Read CHAPTER IV of The Secret House , free online book, by Edgar Wallace, on ReadCentral.com.

It was a bad night in London, not wild or turbulent, but swathed to the eyes like an Eastern woman in a soft grey garment of fog.  It engulfed the walled canyons of the city, through which the traffic had roared all day, plugged up the maze of dark side-streets, and blotted out the open squares.  Close to the ground it was thick, viscous, impenetrable, so that one could not see a yard ahead, and walked ghostlike, adventuring into a strange world.

Occasionally it dispersed.  In front of the Jollity Theatre numbers of arc-lights wrought a wavering mist-hung yellow space, into which a constant line of vehicles, like monstrous shiny beetles, emerged from the outer nowhere, disgorged their contents, and were eclipsed again.  And pedestrians in gay processional streamed across the rudy glistening patch like figures on a slide.

Conspicuous in the shifting throng was a sharp-faced boy, ostensibly selling newspapers, but with a keen eye upon the arriving vehicles.  Suddenly he darted to the curb, where an electric coupe had just drawn up.  A man alighted heavily, and turned to assist a young woman.

For an instant the lad’s attention was deflected by the radiant vision.  The girl, wrapped in a voluminous cloak of ivory colour, was tall and slim, with soft white throat and graceful neck; her eyes under shadowy lashes were a little narrow, but blue as autumn mist, and sparkling now with amusement.

“Watch your steps, auntie,” she warned laughingly, as a plump, elderly, little lady stepped stiffly from the coupe.  “These London fogs are dangerous.”

The boy stood staring at her, his feet as helpless as if they had taken root to the ground.  Suddenly he remembered his mission.  His native impudence reasserted itself, and he started forward.

“Paper, sir?”

He addressed the man.  For a moment it seemed as though he were to be rebuffed, then something in the boy’s attitude changed his mind.

As the man fumbled in an inner pocket for change, the lad took a swift inventory.  The face beneath the tall hat was a powerful oval, paste-coloured, with thin lips, and heavy lines from nostril to jaw.  The eyes were close set and of a turbid grey.

“It’s him,” the boy assured himself, and opened his mouth to speak.

The girl laughed amusedly at the spectacle of her companion’s passion for news in this grimy atmosphere, and turned to the young man in evening dress who had just dismissed his taxi and joined the group.

It was the diversion the boy had prayed for.  He took a quick step toward the older man.

“T.  B. S.,” he said, in a soft but distinct undertone.

The man’s face blanched suddenly, and a coin which he held in his large, white-gloved palm slipped jingling to the pavement.

The young messenger stooped and caught it dexterously.

“T.  B. S.,” he whispered again, insistently.

“Here?” the answer came hoarsely.  The man’s lips trembled.

“Watchin’ this theatre ­splits by the million,” finished the boy promptly, and with satisfaction.  Under cover of returning the coin, he thrust a slip of white paper into the other’s hand.

Then he wheeled, ducked to the girl with a gay little swagger of impudence, threw a lightning glance of scrutiny at her young escort, and turning, was lost in the throng.

The whole incident occupied less than a minute, and presently the four were seated in their box, and the gay strains from the overture of The Strand Girl came floating up to them.

“I wish I were a little street gamin in London,” said the girl pensively, fingering the violets at her corsage.  “Think of the adventures!  Don’t you, Frank?”

Frank Doughton looked across at her with smiling significant eyes, which brought a flush to her cheeks.

“No,” he said softly, “I do not!”

The girl laughed at him and shrugged her round white shoulders.

“For a young journalist, Frank, you are too obvious ­too delightfully verdant.  You should study indirection, subtlety, finesse ­study our mutual friend Count Poltavo!”

She meant it mischievously, and produced the effect she desired.

At the name the young man’s brow darkened.

“He isn’t coming here to-night?” Doughton asked, in aggrieved tones.

The girl nodded, her eyes dancing with laughter.

“What can you see in that man, Doris?” he protested.  “I’ll bet you anything you like that the fellow’s a rogue!  A smooth, soft-smiling rascal!  Lady Dinsmore,” he appealed to the elder woman, “do you like him?”

“Oh, don’t ask Aunt Patricia!” cried the girl.  “She thinks him quite the most fascinating man in London.  Don’t deny it, auntie!”

“I shan’t,” said the lady, calmly, “for it’s true!  Count Poltavo” ­she paused, to inspect through her lorgnette some new-comers in the opposite box, where she got just a glimpse of a grey dress in the misty depths of the box, the whiteness of a gloved hand lying upon the box’s edge ­“Count Poltavo is the only interesting man in London.  He is a genius.”  She shut her lorgnette with a snap.  “It delights me to talk with him.  He smiles and murmurs gay witticisms and quotes Talleyrand and Lucullus, and all the while, in the back of his head, quite out of reach, his real opinions of you are being tabulated and ranged neatly in a row like bottles on a shelf.”

Doris nodded thoughtfully.

“I’d like to take down some of those bottles,” she said.  “Some day perhaps I shall.”

“They’re probably labelled poison,” remarked Frank viciously.  He looked at the girl with a growing sense of injury.  Of late she had seemed absolutely changed towards him; and from being his good friend, with established intimacies, she had turned before his very eyes into an alien, almost an enemy, more beautiful than ever, to be true, but perverse, mocking, impish.  She flouted him for his youth, his bluntness, his guileless transparency.  But hardest of all to bear was the delicate derision with which she treated his awkward attempts to express his passion for her, to speak of the fever which had taken possession of him, almost against his will.  And now, he reflected bitterly, with this velvet fop of a count looming up as a possible rival, with his savoir faire, and his absurd penchant for literature and art, what chance had he, a plain Briton, against such odds? ­unless, as he profoundly believed, the chap was a crook.  He determined to sound her guardian.

“Mr. Farrington,” he asked aloud, “what do you think ­hallo!” He sprang up suddenly and thrust out a supporting arm.

Farrington had risen, and stood swaying slightly upon his feet.  He was frightfully pale, and his countenance was contracted as if in pain.  He lifted a wavering hand to his head.

With a supreme effort he steadied himself.

“Doris,” he asked quickly, “I meant to ask you ­where did you leave Lady Constance?”

The girl looked up in surprise.

“I haven’t seen her to-day ­she went down to Great Bradley last night ­didn’t she, auntie?”

The elder woman nodded.

“Mannish, and not a little discourteous I think,” she said, “leaving her guests and motoring through the fog to the country.  I sometimes think Constance Dex is a trifle mad.”

“I wish I could share your views,” said Farrington, grimly.

He turned abruptly to Doughton.

“Look after Doris,” he said.  “I have remembered ­an engagement.”

He beckoned Frank, with a scarcely perceptible gesture, and the two men passed out of the box.

“Have you discovered anything?” he asked, when they were outside.

“About what?” asked Frank, innocently.

A grim smile broke the tense lines of Mr. Farrington’s face.

“Really!” he said, drily, “for a young man engaged in most important investigations you are casual.”

“Oh! ­the Tollington business,” said the other.  “No, Mr. Farrington, I have found nothing.  I don’t think it is my game really ­investigating and discovering people.  I’m a pretty good short story writer but a pretty rotten detective.  Of course, it is awfully kind of you to have given me the job ­”

“Don’t talk nonsense,” snapped the older man.  “It isn’t kindness ­it’s self-interest.  Somewhere in this country is the heir to the Tollington millions.  I am one of the trustees to that estate and I am naturally keen on discovering the man who will relieve me of my responsibility.  There is a hundred pounds awaiting the individual who unearths this heir.”

He glanced at his watch.

“There is one other thing I want to speak to you about ­and that is Doris.”

They stood in the little corridor which ran at the back of the boxes, and Frank wondered why he had chosen this moment to discuss such urgent and intimate matters.  He was grateful enough to the millionaire for the commission he had given him ­though with the information to go upon, looking for the missing Tollington heir was analogous to seeking the proverbial needle ­but grateful for the opportunity which even this association gave him for meeting Doris Gray, he was quite content to continue the search indefinitely.

“You know my views,” the other went on ­he glanced at his watch again.  “I want Doris to marry you.  She is a dear girl, the only human being in the world for whom I have any affection.”  His voice trembled, and none could doubt his sincerity.  “Somehow I am getting nervous about things ­that shooting which I witnessed the other night has made me jumpy ­go in and win.”

He offered a cold hand to the other, and Frank took it, then, with a little jerk of his head, and a muttered “shan’t be gone long,” he passed into the vestibule, and out into the foggy street.  A shrill whistle brought a taxi from the gloom.

“The Savoy,” said Farrington.  He sprang in, and the cab started with a jerk.

A minute later he thrust his head from the window.

“You may drop me here,” he called.  He descended and paid his fare.  “I’ll walk the rest of the way,” he remarked casually.

“Bit thickish on foot to-night, sir,” offered the driver respectfully.  “Better let me set you down at the hotel.”  But his fare was already lost in the enveloping mist.

Farrington wrapped his muffler closely about his chin, pulled down his hat to shadow his eyes, and hurried along like a man with a set destination.

Presently he halted and signalled to another cab, crawling along close to the curb.