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Title: The Blackmailer
Author: Melville Davisson Post
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1801171h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  December 2018
Most recent update: December 2018

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The Blackmailer


Melville Davisson Post

My amazement at the painting above the mantel in the smoking room did not escape Sir Rufus.

It was the notorious Lady Gault in the most beautiful frame that one could buy in Bond Street. I was astonished to see her picture in this house, or in any house.

She was an unspeakable person.

Sir Rufus had sent me word to ride over and sit with him. The fifth Duke of Dorset was expected on this night. The great old English house, above the ancient oak trees, and the dark, swift river, was lighted and silent, with that tense vague expectancy which inanimate things seem sometimes able to take on. Sir Rufus was the greatest surgeon in England. He was alone in the smoking room but for me, with a bottle of port on the table at his elbow.

He watched me looking at the picture.

"There is another that goes with it," he said. There was a sort of glee in his voice. "One I always bring out when I am here." He pointed to a little frame beyond the bottle of port. It was the Rajah of Gujrat, photographed by "The Bystander" at one of the Ranelagh polo games.

Sir Rufus laughed.

"You will understand this," he said. "There will be a reason for this picture here. It was the Indian Rajah of Gujrat who came to the rescue of the young duke's wrecked fortune."

I knew what Sir Rufus was driving at.

It was the inexplicable purchase at the moment of crying need of that great barren tract of deer forest in Argyleshire for a fabulous sum—a sum beyond all reason, beyond all sense. The deer forest was a practically valueless property. It was hardly an asset of the wrecked estate, and to the amazement of the whole of England this Indian Rajah had come forward with an offer of one hundred thousand pounds sterling for it!

It was not worth five thousand pounds sterling!

It was not, in fact, worth anything. An immense barren mountain with a vast rain-soaked moor, extending into the Firth of Lorn.

What value could the Rajah of Gujrat see in it?

Scotland was the last land in the world that a native Indian prince would wish to live in. England was cold and wet enough; what the Rajah of Gujrat should have been seeking was a dry land, baking in the sun.

Here was a mystery that no man in England could unravel.

The Rajah had never set foot on the estate after its purchase. He had never gone to see what he had bought. It had very nearly escheated to the Crown from neglect. Why, then, had he paid one hundred thousand pounds sterling for it? I took a cigarette out of a lacquered Japanese box on the table and lighted it. "I can understand why the Rajah of Gujrat might be set up here," I said. "He was the Fairy Friend, by whose mysterious aid all these things have resulted." Sir Rufus poured out a bottle of port and drank it slowly.

"Why, no," he said, "it was the woman over the mantel who was the Fairy Friend."

The words brought me up sharply before the woman.

She was there in the exquisite oval frame, as she had so often been notoriously before us in life. The big, determined bony face; the sharp, hawk eyes, that had an aspect of a bird of prey. She was the worst woman in England. I don't mean immoralities. I mean she was the most dangerous woman in England. She wasn't a factor in love affairs. She had a profession. She was the greatest blackmailer in the world!

She was of a good family, a distinguished family; determined in any direction it chose to set out on. She had chosen to set out in the direction of the devil, and—well, she outdistanced all competitors. It was an insult to know the woman; it was an unspeakable outrage to have her picture up.

I saw the smile deepening on Sir Rufus's face.

He twisted the cigarette a moment in his fingers, and his voice went into a soft, facetious note.

"It is I," he said, "who am the instigator of this abomination. I put the picture up there. They"—he made a slight gesture toward the far-away portions of the great English house—"the Two Innocents"—he meant the young duke and his American wife—"don't know who she is. He doesn't even remember her. It's hardly a wonder; she was in a fury of the fiends the only time he ever saw her. He thinks she is a friend of mine, and keeps the picture in a cupboard until I come down, and then he sets it up."

He laughed again.

"She was never a friend of mine, but she was a friend to him with the friendship mentioned in the Scriptures!

"She died in one of my rest houses in London, when she might have lived forever in a yacht on the Mediterranean."

"I know. Heaven, what a world it is!"

He got up with a sudden energy, and threw the glass down on the floor. It broke into a dozen pieces.

"She was the Fairy Friend," he said; "but for her none of it would have happened; they wouldn't be here, we wouldn't be here, nor the thing that will happen to-night."

I thought Sir Rufus was drunk. And there must have been some evidence of the thing in my face, for he crossed to the writing table, picked up two pencils, sharpened at the points and, taking one in either hand, extended his arms and brought the points of the two pencils together before him. The two points touched, and were held without the slightest tremor. The man had the steadiest hands of any human creature in the world. A bottle of port could not unhinge a nerve in him.

He took his toll of the cellar while he waited for the new duke.

The only part he elected to play in the matter was to wait. His theory about such things was to leave the local man alone, if the local man had sense enough to leave nature alone. In the most important instance like this one, or the most unimportant, he never varied the plan.

"I am here for the emergency," he said, "if there is one, and until it arises I shall sit by the fire."

It was to have some one wait with him by the fire that brought me in. All the time I was looking at the picture. How could anyone, even Sir Rufus, have the effrontery to put this woman's picture in the young duke's house? He selected a cigarette, and went back to his chair.

"You got your conception of the natures of people out of the copy books, Sir Henry Marquis," he said. "You think only the good do good. Heaven's enervating; that's the fact about it, Marquis. For a big thing, for a tremendous thing, for some sacrifice that takes your breath away, give me a creature out of hell!"

He made a vague gesture.

"I have had the confidence of the world, like a priest, for half a century. I have seen the insides of all of them, and I give it up. I can't tell the good ones." He extended his hand in a sort of caressing gesture toward the picture.

"That's the worst woman in the world...And this is what she did:

"Mahadol of Gujrat—that lightly colored gentleman in the frame to the left of my hand—had come over to England. His brother, the Rajah of Gujrat, had disappeared; joined a rising of the Sikhs in the north of India, the Mahadol said. Anyway, he had cleared out boots and baggage at a time the Germans were supposed to be stirring up the Sikhs. They found the English uniform that he had left behind him, to show that he had gone out of our service, at any rate.

"And there was a German resident out there, a Doctor Leouenheim, a sort of scientific professor of sorts, as he gave himself out to be; a Berlin agent, the Mahadol said, in the desertion plot with the Rajah. He disappeared a day or two later."

Again he indicated the picture with his hand.

"And Lady Gault was out there, too, it seems. She was anywhere that the business of her profession could be advanced. She broke the Sirdar of Egypt, as you remember, and there were things in India that she needed to know."

He paused a moment and regarded the picture.

"Mahadol came posthaste to England. He wished to be confirmed in the succession. But the Foreign Office is a little slow; sometimes a little skeptical; sometimes, strangely, a little careful.

"Mahadol went down to Somerset to play polo and to wait, while the Foreign Office considered him. He was sitting tight at a little hotel in Somerset, when one evening Lady Gault walked in on him.

"It was a heavenly night, like a fairy day.

"She told me all about it—every detail.

"There was a polo dance in the drawing-rooms below. Mahadol had the apartments looking out toward the sea. He was in evening dress; he had just come up.

"For some time he had been watching a yacht anchored in the bay outside, but now he had gone back to an immense chair that the manager had put in for him. The curtains were drawn across the windows. There was a sort of alcove; one could go behind them, and look down at the gardens and the sea, and be in the dark oneself. The curtains shut out the lights of the sitting room from the window recess.

"He had come back from behind these curtains and sat down. He was very much concerned; nervous, we would say. He did not understand the English people, and didn't know what the Foreign Office was going to do with him.

"That's what moved him about, like the evil spirits moved the swine. Anyway, it was at this moment that Lady Gault walked in.

"'Mahadol,' she said, 'I shall have to tap you on the shoulder, and ask you to give me a bit of the loot!'

"He didn't understand what she meant, but he knew who she was, and he knew how she was regarded. Unfortunately there was a thing he didn't know: he didn't know how she was feared.

"'What do you want?' he said.

"The woman was amused. 'Now, that's a direct question, Mahadol,' she said, 'and I shall answer it directly. I want one hundred thousand pounds sterling.'

"The big creature in the chair laughed.

"The woman's face took on a mocked, pained expression."

Sir Rufus paused.

"She told me every detail, as I said a while ago, and she acted it out.

"'Now don't laugh, Mahadol,' she said. 'I have got to have one hundred thousand pounds sterling. I can't cut it a shilling. I must pay for the yacht I have borrowed, out there'—she indicated the sea with her hand—'and I must live on the Mediterranean for the rest of the time I am here. I wouldn't last three months in an English climate. It will take a lot of money. You will be the richest Rajah in India...I shall have to ask you to divide with me.'

"Mahadol thought she was crazy, but he found out differently in a moment. "'I can't be annoyed with you,' he said, and he put out his hand toward the bell cord. She came close to his chair then, and looked down at him.

"'Mahadol,' she said, 'if you put your hand on that bell cord you will never be the Rajah of Gujrat!'

"That brought him up. She saw the hesitation in his face, and quickly took advantage of it.

"'We are a queer people,' she said. 'We object to direct methods. The natural way, of course, when a man is in one's way, is to kill him...Succession by assassination is the oldest method of succession in the world. But it is not favored just now in England. I doubt if one who came into his succession by the direct and effective instrumentality of murder would be confirmed in his titles by our English Office.'

"Mahadol got up. 'What do you mean?' he said.

"The woman looked at a jeweled watch on her wrist. 'Do you remember Leouenheim?...Well, I have his report. I got it out of his lodgings at the residency the night before he disappeared. I don't overlook anything.'

"She seemed to study the face of the jeweled watch.

"'I knew what you were doing, Mahadol, and I didn't object to it, don't get a wrong impression. I am quite willing for you to be the Rajah of Gujrat, provided you are generous.'

"There must have been the menace of the devil in her vulture face.

"'No doubt you are generous, but I prefer to be sure of it. I prefer, in fact, to take no chances on your generosity.'

"She fumbled with the jewels on the watch.

"'I can turn Leouenheim's report over to the Foreign Office.'

"She said that the man's face changed, that it became the color of a handful of ashes. He kept repeating what he had said before.

"'What do you mean?'

"She knew where she had him! She was no fool to go about with threats and nothing behind them. That's what made her the greatest blackmailer in the world; she always had the data.

"She went on.

"'You looked pretty carefully through all the papers Leouenheim left behind him when he followed the Rajah the next day. It was like a German to write a report. You thought of that...But you were thinking behind events, Mahadol. I had already thought of it.'

"Her voice was soft, like the flying of a killer owl.

"'Don't be misled. The report is in Leouenheim's handwriting; no one could imitate it. It would be authenticated in any Foreign Office in the world.'

"Mahadol did not move. The woman looked leisurely about the room for a cigarette, and when she got it she squatted down on a rug before the creature's big feet. Then she went on:

"'The morning following the night on which the Rajah was supposed to disappear, you brought the abandoned uniform, pretty well cleaned up—washed, in fact—and showed it to Leouenheim. He took the coat of the uniform with him. The next day he came to see you. And what he said to you put the fear of God in you, Mahadol. He said:

"'"The Rajah is dead!"'

"She paused and watched the smoke rings from her cigarette climb slowly toward the ceiling. She was in no hurry. She wanted her words to sink in to the bone.

"'Leouenheim didn't know where the Rajah was; he had not seen him; he had talked with no one. He did not know what had occurred; couldn't have known any of the facts connected with the disappearance of the Rajah, except that you had brought to him the abandoned uniform. That was all Leouenheim had to go on.'

"She stopped again. One would have said she was only interested in the smoke rings.

"'You know all that, Mahadol. You had Leouenheim watched. He had not gone out of the residence on that night; no one had visited him; there were no sources of information available to the man. He knew absolutely nothing, could have known nothing, except, as I have said, that you brought to him the abandoned uniform—and only the coat of that. How could he know that the Rajah was dead?

"'You tried to find out how he knew, and his answer was that the evidences in his possession were conclusive, and that he would make a report to the English resident in Gujrat.

"'That was enough for you, Mahadol!

"'That night Leouenheim disappeared, "followed the Rajah," you said.'

"The woman laughed.

"'That was one time you told the truth—precisely the truth, Mahadol! Leouenheim did follow the Rajah!'

"She must have looked like a harpy there before him on the floor, with her big bony face—an abominable creature that had winged out of the pit; her voice like a loathsome caress.

"'But clever as you were, Mahadol, you were not so clever as I. I knew the report had been written before Leouenheim went to see you, and I got possession of it while he was in audience with you. He had written it out, put it into an envelope, and addressed it to the Resident—and I have it.'

"The big creature moved his thick neck as though he felt fingers on it. He tried to hold his composure, but his hands on the arm of the chair jerked. He was like one laid hold of in the dark by an invisible, deadly, illusive assailant. I suppose the woman's soft, loathsome voice behind the vulture face was the worst thing. She had the friendly manner of an ox butcher who has his knife in his sleeve.

"'Don't be disturbed about it, Mahadol!' she said. 'I'll turn the report over to you. But I want one hundred thousand pounds sterling...Think about the thing for a moment. For one hundred thousand pounds sterling you can be the Rajah of Gujrat.'

"Then she got up softly and went behind the curtain. She wanted her words, as I have said, to sink in to the bone.

"The heavy curtains cut off the room like a wall across it. Lady Gault was in the dark here, above was the sky sown over with stars, below the hotel gardens, and beyond the white yacht on a sea of amethyst. She knew what was going to happen. The successful termination of her last adventure was before her. What she had said to Mahadol was no lie. Life was only possible for her in the soft Mediterranean sea, without it she was under a sentence of death. She had no fear of what would happen in the room behind...the trapped prince would divide the loot. And she had that immense uplift of the spirit that attends a sense of victory.

"One can imagine how Mahadol thought about it.

"What had the cursed German written? He knew Leouenheim, a professor from Bonn, a little wizened creature who went about with a lens and a measure of acid—direct, accurate and always right! When he said, 'The Rajah is dead!' he knew.

"But how could he know? Even a professor from Bonn was not clairvoyant. He had seen only the Rajah's coat, and it had been cleaned. How could this miserable German tell by a coat that its owner was dead?

"And the man's mind, like a beast penned in a trap, kept turning backwards on itself.

"He had taken no chance on Leouenheim. If the German knew the Rajah was dead, he knew too much. The Rajah had deserted to the Sikhs in the purpose of a German war plot. It was not for Leouenheim to break down that story. He must follow the Rajah. And so Mahadol had acted in a wisdom large and comprehensive to him...

"He had been swift to act and cunning to conceal the evidences of that action. It was as though he had strangled, weighted and sunk the body of this crime, and here it was, unfastened from the weights, rising into the sun.

"Lady Gault stood for some time before the open window, the cold air on her face. Presently she observed two figures walking in the garden below. They moved slowly without speaking and without touching one another—a young man and a girl, come out into the garden from the dance. The night was like a fairy day. There was a soft moon veiled by a distant mist, and the myriad stars sown over the dome of the sky gave a white light. And the two lovers silent, and in a wrapt melancholy drew down the attention of the woman above them in the window. She leaned over the sill, in the dark, and regarded was God at His eternal game! Her face hardened into a cynical smile.

"God at His game in the garden below, and she at her game, above, in the sitting room of Mahadol of Gujrat! And she had suddenly a profoundly curious impulse; was this thing that labored with every trick, with every artifice, eternally, without ceasing, to the end that life should continue, merely an impulse in nature, continuous and persistent, but blind—or was it an intelligence behind the world? If it were nature there would be waste and it would often fail. It would labor when it could not win with precisely the same vigor, the same care, the same patience with which it labored when it could win. And was she—that was to say, the human intelligence—in its directing of events superior to this thing?

"She leaned over in the window.

"The two figures walking in the garden advanced and seated themselves on a bench before a flowering vine, and a rift, thinned out in the mist, let the moon through. The faces of the two person were now visible in the light, and she knew them. It was the young Duke of Dorset and the girl from America.

"Lady Gault said that she very nearly laughed!

"God was wasting His effort! The properties just inherited by the young duke were bankrupt—she knew to a shilling the value of every estate in England—the girl had no fortune. A union of these two was out of the question. This youth could not take a duchess into beggary, and he knew it; the girl beside him knew it. The fact, certain and inevitable, was between them like a partition of steel.

"And yet this Thing—this Thing behind the world—had labored with an endless patience to accomplish it. It had drawn them together across three thousand miles of sea; it had lured them, enticed them, drugged them with its opiates, enveloped them with emotions until they dared not touch their hands, trust their voices! It was all done with such superb intelligence up to this point. Lady Gault saw that. All that this boy lacked the girl possessed. She was an exquisite blend of distant bloods. She had the fine nerve, the delicate beauty, the mysterious charm that this old English race needed to revitalize it. Everything was right; amazingly, inconceivably right...and it was all for nothing! The woman at the window reflected.

"It was as though she had gone to every care to blackmail one who had nothing in his pocket, or had threatened one with her menace when she had no fact behind it.

"And the comprehension of it stimulated her like a victory. She was superior to this Thing. It would lose in the game it played, but she would win in hers. And she rose and went back into the sitting room.

"The Indian was standing, his back against a table, a polo mallet in his hand.

"Lady Gault laughed.

"'It won't do, Mahadol,' she said, 'you are not lucky at murder. Break the pastern of Lord Winton's gray pony to-morrow in the first chukker; it will relieve you and set him wild.'

"She passed around him, softly like a cheta around a tethered goat.

"'Leouenheim knew from the Rajah's coat that he was dead, and I knew from a broken seam of moss in the palace garden where the dead man removed every trace in that garden, Mahadol, with a devil's cunning—the best Khazi in India couldn't have found a spoor to follow, but you could not knit together a bed of broken moss, and you forgot that when the green edges dried up they would leave a brown line that the eye could see.'

"Then she went back behind the curtain.

"Nothing in the garden below had changed, except that the situation seemed to have grown more tense. The two persons talked together, their voices, but not their words, were audible. The woman above them in the darkness could not hear what they said, but she had no need to hear it. It would be the vague, irrelevant talk of persons bent like a bow.

"She got down on the floor by the window, put her elbows on the sill, her face in her hands, and considered them.

"What fool work to bring a thing like this thus far and then fail with it! But would it fail? That was the point of consuming, dramatic interest to the woman. A blind impulse in nature would fail, but an intelligence would find a way to win. Well, let the thing work out a solution if it could...the responsibility was not on her.

"She very nearly uttered the words.

"And then something happened.

"It was, the woman said, as though one watching another under the will of a hypnotist should suddenly realize that the hynotist had faced about on him.

"The responsibility was on her!

"The sense of it descended like a pressure. And she could not escape it. She tried. What weakness was this, what obsession, what absurdity? But it was of no use. The responsibility was on her!

"God is His universe labored at some great work. Life must go on. It was a chain which for mysterious, unknowable reasons must continue, lest somehow the destiny of all was periled. Did it break, then the labor of all was lost; the immortality of all endangered. Some doom reaching equally to the farthest ancestor; some doom not clear, not possible to get at, but sinister and threatening attended the breaking of that chain. The living, blind and rebellious sometimes denied this, but the dead knew; the very myriads of them seemed to press around her, their faces ghastly!

"She got up, her knees weakened. This old family, strengthened, vitalized, must go on.

"There must be a fifth Duke of Dorset!

"And she staggered about there in the darkness behind that curtain.

"It was not her affair, she was no party; she would not be drawn into this thing. But it was of no use! This thing could not be rejected by any Cain's disclaimer!

"She went back into the lighted chamber.

"The Indian had capitulated. It was in his face.

"She turned on him like a harpy.

"'This thing's ended!' she said. 'You pay a hundred thousand pounds sterling!'

"Her voice was like the edge of a steel tool.

"'Leouenheim found a fragment of bone in a shoulder seam of the Rajah's coat, bedded in the fibers of the cloth—fixed there, I suppose, by the rubbing of your servants when they washed out the blood stains. That fragment of bone would have meant nothing to me, nothing to you. But when Leouenheim saw it he knew that the Rajah was dead. It was a fragment of the stapedial bone of the inner ear. It could only have been removed by an injury resulting in death. She paused. 'When Leouenheim saw that fragment of bone he knew that the Rajah was dead...and when I saw that the moss grown over the covering stone of a cistern in the palace garden was broken along the edge I knew where the dead man was.'

"She went out and down the stairway—vicious, bitter! Like Mahadol, she, too, was trapped! But unlike that weak-fibered creature, the unbroken spirit in the woman snarled.

"She crossed the hall and entered the long drawing-room. The dancers gave her a wide way. She must have looked something awful! At the door to the garden she met the young duke and the girl coming in. They drew back as before a visitation from the pit; but she beckoned to them.

"'Dorset,' she said, 'I have a purchaser for your deer forest in Argyleshire at a hundred thousand pounds sterling...don't cut the price.'" Steps sounded without, and there was a light knocking on the smoking room door.

Sir Rufus sprang up, crossed with a stride, and opened it. A nurse spoke to him. He closed the door softly and remained a moment with his hand on the latch. From far off in the distant upper portions of the house a faint wailing cry descended. And Sir Rufus spoke, his eyes on the painted picture above the mantel.

"You cursed—you blessed—Jezebel, he's here!"


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