Chapter XVIII. Gentle Wooer.
 

Mr. Montague Nevitt rubbed his hands with delight in the sacred privacy of his own apartment. Mr. Nevitt, indeed, had laid his plans deep. He had everybody's secrets all round in his hands, and he meant to make everybody pay dear in the end for his information.

Mr. Nevitt was free. His holidays were on at Drummond, Coutts and Barclay's, Limited. He loved the sea, the sun, and the summer. He was off that day on a projected series of short country runs, in which it was his intention strictly to combine business and pleasure. Dartmoor, for example, as everybody knows, is a most delightful and bracing tourist district; but what more amusing to a man of taste than to go a round of the Moor with its heather-clad tors, and at the same time hunt up the parish registers of the neighbourhood for the purpose of discovering, if possible, the supposed marriage record of Colonel Kelmscott of Tilgate with the Warings' mother? For that there was a marriage Montague Nevitt felt certain in his own wise mind, and having early arrived at that correct conclusion, why, he had quietly offered forthwith, in Plymouth papers, a considerable reward to parish clerks and others who would supply him with any information as to the births, marriages, or deaths of any person or persons of the name of Waring for some eighteen months or so before or after the reputed date when Guy and Cyril began their earthly pilgrimage.

For deaths, Nevitt said to himself, with a sinister smile, were every bit as important to him as births or marriages. He knew the date of Colonel Kelmscott's wedding with Lady Emily Croke, and if at that date wife number one was not yet dead, when the Colonel took to himself wife number two, who now did the honours of Tilgate Park for him, why, there you had as clear and convincing a case of bigamy as any man could wish to find out against another, and to utilize some day for his own good purposes.

As he thought these thoughts, Montague Nevitt gave the last delicate twirl, the final touch of art, to the wire-like ends of his waxed moustache, in front of his mirror, and, after surveying the result in the glass with considerable satisfaction, proceeded to set out, on very good terms with himself, for his summer holiday.

Devonshire, however, wasn't his first destination. Montague Nevitt, besides being a man of business and a man of taste, was also in due season a man of feeling. A heart beat beneath that white rosebud in his left top button-hole. All his thoughts were not thoughts of greed and of gain. He was bound to Tilgate to-day, and to see a lady.

It isn't so easy in England to see a lady alone. But fortune favours the brave. Luck always attended Mr. Montague Nevitt's most unimportant schemes. Hardly had he got into the field path across the meadows between Tilgate station and the grounds of Woodlands than, at the seat by the bend, what should he see but a lady sitting down in an airy white summer dress, her head leaning on her hand, most pensive and melancholy. Montague Nevitt's heart gave a sudden bound. In luck once more. It was Gwendoline Gildersleeve.

"Good morning!" he said briskly, coming up before Gwendoline had time to perceive him--and fly. "This is really most fortunate. I've run down from town today on purpose to see you, but hardly hoped I should have the good fortune to get a tete-a-tete with you--at least so easily. I'm so glad I'm in time. Now, don't look so cross. You must at any rate admit, you know, my persistence is flattering."

"I don't feel flattered by it, Mr. Nevitt," Gwendoline answered coldly, holding out her gloved hand to him with marked disinclination. "I thought last time I had said good-bye to you for good and for ever."

Nevitt took her hand, and held it in his own a trifle longer than was strictly necessary. "Now don't talk like that, Gwendoline," he said coaxingly. "Don't crush me quite flat. Remember at least that you once were kind to me. It isn't my fault, surely, if I still recollect it."

Gwendoline withdrew her hand from his with yet more evident coolness. "Circumstances alter cases," she said severely. "That was before I really knew you."

"That was before you knew Granville Kelmscott, you mean," Nevitt responded with an unpleasantly knowing air. "Oh yes, you needn't wince; I've heard all about that. It's my business to hear and find out everything. But circumstances alter cases, as you justly say, Gwendoline. And I've discovered some circumstances about Granville Kelmscott that may alter the case as regards your opinion of that rich young man, whose estate weighed down a poor fellow like me in what you've graciously pleased to call your affections."

Gwendoline rose, and looked down at the man contemptuously. "Mr. Nevitt," she said, in a chilling voice, "you've no right to call me Gwendoline any longer now. You've no right to speak to me of Mr. Granville Kelmscott. I refused your advances, not for any one else's sake, or any one else's estate, but simply and solely because I came to know you better than I knew you at first; and the more I knew of you the less I liked you. I am not engaged to Mr. Granville Kelmscott. I don't mean to see him again. I don't mean to marry him."

Nevitt took his cue at once, like a clever hand that he was, and followed it up remorselessly. "Well, I'm glad to hear that anyhow," he answered, assuming a careless air of utter unconcern, "for your sake as well as for his, Miss Gildersleeve; for Granville Kelmscott, as I happen to know in the course of business, is a ruined man--a ruined man this moment. He isn't, and never was, the heir of Tilgate. And I'm sure it was very honourable of him, the minute he found he was a penniless beggar, to release you from such an unequal engagement."

He had played his card well. He had delivered his shot neatly. Gwendoline, though anxious to withdraw from his hateful presence, couldn't help but stay and learn more about this terrible hint of his. A light broke in upon her even as the fellow spoke. Was it this, then, that had made Granville talk so strangely to her that morning by the dell in the Woodlands? Was it this which, as he told her, rendered their marriage impossible? Why, if that were all--Gwendoline drew a deep breath and clasped her hands together in a sudden access of mingled hope and despair. "Oh, what do you mean, Mr. Nevitt," she cried eagerly. "What can Granville have done? Don't keep me in suspense! Do tell me what you mean by it."

Montague Nevitt, still seated, looked up at her with a smile of quiet satisfaction. He played with her for a moment as a cat plays with a mouse. She was such a beautiful creature, so tall and fair and graceful, and she was so awfully afraid, and he was so awfully fond of her, that he loved to torture her thus and hold her dangling in his power. "No, Gwendoline," he said slowly, drawing his words out by driblets, so as to prolong her suspense, "I oughtn't to have mentioned it at all. It's a professional secret. I retract what I said. Forget that I said it. Excuse me on the ground of my natural reluctance to see a woman I still love so deeply and so purely--whatever she may happen to think of me--throw herself away on a man without a name or a penny. However, as Kelmscott seems to have done the honourable thing of his own accord, and given you up the minute he knew he couldn't keep you in the way you've been accustomed to--why, there's no need, of course, of any warning from me. I'll say no more on the subject."

His studied air of mystery piqued and drew on his victim. Gwendoline knew in her own heart she ought to go at once; her own dignity demanded it, and she should consult her dignity. But still, she couldn't help longing to know what Nevitt's half-hints and innuendoes might mean. After all, she was a woman! "Oh, do tell me," she cried, clasping her hands in suspense once more; "what have you heard about Mr. Kelmscott? I'm not engaged to him; I don't want to know for that, but--" she broke down, blushing crimson, and Montague Nevitt, gazing fixedly at her delicate peach-like cheek, remarked to himself how extremely well that blush became her.

"No, but remember," he said in a very grave voice, in his favourite impersonation of the man of honour, "whatever I tell you--if I give way at all and tell you anything--you must hear in confidence, and must repeat to nobody. If you do repeat it, you'll get me into very serious trouble. And not only so, but as nobody knows it except myself, you'll as good as proclaim to all the world that you heard it from me. If I tell you what I know, will you promise me this--not to breathe a syllable of what I say to anybody?"

Gwendoline, glancing down, and thoroughly ashamed of herself, yet answered in a very low and trembling voice, "I'll promise, Mr. Nevitt."

"Then the facts are these," the man of feeling went on, with an undercurrent of malicious triumph in his musical voice. "Kelmscott is not his father's eldest son; he's not, and never was, the heir of Tilgate. More than that, nobody knows these facts but myself. And I know the true heirs, and I can prove their title. Well, now, Miss Gildersleeve--if it's to be Miss Gildersleeve still--this is the circumstance that alters the case as regards Granville Kelmscott. I have it in my hands to ruin Kelmscott. And what I've taken the trouble to come down and say to you to-day is simply this for your own advantage; beware, at least, how you throw yourself away upon a penniless man, with neither name nor fortune! When you've quite got over that dream, you'll be glad to return to the man you threw overboard for the rich squire's son. No circumstances have ever altered him. He loved you from the first, and he will always love you,"

Gwendoline looked him back in the face again, as pale as death. "Mr. Nevitt," she said scornfully, unmoved by his tale, "I do not love you, and I will never love you. You have no right to say such things to me as this. I'm glad you've told me, for I now know what Mr. Kelmscott meant. And if he was as poor as a church mouse, I'd marry him to-morrow--I said just now I didn't mean to marry him. I retract that word. Circumstances alter cases, and what you've just told me alters this one. I withdraw what I said. I'll marry Granville Kelmscott to-morrow if he asks me."

She looked down at him so proudly, so defiantly, so haughtily, that Montague Nevitt, sitting there with his cynical smile on his thin red lips, flinched and wavered before her. He saw in a moment the game was up. He had played the wrong card; he had mistaken his woman and tried false tactics. It was too late now to retreat. An empty revenge was all that remained to him. "Very well," he said sullenly, looking her back in the face with a nasty scowl--for indeed he loved that girl and was loath to lose her--"remember your promise, and say nothing to anybody. You'll find it best so for your own reputation in the end. But mark my words; be sure I won't spare Granville Kelmscott now. I'll play my own game. I'll ruin him ruthlessly. He's in my power, I tell you, and I'll crush him under my heel. Well, that's settled at last. I'm off to Devonshire to-morrow--on the hunt of the records--to the skirts of Dartmoor, to a place in the wilds by the name of Mambury." He raised his hat, and, curling his lip maliciously, walked away, without even so much as shaking hands with her. He knew it was all up. That game was lost. And, being a man of feeling, he regretted it bitterly.

Gwendoline, for her part, hurried home, all aglow with remorse and excitement. When she reached the house, she went straight up in haste to her own bedroom. In spite of her promise, all woman that she was, she couldn't resist sitting down at once and inditing a hurried note to Granville Kelmscott.

"Dearest Granville," it said, in a very shaky hand, not unblurred by tears, "I know all now, and I wonder you thought it could ever matter. I know you're not the eldest son, and that somebody else is the heir of Tilgate. And I care for all that a great deal less than nothing. I love you ten thousand times too dearly to mind one pin whether you're rich or poor. And, rich or poor, whenever you like, I'll marry you.

"Yours ever devotedly and unalterably,

"GWENDOLINE."

She sealed it up in haste and ran out with it, all tremors, to the post by herself. Her hands were hot. She was in a high fever. But Mr. Montague Nevitt, that man of feeling, thus balked of his game, walked off his disappointment as well as he could by a long smart tramp across the springy downs, lunching at a wayside inn on bread and cheese and beer, and descending as the evening shades drew in on the Guildford station. Thence he ran up to town by the first fast train, and sauntered sulkily across Waterloo Bridge to his rooms on the Embankment. As he went a poster caught his eye on the bridge. It riveted his attention by one fatal phrase. "Financial News. Collapse of the Rio Negro Diamond and Sapphire Mines!"

He stared at the placard with a dim sense of disaster. What on earth could this mean? It fairly took his breath away. The mines were the best things out this season. He held three hundred shares on his own account. If this rumour were true, he had let himself in for a loss of a clear three thousand!

But being a person of restricted sympathies, he didn't reflect till several minutes had passed that he must at the same time have let Guy Waring in for three thousand also.