The Secret Passage, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 11

On the Track

Professor Le Beau kept a school of dancing in Pimlico, and incessantly trained pupils for the stage. Many of them had appeared with more or less success in the ballets at the Empire and Alhambra, and he was widely known amongst stage-struck aspirants as charging moderately and teaching in a most painstaking manner. He thus made an income which, if not large, was at least secure, and was assisted in the school by his niece, Peggy Garthorne. She was the manager of his house and looked after the money, otherwise the little professor would never have been able to lay aside for the future. But when the brother of the late Madame Le Beau — an Englishwoman — died, his sister took charge of the orphan. Now that Madame herself was dead, Peggy looked after the professor out of gratitude and love. She was fond of the excitable little Frenchman, and knew how to manage him to a nicety.

It was to the Dancing Academy that Jennings turned his steps a few days after the interview with Susan. He had been a constant visitor there for eighteen months and was deeply in love with Peggy. On a Bank Holiday he had been fortunate enough to rescue her from a noisy crowd, half-drunk and indulging in horse-play, and had escorted her home to receive the profuse thanks of the Professor. The detective was attracted by the quaint little man, and he called again to inquire for Peggy. A friendship thus inaugurated ripened into a deeper feeling, and within nine months Jennings proposed for the hand of the humble girl. She consented and so did Le Beau, although he was rather rueful at the thought of losing his mainstay. But Peggy promised him that she would still look after him until he retired, and with this promise Le Beau was content. He was now close on seventy, and could not hope to teach much longer. But, thanks to Peggy’s clever head and saving habits, he had — as the French say —“plenty of bread baked” to eat during days of dearth.

The Academy was situated down a narrow street far removed from the main thoroughfares. Quiet houses belonging to poor people stood on either side of this lane — for that it was — and at the end appeared the Academy, blocking the exit from that quarter. It stood right in the middle of the street and turned the lane into a blind alley, but a narrow right-of-way passed along the side and round to the back where the street began again under a new name. The position of the place was quaint, and often it had been intended to remove the obstruction, but the owner, an eccentric person of great wealth, had hitherto refused to allow it to be pulled down. But the owner was now old, and it was expected his heirs would take away the building and allow the lane to run freely through to the other street. Still it would last Professor Le Beau’s time, for his heart would have broken had he been compelled to move. He had taught here for the last thirty years, and had become part and parcel of the neighborhood.

Jennings, quietly dressed in blue serge with brown boots and a bowler hat, turned down the lane and advanced towards the double door of the Academy, which was surmounted by an allegorical group of plaster figures designed by Le Beau himself, and representing Orpheus teaching trees and animals to dance. The allusion was not complimentary to his pupils, for if Le Beau figured as Orpheus, what were the animals? However, the hot-tempered little man refused to change his allegory and the group remained. Jennings passed under it and into the building with a smile which the sight of those figures always evoked. Within, the building on the ground floor was divided into two rooms — a large hall for the dancing lessons and a small apartment used indifferently as a reception-room and an office. Above, on the first story, were the sitting-room, the dining-room and the kitchen; and on the third, under a high conical roof, the two bedrooms of the Professor and Peggy, with an extra one for any stranger who might remain. Where Margot, the French cook and maid-of-all-work, slept, was a mystery. So it will be seen that the accommodation of the house was extremely limited. However, Le Beau, looked after by Peggy and Margot, who was devoted to him, was extremely well pleased, and extremely happy in his light airy French way.

In the office was Peggy, making up some accounts. She was a pretty, small maiden of twenty-five, neatly dressed in a clean print gown, and looking like a dewy daisy. Her eyes were blue, her hair the color of ripe corn, and her cheeks were of a delicate rose. There was something pastoral about Peggy, smacking of meadow lands and milking time. She should have been a shepherdess looking after her flock rather than a girl toiling in a dingy office. How such a rural flower ever sprung up amongst London houses was a mystery Jennings could not make out. And according to her own tale, Peggy had never lived in the country. What with the noise of fiddling which came from the large hall, and the fact of being absorbed in her work, Peggy never heard the entrance of her lover. Jennings stole quietly towards her, admiring the pretty picture she made with a ray of dusky sunlight making glory of her hair.

“Who is it?” he asked, putting his hands over her eyes.

“Oh,” cried Peggy, dropping her pen and removing his hands, “the only man who would dare to take such a liberty with me. Miles, my darling pig!” and she kissed him, laughing.

“I don’t like the last word, Peggy!”

“It’s Papa Le Beau’s favorite word with his pupils,” said Peggy, who always spoke of the dancing-master thus.

“With the addition of darling?”

“No, that is an addition of my own. But I can remove it if you like.”

“I don’t like,” said Miles, sitting down and pulling her towards him, “come and talk to me, Pegtop.”

“I won’t be called Pegtop, and as to talking, I have far too much work to do. The lesson will soon be over, and some of the pupils have to take these accounts home. Then dejeuner will soon be ready, and you know how Margot hates having her well-cooked dishes spoilt by waiting. But why are you here instead of at work?”

“Hush!” said Miles, laying a finger on her lips. “Papa will hear you.”

“Not he. Hear the noise his fiddle is making, and he is scolding the poor little wretches like a game-cock.”

“Does a game-cock scold?” asked Jennings gravely. “I hope he is not in a bad temper, Peggy. I have come to ask him a few questions.”

“About your own business?” asked she in a lower tone.

Jennings nodded. Peggy knew his occupation, but as yet he had not been able to tell Le Beau.

The Frenchman cherished all the traditional hatred of his race for the profession of “mouchard,” and would not be able to understand that a detective was of a higher standing. Miles was therefore supposed to be a gentleman of independent fortune, and both he and Peggy decided to inform Le Beau of the truth when he had retired from business. Meanwhile, Miles often talked over his business with Peggy, and usually found her clear way of looking at things of infinite assistance to him in the sometimes difficult cases which he dealt with. Peggy knew all about the murder in Crooked Lane, and how Miles was dealing with the matter. But even she had not been able to suggest a clue to the assassin, although she was in full possession of the facts. “It’s about this new case I wish to speak,” said Jennings. “By the way, Peggy, you know that woman Maraquito I have talked of?”

“Yes. The gambling-house. What of her?”

“Well, she seems to be implicated in the matter.”

“In what way?”

Jennings related the episode of the photograph, and the incident of the same perfume being used by Mrs. Herne and Maraquito. Peggy nodded.

“I don’t see how the photograph connects her with the case,” she said at length, “but the same perfume certainly is strange. All the same, the scent maybe fashionable. Hikui! Hikui! I never heard of it.”

“It is a Japanese perfume, and Maraquito got it from some foreign admirer. It is strange, as you say.”

“Have you seen Mrs. Herne?”

“I saw her at the inquest. She gave evidence. But I had no conversation with her myself.”

“Why don’t you look her up? You mentioned you had her address.”

“I haven’t it now,” said Jennings gloomily. “I called at the Hampstead house, and learned that Mrs. Herne had received such a shock from the death of her friend, Miss Loach, that she had gone abroad and would not return for an indefinite time. So I can do nothing in that quarter just now. It is for this reason that I have come here to ask about Maraquito.”

“From Papa Le Beau,” said Peggy, wrinkling her pretty brows. “What can he know of this woman?”

“She was a dancer until she had an accident. Le Beau may have had her through his hands.”

“Maraquito, Maraquito,” murmured Peggy, and shook her head. “No, I do not remember her. How old is she?”

“About thirty, I think; a fine, handsome woman like a tropical flower for coloring.”

“Spanish. The name is Spanish.”

“I think that is all the Spanish about her. She talks English without the least accent. Hush! here is papa.”

It was indeed the little Professor, who rushed into the room and threw himself, blowing and panting, on the dingy sofa. He was small and dry, with black eyes and a wrinkled face. He wore a blonde wig which did not match his yellow complexion, and was neatly dressed in black, with an old-fashioned swallow-tail coat of blue. He carried a small fiddle and spoke volubly without regarding the presence of Miles.

“Oh, these cochons of English, my dear,” he exclaimed to Peggy, “so steef — so wood-steef in the limbs. Wis ’em I kin do noozzn’, no, not a leetle bit. Zey would make ze angils swear. Ah, mon Dieu, quel dommage I haf to teach zem.”

“I must see about these accounts,” said Peggy, picking up a sheaf of papers and running out. “Stay to dejeuner, Miles.”

“Eh, mon ami,” cried papa, rising. “My excuses, but ze pigs make me to be mooch enrage. Zey are ze steef dolls on the Strasburg clock. You are veil — ah, yis — quite veil cheerup.”

The Professor had picked up a number of English slang words with which he interlarded his conversation. He meant to be kind, and indeed liked Miles greatly. In proof of his recovered temper, he offered the young man a pinch of snuff. Jennings hated snuff, but to keep Papa Le Beau in a good temper he accepted the offer and sneezed violently.

“Professor,” he said, when somewhat better, “I have come to ask you about a lady. A friend of mine has fallen in love with her, and he thought you might know of her.”

“Eh, wha-a-at, mon cher? I understands nozzin’. Ze lady, quel nom?”

“Maraquito Gredos.”

“Espagnole,” murmured Le Beau, shaking his wig. “Non. I do not know ze name. Dancers of Spain. Ah, yis — I haf had miny — zey are not steef like ze cochon Englees. Describe ze looks, mon ami.”

Jennings did so, to the best of his ability, but the old man still appeared undecided. “But she has been ill for three years,” added Jennings. “She fell and hurt her back, and —”

“Eh — wha-a-at Celestine!” cried Le Beau excitedly. “She did fall and hurt hersilf — eh, yis — mos’ dredfil. Conceive to yoursilf, my frien’, she slip on orange peels in ze streets and whacks comes she down. Tree year back — yis — tree year. Celestine Durand, mon fil.”

Jennings wondered. “But she says she is Spanish.”

Le Beau flipped a pinch of snuff in the air. “Ah, bah! She no Spain.”

“So she is French,” murmured Jennings to himself.

“Ah, non; by no means,” cried the Frenchman unexpectedly. “She no French. She Englees — yis — I remembers. A ver’ fine and big demoiselle. She wish to come out at de opera. But she too large — mooch too large. Englees — yis — La Juive.”

“A Jewess?” cried Jennings in his turn.

“I swear to you, mon ami. Englees Jewess, mais oui! For ten months she dance here, tree year gone. Zen zee orange peels and pouf! I see her no mores. But never dance — no — too large, une grande demoiselle.”

“Do you know where she came from?”

“No. I know nozzin’ but what I tell you.”

“Did you like her?”

Le Beau shrugged his shoulders. “I am too old, mon ami. Les femmes like me not. I haf had mes affairs — ah, yis. Conceive —” and he rattled out an adventure of his youth which was more amusing than moral.

But Jennings paid very little attention to him. He was thinking that Maraquito–Celestine was a more mysterious woman than he had thought her. While Jennings was wondering what use he could make of the information he had received, Le Beau suddenly flushed crimson. A new thought had occurred to him. “Do you know zis one — zis Celestine Durand? Tell her I vish money —”

“Did she not pay you?”

Le Beau seized Jennings’ arm and shook it violently. “Yis. Tree pound; quite raight; oh, certainly. But ze four piece of gold, a louis — non — ze Englees sufferin —”

“The English sovereign. Yes.”

“It was bad money — ver bad.”

“Have you got it?” asked Jennings, feeling that he was on the brink of a discovery.

“Non. I pitch him far off in rages. I know now, Celestine Durand. I admire her; oh, yis. Fine womans — a viecked eye. Mais une — no, not zat. Bad, I tell you. If your frien’ love, haf nozzin’ wis her. She gif ze bad money, one piece —” he held up a lean finger, and then, “Aha! ze bell for ze tables. Allons, marchons. We dine — we eat,” and he dashed out of the room as rapidly as he had entered it.

But Jennings did not follow him. He scribbled a note to Peggy, stating that he had to go away on business, and left the Academy. He felt that it would be impossible to sit down and talk of trivial things — as he would have to do in the presence of Le Beau — when he had made such a discovery. The case was beginning to take shape. “Can Maraquito have anything to do with the coiners?” he asked himself. “She is English — a Jewess — Saul is a Jewish name. Can she be of that family? It seems to me that this case is a bigger one than I imagine. I wonder what I had better do?”

It was not easy to say. However, by the time Jennings reached his home — he had chambers in Duke Street, St. James’— he decided to see Maraquito. For this purpose he arrayed himself in accurate evening dress. Senora Gredos thought he was a mere idler, a man-about-town. Had she known of his real profession she might not have welcomed him so freely to her house. Maraquito, for obvious reasons, had no desire to come into touch with the authorities.

But it must not be thought that she violated the law in any very flagrant way. She was too clever for that. Her house was conducted in a most respectable manner. It was situated in Golden Square, and was a fine old mansion of the days when that locality was fashionable. Her servants were all neat and demure. Maraquito received a few friends every evening for a quiet game of cards, so on the surface no one could object to that. But when the doors were closed, high play went on and well-known people ventured large sums on the chances of baccarat. Also, people not quite so respectable came, and it was for that reason Scotland Yard left the house alone. When any member of the detective staff wished to see anyone of a shady description, the person could be found at Maraquito’s. Certainly, only the aristocracy of crime came here, and never a woman. Maraquito did not appear to love her own sex. She received only gentlemen, and as she was an invalid and attended constantly by a duenna in the form of a nurse, no one could say anything. The police knew in an underhand way that the Soho house was a gambling saloon, but the knowledge had not come officially, therefore no notice was taken. But Maraquito’s servants suspected nothing, neither did the gossips of the neighborhood. Senora Gredos was simply looked upon as an invalid fond of entertaining because of her weariness in being confined to her couch.

Jennings had appointed a meeting with Mallow in this semi-respectable establishment, and looked round when he entered the room. It was a large apartment, decorated in the Adams style and furnished as a luxurious drawing-room. At the side near the window there was a long table covered with green baize. Round this several gentlemen in evening dress were standing. Others played games of their own at separate small tables, but most of them devoted themselves to baccarat. Maraquito held the bank. Her couch was drawn up against the wall, and the red silk curtains of the window made a vivid background to her dark beauty.

She was, indeed, a handsome woman — so much of her as could be seen. Half-sitting, half-reclining on her couch, the lower part of her frame was swathed in eastern stuffs sparkling with gold threads. She wore a yellow silk dress trimmed about the shoulders with black lace and glittering with valuable jewels. Her neck and arms were finely moulded and of a dazzling whiteness. Her small head was proudly set on her shoulders, and her magnificent black hair smoothly coiled in lustrous tresses above her white forehead. Her lips were full and rich, her eyes large and black, and her nose was thin and high. The most marked feature of her face were the eyebrows, which almost met over her nose. She had delicate hands and beautiful arms which showed themselves to advantage as she manipulated the cards. From the gorgeous coverlet her bust rose like a splendid flower, and for an invalid she had a surprising color. She was indeed, as Jennings had remarked, like a tropical flower. But there was something sensual and evil about her exuberance. But not a whisper had been heard against her reputation. Everyone, sorry for the misfortune which condemned this lovely woman to a sickbed, treated her with respect. Maraquito, as some people said, may have been wicked, but no anchorite could have led, on the face of it, a more austere life. Her smile was alluring, and she looked like the Lurline drawing men to destruction. Fortunes had been lost in that quiet room.

When Jennings entered, Maraquito was opening a fresh pack of cards, while the players counted their losses or winnings and fiddled with the red chips used in the game. On seeing the newcomer, Senora Gredos gave him a gracious smile, and said something to the pale, thin woman in black who stood at the head of her couch. The nurse, or duenna — she served for both — crossed to Jennings as he advanced towards the buffet, on which stood glasses and decanters of wine.

“Madame wishes to know why you have not brought Mr. Mallow.”

“Tell madame that he will be here soon. I have to meet him in this place,” said the detective to the duenna, and watched the effect of the message on Maraquito.

Her face flushed, her eyes brightened, but she did not look again in Jennings’ direction. On the contrary, she gave all her attention to the game which was now in progress, but Jennings guessed that her thoughts were with Mallow, and occasionally he caught her looking for his appearance at the door. “How that woman loves him,” he thought, “I wonder I never noticed it before. Quite an infatuation.” For a time he watched the players staking large amounts, and saw the pile of gold at Maraquito’s elbow steadily increasing. She seemed to have all the luck. The bank was winning and its opponents losing, but the play went on steadily for at least half an hour. At the end of that time a newcomer entered the room. Jennings, who had glanced at his watch, quite expected to see Cuthbert. But, to his surprise, he came face to face with Lord Caranby.

“I did not expect to see you here,” said the detective.

“I come in place of my nephew. He is unwell,” said Caranby; “present me to Senora Gredos, if you please, Mr. Jennings.”

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