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As he entered the new sphere of Jasmine's influence, charm, and existence, Ian Stafford's mind became flooded by new impressions. He was not easily moved by vastness or splendour. His ducal grandfather's houses were palaces, the estates were a fair slice of two counties, and many of his relatives had sumptuous homes stored with priceless legacies of art. He had approached the great house which Byng had built for himself with some trepidation; for though Byng came of people whose names counted for a good deal in the north of England, still, in newly acquired fortunes made suddenly in new lands there was something that coarsened taste--an unmodulated, if not a garish, elegance which "hit you in the eye," as he had put it to himself. He asked himself why Byng had not been content to buy one of the great mansions which could always be had in London for a price, where time had softened all the outlines, had given that subdued harmony in architecture which only belongs to age. Byng could not buy with any money those wonderful Adam's mantels, over-mantels and ceilings which had a glory quite their own. There must, therefore, be an air of newness in the new mansion, which was too much in keeping with the new money, the gold as yet not worn smooth by handling, the staring, brand-new sovereigns looking like impostors.
As he came upon the great house, however, in the soft light of evening, he was conscious of no violence done to his artistic sense. It was a big building, severely simple in design, yet with the rich grace, spacious solidity, and decorative relief of an Italian palace: compact, generous, traditionally genuine and wonderfully proportionate.
"Egad, Byng, you had a good architect--and good sense!" he said to himself. "It's the real thing; and he did it before Jasmine came on the scene too."
The outside of the house was Byng's, but the inside would, in the essentials, of course, be hers; and he would see what he would see.
When the door opened, it came to him instantly that the inside and outside were in harmony. How complete was that harmony remained to be seen, but an apparently unstudied and delightful reticence was noticeable at once. The newness had been rubbed off the gold somehow, and the old furniture--Italian, Spanish--which relieved the spaciousness of the entrance gave an air of Time and Time's eloquence to this three-year-old product of modern architectural skill.
As he passed on, he had more than a glimpse of the ball-room, which maintained the dignity and the refined beauty of the staircase and the hallways; and only in the insistent audacity and intemperate colouring of some Rubens pictures did he find anything of that inherent tendency to exaggeration and Oriental magnificence behind the really delicate artistic faculties possessed by Jasmine.
The drawing-room was charming. It was not quite perfect, however. It was too manifestly and studiously arranged, and it had the finnicking exactness of the favourite gallery of some connoisseur. For its nobility of form, its deft and wise softness of colouring, its half-smothered Italian joyousness of design in ceiling and cornice, the arrangement of choice and exquisite furniture was too careful, too much like the stage. He smiled at the sight of it, for he saw and knew that Jasmine had had his playful criticism of her occasionally flamboyant taste in mind, and that she had over-revised, as it were. She had, like a literary artist, polished and refined and stippled the effect, till something of personal touch had gone, and there remained classic elegance without the sting of life and the idiosyncrasy of its creator's imperfections. No, the drawing-room would not quite do, though it was near the perfect thing. His judgment was not yet complete, however. When he was shown into Jasmine's sitting-room his breath came a little quicker, for here would be the real test; and curiosity was stirring greatly in him.
Yes, here was the woman herself, wilful, original, delightful, with a flower-like delicacy joined to a determined and gorgeous audacity. Luxury was heaped on luxury, in soft lights from Indian lamps and lanterns, in the great divan, the deep lounge, the piled-up cushions, the piano littered with incongruous if artistic bijouterie; but everywhere, everywhere, books in those appealing bindings and with that paper so dear to every lover of literature. Instinctively he picked them up one by one, and most of them were affectionately marked by marginal notes of criticism, approval, or reference; and all showing the eager, ardent mind of one who loved books. He noticed, however, that most of the books he had seen before, and some of them he had read with her in the days which were gone forever. Indeed, in one of them he found some of his own pencilled marginal notes, beneath which she had written her insistent opinions, sometimes with amazing point. There were few new books, and they were mostly novels; and it was borne in on him that not many of these annotated books belonged to the past three years. The millions had come, the power and the place; but something had gone with their coming.
He was turning over the pages of a volume of Browning when she entered; and she had an instant to note the grace and manly dignity of his figure, the poise of the intellectual head--the type of a perfect, well-bred animal, with the accomplishment of a man of purpose and executive design. A little frown of trouble came to her forehead, but she drove it away with a merry laugh, as he turned at the rustle of her skirts and came forward.
He noted her blue dress, he guessed the reason she had put it on; and he made an inward comment of scorn. It was the same blue, and it was near the same style of the dress she wore the last time he saw her. She watched to see whether it made any impression on him, and was piqued to observe that he who had in that far past always swept her with an admiring, discriminating, and deferential glance, now only gave her deference of a courteous but perfunctory kind. It made the note to all she said and did that evening--the daring, the brilliance, the light allusion to past scenes and happenings, the skilful comment on the present, the joyous dominance of a position made supreme by beauty and by gold; behind which were anger and bitterness, and wild and desperate revolt.
For, if love was dead in him, and respect, and all that makes man's association with woman worth while, humiliation and the sting of punishment and penalty were alive in her, flaying her spirit, rousing that mad streak which was in her grandfather, who had had many a combat, the outcome of wild elements of passion in him. She was not happy; she had never been happy since she married Rudyard Byng; yet she had said to herself so often that she might have been at peace, in a sense, had it not been for the letter which Ian Stafford had written her, when she turned from him to the man she married.
The passionate resolve to compel him to reproach himself in soul for his merciless, if subtle, indictment of her to bring him to the old place where he had knelt in spirit so long ago--ah, it was so long!--came to her. Self-indulgent and pitifully mean as she had been, still this man had influenced her more than any other in the world--in that region where the best of herself lay, the place to which her eyes had turned always when she wanted a consoling hour. He belonged to her realm of the imagination, of thought, of insight, of intellectual passions and the desires of the soul. Far above any physical attraction Ian had ever possessed for her was the deep conviction that he gave her mind what no one else gave it, that he was the being who knew the song her spirit sang.... He should not go forever from her and with so cynical a completeness. He should return; he should not triumph in his self-righteousness, be a living reproach to her always by his careless indifference to everything that had ever been between them. If he treated her so because of what she had done to him, with what savagery might not she be treated, if all that had happened in the last three years were open as a book before him!
Her husband--she had not thought of that. So much had happened in the past three years; there had been so much adulation and worship and daring assault upon her heart--or emotions--from quarters of unusual distinction, that the finest sense of her was blunted, and true proportions were lost. Rudyard ought never to have made that five months' visit to South Africa a year before, leaving her alone to make the fight against the forces round her. Those five months had brought a change in her, had made her indignant at times against Rudyard.
"Why did he go to South Africa? Why did he not take me with him? Why did he leave me here alone?" she had asked herself. She did not realize that there would have been no fighting at all, that all the forces contending against her purity and devotion would never have gathered at her feet and washed against the shores of her resolution, if she had loved Rudyard Byng when she married him as she might have loved him, ought to have loved him.
The faithful love unconsciously announces its fidelity, and men instinctively are aware of it, and leave it unassailed. It is the imperfect love which subtly invites the siege, which makes the call upon human interest, selfishness, or sympathy, so often without intended unscrupulousness at first. She had escaped the suspicion, if not the censure, of the world--or so she thought; and in the main she was right. But she was now embarked on an enterprise which never would have been begun, if she had not gambled with her heart and soul three years ago; if she had not dragged away the veil from her inner self, putting her at the mercy of one who could say, "I know you--what you are."
Just before they went to the dining-room Byng came in and cheerily greeted Stafford, apologizing for having forgotten his engagement to dine with Wallstein.
"But you and Jasmine will have much to talk about," he said--"such old friends as you are; and fond of books and art and music and all that kind of thing.... Glad to see you looking so well, Stafford," he continued. "They say you are the coming man. Well, au revoir. I hope Jasmine will give you a good dinner." Presently he was gone--in a heavy movement of good-nature and magnanimity.
"Changed--greatly changed, and not for the better," said Ian Stafford to himself." This life has told on him. The bronze of the veld has vanished, and other things are disappearing."
At the table with the lights and the flowers and the exquisite appointments, with appetite flattered and tempted by a dinner of rare simplicity and perfect cooking, Jasmine was radiant, amusing, and stimulating in her old way. She had never seemed to him so much a mistress of delicate satire and allusiveness. He rose to the combat with an alacrity made more agile by considerable abstinence, for clever women were few, and real talk was the rarest occurrence in his life, save with men in his own profession chiefly.
But later, in her sitting-room, after the coffee had come, there was a change, and the transition was made with much skill and sensitiveness. Into Jasmine's voice there came another and more reflective note, and the drift of the conversation changed. Books brought the new current; and soon she had him moving almost unconsciously among old scenes, recalling old contests of ideas, and venturing on bold reproductions of past intellectual ideals. But though they were in this dangerous field of the past, he did not once betray a sign of feeling, not even when, poring over Coventry Patmore's poems, her hand touched his, and she read the lines which they had read together so long ago, with no thought of any significance to themselves:
"With all my will, but much against my heart,
We two now part.
My very Dear,
Our solace is the sad road lies so clear. . .
Go thou to East, I West.
We will not say
There's any hope, it is so far away. . ."
He read the verses with a smile of quiet enjoyment, saying, when he had finished:
"A really moving and intimate piece of work. I wonder what their story was--a hopeless love, of course. An affaire--an 'episode'--London ladies now call such things."
"You find London has changed much since you went away--in three years only?" she asked.
"Three years--why, it's an eternity, or a minute, as you are obliged to live it. In penal servitude it is centuries, in the Appian Way of pleasure it is a sunrise moment. Actual time has nothing to do with the clock."
She looked up to the little gold-lacquered clock on the mantel-piece. "See, it is going to strike," she said. As she spoke, the little silver hammer softly struck. "That is the clock-time, but what time is it really--for you, for instance?"
"In Elysium there is no time," he murmured with a gallantry so intentionally obvious and artificial that her pulses beat with anger.
"It is wonderful, then, how you managed the dinner-hour so exactly. You did not miss it by a fraction."
"It is only when you enter Elysium that there is no time. It was eight o'clock when I arrived--by the world's time. Since then I have been dead to time--and the world."
"You do not suggest that you are in heaven?" she asked, ironically.
"Nothing so extreme as that. All extremes are violent."
"Ah, the middle place--then you are in purgatory?"
"But what should you be doing in purgatory? Or have you only come with a drop of water to cool the tongue of Dives?" His voice trailed along so coolly that it incensed her further.
"Certainly Dives' tongue is blistering," she said with great effort to still the raging tumult within her. "Yet I would not cool it if I could."
Suddenly the anger seemed to die out of her, and she looked at him as she did in the days before Rudyard Byng came across her path--eagerly, childishly, eloquently, inquiringly. He was the one man who satisfied the intellectual and temperamental side of her; and he had taught her more than any one else in the world. She realized that she had "Tossed him violently like a ball into a far country," and that she had not now a vestige of power over him--either of his senses or his mind; that he was master of the situation. But was it so that there was a man whose senses could not be touched when all else failed? She was very woman, eager for the power which she had lost, and power was hard to get--by what devious ways had she travelled to find it!
As they leaned over a book of coloured prints of Gainsborough, Romney, and Vandyke, her soft, warm breast touched his arm and shoulder, a strand of her cobweb, golden hair swept his cheek, and a sigh came from her lips, so like those of that lass who caught and held her Nelson to the end, and died at last in poverty, friendless, homeless, and alone. Did he fancy that he heard a word breathing through her sigh--his name, Ian? For one instant the wild, cynical desire came over him to turn and clasp her in his arms, to press those lips which never but once he had kissed, and that was when she had plighted her secret troth to him, and had broken it for three million pounds. Why not? She was a woman, she was beautiful, she was a siren who had lured him and used him and tossed him by. Why not? All her art was now used, the art of the born coquette which had been exquisitely cultivated since she was a child, to bring him back to her feet--to the feet of the wife of Rudyard Byng. Why not? For an instant he had the dark impulse to treat her as she deserved, and take a kiss "as long as my exile, as sweet as my revenge"; but then the bitter memory came that this was the woman to whom he had given the best of which he was capable and the promise of that other best which time and love and life truly lived might accomplish; and the wild thing died in him.
The fever fled, and his senses became as cold as the statue of Andromeda on the pedestal at his hand. He looked at her. He did not for the moment realize that she was in reality only a girl, a child in so much; wilful, capricious, unregulated in some ways, with the hereditary taint of a distorted moral sense, and yet able, intuitive and wise, in so many aspects of life and conversation. Looking, he determined that she should never have that absolution which any outward or inward renewal of devotion would give her. Scorn was too deep--that arrogant, cruel, adventitious attribute of the sinner who has not committed the same sin as the person he despises--
"Sweet is the refuge of scorn."
His scorn was too sweet; and for the relish of it on his tongue, the price must be paid one way or another. The sin of broken faith she had sinned had been the fruit of a great temptation, meaning more to a woman, a hundred times, than to a man. For a man there is always present the chance of winning a vast fortune and the power that it brings; but it can seldom come to a woman except through marriage. It ill became him to be self-righteous, for his life had not been impeccable--
"The shaft of slander shot
Missed only the right blot!"
Something of this came to him suddenly now as she drew away from him with a sense of humiliation, and a tear came unbidden to her eye.
She wiped the tear away, hastily, as there came a slight tapping at the door, and Krool entered, his glance enveloping them both in one lightning survey--like the instinct of the dweller in wild places of the earth, who feels danger where all is most quiet, and ever scans the veld or bush with the involuntary vigilance belonging to the life. His look rested on Jasmine for a moment before he spoke, and Stafford inwardly observed that here was an enemy to the young wife whose hatred was deep. He was conscious, too, that Jasmine realized the antipathy. Indeed, she had done so from the first days she had seen Krool, and had endeavoured, without success, to induce Byng to send the man back to South Africa, and to leave him there last year when he went again to Johannesburg. It was the only thing in which Byng had proved invulnerable, and Krool had remained a menace which she vaguely felt and tried to conquer, which, in vain, Adrian Fellowes had endeavoured to remove. For in the years in which Fellowes had been Byng's secretary his relations with Krool seemed amiable and he had made light of Jasmine's prejudices.
"The butler is out and they come me," Krool said. "Mr. Stafford's servant is here. There is a girl for to see him, if he will let. The boy, Jigger, his name. Something happens."
Stafford frowned, then turned to Jasmine. He told her who Jigger was, and of the incident the day before, adding that he had no idea of the reason for the visit; but it must be important, or nothing would have induced his servant to fetch the girl.
"I will come," he said to Krool, but Jasmine's curiosity was roused.
"Won't you see her here?" she asked.
Stafford nodded assent, and presently Krool showed the girl into the room.
For an instant she stood embarrassed and confused, then she addressed herself to Stafford. "I'm Lou--Jigger's sister," she said, with white lips. "I come to ask if you'd go to him. 'E's been hurt bad--knocked down by a fire-engine, and the doctor says 'e can't live. 'E made yer a promise, and 'e wanted me to tell yer that 'e meant to keep it; but if so be as you'd come, and wouldn't mind a-comin', 'e'd tell yer himself. 'E made that free becos 'e had brekfis wiv ye. 'E's all right--the best as ever--the top best." Suddenly the tears flooded her eyes and streamed down her pale cheeks. "Oh, 'e was the best--my Gawd, 'e was the best! If it 'd make 'im die happy, you'd come, y'r gryce, wouldn't y'r?"
Child of the slums as she was, she was exceedingly comely and was simply and respectably dressed. Her eyes were big and brown like Stafford's; her face was a delicate oval, and her hair was a deep black, waving freely over a strong, broad forehead. It was her speech that betrayed her; otherwise she was little like the flower-girl that Adrian Fellowes had introduced to Al'mah, who had got her a place in the chorus of the opera and had also given her personal care and friendly help.
"Where is he? In the hospital?" Stafford asked.
"It was just beside our own 'ome it 'appened. We got two rooms now, Jigger and me. 'E was took in there. The doctor come, but 'e says it ain't no use. 'E didn't seem to care much, and 'e didn't give no 'ope, not even when I said I'd give him all me wages for a year."
Jasmine was beside her now, wiping her tears and holding her hand, her impulsive nature stirred, her heart throbbing with desire to help. Suddenly she remembered what Rudyard had said up-stairs three hours ago, that there wasn't a single person in the world to whom they had done an act which was truly and purely personal during the past three years: and she had a tremulous desire to help this crude, mothering, passionately pitiful girl.
"What will you do?" Jasmine said to Stafford.
"I will go at once. Tell my servant to have up a cab," he said to Krool, who stood outside the door.
"Truly, 'e will be glad," the girl exclaimed. "'E told me about the suvring, and Sunday-week for brekfis," she murmured. "You'll never miss the time, y'r gryce. Gawd knows you'll not miss it--an' 'e ain't got much left."
"I will go, too--if you will let me," said Jasmine to Stafford. "You must let me go. I want to help--so much."
"No, you must not come," he replied. "I will pick up a surgeon in Harley Street, and we'll see if it is as hopeless as she says. But you must not come to-night. To-morrow, certainly, to-morrow, if you will. Perhaps you can do some good then. I will let you know."
He held out his hand to say good-bye, as the girl passed out with Jasmine's kiss on her cheek and a comforting assurance of help.
Jasmine did not press her request. First there was the fact that Rudyard did not know, and might strongly disapprove; and secondly, somehow, she had got nearer to Stafford in the last few minutes than in all the previous hours since they had met again. Nowhere, by all her art, had she herself touched him, or opened up in his nature one tiny stream of feeling; but this girl's story and this piteous incident had softened him, had broken down the barriers which had checked and baffled her. There was something almost gentle in his smile as he said good-bye, and she thought she detected warmth in the clasp of his hand.
Left alone, she sat in the silence, pondering as she had not pondered in the past three years. These few days in town, out of the season, were sandwiched between social functions from which their lives were never free. They had ever passed from event to event like minor royalties with endless little ceremonies and hospitalities; and there had been so little time to meditate--had there even been the wish?
The house was very still, and the far-off, muffled rumble of omnibuses and cabs gave a background of dignity to this interior peace and luxurious quiet. For long she sat unmoving--nearly two hours--alone with her inmost thoughts. Then she went to the little piano in the corner where stood the statue of Andromeda, and began to play softly. Her fingers crept over the keys, playing snatches of things she knew years before, improvising soft, passionate little movements. She took no note of time. At last the clock struck twelve, and still she sat there playing. Then she began to sing a song which Alice Tynemouth had written and set to music two years before. It was simply yet passionately written, and the wail of anguished disappointment, of wasted chances was in it--
"Once in the twilight of the Austrian hills,
A word came to me, beautiful and good;
If I had spoken it, that message of the stars,
Love would have filled thy blood:
Love would have sent thee pulsing to my arms,
Thy heart a nestling bird;
A moment fled--it passed:
I seek in vain
For that forgotten word."
In the last notes the voice rose in passionate pain, and died away into an aching silence.
She leaned her arms on the piano in front of her and laid her forehead on them.
"When will it all end--what will become of me!" she cried in pain that strangled her heart. "I am so bad--so bad. I was doomed from the beginning. I always felt it so--always, even when things were brightest. I am the child of black Destiny. For me--there is nothing, nothing, for me. The straight path was before me, and I would not walk in it."
With a gesture of despair, and a sudden faintness, she got up and went over to the tray of spirits and liqueurs which had been brought in with the coffee. Pouring out a liqueur-glass of brandy, she was about to drink it, when her ear became attracted by a noise without, a curious stumbling, shuffling sound. She put down the glass, went to the door that opened into the hall, and looked out and down. One light was still burning below, and she could see distinctly. A man was clumsily, heavily, ascending the staircase, holding on to the balustrade. He was singing to himself, breaking into the maudlin harmony with an occasional laugh--
"For this is the way we do it on the veld,
When the band begins to play;
With one bottle on the table and one below the belt,
When the band begins to play--"
It was Rudyard, and he was drunk--almost helplessly drunk.
A cry of pain rose to her lips, but her trembling hand stopped it. With a shudder she turned back to her sitting-room. Throwing herself on the divan where she had sat with Ian Stafford, she buried her face in her arms. The hours went by.
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