Chapter III

Two Men and a Woman

“Her ladyship’s out, sir. She’s gone to the Masquerade at the Assembly Rooms,” was the footman’s answer to Ralstone’s inquiry for Lady Barbara.

Jack’s temper took the direction of quarrelsomeness. What business had the lady he was going to marry to attend a masquerade without giving him the chance of accompanying her? She might easily have written. With whom had she gone?

His brow darkened. Until this moment he hadn’t cared very much where Lady Barbara went, either with him or without him. The truth was he had given her very little thought. She always struck him as rather cold and haughty, and he’d never taken the trouble to attempt to thaw her iciness. Owing to the arrangement between Simon and the Duke of Endsleigh, there had been very little wooing on his part. He had been contented to accept the situation. There was something novel in the sensation of being engaged to be married, and at the same time retaining his freedom. He was rather inclined to laugh at the idea of a man being tied to a lady’s apron strings.

But now? A curious pang had shot through his heart. For the first time in his life he knew what jealousy meant. Why was he so changed? Lady Barbara had, he knew full well, gone to balls, routs and the theatre without him, and why not to a masquerade?

Jack could not explain why he had suddenly felt so angry, and he did not attempt to find an explanation. It might have been due to the effects of Ben Stone’s heady port, but the reason was of no consequence. All that was plain to him was that he was in the mood for love-making, and he had looked forward to a few pleasant moments with his betrothed. He had had none up to the present​—​that is to say, there had been no sweetheart exchanges between them.

Had Jack Ralstone ever bothered himself about the psychology of love, he might have found a cause for his perplexity in some disturbance of the nerve centres, brought about by the sudden intrusion into his life of the fascinating dark-eyed girl, whose face still haunted him, despite his pursuit of Lady Barbara. Because he had fought in her defence she had been brought very near to him. Had he had the same opportunity over Lady Barbara, it might have infused that romance which would have made his engagement interesting. But he hadn’t. Everything had gone on so placidly that he sometimes felt bored.

But not to-night. He had made the discovery that women were highly provocative, even when they did not intend to be. It was their way, but Jack Ralstone was too little acquainted with that way to realise what he was up against. Anyhow, his humour just then was to assert his rights. Lady Barbara was his, and as he had been vexed by the disappearance of a pair of black eyes, why shouldn’t he console himself with a pair of blue ones? So he strode away at a smart pace to the Assembly Rooms.

The approaches to this favourite resort of fashionable Bath were blocked up by chariots, family coaches, sedan chairs. Footmen jostled each other, coachmen swore at their rebellious horses, chairmen quarrelled, link-boys yelled. Crowds of humble folk had assembled to have a sight of the “quality,” and the Assembly Rooms attendants and peace officers were busy in keeping back the rabble, so as to allow the fine ladies and their cavaliers to descend from their vehicles and, enter the vestibule in comfort.

Jack Ralstone easily elbowed his way through the crowd and passed in without question. He tackled one of the M.C.s in the ante-chamber outside the octagonal reception-room. He satisfied the official that he was of sufficient standing in county society to be admitted and disappeared into the room set apart for providing dominoes and masks. The rules as to dress were relaxed for masquerades, and he wore his riding hat. It went very well with his dark blue domino.

The festivities had not long commenced, and the reception-room was crowded. Not all the ladies wore dominoes, but every one was masked. The short-waisted dresses, if not so low cut in the corsage as in the days of the directoire, were yet sufficiently daring. Knee breeches had given place to trousers, in spite of Almack’s lady autocrats who, some ten years previous, had denied admission to the Duke of Wellington because of his wearing the objectionable nether garments introduced by the Regent after much controversy, but they had not wholly disappeared. Jack’s riding breeches and boots, visible, despite his domino, were, however, inadmissible, and he was stopped at the entrance of the ball-room by one of the M.C.s, who, pointing to the young man’s legs, politely but severely remarked that his dress was not suitable for dancing.

“Possibly I shan’t dance,” was Jack’s answer.

“That makes no difference. I cannot admit you. The rules are rigid in such a case.”

Jack knew this perfectly well, but it had not occurred to him until brought to his notice.

“What am I to do? I particularly want to see a lady who I know is in the room.”

“I regret that you should he disappointed, sir, but it must he evident to you that the regulations cannot be infringed.”

“I shall remain where I am until I see her.”

“As you please. I’m not quite sure whether you ought even to remain in the reception-room dressed as you are.”

Jack bit his lip, but he had to content himself with a protest.

“If I allow you to stay here, you must give me your word as a gentleman that you will not go an inch into the ball-room.”

“Oh, you may have my word.”

The M.C. bowed and walked away.

That day seemed bent on being full of annoyances and disappointments. Jack moved a little distance from the door, as dancers were going in and out. He paced up and down, now and again casting a glance at the gaiety in which he was not permitted to participate. The minuet, though maintained longer in Bath than in London, had been voted old-fashioned. The Scottish reel, fashionable in the early days of the Regency, had died out; country dances had lost their popularity, and in 1823 the French quadrille was the rage.

With vexation and anger in his heart, contending one against the other, Jack Ralstone watched the dancers. The “setting to partners,” the “chassez croisez” did not interest him. The caperings in the elaborate evolutions of “La Trenise,” otherwise the fourth figure in those days of the quadrille, when the gentlemen had to execute a pas seul, not a little embarrassing to the nervous performer, excited his contempt.

Gleaming shoulders, round arms, glimpses of white bosoms, disclosed by the loose, short-waisted dresses, the whirling of supple forms, more or less graceful, did not rouse his admiration. Women had, for the time being, lost their charm. He was at war with Eve. She was created for the irritation of man.

For all that he tried his hardest to distinguish Lady Barbara. He fancied he ought to be able to pick out her tall Juno-like figure, her rich auburn hair and swimming movements amid a thousand women. But he failed, and this increased his ill-temper.

The quadrille came to an end. The ladies were conducted to the rout seats ranged round the walls, to the ante-rooms for ices and negus and lemonade, and a buzz of talk and laughter succeeded the sliding of feet and the swish of skirts. A few couples were promenading. Two or three of the dancers, feeling the heat and choking from the dust and powder ascending from the well-chalked floor, had shifted their masks.

One couple was approaching the entrance. The lady was still masked. The gentleman had removed his. Ralstone had known this gentleman perfectly well in London. He was Sir Phineas Tenbury, a captain in the Guards. Tenbury had, as a subaltern, fought at Waterloo, and since then had made a reputation as a man about town. He was a notorious evil liver, was a reckless gambler, a crack shot and a skilled duellist. His intrigues were numberless, and it was perilous to a lady’s reputation to be seen often in Sir Phineas Tenbury’s company.

Sir Phineas’s companion had the brilliant colouring and the wondrously clear skin characteristic of the Somersetshire women. She was tall and Nature had dealt generously with her figure. Her neck and bust were superb; her arms beautifully moulded. Her hair was of the tawny shade between auburn and brown, without the slightest tinge of the brick-dust hue. Jack Ralstone’s pulses leaped. She could be no other than Lady Barbara. But with Sir Phineas Tenbury? Surely her ladyship would not descend to dance with so profound a profligate as “hell rake” Tenbury!

Sir Phineas was smiling and whispering. If looks could tell anything, he was beseeching a favour. He was gazing ardently into the deep violet-blue eyes, which, seen through the apertures of the mask, were delightfully entrancing. Jack had never known that soft, bewitching gleam in them which he now beheld.

The favour was granted. She shrugged her round shoulders coquettishly and slipped off her mask. She was then within a yard or so of the doorway. It was she​—​Lady Barbara Dacre.

Ralstone made a hasty step forward and also removed his mask. Their eyes met. His were blazing with wrath; hers suddenly went cold and steely. His presence clearly was not acceptable.

“I fear I’m here at a wrong moment. I beg your ladyship’s pardon,” said Jack, bowing low.

“Not at all,” rejoined Lady Barbara, flirting her fan haughtily. “How can you be? I see you haven’t come to dance.”

Her eyes went over his dress and he wished he hadn’t spoken. He felt at a horrible disadvantage, especially, as with the corner of his eye, he had caught sight of Tenbury’s sneering lip.

“Does that matter?” he blurted out.

“Hardly. Has anything happened that you should ride to Bath post haste, as I presume you have by the mud on your coat.”

“A tussle with a foot-pad, maybe,” put in Sir Phineas sarcastically. “A mouse under the eye suggests that Mr. Ralstone came off second best.”

The evidence of the fight with the bruiser was another thing which Jack had forgotten when he presented himself for admission. No wonder the M.C. was scandalised, though he was far too polite to allude to the disfigurement. Sir Phineas had no such scruple. Apparently he wanted to lower Ralstone in the eyes of his betrothed. But Jack was not in the mood to pass over Tenbury’s insolence.

“I shall be pleased to go through a similar performance with you, Sir Phineas. It will satisfy me if I serve you as I served my antagonist, who, you may like to know, was no foot pad, but was a fellow, I fancy, who knew something about a twenty-four foot ring.”

“Then it was a mill,” drawled the baronet, sticking his glass in his eye. “At a boxing match, I presume?”

“Whether at a boxing booth or at Castellani’s, I believe I’ve managed to hold my own. You know best about Castellani’s.”

Tenbury’s face darkened. Jack’s reference to Castellani’s fencing-rooms went home. Sir Phineas had had a bout at foils with the young squire, and through underrating the skill of his opponent had had his guard broken down and suffered “a palpable hit.”

“If you gentlemen desire to quarrel, I’d better leave you to it,” interposed Lady Barbara pettishly.

“There’s no necessity. I don’t quarrel before ladies,” said Sir Phineas with a sweeping bow. “If Mr. Ralstone has any grievance against me, or imagines I have affronted——”

“There’s no imagination,” put in Jack quickly. “It’s a question of fact. But, like you, I shouldn’t think of wrangling before ladies, and, least of all, in the presence of Lady Barbara Dacre. If I want you, sir, I know perfectly well where to find you.”

The altercation was overpowered by the orchestra striking up, and the M.C.s hurried hither and thither on the look-out for partners for disconsolate “wallflowers.” At the sound of the music, a melody in a sort of swinging see-saw measure, Sir Phineas turned to Lady Barbara and offered her his arm.

“Our waltz. You promised it to me, you remember. I’m longing for the pleasure. There’s nothing to detain you, I’m sure.”

“No. Mr. Ralstone owes me an explanation and an apology, but both can wait,” said the offended beauty coldly.

“Oh, you shall have the first and the second, too, if need be,” retorted Jack, whose rage was rapidly mounting to a white heat.

Lady Barbara shot him an angry glance. turned on her heel, and Sir Phineas bore her away triumphantly.

Ralstone stood for a minute or so quivering with passion. The sight of his betrothed clinging to Sir Phineas and being whirled about by him rapturously in the much-discussed German waltz, was not to be endured. Though the waltz had been naturalised in England for ten years, it was still looked upon with horror by strait-laced people. Byron satirised it with no effect. The feminine rulers of Almack’s, headed by Lady Jersey, favoured it; the “fashionables,” male and female, devoted their mornings to whirling a chair about the room to learn the step and measure, and Sheridan’s quatrain: In such pure postures our first parents moved, / While hand in hand thro’ Eden’s bower they roved, / Ere Beelzebub, with meaning foul and false / Turned their poor heads and taught them how to waltz” was quoted everywhere with much relish.

But to see Tenbury’s arm round Lady Barbara’s waist​—​a thing not permitted in any other dance, not even in a quadrille, where the arms were decorously crossed in turning, was for Jack Ralstone an intolerable torture. He rushed to the ante-room, threw down domino and mask, and rewarding the attendant with a generous “vail,” fled from the building, doubtful whether the first step to relieve his outraged feelings should be breaking off his engagement with Lady Barbara, or sending a challenge to Sir Phineas.

He walked quickly to the “Angel and Sun,” ordered out his horse, and stormed at Ostler Joe for no particular reason other than to let off the steam, and partook of a stirrup-cup.

“If you go on backing Tom Spring, Squire,” whispered the landlord, “you’ll be landed heavily. There be two or three parties just coom fro’ Lunnon by the mail, an’ they be nuts on Spring. Now’s your chance for hedging. Have a bit on Neate.”

“To the devil with hedging and Neate too,” growled Jack.

And flinging down his coin for the stirrup-cup​—​hot brandy and water, with plenty of the first​—​he strode into the cool night air, vaulted into the saddle, and, forgetful of Stephen’s advice not to use the whip, gave Black Ivory a slash across the flanks, the effect of which was to send the horse off at a bolt. Luckily the road was clear, and Jack did not attempt to stop his insulted steed. The animal went at the top of his form for quite a couple of miles before he cooled down.

Like all young men of fortune. Jack had his body-servant. Purvis, his man, was sitting up, though it was past midnight. He heard his master stable the horse, and wondered what sort of mood Master Jack was in.

“If he’s as crusty as the old squire, I’ll have an ugly time.”

And the fore-boding was likely to prove true, to judge by Jack’s clouded brow and flushed face. But the young squire said very little. The fact was he was dog-tired. His strained muscles and sinews were beginning to feel the effect of the bruiser’s blows; he had had a fair amount of drink, and the amazing series of vexations of which he had been the victim had depressed his spirits terribly. Hardly had he thrown himself into bed than he was fast asleep.