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The Turnpike HouseByFergus Hume
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The Turnpike House
CHAPTER I. THE CONVICT'S RETURN.
CHAPTER II. THE STILL FORM IN THE HOUSE.
CHAPTER III. YOUNG LOVE, TRUE LOVE.
CHAPTER IV. A STRANGE EPISODE.
CHAPTER V. A SHADOW OF THE PAST.
CHAPTER VI. MR. CASS SPEAKS.
CHAPTER VII. WEBSTER'S CHILDHOOD.
CHAPTER VIII. HERCULES AND OMPHALE.
CHAPTER IX. THE EMBASSY OF GEOFFREY HERON.
CHAPTER X. THE GREAT SECRET.
CHAPTER XI. RUTH'S DIPLOMACY.
CHAPTER XII. THE TOY HORSE.
CHAPTER XIII. JOB, THE SAPENGRO.
CHAPTER XIV. THE CLAIRVOYANT.
CHAPTER XV. THE PUNISHMENT OF CURIOSITY.
CHAPTER XVI. JENNIE BRAWN MAKES A DISCOVERY.
CHAPTER XVII. HERON FOLLOWS THE TRAIL.
CHAPTER XVIII. THE MONEY-LENDER.
CHAPTER XIX. JOB BECOMES CIVILISED.
CHAPTER XX. WHAT MR. CASS HAD TO SAY.
CHAPTER XXI. RUTH IS COMFORTED.
CHAPTER XXII. AT BAY.
CHAPTER XXIII. STILL IN DOUBT.
CHAPTER XXIV. ANOTHER PIECE OF EVIDENCE.
CHAPTER XXV. THE RED POCKET-BOOK.
CHAPTER XXVI. THE PENANCE OF INEZ.
CHAPTER XXVII. A DOUBTFUL WITNESS.
CHAPTER XXVIII. THE UNEXPECTED HAPPENS.
CHAPTER XXIX. THE END OF THE TURNPIKE HOUSE.
CHAPTER XXX. 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 shewed 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 and 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 shewed 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 shewed 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 I 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 shewed 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 sate 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 shewn 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 yow 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 a 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.
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