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THE CORNER HOUSE ***




Produced by Charles Bowen from page scans provided by
Google Books (the New York Public Library)











Transcriber's Notes:
1. Page scan source: Google Books
https://books.google.com/books?id=478dAAAAMAAJ&dq
(the New York Public Library)




[Illustration: "She must have seen everything." - _Page 13_
_Frontispiece_
_The Corner House_]






THE CORNER HOUSE
By _Fred M. White_
Author of "The Crimson Blind," "The Weight of the Crown"





R. F. FENNO & COMPANY, _Publishers_
18 EAST SEVENTEENTH STREET, NEW YORK CITY






Copyright 1906
BY
R. F. FENNO & COMPANY



_"The Corner House"_






THE CORNER HOUSE






CONTENTS

CHAP.
I. THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR.
II. HETTY.
III. THE FACE AT THE WINDOW.
IV. WEAVING THE NET
V. IN THE MORNING ROOM.
VI. A VISITOR.
VII. AT THE CORNER HOUSE.
VIII. PAUL PROUT.
IX. THE MISSING NOTES.
X. A POLICY OF SILENCE.
XI. THE NOTES ARE TRACED.
XII. PROUT IS PUZZLED.
XIII. SECOND SIGHT.
XIV. "CROWNER'S QUEST."
XV. LAWRENCE PROPHESIES AGAIN.
XVI. MR. CHARLTON SPEAKS.
XVII. THE GAMBLERS.
XVIII. LAWRENCE IS MYSTERIOUS.
XIX. STOLEN!
XX. "UNEASY LIES THE HEAD - - "
XXI. PERIL.
XXII. FOR LOVE AND DUTY.
XXIII. TEN MINUTES PAST TWELVE.
XXIV. TREASURE TROVE.
XXV. A CHECK.
XXVI. THE BLACK MOTOR.
XXVII. A GLASS OF WINE.
XXVIII. BAFFLED!
XXIX. A KNOCK AT THE DOOR.
XXX. PROUT GETS A CLUE.
XXXI. AN URGENT CALL.
XXXII. TOUCH AND GO.
XXXIII. THE WAY BLOCKED.
XXXIV. A CLEVER MOVE.
XXXV. A POWERFUL ALLY.
XXXVI. A FAINT CLUE.
XXXVII. THE TALK OF THE TOWN.
XXXVIII. MAITRANK STRIKES.
XXXIX. LAWRENCE SHOWS HIS HAND.
XL. ANOTHER COIL.
XLI. PROUT IS INDISCREET.
XLII. FEAR!
XLIII. A SLICE OF LUCK.
XLIV. AT LAST.
XLV. A CHASE
XLVI. HETTY LEARNS SOMETHING.
XLVII. FLOWN.
XLVIII. HETTY SPEAKS OUT.
XLIX. IN THE DEAD OF THE NIGHT.
L. THREATENED RUIN.
LI. THE WOLF IS UNCHAINED.
LII. THE CAGE IS OPENED.
LIII. FACE TO FACE.
LIV. A STAB IN THE DARK.
LV. THE CORNER HOUSE AGAIN.
LVI. NOW THEN!
LVII. A WAY OUT.
LVIII. NEARING THE END.
LIX. LIGHT IN THE CORNER HOUSE.
LX. NARROWED DOWN.
LXI. LOGIC.
LXII. CONFESSION.
LXIII. A FINAL VERDICT.






CHAPTER I
THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR


A brilliant light streamed from the open doorway of No. 1, Lytton
Avenue, making a lane of flame across the pavement, touching pinched
gaunt faces that formed a striking contrast to the dazzling scene
within. Outside it was cold and wet and sodden, inside was warmth, the
glitter of electrics on palms and statuary and flowers, a sliding
kaleidoscope of beautiful dresses. A touch of this grateful warmth
came soft and perfumed down the steps, and a drawn Lazarus huddled in
his rags and shivered.

"What's all this mean?" he growled to an equally indigent neighbour.
There was a clatter and clash of harness as carriage after carriage
drove up. "This ain't quite Park Lane, guv'nor."

"Anyway, it's the fashion," the other growled hoarsely. "I ought to
know because I used to be one of them before the accursed drink - but
that is another story. Ever heard of the Countess Lalage?"

"Oh, that's it. Lovely woman with a romantic history. Rich as
thingamy, been proposed to by all the dukes what ain't married
already. Read it in one of the evening papers."

Poverty and want were jostling with well dressed content on the
pavement. It was one of the strangest and most painful contrasts that
can be seen in the richest city in the world. And the contrast was
heightened by the meanness of the Corner House.

Black, dark, deserted, grimy shuttered windows - a suggestion of
creeping mystery about it. Time ago the Corner House was the centre of
what might have been a thrilling tragedy. Some of the older neighbours
could tell of a cry in the night, of the tramping of feet, of a
beautiful woman with the poison still in her hand, of the stern, dark
husband who said never a word, though the shadow of the scaffold lay
heavily upon him.

Since then the Corner House looked down with blank shuttered eyes on
the street. None had ever penetrated its mystery, nobody had crossed
its threshold from that day to this. The stern dark man had
disappeared; he had locked up his house and gone, leaving not so much
as a caretaker behind.

Strange that this dark, forbidding house should stand cheek by jowl
with all that was modern and frivolous and fashionable. Even in the
garden behind Lytton Avenue the corner house frowned with sightless
eyes out of its side windows, eerie and creeping in the daytime.

But the heedless throng of fashionables recked nothing of this. The
Countess Lalage was their latest craze. Who she was or where she came
from nobody knew nor cared. She was young and wonderfully beautiful in
a dashing Southern way, her equipages were an amazement to the park;
she must have been immensely rich, or she would never have entertained
as she did. There must have been a Count Lalage at one time, for
generally a pretty little girl rode with the Countess, and this child
was her daughter. The Countess spoke casually of large South American
concessions and silver mines, so that Oxford Street and Regent Street
bowed down and worshipped her.

She had purchased No. 1, Lytton Avenue, just as it stood from an
American millionaire who had suddenly tired of Society. Paragraphs in
the cheap Society papers stated with awe that the sale had been
settled in five minutes, so that on the spot this wonderful Countess
Lalage had signed a cheque for more than two hundred thousand pounds.

She stood now at the head of the marble staircase, a screen of palms
behind her, receiving her guests. If she were an adventuress, as some
of the critics hinted, she carried it off wonderfully well. If so she
was one of the finest actresses in the world. A black silk dress
perfectly plain showed off her dark flashing beauty to perfection. She
wore a diamond spray and tiara; a deep red rose at her breast looked
like a splash of blood. Truly, a magnificent woman!

She had an easy word and a graceful speech for every one. An old
diplomatist, watching her earnestly, went away muttering that she must
be to the manner born. Her smile was so real and caressing, but it
deepened now, and the red lips quivered slightly as a bright-eyed,
square-headed young man came up the steps and bowed over her hand.

"So you came, after all, Dr. Bruce?" she said playfully. She pressed
his hand gently, her eyes were soft and luminous on his face. Any man
whose affections had not been pledged elsewhere would have felt his
pulses leaping. "Why?"

"Need you ask?" Gordon Bruce said gallantly. "You are my patroness,
you know. Your word is final in everything. And since you declared at
a fashionable gathering that Dr. Gordon Bruce was the man for
nerve-troubles I have found it necessary to hire a second horse."

The dark eyes grew more caressing. A more vain man would have been
flattered. To be the husband of Countess Lalage meant much, to be
master of all this wealth and splendour meant more. But the quiet
elation in Bruce's tones was not for the Countess, if she only knew
it.

The flowing tide of satin and silks and lace sweeping up the staircase
swept young Gordon Bruce along. He passed through the glittering rooms
faint with the perfume of roses. There was a dim corridor full of
flowers and shaded lights. Gordon Bruce looked anxiously about him. A
glad light came into his eyes.




CHAPTER II.
HETTY.


The figure of a girl rose out of a bower of palms and ferns and stood
before Gordon Bruce with a shy welcome in her violet eyes. Just for a
moment Bruce found himself contrasting this fresh English beauty with
the Lalage Southern loveliness to the detriment of the latter. There
was a purity and sweetness, a wonderful tenderness of expression about
Hetty Lawrence that had always appealed to Bruce.

He had known the Countess Lalage's governess for years. He admired her
independence of character, too, though on the whole he would have
preferred her taking the home that her uncle Gilbert Lawrence, the
great novelist, was ever urging upon her. But she would have a home of
her own soon.

"Gordon, I am so glad you have come," she whispered. "I have stolen
away for half an hour as Mamie is better. If she wants me I have told
the nurse - - "

"She can't want you half so badly as I do," Gordon laughed as he bent
down and kissed the shy lips. "And that queer little creature will
have to learn to do without you altogether before long. Four new
patients today, Hetty. And I have taken the house in Green-Street."

"Can we really afford it?" Hetty asked anxiously.

Bruce kissed her again. He loved that little pathetic, anxious look of
hers. He spoke confidently of the time when Harley Street should be
theirs. There was a strength and reliance about her lover that always
comforted Hetty.

"I shall be glad," she whispered, after a thoughtful pause, "glad to
get away from here."

"That's flattering to me. But I thought you liked the Countess."

Hetty glanced fearfully around her. Nobody was near - only the palms
and the scented roses could hear her confidences.

"I have tried," she confessed, "and I have failed. She fascinates and
yet repels me. There is some strange mystery about her. Gordon, I feel
sure that there is the shadow of some great crime on her house. It
sounds weak, hysterical, perhaps, but I can't get it out of my mind."

"But, darling, the Countess has been a good friend to me."

"I know. You are strong and ambitious, and she is helping to make you
the fashion. But has it ever struck you why?"

"Perhaps it is because she has the good taste to like me," Gordon
laughed.

"Because she loves you," said Hetty, in a thrilling whisper. "Because
her whole heart and soul is given over to a consuming passion for you.
There is a woman who would go any length to win a man's love. If a
husband stood in the way she would poison him; if a woman, she would
be destroyed. Gordon, I am frightened; I wake up in the middle of the
night trembling. I wish you had never come here; I don't know what I
wish."

Gordon looked down into the troubled violet eyes with amazement.
Surely he would wake up presently and find that he had been dreaming.
Countess Lalage with all the world at her feet, and he a struggling
doctor. Oh, it was preposterous! And yet little words and signs and
hints unnoticed at the time were coming to his mind now.

"I wish you hadn't told me this," he murmured, uneasily. "It would
have been far - - "

He paused. From overhead somewhere came the sound of a frightened,
wailing cry, the pitiful call of a child in terror. Hetty was on her
feet in a moment, all her fears had gone to the winds.

"Mamie," she exclaimed. "Of course, nurse has crept off to the rest of
the servants. Poor little wee frightened soul."

Hetty flashed off down the corridor, and was gone leaving Bruce to his
troubled thoughts. Just before going, Hetty stood on her toes, and
kissed her lover lightly on the lips. It was, perhaps, a goodnight
caress, for there was a chance that she might not return.

There was a sound at the top of the corridor, just the suggestion of a
swish of silken drapery, and Gordon Bruce half turned. Under a cluster
of electric lights stood Leona Lalage; she must have seen everything.
It might have been fancy, it might have been a guilty conscience, but
just for the moment Countess Lalage seemed transformed into a white
fury with two murderous demons gleaming in her dark restless eyes.
Then her silk and ivory fan fell from her hands, and Gordon hastened
to recover it.

When he looked up again the mask of evil passions was gone. The
Countess was smiling in her most fascinating manner. Gordon could not
know that the long filbert nails had cut through the woman's glove,
and were making red sores on the pink flesh. He did not know that he
would have stood in peril of his life had there been a weapon near at
hand.

"You must not flirt with my governess, Dr. Bruce," she said. "I would
have given a great deal not to have seen what I saw just now."

The rebuke sounded in the best of taste. Gordon bowed.

"I have a good excuse," he said, "in fact, the very best. As I told
you some months ago, I have known Miss Lawrence for years. We have
always understood one another, but because I was in no position to
marry nothing has been said. Won't you be the first to congratulate me
on my engagement?"

"Then fetch me an ice. By the time you return I shall have thought of
something pretty to say. Ah, I have pricked my finger. The ice, my
dear boy, the ice. The finger will not hurt till you return."

Her hand had shot out grasping for something to steady herself on - the
whole world spun around her. She had given her whole passionate,
tempestuous soul to this man; she had never dreamt that she could fail
to gain his love. She had never failed before, she had only required
to hold up her hand. . . .

She clasped the stem of a rose passionately. The cruel thorns cut into
the soft white flesh, but there was pleasure in the very pain. Another
moment and she would have flashed out her secret and despair to the
world. For the moment she was crushed and beaten to the earth. Yet she
spoke very quietly and evenly, though the effort brought the blood
thrilling to her temples.

She was alone now; she could give vent to her passionate anger. She
smashed her fan across her knee, she tore her long gloves into
fragments. Dimly, in a mirror opposite, she saw her white ghastly
face, and the stain of blood where she had caught her lips between her
teeth.

"So I have to sit down and submit to that tamely," she murmured. "You
little white-faced cat, you pink doll, so you are going to get the
best of me. We shall see; oh, yes, we shall see. If I could be
somewhere where I could tear myself to pieces, where I could scream
aloud and nobody could hear! If I could only face him now and smile
and say honeyed words! Tomorrow, perhaps, but not tonight. Even I have
my limits. . . . He's coming back!"

One glance at the dim mirror and Leona Lalage flew down the corridor.
The music of the band was like the sound of mocking demons in her
ears. As she flew up the stairs she could see the blank windows of the
Corner House staring dreadfully in. Then she locked the door behind
her and flung herself headlong down on the bed. . . .

Only for a minute, a brief respite; then she must go down to her
guests again.




CHAPTER III.
THE FACE AT THE WINDOW.


Hetty darted up the secondary staircase intent only on her little
charge. The child was unusually nervous and imaginative, as if she had
been frightened by the ghost stories of a foolish nurse. Alternatively
her mother's pet and encumbrance, Mamie had been driven back upon
herself. And she had given up all the love of her heart to Hetty.

It was quite silent upstairs; there was no sign of a maid anywhere. As
Hetty reached the landing the frightened bleating cry broke out again.
There was only a night-light in the nursery; a little white figure sat
moaning in bed.

"You poor little mite," Hetty said tenderly. "There, there. I shall
stay here and not leave you any more until you go to sleep. Where is
Richards?"

"She said she wouldn't be a minute," Mamie sobbed. "I had one of my
headaches and I couldn't go to sleep. Then I began to get frightened
and I wanted somebody to talk to me. I could hear the people and the
music downstairs, so I just got out of bed and went into the
corridor."

"Ah, that is why your feet are so cold. Well?"

"I stood in the corridor for some time," Mamie continued with her head
on Hetty's shoulder. "The blinds were up and I could see those two
wide windows in the Corner House. Richards' father was a footman there
and she told me all about the poor dead lady and the dark husband who
never said anything - - "

"Richards shall tell you no more stories," Hetty murmured. "Go on,
pet."

"And then I began to think about it and wonder. And when I was
wondering and wondering and looking into those dark windows I saw a
light."

"You saw a light? In one of those windows? Nonsense!"

"Dearest, it was not nonsense at all. The shadow of the light was all
across my nightdress. I was so frightened that I could not call out
because the Corner House is empty and it must have been a ghost. But
that was not all."

"You fancied that you saw something besides the light?"

"I am certain," said Mamie with a resolute nod. "There was a face, a
face looking out of the window. Oh, such a terrible face! It was dirty
and grimy and one eye was all discoloured, and both the eyes were wild
and fierce and hungry, just like that new tiger at the Zoo. Then the
face went away and I screamed, and that's all, dearest, and oh, I am
so dreadfully tired."

The little dark head fell back and the troubles were forgotten for the
moment. The child was breathing regularly and peacefully now. More
disturbed and uneasy than she cared to admit, Hetty crept out into the
corridor. A certain amount of light from the house and the street fell
on the blank side of the Corner House. There were the two blank
windows at one of which Mamie had seen the face. It must have been
imagination, seeing that the Corner House had been deserted for years.
Hetty knew its story as well as anybody else.

Was it possible that some crime or tragedy was being enacted behind
those grimy walls, all unknown to the police? The house was reported
to be luxuriously furnished, the front of the place was all shuttered.
Stranger things are happening in this London of ours every day in the
week.

She could certainly mention the matter to - - . Hetty stopped suddenly
and caught her breath. A faint light had commenced to glow in the
Corner House, gradually the blank window shaped to a luminous outline.
The light grew stronger and stronger, till Hetty could see the
balustrade of the staircase. And then, surely enough there came a face
to the window.

A dreadful face, a face dull and dissipated, with horrible watery red
eyes, yet full of malice and cunning and passion. There was a bristle
of whiskers and a moustache, as if chin and razor had for days been
strangers. As suddenly as the face had come it turned. A hand shot out
from somewhere, as if seeking for the throat of the strange
apparition, a fist was uplifted, and the figure disappeared, evidently
going down before a cruel and crushing blow. The light vanished; it
had probably been overturned and gone out.

"Good heavens!" Hetty cried. "Did you see that?"

She was conscious that somebody was by her side. She looked and found
that her companion was the Countess. No answer came. Hetty touched the
other's arm. She was shaking from head to foot like a reed in the
gale.

"Did you see that?" Hetty demanded, again.

The woman by her side was slowly recovering herself. A minute later
and she was her cold calm self again.

"I saw nothing," she said, between her teeth. "And you saw nothing. It
was some trick of the imagination. There is nobody in yonder house.
When I took this place a year ago so that I could be near - what am I
talking about? I have been working too hard at my pleasures lately; I
shall have to take a rest."

"I am not suffering from any delusions," Hetty said, coldly.

"All the same, you will say nothing," Leona Lalage hissed. "What you
have seen or what you imagine you have seen tonight is to remain a
secret between us for all time. Do you understand me? There is no
better friend than I in all the world, and there is no more dangerous
enemy. See?"

She gripped the girl's arm with fearful force. A strong man would have
had no more firm a clasp. Hetty winced under the pain, but no cry
escaped her lips. There was some dark mystery here, some evil
connexion between the desolation of the Corner House and the brilliant
establishment in Lytton Avenue. Else why would Countess Lalage have
been so far from the centre of the small world called Society?

"It is nothing to me," Hetty said coldly. "If you desire to avoid a
scandal for the sake of the house, my lips are sealed. If you have
nothing further to say to me, I will go and see if Mamie is still
asleep."




CHAPTER IV.
WEAVING THE NET.


Hetty rubbed her eyes with the feeling that it had all been a dream.
It was not yet very late, only a little after midnight, and the
brilliant saloons were still crowded with guests. Down below in the
dining-rooms people were supping, there was the dreamy music of a band
somewhere. As if nothing in the world had happened Countess Lalage sat
smiling brilliantly and chatting with not the least distinguished of
her guests, Mr. Gilbert Lawrence, the famous novelist.

Hetty's uncle was evidently flattered. He liked talking of his own
work, for his heart was in it, and he had for audience one of the most
brilliant and beautiful women in London. His voice was something high
pitched and it carried easily to Hetty's ears. Apparently, Bruce was
gone, for the girl could see nothing of him anywhere. She was only too
glad for a chance to sit down quietly and ponder over the disturbing
events of the evening. Nobody was likely to be particularly interested
in Leona Lalage's governess.

The little man with the keen restless eyes and the pince-nez did not
suggest the popular idea of the novelist. He chattered on with frank
egotism. The world made much of him, and he took it for granted that
all the world was interested in his work. And he was talking eagerly
to Leona Lalage about the Corner House.

Hetty caught her breath eagerly. That dark and evil place seemed to
have suddenly become part and parcel of her life. Instinctively she
half hid herself behind a great dragon vase full of palms.

"Fact is I used to know the man who lived there," Gilbert Lawrence was
saying in his quick staccato way. "And I was once in the house. No, I
never met the wife. A depressing, gloomy house, like Tom Hood's
haunted mansion. Just the place to plan a murder in, and never be
found out. After the scandal I worked out a novel on the subject."

Leona Lalage's eyes gleamed like points of fire. They seemed to be
burnt into her face. Hetty could see the restless play of the jewelled
hands.

"Did you ever publish it?" she asked, eagerly.

"Never had the chance to write it," Lawrence cried. "But I worked it
all out. Wicked woman, revenge, plot to bring hero within the grip of
the law. It's pigeonholed in my writing desk, and labelled 'The
Corner House.' But I don't suppose it will ever be written."

"Worth stealing," a Society journalist lounging by remarked. "I could
write a novel, only I can never think of a plot. Your old housekeeper
is asleep long ago. Where do you carry your latchkey?"

"Ticket pocket of my overcoat," laughed Lawrence. "But you'll be found
out, Stead. Being a critic, the public would never take you
seriously."

The Countess's eyes flamed again suddenly. Hetty, watching, was
utterly puzzled. What was there in this trivial conversation that held
this woman almost breathless? She had the air of one who has taken a
great resolution. She seemed like a man face to face with death, who
sees a way out.

A great many of the guests had by this time departed. It was growing
very quiet in the streets now, the jingle of harness and the impatient
pawing of horses had almost ceased. A soldierly-looking man came up to
Leona Lalage, and held out his hand.

"But you are not going to Aldershot tonight. Captain Gifford?" Leona
asked. "A cab? How extravagant!"

"Motor car," the stolid dragoon replied. "I've got a fifteen
horsepower Daimler that I can knock seventy miles an hour out of at a
pinch. And no danger of being picked up for scorching on a dark night
like this."

The Countess put her hand to her throat as if she had found some
trouble with her breathing. Those wonderful eyes of hers were gleaming
like electric flashes. Her face was white, but her lips were drawn
narrow with resolution. She rose, and sauntered carelessly to the
door.

"I dote on motors," she said. "Nothing pleases me better than to go
out in my own alone. I am coming to see your steed, Captain. The rooms
are so hot here that I have a great mind to run away with it."


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