Chapter IV

Blue Eyes or Dark Eyes

Meanwhile Sir Phineas was “making the running,” to use his own phrase, with Lady Barbara Dacre. She knew his reputation quite well, but this did not alarm her. She was born to attract men, and roué or innocent made no difference. Sir Phineas Tenbury’s mode of love-making flattered her, and flattery was to her second nature.

After the waltz which had so excited Jack Ralstone’s ire, they retired to one of the ante-rooms for refreshment. Sir Phineas ordered champagne. They were on a settee which held the two comfortably. As if by chance, the baronet’s arm fell behind her. It crept round her waist. She shifted her position, but there was not room to escape. She rarely forgot she was a duke’s daughter, and Sir Phineas’s sudden familiarity touched her pride.

“I’m afraid, sir, you imagine I’m a milkmaid,” said she haughtily.

“Indeed, I’ve no such impression,” he rejoined, not a bit abashed. “No milkmaid ever had your grace, your bewitching smile, your musical voice. Is it my arm that offends you? You did not object while we were waltzing. Why should you do so now that we are sitting? But I want to please you, Lady Barbara. There!”

He removed his arm, and her disengaged hand​—​the other was busy with her fan​—​was swiftly imprisoned in his. She would have drawn it away, but he held it too firmly. An altercation was impossible with so many people about, and she had to submit.

She was not really angry, though she put on the pretence of being so. His masterful self-assertion was not unpleasant. Besides, she was rather curious to see how far his impudence would take him. He noticed with a covert smile how skilfully she hid the locked hands with a movement of her fan.

“I think you’re very presumptuous.”

“Possibly, but not, I hope, rude. Really, one would think you’d never had a lover, whereas a man of any sense could hardly look into your eyes and not lose himself in their depths.”

“Is that meant to be poetic?”

“It’s meant to be the truth.”

“It sounds like a quotation from a fashionable novel.”

“Well, it isn’t. I never read the trash.”

“Not even Sir Walter Scott?”

“Not even Scott, though I’m told he’s quite the rage. But, Lady Barbara, surely we didn’t come here to talk about novels?”

“What else should we talk about? It’s very interesting.”

“Is it the only subject you find interesting when you and young Ralstone are together?”

“I beg you not to introduce Mr. Ralstone’s name into our conversation.”

“By all means. So laggard a lover can well be left out of our reckoning. I’ll wager he doesn’t often discuss the question of love. That’s the difference between us.”

“I don’t care what the difference is,” she retorted with rising anger. “I told you not to mention his name.”

“And I haven’t. I speak only in generalities. Ah, Lady Barbara, if you only knew——”

“Knew what?”

“How beautiful you are when you’re put out. Your eyes have never sparkled as they do now​—​at least, I’ve never seen them. And your cheeks! I know a score of Court beauties who’d give their finger-tips to have your roses.”

Lady Barbara burst into a fit of laughter. Her anger had melted before the fire of compliments.

“You’re too extravagant,” said she. “Hadn’t we better go back? I can hear another waltz beginning.”

“Enchanted,” he murmured, and, relinquishing her hand after a tender pressure, he led her to the ball-room. The waltz was followed by another and another. Lady Barbara had the names of one or two other partners on her programme, but she ignored them, and Tenbury’s fire-eating disposition and his prowess as a duellist were so well known that not one of the men to whom her ladyship had given promises dared dispute his right.

All the same, the young lady’s pronounced preference for the baronet was the subject of comment, and the dowagers and chaperons were quite scandalised.

After the midnight supper the gaiety waxed fast and furious, hut it was kept within decent bounds by the vigilant M.C.s. Bath gaiety, even with all the licence of a masquerade, had nothing in it akin to the boisterousness of a London “bal masqué,” as such functions were beginning to be called.

The hour came for Sir Phineas to see Lady Barbara to her chair. By this time he had established his footing. Her ladyship had confided to him that she would be in town in a fortnight or so, and then they could meet often.

Undoubtedly Tenbury had a way with women which they found it difficult to resist. During the exciting moments of the dance he never lost an opportunity of darting into her eyes a glance of passion. Lady Barbara’s brain was bewildered and her nerves tingled with sensations quite new to her.

Hitherto she had met no man who had gone beyond the sentimental philandering which then passed current for flirtation. If the age was not quite so artificially emotional as some ten or fifteen years before, when women, and men too, could weep on the slightest provocation, the fashionable part of the world was still fairly portrayed by the “high life” novelist of the period. In reality, her ladyship was not in the least bit sentimental, but she accepted sentimentality, and underneath her coldness she had an ardent temperament which had never been stirred until this eventful evening, and she listened, as Sir Phineas could see quite well, with secret pleasure to his half-veiled protestations of love.

“This has been a never-to-be-forgotten night,” her cavalier whispered, as he conducted her through the vestibule to the entrance, where the chairmen were awaiting her. “I swear that you’ve captured me. I shall be all impatience until we meet again.”

“Doubtless that’s what you say to every lady,” she returned with a swimming glance, followed by a swift drooping of the long silky lashes, which rested for a brief space on her flushed face. Her bosom heaved, a gentle sigh escaped her, and she returned the ardent clasp of his hand.

“No, indeed, by Jupiter. I’m sick of the simpering, dressed-up, painted women of fashion. You are so different.”

She made no answer and she stepped into the sedan, the door of which Sir Phineas closed. He stood at the window uttering soft farewells, while the chairmen at their posts waited for his signal. She put out her hand, and Sir Phineas pressed it to his lips. Then he remained bareheaded. The chairmen raised their burden; she leaned forward and darted a look at him, which revealed the warmth of her nature more truly than any expression he had yet seen in her eyes.

The baronet did not quit the entrance steps until the sedan was out of sight. Then a triumphant smile lit up his somewhat saturnine face.

“Faith! An easy conquest. A glorious creature​—​handsome enough to warm and tempt St. Anthony. But——”

He shrugged his shoulders.

“She’ll do pour passer le temps, while awaiting a more precious prize. Blue eyes​—​yes, they sparkle, but nothing more. They’ve no mystery behind them, and what is woman if not mysterious? Some cold-blooded fellows look for placidity, and what they call comfort​—​benighted idiots​—​men of flesh and blood prefer a plunge into the unknown. Still, Lady Barbara isn’t without her charm. There’s that young fool Ralstone. To cut him out gives just the spice to the game, without which it would be as tame as an egg without salt.”

He wheeled round and walked meditatingly to the ante-room, put on his long riding-coat and departed.

There was no moon, but the clear sky was studded with stars.

“Contrasts are everything in this insipid old world,” he muttered. “I’d like to see how a pair of black eyes can flash, and, by Heaven, they will flash when I present myself. Passion in her voice, but no tears in her eyes, I swear. I’d like to make ’em come. Maybe they will. Why not bring off the coup to-night. I’m in my native air. It always nerves me. Yes, I’ll do it.”

He strode to the hotel where he had put up his curricle, and rang the bell until a sleepy boots slowly opened the door.

“Stir your stumps, you rascal,” growled Sir Phineas, “unless you want a clout of the ear to quicken your laziness. What the devil do you mean by locking, bolting and barring me? Didn’t the landlord tell you I might be here any hour between midnight and breakfast?”

“Aye, your honour, but——”

“That’ll do. Don’t waste your excuses, you’ll want ’em for somebody else. Rouse the ostler. I want my curricle at the door in five minutes. D’ye hear? Stay​—​bring me a brandy first.”

The man scuffled away. He met the landlord, who, hearing the imperious summons, had huddled on a few garments. The landlord fetched the brandy, and, full, of apologies, hastened with it to the impatient Sir Phineas.

“Will your honour walk into the coffee-room? It’s more comfortable there and——”

“Comfort be hanged. Is that scoundrel of an ostler of yours getting out my curricle?”

“Yes, Sir Phineas. I’ve told boots to wake him up.”

Tenbury swallowed half the brandy at a gulp. The landlord watched him with anxiety. One never knew what dare-devilry Sir Phineas might be up to. His youth was a long record of escapades, as the villages between Bath and Bristol well remembered. The brandy, however, had apparently restored his good humour. Emptying his glass, he threw it behind him and inquired what was the latest news of the fight between Neate and Spring.

“I do hear the place be settled. A bagman tells me Tom Belcher be staying at the ‘Angel and Sun.’ He saw Tom this very night, and heard him say as Mr. Jackson had picked out a likely spot in Hampshire between Weyhill an’ Andover. But it be all under the rose.”

“Of course. And the day?”

“Ah, that be more’n I can tell, but I’ll bet a guinea it bean’t fur off. Can’t keep them things dark fur long. The say Lunnon’s gone pretty nigh mad. I know fur sartain as Bristol an’ round about has. To-morrow them as be in the know’ll be crowding into Andover, and in less than no time theer won’t be a bed to be had for love or money.”

“Is that so? Another brandy landlord, to drink good luck to Bill Neate.”

Before the drink was brought the ostler appeared with the curricle, leading the horse, a wiry, strong mare and a magnificent trotter that had won many matches and put hundreds of guineas into his owner’s pocket.

Sir Phineas jumped into the vehicle, tossed down the brandy, and dropped some money into the landlord’s hand. Then, gathering up the reins, he set off at a smart pace in the direction of the upper road to Bristol.

The mare was fresh and needed no whip. In less than half an hour she was a good way towards Bristol, and Sir Phineas guided her into a by-road some few yards beyond the second turnpike. This road led to the Den, a hunting-box belonging to the baronet, and the remnant of a large estate which had been left him by his father, and the greater part of which he bad been forced to sell to pay his gambling debts. Even the Den was mortgaged. It was situated in a wood surrounded by a ring fence, and the pleasure-garden encircling the building, as well as the building itself, had been utterly neglected, Sir Phineas contending that it was absurd to spend money for the benefit of other people, the mortgagees having long ago threatened to foreclose.

Sir Phineas had to alight to force open the lodge gate. The lodge itself was uninhabitable, and had it not been so the owner would not have gone to the expense of a lodge-keeper for a place which he only used for a few weeks in the year.

The bracken, the brambles, and the undergrowth of the wood generally, had invaded the narrow roadway, and Sir Phineas, leading the mare, had to struggle through the dense vegetation. A light in the distance, showing now and again where there was an opening in the trees, guided him.

He reached the house, a square building with a gable roof and a porch in front of the door. He knocked loudly with the handle of his whip.

A man opened the door and bowed low when he recognised the visitor.

“Glad you’re about, Brownlow. I’m in the devil of a hurry. Where’s Tim Goadby?”

“He’s in the kitchen, Sir Phineas. We were having a hand at cards. I’ll call him.”

“You needn’t. The kitchen will do well enough for the orders I want to give him.”

The house was divided by a passage, which ran from back to front. At the end was the kitchen, a brick-paved apartment, with a low-ceiling and latticed windows. A wood fire was burning on the hearth, and a thick-set man, with a forbidding face, who was sitting at the table, rose at the entrance of Sir Phineas and touched the roots of his closely-cropped greyish hair.

“Get the hooded gig out and put the mare from the curricle in the shafts. I want you to go a journey with me. Sharp’s the word.”

Goadby rushed away, and Sir Phineas, turning to Brownlow, who was standing in an obsequious attitude, said abruptly:

“While I’m gone with Tim, make the best bedroom fit to receive a lady. Light a big fire and air the bedclothes. If there’s anything you think of to give the place a look of comfort, do it.”

Brownlow, who was Sir Phineas’s manservant, had taken part in too many of his master’s Don Juan-like exploits, showed no surprise, but disappeared to execute his orders.

The clatter of the mare’s hoofs and the grating of wheels announced that Goadby was busy. In a few minutes he entered and said all was ready.

Without a word Sir Phineas climbed into the gig, a clumsy, capacious affair, and Goadby led the mare to the lodge gate and then climbed into the seat by the side of his master, who took the reins.

Once more on the high road to Bristol, and at the common where Jack Ralstone had distinguished himself as a knight-errant, the gig halted and Sir Phineas threw the reins to Goadby.

“Be on the look-out for my signal, Tim. I shall whistle. We may probably go back with a lady passenger,” said he grimly.

He strode across the common towards a flickering glimmer. A gipsy’s tent and caravan behind disclosed itself as he drew near. He did not announce his presence, but put his head inside the opening of the tent. The shrill shriek of an old woman greeted him.

The woman had started from her squatting position, where she had been watching the boiling of a pot and smoking awhile. A man in the gloom beyond, lying on a bed of dried bracken, never moved. He was snoring heavily.

“Mercy on me, master, how ’ee frightened me. I took ’ee for your ghost.”

“I haven’t come to that yet, dame. What news? Is all well?”

“Noa. It be ill​—​very ill​—​the worsest as could happen. I dunno how to tell ’ee.”

“Eh?” thundered Sir Phineas, “what’s amiss? Is the girl.… has she carried out her threat?”

“To make away wi’ herself? No​—​not so bad as that.”

“What then?”

“She’s gone. Runned away.”

“Run away! And you and Jerry let her go! You infernal blunderers. I’ve a mind to take it out o’ your hides,” he roared, his face black with passion.

He strode across the tent, and kicked the sleeping man savagely. The fellow awoke, started, and struggled with difficulty into a sitting position.

“Who the——” he was beginning, rubbing his bleary eyes, when he recognised Sir Phineas. “Oh, lor​—​your honour——” he mumbled.

“Get up, you lazy brute,” stormed the baronet. “What the devil do you mean by disobeying my orders. Where’s the girl?”

“Ain’t th’ old woman told you, sir? We both on us did our best, and we didn’t disobey no orders. I had a stiff set to wi’ the chap as rode away wi’ the wench. He knowed how to use his maulers if ever a man did. I haven’t had such a basting about the ribs since I run a boxing booth. Dang me if I can move wi’out feeling a lot o’ knives digging into me. Mother, tell his honour all about it.”

Tenbury was not so blinded with passion as to be unable to see that the man had been badly knocked about, and he turned to the old woman for an explanation. She entered into a long-winded narrative, in the course of which she put her own conduct and that of her son, Jerry Winch, in the most favourable light.

“Mike Croucher was doin’ a bit o’ shootin’ at the rabbits on the common, an’ I shouted to him. He let fly twice at the gemman and the gal, but I dunno if any shot hit ’em. I never saw a hoss tear along as that theer hoss did.”

“Who was the man who fought Jerry, and carried her off?” demanded Sir Phineas.

“I dunno him, but Mike Croucher says it wur young Squire Jack Ralstone.”

“Damn Squire Jack Ralstone!”