The Secret Passage, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 10

The Parlor-Maid’s Story

On hearing the confession of the girl, both men looked at one another in amazement. How could Cuthbert’s photograph have come into the possession of Senora Gredos, and why had Susan Grant stolen it? And again, why did she hint that she had held her tongue about the matter for the sake of Mallow? Jennings at once proceeded to get at the truth. While being examined Susan wept, with an occasional glance at the bewildered Cuthbert.

“You were with Maraquito as parlor-maid?”

“With Senora Gredos? Yes, sir, for six months.”

“Do you know what went on in that house?”

Susan ceased her sobs and stared. “I don’t know what you mean,” she said, looking puzzled. “It was a gay house, I know; but there was nothing wrong that I ever saw, save that I don’t hold with cards being played on Sunday.”

“And on every other night of the week,” muttered Jennings. “Did you ever hear Senora Gredos called Maraquito?”

“Sometimes the gentlemen who came to play cards called her by that name. But she told her maid, who was my friend, that they were old friends of hers. And I think they were sorry for poor Senora Gredos, sir,” added Miss Grant, naively, “as she suffered so much with her back. You know, she rarely moved from her couch. It was always wheeled into the room where the gambling took place.”

“Ah. You knew that gambling went on,” said Jennings, snapping her up sharply. “Don’t you know that is against the law?”

“No, sir. Do you know?”

Cuthbert could not restrain a laugh. “That’s one for you, Jennings,” said he, nodding, “you often went to the Soho house.”

“I had my reasons for saying nothing,” replied the detective hastily. “You may be sure I could have ended the matter at once had I spoken to my chief about it. As it was, I judged it best to let matters remain as they were, so long as the house was respectably conducted.”

“I’m sure it was conducted well, sir,” said Susan, who appeared rather indignant. “Senora Gredos was a most respectable lady.”

“She lived alone always, I believe?”

“Yes, sir.” Then Susan hesitated. “I wonder if she had a mother?”

“Why do you wonder?”

“Well, sir, the lady who came to see Miss Loach —”

“Mrs. Herne?”

“I heard her name was Mrs. Herne, but she was as like Senora Gredos as two peas, save that she was older and had gray hair.”

“Hum!” said Jennings, pondering. “Did you ever hear Senora Gredos speak of Mrs. Herne?”

“Never, sir. But Mrs. Pill — the cook of Miss Loach — said that Mrs. Herne lived at Hampstead. But she was like my old mistress. When I opened the door to her I thought she was Senora Gredos. But then the scent may have made me think that.”

Jennings looked up sharply. “The scent? What do you mean?”

“Senora Gredos,” explained Susan quietly, “used a very nice scent — a Japanese scent called Hikui. She used no other, and I never met any lady who did, save Mrs. Herne.”

“Oh, so Mrs. Herne used it.”

“She did, sir. When I opened the door on that night,” Susan shuddered, “the first thing I knew was the smell of Hikui making the passage like a hairdresser’s shop. I leaned forward to see if the lady was Senora Gredos, and she turned her face away. But I caught sight of it, and if she isn’t some relative of my last mistress, may I never eat bread again.”

“Did Mrs. Herne seem offended when you examined her face?”

“She gave a kind of start —”

“At the sight of you,” said Jennings quickly.

“La, no, sir. She never saw me before.”

“I’m not so sure of that,” muttered the detective. “Did you also recognize Mr. Clancy and Mr. Hale as having visited the Soho house?”

“No, sir. I never set eyes on them before.”

“But as parlor-maid, you must have opened the door to —”

“Just a moment, sir,” said Susan quickly. “I opened the door in the day when few people came. After eight the page, Gibber, took my place. And I hardly ever went upstairs, as Senora Gredos told me to keep below. One evening I did come up and saw —” here her eyes rested on Cuthbert with a look which made him turn crimson. “I wish I had never come up on that night.”

“See here, my girl,” said Mallow irritably, “do you mean to say —”

“Hold on, Mallow,” interposed Jennings, “let me ask a question.” He turned to Susan, now weeping again with downcast eyes. “Mr. Mallow’s face made an impression on you?”

“Yes, sir. But then I knew every line of it before.”

“How was that?”

Susan looked up surprised. “The photograph in Senora Gredos’ dressing-room. I often looked at it, and when I left I could not bear to leave it behind. It was stealing, I know,” cried Miss Grant tearfully, “and I have been brought up respectably, but I couldn’t help myself.”

By this time Cuthbert was the color of an autumn sunset. He was a modest young man, and these barefaced confessions made him wince. He was about to interpose irritably when Jennings turned on him with a leading question. “Why did you give that photograph to —”

“Confound it!” cried Mallow, jumping up, “I did no such thing. I knew Maraquito only as the keeper of the gambling house. There was nothing between —”

“Don’t, sir,” said Susan, rising in her turn with a flush of jealousy. “I saw her kissing the photograph.”

“Then she must be crazy,” cried Mallow: “I never gave her any occasion to behave so foolishly. For months I have been engaged, and —” he here became aware that he was acting foolishly in talking like this to a love-sick servant, and turned on his heel abruptly. “I’ll go in the next room,” said he, “call me when you wish for my presence, Jennings. I can’t possibly stay and listen to this rubbish,” and going out, he banged the door, thereby bringing a fresh burst of tears from Susan Grant. Every word he said pierced her heart.

“Now I’ve made him cross,” she wailed, “and I would lay down my life for him — that I would.”

“See here, my girl,” said Jennings, soothingly and fully prepared to make use of the girl’s infatuation, “it is absurd your being in love with a gentleman of Mr. Mallow’s position.”

Miss Grant tossed her head. “I’ve read Bow–Bells and the Family Herald, sir,” she said positively, “and many a time have I read of a governess, which is no more than a servant, marrying an earl. And that Mr. Mallow isn’t, sir.”

“He will be when Lord Caranby dies,” said Jennings, hardly knowing what to say, “and fiction isn’t truth. Besides, Mr. Mallow is engaged.”

“I know, sir — to Miss Saxon. Well,” poor Susan sighed, “she is a sweet young lady. I suppose he loves her.”

“Devotedly. He will be married soon.”

“And she’s got Miss Loach’s money too,” sighed Susan again, “what a lucky young lady. Handsome looks in a husband and gold galore. A poor servant like me has to look on and keep her heart up with the Church Service. But I tell you what, sir,” she added, drying her eyes and apparently becoming resigned, “if I ain’t a lady, Senora Gredos is, and she won’t let Mr. Mallow marry Miss Saxon.”

“But Mr. Mallow is not in love with Senora Gredos.”

“Perhaps not, sir, but she’s in love with him. Yes. You may look and look, Mr. Jennings, but lame as she is and weak in the back and unable to move from that couch, she loves him. She had that photograph in her room and kissed it, as it I saw with my own eyes. I took it the last thing before I went, as I loved Mr. Mallow too, and I was not going to let that Spanish lady kiss him even in a picture.”

“Upon my word,” murmured Jennings, taken aback by this vehemence, “it is very strange all this.”

“Oh, yes, you gentlemen don’t think a poor girl has a heart. I couldn’t help falling in love, though he never looked my way. But that Miss Saxon is a sweet, kind, young lady put upon by her mother, I wouldn’t give him up even to her. But I can see there’s no chance for me,” wept Susan, “seeing the way he has gone out, banging the door in a temper, so I’ll give him up. And I’ll go now. My heart’s broken.”

But Jennings made her sit down again. “Not yet, my girl,” he said firmly, “if you wish to do Mr. Mallow a good turn —”

“Oh, I’ll do that,” she interrupted with sparkling eyes, “after all, he can’t help giving his heart elsewhere. It’s just my foolishness to think otherwise. But how can I help him, sir?”

“He wants to find out who killed Miss Loach.”

“I can’t help him there, sir. I don’t know who killed her. Mrs. Herne and Mr. Clancy and Mr. Hale were all gone, and when the bell rang she was alone, dead in her chair with them cards on her lap. Oh,” Susan’s voice became shrill and hysterical, “what a horrible sight!”

“Yes, yes,” said Jennings soothingly, “we’ll come to that shortly, my girl. But about this photograph. Was it in Senora Gredos’ dressing-room long?”

“For about three months, sir. I saw it one morning when I took up her breakfast and fell in love with the handsome face. Then Gibber told me the gentleman came to the house sometimes, and I went up the stairs against orders after eight to watch. I saw him and found him more good-looking than the photograph. Often did I watch him and envy Senora Gredos the picture with them loving words. Sir,” said Susan, sitting up stiffly, “if Mr. Mallow is engaged to Miss Saxon and doesn’t love Senora Gredos, why did he write those words?”

“He did not write them for her,” said Jennings doubtfully, “at least I don’t think so. It is impossible to say how the photograph came into the possession of that lady.”

“Will you ask him, sir?”

“Yes, when you are gone. But he won’t speak while you are in the room.”

Susan drooped her head and rose dolefully. “My dream is gone,” she said mournfully, “though I was improving myself in spelling and figures so that I might go out as a governess and perhaps meet him in high circles.”

“Ah, that’s all Family Herald fiction,” said Jennings, not unkindly.

“Yes! I know now, sir. My delusions are gone. But I will do anything I can to help Mr. Mallow and I hope he’ll always think kindly of me.”

“I’m sure he will. By the way, what are you doing now?”

“I go home to help mother at Stepney, sir, me having no call to go out to service. I have a happy home, though not fashionable. And after my heart being crushed I can’t go out again,” sighed Susan sadly.

“Are you sorry to leave Rose Cottage?”

“No, sir,” Susan shuddered, “that dead body with the blood and the cards will haunt me always. Mrs. Pill, as is going to marry Thomas Barnes and rent the cottage, wanted me to stay, but I couldn’t.”

Jennings pricked up his ears. “What’s that? How can Mrs. Pill rent so expensive a place.”

“It’s by arrangement with Miss Saxon, sir. Mrs. Pill told me all about it. Miss Saxon wished to sell the place, but Thomas Barnes spoke to her and said he had saved money while in Miss Loach’s service for twenty years —”

“Ah,” said Jennings thoughtfully, “he was that time in Miss Loach’s service, was he?”

“Yes, sir. And got good wages. Well, sir, Miss Saxon hearing he wished to marry the cook and take the cottage and keep boarders, let him rent it with furniture as it stands. She and Mrs. Octagon are going back to town, and Mrs. Pill is going to have the cottage cleaned from cellar to attic before she marries Thomas and receives the boarder.”

“Oh. So she has a boarder?”

“Yes, sir. She wouldn’t agree to Thomas taking the cottage as her husband, unless she had a boarder to start with, being afraid she and Thomas could not pay the rent. So Thomas saw Mr. Clancy and he is coming to stop. He has taken all the part where Miss Loach lived, and doesn’t want anyone else in the house, being a quiet man and retired.”

“Ah! Ah! Ah!” said Jennings in three different tones of voice. “I think Mrs. Pill is very wise. I hope she and Thomas will do well. By the way, what do you think of Mr. Barnes?”

Susan did not leave him long in doubt as to her opinion. “I think he is a stupid fool,” she said, “and it’s a good thing Mrs. Pill is going to marry him. He was guided by Miss Loach all his life, and now she’s dead, he goes about like a gaby. One of those men, sir,” explained Susan, “as needs a woman to look after them. Not like that gentleman,” she cast a tender glance at the door, “who can protect the weakest of my sex.”

Jennings having learned all he could, rose. “Well, Miss Grant,” he said quietly, “I am obliged to you for your frank speaking. My advice to you is to go home and think no more of Mr. Mallow. You might as well love the moon. But you know my address, and should you hear of anything likely to lead you to suspect who killed Miss Loach, Mr. Mallow will make it worth your while to come to me with the information.”

“I’ll do all I can,” said Susan resolutely, “but I won’t take a penny piece, me having my feelings as other and higher ladies.”

“Just as you please. But Mr. Mallow is about to offer a reward on behalf of his uncle, Lord Caranby.”

“He that was in love with Miss Loach, sir?”

“Yes. On account of that old love, Lord Caranby desires to learn who killed her. And Mr. Mallow also wishes to know, for a private reason. I expect you will be calling to see Mrs. Pill?”

“When she’s Mrs. Barnes, I think so, sir. I go to the wedding, and me and Geraldine are going to be bridesmaids.”

“Then if you hear or see anything likely to lead to a revelation of the truth, you will remember. By the way, you don’t know how Senora Gredos got that photograph?”

“No, sir, I do not.”

“And you think Mrs. Herne is Senora Gredos’ mother?”

“Yes, sir, I do.”

“Thank you, that will do for the present. Keep your eyes open and your mouth closed, and when you hear of anything likely to interest me, call at the address I gave you.”

“Yes, sir,” said Susan, and took her leave, not without another lingering glance at the door behind which Mallow waited impatiently.

When she was gone, Jennings went into the next room to find Cuthbert smoking. He jumped up when he saw the detective. “Well, has that silly girl gone?” he asked angrily.

“Yes, poor soul. You needn’t get in a wax, Mallow. The girl can’t help falling in love with you. Poor people have feelings as well as rich.”

“I know that, but it’s ridiculous: especially as I never saw the girl before, and then I love only Juliet.”

“You are sure of that?”

“Jennings”

“There — there, don’t get angry. We must get to the bottom of this affair which is getting more complicated every day. Did you give that photograph to Senora Gredos?”

“To Maraquito. No, I didn’t. I gave it to Juliet.”

“You are certain?”

“Positive! I can’t make out how it came into Maraquito’s house.”

Jennings pondered. “Perhaps Basil may have given it to her. It is to his interest on behalf of his mother to make trouble between you and Miss Saxon. Moreover, if it is as I surmise, it shows that Mrs. Octagon intended to stop the marriage, if she could, even before her sister died.”

“Ah! And it shows that the death of Miss Loach gave her a chance of asserting herself and stopping the marriage.”

“Well, she might have hesitated to do that before, as Miss Loach might not have left her fortune to Juliet if the marriage did not take place.”

Cuthbert nodded and spoke musingly: “After all, the old woman liked me, and I was the nephew of the man who loved her in her youth. Her heart may have been set on the match, and she might have threatened to leave her fortune elsewhere if Mrs. Octagon did not agree. Failing this, Mrs. Octagon, through Basil, gave that photograph to Maraquito in the hope that Juliet would ask questions of me —”

“And if she had asked questions?” asked Jennings quickly.

Cuthbert looked uncomfortable. “Don’t think me a conceited ass,” he said, trying to laugh, “but Maraquito is in love with me. I stayed away from her house because she became too attentive. I never told you this, as no man has a right to reveal a woman’s weakness. But, as matters are so serious, it is right you should know.”

“I am glad I do know. By the way, Cuthbert, what between Miss Saxon, Susan Grant and Maraquito, you will have a hard time.”

“How absurd!” said Mallow angrily. “Juliet is the only woman I love and Juliet I intend to marry.”

“Maraquito will prevent your marriage.”

“If she can,” scoffed Cuthbert.

Jennings looked grave. “I am not so sure but what she can make mischief. There’s Mrs. Herne who may or may not be the mother of this Spanish demon —”

“Perhaps the demon herself,” ventured Mallow.

“No!” said the detective positively. “Maraquito can’t move from her couch. You know that. However, I shall call on Mrs. Herne at Hampstead. She was a witness, you know? Keep quiet, Mallow, and let me make inquiries. Meantime, ask Miss Saxon when she missed that photograph.”

“Can you see your way now?”

“I have a slight clue. But it will be a long time before I learn the truth. There is a lot at the back of that murder, Mallow.”

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