beaming with satisfaction over our spiritual kinship, I turned to Edgar.
"Can you tell me," I inquired, in the respectful tone of one seeking information, "who was Wesley and what was his method?"
He eyed me reproachfully.
"Get your notebook, Bob," he replied, "and we'll finish that diary for Blackie."
He was always very reticent about religious matters. Many times I tried to draw him on the subject, but no sooner did I manage to steer the conversation near the topic on which I was anxious to hear him speak than he would abruptly turn it into some other channel. Wallace, of course, when a young man, had been a soldier, and his shyness of the subject may have been a survival of that early training. In a barrack-room, as in a club, there are two topics which it is forbidden to discuss—politics and religion; and though he recovered from this disability as regards politics, religion always remained a subject which was practically taboo.
Never during all the years which I spent in close association with him did I know Wallace go to church, with the exception of the three occasions during his political campaign in Blackpool on which he preached to Congregational gatherings; and on those occasions he was so obviously in unfamiliar surroundings that those of us who knew him intimately and were obliged to sit and listen to his oratory, suffered acutely that nervousness and discomfort which one gets in sympathy with a friend whose public performance lacks smoothness.
With more candour than tact, since he wanted the votes of his congregation, he blandly told them that he was not a churchgoer, that he was a man-about-town, a gambler, a racing man and a sinner. It would have been far more helpful to the cause of Independent Free Trade Lloyd George Liberalism in Blackpool had he told them, as he later told the devout Marie, that he was a Wesleyan Methodist. He might safely have done so; no one there could have asked him who was Wesley and what was his method.
Even the summonses to church which most men are at some time forced to obey were evaded by Wallace.
I never remember his attending a wedding; and as for funerals, so abhorrent to him was the idea of illness and death that he would never consent to having his feelings harrowed by participation in these gloomy affairs. He was not even present at the obsequies of his first wife.
It is not surprising that formal religion, which lays so much stress on rewards and punishments in a future life, made no appeal to Wallace. There never was a man who lived more completely in the present. Errors and disagreements and unhappinesses of the past he sloughed as does a snake its skin, and it would be time enough to consider the future when it arrived.
Each day, as far as was possible, he began life anew; and no man could have more literally obeyed the scriptural injunction to "take no thought for the morrow." From every incident, great or small, he gleaned the full kernel of its lesson, threw away the husks, and worried no more about them.
He used to say that there was something to be learned from everything that happened, and nothing was too trivial for his attention. He loved his daily newspaper, and—beginning, of course, with the racing news—would read every line of every page before throwing it aside. I remember once remarking that he must wade through a great deal of uninteresting matter, but he shook his head.
"Everything is interesting, Bob," he said.
Wallace was one of those men—their name, fortunately, is legion—who, though they tie themselves to no specific religious sect and never cross the threshold of a place of worship, are none the less—many would maintain that they are all the more—truly religious men. He cultivated the Christian virtues and put them into practice in his daily life as do few other men I have met.
He may not have known much about the teachings of Wesley; he may never have stood up in church and repeated a creed—I know of no creed which he could have repeated with perfect sincerity; he may have failed utterly to realise that the destiny of his immortal soul depended on his choice between two doctrinal conceptions which differed only by a hair's breadth; but the golden rule of his life was based on the simple moral of "Christie's Old Organ"—that one should always be kind to those who are less fortunate than oneself.
Questions of faith never troubled him. He once told me that they never had, and that even in his youth he never passed through that phase of emotional religiosity which is almost universal in adolescence. What a man believed was of no importance in Wallace's view; what he did was of supreme importance, and what he failed to do was almost equally so.
"Half the population of hell," he said to me on one of those rare occasions when he touched on such subjects, "will be people who are there because they didn't do something."
Just as in his racing ventures money not won was always looked on as money lost, so in every phase of his busy life an act of kindness neglected was an act of unkindness committed.
Above all else he was a humanist. He had a never-failing fund of sympathy for all who were in genuine distress, and a never-empty pocket for all who needed help. There were not lacking plenty of people ready to take advantage of this weakness, or strength, in his character, which must have cost him many thousands of pounds. He understood the misery of poverty as only one can who has himself been miserably poor.
He had an enormous admiration for the poor—the decent, proud, self-reliant poor—and such he always declared the vast majority to be—the poor who live in mean streets and hang spotlessly white lace curtains at their windows; who have a horror of revealing their poverty to the world; whose children are always well cared for, their cheeks shining from recent soap and their clothes neatly mended; to whom a penny is something not to be spent without careful forethought, and a Bank Holiday a momentous occasion for which the precious pence must somehow be saved week by week; the poor who, with marvellous courage and patience, smile their way through their drab, colourless lives and can only die happy in the knowledge that they will not be buried by "the parish."
These were the people who never appealed to Edgar Wallace for help in vain. The men and women whom he helped in one way or another, to save their homes, to educate their children, to keep their self-respect, and in a score of other difficulties, are in number legion.
Whether Christ as a person meant much to him or little I do not know; but I do know that His precepts were the rule which governed Wallace's dealings with his fellow men. "To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction..." This was a Christian duty which Wallace not only never shirked but eagerly performed.
These were matters of which he never spoke. The injunction that his left hand should never know what his right hand was doing was implicitly obeyed. He hated to be found out in a charitable action. Living as I did in close daily contact with him for many years, and admitted as I was to his confidence in practically everything which he did, I could not fail to know indirectly of many a kindly act which he performed. But he rarely mentioned them to me himself; and when it became unavoidable, as it sometimes did, that I should know what he was doing, he would tell me in an offhand, awkward way, and hurry off before I could make any comment, as if he were afraid I might accuse him of having a tender heart.
Once or twice, when he was, I thought, proving too easy a victim to an obviously concocted story of hard luck, I ventured a mild protest, but never to any purpose.
"I'd tell lies myself, Bob, if I were down and out," he would say.
It was the fact of a man being down and out that mattered to Wallace; and the fact that he had lied to him did not cancel his duty to do what he could to lessen his distress.
Usually, however, it was only indirectly that I, or anyone else, came to know of Wallace's acts of charity. With quiet and unassuming generosity he helped where help was needed, and there are many men and women up and down the country who have material reason for cherishing the name and memory of Edgar Wallace.
Few men can have suffered more at the hands of their so-called friends than did Wallace; but though they let him down and imposed on him and failed him in a hundred different ways, I never knew him bear a grudge or nurse a grievance against any of them.
I do not mean that he was any more inclined than the rest of us to turn the other cheek. He could, and did, hit back, and when he did so he brought into play a biting invective such as few men can command. But he fought cleanly, never seeking to take an unfair advantage.
Many a time, when he had written some scathing words, I have known him cross them out—not without that sigh of regret which it costs any writer to abandon a neatly turned phrase—because it struck him that to use them would be hitting below the belt.
Anything that bordered on meanness or petty spite he abominated, and all that he wrote was rigorously censored for any indications of such defects in himself. And in the end, his opponent vanquished, or at any rate badly battered, Edgar was the first to re-extend the hand of friendship and obliterate from his mind whatever unpleasantness had originated the quarrel.
There was no worse vice in Wallace's eyes than self-pity. You might break all the Ten Commandments and be guilty of all the deadly sins, and Wallace's disapproval would be tempered by an indulgent understanding of the frailty of human nature; but "Thou shalt not be sorry for thyself" was one of several additions which he had made to the Decalogue, and to break this Commandment was to risk being cast into the nethermost pit of his contempt. You should be sorry for anyone else who was in trouble, but you must never be sorry for yourself.
Wallace himself never whined when things went wrong; he was a splendid loser; and the man who, after a knock-out blow, commiserated with himself over his bruises, struck him as a poor sort of sportsman and a poor sort of fighter, who would never be likely to win a fight and should never be allowed in the ring. The self-pitying whiner was the one type whom Wallace was disinclined to help out of his troubles.
I never heard him specifically declare himself to be a deist, an atheist or an agnostic, but he was certainly no atheist. Obviously, since he had been a Mason for over thirty years, he believed in a Supreme Being, a Great Architect of the Universe. Equally, too, he believed in survival, though he could rarely be drawn into a discussion of the subject. There was so much to be done in this life, I fancy, that there was no time to spare for speculation about the life beyond the veil.
"Whatever it's like," he once said to me, "I hope there's plenty to do."
Heaven as a place of ecstatic stagnation could never appeal to Edgar's restless spirit.
Narrowness of mind and intolerance in any shape or form he detested. The Chadbands and Pecksniffs of our time he hated, and would become at times violent in his abuse of that curious ecclesiastical mentality which says in effect to a working man condemned to the monotony of arduous labour for six days in every week: "Thou shalt not do anything pleasant on Sunday."
He understood the poor as few men have understood them, and he always maintained that the Church had lost its influence among them chiefly because of its insistence on rigid Sunday observance, by which it strove to add to six days devoted to duty a seventh day of duty, and to six days of drabness and monotonous drudgery a seventh day of gloom. It was those who themselves had drawing-rooms and comfortable armchairs for their Sunday evenings who were against the Sunday opening of cinemas.
Sunday, he held, should be a day of recreation and rest in the bosom of one's family. That he himself as a general rule worked harder and longer on a Sunday than on any other day of the week did not disturb this belief. He did so because of the freedom from interruption which Sunday afforded him. Besides, there was nothing drab or monotonous about his other six days, and he could take his rest and recreation when he chose.
It was only in connection with the observance of Sunday that Wallace showed any tendency towards ritualistic forms and ceremonies. In the matter of the menu for Sunday's lunch there was a ritual which in his establishment was always strictly observed. Throughout the nineteen years of my association with him, I cannot recall a single occasion when lunch on Sunday did not feature roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. In Hollywood, it is true, a slight variation was permitted out of deference to the convictions of Marie, our Methodist cook, who insisted on heretical waffles as a substitute for the orthodox Yorkshire pudding. But the change only made the Sabbath ritual more beautiful; for waffles, cooked as only a Southern woman can cook them, are more divine than any pudding that ever came out of Yorkshire.
Wallace, as I have said, believed in survival after death, but he had no interest and but little patience with the efforts of spiritualists to establish communication with discarnate entities. He did not, as is the way of so many who are as ignorant as he was of the methods of the spiritualist and the results secured, airily dismiss the whole of the spiritualistic movement as incredible nonsense based solely on a combination of self-deception and fraud. He preserved, as he did on all matters which he had not personally investigated, an open mind, but he could never be induced to take an active part in any kind of psychic research.
The late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle pleaded with him several times to enter the lists on the side of the spiritualists. He was confident that if Wallace could be persuaded into investigating the claims of spiritualism he would be convinced of their genuineness, and that, once that end was accomplished, he could as a publicist do invaluable work for the advance of spiritualistic teachings.
In one letter which he wrote to Wallace on the subject, Sir Arthur remarked, frankly but amusingly, that Wallace must already have made all the money he could ever need, so why did he not give up writing his plays and stories and racing articles and devote the remainder of his life to being a sort of publicity agent to the spiritualist movement.
Obviously, conversion to spiritualism does not carry with it the gift of clairvoyance.
"I wonder," remarked Edgar, when he read the letter, "whether I shall ever have made all the money I could ever need."
I always regretted that he had no inclination towards the investigation of psychic phenomena. I was always deeply interested in the subject, and had had some small experience, and Wallace was just the kind of man with whom I should have welcomed the chance of pursuing my investigations further. But though we sometimes discussed the matter, he never got beyond a vague sort of intention of looking into the question some day.
I did once succeed in extracting a promise from him that he would seek an invitation for both of us to one of the remarkable séances then being held by that keen investigator, Mr. Dennis Bradley, but I fancy that he subsequently regretted the promise. At any rate he put off its fulfilment over and over again, until finally I dropped the matter. Obviously his heart was not in it.
Wallace, as I have said, could not, with that logical mind of his, entirely deny the genuineness of psychic phenomena, but he was convinced that there was a great deal of credulousness and self-deception attaching to the whole practice of spiritualism. I remember his returning one day from a visit to a friend who was among the most prominent of those who profess a belief in spirit communication.
"It's not only astonishing," he told me, "it's absolutely pitiful. Old—sits at his desk kidding himself that his spirit friends are rapping out messages all around him. I watched him closely and I noticed, after a while, that every time he said 'There, listen! Did you hear that?' the sound of the rap which came coincided exactly with the slightest possible twitching of his left hip, and the rap undoubtedly was a creak of his chair. I'm sure he didn't realise that he was doing it, but I did. Self-deception seems to become a habit with some of these idiots."
But he did not, because he was convinced that he had detected one eminent spiritualist in what, at its most charitable interpretation, was unconscious self-deception, consign all psychic matters to the limbo of incredible nonsense. He admitted that he had himself had several experiences which made any such sweeping generalisation impossible. It was, he always averred, entirely due to his encounter with what he described as a "ghost" that he ceased a bitter attack on Hannen Swaffer which he was making in the columns of the Sunday News.
Swaffer at that time was on the staff of the Express newspapers in the capacity of dramatic critic, and though some of his remarks concerning Wallace's work had been distinguished more for their acid tang than for their accuracy, Edgar bore him no grudge.
One such criticism in particular struck me as unnecessarily aggressive, but when I mentioned it to Wallace he did not, rather to my surprise, seem in the least disturbed about it. A critic's duty, he explained, was to say quite frankly what he thought of a play, and even though he might be temperamentally incapable of writing without mixing vinegar with his ink, the absence of the sweet tactfulness which, however bitter the truth they had to convey, characterised the notices of most critics, did not invalidate the criticism. It was just "old Swaff's" way of writing, that was all.
I know that, as a journalist of more than ordinary ability, Swaffer evoked Wallace's admiration; as a writer of those pithy paragraphs of back-stage theatrical gossip, he was probably unexcelled in the journalistic profession. But, as Wallace explained to me when the publication of the articles was first mooted, the ability to relate in a piquant way the fact that an actress had slapped a critic's face, and the knack of accumulating and dishing up in a tasty form titbits of theatrical gossip, do not qualify a man for the responsible duties of a dramatic critic, whose opinion, if unfavourable to a play, may go far to wreck its prospects.
The only quarrel which Wallace had with Hannen Swaffer was that he was a bad dramatic critic. He considered, rightly or wrongly, that Swaffer's opinion as to the merits or demerits of a play should not be taken as serious dramatic criticism, and that they received far more attention from both the theatrical profession and the theatre-going public than they were entitled to receive.
He intended in the series of articles which he proposed writing to do no more than reduce to less fantastic proportions the weight which Swaffer's opinions undoubtedly carried.
Two of the articles were published in the Sunday News. They were written in a good-natured, humorous vein, but there was no mistaking the mordant quality beneath the humorous phrasing. Wallace spent many hours pointing his arrows for the attack, and it was a bitter, stinging onslaught.
The articles caused something of a sensation in Fleet Street. There was talk of a still more bitter reply from Swaffer, an acrimonious wrangle seemed inevitable, and rumour even grew busy with hints of an impending action for libel—while Wallace sat at his desk chuckling over the fresh barbed phrases which he was coining for the third article.
But the third article never appeared.
The story was published in the Press at the time, and Wallace told it to me himself, fully convinced, I am sure, that he was relating something which had actually occurred.
I knew that he had spent a great deal of time writing the third article of his attack on Swaffer—he had read me extracts from it and obviously been thoroughly enjoying the work—but he did not give me the manuscript to be typed, and as it had to be delivered that day I went into his study in the afternoon to remind him, as I so often had to, that the paper went to press in an hour's time and that there was probably frenzy and despair in the office over his missing article.
I found Wallace seated at his desk, deep in thought, the dead stub of a cigarette in his lanky holder.
"About that Swaffer article," I began. "They've rung up twice for it—"
He cut me short.
"I'm not going to write it, Bob. I'm not going to say another word about old Swaff." And then he told me, in a rather shamefaced way, what had occurred to bring about this sudden volte face.
He was writing one night in the study of his house at Bourne End, and was busily engaged in the making of more barbed arrows with which to puncture what he considered to be the unduly inflated reputation of Swaffer as a dramatic critic, when a voice from nowhere addressed him. "It's very silly," said the voice, "and you ought to be ashamed of yourself."
He looked round the room, but there was nobody to be seen.
Wallace was a good deal of a materialist, and nothing if not of a practical turn of mind. He did not instantly jump to the conclusion that something of a so-called supernatural nature had occurred; he took the practical and prosaic course of getting out his clinical thermometer and taking his temperature. It was normal.
He went into an adjoining room, remained there for some time, and then returned to his study, where another puzzling occurrence had taken place during his absence.
Before leaving his desk he had taken off his watch and chain and had laid them on the sheet of paper on which he had been writing. On his return he found that the watch and chain had been placed on one side and that the offending sheet of paper had been put into the fire. The ashes, he said, were clearly visible on top of the coal.
An eerie incident like this might have upset the equanimity of most men, but Wallace assured me that he went to bed quite unperturbed. It is to be noted, however, that, whether as a result of the incident or simply because he was tired, he wrote no more about Swaffer that night.
He awoke at five o'clock on a bright, sunny morning, pulled back the curtains, and turned—to discover that in the corner of the room a woman was sitting. Wallace was not surprised to see her there. The only thing that caused him any surprise was that he was not surprised at her presence. And he knew who she was. He had never seen her before, and she did not introduce herself to him; but in some intuitive way he recognised her instantly as the sister-in-law of the distinguished journalist for the purpose of quelling whom he had been dipping his pen in vitriol.
"She began talking to me," said Edgar. "She spoke very quickly and never gave me a chance of getting a word in."
This detail, though not perhaps of much evidential value as to the reality of psychic phenomena, certainly bears convincing testimony to the sex of the visitor, and establishes the disappointing fact that Death has no dominion over feminine garrulity.
As to what she said, Wallace was always a little vague. His only really vivid impression was that she talked and kept on talking. She did not, apparently, talk about Swaffer; which is all the more remarkable since the object of her visit was, presumably, to persuade Wallace to let up his attack on her brother-in-law. Or was this tendency towards wandering from the point yet another feminine weakness which had persisted beyond the veil?
She did, however—and this is significant—refer to the bad week which Wallace had had at Newmarket, though whether this was done in a spirit of sympathy and condolence, or with the crazy idea of persuading him to abandon his betting activities, one does not know.
Eventually she went—"without giving the impression of violent rapidity," Wallace explained. "It would not be true to say that she disappeared or that she faded. In one infinitesimal fraction of a second she was there, in the next she was not there."
Edgar, as soon as he was alone, again tested his temperature, and again found it normal. This habit of putting the reality of supernormal experiences to the test of a clinical thermometer is one which might be followed with advantage by some of our more credulous publicists.
When Wallace, the following day, had related his experience to me, he announced that he intended to cease his weekly attacks on Swaffer. This was all the more surprising since during the last fortnight almost every moment available for writing had been devoted to these articles. Wallace had quite obviously been enjoying the work immensely, and several times a day would call me into the study to read me with unmistakable relish some new pungent phrase which he had just constructed.
His sudden decision to discontinue the articles disappointed me, and I said so. I also urged on him that it would certainly disappoint his readers. Wallace, however, was adamant in his decision. It was clear that he believed implicitly in the reality of the experience which he had just described to me, and in some unexplained way the appearance of the ghost had convinced him that his attack on Swaffer was foolish and should cease.
My own opinion, formed instantly when Wallace related the incident, and unaltered by subsequent consideration, is that, having realised the foolishness of devoting so much time and thought to so ineffective A sport as Swaffer-baiting—for Swaffer could not be stung into making a rejoinder, which would have added zest to the game—Wallace had been casting around in his mind for a graceful line on which he could make his exit with becoming dignity, and this experience—purely a subconscious one, I am convinced—had been the result.
If this seems a far-fetched explanation, a matter for consideration is whether it is not even more difficult to give credence to the dual appearance of Hannen Swaffer's departed sister-in-law. Wallace said that her attitude to Swaffer was definitely antagonistic; and, that being so, her first visit for the purpose of burning a paragraph which might have annoyed him would be conduct almost too illogical for even a discarnate woman. And her second visit to Wallace's bedroom at 5 a.m.—have spirits no sense of decorum?—seems utterly purposeless, since all she did was to indulge in a one-sided conversation about nothing in particular.
Wallace, however, was so convinced of the reality of the vision and its importance that he discontinued the publication of the articles forthwith. When Hannen Swaffer, shortly afterwards, embarked on a new enterprise—he left the Express, I believe, and joined the staff of the Daily Herald—Edgar sent him a telegram of good wishes, adding: "Please keep your relatives out of my house."
Wallace claimed to have had two more or less similar experiences previously. None of these visitations, however, had any very clear purpose, and they were as meaningless, apparently, as are most of the "communications" which are obtained at spiritualist séances, Wallace, as I have said, could not tolerate stupidity, and the low type of intelligence usually displayed in alleged communications from the spirit world may have largely accounted for his lack of interest in the subject and his reluctance to associate himself with psychical research.
But, though disinclined to undertake a serious investigation of spiritualism, he was persuaded that he himself possessed certain psychic powers. I remember that on one occasion in the early days of my acquaintance with him we were discussing various occult matters—it was, I believe, the question of picking winners by the aid of astrology—when I chanced to mention psychometry, that intriguing faculty, possessed to a well-developed degree by some psychically sensitive persons, of divining from physical contact the qualities and history of an object or of the people who have been in contact with it. Wallace was very interested.
"I didn't know the technical word for it, Bob," he said carelessly, "but I can do that myself."
I suppose I looked my polite scepticism.
"You don't believe it?" said Edgar. "Well, I'll tell you something about yourself. Give me your watch."
He held my watch in his hand for a few moments, looking thoughtful, and then began to talk. There were a few generalities, easily deduced from what he personally knew of me, but given out with the impressive air of one who is in contact with mysterious, unseen forces—there was more than a mere streak of artistry in Wallace's make-up—and then:
"And someone in contact with you—your landlady, I think—keeps a lot of yapping little dogs," he added, gazing psychometrically into the distance and screwing up his eyes as if striving to see more clearly.
"Pomeranians, I think they are. They irritate you terribly."
I admit that I was impressed. My landlady did possess a number of Pomeranians whose constant yapping nearly drove me to distraction, but I had never mentioned them to Wallace, he had never visited my lodgings, and he had certainly never met my landlady. I was inclined to believe that I had been given an exhibition of genuine psychic gifts.
Unfortunately for Wallace's reputation as a psychometrist, he employed at that time a messenger boy more talkative than any messenger boy I have ever met. I remembered that on more than one occasion he had been sent by Wallace to my lodgings to deliver a batch of Dictaphone cylinders; and quite a little questioning elicited from him the fact that after one such visit he had told Wallace about the herd of twenty-four Pomeranians in the house. Wallace, of course, knowing me as he did, had no difficulty in guessing the effect on my nerves of the yapping of two dozen toy dogs.
I did not seek another exhibition of his psychic gifts, and Wallace never offered it.
It was characteristic of Edgar Wallace that he liked to try his hand at everything, particularly at everything which offered the prospect of big money to be made without too much effort. He was always evolving some fresh scheme with that end in view, or simply because he had discovered some sphere of action which he had not yet explored. An unexplored sphere held an irresistible lure for him; it was at once an invitation to high adventure and a challenge to his powers of achievement; and once he caught a glimpse of it there was usually no holding him back. He was always confident that he could do anything rather better than anyone else.
During the course of his life he had an amazing and amusing succession of professions. When first I met him he had already been in turn a newsboy, a "taker off" in a printing firm, an errand boy, a hand in a rubber factory, an assistant to a street flower-seller, a ship's cook, a milkman, a mason's labourer, a night watchman, a bricklayer's mate, a soldier, a song-writer, a war correspondent, a reporter and an editor.
This, Wallace explained to me, was not a complete list of his past vocations, but only of the more important ones. At the time of our meeting he was a journalist and a writer of stories; and though, during my years with him, he never abandoned his calling of author and journalist, he was rarely just author and journalist and nothing more. He was always thrusting some new iron in the fire. Many of them burnt his fingers.
It was, of course, only the natural outcome of his story-writing that he should be interested in the films. He was always a keen patron of the cinema—far keener, I think, than he was of the theatre—and in the early days I often went with him to the pictures.
It was never a very enjoyable experience. He was, particularly if the picture were a mystery story, the most exasperating person to sit next to in a cinema. No sooner had the first reel been shown than he would always insist on explaining to me in a hoarse whisper just how the story was going to work out and by what steps the dénouement would be reached. I cannot remember a case where his forecast was not, to all intents and purposes, correct; and as each incident occurred to confirm his prophecy, he would give a smile of satisfaction, lean towards me and whisper in my ear: "There you are, Bob! What did I tell you?"
I have no doubt that, as a training in the construction of mystery stories, the experience would have been invaluable; but as a means of enhancing one's enjoyment of a film, it was a dismal failure.
In recent years, partly because his time was so fully occupied, and partly, no doubt, because he firmly believed that he knew all there was to be known regarding films and their making, his visits to the pictures were comparatively rare.
Several times, however, during our stay in Hollywood we spent an evening at the pictures, and I have a vivid recollection of the night when we went together to see "The Champ." Wallace sat in absolute silence throughout the film, and never once whispered his usual forecast of what was coming next. When the picture was finished and I turned towards him, I understood the reason of his unusual silence. The tears were streaming down his cheeks.
Wallace, hardened picture-goer as he was, said that "The Champ" was one of the most artistic and most moving films that he had ever seen. I do not think there were any dry eyes in the theatre that night. If there were, mine were not among them.
It was inevitable that the big money to be made from film production should sooner or later attract Wallace's attention, just as the big money had attracted it towards theatrical management. At first he was content merely to dispose of the film rights of his stories for a lump sum of money, and several of his books were filmed under this arrangement. A few years ago, however, it was suggested to him that a film-producing company should be formed for the specific purpose of making films from his books, and Edgar, seeing visions, as he always did, of an immense fortune pouring into his lap, wondered why he had never thought of it before.
Thus the British Lion Film Corporation was brought into being, with Wallace as chairman of directors, and a studio at Beaconsfield. Had Wallace been spared a few more years there is every reason for believing that the visionary fortune would have materialised.
He tackled the problem of film-production with his usual self-confidence and zest. Until he was suddenly elevated to the important position of chairman of directors of a film-producing company, he had never written a film scenario, nor had he ever played even a minor part in the making of a picture. But what did that matter? He'd make a film, and he'd show 'em!
For his début as a film producer one of his own stories—"Red Aces"—was selected, and Wallace proceeded to add to the orthodox methods of film-making just that touch of novelty which he added to everything he undertook.
The orthodox method of casting a film is to secure the services of one or two more or less bright stars of the movie firmament and surround them with a company of actors and actresses who have at least some knowledge of acting for the screen. Edgar, however, had different ideas.
It may have been that he was prompted by considerations of economy, or it may have been that, when there was such good fun in hand as the making of a film, it struck him as a mean trick not to let his friends join in the frolic. The cast, at any rate, when he showed me the list, consisted of one or two more or less well-known film actors, Wallace's chauffeur, Wallace's butler, Wallace's valet, and, I fancy, several other members of the Wallace establishment. It was all very homely. Sitting alone in my office in London I felt rather out of it.
One morning Wallace telephoned to me from Beaconsfield.
"Got your car in town, Bob?"
Yes; I had.
"Will it stay the course to Beaconsfield?"
Age had severely handicapped my car, but Beaconsfield was not far away. In any case, I wanted to see Wallace's domestic cast in action, and said I was prepared to risk the trip.
"Come along down, then," said Edgar, "as fast as you can."
I found him in the studio.
"Go and find the make-up man," he said. "You're playing in this film."
The happy family was complete!
That day, under the glare of the arc lights, I lost three pounds in weight. Wallace, though at the time he was grieving over his increasing waistline, could not be lured within their sphere of influence. He sat in his comfortable armchair and directed us.
I think we all enjoyed it, with the exception of Wallace's chauffeur, who felt, I fancy, that the producer's method did not give him fair scope to display his talents as an actor. Until he stepped before the camera Wallace would tell him nothing of the part he had to play—not even a gesture—and then something of this kind occurred.
"That's a corpse down there on the ground, Feeney," said Wallace. "Start walking past it."
"Now notice the body."
Feeney turned his head.
"Stop suddenly and looked scared."
Feeney halted and assumed a horrible if not a horrified expression.
"Take off your hat, Feeney, and cross yourself."
And so, one action at a time, the chauffeur's movements were dictated until his whole rôle had been fulfilled.
Afterwards, I remember, Feeney was in great distress about it.
"I'm afraid I let father down, Mr. Curtis," he confided to me sadly—Wallace, behind his back, was always "father" to Feeney, as Mrs. Wallace was always "mother"—"If only he'd told me in the beginning what he wanted me to do, I'd have made a much better show of it. Handing it out bit by bit like that didn't give me a chance of acting."
I comforted Feeney with the assurance that he had done splendidly, and mentioned his complaint to Wallace. He smiled.
"Feeney was great," he said. "But if I'd told him before he began what I wanted him to do, he'd have started acting and been lousy."
The chief merit of "Red Aces," when the picture was shown, was that it was a silent film. Talkies, fortunately, had not then been invented.
Later, when talking films started, the first of such pictures to be shown in this country was a film of Wallace's play, The Terror. He had sold the film rights to Warner Bros, for £3,000—the largest sum which up to that time he had received for the film rights of any of his stories—and when he heard that a talkie was being made he asked me to inspect the contract with Warner Bros, and see if talking film rights had also been acquired by them. He had, I suppose, visions of another fat cheque, and was disappointed to find that for the £3,000 he had parted with the talkie rights. He had not noticed it at the time, though they were specifically mentioned in the contract, and their inclusion probably accounted for the big sum he had been paid.
"Never mind," said Wallace. "We'll make some talkies ourselves."
After his initial effort as a film producer with "Red Aces," it was some time before Wallace again took the floor at the Beaconsfield studios. His next effort in this direction was the production of a talking film of his own successful play, The Squeaker. On this occasion no call was made on his chauffeur, butler, valet or secretary; moreover, since the production of "Red Aces" he had acquired a good deal more knowledge of the technical side of film-making, and this picture was a moderate success.
Unfortunately, "The Squeaker" was the last film he was to make; but had he lived to carry his film-producing further, Wallace might well have become one of the few directors who matter. He was always ready to tackle with easy self-assurance anything of which he might have only the scantiest knowledge—it was in this way that he tackled the task of producing "Red Aces"—but he also possessed to an extraordinary degree the capacity to absorb fresh knowledge and to "get the hang" of any unfamiliar subject in a surprisingly short space of time, and he was, at the time of his death, rapidly becoming an expert on the technical side of film production. It is work which would have afforded full scope for just those qualities of ingenuity and imagination which Wallace possessed to a marked degree. Once he had mastered the tools of his trade, he had all the makings of as great a craftsman in the production of films as he was in the writing of his stories. There would have been nothing ordinary and stereotyped about a film produced by Wallace.
His progress as a writer of film scenarios was a convincing example of his ability to adapt himself to strange conditions and of the astonishing speed with which he could master the technicalities of a new subject. When he went to Hollywood he knew little or nothing of the writing of film scenarios; yet within eight weeks of his arrival at the headquarters of the film world he was turning out scenarios which were as good as those of the best scenario writers which Hollywood could produce, and was recognised as an expert at the work. It would no doubt have been the same with film production.
Wallace was very anxious to direct the production of one of his own scenarios at Hollywood, and it is a tribute to the reputation which he so rapidly acquired among the Hollywood experts that, had he lived a few weeks more, his ambition would have been realised.
He wrote a scenario which was provisionally entitled "The Table." He spent a very long time over it and took infinite pains—the idea of his directing it was in the air and he was anxious to make it as easy as possible to produce—and the result was a "horror" story which, when it is eventually seen on the screen, will almost certainly be considered the best story of that kind which Wallace ever wrote.
The scenario was completed and sent to the film company on the Wednesday. On the following Sunday Wallace was taken ill; and on the Monday, while he lay at death's door, a conference was held at the studio at which it was decided that the film should be put into production immediately and that he should be invited to direct it.
Thus, had he been spared, his ambition to direct a film in Hollywood would have been realised; and, that step once taken, I do not think anything could have held him back. Film work interested him immensely; he displayed an extraordinary aptitude for it; and there is little doubt that, had he lived to follow up his initial success, the big fortune after which he was always grasping would at last have been his. But it was not to be.
I have already referred to Wallace's ingenuity. It was his outstanding characteristic, abundantly illustrated in his books and plays, but by no means confined to these channels of expression. He was constantly evolving ingenious ways of advertising, ingenious schemes of money-making, ingenious, if unsound, solutions to murder mysteries, and above all ingenious reasons why one of his own horses or some animal without a dog's chance could not avoid winning a race. He once told me that he considered his ingenuity his most valuable asset.
I suggested to him many years ago that he might make a profitable use of this gift of his by turning it towards some of those word-juggling competitions which offer big cash prizes for the succinct expression of ingenious ideas. I suggested that John Bull's famous "Bullets" competition offered a suitable field for his activities.
Wallace thought it was a grand notion. John Bull sometimes offered very big prizes, and it should be dead easy to land a few of them. The affair, of course, was to be conducted on business lines. We would form a syndicate—Wallace had an inordinate love of syndicates—consisting of himself and me. He would supply the winning "Bullets," I was to fill up the coupons and send them in in my name, and we would share the profits. There was no earthly reason why we should not land at least one prize a month, and thus secure a regular addition to our incomes.
Wallace set to work with his usual zest. Copies not only of John Bull but of every paper which was running a similar competition were obtained, and for some weeks he spent precious hours, which might have been devoted to the writing of a story and the earning of certain money, sitting at his desk manufacturing "Bullets" and other kindred missiles to be discharged at his constant but ever elusive target of easy money.
No prize ever came our way—possibly because he rarely agreed to the submission of any of his efforts—and the syndicate faded out of existence. On the rare occasions when he did agree to submit a coupon and failed to land even one of the minor prizes, he was always inclined to be indignant that the judges had failed to recognise the superiority of his efforts over those of the prize-winners. He would come into my office, a copy of John Bull in his hand, and read me a "Bullet."
"That won a thousand," he would remark contemptuously, "and it isn't a patch on the one I sent in."
He was nothing if not human.
Crossword puzzles caused the formation of another similar syndicate. It was soon after some criminally-minded person had imported them into this country from America, and the Sunday newspapers were so full of them that, had another world war broken out, a couple of lines among the crosswords was all the space that could have been spared for the story.
Wallace found me one day in an idle moment solving one of the swarm of puzzles.
"Don't they offer prizes for solving these things?" he asked.
I told him of some of the very big prizes which were on offer. The figures were tempting.
"Why shouldn't we win some of them?"
I pointed out where the difficulty lay. At 6d an entry, I explained, one would have to spend many times the total amount of prize money offered in order to cover every possible combination of alternatives, and as a business proposition it was speculative to a degree. But Wallace, with that prize money before his eyes, was not to be deterred by the fact that the business was to all intents and purposes a lottery, with odds of some millions to one against any particular solution being the correct one.
"We'll start a syndicate," he said. "For the first time in my life I'll supply the financial backing, and you can do the work. Draw an extra two quid a week and send in eighty solutions. We'll share the profits."
This time it was I who spent precious hours sitting at my desk, filling in coupons, searching dictionaries, and racking my brains for elusive words that would fit the clues, and after a week of it I began to cast round for a way of escape.
"Do you realise," I asked Wallace hopefully one day, "that the possible permutations and combinations in this puzzle make the odds against any one solution somewhere about four million to one? I've just worked it out. We might send in a thousand coupons a week and never win a prize."
"Oh, you never know, Bob," said Wallace cheerfully, and the syndicate continued.
Week after week for several months my entries met with no success; and then, one Sunday morning, I discovered that one of my solutions coincided exactly with that published. I was jubilant and telephoned the good news to Wallace. He, too, was thrilled.
"Fine, Bob!" he said. "What's the prize?"
"A thousand pounds."
"Good—five hundred apiece," said Wallace. "Now we'll try two or three of the other puzzles as well."
Thus the scope of our business was widened. Our two pounds per week to be spent on entrance fees was increased to five pounds, and the number of solutions to be submitted from 80 to 200. But though I filled in coupons until the squares swam before my eyes, this half-share in £1,000 acted as a powerful corrective to the nausea which had begun to attack me at the mere sight or mention of a crossword puzzle, and I was all enthusiasm and eagerness to repeat the success. Wallace, I am sure, had visions of ultimately winning all the prizes which were on offer.
But 200 solutions a week, even with another £500 dangling before me, began to take their toll of my powers of endurance, and it became dangerous to mention crossword puzzles in my hearing. Wallace told me later that, in all his experience of criminals, he had never seen such a murderous look in anyone's eyes as when one day a certain well-known actress, who had called on some business matter, innocently asked me if I could tell her a word of six letters beginning with L which meant "pertaining to milk."
And then one morning came our prize for the puzzle which had been correctly solved. It had been clear from the envelope what the letter contained, and Wallace had opened it before I arrived.
"Here's your prize money, Bob," he chuckled, and handed me a postal order for two shillings and four-pence.
Some eight thousand other competitors had also solved the puzzle correctly.
"Get some cylinders shaved," said Wallace, "and we'll get on with that story for the News of the World. I shan't have to share that thousand."
Thus the crossword syndicate, like the "Bullets" syndicate, was consigned to the realms so densely populated with Wallace's abandoned brain-waves.
Some years ago he conceived the idea of forming himself into a limited liability company. Whether he thought that such a company might achieve what he had never been able to achieve, and limit his liabilities, I do not know. It was, at any rate, a not uncommon practice, and Wallace was convinced that by this means he could escape a good deal of taxation.
His bank manager, I remember, when the scheme was explained to him, characterised it as "Gilbertian," and offered other severe criticisms. Wallace, however, was convinced the scheme was a sound one—actually it proved the means of saving him a great deal of money—and the company was duly registered under the title "R. E. H. Wallace Ltd."
Wallace's name in full was either Richard Edgar Horatio Wallace or Richard Horatio Edgar Wallace; he was never quite sure of the correct order of his last two Christian names, and nobody could enlighten him. Most people called him Edgar; his wife called him Richard; and a few old friends called him Dick. I never discovered the man who had the nerve to call him Horatio.
Edgar's uncertainty as to the correct order of his initials, I remember, caused endless confusion when the firm was inaugurated. No one could ever remember whether its correct title was R. E. H. Wallace Ltd., or R. H. E. Wallace Ltd. Some of the firm's printed matter bore one title and some the other. I believe that two seals were made—one bearing each version—and were used in accordance with the conception of the title prevailing at the moment.
Whether the scheme were a sound one or not, Wallace evolved one ingenious method of utilising the fact that he was now a limited liability company. He had printed dozens of pads of order forms to be used by R. E. H. Wallace Ltd., and handed me one of them with a satisfied smile. I asked him what it was for.
"Anything we want to buy in future," he explained, "we can order on one of these forms and get it at wholesale price. It will mean a tremendous saving."
The idea of Wallace saving was welcome, if difficult to believe in. I studied the order form with interest. It was headed "R. E. H. Wallace Ltd., General Agents and Merchants;" its sub-heading was "Buying Department," and there was a dotted line at the foot of the page for the signature of the "Manager, Buying Dept."
The predominant note struck seemed to be "buying," and it struck me that, instead of proving a means of saving money, the scheme was likely to inaugurate an era of reckless expenditure. If all he had to do to secure anything he wanted was to sign his name on the dotted line, what would not Wallace buy?
The only hint of any possible saving was contained in a note at the foot of the form which naïvely remarked that trade and best cash discounts must be stated on the invoice, but I felt convinced that the inevitable increase in purchases which the forms would produce would more than counterbalance any saving which even the best of discounts would effect.
There was only one saving clause that I could find. The form bore the words "Terms: Prompt Cash." I felt that if Wallace intended paying prompt cash for everything ordered, there was a big chance that his proposed buying activities might be rigorously curtailed. I pointed out the words to Wallace.
"If you really mean to pay spot cash for everything—" I began.
Wallace shot me a reproachful glance.
"That's for when we're selling things, Bob," he said, "not for when we're buying."
Whether he had some idea that in future he would only have to fill in one of his order forms to buy a couple more thoroughbreds for his stable, I do not know. Certainly on most of the animals which he did buy at various times he, or any other purchaser, was entitled to receive a very heavy discount off the price asked for them.
Not long ago I saw those pads of Order Forms, virgin and unsoiled, neatly stacked in the corner of a cupboard—a monument to Edgar's first and last serious attempt at economy. Not one of them had been used.
Just at the time of the formation of R. E. H. Wallace Ltd., Wallace, who never adopted halfmeasures, was inclined to form a limited liability company on the slightest provocation. "Dramisto Limited" was formed for the purpose of running his plays: "J. I. M. Scenarios Limited" came into being, with objects which I never managed to discover. Wallace, of course, was chairman of directors of them all, and not wishing, I suppose, to leave me behind in his rapid climb towards the heights of commercial success, he appointed me secretary to each of his companies.
In the midst of his other activities Wallace occasionally found time for broadcasting, though he never did a great deal of it. His voice was heard "on the air" about eight times in all; and probably his most interesting broadcast was his first.
This was in 1923, when he was asked by the B.B.C. to broadcast, on the evening of the race, an eye-witness's account of the Derby. He was fortunate in having such a thrilling race to describe, for this was the year when Steve Donoghue won his third successive Derby, riding Papyrus and beating Pharos by a short head after a breath-taking struggle.
Wallace "came through" very badly, and was at first not at all clear. His voice lacked the resonance which, in those early days of wireless, was essential to good reception. However, they boosted it up with amplifiers as much as they could, and we saw the race over again through the medium of Edgar's vivid and colourful description.
Towards the end of his broadcast he must, I fancy, have given a severe shock to the sanctimonious pundits of our national broadcasting organisation. Parth had run third in the Derby, and Wallace, having seen the race and convinced himself that Parth must inevitably win the St. Leger, confidently tipped the horse on the wireless to win that race. Parth, it may be added, was not in the first three in the last of the classics, but it can readily be imagined, when Wallace found himself in front of the microphone, and realised that a vast invisible audience was listening intently to every word which he uttered, how irresistible must have been the urge to utter one of those confident but unreliable prognostications despite which he remained one of the foremost and most popular racing journalists in the country.
Whether because his tip for Parth had shocked the susceptibilities of the broadcasting authorities who watch so zealously over our morals or not, Wallace was not again invited to broadcast on racing matters, for which wireless fans who might have taken seriously his ex cathedra utterances had reason to be grateful.
Later—last autumn—he was asked to broadcast on Saturday evenings a series of talks on subjects connected with crime, and these were extremely popular—except, I imagine, with the B.B.C. official whose fate it was to extract the manuscript of the talk from Wallace before the broadcast took place.
In broadcasting we followed the same routine as was almost invariably followed with his serials. On Thursday, with the talk due on the Saturday, Wallace had not given the matter a thought, let alone prepared the manuscript; and there was the usual bout of highspeed work and the usual last minute rush to deliver the manuscript in time.
Recently Wallace added yet another load to the burden which was already more than his shoulders could comfortably bear. Fleet Street had always been his spiritual home, and though for many years he had not been engaged in editorial activities, when he was approached by the proprietors of the Sunday News with the request that he would assume the editorship of the paper, he readily agreed.
The general idea behind the arrangement was that Wallace would turn the loss which the paper was then showing into a profit, in which he would have a generous share, his salary as editor being a merely nominal one.
I never knew Wallace refuse to take a chance of making big money, however heavy might be the odds against him; and we spent a pleasant ten minutes one afternoon calculating what he might reasonably expect to receive from the Sunday News during the next year or two. I cannot recall the exact figure at which we arrived, but it was a very large one. Wallace, when making such calculations, never needed much encouragement to add a couple of noughts to the total of his prospective earnings.
Wallace tackled the job with his usual reckless enthusiasm, and, aided by his old friend George Dilnot, did a great deal to brighten the Sunday News. Edgar's own weekly contributions would have cost any other paper hundreds of pounds, but he gave them prodigally.
His efforts did, I believe, result in an increase of circulation of some 40,000 copies, but far more than that was needed, and even Wallace could not transform it into a profit-making enterprise. One Saturday evening it abruptly closed down, and with it went another fortune on which he had more or less confidently counted.
It was, in one way, a great relief, for Wallace at this time was attempting far more work than he could hope to cope with successfully. For the Sunday News alone he was writing each week a feature article, a racing column, the whole of the theatre page, occasionally an additional article which did not appear under his name, frequently a short story, and now and then a column on the news page.
I once suggested that by writing the City and the Film pages he might effect still further economies. Wallace missed the irony and seemed to be seriously considering the matter, and for several anxious moments I was afraid he was going to do it.
The City page, by the way, was, I think, the only feature which Wallace had never undertaken. He knew nothing of stocks and shares; but, though his advice on financial affairs could hardly have enriched anyone but the brokers, the page would undoubtedly have been one of the brightest spots of the paper—which cannot be said for any financial page I have seen.
One of the most difficult tasks I ever had was to induce Wallace from time to time to deal with his correspondence. He would not write or dictate letters until it became vitally necessary, and I have had perforce to watch the pile of important documents on his desk grow and grow for weeks at a time.
Even letters as important as those from his literary agents, Messrs. A. P. Watt & Son, remained unanswered for weeks. One or more such letters was of course received daily, and the accumulation at the end of a month can be imagined.
His method, when eventually I managed to secure his attention, was characteristic.
"Send Watt a note saying that I agree to everything he has or hasn't proposed in all his outstanding letters," said Wallace.
When I first knew him he had a curious habit, which he never lost, of sending replies to letters by telegram; and he usually scorned the customary abbreviations, commencing his wires "Dear So-and-So" and concluding them with the usual "Kind regards." For a long time I puzzled over this prodigality, which seemed such absolutely unnecessary expense, and finally I came to the conclusion that his object was to save himself the labour of signing his name to a letter!
In this connection I am reminded of a curious circumstance. I went into Wallace's study one morning and found him busily signing his name all over a blank sheet of paper. I must have looked my wonder, for he explained.
Up till then he had been in the habit of scrawling a line under his signature. With one of his rare but ingenious economy drives he had calculated that every year he had been drawing so many miles of line, and that the time thus spent would amount to two or three hours yearly, which could be more profitably employed in writing a short story. He was now making himself accustomed to signing his name without the line.
Never once in the years that followed did I detect him reverting to the flourish which up till then he had always used!
In later years, his correspondence having grown to unwieldy proportions, the necessity for a more businesslike method became apparent even to him, and he engaged a secretary whose duty it was to come at 8 a.m., from which hour until 9 Edgar would, theoretically, attend to his mail; and this arrangement was successful in keeping arrears of correspondence within reasonable limits.
With at least three-quarters of it, however, one had no need to trouble him. I became able to classify, almost at a glance, practically every letter addressed to him.
The proportion marked "Private and Confidential" was amusingly large. Had the writers realised how utterly devoid of significance such inscriptions came to be, they would probably still have written the words, but less hopefully. It became easy to take Wallace's morning mail, select all the letters marked "Personal," and subdivide them into three or four groups with almost unerring accuracy.
There were the letters from professional beggars. These stick out a mile somehow, though I cannot say why. Any private secretary, however, who cannot instantly detect them should change his profession.
Begging letter writers have all had Edgar Wallace on their lists for years. He was deemed wealthy by these enterprising men and women long before there was any justification whatever for such a belief. Each morning brought the usual batch of harrowing and heartrending stories, some clumsily done, many so artistically composed as to appear almost genuine. A private secretary has to have a nose, however, which would do credit to a professional clairvoyante, and I very soon learned to smell the impostors. I cannot, of course, be certain, but I do not believe that during our association Wallace was ever caught—that way.
Then there were the letters from all sorts and conditions of people who wanted employment. The mental processes by which men and women in every walk of life, from counts to costers, arrived at a belief that Edgar Wallace could help them to find work, are, to say the least, curious. But principally these letters came from actors and actresses.
Until Wallace bounced with a careless gesture into the world of drama, I had never realised what an appalling number of out-of-works there are in the theatrical profession. Not one in hundreds has a remote chance of ever achieving more than a very transitory distinction; not one in thousands has the smallest prospect of entering the front rank; yet they hang on, these poor, feckless Thespians, dreaming their vain dreams, convinced that if only they were "given a chance" they could outshine du Maurier and rival Gladys Cooper, holding on to a pathetic and unfounded belief in themselves which persists up to the grave and, for all I know, after.
Many such letters, particularly from the women, were so atrociously written as to be practically indecipherable; but as I seldom read them, and never passed them on to Edgar, this did not matter much. Anyway, they were good for postal revenue.
There was always a number of "private" letters from people of all ages and sexes and degrees of ability, who thought they could write stories, and who deemed it their right to send their manuscripts to Wallace with a covering letter asking his advice and help. How they imagined that so busy a man could possibly find time to struggle through their effusions, even had he been willing, is a mystery. The solution which came to me on reading some of the "stories" was that they were completely devoid of imagination.
A very large proportion of such manuscripts were dirty, dog-eared and more or less illiterate. Many failed even to enclose an envelope for their return. Edgar Wallace should not only give up an hour or two of his time, and present them free with a written criticism of their literary efforts, but should himself pay the return postage.
What is the practice of other authors I do not know; but Edgar was so scrupulous about unwittingly absorbing an idea or a situation, and subsequently making innocent use of it in one of his own stories, that it was a rule, from which he departed only in the case of one or two personal friends, never to read a single manuscript so sent him.
I, on the contrary, spent many an amusing half-hour with some of the cleaner specimens; but I have no smallest fear that any ideas or plots may have seeped into my subconscious mind and subsequently pop up into objective consciousness as my own, for the very good reason that I did not come upon one which had any merit of originality.
Some of the covering letters were amazing in their audacity. Here is a sample:
"Dear Mr. Wallace, I have just come out of Dartmoor where I have bin for 13 years and have writen the story of my life which a marvelous one. Sir, if you will put your name on it I will go 50 50 with you in the prophets. Sir I hope youll do this bekos its as good as anny you ever wrote and I can do with the dough bekos Im going strait now."
They always were, these crooks, but they never did.
Many were of another type.
"Dear Mr. Wallace, I am only a young girl of 16, but I have always had the impulse to write and at school I took first prize in the essay-writing competition. I lie in bed for hours thinking out plots and have made several of them into stories. I hope you can read them. All the best authors write badly, do they not? Will you go through them and tell me your candid opinion, and then send them on to one of your publishers? I enclose my photograph."
I looked at it. Exactly why it was enclosed was a mystery worthy almost of a Wallace novel.
Then there were the letters from would-be "ghosts." These are the gentry who make a sort of living by writing stories to which an established author puts his name and which are so foisted upon his admiring and unsuspecting public.
A contemptible practice this, and utterly indefensible. Yet applications of this sort were received in scores. They came from all kinds of people, both men and women, many of them scarcely literate, a few from journalists whose names are so well known that it was amazing they should have sought to make a dishonest living in the shadow of a greater man.
They all shared the same fate; I had four capacious waste-paper baskets in my office. There were, of course, usually one or two anonymous communications, and I never brought these to Wallace's notice unless they were of an amusing character.
One gentleman living in a south-eastern slum regularly every fortnight for the last four or five years treated himself to a letter card on which he scribbled abuse and addressed it usually to Edgar but sometimes to Mrs. Wallace, marked "Private" but bearing no signature.
A Scotland Yard official was in my office one morning when I was going through the correspondence. I came upon the familiar handwriting and handed him the letter card.
"Know anything about this bloke?" I asked.
One glance at the handwriting, and the C.I.D. man nodded.
"Oh, yes, we know all about him," he said.
Our retiring correspondent was, it appeared, a man named Tickle or Pickle (it may have been Winkle, but that is immaterial). He was quite mad, though harmlessly so, and found his recreation in writing scurrilous letter-cards to prominent men. All his spare cash must have gone in postage stamps. A queer hobby for even a demented man.
There was a type of letter with which we were not troubled until Wallace became really famous. Thereafter, it appeared that his particular branch of the Wallace family (or should it be clan?) had ramifications all over the civilised and uncivilised world. The number of people who wrote claiming kinship with Edgar was legion. It is unnecessary to mention that they were without exception obviously in straitened circumstances!
The more intelligent of them wrote in general terms, confining themselves to the known facts of Wallace's upbringing and career; the rest allowed their imagination a free rein and endeavoured to carry conviction by the detailed narration of all the circumstances leading up to the discovery of their blood relationship with Edgar.
At first I used to show him such letters. He was not impressed, or even amused.
"Throw them away, Bob," he said. "I know all my relatives. These people are only trying it on."
Almost every day we received one or two letters from correspondents in all parts of the world pointing out what we came to designate as "stock errors." These occurred mainly in Wallace's early books, before I became his duly appointed watchdog whose duty it was to ward off these invaders from his pages; but even the best of watchdogs is occasionally caught napping, and there were certain slips which sometimes escaped us both.
Wallace, for instance, could never remember whether the gas from the exhaust of a motor-car was carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide. The exhaust pipes of the cars of his stories consequently emitted the two gases more or less alternately. Motor engineers all over the world were unanimously incredulous of the existence of a car that emitted dioxide, and wrote to tell us so.
Another "stock error" was that he invariably fitted the starboard side of a ship with a red light, which, as all the world, apparently, knew, save only Wallace and myself, would be liable to produce chaos on the high seas. I eventually hit on a means of making him remember that a starboard light is green. "Starboard Light," I told him, was a well-known brand of crème de menthe, and crème de menthe is green. Wallace was very grateful.
Another habit which he had in the early days of motoring was to describe the driver of a car as starting up his "engines."
There were, of course, a few genuinely "personal" letters with the handwriting of whose authors one was familiar. I only once remember making a mistake.
Wallace was opening his private correspondence one morning when he paused at an impressive-looking envelope and studied the handwriting carefully.
"Why has this come to me? I'll lay you six to four it's from an abandoned and destitute young woman contemplating suicide."
The amazing thing is that it was.
"How on earth could you tell that?" I asked. "I thought it was from—" mentioning the name of one of his friends.
I was not really astonished. Years with Edgar Wallace had destroyed my capacity for wonderment at anything he said, did or perceived.
"No, she makes the 'W' a shade different, and the slope is wrong, too. This is unmistakably the writing of a neurotic woman in deep depression, and the story is the same nine times out of ten. And neurotic women in deep depression almost invariably threaten suicide."
Wallace had an uncanny instinct for handwriting. He did not, however, rely altogether upon the technique of graphology. Although in early days I had questioned his claim to the possession of psychometric ability, I later had to revise my opinion. He sensed rather than deduced the personality of his correspondent.
While on the subject of handwriting, it is curious to recall how years of intimate association with a prolific writer provoke one to unconscious imitation of his calligraphy. I have of course signed thousands of letters in Edgar Wallace's name, and in recent years I found myself producing, quite without intention, a colourable imitation of his signature.
This led to an amusing if embarrassing contretemps while we were in Hollywood. Edgar asked me one morning to cash a cheque for him at his local bank. A form was handed to me for signature, and I wrote "Edgar Wallace," scribbling my own initials below. The bank teller took the form, looked at it, looked at me, then at the cheque, back to me again, and finally:
"Just a minute," he murmured, and disappeared into the office of the branch manager, emerging shortly afterwards. "Will you come in, please?" he said, a hint of coldness in his tone.
I went, with the firm step born of conscious rectitude.
The manager was urbane but firm.
"We can't cash this cheque, Mr.—"
"Curtis," I supplied, beginning to feel almost guilty.
"Just look," he went on, "at the difference between the signature on the cheque and that which Mr. Wallace gave us when he opened the account."
I looked. There certainly was a marked dissimilarity. The first signature had obviously been written carefully, that it might be readable. I said as much.
"Perhaps you're right," said the bank manager, "but now you come along and sign Mr. Wallace's name so that we can hardly tell the difference. What's the great idea?"
I suggested mildly that the best idea would be to ring up Edgar at his house, and quoted the number.
They telephoned to Wallace. Fortunately he was in. He said he would be round at the bank within a few minutes and settle the matter in person.
"This cheque, Mr. Wallace," began the manager, when Edgar strolled in. "The signature is so unlike the one you gave us—"
Wallace took the cheque, examined it, and turned to me.
"Bob," he said, "did you sign this or did I? All right," he went on, pulling out his cheque book. "I expect I wrote it in a hurry and it's not much like my usual signature. I'll write you another."
He wrote and signed another cheque and handed it to the manager, who carefully compared it with the specimen signature, and, with a sad shake of his head, returned it to Wallace.
"Thank you, Mr. Wallace," he said, "but this signature is even less like the specimen. I'll pay out on the first cheque. But don't write another or I guess I'll change my mind."
With the sole exception of horse-racing, no form of sport made the least appeal to Wallace. It is, I believe, a fact that he never took part in any athletic game; and the keen interest in some outdoor game or other which most boys develop in their 'teens and retain throughout their lives is a typical English characteristic which Wallace completely lacked.
The truth is, I suppose, that at the age when most boys are playing their cricket and football, Wallace was far too fully occupied in selling newspapers and running errands or acting as cook in a trawler or following one of the other strange vocations of his kaleidoscopic youth, to have time to disport himself on the playing fields.
But it is rather surprising that, in later years at any rate, he should not have taken up some game. He liked to try his hand at everything; he was inclined to believe that he could do everything at which he did try his hand rather better than anyone else; and it would have been more in keeping with his character if he had decided to take up, say, boxing, fully determined to show Camera just how the business of pugilism should be conducted. Yet I never knew him evince the least ambition to excel at any game, or even to claim that he could excel if he cared to take it up.
Racing was little less than a consuming passion with him and absorbed his interest to the exclusion of all other forms of sport.
Wallace not only played no athletic game himself, but was unspeakably bored if he had to watch others doing so. Cup Finals, Test Matches, Tennis Championships, Golf Tournaments, one of which at least has an attraction for most men, left him cold. I often tried to coax him into attending one of the great festivals of sport, but never succeeded in doing so. If he could not go racing he preferred to spend his leisure hours at home.
I did once attend an Association football match with him. It was at Blackpool during his political campaign. Both Wallace and his opponent were invited to be present at a football match between Blackpool and, I believe, Huddersfield. Wallace did not want to go; he would, I am sure, far sooner have addressed a dozen political meetings than spend an afternoon watching football. But his election agent was adamant. Political considerations, he insisted, must come first, and it would never do to create the impression among the electors of Blackpool, who take their football very seriously, that the prospective representative of Lloyd George Liberalism was not a thorough-going sportsman to whom football was the breath of life and the fortunes of the local club a matter of supreme importance. Wallace, he said, must attend the match and display in public his interest in the game. If he could manage to get a little excited about it, so much the better for his prospects of election.
Wallace, who was really anxious to win the election, yielded to his agent's superior wisdom and attended the match. It is to be hoped that none of his constituents noticed him there. He sat throughout the game like a statue of Depression, gazing dully at the field, smoking cigarette after cigarette, constantly consulting his watch, rarely speaking except to inquire at what time the match would be over, and with an expression on his face which plainly declared his boredom and his inability to understand what all the excitement was about. I reminded him that an occasional "Well played!" or a faint cheer from his lips might easily be worth a few hundred votes on polling day, but he only sighed and looked at his watch again. If his agent had seen him it would have broken his loyal heart.
I did my best to compensate for Wallace's deplorable neglect of his political interests. I am something of a football fan, and to display a little enthusiasm for the Blackpool team was not difficult. During one sparkling movement by the home forward line I remember that I joined spontaneously in the outburst of encouraging cheers. I believe I rose from my seat in my excitement.
Wallace turned to me with an expression of pitying wonder in his eyes.
"Does this sort of thing really thrill you, Bob?" he inquired.
I said that it did.
"I suppose there must be something in it which I don't understand," he sighed. "Now, if this were Epsom..."
The same thought often occurred to me during our political campaign in Blackpool. If only Wallace had been contesting Epsom, even Liberalism might have stood a chance. He was a familiar figure on all the southern race-courses, almost as much a permanent feature of the landscape as the starting-gate and winning-post. Everyone, great or small, in the racing world knew him, and most of them loved him—not excluding the bookmakers—and I imagine that in any constituency where racing was a dominant interest he would have headed the poll without much difficulty. Often I found myself wishing that his friends in the racing world had not loved him quite so well; the deluge of "information" might then have been smaller, and Wallace's weekly cheques to his bookmakers for less impressive sums.
The nearest approach to indulgence in any sport to which Wallace ever admitted was revolver shooting. He often told me that when he was a young man he was a crack revolver shot. I know that he possessed a revolver, but during our association he never used it, and I had no chance of seeing an exhibition of his skill. No other kind of shooting interested him. "Shooting," as understood by the frequenters of the grouse moors, he did not classify as a "sport."
Although he was passionately fond of horse-racing and everything connected with it, Wallace, in all the years that I knew him, never once got on a horse. He had ridden a good deal as a young man when he was abroad—chiefly, I believe, because in those days a motor-car was unobtainable and a horse was the only available means of transport—but he always admitted that he was a very bad horseman and that he never enjoyed the experience. He was fond of telling an amusing story against himself as a rider, which, though it must have appeared in print before, is worth retelling.
He was acting as special newspaper correspondent at the time in Morocco, and one day, in order to keep an appointment with some brigand chief in the interests of his paper, he hired a weedy old horse and set out. He had not gone far before his horse slipped, and Wallace, readily quitting his insecure seat, was deposited on the ground. He was rather badly shaken, and an old Jew, seeing what had happened, ran out of the bazaar, helped him to his feet and assisted him into the saddle again.
"You were thrown from your horse, my friend," explained the Jew, "because you are using the wrong sort of saddle. This one is quite unsuited to your requirements. If you would care to have it, I can send you a saddle from which you cannot fall."
That, declared Wallace, was just the saddle for which he had always yearned, and he eagerly gave an order for one to be delivered at his hotel.
That afternoon it duly arrived. It was a pair of boots!
Actually, physical exertion of any kind was distasteful to Wallace. He detested walking even the shortest distance, and he used to boast that he did not walk four miles in the course of a year.
I doubt if any man in an equal span of years travelled a greater total distance in lifts, and I am sure that no one ever travelled shorter distances in a car. He would summon his car to carry him a distance which he could have covered comfortably on foot by the time the car could reach his door; and though he rarely patronised public vehicles, I was once with him when he took a taxi from one side of Cavendish Square to the other.
Had the idea ever occurred to him, I am firmly convinced that Wallace would have had escalators connecting the floors of his house, and probably moving platforms to bear him from room to room.
It is not surprising that this physical laziness produced a tendency to stoutness, and in turn his stoutness tended to make him still more physically lazy. Thus a vicious circle was formed, and on various occasions, since Wallace would periodically become gravely concerned over his vanishing slimness, I did my best to cut into it.
There is a lake in Regent's Park, close to which Edgar lived for many years, where boats, complete with sliding-seats and outriggers and all other inducements to strenuous effort, may be hired; and it struck me that if he could be induced to take a taxi each morning to the lake—I was not optimistic enough to entertain the idea of his walking—and indulge in half-an-hour's exercise with the sculls, the problem of checking his growing waistline would be solved.
I suggested the scheme to him, and, in order to stimulate him into competitive action, volunteered to arrive each morning an hour earlier at the flat, accompany him to the Park and join him in a good stiff bout of sculling. We would then return to the flat, refreshed, invigorated, and glowing with robust health, to tackle the day's work. Once a week, I proposed, we should run a tape round ourselves and keep a record of our progress.
It was no small undertaking on my part, since I was at that time living in the country, and to share in Edgar's morning exercise would mean rising with the lark, which would certainly not rise at the hour it does if it had a long day of secretarial work before it. But I had a fellow-feeling for Edgar over this question of his figure, and my motives were not entirely altruistic.
Wallace was almost enthusiastic about the plan.
"Fine!" he said. "Just what I need. We'll start to-morrow—if you can get up in time."
"It will also be necessary," I reminded him, "for you to be up and ready to go out at eight o'clock. In the morning," I added, as an afterthought.
"If you can do it, I can," he said. "It's a bet."
As a bet it proved on a par with so many of Wallace's bets. With touching faith in his good resolutions, I set my alarm for lark-time, and promptly at eight o'clock the next morning arrived at the flat. I walked into the study hopefully, but there was no sign of Wallace. His morning mail lay unopened on top of a pile of folded newspapers in the centre of a tidy desk.
I waited for some time and then retired to my office and began to work. A couple of hours later Wallace strolled in.
"Sorry, Bob," he apologised. "But I sat up until three o'clock this morning talking to So-and-So. We'll begin our rowing to-morrow. Don't be late."
The next morning I again arrived an hour before my usual time and again waited two hours for Wallace to appear. As it was a wet morning, he said, he took it for granted that we should not go. But it had only started raining twenty minutes before he put in an appearance.
The following morning I did not reach the flat until my usual time. It was a fine morning, but Wallace made no comment. Thereafter neither of us referred to the Regent's Park plan again.
There were other outbreaks of good intentions. Wallace was most fastidious about his personal appearance, and would periodically be plunged into gloom by the realisation that his once slim figure was disappearing; and then, for a brief spell, some new scheme of weight-reduction would be mooted, and, on rare occasions, tried.
I remember arriving one morning at the flat rather earlier than usual. From the study, generally silent at that hour, came strange noises—rattlings, creakings and queer twanging sounds. I approached the door in wonder and listened; someone inside was breathing heavily, and there came an occasional muttered curse. I opened the door and went in.
Wallace, clad in singlet and trousers, was lying prone on the floor; a heavy weight was attached to his ankles, and his hands were gripping the business end of a bewildering contraption of elastic ropes, belts, pulleys and springs, with which he was performing, clumsily but with desperately keen resolution, prodigious feats of contortion and muscular effort.
As I entered he paused, disentangled himself with difficulty, and rose to his feet. From the alacrity with which he abandoned his exercises I was certain that he welcomed my arrival as an excuse for stopping his self-torture.
"It's coming down, Bob," he said breathlessly.
I inspected the moorings of his amazing home-exerciser, and pronounced them quite secure and in no danger of coming down.
"I mean my waist measurement," explained Edgar. "I've been doing this every morning for a week now, and it's beginning to tell. Look!" He pulled the band of his trousers away from the site of his most pronounced corpulence. "Inches less, isn't it?"
"Four, at least," I agreed.
So it was—as long as he could hold his breath.
For some weeks he persisted with the machine, and did in fact part with a little weight; but the day soon came when a heavy accumulation of arrears of work had to be tackled, and Edgar, provided with a pretext which enabled him to retire from his athletic activities with dignity, dismantled his home-exerciser and concentrated on the less strenuous labour involved in the use of a Dictaphone. When last I saw the home-exerciser, it lay, a discarded tangle of ropes and springs, on the floor of a cupboard.
On another occasion he patronised a system of morning exercises designed to reduce abdominal measurements, and, had he persisted with them, that desirable result would no doubt have been attained. But it did not take many days of that sort of effort to bore Wallace, and I soon learned that it was more discreet, within a few days of the inauguration of any new scheme for the attainment of slimness, to make no inquiries as to the progress of his waistline.
Once, I remember, chiefly with the same object in view, he decided that he would take up golf. Golf was going to do the trick. Twice a week at least he would spend a whole day tramping round the links. There was nothing, after all, like walking; it exercised practically every muscle of the body. He swung a walking-stick in the study to show me how the swinging of a driver, if executed with the correct pivoting of the body, brought into play just those muscles which he was most anxious to affect.
Wallace set about his golfing in his usual thoroughgoing way. He joined a famous golf-club, and was provided by his tailor with golfing raiment in which to cut an impressive figure on the famous links on which he was to play. He even went so far as to arrange with a friend—George Dilnot, I think it was—to initiate him into the mysteries of the royal and ancient game.
It was an excellent arrangement both for the golf-club's funds and the tailor's business, but as far as Wallace was concerned its benefit was limited to the kudos conferred by membership of a very exclusive club. Never once did he go near the golf-course!
The truth was that he was prepared to do anything in order to recover his youthful figure save abandon the habits which were doubtless the main cause of his losing it—excessive tea drinking and entire lack of exercise. At one period he tried massage, and he was always on the point of adopting a strict weight-reducing diet. But massage, though chiefly exercise by proxy, was none the less a kind of exercise; and dieting is one of those convenient affairs which need never be started until to-morrow.
Wallace could never be persuaded into taking such gentle exercises as a game or billiards; the only attraction of a billiard-table for him was that the cloth reminded him of the fresh, green turf over which thoroughbreds raced at Ascot. In the grounds of his country house he had tennis courts constructed and a miniature golf-course, but never, to my knowledge, did he make any personal use of them.
Of golf, as of most other games, he knew practically nothing. He certainly had no interest in the game. But he was on one occasion invited to a dinner given by the Stage Golfing Society at which the Prince of Wales was to be the guest of honour.
Wallace went. He might not care for golf, but talking was the one form of exercise of which he was really fond—he was a most fascinating conversationalist—and an evening of that kind would provide plenty of opportunity for talking. Evidently he talked to some purpose. The Prince of Wales, at any rate, next to whom Wallace sat at dinner, and to whom he was talking throughout the evening, scarcely stopped laughing during the meal.
After dinner Wallace was called upon to make a speech. At the time, his much-talked-of play On the Spot, dealing with American gunmen, was running at Wyndham's Theatre, and Edgar, in the course of his speech, remarked that he understood very little about golf. All he knew was that you put a small white ball "on the spot" and then proceeded to "bump it off."
In the circumstances, particularly in view of the large number of theatrical people at the dinner, the joke was quite a legitimate one; but someone present, with a covetous eye, perhaps, on the chance of any publicity that might be going, made the audible suggestion that Wallace was indulging in self-advertisement. Wallace caught the remark.
"If that was self-advertisement," he said, with a bland smile, "this is the first time in my life that I have ever been guilty of such a thing."
Few men, as all present were well aware, understood the art of publicity better than did Wallace, and the remark drew an even bigger laugh than the one to which objection had been taken.
Considering his habits, it is remarkable that throughout his life Wallace enjoyed excellent health. Apart from a slight tendency to bronchial troubles, I never knew him to be ill, and he always regarded his constant good health as his greatest blessing. The mere idea of illness he detested, and on the slightest suspicion of feeling not quite up to the mark he would promptly begin to treat himself.
In his early days he had been in the Army Medical Corps, as it then was, and had acquired a knowledge of the properties and uses of drugs, and was as competent, he used to say, as any doctor to deal with his own trifling ailments and those of his family. He had, however, the greatest possible faith in the medical profession, and for anything but a very minor trouble would immediately call in his family doctor. But trifling ailments came within Edgar's province, and he had a cupboard stocked with all the usual drugs, with which he would dispense his own prescriptions. He deprived my doctor of many a fee.
Even the mild exercise involved in driving a car did not appeal to Wallace. Motoring for the sake of motoring he did not care about, and a car was simply a vehicle of transport. Every now and then he would startle everyone, particularly his chauffeur, with a determined announcement that he was going to learn to drive, but it never got beyond the announcement.
He told me, during our last trip across the Atlantic, that he had decided to do two things while we were in Hollywood—reduce his weight and learn to drive a car. Weight-reduction schemes I had learned to ignore, and I did not seriously expect this one to mature; and after our first experience of Los Angeles traffic during the 10-mile drive to our hotel in Beverly Hills—the south coast roads of England on a fine Bank Holiday are peaceful oases in comparison with the road along which we travelled—I was not surprised to find that his longing to become an owner-driver had evaporated.
Once I thought he had actually made a start at driving. I received one Sunday morning an urgent summons to his country house, where Wallace was staying, to help him cope with the concluding chapters of a serial which was to be delivered the following day.
"By the time you get here," he said on the telephone, "I'll have five thousand words dictated."
When I arrived I went straight to the study, expecting to find Wallace working at high pressure. He was not there; nor was he in the dining-room or the drawing-room or anywhere in the house. The servants had not seen him for an hour. Eventually, after searching the garden, I ran him to earth—in the garage. He was sitting at the driving-wheel of his car, alternately starting and stopping the engine, while his chauffeur, in dumb despair, stood by and witnessed the exhaustion of the batteries.
But Wallace, I discovered, had no serious intention of taking the car on the road. He had, it appeared, reached a point in his story where the villain was being chased in a fast motor-car by the hero sleuth, and Edgar, with that meticulous attention to detail which was characteristic of him, was only familiarising himself with the controls so that there should be no mistake in his description of the various actions which a driver makes. The self-starter had fascinated him, and he had forgotten his story—and his secretary ruthlessly caning a decrepit car all the way from London in order to arrive in time.
Later Wallace acquired a motor-launch, which, I was told, he would drive for hours at a time up and down the river. I never saw him do it. If he did, it must have been a very comfortable motor-launch.
Wallace had a tremendous appreciation of natural beauty and a keen eye for colour; yet in art his taste was entirely uncultivated and untutored. He knew when he liked a picture, but it would have puzzled him to say why he liked it; and of the technical side of painting he knew nothing. He used to claim, humorously, that he had far too much appreciation of art ever to visit the Royal Academy. He was, in all his journalistic wanderings, never an art critic—but only, I am sure, because he was never invited to be.
I never once heard him express even a liking for music of any kind. It occurs to me now, when I look back on the years I spent with him, that I never heard him whistle and never heard him sing. Even the bathroom, that auditorium selected by most men for their vocal efforts, never, to my knowledge, drew a snatch of song from his lips. When he went there he would take with him a supply of cigarettes and some tome of heavy matter about the Roman Empire or the French Revolution or an equally weighty subject, and remain for lengthy periods closeted in silence. On the day of an important race meeting he would probably substitute "Racing Up to Date" for the Roman Empire, but not even the prospect of an imminent fortune could make him whistle or sing.
Sporadically, he would amuse himself twirling the knobs of a wireless set, but never for more than ten minutes at a time; and a march played by a military band was the type of music which attracted him most, or, rather, bored him least.
He had, of course, a great fondness for literature. Only rarely, however, did he read fiction—except the newspapers; and I never found him reading poetry. History probably interested him as much as anything. There were few things, however, which did not interest Wallace, and he had a remarkable fund of information on a wide range of subjects, partly acquired by reading and partly gleaned from his own variegated experience, which was of enormous use to him in his work as a novelist. He had, too, an extraordinarily retentive memory, and rarely forgot the least detail of what he had read.
It was not often that he was obliged to consult a book of reference, but he greeted me one morning with:
"Look up St. Andrew for me, will you, Bob, and tell me all about him?"
I was a little surprised that Wallace did not know all that there was to be known about so famous a person as Scotland's patron saint, but I consulted the reference books and prepared a comprehensive digest of all the information which I could find about the holy man, and took it in to Wallace.
He glanced at it, frowned at it, and then at me.
"What the devil's this?" he demanded.
"St. Andrew," I reminded him. "You asked me to turn him up. There seems to be a little obscurity about the exact date of his death, but—"
Wallace stared at me with genuine distress in his eyes.
"Bob, my poor lad," he sighed, "it's the three-year-old St. Andrew I want to know about—the one that's entered for the Derby!"
He had confused saintliness and knightliness, and I had done an hour's investigation for nothing. He had meant Sir Andrew.
For all his zest for the exciting business of living, Wallace loved his home, and his happiest times were those which he spent with his family. He used to say that of all the gods' gifts to man the greatest was good health, and next to that he placed a serene, happy home life, for the sake of which, had occasion arisen, he would have made almost any sacrifice.
Social engagements encroach heavily on the evenings of a man as popular as Wallace was, but the evenings which gave him most pleasure were those which—editors, serials, articles, plays, perhaps even racing forgotten—he could spend quietly in his home.
He always had visions of a future when he would be able to leave the turmoil behind him, retire to some secluded country place, and there, racing a little, working a little, and idling a great deal, live peacefully, surrounded by his family and his friends.
He had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances—they must have numbered thousands—of both sexes. He was no misogynist; he did not understand women.
It was always a difficult task to persuade Wallace that his ideas on any subject might be fallacious; on questions of psychology in particular he prided himself on being an expert; and on this subject of woman he was firmly convinced that to question the soundness of his ideas was a near approach to blasphemy.
In dealing with his own sex there is no doubt that Wallace's judgment was rarely at fault. In real life he could appraise a man's character, analyse his motives and foretell his actions in a given set of circumstances with an accuracy which was at times almost uncanny; and in all the stories which he wrote it would be difficult to find among the hundreds of male characters born of his imagination one whose words or actions are not psychologically correct. But if there was a weakness in his equipment as a writer of fiction, it was the conception he formed of woman and her ways.
We had many an amusing argument on the subject; while Dictaphone and typewriter stood idle and the telephone was burdened with the beseeching voices of editors hungry for overdue copy. I used to tell him that he did not understand women because he made the initial mistake of believing that they are difficult to understand.
Actually, I insisted, they are far less complex beings than men, definitely lower in the scale of evolution, and capable of being classified into, at the most, four different categories. Once it is known to which category a woman belongs, it is simplicity itself to foretell exactly how she will react to any known set of circumstances.
There is no mystery about woman. That she is a complex creature veiled in mystery is only a popular belief which she is at pains to foster, because she knows that a man-huntress deprived of her veil of mystery is deprived of the weapon most useful in the chase. With beauty and mystery in her quiver her prey has little chance of escape; deprive her of one or the other, and the average male will become so fleet of foot that she will be lucky if she ever gets within shooting distance of her quarry.
Wallace would have none of it. Woman was a mystery—and he understood her. I was a soured and disillusioned cynic who was talking through my hat—and there were 20,000 words to be done to-day, anyway.
But if proof be needed that Wallace knew little about women, it can be found in abundance in his books. In all his stories I do not think there is one woman whom he managed to present as a clear-cut, convincing character. The firm, definite lines with which he drew his male characters became vague and hesitating when he tried to depict a woman; and, despite the infinite variety of complex feelings and motives which he always attributed to them, the pictures of women in his stories are always drawn to one of two or three standardised models.
It is the same with the women in his plays. Not one of them creates the impression of being alive. I always used to tell Wallace that no one with any humane feelings could fail to pity the hero who was forced by the conventional necessity of a happy ending to marry one of his heroines.
Wallace was never really happy when dealing with his women characters. Whenever one of them had to appear in a story, there was always a very appreciable decrease in the speed at which he worked; and I am sure that both in his plays and in his novels he introduced women simply because a play or a serial without a love interest would make managers and editors shudder, and that it would have been an enormous relief to him if he could have cut heroines clean out of his stories.
Love scenes he simply could not write convincingly. I remember in particular a serial story which he was writing for a popular periodical. He spent a very long time on one instalment, in which was a love scene between the hero and the heroine, and when it was finished and the manuscript despatched to the editor, he told me that it was the most convincingly passionate love scene he had ever written.
The next day the manuscript was returned to him with a note from the editor which ran somewhat as follows:
"This bloke is supposed to be burning with love and longing for the girl, and you've made him carry on as if he were visiting his aunt. Ginger him up a bit, will you?—Kisses on lips and throat, and strong encircling arms that tremble as he clasps her—you know the sort of thing. And the girl's rather like a cold pancake, isn't she?"
Wallace did his best at the gingering business, but not with much success. We had a temporary lady typist at the time who typed the revised instalment. She remarked, as she handed me the manuscript, that she was glad her boy was not as soppy as that.
Wallace's ignorance of feminine psychology was not due to any lack of opportunity of studying it. Throughout his life he was very popular with women and had a large circle of women friends. His personal magnetism was strong, and he could be very charming. Moreover, there is no surer way to a woman's good books than to admit, as Wallace did, that she is a mysterious creature, hard to understand.
In everything with the exception of music, Wallace had a keen appreciation of beauty, and ugliness in any shape or form depressed him. Occasionally, when there was a rush of work, we were obliged to engage a temporary typist to help us cope with it, and Wallace's instructions to the agency were invariably the same. They were not to send him some sour-faced woman with scraggy hair and an expression like a wet Good Friday. The typist must be some nice-looking girl with a sunny smile and a cheerful disposition, neatly dressed and with tidy hair. Incidentally, one who could type. And if the lady supplied did not reach his standard of minimum requisite beauty, he would soon be telephoning to the agency for a substitute.
Providing a woman was beautiful, Wallace did not demand in her any other quality. Given the beauty, he would promptly endow her with every other natural gift. A beautiful actress was inevitably a great actress and a competent adviser on theatrical matters. If a woman were sufficiently beautiful she was a genius, and he would accept from her criticism of his work which, coming from any less attractive pair of lips, would have annoyed and hurt him. I am sure that a "Perfectly adorable play, Mr. Wallace," from a pretty woman carried more weight with him than the unanimous verdict of all the dramatic critics in Fleet Street. But most of us, after all, are just like that.
It was a popular belief during his lifetime that Edgar Wallace was a great criminologist; but it is in no way belittling his abilities to say that his reputation on that score was largely the product of journalistic exaggeration and public credulity.
He was the author of some of the best and most popular books and plays of the day; most of his books and plays dealt with some aspect of crime; and it was, I suppose, inevitable that Fleet Street, with that tendency to overstatement which is a feature of popular journalism, should represent him as a sort of super-Sherlock Holmes with an unrivalled knowledge of crime and criminals and uncanny powers of inference and deduction which made the solution of the most baffling murder mystery mere child's play to him.
It was almost equally inevitable that the public, with its tendency towards the apotheosis of any popular figure of the day, should readily accept the reputation with which Fleet Street endowed him, and fill up any gap in it which Fleet Street might inadvertently have overlooked. To him that hath a great reputation from Fleet Street shall be given a greater reputation with the generous British public. The journalistic mind loves extremes and has scant use for the happy mean in the neighbourhood of which accuracy and truth are most generally to be found. Give Fleet Street a penny balloon and it will instantly inflate it to the size of an airship; and the public will accept it as an airship, and be hurt and angry with anyone who tries to puncture it with a pin.
Wallace would have been the last to set himself up as a sort of master-mind in criminal matters. From the day when he began to write doggerel verses for the edification of his comrades in the Army Medical Corps, right up to the day of his death, when he was earning £600 a week for writing scenarios for the films in Hollywood, he was, first and foremost, a journalist.
He was, moreover, a very rapid writer, and one who could be relied on to produce at the shortest notice an interesting article on almost any subject under the sun. He always had something novel and arresting to say; and since most of his books had crime as their theme, it was natural that an editor who wanted an article with some such title as "Who killed Cock Robin?" should ask Wallace to write it for him, and seek to add to the weight of his theory of the crime by boosting him as a great expert in the subject. Wallace, as every editor knew, would be sure to produce an interesting and ingenious, though not necessarily correct, theory.
As a detective, however, and particularly as an armchair detective, Wallace was far from deserving the reputation which journalism thrust on him. With that self-assurance which was at once his strength and his weakness, he would tackle any problem which an editor asked him to tackle, and evolve a solution which would be sufficiently plausible to satisfy the editor and sufficiently sensational to satisfy his readers; but some of his theories, if they ever read them, must have caused convulsions among the Big Five of Scotland Yard.
The belief, which Fleet Street fostered, in Wallace's high qualifications as an expert in all criminal matters was also prevalent on the Continent, where his books were widely read. When I was with him on one of his visits to Berlin, the German public was shocked and frightened by a series of particularly daring and atrocious murders which occurred in the neighbourhood of Düsseldorf. The police seemed completely baffled. No arrest, at any rate, was made, and the murders continued; and Wallace was approached by one of the Berlin newspapers with the suggestion that, as one of the leading criminologists of this country, he should study all the evidence that was available in respect of each of the various murders and write an article giving his conclusions. It was intended, I fancy, that he should teach the police a thing or two about the detection of crime.
Wallace was no fool, but he was not the man, particularly when a fat cheque was involved, to hesitate to step in where angels might have been forgiven if they had feared to tread.
I asked him, one morning at breakfast, what was the programme for that day.
"To-day?" he said. "I'm going to solve those Düsseldorf murders."
I could only say that I very much hoped he would.
He spent the morning studying all available details of the various crimes, and then dictated to me an article in which were embodied the conclusions he had formed. As a criminologist he was as thorough and ingenious as in everything else at which he tried his hand. By a process of deduction and intuition peculiarly his own—the criminal classes, I am sure, would breathe more freely if the process were adopted at Scotland Yard—Wallace was able to issue a confidently detailed account not only of the murderer's methods and motives, but also of his character, tastes, habits, personal appearance, and, if I remember rightly, his profession. It was all very plausible and very ingenious.
Eventually the perpetrator of the crimes was arrested, and not one single detail which Wallace had supplied was found to be correct. He was not in the least abashed.
"It made a much better story my way," he grinned.
In order to write a thrilling crime story it is not, of course, necessary for an author to be a great criminologist. It is necessary for him to have the ability, which Wallace possessed to an amazing degree, to construct an ingenious plot which will interest and baffle his readers, and he must have a sufficient acquaintance with the ways of criminals to ensure that he will make no mistakes so glaring that they will be noticed by his readers. His knowledge of police methods and routine must also be above criticism, if he wishes to avoid, when his book is published, an avalanche of letters from professional and amateur sleuths pointing out the error into which he has fallen, and offering, in many cases, to place their expert knowledge at his disposal—for a suitable fee, of course—when next he is writing a similar story. He has always to remember that his book will be eagerly seized on by the real and would-be experts and rigorously scrutinised for some technical error which will afford them the opportunity of displaying their own superior knowledge.
The same is true, of course, not only in regard to the habits of criminals and police procedure, but in regard to the most commonplace details of everyday life. There is a type of reader who delights in discovering that an author has made a slip, no matter how trivial, and in writing to point it out to him. I remember that in one of Wallace's stories the detective in the case was made to light a cigar, and several pages further on, after the lapse of only a few minutes, he was described as carelessly tossing the stub of his cigarette into the fire, and there came a swarm of letters, some couched in the most sarcastic language, pointing out the mistake.
Wallace had his full share of such letters, particularly in the early days. Later, it was part of my duty to comb every story for such inaccuracies and see that no manuscript went to the publishers with any such blemish.
Working, as he usually did, at breakneck speed, he was bound to make a number of such trifling slips in any story that he wrote; and as I invariably had to type them in a hurricane last-minute rush, and be constantly on the alert for errors at the same time, it was inevitable that occasionally some trifling inaccuracy should be missed. It is surprising how difficult it is, even given unlimited time, to detect some errors.
I remember, for instance, that in one story Wallace described a house as being divided into three self-contained flats, one on each floor, the topmost flat being occupied by the heroine. In describing the arrival of her fiancé to visit her, Wallace said that he sprang from a taxi, hurried up to the third floor, and rang the bell of flat No. 3. I was rather proud of spotting that one. In a house divided into three flats, one on each floor, flat No. 3 would, of course, be on the second floor and not on the third. I was sorely tempted to leave the error uncorrected—to see how many readers would detect it!
Wallace had the details of police procedure at his finger-tips, and readers who searched in books for errors in that respect must have gleaned a very poor harvest. Moreover, throughout his life he had been in constant contact with criminals of all types and had got to know their habits, their haunts, their methods and their way of talking sufficiently well to enable him to create the right atmosphere in any story which he wrote about them.
It is the small details which most help to create the right atmosphere, and small details were exactly what Wallace, with his extraordinarily keen observation and retentive memory, was least likely to miss. He was a journalist who was quick to seize on everything which would help to make a good story; but to credit him with a profound insight into the criminal mind or abnormal gifts in the solution of criminal problems was, as he would have been the first to admit, absurd.
Probably nothing is so effective in creating the right atmosphere in a crime story—and incidentally in giving readers an impression of the author's familiarity with his subject—as the use of the correct slang. To call a coin "snide" instead of merely "counterfeit," or to say that a man is going "on the whizz" instead of using the commonplace and unromantic expression that he is going pocket-picking, is an immense help towards plunging a reader into the atmosphere of the underworld, and Wallace's most valuable acquisition from his contact with the criminal classes was, I think, the command it gave him over their slang. He knew it from A to Z, and was at pains to keep his knowledge up to date. Wallace above all else was a great craftsman; even the highbrows will grudgingly admit the craftsmanship of his stories; and, like every good craftsman, he was careful to keep his tools in perfect order.
In one of his earlier stories he so far forgot himself for the moment—the only possible explanation is that he was writing at an even greater speed than usual in order to be present at the first race—as to make one of his characters, whose profession was that of a coiner, refer to the products of his skill as "counterfeit half-crowns." In due course there came a letter, scrawled in pencil on a grubby slip of paper, which ran somewhat as follows:
"Sir—See page 74 of your book. We don't call them counterfeit half-crowns, we call them snide half-dollars. I've been inside for making them and planting them round Kentish Town so I reckon I ought to know. Hoping this information will come in handy, Yours truly,—"
The name was that of a man who subsequently harvested a heavy sentence for planting another crop of snide money.
Except for his knowledge of their slang and a rough and ready acquaintance with their habits, Wallace did not glean much material for his stories from his intercourse with criminals. The crooks in his stories were usually far more ingenious and far more daring than any whose names figure in the records of Scotland Yard. Certainly they were more attractive, as he rarely created a criminal character without endowing it with a saving grace or two. Wallace was always charitable.
As regards the psychology of the criminal, he had formed one or two generalisations, and he judged every case by reference to these. He had no sympathy for criminals, not even a sneaking sympathy. In his eyes crime, except in so far as it provided a theme on which a good story could be written, had nothing fascinating about it; if romantic figures like Raffles and Jimmy Valentine existed in the real world of crime, he had neither met one nor known anyone who had. He had always found criminals to be dull, unromantic, uninteresting people, living drab, ugly lives, who indulged in their criminal practices only because they lacked the energy or intelligence to earn a living honestly.
One of his generalisations, to which he clung tenaciously in spite of all evidence to the contrary, was that no criminal had any intelligence worth mention. They were all stupid—and he hated stupidity—and they owed their ability to live by criminal practices solely to the fact that there were people in the world even more stupid than they. Yet on more than one occasion Wallace himself, who had as shrewd a mind as any man could wish for, was cheated by an astute rogue.
On his first crossing to America, for instance, he fell in with a gang of cardsharpers, who, despite their lamentable lack of intelligence, mulcted him in the sum of £80 or so—not a great deal of money to those stupid gentlemen, no doubt, but in those days a heavy blow to Wallace's pocket, and a fairly broad hint that his low estimate of the criminal's intelligence might be in need of revision. It did not strike him, I fancy, in this light. But it struck him, as it always did, that adversity could be turned to profitable uses, and as a result of this experience he wrote a delightful series of short stories dealing with the activities of the card-sharping gentry, for each of which he was paid a sum larger than the £80 of which he had been cheated.
"That's where I'm cleverer than they were, Bob," he explained to me.
The criminal's chance of escaping detection in this country is a fairly remote one; but Wallace always maintained that, were it not for his utter lack of intelligence, his habit of specialising, and the fact that the "nose," or police informer, will always give away his best friend for a ten-shilling note, the police would never be able to cope with him. He was sure that, if he committed a crime, it would take more than the Big Five to lay him by the heels.
Another of Wallace's firm convictions was that all criminals are liars. He always said that he had never met one who was not; and he always maintained that any man who habitually told lies—useless, unnecessary lies—for the joy of lying was a potential criminal and would sooner or later find himself in the hands of the police. Yet he would believe any sort of hard luck story from someone who was down and out, no matter how blatantly untrue. If he did not believe it, he acted as if he had. It may have been that a lie told by a man who was in desperate trouble was not classified by Wallace as an unnecessary lie, and it was the deliberate, unnecessary lie which he abominated.
I remember once venturing a protest when a particularly clumsy story told by a particularly unpleasant individual had extracted two precious one-pound notes from Wallace's wallet.
"You didn't really believe that rigmarole, did you?" I asked him. "If that fellow's yarn was true, it was the most amazing series of coincidences that ever occurred to any man."
"Oh, you never know," said Wallace. "It might have been true. Coincidence is a queer thing."
And then, to illustrate the queerness of coincidence, and to prove to me that many a coincidence that occurs in real life is far too fantastic for a novelist to include in a story, he told me the following anecdote, which he assured me was true.
A man he knew took a lady out to dinner. The lady, to his sorrow, was not his wife, and he took her, prudently as he thought, to a small, little known restaurant in Soho. Scarcely had they taken their seats than in walked the man's greatest friend in the company of a lady of whom he was not the husband. The friend informed him that he had been patronising that restaurant more or less regularly for years.
Within ten minutes the husband of the lady whom his friend was entertaining entered the same restaurant, and with him was a lady who was not his wife; and not many minutes later, the father of the man's lady companion (who was not his wife) seated himself at a neighbouring table, and with him was a lady whom she failed to recognise as her mother.
"Put that in a serial, Bob," said Wallace, "and not a single editor in the country would stand for it."
On the whole, I should not blame the editors; but Wallace insisted that, from his own personal knowledge, the incredible series of coincidences had actually occurred. The inference was, I suppose, that he had been justified in parting with the two one-pound notes.
He had yet another firmly rooted conviction regarding criminals—that any man who had twice seen the inside of a gaol was a crook beyond all hope of redemption. A man's first conviction, he would say, meant little or nothing; it might be the result of a sudden yielding to temptation which would never occur again, of worry, of stress of circumstances, of a dozen causes other than criminal instincts. But if a man, after serving one term of imprisonment, was sentenced to another, it was sheer waste of time to try to help him any more.
There must, during Wallace's life, have been hundreds of men who, on their discharge from prison, either wrote to him or called to see him, begging him to give them the chance of a fresh start, and vowing that in future nothing would induce them to forsake the straight and narrow path of spotless honesty; and Wallace, labouring under that sentimental disability which made it impossible for him to say "No" to anyone who was in genuine distress or could pitch a moderately plausible tale of hard luck, could rarely find it in his heart to send them away empty. But he many times told me that in all his experience he had never come across a man or woman who had managed to go straight after serving a second term of imprisonment.
I doubt whether this conviction of his is borne out by the facts. Even Wallace, though he always insisted that he was right, must, I think, in his heart have had some doubts on the matter. Many a man, at any rate, who had served more than the single term of imprisonment which allowed of subsequent redemption, was given the chance of making a fresh start by Wallace.
Another pet theory of his was that at a murder trial it was always possible to tell what the jury's verdict would be before it was announced. He maintained that when the jury returned to court after considering their verdict, not one of the members, if the verdict were "Guilty," would ever look at the prisoner.
This, at any rate, was a theory on which he was not afraid to act. In the early days of his journalistic career he had a good deal to do with crime stories. He had witnessed several executions, and had attended many murder trials; and he often told the story of how, when he had been sent by his newspaper to report the trial of a certain notorious murderer, he put this theory of his to the test. The case had received tremendous prominence in the papers, the whole country was eagerly awaiting the verdict, and the paper which could first publish the news would score a big scoop.
Wallace, the keen young reporter, determined that the scoop should be his. While the jury were considering their verdict he placed himself conveniently close to the door, and as they re-entered the court he watched them carefully. None of them, he noticed, even glanced at the prisoner, and Wallace, confident in the soundness of his theory, did not wait to hear the verdict announced. He dashed from the court and telephoned to his paper that the verdict was "Guilty" with the result that his paper was out with the news well ahead of any other.
"Suppose," I said, when he told me the story, "your theory had been wrong?"
Wallace gave his self-complacent smile.
"It wasn't wrong," he said.
The incident is typical of him. Gambling was in his blood; and to a man who would risk both his own and his newspaper's reputation on a chance like that, putting his last £100 on a horse which had not a dog's chance of winning, for no better reason than that his barber, who had once cut Steve Donoghue's hair, had a strong tip for it, was the merest trifle.
Of prisons and the prison system Wallace had a thorough knowledge, as was essential for accuracy in his work. In his army days he himself had experience of a military prison. He had written a song which was being sung in a certain musical play, and in order to go and hear his composition performed in public he absented himself from barracks without leave. With his usual thoroughness he stayed away for five days—it was only quite a short song—and on his return was duly arrested, charged with the offence and sentenced to ninety-six hours of hard labour.
Long before he had served his sentence, he told me, any curiosity he had felt about prison life was more than satisfied. He picked oakum and hated it; he experienced the terrible strain of shot drill, and broke down under it; he lived on bread and water and potatoes, and for many years after, so he said, could partake of none of them with any pleasure. He left prison fully determined never again to run the least risk of receiving a second taste of it.
And that, in his view, was precisely the effect which a term of imprisonment should have on the criminal. Libraries and concerts and a diet which is probably far better than the convicted man is accustomed to live on outside, were not, according to Wallace, the right methods to employ to bring about a decrease in crime. He always urged the institution of disciplinary prisons, where the punishment would be short but sharp, and where, without exceeding the bounds set by humanity, the prisoner would serve his sentence in conditions sufficiently intolerable to make him determined never to risk incurring another sentence. A fortnight of the sort of misery which he underwent in the military prison would, he said, effect a permanent cure in the case of any but the hardened, habitual criminal. And why support a prisoner, and at the same time prevent him from supporting his family for six months, when a better result could be obtained by a fortnight of a less comfortable regime?
Wallace's experience had been that the habitual criminal, and his wife and family, had no horror of prison; they regarded it simply as a recurrent annoyance which sooner or later was inevitable, to be borne philosophically and got through with as little inconvenience and discomfort as possible. Neither the hardened criminal nor his dependents, as a rule, bore any grudge against either police or judge or jury responsible for sending him down for a spell.
In this connection Wallace once had an amusing experience. He was serving as foreman on a jury some years ago, and one of the cases with which the court had to deal was that of a burglar, I believe, who was duly convicted and sentenced to a term of imprisonment.
When the session was over and Wallace was leaving the court, he felt a touch on his arm and turned to find a woman, of the rougher working-class type, beside him. "I'm So-and-So's wife," she announced, naming the burglar who had just been sentenced. "You've just helped to send him down for a stretch."
Wallace was prepared for an outburst of abuse for the part he had played, as foreman of the jury, in depriving her innocent husband of his liberty, and his starving family of their sole means of support. Nothing of the sort, however.
"You're Edgar Wallace, ain't you?" demanded the woman. "Him as writes stories?" Wallace, wondering, admitted that he was. The woman produced a small book from her pocket, opened it and held it out to him.
"Then if you'll excuse the liberty, sir," she said, "I'd be real grateful if you'd sign your name in my autograph album."
Had his inclinations lain in the direction of crime, he would, I think, have made a most competent crook, and would probably have earned—and spent—as a member of the criminal fraternity an income even larger than he earned by writing about criminals.
He may not have been a Sherlock Holmes in the solution of a criminal problem, but he had many of the qualities needful to the perfect crook. His jobs would, I am sure, have soon become easily recognisable by Scotland Yard by the thoroughness, the ingenuity, the daring, the coolness with which they were carried out. During the flat racing season, no doubt, the speed of their execution, as in the case of his stories, would have been another characteristic mark of his handiwork.
Wallace, however, had no ambitions towards crime. He admitted that he had tried his hand at it, as he had tried most other things. As a youth he deserted from the fishing-boat on which he had run away to sea—with forged papers, having stolen a shilling and a pair of sea boots, many sizes too large, from the captain's cabin, and set out to walk to London. On the way he stole bread from bakers' vans when he could earn no money, and because progress was almost impossible in the captain's capacious boots, he discarded them en route and stole a pair of shoes from a window-ledge.
To get away undetected with forgery, desertion and theft, all within the space of a few weeks, was a promising enough beginning for a would-be crook, but Wallace evidently found a life of crime an overrated sort of existence, for he resolutely abandoned it. It was as well, perhaps, for the sake of his pet theory that all criminals are stupid. Had he joined the ranks of crookdom, there would have been at least one clever criminal.
There was another reason, quite as cogent, perhaps, as his contempt of crime and criminals, which would in any case have kept him away from a criminal career. I remember saying to him one day, when he had been telling me of a particularly ingenious plot which he had been elaborating for a story, that he would have been a great success as a criminal. He smiled and shook his head.
"It would never have suited me, Bob," he said. "Criminals are always broke!"
Wallace died poor. Worse than that, he died insolvent. The state of affairs disclosed when the details of his estate were made public was appalling. His assets were stated to be £13,000 and his liabilities £81,000. I doubt if even Wallace, cool-headed and confident as he was, particularly when he found himself in a tight corner, could have faced that position, had he ever known of it, with his usual composure.
Thanks largely to the Press, it was a popular idea that Wallace was enormously wealthy. Fabulous sums were quoted as his yearly income, and staggering figures given as the prices he received for book and film rights; and though during the last few years he certainly made a large income, the figures so freely circulated were generally far in excess of his actual earnings. The journalistic exaggerations always amused Wallace, who had been a journalist himself. When it became known that he was going to Hollywood last year the newspapers vied with one another as to which could endow him with the biggest salary from the film company to which he was under contract.
"You've probably seen in the Press," said Wallace, when speaking at a dinner just before his departure, "the various enormous salaries which I am going to earn in Hollywood. Personally, I'm pinning my faith to the Daily Express. So far it has given me a larger salary than any other newspaper. But there's still time for the others to increase their figures."
On my return to England from Hollywood after Wallace's death, I heard the most absurd estimates of the amount of the fortune which he would be found to have left. They varied from a quarter of a million to two million pounds; the most general estimate was somewhere in the neighbourhood of half a million. When the true state of affairs was eventually disclosed, the public was amazed.
But there was only one thing which amazed those who had known Wallace intimately and not merely through the newspapers, and that was the fact that his assets had been so large. We were puzzled to know where that sum of £13,000 could possibly have come from. Wallace, we knew, was incapable of saving money, and however long he had lived, and however large his income might have become, he would never have spent less than all of it—probably more—and he would certainly have died poor.
Wallace himself had a shrewd suspicion that he would eventually join that vast company of men who live in affluence and die in poverty; a company, be it noted, to which many a famous name belongs, and which gains so many of its recruits from those who during their lifetime were artists in some form or another.
I remember vividly the morning when he announced to me that he was making his will. It had been, for me, a week of surprises. Wallace had started it by backing a horse on the strength of some utterly preposterous tip, and the horse had won at 8-1; still more surprising, he had urged its claims so eloquently and proved so conclusively that no other horse in the race could finish less than three lengths behind it, that he had lured me too into making a modest bet on it; a serial story on which he was engaged, and which I had despaired of delivering to the editor by the appointed date, was suddenly completed and actually in the editor's hands several days before the day agreed; the weekly bank statement, usually a neat but depressing document, admitted that Wallace's long-suffering account actually showed a credit balance; and now here was Wallace evincing yet another incredible symptom of dawning business instincts and prudence by proposing to make a will.
I found him at his desk, gazing thoughtfully at a couple of sheets of foolscap.
"We're doing well just now, Bob," he said, "and in case I die suddenly while there's anything to leave, I'm making my will."
I looked interested, and Wallace evidently misconstrued my interest.
"Oh, no, I'm not mentioning you in it, Bob," he went on; "but somehow I've an idea that won't make much difference to you. As a matter of fact, I've been wondering whether I'm being a bit too optimistic in making a will at all. There probably won't be anything to leave."
I witnessed his signature without the faintest regret that my name was not included in the list of those destined to be legatees. I think that at that moment I, too, had a flash of prophetic vision and knew that he would die poor. As things turned out, I am glad that my name was not inscribed on one of those sheets of foolscap. It would have been galling to have been left a legacy of, say, £1,000 and not be able to collect it. Wallace, by his foresight, spared me that bitter pill. He was always considerate.
Two things were chiefly responsible for the distressing state of his finances disclosed by his death: racing and the theatre.
As a racing journalist I doubt if there was a better informed or better equipped man than Wallace in the country. His knowledge of all matters pertaining to the turf was colossal; his services were eagerly sought after in Fleet Street, and the articles on racing which he contributed to one paper or another during most of the time I was with him were deservedly considered some of the best of their kind.
But when it was a question of applying his knowledge to his own affairs, Wallace made a very poor showing. His bets were often bets of which the veriest tyro at the game would have been ashamed, and his luck as a general rule was such as would have forced many a man to the belief that the world was governed by some malignant demon whose main object and delight was to drive him to despair and ruin. I do not know whether in any years his betting resulted in a profit. Wallace, who had a comforting way of forgetting the cheques which he sent to bookmakers and remembering only those which bookmakers sent to him—they did not require a very capacious memory—would doubtless have stoutly maintained that the yearly balance was quite frequently in his favour. But I am certain that on almost any year's betting transactions his losses must have been very heavy.
Betting, however, would only account for part of his racing losses. He was an owner, too. The cost of buying, training and running racehorses is enormous, and this expensive hobby must have made many a hole in a pocket which already had holes enough.
Of bloodstock as such Wallace knew nothing whatever, and when he wished to buy another racehorse he was obliged to depend almost entirely on the advice of those around him, to whom his childlike credulousness prevented his attributing any but the purest and most disinterested motives of friendship. Himself scrupulously honest, he imagined others to be the same until he was compelled to believe them otherwise.
A charitable attitude towards one's fellow creatures, no doubt, but one which, especially in the racing world, is likely to put an undue strain on one's pocket. He bought horses which, had he been a competent judge of horse flesh, he must surely have realised could never be expected to pay for their keep; and he paid prices for them which must have made him as dear to the hearts of the sellers as he was to the hearts of his bookmakers. But each one that he bought he firmly believed would train into a big winner.
As with his horses, so with his plays; all his geese were swans, and that fact alone accounts for a considerable proportion of his losses on his theatrical ventures. Critics and public nowadays know geese when they see them, and give them short shrift. Add to that his habit of keeping a play running long after it had ceased to be a paying proposition, and of thus losing in London more than the play was earning in the provinces, and a further considerable proportion of his losses is explained.
Had Wallace followed the earnest advice of those best qualified to give it, and been content merely to write plays and draw his royalties, and leave the financing of them to others, the theatre would undoubtedly have provided a rich harvest for him.
And how many tens of thousands of pounds business-like methods would have saved Wallace! He had, particularly during more recent years, so many irons in the fire that, even had he possessed business instincts of the highest order, he could not possibly have superintended them all efficiently and still continued his writing, and his few business instincts were of the most rudimentary kind.
What Wallace needed was a thoroughly efficient business manager of the strong, silent, inflexible type, a man who would have kept a keen eye on his accounts, controlled his expenditure, and had the courage to tell him flatly, when Wallace airily proposed to spend a few thousands on this or that, that he could not afford to do so. For years I periodically made the suggestion that such a man should be found and set to work; others, I know, many times made the same suggestion. But Wallace never betrayed the slightest interest in the scheme, and the business manager was never appointed.
Perhaps such a man as was needed did not exist in this imperfect world. He would have had to be very strong and not so very silent. Somehow I can hardly visualise a scene like the following:
A bright morning in spring. Edgar Wallace, clad in his dressing-gown, is lounging comfortably in his big, swivel armchair, smoking one Gold Flake after another through his long cigarette tube, and scanning, with an occasional reference to the book of form, the day's racing programme. His Newbury member's badge is glittering on the table beside his cup of tea.
Enter the very strong but not so very silent business manager, a sheaf of unpaid accounts in his hand, and a stern, uncompromising look in his eyes.
"Good morning, Mr. Wallace."
"'Morning, old boy! Know anything?"
"Your betting losses last week, Mr. Wallace, amount to the sum of three hundred pounds, cheques for which I have just sent off. This will leave your current account again overdrawn above the stipulated limit. It is essential that you should write a story this morning—"
"Not this morning, old boy. There's one I've already been paid for which I haven't finished yet."
"Then what do you propose to do about it?"
"That's all right, old cock!" says Wallace airily. "There's a horse in this race"—tapping the newspaper impressively with his forefinger—"that wasn't trying a yard the last time out. I was with his jockey last night and he told me. He'll win to-day, and I'm going down to Newbury to back him. By the way, I shall want a couple of hundred quid."
"That, Mr. Wallace, is quite impossible. Your overdraft must be reduced and these bills paid before you can spend another penny. How do you propose to do it?"
"Aren't I telling you?" exclaims Edgar impatiently. "I'll have that two hundred in tens and fives."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Wallace, but I am obliged to refuse. My first duty, however distasteful it may be to both of us, is to keep you solvent, and your present financial position does not justify—"
Wallace touches a bell-push and his secretary, thirteen stone of stalwart manhood, comes in. Wallace jerks a finger in the direction of the very strong but not so very silent business manager.
"Bob, throw him out," he orders, "and then take a taxi to the bank."
No; I think not!
Though not a good business man in any sense of the word, Wallace had amazingly acute perceptions, as those soon discovered who tried to exploit him.
Some years ago he was approached by a syndicate which had been formed for the ostensible purpose of founding a new evening newspaper. The suggestion of these plausible gentlemen was that Edgar should be the nominal editor, a further and even more attractive suggestion being that he should draw £10,000 a year salary besides a substantial share of the profits.
From the first he expressed to me his doubts as to the soundness of the proposition. "But we'll see what there is in it," he added. "You never know...and I could do with another ten thousand. If it comes off you're on an extra thousand a year."
This was generous, even for Wallace, and I am afraid I deduced from the carelessness of the gesture the inherent slightness of the prospects. I was not wrong.
From the first he had insisted that to put a new evening paper on the map a capital of at least £250,000 was needed.
"We've got it," said the syndicate.
"Good," replied Edgar. "Show me that the money is in the bank and we'll draw up the agreement."
It then transpired that the money was not exactly in the bank but that it would be deposited the following day, or the next week. Need I add that up to the moment when Wallace finally broke off the negotiations, no documents had been produced establishing the existence of any funds whatever.
With characteristic shrewdness Wallace had perceived from the very beginning that his name was to be the bait with which the syndicate intended to fish for, and were confident of getting, the required quarter of a million. They had hoped he would be content with their assurance that the money was at the bank; but he was not as easily duped as that. Wallace found it very hard ever to believe there was money at the bank.
That was some years ago; the paper has never yet been inaugurated, and it is a fairly safe bet, I imagine, that it never will be.
"Sorry about that thousand, Bob," said Wallace when he had definitely turned down the proposal, "but you can make a bit on the big 'un to-day. I've had a tip for—"
The horse won.
This experience was so unusual that it deserves a paragraph all to itself.
Despite his lapses from grace during the flat-racing season, Wallace, throughout his life, up to the time when, with the production of his play The Ringer in 1926, his first really big success came to him, had been a tremendously hard worker. He had an enormous capacity for long-sustained effort, drove himself ruthlessly to the full limit of that capacity, and could do as much work in a week as any normally hard-working man, to say nothing of a trade unionist, would do in six times that period. Now, when success came to him, he began to see visions of a little more leisure.
"I've been working it out," he told me one day soon after The Ringer had been produced. "If I go on working at the same pressure for another five years, I shall be able to buy a place in the country and only write a book or a play occasionally. After all, I can't keep up this pace for ever."
That had always been his secretly cherished ambition—a place in the country and freedom from the constant necessity of turning out stories to meet his financial needs. Even then, in 1926, the strain of the preceding years was beginning to tell on him, and he was becoming a tired man, longing for the peace and quietude of a country life and for a financial security which, with his income, he had every right to expect.
Vain, pathetic hope! Within twelve months of his first taste of big success, he had not only bought a fleet of cars, but had incurred a fourteen years' liability for the £1,000 a year rental of a luxurious maisonette in Portland Place. Within a few more months he had bought his place in the country and spent about three times its purchase price in alterations and additions to it.
A little while longer and he had leased Wyndham's Theatre for a term of seven years and had made his entry into theatrical management. Was there at the time a slump in the theatre? He would soon put that right—as far as one theatre was concerned, anyway.
After he had plunged into this whirlpool of expenditure Wallace never again referred to his Five Years Plan. I think he realised that it would never be possible for him to carry it out, and that to satisfy the ever-growing demands on him he would always have to work as hard as he had ever worked. There were so many around him to help him spend his money as fast as he could make it, so many needing help which he would never have the heart to refuse.
Yet, had his affairs been efficiently managed, and had he been able to continue living, after success had come to him, on the modest scale on which he had hitherto lived, he could have died not merely solvent but rich. For himself he had no hankering after splendour. He liked ease and comfort—even luxury; he had in most things extravagant tastes and a liking for the best—with all of which his income could have provided him; but he disliked ostentation and display. After paying a visit to Portland Place to inspect the sumptuous rooms of the maisonette which he had just rented, he came back unusually depressed.
"I don't really like the place," he confided to me. "It's altogether too palatial for me."
It was five years, almost to the day, after Wallace had outlined to me his Five Years Plan that he found himself so hard up that something drastic had to be done to put matters right. Even then he had no real notion of the gravity of the situation, and the efficient business manager who should have put the true facts before him was not there to do so. Wallace had no idea that he was hopelessly insolvent. He even told me, when we were discussing the position, that, though he owed a good deal of money, there was more than enough owing to him to cover his liabilities. But he was vaguely uneasy, and for Wallace to reach the stage of vague uneasiness over financial matters, the outlook must have been gloomy indeed.
It was at this time, when, had he but realised it, he was rapidly approaching a financial crash, that there arrived an invitation to pay a visit to Hollywood. It was a trip which he had many times told me that he would like to make, and I was all the more surprised when I found that his first impulse was to turn the offer down. For some reason which he did not confide to me then, and which I could not fathom, he did not want to leave England. He seemed uneasy at the prospect of so long an absence from the country as the trip would necessitate. It was all the more remarkable because he was always a keen traveller, loved to visit new countries, meet new people, live in new surroundings, and got a tremendous kick out of exploring and conquering new fields. Novelty and adventure were the spice of life to him. Moreover, he loved sunshine and warmth and detested the murk and cold and damp of an English winter.
California offered the sunshine; Hollywood, the great centre of the film world, was a citadel well worth storming; yet he did not want to go.
The contract, too, which was offered him by the R.K.O. Studios was a tempting one. He was to receive 2,000 dollars a week, the equivalent, at the then rate of exchange, of about £600, which was a big sum even for Wallace. But he still hesitated, and for weeks the contract lay in the drawer of his desk only awaiting his signature.
I could see quite clearly that he was playing for time, hoping that something else might turn up to solve the financial problem and make the trip to Hollywood unnecessary. He was constantly telling me fresh arguments against his going.
The month before we actually sailed for America we went to Blackpool, which Wallace was contesting in the Liberal interest. During the journey he was unusually quiet, and seemed to be brooding over some problem; but just before we arrived he turned to me with a smile as though he had just discovered the solution.
"If I get in at Blackpool," he said laconically, "the Hollywood trip is off."
I was aghast. Arrangements by this time were so far advanced, though the contract was still unsigned, that our passages were provisionally booked; £600 a week seemed a preposterous sacrifice to make to avoid leaving a seat in the House of Commons unoccupied for a few months; and it had always been one of my dreams to visit California. Now there seemed to be every prospect of the dream dissolving, for Wallace then had little doubt of his victory at the polls.
"But surely," I protested, "the temporary absence of one Independent Lloyd George Free Trade Liberal won't make any difference in the next House of Commons?"
"Maybe not," replied Wallace, "but I can't let 'em down by pushing off for the winter immediately I'm elected."
It was, perhaps, the best excuse for that unsigned contract which he had so far discovered.
Wallace's confidently expected victory at the polls proved in the event an overwhelming defeat; but even with the excuse of Parliamentary duties withdrawn, he still hesitated. And then one morning:
"Bob," he said, "we've got to go. I'm not exactly broke, but I owe a lot of money and it's time I squared things up. We'll make ten thousand pounds in the next four months and come back with money in the bank."
"Not exactly broke!" That was all he knew of his financial position. He would make ten thousand pounds in four months, and everything would be all right. Yet a few months later, after his death, his liabilities were found to be £81,000!
So he went to Hollywood—reluctantly. I am convinced that it was only a stern sense of duty and a determination to square up his financial affairs and let nobody down that sent him on that fatal trip. Even after our passages had been definitely booked he still talked of refusing the contract, and it was only on the day before we actually sailed that the journey was sufficiently definite for me to buy my outfit for the trip. Even then my shopping was made a little difficult by Wallace's decision to finish the writing of a serial story before he left England. Actually he did not sign the contract until we reached New York.
Wallace was an enormous success in Hollywood. He had not been there many days before there was already talk of further and still more tempting contracts, and had he been allowed to spend a few more months there, I do not see how even he could have avoided becoming solvent—for the moment.
Throughout his life Wallace spent money as fast as and often faster than he made it. Those who knew him best knew him as a great-hearted, lovable spendthrift, reckless and improvident if you will, but generous to a fault; one of those men who are invariably known as the best of good fellows during their lifetimes—as indeed they usually are—and as improvident wastrels when death has put a stop to their generosity.
But his business capacity was negligible. For years he must have been insolvent, but he did not know it, and went gaily on his way, running a newspaper here, fighting an election there, and every now and then buying another racehorse, producing another play, adding another name to the list of those whom every week his generosity helped to support.
Wallace, within limits, could always get money if he needed it. A man earning an income like his always can. If I were to ask my bank manager for an overdraft of £100, that genial man could be relied upon at the best to raise an eyebrow, and at the worst to do something more emphatic. Yet if Wallace had asked him for a thousand pounds I have not the least doubt that the same manager would have tossed the notes to him with a friendly smile.
It was a pity that he could get money so easily. He sorely needed some sort of brake to slow down his rate of expenditure. Encouraged, no doubt, in the belief by the facility with which, in moments of stress, funds could always be conjured up, he seemed to believe that the supply of money was inexhaustible.
Had he been aware during his lifetime of the serious crisis in his affairs which was revealed by his death, he would have been terribly distressed. His golden rule of conduct was that Edgar Wallace must never let anyone down, and he would have set to work more furiously than ever to avert the crisis. And I know exactly what would have happened. He would have sat down at his desk, called me into his study, and greeted me with his usual smile.
"Bob, I'm broke," he would have said. "We shall have to write some serials."
Not plays, be it noted. Wallace, when funds became an urgent necessity, never turned to play-writing. At the back of his mind he knew, as was undoubtedly the case, that present and future financial security lay in the writing of books and not in the precarious and hazardous business of writing and producing plays.
Once, when I had been trying to persuade him of this fact, he all but promised that he would give up his stage gambles and stick to the job of writing stories, at which he was sure of making a big, steady income. But the glamour of the stage and the lure of big money were too strong for him, and had he lived to be a hundred I do not think anything or anybody would have enticed him away from the theatre.
In the days of his boyhood he was broke for the price of a bottle of ginger-beer; later, when first I knew him, he was broke for fivers; later still he was broke for fifties; at the time of his death he was broke or thousands. Had he lived, nothing on earth could have prevented him from being broke for millions.
Racing, the theatre, improvidence—a dozen causes may have contributed to the financial chaos; but the one real cause of it was—Edgar Wallace.
It was on Saturday, November 21st, 1931, that Edgar Wallace, after hesitating for weeks as to whether he should accept or decline the tempting contract which had been offered him if he would go to Hollywood, reluctantly, almost as if he were impelled by some force to do so against his will and better judgment, left England for America.
I was to meet him at Waterloo Station. Somehow the date and time of his departure had leaked out, and there was a crowd of friends and sightseers and Press photographers on the platform when he arrived.
He looked terribly tired, I remember, but in spite of the weariness caused by months of overwork and worry, he was no sooner among that crowd on the platform than he became his usual cheerful, buoyant, high-spirited self. He chatted cheerily with everyone, and good-naturedly posed for twenty different shots for the persistent camera men, and he would have me in the pictures. When they had finished:
"I'll give you a good caption for those pictures," said Wallace. "England's fastest workers leave for America."
Had Wallace a premonition of his approaching end? Did some whisper reach his subconsciousness that one of England's fastest workers would never see England again?
Naturally, at the time one did not recognise such glimpses as one got as being in any way significant; but, as I look back now on our last few weeks together, the memory of one or two little incidents convinces me that he had some vague feeling of uneasiness that the trip would prove disastrous, that he would have escaped it if he could have done so, but that fate thrust him remorselessly on to the stage where he was destined to play the final scene of his romantic career.
I do not mean that Wallace for one moment consciously contemplated death. In spirit, at any rate, he was still a young man, full of life and hope and plans for the future; and, as Robert Louis Stevenson said, no young man believes he will ever die. But there is no doubt in my mind now that some premonitory murmur reached him before ever he left England.
We were sailing on the Empress of Britain. No greater comfort or luxury can be imagined than is to be found on this wonderful liner, and as soon as we got on board we spent some time inspecting our quarters—they reminded me more of the Carlton Hotel than of a ship at sea—had lunch, and then, half an hour before the ship was due to sail, made our way together to one of the upper decks.
The scene that met our eyes was a brilliant one. Thousands of streamers of gaily coloured paper were being thrown from the decks by the passengers, who held one end, to the crowd on the quay below, and the whole side of the huge vessel was festooned with fluttering streaks of colour. It was a wretched day—cold, grey and gloomy as only a November day in England can be; but this was the beginning of a pleasure cruise round the world, and everyone was in the best of spirits. Almost everyone.
Wallace and I stood for some time, with arms resting on the rail, silently surveying the scene. Presently he turned towards me, and there was a brooding, far-away look in his eyes which I had seen there only once before.
"Bob, I've got a hunch—" he began, and stopped abruptly.
I waited a while, but he said nothing more.
"You've a hunch?" I prompted.
Wallace made no reply. Instead, he beckoned to a passing cabin-boy who was carrying a tray of paper streamers. He took one, unrolled the end and wrote on it with his fountain-pen: "Good-bye! Edgar Wallace." Then, turning again to me with a rather wistful smile:
"Let's say good-bye to somebody, Bob," he said, and tossed the yellow streamer among the crowd that thronged the quay.
Again we rested our arms on the rail, and as the vessel began to move, we stood in silence, while others shouted and cheered and called their good wishes and parting messages, watching the quay slowly recede.
All the passengers seemed in the best of spirits. They had that gleam of happy excitement in their eyes which comes to a traveller when the English coastline, gloomy and rather forbidding on a dull November day, grows misty and indistinct, becomes just a vague smudge on the horizon, and finally fades altogether from view, and he realises with a pleasant thrill that rain and fog and cold are being left behind, and that ahead of him lie warmth and blue skies and sunshine.
But not Wallace; and since, from long and intimate association with him, I almost invariably reflected his moods, not I. We were setting out on a wonderful trip, we were going to blue skies and sunshine, we were going to conquer a new world and in doing so make a great deal of money, meet a great many interesting people, do a great many interesting things, see a great many interesting sights. We were off on just such an adventure as Wallace loved. Yet, despite all this, there was some undercurrent of sadness about our departure, some streak of disharmony which jarred and put us out of tune with our surroundings. It struck me forcibly at the time that our sailing was not the cheerful, lighthearted business I had expected it to be, but I dismissed the idea as being only my fancy. Now I am sure that it was not only fancy.
When the last faint wisp of land had faded, Wallace lifted his arms from the rail and turned to me.
"Let's go below, Bob," he said in a subdued voice.
"There's an article to be done for The Star and another for the Graphic, and I want to post them both at Cherbourg."
It is my firm belief that at that moment, as the English coastline faded from view, Wallace had an intuitive knowledge that he had caught his last glimpse of "This England," of which he had written so delightfully.
It may be said in passing that in his book "This England," Wallace undoubtedly did some of the best work that ever came from his pen, and gave an indication of the sort of reputation he could have made for himself in an entirely different field of literature had his story-writing, with its certain financial rewards, not been so necessary and not absorbed his time so completely.
The book is a collection of cameo pictures of typical English characters, which were originally published in the Morning Post—charming pen portraits, in which Wallace's keen observation and powers of descriptive writing had free scope, and, I fancy, took the critics by surprise.
It was typical of Wallace that, with such a fear oppressing him, he thrust it aside. He had promised to get the articles written, and they had got to be written before we reached Cherbourg. Besides, though he did not even now fully realise how serious was the state of his finances, he knew that he owed a considerable sum of money and that to put matters right he needed every penny which he could make. Nobody, he was determined, should be let down through any fault of his, and the trip had been undertaken with that one object in view. We were travelling seven thousand miles so that he might earn a few more hundreds a week and meet the demands of some of his more clamant creditors. Of course the work must go on.
I did my best to persuade him that he was badly in need of a rest, and that the six days' trip to New York would afford an excellent opportunity of taking it before starting on the heavy spell of work which lay before him in Hollywood. One could loaf at sea, I urged, more delightfully and with greater advantage to health than in any other environment, and he had certainly earned a six days' loaf.
Wallace agreed—he would always agree in theory with any reasonable suggestion—and assured me that, with the exception of five articles, the opening instalment of a serial story and the rough draft of a scenario which he had in his mind, he would spend the six days in absolute idleness!
Throughout that week on the Atlantic and the four days' train journey across America I was conscious that something was oppressing his normally blithe nature; something was weighing him down and saddening him. He was disinclined to talk, disinclined to read, disinclined to do anything but stare moodily at the landscape. He had been strangely reluctant to leave England, and I got the impression that all the time he was regretting his decision to make the trip.
When at length, however, leaving behind us the bleak, icy Middle West and the stark, awful bronze majesty of the Arizona desert, we came to mile after mile of orange groves, with snow-capped mountains in the background, and overhead a warm sun shining in a sky incredibly blue, and we realised that at last we were in California, Wallace's spirits soared at once to their normally cheerful level.
I think he realised that ever since we had sailed he had been a dull sort of travelling companion and that he owed me something of an apology.
"We've been facing away from home all the time, Bob," he now explained. "As soon as we get there and sort of turn round and face eastwards, I shall be happier."
He was right. No sooner did we reach Hollywood and plunge into the excitement of work again than he seemed to shake off his moodiness and to become his keen, buoyant, enthusiastic self again. If he had any regrets at having made the trip, he forgot them now and threw himself whole-heartedly into the work on hand.
The arrival of Edgar Wallace in Hollywood set a new standard of achievement which made even the citizens of a country which is commonly, but quite undeservedly, credited with being the true home of hustle, open their eyes wide in wonder. We detrained on a Friday evening, and we had not set foot in Hollywood many minutes before Wallace was trying to get into touch with the film company to whom he was under contract. He was anxious to get started on the writing of his first scenario that evening.
Unfortunately the film studios were closed, and it was not until the Saturday morning that he was able to start his campaign. By ten o'clock he was at the studios, interviewing some of the R.K.O. executives. They had imagined that no Englishman works on a Saturday or Sunday, and that he would not dream of visiting the studios until the Monday morning. But when it came to hustling, Wallace meant to "show'em."
"What sort of stories do you want me to write for you?" he asked.
They told him.
"All right," he said, and we returned to the hotel.
"Bob," he said, with that anticipatory smile which I had come to know so well, "you won't see much of Hollywood this week-end. We're going to turn in a complete story by Monday morning."
And on Monday morning the complete story was duly delivered at the studios. Wallace himself took the manuscript to Merian Cooper.
"There you are," he murmured modestly. "If that isn't just what you want I'll get another done for you in a day or two."
During our first week in Hollywood we stayed at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, and, but for one distressing disability under which guests at that hotel laboured, we should in all probability have remained there throughout the winter. It was practically impossible to obtain a cup of tea after 9 p.m.; and since Wallace, when he was working, invariably got through at least six cups of tea between 9 p in and midnight, the hotel became, as far as he was concerned, uninhabitable. The restriction of his tea supply meant that he could not work much after 9 p.m., when, the craving becoming unbearably acute, we would abandon work and adjourn across the road to the Brown Derby, there to regale ourselves with coffee and "flapjacks"—the typically unattractive and descriptive name with which Americans desecrate pancakes.
Wallace stood it as best he could for a week, during which we searched for some abode where tea could be drunk at all hours of the day or night without hindrance and our work in consequence continued to any hour of the morning. A suitable furnished house was found in Beverly Hills, and we promptly moved in. Edgar, characteristically, was detained at the film studios on important business until the moving-in process was safely completed.
It is generally understood by the rest of the world that in America the sale of intoxicating liquor is prohibited by law, but a visitor to the country may be forgiven for not noticing the signs of prohibition. The very next morning after we had moved into the house there drove up to the door, in a powerful Packard car, a very handsome young man, tastefully and expensively dressed, who introduced himself to us as the local bootlegger. He could supply us, he said, with any alcoholic beverage which we might care to order, and could promise us immediate delivery up to any quantity. He supplied, he assured us, all the best people in Hollywood.
We instructed him to stock our cellar, which he did—expensively—with every known intoxicating liquor from champagne down to beer. The contraband goods were delivered the following morning in broad daylight, with no attempt at concealment, and in full view of any patrolling policeman who might pass. Actually there seems to be less difficulty about getting a drink in dry America than there is in "free" England.
Wallace was never completely happy without a Dictaphone. Long use had accustomed him to it, and he was always at a loss when obliged to work without one. In every country which he visited one of his first inquiries was for the local Dictaphone agent from whom he might hire a set of machines, and I had accordingly arranged for the necessary outfit to be installed before we took possession of the house.
Thus completely equipped, he set to work. The amount of work he got through during the ensuing eight weeks can only be described as colossal. In addition to the main work for which he made the trip to America—that of writing film scenarios—he was continuing his weekly articles for The Star and the Sunday Graphic, with an occasional article for the Daily Mail. In his spare moments he dictated his diary, which he sent to Mrs. Wallace. He rewrote an act of his new play, The Green Pack, which was being put on at Wyndham's Theatre during his absence. He wrote a 20,000-word short story and an 80,000-word serial, the latter produced at hurricane speed during one fevered week-end; Edgar downstairs in his sitting-room murmuring thrilling incidents into the mouthpiece of his Dictaphone until far into the night; I upstairs working my typewriter, producing the finished copy of the manuscript in quadruplicate straight from the Dictaphone cylinders, amending and revising where necessary as I went along; and Robert, the valet, weary but round-eyed, for he had never before seen us working at high pressure, producing cups of tea with chronological exactitude every half-hour, and wondering how long it would be before this seemingly impossible pressure would be relaxed and he could go to his well-earned rest.
Considering that the writing of film scenarios was entirely new work to Wallace and therefore meant far more labour than the writing of a story of which he had the technique at his finger-tips, it was amazing that he managed to adhere to his enormous schedule of work. But when he chose to work, nobody had a greater capacity for sustained effort.
During those last eight weeks in Hollywood we all worked hard, but none worked harder than Robert. With the sole assistance of a coloured cook, who came on duty after breakfast and went off after dinner, he ran the whole household. It became a familiar experience for him to have no more than four hours' sleep; yet every morning, at 7.30 precisely, he was at one's bedside, bright and uncomplaining, with the familiar cup of tea and the local meteorological information. And during those ghastly last two days Robert was a tower of strength.
Wallace was very concerned over the burden which rested on Robert's willing shoulders, and, in an effort to relieve him of some of his work, engaged a "night watchman." This young man's job was to come on duty at 9 o'clock each night and to remain on duty until 7 o'clock each morning, during which period he was to defend the house against bandits, burglars, gunmen, kidnappers and such other dangers as infest the night in God's own country, and make tea for Wallace if he should take it into his head, as he frequently did both at home and in Hollywood, to get up and work in the very small hours. For these not too onerous duties he asked for and received the sum of $25 weekly.
The night watchman, no doubt, had many admirable qualities; he was, I am sure, a model husband, a paragon of a father, and kindness itself in his treatment of dumb animals. He "packed a gat," as they say out there, and for all I know had the courage to put up a good fight should any bandit, burglar, gunman or kidnapper attempt to disturb the peace of the house which he was watching by night.
The trouble with him was that he had a tendency towards sleep which was totally out of keeping with a good night watchman's character. In Edgar's most comfortable armchair, reinforced by all the cushions which he could collect from all over the house, he slept more soundly than any night watchman I have ever known.
But whatever laxity there may have been in his watch over the house was more than compensated by the vigilant watch which he kept on the gin bottle. No sooner was it empty than he would take the trouble of courteously indicating the fact to Robert; and if Robert had sufficient bad taste to repay his courtesy with a reminder that nobody in the house drank gin or any other alcoholic beverage, and that since the bottle was last replenished no guests had been entertained, he was always righteously indignant at the slur cast on his honesty.
As far as relieving Robert was concerned, our night watchman was a failure. If Wallace got up at 5 a.m. and asked for a cup of tea, the night watchman would wake Robert to make it for him; and once, aroused from his watchful slumbers at 4 a.m. by the ringing of the telephone bell, he politely woke me so that I might have the privilege of informing the caller that the previous tenant of the house now lived somewhere else.
Add that our night watchman's name was Clarence, and you have a perfect picture of a true American democrat.
A week before Wallace was taken ill occurred one of those queer incidents to which one pays but little attention at the time, but which in retrospect make one wonder whether they may not, after all, have had some significance.
Wallace was in conference at the film studios, and I, awaiting his return to continue work on a scenario with him, was lounging in an armchair in the sitting-room, reading a newspaper. It was a beautiful morning, the sky blue and the sun warm. Everyone who is familiar with California in February knows how inadequate is any language to describe its beauty.
The tall French windows which led into the garden were wide open. Suddenly there came a flutter, and I glanced up from my paper. A bird, of a species unknown to me, but a little larger than a thrush, had flown into the sitting-room, and was fluttering round in a desperate effort to find its way out again.
Robert at that moment came into the room, gently caught the intruder in his hands, carried it to the window and set it free into the sunlight. When he turned again towards me there was a strangely anxious expression on his face.
"What's the matter, Robert?" I asked.
He shook his head gravely.
"That bird, sir," he said. "That looks bad—flying in the house like that."
I did not for the moment remember that Robert is a countryman born and bred, and that a number of what we superior folk call idle superstitions are in the country articles of strong faith.
"It means a death for sure," said Robert; and for the rest of the day the cloud did not clear from his face.
A coincidence? Very well; we will call it that. But a curious coincidence, you will agree.
Sunday, February 7th, was a cold, wet day. Such days are unusual in California, and when they occur are far more depressing than they would be if they were more frequent—particularly to an Englishman who has had enough of cold and wet, and is looking to California to provide him with something better.
Early in the day Wallace complained of a headache, but I put it down to the general feeling of depression caused by California's lapse from grace, and did not attach any importance to it.
Nor did it strike me as strange that he did no work, but spent the whole day at his desk, writing letters. Often, when he was a little puzzled as to how to begin or develop a story, he would spend many hours in that way. His habit when he was stuck with his work was to place himself in a receptive frame of mind, abandon all attempts at wrestling with the problem, and quietly wait for the inspiration to come—as it invariably did.
At midnight I went into his sitting-room. He was still at his desk, a green shade over his eyes, writing a letter. His headache was still troublesome.
I told him I was going to bed.
"All right, Bob. Good night, old boy!"
These were Edgar Wallace's last coherent words to me. At nine o'clock the following morning a telephone call came through from Mrs. Wallace in London. Edgar was not up, so I went into his bedroom. He seemed drowsy, I thought, but it was not until he lifted the receiver and tried to speak that I realised, with a gasp of horror, that he could only mumble unintelligibly.
I took the instrument from him and spoke as reassuringly as possible to Mrs. Wallace. Doctor and nurses were called. The doctor, a very eminent Hollywood physician, came downstairs. I listened to him dumbly.
Was I dreaming? Scores of times during that ensuing forty-four hours of vigil I pinched myself to be certain. It did not seem credible that the man who yesterday was full of love, life and laughter, should to-day be prostrate upon a bed of sickness, fighting for breath, sometimes faintly conscious, but generally comatose.
I saw him during one of the increasingly rare lucid intervals.
"Mrs. Wallace is on her way over," I said.
I think he did not at first understand; he mumbled something incoherent. I repeated my news, a little more distinctly, and a gleam of comprehension came into his eyes. He smiled faintly and relapsed into unconsciousness.
From the moment lobar pneumonia had been diagnosed I think I knew instinctively that his doom was sealed. Overwork and worry had taken their toll of his constitution, and he was in no condition to fight such an enemy. He was tired, harassed and unfit.
I had notified his more intimate friends of his condition. Mrs. Wallace, with whom I was in constant touch on the telephone, had told me on the Tuesday that she was leaving for America on the Majestic the following day. And on the Tuesday night came Walter Huston, the film star, and his wife, eager to do anything they could to help. I can never be sufficiently grateful for Walter Huston's kindness and help throughout those trying days. But at the moment there was nothing to be done but to wait and hope.
Walter Huston and his wife stayed with me the whole night. Upstairs doctors and nurses were fighting for Wallace's life with every weapon in the armoury of medical science. Edgar himself, I am sure, was fighting too, as he always fought when things went wrong with him, with every ounce of that vigorous pugnacity which characterised his whole life. But we, who could take no hand in the fighting, could only sit and wait.
We sat in the sitting-room, grouped around Wallace's desk. From time to time Robert would appear with cups of tea for us, and every now and then the chauffeur and the night watchman would nervously come in and ask if there were any news. Throughout that night we hardly spoke a word. We were all, I think, intent on listening. Wallace was in the room overhead; we could even hear his heavy breathing; every footstep of the doctor or nurses reached us, and into every sound we tried to read some meaning.
Edgar during his life had fought and won many a fight which had looked hopeless; but this time the odds against him were too great. At midnight it was announced that nothing but a miracle could save him. At three o'clock in the morning the stertorous note left his breathing, and he sank into a deeper stupor. We sat on, waiting for the sound of the doctor's footsteps on the stairs, which would tell us that the end had come.
We did not wait long. At 4.45, just as the tide in Los Angeles harbour turned back from the shore and flowed out again into the ocean, the soul of Edgar Wallace turned back from this world and sought again the sphere whence it had come.
The physician came into the room.
"It is all over," he said.
Just that. In less than two days Edgar Wallace, the great-hearted gambler, reckless, improvident, generous, tender and altogether lovable, had been vanquished by death. A vigorous, energetic, healthy man, full of the joy of life and of hopes and plans for the future, world-famous and not yet at the pinnacle of achievement, his soul had been jerked from his body and thrown into the darkness of the beyond. Or the light. Who knows?
As Edgar himself said: "What next? Whatever it is, I'll bet it's interesting."