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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Secret House - Chapter 11
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The Secret House - Chapter 11 Post by :Laurie Category :Long Stories Author :Edgar Wallace Date :May 2012 Read :2364

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The Secret House - Chapter 11

CHAPTER XI

"You want to see Mr. Moole?" Dr. Fall asked the visitor.

"I wish to see Mr. Moole," replied Poltavo. He stood at the door of the Secret House, and after a brief scrutiny the big-faced doctor admitted him, closing the door behind him.

"Tell me, what do you want?" he asked. He had seen the curious gesture that Poltavo had made--the pass sign which had unbarred the entrance to many strange people.

"I want to see Farrington!" replied Poltavo, coolly.

"Farrington!" Fall's brow knit in a puzzled frown.

"Farrington," repeated Poltavo, impatiently. "Do not let us have any of this nonsense, Fall. I want to see him on a matter of urgency. I am Poltavo."

"I know just who you are," said Fall, calmly, "but why you should come here under the impression that the late Mr. Farrington is an inmate of this establishment I do not understand. We are a lunatic asylum, not a mortuary," he said, with heavy humour.

Still, he led the way upstairs to the drawing-room on the first floor.

"What is the trouble?" he asked, as he closed the door behind him.

Poltavo chose to tell the story of his identification by T. B. Smith rather than the real object of his journey. Fall listened in silence.

"I doubt very much whether he will see you," he said: "he is in his worst mood. However, I will go along and find out what his wishes are."

He was absent for ten minutes, and when he returned he beckoned to the visitor.

Poltavo followed him up the stairs till he came to the room in which the bedridden Mr. Moole lay.

A man turned as the two visitors came in--it was Farrington in the life, Farrington as he had seen him on the night of his disappearance from the box at the Jollity. The big man nodded curtly.

"Why have you come down here," he asked, harshly, "leading half the detectives in London to me?"

"I do not think you need bother about half the detectives in London," said Poltavo. He looked at Fall. "I want to see you alone," he said.

Farrington nodded his head and the other departed, closing the door behind him.

"Now," said Poltavo,--he crossed the room with two strides,--"I want to know what you mean--you treacherous dog--by this infernal will of yours!"

"You can sit down," said Farrington, coolly, "and you can learn right now, Poltavo, that I do not stand for any man questioning me as to why I should do this or that, and I certainly do not stand for any human being in the world speaking to me as you are doing."

"You know that you are in my power," said Poltavo, viciously. "Are you aware that I could raise my finger and tumble your precious plot into the dust?"

"There are many things I know," said Farrington, "and if you knew them too you would keep a civil tongue in your head. Sit down. What is the trouble?"

"Why did you leave that instruction in your will? That Doris was to marry this infernal Doughton?"

"For a very good reason."

"Explain the reason!" stormed the angry man.

"I shall do nothing so absurd," smiled Farrington, crookedly; "it is enough when I say I want this girl's happiness. Don't you realize," he went on rapidly, "that the only thing I have in my life, that is at all clean, or precious, or worth while, is my affection for my niece? I want to see her happy; I know that her happiness lies with Doughton."

"You are mad," snarled the other; "the girl is half in love with me."

"With you," Farrington's eyes narrowed; "that is absolutely impossible."

"Why impossible?" demanded Poltavo loudly; "why impossible?" He thumped the table angrily.

"For many reasons," said Farrington. "First, because you are unworthy to be her under-gardener, much less her husband. You are, forgive my frankness, a blackguard, a thief, a murderer, a forger and a bank robber, so far as I know." He smiled. "Yes, I was an interested listener to your conversation with Fall. I have all sorts of weird instruments here by which I can pick up unguarded items of talk, but fortunately I have no need to be informed on this subject. I have as complete a record of your past as our friend Smith, and I tell you, Poltavo, that whilst I am willing that you shall be my agent, and that you shall profit enormously by working hand in hand with me, I would sooner see myself dead than I should hand Doris over to your tender mercies."

An ugly smile played about the lips of Poltavo.

"That is your last word?" he asked.

"That is my last word," said Farrington; "if you will be advised by me, you will let the matter stand where it is. Leave things as they are, Poltavo. You are on the way to making a huge fortune; do not let this absurd sentiment, or this equally absurd ambition of yours, step in and spoil everything."

"And whatever happens you would never allow Doris to marry me?"

"That is exactly what I meant, and exactly what I still say," said Farrington, firmly.

"But, suppose,"--Poltavo's hands caressed his little moustache, and he was smiling wickedly,--"suppose I force your hand?"

Farrington's eyebrows rose. "How?" he demanded.

"Suppose I take advantage of the fact that Miss Doris Gray, an impressionable young English girl, receptive to sympathetic admiration and half in love with me--suppose, I say, I took advantage of this fact, and we marry in the face of your will?"

"You would be sorry," said Farrington, grimly; "you may be sorry that you even threatened as much."

"I not only threaten," snarled Poltavo, "but I will carry out my threat, and you interfere with me at your peril!" He shook his clenched fist in Farrington's face. The elder man looked at him with a long, earnest glance in which his keen eyes seemed to search the very soul of the Russian.

"I wish this had not happened," he said, half to himself. "I had hoped that there was the making of a useful man in you, Poltavo, but I have been mistaken. I never thought that sentiment would creep in. Is it money--her fortune?" he asked, suddenly.

Poltavo shook his head.

"Curse the money," he said, roughly; "I want the girl. I tell you, Farrington, every day she grows more precious and more desirable to me."

"Other women have become precious and desirable to you," said Farrington in a low, passionate voice, "and they have enjoyed the fleeting happiness of your favour for--how long? Just as long as you wanted, Poltavo, and when you have been satisfied and sated yourself with joy, you have cast them out as they had been nothing to you. I know your record, my man," he said. "All that I want now is to assure myself that you are in earnest, because if you are----" He paused.

"If I am----?" sneered Poltavo.

"You will not leave this house alive," said Farrington.

He said it in a matter-of-fact tone, and the full significance of his speech did not dawn upon the Russian until long after he had said it.

For the space of a second or two his lips were smiling, and then the smile suddenly froze. His hand went back to his hip pocket and reappeared, holding a long-barrelled automatic pistol.

"Don't you try any of your tricks on me," he breathed. "I am quite prepared for all eventualities, Mr. Farrington; you make a mistake to threaten me."

"Not such a mistake as you have made," smiled Farrington. "You may fire your pistol to see if it will go off. My own impression is that the magazine has been removed."

One glance at the weapon was sufficient to demonstrate to the other that the man had spoken the truth. He went deathly white.

"Look here," he said, genially, "let us make an end to this absurd breach of friendship. I have come down to see what I can do for you."

"You have come down now to force me to grant your wishes regarding Doris," said Farrington. "I think the matter had better end." He pressed the bell, and Fall came in after a few moments' interval.

"Give the Count some refreshment before he goes," he said; "he is going to London."

The very matter-of-factness of the instructions reassured Count Poltavo, who for one moment had stood in a panic of fear; there was that in this big silent house which terrified him. And with the removal of this fear his insolent assurance returned. He stood in the doorway.

"You have made up your mind about Doris?" he said.

"Absolutely," said Farrington.

"Very good," said Poltavo.

He followed Fall along the corridor, and the doctor opened a small door and illuminated a tiny lift inside, and Poltavo stepped in. As he did so the door clicked.

"How do I work this lift?" he asked through the ornamental ironwork of the doorway.

"I work it from outside," said Dr. Fall, cheerfully, and pressed a button. The lift sank. It passed one steel door--that was the first floor; and another--that was the ground floor, but still the lift did not stop. It went on falling slowly, evenly, without jar or haste, and suddenly it came to a stop before a door made of a number of thin steel bars placed horizontally. As the lift stopped, the steel-barred doorway opened noiselessly. All Poltavo's senses were now alert; he, a past master in the art of treachery, had been at last its victim. He did not leave the tiny lift for a moment, but prepared for eventualities. He took a pencil out of his pocket and wrote rapidly on the wooden panelling of the elevator, and then he stepped out into the semi-darkness. He saw a large apartment, a bed and chair, and above a large table one dim light. A number of switches on the wall facing him promised further illumination. Anyway, if the worst came to the worst, he could find a way by the lift well to safety again. He searched his pockets with feverish haste. He usually carried one or two pistol cartridges in case of necessity, and he was rewarded, for, in his top waistcoat pocket, he discovered two nickel-pointed shapes. Hastily he removed the dummy magazine from the butt of his pistol. The removal of the magazine must have been effected by his servant, and the servant, now he came to give the matter consideration, was possibly in the pay of Farrington, and had probably warned the occupants of the Secret House of Poltavo's departure.

It was but natural that the big man would take no chances, and Poltavo cursed himself for a fool for allowing himself to be lured into a sense of security. He stepped out of the lift; there was enough light to guide him across the room. He reached the switchboard and pulled one of the little levers. Three lights appeared at the far end of the room; he pulled over the rest and the room was brilliantly illuminated.

It was an underground chamber, with red, distempered walls, artistically furnished. The small bed in the corner was of brass; the air was conveyed to his gloomy chamber by means of ventilators placed at intervals in the wall.

Not an uncomfortable prison, thought Poltavo. He was making his inspection when he heard a clang, and swung round. The steel door of the lift had closed and he reached it just in time to see the floor of the little cage ascending out of sight. He cursed himself again for his insensate folly; he might have fixed the door with a chair; it was an elementary precaution to take, but he had not realized the possibilities of this house of mystery.

Perhaps the chairs were fixed. He tried them, but found he was mistaken, except in one case. The great chair at the head of the table, solid and heavy, was immovable, for it was clamped to the floor.

In one corner was a framework, and he guessed it to be the slide in which the small provision lift ran.

His surmise was accurate, for even while he was examining it, a trap opened in the ceiling, and there slid down noiselessly between the oiled grids a tiny platform on which was a tray filled with covered dishes. He lifted the viands from the little elevator to the table and inspected them. There was a note written in pencil.

"You need have no fear in consuming the food we provide for you," it ran. "Dr. Fall will personally vouch for its purity, and will, if necessary, sample it in your presence. If you should need attendance you will find a small bell fixed on the under side of the table."

Poltavo looked at the dinner. He was ravenously hungry; he must take the chance of poison; after all, these people had him so completely in their power that there was no necessity to take any precaution so far as his food was concerned. He attacked an excellent dinner without discomfort to himself, and when he had finished he bethought himself of the bell, and finding it under the edge of the table, he pressed the button. He had not long to wait; he heard the faint hum of machinery and walked across to the barred gate of the lift, his pistol ready. He waited, his eyes fixed up at the black square through which he expected the lift to sink, and heard himself suddenly called by name.

He turned; Doctor Fall was standing in the centre of the room. By what means he had arrived there was no evidence to show.

"I hope I did not surprise you," said the doctor, with his quiet smile; "I did not come the way you expected. There are three entrances to this room, and they are all equally difficult to negotiate."

"May I inquire the meaning of this outrage?" asked Poltavo.

"Your virtuous indignation does you credit, Count," said the doctor. He sat down by the table, took a cigar-case from his pocket, and offered it to his unwilling guest.

"You do not smoke; I am sorry. Would you like a cigarette?"

"Thank you, I have all the cigarettes I require," said Poltavo, briefly.

The doctor did not speak until he had leisurely bitten off the end of a cigar and lit it.

"As I say," he went on, "I admire your _sang froid_. The word 'outrage' comes curiously from you, Count, but I am merely carrying out Mr. Farrington's wishes, when I say that I am perfectly willing to explain your present unhappy position. In some way you have made our friend very angry," he went on, easily; "and at present he is disposed to treat you with considerable harshness, to mete out the same harsh justice, in fact, that he accorded to two of the people who were engaged in the building of this house, and who were predisposed to blackmail him with a threat of betrayal."

"I knew nothing of these," said Poltavo.

"Then you are one of the few people in London who do not," said Dr. Fall, with a smile. "One was an architect, the other a fairly efficient man of a type you will find on the continent of Europe, and who will be an electrician's assistant or a waiter with equal felicity. These men were engaged to assist in the construction of the house, they were brought from Italy with a number of other workmen, and entrusted with a section of its completion. Not satisfied with the handsome pay they received for their workmanship, they instituted a system of blackmail which culminated one night at Brakely Square in their untimely death."

"Did Farrington kill them?" gasped Poltavo.

"I will not go so far as to say that," said the suave secretary; "I only say that they died. Unfortunately for them, they were acting independently of one another and quarrelled violently when they found that they had both come upon a similar errand, having at last identified the mysterious gentleman, who had commissioned the house, with Gregory Farrington, a worthy and blackmailable millionaire."

"So that was it," said Poltavo, thoughtfully.

"What a fool I was not to understand, not to see the connection. They were shot dead outside Farrington's house. Who else could have committed the crime but he?"

"Again, I will not go so far as to say that," repeated the secretary; "I merely remark that the men died a most untimely death, as a result of their eagerness to extract advantages from Mr. Farrington, which he was not prepared to offer. You, Count Poltavo, are in some danger of sharing the same fate."

"I have been in tighter holes than this," smiled Poltavo, but he was uneasy.

"Do not boast," said the doctor quietly. "I doubt very much whether in your life you have been in so tight a hole as you are in now. We are quite prepared to kill you; I tell you that much, because Mr. Farrington does not ordinarily take risks. In your case, however, he is prepared, just so long as you are impressed with his power to punish, to give you one chance of life. Whether you take that chance or not entirely depends upon yourself. He will not extract any oaths or promises or pledges of any kind; he will release you with the assurance that if you will serve him you will be handsomely rewarded, and if you fail him you will be most handsomely killed; do I make myself clear?"

"Very," said Poltavo, and the hand that raised the cigarette to his lips trembled a little.

"I would like to add," began the doctor, when the shrill sound of a ringing bell rang through the vaulted apartment. Fall sprang up, walked quietly to the wall, and placed his ear against a portion which appeared to be no different to any other, but which, as Poltavo gathered, concealed a hidden telephone.

"Yes?" he asked. He listened. "Very good," he said.

He turned to Poltavo, and surveyed him gravely.

"You will be interested to learn," he said, "that the house is entirely surrounded by police. You have evidently been followed here."

A light sprang into Poltavo's eyes.

"That is very awkward for you," he said, with a laugh.

"More awkward for you, I think," said Doctor Fall, walking slowly to the farthermost wall of the room.

"Stop!" said Poltavo.

The doctor turned. He was covered by the black barrel of Poltavo's pistol.

"I beg to assure you," said the Count mockingly, "that this pistol is loaded with two small cartridges which I found in my waistcoat pocket, and which I usually carry in case of emergency. There is at any rate sufficient----"

He said no more, for suddenly the room was plunged in darkness, the lights were extinguished by an unseen hand as at some signal, and a mocking laugh came back to him from where Fall had stood.

"Shoot!" said the voice, but the two cartridges were too precious for Poltavo to take any risks in the dark. He stood waiting, suddenly heard a click, and then the lights came up again. He was alone in the room. He shrugged his shoulders; there was nothing to do but wait.

If T. B. Smith had followed him here, and if he had taken the drastic step of surrounding the house with police, there was hope that he might be rescued from his present unhappy plight. If not, he had the promise which Farrington had given of his release on terms.

He heard the whirr of the descending lift; this time it was the elevator by which he himself had descended. It came to a halt at the floor level and the steel gates swung open invitingly. He must take his chance; anyway, anything was better than remaining in this underground room.

He stepped into the lift and pulled the gates close after him. To his surprise they answered readily, and as the lock snapped the lift went upwards slowly. Two overhanging electric lamps illuminated the little elevator. They were dangerous to him. With the steel barrel of his pistol he smashed the bulbs and crouched down in the darkness, his finger on the trigger, ready for any emergency.

T. B. Smith was standing in the hall, and behind him three hard-featured men from the Yard. Before him was Dr. Fall, imperturbable and obeying as ever.

"You are perfectly at liberty to search the house," he was saying, "and, as far as Count Poltavo is concerned, there is no mystery whatever. He is one of the people who have been attracted here by curiosity, and at the present moment he is inspecting the wonders of our beautiful establishment."

There was something of truth in his ironic tone, and T. B. was puzzled.

"Will you kindly produce Count Poltavo?"

"With pleasure," said the secretary.

It was at that moment that the lift door opened and Poltavo stepped out, pistol in hand.

He saw the group and took in its significance. He had now to decide in that moment with whom he should run. His mind was made up quickly; he knew he had no friends in the police force; whatever prosperity awaited him must come from Farrington and his influence.

"An interesting weapon you have in your hand, Count," drawled T. B. "Do I understand that you have been inspecting the art treasures of the Secret House in some fear of your life?"

"Not at all," said Poltavo, as he slipped the pistol into his pocket. "I have merely been engaged in a little pistol practice in the underground shooting gallery; it is an interesting place; you should see it."

Dr. Fall's eyes did not leave the face of his late prisoner, and Poltavo saw an approving gleam in the dark eyes.

"I should not, ordinarily, take the trouble to inspect your shooting gallery," said T. B. Smith with a smile, "because I know that you are not speaking the exact truth, Count Poltavo. My own impression is that you have every reason to be thankful for my arrival. In the present circumstances, perhaps, it would be advisable to look over a portion of your domain which, so far, has escaped my inspection."

The doctor shrugged his shoulders.

"It is hardly a shooting gallery, but since it is so far removed from the living portion of the house we sometimes use it for that purpose," he said. "I have not the slightest objection to your descending."

T. B. entered the lift. It was in darkness, as a result of Poltavo's precautions.

"I will go alone," said T. B., and Fall, with a little bow, closed the gates, and the lift descended.

They waited some time; Fall had the power, from where he was, of closing the gates below and bringing the lift up again. This Poltavo knew to his cost, but there were good reasons why the doctor should not exercise his knowledge, and in a few minutes the lift came back to its original position and T. B. stepped out.

"Thank you, I have learned all I want to know," he said with a keen glance at Poltavo. "Really, you have an extraordinary house, Dr. Fall."

"It is always open to your inspection," said the doctor, with a heavy smile.

T. B. was fingering the little electric lamp, which he carried in his hand, in an absent-minded manner. Presently he put it into his pocket, and, with a nod to his host, walked across the hall. He turned suddenly and addressed Poltavo.

"When you were trapped in this house," he said, quietly, "and expected considerable trouble in escaping from the trap, you took the precaution, like the careful man that you are, of inscribing a message which might aid those who came to your relief. This message has now served its purpose," he smiled, as he saw the look of consternation on Poltavo's face, "and you will be well advised to invite your friend to wipe it out"; and with another nod he passed from the house, followed by his three men.

"What does this mean?" asked Fall, quickly.

"I--I--" stammered Poltavo, flustered for once in his life, "wrote on the side of the lift a few words only, nothing incriminating, my dear doctor, just a line to say that I was imprisoned below."

With a curse Fall dashed into the little elevator.

"Bring a light," he said, and struck a match to read the scrawl which Poltavo had written. Fortunately there was nothing in it which betrayed the great secret of the house, but it was enough, as he realized, to awaken the dormant suspicion, even supposing it was dormant, of this indefatigable detective.

"You have made a nice mess of things," he said to Poltavo, sternly; "see that you do not make a greater. We will forgive you once, but the second attempt will be fatal."

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