Chapter XXI

The Call of the Blood

There was certainly no sense in allowing themselves to be converted into the condition of drowned rats. Nyra without a word complied and the two set off at a smart pace. They had a respite from the coming storm in the cessation of the rain for a few minutes. The big drops had obligingly served as a warning. But by the time they had passed through the turnstile into Lancaster Place the rain was coming down a pelter.

They had no alternative but to make for the nearest doorway. There was one at hand, narrow but deep, with an overhanging shelter in front in the old Georgian fashion. They managed to squeeze in before the rain descended, as it did with almost tropical violence.

The two had to stand very close together and Ralstone blessed the storm which had brought him such good luck. The torrential downpour in front shut them out from the outer world. The sense of isolation with so charming a companion was a pleasure as novel to Jack Ralstone as it was unexpected. True, he had already had an experience of a somewhat similar kind, but there was a difference. When he rode away with her arms clinging round him, he had to devote his attention mainly to his horse, and he had not the slightest idea he was rescuing so beauteous a maiden. But the position was now reversed. He had no one to think of but her, and it was not her arms that were round his waist but his​—​at least, one of his​—​round hers, on the plea of giving her more room. And she made no protest! After all, that was the main point. It was a supreme moment for the exchange of confidence.

After the first crashing thunder peal, those that followed were of a milder character. The lightning flashes were not so vivid. The storm was expending its fury in buckets of rain. The patter on the cobblestones and the bubbling of the streams that ran from the roof gutters lent romance and unreality to the scene. The situation, the surroundings, the memory of what had gone before, and the vagueness of the future, acted on their nerves and brought their personalities closer together.

“The thunder doesn’t frighten you, does it?” Ralstone asked, his arm increasing its tender pressure as if to assure her he was acting as her protector.

“No. I’m used to storms much worse than this. You in England can’t imagine what a Barbados hurricane is like!”

Barbados! The name was familiar enough to Jack Ralstone. Was it not here that his stepfather had his plantations, and where he had made his money? But he held his tongue. As he hoped and expected, she continued:

“But when it’s over and the wind dies down, and the rain ceases, the blue sky and the glorious sunshine make one forget everything.”

“You were happy, then, in the land where you were born?”

“Yes and no. How can one be happy where there is little else but cruelty and slavery​—​where the rich white man grinds down the black, where there’s no freedom, no justice?”

The soft note in her voice was gone. She spoke in accents strangely harsh and guttural. Ralstone was disagreeably reminded of certain tones in Quamina’s voice​—​tones which became very pronounced during their altercation on the bridge. He glanced at her face. Excitement possessed her. Her eyes, no longer liquid, were fierce with passion. She was wound up apparently by her recalling memories of some old grievance, and went on talking more to herself than to Ralstone. Indeed, she seemed to have forgotten his presence.

“It was more than the search for justice which brought me to England. It was revenge. I would have struck down the brutal tyrant who made my father’s life a misery​—​who robbed him of his land​—​who more than once slashed his cruel whip across the shoulders of his daughter​—​a mere child she was​—​who killed her mother​—​who was looked upon with horror by all who slaved for him to put money in his pocket. It was he who nearly tortured Quamina to death and looked on coldly while his drivers did it​—​white men, remember!​—​oh, there was unhappiness enough in the plantations to make one long for death. What would you have done had you been one of Simon Halstead’s slaves?”

Simon Halstead! His stepfather! Jack Ralstone started with horror. All the blood in his veins seemed to rush to his heart and left the surface of his body cold. He was beginning to read the riddle of Nyra Seaton​—​to comprehend faintly why she ran from him at Bath, thinking he was of the blood of the man she loathed, whose death, maybe, she sought.

“I’m glad you’ve told me about Simon,” said Ralstone slowly. “I understand now why you’ve been so reluctant to talk about yourself, but you need not have been. I’ve had a bitter quarrel with the old man. I shall probably never see him again, and after what you’ve said it would certainly be better not. I should have to speak my mind and pretty plainly. But for the present I’ve nothing to do with him. I’m only concerned with you.”

“But that’s what you mustn’t be,” she rejoined, much calmer in manner, as though unburdening herself to him was a great relief.

“What about your going back to Barbados? Mayn’t I help you in that? If I can read what’s in your mind, you’ve given up your idea of revenge.”

She did not reply. The fire had gone from her eyes. They had become unfathomable​—​mystic. Her features had resumed that immobility which he had come to know so well, and which had always puzzled and tormented him.

“I think I could raise the money you want, but if you go, what’s to become of me?”

“Oh, you can easily console yourself. England is full of beautiful women. I’ve seen many.”

“There’s only one like you, Nyra, and that’s yourself. I love you. I can’t​—​I won’t​—​live without you.”

She sighed deeply.

“You must try,” said she.

“Is that what you intend to do?”

Another sigh.

“Yes.” But it was breathed so faintly he only just caught the word.

“Well, I don’t. Why shouldn’t I go with you? By Heaven, if it were to the end of the world​—​to Hades itself​—​I wouldn’t care a jot so long as you were by my side. What is there to keep me in England?”

“You have a woman you love.”

“Only you, Nyra.”

“Not the Lady Barbara Dacre?”

“What do you know about Lady Barbara?”

“Only that you are betrothed to her. Mrs. Glover told me when I explained to her who you were.”

“And did Mrs. Glover tell you that I did not love her, that she did not love me, and because I refused to marry her I quarrelled with Simon Halstead and left him?”

“Is that true?”

Her eyes were fixed penetratingly upon his. He met her gaze frankly, undauntedly.

“As true as that you’re the only woman in the world I love and ever shall love. But I haven’t told you all about Lady Barbara. The end of the story is tragic. Poor Lady Barbara is dead.”

“Oh!”

The exclamation and the tone in which it was uttered were capable of more than one meaning, but she did not give him time to think.

“I didn’t know. How could I? I’m sorry. For you​—​I mean. Tell me more,” she went on a little incoherently.

Ralstone could only relate what he had gleaned from the newspapers. She listened intently.

“Lady Barbara is but a memory of sadness,” said he when he had finished. “We need now only talk of ourselves.”

The storm was passing. The black clouds had vanished and the darkness was not so profound. The downpour had become a gentle rain which hardly made any noise. Now and again came a glimpse of moonlight, and he could see her face. The lines had relaxed. The lips were no longer tightly drawn. The eyes were tender, sympathetic. The impenetrable mask of composure was gone. But she remained silent.

“Everything concerning you, Nyra, interests me,” he continued insistently. “I said I loved you. I repeat it. I’ve had no reply.”

“What am I to say?” she asked helplessly.

“Why, that you love me, of course. Isn’t it so?”

They were face to face. All at once her self-control fled. She involuntarily drew closer to him. She seemed to be imploring him to be kind to her. In an instant the barriers of sex were broken, his arms were enfolding her, he was kissing her ardently, and she had responded.

“Oh, you’re taking my breath away,” he heard her murmur. “You mustn’t.”

But her sweet protest was only provocative.

“I shall kiss you until you say ‘I love you,’” he whispered.

“Oh I do love you. Heaven forgive me. It’s wrong​—​it’s wicked. But I cannot help it.”

“Wicked? Why? What is there wicked in love? Isn’t it the only thing in the world worth living for?”

“Yes, but——”

“There mustn’t be any ‘buts.’ I’ve often dreamed of a moment like this, little sweetheart. I never thought my dream would come true, but now that it has I want to make it a reality.”

They relapsed into the babble of love, which is pretty much in spirit the same with all young lovers, rich or poor, educated or illiterate.

“I’d like to confess something to you,” said she presently. “You must have all my secrets. You wanted to know why I think it’s wicked for me to love you. There’s a difference between us. You’re white, I’m not. I’ve black blood in my veins.”

“What of that?” he broke in impetuously. “It makes you more enchanting.”

“They don’t think so in Barbados. Black blood bears the taint of slavery, of inferiority.”

“Well, we’re not in Barbados, so that goes for nothing.”

“You forget. I’m returning there. Yet I have in me but a trace of my African forefathers. My father is white, my mother had a Spanish father, but his wife was a pure black. Her descent is enough to make me despised by the pure white people in the Island. It’s useless to complain. It is so.”

“I don’t care a button for all the white people in the world. I love you.”

She looked at him, her eyes wide with wonderment.

“You can’t imagine what your words mean to me,” she whispered, with a throb of joy in her voice.

“I’m glad I altered my mind about Simon Halstead,” she went on after a pause. “It first came to me when I imagined you were his son. Though the cruel, hard-hearted man deserved to die, though I had determined upon my vengeance either by my hand or Quamina’s, I felt I could not bring myself to do it after I’d seen you and after your bravery. I suppose I must have loved you even then, but I didn’t know it. Perhaps that had something to do with my running from you. Do you forgive me?”

Her frankness, her freedom from affectation, invested her with a new charm. The orthodox love-making of those days was stilted and simpering. Nyra’s simplicity and directness sounded to Jack delightfully fresh. What could he do but renew his kisses?

“But when I found you were no more connected with Simon Halstead than I was, my thoughts went back to revenge. I wrestled with myself. I wanted you to think well of me. I hated imagining your knowing I could do so horrible a thing as was in my mind. I conquered my evil temptations and​—​and you love me!”

“And yet you would leave me.”

“Oh, I must​—​I must. You see, there is Quamina.”

“Well, what about him?”

“He’s just the same. He’s never ceased craving for vengeance. He’s half a savage, you know, poor fellow,” she added apologetically. “That’s why I want to take him back with me to Barbados.”

The whole business was now clear. For all that, Ralstone could not see why she should sacrifice herself and her love for him for an ignorant barbarian of a negro, but maybe the call of the blood in her had its influence.

However, he would not argue the point. He also had his plan, and he intended to work it out without telling her anything until he had accomplished it.

The rain had now ceased. The moon was shining brightly, and the fleecy clouds sweeping across it did not dim its brightness materially. They set out to walk back to Covent Garden. The storm had cleared the streets of passenger traffic, and they hardly met a single person on their way to King Street. Ralstone did not hesitate to see her to the house, for Quamina would not return for quite an hour.

“Will you be on the bridge to-morrow night?” were his parting words.

“I don’t know. I will try.”

“I shall be there. I may have some news for you.”

One last kiss and he tore himself away.