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   Chapter 27 AN AMATEUR DETECTIVE.

In Friendship's Guise By William Murray Graydon Characters: 11909

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


On the day of the inquiry at Great Marlborough street, about five o'clock in the afternoon, Jimmie Drexell walked slowly and thoughtfully up the Quadrant. The weather had turned cold, and his top hat and fur-lined coat gave him the appearance of an actor in luck. He was bound on a peculiar errand, and though he hoped to succeed, he was not blind to the fact that the odds were very much against him.

"I shall probably put my foot in it somehow," he reflected dolefully, "and make a mess of the thing. But if I fail, it won't convince me that I am wrong. I had my eye on that woman in court, and she was certainly keeping something back. She seemed confused-in dread of some question that was never asked. And once or twice I thought she was on the point of making some startling revelation. I must play a cunning game, for poor old Jack's sake. If Mrs. Rickett can't save him, and the police don't find the mysterious stranger, I'm afraid he will be in a devilish bad way."

Jimmie turned into Beak street, and pulled the bell of Number 324. He waited several minutes before the landlady came, and then she opened the door but a couple of inches, and peered distrustfully out. Jimmie craftily thrust a foot in, so that the door could not be closed.

"You do not know me, madam," he said, "but I come as a friend. I wish to have a short conversation with you."

Mrs. Rickett's distrust turned to alarm. In her agitation she retreated a little, and Jimmie carried the first outworks and entered the hall.

"I must talk to you privately," he added. "We may be overheard here."

In a tremulous voice the landlady invited him to follow her, and she led the way to a cozy apartment on the ground floor that was half kitchen and half sitting-room. A kettle was steaming merrily on the fire, and overhead an ominous red stain was visible on the ceiling.

Mrs. Rickett sank limply into a chair, and Jimmie, after closing the door and removing his hat, seated himself opposite. He assumed an air of grave importance.

"My good woman, perhaps you can guess why I am here," he began. "I was present to-day at Great Marlborough street police-court. I watched the proceedings closely, and my experience in such cases, and my infallible sense of discrimination, enabled me to make a discovery." He paused for breath, and to note the effect of his peroration; he wondered if the words were right. "I am satisfied," he went on, "that the evidence you gave-"

"Oh, Lor', it's come! it's come!" interrupted Mrs. Rickett. "I knew it would! I've been in fear and tremblin'! Why didn't I speak at the right time? Indeed, I tried to, but I sorter got choked up! Oh, sir, have pity on a lone widow!"

Her face grew white, and she gasped for breath; she threatened to go into a fit of hysterics.

"Come, come; there is nothing to be alarmed about," said Jimmie, who could scarcely hide his delight. "Take comfort, my good woman. You may have been foolish and thoughtless, but I am sure you have done nothing criminal. I am here as a friend, and you can trust me. I wish to learn the truth-that is all. From motives which I can understand, you kept back some important evidence in connection with this sad tragedy-"

"I did, sir-I don't deny it. I didn't tell what I should, though I nearly got the words out a 'eap of times. Please don't carry me off to prison, sir. I knowed you was a police officer in disguise the minute I clapped eyes on you-"

"I have nothing to do with the police," Jimmie assured her.

"Really? Then perhaps you're a detective-a private one?"

"Yes, it is something like that. I am making inquiries privately, in behalf of my unfortunate friend."

"Meaning Mr. Vernon."

"That's right. I am convinced of his innocence, and I want to prove it. You need have no fear. On the contrary, if you tell me freely all that you know, you shall be well rewarded."

Mrs. Rickett took comfort, and fervently declared that her visitor was a real gentleman. She offered him a cup of tea, which he tactfully accepted, and then fortified her inner self with one, preliminary to making her statement.

"I'm that flustered I 'ardly know what I'm doing," she began, wiping her lips with a corner of her apron. "As to why I didn't speak before, it's just this, sir. I liked that young man's face, 'im I met comin' out of my 'ouse that night, and I thought afterward the woman might 'ave done 'im a bitter wrong, which, of course, ain't excusin' 'im for the dreadful crime of murder, and I wouldn't 'ave you think it-"

"Then you know something that might be harmful to Mr. Vernon?" Jimmie interrupted. He began to suspect the situation.

"That's it, sir!"

"But, my good woman, Mr. Vernon is absolutely innocent. Take my word for it. The other man, who left the house just before my friend, is the guilty person."

"I didn't believe in that other man at first," Mrs. Rickett replied; "but it looks like the story might be true, after all. And if it is-"

"Well?"

"Then I can tell something about him; leastwise I think so."

"Go on!" Jimmie said, eagerly.

"I 'eard it from that French woman, Dinah Mer-I never can pernounce the name," continued Mrs. Rickett. "Pore creature, what a 'orrible end; though it's a mercy it was so sudden like. But, as I was saying, sir, she lodged in my 'ouse last spring, and she come back only three days before the murder. She never 'ad much to say for 'erself, an' I judged she was stiff and proud. You'll believe I was taken all aback, then, when she walked into this 'ere very room one evening-it was last Thursday, the day before the murder-an' takes off her cloak as cool as you please. 'Mrs. Rickett,' she says, 'I'm feelin' badly. Can you give me a cup of tea?' Of course I says yes. I was 'aving my own tea at the time, and I asked 'er to join me, sociable like. By an' by she got to tellin' me about 'erself. It appears she wasn't really French, but was born at Dunwold, a vil

lage in Sussex, an' lived there till she was grown up, after which she went abroad. Then she says to me, of a sudden: 'I met a man to-day-'"

"One moment!" Jimmie interrupted. He took a note-book and pencil from his pocket, and jotted down a few lines. "Please resume now," he added. "What did the deceased tell you?"

"She told me that she'd met a man on Regent street from her native English village, meaning Dunwold," Mrs. Rickett went on, "and that he give her a bad fright. 'Is he an enemy of yours?' I asked. 'Yes, a bitter one,' she says, 'an' I'm mortal afraid of him. An' the worst of it is I'm sure he saw me, though I give 'im the slip by going into Swan and Edgar's at one door and out at another. If he finds me, Mrs. Rickett, 'e'll kill me.' I told 'er not to worrit 'erself, an' I clean furgot the matter till the next night, when the pore dear creature was stabbed to the 'eart. I thought I should 'ave lost my 'ead, what with the crowds that gathered, an' the police in the 'ouse, an' the doctors a viewin' the departed corpse, an'-"

Jimmie checked her by a gesture.

"Are you sure you have told me everything?" he asked.

"Every blessed word, sir. It's the first and only time the woman spoke to me of 'erself."

Jimmie jotted down a few more notes, and his hand shook like a leaf, so greatly was he thrilled by the value of his discovery. Then he put Mrs. Rickett through a cross-examination, in what he flattered himself was a strictly legal style. Certainly Mr. Tenby could not have done it better, for the landlady had nothing more to tell.

"I 'ope you're satisfied," she said. "And you won't forget what you promised-that I shouldn't get into trouble?"

"I'll see to that," Jimmie replied. "It can be easily managed. I trust that what you have told me will lead to the acquittal of my friend. Here are ten pounds for you, and, if all goes well, I shall probably add to it at another time."

The landlady thrust the bank notes into her broad bosom. She was overpowered by the munificence of the gift, and poured out her gratitude copiously.

"I've just recollected something," she went on. "There's a secret closet in the room where the pore woman lodged, an' last spring I 'appened to show it to 'er. It sort of took 'er fancy, and-"

"Did the police find it or examine it?" cried Jimmie.

"No, sir. I forgot to speak of it."

"Let me see it, please! It may lead to something of importance."

Mrs. Rickett willingly conducted her visitor through the hall and up the staircase. A sense of the recent tragedy seemed to haunt the room, with its drawn curtains and tawdry furnishings, and the dark stain on the floor. The landlady shuddered, and glanced fearfully around. She made haste to open a narrow closet, and to slide open a disguised panel at the back of it, which disclosed a small recess. Jimmie, who was at her shoulder, uttered a cry of surprise. He saw a gleam of white, and reached for it quickly. He drew out an envelope, unaddressed and sealed, with contents of a bulky nature.

"Bless me! She did 'ide something!" gasped Mrs. Rickett. "What can it be?"

"Writing, perhaps," replied Jimmie. "Will you permit me to have this, Mrs. Rickett? I will examine it at my leisure, and tell you about it later."

"I've no objections, sir," the landlady replied, as another five-pound note was slipped into her hand. "Take it and welcome!"

Jimmie thanked her, and pocketed the envelope.

"I will see you again," he said, "and tell you whether I succeed or fail. And, meanwhile, I must ask you to keep my visit a strict secret-to inform no one of what you have told me. And don't breathe a whisper in regard to anything being found in the murdered woman's room. Keep your own counsel."

"I'll do that, sir, never fear. I'm a close-mouthed woman, and know how to hold my tongue, which there ain't many females can say the same. And I'm sure you'll do the right thing by me."

"I will, indeed," Jimmie promised. "You shan't have cause to regret your confidence. And if I can clear my friend through the assistance you have given me, I will be more liberal than I have been on this occasion."

"Thank you, sir, and I 'ope with all my 'eart you'll find the guilty man," Mrs. Rickett declared, vehemently. "I never did think Mr. Vernon murdered that pore creature. Ah, but it's a wicked world!"

She accompanied her visitor to the door, showered further effusive gratitude upon him, and gazed after him till he had turned the corner. Overjoyed by his unexpected success, hopeful of achieving great results, Jimmie strode down Regent street, amid the lights and the crowds. The crisp, cold air had dried the pavements, and the stars shone from a clear sky.

"What luck!" he thought, exultantly. "It was a happy inspiration to go there to-night! Gad, I ought to be in Scotland Yard! There is no doubt that the man who killed Diane was the same fellow she met the day before. He hailed from her native village, and of course he was a discarded lover. It is even possible that he was her husband, in the days before she went to Paris, became a dancer, and married Jack. I must utilize the information to the best advantage. The first thing is to run down to Dunwold, find out all I can, and then put the police on the track. For the present I will dispense with their services, though it seems a bit risky to take matters into my own hands. But I rather fancy the idea of playing detective, and I'll have a go at the business. I won't tell the solicitor what I have discovered, but I think it will be wise to confide in Sir Lucius Chesney. By the bye, he lives somewhere in Sussex. He may be able to help me at the start."

Jimmie remembered the mysterious envelope in his pocket, and it occurred to him that the contents might alter the whole situation, and make a trip to Dunwold unnecessary. He walked faster, impatient to reach the Albany and investigate his prize in safety.

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