Chapter I

A “Mill” in the Moonlight

It was absurd. So Squire Simon Halstead might have confessed when he was cool​—​if he ever confessed anything or was ever cool. He had fallen out with his stepson, Jack Ralstone, and about nothing. Forty-nine people out of fifty would at all events have said it was nothing. But when Simon Halstead was contradicted anything was good enough for a quarrel and he was readier to quarrel with Jack than with anybody in the world. Maybe Jack had lost his temper also. He certainly had not been sufficiently respectful, but the Halstead blood did not run in his veins and possibly the fact inclined him to rebellion.

“The impertinent jackanapes,” spluttered Simon, his red face purpling under the effect of rage and rum, after preparing the way for the rum with a good dinner and a couple of bottles of port. “What the deuce does he know about milling? But it isn’t so much his standing out against me as that he should go agen his own county and his own city where he was born and where I was born and my father afore me​—​good old Bristol city.”

Undoubtedly this was the offence, but there were other grievances with which Jack had nothing to do. The Somerset justices, of which body Simon was one, had decided to prohibit the prize fight between Bill Neate of Bristol city and Tom Spring of London being fought within the boundaries of the county. The justices of Berkshire and Wiltshire had been similarly un-English, and the sporting world, which in 1823 included all classes of society, from the noble Corinthian to the coalheaver, was at its wits’ ends to find a place suitable for the Homeric fight.

When the Bristol J.P.’s took their unpatriotic step, Simon told them plainly what he thought of their mollycoddling spirit. Had Squire Halstead been a gentleman in his manner and ideas more than one representative of old Somersetshire families would have asked him to back his opinion with duelling pistols.

But Simon was not a man to be treated as a gentleman. As a matter of fact he was very much the reverse of one. His thick-set clumsy figure, his rolling gait, acquired in early youth from his life aboard ship, his full-bodied language, his love for rum and curaçao, a taste which he brought with him from the West Indies, were not prepossessing. Apart from this there were ugly stories about life in Barbados on his sugar plantations. Slavery, in spite of the efforts of Clarkson and Wilberforce, was in full swing, and Simon it was said was a hard taskmaster.

There were worse things than this attached to the name of Halstead. His father and grandfather had been Bristol shipowners, and it was whispered that not contented with trading in “black ivory” from Africa, to feed the plantations in the West Indies, they did not object​—​at a price​—​to traffic in white men for the same purpose. Bristol had an evil reputation in the eighteenth century for exporting queer cargoes. Simon did not often allude to his bygones, save when in his cups. Sometimes on these occasions allusions slipped from him which pointed to experiences not unlike those of his forbears.

However this might be, there was not the slightest doubt of three things​—​one was his enormous wealth, another his prodigious meanness, when he was in the humour, and thirdly, his pride in his stalwart stepson, Jack Ralstone.

Jack was to make amends for the shortcomings of his stepfather. Jack was to be a gentleman; Jack was to marry a lady of title​—​this was an indispensable item in Simon’s programme​—​Jack was to enter Parliament; he was to jump into a comfortable sinecure governmental post and in due time he was to have a handle to his name. The last was to be managed through the kindly offices of the Duke of Endsleigh.

Jack had not been consulted about a single thing​—​not even about the projected marriage between himself and Lady Barbara Dacre, the daughter of the aforesaid duke. Not that he cared much. He was quite content to do as he liked​—​when out of Simon’s sight​—​and spend his allowance to the uttermost farthing, and a little beyond, as speedily as he could after receiving it through the family lawyer.

The young man​—​he was twenty-two​—​had a great capacity for enjoyment. Life had gone easily with him, and as far as he could see would continue to do so. The marriage with Lady Barbara did not trouble him. Lady Barbara was a glorious specimen of Somersetshire beauty in the full flush of womanhood. What more could any reasonable man want?

But to-day fate had chosen to thrust its interfering fingers into his life. He had quarrelled with his stepfather over a trifle. He was as conscious of the absurdity of the whole thing as Simon Halstead ought to have been. Perhaps it was not so much the quarrel itself which ruffled him, as Simon’s overbearing air of authority, and rather than utter retorts, which would have widened the breach, Jack had walked out of the dining-room heedless of the “Come back, ye dog,” that the Squire hurled at him.

With his hands in his pockets, a cigar​—​or “segar” as the word was spelt in those days, the accent on the first syllable​—​between his lips and a puckered brow, Jack Ralstone strode into the soft spring air. It was the beginning of April and the western wind brought with it a pleasant tang from the rolling Atlantic. Jack stood on the raised terrace fronting the entire length of the rambling old house wondering how to amuse himself and calm his perturbed spirits.

He was certainly a son of whom any father might be proud. Six feet in his stockings, deep rather than broad chested and with a mighty development of muscle about his shoulders and back, thin flanked, and straight as an arrow, he would not have discredited the gladiatorial arena. He was much more powerful than one who had never seen him stripped would have suspected. His perfectly fitting coat​—​one of Stultz’s masterpieces​—​concealed the broadness of his back and the elaborate cravat which swathed his throat to his chin did not allow his brawny neck to be seen.

For the rest, his well-shaped head was surmounted by a mass of curly hair, lightish brown with a dash of red; his eyes blue, gleamed from beneath dark brows; the mouth was firmly cut, and only his square prominent chin betrayed the temperament of the born fighter, while a certain look in the eyes told that if need be they could flash with anger and harden with determination.

Had Jack in his early boyhood had much to do with his stepfather, he might have imbibed some of Simon’s truculent bullying spirit. As it happened he was a baby when Halstead set out to develop his West India plantations and he was twenty when the old man returned. Virtually Simon Halstead had deserted his young wife, a widow with one son, when she married the planter. Their short spell of marriage had been a stormy one, and Simon went off in a hurry after making provision for the lady. When she died he wrote his instructions to his lawyers for Jack’s education and maybe thought no more of the lad until he returned to his native Bristol to spend his last days as a Somersetshire squire, and found a handsome, high-spirited lad of fourteen awaiting him. Jack Ralstone filled up a vacancy in Simon Halstead’s heart, of which the hard-grained man had not been conscious until he returned to England and found English life so different from that in the West Indies.

Jack had just the looks and disposition the planter delighted in. Bold, fearless, active, revelling in outdoor life and exercise, the boy promised to develop into a splendid man physically, and animal strength was what pleased Simon Halstead most. But he was not blind to other qualities. Jack’s father was of gentle blood, and his runaway match with the companion of old Lady Ralstone, his grandmother​—​a fashionable beauty in her youth, and a confirmed gamester and domestic tyrant in her old age​—​was nothing to his discredit though it cost the fortune which the venerable dame would otherwise have left him.

Of humble origin himself, Simon “dearly loved a lord,” and he determined that Jack should he brought up as a gentleman, and so cast the reflection of rank upon himself. He consulted his lawyer, a man of the world and as a result Jack was sent to Eton and in due time to Oxford. His acquirements were neither more nor less than those of the average undergraduate of the period, and he probably spent more time on horses and athletics than on the classics and mathematics. But he spent money and he rubbed shoulders with aristocrats, and Simon Halstead was satisfied.

“I suppose the old man’ll come round by the time we meet again,” Jack was muttering as he paced the terrace. “I’m not going to give in. Why the devil should I? I’ve as much right to my opinion as he has to his. Dashed odd nobody about here’s of my way of thinking. But they don’t know​—​they don’t know. Besides I’ve backed Tom pretty deeply​—​it’s as well that I didn’t tell this to the old man. If I lose——”

The broad shoulders heaved, but with defiance, not with apprehension. He was in the mood just then not to care for anything and if the difference he had had with his stepfather and the hot words they had exchanged deepened into something serious, well it must be so.

He sauntered round to the stables, idly kicking the pebbles as he went. He wanted to talk with some one and he was glad to hear the ring of a horse’s hoof on the cobble stones and the hiss of old Stephen’s breath, the necessary accompaniment to “rubbing down.” He entered the stable yard and the groom looked up as the young man’s shadow, cast by the lantern on a hook in the wall, fell athwart the stones. Stephen suspended operations and his finger went to his forelock.

“Coom to have a sight o’ th’ ’osses, Master Jack? This ’ere one be a rattlin’ good bit o’ stuff. Me an’ the squire give a ’undred guineas for ’un at last Weyhill fair an’ he be worth every farden. Way … ay theer! The nag’s a bit fresh​—​the squire doan’t gi’ ’im enough work. I’ve told squire so but what be the use o’ taakin’? Squire doan’t think anybody knows anything but hisself, squire doan’t​—​a beggin’ your pardon, zur.”

The horse, a black hunter, tossed his head and lifted his legs restlessly, with a great clatter.

“By gad, you’re right there, Steve,” laughed Jack. “I had to tell him as much not a quarter of an hour ago.”

“Noa, did ’ee?” said Stephen, staring at his young master as though astounded at his audacity. “Warn’t a bit o’ good, I reckon. He didn’t give in to ’ee, main fond as he be of ’ee.”

“Not an inch. See here, Steve, you could use your fist very prettily when you were young, I’m told.”

“Aye​—​sure-ly,” chuckled the old groom. “There warn’t many at my weight as I couldn’t down. I fought at ten stun six, or thereabouts, an’ I mind a merry little mill on Stonebridge Common when——”

“Yes, I’ve heard of that Stonebridge Common affair,” put in Jack remorselessly, cutting short a threatened flood of reminiscences. “I know you’re up to every dodge where the ring’s concerned and that’s why I want to ask you something. What do you think of Tom Spring’s chances against Bill Neate?”

Steve spat on the ground and waved his currycomb to emphasise his opinion.

“Bill Neate ’ll eat him. Spring wunna last half a dozen rounds. Once Bill gets one of his hammer blows in, Spring’ll drop like that.”

And down went the currycomb.

“That’s your opinion, is it. Well, I don’t agree with you.”

Stephen fired up instantly. He was Bristol born and bred, and he had more than once stood a pot of ale to the redoubtable Bill Neate. What better credential could Bill have?

“Master Jack, ’xcuse me a taaking the liberty, but what I says is as ’ee don’t know nothin’ about it. Dang it, I were fightin’ afore ’ee was born or thought of. Tom Spring be a clever boxer, I don’t deny, but he couldn’t make a dent in a pound o’ butter. Boxin’s one thing, fightin’s another.”

Jack didn’t like this. It was the old difference with the squire over again. His voice took a sudden sharpness.

“So it may be, but Spring can do both. Have you ever seen him box?”

“Noa, but I’ve taaked wi’ them as has. Mike Devenish, the guard o’ the Bristol Highflier, knows him well. Mike’s had many a pint wi’ him at Tom Belcher’s house ‘The Castle,’ Holborn, and seen him have a set to at the Fives Court. Why, he’s called the ‘ladies’ maid fighter.’ What do ’ee think o’ that, Master Jack?”

“It’s a lie and a slander,” retorted Jack angrily. “I’ve had the gloves on with Spring and when I asked him jokingly to give me a real punch, he broke through my guard and I went down like a ninepin and lay like a log for full five minutes.”

“What of it?” growled Steve. “You’re not Bill Neate.”

The discussion grew hot, but quarrelling with Stephen was very different from quarrelling with his stepfather. Steve didn’t lose his temper but argued purely on technical and pugilistic grounds. Failing to convince Jack how certain it was that Tom Spring must be beaten, he wound up with:

“Have your own way, Master Jack. I only hope as ’ee havn’t rattled the squire. I know as he’s put a ’undred or two on Bill Neate an’ if he don’t bring it off there’ll be the devil to pay.”

This was news to Jack, but what did it matter. Squire Halstead could well afford to lose a thousand or two, let alone hundreds. The only thing was that if Spring was the victor, it would add to the difficulty of a reconciliation.

The talk, or rather discussion, with Stephen having dribbled out, Jack cast about for something to occupy his mind and calm his ruffled nerves. Stephen had finished grooming the black hunter and was leading him back to his stall a picture of symmetry and strength, when an idea struck the young man. He was in the mood for something daring, something which demanded audacity

“I say, Steve, is the black fit for thirty miles or so to-night?”

“Aye, if need be. He bean’t done more’n a couple o’ mile to-day. A bit o’ stretchin’ won’t do him no harm.”

“Right. Then clap a saddle on his back. I’ll be with you in five minutes or so.”

“What mad game be this?” muttered the old groom, when he was left to himself. “Black Ivory”​—​ this was the name Simon had given to the hunter​—​“wants a lot o’ knowin’. All right when you do know, but it’s the first time Master Jack’s put his legs across the nag. If the two of ’em bean’t o’ the same mind look out for mischief.”

Jack came back booted and spurred and clad in a tight-fitting coat that reached to his heels and a low crowned hat with a broad brim. He looked the dashing horseman from head to foot and Stephen nodded approval.

Black Ivory seemed to scent the pleasure in store for him. The feel of the saddle told him as much. He was pawing the ground impatiently and when Jack introduced himself by patting his neck and addressing him as an old friend, he tossed his head in acquiescence.

“We shall get on all right together,” said Jack.

“Aye, it du look like it. But don’t ’ee use the whip. ’E wunna stand it.”

“Just like me,” rejoined Jack lightly.

He placed his foot in the stirrup and vaulted into the saddle, Steve standing at the horse’s head the while, though there was no necessity.

“I don’t know what time I shall be back, Steve, but you needn’t bother. I’ll stable him.”

Black Ivory needed neither spur nor whip. Jack rode him out of the yard with a light rein. The first thing to do was to put the animal on good terms with himself, and by the ready way in which he broke into an easy gallop, it was clear that this first step was accomplished.

The young moon was rising and old Stephen stood at the stable gate watching the fast receding figures of horse and rider until the clopperty clopperty ring of Black Ivory’s hoofs on the hard road ceased.

“He be a taakin’ the Bath Road,” muttered the old groom. “What’s in the lad’s mind? Wenches or cards? It’s all one to hot blood. Aye​—​aye. I weer the same myself at his age. He​—​he!”

And with a chuckle Steve went back to his horses.

It was just the night for a ride. There had been no rain for at least a week and the road, like others in those days, not too good, though the highways to Bath were the best in the kingdom, was fairly hard and even, for the ruts of winter had been worn down by the ponderous wide-wheeled wagons.

Jack felt he was astride a fine roadster and maybe Black Ivory had an equally good opinion of his rider. Anyhow a certain sympathy had sprung up between man and horse and Jack let his steed take his own pace.

The first three miles were covered in less than a quarter of an hour. The country was open, low hedges separating the road from wide spreading arable land. At first Jack was conscious of little else besides a sense of glorious exhilaration. The keen air, the rushing through space in the exercise of muscular power were sufficiently pleasurable. Then came the deep shadows of a wood on either side and the horse of his own accord dropped into a gentle canter.

There may have been something in the sudden blackness which sent Jack Ralstone thinking. He was recalling his quarrel with his stepfather and the more vivid the remembrance of the scene became, the more he wondered at his own restraint, for the old man’s overbearing manner and offensive words were as much as flesh and blood could bear.

Human nature instinctively leans towards the principle of compensation. Let the balance be upset and one’s desire to restore things to their normal level must be satisfied at all costs. Jack considered he had not been treated justly, and the more he brooded over it the more he yearned to have it out with something or somebody. Half a dozen stinging retorts came into his mind, which if he had only thought of at the time would have given him at all events a verbal victory.

“Instead of that I slunk off. Of course I know very well that if I hadn’t there’d have been a devil of a row, but that isn’t what old Halstead believes. His idea is that when it comes to a push I daren’t stand up to him. If I was of his flesh and blood it would be different, but as I’m not​—​well, we’ll see.”

And unintentionally he emphasised his words with a smart blow on Black Ivory’s flank. Instantly the insulted animal reared, and Jack, taken unawares, was nearly thrown. He also narrowly escaped smashing his head against a low overhanging bough. The horse evidently was very nervous and sensitive. Jack could feel him quivering from head to foot; it was as much as he could do to calm him. The slightest thing would have sent him bolting, and the chances were a hundred to one he would end by butting himself and his rider into some tree.

At last by dint of exhortations and coaxings Black Ivory condescended to proceed like a reasonable animal, and the mingled din of twigs crashing beneath hoofs, of snorting, and of Jack’s loud-voiced remonstrances died away. The end of the wood was not far off and the rest of the road was traversed almost in silence, the soddened leaves of winter furnishing a carpet soft enough to muffle Black Ivory’s tread.

Just as the horse emerged into the open the silence was broken by a cry of pain. The voice was a woman’s. Jack halted and listened. It came again. He seemed to distinguish the word, “Help!”

Stunted hawthorn, holly bushes, tall withered bracken and brambles extended some little distance beyond the wood and then stretched an expanse of common on either side. The cry came from the right hand and he could see a yellow glare through the thickets. He rode on. The glare issued from the open door of a travelling caravan. On the ground about a yard from the caravan he could see two dark forms in violent movement. One was that of a man, the other a woman. The man had a riding whip in his hand with which he was mercilessly belabouring a woman who was vainly struggling to release her arm from the fellow’s grasp.

Jack’s blood boiled at the sight. He dashed on to the common, reined in his horse and shouted:

“Stop that, you coward!”

“Mind your own business,” the fellow retorted, with a few ornamental oaths thrown in.

“It is my business. I’ll make it so.”

The next moment he had leaped from his horse and was striding towards the ruffian. At last his chance of getting rid of his bad blood and making things square between himself and the world​—​otherwise his stepfather​—​had come.

The fellow ill-using the woman was stiffly built, with a head round as a bullet and a neck like a bullock’s. His sleek hair was cut short and his prominent straight square chin and thin lips indicated obstinacy and cruelty. He had the high cheek protuberance of the pugilist, and his small, glittering eyes were deep in their sockets and well protected by an abnormal development of the lower part of the frontal bone. He was clean shaven save a fringe of whisker descending from his hair as far as the lobe of the ear.

Jack Ralstone rapidly noted these characteristics. To his mind the fellow looked like a bruiser; he might be an ugly antagonist if it came to fisticuffs. Bruiser or not, Jack went for him. The whip descended more savagely than ever, as if to give a practical reply to a stranger’s threat of interference. Ralstone seized it, and with a dexterous jerk of the wrist​—​a lesson learned in the fencing school​—​wrenched it from the ruffian’s grasp before it reached its mark, and hurled it half a dozen yards through the air.

“Curse your meddling. Take that,” roared the bruiser, with a volley of imprecations.

Flinging the girl aside, he sent in a straight blow, which, if it had found Jack’s face, would have felled him as by the kick of a horse. But Ralstone expected something of the kind, and he ducked in the very nick of time. The fellow’s arm went over his shoulder, and he was able to reply with a vicious hit on the point of the chin. The man staggered. Jack’s fist had caught him on one of a boxer’s vulnerable points.

The man stood for a moment motionless, as if amazed at the failure of his attack. Then, thrusting forward his head with a jerk, his arms straight down, his fists clenched, he glared savagely at Ralstone, like a tiger defrauded of his prey.

“Oh, you want a hammerin’, do you?” he growled. “Then we’ll peel, and you shall have it in style. Theer won’t be much o’ the swell left in you when you’re knocked out. It’ll take your mother all her time to know you after I’m done wi’ you.”

He tugged at his muffler, stripped off his thick coat and tucked up his ragged shirt-sleeves. Jack saw he was in for a real “mill,” and he followed suit, throwing his long coat over Black Ivory’s back. The horse was profoundly indifferent to his rider’s coming ordeal, and was quietly nibbling at the short grass.

It was the first time Jack Ralstone had fought with his bare knuckles since he was a lad. He had had, however, a good training in fisticuffs at Eton, and was reckoned one of the best at the game, and when he fought a bargee lad, two years older than himself, and taller and stronger, in a meadow bordering the Thames towing path, and beat him, he was the acknowledged champion of the school.

It was strange that, while his nerves were “jumpy” when he was in the wood, fretting and fuming over the scene with the squire, now that he was in danger of a “hammering,” as the fellow put it, they were as taut as tightly stretched whipcord. His brain was cool, and he had perfect command over himself.

During the process of peeling he had time to run his eye over the “points” of his enemy. The pale moonlight fell upon the man’s face and revealed puffy cheeks and watery eyes, which told of strong ale and gin. Jack also noticed that elsewhere he was not in the pink of condition. There was far too much fat in the region of the waistcoat. This decided the tactics he meant to adopt.

The two combatants presented a strong contrast. Jack was quite four inches taller and much longer in the reach. He was as lithe and active as a deer, but he had not exchanged half a dozen blows before he realised that he should need all his activity, for the other was as tricky as a monkey, and had no scruple in abandoning the rules of the prize ring. He was bent upon knocking out the “swell” by fair means or foul.

Jack went at him at first a bit too hurriedly, trying to smash him up right off. A heavy fall, he knew, would wind the fellow, and that would be worth any number of blows. However, at first he had to hit where he could, and, seeing an opening for an upper cut where he had struck him before​—​on the point of the chin​—​he went for it. But as he led off his antagonist bobbed like lightning to one side, and Jack’s hand slipped over the man’s well-greased poll like a pat of butter across the bottom of a hot frying-pan, and Jack got an awkward dint in the ribs that made him wince. It was evident that his opponent knew the game, and was not to be caught a second time.

The man saw he had got home, and made a rush to repeat the dose. Owing to his inferiority in height and reach, body blows were easier than attempts at Jack’s head, well thrown back as it was. Jack pulled himself together, and began to keep away, making the best of his superiority at out-fighting and watching for an opportunity to retaliate. Meanwhile it was all dodging and foot work, and he was dancing about so as to tire his man. As they were not within the confines of a twenty-four foot ring, the effect of being kept constantly on the go soon had its effect on his antagonist, whose want of condition was beginning to tell upon him.

He was starting to breathe heavily. He had to labour to keep up with Jack; he was getting weak on his pins, and, one foot chancing to slip on a hard and slippery bit of turf, Jack saw his chance and got in a fierce one on the solar plexus, known as the “mark,” close to the midriff. The man was bent with pain, and before he could recover himself Jack had hurled him to the ground. He pitched on to his head, and there he lay like a log.

At the same moment an old hag who, unseen by Jack, had been standing at the door of the caravan watching the fight all the time, rushed to the prostrate man, and between her revilings of Jack Ralstone for “killing” her “boy” she raised her voice in a violent screech for “Mike!”

Jack, seeing he was in no further danger, looked round for the woman for whom he had fought. He could see her on the other side of Black Ivory near the horse’s head. As a matter of fact, she was holding the bridle. He ran to her.

“Thank you, sir​—​oh, thank you,” he heard her say breathlessly; “but I almost wish you hadn’t done it.”

“What d’you mean?”

“Jerry’ll half kill me if he gets hold of me again. But I’m not going to stay. Thanks to you, I’ve got the chance to get away, and I’ll take it.”

She turned as if to run, but Jack caught hold of her shawl. It had slipped down to her waist. The upper part of her bodice was torn and the contour of her shoulders and bust was revealed. The lines were finely cut and as full of harmonious curves as those of a piece of old Greek statuary.

She was little more than a slip of a girl. A wealth of black hair, slightly coarse in texture, streamed over her face and back, and through its entanglement gleamed a pair of large lustrous eyes, dark as midnight. The rest of the face was hardly distinguishable.

“You want to get away, my lass, do you?” muttered Jack between his set teeth. “By the lord you shall. Up with you. Quick! You’re but a featherweight. My horse’ll take the pair of us.”

She understood him. A toss of the head, a swift glance of her big eyes, which seemed to go straight to his heart, and one of her feet was planted in the stirrup. He held out his hand for the support of the other foot as she sprang upwards, a swish of her scanty skirt, a momentary glance of a slender shapely ankle, and she was on the horse’s back. Jack instantly vaulted into the saddle.

“Arms round my waist,” said he rapidly. “Clip me tightly, and away we go.”

So in pillion fashion they darted off, Black Ivory as keen as his riders.

At that moment came a flash amid the gorse, the sharp report of a gun was heard, and a whistle followed, close to Jack’s ear. It was the rush of the bullet from the fowling piece of the poacher whom the old woman had summoned.

“All right, my girl,” laughed Jack. “A miss is as good as a mile!”