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

It was three days after the exchange of letters that Count Poltavo, in the rough tweeds of a country gentleman ­a garb which hardly suited his figure or presence ­strolled carelessly across the downs, making his way to their highest point, a great rolling slope, from the crest of which a man could see half a dozen miles in every direction.

The sky was overcast and a chill wind blew; it was such a day upon which he might be certain no pleasure-seekers would be abroad.  To his left, half hidden in the furthermost shelter of the downs, veiled as it was for ever under a haze of blue grey smoke, lay Great Bradley, with its chimneys and its busy industrial life.  To his right he caught a glimpse of the square ugly façade of the Secret House, half hidden by the encircling trees.  To its right was a chimney stack from which a lazy feather of smoke was drifting.  Behind him the old engine house of the deserted mines, and to the right of that the pretty little cottage from which a week before Lady Constance Dex had so mysteriously disappeared, and which in consequence had been an object of pilgrimage for the whole countryside.

But Lady Constance Dex’s disappearance had become a nine days’ wonder.  There were many explanations offered for her unexpected absence.  The police of the country were hunting systematically and leisurely, and only T. B. and those in his immediate confidence were satisfied that the missing woman was less than two miles away from the scene of her disappearance.

Count Poltavo had armed himself with a pair of field-glasses, and now he carefully scrutinized all the roads which led to the downs.  A motor-car, absurdly diminutive from the distance, came spinning along the winding white road two miles away.  He watched it as it mounted the one hill and descended the other, and kept his glasses on it until it vanished in a cloud of dust on the London road.  Then he saw what he sought.  Coming across the downs a mile away was the bent figure of a man who stopped now and again to look about, as though uncertain as to the direction he should take.  Poltavo, lying flat upon the ground, his glasses fixed upon the man, waited, watching the slow progress with lazy interest.

He saw an old man, white-bearded and grey-haired, carrying his hat in his hand as he walked.  His rough homespun clothing, his collarless shirt open at the throat, the plaid scarf around his neck, all these Poltavo saw through his powerful glasses and was satisfied.

This was not the kind of man to play tricks, he smiled to himself.  Poltavo’s precautions had been of an elaborate nature.  Three roads led to the downs, and in positions at equal distances from where he stood he had placed three cars.  He was ready for all emergencies.  If he had to fly, then whichever way of escape was necessary would bring him to a means of placing a distance between himself and any possible pursuer.

The old man came nearer.  Poltavo made a hasty but narrow survey of the messenger.

“Good,” he said.

He walked to meet the old man.

“You have a letter for me?” he inquired.

The other glanced at him suspiciously.

“Name?” he asked gruffly.

“My name,” said the smiling Pole, “is Poltavo.”

Slowly the messenger groped in his pockets and produced a heavy package.  “You’ve got to give me something,” he said.

Poltavo handed over a sealed packet, receiving in exchange the messenger’s.

Again Poltavo shot a smiling glance at this sturdy old man.  Save for the beard and the grey hair which showed beneath the broad-brimmed, wide-awake hat, this might have been a young man.

“This is an historic meeting,” Poltavo went on gaily.  His heart was light and his spirits as buoyant as ever they had been in his life.  All the prospects which this envelope, now bulging in his pocket, promised, rose vividly before his eyes.

“Tell me your name, my old friend, that I may carry it with me, and on some occasion which is not yet, that I may toast your health.”

“My name,” said the old man, “is T. B. Smith, and I shall take you into custody on a charge of attempting to extort money by blackmail.”

Poltavo sprang back, his face ashen.  One hand dived for his pistol-pocket, but before he could reach it T. B. was at his throat.  That moment the Pole felt two arms gripping him, two steel bands they seemed, and likely to crush his arms into his very body.  Then he went over with the full weight of the detective upon him, and was momentarily stunned by the shock.  He came to himself rapidly, but not quickly enough.  He was conscious of something cold about his wrists, and a none too kindly hand dragged him to his feet.  T. B. with his white beard all awry was a comical figure, but Poltavo had no sense of humour at that moment.

“I think I have you at last, my friend,” said T. B. pleasantly.  He was busy removing his disguise and wiping his face clean of the grease paint, which had been necessary, with a handkerchief which was already grimy with his exertions.

“You will have some difficulty in proving anything against me,” said the other defiantly; “there is only you and I, and my word is as good as yours.  As to the Duke of Ambury ­”

T. B. laughed, a long chuckling laugh of delight.

“My poor man,” he said pityingly, “there is no Duke of Ambury.  I depended somewhat upon your ignorance of English nobility, but I confess that I did not think you would fall so quickly to the bait.  The Dukedom of Ambury ceased to exist two hundred years ago.  It is one of those titles which have fallen into disuse.  Ambury Castle, from which the letters were addressed to you, is a small suburban villa on the outskirts of Bolton, the rent of which,” he said carefully, “is, I believe, some forty pounds a year.  We English have a greater imagination than you credit us with, Count,” he went on, “and imagination takes no more common flight than the namings of the small dwellings of our humble fellow-citizens.”

He took his prisoner by the arm and led him across the downs.

“What are you going to do with me?” asked Poltavo.

“I shall first of all take you to Great Bradley police station, and then I shall convey you to London,” said T. B.  “I have three warrants for you, including an extradition warrant issued on behalf of the Russian Government, but I think they may have to wait a little while before they obtain any satisfaction for your past misdeeds.”

The direction they took led them to Moor Cottage.  In a quarter of an hour a force of police would be on the spot, for T. B. had timed his arrangements almost to the minute.  He opened the door of the cottage and pushed his prisoner inside.

“We will avoid the study,” he smiled; “you probably know our mutual friend Lady Constance Dex disappeared under somewhat extraordinary circumstances from that room, and since I have every wish to keep you, we will take the drawing-room as a temporary prison.”

He opened the door of the little room in which the piano was, and indicated to his captive to sit in one of the deep-seated chairs.

“Now, my friend,” said T. B., “we have a chance of mutual understanding.  I do not wish to disguise from you the fact that you are liable to a very heavy sentence.  That you are only an agent I am aware, but in this particular case you were acting entirely on your own account.  You have made elaborate and thorough preparations for leaving England.”

Poltavo smiled.

“That is true,” he said, frankly.

T. B. nodded.

“I have seen your trunks all beautifully new, and imposingly labelled,” he smiled, “and I have searched them.”

Poltavo sat, his elbows on his knees, reflectively smoothing his moustache with his manacled hands.

“Is there any way I can get out of this?” he asked, after a while.

“You can make things much easier for yourself,” replied T. B. quietly.

“In what way?”

“By telling me all you know about Farrington and giving me any information you can about the Secret House.  Where, for instance, is Lady Constance Dex?”

The other shrugged his shoulders.

“She is alive, I can tell you that.  I had a letter from Fall in which he hinted as much.  I do not know how they captured her, or the circumstances of the case.  All I can tell you is that she is perfectly well and being looked after.  You see Farrington had to take her ­she shot at him once ­hastened his disappearance in fact, and there was evidence that she was planning further reprisals.  As to the mysteries of the Secret House,” he said, frankly, “I know little or nothing.  Farrington, of course, is ­”

“Montague Fallock,” said T. B. quietly.  “I know that also.”

“Then what else do you want to know?” asked the other, in surprise.  “I am perfectly willing, if you can make it easy for me, to tell you everything.  The man who is known as Moole is a half-witted old farm labourer who was picked up by Farrington some years ago to serve his purpose.  He is the man who unknowingly poses as a millionaire.  It is his estate which Farrington is supposed to be administering.  You see,” he explained, “this rather takes off the suspicion which naturally attaches to a house which nobody visits, and it gives the inmates a certain amount of protection.”

“That I understand,” said T. B.; “it is, as you say, an ingenious idea ­what of Fall?”

Poltavo shrugged his shoulders.

“You know as much of him as I. There are, however, many things which you may not know,” he went on slowly, “and of these there is one which you would pay a high price to learn.  You will never take Farrington.”

“May I ask why?” asked T. B. interestedly.

“That is my secret,” said the other; “that is the secret I am willing to sell you.”

“And the price?” asked T. B. after a pause.

“The price is my freedom,” said the other boldly.  “I know you can do anything with the police.  As yet, no charge has been made against me.  At the most, it is merely a question of attempting to obtain money by a trick ­and even so you will have some difficulty in proving that I am guilty.  Yes, I know you will deny this, but I have some knowledge of the law, Mr. Smith, and I have also some small experience of English juries.  It is not the English law that I am afraid of, and it is not the sentence which your judges will pass upon me which fills me with apprehension.  I am afraid of my treatment at the hands of the Russian Government.”

He shivered a little.

“It is because I wish to avoid extradition that I make this offer.  Put things right for me, and I will place in your hands, not only the secret of Farrington’s scheme for escape, but also the full list of his agents through the country.  You will find them in no books,” he said with a smile; “my stay in the Secret House was mainly occupied from morning till night in memorizing those names and those addresses.”

T. B. looked at him thoughtfully.

“There is something in what you say,” he said.  “I must have a moment to consider your offer.”

He heard a noise from the road without and pulled aside the blind.  A car had driven up and was discharging a little knot of plain clothes Scotland Yard men.  Amongst them he recognized Ela.

“I shall take the liberty of locking you in this room for a few moments whilst I consult my friends,” said T. B.

He went out, turned the key in the lock and put it in his pocket.  Outside he met Ela.

“Have you got him?” asked the detective.

T. B. nodded.

“I have taken him,” he said; “moreover, I rather fancy I have got the whole outfit in my hands.”

“The Secret House?” asked Ela eagerly.

“Everything,” said T. B.; “it all depends upon what we can do with Poltavo.  If we can avoid bringing him before a magistrate, I can smash this organization.  I know it is contrary to the law, but it is in the interests of the law.  How many men have we available?”

“There are a hundred and fifty in the town of Great Bradley itself,” said Ela calmly; “half of them local constabulary, and half of them our own men.”

“Send a man down to order them to take up a position round the Secret House, allow nobody to leave it, stop all motor-cars approaching or departing from the house, and above all things no car is to leave Great Bradley without its occupants being carefully scrutinized.  What’s that?” he turned suddenly.

A sudden muffled scream had broken into the conversation and it had come from the inside of the cottage.

“Quick!” snapped T. B.

He sprang into the passage of the cottage, reached the door of the room where he had left his prisoner, slipped the key in the lock with an unerring hand and flung open the door.

The room was empty.