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any rate, Antonio will not be coming back, because though they are mad,
the police are not so foolish as to allow him to land again. I have
telegraphed to our friend to go on to Paris and await me, and here let
me say, Carlos," - he tapped the table with the end of his
penholder, - "that if you by ill-fortune should ever find yourself in the
same position of our admirable and worthy Antonio, I beg that you will
not send me telegrams."

"You may be assured, excellent signor," said the man with a little grin,
"that I shall not send you telegrams, for I cannot write."

"A splendid deficiency," said Poltavo.

He took up a letter from the table.

"You will deliver this to a person who will meet you at the corner of
Branson Square. The exact position I have already indicated to you."

The man nodded.

"This person will give you in exchange another letter. You will not
return to me but you will go to your brother's house in Great Saffron
Street, and outside that house you will see a man standing who wears a
long overcoat. You will brush past him, and in doing so you will drop
this envelope into his pocket - you understand?"

"Excellency, I quite understand," said the man.

"Go, and God be with you," said the pious Poltavo, sending forth a
message which he believed would bring consternation and terror into the
bosom of the Duke of Ambury.

It was late that night when Carlos Freggetti came down a steep declivity
into Great Saffron Street and walked swiftly along that deserted
thoroughfare till he came to his brother's house. His brother was a
respectable Italian artisan, engaged by an asphalt company in London.
Near the narrow door of the tenement in which his relative lived, a
stranger stood, apparently awaiting some one. Carlos, in passing him,
stumbled and apologized under his breath. At that moment he slipped the
letter into the other's pocket. His quick eyes noted the identity of the
stranger. It was Poltavo. No one else was in the street, and in the dim
light even the keenest of eyes would not have seen the transfer of the
envelope. Poltavo strolled to the end of the thoroughfare, jumped into
the taxicab which was waiting and reached his house after various
transferences of cabs without encountering any of T. B.'s watchful
agents. In his room he opened the letter with an anxious air. Would
Ambury agree to the exorbitant sum he had demanded? And if he did not
agree, what sum would he be prepared to pay as the price of the
blackmailer's silence? The first words brought relief to him.

"I am willing to pay the sum you ask, although I think you are guilty of
a dastardly crime," read the letter, "and since you seem to suspect my
bonafides, I shall choose, as an agent to carry the money to you, an old
labourer on my Lancashire estate who will be quite ignorant of the
business in hand, and who will give you the money in exchange for the
marriage certificate. If you will choose a rendezvous where you can
meet, a rendezvous which fulfills all your requirements as to privacy, I
will undertake to have my man on the spot at the time you wish."

There was a triumphant smile on Poltavo's face as he folded the letter.

"Now," he said half aloud, "now, my friend Farrington, you and I will
part company. You have ceased to be of any service to me; your value has
decreased in the same proportion as my desire for freedom has advanced.
Fifty thousand pounds!" he repeated admiringly. "Ernesto, you have a
happy time before you. All the continent of Europe is at your feet, and
this sad England is behind you. Congratulations, _amigo_!"

The question of the rendezvous was an important one. Though he read
into the letter an eagerness on the part of his victim to do anything to
avoid the scandal and the exposure which Poltavo threatened, yet he did
not trust him. The old farm labourer was a good idea, but where could
they meet? When Poltavo had kidnapped Frank Doughton he had intended
taking him to a little house he had hired in the East End of London. The
journey to the Secret House was a mere blind to throw suspicion upon
Farrington and to put the police off the real track. The car would have
returned to London, and under the influence of a drug he had intended to
smuggle Frank into the small house at West Ham, where he was to be
detained until the period which Farrington had stipulated had expired.

But the transfer of money in the house was a different matter. The place
could be surrounded by police. No, it must be an open space; such a
space as would enable Poltavo to command a clear view on every side.

Why not Great Bradley, he thought, after a while? Again he would be
serving two purposes. He would be leading the police to the Secret
House, and he would have the mansion of mystery and all its resources as
a refuge in case anything went wrong at the last moment. He could, in
the worst extremity, explain that he was collecting the money on behalf
of Farrington.

Yes, Great Bradley and the wild stretch of down on the south of the town
was the place. He made his arrangements accordingly.




CHAPTER XVIII


It was three days after the exchange of letters that Count Poltavo, in
the rough tweeds of a country gentleman - a garb which hardly suited his
figure or presence - strolled carelessly across the downs, making his way
to their highest point, a great rolling slope, from the crest of which a
man could see half a dozen miles in every direction.

The sky was overcast and a chill wind blew; it was such a day upon which
he might be certain no pleasure-seekers would be abroad. To his left,
half hidden in the furthermost shelter of the downs, veiled as it was
for ever under a haze of blue grey smoke, lay Great Bradley, with its
chimneys and its busy industrial life. To his right he caught a glimpse
of the square ugly fa√Іade of the Secret House, half hidden by the
encircling trees. To its right was a chimney stack from which a lazy
feather of smoke was drifting. Behind him the old engine house of the
deserted mines, and to the right of that the pretty little cottage from
which a week before Lady Constance Dex had so mysteriously disappeared,
and which in consequence had been an object of pilgrimage for the whole
countryside.

But Lady Constance Dex's disappearance had become a nine days' wonder.
There were many explanations offered for her unexpected absence. The
police of the country were hunting systematically and leisurely, and
only T. B. and those in his immediate confidence were satisfied that the
missing woman was less than two miles away from the scene of her
disappearance.

Count Poltavo had armed himself with a pair of field-glasses, and now he
carefully scrutinized all the roads which led to the downs. A motor-car,
absurdly diminutive from the distance, came spinning along the winding
white road two miles away. He watched it as it mounted the one hill and
descended the other, and kept his glasses on it until it vanished in a
cloud of dust on the London road. Then he saw what he sought. Coming
across the downs a mile away was the bent figure of a man who stopped
now and again to look about, as though uncertain as to the direction he
should take. Poltavo, lying flat upon the ground, his glasses fixed upon
the man, waited, watching the slow progress with lazy interest.

He saw an old man, white-bearded and grey-haired, carrying his hat in
his hand as he walked. His rough homespun clothing, his collarless shirt
open at the throat, the plaid scarf around his neck, all these Poltavo
saw through his powerful glasses and was satisfied.

This was not the kind of man to play tricks, he smiled to himself.
Poltavo's precautions had been of an elaborate nature. Three roads led
to the downs, and in positions at equal distances from where he stood he
had placed three cars. He was ready for all emergencies. If he had to
fly, then whichever way of escape was necessary would bring him to a
means of placing a distance between himself and any possible pursuer.

The old man came nearer. Poltavo made a hasty but narrow survey of the
messenger.

"Good," he said.

He walked to meet the old man.

"You have a letter for me?" he inquired.

The other glanced at him suspiciously.

"Name?" he asked gruffly.

"My name," said the smiling Pole, "is Poltavo."

Slowly the messenger groped in his pockets and produced a heavy package.
"You've got to give me something," he said.

Poltavo handed over a sealed packet, receiving in exchange the
messenger's.

Again Poltavo shot a smiling glance at this sturdy old man. Save for the
beard and the grey hair which showed beneath the broad-brimmed,
wide-awake hat, this might have been a young man.

"This is an historic meeting," Poltavo went on gaily. His heart was
light and his spirits as buoyant as ever they had been in his life. All
the prospects which this envelope, now bulging in his pocket, promised,
rose vividly before his eyes.

"Tell me your name, my old friend, that I may carry it with me, and on
some occasion which is not yet, that I may toast your health."

"My name," said the old man, "is T. B. Smith, and I shall take you into
custody on a charge of attempting to extort money by blackmail."

Poltavo sprang back, his face ashen. One hand dived for his
pistol-pocket, but before he could reach it T. B. was at his throat.
That moment the Pole felt two arms gripping him, two steel bands they
seemed, and likely to crush his arms into his very body. Then he went
over with the full weight of the detective upon him, and was momentarily
stunned by the shock. He came to himself rapidly, but not quickly
enough. He was conscious of something cold about his wrists, and a none
too kindly hand dragged him to his feet. T. B. with his white beard all
awry was a comical figure, but Poltavo had no sense of humour at that
moment.

"I think I have you at last, my friend," said T. B. pleasantly. He was
busy removing his disguise and wiping his face clean of the grease
paint, which had been necessary, with a handkerchief which was already
grimy with his exertions.

"You will have some difficulty in proving anything against me," said the
other defiantly; "there is only you and I, and my word is as good as
yours. As to the Duke of Ambury - - "

T. B. laughed, a long chuckling laugh of delight.

"My poor man," he said pityingly, "there is no Duke of Ambury. I
depended somewhat upon your ignorance of English nobility, but I confess
that I did not think you would fall so quickly to the bait. The Dukedom
of Ambury ceased to exist two hundred years ago. It is one of those
titles which have fallen into disuse. Ambury Castle, from which the
letters were addressed to you, is a small suburban villa on the
outskirts of Bolton, the rent of which," he said carefully, "is, I
believe, some forty pounds a year. We English have a greater imagination
than you credit us with, Count," he went on, "and imagination takes no
more common flight than the namings of the small dwellings of our
humble fellow-citizens."

He took his prisoner by the arm and led him across the downs.

"What are you going to do with me?" asked Poltavo.

"I shall first of all take you to Great Bradley police station, and then
I shall convey you to London," said T. B. "I have three warrants for
you, including an extradition warrant issued on behalf of the Russian
Government, but I think they may have to wait a little while before they
obtain any satisfaction for your past misdeeds."

The direction they took led them to Moor Cottage. In a quarter of an
hour a force of police would be on the spot, for T. B. had timed his
arrangements almost to the minute. He opened the door of the cottage and
pushed his prisoner inside.

"We will avoid the study," he smiled; "you probably know our mutual
friend Lady Constance Dex disappeared under somewhat extraordinary
circumstances from that room, and since I have every wish to keep you,
we will take the drawing-room as a temporary prison."

He opened the door of the little room in which the piano was, and
indicated to his captive to sit in one of the deep-seated chairs.

"Now, my friend," said T. B., "we have a chance of mutual
understanding. I do not wish to disguise from you the fact that you are
liable to a very heavy sentence. That you are only an agent I am aware,
but in this particular case you were acting entirely on your own
account. You have made elaborate and thorough preparations for leaving
England."

Poltavo smiled.

"That is true," he said, frankly.

T. B. nodded.

"I have seen your trunks all beautifully new, and imposingly labelled,"
he smiled, "and I have searched them."

Poltavo sat, his elbows on his knees, reflectively smoothing his
moustache with his manacled hands.

"Is there any way I can get out of this?" he asked, after a while.

"You can make things much easier for yourself," replied T. B. quietly.

"In what way?"

"By telling me all you know about Farrington and giving me any
information you can about the Secret House. Where, for instance, is Lady
Constance Dex?"

The other shrugged his shoulders.

"She is alive, I can tell you that. I had a letter from Fall in which he
hinted as much. I do not know how they captured her, or the
circumstances of the case. All I can tell you is that she is perfectly
well and being looked after. You see Farrington had to take her - she
shot at him once - hastened his disappearance in fact, and there was
evidence that she was planning further reprisals. As to the mysteries of
the Secret House," he said, frankly, "I know little or nothing.
Farrington, of course, is - - "

"Montague Fallock," said T. B. quietly. "I know that also."

"Then what else do you want to know?" asked the other, in surprise. "I
am perfectly willing, if you can make it easy for me, to tell you
everything. The man who is known as Moole is a half-witted old farm
labourer who was picked up by Farrington some years ago to serve his
purpose. He is the man who unknowingly poses as a millionaire. It is his
estate which Farrington is supposed to be administering. You see," he
explained, "this rather takes off the suspicion which naturally attaches
to a house which nobody visits, and it gives the inmates a certain
amount of protection."

"That I understand," said T. B.; "it is, as you say, an ingenious
idea - what of Fall?"

Poltavo shrugged his shoulders.

"You know as much of him as I. There are, however, many things which
you may not know," he went on slowly, "and of these there is one which
you would pay a high price to learn. You will never take Farrington."

"May I ask why?" asked T. B. interestedly.

"That is my secret," said the other; "that is the secret I am willing to
sell you."

"And the price?" asked T. B. after a pause.

"The price is my freedom," said the other boldly. "I know you can do
anything with the police. As yet, no charge has been made against me. At
the most, it is merely a question of attempting to obtain money by a
trick - and even so you will have some difficulty in proving that I am
guilty. Yes, I know you will deny this, but I have some knowledge of the
law, Mr. Smith, and I have also some small experience of English juries.
It is not the English law that I am afraid of, and it is not the
sentence which your judges will pass upon me which fills me with
apprehension. I am afraid of my treatment at the hands of the Russian
Government."

He shivered a little.

"It is because I wish to avoid extradition that I make this offer. Put
things right for me, and I will place in your hands, not only the secret
of Farrington's scheme for escape, but also the full list of his agents
through the country. You will find them in no books," he said with a
smile; "my stay in the Secret House was mainly occupied from morning
till night in memorizing those names and those addresses."

T. B. looked at him thoughtfully.

"There is something in what you say," he said. "I must have a moment to
consider your offer."

He heard a noise from the road without and pulled aside the blind. A car
had driven up and was discharging a little knot of plain clothes
Scotland Yard men. Amongst them he recognized Ela.

"I shall take the liberty of locking you in this room for a few moments
whilst I consult my friends," said T. B.

He went out, turned the key in the lock and put it in his pocket.
Outside he met Ela.

"Have you got him?" asked the detective.

T. B. nodded.

"I have taken him," he said; "moreover, I rather fancy I have got the
whole outfit in my hands."

"The Secret House?" asked Ela eagerly.

"Everything," said T. B.; "it all depends upon what we can do with
Poltavo. If we can avoid bringing him before a magistrate, I can smash
this organization. I know it is contrary to the law, but it is in the
interests of the law. How many men have we available?"

"There are a hundred and fifty in the town of Great Bradley itself,"
said Ela calmly; "half of them local constabulary, and half of them our
own men."

"Send a man down to order them to take up a position round the Secret
House, allow nobody to leave it, stop all motor-cars approaching or
departing from the house, and above all things no car is to leave Great
Bradley without its occupants being carefully scrutinized. What's that?"
he turned suddenly.

A sudden muffled scream had broken into the conversation and it had come
from the inside of the cottage.

"Quick!" snapped T. B.

He sprang into the passage of the cottage, reached the door of the room
where he had left his prisoner, slipped the key in the lock with an
unerring hand and flung open the door.

The room was empty.




CHAPTER XIX


Farrington and Dr. Fall were closeted together in the latter's office.
Something had happened, which was responsible for the gloom on the face
of the usually imperturbable doctor, and for the red rage which glowered
in the older man's eyes.

"You are sure of this?" he asked.

"Quite sure," said Dr. Fall briefly; "he is making every preparation to
leave London. His trunks went away from Charing Cross last night for
Paris. He has let his house and collected the rent in advance, and he
has practically sold the furniture. There can be no question whatever
that our friend has betrayed us."

"He would not dare," breathed Farrington.

The veins stood out on his forehead; he was controlling his passionate
temper by a supreme effort.

"I saved this man from beggary, Fall; I took the dog out of the gutter,
and I gave him a chance when he had already forfeited his life. He would
not dare!"

"My experience of criminals of this character," said Dr. Fall calmly,
"is that they will dare anything. You see, he is a particularly
obnoxious specimen of his race; all suaveness, treachery, and
remorseless energy. He would betray you; he would betray his own
brother. Did he not shoot his father - or his alleged father, some years
ago? I asked you not to trust him, Farrington; if I had had my way, he
would never have left this house."

Farrington shook his head.

"It was for the girl's sake I let him go. Yes, yes," he went on, seeing
the look of surprise in the other's face, "it was necessary that I
should have somebody who stood in fear of me, who would further my plans
in that direction. The marriage was necessary."

"You have been, if you will pardon my expressing the opinion," said Dr.
Fall moodily, "just a little bit sentimental, Farrington."

The other turned on him with an oath.

"I want none of your opinions," he said gruffly. "You will never
understand how I feel about this child. I took her from her dead
father, who was one of my best friends, and I confess, that in the early
days the thought of exploiting her fortune did occur to me. But as the
years passed she grew towards me - a new and a beautiful influence in
life, Fall. It was something that I had never had before, a factor which
had never occurred in my stormy career. I grew to love the child, to
love her more than I love money, and that is saying a lot. I wanted to
do the right thing for her, and when my speculations were going wrong
and I had to borrow from her fortune I never had any doubt but what I
should be able to pay it back. When all the money went," - his voice sank
until it was little more than a whisper, - "and I realized that I had
ruined the one human being in the world whom I loved, I took the step
which of all my crimes I have most regretted. I sent George Doughton out
of the way in order that I might scheme to marry Doris to the Tollington
millionaire. For I knew the man we were seeking was Doughton. I killed
him," he said defiantly, "for the sake of his son's wife. Oh, the irony
of it!" He raised his hand with a harsh laugh. "The comedy of it! As to
Poltavo," he went on more calmly, "I let him go because, as I say, I
wanted him to further my object. That he failed, or that he was remiss,
does not affect the argument. Doris is safely married," he mused; "if
she does not love her husband now, she will love him in time. She
respects Frank Doughton, and every day that passes will solidify that
respect. I know Doris, and I know something of her secret thoughts and
her secret wishes. She will forget me," - his voice shook, - "please God
she will forget me."

He changed the subject quickly.

"Have you heard from Poltavo this morning?"

"Nothing at all," said Fall; "he has been communicating with somebody or
other, and the usual letters have been passing. Our man says that he has
a big coup on, but upon that Poltavo has not informed us."

"If I thought he was going to play us false - - "

"What would you do?" asked Fall quietly. "He is out of our hands now."

There was a little buzz in one corner of the room, and Fall turned his
startled gaze upon the other.

"From the signal tower," he said. "I wonder what is wrong."

High above the house was one square solitary tower, in which, day and
night, a watcher was stationed. Fall went to the telephone and took down
the receiver. He spoke a few words and listened, then he hung up the
receiver again and turned to Farrington.

"Poltavo is in Great Bradley," he said; "one of our men has seen him and
signalled to the house."

"In Great Bradley!" Farrington's eyes narrowed. "What is he doing here?"

"What was his car doing here the other day," asked Fall, "when he
kidnapped Frank Doughton? It was here to throw suspicion on us and take
suspicion off himself, the most obvious thing in the world."

Again the buzzer sounded, and again Fall carried on a conversation with
the man on the roof in a low tone.

"Poltavo is on the downs," he said; "he has evidently come to meet
somebody; the look-out says he can see him from the tower through his
glasses, and that there is a man making his way towards him."

"Let us see for ourselves," said Farrington.

They passed out of the room into another, opened what appeared to be a
cupboard door, but which was in reality one of the innumerable elevators
with which the house was furnished, and for the working of which the
great electrical plant was so necessary.

They stepped into the lift, and in a few seconds had reached the
interior of the tower, with its glass-paned observation windows and its
telescopes. One of the foreign workmen, whom Farrington employed, was
carefully scrutinizing the distant downs through a telescope which stood
upon a large tripod.

"There he is," he said.

Farrington looked. There was no mistaking Poltavo, but who the other man
was, an old man doubled with age, his white beard floating in the wind,
Farrington could not say; he could only conjecture.

Dr. Fall, searching the downs with another telescope, was equally in the
dark.

"This is the intermediary," said Farrington at last.

They watched the meeting, saw the exchange of the letters, and
Farrington uttered a curse. Then suddenly he saw the other leap upon
Poltavo and witnessed the brief struggle on the ground. Saw the glitter
of handcuffs and turned with a white face to the doctor.

"My God!" he whispered. "Trapped!"

For the space of a few seconds they looked one at the other.

"Will he betray us?" asked Farrington, voicing the unspoken thoughts of
Fall.

"He will betray us as much as he can," said the other. "We must watch
and see what happens. If he takes him into town, we are lost."

"Is there any sign of police?" asked Farrington.

They scanned the horizon, but there was no evidence of a lurking force,
and they turned to watch T. B. Smith and his prisoner making their slow
way across the downs. For five minutes they stood watching, then Fall
uttered an exclamation.

"They are going to the cottage!" he said, and again the men's eyes met.


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Online LibraryEdgar WallaceThe secret house → online text (page 12 of 14)