Chapter XII


“Hadn’t we better send for a doctor?”

“What for doctor? Massa’s bones not broke. Quamina feel dem. Droppy rum, Missy Barlowe. Dat’s de physic.”

“Rum​—​’tis all these blackamoors think of,” muttered under her breath the matronly woman in the print dress and apron standing by the couch, candlestick in hand. “I suppose I’d better get it. If Quamina flies into one of his passions​—​my goodness. But I’ll see that not a drop goes into his ugly black mouth if I can help it.”

She placed the candlestick on the table and bustled away.

Quamina, a full-blooded negro, his skin like polished ebony, bent over the prostrate form of Jack Ralstone, and crooned some outlandish lingo​—​neither speech nor song​—​in strange tones, half liquid, half guttural. It was probably an incantation, peculiar to his race and handed down from generation to generation. But he had not neglected more mundane methods. He had bathed and bound up Ralstone’s cuts, he had gone over the body and limbs to discover internal hurts, he had massaged arms and legs; in fact, had he been attending to a prize-fighter who had been “knocked out” he would not have done differently.

Presently the woman returned, with a short-necked stone bottle and a glass. The negro poured some of the spirit within the white lips. They quivered, the nerves of the arms twitched, the chest heaved slightly.

“Massa fine feller​—​strong feller,” said he admiringly.

“Aye, and a gentleman. Common people don’t wear fine linen, and if so be as his coat’s torn, it’s made of real good broadcloth. I know good things when I see ’em.”

Ralstone’s senses were slowly returning, but he was still in the world of nowhere. His rescuers had done all they could and were watching his unconscious struggle for the life which had so nearly slipped from him.

“It would ha’ been a pity if so handsome a young gentleman had been left to die on our doorstep. It was a good thing, Quamina, as you went to see what the rumpus was about and found him. 1 didn’t know you was so strong. You lifted him up by yourself and brought him in. I was that frightened I dursn’t go out.”

The negro, a tall, powerfully-built young fellow, the great bossy muscles round his neck and shoulders, which his open shirt disclosed, indicating enormous strength, grunted in reply. Mrs. Barlowe’s complimentary remarks did not seem to affect him.

A silence fell upon the room. Ralstone slowly raised his eyelids and dropped them again. His bewildered glance had taken in his surroundings in a vague, visionary way, and his muddled brain wove them into the phantasma surging through his mind. The whole thing was a grotesque dream, which vanished as moments of oblivion occurred and reappeared when the brain recommenced working. He was lying motionless. Nerves and muscles were quiescent. It was a time of exhaustion, without pain, without any impulse to exert will-power. Nature demanded rest and was having her way. He was quite contented to remain where he was undisturbed and allow the panorama of realities and unrealities to unfold itself. Even the sounds​—​the whispers of the man and woman​—​the slow ticking of a grandfather’s clock, a distant shout from the street, fitted into their places in the chimera.

Then suddenly came sweet music. It was a woman’s voice, a voice which to his fevered imagination belonged more to heaven than to earth. Ethereal though the sounds were they did not seem incongruous. He was puzzled, as the madness of dreams puzzles one. Gradually the harmonious intervals, making up the simplest of melodies, overpowered everything else, and then he became still more puzzled, for, if the singer was angelic, the music was that of a mortal man. He knew the air quite well. To hear it now transported him to a crowded theatre​—​a vast arena​—​the plaudits of the multitude. It was all real enough​—​the air, faint and sickly with the perfumes from the boxes and dress circle, mingled with the scent of oranges from the pit and gallery. The melody dominated everything. The play was poor enough, but the song and the singer saved it.

In some strange way the recollection quickened the return of vitality. Memory asserted itself and he realised that he was listening to the air which has since become world-famous and likely to last to touch the hearts of countless generations yet to come​—​“Home, sweet home.” Bishop’s opera, “Clari, the Maid of Milan,” had been produced a month or so before at Covent Garden Theatre, and Maria Tree’s delightful singing of “Home, sweet home,” with the serenade, “Sleep, gentle lady”​—​the only things in the opera which have survived​—​had taken the town. Ralstone had seen it twice, and he could have heard the divine voice of the songstress over and over again and never tire.

But this voice​—​the dream voice. It was no less melodious than the material one, yet it was different. Suddenly it ceased, and with its cessation the dream vanished. The sharp tinkle of a bell, its brassy clang, a violent contrast to the silvery tone of the voice, had the effect of a tonic upon his nerves. For a brief space he saw everything as it was​—​a plainly-furnished room, with oil paintings on the walls, of the beer and treacle school​—​brown and smudgy trees, yeasty waterfalls, sooty skies, surrounded by heavy gold frames​—​the negro and the woman at the door apparently having an altercation. Then the woman bounced out of the room and the man turned towards the couch on which Ralstone was lying. The negro was scowling horribly and a fiendish light gleamed in his eyes. But his forbidding expression vanished directly he saw that Ralstone was gazing at him intently.

“How you feel, massa?” said he.

“A bit shaken up. I don’t know where I am. If you brought me out of the rabble, I thank you.”

“Missy Barlowe say you no alive. Quamina say yes. Quamina right.”

“Looks like it,” said Ralstone feebly. “Whose house is this?”

“Missy Glover. She great stage player. She not at home.”

Ralstone was too weak to take much interest in anything. He had heard of Mrs. Glover, of course​—​he might have seen her play, but at that moment nothing mattered. He closed his eyes and his brain went simmering on in its own fashion. He did not quite relapse into his former dreamy condition, but the spasmodic clearness of vision and perception had passed. He lay thus for a minute or so, during which came the sounds of the opening of a door, of whispering voices, but they failed to rouse him. When he again lifted his eyelids it was not in consequence of any external influence, but purely an involuntary physical effort.

He saw standing about a yard from the couch a girl whose eyes, dark as midnight, were fixed steadfastly upon him. She was dressed in a way which gave her distinction. The skirt was longer than what fashion dictated. It swept the ground slightly and so added to her stature, which in reality was slight. But that which absorbed Ralstone’s unbalanced mind was the face and the hood which encircled it. It was of purple silk, fringed with gold, and the effect was that of a framed portrait such as Murillo might have painted. The expression was passive, almost statuesque so far as the lips were concerned, but tenderness and sympathy shone in her eyes. The even, dusky pallor of her skin, without the slightest tinge of sallowness, was exquisite. It was the exact tint which her oval face demanded.

“Poor fellow,” she murmured. “Are you sure, Quamina, he’s not seriously hurt?”

“Massa well. He no bad,” said the negro sullenly. “Quamina make him better.”

The man advanced towards the couch, evidently with the intention of lifting Ralstone and carrying him out of the house, when the girl interposed.

“What are you going to do, Quamina? Are you mad? Let him be. Tell me all about it, Mrs. Barlowe. I had no idea anything was going on. I was in the back room, you know, and with my singing I could hear nothing.”

The woman entered into a prolix description of how Quamina went to the door out of curiosity and found the man apparently dead, lying on the step. Of course, she knew nothing of the cause of the disturbance, nor how the man came to be lying where he was. The girl put a number of questions, but Mrs. Barlowe could say no more. As for Quamina, when she turned to him, he either could not or would not answer otherwise than in a series of grunts, which might mean anything or nothing. He stood with his aims folded, evidently in an ill-humour.

The girl went up to Ralstone, whose eyes had never ceased to follow her.

“This isn’t my house,” said she, “but I’m sure my friend, Mrs. Glover, will let you stay here until you’re strong enough to walk by yourself.”

“I think I shall be able to do that soon, now that I’ve seen you,” said he, speaking with difficulty and in a low voice.

She smiled; and to Ralstone her smile was ravishing. It set his heart beating, so much so that a faint glow suffused his face, which before had been pale enough.

“That’s rather a doubtful compliment. I’d no idea that my presence would have the effect of making you wish to go away. Perhaps I’d better leave you.”

“No​—​no. I implore you to stay. I’ve so much to say to you, but​—​but for the moment I’ve so little breath. It doesn’t seem real​—​the sight of you, I mean. I’m afraid to ask you the question that’s worrying me, lest it should prove I’ve made a terrible mistake.”

The girl stared at him in amazement.

“I don’t understand you,” she cried. “What are you talking about?”

“Haven’t we once met?”

“No. I’ve never seen you before.”

“Are you in earnest? Look at me well. You are the same​—​that is, your face​—​not, your dress.”

She remained mute. Her eyes travelled over his face, but her expression remained unmoved. The smile had fled from her eyes. Maybe she thought the stranger wanted to make her acquaintance.

“I don’t recognise you,” she said at length, coldly.

“God, is it possible? I thought women never forgot. If I’ve blundered, I humbly apologise.”

She made no reply, but her eyes never left his face.

“Of course, I’m altered. I forgot that,” he went on. “You see, I’ve been knocked about a bit​—​out of recognition, perhaps. If I hadn’t the bandage over my forehead, if my lips weren’t cut and swollen​—​I don’t quite know what shape my nose is, it feels like a pound weight​—​and I fancy one at least of my eyes is black. But if I hadn’t been twisted out of my proper self, the sight of me might remind you of a certain ride to Bath. You didn’t wait for the port wine negus. I’ve never forgotten that​—​not because of the negus, but because you vanished. Now, am I wrong?”

For an instant her face changed. Ralstone could not decide what her expression meant. It certainly did not indicate that she was pleased to see him again​—​that is, if it were she.

“You?” said she, with a little catch of the breath. “Oh …”

Apparently she intended to say something more, but she pulled herself up short and the beautiful mouth hardened.

“Yes. Ralstone’s my name. That’s the first thing I’ve got to get right. The blockhead of an ostler at the ‘Angel and Sun’ told you it was Halstead. It isn’t. Old Halstead’s my stepfather. He’s no blood relation. Does that make any difference to you?”

“All the difference in the world,” she breathed in so low a voice that he hardly caught the words. But by following the movement of her lips he was helped.

One other person in the room was as much interested in what she said as was Jack Ralstone. This was Quamina. The man had crept close to the girl, and was listening intently.

“Is that negro behind you your servant?” asked Ralstone. “I’ve already thanked him for bringing me in here and looking after me, but I don’t think I need his services any more.”

The girl wheeled round sharply. Quamina, knowing he was detected, was already stealing away.

“You may go, Quamina,” said she. “If I want you I’ll ring.”

The negro grinned, if showing his teeth like a wild cat could be called a grin, and quitted the room noiselessly.

“Quamina means no harm,” went on the girl. “He’s like a faithful dog​—​jealous of every one of whom I take any particular notice. Mrs. Barlowe says he objected to her telling me about you. You mustn’t mind. Poor Quamina, I owe everything to his fidelity​—​and he has suffered so much. He would die for me if need be,” and she sighed deeply.

Ralstone could have said as much. Indeed, his impending duel with Sir Phineas Tenbury might end in that, for was not the challenge to fight forced upon him on her behalf? But he could not tell her this.

In some marvellous way the sight of her revived his drooping spirits and renewed his vigour. She had, in his imagination, come to his rescue from another world. He had never thought to see her again, and here, in his hour of dire distress, she had miraculously appeared. Ralstone’s strain of romance dominated him at that moment, and her apparition was to him not a coincidence, but a miracle. Fate had ordained the meeting: for what purpose who could say?

Meanwhile, lying there before her, apparently helpless, was abhorrent to him, and he raised himself to a sitting position and attempted to put on his tattered coat. It was a futile struggle. Until then he had not realised how bruised were his arm and shoulders, and how strained were the muscles. But he was grateful to his brutal assailants. But for them he would never have seen her, but for them he would not have felt the soft touch of her fingers when, bending down, she strove to assist him.

In a flash that never-to-be-forgotten ride with her clinging to him came back vividly to his mind. But there was a difference. He had then his back turned towards her. He was now looking into her eyes, lost in their fathomless depths. A thrill went over him, and she noticed it.

“You’re cold,” said she softly.

“Cold?” and he laughed. “No, I’m not. And yet in a way I suppose I am. I have to be, you know,” and involuntarily he glanced at Mrs. Barlowe, who was looking a little puzzled at the absorption of the two. The expression of her face denoted that she was a little scandalised at the interest the girl was showing in a complete stranger. It made it worse that the stranger was young, handsome, and apparently a gentleman.

Ralstone wondered if she understood him. Anyhow, if he was cold, she was icy. He might as well have been silent for anything that her face told him. She simply went on coaxing his arm into his coat-sleeve. Not another word passed. Jack Ralstone could not trust himself to speak. How could he, with her soft, round arms, bare to the elbow, hovering about him?

When the coat was finally adjusted he essayed to rise to his feet. She protested.

“You mustn’t go yet. You’re not sufficiently recovered.”

“Thank you. I could stop here for ever if I might, but——”

His voice sank. A sudden giddiness had seized him. He had overrated his strength, and his face had gone deadly white.

Mrs. Barlowe,” said she, rapidly wheeling round. “Fetch my cordial water and vinaigrette, please. They’re on my toilet-table.”

Mrs. Barlowe hesitated. It did not seem quite proper to leave the two young people alone.

“Shall I send Quamina here to help you?” said she stiffly.

“No, no. What do I want with Quamina? Do what I tell you. Quick. See, he’s going to swoon, I believe.”

The girl spoke in quite an angry tone. Mrs. Barlowe said no more, but fled.