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As T. B. had said, Poltavo had returned from his brief sojourn in Great Bradley, and emerged into society a new and more radiant being than ever he had been before.
There had always been some doubt as to the Count's exact financial position, and cautious hostesses had hesitated before they had invited this plausible and polished man to their social functions. There were whispers adverse as to his standing; there were even bold people who called into question his right to employ the title which graced his visiting cards. There were half a dozen Poltavos in the Almanack De Gotha, any one of whom might have been Ernesto, for so vague is the Polish hierarchy that it was impossible to fix him to any particular family, and he himself answered careless inquiries with a cryptic smile which might have meant anything.
But with his return to London, after his brief absence, there was no excuse for any hostess, even the most sceptical, in refusing to admit him to social equality on the ground of poverty. The very day he returned he acquired the lease of a house in Burlington Gardens, purchased two motor-cars, paying cash down for an early delivery, gave orders left and right for the enrichment of his person and his domicile, and in forty-eight hours had established himself in a certain mode of living which suggested that he had never known any other.
He had had his lesson and had profited thereby. He had experienced an unpleasant fright, though he might not admit it to Dr. Fall and his master; it was nevertheless a fact that, realizing as he did that he had stood face to face with a particularly unpleasant death, he had been seized by a panic which had destroyed his ordinary equilibrium.
"You may trust me, my friend," he muttered to himself, as he sorted over the papers on his brand-new desk in his brand-new study, in a house which was still redolent of the painter's art and presence. "You may trust me just so long as I find it convenient for you to trust me, but you may be sure that never again will I give you the benefit of my presence in the Secret House."
He had come back with a large sum of money to carry out his employer's plans. There were a hundred agents through the country, particulars of whom Poltavo now had in his possession. Innocent agents, and guilty agents; agents in high places and active agents in the servants' hall. Undoubtedly Gossip's Corner was a useful institution.
Farrington had not made a great deal of money from its sale; indeed, as often as not, it showed a dead loss every year. But he paid well for contributions which were sent to him, and offered a price, which exceeded the standard rate of pay, for such paragraphs as were acceptable.
Men and women, with a malicious desire to score off some enemy, would send him items which the newspapers would publish if they concerned somebody who might not be bled. Many of these facts in an amended form were, in fact, printed.
But more often than not the paragraphs and articles which came to the unknown editor dealt with scandal which it was impossible to put into print. Nevertheless, the informant would be rewarded. In some far-away country home a treacherous servant would receive postal orders to his or her great delight, but the news she or he had sent in their malice, a tit-bit concerning some poor erring woman or some foolish man, would never see the light of day, and the contributor might look in vain for the spicy paragraph which had been composed with such labour.
The unfortunate subjects of domestic treachery would receive in a day or two a letter from the mysterious Montague Fallock, retailing, to their horror, those precious secrets which they had imagined none knew but themselves. They would not associate the gossipy little rag, which sometimes found its way to the servants' hall, with the magnificent demand of this prince of blackmailers, and more often than not they would pay to the utmost of their ability to avoid exposure.
It was not only the servants' hall which supplied Montague Fallock with all the material for his dastardly work. There were men scarcely deserving the name, and women lost to all sense of honour, who found in this little journal means by which they could "come back" at those favoured people who had offered them directly or indirectly some slight offence. Sometimes the communication would reach the Gossip anonymously, but if the facts retailed were sufficiently promising, one of Fallock's investigators would be told off to discover how much truth there was in it. A bland letter would follow, and the wretched victim would emerge from the transaction the poorer in pocket and often in health.
For this remorseless and ruthless man destroyed more than fortunes; he trafficked in human lives. There had been half a dozen mysterious suicides which had been investigated by Scotland Yard, and found directly traceable to letters received in the morning, and burnt by the despairing victim before his untimely and violent departure from life.
The office of the paper was situated at the top of a building in Fleet Street; one back room comprised the whole of its editorial space, and one dour man its entire staff. It was his duty to receive the correspondence as it came and to convey it to the cloakroom of a London station. An hour later it would be called for by a messenger and transferred to another cloakroom. Eventually it would arrive in the possession of the man who was responsible for the contents of the paper. Many of these letters contained contributions in the ordinary way of business, a story or two contributed by a more or less well-known writer. Fallock, or Farrington, needed these outside contributions, not only to give the newspaper a verisimilitude of genuineness, but also to fill the columns of the journal.
He himself devoted his energies to two pages of shrewdly edited tit-bits of information about the great. They were carefully written, often devoid of any reference to the person whom they affected, and were more or less innocuous. But in every batch of letters there were always one or two which gave the master blackmailer an opportunity for extracting money from people, who had been betrayed by servants or friends. There was a standing offer in the Gossip of five guineas for any paragraph which might be useful to the editor, and it is a commentary upon the morality of human nature that there were times when Farrington paid out nearly a thousand pounds a week for the information which his unscrupulous contributors gave him.
There was work here for Poltavo; he was an accomplished scholar, and a shrewd man of affairs. If Farrington had been forced to accept his service, having accepted them, he could do no less than admit the wisdom of his choice. In his big study, with the door locked, Poltavo carefully sorted the correspondence, thinking the while.
If he played his cards well he knew his future was assured. The consequence of his present employment, the misery it might bring to the innocent and to the foolishly guilty alike, did not greatly trouble him; he was perfectly satisfied with his own position in the matter. He had found a means of livelihood, which offered enormous rewards and the minimum of risk. In his brief stay at the Secret House, Farrington had impressed upon him the necessity for respecting trifles.
"If you can make five shillings out of a working man," was his dictum, "make it. We cannot afford to despise the smallest amount," and in consequence Poltavo was paying as much attention to the ill-written and illiterate scrawls which came from the East End of London, as he was to the equally illiterate efforts of the under-butler, describing an error of his master's in a northern ducal seat. Poltavo went through the letters systematically, putting this epistle to the right, and that to the left; this to make food for the newspaper; that, as a subject for further operations. Presently he stopped and looked up at the ceiling.
"So she must marry Frank Doughton within a week," he said to himself in wonder.
Yes, Farrington had insisted upon carrying out his plans, knowing the power he held, and he, Poltavo, had accepted the ultimatum in all meekness of spirit.
"I must be losing my nerve," he muttered. "Married in a week! Am I to give her up, this gracious, beautiful girl--with her future, or without her fortune?"
He smiled, and it was not a pleasant smile to see. "No, my friend, I think you have gone a little too far. You depended too much upon my acquiescence. Ernesto, mon ami, you have to do some quick thinking between now and next Monday."
A telephone buzzed at his elbow, and he took it off and listened.
"Yes?" he asked, and then he recognized the speaker's voice, and his voice went soft and caressing, for it was the voice of Doris Gray that he heard.
"Can you see me to-morrow?" she asked.
"I can see you to-day, my lady, at once, if you wish it," he said, lightly.
There was a little hesitation at the other end of the wire.
"If you could, I should feel glad," she said. "I am rather troubled."
"Not seriously, I hope?" he asked, anxiously.
"I have had a letter from some one," she said, meaningly.
"I think I understand," he replied; "some one wishes you to do a thing which is a repugnant to you."
"I cannot say that," she said, and there was despair in her voice; "all I know is that I am bewildered by the turn events have taken. Do you know the contents of the letter?"
"I know," he said, gently; "it was my misfortune to be the bearer of the communication."
"What do you think?" she asked, after a while.
"You know what I think," he said, passionately. "Can you expect me to agree to this?"
The intensity of his voice frightened her, and she rapidly strove to bring him down to a condition of normality.
"Come to-morrow," she said, hastily. "I would like to talk it over with you."
"I will come at once," he said.
"Perhaps you had better not," she hesitated.
"I am coming at once," he said, firmly, and hung up the receiver.
In that moment of resentment against the tyranny of his employer, he forgot all the dangers which the Secret House threatened; all its swift and wicked vengeance. He only knew, with the instinct of a beast of prey who saw its quarry stolen under its very eyes, the loss which this man was inflicting upon him. Five minutes later he was in Brakely Square with the girl. She was pale and worried; there were dark circles round her eyes which spoke eloquently of a sleepless night.
"I do not know what to do," she said. "I am very fond of Frank. I can speak to you, can I not, Count Poltavo?"
"You may confide in me absolutely," he said, gravely.
"And yet I am not so fond of him," she went on, "that I can marry him yet."
"Then why do you?" he asked.
"How can I disobey this?" She held the letter out.
He took it from her hand with a little smile, walked to the fireplace and dropped it gently upon the glowing coals.
"I am afraid you are not carrying out instructions," he said, playfully.
There was something in this action which chilled her; he was thinking more of his safety and his duty to Farrington than he was of her, she thought: a curiously inconsistent view to take in all the circumstances, but it was one which had an effect upon her after actions.
"Now listen to me," he said, with his kindly smile; "you have not to trouble about this; you are to go your own way and allow me to make it right with Farrington. He is a very headstrong and ambitious man, and there is some reason perhaps why he should want you to marry Doughton, but as to that I will gain a little more information. In the meantime you are to dismiss the matter from your mind, leaving everything to me."
She shook her head.
"I am afraid I cannot do that," she said. "Unless I have a letter from my guardian expressing wishes to the contrary, I must carry out his desires. It is dreadful--dreadful,"--she wrung her hands piteously,--"that I should be placed in this wretched position. How can I help him by marrying Frank Doughton? How can I save him--can you tell me?"
He shook his head.
"Have you communicated with Mr. Doughton?"
"I sent him a letter," she hesitated. "I have kept a draft of it; would you like to see it?"
A little shade of bitter anger swept across his face, but with an effort he mastered himself.
"I should," he said, evenly.
She handed the sheet of paper to him.
"DEAR FRANK," it ran, "for some reason which I cannot explain to you, it is necessary that the marriage which my uncle desired should take place within the next week. You know my feelings towards you; that I do not love you, and that if it were left to my own wishes this marriage would not take place, but for a reason which I cannot at the moment give you I must act contrary to my own wishes. This is not a gracious nor an easy thing to say to you, but I know you well enough, with your large, generous heart and your kindly nature, to realize that you will understand something of the turmoil of feelings which at present dominate my heart."
Poltavo finished reading, and put the letter back on the table; he walked up and down the room without saying a word, then he turned on her suddenly.
"Madonna!" he said, in the liquid Southern accents of his--he had spent his early life in Italy and the address came naturally to him--"if Frank Doughton were I, would you hesitate?"
A look of alarm came into the girl's eyes; he saw then his mistake. He had confounded her response to his sympathy with a deeper feeling which she did not possess. In that one glimpse he saw more than she knew herself, that of the two Frank was the preferable. He raised his hand and arrested her stammering speech.
"There is no need to tell me," he smiled; "perhaps some day you will realize that the love Count Poltavo offered you was the greatest compliment that has ever been paid to you, for you have inspired the one passion of my life which is without baseness and without ulterior motives."
He said this in a tremulous voice, and possibly he believed it. He had said as much before to women whom he had long since forgotten, but who carried the memory of his wicked face to their graves.
"Now," he said, briskly, "we must wait for Mr. Doughton's answer."
"He has already answered," she said; "he telephoned me."
"How typically English, almost American, in his hustle; and when is the happy event to take place?" he bantered.
"Oh, please, don't, don't,"--she raised her hands and covered her face,--"I hardly know that, even now, I have the strength to carry out my uncle's wishes."
"But when?" he asked, more soberly.
"In three days. Frank is getting a special licence; we are----" She hesitated, and he waited.
"We are going to Paris," she said, with a pink flush in her face, "but Frank wishes that we shall live"--she stopped again, and then went on almost defiantly--"that we shall live apart, although we shall not be able to preserve that fact a secret."
"I understand," he said; "therein Mr. Doughton shows an innate delicacy, which I greatly appreciate."
Again that little sense of resentment swept through her; the patronage in his tone, the indefinable suggestion of possession was, she thought, uncalled for. That he should approve of Frank in that possessive manner was not far removed from an impertinence.
"Have you thought?" he asked, after a while, "what would happen if you did not marry Frank Doughton in accordance with your uncle's wishes--what terrible calamity would fall upon your uncle?"
She shook her head.
"I do not know," she said, frankly. "I am only beginning to get a dim idea of Mr. Farrington's real character. I always thought he was a kindly and considerate man; now I know him to be----" She stopped, and Poltavo supplied her deficiency of speech.
"You know him to be a criminal," he smiled, "a man who has for years been playing upon the fears and the credulity of his fellow-creatures. That must have been a shocking discovery, Miss Gray, but at least you will acquit him of having stolen your fortune."
"It is all very terrible," she said; "somehow every day brings it to me. My aunt, Lady Dinsmore, was right."
"Lady Dinsmore is always right," he said, lightly; "it is one of the privileges of her age and position. But in what respect was she right?"
The girl shook her head.
"I do not think it is loyal of me to tell you, but I must. She always thought Mr. Farrington was engaged in some shady business and has warned me time after time."
"An admirable woman," said Poltavo, with a sneer.
"In three days," he went on, thoughtfully. "Well, much may happen in three days. I must confess that I am anxious to know what would be the result of this marriage not taking place."
He did not wait for an expression of her views, but with a curt little bow he ushered himself out of the room.
"Three days," he found himself repeating, as he made his way back to his house. "Why should Farrington be in such a frantic hurry to marry the girl off, and why should he have chosen this penniless reporter?"
This was a matter which required a great deal of examination.
Two of those three days were dream days for Frank Doughton; he could not believe it possible that such a fortune could be his. But with his joy there ran the knowledge that he was marrying a woman who had no desire for such a union.
But she would learn to love him; so he promised himself in his optimism and the assurance of his own love. He had unbounded faith in himself, and was working hard in these days, not only upon his stories, but upon the clue which the discovery of the belated letter afforded him. He had carefully gone through the parish list to discover the Annies of the past fifty years. In this he was somewhat handicapped by the fact that there must have been hundreds of Annies who enjoyed no separate existence, married women who had no property qualification to appear on ratepayers' lists; anonymous Annies, who perhaps employed that as a pet name, instead of the name with which they had been christened.
He had one or two clues and was following these industriously. For the moment, however, he must drop this work and concentrate his mind upon the tremendous and remarkable business which his coming marriage involved. He had a series of articles to write for the Monitor, and he applied himself feverishly to this work.
It was two nights before his marriage that he carried the last of his work to the great newspaper office on the Thames Embankment, and delivered his manuscript in person to the editor.
That smiling man offered his congratulations to the embarrassed youth.
"I suppose we shall not be looking for any articles from you for quite a long time," he said, at parting.
"I hope so," said the other. "I do not see why I should starve because I am married. My wife will be a very rich woman," he said quietly, "but so far as I am concerned that will make no difference; I do not intend taking one penny of her fortune."
The journalist clapped him on the shoulder.
"Good lad," he said, approvingly; "the man who lives on his wife's income is a man who has ceased to live."
"That sounds like an epigram," smiled Frank.
He looked at his watch as he descended the stairs. It was nine o'clock and he had not dined; he would go up to an eating house in Soho and have his frugal meal before he retired for the night. He had had a heavy day, and a heavier day threatened on the morrow. Outside the newspaper office was a handsome new car, its lacquer work shining in the electric light. Frank was passing when the chauffeur called him.
"Excuse me, sir," he said, touching his cap, "are you Mr. Frank Doughton?"
"That is my name," said Frank, in surprise, for he did not recognize the man.
"I have been asked to call and pick you up, sir."
"Pick me up?" asked the astonished Frank--"by whom?"
"By Sir George Frederick," said the man, respectfully.
Frank knew the name of the member of Parliament and puzzled his brain as to whether he had ever met him.
"But what does Sir George want with me?" he asked.
"He wanted five minutes' conversation with you, sir," said the man.
It would have been churlish to have refused the member's request; besides, the errand would take him partly on his way. He opened the door of the landaulet and stepped in, and as the door swung to behind him, he found he was not alone in the car.
"What is the----" he began, when a powerful hand gripped his throat, and he was swung backward on the padded seat as the car moved slowly forward and, gathering speed as it went, flew along the Thames Embankment with its prisoner.
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