The Judgment House by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XXXII. The World's Foundling
At last day came. Jasmine was crossing the hallway of the hospital on her way to the dining-room when there came from the doorway of a ward a figure in a nurse's dress. It startled her by some familiar motion. Presently the face turned in her direction, but without seeing her. Jasmine recognized her then. She went forward quickly and touched the nurse's arm.
"Al'mah--it is Al'mah?" she said.
Al'mah's face turned paler, and she swayed slightly, then she recovered herself. "Oh, it is you, Mrs. Byng!" she said, almost dazedly.
After an instant's hesitation she held out a hand. "It's a queer place for it to happen," she added.
Jasmine noticed the hesitation and wondered at the words. She searched the other's face. What did Al'mah's look mean? It seemed composite of paralyzing surprise, of anxiety, of apprehension. Was there not also a look of aversion?
"Everything seems to come all at once," Al'mah continued, as though in explanation.
Jasmine had no inkling as to what the meaning of the words was; and, with something of her old desire to conquer those who were alien to her, she smiled winningly.
"Yes, things concentrate in life," she rejoined.
"I've noticed that," was the reply. "Fate seems to scatter, and then to gather in all at once, as though we were all feather-toys on strings."
After a moment, as Al'mah regarded her with vague wonder, though now she smiled too, and the anxiety, apprehension, and pain went from her face, Jasmine said: "Why did you come here? You had a world to work for in England."
"I had a world to forget in England," Al'mah replied. Then she added suddenly, "I could not sing any longer."
"Your voice--what happened to it?" Jasmine asked.
"One doesn't sing with one's voice only. The music is far behind the voice."
They had been standing in the middle of the hallway. Suddenly Al'mah caught at Jasmine's sleeve. "Will you come with me?" she said.
She led the way into a room which was almost gay with veld everlastings, pictures from illustrated papers, small flags of the navy and the colonies, the Boer Vierkleur and the Union Jack.
"I like to have things cheerful here," Al'mah said almost gaily. "Sometimes I have four or five convalescents in here, and they like a little gaiety. I sing them things from comic operas--Offenbach, Sullivan, and the rest; and if they are very sentimentally inclined I sing them good old-fashioned love-songs full of the musician's tricks. How people adore illusions! I've had here an old Natal sergeant, over sixty, and he was as cracked as could be about songs belonging to the time when we don't know that it's all illusion, and that there's no such thing as Love, nor ever was; but only a kind of mirage of the mind, a sort of phantasy that seizes us, in which we do crazy things, and sometimes, if the phantasy is strong enough, we do awful things. But still the illusions remain in spite of everything, as they did with the old sergeant. I've heard the most painful stories here from men before they died, of women that were false, and injuries done, many, many years ago; and they couldn't see that it wasn't real at all, but just phantasy."
"All the world's mad," responded Jasmine wearily, as Al'mah paused.
Al'mah nodded. "So I laugh a good deal, and try to be cheerful, and it does more good than being too sympathetic. Sympathy gets to be mere snivelling very often. I've smiled and laughed a great deal out here; and they say it's useful. The surgeons say it, and the men say it too sometimes."
"Are you known as Nurse Grattan?" Jasmine asked with sudden remembrance.
"Yes, Grattan was my mother's name. I am Nurse Grattan here."
"So many have whispered good things of you. A Scottish Rifleman said to me a week ago, 'Ech, she's aye see cheery!' What a wonderful thing it is to make a whole army laugh. Coming up here three officers spoke of you, and told of humorous things you had said. It's all quite honest, too. It's a reputation made out of new cloth. No one knows who you are?"
Al'mah flushed. "I don't know quite who I am myself. I think sometimes I'm the world's foundling."
Suddenly a cloud passed over her face again, and her strong whimsical features became drawn.
"I seem almost to lose my identity at times; and then it is I try most to laugh and be cheerful. If I didn't perhaps I should lose my identity altogether. Do you ever feel that?"
"No; I often wish I could."
Al'mah regarded her steadfastly. "Why did you come here?" she asked. "You had the world at your feet; and there was plenty to do in London. Was it for the same reason that brought me here? Was it something you wanted to forget there, some one you wanted to help here?"
Jasmine saw the hovering passion in the eyes fixed on her, and wondered what this woman had to say which could be of any import to herself; yet she felt there was something drawing nearer which would make her shrink.
"No," Jasmine answered, "I did not come to forget, but to try and remember that one belongs to the world, to the work of the world, to the whole people, and not to one of the people; not to one man, or to one family, or to one's self. That's all."
Al'mah's face was now very haggard, but her eyes were burning. "I do not believe you," she said straightly. "You are one of those that have had a phantasy. I had one first fifteen years ago, and it passed, yet it pursued me till yesterday--till yesterday evening. Now it's gone; that phantasy is gone forever. Come and see what it was."
She pointed to the door of another room.
There was something strangely compelling in her tone, in her movements. Jasmine followed her, fascinated by the situation, by the look in the woman's face. The door opened upon darkness, but Jasmine stepped inside, with Almah's fingers clutching her sleeve. For a moment nothing was visible; then, Jasmine saw, dimly, a coffin on two chairs.
"That was the first man I ever loved--my husband," Al'mah said quietly, pointing at the coffin. "There was another, but you took him from me--you and others."
Jasmine gave a little cry which she smothered with her hand; and she drew back involuntarily towards the light of the hallway. The smell of disinfectants almost suffocated her. A cloud of mystery and indefinable horror seemed to envelop her; then a light flooded through her brain. It was like a stream of fire. But with a voice strangely calm, she said, "You mean Adrian Fellowes?"
Al'mah's face was in the shadow, but her voice was full of storm. "You took him from me, but you were only one," she said sharply and painfully. "I found it out at last. I suspected first at Glencader. Then at last I knew. It was an angry, contemptuous letter from you. I had opened it. I understood. When everything was clear, when there was no doubt, when I knew he had tried to hurt little Jigger's sister, when he had made up his mind to go abroad, then, I killed him. Then--I killed him."
Jasmine's cheek was white as Al'mah's apron; but she did not shrink. She came a step nearer, and peered into Al'mah's face, as though to read her inmost mind, as though to see if what she said was really true. She saw not a quiver of agitation, not the faintest horror of memory; only the reflective look of accomplished purpose.
"You--are you insane?" Jasmine exclaimed in a whisper. "Do you know what you have said?"
Al'mah smoothed her apron softly. "Perfectly. I do not think I am insane. I seem not to be. One cannot do insane things here. This is the place of the iron rule. Here we cure madness--the madness of war and other madnesses."
"You had loved him, yet you killed him!"
"You would have killed him though you did not love him. Yes, of course--I know that. Your love was better placed; but it was like a little bird caught by the hawk in the upper air--its flight was only a little one before the hawk found it. Yes, you would have killed Adrian, as I did if you had had the courage. You wanted to do it, but I did it. Do you remember when I sang for you on the evening of that day he died? I sang, 'More Was Lost at Mohacksfield.' As soon as I saw your face that evening I felt you knew all. You had been to his rooms and found him dead. I was sure of that. You remember how La Tosca killed Scarpia? You remember how she felt? I felt so--just like that. I never hesitated. I knew what I wanted to do, and I did it."
"How did you kill him?" Jasmine asked in that matter-of-fact way which comes at those times when the senses are numbed by tragedy.
"You remember the needle--Mr. Mappin's needle? I knew Adrian had it. He showed it to me. He could not keep the secret. He was too weak. The needle was in his pocket-book--to kill me with some day perhaps. He certainly had not the courage to kill himself.... I went to see him. He was dressing. The pocket-book lay on the table. As I said, he had showed it to me. While he was busy I abstracted the needle. He talked of his journey abroad. He lied--nothing but lies, about himself, about everything. When he had said enough,--lying was easier to him than anything else--I told him the truth. Then he went wild. He caught hold of me as if to strangle me.... He did not realize the needlepoint when it caught him. If he did, it must have seemed to him only the prick of a pin.... But in a few minutes it was all over. He died quite peacefully. But it was not very easy getting him on the sofa. He looked sleeping as he lay there. You saw. He would never lie any more to women, to you or to me or any other. It is a good thing to stop a plague, and the simplest way is the best. He was handsome, and his music was very deceiving. It was almost good of its kind, and it was part of him. When I look back I find only misery. Two wicked men hurt me. They spoiled my life, first one and then another; and I went from bad to worse. At least he"--she pointed to the other room--"he had some courage at the very last. He fought, he braved death. The other--you remember the Glencader Mine. Your husband and Ian Stafford went down, and Lord Tynemouth was ready to go, but Adrian would not go. Then it was I began to hate him. That was the beginning. What happened had to be. I was to kill him; and I did. It avenged me, and it avenged your husband. I was glad of that, for Rudyard Byng had done so much for me: not alone that he saved me at the opera, you remember, but other good things. I did his work for him with Adrian."
"Have you no fear--of me?" Jasmine asked.
"Fear of--you? Why?"
"I might hate you--I might tell."
Al'mah made a swift gesture of protest. "Do not say foolish things. You would rather die than tell. You should be grateful to me. Some one had to kill him. There was Rudyard Byng, Ian Stafford, or yourself. It fell to me. I did your work. You will not tell; but it would not matter if you did. Nothing would happen--nothing at all. Think it out, and you will see why."
Jasmine shuddered violently. Her body was as cold as ice.
"Yes, I know. What are you going to do after the war?"
"Back to Covent Garden perhaps; or perhaps there will be no 'after the war.' It may all end here. Who knows--who cares!"
Jasmine came close to her. For an instant a flood of revulsion had overpowered her; but now it was all gone.
"We pay for all the wrong we do. We pay for all the good we get"--once Ian Stafford had said that, and it rang in her ears now. Al'mah would pay, and would pay here--here in this world. Meanwhile, Al'mah was a woman who, like herself, had suffered.
"Let me be your friend; let me help you," Jasmine said, and she took both of Almah's hands in her own.
Somehow Jasmine's own heart had grown larger, fuller, and kinder all at once. Until lately she had never ached to help the world or any human being in all her life; there had never been any of the divine pity which finds its employ in sacrifice. She had been kind, she had been generous, she had in the past few months given service unstinted; but it was more as her own cure for her own ills than yearning compassion for all those who were distressed "in mind, body, or estate."
But since last evening, in the glimmer of the stars, when Rudyard went from her with bitter anger on his lips, and a contempt which threw her far behind him,--since that hour, when, in her helplessness, she had sunk to the ground with an appeal to Something outside herself, her heart had greatly softened. Once before she had appealed to the Invisible--that night before her catastrophe, when she wound her wonderful hair round her throat and drew it tighter and tighter, and had cried out to the beloved mother she had never known. But her inborn, her cultivated, her almost invincible egoism, had not even then been scattered by the bitter helplessness of her life.
That cry last night was a cry to the Something behind all. Only in the last few hours--why, she knew not--her heart had found a new sense. She felt her soul's eyes looking beyond herself. The Something that made her raise her eyes to the stars, which seemed a pervading power, a brooding tenderness and solicitude, had drawn her mind away into the mind of humanity. Her own misery now at last enabled her to see, however dimly, the woes of others; and it did not matter whether the woes were penalties or undeserved chastisement; the new-born pity of her soul made no choice and sought no difference.
As the singing-woman's hands lay in hers, a flush slowly spread over Al'mah's face, and behind the direct power of her eyes there came a light which made them aglow with understanding.
"I always thought you selfish--almost meanly selfish," Al'mah said presently. "I thought you didn't know any real life, any real suffering--only the surface, only disappointment at not having your own happiness; but now I see that was all a mask. You understand why I did what I did?"
"I suppose there would be thousands who would gladly see me in prison and on the scaffold--if they knew--"
Pain travelled across Jasmine's face. She looked Al'mah in the eyes with a look of reproof and command. "Never, never again speak of that to me or to any living soul," she said. "I will try to forget it; you must put it behind you." . . . Suddenly she pointed to the other room where Al'mah's husband lay dead. "When is he to be buried?" she asked.
"In an hour." A change came over Al'mah's face again, and she stood looking dazedly at the door of the room, behind which the dead man lay. "I cannot realize it. It does not seem real," she said. "It was all so many centuries ago, when I was young and glad."
Jasmine admonished her gently and drew her away.
A few moments later an officer approached them from one of the wards. At that moment the footsteps of the three were arrested by the booming of artillery. It seemed as though all the guns of both armies were at work.
The officer's eyes blazed, and he turned to the two women with an impassioned gesture.
"Byng and the S.A.'s have done their trick," he said. "If they hadn't, that wouldn't be going on. It was to follow--a general assault--if Byng pulled it off. Old Blunderbuss has done it this time. His combination's working all right--thanks to Byng's lot."
As he hurried on he was too excited to see Jasmine's agitation.
"Wait!" Jasmine exclaimed, as he went quickly down the hallway. But her voice was scarcely above a whisper, and he did not hear.
She wanted to ask him if Rudyard was safe. She did not realize that he could not know.
But the thunder of artillery told her that Rudyard had had his fighting at daybreak, as he had said.