Chapter XXVII. Something to Their Advantage.
 

At Tilgate and Chetwood next morning, two distinguished households were thrown into confusion by the news in the papers. To Colonel Kelmscott and to Elma Clifford alike that news came with crushing force and horror. A murder, said the Times, had been committed in Devonshire, in a romantic dell, on the skirts of Dartmoor. No element of dramatic interest was wanting to the case; persons, place, and time were all equally remarkable. The victim of the outrage was Mr. Montague Nevitt, confidential clerk to Messrs. Drummond, Coutts, and Barclay, the well-known bankers, and himself a familiar figure in musical society in London. The murderer was presumably a young journalist, Mr. Guy Waring, not unknown himself in musical circles, and brother of that rising landscape painter, Mr. Cyril Waring, whose pictures of wild life in forest scenery had lately attracted considerable attention at the Academy and the Grosvenor. Mr. Guy Waring had been arrested the day before on the pier at Dover, where he had just arrived by the Ostend packet. It was supposed by the police that he had hastily crossed the Channel from Plymouth to Cherbourg, soon after the murder, to escape detection, and, after journeying by cross-country routes through France and Belgium, had returned via Ostend to the shores of England. It was a triumphant vindication of our much maligned detective system that within a few hours after the discovery of the body on Dartmoor, the supposed criminal should have been recognised, arrested, and detained among a thousand others, in a busy port, at the very opposite extremity of southern England.

Colonel Kelmscott that day was strangely touched, even before he took up his morning paper. A letter from Granville, posted at Plymouth, had just reached him by the early mail, to tell him that the only son he had ever really loved or cared for on earth had sailed the day before, a disinherited outcast, to seek his fortune in the wild wastes of Africa. How he could break the news to Lady Emily he couldn't imagine. The Colonel, twisting his white moustache, with a quivering hand on his tremulous lip, hardly dared to realize what their future would seem like. And then--he turned to the paper, and saw to his horror this awful tale of a cold-blooded and cowardly murder, committed on a friend by one who, however little he might choose to acknowledge it, was after all his own eldest son, a Kelmscott of Tilgate, as much as Granville himself, in lawful wedlock duly begotten.

The proud but broken man gazed at the deadly announcement in blank amaze and agony. His Nemesis had come. Guy Waring was his own son--and Guy Waring was a murderer.

He tried to argue with himself at first that this tragic result in some strange way justified him, after the event, for his own long neglect of his parental responsibilities. The young man was no true Kelmscott at heart, he was sure, or such an act as that would have revolted and appalled him. He was no true son in reality; his order disowned him. Base blood flowed in his veins, and made crimes like these conceivable.

"I was right after all," the Colonel thought, "not to acknowledge these half low-born lads as the heirs of Tilgate. Bad blood will out in the end--and this is the result of it."

And then, with sudden revulsion he thought once more--God help him! How could he say such things in his heart even now of her, his pure, trustful Lucy? She was better than him in her soul, he knew--ten thousand times better. If bad blood came in anywhere, it came in from himself, not from that simple-hearted, innocent little country-bred angel.

And perhaps if he'd treated these lads as he ought, and brought them up to their own, and made them Kelmscotts indeed, instead of nameless adventurers, they might never have fallen into such abysses of turpitude. But he had let them grow up in ignorance of their own origin, with the vague stain of a possible illegitimacy hanging over their heads; and what wonder if they forgot in the end how noblesse oblige, and sank at last into foul depths of vice and criminality?

As he read on, his head swam with the cumulative evidence of that deliberately planned and cruelly executed yet brutal murder. The details of the crime gave him a sickening sense of loathing and incredulity. Impossible that his own son could have schemed and carried out so vile an attack upon a helpless person, who had once been his nearest and dearest companion. And yet, the account in the paper gave him no alternative but to believe it. Nevitt and Guy Waring had been inseparable friends. They had dined together, supped together, played duets in their own rooms, gone out to the same parties, belonged to the same club, in all things been closer than even the two twin brothers. Some quarrel seemed to have arisen about a matter of speculations in which both had suffered. They separated at once--separated in anger. Nevitt went down to Devonshire by himself for his holiday. Then Waring followed him, without any pretence at concealment; inquired for him at the village inn with expressions of deadly hate; tracked him to a lonely place in the adjacent wood; choked him, apparently with some form of garotte or twisted rope--for the injuries seemed greater than even the most powerful man could possibly inflict with the hands alone; and hid the body of his murdered friend at last in a mossy dell by the bank of the streamlet. Nor was that all; for with callous effrontery he had returned to the inn, still inquiring after his victim; and had gone off next morning early with a lie on his lips, pretending even then to nurse his undying wrath and to be bent on following up with coarse threats of revenge his stark and silent enemy.

So far the Times. But to Colonel Kelmscott, reading in between the lines as he went, there was more in it than even that. He saw, though dimly, some hint of a motive. For it was at Mambury that all these things had taken place; and it was at Mambury that the secret of Guy Waring's descent lay buried, as he thought, in the parish registers. What it all meant, Colonel Kelmscott couldn't indeed wholly understand; but many things he knew which the writer of the account in the Times knew not. He knew that Nevitt was a clerk in the bank where he himself kept his account, and to which he had given orders to pay in the six thousand to Cyril's credit, at Cyril's bankers. He knew, therefore, that Nevitt might thus have been led to suspect the real truth of the case as to the two so-called Warings. He knew that Cyril had just received the six thousand. Trying to put these facts together and understand their meaning he utterly failed; but this much at least was clear to him, he thought--the reason for the murder was something connected with a search for the entry of his own clandestine marriage.

He looked down at the paper again. Great heavens, what was this? "It is rumoured that a further inducement to the crime may perhaps be sought in the fact that the deceased gentleman had a large sum of money in his possession in Bank of England notes at the time of his death. These notes he carried in a pocket-book about his person, where they were seen by the landlord of the Talbot Arms at Mambury, the night before the supposed murder. When the body was discovered by the side of the brook, two days later, the notes were gone. The pockets were carefully searched by order of the police, but no trace of the missing money could be discovered. It is now conjectured that Mr. Guy Waring, who is known to have lost heavily in the Rio Negro Diamond Mines, may have committed the crime from purely pecuniary motives, in order to release himself from his considerable and very pressing financial embarrassments."

The paper dropped from Colonel Kelmscott's hands. His eyes ceased to see. His arm fell rigid. This last horrible suggestion proved too much for him to bear. He shrank from it like poison. That a son of his own, unacknowledged or not, should be a criminal--a murderer--was terrible enough; but that he should even be suspected of having committed murder for such base and vulgar motives as mere thirst of gain was more than the blood of the Kelmscotts could put up with. The unhappy father had said to himself in his agony at first that if Guy really killed that prying bank clerk at all, it was no doubt in defence of his mother's honour. That was a reason a Kelmscott could understand. That, if not an excuse, was at least a palliation. But to be told he had killed him for a roll of bank-notes--oh, horrible, incredible; his reason drew back at it. That was a depth to which the Kelmscott idiosyncrasy could never descend. The Colonel in his horror refused to believe it.

He put his hands up feebly to his throbbing brow. This was a ghastly idea--a ghastly accusation. The man called Waring had dragged the honour of the Kelmscotts through the mud of the street. There was but one comfort left. He never bore that unsullied name. Nobody would know he was a Kelmscott of Tilgate.

The Colonel rose from his seat, and staggered across the floor. Half-way to the door, he reeled and stopped short. The veins of his forehead were black and swollen. He had the same strange feeling in his head as he experienced on the day when Granville left--only a hundred times worse. The two halves of his brain were opening and shutting. His temples seemed too full; he fancied there was something wrong with his forehead somewhere. He reeled once more, like a drunken man. Then he clutched at a chair and sat down. His brain was flooded.

He collapsed all at once, mumbling to himself some inarticulate gibberish. Half an hour later, the servants came in and found him. He was seated in his chair, still doddering feebly. The house was roused. A doctor was summoned, and the Colonel put to bed. Lady Emily watched him with devoted care. But it was all in vain. The doctor shook his head the moment he examined him. "A paralytic stroke," he said gravely; "and a very serious one. He seems to have had a slighter attack some time since, and to have wholly neglected it. A great blood-vessel in the brain must have given way with a rush. I can hold out no hope. He won't live till morning."

And indeed, as it turned out, about ten that night the Colonel's loud and stentorious breathing began to fail slowly. The intervals grew longer and longer between each recurrent gasp, and life died away at last in imperceptible struggles.

By two in the morning, Kelmscott of Tilgate lay dead on his bed; and his two unacknowledged and unrecognised sons were the masters of his property.

But one of them was at that moment being tossed about wildly on the waves of Biscay; and the other was locked up on a charge of murder in the county jail at Tavistock, in Devonshire.

Meanwhile, at the other house at Chetwood, where these tidings were being read with almost equal interest, Elma Clifford laid down the paper on the table with a very pale face, and looked at her mother. Mrs. Clifford, all solicitous watchfulness for the effect on Elma, looked in return with searching eyes at her daughter. Then Elma opened her lips like one who talks in her sleep, and spoke out twice in two short disconnected sentences. The first time she said simply, "He didn't do it, I know," and the second time, with all the intensity of her emotional nature, "Mother, mother, whatever turns up, I must go there."

"He will be there," Mrs. Clifford interposed, after a painful pause.

And Elma answered dreamily, with her great eyes far away, "Yes, of course, I know he will. And I must be there too, to see how far, if at all, I can help them."

"Yes, darling," her mother replied, stroking her daughter's hair with a caressing hand. She knew that when Elma spoke in a tone like that, no power on earth could possibly restrain her.