The Secret Passage, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 3

A Mysterious Death

To be the husband of a celebrated woman is not an unmixed blessing. Mr. Peter Octagon found it to be so, when he married Mrs. Saxon, the widow of an eminent Q.C. She was a fine Junoesque tragic woman, who modelled herself on the portraits of the late Mrs. Siddons. Peter, on the contrary, was a small, meek, light-haired, short-sighted man, who had never done anything in his unromantic life, save accumulate a fortune as a law-stationer. For many years he lived in single blessedness, but when he retired with an assured income of three thousand a year, he thought he would marry. He had no relatives, having been brought up in a Foundling Hospital, and consequently, found life rather lonely in his fine Kensington house. He really did not care about living in such a mansion, and had purchased the property as a speculation, intending to sell it at a profit. But having fallen in with Mrs. Saxon, then a hard-up widow, she not only induced him to marry her, but, when married, she insisted that the house should be retained, so that she could dispense hospitality to a literary circle.

Mrs. Octagon was very literary. She had published several novels under the nom-deplume of “Rowena.” She had produced a volume of poems; she had written a play which had been produced at a matinee; and finally her pamphlets on political questions stamped her, in the opinion of her immediate circle, as a William Pitt in petticoats. She looked upon herself as the George Eliot of the twentieth century, and dated events from the time of her first success. “That happened before I became famous,” she would say. “No, it was after I took the public by storm.” And her immediate circle, who appreciated her cakes and ale, would agree with everything she said. The Kensington house was called “The Shrine of the Muses!” and this title was stamped on her envelopes and writing-paper, to the bewilderment of illiterate postmen. It sounded like the name of a public-house to them.

Peter was quite lost in the blaze of his wife’s literary glory. He was a plain, homely, small man, as meek as a rabbit, fond of his garden and fireside, and nervous in society. Had he not committed the fatal mistake of wedding Mrs. Saxon, he would have taken a cottage in the country and cultivated flowers. As it was, he dwelt in town and was ordered to escort Mrs. Octagon when she chose to “blaze,” as she put it, in her friends’ houses. Also there was a reception every Friday when literary London gathered round “Rowena,” and lamented the decline of Art. These people had never done anything to speak of, none of them were famous in any wide sense, but they talked of art with a big “A,” though what they meant was not clear even to themselves. So far as could be ascertained Art, with a big “A,” was concerned with something which did not sell, save to a select circle. Mrs. Octagon’s circle would have shuddered collectively and individually at the idea of writing anything interesting, likely to be enjoyed by the toilers of modern days. Whatever pictures, songs, books or plays were written by anyone who did not belong to “The Circle,” these were considered “pretty, but not Tart!” Anything successful was pronounced “Vulgar!” To be artistic in Mrs. Octagon’s sense, a work had to possess obscurity, it had to be printed on the finest paper with selected type, and it had to be sold at a prohibitive price. In this way “Rowena” had produced her works, and her name was not known beyond her small coterie. All the same, she intimated that her renown was world-wide and that her fame would be commensurate with the existence of the Anglo–Saxon race. Mrs. Lee Hunter in the Pickwick Papers, also labored under the same delusion.

With Peter lived Mrs. Saxon’s children by the eminent Q.C. Basil, who was twenty-five, and Juliet age twenty-two. They were both handsome and clever, but Juliet was the more sensible of the two. She detested the sham enthusiasm of The Circle, and appreciated Peter more than her mother did. Basil had been spoilt by his mother, who considered him a genius, and had produced a book of weak verse. Juliet was fond of her brother, but she saw his faults and tried to correct them. She wished to make him more of a man and less of an artistic fraud, for the young man really did possess talents. But the hothouse atmosphere of “The Shrine of the Muses!” would have ruined anyone possessed of genius, unless he had a strong enough nature to withstand the sickly adulation and false judgments of those who came there. Basil was not strong. He was pleasant, idle, rather vain, and a little inclined to be dissipated. Mrs. Octagon did not know that Basil was fond of dissipation. She thought him a model young Oxford man, and hoped he would one day be Laureate of England.

Afternoon tea was just ended, and several of Mrs. Octagon’s friends had departed. Basil and Mr. Octagon were out, but the latter entered with a paper in his hand shortly after the last visitor took her leave. Mrs. Octagon, in a ruby-colored velvet, looking majestic and self-satisfied, was enthroned — the word is not too strong — in an arm-chair, and Juliet was seated opposite to her turning over the leaves of a new novel produced by one of The Circle. It was beautifully printed and bound, and beautifully written in “precious” English, but its perusal did not seem to afford her any satisfaction. Her attention wandered, and every now and then she looked at the door as though expecting someone to enter. Mrs. Octagon disapproved of Juliet’s pale cheeks and want of attention to her own fascinating conversation, so, when alone, she took the opportunity to correct her.

“My child,” said Mrs. Octagon, who always spoke in a tragic manner, and in a kind of blank-verse way, “to me it seems your cheeks are somewhat pale.”

“I had no sleep last night,” said Juliet, throwing down the book.

“Your thoughts concerned themselves with Cuthbert’s face, no doubt, my love,” said her mother fondly.

“No, I was not thinking of him. I was worried about — about — my new dress,” she finished, after vainly casting about for some more sensible reason.

“How foolish children are. You trouble about your dress when you should have been thinking of the man who loves you.”

“Does Cuthbert love me?” asked Juliet, flushing.

“As Romeo loved your namesake, sweetest child. And a very good match it is too,” added Mrs. Octagon, relapsing into prose. “He is Lord Caranby’s heir, and will have a title and a fortune some day. But I would not force you to wed against your will, my dear.”

“I love Cuthbert and Cuthbert loves me,” said Juliet quickly, “we quite understand one another. I wonder why he did not come today.”

“Ah,” said her mother playfully, “I saw that your thoughts were otherwhere. Your eyes wandered constantly to the door. He may come late. By the way, where is my dearest son?”

“Basil? He went out this morning. I believe he intended to call on Aunt Selina.”

Mrs. Octagon lost a trifle of her suave manner, and became decidedly more human. “Then I wish he would not call there,” she said sharply. “Selina Loach is my own sister, but I do not approve of her.”

“She is a poor, lonely dear, mother.”

“Poor, my child, she is not, as I have every reason to believe she is well endowed with this world’s goods. Lonely she may be, but that is her own fault. Had she behaved as she should have done, Lady Caranby would have been her proud title. As to dear,” Mrs. Octagon shrugged her fine shoulders, “she is not a woman to win or retain love. Look at the company she keeps. Mr. Hale, her lawyer, is not a nice man. I have espied something evil in his eye. That Clancy creature is said to be rich. He needs to be, if only to compensate for his rough way. They visit her constantly.”

“You have forgotten Mrs. Herne,” said Juliet, rising, and beginning to pace the room restlessly and watch out of the window.

“I have never met Mrs. Herne. And, indeed, you know, that for private reasons I have never visited Selina at that ridiculous house of hers. When were you there last, Juliet, my child?”

The girl started and appeared embarrassed. “Oh, a week ago,” she said hurriedly, then added restlessly, “I wonder why Basil does not come back. He has been away all day.”

“Do you know why he has called on your aunt, my dear?”

“No,” said Juliet, in a hesitating manner, and turned again to look out of the window. Then she added, as though to escape further questioning, “I have seen Mrs. Herne only once, but she seemed to me a very nice, clever old woman.”

“Clever,” said Mrs. Octagon, raising her eyebrows, which were as strongly marked as those of her sister, “no. She does not belong to The Circle.”

“A person can be clever without that,” said Juliet impatiently.

“No. All the clever people in London come here, Juliet. If Mrs. Herne had been brilliant, she would have found her way to our Shrine.”

Juliet shrugged her shoulders and curled her pretty lip. She did not appreciate her privileges in that house. In fact, a word distinctly resembling “Bother!” escaped from her mouth. However, she went on talking of Mrs. Herne, as though to keep her mother from questioning her further.

“There is a mystery about Mrs. Herne,” she said, coming to the fire; “for I asked Aunt Selina who she was, and she could not tell me.”

“That is so like Selina,” rejoined Mrs. Octagon tartly, “receiving a person of whom she knows nothing.”

“Oh, she does know a little. Mrs. Herne is the widow of a Spanish merchant, and she struck me as being foreign herself. Aunt Selina has known her for three years, and she has come almost every week to play whist at Rose Cottage. I believe she lives at Hampstead!”

“It seems to me, Juliet, that your aunt told you a great deal about this person. Why did you ask?”

Juliet stared into the fire. “There is something so strange about Mrs. Herne,” she murmured. “In spite of her gray hair she looks quite young. She does not walk as an old woman. She confessed to being over fifty. To be sure, I saw her only once.”

Mrs. Octagon grew rather cross. “I am over fifty, and I’m sure I don’t look old, you undutiful child. When the soul is young, what matters the house of clay. But, as I was saying,” she added hastily, not choosing to talk of her age, which was a tender point with her, “Selina Loach likes low company. I know nothing of Mrs. Herne, but what you say of her does not sound refined.”

“Oh, she is quite a lady.”

“And as to Mr. Clancy and Mr. Jarvey Hale,” added Mrs. Octagon, taking no notice, “I mistrust them. That Hale man looked as though he would do a deed of darkness on the slightest provocation.”

So tragic was her mother’s manner, that Juliet turned even paler than she was. “Whatever do you mean?” she asked quickly.

“I mean murder, if I must use so vulgar and melodramatic a word.”

“But I don’t understand —”

“Bless me,” cried Mrs. Octagon, becoming more prosaic than ever, “there is nothing to understand. But Selina lives in quite a lonely house, and has a lot of money. I never open the papers but what I expect to read of her death by violence.”

“Oh,” murmured Juliet, again crossing to the window, “you should not talk like that, mother!”

Mrs. Octagon laughed good-naturedly. “Nonsense, child. I am only telling you my thoughts. Selina is such a strange woman and keeps such strange company that she won’t end in the usual way. You may be sure of that. But, after all, if she does die, you will come in for her money and then, can marry Cuthbert Mallow.”

Juliet shuddered. “I hope Aunt Selina will live for many a long day, if that is what you think,” she said sharply. “I want none of her money. Cuthbert has money of his own, and his uncle is rich also.”

“I really hope Cuthbert has enough to justify him gambling.”

“He does not gamble,” said Juliet quickly.

“Yes he does,” insisted Mrs. Octagon. “I have heard rumors; it is but right you should hear about —”

“I want to hear nothing. I thought you liked Cuthbert.”

“I do, and he is a good match. But I should like to see you accept the Poet Arkwright, who will yet be the Shakespeare of England.”

“England has quite enough glory with the Shakespeare she has,” rejoined Juliet tartly, “and as to Mr. Arkwright, I wouldn’t marry him if he had a million. A silly, ugly, weak —”

“Stop!” cried Mrs. Octagon, rising majestically from her throne. “Do not malign genius, lest the gods strike you dumb. Child —”

What Mrs. Octagon was about to say further must remain ever a mystery, for it was at this moment that her husband hurried into the room with an evening paper in his hand. “My dear,” he said, his scanty hair almost standing on end with horror, “such dreadful news. Your aunt, Juliet, my dear —”

“Selina,” said Mrs. Octagon quietly, “go on. There is nothing bad I don’t expect to hear about Selina. What is it?”

“She is dead!”

“Dead!” cried Juliet, clasping her hands nervously. “No!”

“Not only dead, but murdered!” cried Mr. Octagon. His wife suddenly dropped into her throne and, being a large fleshly woman, her fall shook the room. Then she burst into tears. “I never liked Selina,” she sniffed, “even though she was my own sister, but I am sorry — I am dreadfully — oh, dear me! Poor Selina!”

By this time all the dramatic posing of Mrs. Octagon had gone by the wall, and she showed herself in her true colors as a kind-hearted woman. Juliet hurried to her mother and took one of her hands. The elder woman started, even in the midst of her tears. “My child, your hand is as cold as ice,” she said anxiously. “Are you ill.”

“No,” said the girl hurriedly and evidently trying to suppress her emotion, “but this dreadful news! Do you remember what you said?”

“Yes — but I never expected I would be a true prophetess,” sobbed Mrs. Octagon. “Peter,” with sudden tartness, “why don’t you give me the details. Poor Selina dead, and here am I in ruby velvet!”

“There are not many details to give,” said Peter, reading from the newspaper, “the police are keeping quiet about the matter.”

“Who killed her?”

Juliet rose suddenly and turned on the electric light, so that her step-father could see to read more clearly. “Yes,” she said in a firm voice, belied by the ghastly whiteness of her face, “who killed her?”

“It is not known,” said Mr. Octagon. “Last night she entertained a few friends — to be precise, three, and she was found by her new parlor-maid dead in her chair, stabbed to the heart. The weapon has not been found, nor has any trace of the murderer been discovered.”

“Entertained friends,” muttered Mrs. Octagon weeping, “the usual lot. Mr. Hale, Mrs. Herne and Mr. Clancy —”

“Yes,” said Peter, somewhat surprised, “how do you know?”

“My soul, whispered me,” said Mrs. Octagon tragically, and becoming melodramatic again, now that the first shock was over. “One of those three killed her. Who struck the fatal blow? — the villain Hale I doubt not.”

“No,” cried Juliet, “it was not Mr. Hale. He would not harm a fly.”

“Probably not,” said her mother tartly, “a fly has no property — your Aunt Selina had. Oh, my dear,” she added, darting away at a tangent, “to think that last night you and Basil should have been witnesses of a melodrama at the Marlow Theatre, at the very time this real tragedy was taking place in the rural country.”

“It’s a most dreadful affair,” murmured Peter, laying aside the paper. “Had I not better go down to Rose Cottage and offer my services?”

“No,” said Mrs. Octagon sharply, “don’t mix yourself up in this dreadful affair. Few people know that Selina was my sister, and I don’t want everyone to be condoling with me on this tragedy.”

“But we must do something,” said Juliet quickly.

“We will wait, my dear. But I don’t want more publicity than is necessary.”

“But I have told some of our friends that Aunt Selina is a relative.”

“Then you should not have done so,” replied her mother, annoyed. “However, people soon forget names, and the thing may not be noticed.”

“My dear,” said Octagon, seriously, “you should not be ashamed of your sister. She may not have your renown nor rank, still —”

“I know my own knowing,” interrupted the lady rather violently, and crushing her meek husband with a look. “Selina and I are strangers, and have been for years. What are the circumstances of the case? I have not seen Selina for over fifteen years. I hear nothing about her. She suddenly writes to me, asking if my dear children may call and see her — that was a year ago. You insisted that they should go, Peter, because relatives should be friendly. I consented, as I heard from Mr. Hale that Selina was rich, and fancied she might leave her money to my children. Juliet has called several times —”

“More than that,” interrupted Juliet in her turn, “both Basil and I have called nearly every month. We sometimes went and did not tell you, mother, as you seemed so annoyed that we should visit her.”

“I consented only that you might retain her goodwill and get what money she might leave,” said Mrs. Octagon obstinately. “There is nothing in common between Selina and me.”

“There was nothing in common,” put in Octagon softly.

“I know she is dead. You need not remind me of that unpleasant fact, sir. And her death is worthy of her strange, and I fear not altogether reputable life.”

“Oh, mother, how can you? Aunt Selina was the most particular —”

“There — there,” said her mother who was much agitated, “I know more than you do. And between ourselves, I believe I know who killed her. Yes! You may look. And this death, Juliet, ends your engagement with Cuthbert.”

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