Chapter X

A Gala Night at the Fives Court

“What’s to be done, Walsham?”

“Nothing but wait. You’re not in a particular hurry, I suppose, to be killed or to kill your man.”

“No, but I should like to get it over and done with. How long will Lord Houston be away?”

The young nobleman shrugged his shoulders and laughed.

“An impossible question to answer, my dear fellow. Houston’s gone off to Paris with a pretty dancer from the ballet at the King’s Theatre, and won’t be back while she continues to amuse him.”

“Tenbury could appoint another second,” said Ralstone, sipping his port slowly.

“Of course he could, but from what I hear he won’t​—​that is, not while he owes you money.”

“Is he so anxious to pay his debts of honour?”

“Well, that kind is the only honour he possesses. Noblesse oblige, you know. He told a friend of mine the other day that if he ran you through while the debt existed, it would be said he did it because he wanted to creep out of discharging it.”

“H’m, he said that, did he?” responded Ralstone, musingly. “Looks as if he intended to choose swords when the time comes for the affair.”

“It would be very unusual. Swords are out of fashion for duels, although they are still used on the Continent.”

“Possibly, but I fancy a bullet can be as fatal as a rapier point.”

“No doubt. But a chivalrous person can exercise his privilege of firing in the air if his man misses him. Whereas, all things being equal, when you’re fencing you go on. You can’t afford to be generous unless you’re very much the better man and you can disarm your opponent. But what makes you think Tenbury will choose swords?”

“The first cause of offence was my beating him at a fencing bout at Castellani’s. I don’t say I handle the foils better than Tenbury​—​I should say there are very few things he has to learn that way​—​but he was devilish careless​—​made too sure, you know​—​and let me in. He’s not likely to do that a second time.”

Lord Walsham silently puffed at his “segar.” The two were in the coffee-room of the “Tavistock,” having steadily ploughed their way through mock turtle, cod and oyster sauce, roast beef, a bird, and apple tart​—​the orthodox hotel menu.

“It’s no affair of mine, Jack, of course, but it helps a second to take the right line when he knows what his principal is quarrelling about. If it’s only a trifle, you see, the door’s open to a compromise. I see no sense in getting shot or pinked to satisfy a punctilio of honour.”

“Nor I. I thought I hinted to you that the real cause of difference was over a woman.”

“Yes, I’ve learned as much as that and no more. Are you in love with her?”

“The deuce only knows. I don’t.”

“Then it isn’t about Lady Barbara Dacre?”

“No. So far as Lady Barbara’s concerned, that affair’s off.”

“The devil it is. You made her jealous, I suppose, over​—​the other woman.”

“You’re wrong. The boot’s on the other leg. Lady Barbara seemed disposed to play fast and loose, so I gave her her head, and we haven’t seen each other since, and I doubt if we’re likely to.”

Lord Walsham permitted himself to indulge in a low, prolonged and decidedly plebeian whistle.

“That accounts for it then,” said he, as though talking to himself.

“Accounts for what?”

“Why, for what Georgie Nye​—​Beau Nye he’s called, you know​—​told me at White’s this afternoon. Nye’s so inveterate a retailer of scandal, and such an infernal liar. I didn’t believe him. But it would seem that for once in his life he may have spoken the truth. He was at Almack’s last night, and he swears he saw Lady Barbara Dacre and Tenbury sitting in the tea-room for over half an hour and they did nothing but whisper, quite blind and deaf to all that was going on around them. George thought from Lady Barbara’s clouded face that something like a quarrel had happened. It couldn’t have been very serious. Anyhow, apparently they made it up, for they waltzed together when they returned to the ball-room. Whatever the meaning, Lady Barbara seems to have been somewhat indiscreet. With any other man but Tenbury it wouldn’t have mattered a jot. Of course I shouldn’t have told you a word of this if you hadn’t said the engagement was broken.”

Ralstone winced. Although he had ceased to think of Lady Barbara as his fiancée, it was not pleasant to hear how soon she had consoled herself for her loss. Yet it ought hardly to surprise him. She had shown a decided preference for Sir Phineas at the Bath masquerade, and Sir Phineas had not failed to pursue his advantage.

“It’s no affair of mine,” he growled. “She’s at liberty to do as she likes.”

“And you also. I imagine I ought to congratulate you. The Duke of Endsleigh’s as poor as a church mouse and now that you expect nothing from Mr. Halstead, you don’t want to saddle yourself with a woman of fashion with not a penny for her to dress upon and gamble with. I hope you’ve fixed your fancy on a rich heiress. Tenbury’s not the man to bother about a woman unless she’s wealthy and belongs to the beau monde. He recognises no other.”

“My dear Walsham, there’s no rule without an exception, but it’s not a question of the beau monde in this case. To tell you the truth I haven’t the slightest idea to what world the woman belongs. I’ve only seen her once, and I’d give the universe, if I had it, to see her again, but she’s vanished into thin air.”

“And you’re going to fight about her?” asked Walsham, elevating his eyebrows.

Jack Ralstone nodded.

“Then all I’ve got to say is that you must be confoundedly in love with her.”

Ralstone made no reply. He was staring moodily at the crimson papered wall opposite him.

“You’re damned quixotic, Jack Ralstone, and​—​if you’ll permit me to say so​—​damned foolish.”

“Add that I’m damned romantic, and you’ll have the list of adjectives complete.”

“Not bad credentials to start with. If you want to be noticed you must be talked about. Women don’t mind a scandal attaching to a man. In fact, they rather like it. Corinthians are privileged, but you must do something out of the common to justify your existence.”

“Knock down a ‘Charley’ and shut him up in his own box, for instance,” said Jack ironically.

“That kind of notoriety’s played out. It’s a bit low. Your fighting a duel for a woman you’ve only seen once, and never likely to see again, is tip top. It ought to make your fortune. See here, Ralstone. Give me carte blanche to tell this love story of yours, with judicious embellishments, and a few mysterious winks thrown in, to give the thing the proper ‘Castle Spectre’ mystery, and I’ll wager you’ll have half a dozen women of fortune at your feet within a week. I’m not joking.”

“So I should hope. The matter’s far too serious for a joke. You’ll oblige me very much if you’ll keep your mouth shut. I shouldn’t have told you if I thought you were going to carry it over the town.”

“Of course, if that’s the case, I’m mum. But what’s your game? You’ve been flashing your coin as if you were living in ‘Tip Street’​—​that’s the correct cant term, I believe, for plenty of money​—​and as you’ve confessed to me you’ve no resources beyond what you won over Spring and Neate, you’ll soon be at Point Nonplus. Tenbury’s payment’s very doubtful. Have you had Weare’s coin yet?”

“No​—​the scoundrel, and I doubt if I shall get it. But I’m not bothering about money just now. I’m going to the Fives Court to-night. Tom Spring has a benefit and I’m bound to support him. Will you join me?”

“With pleasure. And go on to White’s afterwards for a flutter! What say you?”

“I don’t care. Fortune favours the bold,” rejoined Ralstone recklessly.

At that moment he was approaching perilously near the end of his resources. A month had gone over since he left Bristol, and he had been living in much the same manner as when enjoying Simon Halstead’s liberal allowance. If anything, he had spent more. He had won a little at Ascot, and again at a cock fight in Tot-hill’s Fields, Westminster, but it had gone almost as soon as he had pocketed it. With Tenbury’s £4,000 he would be in clover, but this had not been forthcoming. Meanwhile, his tailor and his glover were beginning to be clamorous. But the anxiety of these gentry was not troubling him to-night.

The Fives Court in St. Martin’s Street, Leicester Square, was but little more than five minutes’ walk from the “Tavistock.” Not worth while to take a hackney coach, and the two friends sauntered out.

“What’s the matter?” asked Walsham.

Ralstone had not gone a couple of yards from the private entrance of the hotel in James Street when he stopped for an instant as though he had forgotten something.

“Go on,” said he in a low voice, “but glance at the man opposite standing at the corner of the arcade. Don’t let him think you’re looking at him.”

Jack slid his arm within his companion’s and the action brought Walsham slightly round so that he was able to direct his eyes across the street naturally.

“Well,” said Walsham, when they had resumed their walk. “I’ve obeyed you. What then?”

“Have you ever seen the fellow before?”

“No.”

“Would you know him again?”

“I think so.”

“What does he look like to you?”

“A slinking-eyed, crafty scoundrel, ready to do any dirty work for a guinea.”

“That’s my opinion too. I’ve caught the blackguard waiting at that corner a dozen times or so. I’ve seen him at places where I’ve been​—​the theatres and so on, and I’ve a shrewd suspicion he’s followed me more than once, though I can’t swear to it​—​the beggar’s as slippery as an eel. What does it mean?”

“How the deuce can I tell? If what you say is true, he means you some ill. You’d better keep your eyes open when you’re going through the market at night. The place is villainously lighted and full of dark corners. As for the unwashed mob, men and women​—​and I’m not sure the women aren’t worse than the men​—​always lurking about after dark, well, you know as much about them as I do. Let half a dozen set upon you and they’d strip you of everything and maybe leave you half dead before the watchmen are awake.”

“I’m not afraid of the mob. I fancy I could give them as good as they gave, but this man’s game isn’t robbery. And the odd thing is that I’m sure I’ve seen him before somewhere​—​I mean before I put up at the ‘Tavistock.’ It isn’t so much his ill-favoured mug that’s impressed on my memory, as a peculiar bend in his shoulders​—​the sort of bend that belongs to a sneak.”

“I know what you mean​—​the cringing, crawling, snaky sort of chap. And you can’t fix where you saw him first?”

“Not precisely, but I believe if I heard his voice it would help me.”

“Anyhow, that’s easy. You’ve but to ask him why the devil he’s watching the hotel and you’d know.”

“That would be a stupid blunder​—​that is, if he’s really spying upon me, as I firmly believe he is. I shall let him have rope enough and when the time comes strike and strike and strike hard.”

“I shan’t give him much chance,” said Walsham, laughingly. “The fellow doesn’t look as if he were any good at fighting.”

“It wouldn’t matter if he were. It’s not the scoundrel himself I want to get at but the people behind him. It’s absurd to suppose a shabby wretch like that can have any grudge against me.”

“Well, it’s all to the good,” remarked the young lord with an air of profound wisdom.

“All to the good? What the deuce do you mean?”

“My dear Ralstone, can’t you see if anything serious comes of this mystery man, it’ll help to bring you into the fierce light that beats upon people of ton. I’m bent upon marrying you to a rich woman and notoriety’s the first step.”

“I don’t care a hang for notoriety nor a rich woman either. I’ve something else in my mind, though I doubt if my dream will ever become a reality.”

“It’s a dream, is it? Then you’re more foolish than I take you to be. But here we are.”

A crowd of rough-looking, dirty-faced men, some with the broken noses, the high cheek bones and the square ugly chins of the born fighter, were struggling through the entrance to the Fives Court, bellowing for no particular reason save the effects of the gin and porter they had swallowed, and exchanging coarse chaff.

“Can’t say much for your friend Spring’s admirers. A greasy mob,” whispered Walsham, with a look of disgust. The young lord had more fancy for cards than for boxing.

“Oh, they’re not all Spring’s admirers. A heap of well-known bruisers are here to-night and each one’s got his crowd of backers. These P.R. men are little gods. It’s a mixed entertainment to-night. Any man who’s fought in the ring for over £25 can have a set to. Whether he wins or loses he’ll have a guinea and a supper afterwards at Cribb’s pub, Panton Street. Besides the admission money there’ll be whatever sum we Corinthians. as we’ve been dubbed, choose to subscribe. You’re not of the noble order of ‘millers’ Walsham, but here you are and you’ll have to put your hand in your pocket, so I warn you.”

“Very good. I’m not frightened,” rejoined Walsham nonchalantly. “I won’t even ask where the money’s going.”

“You may if you like. It’s to pay for the guineas and the supper, and when those expenses are squared the residue is to purchase a presentation silver cup for Tom. Spring, you know, by beating Neate, is the champion of England.”

“I’ve no objection. Spring’s a decent fellow. But, Ralstone, are we expected to rub shoulders with those brass-throated ruffians? One fellow who gave me a shove as he squeezed by must have come from a Smithfield slaughterhouse. I declare I could smell the blood and fat.”

“That’s very likely. Jack’s as good as his master here,” laughed Ralstone. “I’ll take you to the proper entrance for the swells.”

The door was down a narrow passage and here stood half a dozen sturdy fellows on guard, in the event of any sudden rush of the dregs of the crowd eager to see the show without the trouble of paying. Jack was well known to the “fancy” and he and Walsham were received with the utmost respect, especially as each planked down a guinea for admission.

The Fives Court was a big building, circular in shape, with a platform in the centre for the boxers. It was packed to suffocation. The air was hot and stifling, partly from want of ventilation, partly from acrid tobacco smoke, but mostly from the foul clothes of the audience and the odour of stale drink. Beer cans were being freely passed about.

A place had been reserved for the “nobs” and Ralstone and his friend were warmly welcomed by the heroes Cribb and Spring. Bill Neate, the defeated one at the Andover fight, was also there, his arm in a sling, and he pricked up his ears when he heard Ralstone’s name. He chanced to be close by.

“Excuse me taking the liberty, sir, but bean’t you from the Holbrook Manor House​—​Squire Halstead’s place?” said he, with his finger to his forehead.

“Yes, but I’m not living there now,” said Jack.

“So I heered from Steve Carne, the Squire’s groom. I had a glass wi’ Steve about a week or so after the mill an’ he bid me say to ’ee, sir, if so be as a comed across ’ee in London, as the Squire’s been main queer since your honour left the Manor House.”

“Oh? What ails him?”

“That’s what’s worrying Steve. The old gentleman’s took it to heart your going away, but it bean’t that, Steve says, as is the trouble. Something’s happened but Steve don’t know what. He lifted his right arm pretty often when you was no longer in the house​—​you know what I mean, sir​—​rum, that’s his fav’rite tipple​—​an’ he was a bit upset over my losin’ the championship​—​had a few hunderds on me, though that oughtn’t to hurt him, chock full as is his money bags​—​but it’s something else as has changed him.”

“Something else, Neate? What do you mean?”

“Can’t tell ’ee, sir, cause Stephen didn’t know. But it seems he went out for a walk and comed back lookin’ very white and all of a tremble like. Mrs. Coombes, the cook and keeper, thought as how he was ill, an’ begged him to send for Dr. Jevons, but he cursed her fur a fool up hill an’ down dale, and shut himself up in his room wi’ a bottle o’ rum. He’s been on the booze​—​saving your presence, sir​—​ever since, an’ Mrs. Coombes says he never goes to bed wi’out a pair o’ loaded barkers under his pillow. She’s afeard as he’ll do himself some harm wi’ ’em some day. He bean’t fit to handle firearms.”

Jack heard all this with concern, but he wasn’t surprised. His stepfather often had long drinking bouts when out of temper, and this doubtless was one of them. But the cause? Probably disappointment at the failure of his scheme concerning Lady Barbara Dacre. If so, what could Ralstone do? Nothing. After what Walsham had told him about Lady Barbara and Sir Phineas at Almack’s anything like a reconciliation between him and the lady was impossible. All he could say to Neate was that he was sorry.

“Steve told me,” went on Neate hesitatingly, “that it were a pity your honour couldn’t come down and see the Squire, as he b’lieves the old man ’ud make it up wi’ ’ee if so be as ’ee didn’t rub him the wrong way​—​askin’ your pardon for sayin’ so. I give my word to Steve to tell ’ee and so I have.”

“I’m much obliged, Neate. I’ll think over what you’ve said.”

Neate’s finger went up to his forehead and the talk ended. Jack wasn’t much disturbed. He was not at all disposed to conciliate his stepfather because he knew it would have to be on conditions he was not prepared to submit to. The thing which puzzled him was the Squire’s sudden fit of fright; for this was the only explanation of keeping loaded pistols in his bedchamber. Yet Simon Halstead was not easily frightened. Often and often, when in his cups and in his passion, he had sworn that he feared neither God nor the devil, let alone any man on the face of the earth.

Ralstone’s thoughts were suddenly put an end to by catching sight of the man whom he suspected of watching him. The fellow was in the shadow, his back against the wall and his peaked cap drawn well over his eyes. Only the lower part of the face was visible. But it was the man. That peculiar, cringing stoop of the shoulders revealed him. Of course, the fellow’s presence might be merely a coincidence. Certainly he had a perfect right to be present if he were so minded. But all the same it was disquieting.

“You know most of the crowd here, Spring, I suspect,” said he to the champion.

“Pretty well, sir. They’re mostly the scourings of Tom Belcher’s house. the ‘Castle,’ Cribb’s place in Panton Street, and my own pub in Weymouth Street.”

“What about that man with the cap over his eyes? Who’s he?”

“Never saw him before. Doesn’t look as if he’d ever had a turn up in his life.”

“No​—​a sort of chap who’s more used to being kicked.”

“What’s he done? Robbed you, sir? Pocket-picking’s his lay, I’ll bet.”

“Very likely. But it’s of no consequence.”

Spring turned away. The fun had commenced. A couple of well-known boxers had stepped upon the platform amid the yells of their respective friends, and commenced to spar. Of course, they were not in earnest. It was but a show to amuse the crowd. A few rounds were fought, then the combatants gave place to another couple, who in their turn retired after a bout or two. And so the entertainment went on. Then came shouts for Spring. He and Cribb were expected to have a set to, but these accomplished gladiators were not able to display their accomplishment. Spring, who spoke to Lord Walsham’s surprise with grammatical correctness and with a refinement of tone quite exceptional among the “fancy,” explained that his hands were tender​—​it was his only defect as a fighter​—​otherwise he would have been glad to oblige.

Tom paid a compliment to Bill Neate for his gallantry in the fight for the championship, and this brought his old antagonist to his feet. Neate explained that his arm was broken some time in the third round, and of course thus crippled he could not be expected to win. Sympathising shouts greeted this statement, mingled with incredulous scoffs from two or three of Spring’s devotees, who had dipped too deeply in the beer can.

Cribb at this point announced that while the receipts were ample to provide the necessary guineas, and the supper to follow, they did not suffice to purchase a cup worthy of the champion’s acceptance. The cap would therefore go round. Cribb was no orator, but he went straight to the point, and as he knew the majority of the spectators wanted the money in their pockets for “heavy wet” and “max,” he made a direct appeal to the Corinthians present.

“Bravo, Tom,” shouted Ralstone. “Here’s five guineas.” The crowd yelled with delight. Lord Walsham followed with a similar offer. Renewed yells. The other “swells” were not behindhand and Cribb was about to announce the sum collected when there was a movement in the packed room. Heads swayed, bodies were jerked this way and that, it was like the stirring up of a muddy pool.

Presently a big athletic, black-haired, clean shaven fellow, his face flushed, his eyes bleary, his dress disordered, forced his way through the growling mob to the platform.