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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Secret House - Chapter 17
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The Secret House - Chapter 17 Post by :Laurie Category :Long Stories Author :Edgar Wallace Date :May 2012 Read :1435

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The Secret House - Chapter 17

CHAPTER XVII

T. B. Smith was playing a round of golf at Walton Heath, when the news was telephoned through to him.

He left immediately for town, and picked up Ela at luncheon at the Fritz Hotel, where the detective had his headquarters.

"The whole thing is perfectly clear, now," he said. "The inexplicable disappearance of Mr. Farrington is explained in poster type, 'that he who runs may read.'"

"I am a little hazy about the solution myself," said Ela dubiously.

"Then I will put it in plain language for you," said T. B. as he speared a sardine from the _hors d'oeuvre dish. "Farrington knew all along that the heir to the Tollington millions was George Doughton. He knew it years and years ago, and it was for that reason he settled at Great Bradley, where the Doughtons had their home. Evidently the two older Doughtons were dead at this time, and only George Doughton, the romantic and altogether unpractical explorer, represented the family.

"George was in love with the lady who is now known as Lady Constance Dex, and knowing this, Farrington evidently took every step that was possible to ingratiate himself into her good graces. He knew that the fortune would descend equally to Doughton and to his wife. Doughton was a widower and had a son, a youngster at the time, and it is very possible that, the boy being at school, and being very rarely in Great Bradley, Farrington had no idea of his existence.

"The knowledge that this boy was alive must have changed all his plans; at any rate, the engagement was allowed to drift on, whilst he matured some scheme whereby he could obtain a large portion of the Tollington millions for his own use. Again I think his plans must have been changed.

"It was whilst he was at Great Bradley that he was entrusted with the guardianship of Doris Gray, and as his affection for the young girl grew--an affection which I think was one of the few wholesome things in his life--he must have seen the extraordinary chance which fate had placed in his way.

"With diabolical ingenuity and with a remorselessness which is reminiscent of the Borgias he planned first George Doughton's death, and then the bringing together of Doughton's son and his own ward. There is every proof of this to be found in his subsequent actions. He was prepared to introduce the young people to one another, and by affording them opportunities for meeting, and such encouragement as he could give, to bring about the result he so desired.

"But things did not move fast enough for him, and then he must have learnt, as the other trustees seem to have learnt recently, that there was an undiscovered time limit. He threw out hints to his niece, hints which were received rather coldly. He had taken the bold step of employing Frank Doughton to discover--himself! That was a move which had a twofold purpose. It kept the young man in contact with him. It also satisfied the other trustees, who had entrusted to Farrington the task of employing the necessary measures to discover the missing heir.

"But neither hint nor suggestion served him. The girl's fortune was due for delivery to her care, and his guardianship expired almost at the same time as the time limit for discovery of the Tollington millionaire came to an end. He had to take a desperate step; there were other reasons, of course, contributing to his move.

"The knowledge that he was suspected by me, the certainty that Lady Constance Dex would betray him, once she discovered that he had sent her lover to his death, all these were contributing factors, but the main reason for his disappearance was the will that was read after his bogus death.

"In that will he conveyed unchallengeable instructions for the girl to marry Frank Doughton without delay. I suspect that the girl now knows he is alive. Probably, panic-stricken by her tardiness, he has disclosed his hand so far as the alleged death is concerned."

T. B. looked out of the window on to the stream of life which was flowing east and west along Piccadilly; his face was set in a little frown of doubt and anxiety.

"I can take Farrington to-morrow if I want to," he said after a moment, "but I wish to gather up every string of organization in my hands."

"What of Lady Constance Dex?" asked Ela. "Whilst we are waiting, she is in some little danger."

T. B. shook his head.

"If she is not dead now," he said simply, "she will be spared. If Farrington wished to kill her--for Farrington it was who spirited her away--he could have done so in the house; no one would have been any the wiser as to the murderer. Lady Constance must wait; we must trust to luck before I inspect that underground chamber of which I imagine she is at present an unwilling inmate. I want to crush this blackmailing force," he said, thumping the table with energy; "I want to sweep out of England the whole organization which is working right under the nose of the police and in defiance of all laws; and until I have done that, I shall not sleep soundly in my bed."

"And Poltavo?"

"Poltavo," smiled T. B., "can wait for just a little while."

He paid the bill and the two men passed out of the hotel and crossed Piccadilly. A man who had been lounging along apparently studying the shop windows saw them out of the corner of his eye and followed them carelessly. Another man, no less ostentatiously reading a newspaper, as he walked along the pavement on the opposite side of the thoroughfare, followed close behind.

T. B. and his companion turned into Burlington Arcade and reached Cork Street. Save for one or two pedestrians the street was utterly deserted, and the first of the shadowers quickened his pace. He put his hand in his tail pocket and took out something which glinted in the April sunlight, but before he could raise his hand the fourth man, now on his heels, dropped his newspaper, and flinging one arm around the shadower's neck, and placing his knee in the small of the other's back, wrenched the pistol away with his disengaged hand.

T. B. turned at the sound of the struggle and came back to assist the shadowing detective. The prisoner was a little man, sharp-featured, and obviously a member of one of the great Latin branches of the human race. A tiny black moustache, fierce scowling eyebrows, and liquid brown eyes now blazing with hate, spoke of a Southern origin.

Deftly the three police officers searched and disarmed him; a pair of adjustable handcuffs snapped upon the man's thin wrists, and before the inevitable crowd could gather the prisoner and his custodians were being whirled to Vine Street in a cab.

They placed the man in the steel dock and asked him the usual questions, but he maintained a dogged silence. That his object had been assassination no one could doubt, for in addition to the automatic pistol, which he had obviously intended using at short range, trusting to luck to make his escape, they found a long stiletto in his breast pocket.

More to the point, and of greater interest to T. B., there was a three-line scrawl on a piece of paper in Italian, which, translated, showed that minute instructions had been given to the would-be murderer as to T. B.'s whereabouts.

"Put him in a cell," said T. B. "I think we are going to find things out. If this is not one of Poltavo's hired thugs, I am greatly mistaken."

Whatever he was, the man offered no information which might assist the detective in his search for the truth, but maintained an unbroken silence, and T. B. gave up the task of questioning him in sheer despair.

The next morning at daybreak the prisoner was aroused and told to dress. He was taken out to where a motor car was awaiting him, and a few moments later he was speeding on the way to Dover. Two detective officers placed him on a steamer and accompanied him to Calais. At Calais they took a courteous leave of him, handing him a hundred francs and the information in his own tongue that he had been deported on an order from the Home Secretary, obtained at midnight the previous night.

The prisoner took his departure with some eagerness and spent the greater portion of his hundred francs in addressing a telegram to Poltavo.

T. B. Smith, who knew that telegram would come, was sitting in the Continental instrument room of the General Post Office when it arrived. He was handed a copy of the telegram and read it. Then he smiled.

"Thank you," he said, as he passed it back to the Superintendent of the department, "this may now be transmitted for delivery. I know all I want to know."

Poltavo received the message an hour later, and having read it, cursed his subordinate's indiscretion, for the message was in Italian, plain for everybody to read who understood that language, and its purport easy to understand for anybody who had a knowledge of the facts.

He waited all that day for a visit from the police, and when T. B. arrived in the evening Poltavo was ready with an excuse and an explanation. But neither excuse nor explanation was asked for. T. B.'s questions had to do with something quite different, namely the new Mrs. Doughton and her vanished fortune.

"I was in the confidence of Mr. Farrington," said Poltavo, relieved to find the visit had nothing to do with that which he most dreaded, "but I was amazed to discover that the safe was empty. It was a tremendous tragedy for the poor young lady. She is in Paris now with her husband," he added.

T. B. nodded.

"Perhaps you will give me their address?" he asked.

"With pleasure," said Count Poltavo, reaching for his address book.

"I may be going to Paris myself to-morrow," T. B. went on, "and I will look these young people up. I suppose it is not the correct thing for any one to call upon honeymoon couples, but a police officer has privileges."

There was an exchange of smiles. Poltavo was almost exhilarated that T. B.'s visit had nothing to do with him personally. A respect, which amounted almost to fear, characterized his attitude toward the great Scotland Yard detective. He credited T. B. with qualities which perhaps that admirable man did not possess, but, as a set-off against this, he failed to credit him with a wiliness which was peculiarly T. B.'s chief asset. For who could imagine that the detective's chief object in calling upon Poltavo that evening was to allay his suspicions and soothe down his fears. Yet T. B. came for no other reason and with no other purpose. It was absolutely necessary that Poltavo should be taken off his guard, for T. B. was planning the coup which was to end for all time the terror under which hundreds of innocent people in England were lying.

After an exchange of commonplace civilities the two men parted,--T. B., as he said, with his hand on the door, to prepare for his Paris trip, and Poltavo to take up what promised to be one of the most interesting cases that the Fallock blackmailers had ever handled.

He waited until he heard the door close after the detective; until he had watched him, from the window, step into his cab and be whirled away, then he unlocked the lower drawer of his desk, touched a spring in the false bottom, and took from a secret recess a small bundle of letters.

Many of the sheets of notepaper which he spread out on the table before him bore the strawberry crest of his grace the Duke of Ambury. The letters were all in the same sprawling handwriting; ill-spelt and blotted, but they were very much to the point. The Duke of Ambury, in his exuberant youth, had contracted a marriage with a lady in Gibraltar. His regiment had been stationed at that fortress when his succession to the dukedom had been a very remote possibility, and the Spanish lady to whom, as the letters showed, he had plighted his troth, and to whom he was eventually married in the name of Wilson (a copy of the marriage certificate was in the drawer), had been a typical Spaniard of singular beauty and fascination, though of no distinguished birth.

Apparently his grace had regretted his hasty alliance, for two years after his succession to the title, he had married the third daughter of the Earl of Westchester without--so far as the evidence in Poltavo's possession showed--having gone through the formality of releasing himself from his previous union.

Here was a magnificent coup, the most splendid that had ever come into the vision of the blackmailers, for the Duke of Ambury was one of the richest men in England, a landlord who owned half London and had estates in almost every county. If ever there was a victim who was in a position to be handsomely bled, here was one.

The Spanish wife was now dead, but an heir had been born to the Duke of Ambury before the death, and the whole question of succession was affected by the threatened disclosure. All the facts of the case were in Poltavo's possession; they were written in this curiously uneducated hand which filled the pages of the letters now spread upon the table in front of him. The marriage certificate had been supplied, and a copy of the death certificate had also been obligingly extracted by a peccant servant, and matters were now so far advanced that Poltavo had received, through the Agony column of the _Times_, a reply to the demand he had sent to his victim.

That reply had been very favourable; there had been no suggestion of lawyers; no hint of any intervention on the part of the police. Ambury was willing to be bled, willing indeed, so the agony advertisement indicated to Poltavo, to make any financial sacrifice in order to save the honour of his house.

It was only a question of terms now. Poltavo had decided upon fifty thousand pounds. That sum would be sufficient to enable him to clear out of England and to enjoy life as he best loved it, without the necessity for taking any further risks. With Doris Gray removed from his hands, with the approval of society already palling upon him, he thirsted for new fields and new adventures. The fifty thousand seemed now within his grasp. He should, by his agreement with Farrington, hand two-thirds of that sum to his employer, but even the possibility of his doing this never for one moment occurred to him.

Farrington, so he told himself, a man in hiding, powerless and in Poltavo's hands practically, could not strike back at him; the cards were all in favour of the Count. He had already received some ten thousand pounds as a result of his work in London, and he had frantic and ominous letters from Dr. Fall demanding that the "house" share should be forwarded without delay. These demands Poltavo had treated with contempt. He felt master of the situation, inasmuch that he had placed the major portion of the balance of money in hand, other than that which had been actually supplied by Farrington, to his own credit in a Paris bank. He was prepared for all eventualities, and here he was promised the choicest of all his pickings--for the bleeding of the Duke of Ambury would set a seal upon previous accomplishments.

He rang a bell, and a man came, letting himself into the room with a key. He was an Italian with a peculiarly repulsive face; one of the small fry whom Poltavo had employed from time to time to do such work as was beneath his own dignity, or which promised an unnecessary measure of danger in its performance.

"Carlos," said Poltavo, speaking in Italian, "Antonio has been arrested, and has been taken to Calais by the police."

"That I know, signor," nodded the man. "He is very fortunate. I was afraid when the news came that he would be put into prison."

Poltavo smiled.

"The ways of the English police are beyond understanding," he said lightly. "Here was our Antonio, anxious and willing to kill the head of the detective department, and they release him! Is it not madness? At any rate, Antonio will not be coming back, because though they are mad, the police are not so foolish as to allow him to land again. I have telegraphed to our friend to go on to Paris and await me, and here let me say, Carlos,"--he tapped the table with the end of his penholder,--"that if you by ill-fortune should ever find yourself in the same position of our admirable and worthy Antonio, I beg that you will not send me telegrams."

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

"A splendid deficiency," said Poltavo.

He took up a letter from the table.

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

The man nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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