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    Chapter 35

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    Chapter 35
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    The Bannockwaite Bride

    "Now let's hear all about it."

    He held her at arm's length.

    "And look up, Joan. There's nothing you'll ever do that is going to make any difference to me or my love for you. You're the only person in the world who isn't a bother and who couldn't be a bother."

    Presently she told the story.

    "Mr. Bannockwaite started it. It was a society called the Midnight Monks. The boys at Hulston used to come over the wall and we would sit around in the convent garden and eat things--pastry and pies, a sort of midnight picnic. It will sound strange to you that that could be innocent, but it was. All those queer societies of his started that way, however they developed. We were the Midnight Monks, and my dearest friend, Ada Lansing, was our 'prioress.' Of course, the sisters knew nothing--the sisters of the convent I mean. Poor dears! They'd have died if they had dreamt of such goings-on! And then somebody suggested that, in order that the two branches of the society should be everlastingly united there should be a wedding symbolical of our union--that and nothing more. You think all this is madly incredible, but things like that happen, and I think Bannockwaite was behind the suggestion. He had just come down from Oxford and had built the little chapel in the woods. He never lost touch with any of the societies he formed and he was very much interested in the Monks, which was the first he invented. I know he came down because he presided at one of our summer night feasts. We drew lots as to who should be the bride----"

    "And the choice fell on you?" said Lord Creith gently.

    She shook her head.

    "No, it fell upon Ada, and she was enthusiastic--terribly enthusiastic until the day of the wedding. It was a holiday and the seniors were allowed out in twos. Mr. Bannockwaite arranged everything. The man was to dress like a monk, with his face cowled, and the girl was to be heavily veiled. Nobody was to know the other. We weren't even supposed to know who had drawn the lots. Can you imagine anything more mad? Mr. Bannockwaite was to perform the ceremony. We went to this dear little chapel in the woods near Ascot, and in the vestry poor Ada broke down. I think it was then that I first realised how terribly serious it was. I won't make a long story of it, Daddy--I took Ada's place."

    "Then you never saw your husband's face?"

    She nodded.

    "Yes, the cowl fell back and I saw him, and when the ceremony was over and I signed the register, I saw his name. I don't think he saw mine, unless he has been back since."

    "And you never saw him again?"

    She shook her head.

    "No, that was the plan. I never saw him until--until he came here. I heard he was dead. It seems a terribly wicked thing to say, but I was almost glad when poor Ada died."

    Lord Creith filled his pipe with a hand that shook.

    "It was damnable of Bannockwaite, and even his death doesn't absolve him. It might have been worse." He put his arm around her and squeezed her gently. "And it is hard on you, Joan, but it can be remedied."

    "It is harder--than you think," she said.

    The Lord of Creith was a very human man, and his knowledge of humanity did not stop short at guessing.

    "What is wrong, girlie?" he asked. "Do you love somebody else?"

    She nodded.

    "That certainly is unfortunate." The old twinkle had come back to his eyes, and he pulled her up to her feet. "Come along and have tea," he said. "Feel better?"

    She kissed him. The Creiths were not demonstrative, and to be kissed by his daughter was generally a source of embarrassment to his lordship. On this particular occasion he felt like crying.

    Joan went up to her room, removed the traces of tears from her face, and his lordship strolled into the library. Hamon was there with his back to the fire, his face black as a thundercloud.

    "My man tells me that you took the police up to my room--why?"

    "Because I am the principal magistrate in this part of the world, and I cannot refuse a request when it is made to me by a responsible officer," said Lord Creith quietly.

    "I suppose you remember occasionally that this house is mine?"

    "I never forget it," said the earl, "but if this county was yours it would not make the slightest difference to me, Hamon. If you were under suspicion of murder----"

    "Under suspicion? What do you mean? Have you taken up that crazy story? What did the police want? Why did they search my room? What did they expect to find?"

    He fired off the questions in rapid succession.

    "They expected to find a burnt envelope," said Lord Creith wearily, and he got a certain malicious satisfaction when he saw his guest start. "It was a letter that was delivered to you, posted at Little Lexham this morning."

    "They didn't find it," said the other harshly.

    "They found the ashes thereof," said Lord Creith, and then: "Do you mind switching off wilful murder? I find I'm not so fascinated by crime as I used to be. And, by the way, Hamon, what time shall I order your chauffeur?"

    "Why order my chauffeur at all?"

    "Because you're going back to town to-night," said his lordship, almost jauntily. "You're constantly reminding me that this house is yours. Let me remind you that I am a tenant for life, and that until my certain-to-be-regretted demise I have all the authority, legal and moral, to order you out of my house, which I do at this moment and in the plainest terms I can command!"

    "This is a remarkable action on your part, Lord Creith," said the visitor in a milder tone.

    "I don't know that it is remarkable, but it is certainly necessary," said his lordship, and, without any further conversation with his visitor, he ordered the car to be ready in an hour.

    His valet brought the news to Ralph Hamon.

    "We're not returning to London. Go down to the Red Lion and book me a bedroom and a sitting-room," he said.

    This development had considerably altered his plans. Marborne's death and the safe recovery of the thing he had risked so much to hold, did not promise complete safety; and now that he was under suspicion, there was a double reason why he should not leave Creith until his mission was accomplished, and until he had made sure that disaster did not come from the least considered source.

    Besides, he had told Ahmet to hurt but not to kill! It was no fault of his if the fool had exceeded his instructions. He had given similar orders to a certain Ali Hassan, with as unhappy consequences; but Ali Hassan was a smoker of hashish and an undependable man, or he might have carried out his orders to the letter.

    Lord Creith heard that his guest had taken up his quarters at the Red Lion without feeling any sense of uneasiness.

    "I don't know what the Red Lion is like nowadays," he said to his daughter. "In the days of my youth it was notoriously dirty and full of fleas, and I trust it has not changed. The air is cleaner now, my duck. This Hamon is a very nasty fellow."

    And she was inclined to agree. She had not seen Jim since the meeting on the hill, and she purposely avoided contact with him. What would he think of her? How was he feeling? Was he hurt? She hoped most fervently that he was.

    "Do you like Americans, Father?"

    "I like some of them, and I detest some of them," said his lordship, without raising his eyes from the newspaper he was reading; "but that remark equally applies to almost any nation. Why?" He looked over the top of the paper. "You're thinking of Morlake?" he said.

    "I was," she confessed.

    "A very nice fellow. I never knew that a desperado could be so nice. He is a gentleman, too," he added, and returned to his newspaper.
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