The Judgment House by Gilbert Parker
Chapter VIII. "He Shall Not Treat Me So"
The air of the late September morning smote Stafford's cheeks pleasantly, and his spirits rose as he walked up St. James's Street. His step quickened imperceptibly to himself, and he nodded to or shook hands with half a dozen people before he reached Piccadilly. Here he completed the purchases for his school-boy nephews, and then he went to a sweet-shop in Regent Street to get chocolates for his young relatives. As he entered the place he was suddenly brought to a standstill, for not two dozen yards away at a counter was Jasmine Byng.
She did not see him enter, and he had time to note what matrimony, and the three years and the three million pounds, had done to her. She was radiant and exquisite, a little paler, a little more complete, but increasingly graceful and perfectly appointed. Her dress was of dark green, of a most delicate shade, and with the clinging softness and texture of velvet. She wore a jacket of the same material, and a single brilliant ornament at her throat relieved the simplicity. In the hat, too, one big solitary emerald shone against the lighter green.
She was talking now with animation and amusement to the shop-girl who was supplying her with sweets, and every attendant was watching her with interest and pleasure. Stafford reflected that this was always her way: wherever she went she attracted attention, drew interest, magnetized the onlooker. Nothing had changed in her. nothing of charm and beauty and eloquence,--how eloquent she had always been!--of esprit, had gone from her; nothing. Presently she turned her face full toward him, still not seeing him, half hidden as he was behind some piled-up tables in the centre of the shop.
Nothing changed? Yes, instantly he was aware of a change, in the eyes, at the mouth. An elusive, vague, distant kind of disturbance--he could not say trouble--had stolen into her eyes, had taken possession of the corners of the mouth; and he was conscious of something exotic, self-indulgent, and "emancipated." She had always been self-indulgent and selfish, and, in a wilful, innocent way, emancipated, in the old days; but here was a different, a fuller, a more daring expression of these qualities.... Ah, he had it now! That elusive something was a lurking recklessness, which, perhaps, was not bold enough yet to leap into full exercise, or even to recognize itself.
So this was she to whom he had given the best of which he had been capable--not a very noble or priceless best, he was willing to acknowledge, but a kind of guarantee of the future, the nucleus of fuller things. As he looked at her now his heart did not beat faster, his pulses did not quicken, his eye did not soften, he did not even wish himself away. Love was as dead as last year's leaves--so dead that no spirit of resentment, or humiliation, or pain of heart was in his breast at this sight of her again. On the contrary, he was conscious of a perfect mastery of himself, of being easily superior to the situation.
Love was dead; youth was dead; the desire that beats in the veins of the young was dead; his disillusion and disappointment and contempt for one woman had not driven him, as it so often does, to other women--to that wild waste which leaves behind it a barren and ill-natured soil exhausted of its power, of its generous and native health. There was a strange apathy in his senses, an emotional stillness, as it were, the atrophy of all the passionate elements of his nature. But because of this he was the better poised, the more evenly balanced, the more perceptive. His eyes were not blurred or dimmed by any stress of emotion, his mind worked in a cool quiet, and his forward tread had leisurely decision and grace. He had sunk one part of himself far below the level of activity or sensation, while new resolves, new powers of mind, new designs were set in motion to make his career a real and striking success. He had the most friendly ear and the full confidence of the Prime Minister, who was also Foreign Secretary--he had got that far; and now, if one of his great international schemes could but be completed, an ambassadorship would be his reward, and one of first-class importance. The three years had done much for him in a worldly way, wonderfully much.
As he looked at the woman who had shaken his life to the centre--not by her rejection of him, but by the fashion of it, the utter selfishness and cold-blooded calculation of it, he knew that love's fires were out, and that he could meet her without the agitation of a single nerve. He despised her, but he could make allowance for her. He knew the strain that was in her, got from her brilliant and rather plangent grandfather. He knew the temptation of a vast fortune, the power that it would bring--and the notoriety, too, again an inheritance from her grandfather. He was not without magnanimity, and he could the more easily exercise it because his pulses of emotion were still.
She was by nature the most brilliantly endowed woman he had ever met, the most naturally perceptive and artistic, albeit there was a touch of gorgeousness to the inherent artistry which time, training and experience would have chastened. Would have chastened? Was it not, then, chastened? Looking at her now, he knew that it was not. It was still there, he felt; but how much else was also there--of charm, of elusiveness, of wit, of mental adroitness, of joyous eagerness to discover a new thought or a new thing! She was a creature of rare splendour, variety and vanity.
Why should he deny himself the pleasure of her society? His intellectual side would always be stimulated by her, she would always "incite him to mental riot," as she had often said. Time had flown, love had flown, and passion was dead; but friendship stayed. Yes, friendship stayed--in spite of all. Her conduct had made him blush for her, had covered him with shame, but she was a woman, and therefore weak--he had come to that now. She was on a lower plateau of honour, and therefore she must be--not forgiven--that was too banal; but she must be accepted as she was. And, after all, there could be no more deception; for opportunity and occasion no longer existed. He would go and speak to her now.
At that moment he was aware that she had caught sight of him, and that she was startled. She had not known of his return to England, and she was suddenly overwhelmed by confusion. The words of the letter he had written her when she had thrown him over rushed through her brain now, and hurt her as much as they did the first day they had been received. She became a little pale, and turned as though to find some other egress from the shop. There being none, there was but one course, and that was to go out as though she had not seen him. He had not even been moved at all at seeing her; but with her it was different. She was disturbed--in her vanity? In her peace? In her pride? In her senses? In her heart? In any, or each, or all? But she was disturbed: her equilibrium was shaken. He had scorched her soul by that letter to her, so gently cold, so incisive, so subtly cruel, so deadly in its irony, so final--so final.
She was ashamed, and no one else in the world but Ian Stafford could so have shamed her. Power had been given to her, the power of great riches--the three millions had been really four--and everything and everybody, almost, was deferential towards her. Had it brought her happiness, or content, or joy? It had brought her excitement--much of that--and elation, and opportunity to do a thousand things, and to fatigue herself in a thousand ways; but had it brought happiness?
If it had, the face of this man who was once so much to her, and whom she had flung into outer darkness, was sufficient to cast a cloud over it. She felt herself grow suddenly weak, but she determined to go out of the place without appearing to see him.
He was conscious of it all, saw it out of a corner of his eye, and as she started forward, he turned, deliberately walked towards her, and, with a cheerful smile, held out his hand.
"Now, what good fortune!" he said, spiritedly. "Life plays no tricks, practices no deception this time. In a book she'd have made us meet on a grand staircase or at a court ball."
As he said this, he shook her hand warmly, and again and again, as would be fitting with old friends. He had determined to be master of the situation, and to turn the moment to the credit of his account--not hers; and it was easy to do it, for love was dead, and the memory of love atrophied.
Colour came back to her face. Confusion was dispelled, a quick and grateful animation took possession of her, to be replaced an instant after by the disconcerting reflection that there was in his face or manner not the faintest sign of emotion or embarrassment. From his attitude they might have been good friends who had not met for some time; nothing more.
"Yes, what a place to meet!" she said. "It really ought to have been at a green-grocer's, and the apotheosis of the commonplace would have been celebrated. But when did you return? How long do you remain in England?"
Ah, the sense of relief to feel that he was not reproaching her for anything, not impeaching her by an injured tone and manner, which so many other men had assumed with infinitely less right or cause than he!
"I came back thirty-six hours ago, and I stay at the will of the master-mind," he answered.
The old whimsical look came into her face, the old sudden flash which always lighted her eyes when a daring phrase was born in her mind, and she instantly retorted:
"The master-mind--how self-centred you are!"
Whatever had happened, certainly the old touch of intellectual diablerie was still hers, and he laughed good-humoredly. Yes, she might be this or that, she might be false or true, she might be one who had sold herself for mammon, and had not paid tribute to the one great natural principle of being, to give life to the world, man and woman perpetuating man and woman; but she was stimulating and delightful without effort.
"And what are you doing these days?" he asked. "One never hears of you now."
This was cruel, but she knew that he was "inciting her to riot," and she replied: "That's because you are so secluded--in your kindergarten for misfit statesmen. Abandon knowledge, all ye who enter there!"
It was the old flint and steel, but the sparks were not bright enough to light the tinder of emotion. She knew it, for he was cool and buoyant and really unconcerned, and she was feverish--and determined.
"You still make life worth living," he answered, gaily.
"It is not an occupation I would choose," she replied. "It is sure to make one a host of enemies."
"So many of us make our careers by accident," he rejoined.
"Certainly I made mine not by design," she replied instantly; and there was an undercurrent of meaning in it which he was not slow to notice; but he disregarded her first attempt to justify, however vaguely, her murderous treatment of him.
"But your career is not yet begun," he remarked.
Her eyes flashed--was it anger, or pique, or hurt, or merely the fire of intellectual combat?
"I am married," she said, defiantly, in direct retort.
"That is not a career--it is casual exploration in a dark continent," he rejoined.
"Come and say that to my husband," she replied, boldly. Suddenly a thought lighted her eyes. "Are you by any chance free to-morrow night to dine with us--quite, quite en famille' Rudyard will be glad to see you--and hear you," she added, teasingly.
He was amused. He felt how much he had really piqued her and provoked her by showing her so plainly that she had lost every vestige of the ancient power over him; and he saw no reason why he should not spend an evening where she sparkled.
"I am free, and will come with pleasure," he replied.
"That is delightful," she rejoined, "and please bring a box of bons mots with you. But you will come, then--?" She was going to add, "Ian," but she paused.
"Yes, I'll come--Jasmine," he answered, coolly, having read her hesitation aright.
She flushed, was embarrassed and piqued, but with a smile and a nod she left him.
In her carriage, however, her breath came quick and fast, her tiny hand clenched, her face flushed, and there was a devastating fire in her eyes.
"He shall not treat me so. He shall show some feeling. He shall--he shall--he shall!" she gasped, angrily.