The Secret Passage, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 9

Another Mystery

When Jennings arrived that evening according to appointment, he found Mallow in a state of desperation. Juliet’s conduct perplexed the young man to such an extent that he felt as though on the point of losing his reason. He was quite delighted when he saw Jennings and thus had someone with a clear head in whom to confide.

“What’s the matter?” asked Jennings, who at once saw that something was wrong from Cuthbert’s anxious face.

“Nothing, save that I am being driven out of my senses. I am glad you have come, Jennings. Things are getting more mysterious every day. I am determined to get to the bottom of this murder case if only for my own peace of mind. I am with you heart and soul. I have the detective fever with a vengeance. You can count on my assistance in every way.”

“All right, my dear chap,” said the other soothingly, “sit down and let us have a quiet talk before this girl arrives.”

“Susan Grant. I saw her today.”

“Did you speak to her?”

“No. I only guessed that she was the girl you talked about from your description and from the fact that she entered Rose Cottage.”

“Ah,” said Jennings, taking a seat, “so you have been down there?”

“Yes. I’ll tell you all about it. I don’t know if I’m sane or insane, Jennings. When does this girl arrive?”

The detective glanced at his watch. “At half-past eight. She’ll be here in half an hour. Go on. What’s up?”

“Read this,” said Cuthbert, and passed along the note from Juliet. “I received that immediately after you went the other night.”

Jennings read the note with a thoughtful look, then laid it aside and stared at his friend. “It is strange that she should write in that way,” said he. “I should have thought she would wish to learn who killed her aunt. What does she mean?”

“I can’t tell you. I met her today,” and Cuthbert gave details of his visit to Rexton and the interview with Juliet. “Now what does she mean,” he added in his turn, “talking as though I had something to do with the matter?”

“Someone’s been poisoning her mind. That brother of hers, perhaps.”

“What do you know of him?” asked Cuthbert quickly.

“Nothing good. He’s an hysterical idiot. Gambles a lot and falls into rages when he loses. At times I don’t think he’s responsible for his actions.”

Mallow threw himself back in his chair biting his moustache. Every word Jennings spoke made him more confident that Basil had something to do with the crime. But why Juliet should hint at his own guilt Cuthbert could not imagine. Had he been calmer he might have hesitated to tell Jennings about Basil. But, exasperated by Juliet’s half confidence, and anxious to learn the truth, he gave the detective a full account of his meeting with the young man. “What do you make of that?” he asked.

“Well,” said Jennings doubtfully, “there’s nothing much to go upon in what he said. He’s in difficulties with Hale certainly —”

“And he seemed anxious about my having been in Caranby’s grounds at night.” “Were you there?”

“Yes. I did not intend to say anything about it, but I must tell you everything so that you can put things straight between me and Juliet. I can’t understand her. But I am sure her mother and Basil are trying to influence her against me. I should not be surprised to learn that they accused me of this murder.”

“But on what grounds?” asked Jennings quickly.

“We’ll come to that presently. But I now see why neither Basil nor his mother want the marriage to take place. By the will of Miss Loach Juliet comes in for six thousand a year, which is completely at her own disposal. Mrs. Octagon and her pet boy want to have the handling of that. They know if Juliet becomes my wife I won’t let them prey on her, so immediately Miss Loach died the mother withdrew her consent to the marriage, and now she is being backed up by Basil.”

“But I thought Mrs. Octagon was well off?”

“No. Saxon, her late husband, left her very little, and Octagon, for all his meekness, knows how to keep his money. Both mother and son are extravagant, so they hope to make poor Juliet their banker. In some way they have implicated me in the crime, and Juliet thinks that I am in danger of the gallows. That is why she wrote that mysterious note, Jennings. To-day she asked me to stop proceedings for my own sake, which shows that she thinks me guilty. I could not get a further explanation from her, as she ran away. Hang it!” Cuthbert jumped up angrily, “if she’d only tell me the truth and speak straight out. I can’t understand this silence on her part.”

“I can,” said Jennings promptly, “in some way Basil is mixed up in the matter, and his accusing you means his acknowledging that he was near Rose Cottage on the night of the crime. He funks making so damaging an admission.”

“Ah, I daresay,” said Cuthbert, “particularly as he quarrelled with his aunt a week before the death.”

“Did he quarrel with her?”

“Of course. Didn’t I tell you what he said today. He’s in a fine rage with the dead woman. And you know what an uncontrollable temper he has. I’ve seen him rage at Maraquito’s when he lost at baccarat. Silly ass! He can’t play decently and lose his money like a gentleman. How Juliet ever came to have such a bounder for a brother I can’t imagine. She’s the soul of honor, and Basil — bah!”

“He quarrelled with his aunt,” murmured Jennings, “and he has a violent temper, as we both knew. Humph! He may have something to do with the matter. Do you know where he was on that night?”

“Yes. Juliet and he went to the Marlow Theatre to see a melodrama by a new playwright.”

“Ha!” said Jennings half to himself, “and the Marlow Theatre is not far from Rexton. I’ll make a note of that. Had they a box?”

“I believe so. It was sent by the man who wrote the play.”

“Who is he?”

“I can’t say. One of that lot who play at being poets in Octagon House. A set of idiots. But what do you make of all this, Jennings?”

“I think with you that Mrs. Octagon and her cub of a son are trying to stop the marriage by bringing you into the matter of the crime. Were you down there on that night?”

“Yes,” said Cuthbert with hesitation, and to Jennings’ surprise, “I did not intend to say anything about it, as my uncle asked me to hold my tongue. But since things have come to this pass, you may as well know that I was there — and about the time of the murder too.”

Jennings sat up and stared. “Great heavens! Mallow, why didn’t you tell me this the other night?”

“You might have arrested me then and there,” retorted Cuthbert. “I promised my uncle to hold my tongue. But now —”

“You will tell me all. My dear fellow, make a clean breast of it.”

“Rest easy, you shall learn everything. You know that the house at the back of Rose Cottage has been deserted for something like twenty years more or less.”

“Yes. You told me about it the other night.”

“Caranby ran a fifteen-feet wall round it and the inside is a regular jungle. Well, the house is supposed to be haunted. Lights have been seen moving about and strange noises have been heard.”

“What kind of noises?”

“Oh, moans and clanking chains and all that sort of thing. I heard indirectly about this, through Juliet.”

“Where did she hear the report?”

“From Miss Loach’s cook. A woman called Pill. The cook asserted that the house was haunted, and described the noises and the lights. I don’t believe in spooks myself, and thought some tricks were being played, so one day I went down and had a look.”

“That day I was there?” asked Jennings, recalling Cuthbert’s presence.

“Before that — a week or two. I saw nothing. The house is rotting and nothing appeared to be disturbed. I examined the park and found no footmarks. In fact, there wasn’t a sign of anyone about.”

“You should have gone at night when the ghost was larking.”

“That’s what Caranby said. I told him when he came back to London. He was very annoyed. You know his romance about that house — an absurd thing it is. All the same, Caranby is tender on the point. I advised him to pull the house down and let the land out for building leases. He thought he would, but asked me to go at night and stir up the ghost. I went on the night of the murder, and got into the grounds by climbing the wall. There’s no gate, you know.”

“At what time?”

“Some time between ten and eleven. I’m not quite sure.”

“Good heavens! man, that is the very hour the woman was killed!”

“Yes. And for that reason I held my tongue; particularly as I got over the wall near the cottage.”

“Where do you mean?”

“Well, there’s a field of corn nearly ready to be cut near the cottage. It’s divided from the garden by a fence. I came along the foot-path that leads from the station and jumped the fence.”

“Did you enter Miss Loach’s grounds?”

“No. I had no right to. I saw a light in the basement, but I did not take much notice. I was too anxious to find the ghost. Well, I ran along the fence — on the field-of-corn side, remember, and got over the wall. Then I dodged through the park, scratching myself a lot. I could find nothing. The house seemed quiet enough, so after a quarter of an hour I had enough of it. I got out over the wall on the other side and came home. I caught a cold which necessitated my wearing a great-coat the next day. So there you have my ghost-hunting, and a fine fool I was to go.”

“I wish you had told me this before, Mallow.”

“If I had, you would have thought I’d killed the old woman. But I tell you now, as I want this matter sifted to the bottom. I refused to speak before, as I didn’t wish to be dragged into the case.”

“Did you see anything in the cottage?”

“Not a thing. I saw no one — I heard no sound.”

“Not even a scream?”

“Not even a scream,” said Mallow; “had I heard anything I should have gone to see what was the matter.”

“Strange!” murmured Jennings, “can’t you tell the exact time?”

“Not to a minute. It was shortly after ten. I can’t say how many minutes. Perhaps a quarter of an hour. But not suspecting anything was going to happen, I didn’t look at my watch.”

Jennings looked thoughtfully at the carpet. “I wonder if the assassin escaped that way,” he murmured.

“Which way?”

“Over the wall and through the park. You see, he could not have gone up the lane or through the railway path without stumbling against that policeman. But he might have slipped out of the front door at half-past ten and climbed as you did over the wall to cross the park and drop over the other. In this way he would elude the police.”

“Perhaps,” said Cuthbert disbelievingly; “but it was nearly eleven when I left the park. If anyone had been at my heels I would have noticed.”

“I am not so sure of that. The park, as you say, is a kind of jungle. The man might have seen you and have taken his precautions. Moreover,” added the detective, sitting up alertly, “he might have written to Miss Saxon saying he saw you on that night. And she —”

“Bosh!” interrupted Mallow roughly, “he would give himself away.”

“Not if the letter was anonymous.”

“Perhaps,” said the other again; “but Basil may have been about the place and have accused me.”

“In that case he must explain his reason for being in the neighborhood at that hour. But he won’t, and you may be sure Miss Saxon, for his sake, will hold her tongue. No, Mallow. Someone accuses you to Miss Saxon — Basil or another. If we could only make her speak —”

Cuthbert shook his head. “I fear it’s impossible.”

“Why not let me arrest you,” suggested Jennings, “and then, if at anytime, she would speak.”

“Hang it, no!” cried Mallow in dismay, “that would be too realistic, Jennings. I don’t want it known that I was hanging about the place on that night. My explanation might not be believed. In any case, people would throw mud at me, considering I am engaged to the niece of the dead woman.”

“Yes! I can see that. Well,” Jennings rose and stretched himself. “I must see what Susan has to say”; he glanced at his watch; “she should be here in a few minutes.”

A silence ensued which was broken by Jennings. “Oh, by the way,” he said, taking some papers out of his pocket, “I looked up the Saul case.”

“Well, what about it?” asked Cuthbert indolently

Jennings referred to his notes. “The Saul family” he said, “seem to have been a bad lot. There was a mother, a brother and a daughter —”

“Emilia!”

“Just so. They were all coiners. Somewhere in Hampstead they had a regular factory. Others were mixed up in the matter also, but Mrs. Saul was the head of the gang. Then Emilia grew tired of the life — I expect it told on her nerves. She went on the concert platform and met Caranby. Then she died, as you know. Afterwards the mother and brother were caught. They bolted. The mother, I believe, died — it was believed she was poisoned for having betrayed secrets. The brother went to jail, got out years afterwards on ticket-of-leave, and then died also. The rest of the gang were put in jail, but I can’t say what became of them.”

Cuthbert shrugged his shoulders. “This does not help us much.”

“No. But it shows you what an escape your uncle had from marrying the woman. I can’t understand —”

“No more can Caranby,” said Mallow, smiling; “he loved Miss Loach, but Emilia exercised a kind of hypnotic influence over him. However, she is dead, and I can see no connection between her and this crime.”

“Well,” said Jennings soberly, “it appears that some other person besides the mother gave a clue to the breaking up of the gang and the whereabouts of the factory. Supposing that person was Selina Loach, who hated Emilia for having taken Caranby from her. One of the gang released lately from prison may have killed the old lady out of revenge.”

“What! after all these years?”

“Revenge is a passion that grows with years,” said Jennings grimly; “at all events, I intend to go on ferreting out evidence about this old coining case, particularly as there are many false coins circulating now. I should not be surprised to learn that the factory had been set up again; Miss Loach may have known and —”

“This is all supposition,” cried Mallow. “I can’t see the slightest connection between the coiners and this murder. Besides, it does not explain why Juliet hints at my being implicated.”

Jennings did not reply. “There’s the bell, too,” he murmured, his eyes on the ground, “that might be explained.” He looked up briskly. “I tell you what, Mallow, this case may turn out to be a bigger thing than either of us suspect.”

“It’s quite big enough for me as it is,” retorted Cuthbert, “although I don’t know what you mean. All I desire is to get to the root of the matter and marry Juliet. Find Miss Loach’s assassin, Jennings, and don’t bother about this dead-and-gone coining case.”

“There’s a connection between the two,” said Jennings, obstinately; “it’s impossible to say how the connection comes about, but I feel that a discovery in one case entails a discovery in the other. If I can prove that Miss Loach was killed by one of the old coiners —”

“What will happen then?”

“I may stumble on the factory that is in existence now.”

He would have gone on to explain himself more fully, but that Mallow’s man entered with the information that a young person was waiting and asked for Mr. Jennings. Mallow ordered the servant to admit her, and shortly Susan Grant, nervous and blushing, entered the room.

“I am glad to see you,” said Jennings, placing a chair for her. “This is Mr. Mallow. We wish to ask you a few questions.”

“I have seen Mr. Mallow before,” said Susan, gasping and flushing.

“At Rose Cottage?” said Mallow inquiringly.

“No. When I was with Senora Gredos as parlor-maid.”

“Senora Gredos?” said Jennings, before Cuthbert could speak. “Do you mean Maraquito?”

“I have heard that her name was Maraquito, sir,” said Susan calmly. “A lame lady and fond of cards. She lives in-”

“I know where she lives,” said Cuthbert, flushing in his turn. “I went there occasionally to play cards. I never saw you.”

“But I saw you, sir,” said the girl fervently. “Often I have watched you when you thought I wasn’t, and —”

“One moment,” said Jennings, interrupting. “Let’s us get to the pith of the matter at once. Where did you get Mr. Mallow’s portrait?”

“I don’t want to say,” murmured the girl.

“But you must say,” said Mallow angrily. “I order you to confess.”

“I kept silent for your sake, sir,” she said, her eyes filled with tears, “but if you must know, I took the portrait from Senora Gredos’ dressing-room when I left her house. And I left it on your account, sir,” she finished defiantly.

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