The Secret Passage, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 15

A Dangerous Admission

Jennings had once witnessed a drama by Victorien Sardou, entitled — in the English version — Diplomacy. Therein a woman was unmasked by means of a scent. It seemed to him that perfume also played a part in this case. Why should Clancy, Mrs. Herne, Hale, Maraquito and Thomas use a special odor? “I wonder if they meet in the dark?” thought the detective, “and recognize each other by the scent. It seems very improbable, yet I can’t see why they use it otherwise. That women should use perfumes, even the same perfume, is right enough. They love that sort of thing, but why should men do so, especially a man in the position of Thomas? I’ll follow up this clue, if clue it is!”

The conversation with Juliet convinced Jennings that she knew of something connected with the matter, but was determined to hold her tongue. The fact that this knife was in her possession showed that she was aware of some fact likely to lead to the detection of the assassin. She might have found it when she came after the death to Rose Cottage, but in that case, had she nothing to conceal, she would have shown it to the police. Instead of this, she hid it in the attic. Jennings congratulated himself on his dexterity in securing this piece of evidence. There was no doubt in his mind that this was the very knife with which Miss Loach had been stabbed.

“And by a man,” thought Jennings. “No woman would have such a weapon in her possession; and if she bought one to accomplish a crime, she would purchase a stiletto or a pistol. It would take a considerable exercise of muscle to drive this heavy knife home.”

Jennings considered that the only person who could make Juliet speak was Cuthbert. It was true that she already had declined to make a confidant of him, but now, when there was a chance of his being arrested — as Jennings had hinted — she might be inclined to confess all, especially if it was Cuthbert she was shielding. But the detective fancied her brother might be the culprit. On the night of the murder, both had left the Marlow Theatre, which was near Rexton, and Juliet declined to say where they went. It might be that both had been on the spot about the time of the commission of the crime. Again, unless Miss Loach had admitted her assailant, he must have had a latch-key to let himself in. From the fact that the poor woman had been found with the cards on her lap in the same position in which Susan had left her, Jennings was inclined to think that the assassin had struck the blow at once, and then had left the house at the half hour. But how had he entered? There did not appear to be any secret entrance, and no one could enter by the windows; nor by the door either without a latch-key. The further Jennings examined into the matter, the more he was puzzled. Never had he undertaken so difficult a case. But the very difficulty made him the more resolute to unravel the mystery.

For two or three days he went about, asking for information concerning the coining, and reading up details in old newspapers about the exploits of the Saul family. Also, he went occasionally to the salon of Senora Gredos. There he constantly met Hale and Clancy. Also Basil came at times. That young man now adopted a somewhat insolent demeanor towards the pair, which showed that he was now out of their clutches and no longer had cause to fear them. Jennings felt sure that Basil could explain much, and he half determined to get a warrant out for his arrest in the hope that fear might make him confess. But, unfortunately, he had not sufficient information to procure such a thing, and was obliged to content himself with keeping a watch on young Saxon. But the man sent to spy reported nothing suspicious about Basil’s doings.

In this perplexity of mind Jennings thought he would see Cuthbert and relate what he had discovered. Also he hoped that Mallow might interview Juliet and learn the truth from her. But an inquiry at Mallow’s rooms showed that he had gone out of town for a few days with his uncle, and would not be back for another two. Pending this return, Jennings sorted his evidence.

Then he was surprised to receive a letter from Mrs. Herne, stating that she had returned to her place at Hampstead, and asking him to call. “I understand from Mr. Clancy,” wrote Mrs. Herne, “that you wish to see me in connection with the death of my poor friend. I shall beat home tomorrow at four.” Then followed the signature, and Jennings put away the note with a rather disappointed feeling. If he was right in suspecting Mrs. Herne, she certainly felt little fear, else she would have declined to see him. After all, his supposition that the two women and the four men formed a gang of coiners, who worked in the unfinished house, might turn out to be wrong. “But I’ll see Mrs. Herne and have a long talk with her,” said Jennings to himself. “And then I’ll show the knife to Cuthbert Mallow. Also I may examine the unfinished house. If coiners have been there, or are there, I’ll soon find out. Mallow hunting for ghosts, probably, made only a cursory examination. And I’ll take Drudge to Hampstead with me.”

Drudge was a detective who adored Jennings and thought him the very greatest man in England. He was usually employed in watching those whom his superior suspected, and Jennings could always rely on his orders being honestly executed. In this instance Drudge was to wait some distance from the house of Mrs. Herne until Jennings came out again. Then on the conversation which had taken place would depend further orders. The man was silent and lean, with a pair of sad eyes. He followed Jennings like a dog and never spoke unless he was required to answer a question.

Mrs. Herne did not possess a house of her own, which struck the detective as strange, considering she appeared to be a wealthy woman. She always wore costly dresses and much jewellery, yet she was content with two rooms, one to sit in and the other to sleep in. Certainly the sitting-room (which was all Jennings saw) was well furnished, and she apparently thoroughly appreciated the luxuries of life. There was a bow-window which commanded a fine prospect of the Heath, and here Mrs. Herne was seated. The blinds were half-way down, so that the brilliant sunlight could not penetrate into the somewhat dusky room. When the detective entered Mrs. Herne excused the semi-darkness. “But my eyes are somewhat weak,” she said, motioning him to a seat. “However, if you wish for more light —” she laid her hand on the blind-cord.

“Not on my account,” said Jennings, who did not wish to appear unduly suspicious. “I am quite satisfied.”

“Very well, then,” replied Mrs. Herne, resuming her seat and crossing her delicate hands on her lap. “We can talk. I am at your orders.”

She was arrayed in a blue silk dress of a somewhat vivid hue, but softened with black lace. She had a brooch of diamonds at her throat, a diamond necklace round it, bracelets set with the same gems and many costly rings. Such a mass of jewelry looked rather out of place in the daylight, but the twilight of the room made the glitter less pronounced. Jennings thought that Mrs. Herne must have Jewish blood in her veins, seeing she was so fond of gems. Certainly she was very like Maraquito, even to having eyebrows almost meeting over her thin high nose. But these, as was her hair, were gray, and her skin lacked the rich coloring of the younger woman. Jennings rapidly took in the resemblance, and commenced the conversation, more convinced than ever that there was some bond of blood between Mrs. Herne and Senora Gredos. This belief helped him not a little.

“I daresay Mr. Clancy told you why I wished to see you?”

Mrs. Herne nodded in a stately way. “Yes. You wish to know if I was in the bedroom of my friend on that evening. Well, I was. I went in for a few minutes to take off my cloak and hat, and then I went in again to resume them.”

“Did you see anyone in the room?”

“No. Had there been anyone I should certainly have seen the person. But there is no place where anyone could hide.”

“Not even a cupboard?”

“There was a wardrobe, for Miss Loach disliked cupboards, as she thought clothes did not get sufficiently aired in them. A wardrobe, and of course anyone might have hid under the bed, but I did not look. And I don’t think,” added Mrs. Herne, examining her rings, “that anyone was about. Miss Loach was always very suspicious, and searched the house regularly.”

“Did she, then, anticipate anyone hiding — a burglar, for instance?”

“Yes, I think she did. Her nature was warped from certain events which happened in her early life, and she suspected everyone.”

“Was she on bad terms with anyone?”

“No. She never quarrelled. I am the quarrelsome person,” said the lady, smiling. “I quarrelled with Mr. Clancy, who is a rude man. But we have made it up since, as he has apologized. It was Mr. Clancy who told me of your wish to see me. Do you want to ask anything else?”

“If you do not mind.”

“On the contrary, I am anxious to afford you all the information in my power. Nothing would give me more satisfaction than to see the murderer of my dear friend brought to justice.”

She spoke with great feeling, and there was an unmistakable ring of truth about her speech. Jennings began to think he must be wrong in suspecting her to have anything to do with the death. All the same, he was on his guard. It would not do to let Mrs. Herne, clever as she was, pull wool over his eyes. “Have you any idea who killed Miss Loach?” he asked.

“No. She was quite well on that evening, and did not anticipate death in any way — least of all in a violent form. Mr. Hale, Mr. Clancy and myself would have been with her till nearly midnight had I not quarrelled with Mr. Clancy. As it was, Mr. Hale escorted me home about half-past nine, and I understand Mr. Clancy left about ten. When Miss Loach was not playing whist or bridge she never cared about having anyone in her house. She was rather a misanthrope.”

“Did she expect anyone that evening?”

“No. At all events, she said nothing about expecting anyone.”

“Did she expect her nephew?”

“Mr. Basil Saxon?” said Mrs. Herne, looking surprised. “Not that I am aware of. She did not mention his name. To be sure, they were on bad terms, and she had forbidden him the house. No, I do not think she expected him.”

“Do you know the cause of the quarrel?”

“It had something to do with money. I believe Miss Loach helped Mr. Saxon, who was rather extravagant, but she grew weary of his demands and refused to help him further. He lost his temper and said things which forced her to order him out of the house.”

“Did he utter any threats?”

“Miss Loach never said that he did. Mr. Jennings,” remarked the old lady, bending her brows, “is it possible you suspect that young man?”

“No. I suspect no one at present. But I am bound to make inquiries in every direction, and of course, if Mr. Saxon is of a passionate temper, he might wish to avenge himself for being forbidden the house.”

“He has a temper,” said Mrs. Herne, thoughtfully, “but I never saw it exhibited, though I met him once at Miss Loach’s. She said he had a lot of bad blood in him, but that may have been because she hated her sister, Isabella Octagon.”

“Did she hate her?”

“Yes. And I think she had cause. Mrs. Octagon behaved very badly in connection with some romantic episode of the past.”

“I fancy I know about that,” said Jennings quickly, then added, “You are fond of perfumes?”

“What a strange question,” laughed Mrs. Herne. “Yes, I am. Do you like this scent. It is called Hikui, and was given to me by a dear friend who received it from a Japanese attache.”

“From a friend or relative?”

Mrs. Herne frowned. “What do you mean by that?”

Jennings shrugged his shoulders. “Oh, nothing. Only you are very like a lady called Senora Gredos.”

“Maraquito,” said Mrs. Herne unexpectedly. “Of course I am. Her father was my brother.”

“You are then her aunt?”

“Naturally. But the fact is, I do not proclaim the relationship, as I do not approve of Maraquito’s gambling. Of course the poor thing is confined to her couch and must have something to amuse her. All the same, gambling on a large scale is against my principles. But, if asked, I do not disown the relationship. Now you understand why I am like Maraquito.”

“I understand,” hesitated Jennings, “you belong to a Spanish family?”

“Spanish Jews. I am a Jewess, so is Maraquito.”

“Do you speak Spanish?”

“Yes. Do you wish to speak it with me?”

“Unfortunately I do not know the language,” said Jennings, profoundly regretting the fact. “And your niece?”

“She does not speak it. She was brought up in England.”

“In that case she should ask you if her name is masculine or feminine, Mrs. Herne?”

The old lady started. “I should like to know what you mean?”

“Senora Gredos’ Christian name should be Maraquita, not Maraquito!”

“Really. I never gave the matter a thought. I will tell her about it if you like. I said she did not speak Spanish! She has led a strange life. At one time she wished to dance and took the name of Celestine Durand. She was taught by a professor of dancing called Le Beau, who lives in Pimlico, but while learning she slipped in the street and became the wreck you see her.”

Certainly Mrs. Herne was very frank, and spoke the truth, as all this bore out the statements of Le Beau and Lord Caranby. “Her maiden name was Saul, I believe,” said Jennings, thinking Mrs. Herne would deny this promptly.

To his astonishment she did nothing of the sort. “My maiden name is Saul,” she said gravely. “But as Maraquito is the daughter of my unfortunate brother, her true name is the same — not her maiden name, you understand. I do not know how you learned this, but —”

“Lord Caranby paid a visit to Maraquito’s salon and recognized that she was a Saul from her likeness to Emilia, with whom —”

“With whom he was in love,” finished Mrs. Herne, crossing her hands; “that painful story is well known to me. Emilia was my sister.”

“Lord Caranby never told me she had one,” said Jennings.

“Lord Caranby does not know the history of our family.”

“Save what appeared in the papers,” put in the detective.

Mrs. Herne flushed through her sallow skin. “It is not well bred of you to refer to the misfortunes of my family,” she said; “my mother and brother were unlucky. They were innocent of this charge of coining, brought against them by an enemy.”

“The evidence was very plain, Mrs. Herne.”

“Ah!” she flashed out, “you have been looking up the case. Why?”

“From what Lord Caranby said —”

“He has no right to say anything,” cried Mrs. Herne, rising and speaking vehemently; “he loved my sister, and she lost her life at that dreadful house. I was abroad at the time, and had only just married. My husband was a jeweller. We cut ourselves off from the family when the misfortune came. Only of late years did I recognize Maraquito when she came to me for assistance. Her father died and she had no money. I helped her to pay for her dancing —”

“Oh,” said Jennings, recalling the false money, “you paid.”

“Have you anything to say on that point?” she asked haughtily.

“No! No! I merely congratulate you on your generosity.”

“I could not allow my own niece to starve. I helped her, and then she met with the accident. After that —”

“You assisted her to start this gambling-house.”

“By no means. Mr. Hale found the money for that. He is in love with Maraquito. But you can understand why I do not proclaim my relationship with her. The past of our family is too painful. I became acquainted with Miss Loach through Mrs. Octagon — she was then the wife of Mr. Saxon — when I went to inquire into my sister’s death. I liked Miss Loach and frequently went to see her. Now that she is dead I shall leave England. I have arranged to do so next week, and you will not see me here again. That is why I gave you this chance of making inquiries.”

“I am much obliged,” said Jennings quite believing her story, since she told it so earnestly: “but does Maraquito love Hale?”

“No. She loves Mr. Mallow, Lord Caranby’s nephew.”

“She has a rival in Miss Saxon,” said the detective.

Mrs. Herne turned red. “My niece fears no rival,” she said haughtily. “Miss Saxon shall never be the wife of Mr. Mallow.”

Jennings shrugged his shoulders. “I do not see how she can stop the affair.”

“Oh yes, she can. The mother is on her side.”

“Ah! I thought there was some work of that kind.”

“Hear me!” cried Mrs. Herne, imposing silence with a gesture. “Basil Saxon is in love with Maraquito and she can twist the poor fool round her finger. She agrees to send him away if Mrs. Octagon stops this most absurd marriage.”

“Which she has done.”

“And which she will continue to do,” said Mrs. Herne decisively; “the mother does not wish Basil to marry my niece, though she is quite as good as they if not better.”

“Well,” drawled Jennings, rising, “I now know why Mrs. Octagon has acted in this way. There’s no more to be said.”

“Are there any further questions you wish to ask me? Remember I go abroad forever next week. You will never see me again.”

“I think I have asked you everything. By the why,” Jennings balanced his hat between two forefingers, “I suppose your niece’s complaint is incurable?”

“She thought so until lately. But she has consulted a specialist, who tells her she will walk again in a few months.”

“Then I suppose since she has made money through Hale’s gambling-house she will marry him out of gratitude.”

“She will marry Mallow,” said Mrs. Herne, closing her mouth firmly.

“Lord Caranby may object.”

“His objections will be overcome,” she replied, with a crafty smile.

“In what way? I am not curious, but —”

“I have my own opinion of that, Mr. Jennings.”

“Well, I should like to know how the obstinate objections of a firm old man like Caranby are to be overcome.”

“Ah, now you wish to know too much,” said Mrs. Herne, laughing and moving towards the center of the room. “I refuse to tell you that. But if you are friendly with Miss Saxon, tell her to give up Mr. Mallow. Otherwise —”

“Otherwise,” echoed Jennings, curious to know why she paused.

“She will lose what is dearest to her.”

“Humph! I wonder what that can be. Had you not better threaten Miss Saxon personally, Mrs. Herne?”

“I have no need to, Maraquito will do that. With my niece as an enemy, Miss Saxon has no chance of gaining the prize she desires.”

“But you reckon without the feelings of Mr. Mallow. He loves —”

“He does not — he does not!” cried Mrs. Herne, pressing one hand to her heart and speaking fiercely; “he loves Maraquito. And is she not worthy to be loved? Is she — go — go.” Mrs. Herne waved her hand. “I have told you everything you asked, and more. Should you require further information about Maraquito’s love, I refer you to herself.”

“Oh, I am not interested enough in the matter to ask her,” said the detective, and bowing to the lady who had sunk on the sofa, took his departure. A strange idea occurred to him, suggested by the agitation of Mrs. Herne.

When he met Drudge, who was partaking of a glass of gin, he gave him instructions to watch the Hampstead house and follow Mrs. Herne when she came out. Then having posted his spy — for Drudge was nothing else — Jennings hurried back to town. That same evening he sent a wire to Cuthbert to the address given by the servant, asking him to come up to town next morning.

At eleven Jennings presented himself and found Cuthbert waiting for him, rather surprised and agitated. “Why did you wire me in so peremptory a manner?” asked Mallow; “have you discovered anything?”

“Yes! I am sorry to break your holiday. By the way, you have been at Brighton. Did you stop at the Metropolitan?”

“Yes. I and Uncle Caranby have been there for a few days.”

“Did you see Mrs. Herne there?”

“No. Why do you ask?”

“For a reason I’ll tell you later.” Jennings glanced round the room and his eyes became fixed on a trophy of arms. “You are fond of these sort of things?” he demanded.

“Yes, in a way. Yonder are war-spears, revolvers, swords, and —”

“I see — I see. Here is an empty space. What was here?”

“By Jove, I never noticed that before. I forget!”

“Perhaps this will supply the gap,” said Jennings, and held out the knife. “Do you recognize this?”

“Certainly. There are three notches in the handle. It is my knife. Did you take it off the wall?”

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