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   Chapter 29 THE VICAR OF DUNWOLD.

In Friendship's Guise By William Murray Graydon Characters: 11617

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


At a safe distance Victor Nevill stopped and turned around. When the cab rolled away, he walked slowly back, looking keenly at the house as he passed it. His demeanor was calm, but it was only skin deep. He felt like swearing loudly at everybody and everything. His brain was in a whirl of rage and fear, sharp anxiety and keen disappointment. He had recognized Noah Hawker and seen the gleam of steel at his wrists, which explained the situation as clearly as words could have done.

"The poor chap has been tracked and arrested," he thought; "possibly for some past burglary. Our negotiations are ended for the present, confound the luck! But the papers! By Jove, suppose Hawker had them on his person! If so, they will be found when he is searched. They will be opened and examined, and the whole truth will come out. I can't be sure that Hawker won't give away my part in the affair. I shall be ruined-nothing short of it! What a luckless devil I am!"

The iron hand of Nemesis seemed reaching out to grasp Nevill, and he shuddered as he realized his danger. The rustle of the bank notes in his breast pocket afforded him a momentary relief as he remembered that they would give him a fresh start in case he had to flee from England. Then a sudden thought lightened the gloom still more, and he clutched eagerly at the ray of hope thus thrown out.

"Hawker was too shrewd a man to be caught unawares," he reasoned. "He kept the papers in a secure hiding-place, and he certainly would not have taken them from it until I came and he saw the color of the money. Nor is it likely that the police found them, though they must have searched the place. If they are still in the room, why should I not try to get possession of them? I could square up with Hawker afterward, when he recovers his liberty. By Jove, it's worth risking!"

Nevill walked as far as Peckwater street, debating the question. He did not hesitate long, for there was too much at stake. He quickly made up his mind, and retraced his steps to the dingy house from which the detectives had taken their prisoner. He had planned his course of procedure when the door opened to his knock, and Mrs. Miggs revealed her distrustful countenance. Nevill tendered her half a sovereign on the spot, and asked to see the room lately occupied by Mr. Noah Hawker.

"It's a private matter," he explained. "Yes, I know that Mr. Hawker has just been arrested and taken away. District detectives did that-they were onto him for some breach of the law. I was after him myself, with a Scotland Yard warrant, but I arrived too late, unfortunately."

"Then what do you want?" grumbled the woman.

"I want to search Hawker's room for some papers which I believe he hid there. If I find them you shall be rewarded."

Mrs. Miggs relaxed visibly. She had a wholesome respect for the police, and she did not doubt that Nevill was other than he purported to be-a Scotland Yard officer. She let him into the hall and closed the door.

"You can come up," she said ungraciously, "but I don't think there's anything there."

She lighted a candle and guided Nevill upstairs. He could scarcely restrain his excitement as he entered the little room. He glanced keenly about, noting the half-empty bottle of stout and the dirty glass.

"Did the police search here?" he inquired.

"Of course they did, but they didn't find nothin', 'cause there wasn't anything to find. 'Awker was as poor as Job!"

"They examined his person?-his clothes, I mean?"

"Yes, an' all they got was a knife, and a pistol, and some loose silver and coppers."

"They didn't discover any papers?"

"No; I'm sure o' that," asserted Mrs. Miggs. "I can't stand 'ere all night," she impatiently added.

Nevill took the hint, and set to work in good spirits. The landlady watched him scornfully while he hauled the carpet and bedding about, and examined all the joints of the few articles of furniture. He then proceeded-there was no fireplace in the room-to tap every part of the walls, and to try the flooring to see if any boards were loose. But the walls were solid and untampered with, and the nails in the floor had clearly not been disturbed for many years. He spent half an hour at his task, and the result was a barren failure. He realized that it would be useless to search further. He looked sharply at the landlady, and said, on a sudden impulse:

"You knew Mr. Hawker pretty well, I think. Perhaps he asked you to oblige him by taking care of the papers I am looking for; they could not possibly be of any advantage to you in the future, and if you have them I should be glad to buy them from you. I would give as much as-"

"I only wish I did 'ave them!" interrupted Mrs. Miggs. "I wouldn't 'esitate a minute to turn 'em into money. But I don't know nothin' of them, sir, an' you see yourself they ain't 'id in this room, an' Mr. 'Awker never put foot in any other part of the 'ouse."

The woman's expression of disappointment, her manner, satisfied Nevill that his suspicion was baseless. There was nothing more to be done, so he gave Mrs. Miggs an additional half-sovereign, cautioned her not to speak of his visit, and left the house. His last state of mind was worse than his first, and dread of exposure, tormenting visions of a dreary and perpetual exile from England, not to speak of more bitter things, haunted him as he strode moodily toward the lights of the Kentish Town road.

"The papers may be in that room, hidden so securely as to baffle any search," he said to himself, "and if that is the case there is still hope. But it is more likely that Hawker had them concealed under his clothing or in his boots. I will know in a day or two-if the police find them, they will make the matter public. All I can do is to wait. But the suspense i

s awful, and I wish it was over."

The next day was cold, sunny and bracing-more like the end of February than the end of November. At nine o'clock in the morning Victor Nevill crawled out of bed after a troubled night; with haggard face and dull eyes he looked down into Jermyn street, wondering, as he recalled the events of the previous night, what another day would bring forth.

At the same hour, or a little later, Jimmie Drexell was at Hastings. Having to wait some time for another train, he walked through the pretty town to the sea, and the sight of its glorious beauty-the embodiment of untrammeled freedom-made him think sadly of poor Jack in a prison cell.

"Never mind, I'll have him out soon!" he vowed.

He returned to the station, and was whirled on through the flat, green country to the charming Sussex village of Pevensey, with its ruined old castle and rambling street, and the blue line of the Channel flashing in the distance. His journey did not end here, and he was impatient to continue it. He procured a horse and trap at the Railway Arms, gleaned careful instructions from the landlord, and drove back a few miles along the hedge-lined roads, while the sea faded behind him.

It was eleven o'clock when he reached the retired little hamlet of Dunwold. He put up his vehicle at a quaint old inn, and refreshed himself with a simple lunch. Then he sought the vicarage, hard by the ancient church with its Norman tower, and, on inquiring for Mr. Chalfont, he was shown into a sunny library full of books and Chippendale furniture, with flowers on the deep window-seats and a litter of papers on the carved oak writing-desk.

The vicar entered shortly-an elderly gentleman of benevolent aspect and snowy beard, but sturdy and lithe-limbed for his years, clearly one of those persons who seemed predestined for the placidity of clerical life. After a penetrating glance he greeted his visitor most graciously, and expressed pleasure at seeing him.

"I am sure that you are a stranger to the neighborhood," he continued. "Our fine old church draws many such hither. If you wish to go over it, I can show you many things of interest-"

"At another time," Jimmie interrupted, "I should be only too delighted. I regret to say that it is quite a different matter that brings me here-hardly a pleasant one. This will partly explain, Mr. Chalfont."

He presented the letter Sir Lucius had given him, and when it had been opened and read he poured out the whole story of Diane's life and end, of the charge against Jack Vernon, and the clew that the murdered woman had revealed to her landlady.

The vicar rose from his chair, showing traces of deep agitation and distress.

"A friend of Sir Lucius Chesney is a friend of mine," he said, hoarsely. "I shall be glad to help you-to do anything in my power to clear your friend. I believe that he is innocent. Your sad story has awakened old memories, Mr. Drexell. And it is a great shock to me, as you will understand when I tell you all. I seldom read the London papers, and it comes as a blow and a surprise to me that Diane Merode has been murdered."

"Then you know her by that name?" exclaimed Jimmie. "This is indeed fortunate, Mr. Chalfont. I feared that you would find it difficult to identify the woman-to recall her. And the man whom she proclaimed as her enemy-do you know him?"

"Judge for yourself," replied the vicar, as he sat down and settled back in his chair. "I will state the facts, distinctly and briefly. That will not be hard to do. To begin, I have been in this parish for thirty years, and I am familiar with its history. I remember when Diane Merode's father came home with his young bride. He was a doctor, with some small means of his own, and he lived in the second house beyond the church. His wife was a French girl, well educated and beautiful, and he met and married her while on a visit to France; his name was George Hammersley. They settled here in the village, but I do not think that they lived very happily together. Their one child, christened Diane, was born two years after the marriage. She inherited her mother's vivacious disposition and love of the world, and I always felt misgivings about her future. She spent five years at a school in Paris, and returned at the age of sixteen. Within less than two years her parents died within a week of each other, of a malignant fever that attacked our village. A friend of George Hammersley's took Diane to his home-it appeared that she had no relatives-and nine months later she married a man, nearly twenty years her senior, who had fallen passionately in love with her."

"By Jove, so she was really married before!" cried Jimmie. "But I beg your pardon, Mr. Chalfont, for interrupting you."

"This man, Gilbert Morris, was comparatively well-to-do," resumed the vicar. "He owned a couple of ships, and when at home he lived in Dunwold; but he was away the greater part of his time, sailing one or the other of his vessels to foreign ports. Six months after the marriage he started on such a voyage, leaving his youthful bride with an old housekeeper, and just three weeks later Diane disappeared. Every effort was made to trace her, but in vain, and it was believed that she had gone to London. Before the end of the winter our village squire returned from abroad, and declared that he had recognized Diane in Paris, and that she was a popular dancer under the name of Merode. About the same time it was reported in the papers that the vessel on which Gilbert Morris had set sail, the Nautilus, had been lost in a storm, with all hands on board. There was every reason to credit the report-"

"But it was not true," exclaimed Jimmie. "I can read as much in your eyes, Mr. Chalfont. What became of Gilbert Morris?"

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