The Secret Passage, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 21

An Experiment

Next day Cuthbert received a letter from Jennings. It intimated that Maraquito wished to see him that evening. “If you will call at nine o’clock,” wrote the detective, “she will be alone. The police have decided to close the gambling-house, and she is making preparations to leave England. I understand she has something to tell you in connection with the death of Miss Loach, which it is as well you should hear. A confession on her part may save you a lot of trouble in the future.”

Mallow hesitated to obey this summons. He thought it was strange that Maraquito should get the detective to write to him, as he knew she mistrusted the man. And, apart from this, he had no wish to see Senora Gredos again. Things were now smooth between him and Juliet — comparatively so — and it would not do to rouse the girl’s jealousy. Maraquito was a dangerous woman, and if he paid her a solitary visit, he might fall into some snare which she was quite capable of laying. Such was her infatuation, that he knew she would stop at nothing to gain her ends.

On the other hand, Maraquito, to all appearances, knew of something in connection with the case which it behooved him to learn if he wished for peace in the future. So far as Mallow knew, the matter was at an end. He believed that Jennings had shelved the affair, and that no further inquiries would be made. This belief calmed his anxiety, as he greatly desired to save Basil Saxon from arrest. Certainly, the young scamp protested his innocence, and told a plausible tale, but he was such a liar that Mallow could not be satisfied. He might be innocent as he said, yet the facts of the visit to the cottage, the possession of the knife and of the overcoat which he wore when seen by Juliet, hinted at his guilt. Also the forged bill and check might implicate him in the matter. Did Jennings learn of these things, he would certainly arrest Saxon on suspicion, and, for Juliet’s sake, Cuthbert did not wish such a thing to happen.

It struck Mallow that Hale might have confided in Maraquito, with whom he was in love. Being unscrupulous, she would probably use this information, and might threaten to denounce Basil, to the subsequent disgrace of Juliet, if Cuthbert refused to marry her. Taking these things into consideration, Mallow decided that it would be best to pay the visit and learn what Maraquito had to say.

It was a wild, blustering evening, rainy and damp. When Mallow stepped out of the door he shivered as the keen wind whistled down the street. Few people were abroad, as they preferred, very sensibly, the comfort of a fireside to the windy, gleaming thoroughfares. Wishing his visit to be as secret as possible, Mallow walked to Soho and turned into Golden Square shortly before the appointed hour. He did not expect a pleasant interview, as Maraquito was an uncivilized sort of woman with little control over her very violent emotions. Altogether, he anticipated a disagreeable quarter of an hour.

He was admitted smilingly by a woman, and noticed with some surprise that Gibber the page was not at his accustomed post. But he put this down to the fact that there was no gambling on this particular evening. The windows of the great salon were dark, and Senora Gredos received him in a small apartment which she used as a sitting-room. Her couch was drawn up close to the fire, and she appeared to be in better health than usual. Standing at the door, Mallow thought she made a pretty picture. She had on a white wrapper trimmed with gold lace, and as usual, wore a profusion of jewelry. Across the lower part of the couch was flung a gorgeous purple coverlet of eastern manufacture, and what with the brilliant colors and the glitter of precious stones, she looked remarkably eastern herself. Mallow noticed particularly how Jewish she was in appearance, and wondered how he could have been so blind as not to have remarked it before. The room looked cheerful and warm, and was welcome after the chilly, dreary streets. Mallow, having taken off his overcoat in the hall, came forward and bowed somewhat formally, but Maraquito was not to be put off with so frigid a greeting. Holding out both hands, she shook his warmly and pointed to a chair near her couch. It was now a few minutes after nine.

“How good of you to come and see me,” she said in her deep, rich voice. “The evening was so dull.”

“You are not having any play this evening?”

Maraquito shrugged her fine shoulders and unfurled a quite unnecessary fan, which, to keep up her fiction of being a Spanish lady, she always carried. “Some idiot told the police what was going on and I received a notice to close.”

“But the police knew long ago.”

“Not officially. The police can be silent when it suits. And I always kept things very quiet here. I can’t understand why any objection should be made. I suspect that man Jennings told.”

“I thought you liked him.”

“Oh, I fancied he was a friend of yours and so I made the best of him. But, to tell you the truth, Mr. Mallow, I always mistrusted him. He is much too fond of asking questions for my taste. Then Mr. Hale told me that the man was a detective, so I understood his unwarrantable curiosity. I shall have nothing to do with him in future.”

“In that case,” said Mallow, anxious to arrive at the truth, “I wonder you employ him to write letters for you.”

The woman raised herself on one rounded elbow and looked surprised at this speech. “Really, I don’t think I am so foolish,” said she dryly. “Why do you say that?”

Mallow looked puzzled. “Jennings wrote me a letter, asking me to come here this evening at nine. He said you wished to see me.”

Maraquito’s eyes flashed. “I always wish to see you,” she said, sinking her voice to a tender tone, “and I am much obliged that Mr. Jennings’ note should have brought you here. But I gave him no authority to write it.”

“Have you seen Jennings lately?” asked Cuthbert, more and more puzzled.

“A few nights ago. But he said nothing about you. He simply played cards for a time and then took himself off.”

“Are you leaving England?”

“I am. Being an invalid as you see, I have no amusement but card-playing. Now that the Puritan authorities have stopped that, I cannot stay in this dull country to be bored. But who told you?”

“Jennings said you were making preparations to leave.”

“In this letter he wrote you?” asked Maraquito, frowning.

“Yes. I am sorry I did not bring the letter with me. But I can show it to you on another occasion. He also said you had something to tell me.”

Maraquito fastened her brilliant eyes on his face. “Mr. Jennings seems to know much about my affairs and to take a deep interest in them. But I assure you, I never gave him any authority to meddle.”

“Then why did he write and bring me here?”

Senora Gredos frowned and then her face cleared. “The man is such a secretive creature that I don’t trust him,” she said; “and yet he declared himself to be my friend. He knows I like you, and hinted that he should be glad to bring us together.”

“Jennings is a gentleman in spite of his profession,” said Mallow in cutting tones. “I scarcely think he would take so great a liberty.”

“Is it a liberty?” asked Maraquito softly.

“I consider it to be one. Jennings knows that I am engaged.”

“Stop!” she cried, gripping her fan so tightly that her knuckles grew white. “Do you dare to tell me this?”

“Senora — Maraquito — don’t let us have a scene. I told you before that I could not give you the love you asked.”

“And I told you that I would have that love in spite of your unwillingness,” said the woman doggedly. “You have scorned me, and I ought to have sufficient pride to let you go your own way. But I am such an infatuated fool that I am content to let you tread on me.”

“I have no wish to do that, but —”

“You do — you do — you do!” she said, vehemently. “Why can you not love me? I would be a better wife than that doll you —”

“Drop that, Maraquito. Leave Miss Saxon’s name out of the question.”

“I shall talk of Miss Saxon as long as I like,” cried Maraquito, snapping the fan and growing flushed. “You scorn me because I am an invalid —”

“I do not. If you were perfectly restored to health I would give you the same answer.” Mallow was on his feet by this time. “I think it would be wise of me to go.”

But Senora Gredos, stretching out her hand, caught him by the coat convulsively. “No! no! no!” she muttered fiercely. “I did not ask you to come here. I did not send for you. But now that you are here, you will stop. We must understand one another.”

“We do understand one another,” said Cuthbert, who was growing angry at this unreasonable attitude. “You must know that I am engaged to Miss Saxon!”

“You will never marry her — never!” cried Maraquito passionately; “oh, cruel man, can you not see that I am dying of love for you.”

“Maraquito —”

“If I were not chained to this couch,” she said between her teeth, “I should go after her and throw vitriol in her face. I would give her cause to repent having lured you from me with her miserable doll’s face. Pah! the minx!”

Cuthbert grew really angry. “How dare you speak like this?” he said. “If you were able to attack Miss Saxon in the vile way you say, I should show you no mercy.”

“What would you do — what would you do?” she panted.

“Put you in jail. That sort of thing may do abroad but we don’t allow it here. I thought you were merely a foolish woman. Now I know you are bad and wicked.”

“Cuthbert — Cuthbert.”

“My name is Mallow to you, Senora Gredos. I’ll go now and never see you again. I was foolish to come here.”

“Wait — wait,” she cried savagely, “it is just as well that you are here — just as well that we should come to an understanding.”

“There can be no understanding. I marry Miss Saxon and —”

“Never, never, never! Listen, I can ruin her —”

“What do you mean?”

“Her brother —”

“Oh, Basil, I know all about that.”

Maraquito threw herself back on her couch, evidently baffled. “What do you know?” she demanded sullenly.

“That you are about to accuse him of the death of Miss Loach.”

“Yes, I do. He killed her. There is a forged bill in-”

“I know all about that also,” said Cuthbert, making a gesture for her to be silent. “If you hope to stop my marriage with Miss Saxon by such means, you have wasted your time,” he moved again towards the door. “It is time this interview ended,” he said.

“Why did you seek it then?” she flashed out.

“I did not. Jennings wrote, asking me to call and see you. I understood that you had something to say to me.”

“I have much — though how that detestable man knew I can’t think. But I can disgrace that doll of a girl through her brother.”

“No, you cannot. Basil is perfectly innocent of murder.”

“You have to prove that,” she sneered, her features quivering and one white hand clutching the purple drapery, “and you know — so you say, that Basil is a forger.”

“He is a fool. I don’t condone his folly, but his sister shall not suffer on his account. The bill to which Miss Loach’s name was forged is in the possession of Miss Saxon — in fact I may tell you that Basil himself assured me it had been destroyed.”

“Of course he would say that,” scoffed Maraquito, her eyes flashing, “but the check to which Hale’s name is affixed is not destroyed, and Hale shall proceed on that.”

“Hale shall not do so,” said Cuthbert resolutely. He did not wish to betray Hale’s confidence, as a confession would entail the man’s loss of the woman he loved. But it was necessary to stop Maraquito somehow; and Cuthbert attempted to do so in his next words, which conveyed a distinct threat. “And you will not move in the matter.”

Maraquito laughed in an evil manner. “Won’t I?” she taunted. “I just will. Hale will do what I want, and he will have Basil arrested unless you promise to give up this girl and marry me.”

“Hale will do nothing, neither will you,” retorted Cuthbert. “I don’t care about threatening a woman, but you must not think that you are able to play fast and loose with me.”

“How can you hurt me?” asked Maraquito with a scornful smile, although her lips quivered at his tone.

“I can tell Jennings that you are Bathsheba Saul!”

She turned quite pale. “I? My name is Maraquito Gredos.”

“It is nothing of the sort. My uncle Lord Caranby came here and recognized you from your likeness to the woman Emilia he was once engaged to. He can state that in court.”

“Where is his proof?”

“Proof will be forthcoming when necessary.”

“Not to prove that I am Bathsheba Saul. I know nothing of the name.”

Cuthbert shrugged his shoulders. He had said what was necessary and, unwilling to speak further, prepared to go. Maraquito saw him slipping from her grasp. Once gone, she knew he would never come back. With a cry of despair she stretched out her hands. “Cuthbert, do not leave me!” she cried in anguish.

“I must leave you. I was foolish to come. But you know now, that if you move in this matter I can move too. I doubt very much, madam, if your past life will bear looking into.”

“You coward!” she moaned.

“I know I am a coward,” said Mallow uncomfortably; “it is not my way to threaten a woman — I said that before. But I love Juliet so much that at any cost I must protect her.”

“And my love counts for nothing.”

“I am sorry, Maraquito, but I cannot respond. A man’s heart is not his own to give.”

“Nor a woman’s,” she moaned bitterly; “oh, heaven, how I suffer. Help!”

Cuthbert heard footsteps ascending the stairs — the light footsteps of a hasty man. But Maraquito’s head had fallen back, her face was as white as snow and her mouth was twisted in an expression of anguish. She seemed to be on the point of death, and moved by her pain — for she really appeared to be suffering, he sprang forward to catch her in his arms. Had he not done so she would have fallen from the sofa. But hardly had he seized her form when she flung her arms round his neck and pressed her mouth to his. Then she threw back her head, not now white, but flushed with color and triumph. “I have you now,” she said breathlessly. “I love you — I love you — I will not let you go!”

What Cuthbert would have done it is hard to say. Apparently Maraquito was determined to hold him there. But at this moment Jennings appeared at the door. On seeing him arrive so unexpectedly, Maraquito uttered a cry of rage and dismay, and released Mallow. “Send him away — send him away!” she cried, pointing to Jennings, who looked cold and stern. “How dare he come here.”

“I come on an unpleasant errand,” said Jennings, stepping forward. “I want you, Mallow!”

Cuthbert, who had moved forward, stopped. “Why do you want me?”

Jennings placed his hand on the young man’s shoulder. “I arrest you on the charge of murdering Selina Loach!”

Maraquito uttered a shriek, and Cuthbert’s face grew red. The latter spoke first. “Is this a jest?” he asked harshly.

“You will not find it so.”

“Let me pass. I refuse to allow you to arrest me.”

Jennings still continued to keep his hand on Cuthbert’s shoulder, whereupon the young man flung it aside. At the same moment Jennings closed with him, and a hand-to-hand struggle ensued. Maraquito, with straining eyes, watched the fight. With stiffened muscles the two reeled across the room. Cuthbert was almost too amazed to fight. That Jennings should accuse him and attack him in this way was incredible. But his blood was up and he wrestled with the detective vigorously. He was an excellent athlete, but Jennings was a west-country-man and knew all that was to be known about wrestling. With a quick twist of his foot he tripped up his opponent, and in a minute Cuthbert was lying on his back with Jennings over him. The two men breathed hard. Cuthbert struggled to rise, but Jennings held him down until he was suddenly dragged away by Maraquito, who was watching the fight eagerly. There she stood in the centre of the room which she had reached with a bound.

“I thought so,” said Jennings, releasing Mallow and rising quickly.

Maraquito threw a small knife at Cuthbert’s feet. “Kill him — kill him!” she said with hysterical force.

“There is no need to,” said the detective, feeling his arms, which were rather sore. “Mallow, I beg your pardon for having fought you, but I knew you would not lend yourself to a deception, and the only way in which I could force this lady to show that she was able to walk was by a feigned fight.”

“Then you don’t intend to arrest me?” said Mallow, rising and staring.

“Never had any idea of doing so,” rejoined Jennings coolly. “I wished to learn the truth about Mrs. Herne.”

“Mrs. Herne!”

“Or Maraquito Gredos or Bathsheba Saul. She has a variety of names, my dear fellow. Which one do you prefer?” he asked, turning to the discovered woman.

Maraquito looked like the goddess of war. Her eyes flashed and her face was red with anger. Standing in a striking attitude, with one foot thrust forward, her active brain was searching for some means of escape. “I don’t know what you mean by calling me these names!”

“I mean that you are to be arrested. You are Mrs. Herne. Your accident was merely a sham to avert suspicion.”

“Mrs. Herne is my aunt.”

“Pardon me, no. The only aunt you ever had was Emilia Saul, who died in Caranby’s house. In our interview at Hampstead you betrayed yourself when we talked of Mallow. I had you watched. You were seen to enter this house, and out of it Mrs. Herne never came. Your servants do not know Mrs. Herne — only their invalid mistress.”

Maraquito, seeing her danger, panted with rage, and looked like a trapped animal. “Even if this is true, which I deny,” she said in a voice tremulous with rage, “how dare you arrest me, and for what?”

“For setting that boy Gibber to poison the man who called himself Tyke. The lad has left your service — which means he is in hiding.”

“I know nothing about this,” said Maraquito, suddenly becoming cool. “Do you mean to arrest me now?”

“I have the warrant and a couple of plain-dress detectives below. You can’t escape.”

“I have no wish to escape,” she retorted, moving towards a door which led into an inner room. “I can meet and dispose of this ridiculous charge. The doctor told me that a sudden shock might bring back my strength. And that it has done. I am not Mrs. Herne — I am not Bathsheba Saul. I am Maraquito Gredos, a Spanish lady —”

“Who doesn’t know her own language,” said Jennings.

“I pass over your insults,” said the woman with dignity. “But as you intend to take me away, will you please let me enter my bedroom to change my dress?”

Jennings drew aside and permitted her to pass. “I am not afraid you will escape,” he said politely. “If you attempt to leave you will fall into the hands of my men. They watch every door.”

Maraquito winced, and with a last look at the astounded Mallow, passed into the room. When she shut the door Mallow looked at Jennings. “I don’t know what all this means,” he said.

“I have told you,” replied Jennings, rather impatiently, “the letter I sent you was to bring you here. The struggle was a feigned one on my side to make Maraquito defend you. I knew she would never let you be worsted if she could help; exactly as I knew you would never consent to play such a trick on her.”

“Certainly not. With all her faults, she loves me.”

“So well that she will kill Juliet Saxon rather than see her in your arms. Don’t frown, Mallow, Maraquito is a dangerous woman, and it is time she was laid by the heels. You don’t know what I have found out.”

“Have you learned who killed Miss Loach?”

“No. But I am on the way to learn it. I’ll tell you everything another time. Meanwhile, I must get this woman safely locked up. Confound her, she is a long time.”

“She may have escaped,” said Mallow, as Jennings knocked at the door.

“I don’t see how she can. There are men at the front door and at a secret entrance she used to enter as Mrs. Herne.” He knocked again, but there was no reply. Finally Jennings grew exasperated and tried to open the door. It was locked. “I believe she is escaping,” he said, “help me, Mallow.”

The two men put their shoulders to the door and burst it in. When they entered the bedroom it was empty. There was no sign of Maraquito anywhere, and no sign, either, of how she had managed to evade the law.

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