Chapter XXI. Colonel Kelmscott's Punishment.
 

While Montague Nevitt was thus congenially engaged in pulling off his treble coup of settling his own share in the Rio Negro deficit, pocketing three thousand pounds, pro tem, for incidental expenses, and getting Guy Waring thoroughly into his power by his knowledge of a forgery, two other events were taking place elsewhere, which were destined to prove of no small importance to the future of the twins and their immediate surroundings. Things generally were converging towards a crisis in their affairs. Colonel Kelmscott's wrong-doing was bearing first-fruit abundantly.

For as soon as Granville Kelmscott received that strangely-worded note from Gwendoline Gildersleeve, he proceeded, as was natural, straight down, in his doubt, to his father's library. There, bursting into the room, with Gwendoline's letter still crushed in his hand in the side pocket of his coat, and a face like thunder, he stood in the attitude of avenging fate before his father's chair, and gazed down upon him angrily.

"What does this mean?" he asked, in a low but fuming voice, brandishing the note before his eyes as he spoke. "Is every one in the county to be told it but I? Is everybody else to hear my business before you tell me a word of it? A letter comes to me this morning--no matter from whom--and here's what it says: 'I know you're not the eldest son, and that somebody else is the heir of Tilgate.' Surely, if anybody was to know, I should have known it first. Surely, if I'm to be turned adrift on the world, after being brought up to think myself a man of means so long, I should, at least, be turned adrift with my eyes open."

Colonel Kelmscott gazed at him open-mouthed with horror.

"Did Gwendoline Gildersleeve write that to you?" he cried, overpowered at once by remorse and awe. "Did Gwendoline Gildersleeve write that to you? Well, if Gwendoline Gildersleeve knows it, it's all up with the scheme! That rascally lawyer, her father, has found out everything. These two young men must have put their case in the fellow's hands. He must be hunting up the facts. He must be preparing to contest it. My boy, my boy, we're ruined! we're ruined!"

"These two young men," Granville repeated, with a puzzled air of surprise. "What two young men? I don't know them. I never heard of them." Then suddenly one of those flashes of intuition burst in upon him that burst in upon us all at moments of critical importance to our lives. "Father, father," he cried, loaning forward in his anguish and clutching the oak chair, "you don't mean to tell me those fellows, the Warings, that we met at Chetwood Court, are your lawful sons--and that that was why you bought the landscape with the snake in it?"

Kelmscott, of Tilgate, bent his proud head down to the table unchecked. "My son, my son," he cried, in his despair, "you have said it yourself. Your own mouth has suggested it. What use my trying to keep it from you any longer? These lads--are Kelmscotts."

"And--my mother?" Granville Kelmscott burst out, in a very tremulous voice. The question was almost more than a man dare ask. But he asked it in the first bitterness of a terrible awakening.

"Your mother," Colonel Kelmscott answered, lifting his head once more, with a terrible effort, and looking his son point-blank in the face--"your mother is just what I have always called her--my lawful wife--Lady Emily Kelmscott. The mother of these lads, to whom I was also once duly married, died before my marriage with my present wife--thank God I can say so. I may have acted foolishly, cruelly, criminally; but at least I never acted quite so basely and so ill as you impute to me, Granville."

"Thank Heaven for that," his son answered fervently, with one hand on his breast, drawing a deep sigh as he spoke. "You're my father, sir, and it isn't for me to reproach you; but if you had only done that--oh, my mother! my mother! I don't know, sir, I'm sure, how I could ever have forgiven you; I don't know how I could ever have kept my hands off you."

Colonel Kelmscott straightened himself up, and looked hard at his son. A terrible pathos gleamed in his proud brown eyes. His white moustache had more dignity than ever.

"Granville," he said slowly, like a broken man, "I don't ask you to forgive me; you can never forgive me; I don't ask you to sympathise with me; a father knows better than to accept sympathy from a son; but I do ask you to bear with me while I try to explain myself."

He braced himself up, and with many long pauses, and many inarticulate attempts to set forth the facts in the least unfavourable aspect, told his story all through, in minute detail, to that hardest of all critics, his own dispossessed and disinherited boy.

"If you're hard upon me, Granville," he cried at last as he finished, looking wistfully for pity into his son's face, "you should remember, at least, it was for your sake I did it, my boy; it was for your sake I did it--yours, yours, and your mother's."

Granville let him relate his whole story in full to the bitter end, though it was with difficulty at times that that proud and grey-haired man nerved himself up to tell it. Then, as soon as all was told, he looked in his father's face once more, and said slowly, with the pitilessness of sons in general towards the faults and failings of their erring parents--

"It's not my place to blame you, I know. You did it, I suppose, as you say so, for me and my mother. But it is my place to tell you plainly, father, that I, for one, will have nothing at all to do with the fruits of your deception. I was no party to the fraud; I will be no party either to its results or its clearing up. I, too, have to think, as you say, of my mother. For her sake, I won't urge you to break her heart at once by disinheriting her son, now and here, too openly. You can make what arrangements you like with these blood-sucking Warings. You can do as you will in providing them with hush-money. Let them take their black-mail! You've handed them over half the sum you got for Dowlands already, I suppose. You can buy them off for awhile by handing them over the remainder. Twelve thousand will do. Leeches as they are, that will surely content them, at least for the present."

Colonel Kelmscott raised one hand and tried hard to interrupt him; but Granville would not be interrupted.

"No, no," he went on sternly, shaking his head and frowning. "I'll have my say for once, and then for ever keep silence. This is the first and last time as long as we both live I will speak with you on the subject. So we may as well understand one another, once and for ever. For my mother's sake, as I said, there need be just at present no open disclosure. You have years to live yet; and as long as you live, these Waring people have no claim upon the estate in any way. You've given them as much as they've any right to expect. Let them wait for the rest till, in the course of nature, they come into possession. As for me, I will go to carve out for myself a place in the world elsewhere by my own exertions. Perhaps, before my mother need know her son was left a beggar by the father who brought him up like the heir to a large estate, I may have been able to carve out that place for myself so well that she need never really feel the difference. I'm a Kelmscott, and can fight the world on my own account. But, in any case, I must go. Tilgate's no longer a fit home for me. I leave it to those who have a better right to it."

He rose as if to depart, with the air of a man who sets forth upon the world to seek his fortune. Colonel Kelmscott rose too, and faced him, all broken.

"Granville," he said, in a voice scarcely audible through the stifled sobs he was too proud to give vent to, "you're not going like this. You're not going without at least shaking hands with your father! You're not going without saying good-bye to your mother!"

Granville turned, with hot tears standing dim in his eyes--like his father, he was too proud to let them trickle down his cheek--and taking the Colonel's weather-beaten hand in his, wrung it silently for some minutes with profound emotion.

Then he looked at the white moustache, the grizzled hair, the bright brown eyes suffused with answering dimness, and said, almost remorsefully, "Father, good-bye. You meant me well, no doubt. You thought you were befriending me. But I wish to Heaven in my soul you had meant me worse. It would have been easier for me to bear in the end. If you'd brought me up as a nobody--as a younger son's accustomed--" He paused and drew back, for he could see his words were too cruel for that proud man's heart. Then he broke off suddenly.

"But I can't say good-bye to my mother," he went on, with a piteous look. "If I tried to say good-bye to her, I must tell her all. I'd break down in the attempt. I'll write to her from the Cape. It'll be easier so. She won't feel it so much then."

"From the Cape!" Colonel Kelmscott exclaimed, drawing back in horror. "Oh, Granville, don't tell me you're going away from us to Africa!"

"Where else?" his son asked, looking him back in the face steadily. "Africa it is! That's the only opening left nowadays for a man of spirit. There, I may be able to hew out a place for myself at last, worthy of Lady Emily Kelmscott's son. I won't come back till I come back able to hold my own in the world with the best of them. These Warings shan't crow over the younger son. Good-bye, once more, father." He wrung his hand hard. "Think kindly of me when I'm gone; and don't forget altogether I once loved Tilgate."

He opened the door and went up to his own room again. His mind was resolved. He wouldn't even say good-bye to Gwendoline Gildersleeve. He'd pack a few belongings in a portmanteau in haste, and go forth upon the world to seek his fortune in the South African diamond fields.

But Colonel Kelmscott sat still in the library, bowed down in his chair, with his head between his hands, in abject misery. A strange feeling seemed to throb through his weary brain; he had a sensation as though his skull were opening and shutting. Great veins on his forehead beat black and swollen. The pressure was almost more than the vessels would stand. He held his temples between his two palms as if to keep them from bursting. All ahead looked dark as night; the ground was cut from under him. The punishment of his sin was too heavy for him to bear. How could he ever tell Emily now that Granville was gone? A horrible numbness oppressed his brain. Oh, mercy! mercy! his head was flooded.