Chapter XVI

Vicary gets his Deserts

Ralstone reached the “Tavistock” quite done up. The interview with Lady Barbara had tried his nerves, and the walk from Berkeley Square, in his shaken condition, had not been a less severe ordeal. He was glad to find the cheery Walsham in the coffee-room awaiting his return.

“My dear fellow,” cried Walsham, “I’ve been horribly concerned about you. It relieved my mind when Gregory told me you had been brought here fairly safely​—​a bit battered but otherwise not much the worse. By Jove it was a near thing. What the deuce did it mean? You were the mark. Somebody had a grudge against you. Who was it? That devil Thurtell?”

“Of course it was. He was frightfully savage at being licked after his boasting. I’m told he’s as vain as a peacock. That sneakish fellow I pointed out to you must have been in his pay.”

Walsham shook his head.

“Wait a moment,” said he. “I called at Bow Street this morning and had a talk with some of the ‘Robin Redbreasts’ (Bow Street runners)​—​I know Ruthven and one or two more. I mentioned that spy fellow and they laughed at the idea of his being employed by Thurtell. They know the blackguard quite well and have seen him hanging about here. He was one of the ‘common informers’ a few years ago, and was always at Bow Street swearing away the liberty of some poor fellow who couldn’t pay him to keep his tongue to himself. In whose service do you think he’s been for many months past?”

“How on earth can I tell. Old Satan’s I should imagine, from what you say.”

“Oh, I’ve no doubt the devil’s been at his back, but just now his master is Sir Phineas Tenbury.”

Ralstone slapped his thigh.

“By gad that’s it!” he cried. “I knew I’d seen the scoundrel somewhere. I threatened to kick him out of my room at the ‘George,’ Andover, for his insolence. At a matter of fact that was the beginning of my difference with Tenbury. But why should Tenbury set him to watch me? The next time I see the rascal I’ll drag the truth out of him.”

“You’ll get nothing but lies. At the same time, it’s an infernal nuisance to feel you’re being spied upon.”

“An infernal nuisance? Yes, and I won’t stand it. I did think Tenbury had some remains of a gentleman about him, but it doesn’t look like it. If I hadn’t already quarrelled with him this would be enough to make me call him out. He owes me four thousand pounds, and never a word of explanation have I had why he doesn’t pay up like a man of honour.”

“I’m told that the City bill discounters won’t look at his paper. The Jews are at him like a pack of hounds round a fox. By the way, my dear Jack, how did you fare that night? Did the rabble rob you?”

“Rob me? I was left with nothing. I’m in the deuce of a fix in consequence. I can’t stay much longer here. I already owe the ‘Tavistock’ people a pretty stiff bill.”

“I feared as much. Look here, if a couple of ‘ponies’ are any good, you’re quite welcome. I’ve been fairly lucky of late.”

“You’re a good chap, Walsham, but I don’t like taking your money. How the deuce am I to pay you back?”

“That doesn’t matter a rap. I don’t expect you’ll be always hard up. There’s my motion of a rich wife still on the cards, that is, if you’re quite free of Lady Barbara Dacre.”

“Oh, that’s all off​—​finally. I settled the matter an hour ago. She wrote me a most extraordinary letter​—​for her​—​making out she was heart-broken——”

Walsham burst into a laugh.

“What! Has Sir Phineas said good-bye?”

“I don’t know. The whole business is very bewildering. I went to see her​—​I couldn’t well get out of it​—​there was a bit of a scene​—​she kicked up a frightful row; the end was I came away, and I suppose we’re now daggers drawn. So much the better.”

“I congratulate you. Well, there are the ‘ponies.’ If you want any more, tell me.”

The young lord took a couple of twenty-pound notes from his pocket-book and pushed them across the table. Ralstone took them with evident reluctance.

“If I could screw out of that fellow Weare the hundred pounds he owes me, I could pay at once,” said he a little gloomily.

“You’d better consider Weare as a rotten egg. I asked the Bow Street men about him, and they give him a thundering bad character. He poses as a money-lender, and no doubt he does a bit that way, but he does more in gambling, with a little card sharping thrown in. Runs a gambling booth on race courses. He’s to be seen every night at Rexworthy’s gambling hell in Spring Gardens. He and Thurtell just now are as thick as thieves. Ruthven thinks their friendship will end in Thurtell being rooked. He’s more fool than knave, but when he’s wound up there’s no telling what he won’t do.”

Ecce signum at the Fives Court for instance.”

“Yes. You scored, but he very nearly did for you outright.”

Ralstone did not answer. His eyes were bent absently on the floor. He hadn’t had time to think over his affairs, and the present was certainly not suitable; for all that a disturbing feeling crept over him, that the sooner he pulled himself together the better. He was brought to realities by Walsham giving him a rousing slap on the shoulder.

“What are you dreaming about? I’ve made two splendid suggestions and you’ve not taken the slightest notice.”

“I beg your pardon. What were they?”

“One that we should dine at Boodle’s, where you’ll have really a decent dinner, much better than the stodgy fare of the ‘Tavistock,’ and that afterwards we should go to the King’s Theatre. The ballet’s worth seeing. You’ll have a sight of some handsome women who know how to dance. Doesn’t the prospect tempt you?”

“Not to-night, my friend. I’m rather afraid of your dinners unless I’m in good fettle, and I’m not that just now.”

“Maybe you’re right. Anyhow, I’m not going to let you off. To-morrow night​—​what do you say?”

“Perhaps. I’ll see how I feel. A chop here and a pint of claret quietly is more my form.”

Walsham shrugged his shoulders and remarked that Ralstone’s diet suggested that he was training for a prize fight.

“I may even have to do that. I’m at my wit’s end how to make money.”

“You’re a bit hipped, my dear fellow. You’ll take a different view of life to-morrow after a good night’s rest.”

Walsham sat chatting for some little time and then took his departure, leaving Ralstone to get over his fit of the blues by himself.

As sometimes happen when the spirits are depressed, all one’s worries come tumbling one after the other into the brain, and this was just now with Jack Ralstone. His severance from Simon Halstead, and what that severance meant​—​the necessity of doing something, not merely to keep up his reputation among his friends as a Corinthian, but to live decently​—​the puzzling behaviour of Lady Barbara​—​the amazing reappearance of the girl who chose to call herself Amelia Hart​—​her mysterious reference to Simon Halstead, pointing as it did to some secret resentment​—​the outrageous assault upon him by Thurtell’s gang, and the duel with Tenbury and its problematical ending​—​really his troubles were overwhelming.

As a rule his buoyancy was sufficient to enable him to laugh at difficulties, but he had never had such difficulties as these to surmount. Possibly it was the uncertainty clouding them, the impossibility of explaining everything to his satisfaction which weighed him down, but whether or not, there he sat brooding until the waiter asked him if he intended to dine and what he would like.

“Oh, anything​—​anything. Don’t bother me. Bring me whatever is ready,” he rapped out irritably.

The waiter vanished. It did not surprise him that Mr. Jack Ralstone, who was generally inclined to a joke, should be out of temper. Of course he hadn’t recovered from the effects to the Fives Court adventure, though it was marvellous how his youth and vigorous constitution had thrown off any serious trouble. Word was passed down to the kitchen to look after the “brave young gentleman,” and the cook did her best to serve up two or three dainty dishes. Her efforts, together with a pint of Burgundy, succeeded to some extent in restoring the young gentleman’s equanimity.

But he was not nearly himself. He felt terribly restless. The stuffiness of the coffee-room, with its whiffy memories of innumerable dinners and diners, was intolerable. It was impossible to ponder over his worries inside the hotel, and he sallied forth to walk himself into an equable humour.

His intention was dashed at the very outset. He had hardly got to the corner of James Street when he saw the spy lurking at his favourite spot under the colonnade opposite. Instantly Ralstone’s smouldering passion flared up and he strode across the road. The fellow saw him coming and spotting danger was slinking away, when he heard the words:

“Stop, you. I’ve got something to say before you sneak off.”

The man pretended not to hear, but he dared not run for fear of attracting attention. Before a minute elapsed the irate young man was by his side, and glad of the chance to vent his feelings, had brought down a heavy hand on his shoulder; he found himself twisted round and faced by as threatening a look as ever he had set eyes upon, and this was saying a good deal, for many a time Vicary had had to use his wits to escape the thrashing that he deserved.

“What’s your game in watching me, you rascal? Have you taken up your old dirty trade of informer?”

Vicary’s white face became of an unwholesome pasty hue. His forehead was damp and his knees knocked against each other. Ralstone was holding him by the collar at arm’s length, and the young man’s knuckles were grinding into his neck.

“Let me go, sir,” he implored, “you’re choking me.”

“I hope so. I’m only anticipating what, I’ll swear, Jack Ketch will do to you some day. Your answer​—​quick​—​or I’ll roll you in that muck heap.”

The sweepings of the market were piled up close to the kerb. There had been a little rain, and it was as foul and as unsavoury a mass of vegetable offal as could be found anywhere outside the Fleet Ditch.

“I’ve no game at all, sir. You’re greatly mistaken. I have a perfect right to w​—​walk here, sir,” he spluttered.

“Don’t talk to me about your rights. If you’re at all curious over the subject I’ll show you what they are.”

The hands shifted from the coat collar to the neck and he felt like a rat in the jaws of a terrier, shaken as he was till he was gasping and nearly black in the face.

“Are your muddy brains any clearer?” demanded his torturer, ceasing the pressure and the shaking to permit his victim to speak. “Why has your master sent you here to spy?”

“My m​—​master, sir? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You know very well whom I mean. None of your lies. We’ve met before. At Andover. I ought to have kicked you then for your insolence, but the kicking will keep. What dirty work is Sir Phineas employing you for now?”

The man probably saw that it was useless trying to keep up his pretended ignorance. He mumbled out sullenly:

“You’d better ask Sir Phineas. It’s no affair of mine. I never ask questions.”

“That’s enough for me. You can tell your employer that if he wishes to watch me, he’d better act as his own spy. I shall treat him as I’m now treating his underling.”

Ralstone’s grip on the fellow’s throat tightened and Vicary became horribly frightened. He really thought he was going to be strangled. But his captor had no such intention. Vicary struggled violently to free himself, and Ralstone gradually backed him towards the muck heap and then suddenly let go and gave him a slight push. Vicary’s body was bent; he was unable to recover his perpendicular. and the next moment the spy was spluttering and choking in the midst of the muddy, rotten garbage. And there Ralstone left him and walked on, feeling more satisfied with himself than he’d been for many a day.

What became of the man he did not trouble to see. He went towards King Street, where he had not been since the night of the affray. He had been tempted to revisit it more than once, but he would not run any risks after the girl’s warning. But now that he had disposed of the spy, caution did not seem to matter.

He looked up as he passed the house. It was dark from basement to attic. He dared not stop. The discovery that the spy was in Sir Phineas Tenbury’s service had set him thinking. Clearly he had been on the wrong tack in imagining the fellow was employed by Thurtell. What could be Tenbury’s object? Ralstone could only conceive that it had something to do with the girl. Had he not, during their quarrel, asked what he (Ralstone) had done with her? Sir Phineas had refused to accept his denial, and what more likely than that he should set his menial to work to find out whether that denial was true or not?

“If it is so,” thought Jack, “it’ll mean another score to wipe off. Anyway, I’ve settled that blackguard’s hash for to-night. He’ll think twice before he shows his face to me again.”

With this conclusion in his mind he was half tempted to turn back and call at the house. It would be quite safe. But he decided not to do so. He remembered her express injunction not to seek her.

It was about nine o’clock. The day had come to an end. The lamplighter, shouldering his ladder, was hurrying past, and the gas-lights, few and feeble, just made Bedford Street, which he had now reached, visible. He wandered down to the Strand and turned to the east. The river, picturesque and romantic at twilight, attracted him as a good setting for the waking dreams of a man in love, and he was inclined to take a wherry at the nearest stairs and be rowed about for an hour or two.

But he altered his mind. There was the waterman to be reckoned with. As a class the watermen were full of gossip, and not infrequently full of beer. The river at that time would he busy with boats full of noisy pleasure seekers on their way to Vauxhall Gardens in the west, and to Cherry Gardens, Rotherhithe, in the east, and the watermen were certain to exchange badinage more or less coarse. A risk of too many interruptions for one in his mood. So he kept on his way until Somerset House hove in sight.

Waterloo Bridge, then one of the notable adornments in London​—​it had only been opened some six years​—​occurred to him. With its toll it promised a fair amount of seclusion, and turning into Lancaster Place he reached the turnstile, threw down his coin and sauntered on to the bridge.

A thunderstorm had broken over the metropolis in the afternoon and had cleared the air, a not unwelcome change after several days of overpowering heat. The opalescent sky, with its canopy of pale blue, was likely to last unchanged until dawn. There was no moon and only a few of the largest and brightest stars were visible. This was not altogether a disadvantage, for deep black shadows were absent and the even light enabled distant objects to be fairly visible. Half-way across the bridge he sat down on one of the alcoved seats on the western side and listened vaguely to the swirl of the flood tide rushing through the arches. The shouts of the watermen and the strident laughter of their men passengers mingled with the shrill giggles of the women did not distract him.

His eyes wandered over the parapet and he took in the varied scene with a quiet sense of pleasure. The dominating feature was Westminster Abbey, far more imposing than it appears to-day, for it was not dwarfed by the present House of Parliament, nor cut in two by the hideous Charing Cross railway bridge. The House of Parliament of that day, with its squat square towers, looked insignificant and commonplace by the side of the venerable pile.

Under the influence of the surroundings he would have found it hard to say exactly what were his reflections. He might at that moment be likened to Tom Tug​—​“thinking of nothing at all.” He shifted his position and turned his face eastward. A few pedestrians passed him, working people hurrying to their homes on the Surrey side. A hackney coach lumbered by​—​that was all the traffic. It never was great at any time and less than ever after nightfall. Then the slim figure of a young woman, closely veiled and her shawl drawn tightly about her, tripped slowly along, not with the tired preoccupied air of one who had been at work all day, but rather as though she were out to enjoy the air. Ralstone’s eyes fell idly upon her and he hardly gave her a thought.

About a dozen yards in her rear came a man who walked quite unlike a Londoner. There was no slouch of the body, no shuffle of the feet. He had the elasticity of a man who had led an active outdoor life ever since he was a crawling infant. Every movement suggested that his muscles were like springs; they acted in perfect harmony, with not an atom of the stiffness of the drill sergeant. As he went by Ralstone saw that he was a negro and Jack recognised him at once​—​Quamina.

Instantly the girl’s words that she was greatly indebted to the black flashed across Ralstone’s mind. The thing was simple enough. Quamina was her body-guard whenever she went out after dark for a constitutional, and the veiled figure in front was she herself!

“Fool!” he murmured, “not to know her at a glance. And I call myself her lover!”

He rose and in a few seconds was abreast of the negro. He tapped the man lightly on the arm.