The Judgment House by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XXI. The Burning Fiery Furnace
There was that in Stafford's tone which made Fellowes turn with a start. It was to this room that Fellowes had begged Jasmine to come this morning, in the letter which Krool had so carefully placed for his master to find, after having read it himself with minute scrutiny. It was in this room they had met so often in those days when Rudyard was in South Africa, and where music had been the medium of an intimacy which had nothing for its warrant save eternal vanity and curiosity, the evil genius of the race of women. Here it was that Krool's antipathy to Jasmine and fierce hatred of Fellowes had been nurtured. Krool had haunted the room, desiring the end of it all; but he had been disarmed by a smiling kindness on Jasmine's part, which shook his purpose again and again.
It had all been a problem which Krool's furtive mind failed to master. If he went to the Baas with his suspicions, the chance was that he would be flayed with a sjambok and turned into the streets; if he warned Jasmine, the same thing might happen, or worse. But fate had at last played into his hands, on the very day that Oom Paul had challenged destiny, when all things were ready for the ruin of the hated English.
Fate had sent him through the hallway between Jasmine's and Rudyard's rooms in the moment when Jasmine had dropped Fellowes' letter; and he had seen it fall. He knew not what it was, but it might be of importance, for he had seen Fellowes' handwriting on an envelope among those waiting for Jasmine's return home. In a far dark corner he had waited till he saw Lablanche enter her mistress' room hurriedly, without observing the letter. Then he caught it up and stole away to the library, where he read it with malevolent eyes.
He had left this fateful letter where Rudyard would see it when he rose in the morning. All had worked out as he had planned, and now, with his ear against the door which led from the music-room, he strained to hear what passed between Stafford and Fellowes.
"Well, what is it?" asked Fellowes, with an attempt to be casual, though there was that in Stafford's face which gave him anxiety, he knew not why. He had expected Jasmine, and, instead, here was Stafford, who had been so much with her of late; who, with Mennaval, had occupied so much of her time that she had scarcely spoken to him, and, when she did so, it was with a detachment which excluded him from intimate consideration.
His face wore a mechanical smile, as his pale blue eyes met the dark intensity of Stafford's. But slowly the peach-bloom of his cheeks faded and his long, tapering fingers played nervously with the leather-trimming of the piano-stool.
"Anything I can do for you, Stafford?" he added, with attempted nonchalance.
"There is nothing you can do for me," was the meaning reply, "but there is something you can do advantageously for yourself, if you will think it worth while."
"Most of us are ready to do ourselves good turns. What am I to do?"
"You will wish to avoid it, and yet you will do yourself a good turn in not avoiding it."
"Is that the way you talk in diplomatic circles--cryptic, they call it, don't they?"
Stafford's chin hardened, and a look of repulsion and disdain crossed over his face.
"It is more cryptic, I confess, than the letter which will cause you to do yourself a good turn."
Now Fellowes' face turned white. "What letter?" he asked, in a sharp, querulous voice.
"The letter you wrote Mrs. Byng from the Trafalgar Club yesterday."
Fellowes made a feint, an attempt at bravado. "What business is it of yours, anyhow? What rights have you got in Mrs. Byng's letters?"
"Only what I get from a higher authority."
"Are you in sweet spiritual partnership with the Trinity?"
"The higher authority I mean is Mr. Byng. Let us have no tricks with words, you fool."
Fellowes made an ineffective attempt at self-possession.
"What the devil . . . why should I listen to you?" There was a peevish stubbornness in the tone.
"Why should you listen to me? Well, because I have saved your life. That should be sufficient reason for you to listen."
"Damnation--speak out, if you've got anything to say! I don't see what you mean, and you are damned officious. Yes, that's it--damned officious." The peevishness was becoming insolent recklessness.
Slowly Stafford drew from his pocket the revolver Rudyard had given him. As Fellowes caught sight of the glittering steel he fell back against the piano-stool, making a clatter, his face livid.
Stafford's lips curled with contempt. "Don't squirm so, Fellowes. I'm not going to use it. But Mr. Byng had it, and he was going to use it. He was on his way to do it when I appeared. I stopped him . . . I will tell you how. I endeavoured to make him believe that she was absolutely innocent, that you had only been an insufferably insolent, presumptuous, and lecherous cad--which is true. I said that, though you deserved shooting, it would only bring scandal to Rudyard Byng's honourable wife, who had been insulted by the lover of Al'mah and the would-be betrayer of an honest girl--of Jigger's sister.... Yes, you may well start. I know of what stuff you are, how you had the soul and body of one of the most credulous and wonderful women in the world in your hands, and you went scavenging. From Al'mah to the flower-girl! . . . I think I should like to kill you myself for what you tried to do to Jigger's sister; and if it wasn't here"--he handled the little steel weapon with an eager fondness--" I think I'd do it. You are a pest."
Cowed, shivering, abject, Fellowes nervously fell back. His body crashed upon the keys of the piano, producing a hideous discord. Startled, he sprang aside and with trembling hands made gestures of appeal.
"Don't--don't! Can't you see I'm willing! What is it you want me to do? I'll do it. Put it away.... Oh, my God--Oh!" His bloodless lips were drawn over his teeth in a grimace of terror.
With an exclamation of contempt Stafford put the weapon back into his pocket again. "Pull yourself together," he said. "Your life is safe for the moment; but I can say no more than that. After I had proved the lady's innocence--you understand, after I had proved the lady's innocence to him--"
"Yes, I understand," came the hoarse reply.
"After that, I said I would deal with you; that he could not be trusted to do so. I said that you would leave England within twenty-four hours, and that you would not return within three years. That was my pledge. You are prepared to fulfil it?"
"To leave England! It is impossible--"
"Perhaps to leave it permanently, and not by the English Channel, either, might be worse," was the cold, savage reply. "Mr. Byng made his terms."
Fellowes shivered. "What am I to do out of England--but, yes, I'll go, I'll go," he added, as he saw the look in Stafford's face and thought of the revolver so near to Stafford's hand.
"Yes, of course you will go," was the stern retort. "You will go, just as I say."
"What shall I do abroad?" wailed the weak voice.
"What you have always done here, I suppose--live on others," was the crushing reply. "The venue will be changed, but you won't change, not you. If I were you, I'd try and not meet Jigger before you go. He doesn't know quite what it is, but he knows enough to make him reckless."
Fellowes moved towards the door in a stumbling kind of way. "I have some things up-stairs," he said.
"They will be sent after you to your chambers. Give me the keys to the desk in the secretary's room."
"I'll go myself, and--"
"You will leave this house at once, and everything will be sent after you--everything. Have no fear. I will send them myself, and your letters and private papers will not be read.... You feel you can rely on me for that--eh?"
"Yes . . . I'll go now . . . abroad . . . where?"
"Where you please outside the United Kingdom."
Fellowes passed heavily out through the other room, where his letter had been read by Stafford, where his fate had been decided. He put on his overcoat nervously and went to the outer door.
Stafford came up to him again. "You understand, there must be no attempt to communicate here.... You will observe this?"
Fellowes nodded. "Yes, I will.... Good-night," he added, absently.
"Good-day," answered Stafford, mechanically.
The outer door shut, and Stafford turned again to the little room where so much had happened which must change so many lives, bring so many tears, divert so many streams of life.
How still the house seemed now! It had lost all its charm and homelikeness. He felt stifled. Yet there was the warm sun streaming through the doorway of the music-room, making the beaded curtains shine like gold.
As he stood in the doorway of the little morning-room, looking in with bitter reflection and dreading beyond words what now must come--his meeting with Jasmine, the story he must tell her, and the exposure of a truth so naked that his nature revolted from it, he heard a footstep behind him. It was Krool.
Stafford looked at the saturnine face and wondered how much he knew; but there was no glimmer of revelation in Krool's impassive look. The eyes were always painful in their deep animal-like glow, and they seemed more than usually intense this morning; that was all.
"Will you present my compliments to Mrs. Byng, and say--"
Krool, with a gesture, stopped him.
"Mrs. Byng is come now," he said, making a gesture towards the staircase. Then he stole away towards the servants' quarters of the house. His work had been well done, of its kind, and he could now await consequences.
Stafford turned to the staircase and saw--in blue, in the old sentimental blue--Jasmine slowly descending, a strange look of apprehension in her face.
Immediately after calling out for Rudyard a little while before, she had discovered the loss of Adrian Fellowes' letter. Hours before this she had read and re-read Ian's letter, that document of pain and purpose, of tragical, inglorious, fatal purpose. She was suddenly conscious of an air of impending catastrophe about her now. Or was it that the catastrophe had come? She had not asked for Adrian Fellowes' letter, for if any servant had found it, and had not returned it, it was useless asking; and if Rudyard had found it--if Rudyard had found it . . . !
Where was Rudyard? Why had he not come to her, Why had he not eaten the breakfast which still lay untouched on the table of his study? Where was Rudyard?
Ian's eyes looked straight into hers as she came down the staircase, and there was that in them which paralyzed her. But she made an effort to ignore the apprehension which filled her soul.
"Good-morning. Am I so very late?" she said, gaily, to him, though there was a hollow note in her voice.
"You are just in time," he answered in an even tone which told nothing.
"Dear me, what a gloomy face! What has happened? What is it? There seems to be a Cassandra atmosphere about the place--and so early in the day, too."
"It is full noon--and past," he said, with acute meaning, as her daintily shod feet met the floor of the hallway and glided towards him. How often he had admired that pretty flitting of her feet!
As he looked at her he was conscious, with a new force, of the wonder of that hair on a little head as queenly as ever was given to the modern world. And her face, albeit pale, and with a strange tremulousness in it now, was like that of some fairy dame painted by Greuze. All last night's agony was gone from the rare blue eyes, whose lashes drooped so ravishingly betimes, though that droop was not there as she looked at Ian now.
She beat a foot nervously on the floor. "What is it--why this Euripidean air in my simple home? There's something wrong, I see. What is it? Come, what is it, Ian?"
Hesitatingly she laid a hand upon his arm, but there was no loving-kindness in his look. The arms which yesterday--only yesterday--had clasped her passionately and hungrily to his breast now hung inert at his side. His eyes were strange and hard.
"Will you come in here," he said, in an arid voice, and held wide the door of the room where he and Rudyard had settled the first chapter of the future and closed the book of the past.
She entered with hesitating step. Then he shut the door with an accentuated softness, and came to the table where he had sat with Rudyard. Mechanically she took the seat which Rudyard had occupied, and looked at him across the table with a dread conviction stealing over her face, robbing it of every vestige of its heavenly colour, giving her eyes a staring and solicitous look.
"Well, what is it? Can't you speak and have it over?" she asked, with desperate impatience.
"Fellowes' letter to you--Rudyard found it," he said, abruptly.
She fell back as though she had been struck, then recovered herself. "You read it?" she gasped.
"Rudyard made me read it. I came in when he was just about to kill Fellowes."
She gave a short, sharp cry, which with a spasm of determination her fingers stopped.
"Kill him--why?" she asked in a weak voice, looking down at her trembling hands which lay clasped on the table before her.
"The letter--Fellowes' letter to you."
"I dropped it last night," she said, in a voice grown strangely impersonal and colourless. "I dropped it in Rudyard's room, I suppose."
She seemed not to have any idea of excluding the terrible facts, but to be speaking as it were to herself and of something not vital, though her whole person was transformed into an agony which congealed the lifeblood.
Her voice sounded tuneless and ragged. "He read it--Rudyard read a letter which was not addressed to him! He read a letter addressed to me--he read my letter.... It gave me no chance."
A bitter indignation was added to the cheerless discord of her tones. "Yes, I had a chance, a last chance--if he had not read the letter. But now, there is no chance.... You read it, too. You read the letter which was addressed to me. No matter what it was--my letter, you read it."
"Rudyard said to me in his terrible agitation, 'Read that letter, and then tell me what you think of the man who wrote it.' . . . I thought it was the letter I wrote to you, the letter I posted to you last night. I thought it was my letter to you."
Her eyes had a sudden absent look. It was as though she were speaking in a trance. "I answered that letter--your letter. I answered it this morning. Here is the answer . . . here." She laid a letter on the table before him, then drew it back again into her lap. "Now it does not matter. But it gives me no chance...."
There was a world of despair and remorse in her voice. Her face was wan and strained. "No chance, no chance," she whispered.
"Rudyard did not kill him?" she asked, slowly and cheerlessly, after a moment, as though repeating a lesson. "Why?"
"I stopped him. I prevented him."
"You prevented him--why?" Her eyes had a look of unutterable confusion and trouble. "Why did you prevent it--you?"
"That would have hurt you--the scandal, the grimy press, the world."
Her voice was tuneless, and yet it had a strange, piteous poignancy. "It would have hurt me--yes. Why did you not want to hurt me?"
He did not answer. His hands had gone into his pockets, as though to steady their wild nervousness, and one had grasped the little weapon of steel which Rudyard had given him. It produced some strange, malignant effect on his mind. Everything seemed to stop in him, and he was suddenly possessed by a spirit which carried him into that same region where Rudyard had been. It was the region of the abnormal. In it one moves in a dream, majestically unresponsive to all outward things, numb, unconcerned, disregarding all except one's own agony, which seems to neutralize the universe and reduce all life's problems to one formula of solution.
"What did you say to him that stopped him?" she asked in a whisper of awed and dreadful interest, as, after an earthquake, a survivor would speak in the stillness of dead and unburied millions.
"I said the one thing to say," he answered after a moment, involuntarily laying the pistol on the table before him--doing it, as it were, without conscious knowledge.
It fascinated Jasmine, the ugly, deadly little vehicle of oblivion. Her eyes fastened on it, and for an instant stared at it transfixed; then she recovered herself and spoke again.
"What was the one thing to say?" she whispered.
"That you were innocent--absolutely, that--"
Suddenly she burst into wild laughter--shrill, acrid, cheerless, hysterical, her face turned upward, her hands clasped under her chin, her body shaking with what was not laughter, but the terrifying agitation of a broken organism.
He waited till she had recovered somewhat, and then he repeated his words.
"I said that you were innocent absolutely; that Fellowes' letter was the insolence and madness of a voluptuary, that you had only been wilful and indiscreet, and that--"
In a low, mechanical tone from which was absent any agitation, he told her all he had said to Rudyard, and what Rudyard had said to him. Every word had been burned into his brain, and nearly every word was now repeated, while she sat silent, looking at her hands clasped on the table before her. When he came to the point where Rudyard went from the house, leaving Stafford to deal with Fellowes, she burst again into laughter, mocking, wilful, painful.
"You were left to set things right, to be the lord high executioner--you, Ian!"
How strange his name sounded on her lips now--foreign, distant, revealing the nature of the situation more vividly than all the words which had been said, than all that had been done.
"Rudyard did not think of killing you, I suppose," she went on, presently, with a bitter motion of the lips, and a sardonic note creeping into the voice.
"No, I thought of that," he answered, quietly, "as you know." His eyes sought the weapon on the table involuntarily. "That would have been easy enough," he added. "I was not thinking of myself, or of Fellowes, but only of you--and Rudyard."
"Only of me--and Rudyard," she repeated with drooping eyes, which suddenly became alive again with feeling and passion and wildness. "Wasn't it rather late for that?"
The words stung him beyond endurance. He rose and leaned across the table towards her.
"At least I recognized what I had done, what you had done, and I tried to face it. I did not disguise it. My letter to you proves that. But nevertheless I was true to you. I did not deceive you--ever. I loved you--ah, I loved you as few women have been loved! . . . But you, you might have made a mistake where Rudyard was concerned, made the mistake once, but if you wronged him, you wronged me infinitely more. I was ready to give up all, throw all my life, my career, to the winds, and prove myself loyal to that which was more than all; or I was willing to eliminate myself from the scene forever. I was willing to pay the price--any price--just to stand by what was the biggest thing in my life. But you were true to nothing--to nothing--to nobody."
"If one is untrue--once, why be true at all ever?" she said with an aching laugh, through which tears ran, though none dropped from her eyes. "If one is untrue to one, why not to a thousand?"
Again a mocking laugh burst from her. "Don't you see? One kiss, a wrong? Why not, then, a thousand kisses! The wrong came in the moment that the one kiss was given. It is the one that kills, not the thousand after."
There came to her mind again--and now with what sardonic force--Rudyard's words that day before they went to Glencader: "If you had lived a thousand years ago you would have had a thousand lovers."
"And so it is all understood between you and Rudyard," she added, mechanically. "That is what you have arranged for me--that I go on living as before with Rudyard, while I am not to know from him anything has happened; but to accept what has been arranged for me, and to be repentant and good and live in sackcloth. It has been arranged, has it, that Rudyard is to believe in me?"
"That has not been arranged."
"It has been arranged that I am to live with him as before, and that he is to pretend to love me as before, and--"
"He does love you as before. He has never changed. He believed in you, was so pitifully eager to believe in you even when the letter--"
"Where is the letter?"
He pointed to the fire.
"Who put it in the fire?" she asked. "You?"
He inclined his head.
"Ah yes, always so clever! A burst of indignation at his daring to suspect me even for an instant, and with a flourish into the fire, the evidence. Here is yours--your letter. Would you like to put it into the fire also?" she asked, and drew his letter from the folds of her dress.
"But, no, no, no--" She suddenly sprang to her feet, and her eyes had a look of agonized agitation. "When I have learned every word by heart, I will burn it myself--for your sake." Her voice grew softer, something less discordant came into it. "You will never understand. You could never understand me, or that letter of Adrian Fellowes to me, and that he could dare to write me such a letter. You could never understand it. But I understand you. I understand your letter. It came while I was--while I was broken. It healed me, Ian. Last night I wanted to kill myself. Never mind why. You would not understand. You are too good to understand. All night I was in torture, and then this letter of yours--it was a revelation. I did not think that a man lived like you, so true, so kind, so mad. And so I wrote you a letter, ah, a letter from my soul! and then came down to this--the end of all. The end of everything--forever."
"No, the beginning if you will have it so.... Rudyard loves you . . ."
She gave a cry of agony. "For God's sake--oh, for God's sake, hush! . . . You think that now I could . . ."
"Begin again with new purpose."
"Purpose! Oh, you fool! You fool! You fool--you who are so wise sometimes! You want me to begin again with Rudyard: and you do not want me to begin again--with you?"
He was silent, and he looked her in the eyes steadily.
"You do not want me to begin again with you, because you believe me--because you believed the worst from that letter, from Adrian Fellowes' letter.... You believed, yet you hypnotized Rudyard into not believing. But did you, after all? Was it not that he loves me, and that he wanted to be deceived, wanted to be forced to do what he has done? I know him better than you. But you are right, he would have spoken to me about it if you had not warned him."
"Then begin again--"
"You do not want me any more." The voice had an anguish like the cry of the tragic music in "Elektra." "You do not want what you wanted yesterday--for us together to face it all, Ian. You do not want it? You hate me."
His face was disturbed by emotion, and he did not speak for a moment.
In that moment she became transformed. With a sudden tragic motion she caught the pistol from the table and raised it, but he wrenched it from her hand.
"Do you think that would mend anything?" he asked, with a new pity in his heart for her." That would only hurt those who have been hurt enough already. Be a little magnanimous. Do not be selfish. Give others a chance."
"You were going to do it as an act of unselfishness," she moaned. "You were going to die in order to mend it all. Did you think of me in that? Did you think I would or could consent to that? You believed in me, of course, when you wrote it. But did you think that was magnanimous--when you had got a woman's love, then to kill yourself in order to cure her? Oh, how little you know! . . . But you do not want me now. You do not believe in me now. You abhor me. Yet if that letter had not fallen into Rudyard's hands we might perhaps have now been on our way to begin life again together. Does that look as though there was some one else that mattered--that mattered?"
He held himself together with all his power and will. "There is one way, and only one way," he said, firmly. "Rudyard loves you. Begin again with him." His voice became lower. "You know the emptiness of your home. There is a way to make some recompense to him. You can pay your debt. Give him what he wants so much. It would be a link. It would bind you. A child . . ."
"Oh, how you loathe me!" she said, shudderingly. "Yesterday--and now . . . No, no, no," she added, " I will not, cannot live with Rudyard. I cannot wrench myself from one world into another like that. I will not live with him any more.... There--listen."
Outside the newsboys were calling:
"Extra speshul! Extra speshul! All about the war! War declared! Extra speshul!"
"War! That will separate many," she added. "It will separate Rudyard and me.... No, no, there will be no more scandal.... But it is the way of escape--the war."
"The way of escape for us all, perhaps," he answered, with a light of determination in his eyes. "Good-bye," he added, after a slight pause. "There is nothing more to say."
He turned to go, but he did not hold out his hand, nor even look at her.
"Tell me," she said, in a strange, cold tone, "tell me, did Adrian Fellowes--did he protect me? Did he stand up for me? Did he defend me?"
"He was concerned only for himself," Ian answered, hesitatingly.
Her face hardened. Pitiful, haggard lines had come into it in the last half-hour, and they deepened still more.
"He did not say one word to put me right?"
Ian shook his head in negation. "What did you expect?" he said.
She sank into a chair, and a strange cruelty came into her eyes, something so hard that it looked grotesque in the beautiful setting of her pain-worn, exquisite face.
So utter was her dejection that he came back from the door and bent over her.
"Jasmine," he said, gently, "we have to start again, you and I--in different paths. They will never meet. But at the end of the road--peace. Peace the best thing of all. Let us try and find it, Jasmine."
"He did not try to protect me. He did not defend me," she kept saying to herself, and was only half conscious of what Ian said to her.
He touched her shoulder. "Nothing can set things right between you and me, Jasmine," he added, unsteadily, "but there's Rudyard--you must help him through. He heard scandal about Mennaval last night at De Lancy Scovel's. He didn't believe it. It rests with you to give it all the lie.... Good-bye."
In a moment he was gone. As the door closed she sprang to her feet. "Ian--Ian--come back," she cried. "Ian, one word--one word."
But the door did not open again. For a moment she stood like one transfixed, staring at the place whence he had vanished, then, with a moan, she sank in a heap on the floor, and rocked to and fro like one demented.
Once the door opened quietly, and Krool's face showed, sinister and furtive, but she did not see it, and the door closed again softly.
At last the paroxysms passed, and a haggard face looked out into the world of life and being with eyes which were drowned in misery.
"He did not defend me--the coward!" she murmured; then she rose with a sudden effort, swayed, steadied herself, and arranged her hair in the mirror over the mantelpiece. "The low coward!" she said again. "But before he leaves . . . before he leaves England . . . "
As she turned to go from the room, Rudyard's portrait on the wall met her eyes. "I can't go on, Rudyard," she said to it. "I know that now."
Out in the streets, which Ian Stafford travelled with hasty steps, the newsboys were calling:
"War declared! All about the war!"
"That is the way out for me," Stafford said, aloud, as he hastened on. "That opens up the road.... I'm still an artillery officer."
He directed his swift steps toward Pall Mall and the War Office.