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In Friendship's Guise By William Murray Graydon Characters: 8977

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

It had rained most of the afternoon, and then cleared off beautifully just before twilight. Strand-on-the-Green, ever changeful of mood, was this evening as fresh and sweet-smelling as a bit of the upper Thames-as picturesque as any waterside village a hundred miles from London.

By the grassy margin of the river, between Maynard's boat-house and the elm trees, Jack Vernon strolled impatiently up and down. He was in low spirits, and the beauty of the evening was wasted on him. He had been here for fifteen minutes, and he told himself that he had been a fool to come at all, at such an hour. He waited a little longer, and then, as he was on the point of leaving, he heard light footsteps approaching, and recognized them with a lover's keen perception. He hurried to meet the slim, girlish figure, with a light cloak fluttering from her shoulders, and Madge's little cry of pleasure was stifled on her lips as he kissed them again and again.

"My darling!" he whispered eagerly. "I scarcely dared to hope that you would come to-night, but I could not stay away. Do you know that you have treated me cruelly? I have not seen you for two days-since Wednesday afternoon. And I have been here twice."

"I am sorry, Jack, but I could not help it. I missed you ever so much."

"Where is your father?"

"He is not at home-that is why I came. He is dining in town with an old friend, and won't be back until the last train, at the very earliest."

"I am indebted to him. I was hungry for a sight of you, dearest."

"And I longed to see you, Jack. But I am afraid we shall not be able to meet as often as before."

"Madge, what do you mean? Has anything gone wrong?"

The girl linked her arm in his, and drew him to a darker and lonelier spot by the water. In a few words, tremulously spoken, she told him what he had already surmised-that her father had discovered her secret, and had taxed her with it when he came home on the previous evening.

"By Jove, it was my fault," Jack said, contritely. "I should not have tempted you to go on that unlucky trip last Tuesday. So you were seen near Richmond station by some meddlesome individual-probably when you got out of the trap! But it may turn out for the best; your father could not have been kept in ignorance much longer. Was he angry?"

"Yes, Jack; but he seemed more hurt and grieved. Oh, it was such a wretched time!"

"My poor girl! Does-does he want you to give me up?"

"He forbade me to see you again."

"And you are here!"

"Did you expect me to obey him?"

"What did you tell him, dearest?"

"All-everything. I spoke up bravely, Jack. I told him I was a woman now, and that I loved you with all my heart, and intended to marry you!"

"My own plucky Madge! And I suppose that made him the more angry?"

"No; my defiance surprised him-he thought I would yield. He talked about ingratitude, and called me a foolish girl who did not know her own mind. He looked awfully sad and stern, Jack, but when I kissed him and begged him not to be angry, he melted a little."

"And gave in?"

"No, neither of us yielded; we agreed to a sort of a tacit truce. Father did not speak of the matter again, and he went to town very early this morning, before I was up. He left word with Mrs. Sedgewick that he would not be back until late. I was sure he would go to your studio."

"I have not seen him," replied Jack; "but I hope he will come. If he doesn't I shall call on him and ask for your hand, and without delay. It is the only honorable course. Until I set things right with him, and satisfy him of my intentions, I can't blame him for thinking all sorts of evil of me."

"If he knew you as I know you, dear!"

"But he doesn't," Jack said, bitterly. "Is it likely that he will consent to let you marry a poor artist? No. But I can't-I won't-give you up, Madge!"

The girl rested her hands on his shoulders, and looked trustfully into his face.

"Dear Jack, don't worry," she whispered. "It will all come right in the end. We love each other, and we will be true. Nothing shall part us. I am yours always, and some day I will be your wife. Promise that you will believe me-that you will never be afraid of losing me!"

"I do believe you, darling," Jack said, fervently. "You have made me happy again-your words have driven the clouds away. I could not live without you, Madge. Since I have known you the whole world seems brighter and better. For your sake I am going to make a name and

a fortune."

He kissed her passionately, and for a few moments they stood watching the incoming tide, and talking in a lighter vein. Then they parted, and Madge slipped away toward the old house with its guardian elm trees. The memory of her last words cheered Jack as he walked to the high-road and thence to his studio. Alphonse had prepared him a tempting little supper, and he did not go to town that night.

The next morning London awoke to a new sensation, which quite eclipsed the week-old theft of the Duchess of Hightower's jewels and the recent mysterious murder at Hoxton. The news was at first meager and unsatisfactory, and contained little more in substance than was found in the big headlines and on the posters of the leading papers:



The early journals had gone to press before a full report of the affair could reach them, but a detailed account appeared between ten and eleven o'clock in the first edition of the afternoon papers. The Rembrandt was gone-there was no doubt of it-and the story of its disappearance contained many dramatic elements. A curious crowd gathered about the premises of Lamb and Drummond on Pall Mall, to gaze at the now vacant window, and the services of a policeman were required to keep the sidewalk clear. Many persons recalled the similar case, some years before, of the Gainsborough portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire.

Mr. Lamb, it appeared, had been detained at his place of business until long after the closing hour, writing important letters. He left at nine o'clock, and Raper, the night watchman, fastened the street door behind him. During the night the policeman on duty in Pall Mall saw or heard nothing suspicious about the premises. The Rembrandt was on an easel in a large room back of the shop proper, and from it a rear door opened on a narrow paved passage leading to Crown Court; the inmates heard no noise in the night. At four o'clock in the morning a policeman, flashing his lantern in Crown Court, found a window open at the back of Lamb and Drummond's premises. He entered at once. Inside the gas was burning dimly, and the watchman lay bound and gagged in a corner, with a strong odor of drugs mingling with his breath. The Rembrandt had been cut out of its frame and carried away.

"The robbery was evidently well-planned, and is enveloped in mystery," said the St. James' Gazette, "and the thieves left not the slightest clew. It is difficult to conceive their motive. They cannot hope at present to dispose of the picture, which is known by reputation in Europe and America, nor is it certain that they could safely realize on it after the lapse of years. The watchman, who has recovered consciousness, declared that he has no knowledge of how the thieves entered the building. It was about midnight, he states, when he was knocked down from behind. He remembers nothing after that."

The Globe's account was more sensational. "It has come to light," wrote the enterprising reporter, "that Raper, the watchman, was in the habit of slipping out to the Leather Bottle, on Crown Court, for a drink at ten o'clock every evening, and leaving the back door of the shop unlocked. He came into the private bar at the usual time last night, and remained for twenty minutes. He drank a pint of ale, and was seen conversing with a shabbily dressed stranger, whose face was unfamiliar to the publican and the barmaid. This incident suggests two theories. Did the affable stranger drug Raper's beer, and, at a later hour of the night, while the watchman was in a stupor, force the window with one or more companions and carry off the Rembrandt? Or was the watchman in the plot? Did the thieves slip into the building while he was in the Leather Bottle, and subsequently bind, gag and drug him, and force open the window from the outside, in order to screen him from the suspicions of his employers? We learn that Raper has been suspended from his position, pending an investigation. Mr. Lamb informs us that the Rembrandt was insured against fire and burglary for the sum of ten thousand guineas. The company is the Mutual, and they are sure to do all in their power to apprehend the thieves and save themselves from such a heavy loss."

Such was the gist of the newspaper accounts of the puzzling affair. And now to see how they affected certain individuals who are not strangers to the reader.

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