The Judgment House by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XII. The Key in the Lock
A quarter of an hour later Jasmine softly opened the door of the room where Jigger lay, and looked in. The nurse stood at the foot of the bed, listening to talk between Jigger and Ian, the like of which she had never heard. She was smiling, for Jigger was original, to say the least of it, and he had a strange, innocent, yet wise philosophy. Ian sat with his elbows on his knees, hands clasped, leaning towards the gallant little sufferer, talking like a boy to a boy, and getting revelations of life of which he had never even dreamed.
Jasmine entered with a little tray in one hand, bearing a bowl of delicate broth, while under an arm was a puzzle-box, which was one of the relics of a certain house-party in which a great many smart people played at the simple life, and sought to find a new sensation in making believe they were the village rector's brood of innocents. She was dressed in a gown almost as simple in make as that of the nurse, but of exquisite material--the soft green velvet which she had worn when she met Ian in the sweetshop in Regent Street. Her hair was a perfect gold, wavy and glistening and prettily fine, and her eyes were shining--so blue, so deep, so alluring.
The boy saw her first, and his eyes grew bigger with welcome and interest.
"It's her--me lydy," he said with a happy gasp, for she seemed to him like a being from another sphere. When she came near him the faint, delicious perfume exhaling from her garments was like those flower-gardens and scented fields to which he had once been sent for a holiday by some philanthropic society.
Ian rose as the nurse came forward quickly to relieve Jasmine of the tray and the box. His first glance was enigmatical--almost suspicious--then, as he saw the radiance in her face and the burden she carried, a new light came into his eyes. In this episode of Jigger she had shown all that gentle charm, sympathy, and human feeling which he had once believed belonged so much to her. It seemed to him in the old days that at heart she was simple, generous, and capable of the best feelings of woman, and of living up to them; and there began to grow at the back of his mind now the thought that she had been carried away by a great temptation--the glitter and show of power and all that gold can buy, and a large circle for the skirts of woman's pride and vanity. If she had married him instead of Byng, they would now be living in a small house in Curzon Street, or some such fashionable quarter, with just enough to enable them to keep their end up with people who had five thousand a year--with no box at the opera, or house in the country, or any of the great luxuries, and with a thriving nursery which would be a promise of future expense--if she had married him! . . . A kinder, gentler spirit was suddenly awake in him, and he did not despise her quite so much. On her part, she saw him coming nearer, as, standing in the door of a cottage in a valley, one sees trailing over the distant hills, with the light behind, a welcome and beloved figure with face turned towards the home in the green glade.
A smile came to his lips, as suspicion stole away ashamed, and he said: "This will not do. Jigger will be spoiled. We shall have to see Mr. Mappin about it."
As she yielded to him the puzzle-box, which she had refused to the nurse, she said: "And pray who sets the example? I am a very imitative person. Besides, I asked Mr. Mappin about the broth, so it's all right; and Jigger will want the puzzle-box when you are not here," she added, quizzically.
"Diversion or continuity?" he asked, with a laugh, as she held the bowl of soup to Jigger's lips. At this point the nurse had discreetly left the room.
"Continuity, of course," she replied. "All diplomatists are puzzles, some without solution."
"Who said I was a diplomatist?" he asked, lightly.
"Don't think that I'm guilty of the slander," she rejoined. "It was the Moravian ambassador who first suggested that what you were by profession you were by nature."
Jasmine felt Ian hold his breath for a moment, then he said in a low tone, "M. Mennaval--you know him well?"
She did not look towards him, but she was conscious that he was eying her intently. She put aside the bowl, and began to adjust Jigger's pillow with deft fingers, while the lad watched her with a worship worth any money to one attacked by ennui and stale with purchased pleasures.
"I know him well--yes, quite well," she replied. "He comes sometimes of an afternoon, and if he had more time--or if I had--he would no doubt come oftener. But time is the most valuable thing I have, and I have less of it than anything else."
"A diminishing capital, too," he returned with a laugh; while his mind was suddenly alert to an idea which had flown into his vision, though its full significance did not possess him yet.
"The Moravian ambassador is not very busy," he added with an undertone of meaning.
"Perhaps; but I am," she answered with like meaning, and looked him in the eyes, steadily, serenely, determinedly. All at once there had opened out before her a great possibility. Both from the Count Landrassy and from the Moravian ambassador she had had hints of some deep, international scheme of which Ian Stafford was the engineer-in-chief, though she did not know definitely what it was. Both ambassadors had paid their court to her, each in a different way, and M. Mennaval would have been as pertinacious as he was vain and somewhat weak (albeit secretive, too, with the feminine instinct so strong in him) if she had not checked him at all points. From what Count Landrassy had said, it would appear that Ian Stafford's future hung in the balance--dependent upon the success of his great diplomatic scheme.
Could she help Ian? Could she help him? Had the time come when she could pay her debt, the price of ransom from the captivity in which he held her true and secret character? It had been vaguely in her mind before; but now, standing beside Jigger's bed, with the lad's feverish hand in hers, there spread out before her a vision of a lien lifted, of an ugly debt redeemed, of freedom from this man's scorn. If she could do some great service for him, would not that wipe out the unsettled claim? If she could help to give him success, would not that, in the end, be more to him than herself? For she would soon fade, the dust would soon gather over her perished youth and beauty; but his success would live on, ever freshening in his sight, rising through long years to a great height, and remaining fixed and exalted. With a great belief she believed in him and what he could do. He was a Sisyphus who could and would roll the-huge stone to the top of the hill--and ever with easier power.
The old touch of romance and imagination which had been the governing forces of her grandfather's life, the passion of an idea, however essentially false and meretricious and perilous to all that was worth while keeping in life, set her pulses beating now. As a child her pulses used to beat so when she had planned with her good-for-nothing brother some small escapade looming immense in the horizon of her enjoyment. She had ever distorted or inflamed the facts of life by an overheated fancy, by the spirit of romance, by a gift--or curse--of imagination, which had given her also dark visions of a miserable end, of a clouded and piteous close to her brief journey. "I am doomed--doomed," had been her agonized cry that day before Ian Stafford went away three years ago, and the echo of that cry was often in her heart, waking and sleeping. It had come upon her the night when Rudyard reeled, intoxicated, up the staircase. She had the penalties of her temperament shadowing her footsteps always, dimming the radiance which broke forth for long periods, and made her so rare and wonderful a figure in her world. She was so young, and so exquisite, that Fate seemed harsh and cruel in darkening her vision, making pitfalls for her feet.
Could she help him? Had her moment come when she could force him to smother his scorn and wait at her door for bounty? She would make the effort to know.
"But, yes, I am very busy," she repeated. "I have little interest in Moravia--which is fortunate; for I could not find the time to study it."
"If you had interest in Moravia, you would find the time with little difficulty," he answered, lightly, yet thinking ironically that he himself had given much time and study to Moravia, and so far had not got much return out of it. Moravia was the crux of his diplomacy. Everything depended on it; but Landrassy, the Slavonian ambassador, had checkmated him at every move towards the final victory.
"It is not a study I would undertake con amore," she said, smiling down at Jigger, who watched her with sharp yet docile eyes. Then, suddenly turning towards him again, she said:
"But you are interested in Moravia--do you find it worth the time?"
"Did Count Landrassy tell you that?" he asked.
"And also the ambassador for Moravia; but only in the vaguest and least consequential way," she replied.
She regarded him steadfastly. "It is only just now--is it a kind of telepathy'--that I seem to get a message from what we used to call the power-house, that you are deeply interested in Moravia and Slavonia. Little things which have been said seem to have new meaning now, and I feel"--she smiled significantly--"that I am standing on the brink of some great happening, and only a big secret, like a cloud, prevents me from seeing it, realizing it. Is it so?" she added, in a low voice.
He regarded her intently. His look held hers. It would seem as though he tried to read the depths of her soul; as though he was asking if what had once proved so false could in the end prove true; for it came to him with sudden force, with sure conviction, that she could help him as no one else could; that at this critical moment, when he was trembling between success and failure, her secret influence might be the one reinforcement necessary to conduct him to victory. Greater and better men than himself had used women to further their vast purposes; could one despise any human agency, so long as it was not dishonourable, in the carrying out of great schemes?
It was for Britain--for her ultimate good, for the honour and glory of the Empire, for the betterment of the position of all men of his race in all the world, their prestige, their prosperity, their patriotism; and no agency should be despised. He knew so well what powers of intrigue had been used against him, by the embassy of Slavonia and those of other countries. His own methods had been simple and direct; only the scheme itself being intricate, complicated, and reaching further than any diplomatist, except his own Prime Minister, had dreamed. If carried, it would recast the international position in the Orient, necessitating new adjustments in Europe, with cession of territory and gifts for gifts in the way of commercial treaties and the settlement of outstanding difficulties.
His key, if it could be made to turn in the lock, would open the door to possibilities of prodigious consequence.
He had been three years at work, and the end must come soon. The crisis was near. A game can only be played for a given time, then it works itself out, and a new one must take its place. His top was spinning hard, but already the force of the gyration was failing, and he must presently make his exit with what the Prime Minister called his Patent, or turn the key in the lock and enter upon his kingdom. In three months--in two months--in one month--it might be too late, for war was coming; and war would destroy his plans, if they were not furfilled now. Everything must be done before war came, or be forever abandoned.
This beautiful being before him could help him. She had brains, she was skilful, inventive, supple, ardent, yet intellectually discreet. She had as much as told him that the ambassador of Moravia had paid her the compliment of admiring her with some ardour. It would not grieve him to see her make a fool and a tool of the impressionable yet adroit diplomatist, whose vanity was matched by his unreliability, and who had a passion for philandering--unlike Count Landrassy, who had no inclination to philander, who carried his citadels by direct attack in great force. Yes, Jasmine could help him, and, as in the dead years when it seemed that she would be the courier star of his existence, they understood each other without words.
"It is so," he said at last, in a low voice, his eyes still regarding her with almost painful intensity.
"Do you trust me--now--again?" she asked, a tremor in her voice and her small hand clasping ever and ever tighter the fingers of the lad, whose eyes watched her with such dog-like adoration.
A mournful smile stole to his lips--and stayed. "Come where we can be quiet and I will tell you all," he said. "You can help me, maybe."
"I will help you," she said, firmly, as the nurse entered the room again and, approaching the bed, said, "I think he ought to sleep now"; and forthwith proceeded to make Jigger comfortable.
When Stafford bade Jigger good-bye, the lad said: "I wish I could 'ear the singing to-night, y'r gryce. I mean the primmer donner. Lou says she's a fair wonder."
"We will open your window," Jasmine said, gently. "The ball-room is just across the quadrangle, and you will be able to hear perfectly."
"Thank you, me lydy," he answered, gratefully, and his eyes closed.
"Come," said Jasmine to Stafford. "I will take you where we can talk undisturbed."
They passed out, and both were silent as they threaded the corridors and hallways; but in Jasmine's face was a light of exaltation and of secret triumph.
"We must give Jigger a good start in life," she said, softly, as they entered her sitting-room. Jigger had broken down many barriers between her and the man who, a week ago, had been eternities distant from her.
"He's worth a lot of thought," Ian answered, as the pleasant room enveloped him, and they seated themselves on a big couch before the fire.
Again there was a long silence; then, not looking at her, but gazing into the fire, Ian Stafford slowly unfolded the wide and wonderful enterprise of diplomacy in which his genius was employed. She listened with strained attention, but without moving. Her eyes were fixed on his face, and once, as the proposed meaning of the scheme was made dear by the turn of one illuminating phrase, she gave a low exclamation of wonder and delight. That was all until, at last, turning to her as though from some vision that had chained him, he saw the glow in her eyes, the profound interest, which was like the passion of a spirit moved to heroic undertaking. Once again it was as in the years gone by--he trusted her, in spite of himself; in spite of himself he had now given his very life into her hands, was making her privy to great designs which belonged to the inner chambers of the chancelleries of Europe.
Almost timorously, as it seemed, she put out her hand and touched his shoulder. "It is wonderful--wonderful," she said. "I can, I will help you. Will let you let me win back your trust--Ian?"
"I want your help, Jasmine," he replied, and stood up. "It is the last turn of the wheel. It may be life or death to me professionally."
"It shall be life," she said, softly.
He turned slowly from her and went towards the door.
"Shall we not go for a walk," she intervened--"before I drive to the station for Al'mah?"
He nodded, and a moment afterward they were passing along the corridors. Suddenly, as they passed a window, Ian stopped. "I thought Mr. Mappin went with the others to the Glen?" he said.
"He did," was the reply.
"Who is that leaving his room?" he continued, as she followed his glance across the quadrangle. "Surely, it's Fellowes," he added.
"Yes, it looked like Mr. Fellowes," she said, with a slight frown of wonder.