Chapter XIV

What the Spy Reported

Sir Phineas Tenbury, with the assistance of his valet, had not long got out of bed. It was about midday, and he was toying with devilled kidneys and frizzled bacon, and sipping coffee laced with cognac. He was arrayed in a gorgeous dressing-gown, and on his head was an embroidered smoking-cap adorned with a huge tassel. The whole effect, to the taste of the twentieth century, was somewhat raffish, not a little of the raffishness being due possibly to the generally wrecked condition of the baronet. Sir Phineas had had a heavy night; his eyes were bleared, his cheeks were puffy, his mouth loose, and his complexion whitish, with here and there a yellow patch. He had been, until the small hours were well on their way, in one of the questionable gaming houses of St. James’s Street, Piccadilly.

Tenbury had chambers in the “Albany.” The room in which he was sitting, or rather sprawling, his legs crossed, one slippered foot dangling over the edge of the sofa, and the other extended along its length, was furnished and adorned after the fashion in favour with men of ton. Coloured prints of hunting and coaching scenes, coloured pictures of ballet girls, of boxing celebrities, of distinguished race horses, ratters, and champion game cocks covered the walls, interspersed with coarse, coloured caricatures which lampooned men and women of the day in a style both abusive and libellous.

It was a lovely summer’s day, but all the sun which came into the room was that reflected from a wall opposite the window. The “Albany,” with all its attractions for men about town, was not a cheerful place of residence​—​at all events in the daytime. At night things were different. Life then began with those whose idea of existence was to plunge into excess of so-called pleasure, when the rest of the world were in their beds. Perfect freedom was aimed at in the “Albany,” and it could be had by those who chose to be liberal to the attendants. It was in fact an Alsatia for aristocrats.

Sir Phineas lazily ran his eye over the Morning Post and tossed it aside impatiently. Bell’s Life and John Bull were not more interesting; he let them slip on the floor and did not bother to pick them up. He yawned, stretched out his arm with an effort, reached the hand bell and shook it. His valet entered and waited for orders.

“Clear away this muck, Benham,” said the baronet querulously. “Pass me the cognac and the carafe. Pah! My throat’s as dry as the road to Epsom on a dusty day.”

The man administered to his master’s wants and noiselessly and expeditiously removed the evidence of breakfast, while Sir Phineas slaked his thirst. Then, with his hands behind his head he leaned back and pondered. He was wondering if Lady Barbara Dacre had kept her word and carried out the programme he had laid down.

Two days had gone by since the fateful night at Almack’s and meanwhile he had satisfied the blackmailing propensities of the rapacious Mrs. Matthews, not indeed to the full extent of her demands, but sufficiently to keep her quiet for a few weeks. He had not the slightest intention of allowing the women to spoil his plans in regard to Ralstone. It was vital that they should succeed, for at that moment Ralstone was causing him much perturbation of mind.

“Barbara seems likely to stick to me like a leech,” he mused. “Damme, I never thought she’d take matters so seriously. How stupid to mix up sentiment with a faux pas. The second can be excused but not the first. That’s the worst of women. One never knows what their views are in such matters. Who would have thought the Duke would have cut up so rough. The old rip’s closing of his pockets over her debts was an unexpected blow for me, still if Ralstone can be bamboozled into taking the girl off my hands everything will go smoothly. Anyhow I convinced Barbara and if she’s any sense she’ll do what I told her.”

He closed his eyes. His expression altered. Other thoughts had taken hold of his mind. His mouth hardened and his nostrils twitched and whitened​—​a sure sign with him of suppressed passion.

“Why the devil hasn’t Vicary turned up? Three weeks gone and not a sign of the fellow,” he burst out. “It’s true I told him not to bother me unless he had matters to report, but it’s impossible he shouldn’t have been able to find out something by this time. Perhaps——”

A tap came at the door. It was Benham.

“Vicary has come, Sir Phineas. He told me——”

“Devil take what he told you. Send him up at once. Talk of the devil and you smell sulphur.”

Vicary entered, the obsequious bend of his shoulders more pronounced than ever. He was the manservant whose mingled insolence and feigned humility so excited Jack Ralstone’s ire at the “George,” Andover, on the morning of the prize fight. Before being engaged by Sir Phineas, Vicary had filled the despicable rôle of a “common informer,” and it was whispered that three years before he had been in the pay of the infamous Edwards, whose perjury secured the conviction and execution of Thistlewood and his fellow conspirators. Anyway, after the brutal exhibition on the scaffold there followed a reaction in public opinion and Vicary hastened to earn his living in another way. As a spy Sir Phineas had found him exceedingly useful in many intrigues.

“Well, Vicary, what news?” inquired Sir Phineas eagerly.

“Nothing of very great importance, sir. I’m sorry to say​—​that is, I haven’t succeeded in getting upon the track of the girl.”

“Then what the deuce do you mean by bothering me?” stormed Sir Phineas. “You know what I told you.”

“Yes, Sir Phineas. But I have something to say, that I thought would interest you, about the young gentleman.”

“Damn the young gentleman, but go on. You’d better have a drink. It might ease your tongue. Help yourself.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Vicary did not hurry. It was his habit to be deliberate. Sir Phineas, turning on his side, watched him frowningly.

“I’ve every reason to believe, sir, that Mr. Ralstone, if not dead, is next door to it.”

“What!”

Ralstone’s death was a possibility which had not entered into Sir Phineas’s calculations. He had never bothered about it, not even in connection with the duel. It might have the effect of altering many of his plans. But he was not one to waste time upon mere conjectures. He harshly bade the spy explain himself.

“It was this way, sir. Ever since you put me on this job I’ve never lost sight of Mr. Ralstone​—​that is, sir, whenever he showed himself in the street. I hadn’t to bother about him in the hotel, because, as you know, sir, no lady would be admitted into the ‘Tavistock.’ I’ve followed him into the theatres​—​Covent Garden, Drury Lane, the Surrey, Davis’s amphitheatre in the Westminster Bridge Road​—​it used to be called Astley’s, sir​—​‘Tom and Jerry’s’ been having quite a run there——”

“Really,” broke in Sir Phineas ironically, “seems to me, Vicary, you’ve been enjoying yourself. It doesn’t interest me where Mr. Ralstone went, seeing that it has all led to nothing.”

“I was going to explain, sir,” said Vicary apologetically, “that Mr. Ralstone never had a lady with him on these occasions. Nor did he ever meet a lady, that is to say, your lady.”

“What about Vauxhall Gardens? Did he ever go there?” demanded the baronet, with a slight nervousness in his manner which sat strangely upon him.

“Oh yes, sir, often and often. And once he was with a party of ladies and gentlemen in one of the supper boxes.”

“Well. And the ladies? Did you see them?”

“Yes, sir. I think you’ll find them nearly every night in the Drury Lane saloon. I didn’t bother about them. No, sir, nothing suspicious happened at Vauxhall.”

“Of course not,” said Sir Phineas, with a forced laugh. “I was a fool to suppose that she would be at the Gardens.”

“Quite so, sir. Too many unpleasant reflections. Her painful experience would be too fresh in her mind.”

“Painful? What the devil do you mean by painful?” cried Sir Phineas irritably.

“I beg your pardon, Sir Phineas. Of course not. She was foolish. She was unnecessarily alarmed. You wouldn’t have harmed her.”

“Keep your opinions about my conduct to yourself. They don’t interest me. What of Ralstone? If he was as long in dying as you are in getting through your story, I pity the poor devil.”

“I crave forgiveness, sir. I was only anxious to show you that I had faithfully done my duty and had neglected nothing. But about Mr. Ralstone. Last night I followed him to the Fives Court. It was Tom Cribb’s benefit and there was no end of sparring. A man named Thurtell​—​maybe your honour has heard of him​—​was there. He was the worse for liquor, and from what I overheard he’d come on purpose to revenge himself on Mr. Ralstone over some grievance. He challenged Mr. Ralstone to a boxing match and got badly beaten. The word was passed among his friends to wait on Mr. Ralstone when he left the Court, and they did wait on him. It was as savage a bit of business as ever I see.”

“Oh!” ejaculated Sir Phineas, his eyes gleaming. “He was knocked about, was he?”

“Knocked​—​kicked​—​stoned. It’s my belief Thurtell had given orders that he was to be beaten to death.”

“Yes​—​yes. And was he?”

“I’m not sure, sir. The mob drove him into Rose Street and I followed, but when I got into King Street I heard the horse soldiers coming, and I ran out of the way as quickly as I could.”

“I’ll warrant you did. Trust you for keeping your skin whole, Vicary,” said Sir Phineas sardonically. “And what became of young Ralstone?”

“That’s what I couldn’t find out. When the coast was clear I went down King Street and made inquiries, but could learn nothing. It was the same at the watch house.”

“And what about the ‘Tavistock’?”

“I didn’t go there, sir.”

“You fool. That’s the very place you should have called at.”

“I know that, sir, but to tell you the truth, Gregory, the porter there, and me are not over good friends. He got into trouble some long time ago, and I had to appear against him in the witness box at Bow Street Court. He was put away at Clerkenwell prison and he’s never forgiven me.”

“And I don’t suppose he ever will. I understand. So you think Mr. Ralstone is dead?”

“I don’t say he’s lying dead at this moment, but be was so fiercely set upon he can hardly recover.”

“Well, you’d better find out and give me the latest news of him. Send some one to the ‘Tavistock’ the porter hasn’t a grudge against. I suppose you’ve acquaintances who’ve not belonged to your former admirable profession.”

“Oh, yes, sir.”

“Very well, see to it then.”

Vicary touched his forehead and lingered hesitatingly. Sir Phineas guessed why. He threw a couple of guineas on the table and the spy departed.

For some time after he was alone Sir Phineas sat with his brow puckered and his lips moving in accordance with his thoughts, but he uttered no sound.

The sum of his cogitations was that if Vicary spoke the truth it did not appear as though Ralstone knew the whereabouts of the girl with whom he had undoubtedly ridden away. He had taken her to the “Angel and Sun” just outside Bath​—​so much Sir Phineas had ascertained from the ostler​—​and here all trace of her was lost.

“I can’t believe Ralstone would be the man to let her slip out of his reach,” thought the baronet. “The little cat’s far too fascinating. She’s as full of wiles as a monkey, and if she chose could worm her way into any man’s heart. The worst of it is she’s not to be tempted by either gold or gems. I tried her with both. A woman of that sort generally makes a fool of herself. Falls in love with some handsome boy, whose attraction seems to be that he knows nothing of women and that she’ll have the pleasure of teaching him. If he didn’t fall in love with her and so was inclined to give Lady Barbara the go-by when she vexed him, he’s got those damned woman-loving eyes for no purpose. And Nyra? Black as a gipsy​—​I’ll swear she’s got some nigger blood in her​—​and he a fair Saxon. Opposites attract each other. Where do I come in? Curse them both.”

He had been comforting himself during this mental tirade with neat cognac, and had worked himself into a fury. Then he realised the folly of his outburst, supposing Ralstone was on the point of death. What would be his position then? Surely all to the good. His debt of £4,000 need not be discharged, and he would be perfectly free to run to earth the girl who had escaped him. Lady Barbara would, of course, be done out of her prospect of a reconciliation which would have given her a rich husband, for no doubt Simon Halstead would keep his word if Ralstone made it up with her. But Lady Barbara’s future was no concern of the baronet’s. He had made use of her purely to spite Ralstone, and the elimination of the latter sent her out of his reckoning also.

But the point to be settled was the condition of Ralstone​—​whether he was likely to recover.

“I must know at once,” was his conclusion. “That rascal Vicary is as likely as not to spin out the job to run up the cost. I’ll see about it myself.”

He made his usual careful toilet with the aid of Benham, and in about two hours’ time strolled down St. James’s Street and looked in at White’s. The news of the affair at the Fives Court on the preceding night was all the talk. Many members of the club were interested in the “fancy” and some had been present as Tom Cribb’s patrons. They were all enthusiastic over the skill and pluck of Jack Ralstone, but no one could say exactly what had become of him, save that he was lying at the “Tavistock.”

“Walsham was with him,” said a Waterloo man and an old comrade of Tenbury’s, Captain Frederick Charteris by name. “And I believe he came out of the scrimmage without a scratch, but from what I hear the two became separated early in the row and he’s as much in the dark as anybody, or was​—​for I should think by this time he had called at the ‘Tavistock’ to inquire after his friend.”

Sir Phineas made no comment. He did not particularly want to appear to be interested in Ralstone. Besides, the mention of Lord Walsham had started a train of thought. Shortly after he buttonholed Charteris.

“Fred,” said he, “I want your advice on a little affair of honour. I received a challenge a short time ago from a man​—​I’m not going to mention his name just yet​—​Walsham was going to act for him and Houston for me. Houston, as you know, has gone off to Paris with little Marie Dupont of the ‘King’s’ and how long he’ll stay there the deuce only can tell. Now the point is, should I wait until Walsham asks for some one to take Houston’s place, or should I suggest another man?”

“How long is it since Walsham went to see Houston?” rejoined the Captain with a twirl of his whiskers and with a solemnity of manner which he invariably assumed when his services were required in connection with a duel.

“Quite a fortnight.”

“And you haven’t heard from him?”

“No.”

“That doesn’t look as if his principal were very eager. Has he never been out before?”

“I’m sure I can’t say. I should fancy not.”

“H’m, then I don’t wonder he’s hesitating. Your record in the field is likely to make him think twice. But you can’t have a challenge hanging over your head indefinitely. I should ascertain if he means to go on, Tenbury.”

Sir Phineas did not at once reply. He was pondering on the matter.

“Yes,” said he at last, “that seems the proper course. Will you act for me?”

“With great pleasure. Not the first time, you know, Tenbury. Shall I write to Walsham conveying your wishes?”

“Not for the moment. I want to turn the thing round in my mind; I’ll let you know as soon as I’ve come to a decision. I merely wanted to be sure of you in case of need.”

“Oh, that’s un fait accompli.

“Thanks.”

Sir Phineas sauntered out with a somewhat preoccupied air. A notion had entered his head​—​not a chivalrous one by any means, but whether he would act upon it depended upon what he ascertained from the people of the “Tavistock,” whither he was now bent.

Gregory touched his cap respectfully to the baronet. He knew Sir Phineas very well and was about to precede him to the coffee-room to open the door, but Tenbury checked him.

“I’m not going to stay. I merely called to inquire how Mr. Ralstone was. I’ve had rather bad accounts of him.”

“Well, sir, I do think anybody but Mr. Jack Ralstone would be a-lying on his back with half a dozen doctors a-consulting over him as to how long he ought to be allowed to live. But Mr. Ralstone ain’t a gentleman o’ that sort. He slept like a top for ten or eleven hours and we didn’t trouble to waken him​—​he was breathin’ as easily as a child​—​knowing as rest was the best physic. About twelve he got up, had a bath, sent for a surgeon to take the bandage off his head and put on a bit o’ strapping, and made a hearty breakfast, rumpsteak and mushrooms, sir. It would ha’ done your honour’s heart good to see him put it away. I understand he was brought up in the country​—​runnin’, jumpin’, cricket, shootin’, fishin’, fox huntin’​—​ah, there’s nothin’ like the good old English sport for givin’ a man muscles an’ for layin’ down a stock of ’ealth.”

Sir Phineas frowned. The news of Ralstone’s speedy recovery did not seem to please him.

“And where is he now? In his room?”

“Lor bless me, no, sir. Out and about as brisk as a bee. He’s not like them P.R. men as takes to their drink d’rectly they comes to theirselves. All they think of is ’ow much liquor they can swaller.”

“I’m glad to hear that Mr. Ralstone’s better,” said Sir Phineas in a tone the irony of which was quite lost on Gregory.

“Thank’ee, sir. I’ll tell him you called.”

It was on the tip of the baronet’s tongue to say, “Don’t do anything of the kind,” but on second thoughts he held his tongue. Outwardly he had to behave as a gentleman. It was part of his reputation. It was said that when he pinked his antagonist or sent a bullet through the arm, or any part of the body that fancy might select, he did it in the most gentlemanly way possible. After a duel he was invariably solicitous that the wounded man should be carefully tended.

Sir Phineas quitted the hotel very much perturbed. The vague notion which had passed through his mind at White’s was that if the duel were to come off there could be no better time for it than while Ralstone was enfeebled. But this idea would have to be discarded. In less than a week Ralstone in all probability would be in possession of his full health and strength.

Exactly as he yearned to revenge himself upon his rival by the latter’s death at his hand, a more bitter and more complete plan was that in which he designed Lady Barbara should play a part. That Lady Barbara when married to Ralstone should still be mistress of another man was a device worthy of Iago. But this depended upon the issue of her ladyship’s blandishments. Would she succeed in winning back her truant love? Sir Phineas felt that his hand was stayed until this matter was settled.

Then there was the incomparable dark-eyed girl upon whose conquest Sir Phineas had set his heart. What part was she destined to play in the drama notwithstanding the fact that for the present she had dropped out? Sir Phineas was convinced she would reappear though he had nothing to justify this conviction. Anyhow, the marriage of Ralstone and Lady Barbara would serve a double purpose. It would make any attachment between Ralstone and the girl impossible.

But if there had already been some love passages between the two? Because Vicary had failed to find any evidence that Ralstone knew where she was hardly seemed conclusive proof. The possibility that Vicary had blundered or had been negligent maddened him. He glanced around him on leaving the “Tavistock” and could see nothing of the fellow.

“Why isn’t he here on the look out?” he muttered wrathfully.

Then it occurred to him that his anger was unreasonable. If Ralstone had gone out, as Gregory said, was it not the spy’s duty to follow him? Pacified by the thought he wended his way back to the Albany, calling on his road at the “White Horse Cellars,” Piccadilly, to inquire the latest odds on a horse he fancied was likely to win at Goodwood.

“Vicary’s waiting to see you, sir,” were the words with which Benham greeted him.

“Ha, send him up.”

Sir Phineas was pacing his room when the spy entered.

“Well, what have you found out?”

Mr. Ralstone isn’t nearly as ill as I thought. He left the ‘Tavistock’ about one o’clock, and I followed him. He took a hackney coach in the Strand, and I was after him in another. He was set down in Berkeley Square, and went into a house​—​No. 62.”

It was the Duke of Endsleigh’s mansion. Then Lady Barbara had succeeded in enticing him to her presence! This was good news, and a grim smile curved the baronet’s lips.

“Did you wait until he came out?”

“Certainly, Sir Phineas.”

“How long did he stay?”

“Quite an hour and a half.”

This also was good. What wiles could not a clever woman exercise over a man in an hour and a half?

“And what became of him after that?”

“He went back to the ‘Tavistock.’”

So all seemed to be going well.