Chapter XXV. Lead Trumps.
 

Naturally, under these circumstances, it was all in vain that Guy Waring pursued his investigations into Montague Nevitt's whereabouts. Neither at Plymouth nor anywhere else along the skirts of Dartmoor could he learn that anything more had been seen or heard of the man who called himself "Mr. McGregor." And yet Guy felt sure Nevitt wouldn't go far from Mambury, as things stood just then; for as soon as he missed the pocket-book containing the three thousand pounds, he would surely take some steps to recover it.

Two days later, however, Gilbert Gildersleeve sat in the hotel at Plymouth, where he had moved from Ivybridge after--well, as he phrased it to himself, after that unfortunate accident. The blustering Q.C. was like another man now. For the first time in his life he knew what it meant to be nervous and timid. Every sound made him suppress an involuntary start; for as yet he had heard no whisper of the body being discovered. He couldn't leave the neighbourhood, however, till the murder was out. Dangerous as he felt it to remain on the spot, some strange spell seemed to bind him against his will to Dartmoor. He must stop and hear what local gossip had to say when the body came to light. And above all, for the present, he hadn't the courage to go home; he dared not face his own wife and daughter.

So he stayed on and lounged, and pretended to interest himself with walks over the hills and up the Tamar valley.

As he sat there in the billiard-room, that day, a young fellow entered whom he remembered to have seen once or twice in London, at evening parties, with Montague Nevitt. He turned pale at the sight--Gilbert Gildersleeve turned pale, that great red man. At first he didn't even remember the young fellow's name; but it came back to him in time that he was one Guy Waring. It was a hard ordeal to meet him, but Gilbert Gildersleeve felt he must brazen it out. To slink away from the young man would be to rouse suspicion. So they sat and talked for a minute or two together, on indifferent subjects, neither, to say truth, being very well pleased to see the other under such peculiar circumstances. Then Guy, who had the least reason for concealment of the two, sauntered out for a stroll, with his heart still full of that villain Nevitt, whose name, of course, he had never mentioned to Gilbert Gildersleeve. And Gilbert Gildersleeve, for his part, had had equal cause for a corresponding reticence as to their common acquaintance.

Just as Guy left the room, the landlord dropped in and began to talk with his guest about the latest new sensation.

"Heard the news, sir, this morning?" he asked, with an important air. "Inspector's just told me. A case very much in your line of business. Dead body's been discovered at Mambury, choked, and then thrown among the brake by the river. Name of McGregor--a visitor from London. And they do say the police have a clue to the murderer. Person who did it--"

Gilbert Gildersleeve's heart gave a great bound within him, and then stood stock-still; but by an iron effort of will he suppressed all outer sign of his profound emotion. He seemed to the observant eye merely interested and curious, as the landlord finished his sentence carelessly--"Person who did it's supposed to be a young man who was at Mambury this week, of the name of Waring."

Gilbert Gildersleeve's heart gave another bound, still more violent than before. But again he repressed with difficulty all external symptoms of his profound agitation. This was very strange news. Then somebody else was suspected instead of himself. In one way that was bad; for Gilbert Gildersleeve had a conscience and a sense of justice. But, in another way, why, it would save time for the moment, and divert attention from his own personality. Better anything now than immediate suspicion. In a week or two more every trace would be lost of his presence at Mambury.

"Waring," he said thoughtfully, turning over the name to himself, as if he attached it to no particular individual. "Waring--Waring--Waring."

He paused and looked hard. Ha! so far good! It was clear the landlord didn't know Waring was the name of the young man who had just left the billiard-room. This was lucky, indeed, for if he had known it now, and had taxed Guy then and there, before his own very face, with being the murderer of this unknown person at Mambury, Gilbert Gildersleeve felt no course would have been open for him save to tell the whole truth on the spot unreservedly. Try as he would, he couldn't see another man arrested before his very eyes for the crime he himself had really, though almost unwittingly, committed.

"Waring," he repeated slowly, like one who endeavoured to collect his scattered thoughts; "what sort of person was he, do you know? And how did the police come to get a clue to him?"

The landlord, nothing loth, went off into a long and circumstantial story of the discovery of the body, with minute details of how the innkeeper at Mambury had traced the supposed murderer--who gave no name--by an envelope which he'd left in his bedroom that evening. The county was up in arms about the affair to-day. All Dartmoor was being searched, and it was supposed the fellow was in hiding somewhere in the neighbourhood of Tavistock or Oakhampton. They'd catch him by to-night. The landlord wouldn't be surprised, indeed, now he came to think on it, if his truest himself--here a very long pause--were retained by-and-by for the prosecution.

Gilbert Gildersleeve drew a deep breath, unperceived. That was all, was it? The pause had unnerved him. He talked some minutes, as unconcernedly as he could, though trembling inwardly all the while, about the murder and the murderer. The landlord listened with profound respect to the words of legal wisdom as they dropped from his lips; for he knew Mr. Gildersleeve by common repute as one of the ablest and acutest of criminal lawyers in all England. Then, after a short interval, the big burly man, moving his guilty fingers nervously over the seal on his watch-chain, and assuming as much as possible his ordinary air of blustering self-assertion, asked, in an off-hand fashion, "By the way, let me see, I've, some business to arrange; what's the number of my friend Mr. Billington's bedroom?"

The landlord looked up with a little start of surprise. "Mr. Billington?" he said, hesitating. "We've got no Mr. Billington."

Gilbert Gildersleeve smiled a sickly smile. It was neck or nothing now. He must go right through with it. "Oh yes," he answered, with prompt conviction, playing a dangerous card well--for how could he know what name this young man Waring might possibly be passing under? "The gentleman who was talking to me when you came in just now. His name's Billington--though, perhaps," he added, after a pause, with a reflective air, "he may have given you another one. Young men will be young men. They've often some reason, when travelling, for concealing their names. Though Billington's not the sort of fellow, to be sure, who's likely to be knocking about anywhere incognito."

The landlord laughed. "Oh, we've plenty of that sort," he replied good-humouredly. "Both ladies and gentlemen. It all makes trade. But your friend ain't one of 'em. To tell you the truth, he didn't give any name at all when he came to the hotel; and we didn't ask any. Billington, is it? Ah, Billington, Billington. I knew a Billington myself once, a trainer at Newmarket. Well, he's a very pleasant young man, nice-spoken, and that; but I don't fancy he's quite right in his head, somehow."

With instinctive cleverness, Gilbert Clildersleeve snatched at the opening at once. "Ah no, poor fellow," he said, shaking his head sympathetically. "You've found that out already, have you? Well, he's subject to delusions a bit; mere harmless delusions; but he's not at all dangerous. Excitable, very, when anything odd turns up; he'll be calling himself Waring and giving himself in charge for this murder, I dare say, when he comes to hear of it. But as good-hearted a fellow as ever lived, though; only, a trifle obstinate. If you've any difficulty with him at any time, just send for me. I've known him from a boy. He'll do anything I tell him."

It was a critical game, but Gilbert Gildersleeve saw something definite must be done, and he trusted to bluster, and a well-known name, to carry him through with it. And, indeed, he had said enough. From that moment forth, the landlord's suspicions were never even so much as aroused by the innocent young man with the preoccupied manner, who knew Mr. Gildersleeve. The great Q.C.'s word was guarantee enough--for any one but himself. And the great Q.C. himself knew it. Why, a chance word from his lips was enough to protect Guy Waring from suspicion. Who would ever believe, then, anything so preposterously improbable as that the great Q.C. himself was the murderer?

Not the police, you may be sure; nor the Plymouth landlord.

He went out into the town, with his mind now filled full of a curious scheme. A plan of campaign loomed up visibly before him. Waring was suspected. Therefore Waring must somehow have given cause for suspicion. Well, Waring was a friend of Montague Nevitt's, and had evidently been at Mambury, either with him or without him, immediately before the--h'm--the unfortunate accident. But as soon as Waring came to learn of the discovery of the body, which he would be sure to do from the paper that evening at latest, he would see at once the full strength of whatever suspicions might tell against him. Now, Gilbert Gildersleeve's experience of criminal cases had abundantly shown him that a suspected person, even when innocent, always has one fixed desire in his head--to gain time, anyhow. So Waring would naturally wish to gain time, at whatever cost. There were evidently circumstances connecting Waring with the crime; there were none at all, known to the outer world, connecting the eminent lawyer. Therefore, the eminent lawyer argued to himself, as coolly almost as if it had been somebody else's case, not his own, he was conducting--therefore, if an immediate means of escape is provided for Waring, Waring will almost undoubtedly fall blindfold into it.

Not that he meant to let Guy pay the penalty in the end for his own rash crime. He was no hardened villain. He had still a conscience. If the worst came to the worst, he said to himself, he would tell all, openly, rather than let an innocent man suffer. But, like every one else, in accordance with his own inference from his observation of others, he, too, wanted to gain time, anyhow; and if he could but gain time by kindly helping Guy to escape for the present, why, he would gladly do so. An innocent man may be suspected for the moment, Gilbert Gildersleeve thought to himself, with a lawyer's blind confidence; but under our English law he need never at least fear that the suspicion will be permanent. For lawyers repeat their own incredible commonplaces about the absolute perfection of English law so often that at last, by a sort of retributive nemesis, they really almost come to believe them.

Filled with these ideas, then, which rose naturally up in his mind without his taking the trouble, as it were, definitely to prove them, Gilbert Gildersleeve hurried on through the crowded streets of Plymouth town, till he reached the office of the London and South African Steamship Company. There he entered with an air of decided business, and asked to take a passage to Cape Town at once by the steamer "Cetewayo", due to call at Plymouth, outward bound, that evening. He had looked up particulars of sailing in the papers at the hotel, and asked now, as if for himself, for a large and roomy berth, with all his usual self-possession and boldness of manner. The clerk gazed at him carelessly; that big and burly man with the great awkward hands raised no picture in his brain of the supposed murderer of McGregor in the wood at Mambury as that murderer had been described to him by the police that morning, from a verbal portrait after the landlord of the Talbot Arms. This colossal, red-faced, loud-spoken person, who required a large and roomy berth, was certainly "not" the rather slim young man, a little above the medium height, with a dark moustache and a gentle musical voice, whom the inn-keeper had seen in an excited mood on the hunt for McGregor along the slopes of Dartmoor.

"What name?" the clerk asked briskly, after Gilbert Gildersleeve had selected his state-room from the plan, with some show of interest as to its being well amidships and not too near the noise of the engines.

"Billington," the barrister answered, without a glimmer of hesitation. "Arthur Standish Billington, if you want the full name. Thirty-two will suit me very well, I think, and I'll pay for it now. Go aboard when she's sighted, I suppose; nine o'clock or thereabouts."

The clerk made out the ticket in the name he was told. "Yes, nine o'clock," he said curtly. "All luggage to be on board the tender by eight, sharp. You've left taking your passage very late, Mr. Billington. Lucky we've a room that'll suit you, I'm sure, It isn't often we have berths left amidships like this on the day of sailing."

Gilbert Gildersleeve pretended to look unconcerned once more. "No, I suppose not," he answered, in a careless voice. "People generally know their own minds rather longer beforehand. But I'd a telegram from the Cape this morning that calls me over immediately."

He folded up his ticket, and put it in his pocket. Then he pulled out a roll of notes and paid the amount in full. The clerk gave him change promptly. Nobody could ever have suspected so solid a man as the great Q.C. of any more serious crime or misdemeanour than shirking the second service on Sunday evening. There was a ponderous respectability about his portly build that defied detection. The agents of all the steamboat companies had been warned that morning that the slim young man of the name of Waring might try to escape at the last moment. But who could ever suspect this colossal pile, in the British churchwarden style of human architecture, of aiding and abetting the escape of the young man Waring from the pervasive myrmidons of English justice? The very idea was absurd. Gilbert Gildersleeve's waistcoat was above suspicion.

And when Guy Waring returned to his room at the Duke of Devonshire Hotel half an hour later, in complete ignorance as yet of the bare fact of the murder, he found on his table an envelope addressed, in an unknown hand, "Guy Waring, Esq.," while below in the corner, twice underlined, were the importunate words, "Immediate! Important!"

Guy tore it open in wonder. What on earth could this mean? He trembled as he read. Could Cyril have learnt all? Or had Nevitt, that double-dyed traitor, now trebled his treachery by informing against the man whom he had driven into a crime? Guy couldn't imagine what it all could be driving at, for there, before his eyes, in a round schoolboy hand, very carefully formed, without the faintest trace of anything like character, were the words of this strange and startling message, whose origin and intent were alike a mystery to him.

"Guy Waring, a warrant is out for your apprehension. Fly at once, or things may be worse for you. It is something always to gain time for the moment. You will avoid suspicion, public scandal, trial. Enclosed find a ticket for Cape Town by the Cetewayo to-night. She sails at nine. Luggage to be on board the tender by eight sharp. If you go, all can yet be satisfactorily cleared up. If you stay, the danger is great, and may be very serious. Ticket is taken (and paid for) in the name of Arthur Standish Billington. Settle your account at the hotel in that name and go.

"Yours, in frantic haste,

"A sincere well-wisher."

Guy gazed at the strange missive long and dubiously. "A warrant is out." He scarcely knew what to do. Oh, for time, time, time! Had Cyril sent this? Or was it some final device of that fiend, Nevitt?