The Gentle Art of Blackmailby@agathachristie

The Gentle Art of Blackmail

by Agatha ChristieJuly 17th, 2023
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It was exactly five minutes to four when Virginia Revel, rendered punctual by a healthy curiosity, returned to the house in Pont Street. She opened the door with her latchkey, and stepped into the hall to be immediately confronted by the impassive Chilvers. “I beg pardon, ma’am, but a—a person has called to see you——” For the moment, Virginia did not pay attention to the subtle phraseology whereby Chilvers cloaked his meaning. “Mr. Lomax? Where is he? In the drawing-room?” “Oh, no, ma’am, not Mr. Lomax.” Chilvers’ tone was faintly reproachful. “A person—I was reluctant to let him in, but he said his business was most important—connected with the late Captain, I understood him to say. Thinking therefore that you might wish to see him, I put him—er—in the study.”
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The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie, is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. The Gentle Art of Blackmail

VI. The Gentle Art of Blackmail

It was exactly five minutes to four when Virginia Revel, rendered punctual by a healthy curiosity, returned to the house in Pont Street. She opened the door with her latchkey, and stepped into the hall to be immediately confronted by the impassive Chilvers.

“I beg pardon, ma’am, but a—a person has called to see you——”

For the moment, Virginia did not pay attention to the subtle phraseology whereby Chilvers cloaked his meaning.

“Mr. Lomax? Where is he? In the drawing-room?”

“Oh, no, ma’am, not Mr. Lomax.” Chilvers’ tone was faintly reproachful. “A person—I was reluctant to let him in, but he said his business was most important—connected with the late Captain, I understood him to say. Thinking therefore that you might wish to see him, I put him—er—in the study.”

Virginia stood thinking for a minute. She had been a widow now for some years, and the fact that she rarely spoke of her husband was taken by some to indicate that below her careless demeanour was a still aching wound. By others it was taken to mean the exact opposite, that Virginia had never really cared for Tim Revel, and that she found it insincere to profess a grief she did not feel.

“I should have mentioned, ma’am,” continued Chilvers, “that the man appears to be some kind of foreigner.”

Virginia’s interest heightened a little. Her husband had been in the Diplomatic Service, and they had been together in Herzoslovakia just before the sensational murder of the King and Queen. This man might probably be a Herzoslovakian, some old servant who had fallen on evil days.

“You did quite right, Chilvers,” she said with a quick, approving nod. “Where did you say you had put him? In the study?”

She crossed the hall with her light buoyant step, and opened the door of the small room that flanked the dining-room.

The visitor was sitting in a chair by the fireplace. He rose on her entrance and stood looking at her. Virginia had an excellent memory for faces, and she was at once quite sure that she had never seen the man before. He was tall and dark, supple in figure, and quite unmistakably a foreigner; but she did not think he was of Slavonic origin. She put him down as Italian or possibly Spanish.

“You wished to see me?” she asked. “I am Mrs. Revel.”

The man did not answer for a minute or two. He was looking her slowly over, as though appraising her narrowly. There was a veiled insolence in his manner which she was quick to feel.

“Will you please state your business?” she said, with a touch of impatience.

“You are Mrs. Revel? Mrs. Timothy Revel?”

“Yes. I told you so just now.”

“Quite so. It is a good thing that you consented to see me, Mrs. Revel. Otherwise, as I told your butler, I should have been compelled to do business with your husband.”

Virginia looked at him in astonishment, but some impulse quelled the retort that sprang to her lips. She contented herself by remarking dryly:

“You might have found some difficulty in doing that.”

“I think not. I am very persistent. But I will come to the point. Perhaps you recognize this?”

He flourished something in his hand. Virginia looked at it without much interest.

“Can you tell me what it is, madame?”

“It appears to be a letter,” replied Virginia, who was by now convinced that she had to do with a man who was mentally unhinged.

“And perhaps you note to whom it is addressed,” said the man significantly, holding it out to her.

“I can read,” Virginia informed him pleasantly. “It is addressed to a Captain O’Neill at Rue de Quenelles No. 15, Paris.”

The man seemed searching her face hungrily for something he did not find.

“Will you read it, please?”

Virginia took the envelope from him, drew out the enclosure and glanced at it; but almost immediately she stiffened and held it out to him again.

“This is a private letter—certainly not meant for my eyes.”

The man laughed sardonically.

“I congratulate you, Mrs. Revel, on your admirable acting. You play your part to perfection. Nevertheless, I think that you will hardly be able to deny the signature!”

“The signature?”

Virginia turned the letter over—and was struck dumb with astonishment. The signature, written in a delicate slanting hand, was Virginia Revel. Checking the exclamation of astonishment that rose to her lips, she turned again to the beginning of the letter and deliberately read the whole thing through. Then she stood a minute lost in thought. The nature of the letter made it clear enough what was in prospect.

“Well, madame?” said the man. “That is your name, is it not?”

“Oh, yes,” said Virginia. “It’s my name.” “But not my handwriting,” she might have added.

Instead she turned a dazzling smile upon her visitor.

“Supposing,” she said sweetly, “we sit down and talk it over?”

He was puzzled. Not so had he expected her to behave. His instinct told him that she was not afraid of him.

“First of all, I should like to know how you found me out?”

“That was easy.”

He took from his pocket a page torn from an illustrated paper, and handed it to her. Anthony Cade would have recognized it.

She gave it back to him with a thoughtful little frown.

“I see,” she said. “It was very easy.”

“Of course you understand, Mrs. Revel, that that is not the only letter. There are others.”

“Dear me,” said Virginia, “I seem to have been frightfully indiscreet.”

Again she could see that her light tone puzzled him. She was by now thoroughly enjoying herself.

“At any rate,” she said, smiling sweetly at him, “it’s very kind of you to call and give them back to me.”

There was a pause as he cleared his throat.

“I am a poor man, Mrs. Revel,” he said at last, with a good deal of significance in his manner.

“As such you will doubtless find it easier to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, or so I have always heard.”

“I cannot afford to let you have these letters for nothing.”

“I think you are under a misapprehension. Those letters are the property of the person who wrote them.”

“That may be the law, madame, but in this country you have a saying ‘Possession is nine points of the law.’ And, in any case, are you prepared to invoke the aid of the law?”

“The law is a severe one for blackmailers,” Virginia reminded him.

“Come, Mrs. Revel, I am not quite a fool. I have read these letters—the letters of a woman to her lover, one and all breathing dread of discovery by her husband. Do you want me to take them to your husband?”

“You have overlooked one possibility. Those letters were written some years ago. Supposing that since then—I have become a widow.”

He shook his head with confidence.

“In that case—if you had nothing to fear—you would not be sitting here making terms with me.”

Virginia smiled.

“What is your price?” she asked in a business-like manner.

“For one thousand pounds I will hand the whole packet over to you. It is very little that I am asking there; but, you see, I do not like the business.”

“I shouldn’t dream of paying you a thousand pounds,” said Virginia with decision.

“Madame, I never bargain. A thousand pounds, and I will place the letters in your hands.”

Virginia reflected.

“You must give me a little time to think it over. It will not be easy for me to get such a sum together.”

“A few pounds on account perhaps—say fifty—and I will call again.”

Virginia looked up at the clock. It was five minutes past four, and she fancied that she had heard the bell.

“Very well,” she said hurriedly. “Come back to-morrow, but later than this. About six.”

She crossed over to a desk that stood against the wall, unlocked one of the drawers, and took out an untidy handful of notes.

“There is about forty pounds here. That will have to do for you.”

He snatched at it eagerly.

“And now go at once, please,” said Virginia.

He left the room obediently enough. Through the open door, Virginia caught a glimpse of George Lomax in the hall, just being ushered upstairs by Chilvers. As the front door closed, Virginia called to him.

“Come in here, George. Chilvers, bring us tea in here, will you please?”

She flung open both windows, and George Lomax came into the room to find her standing erect with dancing eyes and wind-blown hair.

“I’ll shut them in a minute, George, but I felt the room ought to be aired. Did you fall over the blackmailer in the hall?”

“The what?”

“Blackmailer, George. B.L.A.C.K.M.A.I.L.E.R? Blackmailer. One who blackmails.”

“My dear Virginia, you can’t be serious!”

“Oh, but I am, George.”

“But who did he come here to blackmail?”

“Me, George.”

“But, my dear Virginia, what have you been doing?”

“Well, just for once, as it happens, I hadn’t been doing anything. The good gentleman mistook me for someone else.”

“You rang up the police, I suppose?”

“No, I didn’t. I suppose you think I ought to have done so.”

“Well——” George considered weightily. “No, no, perhaps not—perhaps you acted wisely. You might be mixed up in some unpleasant publicity in connection with the case. You might even have had to give evidence——”

“I should have liked that,” said Virginia. “I would love to be summoned, and I should like to see if judges really do make all the rotten jokes you read about. It would be most exciting. I was at Vine Street the other day to see about a diamond brooch I had lost, and there was the most perfectly lovely inspector—the nicest man I ever met.”

George, as was his custom, let all irrelevancies pass.

“But what did you do about this scoundrel?”

“Well, George, I’m afraid I let him do it.”

“Do what?”

“Blackmail me.”

George’s face of horror was so poignant that Virginia had to bite her under lip.

“You mean—do I understand you to mean—that you did not correct the misapprehension under which he was labouring?”

Virginia shook her head, shooting a sideways glance at him.

“Good heavens, Virginia, you must be mad.”

“I suppose it would seem that way to you.”

“But why? In God’s name, why?”

“Several reasons. To begin with he was doing it so beautifully—blackmailing me, I mean—I hate to interrupt an artist when he’s doing his job really well. And then, you see, I’d never been blackmailed——”

“I should hope not, indeed.”

“And I wanted to see what it felt like.”

“I am quite at a loss to comprehend you, Virginia.”

“I knew you wouldn’t understand.”

“You did not give him money, I hope?”

“Just a trifle,” said Virginia apologetically.

“How much?”

“Forty pounds.”


“My dear George, it’s only what I pay for an evening dress. It’s just as exciting to buy a new experience as it is to buy a new dress—more so, in fact.”

George Lomax merely shook his head, and Chilvers appearing at that moment with the tea urn, he was saved from having to express his outraged feelings. When tea had been brought in, and Virginia’s deft fingers were manipulating the heavy silver teapot, she spoke again on the subject.

“I had another motive too, George—a brighter and better one. We women are usually supposed to be cats, but at any rate I’d done another woman a good turn this afternoon. This man isn’t likely to go off looking for another Virginia Revel. He thinks he’s found his bird all right. Poor little devil, she was in a blue funk when she wrote that letter. Mr. Blackmailer would have had the easiest job of his life there. Now, though he doesn’t know it, he’s up against a tough proposition. Starting with the great advantage of having led a blameless life, I shall toy with him to his undoing—as they say in books. Guile, George, lots of guile.”

George still shook his head.

“I don’t like it,” he persisted. “I don’t like it.”

“Well, never mind, George dear. You didn’t come here to talk about blackmailers. What did you come here for, by the way? Correct answer: ‘To see you!’ Accent on the you, and press her hand with significance unless you happen to have been eating heavily buttered muffin, in which case it must all be done with the eyes.”

“I did come to see you,” replied George seriously. “And I am glad to find you alone.”

“Oh, George, this is so sudden,” says she, swallowing a currant.

“I wanted to ask a favour of you. I have always considered you, Virginia, as a woman of considerable charm.”

“Oh, George!”

“And also a woman of intelligence!”

“Not really? How well the man knows me.”

“My dear Virginia, there is a young fellow arriving in England to-morrow whom I should like you to meet.”

“All right, George, but it’s your party—let that be clearly understood.”

“You could, I feel sure, if you chose, exercise your considerable charm.”

Virginia cocked her head a little on one side.

“George, dear, I don’t ‘charm’ as a profession, you know. Often I like people—and then, well, they like me. But I don’t think I could set out in cold blood to fascinate a helpless stranger. That sort of thing isn’t done, George, it really isn’t. There are professional sirens who would do it much better than I should.”

“That is out of the question, Virginia. This young man, he is a Canadian, by the way, of the name of McGrath——”

“A Canadian of Scotch descent,” says she, deducing brilliantly.

“Is probably quite unused to the higher walks of English society. I should like him to appreciate the charm and distinction of a real English gentlewoman.”

“Meaning me?”



“I beg your pardon?”

“I said why? You don’t boom the real English gentlewoman with every stray Canadian who sets foot upon our shores. What is the deep idea, George? To put it vulgarly, what do you get out of it?”

“I cannot see that that concerns you, Virginia.”

“I couldn’t possibly go out for an evening and fascinate, unless I knew all the whys and wherefors.”

“You have a most extraordinary way of putting things, Virginia. Anyone would think——”

“Wouldn’t they? Come on, George, part with a little more information.”

“My dear Virginia, matters are likely to be a little strained shortly in a certain Central European nation. It is important, for reasons which are immaterial, that this—Mr.—er McGrath should be brought to realize that the restoring of the Monarchy in Herzoslovakia is imperative to the peace of Europe.”

“The part about the peace of Europe is all bosh,” said Virginia calmly, “but I’m all for Monarchies every time, especially for a picturesque people like the Herzoslovakians. So you’re running a King in the Herzoslovakian States, are you? Who is he?”

George was reluctant to answer, but did not see his way to avoid the question. The interview was not going at all as he had planned. He had foreseen Virginia as a willing, docile tool, receiving his hints gratefully, and asking no awkward questions. This was far from being the case. She seemed determined to know all about it and this George, ever doubtful of female discretion, was determined at all costs to avoid. He had made a mistake. Virginia was not the woman for the part. She might, indeed, cause serious trouble. Her account of her interview with the blackmailer had caused him grave apprehension. A most undependable creature, with no idea of treating serious matters seriously.

“Prince Michael Obolovitch,” he replied, as Virginia was obviously waiting for an answer to her question. “But please let that go no further.”

“Don’t be absurd, George. There are all sort of hints in the papers already, and articles cracking up the Obolovitch dynasty and talking about the murdered Nicholas IV as though he were a cross between a Saint and a hero instead of a stupid little man besotted by a third-rate actress.”

George winced. He was more than ever convinced that he had made a mistake in enlisting Virginia’s aid. He must stave her off quickly.

“You are right, my dear Virginia,” he said hastily, as he rose to his feet to bid her farewell. “I should not have made the suggestion I did to you. But we are anxious for the Dominions to see eye to eye with us on this Herzoslovakian crisis, and McGrath has, I believe, influence in journalistic circles. As an ardent Monarchist, and with your knowledge of the country, I thought it a good plan for you to meet him.”

“So that’s the explanation, is it?”

“Yes, but I dare say you wouldn’t have cared for him.”

Virginia looked at him for a second and then she laughed.

“George,” she said, “you’re a rotten liar.”


“Rotten, absolutely rotten! If I had had your training, I could have managed a better one than that—one that had a chance of being believed. But I shall find out all about it, my poor George. Rest assured of that. The Mystery of Mr. McGrath. I shouldn’t wonder if I got a hint or two at Chimneys this week-end.”

“At Chimneys? You are going to Chimneys?”

George could not conceal his perturbation. He had hoped to reach Lord Caterham in time for the invitation to remain unissued.

“Bundle rang up and asked me this morning.”

George made a last effort.

“Rather a dull party, I believe,” he said. “Hardly in your line, Virginia.”

“My poor George, why didn’t you tell me the truth and trust me? It’s still not too late.”

George took her hand and dropped it again limply.

“I have told you the truth,” he said coldly, and he said it without a blush.

“That’s a better one,” said Virginia approvingly. “But it’s still not good enough. Cheer up, George, I shall be at Chimneys all right, exerting my considerable charm—as you put it. Life has become suddenly very much more amusing. First a blackmailer, and then George in diplomatic difficulties. Will he tell all to the beautiful woman who asks for his confidence so pathetically? No, he will reveal nothing until the last chapter. Good-bye, George. One last fond look before you go? No? Oh, George, dear, don’t be sulky about it!”

Virginia ran to the telephone as soon as George had departed with a heavy gait through the front door.

She obtained the number she required and asked to speak to Lady Eileen Brent.

“Is that you, Bundle? I’m coming to Chimneys all right to-morrow. What? Bore me? No, it won’t. Bundle, wild horses wouldn’t keep me away! So there!”

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