The Judgment House by Gilbert Parker
Chapter VI. Within the Power-House
At a few moments before six o'clock Byng was shown into Jasmine's sitting-room. As he entered, the man who sat at the end of the front row of stalls the first night of "Manassa" rose to his feet. It was Adrian Fellowes, slim, well groomed, with the colour of an apple in his cheeks, and his gold-brown hair waving harmoniously over his unintellectual head.
"But, Adrian, you are the most selfish man I've ever known," Jasmine was saying as Byng entered.
Either Jasmine did not hear the servant announce Byng, or she pretended not to do so, and the words were said so distinctly that Byng heard them as he came forward.
"Well, he is selfish," she added to Byng, as she shook hands. "I've known him since I was a child, and he has always had the best of everything and given nothing for it." Turning again to Fellowes, she continued: "Yes, it's true. The golden apples just fall into your hands."
"Well, I wish I had the apples, since you give me the reputation," Fellowes replied, and, shaking hands with Byng, who gave him an enveloping look and a friendly greeting, he left the room.
"Such a boy--Adrian," Jasmine said, as they sat down.
"Boy--he looks thirty or more!" remarked Byng in a dry tone.
"He is just thirty. I call him a boy because he is so young in most things that matter to people. He is the most sumptuous person--entirely a luxury. Did you ever see such colouring--like a woman's! But selfish, as I said, and useful, too, is Adrian. Yes, he really is very useful. He would be a private secretary beyond price to any one who needed such an article. He has tact--as you saw--and would make a wonderful master of ceremonies, a splendid comptroller of the household and equerry and lord-chamberlain in one. There, if ever you want such a person, or if--"
She paused. As she did so she was sharply conscious of the contrast between her visitor and Ian Stafford in outward appearance. Byng's clothes were made by good hands, but they were made by tailors who knew their man was not particular, and that he would not "try on." The result was a looseness and carelessness of good things--giving him, in a way, the look of shambling power. Yet in spite of the tie a little crooked, and the trousers a little too large and too short, he had touches of that distinction which power gives. His large hands with the square-pointed fingers had obtrusive veins, but they were not common.
"Certainly," he intervened, smiling indulgently; "if ever I want a comptroller, or an equerry, or a lord-chamberlain, I'll remember 'Adrian.' In these days one can never tell. There's the Sahara. It hasn't been exploited yet. It has no emperor."
"I like you in this mood," she said, eagerly. "You seem on the surface so tremendously practical and sensible. You frighten me a little, and I like to hear you touch things off with raillery. But, seriously, if you can ever put anything in that boy's way, please do so. He has had bad luck--in your own Rand mine. He lost nearly everything in that, speculating, and--"
Byng's face grew serious again. "But he shouldn't have speculated; he should have invested. It wants brains, good fortune, daring and wealth to speculate. But I will remember him, if you say so. I don't like to think that he has been hurt in any enterprise of mine. I'll keep him in mind. Make him one of my secretaries perhaps."
Then Barry Whalen's gossip suddenly came to his mind, and he added: "Fellowes will want to get married some day. That face and manner will lead him into ways from which there's only one outlet."
"Matrimony?" She laughed. "Oh dear, no, Adrian is much too selfish to marry."
"I thought that selfishness was one of the elements of successful marriages. I've been told so."
A curious look stole into her eyes. All at once she wondered if his words had any hidden meaning, and she felt angrily self-conscious; but she instantly put the reflection away, for if ever any man travelled by the straight Roman road of speech and thought, it was he. He had only been dealing in somewhat obvious worldly wisdom.
"You ought not to give encouragement to such ideas by repeating them," she rejoined with raillery. "This is an age of telepathy and suggestion, and the more silent we are the safer we are. Now, please, tell me everything--of the inside, I mean--about Cecil Rhodes and the Raiders. Is Rhodes overwhelmed? And Mr. Chamberlain--you have seen him? The papers say you have spent many hours at the Colonial Office. I suppose you were with him at six o'clock last evening, instead of being here with me, as you promised."
He shook his head. "Rhodes? The bigger a man is the greater the crash when he falls; and no big man falls alone."
She nodded. "There's the sense of power, too, which made everything vibrate with energy, which gave a sense of great empty places filled--of that power withdrawn and collapsed. Even the bad great man gone leaves a sense of desolation behind. Power--power, that is the thing of all," she said, her eyes shining and her small fingers interlacing with eager vitality: "power to set waves of influence in motion which stir the waters on distant shores. That seems to me the most wonderful thing."
Her vitality, her own sense of power, seemed almost incongruous. She was so delicately made, so much the dresden-china shepherdess, that intensity seemed out of relation to her nature. Yet the tiny hands playing before her with natural gestures like those of a child had, too, a decision and a firmness in keeping with the perfectly modelled head and the courageous poise of the body. There was something regnant in her, while, too, there was something sumptuous and sensuous and physically thrilling to the senses. To-day she was dressed in an exquisite blue gown, devoid of all decoration save a little chinchilla fur, which only added to its softness and richness. She wore no jewelry whatever except a sapphire brooch, and her hair shone and waved like gossamer in the sun.
"Well, I don't know," he rejoined, admiration unbounded in his eyes for the picture she was of maidenly charm and womanly beauty, "I should say that goodness was a more wonderful thing. But power is the most common ambition, and only a handful of the hundreds of millions get it in any large way. I used to feel it tremendously when I first heard the stamps pounding the quartz in the mills on the Rand. You never heard that sound? In the clear height of that plateau the air reverberates greatly; and there's nothing on earth which so much gives a sense of power--power that crushes--as the stamps of a great mine pounding away night and day. There they go, thundering on, till it seems to you that some unearthly power is hammering the world into shape. You get up and go to the window and look out into the night. There's the deep blue sky--blue like nothing you ever saw in any other sky, and the stars so bright and big, and so near, that you feel you could reach up and pluck one with your hand; and just over the little hill are the lights of the stamp-mills, the smoke and the mad red flare, the roar of great hammers as they crush, crush, crush; while the vibration of the earth makes you feel that you are living in a world of Titans."
"And when it all stops?" she asked, almost breathlessly. "When the stamps pound no more, and the power is withdrawn? It is empty and desolate--and frightening?"
"It is anything you like. If all the mills all at once, with the thousands of stamps on the Rand reef, were to stop suddenly, and the smoke and the red flare were to die, it would be frightening in more ways than one. But I see what you mean. There might be a sense of peace, but the minds and bodies which had been vibrating with the stir of power would feel that the soul had gone out of things, and they would dwindle too."
"If Rhodes should fall, if the stamps on the Rand should cease--?"
He got to his feet. "Either is possible, maybe probable; and I don't want to think of it. As you say, there'd be a ghastly sense of emptiness and a deadly kind of peace." He smiled bitterly.
She rose now also, and fingering some flowers in a vase, arranging them afresh, said: "Well, this Jameson Raid, if it is proved that Cecil Rhodes is mixed up in it, will it injure you greatly--I mean your practical interests?"
He stood musing for a moment. "It's difficult to say at this distance. One must be on the spot to make a proper estimate. Anything may happen."
She was evidently anxious to ask him a question, but hesitated. At last she ventured, and her breath came a little shorter as she spoke.
"I suppose you wish you were in South Africa now. You could do so much to straighten things out, to prevent the worst. The papers say you have a political mind--the statesman's intelligence, the Times said. That letter you wrote, that speech you made at the Chamber of Commerce dinner--"
She watched him, dreading what his answer might be. There was silence for a moment, then he answered: "Fleming is going to South Africa, not myself. I stay here to do Wallstein's work. I was going, but Wallstein was taken ill suddenly. So I stay--I stay."
She sank down in her chair, going a little pale from excitement. The whiteness of her skin gave a delicate beauty to the faint rose of her cheeks--that rose-pink which never was to fade entirely from her face while life was left to her.
"If it had been necessary, when would you have gone?" she asked.
"At once. Fleming goes to-morrow," he added.
She looked slowly up at him. "Wallstein is a new name for a special Providence," she murmured, and the colour came back to her face. "We need you here. We--"
Suddenly a thought flashed into his mind and suffused his face. He was conscious of that perfume which clung to whatever she touched. It stole to his senses and intoxicated them. He looked at her with enamoured eyes. He had the heart of a boy, the impulsiveness of a nature which had been unschooled in women's ways. Weaknesses in other directions had taught him much, but experiences with her sex had been few. The designs of other women had been patent to him, and he had been invincible to all attack; but here was a girl who, with her friendly little fortune and her beauty, could marry with no difficulty; who, he had heard, could pick and choose, and had so far rejected all comers; and who, if she had shown preference at all, had shown it for a poor man like Ian Stafford. She had courage and simplicity and a downright mind; that was clear. And she was capable. She had a love for big things, for the things that mattered. Every word she had ever said to him had understanding, not of the world alone, and of life, but of himself, Rudyard Byng. She grasped exactly what he would say, and made him say things he would never have thought of saying to any one else. She drew him out, made the most of him, made him think. Other women only tried to make him feel. If he had had a girl like this beside him during the last ten years, how many wasted hours would have been saved, how many bottles of champagne would not have been opened, how many wild nights would have been spent differently!
Too good, too fine for him--yes, a hundred times, but he would try to make it up to her, if such a girl as this could endure him. He was not handsome, he was not clever, so he said to himself, but he had a little power. That he had to some degree rough power, of course, but power; and she loved power, force. Had she not said so, shown it, but a moment before? Was it possible that she was really interested in him, perhaps because he was different from the average Englishman and not of a general pattern? She was a woman of brains, of great individuality, and his own individuality might influence her. It was too good to be true; but there had ever been something of the gambler in him, and he had always plunged. If he ever had a conviction he acted on it instantly, staked everything, when that conviction got into his inner being. It was not, perhaps, a good way, and it had failed often enough; but it was his way, and he had done according to the light and the impulse that were in him. He had no diplomacy, he had only purpose.
He came over to her. "If I had gone to South Africa would you have remembered my name for a month?" he asked with determination and meaning.
"My friends never suffer lunar eclipse," she answered, gaily. "Dear sir, I am called Hold-Fast. My friends are century-flowers and are always blooming."
"You count me among your friends?"
"I hope so. You will let me make all England envious of me, won't you? I never did you any harm, and I do want to have a hero in my tiny circle."
"A hero--you mean me? Well, I begin to think I have some courage when I ask you to let me inside your 'tiny' circle. I suppose most people would think it audacity, not courage."
"You seem not to be aware what an important person you are--how almost sensationally important. Why, I am only a pebble on a shore like yours, a little unknown slip of a girl who babbles, and babbles in vain."
She got to her feet now. "Oh, but believe me, believe me," she said, with sweet and sudden earnestness, "I am prouder than I can say that you will let me be a friend of yours! I like men who have done things, who do things. My grandfather did big, world-wide things, and--"
"Yes, I know; I met your grandfather once. He was a big man, big as can be. He had the world by the ear always."
"He spoiled me for the commonplace," she replied. "If I had lived in Pizarro's time, I'd have gone to Peru with him, the splendid robber."
He answered with the eager frankness and humour of a boy. "If you mean to be a friend of mine, there are those who will think that in one way you have fulfilled your ambition, for they say I've spoiled the Peruvians, too."
"I like you when you say things like that," she murmured. "If you said them often--"
She looked at him archly, and her eyes brimmed with amusement and excitement.
Suddenly he caught both her hands in his and his eyes burned. "Will you--"
He paused. His courage forsook him. Boldness had its limit. He feared a repulse which could never be overcome. "Will you, and all of you here, come down to my place in Wales next week?" he blundered out.
She was glad he had faltered. It was too bewildering. She dared not yet face the question she had seen he was about to ask. Power--yes, he could give her that; but power was the craving of an ambitious soul. There were other things. There was the desire of the heart, the longing which came with music and the whispering trees and the bright stars, the girlish dreams of ardent love and the garlands of youth and joy--and Ian Stafford.
Suddenly she drew herself together. She was conscious that the servant was entering the room with a letter.
"The messenger is waiting," the servant said.
With an apology she opened the note slowly as Byng turned to the fire. She read the page with a strange, tense look, closing her eyes at last with a slight sense of dizziness. Then she said to the servant:
"Tell the messenger to wait. I will write an answer."
"I am sure we shall be glad to go to you in Wales next week," she added, turning to Byng again. "But won't you be far away from the centre of things in Wales?"
"I've had the telegraph and a private telephone wire to London put in. I shall be as near the centre as though I lived in Grosvenor Square; and there are always special trains."
"Special trains--oh, but it's wonderful to have power to do things like that! When do you go down?" she asked.
She smiled radiantly. She saw that he was angry with himself for his cowardice just now, and she tried to restore him. "Please, will you telephone me when you arrive at your castle? I should like the experience of telephoning by private wire to Wales."
He brightened. "Certainly, if you really wish it. I shall arrive at ten to-morrow night, and I'll telephone you at eleven."
"Splendid--splendid! I'll be alone in my room then. I've got a telephone instrument there, and so we could say good-night."
"So we can say good-night," he repeated in a low voice, and he held out his hand in good-bye. When he had gone, with a new, great hope in his heart, she sat down and tremblingly re-opened the note she had received a moment before.
"I am going abroad" it read--"to Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and St. Petersburg. I think I've got my chance at last. I want to see you before I go--this evening, Jasmine. May I?"
It was signed "Ian."
"Fate is stronger than we are," she murmured; "and Fate is not kind to you, Ian," she added, wearily, a wan look coming into her face.
"Mio destino," she said at last--"mio destino!" But who was her destiny--which of the two who loved her?