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Chapter 8

It was the morning after the recovery of Farrington's body that T. B. Smith sat in his big study overlooking Brakely Square. He had finished his frugal breakfast, the tray had been taken away, and he was busy at his desk when his man-servant announced Lady Constance Dex. T. B. looked at the card with an expressionless face.

"Show the lady up, George," he said, and rose to meet his visitor as she came sweeping through the doorway.

A very beautiful woman was his first impression. Whatever hardness there was in the face, whatever suggestion there might be of those masterful qualities about which he had heard, there could be no questioning the rare clearness of the skin, the glories of those hazel eyes, or the exquisite modelling of the face. He judged her to be on the right side of thirty, and was not far out, for Lady Constance Dex at that time was twenty-seven.

She was well, even richly, dressed, but she did not at first give this impression. T. B. imagined that she might be an authority on dress, and in this he took an accurate view, for though not exactly a leader of fashion, Lady Constance had perfect taste in such matters.

He pulled forward a chair to the side of his desk.

"Won't you sit down?" he said.

She gave a brief smile as she seated herself.

"I am afraid you will think I am a bore, disturbing you, Mr. Smith, especially at this hour of the morning, but I wanted to see you about the extraordinary happenings of the past few days. I have just come up to town," she went on; "in fact, I came up the moment I heard the news."

"Mr. Farrington is, or was, a friend of yours?" said T. B.

She nodded.

"He and I have been good friends for many years," she replied, quietly; "he is an extraordinary man with extraordinary qualities."

"By the way," said T. B., "his niece was staying with you a few nights ago, was she not?"

Lady Constance Dex inclined her head.

"She came to a ball I was giving, and stayed the night," she said. "I motored back to Great Bradley after the dance, so that I have not seen her since I bade her good night. I am going along to see what I can do for her," she concluded. She had been speaking very deliberately and calmly, but now it was with an effort that she controlled her voice.

"I understand, Mr. Smith," she said suddenly, "that you have a small scent bottle which is my property; Mr. Farrington wrote to me about it."

T. B. nodded.

"It was found in the area of Mr. Farrington's house," he said, "on the night that the two men were killed in Brakely Square."

"What do you suggest?" she asked.

"I suggest that you were at Mr. Farrington's house that night," said T. B. bluntly. "We are speaking now, Lady Constance, as frankly as it is possible for man and woman to speak. I suggest that you were in the house at the time of the shooting, and that when you heard the shots you doubled back into the house, through the kitchen, and out again by a back way."

He saw her lips press tighter together, and went on carelessly:

"You see, I was not satisfied with the examination I made that night. I came again in the early hours of the morning, when the fog had risen a little, and there was evidence of your retirement plainly to be seen. The back of the house opens into Brakely Mews, and I find there are four motor-cars located in the various garages in that interesting thoroughfare, none of which correspond with the tire tracks which I was able to pick up. My theory is that you heard the altercation before the house, that you came out to listen, not to make your escape, and that when you had satisfied yourself you hurried back to the mews, got into the car which was waiting for you, and drove off through the fog."

"You are quite a real detective," she drawled. "Can you tell me anything more?"

"Save that you drove yourself and that the car was a two-seater, with a self-starting arrangement, I can tell you nothing." She laughed.

"I am afraid you have been all the way to Great Bradley making inquiries," she mocked him. "Everybody there knows I drive a car, and everybody who takes the trouble to find out will learn that it is such a car as you describe."

"But I have not taken that trouble," said T. B. with a smile. "I am curious to know, Lady Constance, what you were doing in the house at that time. I do not for one moment suspect that you shot these men; indeed, I have plenty of evidence that the shots were fired from some other place than the area."

"Suppose I say," she countered, "that I was giving a party that night, that I did not leave my house."

"If you said that," he interrupted, "you would be contradicting something you have already said; namely, that you did leave the house, a journey in the middle of the night as far as I can gather, and evidently one which was of considerable moment."

She looked past him out of the window, her face set, her brows knit in a thoughtful frown.

"I can tell you a lot of things that possibly you do not know," she said, turning to him suddenly. "I can explain my return to Great Bradley very simply. There is a friend of mine, or rather a friend of my friend," she corrected herself, "who has recently returned from West Africa. I received news that he had gone to Great Bradley to carry a message from some one who was very dear to me."

There was a little tremor in her voice, and, perfect actress as she might be, thought T. B., there was little doubt that here she was speaking the truth.

"It was necessary for me that I should not miss this visitor," said Lady Constance, quietly, "though I do not wish to make capital out of that happening."

"I must again interrupt you," said T. B. easily. "The person you are referring to was Dr. Thomas Goldworthy, who has recently returned from an expedition organized by the London School of Tropical Medicine, in Congoland; but your story does not quite tally with the known fact that Dr. Goldworthy arrived in Great Bradley the night before your party, and you interviewed him then. He brought with him a wooden box which he had collected at the Custom House store at the East India Docks. An attempt was made by two burglars to obtain possession of that box and its contents, a fact that interested me considerably, since a friend of mine is engaged upon that somewhat mysterious case of attempted burglary. But that is confusing the issue. These are the facts." He tapped the table slowly as he enumerated them. "Dr. Goldworthy brought this box to Great Bradley, telegraphed to you that he was coming, and you interviewed him. It was subsequent to the interview that you returned to London for your party. Really, Lady Constance, your memory is rather bad."

She faced him suddenly resolute, defiant.

"What are you going to do?" she asked. "You do not accuse me of the murder of your two friends; you cannot even accuse me of the attempt on Mr. Farrington. You know so much of my history," she went on, speaking rapidly, "that you may as well know more. Years ago, Mr. Smith, I was engaged to a man, and we were passionately fond of one another. His name was George Doughton."

"The explorer," nodded T. B.

"He went abroad," she continued, "suddenly and unexpectedly, breaking off our engagement for no reason that I could ascertain, and all my letters to him, all my telegrams, and every effort I made to get in touch with him during the time he was in Africa were without avail. For four years I had no communication from him, no explanation of his extraordinary behaviour, and then suddenly I received news of his death. At first it was thought he had died as a result of fever, but Dr. Goldworthy who came to see me convinced me that George Doughton was poisoned by somebody who was interested in his death."

Her voice trembled, but with an effort she recovered herself.

"All these years I have not forgotten him, his face has never left my mind, he has been as precious to me as though he were by my side in the flesh. Love dies very hard in women of my age, Mr. Smith," she said, "and love injured and outraged as mine has been developed all the tiger passion which women can nurture. I have learnt for the first time why George Doughton went out to his death. He used to tell me," she said, as she rose from her chair, and paced the room slowly, "that when you are shooting wild beasts you should always shoot the female of the species first, because if she is left to the last she will avenge her slaughtered mate. There is a terrible time coming for somebody," she said, speaking deliberately.

"For whom?" asked T. B.

She smiled.

"I think you know too much already, Mr. Smith," she said; "you must find out all the rest in your own inimitable way; so far as I am concerned, you must leave me to work out my plan of vengeance. That sounds horribly melodramatic, but I am just as horribly in earnest, as you shall learn. They took George Doughton from me and they murdered him; the man who did this was Montague Fallock, and I am perhaps the only person in the world who has met Montague Fallock in life and have known him to be what he is."

She would say no more, and T. B. was too cautious a man to force the pace at this particular moment. He saw her to the door, where her beautiful limousine was awaiting her.

"I hope to meet you again very soon, Lady Constance."

"Without a warrant?" she smiled.

"I do not think it will be with a warrant," he said, quietly, "unless it is for your friend Fallock."

He stood in the hall and watched the car disappear swiftly round the corner of the square. Scarcely was it out of sight than from the little thoroughfare which leads from the mews at the back of the houses shot a motor-cyclist who followed in the same direction as the car had taken.

T. B. nodded approvingly; he was leaving nothing to chance. Lady Constance Dex would not be left day or night free from observation.

"And she did not mention Farrington!" he said to himself, as he mounted the stairs. "One would almost think he was alive."

It was nine o'clock that evening when the little two-seated motor-car which Lady Constance drove so deftly came spinning along the broad road which runs into Great Bradley, skirted the town by a side road and gained the great rambling rectory which stood apart from the little town in its own beautiful grounds. She sprang lightly out of the car.

The noise of the wheels upon the gravel walk had brought a servant to the door, and she brushed past the serving man without a word; ran upstairs to her own room and closed and locked the door behind her before she switched on the electric light. The electric light was an unusual possession in so small a town, but she owed its presence in the house to her friendship with that extraordinary man who was the occupant of the Secret House.

Three miles away, out of sight of the rectory in a fold of the hill was this great gaunt building, erected, so popular gossip said, by one who had been crossed in love and desired to live the life of a recluse, a desire which was respected by the superstitious town-folk of Great Bradley. The Secret House had been built in the hollow which was known locally as "Murderers' Valley," a pretty little glen which many years before had been the scene of an outrageous crime. The house added to, rather than detracted from, the reputation of the glen; no man saw the occupant of the Secret House; his secretary and his two Italian servants came frequently to Great Bradley to make their purchases; now and again his closed car would whizz through the streets; and Great Bradley, speculating as to the identity of its owner, could do no more than hope that one of these fine days a wheel would come off that closed car and its occupant be forced to disclose himself.

But in the main the town was content to allow the eccentric owner of the Secret House all the privacy he desired. He might do things which were unheard of, as indeed he did, and Great Bradley, standing aloof, was content to thank God that it was not cast in the same bizarre mould as this wealthy unknown, and took comfort from the reflection.

For he did many curious things. He had a power house of his own; you could see the chimney showing over Wadleigh Copse, with dynamos of enormous power which generated all that was necessary for lighting and heating the big house.

There were honest British working men in Great Bradley who spoke bitterly of the owner's preference for foreign labour, and it was a fact that the men engaged in the electrical works were without exception of foreign origin. They had their quarters and lived peacefully apart, neither offering nor desiring the confidence of their fellow-townsmen. They were, in fact, frugal people of the Latin race who had no other wish than to work hard and to save as much of their salaries as was possible in order that at some future date they might return to their beloved Italy, and live in peace with the world; they were well paid for their discretion, a sufficient reason for its continuance.

Lady Constance Dex had been fortunate in that she had secured one of the few favours which the Secret House had shown to the town. An underground cable had been laid to her house, and she alone of all human beings in the world was privileged to enter the home of this mysterious stranger without challenge.

She busied herself for some time changing her dress and removing the signs of her hasty journey from London. Her maid brought her dinner on a tray, and when she had finished she went again into her boudoir, and opening the drawer of her bureau she took out a slender-barrelled revolver. She looked at it for some time, carefully examined the chambers and into each dropped a nickel-tipped cartridge. She snapped back the hinged chamber and slipped the pistol into a pocket of her woollen cloak. She locked the bureau again and went out through the door and down the stairs. Her car was still waiting, but she turned to the servant who stood deferentially by the door.

"Have the car put in the garage," she said; "I am going to see Mrs. Jackson."

"Very good, my lady," said the man.

Edgar Wallace

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