Chapter XIII. Jeekes
 

Mr. Albert Edward Jeekes, Hartley Parrish's principal private secretary, lunched with Lady Margaret, Mary and Horace. Dr. Romain seemed not to have got over his embarrassment of the morning, for he did not put in an appearance.

Mr. Jeekes was an old young man who supported bravely the weight of his Christian names, a reminder of his mother having occupied some small post in the household of Queen Victoria the Good. He might have been any age between 35 and 50 with his thin sandy hair, his myopic gaze, and his habitual expression of worried perplexity.

He was a shorthand-writer and typist of incredible dexterity and speed which, combined with an unquenchable energy, had recommended him to Hartley Parrish. Accordingly, in consideration of a salary which he would have been the first to describe as "princely," he had during the past four years devoted some fifteen hours a day to the service of Mr. Hartley Parrish.

He was unmarried. When not on duty, either at St. James's Square, Harkings, or Hartley Parrish's palatial offices in Broad Street, he was to be found at one of those immense and gloomy clubs of indiscriminate membership which are dotted about the parish of St. James's, S.W., and to which Mr. Jeekes was in the habit of referring in Early-Victorian accents of respect.

"When I heard the news at the club, Miss Trevert," said Jeekes, "you could have knocked me down with a feather. Mr. Parrish, as all of us knew, worked himself a great deal too hard, sometimes not knocking off for his tea, even, and wore his nerves all to pieces. But I never dreamed it would come to this. Ah! he's a great loss, and what we shall do without him I don't know. There was a piece in one of the papers about him to-day--perhaps you saw it?--it called him 'one of the captains of industry of modern England.'"

"You were always a great help to him, Mr. Jeekes," said Mary, who was touched by the little man's hero-worship; "I am sure you realized that he appreciated you."

"Well," replied Mr. Jeekes, rubbing the palms of his hands together, "he did a great deal for me. Took me out of a City office where I was getting two pound five a week. That's what he did. It was a shipping firm. I tell you this because it has a bearing, Miss Trevert, on what is to follow. Why did he pick me? I'll tell you.

"He was passing through the front office with one of our principals when he asked him, just casually, what Union Pacific stood at. The boss didn't know.

"'A hundred and eighty-seven London parity,' says I. He turned round and looked at me. 'How do you know that?' says he, rather surprised, this being in a shipping office, you understand.

"'I take an interest in the markets,' I replied. 'Do you?' he says. 'Then you might do for me,' and tells me to come and see him."

"I went. He made me an offer. When I heard the figure ... my word!"

Mr. Jeekes paused. Then added sadly:

"And I had meant to work for him to my dying day!"

They were in the billiard-room seated on the selfsame settee, Mary reflected, on which she and Robin had sat--how long ago it seemed, though only yesterday! Mary had carried the secretary off after luncheon in order to unfold to him a plan which she had been turning over in her mind ever since her conversation with the detective.

"And what are you going to do now, Mr. Jeekes?" she asked.

The little man pursed up his lips.

"Well," he said, "I'll have to get something else, I expect. I'm not expecting to find anything so good as I had with Mr. Parrish. And things are pretty crowded in the City, Miss Trevert, what with all the boys back from the war, God bless 'em, and glad we are to see 'em, I'm sure. I hope you'll realize, Miss Trevert, that anything I can do to help to put Mr. Parrish's affairs straight...."

"I was just about to say," Mary broke in, "that I hope you will not contemplate any change, Mr. Jeekes. You know more about Mr. Parrish's affairs than anybody else, and I shall be very glad if you will stay on and help me. You know I have been left sole executrix...."

"Miss Trevert,"--the little man stammered in his embarrassment,--"this is handsome of you. I surely thought you would have wished to make your own arrangements, appoint your own secretaries...."

Mr. Jeekes broke off and looked at her, blinking hard.

"Not at all," said Mary. "Everything shall be as it was. I am sure that Mr. Bardy will approve. Besides, Mr. Jeekes, I want your assistance in something else...."

"Anything in my power...." began Jeekes.

"Listen," said Mary.

She was all her old self-composed self now, a charming figure in her plain blue serge suit with a white silken shirt and black tie--the best approach to mourning her wardrobe could afford. Already the short winter afternoon was drawing in. Mysterious shadows lurked in the corners of the long and narrow room.

"Listen," said Mary, leaning forward. "I want to know why Mr. Parrish killed himself. I mean to know. And I want you, Mr. Jeekes, to help me to find out,"

Something stirred ever so faintly in the remote recesses of the billiard-room. A loose board or something creaked softly and was silent.

"What was that?" the girl called out sharply. "Who's there?"

Mr. Jeekes got up and walked over to the door. It was ajar. He closed it.

"Just a board creaking," he said as he resumed his seat.

"I want your aid in finding out the motive for this terrible deed,"--Mary Trevert was speaking again,--"I can't understand.... I don't see clear...."

"Miss Trevert," said Mr. Jeekes, clearing his throat fussily, "I fear we must look for the motive in the state of poor Mr. Parrish's nerves. An uncommonly high-strung man he always was, and he smoked those long black strong cigars of his from morning till night. Sir Winterton Maire told him flatly--Mr. Parrish, I recollect, repeated his very words to me after Sir Winterton had examined him--that, if he did not take a complete rest and give up smoking, he would not be answerable for the consequences. Therefore, Miss Trevert...."

"Mr. Jeekes," answered the girl, "I knew Mr. Parrish pretty well. A woman, you know, gets to the heart of a man's character very often quicker than his daily associates in business. And I know that Mr. Parrish was the last man in the world to have done a thing like that. He was so ... so undaunted. He made nothing of difficulties. He relied wholly on himself. That was the secret of his success. For him to have killed himself like this makes me feel convinced that there was some hidden reason, far stronger, far more terrible, than any question of nerves...."

Leaning forward, her hands clasped tightly in front of her, Mary Trevert raised her dark eyes to the little secretary's face.

"Many men have a secret in their lives," she said in a low voice. "Do you know of anything in Mr. Parrish's life which an enemy might have made use of to drive him to his death?"

Her manner was so intense that Mr. Jeekes quite lost his self-composure. He clutched at his pince-nez and readjusted them upon his nose to cover his embarrassment. The secretary was not used to gazing at beautiful women whose expressive features showed as clearly as this the play of the emotions.

"Miss Trevert," he said presently, "I know of no such secret. But then what do I--what does any one--know of Mr. Parrish's former life?"

"We might make enquiries in South Africa?" ventured the girl.

"I doubt if we should learn anything much through that," said the secretary. "Of course, Mr. Parrish had great responsibilities and responsibility means worry...."

A silence fell on them both. From somewhere in the dark shadows above the fire glowing red through the falling twilight a clock chimed once. There was a faint rustling from the neighborhood of the door. Mr. Jeekes started violently. A coal dropped noisily into the fireplace.

"There was something else," said Mary, ignoring the interruption, and paused. She did not look up when she spoke again.

"There is often a woman in cases like this," she began reluctantly.

Mr. Jeekes looked extremely uncomfortable.

"Miss Trevert," he said, "I beg you will not press me on that score...."

"Why?" asked the girl bluntly.

"Because ... because"--Mr. Jeekes stumbled sadly over his words--"because, dear me, there are some things which really I couldn't possibly discuss ... if you'll excuse me...."

"Oh, but you can discuss everything, Mr. Jeekes," replied Mary Trevert composedly. "I am not a child, you know. I am perfectly well aware that there's a woman somewhere in the life of every man, very often two or three. I haven't got any illusions on the subject, I assure you. I never supposed for a moment that I was the first woman in Mr. Parrish's life...."

This candour seemed to administer a knock-out blow to the little secretary's Victorian mind. He was speechless. He took off his pince-nez, blindly polished them with his pocket-handkerchief and replaced them upon his nose. His fingers trembled violently.

"I have no wish to appear vulgarly curious," the girl went on,--Mr. Jeekes made a quick gesture of dissent,--"but I am anxious to know whether Mr. Parrish was being blackmailed ... or anything like that...."

"Oh, no, Miss Trevert, I do assure you," the little man expostulated in hasty denial, "nothing like that, I am convinced. At least, that is to say ..."

He rose to his feet, clutching the little attaché case which he invariably carried with him as a kind of emblem of office.

"And now, if you'll excuse me, Miss Trevert," he muttered, "I should really be going. I am due at Mr. Bardy's office at five o'clock. He is coming up from the country specially to meet me. There is so much to discuss with regard to this terrible affair."

He glanced at his watch.

"With the roads as greasy as they are," he added, "it will take me all my time in the car to ..."

He cast a panic-striken glance around him. But Mary Trevert held him fast.

"You didn't finish what you were saying about Mr. Parrish, Mr. Jeekes," she said impassively. The secretary made no sign. But he looked a trifle sullen.

"I don't think you realize, Mr. Jeekes," she said, "that other people besides myself are keenly interested in the motives for Mr. Parrish's suicide. The police profess to be willing to accept the testimony of the specialists as satisfactory medical evidence about his state of mind. But I distrust that man, Manderton. He is not satisfied, Mr. Jeekes. He won't rest until he knows the truth."

The secretary cast her a frightened glance.

"But Mr. Manderton told me himself, Miss Trevert," he affirmed, "that the verdict would be, 'Suicide while temporarily insane,' on Sir Winterton Maire's evidence alone ..."

Mary Trevert tapped the ground impatiently with her foot.

"Manderton will get at the truth, I tell you," she said. "He's that kind of man. Do you want me to find out from them? At the inquest, perhaps?"

The secretary put his attaché case down on the lounge again.

"Of course, that would be most improper, Miss Trevert," he said. "But your question embarrasses me. It embarrasses me very much ..."

"What are you keeping back from me, Mr. Jeekes?" the girl demanded imperiously.

The secretary mopped his forehead with his handkerchief. Then, as though with an effort, he spoke.

"There is a lady, a French lady, who draws an income from Mr. Parrish ..."

The girl remained impassive, but her eyes grew rather hard.

"These payments are still going on?" she asked.

Jeekes hesitated. Then he nodded,

"Yes," he said.

"Well? Was she blackmailing ... him?"

"No, no," Mr. Jeekes averred hastily. "But there was some unpleasantness some months ago ... er ... a county court action, to be precise, about some bills she owed. Mr. Parrish was very angry about it and settled to prevent it coming into court. But there was some talk about it ... in legal circles ..."

He threw a rather scared glance at the girl.

"Please explain yourself, Mr. Jeekes," she said coldly. "I don't understand ..."

"Her lawyer was Le Hagen--it's a shady firm with a big criminal practice. They sometimes brief Mr. Greve ..."

Mary Trevert clasped and unclasped her hands quickly.

"I quite understand, Mr. Jeekes," she said. "You needn't say any more ..."

She turned away in a manner that implied dismissal. It was as though she had forgotten the secretary's existence. He picked up his attaché case and walked slowly to the door.

A sharp exclamation broke from his lips.

"Miss Trevert," he cried, "the door ... I shut it a little while back ... look, it's ajar!"

The girl who stood at the fire switched on the electric light by the mantelpiece.

"Is ... is ... the door defective? Doesn't it shut properly?"

The little secretary forced out the questions in an agitated voice.

The girl walked across the room and shut the door. It closed perfectly, a piece of solid, well-fitting oak.

"What does it mean?" said Mr. Jeekes in a whisper. "You understand, I should not wish what I told you just now about Mr. Parrish to be overheard ..."

They opened the door again. The dusky corridor was empty.