'It's a breach of promise case,' he said at last, in a low voice. 'I--I am threatened with a breach of promise case.' Here, in desperate quest of inspiration, he made a clutch at his beard; his fingers closed upon the unfamiliar smoothness of a shaven chin; and with that, hope and courage (if such expressions could ever have been appropriate in the case of Pitman) conjointly fled. He shook Michael roughly. 'Wake up!' he cried, with genuine irritation in his tones. 'I cannot do it, and you know I can't.'
'You must excuse my friend,' said Michael; 'he's no hand as a narrator of stirring incident. The case is simple,' he went on. 'My friend is a man of very strong passions, and accustomed to a simple, patriarchal style of life. You see the thing from here: unfortunate visit to Europe, followed by unfortunate acquaintance with sham foreign count, who has a lovely daughter. Mr Thomas was quite carried away; he proposed, he was accepted, and he wrote--wrote in a style which I am sure he must regret today. If these letters are produced in court, sir, Mr Thomas's character is gone.'
'Am I to understand--' began Gideon.
'My dear sir,' said the Australian emphatically, 'it isn't possible to understand unless you saw them.'
'That is a painful circumstance,' said Gideon; he glanced pityingly in the direction of the culprit, and, observing on his countenance every mark of confusion, pityingly withdrew his eyes.
'And that would be nothing,' continued Mr Dickson sternly, 'but I wish--I wish from my heart, sir, I could say that Mr Thomas's hands were clean. He has no excuse; for he was engaged at the time--and is still engaged--to the belle of Constantinople, Ga. My friend's conduct was unworthy of the brutes that perish.'
'Ga.?' repeated Gideon enquiringly.
'A contraction in current use,' said Michael. 'Ga. for Georgia, in The same way as Co. for Company.'
'I was aware it was sometimes so written,' returned the barrister, 'but not that it was so pronounced.'
'Fact, I assure you,' said Michael. 'You now see for yourself, sir, that if this unhappy person is to be saved, some devilish sharp practice will be needed. There's money, and no desire to spare it. Mr Thomas could write a cheque tomorrow for a hundred thousand. And, Mr Forsyth, there's better than money. The foreign count--Count Tarnow, he calls himself--was formerly a tobacconist in Bayswater, and passed under the humble but expressive name of Schmidt; his daughter--if she is his daughter--there's another point--make a note of that, Mr Forsyth--his daughter at that time actually served in the shop--and she now proposes to marry a man of the eminence of Mr Thomas! Now do you see our game? We know they contemplate a move; and we wish to forestall 'em. Down you go to Hampton Court, where they live, and threaten, or bribe, or both, until you get the letters; if you can't, God help us, we must go to court and Thomas must be exposed. I'll be done with him for one,' added the unchivalrous friend.
'There seem some elements of success,' said Gideon. 'Was Schmidt at all known to the police?'
'We hope so,' said Michael. 'We have every ground to think so. Mark the neighbourhood--Bayswater! Doesn't Bayswater occur to you as very suggestive?'
For perhaps the sixth time during this remarkable interview, Gideon wondered if he were not becoming light-headed. 'I suppose it's just because he has been lunching,' he thought; and then added aloud, 'To what figure may I go?'
'Perhaps five thousand would be enough for today,' said Michael. 'And now, sir, do not let me detain you any longer; the afternoon wears on; there are plenty of trains to Hampton Court; and I needn't try to describe to you the impatience of my friend. Here is a five-pound note for current expenses; and here is the address.' And Michael began to write, paused, tore up the paper, and put the pieces in his pocket. 'I will dictate,' he said, 'my writing is so uncertain.'
Gideon took down the address, 'Count Tarnow, Kurnaul Villa, Hampton Court.' Then he wrote something else on a sheet of paper. 'You said you had not chosen a solicitor,' he said.