The Secret Passage, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 5

Lord Caranby’s Romance

Cuthbert was considerably perplexed by the attitude of Juliet’s mother. She had always been more than kind to him. On the announcement that he wished to marry her daughter, she had expressed herself well pleased, and during the engagement, which had lasted some six months, she had received him as Juliet’s intended husband, with almost ostentatious delight. Now, for some inexplicable reason, she suddenly changed her mind and declined to explain. But rack his brains as he might, Cuthbert could not see how the death of a sister she had quarrelled with, and to whom she had been a stranger for so long, could affect the engagement.

However, there was no doubt in his mind that the refusal of Mrs. Octagon to approve of the marriage lay in the fact that her sister had met with a violent end. Therefore Mallow was determined to see Jennings, and help him to the best of his ability to discover the assassin. When the criminal was brought to justice, either Mrs. Octagon’s opposition would be at an end, or the true reason for its existence would be revealed. Meantime, he was sure that she would keep Juliet out of his way, and that in future he would be refused admittance to the “Shrine of the Muses.” This was annoying, but so long as Juliet remained true, Cuthbert thought he could bear the exclusion. His betrothed — as he still regarded the girl — could meet him in the Park, at the houses of mutual friends, and in a thousand and one places which a clever woman like her could think of. And although Cuthbert knew that Mrs. Octagon had frequently regretted the refusal of her daughter to marry Arkwright, and would probably try and induce her to do so now that matters stood thus, yet he was not afraid in his own heart. Juliet was as staunch as steel, and he was certain that Mr. Octagon would be on his side. Basil probably would agree with his mother, whose lead he slavishly followed. But Mallow had rather a contempt for Basil, and did not count his opposition as dangerous.

On leaving the “Shrine of the Muses,” the young man’s first intention was to seek out Jennings and see what progress he was making in the matter. But on reflection he thought he would call again on his uncle and question him regarding his knowledge of Mrs. Octagon. It seemed to Cuthbert that, from the woman’s question as to whether Lord Caranby had returned from abroad, and her remark on hearing that he had, some suspicion was in her mind as to his being concerned in the crime. Yet, beyond the fact that the unfinished house stood behind the cottage where the crime had been committed and belonged to Lord Caranby who had known the dead woman in the past, Cuthbert could not see how Mrs. Octagon could constitute a latter-day connection between her dead sister and her old friend. But Lord Caranby might be induced to talk — no easy matter — and from what he said, the mystery of Mr. Octagon’s attitude might be elucidated. Only in the past — so far as the perplexed young man could conjecture — could be found the reason for her sudden change of front.

Cuthbert therefore sent a wire to his uncle, stating that he wished to see him after eight o’clock on special business, and then went home to dress.

While thus employed, he thought over means and ways to make Caranby open his mouth. The old lord was a silent, grave man, who never uttered an unnecessary word, and it was difficult to induce him to be confidential. But invariably he had approved of his nephew’s engagement, although he had never seen Juliet, so it might be that he would speak out — if there was anything to say — in order to remove any impediment to the match. It depended upon what information he received as to how Mallow would act.

At half-past eight he drove to the Avon Hotel and was shown up at once to his uncle’s sitting-room. That he should live in an hotel was another of Caranby’s eccentricities. He had a house in town and three in the country, yet for years he had lived — as the saying is — on his portmanteau. Even the villa at Nice he owned was unoccupied by this strange nobleman, and was usually let to rich Americans. When in England he stopped at the Avon Hotel and when in the country remained at any inn of the neighborhood in which he might chance to find himself wandering. And wandering is an excellent word to apply to Lord Caranby’s peregrinations. He was as restless as a gipsy and far more aimless. He never appeared to take an interest in anything: he was always moving here, there and everywhere, and had — so far as Cuthbert knew — no object in life. His reason for this Cainlike behavior, Caranby never condescended to explain.

When his nephew entered the room, looking smart and handsome in his accurate evening suit, Caranby, who was seated near the fire, stood up courteously to welcome him, leaning on his cane. He suffered from sciatica, and could not walk save with the assistance of his stick. And on this account also, he always insisted on the room being heated to an extraordinary degree. Like a salamander he basked in the heat, and would not allow either door or window to be opened, even in the midst of summer, when a large fire made the apartment almost unendurable. Cuthbert felt as though he were walking into a Turkish bath, and sat as far away from the fire as he could. After saluting him, his uncle sank back into his seat and looked at him inquiringly.

Lord Caranby was tall and thin — almost emaciated — with a lean, sallow, clean-shaven face, and a scanty crop of fair hair mixed with gray. His eyes were sunken but full of vitality, although usually they were grave and somewhat sad. His hands were deformed with gout, but for all that he wore several costly rings. He was perfectly dressed, and as quiet and composed as an artist’s model. When he spoke it was in an unemotional way, as though he had exhausted all expression of his feelings early in life. Perhaps he had, for from what Cuthbert had heard from his uncle, the past of that nobleman was not without excitement. But Caranby’s name was rarely mentioned in London. He remained so much abroad that he had quite dropped out of the circle to the entry of which his rank entitled him. His age was sixty-five.

“You are surprised at seeing me again to-night,” said Cuthbert.

“I am never surprised at anything,” replied his uncle dryly, “but we exhausted all we had to say to one another before eight o’clock last night, at which time you left. I therefore don’t know why you have come this evening. Our conversation is bound to be dull, and — excuse me — I can’t afford to be bored at my age.”

“I cannot say that our conversation was particularly agreeable last night,” rejoined Mallow, equally dryly, “we talked business and money matters, and about your will.”

“And about your engagement also,” said Caranby without a vestige of a smile. “That should interest a young man of your ardent temperament. I certainly thought the subject amused you.”

“Would you be surprised to learn that my engagement has been broken off since our conversation,” said Cuthbert, crossing his legs.

“No! Who can account for the whims of a woman. After all, perhaps you are to be congratulated on not marrying a weathercock.”

“Juliet has nothing to do with the breaking of our engagement. Her mother objects.”

“I understood for the last six months that her mother not only approved, but was delighted.”

“That is the strange part, sir. On hearing of the death of her sister, Mrs. Octagon suddenly changed her mind, and told me that the marriage could not take place.”

“Did she give any reason?”

“She declined to do so.”

“The same woman,” muttered Caranby, “always mysterious and unsatisfactory. You say her sister is dead?”

Cuthbert cast a look at the Globe, which lay on a small table near Caranby’s elbow. “If you have read the papers, sir —” “Yes! I have read that Miss Loach has been murdered. You went down to Rexton today. I presume you heard something more than the details set forth by the press.”

Cuthbert nodded. “It appears to be a mystery.”

Caranby did not reply, but looked into the fire. “Poor Selina!” he said half to himself. “A sad end for such a charming woman.”

“I should hardly apply that word to Miss Loach, sir. She did not appear to be a lady, and was by no means refined.”

“She must have changed then. In her young days she and her sister were the handsomest women in London.”

“I believe you were engaged to one of them,” said Mallow politely.

“Yes,” replied his uncle grimly. “But I escaped.”

“Escaped?”

“A strange word is it not, but a suitable one.”

Cuthbert did not know what to make of this speech. “Have I your permission to smoke?” he asked, taking out his case.

“Yes! Will you have some coffee?”

“Thank you. I had some before I came here. Will you —” he extended the case of cigarettes, which Caranby declined.

“Ring for Fletcher to get me my chibouque.”

“It is in the corner. We will dispense with Fletcher with your permission.” And Cuthbert brought the chibouque to his uncle’s side. In another minute the old man was smoking as gravely as any Turk. This method of consuming tobacco was another eccentricity. For a few moments neither spoke. Then Caranby broke the silence.

“So you want me to help you to find out Mrs. Octagon’s reason?”

“I do,” said Mallow, rather surprised by Caranby’s perspicuity.

“What makes you think I can explain?”

Cuthbert looked at his cigarette. “I asked you on the chance that you may be able to do so,” he said gravely. “The fact is, to be frank, Mrs. Octagon appears to think you might have something to do with the crime.”

Caranby did not seem surprised, but smoked imperturbably. “I don’t quite understand.”

The young man related how Mrs. Octagon had inquired if the Earl was back from the Continent, and her subsequent remark. “Of course I may be unduly suspicious,” said he. “But it suggested —”

“Quite so,” interrupted the old gentleman gravely. “You are quick at putting two and two together. Isabella Octagon hates me so much that she would gladly see me on the scaffold. I am not astonished that she suspects me.”

“But what motive can she impute —”

Caranby laid aside the long coil he was holding and laughed quietly to himself. “Oh, she’ll find a motive if it suits her. But what I cannot understand is, why she should accuse me now. She has had ample opportunity during the past twenty years, since the death of Miss Saul, for instance.”

“She did not exactly accuse you.”

“No, a woman like that would not. And then of course, her sister dying only last night affords her the opportunity of getting me into trouble. But I am afraid Mrs. Octagon will be disappointed of her revenge, long though she has waited.”

“Revenge! remember, sir, she is the mother of Juliet.”

“I sincerely hope Juliet does not take after her, then,” said Lord Caranby, tartly. “To be perfectly plain with you, Cuthbert, I could never understand why Mrs. Octagon sanctioned your engagement with her daughter, considering you are my nephew.”

“I don’t understand,” said Mallow, staring and uneasily.

Caranby did not answer immediately. He rose and walked painfully up and down the room leaning heavily on his cane. Mallow offered his arm but was impatiently waved aside. When the old man sat down again he turned a serious face to his nephew. “Do you love this girl?”

“With all my heart and soul.”

“And she loves you?”

“Of course. We were made for one another.”

“But Mrs. Octagon —”

“I don’t like Mrs. Octagon — I never did,” said Mallow, impetuously, “but I don’t care two straws for her opposition. I shall marry Juliet in spite of this revenge she seems to be practising on you. Though why she should hope to vex you by meddling with my marriage, I cannot understand.”

“I can put the matter in a nutshell,” said Caranby, and quoted Congreve —

    “‘Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned
      Nor Hell a fury like a woman scorned.’”

“Oh,” said Mallow, dropping his cigarette, and a whole story was revealed to him in the quotation.

“A gentleman doesn’t talk of these things,” said Caranby abruptly, “and for years I have held my tongue. Still, as Mrs. Octagon does not hesitate to strike at me through you, and as your happiness is at stake, and the happiness of the girl you love, I shall tell you — so far as I can guess — why the woman behaves in this way.”

“If you please, sir,” and Cuthbert settled himself to listen.

“About twenty years ago,” said Caranby, plunging headfirst into his subject, “Isabella and Selina Loach were well-known in society. They were the daughters of a country squire — Kent, I remember — and created a sensation with their beauty when they came to town. I fell in love with Selina, and Isabella — if you will pardon my vanity — fell in love with me. She hated her sister on my account. I would have married Selina, but her father, who was hard up, wished her to marry a wealthy American. Isabella, to part Selina from me, helped her father. What arguments they used I do not know, but Selina suddenly changed in her manner towards me. Out of pique — you may think this weak of me, Cuthbert, but I was a fool in those days — I became engaged to a girl who was a singer. Her name was Emilia Saul, and I believe she was of Jewish extraction. I liked her in a way, and she had a wonderful power over me. I proposed and was accepted.”

“But if you had really loved Miss Loach —”

“I should have worn the willow. I told you I was foolish, and, moreover, Miss Saul fascinated me. Selina was cold, Emilia was charming, and I was weak. Therefore, I became engaged to Emilia, and Selina — as I heard, arranged to marry her wealthy American. I believe she was angry at my apparently forgetting her so soon. But she was in fault, not I.”

Cuthbert looked at his smart shoes. “Had I loved Selina,” said he slowly, “I should have remained true to her, and have married her in spite of the objection of her father —”

“And of her sister Isabella — Mrs. Octagon that is; don’t forget that, Cuthbert. And I could scarcely run away with a girl who believed stories about me.”

“What sort of stories?” asked Mallow, remembering certain rumors.

“The sort that one always does tell of an unmarried man,” retorted Caranby. “Scandalous stories, which Isabella picked up and retailed to Selina. But I never pretended to be a saint, and had Selina really loved me she would have overlooked certain faults. I did love her, Cuthbert. I did all in my power to prove my love. For a time I was engaged to her, and when she expressed a wish that I should build her a house after her own design, I consented.”

“The house at Rexton!” exclaimed the young man.

“Exactly. I got an architect to build it according to designs suggested by Selina. When our engagement was broken and I became — out of pique, remember — engaged to Miss Saul, I still went on building the house. Selina, I believe, was very angry. One week when I was out of London she went down with her sister to see the house, and there met Emilia.”

“Ah! then there was trouble?”

“No; there was no time for a quarrel, if that is what you mean. When the three met, Emilia was walking across a plank on the unfinished second story. On seeing the Loach girls — this is Isabella’s tale — Emilia lost her footing and fell thirty feet. She was killed almost instantaneously, and her face was much disfigured. This took place during the dinner hour when the workmen were absent. When they returned, the body was found and recognized by the clothes.”

“Did not the girls remain?”

“No. They took fright at the accident and returned home. But here a fresh disaster awaited them. Mr. Loach was dead. He died suddenly of heart disease. Selina at once broke her engagement with the American, and —”

“And returned to you?”

“Strangely enough she did not. I never saw her again. After the death of the father the girls went to the Continent, and only came back after two years abroad. Then Isabella, after vainly trying to get me to marry her, became the wife of Saxon, then a rising barrister. Selina went to Rexton and shut herself up in the house she now has.”

“The house she did have,” corrected Cuthbert, “you forget she is dead.”

“Yes. I tried to see her, but she refused to look on my face again, alleging that I had treated her badly by becoming engaged to Miss Saul. That poor soul was buried, and then I shut up the house and left it as it is now. I travelled, as you know, for years, and I am travelling still, for the matter of that,” added Caranby with a sigh, “all Selina’s fault. She was the only woman I ever loved.”

“But was there not an inquest held on Emilia’s body?”

“Oh yes, and Isabella gave evidence as to the accident. Selina was too ill to appear. But there was no need. The cause of the death was plain enough. Moreover, Emilia had no relatives who cared to make inquiries. She left very little money, so those she had, did not trouble themselves.”

“It is a strange story,” said Cuthbert, looking puzzled. “Had you an idea that Emilia may have been pushed off the plank by Selina?”

“Certainly not,” rejoined Caranby indignantly. “She was a good and kind girl. She would not do such a thing.”

“Humph!” said Mallow, remembering the eagle nose and thin lips of Miss Loach. “I’m not so sure of that.”

“Isabella, who was passionate, might have done it,” resumed Caranby, “often did I wish to speak to her on the subject, but I never did. And after all, the jury brought in a verdict of accidental death, so there was no use making trouble.”

“Had Emilia no relatives who might have made inquiries?”

“I believe she had a brother who was a clerk in an office, but, as I said, she left no money, so he did not bother himself. I saw him after the death, and the sight of him made me glad I had not married his sister. He looked a thorough blackguard, sly and dangerous. But, as I said, Emilia came of low people. It was only her fine voice and great talents that brought her into the society where I met her. I have never heard of her brother since. I expect he is dead by this time. It is over twenty years ago. But you can now understand why Mrs. Octagon objects to the marriage. She has never forgiven me for not making her my wife.”

Cuthbert nodded again. “But I can’t understand why she should have consented at all, only to alter her mind when Selina died.”

“I can’t understand that myself. But I decline to mix myself up in the matter. You will have to learn the reason yourself.”

“I intend to,” said Mallow rising, “and the reason I am certain is connected with the violent death of her sister!” A speech to which Caranby replied by shaking his head. He did not agree with the idea.

“And you see, in spite of Mrs. Octagon’s hint, I had no reason to kill Selina,” said Caranby gravely. “I cannot understand why Isabella should accuse me —”

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