Book III
Chapter XVIII. Landrassy's Last Stroke
 

Midnight--one o'clock, two o'clock, three o'clock. Big Ben boomed the hours, and from St. James's Palace came the stroke of the quarters, lighter, quicker, almost pensive in tone. From St. James's Street below came no sounds at last. The clatter of the hoofs of horses had ceased, the rumble of drays carrying their night freights, the shouts of the newsboys making sensation out of rumours made in a newspaper office, had died away. Peace came, and a silver moon gave forth a soft light, which embalmed the old thoroughfare, and added a tenderness to its workaday dignity. In only one window was there a light at three o'clock. It was the window of Ian Stafford's sitting-room.

He had not left the Foreign Office till nearly ten o'clock, then had had a light supper at his club, had written letters there, and after a long walk up and down the Mall had, with reluctant feet, gone to his chambers.

The work which for years he had striven to do for England had been accomplished. The Great Understanding was complete. In the words of the secretary of the American Embassy, "Mennaval had delivered the goods," and an arrangement had been arrived at, completed this very night, which would leave England free to face her coming trial in South Africa without fear of trouble on the flank or in the rear.

The key was turned in the lock, and that lock had been the original device and design of Ian Stafford. He had done a great work for civilization and humanity; he had made improbable, if not impossible, a European war. The Kaiser knew it, Franz Joseph knew it, the Czar knew it; the White House knew it, and its master nodded with satisfaction, for John Bull was waking up--"getting a move on." America might have her own family quarrel with John Bull, but when it was John Bull versus the world, not even James G. Blaine would have been prepared to see the old lion too deeply wounded. Even Landrassy, ambassador of Slavonia, had smiled grimly when he met Ian Stafford on the steps of the Moravian Embassy. He was artist enough to appreciate a well-played game, and, in any case, he had had done all that mortal man could in the way of intrigue and tact and device. He had worked the international press as well as it had ever been worked; he had distilled poison here and rosewater there; he had again and again baffled the British Foreign Office, again and again cut the ground from under Ian Stafford's feet; and if he could have staved off the pact, the secret international pact, by one more day, he would have gained the victory for himself, for his country, for the alliance behind him.

One day, but one day, and the world would never have heard of Ian Stafford. England would then have approached her conflict with the cup of trembling at her lips, and there would be a new disposition of power in Europe, a new dominating force in the diplomacy and the relations of the peoples of the world. It was Landrassy's own last battle-field of wit and scheming, of intellect and ambition. If he failed in this, his sun would set soon. He was too old to carry on much longer. He could not afford to wait. He was at the end of his career, and he had meant this victory to be the crown of his long services to Slavonia and the world.

But to him was opposed a man who was at the beginning of his career, who needed this victory to give him such a start as few men get in that field of retarded rewards, diplomacy. It had been a man at the end of the journey, and a man at the beginning, measuring skill, playing as desperate a game as was ever played. If Landrassy won--Europe a red battle-field, England at bay; if Ian Stafford won--Europe at peace, England secure. Ambition and patriotism intermingled, and only He who made human nature knew how much was pure patriotism and how much pure ambition. It was a great stake. On this day of days to Stafford destiny hung shivering, each hour that passed was throbbing with unparalleled anxiety, each minute of it was to be the drum-beat of a funeral march or the note of a Te Deum.

Not more uncertain was the roulette-wheel spinning in De Lancy Scovel's house than the wheel of diplomacy which Ian Stafford had set spinning. Rouge et noire--it was no more, no less. But Ian had won; England had won. Black had been beaten.

Landrassy bowed suavely to Ian as they met outside Mennaval's door in the early evening of this day when the business was accomplished, the former coming out, the latter going in.

"Well, Stafford," Landrassy said in smooth tones and with a jerk of the head backward, "the tables are deserted, the croupier is going home. But perhaps you have not come to play?"

Ian smiled lightly. "I've come to get my winnings--as you say," he retorted.

Landrassy seemed to meditate pensively. "Ah yes, ah yes, but I'm not sure that Mennaval hasn't bolted with the bank and your winnings, too!"

His meaning was clear--and hateful. Before Ian had a chance to reply, Landrassy added in a low, confidential voice, saturated with sardonic suggestion, "To tell you the truth, I had ceased to reckon with women in diplomacy. I thought it was dropped with the Second Empire; but you have started a new dispensation--evidemment, evidemment. Still Mennaval goes home with your winnings. Eh bien, we have to pay for our game! Allons gai!"

Before Ian could reply--and what was there to say to insult couched in such highly diplomatic language?--Landrassy had stepped sedately away, swinging his gold-headed cane and humming to himself.

"Duelling had its merits," Ian said to himself, as soon as he had recovered from the first effect of the soft, savage insolence. "There is no way to deal with our Landrassys except to beat them, as I have done, in the business of life."

He tossed his head with a little pardonable pride, as it were, to soothe his heart, and then went in to Mennaval. There, in the arrangements to be made with Moravia he forgot the galling incident; and for hours afterward it was set aside. When, however, he left his club, his supper over, after scribbling letters which he put in his pocket absent-mindedly, and having completed his work at the Foreign Office, it came back to his mind with sudden and scorching force.

Landrassy's insult to Jasmine rankled as nothing had ever rankled in his mind before, not even that letter which she had written him so long ago announcing her intended marriage to Byng. He was fresh from the first triumph of his life: he ought to be singing with joy, shouting to the four corners of the universe his pride, walking on air, finding the world a good, kind place made especially for him--his oyster to open, his nut which he had cracked; yet here he was fresh from the applause of his chief, with a strange heaviness at his heart, a gloom upon his mind.

Victory in his great fight--and love; he had them both and so he said to himself as he opened the door of his rooms and entered upon their comfort and quiet. He had love, and he had success; and the one had helped to give him the other, helped in a way which was wonderful, and so brilliantly skilful and delicate. As he poured out a glass of water, however, the thought stung him that the nature of the success and its value depended on the nature of the love and its value. As the love was, so was the success, no higher, no different, since the one, in some deep way, begot the other. Yes, it was certain that the thing could not have been done at this time without Jasmine, and if not at this time, then the chances were a thousand to one that it never could be done at any time; for Britain's enemies would be on her back while she would have to fight in South Africa. The result of that would mean a shattered, humiliated land, with a people in pawn to the will of a rising power across the northern sea. That it had been prevented just in the nick of time was due to Jasmine, his fate, the power that must beat in his veins till the end of all things.

Yet what was the end to be? To-day he had buried his face in her wonderful cloud of hair and had kissed her; and with it, almost on the instant, had come the end of his great struggle for England and himself; and for that he was willing to pay any price that time and Nemesis might demand--any price save one.

As he thought of that one price his lips tightened, his brow clouded, his eyes half closed with shame.

Rudyard Byng was his friend, whose bread he had eaten, whom he had known since they were boys at school. He remembered acutely Rudyard's words to him that fateful night when he had dined with Jasmine alone--"You will have much to talk about, to say to each other, such old friends as you are." He recalled how Rudyard had left them, trusting them, happy in the thought that Jasmine would have a pleasant evening with the old friend who had first introduced him to her, and that the old friend would enjoy his eager hospitality. Rudyard had blown his friend's trumpet wherever men would listen to him; had proclaimed Stafford as the coming man: and this was what he had done to Rudyard!

This was what he had done; but what did he propose to do? What of the future? To go on in miserable intrigue, twisting the nature, making demands upon life out of all those usual ways in which walk love and companionship--paths that lead through gardens of poppies, maybe, but finding grey wilderness at the end? Never, never the right to take the loved one by the hand before all the world and say: "We two are one, and the reckoning of the world must be made with both." Never to have the right to stand together in pride before the wide-eyed many and say: "See what you choose to see, say what you choose to say, do what you choose to do, we do not care." The open sharing of worldly success; the inner joys which the world may not see--these things could not be for Jasmine and for him.

Yet he loved her. Every fibre in his being thrilled to the thought of her. But as his passion beat like wild music in his veins, a blindness suddenly stole into his sight, and in deep agitation he got up, opened the window, and looked out into the night. For long he stood gazing into the quiet street, and watched a daughter of the night, with dilatory steps and neglected mien, go up towards the more frequented quarter of Piccadilly. Life was grim in so much of it, futile in more, feeble at the best, foolish in the light of a single generation or a single century or a thousand years. It was only reasonable in the vast proportions of eternity. It had only little sips of happiness to give, not long draughts of joy. Who drank deep, long draughts--who of all the men and women he had ever known? Who had had the primrose path without the rain of fire, the cinders beneath the feet, the gins and the nets spread for them?

Yet might it not be that here and there people were permanently happy? And had things been different, might not he and Jasmine have been of the radiant few? He desired her above all things; he was willing to sacrifice all--all for her, if need be; and yet there was that which he could not, would not face. All or nothing--all or nothing. If he must drink of the cup of sorrow and passion mixed, then it would be from the full cup.

With a stifled exclamation he sat down and began to write. Again and again he stopped to think, his face lined and worn and old; then he wrote on and on. Ambition, hope, youth, the Foreign Office, the chancelleries of Europe, the perils of impending war, were all forgotten, or sunk into the dusky streams of subconsciousness. One thought dominated him. He was playing the game that has baffled all men, the game of eluding destiny; and, like all men, he must break his heart in the playing.

"Jasmine," he wrote, "this letter, this first real letter of love which I have ever written you, will tell you how great that love is. It will tell you, too, what it means to me, and what I see before us. To-day I surrendered to you all of me that would be worth your keeping, if it was so that you might take and keep it. When I kissed you, I set the seal upon my eternal offering to you. You have given me success. It is for that I thank you with all my soul, but it is not for that I love you. Love flows from other fountains than gratitude. It rises from the well which has its springs at the beginning of the world, where those beings lived who loved before there were any gods at all, or any faiths, or any truths save the truth of being.

"But it is because what I feel belongs to something in me deeper than I have ever known that, since we parted a few hours ago, I see all in a new light. You have brought to me what perhaps could only have come as it did--through fire and cloud and storm. I did not will it so, indeed, I did not wish it so, as you know; but it came in spite of all. And I shall speak to you of it as to my own soul. I want no illusions, no self-deception, no pretense to be added to my debt to you. With wide-open eyes I want to look at it. I know that this love of mine for you is my fate, the first and the last passion of my soul. And to have known it with all its misery,--for misery there must be; misery, Jasmine, there is--to have known it, to have felt it, the great overwhelming thing, goes far to compensate for all the loss it so terribly exposes. It has brought me, too, the fruit of life's ambition. With the full revelation of all that I feel for you came that which gives me place in the world, confers on me the right to open doors which otherwise were closed to me. You have done this for me, but what have I done for you? One thing at least is forced upon me, which I must do now while I have the sight to see and the mind to understand.

"I cannot go on with things as they are. I cannot face Rudyard and give myself to hourly deception. I think that yesterday, a month ago, I could have done so, but not now. I cannot walk the path which will be paved with things revolting to us both. My love for you, damnable as it would seem in the world's eyes, prevents it. It is not small enough to be sustained or made secure in its furfilment by the devices of intrigue. And I know that if it is so with me, it must be a thousand times so with you. Your beauty would fade and pass under the stress and meanness of it; your heart would reproach me even when you smiled; you would learn to hate me even when you were resting upon my hungry heart. You would learn to loathe the day when you said, Let me help you. Yet, Jasmine, I know that you are mine; that you were mine long ago, even when you did not know, and were captured by opportunity to do what, with me, you felt you could not do. You were captured by it; but it has not proved what it promised. You have not made the best of the power into which you came, and you could not do so, because the spring from which all the enriching waters of married life flow was dry. Poor Jasmine--poor illusion of a wild young heart which reached out for the golden city of the mirage!

"But now.... Two ways spread out, and only two, and one of these two I must take--for your sake. There is the third way, but I will not take it--for your sake and for my own. I will not walk in it ever. Already my feet are burned by the fiery path, already I am choked by the smoke and the ashes. No. I cannot atone for what has been, but I can try and gather up the chances that are left.

"You must come with me away--away, to start life afresh, somewhere, somehow; or I must go alone on some enterprise from which I shall not return. You cannot bear what is, but, together, having braved the world, we could look into each other's eyes without shrinking, knowing that we had been at least true to each other, true at the last to the thing that binds us, taking what Fate gave without repining, because we had faced all that the world could do against us. It would mean that I should leave diplomacy forever, give up all that so far has possessed me in the business of life; but I should not lament. I have done the one big thing I wanted to do, I have cut a swath in the field. I have made some principalities and powers reckon with me. It may be I have done all I was meant to do in doing that--it may be. In any case, the thing I did would stand as an accomplished work--it would represent one definite and original thing; one piece of work in design all my own, in accomplishment as much yours as mine.... To go then--together--with only the one big violence to the conventions of the world, and take the law into our own hands? Rudyard, who understands Life's violence, would understand that; what he could never understand would be perpetual artifice, unseemly secretiveness. He himself would have been a great filibuster in the olden days; he would have carried off the wives and daughters of the chiefs and kings he conquered; but he would never have stolen into the secret garden at night and filched with the hand of the sneak-thief--never.

"To go with me--away, and start afresh. There will be always work to do, always suffering humanity to be helped. We should help because we would have suffered, we should try to set right the one great mistake you made in not coming to me and so furfilling the old promise. To set that error right, even though it be by wronging Rudyard by one great stroke--that is better than hourly wronging him now with no surcease of that wrong. No, no, this cannot go on. You could not have it so. I seem to feel that you are writing to me now, telling me to begone forever, saying that you had given me gifts--success and love; and now to go and leave you in peace.

"Peace, Jasmine, it is that we cry for, pray for, adjure the heavens for in the end. And all this vast, passionate love of mine is the strife of the soul for peace, for fruition.

"That peace we may have in another way: that I should go forever, now, before the terrible bond of habit has done its work, and bound us in chains that never fall, that even remain when love is dead and gone, binding the cold cadre to the living pain. To go now, with something accomplished, and turn my back forever on the world, with one last effort to do the impossible thing for some great cause, and fail and be lost forever--do you not understand? Face it, Jasmine, and try to see it in its true light.... I have a friend, John Caxton--you know him. He is going to the Antarctic to find the futile thing, but the necessary thing so far as the knowledge of the world is concerned. With him, then, that long quiet and in the far white spaces to find peace--forever.

"You? . . . Ah, Jasmine, habit, the habit of enduring me, is not fixed, and in my exit there would be the agony of the moment, and then the comforting knowledge that I had done my best to set things right. Perhaps it is the one way to set things right; the fairest to you, the kindest, and that which has in it most love. The knowledge of a great love ended--yours and mine--would help you to give what you can give with fuller soul. And, maybe, to be happy with Rudyard at the last! Maybe, to be happy with him, without this wonderful throbbing pulse of being, but with quiet, and to get a measure of what is due to you in the scheme of things. Destiny gives us in life so much and no more: to some a great deal in a little time, to others a little over a great deal of time, but never the full cup and the shining sky over long years. One's share small it must be, but one's share! And it may be, in what has come to-day, in the hour of my triumph, in the business of life, in the one hour of revealing love, it may be I have had my share.... And if that is so, then peace should be my goal, and peace I can have yonder in the snows. No one would guess that it was not accident, and I should feel sure that I had stopped in time to save you from the worst. But it must be the one or the other.

"The third way I cannot, will not, take, nor would you take it willingly. It would sear your heart and spirit, it would spoil all that makes you what you are. Jasmine, once for all I am your lover and your friend. I give you love and I give you friendship--whatever comes; always that, always friendship. Tempus fugit sed amicitia est.

"In my veins is a river of fire, and my heart is wrenched with pain; but in my soul is that which binds me to you, together or apart, in life, in death.... Good-night.... Good-morrow.

"Your Man,

"IAN.

"P.S.--I will come for your reply at eleven to-morrow.

"IAN."

He folded the letter slowly and placed it in an envelope which was lying loose on the desk with the letters he had written at the Trafalgar Club, and had forgotten to post. When he had put the letter inside the envelope and stamped it, he saw that the envelope was one carrying the mark of the Club. By accident he had brought it with the letters written there. He hesitated a moment, then refrained from opening the letter again, and presently went out into the night and posted all his letters.