The Judgment House by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XI. In Wales, Where Jigger Plays His Part
"Really, the unnecessary violence with which people take their own lives, or the lives of others, is amazing. They did it better in olden days in Italy and the East. No waste or anything--all scientifically measured."
With a confident and satisfied smile Mr. Mappin, the celebrated surgeon, looked round the little group of which he was the centre at Glencader, Rudyard Byng's castle in Wales.
Rudyard blinked at him for a moment with ironical amusement, then remarked: "When you want to die, does it matter much whether you kill yourself with a bludgeon or a pin, take gas from a tap or cyanide of potassium, jump in front of a railway train or use the revolting razor? You are dead neither less nor more, and the shock to the world is the same. It's only the housemaid or the undertaker that notices any difference. I knew a man at Vleifontein who killed himself by jumping into the machinery of a mill. It gave a lot of trouble to all concerned. That was what he wanted--to end his own life and exasperate the foreman."
"Rudyard, what a horrible tale!" exclaimed his wife, turning again to the surgeon, eagerly. "It is most interesting, and I see what you mean. It is, that if we only really knew, we could take our own lives or other people's with such ease and skill that it would be hard to detect it?"
The surgeon nodded. "Exactly, Mrs. Byng. I don't say that the expert couldn't find what the cause of death was, if suspicion was aroused; but it could be managed so that 'heart failure' or some such silly verdict would be given, because there was no sign of violence, or of injury artificially inflicted."
"It is fortunate the world doesn't know these ways to euthanasia," interposed Stafford. "I fancy that murders would be more numerous than suicides, however. Suicide enthusiasts would still pursue their melodramatic indulgences--disfiguring themselves unnecessarily."
Adrian Fellowes, the amiable, ever-present secretary and "chamberlain" of Rudyard's household, as Jasmine teasingly called him, whose handsome, unintellectual face had lighted with amusement at the conversation, now interposed. "Couldn't you give us some idea how it can be done, this smooth passage of the Styx?" he asked. "We'll promise not to use it."
The surgeon looked round the little group reflectively. His eyes passed from Adrian to Jasmine, who stood beside him, to Byng, and to Ian Stafford, and stimulated by their interest, he gave a pleased smile of gratified vanity. He was young, and had only within the past three years got to the top of the tree at a bound, by a certain successful operation in royal circles.
Drawing out of his pocket a small case, he took from it a needle and held it up. "Now that doesn't look very dangerous, does it?" he asked. "Yet a firm pressure of its point could take a life, and there would be little possibility of finding how the ghastly trick was done except by the aroused expert."
"If you will allow me," he said, taking Jasmine's hand and poising the needle above her palm. "Now, one tiny thrust of this steel point, which has been dipped in a certain acid, would kill Mrs. Byng as surely as though she had been shot through the heart. Yet it would leave scarcely the faintest sign. No blood, no wound, just a tiny pin-prick, as it were; and who would be the wiser? Imagine an average coroner's jury and the average examination of the village doctor, who would die rather than expose his ignorance, and therefore gives 'heart failure' as the cause of death."
Jasmine withdrew her hand with a shudder. "Please, I don't like being so near the point," she said.
"Woman-like," interjected Byng ironically.
"How does it happen you carry this murdering asp about with you, Mr. Mappin?" asked Stafford.
The surgeon smiled. "For an experiment to-morrow. Don't start. I have a favorite collie which must die. I am testing the poison with the minimum. If it kills the dog it will kill two men."
He was about to put the needle back into the case when Adrian Fellowes held out a hand for it. "Let me look at it," he said. Turning the needle over in his palm, he examined it carefully. "So near and yet so far," he remarked. "There are a good many people who would pay a high price for the little risk and the dead certainty. You wouldn't, perhaps, tell us what the poison is, Mr. Mappin? We are all very reliable people here, who have no enemies, and who want to keep their friends alive. We should then be a little syndicate of five, holding a great secret, and saving numberless lives every day by not giving the thing away. We should all be entitled to monuments in Parliament Square."
The surgeon restored the needle to the case. "I think one monument will be sufficient," he said. "Immortality by syndicate is too modern, and this is an ancient art." He tapped the case." Turkey and the Mongol lands have kept the old cult going. In England, it's only for the dog!" He laughed freely but noiselessly at his own joke.
This talk had followed the news brought by Krool to the Baas, that the sub-manager of the great mine, whose chimneys could be seen from the hill behind the house, had thrown himself down the shaft and been smashed to a pulp. None of them except Byng had known him, and the dark news had brought no personal shock.
They had all gathered in the library, after paying an afternoon visit to Jigger, who had been brought down from London in a special carriage, and was housed near the servants' quarters with a nurse. On the night of Jigger's accident Ian Stafford on his way from Jasmine's house had caught Mr. Mappin, and the surgeon had operated at once, saving the lad's life. As it was necessary to move him in any case, it was almost as easy, and no more dangerous, to bring him to Glencader than to take him to a London hospital.
Under the surgeon's instructions Jasmine had arranged it all, and Jigger had travelled like royalty from Paddington into Wales, and there had captured the household, as he had captured Stafford at breakfast in St. James's Street.
Thinking that perhaps this was only a whim of Jasmine's, and merely done because it gave a new interest to a restless temperament, Stafford had at first rejected the proposal. When, however, the surgeon said that if the journey was successfully made, the after-results would be all to the good, Stafford had assented, and had allowed himself to be included in the house-party at Glencader.
It was a triumph for Jasmine, for otherwise Stafford would not have gone. Whether she would have insisted on Jigger going to Glencader if it had not meant that Ian would go also, it would be hard to say. Her motives were not unmixed, though there had been a real impulse to do all she could. In any case, she had lessened the distance between Ian and herself, and that gave her wilful mind a rather painful pleasure. Also, the responsibility for Jigger's well-being, together with her duties as hostess, had prevented her from dwelling on that scene in the silent house at midnight which had shocked her so--her husband reeling up the staircase, singing a ribald song.
The fullest significance of this incident had not yet come home to her. She had fought against dwelling on it, and she was glad that every moment since they had come to Glencader had been full; that Rudyard had been much away with the shooters, and occupied in trying to settle a struggle between the miners and the proprietors of the mine itself, of whom he was one. Still, things that Rudyard had said before he left the house to dine with Wallstein, leaving her with Stafford, persistently recurred to her mind.
"What's the matter?" had been Rudyard's troubled cry. "We've got everything--everything, and yet--!" Her eyes were not opened. She had had a shock, but it had not stirred the inner, smothered life; there had been no real revelation. She was agitated and disturbed--no more. She did not see that the man she had married to love and to cherish was slowly changing--was the change only a slow one now?--before her eyes; losing that brave freshness which had so appealed to London when he first came back to civilization. Something had been subtracted from his personality which left it poorer, something had been added which made it less appealing. Something had given way in him. There had been a subsidence of moral energy, and force had inwardly declined, though to all outward seeming he had played a powerful and notable part in the history of the last three years, gaining influence in many directions, without suffering excessive notoriety.
On the day Rudyard married Jasmine he would have cut off his hand rather than imagine that he would enter his wife's room helpless from drink and singing a song which belonged to loose nights on the Limpopo and the Vaal.
As the little group drew back, their curiosity satisfied, Mr. Mappin, putting the case carefully into his pocket again, said to Jasmine:
"The boy is going on so well that I am not needed longer. Mr. Wharton, my locum tenens, will give him every care."
"When did you think of going?" Jasmine asked him, as they all moved on towards the hall, where the other guests were assembled.
"To-morrow morning early, if I may. No night travel for me, if I can help it."
"I am glad you are not going to-night," she answered, graciously. "Al'mah is arriving this afternoon, and she sings for us this evening. Is it not thrilling?"
There was a general murmur of pleasure, vaguely joined by Adrian Fellowes, who glanced quickly round the little group, and met an enigmatical glance from Byng's eye. Byng was remembering what Barry Whalen had told him three years ago, and he wondered if Jasmine was cognizant of it all. He thought not; for otherwise she would scarcely bring Al'mah to Glencader and play Fellowes' game for him.
Jasmine, in fact, had not heard. Days before she had wondered that Adrian had tried to discourage her invitation to Al'mah. While it was an invitation, it was also an engagement, on terms which would have been adequate for Patti in her best days. It would, if repeated a few times, reimburse Al'mah for the sums she had placed in Byng's hands at the time of the Raid, and also, later still, to buy the life of her husband from Oom Paul. It had been insufficient, not because of the value of the article for sale, but because of the rapacity of the vender. She had paid half the cruel balance demanded; Byng and his friends had paid the rest without her knowledge; and her husband had been set free.
Byng had only seen Al'mah twice since the day when she first came to his rooms, and not at all during the past two years, save at the opera, where she tightened the cords of captivity to her gifts around her admirers. Al'mah had never met Mrs. Byng since the day after that first production of "Manassa," when Rudyard rescued her, though she had seen her at the opera again and again. She cared nothing for society or for social patronage or approval, and the life that Jasmine led had no charms for her. The only interest she had in it was that it suited Adrian from every standpoint. He loved the splendid social environment of which Jasmine was the centre, and his services were well rewarded.
When she received Jasmine's proposal to sing at Glencader she had hesitated to accept it, for society had no charms for her; but at length three considerations induced her to do so. She wanted to see Rudyard Byng, for South Africa and its shadow was ever present with her; and she dreaded she knew not what. Blantyre was still her husband, and he might return--and return still less a man than when he deserted her those sad long years ago. Also, she wanted to see Jigger, because of his sister Lou, whose friendless beauty, so primitively set, whose transparent honesty appealed to her quick, generous impulses. Last of all she wanted to see Adrian in the surroundings and influences where his days had been constantly spent during the past three years.
Never before had she had the curiosity to do so. Adrian had, however, deftly but clearly tried to dissuade her from coming to Glencader, and his reasons were so new and unconvincing that, for the first time,--she had a nature of strange trustfulness once her faith was given--a vague suspicion concerning Adrian perplexed and troubled her. His letter had arrived some hours after Jasmine's, and then her answer was immediate--she would accept. Adrian heard of the acceptance first through Jasmine, to whom he had spoken of his long "acquaintance" with the great singer.
From Byng's look, as they moved towards the hall, Adrian gathered that rumour had reached a quarter where he had much at stake; but it did not occur to him that this would be to his disadvantage. Byng was a man of the world. Besides, he had his own reasons for feeling no particular fear where Byng was concerned. His glance ran from Byng's face to that of Jasmine; but, though her eyes met his, there was nothing behind her glance which had to do with Al'mah.
In the great hall whose windows looked out on a lovely, sunny valley still as green as summer, the rest of the house-party were gathered, and Jigger's visitors were at once surrounded.
Among the visitors were Alice, Countess of Tynemouth, also the Slavonian ambassador, whose extremely pale face, stooping shoulders, and bald head with the hair carefully brushed over from each side in a vain attempt to cover the baldness, made him seem older than he really was. Count Landrassy had lived his life in many capitals up to the limit of his vitality, and was still covetous of notice from the sex who had, in a checkered career, given him much pleasure, and had provided him with far more anxiety. But he was almost uncannily able and astute, as every man found who entered the arena of diplomacy to treat with him or circumvent him. Suavity, with an attendant mordant wit, and a mastery of tactics unfamiliar to the minds and capacities of Englishmen, made him a great factor in the wide world of haute politique; but it also drew upon him a wealth of secret hatred and outward attention. His follies were lashed by the tongues of virtue and of slander; but his abilities gave him a commanding place in the arena of international politics.
As Byng and his party approached, the eyes of the ambassador and of Lady Tynemouth were directed towards Ian Stafford. The glance of the former was ironical and a little sardonic. He had lately been deeply engaged in checkmating the singularly skilful and cleverly devised negotiations by which England was to gain a powerful advantage in Europe, the full significance of which even he had not yet pierced. This he knew, but what he apprehended with the instinct of an almost scientific sense became unduly important to his mind. The author of the profoundly planned international scheme was this young man, who had already made the chancelleries of Europe sit up and look about them in dismay; for its activities were like those of underground wires; and every area of diplomacy, the nearest, the most remote, was mined and primed, so that each embassy played its part with almost startling effect. Tibet and Persia were not too far, and France was not too near to prevent the incalculably smooth working of a striking and far-reaching political move. It was the kind of thing that England's Prime Minister, with his extraordinary frankness, with his equally extraordinary secretiveness, insight and immobility, delighted in; and Slavonia and its ambassador knew, as an American high in place had colloquially said, "that they were up against a proposition which would take some moving."
The scheme had taken some moving. But it had not yet succeeded; and if M. Mennaval, the ambassador of Moravia, influenced by Count Landrassy, pursued his present tactics on behalf of his government, Ian Stafford's coup would never be made, and he would have to rise to fame in diplomacy by slower processes. It was the daily business of the Slavonian ambassador to see that M. Mennaval of Moravia was not captured either by tactics, by smooth words, or all those arts which lay beneath the outward simplicity of Ian Stafford and of those who worked with him.
With England on the verge of war, the outcome of the negotiations was a matter of vital importance. It might mean the very question of England's existence as an empire. England in a conflict with South Africa, the hour long desired by more than one country, in which she would be occupied to the limit of her capacity, with resources taxed to the utmost, army inadequate, and military affairs in confusion, would come, and with it the opportunity to bring the Titan to her knees. This diplomatic scheme of Ian Stafford, however, would prevent the worst in any case, and even in the disasters of war, would be working out advantages which, after the war was done, would give England many friends and fewer enemies, give her treaties and new territory, and set her higher than she was now by a political metre.
Count Landrassy had thought at first, when Ian Stafford came to Glencader, that this meeting had been purposely arranged; but through Byng's frankness and ingenuous explanations he saw that he was mistaken. The two subtle and combating diplomats had not yet conversed save in a general way by the smoking-room fire.
Lady Tynemouth's eyes fell on Ian with a different meaning. His coming to Glencader had been a surprise to her. He had accepted an invitation to visit her in another week, and she had only come to know later of the chance meeting of Ian and Jasmine in London, and the subsequent accident to Jigger which had brought Ian down to Wales. The man who had saved her life on her wedding journey, and whose walls were still garish with the red parasol which had nearly been her death, had a place quite his own in her consideration. She had, of course, known of his old infatuation for Jasmine, though she did not know all; and she knew also that he had put Jasmine out of his life completely when she married Byng; which was not a source of regret to her. She had written him about Jasmine, again and again,--of what she did and what the world said--and his replies had been as casual and as careless as the most jealous woman could desire; though she was not consciously jealous, and, of course, had no right to be.
She saw no harm in having a man as a friend on a basis of intimacy which drew the line at any possibility of divorce-court proceedings. Inside this line she frankly insisted on latitude, and Tynemouth gave it to her without thought or anxiety. He was too fond of outdoor life, of racing and hunting and shooting and polo and travel, to have his eye unnerved by any such foolishness as jealousy.
"Play the game--play the game, Alice, and so will I, and the rest of the world be hanged!" was what Tynemouth had said to his wife; and it would not have occurred to him to suspect Stafford, or to read one of his letters to Lady Tynemouth. He had no literary gifts; in truth, he had no "culture," and he looked upon his wife's and Stafford's interest in literature and art as a game of mystery he had never learned. Inconsequent he thought it in his secret mind, but played by nice, clever, possible, "livable" people; and, therefore, not to be pooh-poohed openly or kicked out of the way. Besides, it "gave Alice something to do, and prevented her from being lonely--and all that kind of thing."
Thus it was that Lady Tynemouth, who had played the game all round according to her lights, and thought no harm of what she did, or of her weakness for Ian Stafford--of her open and rather gushing friendship for him--had an almost honest dislike to seeing him brought into close relations again with the woman who had dishonourably treated him. Perhaps she wanted his friendship wholly for herself; but that selfish consideration did not overshadow the feeling that Jasmine had cheated at cards, as it were; and that Ian ought not to be compelled to play with her again.
"But men, even the strongest, are so weak," she had said to Tynemouth concerning it, and he had said in reply, "And the weakest are so strong--sometimes."
At which she had pulled his shoulder, and had said with a delighted laugh, "Tynie, if you say clever things like that I'll fall in love with you."
To which he had replied: "Now, don't take advantage of a moment's aberration, Alice; and for Heaven's sake don't fall in love wiv me" (he made a v of a th, like Jigger). "I couldn't go to Uganda if you did."
To which she had responded, "Dear me, are you going to Uganda?" and was told with a nod that next month he would be gone. This conversation had occurred on the day of their arrival at Glencader; and henceforth Alice had forcibly monopolized Stafford whenever and wherever possible. So far, it had not been difficult, because Jasmine had, not ostentatiously, avoided being often with Stafford. It seemed to Jasmine that she must not see much of him alone. Still there was some new cause to provoke his interest and draw him to herself. The Jigger episode had done much, had altered the latitudes of their association, but the perihelion of their natures was still far off; and she was apprehensive, watchful, and anxious.
This afternoon, however, she felt that she must talk with him. Waiting and watching were a new discipline for her, and she was not yet the child of self-denial. Fate, if there be such a thing, favoured her, however, for as they drew near to the fireplace where the ambassador and Alice Tynemouth and her husband stood, Krool entered, came forward to Byng, and spoke in a low tone to him.
A minute afterward, Byng said to them all: "Well, I'm sorry, but I'm afraid we can't carry out our plans for the afternoon. There's trouble again at the mine, and I am needed, or they think I am. So I must go there--and alone, I'm sorry to say; not with you all, as I had hoped. Jasmine, you must plan the afternoon. The carriages are ready. There's the Glen o' Smiling, well worth seeing, and the Murderer's Leap, and Lover's Land--something for all tastes," he added, with a dry note to his voice.
"Take care of yourself, Ruddy man," Jasmine said, as he left them hurriedly, with an affectionate pinch of her arm. "I don't like these mining troubles," she added to the others, and proceeded to arrange the afternoon.
She did it so deftly that she and Ian and Adrian Fellowes were the only ones left behind out of a party of twelve. She had found it impossible to go on any of the excursions, because she must stay and welcome Al'mah. She meant to drive to the station herself, she said. Adrian stayed behind because he must superintend the arrangements of the ball-room for the evening, or so he said; and Ian Stafford stayed because he had letters to write--ostensibly; for he actually meant to go and sit with Jigger, and to send a code message to the Prime Minister, from whom he had had inquiries that morning.
When the others had gone, the three stood for a moment silent in the hall, then Adrian said to Jasmine, "Will you give me a moment in the ball-room about those arrangements?"
Jasmine glanced out of the corner of her eye at Ian. He showed no sign that he wanted her to remain. A shadow crossed her face, but she laughingly asked him if he would come also.
"If you don't mind--!" he said, shaking his head in negation; but he walked with them part of the way to the ball-room, and left them at the corridor leading to his own little sitting-room.
A few minutes later, as Jasmine stood alone at a window looking down into the great stone quadrangle, she saw him crossing toward the servants' quarters.
"He is going to Jigger," she said, her heart beating faster. "Oh, but he is 'the best ever,'" she added, repeating Lou's words--"the best ever!"
Her eye brightened with intention. She ran down the corridor, and presently made her way to the housekeeper's room.