Rafael Sabatini - The Blackmailer
The Blackmailer читать книгу онлайн
by Rafael Sabatini
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."