The Judgment House by Gilbert Parker
Chapter III. A Daughter of Tyre
Jasmine looked at him again, as she had done the night before at the opera, standing quite confidentially close to him, her hand resting in his big palm like a pad of rose-leaves; while a delicate perfume greeted his senses. Byng beamed down on her, mystified and eager, yet by no means impatient, since the situation was one wholly agreeable to him, and he had been called robber in his time with greater violence and with a different voice. Now he merely shook his head in humorous protest, and gave her an indulgent look of inquiry. Somehow he felt quite at home with her; while yet he was abashed by so much delicacy and beauty and bloom.
"Why, what else are you but a robber?" she added, withdrawing her hand rather quickly from the too frank friendliness of his grasp. "You ran off with my opera-cloak last night, and a very pretty and expensive one it was."
"Expensive isn't the word," he rejoined; "it was unpurchasable."
She preened herself a little at the phrase. "I returned your overcoat this morning--before breakfast; and I didn't even receive a note of thanks for it. I might properly have kept it till my opera cloak came back."
"It's never coming back," he answered; "and as for my overcoat, I didn't know it had been returned. I was out all the morning."
"In the Row?" she asked, with an undertone of meaning.
"Well, not exactly. I was out looking for your cloak."
"Without breakfast?" she urged with a whimsical glance.
"Well, I got breakfast while I was looking."
"And while you were indulging material tastes, the cloak hid itself--or went out and hanged itself?"
He settled himself comfortably in the huge chair which seemed made especially for him. With a rare sense for details she had had this very chair brought from the library beyond, where her stepmother, in full view, was writing letters. He laughed at her words--a deep, round chuckle it was.
"It didn't exactly hang itself; it lay over the back of a Chesterfield where I could see it and breakfast too."
"A Chesterfield in a breakfast-room! That's more like the furniture of a boudoir."
"Well, it was a boudoir." He blushed a little in spite of himself.
"Ah!... Al'mah's? Well, she owed you a breakfast, at least, didn't she?"
"Not so good a breakfast as I got."
"That is putting rather a low price on her life," she rejoined; and a little smile of triumph gathered at her pink lips; lips a little like those Nelson loved not wisely yet not too well, if love is worth while at all.
"T didn't see where you were leading me," he gasped, helplessly. "I give up. I can't talk in your way."
"What is my way?" she pleaded with a little wave of laughter in her eyes.
"Why, no frontal attacks--only flank movements, and getting round the kopjes, with an ambush in a drift here and there."
"That sounds like Paul Kruger or General Joubert," she cried in mock dismay. "Isn't that what they are doing with Dr. Jameson, perhaps?"
His face clouded. Storm gathered slowly in his eyes, a grimness suddenly settled in his strong jaw. "Yes," he answered, presently, "that's what they will be doing; and if I'm not mistaken they'll catch Jameson just as you caught me just now. They'll catch him at Doornkop or thereabouts, if I know myself--and Oom Paul."
Her face flushed prettily with excitement. "I want to hear all about this empire-making, or losing, affair; but there are other things to be settled first. There's my opera-cloak and the breakfast in the prima donna's boudoir, and--"
"But, how did you know it was Al'mah?" he asked blankly.
"Why, where else would my cloak be?" she inquired with a little laugh. "Not at the costumier's or the cleaner's so soon. But, all this horrid flippancy aside, do you really think I should have talked like this, or been so exigent about the cloak, if I hadn't known everything; if I hadn't been to see Al'mah, and spent an hour with her and knew that she was recovering from that dreadful shock very quickly? But could you think me so inhuman and unwomanly as not to have asked about her?"
"I wouldn't be in a position to investigate much when you were talking--not critically," he replied, boldly. "I would only be thinking that everything you said was all right. It wouldn't occur to me to--"
She half closed her eyes, looking at him with languishing humour. "Now you must please remember that I am quite young, and may have my head turned, and--"
"It wouldn't alter my mind about you if you turned your head," he broke in, gallantly, with a desperate attempt to take advantage of an opportunity, and try his hand at a game entirely new to him.
There was an instant's pause, in which she looked at him with what was half-assumed, half-natural shyness. His attempt to play with words was so full of nature, and had behind it such apparent admiration, that the unspoiled part of her was suddenly made self-conscious, however agreeably so. Then she said to him: "I won't say you were brave last night--that doesn't touch the situation. It wasn't bravery, of course; it was splendid presence of mind which could only come to a man with great decision of character. I don't think the newspapers put it at all in the right way. It wasn't like saving a child from the top of a burning building, was it?"
"There was nothing in it at all where I was concerned," he replied. "I've been living a life for fifteen years where you had to move quick--by instinct, as it were. There's no virtue in it. I was just a little quicker than a thousand other men present, and I was nearer to the stage."
"Not nearer than my father or Mr. Stafford."
"They had a bigger shock than I had, I suppose. They got struck numb for a second. I'm a coarser kind. I have seen lots of sickening things; and I suppose they don't stun me. We get callous, I fancy, we veld-rangers and adventurers."
"You seem sensitive enough to fine emotions," she said, almost shyly." You were completely absorbed, carried away, by Al'mah's singing last night. There wasn't a throb of music that escaped you, I should think."
"Well, that's primary instinct. Music is for the most savage natures. The boor that couldn't appreciate the Taj Mahal, or the sculpture of Michael Angelo, might be swept off his feet by the music of a master, though he couldn't understand its story. Besides, I've carried a banjo and a cornet to the ends of the earth with me. I saved my life with the cornet once. A lion got inside my zareba in Rhodesia. I hadn't my gun within reach, but I'd been playing the cornet, and just as he was crouching I blew a blast from it--one of those jarring discords of Wagner in the "Gotterdammerung"--and he turned tail and got away into the bush with a howl. Hearing gets to be the most acute of all the senses with the pioneer. If you've ever been really dying of thirst, and have reached water again, its sounds become wonderful to you ever after that--the trickle of a creek, the wash of a wave on the shore, the drip on a tin roof, the drop over a fall, the swish of a rainstorm. It's the same with birds and trees. And trees all make different sounds--that's the shape of the leaves. It's all music, too."
Her breath came quickly with pleasure at the imagination and observation of his words. "So it wasn't strange that you should be ravished by Al'mah's singing last night was it?" She looked at him keenly. "Isn't it curious that such a marvellous gift should be given to a woman who in other respects--" she paused.
"Yes, I know what you mean. She's so untrained in lots of ways. That's what I was saying to Stafford a little while ago. They live in a world of their own, the stage people. There's always a kind of irresponsibility. The habit of letting themselves go in their art, I suppose, makes them, in real life, throw things down so hard when they don't like them. Living at high pressure is an art like music. It alters the whole equilibrium, I suppose. A woman like Al'mah would commit suicide, or kill a man, without realizing the true significance of it all."
"Were you thinking that when you breakfasted with her?"
"Yes, when she was laughing and jesting--and when she kissed me good-bye."
Jasmine drew back, then half-glanced towards her stepmother in the other room. She was only twenty-two, and though her emancipation had been accomplished in its way somewhat in advance of her generation, it had its origin in a very early period of her life, when she had been allowed to read books of verse--Shelley, Byron, Shakespeare, Verlaine, Rossetti, Swinburne, and many others--unchallenged and unguided. The understanding of things, reserved for "the wise and prudent," had been at first vaguely and then definitely conveyed to her by slow but subtle means--an apprehension from instinct, not from knowledge. There had never been a shock to her mind.
The knowledge of things had grown imperceptibly, and most of life's ugly meanings were known--at a great distance, to be sure, but still known. Yet there came a sudden half-angry feeling when she heard Rudyard Byng say, so loosely, that Al'Mah had kissed him. Was it possible, then, that a man, that any man, thought she might hear such things without resentment; that any man thought her to know so much of life that it did not matter what was said? Did her outward appearance, then, bear such false evidence?
He did not understand quite, yet he saw that she misunderstood, and he handled the situation with a tact which seemed hardly to belong to a man of his training and calibre.
"She thought no more of kissing me," he continued, presently, in a calm voice--"a man she had seen only once before, and was not likely to see again, than would a child of five. It meant nothing more to her than kissing Fanato on the stage. It was pure impulse. She forgot it as soon as it was done. It was her way of showing gratitude. Somewhat unconventional, wasn't it? But then, she is a little Irish, a little Spanish, and the rest Saxon; and she is all artist and bohemian."
Jasmine's face cleared, and her equilibrium was instantly restored. She was glad she had misunderstood. Yet Al'mah had not kissed her when she left, while expressing gratitude, too. There was a difference. She turned the subject, saying: "Of course, she insists on sending me a new cloak, and keeping the other as a memento. It was rather badly singed, wasn't it?"
"It did its work well, and it deserves an honoured home. Do you know that even as I flung the cloak round her, in the excitement of the moment I 'sensed,' as my young nephew says, the perfume you use."
He lifted his hand, conscious that his fingers still carried some of that delicate perfume which her fingers left there as they lay in his palm when she greeted him on his entrance. "It was like an incense from the cloak, as it blanketed the flames. Strange, wasn't it, that the undersense should be conscious of that little thing, while the over-sense was adding a sensational postscript to the opera?"
She smiled in a pleased way. "Do you like the perfume? I really use very little of it."
"It's like no other. It starts a kind of cloud of ideas floating. I don't know how to describe it. I imagine myself--"
She interrupted, laughing merrily. "My brother says it always makes him angry, and Ian Stafford calls it 'The Wild Tincture of Time'--frivolously and sillily says that it comes from a bank whereon the 'wild thyme' grows! But now, I want to ask you many questions. We have been mentally dancing, while down beyond the Limpopo--"
His demeanour instantly changed, and she noted the look cf power and purpose coming into the rather boyish and good-natured, the rash and yet determined, face. It was not quite handsome. The features were not regular, the forehead was perhaps a little too low, and the hair grew very thick, and would have been a vast mane if it had not been kept fairly close by his valet. This valet was Krool, a half-caste-- Hottentot and Boer--whom he had rescued from Lobengula in the Matabele war, and who had in his day been ship-steward, barber, cook, guide, and native recruiter. Krool had attached himself to Byng, and he would not be shaken off even when his master came home to England.
Looking at her visitor with a new sense of observation alive in her, Jasmine saw the inherent native drowsiness of the nature, the love of sleep and good living, the healthy primary desires, the striving, adventurous, yet, in one sense, unambitious soul. The very cleft in the chin, like the alluring dimple of a child's cheek, enlarged and hardened, was suggestive of animal beauty, with its parallel suggestion of indolence. Yet, somehow, too ample as he was both in fact and by suggestion to the imagination there was an apparent underlying force, a capacity to do huge things when once roused. He had been roused in his short day. The life into which he had been thrown with men of vaster ambition and much more selfish ends than his own, had stirred him to prodigies of activity in those strenuous, wonderful, electric days when gold and diamonds changed the hard-bitten, wearied prospector, who had doggedly delved till he had forced open the hand of the Spirit of the Earth and caught the treasure that flowed forth, into a millionaire, into a conqueror, with the world at his feet. He had been of those who, for many a night and many a year, eating food scarce fit for Kaffirs, had, in poverty and grim endeavour, seen the sun rise and fall over the Magaliesberg range, hope alive in the morning and dead at night. He had faced the devilish storms which swept the high veld with lightning and the thunderstone, striking men dead as they fled for shelter to the boulders of some barren, mocking kopje; and he had had the occasional wild nights of carousal, when the miseries and robberies of life and time and the ceaseless weariness and hope deferred, were forgotten.
It was all there in his face--the pioneer endeavour, the reckless effort, the gambler's anxiety, the self-indulgence, the crude passions, with a far-off, vague idealism, the selfish outlook, and yet great breadth of feeling, with narrowness of individual purpose. The rough life, the sordid struggle, had left their mark, and this easy, coaxing, comfortable life of London had not covered it up--not yet. He still belonged to other--and higher--spheres.
There was a great contrast between him and Ian Stafford. Ian was handsome, exquisitely refined, lean and graceful of figure, with a mind which saw the end of your sentences from the first word, with a skill of speech like a Damascus blade, with knowledge of a half-dozen languages. Ian had an allusiveness of conversation which made human intercourse a perpetual entertainment, and Jasmine's intercourse with him a delight which lingered after his going until his coming again. The contrast was prodigious--and perplexing, for Rudyard Byng had qualities which compelled her interest. She sighed as she reflected.
"I suppose you can't get three millions all to yourself with your own hands without missing a good deal and getting a good deal you could do without," she said to herself, as he wonderingly interjected the exclamation:
"Now, what do you know of the Limpopo? I'll venture there isn't another woman in England who even knows the name."
"I always had a thirst for travel, and I've read endless books of travel and adventure," she replied. "I'd have been an explorer, or a Cecil Rhodes, if I had been a man."
"Can you ride?" he asked, looking wonderingly at her tiny hand, her slight figure, her delicate face with its almost impossible pink and white.
"Oh, man of little faith!" she rejoined. "I can't remember when I didn't ride. First a Shetland pony, and now at last I've reached Zambesi--such a wicked dear."
"Zambesi--why Zambesi? One would think you were South African."
She enjoyed his mystification. Then she grew serious and her eyes softened. "I had a friend--a girl, older than I. She married. Well, he's an earl now, the Earl of Tynemouth, but he was the elder son then, and wild for sport. They went on their honeymoon to shoot in Africa, and they visited the falls of the Zambesi. She, my friend, was standing on the edge of the chasm--perhaps you know it--not far from Livingstone's tree, between the streams. It was October, and the river was low. She put up her big parasol. A gust of wind suddenly caught it, and instead of letting the thing fly, she hung on, and was nearly swept into the chasm. A man with them pulled her back in time--but she hung on to that red parasol. Only when it was all over did she realize what had really happened. Well, when she came back to England, as a kind of thank-offering she gave me her father's best hunter. That was like her, too; she could always make other people generous. He is a beautiful Satan, and I rechristened him Zambesi. I wanted the red parasol, too, but Alice Tynemouth wouldn't give it to me."
"So she gave it to the man who pulled her back. Why not?"
"How do you know she did that?"
"Well, it hangs in an honoured place in Stafford's chambers. I conjecture right, do I?"
Her eyes darkened slowly, and a swift-passing shadow covered her faintly smiling lips; but she only said, "You see he was entitled to it, wasn't he?" To herself, however, she whispered, "Neither of them--neither ever told me that."
At that moment the door opened, and a footman came forward to Rudyard Byng. "If you please, sir, your servant says, will you see him. There is news from South Africa."
Byng rose, but Jasmine intervened. "No, tell him to come here," she said to the footman. "Mayn't he?" she asked.
Byng nodded, and remained standing. He seemed suddenly lost to her presence, and with head dropped forward looked into space, engrossed, intense.
Jasmine studied him as an artist would study a picture, and decided that he had elements of the unusual, and was a distinct personality. Though rugged, he was not uncouth, and there was nothing of the nouveau riche about him. He did not wear a ring or scarf-pin, his watch-chain was simple and inconspicuous enough for a school-boy--and he was worth three million pounds, with a palace building in Park Lane and a feudal castle in Wales leased for a period of years. There was nothing greatly striking in his carriage; indeed, he did not make enough of his height and bulk; but his eye was strong and clear, his head was powerful, and his quick smile was very winning. Yet--yet, he was not the type of man who, to her mind should have made three millions at thirty-three. It did not seem to her that he was really representative of the great fortune-builders--she had her grandfather and others closely in mind. She had seen many captains of industry and finance in her grandfather's house, men mostly silent, deliberate and taciturn, and showing in their manner and persons the accumulated habits of patience, force, ceaseless aggression and domination.
Was it only luck which had given Rudyard Byng those three millions? It could not be just that alone. She remembered her grandfather used to say that luck was a powerful ingredient in the successful career of every man, but that the man was on the spot to take the luck, knew when to take it, and how to use it. "The lucky man is the man that sits up watching for the windfall while other men are sleeping"--that was the way he had put it. So Rudyard Byng, if lucky, had also been of those who had grown haggard with watching, working and waiting; but not a hair of his head had whitened, and if he looked older than he was, still he was young enough to marry the youngest debutante in England and the prettiest and best-born. He certainly had inherent breeding. His family had a long pedigree, and every man could not be as distinguished-looking as Ian Stafford--as Ian Stafford, who, however, had not three millions of pounds; who had not yet made his name and might never do so.
She flushed with anger at herself that she should be so disloyal to Ian, for whom she had pictured a brilliant future--ambassador at Paris or Berlin, or, if he chose, Foreign Minister in Whitehall--Ian, gracious, diligent, wonderfully trained, waiting, watching for his luck and ready to take it; and to carry success, when it came, like a prince of princelier days. Ian gratified every sense in her, met every demand of an exacting nature, satisfied her unusually critical instinct, and was, in effect, her affianced husband. Yet it was so hard to wait for luck, for place, for power, for the environment where she could do great things, could fill that radiant place which her cynical and melodramatic but powerful and sympathetic grandfather had prefigured for her. She had been the apple of that old man's eye, and he had filled her brain--purposely--with ambitious ideas. He had done it when she was very young, because he had not long to stay; and he had overcoloured the pictures in order that the impression should be vivid and indelible when he was gone. He had meant to bless, for, to his mind, to shine, to do big things, to achieve notoriety, to attain power, "to make the band play when you come," was the true philosophy of life. And as this philosophy, successful in his case, was accompanied by habits of life which would bear the closest inspection by the dean and chapter, it was a difficult one to meet by argument or admonition. He had taught his grandchild as successfully as he had built the structure of his success. He had made material things the basis of life's philosophy and purpose; and if she was not wholly materialistic, it was because she had drunk deep, for one so young, at the fountains of art, poetry, sculpture and history. For the last she had a passion which was represented by books of biography without number, and all the standard historians were to be found in her bedroom and her boudoir. Yet, too, when she had opportunity--when Lady Tynemouth brought them to her--she read the newest and most daring productions of a school of French novelists and dramatists who saw the world with eyes morally astigmatic and out of focus. Once she had remarked to Alice Tynemouth:
"You say I dress well, yet it isn't I. It's my dressmaker. I choose the over-coloured thing three times out of five--it used to be more than that. Instinctively I want to blaze. It is the same in everything. I need to be kept down, but, alas! I have my own way in everything. I wish I hadn't, for my own good. Yet I can't brook being ruled."
To this Alice had replied: "A really selfish husband--not a difficult thing to find--would soon keep you down sufficiently. Then you'd choose the over-coloured thing not more than two times, perhaps one time, out of five. Your orientalism is only undisciplined self-will. A little cruelty would give you a better sense of proportion in colour--and everything else. You have orientalism, but little or no orientation."
Here, now, standing before the fire, was that possible husband who, no doubt, was selfish, and had capacities for cruelty which would give her greater proportion--and sense of colour. In Byng's palace, with three millions behind her--she herself had only the tenth of one million--she could settle down into an exquisitely ordered, beautiful, perfect life where the world would come as to a court, and--
Suddenly she shuddered, for these thoughts were sordid, humiliating, and degrading. They were unbidden, but still they came. They came from some dark fountain within herself. She really wanted--her idealistic self wanted--to be all that she knew she looked, a flower in life and thought. But, oh, it was hard, hard for her to be what she wished! Why should it be so hard for her?
She was roused by a voice. "Cronje!" it said in a deep, slow, ragged note.
Byng's half-caste valet, Krool, sombre of face, small, lean, ominous, was standing in the doorway.
"Cronje! . . . Well?" rejoined Byng, quietly, yet with a kind of smother in the tone.
Krool stretched out a long, skinny, open hand, and slowly closed the fingers up tight with a gesture suggestive of a trap closing upon a crushed captive.
"Where?" Byng asked, huskily.
"Doornkop," was the reply; and Jasmine, watching closely, fascinated by Krool's taciturnity, revolted by his immobile face, thought she saw in his eyes a glint of malicious and furtive joy. A dark premonition suddenly flashed into her mind that this creature would one day, somehow, do her harm; that he was her foe, her primal foe, without present or past cause for which she was responsible; but still a foe--one of those antipathies foreordained, one of those evil influences which exist somewhere in the universe against every individual life.
"Doornkop--what did I say!" Byng exclaimed to Jasmine. "I knew they'd put the double-and-twist on him at Doornkop, or some such place; and they've done it--Kruger and Joubert. Englishmen aren't slim enough to be conspirators. Dr. Jim was going it blind, trusting to good luck, gambling with the Almighty. It's bury me deep now. It's Paul Kruger licking his chops over the savoury mess. 'Oh, isn't it a pretty dish to set before the king!' What else, Krool?"
"Nothing more in the cables?"
"That will do, Krool. Wait. Go to Mr. Whalen. Say I want him to bring a stenographer and all the Partners--he'll understand--to me at ten to-night."
Krool bowed slowly. As he raised his head his eyes caught those of Jasmine. For an instant they regarded each other steadily, then the man's eyes dropped, and a faint flush passed over his face. The look had its revelation which neither ever forgot. A quiver of fear passed through Jasmine, and was followed by a sense of self-protection and a hardening of her will, as against some possible danger.
As Krool left the room he said to himself: "The Baas speaks her for his vrouw. But the Baas will go back quick to the Vaal--p'r'aps."
Then an evil smile passed over his face, as he thought of the fall of the Rooinek--of Dr. Jim in Oom Paul's clutches. He opened and shut his fingers again with a malignant cruelty.
Standing before the fire, Byng said to Jasmine meditatively, with that old ironic humour which was always part of him: "'Fee, fo, fi, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman.'"
Her face contracted with pain. "They will take Dr. Jim's life?" she asked, solemnly.
"It's hard to tell. It isn't him alone. There's lots of others that we both know."
"Yes, yes, of course. It's terrible, terrible," she whispered.
"It's more terrible than it looks, even now. It's a black day for England. She doesn't know yet how black it is. I see it, though; I see it. It's as plain as an open book. Well, there's work to do, and I must be about it. I'm off to the Colonial Office. No time to lose. It's a job that has no eight-hours shift."
Now the real man was alive. He was transformed. The face was set and quiet. He looked concentrated will and power as he stood with his hands clasped behind him, his shoulders thrown back, his eyes alight with fire and determination. To herself Jasmine seemed to be moving in the centre of great events, having her fingers upon the levers which work behind the scenes of the world's vast schemes, standing by the secret machinery of government.
"How I wish I could help you," she said, softly, coming nearer to him, a warm light in her liquid blue eyes, her exquisite face flushing with excitement, her hands clasped in front of her.
As Byng looked at her, it seemed to him that sweet honesty and high-heartedness had never had so fine a setting; that never had there been in the world such an epitome of talent, beauty and sincerity. He had suddenly capitulated, he who had ridden unscathed so long. If he had dared he would have taken her in his arms there and then; but he had known her only for a day. He had been always told that a woman must be wooed and won, and to woo took time. It was not a task he understood, but suddenly it came to him that he was prepared to do it; that he must be patient and watch and serve, and, as he used to do, perhaps, be elate in the morning and depressed at night, till the day of triumph came and his luck was made manifest.
"But you can help me, yes, you can help me as no one else can," he said almost hoarsely, and his hands moved a little towards her.
"You must show me how," she said, scarce above a whisper, and she drew back slightly, for this look in his eyes told its own story.
"When may I come again?" he asked.
"I want so much to hear everything about South Africa. Won't you come to-morrow at six?" she asked.
"Certainly, to-morrow at six," he answered, eagerly, "and thank you."
His honest look of admiration enveloped her as her hand was again lost in his strong, generous palm, and lay there for a moment thrilling him.... He turned at the door and looked back, and the smile she gave seemed the most delightful thing he had ever seen.
"She is a flower, a jasmine-flower," he said, happily, as he made his way into the street.
When he had gone she fled to her bedroom. Standing before the mirror, she looked at herself long, laughing feverishly. Then suddenly she turned and threw herself upon the bed, bursting into a passion of tears. Sobs shook her.
"Oh, Ian," she said, raisig her head at last, "oh, Ian, Ian, I hate myself!"
Down in the library her stepmother was saying to her father, "You are right, Jasmine will marry the nabob."
"I am sorry for Ian Stafford," was the response.
"Men get over such things," came the quietly cynical reply.
"Jasmine takes a lot of getting over," answered Jasmine's father. "She has got the brains of all the family, the beauty her family never had--the genius of my father, and the wilfulness, and--"
He paused, for, after all, he was not talking to the mother of his child.
"Yes, all of it, dear child," was the enigmatical reply.
"I wish--Nelly, I do wish that--"
"Yes, I know what you wish, Cuthbert, but it's no good. I'm not of any use to her. She will work out her own destiny alone--as her grandfather did."
"God knows I hope not! A man can carry it off, but a woman--"
Slow and almost stupid as he was, he knew that her inheritance from her grandfather's nature was a perilous gift.