I nodded. “Right. Hop the sill.”
I proceeded to tax the brain. Before I go on to describe that, I’ll make a confession. I had not till that moment seriously entertained the idea that the Marquis of Clivers had killed Harlan Scovil. And why not? Because like most other people, and maybe especially Americans, there was a sneaky feeling in me that men with noble titles didn’t do things like that. Besides, this bird had just been to Washington and had lunch at the White House, which cinched it that he wasn’t a murderer.
As a matter of fact, I suspect that noblemen and people who eat lunch at the White House commit more than their share of murders compared to their numerical strength in the total population. Anyhow, looking at this one in the Sesh, and reflecting that he carried a pistol and knew how to use one, and considering how well he was fixed in the way of motive, and realizing that since Harlan Scoyil had been suspicious enough to make an advance call on Nero Wolfe he might easily have done the same on the Marquis of Clivers, I revised some of the opinions I had been forming. It looked wide open to me.
That flashed through my mind. Also, as I disposed of his hat and stick and gloves for him, I wondered if it might be well to arrange a little confrontation between Muir and the marquis, but I didn’t like to decide that myself. So I escorted him to a seat in the front room, telling him Wolfe was engaged, and then returned to the hall and wrote on a piece of paper, “Old man Clivers,” and went to the office and handed the paper to Wolfe.
Wolfe glanced at it, looked at me, and winked his right eye. I sat down.
Muir was talking, much calmer but just as stubborn. They passed it back and forth for a couple of minutes without getting anywhere, until Wolfe said, “Futile, Mr. Muir. I won’t do it. Tell Mr. Perry that I shall proceed with the program I announced to him this morning. That’s final. I’ll accept nothing less than complete and unconditional exoneration of my client. Good day, sir. I have a caller waiting.”
Muir stood up. He wasn’t trembling, and his jaw seemed to be back in place, but he looked about as friendly as Mussolini talking to the world.
He didn’t say anything. He shot me a mean glance and looked at Wolfe for half a minute without blinking, and then stooped to pick up his hat and straightened up and steered for the door. I followed and let him out, and stood on the stoop a second watching him start off down the sidewalk as if he had half a jag on. He was like the mule in the story that kept running into trees; he wasn’t blind, he was just so mad he didn’t give a damn.
I stood shaking my head more in anger than in pity, and then went back to the office and said to Wolfe, “I would say you hit bottom that time. He’s staggering. If you called that foxy, what would you say if you saw a rat?”
Wolfe nodded faintly. I resumed, “I showed you that paper because I thought you might deem it advisable to let Clivers and Muir see each other. Unexpected like that, it might have been interesting. It’s my social instinct.”
“No doubt. But this is a detective bureau, not a fashionable salon. Nor a menagerie—since Mr. Muir is plainly a lecherous hyena. Bring Lord Clivers.”
I went through the connecting door to the front room, and Clivers looked around, surprised at my entering from a new direction. He was jumpy. I pointed him ahead and he stopped on the threshold and glanced around before venturing in. Then he moved spryly enough and walked over to the desk. Wolfe took him in with his eyes half shut, and nodded.
“How do you do, sir.” Wolfe indicated the chair Muir had just vacated.
Clivers did a slow-motion circle. He turned all the way around, encompassing with his eyes the bookshelves, the wall maps, the Holbein reproductions, more bookshelves, the three-foot globe on its stand, the engraving of Brillat-Savarin, more bookshelves, the picture of Sherlock Holmes above my desk. Then he sat down and looked at me with a frown and pointed a thumb at me.
“This young man,” he said.
Wolfe said, “My confidential assistant, Mr. Goodwin. There would be no point in sending him out, for he would merely find a point of vantage we have prepared, and set down what he heard.”
“The devil he would.” Clivers laughed three short blasts, haw-haw-haw, and gave me up. He transferred the frown to Wolfe. “I received your letter about that horse. It’s preposterous.”
Wolfe nodded. “I agree with you. All debts are preposterous. They are the envious past clutching with its cold dead fingers the throat of the living present.”
“Eh?” Clivers stared at him. “What kind of talk is that? Rot. What I mean to say is, two hundred thousand pounds for a horse. And uncollectible.”
“Surely not.” Wolfe sighed. He leaned forward to press the button for Fritz, and back again. “The best argument against you is your presence here. If it is uncollectible, why did you come? Will you have some beer?”
“What kind of beer?”
“I’ll try it. I came because my nephew gave me to understand that if I wanted to see you I would have to come. I wanted to see you because I had to learn if you are a swindler or a dupe.”
“My dear sir.” Wolfe lifted his brows. “No other alternatives? Another glass and bottle, Fritz.” He opened his and poured. “But you seem to be a direct man. Let’s not get mired in irrelevancies. Frankly, I am relieved. I feared that you might even dispute the question of identity and create a lot of unnecessary trouble.”
“Dispute identity?” Clivers glared. “Why the devil should I?”
“You shouldn’t, but I thought you might. You were, forty years ago in Silver City, Nevada, known as George Rowley?”
“Certainly I was. Thanks, I’ll pour it myself.”
“Good.” Wolfe drank, and wiped his lips. “I think we should get along. I am aware that Mr. Lindquist’s claim against you has no legal standing on account of the expiration of time. The same is true of the claim of various others; besides, the paper you signed which originally validated it is not available. But it is a sound and demonstrable moral obligation, and I calculated that rather than have that fact shown in open court you would prefer to pay. It would be an unusual case and would arouse much public interest. Not only are you a peer of England, you are in this country on an important and delicate diplomatic mission, and therefore such publicity would be especially undesirable. Would you not rather pay what you owe, or at least a fraction of it, than permit the publicity? I calculated that you would. Do you find the beer tolerable?”
Clivers put down his glass and licked his lips. “It’ll do.” He screwed up his mouth and looked at Wolfe. “By God, you know, you might mean that.”
“Yes, by God, you might. I’ll tell you what I thought. I thought you were basing the claim on that horse with the pretense that it was additional to the obligation I assumed when I signed that paper. The horse wasn’t mentioned in the paper. Not a bad idea, an excellent go at blackmail. It all sounds fantastic now, but it wasn’t then. If I hadn’t signed that paper and if it hadn’t been for that horse I would have had a noose around my neck. Not so damn pleasant, eh? And of course that’s what you’re doing, claiming extra for the horse. But it’s preposterous. Two hundred thousand pounds for a horse? I’ll pay a thousand.”
Wolfe shook his head. “I dislike haggling. Equally I dislike quibbling. The total claim is in question, and you know it. I represent not only Mr. and Miss Lindquist but also the daughter of Gilbert Fox, and indirectly Mr. Walsh; and I was to have represented Mr. Scovil, who was murdered last evening.” He shook his head again. “No, Lord Clivers. In my letter I based the claim on the horse only because the paper you signed is not available. It is the total claim we are discussing, and, strictly speaking, that would mean half of your entire wealth. As I said, my clients are willing to accept a fraction.”
Clivers had a new expression on his face. He no longer glared, but looked at Wolfe quietly intent. He said, “I see. So it’s a serious game, is it? I would have paid a thousand for the horse, possibly even another thousand for the glass of beer. But you’re on for a real haul by threatening to make all this public and compromise my position here. Go to hell.” He got up.
Wolfe said patiently, “Permit me. It isn’t a matter of a thousand or two for a horse. Precisely and morally, you owe these people half of your wealth. If they are willing—”
“Bah! I owe them nothing! You know damn well I’ve paid them.”
Wolfe’s eyes went nearly shut. “What’s that? You’ve paid them?”
“Of course I have, and you know it. And I’ve got their receipt, and I’ve got the paper I signed.” Clivers abruptly sat down again. “Look here. Your man is here, and I’m alone, so why not talk straight? I don’t resent your being a crook, I’ve dealt with crooks before, and more pretentious ones than you.
But cut out the pretense and get down to business. You have a good lever for blackmail, I admit it. But you might as well give up the idea of a big haul, because I won’t submit to it. I’ll pay three thousand pounds for a receipt from the Lindquists for that horse.”
Wolfe’s forefinger was tapping gently on the arm of his chair, which meant he was dodging meteors and comets. His eyes were mere slits. After a moment he said, “This is bad. It raises questions of credibility.” He wiggled the finger. “Really bad, sir. How am I to know whether you really have paid? And if you have, how are you to know whether I was really ignorant of the fact and acting in good faith? Have you any suggestions?” He pushed the button. “I need some beer. Will you join me?”
“Yes. It’s pretty good. Do you mean to say you didn’t know I had paid?”
“I do. I do indeed. Though the possibility should certainly have occurred to me. I was too intent on the path under my feet.” He stopped to open hordes, pushed one across to Clivers, and filled his glass. “You say you paid them. What them? When? How much? What with? They signed a receipt? Tell me about it.”
Clivers, taking his time, emptied his glass and set it down. He licked his lips, screwed up his mouth, and looked at Wolfe, considering. Finally he shook his head, “I don’t know about you. You’re clever. Do you mean that if I show evidence of having paid, and their receipt, you will abandon this preposterous claim for the horse on payment of a thousand pounds?”
“Satisfactory evidence?” Wolfe nodded. “I’ll abandon it for nothing.”
“Oh, I’ll pay a thousand. I understand the Lindquists are hard up. The evidence will be satisfactory, and you can see it tomorrow morning.”
“I’d rather see it today.”
“You can’t. I haven’t got it. It will arrive this evening on the Berengana. My dispatch bag will reach me tonight, but I shall be engaged. Come to my hotel any time after nine in the morning.”
“I don’t go out. I am busy from nine to eleven. You can bring your evidence here any time after eleven.”
“The devil I can.” Clivers stared at him, and suddenly laughed his three blasts again. Haw-haw-haw. He turned it off. “You can come to my hotel.
You don’t look infirm.”
Wolfe said patiently, “If you don’t bring it here, or send it, I won’t get to see it and I’ll have to press the claim for the horse. And by the way, how does it happen to be coming on the Berengaria?”
“Because I sent for it. Monday of last week, eight days ago, a woman saw me. She got in to me through my nephew—it seems they had met socially. She represented herself as the daughter of Gil Fox and made demands. I wouldn’t discuss it with her. I thought it was straight blackmail and I would freeze her out. She was too damned good-looking to be honest. But I thought it worthwhile to cable to London for these items from my private papers, in case of developments. They’ll be here tonight.” our fee. Finally Wolfe’s eyelids raised enough to permit the conjecture that he was conscious..
“It would have saved a lot of trouble,” he murmured, “if they had hanged you in 1895. Isn’t that so? As i£ stands. Lord Clivers, I wish to assure you again of my complete good faith in this matter, and I suggest that we postpone commitments undl your evidence of payment has been examined. Tomorrow, then.” He looked at me. “Confound you, Archie. I have you to thank for this acarpous entanglement.”
It was a new one, but I got the idea. He meant that he had drawn his sword in defense of Clara Fox because I had told him that she was the ideal of my dreams. I suppose it was me that sat and recited Hungarian poetry to her.