When Maurice stepped out into rainy Bloomsbury, Lasker Jones‘s last words still echoed in his head: „It‘s a matter on which you should consult your solicitor, not me.“ Even if Lasker Jones had burned Scudder‘s letter in front of his eyes, he felt more troubled than before. Truly like walking on a volcano and more disturbed than ever because the doctor had so readily mentioned lawyers and solicitors. Was the case more serious than he saw it? Should he be more cautious, better take some steps in advance to have something in his hands before Scudder wrote again? Avoiding puddles and collisions with other umbrellas, he aimlessly wandered the streets. The first night, the first encounter of the sort he had longed for for years, and it ended so sordidly. He felt doomed.
Another clash with a passer-by stirred his will to fight. No, he wouldn‘t let himself be pushed and bossed around. And by a gamekeeper, of all people! He needed to take action, take the wind out of Scudder‘s sails before he really got a menace. Even if he said he would emigrate in a few days – who knew what his family or his brother were capable of. When uneducated people saw their chance to get into money without doing much for it, it was better to - a brass plate caught his attention. „Collins and Patch, Solicitors“. The law firm Hull and Hall used to work with whenever necessity arose. Should he just step in and get an estimate? Or – rather not an office he was tied to professionally? But he could just ask for a recommendation. Be as vague as possible, inquire if they took cases like his at all or if they knew of some expert for blackmailing.
Maurice stepped inside. After some moments, relieved of his dripping umbrella and coat, he found himself shown to a smaller office to a Mr Greenwood, junior partner, who would take down his inquiriy in the absence of Mr Patch. Mr Greenwood, a slim, genuine redhead about his own age, was a bit smaller than Maurice when he rose and shook his hand:
„How do you do. Please have a seat.“
Maurice sat down and took in the elegantly furnished room. Two large windows gave onto the little tree-lined square he just came from, hung with floor-length cream-coloured curtains. A light yellow wallpaper with a discreet diamond pattern formed the background for high-class, elegant furniture. Bookcases holding leather-bound volumes, several framed etchings of country houses, a vase with tulips on the mantlepiece added a distinguished touch. Quite different from his rather dark and austere office. Tasteful and cosy, more like a Cambridge study than a workplace.
„I say, very nice room you‘re having! Quite different from where I work!“
„And where would that be?“
„Oh – I‘d rather not give you the name, if you don‘t mind. But it‘s a mostly male surrounding. I‘m working in finance. No flowers or pretty pictures on the wall...“
„The flowers are my fancy. The girls working here don‘t have time for minor matters like that. I buy them when I get off the tube, you know? There‘s a flower lady.“
Maurice smiled and remained silent. The lawyer‘s vivid eyes were dark blue and stood out strikingly from his copper hair that flopped around seemingly tamed, but a bit unruly. He was handsome in a peculiar way. Not at first sight, maybe, due to a certain angularity and pallor of complexion. But striking and rather unique. Certainly someone you would distinguish in a crowd easily.
„Once you work yourself up to being a partner, you have a certain influence on how your room looks like“, he continued. „I need a certain level of – well, beauty around me. At home also. But, Mr Hall, you didn‘t come here to discuss interior decoration with me. What can I do for you?“
Maurice cleared his throat. He hadn‘t expected someone so young. How much experience did he have? Was he the right person? Could he be trusted? While he still searched for words, Mr Greenwood tried to encourage him:
„I understand it‘s a case of alleged blackmail that bothers you?“
„Yes, that‘s right. Although – I‘m suddenly not sure anymore.“
„If it‘s blackmail?“
„No, if I should take action. I came here rather on an impulse, you see. Was a bit desperate. I don‘t know if I overreacted. Sorry for having taken your time...“
Maurice started to rise. The lawyer calmed him with a gesture of his hand and signalled to sit down again:
„Now, Mr Hall, since you‘re here already – why don‘t you tell me more. Blackmail can be a very severe nuisance and should be stopped in it‘s beginnings. You know that. You did the right thing.“
Blue eyes, very blue eyes holding his gaze. The fellow knew how to treat timid customers. Maurice sat down again and sighed softly.
„It all seems – sordid and harmless now. I‘m sorry.“
„Tell me. And remember this is strictly confidential. Nothing you tell me will leave the room.“
Mr Greenwood had picked up a pen and rested it over a pad of paper.
„Would you mind not writing anything down? At first, I mean?“
„Well, it‘s the normal procedure, as I will have to go over your case with Mr Patch next week“ - the solicitor saw Maurice‘s frightened eyes and put down the pen. „I see. If you are more comfortable with just talking...“ He interlaced his elegant, long hands, milky white as his complexion, and looked at Maurice invitingly. Maurice nodded, still unsure how to begin. The lawyer waited so long that it almost became awkward. Two men in a room, sitting across from each other, smiling amiably but in a strained silence. A bit strange, his visitor, wasn‘t he? Very troubled indeed, and nervous, but unable to voice what upset him. Innocent, from what he saw. Likely to be a victim. Too kind and good-hearted despite his attractive masculine appearance. They smiled some more at each other. Maurice got up suddenly, walked to the window and started to talk with his back to the room:
„You see, I had a letter.“
He looked back over his shoulder and saw the lawyer nodding.
„Might be a completely harmless letter. Might be more. I‘m troubled.“
„Does the letter ask you to do something? Hand over money?“
„No, no. Nothing of that sort. Yet. I really think it‘s harmless. But“ - Maurice sighed - „I just don‘t know. Should I do anything?“
„Before answering this question, I should need to know what the letter is about. May I see it?“
„I burned it.“
„You burned the single piece of evidence? Forgive me for saying so, but that was a bit rash.“ „Erotic blackmailing, most likely“, Greenwood thought. „Frightened. A bit guilty, all right, but… Let‘s see.“ He cleared his throat:
„Do you expect a second one?“
„I don‘t know.“ Maurice looked at him with almost desperate fear in his eyes. He leaned on the windowsill, his face in the shadow, his athletic build showing nicely against the gray light coming from outside.
„What does this person ask of you?“
Maurice looked at him with wide-eyed desperation.
„Nothing yet. But...“ He turned and started for the door. Mr Greenwood got up swiftly and faced his reluctant patron:
„Mr Hall, you seem troubled. I‘m here to help you. And if you decide to leave now, please don‘t forget – I can help you. Come back later if you feel more at ease.“
The two men looked at each other, longer than necessary. They stood just a few inches apart, almost of the same height, the same age. Both seemed to realize this fact only now. They were on equal terms. No one would get a lecture, feel ashamed of something he might or might not have done. They might almost talk like fellow students. Taking in the barely visible tiny freckles on the lawyer‘s nose, Maurice nodded. As his client seemed more comfortable standing, Mr Greenwood continued softly:
„Is it a case of – erotic entanglement?“
Maurice nodded silently.
„I see. We got that fairly often. It‘s the most common case for blackmail, you see. Especially as there are usually no witnesses.“
Maurice averted his gaze. What a likeable, shy fellow. What a pity he had gotten himself into this muddle.
„From what you told me, I assume the writer of said letter has – a different background than you? Speaking class-wise?“
Again, Maurice nodded helplessly.
„Yes“, was the toneless answer.
„Are you married?“
The „No!“ came so quickly and sounded so insulted that Greenwood smiled inwardly. An easy case.
„Mr Hall, don‘t you worry. You‘d be astonished how many cases like your‘s we have here. Sadly, it‘s a common way for the lower classes to try to get some extra money. If you aren‘t married, you don‘t have to fear anything legally. Morally, you might seem troubled, depending on your upbringing and beliefs. I can‘t help you with that. But legally - if the other party isn‘t underage and consented to the act, you have the law on your side. Can‘t have many consequences for you. Unless, of course, the girl shows to be in delicate circumstances. But we would have to wait a few weeks to ascertain this, and I wouldn‘t believe anything without an attest from a doctor of our choice. And even then“ - Maurice groaned. He collapsed onto the chair and hid his face in his hands. Mr Greenwood lowered himself onto the table, sitting casually on the edge of it in physical closeness to his desperate patron. „Even then, I‘m sure there would be a way to settle matters in private. Arrange something financially, I mean. I, or one of the senior partners, could do that for you. You wouldn‘t have to see the girl again yourself. Unless – is she one of your own servants?“
Maurice shook his head. He looked pale.
„It happened on a weekend in a country house. The house of a friend of mine. It‘s his servant.“
„Even better! You wouldn‘t believe how many houseparties have been the aim of assaults like your‘s!“
Mr Greenwood rearranged his slender legs once more.
„Forgive me for asking again, but – an intimate encounter between you and the writer of the letter took place?“
„May I ask where?“
„In my room. At night. This person came – uninvited, without any encouragement from me. I was completely taken by surprise.“
Mr Greenwood beamed: „You have the very best cards!“ Maurice looked up, puzzled.
„No backstairs-fling, no dalliance in the pantry or kitchen garden, but an encounter on your own grounds and at a time when the servant shouldn‘t have been there. A pity you don‘t have any witnesses.“
„No, definitely not. It was night and dark.“
„Mr Hall, I can comfort you: you don‘t have to fear anything. We will just wait a few weeks – always the right thing to do with females – and in the meantime, don‘t do anything without consulting with me first. Mainly, don‘t hand over any money. Are you likely to see the person again?“
„No, not very likely.“
„Very good. Just let some time pass. An encounter of this sort doesn‘t need to have an aftermath. You know that as well as I do. Maybe nothing happened.“
Maurice stared at him with eyes wide open:
„How do you mean?“
„I mean, women don‘t conceive all the time. You understand.“
Maurice lowered his eyes and nodded. „My knowledge of women is – rather limited.“
„Poor fellow. Foxed and didn‘t even realize it until now“, the lawyer thought. He smiled sympathetically at his client. „Let me know if something new turns up, will you?“
Maurice shook his hand and replied:
„It was a pleasure meeting you, but considering the circumstances I‘d rather it was the last time I saw you.“
„I don‘t want to sound impolite, but – let‘s hope so. Have a nice day, Mr Hall.“
„You do too. Bye.“
After the door had closed on his handsome visitor, Percy Greenwood sat down at his desk again and stared pensively at the empty notepad in front of him. After some moments, he took up the pen and wrote „August 20, 1913 / Mr Hall“. He underlined the few words and looked out of the window. A bit mysterious, a bit nervous. But telling the truth, most likely. Taken by surprise. A virgin, possibly? Somehow overwhelmed and disappointed also. As if he hadn‘t expected an act like this from the person he mentioned. He should have asked him for how long they had known each other. Greenwood tapped the paper with his pen. Unsure if he would see this client ever again, he jotted down just a minimal note: „Case of alleged blackmail. Proof (letter) destroyed by patron. Very vague, uneasy to provide details. Not referred-to servant in a friend‘s household (weekend houseparty). Consultation: 25 minutes.“