Arthur Whately had known very well what it was like to be desperately poor, and in consequence, when he became so desperately rich that money ceased to mean anything to him, his pity for the penurious was not hysterical or exaggerated. He could recall very vividly what it felt like to have neither tea, dinner nor supper, and to wake in the morning, stiff and cold as armour, on a bench on the Embankment and see the ridiculous needle of Cleopatra stonily pointing heavenwards against the sky, in which the stars were beginning to burn dim at the chilly approach of day. He had known how icy the feet become when they have been close clasped all night long in the frayed embraces of gaping leather, but he had known also how sweet and surprising it is to eat when food is imperiously demanded by the cravings of long-continued abstinence, and how ineffably luxurious to get warm when limbs have ached themselves numb. He would have been willing to confess that unveneered destitution had its inconveniences, but it was false sentiment to deny that it had its compensations also.
It was when he was just sixteen that Luck, the great veiled goddess whom all the world so wisely worships, had paid him her first visit. He had been hanging about at the covered portico of the Lyceum Theatre one night watching the well-fed world being lumpily deposited at the doors, when a silly old pink gentleman, in paying his cabman, dropped a promising pocket-book in the roadway. For one half-second the boy deliberated, wondering instinctively (though he had never heard of the proverb) if honesty was the best policy, in other words, how much the pocket-book contained, and how much the foolish old gentleman would give him if he picked it up and returned it. A couple of pence, perhaps, for he looked a coppery gent.
But the debate lasted scarcely longer than it took the pocket-book to fall; in a moment his wise decision was made, he had picked it up (recognizing in that delightful incident the smile of the great goddess), had dived under the Roman nose of the cab horse, and fled into the street where a chill, unpleasant rain was falling. Luck still smiled on him, for the night was foggy, and as soon as he had crossed the street he dropped into the habitual shuffling pace of the homeless, and returned to the portico which he had so lately quitted, since it was theoretically impossible that the thief should do anything so foolish.
The silly old pink gentleman had not yet ceased to gesticulate and jibber in the direction in which he himself had just vanished, and an obsequious policeman was apparently taking down all the bad words he used in a neat notebook. Arthur wondered if he would arrest the old man for indulging in language redolent of faint praise in a public place.
Meantime, he had thrust the pocket-book—that incarnate smile of the beneficent goddess—into his shirt, and it slid comfortably down against his skin, till it was brought to anchor by the string which he had so strictly tied round his braceless trousers, since pressure in those regions minimised the abhorrence of vacuum. Then he slouched back to the Embankment, and with head bowed over his knees as if in sleep, he counted the tale of his treasure, taking out each item separately, and screening them from the parental scrutiny of policemen in the cavern of his hand.
There were two pieces of the fabulous crinkly paper, there were three sovereigns, and, what was immensely important for immediate purposes, a couple of shillings, translatable without suspicion into rich fried fish. One of his trouser pockets was a secure harbourage, and into this he piloted the golden ship. Then, with a stroke of high wisdom, he thrust the pocket-book through the interstices of the bench instead of keeping about him so incriminating a piece of merchandise, and slouched away, saying good-bye to roofless bedchambers by the sweet Thames-side for ever.
To-night, as he sat in the great dining-room of his house in Park Lane, the memory of that divine evening was vividly brought to his mind. Three friends had dined with him, and as the night proved foggy, they had abandoned the idea of seeing the most incompletely-clad dancer that the London County Council had at present licensed, and had decided to stay at home and play bridge.
“A cold, foggy night, sir,” had been the pronouncement that followed the butler’s news that the motors were round, and the simple words had conjured up that wonderful night of his boyhood with the vividness of hallucination. Bates, too, had a Roman nose, just like the cab horse, and Bates, by a strange coincidence, had just laid by his plate a couple of bank-notes and some change, since he had found himself completely destitute of coin. Had he ever enjoyed himself so much in all these fat years as on that cold, lean, foggy evening so long ago? Honestly (or dishonestly) he could not believe that he had. For there had been about it the one and only and original spice; then for the first time he had heard the clear call of the great golden goddess. She had called often since; indeed for years she had never ceased calling, and it was not too much to say that for years she had been madly and unreasonably in love with him. He received her with yawns now, like some poor discarded mistress, but the chilly reception never deterred her. She never noticed that he was bored, and his indifference seemed but to inflame her ardour.
Solid, monotonous good luck had followed him all the days of his life. Ever since the night when he was sixteen and so happily stole the pocket-book, all he had touched turned to gold, all he had desired had been granted him, all his ideals (such as they were) had frozen into cold suetty facts. Half of the thirteen pounds which were the result of his original theft had been expended in reach-me-down clothes and ready-made boots (which, in those happy years, could be purchased by others than millionaires), for it was symptomatic of him never to grudge money when it was probably a good investment, and between his natural smartness of face and carriage and the acquired smartness of his new clothes, he had at once got a place as hall-boy in an hotel.
He learned to swim in the Chelsea Baths, and August was scarcely begun when this recreation was turned to solid account, for, being at Margate on bank holiday, a pleasure-boat conveniently capsized near him, and he easily rescued the only daughter of a prosperous bookmaker. That gentleman seemed not to resent the unexpected survival of a rat-faced child, had given him fifty pounds in cash, and, subsequently, several racing tips by way of a gilt-edged security for the fifty pounds. These proved not to be gilt-edged only, but completely covered with pure gold.
Then came the news of possibilities in South Africa, and, gambler as he was in every drop of blood in his body, he had gone for these with a thousand pounds to his credit. He threw his thousand pounds at the Rand, and, as if he had given it a little emetic pill, the Rand belched gold at him. In ten years (though he had enjoyed those years quite enormously) the savour of money-making grew stale, and with a brilliant excursion into American rails, which returned him his fortune more than doubled, he quitted the speculative arena, and for the last decade and a half had looked with eyes of incredulous wonder at the extraordinary gentlemen who continued to go to offices in the city all day long and industriously accumulate what they did not want.
There was one such here to-night, a great, round, dark man with yellow hair, the colour of a London fog. He took a grudged month’s holiday in the year, but otherwise sat in an office with his ear to a telephone and his mouth to a speaking-tube. Perhaps it amused him, for certainly there was always in his eye a remote twinkle, as if he had constant grounds for private mirth, and Arthur Whately had often suspected him of being a secret humourist. Yet in the ordinary commerce of social life none was so heavy or so commonplace. He and his wife were social climbers of pathetic industry, who gave parties that tried to be smart and only succeeded in being garish. Yet there was that secret twinkle in his eye....
The same good luck had dogged Arthur Whately in affairs more intimate to his happiness than gold. He had married the woman whom he adored, and just when his adoration had cooled and she was beginning to bore him to extinction, she had run away with somebody else. He had wanted the particular house in which he now sat, and the owner had died just when his demise was most convenient, leaving his affairs in unutterable confusion, and his executors were delighted to sell everything. He had, again, in artistic spheres, conceived a violent passion for the pictures of Giovanni Bollini, and an impecunious peer, foreseeing that income taxes and death duties were swelling like inflated footballs, had sold him his priceless collection, which now hung round the walls of his dining-room. Finally, on this particular evening, when he felt very much disinclined to go out, Providence had sent a fog to serve as an excuse for stopping in. And yet bridge was rather a stale affair. There was a certain intellectual pleasure in thwarting other people, but it was not much fun being clever when the rest were, comparatively speaking, such fools.
His private band had been assembled in the gallery of the ballroom, in case music was required, but they had been dismissed, since the four went straight from the dining-room into the fan-room, where a card-table was laid out. These fans were famous, and had once been the property of Marie Antoinette and other ladies, whose goods had been disposed of after their death by their executors or executioners, and Arthur Whately had acquired them at immense expense during the year of his married life to please his wife.
Shortly after he divorced her, an attempt had been made by a burglar to steal them, but an ingenious device, invented by himself after his wife’s departure, had impeded the idea, for anyone entering the fan-room after the apparatus had been set caused merry peals of electric bells to break out in the rooms of the butler, footmen, odd man and other able-bodied persons, and the intended burglar had been caught fan-handed. But his confession that the late Mrs. Whately had commissioned him to attempt this job so interested Arthur Whately that he took no proceedings with regard to him, except to give him supper. His wife, simultaneously, rose considerably in his estimation; he had not known she had so much blood in her.
The fan-room overlooked the Park, and regardless of possible interpretations Arthur Whately had straw permanently put down in the roadway to deaden the noise of traffic. There had been a ruffle with the vestry on the subject of this straw. Men with pitchforks came and took it up. But as often as they took it up he had it renewed, and by now it had become as much a feature of Park Lane as the omnibuses. Occasionally a policeman, new to the beat and fired by professional enthusiasm, would question the straw-strewers, but the mystic whisper, “A friend of Mr. Whately’s,” had the forcefulness and wit of brevity about it.
The game was tepid; not even his opponent’s remarkable and reiterated revoke in no-trumps really warmed it, and Arthur Whately was glad when his guests departed, for, unaccustomed as he was to brooding over imaginary troubles or dulling his very acute brain with the narcotic poisoning of self-analysis, he was a little anxious about himself to-night, and was glad of a quiet hour before going to bed to examine the cause of his disquietude. It was still early when they left, for there was a dance somewhere to which the two ladies with the irrepressible enthusiasm of advanced middle-age were going on, while the financier was going home. On the doorstep he confided to his host that his name was to appear next morning among the peerages given in honour of the King’s Birthday, and Arthur Whately supposed he was going to seek the privacy of his own study to practise writing his new name, which was to be Peebles, in memory of pleasure.
He adjusted the bell-pealing apparatus in the fan-room, and retired to his own sitting-room, which adjoined his bedroom. Half a dozen exquisite Watteaus decorated the walls, and the bureau which stood opposite the door was from the effects of the unfortunate Queen of France. Often and often he had thrilled at the thought that she had sat there and written those little ill-spelled notes in her sprawling hand, but to-night he would not have cared if he had found her sitting there in person.
Tædium vitæ, the weariness, the boredom of success, which poisons the lives of emperors and scratch golfers, had laid its heavy hand on him. He had poached the world like an egg. But he could find no salt....
So it was that which ailed him. Often of late he had found he had little zest for this pursuit or that, but it had not struck him till this moment that the whole affair was flat. And yet it was not himself, so he felt, that was to blame. He was still but a year or two past fifty, handsome and healthy, and his powers of enjoyment he knew were undimmed, provided only he could find something to exercise them on. In himself he was eager, alert, longing for excitement, but to do the same thing over and over again did not excite him; the early years of hunger and struggle and achievement had accustomed him to a high level of emotion. He wanted to burn, not to smoulder quietly away, as most people were content to do.
Indeed, he had done everything he could think of. He had loved and married, and been bored, and had no intention of tempting the ennui of domesticity again. Nor had he any tastes for the more irregular pleasures of the senses; they were all poached and saltless. Material possessions, of course, had ceased to interest him, since he was completely surrounded with all that he thought most exquisite in the world of art, and to accumulate for the mere sake of accumulation seemed to him an exhibition of pig-trough greed. And it was so easy; he could buy anything that was for sale. Perhaps if Mr. Morgan or some insatiable hoarder owned a desirable piece or picture and would not part with it at any price, he might find a secret rapture in attempting to steal it, just as his wife had done with the fans, but otherwise the act of acquisition had become too easy to be any longer agreeable.
Everything wanted salt, but that was the fault of the objective world. He, subjectively, had as good an appetite as on the entranced and canonized evening when he stole the pocket-book of the silly pink man, that unconscious founder of his fortunes, who, vastly sillier than ever, had dined with him only last week, and had had a fatal apoplectic seizure immediately afterwards.
To-night he almost cursed his memory for his foolishness thirty-five years ago, for it was that theft which had led to this weariness. If only the poor pink departed had caught him and given him a taste of gaol, Arthur Whately felt that he might now be rapturously pursuing the thrilling hazardous paths of the hardened criminal, to whom every house is a possible crib to be cracked, every jewel in a woman’s necklace a week of delirium and drunken debauch. But where is the fun of stealing if you already own more than you can possibly want?
In his mind he swiftly ran through the ten commandments, and found, as he had feared, that it would not give him the slightest pleasure to break any of them. There might be a little excitement about bearing false witness against your neighbour, but then that would entail appearing in a law court and listening to the pitiful humour of some fussy judge. As for the rest of the commandments, they suggested nothing amusing. There was nothing to be done with the fifth, because his father and mother had been dead for years; the sixth implied blood and violence, and violence was foreign to his nature. But for a moment he lingered over the picture of strangling Lord Peebles and burying him in the straw in Park Lane. There was something grotesquely attractive in the notion, but probably the coroner’s jury would give their verdict that he had been strangled by natural causes, and that death had been accelerated by the immediate prospect of a peerage.
He himself had thrice been offered a peerage, once by the Liberals, once by the Conservatives, and once prospectively by the Labour Party. His invariable answer had been that previous engagements prevented him accepting their kind invitation. That had amused him at the time; now it seemed deplorably witless. But could he not devise something for Lord Peebles that should spoil his pleasure? Why should Lord Peebles have that secret twinkle in his eye? Why should he, at his age, be still enjoying life? Whately felt a murderous impulse towards his friend’s mirth.
But he could think of nothing, and with a sigh he took up a copy of that unique journal which is so justly famed for chronicling that which has not occurred and prophesying that which will not possibly happen, and scarcely glancing at the leader, probably inspired by Ananias, and the fashionable intelligence, certainly gleaned by Sapphira, he turned to the more reliable records of the police courts. There had been a brutal murder—apparently the transgression of the sixth commandment was not wholly unattractive to people less tiresomely fastidious than himself—and a certain blameless archdeacon whom he knew slightly had, after the receipt of a series of threatening letters, to which answers were requested to be sent (accompanied by stout remittances) to A. M., Martin’s Library, Wardour Street, reluctantly taken proceedings against the blackmailer, who had been rewarded with five years of enforced seclusion.
Arthur Whately wondered whether he himself would have the courage to prosecute a blackmailer. Probably not; with his wealth it would be easier to satisfy the most rapacious. It was brave of the archdeacon; no doubt his artificially fostered sense of duty sustained him.
His thoughts wandered on as he stared at the newspaper. Would he himself ever have the courage to blackmail anyone else? It must be the most exciting game, and to play it successfully would demand an extraordinary amount of intuition and knowledge of human nature. All depended on the character of your proposed victim. It would be as hopeless to try to extract money with threats out of some men, however scarlet the secrets of which you had possessed yourself, as, singlehanded, to extract a lion’s teeth. Others, no doubt, would equally certainly yield at once to the most veiled menace....
Suddenly the paper which he held began to rustle with the involuntary tremor of the hand that held it, and an eager excitement shot up like the light of a petroleum-soaked beacon in his dulled eye. He need no longer seek for agitation. He had found, when he least expected it, the answer to his fruitless appeals to the universe to supply him with interest. In the excitement of the moment he poured a liberal dose of whisky into a tumbler, but next minute poured it back. He had to keep his head cool; artificial stimulant only led to subsequent reaction and torpidity of thought. But through the prison bars his spirit grasped hands with the archdeacon’s victim. He would certainly blackmail somebody.
There were two questions to settle. Whom should he blackmail, and what had his victim done? A moment’s incisive thought told him that the second question, as to what the supposed crime had been, was alien and superfluous. The poor man need not have done anything. He need only be told that the events which occurred between, say, August 2 and August 10 of the year before last were known to his persecutor. All else depended on the selection of a suitable victim. If an unsuitable subject was chosen, one whose life (could such be found) was of virtue so monstrously Spartan, that he would not mind the events of August 2 to 10, or those of any other date, being known, it was clearly impossible to proceed. On the other hand, if his life was so voluminous a catalogue of crime that there were terrible affairs in every week of it, a notified period like this would create no particular impression.
Yes, it was the character of the victim that must be studied if the æsthetic blackmailer was to have any fun, for, of course, in the case of Arthur Whately, the mere extraction of two or three hundred pounds (thousands, perhaps, if his prey was wealthy) meant nothing at all. And the largest ingredient in the fun would be the uncertainty as to how the victim would behave, whether he would take proceedings or pay. He must therefore be cast in no iron mould; there would be little sport in writing just one letter and then being sent to join the poor worm so grindingly crushed by the heel of the valiant archdeacon, nor, on the other hand, would there be any zest in the punctual receipts of cheques whenever demanded. He had to think of somebody not too good and not too bad, not too brave and yet not pigeon-livered. For a while his mind hovered, singing like a skylark in the exultation of this absorbing preoccupation, then suddenly it dropped to earth again. There was none so fit as Lord Peebles.
His hand trembled for the pen that was mightier than the sword, and after a few moments’ concentrated thought, he dashed off these cold, cruel lines, which would serve as the basis for attack:
My Lord,—While congratulating your lordship on the well-deserved honour which the King has paid you, I feel it my duty to let your lordship know that the events which took place between August 2 and August 10 of the year before last are completely in the possession of the undersigned, and are supported by documentary evidence of such sort that nobody who saw it could ever doubt its authenticity. I am prepared to give up to you all such papers as are in my possession for the sum of £2,000.
I am a poor man, and a desperate one, but am strictly honourable in all business matters such as this, and on receipt of that sum in gold I will strictly carry out my obligations. Should your lordship take no notice of this communication or refuse to comply with my request, the whole affair will be made public.
I am well aware that I put myself within reach of the law in thus addressing you, but I would ask your lordship carefully to consider the results to yourself if you prosecute me. The circumstances of which I am possessed will then all come out, and while it matters very little to me whether I pass the next few years in prison or not, I think that the consequences to you will not be so lightly regarded by self and family. You have a great deal to lose; I have nothing.
Kindly communicate with me at Martin’s Library, Wardour Street, by to-day week at latest. Having no club or settled address at present, I call there daily for letters and occasional parcels.—Faithfully yours,
In obedience to the business-like qualities which had raised him to the position of multi-millionaire his mind instantly went into committee over details. It was but very rarely that he employed his own hand in writing, for his correspondence was entirely dealt with by secretaries and typewriters, but it would be well to disguise his ordinary caligraphy. Or, stop—there was a safer way, and the next minute the Remington typewriter which stood in the corner of the room was opened and gleamed with bared keys. He was no adept at this clattering finger-exercise, but after a few abortive trials he made a clumsy transcript of the letter, and directed an envelope by the same mechanical device.
Already the cautious instincts of the habitual criminal had awoke in him, and after replacing the cover on the typewriter he carefully burned both his manuscript draft and the insane gibberish of his first typed attempts, and opening his window let the blackened ashes float down into the straw-covered roadway. It would never do, again, to let the incriminating document lie among the other letters for post, and he hid it below the shirts in a wardrobe drawer in his bedroom in order to post it himself at some central letter-box next morning after verifying the existence of Martin’s Library. Then, since it was already very late, he went to bed with eager anticipation for the morrow and many morrows.
The next week was full of delightful interests; it passed in a spasm of absorbing moments, and he was astonished and disgusted at himself for not having entered sooner on a course of blackmail. True artist that he was, he did not pay constant visits to Martin’s Library, as soon as it was possible that there might be an answer to his letter, and ask if there was anything for George Loring, but with a higher æstheticism, preferred to taste the delights of suspense, and determined not to make any inquiries till the notified week had elapsed. But he could not avoid haunting Wardour Street, picturing to himself with artistic gusto his official visit to the library. Once only was the flesh too strong, and, though the week of grace had not yet expired, he could not resist the temptation of entering the library.
The shop was empty, and, somewhat to his disappointment, showed no lines of filled and fitted shelves, as he had hoped. He had imagined the smell of leather bindings, bookcases full of venerable volumes of the fathers, a dignified and courtly librarian. Instead, he found a small deal counter, on which were displayed the more odious of penny publications, and a stout old woman of comfortable appearance looked up from her knitting as he entered. But behind her—and his heart beat quicker at the sight—were rows of capacious pigeon-holes, each initialled with a letter of the alphabet. But, even as she asked him in a hoarse, fruity voice what she could do for him, he called on his finer instincts again, and instead of asking if there happened to be anything for George Loring, contented himself with buying “Society Pars” and “Frivol and Fashion.” With these prints in his hand, he left the shop without even looking at letter L.
But after all, perhaps, the commonplace sordidness of the establishment was of greater artistic value than his preconceived idea of it; it was a grimmer affair like this; it was more piquant, more trenchant that white-faced men, trembling and unmanned by the possibility of dreadful disclosures coming to light, should bring their forfeits to this ordinary little establishment, that their unseen and terrible persecutor should ask for letters from a comfortable old lady over a dingy deal counter.
Hardly had he emerged when there drove by a motor in which, of all people, Lord Peebles was sitting, who waved an absent welcome to him. He saw at once how dangerous had been his visit. Supposing he had asked for letters for George Loring and had staggered out of the shop with a scarcely manageable parcel of gold, to encounter such a meeting, it was distinctly within the bounds of possibility that that nobleman would connect him with George Loring. His blood ran cold at the thought, and yet it was a pleasing shiver which at once suggested a further precaution, delightful in the devising. A disguise was imperatively necessary.
He hailed a taxicab and spent an enraptured afternoon. George Loring had probably done this sort of thing before, and it might be supposed that though poor and desperate, he retained from the fruits of his last crime clothes of a flashy and ill-fitting description. Such as he would certainly wear a gaudy check suit and cheap patent leather boots. His tie, of the Brussels carpet type, would assuredly be pinned with something too magnificent to be possibly valuable; detachable cuffs and dicky, a hat with a furrow in it would complete his detestable array. Arthur Whately himself was clean shaven and solidly English in face; a moustache and imperial, therefore, suggesting a Polish conjurer were indicated. These must be of convincing make, incapable of detection; and a visit to an expensive perruquier’s, with a brilliant tale of a fancy-dress ball, made the last visit of a thrilling afternoon. And that night, when the great house in Park Lane was silent, and the electrical apparatus in the fan-room adjusted, a figure, appalling to contemplate, strutted and pirouetted before the big looking-glass in his locked bedroom.
All this, so exquisite to his pleasure-jaded palate, was but the material aspect of his adventure. Far sweeter and more recondite was the psychical honey of it. For, two days after George Loring had sent his letter, Lord Peebles telephoned to know whether Arthur Whately would play golf with him, and though he detested and despised the game, he gave an enthusiastic affirmative, and drove down with him to the Mid-Surrey links at Richmond. Certainly Lord Peebles looked worried and anxious, and the grey streak above his ears seemed to the vigilant eye of his friend to have assumed greater prominence.
“It’s so good of you to ask me to play,” said Whately as they started. “I am a wretched performer, and I know your prowess.”
“Oh, I expect we shall have a very even match, a very even match,” said the other. “And I needed a day off, though it is not Saturday. But there has been some worrying business lately, and I wanted to get into the country and forget all about it. Very worrying business.”
Whately’s eye gleamed secretly; these worries fed his soul.
“Indeed, I am sorry to hear that,” he said.
“Thank you, thank you. A purely private affair. Don’t let us talk of it. Pretty the country looks. What’s that river we are crossing?”
“The River Thames,” said Whately almost tremulously.
“Perhaps,” said Lord Peebles.
He cleared his throat. “The Thames,” he began, and then changed the subject to something amazingly foreign to that topic.
“It is strange how one’s memory plays tricks with one,” he said. “A couple of days ago I was trying—quite idly—to recollect where I spent the early days of August the summer before last, and was totally unable to recall what I had been doing. My wife remembers that we went to Scotland on the 11th, but she, too, has quite forgotten what we did just before. She inclines to think that I was paying some visits without her. Curious!”
Arthur Whately laughed in a sprightly, rallying manner.
“Ah, ah,” he said, “she is probably right, eh? Trust a wife’s memory, my dear fellow, on that sort of point.”
“No doubt she is right,” returned the other, “but it is strange that we can neither of us recollect where I went.”
“Perhaps you never told her,” said Whately gaily. “But come, dismiss those evasive topics. Let the past bury its dead. It is only the present that is truly ours.”
They had arrived at the club-house, and Whately stepped out, followed by the heavier-footed peer. It was almost too good to be true, that by sheer accident he had lighted on days that seemed hard to account for, and, treading on air, he hurried into the dressing-room, where, in momentary privacy, he was forced to indulge in a few toe-pointing capers of delight. And, after all, though the emotions with which he had supplied his friend were of anxious and ominous description, still, emotions after all, of whatever sort, are the salt of life, and here was a new one for him, something with a strong flavour about it. But he could afford to be generous, since he himself was being so richly entertained, and he did not grudge him one pang of the worry and anxiety inseparable from his position.
Arthur Whately’s golf was generally of the most wayward description; he cut balls savagely to point and topped them ventre à terre into cavernous bunkers, while Lord Peebles played a dreadfully steady game, that, as a rule, walked arm-in-arm with bogey round the links. But to-day a strange upset of form took place, for while Lord Peebles seemed unable to hit any ball in the requisite direction or with the requisite force, Arthur Whately, by virtue of the inscrutable laws that govern golf, performed with incredible excellence, and not unnaturally concluded that blackmailing is very good for the eye. Not for years had he felt so keenly the zest and ecstasy of living, and while watching his unfortunate opponent digging his ball out of tussocks of rank grass and eviscerating bunkers, he planned many similar adventures for the future. He felt as if he had awoke at last to his true nature; by accident he was a millionaire and the architect of his own colossal fortune, but by instinct and birth he seemed to be an æsthetic criminal. And the discovery had come upon him, though late, yet not too late. There might be many ecstatic years in store for him yet.
The days of that enchanted week passed slowly, and each moment that brought him nearer Friday morning, when he would don his atrocious disguise and visit Martin’s Library, brought him no nearer any firm conjectures as to what he should find there. It so happened that he met his victim several times in the course of the week, and if, as on the occasion of their golf match, his mental and physical aspect seemed to indicate that he would assuredly lack the courage of the archdeacon and obediently pay his fine, on other occasions he showed a calmness and control that was consistent with more aggressive proceedings. To Whately’s knowledge he transacted during that week a very difficult and intricate financial undertaking that caused certain bankers in Berlin to curse his acumen, and later he won the Mid-Surrey monthly medal, which looked as if his aberration had been only temporary. And the uncertainty and suspense thrilled and fascinated his persecutor.
It was about twelve o’clock on the Friday morning that a dejected four-wheeler stopped opposite Martin’s Library, and the ambulatory population of Wardour Street, accustomed to all manner of eccentricities, looked with wonder at the garish figure that emerged. Two hours before, Arthur Whately had set off from Park Lane with a small portmanteau and had driven to the Charing Cross Hotel, having adjusted moustache and imperial with the aid of a small looking-glass in the cab, and had taken a room for a widower of the name of George Loring, paying for one night’s habitation. There he had effected his change of clothes and left the valise containing the outer garments of Arthur Whately, at present in a state of suspended existence.
He entered the library with a strutting martial air, and, as once before, the comfortable old lady looked up from her knitting and asked how she could serve him.
“I have called for letters and parcels for Mr. George Loring,” said Whately in a falsetto voice, which was the result of diligent practice. But a glance at pigeon-hole L showed him that it was empty....
“Yes, parcel and letter for Mr. George Loring,” said the old dame, “but the parcel was too big to put in the pigeon-hole, let alone lifting it. So I put them together somewhere. Deary me, now, where was it?”
“This is a strange way to conduct a public library,” said Whately, forgetting all about the assumed falsetto, “that the librarian should not know where she has deposited the property of her subscribers. Mr. Martin would be far from pleased. I am pressed for time, madam. Business in the city——”
The old lady turned slowly round and beamed on him.
“And if I wasn’t sitting on it all the time,” she said, “just for safety, as you may say. There, young man, you’ll find it heavy, and there’s sixpence to pay.”
“A most reasonable charge, madam,” said Whately. “And—and can you tell me who left the parcel—what he looked like?”
She nodded at him.
“Such a fur coat I never see,” she said, “and his motor fair stopped the traffic. I didn’t take much account of his face, though I would swear to a beard.”
“A shrewd observer!” said Whately in his most genial tones, and staggering out of the shop with his parcel, deposited it on his own toe as he stepped into the cab. The pain was severe, and for the moment damped his ecstasy and caused him a loss of self-control.
“Charing Cross Hotel, you old idiot!” was his unjustifiable direction to his cabman.
As he drove there he tore open the note. It ran as follows:
“Dear Sir,—You have me completely in your power, and I send the money you demand. Kindly forward me at once the documentary evidence you speak of.
Again he felt vaguely disappointed. The fish had given him less play than he hoped; he had but towed its sulking carcass to land. But, then, he did not know that there followed him, threading the intricacies of traffic close behind him, a taxicab in which was sitting a quiet-looking gentleman with pince-nez. Its destination also appeared to be Charing Cross Hotel.
The hall porter opened the door of his cab, and Whately indicated his parcel.
“Move that into the bureau, if you will be so kind,” he said. “It contains a—a model, a metal model, and is heavy. I am going upstairs to change my clothes, and will be down again in ten minutes.”
Less time than that was sufficient for him to resume the habiliments of Arthur Whately, and stow the apparel of the vanished George Loring in his bag. His imperial and moustache he still wore, for it was his intention to use depilatory measures in the cab which took him back to Park Lane lest the complete transformation might prove too staggering for the hall porter. This time he himself took the parcel, a wooden box, clearly, wrapped up in brown paper, to his cab, put it, not on his own foot, but on the seat opposite, and genially told the driver to take him to Park Lane. Close behind him followed the taxicab containing the gentleman with pince-nez, modest, secluded, and unobserved. And from a few doors off he saw Mr. Arthur Whately, burdened with the parcel he had brought from Wardour Street, stagger into his own house. His business seemed to be not yet finished, for having seen him home he drove back to an office in the City, and was at once taken in to see the head of the firm. His interview lasted about half an hour, and he left behind him when he went a very much astonished gentleman, over whose mobile face a succession of queer secret smiles chased one another like gleams of sunshine on a cloudy day. Excellent business man though he was, he gave for the rest of the day but a tepid attention to his work.
Arthur Whately meantime was closeted with his gold. With the aid of a pair of nail-scissors (for prudence counselled secrecy) he succeeded in raising the lid of the box, and found it packed inside with smooth, discreet little sausages of white paper. A couple of these he unfolded, and from each flowed out a stream of clinking sovereigns. In each were a round hundred, and the little sausages were twenty in number. He put a liberal handful of gold in his pocket; he locked the rest into the safe that stood in the bedroom. And those two thousand pounds were somehow sweeter to him than his whole unnumbered fortune: they seemed to him the reward of a cleverness that was more peculiarly his own than that which had amassed so huge a harvest in South African mines and American options. They were doubly sweet, for they were both the fruit of secret criminal processes and had been wrung by terror out of his friend.
He lunched out that day. His soul basked in the heaven of high animal spirits which had so long been lost to him, and in the stimulus which the last week had brought to him he felt like a peri who had regained Paradise. Perhaps reaction would come, but for the present it held aloof, and in case it did he could always, as he phrased it to himself as he walked lightly down Bond Street, apply the squeezers again to poor Peebles. The vocabulary as well as the spirits of a schoolboy had come back to him; long-forgotten slang tripped off his tongue, and he examined shop-windows with eager enthusiasm. There was a beautiful Charles II. rat-tail spoon in a shop of old silver, and he entered and bought it, paying for it on the spot with fifteen of his newly acquired sovereigns. The purchase gave him more pleasure than any he had made for years: it was the fruit of his splendid stroke of blackmail.
At another shop he bought for five pounds a charming figure of a seagull in Copenhagen china. Lord Peebles had a collection of this pale fabric, and his friend felt it would be a privilege to add to it. That also was paid for in gold, and after he had left each shop a quiet man entered and conferred privately with the proprietor, leaving a companion outside, who strolled after the millionaire.
Returning home, he sent out a number of invitations for a dinner party in ten days’ time. A royal princess had intimated that she would like to dine with him that night, and he included in his invitations Lord and Lady Peebles, both of whom were snobs of “purest ray serene.” Later on he would ask them again to some similar function, for he felt that two such invitations would make full compensation for the anxiety he had caused. He did not regard the bagatelle of gold; that meant nothing to either of them. Then after an hour with his beautiful collection of Greek coins he dressed and went out to dinner.
Lord Peebles was of the party, and the two cut into a table of bridge afterwards, and played for a couple of hours, with luck distinctly against the newly created peer. Generally his losses caused him exquisite agony: being very rich, he could not bear to be ever so little poorer. But to-night he laid down a couple of ten-pound notes with a smile.
“I pay you, my dear Whately,” he said, “fourteen pounds, is it not? I wonder if you can give me six.”
Whately could and did.
“You have had the worst of luck,” he observed genially, “but it’s only a game. By the way, I hope I shall see you and your wife to dinner on the 23rd. I sent you an invitation this evening.”
Lord Peebles took up his change and looked rather carefully at each sovereign in turn, as if to question its genuineness.
“Curious thing,” he said, “each of these sovereigns is marked. There is a small capital ‘P’ scratched on the field in front of St. George.”
He passed one over to Whately, who felt as if some warning whistle had sounded remotely in his ears. But he contrived to speak in his natural voice, and got up.
“I see,” he said; “I wonder what that means. Bates gave me them just before I came out.”
“Indeed,” said Lord Peebles negligently. “Yes, the 23rd would be delightful. Are you going?”
“Yes, I think I shall be off,” said Whately.
He drove back to Park Lane, and without setting the pleasant peal of electric bells in the fan-room, went straight to his bedchamber and got out the box which had thrilled him with such exquisite pangs of pleasure that morning. He stripped the paper off sausage after sausage of gold, until his bed was piled with the precious metal. And on each shining disc the same ominous discovery met his eye: just in front of St. George’s head on every one that he took up was scratched a small capital “P.”
He slept far from well that night, for his mind, spinning madly like a whirling top, came into collision with a series of hard angles of uncomfortable circumstances. He told himself that it was inconceivable that his friend should have suspected him of the odious crime of blackmailing, but his friend evidently when paying the ransom had taken steps to trace its destination, with a view to the apprehension of the criminal. By a most strange coincidence it was he, Arthur Whately, who had supplied him with a clue, though he had had the presence of mind to say that Bates had given him these six pieces of evidence.... Then with a pang of alarm that made him sit bolt upright in bed, he remembered that there were four more of them in the shop where they sold china cats and seagulls, fifteen more in the silversmith’s, where he had bought the Charles II. spoon, and two others in the hair-cutting establishment in St. James’s Street, where he had so lightly purchased a safety-razor and a small indiarubber sponge. At all costs he must repossess himself of these, and how was that to be done? In this short summer night there was scarcely time, even if he had had the tools, to make a series of single-handed burglaries, yet if he did not get those accursed sovereigns back, he was letting the tap of evidence drip and drip and drip. What, again, was the use of those nineteen hundred and odd sovereigns on his bed if he could not put them in circulation without multiplying the evidence already in existence? The suspense of the last week, it is true, had been thrilling and delicious, but it appeared now that there were at least two sorts of suspense, and the other, though quite as thrilling, was not so pleasant. Sinking into an uneasy slumber, he dreamed of skilly.
Haggard and unshaven (in spite of the new safety-razor), he was in Bond Street next morning early, with cheque-book and bank-notes in his pocket. The shop that dealt in old silver was only just open, and he went hurriedly in.
“I am Mr. Whately,” he said, “Mr. Whately, of Park Lane. Dear me, that is a very pretty tankard. A hundred pounds only! Please send it round to me to No. 93. The fact is, a rather curious thing has happened. I bought a Charles II. spoon here yesterday afternoon and paid for it in sovereigns. For certain curious, I may say family, reasons, I very much want those sovereigns back again. There are sentimental associations with them, you understand. Could you kindly let me have them back and take my cheque or bank-notes in exchange?”
The shopman laughed.
“Well, sir, a very curious thing happened here too,” he said brightly. “You had hardly left the shop when a gentleman came in and asked if I could let him have any change for some bank-notes. There were your sovereigns lying in the till, and I gave him them all. I offered him five more as well, but after examining those he said he did not want more than fifteen.”
Arthur Whately couldn’t suppress a slight groan.
“That was very precipitate of you,” he said. “What was the gentleman like? Was it—a stout, dark-faced gentleman with yellowish hair and—and probably a fur coat?”
“No, sir, a clean-shaven gentleman with a sharp sort of face.”
“Not Peebles,” said Whately to himself, as he skimmed out of the shop. “It may still only be a coincidence.”
The shop of Danish china was open, and again he told his lame and unconvincing tale. Here again the fever for gold had run riot yesterday afternoon, and a gentleman with a big moustache had taken five sovereigns and left a bank-note. And his scuttling footsteps took him to the aseptic hairdresser’s.
“I am fighting single-handed against a positive gang of these wretches,” was his bitter comment.
But the aseptic hairdresser’s was still shut, and after ringing several wrong bells belonging to different floors, he gave up in despair and went home to the mocking splendour of No. 93. A fresh-faced stable-boy was just laying down the straw in the street, whistling as he plied his nimble pitchfork. Whately wondered whether he would ever whistle again.
For an hour he sat there lost in a scorching desert of barren thought. Visions of oakum and broad arrows flitted through his disordered mind, and every now and then he came to himself as some fresh circumstance of dawning significance rapped on his brain.
Once he hurried upstairs, remembering that the awful attire of George Loring still lurked in a locked cupboard of his bedroom, and he took the criminal’s coat and stuffed it in the fire in his sitting-room, with the intention of burning all that costume which had seemed so exquisitely humorous. But the coat seemed impervious to flames, and it was not till a quarter of an hour later that he came downstairs again with roasted face. Even then there were trousers and shirt and patent leather boots to get rid of, and trouser buttons and the base metal of his gorgeous tie-pin would be found amid the ashes. And even when it was all done, he would only havedestroyed one thread of evidence, leaving a network of imperishable circumstance unimpaired.
Truly there was a dark side to the game on which he had so lightly embarked, which the callous world could not ever so faintly appreciate, or would probably but imperfectly sympathize with even if it did.
But for the sake of saving his sanity he had to occupy himself with something, and after vainly attempting to follow the meaning of a leader in the Times, he began reading, purely as a “sad narcotic exercise,” the Agony column. And then he fairly bounded from his seat, as the following met his eye:
“To George Loring. A packet of marked sovereigns, twenty-eight in number, will be forwarded to the above-named at any address or given to a messenger who hands to Mr. Arthur Armstrong (resident for this day only at the Charing Cross Hotel) the sum of £4,000 (four thousand) in bank-notes or bullion.”
He groaned aloud.
“It spells beggary,” he said to himself, “but I must have those sovereigns. But let me see first whether twenty-eight is the full tale of them,” and he snatched up a piece of paper and wrote:
To Lord Peebles 6
Silver Shop 15
Copenhagen China 5
Haircutting place 2
and at that, in spite of the ruinous expense, his heart bounded high within him. It was wiser not to appear himself (he had, so it struck him, appeared rather too frequently already), and sending for his secretary he scrawled a cheque for £4,000, and bade him have it changed into bank-notes and take it at once to the Charing Cross Hotel. There he would ask for a certain Mr. Arthur Armstrong, who would give him a packet containing twenty-eight marked sovereigns.
“It concerns a widowed aunt of mine,” he added, “and I cannot tell you more. Speed and secrecy are essential to save her from ruin.”
The zealous secretary was back within an hour, and with a sob of relief Whately, when he was alone, opened the packet he brought. Next moment with a hollow groan he spilled the contents all over the table. The sovereigns were marked indeed, but each of them had neatly incised on it, not a “P” but an interrogation mark. Back went the zealous secretary again to explain that these were not the right ones, and, if necessary, to implore Mr. Arthur Armstrong, for the sake of his mother, to give up the others. He was soon home again with the news that Mr. Arthur Armstrong had already quitted the hotel, leaving no address.
Later on that abject day there arrived a note from Lord Peebles, saying that it was doubtful whether he could come to dinner on the 23rd. Events, at present private, might render it impossible. But he would like a game of golf at Richmond next day if Whately was at liberty.
Again this proposal of a recreation detestable in itself and intolerable to one with shaking hand and trembling knees! Yet if Peebles had proposed a game of leap-frog Whately could not be so imprudent as to refuse, for at all costs he must keep up friendly relations. He had half a mind (but not the other half) to tell his friend that it was indeed he who had attempted to blackmail him, for a joke, and that the retaliation was getting beyond one. But it was not certain as yet that a confession was necessary; there was nothing to show that Lord Peebles had identified him with George Loring. It looked like it; it looked uncommonly like it, but what proof had he? Whately, it is true, had given him half a dozen of his own marked sovereigns, and no doubt Peebles knew that he had expended others on Copenhagen china, Charles II. silver and American articles of toilet, but that was all. It certainly was a good deal——
There is no need to dwell on his further anguish. The game of golf was a cruel parody of sport, and Peebles was in his most pompous mood, speaking of the House of Lords as “we.” At other times he spoke with strange persistence of the horrors of English prisons, and mentioned that he had been appointed visitor to Wormwood Scrubs. Whately did not know with any accuracy where that was, but Peebles described exactly how you could get to it. Long-sentence men stayed there.
Another day he would see or think he saw a stranger watching his house. Sometimes a second would join him, and if one was clean-shaven and the other had a moustache, Whately’s heart would leap to his throat and creakingly pulsate there. His appetite failed him; his brushes were full of shed hair; dew suddenly broke out on his forehead. And seven dreadful days passed.
Then the end came.
Lord Peebles telephoned to him asking if he could see him on important business, and of course a welcoming affirmative was given.
“You appear far from well, my dear Whately,” he said, looking anxiously at him, “far from well. A little dieting, do you think, a little regular work, a little abstention from alcohol?”
Whately gave a haggard glance out of the window. It was a foggy morning, and in the roadway he could but faintly distinguish a large black van which had approached noiselessly over the straw and now stood there. At that sight there was no longer any doubt in his mind that Peebles had adopted the ruthless archidiaconal attitude towards blackmailers, and was going to have him arrested. But harassed and unnerved as he was by a succession of sleepless nights and nightmare days, he still despised and refused to parley with the conventional narrowness of his accuser. Yet Lord Peebles still wore his pleased and secret smile, and it was not good manners to look like that in the act of committing a friend to a convict prison. Whately drew himself up and spoke with wonderful steadiness and dignity.
“I see it’s all up!” he said, “and that I shall soon get all the things you so feelingly recommend. But after all I had a perfectly amazing week when I waited for your answer. I don’t deny that you have given me an awful week, too, or that there are many rather cheerless weeks in front of me. It’s no use my attempting to explain; you would never understand. Your soul doesn’t rise above sovereigns.”
Lord Peebles came a step nearer him, looking vexed.
“For those remarks,” he said, “you deserve to be treated as—as you deserve. You don’t seem to realize that I have had a week of the most thrilling enjoyment. You think that nobody has a sense of humour except yourself. That attitude of yours has often annoyed me, for I have a remarkably keen one, and for pure æsthetic pleasure I have just had the week of my life. The fact that it was sugared with revenge hardly enhanced it at all, nor did the fact that whereas you got two thousand pounds out of me, I got four thousand out of you. You have been like a monkey dancing on a hot plate. I have been the hot plate.”
Whately was scarcely listening; with chattering teeth he looked at the huge ominous van in the street, and Lord Peebles followed his gaze.
“You deserve that that van should be Black Maria,” he went on in injured tones, “to take you to Wormwood Scrubs, where I am visitor.”
“Is—isn’t it?” asked Whately.
Lord Peebles peered into the fog.
“The harmless, necessary pantechnicon,” he said.
Then he subsided into a chair and his great bulk began to shake with spasms of ungovernable laughter. And gradually the colour came back to Whately’s face, and shortly after an uncertain smile hovered on his mouth.
“And is it all over?” he asked.
Lord Peebles took a small sausage of sovereigns out of his pocket.
“I brought these along with me,” he said, “please count them; they are all marked, and there are twenty-eight of them. I will exchange them with those you possess marked with an interrogation point.”
“You shall!” said Whately. “God bless you!”
“I was not certain, when I came here,” continued Lord Peebles, disregarding this interruption, “whether I should put you out of your suspense or not, but your haggard and emaciated appearance, my dear fellow, decided me. Besides, I am two thousand pounds to the good, or nearly so, for I owe some small sum to detectives. If I did not have mercy on you, you would probably be too unwell to give your party for the princess on the 23rd, and I should be sorry to miss that. Otherwise I might have let you have a week or so more of excitement. I had several other little notions, little tunes for you to dance to.”
“You shall sit next her,” said Whately with quivering lips.