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THE SECRET HOUSE

By EDGAR WALLACE

[Illustration: Publisher's logo]

A. L. BURT COMPANY
Publishers New York

Printed in U. S. A.


Copyright, 1919
BY SMALL, MAYNARD & COMPANY
(INCORPORATED)

Second Printing, August, 1919




THE SECRET HOUSE




CHAPTER I


A man stood irresolutely before the imposing portals of Cainbury House,
a large office building let out to numerous small tenants, and
harbouring, as the indicator on the tiled wall of the vestibule
testified, some thirty different professions. The man was evidently
poor, for his clothes were shabby and his boots were down at heel. He
was as evidently a foreigner. His clean-shaven eagle face was sallow,
his eyes were dark, his eyebrows black and straight.

He passed up the few steps into the hall and stood thoughtfully before
the indicator. Presently he found what he wanted. At the very top of the
list and amongst the crowded denizens of the fifth floor was a slip
inscribed:


"THE GOSSIP'S CORNER"


He took from his waistcoat pocket a newspaper cutting and compared the
two then stepped briskly, almost jauntily, into the hall, as though all
his doubts and uncertainties had vanished, and waited for the elevator.
His coat was buttoned tightly, his collar was frayed, his shirt had seen
the greater part of a week's service, the Derby hat on his head had
undergone extensive renovations, and a close observer would have noticed
that his gloves were odd ones.

He walked into the lift and said, "Fifth floor," with a slight foreign
accent.

He was whirled up, the lift doors clanged open and the grimy finger of
the elevator boy indicated the office. Again the man hesitated,
examining the door carefully. The upper half was of toughened glass and
bore the simple inscription:


"THE GOSSIP'S CORNER.
KNOCK."


Obediently the stranger knocked and the door opened through an invisible
agent, much to the man's surprise, though there was nothing more magical
about the phenomenon than there is about any electrically controlled
office door.

He found himself in a room sparsely furnished with a table, a chair and
a few copies of papers. An old school map of England hung on one wall
and a Landseer engraving on the other. At the farthermost end of the
room was another door, and to this he gravitated and again, after a
moment's hesitation, he knocked.

"Come in," said a voice.

He entered cautiously.

The room was larger and was comfortably furnished. There were shaded
electric lamps on either side of the big carved oak writing-table. One
of the walls was covered with books, and the litter of proofs upon the
table suggested that this was the sanctorum.

But the most remarkable feature of the room was the man who sat at the
desk. He was a man solidly built and, by his voice, of middle age. His
face the new-comer could not see and for excellent reason. It was hidden
behind a veil of fine silk net which had been adjusted over the head
like a loose bag and tightened under the chin.

The man at the table chuckled when he saw the other's surprise.

"Sit down," he said--he spoke in French--"and don't, I beg of you, be
alarmed."

"Monsieur," said the new-comer easily, "be assured that I am not
alarmed. In this world nothing has ever alarmed me except my own
distressing poverty and the prospect of dying poor."

The veiled figure said nothing for a while.

"You have come in answer to my advertisement," he said after a long
pause.

The other bowed.

"You require an assistant, Monsieur," said the new-comer, "discreet,
with a knowledge of foreign languages and poor. I fulfill all those
requirements," he went on calmly; "had you also added, of an adventurous
disposition, with few if any scruples, it would have been equally
descriptive."

The stranger felt that the man at the desk was looking at him, though he
could not see his eyes. It must have been a long and careful scrutiny,
for presently the advertiser said gruffly:

"I think you'll do."

"Exactly," said the new-comer with cool assurance; "and now it is for
you, dear Monsieur, to satisfy me that you also will do. You will have
observed that there are two parties to every bargain. First of all, my
duties?"

The man in the chair leant back and thrust his hands into his pockets.

"I am the editor of a little paper which circulates exclusively amongst
the servants of the upper classes," he said. "I receive from time to
time interesting communications concerning the aristocracy and gentry of
this country, written by hysterical French maids and revengeful Italian
valets. I am not a good linguist, and I feel that there is much in these
epistles which I miss and which I should not miss."

The new-comer nodded.

"I therefore want somebody of discretion who will deal with my foreign
correspondence, make a fair copy in English and summarize the complaints
which these good people make. You quite understand," he said with a
shrug of his shoulders, "that mankind is not perfect, less perfect is
womankind, and least perfect is that section of mankind which employs
servants. They usually have stories to tell not greatly to their
masters' credit, not nice stories, you understand, my dear friend. By
the way, what is your name?"

The stranger hesitated.

"Poltavo," he said after a pause.

"Italian or Pole?" asked the other.

"Pole," replied Poltavo readily.

"Well, as I was saying," the editor went on, "we on this paper are very
anxious to secure news of society doings. If they are printable, we
print them; if they are not printable"--he paused--"we do not print
them. But," he raised a warning forefinger, "the fact that particulars
of disgraceful happenings are not fit for publication must not induce
you to cast such stories into the wastepaper basket. We keep a record
of such matters for our own private amusement." He said this latter
airily, but Poltavo was not deceived.

Again there was a long silence whilst the man at the table ruminated.

"Where do you live?" he asked.

"On the fourth floor of a small house in Bloomsbury," replied Poltavo.

The veiled figure nodded.

"When did you come to this country?"

"Six months ago."

"Why?"

Poltavo shrugged his shoulders.

"Why?" insisted the man at the table.

"A slight matter of disagreement between myself and the admirable chief
of police of Sans Sebastian," he said as airily as the other.

Again the figure nodded.

"If you had told me anything else, I should not have engaged you," he
said.

"Why?" asked Poltavo in surprise.

"Because you are speaking the truth," said the other coolly. "Your
matter of disagreement with the police in Sans Sebastian was over the
missing of some money in the hotel where you were staying. The room
happened to be next to yours and communicating, if one had the ingenuity
to pick the lock of the door. Also your inability to pay the hotel bill
hastened your departure."

"What an editor!" said the other admiringly, but without showing any
signs of perturbation or embarrassment.

"It is my business to know something about everybody," said the editor.
"By the way, you may call me Mr. Brown, and if at times I may seem
absent-minded when I am so addressed you must excuse me, because it is
not my name. Yes, you are the kind of man I want."

"It is remarkable that you should have found me," said Poltavo. "The
cutting"--he indicated the newspaper clip--"was sent to me by an unknown
friend."

"I was the unknown friend," said "Mr. Brown"; "do you understand the
position?"

Poltavo nodded.

"I understand everything," he said, "except the last and most important
of all matters; namely, the question of my salary."

The man named a sum--a generous sum to Poltavo, and Mr. Brown, eyeing
him keenly, was glad to note that his new assistant was neither
surprised nor impressed.

"You will see very little of me at this office," the editor went on. "If
you work well, and I can trust you, I will double the salary I am
giving you; if you fail me, you will be sorry for yourself."

He rose.

"That finishes our interview. You will come here to-morrow morning and
let yourself in. Here is the key of the door and a key to the safe in
which I keep all correspondence. You will find much to incriminate
society and precious little that will incriminate me. I expect you to
devote the whole of your attention to this business," he said slowly and
emphatically.

"You may be sure----" began Poltavo.

"Wait, I have not finished. By devoting the whole of your attention to
the business, I mean I want you to have no spare time to conduct any
investigations as to my identity. By a method which I will not trouble
to explain to you I am able to leave this building without any person
being aware of the fact that I am the editor of this interesting
publication. When you have been through your letters I want you to
translate those which contain the most important particulars and forward
them by a messenger who will call every evening at five o'clock. Your
salary will be paid regularly, and you will not be bothered with any
editorial duties. And now, if you will please go into the outer room and
wait a few moments, you may return in five minutes and begin on this
accumulation of correspondence."

Poltavo, with a little bow, obeyed, and closed the door carefully behind
him. He heard a click, and knew that the same electric control which had
opened the outer door had now closed the inner. At the end of five
minutes, as near as he could judge, he tried the door. It opened readily
and he stepped into the inner office. The room was empty. There was a
door leading out to the corridor, but something told the new assistant
that this was not the manner of egress which his employer had adopted.
He looked round carefully. There was no other door, but behind the chair
where the veiled man had sat was a large cupboard. This he opened
without, however, discovering any solution to the mystery of Mr.



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