Rodney Stone

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Crawley downs

All through that weary night my uncle and I, with Belcher, Berkeley Craven, and a dozen of the Corinthians, searched the country side for some trace of our missing man, but save for that ill-boding splash upon the road not the slightest clue could be obtained as to what had befallen him.  No one had seen or heard anything of him, and the single cry in the night of which the ostler told us was the only indication of the tragedy which had taken place.  In small parties we scoured the country as far as East Grinstead and Bletchingley, and the sun had been long over the horizon before we found ourselves back at Crawley once more with heavy hearts and tired feet.  My uncle, who had driven to Reigate in the hope of gaining some intelligence, did not return until past seven o’clock, and a glance at his face gave us the same black news which he gathered from ours. We held a council round our dismal breakfast-table, to which Mr. Berkeley Craven was invited as a man of sound wisdom and large experience in matters of sport.  Belcher was half frenzied by this sudden ending of all the pains which he had taken in the training, and could only rave out threats at Berks and his companions, with terrible menaces as to what he would do when he met them.  My uncle sat grave and thoughtful, eating nothing and drumming his fingers upon the table, while my heart was heavy within me, and I could have sunk my face into my hands and burst into tears as I thought how powerless I was to aid my friend.  Mr. Craven, a fresh-faced, alert man of the world, was the only one of us who seemed to preserve both his wits and his appetite. “Let me see!  The fight was to be at ten, was it not?” he asked. “It was to be.” “I dare say it will be, too.  Never say die, Tregellis!  Your man has still three hours in which to come back.” My uncle shook his head. “The villains have done their work too well for that, I fear,” said he. “Well, now, let us reason it out,” said Berkeley Craven.  “A woman comes and she coaxes this young man out of his room.  Do you know any young woman who had an influence over him?” My uncle looked at me. “No,” said I.  “I know of none.” “Well, we know that she came,” said Berkeley Craven.  “There can be no question as to that.  She brought some piteous tale, no doubt, such as a gallant young man could hardly refuse to listen to.  He fell into the trap, and allowed himself to be decoyed to the place where these rascals were waiting for him.  We may take all that as proved, I should fancy, Tregellis.” “I see no better explanation,” said my uncle. “Well, then, it is obviously not the interest of these men to kill him.  Warr heard them say as much.  They could not make sure, perhaps, of doing so tough a young fellow an injury which would certainly prevent him from fighting.  Even with a broken arm he might pull the fight off, as men have done before.  There was too much money on for them to run any risks.  They gave him a tap on the head, therefore, to prevent his making too much resistance, and they then drove him off to some farmhouse or stable, where they will hold him a prisoner until the time for the fight is over.  I warrant that you see him before to-night as well as ever he was.” This theory sounded so reasonable that it seemed to lift a little of the weight from my heart, but I could see that from my uncle’s point of view it was a poor consolation. “I dare say you are right, Craven,” said he. “I am sure that I am.” “But it won’t help us to win the fight.” “That’s the point, sir,” cried Belcher.  “By the Lord, I wish they’d let me take his place, even with my left arm strapped behind me.” “I should advise you in any case to go to the ringside,” said Craven.  “You should hold on until the last moment in the hope of your man turning up.” “I shall certainly do so.  And I shall protest against paying the wagers under such circumstances.” Craven shrugged his shoulders. “You remember the conditions of the match,” said he.  “I fear it is pay or play.  No doubt the point might be submitted to the referees, but I cannot doubt that they would have to give it against you.” We had sunk into a melancholy silence, when suddenly Belcher sprang up from the table. “Hark!” he cried.  “Listen to that!” “What is it?” we cried, all three. “The betting!  Listen again!” Out of the babel of voices and roaring of wheels outside the window a single sentence struck sharply on our ears. “Even money upon Sir Charles’s nominee!” “Even money!” cried my uncle.  “It was seven to one against me, yesterday.  What is the meaning of this?” “Even money either way,” cried the voice again. “There’s somebody knows something,” said Belcher, “and there’s nobody has a better right to know what it is than we.  Come on, sir, and we’ll get to the bottom of it.” The village street was packed with people, for they had been sleeping twelve and fifteen in a room, whilst hundreds of gentlemen had spent the night in their carriages.  So thick was the throng that it was no easy matter to get out of the George.  A drunken man, snoring horribly in his breathing, was curled up in the passage, absolutely oblivious to the stream of people who flowed round and occasionally over him. “What’s the betting, boys?” asked Belcher, from the steps. “Even money, Jim,” cried several voices. “It was long odds on Wilson when last I heard.” “Yes; but there came a man who laid freely the other way, and he started others taking the odds, until now you can get even money.” “Who started it?” “Why, that’s he!  The man that lies drunk in the passage.  He’s been pouring it down like water ever since he drove in at six o’clock, so it’s no wonder he’s like that.” Belcher stooped down and turned over the man’s inert head so as to show his features. “He’s a stranger to me, sir.” “And to me,” added my uncle. “But not to me,” I cried.  “It’s John Cumming, the landlord of the inn at Friar’s Oak.  I’ve known him ever since I was a boy, and I can’t be mistaken.” “Well, what the devil can he know about it?” said Craven. “Nothing at all, in all probability,” answered my uncle.  “He is backing young Jim because he knows him, and because he has more brandy than sense.  His drunken confidence set others to do the same, and so the odds came down.” “He was as sober as a judge when he drove in here this morning,” said the landlord.  “He began backing Sir Charles’s nominee from the moment he arrived.  Some of the other boys took the office from him, and they very soon brought the odds down amongst them.” “I wish he had not brought himself down as well,” said my uncle.  “I beg that you will bring me a little lavender water, landlord, for the smell of this crowd is appalling.  I suppose you could not get any sense from this drunken fellow, nephew, or find out what it is he knows.” It was in vain that I rocked him by the shoulder and shouted his name in his ear.  Nothing could break in upon that serene intoxication. “Well, it’s a unique situation as far as my experience goes,” said Berkeley Craven.  “Here we are within a couple of hours of the fight, and yet you don’t know whether you have a man to represent you.  I hope you don’t stand to lose very much, Tregellis.” My uncle shrugged his shoulders carelessly, and took a pinch of his snuff with that inimitable sweeping gesture which no man has ever ventured to imitate. “Pretty well, my boy!” said he.  “But it is time that we thought of going up to the Downs.  This night journey has left me just a little effleuré, and I should like half an hour of privacy to arrange my toilet.  If this is my last kick, it shall at least be with a well-brushed boot.” I have heard a traveller from the wilds of America say that he looked upon the Red Indian and the English gentleman as closely akin, citing the passion for sport, the aloofness and the suppression of the emotions in each.  I thought of his words as I watched my uncle that morning, for I believe that no victim tied to the stake could have had a worse outlook before him.  It was not merely that his own fortunes were largely at stake, but it was the dreadful position in which he would stand before this immense concourse of people, many of whom had put their money upon his judgment, if he should find himself at the last moment with an impotent excuse instead of a champion to put before them.  What a situation for a man who prided himself upon his aplomb, and upon bringing all that he undertook to the very highest standard of success!  I, who knew him well, could tell from his wan cheeks and his restless fingers that he was at his wit’s ends what to do; but no stranger who observed his jaunty bearing, the flecking of his laced handkerchief, the handling of his quizzing glass, or the shooting of his ruffles, would ever have thought that this butterfly creature could have had a care upon earth. It was close upon nine o’clock when we were ready to start for the Downs, and by that time my uncle’s curricle was almost the only vehicle left in the village street.  The night before they had lain with their wheels interlocking and their shafts under each other’s bodies, as thick as they could fit, from the old church to the Crawley Elm, spanning the road five-deep for a good half-mile in length.  Now the grey village street lay before us almost deserted save by a few women and children.  Men, horses, carriages - all were gone.  My uncle drew on his driving-gloves and arranged his costume with punctilious neatness; but I observed that he glanced up and down the road with a haggard and yet expectant eye before he took his seat.  I sat behind with Belcher, while the Hon. Berkeley Craven took the place beside him. The road from Crawley curves gently upwards to the upland heather-clad plateau which extends for many miles in every direction.  Strings of pedestrians, most of them so weary and dust-covered that it was evident that they had walked the thirty miles from London during the night, were plodding along by the sides of the road or trailing over the long mottled slopes of the moorland.  A horseman, fantastically dressed in green and splendidly mounted, was waiting at the crossroads, and as he spurred towards us I recognised the dark, handsome face and bold black eyes of Mendoza. “I am waiting here to give the office, Sir Charles,” said he.  “It’s down the Grinstead road, half a mile to the left.” “Very good,” said my uncle, reining his mares round into the cross-road. “You haven’t got your man there,” remarked Mendoza, with something of suspicion in his manner. “What the devil is that to you?” cried Belcher, furiously. “It’s a good deal to all of us, for there are some funny stories about.” “You keep them to yourself, then, or you may wish you had never heard them.” “All right, Jem!  Your breakfast don’t seem to have agreed with you this morning.” “Have the others arrived?” asked my uncle, carelessly. “Not yet, Sir Charles.  But Tom Oliver is there with the ropes and stakes.  Jackson drove by just now, and most of the ring-keepers are up.” “We have still an hour,” remarked my uncle, as he drove on.  “It is possible that the others may be late, since they have to come from Reigate.” “You take it like a man, Tregellis,” said Craven.  “We must keep a bold face and brazen it out until the last moment.” “Of course, sir,” cried Belcher.  “I’ll never believe the betting would rise like that if somebody didn’t know something.  We’ll hold on by our teeth and nails, Sir Charles, and see what comes of it.” We could hear a sound like the waves upon the beach, long before we came in sight of that mighty multitude, and then at last, on a sudden dip of the road, we saw it lying before us, a whirlpool of humanity with an open vortex in the centre.  All round, the thousands of carriages and horses were dotted over the moor, and the slopes were gay with tents and booths.  A spot had been chosen for the ring, where a great basin had been hollowed out in the ground, so that all round that natural amphitheatre a crowd of thirty thousand people could see very well what was going on in the centre.  As we drove up a buzz of greeting came from the people upon the fringe which was nearest to us, spreading and spreading, until the whole multitude had joined in the acclamation.  Then an instant later a second shout broke forth, beginning from the other side of the arena, and the faces which had been turned towards us whisked round, so that in a twinkling the whole foreground changed from white to dark. “It’s they.  They are in time,” said my uncle and Craven together. Standing up on our curricle, we could see the cavalcade approaching over the Downs.  In front came a huge yellow barouche, in which sat Sir Lothian Hume, Crab Wilson, and Captain Barclay, his trainer.  The postillions were flying canary-yellow ribands from their caps, those being the colours under which Wilson was to fight.  Behind the carriage there rode a hundred or more noblemen and gentlemen of the west country, and then a line of gigs, tilburies, and carriages wound away down the Grinstead road as far as our eyes could follow it.  The big barouche came lumbering over the sward in our direction until Sir Lothian Hume caught sight of us, when he shouted to his postillions to pull up. “Good morning, Sir Charles,” said he, springing out of the carriage.  “I thought I knew your scarlet curricle.  We have an excellent morning for the battle.” My uncle bowed coldly, and made no answer. “I suppose that since we are all here we may begin at once,” said Sir Lothian, taking no notice of the other’s manner. “We begin at ten o’clock.  Not an instant before.” “Very good, if you prefer it.  By the way, Sir Charles, where is your man?” “I would ask you that question, Sir Lothian,” answered my uncle.  “Where is my man?” A look of astonishment passed over Sir Lothian’s features, which, if it were not real, was most admirably affected. “What do you mean by asking me such a question?” “Because I wish to know.” “But how can I tell, and what business is it of mine?” “I have reason to believe that you have made it your business.” “If you would kindly put the matter a little more clearly there would be some possibility of my understanding you.” They were both very white and cold, formal and unimpassioned in their bearing, but exchanging glances which crossed like rapier blades.  I thought of Sir Lothian’s murderous repute as a duellist, and I trembled for my uncle. “Now, sir, if you imagine that you have a grievance against me, you will oblige me vastly by putting it into words.” “I will,” said my uncle.  “There has been a conspiracy to maim or kidnap my man, and I have every reason to believe that you are privy to it.” An ugly sneer came over Sir Lothian’s saturnine face. “I see,” said he.  “Your man has not come on quite as well as you had expected in his training, and you are hard put to it to invent an excuse.  Still, I should have thought that you might have found a more probable one, and one which would entail less serious consequences.” “Sir,” answered my uncle, “you are a liar, but how great a liar you are nobody knows save yourself.” Sir Lothian’s hollow cheeks grew white with passion, and I saw for an instant in his deep-set eyes such a glare as comes from the frenzied hound rearing and ramping at the end of its chain.  Then, with an effort, he became the same cold, hard, self-contained man as ever. “It does not become our position to quarrel like two yokels at a fair,” said he; “we shall go further into the matter afterwards.” “I promise you that we shall,” answered my uncle, grimly. “Meanwhile, I hold you to the terms of your wager.  Unless you produce your nominee within five-and-twenty minutes, I claim the match.” “Eight-and-twenty minutes,” said my uncle, looking at his watch.  “You may claim it then, but not an instant before.” He was admirable at that moment, for his manner was that of a man with all sorts of hidden resources, so that I could hardly make myself realize as I looked at him that our position was really as desperate as I knew it to be.  In the meantime Berkeley Craven, who had been exchanging a few words with Sir Lothian Hume, came back to our side. “I have been asked to be sole referee in this matter,” said he.  “Does that meet with your wishes, Sir Charles?” “I should be vastly obliged to you, Craven, if you will undertake the duties.” “And Jackson has been suggested as timekeeper.” “I could not wish a better one.” “Very good.  That is settled.” In the meantime the last of the carriages had come up, and the horses had all been picketed upon the moor.  The stragglers who had dotted the grass had closed in until the huge crowd was one unit with a single mighty voice, which was already beginning to bellow its impatience.  Looking round, there was hardly a moving object upon the whole vast expanse of green and purple down.  A belated gig was coming at full gallop down the road which led from the south, and a few pedestrians were still trailing up from Crawley, but nowhere was there a sign of the missing man. “The betting keeps up for all that,” said Belcher.  “I’ve just been to the ring-side, and it is still even.” “There’s a place for you at the outer ropes, Sir Charles,” said Craven. “There is no sign of my man yet.  I won’t come in until he arrives.” “It is my duty to tell you that only ten minutes are left.” “I make it five,” cried Sir Lothian Hume. “That is a question which lies with the referee,” said Craven, firmly.  “My watch makes it ten minutes, and ten it must be.” “Here’s Crab Wilson!” cried Belcher, and at the same moment a shout like a thunderclap burst from the crowd.  The west countryman had emerged from his dressing-tent, followed by Dutch Sam and Tom Owen, who were acting as his seconds.  He was nude to the waist, with a pair of white calico drawers, white silk stockings, and running shoes.  Round his middle was a canary-yellow sash, and dainty little ribbons of the same colour fluttered from the sides of his knees.  He carried a high white hat in his hand, and running down the lane which had been kept open through the crowd to allow persons to reach the ring, he threw the hat high into the air, so that it fell within the staked inclosure.  Then with a double spring he cleared the outer and inner line of rope, and stood with his arms folded in the centre. I do not wonder that the people cheered.  Even Belcher could not help joining in the general shout of applause.  He was certainly a splendidly built young athlete, and one could not have wished to look upon a finer sight as his white skin, sleek and luminous as a panther’s, gleamed in the light of the morning sun, with a beautiful liquid rippling of muscles at every movement.  His arms were long and slingy, his shoulders loose and yet powerful, with the downward slant which is a surer index of power than squareness can be.  He clasped his hands behind his head, threw them aloft, and swung them backwards, and at every movement some fresh expanse of his smooth, white skin became knobbed and gnarled with muscles, whilst a yell of admiration and delight from the crowd greeted each fresh exhibition.  Then, folding his arms once more, he stood like a beautiful statue waiting for his antagonist. Sir Lothian Hume had been looking impatiently at his watch, and now he shut it with a triumphant snap. “Time’s up!” he cried.  “The match is forfeit.” “Time is not up,” said Craven. “I have still five minutes.”  My uncle looked round with despairing eyes. “Only three, Tregellis!” A deep angry murmur was rising from the crowd. “It’s a cross!  It’s a cross!  It’s a fake!” was the cry. “Two minutes, Tregellis!” “Where’s your man, Sir Charles?  Where’s the man that we have backed?”  Flushed faces began to crane over each other, and angry eyes glared up at us. “One more minute, Tregellis!  I am very sorry, but it will be my duty to declare it forfeit against you.” There was a sudden swirl in the crowd, a rush, a shout, and high up in the air there spun an old black hat, floating over the heads of the ring-siders and flickering down within the ropes. “Saved, by the Lord!” screamed Belcher. “I rather fancy,” said my uncle, calmly, “that this must be my man.” “Too late!” cried Sir Lothian. “No,” answered the referee.  “It was still twenty seconds to the hour.  The fight will now proceed.”

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