Book I
Chapter V. A Woman Tells Her Story
 

"Soon he will speak you. Wait here, madame."

Krool passed almost stealthily out.

Al'mah looked round the rather formal sitting-room, with its somewhat incongruous furnishing--leopard-skins from Bechuanaland; lion-skins from Matabeleland; silver-mounted tusks of elephants from Eastern Cape Colony and Portuguese East Africa; statues and statuettes of classical subjects; two or three Holbeins, a Rembrandt, and an El Greco on the walls; a piano, a banjo, and a cornet; and, in the corner, a little roulette-table. It was a strange medley, in keeping, perhaps, with the incongruously furnished mind of the master of it all; it was expressive of tastes and habits not yet settled and consistent.

Al'mah's eyes had taken it all in rather wistfully, while she had waited for Krool's return from his master; but the wistfulness was due to personal trouble, for her eyes were clouded and her motions languid. But when she saw the banjo, the cornet, and the roulette-table, a deep little laugh rose to her full red lips.

"How like a subaltern, or a colonial civil servant!" she said to herself.

She reflected a moment, then pursued the thought further: "But there must be bigness in him, as well as presence of mind and depth of heart--yes, I'm sure his nature is deep."

She remembered the quick, protecting hands which had wrapped her round with Jasmine Grenfel's cloak, and the great arms in which she had rested, the danger over.

"There can't be much wrong with a nature like his, though Adrian hates him so. But, of course, Adrian would. Besides, Adrian will never get over the drop in the mining-stock which ruined him--Rudyard Byng's mine.... It's natural for Adrian to hate him, I suppose," she added with a heavy sigh.

Mentally she took to comparing this room with Adrian Fellowes' sitting-room overlooking the Thames Embankment, where everything was in perfect taste and order, where all was modulated, harmonious, soigne and artistic. Yet, somehow, the handsome chambers which hung over the muddy river with its wonderful lights and shades, its mists and radiance, its ghostly softness and greyness, lacked in something that roused imagination, that stirred her senses here--the vital being in her.

It was power, force, experience, adventure. They were all here. She knew the signs: the varied interests, the primary emotions, music, art, hunting, prospecting, fighting, gambling. They were mixed with the solid achievement of talent and force in the business of life. Here was a model of a new mining-drill, with a picture of the stamps working in the Work-and-Wonder mine, together with a model of the Kaffir compound at Kimberley, with the busy, teeming life behind the wire boundaries.

Thus near was Byng to the ways of a child, she thought, thus near to the everlasting intelligence and the busy soul of a constructive and creative Deity--if there was a Deity. Despite the frequent laughter on her tongue and in her eyes, she doubted bitterly at times that there was a Deity. For how should happen the awful tragedies which encompassed men and peoples, if there was a Deity. No benign Deity could allow His own created humanity to be crushed in bleeding masses, like the grapes trampled in the vats of a vineyard. Whole cities swallowed up by earthquake; islands swept of their people by a tidal wave; a vast ship pierced by an iceberg and going down with its thousand souls; provinces spread with the vile elements of a plague which carpeted the land with dead; mines flooded by water or devastated by fire; the little new-born babe left without the rightful breast to feed it; the mother and her large family suddenly deprived of the breadwinner; old men who had lived like saints, giving their all to their own and to the world, driven to the degradation of the poorhouse in the end--ah, if one did not smile, one would die of weeping, she thought.

Al'mah had smiled her way through the world; with a quick word of sympathy for any who were hurt by the blows of life or time; with an open hand for the poor and miserable,--now that she could afford it--and hiding her own troubles behind mirth and bonhommie; for her humour, as her voice, was deep and strong like that of a man. It was sometimes too pronounced, however, Adrian Fellowes had said; and Adrian was an acute observer, who took great pride in her. Was it not to Adrian she had looked first for approval the night of her triumph at Covent Garden--why, that was only a few days ago, and it seemed a hundred days, so much had happened since. It was Adrian's handsome face which had told her then of the completeness of her triumph.

The half-caste valet entered again. "Here come, madame," he said with something very near a smile; for he liked this woman, and his dark, sensual soul would have approved of his master liking her.

"Soon the Baas, madame," he said as he placed a chair for her, and with the gliding footstep of a native left the room.

"Sunny creature!" she remarked aloud, with a little laugh, and looked round. Instantly her face lighted with interest. Here was nothing of that admired disorder, that medley of incongruous things which marked the room she had just left; but perfect order, precision, and balance of arrangement, the most peaceful equipoise. There was a great carved oak-table near to sun-lit windows, and on it were little regiments of things, carefully arranged--baskets with papers in elastic bands; classified and inscribed reference-books, scales, clips, pencils; and in one clear space, with a bunch of violets before it, the photograph of a woman in a splendid silver frame--a woman of seventy or so, obviously Rudyard Byng's mother.

Al'mah's eyes softened. Here was insight into a nature of which the world knew so little. She looked further. Everywhere were signs of disciplined hours and careful hands--cabinets with initialed drawers, shelves filled with books. There is no more impressive and revealing moment with man or woman than when you stand in a room empty of their actual presence, but having, in every inch of it, the pervasive influences of the absent personality. A strange, almost solemn quietness stole over Al'mah's senses. She had been admitted to the inner court, not of the man's house, but of his life. Her eyes travelled on with the gratified reflection that she had been admitted here. Above the books were rows of sketches--rows of sketches!

Suddenly, as her eyes rested on them, she turned pale and got to her feet. They were all sketches of the veld, high and low; of natives; of bits of Dutch architecture; of the stoep with its Boer farmer and his vrouw; of a kopje with a dozen horses or a herd of cattle grazing; of a spruit, or a Kaffir's kraal; of oxen leaning against the disselboom of a cape-wagon; of a herd of steinboks, or a little colony of meerkats in the karoo.

Her hand went to her heart with a gesture of pain, and a little cry of misery escaped her lips.

Now there was a quick footstep, and Byng entered with a cordial smile and an outstretched hand.

"Well, this is a friendly way to begin the New Year," he said, cheerily, taking her hand. "You certainly are none the worse for our little unrehearsed drama the other night. I see by the papers that you have been repeating your triumph. Please sit down. Do you mind my having a little toast while we talk? I always have my petit dejeuner here; and I'm late this morning."

"You look very tired," she said as she sat down.

Krool here entered with a tray, placing it on a small table by the big desk. He was about to pour out the tea, but Byng waved him away.

"Send this note at once by hand," he said, handing him an envelope. It was addressed to Jasmine Grenfel.

"Yes, I'm tired--rather," he added to his guest with a sudden weariness of manner. "I've had no sleep for three nights--working all the time, every hour; and in this air of London, which doesn't feed you, one needs plenty of sleep. You can't play with yourself here as you can on the high veld, where an hour or two of sleep a day will do. On-saddle and off-saddle, in-span and outspan, plenty to eat and a little sleep; and the air does the rest. It has been a worrying time."

"The Jameson Raid--and all the rest?"

"Particularly all the rest. I feel easier in my mind about Dr. Jim and the others. England will demand--so I understand," he added with a careful look at her, as though he had said too much--"the right to try Jameson and his filibusters from Matabeleland here in England; but it's different with the Jo'burgers. They will be arrested--"

"They have been arrested," she intervened.

"Oh, is it announced?" he asked without surprise.

"It was placarded an hour ago," she replied, heavily.

"Well, I fancied it would be," he remarked. "They'll have a close squeak. The sympathy of the world is with Kruger--so far."

"That is what I have come about," she said, with an involuntary and shrinking glance at the sketches on the walls.

"What you have come about?" he said, putting down his cup of tea and looking at her intently." How are you concerned? Where do you come in?"

"There is a man--he has been arrested with the others; with Farrar, Phillips, Hammond, and the rest--"

"Oh, that's bad! A relative, or--"

"Not a relative, exactly," she replied in a tone of irony. Rising, she went over to the wall and touched one of the water-colour sketches.

"How did you come by these?" she asked.

"Blantyre's sketches? Well, it's all I ever got for all Blantyre owed me, and they're not bad. They're lifted out of the life. That's why I bought them. Also because I liked to think I got something out of Blantyre; and that he would wish I hadn't. He could paint a bit-- don't you think so?"

"He could paint a bit--always," she replied.

A silence followed. Her back was turned to him, her face was towards the pictures.

Presently he spoke, with a little deferential anxiety in the tone. "Are you interested in Blantyre?" he asked, cautiously. Getting up, he came over to her.

"He has been arrested--as I said--with the others."

"No, you did not say so. So they let Blantyre into the game, did they?" he asked almost musingly; then, as if recalling what she had said, he added: "Do you mind telling me exactly what is your interest in Blantyre?"

She looked at him straight in the eyes. For a face naturally so full of humour, hers was strangely dark with stormy feeling now.

"Yes, I will tell you as much as I can--enough for you to understand," she answered.

He drew up a chair to the fire, and she sat down. He nodded at her encouragingly. Presently she spoke.

"Well, at twenty-one I was studying hard, and he was painting--"

"Blantyre?"

She inclined her head. "He was full of dreams--beautiful, I thought them; and he was ambitious. Also he could talk quite marvellously."

"Yes, Blantyre could talk--once," Byng intervened, gently.

"We were married secretly."

Byng made a gesture of amazement, and his face became shocked and grave. "Married! Married! You were married to Blantyre?"

"At a registry office in Chelsea. One month, only one month it was, and then he went away to Madeira to paint--'a big commission,' he said; and he would send for me as soon as he could get money in hand--certainly in a couple of months. He had taken most of my half-year's income--I had been left four hundred a year by my mother."

Byng muttered a malediction under his breath and leaned towards her sympathetically.

With an effort she continued. "From Madeira he wrote to tell me he was going on to South Africa, and would not be home for a year. From South Africa he wrote saying he was not coming back; that I could divorce him if I liked. The proof, he said, would be easy; or I needn't divorce him unless I liked, since no one knew we were married."

For an instant there was absolute silence, and she sat with her fingers pressed tight to her eyes. At last she went on, her face turned away from the great kindly blue eyes bent upon her, from the face flushed with honourable human sympathy.

"I went into the country, where I stayed for nearly three years, till--till I could bear it no longer; and then I began to study and sing again."

"What were you doing in the country?" he asked in a low voice.

"There was my baby," she replied, her hands clasping and unclasping in pain. "There was my little Nydia."

"A child--she is living?" he asked gently.

"No, she died two years ago," was the answer in a voice which tried to be firm.

"Does Blantyre know?"

"He knew she was born, nothing more."

"We were married secretly."

"And after all he has done, and left undone, you want to try and save him now?"

He was thinking that she still loved the man. "That offscouring!" he said to himself. "Well, women beat all! He treats her like a Patagonian; leaves her to drift with his child not yet born; rakes the hutches of the towns and the kraals of the veld for women--always women, black or white, it didn't matter; and yet, by gad, she wants him back!"

She seemed to understand what was passing in his mind. Rising, with a bitter laugh which he long remembered, she looked at him for a moment in silence, then she spoke, her voice shaking with scorn:

"You think it is love for him that prompts me now?" Her eyes blazed, but there was a contemptuous laugh at her lips, and she nervously pulled at the tails of her sable muff. "You are wrong--absolutely. I would rather bury myself in the mud of the Thames than let him touch me. Oh, I know what his life must have been--the life of him that you know! With him it would either be the sewer or the sycamore-tree of Zaccheus; either the little upper chamber among the saints or eating husks with the swine. I realize him now. He was easily susceptible to good and evil, to the clean and the unclean; and he might have been kept in order by some one who would give a life to building up his character; but his nature was rickety, and he has gone down and not up."

"Then why try to save him? Let Oom Paul have him. He'll do no more harm, if--"

"Wait a minute," she urged. "You are a great man"--she came close to him--"and you ought to understand what I mean, without my saying it. I want to save him for his own sake, not for mine--to give him a chance. While there's life there's hope. To go as he is, with the mud up to his lips--ah, can't you see! He is the father of my dead child. I like to feel that he may make some thing of his life and of himself yet. That's why I haven't tried to divorce him, and--"

"If you ever want to do so--" he interrupted, meaningly.

"Yes, I know. I have always been sure that nothing could be quite so easy; but I waited, on the chance of something getting hold of him which would lift him out of himself, give him something to think of so much greater than himself, some cause, perhaps--"

"He had you and your unborn child," he intervened.

"Me--!" She laughed bitterly. "I don't think men would ever be better because of me. I've never seen that. I've seen them show the worst of human nature because of me--and it wasn't inspiring. I've not met many men who weren't on the low levels."

"He hasn't stood his trial for the Johannesburg conspiracy yet. How do you propose to help him? He is in real danger of his life."

She laughed coldly, and looked at him with keen, searching eyes. "You ask that, you who know that in the armory of life there's one all-powerful weapon?"

He nodded his head whimsically. "Money? Well, whatever other weapons you have, you must have that, I admit. And in the Transvaal--"

"Then here," she said, handing him an envelope--"here is what may help."

He took it hesitatingly. "I warn you," he remarked, "that if money is to be used at all, it must be a great deal. Kruger will put up the price to the full capacity of the victim."

"I suppose this victim has nothing," she ventured, quietly.

"Nothing but what the others give him, I should think. It may be a very costly business, even if it is possible, and you--"

"I have twenty thousand pounds," she said.

"Earned by your voice?" he asked, kindly.

"Every penny of it."

"Well, I wouldn't waste it on Blantyre, if I were you. No, by Heaven, you shall not do it, even if it can be done! It is too horrible."

"I owe it to myself to do it. After all, he is still my husband. I have let it be so; and while it is so, and while"--her eyes looked away, her face suffused slightly, her lips tightened--"while things are as they are, I am bound--bound by something, I don't know what, but it is not love, and it is not friendship--to come to his rescue. There will be legal expenses--"

Byng frowned. "Yes, but the others wouldn't see him in a hole--yet I'm not sure, either, Blantyre being Blantyre. In any case, I'm ready to do anything you wish."

She smiled gratefully. "Did you ever know any one to do a favor who wasn't asked to repeat it--paying one debt by contracting another, finding a creditor who will trust, and trading on his trust? Yet I'd rather owe you two debts than most men one." She held out her hand to him. "Well, it doesn't do to mope--'The merry heart goes all the day, the sad one tires in a mile-a.' And I am out for all day. Please wish me a happy new year."

He took her hand in both of his. "I wish you to go through this year as you ended the last--in a blaze of glory."

"Yes, really a blaze if not of glory," she said, with bright tears, yet laughing, too, a big warm humour shining in her strong face with the dark brown eyes and the thick, heavy eyebrows under a low, broad forehead like his own. They were indeed strangely alike in many ways both of mind and body.

"They say we end the year as we begin it," he said, cheerily. "You proved to Destiny that you were entitled to all she could give in the old year, and you shall have the best that's to be had in 1897. You are a woman in a million, and--"

"May I come and breakfast with you some morning?" she asked, gaily.

"Well, if ever I'm thought worthy of that honour, don't hesitate. As the Spanish say, It is all yours." He waved a hand to the surroundings.

"No, it is all yours," she said, reflectively, her eyes slowly roaming about her. "It is all you. I'm glad to have been here, to be as near as this to your real life. Real life is so comforting after the mock kind so many of us live; which singers and actors live anyhow."

She looked round the room again. "I feel--I don't know why it is, but I feel that when I'm in trouble I shall always want to come to this room. Yes, and I will surely come; for I know there's much trouble in store for me. You must let me come. You are the only man I would go to like this, and you can't think what it means to me--to feel that I'm not misunderstood, and that it seems absolutely right to come. That's because any woman could trust you--as I do. Good-bye."

In another moment she had gone, and he stood beside the table with the envelope she had left with him. Presently he opened it, and unfolded the cheque which was in it. Then he gave an exclamation of astonishment.

"Seven thousand pounds!" he exclaimed. "That's a better estimate of Krugerism than I thought she had. It'll take much more than that, though, if it's done at all; but she certainly has sense. It's seven thousand times too much for Blantyre," he added, with an exclamation of disgust. "Blantyre--that outsider!" Then he fell to thinking of all she had told him. "Poor girl--poor girl!" he said aloud. "But she must not come here, just the same. She doesn't see that it's not the thing, just because she thinks I'm a Sir Galahad--me!" He glanced at the picture of his mother, and nodded toward it tenderly. "So did she always. I might have turned Kurd and robbed caravans, or become a Turk and kept concubines, and she'd never have seen that it was so. But Al'mah mustn't come here any more, for her own sake.... I'd find it hard to explain if ever, by any chance--"

He fell to thinking of Jasmine, and looked at the clock. It was only ten, and he would not see Jasmine till six; but if he had gone to South Africa he would not have seen her at all! Fate and Wallstein had been kind.

Presently, as he went to the hall to put on his coat and hat to go out, he met Barry Whalen. Barry looked at him curiously; then, as though satisfied, he said: "Early morning visitor, eh? I just met her coming away. Card of thanks for kind services au theatre, eh?"

"Well, it isn't any business of yours what it is, Barry," came the reply in tones which congealed.

"No, perhaps not," answered his visitor, testily, for he had had a night of much excitement, and, after all, this was no way to speak to a friend, to a partner who had followed his lead always. Friendship should be allowed some latitude, and he had said hundreds of things less carefully to Byng in the past. The past--he was suddenly conscious that Byng had changed within the past few days, and that he seemed to have put restraint on himself. Well, he would get back at him just the same for the snub.

"It's none of my business," he retorted, "but it's a good deal of Adrian Fellowes' business--"

"What is a good deal of Adrian Fellowes' business?"

"Al'mah coming to your rooms. Fellowes is her man. Going to marry her, I suppose," he added, cynically.

Byng's jaw set and his eyes became cold. "Still, I'd suggest your minding your own business, Barry. Your tongue will get you into trouble some day.... You've seen Wallstein this morning--and Fleming?"

Barry replied sullenly, and the day's pressing work began, with the wires busy under the seas.