Chapter II

Vanished!

Another shot came​—​wider of the mark than the first. The fowling piece was evidently double-barrelled and doubtless faulty, or the poacher was a bad shot. The matter was not of the slightest consequence, for Black Ivory tore along at his hardest. In a few minutes he was out of range.

Jack felt strangely elated. The “scrap” with the “bruiser” had strung up his sinews and tested his nerve and skill as a boxer, and he had come through the ordeal triumphantly. He interpreted the pressure of the girl’s arms, the close contact of her supple, yielding body, as a fitting reward for his prowess.

For the first two miles neither spoke. The clatter of the horse’s hoofs made too much noise for talk to be heard, and somehow the singular combination of his first essay as a knight rescuing a damsel in distress savoured so much of romance that his brain was bewildered. The Waverley novels were all the rage. Jack’s tastes were not wholly confined to sport, and he had devoured Sir Walter’s picturesque descriptions of besieged castles, tournaments, hand-to-hand fights and mediaeval bouts generally, with delight. At that moment in imagination he was Ivanhoe, or the Knight Templar; he did not care which. The point was that he was carrying off a girl, where to he did not know, nor did he trouble.

One thought certainly did haunt him more than the rest. What was the girl like? He had only seen her eyes and the tip of a rounded chin. The head was shapely and the hair abundant, while her form​—​well, all argued in favour of beauty, but who could say? Supposing she were pock-marked, too frequent a disfigurement in those days, or had but one eye or was possessed of a pug-nose, and maybe had lost a front tooth or two? But all this was impossible, so he contended, and he dismissed the disquieting supposition with scorn. He was filled with the spirit of chivalry. At the same time he could not help wondering whether he would have interfered so heroically had she been old or ugly. He hoped his conduct would have been the same.

Black Ivory had exhausted his “breather,” and had dropped into a canter to get his second wind. Jack allowed him to take his own course. He was moving softly over a long strip of grass by the roadside. The going here was easier, and the bumping over the ruts had not been too comfortable, either for the gentleman in the saddle or for the lady riding pillion.

“How are you doing?” said he over his shoulder. “Pretty snug? A rough ride, wasn’t it? You were jumping up and down like a parched pea in a frying-pan.”

“I couldn’t help it. I hope I don’t inconvenience you. I shall never forget your bravery and kindness,” he heard her whisper in his ear.

Her head was very close to his. But that was not of the slightest consequence. Indeed, he rather liked it. She had slightly loosened her arms. He wished she hadn’t. It was a novel sensation to be conscious of her heart-beats. The rapid movement, the oscillation, the bumping, had sent the blood galloping through her veins and through his too.

“Bravery​—​oh, there wasn’t much in that,” he rejoined in a careless, slightly boastful tone. “I was rather glad to have a chance of seeing how I could manage my fists in real earnest. As for kindness​—​well, I don’t see what was to be done other than what I did. Suppose we talk about the next step. I reckon we’re now about eight miles from Bath. What are you going to do when we get there?”

“I don’t know.”

“Got any friends there?”

“No.”

“Well, I can’t plant you in Bath without any idea as to what is to become of you, can I?”

“Oh, you needn’t trouble about me any more. You’ve done quite enough. Please put me down now.”

“What for? Would you rather not go on to Bath?”

“It doesn’t matter much where I go.”

“Doesn’t it?” thought Jack. “What a queer thing to say. She speaks well​—​like a lady. How the deuce did she come to be mixed up with these tramps?”

“Then you may as well go on with me to Bath,” said he aloud.

“As you like. Only I warn you that when we get there we must say good-bye.”

“So we will when the time comes. We haven’t reached the good-byeing point yet.”

They relapsed into silence. Jack Ralstone did not want to embarrass her with questions, though he was burning to know more about her. Besides, the strip of grass had come to an end; Black Ivory was once more plunging amid the ruts and the bumping had begun again.

In half an hour the lights of Bath were just visible. Nothing more than a faint glare, for gas had not then been introduced into the city, though the new illuminant had been made use of in many of the main London streets.

There were two high roads between Bristol and Bath. Jack had taken what was called the upper one, and for a particular reason​—​it entered Bath bordering the Barton Fields, an ornamental enclosure overlooked by Royal Crescent, an imposing row of stone houses in the Italian style, favoured by the Prince Regent and his architect, Nash.

In Royal Crescent, Lady Barbara Dacre was lodging for a course of the waters, recommended by her London physician, which in her case meant balls, routs, masquerades, concerts, the theatre, card-playing and the like frivolities.

Jack drew rein at the quiet-looking inn in the outskirts. He was parched with thirst, partly the effect of his strenuous encounter and partly due to his gallop. Black Ivory had to be watered, and he did not doubt that the girl would find some stimulant welcome. He shouted and an ostler came to the head of the horse.

The man cast a glance of surprise at the rider and his burden. The contrast between the two justified his look. A fine gentleman​—​there was no doubt about this by Jack’s air of authority and the imperious tone of his voice​—​and a poorly dressed girl not much better than a vagrant. The ostler would have been reminded of King Cophetua and the beggar had he known the story.

Jack sprang to the ground and helped the girl to dismount.

“Thank you kindly, sir,” said she; “and now please we’ll part.”

“Will we? Don’t be in a hurry, lass. I——”

He stopped, hardly knowing what to say. The extraordinary loveliness of the girl had struck him spellbound.

Her figure was as attractive as her face. Although below middle height, she was perfectly proportioned and, slim though she was, there was no suggestion of scragginess. All was soft, yielding, harmonious. Spontaneity and grace marked every movement in a way that partook of the sunny clime of Spain and Italy. Anyway, Jack, when he had time to think over the matter, was sure that foreign blood was in her veins.

In some wonderful way, known only to women, she had arranged her hair​—​at least it was thrown back fairly neatly each side of her forehead, smoothed behind her head. She had probably found a chance to do it when Black Ivory was cantering over the strip of turf. Of course it had been hurriedly done, and a rebel tress or two had escaped and gave a wild picturesqueness to her beauty.

A face as delicately outlined as a cameo was revealed. The eyes were so large, so lustrous, that at the first glance one lost sight of the finely cut, full lips, the slightly aquiline nose, the round chin cleft by a little dimple, the sweeping line from the small ear defining the lower jaw. Pride and courage were written in the nose, the firm lips and chin, and the dark eyes looked as if they could flash into anger as readily as they could melt into tenderness. The features were those of a girl born for adventure. It was impossible to associate them with anything humdrum or commonplace.

Jack was fascinated. He stared at the girl so fixedly that she cast down her eyes and her clear olive cheeks crimsoned.

“I beg your pardon,” he exclaimed involuntarily.

“I don’t see why you should. You’ve done nothing to offend me.”

“I hope not. You see, I was so taken by surprise,” said he, with an ingenuous confusion. “I did not expect … well,” he went on desperately, “we mustn’t part like this. You forget I never saw you before an hour ago​—​didn’t know you were in the world.”

The ghost of a smile crossed the lips.

“All the more reason why you should forget me. You’ve done me a great service, sir, and I thank you sincerely.”

She put out her hand, and he took it, but it was not with the intention of saying good-bye.

“I pulled up here to offer you some refreshment​—​you must need it. The house is a quiet one. I know the landlord. I often ride to Bath.”

As he uttered the last words he felt the prickings of conscience. Lady Barbara Dacre came into his mind. It was to see her that he rode so often to Bath. This, indeed, was his mission to-night. Because he was betrothed, should speaking to other women be debarred him? But this was more than speaking​—​it was fascination. He had no business to be tempted by a beautiful face and to forget his betrothed. For Lady Barbara was beautiful too, but in a style very different from that of this interesting stranger.

These scruples passed from his mind almost as soon as they entered it. Youth is not given either to make or weigh nice distinctions. It is impulsive, impressionable, or it is not youth.

“Some port wine negus​—​you must. Please.”

He put his arm round her waist to urge her. She gently disengaged herself.

“No. I can’t go into that place with you. I should disgrace so fine a gentleman. What would your friend the landlord think of you​—​of me? That I was some trull you had picked up on the roadside. It’s impossible.”

“I’m sorry,” said Jack penitently. “Yes, I suppose you’re right, but, you see, I only saw your face. I never looked at your dress. Forgive me. Anyhow you must have something. It’s a chilly night, and you’re none too warmly clothed​—​I apologise for again alluding to your dress.”

“It doesn’t matter. I’m used to what I’m wearing, and as I can’t get any other, I put up with it. I know I look like a beggar.”

Jack was of opinion that a more delightful figure in rags and tatters he had never seen in his life. The wonderful thing was that with all her shabbiness there was no suggestion of degradation. She seemed to be one of those natural daughters of Eve who have the faculty of adapting themselves to any kind of costume and always looking handsome in it.

“But the port wine negus,” he rejoined obstinately, “and a biscuit. I’ll bring them out to you here.”

Perhaps with a view not to appear ungrateful, rather than that she needed anything, the girl raised no objection, and he darted off and entered the snug bar parlour of the “Angel and Sun.” Half a dozen men were talking animatedly, but in subdued voices, and when Jack came in they ceased their conversation and glanced at him askance.

In the centre of the group was the landlord, a burly man in shirt-sleeves and apron, with a face as expressionless as wood. He brightened, however, when he recognised his customer.

“Evenin’, squire,” said he, with his forefinger at the lovelock with which his forehead was adorned. “Boys, this is Squire Jack, as clean a fighter as ever stepped. I’ve seen him box. No going down wi’ him to sneak out o’ punishment.”

“That’ll do, Ben Stone. None of your flattery,” laughed Jack. “I haven’t come for that, but for some port wine negus. I’ve got a friend outside in the cold waiting for it, so be quick.”

“You shall have it, sir, as soon as the fire can heat it. But I’ve got summat to tell ’ee. Danged if you haven’t come in the very nick. There’s no need to stop a ta-aking, neighbours. Squire Jack’s one of us and what we tell him munna go no further. Squire, here’s Tom Belcher comed straight fro’ Lunnon, an’ what about, think ’ee?” And Ben Stone nodded and winked mysteriously.

A glow of admiration went over Jack Ralstone. To be introduced to Tom Belcher, who, if not so redoubtable a hero as his brother Jim, was yet a famous fighter, to shake him by the hand was an honour indeed.

Tom Belcher was a Bristol man, and naturally swore hard and fast by his fellow citizen, Bill Neate. Tom Belcher kept the Castle Tavern in Holborn, in its later days known as the “Napier.” It was said that no man knew better how to get up a purse, make a match or back a man than Tom Belcher. He had come to Somersetshire on very special business, as Jack was soon to learn.

“Tom Spring’s a rare good ’un I admit,” said Belcher cautiously, “and it ain’t for me to say a word against him, but I’m Bill Neate’s man an’ I back him thick an’ thin. As Ben Stone stands surety for you, sir, p’raps you’d like to know as we’ve fixed up a place for the ring, and not so very fur away from here.”

“What,” exclaimed Jack joyfully, “in Somersetshire?”

“Oh, blow Somerset. Your Somerset bench o’ justices are a set o’ noodles. They’re throwing thousands o’ pounds away as ’ud have been brought into the county if they’d ha’ let the fight come off in Bill’s native place. No, we’ve pitched upon a likely spot in Hampshire, not more’n a mile from Weyhill.”

Belcher dropped his voice almost to a whisper as he let out this important piece of information. The farce of stopping prize fights was sometimes gone through if direct information came to the ears of the authorities, otherwise, more often than not they shut their ears and their eyes too, to exhibitions of what was then believed to be the national sport.

“There won’t be any hitch then,” said Jack. “The Hampshire magistrates are not so pigheaded as our bigwigs. And the day, is that fixed too?”

“No, but Stone’ll know it as soon as anybody. I take it, sir, you’re putting a few guineas on Neate?”

“Well, no,” rejoined Jack frankly, “I rather believe in Spring.”

Something like a snort of contempt and incredulity went up. They were all in Neate’s favour and prepared to back their favourite.

“Then, sir, with all due respect to you as a gentleman, I won’t say as your judgment mayn’t be right, but I’ll make bold to assert as you’re in a fair way to lose your coin.”

“I’ll take the risk of that, Mr. Belcher,” rejoined Jack cheerfully, “and I’ll go further. I’m open to back Spring at this moment up to any reasonable amount. How’s the betting in London?”

“Five to one on Neate.”

“Good. Is any gentleman willing to take me five to one in tens?”

“That’ll suit my books,” said a tall, wiry man whom Jack knew to be a wealthy grazier of the neighbourhood. “What d’ye say, Mr. Ralstone​—​up to fifty pounds?”

“I don’t mind, Dillnot,” returned Jack carelessly, and booked the bet.

“Who’s the youngster?” whispered a wizen-faced, high cheek-boned man of mean appearance despite his good clothes. “Is he good for paying up?”

“Good for paying up,” growled Dillnot, to whom the question was put. “If he bean’t, his stepfather, Simon Halstead be. Simon’s rolling in gold they say and dotes on the lad, though he bean’t his flesh an’ blood. Young Ralstone can’t do no wrong in the old man’s eyes.”

“If you’re still on, sir, I’ll take you up to one hundred,” he said.

“And who may you be?” said Jack coldly. He did not like the look of the man. “I don’t care to bet with strangers.”

“My name’s Weare, and my address is Lyons Inn. As for money, if that’s your doubt, I can satisfy you.”

He thrust his hand within the breast of his coat, pulled out a pocket-book and opened it with a flourish. It was stuffed with bank-notes. He replaced the books, put his hand in his breeches pocket and produced a leather bag. On untying the string it was shown to be full of guineas.

“Is that evidence enough that I shall pay my debts? They’re as good gold as was ever minted.”

He shook out a handful and rang one on the table ostentatiously.

“What about that sound? Something like music, eh?”

“You’re a fool, Mr. Weare, to flash your gold and notes about like that,” remonstrated the landlord. “It’ll get you into trouble one of these fine days. Gentlemen of the High Toby game bean’t stamped out yet.”

“Your highwaymen are not likely to tackle me,” rejoined Weare contemptuously. “I never travel alone, and they daren’t attack stage coaches nowadays. But about this bet, young gentleman? Are you on?”

“If you like,” said Jack, shrugging his shoulders.

“Up to one hundred pounds?”

“Up to five hundred pounds. I don’t care.”

Jack Ralstone was netted by the other’s boasting manner, and would have gone on to a thousand pounds if need be.

“No, a hundred’s enough for me​—​with a stranger.”

Jack’s brow darkened, but he said nothing. He booked the bet and looked round defiantly.

The men clearly thought a pigeon had descended among them. and a few more challenges were thrown out and accepted. Jack Ralstone had plunged to over one thousand pounds​—​if luck went against him.

“What about your port wine negus, Squire,” put in the landlord. “It’s been hotted five minutes and more.”

Jack started. In his enthusiasm over Tom Spring, and in the excitement of betting, he had clean forgotten the girl who was waiting in the cold. He was horribly angry with himself, and seizing the tankard and a wineglass he hurried out.

She was not to be seen anywhere.

Joe, the ostler, was moving about with a stable lantern. Jack hailed him.

“She went off soon arter your honour wen’ inside.”

“The deuce she did. Which way did she go?”

“I dunno, sir The wench warn’t aught to me, an’ thinks I, the Squire’ll be main glad to rid himself of her.”

“You fool,” shouted Jack. “I’ve a mind to give you a hiding for your stupidity. What business have you to think about what I’m glad or sorry for?”

He was intensely angry; stamped his foot and slashed his riding whip.

“She seemed a bit of a wagabone, an’ I thought——”

“The devil take your thoughts. Which way did she turn? Come, you must know that.”

“Noa, I doan’t. If your honour had only told me, I’d ha’ kept her. She raced away quite sudden like, wi’out sayin’ good night nor nuthen. It were arter I told her your name. She asked me who you was. That’s Squire Jack Halstead, I says. ‘Halstead,’ says she, wi’ a sort o’ squark, as if she was frightened, ‘not the son of Simon Halstead?’ The same, I says, and with that she swishes round and does a bolt like a mad filly.”

It was strange, and the ostler’s story furnished no solution of the mystery. Why should the mention of his stepfather’s name produce so singular an effect upon the girl?

“What on earth made you say my name was Halstead, you infernal blunderer?” suddenly broke out Jack. “You know as well as I do that it’s Ralstone, and that Simon Halstead isn’t my father.”

The ostler scratched his grizzled head. He hadn’t any particular reason to give, excepting that his honour was generally called Squire Jack Halstead at the “Angel and Sun.”

Jack Ralstone came to the conclusion that it would be a waste of time and temper to find any further fault with the man who was little more than a dull clod, and he strode back into the inn, emptying the tankard of negus on the ground on the way, so that he should have to give no explanation to the landlord.

It was due to him as a gentleman to spend some money for “the good of the house,” and he called for a couple of bottles of wine, of which everybody had his share. Dillnot was not to be outdone by the young squire, and when the two bottles were emptied, he ordered two more. By the time Jack left the inn to finish the night at Bath, he was in the mood to be very jolly or very quarrelsome, according to circumstance. He decided that to walk the rest of the way, about a mile, rather than ride, would steady his nerves. So he stabled Black Ivory at the “Angel and Sun,” and proceeded on foot to “Royal Crescent.”