Chapter XVII


“My good fellow,” said Ralstone, “we’ve met before, but I want you to make sure. Have a good look at me.” Quamina wheeled round and fixed his black gleaming eyes on the young Englishman. They were like the eyes of a wild animal fearing an enemy at every turn.

“Me not know massa.”

“What’s the good of pretending you don’t? Have another look. Didn’t you carry me in your arms into Mrs. Glover’s house in King Street when I didn’t know whether you were black or white? A week ago or so. Don’t you recollect?”

The negro said nothing. He made some kind of motion with his head. It might mean either yes or no.

“You were a good friend to me then and I haven’t thanked you properly. Put this in your pocket.”

Ralstone drew out a guinea and handed it to the negro. The latter drew himself up proudly.

“Quamina no take money, sah.”

Ralstone stared in amazement. But he wasn’t to be put off.

“I admire your independence, though why you should stand on your dignity hang me if I can understand. If you won’t take money will you take my hand?”

“No, massa. Me no shake hands. Dat make me your friend. I no friend.” His white teeth showed for an instant, and the thick lips closed tightly upon them.

“As you please. You’re not like your mistress. I’m going to speak to her and I’ll swear she won’t be as ungracious as you are.”

“No, sah …”

Agile as a hare he had moved a step beyond Ralstone, had wheeled round and was confronting him threateningly.

“Oh, go to the devil!” shouted Ralstone at once, losing his temper.

“De debbil you say, sah?”

“Yes, or the river. If you dare to stop me I’ll pitch you over the parapet.”

The negro’s reply was to seize Ralstone’s arms. The next moment the two men were writhing like a couple of snakes. Had any of Jack’s Corinthian friends been present, they would have found it difficult to lay a bet on either man. Not a blow was struck. It was a wrestling match pure and simple. Ralstone was a skilled wrestler, but he had found his equal. Not that the negro knew anything about the Somersetshire, Westmorland or Cornish styles, but he was the possessor of some curious “holds” and grips which rather bothered the Englishman, used as he was to orthodox methods. His efforts to “cross buttock” his opponent were continually frustrated. Any other way of getting free seemed impossible, so ironlike was the grasp of the black.

While they were bending backwards and forwards like two saplings swayed by the wind, a sweet, penetrating voice was heard.

“What mad trick are you trying, Quamina. Let go at once. This is my business, not yours.”

The negro obeyed sullenly. He dropped his hands and glared savagely at Ralstone, who flushed and panting with the severe struggle had his eyes fixed on the girl. She had raised her veil and her face was more enchanting and witch-like than ever he had seen it.

“You are faithfully served,” said he between great gasps of breath. “I can guess why your servant tackled me. I’m afraid I was hasty. I told him I would throw him into the river. I’m sorry. He took me for one of your enemies. I’m not that, am I?”

“No. I’ve every reason to be grateful to you. Leave us, Quamina.”

“Missie not cross?”

“No. You did what you thought was right, but you were mistaken. Remember, this gentleman is my friend and yours too.”

“I said as much as that, but he wouldn’t have it,” rejoined Ralstone. “It doesn’t matter. I longed to see you, and now that the chance has come, never mind under what circumstances.”

Quamina had retired a few paces. The two were face to face.

“I think we’re safe from interruption here,” went on Ralstone. “Shall we walk to the end of the bridge. Your man can follow if it pleases you.”

The girl bowed and spoke to the negro in foreign lingo. They strolled on together for a minute or so, neither saying a word. Ralstone was the first to break the silence.

“I was beginning to fear you would not keep your promise. A week’s gone over and you made no sign. You had forgotten, I thought.”

“I did not forget. How could I? But it was difficult. I had but one word and I could not bring myself to write it. But now that I’ve met you I will try to say it. Farewell.”

“Farewell? Surely​—​surely you don’t mean that,” stammered Ralstone, stating at her aghast.

“Yes. It had to be said some time and the sooner the better.”

“Why? In justice to me I ought to know.”

She averted her head and was silent.

He came a little closer to her and would have slid his arm within hers, but she gave him no encouragement. She drew her shawl tighter and the garment furnished an insurmountable barrier.

“Am I to understand you refuse to tell me?” he asked.

“Not now. What has to be done must be done. I suppose you’ll know​—​or at least you’ll guess​—​later on when the time comes.”

“When will that be?”

“I can’t say.”

“You mean you won’t say,” he burst out savagely, “I wish you’d clear up this mystery. But I suppose you don’t trust me. If you only knew what you are to me——”

“I’m nothing to you,” she cried with bitterness in her voice, “I’m only a waif and stray. And the work I’ve set myself to do will make you hate me. That’s why I want you to pass out of my life and forget.”

“I don’t intend to do the first, and as for the second, that’s impossible,” he returned doggedly. “I may be very stupid, but I think I’m right in assuming from what you hinted at when we last talked together that your intention, whatever it might have been, was altered when you imagined I was Simon Halstead’s son.”

“Yes,” she answered, but so faintly that he hardly caught the sound.

“And that on discovering I was not in any way related to him, you went back to your original resolve?”

She bowed her head.

“Well?” he inquired impatiently, as though he expected her to follow the lead she had given him, “won’t you solve the mystery?”

“No. It must remain where it is.”

He bit his lips. Was there no way of overcoming her firmness? He tried to look her in the face, but she never gave him the chance. He could only see her profile. In the mystic subdued light it was more like inanimate marble than flesh and blood. But it was not less beautiful on that account.

“Do you know what has happened to me since I’ve been in London? Something that concerns you.”

She turned towards him involuntarily, her face full of apprehension. It was the first time since they had been talking that she showed any emotion.

“Concerns me?” she faltered.

“Yes, I’ve been watched every day, and every night too, when it was possible, by a spy in the pay of Sir Phineas Tenbury.”

She clutched his arm agitatedly.

That man?”

“Ah, I see this interests you. So much the better. An hour or so ago I ran across the rascal and the result of the interview was most satisfactory. I left him rolling in the gutter. I doubt if the blackguard ’ll be anxious to spy upon me again.”

“But how did you know he had anything to do with Sir Phineas Tenbury, and why should Sir Phineas spy upon you?”

“As to your first question, you may take what I say as the truth. As to your second, I have my suspicions, but only you can verify them.”

“You spoke just now of my mystery,” she returned after a pause. “Haven’t you one of your own?”

“Maybe, but mine depends upon yours, or at least upon part of yours. You told me the other night that you dared not go out in the daytime for fear of some man. When I mentioned Sir Phineas Tenbury’s name just now you shook with terror. I could feel your fingers quivering. The answer to all this is perfectly plain. Sir Phineas is the man you’re afraid of. Let me have the whole story and I’ll explain why he should spy upon me.”

“I feel reluctant to thrust my troubles on you. You’ve done enough for me already and I can never repay you, but——” she stopped hesitatingly.

Jack Ralstone was beginning to understand the ways of women. By some curious instinct he felt that if left to herself she would tell him far more than if he sought to draw the facts from her, so he said nothing, but contrived to insinuate his arm around her. She made no protest, to his huge delight. His caress somehow established a confidence to which she insensibly yielded.

“Oh, I must tell you,” she went on swiftly, as though she felt that by delay the impulse to seek sympathy would vanish. “Perhaps you ought to know, for it was through that man I came to be with those horrible people from whom you rescued me.”

Again he was silent; the tender pressure of his arm was a sufficient answer.

“I came to England​—​never mind from what country​—​about a year ago, with a set purpose in my mind. I found myself without money and unable to move a step towards accomplishing my object. I could sing, not like your fine singers at our operas and concerts, but in my own way. My songs are not like English or Italian ones, but I suppose after a fashion they had some novelty, for when I was desperate I went to Mr. Barnett, the manager of Vauxhall Gardens, and he heard me sing and at once gave me an engagement. I shall never forget my first appearance. I was overwhelmed with the splendour, the millions of lamps as they seemed, the crowds of people with their faces turned upwards waiting for me. When the music struck up to accompany me I was overcome with nervousness and I saw myself being hissed from the stage. Then I forgot everything but the music of my country and I fancied myself back again across the wide sea. I began​—​it was all a dream​—​I sang my song right through, whether well or ill I don’t know, and I heard a great sound of the clapping of hands and shouts. I had to sing my song over again. Mr. Barnett said to me as I came off, ‘You’ll do, little one. You’ve made a hit.’ After that I sang every night and my name was in big letters on the bills.”

“Your name,” whispered Ralstone. “Yes, that’s what I want to know. I’ll swear it isn’t Amelia Hart.”

“No. It’s Nyra Seaton. I used my Christian name at Vauxhall. I wouldn’t have done so​—​for reasons​—​but Mr. Barnett took a fancy to it and insisted upon no other. I suppose I was a great success, for I sang at the Gardens until the winter months and was engaged again in the spring. Then it was my persecution began. Sir Phineas and his friends were constantly there and he began to pursue me with his offensive attentions. I was warned against the man, but there was no necessity for warnings, I hated him from the very first and persistently repulsed him and returned his presents.”

“The damned scoundrel,” muttered Ralstone under his breath.

“My coldness, my rudeness, my anger made no difference. He continued to insult me with his fulsome flattery, his offers, his insinuations. At last I began to be frightened. He swore he loved me passionately and that nothing should ever turn him. He hinted at all kinds of things and I had no one to protect me. Had Quamina been with me I should have felt safer, but Quamina, like myself, had his living to get, and he had joined a boxing booth and was away in the country at fairs and races. He is reckoned a splendid boxer.”

“So I should think,” said Ralstone, “if he fights as well as he wrestles.”

“Yes. I was quite terrified when I saw you struggling with him. But you are wonderful too, or he would have dashed you to the ground.”

Her eyes gleamed suddenly upon him. He thrilled with pleasure, as much at the admiration expressed in her face as in her words.

“It’s nice of you to say that. But you make me jealous of Quamina. I want to serve you as he does.”

“You cannot. It’s impossible,” she rejoined with emphasis. “It was because he was not at my side, ever ready to give his life for me, that all this trouble has happened. He would have killed Sir Phineas.”

“I may have to do that,” put in Ralstone hastily.

“No. I forbid you. I’ve escaped him and I want to forget his hateful persecution. It is no affair of yours.”

Ralstone’s lips contracted. He wondered what Nyra​—​a delightful name Nyra he thought​—​would say if she knew that it was his affair.

“As you please​—​for the present. But I’ve stopped your story. Do let me know the rest.”

“Oh, it is soon told. I was leaving the Gardens late one night when I was stopped by a couple of rough men and an old woman. Before I could utter a cry for help a cloak was thrown over my head and I was hurried into some kind of closed vehicle. I struggled to no purpose. Inside the coach or whatever it was I was gagged and bound. Then the two men left me with the old hag, climbed on to the box and the coach was driven off at a great rate. The journey took several hours during which the woman never said a word and I, of course could not speak. We changed horses twice, but I had no chance of appealing to the people at the inn. It was nearly midday when the vehicle stopped, and still gagged and blindfolded I was bundled out into a caravan. One of the men drove away and the other, with the old woman, followed me into the van. The thing jogged on till the evening and was taken on to the dreary common where you first saw me.”

“I thank Heaven I did. And the villainous plot was hatched by that dastard Sir Phineas?”

“Oh yes. For a whole week I was kept a prisoner and half starved. I believe firmly that this ill-treatment was part of the plan to enfeeble me in mind and body so that I might be forced into submission. They were mistaken. I would have died first. One day not a particle of food passed my lips, and in the evening, quite unexpectedly, Sir Phineas made his appearance. There was a scene between us. I drew my knife which I had managed to conceal, and threatened to stab myself. I suppose he saw that I meant to do it for he let me alone and with a jeering laugh said he could wait, and went away. The next morning I found that my gaolers had searched for my knife and had taken it away. My treatment after that was vilely cruel​—​you saw something of it.”

“My God, yes. It made my blood boil.”

Nyra paused. Her bosom heaved violently The memory of that terrible time was evidently intensely painful.

“I never saw Sir Phineas after that,” she continued with an effort. “And then my imprisonment and torture came to an end​—​through you. Oh, whatever happens I shall never forget your bravery. I could have screamed with joy every time you struck that monster, Jerry Winch.”

She turned her face swiftly towards Ralstone. Tears stood in her eyes. She put out her hand and he clasped it warmly. She said nothing, but he understood how anxious she was that he should think she was full of gratitude.

“And after what you’ve told me, do you still say that the punishment of that scoundrel Tenbury is not my affair?” he demanded reproachfully.

“Yes, you’ve done enough.”

“Not nearly. I swear to you I shall have no peace until I’ve brought the villain to his knees.” Ralstone’s voice, though low, vibrated with passion. His hand, which still held hers, suddenly tightened. She winced. He begged her pardon.

“It’s nothing,” she murmured faintly. She did not contradict him and he was glad.

“What happened to you after you ran from me?” he asked presently.

“I tramped all the way to London. I had no money, the old woman had taken every penny. But she could not take my voice, and at every town and village I sang in the street, and the people gave me money. Some of the villagers let me sleep in their cottages. It took me a fortnight to walk to London. You see, I had to spend some time in singing, and I went out of my way to go through a town when I thought I might pick up a few coins. I was at Windsor while a theatrical company was playing, and Mrs. Glover heard me singing, and stopped and spoke. She was a good, kind creature, and I had to tell her something of my story. When she found I was ‘Nyra,’ she insisted upon my going to her house in King Street, and so I did, and there I’ve been ever since. She knows why I daren’t go out in the day-time, but she doesn’t know who my persecutor is. No one knows but you, Mr. Ralstone.”

“Not even Quamina?”

“No. I’m afraid to tell him. He has all the savage instincts of his race. It would mean his seeking out Sir Phineas. He’d wait his opportunity and he’d use his knife without scruple when his chance came. All he knows is that I’ve enemies lying in wait for me, and he doesn’t pick and choose. My injuries are his. He doesn’t trouble to think that you may be my friend. He hasn’t the sense. Besides, he’s very jealous of anybody who notices me.”

Ralstone saw that this being so, the negro might very likely prove a source of trouble. He would have to be cautious.

“Do you walk here often?” said he.

“Generally every night, if fine. You see, the bridge is so quiet, and there are so few people. And I like to look upon the river. I see in it something of myself. When it’s rough and tossing about the small boats, indifferent whether it smashes them or not, it reminds me of my own uncontrollable fits of passion. If it’s quiet, I’m placid and maybe sad. If the wind ruffles the surface and the sun tips the waves and makes them sparkle like diamonds, it shows me when I’m sanguine and full of energy. Oh, yes, the river’s very beautiful.”

“I understand. Would you be terribly offended if I too walked on the bridgesome evenings?”

“It’s as free for you as for me,” was her reply.

“Thanks. But that tiresome champion of yours. Must he be always with you?”

“Yes,” she answered quickly.

“Oh,” said Ralstone in disappointed tone. “But perhaps when he gets more used to me he won’t be so savage.”

“Used to you? How?”

“That’s not so easy to say. So much depends upon you. I want to see you again. I must. I want to know more about you​—​it isn’t mere curiosity, I swear. There are reasons​—​important reasons; they have to do with that scoundrel Tenbury.”

“In what way?” she asked a little agitatedly.

“I can’t tell you yet. Nothing is settled.”

She fixed her eyes upon his face as if to read there the meaning of his words, but his expression told her nothing. It was grave, that was all.

“I’m grateful for the interest you take in me,” said she, slowly, “but I go back to what I started with. I must say farewell.”

“You may say it if you please, but I don’t.”

He waited impatiently for her answer, but none came. Anyway, she did not protest, and that to some extent was encouraging.

They had arrived at the Surrey end of the bridge, and were returning. Quamina was always some eight or ten yards from them.

The church bells, chiming ten o’clock, came with a mellow sound. The river traffic was subdued. The pleasure-boats had practically ceased. They would not be busy again until close upon midnight. Nyra held out her hand.

“Good night,” said she softly.

Ralstone’s heart bounded. This surely meant that she had not bidden him adieu definitely. He took the soft little hand and, moved by a sudden impulse, he raised it to his lips. He was startled by a harsh sound from behind, not unlike the growl of a wild beast. Nyra quickly withdrew her hand.

“Quamina’s angry,” she whispered. “I’ve kept him waiting too long.”

She turned swiftly. Ralstone did not seek to detain her, and she walked with rapid footsteps to the negro, and Ralstone watched them hurrying towards the Strand end of the bridge. He did not attempt to keep pace with them​—​he knew she would not like it. When he reached the turnstile they had disappeared.

In the Strand, Ralstone jumped into a hackney coach and bade the driver set him down at White’s. He wanted to see Lord Walsham, and found him where he expected​—​in the card-room.

“When you’ve finished your game,” said he quietly to his friend, who was playing whist, “I’d like to have a word with you.”

Walsham nodded and went on dealing. The rubber was over in a quarter of an hour or so, and the two went into the general club-room and sat down in a quiet corner.

“Walsham,” said he, “you must arrange this matter between Tenbury and myself at once. Go to him and insist upon his appointing another man in the place of Lord Houston.”

“What’s happened to put you in such a devil of a hurry?” asked the young nobleman.

“Only that I’ve discovered Sir Phineas to be a greater blackguard than I took him to be. Don’t seek to inquire any further than this. Please oblige me.”

“Certainly, if you insist. At the same time, I’m bound to tell you that in my opinion he won’t fight until he’s discharged his debt of honour.”

“To the deuce with his debt and his honour too. I’m going to fight him. For Heaven’s sake don’t raise any objections. I’m not in the mood for quibbling.”

“I see you’re not. I’ll do what you wish. Make your mind easy. It’s too late to begin a wild-goose chase to-night. I’ll call upon Tenbury to-morrow.”


“Are you going in for a flutter? You’re generally lucky at écarté.

“No. I’ve other things to think about. Good night and again thank you.”