Edgar Wallace.

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that high-spirited man, went straight off to Africa without
communicating with the lady or discovering how far she was guilty in the
matter. The documents in the box would, I surmise, prove this to Lady
Dex's satisfaction, and Farrington, who was well informed through his
agents on the Coast, would have every reason for preventing these
letters getting into the hands of a woman who would be remorseless in
her vengeance."

"Is that fact established?" asked the chief.

"Pretty well," said T. B.

He took some papers out of his pocket and laid them on the desk before
him.

"I have now got a copy of the letter which the dead lover wrote to Lady
Constance. I need not say," he said lightly, "how I obtained possession
of this, but we in our department do not hesitate to adopt the most
drastic methods - - "

"I know all about that," said the chief, with a little smile; "there was
burglary at the rectory two days ago, and I presume your interesting
burglar was your own Private Sikes."

"Exactly," said T. B. cheerfully. "Fact number two," he went on, "is
that Gregory Farrington and the international blackmailer named Montague
Fallock are one and the same person."

The chief looked up.

"You do not mean that?"

"I do indeed," said T. B. "That interesting paragraph in the will of the
late Mr. Farrington confirms this view. The will was especially prepared
to put me off the scent. Letters which have been received by eminent
personages signed 'Montague Fallock' and demanding, as usual, money with
threats of exposure have recently been received and confirm this
theory."

"Where is Montague Fallock now?"

"Montague Fallock is an inmate of the Secret House," said T. B.

"It seems pretty easy to take him, does it not?" asked Sir George, in
surprise. "Have you moved in the matter?"

T. B. shook his head.

"It is not so easy as you imagine," he said. "The Secret House contains
more secrets than we can at present unravel. It was built, evidently and
obviously, by a man of extraordinary mechanical genius as Farrington
was, and the primary object with which it was built was to enable him on
some future occasion to make his escape. I am perfectly certain that any
attempt to raid the house would result immediately in the bird flying.
We have got to wait patiently."

"What I cannot understand," said his chief, after awhile, "is why he
should make a dramatic exit from the world."

"That is the easiest of all to explain," smiled T. B. "He was scared; he
knew that I identified him with the missing Fallock; he knew, too, that
I strongly suspected him of the murder of the two men in Brakely Square.
Don't you see the whole thing fits together? He imported from various
places on the Continent, and at various periods, workmen of every kind
to complete the house at Great Bradley. Although he began his work
thirty years ago, the actual finishing touches have not been made until
within the last few years. Those finishing touches were the most
essential. I have discovered that the two men who were shot in Brakely
Square, were separately and individually employed in making certain
alterations to the house and installing certain machinery.

"One was a young architect, the other was a general utility man. They
were unknown to each other; each did his separate piece of work and was
sent back to his native land. By some mischance they succeeded in
discovering who their employer was, and they both arrived, unfortunately
for them, simultaneously at the door of Fallock or Farrington's house
with the object of blackmailing him. Farrington overheard the
conversation; he admitted as much.

"He stood at the door, saw them flourishing their pistols and thought it
was an excellent opportunity to rid himself of a very serious danger. He
shot them from the doorway, closed the doorway behind him, and returned
the revolver to its drawer in his study, and came down in time to meet
the policeman with energetic protestations of his terror. I smelt the
powder when I went into the house; there is no mistaking the smell of
cordite fired in so confined a place as the hallway of a house. And
Lady Dex was also there; she must have witnessed the shooting."

"Why did she come?" asked the chief.

"My conjecture is that she came either to confront Farrington with
evidence of his complicity, which is unlikely, or else to secure
confirmation of the story her lover told in his last letter."

"But why shouldn't Farrington disappear in an ordinary way - or why need
he disappear at all?" asked Sir George. "He had plenty of credit in the
city. He had the handling of his niece's fortune. He could have blocked
out your suspicion; he is not the kind of man to be scared of a little
thing like that."

"That is where I am at sea," said T. B. "I must confess his
disappearance is not consistent with his known character. He certainly
had the fortune of the girl, and I have no doubt in my mind that he has
a very genuine affection for his niece. Her inheritance, by the way,
falls due next month; I do not suppose that had anything to do with it.
If he had robbed her of it, or he had dissipated this money which was
left in his care, one could have understood it, but the fact that he is
dead will not restore the fortune if it is gone."

"What are you doing?" asked the chief.

"About Farrington?" asked T. B. "I am having the house kept under
observation, and I am taking whatever precautions I can to prevent our
friend from being scared. I am even attempting to lure him into the
open. Once I can catch him outside of the Secret House, I think he will
be a clever man to escape."

"And Poltavo?"

"He is in town," said T. B. "I think he will be a fairly easy man to
circumvent; he is obviously acting now as the agent of our friend
Farrington, and he is horribly proud of himself!"




CHAPTER XIV


As T. B. had said, Poltavo had returned from his brief sojourn in Great
Bradley, and emerged into society a new and more radiant being than ever
he had been before.

There had always been some doubt as to the Count's exact financial
position, and cautious hostesses had hesitated before they had invited
this plausible and polished man to their social functions. There were
whispers adverse as to his standing; there were even bold people who
called into question his right to employ the title which graced his
visiting cards. There were half a dozen Poltavos in the _Almanack De
Gotha_, any one of whom might have been Ernesto, for so vague is the
Polish hierarchy that it was impossible to fix him to any particular
family, and he himself answered careless inquiries with a cryptic smile
which might have meant anything.

But with his return to London, after his brief absence, there was no
excuse for any hostess, even the most sceptical, in refusing to admit
him to social equality on the ground of poverty. The very day he
returned he acquired the lease of a house in Burlington Gardens,
purchased two motor-cars, paying cash down for an early delivery, gave
orders left and right for the enrichment of his person and his domicile,
and in forty-eight hours had established himself in a certain mode of
living which suggested that he had never known any other.

He had had his lesson and had profited thereby. He had experienced an
unpleasant fright, though he might not admit it to Dr. Fall and his
master; it was nevertheless a fact that, realizing as he did that he had
stood face to face with a particularly unpleasant death, he had been
seized by a panic which had destroyed his ordinary equilibrium.

"You may trust me, my friend," he muttered to himself, as he sorted over
the papers on his brand-new desk in his brand-new study, in a house
which was still redolent of the painter's art and presence. "You may
trust me just so long as I find it convenient for you to trust me, but
you may be sure that never again will I give you the benefit of my
presence in the Secret House."

He had come back with a large sum of money to carry out his employer's
plans. There were a hundred agents through the country, particulars of
whom Poltavo now had in his possession. Innocent agents, and guilty
agents; agents in high places and active agents in the servants' hall.
Undoubtedly _Gossip's Corner_ was a useful institution.

Farrington had not made a great deal of money from its sale; indeed, as
often as not, it showed a dead loss every year. But he paid well for
contributions which were sent to him, and offered a price, which
exceeded the standard rate of pay, for such paragraphs as were
acceptable.

Men and women, with a malicious desire to score off some enemy, would
send him items which the newspapers would publish if they concerned
somebody who might not be bled. Many of these facts in an amended form
were, in fact, printed.

But more often than not the paragraphs and articles which came to the
unknown editor dealt with scandal which it was impossible to put into
print. Nevertheless, the informant would be rewarded. In some far-away
country home a treacherous servant would receive postal orders to his or
her great delight, but the news she or he had sent in their malice, a
tit-bit concerning some poor erring woman or some foolish man, would
never see the light of day, and the contributor might look in vain for
the spicy paragraph which had been composed with such labour.

The unfortunate subjects of domestic treachery would receive in a day or
two a letter from the mysterious Montague Fallock, retailing, to their
horror, those precious secrets which they had imagined none knew but
themselves. They would not associate the gossipy little rag, which
sometimes found its way to the servants' hall, with the magnificent
demand of this prince of blackmailers, and more often than not they
would pay to the utmost of their ability to avoid exposure.

It was not only the servants' hall which supplied Montague Fallock with
all the material for his dastardly work. There were men scarcely
deserving the name, and women lost to all sense of honour, who found in
this little journal means by which they could "come back" at those
favoured people who had offered them directly or indirectly some slight
offence. Sometimes the communication would reach the _Gossip_
anonymously, but if the facts retailed were sufficiently promising, one
of Fallock's investigators would be told off to discover how much truth
there was in it. A bland letter would follow, and the wretched victim
would emerge from the transaction the poorer in pocket and often in
health.

For this remorseless and ruthless man destroyed more than fortunes; he
trafficked in human lives. There had been half a dozen mysterious
suicides which had been investigated by Scotland Yard, and found
directly traceable to letters received in the morning, and burnt by the
despairing victim before his untimely and violent departure from life.

The office of the paper was situated at the top of a building in Fleet
Street; one back room comprised the whole of its editorial space, and
one dour man its entire staff. It was his duty to receive the
correspondence as it came and to convey it to the cloakroom of a London
station. An hour later it would be called for by a messenger and
transferred to another cloakroom. Eventually it would arrive in the
possession of the man who was responsible for the contents of the paper.
Many of these letters contained contributions in the ordinary way of
business, a story or two contributed by a more or less well-known
writer. Fallock, or Farrington, needed these outside contributions, not
only to give the newspaper a verisimilitude of genuineness, but also to
fill the columns of the journal.

He himself devoted his energies to two pages of shrewdly edited tit-bits
of information about the great. They were carefully written, often
devoid of any reference to the person whom they affected, and were more
or less innocuous. But in every batch of letters there were always one
or two which gave the master blackmailer an opportunity for extracting
money from people, who had been betrayed by servants or friends. There
was a standing offer in the _Gossip_ of five guineas for any paragraph
which might be useful to the editor, and it is a commentary upon the
morality of human nature that there were times when Farrington paid out
nearly a thousand pounds a week for the information which his
unscrupulous contributors gave him.

There was work here for Poltavo; he was an accomplished scholar, and a
shrewd man of affairs. If Farrington had been forced to accept his
service, having accepted them, he could do no less than admit the wisdom
of his choice. In his big study, with the door locked, Poltavo carefully
sorted the correspondence, thinking the while.

If he played his cards well he knew his future was assured. The
consequence of his present employment, the misery it might bring to the
innocent and to the foolishly guilty alike, did not greatly trouble him;
he was perfectly satisfied with his own position in the matter. He had
found a means of livelihood, which offered enormous rewards and the
minimum of risk. In his brief stay at the Secret House, Farrington had
impressed upon him the necessity for respecting trifles.

"If you can make five shillings out of a working man," was his dictum,
"make it. We cannot afford to despise the smallest amount," and in
consequence Poltavo was paying as much attention to the ill-written and
illiterate scrawls which came from the East End of London, as he was to
the equally illiterate efforts of the under-butler, describing an error
of his master's in a northern ducal seat. Poltavo went through the
letters systematically, putting this epistle to the right, and that to
the left; this to make food for the newspaper; that, as a subject for
further operations. Presently he stopped and looked up at the ceiling.

"So she must marry Frank Doughton within a week," he said to himself in
wonder.

Yes, Farrington had insisted upon carrying out his plans, knowing the
power he held, and he, Poltavo, had accepted the ultimatum in all
meekness of spirit.

"I must be losing my nerve," he muttered. "Married in a week! Am I to
give her up, this gracious, beautiful girl - with her future, or without
her fortune?"

He smiled, and it was not a pleasant smile to see. "No, my friend, I
think you have gone a little too far. You depended too much upon my
acquiescence. Ernesto, _mon ami_, you have to do some quick thinking
between now and next Monday."

A telephone buzzed at his elbow, and he took it off and listened.

"Yes?" he asked, and then he recognized the speaker's voice, and his
voice went soft and caressing, for it was the voice of Doris Gray that
he heard.

"Can you see me to-morrow?" she asked.

"I can see you to-day, my lady, at once, if you wish it," he said,
lightly.

There was a little hesitation at the other end of the wire.

"If you could, I should feel glad," she said. "I am rather troubled."

"Not seriously, I hope?" he asked, anxiously.

"I have had a letter from some one," she said, meaningly.

"I think I understand," he replied; "some one wishes you to do a thing
which is a repugnant to you."

"I cannot say that," she said, and there was despair in her voice; "all
I know is that I am bewildered by the turn events have taken. Do you
know the contents of the letter?"

"I know," he said, gently; "it was my misfortune to be the bearer of the
communication."

"What do you think?" she asked, after a while.

"You know what I think," he said, passionately. "Can you expect me to
agree to this?"

The intensity of his voice frightened her, and she rapidly strove to
bring him down to a condition of normality.

"Come to-morrow," she said, hastily. "I would like to talk it over with
you."

"I will come at once," he said.

"Perhaps you had better not," she hesitated.

"I am coming at once," he said, firmly, and hung up the receiver.

In that moment of resentment against the tyranny of his employer, he
forgot all the dangers which the Secret House threatened; all its swift
and wicked vengeance. He only knew, with the instinct of a beast of prey
who saw its quarry stolen under its very eyes, the loss which this man
was inflicting upon him. Five minutes later he was in Brakely Square
with the girl. She was pale and worried; there were dark circles round
her eyes which spoke eloquently of a sleepless night.

"I do not know what to do," she said. "I am very fond of Frank. I can
speak to you, can I not, Count Poltavo?"

"You may confide in me absolutely," he said, gravely.

"And yet I am not so fond of him," she went on, "that I can marry him
yet."

"Then why do you?" he asked.

"How can I disobey this?" She held the letter out.

He took it from her hand with a little smile, walked to the fireplace
and dropped it gently upon the glowing coals.

"I am afraid you are not carrying out instructions," he said, playfully.

There was something in this action which chilled her; he was thinking
more of his safety and his duty to Farrington than he was of her, she
thought: a curiously inconsistent view to take in all the circumstances,
but it was one which had an effect upon her after actions.

"Now listen to me," he said, with his kindly smile; "you have not to
trouble about this; you are to go your own way and allow me to make it
right with Farrington. He is a very headstrong and ambitious man, and
there is some reason perhaps why he should want you to marry Doughton,
but as to that I will gain a little more information. In the meantime
you are to dismiss the matter from your mind, leaving everything to me."

She shook her head.

"I am afraid I cannot do that," she said. "Unless I have a letter from
my guardian expressing wishes to the contrary, I must carry out his
desires. It is dreadful - dreadful," - she wrung her hands
piteously, - "that I should be placed in this wretched position. How can
I help him by marrying Frank Doughton? How can I save him - can you tell
me?"

He shook his head.

"Have you communicated with Mr. Doughton?"

She nodded.

"I sent him a letter," she hesitated. "I have kept a draft of it; would
you like to see it?"

A little shade of bitter anger swept across his face, but with an effort
he mastered himself.

"I should," he said, evenly.

She handed the sheet of paper to him.

"DEAR FRANK," it ran, "for some reason which I cannot explain to you, it
is necessary that the marriage which my uncle desired should take place
within the next week. You know my feelings towards you; that I do not
love you, and that if it were left to my own wishes this marriage would
not take place, but for a reason which I cannot at the moment give you I
must act contrary to my own wishes. This is not a gracious nor an easy
thing to say to you, but I know you well enough, with your large,
generous heart and your kindly nature, to realize that you will
understand something of the turmoil of feelings which at present
dominate my heart."

Poltavo finished reading, and put the letter back on the table; he
walked up and down the room without saying a word, then he turned on her
suddenly.

"Madonna!" he said, in the liquid Southern accents of his - he had spent
his early life in Italy and the address came naturally to him - "if Frank
Doughton were I, would you hesitate?"

A look of alarm came into the girl's eyes; he saw then his mistake. He
had confounded her response to his sympathy with a deeper feeling which
she did not possess. In that one glimpse he saw more than she knew
herself, that of the two Frank was the preferable. He raised his hand
and arrested her stammering speech.

"There is no need to tell me," he smiled; "perhaps some day you will
realize that the love Count Poltavo offered you was the greatest
compliment that has ever been paid to you, for you have inspired the one
passion of my life which is without baseness and without ulterior
motives."

He said this in a tremulous voice, and possibly he believed it. He had
said as much before to women whom he had long since forgotten, but who
carried the memory of his wicked face to their graves.

"Now," he said, briskly, "we must wait for Mr. Doughton's answer."

"He has already answered," she said; "he telephoned me."

He smiled.

"How typically English, almost American, in his hustle; and when is the
happy event to take place?" he bantered.

"Oh, please, don't, don't," - she raised her hands and covered her
face, - "I hardly know that, even now, I have the strength to carry out
my uncle's wishes."

"But when?" he asked, more soberly.

"In three days. Frank is getting a special licence; we are - - " She
hesitated, and he waited.

"We are going to Paris," she said, with a pink flush in her face, "but
Frank wishes that we shall live" - she stopped again, and then went on
almost defiantly - "that we shall live apart, although we shall not be
able to preserve that fact a secret."

He nodded.

"I understand," he said; "therein Mr. Doughton shows an innate delicacy,
which I greatly appreciate."

Again that little sense of resentment swept through her; the patronage
in his tone, the indefinable suggestion of possession was, she thought,
uncalled for. That he should approve of Frank in that possessive manner
was not far removed from an impertinence.

"Have you thought?" he asked, after a while, "what would happen if you
did not marry Frank Doughton in accordance with your uncle's
wishes - what terrible calamity would fall upon your uncle?"

She shook her head.

"I do not know," she said, frankly. "I am only beginning to get a dim
idea of Mr. Farrington's real character. I always thought he was a
kindly and considerate man; now I know him to be - - " She stopped, and
Poltavo supplied her deficiency of speech.

"You know him to be a criminal," he smiled, "a man who has for years
been playing upon the fears and the credulity of his fellow-creatures.
That must have been a shocking discovery, Miss Gray, but at least you
will acquit him of having stolen your fortune."

"It is all very terrible," she said; "somehow every day brings it to me.
My aunt, Lady Dinsmore, was right."

"Lady Dinsmore is always right," he said, lightly; "it is one of the
privileges of her age and position. But in what respect was she right?"

The girl shook her head.

"I do not think it is loyal of me to tell you, but I must. She always
thought Mr. Farrington was engaged in some shady business and has warned
me time after time."

"An admirable woman," said Poltavo, with a sneer.

"In three days," he went on, thoughtfully. "Well, much may happen in
three days. I must confess that I am anxious to know what would be the
result of this marriage not taking place."

He did not wait for an expression of her views, but with a curt little
bow he ushered himself out of the room.

"Three days," he found himself repeating, as he made his way back to his
house. "Why should Farrington be in such a frantic hurry to marry the
girl off, and why should he have chosen this penniless reporter?"

This was a matter which required a great deal of examination.


Two of those three days were dream days for Frank Doughton; he could not
believe it possible that such a fortune could be his. But with his joy
there ran the knowledge that he was marrying a woman who had no desire
for such a union.

But she would learn to love him; so he promised himself in his optimism
and the assurance of his own love. He had unbounded faith in himself,
and was working hard in these days, not only upon his stories, but upon
the clue which the discovery of the belated letter afforded him. He had
carefully gone through the parish list to discover the Annies of the
past fifty years. In this he was somewhat handicapped by the fact that
there must have been hundreds of Annies who enjoyed no separate
existence, married women who had no property qualification to appear on
ratepayers' lists; anonymous Annies, who perhaps employed that as a pet
name, instead of the name with which they had been christened.

He had one or two clues and was following these industriously. For the
moment, however, he must drop this work and concentrate his mind upon
the tremendous and remarkable business which his coming marriage
involved. He had a series of articles to write for the _Monitor_, and he
applied himself feverishly to this work.

It was two nights before his marriage that he carried the last of his
work to the great newspaper office on the Thames Embankment, and
delivered his manuscript in person to the editor.

That smiling man offered his congratulations to the embarrassed youth.


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Online LibraryEdgar WallaceThe secret house → online text (page 9 of 14)