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"The Baas--where the Baas?"
Barry Whalen turned with an angry snort to the figure in the doorway. "Here's the sweet Krool again," he said. "Here's the faithful, loyal offspring of the Vaal and the karoo, the bulwark of the Baas.... For God's sake smile for once in your life!" he growled with an oath, and, snatching up a glass of whiskey and water, threw the contents at the half-caste.
Krool did not stir, and some of the liquid caught him in the face. Slowly he drew out an old yellow handkerchief and wiped his cheeks, his eyes fixed with a kind of impersonal scrutiny on Barry Whalen and the scene before him.
The night was well forward, and an air of recklessness and dissipation pervaded this splendid room in De Lancy Scovel's house. The air was thick with tobacco-smoke, trays were scattered about, laden with stubs of cigars and ashes, and empty and half-filled glasses were everywhere. Some of the party had already gone, their gaming instinct satisfied for the night, their pockets lighter than when they came; and the tables where they had sat were in a state of disorder more suggestive of a "dive" than of the house of one who lived in Grosvenor Square.
No servant came to clear away the things. It was a rule of the establishment that at midnight the household went to bed, and the host and his guests looked after themselves thereafter. The friends of De Lancy Scovel called him "Cupid," because of his cherubic face, but he was more gnome than cherub at heart. Having come into his fortune by being a henchman to abler men than himself, he was almost over-zealous to retain it, knowing that he could never get it again; yet he was hospitable with the income he had to spend. He was the Beau Brummel of that coterie which laid the foundation of prosperity on the Rand; and his house was a marvel of order and crude elegance--save when he had his roulette and poker parties, and then it was the shambles of murdered niceties. Once or twice a week his friends met here; and it was not mendaciously said that small fortunes were lost and won within these walls "between drinks."
The critical nature of things on the Rand did not lessen the gaming or the late hours, the theatrical entertainments and social functions at which Al'mah or another sang at a fabulous fee; or from which a dancer took away a pocketful of gold--partly fee. Only a few of all the group, great and small, kept a quiet pace and cherished their nerves against possible crisis or disaster; and these were consumed by inward anxiety, because all the others looked to them for a lead, for policy, for the wise act and the manoevre that would win.
Rudyard Byng was the one person who seemed equally compacted of both elements. He was a powerful figure in the financial inner circle; but he was one of those who frequented De Lancy Scovel's house; and he had, in his own house, a roulette-table and a card-room like a banqueting-hall. Wallstein, Wolff, Barry Whalen, Fleming, Hungerford, Reuter, and the others of the inner circle he laughed at in a good-natured way for coddling themselves, and called them--not without some truth--valetudinarians. Indeed, the hard life of the Rand in the early days, with the bad liqueur and the high veld air, had brought to most of the Partners inner physical troubles of some kind; and their general abstention was not quite voluntary moral purpose.
Of them all, except De Lancy Scovel, Rudyard was most free from any real disease or physical weakness which could call for the care of a doctor. With a powerful constitution, he had kept his general health fairly, though strange fits of depression had consumed him of late, and the old strong spring and resilience seemed going, if not gone, from his mind and body. He was not that powerful virile animal of the day when he caught Al'mah in his arms and carried her off the stage at Covent Garden. He was vaguely conscious of the great change in him, and Barry Whalen, who, with all his faults, would have gone to the gallows for him, was ever vividly conscious of it, and helplessly resented the change. At the time of the Jameson Raid Rudyard Byng had gripped the situation with skill, decision, and immense resource, giving as much help to the government of the day as to his colleagues and all British folk on the Rand.
But another raid was nearing, a raid upon British territory this time. The Rand would be the centre of a great war; and Rudyard Byng was not the man he had been, in spite of his show of valour and vigour at the Glencader Mine. Indeed, that incident had shown a certain physical degeneracy--he had been too slow in recovering from the few bad hours spent in the death-trap. The government at Whitehall still consulted him, still relied upon his knowledge and his natural tact; but secret as his conferences were with the authorities, they were not so secret that criticism was not viciously at work. Women jealous of Jasmine, financiers envious of Rudyard, Imperial politicians resentful of his influence, did their best to present him in the worst light possible. It was more than whispered that he sat too long over his wine, and that his desire for fiery liquid at other than meal-times was not in keeping with the English climate, but belonged to lands of drier weather and more absorptive air.
"What damned waste!" was De Lancy Scovel's attempt at wit as Krool dried his face and put the yellow handkerchief back into his pocket. The others laughed idly and bethought themselves of their own glasses, and the croupier again set the ball spinning and drew their eyes.
"Faites vos jeux!" the croupier called, monotonously, and the jingle of coins followed.
"The Baas--where the Baas?" came again the harsh voice from the doorway.
"Gone--went an hour ago," said De Lancy Scovel, coming forward. "What is it, Krool?"
"The Baas!" mocked Barry Whalen, swinging round again. "The Baas is gone to find a rope to tie Oom Paul to a tree, as Oom Paul tied you at Lichtenburg."
Slowly Krool's eyes went round the room, and then settled on Barry Whalen's face with owl-like gravity. "What the Baas does goes good," he said. "When the Baas ties, Alles zal recht kom."
He turned away now with impudent slowness, then suddenly twisted his body round and made a grimace of animal-hatred at Barry Whalen, his teeth showing like those of a wolf.
"The Baas will live long as he want," he added, "but Oom Paul will have your heart--and plenty more," he added, malevolently, and moved into the darkness without, closing the door behind him.
A shudder passed through the circle, for the uncanny face and the weird utterance had the strange reality of fate. A gloom fell on the gamblers suddenly, and they slowly drew into a group, looking half furtively at one another.
The wheel turned on the roulette-table, the ball clattered.
"Rien ne va plus!" called the croupier; but no coins had fallen on the green cloth, and the wheel stopped spinning for the night, as though by common consent.
"Krool will murder you some day, Barry," said Fleming, with irritation. "What's the sense in saying things like that to a servant?"
"How long ago did Rudyard leave?" asked De Lancy Scovel, curiously. "I didn't see him go. He didn't say good-night to me. Did he to you--to any of you?"
"Yes, he said to me he was going," rejoined Barry Whalen.
"And to me," said Melville, the Pole, who in the early days on the Rand had been a caterer. His name then had been Joseph Sobieski, but this not fitting well with the English language, he had searched the directory of London till he found the impeachably English combination of Clifford Melville. He had then cut his hair and put himself into the hands of a tailor in Conduit Street, and they had turned him into--what he was.
"Yes, Byng thed good-night to me--deah old boy," he repeated. "'I'm so damned thleepy, and I have to be up early in the morning,' he thed to me."
"Byng's example's good enough. I'm off," said Fleming, stretching up his arms and yawning.
"Byng ought to get up earlier in the morning--much earlier," interposed De Lancy Scovel, with a meaning note in his voice.
"Why?" growled out Barry Whalen.
"He'd see the Outlander early-bird after the young domestic worm," was the slow reply.
For a moment a curious silence fell upon the group. It was as though some one had heard what had been said--some one who ought not to have heard.
That is exactly what had happened. Rudyard had not gone home. He had started to do so; but, remembering that he had told Krool to come at twelve o'clock if any cables arrived, that he might go himself to the cable-office, if necessary, and reply, he passed from the hallway into a little room off the card-room, where there was a sofa, and threw himself down to rest and think. He knew that the crisis in South Africa must come within a few hours; that Oom Paul would present an ultimatum before the British government was ready to act; and that preparations must be made on the morrow to meet all chances and consequences. Preparations there had been, but conditions altered from day to day, and what had been arranged yesterday morning required modification this evening.
He was not heedless of his responsibilities because he was at the gaming-table; but these were days when he could not bear to be alone. Yet he could not find pleasure in the dinner-parties arranged by Jasmine, though he liked to be with her--liked so much to be with her, and yet wondered how it was he was not happy when he was beside her. This night, however, he had especially wished to be alone with her, to dine with her a deux, and he had been disappointed to find that she had arranged a little dinner and a theatre-party. With a sigh he had begged her to arrange her party without him, and, in unusual depression, he had joined "the gang," as Jasmine called it, at De Lancy Scovel's house.
Here he moved in a kind of gloom, and had a feeling as though he were walking among pitfalls. A dread seemed to descend upon him and deaden his natural buoyancy. At dinner he was fitful in conversation, yet inclined to be critical of the talk around him. Upon those who talked excitedly of war and its consequences, with perverse spirit he fell like a sledge-hammer, and proved their information or judgment wrong. Then, again, he became amiable and almost sentimental in his attitude toward them all, gripping the hands of two or three with a warmth which more than surprised them. It was as though he was subconsciously aware of some great impending change. It may be there whispered through the clouded space that lies between the dwelling-house of Fate and the place where a man's soul lives the voice of that Other Self, which every man has, warning him of darkness, or red ruin, or a heartbreak coming on.
However that may be, he had played a good deal during the evening, had drunk more than enough brandy and soda, had then grown suddenly heavy-hearted and inert. At last he had said good-night, and had fallen asleep in the little dark room adjoining the card-room.
Was it that Other Self which is allowed to come to us as our trouble or our doom approaches, who called sharply in his ear as De Lancy Scovel said, "Byng ought to get up earlier in the morning--much earlier."
Rudyard wakened upon the words without stirring--just a wide opening of the eyes and a moveless body. He listened with, as it were, a new sense of hearing, so acute, so clear, that it was as though his friends talked loudly in his very ears.
"He'd see the Outlander early-bird after the young domestic worm."
His heart beat so loud that it seemed his friends must hear it, in the moment's silence following these suggestive words.
"Here, there's enough of this," said Barry Whalen, sharply, upon the stillness. "It's nobody's business, anyhow. Let's look after ourselves, and we'll have enough to do, or I don't know any of us."
"But it's no good pretending," said Fleming. "There isn't one of us but 'd put ourselves out a great deal for Byng. It isn't human nature to sit still and do naught, and say naught, when things aren't going right for him in the place where things matter most.
"Can't he see? Doesn't he see--anything?" asked a little wizened lawyer, irritably, one who had never been married, the solicitor of three of their great companies.
"See--of course he doesn't see. If he saw, there'd be hell--at least," replied Barry Whalen, scornfully.
"He's as blind as a bat," sighed Fleming.
"He got into the wrong garden and picked the wrong flower--wrong for him," said another voice. "A passion-flower, not the flower her name is," added De Lancy Scovel, with a reflective cynicism.
"They they there's no doubt about it--she's throwing herself away. Ruddy isn't in it, deah old boy, so they they," interposed Clifford Melville, alias Joseph Sobieski of Posen." Diplomathy is all very well, but thith kind of diplomathy is not good for the thoul." He laughed as only one of his kidney can laugh.
Upon the laugh there came a hoarse growl of anger. Barry Whalen was standing above Mr. Clifford Melville with rage in every fibre, threat in every muscle.
"Shut up--curse you, Sobieski! It's for us, for any and every one, to cut the throats of anybody that says a word against her. We've all got to stand together. Byng forever, is our cry, and Byng's wife is Byng--before the world. We've got to help him--got to help him, I say."
"Well, you've got to tell him first. He's got to know it first," interposed Fleming; "and it's not a job I'm taking on. When Byng's asleep he takes a lot of waking, and he's asleep in this thing."
"And the world's too wide awake," remarked De Lancy Scovel, acidly. "One way or another Byng's got to be waked. It's only him can put it right."
No one spoke for a moment, for all saw that Barry Whalen was about to say something important, coming forward to the table impulsively for the purpose, when a noise from the darkened room beyond fell upon the silence.
De Lancy Scovel heard, Fleming heard, others heard, and turned towards the little room. Sobieski touched Barry Whalen's arm, and they all stood waiting while a hand slowly opened wide the door of the little room, and, white with a mastered agitation, Byng appeared.
For a moment he looked them all full in the face, yet as though he did not see them; and then, without a word, as they stepped aside to make way for him, he passed down the room to the outer hallway.
At the door he turned and looked at them again. Scorn, anger, pride, impregnated with a sense of horror, were in his face. His white lips opened to speak, but closed again, and, turning, he stepped out of their sight.
No one followed. They knew their man.
"My God, how he hates us!" said Barry Whalen, and sank into a chair at the table, with his head between his hands.
The cheeks of the little wizened lawyer glistened with tears, and De Lancy Scovel threw open a window and leaned out, looking into the night remorsefully.
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