Boscawen, dressed for dinner, stood, a tall, graceful figure of a man, before the fire in his study, one foot resting upon the fender. The room was in darkness save for the glow of the fire, which played ruddily over the man's clear-cut, resolute face and abundant, prematurely whitened hair.
Somewhere in the flat an electric bell trilled briskly. He stirred at the sound, and looked at his watch, holding it to catch the firelight. Steps approached, muffled by the thick carpet in the corridor. He moved to the switch, and turned up the lights as the door opened.
"Mr. Loane, Sir," Smith announced. And--like the perfect servant that he was--observing, the surprised jerk of Boscawen's head and the shade of annoyance that crossed his face, he was quick to add: "Mr. Loane, Sir, said that you were expecting him."
The visitor thrust past him into the room. "To be sure you were expecting me, weren't you?" he blustered, to dissemble his doubts of the reception that might await him; and he proffered his hand to Boscawen.
Boscawen looked at the hand, looked at, the man's coarse, bloated face under the opera-hat which he had not troubled to remove, and then looked at Smith, dismissing him with a glance. The servant vanished, considerably perturbed. Loane continued to proffer his hand. Boscawen looked at it again, critically. It was a fatter hand than one would have expected from the general build of the man. It was yellowish in tint, and the skin was slightly crinkled; there were diamonds on two of its fingers. It reminded Boscawen unpleasantly of a jeweled toad.
"What do you expect me to do with that?" he inquired, coldly offensive. Loane flushed to his eyes, withdrew his hand at last, and uttered a sneering laugh to save his countenance.
"So that's your tone, then," said he. "What do I expect you to do with it?"
He laughed shortly. "Well, that's for you to say. It can make or break you."
"Have you intruded here to tell me that?" wondered Boscawen, ice-cold in his anger. "Do you propose to recommence yesterday's arguments? I thought that we understood each other."
"Now, that's just what we don't do," said Loane; and, uninvited, dropped into an armchair.
"As much as is necessary, at least," Boscawen countered, and looked at his watch again. "I am afraid you are detaining me, Mr. Loane. I am dining out."
"Oh. Tosh!" said Loane elegantly. "That's not the way to come to terms."
"I'm not concerned to come to terms. I imagined that I made myself perfectly plain to you yesterday. You are at liberty to proceed in any way that commends itself to you. I don't see that there is anything to be gained by prolonging this interview." And with that Boscawen moved towards the bell. Loane thrust out a hand precipitately to restrain him.
"Now, don't be hasty," he implored. He considered Boscawen a moment with raised eyebrows, in a patient, tolerant fashion. "I am disposed to be more reasonable than I was yesterday--a deal more reasonable."
Despite himself, despite his nature and his resolve, Boscawen paused; nor could he entirely repress a gleam of interest from his eyes. Observing this, Loane followed up the advantage which he conceived that he had won. He threw back his dress overcoat, revealing a white expanse of shirt and pique waistcoat underneath, garlanded by a massive watch-chain.
"Now, listen to me a moment. I've been looking into your affairs, and it has become plain to me now that you couldn't afford the price I asked yesterday. If I'd known as much then, I shouldn't have pressed you so hard. I don't want to ruin you, you know. All I want is to--well to--"
"To levy as much blackmail as you can," Boscawen suggested evenly.
The other scowled an instant, then smiled almost wistfully.
"Ah, well, words break no bones, you know. But all the same, I don't think there's any call for you to be unpleasant."
"Oh, none at all," Boscawen agreed. "When a perfect blackguard, such as yourself, who has served a term of imprisonment for fraud, and who has been expelled from a third-rate London club for cheating at cards, attempts to black-mail me, there cannot of course be the least possible occasion for me to be unpleasant. I must apologise, Mr. Loane, if my reception of you appears to lack that warmth to which your social status and your lofty attainments entitle you."
"If you think sarcasm's going to help you," said Loane, flushing heavily, "you're mistaken. I am a patient man. Mr. Boscawen, but you mustn't suppose that there are no limits to my patience."
"Why not? Since you appear to suppose that there are no limits to mine!" flashed Boscawen. "Come, Mr. Loane, I think you might be better employed else where."
Loane rose heavily, his anger mastering him for a moment.
"I think so myself," said he shortly. "But don't blame me afterwards." Then he recovered his impermeability to insult, and checked in the act of buttoning his overcoat. "I wish you had been reasonable," he said softly. "I want to behave well to you in this. It's no pleasure to me to hurt your interests. I give you my word of honour it isn't"
"With such security, who would not trust you?" wondered Boscawen.
"Very well," snapped Loane. "Since you are determined to be offensive, I'll say no more."
He turned as if to go; Boscawen advanced another step towards the bell. Then Loane checked again.
"Come now, Mr. Boscawen," he resumed in a wheedling tone. "Say five thousand pounds, and the letters are yours. Five thousand pounds--a thousand pounds a letter. Now that's reasonable, I'm sure."
"I'll take your word for it," Boscawen agreed with him. "You should know the value of the wares you trade in. But I am--not dealing with you, Mr. Loane."
"Why, it's only half what I was asking yesterday. And I wouldn't have come down a penny if it weren't that I don't want to go and break off this marriage of yours and spoil your chances in life."
"Your concern for me touches me profoundly, Mr. Loane."
The blackmailer's pale eyes grew narrow with suspicion as he watched Boscawen. He fancied that the man was too much at his ease. It might, of course, be assumed; he rather thought it was. Still, it was wonderfully well maintained.
"Look here," he broke out suddenly, "I don't want to be any harder on you than need be. Make me an offer."
Boscawen was trapped into a little gesture of helplessness and a deprecatory smile.
"Really, Sir," he said, "it you have been looking into my affairs, as you say, you should have learnt that I am not 'in a position to--"
"Ah, but wait," Loane cut in, "there am ways of raising money when a man is about to make such a marriage as you are making. Now, look here. I'll tell you what I'll do with you. You shall have the letters for four thousand pounds, and you shall have a week to find the money. Now I'm sure I can't be fairer than that. But that the lowest-absolute rock-bottom."
Boscawen pressed the bell, without answering.
"I'll wait till the last moment," said Loane, "before--well--you understand? So expect me here this day at about this time. And if you'll take my advice--"
"Spare me that, at least," Boscawen interrupted. "Ah, Smith, show Mr. Loane out, will you?"
"So long, then," said Loane genially. "This day next week, at about this time."
"Very well, then," said Boscawen, almost despite himself, and winced to hear the blackmailer's answering chuckle before the door closed between them.
The next moment Boscawen was an altered man. All the iron self-possession in which he had cased himself fell away from him, and he dropped limp and beaten to a chair, betraying in full the defeat which already he had partly betrayed in his last words of consent to another interview with Loane.
For perhaps half an hour he sat there, staring into the fire, his chin resting on his clenched hands; and when, at the end of that time, came to remind him that he was dining out, the man found Boscawen so wild-eyed and haggard that he became solicitous for his master's health. Boscawen admitted readily that he was not feeling very well.
"I don't think I shall after all," he said. "Give me a telegram form."
He wrote the wire of excuse, and dispatched Smith with it. Then he sat down again to think, and his thoughts were black and evil. To have his life ruined by that social vampire Loane, armed with those letters betraying that bitterly repented folly of his adolescence, those dateless letters upon which malice could set any date it chose! It stirred him to a wild, phrenetic rage. He would kill Loane before he allowed the man to work his evil will. The thought shaped itself rapidly into a resolve, and Boscawen found himself rejoicing at the thought that Loane was to return in a week's time. That interview should be fateful.
Then he recoiled in sudden horror from his very thoughts, and their premeditation of murder. Was he mad? Was he to dash from Scylla into Charybdis? Was he to escape betrayal that he might be hanged, and hanged for such a thing as Loane?
A week later--three days before the date appointed for Boscawen's wedding--Isidore Loane again presented himself at Boscawen's flat in Hampton Gardens. He was admitted by a strange servant--a swarthy fellow of a certain portliness of bulk, with black glossy hair, black eyebrows and a square black beard, but shaven upper lip, who, in answer to his announcement of his name, informed him in a nasal voice and in speech vitiated by a foreign accent that Mr. Boscawen was expecting him.
He conducted Loane to Boscawen's study, and then, instead of departing to announce the visitor to Boscawen, the man closed the door and set his back to it.
Loane stared at him across the room in surprise.
"What's the matter?" he inquired gruffly. "What are you waiting for? Why don't you fetch Mr. Boscawen?"
The man bowed profoundly, and the voice in which he answered was Boscawen's.
"I am here at your service, Mr. Loane."
As he stood up again, the black beard had vanished, and, despite the simulated embonpoint, the stained skin, and blackened hair and eyebrows, it was unmistakably Boscawen who stood there smiling with a calm that was almost sinister.
Loane stared at him, frowning and changing colour slightly. Then he recovered himself.
"Now, what's the meaning of this? What's your game, eh?" he asked, very ill at ease. "Out with it! Let me know what's expected of me."
"Certain letters of mine to which you do me the honour to attach some value, Mr. Loane." Loane stared again, and forced a laugh.
"I dare say! Oh, I dare say! And so long as you put up the four thousand pounds we agreed upon, they're yours. But I don't quite see the need for this--er--masquerade."
"But you shall, Mr. Loane. You shall."
"The sooner you make it clear, then, the better. I've no time to waste on you. Are you buying the letters, or are you not?"
"I am not--not buying them."
"Very well, then. There's no more to be said. You leave me no alternative but to take them elsewhere." His uneasiness was manifestly increasing every moment, and his assumption of bluster served to heighten rather than to dissemble it.
"I leave you the alternative of surrendering them of your own free will--an alternative I should advise you to adopt, for you shall have no opportunity of offering them elsewhere."
Loane disliked the tone, and disliked still more the tight-lipped smile with which the other was regarding him.
"What do you mean?" he snapped. He reversed his cane as he spoke, and, holding it firmly within a foot or so of the ferrule, he swung the loaded head, and took a step towards Boscawen. Scenting mischief, he was by now thoroughly alarmed.
"Stand away from that door!" he shouted, between rage and fear. "Stand away and let me pass, or I'll beat your brains out!"
"You're so very hasty, Mr. Loane," said Boscawen, and checked his advance by levelling a revolver.
Loane halted abruptly, paused a moment, then fell back again. He was visibly trembling now, his eyes glared fearfully, and his face was pale.
"Wha-what do you mean?" he demanded, endeavouring to make his voice ring bold and challenging. "What are you going to do?"
Boscawen waved him to a chair.
"Sit down, Mr. Loane. Compose yourself. In spite of appearances, there is not the least cause for excitement. The game, I think, has gone rather against you, but you have the advantage of being able to show yourself a good loser. It is in the manner in which we bear our losses, Mr. Loane, that we reveal our true nature. Please sit down again while I explain the situation to you. You'll not find it without a certain interest, I can assure you."
Loane's scared, unblinking eyes riveted on Boscawen, and mechanically, as if hypnotised by the other's smile and leveled weapon, he sank into the deep, comfortable chair to which his host invited him.
Boscawen lowered the pistol, and came to sit on the arm of another chair, he faced his visitor across the hearth.
"I have resolved," he announced in the most level and unemotional of tones, "to shoot you dead, Mr. Loane, since apparently there is no other way of saving my reputation and my future from being wrecked at your hands. Now do, please, sit still and don't interrupt me. I have always been a firm believer in the unwritten law. To me the thing that is commonly known as crime is perfectly justifiable and proper where it is committed to prevent an injury to honour, to property, or to life. It becomes, in short, self-defence; and self-defence is justified by law--save that the law imposes rather narrow bounds upon what may be considered self-defence.
"When you look back upon your past, when you consider your present, and speculate upon your likely future, you will, I am sure, agree that in--er--disposing of you, as I intend, I am not only serving my own interests, but those of humanity at large. So that, from whatever point of view we regard this act of mine, we cannot. Unless blinded by narrow prejudice or personal interest, consider it anything, but meritorious."
"Are you mad?" gasped Loane, believing that, indeed, to be the clue to the other's extraordinary behaviour.
"Not consciously," answered Boscawen, smiling as if interested in the suggestion raised. "Has it occurred to you that my argument is illogical, or my conclusions ill-founded? Is not my reasoning soundness itself? Can you show me one single cogent cause why I should refrain from carrying out my intentions?"
"You'll hang for it!" spluttered the other, foaming at the mouth in his ever-increasing terror.
Boscawen calmly shook his head.
"You do my intelligence poor credit. Of all crimes, it has been shown that murder is the simplest to commit, the most difficult to trace to its perpetrator, it he be a man of sufficient intelligence, imagination and self-possession properly to handle the affair. Let me explain to you the reason for this disguise which I have assumed, that you may understand how very thoroughly I have laid my plans.
"A week ago, Mr. Loane, I dismissed my man, Smith--a most thorough and capable servant, who had been with me for five years. On the following evening a stoutish, swarthy, black-bearded fellow, speaking with a German accent and giving the name of Schuhmacher, asked the porter in the hall below to direct him to my chambers. I was that German, in the disguise which you have seen for yourself and failed to penetrate when I admitted you. It is fairly thorough, like the rest of my scheme.
"I left again after remaining up here--presumably with Mr. Boscawen--for half an hour; and, thoroughly to establish my identity, I engaged the porter in conversation before leaving, and made inquires regarding the ways and habits of this Mr. Boscawen, whose service I was entering that very night. The porter was inclined to be superior. I left, to return in an hour's time with my belongings--an artistic little collection over which I took considerable trouble.
"Since then, at least once a day I have gone out and returned as Boscawen, and every evening--artificial light being so much more friendly to a disguise--I have gone out and returned as Schuhmacher the servant. Thus, and in all other particulars, I can assure you that I have very thoroughly established two entirely different identities. As Schuhmacher I have dealt with Mr. Boscawen's trades-people; as Schuhmacher I have answered the door, and informed Mr. Boscawen's callers that my master was not at home. So that Schuhmacher has come to be a very real and living figure, to whom some dozens of people can testify.
"Let us come now to this evening. I went out two hours ago in the character of Boscawen. As I was leaving I informed the porter that Schuhmacher was out; that I was expecting a Mr. Loane in the course of the evening; and I begged him to inform Schuhmacher on his return that, should you happen to call before I was back, he was to ask you to wait for me. The porter promised to do so. What should he suspect? He had not seen Schuhmacher leave the house, but then he does not see everybody who passes in or out. So it was easy to establish in his mind the circumstance of Schuhmacher's absence. Presently, I returned as Schuhmacher, and I received from the porter the message which I had left as Boscawen. As Schuhmacher I permitted myself a sneer--a very evil, malicious sneer, Mr. Loane--at the mention of your name, which no doubt will leap up in the porteee memory later on."
Livid, horror-stricken, with beads of sweat gathering on his high, narrow forehead, Loane sat and listened to that clam, deadly, explanation.
"As Schuhmacher I admitted you to the flat. And it is known to the porter below that you are here at present alone with Mr. Boscawen's servant, awaiting the return of Mr. Boscawen, who happens to be absent. That brings us up to the present moment, Now for what is to come." He paused. "I hope I am not boring you, by the way," he inquired politely.
A grimace--its purport entirely impossible to read-twisted Loane's face. He emitted an incoherent growl.
"I interest you? Good!" Boscawen slightly shifted his position. "Now mark the sequel," he said. And as he spoke, he rose and moved round his chair, so that he placed it between himself and his visitor. The movement appeared to be idle and subconscious, but it was not. He leaned now upon the tall, padded chair-back, and thus the revolver--apparently idly held--was without any effort on his part covering Loane.
"When our little transaction is over, Mr. Loane," he continued, "the servant Shuhmacher will walk out of this flat, and make a point of speaking to the hall-porter before he leaves the mansions. He will then take his departure, and make his way to a house in Soho, in which he rented a room on the ground-floor on the day before entering Mr. Boscawen's service. There he will carefully remove the dye from his hair and face, he will burn his beard, and deflate the air-cushion which now provides him with his embonpoint; and by a simple change of neck-tie and shirt-stud, Mr. Boscawen, the master, in the correct evening dress of a man-about-town, will emerge from the chrysalis of Schuhmacher, the servant, in the unfailing dress-clothes of his office.
"Being, then, myself once more, I shall have to see that I slip out of the house unobserved. My collar up and my face in a muffler, and shaded by the American slouch hat affected by Schuhmacher will all be of assistance. Before I reach Piccadilly, I shall have found some dark corner in which to complete the transformation, by unmuffling my face, pocketing the American hat, and replacing it by an opera-hat which I shall have with me for the purpose! Now, obviously myself again, I saunter into my club. I have already been seen there earlier in the evening and in various other places--purely superfluous precautions; still, I thought it as well to take them. A sort of alibi can be established should my whereabouts this evening come to be questioned, which is in the highest degree unlikely. I remain at the club for an hour or so; then I call a cab, and drive home. As I enter, I make a point of inquiring from the porter whether Schuhmacher is in. He will tell me that Schuhmacher went out to look for me as the gentleman I was expecting has arrived, and is waiting for me upstairs.
"Need I continue? Very well. I come up, and I discover that a murder has been committed in my absence. I find a shady character of the name of Loane lying on the floor of my study with a bullet through the heart or the brain, as the case may be. I raise the alarm. The police are sent for; a doctor is summoned. Both arrive. The doctor ascertains that the man has been dead at least an hour. The porter instantly accuses Schuhmacher, stating that he knows of the servant's movements. A hue-and-cry is raised, the man's description circulated, a reward is offered--all to no purpose. Schuhmacher has utterly vanished, leaving not a trace behind him. For a while the papers theorise upon the motive. Remembering Loane's shady antecedents, they have little difficulty in conjecturing one; they will circulate rumours of the murderer's capture, to contradict them in the next issue; the crime may have come to be known as 'The Hampton Gardens Murder,' or perhaps 'The Valet Mystery.' There will be letters to the Press denouncing aliens, and all the usual thrillers. Then gradually the interest will subside; other and more immediate affairs will overlay it; the police, disheartened, will abandon the quest for Schuhmacher, and the entire affair will be relegated to the limbo of unsolved criminal mysteries.
"Meanwhile, Mr. Loane"--and Boscawen smiled pensively as he spoke--"I shall not have permitted this unpleasant event to interfere with my arrangements. I shall have been married in peace, assured that there will be no dirty, sneaking blackguard to interfere with me, to threaten my happiness, or wreck my future. What do you think of it all?"
The other's answer was something between a roar and a snarl, as he hurled himself forward, swinging his clubbed cane--Boscawen now proved the foresight that had caused him to lean over the back of the armchair. He had several times moved it, idly as it seemed, backwards and forwards; his intent had been to get the casters into line, so that at the slightest thrust it would roll forward lightly. He thrust it forward now, as Loane sprang at him. The edge of the low seat caught Loane on the shins, and, thrown off his balance, the fellow toppled forward into it. Instantly the round, cold muzzle of the revolver was pressed to his temple.
"It shall be in the brain, I think!" said the cold voice of Boscawen.
"Wait! Wait!" screamed the other. "Wait! I'll make terms! You shall have the letters!"
Boscawen drew back, covering his man. He came slowly round the chair, the other watching him and waiting. "If you move an inch without my permission, it shall be the last conscious movement you will ever make! Don't be a fool, Loane! I have you, and I shall need no great inducement to put a bullet through you! I'd prefer you dead! Do you understand?"
"I am worth more to you alive!" cried the other, fighting desperately in the deadly trammels in which he was caught. "You know I am! You shall have your letters! What more can I do? What have you to fear from me, then?"
"I don't know. But I should have nothing to fear from you dead!"
"The letters would remain. They might be found."
"True," Boscawen admitted. "But I don't attach great importance to them if you are not at hand to use them!"
"Still, they will be very dangerous to you. Come, Mr. Boscawen," the fellow implored wildly. "I'm a married man. I have three children. You wouldn't have their lives ruined? You wouldn't have them thrown upon the world?"
"So! You have children?" said Boscawen sharply. "God help them! That is the greatest of all your crimes! And a wife! Poor, poor soul!" His tone changed abruptly. "Of course, you have not the letters on you?"
"Of course not. I--"
"But I can get them in a few minutes!" screamed the other, in abject terror now. "I have made arrangements in case you decided to buy them. If you'll send a messenger with a note from me, you shall have the letters at once. It isn't far."
Boscawen measured him with a contemptuous eye. He seemed to put aside his murderous project with the greatest reluctance.
"For your wife and children's sake, then!" he said slowly. "There! You'll find what you want at that desk. Write!" Loane obeyed, what time Boscawen stood over him, reading the fellow's message to his wife, bidding her deliver to bearer a letter-case which she would find in a drawer which he described, and of which he enclosed the key.
He handed the letter to Boscawen, who, unperceived by Loane, immediately touched the button of an electric bell. Almost instantly the door opened, and, to Loane's utter bewilderment, Smith, calm and correct, the perfect servant who, according to Boscawen's story had been dismissed a week ago, entered the room.
"Is the messenger-boy there?" inquired Boscawen.
"He is waiting, Sir," answered Smith, the suspicion of a grin lurking at the comers of his mouth.
"Let him take this letter to that address and await the answer." Smith received the letter from his master's hands, and turned to go. In that moment Loane woke from his stupefaction, and realised what was taking place.
With a strangled cry, he sprang after Smith. But as he moved Boscawen thrust out a leg, and the blackmailer pitched heavily forward. Boscawen knelt to pin him down. Smith turned and came to his master's aid with a pair of handcuffs. The business done, he withdrew. They heard his voice outside, and the boy's answer. A moment later the door of the flat closed with a slam on the departing messenger.
Loane, winded and pinioned, sat huddled in the great chair again, and again Boscawen faced him across the room.
"I regret to have to detain you, Loane, until the messenger returns," he said. "I trust I am not keeping you from any pressing engagement?"
A hideous smile writhed across the blackmailer's livid face. "Spoofed, by gad!" he swore. "Spoofed by a fool like you!"
"I'm afraid so!" said Boscawen, smiling.