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   Chapter 26 A THUNDERBOLT FROM THE BLUE.

In Friendship's Guise By William Murray Graydon Characters: 13530

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


Another day dawned, as wet and gloomy as the preceding ones. It was the middle of the morning when Jack got out of bed, and as he dressed he heard the penetrating voices of newsboys ringing through the Waterloo Bridge road. He could not distinguish what they were saying, though he judged that the papers must contain some intelligence of unusual importance. He rang for his breakfast, and his landlady, Mrs. Jones, appeared in person, bringing coffee, rolls and bacon on a tray. Her face was flushed with excitement.

"Oh, Mr. Vernon, 'ave you 'eard?" she exclaimed. "There was a 'orrible murder last night! I do pity the poor, dear creature-"

"I don't want to be shocked," Jack curtly interrupted. "Murders are common enough. But you might send me up a paper."

"And you won't 'ear-"

"Not now, my good woman."

Mrs. Jones put down the tray, tossed her head, and departed in a huff. The paper arrived five minutes later, and Jack glanced over it while he sipped his coffee. One of the inside pages suddenly confronted him with huge headlines: "The Beak Street Murder!" He read further down the column, and his face turned as pale as ashes; he swayed in his chair.

"My God!" he cried. "It is Diane!"

The report of the affair was enlarged from a briefer account that had appeared in a late edition on the previous night. It seemed that Mrs. Rickett, the landlady and proprietress of 324 Beak street, had discovered the crime at a quarter to ten in the evening. A red stain, coming through the ceiling of her sitting-room, attracted her attention. She went to the room overhead, which was occupied by a female lodger calling herself Diane Merode. The door was locked, and her demands for admittance brought no response. She promptly summoned the police, who broke in the door and found the unfortunate woman, Merode, lying dead in a pool of blood. She had been stabbed to the heart by a powerful blow dealt from behind.

"The murderer left no traces," the Globe continued. "He carried off the weapon, and, after locking the door, he took the key. According to medical opinion, the deed was committed about half-past eight o'clock. At that time there were several other lodgers in the top part of the house, but they heard no noise whatever. Fortunately, however, there is a clew. Mrs. Ricketts, who was out making purchases for breakfast, returned about a quarter to nine. As she entered the doorway a man slipped by her and hastened in the direction of Regent street. She had a good look at him, and declares that she would be able to recognize him again. The police are searching for the suspected person."

Jack's breakfast was untasted and forgotten. His trembling hand had upset the coffee, spilling it over the paper. He felt cold in every vein, and his thoughts were in a state of wild chaos. It was hard to grasp the truth-difficult to realize the import of those staring headlines of black type!

"Diane murdered! Diane dead!" he repeated, vacantly. "I can't believe it!"

After the first shock, when his brain began to throw off the numbing stupor, he comprehended the terrible fact. The crime gave him no satisfaction; it never occurred to him that he was a free man now. On the contrary, a dull remorse stirred within him. He remembered his wife as she had been five years before, when she had loved him with as much sincerity as her shallow nature would permit, and her charms and beauty had bound him captive by golden chains. There were tears in his eyes as he paced the floor unsteadily.

"Poor Diane!" he muttered. "She has paid a frightful penalty for the sins of her wayward life-more than she deserved. She must have been lying dead when I rapped on her door last night. Yes, and the fatal blow had been struck but a short time before! The assassin was the foreign-looking man who came down the stairs as I went up! There can be no doubt of it! But who was he? And what was his motive? A discarded lover, perhaps! What else could have prompted the deed?"

He suddenly paused, and reeled against the wall; he clenched his hands, and a look of sharp horror distorted his face.

"By heavens, this is awful!" he gasped. "I never thought of it before! The police are looking for me-I remember now that I met the landlady when I left the house. I brushed against her and apologized, and she stared straight at me! And the real murderer-the foreigner-appears to have been seen by nobody except myself. What shall I do? It is on me that suspicion has fallen!"

The realization of his danger unnerved and stupefied Jack for an instant. Dread phantoms of arrest and imprisonment, of trial and sentence, rose before his eyes. One moment he determined to flee the country; the next he resolved to surrender to the police and tell all that he knew, so that the real murderer might be sought for without loss of time. But the latter course was risky, fraught with terrible possibilities. The evidence would be strong against him. He remembered Diane's letter. He must destroy it! He hurriedly searched the pockets of the clothing he had worn on the previous night, but in vain.

"The letter is gone-I have lost it!" he concluded, with a sinking heart. "But where and how? And if it is found-"

There was a sharp rap at the door, and as quickly it opened, without invitation. Two stern-looking men, dressed in plain clothes, stepped into the room. Jack knew at once what the visit meant, and with a supreme effort he braced himself to meet the ordeal. It was hard work to stand erect and to keep his face from twitching.

"You are John Vernon?" demanded one of the men.

"Yes."

"I will be very brief, sir. I am a Scotland Yard officer, and I am here to arrest you on suspicion of having murdered your wife, known as Diane Merode, at Number 324 Beak street, last night."

"I expected this," Jack replied. "I have just seen the paper-I knew nothing of the crime before. I am entirely innocent, though I admit that the circumstances-"

"I warn you not to say anything that may incriminate yourself. You must come with me, sir!"

"I understand that, and I will go quietly. I am quite ready. And at the proper time I will speak."

There was no delay. One of the officers remained to search the apartments, and Jack accompanied the other downstairs. They got into a cab and drove off, while Mrs. Jones shook her fist at them from the doorway, loudly protesting that she was a disgraced and ruined woman forever.

The magistrate was sitting in the court at Great Marlborough street, and Jack was taken there to undergo a brief preliminary formality. Contrary to advice, he persisted in making a statement, after which he was removed to the Holloway prison of detention to await the result of the coroner's inquest.

About the time that the cell-door closed on the unfortunate artist, shutting him in to bitter reflections, Victor Nevill was in his rooms on Jermyn street. Several of the latest papers were spread out before him, and he brushed them savagely aside as he reached for a cigar-box. He looked paler than usual-even haggard.

"They have taken him by this time," he thought. "I was lucky to pick up the letter, and it was a stroke of inspiration to send it to the police. He is guilty, without doubt. I vowed to have a further revenge, my fine fellow, if I ever got the chance, and I have kept my word. But there are other troubles to meet. The clouds are gathering-I wonder if I shall weather the storm!"

* * *

Enterprising reporters, aided by official leaking somewhere, obtained possession of considerable facts, including the prisoner's arrest and statement, before two o'clock, and the afternoon journals promptly published them, not scrupling to add various imaginary embellishments. The simple truth was enough to cause a wide-spread and profound sensation, and it did so; for John Vernon's reputation as an artist, and his Academy successes, were known alike to society and to the masses. It was a rare morsel of scandal!

Madge Foster's first knowledge of the murder was gleaned from a morning paper, which, delayed for some reason, was not delivered until her father had gone up to town. Toward evening she bought a late edition from a newsboy who had penetrated to the isolated regions of Grove Park and Strand-on-the-Green, and she saw Jack's name in big letters. When she had read the whole account, the room seemed to swim around her, and she dropped, half fainting, into a chair.

"He is innocent-his story is true!" she cried, feebly. "I will never believe him guilty! Oh, if I could only go to him and comfort him in his great trouble!"

Stephen Foster came home at seven o'clock, but he dined alone. Madge was in her room, and would not come out or touch food. Her eyes were red and swollen, and she had wept until the fountain of her tears was dried up.

At four o'clock that same afternoon Mr. Tenby, the famous criminal solicitor, was sitting in his private office in Bedford street, Strand, when two prospective clients were announced simultaneously, and, by a mistake on the part of the office-boy, shown in together. The visitors were Jimmie Drexell and Sir Lucius Chesney, and, greatly to their mutual amazement and the surprise of the solicitor, it appeared that they had come on the same errand-to engage Mr. Tenby to look after the interests of Jack Vernon. They were soon on the best of terms.

"Mr. Vernon is an old friend of mine," Jimmie explained, "and I am going to see him through this thing. I will stake my life on his innocence!"

"I am glad to hear you say that," replied Sir Lucius. "I am convinced myself that he is guiltless-that his story is true in every particular. His face is a warranty of that. I am deeply interested in the young man, Mr. Drexell. I have taken a fancy to him-and I insist on aiding in his defense. Don't refuse, sir. Expense is no object to me!"

"Nor to me," said Jimmie. "But it shall be as you wish."

This understanding being reached, the matter was further gone into. The solicitor, by adroit questioning, drew from Jimmie various bits of information relating to the accused man's past life. His own opinion-he had read all the papers-Mr. Tenby held in reserve behind a sphinx-like countenance, nor did he vouchsafe it when it was finally settled that he should defend the case.

"The circumstantial evidence appears strong-very strong," he said drily. "The situation looks black for Mr. Vernon. But I trust that the police will find the foreign-looking individual whom the accused met coming out of the house, if it is certain that-" He broke off sharply.

"At all events, gentlemen," he added, "be assured that I shall do my best."

This promise from the great Mr. Tenby meant everything. He dismissed his visitors, and they walked as far as Morley's Hotel together, discussing the situation as hopefully as they could. It was evident to both, however, that the solicitor was not disposed to credit Jack's innocence or the truth of his statement.

"I'll spend every dollar I have to get him free," Jimmie vowed, as he went sadly on to the Albany. And much the same thing was in the mind of Sir Lucius, though he wondered why it should be. He was the creature of a whim that dominated him.

The next day was Sunday, and on Monday the coroner held his inquest. The accused was not present, but he was represented by Mr. Tenby, who posed mainly as a listener, however, and asked very few questions. Nothing fresh was solicited. Mrs. Rickett repeated her story, and the letter from the murdered woman, which the prisoner admitted having lost, was put in evidence. The proceedings being merely a prelude to a higher court, the jurors rendered an undecisive verdict. They found that the deceased had been murdered by a person or persons unknown, but that suspicion strongly pointed to her husband, John Vernon. They advised, moreover, that the police should try to find the stranger whom the accused alleged to have seen coming from the house.

On Tuesday the unfortunate woman was decently buried, at Jimmie Drexell's expense, and on the following day a more formal inquiry was held at Great Marlborough street. Jack was there, and he had a brief and affecting interview with Sir Lucius and Jimmie; he had previously seen his solicitor at Holloway. He repeated to the magistrate the story he had told before, and he was compelled to admit, by the Crown lawyers, that the murdered woman had been his wife, that they had lived apart for nearly six years, and that she had recently prevented him from marrying another woman. What prompted these damaging questions, or how the prosecution got hold of the lost letter, did not appear. Mrs. Rickett positively identified the prisoner, and medical evidence was taken. The police stated that they had been unable as yet to find the missing man, concerning whose existence they suggested some doubt, and that they had discovered nothing bearing on the case in the apartments occupied by either the accused or Diane Merode. Mr. Tenby, who was suffering from a headache, did little but watch the proceedings. The inquiry was adjourned, and John Vernon was remanded in custody for a week.

But much was destined to occur in the interval. The solicitor had a formidable rival in the person of Jimmie Drexell. The shrewd American, keeping eyes and ears open, had formed suspicions in regard to the principal witness for the Crown. And he lost no time in making the most of his clew, wild and improbable as it seemed.

* * *

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