Chapter XX

The Trysting-Place on the Bridge

“Who on earth would have supposed the fellow would have had such a nice sense of what he calls honour? The debt ought not to stand in the way. Though I’m hard up, as you know, Walsham, I don’t care a curse about the money. I want to get even with the scoundrel.”

“Of course. Charteris tells me that his man is as eager to fight as you are. It’s Charteris himself who’s the obstacle. There’s a lot of the pipeclay and the drill-sergeant’s stick about the captain. He’s as firm as a rock on the point that while bets between principals exist there ought to be no fight. I’m inclined to agree with him, but to oblige you I was willing to give way, but Charteris won’t hear of it. However, you mayn’t have to wait long.”

“What makes you think that?” demanded Ralstone gloomily. “There’s not a money-lender in London who’ll advance Tenbury a shilling.”

“I’m aware of that. I made it my business to call on Charteris this morning to discuss the matter again, and he told me he’d had a letter late last night from Sir Phineas to the effect that he was certain to be able to borrow the money from Lord Houston. Houston came into a fortune some three months ago, and he’s flinging his gold about like water.”

“At the best it means a delay of at least a fortnight.”

“Probably; but that’s all in your favour. A few days’ more practice at the foils and pistols won’t hurt you.”

“I’m not so sure. There’s such a thing as getting stale. Excepting the few days after the Thurtell battering, I’ve been doing nothing but hard work at both at Castellani’s. Castellani was good enough to tell me this week that he considered I was at the top of my form. I succeeded in breaking through his guard yesterday, and I snuffed the candle nine times out of ten at fifteen paces.”

“I congratulate you. My advice is to take it easy for a week or so.”

The two men were at White’s. At that moment a member bustled in with the Globe and Traveller in his hand. His face was serious, his manner full of importance.

“A most frightful thing has happened,” said he, approaching the friends and breaking into their conversation without ceremony. “The Globe says that Lady Barbara Dacre met with a fatal accident last night. She’s dead.”

“Great Heaven!” cried Ralstone, terribly shocked and with genuine emotion in his voice. He could say no more. He was stunned. The news was incredible. It was Lord Walsham who asked how the catastrophe had come about.

The journals of a century ago did not understand the art of sensational newsmongering. They were contented to record bare facts expressed tersely. Space was limited. All that could be learned from the Globe was that Lady Barbara Dacre was trying on a bonnet in the inner room of a milliner’s shop in Cranbourne Alley when, in turning round, her foot became entangled in some wire and waste stuff on the floor and she fell, striking her head on the fender and receiving so severe a wound that she was dead before a doctor could be summoned. “Great sympathy,” the paragraph went on, “has been expressed with his Grace the Duke of Endsleigh and the callers at his mansion in Berkeley Square this morning were very numerous, but the duke was too prostrated by grief to see anyone.”

Lord Walsham uttered a few words of condolence, but Ralstone hardly heard them.

“I wish to God we had parted friends,” broke out Jack in choking tones. A lump had risen in his throat and he grasped the young nobleman’s hand held out to him in kindliness.

“You’ve nothing to reproach yourself with, my dear Ralstone.”

“Perhaps not; but it’s an awful thing to think about. Poor creature. How handsome she was​—​just at the beginning of life too! I ought, I suppose, to call upon the duke. It’ll be a terribly painful interview​—​especially after my breaking off the engagement. I can’t tell him why. I wouldn’t say a word against poor Lady Barbara for words.”

“It’s no use trying to see him for a few days. I know his Grace’s peculiar humour. He hates pity. He’ll receive you with cold politeness, hear what you have to say, express his obligation and that’ll be all. I should write if I were you.”

“I hate letters of condolence. They always seem more or less false. In my case, what can I say that won’t sound hypocritical?”

“The less said the better. The duke understands the rules of etiquette as well as any man in the world. A respectful formula will suffice. He wouldn’t appreciate expressions of real feeling. More likely than not he’d despise them.”

Ralstone felt in his heart that Walsham correctly gauged the duke’s character. But he wanted to do the right thing and as promptly as possible. For the moment the tragedy had driven everything out of his head and he hurried back to the “Tavistock” to piece out something appropriate in the quietude of his bedroom. At last the embarrassing task was accomplished and he dispatched the note by one of the servants. Then he sat down to ponder over the matter and to consider its effect in other directions.

There was Squire Halstead. How would he take it? Seriously, without a doubt, for he knew little or nothing of the state of affairs between his stepson and Lady Barbara, and while she was alive he might have cherished the hope that matters would yet turn out as he had planned.

Thoughts of the Squire revived in Ralstone’s mind a recollection of what Bill Neate had said about him​—​how his strangeness of manner was causing uneasiness to his household. Since Ralstone’s departure from the Manor House not the slightest communication had passed between him and the old man. Jack had stood upon his dignity and Simon Halstead’s was not the nature to give way. Indeed, had he been so inclined, he was not a letter writer and this in itself was a sufficient barrier to a reconciliation.

Now that Jack was free and no longer rankling under the sense of injustice, he was quite willing to do what he could to conciliate Simon. He was not actuated in this feeling by any mercenary motive. Never would he ask his stepfather for a single penny, no matter what his difficulties might be. But it was just these scruples which would prevent him seeking a reconciliation. Old Simon’s nature was suspicious and he would more likely than not attribute Jack’s motive to self-interest and gain.

Yet Simon had lavished money upon him, and up to the time of their difference he had never had to ask twice for any sum that he wanted. He was quite aware that his silence might be construed as indifference and ingratitude.

“Well, I suppose I must risk that. Things’ll have to go on as they are,” was the conclusion he came to.

Then gradually his thoughts went back to Nyra​—​not, indeed, that they had left her for long. He had wandered up and down Waterloo Bridge the night before, but she came not. He proposed doing the same thing that evening, and he carried out his resolution, but with no success.

One thing, however, he had to congratulate himself upon. He saw no more of the spy. He attributed the reason to the absence of Sir Phineas Tenbury. While he was away the operation of watching no doubt had been suspended.

Two days went over, during which he struggled against an intolerable restlessness. His fencing and his pistol practice gave him no satisfaction. He never handled the foils worse nor missed the candles so many times. His instructor could not understand what had come to him. On the third day he received a polite and formal acknowledgment of his letter from the Duke of Endsleigh, and on the fourth came a brief account of the inquest on Lady Barbara. “Death by misadventure” was the verdict, and the nine days’ wonder in the fashionable world was over.

And all this time he had heard nothing, nor had he seen anything of Nyra. He was beginning to worry intensely. Should he call on Mrs. Glover and settle his doubts? He could not bring his mind to this​—​at least, not until he had tried Waterloo Bridge once more.

It was very dark, totally unlike that lovely night when he last met Nyra, full of romance as it was, with the opalescent sky above and the rushing of the flood tide below. The air was close, almost suffocating. The low rumble of distant thunder came now and again. The river was invisible​—​nothing but a huge black gap between the few feebly lighted windows of the waterside taverns. The bridge lamps cast weird patches of moving light on the oily stream, now at its ebb, leisurely crawling down to the sea. Long stretches of mud, which the afternoon sun had been fermenting, sent up a foul odour, mingled with the more wholesome smell of pitch from the coal barges awaiting dawn to be unloaded. The silence was broken now and again by a soft ripple as the currents met against the buttresses of the arches.

“She said she only came here when it was fine,” thought Ralstone, as he squeezed through the turnstile. “I’m doomed to be disappointed​—​and if I do meet her that confounded nuisance of a nigger will be hanging round closer than ever.”

He strolled onwards. There were fewer people than on the occasions of his previous visits, and these were hurrying homewards to escape a possible storm. The recesses were vacant and he almost laughed at himself for looking into them. The last thing she would do, he thought, would be sitting on such a threatening night.

He was wrong. In one of these retreats, just about the crown of the bridge, he caught sight of a shadowy figure, its outlines so indistinct they seemed to mingle with the blackness around. He stopped hesitatingly. The shadowy figure rose and stood perfectly still. It was she. He could not see her face, but the gracefulness of form, the characteristic carriage of the shoulders, and the head slightly thrown back, could hardly be mistaken. He stepped into the recess and held out his hand.

“Nyra,” he whispered.

“You knew me then?”

“Yes, and you?”

“Oh, I think I could pick you out among a thousand.”

She spoke with a curious catching of the breath, as though she had said more than she intended.

“Do you really mean that?” he rejoined quickly; his heart bounding in response more to what her words implied than to the words themselves.

“I told you I should never forget you.”

There was a sweetness in her soft reproach that made Ralstone long to take her in his arms and kiss the beautiful lips that seemed to be awaiting his.

He could see her face now. The murky light from the lamp on its standard above glanced across it as she drooped her head under his ardent gaze, but not before her gleaming eyes for an instant had rested upon him.

It was one of those soul-felt moments when speech seems an intrusion. They stood silent​—​absorbed in each other. Then, as often happens in such an emotional crisis, when they did speak it was in commonplaces​—​the nervous tension seemed to demand some relief.

“I did not expect to see you to-night,” said Ralstone. “I’m afraid we shall have a storm before long.”

“Very likely, but I did not think of that when I started. We’re used to terrific thunderstorms in​—​where I come from.”

“Yes? And where is that?” said Ralstone, with seeming indifference. He did not want to betray the curiosity which was consuming him. “But perhaps I ought not to ask. It’s no concern of mine.”

Her reply whetted that curiosity still more.

“It’s more your concern than you imagine,” said she. “But we needn’t talk about that. Have you been walking on the bridge since we last met?”

“Every night. I’ve gone away feeling the most dismal of mortals. But now that you’re here——”

He paused. Her large eyes were again fixed upon him. Something prevented him finishing the sentence. But indeed he hardly knew what he intended to say.

“Where’s your faithful watchdog to-night?” he asked suddenly.

“You mean Quamina?”

She smiled. It was the first time he had seen a real smile on her face. It was like the flash of sunshine on an April day.

“Of course I do.”

“I’ve done without him. He did not think I was going out and he went with Mrs. Glover to the theatre. He walks on the stage as one of a crowd. He will never leave the house if he imagines I intend to go out. He’ll contrive somehow to follow me.”

“But is he so necessary? You’ve come to-night alone​—​why not always?”

“Have you forgotten the reason?”

“I beg your pardon. Yes. You must be guarded. But for a short time you’re safe. At least I hope so. The man you dread and the man I hate​—​Sir Phineas Tenbury​—​is in Paris. He has other things to think of besides yourself.”

“Are you sure?” she cried anxiously.

“Yes. I’m bound to know the minute he returns. It won’t be for at least another week.”

“You make my heart glad. Oh, if I only had money!” she burst out.

“That’s what I’ve been wishing for myself for days past. And what would you do if you had it?”

“Return to my own country. I ought not to have left it, but I had a great purpose which I felt I ought to fulfil. It was a mistake​—​at least I think so now​—​I didn’t think like that then.”

“So that purpose, whatever it may be, you haven’t carried out?”

“No. I’ve been weak. I had not the courage. So many things have happened to shake my resolve. If I’d not come to England I should have escaped my frightful experience of the ways of English​—​gentlemen.”

“They’re not all such blackguards as Sir Phineas Tenbury,” Ralstone exclaimed warmly. “I’ve many good friends​—​men like myself​—​ready to make the best of life and get as much pleasure out of it as they can. Of course they’re not saints and they play the fool sometimes, but they’d scorn to do a mean or dishonourable action. They would never insult a woman. People shrug their shoulders because the newspapers call us Corinthians​—​it was the ‘Tom and Jerry’ book and play that started the name​—​and because we’re fond of using our fists. Perhaps we are, but we fight fair. After all, the fist comes in handy sometimes, doesn’t it?”

He glanced significantly at Nyra and the warm blood rushed to her face. The colour made her look indescribably beautiful.

“You’re quite right. But for you​—​oh, I tremble to think what would have become of me.”

“Anyway, that’s past and gone. It’s the money we must both think about now. What would it cost to take you back to​—​what did you say was your country?” he asked cunningly.

She refused to rise to the bait.

“I paid £50 for myself and Quamina to come to England.”

“Quamina? Do you propose that he should accompany you?”

“I daren’t leave him behind.”

“Why not? He could earn a good living in England. He might go in for ‘milling.’ The blacks are splendid boxers. If Molyneux had had fair play he would have beaten Tom Cribb. Think of that! The champion of England to go down before a negro​—​though of course Cribb wasn’t champion then. There’s Bill Richmond, another man of colour​—​he’s a good fighter too.”

Ralstone spoke with enthusiasm, as he always did when he got upon the subject of “milling” and the heroes of the prize ring.

“I can’t go without Quamina,” said Nyra firmly. “He mustn’t be left here by himself. I’ve my reasons.”

“Your reasons shall be respected. You know Quamina and I don’t, excepting that I’m sure he doesn’t like me. In spite of that I’ve but one wish. Can you guess it?”

“Indeed no. How can I? What is your wish?”

“That I may be permitted to go with you, Quamina notwithstanding, wherever it may be.”

“You’re wishing impossibilities.”

“I don’t think so. Supposing I came to you with the money——”

“No, no,” she interrupted agitatedly. “It’s not to be thought of.”

“So you say, but I mean to think of it all the same.”

They had been so absorbed in each other that they never heeded the thunder rumble becoming louder and louder. At that moment a vivid lightning flash flooded everything with light. It was followed instantly by a loud crash and then came isolated drops of warm rain as large as sixpences.

“By Jove! We shall be drenched in less than no time,” cried Ralstone. “Let’s run. We can get a coach in the Strand, or at least the shelter of a doorway.”