The Secret Passage, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 18

The Unexpected Happens

Jennings was at breakfast in his rooms, considering what he should do next in connection with the case. As yet he had not heard from Cuthbert with regard to the interview with Juliet. The detective waited upstairs in Le Beau’s sitting-room for the conclusion of the meeting, but when Mallow never appeared he went down. Then he learned from Peggy, who was in the office, that the lovers had been gone for some time “I thought you knew,” said Miss Garthorne.

“No,” replied Jennings, “I did not know,” and then, since he had no further reason to remain, he took his departure also, wondering why Mallow had not come to report the matter.

That same evening he sought out Mallow, but was unable to find him at his accustomed haunts. More perplexed than ever, Jennings, leaving a note at Mallow’s rooms, had returned to his own. He could make no new move until he heard from Mallow, and the young man did not appear inclined to give any assistance. Next morning, while at breakfast, he expected his friend, but still there was no appearance of the visitor. A ring came to the door and Jennings thought that this was Cuthbert at last. He was distinctly disappointed when Drudge made his appearance.

“Well,” said Jennings sharply, “what is it?”

“I followed the lady you saw, sir.”

“Mrs. Herne? Yes.”

“She left her house in Hampstead and walked down the hill. There she took a cab. I followed in another. Her cab stopped at the house of Maraquito in Soho. Since then I have been watching the house, but I have not seen Mrs. Herne again.”

“She is Senora Gredos’ aunt,” explained Jennings, “so I expect she is stopping with her.”

“No, sir, she isn’t. I made friends with a boy called Gibber —”

“Yes. He is a page in the house. Well?”

“I gave him a drink or two,” said Drudge, “and a few stamps, as he is a collector. He become friendly with me, and I asked him about the house. He was very frank, but he said nothing about the gambling.”

“Humph! I expect he has been told to hold his tongue. Well, did you hear anything at all?”

“I heard that Gibber had never seen Mrs. Herne. He did not even know her name. Now, sir,” went on Drudge, laying a finger in the palm of his hand, “if Mrs. Herne was stopping at the Soho house, Gibber would have seen her.”

A flash of joy passed across the countenance of Jennings, but he turned away from his underling so that he might not betray the satisfaction he felt. “Mrs. Herne is Maraquito’s aunt,” he said again.

“No, sir, pardon me. Maraquito hasn’t got an aunt. Leastways the aunt, if there is such a person, has never set foot in the house.”

“Perhaps Maraquito sees her secretly.”

“Well,” said Drudge pensively, “she certainly went in by a side door, Mr. Jennings. Do you want me to watch further, sir?”

“Yes. Keep your eye on the Soho house, and should Mrs. Herne reappear, follow her. Anything else?”

“Yes, sir. Mrs. Herne when walking down the hill dropped a small bag.”

“Ah! Have you got it?”

“No. She was too sharp for me. I was picking it up when she missed it and came to claim it. But before she reached me I had opened it. Only her handkerchief was inside. I gave it back, and she gave me a shilling. But the queer thing, sir, is the scent.”

“What scent?” asked Jennings, looking keenly at the man.

“Oh, a strange strong scent, fit to knock you down, sir.”

“Well, and why shouldn’t a lady use scent. It is customary.”

“It is, sir. My wife uses scent. But this was a queer smell. And then a man shouldn’t use scent,” burst out Drudge.

“Some men are effeminate enough to do so,” said Jennings drily. “But I don’t quite understand all this.”

“I can tell you what puzzled me at once,” said the underling, “after watching Maraquito’s house for some time, I put another fellow on, and went to the office. I had to go to see the police about some matter, and I spoke to Inspector Twining of the Rexton district. He had on his desk a handkerchief and a few articles which had just been taken from a man who had been arrested for passing false coins.”

“Oh!” Jennings looked very interested, “go on.”

“This man was in one of the cells, and he is to be brought before the magistrate this morning. They searched him and took his handkerchief from him.”

“It is not customary to do that?”

“No, Sir. But this man — I don’t know his name — had two handkerchiefs. The searcher thought that was one too many,” said Drudge, with the glimmer of a smile, “and took one.”

“Why do you tell me all this?” asked Jennings impatiently.

“Because the handkerchief was scented with the same perfume as the handkerchief of Mrs. Herne I picked up. The moment I smelt it I thought of her coming back for the bag. The scent is so strange and strong that I thought it just as well to mention it to you. You are interested in Mrs. Herne, sir, so if this man uses the same scent —”

“Quite so. You have acted very wisely. Where was the man arrested?”

“At a place near Rexton. He was trying to get a drink and gave a shilling — it was false. The inspector will show it to you, sir. And another queer thing, Mr. Jennings, this man had some rags and a bottle of petroleum on him.”

“Humph! Perhaps he intended to set fire to some place. Have you heard of any fire?”

“No, sir, not near Rexton.”

“At what time was the man arrested?”

“At nine last night. He is in jail now, and will be brought up this morning on a charge of passing false money.”

“I’ll look into it, Drudge. It is strange about the scent: but there may be nothing in the matter. The man could easily buy scent of the kind Mrs. Herne uses. Go back to Soho and watch the house. Let me know if Mrs. Herne comes out, and where she goes.”

“Yes, sir,” said Drudge, and bowed himself out.

When the man was gone Jennings walked up and down his room in a great state of excitement. He was beginning to see the end of the matter. That the scent should be used by a man who was passing false coins confirmed his idea that it was some peculiar sign whereby the members of the gang recognized one another. If Mrs. Herne really was the aunt of Maraquito, this matter implicated her as well as the niece. And Mrs. Herne had been accustomed to go to Rose Cottage, which hinted that Miss Loach had perhaps learned of the existence of the gang and had suffered for her indiscreet curiosity.

“I believe Miss Loach threatened to disclose what she knew. She may have learned that the gang worked in that house from the fact of the ghosts, in which so strongminded an old lady would not believe. I daresay she threatened exposure, and someone killed her. Perhaps Mrs. Herne herself. No, confound it, she was out of the house. Well, I’ll see this man now in jail. I may be able to force him to tell. And I’ll call on Lord Caranby today, and get permission to search the unfinished house. I am quite sure there is a factory there. I wish Mallow would come and tell me if he has learned anything.”

Again there was a ring at the door, and this time Jennings, expecting no one else, certainly hoped to see Cuthbert. But, to his surprise, the servant showed in Lord Caranby. The old gentleman was calm and composed as usual, but Jennings thought he looked ill and frail. The dark circles round his eyes were more pronounced than ever, and he leaned heavily on his cane. He was perfectly dressed as usual, and seemed disposed to be friendly.

“I am glad to see you, Lord Caranby,” said the detective, when the old gentleman was accommodated with the chair, “have you had breakfast?”

“Thank you, yes. But I could not eat any,” said Caranby, breathing heavily. “Those stairs of, yours are trying, Mr. Jennings. I am not so young or so strong as I was.”

“You don’t look the picture of health, my lord.”

“Can you expect a dying man to?”

“Dying — oh, no, you —”

“Dying,” insisted Caranby, rapping his stick on the ground. “I know that I have not many months to live, and I sha’n’t be sorry when the end comes. I have had a hard time. Cuthbert will soon be standing in my shoes. I suffer from an incurable complaint, Mr. Jennings, and my doctor tells me I shall die soon.”

“I am sure Mallow will be sorry,” said Jennings, wondering why Caranby, ordinarily the most reticent of men, should tell him all this.

“Yes — yes, Cuthbert is a good fellow. I should like to see him happy and settled with Miss Saxon before I die. But Maraquito will do her best to hinder the match.”

“She may soon have enough to do to look after herself,” said Jennings grimly. “I shall see that she gets her deserts.”

“What do you suspect her of?” asked Caranby hastily.

“I can’t tell you yet. I have no proofs. But I am suspicious.”

“She is a bad woman,” said the old man. “I am certain of that. And she will stop at nothing to marry Cuthbert. But this is not what I came to see you about, Mr. Jennings. You asked my permission to go over my house at Rexton?”

“I did. And I was coming today to get the permission confirmed.”

“Then I am sorry to say you cannot go over it.”

“Why not?” asked Jennings, wondering why Lord Caranby had changed his mind — a thing he rarely did. “I only want to —”

“Yes! Yes!” Caranby waved his hand impatiently, “but the fact is, the house has been burnt down.”

“Burnt down — at Rexton!” cried Jennings, jumping from his seat.

“Yes. It caught fire in some way last night, about eight o’clock. There was a high wind blowing, and the house has been burnt to the ground. Not only that, but, as the weather has been dry, the whole of the trees and shrubs and undergrowth in the park have gone likewise. I am informed that everything within the circle of that wall is a heap of ashes. Quite a burning of Rome,” chuckled Caranby.

“Do you suspect the house was set on fire?”

“Of course I do. Even though the weather is hot, I don’t think this can be a case of spontaneous combustion. Probably some tramp —”

“No,” said Jennings decisively, “it is strange you should come to me with this news. One of my men has lately been here, and he tells me that a man was arrested near Rexton last night for passing false money. He had on him a bottle of petroleum and some rags.”

“Ah!” said Caranby, quite serene, “so you think —”

“There can be no doubt about it, my lord. This man set fire to the house. People don’t carry bottles of petroleum about for nothing.”

“But why should he set fire deliberately to my house?”

“At the instance of the Saul family?”

Lord Caranby sat bolt upright. “What do you mean?”

“Humph! It is rather a long story. But this man who was caught used a particular kind of scent called Hikui. Maraquito uses it also, and her aunt, Mrs. Herne.”

“Mrs. Herne? She is not Maraquito’s aunt.”

“She told me herself that she was.”

“And I tell you that Emilia, who is dead, was the only aunt Maraquito ever had. Why does Mrs. Herne say this?”

“That is what I am trying to find out. She said that you did not know the whole history of the Saul family.”

“I know quite enough,” said Caranby gloomily, “the members were abominably wicked. Maraquito’s father died after he was discharged from jail for coining; and the mother also.”

“Well, my lord, this man, who apparently fired your house, was trying to pass false coins. He uses the same scent as Maraquito does, leaving mysterious Mrs. Herne out of the question.”

“Well, and what do you deduce from that?”

“I believe that there is a gang of coiners in existence, of which this man, Clancy, Hale, Maraquito and Mrs. Herne are members. All use the scent Hikui, which probably is a sign amongst them. In what way it is utilized I cannot say, unless they meet one another in the dark, and recognize their confreres by the scent.”

“I see. It might be so. But why should this man burn my house?”

Jennings shrugged his shoulders. “I can hardly say. I think the coiners used that house as a factory. But since it is burnt down, that seems impossible. This man may have fired it out of revenge, on account of some row with the gang.”

“Or else,” said Caranby deliberately, “knowing that you were going to search the house, perhaps it was fired to destroy all traces of the factory. Do you connect this with Selina’s death?”

“I do. I believe that she learned of the existence of the factory, and that she threatened to denounce Clancy, Hale and Mrs. Herne. Then, to silence her, she was stabbed.”

“But the three you mention were out of the house before the death.”

“I know that, and they gave their evidence freely enough at the inquest. I have not yet fitted the pieces of the puzzle into one another, but I am certain the lot are connected from their use of the perfume. Also, as this man who has been caught was passing false money, and as Maraquito and probably Mrs. Herne are surviving members of the Saul family who practised coining, I should not be surprised to find that my theories are correct. But how could anyone know that I intended to go, over your house?”

“You asked me in Maraquito’s salon. Clancy and Hale were about.”

“Humph!” said Jennings, “you see the various parts of the puzzle are fitting together excellently. Probably one of those two overheard.”

“Probably. That Hale looks a sly creature and capable of much. I wonder if he is related to the Saul family. He has the same nose.”

“And the same eyebrows meeting over the nose,” said Jennings. “Mrs. Herne has a similar mark. I am sure she is a relative of Maraquito’s.”

“If she is her aunt, I give you leave to call me a fool,” said Caranby, rising. “I know that Emilia told me she had no sister. What will you do next, Jennings?”

“I shall see this man who fired the house and try to get at the truth. Then I am having Mrs. Herne watched —”

“And Maraquito?”

“She can’t move from her couch, so there is no danger of her escaping. But now that the coining factory is destroyed, I shall find it difficult to bring home the crime to anyone. I wish Cuthbert would come.”

“Do you expect him?”

“Yes. Listen, Lord Caranby,” and Jennings related the episode of the knife, and how he had brought Mallow and Juliet together. “And it seems to me,” went on the detective, “that Cuthbert learned something from Miss Saxon which he does not wish to tell me.”

“Something to do with Mrs. Octagon.”

“Why with her?” demanded Jennings suddenly.

“Oh, because I think Isabella capable of much. She is a fatal woman!”

“What do you mean by that phrase?”

“Isabella exercised a bad influence on my life. But for her I should have married Selina and should not have fallen in with Emilia Saul. I should have been happy, and probably Selina would not have met with her tragic death.”

“Do you think the sister has anything to do with it?”

“I can’t say. All I know is that whomsoever Isabella came into contact with had trouble. I do well to call her a fatal woman.”

“Humph!” said Jennings, “I would rather call Maraquito a fatal woman, as I believe she brought about the death in some way for the double purpose of silencing Miss Loach regarding the factory of coins and of stopping the marriage of her rival with Cuthbert.”

Curiously enough, Cuthbert was shown into the room at this moment. So interested had Caranby and Jennings been in their conversation that they had not heard the bell. Mallow looked in good health, but his face wore a worried expression. Without preamble, and after greeting his uncle, he walked up to his friend.

“Jennings,” he said calmly, “I have seen Juliet, and she agrees with me that this case should not be gone on with.”

“Ah! does she, and on what grounds?”

“Because she has consented to marry me. She intends, at my request, to make over Miss Loach’s money to her mother. We have had quite enough dabbling in crime, and we are both sick of it.”

“I think you are very wise,” said Caranby unexpectedly, “let the case be, Mr. Jennings.”

“What did Miss Saxon tell you?” asked the detective irrelevantly.

Mallow sat down and in a calm voice detailed all that he had learned from Juliet. “So you see it throws no light on the subject.” Had Mallow mentioned the time at which Juliet asserted she saw him climb over the wall a new light would certainly have been thrown. But he purposely omitted this, and simply said that Juliet had seen him. “I told you I was there, Jennings,” he added. “Quite so,” said the detective. “Certainly, nothing new has come out.”

“Well, then leave the case alone.”

“I fear I shall have to, now that the Rexton house has been burnt down,” and Jennings related in his turn what had taken place.

Cuthbert listened moodily. “You see,” he said, “everything is against us. I only wanted the mystery cleared up so that Juliet might marry me, but now that she wishes to do so, without searching further, I am not going to do anything else.”

“Nor I,” said Jennings sadly, “nothing is to be learned. The case will remain a mystery to the end of time.”

Caranby rose and took Cuthbert’s arm. “You young men are faint-hearted,” he said, with a shrug.

“If you want my opinion, Mrs. Octagon killed her sister. A fatal woman, I tell you both — a fatal woman.”

“And a clever one,” said Jennings gloomily, “she has baffled me.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hume/fergus/h93s/chapter18.html

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