Book I
Chapter II. The Underground World
 

"What's that you say--Jameson--what?"

Rudyard Byng paused with the lighted match at the end of his cigar, and stared at a man who was reading from a tape-machine, which gave the club the world's news from minute to minute.

"Dr. Jameson's riding on Johannesburg with eight hundred men. He started from Pitsani two days ago. And Cronje with his burghers are out after him."

The flaming match burned Byng's fingers. He threw it into the fireplace, and stood transfixed for a moment, his face hot with feeling, then he burst out:

"But--God! they're not ready at Johannesburg. The burghers'll catch him at Doornkop or somewhere, and--" He paused, overcome. His eyes suffused. His hands went out in a gesture of despair.

"Jameson's jumped too soon," he muttered. "He's lost the game for them."

The other eyed him quizzically. "Perhaps he'll get in yet. He surely planned the thing with due regard for every chance. Johannesburg--"

"Johannesburg isn't ready, Stafford. I know. That Jameson and the Rand should coincide was the only chance. And they'll not coincide now. It might have been--it was to have been--a revolution at Johannesburg, with Dr. Jim to step in at the right minute. It's only a filibustering business now, and Oom Paul will catch the filibuster, as sure as guns. 'Gad, it makes me sick!"

"Europe will like it--much," remarked Ian Stafford, cynically, offering Byng a lighted match.

Byng grumbled out an oath, then fixed his clear, strong look on Stafford. "It's almost enough to make Germany and France forget 1870 and fall into each other's arms," he answered. "But that's your business, you Foreign Office people's business. It's the fellows out there, friends of mine, so many of them, I'm thinking of. It's the British kids that can't be taught in their mother-tongue, and the men who pay all the taxes and can't become citizens. It's the justice you can only buy; it's the foot of Kruger on the necks of the subjects of his suzerain; it's eating dirt as Englishmen have never had to eat it anywhere in the range of the Seven Seas. And when they catch Dr. Jim, it'll be ten times worse. Yes, it'll be at Doornkop, unless-- But, no, they'll track him, trap him, get him now. Johannesburg wasn't ready. Only yesterday I had a cable that--" he stopped short . . . "but they weren't ready. They hadn't guns enough, or something; and Englishmen aren't good conspirators, not by a damned sight! Now it'll be the old Majuba game all over again. You'll see."

"It certainly will set things back. Your last state will be worse than your first," remarked Stafford.

Rudyard Byng drained off a glass of brandy and water at a gulp almost, as Stafford watched him with inward adverse comment, for he never touched wine or spirits save at meal-time, and the between-meal swizzle revolted his Eesthetic sense. Byng put down the glass very slowly, gazing straight before him for a moment without speaking. Then he looked round. There was no one very near, though curious faces were turned in his direction, as the grim news of the Raid was passed from mouth to mouth. He came up close to Stafford and touched his chest with a firm forefinger.

"Every egg in the basket is broken, Stafford. I'm sure of that. Dr. Jim'll never get in now; and there'll be no oeufs a la coque for breakfast. But there's an omelette to be got out of the mess, if the chef doesn't turn up his nose too high. After all, what has brought things to this pass? Why, mean, low tyranny and injustice. Why, just a narrow, jealous race-hatred which makes helots of British men. Simple farmers, the sentimental newspapers call them--simple Machiavellis in veldschoen!"

Stafford nodded assent. "But England is a very conventional chef," he replied. "She likes the eggs for her omelette broken in the orthodox way."

"She's not so particular where the eggs come from, is she?"

Stafford smiled as he answered: "There'll be a good many people in England who won't sleep to-night some because they want Jameson to get in; some because they don't; but most because they're thinking of the millions of British money locked up in the Rand, with Kruger standing over it with a sjambak, which he'll use. Last night at the opera we had a fine example of presence of mind, when a lady burst into flames on the stage. That spirited South African prima donna, the Transvaal, is in flames. I wonder if she really will be saved, and who will save her, and--"

A light, like the sun, broke over the gloomy and rather haggard face of Rudyard Byng, and humour shot up into his eyes. He gave a low, generous laugh, as he said with a twinkle: "And whether he does it at some expense to himself--with his own overcoat, or with some one else's cloak. Is that what you want to say?"

All at once the personal element, so powerful in most of us--even in moments when interests are in existence so great that they should obliterate all others--came to the surface. For a moment it almost made Byng forget the crisis which had come to a land where he had done all that was worth doing, so far in his life; which had burned itself into his very soul; which drew him, sleeping or waking, into its arms of memory and longing.

He had read only one paper that morning, and it--the latest attempt at sensational journalism--had so made him blush at the flattering references to himself in relation to the incident at the opera, that he had opened no other. He had left his chambers to avoid the telegrams and notes of congratulation which were arriving in great numbers. He had gone for his morning ride in Battersea Park instead of the Row to escape observation; had afterwards spent two hours at the house he was building in Park Lane; had then come to the club, where he had encountered Ian Stafford and had heard the news which overwhelmed him.

"Well, an opera cloak did the work better than an overcoat would have done," Stafford answered, laughing. "It was a flash of real genius to think of it. You did think it all out in the second, didn't you?"

Stafford looked at him curiously, for he wondered if the choice of a soft cloak which could more easily be wrapped round the burning woman than an overcoat was accidental, or whether it was the product of a mind of unusual decision.

Byng puffed out a great cloud of smoke and laughed again quietly as he replied:

"Well, I've had a good deal of lion and rhinoceros shooting in my time, and I've had to make up my mind pretty quick now and then; so I suppose it gets to be a habit. You don't stop to think when the trouble's on you; you think as you go. If I'd stopped to think, I'd have funked the whole thing, I suppose--jumping from that box onto the stage, and grabbing a lady in my arms, all in the open, as it were. But that wouldn't have been the natural man. The natural man that's in most of us, even when we're not very clever, does things right. It's when the conventional man comes in and says, Let us consider, that we go wrong. By Jingo, Al'mah was as near having her beauty spoiled as any woman ever was; but she's only got a few nasty burns on the arm and has singed her hair a little."

"You've seen her to-day, then?"

Stafford looked at him with some curiosity, for the event was one likely to rouse a man's interest in a woman. Al'mah was unmarried, so far as the world knew, and a man of Byng's kind, if not generally inflammable, was very likely to be swept off his feet by some unusual woman in some unusual circumstance. Stafford had never seen Rudyard Byng talk to any woman but Jasmine for more than five minutes at a time, though hundreds of eager and avaricious eyes had singled him out for attention; and, as it seemed absurd that any one should build a palace in Park Lane to live in by himself, the glances sent in his direction from many quarters had not been without hopefulness. And there need not have been, and there was not, any loss of dignity on the part of match-making mothers in angling for him, for his family was quite good enough; his origin was not obscure, and his upbringing was adequate. His external ruggedness was partly natural; but it was also got from the bitter rough life he had lived for so many years in South Africa before he had fallen on his feet at Kimberley and Johannesburg.

As for "strange women," during the time that had passed since his retum to England there had never been any sign of loose living. So, to Stafford's mind, Byng was the more likely to be swept away on a sudden flood that would bear him out to the sea of matrimony. He had put his question out of curiosity, and he had not to wait for a reply. It came frankly and instantly:

"Why, I was at Al'mah's house in Bruton Street at eight o'clock this morning--with the milkman and the newsboy; and you wouldn't believe it, but I saw her, too. She'd been up since six o'clock, she said. Couldn't sleep for excitement and pain, but looking like a pansy blossom all the same, rigged out as pretty as could be in her boudoir, and a nurse doing the needful. It's an odd dark kind of beauty she has, with those full lips and the heavy eyebrows. Well, it was a bull in a china-shop, as you might judge--and thank you kindly, Mr. Byng, with such a jolly laugh, and ever and ever and ever so grateful and so wonderfully--thoughtful, I think, was the word, as though one had planned it all. And wouldn't I stay to breakfast? And not a bit stagey or actressy, and rather what you call an uncut diamond--a gem in her way, but not fine beur, not exactly. A touch of the karoo, or the prairie, or the salt-bush plains in her, but a good chap altogether; and I'm glad I was in it last night with her. I laughed a lot at breakfast--why yes, I stayed to breakfast. Laugh before breakfast and cry before supper, that's the proverb, isn't it? And I'm crying, all right, and there's weeping down on the Rand too."

As he spoke Stafford made inward comment on the story being told to him, so patently true and honest in every particular. It was rather contradictory and unreasonable, however, to hear this big, shy, rugged fellow taking exception, however delicately and by inference only, to the lack of high refinement, to the want of fine fleur, in Al'mah's personality. It did not occur to him that Byng was the kind of man who would be comparing Jasmine's quite wonderful delicacy, perfumed grace, and exquisite adaptability with the somewhat coarser beauty and genius of the singer. It seemed natural that Byng should turn to a personality more in keeping with his own, more likely to make him perfectly at ease mentally and physically.

Stafford judged Jasmine by his own conversations with her, when he was so acutely alive to the fact that she was the most naturally brilliant woman he had ever known or met; and had capacities for culture and attainment, as she had gifts of discernment and skill in thought, in marked contrast to the best of the ladies of their world. To him she had naturally shown only the one side of her nature--she adapted herself to him as she did to every one else; she had put him always at an advantage, and, in doing so, herself as well.

Full of dangerous coquetry he knew her to be--she had been so from a child; and though this was culpable in a way, he and most others had made more than due allowance, because mother-care and loving surveillance had been withdrawn so soon. For years she had been the spoiled darling of her father and brothers until her father married again; and then it had been too late to control her. The wonder was that she had turned out so well, that she had been so studious, so determined, so capable. Was it because she had unusual brain and insight into human nature, and had been wise and practical enough to see that there was a point where restraint must be applied, and so had kept herself free from blame or deserved opprobrium, if not entirely from criticism? In the day when girls were not in the present sense emancipated, she had the savoir faire and the poise of a married woman of thirty. Yet she was delicate, fresh, and flower-like, and very amusing, in a way which delighted men; and she did not antagonize women.

Stafford had ruled Byng out of consideration where she was concerned. He had not heard her father's remark of the night before, "Jasmine will marry that nabob--you'll see."

He was, however, recalled to the strange possibilities of life by a note which was handed to Byng as they stood before the club-room fire. He could not help but see--he knew the envelope, and no other handwriting was like Jasmine's, that long, graceful, sliding hand. Byng turned it over before opening it.

"Hello," he said, "I'm caught. It's a woman's hand. I wonder how she knew I was here."

Mentally Stafford shrugged his shoulders as he said to himself: "If Jasmine wanted to know where he was, she'd find out. I wonder--I wonder."

He watched Byng, over whose face passed a pleased smile.

"Why," Byng said, almost eagerly, "it's from Miss Grenfel--wants me to go and tell her about Jameson and the Raid."

He paused for an instant, and his face clouded again. "The first thing I must do is to send cables to Johannesburg. Perhaps there are some waiting for me at my rooms. I'll go and see. I don't know why I didn't get news sooner. I generally get word before the Government. There's something wrong somewhere. Somebody has had me."

"If I were you I'd go to our friend first. When I'm told to go at once, I go. She wouldn't like cablegrams and other things coming between you and her command--even when Dr. Jim's riding out of Matabeleland on the Rand for to free the slaves."

Stafford's words were playful, but there was, almost unknown to himself, a strange little note of discontent and irony behind.

Byng laughed. "But I'll be able to tell her more, perhaps, if I go to my rooms first."

"You are going to see her, then?"

"Certainly. There's nothing to do till we get news of Jameson at bay in a conga or balled up at a kopje." Thrusting the delicately perfumed letter in his pocket, he nodded, and was gone.

"I was going to see her myself," thought Stafford, "but that settles it. It will be easier to go where duty calls instead, since Byng takes my place. Why, she told me to come to-day at this very hour," he added, suddenly, and paused in his walk towards the door.

"But I want no triangular tea-parties," he continued to reflect.... "Well, there'll be work to do at the Foreign Office, that's sure. France, Austria, Russia can spit out their venom now and look to their mobilization. And won't Kaiser William throw up his cap if Dr. Jim gets caught! What a mess it will be! Well--well--well!"

He sighed, and went on his way brooding darkly; for he knew that this was the beginning of a great trial for England and all British people.