The Secret Passage, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 7

The Detective

The two men looked at one another, Jennings searchingly, and Cuthbert with a look of mingled amazement and indignation. They were rather like in looks, both being tall, slim and fair-haired. But Mallow wore a mustache, whereas the detective, possibly for the sake of disguising himself on occasions, was clean-shaven. But although Jennings’ profession was scarcely that of a gentleman, he looked well-bred, and was dressed with the same quiet taste and refinement as characterized Mallow. The public-school stamp was on both, and they might have been a couple of young men about town discussing sport rather than an officer of the law and a man who (it seemed from Jennings’ hints) was suspected of complicity in a crime.

“Do you mean this for a jest?” said Cuthbert at length.

“I never jest on matters connected with my profession, Mallow. It is too serious a one.”

“Naturally. It so often involves the issues of life and death.”

“In this case I hope it does not,” said Jennings, significantly.

Cuthbert, who was recovering his composure, sat down with a shrug. “I assure you, you have found a mare’s nest this time. Whatever my follies may have been, I am not a criminal.”

“I never thought you were,” rejoined the other, also taking a seat, “but you may have become involved with people who are criminals.”

“I dare say half of those one meets in society are worthy of jail, did one know what is done under the rose,” returned Cuthbert; “by the way, how did you come so opportunely?”

“I knew you had gone out of town, as I came a few days ago to see you about this matter, and inquired. Your servant said you were in Devonshire —”

“I went to see my mother who was ill,” said Mallow quickly.

“I guessed as much. You said something about your mother living in Exeter when we met last. Well, I had Paddington watch for your return, and my messenger —”

“Your spy, you mean,” said Mallow angrily.

“Certainly, if you prefer the term. Well, your spy — I mean my spy, reported that you were back, so I came on here. Are you going out?”

“I was, but if you wish to arrest me —”

“Nonsense, man. I have only come to have a quiet chat with you. Believe me, I wish you well. I have not forgotten the old Eton days.”

“I tell you what, Jennings, I won’t stand this talk from any man. Are you here as a gentleman or as a detective?”

“As both, I hope,” replied the other dryly, “but are we not wasting valuable time? If you wish to go out this evening, the sooner we get to business the better. Will you answer my questions?”

“I must know what they are first,” said Cuthbert defiantly.

Jennings looked irritated. “If you won’t treat me properly, I may as well leave the matter alone,” he said coldly. “My position is quite unpleasant enough as it is. I came here to an old schoolfellow as a friend —”

“To try and implicate him in a crime. Thanks for nothing.”

Jennings, whose patience appeared to be exhausted, rose. “Very well, then, Mallow. I shall go away and hand over the matter to someone else. I assure you the questions must be answered.”

Cuthbert made a sign to the other to be seated, which Jennings seemed by no means inclined to obey. He stood stiffly by his chair as Mallow paced the room reflectively. “After all, I don’t see why we should quarrel,” said the latter at length.

“That’s just what I’ve been driving at for the last ten minutes.”

“Very good,” said Mallow soothingly, “let us sit down and smoke. I have no particular engagement, and if you will have some coffee —”

“I will have both cigarette and coffee if you will help me to unravel this case,” said Jennings, sitting down with a smoother brow.

“But I don’t see what I can —”

“You’ll see shortly. Will you be open with me?”

“That requires reflection.”

“Reflect as long as you like. But if you decline, I will hand the case over to the next man on the Scotland Yard list. He may not deal with you so gently.”

“I don’t care how he deals with me,” returned Mallow, haughtily; “having done no wrong, I am not afraid. And, what is more, Jennings, I was coming to see you as soon as I returned. You have only forestalled our interview.”

“What did you wish to see me about?”

“This case,” said Cuthbert, getting out a box of cigarettes and touching the bell. “The deuce!” said Jennings briskly, “then you do know something?”

Cuthbert handed him the box and gave an order for coffee. “Any liqueur?” he asked in friendly tones.

“No. I never drink when on — ah — er — pleasure,” said the other, substituting another word since the servant was in the room. “Well,” he asked when the door closed, “why did you wish to see me?”

“To ask if you remember a coining case that took place some twenty years ago?”

“No. That was before my time. What case is it?”

“Some people called Saul were mixed up in it.”

“Humph! Never heard of them,” said Jennings, lighting his cigarette, “but it is strange you should talk of coining. I and several other fellows are looking for a set of coiners now. There are a lot of false coins circulating, and they are marvellously made. If I can only lay my hands on the coiners and their factory, there will be a sensation.”

“And your reputation will be enhanced.”

“I hope so,” replied the detective, reddening. “I want a rise in my salary, as I wish to marry. By the way, how is Miss Saxon?”

“Very well. You met her, did you not?”

“Yes! You took me to that queer house. What do they call it? the —‘Shrine of the Muses’— where all the sham art exists. Why do you look so grave, old boy?”

The two men, getting more confidential, were dropping into the language of school-days and speaking more familiarly. Mallow did not reply at once, as his servant had just brought in the coffee. But when each gentleman was supplied with a cup and they were again alone, he looked gravely at Miles. “I want to ask your advice,” he said, “and if you are my friend —”

“I am, of course I am.”

“Well, then, I am as interested in finding out who killed Miss Loach as you are.”

“Why is that?” demanded Jennings, puzzled.

“Before I answer and make a clean breast of it, I should like you to promise that you will get no one I know into trouble.”

Jennings hesitated. “That is a difficult matter. Of course, if I find the assassin, even if he or she is one of your friends, I must do my duty.”

“Oh, I don’t expect anything of that sort,” said Mallow easily, “but why do you say ‘he’ or ‘she’?”

“Well, the person who killed Miss Loach might be a woman.”

“I don’t see how you make that out,” said Cuthbert reflectively. “I read the case coming up in the train today, and it seems to me from what The Planet says that the whole thing is a mystery.”

“One which I mean to dive into and discover,” replied Miles. “I do not care for an ordinary murder case, but this is one after my own heart. It is a criminal problem which I should like to work out.”

“Do you see your way as yet?” asked Cuthbert.

“No,” confessed Jennings, “I do not. I saw the report you speak of. The writer theorizes without having facts to go on. What he says about the bell is absurd. All the same, the bell did ring and the assassin could not have escaped at the time it sounded. Nor could the deceased have rung it. Therein lies the mystery, and I can’t guess how the business was managed.”

“Do you believe the assassin rang the bell?”

Miles shrugged his shoulders and sipped his coffee. “It is impossible to say. I will wait until I have more facts before me before I venture an opinion. It is only in detective novels that the heaven-born Vidocq can guess the truth on a few stray clues. But what were you going to tell me?”

“Will you keep what I say to yourself?”

“Yes,” said Jennings, readily enough, “so long as it doesn’t mean the escape of the person who is guilty.”

“I don’t ask you to betray the confidence placed in you by the authorities to that extent,” said Mallow, “just wait a moment.”

He leaned his chin on his hand and thought. If he wished to gain the hand of Juliet, it was necessary he should clear up the mystery of the death. Unaided, he could not do so, but with the assistance of his old schoolfellow — following his lead in fact — he might get at the truth. Then, when the name of the assassin of her sister was known, the reason of Mrs. Octagon’s strange behavior might be learned, and, moreover, the discovery might remove her objection. On the other hand, Cuthbert could not help feeling uneasy, lest Mrs. Octagon had some secret connected with the death which made her refuse her consent to the match, and which, if he explained to Jennings what he knew, might become known in a quarter which she might not approve of. However, Mallow was certain that, in spite of Mrs. Octagon’s hint, his uncle had nothing to do with the matter, and he had already warned her — although she refused to listen — that he intended to trace the assassin. Under these circumstances, and also because Jennings was his friend and more likely to aid him, than get anyone he knew and respected into trouble, the young man made up his mind to tell everything.

“The fact is, I am engaged to Juliet Saxon,” he began, hesitatingly.

“I know that. She is the daughter of that absurd Mrs. Octagon, with the meek husband and the fine opinion of herself.”

“Yes. But Juliet is the niece of Miss Loach.”

“What!” Jennings sprang from his chair with a look of surprise; “do you mean to tell me that Mrs. Octagon is Miss Loach’s sister.”

“I do. They quarrelled many years ago, and have not been friendly for years. Mrs. Octagon would never go and see her sister, but she did not forbid her children being friendly. As you may guess, Mrs. Octagon is much distressed about the murder, but the strange thing is that she declares this death renders it impossible for me to marry her daughter.”

Jennings looked searchingly at his friend. “That is strange. Does she give no reason?”

“No. But knowing my uncle knew her when she was a girl, I thought I would ask him what he thought. He told me that he had once been engaged to Miss Loach, and —”

“Well, go on,” said Miles, seeing Cuthbert hesitating.

“There was another lady in the case.”

“There usually is,” said Jennings dryly. “Well?”

“The other lady’s name was Saul — Emilia Saul.”

“Oh,” Miles sat down again. He had remained standing for a few moments. “Saul was the name you mentioned in connection with the coining case of twenty years ago.”

Cuthbert nodded, and now, being fully convinced that he badly needed Jennings’ aid, he told all that he had heard from Caranby, and detailed what his mother had said. Also, he touched on the speech of Mrs. Octagon, and repeated the warning he had given her. Miles listened quietly, but made no remark till his friend finished.

“You have told me all you know?” he asked.

“Yes. I want you to help me. Not that I think what I have learned has anything to do with the case.”

“I’m not so sure of that,” said Jennings musingly, his eyes on the carpet. “Mrs. Octagon bases her refusal to allow the marriage on the fact of the death. However, you have warned her, and she must take the consequence.”

“But, my dear Jennings, you don’t think she has anything to do with the matter. I assure you she is a good, kind woman —”

“With a violent temper, according to your mother,” finished Jennings dryly. “However, don’t alarm yourself. I don’t think she is guilty.”

“I should think not,” cried Mallow, indignantly. “Juliet’s mother!”

“But she may have something to do with the matter all the same. However, you have been plain with me, and I will do all I can to help you. The first thing is for us to follow up the clue of the portrait.”

“Ah, yes! I had quite forgotten that,” said Mallow, casting a look on the photograph which lay near at hand. “Just pass it, will you.”

Miles did so. “You say you recognize it,” he said.

“I recognize my own face. I had several portraits done like this. I think this one —” Mallow looked at the inscription which he read for the first time, and his face grew pale.

“What is it?” asked Miles eagerly.

“I don’t know,” faltered the other uneasily.

“You recognize the inscription?”

“Yes, I certainly wrote that.”

“It is quite a tender inscription,” said Miles, his eyes on the disturbed face of the other. “‘With my dear love,’ it reads.”

Cuthbert laid down the portrait and nodded. “Yes! That is the inscription,” he said in low tones, and his eyes sought the carpet.

“You wrote that to a servant.”

“What servant?”

“The new parlor-maid engaged by Miss Loach on the day of her death — Susan Grant.”

“I remember the name. I saw it in the papers.”

“Do you know the girl well?” asked Jennings.

“I don’t know her at all.”

“Come now. A man doesn’t give a portrait with such an inscription to any unknown girl, nor to one he is not in love with.”

“Jennings,” cried Mallow indignantly, “how can you think —” his voice died away and he clenched his hands.

“What am I to think then?” demanded the detective.

“What you like.”

“That you love this Susan Grant?”

“I tell you I never set eyes on her,” said Cuthbert violently.

“Then how does she come into possession of your portrait?” asked the other. Then seeing that Mallow refused to speak, he laid a persuasive hand on his shoulder. “You must speak out,” he said quickly, “you have told me so much you must tell me all. Matters can’t stand as they are. No,” here Jennings looked straight into Mallow’s eyes, “you did not give that portrait to Susan Grant.”

“I never said so.”

“Don’t be an ass, Mallow. You say you don’t know the girl, therefore you can hardly have given her the photograph. Now the inscription shows that it was given to a woman you are in love with. You told me when you introduced me to Miss Saxon that she was the only woman you ever loved. Therefore you gave this portrait with its tender inscription to her.”

“I— I can’t say.”

“You mean you won’t trust me,” said Jennings.

Cuthbert rose quickly and flung off his friend’s arm. “I wish to Heaven I had never opened my mouth to you,” he said.

“My dear fellow, you should show more confidence in me. I know quite well why you won’t acknowledge that you gave this photograph to Miss Saxon. You think it will implicate her in the matter.”

“Jennings!” cried Cuthbert, his face growing red and fierce.

“Wait a moment,” resumed the other calmly and without flinching. “I can explain. You gave the photograph to Miss Saxon. She gave it to Miss Loach, and Susan Grant falling in love with your face, took possession of it. It was found in her trunk.”

“Yes — yes, that’s it!” cried Mallow, catching at a straw. “I did give the photograph to Juliet, and no doubt she gave it to her aunt. It would be easy for this girl to take it. Though why she should steal it,” said Cuthbert perplexed, “I really can’t say!”

“You don’t know her?” asked Jennings.

“No. Really, I don’t. The name is quite unknown to me. What is the girl like in appearance?” Jennings described Susan to the best of his ability, but Cuthbert shook his head. “No, I never saw her. You say she had this photograph in her trunk?” Then, on receiving an affirmative reply, “She may have found it lying about and have taken it, though why she should I can’t say.”

“So you said before,” said Jennings dryly. “But strange as it may appear, Mallow, this girl is in love with you.”

“How do you know that?”

“Well, you see,” said Miles, slowly. “After the murder I searched the boxes of the servants in the house for the weapon.”

“But there was no danger of them being accused?”

“No. Nor would I have searched their boxes had they not insisted. But they were all so afraid of being accused, that they wished to exonerate themselves as much as possible. The fact that the whole four were in the kitchen together at the time the crime was committed quite clears them. However, they insisted, so I looked into their boxes. I found this photograph in the box of the new housemaid. She refused to state how it came into her possession, and became so red, and wept so much, that I soon saw that she loved you.”

“But I tell you it’s ridiculous. I don’t know the girl — and a servant, too. Pshaw!”

“Well, then, I must get her to see you, and possibly some explanation may be made. I took possession of the photograph —”

“Why? On what grounds should my photograph interest you, Jennings?”

“On the grounds that you are a friend of mine, and that I knew your face the moment I saw it. I naturally asked the girl how it came into her possession, as I know your tastes don’t lie in the way of pretty parlor-maids, however attractive. It was her reply which made me take the portrait and come to ask you for an explanation.”

“What reply did she make?” demanded Cuthbert, exasperated by the false position he was placed in.

“She said that she would explain nothing in case you should get into trouble with the police. Can you explain that?”

“No,” said Mallow, perplexed. “I really cannot be responsible for the vagaries of a parlor-maid. I don’t know the name Susan Grant, and from your description of her appearance, I never set eyes on her. I am quite sure your explanation is the correct one. Juliet gave it to her aunt, and for some ridiculous reason this girl stole it.”

“But her remark about the police.”

Mallow made a gesture of helplessness, and leaned his elbow on the mantelpiece. “I can’t guess what she means. Well, what will you do now, Jennings?”

“First, I shall get the girl to come here and see you. Then I shall ask Miss Saxon why she gave the photograph to Miss Loach. You were not a favorite with the old lady, I gather.”

“On the contrary, she liked me much more than I did her.”

“You see. She liked you so much that she insisted on having your photograph. I must ask Miss Saxon when she gave it. Will you let me bring this girl to see you tomorrow?”

“Certainly. But it’s all very unpleasant.”

The detective rose to go. “Most matters connected with a crime are, my dear fellow,” said he calmly. “I only hope there will not be any more unpleasantness.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can’t say what I mean — yet.”

“You are mysterious, Jennings.”

“I am perplexed. I don’t seem to advance. However, I intend to follow up the clue of your photograph, though if the explanation I suggest is the true one, there’s nothing more to be said. But the girl, Susan Grant, has not the look of a thief.”

“That means, I gave her the photograph,” said Cuthbert haughtily.

“Not necessarily,” rejoined Jennings, putting on his overcoat. “But I will not theorize any more. Wait till I confront the girl with you in a few days. Then we may force her to speak.”

Cuthbert shrugged his shoulders. “As you please. But I really am at a loss to think what she will say.”

“So am I,” said Jennings, as they walked to the door. “That is why I am anxious to see her and you together. And, after all, I may have found only a mare’s nest.”

“You certainly have so far as I am concerned. By the way, when is the body to be buried?”

“The day after tomorrow. Then the will has to be read. I hope the old lady will leave you some money, Mallow. She was reported to be rich. Oh, by the way, I’ll look up that Saul coining case you speak of.”

“Why?” asked Mallow, bluntly and uneasily.

“It may have some bearing on this matter. Only in the past will we find the truth. And Miss Selina Loach certainly knew Miss Saul.”

As Jennings departed the postman came up the stairs with the late letters. Cuthbert found one from Juliet and opened it at once. It contained one line —

“Don’t see the police about aunt’s death — JULIET.”

Cuthbert Mallow slept very badly that night.

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