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The Corner House written by Fred M. White who wrote a number of novels and short stories under the name "Fred M. White" including the six 'Doom of London' science-fiction stories, in which various catastrophes beset London . This book was published in 1906. And now republish in ebook format. We believe this work is culturally important in its original archival form. While we strive to adequately clean and digitally enhance the original work, there are occasionally instances where imperfections such as missing pages, poor pictures or errant marks may have been introduced due to either the quality of the original work. Despite these occasional imperfections, we have brought it back into print as part of our ongoing global book preservation commitment, providing customers with access to the best possible historical reprints. We appreciate your understanding of these occasional imperfections, and sincerely hope you enjoy reading this book.
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The Corner House
Fred M. White
CHAPTER I. THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR
CHAPTER II. HETTY.
CHAPTER III. THE FACE AT THE WINDOW.
CHAPTER IV. WEAVING THE NET.
CHAPTER V. IN THE MORNING ROOM.
CHAPTER VI. A VISITOR.
CHAPTER VII. AT THE CORNER HOUSE.
CHAPTER VIII. PAUL PROUT.
CHAPTER IX. THE MISSING NOTES.
CHAPTER X. A POLICY OF SILENCE.
CHAPTER XI. THE NOTES ARE TRACED.
CHAPTER XII. PROUT IS PUZZLED.
CHAPTER XIII. SECOND SIGHT.
CHAPTER XIV. "CROWNER'S QUEST."
CHAPTER XV. LAWRENCE PROPHESIES AGAIN.
CHAPTER XVI. MR. CHARLTON SPEAKS.
CHAPTER XVII. THE GAMBLERS.
CHAPTER XVIII. LAWRENCE IS MYSTERIOUS.
CHAPTER XIX. STOLEN!
CHAPTER XX. "UNEASY LIES THE HEAD."
CHAPTER XXI. PERIL.
CHAPTER XXII. FOR LOVE AND DUTY.
CHAPTER XXIII. TEN MINUTES PAST TWELVE.
CHAPTER XXIV. TREASURE TROVE.
CHAPTER XXV. A CHECK.
CHAPTER XXVI. THE BLACK MOTOR.
CHAPTER XXVII. A GLASS OF WINE.
CHAPTER XXVIII. BAFFLED.
CHAPTER XXIX. A KNOCK AT THE DOOR.
CHAPTER XXX. PROUT GETS A CLUE.
CHAPTER XXXI. AN URGENT CALL.
CHAPTER XXXII. TOUCH AND GO.
CHAPTER XXXIII. THE WAY BLOCKED.
CHAPTER XXXIV. A CLEVER MOVE.
CHAPTER XXXV. A POWERFUL ALLY.
CHAPTER XXXVI. A FAINT CLUE.
CHAPTER XXXVII. THE TALK OF THE TOWN.
CHAPTER XXXVIII. MAITRANK STRIKES.
CHAPTER XXXIX. LAWRENCE SHOWS HIS HAND.
CHAPTER XL. ANOTHER COIL.
CHAPTER XLI. PROUT IS INDISCREET.
CHAPTER XLII. FEAR!
CHAPTER XLIII. A SLICE OF LUCK.
CHAPTER XLIV. AT LAST.
CHAPTER XLV. A CHASE.
CHAPTER XLVI. HETTY LEARNS SOMETHING.
CHAPTER XLVII. FLOWN.
CHAPTER XLVIII. HETTY SPEAKS OUT.
CHAPTER XLIX. IN THE DEAD OF THE NIGHT.
CHAPTER L. THREATENED RUIN.
CHAPTER LI. THE WOLF IS UNCHAINED.
CHAPTER LII. THE CAGE IS OPENED.
CHAPTER LIII. FACE TO FACE.
CHAPTER LIV. A STAB IN THE DARK.
CHAPTER LV. THE CORNER HOUSE AGAIN.
CHAPTER LVI. NOW THEN!
CHAPTER LVII. A WAY OUT.
CHAPTER LVIII. NEARING THE END.
CHAPTER LIX. LIGHT IN THE CORNER HOUSE.
CHAPTER LX. NARROWED DOWN.
CHAPTER LXI. LOGIC.
CHAPTER LXII. CONFESSION.
CHAPTER LXIII. A FINAL VERDICT.
"She must have seen everything."
A brilliant light streamed from the open doorway of No. 1, Lytton Avenue, making a lane of flame across the pavement, touching pinched gaunt faces that formed a striking contrast to the dazzling scene within. Outside it was cold and wet and sodden, inside was warmth, the glitter of electrics on palms and statuary and flowers, a sliding kaleidoscope of beautiful dresses. A touch of this grateful warmth came soft and perfumed down the steps, and a drawn Lazarus huddled in his rags and shivered.
"What's all this mean?" he growled to an equally indigent neighbour. There was a clatter and clash of harness as carriage after carriage drove up. "This ain't quite Park Lane, guv'nor."
"Anyway, it's the fashion," the other growled hoarsely. "I ought to know because I used to be one of them before the accursed drink—but that is another story. Ever heard of the Countess Lalage?"
"Oh, that's it. Lovely woman with a romantic history. Rich as thingamy, been proposed to by all the dukes what ain't married already. Read it in one of the evening papers."
Poverty and want were jostling with well dressed content on the pavement. It was one of the strangest and most painful contrasts that can be seen in the richest city in the world. And the contrast was heightened by the meanness of the Corner House.
Black, dark, deserted, grimy shuttered windows—a suggestion of creeping mystery about it. Time ago the Corner House was the centre of what might have been a thrilling tragedy. Some of the older neighbours could tell of a cry in the night, of the tramping of feet, of a beautiful woman with the poison still in her hand, of the stern, dark husband who said never a word, though the shadow of the scaffold lay heavily upon him.
Since then the Corner House looked down with blank shuttered eyes on the street. None had ever penetrated its mystery, nobody had crossed its threshold from that day to this. The stern dark man had disappeared; he had locked up his house and gone, leaving not so much as a caretaker behind.
Strange that this dark, forbidding house should stand cheek by jowl with all that was modern and frivolous and fashionable. Even in the garden behind Lytton Avenue the corner house frowned with sightless eyes out of its side windows, eerie and creeping in the daytime.
But the heedless throng of fashionables recked nothing of this. The Countess Lalage was their latest craze. Who she was or where she came from nobody knew nor cared. She was young and wonderfully beautiful in a dashing Southern way, her equipages were an amazement to the park; she must have been immensely rich, or she would never have entertained as she did. There must have been a Count Lalage at one time, for generally a pretty little girl rode with the Countess, and this child was her daughter. The Countess spoke casually of large South American concessions and silver mines, so that Oxford Street and Regent Street bowed down and worshipped her.
She had purchased No. 1, Lytton Avenue, just as it stood from an American millionaire who had suddenly tired of Society. Paragraphs in the cheap Society papers stated with awe that the sale had been settled in five minutes, so that on the spot this wonderful Countess Lalage had signed a cheque for more than two hundred thousand pounds.
She stood now at the head of the marble staircase, a screen of palms behind her, receiving her guests. If she were an adventuress, as some of the critics hinted, she carried it off wonderfully well. If so she was one of the finest actresses in the world. A black silk dress perfectly plain showed off her dark flashing beauty to perfection. She wore a diamond spray and tiara; a deep red rose at her breast looked like a splash of blood. Truly, a magnificent woman!
She had an easy word and a graceful speech for every one. An old diplomatist, watching her earnestly, went away muttering that she must be to the manner born. Her smile was so real and caressing, but it deepened now, and the red lips quivered slightly as a bright-eyed, square-headed young man came up the steps and bowed over her hand.
"So you came, after all, Dr. Bruce?" she said playfully. She pressed his hand gently, her eyes were soft and luminous on his face. Any man whose affections had not been pledged elsewhere would have felt his pulses leaping. "Why?"
"Need you ask?" Gordon Bruce said gallantly. "You are my patroness, you know. Your word is final in everything. And since you declared at a fashionable gathering that Dr. Gordon Bruce was the man for nerve-troubles I have found it necessary to hire a second horse."
The dark eyes grew more caressing. A more vain man would have been flattered. To be the husband of Countess Lalage meant much, to be master of all this wealth and splendour meant more. But the quiet elation in Bruce's tones was not for the Countess, if she only knew it.
The flowing tide of satin and silks and lace sweeping up the staircase swept young Gordon Bruce along. He passed through the glittering rooms faint with the perfume of roses. There was a dim corridor full of flowers and shaded lights. Gordon Bruce looked anxiously about him. A glad light came into his eyes.
The figure of a girl rose out of a bower of palms and ferns and stood before Gordon Bruce with a shy welcome in her violet eyes. Just for a moment Bruce found himself contrasting this fresh English beauty with the Lalage Southern loveliness to the detriment of the latter. There was a purity and sweetness, a wonderful tenderness of expression about Hetty Lawrence that had always appealed to Bruce.
He had known the Countess Lalage's governess for years. He admired her independence of character, too, though on the whole he would have preferred her taking the home that her uncle Gilbert Lawrence, the great novelist, was ever urging upon her. But she would have a home of her own soon.
"Gordon, I am so glad you have come," she whispered. "I have stolen away for half an hour as Mamie is better. If she wants me I have told the nurse——"
"She can't want you half so badly as I do," Gordon laughed as he bent down and kissed the shy lips. "And that queer little creature will have to learn to do without you altogether before long. Four new patients today, Hetty. And I have taken the house in Green-Street."
"Can we really afford it?" Hetty asked anxiously.
Bruce kissed her again. He loved that little pathetic, anxious look of hers. He spoke confidently of the time when Harley Street should be theirs. There was a strength and reliance about her lover that always comforted Hetty.
"I shall be glad," she whispered, after a thoughtful pause, "glad to get away from here."
"That's flattering to me. But I thought you liked the Countess."
Hetty glanced fearfully around her. Nobody was near—only the palms and the scented roses could hear her confidences.
"I have tried," she confessed, "and I have failed. She fascinates and yet repels me. There is some strange mystery about her. Gordon, I feel sure that there is the shadow of some great crime on her house. It sounds weak, hysterical, perhaps, but I can't get it out of my mind."
"But, darling, the Countess has been a good friend to me."
"I know. You are strong and ambitious, and she is helping to make you the fashion. But has it ever struck you why?"
"Perhaps it is because she has the good taste to like me," Gordon laughed.
"Because she loves you," said Hetty, in a thrilling whisper. "Because her whole heart and soul is given over to a consuming passion for you. There is a woman who would go any length to win a man's love. If a husband stood in the way she would poison him; if a woman, she would be destroyed. Gordon, I am frightened; I wake up in the middle of the night trembling. I wish you had never come here; I don't know what I wish."
Gordon looked down into the troubled violet eyes with amazement. Surely he would wake up presently and find that he had been dreaming. Countess Lalage with all the world at her feet, and he a struggling doctor. Oh, it was preposterous! And yet little words and signs and hints unnoticed at the time were coming to his mind now.
"I wish you hadn't told me this," he murmured, uneasily. "It would have been far——"
He paused. From overhead somewhere came the sound of a frightened, wailing cry, the pitiful call of a child in terror. Hetty was on her feet in a moment, all her fears had gone to the winds.
"Mamie," she exclaimed. "Of course, nurse has crept off to the rest of the servants. Poor little wee frightened soul."
Hetty flashed off down the corridor, and was gone leaving Bruce to his troubled thoughts. Just before going, Hetty stood on her toes, and kissed her lover lightly on the lips. It was, perhaps, a goodnight caress, for there was a chance that she might not return.
There was a sound at the top of the corridor, just the suggestion of a swish of silken drapery, and Gordon Bruce half turned. Under a cluster of electric lights stood Leona Lalage; she must have seen everything. It might have been fancy, it might have been a guilty conscience, but just for the moment Countess Lalage seemed transformed into a white fury with two murderous demons gleaming in her dark restless eyes. Then her silk and ivory fan fell from her hands, and Gordon hastened to recover it.
When he looked up again the mask of evil passions was gone. The Countess was smiling in her most fascinating manner. Gordon could not know that the long filbert nails had cut through the woman's glove, and were making red sores on the pink flesh. He did not know that he would have stood in peril of his life had there been a weapon near at hand.
"You must not flirt with my governess, Dr. Bruce," she said. "I would have given a great deal not to have seen what I saw just now."
The rebuke sounded in the best of taste. Gordon bowed.
"I have a good excuse," he said, "in fact, the very best. As I told you some months ago, I have known Miss Lawrence for years. We have always understood one another, but because I was in no position to marry nothing has been said. Won't you be the first to congratulate me on my engagement?"
"Then fetch me an ice. By the time you return I shall have thought of something pretty to say. Ah, I have pricked my finger. The ice, my dear boy, the ice. The finger will not hurt till you return."
Her hand had shot out grasping for something to steady herself on—the whole world spun around her. She had given her whole passionate, tempestuous soul to this man; she had never dreamt that she could fail to gain his love. She had never failed before, she had only required to hold up her hand. . . .
She clasped the stem of a rose passionately. The cruel thorns cut into the soft white flesh, but there was pleasure in the very pain. Another moment and she would have flashed out her secret and despair to the world. For the moment she was crushed and beaten to the earth. Yet she spoke very quietly and evenly, though the effort brought the blood thrilling to her temples.
She was alone now; she could give vent to her passionate anger. She smashed her fan across her knee, she tore her long gloves into fragments. Dimly, in a mirror opposite, she saw her white ghastly face, and the stain of blood where she had caught her lips between her teeth.
"So I have to sit down and submit to that tamely," she murmured. "You little white-faced cat, you pink doll, so you are going to get the best of me. We shall see; oh, yes, we shall see. If I could be somewhere where I could tear myself to pieces, where I could scream aloud and nobody could hear! If I could only face him now and smile and say honeyed words! Tomorrow, perhaps, but not tonight. Even I have my limits. . . . He's coming back!"
One glance at the dim mirror and Leona Lalage flew down the corridor. The music of the band was like the sound of mocking demons in her ears. As she flew up the stairs she could see the blank windows of the Corner House staring dreadfully in. Then she locked the door behind her and flung herself headlong down on the bed. . . .
Only for a minute, a brief respite; then she must go down to her guests again.
Hetty darted up the secondary staircase intent only on her little charge. The child was unusually nervous and imaginative, as if she had been frightened by the ghost stories of a foolish nurse. Alternatively her mother's pet and encumbrance, Mamie had been driven back upon herself. And she had given up all the love of her heart to Hetty.
It was quite silent upstairs; there was no sign of a maid anywhere. As Hetty reached the landing the frightened bleating cry broke out again. There was only a night-light in the nursery; a little white figure sat moaning in bed.
"You poor little mite," Hetty said tenderly. "There, there. I shall stay here and not leave you any more until you go to sleep. Where is Richards?"
"She said she wouldn't be a minute," Mamie sobbed. "I had one of my headaches and I couldn't go to sleep. Then I began to get frightened and I wanted somebody to talk to me. I could hear the people and the music downstairs, so I just got out of bed and went into the corridor."
"Ah, that is why your feet are so cold. Well?"
"I stood in the corridor for some time," Mamie continued with her head on Hetty's shoulder. "The blinds were up and I could see those two wide windows in the Corner House. Richards' father was a footman there and she told me all about the poor dead lady and the dark husband who never said anything——"
"Richards shall tell you no more stories," Hetty murmured. "Go on, pet."
"And then I began to think about it and wonder. And when I was wondering and wondering and looking into those dark windows I saw a light."
"You saw a light? In one of those windows? Nonsense!"
"Dearest, it was not nonsense at all. The shadow of the light was all across my nightdress. I was so frightened that I could not call out because the Corner House is empty and it must have been a ghost. But that was not all."
"You fancied that you saw something besides the light?"
"I am certain," said Mamie with a resolute nod. "There was a face, a face looking out of the window. Oh, such a terrible face! It was dirty and grimy and one eye was all discoloured, and both the eyes were wild and fierce and hungry, just like that new tiger at the Zoo. Then the face went away and I screamed, and that's all, dearest, and oh, I am so dreadfully tired."
The little dark head fell back and the troubles were forgotten for the moment. The child was breathing regularly and peacefully now. More disturbed and uneasy than she cared to admit, Hetty crept out into the corridor. A certain amount of light from the house and the street fell on the blank side of the Corner House. There were the two blank windows at one of which Mamie had seen the face. It must have been imagination, seeing that the Corner House had been deserted for years. Hetty knew its story as well as anybody else.
Was it possible that some crime or tragedy was being enacted behind those grimy walls, all unknown to the police? The house was reported to be luxuriously furnished, the front of the place was all shuttered. Stranger things are happening in this London of ours every day in the week.
She could certainly mention the matter to——. Hetty stopped suddenly and caught her breath. A faint light had commenced to glow in the Corner House, gradually the blank window shaped to a luminous outline. The light grew stronger and stronger, till Hetty could see the balustrade of the staircase. And then, surely enough there came a face to the window.
A dreadful face, a face dull and dissipated, with horrible watery red eyes, yet full of malice and cunning and passion. There was a bristle of whiskers and a moustache, as if chin and razor had for days been strangers. As suddenly as the face had come it turned. A hand shot out from somewhere, as if seeking for the throat of the strange apparition, a fist was uplifted, and the figure disappeared, evidently going down before a cruel and crushing blow. The light vanished; it had probably been overturned and gone out.
"Good heavens!" Hetty cried. "Did you see that?"
She was conscious that somebody was by her side. She looked and found that her companion was the Countess. No answer came. Hetty touched the other's arm. She was shaking from head to foot like a reed in the gale.
"Did you see that?" Hetty demanded, again.
The woman by her side was slowly recovering herself. A minute later and she was her cold calm self again.
"I saw nothing," she said, between her teeth. "And you saw nothing. It was some trick of the imagination. There is nobody in yonder house. When I took this place a year ago so that I could be near—what am I talking about? I have been working too hard at my pleasures lately; I shall have to take a rest."
"I am not suffering from any delusions," Hetty said, coldly.
"All the same, you will say nothing," Leona Lalage hissed. "What you have seen or what you imagine you have seen tonight is to remain a secret between us for all time. Do you understand me? There is no better friend than I in all the world, and there is no more dangerous enemy. See?"
She gripped the girl's arm with fearful force. A strong man would have had no more firm a clasp. Hetty winced under the pain, but no cry escaped her lips. There was some dark mystery here, some evil connexion between the desolation of the Corner House and the brilliant establishment in Lytton Avenue. Else why would Countess Lalage have been so far from the centre of the small world called Society?
"It is nothing to me," Hetty said coldly. "If you desire to avoid a scandal for the sake of the house, my lips are sealed. If you have nothing further to say to me, I will go and see if Mamie is still asleep."
Hetty rubbed her eyes with the feeling that it had all been a dream. It was not yet very late, only a little after midnight, and the brilliant saloons were still crowded with guests. Down below in the dining-rooms people were supping, there was the dreamy music of a band somewhere. As if nothing in the world had happened Countess Lalage sat smiling brilliantly and chatting with not the least distinguished of her guests, Mr. Gilbert Lawrence, the famous novelist.
Hetty's uncle was evidently flattered. He liked talking of his own work, for his heart was in it, and he had for audience one of the most brilliant and beautiful women in London. His voice was something high pitched and it carried easily to Hetty's ears. Apparently, Bruce was gone, for the girl could see nothing of him anywhere. She was only too glad for a chance to sit down quietly and ponder over the disturbing events of the evening. Nobody was likely to be particularly interested in Leona Lalage's governess.
The little man with the keen restless eyes and the pince-nez did not suggest the popular idea of the novelist. He chattered on with frank egotism. The world made much of him, and he took it for granted that all the world was interested in his work. And he was talking eagerly to Leona Lalage about the Corner House.
Hetty caught her breath eagerly. That dark and evil place seemed to have suddenly become part and parcel of her life. Instinctively she half hid herself behind a great dragon vase full of palms.
"Fact is I used to know the man who lived there," Gilbert Lawrence was saying in his quick staccato way. "And I was once in the house. No, I never met the wife. A depressing, gloomy house, like Tom Hood's haunted mansion. Just the place to plan a murder in, and never be found out. After the scandal I worked out a novel on the subject."
Leona Lalage's eyes gleamed like points of fire. They seemed to be burnt into her face. Hetty could see the restless play of the 62jeweled hands.
"Did you ever publish it?" she asked, eagerly.
"Never had the chance to write it," Lawrence cried. "But I worked it all out. Wicked woman, revenge, plot to bring hero within the grip of the law. It's pigeonholed in my writing desk, and labelled 'The Corner House.' But I don't suppose it will ever be written."
"Worth stealing," a Society journalist lounging by remarked. "I could write a novel, only I can never think of a plot. Your old housekeeper is asleep long ago. Where do you carry your latchkey?"
"Ticket pocket of my overcoat," laughed Lawrence. "But you'll be found out, Stead. Being a critic, the public would never take you seriously."
The Countess's eyes flamed again suddenly. Hetty, watching, was utterly puzzled. What was there in this trivial conversation that held this woman almost breathless? She had the air of one who has taken a great resolution. She seemed like a man face to face with death, who sees a way out.
A great many of the guests had by this time departed. It was growing very quiet in the streets now, the jingle of harness and the impatient pawing of horses had almost ceased. A soldierly-looking man came up to Leona Lalage, and held out his hand.
"But you are not going to Aldershot tonight. Captain Gifford?" Leona asked. "A cab? How extravagant!"
"Motor car," the stolid dragoon replied. "I've got a fifteen horsepower Daimler that I can knock seventy miles an hour out of at a pinch. And no danger of being picked up for scorching on a dark night like this."
The Countess put her hand to her throat as if she had found some trouble with her breathing. Those wonderful eyes of hers were gleaming like electric flashes. Her face was white, but her lips were drawn narrow with resolution. She rose, and sauntered carelessly to the door.
"I dote on motors," she said. "Nothing pleases me better than to go out in my own alone. I am coming to see your steed, Captain. The rooms are so hot here that I have a great mind to run away with it."
Gifford murmured something about the honour and pleasure. There was no vehicle to be seen in the dark street besides the gleaming mass of brass and steel that quietly simmered by the pavement.
"A beauty!" the Countess exclaimed, "And the same action as my own. I believe I know as much about it as my chauffeur. Captain Gifford, let me try it alone, do. Harris, give me a coat. No, one of the gentlemen's overcoats—that grey one will do. Do let me go round the square alone!"
Gifford consented with outward urbanity. Few men could say no when Leona Lalage asked for a favour. With a man's coat over her gleaming black dress and ivory shoulders she sprang into the car, and the next moment she was flying round the corner. She laughed recklessly as she passed out of sight, a laugh with a ring of insolent triumph in it.
Ten minutes, twenty minutes passed, whilst Gifford fidgeted with a half-chewed cigarette in his teeth. Then there was a distant whirr, two flaming eyes and the gleam of brass and steel.
"An adventure!" the Countess cried gaily. "I have been dodging a couple of policemen, or I should have been back before. Beware of the high road. Goodbye, Captain, and if ever you wish to dispose of your Mercedes, give me the first offer."
She passed up the steps with a face white but smiling, a queer lingering smile that boded ill to some one.
A few guests of the higher Bohemian type still lingered, but with easy tact the hostess contrived to get rid of them. Her absence had not been noticed, the little escapade on the motor was not mentioned.
The took of triumph faded from her eyes, she had grown worn and weary. The roses were wilting on the walls, the lights were mostly down now. Hetty, looking in to see if anything was wanted, found herself driven away almost fiercely.
"I am tired, weary, worn-out," the Countess cried. "I am sick of it all, sick of the world, and sick to death of myself. Go to bed."
The house was quiet at last, there was a passing cab or two, the heavy tramp of a policeman. Up in the nursery little Mamie was still sleeping, she was flushed and uneasy and murmuring as she slept. The recreant nurse lay on her back snoring loudly. Well, Hetty was a light sleeper, and her room was just opposite the nursery. Nurse would have slept through an earthquake.
Hetty returned to her room, but not to sleep. The vague shadow of some coming trouble lay upon her. She was young and healthy, and she was engaged to one of the best men on earth. And they were going to be married soon. She ought to have been superlatively happy.
Yet she was restless and uneasy. She had never known what it was to be nervous before. There was a dull booming noise somewhere, a knocking that seemed to proceed from the Corner House. Hetty heard something fall with a thud, she could have sworn to a stifled cry. A door opened and closed somewhere, there was a strong draught as if the basement had been opened. Hetty's heart was beating in some strange, unaccountable way. A little cry brought her to her feet.
But it was only Mamie whimpering and crying for her. The child was awake and sitting up in bed, whilst the nurse still slept. Mamie was hot and feverish.
"I am so sorry," she said, "but my throat is all parched up. Dearest, do please get me some soda-water."
"All right, darling," Hetty whispered. "Lie down and be quiet, and I will see what I can do for you. I shan't be long."
There was everything that Hetty required in the dining-room. She crept softly down the marble staircase in her stockinged feet; down below in the hall a solitary point of flame in the electric corona made fitful shadows everywhere. There was one light also in the big, dark, dining-room, which was always left there, so that Hetty had no difficulty in finding a syphon of soda-water. She crept out into the hall again and paused.
Cigarette smoke. Smoke of a pungent acrid kind that might have been smoked in the house, but never beyond the kitchens. And it was fresh, too, for a trailing wreath of it hung heavy on the air. Without a doubt somebody was in the morning room.
Yes, Hetty could hear the chink of a glass, the fizz of something aerated. Her heart was beating painfully, but she was not afraid. Dimly, in a mirror opposite, she could see a hand reflected. But she could not see the face. The girl deflected the mirror slightly, so that the head and shoulders of the intruder were dimly focused upon it.
A cry rose to her lips, but she stifled it. In a sudden, blind, unreasoning fear she fled noiselessly up the stairs. She had seen that man's features. It was the face of the man from the Corner House!
The house seemed suddenly to have developed into a place of horrors. Hetty had never been quite happy there. She had always distrusted and been a little afraid of Countess Lalage. There was something inscrutable about her face, a Satanic suggestion behind her brilliant beauty.
There were little signs, too, that only a woman notices. It was as if the girl had found herself in a house of criminals. It was all wonderfully refined and luxurious, a perfectly appointed house, but after a year there Hetty knew absolutely nothing as to the past of her employer.
She flew up the stairs headlong with that blind unreasoning terror upon her. A big clock suddenly striking two went off in her ears like a rifle shot. She caught a glimpse of her own face in a mirror. Was that white scared visage her own sunny, happy face?
Without ceremony she darted into Countess Lalage's bedroom. The lights were still up, and the mistress of the house was brushing out her long black hair. She was cool and collected enough now.
"What is the meaning of this?" she demanded.
"A man in the morning room," gasped Hetty. "A man with a horrid crooked nose and hands all over queer orange spots. Shall I alarm the house——"
"Come with me," Leona Lalage replied. "You are dreaming. Of course, there is no man in the house. Come along."
There was no sign of fear or dismay or anything else about the woman in white with the long black hair streaming over her shoulders. Yet she was annoyed, and her brains were working quickly. It was quiet in the corridor, save the little fretful whine from the child for something to drink.
"Ah, you have been down for Mamie," the Countess exclaimed. "She had one of her turns again. Give the poor child some of that soda-water and then follow me. Be quick."
Mamie drank greedily and thirstily. Then her head dropped and her eyes closed. With her heart still beating furiously, Hetty ran down the stairs. There was nobody in the morning room but Countess Lalage. She was smiling in a contemptuous manner.
"I have been in every room," she said. "There is positively nobody there. I shall have to send you away for a change of air. If you have no further dreams to tell me we had better go to bed."
Hetty had nothing to say. She was tired and worn out, and the cool contempt of her employer was galling. The Countess came into her bedroom presently; all her coldness had gone. She was the winning, gracious woman now as the world knew her. She had a little medicine glass in her hand.
"I am sorry I spoke harshly to you just now," she said. "Drink this. It is my own pet mixture of sal volatile and a spirit of my own. It will act like a charm on those frayed nerves of yours."
Hetty drank the mixture gratefully. The few kind words were soothing. If there was anything really wrong the Countess could not have behaved like that. Her head touched the pillow, something delicious and warm seemed to float over her, and she was sound asleep.
Leona closed the door behind her with a snap. She was alert and vigorous as a general in action now. She passed downstairs swiftly but firmly, and into the morning room. One by one she snapped up the electric lights till the whole room was bathed in a golden glow.
"Now, you scoundrel, come out," she cried.
The heavy curtains parted and the figure of a man emerged. He was short, yet powerfully made, with a curious twist from the hip as if he were deformed in some way. Ragged hair fringed his chin and lips. His long nose was crooked on one side; his equally long hands were covered with great orange freckles. An object of mistrust and suspicion everywhere.
The man's eyes were perhaps the worst part of him—dull, red, and bloated, full of a certain ferocious cowardliness. They were the eyes of a man who drank to excess. The red rims twitched.
"None of that with me," he growled. "Do you know who I am, Countess Lalage? I am Leon Lagage, Count of the Holy Roman Empire, and your husband. Incomparable woman, you cannot alter that fact. For better or worse, for richer or poorer, till death do us part!"
Death was near parting them now if the gleam in Leona Lalage's eyes meant anything. She would have given half her splendour, years of her life, to see that man lying dead at her feet. If she could have slain him and safely disposed of his body she would have done so.
"How did you get here?" she asked curtly. "How did you find me out?"
The man laughed silently, horribly, his body twisting as if set on wires.
"Never mind that," he said hoarsely. "I did find you out, and here I am. Oh, it was a cunning plot of yours—so near and yet so far away. And as much brandy as I could drink so that I might drink myself to death, and after that perhaps a handsome monument testifying to my virtues. But I'm not going to stand it any more, I'm not going back there."
No reply for a moment, nothing but a quick heaving of the broad bosom, a livid play like summer lightning in the dark eyes. The man lighted a cigarette and puffed it noisily.
"I've got you, my lady," he said hoarsely. "Last time we parted you were not so comfortable as you are now, a troisième and a few francs per day out of the cards when the police were complaisant. Here you have everything. There are a score of things that I could pawn for enough to keep me going for months. Ma foi, but you must be very rich."
"I have not £20 of ready money in the world."
"Give me carte blanche and I will put that right for you. I bear no malice. Reverse the positions and I shall do my best to put you out of the way. But I am not going back there any more."
"What do you propose to do, then?"
"Retire to the Continent. Tomorrow you let me have £500 as a guarantee of good faith. Then I leave you—for the present. After that you can marry the young doctor who has won your affections and be happy—for, say a week."
Leona Lalage's white teeth came together with a click. It was good for the man that she had no weapon in her hand. It was hard work to keep down the tornado of passion that filled her. It seemed hard to imagine that she had once loved this man. Heavens! what a fool she once was.
"You know too much," she said quietly. "If that fool Giuseppe had done his duty you would have gone down to your drunkard's grave in ignorance. But you are not going on the Continent tomorrow or the next day. Fool, fool, have you not lived long enough to know that all that glitters is not gold! For the moment I am living on my reputation and the splendour of this house. Not one penny have I paid for it. People hold documents and title deeds of mine that are forgeries. I have a grand coup that may come off, and again it may fail. For the moment I am penniless."
The man nodded. The woman was speaking the truth, and he knew it.
"And in the meantime what do you propose to do?" she asked, swiftly.
"There is but one thing for it," the man responded. "There is ever before my eyes the fear of the police. Therefore I go back to my prison house till you are ready. But I have escaped once, and I shall escape again. Play me false, and I will come out and denounce you before a whole crowd of your painted butterflies. I could say to your medical Adonis——"
"Be silent," Leona Lalage hissed, "take heed lest you go too far. Begone, get back to your kennel, anywhere out of my sight. Do you think I want to keep you near me an hour longer than is necessary?"
He was gone at last; the hall door closed behind him. His footsteps echoed on the pavement a few yards and then stopped. After that the whole world seemed to be wrapped in silence. It was nearly dawn before Leona Lalage crept into bed. She carefully locked away some papers that she had almost committed to heart. There was triumph in her sleepy eyes.
"Freedom and revenge," she murmured. "What good words they are. Tomorrow! Well, tomorrow shall be my destruction or my Waterloo!"
On the whole, Gordon Bruce was persuaded that the world was a pleasant place to live in. He had youth and intellect and ambition that looked likely to be satisfied. Two years before he had recklessly ventured his small capital on a suite of ground floor rooms in Duke Street, and for some little time he had had a hard struggle to keep up appearances, and pay the instalments as they came due on his somewhat showy furniture.
But it had all come right in the end. He had had a little luck, but his great good fortune, or so it seemed, was when he had been called in to attend little Mamie Lalage. The Countess was just beginning to swim then upon the high tide of popularity. That the woman in her passionate, headstrong way had fallen in love with him Bruce never dreamt. It was only Hetty's woman's eyes and woman's instinct that had found the truth.
But the Countess was the fashion, and her doctor looked like being the fashion, too. A Duchess had taken him up; she had firmly persuaded herself that Bruce had saved the life of one of her children. From a hundred or two, Bruce suddenly found his income expanded to as many thousands. No wonder that his dreams were pleasant as he lay back smoking a cigarette after dinner. There was only one drawback—most of those two thousand pounds were on his books.
Well, his credit was good. If he could lay his hands upon a hundred or two now, he would begin to furnish the house in Green Street at once. Then when the season was over he and Hetty could be married. Yes, on the whole Gordon Bruce's cigarette just then was an enchanting one.
There was a ring at the hall and a servant came in. Gordon hoped that it was not a patient. He was dressed for a party, where he hoped to meet Hetty; not a grand affair, but a few friends in Gilbert Lawrence's luxurious chambers. Bruce looked at the card in his hand.
"I wonder who Herr Max Kronin is?" he muttered. "Ask the gentleman in."
He came, a mild-looking elderly German, heavy grey moustache, and eyes hidden behind a pair of silver-rimmed spectacles. He was slow of speech and gasped a great deal as if he had some trouble at his heart.
"You wished to speak to me," said Gordon. "Pray sit down."
The elderly stranger did so, and immediately the atmosphere was impregnated with an odour of strong tobacco.
"It is not as a patient I came," he said. "I take the liberty to occupy some of your valuable time. If you are in one hurry—"
"Not in the least," Bruce replied. "I have half an hour at your disposal. Your case——"
"Ach, but I have no case, I am not what you call a patient. It is another matter—a matter of sentiment."
Gordon bowed again; evidently a lunatic of the harmless type.
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