Count Poltavo, a busy man of affairs in these days, walked up the stairs of the big block of flats in which he had his modest dwelling with a little smile upon his lips and a sense of cheer in his heart. There were many reasons why this broken adventurer, who had arrived in London only a few months before with little more than his magnificent wardrobe, should feel happy. He had been admitted suddenly into the circle of the elect. Introductions had been found which paved a way for further introductions. He was the confidential adviser of the most beautiful woman in London, was the trusted of aristocrats. If there was a wrathful and suspicious young newspaper man obviously and undisguisedly thirsting for his blood that was not a matter which greatly affected the Count. It had been his good fortune to surprise the secret of the late Mr. Farrington; by the merest of chances he had happened upon the true financial position of this alleged millionaire; had discovered him to be a swindler and in league, so he guessed, with the mysterious Montague Fallock. All this fine position which Farrington had built up was a veritable house of cards. It remained now for the Count to discover how far Farrington's affection for his niece had stayed his hand in his predatory raid upon the cash balances of his friends and relatives. Anyway, the Count thought, as he fitted a tiny key into the lock of his flat, he was in a commanding position. He had all the winning cards in his hand, and if the prizes included so delectable a reward as Doris Gray might be, the Count, a sentimental if unscrupulous man, was perfectly satisfied. He walked through his sitting-room to the bedroom beyond and stood for a moment before the long mirror. It was a trick of Count Poltavo to commune with himself, and when he was rallied on this practice, suggestive of vanity to the uninitiated, he confirmed rather than disabused that criticism by protesting that there was none whom he could trust with such absence of fear of consequence as his own bright worthy image.
He had reason for the smile which curved his thin lips. Every day he was making progress which placed Doris Gray more and more, if not in his power, at least under his influence.
He lived alone without any servants save for the old woman who came every morning to tidy his flat, and when the bell rang as he stood before the mirror, he answered it himself without any thought as to the importance of the summons. For Count Poltavo was not above taking in the milk or chaffering with tradesmen over the quality of a cabbage. It was necessary that he must jealously husband his slender resources until fate placed him in possession of a larger and a more generous fortune than that which he now possessed. He opened the door, and took a step back, then with a little bow:
"Come in, Mr. Doughton," he said.
Frank Doughton strode across the tiny hall, waited until the Count had closed the door, and opened another, ushering the visitor into his study.
"To what am I indebted for the honour of this visit?" asked Poltavo, as he pushed forward a chair.
"I wanted to see you on a matter which deeply affects you and me," said the young man briskly, even rudely.
Count Poltavo inclined his head. He recognized all the disagreeable portents, but he was not in any way abashed or afraid. He had had experience of many situations less pleasant than this threatened to be and had played his part worthily.
"I can give you exactly a quarter of an hour," he said, looking at his watch; "at the end of that period I must leave for Brakely Square. You understand there is to be a reading of the will of our departed friend, and----"
"I know all about that," interrupted Frank, roughly; "you are not the only person who has been invited to that pleasant function."
"You also?" The Count was a little surprised. He himself went as friend and adviser to the bereaved girl, a position which a certain letter had secured for him. That letter in three brief lines had told the girl to trust Poltavo. It was about this letter that Frank had come, and he came straight to the point.
"Count Poltavo," he said, "the day after Mr. Farrington's disappearance a messenger brought a letter for Miss Gray."
"So I understand," he said, smoothly.
"So you know," challenged the other, "because it concerned you. It was a letter in which Doris was told to trust you absolutely; it was a letter also which gave her hope that the man whose body was found in the Thames was not that of Farrington."
"That is not a view that has been accepted by the authorities," he said quickly. "The jury had no doubt that this was the body of Mr. Farrington, and brought in a verdict accordingly."
"What a jury thinks and what Scotland Yard thinks," he said, drily, "are not always in agreement. As a result of that letter," he went on, "Miss Gray has reposed a great deal of trust in you, Count, and day by day my efforts to serve her have been made more difficult by her attitude. I am a plain-speaking Englishman, and I am coming to the point, right now,"--he thumped the table: "Doris Gray's mind is becoming poisoned against one who has no other object in life than to serve her faithfully."
Count Poltavo shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
"My dear young man," he said, smoothly, "you do not come to me, I trust, to act as your agent in order to induce Miss Gray to take any other view of you than she does. Because if you do," he went on suavely, "I am afraid that I cannot help you very much. There is an axiom in the English language to which I subscribe most thoroughly, and it is that 'all is fair in love and war.'"
"In love?" repeated Frank, looking the other straight in the eyes.
"In love," the Count asserted, with a nod of his head, "it is not the privilege of any human being to monopolize in his heart all the love in the world, or to say this thing I love and none other shall love it. Those qualities in Miss Gray which are so adorable to you are equally adorable to me."
He spread out his hands in deprecation.
"It is a pity," he said, with his little smile, "and I would do anything to avoid an unpleasant outcome to our rivalry. It is a fact that cannot be gainsaid that such a rivalry exists. I have reason to know that the late Mr. Farrington had certain views concerning his niece and ward, and I flatter myself that those views were immensely favourable to me."
"What do you mean?" asked Frank, harshly.
The Count shrugged again.
"I had a little conversation with Mr. Farrington in the course of which he informed me that he would like nothing better than to see the future of Doris assured in my hands."
Frank went white.
"That is a lie," he said, hoarsely. "The views of Mr. Farrington were as well known to me as they are to you--better, if that is your interpretation of them."
"And they were?" asked the Count, curiously.
"I decline to discuss the matter with you," said Frank. "I want only to tell you this. If by chance I discover that you are working against me by your lies or your cunning, I will make you very sorry that you ever came into my life."
"Allow me to show you the door," said Count Poltavo. "People of my race and of my family are not usually threatened with impunity."
"Your race I pretty well know," said Frank, coolly; "your family is a little more obscure. If it is necessary for me to go any farther into the matter, and if I am so curious that I am anxious for information, I shall know where to apply."
"And where will that be?" asked the Count softly, his hand upon the door.
"To the Governor of Alexandrovski Prison," said Frank.
The Count closed the door behind his visitor, and stood for some moments in thought.
It was a depressed little party which assembled an hour later in the drawing-room of the Brakely Square house. To the Count's annoyance, Frank was one of these, and he had contrived to secure a place near the sad-faced girl and engage her in conversation. The Count did not deem it advisable at this particular moment to make any attempt to separate them: he was content to wait.
T. B. Smith was there.
He had secured an invitation by the simple process of informing those responsible for the arrangements that if that courtesy was not offered to him he would come in another capacity than that of a friend.
The senior partner of Messrs. Debenham & Tree, the great city lawyers, was also present, seated at a table with his clerk, on which paper and ink was placed, and where too, under the watchful eyes of his assistant, was a bulky envelope heavily sealed.
There were many people present to whom the reading of this will would be a matter of the greatest moment. Farrington had left no private debts. Whatever plight the shareholders of the company might be in, he himself, so far as his personal fortune was concerned, was certainly solvent.
T. B.'s inquiries had revealed, to his great astonishment, that the girl's fortune was adequately secured. Much of the contents of the will, which was to astonish at least three people that day, was known to T. B. Smith, and he had pursued his investigations to the end of confirming much which the dead millionaire had stated.
Presently, when Doris left the young man to go to the lawyer for a little consultation, T. B. made his way across the room and sat down by the side of Frank Doughton.
"You were a friend of Mr. Farrington's, were you not?" he asked.
"A great friend?"
"I hardly like to say that I was a great friend," said the other; "he was very kind to me."
"In what way was he kind?" asked T. B. "You will forgive me for asking these somewhat brutal questions, but as you know I have every reason to be interested."
Frank smiled faintly.
"I do not think that you are particularly friendly disposed toward him, Mr. Smith," he said; "in fact, I rather wonder that you are present, after what happened at the theatre."
"After my saying that I wanted to arrest him," smiled T. B. "But why not? Even millionaires get mixed up in curious illegal proceedings," he said; "but I am rather curious to know what is the reason for Mr. Farrington's affection and in what way he was kind to you."
Frank hesitated. He desired most of all to be loyal to the man who, with all his faults, had treated him with such kindness.
"Well, for one thing," he said, "he gave me a jolly good commission, a commission which might easily have brought me in a hundred thousand pounds."
T. B.'s interest was awakened.
"What was that?" he asked.
In as few words as possible Frank told the story of the search for the heir to the Tollington millions.
"Of course," he said, with an apologetic smile, "I was not the man for the job--he should have given it to you. I am afraid I am not cut out for a detective, but he was very keen on my taking the matter in hand."
T. B. bit his lips thoughtfully.
"I know something of the Tollington millions," he said; "they were left by the timber king of America who died without issue, and whose heir or heirs were supposed to be in this country. We have had communications about the matter."
He frowned again as he conjured to his mind all the data of this particular case.
"Of course, Farrington was one of the trustees; he was a friend of old Tollington. That money would not be involved," he said, half to himself, "because the four other trustees are men of integrity holding high positions in the financial world of the United States. Thank you for telling me; I will look up the matter, and if I can be of any assistance to you in carrying out Mr. Farrington's wishes you may be sure that I will."
There was a stir at the other end of the room. With a preliminary cough, the lawyer rose, the papers in his hand.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, and a silence fell upon the room, "it is my duty to read to you the terms of the late Mr. Farrington's will, and since it affects a great number of people in this room, I shall be glad if you will retain the deepest silence."
There was a murmur of agreement all round, and the lawyer began reading the preliminary and conventional opening of the legal document. The will began with one or two small bequests to charitable institutions, and the lawyer looking over his glasses said pointedly:
"I need hardly say that there will be no funds available from the estate for carrying out the wishes of the deceased gentleman in this respect, since they are all contingent upon Mr. Farrington possessing a certain sum at his death which I fear he did not possess. The will goes on to say," he continued reading:
"'KNOWING that my dear niece and ward is amply provided for, I can do no more than leave her an expression of my trust and love, and it may be taken as my last and final request that she marries with the least possible delay the person whom it is my most earnest desire she should take as a husband.'"
Two people in the audience felt a sudden cold thrill of anticipation.
"'That person,'" continued the lawyer, solemnly, "'is my good friend, Frank Doughton.'"
There was a gasp from Frank; a startled exclamation from the girl. Poltavo went red and white and his eyes glowed. T. B. Smith, to whom this portion of the will was known, watched the actors keenly. He saw the bewildered face of the girl, the rage in Poltavo's eyes, and the blank astonishment on the face of Frank as the lawyer went on:
"'Knowing the insecurity of present-day investments, and seized with the fear that the fortune entrusted to my keeping might be dissipated by one of those strange accidents of finance with which we are all acquainted, I have placed the whole of her fortune, to the value of eight hundred thousand pounds, in a safe at the London Safe Deposit, and in the terms of the power vested in me as trustee by her late father I have instructed my lawyers to hand her the key and the authority to open the safe on the day she marries the aforesaid Frank Doughton. And if she should refuse or through any cause or circumstance decline to carry out my wishes in this respect, I direct that the fortune contained therein shall be withheld from her for the space of five years as from the date of my death.'"
There was another long silence. T. B. saw the change come over the face of Poltavo. From rage he had passed to wonder, from wonder to suspicion, and from suspicion to anger again. T. B. would have given something substantial to have known what was going on inside the mind of this smooth adventurer. Again the lawyer's voice insisted upon attention.
"'To Frank Doughton,'" he read, "'I bequeath the sum of a thousand pounds to aid him in his search for the Tollington heir. To T. B. Smith, the assistant commissioner at Scotland Yard with whom I have had some acquaintance, and whose ability I hold in the highest regard, I leave the sum of a thousand pounds as a slight reward for his service to civilization, and I direct that on the day he discovers the most insidious enemy to society, Montague Fallock, he shall receive a further sum of one thousand pounds from the trustees of my estate.'"
The lawyer looked up from his reading.
"That again, Mr. Smith, is contingent upon certain matters."
T. B. smiled.
"I quite understand that," he said, drily, "though possibly you don't," he added under his breath.
This was a portion of the will about which he knew nothing for the document had been executed but a few days before the tragedy which had deprived the world of Gregory Farrington. There were a few more paragraphs to read; certain jewelleries had been left to his dear friend Count Ernesto Poltavo, and the reading was finished.
"I have only to say now," said the lawyer, as he carefully folded his glasses and put them away in his pocket, "that there is a very considerable sum of money at Mr. Farrington's bank. It will be for the courts to decide in how so far that money is to be applied to the liquidation of debts incurred by the deceased as director of a public company. That is to say, that it will be a question for the supreme judicature whether the private fortune of the late Mr. Farrington will be seized to satisfy his other creditors."
There was a haze and a babble of talk. Poltavo crossed with quick steps to the lawyer, and for a moment they were engaged in quick conversation; then suddenly the adventurer turned and left the room. T. B. had seen the move and followed with rapid steps. He overtook the Count in the open doorway of the house.
"A word with you, Count," he said, and they descended the steps together into the street. "The will was rather a surprise to you?"
Count Poltavo was now all smooth equanimity. You might not have thought from his smooth face and his smile, and his gentle drawling tone, that he had been affected by the reading of this strange document.
"It is a surprise, I confess," he said. "I do not understand my friend Farrington's action in regard to----" he hesitated.
"In regard to Miss Gray," smiled T. B.
Of a sudden the self-control of the man left him, and he turned with a snarling voice on the detective, but his wrath was not directed toward the cool man who stood before him.
"The treacherous dog!" he hissed, "to do this--to me. But it shall not be, it shall not be, I tell you; this woman is more to me than you can imagine." He struck his breast violently. "Can I speak with you privately?"
"I thought you might wish to," said T. B.
He lifted his hand and made an almost imperceptible signal, and a taxicab which had stood on the opposite side of the road, and followed them slowly as they walked along Brakely Square, suddenly developed symptoms of activity, and came whirring across the road to the sidewalk.
T. B. opened the door and Poltavo stepped in, the detective following. There was no need to give any instructions, and without any further order the cab whirled its way through the West End until it came to the arched entrance of Scotland Yard, and there the man alighted. By the time they had reached T. B.'s room, Poltavo had regained something of his self-possession. He walked up and down the room, his hands thrust into his pockets, his head sunk upon his breast.
"Now," said T. B., seating himself at his desk, "what would you like to say?"
"There is much I would like to say," said Poltavo, quietly, "and I am now considering whether it will be in my interest to tell all at this moment or whether it would be best that I should maintain my silence longer."
"Your silence in regard to Farrington I presume you are referring to," suggested T. B. Smith easily; "perhaps I can assist you a little to unburden your mind."
"I think not," said Poltavo, quickly; "you cannot know as much about this man as I. I had intended," he said, frankly, "to tell you much that would have surprised you; at present it is advisable that I should wait for one or two days in order that I may give some interested people an opportunity of undoing a great deal of mischief which they have done. I must go to Paris at once."
T. B. said nothing; there was no purpose to be served in hastening the issue at this particular moment. The man had recovered his self-possession, he would talk later, and T. B. was content to wait, and for the moment to entertain his unexpected guest.
"It is a strange place," said the Count calmly, scrutinizing the room; "this is Scotland Yard! The Great Scotland Yard! of which all criminals stand in terror, even with which our local criminals in Poland have some acquaintance."
"It is indeed a strange place," said T. B. "Shall I show you the strangest place of all?"
"I should be delighted," said the other.
T. B. led the way along the corridor, rang for the lift, and they were shot up to the third floor. Here at the end of a long passage, was a large room, in which row after row of cabinets were methodically arrayed.
"This is our record department," said T. B.; "it will have a special interest for you, Count Poltavo."
"Why for me?" asked the other, with a smile.
"Because I take it you are interested in the study of criminal detection," replied T. B. easily.
He walked aimlessly along one extensive row of drawers, and suddenly came to a halt.
"Here, for instance, is a record of a remarkable man," he said. He pulled open a drawer unerringly, ran his fingers along the top of a batch of envelopes and selected one. He nodded the Count to a polished table near the window, and pulled up two chairs.
"Sit down," he said, "and I will introduce you to one of the minor masters of the criminal world."
Count Poltavo was an interested man as T. B. opened the envelope and took out two plain folders, and laid them on the table.
He opened the first of these; the photograph of a military-looking man in Russian uniform lay upon the top. Poltavo saw it, gasped, and looked up, his face livid.
"That was the Military Governor of Poland," said T. B., easily; "he was assassinated by one who posed as his son many years ago."
The Count had risen quickly, and stood shaking from head to foot, his trembling hand at his mouth.
"I have never seen him," he muttered. "I think your record office is very close--you have no ventilation."
"Wait a little," said T. B., and he turned to the second dossier.
Presently he extracted another photograph, the photograph of a young man, a singularly good-looking youth, and laid it on the table by the side of the other picture.
"Do you know this gentleman?" asked T. B.
There was no reply.
"It is the photograph of the murderer," the detective went on, "and unfortunately this was not his only crime. You will observe there are two distinct folders, each filled with particulars of our young friend's progress along the path which leads to the gallows."
He sorted out another photograph. It was a beautiful girl in a Russian peasant costume; evidently the portrait of some one taken at a fancy dress ball, because both the refined face and the figure of the girl were inconsistent with the costume.
"That is the Princess Lydia Bontasky," said T. B., "one of the victims of our young friend's treachery. Here is another."
The face of the fourth photograph was plain, and marked with sorrow.
"She was shot at Kieff by our young and high-spirited friend, and died of her wounds. Here are particulars of a bank robbery organized five years ago by a number of people who called themselves anarchists, but who were in reality very commonplace, conventional thieves unpossessed of any respect for human life. But I see this does not interest you."
He closed the dossier and put it back into its envelope, before he looked up at the Count's face. The man was pale now, with a waxen pallor of death.
"They are very interesting," he muttered.
He stumbled rather than walked the length of the room, and he had not recovered when they reached the corridor.
"This is the way out," said T. B., as he indicated the broad stairs. "I advise you, Count Poltavo, to step warily. It will be my duty to inform the Russian police that you are at present in this country. Whether they move or do not move is a problematical matter. Your fellow-countrymen are not specially energetic where crimes of five years' standing are concerned. But this I warn you,"--he dropped his hand upon the other's shoulder,--"that if you stand in my way I shall give you trouble which will have much more serious consequences for you."
Three minutes later Poltavo walked out of Scotland Yard like a man in a dream. He hailed the first cab that came past and drove back to his flat. He was there for ten minutes and emerged with a handbag.
He drove to the Grand Marylebone Hotel, and detective inspector Ela, who had watched his every movement, followed in another taxi. He waited until he saw Poltavo enter the hotel, then the officer descended some distance from the door, and walked nonchalantly to the entrance.
There was no sign of Poltavo.
Ela strolled carelessly through the corridor, and down into the big palm court. From the palm court another entrance led into the Marylebone Road. Ela quickened his steps, went through the big swing doors to the vestibule.
Yes, the porter on duty had seen the gentleman; he had called a taxi and gone a few minutes before.
Ela cursed himself for his folly in letting the man out of his sight.
He reported the result of his shadowing to T. B. Smith over the telephone, and T. B. was frankly uncomplimentary.
"However, I think I know where we will pick him up," he said. "Meet me at Waterloo; we must catch the 6:15 to Great Bradley."