Edgar Wallace.

The secret house online

. (page 11 of 14)
Online LibraryEdgar WallaceThe secret house → online text (page 11 of 14)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

"Suppose he is not blessed with a wife?" She smiled with something like
her old gaiety.

"In that case the money automatically goes to the woman the heir
eventually marries. But the terms of the will are that the heir shall be
discovered within twenty years of the date of Tollington's death. The
time of grace expires to-morrow."

"Poor Frank," she said, shaking her head, "and he is working so hard
with his clues! I suppose if he does not produce that mysterious
individual by to-morrow there will be no reward for him?"

The lawyer shook his head.

"I should hardly think it likely," he said, "because the reward is for
the man who complies with the conditions of the will within a stipulated
time. It was because I knew Mr. Doughton had some interest in it, and
because also" - he hesitated - "I thought that your uncle might have taken
you into his confidence."

"That he might have told me who this missing person was, and that he
himself knew; and for some reason suppressed the fact?" she asked,
quickly. "Is that what you suggest, Mr. Debenham?"

"Please do not be angry with me," said the lawyer, quickly; "I do not
wish to say anything against Mr. Farrington; but I know he was a very
shrewd and calculating man, and I thought possibly that he might have
taken you that much into his confidence, and that you might be able to
help your future husband a part of the way to a very large sum of

She shook her head again.

"I have absolutely no knowledge of the subject. My uncle never took me
into his confidence," she said; "he was very uncommunicative where
business was concerned - although I am sure he was fond of me." Her eyes
filled with tears, not at the recollection of his kindness, but at the
humiliation she experienced at playing a part in which she had no heart.
It made her feel inexpressibly mean and small.

"That is all," said Mr. Debenham. "I shall see you at the registrar's

She nodded.

"May I express the hope," he said, in his heavy manner, "that your life
will be a very happy one, and that your marriage will prove all you hope
it will be?"

"I hardly know what I hope it will be," she said wearily, as she
accompanied him to the door.

That good man shook his head sadly as he made his way back to his

Was there ever so unromantic and prosaic affair as this marriage,
thought Doris, as she stepped into the taxicab which was to convey her
to the registrar's office? She had had her dreams, as other girls had
had, of that wonderful day when with pealing of the organ she would walk
up the aisle perhaps upon the arm of Gregory Farrington, to a marriage
which would bring nothing but delight and happiness. And here was the
end of her dreams, a great heiress and a beautiful girl rocking across
London in a hired cab to a furtive marriage.

Frank was waiting for her on the pavement outside the grimy little
office. Mr. Debenham was there, and a clerk he had brought with him as
witness. The ceremony was brief and uninteresting; she became Mrs.
Doughton before she quite realized what was happening.

"There is only one thing to do now," said the lawyer as they stood
outside again on the sunlit pavement.

He looked at his watch.

"We had best go straight away to the London Safe Deposit, and, if you
will give me the authority, I will take formal possession of your
fortune and place it in the hands of my bankers. I think these things
had better be done regularly."

The girl acquiesced.

Frank was singularly silent during the drive; save to make some comment
upon the amount of traffic in the streets, he did not speak to her and
she was grateful for his forbearance. Her mind was in a turmoil; she was
married - that was all she knew - married to somebody she liked but did
not love. Married to a man who had been chosen for her partly against
her will. She glanced at him out of the corners of her eyes; if she was
joyless, no less was he. It was an inauspicious beginning to a married
life which would end who knew how? Before the depressing granite fa√Іade
of the London Safe Deposit the party descended, Mr. Debenham paid the
cabman, and they went down the stone steps into the vaults of the

There was a brief check whilst Mr. Debenham explained his authority for
the visit, and it was when the officials were making reference to their
books that the party was augmented by the arrival of Poltavo.

He bowed over the girl's hand, holding it a little longer than Frank
could have liked, murmured colourless congratulations and nodded to

"Count Poltavo is here, I may say," explained the lawyer, "by your late
uncle's wishes. They were contained in a letter he wrote to me a few
days before he disappeared."

Frank nodded grudgingly; still he was generous enough to realize
something of this man's feelings if he loved Doris, and he made an
especial effort to be gracious to the new-comer.

A uniformed attendant led them through innumerable corridors till they
came to a private vault guarded by stout bars. The attendant opened
these and they walked into a little stone chamber, illuminated by
overhead lights.

The only article of furniture in the room was a small safe which stood
in one corner. A very small safe indeed, thought Frank, to contain so
large a fortune. The lawyer turned the key in the lock methodically, and
the steel door swung back. The back of Mr. Debenham obscured their view
of the safe's interior. Then he turned with an expression of wonder.

"There is nothing here," he said.

"Nothing!" gasped Doris.

"Save this," said the lawyer.

He took a small envelope and handed it to the girl. She opened it
mechanically and read:

"I have, unfortunately, found it necessary to utilize your fortune for
the furtherance of my plans. You must try and forgive me for this; but I
have given you a greater one than you have lost, a husband."

She looked up.

"What does this mean?" she whispered.

Frank took the letter from her hand and concluded the reading.

"A husband in Frank Doughton...."

The words swam before his eyes.

"And Frank Doughton is the heir to the Tollington millions, as his
father was before him. All the necessary proofs to establish his
identity will be discovered in the sealed envelope which the lawyer
holds, and which is inscribed 'C.'"

The letter was signed "Gregory Farrington."

The lawyer was the first to recover his self-possession; his practical
mind went straight to the business at hand.

"There is such an envelope in my office," he said, "given to me by Mr.
Farrington with strict instructions that it was not to be handed to his
executors or to any person until definite instructions
arrived - instructions which would be accompanied by unmistakable proof
as to the necessity for its being handed over. I congratulate you, Mr.

He turned and shook hands with the bewildered Frank, who had been
listening like a man in a dream; the heir to the Tollington millions;
he, the son of George Doughton, and all the time he had been looking
for - what? For his own grandmother!

It came on him all of a rush. He knew now that all his efforts, all his
search might have been saved, if he had only realized the Christian name
of his father's mother.

He had only the dimmest recollection of the placid-faced lady who had
died whilst he was at school; he had never associated in his mind this
serene old lady, who had passed away only a few hours before her
beloved husband, with the Annie for whom he had searched. It made him
gasp - then he came to earth quickly as he realized that his success had
come with the knowledge of his wife's financial ruin. He looked at her
as she stood there - it was too vast a shock for her to realize at once.

He put his arm about her shoulder, and Poltavo, twirling his little
moustache, looked at the two through his lowered lids with an ugly smile
playing at the corner of his mouth.

"It is all right, dear," said Frank soothingly; "your money is
secure - it was only a temporary use he made of it."

"It is not that," she said, with a catch in her throat; "it is the
feeling that my uncle trapped you into this marriage. I did not mind his
dissipating my own fortune; the money is nothing to me. But he has
caught you by a trick, and he has used me as a bait." She covered her
face with her hands.

In a few moments she had composed herself; she spoke no other word, but
suffered herself to be led out of the building into the waiting cab.
Poltavo watched them drive off with that fierce little smile of his, and
turned to the lawyer.

"A clever man, Mr. Farrington," he said, in a bitter tone of reluctant

The lawyer looked at him steadily.

"His Majesty's prisons are filled with men who specialize in that kind
of cleverness," he said, drily, and left Poltavo without another word.


T. B. Smith was playing a round of golf at Walton Heath, when the news
was telephoned through to him.

He left immediately for town, and picked up Ela at luncheon at the Fritz
Hotel, where the detective had his headquarters.

"The whole thing is perfectly clear, now," he said. "The inexplicable
disappearance of Mr. Farrington is explained in poster type, 'that he
who runs may read.'"

"I am a little hazy about the solution myself," said Ela dubiously.

"Then I will put it in plain language for you," said T. B. as he speared
a sardine from the _hors d'oeuvre_ dish. "Farrington knew all along
that the heir to the Tollington millions was George Doughton. He knew it
years and years ago, and it was for that reason he settled at Great
Bradley, where the Doughtons had their home. Evidently the two older
Doughtons were dead at this time, and only George Doughton, the romantic
and altogether unpractical explorer, represented the family.

"George was in love with the lady who is now known as Lady Constance
Dex, and knowing this, Farrington evidently took every step that was
possible to ingratiate himself into her good graces. He knew that the
fortune would descend equally to Doughton and to his wife. Doughton was
a widower and had a son, a youngster at the time, and it is very
possible that, the boy being at school, and being very rarely in Great
Bradley, Farrington had no idea of his existence.

"The knowledge that this boy was alive must have changed all his plans;
at any rate, the engagement was allowed to drift on, whilst he matured
some scheme whereby he could obtain a large portion of the Tollington
millions for his own use. Again I think his plans must have been

"It was whilst he was at Great Bradley that he was entrusted with the
guardianship of Doris Gray, and as his affection for the young girl
grew - an affection which I think was one of the few wholesome things in
his life - he must have seen the extraordinary chance which fate had
placed in his way.

"With diabolical ingenuity and with a remorselessness which is
reminiscent of the Borgias he planned first George Doughton's death,
and then the bringing together of Doughton's son and his own ward. There
is every proof of this to be found in his subsequent actions. He was
prepared to introduce the young people to one another, and by affording
them opportunities for meeting, and such encouragement as he could give,
to bring about the result he so desired.

"But things did not move fast enough for him, and then he must have
learnt, as the other trustees seem to have learnt recently, that there
was an undiscovered time limit. He threw out hints to his niece, hints
which were received rather coldly. He had taken the bold step of
employing Frank Doughton to discover - himself! That was a move which had
a twofold purpose. It kept the young man in contact with him. It also
satisfied the other trustees, who had entrusted to Farrington the task
of employing the necessary measures to discover the missing heir.

"But neither hint nor suggestion served him. The girl's fortune was due
for delivery to her care, and his guardianship expired almost at the
same time as the time limit for discovery of the Tollington millionaire
came to an end. He had to take a desperate step; there were other
reasons, of course, contributing to his move.

"The knowledge that he was suspected by me, the certainty that Lady
Constance Dex would betray him, once she discovered that he had sent her
lover to his death, all these were contributing factors, but the main
reason for his disappearance was the will that was read after his bogus

"In that will he conveyed unchallengeable instructions for the girl to
marry Frank Doughton without delay. I suspect that the girl now knows he
is alive. Probably, panic-stricken by her tardiness, he has disclosed
his hand so far as the alleged death is concerned."

T. B. looked out of the window on to the stream of life which was
flowing east and west along Piccadilly; his face was set in a little
frown of doubt and anxiety.

"I can take Farrington to-morrow if I want to," he said after a moment,
"but I wish to gather up every string of organization in my hands."

"What of Lady Constance Dex?" asked Ela. "Whilst we are waiting, she is
in some little danger."

T. B. shook his head.

"If she is not dead now," he said simply, "she will be spared. If
Farrington wished to kill her - for Farrington it was who spirited her
away - he could have done so in the house; no one would have been any the
wiser as to the murderer. Lady Constance must wait; we must trust to
luck before I inspect that underground chamber of which I imagine she is
at present an unwilling inmate. I want to crush this blackmailing
force," he said, thumping the table with energy; "I want to sweep out of
England the whole organization which is working right under the nose of
the police and in defiance of all laws; and until I have done that, I
shall not sleep soundly in my bed."

"And Poltavo?"

"Poltavo," smiled T. B., "can wait for just a little while."

He paid the bill and the two men passed out of the hotel and crossed
Piccadilly. A man who had been lounging along apparently studying the
shop windows saw them out of the corner of his eye and followed them
carelessly. Another man, no less ostentatiously reading a newspaper, as
he walked along the pavement on the opposite side of the thoroughfare,
followed close behind.

T. B. and his companion turned into Burlington Arcade and reached Cork
Street. Save for one or two pedestrians the street was utterly deserted,
and the first of the shadowers quickened his pace. He put his hand in
his tail pocket and took out something which glinted in the April
sunlight, but before he could raise his hand the fourth man, now on his
heels, dropped his newspaper, and flinging one arm around the shadower's
neck, and placing his knee in the small of the other's back, wrenched
the pistol away with his disengaged hand.

T. B. turned at the sound of the struggle and came back to assist the
shadowing detective. The prisoner was a little man, sharp-featured, and
obviously a member of one of the great Latin branches of the human race.
A tiny black moustache, fierce scowling eyebrows, and liquid brown eyes
now blazing with hate, spoke of a Southern origin.

Deftly the three police officers searched and disarmed him; a pair of
adjustable handcuffs snapped upon the man's thin wrists, and before the
inevitable crowd could gather the prisoner and his custodians were being
whirled to Vine Street in a cab.

They placed the man in the steel dock and asked him the usual questions,
but he maintained a dogged silence. That his object had been
assassination no one could doubt, for in addition to the automatic
pistol, which he had obviously intended using at short range, trusting
to luck to make his escape, they found a long stiletto in his breast

More to the point, and of greater interest to T. B., there was a
three-line scrawl on a piece of paper in Italian, which, translated,
showed that minute instructions had been given to the would-be murderer
as to T. B.'s whereabouts.

"Put him in a cell," said T. B. "I think we are going to find things
out. If this is not one of Poltavo's hired thugs, I am greatly

Whatever he was, the man offered no information which might assist the
detective in his search for the truth, but maintained an unbroken
silence, and T. B. gave up the task of questioning him in sheer despair.

The next morning at daybreak the prisoner was aroused and told to dress.
He was taken out to where a motor car was awaiting him, and a few
moments later he was speeding on the way to Dover. Two detective
officers placed him on a steamer and accompanied him to Calais. At
Calais they took a courteous leave of him, handing him a hundred francs
and the information in his own tongue that he had been deported on an
order from the Home Secretary, obtained at midnight the previous night.

The prisoner took his departure with some eagerness and spent the
greater portion of his hundred francs in addressing a telegram to

T. B. Smith, who knew that telegram would come, was sitting in the
Continental instrument room of the General Post Office when it arrived.
He was handed a copy of the telegram and read it. Then he smiled.

"Thank you," he said, as he passed it back to the Superintendent of the
department, "this may now be transmitted for delivery. I know all I want
to know."

Poltavo received the message an hour later, and having read it, cursed
his subordinate's indiscretion, for the message was in Italian, plain
for everybody to read who understood that language, and its purport easy
to understand for anybody who had a knowledge of the facts.

He waited all that day for a visit from the police, and when T. B.
arrived in the evening Poltavo was ready with an excuse and an
explanation. But neither excuse nor explanation was asked for. T. B.'s
questions had to do with something quite different, namely the new Mrs.
Doughton and her vanished fortune.

"I was in the confidence of Mr. Farrington," said Poltavo, relieved to
find the visit had nothing to do with that which he most dreaded, "but I
was amazed to discover that the safe was empty. It was a tremendous
tragedy for the poor young lady. She is in Paris now with her husband,"
he added.

T. B. nodded.

"Perhaps you will give me their address?" he asked.

"With pleasure," said Count Poltavo, reaching for his address book.

"I may be going to Paris myself to-morrow," T. B. went on, "and I will
look these young people up. I suppose it is not the correct thing for
any one to call upon honeymoon couples, but a police officer has

There was an exchange of smiles. Poltavo was almost exhilarated that T.
B.'s visit had nothing to do with him personally. A respect, which
amounted almost to fear, characterized his attitude toward the great
Scotland Yard detective. He credited T. B. with qualities which perhaps
that admirable man did not possess, but, as a set-off against this, he
failed to credit him with a wiliness which was peculiarly T. B.'s chief
asset. For who could imagine that the detective's chief object in
calling upon Poltavo that evening was to allay his suspicions and soothe
down his fears. Yet T. B. came for no other reason and with no other
purpose. It was absolutely necessary that Poltavo should be taken off
his guard, for T. B. was planning the coup which was to end for all time
the terror under which hundreds of innocent people in England were

After an exchange of commonplace civilities the two men parted, - T. B.,
as he said, with his hand on the door, to prepare for his Paris trip,
and Poltavo to take up what promised to be one of the most interesting
cases that the Fallock blackmailers had ever handled.

He waited until he heard the door close after the detective; until he
had watched him, from the window, step into his cab and be whirled away,
then he unlocked the lower drawer of his desk, touched a spring in the
false bottom, and took from a secret recess a small bundle of letters.

Many of the sheets of notepaper which he spread out on the table before
him bore the strawberry crest of his grace the Duke of Ambury. The
letters were all in the same sprawling handwriting; ill-spelt and
blotted, but they were very much to the point. The Duke of Ambury, in
his exuberant youth, had contracted a marriage with a lady in Gibraltar.
His regiment had been stationed at that fortress when his succession to
the dukedom had been a very remote possibility, and the Spanish lady to
whom, as the letters showed, he had plighted his troth, and to whom he
was eventually married in the name of Wilson (a copy of the marriage
certificate was in the drawer), had been a typical Spaniard of singular
beauty and fascination, though of no distinguished birth.

Apparently his grace had regretted his hasty alliance, for two years
after his succession to the title, he had married the third daughter of
the Earl of Westchester without - so far as the evidence in Poltavo's
possession showed - having gone through the formality of releasing
himself from his previous union.

Here was a magnificent coup, the most splendid that had ever come into
the vision of the blackmailers, for the Duke of Ambury was one of the
richest men in England, a landlord who owned half London and had estates
in almost every county. If ever there was a victim who was in a position
to be handsomely bled, here was one.

The Spanish wife was now dead, but an heir had been born to the Duke of
Ambury before the death, and the whole question of succession was
affected by the threatened disclosure. All the facts of the case were in
Poltavo's possession; they were written in this curiously uneducated
hand which filled the pages of the letters now spread upon the table in
front of him. The marriage certificate had been supplied, and a copy of
the death certificate had also been obligingly extracted by a peccant
servant, and matters were now so far advanced that Poltavo had received,
through the Agony column of the _Times_, a reply to the demand he had
sent to his victim.

That reply had been very favourable; there had been no suggestion of
lawyers; no hint of any intervention on the part of the police. Ambury
was willing to be bled, willing indeed, so the agony advertisement
indicated to Poltavo, to make any financial sacrifice in order to save
the honour of his house.

It was only a question of terms now. Poltavo had decided upon fifty
thousand pounds. That sum would be sufficient to enable him to clear out
of England and to enjoy life as he best loved it, without the necessity
for taking any further risks. With Doris Gray removed from his hands,
with the approval of society already palling upon him, he thirsted for
new fields and new adventures. The fifty thousand seemed now within his
grasp. He should, by his agreement with Farrington, hand two-thirds of
that sum to his employer, but even the possibility of his doing this
never for one moment occurred to him.

Farrington, so he told himself, a man in hiding, powerless and in
Poltavo's hands practically, could not strike back at him; the cards
were all in favour of the Count. He had already received some ten
thousand pounds as a result of his work in London, and he had frantic
and ominous letters from Dr. Fall demanding that the "house" share
should be forwarded without delay. These demands Poltavo had treated
with contempt. He felt master of the situation, inasmuch that he had
placed the major portion of the balance of money in hand, other than
that which had been actually supplied by Farrington, to his own credit
in a Paris bank. He was prepared for all eventualities, and here he was
promised the choicest of all his pickings - for the bleeding of the Duke
of Ambury would set a seal upon previous accomplishments.

He rang a bell, and a man came, letting himself into the room with a
key. He was an Italian with a peculiarly repulsive face; one of the
small fry whom Poltavo had employed from time to time to do such work as
was beneath his own dignity, or which promised an unnecessary measure of
danger in its performance.

"Carlos," said Poltavo, speaking in Italian, "Antonio has been arrested,
and has been taken to Calais by the police."

"That I know, signor," nodded the man. "He is very fortunate. I was
afraid when the news came that he would be put into prison."

Poltavo smiled.

"The ways of the English police are beyond understanding," he said
lightly. "Here was our Antonio, anxious and willing to kill the head of
the detective department, and they release him! Is it not madness? At

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 11 13 14

Online LibraryEdgar WallaceThe secret house → online text (page 11 of 14)