The Judgment House by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XXXV. At Brinkwort's Farm
"What are you doing here, Krool?" The face of the half-caste had grown more furtive than it was in the London days, and as he looked at Stafford now, it had a malignant expression which showed through the mask of his outward self-control.
"I am prisoner," Krool answered thickly.
"When--where?" Stafford inquired, his eye holding the other's.
"At Hetmeyer's Kopje."
"But what are you--a prisoner--doing here at Brinkwort's Farm?"
"I was hurt. They take me hospital, but the Baas, he send for me."
"They let you come without a guard ?"
"No--not. They are outside"--Krool jerked a finger towards the rear of the house--"with the biltong and the dop."
"You are a liar, Krool. There may be biltong, but there is no dop."
"What matters!" Krool's face had a leer. He looked impudently at Stafford, and Stafford read the meaning behind the unveiled insolence: Krool knew what no one else but Jasmine and himself knew with absolute certainty. Krool was in his own country, more than half a savage, with the lust of war in his blood, with memories of a day in Park Lane when the sjambok had done its ugly work, and Ian Stafford had, as Krool believed, placed it in the hands of the Baas.
It might be that this dark spirit, this Nibelung of the tragedy of the House of Byng, would even yet, when the way was open to a reconstructed life for Jasmine and Rudyard, bring catastrophe.
The thought sickened him, and then black anger took possession of him. The look he cast on the bent figure before him in the threadbare frock-coat which had been taken from the back of some dead Boer, with the corded breeches stuck in boots too large for him, and the khaki hat which some vanished Tommy would never wear again, was resolute and vengeful.
Krool must not stay at Brinkwort's Farm. He must be removed. If the Caliban told Rudyard what he knew, there could be but one end to it all; and Jasmine's life, if not ruined, must ever be, even at the best, lived under the cover of magnanimity and compassion. That would break her spirit, would take from her the radiance of temperament which alone could make life tolerable to her or to others who might live with her under the same roof. Anxiety possessed him, and he swiftly devised means to be rid of Krool before harm could be done. He was certain harm was meant--there was a look of semi-insanity in Krool's eyes. Krool must be put out of the way before he could speak with the Baas.... But how?
With a great effort Stafford controlled himself. Krool must be got rid of at once, must be sent back to the prisoners' quarters and kept there. He must not see Byng now. In a few more hours the army would move on, leaving the prisoners behind, and Rudyard would presently move on with the army. This was Byng's last day at Brinkwort's Farm, to which he himself had come to-day lest Rudyard should take note of his neglect, and their fellow-officers should remark that the old friendship had grown cold, and perhaps begin to guess at the reason why.
"You say the Baas sent for you?" he asked presently.
"To sjambok you again?"
Krool made a gesture of contempt. "I save the Baas at Hetmeyer's Kopje. I kill Piet Graaf to do it."
There was a look of assurance in the eyes of the mongrel, which sent a wave of coldness through Stafford's veins and gave him fresh anxiety.
He was in despair. He knew Byng's great, generous nature, and he dreaded the inconsistency which such men show--forgiving and forgetting when the iron penalty should continue and the chains of punishment remain.
He determined to know the worst. "Traitor all round!" he said presently with contempt. "You saved the Baas by killing Piet Graaf--have you told the Baas that? Has any one told the Baas that? The sjambok is the Baas' cure for the traitor, and sometimes it kills to cure. Do you think that the Baas would want his life through the killing of Piet Graaf by his friend Krool, the slim one from the slime?"
As a sudden tempest twists and bends a tree, contorts it, bows its branches to the dust, transforms it from a thing of beauty to a hag of Walpurgis, so Stafford's words transformed Krool. A passion of rage possessed him. He looked like one of the creatures that waited on Wotan in the nether places. He essayed to speak, but at first could not. His body bent forward, and his fingers spread out in a spasm of hatred, then clinched with the stroke of a hammer on his knees, and again opened and shut in a gesture of loathsome cruelty.
At length he spoke, and Stafford listened intently, for now Caliban was off his guard, and he knew the worst that was meant.
"Ah, you speak of traitor--you! The sjambok for the traitor, eh? The sjambok--fifty strokes, a hunderd strokes--a t'ousand! Krool--Krool is a traitor, and the sjambok for him. What did he do? What did Krool do? He help Oom Paul against the Rooinek--against the Philistine. He help the chosen against the children of Hell.
"What did Krool do? He tell Oom Paul how the thieves would to come in the night to sold him like sheep to a butcher, how the t'ousand wolves would swarm upon the sheepfold, and there would be no homes for the voortrekker and his vrouw, how the Outlander would sit on our stoeps and pick the peaches from our gardens. And he tell him other things good for him to hear."
Stafford was conscious of the smell of orchard blossoms blown through the open window, of the odour of the pomegranate in the hedge; but his eyes were fascinated by the crouching passion of the figure before him and the dissonance of the low, unhuman voice. There was no pause in the broken, turgid torrent, which was like a muddy flood pouring over the boulders of a rapid.
"Who the traitor is? Is it the man that tries to save his homeland from the wolf and the worm? I kill Piet Graaf to save the Baas. The Baas an' I, we understand--on the Limpopo we make the unie. He is the Baas, and I am his slave. All else nothing is. I kill all the people of the Baas' country, but I die for the Baas. The Baas kill me if he will it. So it was set down in the bond on the Limpopo. If the Baas strike, he strike; if he kill, he kill. It is in the bond, it is set down. All else go. Piet Graaf, he go. Oom Paul, he go. Joubert, Cronje, Botha, they all go, if the Baas speak. It is written so. On the Limpopo it is written. All must go, if the Baas speak--one, two, three, a t'ousand. Else the bond is water, and the spirits come in the night, and take you to the million years of torment. It is nothing to die--pain! But only the Baas is kill me. It is written so. Only the Baas can hurt me. Not you, nor all the verdomde Rooineks out there"--he pointed to the vast camp out on the veld--"nor the Baas' vrouw. Do I not know all about the Baas' vrouw! She cannot hurt me.. ." He spat on the ground. "Who is the traitor? Is it Krool? Did Krool steal from the Baas? Krool is the Baas' slave; it is only the friend of the Baas that steal from him--only him is traitor. I kill Piet Graaf to save the Baas. No one kills you to save the Baas! I saw you with your arms round the Baas' vrouw. So I go tell the Baas all. If he kill me--it is the Baas. It is written."
He spat on the ground again, and his eyes grown red with his passion glowered on Stafford like those of some animal of the jungle.
Stafford's face was white, and every nerve in his body seemed suddenly to be wrenched by the hand of torture. What right had he to resent this abominable tirade, this loathsome charge by such a beast? Yet he would have shot where he stood the fellow who had spoken so of "the Baas' vrouw," if it had not come to him with sudden conviction that the end was not to be this way. Ever since he had read Alice Tynemouth's letter a new spirit had been working in him. He must do nothing rash. There was enough stain on his hands now without the added stain of blood. But he must act; he must prevent Krool from telling the Baas. Yonder at the hospital was Jasmine, and she and her man must come together here in this peaceful covert before Rudyard went forward with the army. It must be so.
Two sentries were beyond the doorway. He stepped quickly to the stoep and summoned them. They came. Krool watched with eyes that, at first, did not understand.
Stafford gave an order. "Take the prisoner to the guard. They will at once march him back to the prisoners' camp."
Now Krool understood, and he made as if to spring on Stafford, but a pistol suddenly faced him, and he knew well that what Stafford would not do in cold blood, he would do in the exercise of his duty and as a soldier before these Rooinek privates. He stood still; he made no resistance.
But suddenly his voice rang out in a guttural cry--"Baas!"
In an instant a hand was clapped on his mouth, and his own dirty neckcloth provided a gag.
The storm was over. The native blood in him acknowledged the logic of superior force, and he walked out quietly between the sentries. Stafford's move was regular from a military point of view. He was justified in disposing of a dangerous and recalcitrant prisoner. He could find a sufficient explanation if he was challenged.
As he turned round from the doorway through which Krool had disappeared, he saw Al'mah, who had entered from another room during the incident.
A light came to Stafford's face. They two derelicts of life had much in common--the communion of sinners who had been so much sinned against.
"I heard his last words about you and--her," she said in a low voice.
"Where is Byng?" he asked anxiously.
"In the kloof near by. He will be back presently."
Al'mah's face was anxious. "I don't know what you are going to say to him, or why you have come," she said, "but--"
"I have come to congratulate him on his recovery."
"I understand. I want to say some things to you. You should know them before you see him. There is the matter of Adrian Fellowes."
"What about Adrian Fellowes?" Stafford asked evenly, yet he felt his heart give a bound and his brain throb.
"Does it matter to you now? At the inquest you were--concerned."
"I am more concerned now," he rejoined huskily.
He suddenly held out a hand to her with a smile of rare friendliness. There came over him again the feeling he had at the hospital when they talked together last, that whatever might come of all the tragedy and sorrow around them they two must face irretrievable loss.
She hesitated a moment, and then as she took his outstretched hand she said, "Yes, I will take it while I can."
Her eyes went slowly round the room as though looking for something--some point where they might rest and gather courage maybe, then they steadied to his firmly.
"You knew Adrian Fellowes did not die a natural death--I saw that at the inquest."
"Yes, I knew."
"It was a poisoned needle."
"I know. I found the needle."
"Ah! I threw it down afterwards. I forgot about it."
Slowly the colour left Stafford's face, as the light of revelation broke in upon his brain. Why had he never suspected her? His brain was buzzing with sounds which came from inner voices--voices of old thoughts and imaginings, like little beings in a dark forest hovering on the march of the discoverer. She was speaking, but her voice seemed to come through a clouded medium from a great distance to him.
"He had hurt me more than any other--than my husband or her. I did it. I would do it again.... I had been good to him.... I had suffered, I wanted something for all I had lost, and he was . . ."
Her voice trailed away into nothing, then rose again presently. "I am not sorry. Perhaps you wonder at that. But no, I do not hate myself for it--only for all that went before it. I will pay, if I have to pay, in my own way.... Thousands of women die who are killed by hands that carry no weapon. They die of misery and shame and regret.... This one man died because ..."
He did not hear, or if he heard he did not realize what she was saying now. One thought was ringing through his mind like bells pealing. The gulf of horrible suspicion between Rudyard and Jasmine was closed. So long as it yawned, so long as there was between them the accounting for Adrian Fellowes' death, they might have come together, but there would always have been a black shadow between--the shadow that hangs over the scaffold.
"They should know the truth," he said almost peremptorily.
"They both know," she rejoined calmly. "I told him this evening. On the day I saw you at the hospital, I told her."
There was silence for a moment, and then he said: "She must come here before he joins his regiment."
"I saw her last night at the hospital," Al'mah answered. "She was better. She was preparing to go to Durban. I did not ask her if she was coming, but I was sure she was not. So, just now, before you came, I sent a message to her. It will bring her.... It does not matter what a woman like me does."
"What did you say to her?"
"I wrote, 'If you wish to see him before the end, come quickly.' She will think he is dying."
"If she resents the subterfuge?"
"Risks must be taken. If he goes without their meeting--who can tell! Now is the time--now. I want to see it. It must be."
He reached out both hands and took hers, while she grew pale. Her eyes had a strange childishly frightened look.
"You are a good woman, Al'mah," he said.
A quivering, ironical laugh burst from her lips. Then, suddenly, her eyes were suffused.
"The world would call it the New Goodness then," she replied in a voice which told how deep was the well of misery in her being.
"It is as old as Allah," he replied.
"Or as old as Cain?" she responded, then added quickly, "Hush! He is coming."
An instant afterwards she was outside among the peach trees, and Rudyard and Stafford faced each other in the room she had just left.
As Al'mah stood looking into the quivering light upon the veld, her fingers thrust among the blossoms of a tree which bent over her, she heard horses' hoofs, and presently there came round the corner of the house two mounted soldiers who had brought Krool to Brinkwort's Farm. Their prisoner was secured to a stirrup-leather, and the neckcloth was still binding his mouth.
As they passed, Krool turned towards the house, eyes showing like flames under the khaki trooper's hat, which added fresh incongruity to the frock-coat and the huge top-boots.
The guard were now returning to their post at the door-way.
"What has happened?" she asked, with a gesture towards the departing Krool.
"A bit o' lip to Colonel Stafford, ma'am," answered one of the guard. "He's got a tongue like a tanner's vat, that goozer. Wants a lump o' lead in 'is baskit 'e does."
"'E done a good turn at Hetmeyer's Kopje," added the Second. "If it hadn't been for 'im the S.A.'s would have had a new Colonel"--he jerked his head towards the house, from which came the murmur of men's voices talking earnestly.
"Whatever 'e done it for, it was slim, you can stake a tidy lot on that, ma'am," interjected the First. "He's the bottom o' the sink, this half-caste Boojer is."
The Second continued: "If I 'ad my way 'e'd be put in front at the next push-up, just where the mausers of his pals would get 'im. 'E's done a lot o' bitin' in 'is time--let 'im bite the dust now, I sez. I'm fair sick of treatin' that lot as if they was square fighters. Why, 'e'd fire on a nurse or an ambulanche, that tyke would."
"There's lots like him in yonder," urged the First, as a hand was jerked forward towards the hills, "and we're goin' to get 'em this time--goin' to get 'em on the shovel. Their schanses and their kranzes and their ant-bear dugouts ain't goin' to help them this mop-up. We're goin' to get the tongue in the hole o' the buckle this time. It's over the hills and far away, and the Come-in-Elizas won't stop us. When the howitzers with their nice little balls of lyddite physic get opening their bouquets to-morrow--"
"Who says to-morrow?" demanded the Second.
"I says to-morrow. I know. I got ears, and 'im that 'as ears to 'ear let 'im 'ear--that's what the Scripture saith. I was brought up on the off side of a vicarage."
He laughed eagerly at his own joke, chuckling till his comrade followed up with a sharp challenge.
"I bet you never heard nothin' but your own bleatin's--not about wot the next move is, and w'en it is."
The First made quick retort. "Then you lose your bet, for I 'eard Colonel Byng get 'is orders larst night--w'en you was sleepin' at your post, Willy. By to-morrow this time you'll see the whole outfit at it. You'll see the little billows of white rolling over the hills--that's shrapnel. You'll hear the rippin', zippin', zimmin' thing in the air wot makes you sick; for you don't know who it's goin' to 'it. That's shells. You'll hear a thousand blankets being shook--that's mausers and others. You'll see regiments marching out o' step, an' every man on his own, which is not how we started this war, not much. And where there's a bit o' rock, you say, 'Ere's a friend, and you get behind it like a man. And w'en there's nothing to get behind, you get in front, and take your chances, and you get there--right there, over the trenches, over the bloomin' Amalakites, over the hills and far away, where they want the relief they're goin' to get, or I'm a pansy blossom."
"Well, to-morrow can't come quick enough for me," answered the Second. He straightened out his shoulders and eyed the hills in front of him with a calculating air, as though he were planning the tactics of the fight to come.
"We'll all be in it--even you, ma'am," insinuated the First to Al'mah with a friendly nod. "But I'd ruther 'ave my job nor yours. I've done a bit o' nursin'--there was Bob Critchett that got a splinter o' shell in 'is 'ead, and there was Sergeant Hoyle and others. But it gits me where I squeak that kind o' thing do."
Suddenly they brought their rifles to the salute, as a footstep sounded smartly on the stoep. It was Stafford coming from the house.
He acknowledged the salute mechanically. His eyes were fastened on the distance. They had a rapt, shining look, and he walked like one in a pleasant dream. A moment afterwards he mounted his horse with the lightness of a boy, and galloped away.
He had not seen Al'mah as he passed.
In her fingers was crushed a bunch of orange blossoms. A heavy sigh broke from her lips. She turned to go within, and, as she did so, saw Rudyard Byng looking from the doorway towards the hospital where Jasmine was.
"Will she come?" Al'mah asked herself, and mechanically she wiped the stain of the blossoms from her fingers.