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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Secret House - Chapter 9
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The Secret House - Chapter 9 Post by :Laurie Category :Long Stories Author :Edgar Wallace Date :May 2012 Read :1184

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The Secret House - Chapter 9

CHAPTER IX

T. B. Smith came down to Great Bradley with only one object in view. He knew that the solution to the mystery, not only of Farrington's disappearance, but possibly the identity of the mysterious Mr. Fallock, was to be found rather in this small town than in the metropolis. Scotland Yard was on its mettle. Within a space of seven days there had been two murders, a mysterious shooting, and a suicide so full of extraordinary features as to suggest foul play, without the police being in the position to offer a curious and indignant public the slightest resemblance of a clue. This, following as it had upon a shooting affray at the Docks, had brought Scotland Yard to a position of defence.

"There are some rotten things being said about us," said the Chief Commissioner on the morning of T. B.'s departure. He threw a paper across the table, and T. B. picked it up with an enigmatic smile. He read the flaring column in which the intelligence of the police department was called into question, without a word, and handed the paper back to his chief.

"I think we might solve all these mysteries in one swoop," he said. "I am going down to-day to inspect the Secret House--that is where one end of the solution lies."

The Chief Commissioner looked interested.

"It is very curious that you should be talking about that," he said. "I have had a report this morning from the chief constable of the county on that extraordinary menage."

"And what has he to say about it?"

Sir Gordon Billings shrugged his shoulders.

"It is one of those vague reports which chief constables are in the habit of furnishing," he said, drily. "Apparently the owner is an American, an invalid, and is eccentric. More than this--and this will surprise you--he has been certified by competent medical authorities as being insane."

"Insane?" T. B. repeated in surprise.

"Insane," nodded the chief; "and he has all the privileges which the Lunacy Act confers upon a man. That is rather a facer."

T. B. looked thoughtful.

"I had a dim idea that I might possibly discover in the occupant one who was, at any rate, a close relative to Fallock."

"You are doomed to disappointment," smiled the chief; "there is no doubt about that. I have had all the papers up. The man was certified insane by two eminent specialists, and is under the care of a doctor who lives on the premises, and who also acts as secretary to this Mr. Moole. The secret of the Secret House is pretty clear; it is a private lunatic asylum,--that, and nothing else."

T. B. thought for a while.

"At any rate no harm can be done by interviewing this cloistered Mr. Moole, or by inspecting the house," he said.

He arrived in Great Bradley in the early part of the afternoon, and drove straight away to the Secret House. The flyman put him down at some distance from the big entrance gate, and he made a careful and cautious reconnaissance of the vicinity. The house was a notable one. It made no pretence at architectural beauty, standing back from the road, and in the very centre of a fairly uncultivated patch of ground. All that afternoon he measured and observed the peculiarities of the approach, the lie of the ground, the entrances, and the exits, and had obtained too a cautious and careful observation of the great electrical power house, which stood in a clump of trees about a hundred yards from the house itself.

The next morning he paid a more open visit. This time his fly put him down at the gateway of the house, and he moved slowly up the gravel pathway to the big front entrance door. He glanced at the tip of the power house chimney which showed over the trees, and shook his head in some doubt. He had furtively inspected the enormous plant which the eccentric owner of the Secret House had found it necessary to lay down.

"Big enough to run an electric railway," was his mental comment. He had seen, too, the one-eyed engineer, a saturnine man with a disfiguring scar down one side of his face, and a trick of showing his teeth on one side of his mouth when he smiled.

T. B. would have pursued his investigations further, but suddenly he had felt something click under his feet, as he stood peering in at the window, and instantly a gong had clanged, and a shutter dropped noiselessly behind the window, cutting off all further view.

T. B. had retired hastily and had cleared the gates just before they swung to, obviously operated by somebody in the power house.

His present visit was less furtive and it was in broad daylight, with two detectives ostentatiously posted at the gates, that he made his call--for he took no unnecessary risks.

He walked up the four broad marble steps to the portico of the house, and wiped his feet upon a curious metal mat as he pressed the bell. The door itself was half hidden by a hanging curtain, such as one may see screening the halls of suburban houses, made up of brightly coloured beads or lengths of bamboo. In this case it was made by suspending thousands of steel beads upon fine wire strings from a rod above the door. It gave the impression that the entrance itself was of steel, but when in answer to his summons the door was opened, the _chick looped itself up on either side in the manner of a stage curtain, and it seemed to work automatically on the opening of the door.

There stood in the entrance a tall man, with a broad white face and expressionless eyes. He was dressed soberly in black, and had the restrained and deferential attitude of the superior man-servant.

"I am Mr. Smith, of Scotland Yard," said T. B. briefly, "and I wish to see Mr. Moole."

The man in black looked dubious.

"Will you come in?" he asked, and T. B. was shown into a large comfortably furnished sitting-room.

"I am afraid you can't see Mr. Moole," said the man, as he closed the door behind him; "he is, as you probably know, a partial invalid, but if there is anything I can do----"

"You can take me to Mr. Moole," said T. B. with a smile; "short of that--nothing."

The man hesitated.

"If you insist," he began.

The detective nodded.

"I am his secretary and his doctor--Doctor Fall," the other introduced himself, "and it may mean trouble for me--perhaps you will tell me your business?"

"My business is with Mr. Moole."

The doctor bowed.

"Come this way," he said, and he led the detective across the broad hall. He opened a plain door, and disclosed a small lift, standing aside for the other to enter.

"After you," said T. B. politely.

Dr. Fall smiled and entered, and T. B. Smith followed.

The lift shot swiftly upward and came to a rest at the third floor.

It was not unlike an hotel, thought T. B., in the general arrangement of the place.

Two carpeted corridors ran left and right, and the wall before him was punctured with doorways at regular intervals. His guide led him to the left, to the end of the passage, and opened the big rosewood door which faced him. Inside was another door. This he opened, and entered a big apartment and T. B. followed. The room contained scarcely any furniture. The panelling on the walls was of polished myrtle; a square of deep blue carpet of heavy pile was set exactly in the centre, and upon this stood a silver bedstead. But it was not the furnishing or the rich little gilt table by the bedside or the hanging electrolier which attracted T. B.'s attention; rather his eyes fell instantly upon the man on the bed.

A man with an odd yellow face, who, with his steady unwinking eyes might have been a figure of wax save for the regular rise and fall of his breast, and the spasmodic twitching of his lips. T. B. judged him to be somewhere in the neighbourhood of seventy, and, if anything, older. His face was without expression; his eyes, which turned upon the intruder, were bright and beady.

"This is Mr. Moole," said the suave secretary. "I am afraid if you talk to him you will get little in the way of information."

T. B. stepped to the side of the bed and looked down. He nodded his head in greeting, but the other made no response.

"How are you, Mr. Moole?" said T. B. gently. "I have come down from London to see you."

There was still no response from the shrunken figure under the bedclothes.

"What is your name?" asked T. B. after a while.

For an instant a gleam of intelligence came to the eyes of the wreck. His mouth opened tremulously and a husky voice answered him.

"Jim Moole," it croaked, "poor old Jim Moole; ain't done nobody harm."

Then his eyes turned fearfully to the man at T. B.'s side; the old lips came tightly together and no further encouragement from T. B. could make him speak again.

A little later T. B. was ushered out of the room.

"You agree with me," said the doctor smoothly, "Mr. Moole is not in a position to carry on a very long conversation."

T. B. nodded.

"I quite agree," he said, pleasantly. "An American millionaire--Mr. Moole--is he not?"

Dr. Fall inclined his head. His black eyes never left T. B.'s face.

"An American millionaire," he repeated.

"He does not talk like an American," said T. B.; "even making allowances that one must for his mental condition, there is no inducement to accept the phenomenon."

"Which phenomenon?" asked the other, quickly.

"That which causes an American millionaire, a man probably of some refinement and education, at any rate of some lingual characteristics, to talk like a Somerset farm labourer."

"What do you mean?" asked the other harshly.

"Just what I say," said T. B. Smith; "he has the burr of a man who has been brought up in Somerset. He is obviously one who has had very little education. My impression of him does not coincide with your description."

"I think, Mr. Smith," said the other, quietly, "that you have had very little acquaintance with people who are mentally deficient, otherwise you would know that those unfortunate fellow-creatures of ours who are so afflicted are very frequently as unrecognizable from their speech as from their actions."

He led the way to the lift door, but T. B. declined its service.

"I would rather walk down," he said.

He wanted to be better acquainted with this house, to have a larger knowledge of its topography than the ascent and descent by means of an electric lift would allow him. Dr. Fall offered no objection, and led the way down the red carpeted stairs.

"I am well acquainted with people of unsound mind," T. B. went on, "especially that section of the insane whose lunacy takes the form of dropping their aitches."

"You are being sarcastic at my expense," said the other, suddenly turning to him with a lowered brow. "I think it is only right to tell you that, in addition to being Mr. Moole's secretary, I am a doctor."

"That is also no news to me," smiled T. B. "You are an American doctor with a Pennsylvania degree. You came to England in eighteen hundred and ninety-six, on board the _Lucania_. You left New York hurriedly as the result of some scandal in which you were involved. It is, in fact, much easier to trace your movements since the date of your arrival than it is to secure exact information concerning Mr. Moole, who is apparently quite unknown to the American Embassy."

The large face of the secretary flushed to a deep purple.

"You are possibly exceeding your duty," he said, gratingly, "in recalling a happening of which I was but an innocent victim."

"Possibly I am," agreed T. B.

He bowed slightly to the man, and descended the broad steps to the unkempt lawn in front of the house. He was joined at the gate by the two men he had brought down. One of these was Ela.

"What did you find?" asked that worthy man.

"I found much that will probably be useful to us in the future," said T. B., as he stepped into the fly, followed by his subordinate.

He turned to the third detective.

"You had better wait here," he said, "and report on who arrives and who departs. I shall be back within a couple of hours."

The man saluted, and the fly drove off.

"I have one more call to make," said T. B. Smith, "and I had better make that alone, I think. Tell the flyman to drop me at Little Bradley Rectory."

Lady Constance Dex was not unprepared for the visit of the detective. She had seen him from the window of her room, driving past the rectory in the direction of the Secret House, and he found her expectantly waiting him in the drawing-room.

He came straight to the heart of the matter.

"I have just been to visit a man who I understand is a friend of yours," he said.

She inclined her head.

"You mean Mr. Moole?"

"That is the man," said the cheerful T. B.

She thought for a long time before she spoke again. She was evidently making up her mind as to how much she would tell this insistent officer of the law.

"I suppose you might as well know the whole facts of the case," she said; "if you will sit over there, I will supplement the information I gave you in Brakely Square a few days ago."

T. B. seated himself.

"I am certainly a visitor to the Secret House," she said, after a while. She did not look at the detective as she spoke, but kept her gaze fixed upon the window and the garden without.

"I told you that I have had one love affair in my life; that affair," she went on steadily, "was with George Doughton; you probably know his son."

T. B. nodded.

"It was a case of love at first sight. George Doughton was a widower, a good-natured, easy-going, lovable man. He was a brave and brilliant man too, famous as an explorer as you know. I met him first in London; he introduced me to the late Mr. Farrington, who was a friend of his, and when Mr. Farrington came to Great Bradley and took a house here for the summer, George Doughton came down as his guest, and I got to know him better than ever I had known any human being before in my life."

She hesitated again.

"We were lovers," she went on, defiantly,--"why should I not confess to an experience of which I am proud?--and our marriage was to have taken place on the very day he sailed for West Africa. George Doughton was the very soul of honour, a man to whom the breath of scandal was as a desert wind, withering and terrible. He was never in sympathy with the modern spirit of our type, was old-fashioned in some respects, had an immense and beautiful conception of women and their purity, and carried his prejudices against, what we call smart society, to such an extent that, if a man or woman of his set was divorced in circumstances discreditable to themselves, he would cut them out of his life."

Her voice faltered, and she seemed to find difficulty in continuing, but she braced herself to it.

"I had been divorced," she went on, in a low voice; "in my folly I had been guilty of an indiscretion which was sinless as it was foolish. I had married a cold, rigid and remorseless man when I was little more than a child, and I had run away from him with one who was never more to me than a brother. A chivalrous, kindly soul who paid for his chivalry dearly. All the evidence looked black against me, and my husband had no difficulty in securing a divorce. It passed into the oblivion of forgotten things, yet in those tender days when my love for George Doughton grew I lived in terror least a breath of the old scandal should be revived. I had reason for that terror, as I will tell you. I was, as I say, engaged to be married. Two days before the wedding George Doughton left me without a word of explanation. The first news that I received was that he had sailed for Africa; thereafter I never heard from him." She dropped her voice until she was hardly audible.

T. B. preserved a sympathetic silence. It was impossible to doubt the truth of all she was saying, or to question her anguish. Presently she spoke again.

"Mr. Farrington was most kind, and it was he who introduced me to Dr. Fall."

"Why?" asked T. B. quickly.

She shook her head.

"I never understood until quite lately," she said. "At the time I accepted as a fact that Dr. Fall had large interests in West Africa, and would enable me to get into communication with George Doughton. I clutched at straws, so to speak; I became a constant visitor to the Secret House, the only outside visitor that extraordinary domain has ever had within memory. I found that my visits were not without result. I was enabled to trace the movements of my lover; I was enabled, too, to send letters to him in the certainty that they would reach him. I have reason now to know that Mr. Farrington had another object in introducing me; he wanted me kept under the closest observation lest I should get into independent communication with George Doughton. That is all the story so far as my acquaintance with the Secret House is concerned. I have only seen Mr. Moole on one occasion."

"And Farrington?" asked T. B.

She shook her head.

"I have never seen Mr. Farrington in the house," she replied.

"Or Montague Fallock?" he suggested.

She raised her eyebrows.

"I have never seen Montague Fallock," she said slowly, "though I have heard from him. He, too, knew of the scandal; he it was who blackmailed me in the days of my courtship."

"You did not tell me about that," said T. B.

"There is little to tell," she said, with a weary gesture; "it was this mysterious blackmailer who terrified me, and to whose machinations I ascribe George Doughton's discovery, for now I know that he was told of my past, and was told by Montague Fallock. He demanded impossible sums. I gave him as much as I could, almost ruined myself to keep this blackmailer at bay, but all to no purpose."

She rose and paced the room.

"I have not finished with Montague Fallock," she said.

She turned her white face to the detective, and he saw a hard gleam in her eye.

"There is much that I could tell you, Mr. Smith, which would enable you perhaps to bring to justice the most dastardly villain that has ever walked the earth."

"May I suggest," said T. B. gently, "that you place me in possession of those facts?"

She smiled, implying a negative.

"I have my own plans for avenging the murder of my lover and the ruin of my life," she said hardly. "When Montague Fallock dies, I would rather he died by my hand."

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