"Technically, no doubt, but practically not. What would it profit a woman, for example, to get him a few months' imprisonment if her own ruin must immediately follow? His victims dare not hit back. If ever he blackmailed an innocent person, then, indeed, we should have him; but he is as cunning as the Evil One. No, no; we must find other ways to fight him."
"And why is he here?"
"Because an illustrious client has placed her piteous case in my hands. It is the Lady Eva Brackwell, the most beautiful DEBUTANTE of last season. She is to be married in a fortnight to the Earl of Dovercourt. This fiend has several imprudent letters -- imprudent, Watson, nothing worse -- which were written to an impecunious young squire in the country. They would suffice to break off the match. Milverton will send the letters to the Earl unless a large sum of money is paid him. I have been commissioned to meet him, and -- to make the best terms I can."
At that instant there was a clatter and a rattle in the street below. Looking down I saw a stately carriage and pair, the brilliant lamps gleaming on the glossy haunches of the noble chestnuts. A footman opened the door, and a small, stout man in a shaggy astrachan overcoat descended. A minute later he was in the room.
Charles Augustus Milverton was a man of fifty, with a large, intellectual head, a round, plump, hairless face, a perpetual frozen smile, and two keen grey eyes, which gleamed brightly from behind broad, golden-rimmed glasses. There was something of Mr. Pickwick's benevolence in his appearance, marred only by the insincerity of the fixed smile and by the hard glitter of those restless and penetrating eyes. His voice was as smooth and suave as his countenance, as he advanced with a plump little hand extended, murmuring his regret for having missed us at his first visit. Holmes disregarded the outstretched hand and looked at him with a face of granite. Milverton's smile broadened; he shrugged his shoulders, removed his overcoat, folded it with great deliberation over the back of a chair, and then took a seat.
"This gentleman?" said he, with a wave in my direction. "Is it discreet? Is it right?"
"Dr. Watson is my friend and partner."
"Very good, Mr. Holmes. It is only in your client's interests that I protested. The matter is so very delicate ----"
"Dr. Watson has already heard of it."
"Then we can proceed to business. You say that you are acting for Lady Eva. Has she empowered you to accept my terms?"
"What are your terms?"
"Seven thousand pounds."
"And the alternative?"
"My dear sir, it is painful for me to discuss it; but if the money is not paid on the 14th there certainly will be no marriage on the 18th." His insufferable smile was more complacent than ever.
Holmes thought for a little.
"You appear to me," he said, at last, "to be taking matters too much for granted. I am, of course, familiar with the contents of these letters. My client will certainly do what I may advise. I shall counsel her to tell her future husband the whole story and to trust to his generosity."
"You evidently do not know the Earl," said he.
From the baffled look upon Holmes's face I could see clearly that he did.
"What harm is there in the letters?" he asked.