Chapter XVIII

Stroke and Counter-Stroke

Lady Barbara, boiling over with wrath, was at the milliner’s shop in Cranbourne Alley at the time she had fixed, eager to pour out the dregs of her bad temper on Sir Phineas. Perhaps the baronet anticipated something of the kind, for he came not, nor did he send an apology. The lady waited an hour and a half, snubbed Mrs. Matthews unmercifully when the woman attempted to console her by suggesting excuses for Tenbury, and went away in a fury.

The next morning Benham, Tenbury’s valet, brought her a curt note from his master, suggesting the prudence of meeting at an earlier hour, before Mrs. Matthews put up her shutters. If Lady Barbara were then seen entering the shop by any of her friends, it would be thought that her only business was to make a purchase.

By the time her ladyship read the note she had had a night’s rest and had calmed down. She realised the policy of discretion, and returned an answer consenting to the arrangement, and appointing seven o’clock for the meeting. Mrs. Matthews closed her shop at half-past.

Sir Phineas was still in bed when Lady Barbara’s answer came. Benham brought him his breakfast, and the baronet, while amusing himself with the meal​—​breakfast with him was always a farce​—​tried to piece out what the “something important” which had so agitated Lady Barbara could be. He gave it up eventually, for neither of her notes had given him the slightest clue.

Sir Phineas dallied through his toilet, and, while his man was shaving him, Vicary was announced.

“Let him come here,” said the baronet.

Something unexpected must have brought the spy, he thought, and he was eager to learn what had happened. Directly he caught sight of Vicary’s face in the glass, he knew the matter was serious. The man’s complexion was leaden, his lips were red and disagreeably moist, and his eyes, no longer shifty and cunning, had a vicious look in them, the meaning of which Sir Phineas, from previous experience, understood perfectly well. The spy had come to grief, had probably received bodily chastisement, and had consoled himself with deep potations of “heavy wet.” He was beginning to pour out the story of his woes, but Tenbury checked him.

“Wait until Benham’s finished,” said he, harshly. “I’m not going to take the chance of a gash.”

So Vicary stood, his drooping shoulders more conspicuous than ever, his eyes scowling and he twisting his hat in his not over-clean hands.

“Now, then, what is it?” said Sir Phineas, rising from his chair after Benham had powdered his face and oiled and brushed his hair, his moustachios and his whiskers.

“This job’s done with, Sir Phineas,” the fellow burst out. “I’m not going to keep watch on that young tiger again. Get some one else, sir. He spotted me last night in Covent Garden. He nearly choked me, and pretty near shook the breath out of my body. He dug his knuckles in my throat and I can hardly speak, and he finished by rolling me in a mud-heap. I was to tell you to do your spy work yourself, and he threatened, if he found me watching him again, to half kill me.”

Sir Phineas shrugged his shoulders and appeared to regard Vicary’s troubles with stony indifference. As a matter of fact he was secretly much perturbed.

“Just pull yourself together and go over the whole story. Don’t omit the smallest trifle,” said he, coldly.

Vicary obeyed; the baronet listened thoughtfully.

“Why the devil didn’t you disguise yourself better?” was his comment, when the man had no more to say. “You did your work clumsily. Where did Ralstone go after he’d done with you?”

“How do I know, sir? I couldn’t follow him, covered as I was with mud from head to foot, and bruised and mauled so terribly. You’ll have to get somebody else.”

“You’re a fool. I take it a little golden ointment will cure your hurt.”

Sir Phineas dived his hand into his pocket and pulled out five guineas.

The man took the coins, but expressed no thanks.

“What’s Mr Ralstone been doing since the rumpus?”

“Staying in bed mostly, so I got out of one of the scullery-maids at the ‘Tavistock.’ If the way he tumbled me’s anything to go by, he don’t seem much the worse.”

“I thought you were a dabster at the spy game. You don’t seem to have learned much when you were an ‘informer,’” said Sir Phineas sarcastically.

“That’s a gentlemanly occupation, sir, compared to this,” retorted the fellow sullenly.

“You mean it’s safer. Do you tell me you can’t tog yourself out so that you wouldn’t be recognised?”

“I don’t know, sir. All I can say is that the young bruiser remembered having seen me at ‘The George,’ Andover.”

“The devil he did. I’ll swear it was due more to your stupidity than to his sharpness. Tell me, were you ass enough to let out that I was employing you?”

“No, sir. He guessed it, though.”

Sir Phineas stroked his moustache thoughtfully. It was of supreme importance that Ralstone should be watched, for he could not get it out of his head that his rival knew where Nyra was, but how could he get another spy at a moment’s notice? A woman would serve his purpose better than a man. If he could but lay his hands on old Sally Winch, who had been so valuable to him over Nyra’s abduction, she would play the part admirably. Where was she to be found? The last he had heard of her was that she and her son Jerry had been running a boxing booth at Stepney Fair, and varying this business with tricking the public at swindling games. They would most likely be spending their ill-gotten gains at a “boozing ken” in Wapping, the situation of which was known to him.

“See here, Vicary,” said he, after a long pause. “Find your way to a fresh disguise​—​a patch over your eye, a bandage round your head, and a twist of your body as though you were a cripple, to hide your confoundedly ugly shoulders, ought to do the trick. It’s your shoulders that give you away. Dress as a beggar and stick on the kerb. It’ll be only for a day or two. After that I mayn’t want you.”

Vicary evidently didn’t relish the proposition. He had a wholesome dread of Ralstone, but finally he consented and shuffled away.

Sir Phineas had not got over the disquietude arising out of Vicary’s mishap when a visitor called, the announcement of whose name sent a black frown stealing over his face. The visitor was Lord Walsham. Tenbury had no close acquaintance with Walsham, and there could be only one business which could bring him. He had come on behalf of Jack Ralstone.

“Devil take the fellow,” he muttered. “I verily believe he was born to plague me. The sooner he’s out of the world the better.”

But when Lord Walsham was shown into the room, Sir Phineas was as smooth and as smiling as ever. He bowed and pointed to a chair.

“Thanks. It’s hardly worth while sitting down,” rejoined the young nobleman politely. “My errand won’t take more than a couple of minutes. I’m sure you’ll agree with Mr. Ralstone that the little affair between him and you has been hanging about too long. The fault isn’t his. Lord Houston, who was to act for you, has not returned from Paris, and no other second has been mentioned. As you’ve been silent on the matter, Mr. Ralstone has requested me to ask you to name a substitute.”

“I can do that at once. Captain Frederick Charteris will be happy to serve me. You will find him at the Guards’ Club,” rejoined Sir Phineas stiffly.

“I am infinitely obliged. I presume that, like my principal, you don’t wish for further delay?”

“The sooner the better, sir.”

“I thank you, Sir Phineas. It saves much trouble when the two principals are agreed on so important a point. I have the honour to wish you good day.”

“Good day to your lordship.”

Tenbury’s manner was offensive. As he bowed, Lord Walsham murmured to himself, “Distinctly hoggish. If Ralstone were not going to fight him, I should feel inclined to call him out myself.”

The fact was Sir Phineas found it hard work to control his temper. His bile, already stirred up by Vicary’s failure, was now bubbling over. Ralstone had scored by taking the first step to bring matters to a conclusion, and this had sent him into a tempest of passion, which burst out in full fury after Lord Walsham was gone. The truth was, he did want the duel postponed. It was a paradoxical position, for the man whom he would like to hurry out of the world was just then indispensable, if his crafty plans were to succeed. Only through Ralstone did he hope to discover where Nyra was hiding, while upon Ralstone’s marriage with Lady Barbara Dacre depended his getting free from an entanglement with a passionate, self-willed woman, who was entirely governed by emotions which she was utterly unable to control.

And deep down in his mind was a temptation which he hardly dared formulate into a definite thought. But it existed all the same, and its possibilities continually haunted him step by step. Ralstone wedded to Lady Barbara​—​Simon Halstead’s reconciliation with his stepson​—​Lady Barbara a rich woman​—​her husband killed in a duel​—​Lady Barbara Ralstone a widow​—​her marriage with himself, Sir Phineas Tenbury. How easy it all was! How admirably everything dovetailed with each other! But to carry it out, the duel must be delayed. The non-payment of his debt of honour was a valid reason why it should be. Men who understood such things would applaud rather than condemn him.

In the midst of his ponderings, to which successive nips of brandy contributed, another visitor was announced​—​his friend Captain Frederick Charteris, a grey-headed man, stiff and formal in manner.

“Lord Walsham has just called on me,” said the grizzled soldier, “so I thought I’d better see you at once. Of course, I’ll do all that’s needful, but rather a curious point has cropped up, which rests with you to settle. Walsham tells me you owe his man £4,000. Now it appears that this is a bet, and while it’s owing you can’t possibly meet Ralstone.”

“So I once thought. The damned thing’s worried me more than enough, but what the deuce can I do? I’ve exhausted the whole tribe of Judah. They won’t lend me a shilling. Does it matter very much?”

“It matters very much to me, Tenbury.”

Charteris was a martinet in everything he did, and his notions of what constituted gentlemanly conduct were very strict. Straight as a die himself, he had a horror of being mixed up in anything that might be considered at all questionable.

“I don’t see why. Walsham had no business to drag in the bet; my quarrel with Ralstone has nothing to do with money.”

“That may be, and if it were simply a quarrel we’re talking about, it wouldn’t matter a jot. But I’m not concerned with your quarrel. It’s a duel that’s my business​—​a very different thing. If you go on your usual line of fighting, you’re out to wing your man, maybe fatally. If so, and you haven’t squared up, it’ll be said you killed him to avoid payment. You’ll be struck off every club you belong to. Damn it, man, you’ll practically be cashiered and ruined.”

The honest and punctilious Captain hadn’t the slightest idea that he was playing into Tenbury’s hands. Sir Phineas had no intention of letting Charteris know of his desire for delay. It suited him admirably that the argument should come from his second. The good faith of the old soldier would not be questioned.

“You hold, then, that the debt must be discharged before I meet Ralstone?” said he, after a long minute of silence, during which he appeared to be turning the matter over in his mind, whereas it was but a piece of acting.

“Unquestionably, as a man of honour you’ve no other course.”

“Perhaps you’re right. Of course, I’d like to plank the money down, but​—​how long would you consider a reasonable time?”

“How the deuce can one answer such a question? If it’s known you’re straining every nerve to raise the needful, Ralstone can’t throw a stone at you. I’ve already hinted as much to Lord Walsham, and if you think as I do, I shall write to him to that effect. He’ll see the reasonableness of the thing.”

“Very well. I’m in your hands,” rejoined Tenbury, with a well-assumed air of resignation.

Captain Charteris expressed his satisfaction and went off with zest to further the negotiations. It was a task after his own heart.