Chapter V. The Knight Errant Takes the Field
 

Rivington returned to his rooms that night, after dining at a restaurant, with a pleasing sense of having accomplished something that had been well worth the doing. He chuckled to himself a little as he walked. It was a decidedly humorous situation.

He was met at the top of the stairs by his servant, a sharp-faced lad of fifteen whom he had picked out of the dock of a police-court some months before, and who was devoted to him in consequence.

"There's a gentleman waitin' for you sir; wouldn't take 'No' for an answer; been 'ere best part of an hour. Name of Sin, sir. Looks like a foreigner."

"Eh?" The blue eyes widened for a moment, then smiled approbation. "Very appropriate," murmured Rivington. "All right, Tommy; I know the gentleman."

He was still smiling as he entered his room.

A slim, dark man turned swiftly from its farther end to meet him. He had obviously been prowling up and down.

"Mr. Rivington?" he said interrogatively.

Rivington bowed.

"Mr. Dinghra Singh?" he returned.

"Have you seen me before?"

"At a distance--several times."

"Ah!" The Indian drew himself up with a certain arrogance, but his narrow black moustache did not hide the fact that his lips were twitching with excitement. His dark eyes shone like the eyes of a beast, green and ominous. "But we have never spoken. I thought not. Now, Mr. Rivington, will you permit me to come at once to business?"

He spoke without a trace of foreign accent. He stood in the middle of the room, facing Rivington, in a commanding attitude.

Rivington took a seat on the edge of the table. He was still faintly smiling.

"Go ahead, sir," he said. "Won't you sit down?"

But Dinghra preferred to stand.

"I am presuming that you are the Mr. Cecil Mordaunt Rivington whose engagement to Miss Ernestine Cardwell was announced in this morning's paper," he said, speaking quickly but very distinctly.

"The same," said Rivington. He added with a shrug of the shoulders, "A somewhat high-sounding name for such a humble citizen as myself, but it was not of my own choosing."

Dinghra ignored the remark. He was very plainly in no mood for trivialities.

"And the engagement really exists?" he questioned.

The Englishman's brows went up.

"Of course it exists."

"Ah!" It was like a snarl. The white teeth gleamed for a moment. "I had no idea," Dinghra said, still with the same feverish rapidity, "that I had a rival."

"Are we rivals?" said Rivington, amiably regretful. "It's the first I have heard of it."

"You must have known!" The green glare suddenly began to flicker with a ruddy tinge as of flame. "Every one knew that I was after her."

"Oh yes, I knew that," said Rivington. "But--pardon me if I fail to see that that fact constitutes any rivalry between us. We were engaged long before she met you. We have been engaged for years."

"For years!" Dinghra took a sudden step forward. He looked as if he were about to spring at the Englishman's throat.

But Rivington remained quite unmoved, all unsuspecting, lounging on the edge of the table.

"Yes, for years," he repeated. "But we have kept it to ourselves till now. Even Lady Florence had no notion of it. There was nothing to be gained by talking. It was a case of--" He dug his hands into his trousers pockets and pulled them inside out with an eloquent gesture. "So, of course, there was nothing for it but to wait."

"Then why have you published the engagement now?" demanded Dinghra.

Rivington smiled.

"Because we are tired of waiting," he said.

"You are in a position to marry, then? You are--"

"I am as poor as a church mouse, if you want to know," said Rivington.

"And you will marry on nothing?"

"I dare say we sha'n't starve," said Rivington optimistically.

"Ah!" Again that beast-like snarl. There was no green glare left in the watching eyes--only red, leaping flame. "And--you like poverty?" asked the Indian in the tone of one seeking information.

"I detest it," said Rivington, with unusual energy.

Dinghra drew a step nearer, noiselessly, like a cat. His lips began to smile. He could not have been aware of the tigerish ferocity of his eyes.

"I should like to make a bargain with you, Mr. Rivington," he said.

Rivington, his hands in his pockets, looked him over with a cool appraising eye. He said nothing at all.

"This girl," said Dinghra, his voice suddenly very soft and persuasive, "she is worth a good deal to you--doubtless?"

"Doubtless," said Rivington.

"She is worth--what?"

Rivington stared uncomprehendingly.

With a slight, contemptuous gesture the Indian proceeded to explain.

"She is worth a good deal to me too--more than you would think. Her mother also desires a marriage between us. I am asking you, Mr. Rivington, to give her up, and to--name your price."

"The devil you are!" said Rivington; but he said it without violence. He still sat motionless, his hands in his pockets, surveying his visitor.

"I am rich," Dinghra said, still in those purring accents. "I am prepared to make you a wealthy man for the rest of your life. You will be able to marry, if you desire to do so, and live in ease and luxury. Come, Mr. Rivington, what do you say to it? You detest poverty. Now is your chance, then. You need never be poor again."

"You're uncommonly generous," said Rivington. "But is the lady to have no say in the matter? Or has she already spoken?"

Dinghra looked supremely contemptuous.

"The matter is entirely between you and me," he said.

"Oh!" Rivington became reflective.

The Indian crossed his arms and waited.

"Well," Rivington said at length, "I will name my price, since you desire it, but I warn you it's a fairly stiff one. You won't like it."

"Speak!" said Dinghra eagerly. His eyes literally blazed at the Englishman's imperturbable face.

Slowly Rivington took his hands from his pockets. Slowly he rose. For a moment he seemed to tower almost threateningly over the lesser man, then carelessly he suffered his limbs to relax.

"The price," he said, "is that you come to me every day for a fortnight for as sound a licking as I am in a condition to administer. I will release Miss Ernestine Cardwell for that, and that alone." He paused. "And I think at the end of my treatment that you will stand a considerably better chance of winning her favour than you do at present," he added, faintly smiling.

An awful silence followed his words. Dinghra stood as though transfixed for the space of twenty seconds. Then, without word or warning of any sort, with a single spring inexpressibly bestial, he leapt at Rivington's throat.

But Rivington was ready for him. With incredible swiftness he stooped and caught his assailant as he sprang. There followed a brief and furious struggle, and then the Indian found himself slowly but irresistibly forced backwards across the Englishman's knee. He had a vision of pale blue eyes that were too grimly ironical to be angry, and the next moment he was sitting on the floor, two muscular hands holding him down.

"Not to-night," said the leisurely voice above him. "To-morrow, if you like, we will begin the cure. Go home now and think it over."

And with that he was free. But he sat for a second too infuriated to speak or move. Then, like lightning, he was on his feet.

They stood face to face for an interval that was too pregnant with fierce mental strife to be timed by seconds. Then, with clenched hands, in utter silence, Dinghra turned away. He went softly, with a gliding, beast-like motion to the door, paused an instant, looked back with the gleaming eyes of a devil--and was gone.

The Poor Relation threw himself into a chair and laughed very softly, his lower lip gripped fast between his teeth.