Chapter V. Gratitude.
 

"There were only two of you, then, in the last carriage?" Guy asked with deep interest, the very next morning, as Cyril, none the worse for his long imprisonment, sat quietly in their joint chambers at Staple Inn, recounting the previous day's adventures.

"Yes. Only two of us. It was awfully fortunate. And the carriage that was smashed had nobody at all, except in the first compartment, which escaped being buried. So there were no lives lost, by a miracle, you may say. But several of the people in the front part of the train got terribly shaken."

"And you and the other man were shut up in the tunnel there for fifteen hours at a stretch?" Guy went on reflectively.

"At least fifteen hours," Cyril echoed, without attempting to correct the slight error of sex, for no man, he thought, is bound to criminate himself, even in a flirtation. "It was two in the morning before they dug us quite out. And my companion by that time was more dead than alive, I can tell you, with watching and terror."

"Was he, poor fellow?" Guy murmured, with a sympathetic face; for Cyril had always alluded casually to his fellow-traveller in such general terms that Guy was as yet unaware there was a lady in the case. "And is he all right again now, do you know? Have you heard anything more about him?"

But before Cyril could answer there came a knock at the door, and the next moment Mr. Montague Nevitt, without his violin, entered the room in some haste, all agog with excitement. His face was eager and his manner cordial. It was clear he was full of some important tidings.

"Why, Cyril, my dear fellow," he cried, grasping the painter's hand with much demonstration of friendly warmth, and wringing it hard two or three times over, "how delighted I am to see you restored to us alive and well once more. This is really too happy. What a marvellous escape! And what a romantic story! All the clubs are buzzing with it. A charming girl! You'll have to marry her, of course, that's the necessary climax. You and the young lady are the staple of news, I see, in very big print, in all the evening papers!"

Guy drew back at the words with a little start of surprise. "Young lady!" he cried aghast. "A charming girl, Nevitt! Then the person who was shut up with you for fifteen hours in the tunnel was a girl, Cyril!"

Cyril's handsome face flushed slightly before his brother's scrutinizing gaze; but he answered with a certain little ill-concealed embarrassment:

"Oh, I didn't say so, didn't I? Well, she was a girl then, of course; a certain Miss Clifford. She got in at Chetwood. Her people live somewhere down there near Tilgate. At least, so I gathered from what she told me."

Nevitt stared hard at the painter's eyes, which tried, without success, to look unconscious.

"A romance!" he said, slowly, scanning his man with deep interest. "A romance, I can see. Young, rich, and beautiful. My dear Cyril, I only wish I'd had half your luck. What a splendid chance, and what a magnificent introduction! Beauty in distress! A lady in trouble! You console her alone in a tunnel for fifteen hours by yourself at a stretch. Heavens, what a tete-a-tete! Did British propriety ever before allow a man such a glorious opportunity for chivalrous devotion to a lady of family, face, and fortune?"

"Was she pretty?" Guy asked, coming down at once to a more realistic platform.

Cyril hesitated a moment. "Well, yes," he answered, somewhat curtly, after a short pause. "She's distinctly good-looking." And he shut his mouth sharp. But he had said quite enough.

When a man says that of a girl, and nothing more, in an unconcerned voice, as if it didn't matter twopence to him, you may be perfectly sure in your own mind he's very deeply and seriously smitten.

"And young?" Guy continued.

"I should say about twenty."

"And rich beyond the utmost dreams of avarice?" Montague Nevitt put in, with a faintly cynical smile.

"Well, I don't know about that," Cyril answered truthfully. "I haven't the least idea who she is, even. She and I had other things to think about, you may be sure, boxed up there so long in that narrow space, and choking for want of air, than minute investigations into one another's pedigrees."

"We've got no pedigree," Guy interposed, with a bitter smile. "So the less she investigates about that the better."

"But she has, I expect," Nevitt put in hastily; "and if I were you, Cyril, I'd hunt her up forthwith, while the iron's hot, and find out all there is to find out about her. Clifford-Clifford? I wonder whether by any chance she's one of the Devonshire Cliffords, now? For if so, she might really be worth a man's serious attetion. They're very good business. They bank at our place; and they're by no means paupers." For Nevitt was a clerk in the well-known banking firm of Drummond, Coutts, and Barclay, Limited; and being a man who didn't mean, as he himself said, "to throw himself away on any girl for nothing," he kept a sharp look-out on the current account of every wealthy client with an only daughter.

Ten minutes later, as the talk ran on, some further light was unexpectedly thrown upon this interesting topic by the entrance of the porter with a letter for Cyril. The painter tore it open, and glanced over it, as Nevitt observed, with evident eagerness. It was short and curt, but in its own way courteous.

"'Mr. Reginald Clifford, C.M.G., desires to thank Mr. Cyril Waring for his kindness and consideration to Miss Clifford during her temporary incarceration---'

"Incarceration's good, isn't it? How much does he charge a thousand for that sort, I wonder?---

"'during her temporary incarceration in the Lavington tunnel yesterday. Mrs. and Miss Clifford wish also to express at the same time their deep gratitude to Mr. Waring for his friendly efforts, and trust he has experienced no further ill effects from the unfortunate accident to which he was subjected.

"'Craighton, Tilgate, Thursday morning.'"

"She might have written herself," Cyril murmured half aloud. He was evidently disappointed at this very short measure of correspondence on the subject.

But Montague Nevitt took a more cheerful view. "Oh, Reginald Clifford, of Craighton!" he cried with a smile, his invariable smile. "I know all about him. He's a friend of Colonel Kelmscott's down at Tilgate Park. C.M.G., indeed! What a ridiculous old peacock. He was administrator of St. Kitts once upon a time, I believe, or was it Nevis or Antigua? I don't quite recollect, I'm afraid; but anyhow, some comical little speck of a sugary, niggery, West Indian Island; and he was made a Companion of St. Michael and St. George when his term was up, just to keep him quiet, don't you know, for he wanted a knighthood, and to shelve him from being appointed to a first-class post like Barbados or Trinidad. If it's Elma Clifford you were shut up with in the tunnel, Cyril, you might do worse, there's no doubt, and you might do better. She's an only daughter, and there's a little money at the back of the family, I expect; but I fancy the Companion of the Fighting Saints lives mainly on his pension, which, of course, is purely personal, and so dies with him."

Cyril folded up the note without noticing Nevitt's words and put it in his pocket, somewhat carefully and obtrusively. "Thank you," he said, in a very quiet tone, "I didn't ask you about Miss Clifford's fortune. When I want information on that point I'll apply for it plainly. But meanwhile I don't think any lady's name should be dragged into conversation and bandied about like that, by an absolute stranger."

"Oh, now you needn't be huffy," Nevitt answered, with a still sweeter smile, showing all those pearly teeth of his to the greatest advantage. "I didn't mean to put your back up, and I'll tell you what I'll do for you. I'll heap coals of fire on your head, you ungrateful man. I'll return good for evil. You shall have an invitation to Mrs. Holker's garden party on Saturday week at Chetwood Court, and there you'll be almost sure to meet the beautiful stranger."

But at that very moment, at Craighton, Tilgate, Mr. Reginald Clifford, C.M.G., a stiff little withered-up official Briton, half mummified by long exposure to tropical suns, was sitting in his drawing-room with Mrs. Clifford, his wife, and discussing--what subject of all others on earth but the personality of Cyril Waring?

"Well, it was an awkward situation for Elma, of course, I admit," he was chirping out cheerfully, with his back turned by pure force of habit to the empty grate, and his hands crossed behind him. "I don't deny it was an awkward situation. Still, there's no harm done, I hope and trust. Elma's happily not a fanciful or foolishly susceptible sort of girl. She sees it's a case for mere ordinary gratitude. And gratitude, in my opinion, towards a person in his position, is sufficiently expressed once for all by letter. There's no reason on earth she should ever again see or hear any more of him."

"But girls are so romantic," Mrs. Clifford put in doubtfully, with an anxious air. She herself was by no means romantic to look at, being, indeed, a person of a certain age, with a plump, matronly figure, and very staid of countenance; yet there was something in her eye, for all that, that recalled at times the vivid keenness of Elma's, and her cheek had once been as delicate and creamy a brown as her pretty daughter's. "Girls are so romantic," Mrs. Clifford repeated once more, in a dreamy way, "and she was evidently impressed by him."

"Well, I'm glad I made inquiries at once about these two young men, anyhow, "the Companion of St. Michael and St. George responded with fervour, clasping his wizened little hands contentedly over his narrow waistcoat. "It's a precious odd story, and a doubtful story, and not at all the sort of story one likes one's girl to be any way mixed up with. For my part, I shall give them a very wide berth indeed in future; and there's no reason why Elma should ever knock up against them."

"Who told you they were nobodies?" Mrs. Clifford inquired, drawing a wistful sigh.

"Oh, Tom Clark was at school with them," the ex-administrator continued, with a very cunning air, "and he knows all about them--has heard the whole circumstances. Very odd, very odd; never met anything so queer in all my life; most mysterious and uncanny. They never had a father; they never had a mother; they never had anybody on earth they could call their own; they dropped from the clouds, as it were, one rainy day, without a friend in the world, plump down into the Charterhouse. There they were well supplied with money, and spent their holidays with a person at Brighton, who wasn't even supposed to be their lawful guardian. Looks fishy, doesn't it? Their names are Cyril and Guy Waring--and that's all they know of themselves. They were educated like gentlemen till they were twenty-one years old; and then they were turned loose upon the world, like a pair of young bears, with a couple of hundred pounds of capital apiece to shift for themselves with. Uncanny, very; I don't like the look of it. Not at all the sort of people an impressionable girl like our Elma should ever be allowed to see too much of."

"I don't think she was very much impressed by him," Mrs. Clifford said with confidence. "I've watched her to see, and I don't think she's in love with him. But by to-morrow, Reginald, I shall be able, I'm sure, to tell you for certain."

The Companion of the Militant Saints glanced rather uneasily across the hearth-rug at his wife. "It's a marvellous gift, to be sure, this intuition of yours, Louisa," he said, shaking his head sagely, and swaying himself gently to and fro on the stone kerb of the fender. "I frankly confess, my dear, I don't quite understand it. And Elma's got it too, every bit as bad as you have. Runs in the family, I suppose--runs somehow in the family. After living with you now for twenty-two years--yes, twenty-two last April--in every part of the world and every grade of the service, I'm compelled to admit that your intuition in these matters is really remarkable--simply remarkable."

Mrs. Clifford coloured through her olive-brown skin, exactly like Elma, and rose with a somewhat embarrassed and half-guilty air, avoiding her husband's eyes as if afraid to meet them.

Elma had gone to bed early, wearied out as she was with her long agony in the tunnel. Mrs. Clifford crept up to her daughter's room with a silent tread, like some noiseless Oriental, and, putting her ear to the keyhole, listened outside the door in profound suspense for several minutes.

Not a sound from within; not a gentle footfall on the carpeted floor. For a moment she hesitated; then she turned the handle slowly, and, peering before her, peeped into the room. Thank Heaven! no snake signs. Elma lay asleep, with one arm above her head, as peacefully as a child, after her terrible adventure. Her bosom heaved, but slowly and regularly. The mother drew a deep breath, and crept down the stairs with a palpitating heart to the drawing-room again.

"Reginald," she said, with perfect confidence, relapsing once more at a bound into the ordinary every-day British matron, "there's no harm done, I'm sure. She doesn't think of this young man at all. You may dismiss him from your mind at once and for ever. She's sleeping like a baby."