The Secret Passage, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 4

Details

What Mrs. Octagon meant by her last enigmatic remark it is impossible to say. After delivering it in her usual dramatic manner, she swept from the room, leaving Juliet and her step-father staring at one another. Peter was the first to break the silence.

“Your mother appears to be very positive,” said he.

“About my giving up Cuthbert?” asked Juliet sharply.

“About the crime. She hinted that she guessed who killed the poor lady. I never knew Miss Loach myself,” added Mr. Octagon, seating himself and ruffling his scanty locks, a habit with him when perplexed, “but you said you liked her.”

“Yes, Aunt Selina was always very nice to me. She had strange ways, and, to tell you the truth, father,” Juliet always addressed Peter thus, to his great delight, “she was not so refined as mother —”

“Few people are so refined as my wife, my dear.”

“As to mother knowing who killed her,” pursued Juliet, taking no notice of this interpolation, “it’s nonsense. She said she believed Mr. Hale or Mr. Clancy —”

“Surely not,” interposed Mr. Octagon anxiously, “both these gentlemen have participated in the delights of our literary Circle, and I should be loath to credit them with violence.”

“I don’t believe either has anything to do with the matter. Mother doesn’t like them because they were such good friends to Aunt Selina. Can you guess why mother quarrelled with aunt, father?”

“No, my dear. Your mother has some grudge against her. What it is I do not know. She never told me. But for over fifteen years your mother spoke little of your aunt and never called to see her. I was quite astonished when she consented that you and Basil should call. Did your aunt ever speak of your mother?”

“Very little, and then she was cautious — what she said. But this is not the question,” continued the girl, leaning her chin on her hand and staring into the fire; “why does mother say I must break my engagement with Cuthbert on account of this death?”

“Perhaps she will explain.”

“No; she left the room to avoid an explanation. Cuthbert certainly saw Aunt Selina once or twice, but he did not care for her. But he can have nothing to do with the matter. Then again, mother, up till now, was always pleased that I should marry Cuthbert.”

“Yes,” said Octagon, twiddling his thumbs; “she has known Mr. Mallow ever since he was a child. Both your aunt and your mother were great friends of Lord Caranby’s in their youth, over twenty years ago. I believe at one time Selina was engaged to him, but he was in love with a young lady called Miss Saul, who died unexpectedly.”

“I know,” said Juliet; “and then Lord Caranby abandoned the house he was building at Rexton, and it has been shut up all these years. Aunt Selina told me the story. When I asked mother for details, she refused to speak.”

“Your mother is very firm when she likes.”

“Very obstinate, you mean,” said Juliet, undutifully. “However, I am not going to give up Cuthbert. I love him and he loves me. I intend to marry him whatever mother may say.”

“But if your mother refuses her consent?”

“I am over age.”

As she spoke her brother entered the room hurriedly. Basil Saxon was as fair and weak-looking as his sister was dark and strong in appearance. He was smartly dressed, and in a rather affected way. His hair was long, he wore a moustache and a short imperial, and talked in a languid way in a somewhat obscure manner. These were the traits Juliet disliked in Basil. She would rather have seen him a spruce well-groomed man about town like Cuthbert. But at the present moment Basil’s face was flushed, and he spoke hurriedly, evidently laboring under great stress of emotion.

“Have you heard the news?” he said, dropping into a chair and casting a side look at the evening paper which Peter still held.

“If you mean about the death —”

“Yes; Aunt Selina has been murdered. I called to see her this morning, and found the house in the possession of the police. All day I have been down there with Mallow.”

“With Cuthbert,” said Juliet, starting and growing red. “What was he doing there?”

“He came down to Rexton to see about the unfinished house. Lord Caranby has returned to England, and he has thoughts of pulling it down. Mallow came to have a look at the place.”

“But he can’t get in. There is a wall round the grounds.”

“He climbed over the wall,” said Basil, quickly, “and after looking through the house he came out. Then he saw me, and I told him what had happened. He appeared dreadfully shocked.”

Juliet shivered in spite of the heat of the day and the fire, near which she was seated. “It is strange he should have been there.”

Her brother threw a keen glance at her. “I don’t see that!” he exclaimed. “He gave his reason for being in the neighborhood. He came up with me, and is coming on here in a few moments. This is why he did not turn up this afternoon.”

Juliet nodded and appeared satisfied with this explanation. But she kept her eyes on her brother when he entered into details about the crime. Her emotions during the recital betrayed themselves markedly.

“I saw the detective,” said Basil, with quicker speech than usual. “He is a first-rate chap called Jennings, and when he heard I was Miss Loach’s nephew he didn’t mind speaking freely.”

“What did you learn?” asked Mr. Octagon.

“Enough to make the mystery surrounding the death deeper than ever.”

“What do you mean?” asked his sister, restlessly. “Can’t the murderer be found?”

“Not a trace of him can be discovered.”

“Why do you say ‘him.’ It might have been a woman.”

“No,” rejoined Basil positively, “no woman could have struck so hard a blow. Aunt Selina was stabbed to the heart. She must have been killed as she was rising from her chair, and death, so the doctor says, must have been instantaneous.”

“Has the weapon been found?” asked Juliet in a low voice.

Basil turned quickly in his chair, and looked at her sharply. “No!” he said, “not a sign of any weapon can be found, nor can it be discovered how anyone got into the house. Though to be sure, she might have admitted her visitor.”

“Explain! explain,” cried Mr. Octagon, ruffling his hair.

“Well, to tell the story in detail,” said his step-son, “the way it happened is this. Aunt Selina had Mr. Hale and Mr. Clancy and Mrs. Herne to their usual game of whist. Clancy, as it appears from the report of what the new parlor-maid overheard, quarrelled with Hale and Mrs. Herne. They left before ten o’clock. At all events, when she entered the room in answer to my aunt’s summons, she found only Mr. Clancy, and aunt was scolding him for having provoked Mrs. Herne by contradicting her. Apparently Mrs. Herne had gone away under the wing of Hale. Then aunt sent Clancy away at ten o’clock. The parlor-maid returned to the kitchen and there had supper. She heard the bell ring at eleven, and found aunt dead in the sitting-room, stabbed to the heart.”

“Heard the bell ring?” echoed Juliet. “But how could aunt ring if she had been killed?”

“She might have rung as she was dying,” said Basil, after a pause. “It seems she was seated near the button of the bell and could have touched it without rising. She might have rung with a last effort, and then have died before the parlor-maid could get to the room.”

“Or else,” said Mr. Octagon, anxious to prove his perspicuity, “the assassin may have stabbed her and then have touched the bell.”

“What!” cried his step-son derisively, “to summon a witness. I don’t think the assassin would be such a fool. However, that’s all that can be discovered. Aunt Selina is dead, and no one knows who killed her.”

“Was the house locked up?” “The front door was closed, and the windows were bolted and barred. Besides, a policeman was walking down Crooked Lane a few minutes before eleven, and would have seen anyone leaving the house. He reported that all was quiet.”

“Then the assassin might have rung the bell at eleven,” said Peter.

“Certainly not, for he could never have escaped immediately afterwards, without the policeman seeing him.”

“He might have got out by the back,” suggested Juliet.

“My dear girl, what are you thinking of. That wall round Lord Caranby’s mansion blocks any exit at the back. Anyone leaving the house must go up the lane or through that part at the bottom. The policeman was near there shortly before eleven and saw no one leaving the house.”

“But, look here,” said Mr. Octagon, who had been ruminating; “if, as the doctor says, death was instantaneous, how could your aunt have rung the bell?”

“Yes,” added Juliet. “And even had death not taken place at once, it could not have been more than a few minutes before eleven when the blow was struck. Aunt might have had strength to crawl to the bell and touch it, but the assassin could not have escaped from the house, seeing — as you say — the policeman was on guard.”

“Aunt died instantaneously,” insisted Basil.

“Then she could not have sounded the bell,” said Juliet triumphantly.

“The assassin did that,” said Peter.

“And thus called a witness,” cried Basil. “Ridiculous!”

“Then how do you explain the matter?”

“I can’t explain. Neither can the detective Jennings. It’s a mystery.”

“Could any of the servants —” began Peter.

“No,” interrupted Saxon. “The four servants were having supper in the kitchen. They are innocent. Well, we’ll see what the inquest reveals. Something may be found before then likely to elucidate the mystery. But here comes Mallow. He questioned Jennings also, so you can question him if you like. Does mother know?”

“Yes. And she doesn’t want the fact of her relationship to your aunt talked about.”

Basil understood at once. “No wonder,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “It is not a pleasant affair for a woman of mother’s celebrity to be mixed up with.”

Meantime, Juliet having heard the ring at the front door, escaped from the room to see her lover. She met him divesting himself of his overcoat in the hall, and ran to him with outstretched hands. “But why have you got on an overcoat this warm day?” she asked.

“I have a cold. I caught one last night,” said Cuthbert, kissing her.

“Where were you last night?” asked Juliet, drawing him into a side room. “I thought you were coming to the Marlow Theatre with Basil and me.”

“Yes. But my uncle arrived unexpectedly in England and sent for me to his hotel in Guelph street — the Avon Hotel, you know. He will insist on a fire even in June, and the room was so hot that I caught cold when I came out. I had to go down to Rexton today on his business, and put on a coat so as to avoid catching further cold. But why this room, Juliet?”

“Father and Basil are in the drawing-room. They are talking of the murder, and I don’t want to hear any more about it.”

“There are pleasanter things to talk about,” said Mallow. “I knew Basil would come crammed with news. Has he told you —”

“He told us everything he could gather from the detective. It seems that the crime is quite a mystery.”

“Quite. Why your aunt should be killed, or how the assassin escaped, after killing her, cannot be discovered. Jennings is in high glee about it. He loves a puzzle of this sort.”

“Do you know him?” asked Juliet anxiously.

“Oh, yes. Jennings is a gentleman. He was at Eton with me. But he ran through his money and took up the detective business. He is very clever, and if anyone will learn the truth, he will. Now, my theory —”

Juliet put her hand over his mouth. “Don’t,” she said. “I have had enough horrors for this afternoon. Let us talk of ourselves.”

“I would rather do this,” said Mallow, and kissed her.

Mallow was a handsome fellow, tall and slim, with a rather military carriage. His face was clean-shaven save for a small straw-colored moustache, which showed up almost white against the bronze of his face. He was more of an athlete than a student, and this was one reason why Juliet was fond of him. She had seen so much of literary circles that she always vowed she would marry a man who never opened a book. Cuthbert nearly fulfilled this requirement, as he read little, save novels and newspapers. He was well known in sporting circles, and having a good private income, owned race-horses. He was always irreproachably dressed, good-humored and cheerful. Consequently he was popular, and if not overburdened with brains, managed to make himself agreeable to the world, and to have what the Americans call “a good time.” He had travelled much and was fond of big-game shooting. To complete his characterization, it is necessary to mention that he had served in the Boer War, and had gained a D.S.O. But that was in the days before he met Juliet or he might not have risked a life so precious to her.

Juliet was dark and rather little, not at all like her Junoesque mother. She was extremely pretty and dressed to perfection. Having more brains and a stronger will than Mallow, she guided him in every way, and had already succeeded in improving his morals. With so gentle and charming a mentor, Cuthbert was quite willing to be led into the paths of virtue. He adored Juliet and she loved him, so it appeared that the marriage would be quite ideal.

“Much as we love one another,” said Cuthbert when the lovers were seated on the sofa. “I wonder you can talk of anything but this horrid murder.”

“Because there is nothing to talk of,” rejoined the girl impatiently; “according to Basil, the case is most mysterious, so it is useless for us to worry over it until something tangible is discovered. But I want to speak to you seriously —” here Juliet hesitated.

“Well, go on,” said Cuthbert, taking her hand.

“Mother says —” began Juliet, then hesitated again. “Promise me you will keep to yourself what I am about to tell you.”

“Certainly. I never was a fellow to chatter.”

“Then mother says that this murder will put a stop to our marriage.”

Mallow stared, then flushed up to his ears. “What on earth does she mean by that?” he asked aghast.

Juliet looked searchingly at him. “Do you know of any impediment?”

“I? Of course I don’t. I am sorry for the death of your aunt, but I really don’t see what it has to do with you and me.”

Juliet drew a breath of relief. “Mother hints that she knows who committed the crime, and —”

“What! She knows. How does she know?”

“I can’t say. She refuses to speak. She was not on good terms with Aunt Selina and they never saw one another for over fifteen years. But mother is much disturbed about the murder —”

“That is natural. A sister is a sister however much one may have quarrelled. But why should this death stop our marriage?”

“I know no more than you do. Here is mother. Ask her yourself.”

It was indeed Mrs. Octagon who entered the room. She looked very pale, but otherwise was perfectly composed. In silence she gave her hand to Cuthbert, and kept her black eyes fixed steadily on his face. The young man flushed and turned away, whereat Mrs. Octagon sighed. Juliet broke an embarrassed silence.

“Mother,” she said, “I have told Cuthbert what you said.”

“Then you had no right to,” said Mrs. Octagon sternly.

“Oh, I think she had,” said Mallow, rather annoyed. “Seeing you hint that this crime will stop our marriage.”

Mrs. Octagon did not answer. “Is your uncle in town?” she asked.

“Yes. He arrived from the continent a day or two ago.”

“I thought so,” she said, half to herself, and strove to repress her agitation. “Mr. Mallow, my daughter can’t marry you.”

“Why not? Give your reason.”

“I have no reason to give.”

“But you must. Is it on account of this murder?”

“It is. I told Juliet so. But I cannot explain.”

The lovers looked at one another in a dazed fashion. The woman’s objection seemed to be senseless. “Surely you don’t think Cuthbert killed Aunt Selina?” said Juliet, laughing in a forced manner.

“No. I don’t suspect him.”

“Then whom do you suspect?” demanded Mallow.

“That I decline to say.”

“Will you decline to say it to the police?”

Mrs. Octagon stepped back a pace. “Yes, I should,” she faltered.

Cuthbert Mallow looked at her, wondering why she was so agitated, and Juliet stole her hand into his. Then he addressed her seriously.

“Mrs. Octagon,” he said, “your remark about my uncle leads me to think you suspect him.”

“No I don’t. But you can’t marry Juliet on account of this crime.”

“Then you hear me,” said Mallow, driven into a corner, “from this moment I devote myself to finding out who killed your unfortunate sister. When the assassin is discovered you may consent to our marriage.”

But he spoke to empty air. Mrs. Octagon had left the room, almost before the first words left his mouth.

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