Chapter XXIV

The Avenger​—​Death

Ralstone had not seen Nyra for four evenings. He paced the bridge impatiently, wondering if she would come. He was followed through the turnstile by an old beggar-woman, apparently a cripple. She kept on the opposite side, and when she found that he was walking up and down, evidently expecting some one, she squatted in one of the recesses and kept her head down as though asleep.

But she was on the alert; she saw Nyra pass, and watched her meet Ralstone. She grinned maliciously when they kissed.

“Good news​—​great news, sweetheart,” cried Ralstone, joyfully. “I’ve all the money you want, and more​—​at least, I shall have before the week is over.”

The girl made no answer, but drew closer to him. Did the affection expressed in the movement mean her thanks? He waited for her to speak, but she remained silent.

“Aren’t you glad, dearest?” he asked anxiously.

“Oh, yes, for your sake, but——”

She looked up. He saw trouble written in her eyes.

“What’s the matter? Has anything happened?”

“It’s​—​it’s Quamina.”

“Damn Quamina,” thought Ralstone. “The fellow’s a plaguey nuisance.”

“Well, what about him?”

“He’s been missing for two days.”

“Rather a good thing, I should say.”

“Oh you don’t know, you don’t know. If you did——”

“Well, if I did, what then?”

He looked into her eyes and saw trouble written there.

“You see,” she went on in low, plaintive tones, “it was all my fault. I persuaded Quamina to come to England with me. We were to visit vengeance on Simon Halstead, as I told you. Quamina by himself would never have thought of doing what I talked him into, and, if he had thought, he couldn’t have carried it out. How could he? So I’m responsible, and​—​and now he’s gone to——”

She shuddered and turned her head away.

“You mean that he’s gone off on his own account to do what was in your mind when you brought him to England?”

“Yes, that’s what’s frightening me. Since I’ve known you I’ve changed. I can’t explain why. Angry words have passed of late between me and Quamina. He thinks of nothing but blood​—​but he’s only a poor savage. You mustn’t be hard on him. He dislikes you because he’s certain that it’s you who’s made me alter my plan. Do you understand? I tried to explain that … murder … could not make things better. What’s done is done, and Halstead’s death can’t restore to my father what was taken from him. It can’t remove Quamina’s scars. It can’t make me forget the persecution he inflicted upon me because I was the daughter of slaves.”

“Slaves? Not your father, surely?” cried Ralstone, horrified.

“Yes. My father was a man of past middle age when he married. He was nearly seventy when he died, and he told me that fifty years ago he was kidnapped in Bristol, smuggled on board one of Halstead’s father’s ships, and taken to Barbados and sold as a slave. Oh, it would make your blood run cold if you knew the terrible things done in the old days. When my father fell in love with my mother​—​she was very beautiful——”

“I can well believe that,” interjected Ralstone.

“Simon Halstead swore he would make life a hell for him. He wanted her for himself, you see. My father defied him, and hell came. I don’t want to say any more about this​—​I want to forget my wrongs. But Quamina doesn’t. He never will, and I’m sure it’s that which has taken him away. What am I to do? Something terrible may happen. I can’t prevent it. I’m helpless.”

Ralstone was silent for a few moments. He was rapidly summing up the situation.

“Does he know where the old man lives?” he asked abruptly.

“In a way, yes. While those wretches who had me in their clutches were camping on the common, I heard them talking about the gentlefolk who had estates in the neighbourhood and which was the safest place for poaching, and they mentioned Simon Halstead and the woods round the Manor House. After I ran from you I was full of horrible thoughts, and when I again met Quamina I told him everything. In the forests of Barbados he could track down anything he once set his mind upon. No bloodhound has a keener scent. He mayn’t know the road to Bristol, but he’ll find it.”

Ralstone did not under-estimate the danger, and he could see but one way to counteract it. Unwilling as he was to meet his stepfather, he must go down to the Manor House and warn him.

“You say Quamina’s been gone two days. It’s over a hundred miles to Bristol. Even if he were familiar with the road, it would take him four days at least to get there. As he’d probably have to ask his way, we might allow him a week.”

“Not so long,” cried Nyra. “He’s a very fast runner. He would sleep in the day and run in the night and never stop. I know what he can do.”

“Very well. Let us say four days. I don’t think you’ve anything to fear meanwhile, so long as you keep to the house. Promise me that.”

“Are you then going away?” she asked with a slight quiver in her voice.

“Yes. I must go to Bristol. I must get there before Quamina. What else is to be done?”

“Nothing.”

She seemed to speak hopelessly. Ralstone wondered what was in her mind. They strolled on slowly, neither speaking for some moments.

“Supposing he hasn’t gone there?” she broke out suddenly.

“That occurred to me too. I can only put Simon on his guard and come away. I can do no more.”

He felt her hand which was in his suddenly tremble.

“But that will mean you’ll have to tell him about me,” she whispered.

“Not at all. I shall have to tell him where his danger lies of course, that is if he has the patience to listen to me.. Perhaps he won’t. One never knows how he’ll take things. Anyhow, you won’t come into the matter. You’re not afraid to be left in London alone, are you?”

“No, I’m not afraid.”

But he felt her shiver all the same.

“Keep a brave heart, little one,” he went on. “Just a few days more​—​I’ve one thing left to do and then​—​all the world’s before us.”

He spoke encouragingly, but it was an effort. He had the duel with Tenbury on his mind. Despite his belief in his luck it might come off with him rather badly. If he could only be sure that Nyra was completely out of the man’s reach he would not mind so much. But he could devise no plan without enlighten- ing her, and this he would not do. He did not even allude to his fight with Jerry Winch, and he blessed the dark night that prevented her seeing the strapping on his right cheek.

They wandered back to the Middlesex side of the bridge, the old woman whom neither had seen following them stealthily. He saw her to the house in King Street and was loth to leave her, but he purposed catching the night coach for Bristol, which started from the “White Horse Cellar,” Piccadilly, a little before twelve.

Then came the last adieu. Just a few endearing words. He hardly knew what he said. For a moment she clung to him as though impelled to the embrace by every nerve in her body. He left her with a heavy heart, and with the picture in his memory of her pale face and tearful eyes.

He was far too absorbed to notice the old woman crouching in a doorway opposite, and jumping into a coach he hastened to Tom Spring’s to explain that he was called away to the West of England on important business, and was at the “White Horse Cellar” a little before eleven and booked the only vacant seat that was left. By midnight the coach, to the admiration of the crowd who nightly assembled to see the sight, was making a brave show along Piccadilly.

Ralstone reckoned that he would be at the Manor House about noon of the following day, but on the Bath Road, some sixty miles from London, one of the leaders went lame; it was a couple of hours before another horse could be procured, and he proved to be a jibber. It was night before Bath was left behind and the coach speeding on its way to Bristol along the road ever associated with Nyra, for it was here that he had his memorable ride with her arms enclosing him. He seemed to feel their warmth and pressure even now.

The coach put him down at the nearest point to the Manor House. He had about a couple of miles to walk along a road lonely at any time, but doubly so at the dead of night. Part of the way was between a pine plantation on either side, but the spot was familiar to him and he had no longer the feeling of desolation which overtook him after he had alighted, and the grinding of the coach and the rattle of the horses’ hoofs were becoming fainter and fainter.

The smell of the soil, the scent of the pines and bracken, even the peculiar stagnant odour from the ~ big pond where he had ofttimes caught carp and tench brought back his boyhood. The distinctive smell of London, with its unswept streets and festering gutters, was that of foulness. It was akin to life as he had found it in the metropolis​—​that life which he once thought meant the height of pleasure​—​Tenbury, Weare, Thurtell, Vicary, Jerry Winch, all types of degradation, greed and brutality. Even poor Lady Barbara represented nothing but frivolous artificiality, selfishness and vanity. The one bright ray amid the blackness was Nyra.

He was inclined to except boxing​—​at least, so far as the fighters themselves were concerned. They bore themselves like men. The majority exhibited a certain amount of chivalry, and there was rarely any malice. A few cases where a “cross” might be suspected could have been cited, but there were not nearly so many as in modern times when big stakes became the fashion. But of the hangers-on, the dregs, most of whom would hardly face a fist, the less said the better.

He was pondering all this when through a clearing in the plantations he saw, to his surprise, a light in the window of a house which he knew well enough. Was the squire drinking himself to sleep after his old fashion? If so, what kind of reception would he have?

Ralstone stopped, his eyes fixed on the window. The onerous nature of his task, now that it was so near, presented itself vividly. He thought of that truculent, tyrannical old man and of Nyra’s story of his terrible cruelty. At that moment a shadowy form passed rapidly between him and the light and vanished. Ralstone instantly thought of Quamina and rushed forward. His foot caught a gnarled tree root and he pitched down headlong. He picked himself up, more angry than hurt. All chance of pursuing the negro​—​if it were he​—​was gone. He went on to the Manor House wondering if any of the servants were about.

He was beneath the porch, and deciding that the bell would make too much noise, knocked softly. No one came, and he went round to the back of the house. Stephen slept over the stables, and picking up a stone he flung it against the window. Presently the sash was flung up.

“Who be that?” growled the coachman. “Anything more happened?”

“It’s I, Stephen​—​Jack Ralstone. Come down. I want to speak to you.”

“I’m domned! If this bean’t like the finger o’ Providence. I’ll be wi’ ’ee in two twos.”

The door opened. Stephen, half dressed and shaking like a leaf, confronted him.

“’Ee must ha’ knowed what be a happenin’ to bring ’ee ’ere now,” he stammered in his shrill, quavering voice.

“What has happened? I know nothing.”

“T’ old squire be a lyin’ stark dead. Tummas found him stiff in his chair an’ black in the face. I saddled Black Ivory an’ rode post haste to Bristol for the doctor, but it warn’t no good. Doctor said he’d had a apple-plectoic fit, an’ had been dead ’arf an hour afore Tummas commed in the room.”

Something like a feeling of relief went over Ralstone. All his worry and trouble about Nyra and Quamina had come to an end.

“When did it occur?” he asked.

“Nigh upon three o’clock this afternoon. Squire ate a ’earty dinner​—​he were al’ays a good trencherman, drunk or sober, mostly drunk, I’m bound to say, and he were left asleep and a snorin’ peacefully. We never disturb him when he’s nappin’, an’ it were only ’cause Tummas couldn’t hear him a sendin’ his pigs to market as the lad went in, knowin’ as he had appinted to meet Lawyer Knowles at his office. It was then as Tummas came runnin’ out a cryin’ as the master was dead an’ gone.”

“I saw a light in his room. Is he there?”

“Aye. We took him an’ laid him on the big bed. Will ’ee go an’ see him? I’ll knock Tummas up. There bean’t no one else in the house. Mrs. Coombes, the cook, were too frightened to stay, and all the maids they be gone weeks an’ weeks. The Squire he ha’ been awful queer in his ways, and they took an’ left. He were like one possessed of a devil at times, an’ at others you’d ha’ thought as he’d done a murder or summat dreadful and was haunted. I dunno what comed to him o’ late, unless it were you a goin’ away.”

Ralstone understood but, of course, did not enlighten Stephen. He decided to see the dead squire at once, and Stephen, after some difficulty, succeeded in rousing Thomas.

Soon Ralstone was in the death chamber, which Mrs. Coombes, with a proper regard for etiquette on such occasions, had made decent and in order. With feelings which he did not take the trouble to analyse, even had analysis been possible, the young man looked upon the face of his stepfather. Death, in its merciful fashion, had softened the repulsive lines and lessened the coarseness of the old man’s features, but there was enough indication left of his evil life and of his animalism to tell its own story.

“You’ll want a rest, Master Jack,” said Stephen, who had accompanied Ralstone. “I dunno where to put ’ee. Most o’ the beds’ll be damp wi’ no maids to see to ’em. There’s only the little room Mrs. Coombes used to have. It be along that passage. A bit near the Squire’s, but I don’t see as there be ought to fear in a dead body.”

“Of course there isn’t The little room will do well enough. I’m dead beat.”

Ralstone had only been able to doze during the long coach ride, and as he had an outside seat his sleep didn’t amount to much.

Stephen attended him, candle in hand, and shuffled away to his own quarters. Ralstone was too fatigued to undress. He threw himself on the bed and had hardly laid his head on the pillow than he dropped into a heavy sleep. But not for long. He was overwrought and his nerves and brain refused to become normal at once. He had not slumbered for ten minutes when he found himself wide awake, but with no clear idea where he was or of what had happened.

Slowly consciousness struggled back. He found himself sitting up, but had no remembrance of having raised his body. The silence was broken by a cracking sound. He could not determine whether he really heard anything or that it was the fag-end of a dream. He listened. It came again. It was not from anything in his room, but outside the house, a short distance away. He could see nothing. Then he went into the passage. He could distinctly hear footsteps. They were in Simon Halstead’s room. He strode softly to the door and opened it.

Quamina, knife in hand, was standing at the foot of the bed, glaring at the dead man. He was so motionless he might have been black marble. Evidently he had not heard Ralstone enter.

“Quamina,” said Ralstone, “what are you doing here?”

The negro started. He fixed his gleaming eyes on Jack.

“Him dead, massa?” he growled in guttural tones.

“Yes. You’re too late. Put that knife away. Go back to your mistress. She needs you. Why did you leave her?”

Ralstone purposely spoke without the slightest suggestion of rancour or harshness. He reckoned upon the negro’s savage instincts being appeased by the sight of his hated enemy lying dead, and that his sense of rough justice was satisfied.

Jack was right, but he was not prepared for Quamina throwing himself at his feet and pouring out a torrent of words in his native tongue, mingled with a few expressions in broken English. These expressions gave the clue to his attitude. He thought that Halstead had been slain by Ralstone. This was enough to banish his jealousy and ensure his gratitude. Ralstone did not undeceive him. What did it matter so long as a threatened tragedy had been averted?

“You must return to Nyra at once,” said he.

The negro rose submissively enough and was going towards the window, one pane of which was broken. It was by this window he had entered, breaking the glass and slipping back the catch by putting his hand through the hole. It was easy enough for so active a fellow to haul himself up with the assistance of the stout wisteria which covered half the front of the house.

“No, no, not that way,” commanded Ralstone. “I’ll show you an easier road.”

Quamina did not attempt to question Ralstone’s word, but followed like a dog. On the way down it occurred to Jack that he would send a line to Nyra, telling her the all-important news and begging her to be of good courage until his return. He took the negro into the dining-room, found pens, ink and paper, and scribbled his note.

“That’s for your mistress. Don’t lose it. Get it to her as soon as you can.”

Quamina nodded, stuck the note within the folds of the gay bandana handkerchief he wore like a girdle round his waist, and departed. When Ralstone returned to his bed he slept like a top.