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   Chapter 11 BLACKMAIL.

Red Money By Fergus Hume Characters: 23993

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Having come to the only possible arrangement, consistent with the difficult position in which they stood, Lambert and Lady Agnes took their almost immediate departure from The Manor. The young man had merely come to stay there in response to his cousin's request, so that his avoidance of her should not be too marked, and the suspicions of Pine excited. Now that the man was dead, there was no need to behave in this judicious way, and having no great love for Garvington, whom he thoroughly despised, Lambert returned to his forest cottage. There he busied himself once more with his art, and waited patiently to see what the final decision of Agnes would be. He did not expect to hear for some weeks, or even months, as the affairs of Garvington, being very much involved, could not be understood in a moment. But the lovers, parted by a strict sense of duty, eased their minds by writing weekly letters to one another.

Needless to say, Garvington did not at all approve of the decision of his sister, which she duly communicated to him. He disliked Lambert, both as the next heir to the estates, and because he was a more popular man than himself. Even had Pine not prohibited the marriage in his will, Garvington would have objected to Agnes becoming the young man's wife; as it was, he stormed tempests, but without changing the widow's determination. Being a remarkably selfish creature, all he desired was that Agnes should live a solitary life as a kind of banker, to supply him with money whenever he chose to ask for the same. Pine he had not been able to manage, but he felt quite sure that he could bully his sister into doing what he wanted. It both enraged and surprised him to find that she had a will of her own and was not content to obey his egotistical orders. Agnes would not even remain under his roof-as he wanted her to, lest some other person should get hold of her and the desirable millions-but returned to her London house. The only comfort he had was that Lambert was not with her, and therefore-as he devoutly hoped-she would meet some man who would cause her to forget the Abbot's Wood recluse. So long as Agnes retained the money, Garvington did not particularly object to her marrying, as he always hoped to cajole and bully ready cash out of her, but he would have preferred had she remained single, as then she could be more easily plundered.

"And yet I don't know," he said to his long-suffering wife. "While she's a widow there's always the chance that she may take the bit between her teeth and marry Noel, in which case she loses everything. It will be as well to get her married."

"You will have no selection of the husband this time," said Lady Garvington, whose sympathies were entirely for Agnes. "She will choose for herself."

"Let her," retorted Garvington, with feigned generosity. "So long as she does not choose Noel; hang him!"

"He's the very man she will choose;" replied his wife, and Garvington, uneasily conscious that she was probably right, cursed freely all women in general and his sister in particular. Meanwhile he went to Paris to look after a famous chef, of whom he had heard great things, and left his wife in London with strict injunctions to keep a watch on Agnes.

The widow was speedily made aware of these instructions, for when Lady Garvington came to stay with her sister-in-law at the sumptuous Mayfair mansion, she told her hostess about the conversation. More than that, she even pressed her to marry Noel, and be happy.

"Money doesn't do so much, after all, when you come to think of it," lamented Lady Garvington. "And I know you'd be happier with Noel, than living here with all this horrid wealth."

"What would Freddy say if he heard you talk so, Jane?"

"I don't know what else he can say," rejoined the other reflectively. "He's never kept his temper or held his tongue with me. His liver is nearly always out of order with over-eating. However," she added cheering up, "he is sure to die of apoplexy before long, and then I shall live on tea and buns for the rest of my life. I simply hate the sight of a dinner table."

"Freddy isn't a pretty sight during a meal," admitted his sister with a shrug. "All the same you shouldn't wish him dead, Jane. You might have a worse husband."

"I'd rather have a profligate than a glutton, Agnes. But Freddy won't die, my dear. He'll go to Wiesbaden, or Vichy, or Schwalbach, and take the waters to get thin; then he'll return to eat himself to the size of a prize pig again. But thank goodness," said Lady Garvington, cheering up once more, "he's away for a few weeks, and we can enjoy ourselves. But do let us have plain joints and no sauces, Agnes."

"Oh, you can live on bread and water if you choose," said the widow good-humoredly. "It's a pity I am in mourning, as I can't take you out much. But the motor is always at your disposal, and I can give you all the money you want. Get a few dresses-"

"And hats, and boots, and shoes, and-and-oh, I don't know what else. You're a dear, Agnes, and although I don't want to ruin you, I do want heaps of things. I'm in rags, as Freddy eats up our entire income."

"You can't ruin a woman with two millions, Jane. Get what you require and I'll pay. I am only too glad to give you some pleasure, since I can't attend to you as I ought to. But you see, nearly three times a week I have to consult the lawyers about settling Freddy's affairs."

On these conditions four or five weeks passed away very happily for the two women. Lady Garvington certainly had the time of her life, and regained a portion of her lost youth. She revelled in shopping, went in a quiet way to theatres, patronized skating rinks, and even attended one or two small winter dances. And to her joy, she met with a nice young man, who was earnestly in pursuit of a new religion, which involved much fasting and occasional vegetarian meals. He taught her to eat nuts, and eschew meats, talking meanwhile of the psychic powers which such abstemiousness would develop in her. Of course Lady Garvington did not overdo this asceticism, but she was thankful to meet a man who had not read Beeton's Cookery Book. Besides, he flirted quite nicely.

Agnes, pleased to see her sister-in-law enjoying life, gave her attention to Garvington's affairs, and found them in a woeful mess. It really did appear as if she would have to save the Lambert family from ever-lasting disgrace, and from being entirely submerged, by keeping hold of her millions. But she did not lose heart, and worked on bravely in the hope that an adjustment would save a few thousand a year for Freddy, without touching any of Pine's money. If she could manage to secure him a sufficient income to keep up the title, and to prevent the sale of The Manor in Hengishire, she then intended to surrender her husband's wealth and retire to a country life with Noel as her husband.

"He can paint and I can look after the cottage along with Mrs. Tribb," she told Mrs. Belgrove, who called to see her one day, more painted and dyed and padded and tastefully dressed than ever. "We can keep fowls and things, you know," she added vaguely.

"Quite an idyl," tittered the visitor, and then went away to tell her friends that Lady Agnes must have been in love with her cousin all the time. And as the contents of the will were now generally known, every one agreed that the woman was a fool to give up wealth for a dull existence in the woods. "All the same it's very sweet," sighed Mrs. Belgrove, having made as much mischief as she possibly could. "I should like it myself if I could only dress as a Watteau shepherdess, you know, and carry a lamb with a blue ribbon round its dear neck."

Of course, Lady Agnes heard nothing of this ill-natured chatter, since she did not go into society during her period of mourning, and received only a few of her most intimate friends. Moreover, besides attending to Garvington's affairs, it was necessary that she should have frequent consultations with Mr. Jarwin in his stuffy Chancery Lane office, relative to the large fortune left by her late husband. There, on three occasions she met Silver, the ex-secretary, when he came to explain various matters to the solicitor. With the consent of Lady Agnes, the man had been discharged, when Jarvin took over the management of the millions, but having a thorough knowledge of Pine's financial dealings, it was necessary that he should be questioned every now and then.

Silver was rather sulky over his abrupt dismissal, but cunningly concealed his real feelings when in the presence of the widow, since she was too opulent a person to offend. It was Silver who suggested that a reward should be offered for the detection of Pine's assassin. Lady Agnes approved of the idea, and indeed was somewhat shocked that she had not thought of taking this course herself. Therefore, within seven days every police office in the United Kingdom was placarded with bills, stating that the sum of one thousand pounds would be given to the person or persons who should denounce the culprit. The amount offered caused quite a flutter of excitement, and public interest in the case was revived for nearly a fortnight. At the conclusion of that period, as nothing fresh was discovered, people ceased to discuss the matter. It seemed as though the reward, large as it was, would never be claimed.

But having regard to the fact that Silver was interesting himself in the endeavor to avenge his patron's death, Lady Agnes was not at all surprised to receive a visit from him one foggy November afternoon. She certainly did not care much for the little man, but feeling dull and somewhat lonely, she quite welcomed his visit. Lady Garvington had gone with her ascetic admirer to a lecture on "Souls and Sorrows!" therefore Agnes had a spare hour for the ex-secretary. He was shown into her own particular private sitting-room, and she welcomed him with studied politeness, for try as she might it was impossible for her to overcome her mistrust.

"Good-day, Mr. Silver," she said, when he bowed before her. "This is an unexpected visit. Won't you be seated?"

Silver accepted her offer of a chair with an air of demure shyness, and sitting on its edge stared at her rather hard. He looked neat and dapper in his Bond Street kit, and for a man who had started life as a Whitechapel toymaker, his manners were inoffensive. While Pine's secretary he had contrived to pick up hints in the way of social behavior, and undoubtedly he was clever, since he so readily adapted himself to his surroundings. He was not a gentleman, but he looked like a gentleman, and therein lay a subtle difference as Lady Agnes decided. She unconsciously in her manner, affable as it was, suggested the gulf between them, and Silver, quickly contacting the atmosphere, did not love her any the more for the hint.

Nevertheless, he admired her statuesque beauty, the fairness of which was accentuated by her sombre dress. Blinking like a well-fed cat, Silver stared at his hostess, and she looked questioningly at him. With his foxy face, his reddish hair, and suave manners, too careful to be natural, he more than ever impressed her with the idea that he was a dangerous man. Yet she could not see in what way he could reveal his malignant disposition.

"What do you wish to see me about, Mr. Silver?" she asked kindly, but did not-as he swiftly noticed-offer him a cup of tea, although it was close upon five o'clock.

"I have come to place my services at your disposal," he said in a low voice.

"Really, I am not aware that I need them," replied Lady Agnes coldly, and not at all anxious to accept the offer.

"I think," said Silver dryly, and clearing his throat, "that when you hear what I have to say you will be glad that I have come."

"Indeed! Will you be good enough to speak plainer?"

She colored hotly when she asked the question, as it struck her suddenly that perhaps this plotter

knew of Garvington's slip regarding the check. But as that had been burnt by Pine at the time of her marriage, she reflected that even if Silver knew about it, he could do nothing. Unless, and it was this thought that made her turn red, Garvington had again risked contact with the criminal courts. The idea was not a pleasant one, but being a brave woman, she faced the possibility boldly.

"Well?" she asked calmly, as he did not reply immediately. "What have you to say?"

"It's about Pine's death," said Silver bluntly.

"Sir Hubert, if you please."

"And why, Lady Agnes?" Silver raised his faint eyebrows. "We were more like brothers than master and servant. And remember that it was by the penny toys that I invented your husband first made money."

"In talking to me, I prefer that you should call my late husband Sir Hubert," insisted the widow haughtily. "What have you discovered relative to his death?"

Silver did not answer the question directly. "Sir Hubert, since you will have it so, Lady Agnes, was a gypsy," he remarked carelessly.

"That was made plain at the inquest, Mr. Silver."

"Quite so, Lady Agnes, but there were other things not made plain on that occasion. It was not discovered who shot him."

"You tell me nothing new. I presume you have come to explain that you have discovered a clew to the truth?"

Silver raised his pale face steadily. "Would you be glad if I had?"

"Certainly! Can you doubt it?"

The man shirked a reply to this question also. "Sir Hubert did not treat me over well," he observed irrelevantly.

"I fear that has nothing to do with me, Mr. Silver."

"And I was dimissed from my post," he went on imperturbably.

"On Mr. Jarwin's advice," she informed him quickly. "There was no need for you to be retained. But I believe that you were given a year's salary in lieu of notice."

"That is so," he admitted. "I am obliged to you and to Mr. Jarwin for the money, although it is not a very large sum. Considering what I did for Sir Hubert, and how he built up his fortune out of my brains, I think that I have been treated shabbily."

Lady Agnes rose, and moved towards the fireplace to touch the ivory button of the electric bell. "On that point I refer you to Mr. Jarwin," she said coldly. "This interview has lasted long enough and can lead to nothing."

"It may lead to something unpleasant unless you listen to me," said Silver acidly. "I advise you not to have me turned out, Lady Agnes."

"What do you mean?" She dropped the hand she had extended to ring the bell, and faced the smooth-faced creature suddenly. "I don't know what you are talking about."

"If you will sit down, Lady Agnes, I can explain."

"I can receive your explanation standing," said the widow, frowning. "Be brief, please."

"Very well. To put the matter in a nutshell, I want five thousand pounds."

"Five thousand pounds!" she echoed, aghast.

"On account," said Silver blandly. "On account, Lady Agnes."

"And for what reason?"

"Sir Hubert was a gypsy," he said again, and with a significant look.

"Well?"

"He stopped at the camp near Abbot's Wood."

"Well?"

"There is a gypsy girl there called Chaldea."

"Chaldea! Chaldea!" muttered the widow, passing her hand across her brow. "I have heard that name. Oh, yes. Miss Greeby mentioned it to me as the name of a girl who was sitting as Mr. Lambert's model."

"Yes," assented Silver, grinning. "She is a very beautiful girl."

The color rushed again to the woman's cheeks, but she controlled her emotions with an effort. "So Miss Greeby told me!" She knew that the man was hinting that Lambert admired the girl in question, but her pride prevented her admitting the knowledge. "Chaldea is being painted as Esmeralda to the Quasimodo of her lover, a Servian gypsy called Kara, as I have been informed, Mr. Silver. But what has all this to do with me?"

"Don't be in a hurry, Lady Agnes. It will take time to explain."

"How dare you take this tone with me?" demanded the widow, clenching her hands. "Leave the room, sir, or I shall have you turned out."

"Oh, I shall leave since you wish it," replied Silver, rising slowly and smoothing his silk hat with his sleeve. "But of course I shall try and earn the reward you offered, by taking the letter to the police."

Agnes was so surprised that she closed again the door she had opened for her visitor's exit. "What letter?"

"That one which was written to inveigle Sir Hubert to The Manor on the night he was murdered," replied Silver slowly, and suddenly raising his eyes he looked at her straightly.

"I don't understand," she said in a puzzled way. "I have never heard that such a letter was in existence. Where is it?"

"Chaldea has it, and will not give it up unless she receives five thousand pounds," answered the man glibly. "Give it to me and it passes into your possession, Lady Agnes."

"Give you what?"

"Five thousand pounds-on account."

"On account of blackmail. How dare you make such a proposition to me?"

"You know," said Silver pointedly.

"I know nothing. It is the first time I have heard of any letter. Who wrote it, may I ask?"

"You know," said Silver again.

Lady Agnes was so insulted by his triumphant look that she could have struck his grinning face. However, she had too strong a nature to lower herself in this way, and pointed to a chair. "Let me ask you a few questions, Mr. Silver," she said imperiously.

"Oh, I am quite ready to answer whatever you choose to ask," he retorted, taking his seat again and secretly surprised at her self-control.

"You say that Chaldea holds a letter which inveigled my husband to his death?" demanded Lady Agnes coolly.

"Yes. And she wants five thousand pounds for it."

"Why doesn't she give it to the police?"

"One thousand pounds is not enough for the letter. It is worth more-to some people," and Silver raised his pale eyes again.

"To me, I presume you mean;" then when he bowed, she continued her examination. "The five thousand pounds you intimate is on account, yet you say that Chaldea will deliver the letter for that sum."

"To me," rejoined the ex-secretary impudently. "And when it is in my possession, I can give it to you for twenty thousand pounds."

Lady Agnes laughed in his face. "I am too good a business woman to make such a bargain," she said with a shrug.

"Well, you know best," replied Silver, imitating her shrug.

"I know nothing; I am quite in the dark as to the reason for your blackmailing, Mr. Silver."

"That is a nasty word, Lady Agnes."

"It is the only word which seems to suit the situation. Why should I give twenty-five thousand pounds for this letter?"

"Its production will place the police on the track of the assassin."

"And is not that what I desire? Why did I offer a reward of one thousand pounds if I did not hope that the wretch who murdered my husband should be brought to justice?"

Silver exhibited unfeigned surprise. "You wish that?"

"Certainly I do. Where was this letter discovered?"

"Chaldea went to the tent of your husband in the camp and found it in the pocket of his coat. He apparently left it behind by mistake when he went to watch."

"Watch?"

"Yes! The letter stated that you intended to elope that night with Mr. Lambert, and would leave the house by the blue door. Sir Hubert went to watch and prevent the elopement. In that way he came by his death, since Lord Garvington threatened to shoot a possible burglar. Of course, Sir Hubert, when the blue door was opened by Lord Garvington, who had heard the footsteps of the supposed burglar, threw himself forward, thinking you were coming out to meet Mr. Lambert. Sir Hubert was first shot in the arm by Lord Garvington, who really believed for the moment that he had to do with a robber. But the second shot," ended Silver with emphasis, "was fired by a person concealed in the shrubbery, who knew that Sir Hubert would walk into the trap laid by the letter."

During this amazing recital, Lady Agnes, with her eyes on the man's face, and her hands clasped in sheer surprise, had sat down on a near couch. She could scarcely believe her ears. "Is this true?" she asked in a faltering voice.

Silver shrugged his shoulders again. "The letter held by Chaldea certainly set the snare in which Sir Hubert was caught. Unless the person in the shrubbery knew about the letter, the person would scarcely have been concealed there with a revolver. I know about the letter for certain, since Chaldea showed it to me, when I went to ask questions about the murder in the hope of gaining the reward. The rest of my story is theoretical."

"Who was the person who fired the shot?" asked Lady Agnes abruptly.

"I don't know."

"Who wrote the letter which set the snare?"

Silver shuffled. "Chaldea loves Mr. Lambert," he said hesitating.

"Go on," ordered the widow coldly and retaining her self-control.

"She is jealous of you, Lady Agnes, because-"

"There is no reason to explain," interrupted the listener between her teeth.

"Well, then, Chaldea hating you, says that you wrote the letter."

"Oh, indeed." Lady Agnes replied calmly enough, although her conflicting emotions almost suffocated her. "Then I take it that this gypsy declares me to be a murderess."

"Oh, I shouldn't say that exactly."

"I do say it," cried Lady Agnes, rising fiercely. "If I wrote the letter, and set the snare, I must necessarily know that some one was hiding in the shrubbery to shoot my husband. It is an abominable lie from start to finish."

"I am glad to hear you say so. But the letter?"

"The police will deal with that."

"The police? You will let Chaldea give the letter to the police?"

"I am innocent and have no fear of the police. Your attempt to blackmail me has failed, Mr. Silver."

"Be wise and take time for reflection," he urged, walking towards the door, "for I have seen this letter, and it is in your handwriting."

"I never wrote such a letter."

"Then who did-in your handwriting?"

"Perhaps you did yourself, Mr. Silver, since you are trying to blackmail me in this bareface way."

Silver snarled and gave her an ugly look. "I did no such thing," he retorted vehemently, and, as it seemed, honestly enough. "I had every reason to wish that Sir Hubert should live, since my income and my position depended upon his existence. But you-"

"What about me?" demanded Lady Agnes, taking so sudden a step forward that the little man retreated nearer the door.

"People say-"

"I know what people say and what you are about to repeat," she said in a stifled voice. "You can tell the girl to take that forged letter to the police. I am quite able to face any inquiry."

"Is Mr. Lambert also able?"

"Mr. Lambert?" Agnes felt as though she would choke.

"He was at his cottage on that night."

"I deny that; he went to London."

"Chaldea can prove that he was at his cottage, and-"

"You had better go," said Lady Agnes, turning white and looking dangerous. "Go, before you say what you may be sorry for. I shall tell Mr. Lambert the story you have told me, and let him deal with the matter."

Silver threw off the mask, as he was enraged she should so boldly withstand his demands. "I give you one week," he said harshly. "And, if you do not pay me twenty-five thousand pounds, that letter goes to the inspector at Wanbury."

"It can go now," she declared dauntlessly.

"In that case you and Mr. Lambert will be arrested at once."

Agnes gripped the man's arm as he was about to step through the door. "I take your week of grace," she said with a sudden impulse of wisdom.

"I thought you would," retorted Silver insultingly. "But remember I must get the money at the end of seven days. It's twenty-five thousand pounds for me, or disgrace to you," and with an abrupt nod he disappeared sneering.

"Twenty-five thousand pounds or disgrace," whispered Agnes to herself.

* * *

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