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—”