Chapter XIII

A Startling Letter

Ralstone did not lose his senses. The faintness was passing now that he had ceased to exert himself. Every word the girl uttered was distinctly audible, and her solicitude filled him with secret joy. A few silent moments after the door closed, and looking up into her face he murmured:

“Why did you run away? You remember, don’t you? When I returned and found you gone I didn’t know what to make of it. I felt a little hurt.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she returned hurriedly, and her bosom heaved. “You must have thought me very ungrateful. But I wasn’t. I wanted to thank you, but directly I heard your name was Halstead something dragged me away. I couldn’t be under an obligation to anyone of that name and in whose veins ran the blood of that​—​that beast.”

“You mean Simon Halstead?”

“Yes. Some day, perhaps, you may know why. But I can’t tell you now. It’s everything to me that you’ve nothing to do with him. It may alter my plans​—​I don’t know​—​I’m confused​—​I——”

She became terribly agitated. Footsteps were heard on the staircase outside. Mrs. Barlowe was returning. When she entered the girl had regained her calmness, and, taking the quaintly-shaped bottle from the woman, she poured out a little of the contents into a glass, and Ralstone sipped the fragrant amber liquid.

“It’s very good. I never tasted anything so fine. It’s put new life into me. What rare stuff for a cold hunting morning after an hour’s run. I’d like to buy a bottle. Where can I get some?”

“Not in London​—​not in England anywhere. It comes from the West India plantations.”

“The plantations——”

Her finger went to her lips in token of secrecy, and he said no more. The word “plantations” had started a current of puzzling thoughts, but nothing could be discussed with the tiresome Barlowe hovering about, and Jack whispered a request to be allowed to meet her, where they could talk freely.

“I’m staying at the ‘Tavistock.’ I shan’t rest​—​I can’t​—​until I see you again. I’ve a thousand questions to ask​—​your name, for instance. You know mine. It’s only fair,” he expostulated.

“I’m known in this house as Amelia Hart. I’m a sort of maid-companion to Mrs. Glover, the actress​—​the kindest-hearted soul in the world. But for her I must have died. She knows something about me​—​I had to tell her, you know​—​but not everything. There’s a man who’s my bitter enemy. I dare not go out in the day-time for fear​—​ah, there she is. I know her knock.”

Mrs. Barlowe hurried away. Once more they were together. Jack seized the girl’s hand.

“Tell me​—​I insist upon it​—​how can we meet?” he exclaimed.

“I don’t know​—​I can’t think; stay​—​I’ll find some way of letting you know. At the ‘Tavistock,’ you say.”

“Yes, but don’t send any message by that black fellow of yours. I don’t think he likes me. He might play you false.”

“Quamina play me false? Me? Oh, you don’t know him.”

“That’s true, and I can’t say I’m particularly anxious to make his acquaintance. You see——”

“Hush. Here is Mrs. Glover.”

The clever actress came bustling in. She was then at the height of her popularity, and her fine, deep, rich voice, her commanding presence, and her energy, made her unrivalled in certain parts. When, the year before. she played the part of Hamlet at Drury Lane. she achieved a tour de force that was the talk of the town. Nature in a generous mood had moulded her lavishly. She was tall and stout in her middle age​—​too stout possibly as she grew older​—​not perhaps handsome, but her face was expressive and open, with fine eyes that stared fixedly at one and invited confidence.

Mrs. Barlowe had told her of the incident, and the actress was full of sympathy.

“The vile wretches,” she exclaimed. “I suppose their idea was robbery.”

“I don’t know, madam, but if so they carried it out with great nicety. I haven’t a penny left.”

“You poor young gentleman! How much do you think you’ve lost?”

Jack dreaded to think. His intention was, after he left the Fives Court, to go on to White’s Club with Lord Walsham and try his luck at the faro table. He had scraped together all the money he had, and the thieves had made a decent haul. He returned some indefinite answer to Mrs. Glover, and, good-natured as she was to a degree, she immediately offered to lend him a small sum. He thanked her, but refused, and, remarking that he had reached the limits of her hospitality, he rose to go.

“Are you sure you can walk without assistance? Shall Quamina go with you?”

“Not on any account. It’s no distance to the ‘Tavistock,’ and I can look after myself quite well, thanks to the magic virtues of some mysterious cordial Miss Hart has been good enough to administer.”

“Oh, Amelia is a rare hand at mysterious concoctions. I believe she knows all about poisons.”

A spasm seemed to pass over the girl’s face at this jesting accusation, but she made no reply. She was evidently much disturbed, and Jack was prompted to come to her rescue by a playful allusion to his ragged attire.

“I don’t know what the hotel people will think of me. Perhaps they’ll fancy I’m the beggar of Bethnal Green come to life.”

“Dress is nothing,” said Mrs. Glover laughingly. “Amelia can tell you something about that.”

“Indeed,” remarked Ralstone, with a well-assumed air of innocence. “I should much like to hear the story.”

“It’s nothing, and it wouldn’t interest a stranger,” said Amelia.

Ralstone bowed, and as he did so he contrived to cast a glance which spoke volumes.

“I’m not so sure about that,” put in the actress, “but I won’t tease you any more to-night. It wouldn’t be right after you’ve played the part of the Good Samaritan so well.” Then, turning to Ralstone, she went on to suggest that, to save appearances, she could let him have one of her husband’s coats.

“He’s not living here,” said she, a shade of sadness passing over her face, “so he won’t miss it.”

Mrs. Glover was unfortunate both in her father and husband. The first sponged upon her, the second was a drunkard.

“I’m sure I won’t trouble you. The ‘Tavistock’ people know what a London mob is like. It’s not the first time one of their customers has come home like a rag-bag. Thank you again, and goodnight.”

His leave-taking was formal. It could hardly be otherwise. With Amelia Hart, as she chose to be called, he did not dare go further than tenderly press her band. Was it his fancy, or did she really return that pressure? Whether it was the effect of the cordial, or the fillip to his nerves at the unexpected sight of the beautiful girl, the subject of his constantly-recurring waking dreams, and the mysterious cause of the bitter enmity of Sir Phineas towards him, Ralstone could not determine, but he forgot his stiffness and his aches and pains, and walked quite briskly to the hotel.

The clock of St. Paul’s, Covent Garden, struck twelve as he entered the portals of the “Tavistock,” but the hour was not late for those free-and-easy times. The coffee-room windows were lighted up, and the porter, while staring at Ralstone’s bandaged hand, betrayed no surprise. “The Tavistock,” as a “bachelors’ house,” was used to the young bloods, its patrons, not infrequently coming back in rather a dilapidated condition. Indeed, Gregory the porter was a rare hand at “painting” and disguising black eyes.

“Glad to see you back, Mr. Ralstone. Had a rough time, I hear, sir.”

“What, has the news reached you already?”

“Well, sir, in course we heard the shindy, and some of our gentlemen went out to see the fun, but we didn’t know as you was in it.”

“I was it, Gregory, worse luck.”

“So I heered, sir.”

“The deuce you did. How?”

“Lord Walsham called to inquire about you, sir. He’d been round to the watch-house, but they knowed nothing.”

“Was his lordship hurt at all?”

“Not much, sir. The blackguards seem to have let him alone. They made a dead set on you, sir, he says.”

“That was so. I was pretty well done for, but luckily I fell into good hands, and I’ve been patched up.”

He was within an ace of saying that it was at Mrs. Glover’s house in King Street where he was sheltered, but he remembered the girl’s caution in time and he said nothing.

“Glad to hear it, sir. Are you, going in the coffee-room? A niceish company there, sir.”

“What, in this ragged, out-at-elbows state? Not likely. I’m going to bed. Send up some mulled claret to my room.”

“Very well, sir. Good night, Mr. Ralstone.​—​Oh, blest if I didn’t nigh forget. Here’s something for you, sir.”

The porter took a letter from the rack on the mantelshelf and handed it to Ralstone. The writing was unmistakably feminine, all pothooks and hangers, in the sloping Italian style taught then in fashionable boarding-schools.

“H’m,” grunted Jack with a grimace, when he looked at it. He did not open the letter. He thought it would keep until he reached his bedroom. He imagined it to be from one of the fair Cyprians whom in the Covent Garden saloon an evening or two before he had treated to a bottle of wine.

“I didn’t think I’d been such a noodle as to tell that brown-haired wench where I was staying. I suppose I did. Fool!”

He toiled up the stairs, lighted candle in his hand, and when he got into his room he threw himself into an easy chair. He was dead beat, and no wonder. The reaction had set in, his bruises and cuts pained him, and he was stiff all over. He caught sight of his reflection in the toilet glass and burst into a laugh which hadn’t an atom of mirth in it.

“The devil! What a Guy Fawkes I look! I wonder what the dear girl thought of me. Never mind, when next she sees me I shall be myself. When next​—​ when? What a mystery the thing is! She began by being a mystery, and she’s continuing to be one. What will the end be like​—​but, after all, what’s a woman worth when there’s nothing to find out about her?”

Presently a knock came at the door. A waiter had brought up the mulled claret. The warm drink was comforting, and, snuggling in his chair, Jack sipped it slowly and thought over things​—​that is to say, he thought of the midnight eyes, the fascinating pallor, the raven hair, the delightful chin, the scarlet lips, and a hundred other charms of the girl who had taken possession of him.

“‘My name in this house is Amelia Hart,’ she said. What is it outside the house? I don’t like Amelia Hart. It’s commonplace. She’s had to take it for some reason. That means she’s afraid to use her own name. And she dares not got out in the day. Why? Is Mrs. Glover in the know? What’s that nigger​—​Quadrumana​—​Quadrillana​—​can’t think of it​—​got to do with her? And, above all, that fellow Tenbury​—​what part does he play in the business?”

The recollection of Sir Phineas stirred the young man’s bile. Sir Phineas had already served him one dishonourable trick​—​of making love to Lady Barbara Dacre, who he must have known was betrothed. That neither he nor Lady Barbara cared for each other did not excuse Tenbury’s conduct. Of course, Lady Barbara was to blame too, but that did not matter. It was a woman’s privilege to change her mind.

“Tenbury can have her ladyship and welcome,” cried Jack, addressing his reflection in the mirror, “but I’m damned if he shall interfere with my dark-eyed damsel. She’s mine and I’m proving it by fighting for her.”

He felt suddenly exalted. How wonderful it was that a mere slip of a girl should have the power of dominating him, of forcing him to concentrate every thought, every feeling, every emotion upon her! If this meant love, then he was most assuredly in love, in all senses of the word.

Jack Ralstone had had his flirtations​—​what young man in those Fourth Georgian days had not? Flirting was part of his education, like tying a cravat properly, or going the grand tour, but all his flirtations had left him heart-whole. But this​—​oh, this was no flirtation. It was life​—​real life and real love.

He thought of the painted, brazen women he had talked with and treated at the Drury Lane and Covent Garden saloons​—​at Vauxhall Gardens​—​at some of the gaming hells, where they played the part of decoys. What a difference between this horde of Jezebels and the girl who, even in her tatters, looked pure and innocent!

“Yes,” he soliloquised, “and she’s not a Barbara Dacre either. I’ll swear that if once she loved she would be constant, she would never go from her word. But​—​Barbara——”

Finishing the sentence with a shrug of the shoulders, Ralstone commenced to undress, taking off his coat with difficulty​—​a difficulty which brought to his remembrance the girl’s tender deftness when she assisted him to put it on.

As he sat with the coat across his knees, it occurred to him to see whether the thieves had left him any money. He went through his pockets. He found no money, but he pulled out the letter given him by Gregory.

He frowned. It was unpleasant to be reminded of his folly. Only one motive could actuate a writer of the class to which he believed she belonged​—​money.

“I think I can open the thing with perfect safety,” he thought, smiling bitterly, “seeing that I’ve been cleaned out of every penny. So much the better. I shan’t have the trouble of making up my mind.”

He tore through the wax and unfolded the paper. What he read was this, and it took his breath away:

“My Dearest Jack,”

“I am writing humbly to ask your forgiveness. Believe me, I’ve been utterly miserable ever since you left me that night at Bath. I know I behaved badly to you. I ought not to have said what I did. I can’t think what possessed me. You’ll forget it, won’t you? Do let us make it up. Come and see me to-morrow. I feel I shall die if you keep away any longer. You don’t know how much I love you. Fondly,”

“Yours,”

“Barbara.”