Chapter XVII. Visions of Wealth.
 

Cyril Waring, thus dismissed, and as in honour bound, hurried up to London with a mind preoccupied by many pressing doubts and misgivings. He thought much of Elma, but he thought much, too, of sundry strange events that had happened of late to his own private fortunes. For one thing he had sold, and sold mysteriously, at a very good price, the picture of Sardanapalus in the glade at Chetwood. A well-known London dealer had written down to him at Tilgate making an excellent offer for the unfinished work, as soon as it should be ready, on behalf of a customer whose name he didn't happen to mention. And who could that customer be, Cyril thought to himself, but Colonel Kelmscott? But that wasn't all. The dealer who had offered him a round sum down for "The Rajah's Rest" had also at the same time commissioned him to go over to the Belgian Ardennes to paint a picture or two, at a specified price, of certain selected scenes upon the Meuse and its tributaries. The price offered for the work was a very respectable one, and yet--he had some internal misgivings, somehow, about this mysterious commission. Could it be to get rid of him? He had an uncomfortable suspicion in the back chambers of his mind, that whoever had commissioned the pictures might be more anxious to send him well away from Tilgate than to possess a series of picturesque sketches on the Meuse and its tributaries.

And who could have an interest in keeping him far from Tilgate? That was the question. Was there anybody whom his presence there could in any way incommode? Could it be Elma's father who wanted to send him so quickly away from England?

And what was the meaning of Elma's profound resolution, so strangely and strongly expressed, never, never to marry him?

A painful idea flitted across the young man's puzzled brain. Had the Cliffords alone discovered the secret of his birth? and was that secret of such a disgraceful sort that Elma's father shrank from owning him as a prospective son-in-law, while even Elma herself could not bring herself to accept him as her future husband? If so, what could that ghastly secret be? Were he and Guy the inheritors of some deadly crime? Had their origin been concealed from them, more in mercy than in cruelty, only lest some hideous taint of murder or of madness might mar their future and make their whole lives miserable?

When he reached Staple Inn, he found Guy and Montague Nevitt already in their joint rooms, and arrears of three days' correspondence awaiting him.

A close observer--like Elma Clifford--might perhaps have noted in Montague Nevitt's eye certain well-restrained symptoms of suppressed curiosity. But Cyril Waring, in his straightforward, simple English manliness, was not sharp enough to perceive that Nevitt watched him close while he broke the envelopes and glanced over his letters; or that Nevitt's keen anxiety grew at once far deeper and more carefully concealed as Cyril turned to one big missive with an official-looking seal and a distinctly important legal aspect. On the contrary, to the outer eye or ear all that could be observed in Montague Nevitt's manner was the nervous way he went on tightening his violin strings with a tremulous hand and whistling low to himself a few soft and tender bars of some melancholy scrap from Miss Ewes's refectory.

As Cyril read through that letter, however, his breath came and went in short little gasps, and his cheek flushed hotly with a sudden and overpowering flood of emotion.

"What's the matter?" Guy asked, looking over his shoulder curiously. And Cyril, almost faint with the innumerable ideas and suspicions that the tidings conjured up in his brain at once, said with an evident effort, "Read it, Guy; read it."

Guy took the letter and read, Montague Nevitt gazing at it by his side meanwhile with profound interest.

As soon as they had glanced through its carefully-worded sentences, each drew a long breath and stared hard at the other. Then Cyril added in a whirl, "And here's a letter from my own bankers saying they've duly received the six thousand pounds and put it to my credit."

Guy's face was pale, but he faltered out none the less with ashy lips, staring hard at the words all the time, "It isn't only the money, of course, one thinks about, Cyril; but the clue it seems to promise us to our father and mother."

"Exactly," Cyril answered, with a responsive nod. "The money I won't take. I don't know what it means. But the clue I'll follow up till I've run to earth the whole truth about who we are and where we come from."

Montague Nevitt glanced quickly from one to the other with an incredulous air. "Not take the money," he exclaimed, in cynical surprise. "Why, of course you'll take it. Twelve thousand pounds isn't to be sneezed at in these days, I can tell you. And as for the clue, why, there isn't any clue. Not a jot or a tittle, a ghost or a shadow of it. The unnatural parent, whoever he may be--for I take it for granted the unnatural parent's the person at the bottom of the offer--takes jolly good care not to let you know who on earth he is. He wraps himself up in a double cloak of mystery. Drummonds pay in the money to your account at your own bank, you see, and while they're authorized to receive your acknowledgment of the sum remitted, they are clearly not authorized to receive to the sender's credit any return cheque for the amount or cash in repayment. The unnatural parent evidently intends to remain, for the present at least, strictly anonymous.

"Couldn't you find out for us at Drummond, Coutts and Barclay's who the sender is?" Guy asked, with some hesitation, still turning over in his hand the mysterious letter.

Nevitt shook his head with prompt decision. "No, certainly not," he answered, assuming an air of the severest probity. "It would be absolutely impossible. The secrets in a bank are secrets of honour. We are the depositaries of tales that might ruin thousands, and we never say a word about one of them to anybody."

As for Cyril, he felt himself almost too astonished for words. It was long before he could even discuss the matter quietly. The whole episode seemed so strange, so mysterious, so uncanny. And no wonder he hesitated. For the unknown writer of the letter with the legal seal had proposed a most curious and unsatisfactory arrangement. Six thousand pounds down on the nail to Cyril, six thousand more in a few weeks to Guy. But not for nothing. As in all law business, "valuable consideration" loomed large in the background. They were both to repair, on a given day, at a given hour, to a given office, in a given street, where they were to sign without inquiry, and even without perusal, whatever documents might then and there be presented to them. This course, the writer pointed out, with perspicuous plainness, was all in the end to their own greater advantage,

For unless they signed, they would get nothing more, and it would be useless for them at attempt the unravelling of the mystery. But if they consented to sign, then, the writer declared, the anonymous benefactor at whose instigation he wrote would leave them by his will a further substantial sum, not one penny of which would ever otherwise come to them.

And Montague Nevitt, as a man of business, looking the facts in the face, without sentiment or nonsense, advised them to sign, and make the best of a good bargain.

For Montague Nevitt saw at once in his own mind that this course would prove the most useful in the end for his own interests, both as regards the Warings and Colonel Kelmscott.

The two persons most concerned, however, viewed the matter in a very different light. To them, this letter, with its obscure half-hints, opened up a chance of solving at last the mystery of their position which had so long oppressed them. They might now perhaps find out who they really were, if only they could follow up this pregnant clue; and the clue itself suggested so many things.

"Whatever else it shows," Guy said emphatically, "it shows we must be the lawful sons of some person of property, or else why should he want us to sign away our rights like this, all blindfold? And whatever the rights themselves may be, they must be very considerable, or else why should he bribe us so heavily to sign ourselves out of them? Depend upon it, Nevitt, it's an entailed estate, and the man who dictated that letter is in possession of the property, which ought to belong to Cyril and me. For my part, I'm opposed to all bargaining in the dark. I'll sign nothing, and I'll give away nothing, without knowing what it is. And that's what I advise Cyril to write back and tell him."

Cyril, however, was revolving in his own mind meanwhile a still more painful question. Could it be any blood-relationship between himself and Elma, unknown to him, but just made known to her, that gave rise to her firm and obviously recent determination never to marry him? A week or two since, he was sure, Elma knew of no cause or just impediment why they should not be joined together in holy matrimony. Could she have learned it meanwhile, before she met him in the wood? and could the fact of her so learning it have thus pricked the slumbering conscience of their unknown kinsman or their supposed supplanter?

They sat there long and late, discussing the question from all possible standpoints--save the one thus silently started in his own mind by Cyril. But, in the end, Cyril's resolution remained unshaken. He would leave the six thousand pounds in the bank, untouched; but he would write back at once to the unknown sender, declining plainly, once for all, to have anything to do with it or with the proposed transactions. If anything was his by right, he would take it as of right, but he would be no party to such hole-and-corner renunciations of unknown contingencies as the writer suggested. If the writer was willing to state at once all the facts of the case, in clear and succinct language, and to come to terms thus openly with himself and his brother, why then, Cyril averred, he was ready to promise they would deal with his claims in a spirit of the utmost generosity and consideration. But if this was an attempt to do them out of their rights by a fraudulent bribe, he for one would have nothing to say to it. He would therefore hold the six thousand pounds paid in to his account entirely at his anonymous correspondent's disposition.

"And as there isn't any use in my wasting the summer, Guy," he said, in conclusion, "I won't let this red-herring, trailed across my path, prevent me from going over at once, as I originally intended, to Dinant and Spa, and fulfilling the commission for those pictures of Dale and Norton's; You and Nevitt can see meanwhile what it's possible for us to do in the matter of hunting up this family mystery. You can telegraph if you want me, and I'll come back at once. But more than ever now I feel the need of redeeming the time and working as hard as I can go at my profession."

"Well, yes," Guy answered, as if both their thoughts ran naturally in the self-same channel. "I agree with you there. She's been accustomed to luxury. No man has a right to marry any girl if he can't provide for her in the comfort and style she's always been used to. And from that point of view, when one looks it in the face, Cyril, six thousand pounds would come in handy."