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   Chapter 21 A QUICK DECISION.

In Friendship's Guise By William Murray Graydon Characters: 11081

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

Jack turned around, and when he saw Victor Nevill bending over him he looked first confused and then pleasurably surprised.

"Hello, old chap," he said. "Wait a bit, will you?"

"You've led me a chase," Nevill whispered in a low voice. "I want to talk to you. Important!"

"All right," Jack replied. "I'll be through in a couple of minutes."

He wondered if it could have anything to do with Diane, as he set to work on the injured man. With deft fingers he bathed the cut, staunched the blood, and applied a piece of plaster handed to him by a bystander; over it he placed the dry half of his handkerchief.

"You'll do now," he said. "It's not a deep cut."

With assistance the man got to his feet. The shock had sobered him, and he was pretty steady. He pulled his cap on his head, and winced with pain as it stirred the bandage.

"Where's the cowardly rat what hit me?" he demanded.

"Never you mind about 'im," put in the proprietor of the club-a very fat man with a ponderous watch-chain. "While the excitement was on 'e 'ooked it. You be off, too-I don't want any more rowing." Sinking his voice to a faint whisper, he added: "You'd be worse off than the rest of us, 'Awker, should the police 'appen to come."

"Yes, go home, my good fellow," urged Jack. "You look ill; and what you need is rest. You'll be all right in the morning."

He pressed half a sovereign into the man's hand-so cleverly that none observed the action-and then slipped back and joined Nevill and Mostyn, who had a slight acquaintance with each other. The three had left the room, and were going downstairs, before Mr. Noah Hawker recovered from his surprise on learning that his gift was gold instead of a silver sixpence. It chanced that he was reduced to his last coppers, and so the half sovereign was a boon indeed. He nudged the elbow of a supercilious looking young gentleman in evening dress who was passing.

"That swell cove who fixed me up-he's just gone," he said. "He's a real gent, he is! Could you tell me his name, sir?"

"Aw, yes, I think I can," was the drawling reply. "He's an artist chap, don't you know! Name of Vernon."

"Might it be John Vernon?"

"That's it, my man."

The name rang in Noah Hawker's ears, and he repeated it to himself as he stumbled downstairs. He was in such a brown study that he forgot to tip the door-keeper who let him into the street. He pulled his cap lower to hide his bandaged head, and struck off in the direction of Tottenham Court road.

"Funny how I run across that chap!" he reflected. "Vernon-John Vernon-yes, it's the same, no doubt about it. But he's only an artist, and I know what artists are. There's many on 'em, with claw-hammer coats and diamonds in their shirt-fronts, as hasn't got two quid to knock together. You won't suit my book, Mr. Vernon-you're not in the running against the others. It's a pity, though, for he was a real swell, what I call a gent. But I'll keep him in mind, and it sort of strikes me I'll be able to do him a good turn some day."

Meanwhile, as Noah Hawker walked northward in the direction of Kentish Town, Jack and his companions had reached Piccadilly Circus. Here Mostyn left them, while Jack and Nevill went down Regent street.

"A bit of a rounder, that chap," said Nevill. "He's not your sort. What have you been doing with yourself for the last two weeks? I've not seen you since you sailed for India, early in the summer."

"How did you find me to-night?" asked Jack, in a tone which suggested that he did not want to be found.

"I met a Johnny who told me where you were. I vowed he was mistaken at first, but he stuck to it so positively-"

"You said you wanted to talk to me," Jack interrupted. "I suppose it is about-"

"No; you're wrong. She is in Paris, and she won't trouble you again. The fact is, I have a message for you from Lamb and Drummond. They've been trying to find you for a fortnight."

"Lamb and Drummond looking for me? Ah, yes, I think I know what they want."

"It's a queer business, isn't it? My uncle is mixed up in it-Sir Lucius Chesney, you know."

"Then he has told you-"

"Only a little. It's not my affair, and I would rather not speak about it. Can I tell Mr. Lamb that you will call upon him at five o'clock to-morrow afternoon-or this afternoon, to be correct? They will want to get my uncle from the country."

"I will be there at that hour," Jack assented, and with a hasty "Good-night" he was gone, striding rapidly away. Nevill looked after him for a moment, and then sauntered home. The street lights showed a sneering smile of satisfaction on his face.

Jack could easily have picked up a cab, but he preferred to walk. He went along the Strand, now waking up to the life and traffic of early morning. Turning into Wellington street, he crossed Waterloo Bridge, and the gray dawn was breaking when he let himself into a big, dingy house not far from the river. Here, remote from his friends, he had chosen to live, in two rooms which he had fitted up more than comfortably with recent purchases. Even Jimmie did not know where he was-never dreamed of looking for him on the Surrey side. His brain was too active for sleep, and he sat up smoking another hour.

It was two o'clock in the afternoon when Jack awoke from an unrefreshing slumber; his head was heavy, and he would have liked to remain in bed for the rest of the day. He remembered that he had two engagements; he had promised to attend a "do" at a studio in Joubert Mansions, Chelsea, where he would m

eet a lot of Tony Mostyn's set, and make night noisy until the wee hours of the morning. At four o'clock he started to dress for the evening. At five a cab put him down in Pall Mall, opposite the premises of Lamb and Drummond. A clerk conducted him to the private office, which was well lighted. Mr. Lamb was present, and with him a soldierly, aristocratic-looking gentleman who had been summoned by wire from Sussex. Victor Nevill would have been there also, but he had pleaded a previous engagement.

The military gentleman was formally introduced as Sir Lucius Chesney. Jack shook hands with him nonchalantly, and wondered what was coming next; he did not much care. Sir Lucius regarded Jack carelessly at first, then with a stare that was almost impertinent. He adjusted a pair of gold-rimmed eye-glasses, and looked again. He leaned forward in his chair, under the influence of some strong agitation.

"Bless my soul!" he muttered, half audibly. "Very remarkable!"

"I beg your pardon, sir," said Jack.

"Nothing! nothing!" replied Sir Lucius, in some confusion. "So you are Mr. Vernon?"

"That is my name, sir."

Sir Lucius pulled himself together, and thoughtfully stroked his mustache. An awkward pause was broken by Mr. Lamb, who proceeded to state at some length the business that had rendered Jack's presence imperative. Sir Lucius listened with rising indignation, as the story poignantly recalled to him his bitter experience with the Munich Jew. Jack, seeing the ludicrous side, with difficulty repressed an inclination to smile.

"Let me have the picture," he said. "I can settle the question at once."

Sir Lucius rose eagerly from his seat. Mr. Lamb took the canvas from an open safe and spread it on the table. Jack bent over it, standing between the two. He laughed as he pointed to a peculiar brush-stroke-insignificant in the general effect-down in the lower right-hand corner.

"There is my mark," he said, "and this is the duplicate I painted for Martin Von Whele, nearly six years ago."

"I thought as much," exclaimed Mr. Lamb.

"Are you sure of what you are saying, young man?" asked Sir Lucius.

"Quite positive, sir," declared Jack. "I assure you that-"

"Yes, there can be no doubt about it," interrupted Mr. Lamb. "I was pretty well satisfied from the first, but I would not trust my own judgment, considering the poorness of my eyesight. This is the copy, and the person who stole it from Mr. Vernon's studio disposed of it later to the Jew in Munich, who succeeded-very naturally, I admit-in selling it to you as the real thing, Sir Lucius."

There was a double entendre about the "very naturally" which Sir Lucius chose, rightly or wrongly, to interpret to his own disadvantage.

"Do you mean to insinuate-" he began, bridling up.

"As for the genuine Rembrandt-my picture," resumed Mr. Lamb, "its disappearance is still shrouded in mystery. It can be only a matter of time, however, until the affair is cleared up. But that is poor consolation for the insurance people, who owe me £10,000."

"It is well you safeguard yourself in that way," observed Jack. "I shouldn't be surprised if your picture turned up as unexpectedly as mine has done, and perhaps before long. But I can hardly call this my property. Sir Lucius Chesney is out of pocket to the tune of eleven hundred pounds-"

"D-n the money, sir!" blurted out Sir Lucius. "I can afford to lose it. And pray accept the Rembrandt from me as a gift, if you think you are not entitled to it legally."

"You are very kind, but I prefer that you should keep it."

"I don't want it-won't have it! Take it out of my sight!-it is only a worthless copy!" Sir Lucius, purple in the face, plumped himself down in his chair. "I beg your pardon, Mr. Vernon," he added. "As a copy it is truly magnificent-it does the greatest credit to your artistic skill. It deceived me, sir! Whom would it not have deceived? There is an end of the matter! I shall forget it. But I will go to Munich some day, and beat that rascally Jew within an inch of his life!"

"If you can catch him," thought Jack. "I had better leave the painting with you for the present, Mr. Lamb," he said. "It may be of some use in your search for the original."

"Quite so," assented the dealer. "I will gladly retain it for the present."

"If that is all," Jack continued, "I will wish you good afternoon."

"One moment, Mr. Vernon," said Sir Lucius, whose choleric indications had completely vanished. "I-I should like to have an interview with you, if you will consent to humor an old man. Your face interests me-I admire your work. I propose to remain in town for a brief time, though I am off to Oxford to-night, to visit an old friend, and will not be back until to-morrow afternoon. Would you find it convenient to give me a call to-morrow night at eight o'clock, at Morley's Hotel?"

Jack was silent; his face expressed the surprise he felt.

"I should like you to come down to Sussex and do some landscapes of Priory Court," Sir Lucius further explained.

"I am not working at present," Jack said, curtly.

"But there is something else-a-a private matter," Sir Lucius replied, confusedly. "I beg that you will oblige me, Mr. Vernon."

"Very well, sir, since you wish it so much," Jack consented. "I will come to Morley's Hotel at eight to-morrow evening."

"Thank you, Mr. Vernon."

Jack shook hands with both gentlemen, picked up his hat and stick, and went off to an early dinner. Sir Lucius looked after him wistfully.

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