The Secret Passage, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 14

Mrs. Octagon Explains

The young girl leaned against the wall, white, and with closed eyes. Alarmed by her appearance, Jennings would have assisted her, but she waved him off and staggered down the stairs. By a powerful effort she managed to subdue her feelings, and when in the hall turned to him with a sickly smile. “I am glad to see you,” she said. “Mr. Mallow has often spoken to you of me. You are his friend, I know.”

“His best friend, in spite of the difference in our position.”

“Oh,” Juliet waved that objection aside, “I know you are a gentleman and took up this work merely as a hobby.”

“I fear not,” smiled Jennings. “To make money.”

“Not in a very pleasant way. However, as you are Mr. Mallow’s friend, I am glad you have this case in hand,” she fixed her eyes on the detective. “Have you discovered anything?” she asked anxiously.

“Nothing much,” replied Jennings, who rapidly decided to say nothing about his discovery of the knife. “I fear the truth will never be found out, Miss Saxon. I suppose you have no idea?”

“I,” she said, coloring, “what put such a thing into your head? I am absolutely ignorant of the truth. Did you come to ask me about —”

“That amongst other things,” interrupted Jennings, seeing Mrs. Pill’s bulky figure at the door. “Can we not talk in some quieter place?”

“Come downstairs,” said Juliet, moving, “but the rooms are unfurnished as Mrs. Pill is cleaning them. The house is quiet enough.”

“So I see,” said the detective, following his companion down to the basement, “only yourself and Mrs. Pill.”

“And my mother,” she answered. “We came here to see about some business connected with the letting of the cottage. My mother is lying down in the old part of the house. Do you wish to see her?”

“No. I wish to see you.”

By this time they had entered the sitting-room in which the crime had been committed. The carpets were up, the furniture had been removed, the walls were bare. Jennings could have had no better opportunity of seeking for any secret entrance, the existence of which he suspected by reason of the untimely sounding of the bell. But everything seemed to be in order. The floor was of oak, and there was — strangely enough — no hearth-stone. The French windows opened into the conservatory, now denuded of its flowers, and stepping into this Jennings found that the glass roof was entirely closed, save for a space for ventilation. The assassin could not have entered or escaped in that way, and there was no exit from the room save by the door.

“Would you like to see the bedroom?” asked Juliet sarcastically. “I see you are examining the place, though I should have thought you would have done so before.”

“I did at the time,” replied Jennings calmly, “but the place was then full of furniture and the carpets were down. Let me see the bedroom by all means.”

Juliet led the way into the next room, which was also bare. There was one window hermetically sealed and with iron shutters. This looked out on to a kind of well, and light was reflected from above by means of a sheet of silvered tin. No one could have got out by the window, and even then, it would have been difficult to have climbed up the well which led to the surface of the ground. The floor and walls had no marks of entrances, and Jennings returned to the sitting-room completely baffled. Then Juliet spoke again. “I cannot help wondering what you expect to find,” she observed.

“I thought there might be a secret entrance,” said Jennings, looking at her keenly, “but there seems to be none.”

Miss Saxon appeared genuinely astonished and looked round. “I never heard of such a thing,” she said, puzzled. “And what would a quiet old lady like my aunt need with a secret entrance?”

“Well, you see, the assassin could not have sounded that bell and have escaped by the front door. Had he done so, he would have met Susan Grant answering the call. Therefore, he must have escaped in some other way. The windows of both rooms are out of the question.”

“Yes. But I understood that the assassin escaped at half-past ten.”

“According to the evidence it looks like that. But who then sounded the bell?”

Juliet shook her head. “I can’t say,” she said with a sigh. “The whole case is a mystery to me.”

“You don’t know who killed Miss Loach? Please do not look so indignant, Miss Saxon. I am only doing my duty.”

The girl forced a smile. “I really do not know, nor can I think what motive the assassin can have had. He must have had some reason, you know, Mr. Jennings.”

“You say ‘he.’ Was the assassin then a man?”

“I suppose so. At the inquest the doctor said that no woman could have struck such a blow. But I am really ignorant of all, save what appeared in the papers. I am the worst person in the world to apply to for information, sir.”

“Perhaps you are, so far as the crime is concerned. But there is one question I should like to ask you. An impertinent one.”

“What is it?” demanded the girl, visibly nervous.

“Why do you refuse to marry Mallow?”

“That is very impertinent,” said Juliet, controlling herself; “so much so that I refuse to reply.”

“As a gentleman, I take that answer,” said Jennings mildly, “but as a detective I ask again for your reason.”

“I fail to see what my private affairs have to do with the law.”

Jennings smiled at this answer and thought of the knife which he had found. A less cautious man would have produced it at once and have insisted on an explanation. But Jennings wished to learn to whom the knife belonged before he ventured. He was sure that it was not the property of Juliet, who had no need for such a dangerous article, and he was equally sure that as she was shielding someone, she would acknowledge that she had bought the weapon. He was treading on egg-shells, and it behooved him to be cautious. “Very good,” he said at length, “we will pass that question for the present, though as Mallow’s friend I am sorry. Will you tell me to whom you gave the photograph of Mallow which he presented to you?”

“How do you know about that?” asked Miss Saxon quickly. “And why do you ask?”

“Because I have seen the photograph.”

“That is impossible,” she answered coldly; “unless you were in this house before the death of my aunt.”

“Ah! then it was to Miss Loach you gave it,” said Jennings, wondering how Maraquito had become possessed of it.

“It was; though I do not recognize your right to ask such a question, Mr. Jennings. My late aunt was very devoted to Mr. Mallow and anxious that our marriage should take place. He gave me the photograph —”

“With an inscription,” put in the detective.

“Certainly,” she rejoined, flushing, “with an inscription intended for me alone. I was unwilling to part with the photograph, but my aunt begged so eagerly for it that I could not refuse it.”

“How did she see it in the first instance?”

“I brought it to show her after Mr. Mallow gave it to me. May I ask where you saw it?”

Jennings looked at her with marked significance. “I saw it in the house of a woman called Maraquito.”

“And how did it get there?”

“I can’t tell you. Do you know this woman?”

“I don’t even know her name. Who is she?”

“Her real name is Senora Gredos and she claims to be a Spanish Jewess. She keeps a kind of gambling salon. To be plain with you, Miss Saxon, I really did not see the photograph in her house. But a girl called Susan Grant —”

“I know. My late aunt’s parlor-maid.”

“Well, the photograph was in her box. I found it when the servants insisted on their boxes being searched. She confessed that she had taken it from her last mistress, who was Senora Gredos. As you gave it to Miss Loach, I should be glad to know how it came into the possession of this woman.”

“I really can’t tell you, no more than I can say why Susan took it. What was her reason?”

“Mr. Mallow is a handsome man —” began Jennings, when she stopped him with a gesture.

“Do you mean to say — no, I’ll never believe it.”

“I was not going to say anything against Mallow’s character. But this foolish girl cherished a foolish infatuation for Mallow. She saw him at Senora Gredos’ house —”

“Ah!” said Juliet, turning pale. “I remember now. Basil mentioned that Cuthbert gambled, but he did not say where.”

“Mallow gambled a little at Maraquito’s, as did your brother. The only difference is that Mallow could afford to lose and your brother could not. Are you sure you never heard the name of Maraquito?”

“Quite sure,” said Juliet, meeting his gaze so calmly that he saw she was speaking the truth. “Well, I understand how you got the photograph, but how did this woman get it? I never heard my aunt mention her, either as Maraquito or as Senora Gredos.”

“Was your aunt open with you?”

“Perfectly open. She had nothing in her life to conceal.”

“I am not so sure of that,” murmured the detective. “Well, I cannot say how Maraquito became possessed of this photograph.”

Juliet shrugged her shoulders. “In that case we may dismiss the matter,” she said, wiping her dry lips; “and I can’t see what the photograph has to do with this crime.”

“I can’t see it myself, but one never knows.”

“Do you accuse Mr. Mallow?”

“Supposing I did. I know Mr. Mallow was near this place on the night of the murder and about the hour.”

Juliet leaned against the wall and turned away her face. “It is not true. What should bring him there?”

“He had business connected with the unfinished house at the back owned by Lord Caranby. But I don’t suppose anyone saw him.”

“How do you know he was here then?” asked Juliet, gray and agitated.

“He confessed to me that he had been here. But we can talk of that later —”

Juliet interposed. “One moment,” she cried, “do you accuse him?”

“As yet I accuse no one. I must get more facts together. By the way, Miss Saxon, will you tell the where you were on that night?”

“Certainly,” she replied in a muffled voice, “at the Marlow Theatre with my brother Basil.”

“Quite so. But I don’t think the play was to your liking.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Well,” said Jennings slowly, and watching the changing color of her face, “in your house you do not favor melodrama. I wonder you went to see this one at the Marlow Theatre.”

“The writer is a friend of ours,” said Juliet defiantly.

“In that case, you might have paid him the compliment of remaining till the fall of the curtain.”

Juliet trembled violently and clung to the wall. “Go on,” she said faintly.

“You had a box, as I learned from the business manager. But shortly after eight your brother left the theatre: you departed after nine.”

“I went to see an old friend in the neighborhood,” stammered Juliet.

“Ah, and was that neighborhood this one, by any chance? In a hansom — which I believe you drove away in-one can reach this place from the Marlow Theatre in a quarter of an hour.”

“I— I— did not come here.”

“Then where did you go?”

“I decline to say.”

“Where did your brother go?”

“He did not tell me. Did the manager inform you of anything else?”

“He merely told me that you and your brother left the theatre as I stated. You decline to reveal your movements.”

“I do,” said Juliet, clenching her hands and looking pale but defiant. “My private business can have nothing to do with you. As you seek to connect me with this case, it is your business to prove what you say. I refuse to speak.”

“Will your brother refuse?”

“You had better ask him,” said Miss Saxon carelessly, but with an effort to appear light-hearted. “I don’t inquire into my brother’s doings, Mr. Jennings.”

“Yet you heard about his gambling.”

“I don’t see what that has to do with the matter in hand. Do you accuse me and Basil of having killed my aunt?”

“I accuse no one, as yet,” said Jennings, chagrined at her reticence, “I said that before. Did you not speak with your aunt on that night?”

“No,” said Juliet positively. “I certainly did not.”

Jennings changed his tactics, and became apparently friendly. “Well, Miss Saxon, I won’t bother you any more. I am sure you have told me all you know.” Juliet winced. “Have you any idea if the weapon with which the crime was committed has been discovered?”

“That is a strange question for a detective to ask.”

“A very necessary one. Well?”

“I know nothing about it,” she said in an almost inaudible voice.

“Do you know Mrs. Herne?”

“I have met her once or twice here.”

“Did you like her?”

“I can hardly say. I did not take much notice of her. She appeared to be agreeable, but she was over-dressed and used a perfume which I disliked.”

“Had you ever met anyone using such a perfume before?”

“No. It was strong and heavy. Quite a new scent to me. The odor gave me a headache!”

“Was Mrs. Herne a great friend of your aunt’s?”

“I believe so. She came here with Mr. Hale and Mr. Clancy to play.”

“Hale,” said Jennings, “I forgot Hale. Does he still retain your business, Miss Saxon?”

“No. I have given over the management of my property to our own lawyer. Mr. Hale was quite willing.”

“Does your brother Basil still make a friend of Mr. Hale?”

“I don’t know,” said Juliet, changing color again. “I do not ask about Basil’s doings. I said that before. Hark,” she added, anxious to put an end to the conversation, “my mother is coming.”

“I should like to see Mrs. Octagon,” said Jennings.

“She will be here in a few minutes. I shall tell her,” and Juliet, without a look, left the room, evidently glad to get away.

Jennings frowned and took out the knife at which he looked. “She knows a good deal about this affair,” he murmured. “Who is she shielding? I suspect her brother. Otherwise she would not have hidden the knife. I wonder to whom it belongs. Here are three notches cut in the handle — there is a stain on the blade — blood, I suppose.”

He got no further in his soliloquy, for Mrs. Octagon swept into the room in her most impressive manner. She was calm and cool, and her face wore a smile as she advanced to the detective. “My dear Mr. Jennings,” she said, shaking him warmly by the hand, “I am so glad to see you, though I really ought to be angry, seeing you came to my house so often and never told me what you did.”

“You mightn’t have welcomed me had you known,” said he dryly.

“I am above such vulgar prejudices,” said Mrs. Octagon, waving her hand airily, “and I am sure your profession is an arduous one. When Juliet told me that you were looking into this tragic death of my poor sister I was delighted. So consoling to have to do with a gentleman in an unpleasant matter like this. Why have you come?”

This last question was put sharply, and Mrs. Octagon fastened her big black eyes on the calm face of the detective. “Just to have a look at the house,” he said readily, for he was certain Juliet would not report their conversation to her mother.

Mrs. Octagon shrugged her shoulders. “A very nice little house, though rather commonplace in its decoration; but my poor sister never did have much taste. Have you discovered anything likely to lead to the discovery of her assassin?”

“I am ashamed to say I am quite in the dark,” replied Jennings. “I don’t suppose the truth will ever be discovered.”

The woman appeared relieved, but tried to assume a sad expression. “Oh, how very dreadful,” she said, “she will lie in her untimely grave, unavenged. Alas! Alas!”

But Jennings was not mystified by her tragic airs.

He was certain she knew something and feared lest it should come to his knowledge. Therefore he resolved to startle her by a blunt question. “I never knew you were acquainted with Maraquito!”

Mrs. Octagon was not at all taken aback. “I don’t know such creatures as a rule,” she said calmly. “What makes you think I do?”

“I saw you enter her house one night.”

“Last night,” said Mrs. Octagon coolly. “Yes. Maraquito, or Senora Gredos, or whatever she calls herself, told me you had just gone. I saw her in a little room off the salon where the play went on.”

The detective was surprised by this ready admission, and at once became suspicious. It would seem that Mrs. Octagon, expecting such a question, was uncommonly ready to answer it. “May I ask why you went to see this woman?” he demanded.

An innocent woman would have resented this question, but Mrs. Octagon ostentatiously seized the opportunity to clear herself, and thereby increased Jennings’ suspicions. “Certainly,” she said in an open manner and with a rather theatrical air, “I went to beg my son’s life from this fair siren.”

“What on earth do you mean?”

“Basil,” said Mrs. Octagon, in her deep, rich voice, “is too fond of this fair stranger — Spanish, is she not?”

“She says she is,” said the cautious Jennings.

Mrs. Octagon shot a glance of suspicion at him, but at once resumed her engaging manner. “The foolish boy loves her,” she went on, clasping her hands and becoming poetical, “his heart is captured by her starry eyes and he would wed her for her loveliness. But I can’t have that sort of thing,” she added, becoming prosaic, “so I went and told her I would denounce her gambling salon to the police if she did not surrender my son. She has done so, and I am happy. Ah, Mr. Jennings, had you a mother’s heart,” she laid her hand on her own, “you would know to what lengths it will lead a woman!”

“I am glad your son is safe,” said Jennings, with apparent cordiality, though he wondered how much of this was true. “Maraquito is not a good wife for him. Besides, she is a cripple.”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Octagon tragically, “she is a cripple.”

Something in the tone of her voice made Jennings look up and created a new suspicion in his heart. However, he said no more, having learned as much as was possible from this tricky woman. “I must go now,” he said, “I have examined the house.”

Mrs. Octagon led the way upstairs. “And have you any clue?”

“None! None! I wish you could assist me.”

“I?” she exclaimed indignantly, “no, my sister and I were not friends, and I will have nothing to do with the matter. Good-day,” and Mrs. Octagon sailed away, after ushering the detective out of the door.

Jennings departed, wondering at this change of front. As he passed through the gate a fair, stupid-looking man entered. He nodded to Jennings, touching his hat, and at the same time a strong perfume saluted the detective’s nostrils. “Thomas Barnes uses Hikui also,” murmured Jennings, walking away. “Humph! Is he a member of the gang?”

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