Chapter V

Jack Kicks Over the Traces

Young Squire Ralstone indulged in an extra hour or so in bed the next morning. His thirty mile ride, his milling exercise, his potations, and his series of disappointments had left him stiff and off colour. Old Squire Halstead, on the contrary, rose early in spite of strong ale, port, rum, and curaçao, and after a hearty breakfast strolled round the kennels and the stables, chatted with Stephen, and cursed roundly everything which did not quite please him. Had he seen the blown and muddy condition of Black Ivory when the horse was led into his stall in the small hours of that morning, he would have flown into a towering passion. But old Stephen was wary. He had risen betimes, rubbed down the hunter, and the animal looked much the same.

On his return to the house Simon grumbled vastly at finding his stepson still in bed. Now that he was sober he was anxious to make up his quarrel with Jack, especially as a letter had arrived by a mounted messenger from the Duke of Endsleigh. His Grace wrote he saw no reason why the marriage of Lady Barbara and Jack Ralstone should be further delayed, and suggested that arrangements should at once he made for their nuptials.

“Chudleigh, the member for Pocketon Magna wants to retire,” added the Duke. “I’ve but to give the word, and he will apply for the Chiltern Hundreds, the seat will be vacant, and as the borough is practically mine, young Ralstone may consider himself already an M.P. I shall see about securing him a post, which will in time assure him a baronetcy.”

Simon snapped his fingers, and his hard, coarse face brightened. He rang the bell, and ordered a tankard of cider, his favourite morning drink, to mark the occasion.

“An’ look ’ee here, Robert, knock at Master Jack’s door, and tell him to stir his stumps. Say as I’ve got some good news for him.”

“John Ralstone, Esq., M.P.​—​dash my wig if it don’t sound well. It ’ud be better if it was John Halstead. Can’t be helped. What is, is.”

He walked up and down the room, his hands deep in his capacious breeches pockets, and muttering to himself:

“Thirty thousand guineas​—​that’s what I’ve promised the Duke the day Jack marries Lady Barbara. It’ll make a hole in my fortune, but what o’ that? The Barbados plantation’s worth double if so be as I want to sell it. If I don’t it’ll go to Jack’s son if he gets one. Seein’ as how it cost me next to nothing I oughtn’t to grumble. They say as ill come by ill comes. Do it? Not wi’ Simon Halstead. Never had a stroke o’ bad luck in my life, an’ I’m too old to begin at that game now. He-he-he!”

Simon was laughing his grating, shrill laugh when the door opened, and in walked Jack Ralstone.

“Well, you graceless dog! What have ’ee got to say for yourself, eh? Going down on your marrow bones to say you’re sorry for rubbing me the wrong way yesterday?”

Simon’s manner was bullying, and his voice loud, but it was all put on.

“Here​—​your fist, lad. Shake hands. Let bygones be bygones.”

Jack couldn’t refuse. Besides he did not wish to do so. He had no reason for quarrelling with his stepfather. His anger, too, had passed away. He held out his hand.

“Ye don’t look in over good fettle,” said Simon, after a keen glance at Jack’s face. “What were ’ee up to last night? Where did ’ee get that black peeper?”

“Had words with a chap on the Bath Road. He insulted me, so I went for him.”

“An’ he went for ’ee seemingly. Who was best man?”

“I left him like a dead dog.”

“No, did ’ee now. That’s fine. Did ’ee give him that knock down blow I taught ’ee?”

Jack couldn’t remember any particular blow belonging exclusively to Simon. If he had it had been driven out of his mind by what he had learned from Tom Spring and “Gentleman” Jackson, but he did not care to say so. He nodded, and sat down in front of a huge home-cured ham, carving himself a mighty slice.

“Did Robert tell ’ee I’d got some good news for ’ee?” went on the Squire after he had allowed Jack to eat in peace for some few minutes.

“Yes, sir, he said something of the kind. What is it?”

“I’ve had a letter from the Duke. He’s as friendly as may be. Starts wi’ ‘My dear Halstead,’​—​that’s pretty good from a nobleman of his high rank, eh?”

“Very good, indeed, sir,” said Jack, and put back on his plate the mouthful he was about to swallow. The Duke was the last person he was anxious to discuss. It brought to his remembrance his annoying meeting with Lady Barbara, and the direct snub he had received at her hands. Also Sir Phineas Tenbury, and the score he meant some day to settle with the baronet.

“How are ’ee getting on wi’ your courting? Billing and cooing as sweethearts should?”

“Not much of that, sir.”

“An’ why the devil not? When I was your age I didn’t let the grass grow under my feet when a wench was concerned.”

“I dare say not. I can’t fancy billing and cooing with Lady Barbara.”

“The devil you can’t. Lady Barbara’s as fine a lady as ever stepped. Now, if I don’t make a mistake, she’s just that sort as likes bein’ fussed over. It only wants pluck. Tender handed stroke a nettle and it stings you for your pains. Grasp it like a man of mettle, and it soft as silk remains. ’Tis the same wi’ a woman.”

“Maybe. Anyhow, it doesn’t look as if there was going to be any grasping in this case. The fact is, Lady Barbara and I have fallen out.”

“What? Fallen out wi’ a duke’s daughter? I’m damned.”

Simon’s manner changed. His face grew very red, and he seemed to swell out like a ruffled turkey cock.

“Fallen out, have ye? An’ what over?”

“Nothing in particular​—​excepting that for a lady she was exceedingly rude.”

“Oh, was she. An’ what about you? I’ll warrant it were six o’ one, an’ half a dozen o’ the other. That’s nothing between sweethearts. You’ll kiss and make it up afore many hours are over, and then you’ll be deeper in love than ever.”

“I think not, sir. I’m not in love with Lady Barbara​—​never was in love with her, and I doubt if I ever shall be.”

“What does that mean, you blockhead? Bean’t you going to marry her?”

“If you like to put it that way, no.”

The Squire gasped for breath. He was speechless. His red face became purple, with here and there a yellow patch. The slaves on his plantation trembled when they saw him look like this. It was a prelude to savage flogging, to merciless torture. With a tremendous effort he restrained his rage. In a cold, constrained tone he said:

“It’s you who put it. Let us two understand each other. Say straight out what’s in your mind. D’ye mean to marry Lady Barbara Dacre, or don’t ’ee?”

“Well then, as matters stand, I don’t.”

“Damn! What am I to say to the Duke? How am I to answer this?”

Simon brought his sledge hammer fist down on the letter lying on the table, with a force that made the crockery rattle.

The dregs of Jack’s bad temper of the previous evening were stirred up.

“Answer it as you like, sir. It’s your business, not mine. I never asked the Duke for permission to court his daughter. You did it all.”

The floodgates of Simon’s wrath were opened. The extensive vocabulary of ship-board obscenity, of slave galley and sugar plantations brutal abuse, was called upon. Simon Halstead had no lack of vulgar and blasphemous epithets at his command to express his rage and disgust. Jack was horrified at the old man’s outpourings. He had heard vague hints of Simon Halstead’s strange experiences, but he never imagined his stepfather could be so debased.

“I’d better leave you, sir, to talk to yourself. I don’t see I’ve anything to reply to,” said he, springing to his feet.

“Stop! Where are ’ee going?” thundered the Squire.

“I don’t quite know. Anyhow, I’m not inclined to stop in this house much longer.”

“Go and be damned. Don’t ’ee darken my doors again. I’ve done wi’ you.”

“By all means. I hope I can look after myself.”

“Can ye? You’ll tell another story afore long. You won’t be able to live the fine, easy life of a gentleman. You haven’t been denied anything you had a fancy for. I’ve paid your debts, and you’ve never wanted for money. That’s all over. Your allowance from this minute stops. I’ll write to-day to Fauntleroy’s Bank to close the account I opened for you there, and to transfer the balance to mine. Go and earn your own living.”

“That’s what I mean to do. Thank you for what you’ve done for me, and good day.”

How Jack controlled his own hasty temper was a mystery to him. With a bow, the politeness of which exasperated Simon beyond endurance, he walked to the door, deaf to the execrations hurled after him.

He went up to his room. His man was brushing and putting away his clothes.

“Purvis,” said he, “the Squire and I have had a fall-out, and it’ll be many a long day before we’re friends. Perhaps never. I don’t see how I can keep you any longer in my service. You’ll want your wages, and where the money’s coming from isn’t quite clear.”

“I’m very sorry, Mr. Jack,” said the man, pulling a long face. “I looked forward to being with you for many a year, sir. What’ll you do wi’out anybody to look after you, sir?”

“Look after myself, of course. You’ll have no difficulty in getting a good place. I shall speak for you.”

“I know that, sir, but​—​begging your pardon, sir, I’d like to ask whether I mightn’t stay till you’re used to looking after yourself.”

“You noodle. What’s the good of that?” laughed Jack. “While you’re with me, d’you think I’ll lift a finger? It won’t do.”

But Purvis pleaded so hard, and looked so disappointed that Jack was talked into trying the experiment.

“It needn’t be sudden death to-day, need it, sir. I’ll just go on as before. What would you like me to do?”

“Well, pack up all my belongings, and don’t for Heaven’s sake forget my boxing gloves, my foils, pistols, and the Joe Manton I bought the last time I was in London. It’s the best sporting gun to be had for love or money.”

“Yes, sir.”

Jack’s programme of looking after himself was to sink back in a chair, light a cigar, and think over things, while Purvis moved noiselessly about the room packing up.

What was to be his next step? He went over his cash. Twenty guineas or so represented his stock of money. He had laid out bets by which, if Tom Spring pulled off the fight, he would win £500. Should Tom fail, he would owe £2,500​—​debts of honour which he was bound to pay​—​if he could. But how? He had not a penny in the world. His twenty guineas would not last long.

“I’ve a mind to go on plunging,” he soliloquised. “In for a penny in for a pound​—​may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. There’s comfort in those musty old proverbs. I won’t think about those that give the direct lie to these scraps of wisdom​—​penny wise, pound foolish​—​look before you leap, and the rest of ’em.”

“How long will it take you to pack, Purvis?” said he.

“About an hour, sir.”

“Good. I’ll stroll over to the ‘Dragon’ and see about a post chaise.”

And leaving Purvis to his work, Jack sauntered out of the room and jauntily descended the staircase, as though he had not a care in the world. He did not want encounter the Squire and did not leave the house by the main entrance.

The “Dragon” was a posting house about ten minutes walk, and Jack, who was well known to the landlord, was heartily welcomed. There was a subdued air of excitement about the place, which Jack did not fail to notice.

“Any news from London?” said he.

The landlord understood what he meant. There could be only one topic of news from London which could possibly interest Bristol and its neighbourhood​—​the forthcoming prize fight.

“The day be fixed for the mill,” whispered the landlord, his finger on his lip. “It be the 20th.”

“What! In less than a week? By Jupiter, that’s pretty near. Are you sure?”

“Sartin sure. The guard of the Bristol mail brought the news early this mornin’ and tells it to I as an old friend. It bean’t known in Lunnon yet. ‘Gentleman’ Jackson’s knocker’ll be goin’ nineteen to the dozen afore many hours be over. Now don’t ’ee go an’ let it out. It’ll get wind soon enough, and anybody as doesn’t get a bed at Andover in good time’ll have to sleep in a ditch.”

“If this news should only be true,” said Jack doubtfully.

“I’ll take my oath it be.”

“All right. Now what about a post chaise to Andover?”

“I might manage it for you, Squire. It’s a good eighty miles to Andover and it’ll cost ’ee a bit. Not less than ten guineas; then there’s the boys’ tips, the baiting and t’other charges. Can’t be done under a couple o’ days.”

“No matter. Have the chaise ready at once. I want first to go to Bristol and we’ll start fair from there.”

The thing was settled, and Jack saw he was in a fair way for spending all his ready money. But he didn’t care. Indeed, the plunge into the unknown rather suited his mood and he walked back to the Manor House in high spirits.

He looked in at the stables and found old Stephen with a very long face.

“What be amiss, Master Jack, atween you an’ the Squire? He comed down here an hour agone in a storm o’ passion and says I warn’t to let ’ee have none o’ the ’osses or dogs.”

“The Squire might have saved himself the trouble. It’s good-bye for me to the horses, dogs and rest of the live stock, including you, Steve.”

“Mussy on me. What do it all mean?”

“I’m off to seek my fortune. I don’t care if I never see Simon Halstead again. We two’ve had good times together, Steve​—​ratting, otter hunting, fishing and the rest. I shall think of you when I’m in London.”

“Goin’ to Lunnon? But you’ll be comin’ back here some time?”

“I don’t think so.”

Jack held out his hand and Stephen gripped it heartily.

“What be ’ee a goin’ to do in Lunnon, if I might be so bold as to ask.”

“Haven’t the least notion. But if the worst comes to the worst I can go into the prize ring.”

“Eh? Ye’d be among the ‘fancy’ would ’ee? Not the trade of a gentleman, I’m thinkin’.”

“Why not. What about ‘Gentleman’ Jackson? What about John Gully​—​a Bristol man he was, mind you, like Tom Cribb. D’you mean to say they’re not gentlemen? Is there a word to be said against the ‘Game Chicken’ or Tom Spring? They fought clean and fair; they never gave in till they were beaten and they never soiled their lips with the vile words I’ve heard some gentlemen use.”

A recollection of Simon Halstead’s horrible language passed through Jack’s mind, but he wasn’t going to bring his stepfather’s name into the discussion. Stephen was not convinced; he shook his head sadly, and Jack without another word strode out of the stables.

There was nobody else of whom Jack cared to take leave, and he spent the time until the post chaise arrived in looking round his rooms to see that Purvis had forgotten nothing that he might want. Simon, he learned, had gone to Bristol to look up some cronies at the docks, and was doubtless in for a heavy day’s drinking. So much the better, thought Jack, and he set out without any hindrance.

At Bristol he deposited his luggage in the care of a friendly innkeeper, and keeping the chaise waiting he went into a pawnbroker’s shop and raised £20 on a diamond ring. Provided with funds he commenced the journey to Andover.