The Secret Passage, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 1

The Cottage

“What IS your name?”

“Susan Grant, Miss Loach.”

“Call me ma’am. I am Miss Loach only to my equals. Your age?”

“Twenty-five, ma’am.”

“Do you know your work as parlor-maid thoroughly?”

“Yes, ma’am. I was two years in one place and six months in another, ma’am. Here are my characters from both places, ma’am.”

As the girl spoke she laid two papers before the sharp old lady who questioned her. But Miss Loach did not look at them immediately. She examined the applicant with such close attention that a faint color tinted the girl’s cheeks and she dropped her eyes. But, in her turn, by stealthy glances, Susan Grant tactfully managed to acquaint herself with the looks of her possible mistress. The thoughts of each woman ran as follows —

Miss Loach to herself. “Humph! Plain-looking, sallow skin, rather fine eyes and a slack mouth. Not badly dressed for a servant, and displays some taste. She might turn my old dresses at a pinch. Sad expression, as though she had something on her mind. Honest-looking, but I think a trifle inquisitive, seeing how she examined the room and is stealing glances at me. Talks sufficiently, but in a low voice. Fairly intelligent, but not too much so. Might be secretive. Humph!”

The thoughts of Susan Grant. “Handsome old lady, probably nearly sixty. Funny dress for ten o’clock in the morning. She must be rich, to wear purple silk and old lace and lovely rings at this hour. A hard mouth, thin nose, very white hair and very black eyebrows. Got a temper I should say, and is likely to prove an exacting mistress. But I want a quiet home, and the salary is good. I’ll try it, if she’ll take me.”

Had either mistress or maid known of each other’s thoughts, a conclusion to do business might not have been arrived at. As it was, Miss Loach, after a few more questions, appeared satisfied. All the time she kept a pair of very black eyes piercingly fixed on the girl’s face, as though she would read her very soul. But Susan had nothing to conceal, so far as Miss Loach could gather, so in the end she resolved to engage her.

“I think you’ll do,” she said nodding, and poking up the fire, with a shiver, although the month was June. “The situation is a quiet one. I hope you have no followers.”

“No, ma’am,” said Susan and flushed crimson.

“Ha!” thought Miss Loach, “she has been in love — jilted probably. All the better, as she won’t bring any young men about my quiet house.”

“Will you not read my characters, ma’am?”

Miss Loach pushed the two papers towards the applicant. “I judge for myself,” said she calmly. “Most characters I read are full of lies. Your looks are enough for me. Where were you last?”

“With a Spanish lady, ma’am!”

“A Spanish lady!” Miss Loach dropped the poker she was holding, with a clatter, and frowned so deeply that her black eyebrows met over her high nose. “And her name?”

“Senora Gredos, ma’am!”

The eyes of the old maid glittered, and she made a clutch at her breast as though the reply had taken away her breath. “Why did you leave?” she asked, regaining her composure.

Susan looked uncomfortable. “I thought the house was too gay, ma’am.”

“What do you mean by that? Can any house be too gay for a girl of your years?”

“I have been well brought up, ma’am,” said Susan quietly; “and my religious principles are dear to me. Although she is an invalid, ma’am, Senora Gredos was very gay. Many people came to her house and played cards, even on Sunday,” added Susan under her breath. But low as she spoke, Miss Loach heard.

“I have whist parties here frequently,” she said drily; “nearly every evening four friends of mine call to play. Have you any objection to enter my service on that account?”

“Oh, no, ma’am. I don’t mind a game of cards. I play ‘Patience’ myself when alone. I mean gambling — there was a lot of money lost and won at Senora Gredos’ house!”

“Yet she is an invalid I think you said?”

“Yes, ma’am. She was a dancer, I believe, and fell in some way, so as to break her leg or hurt her back. She has been lying on a couch for two years unable to move. Yet she has herself wheeled into the drawing-room and watches the gentlemen play cards. She plays herself sometimes!”

Miss Loach again directed one of her piercing looks at the pale face of the girl. “You are too inquisitive and too talkative,” she said suddenly, “therefore you won’t suit me. Good-day.”

Susan was quite taken aback. “Oh, ma’am, I hope I’ve said nothing wrong. I only answered your questions.”

“You evidently take note of everything you see, and talk about it.”

“No, ma’am,” said the girl earnestly. “I really hold my tongue.”

“When it suits you,” retorted Miss Loach. “Hold it now and let me think!”

While Miss Loach, staring frowningly into the fire, debated inwardly as to the advisability of engaging the girl, Susan looked timidly round the room. Curiously enough, it was placed in the basement of the cottage, and was therefore below the level of the garden. Two fairly large windows looked on to the area, which had been roofed with glass and turned into a conservatory. Here appeared scarlet geraniums and other bright-hued flowers, interspersed with ferns and delicate grasses. Owing to the position of the room and the presence of the glass roof, only a subdued light filtered into the place, but, as the day was brilliant with sunshine, the apartment was fairly well illuminated. Still, on a cloudy day, Susan could imagine how dull it would be. In winter time the room must be perfectly dark.

It was luxuriously furnished, in red and gold. The carpet and curtains were of bright scarlet, threaded with gold. The furniture, strangely enough, was of white polished wood upholstered in crimson satin fringed with gold. There were many pictures in large gilded frames and many mirrors similarly encircled with gilded wood. The grate, fender and fire-irons were of polished brass, and round the walls were numerous electric lamps with yellow shades. The whole room represented a bizarre appearance, flamboyant and rather tropical in looks. Apparently Miss Loach was fond of vivid colors. There was no piano, nor were there books or papers, and the only evidence as to how Miss Loach passed her time revealed itself in a work-basket and a pack of cards. Yet, at her age, Susan thought that needlework would be rather trying, even though she wore no glasses and her eyes seemed bright and keen. She was an odd old lady and appeared to be rich. “I’ll engage you,” said Miss Loach abruptly; “get your box and be here before five o’clock this afternoon. I am expecting some friends at eight o’clock. You must be ready to admit them. Now go!”

“But, ma’am, I—”

“In this house,” interrupted Miss Loach imperiously, “no one speaks to me, unless spoken to by me. You understand!”

“Yes, ma’am,” replied Susan timidly, and obeyed the finger which pointed to the door. Miss Loach listened to the girl’s footsteps on the stairs, and sat down when she heard the front door close. But she was up again almost in a moment and pacing the room. Apparently the conversation with Susan Grant afforded her food for reflection. And not very palatable food either, judging from her expression.

The newly-engaged servant returned that same afternoon to the suburban station, which tapped the district of Rexton. A trunk, a bandbox and a bag formed her humble belongings, and she arranged with a porter that these should be wheeled in a barrow to Rose Cottage, as Miss Loach’s abode was primly called. Having come to terms, Susan left the station and set out to walk to the place. Apart from the fact that she saved a cab fare, she wished to obtain some idea of her surroundings, and therefore did not hurry herself.

It was a bright June day with a warm green earth basking under a blue and cloudless sky. But even the sunshine could not render Rexton beautiful. It stretched out on all sides from the station new and raw. The roads were finished, with asphalt footpaths and stone curbing, the lamp-posts had apparently only been lately erected, and lines of white fences divided the roads from gardens yet in their infancy. Fronting these were damp-looking red brick villas, belonging to small clerks and petty tradesmen. Down one street was a row of shops filled with the necessaries of civilization; and round the corner, an aggressively new church of yellow brick with a tin roof and a wooden steeple stood in the middle of an untilled space. At the end of one street a glimpse could be caught of the waste country beyond, not yet claimed by the ferry-builder. A railway embankment bulked against the horizon, and closed the view in an unsightly manner. Rexton was as ugly as it was new.

Losing her way, Susan came to the ragged fringe of country environing the new suburb, and paused there, to take in her surroundings. Across the fields to the left she saw an unfinished mansion, large and stately, rising amidst a forest of pines. This was girdled by a high brick wall which looked older than the suburb itself. Remembering that she had seen this house behind the cottage of Miss Loach, the girl used it as a landmark, and turning down a side street managed to find the top of a crooked lane at the bottom of which Rose Cottage was situated. This lane showed by its very crookedness that it belonged to the ancient civilization of the district. Here were no paths, no lamps, no aggressively new fences and raw brick houses. Susan, stepping down the slight incline, passed into quite an old world, smacking of the Georgian times, leisurely and quaint. On either side of the lane, old-fashioned cottages, with whitewash walls and thatched roofs, stood amidst gardens filled with unclipped greenery and homely flowers. Quickset hedges, ragged and untrimmed, divided these from the roadway, and to add to the rural look one garden possessed straw bee-hives. Here and there rose ancient elm-trees and grass grew in the roadway. It was a blind lane and terminated in a hedge, which bordered a field of corn. To the left was a narrow path running between hedges past the cottages and into the country.

Miss Loach’s house was a mixture of old and new. Formerly it had been an unpretentious cottage like the others, but she had added a new wing of red brick built in the most approved style of the jerry-builder, and looking like the villas in the more modern parts of Rexton. The crabbed age and the uncultured youth of the old and new portions, planted together cheek by jowl, appeared like ill-coupled clogs and quite out of harmony. The thatched and tiled roofs did not seem meet neighbors, and the whitewash walls of the old-world cottage looked dingy beside the glaring redness of the new villa. The front door in the new part was reached by a flight of dazzling white steps. From this, a veranda ran across the front of the cottage, its rustic posts supporting rose-trees and ivy. On the cottage side appeared an old garden, but the new wing was surrounded by lawns and decorated with carpet bedding. A gravel walk divided the old from the new, and intersected the garden. At the back, Susan noted again the high brick wall surrounding the half-completed mansion. Above this rose tall trees, and the wall itself was overgrown with ivy. It apparently was old and concealed an unfinished palace of the sleeping beauty, so ragged and wild appeared the growth which peeped over the guardian wall.

With a quickness of perception unusual in her class, Susan took all this in, then rang the bell. There was no back door, so far as she could see, and she thought it best to enter as she had done in the morning. But the large fat woman who opened the door gave her to understand that she had taken a liberty.

“Of course this morning and before engaging, you were a lady,” said the cook, hustling the girl into the hall, “but now being the housemaid, Miss Loach won’t be pleased at your touching the front bell.”

“I did not see any other entrance,” protested Susan.

“Ah,” said the cook, leading the way down a few steps into the thatched cottage, which, it appeared was the servants’ quarters, “you looked down the area as is natural-like. But there ain’t none, it being a conservitery!”

“Why does Miss Loach live in the basement?” asked Susan, on being shown into a comfortable room which answered the purpose of a servants’ hall.

The cook resented this question. “Ah!” said she with a snort, “and why does a miller wear a white ‘at, Miss Grant, that being your name I take it. Don’t you ask no questions but if you must know, Miss Loach have weak eyes and don’t like glare. She lives like a rabbit in a burrow, and though the rooms on the ground floor are sich as the King might in’abit, she don’t come up often save to eat. She lives in the basement room where you saw her, Miss Grant, and she sleeps in the room orf. When she eats, the dining-room above is at her service. An’ I don’t see why she shouldn’t,” snorted the cook.

“I don’t mean any —”

“No offence being given none is taken,” interrupted cook, who seemed fond of hearing her own wheezy voice. “Emily Pill’s my name, and I ain’t ashamed of it, me having been cook to Miss Loach for years an’ years and years. But if you had wished to behave like a servant, as you are,” added she with emphasis, “why didn’t you run round by the veranda and so get to the back where the kitchen is. But you’re one of the new class of servants, Miss Grant, ‘aughty and upsetting.”

“I know my place,” said Susan, taking off her hat.

“And I know mine,” said Emily Pill, “me being cook and consequently the mistress of this servants’ ‘all. An’ I’m an old-fashioned servant myself, plain in my ‘abits and dress.” This with a disparaging look at the rather smart costume of the newly-arrived housemaid. “I don’t ‘old with cockes feathers and fal-dedals on ‘umble folk myself, not but what I could afford ’em if I liked, being of saving ‘abits and a receiver of good wages. But I’m a friendly pusson and not ‘ard on a good-lookin’ gal, not that you are what I call ‘andsome.”

Susan seated beside the table, looked weary and forlorn, and the good-natured heart of the cook was touched, especially when Susan requested her to refrain from the stiff name of Miss Grant.

“You an’ me will be good friends, I’ve no doubt,” said Emily, “an’ you can call me Mrs. Pill, that being the name of my late ‘usband, who died of gin in excess. The other servants is housemaid and page, though to be sure he’s more of a man-of-all-work, being forty if he’s a day, and likewise coachman, when he drives out Miss Loach in her donkey carriage. Thomas is his name, my love.” The cook was rapidly becoming more and more friendly, “and the housemaid is called Geraldine, for which ‘eaven forgives her parents, she bein’ spotty and un’ealthy and by no means a Bow–Bell’s ‘eroine, which ‘er name makes you think of. But there’s a dear, I’m talking brilliant, when you’re dying for a cup of tea, and need to get your box unpacked, by which I mean that I sees the porter with the barrer.”

The newly-arrived parlor-maid was pleased by this friendly if ungrammatical reception, and thought she would like the cook in spite of her somewhat tiresome tongue. For the next hour she was unpacking her box and arranging a pleasant little room at the back. She shared this with the spotty Geraldine, who seemed to be a good-natured girl. Apparently Miss Loach looked after her servants and made them comfortable. Thomas proved to be amiable if somewhat stupid, and welcomed Susan to tea affably but with sheepish looks. As the servants seemed pleasant, the house comfortable, and as the salary was excellent, Susan concluded that she had — as the saying is — fallen on her feet.

The quartette had tea in the servants’ hall, and there was plenty of well-cooked if plain victuals. Miss Loach dined at half-past six and Susan assumed her dress and cap. She laid the table in a handsome dining-room, equally as garish in color as the apartment below. The table appointments were elegant, and Mrs. Pill served a nice little meal to which Miss Loach did full justice. She wore the same purple dress, but with the addition of more jewellery. Her sharp eyes followed Susan about the room as she waited, and at the end of the dinner she made her first observation. “You know your work I see,” she said. “I hope you will be happy here!”

“I think I will, ma’am,” said Susan, with a faint sigh.

“You have had trouble?” asked Miss Loach quickly.

“Yes, ma’am!”

“You must tell me about it tomorrow,” said the old lady rising. “I like to gain the confidence of my servants. Now bring my coffee to the room below. At eight, three people will arrive — a lady and two gentlemen. You will show them into the sitting-room and put out the card-table. Then you can go to the kitchen and wait till I ring. Be sure you don’t come till I do ring,” and Miss Loach emphasized this last order with a flash of her brilliant eyes.

Susan took the coffee to the sitting-room in the basement and then cleared the table. Shortly before eight o’clock there was a ring at the front door. She opened it to a tall lady, with gray hair, who leaned on an ebony cane. With her were two men, one a rather rough foolish-looking fellow, and the other tall, dark, and well-dressed in an evening suit. A carriage was just driving away from the gate. As the tall lady entered, a breath of strong perfume saluted Susan’s nostrils. The girl started and peered into the visitor’s face. When she returned to the kitchen her own was as white as chalk.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:42