The Secret Passage, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 20

Basil

While Jennings was thus working at the case, and hoping to bring it to a successful issue, Cuthbert was resting in the happy belief that no further steps were being taken. The detective had appeared so despondent when Mallow called with Caranby that the former thought with some show of reason that he meant what he said. Had he known that Jennings was still active he would have been much disturbed.

Agreeably to Cuthbert’s suggestion, Juliet had offered the money of Miss Loach to her mother. But Mrs. Octagon refused to be bribed — as she put it — into consenting to the match. In the presence of Mallow himself, she expressed the greatest detestation for him and for his uncle, and told Juliet she would never acknowledge her as a daughter if she married the young man. The poor girl was thus between two fires — that of her love for Cuthbert, and that of her mother’s hearty hatred for the Earl and his nephew. Under the circumstances Cuthbert thought it best to remain away from the “Shrine of the Muses” for a time until Mrs. Octagon could be brought to see reason. But she was so obstinate a woman that it was doubtful if she would ever behave in, an agreeable manner. Cuthbert returned to his rooms in a rather low state of mind. He knew that Juliet, whatever happened, would remain true to him, and had quite hoped to bribe Mrs. Octagon into consenting by means of the inherited money. But now things seemed more hopeless than ever. Juliet, although not very fond of her mother, was a devoted daughter from a sense of duty, and it would be difficult to bring her to consent to a match against which the elder woman so obstinately set her face.

Certainly Juliet had said she would marry with or without her mother’s consent, but now that the consent was withheld with violent words, she seemed inclined to wait. However, if she did not marry Mallow, he knew well that she would marry no one else, least of all the objectionable Arkwright, Cuthbert derived some degree of comfort from this small fact. He wondered if there was any chance of forcing Mrs. Octagon into giving her consent, but after surveying the situation could see no opportunity.

After dinner that night, Cuthbert was thinking of going to see his uncle, who still stopped at the Avon Hotel when Hale was announced. Mallow was surprised. The lawyer was not a friend of his, and he had no liking for his company. However, he felt a certain curiosity as to the reason of this unexpected visit and welcomed the man with civility. But he did not ask him to have any coffee though it was on the table. Cuthbert held to the traditions of the East regarding bread and salt, and he wished to leave himself free to deal with Hale as an enemy, should occasion arise, as it might. Hale was far too intimate with Maraquito to please the young man. And Maraquito’s attentions were far too pressing to make Cuthbert feel comfortable in her presence.

“Well, Mr. Hale,” said Mallow coldly, “why have you come?”

The lawyer, who was in an evening suit and dressed with taste and care, took a seat, although not invited to do so. He looked cold and calm, but there was an excited gleam in his large eyes which showed that his calmness masked some emotion, the cause of which Cuthbert could not fathom. “I have come to see you about young Saxon,” he said.

“Really,” answered Mallow coolly, although surprised, “what can you have to say to me about him.”

“He is your friend —”

“Pardon me. I can hardly call him so. We are acquaintances only.”

“But you are engaged to his sister,” persisted Hale.

Mallow threw away the cigarette he was lighting and jumped up. “I see no reason why Miss Saxon’s name should be mentioned, Mr. Hale.”

“Don’t you, Mr. Mallow? I do.”

“Then I object to your mentioning it. State your business and go, Mr. Hale. I have no acquaintance with you.”

“I can’t state my business unless I mention Miss Saxon’s name.”

“Then you will please to take yourself off,” said Mallow.

Hale smiled coldly, though evidently annoyed. “I think it is to your interest to hear me,” he said deliberately, “and to the interest of the lady whom you hope to call your wife.”

“Does this business concern Miss Saxon?”

“Indirectly it does. But it rather has to do with her brother.”

Mallow frowned. The conversation was taking a turn of which he did not approve. However, he knew well the dangerous ground upon which he stood with regard to the case, and thought it best to hear what his unexpected visitor had to say. “State your business,” he said curtly.

“Very good,” replied Hale, nursing his silk hat on his knee. “I see you don’t offer me coffee or a cigarette.”

“We are not friends, sir. And let me remind you that you thrust yourself uninvited on me.”

“To do you a service,” said Hale quickly. “I think, therefore, that I deserve a better reception.”

“Will you please come to the point?” said Mallow coldly, “whatever the service may be, I am quite sure it is two for you if one for me. You are not the man to go out of your way, Mr. Hale, to help anyone.”

Hale nodded and smiled grimly. “You are quite right. Now, then, Mr. Mallow, do you know that Basil Saxon was to have inherited the money of my late client, Miss Loach?”

“No, I never knew that. I understood that Miss Loach always intended to leave the money to Miss Saxon.”

Hale shook his well-oiled head. “On the contrary, Mr. Saxon was her favorite. In spite of his wild ways she liked him. However, she was also fond of Miss Saxon, and you may thank Miss Loach, Mr. Mallow, for having been the means of forwarding your engagement.”

“What do you mean by that?” asked Cuthbert angrily.

“Mrs. Octagon,” went on the lawyer deliberately, “would never have consented to Miss Saxon becoming engaged to you had not Miss Loach insisted that she should agree.”

“Seeing that Mrs. Octagon hated her sister and was not likely, to be influenced by her, I do not see how that can be.”

“Perhaps not. Nevertheless, such is the case. You saw how, when Miss Loach died, Mrs. Octagon seized the first opportunity to place obstacles in the way of your marriage.”

“I believe she did that on Maraquito’s account, Mr. Hale. I know perfectly well that Mrs. Octagon called on Maraquito.”

“Quite so — to ask Maraquito not to let Basil Saxon play beyond his means. Certainly, Maraquito having a strange fancy for you, agreed, on condition that Mrs. Octagon refuse to let Miss Saxon marry you. But, in any case, Mrs. Octagon hates your uncle too much to allow her daughter to become your wife. You will never get Mrs. Octagon’s consent unless I help you.”

“You!” echoed Mallow, astonished and annoyed. “What possible influence can you have with Mrs. Octagon. I have certainly seen you at her house, but I scarcely think you know her well enough —”

“Oh, yes, I do.” Hale rose in his earnestness. “See here, sir; I love Maraquito and I wish to marry her.”

“You can, so far as I am concerned,”

“So you say,” said Hale bitterly, “but you cannot be ignorant that Maraquito loves you.”

“I don’t see what that has to do with our conversation,” replied Mallow, growing red and restless.

“It has everything to do with the matter. I want to marry Maraquito, as I am rich and deeply in love with her. She would have become my wife long ago but that you crossed her path. Lord knows why she should love a commonplace man like you, but she does.”

“Isn’t that rather personal?” said Mallow dryly.

“I beg your pardon. But what I wish to say is this. If you marry Miss Saxon and place yourself beyond Maraquito’s reach, I will be able to induce her to marry me. Our interests are bound up together. Now, to do this you must have Mrs. Octagon’s consent. I can get it.”

“In what way?”

“She loves Basil, her son, more than she does herself,” went on Hale, paying no attention to the remark. “To save him she would do much.”

“To save him from what?”

“Basil;” continued the lawyer, still not noticing the interruption, “is a young fool. He thought himself sure of Miss Loach’s money — and he was until a week before she died. Then he came to Rose Cottage and insulted her —”

“I have heard that. She ordered him out of the house.”

“She did. Miss Loach was a bitter, acrid old woman when the fit took her. However, Basil insulted her so grossly that she made a new will and left all the money to Miss Saxon. Now it happens that Basil, to supply himself with funds, when his aunt refused to aid his extravagance further, forged her name to a bill — What’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” said Mallow, who had started from his chair, “only your intelligence is sufficiently unpleasant.”

“I can understand that,” sneered the lawyer, “since you wish to marry his sister. You don’t want a forger for a brother-inlaw.”

“Who does?” said Cuthbert, not telling that he was thinking of Basil in connection with a still darker crime. “Go on, Mr. Hale.”

“The bill fell into my hands. When Miss Saxon got the money she transferred the business to her own lawyer. I had to give the bill up.”

“Ah!” said Mallow meaningly, “I see now the hold you had over Basil.”

“Yes, that was my hold. I did not want to give up the bill. But it had been met, and as Miss Loach is dead, there was a difficulty in proving the signature to be a forgery. I therefore gave the bill to Miss Saxon. She knew of her brother’s guilt —”

“I see — I see,” murmured Cuthbert, wondering if she had been shielding Basil as well as him. “My poor girl!”

“She is a brave girl,” said Hale, in a voice of reluctant admiration. “She met me and fought for her brother. I gave way, as I did not wish to make trouble. Why, it doesn’t matter. However, you see how things stand. Basil is a forger. If his mother knew that he was in danger of being arrested she would consent to your marriage, and then I might marry Maraquito. I have come here to tell you this.”

“But if Miss Saxon has the bill, and there is a difficulty of proving the signature, owing to Miss Loach’s death, I don’t see —”

“Ah, not in this case. But Basil Saxon forged my name also. I hold a forged check. I met it and said nothing about it. Basil, thinking because his sister held the bill that he was out of my power, was most insolent. But I said nothing of the check which he thought I never detected. The more fool he. He must have a fine opinion of my business capacity. However, as the check is only for fifty hounds, he probably thought that it would escape my notice. Well, you see how I can force Mrs. Octagon’s hand. What do you say?”

Mallow put his hands to his head quite bewildered by the information.

“You must give me time to think,” he said, “but if I consent —”

“You marry Miss Saxon. I ask no reward for my services. All I want is to get you out of my way as regards Maraquito. I will give you the forged check on the day you wed Miss Saxon. I can see,” added Hale, rising, “that you are somewhat upset with this news, and no wonder. You never thought Basil was such a scoundrel.”

“I thought him a fool, never a knave.”

“My dear sir, he is a thoroughly bad man,” said Hale cynically, “though I daresay other people are just as bad. However, I will give you a week to think over the matter. Good-night.”

“Good-night,” said Mallow, touching the bell, but without meeting the gaze of Hale, “I will think over what you have said.”

“You will find it to your advantage to do so,” replied Hale, and went out of the room at the heels of the servant.

Mallow remained where he was in deep thought. It was terrible to think that the brother of Juliet should be such a scamp. A forger and perhaps something else. Here, indeed, was a motive for Miss Loach to meet with her death at her nephew’s hand. Probably on the night in question she threatened to let the law take its course, and then Basil — but at this point of his meditations a ring came at the door. In a few moments Cuthbert heard a step he knew and rose with an agitated air. Basil entered the room.

The young man was carefully dressed as usual in his rather affected way, but his face was pale and he seemed uneasy. “I see you have had a visit from Hale,” he said, trying to appear at his ease.

“How do you know that?” asked Mallow abruptly, and declining to see the proffered hand.

“I saw Hale enter a cab as I came up the stairs,” said Basil, drawing back; “and even had I not seen him I would know that he has been telling you a lot of lies because you refuse to shake hands.”

“Are they lies?”

“Ah, then, he has been talking. He is my enemy. He comes here to do me harm,” said Basil, his eyes flashing.

“He came here as your friend,” replied Mallow abruptly, “Hale wishes me to marry your sister. He offers to hand over to me a certain check if I marry her.”

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” cried Basil petulantly, and threw himself into a chair, very pale.

“I think you know very well. Why have you come here?”

Basil looked sullen. “I want you to marry Juliet also. And I came to say that I thought I could get my mother to take that money and to withdraw her opposition.”

“So that you may have the fingering of the money?”

“Oh, I suppose she will give me some,” said Basil airily, and began to roll a cigarette with deft fingers.

Mallow was enraged at this coolness. “Basil, you are a scoundrel!”

“Am I, indeed? Nice words to use to your future relative.”

“How do you know I will ever be your relative. Suppose I refuse Hale’s demand, and let him proceed on this check?”

Basil’s cigarette dropped our of his hand. “I don’t know what check you mean,” he declared with alarm, “there was a bill — I couldn’t help myself. My aunt —”

“Gave you a lot of money and you repaid her by forging her name. But you also forged Hale’s name.”

“Ah, I know what you mean now. It was only for fifty pounds.”

“Had it been for fifty pence the crime is the same,” said Mallow vehemently, “why did you not let me help you? I offered to. But you preferred to commit a crime.”

“Such a fuss to make,” muttered the youth discontentedly, “the bill is in the possession of Juliet, and no steps can be taken on that. If mother accepts this six thousand a year, she will buy the check back from Hale. He’s a scoundrel and will do anything for money. Then you can marry Juliet, and I can go abroad for a few years on an income of three thousand. Mother will allow me that.”

The coolness of this speech almost took Mallow’s breath away. The man did not seem to be at all affected by his crime. So long as he was not found out he appeared to think nothing about the matter. “And I know you will marry Juliet,” proceeded Basil, “you love her too well to give her up.”

“That is true enough,” said Cuthbert, who, having already spared him too long, now determined to punish him, “but I may love her so well that I may not wish to buy her.”

“What do you mean by buying her?” demanded Basil sulkily.

“What I say. Is it only to save you that I am to marry Juliet? My marriage must be one of love —”

“She does love you. And I don’t see,” added Basil complainingly, “why you should jump on a chap for wishing for your happiness —”

“And your own safety.”

“Oh, bosh! The bill is destroyed. Juliet put it into the fire, and Hale will sell the check at his own price.”

“His price is that I am to marry Juliet.”

“So that he can marry Maraquito, I suppose. I know that she loves you and that Hale is crazy about her. It’s very hard on me,” whined the egotistical youth, “for I want to marry her myself, only mother put her spoke in my wheel.”

“Dare you offer yourself to Maraquito, bad as she is, knowing what you are?” cried Mallow, fairly disgusted.

“Oh, the forgeries. What of them? It’s nothing.” Basil snapped his fingers. “Maraquito won’t mind. But I suppose I’ll have to give her up on account of that infernal check. Such a small one as it was too. I wish I had made it one hundred and fifty. I could have done so.”

In the face of this callous behavior it was sheer wrongdoing to spare the man. “I do not allude to the forgery, though that is bad enough,” said Cuthbert, glancing round to see that the door was closed, “but to the murder of your aunt. You killed her.”

Basil leaped from his chair with great indignation. “I did not. How dare you accuse me?” he panted.

“Because I have proofs.”

“Proofs?” Basil dropped back as though he had been shot.

“Yes. I learned from my man that you took the bowie knife which used to hang on the wall yonder. He saw you take it, and thought you had received my permission. You went to the Marlow Theatre with your sister. You left her in the box and went out after eight o’clock. You went to Rexton to Rose Cottage. After Clancy left the house your aunt admitted you and you killed her —”

“I swear I did not!” said Basil, perfectly white and trembling.

“You did, you liar! Juliet followed you to the cottage.”

“Juliet? She did not know I had gone.”

“Ah! you see, you were there. Yes, she said she went in order to try and make it up between your aunt and you. But I believe now she went to see if you were committing a crime. I am not aware how much Juliet knows of your wickedness, Basil, but —”

“She knows only about the forgery. I was not at the cottage.”

Mallow made a weary gesture. “Why do you tell these falsehoods?” he said with scorn. “Juliet entered the cottage by means of her latch-key. She found Miss Loach dead and the knife on the floor. You dropped it there. She came out and saw a man of my height — which you are, and of my appearance (you are not unlike me at a distance) climbing the wall into the park. He had on alight overcoat — my overcoat. Juliet thought I was the man. I did not say no. But the moment she mentioned the coat I knew it was you. You borrowed the coat from me, and returned it the other day. Now then —”

“Stop! stop!” cried Basil, rising with pale lips and shaking hands, “I admit that I went to Rexton on that night, but I swear I am innocent.”

“Pah!” cried Mallow, thinking this was another lie, and a weak one too.

Basil seized him by the arm. “Mallow, I swear by all that I hold most sacred that I did not kill Aunt Selina. I own I took the knife. I wished to frighten her into giving me money. I left the theatre in order to go to Rexton. I thought I might be spotted if I came by the lane. I climbed the wall of the park on the other side after nine, some time after nine. I was crossing when a man chased me. I don’t know who it was. I could not see in the bushes, and the night was rather dark at the moment, though clear later. I dropped the knife, it fell out of my pocket, and I scrambled over the wall and bolted.”

“Then how did Juliet see you shortly before eleven?”

“I came back for the knife. I thought it might be traced to you and that you might get into trouble. Really I did,” said Basil, seeing Mallow make a gesture of dissent. “I came back by the railway path, and along by the corn. Where Juliet could have been, I don’t know. I climbed the wall and crossed the park. I could not find the knife where I thought I had dropped it, near the house. I then climbed the opposite wall and got away home. Next day I heard of the death and went down to look for the knife again. I never thought she had been killed with that knife, as no weapon was found. Juliet said nothing to me about the matter —”

“No. Because she thought the knife was mine, as it is, and that I was the man who climbed the wall. I was on the spot. I remember telling you that, when we met in the street, and you were afraid. I see now why you asked me if I had been in the park at night.”

“I thought you might have spotted me. When were you there?”

“About twenty minutes past ten.”

“Well, then, I was there at ten or a few minutes later. I got away from the man who chased me some time before you came. It was, as you say, at a quarter to eleven when I came back, and by that time I suppose you had gone.”

“I went over the opposite wall as you did,” said Cuthbert, “we must have run each other very close.”

“I expect we were in different parts of the park,” said Basil, “but I swear that I am telling you the truth. I said nothing about this, as I was afraid of being arrested. But, if you like, I’ll tell that detective Jennings what I told you. He will help me.”

“My advice to you is to hold your tongue and keep silent.”

“But if I am traced?” stammered Basil.

“I shall say nothing,” said Mallow, “and Jennings has dropped the case. I shall get the check from Hale, and you must go abroad. I believe you are innocent.”

“Oh, thank you — thank you —”

“But you are a scoundrel for all that. When I get you sent abroad and marry your sister, neither she nor I will have anything to do with you. And if you come back to England, look out.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hume/fergus/h93s/chapter20.html

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