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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Man Who Knew - Chapter 9. Frank Merrill At The Altar
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The Man Who Knew - Chapter 9. Frank Merrill At The Altar Post by :marketing Category :Long Stories Author :Edgar Wallace Date :May 2012 Read :1107

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The Man Who Knew - Chapter 9. Frank Merrill At The Altar


Frank Merrill stepped through the swing doors of the London and Western Counties Bank with a light heart and a smile in his eyes, and went straight to his chief's office.

"I shall want you to let me go out this afternoon for an hour," he said.

Brandon looked up wearily. He had not been without his sleepless moments, and the strain of the forgery and the audit which followed was telling heavily upon him. He nodded a silent agreement, and Frank went back to his desk, humming a tune.

He had every reason to be happy, for in his pocket was the special license which, for a consideration, had been granted to him, and which empowered him to marry the girl whose amazing telegram had arrived that morning while he was at breakfast. It had contained only four words:

Marry you to-day. MAY.

He could not guess what extraordinary circumstances had induced her to take so definite a view, but he was a very contented and happy young man.

She was to arrive in London soon after twelve, and he had arranged to meet her at the station and take her to lunch. Perhaps then she would explain the reason for her action. He numbered among his acquaintances the rector of a suburban church, who had agreed to perform the ceremony and to provide the necessary witnesses.

It was a beaming young man that met the girl, but the smile left his face when he saw how wan and haggard she was.

"Take me somewhere," she said quickly.

"Are you ill?" he asked anxiously.

She shook her head.

They had the Pall Mall Restaurant to themselves, for it was too early for the regular lunchers.

"Now tell me, dear," he said, catching her hands over the table, "to what do I owe this wonderful decision?"

"I cannot tell you, Frank," she said breathlessly. "I don't want to think about it. All I know is that people have been beastly about you. I am going to do all I possibly can to make up for it."

She was a little hysterical and very much overwrought, and he decided not to press the question, though her words puzzled him.

"Where are you going to stay?" he asked.

"I am staying at the Savoy," she replied. "What am I to do?"

In as few words as possible he told her where the ceremony was to be performed, and the hour at which she must leave the hotel.

"We will take the night train for the Continent," he said.

"But your work, Frank?"

He laughed.

"Oh, blow work!" he cried hilariously. "I cannot think of work to-day."

At two-fifteen he was waiting in the vestry for the girl's arrival, chatting with his friend the rector. He had arranged for the ceremony to be performed at two-thirty; and the witnesses, a glum verger and a woman engaged in cleaning the church, sat in the pews of the empty building, waiting to earn the guinea which they had been promised.

The conversation was about nothing in particular--one of those empty, purposeless exchanges of banal thought and speech characteristic of such an occasion.

At two-thirty Frank looked at his watch and walked out of the church to the end of the road. There was no sign of the girl. At two-forty-five he crossed to a providential tobacconist and telephoned to the Savoy and was told that the lady had left half an hour before.

"She ought to be here very soon," he said to the priest. He was a little impatient, a little nervous, and terribly anxious.

As the church clock struck three, the rector turned to him.

"I am afraid I cannot marry you to-day, Mr. Merrill," he said.

Frank was very pale.

"Why not?" he asked quickly. "Miss Nuttall has probably been detained by the traffic or a burst tire. She will be here very shortly."

The minister shook his head and hung up his white surplice in the cupboard.

"The law of the land, my dear Mr. Merrill," he said, "does not allow weddings after three in the afternoon. You can come along to-morrow morning any time after eight."

There was a tap at the door, and Frank swung round. It was not the girl, but a telegraph boy. He snatched the buff envelope from the lad's hand and tore it open. It read simply:

The wedding cannot take place.

It was unsigned.

At two-fifteen that afternoon May had passed through the vestibule of the hotel, and her foot was on the step of the taxicab when a hand fell upon her arm, and she turned in alarm to meet the searching eyes of Jasper Cole.

"Where are you off to in such a hurry, May?"

She flushed and drew her arm away with a decisive gesture.

"I have nothing to say to you, Jasper," she said coldly. "After your horrible charge against Frank, I never want to speak to you again."

He winced a little, then smiled.

"At least you can be civil to an old friend," he said good-humoredly, "and tell me where you are off to in such a hurry."

Should she tell him? A moment's indecision, and then she spoke.

"I am going to marry Frank Merrill," she said.

He nodded.

"I thought as much. In that case, I am coming down to the church to make a scene."

He said this with a smile on his lips; but there was no mistaking the resolution which showed in the thrust of his square jaw.

"What do you mean?" she said. "Don't be absurd, Jasper. My mind is made up."

"I mean," he said quietly, "that I have Mr. Minute's power of attorney to act for him, and Mr. Minute happens to be your legal guardian. You are, in point of fact, my dear May, more or less of a ward, and you cannot marry before you are twenty-one without your guardian's consent."

"I shall be twenty-one next week," she said defiantly.

"Then," smiled the other, "wait till next week before you marry. There is no very pressing hurry."

"You forced this situation upon me," said the girl hotly, "and I think it is very horrid of you. I am going to marry Frank to-day."

"Under those circumstances, I must come down and forbid the marriage; and when our parson asks if there is any just cause I shall step forward to the rails, gayly flourishing the power of attorney, and not even the most hardened parson could continue in the face of that legal instrument. It is a mandamus, a caveat, and all sorts of horrific things."

"Why are you doing this?" she asked.

"Because I have no desire that you shall marry a man who is certainly a forger, and possibly a murderer," said Jasper Cole calmly.

"I won't listen to you!" she cried, and stepped into the waiting taxicab.

Without a word, Jasper followed her.

"You can't turn me out," he said, "and I know where you are going, anyway, because you were giving directions to the driver when I stood behind you. You had better let me go with you. I like the suburbs."

She turned and faced him swiftly.

"And Silvers Rents?" she asked.

He went a shade paler.

"What do you know about Silvers Rents?" he demanded, recovering himself with an effort.

She did not reply.

The taxicab was halfway to its destination before the girl spoke again:

"Are you serious when you say you will forbid the marriage?"

"Quite serious," he replied; "so much so that I shall bring in a policeman to witness my act."

The girl was nearly in tears.

"It is monstrous of you! Uncle wouldn't--"

"Had you not better see your uncle?" he asked.

Something told her that he would keep his word. She had a horror of scenes, and, worst of all, she feared the meeting of the two men under these circumstances. Suddenly she leaned forward and tapped the window, and the taxi slowed down.

"Tell him to go back and call at the nearest telegraph office. I want to send a wire."

"If it is to Mr. Frank Merrill," said Jasper smoothly, "you may save yourself the trouble. I have already wired."

Frank came back to London in a pardonable fury. He drove straight to the hotel, only to learn that the girl had left again with her uncle. He looked at his watch. He had still some work to do at the bank, though he had little appetite for work.

Yet it was to the bank he went. He threw a glance over the counter to the table and the chair where he had sat for so long and at which he was destined never to sit again, for as he was passing behind the counter Mr. Brandon met him.

"Your uncle wishes to see you, Mr. Merrill," he said gravely.

Frank hesitated, then walked into the office, closing the door behind him, and he noticed that Mr. Brandon did not attempt to follow.

John Minute sat in the one easy chair and looked up heavily as Frank entered.

"Sit down, Frank," he said. "I have a lot of things to ask you."

"And I've one or two things to ask you, uncle," said Frank calmly.

"If it is about May, you can save yourself the trouble," said the other. "If it is about Mr. Rex Holland, I can give you a little information."

Frank looked at him steadily.

"I don't quite get your meaning, sir," he said, "though I gather there is something offensive behind what you have said."

John Minute twisted round in the chair and threw one leg over its padded arm.

"Frank," he said, "I want you to be perfectly straight with me, and I'll be as perfectly straight with you."

The young man made no reply.

"Certain facts have been brought to my attention, which leave no doubt in my mind as to the identity of the alleged Mr. Rex Holland," said John Minute slowly. "I don't relish saying this, because I have liked you, Frank, though I have sometimes stood in your way and we have not seen eye to eye together. Now, I want you to come down to Eastbourne to-morrow and have a heart-to-heart talk with me."

"What do you expect I can tell you?" asked Frank quietly.

"I want you to tell me the truth. I expect you won't," said John Minute.

A half smile played for a second upon Frank's lips.

"At any rate," he said, "you are being straight with me. I don't know exactly what you are driving at, uncle, but I gather that it is something rather unpleasant, and that somewhere in the background there is hovering an accusation against me. From the fact that you have mentioned Mr. Rex Holland or the gang which went by that name, I suppose that you are suggesting that I am an accomplice of that gentleman."

"I suggest more than that," said the other quickly. "I suggest that you are Rex Holland."

Frank laughed aloud.

"It is no laughing matter," said John Minute sternly.

"From your point of view it is not," said Frank, "but from my point of view it has certain humorous aspects, and unfortunately I am cursed with a sense of humor. I hardly know how I can go into the matter here"--he looked round--"for even if this is the time, it is certainly not the place, and I think I'll accept your invitation and come down to Weald Lodge to-morrow night. I gather you don't want to travel down with a master criminal who might at any moment take your watch and chain."

"I wish you would look at this matter more seriously, Frank," said John Minute earnestly. "I want to get to the truth, and any truth which exonerates you will be very welcome to me."

Frank nodded.

"I will give you credit for that," he said. "You may expect me to-morrow. May I ask you as a personal favor that you will not discuss this matter with me in the presence of your admirable secretary? I have a feeling at the back of my mind that he is at the bottom of all this. Remember that he is as likely to know about Rex Holland as I.

"There has been an audit at the bank," Frank went on, "and I am not so stupid that I don't understand what this has meant. There has also been a certain coldness in the attitude of Brandon, and I have intercepted suspicious and meaning glances from the clerks. I shall not be surprised, therefore, if you tell me that my books are not in order. But again I would point out to you that it is just as possible for Jasper, who has access to the bank at all hours of the day and night, to have altered them as it is for me.

"I hasten to add," he said, with a smile, "that I don't accuse Jasper. He is such a machine, and I cannot imagine him capable of so much initiative as systematically to forge checks and falsify ledgers. I merely mention Jasper because I want to emphasize the injustice of putting any man under suspicion unless you have the strongest and most convincing proof of his guilt. To declare my innocence is unnecessary from my point of view, and probably from yours also; but I declare to you, Uncle John, that I know no more about this matter than you."

He stood leaning on the desk and looking down at his uncle; and John Minute, with all his experience of men, and for all his suspicions, felt just a twinge of remorse. It was not to last long, however.

"I shall expect you to-morrow," he said.

Frank nodded, walked out of the room and out of the bank, and twenty-four pairs of speculative eyes followed him.

A few hours later another curious scene was being enacted, this time near the town of East Grinstead. There is a lonely stretch of road across a heath, which is called, for some reason, Ashdown Forest. A car was drawn up on a patch of turf by the side of the heath. Its owner was sitting in a little clearing out of view of the road, sipping a cup of tea which his chauffeur had made. He finished this and watched his servant take the basket.

"Come back to me when you have finished," he said.

The man touched his hat and disappeared with the package, but returned again in a few minutes.

"Sit down, Feltham," said Mr. Rex Holland. "I dare say you think it was rather strange of me to give you that little commission the other day," said Mr. Holland, crossing his legs and leaning back against a tree.

The chauffeur smiled uncomfortably.

"Yes, sir, I did," he said shortly.

"Were you satisfied with what I gave you?" asked the man.

The chauffeur shuffled his feet uneasily.

"Quite satisfied, sir," he said.

"You seem a little distrait, Feltham; I mean a little upset about something. What is it?"

The man coughed in embarrassed confusion.

"Well, sir," he began, "the fact is, I don't like it."

"You don't like what? The five hundred pounds I gave you?"

"No, sir. It is not that, but it was a queer thing to ask me to do--pretend to be you and send a commissionaire to the bank for your money, and then get away out of London to a quiet little hole like Bilstead."

"So you think it was queer?"

The chauffeur nodded.

"The fact is, sir," he blurted out, "I've seen the papers."

The other nodded thoughtfully.

"I presume you mean the newspapers. And what is there in the newspapers that interests you?"

Mr. Holland took a gold case from his pocket, opened it languidly, and selected a cigarette. He was closing it when he caught the chauffeur's eye and tossed a cigarette to him.

"Thank you, sir," said the man.

"What was it you didn't like?" asked Mr. Holland again, passing a match.

"Well, sir, I've been in all sorts of queer places," said Feltham doggedly, as he puffed away at the cigarette, "but I've always managed to keep clear of anything--funny. Do you see what I mean?"

"By funny I presume you don't mean comic," said Mr. Rex Holland cheerfully. "You mean dishonest, I suppose?"

"That's right, sir, and there's no doubt that I have been in a swindle, and it's worrying me--that bank-forgery case. Why, I read my own description in the paper!"

Beads of perspiration stood upon the little man's forehead, and there was a pathetic droop to his mouth.

"That is a distinction which falls to few of us," said his employer suavely. "You ought to feel highly honored. And what are you going to do about it, Feltham?"

The man looked to left and right as though seeking some friend in need who would step forth with ready-made advice.

"The only thing I can do, sir," he said, "is to give myself up."

"And give me up, too," said the other, with a little laugh. "Oh, no, my dear Feltham. Listen; I will tell you something. A few weeks ago I had a very promising valet chauffeur just like you. He was an admirable man, and he was also a foreigner. I believe he was a Swede. He came to me under exactly the same circumstances as you arrived, and he received exactly the same instructions as you have received, which unfortunately he did not carry out to the letter. I caught him pilfering from me--a few trinkets of no great value--and, instead of the foolish fellow repenting, he blurted out the one fact which I did not wish him to know, and incidentally which I did not wish anybody in the world to know.

"He knew who I was. He had seen me in the West End and had discovered my identity. He even sought an interview with some one to whom it would have been inconvenient to have made known my--character. I promised to find him another job, but he had already decided upon changing and had cut out an advertisement from a newspaper. I parted friendly with him, wished him luck, and he went off to interview his possible employer, smoking one of my cigarettes just as you are smoking--and he threw it away, I have no doubt, just as you have thrown it away when it began to taste a little bitter."

"Look here!" said the chauffeur, and scrambled to his feet. "If you try any monkey tricks with me--"

Mr. Holland eyed him with interest.

"If you try any monkey tricks with me," said the chauffeur thickly, "I'll--"

He pitched forward on his face and lay still.

Mr. Holland waited long enough to search his pockets, and then, stepping cautiously into the road, donned the chauffeur's cap and goggles and set his car running swiftly southward.

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