Read CHAPTER XVI of The Secret House , free online book, by Edgar Wallace, on

The morning of Doris Gray’s wedding dawned fair and bright, and she sat by the window which overlooked the gardens in Brakely Square, her hands clasped across her knees, her mind in a very tangle of confusion.  It was happy for her (she argued) that there were so many considerations attached to this wedding that she had not an opportunity of thinking out, logically and to its proper end, the consequence of this act of hers.

She had had a wire from Frank on the night previous, and to her surprise it had been dated from Great Bradley.  For some reason which she could not define she was annoyed that he could leave London, and be so absorbed in his work on the eve of his wedding.  She gathered that his presence in that town had to do with his investigations in the Tollington case.  She thought that at least he might have spent one day near her in case she wished to consult him.  He took much for granted, she thought petulantly.  Poltavo, on the contrary, had been most assiduous in his attention.  He had had tea with her the previous afternoon, and with singular delicacy had avoided any reference to the forthcoming marriage or to his own views on the subject.  But all that he did not speak, he looked.  He conveyed the misery in which he stood with subtle suggestion.  She felt sorry for him, had no doubt of the genuineness of his affection, or his disinterestedness.  A profitable day for Poltavo in ordinary circumstances.

A maid brought her from her reverie to the practical realities of life.

“Mr. Debenham has called, miss,” said the girl.  “I have shown him into the drawing-room.”

“Mr. Debenham?” repeated Doris, with a puzzled frown.  “Oh, yes, the lawyer; I will come down to him.”

She found the staid solicitor walking up and down the drawing-room abstractedly.

“I suppose you know that I shall be a necessary guest at your wedding,” he said, as he shook hands.  “I have to deliver to you the keys of your uncle’s safe at the London Safe Deposit.  I have a memorandum here of the exact amount of money which should be in that safe.”

He laid the paper on the table.

“You can look at the items at your leisure, but roughly it amounts to eight hundred thousand pounds, which was left you by your late father, who, I understand, died when you were a child.”

She nodded.

“That sum is in gilt-edged securities, and you will probably find that a number of dividends are due to you.  The late Mr. Farrington, when he made his arrangements for your future, chose this somewhat unusual and bizarre method of protecting your money, much against my will.  I might tell you,” he went on, “that he consulted me about six years ago on the subject, and I strongly advised him against it.  As it happened, I was wrong, for immediately afterwards, as his books show, he must have suffered enormous losses, and although I make no suggestion against his character,” ­he raised his hand deprecatingly, ­“yet I do say that the situation which was created by the slump in Canadian Pacifics of which he was a large holder, might very easily have tempted a man not so strong-willed as Mr. Farrington.  At the present moment,” he went on, “I have no more to do than discharge my duty, and I have called beforehand to see you and to ask whether your uncle spoke of the great Tollington fortune of which he was one of the trustees, though as I believe ­as I know, in fact ­he never handled the money.”

She looked surprised.

“It is curious that you should ask that,” she said.  “Mr. Doughton is engaged in searching for the heir to that fortune.”

Debenham nodded.

“So I understand,” he said.  “I ask because I received a communication from the other trustees in America, and I am afraid your future husband’s search will be unavailing unless he can produce the heir within the next forty-eight hours.”

“Why is that?” she asked in surprise.

“The terms of the will are peculiar,” said Mr. Debenham, walking up and down as he spoke.  “The Tollington fortune, as you may know ­”

“I know nothing about it,” she interrupted.

“Then I will tell you.”  He smiled.  “The fortune descends to the heir and to his wife in equal proportions.”

“Suppose he is not blessed with a wife?” She smiled with something like her old gaiety.

“In that case the money automatically goes to the woman the heir eventually marries.  But the terms of the will are that the heir shall be discovered within twenty years of the date of Tollington’s death.  The time of grace expires to-morrow.”

“Poor Frank,” she said, shaking her head, “and he is working so hard with his clues!  I suppose if he does not produce that mysterious individual by to-morrow there will be no reward for him?”

The lawyer shook his head.

“I should hardly think it likely,” he said, “because the reward is for the man who complies with the conditions of the will within a stipulated time.  It was because I knew Mr. Doughton had some interest in it, and because also” ­he hesitated ­“I thought that your uncle might have taken you into his confidence.”

“That he might have told me who this missing person was, and that he himself knew; and for some reason suppressed the fact?” she asked, quickly.  “Is that what you suggest, Mr. Debenham?”

“Please do not be angry with me,” said the lawyer, quickly; “I do not wish to say anything against Mr. Farrington; but I know he was a very shrewd and calculating man, and I thought possibly that he might have taken you that much into his confidence, and that you might be able to help your future husband a part of the way to a very large sum of money.”

She shook her head again.

“I have absolutely no knowledge of the subject.  My uncle never took me into his confidence,” she said; “he was very uncommunicative where business was concerned ­although I am sure he was fond of me.”  Her eyes filled with tears, not at the recollection of his kindness, but at the humiliation she experienced at playing a part in which she had no heart.  It made her feel inexpressibly mean and small.

“That is all,” said Mr. Debenham.  “I shall see you at the registrar’s office.”

She nodded.

“May I express the hope,” he said, in his heavy manner, “that your life will be a very happy one, and that your marriage will prove all you hope it will be?”

“I hardly know what I hope it will be,” she said wearily, as she accompanied him to the door.

That good man shook his head sadly as he made his way back to his office.

Was there ever so unromantic and prosaic affair as this marriage, thought Doris, as she stepped into the taxicab which was to convey her to the registrar’s office?  She had had her dreams, as other girls had had, of that wonderful day when with pealing of the organ she would walk up the aisle perhaps upon the arm of Gregory Farrington, to a marriage which would bring nothing but delight and happiness.  And here was the end of her dreams, a great heiress and a beautiful girl rocking across London in a hired cab to a furtive marriage.

Frank was waiting for her on the pavement outside the grimy little office.  Mr. Debenham was there, and a clerk he had brought with him as witness.  The ceremony was brief and uninteresting; she became Mrs. Doughton before she quite realized what was happening.

“There is only one thing to do now,” said the lawyer as they stood outside again on the sunlit pavement.

He looked at his watch.

“We had best go straight away to the London Safe Deposit, and, if you will give me the authority, I will take formal possession of your fortune and place it in the hands of my bankers.  I think these things had better be done regularly.”

The girl acquiesced.

Frank was singularly silent during the drive; save to make some comment upon the amount of traffic in the streets, he did not speak to her and she was grateful for his forbearance.  Her mind was in a turmoil; she was married ­that was all she knew ­married to somebody she liked but did not love.  Married to a man who had been chosen for her partly against her will.  She glanced at him out of the corners of her eyes; if she was joyless, no less was he.  It was an inauspicious beginning to a married life which would end who knew how?  Before the depressing granite façade of the London Safe Deposit the party descended, Mr. Debenham paid the cabman, and they went down the stone steps into the vaults of the repository.

There was a brief check whilst Mr. Debenham explained his authority for the visit, and it was when the officials were making reference to their books that the party was augmented by the arrival of Poltavo.

He bowed over the girl’s hand, holding it a little longer than Frank could have liked, murmured colourless congratulations and nodded to Debenham.

“Count Poltavo is here, I may say,” explained the lawyer, “by your late uncle’s wishes.  They were contained in a letter he wrote to me a few days before he disappeared.”

Frank nodded grudgingly; still he was generous enough to realize something of this man’s feelings if he loved Doris, and he made an especial effort to be gracious to the new-comer.

A uniformed attendant led them through innumerable corridors till they came to a private vault guarded by stout bars.  The attendant opened these and they walked into a little stone chamber, illuminated by overhead lights.

The only article of furniture in the room was a small safe which stood in one corner.  A very small safe indeed, thought Frank, to contain so large a fortune.  The lawyer turned the key in the lock methodically, and the steel door swung back.  The back of Mr. Debenham obscured their view of the safe’s interior.  Then he turned with an expression of wonder.

“There is nothing here,” he said.

“Nothing!” gasped Doris.

“Save this,” said the lawyer.

He took a small envelope and handed it to the girl.  She opened it mechanically and read: 

“I have, unfortunately, found it necessary to utilize your fortune for the furtherance of my plans.  You must try and forgive me for this; but I have given you a greater one than you have lost, a husband.”

She looked up.

“What does this mean?” she whispered.

Frank took the letter from her hand and concluded the reading.

“A husband in Frank Doughton....”

The words swam before his eyes.

“And Frank Doughton is the heir to the Tollington millions, as his father was before him.  All the necessary proofs to establish his identity will be discovered in the sealed envelope which the lawyer holds, and which is inscribed ‘C.’”

The letter was signed “Gregory Farrington.”

The lawyer was the first to recover his self-possession; his practical mind went straight to the business at hand.

“There is such an envelope in my office,” he said, “given to me by Mr. Farrington with strict instructions that it was not to be handed to his executors or to any person until definite instructions arrived ­instructions which would be accompanied by unmistakable proof as to the necessity for its being handed over.  I congratulate you, Mr. Doughton.”

He turned and shook hands with the bewildered Frank, who had been listening like a man in a dream; the heir to the Tollington millions; he, the son of George Doughton, and all the time he had been looking for ­what?  For his own grandmother!

It came on him all of a rush.  He knew now that all his efforts, all his search might have been saved, if he had only realized the Christian name of his father’s mother.

He had only the dimmest recollection of the placid-faced lady who had died whilst he was at school; he had never associated in his mind this serene old lady, who had passed away only a few hours before her beloved husband, with the Annie for whom he had searched.  It made him gasp ­then he came to earth quickly as he realized that his success had come with the knowledge of his wife’s financial ruin.  He looked at her as she stood there ­it was too vast a shock for her to realize at once.

He put his arm about her shoulder, and Poltavo, twirling his little moustache, looked at the two through his lowered lids with an ugly smile playing at the corner of his mouth.

“It is all right, dear,” said Frank soothingly; “your money is secure ­it was only a temporary use he made of it.”

“It is not that,” she said, with a catch in her throat; “it is the feeling that my uncle trapped you into this marriage.  I did not mind his dissipating my own fortune; the money is nothing to me.  But he has caught you by a trick, and he has used me as a bait.”  She covered her face with her hands.

In a few moments she had composed herself; she spoke no other word, but suffered herself to be led out of the building into the waiting cab.  Poltavo watched them drive off with that fierce little smile of his, and turned to the lawyer.

“A clever man, Mr. Farrington,” he said, in a bitter tone of reluctant admiration.

The lawyer looked at him steadily.

“His Majesty’s prisons are filled with men who specialize in that kind of cleverness,” he said, drily, and left Poltavo without another word.