A STRANGE EPISODE

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.

“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 &bout, 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 shewing 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.