What followed was like a sort of nightmare to Merriton. That he should b_rrested for the murder of Dacre Wynne reeled drunkenly in his brain.
Murderer! They were calling him a murderer! The liars! The fools! Calling hi_ murderer, were they? And taking the word of a crawling worm like Borkins, _an without honour and utterly devoid of decency, who could stand up befor_hem and tell them a story that was a tissue of lies. It was appalling! What _iend incarnate this man Cleek was! Coming here at Nigel's own bidding, an_hen suddenly manipulating the evidence, until it caught him up in it_rithing coils like a well-thrown lasso. Oh, if he had only let well enoug_lone and not brought a detective to the house. Yet how was he to know tha_he man would try to fix a murder on him, himself? Useless for him to speak, to deny. The revolver-shot and the cruel little bullet (which showed ther_ere others who possessed that sort of fire-arm besides himself) proved to_asily, upon the circumstantial evidence theory at all events, that his wor_as naught.
He went through the next hour or two like a man who has been tortured. Silent, but bearing the mark of it upon his white face and in his haggard eyes. An_ndeed his situation was a terrible and strange one. He had set the wheels o_he law in motion; he himself had brought the relentless Hamilton Cleek int_he affair and now he was called a murderer!
In the little cell where they placed him, away from the gaping, murmuring, gesticulating knot of villagers that had marked his progress to the police- station—for news flies fast in the country, especially when there is a viper- tongue like Borkins's to wing it on its way—he was thankful for the momentar_eace and quiet that the place afforded. At least he could _think_ —think an_ace up and down the narrow room with its tiny barred window too high for _an to reach, and its hard camp bedstead with the straw mattress, and g_hrough the whole miserable fabrication that had landed him there.
The second day of confinement brought him a visitor. It was 'Toinette. Hi_ailer—a rough-haired village-hand who had taken up with the "Force" and wor_he uniform as though it belonged to someone else (which indeed i_ad)—brought him news of her arrival. It cut him like a lash to see her thus, and yet the longing for her was so great that it superseded all else. So h_aced the man with a grim smile.
"I suppose, Bennett, that I shall be allowed to see Miss Brellier? You hav_ade enquiries?"
"Yes, sir." Bennett was crestfallen and rather ashamed of his duty.
"Well—if you please—Sir Nigel—that is—"
"What the devil are they, then?"
"Constable Roberts give orders that I was to stay 'ere with you—but I can tur_e back," returned Bennett, with flushing countenance. "Shall I show the lad_n?"
She came. Her frock was of some clinging gray material that made her look mor_airy-like than ever. A drooping veil of gray gauze fell like a mist befor_er face, screening from him the anguished mirrors of her eyes.
"Nigel! My poor, poor Nigel!"
"Oh, Nigel—it seems impossible—utterly! That you should be thought to hav_illed Dacre. You of all people! Poor, peace-loving Nigel! Something must b_one, dearest; something _shall_ be done! You shall not suffer so, for someon_lse's sin—you shall not!"
He smiled at her wanly, and told her how beautiful she was. It was useless t_xplain to her the utter futility of it all. There was the revolver and ther_he bullet. The weapon was his—of the bullet he could say nothing. He had onl_old the truth—and they had not believed him.
"Yes see, dear," he said, patiently, "they do not believe me. They say _illed him, and Borkins—lying devil that he is—has told them a story of ho_he thing was done; sworn, in fact, that he saw it all from the kitche_indow, saw Wynne lying in the garden path, dying, after I fired at him. O_ourse the thing's an outrageous lie, but—they're acting upon it."
" _Nigel!_ How dared he?"
"Who? Borkins? That kind of a devil dares anything… . How's your uncle, dear?
He has heard, of course?"
Her face brightened, her eyes were suddenly moist. She put her hands upon hi_houlders and tilted her chin so that she could see his eyes.
"Uncle Gustave told me to tell you that he does not believe a word of it, dearest!" she said, softly. "And he is going to make investigations himself.
He is so unhappy, so terribly unhappy over it all. Such a tangled web as i_s, such a wicked, wicked plot they have woven about you! Oh, Nigel dearest— _why_ did you not tell me that they were detectives, these friends of your_ho were coming to visit? If you had only said—"
He held her a moment, and then, leaning forward, kissed her gently upon th_orehead.
"What then, _p'tite_?"
"I would have made you send them away—I would! I would!" she cried, vehemently. "They should not have come—not if I had wired to them myself!
Something told me that day, after you were gone, that a dreadful thing woul_appen. I was frightened for you—frightened! And I could not tell why! I kep_aughing at myself, trying to tease myself out of it, as though it wer_imply—what you call it?—the 'blues'. And now—this!"
"And now—this," he said, grimly, and laughed.
Bennett, hand upon watch, turned apologetically at this juncture.
"Sorry, Sir Nigel," he said, "but time's up. Ten minutes is the time allowed _risoner, and—and—I'm afeared the young leddy must go. It 'urts me to tel_ou, sir, but—you'll understand. Dooty is dooty."
"Yes, doubtless, Bennett, though some people's idea of it is different fro_thers'," returned Merriton, with a bleak smile. "Have no fear, 'Toinette.
There is still plenty of time, and I shall engage the finest counsel in th_and to stand for me. This knot shall be broken somehow, this tissue of lie_ust have a flaw somewhere. And nowadays circumstantial evidence, you know, doesn't hold too much water in a court of law. God bless you, little
She clung to him a moment, her face suddenly lightening at the tenor of hi_ords—so bravely spoken, with so little conviction behind them. But they ha_elped her, and for that he was glad.
When she had gone, he sat down on the edge of his narrow bed and dropped hi_ace in the cup of his hands. How hopeless it seemed. What chance had he of _uture now—with Cleek against him? Cleek the unraveller of a thousand riddle_hat had puzzled the cleverest brains in the universe! Cleek would never admi_o having made a blunder this time—though there was a sort of gri_atisfaction in the knowledge that he _had_ blundered, though he himself wa_he victim.
… He sat there for a long time, thinking, his brain wearied, his heart lik_ead. Bennett's heavily-booted feet upon the stone floor brought him bac_gain to realities.
"There's another visitor, sir," said he. "A gentleman. Seen 'im up at th_owers, I 'ave. Name of West, sir. Constable Roberts says as 'ow you may se_im."
How kind of the constable, thought Nigel bitterly. His mouth twisted into _ry smile. Then his eyes lightened suddenly. Tony West, eh? So all the rat_adn't deserted the sinking ship, after all. There were still the old doctor, who came, cheering him up with kind words, bringing him books that he though_e could read—as though a man _could_ read books, under such circumstances—an_ow Tony West—good old West!
West strode in, his five-feet-three of manhood looking as though it were read_o throw the jailer's six-feet-one out of the window upon request, and seize_igel's hand, wringing it furiously.
"Good old Nigel! Gad! but it's fine to see you. And what fool put you in thi_diotic predicament? Wring his damned neck, I would. How are you, old sport?"
Under such light badinage did West try to conceal his real feeling but ther_as a tremour of the lips that spoke so banteringly.
Good old West! A friend in a thousand.
"Nice sort of place for the Squire of the Manor to be disporting himself, isn't it?" returned Merriton, fighting his hardest to keep his composure an_eply in the same light tone. "I—I—damn it, Tony, you don't believe it, d_ou?"
West went red to the rim of his collar. He choked with the vehemence of hi_esponse.
"Believe it, man? D'you think I'm crazy? What sort of a fool would I be t_elieve it? Wasn't I there, that night, with you? Wait until I give m_vidence in court. Bullet or no bullet, you're no—no murderer, Nigel; I'_wear my life away on that. There were others on worse terms with Wynne tha_ou, old chap. There was Stark, for one. Stark used to borrow money from hi_n the old days, you know, until they had a devil of a shindy over an I.O.U.
and the friendship bust. You'd no more reason to kill him than Lester Stark, _wear. Or me, for that matter."
"No, I'd no reason to kill him, Tony. But they'll take that quarrel we ha_ver the Frozen Flame that night, and bring it up against me in court. They'l_ring everything against me; everything that can be twisted or turned o_ullied into blackening my name. If ever I get scot-free, I'll kill that ma_orkins."
West put up his hand suddenly.
"Don't," he said, quietly; "or they'll be putting that against you, too.
Believe me, Nigel, old boy, the Law's the greatest duffer on earth. By th_ay, here's a piece of news for you! Heard it as I stopped in at the Tower_his morning. Saw that man Headland, the detective. He told me to tell you, and I clean forgot. But they found an I.O.U. on Wynne's body, an I.O.U. fo_wo thou'—in Lester Stark's name. Dated two nights before the party. Looks _it funny, that, doesn't it?"
Funny? Merriton felt his heart suddenly bound upward, and as suddenly dro_ack in his breast like lead. Glad that there was a chance for another pal t_ome under the same brutal sway as he had? What sort of a friend was he, anyway? But an I.O.U.!… And in Lester Stark's name! He remembered the blac_ooks that passed between the two of them that night, remembered them a_hough they had been but yesterday. He jerked his chin up.
"What're they going to do about it?"
"Headland told me to tell you that he was going to investigate the matte_urther. That you were to keep up your heart… . Seemed a decent sort of _hap, I must say."
Keep up his heart!… And there was a chance of someone else taking his share o_he damnable thing, after all!… But Lester Stark wouldn't _kill_. Perhap_ot—and yet, some months ago he had told him to his face that he'd like t_end Wynne's body to burn in hell!… H'm. Well, he would have to keep his mout_hut upon _that_ conversation, at all events, or they'd have poor Stark by th_eels the next minute… . But somehow his heart had lightened. Cleek didn'_eem such a bad chap, after all. And they couldn't hang him yet, anyhow.
For the rest of the long, dreary day the memory of that I.O.U. with Leste_tark's name sprawled across the bottom of it, in the dashing caligraphy tha_e knew, danced before his mind's eye like a fleeting hope, making the da_ess long.