The Judgment House by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XXXI. The Grey Horse and Its Rider
It was almost midnight. The camp was sleeping. The forces of destruction lay torpid in the starry shadow of the night. There was no moon, but the stars gave a light that relieved the gloom. They were so near to the eye that it might seem a lancer could pick them from their nests of blue. The Southern Cross hung like a sign of hope to guide men to a new Messiah.
In vain Jasmine had tried to sleep. The day had been too much for her. All that happened in the past four years went rushing past, and she saw herself in scenes which were so tormenting in their reality that once she cried out as in a nightmare. As she did so, she was answered by a choking cry of pain like her own, and, waking, she started up from her couch with poignant apprehension; but presently she realized that it was the cry of some wounded patient in the ward not far from the room where she lay.
It roused her, however, from the half wakefulness which had been excoriated by burning memories, and, hurriedly rising, she opened wide the window and looked out into the night. The air was sharp, but it soothed her hot face and brow, and the wild pulses in her wrists presently beat less vehemently. She put a firm hand on herself, as she was wont to do in these days, when there was no time for brooding on her own troubles, and when, with the duties she had taken upon herself, it would be criminal to indulge in self-pity.
Looking out of the window now into the quiet night, the watch-fires dotting the plain had a fascination for her greater than the wonder of the southern sky and its plaque of indigo sprinkled with silver dust and diamonds. Those fires were the bulletins of the night, telling that around each of them men were sleeping, or thinking of other scenes, or wondering whether the fight to-morrow would be their last fight, and if so, what then? They were to the army like the candle in the home of the cottager. Those little groups of men sleeping around their fires were like a family, where men grow to serve each other as brother serves brother, knowing each other's foibles, but preserving each other's honour for the family's pride, risking life to save each other.
As Jasmine gazed into the gloom, spattered with a delicate radiance which did not pierce the shadows, but only made lively the darkness, she was suddenly conscious of the dull regular thud of horses' hoofs upon the veld. Troops of Mounted Infantry were evidently moving to take up a new position at the bidding of the Master Player. The sound was like the rub-a-dub of muffled hammers. The thought forced itself on her mind that here were men secretly hastening to take part in the grim lottery of life and death, from which some, and maybe many, would draw the black ticket of doom, and so pass from the game before the game was won.
The rumbling roll of hoofs grew distinct. Now they seemed to be almost upon her, and presently they emerged into view from the right, where their progress had been hidden by the hospital-building. When they reached the hospital there came a soft command and, as the troop passed, every face was turned towards the building. It was men full of life and the interest of the great game paying passing homage to their helpless comrades in this place of healing.
As they rode past, a few of the troopers had a glimpse of the figure dimly outlined at the window. Some made kindly jests, cheffing each other--"Your fancy, old sly-boots? Arranged it all, eh? Watch me, Lizzie, as I pass, and wave your lily-white hand!"
But others pressed their lips tightly, for visions of a woman somewhere waiting and watching flashed before their eyes; while others still had only the quiet consciousness of the natural man, that a woman looks at them; and where women are few and most of them are angels,--the battle-field has no shelter for any other--such looks have deep significance.
The troop went by steadily, softly and slowly. After they had all gone past, two horsemen detached from the troop came after. Presently one of them separated from his companion and rode on. The other came towards the hospital at a quick trot, drew bridle very near Jasmine's window, slid to the ground, said a soft word to his charger, patted its neck, and, turning, made for the door of the hospital. For a moment Jasmine stood looking out, greatly moved, she scarcely knew why, by this little incident of the night, and then suddenly the starlight seemed to draw round the patient animal standing at attention, as it were.
Then she saw it was a grey horse.
Its owner, as Corporal Shorter predicted, had come to see "Old Gunter," ere he went upon another expedition of duty. Its owner was Rudyard Byng.
That was why so strange a coldness, as of apprehension or anxiety, had passed through Jasmine when the rider had come towards her out of the night. Her husband was here. If she called, he would come. If she stretched out her hand, she could touch him. If she opened a door, she would be in his presence. If he opened the door behind her, he could--
She stepped back hastily into the room, and drew her night-robe closely about her with sudden flushing of the face. If he should enter her room--she felt in the darkness for her dressing-gown. It was not on the chair beside her bed. She moved hastily, and blundered against a table. She felt for the foot of the bed. The dressing-gown was not there. Her brain was on fire. Where was her dressing-gown? She tried to button the night-dress over her palpitating breast, but abandoned it to throw back her head and gather her golden hair away from her shoulders and breast. All this in the dark, in the safe dusk of her own room.... Where was her dressing-gown? Where was her maid? Why should she be at such a disadvantage! She reached for the table again and found a match-box. She would strike a light, and find her dressing-gown. Then she abruptly remembered that she had no dressing-gown with her; that she had travelled with one single bag--little more than a hand-bag--and it contained only the emergency equipment of a nurse. She had brought no dressing-gown; only the light outer rain-proof coat which should serve a double purpose. She had forgotten for a moment that she was not in her own house, that she was an army-woman, living a soldier's life. She felt her way to the wall, found the rain-proof coat, and, with trembling fingers, put it on. As she did so a wave of weakness passed over her, and she swayed as though she would fall; but she put a hand on herself and fought her growing agitation.
She turned towards the bed, but stopped abruptly, because she heard footsteps in the hall outside--footsteps she knew, footsteps which for years had travelled towards her, day and night, with eagerness; the quick, urgent footsteps of a man of decision, of impulse, of determination. It was Rudyard's footsteps outside her door, Rudyard's voice speaking to some one; then Rudyard's footsteps pausing; and afterwards a dead silence. She felt his presence; she imagined his hand upon her door. With a little smothered gasp, she made a move forward as though to lock the door; then she remembered that it had no lock. With strained and startled eyes, she kept her gaze turned on the door, expecting to see it open before her. Her heart beat so hard she could hear it pounding against her breast, and her temples were throbbing.
The silence was horrible to her. Her agitation culminated. She could bear it no longer. Blindly she ran to another door which led into the sitting-room of the matron, used for many purposes--the hold-all of the odds and ends of the hospital life; where surgeons consulted, officers waited, and army authorities congregated for the business of the hospital. She found the door, opened it and entered hastily. One light was burning--a lamp with a green shade. She shut the door behind her quickly and leaned against it, closing her eyes with a sense of relief. Presently some movement in the room startled her. She opened her eyes. A figure stood between the green lamp and the farther door.
It was her husband.
Her senses had deceived her. His footsteps had not stopped before her bedroom-door. She had not heard the handle of the door of her bedroom turn, but the handle of the door of this room. The silence which had frightened her had followed his entrance here.
She hastily drew the coat about her. The white linen of her night-dress showed. She thrust it back, and instinctively drew behind the table, as though to hide her bare ankles.
He had started back at seeing her, but had instantly recovered himself. "Well, Jasmine," he said quietly, "we've met in a queer place."
All at once her hot agitation left her, and she became cold and still. She was in a maelstrom of feeling a minute before, though she could not have said what the feeling meant; now she was dominated by a haunting sense of injury, roused by resentment, not against him, but against everything and everybody, himself included. All the work of the last few months seemed suddenly undone--to go for nothing. Just as a drunkard in his pledge made reformation, which has done its work for a period, feels a sudden maddening desire to indulge his passion for drink, and plunges into a debauch,--the last maddening degradation before his final triumph,--so Jasmine felt now the restrictions and self-control of the past few months fall away from her. She emerged from it all the same woman who had flung her married life, her man, and her old world to the winds on the day that Krool had been driven into the street. Like Krool, she too had gone out into the unknown--into a strange land where "the Baas" had no habitation.
Rudyard's words seemed to madden her, and there was a look of scrutiny and inquiry in his eyes which she saw--and saw nothing else there. There was the inquisition in his look which had been there in their last interview when he had said as plainly as man could say, "What did it mean--that letter from Adrian Fellowes?"
It was all there in his eyes now--that hateful inquiry, the piercing scrutiny of a judge in the Judgment House, and there came also into her eyes, as though in consequence, a look of scrutiny too.
"Did you kill Adrian Fellowes? Was it you?" her disordered mind asked.
She had mistaken the look in his eyes. It was the same look as the look in hers, and in spite of all the months that had gone, both asked the same question as in the hour when they last parted. The dead man stood between them, as he had never stood in life--of infinitely more importance than he had ever been in life. He had never come between Rudyard and herself in the old life in any vital sense, not in any sense that finally mattered. He had only been an incident; not part of real life, but part of a general wastage of character; not a disintegrating factor in itself. Ah, no, not Adrian Fellowes, not him! It enraged her that Rudyard should think the dead man had had any sway over her. It was a needless degradation, against which she revolted now.
"Why have you come here--to this room?" she asked coldly.
As a boy flushes when he has been asked a disconcerting question which angers him or challenges his innocence, so Rudyard's face suffused; but the flush faded as quickly as it came. His eyes then looked at her steadily, the whites of them so white because of his bronzed face and forehead, the glance firmer by far than in his old days in London. There was none of that unmanageable emotion in his features, the panic excitement, the savage disorder which were there on the day when Adrian Fellowes' letter brought the crisis to their lives; none of the barbaric storm which drove Krool down the staircase under the sjambok. Here was force and iron strength, though the man seemed older, his thick hair streaked with grey, while there was a deep fissure between the eyebrows. The months had hardened him physically, had freed him from all superfluous flesh; and the flabbiness had wholly gone from his cheeks and chin. There was no sign of a luxurious life about him. He was merely the business-like soldier with work to do. His khaki fitted him as only uniform can fit a man with a physique without defect. He carried in his hand a short whip of rhinoceros-hide, and as he placed his hands upon his hips and looked at Jasmine meditatively, before he answered her question, she recalled the scene with Krool. Her eyes were fascinated by the whip in his hand. It seemed to her, all at once, as though she was to be the victim of his wrath, and that the whip would presently fall upon her shoulders, as he drove her out into the veld. But his eyes drew hers to his own presently, and even while he spoke to her now, the illusion of the sjambok remained, and she imagined his voice to be intermingling with the dull thud of the whip on her shoulders.
"I came to see one of my troop who was wounded at Wortmann's Drift," he answered her.
"Old Gunter," she said mechanically.
"Old Gunter, if you like," he returned, surprised. "How did you know?"
"The world gossips still," she rejoined bitterly.
"Well, I came to see Gunter."
"On the grey mare," she said again like one in a dream.
"On the grey mare. I did not know that you were here, and--"
"If you had known I was here, you would not have come?" she asked with a querulous ring to her voice.
"No, I should not have come if I had known, unless people in the camp were aware that I knew. Then I should have felt it necessary to come."
"Why?" She knew; but she wanted him to say.
"That the army should not talk and wonder. If you were here, it is obvious that I should visit you."
"The army might as well wonder first as last," she rejoined. "That must come."
"I don't know anything that must come in this world," he replied. "We don't control ourselves, and must lies in the inner Mystery where we cannot enter. I had only to deal with the present. I could not come to the General and go again, knowing that you were here, without seeing you. We ought to do our work here without unnecessary cross-firing from our friends. There's enough of that from our foes."
"What right had you to enter my room?" she rejoined stubbornly.
"I am not in your room. Something--call it anything you like--made us meet on this neutral ground."
"You might have waited till morning," she replied perversely.
"In the morning I shall be far from here. Before daybreak I shall be fighting. War waits for no one--not even for you," he added, with more sarcasm than he intended.
Her feelings were becoming chaos again. He was going into battle. Bygone memories wakened, and the first days of their lives together came rushing upon her; but her old wild spirit was up in arms too against the irony of his last words, "Not even for you." Added to this was the rushing remembrance that South Africa had been the medium of all her trouble. If Rudyard had not gone to South Africa, that one five months a year and more ago, when she was left alone, restless, craving for amusement and excitement and--she was going to say romance, but there was no romance in those sordid hours of pleasure-making, when she plucked the fruit as it lay to her hand--ah, if only Rudyard had not gone to South Africa then! That five months held no romance. She had never known but one romance, and it was over and done. The floods had washed it away.
"You are right. War does not wait even for me," she exclaimed. "It came to meet me, to destroy me, when I was not armed. It came in the night as you have come, and found me helpless as I am now."
Suddenly she clasped her hands and wrung them, then threw them above her head in a gesture of despair. "Why didn't God or Destiny, or whatever it is, stop you from coming here! There is nothing between us worth keeping, and there can never be. There is a black sea between us. I never want to see you any more."
In her agitation the coat had fallen away from her white night- dress, and her breast showed behind the parted folds of the linen. Involuntarily his eyes saw. What memories passed through him were too vague to record; but a heavy sigh escaped him, followed, however, by a cloud which gathered on his brow. The shadow of a man's death thrust itself between them. This war might have never been, had it not been for the treachery of the man who had been false to everything and every being that had come his way. Indirectly this vast struggle in which thousands of lives were being lost had come through his wife's disloyalty, however unintentional, or in whatever degree. Whenever he thought of it, his pulses beat faster with indignation, and a deep resentment possessed him.
It was a resentment whose origin was not a mere personal wrong to him, but the betrayal of all that invaded his honour and the honour of his country. The map was dead--so much. He had paid a price--too small.
And Jasmine, as she looked at her husband now, was, oppressed by the same shadow--the inescapable thing. That was what she meant when she said, "There is a black sea between us."
What came to her mind when she saw his glance fall on her breast, she could not have told. But a sudden flame of anger consumed her. The passion of the body was dead in her--atrophied. She was as one through whose veins had passed an icy fluid which stilled all the senses of desire, but never had her mind been so passionate, so alive. In the months lately gone, there had been times when her mind was in a paroxysm of rebellion and resentment and remorse; but in this red corner of the universe, from which the usual world was shut out, from which all domestic existence, all social organization, habit or the amenities of social intercourse were excluded, she had been able to restore her equilibrium. Yet now here, all at once, there was an invasion of this world of rigid, narrow organization, where there was no play; where all men's acts were part of a deadly mortal issue; where the human being was only part of a scheme which allowed nothing of the flexible adaptations of the life of peace, the life of cities, of houses: here was the sudden interposition of a purely personal life, of domestic being--of sex. She was conscious of no reasoning, of no mental protest which could be put into words: she was only conscious of emotions which now shook her with their power, now left her starkly cold, her brain muffled, or again aflame with a suffering as intense as that of Procrustes on his bed of iron.
This it was that seized her now. The glance of his eyes at her bared breast roused her. She knew not why, except that there was an indefinable craving for a self respect which had been violated by herself and others; except that she longed for the thing which she felt he would not give her. The look in his eye offered her nothing of that.
That she mistook what really was in his eyes was not material, though he was thinking of days when he believed he had discovered the secret of life--a woman whose life was beautiful; diffusing beauty, contentment, inspiration and peace. She did not know that his look was the wistful look backward, with no look forward; and that alone. She was living a life where new faculties of her nature were being exercised or brought into active being; she was absorbed by it all; it was part of her scheme for restoring herself, for getting surcease of anguish; but here, all at once, every entrenchment was overrun, the rigidity of the unit was made chaos, and she was tossed by the Spirit of Confusion upon a stormy sea of feeling.
"Will you not go?" she asked in a voice of suppressed passion. "Have you no consideration? It is past midnight."
His anger flamed, but he forced back the words upon his lips, and said with a bitter smile: "Day and night are the same to me always now. What else should be in war? I am going." He looked at the watch at his wrist. "It is half-past one o'clock. At five our work begins--not an eight-hour day. We have twenty-four-hour days here sometimes. This one may be shorter. You never can tell. It may be a one-hour day--or less."
Suddenly he came towards her with hands outstretched. "Dear wife--Jasmine--" he exclaimed.
Pity, memory, a great magnanimity carried him off his feet for a moment, and all that had happened seemed as nothing beside this fact that they might never see each other again; and peace appeared to him the one thing needful after all. The hatred and conflict of the world seemed of small significance beside the hovering presence of an enemy stronger than Time.
She was still in a passion of rebellion against the inevitable--that old impatience and unrealized vanity which had helped to destroy her past. She shrank back in blind misunderstanding from him, for she scarcely heard his words. She mistook what he meant. She was bewildered, distraught.
"No, no--coward!" she cried.
He stopped short as though he had been shot. His face turned white. Then, with an oath, he went swiftly to the window which opened to the floor and passed through it into the night.
An instant later he was on his horse.
A moment of dumb confusion succeeded, then she realized her madness, and the thing as it really was. Running to the window, she leaned out.
She called, but only the grey mare's galloping came back to her awe-struck ears.
With a cry like that of an animal in pain, she sank on her knees on the floor, her face turned towards the stars.
"Oh, my God, help me!" she moaned.
At least here was no longer the cry of doom.