Chapter XIX

The Tragedy of Lady Barbara

Tenbury’s anxiety was not removed. The success of his crafty plotting depended upon Lady Barbara. He was now impatient to see her​—​to hear whether she had used her fascinations properly and had won over Ralstone. At times terrible doubts seized him. He was, as a rule, a heavy feeder, but to-day he could hardly eat anything. He could only drink. To drive away his thoughts he passed the afternoon at a cock-fight, won a trifle, had a quarrel with another man, and when the time came for his appointment at Mrs. Matthews he was “jumpy” and in a mood when anything might send him in a fury.

He was so eager to see Lady Barbara that​—​a most unusual thing for him​—​he reached the shop a minute or so before the time. Lady Barbara had not come. This irritated him. A second affront was that the room on the first floor, which was usually the meeting place, was not available.

“My own room behind the shop is quite as good,” said Mrs. Matthews apologetically. “Had you come last night you could have had the other.”

Sir Phineas cursed and swore at the dumpy woman, with hair the colour of bathbrick, small, washed-out-looking pale blue eyes, and two prominent rabbit-like upper teeth, who only smiled deprecatingly. She knew Tenbury’s humour well.

“We might as well be talking in the street,” he stormed. “The customers in your shop can hear everything.”

“Indeed they can’t, Sir Phineas. Look at the double doors. Both covered with green baize, and quite a deep space between. I had them made on purpose. The wall’s thick enough, in all conscience.”

The lady volunteered to go into the room and sing out her loudest as proof of her assertion, but Sir Phineas rejected her offer contemptuously and strode into the apartment. It was shabbily furnished and had more the appearance of a workshop than a living-room. The bench beneath the window was strewn with millinery materials and bonnets in every stage of preparation. Here Mrs. Matthews stowed away her ’prentice girls, most of them taken from the workhouse of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, and, it was said, treated them after the fashion of a slave-driver. No doubt she found the double doors useful. People passing along Cranbourne Alley could not hear their screams. She was a veritable Mrs. Brownrigg.

Sir Phineas paced the squalid chamber in a quiver of nerves. The close foul air, the dismal light of the smoky lamp offended the fine gentleman within. What a miserable meeting-place for a baronet and a duke’s daughter! But there would be no love-making; of that he was sure.

He had not long to wait. The opening of the door and the sudden appearance of the lady almost startled him, for not a sound had come from the shop. So far Mrs. Matthews had spoken the truth.

Lady Barbara was closely veiled and very quietly dressed. But beneath her cloak when she threw it open​—​it was a hot evening and she had walked from Berkeley Square rather than run the risk of being recognised by a hackney coachman​—​a string of pearls was encircling her round neck, and a brooch of emeralds and diamonds was struck in the bosom of her dress.

Sir Phineas did not advance to meet her, and she came towards him, looking very lovely in her agitation. Like Sir Phineas, she had all day been in a state of nervous excitement.

“Well,” said the Baronet abruptly when she was close to him, “what luck? Have you brought him to his knees?”

“No.”

“How, then?”

His voice was trembling with suppressed anger. Lady Barbara’s, on the contrary, was quite calm, but it was the calm preceding a storm,

“I could do nothing with the fool. He bluntly refused to renew our engagement.”

Sir Phineas stared blankly at her as though he had imperfectly grasped the meaning of her words.

“Do you really ask me to believe that you, with all your beauty​—​with all the arts you women can use when you’re so minded​—​with that flash of your rolling eyes​—​with those lips which can be so beseeching​—​haven’t I seen them?​—​you failed to move him?”

“Yes.”

“Did you point out that he hasn’t a penny to call his own, and that he’d be a rich man if he married you?”

“Oh, he knows it all. But of what use are arguments against love? What matters a woman’s beauty if the man is steeled against it by his love for another? Phineas, Ralstone has found the woman he loves, and you know it as well as I do​—​perhaps better.”

Lady Barbara’s calmness has vanished. The glitter in her eyes was startling. Rich colour dyed her cheeks, even to her ears. The lips which Sir Phineas had found so beseeching were defiant. For a moment Tenbury was staggered, partly because of the unexpected intensity of her passion, and partly because her words confirmed his worst fears concerning Ralstone and Nyra.

“You say nothing. Then it’s true,” she cried. “Who’s the woman?”

“I don’t understand what you’re talking about. Ralstone lied if he told you I knew the woman he’s put in your place.”

“He didn’t. I guess it. Why are you fighting? He admitted that it was over a woman. Men don’t do that unless they both love her. Who is she?”

“Again I say he lied.”

“What are you fighting about?” she reiterated.

“An old quarrel. We fell out at Andover over the prize-fight.”

“I don’t believe you. Tell me the story.”

Sir Phineas mumbled something, but it was not very coherent, and Lady Barbara listened to him impatiently.

“’Tis you who’s the liar. Why did you send me to Jack Ralstone, to be humiliated? He as good as insulted me, but you’re a thousand times worse. What are you going to do?”

“What can I do? Nothing. I don’t see why you should fly into a rage. You failed. Well, I’m sorry you’re done out of your promised dowry. I thought you were more fascinating than it appears you are​—​that’s all.”

The slighting words fanned the fire of her fury. She could contain herself no longer. She swiftly raised her hand and struck him on the cheek with all her strength. It was a woman’s blow, but no light one, coming from a Somersetshire girl full of youth and vigour. He threw back his head and involuntarily clenched his fists. Murder was written in his eyes, but she faced him undauntedly.

His glance fell beneath hers. He hardly knew what to say. He wanted time to think, and that he had much to think about was certain, for the whole edifice he had plotted so carefully to build was toppling over.

Hatred of Jack Ralstone was seething in his brain. There was no necessity for deferring the duel. He wished it could have been brought off that minute. But his bet was still the stumbling block. Lady Barbara was a negligible quantity. All the same, there she was, and something would have to be done with her. Squabbling and mutual recriminations would lead to nothing.

“Your ladyship has a strong hand. I presume your maids give you plenty of exercise that way. Suppose we sit down and talk quietly over this wretched business,” said he, trying hard to keep his voice steady.

“Talk quietly? What’s the use of that? We’ve talked too much already. Do you think it’s any pleasure for me to listen to your falsehoods? Tell me the name of the woman you and Ralstone are going to fight for.”

She was raging up and down the room. It seemed useless to say anything while she was no longer mistress of herself. He threw himself sullenly in a chair and watched her. Had he not been so personally concerned and in such a quandary, he would have enjoyed the sight. The sudden lifting of her arm when striking him had displaced the upper part of her dress. The short sleeve had shifted from the right shoulder, and the pearls showed prominently on the satin background of her white skin. They shimmered at every movement of her supple body, which swayed under the influence of her mad fury. It was a magnificent picture of glowing womanhood, and one of which she was wholly unconscious.

Under other circumstances Sir Phineas would have had no eyes but for her beauty and her form, but now his attention was fixed on the pearls. The sight flashed an idea through his mind. He knew their value. The duke had given ten thousand pounds for them as a gift to his wife on their wedding day.

“I could borrow five thousand pounds on those pearls easy. I wonder if it’s possible to talk Barbara into lending them to me? If not​—​damn it, I must have them.”

His blood had been stirred by the brutal cock-fighting match he had witnessed that afternoon. It had set his brain on fire, and the lust of combat, of savagery, of victory lingered. His animal instinct for mastery had been roused, and all that had happened since had but accentuated it. He longed to see Ralstone prostrate at his feet, whether by bullet or sword did not matter much. It could be done. The way was in sight if Barbara …

A significant sound broke into his reverie. Lady Barbara had sunk upon the couch; her face was buried in her hands; she was sobbing bitterly. The tears which would not come at her bidding when she was with Jack Ralstone were streaming freely enough now. The inevitable result of over-excitement had come.

A grim smile flitted across Tenbury’s hard face when he saw this sign of softening. If he insisted, the pearls were as good as his. He had no compunction as to the morality of what he contemplated. He had for years lived on women. If he could not coax them into helping him, he took what he wanted by force. But he preferred the first method.

He allowed her ladyship to have her cry out, and waited patiently for her to raise her tear-stained face. But she was thoroughly exhausted, and though her audible sobs had ceased, it was evident by the heaving of her shoulders and the throbbing of her body that she was repressing them by strength of will.

At last Sir Phineas could endure the spectacle no longer. To his mind it was ridiculous​—​almost as ridiculous as her jealousy of an unknown woman, for, of course, jealousy was at the bottom of the exhibition.

“Isn’t it time this tragic farce of yours was over, Lady Barbara?” he inquired sarcastically. “Perhaps you’ll listen now that you’re coming to your senses. I didn’t think it necessary to go into the details of the quarrel between me and Ralstone, but if you must know, it concerned a little French woman, who keeps a perfume and fal-lal shop in Burlington Arcade. It doesn’t affect you in the slightest, nor, in fact, does it me. About Ralstone I won’t say. Madame seems unwarrantably to have said something concerning myself to him. We had a few words​—​of course your name came up, and the way I cut him out at Bath, which he seems to have taken much to heart​—​and there was no alternative but to fight it out. There you have the whole thing in a nutshell.”

Lady Barbara slowly lifted her head. Every vestige of colour had vanished from her face save a bright patch of scarlet in the centre of each cheek. Despite the heat of the room, she was shivering.

“Your story is interesting, and might go down if Jack Ralstone had not assured me that I was not the cause of the quarrel. It was that which opened my eyes.”

“Exactly. And what Ralstone told you corroborates my words.”

“I don’t care whether it does or doesn’t. I’ve had enough of this very unpleasant subject, and I don’t want to hear any more about it. Nor do I wish to see you again.”

She struggled to her feet and began arranging her dress and bonnet in front of a mirror. Sir Phineas saw that he must bring matters to an issue or his chance would be gone.

He stole behind her, and his arm went round her waist. At his touch she shrank from him.

“You’re making a mountain out of a molehill, my darling Barbara,” said he softly. “You talk about not seeing me again, but that’s nonsense. You can’t do without me. You’re still in a fix over your debts. I’ve got you out of one difficulty; I’ve satisfied the harpy in the shop, but what about the others? How are you going to get credit to enable you to dress as a woman of your rank and fashion ought?”

Lady Barbara winced. He had reminded her of the skeleton which was continually coming out of its cupboard and frightening her. Already she had received rebuffs. Her mercer, her draper, her dressmaker insisted upon ready money.

“I wonder you haven’t thought of the way out that’s before your eyes,” he went on.

“Before my eyes? You’re talking nonsense.”

“What about those beautiful pearls? I can raise money on them enough to pay what you owe twice over.”

“Part with my pearls? Never!”

“It’s not parting with them. It’s just depositing them for a short time with a jeweller. You’ve only to repay the borrowed money and they’re yours again.”

“No. I refuse. The pearls were my mother’s; they shall not go out of my keeping.”

All the brutality in Tenbury’s nature​—​and he had plenty of it​—​leaped up. Hatred of Ralstone was still in his mind. Once his rival was out of the way nothing stood between him and Nyra. That he would succeed in tracing her he was certain. That four thousand pounds he must have. He would behave fair to Lady Barbara. He would give her one thousand out of the five thousand pounds he hoped to raise. This would reconcile her to the temporary loss of the pearls.

“I’m going to have them. Do you hear? Take them off.”

His face was distorted​—​fiendish. He thrust out his hand. She wheeled swiftly round to avoid him, caught her foot in some waste material, shreds of silk, lining, wire and what not, cast on the ground after the fashion of milliners, and pitched forward. A ghastly sound, as her head struck the sharp steel fender, sent the blood rushing from Tenbury’s face. Horror-stricken, he glared at the prostrate, motionless body for a second or two, and tremblingly bent over her. The fender had inflicted a frightful wound. Already the grey shadow of death was passing over her face. He felt her wrist. He could not distinguish a single pulse-beat.

There came an agitated rapping at the door. Despite Mrs. Matthews’s elaborate precautions for the deadening of sound, she must have heard the crash, for in her fall Barbara had sent the fire-irons jingling.

Sir Phineas had but a few seconds in which to provide for a dozen vital contingencies. Mrs. Matthews could not be kept waiting, or her suspicions would be aroused. He had to be ready with some plausible story as to how the accident had happened. There was the necklace. Should he yield to the temptation of taking it? If he did, would it be missed? Could Barbara’s maid say if her mistress was wearing it when she went out? The probabilities were in favour of the maid’s ignorance. Lady Barbara was on an errand which demanded the utmost secrecy. She had dressed herself in plain, sober garments and would not need the girl’s services.

But he could not debate the point. The rapping, after ceasing for a while, had recommenced. He made a dash for the clasp, unfastened it, and dragged the pearls, their lustre dimmed with red, from the fair neck. The next moment they were in his pocket, and then he rushed to the door and shot back the bolt.

“Good lawk, Sir Phineas, what’s amiss?” whispered the woman, shaking from head to foot. Then she caught sight of Lady Barbara and the blood which was slowly trickling down the fender on to the hearthrug, and she gave a scream.

“Oh, sir. What have you done?”

“Done?” echoed Sir Phineas harshly. “Nothing. It was an accident. Lady Barbara tripped over some rubbish on the floor and fell. The wire’s twisted round her ankle. Can’t you see? It’s all the fault of your careless girls.”

“I’d better fetch a doctor,” gasped Mrs. Matthews in a hushed voice.

“I’m afraid he can’t do anything. I believe the poor lady’s dead.”

“Dead! Oh, my God!”

“What’s done is done. A doctor must see her, of course, but you’ve got to think of yourself first. Do as I tell you. I mustn’t be known in the matter. The most important thing is Lady Barbara’s reputation. No one must know that she was here to meet me. It was an accident. Keep that fixed in your mind. She came into this room to try on a bonnet, or whatever you please​—​I leave that to you​—​and her foot slipped. Your shop isn’t shut, and there was nobody in it besides yourself, so the tale will hang together. Recollect, if there’s any inquiry, you’ll cone out of it rather badly. 1 shall contradict you flatly if you drag me into the business, and my word will be taken against yours. I fancy you know what the inside of Newgate’s like. On the other hand, carry out my instructions, be discreet and wary, and I’ll make it worth your while. Here’s something to go on with.”

He had his gains at the cockpit on him, and he counted out ten guineas and dropped them into the woman’s shaking hand.

“It’s simple enough,” he went on rapidly. “Wait a couple of minutes after I’m gone, and then you can send for a doctor. Have you got the story pat?”

“Oh. I​—​I think so, Sir Phineas,” stammered the woman.

Sir Phineas looked at her keenly. He knew she was as shrewd and crafty as a woman who engaged in so doubtful an occupation need be. He was satisfied and he strode away.