Chapter IX

An Infamous Plot

An hour later a carriage stopped at the entrance of Cranbourne Alley, Leicester Square, and the footman, springing from his stand behind, opened the carriage door, and a lady muffled in a cloak and with a hood drawn well down over her head, tripped lightly to one of the many milliners’ shops within the alley. She rapped at the door impatiently. It was opened by a stout woman, with square shoulders and a pronounced bust, hard features and small, twinkling beadlike eyes.

“La! Is it your ladyship? I did not expect you. Will you please walk in?”

Lady Barbara passed inside rapidly and waited until the door was closed before she spoke. Then in a low, anxious voice:

“Have you a letter for me, Matthews?”

“Yes, m’lady. It came this evening about two hours ago.”

“Give it me at once, please.”

The woman disappeared into a room behind the shop and returned with a letter, of which Lady Barbara broke the seal in feverish haste. The epistle ran:

Dearest,​—​Unable to see you at Almack’s until after midnight. Till then I am the most miserable of mortals. Your devoted admirer, P.T.

Lady Barbara’s blue eyes gleamed for a moment, and then the lids drooped, and she gave a sigh of relief.

“I was fearful he might disappoint me. And I want to see him so much​—​so much,” she sighed.

She folded up the letter and slid it within the bosom of her dress.

“Thank you, Matthews. That’s all.”

“Not quite all, I’m afraid. I beg your pardon for reminding you of your promise. I trust you will be able to oblige me with some money. I have my rent to meet and——”

“Yes​—​yes,” interjected Lady Barbara irritably. “I know all about that. I’ve heard it before. I really can’t be bothered about money to-night.”

The woman’s eyes had in them an ugly glint.

“I’m sorry to hear that. It would save you much trouble and worry if you could oblige me.”

“It’s quite impossible. I don’t carry my purse with me when I attend a ball.”

“Nor when your ladyship’s not attending one either,” rejoined Mrs. Matthews, suddenly becoming impudent. “I suppose I’d better speak plainly. I must tell you that unless you pay me fifty pounds by to-morrow night the consequences may be very serious for your ladyship.”

“Whatever do you mean, Matthews? You’ll have every penny I owe you, but you’ll have to wait like other tradespeople.”

Lady Barbara spoke angrily and haughtily, after the fashion of the Upper Ten, who in those days were invariably rude and imperious to the people who kept shops, even though the shopkeeper might be far wealthier than his or her customer. They thought it an intolerable piece of presumption to be asked for money. As a rule, the shopkeeper accepted the snubbings humbly, but not Mrs. Matthews, on this occasion at all events.

“I’m not going to follow the example of other tradesmen. I don’t intend to wait,” said she, planting her arms akimbo and sidling in front of Lady Barbara, so that the latter should not escape without hearing what she had to say.

“You’re exceedingly impertinent, Matthews. You forget yourself,” exclaimed Lady Barbara wrathfully.

“Indeed I don’t. It is your ladyship who forgets. Do you suppose I’m going to allow my house to be used as a place of assignation and not be paid?”

Lady Barbara went very white.

“Of course not,” she faltered. “But Sir Phineas​—​has he not given you money? I understood——”

“Sir Phineas has, like your ladyship, given me nothing but promises. I’ve told you what I want​—​fifty pounds. If I don’t get it by the time I mentioned, I shall send the bill to the duke, and shall not forget to tell him what it’s for.”

Lady Barbara trembled. Not for ten thousand worlds would she have her indiscretion known to her father. Equally disastrous would it be if Mrs. Matthews opened her mouth to her gossips. Good-bye then to her chances of marriage with a rich man, either aristocrat or parvenu.

“Surely you’d not do anything so disgraceful,” she returned in a choking voice.

“Your ladyship can easily avoid exposure,” was the woman’s cold reply.

“Cannot you give me a little longer time?”

“No. I must have my money before to-morrow night.”

The unhappy Lady Barbara could make no reply. She was overwhelmed. Mrs. Matthews, having delivered her ultimatum, moved aside, opened the door, and the young lady, her head bent down, hurried to her carriage, and, once inside flung herself in a corner, her eyes filled with tears of rage and shame. Yet within an hour she was apparently enjoying herself immensely amid the exclusiveness of Almack’s, so much so that the all powerful Lady Jersey condescended to compliment her on her attractiveness.

“You ought to make a conquest to-night, Lady Barbara,” said the lady autocrat, surveying the young woman critically. “You’re certainly the handsomest girl in the room.”

Lady Barbara made a curtsy in acknowledgment of her ladyship’s compliment, and murmured, as in duty bound, some words depreciatory of herself.

“Don’t talk nonsense,” returned the high and mighty lady patroness. “A girl in her first season should always make the best of herself. Then is her chance. The King was pleased to be charmed with you at your presentation. Is it true that you’re engaged to Mr. Ralstone? I knew his father very well in my young days. His widow, I consider, disgraced herself terribly by marrying a sugar planter. I’ve never seen the man, but it’s impossible he can be otherwise than a vulgarian. But I suppose he’s very rich, and money, like charity, covers a multitude of sins.”

And with a cold smile the arbiter of fashion sailed away.

The mention of Jack Ralstone’s name sent Lady Barbara’s heart cold. She was very thankful, however, that Lady Jersey had not questioned her about the position of affairs. She would not have known how to reply. It was very clear that the breaking of her engagement was not known in society, and for this also she was glad.

Ever since her talk with her father Lady Barbara had been torn by doubts and fears. Amid her tormenting reflections, self reproach, resentment, consciousness of folly, and the rest, thoughts of Ralstone occupied the first place. His defection, without a word of explanation to her, had wounded her vanity and piqued her self-love. It was an insult to her womanhood, for, as a philosopher has observed, a woman may forgive an injury, but a slight, never. She was burning to punish him. But how? The most fitting retribution would be to bring him to her feet and then laugh him to scorn.

The duke’s suggestion of her power to tempt and conquer men had sunk deeply into her mind. She knew she had this power, but she had always been too proud to use it. Certainly she had never tried to use it over Jack Ralstone. It did not seem worth while. Knowing he was bound to her, she did not trouble about him. Now that he had thrown her over a revulsion of feeling had set in. She wanted him back. Not that she loved him. Sir Phineas had spoilt that emotion​—​at all events for a time. No, it was to humble him, if possible. But really, at that moment, with the expectation of seeing Sir Phineas hovering at the back of her mind, she was in such confusion she could not bring herself to a calm judgment.

To distract her thoughts she plunged wildly into dancing. She had no lack of partners. Her vivacity, the result of over-strained nerves, amounting almost to hysteria, was in such contrast with the primness of most of the London belles that when not dancing she was the centre of a group of admirers.

When twelve o’clock was near Lady Barbara became very nervous. Her eyes were fixed on the door by which Sir Phineas was bound to enter, and lest she should miss him she begged to be excused, on the score of fatigue, the waltz she had promised. She then withdrew into one of the ante-rooms to collect herself. The doorway commanded a view of the entrance, and she had been sitting scarcely five minutes when she saw him come in and scrutinise the dancers. She rose to meet him, but resumed her seat on seeing him cross the ball-room in the direction of the ante-chamber. She became greatly agitated, and was fanning herself vigorously when he came into the room and sat himself down by her side.

“You look charming to-night, Lady Barbara,” he whispered. “You are adorable.”

“I feel neither the one nor the other,” she returned a little pettishly, and found relief for her disturbed nerves in fingering the fringe of her fan.

Sir Phineas gazed at her with animalism pictured in his eyes. He certainly had not exaggerated his compliments. The haughtiness habitual to her had disappeared, and with it an affectation which made her beauty somewhat insipid. Emotion had given her expression, and there was something in that expression which was peculiarly agreeable to the temperament of the man whose eyes were fixed gloatingly upon her. To see women suffer was one of his pleasures.

The dress Lady Barbara was wearing became her delightfully. It was of white muslin, with a deep ornamental border of gold edging the skirt. The waist came nearly to her armpits, and the puffed sleeves​—​if the cluster of material cunningly woven together by the dressmaker’s deft fingers could be called a sleeve​—​it was really a puff intersected by ribbon​—​accentuated the statuesque shoulders above and her full, round arms below. White kid gloves reached to her elbows, and white satin dancing shoes encased her small feet. Her bright tawny hair, inclining naturally to curl, showed signs of rebellion beneath the gauze turban of light blue, and a rope of pearls encircled her neck and seemed to vibrate with life at every rise and fall of her bosom. The costume brought to the mind a picture of a wilful, capricious hoyden, and the suggestion of spoilt childishness imparted a piquancy to her charms altogether alluring.

“Why are you so late?” said she with an effort.

“You had my note.”

“Oh, yes. It was horribly disappointing. I wish I’d not called for it. I wanted you so much. I hoped you would have been here earlier. I’m distraught. Such frightful things have occurred.”

“Frightful? To you? What frightful things could possibly happen to my beautiful Barbara?” he returned with a quizzical smile.

“If you’ll try to be serious I’ll tell you. To begin with, I’m horribly in debt. I want fifty pounds at once.”

“What, to-night?”

“To-morrow at the latest. It’s to stop the mouth of that vile traitress Matthews. She has threatened to disclose everything to the Duke unless she’s paid. You told me that you would satisfy her, and you haven’t. It was unkind of you, Phineas.”

“Not intentional unkindness, dearest. It was a physical impossibility. I’ve been infernally hit over that fight at Andover. I backed Neate heavily, and the fellow was licked.”

“I’m sorry. But fifty pounds​—​it’s a mere trifle. You can let me have that, surely.”

“Coax it out of his Grace. You can twist your father round your little finger if you care to do so.”

“I don’t care. It would be of no use. I had a most unpleasant talk with him this evening​—​I’ve got to tell you about that​—​and in the course of it he told me he’d no available money at all. Think of it! The Duke of Endsleigh penniless!”

“Sounds bad, of course. But penniless noblemen seem to get on very well. Having no money is but an incentive to borrow more and spend more.”

“That’s nonsense. Anyhow, Matthews must be satisfied. You see that, don’t you?”

“I don’t see what harm the Jezebel can do you. Neither the Duke nor any one else would believe her slanders.”

“Indeed, you’re wrong. Slanders are the only things people do believe. Think of me​—​my reputation——”

“I’m always thinking of you, sweetest. But about the Duke. You were saying——”

“He refused to pay any more of my bills. A whole year’s debts have accumulated. I owe I don’t know how much, and all that the Duke can suggest is that I should marry a rich man.”

“Excellent advice. Why don’t you follow it?”

“Phineas! And you?”

“I’m out of the running​—​as a husband. I haven’t a stiver. I’ve never made any secret of that. Why don’t you marry young Ralstone?”

Lady Barbara started to her feet. Her face had gone chalky white even to her lips.

“Do you tell me that? Have I then been simply your toy?” she flung at him in tones subdued enough but vibrating with intense passion.

“Sit down, Barbara, and let us talk out this thing quietly. It’s no time for heroics.”

His eyes hardened and he grasped her bare arm above the elbow with a savage pressure that told of his mastery over her. She obeyed tremblingly.

“I love you more than I’ve loved any woman. I’ve lost my heart, but I’m not going to lose my head. I confess that I wanted to cut out Ralstone, and I’ve succeeded. I know very well you’re mine——”

“And you’d have me marry him! Your boasted love’s a sham! I——”

Her voice died away in an excess of anger.

“My love for you is part of my life. You’ll be just the same to me no matter whose wife you are and I’ll swear I shall be the same to you. If you were married to that fellow Ralstone I should love you a thousand times more than I do now, if it were possible. I hate him. I’ve reason to. I’ve had a bit of my revenge. I’ve robbed him of you. I wonder how he’d feel if he knew it. But I shan’t be satisfied until you’re his wife.”

“That will never be,” cried Barbara with emphasis.

“Never! Have you given him his congé?”

“No. It is the other way about. He has refused to marry me.”

“Because of me?” sneeringly asked Sir Phineas.

“I can’t tell. I should think not. Save that abominable creature Matthews, who knows of our secret meetings? My engagement to Mr. Ralstone is broken off and so is his dependence on his stepfather. He won’t have any allowance from him for the future. Of course I can no longer expect to marry him.”

Tenbury’s face became as black as a thundercloud. His complete revenge would have been to see Barbara Ralstone’s wife and yet retain his hold over her. He had nursed this plan until he was sanguine of its success. It was this which prompted him to pursue Lady Barbara until he had absolute power over her.

The plot had failed if the marriage could not be brought about. The sense of discomfiture​—​for Ralstone had up to the present won all along​—​galled him to the quick, and he sat scowling, motionless and apparently oblivious of the agitated woman by his side.

“You jilted the fellow then?” he jerked out suddenly.

“No. He simply told his stepfather he didn’t intend to marry me. He hasn’t even deigned to acquaint me with his decision. It’s an insult.”

Sir Phineas relapsed into his fit of stony abstraction. He could only ascribe Ralstone’s extraordinary conduct to one cause​—​some other woman had captured him. And the woman? She of the dark eyes, the raven hair? The Venus clad in rags? It was certain she had gone away with him. Since then all trace of her had vanished, in spite of Sir Phineas’s efforts and the efforts of the agents always at his command whenever he chose to amuse himself with an intrigue.

“It seems to me, Barbara, that Ralstone hasn’t given you up,” said he, his manner softening. “Until he tells you so himself all hope isn’t lost.”

“All hope? What have I to do with hope so far as Jack Ralstone is concerned? I’ve as little desire to marry him as he has to marry me.”

“Oh, I can see you’re a pair of simpletons. I have to say this to you​—​you must marry him.”

Lady Barbara flushed angrily.

“I shall do nothing of the kind. Not even if he were to beg my forgiveness for his intolerable insolence. And let me tell you, Phineas, that I’m not accustomed to be told that I must do this or that.”

“You’ll probably have to get used to the process. You’ve had one lesson in discipline from your father and you’re having another now from me. I repeat you must marry Ralstone. It’s the only chance left to you to escape your embarrassments.”

“There’s but one embarrassment which really troubles me​—​the threat of that odious Matthews. You can save me from that. You have but to satisfy her.”

“And if I don’t choose to do so? What then?”

“You would not be so heartless​—​so dishonourable. The debt is as much yours as mine,” cried Lady Barbara, her lower lip pouting and tremulous.

“The debt, yes. But not the consequences. I’ve no reputation to lose; every shred has long vanished. But you, Lady Barbara Dacre, the daughter of the Duke of Endsleigh! And in your first season too! It would be nothing if you had been hardened by the fire of scandal like many fashionable women I could name. It would be nothing if you were married. Women excuse wives who seek the consolation and amusement they don’t get from their husbands. But they haven’t a word of excuse for the innocent débutante. The most terrible blunder a woman can make is to blunder at the start of her career.”

“And that’s your answer.”

Lady Barbara’s tremor of the lip extended to her whole body. She was suffering intolerable torture under the man’s cynical callousness.

“That’s my answer and it’s given in your own interest.”

“Oh, you men are monsters,” she gasped. “I thought my father was cruel, but you’re worse​—​a thousand times worse. I wish I’d never spoken to you​—​never seen you. I hate you.”

“No you don’t. You’re just making a wry face and whimpering because you have to swallow an unpleasant pill. You’re a beautiful woman, Barbara, but as yet you don’t know how to make yourself fascinating. That knowledge will come. What is the whole duty of man? To be fooled by woman. It’s her greatest triumph. To some it comes naturally. To others​—​well, they learn it by bitter experience.”

“It’s shameful to be compelled to sit here and listen to your atrocious sentiments.”

“My dear Barbara, the truth often sounds atrocious, but it’s the truth nevertheless. Just think. How many of the rich young fools, and old ones too for the matter of that, will look at you after our long tête-à-tête? Nearly one o’clock. We’ve been sitting here a good half-hour.”

Lady Barbara started. The consequences of the compromising situation in which she had involved herself by her long talk with the notorious Sir Phineas Tenbury flashed across her mind. She had been so absorbed. The crisis in her life which had so suddenly arisen had taken so firm a hold upon her that the minutes had sped by unnoticed. Couples had entered the tea-room and had departed. Dowagers and chaperons, eyeing everybody, could not have failed to notice her and her companion, and were bound to draw their own conclusions. The terrible thought that Sir Phineas had purposely invited scandal convulsed her. She cast a glance at his face. It was as hard as flint. She sat mute, a prey to agonising self-reproaches. She listened to her companion, unable to utter a word.

“I’ll make you an offer,” he was saying. “Win back young Ralstone. You can do it if you choose to fascinate him. The difference with old Halstead will then be smoothed over without the slightest difficulty. I know all about the dowry the old man had promised you. With Ralstone as your husband you’ll have plenty of money to spend, and life will go as easily as an old tune. Do this, my charmer, and that harpy Matthews will trouble you no more.”

“And you, Phineas? Do you fling me aside?” she forced herself to say.

“Not at all. We shall be just as we have been​—​just as we are now,” he returned composedly.

Lady Barbara shuddered. She understood. It was an infamous bargain, but what was she to do?

“Well?” he asked, after a long pause.

“You are merciless,” she faltered slowly. “I feel bound hand and foot. Have your way.”