Blackmail! - Fred M. White - ebook

Blackmail! ebook

Fred M White

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Fred M. White gives us the opportunity to feel in high society. Many distinguished guests gathered at the Sir George apartment. Everything shone with real silver and gold. One of the guests hooked expensive mahogany thing. From now on, real disassembly begins.

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Liczba stron: 348

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Contents

I. A MAN OF LETTERS

II. WAS IT SUICIDE?

III. BURLINSON HAS HIS DOUBTS

IV. A KNOT IN THE CORD

V. A STARTLING SUGGESTION

VI. STOTT OPENS THE GAME

VII. CONNECTED WITH THE PRESS

VIII. MISSING

IX. STOTT SEES A GHOST

X. BURLINSON FOLLOWS IT UP

XI. THE "MIRROR" IS DIMMED

XII. AN UNEXPECTED MEETING

XIII. DIPLOMACY

XIV. THE KEY OF THE SAFE

XV. THE VESTA TRIO

XVI. "THE APHRODITE STAR"

XVII. CHECK TO MALCOLM STOTT

XVIII. THE CLUE IN THE SAFE

XIX. ON THE TRACK

XX. A FRIEND IN NEED

XXI. THE LETTER SPEAKS

XXII. BAD NEWS FOR STOTT

XXIII. A DEN OF THIEVES

XXIV. FIRE!

XXV. THE LONG ARM

XXVI. A GREAT DISCOVERY

XXVII. BROKEN-DOWN

XXVIII. THE LAST TRICK

XXIX. ESCAPED

XXX. "MARRIED AND A'"

I. A MAN OF LETTERS

A pool of light cast by the shaded lamps on the dinner table picked out the points of old silver and the ruby lakes in the cut-glass decanters. A pile of filberts stood up russet warm against gleaming mahogany. The cloth had been drawn, as was the post-prandial custom at Broadwater. Narcissus might have lingered lovingly over that polished, flawless board. Lancelot Massey put his claret down somewhat hastily, and Sir George sighed. The thought of a scratch on that mahogany poisoned his after-dinner cigarette.

“My dear boy,” Sir George said, plaintively, “it cannot, must not be. Excuse me; your glass seemed to grate somewhat. I hope you haven’t–”

Lance hastened to assure his uncle and his host that no damage had been done. The thin, handsome, white face opposite relaxed into a smile. Sir George looked upon himself more as the curator of a priceless gallery of art than the master of Broadwater. The big oak-panelled dining-room might have been looted for the Wallace collection, with advantage to the latter. Five generations of Masseys had been collectors. There were pictures beyond price, china with a history, intaglios of spotless pedigree. The prints and engravings at Broadwater had a national reputation. And Sir George was a man of letters. He published slim volumes of essays, poetry faintly clear on large margins. At present he was engaged on a play that would revolutionise the stage. That his mind was slightly going only Lancelot and the family physician knew. At 65 most of the Masseys became insane, in a highly-bred, gentlemanly way, the result of too much inter-marrying. Lance’s mother had been a robust North Country girl, and Lance was very little of a Massey, as Sir George frequently reminded him. Still, he had all the refinement and artistic sense of the race; his novels were slowly lifting him to the front rank, and a recent comedy had brought him a reputation. And now he was down at Broadwater, re-writing a drama that had been going the rounds in England and in America for years.

It would not go begging now, though it required considerable alteration. Lance could see that in the light of recent experience. But the great novel idea was there. Some day that play was going to become classic.

“I tell you it cannot be,” Sir George repeated.

Lance started guiltily. His blue eyes had gone far beyond the room. With his keen, delicate, and yet strong, clean-shaven face, he was not unlike an actor of high class.

“What is it that will not do, sir?” he asked.

“Why, this suggested marriage between you and our young relative, Lyn Verity. Now I am very fond of Lyn. She is beautiful and accomplished. She suggests Greuze to me, and Carnova, and, to a certain extent, Gainsborough. Physically speaking, there would be no more perfect chatelaine for Broadwater after I have gone. But the Veritys have allied themselves to the Masseys far too long. Lyn’s father murdered her mother in America. I took my old friend’s child into the house, and here she has been ever since. I am going to provide handsomely for Lyn. All the same, I have made up my mind that you are not to marry her.”

Sir George spoke nervously, but with all the mulish obstinacy of the weak man. Lance’s thin, clear-cut lips were pressed a little closer together.

“And if I make up my mind to please myself in this matter?” he suggested.

A quick ruby flush, like the bloom of a peach, came into Sir George’s cheeks. His usually clear voice sounded a little cracked now, like the enamel on his Limoges plates. The words carried far. Few of the oak floors at Broadwater were carpeted.

“Then I should have to please myself,” he said. “I cannot deprive you of the title; nobody can. But I may remind you that the property is not entailed. I can leave Broadwater and all its priceless possessions to whom I please. You are artistic, refined, a gentleman, and, like myself, a distinguished man of letters.”

Lance smiled behind his hand.

“Very well. Here is an ideal place to do good work in. Look whatever way you will, and the eye is pleased, and the senses elevated. From early days you have regarded yourself as heir to all this. And it is in your power to become Sir Lancelot Massey of Broadwater. But if you defy me in this matter I will turn you out without a single shilling.”

Again the travelling voice rose high and clear, again the faint red was lined on the speaker’s cheeks. The madness was coming nearer and nearer. And Lance was discreetly silent. What was the use of arguing against a fixed principle like this? The time of monomania had arrived. And that had been a terrible business in America.

“I will think over what you say, sir,” Lance murmured.

Sir George smiled. His face was transformed altogether. There was a certain wistful tenderness in his glance. He patted Lance’s hand with his slim jewelled fingers.

“I’m glad,” he said. “I am very fond of you, my dear boy. There is the painful suggestion of a scratch made by your glass. But it’s nothing at all.”

It was a great concession; there was something quite pathetic in the touch of comedy.

“And now I’ll go and do an hour on my play,” Sir George said. “I feel in the mood for it.”

The play might have been a play at one time, but now it was little more than meaningless nonsense, as Lance knew. It was beautifully written, page by page, on sheets of Sir George’s best vellum notepaper, one page corrected and passed approved every day, and carefully dated. There was even a one-time actor-manager on the premises, who acted as standing counsel for the great work. There was no harm in all this, but it would have given Lancelot exquisite pleasure to have kicked Malcolm Stott off the premises with great damage to that histrionic light.

Malcolm Stott was smoking cigarettes in the library. A short, fat man, with a round face and blue eyes of a slightly dissipated child. He looked so round and chubby and innocent that most people were apt to treat him quite as a boy. But there were deep lines under the blue eyes, the hair was white, and the plump fingers shook in the queer staccato way that tells its own tale to a man of the world. At one time Stott had climbed high in the profession; he had been the victim of a deep-seated conspiracy in two hemispheres, he said. As a matter of fact, he had washed his genius and his nerves out with whisky, and the innocent-looking boy was one of the most cold-blooded and unscrupulous rascals who ever smiled into the face of an honest man.

“I thought you’d come,” he said. “I have a suggestion to make–a suggestion to improve the play. You recollect where George Martin is on the point of leaving home?”

Sir George assented eagerly. Stott pressed his hand to his side and groaned.

“The old weakness,” he said faintly. “But do not mind me. It will pass.”

Sir George suggested that there was brandy on the dining-room buffet. He would fetch a glass. Stott could not tolerate the idea of giving his worthy host so much trouble. He must fight down this weakness–the doctors had told him as much. In the dining-room he poured out half a tumbler of brandy, and tossed it down. Then he returned to the library with the decanter, and helped himself to a thimbleful with the air of a shuddering martyr.

“A good medicine, Sir George,” he said, “especially to abstemious men like ourselves.”

His eyes roamed round the room; he talked of the play and dramatic art in a trickly stream of words. An observing man would have said that the fellow was miserably ill-at-ease. But Sir George was too full of the new suggestion to think of anything else. He failed to note that Stott’s eyes were ever on the door. Once the butler entered, and the little man shook as if he saw a warrant in the old servitor’s glance.

“Black should be here with the letters from Swanley,” he said. “I am expecting–”

“Yes, yes,” Sir George interrupted. “I told Long to bring them in directly they came. Now as to that note left by George Martin when he is going to destroy himself. I rather fancy that was your brilliant idea, Stott?”

Stott modestly disclaimed the credit–which was soothing to the baronet’s vanity. He sat under the glare of a reading lamp, with a litter of those thick sheets of paper about him. A footman came in with a pile of letters on a salver, and Sir George glanced at them in an absent way. Stott was looking at them, too, in a frightened, gasping fashion. A blue envelope with four flaring American stamps lay on the top of the pack. Stott upset them all clumsily, and gathered them again with a meek apology. All the same, a minute later the American letter was in his pocket, and he was helping himself to brandy with a liberal hand. A man escaping from the gallows with safety in his grasp could have looked no more ghastly.

“It’s–it’s the pain again,” he stammered. “A little nausea as well. I’ll lie down in my own room, and smoke a cigarette. I shall return presently if I am up to it. You will work late, Sir George?”

“I am interested,” Massey replied. “The inspiration–the divine afflatus is upon me. Possibly I may be here till 2 o’clock–perhaps later. You may go, Stott.”

It was a dismissal–bland, dignified, but firm. Stott went off with a grin on his face. But his lips were still ghastly blue, and he shuffled upstairs like one in the first stage of paralysis. He could not smoke just yet; he felt too sick for that. He took the letter from his pocket, opened it, and read it hastily. Then he burnt it, and ground the ashes into powder.

“A near thing, a very near thing,” he murmured. “That man would strangle me if he only knew. And I cannot keep the knowledge from him much longer. A cable message, an inquiry through a lawyer, and I am ruined. Well, I must take the goods the gods provide–the little legacy and all the rest of it. Nobody will know how Sir George–What a fool I was not to bring that brandy decanter up here! I shall want most of it before morning.”

II. WAS IT SUICIDE?

From the point of the guide-book and the tourist, the drawing- room at Broadwater is not a show place. It has no great historic pictures, no priceless statues, or cases of china, or coins or cameos. But it has the most artistic furniture, the pictures are Greuzes and the like, and the tapestry is a dream. So also is the ceiling–a marvellous piece of coloring and design. There are deep stone windows, filled for the most part with stained glass, and at either end is a conservatory which opens into the room, so that it seems to be framed in flowers. A score of rare lamps, with all kinds of heavy shades, make the apartment wonderfully pleasing and restful to the eye. And here Lyn Verity made her court, and lived out most of her pleasing life.

She looked very like a dainty picture in black velvet as Lance came into the room. She turned from a pile of engravings to greet him, and when he took the dainty figure into his arms and kissed her she seemed to regard it as quite the natural thing to do.

“So you’ve been catching it, sir,” Lyn said, with a charming smile. “Sir George’s voice is a singularly penetrating one. Still, he might recollect that the servants have ears. When Long brought in my coffee I thought he was going to commiserate with me.”

“I am afraid we shall have to take the law into our own hands, Lyn,” said Lance.

Lyn smiled demurely. At the same time she looked a little anxious. She was very much in love with this man; all Broadwater was as nothing to her without him. And yet she hesitated for his sake to lose it all. They stood for some little time gazing into the wood fire, both troubled and anxious.

“He says I am to give you up, dearest,” Lance said.

“I heard him,” the girl replied, with the same dazzling smile. “I should imagine that most of the household must have heard him for that matter. But I don’t quite see how you are going to give me up without the most unpleasant consequences, Lance. I believe that the law is particularly severe upon a–”

Lance laid his hand over the speaker’s mouth. She was about to say something indiscreet–and walls have ears. His face was grave as hers was smiling.

“Darling,” he said, “it is hateful to me to refer to that topic. But you know perfectly well what the dear old boy’s objection is. It is ten years since that business happened, and we all took the story for granted. It was more or less investigated for Sir George at the time by Malcolm Stott, who then had a theatre of his own in New York. Isn’t it just possible that the whole thing–”

“Should have been no more than a dreadful accident, Lance. You know what those awful American papers are like. Anything for a sensation. And I mistrust Stott. If Sir George were in his–I mean if he were as clear-headed as he used to be, he wouldn’t tolerate that drinking, slimy little wretch in the house at all. Stott plays upon his vanity, of course. He pretends to believe in that impossible play.”

“I wish that we could get rid of him; I shall never feel safe so long as he is in the house. And if he discovers our secret–”

“Ah!” Lance exclaimed, “I had never thought of that.”

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