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_Gossip's Corner_?" she asked suddenly.

Poltavo had heard of the journal and had found a certain malicious joy
in reading its scandalous paragraphs.

"Well," she said in answer to his nod, "that was Mr. Gorth's idea of
literature. Uncle would never have the paper in his house, but whenever
you saw Mr. Gorth - he invariably waited for uncle in the kitchen - you
would be sure to find him chuckling over some of the horrid things which
that paper published. Uncle used to get more angry about this than
anything else, Mr. Gorth took a delight in all the unpleasant things
which this wretched little paper printed. I have heard it said that he
had something to do with its publication; but when I spoke to uncle
about it, he was rather cross with me for thinking such a thing."

Poltavo was conscious that the eyes of Farrington were searching his
face narrowly, and out of the corner of his eye he noted the obvious
disapproval. He turned round carelessly.

"An admirable sight - a London theatre crowd."

"Very," said the millionaire, drily.

"Celebrities on every hand - Montague Fallock, for instance, is here."

Farrington nodded.

"And that wise-looking young man in the very end seat of the fourth
row - he is in the shadow, but you may see him."

"T. B. Smith," said Farrington, shortly. "I have seen him - I have seen
everybody but - - "

"But - - ?"

"The occupant of the royal box. She keeps in the shadow all the time.
She is not a detective, too, I suppose?" he asked, sarcastically. He
looked round. Frank Doughton, his niece and Lady Dinsmore were engrossed
in conversation.

"Poltavo," he said, dropping his voice, "I want to know who that woman
is in the opposite box - I have a reason."

The orchestra was playing a soft intermezzo, and of a sudden the lights
went down in the house, hushed to silence as the curtain went slowly up
upon the second act.

There was a shifting of chairs to distribute the view, a tense moment of
silence as the chorus came down a rocky defile and then - a white pencil
of flame shot out from the royal box and a sharp crash of a pistol
report.

"My God!" gasped Mr. Farrington, and staggered back.

There was a loud babble of voices, a stentorian voice from the back of
the stalls shouted, "House lights - quick!" The curtain fell as the house
was bathed in the sudden glare of lights.

T. B. saw the flash and leapt for the side aisle: two steps and he was
at the door which led to the royal box. It was empty. He passed quickly
through the retiring room - empty also, but the private entrance giving
on to the street was open and the fog was drifting through in great
wreaths.

He stepped out into the street and blew a shrill whistle. Instantly
from the gloom came a plain clothes policeman - No, he had seen nobody
pass. T. B. went back to the theatre, raced round to the box opposite
and found it in confusion.

"Where is Mr. Farrington?" he asked, quickly.

He addressed his remark to Poltavo.

"He is gone," said the other, with a shrug.

"He was here when the pistol was fired - at this box, my friend, as the
bullet will testify." He pointed to the mark on the enamelled panel
behind. "When the lights came he had gone - that is all."

"He can't have gone," said T. B. shortly. "The theatre is surrounded. I
have a warrant for his arrest."

A cry from the girl stopped him. She was white and shaking.

"Arrest!" she gasped, "on what charge?"

"On a charge of being concerned with one Gorth in burglary at the
Docks - and with an attempted murder."

"Gorth!" cried the girl, vehemently. "If any man is guilty, it is
Gorth - that evil man - - "

"Speak softly of the dead," said T. B. gently. "Mr. Gorth, as I have
every reason to believe, received wounds from which he died. Perhaps you
can enlighten me, Poltavo?"

But the Count could only spread deprecating hands.

T. B. went out into the corridor. There was an emergency exit to the
street, but the door was closed. On the floor he found a glove, on the
door itself the print of a bloody hand.

But there was no sign of Farrington.




CHAPTER VII


Two days later, at the stroke of ten, Frank Doughton sprang from his
taxi in front of the office of the _Evening Times_.

He stood for a moment, drawing in the fresh March air, sweet with the
breath of approaching spring. The fog of last night had vanished,
leaving no trace. He caught the scent of Southern lilacs from an
adjoining florist shop.

He took the stairs three at a time.

"Chief in yet?" he inquired of Jamieson, the news editor, who looked up
in astonishment at his entrance, and then at the clock.

"No, he's not down yet. You've broken your record."

Frank nodded.

"I've got to get away early."

Tossing his hat upon his desk, he sat down and went methodically through
his papers. He unfolded his _Times_, his mind intent upon the problem
of the missing millionaire. He had not seen Doris since that night in
the box. The first paper under his hand was an early edition of a rival
evening journal.

He glanced down at the headlines on the front page, then with a
horrified cry he sprang to his feet. He was pale, and the hand which
gripped the paper shook.

"Good Lord!" he exclaimed.

Jamieson swung round in his swivel chair.

"What's up?" he inquired.

"Farrington!" said Frank, huskily. "Farrington has committed suicide!"

"Yes, we've a column about it," remarked Jamieson, complacently. "A
pretty good story." Then suddenly: "You knew him?" he asked.

Frank Doughton lifted a face from which every vestige of colour had been
drained. "I - I was with him at the theatre on the night he disappeared,"
he said.

Jamieson whistled softly.

Doughton rose hurriedly and reached for his hat.

"I must go to them. Perhaps something can be done. Doris - - " he broke
off, unable to continue, and turned away sharply.

Jamieson looked at him sympathetically.

"Why don't you go round to Brakely Square?" he suggested. "There may be
new developments - possibly a mistake. You note that the body has not
been discovered."

Out upon the pavement, Frank caught a passing taxi.

He drove first to the city offices which were Farrington's headquarters.
A short talk with the chief clerk was more than enlightening. A brief
note in the handwriting of the millionaire announced his intention,
"tired of the world," to depart therefrom.

"But why?" asked the young man, in bewilderment.

"Mr. Doughton, you don't seem to quite realize the importance of this
tragedy," said the chief clerk, quietly. "Mr. Farrington was a financial
king - a multi-millionaire. Or at least, he was so considered up till
this morning. We have examined his private books, and it now appears
that he had speculated heavily during the last few weeks - he has lost
everything, every penny of his own and his ward's fortune. Last night,
in a fit of despair, he ended his life. Even his chief clerk had no
knowledge of his transactions."

Doughton looked at him in a kind of stupefaction. Was it of Farrington
the man was talking such drivel? Farrington, who only the week before
had told him in high gratification that within the last month he had
added a cool million to his ward's marriage portion. Farrington, who
had, but two days ago, hinted mysteriously of a gigantic financial coup
in the near future. And now all that fortune was lost, and the loser was
lying at the bottom of the Thames!

"I think I must be going mad," he muttered. "Mr. Farrington wasn't the
kind to kill himself."

"It is not as yet known to the public, but I think I may tell you, since
you were a friend of Farrington's, that Mr. T. B. Smith has been given
charge of the matter. He will probably wish to know your address. And in
the meantime, if you run across anything - - "

"Certainly! I will let you know. Smith is an able man, of course."
Doughton gave the number of his chambers, and retreated hastily, glad
that the man had questioned him no further.

He found his cab and flung himself wearily against the cushions. And now
for Doris!

But Doris was not visible. Lady Dinsmore met him in the morning room,
her usually serene countenance full of trouble. He took her hand in
silence.

"It is good of you, my dear Frank, to come so quickly. You have heard
all?"

He nodded.

"How is Doris?"

She sank into a chair and shook her head.

"The child is taking it terribly hard! Quite tearless, but with a face
like frozen marble! She refused to believe the news, until she saw his
own writing. Then she fainted."

Lady Dinsmore took out her lace handkerchief and wiped her eyes.

"Doris," she continued, in a moment, "has sent for Count Poltavo."

Frank stared at her.

"Why?" he demanded.

Lady Dinsmore shook her head.

"I cannot say, definitely," she replied, with a sigh. "She is a silent
girl. But I fancy she feels that the Count knows something - she believes
that Gregory met with foul play."

Frank leaned forward.

"My own idea!" he said, quietly.

Lady Dinsmore surveyed him with faint, good-humoured scorn.

"You do not know Gregory," she said, after a pause.

"But - I do not follow you! If it was not murder it must have been
suicide. But why should Mr. Farrington kill himself?"

"I am sure that he had not the slightest idea of doing anything so
unselfish," returned Lady Dinsmore, composedly.

"Then what - - "

"Why are you so absolutely sure that he _is_ dead?" she asked softly.

Frank stared at her in blank amazement.

"What do you mean?" he gasped. Was she mad also?

"Simply that he is no more dead than you or I," she retorted, coolly.
"What evidence have we? A letter, in his own handwriting, telling us
gravely that he has decided to die! Does it sound probable? It is a safe
presumption that that is the farthest thing from his intentions. For
when did Gregory ever tell the truth concerning his movements? No,
depend upon it, he is not dead. For purposes of his own, he is
pretending to be. He has decided to exist - surreptitiously."

"Why should he?" asked the bewildered young man. This was the maddest
theory of all. His head swam with a riot of conflicting impressions. He
seemed to have been hurled headlong into a frightful nightmare, and he
longed to emerge again into the light of the prosaic, everyday world.

The door at the farther end of the room opened. He looked up eagerly,
half expecting to see Farrington himself, smiling upon the threshold.

It was Doris. She stood there for a moment, uncertain, gazing at them
rather strangely. In her white morning dress, slightly crumpled, and her
dark hair arranged in smooth bandeaux, she was amazingly like a child.
The somewhat cold spring sunlight which streamed through the window
showed that the event of the night had already set its mark upon her.
There were faint violet shadows beneath her eyes, and her face was pale.

Frank came forward hastily, everything blotted from his mind but the
sight of her white, grief-stricken face. He took both her hands in his
warm clasp.

The girl gave him a long, searching scrutiny, then her lips quivered,
and with a smothered sob she flung herself into his arms and hid her
face on his shoulder.

Frank held her tenderly. "Don't," he whispered unsteadily - "don't cry,
dear."

In her sorrow, she was inexpressibly sweet and precious to him.

He bent down and smoothed with gentle fingers the soft, dusky hair. The
fragrance of it filled his nostrils. Its softness sent a delicious
ecstasy thrilling from his finger-tips up his arm. All his life he
would remember this one moment. He gazed down at her tenderly, a
wonderful light in his young face.

"Dear!" he whispered again.

She lifted a pallid face to him. Her violet eyes were misty, and tiny
drops of dew were still tangled in her lashes.

"You - you are good to me," she murmured.

At his answering look, a faint colour swept into her cheeks. She gently
disengaged herself and sat down.

Lady Dinsmore came forward, and seating herself beside the girl upon the
divan, drew her close within the shelter of her arms.

"Now, Frank," she said, cheerily, indicating a chair opposite, "sit
down, and let us take counsel together. And first of all," - she pressed
the girl's cold hand - "let me speak my strongest conviction. Gregory is
not dead. Something tells me that he is safe and well."

Doris turned her eyes to the young man wistfully. "You have heard
something - later?" she asked.

He shook his head. "There has been no time for fresh developments yet.
Scotland Yard is in charge of the affair, and T. B. Smith has been put
upon the case."

She shuddered and covered her face with her hands.

"He said he was going to arrest him - how strange and ghastly it all is!"
she whispered. "I - I cannot get it out of my head. The dark river - my
poor uncle - I can see him there - " She broke off.

Lady Dinsmore looked helplessly across to the young man.

It was at that moment that a servant brought a letter.

Lady Dinsmore arched her eyebrows significantly. "Poltavo!" she
murmured.

Doris darted forward and took the letter from the salver. She broke the
seal and tore out the contents, and seemed to comprehend the message at
a glance. A little cry of joy escaped her. Her face, which had been
pale, flushed a rosy hue. She bent to read it again, her lips parted.
Her whole aspect breathed hope and assurance. She folded the note,
slipped it into her bosom, and, without a word, walked from the room.

Frank stared after her, white to the lips with rage and wounded love.

Lady Dinsmore rose briskly to her feet.

"Excuse me. Wait here!" she said, and rustled after her niece.

Frank Doughton paced up and down the room distractedly, momentarily
expecting her reappearance. Only a short half-hour ago, with Doris' head
upon his breast, he had felt supremely happy; now he was plunged into an
abyss of utter wretchedness. What were the contents of that brief note
which had affected her so powerfully? Why should she secrete it with
such care unless it conveyed a lover's assurance? His foot came into
contact with a chair, and he swore under his breath.

The servant, who had entered unobserved, coughed deprecatingly.

"Her ladyship sends her excuses, sir," he said, "and says she will write
you later."

He ushered the young man to the outer door.

Upon the top step Frank halted stiffly. He found himself face to face
with Poltavo.

The Count greeted him gravely.

"A sad business!" he murmured. "You have seen the ladies? How does Miss
Gray bear it? She is well?"

Frank gazed at him darkly.

"Your note recovered her!" he said, quietly.

"Mine!" Surprise was in the Count's voice. "But I have not written. I am
come in person."

Frank's face expressed scornful incredulity. He lifted his hat grimly
and descended the steps, and came into collision with a smiling,
brown-faced man.

"Mr. Smith!" he said, eagerly, "is there any news?"

T. B. looked at him curiously.

"The Thames police have picked up the body of a man bearing upon his
person most of Mr. Farrington's private belongings."

"Then it is true! It is suicide?"

T. B. looked past him.

"If a man cut his own head off before jumping into the river, it was
suicide," he said carefully, "for the body is headless. As for myself, I
have never witnessed such a phenomenon, and I am sceptical."


A train drew into the arrival platform at Waterloo and a tall man
alighted. Nearer at hand he did not appear to be so young as the first
impression suggested. For there was a powdering of grey at each temple
and certain definite lines about his mouth.

His face was tanned brown, and it required no great powers of
observation and deduction to appreciate the fact that he had recently
returned to England after residence in a hot climate.

He stood on the edge of the curb outside the new entrance of the
station, hesitating whether he should take his chance of finding a cab
or whether he should pick up one in the street, for the night was wet
and cold and his train had been full.

Whilst he stood a big taxi came noiselessly to the curb and the driver
touched his cap.

"Thank you," said the man with a smile. "You can drive me to the
Metropole."

He swung the door open and his foot was on the step when a hand touched
him lightly, and he turned to meet the scrutiny of a pair of humorous
grey eyes.

"I think you had better take another cab, Dr. Goldworthy," said the
stranger.

"I am afraid - - " began the doctor.

The driver of the car, after a swift glance at the new-comer, would have
driven off, but an unmistakable detective-officer had jumped on to the
step by his side.

"I am sorry," said T. B. Smith, for he it was who had detained the young
doctor, "but I will explain. Don't bother about the taxi driver; my men
will see after him. You have had a narrow escape of being kidnapped," he
added.

He drove the puzzled doctor to Scotland Yard, and piece by piece he
extracted the story of one George Doughton who had died in his arms, of
a certain box containing papers which the doctor had promised to deliver
to Lady Constance, and of how that lady learnt the news of her sometime
lover's death.

"Thank you," said T. B. when the other had finished. "I think I
understand."




CHAPTER VIII


It was the morning after the recovery of Farrington's body that T. B.
Smith sat in his big study overlooking Brakely Square. He had finished
his frugal breakfast, the tray had been taken away, and he was busy at
his desk when his man-servant announced Lady Constance Dex. T. B. looked
at the card with an expressionless face.

"Show the lady up, George," he said, and rose to meet his visitor as she
came sweeping through the doorway.

A very beautiful woman was his first impression. Whatever hardness there
was in the face, whatever suggestion there might be of those masterful
qualities about which he had heard, there could be no questioning the
rare clearness of the skin, the glories of those hazel eyes, or the
exquisite modelling of the face. He judged her to be on the right side
of thirty, and was not far out, for Lady Constance Dex at that time was
twenty-seven.

She was well, even richly, dressed, but she did not at first give this
impression. T. B. imagined that she might be an authority on dress, and
in this he took an accurate view, for though not exactly a leader of
fashion, Lady Constance had perfect taste in such matters.

He pulled forward a chair to the side of his desk.

"Won't you sit down?" he said.

She gave a brief smile as she seated herself.

"I am afraid you will think I am a bore, disturbing you, Mr. Smith,
especially at this hour of the morning, but I wanted to see you about
the extraordinary happenings of the past few days. I have just come up
to town," she went on; "in fact, I came up the moment I heard the news."

"Mr. Farrington is, or was, a friend of yours?" said T. B.

She nodded.

"He and I have been good friends for many years," she replied, quietly;
"he is an extraordinary man with extraordinary qualities."

"By the way," said T. B., "his niece was staying with you a few nights
ago, was she not?"

Lady Constance Dex inclined her head.

"She came to a ball I was giving, and stayed the night," she said. "I
motored back to Great Bradley after the dance, so that I have not seen
her since I bade her good night. I am going along to see what I can do
for her," she concluded. She had been speaking very deliberately and
calmly, but now it was with an effort that she controlled her voice.

"I understand, Mr. Smith," she said suddenly, "that you have a small
scent bottle which is my property; Mr. Farrington wrote to me about it."

T. B. nodded.

"It was found in the area of Mr. Farrington's house," he said, "on the
night that the two men were killed in Brakely Square."

"What do you suggest?" she asked.

"I suggest that you were at Mr. Farrington's house that night," said T.
B. bluntly. "We are speaking now, Lady Constance, as frankly as it is
possible for man and woman to speak. I suggest that you were in the
house at the time of the shooting, and that when you heard the shots you
doubled back into the house, through the kitchen, and out again by a
back way."

He saw her lips press tighter together, and went on carelessly:

"You see, I was not satisfied with the examination I made that night. I
came again in the early hours of the morning, when the fog had risen a
little, and there was evidence of your retirement plainly to be seen.
The back of the house opens into Brakely Mews, and I find there are four
motor-cars located in the various garages in that interesting
thoroughfare, none of which correspond with the tire tracks which I was
able to pick up. My theory is that you heard the altercation before the
house, that you came out to listen, not to make your escape, and that
when you had satisfied yourself you hurried back to the mews, got into
the car which was waiting for you, and drove off through the fog."

"You are quite a real detective," she drawled. "Can you tell me anything
more?"

"Save that you drove yourself and that the car was a two-seater, with a
self-starting arrangement, I can tell you nothing." She laughed.

"I am afraid you have been all the way to Great Bradley making
inquiries," she mocked him. "Everybody there knows I drive a car, and
everybody who takes the trouble to find out will learn that it is such a
car as you describe."

"But I have not taken that trouble," said T. B. with a smile. "I am
curious to know, Lady Constance, what you were doing in the house at
that time. I do not for one moment suspect that you shot these men;
indeed, I have plenty of evidence that the shots were fired from some
other place than the area."

"Suppose I say," she countered, "that I was giving a party that night,
that I did not leave my house."

"If you said that," he interrupted, "you would be contradicting
something you have already said; namely, that you did leave the house, a
journey in the middle of the night as far as I can gather, and evidently
one which was of considerable moment."

She looked past him out of the window, her face set, her brows knit in a
thoughtful frown.

"I can tell you a lot of things that possibly you do not know," she
said, turning to him suddenly. "I can explain my return to Great Bradley
very simply. There is a friend of mine, or rather a friend of my
friend," she corrected herself, "who has recently returned from West
Africa. I received news that he had gone to Great Bradley to carry a
message from some one who was very dear to me."

There was a little tremor in her voice, and, perfect actress as she
might be, thought T. B., there was little doubt that here she was
speaking the truth.

"It was necessary for me that I should not miss this visitor," said Lady
Constance, quietly, "though I do not wish to make capital out of that
happening."

"I must again interrupt you," said T. B. easily. "The person you are
referring to was Dr. Thomas Goldworthy, who has recently returned from
an expedition organized by the London School of Tropical Medicine, in
Congoland; but your story does not quite tally with the known fact that
Dr. Goldworthy arrived in Great Bradley the night before your party, and
you interviewed him then. He brought with him a wooden box which he had
collected at the Custom House store at the East India Docks. An attempt
was made by two burglars to obtain possession of that box and its
contents, a fact that interested me considerably, since a friend of mine
is engaged upon that somewhat mysterious case of attempted burglary. But
that is confusing the issue. These are the facts." He tapped the table
slowly as he enumerated them. "Dr. Goldworthy brought this box to Great
Bradley, telegraphed to you that he was coming, and you interviewed him.
It was subsequent to the interview that you returned to London for your
party. Really, Lady Constance, your memory is rather bad."

She faced him suddenly resolute, defiant.

"What are you going to do?" she asked. "You do not accuse me of the
murder of your two friends; you cannot even accuse me of the attempt on
Mr. Farrington. You know so much of my history," she went on, speaking
rapidly, "that you may as well know more. Years ago, Mr. Smith, I was
engaged to a man, and we were passionately fond of one another. His name
was George Doughton."

"The explorer," nodded T. B.

"He went abroad," she continued, "suddenly and unexpectedly, breaking
off our engagement for no reason that I could ascertain, and all my
letters to him, all my telegrams, and every effort I made to get in
touch with him during the time he was in Africa were without avail. For


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Online LibraryEdgar WallaceThe secret house → online text (page 4 of 14)