Chapter VI

“What Have You Done with the Girl?”

The “George” at Andover was crammed from floor to roof. Jack arrived four days before the day fixed, according to his information, for the fight, and he thought himself lucky to get a tiny attic for which he paid a high price. It was anything but palatial, but this was of no consequence. He only wanted it for its bed. His days were spent in the “George” coffee-room, in the bar parlour, in walks about the country, especially in the direction of Weyhill.

At the end of the second day​—​May 17th​—​he began to be worried. He could not find out anything definite beyond that Spring was training at Reigate and Neate at Marlborough. Still the people kept crowding into the tame and uninteresting little town, but they were mostly from the surrounding neighbourhood. Very few had come from London and it seemed ominous that no great man concerned in the arrangements​—​Jackson, Cribb, or Tom Belcher​—​had put in an appearance.

What if after all the spot had again been changed? Such mishaps are common enough in the history of the prize ring.

Now that the reaction from the excitement of the crisis which had suddenly come into his life had set in​—​a reaction accentuated by his inactivity and suspense​—​the memory of the two women who had been so strangely brought into rivalry came back vividly.

About Lady Barbara he was uncertain. Neither her temperament nor her beauty, striking though it was, had ever appealed to him. The first was too haughty and savoured of inordinate vanity; the second had an animalism which jarred somewhat on his romantic spirit.

But the dark-eyed girl​—​she had possessed him at first sight​—​even before she had completely revealed her face, which had so fascinated him. To his fervid imagination she had flashed upon him like a dream, and like a dream she had vanished. There was an unreality about the adventure which added to its charm. Would they ever meet again? Fate would indeed be too cruel if not.

With Monday the 19th came a change over the restless little town, which drove all thought of women out of his head. The uncertainty and restlessness ceased. The groups of men with nothing to do but to gossip and block up what traffic there was in the main street gathered in a big crowd in front of the “George,” and farmers, tradesmen, yokels jostled each other in the wide passage-way over which the inn was partly built, and poured into the hotel entrance, eager to learn the news.

The cause of the pother was a post chaise, with horses dead beat, their bodies giving out clouds of vapour, and postboys reeling in their saddles from long hours of hard riding, which had crawled up to the “George.” The occupants​—​more in number than the chaise would comfortably hold​—​descended, stretched their cramped limbs, stamped their feet, and crowding into the inn shouted for the landlord. The latter, one Sutton, not remarkable for urbanity of manners, received them civilly enough when he heard that they had travelled at the devil’s own pace from London.

The party wanted rooms for the night. The great event was to come off positively the next day and the spot was to be the expected one on the road to Weyhill. The fiat to this effect had gone forth from Jackson, the “commander of the milling forces,” issued at his house in Pimlico, which all Saturday and Sunday had been besieged by patrons of the noble art anxious for information.

Alas for the gentlemen of the post chaise. In spite of their having brought the important news, they were too large a party to be accommodated. Sutton was willing to stretch a point for one, but not for all. The party declined to be separated. They cursed, they swore; Sutton lost his temper and almost refused to serve them with the refreshment they loudly demanded.

However, as the “gentlemen from London” saw the wisdom of apologising for their outburst, Mr. Sutton deigned to supply them with rump steaks and strong ale, and finally the party offered to pay the postboys liberally for allowing the chaise to be used that night as a bedchamber, and in comparison with later arrivals they had a right to consider themselves lucky.

The post chaise was, as the day wore on, followed by an unceasing stream of vehicles from London and the towns and villages on the way. The news had spread like wildfire, and the crowd of pedestrians starting from London was reinforced on the way down by country patrons. Spring carts, and carts without springs. wagons, vans, carriages, post chaises, gigs, curricles, horsemen, on they came, blocking up the highway at various points and occasionally involving themselves in a state of confusion, out of which no amount of sultry words could extricate them.

By five o’clock in the afternoon not a bed could be had in Andover. Seething crowds and a jumbled up mass of vehicles were wedged in the few streets, wide and narrow. There was not the slightest room to house the horses; it was difficult to get them provender. Drivers, riders and passengers were in the same plight. Every particle of food was devoured as though a swarm of locusts had passed over the town. All the neighbouring villages were scoured and they too were cleared of everything eatable.

Jack enjoyed the bustle, the noise, the excitement, the growls and the grumbles. He went out into the street and elbowed his way through the crowd, and when tired of the pushing, the brawling, the foul tobacco and the equally foul language, he returned to the “George” for what he could get to eat. He had not much fear he should not be able to satisfy his appetite, the “George” taking care to look after those who were staying in the house.

He went up to his room to wash away the remembrances of the greasy, jostling crowd, and was surprised to find his door opened and a manservant coming out.

“Hallo, my good fellow, what are you doing in there? That’s my room.”

“Yes, sir, so I was told, but the landlord has let a portion of it to my master. He said he was sure you wouldn’t mind.”

“Did he? Then he made a huge mistake. I do mind​—​very much. I’ve taken the room and the bed in it, and I mean to stick to what I’ve paid for.”

“Oh, I don’t think you’ll be troubled, sir; my master is a gentleman.”

“I don’t care whether he’s a gentleman or a vagabond. The room isn’t big enough for one, let alone two, and the bed’s so narrow it might be a coffin.”

“I’m sure my master has no desire to turn you out of your bed. I thought of making him up a bed on the floor.”

“Very good of you,” retorted Jack, his temper rapidly rising.

By this time he was in the room and saw a big valise on the only chair. Without the slightest ceremony he hauled it off and bade the man take it away.

“I’m afraid I can’t do that, sir, without my master’s orders.”

The man’s words were civil, but his manners were insolent, and his face was as insolent as his manners. A white-faced, sleek-haired fellow, with cunning eyes and a truculent lip, he had bully and rascal written upon him unmistakably.

“And who the devil is your master that he should give his orders about my room?” demanded Jack.

“Sir Phineas Tenbury, sir. Perhaps you don’t know him.”

“I know him sufficiently to treat him as I do his luggage.”

With one vigorous kick he sent the valise flying into the passage.

“If you don’t want to be served the same way, you’d better take yourself off.”

“And what am I to tell my master?”

“Tell him what you like.”

Jack looked so threatening that the fellow retreated precipitately. Leaving the valise where Jack had kicked it, he disappeared down the narrow staircase.

Jack slammed to the door and sat down on the little bed to calm down and to marvel at the irony of fate which had thrust upon him the company of a man he detested and with whom so recently he had nearly had a quarrel. Had Sutton approached him properly, he would have raised no objection to sharing the room with any decent person​—​but not Sir Phineas under any circumstances. He wondered what would be the outcome of the incident. Sir Phineas was not the man to take a rebuff lying down.

He was right. Hardly had two minutes gone by than there came a sharp tap at the door. Jack was not disposed to act the lackey to Sir Phineas, so he shouted “Come in.”

Sir Phineas was much too fine a gentleman to act as his own porter. It was his man who knocked at the door and who opened it at Jack’s response. His master was a couple of paces behind. His lips were white with passion, and his nostrils quivered. He was about to burst into a storm of imprecations, when he recognised Ralstone and his manner changed. He was noted for his great control over himself and he showed it now.

“Oh, this is capital,” said he coolly. “It’s as good a piece of comedy as Liston ever played in.”

“I’m glad you find it so,” retorted Jack, as cool as the other. “Your allusion to Liston in a comedy is extremely happy, with yourself, I presume, as Tony Lumpkin.”

Sir Phineas was not prepared for this keen thrust. It went home, for at that moment all London was splitting its sides over Liston and his inimitable Tony Lumpkin in “She Stoops to Conquer,” in which at the beginning of the year he had made his first appearance at Drury Lane. For the moment Tenbury had nothing to say in reply. However, he soon recovered himself, but he had lost his sneer and his bantering tone. He was now grimly serious.

“Is it true, sir, that you sent an impudent message by my servant that you would serve me as you served that valise?”

“Quite true.”

“Are you prepared to do it?”

“Yes. I am at your service, either with my feet or my hands. Milling is the fashion. Shall we anticipate Spring and Neate?”

Jack Ralstone at the moment looked particularly aggressive. Sir Phineas ran his eye over the athletic frame, the picture of muscular manhood. He had heard from Jerry Winch that “the gemman used his mauleys uncommon well,” and Jerry’s bruised body was sufficient proof of the statement. Sir Phineas was, like most of the “bloods” of the time, well up in boxing, but he knew he would not stand the ghost of a chance with Ralstone.

“Gentlemen do not settle their differences in that vulgar fashion,” said he, biting his lip.

“As you please. Any kind of weapon will suit me.”

“Is this a challenge?”

“Yes, if you like to make it so. My friend will wait upon you as soon as I get to London.”

“The sooner the better. But our quarrel, so far as it has gone, is but a paltry affair. I don’t want to be the laughing stock at Brooks’s or Boodle’s. It will be said that Sir Phineas pinked his man because his valise was kicked out of an inn bedroom. If we do fight, let it be over the best cause in the world​—​a woman.”

“What! Bring the name of Lady Barbara Dacre into this squabble? That doesn’t strike me as very gentlemanly.”

“I introduce no name. I’m not thinking of Lady Barbara, but of somebody quite different.”

“Indeed, and who may she be?”

“The girl you rode away with on Blankstone Common, the night of the Bath Masquerade.”

Tenbury’s voice was hard and grating. He snapped out his words as though he was biting them. His lips tightened, but did not meet, a thin line of white teeth showing between.

Jack started and the blood galloped through his veins. His face crimsoned.

“I see you remember. What have you done with the girl?” demanded Sir Phineas with a burst of passion, his boasted self-control suddenly breaking down.

“I decline to tell you. It’s no affair of yours,” returned Jack coldly.

“I make it mine. You interfered in what didn’t concern you and you shall pay for it.”

“I always pay my debts, Sir Phineas. I don’t intend to follow your example.”

Another hit. Sir Phineas could always find money for something discreditable, if it ministered to his pleasure, but his legitimate debts he ignored, as many a tradesman knew to his cost.

“See here, Ralstone. We needn’t bandy repartees. The point is this. The girl you laid hands upon is mine, and neither you nor any other man shall have her. I await the coming of your friend. Lord Houston will act for me.”

Wheeling round, he stalked away, leaving Jack in a mingled state of bewilderment and exhilaration. The prospect of a fight, even with so notorious a duellist as Tenbury, did not frighten him, and he had a curious sense of pleasure that the fight was to be over the dark-eyed girl whom he had found so fascinating, and about whom he had woven quite a web of romance, though there was no occasion for weaving, so far as he was concerned, for the circumstances in themselves were romantic enough.

But that which puzzled him not a little was the relationship between her and Tenbury. All he could decide was the certainty he could render her no better service than free her from the clutches of so callous a woman pursuer as Sir Phineas. It was a great comfort to him to think that she was at that moment out of the baronet’s hands.

“The fellow, I expect’ll choose pistols. They say he can pip the ace of hearts fourteen times out of fifteen at twenty paces. Not a pleasant prospect for me, but hang it, I’ll take my chance.”

He saw no more of Sir Phineas. He noticed the valise was gone, and this in itself was a triumph. Sutton was very grumpy over the affair, representing that the young man might have stretched a point to so good a patron of sport as Sir Phineas Tenbury. Jack did not enter into particulars, but laughed the matter down, and suggested that if the landlord was aggrieved he’d spring another guinea. This lordly way of settling things Mr. Sutton found perfectly satisfactory.

The night passed amid a perfect uproar outside. Jack might as well have been in the street. The drunken shouts, the brawls, the impromptu “mills,” the tramping horses, made sleep almost impossible. Inside the “George” things were just as bad, nothing but noisy talking and laughing, and tramping up and down stairs. When dawn came he was glad enough to turn out and await what the day might bring forth.

The buzz and din were still going on, and the excitement grew to fever heat about nine o’clock, when the two heroes arrived amid stentorian cheers. Jack was in the bar parlour when Spring entered the “George,” and he pressed forward to shake the pugilist by the hand.

“By George, Spring, I never saw you look so fit. Good luck to you. You’re sure to win.”

“I’ll do my level best, sir, not only because of myself, but for the sake of my backers. Are you in at all heavily, Mr. Ralstone?” added Tom, sinking his voice.

“Well, if you win, Tom, I shall land £500 or so but if you don’t I stand to lose £2,500.”

“Long odds, sir,” said Tom, looking serious. “You Bristol folk seem to fancy Neate, eh?”

“Rather. They’re all Neate’s men excepting myself. But I’ve seen you put your mauleys up, and they haven’t. The knowing ones say you can’t hit.”

“Do they; well, they’ll see.”

“And that if Bill Neate gets in one of his sledgehammer strokes on the mark, you’re done for.”

If’s good, sir. He’s got to do it. But Cribb’s beckoning me. See you again, Mr. Ralstone, at the ropes. Wait a moment. I’ll scribble you a word or two, and that’ll make you sure of a good place. The ring-keepers know my fist. Got a pencil, sir?”

Tom wrote something on one of Jack’s cards and handed it to him.

“Thanks, Tom,” cried Ralstone, flushing with pride. “I’ll have this framed.”

Spring smiled and passed on.

It was soon noised about that Weyhill was certainly the chosen spot, and somehow this did not have the effect of reducing the chaos reigning in Andover. The fact was the crowd feared another change, and refused to budge until they saw the combatants start. Things looked perilously near a riot, and the “George” was surrounded by an angry, hungry, swaying multitude of swells, tradesmen, farmers, and, of course, the great unwashed. The shopkeepers, in spite of the protection of the shutters, began to fear a general pillage.

Fortunately “Gentleman” Jackson was an adept at getting out of a hot corner. He decided that Hinckley Downs, a mile or so out of Andover, on the London Road, would be much better than a three-mile tramp to Weyhill. It meant a more rapid clearance of the town, and would intercept the ever-increasing arrivals from London. Directly it was known that this was a definite decision, the perspiring mass set off helter-skelter along the London Road, heedless of the rain which about eleven o’clock was pouring in torrents.

The place selected by Jackson was admirable. It was a big field on a slope at such an angle that the high ground on two sides of the arena could accommodate thousands well able to see the fight over the heads of those on the level. The approach was a race for the fleet-footed. Hundreds weary with a long tramp and sleepless night had but little chance. The road was soon blocked up by two opposing streams of vehicles, one from Andover and the other from London. Yells and imprecations rent the air.

“Break down the fences,” roared some one. There was a moment of hesitation, and the owners of the adjoining fields had time to realise the situation, and gave permission for gaps to be cut in the fences and hedges, providing they were compensated. The hat went round, shillings and coppers were collected by the score, and when the gigs, carts, post-chaises, curricles and the rest rushed in through the openings, everybody was satisfied.

The twenty-four-foot ring was in readiness, and the ring-keepers​—​sturdy, bronze-faced, broken-nosed “bruisers,” most of them ex-members of the P.R., armed with whips​—​took care that no unauthorised person invaded the sacred spot. The privileged “nobs,” patrons of Cribb at his hostelry in Panton Street, Haymarket, of Tom Belcher at “The Castle,” of “Uncle” Burn at “The Rising Sun,” Piccadilly, and other ex-P.R. publicans, were admitted within the ropes, and Jack Ralstone, thanks to Spring’s autograph, was of the number. Surrounding the ring, the spectators were seated, some eight or ten deep, hundreds stood behind, then came jumbled rows of vehicles, and, lastly, the packed crowd on the crest of the slope. Many women, quite an unusual thing, were there, all enthusiastic supporters of the Somersetshire hero. The rain came down steadily, but no one heeded it. Excitement and suspense overcame every discomfort.

Jack Ralstone found himself amid a group of “bloods” from London, several of whom he knew. Among them was young Lord Walsham, who had not long before come into his majority and a handsome fortune, which he was doing his best to spend. He and Ralstone were old ’Varsity chums. They greeted each other warmly.

“Glad you’re here, Walsham,” said Jack after a brief interchange of opinion concerning the event of the day. “I shall want your services when I get back to town.”

“My purse is yours, Ralstone,” said his lordship, a fair-haired, boyish-looking young man, whose fresh colour had not yet yielded to the effects of gambling nights and drinking orgies.

“Thanks, but it’s not a question of money. I’ve a little affair of honour on hand.”

“The deuce you have. Who’s the fellow?”

“Sir Phineas Tenbury.”

Lord Walsham’s face became very grave.

“I’d rather it was anybody else. You know what his reputation is. He’s not content with winging his man. He’d as lief kill outright as not.”

Jack shrugged his shoulders.

“Maybe two can play at that game. Anyhow, you’ll act for me?”

“Of course. But I tell you frankly I don’t like it. What’s the row over? A woman?”

“In a way, yes.”

Further talk on the matter was impossible on account of the clamour all around. A hot discussion had sprung up between the Corinthians round about concerning the respective merits of Spring and Neate. One voice dominated the rest.

“I know what I’m talking about, gentlemen. Spring hasn’t a dog’s chance. He’s a soft hitter. His hands’ll give out before he’s fought a dozen rounds. Everybody knows he’s a ‘light tapper,’ a ‘china man.’ One fair blow from Neate’s mighty fist and he’ll go silly as an owl.”

Jack knew the rasping, sneering voice. It belonged to Sir Phineas Tenbury.

“That may be, but he managed all the same to thrash Jack Carter, Ben Burn, Bob Burn, Josh Hudson, and Tom Oliver,” retorted one of Spring’s supporters.

“What about Ned Painter?” was Tenbury’s reply.

“Ned’s the only man who ever beat him, but when they fought a second time the tables were turned.”

“Painter’s not to be compared to Neate. When Bill comes on with one of his furious rushes, it’s like a bull charging. Anyhow, I’m backing Neate. Anybody on?”

Sir Phineas was looking straight at Ralstone, as though challenging him. Certainly, this was how Jack interpreted his glance. An uncontrollable spirit of defiance and recklessness seized him. He had but a few guineas in his pocket, he hadn’t the least idea where money was to come from if Spring failed him, and if so, he would be involved in debts of honour to the amount of £2,500, but the gambler’s fever was strong within him, accentuated by his enmity against Tenbury, and amid the pause of silence which followed Sir Phineas’s announcement, he shouted:

“I’ll take you​—​in hundreds.”

“I don’t bet in paltry sums,” rejoined Tenbury coldly. “Nothing less than thousands.”

“Oh, by all means. In thousands. I’ll lay £5,000 on Tom Spring at the latest odds​—​5 to 4.”

“Are you sure you can pay?” rejoined Tenbury with studied insolence of tone and manner.

“Are you sure you can,” was Jack’s retort.

An ugly glint shot into Tenbury’s eyes, but he made no reply, and booked the bet. Before he had finished the entry in his book, a little man, very neatly dressed, whispered something anxiously to the baronet. Jack remembered this man, with his small, cunning eyes, his unusually high cheek bones, and his little pointed, obtrusive chin.

“Do you know that fellow whispering to Sir Phineas?” said Jack to Lard Walsham.

“Yes​—​to my cost. He’s a moneylender and a gambling sharp. His name’s Weare. Lives in Lyons Inn. Goes in for shooting and coursing. Has half a dozen dogs at his place in town. Keep out of his clutches, Ralstone, if you don’t want to be worried.”

“I stand to win £100 from him if Neate goes down. He backed Neate 5 to 1.”

“I see,” laughed his lordship. “He’s thinking that if you have to pay up to Sir Phineas, there may be a poor chance of his getting your £20. I hope to God you’ll have luck. Deuced unpleasant for you to owe £5,000 to the man you’re going to fight.”

“Why? It will be unpleasant for him, I grant, because if he kills me he won’t get paid at all. The thought of that may spoil his aim. The luck’s on my side, you see.”

Walsham was rather taken aback by Jack’s nonchalance.

“You don’t really mean that, do you?” said he.

“Whatever I mean won’t alter facts. If Neate wins, why——”

But the rest of his words were swallowed up in a babel of sound. Gentleman Jackson, the “Commander-in-Chief,” had entered the ring. He received an uproarious welcome, but nothing compared to what followed within the next few minutes. Bill Neate, the Bristol “pet,” arm-in-arm with his principal backer, was seen making his way through the enthusiastic crowd, and when he drew near the ropes he snatched off his hat and tossed it into the enclosure. The applause was deafening, but not more so than that which greeted Tom Spring. Not a muscle of Tom’s handsome face moved. To look at him, so cool and confident, one might have supposed he had been taking a walk and had dropped in by accident. Sauntering up to the ring, he dropped his hat just within, sprang over the rope, and advanced to Neate, holding out his hand.

There were no looks of defiance on the part of either gladiator, no “biting of the thumbs,” nothing melodramatic. It was all as simple and natural as well could be. The two athletes, who were about to bash each other’s faces and thump their bodies to the best of their ability until one or the other was unable to stand, simply shook hands.

“I hope you are well,” said Spring.

“I am very well, thank you; I hope you are,” replied Neate.

Then the huge crowd, some 30,000 persons, prepared to enjoy themselves.