Edgar Wallace.

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"Impossible," said Farrington, but there was a little glint in his eye
which spoke of the hope behind the word.

Again an interval of silence. Three pairs of eyes followed the men.

"It is the cottage!" said Fall. "Quick!"

In an instant the two men were in the lift and shooting downwards; they
did not stop till they reached the basement.

"You have a pistol?" asked Farrington.

Fall nodded. They quitted the lift and walked swiftly along a vaulted
corridor, lighted at intervals with lamps set in niches. On their way
they passed a door made in the solid wall to their left.

"We must get her out of this, if necessary," said Farrington in a low
voice. "She is not giving any trouble?"

Dr. Fall shook his head.

"A most tactful prisoner," he said, dryly.

At the end of the corridor was another door. Fall fitted a key and swung
open the heavy iron portal and the two men passed through to a darkened
chamber. Fall found the switch and illuminated the apartment. It was a
little room innocent of windows, and lit as all the rest of the basement
was by cornice lamps. In one corner was a grey-painted iron door. This
Fall pushed aside on its noiseless runners. There was another elevator
here. The two men stepped in and the lift sunk and sunk until it seemed
as though it would never come to the end. It stopped at last, and the
men stepped out into a rock-hewn gallery.

It was easy to see that this was one of the old disused galleries of the
old mine over which the house was built. Fall found the switch he sought
and instantly the corridor was flooded with bright light.

On a set of rails which ran the whole length of the gallery to a point
which was out of sight from where they stood, was a small trolley. It
was unlike the average trolley in that it was obviously electrically
driven. A third rail supplied the energy, and the controlling levers
were at the driver's hand.

Farrington climbed to the seat, and his companion followed, and with a
whirr of wheels and a splutter of sparks where the motor brush caught
the rail, the little trolley drove forward at full speed.

They slowed at the gentle curves, increased speed again when any
uninterrupted length of gallery gave them encouragement, and after five
minutes' travel Farrington pulled back the lever and applied the brake.
They stepped out into a huge chamber similar to that which they had just
left. There was the inevitable lift set, as it seemed, in the heart of
the rock, though in reality it was a bricked space. The two men entered
and the lift rose noiselessly.

"We will go up slowly," whispered Fall in the other's ear; "it will not
do to make a noise or to arouse any suspicions; we must not forget that
we have T. B. Smith to deal with."

Farrington nodded, and presently the lift stopped of its own accord.
They made no attempt to open whatever door was before them. They could
hear voices: one was T. B.'s, and the other was unmistakably Poltavo's,
and Poltavo was speaking.

Poltavo was offering in his eager way to betray the men who sat in the
darkness listening to his treachery. They heard the motor-car's arrival
outside, and presently T. B.'s voice announcing his temporary
retirement. They heard the slam of the door, and the key click in the
lock, and then Dr. Fall stepped forward, pressed a spring in the rough
woodwork in front of him and one of the panels of the room slid silently
back.

Poltavo did not see his visitors until they stood over him, then he read
in those hateful faces which were turned toward him an unmistakable
forecast of his doom.

"What do you want?" he almost whispered.

"Do not raise your voice," said Farrington in the same tone, "or you are
a dead man." He held the point of a knife at the other's throat.

"To where are you taking me?" asked Poltavo, ghastly white of face and
shaking from head to foot.

"We are taking you to a place where your opportunity for betraying us
will be a mighty small one," said Fall.

There was a horrible smile on his thin lips, and Poltavo, with a
premonition of what awaited him beyond the tunnel, forgot the menacing
knife at his throat and screamed.

Hands gripped him and strangled the cry as it escaped him. Something
heavy struck him behind the ear and he lost consciousness. He awoke to
find himself travelling smoothly along the rock gallery. He was half
lying, half reclining on Fall's knees. He did not attempt to move; he
knew now that he was in mortal peril of his life. No word was spoken
when he was dragged roughly from the car, placed in another elevator and
whirled upwards, emerging into a little chamber at the end of the
underground corridor which ran beneath the Secret House.

A door was opened and he was thrust in without a word. He heard the
clang of the steel door behind him, and the lights came on to show him
that once again he was in the underground room where he had been
confined before.

There was the table, there was the heavy chair, there in the far corner
of the room was the barred entrance to the other elevator. Anyway he was
free from the police; that was something. He was safe just so long as it
suited the book of Farrington and his friend to keep him safe. What
would they do? What excuse could he offer? They had overheard the
conversation between himself and T. B., he knew that, and cursed his
folly. He ought to have kept away from Moor Cottage. He knew there was
something sinister about the place, but T. B. should have known that
even better than he. Why had T. B. left him?

These and a thousand other thoughts shot through his mind as he paced
the vaulted apartment. They were in no hurry to feed him. He had almost
forgotten what time it was; whether it was day or night in that
underground vault into which no ray of sunlight ever penetrated. They
had left him with the handcuffs on his wrists; they would come and
relieve him of these encumbrances. What were their plans with him? He
felt his pockets carefully. T. B. had taken away the only weapon he had
had, and for the first time for many years Count Poltavo was unarmed.

His heart was beating with painful rapidity and his breath came
laboriously. He was terror-stricken. He turned to find the door through
which he had come, and to his surprise he could not see it. So far as he
could detect, the stone wall ran without a break from one end of the
apartment to the other. Escape could not lie that way; of that he was
satisfied. There was nothing to do but to wait, with whatever patience
he could summon, to discover their plans. He did not doubt that he was
to suffer. He had forfeited all right to their confidence, but if this
was to be the only consequence of his ill-doing he was not greatly
worried. Count Poltavo, as he had boasted before in this identical room,
had been in some tight corners and had faced death in many strange and
terrible guises, but the inevitability of doom was never so impressed
upon his mind as it was at this moment when he lay guarded by a hundred
secret forces in the tomb of the Secret House.

He had one hope, a faint one, that T. B. would discover the method of
his exit from the room in Moor Cottage and would track him here.

Evidently the occupants of the Secret House had the same fear, for even
here, in the quietness of his underground prison, Poltavo could hear
strange whining noises, rumbling, and groaning and grinding, as though
the whole of the house were changing its construction.

He had not long to wait for news. A corner lift came swiftly down and
Fall stepped briskly towards his prisoner.

"T. B. Smith is in the house," he said, "and is making an inspection; he
will be down here in a moment. In these circumstances I shall have to
betray one of the secrets of this house." He caught the other roughly by
the arm and half led, half dragged, him to a corner of the room.
Handcuffed as he was, Poltavo could offer no resistance. Dr. Fall
apparently only touched one portion of the wall, but he must have moved,
either with his foot or with his hand, some particularly powerful
spring, for a section of the stone wall swung backwards revealing a
black gap.

"Get in there," said Fall, and pushed him into the darkness.

A few moments later T. B. Smith, accompanied by three detectives,
inspected the room which Poltavo had left. There was no sign of the man,
no evidence of his having so recently been an occupant of his prison
house. For an interminable time Poltavo stood in the darkness. He found
he was in a small cell-like apartment with apparently no outlet save
that through which he had come.

He was able to breathe without difficulty, for the perfect system of
ventilation throughout the dungeons of the Secret House had been its
architect's greatest triumph.

It seemed hours that he waited there, though in reality it was less than
twenty minutes after his entrance that the door swung open again and he
was called out.

Farrington was in the room now, Farrington with his trusty lieutenant,
and behind them the one-eyed Italian desperado whom Poltavo remembered
seeing in the power house one day, when he had been allowed the
privilege of inspection.

Some slight change had been made in the room since he was there last.
Poltavo's nerves were in such a condition that he was sensitive to this
variation. He saw now what the change was. The table had been drawn back
leaving the chair where it was fixed.

Yes, it was a fixed chair, he remembered that and wondered why it had
been screwed to the wood block floor. Dr. Fall and the engineer grasped
him roughly and hurried him across the room, thrusting him into the
chair.

"What are you going to do?" asked Poltavo, white as death.

"That you shall see."

Deftly they strapped him to the chair; his wrists and elbows were
securely fastened to the arms, and his ankles to the legs of the massive
piece of furniture.

From where he sat Poltavo confronted Farrington, but the big man's
mask-like face did not move, nor his eyes waver as he surveyed his
treacherous prisoner. Then Fall knelt down and did something, and
Poltavo heard the ripping and tearing of cloth.

They were slitting up each trouser leg, and he could not understand why.

"Is this a joke?" he asked with a desperate attempt at airiness.

No reply was made. Poltavo watched his captors curiously. What was the
object of it all? The two men busy at the chair lifted a number of
curious-looking objects from the floor; they clamped one on each wrist,
and he felt the cold surface of some instrument pressing against each
calf. Still he did not realize the danger, or the grim determination of
these men whose secret he would have betrayed.

"Mr. Farrington," he appealed to the big man, "let us have an
understanding. I have played my game and lost."

"You have indeed," said Farrington.

They were the first words he had spoken.

"Give me enough to get out of the country," Poltavo appealed, "just the
money that I have in my pocket, and I promise you that I will never
trouble you again."

"My friend," said Farrington, "I have trusted you too long. You forced
yourself upon me when I did not desire you, you thwarted me at every
turn, you betrayed me whenever it was possible to betray me, or whenever
it was to your advantage to do so, and I am determined that you shall
have no other chance of doing me an injury."

"What is this foolery?" asked Poltavo, in a mixture of blind fear and
rage. They had unlocked the handcuffs and taken them off him, and now
for the first time Poltavo noticed that the curious bronze clamps on his
wrists were attached by thick green cords to a plug in the wall.

He shrieked aloud as he saw this, and the full horror of the situation
flashed upon him.

"My God," he screamed, "you are not going to kill me?"

Farrington nodded slowly.

"We are going to kill you painlessly, Poltavo," he said. "It was your
life or ours. We do not desire to cause you unnecessary suffering, but
here is the end of the adventure for you, my friend."

"You are not going to electrocute me?" croaked the man in the chair, in
a hoarse cracked voice. "Don't say that you are going to electrocute me,
Farrington! It is diabolical, it is terrible. Give me a chance of life!
Give me a pistol, give me a knife, but fight me fair. Treat me as you
will; hand me to the police, anything but this; for God's sake,
Farrington, don't do this!"

The doctor reached down and lifted a leather helmet from the floor and
placed it gently over the doomed man's head.

"Don't do it, Farrington." Poltavo's muffled voice came painfully from
behind the leather screen. "Don't! I swear I will not betray you."

Farrington made a little signal and the doctor walked to the wall and
placed his hand upon a black switch.

"I will not betray you," said the man in the chair in hollow tones.
"Give me a chance. I will not tell them anything that you - - "

He did not speak again, for the black switch had been pressed down and
death came with merciful swiftness.

They stood watching the figure. A slight quivering of the hands and then
Farrington nodded and the doctor turned the switch over again.

Rapidly they unfastened the straps, and the limp thing which was once
human, with a brain to think and a capacity for life and love, slipped
out of the chair in an inanimate heap upon the ground.

So passed Ernesto Poltavo, an adventurer and a villain, in the prime of
his life.

Farrington looked down upon the body with sombre eyes and shrugged his
shoulders.

He had opened his mouth to speak and Fall had walked to the switchboard
and was about to put the deadly apparatus out of gear, when a sharp
voice made them both turn.

"Hands up!" it said.

The stone door, through which Poltavo had passed to his doom from the
corridor without, was wide open, and in the doorway stood T. B. and a
little behind him Ela, and in T. B.'s hand was a pistol.




CHAPTER XX


T. B. Smith's inspection of the Secret House had yielded nothing
satisfactory; he had not expected that it would; he was perfectly
satisfied that the keen, shrewd brains which dominated the menage would
remove any trace there was of foul play.

"Where now?" asked Ela, as they turned out of the house.

"Back to Moor Cottage," said T. B., climbing into the car. "I am certain
that we are on the verge of our big discovery. There is a way out of the
cottage by some underground chamber, a way by which first Lady Constance
and then Poltavo were smuggled, and if it is necessary I am going to
smash every panel in those two ground floor rooms, but I will find the
way in to Mr. Farrington's mystery house."

For half an hour the two men were engaged in the room from which
Poltavo had been taken. They probed with centre bits and gimlets into
every portion of the room.

The first discovery that they made was that the oaken panels of the
chamber were backed with sheet iron or steel.

"It is a hopeless job; we shall have to get another kind of smith here
to tear down all the panellings," said T. B., lighting the gloom of his
despair with a little flash of humour.

He fingered the tiny locket absently and opened it again.

"It is absurd," he laughed helplessly. "Here is the solution in these
simple words, and yet we brainy folk from the Yard cannot understand
them!"

"God sav the Keng!" said Ela ruefully. "I wonder how on earth that is
going to help us."

A gasp from T. B. made him turn his face to his chief.

T. B. Smith was pointing at the piano. In two strides he was across the
room, and sitting on the stool he lifted the cover and struck a chord.
The instrument sounded a little flat and apparently had not received the
attention of a tuner for some time.

"I am going to play 'God save the King,'" said T. B. with a light in
his eyes, "and I think something is going to happen."

Slowly he pounded forth the familiar tune; from beginning to end he
played it, and when he had finished he looked at Ela.

"Try it in another key," suggested Ela, and again T. B. played the
anthem. He was nearing the last few bars when there was a click and he
leapt up. One long panel had disappeared from the side of the wall. For
a moment the two men looked at one another. They were alone in the
house, although a policeman was within call. The main force was gathered
in the vicinity of the Secret House.

T. B. flashed the light of his indispensable and inseparable little
electric lamp into the dark interior.

"I will go in first and see what happens," he said.

"I think we will both go together," said Ela grimly.

"There is a switch here," said T. B.

He pulled it down and a small lamp glowed, illuminating a tiny lift
cage.

"And here I presume are the necessary controlling buttons," said T. B.,
pointing to a number of white discs; "we will try this one."

He pressed the button and instantly the cage began to fall. It came to
a standstill after a while and the men stepped out.

"Part of the old working," said T. B.; "a very ingenious idea."

He flashed his lamp over the walls to find the electrical connection.
They were here, as they were at the other end, perfectly accessible. An
instant later the long corridor was lighted up.

"By heavens," said T. B. admiringly, "they have even got an underground
tramway; look here!"

At this tiny terminus there were two branches of rails and a car was in
waiting. A few minutes later T. B. Smith had reached the other end of
the mine gallery and was seeking the second elevator.

"Here we are," he said - "everything run by electricity. I thought that
power house of Farrington's had a pretty stiff job, and now I see how
heavy is the load which it has to carry. Step carefully into this," he
continued, "and make a careful note of the way we are going. I think we
must be about a hundred feet below the level of the earth; just gauge it
roughly as we go up. Here we go."

He pressed a button and up went the lift. They passed out of the little
mine chamber, carefully propping back the swing door, and made their
way along the corridor.

"This looks like an apartment," said T. B., as he stopped before a
red-painted steel door in one of the walls. He pressed it gently, but it
did not yield. He made a further examination, but there was no keyhole
visible.

"This is either worked by a hidden spring or it does not work at all,"
he said in a low voice.

"If it is a spring," said Ela, "I will find it."

His sensitive hands went up and down the surface of the door and
presently they stopped.

"There is something which is little larger than a pin hole," he said. He
took from his pocket a general utility knife and slipped out a thin
steel needle. "Pipe cleaners may be very useful," he said, and pressed
the long slender bodkin into the aperture. Instantly, and without sound,
the door opened.

T. B. was the first to go in, revolver in hand. He found himself in a
room which, even if it were a prison, was a well-disguised prison. The
walls were hung with costly tapestry, the carpet under foot was thick
and velvety and the furniture which garnished the room was of a most
costly and luxurious description.

"Lady Constance!" gasped T. B. in surprise.

A woman who was sitting in a chair near the reading lamp rose quickly
and turned her startled gaze to the detective.

"Mr. Smith," she said, and ran towards him. "Oh, thank God you have
come!"

She grasped him by his two arms; she was half hysterical in that moment
of her release, and was babbling an incoherent string of words; a
description of her capture - her fear - her gratitude - all in an
inextricably confused rush of half completed phrases.

"Sit down, Lady Constance," said T. B. gently; "collect yourself and try
to remember - have you seen Poltavo?"

"Poltavo?" she said, startled into coherence. "No, is he here?"

"He is somewhere here," said T. B. "I am seeking for him now. Will you
stay here or will you come with us?"

"I would rather come with you," she said with a shiver.

They passed through the door together.

"Do all these doors open upon rooms similar to this?" asked T. B.

"I believe there are a number of underground cells," she answered in a
whisper, "but the principal one is that which is near." She pointed to
a red-painted door some twenty paces away from the one from which they
were emerging. There was another pause whilst Ela repeated his
examination of the door.

Apparently they all worked on the pick system, a method which medieval
conspirators favoured, and which the Italian workmen probably imported
from the land of their birth; a land which has given the world the
Borgias and the Medicis and the Visconti.

"Stay here," said T. B. in a low voice, and Lady Constance shrank back
against the wall.

Ela pressed in his little needle and again the result was satisfactory.
The door opened slowly and T. B. stepped in.

He stood for a moment trying to understand all that the terrible scene
signified. The limp body on the floor; the two remorseless men standing
close by; Farrington with folded arms and his eye glowering down upon
the dead man at his feet. Fall at the switchboard.

Then T. B.'s revolver rose swiftly.

"Hands up!" he said.

The words were hardly out of his mouth when the room was plunged in
darkness, his companion was flung violently backward as the electrical
control came into operation and the door slammed in Ela's face. He
pressed it without avail. He brought to his aid the little needle, but
this time the lock would not move.

Ela's face went chalk white.

"My God!" he gasped, "they've got T. B.!"

He stood for a moment in indecision. He had visualized the scene and
knew what fate would befall his chief.

"Back to the gallery," he said harshly, and led the way, holding the
woman's arm in support. He found his way without difficulty to the lift,
sprang into it, after Lady Constance, and pressed the button.... Now
they were speeding along the sparking rail ... now they were in the lift
rising swiftly to the room in Moor Cottage. T. B.'s car was outside.

"You had better come with me," said Ela quickly.

Lady Constance jumped into the car after him.

"To the Secret House," said Ela to the chauffeur, and as the car drove
forward he turned to the woman at his side.

"I will put you amongst your friends in a few moments," he said; "at
present I dare not risk the loss of a second."

"But what will they do?"

"I pretty well know what they will do," said Ela grimly. "Farrington is
playing his last hand, and T. B. Smith is to be his last victim."


In the darkness of the underground chamber T. B. faced his enemies,
striving to pierce the gloom, his finger in position upon the delicate
trigger of his automatic pistol.

"Do not move," he said softly; "I will shoot without any hesitation."

"There is no need to shoot," said the suave voice of the doctor; "the
lights went out, quite by accident, I assure you, and you and your
friends have no need to fear."

T. B. groped his way along the wall, his revolver extended. In the gloom
he felt rather than saw the bulky figure of the doctor and reached out
his hand gingerly.

Then something touched the outstretched palm, something that in ordinary
circumstances might have felt like the rough points of a bass broom. T.
B. was flung violently backwards and fell heavily to the ground.

"Get him into the chair quick," he heard Farrington's voice say. "That
was a good idea of yours, doctor."

"Just a sprayed wire," said Dr. Fall complacently; "it is a pretty
useful check upon a man. You took a wonderful assistant when you pressed
electricity to your aid, Farrington."

The lights were all on now, and T. B. was being strapped to the chair.
He had recovered from the shock, but he had recovered too late. In the
interval of his unconsciousness the body of Poltavo had been removed out
of his sight. They were doing to him all that they had done to Poltavo.
He felt the electrodes at his calf and on his wrists and clenched his
teeth, for he knew in what desperate strait he was.

"Well, Mr. Smith," said Farrington pleasantly, "I am afraid you have got
yourself into rather a mess. Where is the other man?" he asked quickly.
He looked at Fall, and the doctor returned his gaze.

"I forgot the other man," said Fall slowly; "in the corridor outside."
He went to the invisible door and it opened at his touch. He was out of
the room a few minutes, and returned looking old and drawn.

"He has got away," he said; "the woman has gone too."

Farrington nodded.

"What does he matter?" he asked roughly; "they know as much as they are
likely to know. Put the control on the door."


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Online LibraryEdgar WallaceThe secret house → online text (page 13 of 14)