The Judgment House by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XXXIX. "The Road is Clear"
The Army had moved on over the hills, into the valley of death and glory, across the parched veld to the town of Lordkop, where an emaciated, ragged garrison had kept faith with all the heroes from Caractacus to Nelson. Courageous legions had found their way to the petty dorp, with its corrugated iron roofs, its dug-outs, its improvised forts, its fever hospitals, its Treasure House of Britain, where she guarded the jewels of her honour.
The menace of the hills had passed, heroes had welcomed heroes and drunk the cup of triumph; but far back in the valleys beyond the hills from which the army had come, there were those who must drink the cup of trembling, the wine of loss.
As the trumpets of victory attended the steps of those remnants of brigades which met the remnants of a glorious garrison in the streets of Lordkop, drums of mourning conducted the steps of those who came to bury the dust of one who had called himself Pheidippides as he left the Day Path and took the Night Road.
Gun-carriage and reversed arms and bay charger, faithful comrades with bent heads, the voice of victory over the grave--"I am the resurrection and the life"--the volleys of honour, the proud salut of the brave to the vanished brave, the quivering farewells of the few who turn away from the fresh-piled earth with their hearts dragging behind--all had been; and all had gone. Evening descended upon the veld with a golden radiance which soothed like prayer.
By the open window at the foot of a bed in the Stay Awhile Hospital a woman gazed into the saffron splendour with an intentness which seemed to make all her body listen. Both melancholy and purpose marked the attitude of the figure.
A voice from the bed at the foot of which she stood drew her gaze away from the sunset sky to meet the bright, troubled eyes.
"What is it, Jigger?" the woman asked gently, and she looked to see that the framework which kept the bedclothes from a shattered leg was properly in its place.
"'E done a lot for me," was the reply. "A lot 'e done, and I dunno how I'll git along now."
There was great hopelessness in the tone.
"He told me you would always have enough to help you get on, Jigger. He thought of all that."
"'Ere, oh, 'ere it ain't that," the lad said in a sudden passion of protest, the tears standing in his eyes. "It ain't that! Wot's money, when your friend wot give it ain't 'ere! I never done nothing for 'im--that's wot I feel. Nothing at all for 'im."
"You are wrong," was the soft reply. "He told me only a few days ago that you were like a loaf of bread in the cupboard--good for all the time."
The tears left the wide blue eyes. "Did 'e say that--did 'e?" he asked, and when she nodded and smiled, he added, "'E's 'appy now, ain't 'e?" His look questioned her eagerly.
For an instant she turned and gazed at the sunset, and her eyes took on a strange mystical glow. A colour came to her face, as though from strong flush of feeling, then she turned to him again, and answered steadily:
"Yes, he is happy now."
"How do you know?" the lad asked with awe in his face, for he believed in her utterly. Then, without waiting for her to answer, he added: "Is it, you hear him say so, as I hear you singin' in my sleep sometimes--singin', singin', as you did at Glencader, that first time I ever 'eerd you? Is it the same as me in my sleep?"
"Yes, it is like that--just like that," she answered, taking his hand, and holding it with a motherly tenderness.
"Ain't you never goin' to sing again?" he added.
She was silent, looking at him almost abstractedly.
"This war'll be over pretty soon now," he continued, "and we'll all have to go back to work."
"Isn't this work?" Al'mah asked with a smile, which had in it something of her old whimsical self.
"It ain't play, and it ain't work," he answered with a sage frown of intellectual effort." It's a cut above 'em both--that's my fancy."
"It would seem like that," was the response. "What are you going to do when you get back to England?" she inquired.
"I thought I'd ask you that," he replied anxiously. "Couldn't I be a scene-shifter or somefink at the opery w'ere you sing?"
"I'm going to sing again, am I?" she asked.
"You'd have to be busy," he protested admiringly.
"Yes, I'll have to be busy," she replied, her voice ringing a little, "and we'll have to find a way of being busy together."
"His gryce'd like that," he responded.
She turned her face slowly to the evening sky, where grey clouds became silver and piled up to a summit of light. She was silent for a long time.
"If work won't cure, nothing will," she said in a voice scarce above a whisper. Her body trembled a little, and her eyes closed, as though to shut out something that pained her sight.
"I wish you'd sing somethin'--same as you did that night at Glencader, about the green hill far away," whispered the little trumpeter from the bed.
She looked at him for a moment meditatively, then shook her head, and turned again to the light in the evening sky.
"P'raps she's makin' up a new song," Jigger said to himself.
On a kopje overlooking the place where Ian Stafford had been laid to sleep to the call of the trumpets, two people sat watching the sun go down. Never in the years that had gone had there been such silence between them as they sat together. Words had been the clouds in which the lightning of their thoughts had been lost; they had been the disguises in which the truth of things masqueraded. They had not dared to be silent, lest the truth should stalk naked before them. Silence would have revealed their unhappiness; they would not have dared to look closely and deeply into each other's face, lest revelation should force them to say, "It has been a mistake; let us end it." So they had talked and talked and acted, and yet had done nothing and been nothing.
Now they were silent, because they had tossed into the abyss of Time the cup of trembling, and had drunk of the chalice of peace. Over the grave into which, this day, they had thrown the rock-roses and sprigs of the karoo bush, they had, in silence, made pledges to each other, that life's disguises should be no more for them; that the door should be wide open between the chambers where their souls dwelt, each in its own pension of being, with its own individual sense, but with the same light, warmth, and nutriment, and with the free confidence which exempts life from its confessions. There should be no hidden things any more.
There was a smile on the man's face as he looked out over the valley. With this day had come triumph for the flag he loved, for the land where he was born, and also the beginning of peace for the land where he had worked, where he had won his great fortune. He had helped to make this land what it was, and in battle he had helped to save it from disaster.
But there had come another victory--the victory of Home. The coincidence of all the vital values had come in one day, almost in one hour.
Smiling, he laid his hand upon the delicate fingers of the woman beside him, as they rested on her knee. She turned and looked at him with an understanding which is the beginning of all happiness; and a colour came to her cheeks such as he had not seen there for more days than he could count. Her smile answered his own, but her eyes had a sadness which would never wholly leave them. When he had first seen those eyes he had thought them the most honest he had ever known. Looking at them now, with confidence restored, he thought again as he did that night at the opera the year of the Raid.
"It's all before us still, Jasmine," he said with a ring of purpose and a great gentleness in his tone.
Her hand trembled, the shadows deepened in her eyes, but determination gathered at her lips.
Some deep-cherished, deferred resolve reasserted itself.
"But I cannot--I cannot go on until you know all, Rudyard, and then you may not wish to go on," she said. Her voice shook, and the colour went from her lips. "I must be honest now--at last, about everything. I want to tell you--"
He got to his feet. Stooping, he raised her, and looked her squarely in the eyes.
"Tell me nothing, Jasmine," he said. Then he added in a voice of finality, "There is nothing to tell." Holding both her hands tight in one of his own, he put his fingers on her lips.
"A fresh start for a long race--the road is clear," he said firmly.
Looking into his eyes, she knew that he read her life and soul, that in his deep primitive way he understood her as she had been and as she was, and yet was content to go on. Her head drooped upon his breast.
A trumpet-call rang out piercingly sweet across the valley. It echoed and echoed away among the hills.
He raised his head to listen. Pride, vision and power were in his eyes.
"It's all before us still, Jasmine," he said again.
Her fingers tightened on his.