THERE are possibly more interesting hobbies than "Ming" dynasties or Blue Mauritius postage stamps, and it seemed to Violet Acton that she had found such a thing, and that a comparatively inexpensive one. Like most popular favourites on the musical stage, she had a voluminous, not to say quaint correspondence, and for the most part she pasted her letters into an album, which sometime or another might perhaps find a use in history. She glanced thoughtfully over one of the letters which she had in her hand now. It was not the least rare of her possessions, though it was a comparatively recent treasure. It ran thus—
"As a regular first-nighter, and one who has frequently enjoyed your splendid performances, I humbly take the liberty of pointing out to you one or two little mistakes in your big scene in 'Claude Duval' at the Frivolity Theatre. In my opinion, the big burglary scene where you take the part of Claude Duval would be made more natural if you had a few hints from an old hand like myself. I don't mean an old hand on the stage, but an old hand at the other game. I am out of the profession now, for, you see, I have turned over a new leaf; but still, if you like to know what I mean, and care to drop me a line at any time, it would be a great pleasure to me to wait upon you and show you where I humbly think you have made a mistake. I hope you won't be annoyed with me, because I mean it well, and I don't care who the next man is, you haven't got a greater admirer than
"Your humble servant,
"The very thing," Violet mused. "Now, why didn't I think of that before? I am quite sure this man would help me. At any rate, I'll try it; and even if I fail, I shan't be in a more horrible mess than I am now. Now, I wonder if I can manage to get a night off to-morrow. I haven't been 'indisposed' for quite two years, and perhaps the manager would pass it for once."
Miss Acton sat down and wrote a little note to the address given by Mr. Peter Budd, asking him to call upon her the following evening at ten o'clock. She would be alone at her flat then, therefore it would be no difficult matter to send the servants out and receive the artistic burglar alone. It was just as well perhaps that nobody should know of his visit. As Miss Acton's flat was situated in a great block of other desirable tenements where a good many of her own friends resided, there was a fair amount of risk, but that she would have to run. For, sooth to say, she was sorely troubled in her mind, and unless desperate diseases were met with desperate remedies, matters looked like culminating in a most unpleasant crisis.
To put it plainly, Violet was engaged to be married. There was nothing strange about that, of course, neither was there anything strange in the truth that the marriage was an exceptionally brilliant one. For the Marquis of Richfort was no titled idiot under the glamour of the stage, but a young man of great wealth and attainments who at no distantndate was tolerably certain to hold a high office in the Government. He was a rather serious-minded young man, but he had a very pretty notion of his own importance, and unless something out of the common occurred before very long, the popular favourite of the Frivolity Theatre would become the Marchioness of Richfort.
Not that anybody could say a word against Violet Acton. No shadow had rested for a moment upon her reputation since the time, four years ago, when she first appeared in the last row of the chorus. As to the rest, she was respectably enough connected; her father had been a well-known lawyer in Brighton, and on her mother's side she could boast of some exceedingly good Irish blood in her veins. So far as she could see, looking back, she had nothing to regret, with the exception of one foolish episode which had taken place some three years before. Violet Acton did not care to think about this now, but since her engagement to Richfort it had been forced upon her attention in a more or less unpleasant manner. She would have given a good deal to recall those few foolish letters which she had written to a man who was now dead and gone, and who had at one time promised to make a great reputation as a poet and writer of imaginative romance. It had been the nearest approach to a love idyll in which Violet had engaged, and it had been a matter of sincere grief to her when the young man died, and the actress had quite forgotten that those harmlessly sentimental letters were still in existence. They had come back to her with other effects of the poet, and she had forgotten to destroy them. Perhaps she had kept them for sentimental reasons.
But be that as it might, they had recently found their way into the possession of a nebulous individual who threatened to make himself exceedingly unpleasant. In ordinary circumstances Violet would have laughed, and if she had been engaged to an ordinary young man, she would have probably told him all about it. But, being a woman, she did none of these things.
It was just the set of chances in which the blackmailer sees his opportunity. There is a popular delusion to the effect that the blackmailing reptile exists only amongst foreign waiters and the class which make a precarious livelihood by bleeding City men. This is a mistaken estimate, for the blackmailer is occasionally met in Society, and before now has been known to belong to a good club. And Violet was not quite sure as to whether or not Algernon Atherley belonged to this category.
At any rate, he was a well-dressed, well-set-up man, and he himself had a flat in Maxbridge Mansions also. He was on fairly good terms with most of the people of Violet's set, and there were only a few people who fought shy of him. Even those would have been hard put to it to say why, and Violet had been rather inclined to like him. They had seen a good deal of one another; he occasionally dropped into Miss Acton's flat to tea, and she had always found him an amusing and entertaining companion.
But since her engagement to Richfort, matters had not gone so smoothly. It was about this time that the hand of the blackmailer began to show ominously. He himself remained, so to speak, the flower which blushes unseen, and he had chosen, in the first instance, to approach Miss Acton through the medium of Atherley.
Atherley was properly indignant, of course; he would like to seek out the fellow and give him the thrashing he deserved. But the blackmailer was cunning to a degree; he refused to come out in the open, though as time went on he became more threatening, so that he was getting on Violet's nerves. There was only one thing for it now—she must either tell Richfort everything, or she must pay the £500 which the sinister figure in the background demanded as the price of the letters. It was an odd enough situation in its way, though it presented novel features. And now the time for action had arrived.
Now, Violet Acton might be frivolous, as she undoubtedly was, but she was a long way from being a fool, and she had a more than intelligent grasp on the situation. She had courage, too, and the strongest disinclination to part with the money, for many reasons. One of the chief and most powerful was that she hadn't got it. And, again, she hated to be done in this fashion. For a long time she pondered the matter over in her mind, and then at last she began to see exactly how it was that those letters had found their way from an old, forgotten desk into the possession of the blackmailer who stood behind Atherley. And she began now to see her way, too, to recovering possession of the letters, and the whole inspiration had come to her in a flash as she stood pasting Peter Budd's criticisms into her book.
She posted the letter to the converted burglar herself, after which she rang the bell for tea. There was nobody coming but Mr. Atherley, she informed the maid, and she didn't wish to see anybody else. He came along presently, smiling and debonair, and Violet noticed that he was wearing a new morning-coat for the occasion. Regarding him coolly and critically, she was bound to admit that he did not look in the least like a scoundrel. His air was easy and well-bred, and there was quite a frank smile in his eyes. Just for a moment Violet's heart smote her; perhaps he was acting in her best and truest interest—and this is a cold and crafty world, and one can never quite tell. And there was no doubt of the fact either that Atherley and the stricken poet, who was the original cause of the trouble, had been at school together. This was possibly why the blackmailer had approached Atherley in the first instance. Still, Miss Acton had learnt a good deal of the world since her poet's untimely death, and she could see that it would be necessary to walk circumspectly. Atherley alluded to the matter now as he sat there in the charming little drawing-room drinking his tea.
Necessarily, Miss Acton professed herself to be vastly obliged to Mr. Atherley. There was a grateful light in her beautiful blue eyes as she spoke to him. She murmured something to the effect that it is a blessed thing in the hour of tribulation to possess a real friend. Perhaps she was doing wrong in not laying the whole trouble frankly and openly before Lord Richfort, but she hesitated to do that until she was compelled to do so. Atherley shook his head. He seemed to doubt the wisdom and the strict honour of this course, but he said nothing. That was a matter upon which Miss Acton must be guided by her own feelings. But, one way or another, she must make up her mind, as there was no time to lose. Atherley appeared to wash his hands of it.
"I positively don't know what to do," Violet murmured. "Anyhow, it's awfully good of you to come to me like this. And I really don't know how to thank you. I can't understand why it is that everybody is so ready to help me."
Atherley murmured something complimentary as he stirred his tea. He conveyed his admiration gallantly.
"Of course, anyone would," he said. "And just now, one is all the more anxious to assist you. You must see for yourself that the ruffian who has these letters is deliberately taking advantage of your engagement to Richfort. You see, if Richfort was the ordinary Johnny who hangs about stage-doors and supper-rooms, the letters would be quite easy. But Richfort is a serious young man with lofty ideals, and if he knew of those letters, he might be surprised to hear that you had been previously engaged to be married, and to such a Bohemian as our poor friend. Of course, I don't say that he would, but he might."
Violet Acton sighed deeply.
"It's more than possible, simply because I have omitted to mention the fact hitherto," she said. "I only wish I had still got the wretched things, and I would take them straight to my futare husband myself."
"But you wouldn't like him to receive them without a sufficient explanation," said Atherley.
"Of course not," she replied. "But really, Mr. Atherley, do you see any harm in the mere schoolgirl sentiment of those letters?"
"Well, I don't," Atherley said. "But then--"
"Oh, then, you've seen them?" Violet asked innocently.
Atherley appeared to be taken considerably aback at the question. For an easy, assured man of the world he looked quite confused.
"Well, yes," he stammered. "It—it was like this. I didn't want to worry you, or I should have told you before. You see, the rascal sent me one of the letters, much in the same way as a bandit has a playful habit of sending along an ear of a captive to his friends with a view to hurrying up the ransom. I didn't want you to feel that I had seen one of the letters, and that's why I never told you about it."
Violet smiled as if she found the simile amusing. As a matter of fact, she hardly noticed it. She had stumbled, not altogether by accident, upon something which she had suspected for some time.
"I see," she said thoughtfully. "I understand. And you think if we don't buy these letters soon, they will be sent to Lord Richfort?"
"I should say that there isn't the slightest doubt of it," Atherley said. "What I am afraid of is that the fellow might ask more."
"But I haven't got it!" Violet cried. "Of course, I am making a good income and all that, and I don't think I am unduly extravagant, but, all the same, I never seem to have any money. What a hateful business it is altogether! My dear friend, I don't know how I can possibly get this money. Now, don't you think we could find some way of tricking the fellow out of the letters? Really, it would be quite fair. I suppose he keeps them in some very secure place."
"In a safe, I expect," Atherley said. "Ah, you may be sure that he is running no risks. I shouldn't indulge in any romantic dreams of that sort, if I were you. And, besides, you couldn't open a safe. You couldn't do it even if I were there to help you. We must try some other plan."
"But couldn't we burgle his safe, really?"
Atherley shook his head. He could not refrain from smiling. The idea of Violet acting the part of amateur burglar strongly appealed to his sense of humour. Still, although he could see the comic side of it, there was something in this flight of fancy which caused him an uncomfortable feeling that his fair companion was laughing at him.
"Don't you think you had better stick to business?" he said. "This is not stage comedy, you know."
"I thought I was serious," Violet protested. "I thought I was making a practical suggestion. And besides, after all's said and done, there's no great hurry."
"Oh, I am afraid there is," Atherley returned.
"But then I've got to find the money, and that will take some time. You must put your friend off for a week or two."
"My friend?" Atherley said coldly. "I don't quite follow."
"Oh, I beg your pardon, I'm sure. I mean your acquaintance. Let us dissemble, as they say on the stage. Try and put this man off, and see if we can devise some plan of campaign. Of course, you may say that it is a romantic idea on my part, but I should dearly love to steal those letters, if I had a chance. Still, if nothing can be done, I suppose I shall have to buy them back. Let me see. Suppose you come back to me on Tuesday. I am going to Brighton on Sunday evening to Monday afternoon, and between now and then I am going to devote my whole time to devising a way to get possession of those letters. I do hope that the man who has them lives in a flat—you see, it will make my task so much more easy."
Atherley did not like the mocking light in his companion's eyes at all. She was distinctly laughing at him now, and she was not making the slightest effort to conceal it. It seemed strange to him that a woman in so serious a position should take the thing so easily. He rose from his chair and reached for his hat. He made some sort of attempt to shake hands, but Miss Acton did not appear to notice.
"Well, good-bye," he said. "I will come again on Tuesday. Only please don't delay the thing any longer. Believe me, I am speaking in your best interests."
"You are too kind," Violet said demurely. "Try to bring the letters with you. I hope they are appropriately tied up with blue ribbon and sealed with violet wax."
"Violet wax?" Atherley stammered. "Blue ribbon? Why—but, of course, you are joking. I see what you mean. They would be fastened up like that if it was in a play; but, really, you must be serious. You must try to realise your position. And now, really, I shall have to go. But I won't forget you—I won't fail you on Tuesday. Good-bye."
Atherley left the flat somehow or other without shaking hands with his hostess. Afterwards he wondered why this ceremony had been overlooked. Meanwhile, the actress was sitting there grave and thoughtful enough now.
"I think it's all right," she murmured. "If my burglar is a good man, it ought to be a certainty."
VIOLET was quite alone in her flat. She was always by way of being a considerate mistress, and, seeing that she was not going out herself this evening, she had allowed her domestic staff a few hours' liberty; indeed, she had gone further than that, and had actually secured them tickets for the Frivolity Theatre. She was not playing herself this evening, for she had sent a message round to the theatre, accompanied by a doctor's certificate to the effect that she was suffering from a slight nervous strain. After two hundred consecutive nights in the same part, the excuse sounded plausible enough, and the management was satisfied. So, incidentally, was Violet Acton's understudy. And therefore it was with an easy conscience that the popular actress sat there awaiting the advent of Mr. Peter Budd. Her head was feeling slightly better now, especially as she had taken a little walk and subsequently stopped in the vestibule a few moments to chat with the hall-porter.
Mr. Budd came punctually at the appointed moment and knocked timidly at the door of the flat. He came shambling in, uncomfortable and hot, not to say sticky, and presently found himself seated opposite the brilliant actress in her dining-room smoking a cigarette and trying vainly to feel at ease. He was a comparatively young man, fairly well spoken, and dressed after the manner of a respectable City clerk whose ideas run in the direction of flashiness, and who is occasionally fond of backing his fancy. At an early stage of the proceedings he intimated that though he was now known as Peter Budd, that was not the name under which he had come in contact with the superior forces of the law.
"It is exceedingly interesting," Violet murnmred. "And really, I don't know how to thank you sufficiently for your kindness in coming here this evening. You don't know how I appreciate it."
"It was blooming cheek," Budd said with conviction. "That's what it was, nothing more or less than blooming cheek. Not as I realised it till after I had posted the letter."
"Not at all," Violet murmured sweetly, "not at all. It was really most thoughtful of you. Without really knowing it, Mr. Budd, you have in you the making of an artist. Under happier conditions I am sure you would have made a name for yourself. For you came to the Frivolity Theatre, and as an artist you were pained to see that I was doing my work so crudely. It was exceedingly nice of you to go out of your way to guide the footsteps of a stranger into the right path."
"No thanks are needed," Budd muttered politely. "But you always looked so good-tempered and amiable "
"Quite so," Violet murnmred. "At any rate, I am glad you have come here, and I am glad that we understand one another. And this artistic sympathy is a bond between us. Perhaps you guessed, or perhaps you read somewhere, that I am always grateful for hints, especially in the way of my profession. And I always pride myself in getting my details as realistic as possible, and that is one, but only one of the reasons, why I wrote to you. I want you to show me exactly what you mean. Of course, I don't suggest that we should start on a burgling expedition."
"I really couldn't do that, miss," Budd said quite firmly. "You see, I have had my lesson, and I'm going to profit by it. I am doing very well now, and, besides, I hope to get married before long. But if you happen to have a safe here, I could show you exactly what I mean."
"I'm sorry I don't possess one," Violet said regretfully. "But if I had, do you really think you could open it?"
Budd's smile was distinctly professional.
"Well, I should hope so, miss," he said. "I never saw one that beat me yet. Ever since I was a boy, I had an instinct that way. Besides, you see, it was the trade I was brought up to. I'm not boasting when I say that there isn't a safe in the City of London which I couldn't manage in two hours. Still, I dare say I could show you what I mean if you had such a thing as a tin box about the place. But, even then, it wouldn't be a practical lesson. It would pass on the stage, of course."
"That would be very nice," Violet smiled sweetly. "I will see what I can manage presently. I have a little scheme of my own which you may be disposed to fall in with, and I do hope, Mr. Budd, that you brought your tools with you."
Budd tapped his coat pocket significantly.
"Yes, I did that," he explained. "It was a bit risky, of course, but I really hadn't the heart to refuse you. As a matter of fact, I borrowed these. They're not quite all an artist would desire, but they are not bad."
The speaker produced several implements of his late trade and laid them on the table. He proceeded glibly to explain their uses. When at length the category was finished, Budd once more suggested the necessity of a tin box, with the object of completing the lesson. Violet shook her head regretfully.
"I haven't such a thing on the premises," she said, "but I think I have a better idea than that. It would be an excellent joke in its way if you would only help me. You see, I have a friend who lives in a flat close by, and I told—I told her all about your letter. Of course, I didn't show it to her, but she was fearfully interested and all that kind of thing, but she was quite sure that even if you came here, you would be able to teach me nothing, and I told her that I should get into her flat one day and burgle her safe. In the end, we had a bet on it; and the conditions were that if within a week I managed to steal a bundle of letters out of her safe, she was to pay me the full amount of the bet. Now, those letters are tied up with blue ribbon and sealed with violet wax. I tell you this because I want you to feel that everything is quite straightforward "
"It would be, with you, miss," Budd muttered.
"Now, that's very nice of you, Mr. Budd. And I have managed to get hold of the key of my friend's flat, and I know she won't be home for hours yet, and she has a deaf old housekeeper whom it is impossible to rouse. Now, if you will come along with me, we shall be able to have a real lesson with a real safe. And when the joke comes to be explained, nobody will laugh more heartily than my friend herself. Come along."
Budd demurred. He looked, if possible, a little more hot and uncomfortable than before. But now, he was as clay in the hands of the potter. There was never yet man born of woman who could refuse Violet Acton anything when once she had made up her mind to it. It was just half an hour later that master and pupil returned to the dining-room of Miss Acton's flat, and those precious moments had been by no means wasted. And, surely enough, a little packet of letters tied up with blue ribbon and sealed with violet wax lay by the side of a tumbler out of which Peter Budd was regaling himself with something exceedingly neat and exclusive in the way of a branded champagne. He was still very shy, and not a little uncomfortable, but he had lost his nervousness now, and his eyes wore a placid look of professional satisfaction.
"I suppose it's all right, miss," he said. "At any rate, you know what to do now; and now, if there is nothing more I can do for you, I think I'll be off."
Strangely enough, Atherley failed to keep his appointment on Tuesday afternoon. This was all the more odd seeing that he had been having anything but a good time lately. More than one of his little schemes had gone astray, and his creditors were beginning to press him. There is a freemasonry amongst the tradesmen of a certain class, and their intimate knowledge of the inner life of some of their customers would amaze them. For instance, most of them knew exactly how far to let Atherley go, and he was painfully aware that he had reached the end. A pretty little scheme of his in which figured a certain flighty countess and some family diamonds had miscarried at the last moment, and Atherley was face to face with the fact that unless he could provide himself with a few hundred pounds at the end of the week, he was likely to find himself in serious trouble. Therefore it was all the more strange that he should fail to keep his appointment, seeing that he might have used the cheque intended for the unknown blackmailer—temporarily, of course, until he could see his way out of his present difficulties. But, at any rate, he did fail to keep his promise, and Violet smiled to herself as the clock moved steadily on and there was no sign of Algernon Atherley. In a measure she was disappointed, because the climax of the little scheme would be missing. She had hoped to make quite a dramatic affair of it; she had hoped to confront Atherley with the letters and enjoy his discomfiture.
At any rate, there were no signs of Atherley. Perhaps he had forgotten his promise. It was about seven o'clock the same evening, when he was coming home, that he met Miss Acton going down the stairs. She smiled at him in her most fascinating fashion, but she did not offer her hand, neither did Atherley seem to expect it. He looked strangely uncomfortable and ill at ease, and would have passed on if she had not stopped him.
"So you didn't come this afternoon," she said. "Oh, there is no need to apologise. I didn't wait in for you. There was no absolute necessity to do so. I wanted to know if my little plan was quite successful, because, after all, I managed to get those letters from that scoundrel. Probably he told you. I've sent the letters on to Lord Richfort, explaining the circumstances under which they were written. I don't think they will trouble him any more than they do me! I regret only one thing, and that is that I am a woman. This prevents me from giving that rascal the horsewhipping he deserves. I can't stop a moment—I shall be late for the theatre, as it is."