Chapter XV

A Woman’s Wiles

Lady Barbara’s letter, couched in such appealing terms, sent a chill over Jack Ralstone. It could not have arrived at a less opportune moment. Before he opened it he was in the freshness of an entrancing dream of love, such as comes but once in a man’s existence. He was in the full flush of adolescence, when all that is best and charming in a woman is tinged with the rosy light of romance. To know that the girl whom he had never forgotten, of whom he had constantly thought, to whom he had been irresistibly drawn, whose disappearance had left such a blank in his life, had come back, more divine because more mysterious, seemed to him nothing short of a miracle. Exultantly he looked forward to the time when he should see her again.

Ever since he had been in London the time had gone with him feverishly, in a sort of make-believe. He had plunged into the life which he had once thought was an ideal existence​—​the life of a man about town, or a man with sporting tastes, free, independent, irresponsible. If he kicked over the traces​—​well, there would be no vicious intention; nothing more than the outcome of high spirits​—​an outlet for buoyant vitality.

But it had all turned out differently. He found little real pleasure in the amusements of London. When he went to the theatre his attention wandered. Macready bored him. Liston was amusing, and Madame Vestris and Maria Foots delightful, but before the end of the performance came he lost interest, and he was at a loss to know why. At least, so he told himself. But the fact was, he was ashamed to confess that he was guilty of the weakness of constantly thinking of a pair of dark lustrous eyes, of an exquisite oval face and olive-tinted complexion, of fascinating lines of beauty​—​from the ear to the chin, in the sweep of the neck to the shoulders, in the charmingly moulded arms and wrists.

His scruples and self-reproaches vanished at the sight of the girl. He was another man. He was no longer discontented and dissatisfied for no apparent reason. He had, in short, discovered that he was in love. But even now his feelings were more or less vague. They were brought to a crisis by Lady Barbara’s disquieting letter.

What was the proper course to take as an honourable man? Really he could not make up his mind. The plain facts were that he and Lady Barbara had been engaged, that neither of them cared for the other, that her ladyship had shown herself indifferent to him at the Bath masquerade, and a decided preference for Sir Phineas Tenbury, in itself an unpardonable piece of frivolity, considering Tenbury’s questionable reputation. Remembering all this, Jack Ralstone argued that the fault was on the lady’s side, and that her fiancé was quite justified in being offended. Whether she knew he had told his stepfather he had broken his engagement, and that in consequence he had been sent adrift, Ralstone could not say, but since the night when she so markedly slighted him, she had made no sign of regrets or excuses. Then there was Lord Walsham’s story of her openly flirting at Almack’s with Sir Phineas, and her complete indifference as to what might be thought and said of her conduct.

“And now, hang it, she wants me to come back as if nothing had happened!” cried Ralstone hotly. “Does she think I’m a spaniel she only needs to whistle to and he at once comes to heel? Deuce take her airs and graces, her whims and fancies! She’s chosen her man, let her stick to him.”

The outburst was probably justifiable. It was certainly very comforting to his outraged feelings, but it did not answer the question what was he to do. Some kind of reply must be made. The matter could not be allowed to drift​—​especially as the girl with the dark eyes had intervened. The point was, should he write to Lady Barbara or go and see her, and thrash out the matter once and for all?

“Dashed if I know. Anyhow, I won’t worry over the business to-night. I’ll sleep on it,” was his conclusion.

He closed his eyes, but although, as Gregory said, he was sleeping as peacefully as a child when the hotel valet went into his room the next morning, it was some time before he went to sleep. In spite of his vow not to worry, he worried all the same.

He awoke with the bright sunshine full on his face, and he struggled out of bed. A long and painful toilet with the valet’s assistance, the attentions of the doctor, the skilful manipulation of Gregory in disguising his undoubted black eye, his bath and the replacement of his soiled and tattered garments by others, worked wonders. When he looked at himself in the glass he was agreeably surprised to find that he was fairly presentable. With the pardonable vanity of youth he regarded his appearance as very important, for he had come to the opinion that he ought to see Barbara face to face.

But not then. He was so stiff he could hardly drag one leg after the other. His nerves had had a nasty jar, and he was not in a fit state for what could not be other than a painful and trying interview. For all that, he rather dreaded an interchange of letters which might fail to change the situation. He felt he must convince Lady Barbara by word of mouth that their engagement no longer existed. The only way out was to send her a polite note to the effect that owing to an accident he would have to keep indoors for a few days, and that he would write and make an appointment directly he was well enough to keep it.

This note, short as it was, took him some time to write, but at last it was done and dispatched. What effect it would have on the lady he could only conjecture, for she sent him no reply.

He was certainly wise in resting. Three or four days went over before he could say he was fairly fit, and even then his bruised face had not quite resumed its normal appearance. Had he not been blessed with a splendid constitution his period of seclusion would have lasted much longer.

All the time he was invalided the prospect of a “scene” with Lady Barbara worried him, but it had to be faced, and having written that he would wait upon her the following afternoon, he set out at the hour fixed and took a hackney coach, as Vicary did not fail to note, which set him down at the Duke of Endsleigh’s house in Berkeley Square. He gave his name to a footman, and when the man returned with the message that Lady Barbara was at home and would see him, he could not decide whether he was pleased or sorry.

Ralstone was not shown into the drawing-room or library as he expected, but into a sort of boudoir, one of a suite of rooms assigned to Lady Barbara, and furnished and decorated in a style befitting the daughter of a duke. Maybe the young man was inclined to be critical​—​he had had so many disillusions of late that it would not be extraordinary if he were​—​and it seemed to him that the room reflected Lady Barbara’s characteristics and tastes. The panels were fitted with mirrors; silk hangings of pale blue abounded; gilt adornments were stuck wherever it was possible; the furniture was in the Empire style, overlaid with florid ornamentation. A faint perfume scented the air. All was artificial, gilt and glitter.

Suddenly the door opened noiselessly, and Lady Barbara glided in. She was dressed for the part. The fine lady had disappeared. She affected the village maiden, in her plain muslin dress, unflounced, with short sleeves tied up with ribbon in shoulder-knot fashion. Her arms were bare and her low corsage displayed a liberal amount of bust. A cluster of white roses backed by dark green leaves suggested virginal innocence.

She hesitated, her fingers lingering on the door-handle as though deriving support from the contact while she gathered courage. Her eyes were downcast. As a matter of fact, she was waiting to see what Ralstone would do. Her aspect of maiden timidity should have invited him to make the first advance, but it did not. He stood motionless.

The slightest possible wrinkle showed itself between her eyebrows. She was piqued by his immobility. It was not that she cared for him as a lover, nor that she expected him to behave like a lover, but as a man of politeness he might have had the decency to show some kind of feeling. Had she not metaphorically thrown herself at his feet?

The silence was intolerable. She quitted the protesting handle and went forward a step.

“Have you nothing to say?” she broke out agitatedly.

“I hardly know. I came to hear what you had to say. You invited me, you know.”

“Invited? How coldly you speak of my letter. If you only knew what it cost me to write it! Couldn’t you see it came from my heart? And you talk of it as if it were an invitation to dinner!”

“I didn’t look at it in that light, I assure you. It puzzled​—​it surprised me. It seemed to me that you wrote it without knowing what had passed between me and Mr. Halstead. I could hardly think that.”

If ever Lady Barbara needed the actress’s art it was at that moment. Of course she knew, but she was not going to confess that she did. She tried to stare at Ralstone in blank astonishment. It was not altogether a successful effort.

“You talk in riddles,” said she. “If you were surprised and puzzled, what about me? What excuse have you to make for your neglect? Not a word from you since that night. How many weeks ago is it? An age to me, at all events.”

“It wasn’t neglect,” he rejoined bluntly. “It was what would naturally follow from what I told the Squire.”

“And what did you tell him?” she cried, clasping her hands and with a note of passion in her voice which was not altogether simulated. She was fast working herself into a rage, for she foresaw failure.

“That our engagement was a great mistake and that our marriage would be a fatal one. You didn’t care for me and I didn’t care for you. You know that, Lady Barbara, as well as I do. The business was arranged by the Squire and the Duke. Neither you nor I had a say in the matter. I suppose but for things happening outside we should both have gone on blindly. But my eyes were opened.”

“Over my silly pet at the masquerade?”

“Well​—​yes.”

His momentary hesitation exposed a vulnerable point in his armour, of which woman’s uncanny penetration in matters of the heart instantly took advantage.

“Or was it your other lady love?”

Ralstone was no hand at the game of Cupid’s thrust and parry. He could not conceal his discomfiture. The attack was so unexpected that he hardly knew what to say. What had Lady Barbara heard? How could he tell that the question put so adroitly and with such confidence was simply a flash of a feminine weapon against which a man is helpless?

“I don’t know what you mean. I’ve no other lady love. Perhaps it would be more correct to say I’ve no lady love at all.”

Lady Barbara was now quivering with anger. All thought of the fascinations which were to bring Ralstone back had vanished. Up to this point she had lingering hopes that she might save the situation, but Ralstone’s evident embarrassment when tackled about the “other woman” had sent them to the winds. She could have endured his refusing to marry her because of it being a mere matter of arrangement. A mariage de convenance was common enough. The example furnished by the Prince Regent and Caroline of Brunswick, and its culmination the miserable squabble at the coronation in Westminster Abbey, when the King employed a body of prize-fighters, with Jackson at their head, to guard his sacred person, were fresh in the public mind, and there were hosts of other instances of ill-assorted marriages among the aristocracy. Lady Barbara was quite willing to take the risk now that the want of money had forced her hand.

But her vanity was touched at the thought of a rival. She would make one more effort, not so much with the object of winning over Ralstone as of gratifying herself​—​of asserting the power of her own charms. It was humiliating to think that she had been supplanted by another woman.

Suddenly she pulled out her handkerchief and dabbed her eyes. A sob burst from her, real enough, though it was a sob of anger rather than of anguish; she tottered towards him, sank upon the couch in a picturesque attitude, and buried her face in the pillow, a lovely picture of beauty in distress.

It was a little overdone, and to Jack Ralstone, unused to heroics in private life, it seemed a trifle theatrical. Sobs and gasps from Lady Barbara, who had always been so cold, who had hardly gone nearer to familiarity than the exhibition of a kind of stately condescension, did not appear natural. It was what might have been expected from an emotional country maiden, disappointed in her first love affair, but from the haughty and high-born Lady Barbara, no.

But his doubts did not help to extricate him from an embarrassing position. She had not, in his opinion, righted herself. She had not satisfactorily accounted for her relations with Sir Phineas. She had made matters worse by the innuendo she had thrown out concerning another woman. The sneer angered him, possibly because there was a measure of truth in the accusation.

All this rushed through his mind while he was trying to decide whether he should offer consolation or maintain a stony indifference. He had naturally rather a tender heart, and her apparent self-abandonment was beginning to touch him. He might have yielded to his sympathetic impulses had not Lady Barbara been so impatient. As he did not immediately throw himself on his knees, call himself a hard-hearted monster and beg forgiveness, she came to the conclusion that the tactics of pathos had failed. Besides, the tears would not come. She sprang to her feet, came quite close to him, stretched out both hands and looked up imploringly. If ever a pair of blue eyes asked for a kiss, Lady Barbara’s did just then.

“Can’t we forget all our silly quarrel and begin again as if nothing had happened?” she murmured brokenly.

“The quarrel doesn’t strike me as silly. I suppose we ought to have an eye to the future,” he was beginning, when she put her hand over his mouth.

“Oh, how dreadfully solemn! I hate to talk about the future. It reminds me of being in church,” she exclaimed, quite determined that he should not treat the matter seriously.

“Very well, then we’ll take the present. The position is that old Halstead has, so to speak, kicked me out of his house because I told him I didn’t think our engagement ought to continue. I haven’t a feather to fly with. That doesn’t sound very attractive, does it?”

“Oh, I know all about that. Let me tell you that we’ve only got to make it up and everything would be well again,” she cried eagerly.

“Really? I understood from your ladyship just now that you were quite ignorant of what has passed between me and my stepfather. How is it you’re so certain he’ll go back on his word?”

Lady Barbara was dumbfounded. She had made a frightful slip, and how to retrieve her error was not very clear to her.

“Oh, it’s only my impression,” she faltered. “In any case, I’m quite willing to risk Mr. Halstead altering his mind, if you are.”

Ralstone was silent. An ugly thought had flashed across his brain. It suddenly occurred to him that Lady Barbara had much to gain by marrying him and restoring Simon Halstead’s good humour. Had not Simon promised to hand over thirty thousand pounds to the duke on their marriage day?

“I can’t make out why you should think so,” he rejoined presently. “I fancy I know more about Simon Halstead’s obstinacy than you do. We’d better look at the thing fairly and squarely, Lady Barbara. It’s impossible you can marry a man who hasn’t a penny in his pocket.”

Secure in her belief that, once married to Jack Ralstone, his stepfather would relent, she laughed incredulously.

“If that’s your only objection, I don’t see that there’s much in it. I love you. Don’t you know that?”

“It comes as news to me,” he answered coldly.

“But I do,” she persisted.

He did not believe her, but he could hardly say so. He was anxious to avoid any further unpleasantness. All he wanted was to say good-bye and take his departure. He would rather they parted as friends, but it was not so easy in the face of her intense desire for reconciliation. Her change of attitude puzzled him. He had always thought her cold, haughty and vain, and the emotion of that day had not materially altered his opinion. Indeed, the suggestion that she was also mercenary had strengthened it. Short of a blunt and emphatic refusal to marry her, it looked as if nothing would convince her that he was in earnest.

He was reluctant to take this course unless she gave him a chance of doing it naturally, and a crisis of this kind she seemed carefully to avoid.

“I take what you say as the greatest compliment you can pay me,” said he awkwardly. “But——”

“Only a compliment? A woman’s love?” she interposed scornfully.

“When I can’t return it, what else can I say? If it be true——”

“It is true. Do you suppose I should so humble myself if it weren’t?”

“I accept your word, but it makes it all the more necessary I should tell you the risk you run.”

He spoke desperately. It was the last argument he had short of being what might be termed brutal.

“Risk? Didn’t I tell you that I was willing to face any risk?”

“The risk of poverty, yes, but not the risk of wasting your love on one who in a few weeks time may cease to exist.”

“Good heavens, what are you talking about? Surely you don’t contemplate making away with yourself?”

“Nothing so silly. I’m going to fight a duel.”

“Only that? Duels are fought every day, and not much harm’s done. It’s all very absurd. Just an exchange of bullets and honour’s satisfied. I suppose men have no other way of settling their quarrels. May I ask with when you’re going to fight?”

“Some one in whom you’re interested​—​unless I’m doing you an injustice​—​Sir Phineas Tenbury.”

The colour fled from Lady Barbara’s cheeks. She stared mutely at Ralstone. His words seemed to have paralysed her speech.

“It will probably be not the harmless affair you infer,” went on Ralstone. “I shouldn’t have mentioned the matter to you. but I thought it only right to warn you after the declaration of your affection with which you’ve honoured me. Obviously it would be wise of you to turn your thoughts elsewhere. In the event of the duel having a fatal termination so far as I’m concerned, you’d be saved a deal of distress.”

Ralstone spoke with a stiffness and formality which did not come naturally to him, but he did so purposely, as he was anxious to avoid a repetition of hysterical emotion. To his relief Lady Barbara showed no symptoms of anything of the kind. The shock had passed away. She exhibited no resentment at the mention of Tenbury’s name, as he expected, and her face betrayed an eager interest which puzzled him. The truth was she felt immensely flattered. A duel between Sir Phineas and Ralstone could have connection with no one other than herself. It gratified her vanity. She felt almost grateful to Ralstone. If he were not in love with her, he was ready to die for her.

“Oh, you mustn’t meet Sir Phineas,” she cried. “I’ve heard terrible stories about him as a duellist. I don’t mean that he doesn’t fight fair, but he’s a deadly shot.”

“I know. It makes no difference.”

“But cannot it be settled without fighting?”

“No; the cause of quarrel is too serious.”

“What is it all about? Is there a lady in it?”

Lady Barbara asked the question with as much indifference as she could assume. She was in reality burning to have her suspicions confirmed.

“You’d better ask Sir Phineas,” was Ralstone’s reply.

“No. I’d prefer to have it from your own lips. Sir Phineas is nothing to me.”

Ralstone could not prevent himself from raising his eyebrows slightly. The suggestion of incredulity angered the lady.

“I’m sorry I’m not in a position to give you any information.”

“But I’ve a right to know​—​that is, if it concerns me.”

“Make your mind easy. Your ladyship has nothing to do with our quarrel. You can’t reproach yourself if it so happens that I come to grief.”

It would have been hard to find anything which would have served Ralstone’s desire to close the discussion so well as the turn the talk had taken. The wound from which her vanity was already suffering was a mere scratch compared with what it had now received.

“Then you two are fighting over some other woman,” she almost shrieked, her lips tremulous with rage.

“I can only refer you to Sir Phineas Tenbury,” returned Ralstone with a low bow.

“Oh, you’re driving me mad! Every time I talk to you, you heap fresh insults upon me. Yes, you’re right, you’d make a wretched husband. I’ve mercifully refrained from saying anything personal, but I don’t see why I should now have any scruple. You look in anything but a fit state for presenting yourself before a lady. I suppose you’ve been in some vulgar street row. I believe you Corinthians, as you call yourselves, glory in your familiarity with all that’s low in London. Please go back to your boon companions. I’ve done with you.”

Jack Ralstone said not a word. He was only too glad to get away from the enraged lady. He again bowed and walked to the door, pursued by vituperations which amazed him, coming as they did from the daughter of a duke. But it was a robust age. When men​—​and women too​—​let themselves go, they did so with a vengeance.

“Phew!” ejaculated Ralstone, when he was in the square. “I now know something about her ladyship’s temper. I’d heard she’d a pretty rough side to her tongue, and by gad, it’s true. A beautiful termagant! What an escape for me! I’m deucedly obliged to old Simon. If he hadn’t cup up nasty I might still be dangling after my lady. But she’s a bit of a mystery. How does Sir Phineas stand with her? I thought she looked mighty queer when I told her I was going to fight him. Is there really anything between the pair? Thank goodness, it’s no affair of mine.”

The feeling of relief now that he was free from entanglement produced an exhilaration which made him forget his aches and pains, and he was tempted to walk back to Covent Garden. There was another reason, and a more important one, why he should walk. He had but a shilling in his pocket. He became suddenly serious. He had come to the end of his resources and would have to consider what he should do.

Meanwhile Lady Barbara was in what the servants called her “tantrums.” Directly Ralstone had departed she rushed to her bedroom, rang furiously for her maid, tore the white roses from her bosom and trampled upon them, and did not wait for the Abigail to help her to take off the muslin dress, the sight of which accentuated her rage. But though the maid came as quickly as she could, knowing what the sound of the bell meant, she was welcomed with a sound box on the ear for her alleged dilatoriness.

Then, when Lady Barbara’s anger had somewhat spent itself, she sat down and wrote a frenzied note to Sir Phineas, which she dispatched to the Albany by a groom.

Sir Phineas was congratulating himself that all was going on well when he received Lady Barbara’s disturbing missive.

“I must see you at once about something important concerning yourself and Jack Ralstone. I shall be at Matthews’s at nine. On no account fail me.​—​B.”

“Humph,” muttered Sir Phineas, frowning as he crumpled the note and then tore it into fragments. “A ‘B’ with a sting.”