Chapter XXVI. A Chance Meeting.
 

There wasn't much time left, however, for Guy to make up his mind in. He must decide at once. Should he accept this mysterious warning or not? Pure fate decided it. As he hesitated he heard a boy crying in the street. It was the special-edition-fiend calling his evening paper. The words the boy said Guy didn't altogether catch; but the last sentence of all fell on his ear distinctly. He started in horror. It was an awful sound: "Warrant issued to-day for the apprehension of Waring."

Then the letter, whoever wrote it, was not all a lie. The forgery was out. Cyril or the bankers had learnt the whole truth. He was to be arrested to-day as a common felon. All the world knew his shame. He hid his face in his hands. Come what might, he must accept the mysterious warning now. He would take the ticket, and go off to South Africa.

In a moment a whole policy had arisen like a cloud and framed itself in his mind. He was a forger, he knew, and by this time Cyril too most probably knew it. But he had the three thousand pounds safe and sound in his pocket, and those at least he could send back to Cyril. With them he could send a cheque on his own banker for three thousand more; not that there were funds there at present to meet the demand; but if the unknown benefactor should pay in the six thousand he promised within the next few weeks, then Cyril could repay himself from that hypothetical fortune. On the other hand, Guy didn't disguise from himself the strong probability that the unknown benefactor might now refuse to pay in the six thousand. In that case, Guy said to himself with a groan, he would take to the diamond fields, and never rest day or night in his self-imposed task till he had made enough to repay Cyril in full the missing three thousand, and to make up the other three thousand he still owed the creditors of the Rio Negro Company. After which, he would return and give himself up like a man, to stand his trial voluntarily for the crime he had committed.

It was a young man's scheme, very fond and youthful; but with the full confidence of his age he proceeded at once to put it in practice. Indeed, now he came to think upon it, he fancied to himself he saw something like a solution of the mystery in the presence of the great Q.C. at Plymouth that morning. Cyril had found out all, and had determined to save him. The bankers had found out all, and had determined to prosecute. They had consulted Gildersleeve. Gildersleeve had come down on a holiday trip, and run up against him at Plymouth by pure accident. Indeed, Guy remembered now that the great Q.C. looked not a little surprised and excited at meeting him. Clearly Gildersleeve had communicated with the police at once; hence the issue of the warrant. At the same time the writer of the letter, whoever he might be--and Guy now believed he was sent down by Cyril, or in Cyril's interest--the writer had found out the facts betimes, and had taken a passage for him in the name of Billington. Uncertain as he felt about the minor details, Guy was sure this interpretation must be right in the main. For Elma's sake--for the honour of the family--Cyril wished him for the present to disappear. Cyril's wish was sacred. He would go to South Africa.

The great point was now to avoid meeting Gildersleeve before the ship sailed. So he would pay his bill quietly, put his things in his portmanteau, stop in his room till dusk, and then drive off in a close cab to the landing-stage.

But, first of all, he must send the three thousand direct to Cyril.

He sat down in a fit of profound penitence, and penned a heart-broken letter of confession to his brother.

It was vague, of course; such letters are always vague; no man, even in confessing, likes to allude in plain terms to the exact nature of the crime he has committed; and besides, Guy took it for granted that Cyril knew all about the main features of the case already. He didn't ask his brother to forgive him, he said; he didn't try to explain, for explanation would be impossible. How he came to do it, he had no idea himself. A sudden suggestion--a strange unaccountable impulse--a minute or two of indecision--and almost before he knew it, under the spell of that strange eye, the thing was done, irretrievably done for ever. The best he could offer now was to express his profound and undying regret at the wrong he had committed, and by which he had never profited himself a single farthing. Nevitt had deceived him with incredible meanness; he could never have believed any man would act as Nevitt had acted. Nevitt had stolen three thousand pounds of the sum, and applied them to paying off his own debt to the Rio Negro creditors: The remaining three thousand, sent herewith, Guy had recovered, almost by a miracle, from that false creature's grasp, and he returned them now, in proof of the fact, in Montague Nevitt's own pocket-book, which Cyril would no doubt immediately recognise. For himself, he meant to leave England at once, at least for the present. Where he was going he wouldn't as yet let Cyril know. He hoped in a new country to recover his honour and rehabilitate his name. Meanwhile, it was mainly for Cyril's sake that he fled--and for one other person's too--to avoid a scandal. He hoped Cyril would be happy with the woman of his choice; for it was to insure their joint happiness that he was accepting the offer of escape so unexpectedly tendered him.

He sealed up the letter--that incriminating letter, that might mean so much more than he ever put into it--and took it out to the post, with the three thousand pounds and Montague Nevitt's pocket-book in a separate packet. Proud Kelmscott as he was by birth and nature, he slunk through the streets like a guilty man, fancying all eyes were fixed suspiciously upon him. Then he returned to the hotel in a burning heat, went into the smoking room on purpose like an honest man, and rang the bell for the servant boldly.

"Bring my bill, please," he said to the waiter who answered it. "I go at seven o'clock."

"Yes, sir," the waiter replied, with official promptitude. "Directly, sir. What number?"

"I forget the number," Guy answered, with a beating heart; "but the name's Billington."

"Yes, sir," the waiter responded once more, in the self-same unvaried tone, and went off to the office.

Guy waited in profound suspense, half expecting the waiter to come back for the number again; but to his immense surprise and mystification, the fellow didn't. Instead of that, he returned some minutes later, all respectful attention, bringing the bill on a salver, duly headed and lettered, "Mr. Billington, number 40." In unspeakable trepidation, Guy paid it and walked away. Never before in all his life had he been surrounded so close on every side by a thick hedge of impenetrable and inexplicable mystery.

Then a new terror seized him. Was he running his head into a noose, blindfold? Who was the Billington he was thus made to personate, and who must really be staying at the very same time in the Duke of Devonshire? Was this just another of Nevitt's wily tricks? Had he induced his victim to accept without question the name and character of some still more open criminal?

There was no time now, however, to drawback or to hesitate. The die was cast; he must stand by its arbitrament. He had decided to go, and on that hasty decision had acted in a way that was practically irrevocable. He put his things together with trembling hands, called a cab by the porter, and drove off alone in a turmoil of doubt, to the landing-stage in the harbour.

Policemen not a few were standing about on the pier and in the streets as he drove past openly. But in spite of the fact that a warrant had been issued for his apprehension, none of them took the slightest apparent notice of him. He wondered much at this. But there was really no just cause for wonder. For at least an hour earlier the police had ceased to look out any longer for Nevitt's murderer. And the reason they had done so was simply this: a telegram had come down from Scotland Yard in the most positive terms, "Waring arrested this afternoon at Dover. The murdered man McGregor is now certainly known to be Montague Nevitt, a bank clerk in London. Endeavour to trace Waring's line of retreat from Mambury to Dover by inquiry of the railway officials. We are sure of our man. Photographs will be forwarded you by post immediately."

And, as a matter of fact, at the very moment when Guy was driving down to the tender, in order to escape from an imaginary charge of forgery, his brother Cyril, to his own immense astonishment, was being conveyed from Dover Pier to Tavistock, under close police escort, on a warrant charging him with the wilful murder of Montague Nevitt, two days before, at Mambury, in Devon.

If Guy had only known that, he would never have fled. But he didn't know it. How could he, indeed, in his turmoil and hurry? He didn't even know Montague Nevitt was dead. He had been too busy that day to look at the papers. And the few facts he knew from the boys crying in the street he naturally misinterpreted, by the light of his own fears and personal dangers. He thought he was "wanted" for the yet undiscovered forgery, not for the murder, of which he was wholly ignorant.

Nevertheless, we can never in this world entirely escape our own personality. As Guy went on board, believing himself to have left his identity on shore, he heard somebody, in a voice that he fancied he knew, ask a newsboy on the tender for an evening paper. Guy was the only passenger who embarked at Plymouth; and this person unseen was the newsboy's one customer.

Guy couldn't discover who he was at the moment, for the call for a paper came from the upper deck; he only heard the voice, and wasn't certain at first that he recognised even that any more than in a vague and indeterminate reminiscence. No doubt the sense of guilt made him preternaturally suspicious. But he began to fear that somebody might possibly recognise him. And he had bought the paper with news about the warrant. That was bad; but 'twas too late to draw back again now. The tender lay alongside a while, discharging her mails, and then cast loose to go. The Cetewayo's screw began to move through the water. With a dim sense of horror, Guy knew they were off. He was well under way for far distant South Africa.

But he did not know or reflect that while he ploughed his path on over that trackless sea, day after day, without news from England, there would be ample time for Cyril to be tried, and found guilty, and perhaps hanged as well, for the crime that neither of them had really committed.

The great ship steamed out, cutting the waves with her prow, and left the harbour lights far, far behind her. Guy stood on deck and watched them disappearing with very mingled feelings. Everything had been so hurried, he hardly knew himself as yet how his flight affected all the active and passive characters in this painful drama. He only knew he was irrevocably committed to the voyage now. There would be no chance of turning till they reached Cape Town, or at, the very least Madeira,

He stood on deck and looked back. Somebody else in an ulster stood not far off, near a light by the saloon, conversing with an officer. Guy recognised at once the voice of the man who had asked in the harbour for an evening paper. At that moment a steward came up as he stood there, on the look-out for the new passenger they'd just taken in. "You're in thirty-two, sir, I think," he said, "and your name--"

"Is Billington," Guy answered, with a faint tremor of shame at the continued falsehood.

The man who had bought the paper turned round sharply and stared at him. Their eyes met in one quick flash of unexpected recognition. Guy started in horror. This was an awful meeting. He had seen the man but once before in his life, yet he knew him at a glance. It was Granville Kelmscott.

For a minute or two they stood and stared at one another blankly, those unacknowledged half-brothers, of whom one now knew, while the other still ignored, the real relationship that existed between them. Then Granville Kelmscott turned away without one word of greeting. Guy trembled in his shame. He knew he was discovered. But before his very eyes, Granville took the paper he had been reading by that uncertain light, and, raising it high in his hand, flung it over into the sea with spasmodic energy. It was the special edition containing the account of the man McGregor's death and Guy Waring's supposed connection with the murder. Granville Kelmscott, indeed, couldn't bring himself to denounce his own half-brother. He stared at him coldly for a second with a horrified face.

Then he said, in a very low and distant voice, "I know your identity, Mr. Billington," with a profoundly sarcastic accent on the assumed name, "and I will not betray it. I know your secret, too; and I will keep that inviolate. Only, during the rest of this voyage, do me the honour, I beg of you, not to recognise me or speak to me in any way at any time."

Guy slunk away in silence to his own cabin. Never before in his life had he known such shame. He felt that his punishment was indeed too heavy for him.