The Judgment House by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XV. The World Well Lost
People were in London in September and October who seldom arrived before November. War was coming. Hundreds of families whose men were in the army came to be within touch of the War Office and Aldershot, and the capital of the Empire was overrun by intriguers, harmless and otherwise. There were ladies who hoped to influence officers in high command in favour of their husbands, brothers, or sons; subalterns of title who wished to be upon the staff of some famous general; colonels of character and courage and scant ability, craving commands; high-placed folk connected with great industrial, shipping, or commercial firms, who were used by these firms to get "their share" of contracts and other things which might be going; and patriotic amateurs who sought to make themselves notorious through some civilian auxiliary to war organization, like a voluntary field hospital or a home of convalescence. But men, too, of the real right sort, longing for chance of work in their profession of arms; ready for anything, good for anything, brave to a miracle: and these made themselves fit by hard riding or walking or rowing, or in some school of physical culture, that they might take a war job on, if, and when, it was going.
Among all these Ian Stafford moved with an undercurrent of agitation and anxiety unseen in his face, step, motion, or gesture. For days he was never near the Foreign Office, and then for days he was there almost continuously; yet there was scarcely a day when he did not see Jasmine. Also there were few days in the week when Jasmine did not see M. Mennaval, the ambassador for Moravia--not always at her own house, but where the ambassador chanced to be of an evening, at a fashionable restaurant, or at some notable function. This situation had not been difficult to establish; and, once established, meetings between the lady and monsieur were arranged with that skill which belongs to woman and to diplomacy.
Once or twice at the beginning Jasmine's chance question concerning the ambassador's engagements made M. Mennaval keen to give information as to his goings and comings. Thus if they met naturally, it was also so constantly that people gossiped; but at first, certainly, not to Jasmine's grave disadvantage, for M. Mennaval was thought to be less dangerous than impressionable.
In that, however, he was somewhat maligned, for his penchant for beautiful and "select" ladies had capacities of development almost unguessed. Previously Jasmine had never shown him any marked preference; and when, at first, he met her in town on her return from Wales he was no more than watchfully courteous and admiring. When, however, he found her in a receptive mood, and evidently taking pleasure in his society, his vanity expanded greatly. He at once became possessed by an absorbing interest in the woman who, of all others in London, had gifts which were not merely physical, but of a kind that stimulate the mind and rouse those sensibilities so easily dulled by dull and material people. Jasmine had her material side; but there was in her the very triumph of the imaginative also; and through it the material became alive, buoyant and magnetic.
Without that magnetic power which belonged to the sensuous part of her she would not have gained control of M. Mennaval's mind, for it was keen, suspicious, almost abnormally acute; and, while lacking real power, it protected itself against the power of others by assembled and well-disciplined adroitness and evasions.
Very soon, however, Jasmine's sensitive beauty, which in her desire to intoxicate him became voluptuousness, enveloped his brain in a mist of rainbow reflections. Under her deft questions and suggestions he allowed her to see the springs of his own diplomacy and the machinery inside the Moravian administration. She caught glimpses of its ambitions, its unscrupulous use of its position in international relations, to gain advantage for itself, even by a dexterity which might easily bear another name, and by sudden disregard of international attachments not unlike treachery.
Rudyard was too busy to notice the more than cavalier attitude of M. Mennaval; and if he had noticed it, there would have been no intervention. Of late a lesion of his higher moral sense made him strangely insensitive to obvious things. He had an inborn chivalry, but the finest, truest chivalry was not his--that which carefully protects a woman from temptation, by keeping her unostentatiously away from it; which remembers that vanity and the need for admiration drive women into pitfalls out of which they climb again maimed for life, if they climb at all.
He trusted Jasmine absolutely, while there was, at the same time, a great unrest in his heart and life--an unrest which the accident at the Glencader Mine, his own share in a great rescue, and her gratitude for his safety did little to remove. It produced no more than a passing effect upon Jasmine or upon himself. The very convention of making light of bravery and danger, which has its value, was in their case an evil, preventing them from facing the inner meaning of it all. If they had been less rich, if their house had been small, if their acquaintances had been fewer, if . . .
It was not by such incidents that they were to be awakened, and with the wild desire to make Stafford grateful to her, and owe her his success, the tragedy yonder must, in the case of Jasmine, have been obscured and robbed of its force. At Glencader Jasmine had not got beyond desire to satisfy a vanity, which was as deep in her as life itself. It was to regain her hold upon a man who had once acknowledged her power and, in a sense, had bowed to her will. But that had changed, and, down beneath all her vanity and wilfulness, there was now a dangerous regard and passion for him which, under happy circumstances, might have transformed her life--and his. Now it all served to twist her soul and darken her footsteps. On every hand she was engaged in a game of dissimulation, made the more dangerous by the thread of sincerity and desire running through it all. Sometimes she started aghast at the deepening intrigue gathering in her path; at the deterioration in her husband; and at the hollow nature of her home life; but the excitement of the game she was playing, the ardour of the chase, was in her veins, and her inherited spirit of great daring kept her gay with vitality and intellectual adventure.
Day after day she had strengthened the cords by which she was drawing Ian to her; and in the confidence begotten of her services to him, of her influence upon M. Mennaval and the progress of her efforts, a new intimacy, different from any they had ever known, grew and thrived. Ian scarcely knew how powerful had become the feeling between them. He only realized that delight which comes from working with another for a cherished cause, the goal of one's life, which has such deeper significance when the partner in the struggle is a woman. They both experienced that most seductive of all influences, a secret knowledge and a pact of mutual silence and purpose.
"You trust me now?" Jasmine asked at last one day, when she had been able to assure Ian that the end was very near, that M. Mennaval had turned his face from Slavonia, and had carried his government with him--almost. In the heir-apparent to the throne of Moravia, whose influence with the Moravian Prime Minister was considerable, there still remained one obdurate element; but Ian's triumph only lacked the removal of this one obstructive factor, and thereafter England would be secure from foreign attack, if war came in South Africa. In that case Ian's career might culminate at the head of the Foreign Office itself, or as representative of the throne in India, if he chose that splendid sphere.
"You do trust me, Ian?" Jasmine repeated, with a wistfulness as near reality as her own deceived soul could permit.
With a sincerity as deep as one can have who embarks on enterprises in which one regrets the means in contemplation of the end, Ian replied:
"Yes, yes, I trust you, Jasmine, as I used to do when I was twenty and you were five. You have brought back the boy in me. All the dreams of youth are in my heart again, all the glow of the distant sky of hope. I feel as though I lived upon a hill-top, under some greenwood tree, and--"
"And 'sported with Amaryllis in the shade,'" she broke in with a little laugh of triumph, her eyes brighter than he had ever seen them. They were glowing with a fire of excitement which was like a fever devouring the spirit, with little dark, flying banners of fate or tragedy behind.
Strange that he caught the inner meaning of it as he looked into her eyes now. In the depths of those eyes, where long ago he had drowned his spirit, it was as though he saw an army of reckless battalions marching to a great battle; but behind all were the black wings of vultures--pinions of sorrow following the gay brigades. Even as he gazed at her, something ominous and threatening caught his heart, and, with the end of his great enterprise in sight, a black premonition smothered him.
But with a smile he said: "Well, it does look as though we are near the end of the journey."
"And 'journeys end in lovers' meeting,'" she whispered softly, lowered her eyes, and then raised them again to his.
The light in them blinded him. Had he not always loved her--before any one came, before Rudyard came, before the world knew her? All that he had ever felt in the vanished days rushed upon him with intolerable force. Through his life-work, through his ambition, through helping him as no one else could have done at the time of crisis, she had reached the farthest confines of his nature. She had woven, thread by thread, the magic carpet of that secret companionship by which the best as the worst of souls are sometimes carried into a land enchanted--for a brief moment, before Fate stoops down and hangs a veil of plague over the scene of beauty, passion, and madness.
Her eyes, full of liquid fire, met his. They half closed as her body swayed slightly towards him.
With a cry, almost rough in its intensity, he caught her in his arms and buried his face in the soft harvest of her hair. "Jasmine--Jasmine, my love!" he murmured.
Suddenly she broke from him. "Oh no--oh no, Ian! The work is not done. I can't take my pay before I have earned it--such pay--such pay."
He caught her hands and held them fast. "Nothing can alter what is. It stands. Whatever the end, whatever happens to the thing I want to do, I--"
He drew her closer.
"You say this before we know what Moravia will do; you--oh, Ian, tell me it is not simply gratitude, and because I tried to help you; not only because--"
He interrupted her with a passionate gesture. "It belonged at first to what you were doing for me. Now it is by itself, that which, for good or ill, was to be between you and me--the foreordained thing."
She drew back her head with a laugh of vanity and pride and bursting joy. "Ah, it doesn't matter now!" she said. "It doesn't matter."
He looked at her questioningly.
"Nothing matters now," she repeated, less enigmatically. She stretched her arms up joyously, radiantly.
"The world well lost!" she cried.
Her reckless mood possessed him also. They breathed that air which intoxicates, before it turns heavy with calamity and stifles the whole being; by which none ever thrived, though many have sought nourishment in daring draughts of it.
"The world well lost!" he repeated; and his lips sought hers.
Her determined patience had triumphed. Hour by hour, by being that to his plans, to his work of life, which no one else could be, she had won back what she had lost when the Rand had emptied into her lap its millions, at the bidding of her material soul. With infinite tact and skill she had accomplished her will. The man she had lost was hers again. What it must mean, what it must do, what price must be paid for this which her spirit willed had never yet been estimated. But her will had been supreme, and she took all out of the moment which was possible to mortal pleasure.
Like the Columbus, however, who plants his flag upon the cliffs of a new land, and then, leaving his vast prize unharvested, retreats upon the sea by which he came, so Ian suddenly realized that here was no abiding-place for his love. It was no home for his faith, for those joys which the sane take gladly, when it is right to take them, and the mad long for and die for when their madness becomes unbearable.
A cloud suddenly passed over him, darkened his eyes, made his bones like water. For, whatever might come, he knew in his heart of hearts that the "old paths" were the only paths which he could tread in peace--or tread at all without the ruin of all he had slowly builded.
Jasmine, however, did not see his look or realize the sudden physical change which passed over him, leaving him cold and numbed; for a servant now entered with a note.
Seeing the handwriting on the envelope, with an exclamation of excitement and surprise, Jasmine tore the letter open. One glance was sufficient.
"Moravia is ours--ours, Ian!" she cried, and thrust the letter into his hands.
"Thank God--thank God, for England!" said Ian solemnly, the greater thing in him deeply stirred. "Now let war come, if it must; for we can do our work without interference."
"Thank God," he repeated, fervently, and the light in his eyes was clearer and burned brighter than the fire which had filled them during the past few moments.
Then he clasped her in his arms again.
As Ian drove swiftly in a hansom to the Foreign Office, his brain putting in array and reviewing the acts which must flow from this international agreement now made possible, the note Mennaval had written Jasmine flashed before his eyes: "Dearest lady.... May I dine with you to-night? . . . M."
His face flushed. There was something exceedingly familiar--more in the tone of the words than the words themselves--which irritated and humiliated him. What she had done for him apparently warranted this intimate, self-assured tone on the part of Mennaval, the philanderer. His pride smarted. His rose of triumph had its thorns.
A letter from Mennaval was at the Foreign Office awaiting him. He carried it to the Prime Minister, who read it with grave satisfaction.
"It is just in time, Stafford," he remarked. "You ran it close. We will clinch it instantly. Let us have the code."
As the Prime Minister turned over the pages of the code, he said, dryly: "I hear from Pretoria, through Mr. Byng, that President Kruger may send the ultimatum tomorrow. I fear he will have the laugh on us, for ours is not ready. We have to make sure of this thing first.... I wonder how Landrassy will take it."
He chuckled deeply. "Landrassy made a good fight, but you made a better one, Stafford. I shouldn't wonder if you got on in diplomacy," he added, with quizzical humour.... "Ah, here is the code! Now to clinch it all before Oom Paul's challenge arrives."