Chapter XXV

Nemesis!

It was clear to Ralstone that he would have to stay at the Manor House a couple of days or so. There was no one but he to see after the funeral. He could do no good by returning to Nyra. Quamina, by the speed with which he travelled, would, in all probability, get to London quicker than he could by the mail coach. The negro would be so eager to tell his mistress what had happened that he would not waste a minute.

The next morning the lawyer from Bristol came. Stephen, the previous night, had taken him the news.

“You’d better look over all papers and take charge of them. I know nothing of Mr. Halstead’s affairs.”

“You ought to know,” returned the lawyer with a queer smile. “You’re the person most concerned.”

“How so?”

“Because you’ve inherited everything. By a will executed a year ago Mr. Halstead made you sole heir. Whether he intended any alteration by writing that he would see me yesterday, I can’t say. He was always sending me notes about his will and countermanding his instructions the next day. I suppose he acted according to his mood​—​never the same for long. That’s my reading of it, Mr. Ralstone. Anyway, you’re a rich man and I congratulate you.”

Jack at first was staggered. The news seemed too good to be true. He had no objection to being rich, but what gave him the most pleasure was that he could repay every farthing of the money, and more, of which Simon had robbed Nyra’s father.

The story that Squire Halstead had been found dead was speedily in everybody’s mouth, and three days later Holbrook village church, where the funeral service was held, was filled with the villagers and many of the gentry round about. Jack Ralstone, the cricketer, sportsman, and all-round athlete, had hosts of friends and was welcome wherever he went.

The funeral was over; Ralstone, after thanking those whom he knew personally for their presence, was about to return to the Manor House, intending to take the Bristol mail that night for London, when he caught sight of Sir Phineas Tenbury. Tenbury was in the shade of an old cypress, leaning against the trunk. A sneer hovered about his lips, and his eyes, their baggy lids drooping, were fixed superciliously on Ralstone. For a moment or two the latter was taken aback. So much had happened during the last few days he had almost forgotten his enemy.

Sir Phineas was apparently expecting him to make the first move, but Ralstone ignored him, whereupon the baronet advanced, raising his hat with elaborate politeness. Ralstone made no sign, but simply awaited him.

“May I add my congratulations to those of your friends?” said Sir Phineas in a tone of studied smoothness.

“You may do what you please. I presume that I don’t owe your intrusion here to that intention.”

“Well, hardly. Perhaps you’d like to know why I’ve intruded, as you’re pleased to put it.”

His silky urbanity irritated Ralstone intensely, but as probably this was Tenbury’s purpose, he kept his temper.

“Sir Phineas Tenbury is versed in the etiquette of affairs of honour. He ought to know that the principals, before meeting on the field, don’t approach each other save through their seconds. Lord Walsham will be happy to listen to any communication you may give to Captain Charteris.”

“Suppose we drop etiquette, my dear Ralstone. I’ve fulfilled my obligations and I owe you nothing. Why should we not finish the affair without further delay? Our quarrel is not a mere fashionable exchange of shots.”

“I quite agree. I don’t intend it should be.”

“Then why talk of seconds? Why not settle the thing quietly between ourselves​—​unless, of course, you’re afraid——”

“Afraid, Sir Phineas? Of you?”

Ralstone threw an infinitude of contempt into his words. Tenbury’s lips whitened.

“Oh, I know you can use your hands, but when hands are holding pistols it’s a different matter.”

“It’s all the same to me. Why don’t you come to the point? What do you propose?”

“Thanks for the question. The answer’s ready. If you’re agreeable we might decide the affair to-night at my place. It’s but twelve miles or so from here, an easy ride for your black nag. I believe you’ve ridden the Bath Road before now.”

Tenbury’s manner had become intolerably insulting, though he had not raised his voice nor dropped its oiliness.

“I’ve heard you possess some kind of shed not far away. I’ve no doubt it’s good enough for the purpose. You’re the challenged party and have the choice weapons. Swords or pistols?”

“Pistols would probably suit you. It would be fairer. I understand you’ve lately exercised your muscles somewhat in the prize ring. You’d be hardly in a condition to handle a blade.”

“Pray don’t consider me. As you’ve evidently thought out the arrangements, perhaps you’ve brought the weapons. Had I known I should have the pleasure of meeting you to-day, I should have been prepared. My duelling pistols are in London.”

“So I anticipated. Mine are at your service. You can take your choice. I believe they are in excellent order.”

“No doubt. What time will be most convenient to you?”

“Twelve o’clock, if equally agreeable to yourself. We’re not likely to be interrupted at that hour.”

“I am your servant, sir.”

And without another word Ralstone, after raising his hat, not to be outdone in the farce of politeness by his adversary, turned on his heel.

***

“You know the way to Sir Phineas Tenbury’s place, Stephen?”

“The Den? Course I does, Master Jack. It won’t be the barrownite’s long. He’ll have to give it up to the mortgagees, I’m told.”

Tenbury’s temporal affairs did not interest Ralstone, and he rode on in silence, Stephen keeping alongside, but just half a length or so in the rear. It was about half-past eleven when they reached the by-road leading to the Den. It was a hot night and the close air, the solitude and the stillness were oppressive.

“Here we are, sir,” said Stephen suddenly, and drew rein at the broken lodge gates. “D’ye see yon light? That’s the place.”

Ralstone dismounted.

“I’ll walk to the house,” said he. “Wait here with the horses. If I don’t come back you’ll take these two letters to whom they are addressed.”

One was for Lawyer Knowles of Bristol, the other for Nyra at King Street, Covent Garden.

“If ’ee don’t come back, sir,” Stephen was beginning, when Jack stopped him peremptorily and strode on. Stephen was aghast, but there was something in his young master’s manner which prevented him asking questions.

Ralstone pushed his way amid the tangle of growth to the cottage and rapped at the door with his riding whip. He heard a bolt shot back and Sir Phineas stood in the doorway.

“You’re punctual,” was all that the baronet said. He pointed along the passage and Ralstone followed him.

“I apologise for asking you to fight in the kitchen, but it is the largest room in the place,” said he when they were in the brick-paved apartment.

The kitchen was almost bare of furniture. A rough deal table was at one side and on it were a couple of tallow candles and a square, flat mahogany box. A grandfather’s clock ticked solemnly next the big fire-place. It pointed to a quarter to twelve. Not a word was said on either side until Sir Phineas opened the mahogany box. It contained a couple of duelling pistols.

“I give you your choice,” he went on. “I think you’ll find them to your liking. They’re Joe Manton’s best.”

Ralstone nodded. He felt in a strange quiescent mood. So far as his sensations guided him, his pulses were beating as evenly and as regularly as the ticking of the old clock. Nothing seemed to be of the least consequence. He was in the hands of fate. He took the pistol nearest him and looked at it as a matter of form. In reality he was perfectly indifferent.

“As we’ve no one to drop the handkerchief, I had to think of another way of signalling. I suggest we wait until the clock begins to strike twelve and at the final stroke both fire. Is that agreeable?” continued Sir Phineas.

“As you please,” rejoined Ralstone, shrugging his shoulders.

The room was about twenty feet by fifteen and the positions were fixed at its longest length. Some eighteen feet separated the two men, and good shots as they were they could hardly miss. The candles lighted them equally.

The preliminaries occupied nearly ten minutes, and each in his place awaited the clang of the clock. They stood sideways, their pistol arms hanging down. Their demeanour towards each other had all through been absolutely correct. There was not the slightest sign that each was thirsting for the other’s blood. Ralstone found himself wondering why he was so calm. To him the whole thing was a dream​—​a piece of acting. It was quite unreal.

Suddenly he started. Every nerve in his body quivered. The clock had commenced to chime. Had it been the signal to fire his hand would have been so unsteady he must have missed his aim. But there was yet time to recover himself. All at once he heard Tenbury’s voice​—​harsh, rasping, metallic.

“Perhaps you’d like to know that whatever happens,” he was saying, “Nyra is mine​—​mine at this very moment.”

“You lie,” Ralstone retorted.

It dawned upon him that the singular method Tenbury had adopted for their final meeting was intended to unsteady him​—​that his present boast had the same object. If so, it had failed. The words acted upon Ralstone both as a tonic and a stimulant. All his momentary loss of control was gone. The one thought​—​the one desire was to see the boaster dead at his feet. Sir Phineas grinned at Ralstone’s defiance, and a hideous grin it was, the white lips stretched tightly over the teeth.

“So you think. You’re wrong. Nyra is in my safe keeping, thanks to the wily old hag who saw you and the girl on Waterloo Bridge, cooing like turtle doves​—​who followed you both to King Street​—​who enticed her out of the house and caged the pretty bird. She has now no young Lochinvar to gallop away with her.”

The clock had ceased to chime. Its striking had begun. Sir Phineas went on jeering between the strokes. Ralstone never heeded him. Nothing mattered now but death. Three more clangs and all would be over.

Ten​—​eleven​—​Sir Phineas swiftly raised his pistol, his finger on the trigger. He had treacherously anticipated the signal and was taking careful aim, when the door was burst open and a girl, her hair dishevelled, her feet bare, rushed in. A report​—​a scream​—​a second report​—​the fall of a heavy body​—​the sonorous note of the twelfth stroke. Then … Nyra, the blood streaming from a wound in her shoulder, was in Ralstone’s arms, and Sir Phineas was lying dead on the hearthstone, a bullet through his brain.

***

Sir Phineas had spoken the truth. Sally Winch faithfully fulfilled her mission. Nyra, once in her clutches, had been conveyed to the Den, and her possession was to be the crowning triumph after he had disposed of his rival. But this part of his infamy had led to his undoing. Escaping from her prison in an upper room, she had entered the kitchen at the critical moment and had not only disturbed Tenbury’s aim, but had received the bullet​—​happily a flesh wound only​—​intended for Jack Ralstone. It was one of those coincidences of which life is full, and for which there is no accounting, for she was wholly in ignorance of the duel and that her lover was facing death.

Nemesis had indeed overtaken Sir Phineas. It followed even the four thousand pounds, the proceeds of the pearls, of which he had so basely robbed Lady Barbara. The money did nobody any good. Ralstone would have nothing to do with it, and he sent the cheque back to Fauntleroy’s bank on which it was drawn. Within a few months it went into the pit of the liabilities which the forger, Henry Fauntleroy, dug for himself and his deluded depositors.

The law, of course, had to take note of the baronet’s death, but when the story of his infamy was made known Jack Ralstone became the hero of the hour. On the day of his trial​—​as a necessary formality he had to answer the charge of manslaughter​—​the Court of the Old Bailey was crowded by his fellow Corinthians, together with a goodly sprinkling of P.R. men marshalled by Spring, and when Corinthian Jack stepped from the dock a free man a cheer went up that scandalised the Recorder and the Bench of Aldermen. The Corinthians would have celebrated the occasion by a fistic display at the Fives Court but Jack shook his head.

“No, no,” he cried. “I’ve a much more important thing to think about. I’m going to be married and you must all come to the wedding!”

That wedding was a merry time and no one added more to the mirth than did Quamina, whose rolling black eyes and gleaming teeth were everywhere in evidence to show his joy at the triumph of his mistress and his gratitude to her husband.

The years rolled on, but amid their happiness Jack and Nyra could not forget their old days of peril. Rarely did they visit London but they wandered over the bridge, ever dear to them as the scene of their first exchange of confidences, and of the dawning of a love which, beginning in shadow, ended in sunshine.