The Judgment House by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XXXIV. "The Alpine Fellow"
To all who fought in the war a change of some sort had come. Those who emerged from it to return to England or her far Dominions, or to stay in the land of the veld, of the kranz and the kloof and the spruit, were never the same again. Something came which, to a degree, transformed them, as the salts of the water and the air permeate the skin and give the blood new life. None escaped the salt of the air of conflict.
The smooth-faced young subaltern who but now had all his life before him, realized the change when he was swept by the leaden spray of death on Spion Kop, and received in his face of summer warmth, or in his young exultant heart, the quietus to all his hopes, impulses and desires. The young find no solace or recompense in the philosophy of those who regard life as a thing greatly over-estimated.
Many a private grown hard of flesh and tense of muscle, with his scant rations and meagre covering in the cold nights, with his long marches and fruitless risks and futile fightings, when he is shot down, has little consolation, save in the fact that the thing he and his comrades and the regiment and the army set out to do is done. If he has to do so, he gives his life with a stony sense of loss which has none of the composure of those who have solace in thinking that what they leave behind has a constantly decreasing value. And here and there some simple soul, more gifted than his comrades, may touch off the meaning of it all, as it appears to those who hold their lives in their hands for a nation's sake, by a stroke of mordant comment.
So it was with that chess-playing private from New Zealand of whom Barry Whalen told Ian Stafford. He told it a few days after Rudyard Byng had won that fight at Hetmeyer's Kopje, which had enabled the Master Player to turn the flank of the Boers, though there was yet grim frontal work to do against machines of Death, carefully hidden and masked on the long hillsides, which would take staggering toll of Britain's manhood.
"From behind Otago there in New Zealand, he came," began Barry, "as fine a fella of thirty-three as ever you saw. Just come, because he heard old Britain callin'. Down he drops the stock-whip, away he shoves the plough, up he takes his little balance from the bank, sticks his chess-box in his pocket, says 'so-long' to his girl, and treks across the world, just to do his whack for the land that gave him and all his that went before him the key to civilization, and how to be happy though alive.... He was the real thing, the ne plus ultra, the I-stand-alone. The other fellas thought him the best of the best. He was what my father used to call 'a wide man.' He was in and out of a fight with a quirk at the corner of his mouth, as much as to say, 'I've got the hang of this, and it's different from what I thought; but that doesn't mean it hasn't got to be done, and done in style. It's the has-to-be.' And when they got him where he breathes, he fished out the little ivory pawn and put it on a stone at his head, to let it tell his fellow-countrymen how he looked at it--that he was just a pawn in the great game. The game had to be played, and won, and the winner had to sacrifice his pawns. He was one of the sacrifices. Well, I'd like a tombstone the same as that fella from New Zealand, if I could win it as fair, and see as far."
Stafford raised his head with a smile of admiration. "Like the ancients, like the Oriental Emperors to-day, he left his message. An Alexander, with not one world conquered."
"I'm none so sure of that," was Barry's response. "A man that could put such a hand on himself as he did has conquered a world. He didn't want to go, but he went as so many have gone hereabouts. He wanted to stay, but he went against his will, and--and I wish that the grub-hunters, and tuft-hunters, and the blind greedy majority in England could get hold of what he got hold of. Then life 'd be a different thing in Thamesfontein and the little green islands."
"You were meant for a Savonarola or a St. Francis, my bold grenadier," said Stafford with a friendly nod.
"I was meant for anything that comes my way, and to do everything that was hard enough."
Stafford waved a hand. "Isn't this hard enough--a handful of guns and fifteen hundred men lost in a day, and nothing done that you can put in an envelope and send 'to the old folks at 'ome?'"
"Well, that's all over, Colonel. Byng has turned the tide by turning the Boer flank. I'm glad he's got that much out of his big shindy. It'll do him more good than his millions. He was oozing away like a fat old pine-tree in London town. He's got all his balsam in his bones now. I bet he'll get more out of this thing than anybody, more that's worth having. He doesn't want honours or promotion; he wants what 'd make his wife sorry to be a widow; and he's getting it."
"Let us hope that his wife won't be put to the test," responded Stafford evenly.
Barry looked at him a little obliquely. "She came pretty near it when we took Hetmeyer's Kopje."
"Is he all right again?" Stafford asked; then added quickly, "I've had so much to do since the Hetmeyer business that I have not seen Byng."
Barry spoke very carefully and slowly. "He's over at Brinkwort's Farm for a while. He didn't want to go to the hospital, and the house at the Farm is good enough for anybody. Anyhow, you get away from the smell of disinfectants and the business of the hospital. It's a snigger little place is Brinkwort's Farm. There's an orchard of peaches and oranges, and there are pomegranate hedges, and plenty of nice flowers in the garden, and a stoep made for candidates for Stellenbosch--as comfortable as the room of a Rand director."
"Mrs. Byng is with him?" asked Stafford, his eyes turned towards Brinkwort's Farm miles away. He could see the trees, the kameel-thorn, the blue-gums, the orange and peach trees surrounding it, a clump or cloud of green in the veld.
"No, Mrs. Byng's not with him," was the reply.
Stafford stirred uneasily, a frown gathered, his eyes took on a look of sombre melancholy. "Ah," he said at length, "she has returned to Durban, then?"
"No. She got a chill the night of the Hetmeyer coup, and she's in bed at the hospital."
Stafford controlled himself. "Is it a bad chill?" he asked heavily. "Is she dangerously ill?" His voice seemed to thicken.
"She was; but she's not so bad that a little attention from a friend would make her worse. She never much liked me; but I went just the same, and took her some veld-roses."
"You saw her?" Stafford's voice was very low.
"Yes, for a minute. She's as thin as she once wasn't," Barry answered, "but twice as beautiful. Her eyes are as big as stars, and she can smile still, but it's a new one--a war-smile, I expect. Everything gets a turn of its own at the Front."
"She was upset and anxious about Byng, I suppose?" Stafford asked, with his head turned away from this faithfulest of friends, who would have died for the man now sitting on the stoep of Brinkwort's house, looking into the bloom of the garden.
"Naturally," was the reply. Barry Whalen thought carefully of what he should say, because the instinct of the friend who loved his friend had told him that, since the night at De Lancy Scovel's house when the name of Mennaval had been linked so hatefully with that of Byng's wife, there had been a cloud over Rudyard's life; and that Rudyard and Jasmine were not the same as of yore.
"Naturally she was upset," he repeated. "She made Al'mah go and nurse Byng."
"Al'mah," repeated Stafford mechanically. "Al'mah!" His mind rushed back to that night at the opera, when Rudyard had sprung from the box to the stage and had rescued Al'mah from the flames. The world had widened since then.
Al'mah and Jasmine had been under the same roof but now; and Al'mah was nursing Jasmine's husband--surely life was merely farce and tragedy.
At this moment an orderly delivered a message to Barry Whalen. He rose to go, but turned back to Stafford again.
"She'd be glad to see you, I'm certain," he said. "You never can tell what a turn sickness will take in camp, and she's looking pretty frail. We all ought to stand by Byng and whatever belongs to Byng. No need to say that to you; but you've got a lot of work and responsibility, and in the rush you mightn't realize that she's more ill than the chill makes her. I hope you won't mind my saying so in my stupid way."
Stafford rose and grasped his hand, and a light of wonderful friendliness and comradeship shone in his eyes.
"Beau chevalier! Beau chevalier!" was all he said, and impulsive Barry Whalen went away blinking; for hard as iron as he was physically, and a fighter of courage, his temperament got into his eyes or at his lips very easily.
Stafford looked after him admiringly. "Lucky the man who has such a friend," he said aloud--"Sans peur et sans reproche! He could not betray a "--the waving of wings above him caught his eye--"he could not betray an aasvogel." His look followed the bird of prey, the servitor of carrion death, as it flew down the wind.
He had absorbed the salt of tears and valour. He had been enveloped in the Will that makes all wills as one, the will of a common purpose; and it had changed his attitude towards his troubles, towards his past, towards his future.
What Barry had said to him, and especially the tale of the New Zealander, had revealed the change which had taken place. The War had purged his mind, cleared his vision. When he left England he was immersed in egoism, submerged by his own miseries. He had isolated himself in a lazaretto of self-reproach and resentment. The universe was tottering because a woman had played him false. Because of this obsession of self, he was eager to be done with it all, to pay a price which he might have paid, had it been possible to meet Rudyard pistol or sword in hand, and die as many such a man has done, without trying to save his own life or to take the life of another. That he could not do. Rudyard did not know the truth, had not the faintest knowledge that Jasmine had been more to himself than an old and dear friend. To pay the price in any other way than by eliminating himself from the equation was to smirch her name, be the ruin of a home, and destroy all hope for the future.
It had seemed to him that there was no other way than to disappear honourably through one of the hundred gates which the war would open to him--to go where Death ambushed the reckless or the brave, and take the stroke meant for him, on a field of honour all too kind to himself and soothing to those good friends who would mourn his going, those who hoped for him the now unattainable things.
In a spirit of stoic despair he had come to the seat of war. He had invited Destiny to sweep him up in her reaping, by placing himself in the ambit of her scythe; but the sharp reaping-hook had passed him by.
The innumerable exits were there in the wall of life and none had opened to him; but since the evening when he saw Jasmine at the railway station, there had been an opening of doors in his soul hitherto hidden. Beyond these doors he saw glimpses of a new world--not like the one he had lived in, not so green, so various, or tumultuous, but it had the lure of that peace, not sterile or somnolent, which summons the burdened life, or the soul with a vocation, to the hood of a monk--a busy self-forgetfulness.
Looking after Barry Whalen's retreating figure he saw this new, grave world opening out before him; and as the vision floated before his eyes, Barry's appeal that he should visit Jasmine at the hospital came to him.
Jasmine suffered. He recalled Barry's words: "She's as thin as she once wasn't, but twice as beautiful. Her eyes are as big as stars, and she can smile still, but it's a new one--a war-smile, I expect. Everything gets a turn of its own at the Front."
Jasmine suffered in body. He knew that she suffered in mind also. To go to her? Was that his duty? Was it his desire? Did his heart cry out for it either in pity--or in love?
In love? Slowly a warm flood of feeling passed through him. It was dimly borne in on him, as he gazed at the hospital in the distance, that this thing called Love, which seizes upon our innermost selves, which takes up residence in the inner sanctuary, may not be dislodged. It stays on when the darkness comes, reigning in the gloom. Even betrayal, injury, tyranny, do not drive it forth. It continues. No longer is the curtain drawn aside for tribute, for appeal, or for adoration, but It remains until the last footfall dies in the temple, and the portals ate closed forever.
For Stafford the curtain was drawn before the shrine; but love was behind the curtain still.
He would not go to her as Barry had asked. There in Brinkwort's house in the covert of peaches and pomegranates was the man and the only man who should, who must, bring new bloom to her cheek. Her suffering would carry her to Rudyard at the last, unless it might be that one or the other of them had taken Adrian Fellowes' life. If either had done that, there could be no reunion.
He did not know what Al'mah had told Jasmine, the thing which had cleared Jasmine's vision, and made possible a path which should lead from the hospital to the house among the orchard-trees at Brinkwort's Farm.
No, he would not, could not go to Jasmine--unless, it might be, she was dying. A sudden, sharp anxiety possessed him. If, as Barry Whalen suggested, one of those ugly turns should come, which illnesses take in camp, and she should die without a friend near her, without Rudyard by her side! He mounted his horse, and rode towards the hospital.
His inquiries at the hospital relieved his mind. "If there is no turn for the worse, no complications, she will go on all right, and will be convalescent in a few days," the medicine-man had said.
He gave instructions for a message to be sent to him if there was any change for the worse. His first impulse, to tell them not to let her know he had inquired, he set aside. There must not be subterfuge or secrecy any longer. Let Destiny take her course.
As he left the hospital, he heard a wounded Boer prisoner say to a Tommy who had fought with him on opposite sides in the same engagement, "Alles zal recht kom!" All will come right, was the English of it.
Out of the agony of conflict would all come right--for Boer, for Briton, for Rudyard, for Jasmine, for himself, for Al'mah?
As he entered his tent again, he was handed his mail, which had just arrived. The first letter he touched had the postmark of Durban. The address on the envelope was in the handwriting of Lady Tynemouth.
He almost shrank from opening it, because of the tragedy which had come to the husband of the woman who had been his faithful friend over so many years. At an engagement a month before, Tynemouth had been blinded by shrapnel, and had been sent to Durban. To the two letters he had written there had come no answer until now; and he felt that this reply would be a plaint against Fate, a rebellion against the future restraint and trial and responsibility which would be put upon the wife, who was so much of the irresponsible world.
After a moment, however, he muttered a reproach against his own darkness of spirit and his lack of faith in her womanliness, and opened the envelope.
It was not the letter he had imagined and feared. It began by thanking him for his own letter, and then it plunged into the heart of her trouble:
".... Tynie is blind. He will never see again. But his face seems to me quite beautiful. It shines, Ian: beauty comes from within. Poor old Tynie, who would have thought that the world he loved couldn't make that light in his face! I never saw it there--did you? It is just giving up one's self to the Inevitable. I suppose we mostly are giving up ourselves to Ourselves, thinking always of our own pleasure and profit and pride, never being content, pushing on and on...., Ian, I'm not going to push on any more. I've done with the Climbers. There's too much of the Climbers in us all--not social climbing, I mean, but wanting to get somewhere that has something for us, out in the big material world. When I look at Tynie--he's lying there so peaceful--you might think it is a prison he is in. It isn't. He's set free into a world where he had never been. He's set free in a world of light that never blinds us. If he'd lived to be a hundred with the sight of his eyes, he'd never have known that there's a world that belongs to Allah,--I love that word, it sounds so great and yet so friendly, so gentler than the name by which we call the First One in our language and our religion--and that world is inside ourselves.... Tynie is always thinking of other people now, wondering what they are doing and how they are doing it. He was talking about you a little while ago, and so admiringly. It brought the tears to my eyes. Oh, I am so glad, Ian, that our friendship has always been so much on the surface, so 'void of offence'--is that the phrase? I can look at it without wincing; and I am glad. It never was a thing of importance to you, for I am not important, and there was no weight of life in it or in me. But even the butterfly has its uses, and maybe I was meant to play a little part in your big life. I like to think it was so. Sometimes a bright day gets a little more interest from the drone of the locust or the glow of a butterfly's wings. I'm not sure that the locust's droning and the bright flutter of the butterfly's wings are not the way Nature has of fastening the soul to the meaning of it all. I wonder if you ever heard the lines--foolish they read, but they are not:
"'All summer long there was one little butterfly,
"It may be so that the poet meant the butterfly to mean the joy of things, the hope of things, the love of things flying ahead to draw us on and on into the sunlight and up the steeps, and over the higher hills.
"Ian, I would like to be such a butterfly in your eyes at this moment; perhaps the insignificant means of making you see the near thing to do, and by doing it get a step on towards the Far Thing. You used always to think of the Far Thing. Ah, what ambition you had when I first knew you on the Zambesi, when the old red umbrella, but for you, would have carried me over into the mist and the thunder! Well, you have lost that ambition. I know why you came out here. No one ever told me. The thing behind the words in your letter tells me plainer than words. The last time I saw you in London--do you remember when it was? It was the day that Rudyard Byng drove Krool into Park Lane with the sjambok. Well, that last time, when I met you in the hall as we were both leaving a house of trouble, I felt the truth. Do you remember the day I went to see you when Mr. Mappin came? I felt the truth then more. I often wondered how I could ever help you in the old days. That was an ambition of mine. But I had no brains--no brains like Jasmine's and many another woman; and I was never able to do anything. But now I feel as I never felt anything before in my life. I feel that my time and my chance have come. I feel like a prophetess, like Miriam,--or was it Deborah?--and that I must wind the horn of warning as you walk on the edge of the precipice.
"Ian, it's only little souls who do the work that should be left to Allah, and I don't believe that you can take the reins out of Allah's hands,--He lets you do it, of course, if you insist, for a wilful child must be taught his lesson--without getting smashed up at a sharp corner that you haven't learnt to turn. Ian, there's work for you to do. Even Tynie thinks that he can do some work still. He sees he can, as he never did before; and he talks of you as a man who can do anything if you will. He says that if England wanted a strong man before the war she will want a stronger man afterwards to pick up the pieces, and put them all together again. He says that after we win, reconstruction in South Africa will be a work as big as was ever given to a man, because, if it should fail, 'down will go the whole Imperial show'--that's Tynie's phrase. And he says, why shouldn't you do it here, or why shouldn't you be the man who will guide it all in England? You found the key to England's isolation, to her foreign problem,--I'm quoting Tynie--which meant that the other nations keep hands off in this fight; well, why shouldn't you find another key, that to the future of this Empire? You got European peace for England, and now the problem is how to make this Empire a real thing. Tynie says this, not me. His command of English is better than mine, but neither of us would make a good private secretary, if we had to write letters with words of over two syllables. I've told you what Tynie says, but he doesn't know at all what I know; he doesn't see the danger I see, doesn't realize the mad thing in your brain, the sad thing weighing down your heart--and hers.
"Ian, I feel it on my own heart, and I want it lifted away. Your letter has only one word in it really. That word is Finis. I say, it must not, shall not, be Finis. Look at the escapes you have had in this war. Is not that enough to prove that you have a long way to go yet, and that you have to 'make good' the veld as you trek. To outspan now would be a crime. It would spoil a great life, it would darken memory--even mine, Ian. I must speak the truth. I want you, we all want you, to be the big man you are at heart. Do not be a Lassalle. It is too small. If one must be a slave, then let it be to something greater than one's self, higher--toweringly unattainably higher. Believe me, neither the girl you love nor any woman on earth is entitled to hold in slavery the energies and the mind and hopes of a man who can do big things--or any man at all.
"Ian, Tynie and I have our trials, but we are going to live them down. At first Tynie wanted to die, but he soon said he would see it through--blind at forty. You have had your trials, you have them still; but every gift of man is yours, and every opportunity. Will you not live it all out to the end? Allah knows the exit He wants for us, and He must resent our breaking a way out of the prison of our own making.
"You've no idea how this life of work with Jasmine has brought things home to me--and to Jasmine too. When I see the multitude of broken and maimed victims of war, well, I feel like Jeremiah; but I feel sad too that these poor fellows and those they love must suffer in order to teach us our lesson--us and England. Dear old friend, great man, I am going to quote a verse Tynie read to me last night--oh, how strange that seems! Yet it was so in a sense, he did read to me. Tynie made me say the words from the book, but he read into them all that they were, he that never drew a literary breath. It was a poem Jasmine quoted to him a fortnight ago--Browning's 'Grammarian,' and he stopped me at these words:
"'Thither our path lies; wind we up the heights:
"Tynie stopped me there, and said, 'That's Stafford. He's the Alpine fellow!' . . ."
A few sentences more and then the letter ended on a note of courage, solicitude and friendship. And at the very last she said:
"It isn't always easy to find the key to things, but you will find it, not because you are so clever, but because at heart you are so good.... We both send our love, and don't forget that England hasn't had a tenth of her share of Ian Stafford...."
Then there followed a postscript which ran:
"I always used to say, 'When my ship comes home,' I'd have this or that. Well, here is the ship--mine and Jasmine's, and it has come Home for me, and for Jasmine, too, I hope."
Stafford looked out over the veld. He saw the light of the sun, the joy of summer, the flowers, the buoyant hills, where all the guns were silent now; he saw a blesbok in the distance leaping to join its fellows of a herd which had strayed across the fields of war; he felt that stir of vibrant life in the air which only the new lands know; and he raised his head with the light of resolve growing in his eyes.
"Don't forget that England hasn't had a tenth of her share of Ian Stafford," Alice Tynemouth had said.
Looking round, he saw men whose sufferings were no doubt as great as his own or greater; but they were living on for others' sakes. Despair retreated before a woman's insight.
"The Alpine fellow" wanted to live now.