The Secret Passage, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 2

The Crime

The kitchen was rather spacious, and as neat and clean as the busy hands of Mrs. Pill could make it. An excellent range polished to excess occupied one end of the room; a dresser with blue and white china adorned the other. On the outside wall copper pots and pans, glittering redly in the firelight, were ranged in a shining row. Opposite this wall, a door led into the interior of the house, and in it was the outer entrance. A large deal table stood in the center of the room, and at this with their chairs drawn up, Geraldine and the cook worked. The former was trimming a picture-hat of the cheapest and most flamboyant style, and the latter darned a coarse white stocking intended for her own use. By the fire sat Thomas, fair-haired and stupid in looks, who read tit-bits from the Daily Mail for the delectation of Mrs. Pill and Geraldine.

“Gracious ‘eavens, Susan,” cried the cook, when Susan returned, after admitting the visitors, “whatever’s come to you?”

“I’ve had a turn,” said Susan faintly, sitting by the fire and rubbing her white cheeks.

At once Mrs. Pill was alive with curiosity. She questioned the new parlor-maid closely, but was unable to extract information. Susan simply said that she had a weak heart, and set down her wan appearance to the heat. “An’ on that accounts you sits by the fire,” said Mrs. Pill scathingly. “You’re one of the secret ones you are. Well, it ain’t no business of mine, thank ‘eaven, me being above board in everythink. I ‘spose the usual lot arrived, Susan?”

“Two gentlemen and a lady,” replied Susan, glad to see that the cooks thoughts were turning in another direction.

“Gentlemen!” snorted Mrs. Pill, “that Clancy one ain’t. Why the missus should hobnob with sich as he, I don’t know nohow.”

“Ah, but the other’s a real masher,” chimed in Geraldine, looking up from her millinery; “such black eyes, that go through you like a gimlet, and such a lovely moustache. He dresses elegant too.”

“Being Miss Loach’s lawyer, he have a right to dress well,” said Mrs. Pill, rubbing her nose with the stocking, “and Mr. Clancy, I thinks, is someone Mr. Jarvey Hale’s helpin’, he being good and kind.”

Here Geraldine gave unexpected information.

“He’s a client of Mr. Hale’s,” she said indistinctly, with her mouth full of pins, “and has come in for a lot of money. Mr. Hale’s introducing him into good society, to make a gent of him.”

“Silk purses can’t be made out of sows’ ears,” growled the cook, “an’ who told you all this Geraldine?”

“Miss Loach herself, at different times.”

Susan thought it was strange that a lady should gossip to this extent with her housemaid, but she did not take much interest in the conversation, being occupied with her own sad thoughts. But the next remark of Geraldine made her start. “Mr. Clancy’s father was a carpenter,” said the girl.

“My father was a carpenter,” remarked Susan, sadly.

“Ah,” cried Mrs. Pill with alacrity, “now you’re speaking sense. Ain’t he alive?”

“No. He was poisoned!”

The three servants, having the love of horrors peculiar to the lower classes, looked up with interest. “Lor!” said Thomas, speaking for the first time and in a thick voice, “who poisoned him?”

“No one knows. He died five years ago, and left mother with me and four little brothers to bring up. They’re all doing well now, though, and I help mother, as they do. They didn’t want me to go out to service, you know,” added Susan, warming on finding sympathetic listeners. “I could have stopped at home with mother in Stepney, but I did not want to be idle, and took a situation with a widow lady at Hampstead. I stopped there a year. Then she died and I went as parlor-maid to a Senora Gredos. I was only there six months,” and she sighed.

“Why did you leave?” asked Geraldine.

Susan grew red. “I wished for a change,” she said curtly.

But the housemaid did not believe her. She was a sharp girl and her feelings were not refined. “It’s just like these men —”

“I said nothing about men,” interrupted Susan, sharply.

“Well, then, a man. You’ve been in love, Susan, and —”

“No. I am not in love,” and Susan colored more than ever.

“Why, it’s as plain as cook that you are, now,” tittered Geraldine.

“Hold your noise and leave the gal be,” said Mrs. Pill, offended by the allusion to her looks, “if she’s in love she ain’t married, and no more she ought to be; if she’d had a husband like mine, who drank every day in the week and lived on my earnings. He’s dead now, an’ I gave ’im a ‘andsome tombstone with the text: ‘Go thou and do likewise’ on it, being a short remark, lead letterin’ being expensive. Ah well, as I allays say, ‘Flesh is grass with us all.’”

While the cook maundered on Thomas sat with his dull eyes fixed on the flushed face of Susan. “What about the poisoning?” he demanded.

“It was this way,” said Susan. “Father was working at some house in these parts —”

“What! Down here?”

“Yes, at Rexton, which was then just rising into notice as a place for gentlefolks. He had just finished with a house when he came home one day with his wages. He was taken ill and died. The doctor said he had taken poison, and he died of it. Arsenic it was,” explained Susan to her horrified audience.

“But why did he poison himself?” asked Geraldine.

“I don’t know: no one knew. He was gettin’ good wages, and said he would make us all rich.”

“Ah,” chimed in Thomas suddenly, “in what way, Susan?”

“He had a scheme to make our fortunes. What it was, I don’t know. But he said he would soon be worth plenty of money. Mother thought someone must have poisoned him, but she could not find out. As we had a lot of trouble then, it was thought father had killed himself to escape it, but I know better. If he had lived, we should have been rich. He was on an extra job down here,” she ended.

“What was the extra job?” asked Thomas curiously.

Susan shook her head. “Mother never found out. She went to the house he worked on, which is near the station. They said father always went away for three hours every afternoon by an arrangement with the foreman. Where he went, no one knew. He came straight from this extra job home and died of poison. Mother thought,” added Susan, looking round cautiously, “that someone must have had a wish to get rid of father, he knowing too much.”

“Too much of what, my gal?” asked Mrs. Pill, with open mouth.

“Ah! That’s what I’d like to find out,” said Susan garrulously, “but nothing was ever known, and father was buried as a suicide. Then mother, having me and my four brothers, married again, and I took the name of her new husband.”

“Then your name ain’t really Grant?” asked Geraldine.

“No! It’s Maxwell, father being Scotch and a clever workman. Susan Maxwell is my name, but after the suicide — if it was one — mother felt the disgrace so, that she made us all call ourselves Grant. So Susan Grant I am, and my brothers of the old family are Grant also.”

“What do you mean by the old family?”

“Mother has three children by her second husband, and that’s the new family,” explained Susan, “but we are all Grants, though me and my four brothers are really Maxwells. But there,” she said, looking round quietly and rather pleased at the interest with which she was regarded, “I’ve told you a lot. Tell me something!”

Mrs. Pill was unwilling to leave the fascinating subject of suicide, but her desire to talk got the better of her, and she launched into a long account of her married life. It seemed she had buried the late Mr. Pill ten years before, and since that time had been with Miss Loach as cook. She had saved money and could leave service at once, if she so chose. “But I should never be happy out of my kitchen, my love,” said Mrs. Pill, biting a piece of darning-cotton, “so here I stay till missus goes under.”

“And she won’t do that for a long time,” said Thomas. “Missus is strong. A good, kind, healthy lady.”

Geraldine followed with an account of herself, which related chiefly to her good looks and many lovers, and the tyranny of mistresses. “I will say, however, that after being here a year, I have nothing to complain of.”

“I should think not,” grunted Thomas. “I’ve been twenty years with Miss Loach, and a good ’un she is. I entered her service when I was fifteen, and she could have married an earl — Lord Caranby wanted to marry her — but she wouldn’t.”

“Lor,” said Mrs. Pill, “and ain’t that his lordship’s nephew who comes here at times?”

“Mr. Mallow? Yes! That’s him. He’s fond of the old lady.”

“And fond of her niece, too,” giggled Geraldine; “not but what Miss Saxon is rather sweet.”

“Rather sweet,” growled the cook, “why, she’s a lovely gal, sich as you’ll never be, in spite of your fine name. An’ her brother, Mr. Basil, is near as ‘andsome as she.”

“He ain’t got the go about him Miss Juliet have,” said Thomas.

“A lot you know,” was the cook’s retort. “Why Mr. Basil quarrelled with missus a week ago and gave her proper, and missus ain’t no easy person to fight with, as I knows. Mr. Basil left the house and ain’t been near since.”

“He’s a fool, then,” said Thomas. “Missus won’t leave him a penny.”

“She’ll leave it to Miss Juliet Saxon, which is just the same. I never did see brother and sister so fond of one another as those two. I believe she’d put the ‘air of ‘er head — and lovely ‘air it is, too — under his blessed feet to show him she loves him.”

“She’d do the same by Mr. Mallow,” said Geraldine, tittering.

Here Susan interrupted. “Who is the old lady who comes here?”

“Oh, she’s Mrs. Herne,” said the cook. “A cross, ‘aughty old thing, who fights always. She’s been coming here with Mr. Jarvey Hale and Mr. Clancy for the last three years. They play whist every evening and go away regular about ten. Missus let’s ’em out themselves or else rings for me. Why, there’s the bell now,” and Mrs. Pill rose.

“No! I go,” said Susan, rising also. “Miss Loach told me to come when she rang.”

Mrs. Pill nodded and resumed her seat and her darning. “Lor bless you, my love, I ain’t jealous,” she said. “My legs ain’t as young as they was. ‘Urry, my dear, missus is a bad ’un to be kept waitin’.”

Thus urged, Susan hastened to the front part of the house and down the stairs. The door of the sitting-room was open. She knocked and entered, to find Mr. Clancy, who looked rougher and more foolish than ever, standing by the table. Miss Loach, with a pack of cards on her lap, was talking, and Susan heard the concluding sentence as she entered the room.

“You’re a fool, Clancy,” said Miss Loach, emphatically. “You know Mrs. Herne doesn’t like to be contradicted. You’ve sent her away in a fine rage, and she’s taken Hale with her. Quite spoilt our game of — ah, here’s Susan. Off with you, Clancy. I wish to be alone.”

The man would have spoken, but Miss Loach silenced him with a sharp gesture and pointed to the door. In silence he went upstairs with Susan, and in silence left the house. It was a fine night, and Susan stopped for a moment at the door to drink in the fresh air. She heard the heavy footsteps of a policeman draw near and he passed the house, to disappear into the path on the opposite side of the road. When Susan returned to the kitchen she found supper ready. Soon the servants were seated at the table and talking brightly.

“Who does that house at the back belong to?” asked Susan.

“To Lord Caranby,” said Thomas, although not directly addressed. “It’s unfinished.”

“Yes and shut up. Lord Caranby was in love with a lady and built that house for her. Before it was ready the lady died and Lord Caranby left the house as it was and built a high wall round it. He then went travelling and has been travelling ever since. He never married either, and his nephew, Mr. Cuthbert Mallow, is heir to the title.”

“I thought you said Lord Caranby loved Miss Loach?”

“No, I didn’t. I said she could have married him had she played her cards properly. But she didn’t, and Lord Caranby went away. The lady who died was a friend of missus, and they were always together. I think missus and she were jealous of Lord Caranby, both loving him. But Miss Saul — that was the other lady — died, and Lord Caranby left the house as it stands, to go away.”

“He won’t allow anyone to set a foot in the house or grounds,” said Mrs. Pill, “there ain’t no gate in the wall —”

“No gate,” echoed Susan astonished.

“Not a single ‘ole as you could get a cat through. Round and round the place that fifteen-feet wall is built, and the park, as they calls it, is running as wild as a cow. Not a soul has set foot in that place for the last fifteen years. But I expect when Mr. Mallow comes in for the title he’ll pull it down and build ‘ouses. I’m sure he ought to: it’s a shame seeing land wasted like that.”

“Where is Lord Caranby now?”

“He lives in London and never comes near this place,” said Thomas.

“Is Miss Loach friendly with him now?” “No, she ain’t. He treated her badly. She’d have been a better Lady Caranby than Miss Saul”— here Thomas started and raised a finger. “Eh! wasn’t that the front door closing?”

All listened, but no sound could be heard. “Perhaps missus has gone to walk in the garding,” said cook, “she do that at times.”

“Did you show ‘ern out?” asked Thomas, looking at Susan.

“Only Mr. Clancy,” she answered, “the others had gone before. I heard what Miss Loach was saying. Mr. Clancy had quarrelled with Mrs. Herne and she had gone away with Mr. Hale. Then Miss Loach gave it to him hot and sent him away. She’s all alone.”

“I must have been mistaken about the door then,” said he.

“Not at all,” chimed in Mrs. Pill. “Missus is walking as she do do in the garding, singing and adornin’ self with flowers.”

After this poetic flight of fancy on the part of the cook, the supper ended. Thomas smoked a pipe and the housemaid cleared away. Mrs. Pill occupied her time in putting her few straggling locks in curl-papers.

While Susan was assisting Geraldine, the bell rang. All started. “I thought missus had gone to bed,” cried the cook, getting up hurriedly. “She’ll be in a fine rage if she finds us up. Go to bed, Geraldine, and you, Thomas. Susan, answer the bell. She don’t like us not to be gettin’ our beauty sleep. Bless me it’s eleving.”

The clock had just struck as Susan left the kitchen, and the three servants were bustling about so as to get to bed before their sharp-eyed old mistress found them. Susan went down the stairs. The door of the sitting-room was closed. She knocked but no voice told her to enter. Wondering if the bell had been rung by mistake, Susan knocked again, and again received no answer. She had a mind to retreat rather than face the anger of Miss Loach. But remembering that the bell had rung, she opened the door, determined to explain. Miss Loach was seated in her usual chair, but leaning back with a ghastly face. The glare of the electric lamp fixed in the ceiling, shone full on her white countenance, and also on something else. The bosom of her purple gown was disarranged, and the lace which adorned it was stained with blood. Startled by her looks Susan hurried forward and gazed searchingly into the face. There was no sign of recognition in the wide, staring eyes. Susan, quivering with dread, touched Miss Loach’s shoulder. Her touch upset the body and it rolled on the floor. The woman was dead. With a shriek Susan recoiled and fell on her knees. Her cry speedily brought the other servants.

“Look!” cried Susan pointing, “she is dead — murdered!”

Geraldine and Mrs. Pill shrieked with horror. Thomas preserved his stolid look of composure.

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