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15: What the Parlourmaid Heard

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Author Topic: 15: What the Parlourmaid Heard  (Read 27 times)
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« on: May 20, 2023, 06:22:31 am »

WOMERSLEY restrained the question that arose to his lips; he had already told the story of his and Holaday’s quest, and the reasons of it, to the hotel proprietor, and it seemed to him that his best policy now was to listen and to pick up whatever information might be forthcoming. So he merely nodded, as if the announcement just made was the most natural thing in the world, one to be expected, and not to be surprised at, and the proprietor went on speaking.

“I know nothing whatever about this lady’s having been known as Miss Clover,” he said. “I never heard that name---she was never known by it here. She came to me as Miss Colebrooke, Miss Mildred Colebrooke, from London, where she’d been employed in similar capacities---I’d excellent references with her, most excellent. She bore them out, too---a thoroughly competent young lady, in every way; quiet, well conducted, too. Great favourite here---and, as I say, she made a rare good marriage---did jolly well for herself!” he concluded, with a laugh.

Womersley let his question go then.

“Whom did she marry?” he asked quietly.

“Quite a romance!” replied the proprietor, with another laugh. “She married one of my customers, Sir John Cheale, a man old enough to be her father, though uncommonly well preserved for his age. You’ve heard of him, no doubt?---big commercial magnate, chemicals and that sort of thing---lives at Cheale Court, near Chester. Fine place, I’m told, though I’ve never seen it. Sir John used to come here two or three times a year, and he took a great fancy to Miss Colebrooke, and, I believe, asked her to marry him more than once before she finally consented. However, she did consent, and she married him, and there you are! She’s Lady Cheale now, wife of a millionaire---or multi-millionaire---I’m sure I don’t know which!”

“Have you ever seen her since the marriage?” asked Womersley.

“Well, no, I haven’t,” said the proprietor. “As I said, Sir John used to come here regularly, for some years, but since they were married he hasn’t been. No!---I’ve not seen her since then, of course, and it’s not such a very long time since they were married.”

Womersley looked at Holaday, as much as to ask if there was any question he wanted to put to the proprietor. And Holaday put one.

“Who were the people in London from whom you had references about this lady?” he inquired. “I’d just like to know that, if it’s still in your memory.”

“Oh, I can tell you,” replied the proprietor. “I’ve a good memory for names. One was from a city firm, Dilwater & Crouch, of Moorgate Street, where she’d been two or three years as stenographer and typist; the other was from a medical man with a queer name, to whom she’d acted as secretary---Dr. Syphax, Brunswick Square.”

It was only because he was keeping a tight hold on himself that Womersley restrained an exclamation at this news; he had begun to realise at last that he and his companion really were on the track of something, and had become watchful in consequence. Do as he would, however, he could scarcely repress a start---but the proprietor was looking at Holaday, and Holaday’s face was as immobile as that of a graven image.

“Just so!” said Holaday. “And from which of these did she come to you?”

“The doctor,” answered the proprietor. “He gave her a particularly good testimonial.” He looked from Holaday to Womersley, from Womersley back to Holaday.

“Now, what,” he asked, with a good-humoured, bantering laugh, “what are you fellows making out of all this? Are you sure that you aren’t on the wrong track? From my knowledge of her, I couldn’t conceive anything wrong, or suspicious, or anything of that sort, about this young lady---she’s still young, you know.”

“We wanted to trace Miss Millie Clover,” replied Womersley. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that Miss Millie Clover is identical with your Miss Mildred Colebrooke---and now, it appears, Miss Colebrooke is Lady Cheale.”

“Well!---you’d better apply to her Ladyship,” remarked the proprietor. “From my knowledge of her, she’s pretty well able to look after herself!”

Womersley replied that he’d no doubt of that, and presently he and Holaday went away. They walked a little distance from the hotel in silence; Holaday spoke first, and when he spoke it was to the accompaniment of a chuckle.

“There’s one great advantage of this country of yours,” he said. “It doesn’t take you long to get from anywhere to anywhere else!---within the boundaries. I guess we’ll just get back to London and do a bit more investigation before nightfall.”

“Where?” asked Womersley.

“That doctor, sure! Look here! this business is turning out more promising than I’d thought for. Things are fitting themselves. Now, last night, before going to bed, I went right through all the newspaper stuff again, more carefully, and I thought over all you’d told me---indeed, I wrote out a memorandum of that---and so I’m pretty well posted in all facts and names; familiar, do you see, with the names and descriptions of the chief actors in this little play. Well now, the mention of this doctor, Syphax, by the hotel man is an eye-opener! This young woman, Millie Clover, otherwise, at one time, Mildred Colebrooke, and now Lady Cheale, was with Syphax---as Mildred Colebrooke. Well, but Syphax is Mrs. Nicholas Jakyn’s brother, and so he’ll have been connected, one way or another, with this Jakyn family and with that drug business in Holborn, for a good many years. He must have known Mildred Colebrooke as Millie Clover. And the thing is---what does he know about her at all, whether as Millie Clover or Mildred Colebrooke?”

“Muddling!” said Womersley, expressing his present feelings in a word.

“Well, yes, it seems a bit mixed, but I guess we’ll worry through yet,” replied Holaday cheerfully. “Lot of questions in it. Mrs. Shepstall says Millie Clover left her to get married. Did she get married? If she got married, she became Mrs. Somebody-or-other. But the next we know, keeping to a sequence, is that she was not very long afterwards employed by Dilwater & Crouch as Miss Colebrooke; later, still as Miss Colebrooke, by Dr. Syphax. If she really did marry anybody when she quitted Mrs. Shepstall, where’s the man? Did he die? Why did she become Miss again---and not Miss Clover, but Miss Colebrooke?”

“I suppose she knows!” said Womersley. “And probably nobody else!”

“Well, I guess we’ll just have to ask her to enlighten us on those points,” observed Holaday in his direct manner. “That’s what I intend to do---for it’s my belief she knows something about this Alfred Jakyn affair, though what exactly I can’t yet think. Anyway, we know where she lives, and I suggest that to-morrow morning we go down there and see her. But first---this doctor with the queer name!”

They found Syphax in his surgery that evening, busily compounding, with Belyna Jakyn similarly occupied. Syphax gave his visitors a curt reception, and did not ask them to sit down. Indeed, as soon as he saw Womersley he plumped him with a brusque question, following it up with a remark that was almost offensive in its peremptoriness.

“Well, what do you want? I know your business, and I can’t help you with it! What is it?---you see we’re busy!”

“Not too busy, I hope, to answer a civil question or two, doctor!” replied Womersley. “I shan’t keep you long. May I ask if you know anything, or knew anything, some years ago, of a young woman named Millie Clover?”

“No! Never heard of her! Who was she?”

“She was a clerk at Daniel Jakyn’s shop in Holborn, eleven or twelve years ago.”

“Know nothing about Daniel Jakyn’s shop eleven or twelve years ago! I wasn’t in England at that time.”

“Well, doctor, do you know anything of a young lady named Millie Colebrooke?” asked Womersley, giving Holaday’s arm a nudge.

“Mildred Colebrooke? Oh, yes---knew her well enough. She was my secretary for a time. What about her?”

“Do you know that she married Sir John Cheale, the big chemical manufacturer.”

“Yes, I knew that---saw it in the Morning Post at the time. And what about that?”

“Well, we believe Mildred Colebrooke and Millie Clover are identical,” replied Womersley.

“Well, and what about that?” demanded Syphax. “And what the devil have I got to do with it?”

Womersley nudged his companion’s arm again, and edged him out into the hall; behind them they heard Syphax muttering and growling.

“Come away!” whispered Womersley. “We’ve got what we wanted---he knew her! No use teasing him---he’s a very queer, strange man! Come out! Hallo!---what’s this?”

A young woman, in a smart cap and apron, had come out of a door at the end of the long, dimly-lighted passage, and was making a signal to Womersley by holding a finger to her lips. As he and Holaday went towards her, she retreated to the front door and laid her hand on the latch as if to let them out into the square. But instead of raising the latch she made another warning signal.

“Is he one of your lot?” she whispered, pointing to Holaday. “With you?”

“That’s right!” answered Womersley, in the same low tone. “What is it? Found anything out?” The girl looked cautiously round and stepped close to the two men.

“I can slip out in a few minutes,” she said. “Meet me outside---down the square. Shan’t be long.”

She raised the latch as she spoke, and Womersley and Holaday walked out and turned down in the direction indicated.

“That’s the girl I made some inquiries of about Alfred Jakyn’s visit to that house,” said Womersley when they had gone a few yards. “Parlourmaid there, smart girl---I dare say she’s got a bit of information. But come! what do you think of that doctor chap?”

“Excitable, irritable person!” replied Holaday. “Full of nerves---many of them. Or lacking in them---same thing.”

“Ay, but do you think he knows more than he lets out?” asked Womersley. “I think he does! You know, it’s all very well going after Miss Millie Clover, and there’s no doubt you were right about it being worth while, now that we’ve done a lot to-day towards running her down, and I don’t say that something, and perhaps a good deal, won’t come of it, but in my opinion the secret of Alfred Jakyn’s death is in that house we’ve just left!”

“Sure!” said Holaday, with quiet and cheerful acquiescence. “I guess it is!”

Womersley turned on his companion in surprise.

“And how long have you thought that, pray?” he asked.

“From just about the first go-off,” answered Holaday. “Good time, anyway!”

“Then why this persistence about Millie Clover?” inquired Womersley.

“My way of getting to the centre-point,” laughed Holaday. “There’s more ways than one of getting anywhere, I reckon. Millie Clover, otherwise Mildred Colebrooke, otherwise Lady Cheale, is a detail, and I guess a mighty important one. But we’ll know more about that before this time to-morrow---I think!”

“Well, maybe, if you’re so persistent about it,” said Womersley. “There’s certainly something in it. It was no use pressing Syphax, though. By the bye, did you see that girl in his surgery?”

“I did, poor thing!” answered Holaday. “Grievous sight---mis-shapen like that. But she’s a clever face and good head.”

“Oh, she’s clever enough!” said Womersley. “That’s Miss Belyna Jakyn---Alfred’s cousin; the only one of ’em who saw him when he called there. Now, you know, that girl had a chance of poisoning him---she’s a qualified dispenser, and acts in that capacity to her uncle, Syphax, so I suppose she knows all about poison. And, of course, you might say she’d a motive---if Alfred Jakyn hadn’t turned up, and had been presumed by leave of the Courts to be dead, she and her brother and mother would have come in for all that old Daniel Jakyn left—and that, I’m told, is a rare lot of money. And I believe they come in for it now---seeing that Alfred’s dead. So there’s motive! But---I watched that girl carefully when she gave evidence at the opening of the inquest, and I came to the conclusion that whoever else might be guilty, she wasn’t!”

“It’s certain there was nobody else---none of the family---but her in the house when Alfred Jakyn called there, I suppose?” asked Holaday. “You’re satisfied of that?”

“As far as one can be, yes,” replied Womersley. “I’ve made all sorts of quiet inquiries in this case. You wouldn’t believe the trouble I’ve taken about various small matters. I got hold of this girl---the parlourmaid---that spoke to me just now; she assured me that that night nobody was at home when Alfred Jakyn called but Miss Belyna. Dr. Syphax, she said, was often out at night---in fact, as a rule; so was Mrs. Nicholas Jakyn; so was her son, who’s a medical student. None of these three, she said, were in that night until very late---well, past eleven o’clock, so----”

“The girl’s coming,” interrupted Holaday, looking back towards the house. “Got up in the approved mysterious fashion, too!”

The parlourmaid, cloaked and hooded, and holding her hood tightly under her chin, came swiftly towards them, and as she approached, motioned them round the corner of a quiet side street.

“I mustn’t stop long,” she whispered, turning to Womersley. “Now, look here; you told me that if I would get hold of any news for you, it would be worth my while. Is that going to hold good? Because, you know, I’ve read about that American reward----” Womersley tapped the girl’s shoulder, and jerked a thumb at Holaday.

“Look here, my dear,” he said, “this is the gentleman that’s come to represent that firm. He’ll tell you that if you can tell anything----”

“You can trust me for that!” broke in Holaday, with more eagerness than he had previously shown to Womersley. “Any information that will put us on the right track will get substantial recompense, even if it isn’t absolutely final. That’s certain!” The girl listened, nodded, and hesitated.

“Well,” she said at last, slowly, “I don’t know that what I can tell is final, but at any rate it’s something, and I may get to know more. It’s this---I promised him,” she nodded at Womersley, “that I’d keep my eyes open, and I have done. And it’s my belief that Mrs. Jakyn and Miss Belyna know something about this affair. The other day, when I was dusting the back drawing-room, I heard them talking in the front one; they came in there together, and they didn’t know I was behind the curtains. They were sort of arguing, or something like that, and Miss Belyna was crying. And I heard her say something, quite plain. This, ‘You ought to tell at once!’ she said. ‘It’s sure to come out! They can’t fail to find it out---especially if they get hold of Millie Clover! And they will, sooner or later; you may be sure they will! Why don’t you make a clean breast of it and have done with it. I know it’ll come out!’ ”

Womersley nudged Holaday’s arm. And Holaday spoke.

“Well,” he asked firmly, “and the mother---what did she say?”

“I couldn’t catch what she said,” replied the parlourmaid. “She spoke in such a low voice---but she seemed angry. And I was afraid of their knowing I was there, so I tiptoed out and got away. So that’s all I can tell now---but----”

Womersley patted her shoulder.

“That’s all right!” he said. “Now, you keep that to yourself, and go on keeping your ears open. We’ll see you’re right; and now run back. Well?” he continued, when the parlourmaid had flitted away into the shadows. “What do you think of that?”

“Just that I’m keener than ever on seeing Millie Clover, whose present name is Lady Cheale,” answered Holaday. “So if you’ve that railway guide of yours handy, we’ll just turn into that convenient saloon there and throw a light on its pages. And an early breakfast and the first express train to Chester in the morning will suit me admirably---the sooner we’re at the door of Cheale Court the better, is my opinion!”

They were at the door of Cheale Court as a big clock in its quadrangle struck twelve next day. Holaday stared about him in surprise at the grandeur of their surroundings---but Womersley’s surprise came when the door was opened by a youthful, smart-liveried footman, in whom the detective instantly recognised the vanished smoking-room waiter of the Euston Hotel.

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