Authors: Norman Russell
‘Maybe Sir William Porteous was lying, sir. Perhaps it’s time to think seriously about that.’
As soon as Box and Knollys had gone, Gideon Raikes sprang up from his desk, and flung up the window. Air! It was needful to let the fresh air blow through the profaned room. Curse that snooping little man, and his clod-hopper of a sergeant! They’d polluted the house with their innuendo. Had Box tried to lay Colbourne’s murder at his door? Was he to become the victim of a legal conspiracy?
He pulled the bell for Brucchiani, and sat down again at his desk. The fresh breeze blew the fine white nets of Brussels lace high above the window sills. He picked up the jewelled pen that had belonged to Napoleon, and for which he had paid a hundred guineas. He had owed that sum to Victor Carex in 1867. Carex had run the glittering gaming-hell in Paulet Street, and had employed slack-mouthed thugs to enforce payment of ‘debts of honour’. A hundred guineas …
Brucchiani appeared at the door, and asked Raikes his
‘Is Mr Kyriakides in the house? Tell him to come here at once.’
The door closed silently and Raikes returned to his thoughts. They could never trace the attempt on Porteous’s life to him. The links were too tenuous. Nevertheless, the constant pressure, the feeling of being spied upon, photographed surreptitiously, followed by agents, was becoming unbearable. Something would have to be done. Was this, then, a finely-sprung trap to hang him for a murder he had not committed? And was Porteous the instigator? Had he connived with Box? Curse him! Why could he not leave well alone? There was room in London for both of them, but this constant, never-ending persecution by Porteous would unhinge him if it continued.
The door opened to admit a stooping, olive-complexioned man of sixty or so, clad in a crumpled white suit. His greasy
head was innocent of hair, but he still used a sickly dressing, the odour of which vied with the perfumes of Mr Raikes. He smiled and sagged sideways in a deferential greeting.
‘Mr Kyriakides, I’d be obliged if you’d remind me about Victor Carex.’ Once more the serpent gleamed behind the connoisseur’s eyes for a moment and then withdrew.
‘Mr Carex? Why, sir, that was long ago! We have a property company, sir, run for us by a person called Mr McCrew. The company was able to acquire the lease of Mr Carex’s
in Paulet Street, and Mr McCrew was able to gain control of the premises. Mr McCrew did not approve of gambling, and evicted Mr Carex. Mr Carex became violent, and Mr Percy Liversedge was sent to persuade him to see reason. This was all some years ago. Do you wish to hear more, sir?’
‘Mr Victor Carex fell to his death from the attic storey of the house in Paulet Street. His neck was broken. His premises were acquired by our property company. Indeed, we still own them. And a good deal more, sir.’
‘Your memory does you credit, Mr Kyriakides. Have you ever met Mr McCrew?’
‘No, sir. He’s a remarkably astute and devious character. I hear from him, through third parties, but I have never seen him.’
‘Yes you have, Mr Kyriakides. You’re looking at him now!’
‘Yes, me. There, that’s a further confidence for you to share. Maybe one day we’ll share the same gallows!’
Gideon Raikes sprang up from his desk again. His face suddenly turned red with rage. Mr Kyriakides retreated
towards the door. He knew the quality of these rages. Raikes’s voice rose to a shriek.
‘I consign them to hell, Kyriakides! If I could make the earth open and swallow them up, I would! That fool Box, and his ape of a sergeant – perhaps they’ll go the way of Carex! And as for Porteous – I failed there, and dare not make a second attempt—’
‘Careful? The time has come for me to end this persecution! I have hinted at my powers by breaching the security of his bank
accounts, but evidently it’s not enough to make them back off. One can be over-cautious, and that’s when the enemy strikes—’
Raikes’s voice suddenly failed him, and he all but collapsed into his chair at the great baroque desk. Mr Kyriakides dashed some brandy into a glass, which Raikes drank in one gulp. His voice now came in a hoarse whisper.
‘I thought they’d have been warned off by what happened to Sam Palin. Sam, who sold his comrades for two sovereigns – well, I offered him as a sacrifice on the altar of our safety!’
He looked around the room at the serried ranks of shelves containing his collection of rare books, at the paintings displayed on easels, at the rich and recent gilding of the coffered ceiling. He smiled, and when he spoke again to his fawning confidant, his voice had resumed its usual mellifluous tones.
‘There, there, I have frightened you with my raging, Mr Kyriakides. A man should never frighten his confidential agent. I apologize. But this persecution by Porteous and his minions must cease forthwith; and I have here, in this very room, the
means of stopping Porteous’s mouth.’
Gideon Raikes slid aside the panel covering the door of his safe.
‘I wonder who this can be, Lardner?’ asked Lady Porteous. ‘A very elegant equipage, though I should have thought two men up on the box was a little vulgar. Well, we shall see who it is, presently.’
The noise of a carriage drawing up at the kerb had attracted her attention, and she had glanced out of the drawing-room window.
They could both hear a peremptory knock on the front door, followed by a murmuring of voices as the visitor was admitted to the house. In a moment a liveried footman came in, bearing a calling-card on a silver tray.
Lardner saw the colour drain from Lady Porteous’s face as she read the card. She mastered herself with considerable control, and said calmly to the footman, ‘Ask his gentleman to sit in the hall for five minutes, Roberts. Then show him in here.’
‘Lardner,’ she said, when the page had left the room, ‘it is Gideon Raikes.’
The secretary started in surprise. What could this devil want in the very house of his adversary?
‘Do you wish me to stay, madam? I will not leave your side, if that is your wish.’
She threw him a grateful look. This man deserved to be treated as a confidant. Scholarly and retiring he might be, but his heart was proving to be true as steel.
‘There will be no need, thank you, Lardner. But it would be well if you were to leave through the writing-room. This man … He would have murdered my husband, and yet he has the effrontery to call at his house! I don’t know what this fellow wants, but it cannot be anything that need involve you
Lardner bowed to Lady Porteous and crossed the room to the door of the adjoining writing-room, which he entered. He did not, however, close the door. Instead, he left it open a crack, and prepared to listen. This man had tried to kill Sir William; he was attempting to ruin him through his assets. Lardner had no
about eavesdropping where the safety of Lady Porteous was in question.
Presently the door of the drawing-room opened, and the footman announced Mr Gideon Raikes.
The perfume of Gideon Raikes preceded him, and the man himself, pomaded and curled, soon followed. Handsome and well-tailored, his astrakhan coat fitted him like a glove. He caught Lady Porteous’s disdainful look.
He said to himself: hello, proud beauty, who made me always feel coarse and mean.
She in her turn thought: we meet again at last, seducer and betrayer, whose words were of passion and whose heart was of stone.
Aloud she said haughtily, ‘Please sit there in that chair, Mr Raikes, and state your business. I can spare you only a few minutes of my time.’
Gideon Raikes had entered the room carrying his silk hat and walking cane, which he had declined to surrender to the footman. He placed them now on a side table and sat down in the proffered chair.
He smoothed his tinted hair with his hand, looked around the room, and smiled.
‘It is good of you to receive me, Lady Porteous. What a ring there is to that title! It gains lustre not only from your own most beauteous person but also, if I may say this, from the celebrated personality of your husband.’
Lady Porteous’s hand flew to the bell-rope beside the
. Her eyes flashed dangerous fire at her smiling visitor.
‘I will set aside your impertinence for the moment with respect to myself, but if you refer to Sir William Porteous once again simply as “my husband”, as though he were nothing but an appendage to someone else, then I ring this bell, and my footman throws you out into the street.’
The parchment-pale face suffused with an ugly blush. The languid eyelids of the connoisseur widened in blazing anger to reveal the deadly stare of the serpent. Then blush and stare were banished by a dangerous calm. Gideon Raikes smiled again.
‘Age has most certainly not banished your fiery and passionate nature, Lady Porteous. Have you read
? Henry Irving’s portrayal was one of the best I have ever seen. I told him so the other night. “My dear Raikes”, he said, “there are greater things to come!”’
‘And what has all this theatrical chat to do with me?’
‘Well, you remind me of Cordelia in
or rather of those words that her sister Goneril addressed to her:
It was Adelaide Porteous’s turn to blush. A terrible, cringing shame enveloped her, erasing her habitual rather haughty dignity. She hid her face in her hands, and remained like that for what seemed an age while the cultured tones of her visitor continued remorselessly.
‘Vulgarity, I know, is distasteful to both of us. Nevertheless, I have to mention that William Porteous must have been aware,
once he had married you, that you had not come as a maiden to the altar.’
An incoherent sound escaped Lady Porteous’s lips, but her face remained buried in her hands.
‘Throughout our foolish liaison I made it clear to you that I would not allow any mistake on your part to stand in the way of my career. When you told me that you were to have a child I let you terminate our engagement, leaving you free to give what reasons you wished. And almost immediately you married Sir William Porteous, or Mr Porteous, as he was then. I assume that I am permitted to refer to him as he was in the days before his knighthood without incurring the wrath of your footman?’
Lady Porteous finally found her voice. She had been standing near the fireplace, but now she sat down. She placed her hands in her lap, and cast her eyes down to the floor.
‘Why do you bring up these youthful follies now? It is true that I became pregnant, and that I married Sir William. Yes, he received me “at fortune’s alms”, and I am thankful that you have caused me to remember that saving grace after all these years. Of course he knew that I did not come to him as a maiden, but he knew nothing of your part in the affair. You chose to discard me, but I did not choose to betray you. My eldest child was born in due time, and my husband always accepted her as his own.’
Gideon Raikes leaned back in his chair with a lounging
, as though the elegant mansion in Queen Adelaide Gate was his own. He looked very handsome, and his smile gleamed with even teeth.
‘I went into insurance, you know,’ he said. ‘And I have a very valuable insurance policy at my house in Grosvenor Square. Do you remember a letter? Ah! I see you do. No, don’t faint: it will do no earthly good, and could lead to your exposure. I have that letter – the valuable policy I spoke of! “Dear Gideon, I am
with your child. You must help me, or I will be cast out. Have mercy upon me”, et cetera. Do you remember, proud woman?’
There was no reply from the cringing figure in the chair.
‘Now: Sir William Porteous, QC, your husband, is pursuing a vendetta against me. That was always a dangerous thing to do –
dangerous, and ill-advised. By some odd chance Sir William Porteous, QC, has met with a disabling accident. You must go to him, and tell him to desist. I want a legal, written document from him, apologizing for his persecution of me, and acknowledging that he has been entirely mistaken in his opinions. If he can also declare his belief that I am as pure as the driven snow, that would also be to your joint advantage.’
‘And if I refuse to do your bidding?’
‘Then I will send him your snivelling letter, and a missive of my own, to tell him that his much-loved eldest daughter Mary Jane, now Countess of Avoncourt, is in fact the love-child of his spotless wife and Gideon Raikes. See how you will live with that!’
Lady Porteous had gone white with fear. She looked at Raikes with increasing horror. She ventured a reply.
‘Sir William will stand by me. Even with that knowledge, he will not desert me. I will tell him the truth.’
‘Tell him, by all means. Indeed, I see no other course of action if you are to persuade him to write that document. But do not try to bluff your way out of this situation. There are two other people you have not thought of, who will find the truth of your eldest daughter’s conception unwelcome.’
‘Who are they?’
‘One is the Queen. You are one of her courtiers. How long do you think that position will be vouchsafed to you when Her Majesty learns the truth?’
‘And the other?’
‘The other is your daughter herself. If you do not procure that document from Sir William Porteous, QC, I will tell your daughter’s husband. The Earl of Avoncourt’s pride of pedigree is legendary. He will cast your daughter off without a moment’s thought.’
Lady Porteous’s voice came in a whisper.
‘But she is your daughter, too. Surely you would not do such a thing?’
‘I care only for two things in this life: wealth, and art. One buys the other. Of human life I care nothing. I will do all that I have said, and more. With that document in my hands I am
impregnable. Without it, you and your child are ruined, and there will be no guarantee of Sir William’s future safety. Who knows what may happen? We live in dangerous, murderous times.’