Read CHAPTER XVIII. - THE OWL’S CRY. of The Adventures of Harry Revel , free online book, by Arthur Quiller-Couch, on ReadCentral.com.

Silence ­and then Mr. Rogers’s voice uplifted and shouting for Hodgson!

But Hodgson, it seemed, had found out a way of his own.  For a fresh sound of hoofs smote on our ears ­this time in the lane ­a tune pounded out to the accompaniment of loose stones volleyed and dropping between the beats.

“Drat the man’s impidence,” said Miss Belcher coolly; “he’s taken my mare!”

“What’s that you say?” demanded Mr. Rogers’s angry voice from the yard.

“You won’t find another horse, Jack, unless you brought him.  Whitmore keeps but one.”

“Confound it all, Lydia!” He came sullenly back towards the window.

“You’ve said that before.  The man’s gone, unless Hodgson can overtake him ­which I doubt.  He rides sixteen stone if an ounce, and the mare’s used to something under eleven.  So give over, my boy, and come in and tell me what it’s all about.”

“Look here,” he growled, clambering back into the room, “there’s devilry somewhere at the bottom of this.  The fellow’s nag was ready saddled ­I got near enough to see that:  and the yard-gate posted open:  and ­the devil take it, Lydia, I believe you opened that window on purpose!  Did you?”

“That’s telling, my dear.  But, if you like, we’ll suppose that I did.”

“Then,” said Mr. Rogers bitterly, “it may interest you to know that you’ve given him bail from the gallows.  He’s no priest at all:  by his own confession he’s a forger:  and I’ll lay odds he’s a murderer too, if that’s enough.  But perhaps you knew this without my telling you?”

Miss Belcher took a step or two towards the fireplace and back.  Her face, hidden for a moment, was composed when she turned it again upon us.

“Don’t be an ass, Jack.  I knew nothing of the sort.”

“You knew enough, it seems,” Mr. Rogers persisted sulkily, “to guess he was in a hurry.  And you’ll excuse me, Lydia, but this is a serious business.  Whether you knew it or not, you’ve abetted a criminal in escaping from the law, and I’ve my duty to do.  What brought you here to-night?”

“Are you asking that as a Justice of the Peace?”

“I am,” he answered, flushing angrily.

“Then I shall not answer you.  Who is this boy?”

“His name is Harry Revel?”

“What?  The youngster the hue-and-cry’s after?”

“Quite so:  and in a pretty bad mess, since you’ve opened the cage to the real bird.”

“Jack Rogers, you don’t mean to tell me that he ­that Mr. Whitmore ­”

“Killed the Jew Rodriguez?  Well, Lydia, I’ve no doubt of it in my own mind:  but when you entered we were investigating another crime of his, and a dirtier one.”

She swept us all in a gaze, and I suppose that our faces answered her.

“Very well,” she said; “I will answer your questions.  You may put them to me as a magistrate later on, but just now you shall listen to them as a friend and a gentleman.”  With her hunting-crop she pointed towards the door.  “In the next room and alone, if you please.  Thank you.  You will excuse us, Rector?”

She bowed to the old man.  Mr. Rogers stood aside to let her pass, then followed.  The door closed behind them.

Mr. Doidge fumbled in his pockets, found his spectacles, adjusted them with a shaking hand, and sat down before the bureau to search for the licence.  The pigeon-holes contained but a few bundles of papers, all tied very neatly with red tape and docketed. (Neatness, at any rate, was one of Mr. Whitmore’s virtues.  Although the carpet lay littered with books, boots, and articles of clothing which by their number proclaimed the dandy, the few selected for the valise had been deftly packed and with extreme economy of space.) In the first drawer below the writing flap the Rector found the register and parish account-books in an orderly pile.  He seized on the register at once, opened it, and ran his eyes down the later pages, muttering while he read.

“There is no entry here of Miss Brooks’s marriage,” he announced.  “One, two, three, five marriages in all entered in his handwriting:  but no such name as Brooks or Plinlimmon.  Stay:  what is the meaning of this? ­a blank line between two entries ­one of March 20th, the other of the 25th ­both baptisms.  Looks as if he’d left room for a post-entry.  Let’s have a look at the papers.”

He tossed the bundles over and found one labelled “Marriages”; spread the papers out and rubbed his head in perplexity.  Isabel’s licence was not among them.

Next he began to open the books and shake them, pausing now and again as a page of figures caught his eye.

“Accounts seem in order, down to the petty cash.”  He stooped, picked up and opened a small parcel of coin wrapped in paper, which his elbow had brushed off the ledge.  “Fifteen and ninepence ­right, to a penny.  But where in the world’s that licence?”

There were drawers in the lower half of the bookcase, and he directed me to search in these while he hunted again through the bureau.  And while we were thus occupied the door opened and Miss Belcher re-entered the room with Mr. Rogers at her heels.  Had it been possible to associate tears with Miss Belcher, I could have sworn she had been weeping.  Her first words, and the ringing masculine tone of them, effaced that half-formed impression.

“What the dickens are you two about?”

“We are searching for a licence,” the Rector answered.  “I am right, Mr. Rogers ­am I not? ­in my recollection that Whitmore indicated it to be here, in this room, and easily found?”

“To be sure he did,” said Mr. Rogers.

“I cannot find it among his papers ­which, for the rest, are in apple-pie order.”

Thereupon we all fell to searching.  In half an hour we had ransacked the room, and all to no purpose; and so, as if by signal, broke off and eyed one another in dismay.

And as we did so Miss Belcher laughed aloud and pointed at the valise lying in the middle of the floor ­the only thing we had left unexplored.

Mr. Rogers flung himself upon it, tossed its contents right and left, dived his hand under a flap, and held up a paper with a shout.

The Rector clutched it and hurried to the bureau to examine it by the light of the candles he had taken from the chimney-piece and placed there to assist his search.

“It’s the licence!” he announced.

The two others pressed forward to assure themselves.  He put the paper into their hands and, stepping to the rifled valise, bent over it, rubbing his chin meditatively.

“Now why,” he asked, “would he be taking this particular paper with him?”

“Because,” Miss Belcher answered, with a glance at Mr. Rogers, “he was a villain, but not a complete one.  He was a weak fool ­oh, yes, and I hate him for it.  But I won’t believe but that he loathed this business.”

“I don’t see how you get that out of his packing the paper, to carry it off with him:  though it’s queer, I allow,” said Mr. Rogers.

“It’s plain enough to me.  He meant, if he reached safety, to send the thing back to you, Rector, and explain:  he meant to set this thing right.  I’ll go bail he abominated what he’d done, and abominated the man who compelled him.”

“He called it damnable,” said I.

The words were scarcely out of my mouth when my ears and senses stiffened at a sound from the night without, borne to us through the open window ­the hoot of an owl.

The others heard it too.

“There he is!” I whispered.

“Who?” asked Miss Belcher.  But I nodded at Mr. Rogers.

“Letcher:  that’s his call.”

Mr. Rogers glanced at the window, and grinned.

“Now here’s a chance,” he said softly.

“Eh?”

“He hasn’t seen us.  Stand close, everyone ­oh, Moses, here’s a game!” He seemed to be considering.

“Let’s have it, Jack,” Miss Belcher urged.  “Don’t be keeping all the fun to yourself.”

“Whist a moment!  I was thinking what to do with you three.  The door’s in line with the window, and he’ll spot anyone that crosses the room.”

I pointed to the window-skirting.  “Not if one crossed close under the window, sir ­hands and knees.”

“Good boy!  Can you manage it, Lydia?  Keep close by the wall, tuck in your tuppeny and slip across.”

She nodded.  “And where after that?”

“Under the bed or behind the far curtain ­which you will:  and no tricks, this time!  The near curtain will do for the Rector.  Is that your hat, sir ­there beside you, on the bureau?”

“No:  I left mine in the next room.  This must belong to Whitmore.”

“Better still!  Pass it over ­thank you.  And now, if you please, we’ll exchange coats.”  Mr. Rogers began to strip.

The Rector hesitated, but after a moment his eye twinkled and he comprehended.  The coats were exchanged, and he, too, began to steal towards the window.

“This will do for me, sir,” said I, pointing to a cupboard under the bookcase.

“Plenty of room beneath the bed,” he decided, as Miss Belcher disappeared behind her curtain.  And so it happened that better than either she or the Rector I saw what followed.

We were hiding some while before the owl’s cry sounded again and (as it seemed to me) from the same distance as before.  Mr. Rogers, in the Rector’s coat and the curate’s hat, stepped hurriedly to the valise and began to re-pack it, kneeling with his back to the window, and full in the line of sight.  I am fain to say that he played his part admirably.  The suspense, which kept my heart knocking against my ribs, either did not trouble him or threw into his movements just the amount of agitation to make them plausible.  By and by he scrambled up, collected a heap of garments, and flung them back into a wardrobe beside the bed; stepped to the bureau ­still keeping his face averted from the window ­picked up and pocketed the licence which the Rector had left there; returned to the valise, and, stooping again, rammed its contents tighter.  I saw that he had disengaged the leather straps which ran round it, pulling them clear of their loops.

It was then that I heard a light sound on the cobbles outside, and knew it for a footstep.

“W’st!” said a voice.  “W’st ­Whitmore!”