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22: The Empty House

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Author Topic: 22: The Empty House  (Read 33 times)
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« on: May 20, 2023, 11:44:41 am »

TRUSFORD looked down the street from which the cloaked and hooded figure had emerged.

“Mrs. Nicholas Jakyn, eh?” he said reflectively. “Let’s see!---some relation of the dead man’s, isn’t she?”

“His aunt, by marriage,” replied Jennison. “Married a brother of old Daniel Jakyn, Alfred Jakyn’s father. If Alfred Jakyn hadn’t turned up---and I understand that the Courts had given leave to presume his death---Mrs. Nicholas Jakyn and her two children would have come in for Daniel Jakyn’s money.”

“Much?” asked Trusford.

“No end! Awfully wealthy old chap, I’m given to believe,” declared Jennison. “Two or three hundred thousand; I’ve heard that way, at any rate.”

“Then---as Alfred Jakyn is dead?” suggested Trusford. “Eh?”

“Just so! I suppose they come in,” agreed Jennison. “Unless he was married. May have been married over the other side.”

“I should think not!” said the reporter. “His death’s well enough known about across there, and his widow would have come forward. Um!---queer complications, old man! This Nicholas Jakyn lot certainly come under suspicion! And now I come to think of it, I saw them at the inquest, and Syphax sat with them.”

“Syphax is Mrs. Nicholas Jakyn’s brother!” said Jennison. “She was a Miss Syphax.” Trusford let out a whistle, expressive of his growing suspicion.

“I say,” he exclaimed. “It all looks more than a bit fishy, Jennison! There’s no doubt whatever that the two men driven up to the Cobden Statue, at the other end of this road, by Shino, were Alfred Jakyn and Dr. Syphax. Well, they disappeared along this road, and they’re away the better part of half an hour. Where did they go? Somewhere about there! And now, just about the same time of night, we see Mrs. Nicholas Jakyn here! Suspicious, I call it! By the bye, which of those doors did she come out of just now?”

“Can’t say,” replied Jennison, glancing along the side-street at the corner of which they were talking. “It’s so gloomy along there.”

“Let’s have a look,” said Trusford. He walked slowly down the street, and finally stopped in front of a house, the lower part of which was evidently used as a shop. “I think it was this,” he went on. “But it’s all in darkness. What’s that name on the signboard, over the window shutters? Can you make it out?”

Jennison strained his eyes towards the small, badly-painted signboard which hung above the small front window.

Reegrater---Herbalist,” he announced at last. “Queer name!”

“Well, I think she came out of here,” said Trusford. He got close to the old-fashioned wooden shutters and peered through a crack. “No light in the shop,” he added, “and none in the house. I’ll tell you what, Jennison! I vote we come back here to-morrow morning and nose round a bit; I’m convinced there’s something in this. What business has Mrs. Nicholas Jakyn up here, at this time o’ night?—and in the very locality to which her brother, the doctor, brought Alfred Jakyn! We can’t do anything to-night, for everybody hereabouts seems to have gone to bed, but you meet me in the morning, at that corner, and we’ll put our wits to work.”

“What time?” asked Jennison.

“Say eleven o’clock. That’ll suit me,” replied Trusford. “I’ll be here eleven sharp. Who knows what we mayn’t find out!”

Jennison agreed, and presently went off to his hotel---to spend a quiet hour by himself in the smoking-room before he repaired to his bed, and to think, seriously and deeply. In his opinion, he had just cause for deep and serious thought. But it was not of his own escape that he was thinking; by that time he had come to regard that as a matter of course; after all, he said to himself vain-gloriously, what could Womersley have done to him? If Lady Cheale chose to pour her money into his hands, what the devil had Womersley and all the detectives and police in London to do with it? All the same, he knew that Womersley was speaking truth when he said that all that was at an end; that he, Jennison, would get no more out of her ladyship. And it hit him badly. If Womersley hadn’t come along, with that lanky American chap at his elbow, he would have been very nicely off next day---very nicely off indeed! All gone now---damn Womersley.

But the reward offered by the Western Lands people!---that was still to be got. They couldn’t, and he felt sure they wouldn’t, go back on their word! Well, there was yet a chance for him to put himself in the position of being able to ask them to make their word good. He already knew much; he had learned more that night. He had not said so to Trusford, but he firmly believed that the seeing of Mrs. Nicholas Jakyn in that Crowndale Road district was the most important bit of evidence he had got so far, and he was determined to follow it up. And he would do it by himself. No sharing! Why should he let Trusford come in? Seriously, he would keep his word and meet the reporter at eleven o’clock next morning---yes! But he would also take care to have been over the ground and to have made his own investigations long before Trusford appeared. First come, first served!

And by ten o’clock on the following morning, Jennison, unobtrusively attired, was in Crowndale Road once more. It was a dull, foggy morning, chill, damp, and his surroundings were anything but inviting. Still, Jennison welcomed the fog; its gray folds served to shroud his movements, and enabled him to examine things without being observed himself. He went straight to the narrow side-street from which he had seen Mrs. Nicholas Jakyn emerge, and to the shop out of which Trusford thought she had come. There was the queer name, Reegrater; there, in the now unshuttered window, were evidences of the trade carried on within. He stood for a minute or two, peering through the dirty window-panes at the things displayed behind them—bunches of herbs, bottles of queer-looking objects, dried plants, phials of coloured stuff, trays of lozenges, all alike dusty and uninviting. But Jennison wasted little time in gazing at these things; his object was to see into the shop beyond. The window, however, was so full of wares that he could see little, and presently, having invented an excuse for entering, he opened the door and walked in.

The shop was empty. It was a small, old-fashioned place, of a piece with the little window. The things that were in the window were in the shop, too, hung about the walls and on the counter. There was a curious odour in the atmosphere, acrid, pungent; it got into his nostrils and made him sniff. But there was no human being behind the counter, though the shop was not without life—a large black cat sat on a tub in a corner, staring balefully at him out of big, yellow eyes. In another corner a hanging clock ticked monotonously.

Jennison knocked once, twice, thrice, on the counter, each time more loudly and insistently. Nobody appeared. The cat remained motionless, staring at him. No sound came from behind a door in the back wall of the shop, a door that had panes of glass in its top panels, and a red stuff curtain across the lower panes. And after a few minutes of waiting and indecision, Jennison went over to this door and looked through the glass.

There was a room beyond, a living-room, half-parlour, half-kitchen. He could see most of it, and, like the shop, it was empty of human life. But there was a fire, a blazing, comfortable fire, on the hearth, that seemed to announce that the owner of the place was somewhere about; upstairs, perhaps, or in the back premises. And presently Jennison opened the door and called loudly:

“Hallo!”

His voice sounded curiously ghostly, he thought; it was as if he called where there was no possible chance of reply. Certainly he got none. He called again, and yet again, without result. And at that he pushed the door wide, and walked into the room and looked round.

There was another cat there—a she-cat, blinking on the hearth, benevolently regardful of a kitten that played about on the rug. Against the wall next to the shop, on a small side-table, were breakfast things---a tea-pot, a cup and saucer, plates, bread, toast, jam, bacon and egg. But Jennison saw at once that whoever it was that had sat there to break his or her fast, had been interrupted, suddenly, and by some urgent business. A knife and fork lay across a scarcely-touched slice of bacon on one plate; a round of dry toast had been just broken into; the cup was three-quarters full of tea; the top had been chipped off the egg, but the egg was uneaten. The very position of the chair showed that its occupant had risen suddenly from it, thrusting it aside, and had not returned to it. Whatever the reason was, the person who had sat down to egg and bacon, toast and tea, had suffered an abrupt breaking-in upon the meal, risen from it, and never come back to it.

By this time Jennison was so sure there was nobody about the place that he began to look round, leisurely. There was a sort of scullery or lobby behind the living-room, and in it an outer door, which stood half-open. He looked out of it into a long, narrow, high-walled passage that ran between houses, and gave, in the distance, on a street, and it immediately struck him that if the owner of the herbalist establishment had found reason to flee suddenly, this was the way by which he or she had gone. He turned from that to the staircase, which ran from the side of the living-room. To make sure that he really had the place to himself, he called up it two or three times. When no answer came, he walked up to a landing. A bedroom door stood wide, and Jennison crossed its threshold and looked round. The bed was neatly made, but across its coverlet were thrown female garments, tossed down anyway, as if they had been hastily discarded for others. They were the sort of garments that a woman would wear who had house-work to do—a print gown, a linen overall, suchlike. And in a chest of drawers against the wall, drawers were left wide open, as if other garments had been quickly snatched from them, and on the floor a hat-box lay with its lid off and tissue-paper wrappings thrown aside. Clearly, the owner of that house was a woman, and as she sat at her breakfast some message had come to her which made her leave her meal, rush upstairs, change her attire, and flee her own roof as if . . . as if she were not safe in it for one minute longer!

Jennison wasted no more time in looking round. There were other rooms opening off the landing, but he gave nothing but a glance at their closed doors. Hurrying downstairs, he went into the shop and from its threshold looked out on the street. It was a quiet, dismal street, that; there were few people about. But right opposite was a greengrocer’s shop, and the greengrocer himself was at its front, busily engaged in laying out his various wares. And Jennison closed the shop door behind him, and crossed the street. He accosted the greengrocer with a look and tone suggesting confidence and mystery: the greengrocer, ceasing from arranging his roots and fruits, looked over the way.

“Out?” he said. “I’m sure I can’t say, mister!” he answered. “I saw her take down her shutters at the usual time—half-past eight. She’s perhaps in the back?”

“No!” answered Jennison. “There isn’t a soul in the place---unless cats have souls. I’ve been downstairs and upstairs. There’s nobody there.”

“Then she must have gone out by the back way,” said the greengrocer. “There’s a passage at the rear, leading to another street. But---leaving the shop open! Not that there’s such a lot of custom,” he added, with a chuckle. “People don’t buy that sort of dried stuff as they buy this!”

He waved his hand at his own commodities, and Jennison, sizing him up as a man you could talk to freely, became more confidential.

“Look here!” he said. “I may as well tell you I’m a private inquiry agent. I want to know something about that place and its owner. It’s a woman, eh?”

“Mrs. Reegrater,” said the greengrocer readily. “Elderly woman.”

“You know her?”

“Just as you do know neighbours! Know her by sight, and as much as to pass the time of day with her---if I come across her. Quiet, retiring sort of person, she is---does a fair bit of business, I fancy, with working folks about here. They’re great believers in these herbalists, you know---believe in them and their stuff more than in doctors or chemists.”

“Has she been here long?” demanded Jennison.

“Well, not so long---as things go,” said the greengrocer. “Mother of two or three girls, maybe. But it’s my belief it’s not her business at all. I think it belongs to a lady that you see hereabouts pretty regular, a lady that’s generally there of an evening. Comes to take the day’s money, I expect.”

“What sort of a lady?” asked Jennison. “What’s she like?”

“Elderly! Tall, thinnish woman, very similar in appearance to Mrs. Reegrater; dresses usually in black. I saw her the other night. You can often see her if you’re about here---she’s generally across there till late---I’ve often seen her leaving. In fact, it’s only at night that you do see her---never see her in the day time, or close to.”

“You don’t know her name?” suggested Jennison.

“No more than I know yours, mister!” said the greengrocer. “But that’s London. You can live next door to a person for twenty years here and know nothing about name or business---unless it’s a shop. No! I don’t know the lady’s name. But, as I said, it’s my belief it’s her business, and Mrs. Reegrater just manages it.”

“Mrs. Reegrater lives alone?” asked Jennison.

“Except for a couple o’ cats, and a kitten now and then, yes. Quiet woman, as I said. Keeps herself to herself.”

Jennison made no remark on this. He was watching the shop opposite. Presently the greengrocer spoke again.

“Queer that she should go out like that, leaving nobody there!” he said musingly. “But there, she’s nobody to leave. And customers don’t tumble over each other across there, you know! One now and then---that’s how it is.”

Jennison was thinking. He had no doubt now that it was to that herbalist’s shop that Alfred Jakyn had gone when he came up Crowndale Road. Perhaps he had looked into its window out of mere curiosity while waiting for Syphax, and had seen inside somebody that he recognised; perhaps that somebody had been Mrs. Nicholas Jakyn; perhaps Syphax had purposely brought him there to see Mrs. Nicholas; perhaps . . . but it was idle to speculate. There were certain things that he now knew as facts---and he meant to make good use of them, to his own benefit.

“What time at night does this Mrs. Reegrater shut up shop?” he asked suddenly. “Early or late?”

“Oh, late!” answered the greengrocer. “Known her keep it open till twelve o’clock. Good part of her trade’s done at night. That lady I spoke about---she’s generally here very late---I’ve seen her leaving after eleven, many a time. She never leaves though, till after the shop’s closed. But what’s it all about, mister?”

“I’ll tell you later,” replied Jennison. “Serious matter---very. I’m just going to see if she’s come back.”

He went across the street and into the shop, and through the glass-paned door to the parlour. Everything was still as before, but on the hearthrug the kitten was chasing and frolicking with a crumpled ball of pink paper. Something prompted Jennison to pick that ball up and to smooth out the folds. And the next instant he found himself staring at a telegram on which was a message of three words:

Leave at once.

“And---she left!” muttered Jennison, with a cynical laugh. Didn’t stand on the order of her going, as they say. “O----” He paused as the clock in the shop began to strike. “By George!---eleven!” he exclaimed. “Trusford----”

Crumbling the telegram in his hand, he hurried out of the room and the house, and made round the corner of the street into Crowndale Road---to run, full tilt, into the arms of Womersley and Holaday.

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