THE GREAT SECRET

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
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.”

“Fire ahead!”

“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
friend.”