Chapter XXXIX. A Gleam of Light.
 

Next day but one, the Companion of St. Michael and St. George came in to Craighton with evil tidings. He had heard in the village that Sir Gilbert Gildersleeve was ill--very seriously ill. The judge had come home from the Holkers' the other evening much upset by the arrival of Gwendoline's telegram.

"Though why on earth should that upset him," Mr. Clifford continued, screwing up his small face with a very wise air, "is more than I can conceive; for I'm sure the Gildersleeves angled hard enough in their time to catch young Kelmscott, by hook or by crook, for their gawky daughter; and now that young Kelmscott telegraphs over to say he's coming home post haste to marry her, Miss Gwendoline faints away, if you please, as she reads the news, and the judge himself goes upstairs as soon as he gets home, and takes to his bed incontinently. But there, the ways of the world are really inscrutable! What reconciles me to life, every day I grow older, is that it's so amusing--so intensely amusing! You never know what's going to turn up next; and what you least expect is what most often happens."

Elma, however, received his news with a very grave face.

"Is he really ill, do you think, papa?" she asked, somewhat anxiously; "or is he only--well--only frightened?"

Mr. Clifford stared at her with a blank leathery face of self-satisfied incomprehension.

"Frightened!" he repeated solemnly; "Sir Gilbert Gildersleeve frightened! And of Granville Kelmscott, too! That's true wit, Elma; the juxtaposition of the incongruous. Why, what on earth has the man got to be frightened of, I should like to know? ... No, no; he's really ill; very seriously ill. Humphreys says the case is a most peculiar one, and he's telegraphed up to town for a specialist to come down this afternoon and consult with him."

And indeed, Sir Gilbert was really very ill. This unexpected shock had wholly unmanned him. To say the truth, the judge had begun to look upon Guy Waring as practically lost, and upon the matter of Montague Nevitt's death as closed for ever. Waring, no doubt, had gone to Africa--under a false name--and proceeded to the diamond fields direct, where he had probably been killed in a lucky quarrel with some brother digger, or stuck through with an assegai by some enterprising Zulu; and nobody had even taken the trouble to mention it.

It's so easy for a man to get lost in the crowd in the Dark Continent! Why, there was Granville Kelmscott, even--a young fellow of means, and the heir of Tilgate, about whom Gwendoline was always moaning and groaning, poor girl, and wouldn't be comforted--there was Granville Kelmscott gone out to Africa, and, hi, presto, disappeared into space without a vapour or a trace, like a conjurer's shilling. It was all very queer; but, then, queer things are the way in Africa.

To be sure, Sir Gilbert had his qualms of conscience, too, over having thus sent off Guy Waring, as he believed, to his grave in Cape Colony. He was not at heart a bad man, though he was pushing, and selfish, and self-seeking, and to a certain extent even--of late--unscrupulous. He had his bad half-hours every now and again with his own moral consciousness. But he had learnt to stifle his doubts and to keep down his terrors. After all, he had told Guy no more than the truth; and if Guy in his panic-terror chose to run away and get killed in South Africa, that was no fault of his--he'd only tried to warn the fellow of an impending danger. All's well that ends well; and, to-day, Guy Waring was lost or dead, while he himself was a judge, and a knight to boot, with all trace of his crime destroyed for ever.

So he said to himself, rejoicing, the very day Granville Kelmscott's telegram arrived. But now that he stood face to face again with that pressing terror, his thoughts on the matter were very different. Strange to say, his first idea was this: what a disgraceful shame of that fellow Waring to come to life again thus suddenly on purpose to annoy him! He was really angry, nay, more, indignant. Such shuffling was inexcusable. If Waring meant to give himself up and stand his trial like a man, why the dickens didn't he do it immediately after the--well, the accident? What did he mean by going off for eighteen months undiscovered, and leaving one to build up fresh plans in life, like this--and then coming home on a sudden just on purpose to upset them? It was simply disgraceful. Sir Gilbert felt injured; this man Waring was wronging him. Eighteen months before he was keenly aware that he was unjustly casting a vile and hideous suspicion on an innocent person. But in the intervening period his moral sense had got largely blunted. Familiarity with the hateful plot had warped his ideas about it. Their places were reversed. Sir Gilbert was really aggrieved now that Guy Waring should turn up again, and should venture to vindicate his deeply-wronged character.

The man was as good as dead. Well, and he ought to have stopped so; or else he ought never to have died at all. He ought to have kept himself continually in evidence. But to go away for eighteen months, unknown and unheard of, till one's sense of security had had time to re-establish itself, and then to turn up again like this without one minute's warning--oh, it was infamous, scandalous. The fellow must be devoid of all consideration for others. Sir Gilbert wiped his clammy brow with those ample hands. What on earth was he to do for his wife, and for Gwendoline?

And Gwendoline was so happy, too, over Granville Kelmscott's return! How could he endure that Granville Kelmscott's return should be the signal for discovering her father's sin and shame to her! If only he could have married her off before it all came out! Or if only he could die before the man was tried!--Tried! Sir Gilbert's eyes started from his head with horror. What was that Elma Clifford suggested the other night? Why--if the man was arrested, he would be arrested at Plymouth, the moment he landed, and would be tried for murder at the Western Assizes. And it was he himself, Sir Gilbert Gildersleeve, who was that term to take the Western Circuit.

He would be called upon to sit on the bench himself, and try Guy Waring for the murder he had himself committed!

No wonder that thought sent him ill to bed at once. He lay and tossed all night long in speechless agony and terror. It was an appalling night. Next morning he was found delirious with fever.

When the news reached Elma, she saw its full and fatal significance. Cyril had stopped on for three days at the Holkers', and he came over in the course of the morning to take a walk across the fields with her. Elma was profoundly excited, Cyril could hardly see why.

"This is a terrible thing," she said, "about Sir Gilbert's illness. What I'm afraid of now is that he may die before your brother returns. The shock must have been awful for him; mamma noticed it every bit as much as I did; and so did Miss Ewes. They both said at once, 'This blow will kill him!' And they both knew why, Cyril, as well as I did. It's the Ewes' intuition. We've all of us got it, and we all of us say, at once and unanimously--it was Sir Gilbert Gildersleeve."

"But suppose he did die," Cyril asked, still sceptical, as he always was when Elma got upon her instinctive consciousness; "what difference would that make? If Guy's innocent, as I suppose in some way he must be, from the tone of his telegram, he'll be acquitted whether Sir Gilbert's alive or not. And if he's guilty--"

He broke off suddenly with an awful pause; the other alternative was too terrible to contemplate.

"But he's not guilty," Elma answered with confidence. "I know it more surely now than ever. And the difficulty's this. Nobody knows the real truth, I feel certain, except Sir Gilbert Gildersleeve. And if Sir Gilbert dies unconfessed, the truth dies with him. And then--" She paused a moment. "I'm half afraid," she went on with a doubtful sigh, "your brother's been too precipitate in coming home to face it."

"But, Elma," Cyril cried, "I can't bear to say it--yet one must face the facts--how on earth can he be innocent, when I tell you again and again he wrote to me himself saying he really did it?"

"You never showed me that letter," Elma answered, with a faint undercurrent of reproach in her tone.

"How could I?" Cyril replied. "Even to you, Elma, there are some things a man can hardly bear to speak about."

"I have more faith than you, Cyril," Elma answered. "I've never given up believing in Guy all the time. I believe in him still--because I know he's your brother."

There was a short pause, during which neither spoke. They walked along together, looking at each other's faces with half downcast eyes, but with the not unpleasant sense of mute companionship and sympathy in a great sorrow. At last Elma spoke again.

"There was one thing in Guy's telegram," she said, "I didn't quite understand. 'Coming home immediately to repay everything.' What did he mean by that? What has that got to do with Mr. Nevitt's disappearance?"

"Oh, that was quite another matter," Cyril answered, blushing deep with shame, for he couldn't bear to let Elma know Guy was a forger as well as a murderer. "That was something purely personal between us two. He--he owed me money."

Elma's keen eyes read him through at a glance.

"But he said it all in one sentence," she objected, "as if the two went naturally together. Coming home immediately to repay everything and stand my trial. Cyril, Cyril, you've held something back. I believe there's some fearful mistake here somewhere."

"You think so?" Cyril answered, feeling more and more uncomfortable.

"I'm sure of it," Elma replied, with a thrill, reading his thoughts still deeper. "Oh, Cyril"--she seized his arm with a convulsive grip--"for Heaven's sake, go and get it; let me see that letter!"

"I have it here," Cyril answered, pulling it out with some shame from Montague Nevitt's pocket-book, which he wouldn't destroy, and dared not leave about for prying eyes to light upon. "I've carried it day and night, ever since, about with me."

Elma seized it from his hands, and sat down upon a stile, and read it through with profound attention.

At the end she handed it back and tears stood in her eyes. "Cyril," she said, half laughing hysterically and half crying as she spoke, "you've been doing that poor fellow a deep injustice. Oh, don't you see--don't you see it? That isn't the letter of a man who has committed a murder. It's the letter of a man who has unwittingly and unwillingly done you some personal wrong, and is eager to repair it. My darling, my darling, you've misread it altogether. It isn't about Montague Nevitt's death at all; it's about nothing an earth but some private money matter. More than that, when it was written, Guy didn't yet know Mr. Nevitt was dead. He didn't know he was suspected. He didn't know anything. I wonder you don't see! I wish to Heaven you'd shown me that letter months ago! Sir Gilbert fastened suspicion on the wrong man; and this letter has made you accept it too easily. Guy went to Africa--that's as plain as words can put it--to make money of his own to repay what he owed you. And it's this, the purely personal and unimportant charge, he's coming home to give himself up upon."

A light seemed to burst on Cyril's mind as she spoke. For the very first time, he felt a gleam of hope. Elma was right, after all, he believed. Guy was wholly innocent of the greater crime; and his heart-broken letter had only meant to deal with the question of the forgery.

But Cyril had heard of the murder first, and had had that most in his mind when the letter reached him; so he interpreted it at once as referring to the capital charge, and never dreamt for a moment of its real narrower meaning.

That evening, when the messenger came back from "kind inquiries" at Woodlands, Elma asked, with hushed awe, how Sir Gilbert was going on.

"Very poorly, miss," the servant answered. "The doctor says he's sunk dreadful low; and the butler thinks he has something on his mind he can't get out in his wanderings. He's in a terrible bad way. They wouldn't be astonished if he don't live to morning."

So Elma went to bed that night trembling most for the result of Sir Gilbert's illness.