The Judgment House by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XXIV. One Who Came Searching
"A lady to see you, sir."
"A lady? What should we be doing with ladies here, Gleg?"
"I'm sure I have no use for them, sir," replied Gleg, sourly. He was in no good humour. That very morning he had been told that his master was going to South Africa, and that he would not be needed there, but that he should remain in England, drawing his usual pay. Instead of receiving this statement with gratitude, Gleg had sniffed in a manner which, in any one else, would have been impertinence; and he had not even offered thanks.
"Well, what do you think she wants? She looks respectable?"
"I don't know about that, sir. It's her ladyship, sir."
"It's what 'ladyship,' Gleg?"
"Her ladyship, sir--Lady Tynemouth."
Stafford looked at Gleg meditatively for a minute, and then said quietly:
"Let me see, you have been with me sixteen years, Gleg. You've forgotten me often enough in that time, but you've never forgotten yourself before. Come to me to-morrow at noon.... I shall allow you a small pension. Show her ladyship in."
Gone waxen in face, Gleg crept out of the room.
"Seven-and-six a week, I suppose," he said to himself as he went down the stairs. "Seven-and-six for a bit of bonhommy."
With great consideration he brought Lady Tynemouth up, and shut the door with that stillness which might be reverence, or something at its antipodes.
Lady Tynemouth smiled cheerily at Ian as she held out her hand.
"Gleg disapproves of me very greatly. He thinks I am no better than I ought to be."
"I am sure you are," answered Stafford, drily.
"Well, if you don't know, Ian, who does? I've put my head in the lion's mouth before, just like this, and the lion hasn't snapped once," she rejoined, settling herself cozily in a great, green leather-chair. "Nobody would believe it; but there it is. The world couldn't think that you could be so careless of your opportunities, or that I would pay for the candle without burning it."
"On the contrary, I think they would believe anything you told them."
She laughed happily. "Wouldn't you like to call me Alice, 'same as ever,' in the days of long ago? It would make me feel at home after Gleg's icy welcome."
He smiled, looked down at her with admiration, and quoted some lines of Swinburne, alive with cynicism:
"And the worst and the best of this is,
Lady Tynemouth made a plaintive gesture. "I should probably be able to endure the bleak present, if there had been any kisses in the sunny past," she rejoined, with mock pathos. "That's the worst of our friendship, Ian. I'm quite sure the world thinks I'm one of your spent flames, and there never was any fire, not so big as the point of a needle, was there? It's that which hurts so now, little Ian Stafford--not so much fire as would burn on the point of a needle."
"'On the point of a needle,'" Ian repeated, half-abstractedly. He went over to his writing-desk, and, opening a blotter, regarded it meditatively for an instant. As he did so she tapped the floor impatiently with her umbrella, and looked at him curiously, but with a little quirk of humour at the corners of her mouth.
"The point of a needle might carry enough fire to burn up a good deal," he said, reflectively. Then he added, slowly: "Do you remember Mr. Mappin and his poisoned needle at Glencader?"
"Yes, of course. That was a day of tragedy, when you and Rudyard Byng won a hundred Royal Humane Society medals, and we all felt like martyrs and heroes. I had the most creepy dreams afterwards. One night it was awful. I was being tortured with Mr. Mappin's needle horribly by--guess whom? By that half-caste Krool, and I waked up with a little scream, to find Tynie busy pinching me. I had been making such a wurra-wurra, as he called it."
"Well, it is a startling idea that there's poison powerful enough to make a needle-point dipped in it deadly."
"I don't believe it a bit, but--"
Pausing, she flicked a speck of fluff from her black dress--she was all in black, with only a stole of pure white about her shoulders. "But tell me," she added, presently--"for it's one of the reasons why I'm here now--what happened at the inquest to-day? The evening papers are not out, and you were there, of course, and gave evidence, I suppose. Was it very trying? I'm sure it was, for I've never seen you look so pale. You are positively haggard, Ian. You don't mind that from an old friend, do you? You look terribly ill, just when you should look so well."
"Why should I look so well?" He gazed at her steadily. Had she any glimmering of the real situation? She was staying now in Byng's house, and two days had gone since the world had gone wrong; since Jasmine had sunk to the floor unconscious as Al'mah sang, "More was lost at Mohacksfield."
"Why should you look so well? Because you are the coming man, they say. It makes me so proud to be your friend--even your neglected, if not quite discarded, friend. Every one says you have done such splendid work for England, and that now you can have anything you want. The ball is at your feet. Dear man, you ought to look like a morning-glory, and not as you do. Tell me, Ian, are you ill, or is it only the reaction after all you've done?"
"No doubt it's the reaction," he replied.
"I know you didn't like Adrian Fellowes much," she remarked, watching him closely. "He behaved shockingly at the Glencader Mine affair--shockingly. Tynie was for pitching him out of the house, and taking the consequences; but, all the same, a sudden death like that all alone must have been dreadful. Please tell me, what was the verdict?"
"Heart failure was the verdict; with regret for a promising life cut short, and sympathy with the relatives."
"I never heard that he had heart trouble," was the meditative response. "But--well, of course, it was heart failure. When the heart stops beating, there's heart failure. What a silly verdict!"
"It sounded rather worse than silly," was Ian's comment.
"Did--did they cut him up, to see if he'd taken morphia, or an overdose of laudanum or veronal or something? I had a friend who died of taking quantities of veronal while you were abroad so long--a South American, she was."
He nodded. "It was all quite in order. There were no signs of poison, they said, but the heart had had a shock of some kind. There had been what they called lesion, and all that kind of thing, and not sufficient strength for recovery."
"I suppose Mr. Mappin wasn't present?" she asked, curiously. "I know it is silly in a way, but don't you remember how interested Mr. Fellowes was in that needle? Was Mr. Mappin there?"
"There was no reason why he should be there."
"What witnesses were called?"
"Myself and the porter of Fellowes' apartments, his banker, his doctor--"
"And Al'mah?" she asked, obliquely.
He did not reply at once, but regarded her inquiringly.
"You needn't be afraid to speak about Al'mah," she continued. "I saw something queer at Glencader. Then I asked Tynie, and he told me that--well, all about her and Adrian Fellowes. Was Al'mah there? Did she give evidence?"
"She was there to be called, if necessary," he responded, "but the coroner was very good about it. After the autopsy the authorities said evidence was unnecessary, and--"
"You arranged that, probably?"
"Yes; it was not difficult. They were so stupid--and so kind."
She smoothed out the folds of her dress reflectively, then got up as if with sudden determination, and came near to him. Her face was pale now, and her eyes were greatly troubled.
"Ian," she said, in a low voice, "I don't believe that Adrian Fellowes died a natural death, and I don't believe that he killed himself. He would not have that kind of courage, even in insanity. He could never go insane. He could never care enough about anything to do so. He--did--not--kill--himself. There, I am sure of it. And he did not die a natural death, either."
"Who killed him?" Ian asked, his face becoming more drawn, but his eyes remaining steady and quiet.
She put her hand to her eyes for a moment. "Oh, it all seems so horrible! I've tried to shake it off, and not to think my thoughts, and I came to you to get fresh confidence; but as soon as I saw your face I knew I couldn't have it. I know you are upset too, perhaps not by the same thoughts, but through the same people."
"Tell me all you think or know. Be quite frank," he said, heavily. "I will tell you why later. It is essential that you should be wholly frank with me."
"As I have always been. I can't be anything else. Anyhow, I owe you so much that you have the right to ask me what you will.... There it is, the fatal thing," she added.
Her eyes were raised to the red umbrella which had nearly carried her over into the cauldron of the Zambesi Falls.
"No, it is the world that owes me a heavy debt," he responded, gallantly. "I was merely selfish in saving you."
Her eyes filled with tears, which she brushed away with a little laugh.
"Ah, how I wish it was that! I am just mean enough to want you to want me, while I didn't want you. That's the woman, and that's all women, and there's no getting away from it. But still I would rather you had saved me than any one else who wasn't bound, like Tynie, to do so."
"Well, it did seem absurd that you should risk so much to keep a sixpenny umbrella," he rejoined, drily.
"How we play on the surface while there's so much that is wearing our hearts out underneath," she responded, wearily. "Listen, Ian, you know what I mean. Whoever killed Adrian Fellowes, or didn't, I am sure that Jasmine saw him dead. Three nights ago when she fainted and went ill to bed, I stayed with her, slept in the same room, in the bed beside hers. The opiate the doctor gave her was not strong enough, and two or three times she half waked, and--and it was very painful. It made my heart ache, for I knew it wasn't all dreams. I am sure she saw Adrian Fellowes lying dead in his room.... Ian, it is awful, but for some reason she hated him, and she saw him lying dead. If any one knows the truth, you know. Jasmine cares for you--no, no, don't mind my saying it. She didn't care a fig for Mennaval, or any of the others, but she does care for you--cares for you. She oughtn't to, but she does, and she should have married you long ago before Rudyard Byng came. Please don't think I am interfering, Ian. I am not. You never had a better friend than I am. But there's something ghastly wrong. Rudyard is looking like a giant that's had blood-letting, and he never goes near Jasmine, except when some one is with her. It's a bad sign when two people must have some third person about to insulate their self-consciousness and prevent those fatal moments when they have to be just their own selves, and have it out."
"You think there's been trouble between them?" His voice was quite steady, his manner composed.
"I don't think quite that. But there is trouble in that palace. Rudyard is going to South Africa."
"Well, that is not unnatural. I should expect him to do so. I am going to South Africa also."
For a moment she looked at him without speaking, and her face slowly paled. "You are going to the Front--you?"
"Yes--'Back to the army again, sergeant, back to the army again.' I was a gunner, you know, and not a bad one, either, if I do say it."
"You are going to throw up a great career to go to the Front? When you have got your foot at the top of the ladder, you climb down?" Her voice was choking a little.
He made a little whimsical gesture. "There's another ladder to climb. I'll have a try at it, and do my duty to my country, too. I'll have a double-barrelled claim on her, if possible."
"I know that you are going because you will not stay when Rudyard goes," she rejoined, almost irritably.
"What a quixotic idea! Really you are too impossible and wrong-headed."
He turned an earnest look upon her. "No, I give you my word, I am not going because Rudyard is going. I didn't know he was going till you told me. I got permission to go three hours after Kruger's message came."
"You are only feckless--only feckless, as the Scotch say," she rejoined with testy sadness. "Well, since everybody is going, I am going too. I am going with a hospital-ship."
"Well, that would pay off a lot of old debts to the Almighty," he replied, in kindly taunt.
"I haven't been worse than most women, Ian," she replied. "Women haven't been taught to do things, to pay off their debts. Men run up bills and pay them off, and run them up again and again and pay them off; but we, while we run up bills, our ways of paying them off are so few, and so uninteresting."
Suddenly she took from her pocket a letter. "Here is a letter for you," she said. "It was lying on Jasmine's table the night she was taken ill. I don't know why I did it, but I suppose I took it up so that Rudyard should not see it; and then I didn't say anything to Jasmine about it at once. She said nothing, either; but to-day I told her I'd seen the letter addressed to you, and had posted it. I said it to see how she would take it. She only nodded, and said nothing at first. Then after a while she whispered, 'Thank you, my dear,' but in such a queer tone. Ian, she meant you to have the letter, and here it is."
She put it into his hands. He remembered it. It was the letter which Jasmine had laid on the table before him at that last interview when the world stood still. After a moment's hesitation he put it in his pocket.
"If she wished me to have it--" he said in a low voice.
"If not, why, then, did she write it? Didn't she say she was glad I posted it?"
A moment followed, in which neither spoke. Lady Tynemouth's eyes were turned to the window; Stafford stood looking into the fire.
"Tynie is sure to go to South Africa with his Yeomanry," she continued at last. "He'll be back in England next week. I can be of use out there, too. I suppose you think I'm useless because I've never had to do anything, but you are quite wrong. It's in me. If I'd been driven to work when I was a girl, if I'd been a labourer's daughter, I'd have made hats--or cream-cheeses. I'm not really such a fool as you've always thought me, Ian; at any rate, not in the way you've thought me."
His look was gentle, as he gazed into her eyes. "I've never thought you anything but a very sensible and alluring woman, who is only wilfully foolish at times," he said. "You do dangerous things."
"But you never knew me to do a really wrong thing, and if you haven't, no one has."
Suddenly her face clouded and her lips trembled. "But I am a good friend, and I love my friends. So it all hurts. Ian, I'm most upset. There's something behind Adrian Fellowes' death that I don't understand. I'm sure he didn't kill himself; but I'm also sure that some one did kill him." Her eyes sought his with an effort and with apprehension, but with persistency too. "I don't care what the jury said--I know I'm right."
"But it doesn't matter now," he answered, calmly. "He will be buried to-morrow, and there's an end of it all. It will not even be the usual nine days' wonder. I'd forget it, if I were you."
"I can't easily forget it while you remember it," she rejoined, meaningly. "I don't know why or how it affects you, but it does affect you, and that's why I feel it; that's why it haunts me."
Gleg appeared. "A gentleman to see you, sir," he said, and handed Ian a card.
"Where is he?"
"In the dining-room, sir."
"Very good. I will see him in a moment."
When they were alone again, Lady Tynemouth held out her hand. "When do you start for South Africa?" she asked.
"In three days. I join my battery in Natal."
"You will hear from me when I get to Durban," she said, with a shy, inquiring glance.
"You are really going?"
"I mean to organize a hospital-ship and go."
"Where will you get the money?"
"From some social climber," she replied, cynically. His hand was on the door-knob, and she laid her own on it gently. "You are ill, Ian," she said. "I have never seen you look as you do now."
"I shall be better before long," he answered. "I never saw you look so well."
"That's because I am going to do some work at last," she rejoined. "Work at last. I'll blunder a bit, but I'll try a great deal, and perhaps I'll do some good.... And I'll be there to nurse you if you get fever or anything," she added, laughing nervously--"you and Tynie."
When she was gone he stood looking at the card in his hand, with his mind seeing something far beyond. Presently he rang for Gleg.
"Show Mr. Mappin in," he said.