Lionel Norwood, from his earliest days, had been marked out for a life of crime. When quite a child he was discovered by his nurse killing flies on the window-pane. This was before the character of the house-fly had become a matter of common talk among scientists, and Lionel (like all great men, a little before his time) had pleaded hygiene in vain. He was smacked hastily and bundled off to a preparatory school, where his aptitude for smuggling sweets would have lost him many a half-holiday had not his services been required at outside-left in the hockey eleven. With some difficulty he managed to pass into Eton, and three years later–with, one would imagine, still more difficulty–managed to get superannuated. At Cambridge he went down-hill rapidly. He would think nothing of smoking a cigar in academical costume, and on at least one occasion he drove a dogcart on Sunday. No wonder that he was requested, early in his second year, to give up his struggle with the Little-go and betake himself back to London.
London is always glad to welcome such people as Lionel Norwood. In no other city is it so simple for a man of easy conscience to earn a living by his wits. If Lionel ever had any scruples (which, after a perusal of the above account of his early days, it may be permitted one to doubt) they were removed by an accident to his solicitor, who was run over in the Argentine on the very day that he arrived there with what was left of Lionel’s money. Reduced suddenly to poverty, Norwood had no choice but to enter upon a life of crime.
Except, perhaps, that he used slightly less hair-oil than most, he seemed just the ordinary man about town as he sat in his dressing-gown one fine summer morning and smoked a cigarette. His rooms were furnished quietly and in the best of taste. No signs of his nefarious profession showed themselves to the casual visitor. The appealing letters from the Princess whom he was blackmailing, the wire apparatus which shot the two of spades down his sleeve during the coon-can nights at the club, the thimble and pea with which he had performed the three-card trick so successfully at Epsom last week–all these were hidden away from the common gaze. It was a young gentleman of fashion who lounged in his chair and toyed with a priceless straight-cut.
There was a tap at the door, and Masters, his confidential valet, came in.
“Well,” said Lionel, “have you looked through the post?”
“Yes, sir,” said the man. “There’s the usual cheque from Her Highness, a request for more time from the lady in Tite Street with twopence to pay on the envelope, and banknotes from the Professor as expected. The young gentleman of Hill Street has gone abroad suddenly, sir.”
“Ah!” said Lionel, with a sudden frown. “I suppose you’d better cross him off our list, Masters.”
“Yes, sir. I had ventured to do so, sir. I think that’s all, except that Mr. Snooks is glad to accept your kind invitation to dinner and bridge to-night. Will you wear the hair-spring coat, sir, or the metal clip?”
Lionel made no answer. He sat plunged in thought. When he spoke it was about another matter.
“Masters,” he said, “I have found out Lord Fairlie’s secret at last. I shall go to see him this afternoon.”
“Yes, sir. Will you wear your revolver, sir, as it’s a first call?”
“I think so. If this comes off, Masters, it will make our fortune.”
“I hope so, I’m sure, sir.” Masters placed the whisky within reach and left the room silently.
Alone, Lionel picked up his paper and turned to the Agony Column.
As everybody knows, the Agony Column of a daily paper is not actually so domestic as it seems. When “Mother” apparently says to “Floss,” “Come home at once. Father gone away for week. Bert and Sid longing to see you,” what is really happening is that Barney Hoker is telling Jud Batson to meet him outside the Duke of Westminster’s little place at 3 a.m. precisely on Tuesday morning, not forgetting to bring his jemmy and a dark lantern with him. And Floss’s announcement next day, “Coming home with George,” is Jud’s way of saying that he will turn up all right, and half thinks of bringing his automatic pistol with him too, in case of accidents.
In this language–which, of course, takes some little learning–Lionel Norwood had long been an expert. The advertisement which he was now reading was unusually elaborate:
“Lost, in a taxi between Baker Street and Shepherd’s Bush, a gold-mounted umbrella with initials ‘J. P.’ on it. If Ellen will return to her father immediately all will be forgiven. White spot on foreleg. Mother very anxious and desires to return thanks for kind enquiries. Answers to the name of Ponto. Bis dat qui cito dat.”
What did it mean? For Lionel it had no secrets. He was reading the revelation by one of his agents of the skeleton in Lord Fairlie’s cupboard!
Lord Fairlie was one of the most distinguished members of the Cabinet. His vein of high seriousness, his lofty demeanour, the sincerity of his manner endeared him not only to his own party, but even (astounding as it may seem) to a few high-minded men upon the other side, who admitted, in moments of expansion which they probably regretted afterwards, that he might, after all, be as devoted to his country as they were. For years now his life had been without blemish. It was impossible to believe that even in his youth he could have sown any wild oats; terrible to think that these wild oats might now be coming home to roost.
“What do you require of me?” he said courteously to Lionel, as the latter was shown into his study.
Lionel went to the point at once.
“I am here, my lord,” he said, “on business. In the course of my ordinary avocations”–the parliamentary atmosphere seemed to be affecting his language–“I ascertained a certain secret in your past life which, if it were revealed, might conceivably have a not undamaging effect upon your career. For my silence in this matter I must demand a sum of fifty thousand pounds.”
Lord Fairlie had grown paler and paler as this speech proceeded.
“What have you discovered?” he whispered. Alas! he knew only too well what the damning answer would be.
“Twenty years ago,” said Lionel, “you wrote a humorous book.”
Lord Fairlie gave a strangled cry. His keen mind recognized in a flash what a hold this knowledge would give his enemies. Shafts of Folly, his book had been called. Already he saw the leading articles of the future:–
“We confess ourselves somewhat at a loss to know whether Lord Fairlie’s speech at Plymouth yesterday was intended as a supplement to his earlier work, Shafts of Folly, or as a serious offering to a nation impatient of levity in such a crisis….”
“The Cabinet’s jester, in whom twenty years ago the country lost an excellent clown without gaining a statesman, was in great form last night….”
“Lord Fairlie has amused us in the past with his clever little parodies; he may amuse us in the future; but as a statesman we can only view him with disgust….”
“Well?” said Lionel at last. “I think your lordship is wise enough to understand. The discovery of a sense of humour in a man of your eminence—-“
But Lord Fairlie was already writing out the cheque.