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Title: The Turnpike House Author: Fergus Hume * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1701331h.html Language: English Date first posted: December 2017 Most recent update: December 2017 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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Published in The Rhondda Leader, South Wales, beginning 19th April 1902
Chapter 1. - The Convict’s Return
Chapter 2. - The Still Form In The House
Chapter 3. - Young Love, True Love
Chapter 4. - A Strange Episode
Chapter 5. - A Shadow Of The Past
Chapter 6. - Mr. Cass Speaks
Chapter 7. - Webster’s Childhood
Chapter 8. - Hercules And Omphale
Chapter 9. - The Embassy Of Geoffrey Heron
Chapter 10. - The Great Secret
Chapter 11. - Ruth’s Diplomacy
Chapter 12. - The Toy Horse
Chapter 13. - Job, The Sapengro
Chapter 14. - The Clairvoyant
Chapter 15. - The Punishment Of Curiosity
Chapter 16. - Jennie Brawn Makes A Discovery
Chapter 17. - Heron Follows The Trail
Chapter 18. - The Money-Lender
Chapter 19. - Job Becomes Civilised
Chapter 20. - What Mr. Cass Had To Say
Chapter 21. - Ruth Is Comforted
Chapter 22. - At Bay
Chapter 23. - Still In Doubt
Chapter 24. - Another Piece Of Evidence
Chapter 25. - The Red Pocket-Book
Chapter 26. - The Penance Of Inez
Chapter 27. - A Doubtful Witness
Chapter 28. - The Unexpected Happens
Chapter 29. - The End Of The Turnpike House
Chapter 30. - The Truth at Last
It stood where four roads met—a square building of two storeys, with white-washed walls and a high slate roof. The fence, and the once trim garden, had vanished with the turnpike gate; and a jungle of gooseberry bushes, interspersed with brambles, shut off the house from the roads. And only by courtesy could these be so-called, for time and neglect had almost obliterated them.
On all sides stretched a flat expanse of reaped fields, bleak-looking and barren in the waning November twilight. Mists gathered thickly over ditch and hedge and stubbled furrow; a constant dripping could be heard in the clumps of trees looming here and there in the fog.
Through the kitchen-garden jungle a narrow, crooked path led up to the door where two rough stones ascended to a broken threshold. Indeed, the whole house appeared ragged in its poverty. Many of the windows were stuffed up with rags; walls, cracked and askew, exuded green slime; moss interspersed with lichen, filled in the crevices of the slates upon the roof. A dog would scarcely have sought such a kennel, yet a dim light in the left-hand window of the lower storey showed that this kennel was inhabited. There sat within—a woman and a child.
The outer decay but typified the poverty of the interior. Plaster had fallen from walls and ceiling, and both were cracked in all directions. No carpet covered the warped floor, and the pinched fire in the rusty grate gave but scanty warmth to the small apartment. A deal table, without a cloth, two deal chairs, and a three-legged stool—these formed the sole furniture. On the blistered black mantelshelf a few cups and saucers of thick delf ranged themselves, and their gay pinks and blues were the only cheerful note in the prevailing misery.
The elder of these two outcasts sat by the bare table; a tallow candle of the cheapest description stuck in a bottle shed a feeble tight, by which she sewed furiously at a flannel shirt. Stab, click, click, stab, she toiled in mad haste as though working for a wager. Intent on her labour, she had no looks to spare for the ten-year-old boy who crouched by the fire; not that he heeded her neglect, for a brown toy horse took up all his attention, and he was perfectly happy in managing what was, to him, an unruly steed.
From the likeness between these two, the most casual observer would have pronounced them mother and son. She had once been beautiful, this slender woman, with her fair hair and blue eyes, but trouble and destitution had robbed her of a delicate loveliness which could have thriven only under congenial circumstances. In those faded eyes, now feverishly glittering, there lurked an expression of dread telling of a mind ill at ease. Dainty garments would have well become her fairness, but she was clothed, rather than dressed, in a black stuff gown without even a linen collar to relieve its lustreless aspect. Poverty had made her careless of her appearance, heedless of the respect due to herself, and her sole aim, apparently, was the speedy completion of the shirt at which she incessantly wrought.
The boy was a small copy of his mother, with the same fair hair and blue eyes but his face had more colour, his figure was more rounded, and he was clothed with a care which showed the forethought and the love of a mother even in the direst poverty.
After some twenty minutes of silence, broken only by the clicking of the needle and the low chatter of the child, signs of exhaustion began to show themselves in the worker. Before long, big, hot tears fell on the grey flannel, and she opened her mouth with an hysterical gasp. Slowly and more slowly did the seamstress ply her needle, until at last, with a strangled sob, she flung back her head. “Oh, Heavens!” was her moan, and it seemed to be wrung from the very depths of her suffering heart. The child, with a nervous cry, looked up, trembling violently.
“What is it mother? Is father coming?”
“No, thank Heaven!” said the mother, fiercely. “Do you want him?”
So white did the boy’s face become that his eyes showed black as pitch balls. The question seemed to strike him like a blow, and he hurled himself forward to bury his head in the woman’s lap. “Don’t—don’t let him come!” he sobbed, with unrestrained passion.
“Why do you speak of him, then?” cried the mother, angrily, just as she might have addressed a person of her own age. “Never mention your father, Gilbert. He has gone out of your life—out of mine. He is dead to you—and to me.”
“I am glad,” sobbed the boy, shaking with nervous excitement. “Are you sure, quite sure, mother, he will never come back again?”
“Who is sure of anything?” muttered the woman, gloomily. “He is out of prison now; at any time he may track us down. But he shall not get you, my boy,” and she strained the child to her breast. “I would kill him first!”
“I would kill him, too—kill him, too!” panted Gilbert, brokenly. “Oh, mother, mother! I hate him! I hate him!” and he burst into tears.
“Hush, hush, my baby!” soothed the mother. “Never think of him. He will not get you. No, no.”
But the boy continued to sob convulsively, and it required all her arts to pacify him. She knew from experience what the end of this outbreak would be if it continued beyond a point. The lad was precocious and neurotic, quite undisciplined, taking colour from his surroundings, tone from the atmosphere in which he chanced to be; and as the fit took him, could be angel or demon. But in ten minutes the mother had succeeded in soothing him sufficiently to send him back to his play. Then she recommenced her work, and as the needle flew through the coarse stuff she thought of her husband.
“The brute! The hound!” so ran her thoughts. “It is his work. If Gilbert should see him again he would die or go mad, or fall into one of his trances. In any case he would be lost to me. Ah!” she broke out aloud, pushing the hair from her lined forehead. “How long will it last?”
There was no answer to the despairing question, and she went on sewing, listening the while to the prattle of her lad.
“Stand still. Brownie!” the child was saying. “You aren’t galloping over the big green of Bedford-park. Do you remember your nice stable by this there, Brownie, and the pretty rooms? I don’t like this house any more than you do. Mother was happy in our pretty cottage, so was I, so was my Brownie.”
“Mother will never be happy again,” murmured the woman, savagely stabbing the flannel as though she were stabbing the man of whom she was thinking. “Ruin and disaster. Disaster and ruin! Why are such men created?”
Gilbert took no notice. “Do you remember the red houses, Brownie, and the railway? I took you there often for a trot. It was just three years ago. Trot now!”
“Aye, just three years!” cried the woman. “Years of agony, pain, shame and disgrace. Why doesn’t he die!” and she bit off the end of a thread viciously.
“Mother,” said the boy, unexpectedly, “I’m hungry. Give me something to eat.”
The woman opened a cupboard and brought out a small loaf, a bundle of victuals, and a tiny packet of tea, precious as gold to her poverty. In silence she boiled the kettle and brewed a cup; in silence she set the food before the hungry child. But when he began to eat her feelings proved too much for her. She burst into fierce words.
“Eat the bread of charity, Gilbert!” she said in a loud, hard voice, and still speaking as though to a person of her own age. “The loaf only is paid for by our own money. I got the bones and the meat from Miss Cass at the Hall. She took me for a beggar in spite of the work I have done for her. And she is right, I am a beggar—so are you—and your father— There, there! Don’t look so scared. We will not speak of him.”
Then the boy did a strange thing. With a sudden pounce he seized a sharp-pointed, buck-handled knife used for cutting the bread, and, raising it in the air, looked at his mother with fierce eyes.
“If my father takes me away from you,” he said, shrilly, “I’ll stick this into him. I will, mother!”
With an ejaculation of terror she snatched the knife out of his small hands, clenched now so wickedly. “Heaven forgive me,” she thought, laying it down on the table. “My hatred comes out in him. I may lead him into danger. Heaven keep his father out of his way. I should see a doctor.” She glanced round the room and laughed bitterly. “Oh, Heavens’“ she broke out aloud. “See a doctor. I can’t pay, and ask him in this hovel! Charity? No, no. I’ll earn my bread, if I die in the earning.” And she fell as fiercely as before to her sewing.
Gilbert, now himself again, ate slowly and with much enjoyment. At intervals he fed the horse which he had brought to the table with him. His mother watched him, pondering over his late outburst so terribly suggestive of the latent instincts in the child. She knew well the reason of it, though she would not acknowledge so much even to herself. Her husband had treated her brutally, and the high-spirited creature had resented his behaviour with passionate hatred. She had taught her child to detest his father.
It was a wild night. The wind beat against the crazy building till it creaked in all its loosened joints. Still the woman went on sewing, and the boy continued to eat. A miserable silence settled down upon them.
Suddenly the mother raised her hand, and the child stopped eating with an expression of terror on his white face.
The woman listened, wild eyed—not in vain. From some distance came the sound of a dragging footstep. There was a drag, a halt, and then again a drag, as though some wounded animal were writhing its way to a place of safety. The outcast knew the sound of that halting gait only two well. So did the boy.
“It’s father!” he cried, shrilly. A look of mingled terror, repulsion, hatred, took possession of his white face.
“Hush!” said the woman, imperatively, and left the room. For a moment Gilbert sat quietly listening; then his small hand slipped along the table to grasp the buck-handled knife. Trembling with excitement, he watched the door; he could hear without his mother’s taunting voice.
“Come in, Mark Jenner. I know you are standing there in the darkness. Enter, and see the state to which your wickedness has reduced your wife and child. Come in, you lying scoundrel, you brute, you thief!”
In answer to this invitation came a growl as of an angry animal. Then the footsteps dragged themselves nearer and halted at the door. There ensued the sound of taunts and curses. And almost immediately after this exchange of courtesies between husband and wife, who had been parted for three years, the door opened to admit a thick-set man, whose face, in spite of its cunning, was not devoid of refinement. He was in rags and soaking with the wet.
Gilbert stared at this half-forgotten father who had been so long a stranger. Then the fierce inherited hatred woke suddenly within him. In deadly silence he launched himself forward, knife in hand, and struck at his father. Though taken by surprise, the man had about him some of the swiftness of the wild beast which is always prepared for danger, and he warded off the blow with one hand. But the keen blade had cut him across the knuckles, and as the blood spurted he uttered an oath of terror and of pain. For a moment he made as if to fling himself on his small assailant; then he paused, with a look of fear. For the child, passing suddenly from motion to stillness, stood, apparently in a cataleptic trance, with rigid limbs and eyes widely staring. His mother swept down on him with the swoop of a striking falcon, and had him in her arms before her husband could recover himself.
“You have seen him like this before,” she said, “so you know he will remain in the trance for some time. I will take him to bed.”
“It is you who have put him up to this,” cried the man in a shaking voice.
Mrs. Jenner laughed. “Heaven put him up to it,” she said, hysterically. “This hatred of you dates too far back. You had better ask a doctor to explain. I cannot; but I know what I know. Wait till I have put him to bed, then I will come back to hear how you have hunted me down, and why. I thought I was free from gaol-birds,” she finished, bitterly, and passed out of the room and up the stairs.
Mr. Jenner gave a savage ejaculation. Then he shuffled forward to the fire, warmed himself, and proceeded to attack the food. In an incredibly short space of time there was not a crumb left on the table, and he was still hungry.
“If I only had a smoke!” he growled, squeezing his hands together. “But I have nothing, not even a welcome. Ah, well, there are those who will pay for this!” He took a well-worn pocket-book out of his breast-pocket. “My fortune lies in here; but it is not safe while he is about.”
The reflection seemed to make him uneasy, and he glanced round the poor room, looking for a place where he might hide his treasure. His eyes fell on the brown horse, and he chuckled.
“She’ll always keep that for Gilbert,” he said, “and it’s not likely to be lost. I’ll put it in there.”
Having assured himself that his wife was upstairs, he proceeded to carry out his plan. The toy was made of rags, painted and moulded to the shape of a horse. So he made an incision in the belly, and, thrusting in his finger, formed a hole. Then, with a hasty glance round, he opened the red pocket-book and produced therefrom a Bill of Exchange, which he folded up into a compass as small as possible. This he thrust into the hole, pulled the interior stuffing over it, and using his wife’s needle, sewed up the hole with considerable despatch and dexterity. A few white threads were still sufficiently noticeable to arouse suspicion, so he rubbed his hand on the sooty grate and blackened the rent. So neatly was all this done that no one would have guessed that the toy had been opened.
Jenner laughed, and tossed the horse on to the table where the child had left it. “That’s all right,” he said. “She’ll never part with anything belonging to the boy.”
He looked over the table to see if any food remained. Finding none, he swore a little and sat down by the fire, upon which he had heaped all the fuel he could find. There he brooded, chin in hand, thinking of his past, dreading the days to come.
In a quarter of an hour Mrs. Jenner returned. She looked at the empty table, at the heaped up fuel in the grate, and finally her gaze of loathing and of scorn fell upon the figure by the fire.
“Still the same selfish brute,” she said, resuming her seat and her work. “My child and I are almost starving, almost without a fire; yet you devour our small portion and burn our sticks. And why not? What do our pains matter to you, so long as you are comfortable?”
“I have had more discomfort than you,” grumbled her husband, avoiding her contemptuous eyes. “Had you been in prison—”
“I would never have come near those whom I had disgraced,” she finished swiftly, and went on with her stitching.
The culprit writhed.
“Lizzie,” he said, “do not be too hard on me. I have sinned, but I have been punished. You might forgive me now.”
“Never!” said the wife, curtly, and the expression of her eyes told him that she fully meant what she said.
“How hard women can be.”
“Women,” remarked Mrs. Jenner, shifting the work on her knee, “are what men make them. You behaved to me like the brute that you are; you cannot blame me, then, if I treat you according to your nature. I live for our child—to make amends for what you have done. Therefore, I have an object in life. Had I not, I would gladly die; and I would gain death—a shameful death—by killing you.”
The terrible intensity of her gaze made the guilty wretch shiver. “I will make it up to you,” he said, feebly.
“Not you. You will go on just the same—that is if I will let you—and that I don’t intend to do.”
“I shall have money soon—plenty of money.”
“What! Are you going to steal again? I want none of your ill-gotten gains. This house is poor, but it is honest. I earn the food my child and I eat, or I beg it; but stealing? No, I leave that to you. Why have you come here?”
“I thought we might come together again and live a new life.”
Mrs. Jenner threw aside her work and sprang up. “I would rather die,” she said, in a voice of intense hatred. “You treated me like a dog; you struck me; you starved me; you were unfaithful to me. I would rather die.”
“It was the drink,” Jenner pleaded. “I was all right when I was sober.”
“And were you ever sober?” demanded the woman, bitterly. “Not you. In spite of all my care you lay in the mire and wallowed like the pig you are.”
“This is a nice welcome,” grumbled the man, beginning to lose his temper.
“What did you expect? Tears and kisses, and the killing of the fatted calf? No, my man; I have been a fool too long. I am no fool now. You have hunted me down; how, I know not. But you don’t stay here. You go. And, this time you go—for ever.”
“My rights as a husband and a father—”
“A criminal has no rights,” interrupted his wife. “Think of the past,” she went on in a loud, hard voice. “Think of it, and then wonder at your audacity in coming here to face me—me whom you have ruined.”
“I don’t want to think of the past—and I won’t. Leave it alone. It’s dead and done with.”
“Yes, but the consequences remain. Look at this house—your work. See my withered looks—your work. Think of the child and his mysterious illness—your work. You forget all that you have done. I do not; and I intend to refresh your memory.”
Jenner turned sullen. There was no chance of escaping from this, save by going out again into the storm, and he was much too comfortable where he was. So of the two evils he chose the lesser; and even in this his selfish regard for his own comfort showed itself. “Go on, then,” he growled, sullenly.
The woman returned to her seat, and averting her eyes she began to speak in a low, monotonous voice, rising ever and growing more excited as she went through the story of shame and sorrow.
“Let me begin at the beginning, when I was governess to Mr. Cass’s little girl; then I was happy and respected. I was pretty, too, and admired. Mr. Cass was a merchant in the city, trading in Spanish wines—”
“What’s the use of telling me all this?” broke in Jenner, impatiently. “It is all state. I was a clerk in Cass’s office; I met you at his house when I was there on business, and I married you—”
“Yes, you married me,” she cried, fiercely. “The more fool I for being taken by your good looks and your plausible tongue. For my sake it was that Mr. Cass raised you to a higher position and gave you a larger salary. We lived in Bloomsbury, and there, ten years ago, Gilbert was born; but not until you had broken my heart and ruined my life.”
“Come now, I was kind to you when I was sober.”
“And were you ever sober? No; you poor, weak fool. Because you had a good voice and musical talents you were led away by pleasure, and for months before Gilbert was born you behaved towards me in a way no woman could forgive. I was high-spirited, and I resented your conduct—your dissipation and your unfaithfulness.”
“You were always on your high horse, if that is what you mean.”
“I had every reason to be on my high horse, you brute. Remember the birth of Gilbert—how I suffered—how you were drunk the whole time. And when I got better I found that Mr. Cass had dismissed you for appropriating money.”
Jenner sneered. “Cass made a great fuss about nothing.”
“You know as well as I do what Mr. Cass is. His mother was Spanish, and he had a fiery temper. He had treated you well, and you repaid him by taking what belonged to him. He dismissed you, but for my sake, because I had been his child’s governess, he did not prosecute you.”
“Ah! I always thought you and Mr. Cass were great friends.”
“That was your own foul mind,” cried the woman, contemptuously. “Mr. Cass was an honourable man. If it had been his partner, Marshall, now, then perhaps—yes.”
“I know all about Marshall, thank you, Lizzie,” he said, chuckling, and his eyes wandered to the brown horse on the table.
“Thinking of your association with him, I suppose?” she sneered. “He took you up simply on account of your voice, and then dropped you when he found out what a drunkard you were.”
“Yes, he did,” said Jenner, between his teeth. “And I swore to be revenged on him; and some day I will. If you care to listen, I’ll tell—”
“I wish to hear nothing,” she interrupted. “Mr. Marshall is not a man I admire—a dissipated rake, that’s what he is. Still, he is Mr. Cass’s partner, and for the sake of Mr. Cass I wish to hear nothing against him. Besides, he is going to marry Miss Cass.”
“What—Inez Cass-the sister of my old master?” cried Jenner, looking up.
“Yes. Do you know of any reason why he should not?”
“No,” said the man, slowly; “but I wish I had known that two hours ago.”
“Why two hours?”
“Oh, you don’t want to hear anything against Marshall, so I won’t tell.”
His wife glanced contemptuously at him. “I suppose you mean blackmail,” she said. “Blackmail Miss Cass and Mr. Marshall, if you like, and go back to gaol if it pleases you. I have done with you and your wickedness.”
“We’ll see about that,” he cried.
“Don’t interrupt me, please,” his wife said, with an imperative wave of her hand. “I want to go on with my story.”
“I don’t want to hear any more.”
“But you shall hear to the end. Listen, Mr. Cass dismissed you for dishonesty, and you took to the stage on the strength of your voice. You know the life you led me. I forgave you over and over again for the child’s sake. But it was all of no use. Then at last drink spoilt your voice, and you could get no engagements and Mr. Marshall, although you did not deserve it, got you a situation in that moneylender’s office—I forget the name—the—”
“Old Julian Roper.”
“Yes, Julian Roper. You got the situation four years ago, and for a time things went well; then you broke out again and stole money from your new employer. He was not so lenient as Mr. Cass, and he had you put in gaol for three years.”
“Well; I’m out now.”
“You are,” said his wife, and there was intense hatred in her voice. “Out to see how I have sunk. After your imprisonment your creditors sold up the house and furniture in Bedford-park; I was turned out on the streets with my child. Mr. Cass got me a place as governess; then it came out that I was the wife of a convict, and I lost the situation. I was driven from one engagement to another. Finally I came down here to ask charity from Mr. Cass. He would have done much for me, but for his sister. Inez is one of your cold, cruel women who kick the fallen. She blamed me for being your wife, and she set her brother against me. All I could get was this tumble-down hovel, where I live rent free. I earn my bread by sewing for the people in the village two miles on. Sometimes Miss Cass insults me by sending me broken victuals—you have just eaten some—and I am so poor that I accept the scraps. Such is my life, but I would rather live it than go with you.”
“I don’t want you to go with me,” said the man, rising. “I want to make you happy by giving you money.”
“Have you any? And, if so, where did you get it?”
“I have none just yet, but I soon shall have. At the present moment I am the possessor of two coppers”—he produced them. “But in a week I shall have hundreds.”
“And then you will go to gaol again,” said his wife. “No, thank you, I don’t want to have anything to do with you. I have suffered quite enough at your hands. How could I live with you when the child hates you so?”
“That’s all your fault!”
“Not altogether, as I said before. His hatred of you is pre-natal; but I have fostered that hatred until—well, you saw how he received you to-night.”
“You are pitiless,” he said, hoarsely.
“I am what you have made me. Do you think I would allow my child to love you who have treated his mother so ill? He will never look upon you save with loathing and hate. I would die for the boy; it is the strongest passion of my nature, this love for him. Do you think I would share that love with you? No; Gilbert hates you—he always will—and as I said before, I have done my utmost to foster his hate. Oh, I thought I was safe from you here. Who told you of my hiding-place?”
“Marshall,” said Jenner, sulkily.
“Ah you have seen him. And did he speak to you—a gaol-bird?”
“Yes, he did. I made him speak to me.”
His wife looked curiously at him and significantly. “It is as I thought,” she said. “You know something about him, and you have come down to blackmail him or Miss Cass. Well, go and do it, and get back into gaol if you can. I should be glad to see you in prison again. As it is, out you go—now!”
“I have no money—no shelter.”
“I will give you five shillings,” she said. “With that you can go to the village inn—it is only two miles away.”
Jenner took out his red pocket-book and laid it on the table near the window. “I have a pencil and paper in this,” he said. “What you lend me I will give you an I.O.U. for. I don’t want your money.”
“I decline,” said his wife, turning from the open window, out of which she had been leaning. “Once the money passes into your hands it becomes too vile for me to touch again. Wait here, and I will get you the five shillings.”
He sprang forward, almost beside himself, and seized her wrist. “You wretch—I’ll give you a thrashing for this.”
Mrs. Jenner shook off his hand, new to the fireplace and snatched up the poker. “You lay a finger on me, and I’ll kill you,” she cried, wildly. “You foul beast—your very touch is poison. I am not the woman I was to put up with your brutality. Stand back, you gaol-bird.”
He backed towards the open window, and began to whimper. “Don’t be such a virago,” he said. “I don’t want to touch you. If you will give me the money I will go away. But you have lost the chance of a fortune,” he boasted, shaking the red pocket-book. “I can get hundreds—hundreds.”
“In the usual way,” she said, and laid down the poker. “Then you will be locked up again. I hope you will.”
“Can I not take leave of the child?”
“No, unless you want him to try and kill you again. Besides, he is in a trance; he will waken as suddenly as he fell into it. But I hope, for your sake, that you will be out of the house before he recovers his senses.”
“Do you think—”
“I don’t think—I know. All his life Gilbert will hate you. He is highly neurotic, and when he gets besides himself he will do things as mad as would an hysterical woman. He is not to be trusted—no more am I—so beware of us both, and place the sea between yourself and us.”
“A very good idea,” he said, coolly. “I’ll emigrate.”
“Do. Go to Sydney—which was formerly Botany Bay. That ought to suit you,” she taunted. “Stop there,” she snatched up the poker again, “or I will not answer for myself.”
Her husband laid down the buck-handled knife and placed it on the table beside the pocket-book. He had taken it up with an oath when his wife goaded him with her tongue. “Get the five, shillings,” he said, sulkily.
“It is upstairs.” Still carrying the poker, Mrs. Jenner moved towards the inner door. “I can tell you so much, for you will never find my hiding-place. Wait here.”
When she had gone her husband remained by the table with his hand on the red pocket-book. His eyes sought the brown horse. “I must take you with me, too,” he muttered. “I shall never see her or the child again. It is better so; I hope she won’t be long.” And he waited in sulky silence.
Suddenly there was the cry of a human being in pain. The light was extinguished, and the mists closed thicker round the ruined building; it might be to hide the sight within the room. Could the wails only have spoken they would have shouted “Murder!” with most miraculous voice. But the age of miracles being past, the walls were dumb, and there was no clamour to greet the horror of this deed done in darkness. But the mists wrapped themselves round the place of death, and a profound silence shut down on the desolate country.
It was broken at last by the sound of light footsteps. Along the disused road a woman carrying a child in her arms tore along at a furious rate. She did not know where she was going; she had no goal. All that she desired was to get away from the thing which lay in the darkness of that poor room. Horror was behind her; danger before. And she ran on, on through the mists and the gloom, pursued by the Furies. Like hounds on the track, they drove her along the lonely roads until the mists swallowed her up; and these, growing ever more dense, blotted out the woman, blotted out the country, blotted out the Turnpike House. But what they could not blot out was that silent room where a dead man lay. Better had they done so; better had they obliterated that evidence of evil from the face of the earth. But what had been done in the darkness had yet to be shown in the light; and then—but the woman fled on wearied feet, fled, ever fled through the gloom, and the friendly mists covered her escape.
And so did the ruined Turnpike-House become possessed of its legend. For many a long year the horror of it was discussed beside winter fires. The place was haunted, and the ghost had walked first upon that very night, when the woman, bearing the child, had fled away into the darkness.
It was Christmas-time, many years after the events narrated in the previous chapter, and the snow not only lay thick on the ground but was falling heavily from a leaden sky. A strong wind which rose with the coming of the night drove through the leafless trees of the park and clashed iron music from among their frozen boughs.
Beyond the red brick wall which encircled Hollyoaks Park the frozen road ran straight to the village of Westham, and the one street of that hamlet was crowded with people returning homeward laden with purchases for the next day.
But if it was wintry out of doors, within the mansion of Mr. Cass all was colour and warmth and tropical leafage. The merchant’s mother had been an Andalusian, and perhaps some far-off strain of Moorish blood had constrained her son to build his house on Moorish lines. When Mr. Cass, some twenty years ago, had bought Hollyoaks from the decayed county family who then owned it, the manor-house had been but lately destroyed by fire. The purchaser found a pleasant country, a beautiful park, but no place where he and his family could lay their heads. So he proceeded to erect what the countryside called “Cass’s Folly”—a true Moorish dwelling-place such as one finds in Seville and Cordova. A series of low buildings clustered round a central court, or, as it would be called in Spain, a patio. This, in deference to the English climate, had been roofed in with glass and turned into a winter garden. The roof was protected against the elements by a close iron frame-work, which was yet sufficiently open to admit the light. But it is rarely that the sun shines with full strength in the Midlands; so it happened that this garden was usually pervaded by a fascinating twilight.
This large space was filled with tropical foliage; palms rose tall and stately from an undergrowth of oddly-shaped plants with serpentine and hairy foliage interspersed with brilliant flowers. What with the diapered pavement, the white marble pillars of the corridor, and all this tropical fecundity, the spectacle was brilliant and strange to English eyes.
This striking interior, however, made a special appeal to the emotions of a tall, slim young man who was seated in a lounging-chair beside the pool. He had arrived from London only two hours before, after an uncomfortable journey in the cold. He remembered his last Christmas spent at Hollyoaks, when he had arrived much about the same time and had been greeted with the same splendour. Then he had been a stranger; now he was well known to the Cass family, best of all to the youngest daughter of the house. But where was she now? Why was she not here to greet him?
His colour came and went now as he thought of the girl he was about to meet, the girl who was all the world to him. He tugged nervously at his small golden moustache, and his blue eyes blinked at the dazzling colours of the flowers. But there was something about the boy—for he was no more than twenty-three—which brought conviction that his spirit was more manly than his looks would have one believe. His air was resolute; his figure, though slim, was athletic; yet withal he was nervous and emotional in the extreme. And, after all, this was how it should be, for Neil Webster’s fame as a violinist of rare promise was well known. Already he had made a name for himself both in England and America.
With such a temperament it was not wonderful that he should love Ruth Cass, who also was of a highly sensitive nature. Neil thought of her now with an intensity inspired by the memory of the joy she had been to his appreciative eye when, last Christmas, he had seen her for the first time.
As the young man sat there wrinkling his brows in the effort to recall completely the memory of Ruth’s first appearance, a side door opened and she herself appeared. With light steps she stole forward, and laying her gloved hands upon his eyes she laughed out of sheer joy.
“Who is it?” she asked, gaily. “I give you three guesses.”
Neil turned, took her hands and kissed them. “As if I needed more than one,” he said, with light reproach. “I should not be a true lover did I not guess your presence even without seeing you.”
“Yet you didn’t, you didn’t,” sang the girl. “I came upon you unawares.”
“But I knew you were coming, for I felt it in my heart. Come, let me look at my rose of Sharon. It is six long weary weeks since I saw you.”
She made a little curtsey, and then stood demurely before him. To a stranger she would have been almost as great a surprise as the house itself. And she was in keeping with it—the beautiful Andalusian Marquise of de Musset’s ballad come to life in foggy England. The Quaker name of Ruth suited ill with that rich southern beauty. Had she been called Cleopatra, that Royal name would well have matched her appearance. Although but twenty years of age she was already in the full bloom of womanly loveliness. Of no great height, she possessed one of those perfect figures seen only in Spain. She walked with the swaying, graceful gait of the Andalusian woman. An olive skin, large, liquid eyes of midnight blackness, lips scarlet as a pomegranate blossom, full and a trifle voluptuous.
As became a daughter of the South, Ruth was arrayed in a ravishing dinner-dress of black and gold which suited her swarthy beauty. In the coils of her blue-black hair she wore sparkling diamonds; the same stones blazed on neck and wrists, and in this splendour she seemed to the excited eyes of her lover like some gorgeous tropical flower blossoming beneath ardent skies.
“Come now,” she said, sinking into a chair. “We have just a few minutes before the others come in, and they are not to be passed in silence.”
“Who are the others?” Neil asked, taking a chair beside her.
She waved a fan of black and yellow feathers from which, true daughter of Spain as she was, she would not part even in winter.
“Oh, all the people you have met here before,” she said, smoothing her dainty gloves. “My father, Jennie Brawn, my uncle and aunt, and Geoffrey Heron.”
As she pronounced the last name Ruth stole a laughing glance at her lover. And, as she had expected, a shadow came over his face, and his colour went and came like that of a startled girl.
“Oh, is he here?” was his comment. “He is a very good sort of fellow.”
“Too good for your taste, Monsieur Othello,” laughed Miss Cass, tapping his flushed cheek with her fan. “I see how it is. You think he is a rival.”
“I don’t think it, I know it. Ruth.”
“Well,” with a coquettish toss of her head, “perhaps he is. But you think, moreover, that I admire him. I do, as one might admire a picture. He is good-looking and very nice—”
“I can’t contradict you,” interrupted the young man.
“But,” she resumed smoothly, “he is not clever, he is not musical, and he is not the most jealous man in the world.”
“Meaning me, I suppose?”
“Of course. Who else should I mean? Come. I won’t have your forehead wrinkled.” She brushed the lines away with her fan. “Smile, Neil, smile, or I won’t speak to you all night.”
He could not withstand her charming humour, and he did smile. But, in spite of all, he shook his head ruefully.
“It’s all very well making a joke of it,” he said. “I know you love me as I love you, but your father—he knows nothing of our attachment.”
“My father? Pooh! I can twist him round my finger.”
“I am not so sure of that. Remember, I have known him many years. He can be hard when he likes, and in this case he will be hard. He is rich, has a position, while I—”
“While you are Neil Webster, the great violinist.”
“Oh that is all right,” he said, dismissing his artistic fame with a nod. “But I mean I do not know who my parents are. I never heard of them.”
“Perhaps, like Topsy, you growed,” Ruth said, for she attached no importance to his speech. “Dear! What does it matter?”
“A great deal to a proud man like your father. Yet he may know my parents since he brought me up. I’ll ask him.”
“Papa brought you up, Neil? I never knew that. I thought he met you at some house in London, and asked you here because he is so fond of music.”
The young man frowned and tugged at his moustache. His colour changed. “I should not have told you,” he said, in a low voice, “but my tongue runs away with me. We have often talked of my early life.”
“Let me see,” said Miss Cass, gravely mischievous. “I think you did say something about having been brought up in the South of England.”
“At Bognor,” he explained. “An old woman, Mrs. Jent, looked after me there. When it became apparent that I had musical talent your father had me taught on the Continent. I appeared first in America, where I was trained under Durand, the great violinist. I made a success and returned to London; then—”
“Then he brought you down here a year ago, and in six months we fell in love with one another, and—”
“I loved you from the first,” he cried.
“How rash!” remarked the girl, pursing her mouth demurely. “But we will say nothing about that. We love now, that is sufficient. But tell me how it was my father first came on the scene of your life? I know much that you have told me: but my father—that is something new.”
“I can remember him ever since I was a young child—from the age of ten.”
“Oh then he did not come to you before that?”
Webster paused, then turning towards her made an extraordinary speech. “I don’t know. I can’t recollect my life before that.”
“Oh, dear me!” cried Miss Cass, not quite taking in the meaning of his words. “What a stupid child you must have been! Why, I recollect all sorts of things which happened when I was five.”
“I don’t mean that exactly,” said Webster, “but my first recollection is my recovery from a long illness, and all my memories date from that time. What came before—where I was born, where brought up—is a blank.”
“What did Mrs. Jent tell you?” cried the girl, now anxious to solve the mystery.
“She told me I was born in America, somewhere near New York, that my father had played in an orchestra, and that my mother had been a singer. I fell ill somewhere about my tenth year, and since then I have seen your father frequently, but I have never questioned him closely. However, I will speak to him to-morrow, and at the same time I will tell him that I love you.
“Then he will consent to our engagement,” Miss Cass said, promptly.
“I wonder!” Again Neil drew his hand across his face. “It does not seem a satisfactory past. I always feel there is some mystery about it.”
“Mystery! What nonsense!” cried Ruth, with pretty disbelief. “I am certain that what Mrs. Jent has told you is true, and the illness made you forget your childish days. My father has been good to you for reasons which he will no doubt tell me. And, since he has always helped you, and has, so to speak, been a father to you, he will not forbid our marriage. Why did you not tell me all this before?”
Webster looked puzzled. “I hardly know,” he murmured. “Something always kept me silent, and I talked, as you remember, more about my career as an artist than anything else.”
“But you never said that my father paid for your studies,” persisted Ruth.
“No, that is quite true. But I kept silent on that point because he asked me to. He is a man who likes to do good by stealth, but he did not ask me to be silent on any other point, so I might have told you all that I have said to-night long ago. I tell you now about your father in spite of his prohibition, as I want you to know everything concerning me. Should we be fortunate enough to gain his consent, I don’t want you to remain in ignorance of his kindness. But shall we ever marry?” he sighed.
“Of course we shall,” said Ruth, imperiously. “I have made up my mind.”
“Ah! but your father has not made up his, Ruth,” he seized her hands, “do you really love me? If you do not—”
“Don’t get excited, Neil. If I did not love you I should tell you so. But I do love you, how, dearly you will never know.”
“But it may be—my music you love,” he urged.
“Conceited boy,” laughed Miss Cass. “Of course I love your music, but I love you for yourself as well. Speak to my father. We will not keep our engagement secret any longer.”
“I feel that we should not have kept it secret at all,” murmured the young man. “After your father’s kindness to me I feel somewhat of a traitor.”
“You can lay the blame on me,” announced the girl, calmly. “I wished it to be kept quiet on account of Aunt Inez. You know what she is—a jealous woman always putting her finger into everyone’s pie. I’m sure she has quite enough to do in looking after her own husband. He is a wicked, gay old man, is uncle Marshall.”
“I don’t think Mrs. Marshall likes me.”
“That is why I kept our secret. She does not like you; why, I do not know. And had she discovered our engagement she would have told my father and put an end to it long ago.”
“Well, perhaps Mr. Cass will put an end to it even now.”
Ruth looked round to see that no one was about, and then dropped a butterfly kiss on his forehead.
“Darling, nothing shall part us. I love you, and you only, you foolish fellow.”
“And are you sure, quite sure, you care nothing about Heron?”
“No, no, of course I don’t. But I will if you insist on putting your arm round my waist. Gracious! Here is Aunt Inez!”
And at this moment an elderly double of Ruth sailed into the winter garden.
Mrs. Marshall had reached the mature age of forty-five, but she was still beautiful. Dark women with hard natures always wear well, and Ruth’s aunt was no exception to the rule. She need not be described here, for she resembled her niece in all particulars save those of youth and the exuberant spirits, which rendered the younger woman so charming. Tall and dignified in her black velvet dress, she advanced to greet Neil, and her greeting was that of the Ice Queen.
“You must have had an unpleasant journey,” she said, in freezing tones.
“Thank you,” said Webster, with a certain reserve. “I had not a very pleasant time. But this makes amends,” and his eyes wandered to Ruth.
Mrs. Marshall drew her thick eyebrows together, for she had long suspected that the two young people were more to each other than ordinary friends. But at that moment Ruth was equal to the occasion. Her attitude towards Neil was one of genial hospitality.
Neither of the young people attempted to carry on the conversation, and Mrs. Marshall was somewhat at a loss. Turning at last to Ruth, she asked sharply where the remainder of the guests were.
“Dinner will be ready in a quarter of an hour,” she went on, consulting a jewelled watch that hung at her girdle. “I hope we shall sit down punctually, for I detest waiting.”
“So do I,” assented her niece, cheerfully. “I am hungry.”
The elder lady took no notice of the flippant reply. “Have you been giving any concerts lately?” she asked, with the supercilious patronage of a rich society woman.
“No, madam,” replied the young man. His frequent contact with foreign artists had accustomed him to this form of address. “The season in London is hardly propitious just now. I am resting.”
“When do you begin again?”
“After the new year. It is possible I may give some concerts in Paris.”
“It might be advisable for you to leave England for a time,” the lady said, drily, looking at Ruth.
“My aunt is thinking of your delicate appearance, Mr. Webster,” interposed the girl, trying to parry the stroke. “This foggy climate does not suit you in her opinion. Is that not so, Aunt Inez?”
“Well, it is not quite what I meant, Ruth.” And she turned to Neil. “Have you any relatives in England. Mr. Webster?” she asked.
The suddenness of the question took away the young man’s breath. It was evident that her brother had not confided in Mrs. Marshall.
“I have no relatives in the world, madam,” he said.
“You remind me of someone,” she went on, fixing her black eyes on him somewhat fiercely. “Do you sing?”
“Not at all,” he answered, wondering more than ever at the oddity of this second question. “I have no voice.”
“Humph!” muttered the lady, and turned away. “I must be mistaken.”
“You are certainly mistaken, madam, in crediting me with any relatives. I am an orphan, a waif, a stranger in the land—”
“And a great violinist,” finished Ruth, glancing defiantly at her aunt. “That surely ought to cover all deficiencies, Mr. Webster.”
“No doubt it does—to musical people,” said the elder lady, coldly.
The young man felt nettled, and more puzzled than ever at her manner, and he was about to ask a leading question when Miss Jennie Brawn, accompanied by Mr. Heron, entered.
“Oh, here you are,” cried Ruth, including both in one gay greeting. “You are late.”
“The sacred mysteries of the toilet have taken up Miss Brawn’s time,” laughed Heron, looking mischievously at the homely face of the girl beside him.
“One must do honour to the season,” replied Jennie. She was dumpy and sandy and wore a pince-nez on her turned-up nose. “How are you, Master?” For she always spoke to Neil Webster in that style. “I am glad to see you. Your lovely and exquisite music never fails to inspire my muse.”
Put into plain prose this speech meant that Miss Brawn wrote poems for drawing-room ballad composers, and that she trusted to music for inspiration. Miss Brawn further occupied herself with writing short stories for children’s Christmas books, and she figured in a popular magazine as “Aunt Dilly.” She had come to regard herself as a literary personage.
“I hope I may be able to inspire you to some I purpose to-night,” Webster said, quietly.
Young Heron turned away in disdain. He was a handsome country squire, possessed of no nerves, and no artistic cravings. He came of an old family, and had an income of four thousand a year. His time was spent in hunting, polo, shooting, fishing, and tearing round the country in a motor-car: and he had not much opinion of the “fiddler-fellow,” as he called Webster. But this was due to the fact that he had noticed Ruth’s predilection for him, not to any fault in the man himself. For Geoffrey loved the girl. He treated Webster with a coldness almost equal to that of Mrs. Marshall. That lady was his firm friend, and was most anxious that he should marry her niece. Seeing now his look of disdain, she was about to speak, when a cheerful voice was heard above the others.
“Oh, here is my husband,” Mrs. Marshall cried, her dark face lighting up. “I was wondering where he had got to.”
“I am here, my dear Inez, here,” and a brisk, stout man darted forward. “Ruth, my dear, you look charming! Miss Brawn, allow me to congratulate you upon your toilet. Mr. Webster, good evening.” His manner was colder but with renewed geniality he shook hands with Geoffrey Heron. “Ha, ha, my boy! a merry Christmas to you!”
The voluble, active little man rattled on, cutting jokes, laughing at his own wit, and paying compliments all round, while his tall, dark wife stood near him listening with a smile on her face. Why Mrs. Marshall should love her husband so much remained ever a mystery to her friends. For he was a fat, beer-barrel of a creature, and possessed neither the looks nor the brains which would be likely to attract as refined and clever a woman as his wife undoubtedly was. Yet Inez adored him, although Mr. Robert Marshall was an elderly Don Juan, fond of the society of pretty girls, and he prided himself no little on his conquests. There was undoubtedly some charm about him which raptured the hearts of women. And Mrs. Marshall, as the lawful proprietor of this universal heart-breaker, took a pride in her proprietorship.
“I hope you will give us some music to-night,” Mr. Marshall said, turning to the musician, and again his manner was freezing. “Your playing is delightful—delightful!”
“I am glad you like it,” Neil said, quietly. “Of course, I am always ready to play here, although, as a rule, I never do so in private houses.”
“Ha! The exclusiveness of a musician.”
“Or the dignity of an artist, Uncle Robert.”
“Quite so, my dear,” said Uncle Robert, turning towards his niece. “But, of course, Mr. Webster will not wrap his talents up in a napkin here.”
“The Master is always willing to oblige his friends,” put in Jennie.
“His friends are much honoured,” added Aunt Inez, with an iron smile.
Mr. Heron made no remark. In shaking hands with Webster he had done his duty. In his own heart the young squire wished the fellow well out of the way, for Ruth looked at him too often and much too kindly.
A diversion was made at this moment by the entrance of the host, a tall, slightly-made man, dark and solemn—a typical Spaniard both in complexion and bearing. To-night he was in a genial mood, and unbent more than usual. Nevertheless, although he shook hands with Neil, he was decidedly colder to him than to the rest of his guests. Indeed, it was apparent that Neil was not a favourite.
“A merry Christmas to all,” Mr. Cass said, bowing. “Perhaps I am rather premature; still, it is better to be early than late.”
“So long as you adopt that plan with your presents, papa, I shall not quarrel with you.”
“You see what a bold daughter I have,” he remarked to Heron. “How would you like to be her father?”
“Not at all, not at all,” replied the young man with a very significant glance in the direction of Ruth—a glance which made Neil’s blood boil.
“Ha, ha!” cackled Marshall. “We know all about that Heron,” and he slapped him on the back. “But come! Dinner—dinner!”
And, indeed, at that moment dinner was announced. Mr. Cass gave his arm to his sister, and to his delight Geoffrey found himself seated beside Ruth; poor Neil had Mrs. Marshall for his companion. Neither of the two relished their juxtaposition. Jennie and Don Juan-in-his-Dotage were happy in the congenial company of each other, and kept the table merry.
The conversation only flickered feebly with Mr. Marshall’s aimless merriment. Neil, annoyed by the coldness of his reception, was considering the advisability of a return to town the next day; he thought he recognised Mrs. Marshall’s hand in the chilly reception of Mr. Cass. For hitherto the merchant had treated him with uniform kindness, and he was puzzled by this new departure.
When the ladies had retired to the winter garden Mr. Cass was more amiable to his guest, the violinist. And the young man, anxious to please, did his best to make himself agreeable. Heron and Marshall were discussing county affairs; so the merchant and young Webster had a quiet talk.
“I am making a good deal of money now,” Neil said. He was recounting his artistic triumphs. “In a few years I shall be a wealthy man.”
“You must let me invest your capital for you. You artistic folks know little about business.”
“I should be more than grateful if you would. I daresay, in time, there will be enough for me to marry on.”
Mr. Cass looked keenly at the speaker from under his thick black brows. “Are you thinking of marrying?” he asked, carelessly. Then, without waiting for an answer: “I would not if I were you.”
“Why not? I am young, strong—”
“And nervous,” finished his host abruptly. “I have peculiar views about marriage, and I do not think you are fitted for it. Take my advice, and keep single. Come,” he started to his feet before the other could reply, “let us join the ladies.”
Webster was annoyed. He had fully intended there and then—since the opportunity seemed to offer itself—to ask Mr. Cass for his daughter’s hand. Plunged in meditation, he did not see that the object of it was beckoning to him with her very useful fan, and Heron, taking advantage of his absorption, secured the vacant seat. Before he could recover himself, Mr. Cass appeared to carry him off to the drawing-room.
“You must play to me,” he said. “Miss Brawn will accompany you; she plays well.”
Jennie did, indeed, play more like a professional than an amateur; and Webster, anxious as ever to please, got his violin. The sounds of the exquisite music which he drew from the wailing strings brought everyone to the drawing-room.
Then Geoffrey Heron sang, and sang well. He chose a typical drawing-room ballad, flat and insipid. The music, of a lilting order, suited the words—Miss Jennie Brawn’s—which were full of mawkish sentiment.
The song was not yet finished when Mr. Marshall suddenly rose and hurriedly left the room. His wife looked after him with an uneasy smile, and shortly afterwards followed, to find him in the winter garden.
“What is the matter?” she asked, sharply, though she knew quite well what it was that had stirred him.
“Jenner,” stammered her husband, lifting up a white face. “Heron’s voice reminds me of his. I have never heard him sing before.”
“Nor will you again if you make such a fool of yourself. What do you mean by rushing out of the room and provoking remark? Jenner is dead and buried these twelve years.”
“Yes; but think how he died,” moaned her husband. “And I was so intimate with him.”
“You were—to your shame and disgrace. Don’t behave so foolishly, Robert. I don’t know what put him into your head in the first place.”
“Heron’s voice is so like his—and the looks of Webster.”
Mrs. Marshall turned as pale as her swarthy skin permitted, and the fan in her hand shook. “What about him?” she asked.
“He is like—”
“I know who he is like,” she interrupted, sharply. “A mere chance resemblance. Come back with me.”
“I am going to bed,” was the only response, and, turning abruptly, Mr. Marshall fled up the stairs, leaving his wife gazing after him with a black frown on her face.
“I wonder if that young man—but no; it’s impossible. Sebastian,” she spoke of her brother, “would not go so far.” And after composing herself with a glass of water she returned to the drawing-room.
By this time Webster was seated beside Ruth, who was showing him a book of photographs. Geoffrey Heron was talking to Mr. Cass, and casting glances at the two young people who were getting on much too well for his liking.
Suddenly the whole room was startled by a cry. It came from Neil, who, with a white face, was staring at a photograph.
“What’s the matter?” asked his host, hurrying towards him. “Are you ill?”
“Who-who-is this?” stammered young Webster, pointing to the portrait of a thick-set man who figured in a group.
“An old clerk of mine,” replied Mr. Cass, trying hard to steady his voice. “That is a photograph of the clerks in my office some twenty years ago. Why should that face disturb you?”
“I—I—don’t know,” was the stammering reply. “Have I seen him in a dream? His face is quite familiar to me.”
“Pooh! Nonsense!” Mr. Cass had by this time recovered his self-command. “The man died long ago you never saw him.”
“But I have seen him,” persisted Neil. “I have seen him in a dream, and”—his voice leaped an octave—“I hate him,” he exclaimed with passion. “I hate him.”
They all stared in amazement. Suddenly Ruth cried “Neil—you are ill—you—”
“Stop!” cried her father, sharply. “He has fainted.”
And as he spoke Neil fell back insensible on the cushions.
Webster recovered from his fainting-fit, but he was weak and ill. It seemed extraordinary that the sight of a pictured face should have had such an influence upon him. He himself could give no explanation save that he had been overcome by a feeling of nausea. So, after an apology, he went at once to bed. The party broke up, and Ruth retired, wondering greatly at her lover’s strange indisposition.
Half an-hour later she was seated before her bedroom fire in dressing-gown and slippers. Having dismissed her maid, she indulged herself in a reverie with which Neil Webster and her chances of obtaining her father’s consent to her marriage with him were mainly concerned.
She was aroused by a knock at the door, and in reply to her invitation Mrs. Marshall entered the room. At the first glimpse of that iron face the girl remembered a slip she had made in addressing her lover by his Christian name.
“You are in love with that violinist,” said the elder woman, sitting down and fixing her niece with a piercing gaze.
“How do you know that?” asked the girl, coolly. She had been half-prepared for the question in spite of Mrs. Marshall’s abrupt entry. In fact, for that very reason she kept on her guard.
“Pshaw!” ejaculated Aunt Inez, with scorn. “Cannot one woman divine the feelings of another? Your eyes were never off the creature to-night.”
“Mr. Webster is not a creature,” interrupted the girl, angrily.
“Mr. Webster!” sneered the other. “Why not Neil? You called him so to-night.”
“Yes,” said Ruth, defiantly, throwing off her mask. “And I shall call him so again. You are right; I do love him. And he loves me.”
“I thought as much. And the end of this mutual passion?”
“Humph! I think your father will have something to say to that.”
“My father will deny me nothing that he thinks will conduce to my happiness.”
“No doubt. But marriage with this violinist creature hardly comes under that heading. You know nothing about him.”
“I dare say my father does,” retorted Ruth.
“Very probably,” said the elder lady, with venom. “In fact, he may know sufficient to forbid you entertaining the preposterous idea of becoming Mrs. Webster. You are a fool, Ruth! Because the man is handsome and a great musician—I deny neither his looks nor his talents—you have developed a romantic passion for him. I should not be doing my duty did I fail to warn your father of this folly. To-morrow Mr. Webster will leave this house for ever.”
“Oh!” cried Ruth with scorn. “And I, no doubt, will marry Geoffrey Heron. I know your plans, Aunt Inez. But I’m not for sale, thank you.”
“Don’t be insolent,” cried Mrs. Marshall, with cold fury. “Mr. Heron loves you.”
“Very probably,” rejoined Miss Cass, carelessly. “But then, you see, I do not love him.”
“Nevertheless, you will become his wife.”
“I would die first.”
“We shall see,” and walked to the door. “I am going to tell your father of this infatuation.”
The girl uttered an exclamation of dismay and sprang forward. But Mrs. Marshall had already closed the door.
“I don’t care,” cried Ruth, clenching her hands. “My love is strong enough to stand against my father’s anger. I love Neil, and I intend to marry him. All the fathers and aunts in the world shall not prevent me.” And in this determined frame of mind she went to bed. Her hot Spanish blood was aflame at the idea of contradiction and dictation. Nor for nothing was Ruth Cass the granddaughter of an Andalusian spit-fire, and as such was her father’s mother traditionally referred to in the family.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Marshall, equally hot-blooded and determined, took her way to the library where she knew her brother frequently remained long after the rest of the household had retired. He was there, sure enough, sitting before the fire and staring into it with an anxious expression. At his sister’s entrance he started from his seat. For Inez was the stormy petrel of the Cass family, and he guessed that her appearance at this unwonted hour indicated an approaching tempest.
“What is it?” he asked, irritably. “Why are you not in bed?”
“Because I have something to say which must be said to-night.”
“Well, what is is?” He dropped back into his chair with a look of resignation.
“Who is that man Webster?”
Her brother’s face grow black. “Always the same woman,” he said, angrily. “You will never leave well alone. Webster is a violinist, and he comes here, at my request, because I admire his talents.”
“I know all that. But who is he?”
“I refuse to tell you.”
“Will you refuse to tell your daughter?” sneered his sister.
Cass looked up quickly, and something of dismay came over his face. “Ruth—what has Ruth to do with him?”
“This much. They are in love with one another; they are secretly engaged. Is that a sufficient excuse for my seeing you to-night?”
“I don’t believe it. Webster would not—”
“Oh, as to that, I don’t know what hold you have over him.”
“Hold!” repeated Mr. Cass, rising and beginning to pace the room in an agitated manner. “What do you mean? I have no hold.”
“In that case you should not have thrown him into the society of an impressionable fool like Ruth. I got the truth out of her to-night, though I had long suspected it. She loves him; and what’s more she will defy you and marry him.”
“That she shall never do:” he said vehemently.
“I tell you she will, and without your consent, unless you can talk her out of this infatuation and marry her to Heron.”
“There will be no need to talk her out of it.” Mr. Cass said, coldly. “Webster will not marry her.”
“Do you mean that he will refuse?”
“I mean that he will refuse,” he replied with decision.
“And under your influence?”
“Under my influence. Yes.”
“Ah!” Aunt Inez drew a long breath, for her suspicions as to the identity of Webster were now confirmed. “Then you intend to use the knowledge of his father’s murder to influence this so-called Webster?”
“What do you mean?” Mr. Cass asked angrily.
“Exactly what I say,” retorted his sister. “I am not a fool, if you are Sebastian, Webster is the son of Jenner, who was murdered at the Turnpike House. I remember how his mother used to bring him here to beg for food. He is just the same nervous creature now as he was then. I could not recollect where I had seen him before until he recognised his father in that photograph—”
“He did not recognize his father.”
“Perhaps he did not know that the face, the sight of which made him faint, was that of his father,” replied Mrs. Marshall. “But his fainting was quite enough for me. I remember Mrs. Jenner; he resembles her in every way. He is her son. Deny it if you can.”
“I do not deny it,” Cass said sullenly. “But, for Heaven’s sake, Inez, leave things alone, or harm will come of it.”
“Why, in Heaven’s name, did you bring him down here?”
“I never thought he would fall in love with Ruth. I brought him out of sheer kindness, because I was sorry for the poor, lonely young fellow. I will arrange the matter. Rest assured he will never marry Ruth.”
“I hope not,” said Mrs. Marshall, preparing to go. “I have done my duty.”
“No doubt, but I wonder you dare speak as you do.”
Her face grew hard as stone. “I am never afraid to speak,” she said, haughtily, “or to act. I have set my heart on a marriage between Ruth and Geoffrey Heron. Webster—as you call him—must go.”
“He shall go,” assented Mr. Cass and, satisfied that all was well, his sister left him. Then he dropped back into his chair with a sigh and gazed again into the fire. He foresaw trouble, which there appeared no means of averting. It was three o’clock before he got to bed. And by that time he had determined how to act.
“Webster shall refuse to marry her,” he said, “and he shall go away. She will soon forget him, and end by becoming Mrs. Heron. With Webster away all will be well.”
Having made his plans, Mr. Cass proceeded to act upon them. He wished to see for himself if Ruth was really in love with Neil, and to learn, if possible, the depth and extent of her feelings. With this scheme in his mind, he was excessively genial to the young man, and at the breakfast-table on the following morning placed him next his daughter—a piece of folly which made Mrs. Marshall open her eyes. Ruth saw her aunt’s look, and, in sheer defiance, allowed herself to behave towards Neil with a somewhat ostentatious friendliness. Naturally enough, Geoffrey Heron became sulky, while Miss Brawn and Mr. Marshall kept up a continuous chatter.
“Well?” Inez said to her brother as they were preparing for church.
“You are right,” he said. “I have no doubt now of her feeling for him.”
“And you will deal with the matter?”
“You can trust me. I know what to do.”
She was satisfied with this assurance, and set off in a devout frame of mind, and, taking Geoffrey with her, showed him very clearly that she was on his side. Indeed, as they returned to the house after the Christmas service, he opened his heart to her. Mrs. Marshall told him that she had seen it all along, and that nothing on her part should remain undone that would aid in bringing about the marriage.
“But she is in love with that fiddler-fellow,” the disconsolate young man said.
“Oh, my dear Mr. Heron,” and Mrs. Marshall smiled, “that is only a girl’s love for the arts. She admires his music, as we all do, and perhaps she shows her appreciation in rather a foolish way. But I cannot believe she loves him.”
“At all events she does not care for me.”
“Don’t be too sure of that. The more she cares for you the more likely she is to try and conceal her feelings.”
“Why, in Heaven’s name?” asked Geoffrey.
Mrs. Marshall laughed. “Because it is the way of women,” she said.
“Do you think, then, that I ought to speak to her?”
“Not just now. Wait till Mr. Webster and his too fascinating violin have taken their departure. Then she will forget this—this Bohemian.”
“Webster isn’t a bad sort of fellow,” Heron said, apologetically. “In spite of his long hair, he is something of a sportsman. He has seen a good deal of the world, too, and he is plucky in his own way. I like him well enough but, of course, I can’t help feeling jealous. You see, I love Ruth—I may call her Ruth to you—so much.”
“There is no need for jealousy. Ruth will be your wife. I promise you that; you have me on your side.”
“I won’t have her forced into the marriage,” he said, sturdily.
Mrs. Marshall brushed the suggestion aside.
Neil’s unhappy state of mind had taken him out into the cold. The quiet thoughts of the morning had given way to perfect torture, and he could in no way account for the change. So far, indeed, as his nerves were concerned, he never could account for anything in connection with them any more than could the physicians whom he had consulted. He was the prey of a highly neurotic temperament which tortured his life, and he had a vivid imagination which made him exaggerate the slightest worries into catastrophes.
An hour’s brisk walking over the crisp snow brought him to a solitary place far from every human habitation. The village had vanished, and Neil found himself in the centre—as it seemed—of a lonely white world arched over by a blue sky. All around the landscape was buried in drifts of snow, which, dazzling white in the sunlight, were painful to look upon. He walked along some disused roads, guiding himself by the hedges which ran along the sides. Shortly the sky began to cloud over rapidly, to assume a leaden aspect; and finally down came the snow.
He turned his face homewards, anxious to get back before the night came on. But as the snow fell thicker he grew bewildered, and began to take the situation seriously. Suddenly, as he trudged along, a building loomed up before him through the fallen flakes; it stood where four roads met, and he guessed at once that it was an old turnpike house. On a nearer approach he saw that it was empty; the windows were broken, the door was half open, and it was fenced in by a jungle of bushes like the palace of the Sleeping Beauty.
“At any rate it will be a shelter,” he thought; “and when the storm clears off I can get home. Only three o’clock,” he added, looking at his watch. “I’ll rest a bit.”
He broke his way through the drifts which were piled up before the door, and stumbled in. The moment his foot touched the threshold a vague feeling of fear seized upon him; the place was quite empty, thick with dust and festooned with cobwebs. There was not a stick of furniture; yet it seemed to him that there should have been a bare deal table, two deal chairs, and a fire in the grate. “Had he ever been here before?” he asked himself. But he could find no answer to the question. Finally, shaking off the feeling of depression which the influence of this house had brought upon him, he lay down on the bare boards and tried to sleep away the time. In this way, by the degree of some mysterious Power, the man was brought back to the room where his father had been murdered twelve or thirteen years before. And he was ignorant of the terrible truth.
The snow continued to fall steadily, but there was no wind. The absolute quiet was soothing to the tired man, and after a time his eyes closed. For a while he slept peacefully as a child then his face grew dark, his teeth and hands clenched themselves, and he groaned in agony. He dreamt—and this was the manner of his dream:
He was still in the bare room, but a fire burnt in the grate. A table and two chairs furnished the apartment, and made apparent the frightful poverty. The dreamer was no longer a man, but a child playing with a toy horse by the fire. Near the table sat a woman sewing. Then a man entered—the man whose face he had seen in the photograph. A quarrel ensued between him and the woman; the child—the dreamer himself—became suddenly possessed of a blind rage against the man. Then all faded in darkness. He was in bed still a child—again in darkness. Then once more he was in the room. The window was open; near it lay the dead body of the man, the blood welling from his heart. At the door stood the woman, a knife in her hand, a look of terror on her face. Then came rain, and mist, and cold, and the dreamer felt that he was falling into a gulf of darkness, never again to emerge into the light of day. But the woman’s face, with blue eyes looking from under a crown of fair hair, still shone like a star in the gloom. It smiled on the dreamer, then it vanished as he awoke with a cry.
Neil Webster sprang to his feet with the perspiration beading his forehead and shaking in every limb. The dream had been so vivid! Was it but a dream? Here was the room, here the open window, and here, where he had seen the dead body of the man, black stains of blood marked the floor. He started back with a cry as he saw it all, and flung himself out into the snow which still kept falling in thick flakes. Away from that house he ran, feeling that he had recovered the memory of his childhood. His father had been murdered. By whom? That was the question he asked himself as he sped onwards through the snow.
“Oh Heavens!” he kept murmuring. “What does it all mean? Why was I sent to that house to learn this terrible truth? Why? Why?”
But the snow fell ever more thickly, and the young man fled along the road. In the same way had his mother fled with him in her arms, fled through the mists to escape the horror of the Turnpike House.
Jennie Brawn sat in her bedroom with an agonised took on her face, with inky fingers and tumbled hair. Miss Brawn was courting the Muse.
As yet she had had but ill success, for the Muse was not in a kindly mood.
“If, dear, thou should’st unhappy be, Remember me, Remember me!” murmured the poetess. “I think that will do for a refrain. But how am I to begin? Ah!” with a sudden inspiration. “Spring in the first verse, summer and roses in the second, then winter and dying for an effective finish.” And she began to thresh out the first lines.
“The spring is flowering all the world—”
“Humph!” she broke off. “That sounds as though spring were a baker! I must try again.”
But before she could think of an alternative line the door burst open and Ruth rushed in violently, all on fire with excitement. “Jennie! Jennie! she cried, plumping down on the bed. I’ve had a proposal!”
“Oh!” Jennie, quite phlegmatic, laid down her pen. “Geoffrey Heron has you to be his wife?”
“That is the plain English of it, I suppose,” Ruth said, impatiently. “Of course I said ‘No.’“
“Of course you did,” remarked the prosaic Miss Brawn. For prosaic she was in ordinary matters, in spite of her poetic gift. “You are in love with the Master?” She put this in the form of a query.
“Haven’t I told you a thousand times!” cried Miss Cass. “I love him as dearly as he loves me.”
“That’s a pity.”
“Why is it a pity?” asked the girl, her face flushing.
“Oh. I know you don’t like the truth,” Jennie went on, calmly. “But I always tell it, even when it is disagreeable. I don’t think you are the kind of wife to suit the Master. You are too impetuous, too fond of admiration. You would never be content to take a back seat.”
“I should think not!” cried Miss Cass, indignantly. “Catch me taking a back seat! I want to be admired, to have an ample income and a big position. I am an individual, not a piece of furniture.”
“Marry Mr. Heron, then,” advised Jennie, “and you will have all you wish for. He belongs to a good county family, and can give you a position in society. He has a handsome income, and with your own dowry as well you would be rich.”
“But I love Neil,” persisted Ruth, piteously.
“Oh, no, you don’t. You think you love him, but you are only attracted by his charm of manner.”
“I believe you want to marry him yourself,” cried Ruth, pettishly.
Jennie flushed, for, unknown to herself, Ruth had touched upon Miss Brawn’s romance. She did love Webster, and she would have given many years of her life had that love been returned. But she saw no chance of this, and, like a sensible girl, crushed the passion in its birth.
“I never cry for the moon,” she said, quietly “and there is no chance that the Master, who loves beautiful things, will ever fall in love with plain me. But if I were to marry him I should be prepared to make myself his echo—the piece of furniture you so scornfully allude to. Believe me, my dear, it is better in every way that you should reconsider your answer to Mr. Heron.”
“I won’t! I don’t deny that I like Geoffrey very much indeed, and he took his rejection, so kindly, poor fellow, that I did feel very like changing my mind. But Neil—Neil!” Ruth clasped her hands and raised her expressive eyes. “Oh, I can’t give him up.”
“Perhaps your father will make you.”
“No, my father can make me do nothing I have not set my heart on. And when it comes to the point, I’ll defy my father.”
“That is wrong.”
“No, it isn’t. I have to live with my husband, whoever he may be, and I have a right to choose him for myself. I choose Neil.”
“Humph!” murmured Jennie, shaking her rough head. “You say that now while all is smooth; but if trouble came, and the Master was proved to be an ineligible parti, you would your mind.”
“You shall see. Besides, what trouble could come?”
“I merely suggest it. Trouble might come, you know. Life is not entirely sunshine; clouds will arise. Well, when they do, we shall see if you really love the Master. At present it is merely a girl’s fancy.”
“Why do you talk to me as if you were a grandmother?” cried Ruth, half offended.
“I am young in years but old in experience,” said Miss Brawn, with a sigh. “We are nine in our family, and father, as a Civil Service clerk, has only a small income. I have a lot of trouble to make both ends meet, with no mother to help. They all rely on my brain and my fingers, and the responsibility makes me sober.”
“Poor dear,” said Ruth, kissing the freckled cheek. “I wonder you write poetry with all your anxieties.”
“I have to, and when you have to you do,” replied Jennie, somewhat incoherently. “I make a very good income out of my verse, though what I get is not what it ought to be. Why, some of my songs have made thousands of pounds, but of course the publisher and composer share that between them. I only get ten guineas or so.”
“What a shame!”
“Yes, isn’t it. However, I don’t want to talk about myself, except to thank you for giving me such a perfectly lovely Christmas. As to your refusal of Mr. Heron, I am sure you are wrong.”
“I don’t think so. But if I were it would be perfectly easy to whistle him back. At present I intend to marry Neil, and he is going to ask my father’s consent to-night, or to-morrow. If there is trouble you shall see how I stand up for him. You write romances, Jennie, I act them.” And with a rustle of silken skirts Ruth vanished.
Jennie sighed as she once more took up her pen. It did seem hard that this girl should have all the money, all the looks, and the chance of becoming the Master’s wife. Miss Brawn was not an envious person, as we have said, but she could not help grudging Ruth the favours of Fortune which she seemed to value so little.
The Christmas dinner passed off that night in the orthodox fashion. Mr. Cass made the usual speech; the usual compliments were exchanged, and the usual reminiscences indulged in. It was quite a family gathering, save that Mr. Cass’s eldest daughter was absent. She was married, and had elected to stay with her husband in London. As a matter of fact, Mrs. Chisel—such was her name—could not approach her sister in the matter of looks, and being of a jealous nature did not like—to use an expressive, if somewhat vulgar, phrase—to take a back seat. Ruth was always the recipient of all the admiration and all the attention, so her sister preferred to stay in a circle wherein her own looks could ensure her a certain amount of queendom. Mr. Cass referred to her absence, drank her health, and considered that he had done his duty.
But he had yet another duty to perform towards his unmarried daughter. It was his intention to speak to Neil Webster that night, and, once and for all, put an end to any hopes that young man might cherish with regard to Ruth. She was the apple on the topmost bough which he could not hope to gather; and it would be as well to inform him of this fact at once. Mr. Cass was, in the main, a kindly man, and, for reasons best known to himself, was well disposed towards Neil. He hated to make trouble at this season of peace and goodwill. But the imminence of the danger forced him on. Besides, he had given a promise to his sister Inez, and he knew very well she would allow him no rest until he had done what she desired.
“How dull you are to-night,” whispered Ruth to Neil in the winter garden after dinner. “What is the matter?”
“Nothing. I went out for a walk to-day and I am rather tired.”
“Were you caught in the snow?”
“Yes, but I managed to get home all right, as you see. I sought shelter in the old Turnpike House.”
Mrs. Marshall, who had seated herself close at hand, started at the words. “The Turnpike House!” she said, anxiously. “Did you go in there.”
“Yes, Mrs. Marshall. It was my refuge from the storm.”
“Strange!” she murmured, thinking of the crime which had taken place there so many years before—the crime in which the parents of this young man had been concerned. “It has not a good reputation, that house,” she added.
Webster fixed his eyes on her. “How is that?” he said.
“Oh, don’t you know?” cried Jennie, who had come up to them. “A dreadful murder was committed there! A man was killed, and the house is said to be haunted.”
“A man was killed?” repeated Neil, his breath coming quickly. “And who killed him?”
Before Jennie could make reply Mr. Cass, who had been listening uneasily, interposed sharply: “Don’t talk of murders, Miss Brawn. The subject is not fit for Christmas. Come and play for Mr. Webster.”
“Thank you,” the young man said. “I do not think I can play this evening.”
There was a murmur of disappointment, but Neil was firm. “I am not very well,” he said, wearily. “My nerves again.”
“Ah!” remarked Mrs. Marshal, in a low voice. “That comes of going to the Turnpike House.”
“Hush!” rebuked her brother under his breath. “Hold your tongue, Inez, and leave me to deal with this.”
As there was to be no music, Jennie and Mr. Marshall set to work to amuse the guests, and even Heron took part in the games. But after a time Ruth declared that she could play no longer and abruptly went away. Perhaps Geoffrey’s reproachful looks were too much for her equanimity. At all events she sought the empty drawing-room and sat down at the piano. In a few minutes she was joined by Neil.
“Oh! are you here?” she said, coldly enough. “What is the matter?”
“Nothing. I have come to have a few words with you.”
“It is rather late in the day, Neil. You were out ail the afternoon, and I was left to Mr. Heron.”
“I did not feel well,” he said. “But I daresay you were happy with him.”
“Indeed I was not. Oh. Neil!” she murmured, looking up at him with eyes shining like stars. “He proposed to me to-day and I refused him.”
“My darling,” he cried, and then drew back. He was thinking of his dream and wondering if he had the right to hold this girl to her engagement. Ruth misunderstood him and pouted.
“I thought you would be pleased.”
“I am pleased. I want you all to myself. All the same, perhaps, you do well to marry Heron.”
“Then you don’t love me?” she burst out, with wounded pride.
“Love you?” he repeated, fiercely. “Heaven knows I love you more than my own soul. But I am beginning to think that I am not a fit husband for you. My position is so insecure, my nerves are in such a wretched state. Then again, your father may object. Indeed, I think he will.”
“Why not ask him before you make so certain?” cried the girl, eagerly.
“I will do so to-night, but I tell you frankly, I am prepared for a refusal.”
“Oh, no, there will be no refusal. I am sure he will not put any bar between us. Dear Neil, do you not took so sad. I am certain all will be well, and we shall be married sooner than you think.”
“Well, it all depends upon your father.”
“Indeed, it all depends upon me.” Then she rose from the piano. “If you were a true lover, Neil, you would not make all these objections. If you do not care for me I shall marry Mr. Heron.”
“Ah! you like him, then?” cried the young man with a pang.
“I like him, but I—love you!” whispered Ruth, and dropping a kiss on his forehead she fled away before he could stop her.
But when alone again she began to wonder whether she really did love him. He was so cold and strange in manner that he sometimes chilled her, and although he persisted in declaring that he loved her, she could not help feeling that something had come between them. What it was she could not think, and his refusal to explain piqued her. She after all, had a right to share his secrets, and he declined to trust her. She was a very good-hearted girl and affectionate; but she thought a great deal of herself, for flattery and adulation had been her portion all her life. Jennie had divined rightly. What she felt for Webster was not so much love for the man as admiration for the artist.
“Wait till he speaks to my father,” she said to herself. “If he should consent, Neil will be once more the affectionate fellow he was.”
That night came young Webster’s opportunity of speaking to Mr. Cass. They found themselves alone in the smoking-room somewhere after eleven. Mrs. Marshall had whisked her husband off, intimating that she wished to speak to him; and as a matter of fact she desired to tell him of her discovery as to Ned’s identity. The communication, she knew, would not be a pleasant one for him to hear from his association with the young man’s father. Besides which, it is not always agreeable to remember that you have been the friend of a man who has been murdered.
Heron also had left the smoking-room early, so the two who were so desirous of speaking to each other had their wishes gratified.
“You are not in spirits to-night, Neil,” the elder man, who always addressed him thus when they were alone. And why not, seeing that Webster was his protege?
“No,” was the gloomy reply. “I do not feel satisfied with my position.”
“And why not? You have found fame and money, and—”
“I know all that,” interrupted Neil, “but I am thinking of my parents. I do not know who they were.”
Mr. Cass was quite prepared for this. Indeed, it was not the first time the young man had asked him! and his answer now was the same as he had always made. “I have told you a dozen times that your parents were Americans and died in the States. I knew them intimately, and so was the means of bringing you to England. There is nothing for you to worry about.”
“Why cannot I recollect my childhood?” persisted Neil.
“Because you had a severe illness which affected your memory.”
“Then there is nothing in my past that I need to be ashamed of?”
“Nothing,” if you mean as regards your parents. “As to yourself, my dear Neil, your life has been most exemplary. I am proud of you.”
“Are you sufficiently proud of me to let me be your son-in-law?”
Mr. Cass tugged at his long moustache. “I cannot truthfully say that I should like that,” he said. “Does Ruth care for you?”
“Yes; we want to marry—with your consent.”
“That you shall never have.”
“I don’t approve of the marriage. For your own sake, don’t ask the reason.”
Neil Webster started to his feet with a look of horror. “Ah!” he cried. “Then the dream was true. My father was murdered!”
Mr. Cass rose also pale and agitated. “In Heaven’s name who told you that?” he cried.
“I dreamt it in the Turnpike House—”
“The very place,” Mr. Cass said, under his breath.
“It was a dream, and yet not a dream,” continued Neil. “Myself I believe it was a recovery of the memories which you say were destroyed by illness. Ah! Now I know why you will not let me marry your daughter. It is because I am the son of a murdered man!”
“No,” was the deliberate answer. “You may as well know the truth. Your mother is now in prison for the murder of her husband—of your father!”
Knowing what he did of Neil Webster, Mr. Cass quite prepared to see him faint upon hearing the terrible truth. But to his unconcealed astonishment the young man, beyond losing his colour, remained unmoved.
“I should like to hear the whole story, please,” he said, quietly.
Mr. Cass was almost frightened by his calmness. “A glass of wine—”
“No. I want nothing. You have told me the worst. What remains to be said can affect me but little. The whole story, please, from the beginning. When I am in possession of the facts I may be able to see some way of saving my mother from her unjust fate.”
“Her unjust fate!” repeated Mr. Cass, with a flush. “Why, man alive, she had all the justice the English law could give.”
“Did she admit her guilt?
“She neither admitted nor denied it. Not a word would she say, good or bad, for or against. Throughout the trial she maintained an absolute silence, and went to prison uncomplainingly.”
“To my mind that looks likes innocence.”
The merchant moved restlessly in his chair. “Do not force me to say unpleasant things,” he remarked, irritably.
“I want you to say exactly what you feel,” retorted Neil. “I am here to hear the truth, however disagreeable. It is only by knowing all that I can help my mother. If you will not tell me, then I must see the lawyers who were concerned in the case. I don’t think they will mind giving me pain. But if you are the friend I take you to be, you will speak out.”
His self-possession was so much at variance with his usual demeanour that Mr. Cass stared.
“If you will have it, then,” he said roughly, “I believe your mother was guilty. Had there been the slightest chance of proving her innocence, she would have done so for your sake.”
“Ah! my poor mother!” Nell’s face grew soft and tender, and a look of deep affection came into his eyes. “My mother—how she loved me!”
“Can you remember her love?” asked Mr. Cass, doubtfully.
“Now I can.” He raised his hand to his forehead. “It all comes back to me—all. That dream has given me the key to the past, and the memories of my childhood rush back upon me. I know how I hated my father”—his face grew dark—“and I know, also, how badly he treated my mother. If she killed him, she did right.”
Mr. Cass shuddered. “I quite believe all that,” he said, drily. “You were born hating your father, and your mother taught you to look upon him as your worst enemy. That you should deem her action in killing him a right one is exactly what you would believe, having regard to your childish feelings towards him. Indeed, I believe that had you grown up while your father was still in existence you would have killed him yourself.”
“Very probably,” remarked Neil, just as drily. “Indeed. I did try!”
“What? I don’t understand!”
“I daresay not, seeing my mother kept silence from the time of her arrest. But I remember that on the night my father was murdered at the Turnpike House I flew at him with a knife. I forgot all that took place after that, except that I was in the room and saw his dead body lying under the open window—the open window,” he repeated, quietly, and with significance. “Do not forget that, Mr. Cass.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that someone else might have killed him. The window was open. Why should it have been open unless the true murderer had gained entrance by it, and had fled through it when his deed was accomplished? I do not believe that my mother is guilty, in spite of her silence. She has some reason for holding her tongue.”
“I can’t think what the reason can be,” replied Mr. Cass, wearily, leaning his head on his hands. “For love of you she would have chosen to remain free; yet when a word—according to you—might have saved her, she held her tongue and risked the gallows.”
For the first time Neil Webster shuddered. “How was it she escaped that?” he asked, in a low voice.
“The case was so extraordinary that a petition to the Home Secretary was got up, and he commuted the sentence to one of imprisonment for life. Yet I must tell you the general opinion was that she was guilty. She was pitied for all that when the story of her husband’s brutality came out in the evidence.”
“And my father?” said Neil, impatiently raising his head. “Tell me more.”
Mr. Cass hesitated a moment.
“Jenner deserved his fate. He treated his wife abominably; she had been left to starve. After having been put to many shifts—”
Webster raised his hand with a cry of pain. “I remember; don’t!” he said. “My poor mother! I can recall in some degree—that is, so far as a child could have understood—our terrible life in London. Then we came down here.”
“Yes, I did what I could for your mother, for I had always respected her very much. But she was a difficult person to manage; and she refused my help on the ground that it was charity.”
“So it was,” Neil said between his teeth. “And I have lived on your charity ever since!”
“My dear lad”—Mr. Cass laid his hand on the young man’s arm—“don’t be so thin-skinned. Whatever I have done, you have more than repaid me by your success. And if you feel that you cannot bring yourself to accept the money I have spent upon your education, why, then, pay me a sum to be agreed upon between us. Surely that will set your mind at rest.”
Neil shook his head. “The obligation remains the same,” he said, gloomily. “I shall ever remain grateful to you, and I will repay the money. I know that whosoever else may be a scoundrel—and the world is full of them—you, at least, are a good man.”
Mr. Cass winced as Neil held out his hand. But the feeling passed away in a moment, and he did not refuse the proffer of friendship.
“The best of us are bad,” he said, with a sigh, “but I do my best to behave as a man should. However,” he added, glancing at the clock, “it is growing late. Will you hear the rest of this story to-morrow morning?”
“No,” and Neil settled himself resolutely in his chair. “Now that I have heard so much I want to know all. My mother lived in the Turnpike House, did she not?”
“Yes; it was a tumble-down old place, and belonged to Heron’s father.”
“To Heron’s father?” Neil made a wry face, for he did not like the idea.
“She paid no rent for it,” continued Mr. Cass, taking no notice of the interruption. “Heron refused to accept any. Then she did sewing for several people in the village. My sister, Mrs. Marshall, who was then unmarried, gave her work, and sometimes food—when she would accept it, which was not often. In this way, then, she lived, and found all her joy in you!”
“I have a faint memory of that terrible life,” said Neil, musingly. “My poor mother, with her bright hair and blue eyes, always so kind and tender to me. Then that night—ah! how it all comes back to me! The dream—the dream!” and in his agitation he rose to his feet. “It was a shadow of the past—that dream. I was playing with a toy horse by the fire; my mother was sewing. Then he came—my father. I remember running at him with a knife, and afterwards—nothing.”
“Is that the very last of your memories?” asked Mr. Cass, watching him keenly, and with an uneasiness he found it hard to disguise.
Neil Webster sat down and passed his hand again across his eyes with a weary gesture. “Yes—no—that is, I remember the dead body with the blood—and afterwards the cold—the mist—the—the—” He made a gesture as though brushing away the past. “I remember nothing more!”
“The cold and the mist are easily explained,” Mr. Cass said after a pause. “Your mother, after the murder, took you in her arms and fled from the scene of her crime.”
“Don’t say that!” cried the young man. “Give her the benefit of the doubt.”
Mr. Cass smiled sadly. “Unfortunately, there was no doubt, my dear boy. Your father was killed with a buck-handled knife which had been used to cut bread, and—”
“The knife—the knife!” muttered Neil, straining his memory. “Yes, it was with a buck-handled knife I ran at him!”
“The knife was your mother’s, and was found beside the body of the dead man. Undoubtedly your father came back after his release from prison, and insulted the woman he had ruined—”
“I can’t bear it—not a word more of that. Only the fact.”
“Well, there must have been a quarrel, and your mother—goaded beyond herself, no doubt—struck at your father with the knife which was lying on the table.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because the table was spread for supper, and the knife was of the kind that is used to cut bread.”
“I remember something about eating,” muttered Neil. “Go, on, please.”
“The murder was discovered next morning by a woman who had gone to the Turnpike House to get some work Mrs. Jenner was doing for her. She gave the alarm, and suspicion fell at once upon your mother. The police were informed, and search was made. Your mother was found five miles away, under a hedge, insensible, with you in her arms. She had succumbed to cold and exhaustion, but she still lived.”
“Would she had died altogether!” said Neil, sadly.
“You were in a high fever, raving mad.”
“What did I rave about?”
“About the dead man and the blood; and you frequently cried out to your mother to kill him. That had something to do with bringing the crime home to her.”
“Cruel—cruel, to take a child’s ravings as evidence!”
“That was not done,” said Mr. Cass sharply. “The law treated the prisoner”—Neil winced—“perfectly fairly. But the suspicion was instilled into the hearts of those who had heard your words.”
“She didn’t deny the charge?”
“She denied nothing—hardly opened her mouth, in fact. I got a lawyer to her—I saw her myself and implored her to speak but she obstinately refused. All she asked was, that I should take charge of you, which I promised I would do.”
Neil looked up sharply, and asked the pointed question “Why?”
“I don’t think you should ask me that,” Mr. Cass said, somewhat pained. “Have I not proved myself a friend to you? Was it not natural that I should feel sympathy for a girl who had been a member of my household. Your mother, remember, had been governess to my eldest daughter? And your father had been in my employment. Why should you suspect me of any motive save that of sorrow for the ruin of a woman—whom I had liked as a bright girl—and pity for a helpless child?”
“Forgive me if I am wrong.” Neil shook hands with much penitence. “But I am suspicious now of all the world. Heaven help me! Go on.”
“There is very little more to tell. I took charge of you as I had promised, and I placed you with Mrs. Jent, who is an old servant of mine. You were seriously ill, and were not expected to live. Seeing that your mother was in gaol and your father dead by her hand, I used to think sometimes that it would have been better for you to have died.”
“I’m glad I did not,” cried Neil with vehemence. “I have lived to vindicate my mother’s innocence.”
“You are not likely to where others have failed,” Mr. Cass said, sadly. “However, although I thought it would better for yourself and for all concerned that you should not recover, I did not feel justified in letting you slip through my fingers. I got the best doctors to see you, and they managed to pull you round after months of suspense. But the memory of your childhood, up to the time of your illness, was gone from you for ever. It was just as well, seeing how terrible that childhood had been. I made no attempt to revive your dormant memory, and I warned Mrs. Jent not to say anything either. We supplied you with a fictitious past.”
“I know,” said Neil, with a faint smile. “The American parents! I believed in them until I went to New York. Then I made enquiries; but as I could find no trace of them, and could hear nothing about them, I began to doubt their existence. If it had not been for my relating that dream, you would not have informed me of the truth.”
“No,” Mr. Cass said, honestly. “I would not, seeing what pain it must have inflicted upon you. I should have simply requested you to forget Ruth, and go away; the rest I would have spared you.”
“I thank you for your forbearance,” Neil said, politely, but coldly. “But Providence knew that I had a duty to perform, and so gave me back the past. Oh, it was no miracle!” he went on, with a shrug. “I am not a believer in the supernatural, as you know. I can see how it all came about. Can’t you?”
“No; I confess that I am amazed that the dream should have been so accurate, or, indeed, that it should have come to you at all.”
“Dreams, I have heard, are only the impressions of our waking hours in more confused forms,” said Webster, quietly. “And as I had received no injury to the brain itself, my memory was only dormant, not destroyed. It was awakened by the sight of the face in that photograph.”
“Ah! so it was,” Mr. Cass said. “And the sight recalled your instinctive hatred for the man. That was why you fainted.”
“Exactly; and no doubt, all that night, my brain was busily running back through the years. Then I found the Turnpike House.”
“What took you there?”
Neil shrugged his shoulders. “It might have been accident; but I do not think it was. My own belief is that the awakening of memory drew me there, and when I got into that room all came back to me in my sleep. However, I know the truth now, so nothing else matters. Henceforth I devote myself to proving the innocence of my mother.”
“You will never do that,” Mr. Cass said, decisively.
“You think so because you believe her guilty.”
“I believe her wrongs drove her mad, and that it was in a fit of madness she killed her husband. Yes.”
“Well, I don’t agree with you,” Neil said. “The first thing I intend to do is to see her. Where is she?”
Cass wrote down the information on a slip of paper, and threw it across the table to the young man. “But I think you are starting on a wild-goose chase,” he said. “Take my advice, and leave the matter alone. You are Neil Webster, the violinist. You have no connection with crime!”
“No, I am Gilbert Jenner, the son of a murdered man and of a woman wrongfully accused. I loved your daughter, Mr. Cass—I love her still—but I give her up. I will not see her again. To-morrow morning I leave this house for ever!”
“No,” said his host, with decision. “If you intend to make an attempt to prove your mother’s innocence, I have a right to help you, and to know your plans. So be it. Do your appointed work.” He offered his hand. “As to Ruth—”
Neil interrupted him. “She is a dream of the past. My new life has nothing to do with love—but with revenge.”
The next morning Neil Webster was conspicuous by his absence. His excuse was that he had been suddenly recalled to town on business. Mrs. Marshall was not deceived, and on the first available opportunity she drew her brother aside.
“You have got rid of him, I see,” she remarked, with evident satisfaction. “But Ruth will not submit quietly to all this. In the first place, she will refuse to believe that he has given her up; such a sacrifice is beyond the conception of a pretty girl. In the second—”
“Wait a bit, Inez. Let us dispose of Number One first of all. Ruth will be convinced that Webster has given her up, for the simple reason that he has left a letter telling her so.”
“Ah! Then that is why she has not come down to breakfast. I daresay she is weeping and storming in her room. I’ll go and—”
“No, no. Leave her alone. If you go and annoy her, there is no knowing what she will do. You know how headstrong—”
“You should have trained her better,” said his sister.
“All the training in the world will not tame our mother’s blood in her—or in you, for the matter of that!”
“I know I am strong-minded, if that is what you mean.”
“Well, if you like to call obstinacy strongmindedness, there is no need to argue. No doubt we both mean the same thing—”
“With a difference,” finished Mrs. Marshall.
Jennie Brawn was loud in her lamentations when she came to hear of the Master’s departure. She went at once to Ruth, and found that young lady far from tearful, pacing her bedroom in a towering rage. Jennie paused at the door; she saw that Ruth had a pencil-scribbled note in her hand.
“What is the matter?” asked Miss Brawn, amazed at this exhibition of temper. Ruth pounced upon her.
“Matter enough!” she cried, flourishing the letter. “Here is Neil gone to town in the most unexpected manner—without even an excuse to me! Read this, Jennie.”
“He says he is called away on business,” said that young lady, when she had mastered the contents of the note. “Well, that is, no doubt, the truth!”
“The truth! Pshaw! You don’t know men, my dear. They tell lies in the most plausible manner. But Neil cannot deceive me! All I want to know is who the woman is!”
Miss Brawn’s freckled face grew crimson. “You have no right to say such a thing as that! It is not like a lady!”
“I am a woman before I am a lady,” cried Ruth. “And a jealous woman at that. Don’t I know how all the creatures swarm after him just because he is handsome and famous! He has told me all sorts of things about the notes and the presents they send him, and—”
“It was not nice of him to do that,” remarked Jennie, for once blaming her idol.
“Well,”—Ruth dropped into a chair fairly worn out by her rage—“it was not his fault. I worried him into telling me everything. He did not want to—I must do him that justice.”
“How did you worry him into betraying others?”
“You are a woman and ask that? Oh, I forgot—you are not in love—or rather, no man is in love with you. Why, you stupid little creature if a man loves a woman, he’ll do anything she tells him. Besides, he did not mention names; he only told me that he got heaps of presents and letters. But I want to know who the woman is he has gone up to meet.”
“I daresay there is no woman.”
“My dear Jennie, you don’t know men.”
“Mr. Webster is devoted to you.”
“So he says. Humph!”
“Ruth! Why, he shows it in every way.”
“All put on!” cried Miss Cass, determined not to be pacified. “But I’ll get the truth out of my father. I hear from the servants that Neil was with him in the library for three hours last night.”
“Then that is the explanation. Your father has refused his consent to the marriage, and the Master has gone away.”
“Nonsense! Do you think he would give me up like that, and leave me so cold a letter? No. There is something else—a woman, I am sure. But I’ll get the truth out of my father. I have as wild a temper as Aunt Inez when I am roused. I can be nice enough, Jennie, as you know, but, oh, how nasty I can be when I make up my mind!”
“You have evidently made up your mind now,” said Miss Brawn, who had known all about Ruth’s temper when they were at school together. And at this juncture, judging from previous experience, she considered it prudent to retire, before she herself could be brought under the harrow.
Ruth, left alone, did not rage any more. She put on her prettiest dress, bathed her eyes, which were reddened with tears, and went down to try and cajole her father.
Mr. Cass was in the library; and one look at her face was enough to tell him why she had come. He argued, however, from her studied amiability, that she was in a particularly aggravating mood. But long experience of his mother and sister had taught him how to deal with this sinister sweetness. He was immediately on his guard; for, as he well knew, if the truth was to be got out of him, his daughter was the one to get it.
“Dear papa,” she said, sinking into a chair beside the desk and patting his hand. “I am in great trouble.”
“I know,”—determined that he would carry the war into the enemy’s camp. “Mr. Webster was with me last night.”
Ruth started to her feet with a tragic expression on her face. “And you have forbidden our marriage!” she cried, and her air was that of a Siddons.
“What else did you expect?” her father asked. “Neil is a good fellow, but he is not the son-in-law I want. And, indeed, I should be sorry, for his own sake, to see him marry you. He is too gentle and kind. What you want, my young lady, is a master.”
“No man shall ever master me,” his daughter said, calmly. “And has he given me up without a word?”
“No; he said a good many words. But I am adamant, so far as this ridiculous marriage is concerned. He accepted the inevitable after some fighting, and took his departure this morning before you were up. I see,” he added, glancing at the note in her hands, “that he has written to you.”
“Yes.” Ruth gave it to him. “But it explains nothing.”
“It explains all there is to explain,” said Mr. Cass. “Let the matter drop now. Neil has gone away on business; so we will say nothing about his love for you. You’ll soon get over it.”
“Indeed I shan’t!” sobbed the girl, now on the tearful tack. “It is cruel of you to send him away when I love him so. I don’t believe he gave me up because you refused. There is something else.”
“There is nothing else.” Mr. Cass’s tone was decisive.
But Ruth’s fine ear caught something of hesitation in his voice, and she dropped her handkerchief from her eyes with a triumphant air. “I knew there was something else. What is it—something about his parents?”
Mr. Cass started and changed colour at this chance shot. “Good Heavens, child! Who told you anything about his parents?” he said; and no sooner had he said it than he repented his rashness. For thereby she had gained an advantage which she would not be slow to seize.
“Why,” she said, very slowly, with her eyes fixed on her father’s perturbed face, “it was just this way. Neil told me all about his parents having died in America, and how you had brought him up at Bognor.”
“Did he tell you nothing else?” Mr. Cass was beginning to feel that she was too much for him.
This was an opportunity which the girl was too clever to lose. “Well, he did not tell me everything,” she said. “He couldn’t, you know.”
“I’m glad he had that much sense,” Mr. Cass said, with relief.
“Ah, papa, now I have caught you!” cried Miss Cass, clapping her hands. “I know nothing, then, except that you brought him up. But you admit there is something else which has stopped the marriage?”
He saw that he had been over-reached. “I can tell you nothing,” he said.
“Very well, papa,” she said, turning to go, “I’ll write to Neil and ask him to tell me the truth.”
“He won’t tell you.”
“Oh, yes, he will. He loves me, and I can get any thing out of him.”
“Girl! Ruth,”—her father seized her arm—“if you can be sensible, do not write to Webster. He has gone out of your life of his own free will.”
“I will never—never believe that!” and she flushed angrily. “Do you think I don’t know when a man loves me or not? I will see him and learn the truth.”
“I forbid it,” and Ruth saw that her father was very angry. With the cunning of a woman who is determined to get her way, she suddenly yielded, feeling that she could best gain her ends under the mask of peace.
“Very well, papa,” she said, with a few tears; “but it is very hard on me. I love him, and you have sent him away—for no fault of his own, I’m sure.”
“He is not in fault—he is unfortunate—”
“In his parents?” she asked.
“Amongst other things,” was the reply. “My dear child”—he took her hand—“if you are wise, you will leave things as they are. I should like you to marry Heron; but if you do not wish it, I will not press the matter. As to Neil, put him out of your head, once and for all. He can never be your husband! Now go.” And he pushed her gently outside the library door.
“What on earth can it be?” thought the girl, as she took her way to the winter garden. “Has Neil committed some crime, or has—”
She had reached this point in her meditations when she suddenly came upon Mr. Marshall. He was pale, and had a look of alarm on his face. When he saw her he gave a startled cry.
“Why, good gracious, uncle, what is the matter?” asked Ruth.
“Oh, it’s you!” replied Marshall. “I thought—never mind what I thought. I’m upset.”
“Oh, Aunt Inez has been giving you a bad time,” said the girl, with some amusement. She knew very well what a tight hand that lady kept over her elderly Don Juan; and when her uncle nodded, she continued: “I am upset myself, uncle. He has gone away!”
“Are you talking of Neil Webster?” he asked, with an obvious effort.
“Yes; did you know how much I cared for him, uncle—and—what’s the matter?”
For Mr. Marshall, with an ejaculation, had jumped up and was looking at her with an expression of dismay. “Nothing is the matter,” he gasped, and it was quite evident that he was not speaking the truth. “But I must confess I did not know that you cared for him. Ridiculous! Why, he can never marry you.”
“So papa says,” replied Ruth, somewhat disconsolately. “He has refused his consent.”
“Quite right—quite right. Ruth, put the ocean between yourself and that man; but never have anything to do with him. It is”—he looked—round and approached his lips to her ear—“it is dangerous. Don’t say I told you!” And before she could recover from her astonishment he had slipped away with an alacrity surprising in so heavy a man.
Ruth remained standing, utterly perplexed by the manner of her usually careless and good-natured uncle. “I wonder if he knows why Neil has gone away?” she thought. “I will find out the reason,” she went on to herself “I am as obstinate as they are. Since they won’t tell me I will write to Neil.”
This she proceeded to do, demanding to know the cause of his departure. “If you love me as you say, you will not give me up at my father’s bidding. I am ready to brave his anger for your sake. Can you not be as brave as I?”
The reply came, as she had expected, by return, and it was with a violently beating heart that she tore it open. “I must give you up,” he wrote. “It is in vain to fight against the destiny that parts us. I love you still; but it is my duty to forget you. Do the same, for only in that way can you be happy.”
“Oh, he is mad!” cried Ruth, angrily. “And if he thinks he can put me off in this way he will find his mistake. I will know!” She stamped her foot. “I will—I will!”
Notwithstanding Ruth’s refusal of him, Geoffrey Heron had not gone away; he was too deeply in love with her for that, and remained like a moth fluttering round a candle. Sometimes he felt annoyed with himself; but he was no longer his own master. Then, much to his surprise, the girl sought him of her own free will. He was delighted, though he wisely strove not to show it. She suggested a walk, in order that they might not be interrupted.
After some preliminary skirmishing, she led the conversation up to the departure of Neil Webster.
“I am sorry,” she said, with a sigh.
“You need hardly tell me that,” replied Geoffrey, not very amiably, for he was annoyed by the speech and the sigh. “I know he is the lucky man.”
“If he is lucky, he does not value his luck.”
“What do you mean? I understood from Miss Brawn that you were engaged to marry him.”
“Ah! that’s just it. I was engaged, but now—he has gone away without a word. I don’t believe he cares one bit about me.”
“What a fool! Oh, Ruth, if you only knew!”
“I do know,” she said, kindly; “you want me to be your wife. Well, I refused, because I could not really love you; but you know that I do like you extremely.”
“Even that is something.”
“And if it were not for Neil—well, I might bring myself to marry you.”
“No,” he said, firmly. “I also have my pride. Much as I want you to be my wife, I will not consent to that unless you can tell me that you love me.”
“Won’t liking do?”
“No,”—gruffly—“liking will certainly not do.”
“I might grow to love you in time.”
“I wish you could—but—what does all this mean?”
She thought for a moment; then she said: “I hope you won’t think me bold for speaking openly. But the fact is—well, I was engaged to Neil, and he—he has broken our engagement.”
“Ah!” exclaimed the young man. “And how can I remedy the situation?”
“Go to him and ask why he went away.”
“I cannot. Do you expect me to bring my rival back to you?”
“If you loved me and wished me to be happy, you would.”
“I don’t want to see you happy with another fellow,” and his manner was eminently human. “I want you to myself.”
“Well, you will not get me by behaving in this way!” cried Ruth, now thoroughly exasperated. “This is the very first time I have ever asked you to do anything for me, and you refuse!”
Geoffrey temporised. “Supposing Webster were to persist in his refusal to come back to you, would there be a chance for me?”
Miss Cass looked straight before her, with her nose in the air.
“I really don’t know,” she said coldly. “I make no bargains.”
“Very well,” said Geoffrey, most unexpectedly, “I’ll do it.”
Within that week the house party at Hollyoaks broke up. Mr. and Mrs. Marshall returned to their own house, which was only four miles away; Jennie Brawn went back to Bedford-park and the family of nine; and Geoffrey Heron took his way to his London Chambers. So Ruth was left to the society of her father, and she made up her mind that she would say no more about Neil. Indeed, she half intimated to Mr. Cass that she might, after all, marry her other lover—an intimation which delighted the worthy merchant beyond words.
“You are a sensible girl after all, Ruth,” he said. “Believe me, you would do wisely. You see my love, you could not have been really in love with Webster, since you have so soon forgotten him.”
She answered him meekly enough.
“I daresay you are right, papa, Neil has behaved very badly to me, and I think no more of him.”
“Poor fellow,” sighed Mr. Cass!
“Really, papa,” exclaimed the girl, “you are difficult to please. At your desire I have given him up: now you think I have treated him badly.”
“My dear, I said nothing of the sort,” protested the embarrassed Mr. Cass. “All the same, I wish he had not set his heart on you.”
“Oh, he has not done that, or he would not have been so ready to give me up.”
“My dear, you do not understand.”
Ruth went away thinking over this last speech. “No,” she murmured to herself, “I do not understand, but I shall soon. I ought to hear from Geoffrey in a few days. After all, I am really beginning to think I like him better than Neil. What Jennie said was quite right, although I would not for the world acknowledge it to her. I am not the wife for a man like him. I want to be considered, and I am sure Geoffrey would do all in his power to please me and to make me happy. Neil? Well, I think he might have been rather a trial.”
A week after Neil’s departure, Mr. Cass received a letter from him which caused the worthy merchant much perplexity. He shut himself up in his library to think it over. Webster had gone away with the fullest intention of proving his mother’s innocence, yet this short letter intimated that he had abandoned the idea. “I have seen my mother,” he wrote, “and I see it is best to take your advice and let sleeping dogs lie. I am going abroad shortly, and it is not likely that I shall see you for many months. Never again will I come to your house; and I only hope that you will impress upon Ruth the necessity of forgetting me as speedily as possible. I cannot trust myself to see her again, so I must leave this task to you.”
“Poor lad!” sighed Mr. Cass, as he finished the letter. “It is bitter for him that he should have to suffer for the sins of his parents. But I wonder why he has stopped short in his endeavour to prove Mrs. Jenner’s innocence? What can she have said to him? I have a good mind to see him—or her,” he added as an after-thought; then changed his mind. “No, it would only revive sad memories. The matter is settled by this letter, and it is best to let sleeping dogs lie. I will think no more of it.”
So he said, but so he did not do. His conscience frequently took pleasure in reminding him of the whole story, and despite all his philosophical resolves to “let sleeping dogs lie,” he knew very well that he ought to rouse them. But this he could not bring himself to do. Too much was at stake, and a bolder man than Mr. Cass would have shrank from the consequences. In this frame of mind he did his best to argue that he was right, and—he failed in the attempt.
Meanwhile Geoffrey was in town. He had learnt from Ruth that Neil occupied rooms in the Waverley Hotel in Cherry-square, a quiet, unpretentious establishment.
Three times Heron called at the hotel, only to be told that Mr. Webster was out of town. The fourth time he was more lucky and found the young man at home.
Neil Webster looked extremely ill; dark circles under his eyes told of sleepless nights, and his restless movements hinted at a nervous system which had gone to pieces. Moreover, his lips were dry, his eyes feverishly bright.
The room was luxuriously furnished. The prevailing colour was a dark red, and on the walls were hung portraits of his favourite composers. Curiously enough, the furniture was upholstered in a soft shade of grey, the effect of which in the warm-tinted room was, to say the least, of it, somewhat odd. A revolving bookcase, filled with books—mostly of poems—stood near a Louis Quinze escritoire; but the glory of the room was a magnificent grand piano standing alone at one end of the apartment.
“I suppose you are surprised to see me, Webster?” said the young squire abruptly.
“Well, I must admit that I am. We could hardly be called the best of friends at any time, I think.”
“Still, we have not been enemies, Webster. Because two men may happen to be rivals they need not have a bad opinion of each other.”
“You are very good,” Neil said, faintly.
“Don’t be sarcastic; there is no need, I assure you.”
The remark made Webster laugh.
“Why do you laugh?” asked the other, sharply.
“I was wondering whether I could make a friend of you, and the thought of our relative positions with Miss Cass made me scout the possibility. We can never be friends.”
“Why not? I like you very well. I don’t see why you should be so bitter to me.”
“I am not bitter. In fact, you would be my friend, I think, if it were not for Miss Cass.”
“I am ready to be your friend in any case,” said Heron, quickly. “And don’t think me a mean brute to hate a man because he is more lucky than I.”
“Lucky!” sighed Neil, sitting up. “Heaven help you if you are not a luckier man than I. Well, when we know one another better we may be friends. I need one badly enough, Heaven knows. But, first of all, to pave the way to our better acquaintance, why have you come here?”
“I will answer you frankly. Miss Cass has informed me that you have broken off your engagement to her. Now, you know that I am very much in love with her, and that I wish her to be my wife. She loves you, I think—”
“No, pardon me,” Webster said, lifting one thin hand. “She does not really care for me. I have come to that conclusion after much thought. She admires my talents, but you possess what wins a woman’s eyes and her heart in the long run—strength.”
“You are complimentary,” Heron said, good-humouredly, “but I think most women would admire you. All I want to know is whether your engagement with Miss Cass is really at an end, because in that case I’ll sail in and try my luck.”
Webster leant back. It was hard to give up this girl, and although he had really done so, yet there was the official announcement to be made. But it had to be done, for, knowing what he knew, he felt that no truly honest man in his place would hold her to her promise. So Neil braced himself up to make the sacrifice, and spoke out with decision:
“My engagement to Miss Cass is at an end,” he said. “She will never be my wife, nor is it probable that I shall ever see her again. She is free to marry you, indeed, I hope she will, and”—here his voice quivered—“I wish you joy.”
“Well,” Heron said, thoughtfully, “I can’t deny that I am glad to hear this, for Ruth Cass is all the world and more to me. At the same time I am sorry, for I can see that you feel this very deeply. Is it of your own free will that you do this?” and he eyed Webster curiously.
“In one way it is, in another it is not. A few weeks ago I had a right to marry her, now I have none.”
“Can I help you?” Heron asked.
“No, no. Impossible!”
The man was so shaken and ill that Geoffrey asked no more questions. He went over and shook hands. “As you have withdrawn I will try my luck. But, I also may fail; and if I do I hope I shall bear the disappointment as well as you do. If you will allow me I will come and see you again.”
“I shall be glad to see you. But are you not going back to Hollyoaks?
“No,” replied Geoffrey. “I shall be in town for a week or so, and if I can see you again so much the better.”
“Come by all means, then. I am usually at home during the evening. I’m afraid I can’t ask you to dine just now. I really do not feel well enough.”
“That’s all right,” Heron said, brightly. “I know you feel bad, but you have behaved like a Briton.” Than which Geoffrey thought there could not be higher praise. “And if I can help you in any way I will. I have an idea, you know, that we shall be friends, after all.”
“We have made a good start, anyhow,” said Neil. “Good-bye.”
When Geoffrey had gone, the unhappy man buried his face in the sofa cushions and wept bitterly. He had crushed down his feelings throughout the interview; but now Nature would have her way.
“Oh, Heavens!” he wailed. “Shall I ever know peace again?”
It was small wonder that Neil had decided to give Ruth up. For the first time he saw what he was—a miserable creature, who, in marrying, would be committing a deadly sin. It was not to be thought of; and he thanked Heaven that he had self-command sufficient to put temptation away from him. His renunciation of her was, to him, the least of his sorrows.
He found some comfort in the visits of Geoffrey Heron, who came almost every day and sat long with the unfortunate man, although he could not in the least understand his sufferings. But he strove to talk of general subjects which would draw his mind away from the one on which he was brooding. And in the main he succeeded, though when he had gone, Neil always relapsed into the torture of thought whence he had been drawn for the moment.
During these visits Neil observed his visitor closely, and very soon came to the conclusion that he was a right good fellow with vastly more heart than the general mass of humanity. Once or twice he found himself on the point of confiding in him and asking his advice: but a feeling of dread withheld him. He liked Heron he enjoyed his company; and he was afraid of losing him. So he tried to put himself aside, and insisted that he was not as ill as he looked. But the crisis came one evening when Geoffrey was with him. Neil had been very ill all day; and when the young squire entered shortly after eight o’clock, he found him lying on the sofa almost in a fainting condition. Geoffrey was alarmed.
“I tell you what, old chap, you should see a doctor,” he said.
Neil shook his head. “Doctors can do no good; all their drugs cannot cure me. What is it Macbeth says, ‘Thou canst not minister to a mind diseased.’“
“But your mind is not diseased.”
“How do you know that?” He clenched his hands. “I have not told you my secret.”
“No and I don’t want to know it.”
“What! You don’t want to know why I gave Miss Cass up?”
“No; for then I should have to tell her—she would get it out of me in some way. You know what women are.”
“I know what one woman is, at least; and she is a mother,” murmured Neil. “No, you must not tell Ruth; it could do no good, and might do much harm.”
“Then speak of something else. You are exciting yourself unnecessarily.”
Even as he spoke, the nerve storm came on with unusual violence; the wretched man seemed possessed by seven demons which tore him in pieces; he rose from his seat and strode furiously about the room, trying to prevent himself from crying out. Finally, he dropped exhausted into a chair and sobbed violently. Geoffrey Heron, quite astonished at this outburst, hastily got a glass of water, but in seizing it, Webster broke it with the strength of his grasp. “I must tell you—I must!” he panted. “I must tell someone, or die. My mother is in prison—on a charge of murder; she was accused of killing—killing, I say—my father!” And he fell back weeping, trembling, completely crushed.
“Good Heavens!” cried Heron, stepping back. His pity for the poor young fellow was sincere; and now he felt he could understand in some degree what a torture his life had been to him. He could understand, moreover, why Neil had surrendered all claim to the hand of Ruth.
“You—you—won’t tell her?”
“No; on my honour, I won’t,” said Geoffrey. “I wish you had not told me; but now that I do know, your secret is, at any rate, safe with me.”
“The valerian,” said Neil, nodding towards the sideboard, and while Heron got it, he loosened his collar and drenched himself with cold water. Then he mixed a stiff dose of the drug, and drank it it with a sigh of relief. Heron looked at him anxiously.
“I had better go now, hadn’t I?” he said. “You must go to bed. To-morrow morning—”
“No—no. I shall be all right soon; the valerian will soothe me. I have told you so much that I must tell you all. I should have said nothing about it but for the nervous fit which came over me just now. Sit down.”
Accordingly, Geoffrey waited, lighting a cigar the while. Now that the information had been imparted to him almost against Webster’s will, he was anxious to hear the whole story; he determined that Ruth, at least, should never know it. Try as she might, she would never get it out of him. He made up his mind, too, that he would be a friend to the unfortunate creature who was so cruelly afflicted. Not only that, but he would give what advice and aid lay in his power to ameliorate the situation. But he doubted whether the position could be amended.
Neil thanked him by a look, and returned to his sofa in a quieter frame of mind; the fury of the attack had left him weak and faint, but he insisted on speaking, and as he did so, his strength gradually came back. To Geoffrey this sudden recuperation seemed little short of miraculous, for he was quite unaware of the power of the nerves to recover themselves.
“I had better begin by asking you a few questions,” he began.
“But are you sure you are strong enough?”
“I shall be all right directly. The truth has to be told now; and, moreover, I want your advice.”
“I’ll do anything in my power,” Heron said.
“You are a good fellow. How I have misunderstood you! Well, I will repay you by giving up Ruth to you; I shall never marry her, nor, indeed, anyone. Heaven help me!”
“Why not?” Geoffrey, asked.
“You have seen what I am. What sort of husband or father should I make? But this is beside the point. Hear what I have to tell, and advise me what to do. In the first place, do you know the Turnpike House?”
“Great Heavens! Are you talking about that murder?”
“Yes, I daresay you remember it.”
“Remember it! I should think so. Why, nothing was talked about at Westham for months but that crime. A man was found in the house stabbed to the heart; his wife was accused of the murder; she was taken, with her child, while trying to escape.”
“Yes,” was the calm reply. “My father was the murdered man, my mother was the woman accused of the crime, and I the child.”
“Then your name is Jenner?”
“Yes a name to be proud of, is it not? But I have not the courage to take it. Ugh!” He shuddered. “Think, if all that were known! How could I appear in public? People would come, not to hear me play, but to see a man who had been connected with a mysterious crime—whose mother was suffering punishment for that crime! I should kill myself if it were known.”
“There will be no need to kill yourself. You are absolutely safe with me.”
“But if Ruth should ask you?”
“Ruth shall never hear it from me. When I said just now that she might cajole we, I was thinking of trivial things; but this terrible story shall remain a secret for ever. You can speak to me as you would to a confessor. There are some things, Webster, which a man does not do; and this is one of them. I am glad you have told me.”
“I am glad you know,” sighed Neil. “It will ease my mind to tell you all. Now listen,” and he recounted all the circumstances—his dream, and the causes which had led up to his identification as the son of the accused woman. Geoffrey was more startled than ever, especially when Mr. Cass’s name was mentioned.
“And does he know all this?” he asked. Then, in reply to Neil’s nod, he added: “No wonder he would not let you marry his daughter!”
“No wonder,” said the young man, bitterly. “Touch pitch and defile yourself; but it was not he who stopped the marriage—it was myself. I would rather die than marry. See what I am—a mass of nerves; think of the terrible history of my parents. Then imagine me asking any woman to share my misery! Well, now that you know all, what do you say?”
Heron looked rather helplessly at him. “What can I say?” he remarked, hesitatingly. “It seems that your mother murdered your father under great provocation, and is now in prison. Well, I think it would be best for you to put the matter out of your head, and go abroad. It is not the slightest use you seeing her.”
“I have already done so,” Neil said, quietly.
Geoffrey started from his seat. “You visited her in prison?” he asked
“Yes; I learnt where she was from Mr. Cass, and I went to see her at once. For I loved my mother, as much as I hated my father. Poor mother! Her hair is white now, and her fact lined; but she was mad with joy at first on seeing me, and then very angry.”
“Why was she angry?”
“Ah, that is the strangest part of the whole affair! I am now going to tell you something that no one else knows—not even Mr. Cass.”
“When I went to the prison,” Neil continued, “I did not believe that my mother was guilty. Cass had told me she was but I did not agree with him. Only from her own lips would I learn the truth, and to the prison I went in order to learn it. I saw the governor, and asked to see Mrs. Jenner, but did not give my real name; I merely said that I was a distant relative of hers, and wanted an interview. Well, I saw her—alone.”
“Were you allowed to do that? I thought—”
“That a woman warder would be present? Well, one was, but she stayed outside the door, where she could hear little, if anything. We were practically alone.”
“Did she recognise you?”
“At once. Ah Heron, you don’t know what a mother’s love is. Yes; she knew me, for I am the very image of what she was in youth. I have her fair hair and blue eyes; but not her good looks. She knew me, but she would only half admit it.”
“Why was that?”
“Well, for one reason, because the warder was outside, and she did not wish our relationship known. Another was that she feared to give way altogether if she once said that I was her son. So all the time she addressed me as Mr. Webster; and she talked of her son to me.”
“She must be a woman of wonderful self-command,” said Geoffrey, now thoroughly interested.
“A woman in a thousand, as you will admit before I have done. Ah, what a mother! Was there ever such a noble creature? Well, addressing me always as I have said, she said that her son had been taken away to be brought up by Mr. Cass in ignorance of his parentage; and that this had been done at her own special request. She did not want her son ever to know of her existence, or of her history, nor did she wish ever to see him. She was dead to him, and desired that he should regard her as dead also.”
“A painful position for you.”
“Heaven knows how painful!” He was sitting up now, and speaking rapidly. “I fell into her humour, for her eyes warned me to do that. Besides, she stood aloof, and refused to respond to my feelings. I accepted the situation, and told her that her son was a violinist and famous. I am afraid I talked a great deal too much about myself, and in a boastful vein too. But you will understand that, Heron. I wanted to give her all the joy I could. I wanted to prove to her that her sacrifice had not been in vain.”
“Sacrifice? What on earth do you mean by that?”
“Ah! Now comes the most painful part of the story. I asked her if she were truly guilty, but she refused to answer. And I knew in my heart that she was innocent. I saw a look in her eyes which asked how I—her own son—could dare to doubt her innocence. But not a word did she say.”
“And you—what did you say?”
“I told her—still in the character of a relative—that I did not believe she killed Jenner—for by that name I spoke of him—and I declared that I intended to devote my life to proving her innocence, and that I was about to re-open the case.”
“What happened then?” asked Geoffrey, seeing, from the growing agitation of the young man, that he was coming to the crisis of his painful tale.
“She became angry, and was violently moved. After glancing at the door, she abandoned the attitude she had taken up, of treating me as a stranger, and forbade me to re-open the case; she commanded me to leave things as they were. I refused I swore that I would set her free. In a low voice she implored me to let the matter rest; again I refused, and in spite of all that she could say, I held to my purpose. By this time, as you will understand, we had abandoned our masks. At last she clapped her hands, and said that there was no help for it.”
“No help for what?”
“I am about to tell you. She caught me by the hand, and bent forward to speak in a whisper; and these are her very words: ‘Do nothing; I suffer for your sake.’“
“Great Heavens! Do you mean to say that she hinted that it was you who killed him?”
“She did more than hint. She said that I did. She told me that on that night she had gone away to get some money for my father; that while she was in another part of the house she heard a cry, and came back to the room to find me there standing beside the dead body of my father—the knife still in my hand. She was certain that I had done it, for earlier in the evening I had rushed at him with the same knife. Seeing that my hatred for him was in part her work, she determined to save me, and rushed away into the night and the mist with me in her arms. She was taken, and accused of the crime; for my sake, she held her tongue and suffered. No one knows this—not even Mr. Cass, to whom she gave me that I might be brought up by a good man. All this she told me in a low, hurried voice. Then she bade me leave matters as they were, or her curse would be upon me! I promised to do nothing—she made me promise—then I left her. Since then—oh, what a life mine has been!” and he flung himself on the sofa to bury his face in the cushions.
Heron pitied him sincerely. “Are you sure that this is true?” he asked. “For it seems to me that if you had really been guilty of killing your father, you would have remembered something about it.”
“No, I do not think so; I am subject to trances; and on that night, agitated as I was by the sight of my father, I fell into one. I must have done the thing as in a dream; then passed at once into the fever which robbed me of my memory until it was revived by the dream. I can remember my childhood now, but I certainly remember nothing about the murder. My last memory is that of rushing at my father with the knife with which I afterwards killed him. It must be true; yes, I am a criminal!
“Nonsense! A boy of ten, and mad for the time being! You are not a criminal; no one could say so. If your mother had been wise, she would have told the truth so as to save herself.”
“She preferred to save me; and if she had explained all this, who would have believed her? No one. She would simply have been accused of trying to prove me guilty in order to hide her own sin. But now that you know all, I want to have your advice. How am I to act?”
“Leave things as they are,” Geoffrey said, promptly.
“But my mother is innocent.”
“I know—if what she says is true.”
“I believe it!” Neil cried. “I really believe it.”
“Ah but will anyone else? To me, I confess, it seems a trifle far-fetched. Even if you came forward and accused yourself, the whole story rests on her evidence, and you will not be believed. No, Webster; leave the matter as it stands, and stick to the name you are known by. Your mother wishes it; and since she has done so much for you, it is only right you should obey her.”
“I don’t know what to do.” Neil clasped his hands. “Shall I remain silent?”
“Take my advice, and remain silent,” Heron replied, and he meant what he said. “And remember,” he added, “that I am always your friend.”
Whatever might have been Neil Webster’s intentions as to saving his mother by proving himself guilty, they were frustrated by a severe illness. His body could no longer bear the strain of constant worry and mental torture, and he was seized with an attack of brain fever. Then it was that Heron proved himself indeed a friend; he attended to the sick man and procured for him the very best advice. No brother could have done more for the poor fellow than did Geoffrey. Putting entirely aside his desire to be near Ruth and to prosecute his courtship, he devoted himself to restoring Neil to health.
Furthermore, at his friend’s special request in the early stages of his illness, Geoffrey took all measures to prevent Mr. Cass hearing of the precarious state in which he lay. For Neil considered that the merchant had done quite enough for him and did not wish to give him any more trouble; so Geoffrey informed Mr. Cass that the young violinist had gone abroad for a rest by the advice of his doctor. Then he had him removed to Bognor and placed under the charge of Mrs. Jent, impressing upon her the necessity for secrecy. Thus it came about that for nearly two months he lay ill in bed at Bognor without any suspicion being aroused in Mr. Cass’s mind.
To Ruth young Heron wrote and explained that Neil had given her up, but that he refused to say why he had done so. He added that he himself was going to Paris for a month or so, but that if she wanted him back he would return at the end of that time. Having thus sacrificed himself on the shrine of friendship, he went down to watch Neil through his dangerous illness. For he was quite determined that he should not die if human means could save him. So, with Mrs. Jent, he nursed his friend with the greatest tenderness.
Another friendly act he performed. He visited Mrs. Jenner and learned from her all the particulars of the case. At first she sternly refused to tell him anything, but when he informed her that her son was ill and that his only chance of recovery—this was a little embroidery of his own—lay in the hope of her innocence being established, she gave way. He had already succeeded in impressing upon her the fact that Neil could not have killed his father, notwithstanding all appearances to the contrary.
“From what you say, Mrs. Jenner,” he remarked, “your husband was a strong man. Neil—I must still call him Neil—was a puny child. It is impossible that he could have struck such a blow. At best his strength could not have been equal to it, and Jenner could have brushed him aside as easily as he could a fly.”
“That is true,” said the woman, thoughtfully. “I found him with a knife in his hand standing beside the body.”
“He might have entered the room and picked up the knife.”
“But if this is so—and I begin to see things from your point of view—who killed my husband? I can swear that I did not, and if my child is innocent, who is guilty?”
“That is just what we must find out, both to release you from an unjust imprisonment and to set his mind at rest. Now tell me the whole story and especially the events of that night. Then I may be in a position to account for the crime.”
Cheered somewhat by the view he took, Mrs. Jenner told him all she knew with full details. Two points struck Mr. Heron—one that the window had been open and that Mrs. Jenner had left her husband standing near it; the other that he had had in his possession a red pocket-book which had afterwards disappeared. Beyond this he gathered that her account of the boasts her husband had made on that night that he had had somebody in his power, somebody from whom he intended to extort money.
“And I quite believe that is true,” finished the unhappy woman, bitterly. “He had the instincts of a blackmailer.”
“Well, said Geoffrey, preparing to take his departure. I think the motive for the crime will be found in that pocket-book. Whoever took it murdered your husband. The window was open, the book, as you say, on the table, and near the window your husband was standing. Also,” he added with emphasis, “you say the knife was lying beside the pocket-book. Now, if your son had used it he would have had to pass his father to get it and so would have put him on his guard, even if he had not been prevented from taking it. No, Mrs. Jenner, your son is innocent, as innocent as yourself. The assassin seized that knife through the open window and struck the blow in order to get possession of that pocket-book, which contained—of that I am sure—some document which would have been used as a lever to extort money. That is my theory, and I will make it my business to prove that it is the right one. Meanwhile, I must nurse Neil.”
“You are a good man,” said Mrs. Jenner showing emotion for the first time, “and what you say seems feasible enough. Go, and do the best you can. Heaven will reward you. But my son, my darling boy—he may die!”
“Not if I can help it. I’ll pull him round somehow. Keep up your spirits. You have had a long night, but I believe the dawn is at hand.”
“Heaven bless you!” she said. Then Geoffrey took his leave, to return to the bedside of Neil Webster.
While all this was taking place Ruth had not been idle. She had been annoyed by Heron’s letter, and much alarmed at his determination to stay away. She was beginning to find out that her feeling for him was stronger than anything the young violinist had inspired in her; but a streak of obstinacy, inherited from her Spanish grandmother, kept her, in a manner, true to the man for whom she cared least. Besides this she was possessed of more than her share of feminine curiosity, and never faltered in her determination to learn the real cause of Webster’s mysterious departure. She was well aware that her love for him was not genuine, that it had been founded—as Jennie had very truly told her—on admiration for the artist, not on love for the man and she was equally certain that she would never marry him. But all the same she was resolved to learn his secret, and for many a weary week she plotted for the achievement of her ends. As far as she knew, both Neil and Geoffrey were abroad, so she had a fair field.
After much thought she concluded that her best plan was to make the attempt through Mrs. Jent, who had been her nurse, and who had always retained an affection, almost motherly, for her. And the old woman was a trustful soul, easy enough to manage by the exercise of a little diplomacy. Ruth’s plan was to act as she had done with her father—to assume that she knew more than she would admit. In this way, taking into account the simplicity of Mrs. Jent, it was likely that the old woman would let something slip which would put her on the track. And Ruth considered that if she had succeeded with a man like her father she would certainly have no difficulty with a person of Mrs. Jent’s calibre. So she made up her mind as to her best course of action.
To see Mrs. Jent without arousing suspicion it was necessary that she should go down to Bognor without her father’s knowledge. He would think it odd that she should, at this juncture, wish to see one who was so closely connected with her former lover. To avert suspicion, the girl wrote to an old schoolfellow at Brighton asking her for an invitation. “I am tired of a dull country life,” wrote Miss Cass, “and I should be so glad of a little amusement. Do ask me down for a week or so.”
Mrs. Prosser fell into the trap. It seemed natural enough to her that Ruth should want a little gaiety, and she was glad to have a pretty girl in her house. The presence of beauty would attract a good many men and, being not averse to an occasional flirtation herself. Mrs. Prosser judged that she would share in the pleasure to be derived from the visit. So the desired invitation was promptly despatched, and Mr. Cass, quite unsuspicious, permitted his daughter’s acceptance of it.
“Perhaps it will put this nonsense about Webster out of your head,” he said as he bade her good-bye. To which remark he received no answer.
For quite a week Ruth enjoyed herself thoroughly. Mrs. Prosser’s house was a bright one. She entertained a great deal, more especially now that she had such a charming friend to amuse and to amuse her. That young lady made amends for Neil’s desertion of her, and for Geoffrey’s absence, by flirting to her heart’s content, and consigning many youths to various stages of despair at what they were pleased to call her fickleness. But she never lost sight of her main object, which was to drop down on Mrs. Jent without giving that old lady warning of her coming. She would take her entirely by surprise.
Accordingly, on the plea that she was going to see her old nurse, Ruth took the train to Bognor, and Mrs. Jent welcomed her visitor with open arms. Nor indeed—not having been warned—did she conceal the fact that Mr. Webster was ill in the house and that Geoffrey was nursing him.
“My dear, how pleased I am to see you!” she cried, settling her spectacles on her nose. “And quite the young lady, too! How good of you, my lovey, not to forget your old nurse.”
“As if I ever could,” Ruth said, graciously. “And tell me what you are doing with yourself?”
“Just living, my dear, just living. What with a boarder or two and the money your dear papa allows me I rub along.”
“Have you any boarders now?” asked the girl, more for the sake of saying something than because she felt any interest in the subject.
“Well, not what you would call boarders, perhaps,” said the old lady, rubbing one withered hand over the other. “At least, one of them isn’t, he is my dear boy Neil.”
“Neil!” with unbounded astonishment, “Neil Webster! Why, he is abroad.”
“No such thing. He is here, my lovey, and has been for two months. Abroad? Why, the poor darling has been at death’s door! Aye, and he would have entered it, too, if Mr. Heron had not—”
“Heron? Geoffrey Heron?”
“Yes, dear, that is him, Heaven bless him. Do you—”
“Geoffrey Heron here?” interrupted the girl rather to herself than to the old woman. “Why, he wrote to tell me that he was on the Continent. What does all this mean, I wonder?”
“It’s not hard to tell the meaning,” said Mrs. Jent. “My boy Neil fell ill, had brain fever, poor lad, and Mr. Heron brought him here from London that I might nurse him, and he stayed with me. He is almost as fond of my dear boy as I am.”
“Is he?” said Ruth, blankly. Considering that the two men were, or had been, rivals for her hand, she could not quite take all this in.
“Of course he is,” said the old woman, with great energy. “A better gentleman I never wish to see.”
“And is Mr. Webster here?”
“In the next room, in the most beautiful sleep. I daresay you would like to see him, my dear, for he has often talked of you. But I daren’t wake him, it would be dangerous. Mr. Heron has gone to Worthing. Will you wait till he comes back?”
“I might,” replied Ruth, thinking that she would like to prove to Heron that she was no fool. “Has he also spoken of me?”
“Often and often, my dear. Why, he loves you; he has told me so a dozen times.”
The girl stuck her pretty chin in the air and looked supercilious. “Well, he is nothing to me,” she said, crossly. “I don’t like deceitful people. Oh, now, don’t defend him,” she added, seeing that Mrs. Jent was about to deliver herself of an indignant speech. “I know more than you do. As to Mr. Webster, well, he was good enough to say that he cared for me too.”
“I know. He has often spoken of you to me; but he has got over his fancy.”
“Oh, indeed!” cried Ruth, more angry than ever. “He calls his love for me a fancy, does he? Just like a man.” Then she suddenly recollected her errand and resolved to make the best use of her time before Geoffrey could come back and interfere. “Poor Mr. Webster! No doubt he is grieving for his parents.”
The old lady started. “What do you know of them?” she asked, sternly.
“All that he could tell me,” was the reply. “He was engaged to me, and he told me all about himself and his people.”
“How foolish of him,” Mrs. Jent said under her breath. “But I hope you don’t think any the less of him, my dear. After all, he is not responsible for the wickedness of his father and mother.”
Ruth nearly jumped out of her seat. So Neil’s father and mother had been what this old woman called “wicked people.” And, moreover, he was suffering for what they had done in not being allowed to marry her; that was the way she put it. But she said nothing, and Mrs. Jent went on talking in the firm belief that her listener knew all the facts of the case.
“Of course, it was a long time before he knew anything about his parents neither Mr. Cass nor I would tell him, you know. But last Christmas, when he was staying with you, my dear, he found it all out.”
“It was at Christmas that he told me about them,” put in Ruth.
But she did not add that it was of the American parents he had spoken. Indeed, she could not make out whether Mrs. Jent was alluding to them or to some other persons of whom she knew nothing. She felt confused.
“Ah, well,” went on the old lady, with a sigh, “I suppose the discovery was too much for him and he had to tell someone. And why not you? But, my dear,” she laid a withered hand on the girl’s arm, “if he had loved you he would never have told you about that nasty Turnpike House murder. Did he tell you his name was Jenner, my dear?”
“No,” said the girl, faintly. She knew the truth now. “Only that his parents—oh, I can’t speak of it!”
“It is terrible.” The old lady shook her head. “To think of his mother having murdered her husband and being in gaol.”
“He never told me that!” shrieked Ruth, for she could play her part no longer. “Oh, great Heavens, what a horrible thing! No wonder my father would not let the marriage take place.”
“The marriage!” stammered Mrs. Jent, rising with an expression of alarm on her face.
“Yes, I was engaged to him and suddenly he gave me up. My father said he would never allow me to marry him. I could not make out the reason. Now I know it, and, oh, how horrible it is!”
“Then you did not know the truth?”
“No, no. Neil told me about his American parents—”
“That was the story we made up to keep him quiet,” put in the old woman. “Yes, Mr. Cass and I thought it best he should not know. He found out the truth for himself, and—now—I have told it to you.”
“I am glad you have,” said Ruth, taking her hand. “Dear nurse, I have behaved so badly. I wanted to find out why Neil had given me up, and as father would not tell me I came to you. But I have been punished for my curiosity. Still, I’m glad—I’m glad. I must give him up now.”
“Indeed, miss,” said Mrs. Jent, bristling with indignation. “I think you ought to stand by the poor boy more than ever. Oh, miss, how could you play me such a trick? I do hope you’ll keep all this to yourself.”
“Of course I will. All the effect it will have upon me is that I shall think no more of Neil.”
“Ah!” Mrs. Jent shook her head. “I thought better of you.”
“Good gracious! How can you expect me to marry a man whose mother is in gaol?”
“That is not his fault. But take your own way, miss. I think you have behaved badly in tricking me into speaking secrets. I shall tell your father at once.”
“I shall tell him myself; you shan’t be blamed, nurse. I am a wicked girl to have done what I have done. There, don’t cry, I’m not worth it. I’ll go away and not bother you.” And before Mrs. Jent could say another word Ruth was out of the house and walking swiftly along the parade.
Then the unexpected happened, for the first person she met was Geoffrey Heron!
Geoffrey Heron would as soon have expected to see the sea-serpent off shore as to meet Ruth Cass walking along the Bognor Parade. However, there she was, and he had to meet her, to explain himself as best he could, and to put himself right in her eyes.
“Miss Cass!” he stammered, taking off his hat and exhibiting a very red face and confusion of manner usually absent from his demeanour. “I am astonished to meet you here.”
“I daresay,” replied the girl, her nose in the air. “There can be no doubt about that after all the stones you told me. But I am not astonished. I have been to see Mrs. Jent.”
“What! Have you seen Webster?”
“I said Mrs. Jent. No, Mr. Webster does not know that I am here. He was asleep, and Mrs. Jent refused to disturb him even for me. Now what have you to say for yourself?”
“It is a long story,” he said uneasily.
“In that case we had better sit down.”
“But I must go back to the cottage.”
“In that case I’ll go with you. We don’t part, Mr. Heron until I have an explanation of all this. Part of it I understand already.”
“What do you understand?” he asked, startled.
“For one thing I know now why Neil left me.”
“Nothing is impossible to a woman who has set her heart on finding out what she wants to know. Neil refused to tell me, papa refused, you refused in the meanest manner. Well, I have found out—from Mrs. Jent.”
“She never told you!” cried Heron, agitated.
“Not of her own free will. I got it out of her. But I know now what is the matter. Ah, I see you don’t believe me; you are still incredulous. Just listen, then. Neil’s real name is Jenner; his mother killed his father, and is now in gaol. Am I right?”
“Perfectly.” He was relieved to find that she did not know the worst. “I congratulate you on your diplomacy.”
“I thought you were going to use a nastier word. I am sure you were tempted to.”
“No, believe me—”
“How can I believe you when you behave as you have done? Why are you here instead of in Paris?”
“Because when I saw Webster I found he was very ill. Someone had to look after him, and I seemed to be the right person just then. You would not have had me leave the poor fellow to die?”
“No.” Ruth held out her hand, which he seized eagerly. “On the whole I think you are a very good man, Mr. Heron. But why did you tell me that you were in Paris, and that Neil also was abroad?”
“I did so at his request. He considered that he had given your father enough trouble, and knowing that in all probability he would have a long illness, he asked me to conceal his whereabouts, so that Mr. Cass should not come down.”
“Oh, I understand. But about yourself, why did you hide?”
“In the first place I wanted to look after him. In the second, I did not wish to see you.”
“Oh, thank you!” cried Ruth, highly indignant.
“Don’t misunderstand me,” he said, anxiously. But the fact is that Neil told me his story—the story you have got out of Mrs. Jent—and I did not feel justified in allowing anything so terrible to reach your ears. I knew that I was as wax in your hands, and that you would probably force me to tell; so I judged discretion to be the better part of valour, and kept away.”
“I see. But I don’t think your discretion will serve you in the long run. Here is a seat, and there are few people about. Now, Mr. Heron, sit down and tell me everything from the beginning.”
“I won’t have any ‘buts’ about it,” said Ruth, peremptorily. “I know the worst, but I know it only in fragments. I want to know the whole.”
“Why?” asked Heron, taking his seat beside her.
“Can’t you guess? Oh, you are stupid. Why, to help poor Neil, of course.”
“Ah! You are still in love with him!” said Heron, with a jealous pang.
“No, I am not. I found out long since that I loved someone else better. Oh, I am not going to tell you his name. I have my secrets as well as you. But I still like and admire Neil in spite of his misfortunes, and I want to help him. You are doing that already, and I admire you for it. Well, we will work together.”
“I should like nothing better. But,” Geoffrey hesitated, “can I trust you? The secret isn’t mine, you know.”
“No, it is mine,” said Miss Cass, very coolly. “I share it with you and Mrs. Jent. Whether I know all or not I am not prepared to say, but you are going to tell me all. Now then!”
He hesitated. “Very good,” he said at length. “I will tell you all I know, and we will work together to get this poor woman restored to freedom.”
“What? Is she innocent?”
“I am certain of that. Whosoever murdered Jenner, it was not his wife.”
“But she was found guilty.”
“She is not the first innocent person who has been found guilty. Wait till you have heard the whole story, then you shall judge.”
“I certainly should not think of judging beforehand,” she said, disdainfully. “You must not think me silly. Now go on from the very beginning.”
Seated on the iron bench with his gaze fixed seaward, Heron employed the best part of an hour in telling the story. Ruth, for the most part, listened quietly, only now and again putting a question so much to the point as to amaze her companion. And as he neared the end, and these questions and comments became more frequent, Geoffrey congratulated himself on having taken her into his confidence.
“Poor Neil!” she sighed at last. “How he must have suffered!”
“And how he does suffer,” Heron said, gloomily. “He loves his mother beyond any created being, and he will never be at peace until he sees her rescued from the fate to which she has been so unjustly condemned.”
“That shall be our task,” responded Ruth, with alacrity. “Neil is too weak a man to take this burden upon him. Now I know why I could never love him altogether, why I was never satisfied.”
“What do you mean?” asked Heron, anxiously.
“Well, it is this way,” said Miss Cass, drawing figures on the gravel with the tip of her umbrella. “I fell in love with him when I heard him play, he looked so handsome and so noble—so inspired; but when we were together something always seemed to be wanting. I know now what it was—strength, the strength of a man. I believe, Geoffrey,” she went on without noticing that she was using his Christian name, “that what a woman wants in a husband is a master. I wonder if I shall ever get what I want? I don’t know. Are there such men?” She looked sideways at Heron, not in a coquettish way, but rather wistfully.
Geoffrey felt that embarrassment which every honest man feels at the thought of having an egotistical speech forced upon him. He loved this girl, and he was sure that she loved him.
“Well, Geoffrey,” she said, after waiting in vain for a reply, “I will be your wife.”
“You will! My dearest!”
“Hush! Don’t take my hands; don’t speak so loud. We are in a public place, remember, and many eyes are on us. Yes, I will marry you, for you are—a man!”
“But I can never be your master, dearest,” he said, filled with delight; “for who would rule a dove?”
“Ah! but that is where you are mistaken. I am not a dove by any manner of means. I am a very self-willed girl; my presence here proves that. I know you won’t be a tyrant and thwart me in little things; but when I am your wife I know that you, not I, will have the last word; and that is what I wish it to be.”
“Well, perhaps there is some truth in what you say,” he admitted, “but you shall have your own way, dear—always.”
“Yes, always, that is when it fits in with your own ideas; but I am quite willing to take you on those terms. You are as strong as Neil, poor fellow! is weak; and that reminds me,” she added, hastily, “that we must not waste time in talking about ourselves. I must get back to Brighton.”
“Are you staying there? May I—”
“Yes, I am staying with an old schoolfellow.” She gave him her address. “And you may come over when you can, but don’t neglect poor Neil for me. We must settle this business first. Let us talk of it.”
“I would rather talk of you,” he said, ruefully. “However, duty before pleasure. What were you going to say?”
“This. I believe that Mrs. Jenner is not guilty. If she were, she would have asserted her innocence. The mere fact that she held her tongue is so wonderful for a woman that I am sure she did not kill her husband.”
“Oh, she is innocent enough; let us accept that as a foregone conclusion,” said Geoffrey, hastily. He would not reveal the real reason why Mrs. Jenner had not spoken lest Neil’s secret should come to light; so he let Ruth make what she liked out of the woman’s silence.
“Very good; we have decided that she is innocent. Now we must find out who is guilty. I agree with you, Geoffrey, that the murder was committed by some stranger. Jenner was near the window, and the crime was committed in order to get possession of that red pocket-book which had the materials for blackmailing in it. Now, what we have to learn is what manner of life he led in the past; find out with whom he associated, and who there was he would have been likely to blackmail—then we shall know who killed him. Now, how are we to obtain all that information?”
“From Mrs. Jenner. I will see her again. She told me all about the murder, but nothing relating to her past life.”
“There is another person who can tell,” Ruth said, thoughtfully. “My father. Oh, I know—I found out—how, it doesn’t matter—that Jenner was a clerk in papa’s office, that Mrs. Jenner was my sister Amy’s governess. I’ll ask her. She may know something about Mrs. Jenner and her husband likely to throw light on all this. And I must go to the Turnpike House, for there I may find some evidence—I don’t know what—but something.” Ruth sighed. “I will go to the Turnpike House if only out of curiosity. Now, this is what we have to do: You must see Mrs. Jenner, and find out all you can, setting it down in writing. I will question papa and Amy, and write down all that they tell me. And I will go to the Turnpike House, then we will meet and compare notes. Is it agreed?”
She rose to her feet.
“Yes, it is agreed. But do not go yet.”
“I must, or I shall not catch my train, and, besides, I am hungry and thirsty. I want to go back to Mrs. Jent’s and get a cup of tea. Come.”
“Will you see Neil?” he asked as they walked towards the cottage.
She shook her head. “I think not; the sight of me will only agitate him. You need not say anything about my having been until he is quite better.”
“It is odd that you should have spoken of your sister,” Heron said, abruptly, “for Neil has been worrying about her, or, at least, about her eldest boy, George.”
“Ah, George is a great friend of his and adores him; but what is he worrying about George for?”
“Well, he got it into his head some little time ago that he was going to die, and he wanted to leave George some gift or another.”
“Why didn’t he do that in his will?”
“Well, I expect because it was hardly worth setting down in a legal document, for the gift is only a toy horse, a brown animal of but little beauty. Neil has had it all his life, and has an extraordinary affection for it. Nothing would do but that I should take it to George. So now, as you will no doubt be going up to your sister’s in town, you might save me the journey by taking it for me. Will you, dear? It is wrapped up and all ready to go.”
Ruth laughed. “Oh, I will take it with pleasure, and I’m quite sure George will be delighted. He is five now, and just the age for such a toy. By the way, I suppose you know that Amy has engaged Jennie Brawn to teach him?”
“Has she really? And what may she be going to teach him—how to write poetry?”
“Geoffrey, I really can’t have you making fun of Jennie, for she is the dearest girl in all the world. Now, I know what you are going to say, and you may just save yourself the trouble. It was I who asked Amy to engage her. Her family are all so poor, and she makes next to nothing out of her poetry besides, her sister is old enough to look after the house. Amy is paying her very well, too. I will say that for Amy, she is not shabby over money.”
Geoffrey laughed and held open the gate. Ruth was received by her old nurse with some stiffness, for Mrs. Jent had not yet forgiven the trick which had been played upon her. But the girl apologised so charmingly that the heart of the old dame was softened, and when she heard from Mr. Heron that Miss Cass was going to help him prove Mrs. Jenner’s innocence and so restore Neil’s peace of mind she became quite herself again.
“Though I don’t see, sir, how you are going to help Mrs. Jenner,” she said. “She killed him sure enough; she killed him.”
“No, she didn’t,” Ruth said, decidedly. “I am certain she is innocent.”
“If she was, why didn’t she say so?” Mrs. Jent asked.
“That Mr. Heron is going to find out from her.”
“I shall ask her, of course,” Heron said, in some confusion.
Ruth’s eyes were on him like a flash, and Ruth’s eyes saw more than they were intended to see.
“You know why she did not speak, Geoffrey?”
“Yes, I do,” he confessed, “but I cannot tell you why. Don’t ask me.”
“Has it to do with Neil?”
“Don’t ask me,” he repeated, with a frown. “I decline to tell you.”
Meanwhile Mrs. Jent had prepared the table, observing betweenwhiles that Neil still slept. Geoffrey had already been to see him, having seized the opportunity while Ruth and her old nurse were making up their tiff; and he reported that the invalid looked much better for the rest. He had brought with him a paper parcel.
“Here is the horse, Ruth,” he said.
“The horse!” cried Mrs. Jent, who was pouring out the tea. “Is that my dear boy’s horse—the one he wants to give to little Master Chisel?”
“Yes, I should have sent it long ago, but now Miss Ruth will take it.”
“Don’t you, miss, don’t you!” said the old woman. “It will bring no good luck to the child. That was the toy with which my dear boy was playing when his father was murdered!”
“Ugh!” exclaimed the girl, dropping the parcel with horror.
“Ah, you may well say that.” And Mrs. Jent nodded her head. “I don’t know what possesses Mr. Neil to give it to Master George. It is true my dear boy loves it. But think of the history! He has forgotten it. He carried that toy with him when his poor mother ran away into the night. All through his illness he held to it, and when we took it away he cried so much that we had to give it back. The nasty thing!” finished Mrs. Jent with energy. “Throw it into the fire.”
“No, no,” cried Geoffrey, picking it up. “Neil would never forgive us if we did that. I’ll keep it here and not give it to George at all.”
“Give it to me,” and Ruth took the parcel from him. “I won’t let George have it, but I’ll take it down with me to Hollyoaks.”
“What for?” asked Geoffrey, uneasily. “It has disagreeable associations.”
“For that very reason,” said Ruth. “There is a clairvoyant near our place, a lady I know very well. If you put a thing into her hands she can tell you all about it.”
“Nonsense!” cried Geoffrey, laughing, while Mrs. Jent held up her hands and muttered something about the Witch of Endor.
“It is not nonsense,” Ruth said, energetically. “Mrs. Garvey tells the most wonderful things. At all events I’ll try her with this. Who knows but she may see in her vision—which this will bring to her”—said Ruth in parenthesis—“the face of the murderer looking through the window.”
“I don’t believe a word of it,” laughed Geoffrey, with the scepticism of a man of the world. “It is ridiculous. However, if you like you can try, but don’t ask me to be present at your hanky-panky.”
“I won’t,” laughed Ruth. “But I’ll make a convert of you by getting Mrs. Garvey to say who killed Neil’s father.”
“Hush!” murmured Mrs. Jent, glancing nervously at the inner door. “He will hear. Make no mistake, Miss, Mrs. Jenner did it.”
“I am certain she did not. However, I trust Mrs. Garvey to put us on the right track. I take the horse down with me.” And take it she did, with results quite unexpected to herself, to Heron, and to Mrs. Jent.
Then she had a cup of tea and was escorted by Geoffrey to the station. Needless to say she teased him the whole way.
In another week Ruth took leave of the delights of Brighton, much to the regret of Mrs. Presser. A letter from Hollyoaks had advised her that Mrs. Chisel and her three children were down on a visit, and that Jennie Brawn, in the capacity of governess, was with them. Mr. Cass, it appeared, had gone to Bordeaux on business, so Ruth was wanted to represent him at the paternal mansion. And anxious to start hunting for evidence likely to reveal the truth about the Jenner case, she willingly returned.
Mrs. Chisel was a tall and somewhat stout woman of the Junoesque type, with a high opinion of herself, her children, her position, her money, and, indeed, of everything which belonged to her, with the one exception of her husband. When Mrs. Marshall heard that Amy Chisel was at Hollyoaks she sent word that she would not enter her brother’s house until it was purged of the presence of his elder daughter. In reply to this amiable message Mrs. Chisel hoped her aunt Inez would not spoil her visit by coming over. Upon which Mrs. Marshall made a point of calling every other day and remarking openly and unfavourably upon her niece’s management of her children.
These comments were really quite undeserved; for the three children whom Mrs. Chisel—on sufficiently obvious authority—called “her jewels” were nice little people, pretty and well-behaved. The two girls, aged respectively seven and ten, were demure and even a trifle prim. They were always smartly dressed and never made a mess of their clothes. And, moreover, they stood in great awe of their mother, who, as she frequently told them, was a woman in a thousand. It was as well, perhaps, for the peace of the world that such was the case.
Needless to say, Ruth did not present Neil’s gift to her little nephew. Mrs. Garvey must see it; and meanwhile she kept it stowed away; for had her sister known that it was intended for George, she would have had it out of her at all costs.
It was on the morning after her arrival that Ruth and Amy had their first little encounter; the subject of it being Mr. Geoffrey Heron.
“What a fool you have made of yourself falling in love with that violin creature!” cried Mrs. Chisel in her high rasping voice. “He is no fit husband for you!”
“He would, after all, make a more sensible husband than Julian,” retorted Ruth, who shared her sister’s opinion of the unhappy Chisel. “And, thank you, Amy, I have a right to choose a husband for myself.
“You are not fit to do so,” remarked Mrs. Chisel, with her customary tact. “If you were a sensible girl you would marry Geoffrey Heron, and take a good position in the county.”
“I would not marry Mr. Heron if there were not another man in the world” cried the girl, mendaciously. “Why are you so disagreeable, Amy?”
“Disagreeable?” echoed the matron. “I am the most agreeable woman in existence when I am properly treated. No one but my own family thinks me disagreeable.”
“Ah! they know you so well,” said Ruth.
“That’s just it; you none of you know me. If I were like Aunt Inez, now, you might talk; she is disagreeable, if you like.”
“Well, Amy,” said Ruth, who had more important things to discuss, “do not let us quarrel.”
“Do I ever quarrel? I ask you that!”
“No; you never do,” replied the girl, knowing well what answer was expected. “But do leave my marriage prospects alone, my dear!”
“I’m the last person in the world to interfere,” cried Mrs. Chisel. “I think a girl should settle those things for herself. But I must say I should be happy if I saw you married to Geoffrey Heron.”
“In that case you’ll live for many a long day yet.” And Ruth made a hurried exit.
This was one of many tiffs they had. In spite of Ruth’s diplomacy, Amy would make trouble; so, in despair, Miss Cass asked Aunt Inez to come as often as possible—and the amiable lady, knowing Amy did not want her, took good care to come. So Ruth was left in peace; for when the battles were raging, she generally took refuge with Jennie.
One of the first things she did on meeting Miss Brawn was to tell her all about Neil’s troubles; that she had promised Geoffrey to say nothing about them did not matter to her. For she was a woman, and found it difficult enough to keep a secret; besides which, she knew that Jennie could be trusted, being a girl who could hold her tongue when necessary. And Ruth wanted someone with whom she could discuss the case, and any new facts which came to light. So there and then she told Jennie everything.
“Isn’t it terrible, dear?” she said when Miss Brawn was in possession of the whole sad story. “What do you think of it?”
“I think Mrs. Jenner would be the last person in the world to kill her husband, from what you say of her. But, oh, the poor Master! How he must suffer! Ruth, was it because of this you gave him up?” And she looked volumes of reproach.
“No, my dear, it was not. If I had really loved him this would only have made me cling closer; but I merely admired him—as you said. And I find that I like Geoffrey Heron better.”
“But you told your sister—”
“I know what I told her!” snapped Ruth. “I am not going to give her the satisfaction of thinking she has biassed my judgment in any way. You must keep my secret, Jennie, until I have told my father. When he has consented, which I know he will do very willingly, Geoffrey and I can arrange our future. But I do not want our engagement to be known until this mystery has been cleared up.
“It may never be cleared up.”
“Oh yes, it will. I have taken the matter in hand,” said the girl, grandly. “If the truth is to be found out, I shall be the one to find it. And I am going to the Turnpike House to make a search.”
“What do you expect to find?”
“I don’t know,” she said, vaguely. “I may discover something—I don’t exactly know what; but, at all events,” she broke off, “it will do no harm to make a search on the very scene of the tragedy. As to Neil—now that he won’t marry me—you can make love to him, Jennie dear!”
Miss Brawn coloured. “I shall do nothing of the sort,” she declared. “I love him, it is true; but I am not going to hunt after him, or after any man, for that matter.”
“My dear,” Ruth said, and there was a world of pity in her voice, “you can’t live with Amy all your life—she will wear you out!”
Jennie laughed in her quiet way. “I am not so easily worn out,” she said; “and, indeed, I am very comfortable with Mrs. Chisel; she is most kind. I daresay some people would think her trying, but, after all, her heart is in the right place.”
“Ah, that is always said about people who have nothing else to recommend them,” Ruth said, with a grimace. “Well, I am going out now to make my grand discovery at the Turnpike House—and you, Jennie?”
“Oh, I have my teaching. Mildred and Ethel must have their lessons.”
“It is not as nice as writing poetry.”
“No, of course not. But we can’t have all we want in this world.”
“You shall have Neil, if I can get him for you.”
“Don’t—don’t! I should die of shame if you said a word to him. Now, promise me, Ruth, that you will not interfere.”
“Not without telling you. Oh, you stupid dear, there are ways of managing a man without speaking. But have no fear,” she added, “Neil is far enough away just now, and won’t be well, poor fellow, for many a long day. You are safe from my match-making for a time, Jennie.”
“I’m glad of that. You are so impetuous, you know.”
Miss Cass laughed, and, with a nod, took her departure. Mrs. Chisel saw her from the drawing-room window and frowned. “There she goes all alone, to walk by herself,” she said, tautologically. “It is positively indecent to see a young girl without a chaperon. But, then, Ruth is so headstrong.” And Mrs. Chisel sighed to think how foolish the girl was not to take her for a model.
But Ruth’s beauty was well protected by Ruth’s temper; and she would have travelled through Thibet as fearlessly as she now walked through the lonely country towards the old Turnpike House.
With her usual perversity Miss Cass did not keep to the high road as an ordinary young lady should and would have done; she made a bee-line for her destination right across country, She passed through fields, and clambered over hedges; she slipped along by paths, until in a remarkably short space of time she saw the dilapidated house nested in its green jungle. It looked haggard and evil even in the cheerful light of the morning sun.
“Well, here I am!” she said, tempting Fate with her usual bold speech. “What is going to happen next?”
As if in answer to her call, a face suddenly appeared at the window—the very window, as she believed through which the assassin had struck at his unhappy victim. It was a swarthy, cunning face with coal-black eyes, having over them the kind of film which veils the eyes of birds. The tangled black hair crowned a sallow, lean, Oriental countenance; and the un-English look of the man—for it was a man—was accentuated by a red scarf twisted round a sinewy throat. It was not his foreign appearance that startled Ruth, but the look of death on the face. He was far gone in consumption. Seeing a pretty girl he leered, and cast a sly glance of admiration at her.
“Duvel! My beauty,” he croaked, hoarsely. “What’s to do here?”
“Nothing that can possibly matter to you,” retorted Miss Cass, who was not to be daunted by a gypsy. “Are you living here?”
“I live here at times,” said the man, evidently surprised at the boldness of her address, “but mostly I’m on the road and in the tent of the Romany. I’m no Gorgio to care for a roof-tree; but it’s cruel work in this England.”
“I see the climate is killing you,” replied Ruth, for she was sorry to see so fine a man suffering from an incurable disease. “You should get a doctor to see you.”
“Oh, my gorgeous angel, what things you say!” whined the man. “Where am I to get the tizzy to pay? Give me a shilling, Miss.”
The girl took a half-crown from her pocket and gave it to him. He disappeared from the window and came outside. Man and girl surveyed each other in silence.
“What is your name?” Ruth asked coolly.
“Job,” he said. “I belong to the Lovels, I do. And I’m a Sapengro, I am.”
Job slipped his hand into his breast and brought out a small viper with gleaming eyes, and a yellow body which glittered like gold. “This is a sap,” he said, and held the reptile towards Ruth.
“Oh, I see. You are the master of the snake.”
“Duvel!” The gypsy stared at her in astonishment, and the film seemed to peel off his eyes. “Do you know the black language?”
“I know that ‘engro’ means a ‘master,’“ the girl said, carelessly, “and you tell me that ‘sap’ is ‘snake’ so I put the two together. Master of the Snake, Job Lovel—that’s what you are.”
“Hang me if I ever heard a Gentile lady so bold!” cried the man, with another stare, slipping the hissing viper back into his breast. “But I say, lady, have you more coin—a mere sovereign now?”
“I have not; and if I had, you would not get it.”
“But if I were to make you!” Job took a step forward.
“I would run this through you!” And the gypsy found a shining steel weapon at his breast. He started back with an oath. Ruth laughed; and there was a merciless ring in her mirth which did more to terrify the man than the sight of the weapon itself. “You are a brave Sapengro, brother, to try and terrify a woman!” she said, in the Romany tongue.
“Duvel!” cried Job again, and his expression changed to one of friendliness and admiration. “Why didn’t you say you were a Romany?”
“Because I am a Gentile, brother,” Ruth said, still in the calo jib. “I took a fancy to learn your tongue, and I learnt it from a gypsy. I knew Lurien, Dukkeripen, Hakkeripen, and all the rest. Well, can I put up my dagger?”
“You are a sacred sister to me,” said Job, with deep respect; and she saw from his manner that she had nothing further to fear. Indeed, he offered her the half-a-crown which she had already given him. “Take it, sister,” he said. “You are a true gypsy to me, and I take nothing from you.”
She laughed, and slipped her dagger into its sheath. “Keep it, Job,” she said, reverting to the English tongue. “I see you are poor and ill.”
“I am dying,” replied the man in a sombre tone, still looking at her. “Ah, soon I shall be in the earth with my sap—my only friend.”
“You had better go to Hollyoaks and get some food.
“Hollyoaks?” he repeated, fixing his shining eyes on this—to him—very extraordinary Gentile lady. “Do you live there? Is your name Cass?”
“Yes; I am the daughter of Mr. Cass, of Hollyoaks.”
“Duvel! and you come here!” he said, under his breath, and casting a glance at the cottage behind him.
“Why shouldn’t I come here?” she asked, sharply. She fancied she saw an uneasy look on his face.
“Oh, nothing, my sister—nothing. You have an aunt—she is not Romany?”
“Mrs. Marshall? No. She knows nothing of the calo jib. Why do you ask?”
Job burst out laughing, and nodded. “I go to her house for food sometimes. She won’t see me die for want of a crust. But you are her niece,” there was a puzzled look in his eyes. “Can I help you?”
“No. I only came to look at the place. There was a murder committed here.”
“Yes; but that was before I came into this part of the country. Well, sister, what of that?”
“Nothing. You can go; I want to look round here for a time.
“I go, sister,” he said, significantly. He held out the viper. “Will you take the sap, my gorgeous Gentile lady?”
“Ugh! No.” She recoiled with a shriek from the wriggling reptile. “Take the nasty thing away!”
He stared and thrust it again into his bosom.
“Ho!” he said. “You are a queer Gentile, you—like a man for boldness; yet you fear a sap! Oh, rare.” And he slapped his knee with a chuckle.
“Go away,” repeated Ruth. “Go to Hollyoaks and get some food.”
“Duvel!” he cried, quickly. “I’m for the road. My hunger is great. Farewell, sister, I shall see you again,” and he swung off with a hacking cough tearing him, and smiling his careless smile.
His tall form passed into the sunlight and vanished round a curve of the road. Ruth watched him till he was out of sight, then took her cane and began poking about the rubbish under the window where, as Geoffrey surmised, the murderer had stood watching his intended victim. On bending down to examine the ground more carefully, she saw something glittering dimly. Almost without thinking she picked it up, and found to her surprise and joy that it was an oval piece of gold with a champagne bottle enamelled thereon with exquisite art. On the other side was a catch which proved that the oval had formed part of a cuff-link. Holding it in her small pink palm, Ruth looked now on this treasure with the greatest delight.
“This was dropped by the murderer,” she said to herself. “It was torn from his shirt cuff as he struck the blow, or there might have been a quick struggle. Fancying my finding it after all these years! The rain from the eaves has laid it bare. Ah! then the assassin was a gentleman. Well, I ought to be satisfied with my day’s work, but I shall come again. What good fortune to have found this the very first time.”
She was so excited that she almost danced along the road as she took her way home. But after a while she sobered down somewhat and glanced suspiciously around for there had come upon her an undefinable feeling of being watched.
If Ruth had but gone carefully through the deserted hovel she would have made yet another discovery. Her instinct had not played her false when she had felt that unfriendly eyes were upon her. For she had been watched, and the watcher now emerged from the house to see her disappear down the road. Much later on she came to know of the spy.
At all events she had found the link—the pale gold oval with the champagne bottle enamelled upon it. It was a strange device, she thought, for a sleeve-link; certainly it was the first of the kind she had seen. And she fancied that the other portions of the links would bear the same design; but in this she was wrong. What she had found proved to her that the assassin had been a gentleman; for no poor creature could have afforded to wear such jewellery. But how to make use of the discovery? How was she to find out to whom the link had belonged, especially now that so many years had passed? The owner might be dead; he might be out of England! There remained the one expedient of asking Mrs. Jenner if she could remember anyone who had worn such links. So this Ruth made up her mind to do as soon as she could see Geoffrey. He might question the unfortunate woman; and through a series of leading questions the truth might be revealed. Meanwhile, feeling that nothing else was to be done for the moment, she went to see Mrs. Garvey. With her powers, she might reveal strange things about the owner of that piece of gold.
The girl had intended to take the brown horse with her; but on going to the drawer in which she had put it she found it empty. Then she remembered that her little nieces had received permission to turn over her silks and laces she questioned them about the missing toy, and Ethel, the eldest, frankly confessed that they had taken it for their brother George.
“I hope you do not mind, Aunt Ruth,” the child said, pleadingly; “you said we could take what we liked that wet day, so long as we put the things tidy. We thought George might like the horse, so we gave it to him.”
Strange, thought Ruth, that the toy should have passed into the very hands for which it was intended; but she shuddered at the thought of the lad playing with a thing of such ghastly associations! It was her own fault; she had forgotten that it was in that drawer when she had told the children that they might play with her chiffons.
“But I told you, Ethel, to put them back,” she said. “Why did you not replace the toy?”
Ethel drew a piteous lip and tears came into her eyes. “Oh, don’t be cross, Aunt Ruth, and don’t tell mother! You know how angry she will be. We put everything back but the horse, and George would not give it up to us.”
“Why could you not take it from him?” her aunt asked, impatiently.
“Because he has hidden it away,” sobbed the little girl. “He won’t say where it is.”
So, after pacifying the child, Ruth went off in search of George. She came upon that young gentleman on the terrace playing with a cart. Naturally, she looked for the horse which should have been drawing the vehicle, but no horse was to be seen. “Where is your gee-gee?” coaxed Aunt Ruth.
“Gone to grass,” lisped George, who was precocious beyond telling.
“You bring him back from grass, Georgie, and give him to Aunt Ruth.”
But this he positively refused to do. The animal was hidden away, and all she could say or do failed to compel its production. “Dobbin is ill; he is in the paddock,” was all that he would say. And from this position she failed to move him.
Ultimately she had to go without it. She made George promise to bring it from the paddock next day, and relying on this slender chance of recovering a toy which should never have fallen into his hands, Ruth went her way, hoping to learn something from Mrs. Garvey about the broken link.
Mrs. Garvey was a thin, pale woman, who practised the calling of a clairvoyant, in opposition to her husband’s wishes.
“My dear!” cried the lady, receiving Ruth with great effusion. “I am glad to see you. But this is not unexpected; for it was borne in upon me, by some telepathic communication, that you were in trouble, and would come to me for assistance. Well. I am quite ready to give it to you.”
“Do you know—” Ruth began, somewhat puzzled by this exordium.
“I know nothing—nor do I wish to know. The spiritual insight I possess will reveal to me what is for your good. Come into my temple, and I will see what is to be done.”
The room which was dignified by the name of temple was a small bare apartment thickly carpeted, the windows being darkened by green blinds. For quite three minutes there was a dead silence. Then Mrs. Garvey spoke. “Murder,” she said, in a low emotional voice. “This piece of gold has to do with a crime. I see a bare room—a child with a knife in his hand—a dead man at the child’s feet. There is hate in my heart—not of the child; but of the dead. I am in the darkness—in mist—in rain—the dead man is my enemy he will trouble me no more.”
“But who are you?” cried Ruth, her blood running cold at hearing the circumstances of the crime so minutely described.
The woman gave a low cry. “I will not tell—I will not tell!” she said, in a fierce voice, quite at variance with that in which she usually spoke. “I am safe after all these years! I am—you—will never—” Her voice died away in a drawl, and she became silent.
“Tell me more—more!” cried Ruth, springing towards her. But Mrs. Garvey made no reply. The influence of the spirit, of the piece of gold, or whatever else it was that moved her, had passed, and she was in what appeared to be a heavy sleep.
Seeing that nothing further was to be got out of her for the moment, Ruth obeyed the instructions which she had received beforehand, and drawing up the green blind, opened the window. The light and the keen air pouring into the room seemed to dispel Mrs. Garvey’s drowsiness. She stirred, moved her arms, and woke with a yawn to find Miss Cass bending over her. Of all that had passed she was evidently quite oblivious; she even seemed surprised at the sight of her visitor’s scared face.
“My dear,” she said at last, “I hope I have not been telling you anything very terrible!”
“Don’t you know what you have said?”
“No. Something speaks through me; I am only the vehicle. I remember nothing when I come out of my trances.”
“Do you know anything about the Turnpike House murder?”
Mrs. Garvey started. “Ah! it was about that crime you have been asking me—the Jenner tragedy? I know—the man was murdered by his wife. And what has this piece of gold got to do with it?”
“It belonged to the murderer,” Ruth said with a shudder. “It seemed to me that you spoke in the person of the murderer. You described the room, its appearance at the time of the crime—the dead body, and a child holding a knife, and looking on. Then you said you were in darkness, that you would never be found out, and—oh! you said a lot of strange things—that the child had a knife in his hand, and that he was standing over the body,” faltered Ruth, thinking she was about to hear that Neil had killed his father.
Mrs. Garvey shook her head. “It was not the child,” she said, decidedly; “he would not have had those links about him. The man who killed his father wore them, else I could not have told you what I did. Where did you find this piece of gold?”
“Under the window of the room in which the crime was committed. What you say fits in with my own belief that the blow was struck through the window. You can’t remember who you were—in the trance, I mean?”
“No,” said the woman gently; “I remember nothing. Find the man to whom the link belongs. I can give no further or better advice than that.”
“That is easier said than done,” protested the girl. “How am I to find the man?”
Mrs. Garvey shook her head. She could give no more information, and she said so. Moreover, she was exhausted after the effort she had made, seeing which Ruth took her broken link and returned home more perplexed than ever; that being the usual frame of mind of those who dabble in the supernatural. Yet she fully believed what the clairvoyant had told her; Mrs. Garvey could not possibly have known of the scene in that bare room immediately after the crime had been committed. Mrs. Jenner alone could have described it; and she had told it only to Geoffrey Heron.
Although Miss Cass’s thoughts were much taken up with the case, she saw no way of prosecuting further inquiries. The toy horse in the hands of the clairvoyant might perhaps have helped her; but, truth to tell, she had forgotten all about it! Meanwhile she wrote to Geoffrey and related what had happened. With regard to the clairvoyant, she quite expected that the hard-headed young man would scoff at her; but, much, to her surprise, he did not. In place of a letter, the young squire himself appeared, with full permission from Neil to tell Ruth the reason why his mother had held her peace. He did not stay at Hollyoaks, but drove over from his own place.
Mrs. Chisel received him with effusion, and worried him with questions about himself; and all the time, for reasons of his own connected with love and business, he was dying to be alone with Miss Cass. At length, however, Mrs. Chisel, putting it in her own graceful way, thought it would only be fair to give poor Ruth her chance of pushing her conquest; so she left the winter garden on the plea that her dear children required their mother’s eye; and Geoffrey Heron proceeded at once to the business which had brought him.
“I am beginning to think something of your clairvoyant after all,” he said. “What you wrote to me about Mrs. Garvey’s description of the scene must be wonderfully accurate; yes, even to the child with the knife in his hand. That child was Neil; and it was because his mother found him standing thus that she has undergone all this punishment without speaking a word in her own defence.”
“Gracious!” was Ruth’s not very original exclamation. “Did she believe that he had killed his father? How terrible!”
“Very terrible!” said Heron, gravely. “Now you can understand how it was that Webster was taken ill. For his mother had told him that she believed him to have killed his father; then she forbade him to re-open the case. She was perfectly willing to remain where she was so long as he was safe and free.”
“Oh, she is a noble woman!” cried Ruth. “But it was not Neil who either consciously or unconsciously committed the crime; Mrs. Garvey says he did not. But who it was she cannot tell. One moment, Geoffrey, and I will tell you all more explicitly than I could do by letter.” And she proceeded to relate the whole story from beginning to end.
“Well, we are as far from the truth as ever,” Geoffrey said, when she had finished. “I think the next step is to show that broken link to Mrs. Jenner. She may be able to remember someone who used to wear such an ornament.”
Ruth took the link out of her purse and gave it to him. “But you will send it back again when you have done with it?” she said. “I want to keep it.”
“As a memento of this horrible affair?” he asked, with a smile. “You are like the man who had a book bound in a human skin. I do not care for such things myself; but you shall have it back with a full report of what Mrs. Jenner says. And now, dear, I think we may talk a little about ourselves. After all, this case is not the whole of life to us.”
And they did talk about themselves. Among other things, she told him of her encounter with Job, the Sapengro, and his astonishment when she had spoken to him in the Romany tongue. “How on earth did you learn it?” he asked, amazed.
“Oh, when I was at school, and after I left, too, I was fond of reading Lavengro.”
Then they dropped the subject, and were busy talking of themselves and their prospects when Mrs. Chisel glided into the room; and Geoffrey found that he had an important engagement at the nearest town, and took his leave. For the society of the elder sister was more than he could endure. They both went to see him off, and at the door a few whispered words passed between him and Ruth. Mrs. Chisel was immediately on the alert.
“What did he say to you?” she asked as soon as he was out of earshot.
“He made me an offer of marriage, which, of course, I refused,” Ruth said, flippantly, and then darted off to seek safety in her own room before the offended matron could empty upon her the vials of her wrath.
On her way up she was stopped by Mildred Chisel, who held up a new doll for inspection. “I call her Jane,” said the small child, in a confidential whisper. “She is new, but her clothes are old. See, Aunt Ruth, she has all the dresses and brooches of old Peggy.”
Ruth looked carelessly at the doll. Then her eyes were suddenly caught by an ornament which served, in Mildred’s eyes, for a brooch. It was a gold oval, enamelled with a horse, and it was the double—in all but the device—of the link which she had found. “Where did you get that?” she asked, faintly.
“Oh, grandpapa gave me that brooch!” replied the child.
For the first time in her careless, happy life Ruth knew the torments of an anxious mind. A chill struck through her very being at the suggestion that her dearly-loved father might be implicated in the sordid tragedy. Yet she did not lose her presence of mind, but wheedled the so-called brooch out of Mildred on the strict understanding that it should be restored next morning.
Her thoughts were painful in the extreme. For an examination of the piece of gold proved beyond doubt that it belonged to the same set of links as did the one she found under the window. Now Ruth recollected that in some Bond-street shop she had seen a similar set of links, the four ovals of which were enamelled respectively with a horse, a champagne bottle, a pack of cards, and a ballet girl. They were playfully denominated the four vices.
“Of course it is utterly impossible that he can have anything to do with it,” she thought as she paced her bedroom. “There could have been no motive. Yet again, how did he, of all men, come into possession of that link?”
She remembered now the horror she had felt at the idea of marrying Neil when she had come to know that his mother was—at least to all outward appearances—a murderess. She judged that if her father should be guilty then Geoffrey would feel the same towards her. Again and again she tried to find some explanation, and again and again she failed. Only by her father himself could her doubts be set at rest, and he was absent. True, he would return in three days; but how to live during that time with this hideous doubt in her mind? She could imagine now how people felt when they were going mad. Sending down an excuse for not appearing at dinner, she went to bed. To face the world, even her own small world, was more than she could bear. Her only relief was in solitude.
Of course, as might have been expected, Amy came up to fuss over her and offer advice and blame her for having made herself ill in some way which Mrs. Chisel herself would have avoided.
Then in came Jennie, creeping like a mouse, with soothing speech and cool hands for the burning brow of the sick girl.
“I am not well dear,” she said, in reply to Miss Brawn’s inquiries. “All I want is a good night’s rest. In the morning I shall be myself again.” And with this answer Jennie had to be content.
Left to herself, Ruth began her self-communings. It crossed her mind that her father, who had always been a great admirer of beauty, might have been attracted by Mrs. Jenner’s good looks. But even as she thought of it she dismissed the idea with a blush of shame. Who was she to think ill of her father? But she would certainly question Mrs. Chisel about her former governess, and would learn what had been Mr. Cass’s attitude towards her.
Ruth, anxious to propitiate her, offered on the following morning to help with the work, but was told she could not do it as Mrs. Chisel wished. In spite of which disagreeable speech she waited patiently for an opportunity of introducing the subject of Amy’s childhood and Amy’s governess, and kept her temper, as best she might, under a deluge of platitudes and self-glorification on the part of her sister.
At length, after having made attacks upon several of her acquaintances, the good lady indirectly introduced the subject upon which Ruth wished to speak by giving her opinion as to the incapacity of Jennie Brawn as governess.
“I do not say she does not do her best,” she said, magnanimously, “but, oh, dear me! Jane Brawn”—so she invariably referred to Jennie—“has no more idea of teaching than a Hottentot. I know how the thing should be done, as I have told her a dozen times, but she will not take advice.”
“What about your own governess?” put in Ruth, artfully. “Was she any good, Amy?”
“She was excellent—as a governess,” returned Mrs. Chisel, with a sniff of disparagement; “but as a woman she left much to be desired.”
“But, my dear Amy, how do you know that? You were only a child.”
“Children are much sharper than their elders give them credit for. I was ten years of age when Miss Laurence left and quite old enough to see through her designs.”
“Miss Laurence? Was that her name, Amy?”
“Yes. She afterwards married a man called Jenner, a clerk in papa’s office, and we saw no more of her as I had gone to school. A very good thing, too,” went on Mrs. Chisel, with an air of offended virtue. “My mother never liked her. And she did turn out badly, after all, murdering her husband. I can only say it was a mercy it was not papa.”
“Why should it have been papa?” asked Ruth, with a beating heart.
Mrs. Chisel tossed her head and observed that men were always men. “Papa is as good as the best of them,” she added, “but all the same, he is a son of Adam, like the rest. And when an artful minx— Ah, well, it does not do to talk of these things.”
“I see,” said Ruth, taking the bull by the horns. “Miss Laurence was pretty, papa was weak, and mamma—”
“Ruth!” screamed her sister, stopping her ears. “I will not hear these things! How can you speak so of papa? Pretty, indeed! I never thought her pretty. If you like—oh, yes, she would have made a fool of papa if mamma had not dismissed her.”
“I thought she left here to get married?”
“You may think what you like,” Mrs. Chisel said with dignity. “No one can say that I talk about the weaknesses of my parents. All the same, Mrs. Jenner, as she now is, was a minx, And made eyes at papa. I saw something of that, and I heard more. Though I was a child, I was not a fool, Ruth. Oh, it was as well that she left Hollyoaks, I can tell you. What an escape for poor, dear papa!”
And more than this Mrs. Chisel would not say. But Ruth had gathered that Miss Laurence had been an apple of discord in the house. From all that she had heard, in the strange way in which sharp children do hear things, Ruth had come to think that her mother had been more than a trifle jealous. Doubtless, if Amy’s story could be believed, she had hated Mrs. Jenner for her beauty and had got her out of the house. She anxiously awaited the return of Mr. Cass from Bordeaux.
In due time he arrived, looking all the better for his journey, and was welcomed by Mrs. Chisel with enthusiasm. He was more pleased to see his grandchildren than their mother, for, like everyone else, he found her a trifle wearisome. As for Ruth, when she saw once more her father’s grave face and kindly eyes, she was ashamed of all that had been in her mind; and she displayed so much affection that Mr. Cass was surprised, for as a rule his younger daughter was not demonstrative.
“You don’t look well, Ruth,” he said. And indeed her face was worn and thin. “What is the matter?”
“Nothing, papa. What should be the matter?”
“You are worrying about young Webster?” he asked, rather sharply.
“No, indeed,” she protested. “I have quite got over my feeling for him. It was a mere girlish fancy.”
“Of course it was,” put in Mrs. Chisel, with superior wisdom. “And she is taking my advice, papa, about Mr. Heron.”
“Is this true, Ruth?”
“Well, it may be,” she said, hesitatingly. “I like him much better than I did. Have you heard anything of Mr. Webster, papa?” For she was anxious to hear if her father knew that Neil was at Bognor.
“No, nothing. I believe he is abroad, and I sincerely hope that he will stay there. Marry Heron, my dear Ruth, and forget all about him.”
Ruth found it impossible to say more then, but determined to wait until her sister had retired for the night before seeking speech with her father.
Mr. Cass was pleasantly surprised when Ruth came into the library about ten o’clock. As a rule he saw her only for an hour in the drawing-room after dinner. He had quite expected that the two sisters would be chatting in their own rooms by this time.
“Well, my dear,” he said, gaily, “have you come to give your old father some of your company? I suppose this is to make up for my absence.”
“Yes,” she said, as gaily as she could. “You have been away so long, and I do see very little of you, papa. I want to see as much of you as possible.”
“Until you leave me for Heron,” he said, patting her hand. “Seriously, my dear, I hope you will marry him. He is a good fellow, and will make the best of husbands for my Ruth.”
“He wants me to be his wife,” Ruth said, gloomily enough. “I have not decided yet; I may or may not marry him. But you can set your mind at rest about Neil Webster, papa. I would not marry him if there was not another man in the world.”
Something in her voice struck Mr. Cass unpleasantly and he looked sharply at her. “Why not?” he demanded.
She returned his look boldly. “Because I know now why you did not wish me to be his wife,” she said.
He lifted his eyebrows. “Woman’s curiosity again,” he said, harshly. “What do you know?”
“I know that his real name is Jenner, and that his mother—”
“Stop!” cried her father, his face growing haggard before her eyes. “Who told you this nonsense?”
“It is not nonsense,” she cried in despair. “Oh, why will you not trust me? I know that it is true. Mrs. Jent told me.”
“Oh! Then that was why you went to Brighton?”
“Yes. I was quite determined to find out why you forbade the marriage.”
“I see,” he said, ironically. “Well, are you any the happier for this discovery?”
She hid her face with a cry. “Heaven knows I am the most unhappy girl in the world!” she moaned.
“Ah!” said her father, a word of meaning in his voice. “So you do love the man after all?”
“No; but—never mind. Tell me, papa, is it true?”
“Yes. You know so much now that you may as well know more. Mrs. Jenner murdered her husband and has suffered imprisonment all these years.”
“She did not murder him!” cried Ruth.
Mr. Cass, who was swinging the poker in his hands, dropped it with a crash. “Ah! and how do you know that she did not?” he asked in a stifled voice.
“Because Geoffrey says—”
“Heron!” He rose to his feet. “What has he to do with all this?”
“He is a friend of Neil’s, and—”
“A friend of Neil’s?” Mr. Cass said, incredulously. “How can that be? They never even got on well together; they were rivals. I do not believe it.”
“Will you believe me when I tell you that Geoffrey is nursing Neil at Bognor in Mrs. Jent’s house? He is, then. And Geoffrey wrote telling you that he was abroad—and Neil, too—to keep you away from Bognor.”
Mr. Cass stood as though turned to stone, and the haggard look on his face seemed to grow more marked.
“There appears to be a lot of plotting going on behind my back,” he said, quietly. “My own daughter is plotting against me. Why did you not tell me all this? No, never mind. You have told me so many lies that I cannot believe you. Do not answer that question. But I must ask you to tell me what this means?”
“I have told no lies,” cried Ruth, indignantly. “If you had been more open with me, papa, I would never have set to work to find out this affair. I will tell you all, just as it happened, and you can judge for yourself if I have been wrong.”
“Nothing can excuse your silence,” he said, bitterly. “You don’t know what harm may come of this meddling with what does not concern you. Well, I will hear your story.”
He sat down again and looked at the fire, while Ruth related all that had happened, and how Geoffrey and she had made up their minds to discover the truth. Mr. Cass listened without a word. Only when she had finished did he make an observation.
“You have done wrong,” he said, sternly. “You should have told me all this at once. I am the best friend that Neil Webster has, and it was my place to look after him, not Heron’s.”
“But is Mrs. Jenner innocent?” Ruth asked, anxiously.
“I cannot answer that question,” he said, evasively, but he clenched his fist. “At all events I will see Heron and Neil, and hear what grounds they have for believing that she did not kill the unhappy man. I can only hope, Ruth, that you will refrain from meddling in the matter any more.”
“Oh, I have done with it, papa. I’m sorry if you think I have behaved badly; but I thought I was acting for the best. You can depend upon my doing nothing more. The matter is in Geoffrey’s hands now.”
“And it will soon be in mine,” her father said, coldly. “If Mrs. Jenner is to be released I am the person to see to it.”
Ruth noticed that he did not say “If Mrs. Jenner is guiltless,” and her heart was like lead. She made up her mind to try the effect of the link, and, rising as if to go, drew it from her pocket.
“I will go to bed now,” she said, quietly. “By the way, here is something of yours,” and she placed the piece of gold before him. “Yes, it is mine,” he said, glancing at it. “I gave it to Mildred for her doll. How did it come into your possession?”
She burst into teats. The strain was getting too much for her. “Oh, papa, say it is not yours,” she wept, stretching out her hands.
“Ruth, you are hysterical,” Mr. Cass said, with some severity; and the girl noticed even then that he was a trifle nervous. “Why should I deny that it is mine? I had a set of these links made many years ago when I was foolish enough to wear such things. One pair I lost, the other remained in my desk amongst a lot of rubbish, until one day I gave one piece of it to Mildred. I had intended to have the other pair replaced, but time went on, and somehow I never had it done. Why should you cry about these things, and why do you show me this link?”
“Because I found one oval like this under the window of the Turnpike House.”
Mr. Cass rose from his chair and looked at her with a frown. “Go on,” he said.
“I have nothing more to say,” she cried with a fresh burst of tears. “I know now that the links did belong to you. How did you lose the one at the Turnpike House? The blow—”
“Was struck through the window, you would say,” her father finished, with a cold smile, “and that I struck it!”
“No, no!” she cried. “I am sure you did not. Oh, I am sure you did not, father. But ever since I have found these links I have been in terror for you. What if the one I gave Geoffrey should be traced? Oh, I wished I had kept it myself?”
“It is too late to wish anything now,” he said, bitterly, but very quietly. “I must say you are a dutiful daughter. I suppose you really mean to accuse me of having murdered Jenner?”
“I do not—I do not. I am sure you never did. You can explain.”
“I explain nothing,” he interrupted, sternly. “The links are mine. Whether I dropped a portion of one at the Turnpike House or not does not matter to you. I will see Heron and explain to him. All I ask of you is to hold your tongue.”
“I will, I will,” sobbed the girl. “But, oh, father, don’t be hard on me. I’m very sorry that I meddled at all.”
Mr. Cass looked at her in silence, and his stern face softened. “I know you do not credit me with this crime,” he said, “and I am glad you have so much grace. But even to you I cannot explain. You must trust me.”
“I do. Whom should I trust but my own dear father?”
“I wish you had thought of that before, and had not acted in this underhand way. However, it is of no use talking now. The thing is done and I must put it to rights as best I can. I will see Heron and Webster. Put all these things out of your mind, child.”
“How can I until I know the truth?” she said, passionately. “I am sure you are innocent, but I am certain, too, that it was not Mrs. Jenner who committed the murder. For Neil’s sake, for my own sake, I want the horrible thing explained.”
“Whether it will be explained or not does not rest with you or with me, my dear girl. I cannot say to you what I should wish to say. All I can advise you is to hold your tongue. If you do not Heaven knows what will happen!”
“I will say nothing,” she said, faintly, and staggered towards the door. Her father had not insisted upon his innocence as she had expected him to do; he had taken refuge in vague phrases which meant nothing. Yet she could not believe—she thrust the thought away from her. “I will go. I will say no more,” she repeated.
“Ruth,” he cried as she opened the door, “one thing I must tell you. You have either done great good or great harm. But, in either case, you have brought sorrow to this house.”
The next day Mr. Cass informed Ruth that Geoffrey Heron was coming to spend a few days at Hollyoaks. He made no attempt to conceal his reason for asking the young man.
“It is necessary,” he said, “that I should talk over this deplorable matter with him. Anything further that has to be done in connection with the possible release of Mrs. Jenner must be done through me. I am her oldest friend; I am her son’s best friend; and I have a right to bring the matter to a creditable issue. Do you not agree with me?” He looked at her keenly.
“Yes, papa, I do,” she replied, feeling more at ease in her mind now that she saw he did not shirk the investigation. “I only wish I had told you before. But you must do me the justice to own that I never expected to find you in any way connected with it.”
“The wonder is that you did not find me mixed up in it earlier,” he said. “I have had so much to do with Mrs. Jenner and her son that I could hardly help being concerned in their trouble. But you need not worry about me, child. I am quite able to protect myself and to explain, when the time comes, how that broken link came to be lost.”
“If you will only do that—”
“Ruth, is it possible that you believe your father guilty of this crime?”
“Oh, no, I do not; but—”
He turned away. “Well, say no more about it,” he said, in a softer tone than was usual with him, for he saw that the girl was terribly troubled. “There is, on the face of it, some ground for you to doubt me. I do not for a moment deny that such is the case. But I hope to right myself in your eyes. Still, you must give me time to consider the matter.”
“You are not angry with me, then?” she asked, anxiously.
“I am displeased that you should have undertaken this investigation without telling me your intention. But I can forgive you, for I know how impulsive you are. Let us say no more about it. My task is to get at the truth of this matter; and with Geoffrey’s assistance I hope to do so. All I ask is that you should be silent and leave things in my hands. And never conceal anything from me again.”
“I will do all you say,” replied his daughter, and kissed him.
In due time Geoffrey arrived. He was in high spirits and brought the best of news from Bognor. Neil was mending rapidly and would soon be on his feet again. Since he had found a friend and brother in Geoffrey he had become much less morbid, and was beginning to take quite a cheerful view of life. If his mother could only be proved innocent and set at liberty he would have little left to wish for. As for Ruth, his love for her had by some strange mental process been obliterated during his illness, and he rose from his sick-bed with nothing more than a strong feeling of friendship for the girl who had so recently been all the world to him. And, indeed, when Miss Cass came to hear of this she was not over well pleased. But it was not long before she blamed herself for her vanity, and reminded herself that this was quite the best thing that could have happened to her former lover.
After dinner Mr. Cass carried Geoffrey off to the library; he particularly wanted to have a few words alone with him, he said. Heron had not the least idea what the subject of their talk was to be, Mr. Cass having merely invited him to spend a few days at Hollyoaks, saying he had an important subject to discuss with him. And it had passed through Geoffrey’s mind that Ruth must have confided in her father their tacit engagement. He was a good deal astonished, therefore, when Mr. Cass abruptly informed him that the matter referred to was that of the Jenner murder.
“Why, Mr. Cass!” exclaimed the young man. “How do you know about that? And what do you know?”
“Ruth told me that you were interesting yourself in it,” was the reply, “and I know all that she could tell me. I was not very pleased to find that she had been getting mixed up in the affair.”
“It was her own wish,” Heron said. “I did not like it myself, and I should have been the last person in the world to tell her anything about it. But, after all, it was but the curiosity of a young girl. No one can blame her.”
“No one can blame any woman for being curious,” Mr. Cass said, drily. “All the same, feminine curiosity can do a lot of mischief when it is not properly directed—as in this instance. Will you please to tell me, Heron, exactly how Ruth found it out?”
Not knowing that Mr. Cass wished to compare his story with Ruth’s, Geoffrey willingly consented, and informed him of Ruth’s visit to Mrs. Jent, and how the outcome of it all, so far as he was concerned, had been his discovery of the fact that Ruth was willing to marry him. “And that is, after all, what I care most about,” he said, with a happy look in his eyes.
“I am very glad of it,” Mr. Cass said, soberly. “I always wanted her to marry you; I think you will be able to control her. I was afraid at one time that she would have run away with Webster.”
“I don’t think that he would have run away with her,” replied Geoffrey. “He decided to give her up when he learnt the secret of his parentage. Now he has got over his love, and is quite willing that she should marry me. Poor Neil! He has had a bad time.”
“That could not have been prevented. I did my best to spare him the knowledge of his mother’s fate. She asked me to make her the promise, and I did so.
“Do you think she is guilty?
“I really can’t say,” replied Mr. Cass with some hesitation. “When she was arrested I implored her to defend herself if she could. But she obstinately refused to open her mouth. She certainly never told me that Neil had killed his father.”
“Do you believe he did?”
“No, certainly not. I believe the child got up from his bed in a dazed condition on suddenly waking out of the trance. He came into the room and found his father lying dead with the knife on the floor beside him. Naturally enough the child picked up the knife. Then, no doubt, his reason became unsettled, added to which the cold to which he was exposed that night when his mother fled, was altogether too much for him, and he fell seriously ill.”
“He remembers nothing of all that,” Heron said. “I asked him myself. He remembers his childhood up to the time his mother put him to bed that night, or rather, I should say, up to the time when he struck at his father with the knife. His memory re-commences from the time of his recovery from the illness which followed, but the interval is a blank. Of course, he might have seen the assassin. But I am sure,” continued Heron, firmly, “that his mother is not the guilty person. She denies having committed the murder, and says she was silent on Neil’s account.”
“Does she suspect anyone?” asked Mr. Cass; and Heron noticed that he did not give an opinion as to her guilt or innocence.
“No, she cannot think who did it. I asked her about the links, or rather about the part of one which Ruth found under the window. I suppose, she told you of her discovery?”
“Yes, she did. By the way, have you the link with you?”
Heron took it out of his pocket-book and laid it on the table. “It is a curious one,” he said. “The pattern is an odd one and not in very good taste.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Mr. Cass said, with studied carelessness. “I have seen the same kind of thing. They were in vogue some years ago. Each oval has a different design on it—a ballet girl, a bottle, a horse, and a pack of cards. They were known as the ‘four vices.’ What does Mrs. Jenner say about this?”
“She cannot think who can have worn them; she says she never saw such a set before.”
Had Geoffrey Heron been an observant man he would have seen a distinct expression of relief pass over the face of his host; but he remarked nothing, and Mr. Cass went on.
“It is possible the person who killed Jenner may have dropped it,” he said. “But I am afraid it is but a slight clue after all these years. Besides, if Mrs. Jenner cannot guess the motive for the crime, I don’t see how we can.”
“She thinks the motive was fear of blackmail on the part of the assassin,” said Geoffrey.
“Ah!” said the merchant, significantly. “I am not astonished. Jenner was a clerk in my office, and as thorough a blackguard as ever walked. He was exactly the man who would have blackmailed another if he could have done so with safety. But what reason has Mrs. Jenner for thinking this?”
“Because her husband had boasted to her that in a red pocket-book which he flourished in her face he had the materials for getting money. Now, that pocket-book was not produced at the trial.”
“I see,” said Mr. Cass, his chin on his hand. “You think the murderer stabbed Jenner as he stood by the window, stole the pocket-book, and had his link wrenched off in the struggle?”
“That is the only way in which I can account for the crime.”
“It seems feasible enough,” replied the merchant, musingly. “But I do not see how I can help you to trace the man. After Jenner left my office I saw very little of him. If Mrs. Jenner cannot tell whom it was he intended to blackmail no one else can.”
“She does not know, Mr. Cass. Her husband gave her no hint. All he said was that he could make money out of what he had in that pocket-book. She held her tongue, as you know, for her son’s sake; now she sees that it was wrong. But she did it for the best.
“I suppose she did,” said Mr. Cass, giving the link back to Heron. “But I wish she had spoken out when I asked her. I could not induce her to be frank. She merely declared that she was prepared to suffer. Well,” Mr. Cass rose to his feet, “I don’t think there is anything more to be said, Heron.”
“But how are we to continue the search?”
“Leave it in my hands for the moment. I will see Mrs. Jenner, and between the two of us, seeing we knew Jenner better than anyone else, we may find out who it was he intended to blackmail. If that should fail, I really don’t know what to suggest.
“Well, I will wait till you have seen her,” Geoffrey said, and went off to bed.
He rose early, and was out walking up and down the terrace before breakfast. Ruth was not down, but he could see Jennie Brawn playing with little George Chisel and Ethel. Mildred was not visible, but in a few minutes he found her seated in a disconsolate attitude on the steps.
“What is the matter?” he asked, for he was fond of children.
“It’s Aunt Ruth,” said the child, tearfully. “She won’t give me back my doll’s brooch.”
“Oh, I’ll ask her to give it back. What is it like?” He asked the question carelessly, little dreaming of what the answer would be, nor guessing the consequences which would ensue.
“It’s a gold brooch, with a horse on it, a dear little horse.”
Even then it did not enter his mind that the brooch referred to had any connection with the links of which he had spoken to his host the night, before.
“How big was it?” he asked. “If Aunt Ruth won’t give it back I’ll try and get you one like it.”
“Oh, I think grandfather will give me another,” Mildred said, hopefully. “He gave me this. It is this size,” she drew a small oval in the dust with her finger, “and that shape, with a horse on it in pretty colours, and a little thing on the back to put a thread through so that my doll can wear it. It is so pretty.” Heron felt as if he had received a blow. For was not the child describing, with the exception of the design, the broken link he had in his pocket? And she had got it from her grandfather! Without a word he took the link out of his pocket and showed it to the child. She pounced on it with a scream of delight.
“Why, that’s my brooch!” she cried. And then on a nearer view: “No, it isn’t. Here’s a nasty bottle! Mine had a horse on it.”
The young man remembered the description given by Mr. Cass of the links known as the “four vices,” and he could no longer refuse to believe that it was he who had given Mildred the link which matched the one now in her hands. And that link had been found under the window of the very room in which the crime had been committed! “Could it be possible— No! No!” cried Geoffrey, staggering back, his ruddy face pale. “It cannot be!”
“What is the matter, Mr. Heron? Are you ill?” asked the child, rising.
“No, I am not ill, dear. But give me back my brooch.”
“I don’t like it,” she said, thrusting it into his hand. “A nasty bottle! Mine with the horse was much nicer. I’ll ask grandfather to give me another. Now I’m going to play, Mr. Heron, do ask Aunt Ruth to give me back my dear little brooch.”
The prattle of the child worried him terribly. “Yes, yes,” he said, impatiently; “but run away and play now, dear.” And as Mildred scampered off “Great Heavens!” he thought. “Can Cass have murdered the man? Impossible! He could have had no motive.”
He was thankful to be alone, for he felt that in his present state of mind he could speak to no one. Therefore, still thinking of the new discovery he had made he felt annoyed to see Jennie Brawn leave the children and come towards him. He would have escaped her by walking off, but she called to him, and he had, perforce, to remain. She looked anxious and worried.
“Mr. Heron, I wish to speak to you particularly,” she said. “I am so glad to find you alone. You look ill.”
“I have had rather a shock, but really I am all right,” he said, with an attempt at a smile. “What is it, Miss Brawn?”
“Well,” she said, “it is a somewhat curious story. You know Ruth brought back with her a toy horse which she put into a drawer in her bedroom. She gave the children permission to open the drawer, and there they found the horse, George took possession of it and hid it away. Well, he produced the animal the other day; pulled it out of its hiding-place and proceeded to cut it open-to see what was the matter with it he said: I was in the room and watched him without paying much attention. If I had had my wits about me I should have recognised Ruth’s horse and would not have allowed him to touch it. But, however, he did so and pulled out all the stuffing. I saw that he was making a mess on the carpet and went to stop him. Then I found among the stuffing a paper with your name on it. I waited for an opportunity of giving it to you, and here it is.” And Jennie put into his hand a bill of exchange, old, discoloured and crumpled.
Hardly knowing what he was doing Heron glanced at the document and saw that his father’s signature—Geoffrey Heron—was written across the bill, while the signature at the foot was that of Frank Marshall.
Ruth could not rid herself of a haunting doubt that her father knew more of the Jenner murder than he chose to confess. If he himself had not killed the man in a fit of impetuous rage—and the girl could not bring herself to think this—he knew who had struck the fatal blow. Ruth was certain now that Mrs. Jenner was innocent, notwithstanding the fact that she had been found guilty. This being so, she argued to herself that if her father were aware of the truth he should at once take steps to remedy the grave miscarriage of justice which had taken place. But as he made no move, Ruth, perplexed and doubtful, became quite ill with suspense. It was no wonder then that Geoffrey had found her poor company, and had failed to understand her constant melancholy. Under these circumstances he had taken his departure, wondering what had befallen the house which had formerly been so bright and pleasant. But no satisfaction was to be had either from Mr. Cass or from his daughter.
On arriving at his own place he went at once to the library to look for some document with his father’s signature in order to compare it with that on the bill. And after a close inspection of some half-dozen autographs of the late Mr. Heron, he came to the conclusion that the signature to the bill was a forgery. Once convinced of this, he began to see daylight, and argued out the case that evening, alone and undisturbed.
“Jenner was at one time a clerk in the firm of Cass and Marshall,” he thought; “therefore he must have known Marshall very well; he was dismissed, and so had no cause to love his employers. Mr. Cass, so far as I know, was always an upright man, and Jenner had no chance of injuring him in any way. With Marshall the case was different. If I remember rightly, Mrs. Jenner told me that her husband and Marshall were as thick as thieves; the master patronising the clerk on account of the man’s beautiful voice and musical accomplishments. Marshall, too, lived a gay life, and was given to spending pretty freely. It is quite possible that he might have made use of Jenner as a tool to get more money through this bill! Five hundred pounds,” said Geoffrey, looking at the document in question. “Humph! Just the sum he might require for an emergency.” He turned over the bill, and found it endorsed by Julius Roper. “Ah!” he went on, “where have I heard that name? Roper—Roper—I am sure someone spoke of Roper.”
Suddenly it flashed into his mind that Roper was the moneylender in whose employment Jenner had been after he had failed on the stage.
“The bill was discounted in the office in which Jenner was employed,” he thought, with growing excitement, for the matter was becoming more interesting every minute, “and Jenner, knowing it was forged, stole it from Roper. He meant to use it as a means of extorting blackmail! Ah!” He stopped short. “Blackmail? It was of that he boasted to his wife—this, then, was the material for getting money that he said he had in the red pocket-book. The pocket-book has disappeared; but the bill?—Humph! How did it get inside the horse? Could Jenner himself have put it there? If so, why? What was his reason? I must see Mrs. Jenner and ask her. Between the two of us we may get at the truth.”
But although he was satisfied that his father’s signature had been forged, he could not be absolutely certain that Marshall had been the forger. He had drawn the bill, it was true, but Jenner might have counterfeited the signature and have assisted Marshall to get the money.
Then Geoffrey recollected that his father—a particularly precise man—had been in the habit of keeping a diary in which he was accustomed to set down the most trivial details of his somewhat uninteresting life. No sooner had this thought struck him than he went to a certain press and pulled out the series of little books which contained these entries. Glancing at the date of the bill, he set to work, and after an hour’s search found the evidence.
The late Mr. Heron had made no attempt to conceal Marshall’s rascality; for it was plainly set down that a certain Mr. Roper had called upon him to show a bill of exchange and to ask if the signature were his. Mr. Heron had replied that he had never signed a bill in his life, where upon Roper had intimated that the bill had been presented by Frank Marshall, and that the money had been paid to him. Roper had also expressed his intention of having Marshall arrested, but to this Mr. Heron had objected. Bad as he thought the man, he wanted to avoid any serious trouble, less for Marshall’s own sake than for that of Miss Inez Cass, to whom he was engaged, and who was deeply in love with him. Roper had left the house with the avowed intention of making things hot for him, so Mr. Heron had called on Marshall at his house near Hollyoak and told him what had happened. Then Marshall had confessed that, being in want of money, he had forged Mr. Heron’s name. But he stated that he was going to pay the money back to Roper very shortly, and he implored Mr. Heron to take no steps against him; it would break Miss Cass’s heart, he said, and Mr. Heron, pitying Inez, and having a great respect for her brother, had promised to say no more about it, and had agreed to refrain from assisting Roper on condition that the five hundred pounds were repaid. This—as a later entry in the diary proved—had been done. After that there was no further mention of the matter.
“Well,” Geoffrey said to himself, as he put away the books, “all this is quite plain. It seems that Mr. Frank Marshall is a pretty scoundrel! Oh, there is no doubt that this bill is the blackmailing document referred to by Jenner. Now, I wonder if Marshall murdered him to get possession of it; but if he did the bill would not have been concealed in the toy horse. Ah! no doubt Marshall thought it was in the red pocket-book, and stole that after he had killed him; that was why the pocket-book disappeared. Probably Marshall himself destroyed it. Humph! I have gone so far with very good results; now, before I can proceed further, I must see Mrs. Jenner and Roper. I wonder if that scoundrel is still alive?”
Next day Geoffrey paid a visit to the gaol where Mrs. Jenner was serving her life sentence. After some difficulty he was permitted to see the prisoner; indeed, he might not have procured the interview at all had he not told the governor that he saw a good chance of proving the woman innocent. The governor was a humane man, and, anxious that justice should be done, he stretched a point and allowed Heron to see her with as much privacy as was compatible with prison discipline.
As soon as they were alone. Heron related all that he had discovered, and then proceeded to ask his questions. Mrs. Jenner, poor woman, became much excited, and small wonder, seeing, that for the first time, she saw a chance of regaining her freedom.
“But, after all, it will be to die, Mr. Heron,” she said, sadly. “I am very ill; trouble, exposure and mental worry have been too much for me. The doctor saw me two days ago, and has ordered my removal to the Infirmary.” Geoffrey looked at her, and, true enough, there was death in her face. A few weeks were all of life left to her now. And yet on hearing Geoffrey’s news, the bold spirit flamed up again in her for the last time.
“I am sure you are right, Mr. Heron!” she said, feverishly. “Mr. Marshall is the guilty person. He was always a scamp and a rake. There is no doubt that it was for the purpose of blackmailing him that my husband came down to Westham on the night he was murdered; in fact, he said as much to me at the Turnpike House. Do you know that he had met Marshall on that very night?”
“No; you did not tell me that.”
“I forgot; besides, I really did not think it mattered. I did not expect that Mr. Marshall would be brought into the affair. He was always cunning enough to look after himself. At that time he was engaged to marry Miss Cass, and she loved him with the fierceness of a tigress.”
“Do you mean the present Mrs. Marshal?”
“Who else should I mean? She always loved him. He had a strange fascination for women: why, I don’t know, for he was not particularly good-looking or attractive. But Miss Inez loved him, and it was within two months of the murder that they were married. I was in prison then, as I am now, and under sentence of death.”
“Then you think that Marshall killed your husband?”
“I do,” she said, with a look of hatred in her large blue eyes. “I feel certain of it. Look at the motive he had! He was engaged to marry Miss Inez Cass: she was rich and he needed money; then again there was some talk of his leaving the firm. I believe myself that Mr. Cass was quite tired of the way he was going on.”
“I wonder that Mr. Cass—knowing him as he did—did not forbid the marriage.”
“What would have been the use? His sister was her own mistress; she had her own money—a large fortune—and she was madly in love with Marshall. She would have done anything for him; she simply grovelled at his feet. Her infatuation was the talk of all Westham at the time I was starving at the Turnpike House.’
“Extraordinary!” mused Geoffrey. “She is so masterful a woman that I wonder she could have fallen in love with so weak a man.”
“It is one of those things in which a woman’s nature is stronger than her principles,” said Mrs. Jenner. “Besides, he was fascinating, and she was no longer a young woman,” she added, with a touch of feminine spite. “At any rate, she was delighted when he fell in love with her, and determined not to let him go.”
“Was he in love with her?”
“No: perhaps I was wrong to put it that way. No doubt he wanted her money. Did he leave the firm?”
“Yes; shortly after his marriage.”
“Ah! Then depend upon it, Mr. Cass got rid of him. He married Miss Cass for her money—he must have been in great straits when he committed that forgery. Oh, I quite believe it was he who did it: he was wonderfully clever at imitating handwriting. I knew of that accomplishment long before I was married.”
“How you hate him!” Geoffrey could not help exclaiming.
“I am a very good hater,” she said, quietly; “and I have every reason to hate that man. It was he who got my husband dismissed, and it was certainly he who led him into dissipated ways; for Jenner was not a bad man during the early years of our married life. It was only when he came under Marshall’s influence that he took to drink and began to treat me cruelly. Oh, I know what I owe him only too well! I should like to see him arrested for this murder, and hanged—hanged!”
She spoke with such vehemence that Heron shivered. “I hope he will be proved innocent for all that,” he said. “Remember I am engaged to his niece.”
“Miss Ruth is not his niece save by marriage.”
“Still, the disgrace—”
“Well, leave the matter alone,” said Mrs. Jenner, abruptly. “I have suffered so much that a little, more or less, does not matter. When I am gone, there will be an end of all your trouble. Let Marshall live to repent, if he can. I am willing to die with the disgrace on me; I can’t well be worse off than I am. And my son will soon forget me—”
“You do him wrong, Mrs. Jenner; he loves you dearly. But, let this be as it may, what I have to do is to get at the truth of it all. If Marshall will confess his guilt, I will consult with Mr. Cass and see what is to be done. I confess, that on Ruth’s account, I do not want a scandal.”
“Would you desert her?”
“No, for I love her. And I am too just, I hope, to visit the sins of other people upon her innocent head.”
Mrs. Jenner seemed to be considering; then, “Mr. Heron,” she said at last, “you are a good man. Leave the matter where it stands, and let me die a guilty woman in the eyes of the world. If I were in good health, I might speak differently but I am dying. Let me die. I have suffered so much, that now I could not even enjoy freedom. There is no rest for me but in the grave. Believe me, it is better to leave things as they are.”
“Well, we’ll see about that. But tell me, how did the bill get inside the toy horse?”
“Ah, that is difficult to explain! The horse belonged to my boy; he was playing with it before the fire on that evening. I left it there when I took the child to bed. It is likely enough,” she went on, musingly, “that my husband, knowing he had driven Marshall into a corner, was afraid he might lose this bill. He may have sewn it up inside the horse when I was out of the room. He knew very well that I kept all my boy’s toys, and he thought it would be safe there. No one would ever have dreamt of looking for it in such a hiding-place. It is really most wonderful, when one comes to think of it, that it has come to light at all.”
“Can you tell me where Jenner met Marshall on that night?”
“No, I cannot. All I know is what he told me—that he had seen him two hours before he came to see me. He boasted of his blackmailing. That is all I can tell you.”
Geoffrey rose. “Well, you have given me some information, if not very much,” he said. “Now I will go and see Roper to make certain how the bill came to be stolen.”
“My husband stole it when he was with Roper,” said Mrs. Jenner. And with this last piece of information Geoffrey departed to follow up the clue.
Mr. Julian Roper had an establishment in Golden-square, Soho. Although this gentleman was over eighty, he had not yet repented of his many iniquities, but callously continued to conduct his evil transactions. His offices—two dingy rooms—were on the ground floor of the house; the apartments overhead being occupied by himself and a crabbed old woman who acted as his housekeeper. The hag was, if possible, worse than her master; and from long years of association, she possessed considerable influence over him; she was a widow—or at least it was as such that she described herself—for her husband had left her many years before in sheer disgust at her tyranny. Mrs. Hutt was her name; and she had a son who acted as clerk to Julian.
When Geoffrey Heron arrived at this sordid temple of Mammon, he was received by the drudge—a young-old person of no particular age, dressed in a suit of rusty black. He informed the visitor that his master was absent.
The clerk, who answered to the name of Jerry Hutt, gave Mr. Heron a broken-backed chair, and returned to his desk, which was smuggled away into a corner. With a shrug at the poverty of the place and the apparently enfeebled intellect of the person in charge, the young man took a seat and amused himself by taking stock of his surroundings.
Jerry took not the slightest notice of Geoffrey after the first greeting; he wrote hard with his tongue thrust into his cheek, giving vent at times to a faint chuckle which was positively uncanny. Coming to the conclusion that he was half-witted, Heron came to regard him in the light in which most people saw him—more as an article of furniture than a man. But in this he, in common with the rest of the visitors to that den, was wrong. For underneath his assumed stupidity Jerry was as sharp as the proverbial needle.
Luckily Heron had not long to wait. In about a quarter of an hour Jerry raised his big head and looked out of the window; a shuffling step was heard at the door; and a minute later someone came coughing and grumbling along the narrow passage. “Mr. Roper,” chuckled Jerry, pointing towards the inner room. “Go in there.”
Geoffrey, taking no notice of his brusque manner, passed into the back room; it was better lighted and better furnished than the clerk’s den. Still, it was sordid enough, and so dirty that the young squire found it necessary to dust with his handkerchief the seat he had chosen. “Cleanliness and godliness are both absent from this establishment,” thought Mr. Heron.
He could hear Roper outside growling at Jerry, but could catch nothing of their conversation. He guessed that it had to do with himself, for shortly Mr. Roper entered the back room with what was meant to be an amiable smile on his mahogany face. In appearance he was the double of his clerk, as thin, as yellow, and even smaller in stature.
“Ha! Hey!” he said; this being the way in which he was accustomed to begin a conversation. “Mr. Heron—ah, yes—Mr. Geoffrey Heron—quite so! I knew your father. A good man, Mr. Heron, but strong in his expressions.”
Geoffrey took this to mean—and very rightly too—that his father had expressed himself in no measured terms as to the moneylender’s professional transactions. But he made no comment, merely remarking that he had come to see Mr. Roper on business.
“Ha! Hey!” chuckled the old man, shuffling towards his desk with the aid of a heavy stick. “Quite so. Not like your father! Oh, dear, no! He never borrowed money.”
“I am not here for that purpose,” retorted Mr. Heron, haughtily, and the old man, panting for breath, dropped into his chair. “And I can assure you that you are the last person to whom I should come in such circumstances. My business is quite of a different nature.”
“Ha! Then why do you come here, Mr. Heron? I have much to do; I am poor, and money is hard to make. If your business has nothing to do with money, why come at all?”
“Because you are the only person who can assist me?”
“I do nothing for nothing,” croaked Mr. Roper, quickly. “If you want anything out of me, you must pay me—pay me—cash down, you understand! I have had enough of bills.”
“Mr. Frank Marshall’s bill for five hundred included?” asked Geoffrey.
The man started and plucked at his nether lip. “Ha! Hey! What do you know about Mr. Marshall, sir?”
“Not so much as you can tell me,” said Heron, significantly.
“Marshall—Marshall,” muttered Roper. “I don’t know him—never heard of him.”
Geoffrey took a new tack and prepared to go. “In that case, I need not trouble you. My business has to do with Marshall and a forgery.”
“Wait. Come now, don’t hurry!” screeched the old man, clawing at Heron’s frock-coat. “I do begin to remember something of this. I am old—I can’t remember as well as I did. Marshall—Frank Marshall—Cass and Marshall. Yes, yes, of course I know! A forgery—your father—quite so!” He stopped and looked up sharply. “Well, what is it?” he asked.
Geoffrey sat down again. He was beginning to see his way to the successful management of this old gentleman. “It is a long story,” he said, slowly, keeping his eyes fixed on the avaricious face of the usurer. “Let me begin at the beginning. What about a man called Jenner?”
Roper gave another screech, and was visibly startled. He cast a swift glance at the door behind which, no doubt, the useful Jerry was eavesdropping. “Jenner,” he said, recovering himself with an effort, “was a clerk of mine, and a blackguard.”
“The one implies the other,” Heron said, drily, “if all I have heard of you is true.”
“Now, sir, don’t you come libelling me,” whimpered the usurer, still disturbed. “I won’t have it. I will bring an action for damages—heavy damages.”
“Do, Mr. Roper. I should like to see you shown up in court. How many of your transactions will bear the scrutiny of the law?”
“I have never broken the law,” he roared, with an attempt at dignity which ill became him. “I am a poor man, but honest. Jenner? Oh, yes he was murdered, and he deserved to be murdered—the beast!”
“Who did it?” asked Geoffrey, abruptly.
For the second time Mr. Roper was visibly disconcerted. “How should I know any more than yourself?” he quavered. “His wife murdered him, of course; he treated her badly, and she served him out. Women always do.”
“Come, Mr. Roper, you are evading my questions. But I have no time to play the fool. I have come to talk to you about that forged bill.”
“Have you got it—have you got it?” he shrieked, making a dart with one claw at Geoffrey. “Oh, give it to me, if you can! I want to see that Marshall in gaol—with hard labour—hard labour!” he repeated, with evident relish. “My dear gentleman, if you can, help me to crush him!”
“Why?” asked the young man, drawing back.
“Because I hate him. I had a daughter; she loved him; but he would not marry her—oh, dear, no! Her father’s reputation was too bad for so fine a gentleman. So she died—pined away. Mr. Heron, as I am a sinner! Oh how Jerry felt it! He admired Elsa, he loved her—so did Marshall.” His eyes flashed. “But he would not marry her, for all that. She is dead and buried now—a most expensive tomb!” he added, vaguely. “All marble—most costly. But she was my daughter: I hate to spend good money; but Elsa was my daughter—a most expensive tomb!”
His listener took all this for the senile babble of age. Perhaps it was, for tears stood in the usurer’s eyes—those hard eyes which had remained dry whilst looking upon much deliberately-created misery. He wiped them now with a snuffy red bandana, and then looked fiercely at his client.
“Come,” he said, roughly, with a growl as of a beast about to spring. “What about Marshall!”
Geoffrey said nothing for the moment, but stared fixedly at the moneylender.
“Ha! Hey!” said Roper, impatiently, and there was a yellow gleam in his eyes. “I am waiting. What about Marshall?”
“I would rather ask you what about Jenner?”
“I do nothing for nothing, as I have told you,” was the reply. “If you could assist me to punish that wretch, I might perhaps help you; otherwise—”
“Well, I may be able to help you in that!”
“Oh, oh!” said the old man. “And what grudge have you against Marshall?”
“I have none but I have a very good reason for acting as I am doing.”
“What is your reason?”
“That I refuse to tell you. Speak freely to me, or leave the matter alone, my good man. I can do without your assistance.”
“No, no!” cried the usurer, with frightful energy. “If Marshall is to get into trouble, I am the man to assist. He broke my Elsa’s heart; I wish to be revenged. What is it you want to know?”
“Tell me about Jenner,” Heron said, curtly. He saw that the old man, moved by the recollection of Marshall’s behaviour to his daughter, was in the mood to be confidential. He would get all he could out of him before the wind changed.
Roper commenced speaking in a hurry as though in fear that his resolution would fail him. “Jenner was a wretch—a scamp!” he said. “He was in my employment before Jerry grew up to assist me. I took him off the streets, and he repaid my kindness by robbing me.”
“Of the bill of exchange on which was the forgery of my father’s name.”
“Oh, you know that!” he said with a glance of surprise. “Well, I daresay. Your father—worthy man—would no doubt tell you. Yes, Jenner took the bill—just when I thought I had Marshall in the palm of my hand. Ah, that was a blow! I would have given hundreds to have kept that bill—to have lodged Marshall in gaol. But when that was gone, I could do nothing. Have you the bill—do you know where it is? Give it to me. I’ll work the matter.”
“I have not the bill,” said Geoffrey, deliberately. He saw that the honour of the Cass family would be lost if entrusted to the hands of this man. “The bill was stolen from Jenner’s dead body,” he added, with studied equivocation.
“By whom?” Roper asked, abruptly. “Do you not know?”
“Certainly not,” he said, with violence.
“Are you about to accuse me of the crime? Why, I do not even know of the place where he met his death. You can prove nothing against me, sir, however cleverly you lay your trap.”
“I am not laying any trap,” Geoffrey said, mildly. “I want to know something more about Jenner—as I have told you at least five times! He was in your employment, you say?”
“Yes, I took him off the streets! One day Marshall brought that bill; I discounted it, and gave him five hundred pounds! Then I found out—how, it does not matter—that your father’s signature had been forged. I saw your father—”
“I know all about that interview. You saw my father and he refused to prosecute, did he not?”
“He did; but I would have prosecuted myself, and would have called your father as a witness. Well, I came back after that visit, and placed the bill in my safe then I told my housekeeper all about it: Jenner must have listened. Shortly afterwards he disappeared; I made a search to see if he had taken anything. Then I found that the bill had gone—that Marshall had escaped me! I managed to set the police on Jenner’s track, and he was arrested. I offered not to prosecute if he would give me back the bill: but he refused. Then I prosecuted him for stealing my money, and he got three years. When he came out, I believe he went down to the country to see his wife; and she murdered him. What became of the bill, I never could discover. He must have destroyed it.”
“It is possible,” said Heron. “I suppose that the bill was valuable to Marshall as well as to you! No doubt he paid Jenner to destroy it.”
“Or else he murdered Jenner to obtain possession of it,” the old man said, gloomily. “But, no! Mrs. Jenner killed him I was at the trial; I heard all the evidence, nothing could have been clearer or fairer. She killed her husband. Now. I wonder if she could have taken possession of that bill! No, I don’t think so; it would have been found on her when she was arrested. I believe Marshall must have bribed Jenner to destroy it; more’s the pity. I’ll never get at him now, the beast!”
Geoffrey rose to go. “Well,” he said, “I have learnt something; but I hardly know if it will be of much assistance to me.”
“What are you going to do?” Roper asked.
“Satisfy my conscience. Listen, Mr. Roper; in my father’s diary I found a full account of your visit and the truth about the forgery. I was anxious to know all—therefore, I came to you. Now I am satisfied. So far as I am concerned, the matter shall rest where it is.”
“Then you won’t help me to crush Marshall? Will nothing deliver him into my hands?” he muttered. “I’ll make a last effort; he must be punished for Elsa’s sake.”
Again and again did Miss Cass wish that she could tell Jennie Brawn the story of the broken link and her position with regard to her father. But she had given her promise, and was forced to hold her tongue. On her part Jennie, always open and honest, felt a trifle embarrassed at the secret understanding with Geoffrey Heron regarding the bill of exchange, it seemed to her too delicate perception to be wrong; for was not the young man her friend’s lover? But, like Ruth herself, Jennie had given a promise which could not be broken, and she, too, had to hold her peace. Under these circumstances, both girls were less open with each other than usual, and on this account did not seek one another, as was formerly the case. Jennie made her teaching serve as an excuse; and Ruth took to wandering about the country in the society of her own sad thoughts.
She had promised her father to refrain from further meddling with the Jenner case; but she did not think that this bound her to abstain from visiting the Turnpike House; and she was always finding herself in the neighbourhood of that ill-omened building. It held the secret of a crime.
Several times Ruth had noticed smoke rising from its chimney; she began to think, from the recurrence of this phenomenon, that some tramp had taken up his abode in the deserted building. Full of nervous apprehension lest the said tramp should find something in the house likely to connect her father with the crime, Ruth had, more than once, made up her mind to see who it was that occupied the hovel. But on each occasion her courage failed her at the last moment. But one day she screwed up her courage, and set out to visit the Turnpike House. She would, at all events, learn if any other piece of evidence connected with the crime had been discovered; and, if so, ascertain who was the finder.
As she approached, she could see that although the house still looked dilapidated and disreputable in its green jungle, some attempt had been made to render it fit for human habitation. The windows had been mended, the door repaired, and the roof patched in various places. Ruth walked boldly up the path—now trodden down by the footsteps of the new owner—and after a glance at the closed door, looked in at the window. This was guiltless of blinds or curtain, and she could see quite plainly what was going on inside. To her surprise, the first person she saw was her aunt Inez seated by the fire and talking eagerly to Job, who was astride a chair beside her. The gypsy turned his head rapidly as the shadow of the girl, lengthened by the sun, fell across the floor, and he uttered an exclamation of mingled surprise aid vexation. Mrs. Marshall, looking up at that moment, beheld her niece—the very last person she expected or, indeed, desired to see in that place. Her dark face grew a trifle pale, her black eyes flashed, and she looked downright savage at the intrusion. However, there was nothing left for it now but to make the best of the situation, so before Ruth had time to recover from her astonishment, Aunt Inez had passed quickly to the window and had thrown it wide open.
“Goodness, Ruth! Why do you come in that silent way to frighten people? Come in—come in, and don’t stand staring there like a fool!”
Ruth struggled to recover from her surprise.
“I am astonished to see you here, Aunt Inez,” she said, when she had found her tongue. “I did not know you were acquainted with Job.”
“He is a pensioner of mine,” Mrs. Marshall said, composedly, preparing to shut the window. “Are you coming in, Ruth? We can walk back together. You know I do not approve of your roaming the country in this uncivilised fashion.”
“It seems I am only following your example,” Ruth said, pertly.
“I am a married woman.”
“And Job’s patroness,” remarked Ruth, who was too much annoyed by her aunt’s manner to be careful. Mrs. Marshall flashed at her a look which boded ill for the harmony of their future relations.
“Yes; I am looking after the poor man. There is nothing wrong in that, I hope?”
“On the contrary,” said her niece, and went towards the door. It was opened by Job, who, during this interview, had been most discreetly silent. He winked at the girl—not rudely, but to intimate that he still looked upon her as a Romany sister—and ushered her into the room.
Mrs. Marshall had resumed her seat by the fire, and pointed out the other chair to her niece. Job leant up against the table, and regarded the two with a twinkle in his dark eyes. Evidently he anticipated some amusement.
“Have you been here before, Ruth?” asked the elder lady, sharply.
“Once; I was curious to see the place.”
“On account of the murder, I suppose?” replied Mrs. Marshall, with contempt. “Really, Ruth, I do wonder that you should care to concern yourself with such horrors! And why do you come here again?”
“To see Job,” was the quiet answer.
“Me and the lady are pals,” put in Job. “Oh, yes; she can patter the black tongue, and she is a real Romany sister.”
“Perhaps, Ruth, you will explain,” said Mrs. Marshall, both puzzled and annoyed.
“I think Job has already done so,” Ruth said, coolly. “I met him here by accident when last I came, and I talked Romany to him. He has taken me as a sister of the gypsy folk. I am a female Borrow.”
“Ruth!” Aunt Inez threw up her hands in horror. “How dare you speak like this? A low gypsy—a tramp—and you a young lady! And pray where did you learn the gypsy language?”
“At school, and out of it. I got a gypsy woman to teach me. But I do not see why you should forbid me to associate with Job, aunt. You are doing so yourself.”
“I!” exclaimed that lady, with something of defiance in her manner. “But I have taken this poor man under my protection, and I intend to make him comfortable.”
Ruth did not reply immediately. Then she looked up:
“Last time I was here you watched me, Aunt Inez,” she said, slowly.
“Perhaps I did—perhaps I did not,” replied that lady, coldly. She scorned to tell a lie, and refused to own the truth.
“Then you know what I found here—under the window?”
Job looked up eagerly and exchanged a glance with Mrs. Marshall. But that clever lady preserved an imperturbable countenance. “What you found, my dear, is of no consequence to me,” she said, impatiently, and rose to her feet.
“It is more to the purpose that we should be going. I will arrange about your weekly money,” she said, turning to Job.
“Thank you, lady,” said the gypsy, gratefully. “You are a real good sort. I won’t trouble you long, though. I’m booked before the year is out.”
Ruth lingered, for she wanted to speak to the man alone; but her aunt hurried her away, and the last glimpse she had of him was standing in the doorway laughing in anything but a respectful manner.
One would have thought that Miss Cass had burnt her fingers quite severely enough to avoid playing with fire. But such was not the case. Her curiosity was stronger than her prudence.. Besides, after the smile she had seen on Job’s face she began to doubt her aunt’s plausible explanation. Unfortunately, Mrs. Marshall escorted her niece right up to the gates of Hollyoaks Park. But she refused to go in.
“I have left my carriage at the inn,” she said, “and, as your uncle is not very well, I must go home at once. I hope you will come and see us soon, Ruth; you are neglecting me very much.”
“I will come with pleasure, aunt. Will next week do?”
“Any week will do. I am always at home—except on an occasion like this, when I am employed in charitable works. I shall expect you next week.”
When her aunt had gone, Ruth waited until she was out of sight; then took a short cut across the meadows to the Turnpike House. Within the hour she again presented herself at the door. It was opened so suddenly that she felt sure that Job had been watching her; and his greeting proved that such was the case.
“I expected you, sister,” he said. “Come into my tent. Duvel! That a Romany should dwell under a roof-tree like a Gorgio.”
“It is better for your health than wandering about the roads,” said the girl, sitting down.
“I am dying,” interrupted Job, quietly. “And I am not the man to decay like a tree. If I find that I can never recover, I will die after my own fashion. I am not afraid.”
Ruth did not know what reply to make to this: she glanced round hoping to find a fresh topic of conversation. “You are comfortable here; quite civilised. I am sure that you will get better now that you are so well housed!”
“I do not think so, lady. But I yielded to Mrs. Marshall’s request to take shelter here. One place is as good as another to die in; she is good to me; I have this house—and a little money to buy food.”
“Why is she so kind?” asked Ruth, sharply. “Such kindness is not in her nature. Have you done her a good turn?”
“Perhaps I have; maybe I have not,” Job said, coolly. “See here, sister, I knew you would come back to ask questions. I saw it in your eye; but I know when to keep my mouth shut.”
“You do—when it pays you. Well, I have no wish to pry into your secrets, Job. Keep your own counsel.”
“I intend to,” replied the man. “And it is a good thing for your family that I do.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing that I can tell you.”
“Job”—Ruth looked at him sharply—“are you hinting at any disgrace?”
“No: what disgrace could befall so noble a family? I hold my tongue.”
“Because you are paid for it,” retorted Ruth. Already her wits were at work trying to search out the reason for all this: she scented a mystery and began vaguely to connect it with the Jenner case. Half in jest, half in earnest, she asked a leading question. “Do you know anything of this murder?”
“No. Duvel! I should think not. It was before my time.”
“Yet I wonder you are not afraid to sleep in this room. It was here that the body was found.”
Job laughed, and stared at the stains on the floor near the window. “Yes; it was here,” he said. “But I know nothing.”
“You know what I found last time I came to this place?” she said, recalling the glance exchanged between her aunt and the gypsy.
“Perhaps,” replied Job; then he began to laugh. “Oh, you are a rare one, lady, you are!” he said. “You would rob me of my new tent by asking me to speak about what does not concern you.”
“Ah! Then you have something to conceal?”
“Perhaps,” said Job again. “But you may as well stop, sister. I hold my peace until I die.”
Ruth looked at him fixedly. By this time she felt quite sure that the secret which procured for Job food, and fire, and roof-tree, was connected with the murder.
“What you know has nothing to do with Mr. Cass—with my father?” she asked in a low voice.
“No, no; on my soul it has not,” he said, earnestly. “Why do you think so, sister?”
“Has it anything to do with the murder?”
“I cannot tell you.”
“You need not, for I can see the truth in your face. Tell me this, do you know what I found under that window?”
He looked at her. “Yes, I know,” he said, softly, and refused to speak another word.
Mr. Cass arrived home in a more cheerful frame of mind. His business, whatever it was, had evidently prospered, and the look of anxiety which his face had worn had given place to his usual imperturbable smile. He was relieved, too, to hear that Amy had gone. Altogether, when, the dinner hour arrived, Ruth found that he was as pleased as ever to be alone with her.
“By the way, my dear,” he said, after the dessert was placed on the table and they had had some desultory chat, “we are about to have a visitor.”
“Geoffrey?” asked Ruth, eagerly. She was longing to see her lover again.
“No; Neil Webster. I have been to Bognor to see him. He is much better, poor fellow, though still far from well. However, he is coming down here, where he will be surrounded with more comfort than Mrs. Jent can provide. Before long I hope he will be quite restored to health.”
“I am glad he is coming, papa.” She hesitated, and then continued in a low voice: “Are you going to assist him?”
“I thought we had agreed to close that discussion, Ruth?” said her father with some coldness. “Assist him? What can I do? I have told him that I will endeavour to prove his mother’s innocence, but I have not much hope of success. Whatever you may say, Ruth, I believe the woman is guilty.”
“I think she is innocent,” cried the girl, throwing back her head with a look of defiance.
“I know you do. Well, if her innocence can be proved so much the better. At present Neil has promised not to worry more than he can help. I want to see him on his feet again, therefore he must have cheerful company to distract his mind.”
“Is that why you asked him down here?” asked Ruth, ironically. “I am afraid his spirits will not rise in this house. Amy left it because she found the dulness intolerable.”
“Amy is a frivolous butterfly, my dear. I hope you have more sense. You must do your best to amuse Neil, and above all you must say nothing to him about this case. It is becoming a sort of monomania with him, and his thoughts must be kept off it.”
“In that case I shall get Jennie to amuse him,” replied Ruth “for I find it difficult not to become a monomaniac on the subject myself. Besides, I want her to marry him.”
Mr. Cass stroked his chin and did not appear to look unfavourably on this proposal. “Neil might do worse,” he said, after a pause. “Jennie is a good little creature and will make him a very adaptable wife. You would never have suited yourself to the boy. Geoffrey Heron is more in your way, Ruth. He will be at once your husband and your master.”
“So long as he is not a domestic tyrant I do not care. I am very, very fond of Geoffrey, now that I have got over my foolish feeling for Neil. I do wish Geoffrey would come to see me oftener.”
At that moment, as if in answer to her words, a servant appeared with a card, which he presented to his master. “Queer!” exclaimed Mr. Cass, glancing at it through his eye-glass. “Here is the very man you want.”
“Geoffrey!” she cried, joyfully.
“Yes; I wonder why he did not send me notice of his coming. He wants to see me on business. Business!” he repeated, with a frown. “Humph! I hope he has found no new mare’s nest with your assistance.”
“I have meddled no more with the case, papa, if that is what you mean,” said Miss Cass. “But where is he?”
“In the library. I will see him first. You can talk to him afterwards.”
“Ask him to stay, papa,” said Ruth, following her father to the door of the dining-room.
“Of course he can stay if he likes,” Mr. Cass said, looking at his daughter as if he were about to make some remark. However, he thought better of it and hurried out. Ruth guessed that it had been in his mind to say something about the unhappy affair in which they were all interested. She was irritated at not being admitted into his confidence, for her nerves were worn thin with the constant strain. However, he had been quite determined to see Geoffrey alone; and all she could do was to possess herself in patience until such time as the conversation should have ended.
Meanwhile the two men were sitting opposite one another in Mr. Cass’s room. Geoffrey refused to have any dinner; he had dined before leaving home, he said, but he did not decline a cigar and glass of good port. Mr. Cass was at once convinced, from the expression of tragic gravity on the young man’s face, that he had something serious to say, and he concluded that it had to do with the Jenner case. But he was not going to commit himself by introducing the subject lest he might appear too eager. He talked lightly on desultory matters and waited for Heron to begin.
“Mr. Cass,” he said, at last, “I have come to renew our former conversation.”
“Oh, the Jenner murder, I suppose?” Mr. Cass said, lightly. “I thought as much; but I did not know that you intended to pursue the matter.”
“Nor did I of my own free will,” replied Geoffrey, coolly; “but circumstances have thrust upon me fresh discoveries, and I want your assistance.”
Mr. Cass looked up sharply, and replied with studied carelessness: “Of course I will do my best to help you, my dear fellow; but really I do not see how I can.”
“You will soon see when I have told you of my discovery,” was the grim answer. “About those links, you know—”
The merchant started and changed colour. “Ah!” he said. “Ruth told you?”
“Some time ago; but what she did not tell me, and what you did not reveal, Mr. Cass, was that you were the owner of those links.”
“How can you be certain on that point?” asked Mr. Cass, calmly. “What have you found out to make you think that they—at any rate the broken one Ruth got under the window of the Turnpike House—have anything to do with me?
“I will tell you,” he said, leaning forward and looking very directly at his host. “You gave a portion of one of those links to your granddaughter Mildred for her doll. I found the child crying because Ruth had taken what she called a ‘brooch’ from her. At first I did not connect it with the one Ruth had found, but when she described it I guessed that it was part of the set; to make certain I showed her the one her aunt had picked up, and she recognised it at once as the double of her brooch, with the difference in the design, of course. You did not tell me of this, Mr. Cass.”
“Why should I have told you?” Mr. Cass’s tone was slightly defiant. “I did give such a link to Mildred, and it was one of a set.”
“Have you the set?” asked Heron. “Forgive my asking you, but I have a good reason for doing so.”
“I know what your reason is,” replied the merchant, raising his voice; “but you are wrong; I did not drop that link at the Turnpike House—I did not murder Jenner!”
“Nothing was further from my mind,” protested the young man. “You jump to conclusions; my meaning was quite different.”
The expression on Mr. Cass’s face was one half of relief, half of uneasiness.
“What do you mean, then?” he demanded. “I have a right to know.”
“You shall know. It was in order to tell you that I came over this evening. But first, have you the remaining links?”
Mr. Cass crossed the room to an old-fashioned desk which stood in a corner, and began to search. In five minutes he returned to his seat by the fire, bringing with him an oval enamelled with a pack of cards.
“That is all I have,” he said. “Mildred has the one with the horse on it; you have the other with the champagne bottle.”
“And the ballet girl? Where is that one?” Mr. Cass was silent and shifted uneasily in his chair. “That I cannot tell you until I know more clearly what you have discovered.”
“You shall know all. It may save a certain person from a relentless enemy. Yes; you may look, Mr. Cass! I tell you there is one man who hates another with all the intensity of his soul, and will only too willingly do him an injury.”
Mr. Cass began to grow angry at this mysterious description. “One man—another man?” he repeated. “What do you mean? Who is the enemy?”
“And who is he?”
Heron looked at him in astonishment. If faces were to be read, his host knew nothing of this man. “I am surprised that you do not know who Roper is,” he said, slowly.
“Why should I? I never even heard his name, that I can recollect. If he has any grudge against me, I cannot understand the reason, seeing, as I have said, that he is unknown to me.”
“I did not say that he had a grudge against you.”
“No, but you hinted as much. After all, I suppose I am the man who is so well hated. At least, I can take your speech in no other way.”
“I don’t mean you at all. I allude to Marshall—your brother-in-law.”
“Marshall!” Mr. Cass sprang to his feet and his face turned positively grey; this time Geoffrey had no reason to complain of indifference: it was plain that his host feared the revelation about to be made against his sister’s husband. “I don’t quite understand,” he said. “What has Marshall—”
“I think you understand very well, Mr. Cass; and I can only wish that during our last conversation you had spoken out. If you want the truth in plain words, I say that Frank Marshall murdered Jenner at the Turnpike House to recover a bill of exchange on which he had forged my father’s name.”
“Stop! Stop!” cried Mr. Cass, dropping back into his seat. “What—what grounds have you—such an accusation—”
“Is it not true?”
“Upon my word of honour, I cannot say.”
“I think you can, Mr. Cass. You know that Mrs. Jenner is innocent and that Marshall is guilty.”
The merchant became vehement. “I cannot say that!” he cried, dashing his fist on the table. “Because I don’t know. I did suspect Marshall myself—on certain grounds; but I knew nothing of this bill—I could not fathom his motive. I was doubtful, and so I came to the conclusion that Mrs. Jenner was the guilty person. I would have told you all this before, Heron, but the honour of my family—”
“I hope to be one of the family myself, soon,” Geoffrey said, quietly; “and you cannot suppose that I am less anxious than you are to avoid a scandal. I must know the truth now, at all costs.”
“You shall know everything I can tell you. Oh, Heavens! If it should be so—if he should be guilty! I could never be sure—never; or I would have taken steps to get that unfortunate woman released; I did not want her to suffer. In some way—without incriminating Marshall—I would have managed it, if only I had been sure! But this bill—ah! that was his motive, and I never knew! He did not tell me that. As to Roper, I can assure you that this is the first time, to my knowledge, that I have heard his name.”
“Yet he discounted the bill. It was in his office that Jenner was employed after he had failed on the stage.”
“I took no interest in the man after I had dismissed him. I never even heard his employer’s name. He stole the bill, I suppose—ah, yes, I begin to understand—and he came down here to blackmail Marshall. Quite so. Great Heavens! Can he be guilty, after all? I’ll have the truth out of him at all costs.”
“That is the difficult part of it,” Geoffrey said, with a flush. “I can make Marshall speak out, but I dread his confession. By rights, we should give him up to the law—and yet the disgrace—the—”
“We must get at the truth first; afterwards we can decide how to get the woman released, and how to punish my wretched brother-in-law. Tell me what proof you have against him?”
Heron produced his pocket-book, and took therefrom the bill of exchange, which he gave to Mr. Cass. He started, as though a snake had stung him. “Forged?” he asked, placing his finger on the signature of Geoffrey Heron. Then on a nod from that young man, he added: “Did you find this among your father’s papers? No; that is impossible. Jenner must have had it on the night he was murdered; yet if Marshall killed him to get possession of it, how came it into your hands?”
“Because Marshall lost the fruits of his wickedness he never gained possession of this bill. Jenner was too clever for him; it seems, as I learn from Mrs. Jenner, that she left him alone while she put her child to bed. During that time he—fearing, no doubt, lest Marshall should try and recover it—sewed it up in the body of a toy horse with which his boy had been playing. Neil sent the horse to George Chisel, your grandson, and he, as children will, cut up the animal. Miss Brawn saw this paper among the stuffing, and gave it to me.”
“Does she know? Has she said—”
“She knows nothing of the connection of this with the murder—and she has said nothing for I made her give me her word that she would not. No one but you, and I, and she are aware of its existence.
“Roper—what of Roper?”
“He knows nothing about it. If you knew how he hated Marshall, you would be glad that he is ignorant. For he would certainly prosecute if he got hold of this paper.”
“I doubt if he could now, seeing that your father—who alone could give evidence as to the falsity of the signature—is dead. But why does he hate Marshall so bitterly?”
“Well, it appears that Roper had a daughter who fell in love with him, she would have married him, and he had given her every reason to believe that he would. But, of course, he stopped at that, and she died of a broken heart. I don’t think there was anything scandalous about the affair—nothing worse than the playing fast and loose with the affections of the unhappy girl.”
“He always was a scoundrel. I paid him a large sum to leave my firm, as I feared he would do something criminal some day. Then he married my sister. I begged her to give him up; but she was headstrong, and insisted. Great Heavens!” he cried. “And he married her very shortly after he had committed this crime. Yet I doubt very much if he would have had the courage to kill Jenner.”
“Will you tell me what led you to suspect him?”
“In the first place, from the circumstances of his return on that night; in the second, these links.”
“How is that? I should like to know all from the beginning.”
“Well, Marshall was staying here on the night of the crime. He looked out of sorts; but he made some excuse—I forget what. After dinner he said he was going out for a walk; it was wet and misty, and I tried to dissuade him. My sister had gone to bed with a headache. I was alone, and, although I never liked him, I wanted to talk to him. But he insisted upon going. About nine he returned, knocked at the library window—that French window over there—and I let him in, torn and muddy and wild with fear! He said that he had been set upon by robbers—footpads. The next morning I heard of the murder, and I spoke to him about it, but he swore that he had not seen Jenner.”
“Tell me about the links. Are they yours?”
“Yes; I bought them many years ago, when I was young and vain. Marshall saw them, and took a great fancy to them; so I gave him the set—and now”—Mr. Cass clenched his hands—“I fear, if he got his deserts, that they would hang him!”
And, quite overcome, he bowed his head on the table.
Presently Mr. Cass raised his head and looked at Geoffrey with such a woebegone expression that the young man started. It seemed as if the merchant had grown suddenly old; lines appeared on his face which had never been there before; his eyes were sunken, and his shoulders had bowed themselves as though the whole weight of his misery had been placed upon them. The transformation was at once startling and painful.
“Don’t take it so much to heart,” said Heron. “After all, we may both be wrong about Marshall.”
“I hope so. I trust so.” was the hoarse reply. “But if he is guilty, what am I to think of myself? I had a suspicion, on the grounds of which I have told you, yet here I have allowed an innocent woman to spend all these years in gaol, when that scoundrel should have been in her place.”
“As to that, you could hardly have accused your sister’s husband.”
“He was not married to her at the time. If I had insisted upon an explanation that night when he came in torn and dirty at yonder window I might have prevented the marriage. I do not think that even the mad love that Inez had for him would have stood such a test. But Mrs. Jenner held her tongue when she should have spoken out, so I had no clue.”
“Even if she had spoken out she could have done nothing. She was silent because she fancied that Neil, in his madness, had killed his father; she never suspected Marshall. But retrospection can do no good; the thing is done, and what we have to consider now is how best to get out of it. If Marshall is guilty he must give us a written confession and leave the country—without our connivance. What purpose would it serve to have him suffer at this stage? Besides, from all I have heard from Mrs. Jenner her scamp of a husband quite deserved his fate. Marshall’s confession would set her free—”
“At the cost of publicity!” burst out Mr. Cass. “How, in Heaven’s name, can I face such a disgrace, Heron? Think of my sister, of Ruth, of Amy, my married daughter; it would mean ruin to them all. And you, how could you marry into such a family?”
“Oh, as to that I am not afraid to face the world. I should be a mean hound if I were to visit Marshall’s sins on Ruth. Whatever happens, you may be certain that Ruth will be my wife, and that she will receive from me all the love and affection due to so charming and honest a girl.”
“Thank you, Heron.” He grasped the young man’s hand.
“But,” exclaimed the younger man, “as to Marshall, when we know the truth for certain we will decide how to act. Above all we must not be in a hurry. You say you gave the links to him?”
“I did. And what is more, he wore them on that night. I remember his calling my attention to them at dinner.”
“Humph! Then he alone could have lost that one at the Turnpike House. I suppose you did not notice if one was missing from his cuff when he came into this room?”
“No, I never gave the matter a thought. There was no reason why I should. I believed that he had been attacked by gypsies—you know how many there are always about these lonely roads. An assault of that nature would have been quite enough to account for the mud on his clothes and their torn condition. I never thought he had met Jenner.”
“Was there bad blood between them?”
“Well. I am not quite sure. It seems that Marshall had persecuted Mrs. Jenner with his attentions, but her husband was not of the sort to take any trouble about that. He and Marshall had been boon companions for a long time. Whether they parted on account of some row, I don’t know; but one thing is clear, that Jenner saw Marshall again when Marshall called on Julian Roper to discount that bill, and finding that it was a forgery stole it to come down here and blackmail his former friend.”
“How could he find out that it was a forgery?”
“Oh, very easily. Roper might have talked, or Jenner might have listened. At all events he knew the truth. I suppose they met that night at the Turnpike House.”
“No,” said Heron, suddenly recollecting his conversation with the dead man’s widow. “Jenner had seen Marshall before he came to the Turnpike House. Of course, Marshall might have followed him and watched him through the window; then seeing the pocket-book—which he supposed would contain the bill—he might have killed him and cleared off. But this Marshall must tell us; that’s if he can be made to tell.”
“I’ll force it out of him,” Mr. Cass said, grimly. “Those sleeve-links, for instance; he has to explain how he came to lose one at the Turnpike House. I remember after Marshall went away from here the housemaid brought me the pair enamelled the pack of cards and the horse, which she said Mr. Marshall had left in his room. I thought he must be tired of them, and that he had probably taken the other pair with him by mistake. So I put those he had left into my desk, and I thought no more about it. When Mildred wanted a brooch for her doll I separated them and gave one to the child—the one with the horse. The one with the pack of cards I left on my table, intending to give it to Ethel.”
“I have the champagne bottle link which was dropped under the window,” Geoffrey said. “Now, what has become of the other one, the ballet, girl?”
“No doubt that also will be found at the Turnpike House,” said Mr. Cass. “I must tell you that the fastening of the links was somewhat worn, and that a slight tug would have, broken them. In putting his arm through the window to grasp the knife, which Mrs. Jenner says was on the table, I daresay Marshall’s cuff caught in a nail and the links were torn apart. Both would have fallen to the ground. One has been found, the other, no doubt, is still on the ground.”
“In that case we must make a search to-morrow,” said Geoffrey, rising.
“No, we must see Marshall first,” Mr. Cass said, very decidedly. “I would go over with you to-night; but that would make Inez suspicious. I do not want her to know anything of all this. And, after all, we may be mistaken; but he must give us an explanation. I will write a note to him this evening and ask him to come over to-morrow. You call here, Heron, at eleven o’clock, and we will force the truth out of him.”
“Very well, I think that would be best. I hope he will be able to exculpate himself. If Mrs. Marshall should get to know—”
“She would fight for her husband tooth and nail. You don’t know what a tigress my sister is when she is roused; the Spanish blood, I suppose. By the way,” he went on, looking at Heron with a faint smile. “I am half Spanish, too, and no doubt I am credited with a fiery temper Confess, now, Heron, you thought from my silence that I had killed this man?”
Geoffrey nodded with some embarrassment. “I did,” he said, frankly. “But can you blame me? Appearances were against you.”
Mr. Cass shrugged his shoulders. “No, I don’t blame you,” he said. “But you might have given me the benefit of the doubt. Appearances are against Marshall, too. Well, we shall see if he is as wrongly suspected as I was. Are you going now? It is early.”
“I should like to see Ruth for a few minutes.”
“Well, she will be quite as glad to see you. She is dull, poor girl, and the horror of this thing—so much as she knows of it at least—has got on her nerves. Go and see her, and come here at eleven to-morrow. Of course, you will tell her nothing.”
“Certainly not. Good-night.”
“By the way, I forgot to tell you that Webster is coming down next week. He is much better, and I think the change will do him good.”
“Humph! Will you tell him of this discovery?”
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
“I should say nothing until we are quite certain. Let us keep our own counsel for the honour of the family.”
“I think you are right,” said Mr. Cass with a sigh. “Heaven grant, for the happiness of us all, that we are wrong in our suspicions. Now go, my dear boy, and leave me to think the matter over. Ruth is waiting for you.”
Heron found Ruth in the winter garden and in tears. She told him, she was the most miserable girl in the world, and that nobody cared for her; which last statement Mr. Heron was not inclined to hear without venturing to put forward his own claims.
“My darling, girl, how can you say so?” he asked, pressing her closely in his arms. “I love you more than all the world.”
“Every man says that when he can think of nothing else to say,” replied Ruth, who was too much disturbed to be wholly just. “And if you really loved me, you wouldn’t have neglected me so.”
“My dear, I was busy. You know what took up my time.”
“Yes, I know, and I wish I didn’t know! This horrid business has troubled me morn and night. I wonder my hair hasn’t turned grey!”
“Nonsense!” cried Geoffrey. “It is as black as ever.”
“Black as the outlook of our lives.”
Heron could not help a smile at this grandiloquent speech. It was so unlike Ruth to indulge in what the Americans call “tall talk.” “Leave the wretched affair alone, dear,” he said, kissing her. “You need not trouble your pretty head any more about it.”
“But I must,” she insisted. “If my suspicions are not set at rest, I shall go mad. And the worst of it is, I have promised my father to tell you nothing. If I could only speak freely to you, it would ease my mind.”
“Then ease it and speak freely, Ruth. Oh, you need not shake your head. I know what you are talking about—those sleeve-links.”
“Yes, that is it!” she cried hysterically. “I have nearly killed myself with anxiety over the whole thing. Oh, what a wicked girl I am!”
“No, my dear; only a very foolish girl. But you can set your mind at rest once and for all. Your father is perfectly innocent of what you impute to him. He had nothing do with the crime; and he believed in all good faith that Mrs. Jenner was the guilty person.”
Ruth rose to her feet, and a smile of relief dispelled her tears. “Oh, how delighted I am!” she said, excitedly. “I shan’t worry any more. Oh, how thankful I am! What a weight is off my mind! But why didn’t he tell me before?”
“He had his reasons—reasons, which he has explained to me. They need not trouble you, my dear. I think you had better put the whole affair out of your mind.”
“I will, now that papa is free from the stigma; he does not know that I thought he was seriously mixed up in the case. He would never forgive me if he did! Don’t ever tell him, Geoffrey.”
“No, I won’t. Now, don’t worry any more.”
“But, Geoffrey, if Mrs. Jenner is not guilty, who is?”
“Ah, we must find that out,” replied Heron, thinking it best not to reveal anything about Mr. Marshall—an explanation which would only have caused fresh trouble. “If you are wise, Ruth, you will leave the matter alone.”
“I intend to,” she said. “But there is one thing I want to tell you, Geoffrey—Job Lovel.”
“Who is he?”
“The gypsy. Didn’t I tell you about him?”
“Yes; I think you did say something about having met him at the Turnpike House. Well, what has he been doing?”
“Nothing, except that he has taken up his abode at the Turnpike House.”
“Like his impudence!” cried the young man. “Why, that house is mine, and if he wanted to live in the wretched hovel, he should have come to me. Besides, I do not wish anyone to live in that shamble. I intend to have it pulled down, and so get rid of all the legends which haunt the neighbourhood.”
“I wish you would pull it down; it is an ill-omened place—a blot on the landscape; and the sooner it is removed the better it will be for the countryside. The people round here think it is haunted, you know, and that keeps up the memory of the murder. If the house were pulled down, there would be an end of it all—and the sooner the better. But I do not know what Aunt Inez will say!”
“Mrs. Marshall?” cried Geoffrey, looking at her sharply. “What has she got to do with it?”
“That is what I want to tell you, it seems that Aunt Inez has taken an interest in Job; she suggested that he should patch up the house and live in it; and she has arranged to allow him so much a week to live on.”
“Humph! That is strange. Mrs. Marshall is not usually so philanthropic.”
“That’s exactly what I thought; and that made me think that papa had something to do with the murder, and that Aunt Inez was shielding him.”
“By assisting Job. I went to see him the other day, and I found Aunt Inez there; she was very angry with me for having gone. I saw Job afterwards, and he would tell me nothing, but he hinted at a secret between him and Aunt Inez; now I think—”
“Don’t think anything about it,” Heron said, with a forced laugh. “Your aunt is getting charitable in her old age. Believe me, there is nothing between her and the gypsy, relative to the murder, whatever he may say.”
“But he talked, Geoffrey—”
“I daresay; I wonder he did not threaten! I will see the man myself and if he knows anything—which I very much doubt—I will get it out of him. My dear, how can you think your aunt knows anything about the matter? Now, Ruth, you must promise me to leave it all alone, and think no more about it.”
“Very well,” she said, with unusual meekness. “Then you don’t think Aunt Inez has anything to do—any knowledge, I mean?”
“I am quite sure she has not. She is kind to Job out of pure charity. Now I must say good-night and, once more, don’t worry.”
But as he drove home he came to the conclusion that Mrs. Marshall’s kindness to the gypsy was meant, in some way, to shield her husband.
“And that complicates matters,”—thought Heron.
On the following morning, Geoffrey arrived precisely at the time appointed by Mr. Cass, and was shown at once into the library. His host was there alone; for Marshall, with his usual want of punctuality, had not yet appeared. Geoffrey was informed of the sudden change in Ruth. “Your visit did her good last night,” said her father with a smile.
“I told her not to worry herself—that all was quite right; and she seemed comforted. But she told me something which seems to hint that Mrs. Marshall knows of her husband’s guilt.” And he repeated Ruth’s tale about the gypsy and Mrs. Marshall’s kindness to him—her extraordinary kindness, he termed it. Mr. Cass listened attentively, but shook his head. “I don’t agree with you,” he said. “You do not know Inez as I do.”
While they were still speaking—in whispers like two guilty people—Marshall bustled into the room in what he would have called his breezy fashion. In reality his manner was simply aggressive and noisy, but it gave him the air of being—what he wanted to be thought—a creature too guileless and unconventional to conceal his feelings. “Good-day, Cass,” he cried loudly to his former partner, and nodding to Heron. “Well, here I am! What’s the matter? Got into any trouble?”
“No, I have not got into any trouble,” was Mr. Cass’s emphatic reply.
“This boy, then?” and Marshall turned smilingly to Geoffrey, upon whom he looked as a possible member of the family. “You’re in trouble—eh, eh? Ah, well, young men will be young men!”
“I am sure you speak from experience, Marshall,” said Mr. Cass, while Heron contented himself with a shake of the head. “But there is nothing wrong with Heron.”
“Very glad, I’m sure,” Marshall said insolently; it seemed as though he scented some trouble in the air and thought to meet it with bluff. As yet he had not the faintest idea that the coming conversation was to be serious for him personally. “Well,” he went on, “as you are all right and Heron is a good boy, why have you asked me to come over?”
“Can’t you guess?” asked Geoffrey, angered by the man’s manner.
He lifted his eyebrows. “No,” he said, tranquilly. “I really am at a loss to understand why—”
“Cast your thoughts back twelve years,” interrupted Mr. Cass, sharply, “and then perhaps you will understand why—”
“What do you mean?” asked his brother-in-law, a thrill running through him. He saw now that this was going to be serious for him
“Do you remember the night when you came in at yonder window, muddy and ragged?” Mr. Cass said, slowly. “When you told me a lie—that you had been attacked by footpads and—”
“It was no lie!” cried the man, moistening his dry lips. “I told you what had actually happened.”
“Oh, no, you didn’t. For instance, you never told me that you had seen Jenner.”
He uttered a faint cry, and flung himself back in his chair with a startled look. “I did not see Jenner!” he said.
“Nor did you tell me that you had been at the Turnpike House,” continued Mr. Cass, not noticing the interruption.
“That I deny. I was not near the Turnpike House.”
With a look of scorn Mr. Cass picked up an object which was lying on the table, and held it out. “Do you know what this is?”
“A piece of gold, so far as I can see. What is that to me?”
“Evidence that you were at the Turnpike House on that night.”
“I tell you I was not there!” he cried, desperately.
“Oh, don’t trouble yourself to tell lies,” Mr. Cass said, wearily. “They will avail you nothing in the end. Since you do not choose to recognise this object, let me tell you that it is a part of the set of links I gave you shortly before that murder.”
“Links—I—I—only wore them—once.”
“I know you did, and on that night. You lost one pair and left the other in your bedroom, where they were found by the housemaid and returned to me. You would have been better advised had you destroyed them, Marshall.”
“Why should I have destroyed them? I lost one pair, it is true. The catch between the ovals was worn, and the links broke.”
“Not of their own accord,” Mr. Cass said, quickly. “Your cuff caught on a nail when you put your arm through the window to kill Jenner.”
Marshall uttered a loud cry and started to his feet his face crimson with rage, and shaking with what looked very much like terror. “I deny that,” he cried. “I deny that I was at the Turnpike House—that I killed—”
“This link was found under the window,” interrupted Mr. Cass. “The man who wore it was the man who killed Jenner; you are the man!”
“I kill Jenner? It is a lie!” Marshall continued to stare at the piece of gold which his brother-in-law continued to hold up as though he were fascinated. He drew his hand across his brow as he uttered his denial in a weak voice, and seemed to be trying to recall something. “Why should I have killed him?” he asked.
It was now Heron’s turn. He drew from his pocket the bill of exchange. “Perhaps this will supply the motive,” he said, coldly; “this forgery, discounted by Julian Roper.”
With a face now positively purple and eyes almost staring out of his head, Marshall craned forward his head to look at the fatal evidence of his past. He recognised it only too well. For years he had been dreading this moment, and now that it had arrived the sight of the document proved too much for him. With a strangled cry he tugged at his collar, then fell like a log on the floor. The strong man, the guilty man, had fainted. And, neither Mr. Cass nor Heron were moved by the catastrophe. It was to them decisive evidence of his guilt; and when they recalled the lifelong imprisonment of Mrs. Jenner they could find no pity in their hearts for the detected rogue. Rather were they full of pity for those unhappy people with whom he was connected by marriage. Nothing in their eyes could expiate his guilt.
“It would be better if he died now,” said Mr. Cass, as he watched Heron loosen his collar and dash cold water on his face.
“Pardon me, not at all,” replied the younger man, looking up for a moment. “If he died now there would be no confession.”
In the end they brought him round and placed him again in his chair, a pitiable object, with his damp hair, his loosened collar and the imploring look in his eyes. The most meritorious of men could not have looked dignified under such circumstances, much less Frank Marshall, who was so to speak, in the dock before two prejudiced judges.
“I suppose you are going to give me up?” he said.
“On the contrary, we want to get you out of this trouble—for the sake of the family,” said Mr. Cass, coldly. “Though by rights you should hang.”
“They don’t hang for forgery, stammered the wretched creature, arranging his collar.
“Pshaw! I am not speaking of the minor crime but of the greater. It was you who murdered Jenner.”
“I did not. I swear I did not.”
“You did. I am convinced of it. He came down here with that bill in order to blackmail you and you killed him.”
He made no attempt to assert his dignity. “You can kick a man when he is down if you like,” he said, in a quavering voice, “even though he is your sister’s husband, but you have no right to accuse him of a crime he did not commit. I tell you I forged that bill, but I did not kill the man.”
“You knew that he was in the neighbourhood?”
“No, I was as much astonished as you could have been when I heard of his death.”
“If you are innocent”—It was Heron who spoke—“how did it happen that a part of the links you were wearing were found under the window of the house? You must have dropped it there.”
“I did not.” He seemed to be reflecting. “If you want to know the truth, that pair of links was torn from me by the footpads who attacked me. I daresay they killed him.”
“Rubbish!” cried Mr. Cass, looking at him with disgust. “Why do you tell such lies? You met Jenner on that night, although you denied it when I questioned you.”
“I was afraid of being implicated in the murder. I knew if you had the slightest suspicion of me you would have stopped my marriage with Inez, and I loved her.”
“You loved her money, you mean.”
“Well, then, I loved her money!” Marshall cried, violently. “I was on the brink of ruin, and it was only her that stood between me and the streets. I had to pay Roper the five hundred pounds. He could not have prosecuted as the bill was missing, but he could have talked, and he would have talked, had I not paid him the full sum. It was only when I had possession of the money—my wife’s money—that I was able to shut his mouth. I knew before then that the bill was lost.”
“Because Jenner had shown it to you on that night?”
Marshall turned away sullenly, but still under compulsion answered: “Yes, he did. I had received a letter from him saying that he was coming here with the bill and would sell it to me. He asked me to meet him at the Waggoner’s Pond, half a mile from the Turnpike House, where his wife was staying. As I had no money, and was in his power absolutely—for by showing the bill to you, Cass, he could have had my marriage with your sister broken off—I was forced to meet him, and I did meet him at seven o’clock.”
“Oh! so you did go out that night to meet him!”
“I did,” he said, defiantly. “I dare not tell you for you have always had so many absurd prejudices. So I told you I was going for a walk, and stole out to meet Jenner at the Waggoner’s Pond. I said that if he would wait till I was married and could handle money I would buy the bill. So, finding that unless I made your sister my wife I should never have a penny, he consented.”
“Oh,” said Mr. Cass, “he consented to go without his pound of flesh—a man like Jenner, bloodsucker and thief!”
“He had to choose between exposing me and getting nothing or waiting and being paid,” said Marshall, vehemently. “Besides, he knew that Roper was after him because he had stolen the bill, and that if he made a fuss, whatever row I might get into, he would be in trouble himself. So he agreed to wait until I had married Inez and then to accept a thousand pounds. Meanwhile, he kept the bill and promised to hold his tongue about it. He said he was going on to see his wife at the Turnpike House, and that he would get money from her which would enable him to lie low for a time while Roper was searching for him. It was arranged that when I was married and had paid him the thousand pounds he should go to America. I agreed to all this—I could do nothing else—and then we parted.”
“Is that the truth?” Heron asked, sceptically.
“Yes, it is. You can believe or disbelieve it as you like. I left him by the Waggoner’s Pond, and that was the last I saw of him alive or dead. On my way back to the house I was attacked by some tramps who took my watch. They wrenched my links off—that is one pair, the missing pair—and were about to take the other when they heard someone coming and made off. I returned here and told Cass as little as I could, in case he might see fit to stop my marriage with his sister.”
“I wish to Heaven I had stopped it!” Mr. Cass said, fiercely. “I don’t believe a word you say!”
Marshall, seeing that the two men were silent, began to recover his self-command. “I see you don’t believe me. Perhaps there is no reason why you should. But I swear I do not know who killed Jenner. If I had known I should have got that bill out of him.”
“Oh!” said Geoffrey. “And you would have condoned his sin so long as he gave you back the evidence of your own.”
“I would. Every man for himself in this world. I would have told him, whosoever he was, that if he did not give me back the bill I would denounce him to the police. But I have not the least idea who the guilty person is.” He wiped his face. “And all these years I have lived in misery, fearing daily and hourly that the bill would turn up. I knew Roper would not spare me if he got possession of it.”
“No wonder,” remarked Heron, “seeing how badly you treated his daughter Elsa.”
The culprit had the grace to blush. “Elsa Roper was never a penny the worse by me,” he said. “When I used to go to her father’s office to procure money she chose to fall in love with me. I made capital out of that, as I do out of most things.”
“Don’t be so shameless, man!” interposed his brother-in-law, sharply. Marshall sickened him with his fluent villainy.
“Oh, you were always a Puritan,” sneered Marshall. “However, that is neither here nor there. I let the girl believe that I cared for her in order to get her father to part with his money, but I never intended to marry her.”
“And she died of a broken heart,” put in Heron.
“So the old man says. As though a woman ever died of such a thing! She caught a chill, and was carried off because she was not sufficiently well nourished; that is the truth, although old Roper prefers to put it down to me. If he had fed her better she would be alive now. But he chooses to think I killed her, and would do me a serious injury it he could. I am glad the bill did not fall into his hands. Where did you get it?” he asked, turning to Geoffrey. “Or if you can tell me the name of the person who had it I can tell you who was the assassin of Jenner. Oh, it is quite true. Jenner showed me the bill that night by the Waggoner’s Pond. I would have taken it by force, but he was stronger than I; there was no chance of my getting the better of him. But I noticed that he took it out of a red pocket-book. Now, that pocket-book was never produced at the trial, so the assassin must have it.”
“Then you don’t think Mrs. Jenner killed him?”
“She? She wouldn’t have killed a fly. No, she did not kill him. If she had, that red pocket-book would have been produced in court. I have been living in fear ever since, wondering who had it, though I always intended to make use of the murder should the assassin have tried to blackmail me. Who did you get the bill from, Heron?”
“I did not get it from anyone. Jenner evidently thought that you might come after him to steal it, so, according to his wife, he sewed it up in the body of a toy horse with which his child had been playing. Lately Neil wished to give this toy to George Chisel, so it came into Ruth’s possession. The boy cut it open, and Miss Brawn found the bill. She gave it to me and I at once saw Roper about it. Besides, I read up my father’s diary and found that his name had been forged.”
“Did he know that I had done it?”
“Yes. Roper called on him to tell him so. If my father had not died, Mr. Marshall, you would have found yourself in prison for forgery.”
“No, I should not. You forget that Jenner stole the bill. No one could have prosecuted me without producing the document. I know enough law for that. Besides, I had paid the money to Roper, and that I did only to avoid a scandal. Does Ruth know about this, or Miss Brawn, or George?”
“They know nothing,” replied Mr. Cass. “Ruth does not even know of the existence of this bill. George is but a child, and took no notice of it. As for Miss Brawn, she thinks the signature is all right. She will hold her tongue. Oh, you are quite safe so far. But this murder. I feel certain that you committed it; no one else could have had so powerful a motive.”
“Still, someone else might have had a motive for all that. I am sure Mrs. Jenner is innocent; but her husband had lots of enemies, and many would gladly have done it, could they have escaped the consequences. The only thing that puzzles me is the disappearance of the red pocket-bock. I understand all about the bill now; it could not have been made use of. Well, the whole affair is a mystery, but all I can say is that I did not kill the man. I knew if it came to the pinch I could always prove that.”
“It has come to the pinch now,” said Mr. Cass, sternly. “Prove your innocence, if you can for my part I believe you are guilty.”
“More fool you!” was the retort. “On that night, if you remember, we had dinner at six—a light dinner, dished up in a hurry—your wife had to go to London; you told her you would have some supper at nine, did you not?”
“Yes, I remember something of that,” said Mr. Cass, after a pause.
“Was I not in to supper?”
“Yes, you were; I remember that too.”
“And supper was at nine?”
“Yes, it was ordered for nine, and I postponed it till half-past because I did not feel hungry.”
“I was here when you gave the order, because you asked me whether I would prefer supper at once, or wait.”
“That is true enough. Well?”
“Well, if you will look again into the evidence given at the trial of that unfortunate woman, you will find that the doctor said that Jenner had been killed at nine o’clock. Therefore, it could not have been I who struck the blow. By your own showing I was with you at the time. Now, am I innocent or guilty?”
Mr. Cass looked at Geoffrey. “All this is true enough,” he said, quietly. “I begin to believe that you did not do it after all.”
“If you can be so honest as to admit that I was in this room at nine o’clock I could not have killed Jenner, who was at that very time being murdered by some unknown person four miles away. I am a forger, I admit that; but”—here he became finely scornful—“I am not a murderer. Foolish I may have been, wicked I never was.”
The two listeners gazed at each other in amazement. Then Marshall went on.
“Now I know where the bill is I feel relieved,” he said, and his self-pity was almost, pathetic. “I can sleep in peace, more especially when it has been destroyed.” As he spoke he advanced his hand towards the table with the intention of taking the paper. Mr. Cass anticipated him, and snatched the incriminating document away.
“No, Marshall,” he said, putting it in his pocket. “I keep this. You are too dangerous a man to be allowed to go your own way. I use this bill as a whip to manage you. Behave yourself, and act a decent part for the remainder of your life, and no one shall ever know of this. But try any of your tricks and you will be laid by the heels.”
“Do you call this honourable?” blustered Marshall.
“I call it caution. You are quite safe with me, and I am sure our friend Heron will say nothing.”
“Certainly. I shall be guided entirely by Mr. Cass.”
“But Roper might get hold of it, and then I should be lost.”
“Roper will not get hold of it. I keep it, Marshall. It is for your wife’s sake only that I am thus lenient. So far as you are concerned nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see you suffering a just punishment. You are the most unblushing scoundrel I have ever seen!”
“You had better look out Cass,” said Marshall, threateningly. “I can make you pay dearly for these insults.”
“Can any person possibly insult you?” sneered Mr. Cass. “Do what you like, but remember”—he touched his breast-pocket—“I will exact payment. Now you know. As for the rest, I don’t want you in my house again, but as that might provoke remark on the part of Inez, and lead to an explanation, I will permit you to call occasionally; but I hope your visits will be rare. Were I in your place I should go abroad. Now you can go.”
The man was livid with rage. He was evidently inclined to make trouble. He knew that he could go pretty far, for only the direst extremity would force Mr. Cass into creating a scandal by producing the bill. But he could find nothing to say in face of the threat held over him; and, cowed by the looks of the two men, he finally sneaked out of the room. Then he left the house, but he had recovered himself sufficiently to make a gay remark to Ruth and Jennie, whom he met returning from their walk. Truly the man was bad to the core.
“Do you believe him?” asked Heron when they were alone.
“Yes, what he says is perfectly correct. I confess I am greatly relieved.”
“So am I. But do you think he knows who killed Jenner?”
“He might, but that we shall never get out of him. On the other hand I am inclined to think he does not know, for believing the assassin to have had the bill, he would have made an attempt to get it from him. But what is to be done next? Mrs. Jenner is still in gaol and ill.”
“Ah, that reminds me,” said Geoffrey, taking a letter out of his pocket. “I had this from Neil this morning. I intended to show it to you, but our interview with our friend put it out of my head. He is coming down to-day.”
“What!” exclaimed Mr. Cass, running his eyes over the letter. “Is he well enough to travel?”
“Oh, yes; he has wonderful recuperative power. You see, he says there that he intends to see his mother. It appears she has sent for him. He must have gone to her yesterday as he is coming down to-day. I am anxious to see him, for I cannot help wondering why she should have sent for him. Do you think she might have something to tell him?”
“No.” Mr. Cass shook his head. “I saw her the other day. She is quite ignorant who killed her husband; she is in the infirmary now, and very ill. I don’t think the end is far off. I expect she sent for Neil to bid him good-bye.” Mr. Cass paused for a moment. “You know, Heron,” he said, “in spite of all the trails you have followed, I cannot help thinking that she really killed her husband.”
“I cannot believe it. The person who committed the murder was the man who got those links—who dropped one under the window.”
“Ah—then we shall never find out.”
“Marshall might know; he might have recognised the footpads who attacked him that night,” suggested Heron. Then he started, struck with a sudden idea. “By the way, is it possible that the gypsy Job was one of them? That would explain how he comes to be so intimate with your sister.”
“I don’t see that,” remarked Mr. Cass, with a frown. “If she knew that Job had attacked her husband, and had afterwards murdered Jenner, he would receive but short shrift from the hands of Inez. She is no sentimentalist.”
“But, don’t you see,” persisted Geoffrey, “she may think that he has the bill—she may be keeping her knowledge of the murder quiet so that Job may not produce the document and incriminate her husband.”
“Inez knows nothing about the bill. You heard what her husband said!”
“He is such a liar!” cried Heron, in disgust.
“Nevertheless, I believe on this occasion he spoke the truth. I cannot believe that my sister—in spite of her love for that reptile—would go as far as to grovel to a gypsy and shield a murderer. No; the gypsy might have been one of those who attacked Marshall on that night; but I do not believe that he killed Jenner. Don’t trouble any more about the matter, Heron. We have done all we could with no result. Besides, Mrs. Jenner—poor soul—will soon be released from her unjust imprisonment—if, indeed, it be unjust; death will set her free.”
“What about Neil and his wish to see his mother cleared?”
“We shall see what he says about that,” replied Mr. Cass, closing the subject in a more peremptory manner than was usual with him.
The same afternoon Neil Webster arrived at Hollyoaks, looking a shadow of his former self, pale and fragile, and very downcast. Ruth and Jennie both gave him a cordial welcome; and neither his host nor Geoffrey Heron were lacking in heartiness. But all the kindness and attention he received served only to make the young man more melancholy. Observing this, and knowing that he had seen his mother, Mr. Cass took the first opportunity to draw him into the library: it might be that Mrs. Jenner had told the poor fellow something. It appeared that she had.
“Yes, I saw her,” Neil said, in reply to Mr. Cass’s question. “She is dying; I have seen her for the last time! She cannot live many days now; indeed, I wanted to stay beside her till the end, but she would not hear of it. She said that I was to go away and remember always that she had loved me. For the rest, I was to put her out of my mind, and live as good a life as I could. Then she kissed me, and we parted.”
“Is that all?”
“That is all; except that she has commanded me to stop searching for the real assassin of my father.”
“Did she say that?”
“Yes; she said no one would ever find out the truth, and, moreover, that my father had deserved his fate. She was sure I had not committed the crime; she swore that she herself was guiltless; but she said that it was quite impossible that the truth should ever come to light.”
“Do you think she knows the truth, Neil?”
“No; I am sure she does not. She said if she did she would have told me, if only to put my mind at rest. But she knows nothing. Poor mother!”
“And what do you intend to do?”
“Obey her commands,” said Neil. “I shall search no more.”
Ruth let Miss Brawn take entire possession of Neil. In spite of his languid ways, Webster was an interesting study to a woman. So Miss Cass found it a trifle dull; for Geoffrey had returned to his own place, and did not come over to Hollyoaks quite so often as she thought he might have done. Yet she rarely intruded upon Jennie and Neil, but allowed them to drift into a companionship which she devoutly hoped would result in the closer tie of marriage. Jennie continued to give the usual lessons to her little pupils; and after school hours Ruth took them off her hands, so that she might be free to entertain Neil. After a time he recovered sufficient interest in his music to take up his violin, and with Jennie he spent long hours going over his old music and experimenting on new.
Meanwhile, Ruth naturally found the house extremely dull without Geoffrey; so she spent as much time as possible in long walks, in riding her bicycle, and in paying visits. One day she recollected her promise to call and see her Aunt Inez. Mr. Marshall had gone for a change to Brighton, where, no doubt, he was enjoying himself after his usual selfish fashion. His wife had declined to accompany him, giving as her reason that she had more to do than waste her time among a pack of fools—as she was wont to designate the rest of the world. So she remained at home and attended to her duties in rather a joyless way. She still retained a mild love for her husband; she despised his weaknesses; she hated his lack of principle; but some sentiment of love remained at the bottom of her soul. Companionship had begotten toleration; and, on the whole, she thought, she was not worse off than other women. She, at least, could govern her husband’s weaker nature, and could curb his follies. And this somewhat unsatisfactory employment gave her plenty to do; so she succeeded in passing her life in an endurable fashion. Fortunately for her, she was not a woman who had the capacity for being bored. Nine out of ten women would have killed themselves out of sheer weariness of the flesh; but Mrs. Marshall continued to live on—grimly.
Ruth had often wondered in her secret soul if her aunt were doing penance for some hidden sin; it was the only way in which she could account for the asceticism of her life. She lived in an ugly house, in which all the rooms were hideous both in colour and design—all, save those which were occupied by the master of the house. His apartments, furnished by himself, were charming in every way.
As she stood now in the stone-hued drawing-room, the melancholy of the place struck Ruth more than ever; and, moreover, glancing round the room, she caught sight of a copy of Thomas a Kempis. “She’s taking to religion,” she thought, turning over the leaves. “I really wonder if there is a secret in her past life to account for—” But at this moment a grim maid-servant entered to interrupt her conjectures.
“If you please, Miss,” she said, “mistress is in the garret storing things, and she wants to know if you will go up to her there?”
“Oh, certainly,” said Ruth, wondering if her aunt were mad that she should invite a visitor to go poking about among old lumber—even though that visitor were her niece. But she meekly followed the maid up to the top of the house, and was introduced into a long, low, wide attic, immediately under the roof. Here Aunt Inez, in a stone-coloured dress, with a severe face, gave her an icy greeting. In spite of the summer warmth the garret was chilly, and this, joined to her reception, made the girl shiver.
“I am glad you have remembered me at last, Ruth,” said Mrs. Marshall, in her most metallic tones. “I was beginning to think you had forgotten me.”
“I found it difficult to leave the house, aunt; Neil Webster is there, and, of course, I have had to attend to him.”
“I heard the young man was back again,” she said, in a muffled voice, “and truly, I wonder that my brother should have him in the house!”
“Why shouldn’t he? Neil is a good fellow!”
“But his mother is not a good woman. She belongs to the criminal classes.”
“My dear aunt,” cried Ruth, “I am sure the poor woman is more sinned against than sinning.”
“What do you know of her?” asked the good lady, turning a terrible eye on her niece. “Has your father—”
“Yes, he has; and I found out a great deal for myself. I am sure Mrs. Jenner did not kill her husband.”
“You know nothing at all about it. Mrs. Jenner was a minx; I knew her well when she lived at Hollyoaks and taught Amy. I lived there myself, and managed the house, too, for your poor mother never did have any idea of how to conduct an establishment. Mrs. Jenner—a bold, bad woman! She came down to Westham after the arrest of her abominable husband, and lived at the Turnpike House—”
“And there her husband called to see her on the night he was murdered.”
“On the night she murdered him,” corrected Mrs. Marshall, vehemently. “Will you be wiser, than the law, Ruth? I tell you it was she who struck the blow. I do not say that she had not good cause, for the man was a brute. But she had no right to take his life!”
“She didn’t—she didn’t,” asseverated Ruth, with quite as much vehemence as her aunt had shown. “The blow was struck through the window for the sake of getting a red— Why, whatever is the matter, aunt?”
“Nothing—nothing!” gasped Mrs. Marshall. She had seated herself suddenly on a convenient box, and with her hand to her side, was gazing at her niece with an ashen face. “A stitch in the side—that’s all, child! Why did your father tell you all this—and what does he know about the red pocket-book?”
“I have heard scraps of information at times,” said Ruth, trying to get out of the unpleasant position in which her tongue had placed her. “But I know very little; I don’t want to have anything to do with the matter. Please don’t ask me anything more about it aunt.”
“You have said so much that I must know all,” said Mrs. Marshall, so fiercely that the girl was frightened. “If you refuse to tell me, I shall speak to your father.”
“He is the very best person to whom you could speak,” replied Miss Cass, with some defiance in her voice, for her temper was rising at her aunt’s tone. “But please don’t bring me into it.”
“I shall act as I think best. If this case has been reopened—as I judge from your words, it has been—why was I not informed?
“I refer you to papa,” said Ruth, coldly. “And, after all,” she added, “I do not see what you have to do with it, Aunt Inez.”
“More than you think,” replied Mrs. Marshall, tightening her thin lips.
Then Ruth did a very foolish thing—a thing she repented of for many a long day after. “What about Job?” she asked. “Does he also take an interest in the case?”
Mrs. Marshall sprang forward in the most dramatic fashion, and seized her niece by the arm. “You have been asking him questions,” she said.
“And what if I have?” cried the girl, twisting herself away. “Anyone has a right to ask questions, I suppose? But he told me nothing.”
“He had nothing to tell.”
“In that case you need not look so fiercely at me, aunt.”
Mrs. Marshall realised how indiscreet was her demeanour.
“Don’t trouble about me, child,” she said, with a forced laugh. “I have done nothing to be ashamed of.”
“I never thought you had, aunt!”
“Mrs. Jenner,” continued Aunt Inez, exactly as though she were repeating a lesson, “was a flirt. When she married a brute, she only got her just punishment. I did my best to be kind to her; but I always hated her. It is no use my denying the fact—I did hate her! If you are a woman, Ruth, if you have your grandmother’s blood in your veins, you will understand.”
“Oh, yes,” said the girl, proudly conscious of her own tiger blood, “I can quite understand. I should like to see any woman take Geoffrey from me! Aha!” And she growled like a playful cat.
“I believe Mrs. Jenner killed her husband,” continued Aunt Inez, taking no notice of this speech, “and she is being punished for it. As to Job—I merely assist him out of charity; he knows nothing about the murder; it had happened before he came to these parts. Now, are you satisfied?”
“My dear aunt, I never wanted to be satisfied,” replied the girl. “I never thought you knew anything about the murder.”
“I don’t—I don’t! I swear I don’t!” cried Mrs. Marshall. “But this red pocket-book—it was not mentioned at the trial.”
“I know nothing about it,” said Ruth, promptly; she was not going to be drawn into the discussion. “Ask papa about it.”
Mrs. Marshall, seeing she would get nothing further out of her niece, returned to the examination of the lumber which was scattered over the floor of the garret. “Then we will go down shortly and have some tea, my dear,” she said, in her most amiable tone. She was evidently desirous of effacing the impression of her former fierceness.
Ruth wondered but little at her aunt’s strange demeanour.
In a meditative way she watched Mrs. Marshall moving about on the other side of the garret, so close under the slope of the roof that her head touched it. There were two windows—one at each end, but these were so dirty that the place was enveloped in a kind of brown twilight which had, at first, prevented the girl from seeing plainly. As her eyes grew more accustomed to the semi-gloom, she examined the lumber that was piled up on all sides. All the scum of the house had risen to the top and been left in this isolated attic. It was filled with the wreckage which will accumulate even in the most orderly houses. There were, also, ancient books, piles of newspapers, and suchlike things huddled together pell-mell, and over all lay a thick, grey dust.
Suddenly as Ruth, growing tired of waiting, shifted her position, the light from the window behind struck out a patch of red. Her eyes wandered mechanically towards the colour. It was the red morocco binding of a narrow book which protruded from the heap. Hardly thinking what she was doing, the girl picked it up, and with the light from behind her strong upon it she examined it minutely. Then her heart seemed to stand still, for it was a pocket-book—perhaps the very red pocket-book which had been stolen by Jenner’s murderer, and of which they had been speaking only a few minutes before.
Anxious to make quite certain as to this, Ruth slipped off the elastic strap and examined the discoloured leaves. For the most part they were blank, but written on the front page was a name, and the name was Jenner!
At the sight Ruth uttered a cry. Mrs. Marshall turned sharply.
“What is the matter, child?” asked Mrs. Marshall, sharply.
But Ruth could not answer. She sat with the red pocket-book in her lap, gazing upon it as though it were a viper. Aunt Inez repeated her question impatiently then, surprised at her niece’s silence, she crossed the garret. Her eyes fell at once on the red book, and for a few seconds no word was spoken. Then at last Ruth made a remark, and made it in a hushed voice, as though she feared it might be heard by others than the frozen woman before her.
“It was not produced at the trial,” was what she said, looking at her aunt.
Mrs. Marshall might have been a granite image for all the movement she made. Her face was like snow, her eyes fixed as though she were in a cataleptic state. And so she was—for the moment. Only when Ruth, who was the first to recover herself, made a motion to rise did she show any signs of life. She sighed deeply and removed her eyes from the book.
“I will show it to my father,” said the girl; whereat her aunt changed suddenly into a creature of fire. She snatched at the pocket-book and had it in her grasp before Ruth could close her fingers upon it.
“You will show it to no one,” she said, thrusting it into her pocket. “I forbid you to say a word.”
“Tell me how it came to be here, and I will consider if it is right for me to be silent.”
“I will explain nothing. Girl, what demon brought you here and showed you that book? I came up here to look for it; I have been searching for over an hour. You came in and found it in a few minutes. It is fate—fate.”
“Aunt Inez,” Ruth drew back until she was standing up against the wall, “you—oh, no!—you did not—did not—kill the man!”
Mrs. Marshall shrugged her shoulders, her colour and her courage coming back to her almost as she spoke. “You are at liberty to think so if you like. I will not contradict you. No, indeed. I have other things to do.”
“Will you contradict my father?”
“I forbid you to tell your father of this.”
“I must! I will know the truth of this matter. There is an innocent woman in gaol for—”
“An innocent woman!” interrupted her aunt, with contempt. “Oh, yes, very innocent!” She paused and looked at Ruth. “Come downstairs,” she said. “As you have found what I wanted, we need not remain here.”
“You knew that this book was hidden here?”
“Yes; I have known it for years.”
“Why did you not produce it at the trial?”
“That is my business.”
“How did it come into your possession?”
“Ah! that I refuse to tell you. Think me guilty if you like. It is evident you want to smirch our family name. But I have had enough of this nonsense. You must hold your tongue.”
“To all persons save my father. I must tell him, and I will.”
“I forbid you.”
“It is no use your forbidding me. I tell my father. He has the honour of the family quite as at heart as you have; and he is the man to decide what should be done.”
“You will tell?”
“Yes; I am going straight home to tell all.”
The eyes of the two women met, and for a moment there was a duel of wills. Then Ruth, with her more youthful fire, got the upper hand; her aunt turned away.
“You are bringing me into great danger,” she said; “but have it your own way. Tell your father.”
“Aunt! You did not kill the man?”
“Think so if you like.”
Mrs. Marshall passed out of the garret. Ruth remained a moment to recover her self-control which had been sorely shaken by this extraordinary conversation. Then she also went down the stairs to the inhabited portion of the house. Mrs. Marshall was not to be seen; and on inquiring of the servant, Ruth learnt that she had locked herself in her bedroom and refused to see anyone. In this dilemma there was nothing left for the girl but to go home, which she proceeded to do feeling sick at heart.
On the way to Hollyoaks a sudden thought struck her. Suppose her aunt were guilty—suppose she had shut herself in her room to commit suicide! If she had not been almost at the gates of the park when this occurred to her she would have run back. But the best thing she could do now was to see her father and implore him to go to Aunt Inez at once. She felt there was no time to be lost, and ran up the avenue as quickly as she could. The window of the library which opened on to the terrace was ajar, so taking this as a short cut she ran up the steps on to the terrace and flung herself into the room with a white and haggard face.
“Ruth! What is the matter? Ruth!” cried Mr. Cass, and sprang forward just in time to catch her in his arms. For a minute or so she could not speak, but when speech did come the words poured out in a torrent.
“Aunt Inez,” she cried. “I went to see her. She was in the garret; there I found the red pocket-book—Jenner’s book—which was stolen! She will not say if she killed him; yet she knew that the book was in the garret. Oh, see her at once, father—at once! She has locked herself in her bedroom. I believe that she will kill herself!” and the excited girl burst into tears of exhaustion and terror.
Mr. Cass said nothing, but put her into a chair. Indeed, he did not know what to say, or even what to think, for he felt completely stunned. He had suspected Marshall, but never Inez. Even now he did not believe that she could ever have brought herself to commit such a crime.
“Go! Go!” cried Ruth, wringing her hands. “Aunt Inez—you may be too late! She will kill herself, I know she will!”
“No fear of that,” said her father, recovering himself somewhat. “She is not the woman to give up the fight in that way, Inez. No, she never killed that beast—never!”
“But, father, the red pocket-book—”
“She will be able to explain how she came by it. She has a temper, and is fierce enough when she is roused; but she would not go so far as that. As to committing suicide, she has no reason for doing that, if she is innocent.”
“I hope she is. Oh, I hope she is” wailed Ruth, distracted with terror.
Her father saw that the girl was thoroughly overwrought. In her present state of mind everything would be exaggerated. He intended to go at once and learn the truth from his sister, but he could not leave Ruth in this plight. Before he went he must soothe her. So, pulling himself together—no easy task, at his age, for he had received a severe shock—he sat down beside the terrified girl and took her hand firmly in his own. “See here, child,” he said, “however that book got into Marshall’s hands your aunt had nothing to do with it. She did not—she could not have killed Jenner. I know it because she was in this house on the night and at the time of the murder.”
“Then if she is innocent why didn’t she tell me so?”
“Well, you know what she is. No doubt she was angry to think you should conceive her capable of such a crime. She will tell me all she knows, if she has any knowledge, which I am inclined to doubt. But I want you to understand, Ruth, that your aunt is innocent, and that her innocence can be proved by me. Under these circumstances, she will not commit suicide, as you appear to think. I will go over and see her at once, and I shall doubtless have a reassuring report to give you when I return. But you must promise not to worry while I am away; and above all things, Ruth, do not tell anyone of this. There may be trouble.”
“I will say nothing—nothing,” panted the girl, pressing her hands against her beating heart. “And, indeed, father, I did not meddle with the matter again. The discovery was thrust upon me. You can trust me, indeed you can.”
“And you will not make yourself ill with expecting the worst?”
“No, no; I promise I will go to my room and lie down.”
“That’s a good girl; and I will walk over at once.”
“Ride—ride! You don’t know what may happen.”
“Nothing bad, at all events. Yes, I will ride. Now go to your room, dear, and leave me to attend to this.”
“Yes, father,” she said, faintly. She had the utmost belief in his capability of arranging the situation. “But kiss me before you go. I am—I am rather frightened.”
“Believe me, there is no need for that,” said Mr. Cass, with an attempt at a smile. “There is your kiss, now go.”
Mr. Cass reviewed the whole situation as he rode over to his sister’s house. He reflected that Marshall must have told his wife about the bill, for that and the book were, so to speak, inseparable.
“In a word,” thought Mr. Cass, as he dismounted at the door and gave his horse to a groom, “Marshall did not kill the man himself, but he knows who did. But I’ll make Inez tell truth in some way. This is no time to consider her feelings.”
Following the servant, he went into the stone-coloured drawing-room, and found his sister waiting to receive him. She was dressed in black, without a scrap of white to relieve her funereal aspect.
“I did not expect you to come so soon, Sebastian,” she said, in her rich, low voice. “But I knew you would come sooner or later.”
“I could hardly help coming after what Ruth told me.” Her brother was surprised at her composure.
“What did she tell you?”
“That the red pocket-book belonging to Jenner had been found by her in this house.”
“To be particular, the garret,” said Mrs. Marshall, pointing to the table. “There it is.”
He looked at it with repugnance, and touched it gingerly. Then he opened it, glanced at the name, and laid it down with a sigh. There was no doubt it had been Jenner’s property, the name was clear enough. “How did it come into your possession?” he asked, sharply.
“That is not an easy question for me to answer.”
“Yet it can be answered, and must be, answered.”
“How do you know that I will comply with your ‘must’?” she asked, with scorn.
“Oh, I know you are hard to drive, but in this case you must speak out. I have the means to make you, that is if you have any regard for your husband.”
“You know how I love him, little as he deserves it. You are talking of the bill. Oh, don’t look so astonished. Frank told me of his conversation with you. It was by my advice that he went away.”
“Inez, is it possible you can love so base a creature?”
Mrs. Marshall sighed. “To you, Sebastian, I will say things I would not say to any other person. Little as we love one another, still we are brother and sister. I know you would do much for me.”
“I would do anything for you, Inez; blood is stronger than water, after all. And you can speak freely to me, your honour is my honour. I can hold my tongue. Speak out freely,” he repeated.
“I will,” she said, and gave him the kindest look that had been in her eyes for many a long year.
“You know how madly in love I was with Frank when I married him. It was not love, it was infatuation I believed him to be the most perfect and the most misunderstood man in the whole world. I blamed you for getting him out of the business, and I thought to repair your wrong by marrying him. Well, I did; and then what happened?”
“I can guess. The scales fell from your eyes.”
“They did, within six months. For even then he deceived me. Yes, after all I had done for him. I had made him rich. I had—but that comes later on in the story. Suffice it to say, that I soon found out that I had married a faithless brute.”
“Why did you not get rid of him? I would have helped you.”
She cast a look around the dismal room and smiled strangely. “Because I had committed a sin. I came to look upon Frank as the cross laid upon me for the expiation of that sin.”
“Good Heavens, Inez! You don’t mean to say you killed Jenner? No! What nonsense am I talking? You were in bed on that night.”
“I did not kill Jenner,” she said, calmly. “Nevertheless I had committed a sin; you shall hear all in good time. Well, I took Frank as my cross, and put up all these years with his infidelities, and drunkenness, and wickedness. I behaved to him as though I still loved him. I have deceived everyone.”
“You certainly deceived me for one,” said Mr. Cass, bluntly. “I thought you still loved the creature.”
“Loved him! Why, I hated him with all my soul. It was only my religious principles, and my desire to expiate my sin, that made me tolerate him.”
“In Heaven’s name, what is your sin?”
“I’ll tell you soon enough,” she said. “But do not be afraid. I have not dipped my hands in blood. Let me tell my story in my own way. It is not easy for me to tell it at all. I only do so now in order to avert, worse trouble.”
Knowing her obstinacy, her brother saw that it was useless to protest. “Go on,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “Have your own way.”
“I often wish we had kept to our mother’s faith,” continued Mrs. Marshall. “She was of the true Church, and Catholicism is such a comforting religion. One has a confessor; that would have done me good. I have often longed to confess and relieve my mind.”
“Why did you not confess to me?”
“I had no reason for making you my confidant, Sebastian,” she said, icily. “Well, I was of the Protestant faith, and could not confess, so I had to bear my own sorrow as best I could. Frank tried me at times with his dreadful ways, but I had a whip to manage him.”
“What was the whip?” asked Mr. Cass, struck by the fact that she used almost the same phrase that he had used to her husband.
“I will tell you shortly; but I mortified my flesh in every way. Look at this house. You know how I love pretty things, and yet I spend my life in the midst of these horrors. I am fond of—”
“See here, Inez,” broke in her brother, “I want I to know about this pocket-book. You can tell me your feelings later.”
Sebastian’s abrupt interruption of his sister’s enthusiastic confession was as a douche of cold water on glowing iron. The iron forthwith cooled; that is to say, Mrs. Marshall, from flesh and blood, became stone again.
“Of course I will tell you all you wish to know,” she said, in even tones, with about as much feeling as might have been expected from a cuckoo. “But since you will not let me tell my story in my own way, I think it is best that you should put your own questions, then I shall know precisely what you do want.”
“Don’t be angry!” entreated her brother; “but tell me all for the sake of the family. Where did you learn that Frank had committed forgery?”
“At the Waggoner’s Pond.”
Mr. Cass started from his seat and stared down at his sister in surprise. He remembered what Marshall had told him about that appointment at the Waggoner’s Pond. “What!” he cried. “Were you out on the night of the murder? Did you overhear the conversation between Marshall and Jenner?”
“Oh, it was Jenner, was it?” she said, quite composedly. “Well, I guessed as much, though I could never be quite sure.”
“Didn’t your husband tell you that he had met him by the Waggoner’s Pond?”
She looked up with scorn and contempt.
“Frank never told me anything but what was wrung out of him by fear. Besides, we did not speak of these things. Like him, I preferred to let sleeping dogs lie.”
Her brother had taken his seat again, and, deep in thought, paid little attention to what she was saying. “I thought you were in bed on that night with a headache?”
“A woman’s excuse,” she said, coolly. “I had no headache; but I had a very keen desire to find out why Frank had an appointment on that night, and with whom. I suspected another woman—you can guess her name.”
“Mrs. Jenner? Ah, but he did not go out to meet her!” cried Mr. Cass, impatiently. “He had an appointment with her husband.”
“I found that out later. But I heard him asking one of the servants where the Waggoner’s Pond was, and if he could find it in the dark. I knew then that he intended to go there that night for some purpose. The name of Mrs. Jenner was not mentioned; but as she was in the neighbourhood—well, you know what a woman’s feelings are!”
“You jumped to conclusions?”
“Yes; they were wrong, but that did not matter. At all events, I was satisfied that he did not meet the woman. I slipped out of a side door unknown to everyone; my headache was a pretext that I might be at the meeting-place. Had he done so, I would have broken off the engagement—yes, much as I loved him, or rather, much as I was infatuated—I would have broken it off at the eleventh hour had he put such an insult on me!”
“And yet you married him?”
“Oh, what is the use of that parrot-cry?” she said, impatiently. “You have already said that five or six times.”
“Because I am so amazed that your pride did not come to your aid when you knew the use to which he intended to put your money. To him you were not the woman he loved—but the banker upon whom he intended to draw.”
“And yet I married him,” she said, with a cold smile. “Women are strange creatures, I confess. Yet you always considered me proud. See how mistaken you were! I had more weakness than you thought me capable of possessing. I was wildly—madly in love with him. At all events, I intended to marry him, and what is more, I intended to get back that incriminating bill from Jenner without the expenditure of a penny. I saw that he had replaced it in his red pocket-book; well, I made up my mind that I would get that pocket-book.”
“Yet you never guessed the man was Jenner!” remarked her brother, ironically.
“I was suspicious, but not certain. However, I did not go after Jenner at once, for I knew where to find him. I wanted Frank to be out of the way before I left my hiding-place—I was behind a hedge—and not alone.”
“What do you mean by that?” asked Mr. Cass, startled.
“I mean what I say. Several times, while I was crouching in the wet grass, I heard the breathing of someone no great distance off. Well, I found that other person.”
“When—some time afterwards?”
“On the contrary, the person threw himself in my way within half-an-hour after I was on my way to the Turnpike House.”
“Wait a moment!” cried Mr. Cass, with suppressed excitement. “I know who it was—the gypsy, Job.”
“Ah!” replied Mrs. Marshall, without betraying much surprise. “Ruth told you something!”
“Geoffrey did: Ruth had told him.”
Mrs. Marshall rose with a bound. “And pray what has Mr. Heron to do with this matter?”
“A good deal,” rejoined her brother, drily. “You may as well sit down, Inez. Geoffrey is perfectly discreet. He is going to marry Ruth, you know: it will be as much to his interest as mine to keep this affair secret. Well, so you met this gypsy blackguard?”
“Yes, half-way on the road to the Turnpike House. In spite of the darkness and the mist, he knew me in a moment—instinct, I suppose.”
“How could he have met you? Had you met him before?”
“Lots of times. I knew the Romany dialect, and used to talk to Job.”
“I really wonder at you, Inez, taking up with such scum! As for Ruth, I’ll talk to her! She shall have nothing more to do with him.”
“Oh, as to that,” remarked his sister, shrugging her shoulders, “the creature is dying; he is consumptive, and is drinking himself to death. I have placed him in the Turnpike House—without Mr. Heron’s permission, by the way—and I allow him a small sum a week so that he may die in peace.”
“So that you may keep your secret, you mean.”
“It will soon be a secret no longer. Job, as I say, knew me. He told me that he had been sleeping behind the hedge—near me, I suppose—and had been aroused by the sound of voices. He recognised Frank’s voice, for he had often spoken to him; but Jenner he did not know, any more than I did.”
“Naturally. Jenner was a comparative stranger in these parts. Go on.”
“Well, Job had heard all about, the red pocket-book and the bill. I saw in a twinkling that here was the instrument I required; I promised him twenty pounds if he would get me that red pocket-book.”
“Inez! Did you send the man to murder Jenner?”
“No, I did not. I never thought he would go so far as that. And, as a matter of fact. Job has always denied to me that he struck the blow.”
“He certainly would tell you that to save his neck!”
“Well, after I had made this arrangement with him and had told him that Jenner was at the Turnpike House, I returned home. I entered by the side door and slipped up to my room without anyone being the wiser.”
“I certainly was not,” said her brother. “You are quite a diplomatist, Inez. What about Job’s murdering mission?”
“He did not commit the murder,” insisted Mrs. Marshall. “He came next day and brought me the pocket-book. I opened it, but could not find the bill; then I accused Job of having taken it. He grinned, but would say nothing. You understand, Sebastian, he had not got the bill; but he wanted to have me in his power.”
“I see; but you could have turned the tables on him by having him arrested for the crime.”
“No, he knew of the bill—of Frank’s disgrace. I thought, if he were arrested, he would tell all, which he certainly would have done; then Frank would have been prosecuted. Remember, I thought Job had the bill! All these years I have believed he had it in his possession; you do not know the blackmail I have paid that man! He was always worrying me for money. At last, seeing he was ill, I put him into the Turnpike House, and—well, I have told you all that. But now you know why I assisted him.”
“Assisted a murderer?”
“Job denied that he had killed the man.”
“Then how did he get the pocket-book?”
“He said that he had met Jenner before he got to the Turnpike House, and robbed him of the book.”
“That is a lie!” cried Mr. Cass; “and a feeble lie to boot. Jenner had the book when he was in that room—before he was killed Mrs. Jenner said that the book was on the table near the window; and my own opinion is that the blow must have been struck through the window and the book stolen.”
“But why believe Mrs. Jenner more than Job?”
“I will tell you all. The bill was in the pocket-book; you yourself saw Jenner put it there. Well, he thought Marshall might steal that bill, so he sewed it up in the body of a toy horse with which his child was playing. Neil kept the horse, and a short time ago he sent it to George, who cut the animal open. The bill was found, and is now in my possession. So, you see, Job could not have taken the pocket-book which contained the bill before Jenner got to the house. He must have murdered the man and stolen the book after the bill had been placed inside the horse.
“But nothing of all this came out at the trial.”
“No one knew anything about it—least of all Mrs. Jenner. But now you are satisfied that Job committed that murder?”
“I suppose so; it looks like it. Oh, the wretch, to let me think all these years that he had the bill, and that he was innocent of killing the man!”
“Had you no suspicion of his guilt?”
She thought for a moment. “I confess I had,” she said, after a pause, “but, you see, I had to put all such suspicions behind my back. If I had denounced Job, I thought he would have produced the bill and ruined Frank.”
“I see. Well, here is the bill. No one knows of it but Heron, and he will say nothing. I thought of keeping it as a useful whip for your husband, should he treat you cruelly. But now that I find you do not care for him, I think it had better be destroyed.”
“No,” she said, putting it into her pocket, “I will keep it, to hold over Frank myself. I hate him, and would gladly divorce him—which I could easily do. But I am as proud of the family name as you are, and I do not want a scandal. So I shall not separate from him; but now I shall know how to make him behave himself.” She tapped her pocket with a grim smile.
“Did you ever speak to him about the red pocket-book?”
“No, he never knew I had it. I put it away, and afterwards sent it up to the garret, where I thought it would be safe. Hardly anyone ever goes there but myself. Besides, if I had told Frank, he would have worried Job about giving him the bill, and Heaven only knows what would have happened then. No, I was wrong, I suppose, but I acted for the best. When Frank told me that he had seen you, and that the bill was in your possession, I went up to the garret, intending to find the pocket-book and destroy it. Then I was foolish enough to ask Ruth; she found it by chance—and—well, you know the rest.”
“Yes, I know the rest,” said Mr. Cass, grimly; “and, among other things. I know that Job Lovell killed Jenner, and that the dead man’s unhappy wife has been punished all these years. Inez, I know you always hated her, but would you have let her lose her life?”
“No; if she had been in danger of that, I would have come forward and told all I knew, even at the cost of disgrace; I would not have had the blood of a fellow-creature on my soul. But, to tell you the truth, Sebastian, as Mrs. Jenner did not defend herself, I really believed she was guilty, and Job innocent. He confessed to having robbed Jenner; she would say nothing; so of the two, I thought Job the innocent one. Can you blame me?”
“Partly. I blame you for not having told me this long ago. I always suspected your husband. Now I know that he is innocent; and I should have known it all along, seeing that he was in the house—in my house—when the crime was committed. If you had spoken out, I would have managed to get Mrs. Jenner off in some way without exposing the whole of this dreadful story. Job should be punished.”
“Think what that would mean to us all,” said his sister, warningly.
“I will contrive to evade the worst. But I must have that poor woman released!”
His sister’s attitude puzzled Mr. Cass less than might have been expected.
On leaving her he went straight to the Turnpike House to interview the gypsy.
The first thing was to get the truth out of Job; then he would try to arrive at some settlement of the question which would be satisfactory to the world, to justice, and to his conscience.
The door of the house was closed when he rode up. He dismounted, gave his horse to his groom, and told the man to take him home.
“I have to see this gypsy,” he explained. “I find he is here without Mr. Heron’s permission. I shall probably remain some time, and I don’t want Sultan to get cold. Go home.”
“Yes, sir,” said the man, and then ventured to add a few words on his own account. “Shan’t I wait, sir? Joe Lovel is a rough customer.”
“I know,” Mr. Cass said, calmly. “I am prepared for that. I shall return in an hour, more or less. If Mr. Heron should come to Hollyoaks, ask him to wait for me.”
The man rode off, leading his master’s horse. Mr. Cass waited until they were out of sight, then knocked vigorously at the door. There was no response.
A third knock, or, rather, a perfect battery of knocks, proved that Job was at home. From within came the growl of a waking beast—a beast angry at being disturbed; and shortly afterwards the door was wrenched open by no very gentle hand. The gypsy, with his red-rimmed eyes blinking from under a thatch of disordered hair, stood on the threshold. Mr. Cass took in his condition at a glance.
“Are you not ashamed to be drunk at this time of day?” he asked. “What do you mean by it?”
“It is none of your business,” growled Job, who had slept off the worst effects of his debauch.
“It is my business. I am Mr. Cass.”
“I know you are,” retorted the man, still blocking the doorway. “But that doesn’t give you the right to come knocking at my door. ‘Tisn’t your house.”
“It is Mr. Heron’s house.” Mr. Cass said, sharply; “and I have sufficient influence with Mr. Heron to have you kicked out into the cold if you do not behave yourself.”
“I shouldn’t do that if I were you,” said the ruffian, with a sinister smile. “Others may find themselves out in the cold too. Aye, my gorgeous Gentile—bigger folk nor the poor Romany.”
This was plainly a threat levelled at Mrs. Marshall, as her brother clearly saw. However, it was not his intention to quarrel with the man until he had got the truth out of him. “You speak in riddles,” he said, “but perhaps you will stand aside and let me enter.”
“What for?” asked Job, suspiciously.
“You shall hear my business when I am within.”
The gypsy began to cough, and the paroxysm was so violent that he had to hold on to the door-post.
“Well, sir,” said Job, at length, somewhat sobered by a fit of coughing; “come in. I ain’t the one to keep a Romany Rye out of my tent.”
Mr. Cass entered, and followed the man into the sitting-room in which Jenner had been murdered by—so far as Mr. Cass knew—its present occupant. As he entered he became conscious of a strong smell of petroleum, and, making a sudden pause, “Have you upset your lamp?” he asked.
“No, I ain’t upset anything,” said Job, sulkily. “The smell, is it? Oh, that’s my business. I’ve got an idea that ain’t nothing to do with you. Sit down and tell me what’s the row. I know, though. It’s your young lady. Well, I haven’t done her no harm; she’s a sister to me, because she patters the black lingo. Has she been setting your back up, Rye?”
“My visit has nothing to do with Miss Cass,” said her father, sharply. “Leave her name out of the question. I know all about her visit to you and how you behaved. I am not blaming you. But my business here has to do with a very serious matter. Perhaps you can guess my errand when I tell you that I come from Mrs. Marshall.”
The mere mention of that name drove the remaining fumes of drink from the gypsy’s head, and he cast a sharp glance at his visitor. Mr. Cass sustained this scrutiny with the greatest calmness, and, finding the smell of the petroleum quite unbearable, threw open the window and placed his chair close beside it so that he could breathe freely. Then he turned round and looked again at the man. Job, open-mouthed at these liberties taken with his domestic arrangements, stared insolently at Mr. Cass; but at length he found his tongue. “You’ll give me my death,” he grumbled. “I want that window shut.”
“You shall not have it shut, then,” said Mr. Cass, coolly. “The air here is horrible with the smell of that petroleum, whatever you are doing with it. Sit down over there, and you will be out of the draught. I have something serious to say to you.”
“So you said before,” growled Job, surrendering the point of the window and pitching himself on to a broken-backed chair. “What’s she up to now?”
“If you are speaking of Mrs. Marshall, be more respectful,” Mr. Cass said, angrily. “However you may have intimidated her, you ruffian, you cannot deal with me in the same way. I’ll make an example of you!”
“Ha! ha! You touch me at your peril!” retorted Job, who was getting exasperated.
“At your peril, you mean! Now, then, my man, no equivocation, but a plain confession. Out with it!”
“Confession? What have I to confess, my Gentile cove?”
“Be respectful, I tell you, or I’ll lay my whip across your shoulders! ‘What have you to confess about,’ you ask? If the walls of this shambles could speak they might tell you, not but what you know well enough what I mean.”
“Ah!” cried the man, his eyes glittering. “She’s blown the gaff.”
“Precisely. And it should have been blown long ago. You blackmailing beast! Now, then, I’m here to learn the truth.”
“Oh, she’s not told it to you, then?”
“Yes, she has. But I want it confirmed by you.”
“What am I to confirm?” asked the gypsy, with a savage oath.
“The story of how you murdered Jenner in this room!”
He started from his seat with a howl, and flung himself towards Mr. Cass. But the merchant was ready for this, and pushing back his chair sprang to his feet. Job found himself recoiling before the barrel of a revolver. “You get back to your seat, or I’ll blow your brains out!” said Mr. Cass, and said it with such ferocity that the ruffian crawled back like a whipped dog. But, then, Mr. Cass had the blood of many a slave-owning Spaniard in his veins, and was much more savage than an ordinary Anglo-Saxon. “Do you think I would trust myself here without protection, you wretch?” he asked, resuming his seat. “No; you move, and I shoot. I am less English than Spanish, let me tell you; and perhaps I do not consider my actions so carefully as the people of this country.”
“You’re a fierce one, you are, anyway,” grumbled the man, climbing up to his seat with an uneasy eye on the weapon which still covered him. “My sister is just like you, plucky as a bantam, she is.”
“Which sister do you mean, Mrs. Marshall or Miss Cass? You have two, you know, adopted sisters?”
“Oh, she told you that, did she?” said Job, rubbing his head, and evidently perplexed at the extent of his visitor’s knowledge. “Well, it seems you know a lot, you do!”
“Enough to hang you,” was the curt reply.
“That’s a lie!” shouted Job. “I didn’t lay a finger on him.”
“Then how did you become possessed of the red pocket-book?”
The gypsy started, and gave Mr. Cass another of his keen glances. He did not reply immediately, but seemed to be reflecting. At length, “How do I know you are not laying a trap for me? The business I had with the high-born Gentile lady concerns her only. She has not told me to speak of hidden things to you.”
“If you don’t tell me—and tell me quickly too—you will have to reply to a magistrate.”
“What magistrate, rye?”
“The one before whom I will bring you,” was the quiet answer. “Understand that I have sufficient evidence in my possession to have you arrested on suspicion of having murdered the man Jenner. For reasons which you will doubtless appreciate, I am willing to deal gently with you. But,” he raised a threatening finger, “only on condition that you make a clean breast of all to me—and at once.”
“Anything you do to me, rye, will harm your sister. I hold something which can break her heart.”
“The bill of exchange you heard Marshall talking about to Jenner?”
Job fell back in amazement. “You do know all! Yes; I hold the bill—the forged bill—which can put in prison—”
“No one. That is quite enough; you need tell no more lies. You got possession of the pocket-book—”
“Yes; and I took the bill out before I gave it to the lady.”
“I see,” said Mr. Cass tranquilly, although he marvelled at the daring of the man. “And you made use of your assertion that you had possession of the bill to blackmail Mrs. Marshall?”
“I only got a little money out of her, my Gentile. She has been kind to me, and she has given me this house to die in.”
“Then the sooner you die the better. You are no good to anyone, so far as I can see. You scoundrel!—to blackmail a lady! She believed you—I do not.
“You don’t believe I have the bill?” asked Job, incredulously.
“No; for if you had you would show it to me.”
“I will not. Why should I?”
“You cannot show it to me! I thought as much.”
“Hey! You think so, rye! Then if I haven’t the bill, who has?”
“Mrs. Marshall; for I gave it to her to-day.”
“It is—a lie! a lie!” Job was quite pale now; he saw that his last card was played, and that he had now very little hold—but still some—over Mrs. Marshall.
“It the truth. The bill was taken out of that pocket-book by Jenner in this room, and placed in hiding. I need not explain where. It is sufficient for you to know that the bill came into my possession, and that I gave it to my sister. Your teeth are drawn, tiger!”
The gypsy saw—that he was beaten, and began to whine. Although he already bore the impress of death, he did not want to be turned out to die in the open fields. “What do you want to know, honourable rye?” he asked, in fawning tones, for he wanted to propitiate the man who could make a tramp of him. “I will tell you all—all. You know so much that—”
“Now, then,” interrupted Mr. Cass, impatiently, “where did you get the red pocket-book? Did you snatch it through this window at which I am sitting and kill Jenner to get it?”
“No, rye, I swear I did not. I was not near this house; I got the pocket-book from Jenner.”
“You liar! The bill was in the book when Jenner came to this house, and if you had stolen it, the bill would have remained there. Jenner did not leave the house again; he died here.”
Job scratched his head; he was puzzled. “Well, I thought it was Jenner, rye; if it wasn’t him, then who was it?”
“Marshall—you attacked Marshall on that night. Oh, I know! You tore his cuff and stole his sleeve-links; and one was found under this very window. You dropped it there, you murderer!”
“I ain’t a murderer, I tell you,” growled the man, getting angry. “I did try to get some tin out of that Marshall cove; but that was afore I met Mrs. Marshall. I was sleeping behind a hedge, and I heard Marshall and Jenner jawing; I listened, and heard all. When they parted I thought I’d drop on Marshall, rye, and get some money. I was poor and he was rich. He put out his arms to fight, and I did grab his wrist; but I didn’t steal his links, I swear! Then I heard someone coming, and I ran away, while he went home. I came back to the Waggoner’s Pond and then followed the lady. I knew she was hiding not far from me in the hedge.”
“How could you tell that, in the mist and darkness?”
“I’ve eyes like a cat, and can see through stones,” said Job, in a sulky tone. “Black don’t make no difference to me. I knew her, I tell you rye and thought she go after Jenner and get that bill for Marshall’s sake.”
“Why for Marshall’s sake?” asked Mr. Cass, coldly.
“‘Cause I heard she was going to be his rani—marry him, as you Gentiles call it. I went after her, and caught her up. I offered to do the job for money. She said she’d give me lots if I got her the pocket-book. I said I’d give it her next day. Then I came to this house where we are now and waited in the hedge on the other side of the road. I saw the winder was open, but nothing more. There was a cry and a yell, and a cove comes dashing down the road, I after him and caught him up, though he run like the wind. I fell on him, and I said: ‘Give us the red pocket-book!’ He fought, but said nothing. I thought he was Jenner.”
“Oh, but you could see in the dark!” remarked Mr. Cass, sarcastically.
“What did that matter?” Job said, surlily. “I didn’t know Jenner when I saw him; he was a stranger to me.”
“True enough,” said Mr. Cass. “Go on.”
“Well, he fought and twisted, and I grabbed on to his throat then he half gave in, and pushed the pocket-book further into his pocket. I held him down and got it out. I didn’t know he’d been knifing Jenner. I took the pocket-book to an old barn where I was going to sleep for the night, and looked through it; I couldn’t find no bill, and thought I’d had all my trouble for nothing. So thinking she’d give me no money, I made up my mind as I’d tell her I’d got the bill and would keep it till she paid up; she believed the yarn, and I saw she was afraid. She asked me to show her the bill; but I said I wouldn’t, as she might put it in the burning fire. In one way or another I made her think I could do her husband harm with the bill, so she paid up well. Oh, yes,” said the scoundrel, generously, “I will say she was a real gentle lady.”
“And all the time you hadn’t the bill, you beast!”
Job slapped his thigh. “That’s the joke of it,” he said, and began to cough again. Mr. Cass watched him with an expression of contempt.
The secret of the murder seemed as far off as ever Like an elusive phantom it flitted just within reach, but when the seer hoped to grasp it, it was still the same distance ahead. Twice or thrice had Mr. Cass been on the verge of solving the mystery, and now again it was impenetrable as always before. He saw no reason to doubt this man’s story; yet he was doubtful. He made one more attempt to get at the truth. “Who was this man you struggled with?” he asked.
“I don’t know—I could not see much of him because we were fighting hard, my rye. But I’ve often thought he was the same cove as I heard the steps of when I tusselled with Marshall.”
“How could you tell that?”
“I can’t tell, rye,” was the candid response, “but I feel it was the same. When I heard of the murder next morning, I knew he’d killed Jenner to get that pocket-book; but the lady she said she didn’t know. I told her it was Jenner, and she thought I’d tackled him going to the house; but it was when the man had left the house, and then Jenner was inside—dead.”
Mr. Cass had by this time learnt as much as he was capable of taking in; and the mystery of the murder was deeper than ever. He resolved that he would go away and think the matter over quietly. “I will go now,” he said.
“And give me up to the peelers?” asked Job, with a scowl.
“No, I am doubtful now if you are guilty. I cannot say; but I shall not tell the police just now; I will see you again. One thing, don’t go near Mrs. Marshall.” And he left, his brain in a perfect whirl.
“Won’t I just!” growled Job. “I’ll get some more money out of her and cut the country. No, I won’t.” Here he sniffed the petroleum. “I’ll try that game first. The Gentiles chuck me; the Romany won’t have me! There ain’t nothing but that,” he sniffed again, “for poor Job!” And he swore.
Geoffrey was at Hollyoaks when Mr. Cass arrived home. He had come over simply to see Ruth, never dreaming that any further revelations about the case awaited him. But his host lost no time, and at once invited him and Neil Webster into the library. There he left them for a moment while he went upstairs to see his daughter and tell her that all was well with her aunt.
“You need not trouble your head, my dear,” he said. “Your aunt got that pocket-book from Job, who”—here, for obvious reasons, he suppressed the truth—“who picked it up on the road. Now, is your mind at rest?”
“Completely.” She kissed her father fondly. “But Geoffrey! I sent down to say that I was ill; he will be disappointed.”
“I will speak to him. Meanwhile try and get some sleep. You can see him another time.”
In this way he managed to set her mind at rest; then he returned to the library to have the matter out with the two young men. He found a letter lying on the table, and, making some excuse, opened it at once; for he had become so accustomed now to the occurrence of unforeseen events that the sight of an envelope addressed in an unknown hand made him anxious lest it should bring some new element of trouble.
“Ah, Neil,” he said, as he ran his eyes over the contents, “this is from the prison chaplain. Your mother wishes to see me.”
“Can’t I go with you?” asked the young man, rousing himself.
“I think not. She told you to keep away, and it is only right that you should obey her. To-morrow I will go up; and when I return you shall know all that has passed between us. Meantime, I have a painful story to tell you and Geoffrey.
“Oh!” said Heron, quickly. “More about this case?”
“Yes: I think we are getting near the truth now. I have made several important discoveries. By the way, Geoffrey, Ruth will see you to-morrow; she is not very well—in fact, she had rather a severe shock to-day.”
“This confounded case, of course!” remarked Heron, forming his own conclusions; and naturally enough, for his mind was now wholly occupied with Mr. Cass’s promised revelation.
“Yes; about the case,” said Mr. Cass again. “I want you to give me your closest attention. And, first, both of you must promise me to say nothing of what I have told you until I have given you leave. For the matter concerns a member of my family.”
And forthwith he plunged into the middle of the exciting history, and told it with as much detail as he could remember. It was necessary to make things perfectly clear to his listeners, as he relied upon their judgment to help him out of the cul-de-sac into which the whole affair was now wedged. At the conclusion of the story Neil, who had been more or less excited throughout, although he had refrained from interruption, jumped up and began to pace the room.
“There isn’t the slightest doubt,” he said, “that Job Lovell killed my father to get possession of that pocket-book.
“I thought you would say that,” said Mr. Cass, drily; “and what do you say, Heron?”
“It seems probable that Job did kill the man,” said Heron, with a grave nod. “Marshall, you say, Mr. Cass, was in this house at the time: your sister had got back to her bedroom. Now, only these two knew that the bill was in the pocket-book or had any interest in getting it.”
“You forget Job; he knew all.”
“Job must be the murderer!” exclaimed Neil, with flashing eyes, “and my mother is innocent. Now she must be released.”
“I will see to that,” said Mr. Cass, composedly. “But you must let me manage the matter in my own way. I do not wish the rascalities of my precious brother-in-law made public. If Job can be proved guilty, he must be punished. In any case, as soon as we are certain of his guilt, Mrs. Jenner must be released.” Mr. Cass paused, then added abruptly: “I hold you both to your promise.”
“If I had my way,” said Neil, “I would go at once to Job, and force the whole truth out of him. As it is, I shall not move in the matter until you give me permission. My mother told me to leave things as they were—you have asked me to do the same. I owe you too much, Mr. Cass, to break my promise.”
Mr. Cass, much affected by this speech, shook the young man warmly by the hand; then turned an inquiring eye upon Geoffrey, who answered the look. “I will do nothing, Mr. Cass, since it is your pleasure to thresh the matter out yourself. But I only warn you that Job may kill himself.”
“How do you mean kill himself—on account of this murder?”
“Maybe—I don’t know. But he is dying slowly, and in much pain. His fellow-gypsies will have nothing to do with him—he is too much of an outcast even for the Romany! I heard from one of my servants that Job, in a drunken humour, had threatened to put an end to himself by burning down the Turnpike House. In order to do this, I believe he has lately bought a large quantity of petroleum.
“Ha!” exclaimed Mr. Cass, suddenly, “I know. The house smelt terribly of petroleum; I daresay he has soaked the whole place in it, that it may burn the more quickly. What is to be done? The man seems to be in earnest.”
“You must get his confession as to how he committed the crime.”
“That would be the best thing, no doubt,” assented Mr. Cass, “but to-morrow I want to go up and see Mrs. Jenner. She seems to be very ill, and wishes to see me at once.”
Heron had quite made up his mind that he would see Job the first thing in the morning; but Providence intervened with a sprained ankle. Returning home late from Hollyoaks, he was overtaken by darkness, and in some way—how he could not explain—he stumbled and rose with an aching ankle, which next morning was so painful and swollen that his housekeeper begged of him to give himself a day’s rest; but he declined this advice, and managed to drag himself to the library. It was a dreary day, but towards the end the monotony was broken by the announcement of a visitor; and to his surprise, a figure in rusty black clothes was shown in—a creature which smirked and grinned and rolled its head in a half-witted way; Geoffrey stared.
“Jerry Hutt!” he exclaimed in surprise. “What are you doing in this galley?”
“I am Mr. Hutt when I pay visits,” said Jerry, with dignity. “Only when I’m put upon at home by mother and master am I called Jerry.”
“Well, then, Mr. Hutt,” said Mr. Heron, humouring the strange creature, “I should like to know your business. Take a seat.”
Jerry obeyed, first going through the ceremony of dusting a spotless chair so that his rusty suit might take no harm. He had furbished himself up for the occasion, and wore a flaring red tie as spruce as Julian Roper’s green one, and as ill-suited to the person who wore it. In this was stuck a pin which, when he had seated himself near Geoffrey, the latter could see very clearly. It was an oval piece of gold adorned with the enamelled figure of a ballet-girl!
While the unconscious visitor sat smirking blandly on his chair, Mr. Heron rang the bell; and when the butler entered, spoke a few whispered words, upon which the man cast a startled look at Jerry and hurried from the room. In three minutes the door of the room half opened and closed again. Then Geoffrey knew that the under footman—a strapping young giant—was waiting outside in case Mr. Hutt might be compelled to make a too hasty exit.
“Well, Mr. Hutt,” said Geoffrey, “what is it?”
“I thought you were never going to speak,” said Jerry, in an injured tone, “and I’m that hungry and dry, you wouldn’t think!”
“First we will have our talk, Mr. Hutt; then I will see about having you provided with refreshment. Your errand! quick!”
“It was the master sent me here,” Jerry said, becoming more respectful as he delivered his message; it was as though the spell of the sender were on him. “He bids me say that if you can give him that bill of exchange, he’s willing to buy it.”
“That’s very good of him,” Geoffrey said, ironically. “And why does he want the bill of exchange you speak of?”
Jerry nodded mysteriously. “I know; but I mustn’t tell,” he said.
“You must tell, or I won’t discuss the matter with you.”
“Well, it isn’t a secret; leastways, neither mother nor master said ‘Hold your tongue, Jerry.’ I can say this much, that master wants to be upsides with that Mr. Marshall—you know why.”
“What do you know about Mr. Marshall?”
Suddenly the smirking creature was transformed into a furious beast. “I know that he killed Miss Elsa, he did!” shouted Jerry; and the man outside was instantly on the alert to run in and aid his master. “Aye! She was a beauty, and he broke her heart. I hoped to have made her Mrs. Jerry Hutt,” he added, with a sob, “but that wicked Mr. Marshall he had her put in the ground. I’ll never see her again! But I want to lay him by the heels. I do, quite as much as master does; and that bill of exchange will do it.
“Ah! you know all about the bill of exchange, then?”
Jerry nodded. “I listened after you went away, and I know it was the same as they spoke of at the time of the murder. Ugh!” he shivered, “that were a gory murder, bless my soul!”
“We will leave the bill alone for the time being, Jerry, and talk of something else—that beautiful breastpin, for instance! Where did you get the thing from, Mr. Hutt?”
Hutt blinked, quite pleased that Mr. Heron should admire his jewellery. “I picked it up,” he said, nodding. “It wasn’t a pin, but I made it one myself.”
“And where did you pick it up, Jerry?”
He shook his head. “I can’t tell you that,” he snapped, and frowned.
“Well, I know that you picked it up not far from the Turnpike House, my friend, and that you dropped the other part of the link under the window.”
“The window!” gasped Jerry, turning almost blue with suppressed fear.
“Yes; the window of the Turnpike House through which you killed Jenner.” Hutt stared blankly at him, his eyes starting from his head. Then he gave vent to a long howl like that of a beaten dog, and slipped on to his knees. “Oh, don’t hurt me!” he sobbed. “I never did anything! I’ll tell you all. I’m frightened—the master said I’d be caught some day!”
“Then you did kill him!” Heron almost shouted.
“No, I didn’t,” snuffled the man. “You can’t hang me for not doing what I didn’t do! Here!” loosening the breastpin, “you can have it.” He threw it to Heron. “I don’t want to be put in gaol, please—please!”
His dim brain had seized upon the idea—from the few words Heron had spoken—that the gentleman knew all, and could hang him.
Perhaps had Heron attacked Jerry less suddenly, and had he not shown by a few chosen remarks that he knew a good deal, the half-witted creature might not have confessed. But his weak nature gave way altogether. And during the next half-hour Geoffrey turned him inside out like a glove. The story which Heron extracted from the whimpering creature was this Roper had always suspected, and rightly, that Jenner had hidden the forged bill before he went to prison. When the man came out, he got to know the date of his discharge, and set Jerry to follow him in order that he might see where he went to get the document. Jerry was on the track for many days, and saw that he procured it from an old friend, who, ignorant of its value, had taken charge of it. The document was in a sealed envelope, and Jerry had seen Jenner place it in a red pocket-book. All this he reported to Roper, and he was then ordered to follow Jenner, and get it from him at all costs.
Jerry got again on the track of the released prisoner, and followed him down to Westham. In one way or another the spy kept himself out of sight, for Jenner, having been Roper’s clerk, knew the lad—as he then was. The rest may be told in Jerry’s own words, which were many and rambling:
“He got down here on a misty, rainy night, sir,” he said, fiddling with his clumsy fingers, “and I kept at his heels. At a wayside pub he took victuals and drink; I watched the door from the other side of the road, and ate what I had with me. I daren’t go inside lest he should see me.”
“Didn’t you lose him in the mist?” asked Geoffrey, who was listening eagerly.
“I never lose anything, sir,” returned Jerry. “I can see anywhere, and foller like a dog. You don’t slip me! I’ve had enough follering to do for the master. Well, Jenner he goes to a large pool of water.”
“The Waggoner’s Pond. Go on.”
“Oh, that’s it, is it? I never know’d. Well, there he meets with Mr. Marshall. Oh, I know’d his voice. I was hiding near them behind a hedge, I was; and a ghost came past me, sir—a ghost with a long black dress.”
Heron saw that the man was ignorant that Mrs. Marshall also had been listening; and this was all the better. It was as well that Jerry had taken her for a ghost.
“I hate him so, you see,” explained Jerry. “He killed Miss Elsa, and I was cruel fond of her, I was. Well, them two was talking about the bill, and Jenner he showed it to Marshall, but he wouldn’t give it up till he got money for it. Marshall said he’d give him money when he was married and after that they parted. I tried to foller Jenner, but I thought the other—Marshall—’ud spot me. I didn’t mind, though, as I know’d Jenner was going to the Turnpike House to see his wife.”
“But you were a stranger! How did you know where that was?”
“I had passed it in the afternoon, and from what Marshall said to Jenner, I know’d it was the Turnpike House. Well, sir, I scrambled a lot, and got mixed— I don’t know where I got. Then I heard a scuffle and a cry, and saw in the mist two men fighting.”
“Marshall and Job,” thought Heron; then aloud, “Go on!”
“I thought as someone else might be after the red book, so I was going to run forward when one cove he slipped away, and after groaning awful the other he went too. He was shaken a lot by the fight. I stayed where I was for a time, then I creeps forward and lights a match.”
“What did you do that for?”
“I wanted to see if in the fight the red book had been dropped. How was I to know that one of them wasn’t Jenner in spite of his going on to the Turnpike! When I casts a light,” he resumed. “I saw something glittering on the ground. It was a broken link, and I examined it by another match. There was two links. One piece was a champagne bottle, just as you said, sir, and the other was my pin with the girl; I thought they were pretty and saw they were gold, so I puts them into my coat pocket.”
“How did you lose them, then?” Geoffrey asked, thinking this explanation perfectly feasible.
“I only lost one—the champagne bottle,” said Jerry quite gravely, “‘cause there was a hole in my pocket I know’d nothing of. The other I took home and got made into a pin. I never know’d till you spoke where I lost the one! Was it under the Turnpike window?” he inquired.
“It was found there,” assented Heron.
Jerry scratched his head. “I must have shook it out when I was looking in at the window,” he muttered.
“Oh, you did look in at the window, then?”
“Of course I did, sir. Wasn’t I follering Jenner? After I picked up the links I went straight to the Turnpike but didn’t get there for a long time through having mistook the way. I see a light in the window, and I sneaks up to it through the bushes. The window was open and Jenner he was leaning against it. On a table, under the window, I saw a knife, and the red pocket-book with the bill. Jenner was talking to himself and cursing some child—”
“Poor Neil,” muttered Heron.
“I waited a bit to steal the book, when I heard Jenner give a yell, and saw a kid come into the room looking frightful; he ran at Jenner who gave a skip and dodged him. The child’s eyes was like diamonds, and fixed; I never seed anything like the looks of him in my born days. Jenner he screeched again and pitched himself at the child to fall on top of him—leastways it looked like it. But I didn’t wait; I saw my chance, and grabbing the pocket-book I ran like a deer, I did. Just as I got a little way off a cove jumped out on me and collared my throat singing out for the red book. I wouldn’t give it up, and shoved it deeper into my pocket; but he held me down with one hand and dug it out with the other. My heart!” sighed Jerry rubbing his hand, “didn’t the master give me beans for not having that pocket-book!”
“Didn’t you know who robbed you?”
“No; I wished I had known. I’d have got the book next week when the talk of the murder was past. But the master got a scare from that, though I told him, as I tell you, that it wasn’t me. He said ‘Lie low,’ so I did lie low, and after a time he gave up the idea of getting the bill, till you came the other day, and he thought you might have it. So I’ve come to buy it if you will sell.”
“We’ll talk about that later, Jerry. Are you sure Jenner was alive when you left the window?”
“I swear it! He was just making for the kid.”
“Had he the knife in his hand?”
“Not as I knows, sir. I think it was on the table. Jenner just ran at the kid with his mouth open; he was in a cruel fright. But I cut and didn’t wait to see anything.”
“Then, do you think the child killed Jenner?”
“Lor’ no, sir!” cried Jerry, amazed. “A weak little thing like that! ‘Sides, the kid hadn’t the knife. ‘Twas on the table, I’m sure.”
“Can you guess, then, who killed him?”
“No, sir, I can’t. All I know is that I didn’t. But now you know, just say if I’m to have the bill!”
“I’ll tell you to-morrow morning.”
“I must know to-night; the master wants me back to-night.”
“He can’t have you, then,” said Heron, drily. “You stay here to-night, I want you to repeat your story to someone else.”
“I won’t then! I was a fool to tell; but I don’t know nothing.”
“You must stay here.”
“I never killed him!” wept Jerry; then he turned sullen and made a grab at his hat. “I’ll go,” he said, and made for the door.
“Stephen,” called Geoffrey; and Jerry found himself face to face with a big footman who seized him with iron hands.
“Here! here!” he shouted, struggling and roaring. “Let me go; I never did nothing to Jenner. Let me go!”
“Lock him up in some empty room, Stephen,” cried Mr. Heron, “and give him food and wine; he must be kept here all night. I will take the responsibility. Confound this foot! If I were only able to walk! Oh, I’ll keep you, Mr. Hutt; we haven’t done with each other yet.”
Jerry’s cunning came suddenly to his aid, and he ceased struggling. “If you give me grub and wine I’ll stop,” he said. “I ain’t done nothing to Jenner; and I ain’t afraid.”
“Take him away, Stephen, and do what I tell you,” said Geoffrey, sharply; and Jerry Hutt soon found himself locked in an out-shed with a tray of food and a bottle of beer for his supper.
At intervals Stephen, the footman, came in to see that he was safe; the creature noticed this, and made his plans accordingly. Immediately after Stephen had departed after one of these peeps, he scrambled up the rough woodwork and managed to get to the window, which was closed merely by a hasp, no one having the least idea that the man would attempt to escape. Jerry broke open the catch, and soon forced his ungainly body through the opening. Not paying sufficient attention to his footing, he fell, and alighted on a manure heap some distance below. “Spoiling my nice new suit,” he grumbled, as he groped round to get out of the yard in which he now found himself.
There was some little difficulty about this; but he at last discovered a gate, which led into a by-lane, and was soon out of Mr. Heron’s grounds, running across country for all he was worth, chuckling at the way in which he had outwitted his host.
For quite two hours he wandered on; for he had completely lost his bearings. The night was fine with a high wind; the moon was at the zenith, and across her silver face passed cloud after cloud. At intervals the whole landscape became light as day, and he could see plainly. But he was a comparative stranger, though he had several times been down looking for the bill by his master’s order.
Suddenly he emerged on to a common overgrown with gorse, and found himself on a spot where four roads met. Some distance away a white house looked spectral in the moonlight.
“The Turnpike,” he said aloud. “My gum! And there’s the window I looked through; the light’s in it now, too—just as it was when Jenner was killed. I wonder who’s in there!”
His curiosity got the better of his fear of Mr. Heron, and with a surprisingly light step—for the man was heavy—he crept through the jungle of bushes and sneaked along the wall of the house. “Just like old times,” he said, chuckling. “I hope there ain’t no more murders though.”
Someone was singing a wild song in a drunken voice; and when the clerk peered through the window—for there was no blind—he saw a man dancing in the middle of the room. A cheap oil lamp was on the table, and by its light the dancer executed his fandango, waving a bottle as he did so. The apartment was bare, and a horrible smell of petroleum was wafted to Jerry’s nostrils. In his curiosity he forgot to keep himself concealed, and Job—for he was the dancer—saw him. He flung himself across the room, and before Jerry had realised his danger the gypsy had seized him; by the collar of his coat and was dragging him through the window. “Come in, come in, Satan!” yelled the drunken man. “We’ll have another murder! Ho!
“Let me go—let me go!” screeched Jerry; but he was like a rabbit caught in a snare, and shortly found himself in a heap on a petroleum-soaked floor, while Job closed the window, Hutt was terrified; but he could see no means of escape.
“Have a drink,” shouted Job, thrusting the bottle under Mr. Hutt’s nose.
“You let me go,” he whispered, clinging to a chair. “If you don’t, my master will set the police on to you see if he don’t.”
“The police!” cried Job. “What do I care for them! They can’t do anything to me; she’ll keep them off—she will. I can show up her husband it she don’t. Drink, drink, or I’ll kick you!”
Partly to avert the carrying-out of this threat, and partly because he was extremely dry with his race across country, Jerry accepted the offer, and as the ardent spirits went down his throat, he felt his courage revive.
“I’m Jerry Hutt,” he exclaimed, “and I work for Mr. Roper. I want the bill—the bill!” He made a grab at the gypsy. “It will lay him by the heels,” he hissed.
“Lay who by the heels, hang you?” cried Job, pushing him back.
“Why, Marshall—I won’t call him ‘Mister’ Marshall—who killed my poor dear Miss Elsa.”
Job, half stupid with drink, had yet the sense to gather the meaning of the words. “Blest if I won’t know of the red pocket-book, too,” he muttered.
And even as he spoke, Jerry caught the words, and repeated them. “The red pocket-book,” he shouted. “Do you know where it is? The bill is in it, and I’ll buy it off you; oh, yes, I will. Fifty pounds.”
Job banged his fist so heavily on the table that the lamp tottered. “I wish I had it now!” he cried. “Fifty pounds-by gum!”
“Have you the bill there?” asked Jerry, taking another drink.
“No; I haven’t anything,” said Job. “She got it out of me.”
“Got what out of you?”
“Why, the red pocket-book—but the bill wasn’t in it,” he added.
For a moment Jerry stared at the man, then dropped the bottle with a crash on the floor; it broke, and the liquor forming a pool, added its fumes to the smell of the petroleum. “You had that red book!” stuttered Jerry, trying hard to clear his brain. “And it was taken from me! You live here—you were—you, oh, oh!” He sprang from his seat with a roar. “You took it from me!”
“Well,” said Job, with a growl, “was you the cove as I fought on that night, and knocked about so?”
“You robber—you thief!” cried Jerry, crouching for a spring. “Give me back my property—the book, the bill!” and he flung himself on the gypsy, who gave a cry of rage.
“I’ll crush you like a fly, as I did before!” Job said, and grappled with his visitor.
But Job was not the man he had been twelve years before; he could not hold his own as he had once done. Shouting and cursing, the two men swayed round the apartment. Finally, they crashed against the table, and upset the lamp. It fell and burst on the floor. Immediately the woodwork, soaked as it was in petroleum, broke into flame, and in almost less time than it takes to tell, the whole room was in a blaze.
With a yell of terror, Jerry tried to shake himself free, and leap through the girdle of fire but Job held him fast.
“No, you don’t!” he shouted. “You die with me, whoever you are! I’ve made arrangements for this; I never intended to live: but I thought I’d die alone. Now I’ve got you!” and he made a clutch at Jerry’s throat.
After that the struggle proceeded in silence, for Job held his peace, and Jerry could not cry out by reason of those two strong hands fast on his throat. By this time the room was blazing like a furnace, and the clothes of the two men were in flames. A frightened wayfarer saw the fire streaming towards the sky—saw two men vaguely struggling in the flames.
“It is not impossible,” said Geoffrey, thunderstruck.
Mrs. Marshall shook her head. “So possible that I always thought so myself,” she said.
“My own idea was the same,” remarked Mr. Cass, who was the third person of the party now assembled in Mr. Heron’s library. “I have told you several times, Geoffrey, that I believed Mrs. Jenner to be guilty.”
The young man drew a long breath. Even now he could scarcely credit the news. “So she really did kill her husband?”
“There can be no doubt about it,” said Mr. Cass, pointing to an envelope lying on the table. “There is a copy of her confession! She signed it in the presence of the chaplain and the governor of the gaol.”
It was the morning after the burning down of the Turnpike House that this conversation took place. Information that two charred bodies had been found among the ruins had led Geoffrey to believe that Jerry had perished along with Job. Stephen had informed him on the previous night that the creature had made his escape, and no pursuit had been attempted. There was no doubt in Geoffrey’s mind that Jerry had gone to see Job at the Turnpike House; but why he should have done so, and why it had come about that he and the gypsy should have met their deaths together, he could not think. Nor was the mystery ever cleared up. But if the death of Jerry remained a mystery that of Jenner did not. Towards noon Mr. Cass made his appearance together with his sister to see Mr. Heron. After some little talk about the fire, Geoffrey detailed what had been confessed to him on the previous night.
“How did it all come about?” he asked now.
“That’s what I want to know,” said Inez. “Sebastian has told me nothing beyond the bare fact as yet.”
“Because I want to tell the story once and for all, and then put it out of my mind,” said her brother, solemnly. “You see, Heron, my sister and you both know all about this case. What you have told us about Jerry Hutt’s visit supplies the last link which brings the crime home to Mrs. Jenner. I am not going to tell anyone else how the murder took place. I have asked the governor and the chaplain not to tell Neil the truth when he goes up for the funeral. He has had enough trouble, poor boy; I, for one, do not want him to have any more. He believes now that his mother is innocent—”
“Oh, indeed!” interrupted Mrs. Marshall, with a haughty curl of her lip. “And who does he believe guilty?”
“Job, the gypsy. He thinks that the man set fire to the Turnpike House and destroyed himself, so as to escape the penalty of his crime. I think it only merciful that he should be allowed to remain under that impression.”
“I quite agree with you,” said Heron, heartily. “And you, Mrs. Marshall?”
She bowed her head. “I have no ill-will towards the young man, although I hated his mother. But she has gone to her account, so I will say no more about her. As to Neil Webster, as he calls himself—”
“And will continue to call himself,” interposed Mr. Cass, sternly.
“I will say nothing to him,” continued Mrs. Marshall, taking no notice of this interruption. “I do not wish to visit the sins of the parents upon the children; but with one parent murdered and the other parent a murderess, I don’t see how the young man can turn out well. And I sincerely hope that he will not marry that unfortunate Jenny Brawn.”
“If he asks her to marry him, she will not accept him blindly,” said Mr. Cass, “for I intended to tell her the whole story—suppressing the fact that Mrs. Jenner was guilty.”
“That is well,” put in Geoffrey. “But I should like to hear the story of Mrs. Jenner’s crime.”
“I can tell it to you in a few words,” said Mr. Cass. “The clerk’s tale has brought the story up to the time when Jenner flung himself on the child. Well, Mrs. Jenner heard his cry, and rushed down into the room. Jenner was mad with rage at the uncanny hatred shown to him by his own son, and had him by the hair of the head, shaking him as a terrier does a rat. Mrs. Jenner rushed at him—she thought he would kill the child—they struggled, and he struck her. While this was going on she found herself near the table, and seeing the knife, blindly snatched it up, throwing her husband to one side. Then, clutching the child to her breast and holding out the knife to keep off the infuriated man, she tried to make her escape from the house. But Jenner was blind with fury, both against the child and against his wife who had instilled such hatred into the mind of the boy. He rushed at her; she cried out that she was holding the knife, but he took no notice of her, and ran up against the blade, which buried itself in his heart. He fell, and his wife fainted with the insensible child in her arms. It was when she came to herself some time afterwards that she recalled what she had done. But it was by accident that she had killed him—and this she swore most solemnly; she denied that she had ever intended murder. Then she fled from the house into the darkness until she fell insensible under a hedge. The rest you know.”
Mrs. Marshall laughed again at this account. “I believe she killed him on purpose,” she said.
“She had every reason to do it,” Mr. Cass said, coldly, “but all the same, I believe she has spoken the truth. Jenner died by accident.”
“If this is so,” said Geoffrey, slowly, “and I see no reason to disbelieve it, why did Mrs. Jenner tell Neil that she had killed his father?”
“I asked her that, and her answer was that she was afraid, if Neil reopened the case, some evidence might be brought forward to prove that she had really committed the murder. She had told her son that she was innocent, and she did not wish him to learn the truth. It was only on my giving a promise not to tell him that she consented to make the confession. She wants him to think of her only as a mother who loved him—not as a murderess.”
“Humph!” remarked Geoffrey, doubtfully. “A queer way of showing her love, to put it into the head of an imaginative neurotic creature like Neil that he himself was guilty!”
“It will not do him any harm,” said Mr. Cass. “I don’t pretend to say that I approve of her clearing her own name at the expense of Neil’s peace of mind: but it is not for us to judge, and before she died she repented of having made that statement.”
“Did she know how the red pocket-book was stolen?” asked Geoffrey, abruptly.
“No; she had been so busy struggling with Jenner for possession of the child, she said, that she took no notice of anyone at the window. That was why Jerry, as you say, was able to put his hand in and take the book. It was lucky for the clearing-up of the case that Jenner had sewn the bill inside the toy horse. If Roper had got hold of it, he would have made it hot for Marshall. He hates him like poison on account of—”
“I have heard enough of that story,” interrupted Mrs. Marshall, “and you seem to forget, Sebastian, that if the bill had really been in the pocket-book I should have got it through Job. I am tired of it all. I hope it is all ended for ever.”
“Yes, Inez. You will hear no more about it. In a few days Mrs. Jenner and her story will be buried, and we will all try and forget the past. Neil must never know.”
“I shall not tell him.”
“Nor I,” said Mrs. Marshall, with, for her, remarkable generosity. “No one knows the truth but ourselves, and we will keep silence. What about those poor wretches who have been burnt?”
“Well, Geoffrey must tell how Jerry Hutt came to see him, and in some way we must prove the remains to be his. After all, the corpse—what is left of it—may not be Jerry!”
“I think it is,” said Heron. “Indeed, I am certain of it. I expect he and Job got quarrelling about the bill, and Job set fire to the house in order to burn them both. Jerry did not burn willingly, I am sure of that. Job no doubt detained him in the burning house until it was too late.”
Mrs. Marshall shuddered. Job, indeed, was wicked, as well she knew. But now she was relieved from his blackmailing, and had only her husband to deal with. And she resolved—now that she was in possession of the bill—to make short work of him. Her thoughts still seemed inclined to separation and the Romish Church.
“Well, good-bye, Geoffrey,” Mr. Cass said, shaking hands. “I hope your ankle will soon be right. Ruth is coming over to see you. But, remember, not a word to her.”
“Not a word,” said the young man. “But I say, Cass, if I were you I should burn that copy of the confession. The original, in the possession of the authorities, will be sufficient to prove Mrs. Jenner’s guilt should anyone else be accused, which is not likely after all. Burn it.”
“I intend to do so.” And Mr. Cass dropped the document into the fire. “I only brought it back so that you might be sure she was guilty. Ah, it is in ashes already! I wish we could get rid of all our painful memories so easily! But to the end of my life I shall never forget this case.” And these were the last words they spoke on the subject, for both Mr. Cass and Geoffrey ever afterwards carefully avoided all mention of it. Nor was there even the Turnpike House to remind them of the tragedy, for it had been burnt to the ground. And Mr. Heron had the site ploughed and enclosed in the field adjoining; so that the next year corn waved where the blood-stained habitation had stood.
Mrs. Marshall carried out her intention of separating from her husband; she gave him a portion of her money, and made him a present of the forged bill, and he betook himself and his money to Paris. Neil buried his mother and mourned her for many months. Then he made his reappearance in public, and was more successful than ever. Now that time was healing his wounds, he began to think about his future, and the first thing he did was to ask Jennie Brawn to share it with him. She, poor girl, accepted him with joy; and at once sent the good news to Ruth. Mr. Cass thereupon went up to London, and called upon the girl at his daughter’s house, for she was still teaching Mrs. Chisel’s children. He told her the whole story, not thinking it fair that she should marry Neil in ignorance of the truth. And at first she was horrified; but declared that nothing could alter her determination to marry him.
“I love him,” she said, and that was all.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The strange story of the burning of the two men, and that of the murder which had taken place in the same house twelve years before is even now often told by winter firesides. But few know the truth, that the mother of Neil Webster, the famous violinist, was the guilty person in the tragedy of the Turnpike House. The truth was disclosed to Mr. Cass, to Geoffrey Heron, to Mrs. Marshall, and to the Governor of Gaol, and the chaplain. But as for this story it is told with other names; and the scene is laid fifty miles from the real locality.
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