The Secret Passage, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 6

A Perplexing Case

The morning after his visit to Lord Caranby, Mallow was unexpectedly called to Devonshire on account of his mother’s illness. Mrs. Mallow was a fretful hypochondriac, who always imagined herself worse than she really was. Cuthbert had often been summoned to her dying bed, only to find that she was alive and well. He expected that this summons would be another false alarm, but being a dutiful son, he tore himself away from town and took the mid-day express to Exeter. As he expected, Mrs. Mallow was by no means so bad as she hinted in her wire, and Cuthbert was vexed that she should have called him down, but she insisted that he should remain, and, unwilling to cause her pain, he did so. It was four days before he returned to London. But his visit to Exeter was not without results, for he asked his mother about Caranby’s romance. Mrs. Mallow knew all about it, and highly disapproved of her brother-inlaw.

“He’s crazy,” she said vigorously, when the subject was brought up one evening. “All his life he has been queer. Your father should have had the title, Cuthbert!”

“Well, I shall have it some day,” said her son soothingly. “Caranby is not likely to marry.”

“Yes, but I’ll never be Lady Caranby,” lamented Mrs. Mallow, who was intensely selfish and egotistical. “And I should have adorned the title. Such an old one as it is, too. But I’m glad that horrid Selina Loach never became his wife. Even that Saul girl would have been better.”

“Don’t speak evil of the dead, mother.”

“I don’t see why we should praise the bad dead,” snapped Mrs. Mallow. “I never liked either Isabella nor Selina. They were both horrid girls and constantly quarrelling. They hardly ever spoke to one another, and how you can contemplate marrying the daughter of Isabella, I really don’t know. Such a slight to me. But there, I’ve said all I had to say on the subject.”

To do her justice, Mrs. Mallow certainly had, and never ceased nagging at Cuthbert to break the engagement. Had she known that Mrs. Octagon had forbidden the marriage she would have rejoiced, but to save making awkward explanations to a woman who would not hold her tongue, Cuthbert said nothing about the breach.

“Did you like Miss Saul, mother?” he asked.

“I only saw her on the concert platform,” said Mrs. Mallow, opening her eyes, “gracious, Cuthbert, I never associated myself with those sort of people. Caranby was infatuated with her. To be sure, he got engaged to spite Selina, and she really did treat him badly, but I believe Miss Saul — such a horrid Hebrew name, isn’t it — hypnotized him. He forgot her almost as soon as she died, in spite of his ridiculous idea of shutting up that house. And such valuable land as there is at Rexton too. Well, I hope this violent death of Selina will be a warning to Caranby. Not that I wish him any harm, in spite of your being next heir to the title, and we do need money.”

While Mrs. Mallow rambled on in this diffusive manner, Cuthbert was thinking. When she ended, “Why should this death be a warning to Caranby?” he asked quickly.

“Good gracious, Cuthbert, don’t get on my nerves. Why? — because I believe that Selina pushed Miss Saul off that plank and killed her. She was just the kind of violent girl who would do a thing like that. And Miss Saul’s relatives have waited all these years to kill Selina, and now she’s dead, they will kill Caranby because he did not marry the wretched girl.”

Cuthbert stared. “Mother, what are you talking about? Caranby told me that Miss Saul had only one brother, and that probably he was dead.”

“Ah,” said Mrs. Mallow, “he didn’t tell you that Miss Saul’s father was arrested for coining or passing false money, I forget which. I believe the brother was involved also, but I can’t be sure. But I only know the girl was dead then, and the Saul family did not move in the matter, as the police knew too much about them.

“Good gracious!” shuddered the lady, “to think if she had lived, Caranby would have married into that family and have cheated you of the title.”

“Are you sure of what you say, mother?”

“Of course I am. Look up any old file of newspapers and you’ll read all about the matter. It’s old history now. But I really won’t talk any more of these things, Cuthbert. If I do, there will be no sleep for me to-night. Oh dear me, such nerves as I have.”

“Did you ever see Miss Saul, mother?”

“I told you I did on the platform. She was a fine, large, big girl, with a hook nose and big black eyes. Rather like Selina and Isabella, for I’m sure they have Jewish blood in their veins. Miss Saul — if that was her real name — might have passed as a relative of those horrid Loach girls.”

“Mrs. Octagon and her sister who died are certainly much alike.”

“Of course they are, and if Miss Saul had lived they would have been a kind of triplets. I hate that style of beauty myself,” said Mrs. Mallow, who was slim and fair, “so coarse. Everyone called those Loach girls pretty, but I never did myself. I never liked them, and I won’t call on Mrs. Octagon — such a vulgar name — if you marry fifty of her wretched daughters, Cuthbert.”

“Don’t say that, mother. Juliet is an angel!”

“Then she can’t be her mother’s daughter,” said Mrs. Mallow obscurely, and finished the discussion in what she considered to be a triumphant manner. Nor would she renew it, though her son tried to learn more about the Loach and Saul families. However, he was satisfied with the knowledge he had acquired.

While returning next day to London, he had ample time to think over what he had been told. Miss Selina Loach had certainly shut herself up for many years in Rose Cottage, and it seemed as though she was afraid of being hurt in some way. Perhaps she even anticipated a violent death. And then Mrs. Octagon hinted that she knew who had killed her sister. It might not have been Caranby after all, whom she meant, but one of the Saul family, as Mrs. Mallow suggested.

“I wonder if it is as my mother thinks,” mused Cuthbert, staring out of the window at the panorama of the landscape moving swiftly past. “Perhaps Selina did kill Miss Saul, and shut herself up to avoid being murdered by one of the relatives. Caranby said that Selina did not go to the inquest, but pretended she was ill. Then she and her sister went to the continent for two years, and finally, when they returned, Selina instead of taking her proper place in society as Isabella did, shut herself up as a recluse in Rose Cottage. The Saul family appear to have been a bad lot. I should like to look up that coining case. I wonder if I dare tell Jennings.”

He was doubtful of the wisdom of doing this. If he told what he knew, and set Jennings on the track, it might be that a scandal would arise implicating Mrs. Octagon. Not that Cuthbert cared much for her, but she was Juliet’s mother, and he wanted to avert any trouble likely to cause the girl pain. A dozen times on the journey Cuthbert altered his mind. First he thought he would tell Jennings, then he decided to hold his peace. This indecision was not like him, but the case was so perplexing, and such serious issues were involved, that the young man felt thoroughly worried.

Hitherto he had seen nothing new about the case in the papers, but on reaching Swindon he bought a few and looked through them. His search was rewarded by finding an article on the crime. The inquest had been held, and the jury had brought in a verdict of “Murder against some person or persons unknown!” But it was plainly stated that the police could not find a clue to the assassin. The article in question did not pretend to solve the mystery, but collocated the facts so as to put the case in a nutshell.

“The facts are these,” said the journal, after a preliminary introduction. “A quiet maiden lady living at Rose Cottage, Rexton, received three friends to a card-party. Difference arising — and such things will arise amongst the best when cards are in question — two of the friends, Mrs. Herne, an old lady and life-long friend of the deceased, and Mr. Hale, a lawyer of repute and the legal adviser of Miss Loach, depart before ten o’clock. In her evidence Mrs. Herne stated that she and Mr. Hale left at half-past nine, and her assertion was corroborated by Mr. Hale himself. Mr. Clancy, the third friend, left at ten, being shown out by the maid Susan Grant, who then returned to the kitchen. She left Miss Loach seated in her usual chair near the fire, and with a pack of cards on her lap. Probably the deceased lady intended to play a game of ‘Patience’!

“The four servants, three women and a man, had their supper. During the supper the man asserted that he heard the front door open, but as Miss Loach was in the habit of walking in the garden before retiring, it was thought that she had gone out to take her usual stroll. Whether the man heard the door open or shut he was not quite sure. However, thinking his mistress was walking in the garden as usual, the man paid no further attention to the incident. At eleven (precisely at eleven, for the kitchen clock struck), the sitting-room bell rang. Susan Grant entered the room, and found Miss Loach seated in her chair exactly as she had left her, even to the fact that the cards were in her lap. But she had been stabbed to the heart with some sharp instrument and was quite dead. The front door was closed and the windows barred.

“Now it is certain that Miss Loach met her death between the hours of ten and eleven. Susan Grant saw her alive at ten, seated in her usual chair with the cards on her lap, and at eleven, she there found her dead, still with the cards. It would seem as though immediately after the servants left the room someone had stabbed the deceased to the heart, before she had time to rise or even alter her position. But Susan Grant asserts that no one was in the room. There was only one door, out of which she departed. The bedroom of Miss Loach on the basement floor had a door which opened into the passage, as did the sitting-room door. No one could have entered until the servant departed. The passage was lighted with electricity, but she did not observe anyone about, nor did she hear a sound. She showed out Mr. Clancy and then returned to the kitchen. Certainly the assassin may have been concealed in the bedroom and have stolen into the sitting-room when Susan Grant was showing out Mr. Clancy. Perhaps then he killed the deceased suddenly, as we said before. He could have then come up the stairs and have escaped while the servants were at supper. It might have been the murderer who opened the door, and was overheard by Thomas.

“The policeman was on duty about ten, as he was seen by Susan Grant when she showed Mr. Clancy to the door. The policeman also asserted that he was again on the spot — i.e., in the roadway opposite the cottage — at eleven. At these times the assassin could not have escaped without being seen. There is no exit at the back, as a high wall running round an unfinished house belonging to the eccentric Lord Caranby blocks the way. Therefore the assassin must have ventured into the roadway. He could then have walked up the lane into the main streets of Rexton, or have taken a path opposite to the gate of Rose Cottage, which leads to the railway station. Probably, after executing the crime, he took this latter way. The path runs between quickset hedges, rather high, for a long distance, past houses, and ends within fifty yards of the railway station. The criminal could take the first train and get to town, there to lose himself in the wilderness of London.

“So far so good. But the strangest thing about this most mysterious affair is that the bell in the sitting-room rang two minutes before Susan Grant entered the room to find her mistress dead. This was some time after the closing of the door overheard by Thomas; therefore the assassin could not have escaped that way. Moreover, by this time the policeman was standing blocking the pathway to the station. Again, the alarm was given immediately by the other servants, who rushed to the sitting-room on hearing Susan’s scream, and the policeman at once searched the house. No one was found.

“Now what are we to make of all this? The doctor declares that Miss Loach when discovered had been dead half an hour, which corresponds with the time the door was heard to open or shut by Thomas. So far, it would seem that the assassin had escaped then, having committed the crime and found the coast inside and outside the house clear for his flight. But who rang the bell? That is the question we ask. The deceased could not have done so, as, according to the doctor, the poor lady must have died immediately. Again, the assassin would not have been so foolish as to ring and thus draw attention to his crime, letting alone the question that he could not have escaped at that late hour. We can only offer this solution.

“The assassin must have been concealed in the bedroom, and after Susan ascended the stairs to let Mr. Clancy out, he must have stolen into the sitting-room and have killed the old lady before she could even rise. She might have touched the bell, and the button (the bell is an electric one) may have got fixed. Later on, the heat of the room, warping the wood round the ivory button, may have caused it to slip out, and thus the bell would have rung. Of course our readers may say that when pressed down the bell would have rung continuously, but an examination has revealed that the wires were out of order. It is not improbable that the sudden release of the button may have touched the wires and have set them ringing. The peal is described as being short and sharp. This theory is a weak one, we are aware, but the whole case is so mysterious that, weak as it is, we can offer no other solution.

“Mrs. Herne, the servants, and Messrs. Hale and Clancy were examined. All insist that Miss Loach was in her usual health and spirits, and had no idea of committing suicide, or of being in any danger of sudden death. The weapon cannot be discovered, nor the means — save as we suggest above — whereby the assassin can have made his escape. The whole affair is one of the most mysterious of late years, and will doubtless be relegated to the list of undiscovered crimes. The police have no clue, and apparently despair of finding one. But the discovery of the mystery lies in the bell. Who rang it? or did it ring of itself, as we suggest above.”

Cuthbert laid down the paper with a shrug. The article did not commend itself to him, save as the means of making a precis of the case. The theory of the bell appeared excessively weak, and he could not understand a man being so foolish as to put it forward.

“If the button was pressed down by Miss Loach, the bell would have rung at once,” argued Cuthbert; “and when it slipped up, even with the heat, the ringing would have stopped. But the bell rang at eleven, and the girl was in the room two minutes later. Someone must have rung it. But why did someone do this, and how did someone escape after ringing in so fool-hardy a manner?”

He could not find an answer to this question. The whole case was indeed most perplexing. There seemed absolutely no answer to the riddle. Even supposing Miss Loach had been murdered out of a long-delayed revenge by a member of the Saul family — and that theory appeared ridiculous to Mallow — the question was how did the assassin escape? Certainly, having regard to the cards still being on the lap of the deceased, and the closing of the door at a time when the policeman was not in the vicinity, the assassin may have escaped in that way. But how did he come to be hidden in the bedroom, and how did he kill the old lady before she had time to call out or even rise, seeing that he had the whole length of the room to cross before reaching her? And again, the escape of the assassin at this hour did not explain the ringing of the bell. Cuthbert was deeply interested, and wondered if the mystery would ever be solved. “I must see Jennings after all,” he thought as the train steamed into Paddington.

And see Jennings he did, sooner than he expected. That same evening when he was dressing to go out, a card was brought. It was inscribed “Miles Jennings.” Rather surprised that the detective should seek him out so promptly, Cuthbert entered his sitting-room. Jennings, who was standing with his back to the window, saluted him with a pleasant smile, and spoke to him as to an equal. Of course he had every right to do so since he had been at school with Mallow, but somehow the familiarity irritated Cuthbert.

“Well, Jennings, what is it?”

“I came to ask you a few questions, Mallow.”

“About what?”

“About the murder at Rose Cottage.”

“But, my dear fellow, I know nothing about it.”

“You knew Miss Loach?”

“Yes. I saw her once or twice. But I did not like her.”

“She is the aunt of the young lady you are engaged to marry?”

Mallow drew himself up stiffly. “As a matter of fact she is,” he said with marked coldness. “But I don’t see —”

“You will in a minute,” said Jennings briskly. “Pardon me, but are you in love with another woman?”

Mallow grew red. “What the devil do you mean by coming here to ask me such a question?” he demanded.

“Gently, Mallow, I am your friend, and you may need one.”

“What do you mean. Do you accuse me of —”

“I accuse you of nothing,” said Jennings quickly, “but I ask you, why did you give this photograph, with an inscription, to the servant of the murdered woman.”

“I recognize my photograph, but the servant —”

“Susan Grant. The picture was found in her possession. She refuses to speak,” here the detective spoke lower, “in case you get into trouble with the police.”

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