Chapter XIX. Self or Bearer.
 

At Charing Cross Station Montague Nevitt bought a Financial News and proceeded forthwith to his own rooms to read of the sudden collapse of his pet speculation. It was only too true. The Rio Negro Diamond and Sapphire Mines had gone entirely in one of the periodical South American crashes which involved them in the liabilities of several other companies. A call would be made at once to the full extent of the nominal capital. And he would have to find three thousand pounds down to meet the demand on his credit immediately.

Nevitt hadn't three thousand pounds in the world to pay. The little he possessed beyond his salary was locked up, here and there, in speculative undertakings, where he couldn't touch it except at long notice. It was a crushing blow. He had need of steadying. Some men would have flown in such a plight to brandy. Montague Nevitt flew, instead, to the consolations of music.

For some minutes, indeed, he paced his room up and down in solemn silence. Then his eye fell by accident on the violin case in the corner. Ah, that would do! That beloved violin would inspire him with ideas; was it suicide or fraud? or some honest way out: be it this plan or that the violin would help him. Screwing up the strings for a minute with those deft, long, double-jointed fingers of his, he took the bow in his right hand, and, still pacing the room with great strides, like a wild beast in its cage, began to discourse low passionate music to himself from one of those serpentine pieces of Miss Ewes's of Leamington.

As he played and played, his whole soul in his fingers, a plan began to frame itself, vaguely, dimly at first, then more and more definitely by slow degrees--shape, form, and features--as it grew and developed. A beautiful chord, that last! Oh, how subtle, how beautiful! It seemed to curl and glide on like a serpent through the grass, leaving strange trails behind as of a flowing signature; a flowing signature with bold twirls and flourishes--twirls and flourishes--twirls and flourishes--twirls, twirls, twirls and flourishes; the signature to a cheque; to a cheque for money; three thousand pounds at Drummond, Coutts and Barclay's.

It ran through his head, keeping time with the bars. Four thousand pounds; five thousand; six thousand.

The longer he played the clearer and sharper the plan stood out. He saw his way now as clear as daylight. And his way too, to make a deal more in the end by it.

"Pay self or bearer six thousand pounds! Six thousand pounds; signed, Cyril Waring!"

For hours he paced up and down there, playing long and low. Oh, music, how he loved it; it seemed to set everything straight all at once in his head. With bow in hand and violin at rest, he surpassed himself that evening in ingenuity of fingering. He trembled to think of his own cleverness and skill. What a miracle of device! What a triumph of cunning! Not an element was overlooked. It was safe as houses. He could go to bed now, and drop off like a child; having arranged before he went to make Guy Waring his cat's paw, and turn this sad stroke of ill-luck in the end to his own ultimate greater and wider advantage.

And he was quite right too. He did sleep as he expected. Next morning he woke in a very good humour, and proceeded at once to Guy Waring's rooms the moment after breakfast.

He found Guy, as he expected, in a tumult of excitement, having only just that moment received by post the final call for the Rio Negro capital.

When other men are excited the wise man takes care to be perfectly calm. Montague Nevitt was calm under this crushing blow. He pointed out blandly that everything would yet go well. All was not lost. They had other irons in the fire. And even the Rio Negros themselves were not an absolute failure. The diamonds, the diamonds themselves, he insisted, were still there, and the sapphires also. They studded the soil, they were to be had for the picking. Every bit of their money would come back to them in the end. It was a question of meeting an immediate emergency only.

"But I haven't three thousand pounds in the world to meet it with," Guy exclaimed in despair. "I shall be ruined, of course. I don't mind about that; but I never shall be able to make good my liabilities!"

Nevitt lighted a cigarette with a philosophical smile. The hotter Guy waxed, the faster did he cool down.

"Neither have I, my dear boy," he said, in his most careless voice, puffing out rings of smoke in the interval between his clauses; "but I don't, therefore, go mad. I don't tear my hair over it; though, to be sure, I'm a deal worse off than you. My position's at stake. If Drummonds were to hear of it--sack--sack instanter. As to making yourself responsible for what you don't possess, that's simply speculation. Everybody on the Stock Exchange always does it. If they didn't there'd be no such thing as enterprise at all. You can't make a fortune by risking a ha'penny."

"But what am I to do?" Guy cried wildly. "However am I to raise three thousand pounds? I should be ashamed to let Cyril know I'd defaulted like this. If I can't find the money I shall go mad or kill myself."

Montague Nevitt played him gently, as an experienced angler plays a plunging trout, before proceeding to land him. At last, after offering Guy much sympathetic advice, and suggesting several intentionally feeble schemes, only to quash them instantly, he observed with a certain apologetic air of unobtrusive friendliness, "Well, if the worst comes to the worst, you've one thing to fall back upon: There's that six-thousand, of course, coming in by-and-by from the unknown benefactor."

Guy flung himself down in his easy-chair, with a look of utter despondency upon his handsome face. "But I promised Cyril," he exclaimed, with a groan, "I'd never touch that. If I were to spend it I don't know how I could ever face Cyril."

"I was told yesterday," Nevitt answered, with a bitter little smile, "and by a lady, too, many times over, that circumstances alter cases, till I began to believe it. When you promised Cyril you weren't face to face with a financial crisis. If you were to use the money temporarily--mind, I say only temporarily; for to my certain knowledge Rio Negros will pull through all right in the end--if you were to use it temporarily in such an emergency as this, no blame of any sort could possibly attach to you. The unknown benefactor won't mind whether your money's at your banker's, or employed for the time being in paying your debts. Your creditors will. If I were you, therefore, I'd use it up in paying them."

"You would?" Guy inquired, glancing across at him, with a faint gleam of hope in his eye.

Nevitt fixed him at once with his strange cold stare, He had caught his man now. He could play upon him as readily as he could play his violin.

"Why, certainly I would," he answered, with confidence, striking the new chord full. "Cyril himself would do the same in your place, I'll bet you. And the proof that he would is simply this--you yourself will do it. Depend upon it, if you can do anything, under given circumstances, Cyril would do it too, in the same set of conditions. And if ever Cyril feels inclined to criticise what you've done, you can answer him back, 'I know your heart as you know mine. In my place, I know you'd have acted as I did.'"

"Cyril and I are not absolutely identical," Guy answered slowly, his eyes still fixed on Montague Nevitt's. "Sometimes I feel he does things I wouldn't do."

"He has more initiative than you," Nevitt answered, as if carelessly, though with deep design in his heart. "He acts where you debate. You're often afraid to take a serious step. Cyril never hesitates. You draw back and falter; Cyril goes straight ahead. But all the more reason, accordingly, that Cyril should admit the lightness of whatever you do, for if you do anything--anything in the nature of a definite step, I mean--why, far more readily, then, would Cyril, in like case, have done it."

"You think he has more initiative?" Guy asked, with a somewhat nettled air. He hated to be thought less individual than Cyril.

"Of course he has, my dear boy," Nevitt answered, smiling. "He'd use the money at once, without a second's hesitation."

"But I haven't got the money to use," Guy continued, after a short pause.

"Cyril has, though," Nevitt responded, with a significant nod.

Guy perused his boots, and made no immediate answer. Nevitt wanted none just then; he waited some seconds, humming all the while an appropriate tune. Then he caught Guy's eye again, and fixed him a second time.

"It's a pity we don't know Cyril's address in Belgium," he said, in a musing tone. "We might telegraph across for leave to use his money meanwhile. Remember, I'm just as deeply compromised as you, or even more so. It's a pity we should both be ruined, with six thousand pounds standing at this very moment to Cyril's account at the London and West Country. But it can't be helped. There's no time to lose. The money must be paid in sharp by this evening."

"By this evening!" Guy exclaimed, starting up excitedly.

Nevitt nodded assent. "Yes, by this evening, of course," he answered unperturbed, "or we become ipso facto defaulters and bankrupts."

That was a lie to be sure; but it served his purpose. Guy was a child at business, and believed whatever nonsense Nevitt chose to foist upon him.

The journalist rose and paced the room twice or thrice with a frantic air of unspeakable misery.

"I shall lose my place at our bank, no doubt," Nevitt went on, in a resigned tone. "But that doesn't much matter. Though a temporary loan--I could pay every penny in six weeks if I'd time--a temporary loan would set things all straight again."

"I wish to heaven Cyril was here," Guy exclaimed, in piteous tones.

"He is, practically, when you're here," Nevitt answered, with a knowing smile. "You can act as his deputy."

"How do you mean?" Guy asked, turning round upon him open-mouthed.

Nevitt paused, and smiled sweetly.

"This is his cheque-book, I think," he replied, in the oblique retort, picking it up and looking at it. He tore out a cheque, as if pensively and by accident.

"That's a precious odd thing," he went on, "that you showed me the other day, don't you know, about your signature and Cyril's being so absolutely identical."

Guy gazed at him in horror. "Oh, don't talk about that!" he cried, running his hand through his hair. "If I were even to entertain such an idea for a moment, my self-respect would be gone for ever."

"Exactly so," Nevitt put in, with a satirical smile. "I said so just now. You've no initiative. Cyril wouldn't be afraid. Knowing the interests at stake, he'd take a firm stand and act off-hand on his own discretion."

"Do you think so?" Guy faltered, in a hesitating voice.

Nevitt held him with his eye.

"Do I think so?" he echoed, "do I think so? I know it. Look here, Guy, you and Cyril are practically one. If Cyril were here we'd ask him at once to lend us the money. If we knew where Cyril was we'd telegraph across and get his leave like a bird. But as he isn't here, and as we don't know where he is, we must show some initiative; we must act for once on our own responsibility, exactly as Cyril would. It's only for six weeks. At the end of that time the unknown benefactor stumps up your share. You needn't even tell Cyril, if you don't like, of this little transaction. See! here's his cheque. You fill it in and sign it. Nobody can tell the signature isn't Cyril's. You take the money and release us both. In six weeks' time you get your own share of the unnatural parent's bribe. You pay it in to his credit, and not a living soul on earth but ourselves need ever be one penny the wiser."

Guy tried to look away, but he couldn't. He couldn't. Nevitt held him fixed with his penetrating gaze. Guy moved uneasily. He felt as if he had a stiff neck, so hard was it to turn. Nevitt took a pen, and dipped it quick in the ink.

"Just as an experiment," he said firmly, yet in a coaxing voice, "sit down and sign. Let me see what it looks like. There. Write it just here. Write 'Cyril Waring.'"

Guy sat down as in a maze, and took the pen from his hand like an obedient schoolboy. For a second the pen trembled in his vacillating fingers; then he wrote on the cheque, in a free and flowing hand, where the signature ought to be, his brother's name. He wrote it without stopping.

"Capital! Capital!" Nevitt cried in delight, looking over his shoulder. "It's a splendid facsimile! Now date and amount if you please. Six thousand pounds. It's your own natural hand after all. Ah, capital, capital!"

As he spoke, Guy framed the fatal words like one dreaming or entranced, on the slip of paper before him. "Pay Self or Bearer Six Thousand Pounds (L6,000), Cyril Waring."

Nevitt looked at it critically. "That'll do all right," he said, with his eye still fixed in between whiles on Guy's bloodless face. "Now the only one thing you have still left to do is, to take it to the bank and get it cashed instanter."