The Secret Passage, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 19

Susan’s Discovery

Although Jennings appeared to acquiesce in Mallow’s suggestion that the case should be abandoned, he had not the slightest intention of leaving the matter alone. His professional pride was irritated by the difficulties, and he swore that he would in some way learn the truth. Moreover, the matter did not only deal with the death of Miss Loach, but with the discovery of a coining gang. From various obvious facts connected with the Crooked Lane crime, Jennings made sure that such a gang was in existence, and that the factory had been in the unfinished house. Now that the house was burnt down, it would seem that the coiners had lost their city of refuge, and would probably give up their nefarious trade. As the gang — judging from the number of false coins circulated during the past five years — had been in existence for a long time, it was probable that the members had made sufficient money to retire from so dangerous a business.

“I wonder if the house was set on fire by this arrested man, out of revenge,” thought Jennings, as he dressed to go out, “or whether the gang, finding things were growing dangerous since the death of Miss Loach, ordered him to destroy the factory? I can hardly think that, as to preserve the secret, Miss Loach was assassinated. It is not likely that after paying so terrible a price, such destruction would be agreed upon. Certainly the factory may be removed to another place. Humph! I wonder if I can trace it. The best thing for me to do will be to go to Rexton and look at the ruins.”

So to Rexton the detective went, and found a large crowd round the wall of the park. This had been broken down in several places so as to admit the fire engines, and Jennings found a policeman on duty who had been one of the first to see the fire, and who had indeed summoned the brigade. On telling his name and position, the man was willing to state all he knew.

“I was on duty about eight o’clock,” he said officially. “There was a high wind blowing, but the night was fine and dry. While walking down Crooked Lane, intending to take the path to the station, I saw a light behind the wall of the park. Then a tongue of flame shot up, and it didn’t need much cleverness to see that the old house was on fire. Almost before I could collect my wits, sir, the place was in a blaze. You see the dry weather, the heat and the high wind, made everything blaze finely. I signalled for the brigade, and it came up as soon as possible. But as there is no gate in the wall, we had to break it down to get the engines in. There was a large crowd by this time, and we had all the help we needed. By this time the whole house was flaming like a bonfire. When we got the wall down the most part of the house was gone, and the fire had caught the surrounding shrubs, so all we could do was to halt on the edge of the mass and squirt water, in the hope of putting out the flames. But, Lord bless you!” said the officer with good-humored contempt, “you might as well have tried with a child’s squirt. As you see, sir, everything is gone within the wall. Leastways, all but that big oak near the wall.”

It was as the man said. House, trees, shrubs, even the grass had been swept away by the fierce flames. Within the walls which had secluded the place from the world was a blackened space covered with debris. Where the house had stood was a mound of twisted iron girders, charred beams and broken slates. And everywhere the wind was lifting the fine gray ashes and scattering them abroad, as though in sorrow for the destruction of the previous night. Jennings took all this in at a glance. Policemen were on guard at the various gaps in the wall, as no one was allowed to enter. But the detective, by virtue of his office, walked across the bare expanse with the inspector, and trod under foot the black ashes. There was nothing to be gained, however, by this inspection. All that could be seen were the destroyed park and the mound where the house had been. “What of the cellars?” asked Jennings.

“Well,” said Inspector Twining genially, “I suppose there are cellars, but there’s nothing in them. The house was shut up for years by a queer nobleman.”

“By Lord Caranby,” replied the detective. “I know. I suppose the cellars are under that heap. I must get Lord Caranby to allow me to clear it away.”

“I expect that will be done, whether or no. Lord Caranby came down and told one of our men that he intended to throw down the wall and let the place as a building site. So when the building begins the heap will soon be cleared away and the cellars laid bare. But there’s nothing there,” said the inspector again.

“I am not so sure of that.”

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing. I have an idea,” answered the detective, who did not wish to tell the man how he now began to fancy that the factory for safety had been placed in the cellars. “By the way, did this man who was arrested give his name?”

“No. He refuses to answer any questions. He was, as you know, Mr. Jennings, arrested for trying to pass a bad shilling, but there is no doubt he fired the place. The bottle of petroleum he had in his possession was empty, and —”

“Yes! I heard all that. Where is he now?”

The inspector named a place near Rexton where the man had been incarcerated, pending being brought before the magistrate. “I am going that way,” said the inspector. “If you like to come —”

“I’ll come,” said Jennings. “I intended to see this man. There has been a lot of talk about false coins being passed lately.”

Mr. Twining nodded, and began to tell of various cases which had taken place in the district. The two took the train to the place where the police station to which the inspector belonged was situated. It was now after twelve o’clock, and Jennings thought he would have some luncheon before going to the station. But, unexpectedly, a constable seeing the inspector, came hurriedly towards him, saluting as he spoke.

“Please, sir, you’re wanted at the station,” he said. “A message was sent to Rexton.”

“I have just come from Rexton. What is it?”

“That man who was arrested for coining, sir?”

“What about him?” asked the inspector, while Jennings listened with all his ears. He was far from expecting to hear the reply.

“He is dead, sir,” said the policeman.

“Dead! What do you mean? He was well enough this morning.”

“Well, sir, he’s dead now — poisoned!”

“Poisoned!” echoed Jennings, and thought —“Ha! here’s an undesirable witness got out of the way.” Then he followed in the wake of the inspector, who on hearing the news, hurriedly walked towards the police station. Here they found that the news was true. The constable left in charge of the office was greatly agitated, as it seemed he had been lax in doing his duty. But he made a faithful report.

“It was this way, sir,” he said, trying to speak calmly. “A boy of fifteen, very poorly dressed — in rags almost — came crying and asking for the prisoner. He said the prisoner was his father.”

“How did he know that, when the prisoner gave no name and was arrested only last night?”

“The boy — Billy Tyke his name is, so I suppose the father is called Tyke also — says his father went out last night. He was always a drunkard, and left the boy to starve. The boy followed him later, and knowing he would be on the burst, went to the public-house, where the man was arrested for passing the bad shilling. There, he was told that his father was in jail, and came here to ask us to let him see him.”

“You should have refused and have detained the boy. Well?”

“I was moved by the little chap’s tears,” said the constable, abashed, “so I let him go into the cell.”

“Were you with him?” asked the inspector sharply.

“No, sir. We left them alone for a few minutes. As the boy was so sad and cut up, I thought there would be no harm in doing that. Well, sir, the boy came out again in ten minutes, still crying, and said he would get a lawyer to defend his father. He did not believe his father had passed the money. Then he went away. Later — about half an hour later, we went into the cell and found the man lying groaning, with an empty bottle of whisky beside him. The doctor came and said he thought the man had been poisoned. The man groaned and said the young shaver had done for him. Then he became unconscious and died.”

Jennings listened to this statement calmly. He saw again the hand of the coiners. The person who controlled the members evidently thought that the man would blab, and accordingly took precautionary measures to silence him. Without doubt, the man had been poisoned, and the boy had been sent to do it. “What is the boy like?” he asked.

“Billy Tyke, sir?” said the constable, replying on a nod from his chief, to whom he looked for instructions, “a thin boy, fair and with red rims round his eyes — looks half starved, sir, and has a scarred mouth, as though he had been cut on the upper lip with a knife.”

Jennings started, but suppressed his emotion under the keen eyes of the observant Twining. He had an idea that he knew who the boy was, but as yet could not be sure. “I’ll cut along to the public-house where this man was arrested,” said Jennings, “I suppose you’ll hold an inquest.”

“Certainly, seeing the man has been poisoned.” Then the inspector proceeded to rebuke the constable who had performed his duty so ill, and threatened him with dismissal. Jennings left in the midst of the trouble, after getting the inspector to promise that, he would report the result of the inquest.

At the public-house — it was the “White Horse,” Keighley, an adjoining suburb — Jennings learned that the man who called himself — or rather who was called by his presumed son — Tyke, was not an habitue of the place. Therefore, the boy could not have known that his supposed father was there. Apparently some information had reached the lad, whereby he was able to trace Tyke to the prison, and had carried to him there the bottle of poisoned whisky. Jennings returned to town quite satisfied that he had another clue to the existence of the coiners. Also, he determined to satisfy himself on a point concerning Maraquito, about which he had long been in doubt.

For the next few days Jennings did nothing. He kept away from Mallow, as he did not wish that young man to know that he was still going on with the case. Sometimes he went to Maraquito’s place, and learned incidentally that, as there was a chance of her being cured, she was about to give up the gambling salon. Jennings quite expected this information, and assured Hale, who gave it to him, that it was the best thing Maraquito could do. “Sooner or later the police will pounce down on this place,” he said.

“As you are a detective, I wonder you haven’t stopped it before,” said Hale, with an unpleasant smile.

“I had my reasons,” said Jennings calmly, “besides, Maraquito has conducted the place quite respectably. I suppose,” he added idly, “you will go abroad also?”

“What do you mean by that?” demanded Hale in silky tones.

“Mrs. Herne has gone to the Continent,” said Jennings quietly, “and if Senora Gredos gives up this very dangerous business, she may go also. As you will be deprived of two of your friends, Mr. Hale, doubtless you will go also.”

“I might. One never knows,” replied Hale coolly.

“By the way?” asked Jennings, looking round, “I was admitted by a parlor-maid this evening. Where is Gibber?”

“I believe Senora Gredos has dismissed him for dishonesty.”

“Ah, really,” replied the detective, who had his own opinion. “So it seems Senora Gredos is getting rid of her household already.”

Hale winced under the eye of Jennings and turned away with a shrug. He was apparently glad to get away. Jennings looked after him with a smile. “I’ll catch the whole gang,” he murmured, and took his departure, having learned what he wished to know — to wit, that Gibber had disappeared.

“Without doubt he was the boy who poisoned Tyke,” said Jennings, as he walked home with a cigar for company. “I believe Maraquito is the head of the gang, and the fatal woman that Caranby talks about. She heard that Tyke had been arrested, and sent the boy to poison him lest he should blab. I wonder if it was by her direction that the house was fired. Well, I’ll wait. As yet I cannot get a warrant, having nothing but theory to go on. But the nets are being spread, and unless Maraquito and her friends clear out with Mrs. Herne, they will be caught. When they are all in jail there may be some chance of learning who murdered that unfortunate woman in Rose Cottage.”

Later on, Jennings received the report of the inquest, which appeared also that evening in the newspapers. It seemed that Tyke had been poisoned with arsenic, administered in the whisky bottle. From his appearance he was a hard drinker, and doubtless the boy had no difficulty in inducing him to drink. Tyke had drank freely — indeed the doctor said he had taken enough to kill three men — and therefore he had died almost immediately the boy left, and before he had time to speak. The inspector, who wrote to Jennings, stated that the constable who had admitted the boy had been dismissed the force, but the boy himself could not be traced. “I shouldn’t be surprised if he had taken refuge in the cellars of the house,” said Jennings, “that is, if the factory is there. I must see Caranby and get his permission to remove the rubbish. Only when I have searched the foundation of that house, will my suspicions be set at rest.”

Unexpected aid came to help him in this quarter, as Caranby sent a note, stating that the rubbish and debris of the fire would be removed next week, and inviting Jennings to be present. Caranby added that Mallow had resumed his visits to the “Shrine of the Muses,” but that Mrs. Octagon still continued hostile. Basil, however, was more friendly. “I daresay,” commented Jennings, on reading this last sentence, “he has his own axe to grind over that money.”

It was about this time that the detective received a visit from Susan Grant. She looked as neat and timid as usual, and appeared at his rooms one morning with a request for an interview. “I said I would help Mr. Mallow if I could,” she said when seated.

“Oh, and have you anything likely to help him,-”

“Not exactly,” said Susan, “but I found some old papers of father’s.”

“I don’t quite understand,” said the detective, who did not see what the girl’s father had to do in the matter.

“Well, it’s this way, sir. Father was poisoned five years ago.”

“Who poisoned him?”

“That we never knew,” explained Susan. “Father’s name was Maxwell, but when mother married Mr. Grant she made me take that name. It was supposed that father committed suicide, and mother felt the disgrace dreadful. That was why she married and changed the name. But I don’t believe father, when on the point of making us rich, would swallow so much arsenic as he did.”

“What’s that — arsenic?” said Jennings, recalling the death of Tyke.

“Yes, sir. It was this way. Father was working at Rexton —”

“At Rexton?” said Jennings impatiently, “yes, yes, go on.”

“At a house near the railway station which I can point out, mother having seen it when she went to inquire.”

“Inquire about what?”

“About father’s secret job. He had one he used to go to for three hours every day by agreement with the foreman. Father was very clever and could do all sorts of things. Mother never knew what the job was, but father said it would make us all rich.”

“Yes, go on.” Jennings looked at her, nursing his chin.

“The other day I came across some papers,” said Susan, taking a roll out of her pocket. “And it proved to be plans of father’s secret job. And you might have knocked me down with a feather, Mr. Jennings, when I saw on the plans the name of Rose Cottage.”

The detective jumped up, greatly excited. “Rose Cottage!” he cried, holding out his hands. “The plans — the plans!”

“I brought them, as I know Miss Saxon who now has Rose Cottage, is engaged to Mr. Mallow —”

“Haven’t you got over that nonsense yet?” said Jennings, who was looking eagerly at the plans.

“Yes, I have,” replied Miss Grant, confidentially. “I am engaged to a rising young baker who is just a foreman just now, but we hope to save and start a shop. Still, I promised to help Mr. Mallow, and I thought he would like to see those plans. You see, sir, they have to do with Rose Cottage.”

“Yes, I do see,” almost shouted Jennings, “and I’ll bag the whole lot.”

“What are you talking about, sir?”

“Ah, I forgot you don’t know,” said the detective subsiding, “I’ll tell you later. But you have made a discovery, Susan. This plan shows a secret entrance into Rose Cottage.”

“I know it does, sir, and I thought Miss Saxon would like to see it. I don’t know what Miss Loach wanted with a secret entrance, though.”

“I fancy I do,” said Jennings, rolling up the plans. “Your father was a very clever man, Susan. Too clever for some people. He made this secret entrance when the new wing of the cottage was built five years ago, and those who employed him gave him arsenic by way of a reward. Tyke died of arsenic also, so they are carrying on the same game.”

“Oh dear, oh dear!” wept Susan, not hearing the latter part of the sentence. “So father was poisoned after all. Who did it, sir?”

“I can’t tell you that,” said Jennings, becoming cautious. “You had better say nothing about this, Susan, till I give you leave. You have done Mr. Mallow a great service. These plans may lead to a discovery of the murderer.”

“And then Miss Saxon will marry Mr. Mallow.”

“Yes. Will you be sorry?”

“No, Mr. Jennings. I am quite satisfied with my baker.”

“Then I tell you what, Susan. Lord Caranby has offered a reward for the detection of the murderer. If these plans lead to his detection, you will receive a sufficient sum to set up in business.”

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