Chapter XXII. The Secret Entrance

As may be guessed, Jennings was very vexed that Maraquito had escaped. He had posted his men at the front and back doors and also at the side entrance through which Senora Gredos in her disguise as Mrs. Herne had entered. He never considered for the moment that so clever a woman might have some way of escape other than he had guessed. "Yet I might have thought it," he said, when Cuthbert and he left the house. "I expect that place is like a rabbit-burrow. Maraquito always expected to be taken some day in spite of her clever assumption of helplessness. That was a smart dodge."

"How did you learn that she was shamming?"

"I only guessed so. I had no proof. But when I interviewed the pseudo Mrs. Herne at her Hampstead lodgings, she betrayed so much emotion when speaking of you that I guessed it was the woman herself. I only tried that experiment to see if she was really ill. If she had not moved I should have been done."

"It seems to me that you are done now," said Cuthbert angrily. He was not very pleased at the use Jennings had made of him.

"By no means. Maraquito will take refuge in a place I know of. She does not fancy I am aware of its existence. But I am on my way there now. You can come also if you like."

"No," said Mallow decisively, "so far as I am concerned, I have no further interest in these matters. I told you so the other day."

"Don't you wish to know who killed Miss Loach?"

Mallow hesitated, and wondered how much the detective knew. "Have you any clue to the assassin?" he asked.

Jennings shrugged his shoulders. "I can't say that. But I suspect the comers have something to do with the matter."

"The comers?"

"Ah! I know you have not learned much about them. I have no time now to talk, but you will see everything in the papers shortly. I can tell you, Mallow, there's going to be a row."

Mallow, like all young Englishmen, was fond of fighting, and his blood was at once afire to join in, but, on second thoughts, he resolved to stick to his original determination and stay away. It would be better, he thought, to let Jennings carry out his plans unhampered. In order, therefore, to preserve Basil's secret, Mallow nodded to the detective and went home. That night he spent wondering what had become of Maraquito.

Meantime, Jennings, with a dozen men, was on his way to Rexton. It was now after eleven, and the clock struck the half hour as they landed at Rexton Station. The police force of the suburb had been notified of the raid about to be made, and Inspector Twining was on the spot. He guided the party through the side path which terminated near Rose Cottage. The night was dark and rainy, but there were occasional gleams of moonlight. There was no light m the windows of Rose Cottage, and everything appeared to be quiet. Behind loomed the ruins of the unfinished house beneath which was the coining factory.

On the way to the spot Jennings conversed with Twining in low tones and detailed his experience with Maraquito.

"I am quite sure that she has gone to the factory," he said; "she does not think that I know about it. I fancy she will tell her pals that the game is up and the lot will light out for America."

"They may have gone by this time," suggested the inspector.

"I don't think so. Maraquito must have just arrived, if indeed she has come here. Besides, she will never guess that I know how to get into the place, or indeed think that I know of its existence."

"How did you guess?"

"Guess is a good word. I just did guess, Twining. From various facts which there is no time to tell you, I became convinced that there was a factory in existence. Also I fancied that the death of that old lady was connected with the preservation of the secret. But I only got at the hard facts the other day, when a girl called Grant -- "

"I remember. She gave evidence at the inquest."

"Precisely. Well, she brought me some plans belonging to her father which she found. He was engaged in a quiet job hereabouts five years ago, and died when it was finished. He was poisoned with arsenic."

"What! like that man Tyke?"

"Yes. The person who runs this show -- Maraquito, I think -- evidently has a partiality for that extremely painful poison. Well, this workman having constructed the secret entrance, was got out of the way by death, so that the secret might be preserved. And I guess Miss Loach was settled also in case she might give the alarm."

"But if the secret entrance is in the cottage," said Twining, "this old woman may have been aware of its existence."

"Certainly, and was about to split when she was killed. At least, that is my theory."

"She must have been in with the gang."

"I have never been able to fix that," said Jennings thoughtfully. "I know she was a lady and of good birth. Also she had money, although she condemned herself to this existence as a hermit. Why she should let Maraquito and her lot construct a secret entrance I can't understand. However, we'll know the truth to-night. But you can now guess, Twining, how the bell came to be sounded."

"No, I can't," said the inspector, promptly.

"I forgot. You don't know that the secret entrance is in the room where Miss Loach was murdered. Well, one of the gang, after the death, sounded the bell to call attention to the corpse, and then slipped away before Susan Grant could get to the room."

"But why should this person have sounded the bell?"

"That is what I have to find out. There's a lot to learn here."

"Have you any idea who killed Miss Loach?"

"Maraquito, under the disguise of Mrs. Herne."

"Was she Mrs. Herne?"

"Yes. She masqueraded as an invalid who could not leave her couch, but I managed to get at the truth to-night."

"But from the evidence at the inquest, Mrs. Herne was out of the house when the blow was struck."

"Quite so: But we did not know of this secret entrance then. I fancy she came back -- "

"But how can you -- "

"There's no more time to talk," interrupted Jennings. "We must get to work as soon as possible. Order your men to surround the house."

"And the park also?"

"We have not enough men for that. And I don't think there's any other exit from the factory save that through Rose Cottage. If there was, Maraquito and her two friends would not have played whist so persistently with Miss Loach every night."

"It was three times a week, I think."

"Well, it doesn't matter. Here we are." Jennings opened the garden gate and walked boldly up the path towards the silent house. The men, under the low-spoken directions of Twining, spread themselves round the house so as to arrest any comer who might attempt escape. Then the detective rang the bell. There was no answer for a few minutes. He rang again.

A window in the cottage was opened cautiously, and the head of Mrs. Pill, in a frilled nightcap of gigantic size, was thrust out. "Is that you, Thomas, coming home at this late hour the worse for drink, you idle wretch, and me almost dead with want of sleep."

"It's a message from your husband, Mrs. Barnes," said Jennings, signing to Twining to keep out of sight. "Come and open the door, and I'll tell you what has happened."

"Oh, lor! is Thomas gone the way of flesh?" wailed Mrs. Barnes, formerly Pill. "Come to the cottage door."

"No. Open this one," said Jennings, who had his own reasons for this particular entrance being made use of. "You know me -- "

"Mr. Jennings, as was in the case of my pore, dear, dead lady. Of course I knows you, sir, and the fact as you are police makes me shudder to think as Thomas is jailed for drink. Wait one moment, sir. I'll hurry on a petticoat and shawl. How good of you to come, sir."

When the window shut down, Jennings bent towards the inspector, who was crouching on the other side of the steps. "This woman is innocent," he whispered. "She knows nothing, else she would not admit us so quickly."

"It may be a blind, Jennings. She may have gone to give the gang warning, you know."

"I don't know," retorted the detective sharply. "I am quite sure that Mrs. Barnes doesn't even know her husband Thomas is one of the lot. I don't care if she does give warning either, if your surmise is correct. All our men are round the house, and if any of the gang escape we can collar them."

"That is supposing there isn't another exit from the unfinished house," muttered Twining, anxious to have the last word.

Mrs. Barnes appeared at the door in a brilliant red petticoat, a white woollen shawl, and the cap aforesaid. Her feet were thrust into carpet slippers and she carried a candle. "An' it is good of you, sir, to come 'ere and tell me that Thomas is in jail, he being-"

"We can talk of that inside," said the detective, pushing past her. "I suppose you don't mind my friend coming in."

Mrs. Barnes almost dropped when she saw the second person, especially when she noted the uniform. "It must be murder at least," she wailed, almost dropping the candle in her fright; "lor! do tell me, sir, that Thomas have not murdered anyone."

"Lead us down to the sitting-room and we'll tell you, Mrs. Barnes."

"I can't do that, sir, Mr. Clancy may be 'ome any moment"

"Isn't he at home now?"

"Bless you, no, Mr. Jennings, he being fond of goin' out, not that he's an old man, and why shouldn't he enjoy hisself. Not that a woman could wish for a better lodger, though he only bin 'ere a week or so, he givin' no trouble and havin' a latch-key."

"I want to see Mr. Clancy also," said Jennings impatiently, while Twining turned on the electric light in the hall. "Take us down to the basement."

The woman would have objected again, but from the stern expression on her visitors' faces she judged that it would be wiser to obey. She descended, candle in hand, turning on the lights as she went down. In the sitting-room she paused and faced the detective. "Do tell me what's wrong, sir?" she asked. "Thomas is a fool, but we're newly wed and I shouldn't like anything to 'appen to 'im, though he do take fondly-like to the bottle."

"When did Thomas go out?"

"At eight, and Mr. Clancy at nine, though Mr. Clancy havin' a latch-key, don't give me trouble lettin' him in which Thomas does."

"Ah!" said Jennings, with a side-glance at the inspector, "so your husband goes out often?"

"He do, sir. Three times a week. I 'ave tried to break 'im of these larky 'abits but he won't do what I arsks him. I wish I'd stopped at bein' Pill," wailed Mrs. Barnes, wiping her eyes. "An' if Thomas is drunk and bail bein' required -- "

"I don't know if your husband is drunk or sober," interrupted Jennings. "We are on a different errand. Tell me, Mrs. Barnes, do you know if Miss Loach had a secret entrance to this room?"

"Lor no, sir," cried the woman, casting a surprised glance round, "whatever would she 'ave that for, pore dear?"

"The furniture is oddly placed," said Twining.

And indeed it was. Tables and chairs and sofa were ranged in two lines on either side of the room, leaving the middle portion bare. The floor was covered with a Turkey carpet down the centre, but the sides of the floor were without covering. Mrs. Barnes explained this.

"Miss Loach liked to 'ave things straight this way for the night, bein' of tidy 'abits. She thought the floor bein' clear left the 'ousemaid, who was Geraldine, room to sweep and dust thoroughly. Mr. Clancy 'ave the same fancy, though being a man as tidy as ever was."

"Strange Mr. Clancy should be tidy," said Jennings drily. "He certainly is not so in his dress. Now the best thing you can do, Mrs. Barnes, is to go to bed."

"An' leave you 'ere," screeched the cook indignantly. "Why, whatever would Mr. Clancy say, he being respectable."

"Very good then, you can stop here. Stand on one side, Twining, and you, Mrs. Barnes. Both of you stand on the bare floor near the wall."

Considerably surprised, Mrs. Barnes did as she was told, and uttered a cry when she saw the floor begin to move. Jennings, who was pressing a button at the end of the room, stopped. "Take her upstairs, Twining. She will alarm the gang!"

"Alarm who?" cried the cook, struggling with the inspector. "Whatever do you mean? Shame -- shame to 'old a defenceless lady. 'Elp!"

But her cries for help were unheeded. Twining bore her up the stairs and summoned one of his men. In a few minutes Mrs. Barnes was safely locked up in her own bedroom in the cottage, a prey to terrors. Poor woman, being innocent, she could not understand the meaning of this midnight visit, nor indeed the mysterious moving of the floor. It had never happened so before within her recollection.

Twining came down with six men, leaving the others to guard the exits from the house and garden. At the door of the sitting-room he stopped at the head of those he was bringing. At his feet yawned a gulf in which steps appeared. The whole of the centre of the floor had disappeared into the wall opposite to the fireplace, and the rough steps led down into a kind of passage that ran in the direction of the unfinished house. "This is the entrance," said Jennings, "it works from a concealed button on the wall. Electricity is used. You see why the sides of the floor are left bare; the carpet has quite disappeared. But we have no time to lose," he jumped down lightly. "Come along men, hurry up."

"As we will be at a disadvantage, we may as well get our barkers out," said the inspector, and the men produced revolvers. Then they went into the burrow at the tail of the intrepid Jennings.

That gentleman stole along the narrow passage: It ran straightly for a few yards and then took a turn to the right. The ground continued to slope for some distance until it terminated in a heavy door of wood. Jennings fancied this might be locked, and felt a pang of disappointment. But it proved to be merely closed to. Apparently the comers were so sure of their safety that they did not trouble to keep the door locked. The detective opened it gently, and with the men close at his heels stole forward. He held his revolver lightly in his right hand, ready for emergencies. The passage was quite dark, but being narrow, the men had no hesitation in going forward. Some way down, after leaving the door, the passage branched into two ways, for Jennings came against a wall directly ahead. Wondering what this meant, he struck a match, and the blue light revealed one passage running down to the left and another opening up to the right. While the detective hesitated which to take, the darkness was suddenly illuminated with the glare of lamps. From a dozen electric lights at the sides of the passage sprang a white glow. At the further end of the sloping passage appeared the figure of a man. He gave a shout when the figures of the police were revealed in the sudden illumination and vanished suddenly. There was not a moment to be lost. Jennings, crying to his men, dashed ahead. As he neared the end of the burrow, for it was nothing else, a pistol shot rang out and he felt as though his shoulder had been pierced with a red-hot iron. But the wound did not stop him.

"Quick, men -- quick! Some stop and guard the double way. They will try and escape that way."

His orders were obeyed with precision, and two men stopped behind, while the rest, with Twining at their head, pressed forward. They ran against another door, but it also was open, as the watching man had not had time to close it. Through this the police poured, and found themselves in a large, dry cellar, brilliantly lighted. On every hand were the evidences of the pursuits of the gang. But no one had time to take in details. The startled and infuriated comers were fighting for their liberty. In a moment the lights were out, but not before Jennings saw Clancy and Hale at the far end of the cellar, with white faces and levelled revolvers. There were other men also. Shots rang out, but in the darkness everyone fired at random. The comers strove to force their way to the door, evidently anxious to gain the forked passage, so that they could escape by one of the two exits. Twining uncovered his lantern and flashed the light round. It converted him into a target and he fell, shot through the heart by Hale. The other men made a dash for liberty, but the police also producing their lights, managed to seize them. At last Hale, apparently seeing there was no chance of escaping in the gloom, turned on the electric lights again, and the illumination revealed a cellar filled with struggling men. Jennings made for Clancy, as it struck him that this man, in spite of the foolish look on his face, was the prime agent. Clancy fired and missed. Then he strove to close with Jennings. The latter hammered him over the head with the butt of his revolver. Shouts and oaths came from the infuriated thieves, but the police fought like bulldogs, with tenacious courage, silent and grim.

"Hold them -- hold them!" cried Jennings, as he went down.

"I'll do for you this time," said Hale between his teeth, and flung himself forward, but Jennings struggled valiantly. The comer was over him, and trying to get at his revolver which had fallen in the fight. Jennings waited till he stretched, then fired upward. Hale gave a yell of agony, and throwing up his arms, fell on one side. Wounded, and in great pain, Jennings rose. He had just time to see Clancy in the grip of two policemen, fighting desperately, when his senses left him and he fainted. The shouts and oaths and shots rang out wildly and confusedly as he lost consciousness.