Chapter XXIV. A Slight Misunderstanding.
 

On the very same day that Guy Waring visited Mambury, where his mother was married, Montague Nevitt had hunted up the entry of Colonel Kelmscott's wedding in the church register.

Nevitt's behaviour, to say the truth, wasn't quite so black as Guy Waring painted it. He had gone off with the extra three thousand in his pocket, to be sure; but he didn't intend to appropriate it outright to his own uses. He merely meant to give Guy a thoroughly good fright, as it wasn't really necessary the call should be met for another fortnight; and then, as soon as he'd found out the truth about Colonel Kelmscott and his unacknowledged sons, he proposed to use his knowledge of the forgery as a lever with Guy, so as to force him to come to advantageous terms with his supposed father. Nevitt's idea was that Guy and Cyril should drive a hard bargain on their own account with the Colonel, and that he himself should then receive a handsome commission on the transaction from both the brothers, under penalty of disclosing the true facts about the cheque by whose aid Guy had met their joint liability to the Rio Negro Diamond Mines.

It was with no small joy, therefore, that Nevitt saw at last in the parish register of St. Mary's at Mambury, the interesting announcement, "June 27th, Henry Lucius Kelmscott, of the parish of Plymouth, bachelor, private in the Regiment of Scots Greys, to Lucy Waring, spinster, of this parish."

He saw at a glance, of course, why Kelmscott of Tilgate had chosen to describe himself in this case as a private soldier. But he also saw that the entry was an official document, and that here he had one firm hold the more on Colonel Kelmscott, who must falsely have sworn to that incorrect description. The great point of all, however, was the signature to the book; and though nearly thirty years had elapsed since those words were written, it was clear to Nevitt, when he compared the autograph in the register with one of Colonel Kelmscott's recent business letters, brought with him for the purpose, that both had been penned by one and the same person.

He chuckled to himself with delight to think how great a benefactor he had proved himself unawares to Guy and Cyril. At that very moment, no doubt, his misguided young friend whom he had compelled to assist him with the sinews of war for this important campaign was reviling and objurating him in revengeful terms as the blackest and most infamous of double-dyed traitors. Ah, well! ah, well! the good are inured to gross ingratitude. Guy little knew, as he, Montague Nevitt, stood there triumphant in the vestry, blandly rewarding the expectant clerk for his pains with a whole Bank of England five-pound note--the largest sum that functionary had ever in his life received all at once in a single payment--Guy little knew that Nevitt was really the chief friend and founder of the family fortunes, and was prepared to compel the "unknown benefactor" (for a moderate commission) to recognise his unacknowledged firstborn sons before all the world as the heirs to Tilgate. But yesterday, they were nameless waifs and strays, of uncertain origin, ashamed of their birth, and ignorant even whether they had been duly begotten in lawful wedlock; to-day, they were the legal inheritors of an honoured name and a great estate, the first and foremost among the landed gentry of a wealthy and beautiful English county.

He smiled to think what a good turn he had done unawares to those ungrateful youths--and how little credit, as yet, they were prepared to give him for it. In such a mood he returned to the inn to lunch. His spirits were high. This was a good day's work, and he could afford, indeed, to make merry with his host over it. He ordered in a bottle of wine--such wine as the little country cellar could produce, and invited that honest man, the landlord, to step in and share it with him. He had tasted worse sherry on London dinner-tables, and he told his host so. An affable man with inferiors, Mr. Montague Nevitt! Then he strolled out by himself down the path by the brook. It was a pleasant walk, with the water making music in little trickles by its side, and Montague Nevitt, as a man of taste, found it suited exactly with his temper for the moment. He noted an undercurrent of rejoicing and triumphant cheeriness in the tone of the stream as it plashed among the pebbles on its precipitous bed that suggested to his mind some bars of a symphony which he determined to compose as soon as he got home again to his beloved fiddle.

So he walked along by himself, elate, and with a springy step, on thoughts of ambition intent, till he came at last to a cool and shadowy place, where as yet the ferns were not broken down and trampled underfoot, though Guy Waring found them so some twenty minutes later.

At that spot he looked up, and saw advancing along the path in the opposite direction the burly figure of a man, in a light tourist suit, whom he hadn't yet observed since he came to Mambury. The very first point he noticed about the man, long before he recognised him, was a pair of overgrown, obtrusive hands held somewhat awkwardly in front of him--just like Gilbert Gildersleeve's. The likeness, indeed, was so ridiculously close that Montague Nevitt smiled quietly to himself to observe it. If he'd been in the Tilgate district now, he'd have declared, without the slightest hesitation, that the man on the path was Gilbert Gildersleeve.

One second later, he pulled himself up with a jerk in alarmed surprise. "Great heavens" he cried to himself, a weird sense of awe creeping over him piece-meal, "either this is a dream or else it is, it must be Gilbert Gildersleeve."

And so, indeed, it was. Gilbert Gildersleeve himself, in his proper person. But the eminent Q.C., better versed in the wiles of time and place than Guy Waring in his innocence, had not come obtrusively to Mambury village or asked point-blank at the Talbot Arms by his own right name for the man he was in search of. Such simplicity of procedure would never even have occurred to that practised hand at the Old Bailey. Mr. Gilbert Gildersleeve appeared on that woodland path in the general guise of the common pedestrian tourist with his head-quarters at Ivybridge, walking about on the congenial outskirts of the Moor in search of the picturesque, and coming and going by mere accident through Mambury. He had hovered around the neighbourhood for two days, off and on, in search of his man; and now, by careful watching, like an amateur detective, he had run his prey to earth by a dexterous flank-movement and secured an interview with him where he couldn't shirk or avoid it.

To Montague Nevitt, however, the meeting seemed at first sight but the purest accident. He had no reason to suppose, indeed, that Gilbert Gildersleeve had any special interest in his visit to Mambury, further than might be implied in its possible connection with Granville Kelmscott's affairs; and he didn't believe Gwendoline, in her fear of her father, that blustering man, would ever have communicated to him the personal facts of their interview at Tilgate. So he advanced to meet his old acquaintance, the barrister, with frankly outstretched hand.

"Mr. Gildersleeve!" he exclaimed in some surprise. "No, it can't be you. Well, this is indeed an unexpected pleasure."

Gilbert Gildersleeve gazed down upon him from the towering elevation of his six feet four. Montague Nevitt was tall enough, as men go in England, but with his slim, tailor-made form, and his waxed moustaches, he looked by the side of that big-built giant, like a: Bond Street exquisite before some prize-fighting Goliath. The barrister didn't hold out his huge hand in return. On the contrary, he concealed it, as far as was possible, behind his burly back, and, looking down from the full height of his contempt upon the sinister smirking creature who advanced to greet him with that false smile on his face, he asked severely,

"What are you doing here? That's what I have to ask. What foxy ferreting have you come down to Mambury for?"

"Foxy ferreting," Montague Nevitt repeated, drawing back as if stung, and profoundly astonished. "Why, what do you mean by that, Mr. Gildersleeve? I don't understand you." The home-thrust was too true--after the great cross-examiner's well-known bullying manner --not to pierce him to the quick. "Who dares to say I go anywhere ferreting?"

"I do," Gilbert Gildersleeve answered, with assured confidence. "I say it, and I know it. You pitiful sneak, don't deny it to me. You were in the vestry this morning looking up the registers. Even you, with your false eyes, sir, daren't look me in the face and tell me you weren't. I saw you there myself. And I know you found in the books what you wanted; for you paid the clerk an extravagant fee. ... What's that? you rat, don't try to interrupt me. Don't try to bully me. It never succeeds. Montague Nevitt, I tell you, I won't be bullied." And the great Q.C. put his foot down on the path with an elephantine solidity that made the prospect of bullying him seem tolerably unlikely. "I know the facts, and I'll stand no prevarication. Now, tell me, what vile use did you mean to make of your discovery this morning?"

Montague Nevitt drew back, fairly nonplussed for the moment by such a vigorous and unexpected attack on his flank. Resourceful as he was, even his cunning mind came wholly unprepared to this sudden cross-questioning. He felt his own physical inferiority to the big Q.C. more keenly just then than he could ever have conceived it possible for a man of his type to feel it. After all, mind doesn't always triumph over matter. Montague Nevitt was aware that that mountain of a man, with his six feet four of muscular humanity, fairly cowed and overawed him at such very close quarters.

"I don't see what business it is of yours, Mr. Gildersleeve," he murmured, in a somewhat apologetic voice. "I may surely be allowed to hunt up questions of pedigree, of service in the end to myself and my friends, without your interference."

Gilbert Gildersleeve glared at him, and flared up all at once with righteous indignation.

"Of service in the end to yourself and your friends!" he cried, with unfeigned scorn, putting his own interpretation, as was natural, on the words. "Why, you cur! you reptile! you unblushing sneak! Do you mean to say openly you avow your intention of threatening and blackmailing me? here--alone--to my face! You extortionate wretch! I wouldn't have believed even you in your heart would descend to such meanness."

Montague Nevitt, flurried and taken aback as he was, yet reflected vaguely with some wonder, as he listened and looked, what this sudden passion of disinterested zeal could betoken. Why such burning solicitude for Colonel Kelmscott's estate on the part of a man who was his avowed enemy? Even if Gwendoline meant to marry the young fellow Granville, with her father's consent, how could Nevitt himself levy blackmail upon Gilbert Gildersleeve by his knowledge of the two Warings' claim to the property? A complication surely. Was there not some unexpected intricacy here which the cunning schemer himself didn't yet understand, but which might redound, if unravelled, to his greater advantage?

"Blackmail you, Mr. Gildersleeve," he cried, with a righteously indignant air. "That's an ugly word. I blackmail nobody; and least of all the father of a lady whom I still regard, in spite of all she can say or do to make my life a blank, with affection and respect as profound as ever. How can my inquiries into the two Warings' affairs--"

Gilbert Gildersleeve crushed him with a sudden outburst of indignant wrath.

"You cad!" he cried, growing red in the face with horror and disgust. "You dare to speak so to me, and to urge such motives! But you've mistaken your man. I won't be bullied. If what you want is to use this vile knowledge you've so vilely ferreted out, as a lever to compel me to marry my daughter to you against her will--I can only tell you, you sneak, you're on the wrong tack. I will never consent to it. You may do your worst, but you will never bend me. I'm not a man to be bent or bullied--I won't be put down. I'll withstand you and defy you. You may ruin me, if you like, but you'll never break me. I stand here firm. Expose me, and I'll fight you to the bitter end: I'll fight you, and I'll conquer you."

He spoke with a fiery earnestness that Nevitt was only just beginning to understand. There was something in this. Here was a clue indeed to follow up and investigate. Surely, a menace to Granville Kelmscott's prospects could never have moved that heavy, phlegmatic, pachydermatous man to such an outburst of anger and suppressed fear.

"Expose you?" Nevitt repeated, in a dazed and startled voice. "Expose you, my dear sir! I assure you, in truth, I don't understand you."

The barrister gazed down upon him with immeasurable scorn. "You liar!" he broke forth, almost choking at the words. "How dare you so pretend and prevaricate to my face? I know it's not true. My own daughter told me. She told me what you said to her--every word of your vile threats. You had the incredible meanness to terrify a poor helpless and innocent girl by threatening to expose her mother's disgrace publicly. Only you could have done it; but you did it, you abject thing, you did it. She told me with her own lips you threatened to come down to Mambury, to hunt up the records. And she told me the truth; for I've seen you doing it."

A light broke slowly upon Montague Nevitt's mind. He drew a deep breath. This was good luck incredible. What Gilbert Gildersleeve meant he hadn't as yet, to be sure, the faintest conception. But it was clear they two were at cross-questions with one another. The secret Gilbert Gildersleeve thought he had come down to Mambury to discover was not the secret he had actually found out in the register that morning. It was nothing about the Kelmscotts or Guy and Cyril Waring; it was something about the great Q..C. and his wife themselves--presumably some unknown and disgraceful fact in Mrs. Gilbert Gildersleeve's early history.

And here was the cleverest lawyer at the English criminal bar just giving himself away--giving himself away unawares and telling him the secret, bit by bit, unconsciously.

This chance was too valuable for Mr. Montague Nevitt to lose. At all risks he must worm it out. He paused and temporized. His cue was now not to let Gilbert Gildersleeve see he didn't know his secret. He must draw on the Q.C. by obscure half hints till he was inextricably entangled in a complete confession.

"I had no intention of terrifying Miss Gildersleeve, I'm sure," he said, in his blandest voice, with his best company smile, now recovering his equanimity exactly in proportion as the barrister grew angrier. "I merely desired to satisfy myself as to the salient facts, and to learn their true bearing upon the family history. If I spoke to her at all as to any knowledge I might possess with regard to any other lady's early antecedents--"

Gilbert Gildersleeve's brow was black as night. His great hands trembled and twitched convulsively. Was ever blackguard so cynically candid in his avowal of the basest crimes as this fine-spoken specimen of the culture of Pall Mall in his open confession of that disgusting insult to a young girl's innocence? Gilbert Gildersleeve, who was at heart an honest man, loathed and despised and scorned and detested him.

"Do you dare to hint to me, then," he cried, every muscle of his body quivering with just horror, "that you told my own daughter you thought you had reason to suspect her own mother's early antecedents?"

Montague Nevitt looked up at him with a quietly sarcastic smile. "All's fair in love and war, you know," he said, not caring to commit himself.

That smile sealed his fate. With an irrepressible impulse, Gilbert Gildersleeve sprang upon him. He didn't mean to hurt the man: he sprang upon him merely as the sole outlet for his own incensed and outraged feelings. Those great hands seized him for a second by the dainty white throat, and flung him back in anger. Montague Nevitt fell heavily on a thick mass of bracken. There was a gurgle, a gasp; then his head lolled senseless. He was very much hurt. That at least was certain. The barrister stood over him for a minute, still purple in the face. Montague Nevitt was white--very white and death-like. All at once it occurred to the big strong man that his hands--those great hands--were very fierce and powerful. He had clutched Nevitt by the throat, half unconsciously, with all his might, just to give him a purchase as he flung the man from him. He looked at him again. Great heavens--what was this? It burst over him at once. He awoke to it with a wild start. The fellow was dead! And this was clearly manslaughter!

Justifiable homicide, if the jury knew all. But no jury now could ever know all. And he had killed him unawares! A great horror came over him. The man was dead--the man was dead; and he, Gilbert Gildersleeve, had unconsciously choked him.

He had no time to think. He had no time to calculate. His wrath was still hot, though rapidly cooling down before this awful discovery. Hide it! Hide it! Hide it! That was all he could think. He lifted the body in his arms, as easily as most men would lift a baby. Then he laid it down among the brambles close beside the stream. Something heavy fell out of the pocket as he carried it. The barrister took no heed. Little matter for that. He laid it down in fear and trembling. As soon as it was hidden, he fled for his life. By trackless ways, he walked over the Moor, and returned to Ivybridge unseen very late in the evening. Ten minutes after he left the spot, Guy Waring passed by and picked up the pocket-book.