The Secret Passage, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 17

Juliet’s Story Continued

Cuthbert was so surprised by this admission that astonishment held him silent for a moment. He never expected to hear that Juliet herself had been on the spot. Seeing this, she went on quickly. “Now you can understand why I held my tongue. You were at Rose Cottage on that night. You have enemies who know you were there. I have been threatened should I insist on our engagement being fulfilled that you will be arrested. Therefore I kept away and held my tongue.”

“But if you had told me this long ago —”

“How could I?” she cried vehemently. “Could I come and say to you, I believe you are a murderer?”

“Did you believe that, Juliet?” he asked in a grieved tone.

“Yes and no,” she faltered. “Oh, Cuthbert, you know how I love you. I could not bring myself to think you were guilty — and yet the proofs are so strong. You were at Rose Cottage at a quarter to eleven —”

“No. I was there at a quarter past ten.”

“I tell you I saw you at a quarter to eleven. You were getting over the wall into the park. Then there was the knife — your knife.”

“How did you know it was mine?”

“By the notches. You told me you always cut three notches on the handle of any weapon you possessed. One day when mother and I came to afternoon tea at your place you showed me some of your weapons — the knife amongst them. One knife is much like another, and I would not have noticed but for the notches and for the fact that I saw you on that night. I hid the knife and Mr. Jennings —”

“He found it,” said Mallow. “Quite so. He told me he did. When you left the attic he contrived to —”

“Then the closing of the door was a trick,” said Juliet in an agitated tone. “I might have guessed that. He took the knife. He has threatened to arrest you, so Miss Garthorne says.”

“She says rightly,” replied Mallow, thinking it best to make use of all he knew, so as to force her to speak freely. “But of course, if you can explain —”

“Explain!” she cried wildly and sinking into a chair. “What can I explain? That I saw you climbing that wall, running away apparently from the scene of your crime. That I found the knife by the body?”

“What!” Cuthbert started up and looked at her. “You saw the body?”

“Yes. I was in the house — in the room. I found my aunt dead in her chair, with the cards on her lap, exactly as the parlor-maid saw her. Near her on the floor was the knife. There was blood on the blade. I picked it up — I saw the handle was notched in three places, and then —”

“Then you suspected me.”

“No. Not till I saw you outside.”

Cuthbert took a turn up and down the dais much perplexed. “Juliet,” he said. “I swear to you I never killed this woman.”

Juliet flew to him and folded him in her arms. “I knew it — I knew it,” she said, “in spite of the letter —”

“What letter?”

“That accusing you and threatening to tell the police about you if I did not break the engagement.”

“Who wrote it?”

“I can’t say, save that it must have been some enemy.”

“Naturally,” replied Mallow cynically. “A friend does not write in that way. Have you the letter with you.”

“No. It is at home. I never thought of bringing it. But I will show it to you soon. I wish now I had spoken before.”

“I wish to heaven you had!”

“I thought it best to be silent,” said Juliet, trying to argue. “I feared lest if I spoke to you, this enemy, whosoever he is, might carry out the threat in the letter.”

“Is the letter written by a man or a woman?”

“I can’t say. Women write in so masculine a way nowadays. It might be either. But why were you at the cottage —”

“I was not. I went to explore the unfinished house on behalf of Lord Caranby. I was ghost-hunting. Do you remember how you asked me next day why I wore an overcoat and I explained that I had a cold —”

“Yes. You said you got it from sitting in a hot room.”

“I got it from hunting round the unfinished house at Rexton. I did not think it necessary to explain further.”

Juliet put her hand to her head. “Oh, how I suffered on that day,” she said. “I was watching for you all the afternoon. When you came I thought you might voluntarily explain why you were at Rexton on the previous night. But you did not, and I believed your silence to be a guilty one. Then, when the letter arrived —”

“When did it arrive?”

“A week after the crime was committed.”

“Well,” said Cuthbert, rather pained, “I can hardly blame you. But if you loved me —”

“I do love you,” she said with a passionate cry. “Have I not proved my love by bearing — as I thought — your burden? Could I do more? Would a woman who loves as I do accuse the man she loves of a horrible crime? I strove to shield you from your enemies.”

“I thought you were shielding Basil. Jennings thought so also.”

Juliet drew back, looking paler than ever. “What do you know of him.”

“Very little,” said Cuthbert quickly. “Was he at Rose Cottage on the night in question?”

“No. He was not there. I did not see him.”

“Yet he was at the Marlow Theatre with you.”

“Yes. He left the theatre before I did.”

“Sit down, Juliet, and tell me exactly how you came to be at Rose Cottage on that night and why you went.”

Miss Saxon seated herself and told all she knew. “It was this way,” she said, with more calmness than she had hitherto shown. “Basil and I went to see this new melodrama written by Mr. Arkwright —”

“What? The man Mrs. Octagon wishes you to marry?”

“Yes. He has written a play to make money. My mother was angry, as she thought such a thing was not worthy of him. He sent her a box. She refused to go, so Basil and I went. But the play was so dull that Basil left early, saying he would come back for me.”

“Do you know where he went?”

“No. He did not say. Well, the play became worse instead of better. I was weary to death, so I thought as the theatre was near Rexton, that I would go and see Aunt Selina. Then I hoped to return to the box and meet Basil. I was told the play, being a long one, would not be over till midnight. I left the theatre at a quarter past ten. It took fifteen minutes to drive to the cottage. Then I entered quietly to give aunt a surprise.”

“Ah! It was you opening the door that Thomas heard.”

“Yes! At half-past ten; I had a latch-key. Aunt Selina loved me very much and wanted me to come and see her whenever I could. So that I could come and go at pleasure without troubling the servants, she gave me a latch-key. I happened to have it in my pocket. I really wished to see her about this quarrel she had with Basil.”

“What was this quarrel about?”

Juliet deliberated before replying. “It was a small thing,” she said at length. “Aunt Selina was fond of Basil and often gave him money. Mr. Octagon doesn’t allow Basil much, and mother has enough to do to make both ends meet. Basil is, I fear, extravagant. I know he gambles, though he never told me where he went —”

“To Maraquito’s,” said Cuthbert. “I have met him there.”

“I know,” said Juliet in rather a reproachful tone. “I wish you would not gamble, Cuthbert.”

“I have given it up now. I only played for the excitement, but since our engagement I have hardly touched a card. I shall not play for money again. My visits to Maraquito’s now are purely in the interests of this case.”

“Does she know anything about it?” asked Juliet, astonished.

“Yes,” replied Mallow, wondering if the girl knew that Mrs. Octagon had paid a visit to Senora Gredos. “Mrs. Herne, who was your aunt’s friend, is the aunt of Senora Gredos.”

“I never knew that. But about this quarrel. Basil spent more money than he could afford, poor boy —”

“Young scamp,” murmured Cuthbert.

“Don’t blame him. He means well,” expostulated Juliet. “Well, aunt gave him a lot of money, but he always wanted more. Then she refused. About a week before Aunt Selina died, Basil wanted money, and she declined. They had words and she ordered Basil out of the house. It was to try and make it up between them that I called on that night.”

“Are you sure Basil did not go also?”

“I don’t think so,” said Juliet doubtfully. “He was on bad terms with Aunt Selina and knew he would not be welcomed. Besides, he had not a latch-key. Well, Cuthbert, I reached Rose Cottage at half-past ten and let myself in. I went downstairs quietly. I found Aunt Selina seated in her chair near the fire with the cards on her lap, as though she had been playing ‘Patience.’ I saw that she was dead.”

“Why did you not give the alarm?”

Juliet hesitated. “I thought it best not to,” she said faintly.

It seemed to Mallow that she was keeping something back. However, she was very frank as it was, so he thought it best not to say anything. “Well, you saw she was dead?”

“Yes. She had been stabbed to the heart. There was a knife on the floor. I picked it up and saw it was yours. Then I thought —”

“That I had killed her. Thank you, Juliet.”

“No, no!” she protested. “Really, I did not believe that at the time. I could not think why you should kill Aunt Selina. I was bewildered at the time and then —” here Juliet turned away her head, “I fancied someone else might have killed her.”

“Who?”

“Don’t ask me. I have no grounds on which to accuse anyone. Let me tell you what I can. Then you may think — but that’s impossible. Cuthbert, ask me no more questions.”

Mallow thought her demeanor strangely suspicious, and wondered if she was shielding her mother. Mrs. Octagon, who hated Selina Loach, might have struck the blow, but there was absolutely no proof of this. Mallow decided to ask nothing, as Juliet requested. “Tell me what you will, my dear,” he said, “so long as you don’t believe me guilty.”

“I don’t — I don’t — really I don’t. I picked up the knife and left the room after ten minutes. I stole up the stairs and shut the door so quietly that no one heard. You see, the first time I did not trouble to do that, but when I found that aunt was dead I was afraid lest the servants should come and find me there. I fancied, as I had the knife in my hand and had entered by means of the latch-key, that I might be suspected. Besides, it would have been difficult to account for my unexpected presence in the house at that hour.”

“I quite comprehend!” said Mallow grimly. “We can’t all keep our heads in these difficult situations. Well?”

“I came out into the garden. I heard the policeman coming down the lane, and knew I could not escape unobserved that way. Then if I took the path to the station I fancied he might see me in the moonlight. I ran across the garden by the wall and got over the fence amongst the corn, where I lay concealed. Then I saw you coming round the corner. You climbed the wall and went into the park. After that I waited till after eleven, when the policeman entered the house, summoned by the servants. I then ran round the field, sheltered from observation by the corn, which, as you know, was then high, and I got out at the further side. I walked to Keighley, the next place to Rexton, and took a cab home. I went straight to bed, and did not see Basil till the next morning. He told me he had come home later, but he did not say where he had been, nor did I ask him.”

“But I am sure — unless my watch was wrong, that I climbed the wall at a quarter past ten,” insisted Mallow.

“You might have climbed it again at a quarter to eleven.”

“No! I climbed it only once. Which way did I come?”

“Along the path from the station. Then you walked beside the fence on the corn side, and jumping over, you climbed the wall.”

“Certainly I did that,” murmured Mallow, remembering what he had told Jennings. “Did you see my face?”

“No! But I knew you by your height and by the light overcoat you wore. That long, sporting overcoat which is down to your heels. Oh, Cuthbert, what is the matter?”

She might well ask this question, for Mallow had started and turned pale. “Nothing! nothing,” he said irritably. “I certainly did wear such an overcoat. I was with Caranby before I went to Rexton, and knowing his room would be heated like a furnace, I took every precaution against cold.”

Juliet doubted this, as she knew Mallow did not coddle himself in any way. However, she had seen the overcoat too often to mistake to whom it belonged. Moreover, Cuthbert did not deny that he had jumped the wall in the way she explained. “Well, now you know all, what will you do?” she asked.

“I really can’t say,” said Mallow, who was trying to conceal his agitation. “I can’t think who took the knife out of my room. It was in a trophy of arms on the wall, and I never noticed that it was missing, till Jennings drew my attention to the loss. Certainly Miss Loach was killed with that knife.”

“I am positive of that,” said Juliet. “There is blood on the handle. But you understand why I kept silence?”

“Yes. But there was really no need. I shall call and see your mother and insist on her giving her consent to our marriage. She has no reason to refuse. Do you know why she objects?”

“No. She simply says she does not wish me to marry you.”

“Did you not tell her what you have told me?”

“I did not. What was the use? It was because of my discovery of the knife and seeing you, and receiving that letter, that I refused to marry, and so fell in with my mother’s plans.”

“Juliet, you are not engaged to Arkwright?”

“No. I am engaged to you and you only. I mean I only pretended that I would not marry you. My mother thought I was obeying her, but I was really shielding you on account of that letter.”

“Give me the letter, love, and I’ll show it to Jennings.”

“No,” said Miss Saxon, shrinking back; “get him to drop the case.”

“Why?” asked Cuthbert dryly. “I could understand that request when you thought me guilty, but now that you know I am innocent, and that Jennings is aware I was at Rose Cottage on that night, surely there is no bar to his proceeding with the case.”

“I do not wish it,” faltered Juliet.

Cuthbert looked at her steadily and turned away with a sigh. “You are keeping something from me,” he said.

“And you from me,” she retorted. “Why did you start when I spoke of the overcoat?”

“Juliet, my own,” Cuthbert took her hands earnestly, “there are circumstances in this case which are very strange. Innocent persons may be sacrificed. It is best for you and me to have nothing more to do with the matter. Miss Loach is dead. Who killed her will never be known. Let us marry, dear heart, and leave the case alone.”

“I am quite willing. But my mother?”

“I shall persuade her to consent.”

“I hope so; but I fear she hates you because you are Lord Caranby’s nephew. She hinted as much. I don’t know the reason.”

“I do,” said Mallow calmly, “and I think I may be able to persuade her to see reason. I shall meddle no more with the case.”

“What about Mr. Jennings?”

“I will tell him what I have told you, and what you have told me. Then I will point out the futility of looking for a needle in a haystack. He may be inclined to let the case drop. He ought to be weary of it by this time.”

Juliet looked wistfully at him. “Can’t we be plain with one another?”

“No,” said Mallow, shaking his head, “you have your suspicions and I mine. Let us refrain from talking about the matter.”

Miss Saxon drew a breath of relief. “I think that is best,” she said, and her expression was reflected in the eyes of her lover. “When will you come and see mother?”

“Next week. If her objection is a question of money, you can hand over the whole of that income you have inherited.”

“Aunt Selina’s six thousand a year! Why?”

“Because I have enough money for us both, and when Caranby dies I shall be almost a millionaire. I don’t like you having this money.”

“But your reason?”

“I have none that I can tell you. Besides, if we can buy Mrs. Octagon’s consent with even six thousand a year —”

“I do not mind,” said Juliet. “But now that I know you are really innocent, and I take shame to myself for having doubted you, I am willing to marry you, even though my mother withholds her consent.”

“My darling!” Cuthbert folded the girl in his arms and kissed her. “I now know that you truly love me. Indeed, I never doubted you.”

“But I doubted myself,” said Juliet tearfully. “I should never have suspected you, even though the evidence was so strong.”

“You lost your head for the moment,” said her lover, “but don’t let us talk any more about the matter. I shall pacify Jennings and get him to drop the case. Then we will marry and take a tour round the world so as to forget these unpleasant matters.”

“Yes, that is best,” said Juliet, and the two walked towards the door.

They should have been completely happy now that all misunderstandings were cleared up, but each wore a gloomy expression. Apparently the shadow of Miss Loach’s death still clouded the sunshine of their lives.

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