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Slowly, heavily, like one drugged, Rudyard Byng made his way through the streets, oblivious of all around him. His brain was like some engine pounding at high pressure, while all his body was cold and lethargic. His anger at those he left behind was almost madness, his humiliation was unlike anything he had ever known. In one sense he was not a man of the world. All his thoughts and moods and habits had been essentially primitive, even in the high social and civilized surroundings of his youth; and when he went to South Africa, it was to come into his own--the large, simple, rough, adventurous life. His powerful and determined mind was confined in its scope to the big essential things. It had a rare political adroitness, but it had little intellectual subtlety. It had had no preparation for the situation now upon him, and its accustomed capacity was suddenly paralyzed. Like some huge ship staggered by the sea, it took its punishment with heavy, sullen endurance. Socially he had never, as it were, seen through a ladder; and Jasmine's almost uncanny brilliance of repartee and skill in the delicate contest of the mind had ever been a wonder to him, though less so of late than earlier in their married life. Perhaps this was because his senses were more used to it, more blunted; or was it because something had gone from her--that freshness of mind and body, that resilience of temper and spirit, without which all talk is travail and weariness? He had never thought it out, though he was dimly conscious of some great loss--of the light gone from the evening sky.
Yes, it was always in the evening that he had most longed to see "his girl"; when the day's work was done; when the political and financial stress had subsided; or when he had abstracted himself from it all and turned his face towards home. For the big place in Park Lane had really been home to him, chiefly because, or alone because, Jasmine had made it what it was; because in every room, in every corner, was the product of her taste and design. It had been home because it was associated with her. But of late ever since his five months' visit to South Africa without her the year before--there had come a change, at first almost imperceptible, then broadening and deepening.
At first it had vexed and surprised him; but at length it had become a feeling natural to, and in keeping with, a scheme of life in which they saw little of each other, because they saw so much of other people. His primitive soul had rebelled against it at first, not bitterly, but confusedly; because he knew that he did not know why it was; and he thought that if he had patience he would come to understand it in time. But the understanding did not come, and on that ominous, prophetic day before they went to Glencader, the day when Ian Stafford had dined with Jasmine alone after their meeting in Regent Street, there had been a wild, aching protest against it all. Not against Jasmine--he did not blame her; he only realized that she was different from what he had thought she was; that they were both different from what they had been; and that--the light had gone from the evening sky.
But from first to last he had always trusted her. It had never crossed his mind, when she "made up" to men in her brilliant, provoking, intoxicating way, that there was any lack of loyalty to him. It simply never crossed his mind. She was his wife, his girl, his flower which he had plucked; and there it was, for the universe to see, for the universe to heed as a matter of course. For himself, since he had married her, he had never thought of another woman for an instant, except either to admire or to criticize her; and his criticism was, as Jasmine had said, "infantile." The sum of it was, he was married to the woman of his choice, she was married to the man of her choice; and there it was, there it was, a great, eternal, settled fact. It was not a thing for speculation or doubt or reconsideration.
Always, when he had been troubled of late years, his mind had involuntarily flown to South Africa, as a bird flies to its nest in the distant trees for safety, from the spoiler or from the storm. And now, as he paced the streets with heavy, almost blundering tread,--so did the weight of slander drag him down--his thoughts suddenly saw a picture which had gone deep down into his soul in far-off days. It was after a struggle with Lobengula, when blood had been shed and lives lost, and the backbone of barbarism had been broken south of the Zambesi for ever and ever and ever. He had buried two companions in arms whom he had loved in that way which only those know who face danger on the plain, by the river, in the mountain, or on the open road together. After they had been laid to rest in the valley where the great baboons came down to watch the simple cortege pass, where a stray lion stole across the path leading to the grave, he had gone on alone to a spot in the Matoppos, since made famous and sacred.
Where John Cecil Rhodes sleeps on that high plateau of convex hollow stone, with the great natural pillars standing round like sentinels, and all the rugged unfinished hills tumbling away to an unpeopled silence, he came that time to rest his sorrowing soul. The woods, the wild animal life, had been left behind, and only a peaceful middle world between God and man greeted his stern eyes.
Now, here in London, at that corner where the lonely white statue stands by Londonderry House, as he moved in a dream of pain, with vast weights like giant manacles hampering every footstep, inwardly raging that into his sweet garden of home the vile elements of slander had been thrown, yet with a terrible and vague fear that something had gone terribly wrong with him, that far-off day spent at the Matoppos flashed upon his sight.
Through streets upon streets he had walked, far, far out of his way, subconsciously giving himself time to recover before he reached his home; until the green quiet of Hyde Park, the soft depths of its empty spaces, the companionable and commendable trees, greeted his senses. Then, here, suddenly there swam before his eyes the bright sky over those scarred and jagged hills beyond the Matoppos, purple and grey, and red and amethyst and gold, and his soul's sight went out over the interminable distance of loneliness and desolation which only ended where the world began again, the world of fighting men. He saw once more that tumbled waste of primeval creation, like a crazed sea agitated by some Horror underneath, and suddenly transfixed in its plunging turmoil--a frozen concrete sorrow, with all active pain gone. He heard the loud echo of his feet upon that hollow plateau of rock, with convex skin of stone laid upon convex skin, and then suddenly the solid rock which gave no echo under his tread, where Rhodes lies buried. He saw all at once, in the shining horizon at different points, black, angry, marauding storms arise and roar and burst: while all the time above his head there was nothing but sweet sunshine, into which the mists of the distant storms drifted, and rainbows formed above him. Upon those hollow rocks the bellow of the storms was like the rumbling of the wheels of a million gun-carriages; and yet high overhead there were only the bright sun and faint drops of rain falling like mystic pearls.
And then followed--he could hear it again, so plainly, as his eyes now sought the friendly shades of the beeches and the elms yonder in Hyde Park!--upon the air made denser by the storm, the call of a lonely bird from one side of the valley. The note was deep and strong and clear, like the bell-bird of the Australian salt-bush plains beyond the Darling River, and it rang out across the valley, as though a soul desired its mate; and then was still. A moment, and there came across the valley from the other side, stealing deep sweetness from the hollow rocks, the answer of the bird which had heard her master's call. Answering, she called too, the viens ici of kindred things; and they came nearer and nearer and nearer, until at last their two voices were one.
In that wild space there had been worked out one of the great wonders of creation, and under the dim lamps of Park Lane, in his black, shocked mood, Rudyard recalled it all by no will of his own. Upon his eye and brain the picture had been registered, and in its appointed time, with an automatic suggestion of which he was ignorant and innocent, it came to play its part and to transform him.
The thought of it all was like a cool hand laid upon his burning brow. It gave him a glimpse of the morning of life.
The light was gone from the evening sky: but was it gone forever?
As he entered his house now he saw upon a Spanish table in the big hall a solitary bunch of white roses--a touch of simplicity in an area of fine artifice. Regarding it a moment, black thoughts receded, and choosing a flower from the vase he went slowly up the stairs to Jasmine's room.
He would give her this rose as the symbol of his faith and belief in her, and then tell her frankly what he had heard at De Lancy Scovel's house.
For the moment it did not occur to him that she might not be at home. It gave him a shock when he opened the door and found her room empty. On her bed, like a mesh of white clouds, lay the soft linen and lace and the delicate clothes of the night; and by the bed were her tiny blue slippers to match the blue dressing-gown. Some gracious things for morning wear hung over a chair; an open book with a little cluster of violets and a tiny mirror lay upon a table beside a sofa; a footstool was placed at a considered angle for her well-known seat on the sofa where the soft-blue lamp-shade threw the light upon her book; and a little desk with dresden-china inkstand and penholder had little pockets of ribbon-tied letters and bills--even business had an air of taste where Jasmine was. And there on a table beside her bed was a large silver-framed photograph of himself turned at an angle toward the pillow where she would lay her head.
How tender and delicate and innocent it all was! He looked round the room with new eyes, as though seeing everything for the first time. There was another photograph of himself on her dressing-table. It had no companion there; but on another table near were many photographs; four of women, the rest of men: celebrities, old friends like Ian Stafford--and M. Mennaval.
His face hardened. De Lancy Scovel's black slander swept through his veins like fire again, his heart came up in his throat, his fingers clinched.
Presently, as he stood with clouded face and mist in his eyes, Jasmine's maid entered, and, surprised at seeing him, retreated again, but her eyes fastened for a moment strangely on the white rose he held in his hand. Her glance drew his own attention to it again. Going over to the gracious and luxurious bed, with its blue silk canopy, he laid the white rose on her pillow. Somehow it was more like an offering to the dead than a lover's tribute to the living. His eyes were fogged, his lips were set. But all he was then in mind and body and soul he laid with the rose on her pillow.
As he left the rose there, his eyes wandered slowly over this retreat of rest and sleep: white robe-de-nuit, blue silk canopy, blue slippers, blue dressing-gown--all blue, the colour in which he had first seen her.
Slowly he turned away at last and went to his own room. But the picture followed him. It kept shining in his eyes. Krool's face suddenly darkened it.
"You not ring, Baas," Krool said.
Without a word Rudyard waved him away, a sudden and unaccountable fury in his mind. Why did the sight of Krool vex him so?
"Come back," he said, angrily, before the door of the bedroom closed.
"Weren't there any cables? Why didn't you come to Mr. Scovel's at midnight, as I told you?"
"Baas, I was there at midnight, but they all say you come home, Baas. There the cable--two." He pointed to the dressing-table.
Byng snatched them, tore them open, read them.
One had the single word, "Tomorrow." The other said, "Prepare." The code had been abandoned. Tragedy needs few words.
They meant that to-morrow Kruger's ultimatum would be delivered and that the worst must be faced.
He glanced at the cables in silence, while Krool watched him narrowly, covertly, with a depth of purpose which made his face uncanny.
"That will do, Krool; wake me at seven," he said, quietly, but with suppressed malice in his tone.
Why was it that at that moment he could, with joy, have taken Krool by the neck and throttled him? All the bitterness, anger and rage that he had felt an hour ago concentrated themselves upon Krool--without reason, without cause. Or was it that his deeper Other Self had whispered something to his mind about Krool--something terrible and malign?
In this new mood he made up his mind that he would not see Jasmine till the morning. How late she was! It was one o'clock, and yet this was not the season. She had not gone to a ball, nor were these the months of late parties.
As he tossed in his bed and his head turned restlessly on his pillow, Krool's face kept coming before him, and it was the last thing he saw, ominous and strange, before he fell into a heavy but troubled sleep.
Perhaps the most troubled moment of the night came an hour after he went to bed.
Then it was that a face bent over him for a minute, a fair face, with little lines contracting the ripe lips, which were redder than usual, with eyes full of a fevered brightness. But how harmonious and sweetly ordered was the golden hair above! Nothing was gone from its lustre, nothing robbed it of its splendour. It lay upon her forehead like a crown. In its richness it seemed a little too heavy for the tired face beneath, almost too imperial for so slight and delicate a figure.
Rudyard stirred in his sleep, murmuring as she leaned over him; and his head fell away from her hand as she stretched out her fingers with a sudden air of pity--of hopelessness, as it might seem from her look. His face restlessly turned to the wall--a vexed, stormy, anxious face and head, scarred by the whip of that overlord more cruel and tyrannous than Time, the Miserable Mind.
She drew back with a little shudder. "Poor Ruddy!" she said, as she had said that evening when Ian Stafford came to her after the estranging and scornful years, and she had watched Rudyard leave her--to her fate and to her folly.
With a sudden frenzied motion of her hands she caught her breath, as though some pain had seized her. Her eyes almost closed with the shame that reached out from her heart, as though to draw the veil of her eyelids over the murdered thing before her--murdered hope, slaughtered peace: the peace of that home they had watched burn slowly before their eyes in the years which the locust had eaten.
Which the locust had eaten--yes, it was that. More than once she had heard Rudyard tell of a day on the veld when the farmer surveyed his abundant fields with joy, with the gay sun flaunting it above; and suddenly there came a white cloud out of the west, which made a weird humming, a sinister sound. It came with shining scales glistening in the light and settled on the land acre upon acre, morgen upon morgen; and when it rose again the fields, ready for the harvest, were like a desert--the fields which the locust had eaten. So had the years been, in which Fortune had poured gold and opportunity and unlimited choice into her lap. She had used them all; but she had forgotten to look for the Single Secret, which, like a key, unlocks all doors in the House of Happiness.
"Poor Ruddy!" she said, but even as she said it for the second time a kind of anger seemed to seize her.
"Oh, you fool--you fool!" she whispered, fiercely. "What did you know of women! Why didn't you make me be good? Why didn't you master me--the steel on the wrist--the steel on the wrist!"
With a little burst of misery and futile rage she went from the room, her footsteps uneven, her head bent. One of the open letters she carried dropped from her hand onto the floor of the hall outside. She did not notice it. But as she passed inside her door a shadowy figure at the end of the hall watched her, saw the letter drop, and moved stealthily forward towards it. It was Krool.
How heavy her head was! Her worshipping maid, near dead with fatigue, watched her furtively, but avoided the eyes in the mirror which had a half-angry look, a look at once disturbed and elated, reckless and pitiful. Lablanche was no reader of souls, but there was something here beyond the usual, and she moved and worked with unusual circumspection and lightness of touch. Presently she began to unloose the coils of golden hair; but Jasmine stopped her with a gesture of weariness.
"No, don't," she said. "I can't stand your touch tonight, Lablanche. I'll do the rest myself. My head aches so. Good-night."
"I will be so light with it, madame," Lablanche said, protestingly.
"No, no. Please go. But the morning, quite early."
"The hour, madame?"
"When the letters come, as soon as the letters come, Lablanche--the first post. Wake me then."
She watched the door close, then turned to the mirror in front of her and looked at herself with eyes in which brooded a hundred thoughts and feelings: thoughts contradictory, feelings opposed, imaginings conflicting, reflections that changed with each moment; and all under the spell of a passion which had become in the last few hours the most powerful influence her life had ever known. Right or wrong, and it was wrong, horribly wrong; wise or unwise, and how could the wrong be wise! she knew she was under a spell more tyrannous than death, demanding more sacrifices than the gods of Hellas.
Self-indulgent she had been, reckless and wilful and terribly modern, taking sweets where she found them. She had tried to squeeze the orange dry, in the vain belief that Wealth and Beauty can take what they want, when they want it, and that happiness will come by purchase; only to find one day that the thing you have bought, like a slave that revolts, stabs you in your sleep, and you wake with wide-eyed agony only to die, or to live--with the light gone from the evening sky.
Suddenly, with the letters in her hand with which she had entered the room, she saw the white rose on her pillow. Slowly she got up from the dressing-table and went over to the bed in a hushed kind of way. With a strange, inquiring, half-shrinking look she regarded the flower. One white rose. It was not there when she left. It had been brought from the hall below, from the great bunch on the Spanish table. Those white roses, this white rose, had come from one who, selfish as he was, knew how to flatter a woman's vanity. From that delicate tribute of flattery and knowledge Rudyard had taken this flowering stem and brought it to her pillow.
It was all too malevolently cynical. Her face contracted in pain and shame. She had a soul to which she had never given its chance. It had never bloomed. Her abnormal wilfulness, her insane love of pleasure, her hereditary impulses, had been exercised at the expense of the great thing in her, the soul so capable of memorable and beautiful deeds.
As she looked at the flower, a sense of the path by which she had come, of what she had left behind, of what was yet to chance, shuddered into her heart.
That a flower given by Adrian Fellowes should be laid upon her pillow by her husband, by Rudyard Byng, was too ghastly or too devilishly humorous for words; and both aspects of the thing came to her. Her face became white, and almost mechanically she put the letters she held on a writing-table near; then coming to the bed again she looked at the rose with a kind of horror. Suddenly, however, she caught it up, and bursting into a laugh which was shrill and bitter she threw it across the room. Still laughing hysterically, with her golden hair streaming about her head, folding her round like a veil which reached almost to her ankles, she came back to the chair at the dressing-table and sat down.
Slowly drawing the wonderful soft web of hair over her shoulders, she began to weave it into one wide strand, which grew and grew in length till it was like a great rope of spun gold. Inch by inch, foot by foot it grew, until at last it lay coiled in her lap like a golden serpent, with a kind of tension which gave it life, such as Medusa's hair must have known as the serpent-life entered into it. There is--or was--in Florence a statue of Medusa, seated, in her fingers a strand of her hair, which is beginning to coil and bend and twist before her horror-stricken eyes; and this statue flashed before Jasmine's eyes as she looked at the loose ends of gold falling beyond the blue ribbon with which she had tied the shining rope.
With the mad laughter of a few moments before still upon her lips, she held the flying threads in her hand, and so strained was her mind that it would not have caused her surprise if they had wound round her fingers or given forth forked tongues. She laughed again--a low and discordant laugh it was now.
"Such imaginings--I think I must be mad," she murmured.
Then she leaned her elbows on the dressing-table and looked at herself in the glass.
"Am I not mad?" she asked herself again. Then there stole across her face a strange, far-away look, bringing a fresh touch of beauty to it, and flooding it for a moment with that imaginative look which had been her charm as a girl, a look of far-seeing and wonder and strange light.
"I wonder--if I had had a mother!" she said, wistfully, her chin in her hand. "If my mother had lived, what would I have been?"
She reached out to a small table near, and took from it a miniature at which she looked with painful longing. "My dear, my very dear, you were so sweet, so good," she said. "Am I your daughter, your own daughter--me? Ah, sweetheart mother, come back to me! For God's sake come--now. Speak to me if you can. Are you so very far away? Whisper--only whisper, and I shall hear.
"Oh, she would, she would, if she could!" her voice wailed, softly. "She would if she could, I know. I was her youngest child, her only little girl. But there is no coming back. And maybe there is no going forth; only a blackness at the last, when all stops--all stops, for ever and ever and ever, amen! . . .Amen--so be it. Ah, I even can't believe in that! I can't even believe in God and Heaven and the hereafter. I am a pagan, with a pagan's heart and a pagan's ways."
She shuddered again and closed her eyes for a moment. "Ruddy had a glimpse, one glimpse, that day, the day that Ian came back. Ruddy said to me that day, 'If you had lived a thousand years ago you would have had a thousand lovers.' . . . And it is true--by all the gods of all the worlds, it is true. Pleasure, beauty, is all I ever cared for--pleasure, beauty, and the Jasmine-flower. And Ian--and Ian, yes, Ian! I think I had soul enough for one true thing, even if I was not true."
She buried her face in her hands for a moment, as though to hide a great burning.
"But, oh, I wonder if I did ever love Ian, even! I wonder.... Not then, not then when I deserted him and married Rudyard, but now--now? Do--do I love him even now, as we were to-day with his arms round me, or is it only beauty and pleasure and--me? . . . Are they really happy who believe in God and live like--like her?" She gazed at her mother's portrait again. "Yes, she was happy, but only for a moment, and then she was gone--so soon. And I shall never see her, I who never saw her with eyes that recall.... And if I could see her, would I? I am a pagan--would I try to be like her, if I could? I never really prayed, because I never truly felt there was a God that was not all space, and that was all soul and understanding. And what is to come of it, or what will become of me? . . . I can't go back, and going on is madness. Yes, yes, it is madness, I know--madness and badness--and dust at the end of it all. Beauty gone, pleasure gone.... I do not even love pleasure now as I did. It has lost its flavour; and I do not even love beauty as I did. How well I know it! I used to climb hills to see a sunset; I used to walk miles to find the wood anemones and the wild violets; I used to worship a pretty child . . . a pretty child!"
She shrank back in her chair and pondered darkly. "A pretty child.... Other people's pretty children, and music and art and trees and the sea, and the colours of the hills, and the eyes of wild animals . . and a pretty child. I wonder, I wonder if--"
But she got no farther with that thought. "I shall hate everything on earth if it goes from me, the beauty of things; and I feel that it is going. The freshness of sense has gone, somehow. I am not stirred as I used to be, not by the same things. If I lose that sense I shall kill myself. Perhaps that would be the easiest way now. Just the overdose of--"
She took a little phial from the drawer of the dressing-table. "Just the tiny overdose and 'good-bye, my lover, good-bye.'" Again that hard little laugh of bitterness broke from her. "Or that needle Mr. Mappin had at Glencader. A thrust of the point, and in an instant gone, and no one to know, no one to discover, no one to add blame to blame, to pile shame upon shame. Just blackness--blackness all at once, and no light or anything any more. The fruit all gone from the trees, the garden all withered, the bower all ruined, the children all dead--the pretty children all dead forever, the pretty children that never were born, that never lived in Jasmine's garden."
As there had come to Rudyard premonition of evil, so to-night, in the hour of triumph, when, beyond peradventure, she had got for Ian Stafford what would make his career great, what through him gave England security in her hour of truth, there came now to her something of the real significance of it all.
She had got what she wanted. Her pride had been appeased, her vanity satisfied, her intellect flattered, her skill approved, and Ian was hers. But the cost?
Words from Swinburne's threnody on Baudelaire came to her mind. How often she had quoted them for their sheer pagan beauty! It was the kind of beauty which most appealed to her, which responded to the element of fatalism in her, the sense of doom always with her since she was a child, in spite of her gaiety, her wit, and her native eloquence. She had never been happy, she had never had a real illusion, never aught save the passion of living, the desire to conquer unrest:
"And now, no sacred staff shall break in blossom,
No choral salutation lure to light
The spirit sick with perfume and sweet night,
And Love's tired eyes and hands and barren bosom.
There is no help for these things, none to mend and none to mar
Not all our songs, oh, friend, can make Death clear or make Life durable
But still with rose and ivy and wild vine,
And with wild song about this dust of thine,
At least I fill a place where white dreams dwell,
And wreathe an unseen shrine."
"'And Love's tired eyes and hands and barren bosom. . . . There is no help for these things, none to mend and none to mar....'" A sob rose in her throat. "Oh, the beauty of it, the beauty and the misery and the despair of it!" she murmured.
Slowly she wound and wound the coil of golden hair about her neck, drawing it tighter, fold on fold, tighter and tighter.
"This would be the easiest way--this," she whispered. "By my own hair! Beauty would have its victim then. No one would kiss it any more, because it killed a woman. . . . No one would kiss it any more."
She felt the touch of Ian Stafford's lips upon it, she felt his face buried in it. Her own face suffused, then Adrian Fellowes' white rose, which Rudyard had laid upon her pillow, caught her eye where it lay on the floor. With a cry as of a hurt animal she ran to her bed, crawled into it, and huddled down in the darkness, shivering and afraid.
Something had discovered her to herself for the first time. Was it her own soul? Had her Other Self, waking from sleep in the eternal spaces, bethought itself and come to whisper and warn and help? Or was it Penalty, or Nemesis, or that Destiny which will have its toll for all it gives of beauty, or pleasure, or pride, or place, or pageantry?
"Love's tired eyes and hands and barren bosom"--
The words kept ringing in her ears. They soothed her at last into a sleep which brought no peace, no rest or repose.
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