The Judgment House by Gilbert Parker
Chapter I. The Jasmine Flower
The music throbbed in a voice of singular and delicate power; the air was resonant with melody, love and pain. The meanest Italian in the gallery far up beneath the ceiling, the most exalted of the land in the boxes and the stalls, leaned indulgently forward, to be swept by this sweet storm of song. They yielded themselves utterly to the power of the triumphant debutante who was making "Manassa" the musical feast of the year, renewing to Covent Garden a reputation which recent lack of enterprise had somewhat forfeited.
Yet, apparently, not all the vast audience were hypnotized by the unknown and unheralded singer, whose stage name was Al'mah. At the moment of the opera's supreme appeal the eyes of three people at least were not in the thraldom of the singer. Seated at the end of the first row of the stalls was a fair, slim, graciously attired man of about thirty, who, turning in his seat so that nearly the whole house was in his circle of vision, stroked his golden moustache, and ran his eyes over the thousands of faces with a smile of pride and satisfaction which in a less handsome man would have been almost a leer. His name was Adrian Fellowes.
Either the opera and the singer had no charms for Adrian Fellowes, or else he had heard both so often that, without doing violence to his musical sense, he could afford to study the effect of this wonderful effort upon the mob of London, mastered by the radiant being on the stage. Very sleek, handsome, and material he looked; of happy colour, and, apparently, with a mind and soul in which no conflicts ever raged--to the advantage of his attractive exterior. Only at the summit of the applause did he turn to the stage again. Then it was with the gloating look of the gambler who swings from the roulette-table with the winnings of a great coup, cynical joy in his eyes that he has beaten the Bank, conquered the dark spirit which has tricked him so often. Now the cold-blue eyes caught, for a second, the dark-brown eyes of the Celtic singer, which laughed at him gaily, victoriously, eagerly, and then again drank in the light and the joy of the myriad faces before her.
In a box opposite the royal box were two people, a man and a very young woman, who also in the crise of the opera were not looking at the stage. The eyes of the man, sitting well back--purposely, so that he might see her without marked observation--were fixed upon the rose-tinted, delicate features of the girl in a joyous blue silk gown, which was so perfect a contrast to the golden hair and wonderful colour of her face. Her eyes were fixed upon her lap, the lids half closed, as though in reverie, yet with that perspicuous and reflective look which showed her conscious of all that was passing round her--even the effect of her own pose. Her name was Jasmine Grenfel.
She was not oblivious of the music. Her heart beat faster because of it; and a temperament adjustable to every mood and turn of human feeling was answering to the poignancy of the opera; yet her youth, child-likeness, and natural spontaneity were controlled by an elate consciousness. She was responsive to the passionate harmony; but she was also acutely sensitive to the bold yet deferential appeal to her emotions of the dark, distinguished, bearded man at her side, with the brown eyes and the Grecian profile, whose years spent in the Foreign Office and at embassies on the Continent had given him a tact and an insinuating address peculiarly alluring to her sex. She was well aware of Ian Stafford's ambitions, and had come to the point where she delighted in them, and had thought of sharing in them, "for weal or for woe"; but she would probably have resented the suggestion that his comparative poverty was weighed against her natural inclinations and his real and honest passion. For she had her ambitions, too; and when she had scanned the royal box that night, she had felt that something only little less than a diadem would really satisfy her.
Then it was that she had turned meditatively towards another occupant of her box, who sat beside her pretty stepmother--a big, bronzed, clean-shaven, strong-faced man of about the same age as Ian Stafford of the Foreign Office, who had brought him that night at her request. Ian had called him, "my South African nabob," in tribute to the millions he had made with Cecil Rhodes and others at Kimberley and on the Rand. At first sight of the forceful and rather ungainly form she had inwardly contrasted it with the figure of Ian Stafford and that other spring-time figure of a man at the end of the first row in the stalls, towards which the prima donna had flashed one trusting, happy glance, and with which she herself had been familiar since her childhood. The contrast had not been wholly to the advantage of the nabob; though, to be sure, he was simply arrayed--as if, indeed, he were not worth a thousand a year. Certainly he had about him a sense of power, but his occasional laugh was too vigorous for one whose own great sense of humour was conveyed by an infectious, rippling murmur delightful to hear.
Rudyard Byng was worth three millions of pounds, and that she interested him was evident by the sudden arrest of his look and his movements when introduced to her. Ian Stafford had noted this look; but he had seen many another man look at Jasmine Grenfel with just as much natural and unbidden interest, and he shrugged the shoulders of his mind; for the millions alone would not influence her, that was sure. Had she not a comfortable fortune of her own? Besides, Byng was not the kind of man to capture Jasmine's fastidious sense and nature. So much had happened between Jasmine and himself, so deep an understanding had grown up between them, that it only remained to bring her to the last court of inquiry and get reply to a vital question--already put in a thousand ways and answered to his perfect satisfaction. Indeed, there was between Jasmine and himself the equivalent of a betrothal. He had asked her to marry him, and she had not said no; but she had bargained for time to "prepare"; that she should have another year in which to be gay in a gay world and, in her own words, "walk the primrose path of pleasure untrammelled and alone, save for my dear friend Mrs. Grundy."
Since that moment he had been quite sure that all was well. And now the year was nearly up, and she had not changed; had, indeed, grown more confiding and delicately dependent in manner towards him, though seeing him but seldom alone.
As Ian Stafford looked at her now, he kept saying to himself, "So exquisite and so clever, what will she not be at thirty! So well poised, and yet so sweetly child-like dear dresden-china Jasmine."
That was what she looked like--a lovely thing of the time of Boucher in dresden china.
At last, as though conscious of what was going on in his mind, she slowly turned her drooping eyes towards him, and, over her shoulder, as he quickly leaned forward, she said in a low voice which the others could not hear:
"I am too young, and not clever enough to understand all the music means--is that what you are thinking?"
He shook his head in negation, and his dark-brown eyes commanded hers, but still deferentially, as he said: "You know of what I was thinking. You will be forever young, but yours was always--will always be--the wisdom of the wise. I'd like to have been as clever at twenty-two."
"How trying that you should know my age so exactly--it darkens the future," she rejoined with a soft little laugh; then, suddenly, a cloud passed over her face. It weighed down her eyelids, and she gazed before her into space with a strange, perplexed, and timorous anxiety. What did she see? Nothing that was light and joyous, for her small sensuous lips drew closer, and the fan she held in her lap slipped from her fingers to the floor.
This aroused her, and Stafford, as he returned the fan to her, said into a face again alive to the present: "You look as though you were trying to summon the sable spirits of a sombre future."
Her fine pink-white shoulders lifted a little and, once more quite self-possessed, she rejoined, lightly, "I have a chameleon mind; it chimes with every mood and circumstance."
Suddenly her eyes rested on Rudyard Byng, and something in the rough power of the head arrested her attention, and the thought flashed through her mind: "How wonderful to have got so much at thirty-three! Three millions at thirty-three--and millions beget millions!"
. . . Power--millions meant power; millions made ready the stage for the display and use of every gift, gave the opportunity for the full occupation of all personal qualities, made a setting for the jewel of life and beauty, which reflected, intensified every ray of merit. Power--that was it. Her own grandfather had had power. He had made his fortune, a great one too, by patents which exploited the vanity of mankind, and, as though to prove his cynical contempt for his fellow-creatures, had then invented a quick-firing gun which nearly every nation in the world adopted. First, he had got power by a fortune which represented the shallowness and gullibility of human nature, then had exploited the serious gift which had always been his, the native genius which had devised the gun when he was yet a boy. He had died at last with the smile on his lips which had followed his remark, quoted in every great newspaper of two continents, that: "The world wants to be fooled, so I fooled it; it wants to be stunned, so I stunned it. My fooling will last as long as my gun; and both have paid me well. But they all love being fooled best."
Old Draygon Grenfel's fortune had been divided among his three sons and herself, for she had been her grandfather's favourite, and she was the only grandchild to whom he had left more than a small reminder of his existence. As a child her intelligence was so keen, her perception so acute, she realized him so well, that he had said she was the only one of his blood who had anything of himself in character or personality, and he predicted--too often in her presence--that she "would give the world a start or two when she had the chance." His intellectual contempt for his eldest son, her father, was reproduced in her with no prompting on his part; and, without her own mother from the age of three, Jasmine had grown up self-willed and imperious, yet with too much intelligence to carry her will and power too far. Infinite adaptability had been the result of a desire to please and charm; behind which lay an unlimited determination to get her own way and bend other wills to hers.
The two wills she had not yet bent as she pleased were those of her stepmother and of Ian Stafford--one, because she was jealous and obstinate, and the other because he had an adequate self-respect and an ambition of his own to have his way in a world which would not give save at the point of the sword. Come of as good family as there was in England, and the grandson of a duke, he still was eager for power, determined to get on, ingenious in searching for that opportunity which even the most distinguished talent must have, if it is to soar high above the capable average. That chance, the predestined alluring opening had not yet come; but his eyes were wide open, and he was ready for the spring--nerved the more to do so by the thought that Jasmine would appreciate his success above all others, even from the standpoint of intellectual appreciation, all emotions excluded. How did it come that Jasmine was so worldly wise, and yet so marvellously the insouciant child?
He followed her slow, reflective glance at Byng, and the impression of force and natural power of the millionaire struck him now, as it had often done. As though summoned by them both, Byng turned his face and, catching Jasmine's eyes, smiled and leaned forward.
"I haven't got over that great outburst of singing yet," he said, with a little jerk of the head towards the stage, where, for the moment, minor characters were in possession, preparing the path for the last rush of song by which Al'mah, the new prima donna, would bring her first night to a complete triumph.
With face turned full towards her, something of the power of his head seemed to evaporate swiftly. It was honest, alert, and almost brutally simple--the face of a pioneer. The forehead was broad and strong, and the chin was square and determined; but the full, dark-blue eyes had in them shadows of rashness and recklessness, the mouth was somewhat self-indulgent and indolent; though the hands clasping both knees were combined of strength, activity, and also a little of grace.
"I never had much chance to hear great singers before I went to South Africa," he added, reflectively, "and this swallows me like a storm on the high veld--all lightning and thunder and flood. I've missed a lot in my time."
With a look which made his pulses gallop, Jasmine leaned over and whispered--for the prima donna was beginning to sing again:
"There's nothing you have missed in your race that you cannot ride back and collect. It is those who haven't run a race who cannot ride back. You have won; and it is all waiting for you."
Again her eyes beamed upon him, and a new sensation came to him--the kind of thing he felt once when he was sixteen, and the vicar's daughter had suddenly held him up for quite a week, while all his natural occupations were neglected, and the spirit of sport was humiliated and abashed. Also he had caroused in his time--who was there in those first days at Kimberley and on the Rand who did not carouse, when life was so hard, luck so uncertain, and food so bad; when men got so dead beat, with no homes anywhere--only shake-downs and the Tents of Shem? Once he had had a native woman summoned to be his slave, to keep his home; but that was a business which had revolted him, and he had never repeated the experiment. Then, there had been an adventuress, a wandering, foreign princess who had fooled him and half a dozen of his friends to the top of their bent; but a thousand times he had preferred other sorts of pleasures--cards, horses, and the bright outlook which came with the clinking glass after the strenuous day.
Jasmine seemed to divine it all as she looked at him--his primitive, almost Edenic sincerity; his natural indolence and native force: a nature that would not stir until greatly roused, but then, with an unyielding persistence and concentrated force, would range on to its goal, making up for a slow-moving intellect by sheer will, vision and a gallant heart.
Al'mah was singing again, and Byng leaned forward eagerly. There was a rustle in the audience, a movement to a listening position, then a tense waiting and attention.
As Jasmine composed herself she said in a low voice to Ian Stafford, whose well-proportioned character, personality, and refinement of culture were in such marked contrast to the personality of the other: "They live hard lives in those new lands. He has wasted much of himself."
"Three millions at thirty-three means spending a deal of one thing to get another," Ian answered a little grimly.
"Hush! Oh, Ian, listen!" she added in a whisper.
Once more Al'mah rose to mastery over the audience. The bold and generous orchestration, the exceptional chorus, the fine and brilliant tenor, had made a broad path for her last and supreme effort. The audience had long since given up their critical sense, they were ready to be carried into captivity again, and the surrender was instant and complete. Now, not an eye was turned away from the singer. Even the Corinthian gallant at the end of the first row of stalls gave himself up to feasting on her and her success, and the characters in the opera were as electrified as the audience.
For a whole seven minutes this voice seemed to be the only thing in the world, transposing all thoughts, emotions, all elements of life into terms of melody. Then, at last, with a crash of sweetness, the voice broke over them all in crystals of sound and floated away into a world of bright dreams.
An instant's silence which followed was broken by a tempest of applause. Again, again, and again it was renewed. The subordinate singers were quickly disposed of before the curtain, then Al'mah received her memorable tribute. How many times she came and went she never knew; but at last the curtain, rising, showed her well up the stage beside a table where two huge candles flared. The storm of applause breaking forth once more, the grateful singer raised her arms and spread them out impulsively in gratitude and dramatic abandon.
As she did so, the loose, flowing sleeve of her robe caught the flame of a candle, and in an instant she was in a cloud of fire. The wild applause turned suddenly to notes of terror as, with a sharp cry, she stumbled forward to the middle of the stage.
For one stark moment no one stirred, then suddenly a man with an opera-cloak on his arm was seen to spring across a space of many feet between a box on the level of the stage and the stage itself. He crashed into the footlights, but recovered himself and ran forward. In an instant he had enveloped the agonized figure of the singer and had crushed out the flames with swift, strong movements.
Then lifting the now unconscious artist in his great arms, he strode off with her behind the scenes.
"Well done, Byng! Well done, Ruddy Byng!" cried a strong voice from the audience; and a cheer went up.
In a moment Byng returned and came down the stage. "She is not seriously hurt," he said simply to the audience. "We were just in time."
Presently, as he entered the Grenfel box again, deafening applause broke forth.
"We were just in time," said Ian Stafford, with an admiring, teasing laugh, as he gripped Byng's arm.
"'We'--well, it was a royal business," said Jasmine, standing close to him and looking up into his eyes with that ingratiating softness which had deluded many another man; "but do you realize that it was my cloak you took?" she added, whimsically.
"Well, I'm glad it was," Byng answered, boyishly. "You'll have to wear my overcoat home."
"I certainly will," she answered. "Come--the giant's robe."
People were crowding upon their box.
"Let's get out of this," Byng said, as he took his coat from the hook on the wall.
As they left the box the girl's white-haired, prematurely aged father whispered in the pretty stepmother's ear: "Jasmine'll marry that nabob--you'll see."
The stepmother shrugged a shoulder. "Jasmine is in love with Ian Stafford," she said, decisively.
"But she'll marry Rudyard Byng," was the stubborn reply.