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It was past nine o'clock when Rudyard wakened. It was nearly ten before he turned to leave his room for breakfast. As he did so he stooped and picked up an open letter lying on the floor near the door.
His brain was dazed and still surging with the terrible thoughts which had agonized him the night before. He was as in a dream, and was only vaguely conscious of the fugitive letter. He was wondering whether he would go at once to Jasmine or wait until he had finished breakfast. Opening the door of his room, he saw the maid entering to Jasmine with a gown over her arm.
No, he would not go to her till she was alone, till she was dressed and alone. Then he would tell her all, and take her in his arms, and talk with her--talk as he had never talked before. Slowly, heavily, he went to his study, where his breakfast was always eaten. As he sat down he opened, with uninterested inquiry, the letter he had picked up inside the door of his room. As he did so he vaguely wondered why Krool had overlooked it as he passed in and out. Perhaps Krool had dropped it. His eyes fell on the opening words. . . His face turned ashen white. A harsh cry broke from him.
At eleven o'clock to the minute Ian Stafford entered Byng's mansion and was being taken to Jasmine's sitting-room, when Rudyard appeared on the staircase, and with a peremptory gesture waved the servant away. Ian was suddenly conscious of a terrible change in Rudyard's appearance. His face was haggard and his warm colour had given place to a strange blackish tinge which seemed to underlie the pallor--the deathly look to be found in the faces of those stricken with a mortal disease. All strength and power seemed to have gone from the face, leaving it tragic with uncontrolled suffering. Panic emotion was uppermost, while desperate and reckless purpose was in his eyes. The balance was gone from the general character and his natural force was like some great gun loose from its fastenings on the deck of a sea-stricken ship. He was no longer the stalwart Outlander who had done such great work in South Africa and had such power in political London and in international finance. The demoralization which had stealthily gone on for a number of years was now suddenly a debacle of will and body. Of the superb physical coolness and intrepid mind with which he had sprung upon the stage of Covent Garden Opera House to rescue Al'mah nothing seemed left; or, if it did remain, it was shocked out of its bearings. His eyes were almost glassy as he looked at Ian Stafford, and animal-like hatred was the dominating note of his face and carriage.
"Come with me, Stafford: I want to speak to you," he said, hoarsely. "You've arrived when I wanted you--at the exact time."
"Yes, I said I would come at eleven," responded Stafford, mechanically. "Jasmine expects me at eleven."
"In here," Byng said, pointing to a little morning-room.
As Stafford entered, he saw Krool's face, malign and sombre, show in a doorway of the hall. Was he mistaken in thinking that Krool flashed a look of secret triumph and yet of obscure warning? Warning? There was trouble, strange and dreadful trouble, here; and the wrenching thought had swept into his brain that he was the cause of it all, that he was to be the spring and centre of dreadful happenings.
He was conscious of something else purely objective as he entered the room--of music, the music of a gay light opera being played in the adjoining room, from which this little morning-room was separated only by Indian bead-curtains. He saw idle sunlight play upon these beads, as he sat down at the table to which Rudyard motioned him. He was also subconsciously aware who it was that played the piano beyond there with such pleasant skill. Many a time thereafter, in the days to come, he would be awakened in the night by the sound of that music, a love-song from the light opera "A Lady of London," which had just caught the ears of the people in the street.
Of one thing he was sure: the end of things had come--the end of all things that life meant to him had come. Rudyard knew! Rudyard, sitting there at the other side of the table and leaning toward him with a face where, in control of all else, were hate and panic emotion--he knew.
The music in the next room was soft, persistent and searching. As Ian waited for Rudyard to speak he was conscious that even the words of the silly, futile love-song:
"Not like the roses shall our love be, dear
Never shall its lovely petals fade,
Singing, it will flourish till the world's last year
Happy as the song-birds in the glade."
Through it all now came Rudyard's voice.
"I have a letter here," the voice said, and he saw Rudyard slowly take it from his pocket. "I want you to read it, and when you have read it, I want you to tell me what you think of the man who wrote it."
He threw a letter down on the table--a square white envelope with the crest of the Trafalgar Club upon it. It lay face downward, waiting for his hand.
So it had come. His letter to Jasmine which told all--Rudyard had read it. And here was the end of everything--the roses faded before they had bloomed an hour. It was not for them to flourish "till the world's last year."
His hand reached out for the letter. With eyes almost blind he raised it, and slowly and mechanically took the document of tragedy from the envelope. Why should Rudyard insist on his reading it? It was a devilish revenge, which he could not resent. But time--he must have time; therefore he would do Rudyard's bidding, and read this thing he had written, look at it with eyes in which Penalty was gathering its mists.
So this was the end of it all--friendship gone with the man before him; shame come to the woman he loved; misery to every one; a home-life shattered; and from the souls of three people peace banished for evermore.
He opened out the pages with a slowness that seemed almost apathy, while the man opposite clinched his hands on the table spasmodically. Still the music from the other room with cheap, flippant sensuousness stole through the burdened air:
"Singing, it will flourish till the world's last year--"
He looked at the writing vaguely, blindly. Why should this be exacted of him, this futile penalty? Then all at once his sight cleared; for this handwriting was not his--this letter was not his; these wild, passionate phrases--this terrible suggestiveness of meaning, these references to the past, this appeal for further hours of love together, this abjectly tender appeal to Jasmine that she would wear one of his white roses when he saw her the next day--would she not see him between eleven and twelve o'clock?--all these words were not his.
They were written by the man who was playing the piano in the next room; by the man who had come and gone in this house like one who had the right to do so; who had, as it were, fed from Rudyard Byng's hand; who lived on what Byng paid him; who had been trusted with the innermost life of the household and the life and the business of the master of it.
The letter was signed, Adrian.
His own face blanched like the face of the man before him. He had braced himself to face the consequences of his own letter to the woman he loved, and he was face to face with the consequences of another man's letter to the same woman, to the woman who had two lovers. He was face to face with Rudyard's tragedy, and with his own.... She, Jasmine, to whom he had given all, for whom he had been ready to give up all--career, fame, existence--was true to none, unfaithful to all, caring for none, but pretending to care for all three--and for how many others? He choked back a cry.
"Well--well?" came the husband's voice across the table. "There's one thing to do, and I mean to do it." He waved a hand towards the music-room. "He's in the next room there. I mean to kill him--to kill him--now. I wanted you to know why, to know all, you, Stafford, my old friend and hers. And I'm going to do it now. Listen to him there!"
His words came brokenly and scarce above a whisper, but they were ghastly in their determination, in their loathing, their blind fury. He was gone mad, all the animal in him alive, the brain tossing on a sea of disorder.
"Now!" he said, suddenly, and, rising, he pushed back his chair. "Give that to me."
He reached out his hand for the letter, but his confused senses were suddenly arrested by the look in Ian Stafford's face, a look so strange, so poignant, so insistent, that he paused. Words could not have checked his blind haste like that look. In the interval which followed, the music from the other room struck upon the ears of both, with exasperating insistence:
"Not like the roses shall our love be, dear--"
Stafford made no motion to return the letter. He caught and held Rudyard's eyes.
"You ask me to tell you what I think of the man who wrote this letter," he said, thickly and slowly, for he was like one paralyzed, regaining his speech with blanching effort: "Byng, I think what you think--all you think; but I would not do what you want to do."
As he had read the letter the whole horror of the situation burst upon him. Jasmine had deceived her husband when she turned to himself, and that was to be understood--to be understood, if not to be pardoned. A woman might marry, thinking she cared, and all too soon, sometimes before the second day had dawned, learn that shrinking and repugnance which not even habit can modify or obscure. A girl might be mistaken, with her heart and nature undeveloped, and with that closer intimate life with another of another sex still untried. With the transition from maidenhood to wifehood, fateful beyond all transitions, yet unmade, she might be mistaken once; as so many have been in the revelations of first intimacy; but not twice, not the second time. It was not possible to be mistaken in so vital a thing twice. This was merely a wilful, miserable degeneracy. Rudyard had been wronged--terribly wronged--by himself, by Jasmine; but he had loved Jasmine since she was a child, before Rudyard came--in truth, he all but possessed her when Rudyard came; and there was some explanation, if no excuse, for that betrayal; but this other, it was incredible, it was monstrous. It was incredible but yet it was true. Thoughts that overturned all his past, that made a melee of his life, rushed and whirled through his mind as he read the letter with assumed deliberation when he saw what it was. He read slowly that he might make up his mind how to act, what to say and do in this crisis. To do--what? Jasmine had betrayed him long ago when she had thrown him over for Rudyard, and now she had betrayed him again after she had married Rudyard, and betrayed Rudyard, too; and for whom this second betrayal? His heart seemed to shrink to nothingness. This business dated far beyond yesterday. The letter furnished that sure evidence.
What to do? Like lightning his mind was made up. What to do? Ah, but one thing to do--only one thing to do--save her at any cost, somehow save her! Whatever she was, whatever she had done, however she had spoiled his life and destroyed forever his faith, yet he too had betrayed this broken man before him, with the look in his eyes of an animal at bay, ready to do the last irretrievable thing. Even as her shameless treatment of himself smote him; lowered him to that dust which is ground from the heels of merciless humanity--even as it sickened his soul beyond recovery in this world, up from the lowest depths of his being there came the indestructible thing. It was the thing that never dies, the love that defies injury, shame, crime, deceit, and desertion, and lives pityingly on, knowing all, enduring all, desiring no touch, no communion, yet prevailing--the indestructible thing.
He knew now in a flash what he had to do. He must save her. He saw that Rudyard was armed, and that the end might come at any moment. There was in the wronged husband's eyes the wild, reckless, unseeing thing which disregards consequences, which would rush blindly on the throne of God itself to snatch its vengeance. He spoke again: and just in time.
"I think what you think, Byng, but I would not do what you want to do. I would do something else."
His voice was strangely quiet, but it had a sharp insistence which caused Rudyard to turn back mechanically to the seat he had just left. Stafford saw the instant's advantage which, if he did not pursue, all would be lost. With a great effort he simulated intense anger and indignation.
"Sit down, Byng," he said, with a gesture of authority. He leaned over the table, holding the other's eyes, the letter in one clinched hand. "Kill him--," he said, and pointed to the other room, from which came the maddening iteration of the jingling song--"you would kill him for his hellish insolence, for this infamous attempt to lead your wife astray, but what good will it do to kill him?"
"Not him alone, but her too," came the savage, uncontrolled voice from the uncontrolled savagery of the soul.
Suddenly a great fear shot up in Stafford's heart. His breath came in sharp, breaking gasps. Had he--had he killed Jasmine?
"You have not--not her?"
"No--not yet." The lips of the avenger suddenly ceased twitching, and they shut with ominous certainty.
An iron look came into Stafford's face. He had his chance now. One word, one defense only! It would do all, or all would be lost--sunk in a sea of tragedy. Diplomacy had taught him the gift of control of face and gesture, of meaning in tone and word. He made an effort greater than he had ever put forward in life. He affected an enormous and scornful surprise.
"You think--you dare to think that she--that Jasmine--"
"Think, you say! The letter--that letter--"
"This letter--this letter, Byng--are you a fool? This letter, this preposterous thing from the universal philanderer, the effeminate erotic! It is what it is, and it is no more. Jasmine--you know her. Indiscreet--yes; always indiscreet in her way, in her own way, and always daring. A coquette always. She has coquetted all her life; she cannot help it. She doesn't even know it. She led him on from sheer wilfulness. What did it matter to her that he was of no account! She led him on, to be at her feet like the rest, like bigger and better men--like us all. Was there ever a time when she did not want to master us? She has coquetted since--ah, you do not know as I do, her old friend! She has coquetted since she was a little child. Coquetted, and no more. We have all been her slaves--yes, long before you came--all of us. Look at Mennaval! She--"
With a distracted gesture Byng interrupted. "The world believes the worst. Last night, by accident, I heard at De Lancy Scovel's house that she and Mennaval--and now this--!"
But into the rage, the desperation in the wild eyes, was now creeping an eager look--not of hope, but such a look as might be in eyes that were striving to see through darkness, looking for a glimmer of day in the black hush of morning before the dawn. It was pitiful to see the strong man tossing on the flood of disordered understanding, a willing castaway, yet stretching out a hand to be saved.
"Oh, last night, Mennaval, you say, and to-day--this!" Stafford held up the letter. "This means nothing against her, except indiscretion, and indiscretion which would have been nothing if the man had not been what he is. He is of the slime. He does not matter, except that he has dared--!"
"He has dared, by God--!"
All Byng's rage came back, the lacerated pride, the offended manhood, the self-esteem which had been spattered by the mud of slander, by the cynical defense, or the pitying solicitude of his friends--of De Lancy Scovel, Barry Whalen, Sobieski the Polish Jew, Fleming, Wolff, and the rest. The pity of these for him--for Rudyard Byng, because the flower in his garden, his Jasmine-flower, was swept by the blast of calumny! He sprang from his chair with an ugly oath.
But Stafford stepped in front of him. "Sit down, Byng, or damn yourself forever. If she is innocent--and she is--do you think she would ever live with you again, after you had dragged her name into the dust of the criminal courts and through the reek of the ha'penny press? Do you think Jasmine would ever forgive you for suspecting her? If you want to drive her from you forever, then kill him, and go and tell her that you suspect her. I know her--I have known her all her life, long before you came. I care what becomes of her. She has many who care what becomes of her--her father, her brother, many men, and many women who have seen her grow up without a mother. They understand her, they believe in her, because they have known her over all the years. They know her better than you. Perhaps they care for her-- perhaps any one of them cares for her far more than you do."
Now there came a new look into the big, staring eyes. Byng was as one fascinated; light was breaking in on his rage, his besmirched pride, his vengeance; hope was stealing tremblingly into his face.
"She was more to me than all the world--than twenty worlds. She--"
He hesitated, then his voice broke and his body suddenly shook violently, as tears rose in the far, deep wells of feeling and tried to reach the fevered eyes. He leaned his head in his big, awkward hands.
Stafford saw the way of escape for Jasmine slowly open out, and went on quickly. "You have neglected her "--Rudyard's head came up in angry protest--"not wilfully; but you have neglected her. You have been too easy. You should lead, not follow, where a woman is concerned. All women are indiscreet, all are a little dishonourable on opportunity; but not in the big way, only in the small, contemptible way, according to our code. We men are dishonourable in the big way where they are concerned. You have neglected her, Byng, because you have not said, 'This way, Jasmine. Come with me. I want you; and you must came, and come now.' She wanted your society, wanted you all the time; but while you did not have her on the leash she went playing--playing. That is it, and that is all. And now, if you want to keep her, if you want her to live on with you, I warn you not to tell her you know of the insult this letter contains, nor ever say what would make her think you suspected her. If you do, you will bid good-bye to her forever. She has bold blood in her veins, rash blood. Her grandfather--"
"I know--I know." The tone was credulous, understanding now. Hope stole into the distorted face.
"She would resent your suspicion. She, then, would do the mad thing, not you. She would be as frenzied as you were a moment ago; and she would not listen to reason. If you dared to hint outside in the world, that you believed her guilty, there are some of her old friends who would feel like doing to you what you want to do to that libertine in there, to Al'mah's lover--"
"Good God, Stafford--wait!"
"I don't mean Barry Whalen, Fleming, De Lancy Scovel, and the rest. They are not her old friends, and they weren't yours once--that breed; but the others who are the best, of whom you come, over there in Herefordshire, in Dorset, in Westmorland, where your and her people lived, and mine. You have been too long among the Outlanders, Byng. Come back, and bring Jasmine with you. And as for this letter--"
Byng reached out his hand for it.
"No, it contains an insult to your wife. If you get it into your hands, you will read it again, and then you will do some foolish thing, for you have lost grip of yourself. Here is the only place for such stuff--an outburst of sensuality!"
He threw the letter suddenly into the fire. Rudyard sprang to his feet as though to reclaim it, but stood still bewildered, as he saw Stafford push it farther into the coals.
Silent, they watched shrivel such evidence as brings ruin upon men and women in courts of law.
"Leave the whole thing--leave Fellowes to me," Stafford said, after a slight pause. "I will deal with him. He shall leave the country to-night. I will see to that. He shall go for three years at least. Do not see him. You will not contain yourself, and for your own chance of happiness with the woman you love, you must do nothing, nothing at all now."
"He has keys, papers--"
"I will see to that; I will see to everything. Now go, at once. There is enough for you to do. The war, Oom Paul's war, will be on us to day. Do you hear, Byng--to-day! And you have work to do for this your native country and for South Africa, your adopted country. England and the Transvaal will be at each other's throat before night. You have work to do. Do it. You are needed. Go, and leave this wretched business in my hands. I will deal with Fellowes--adequately."
The rage had faded from Byng's fevered eyes, and now there was a moisture in them, a look of incalculable relief. To believe in Jasmine, that was everything to him. He had not seen her yet, not since he left the white rose on her pillow last night--Adrian Fellowes' tribute; and after he had read the letter, he had had no wish to see her till he had had his will and done away with Fellowes forever. Then he would see her--for the last time: and she should die, too,--with himself. That had been his purpose. Now all was changed. He would not see her now, not till Fellowes was gone forever. Then he would come again, and say no word which would let her think he knew what Fellowes had written. Yes, Stafford was right. She must not know, and they must start again, begin life again together, a new understanding in his heart, new purposes in their existence. In these few minutes Stafford had taught him much, had showed him where he had been wrong, had revealed to him Jasmine's nature as he never really understood it.
At the door, as Stafford helped him on with a light overcoat, he took a revolver from his pocket.
"That's the proof of what I meant to do," he said; "and this is proof of what I mean to do," he added, as he handed over the revolver and Stafford's fingers grasped it with a nervous force which he misinterpreted.
"Ah yes," he exclaimed, sadly, "you don't quite trust me yet--not quite, Stafford; and I don't wonder; but it's all right.... You've been a good, good friend to us both," he added. "I wish Jasmine might know how good a friend you've been. But never mind. We'll pay the debt sometime, somehow, she and I. When shall I see you again?"
At that moment a clear voice rang out cheerily in the distance. "Rudyard--where are you, Ruddy?" it called.
A light broke over Byng's haggard face. "Not yet?" he asked Stafford.
"No, not yet," was the reply, and Byng was pushed through the open door into the street.
"Ruddy--where are you, Ruddy?" sang the voice like a morning song.
Then there was silence, save for the music in the room beyond the little room where the two men had sat a few moments ago.
The music was still poured forth, but the tune was changed. Now it was "Pagliacci"--that wonderful passage where the injured husband pours out his soul in agony.
Stafford closed the doors of the little room where he and Byng had sat, and stood an instant listening to the music. He shuddered as the passionate notes swept over his senses. In this music was the note of the character of the man who played--sensuous emotion, sensual delight. There are men who by nature are as the daughters of the night, primary prostitutes, with no minds, no moral sense; only a sensuous organization which has a gift of shallow beauty, while the life is never deep enough for tears nor high enough for real joy.
In Stafford's pocket was the revolver which Byng had given him. He took it out, and as he did so, a flush swept over his face, and every nerve of his body tingled.
"That way out?" he thought. "How easy--and how selfish.... If one's life only concerned oneself.... But it's only partly one's own from first to last." . . . Then his thoughts turned again to the man who was playing "Pagliacci." "I have a greater right to do it than Byng, and I'd have a greater joy in doing it; but whatever he is, it is not all his fault." Again he shuddered. "No man makes love like that to a woman unless she lets him, . . . until she lets him." Then he looked at the fire where the cruel testimony had shrivelled into smoke. "If it had been read to a jury . . . Ah, my God! How many he must have written her like that ... How often...."
With an effort he pulled himself together. "What does it matter now! All things have come to an end for me. There is only one way. My letter to her showed it. But this must be settled first. Then to see her for the last time, to make her understand...."
He went to the beaded curtain, raised it, and stepped into the flood of warm sunlight. The voluptuous, agonizing music came in a wave over him. Tragedy, poignant misery, rang through every note, swelled in a stream which drowned the senses. This man-devil could play, Stafford remarked, cynically, to himself.
"A moment--Fellowes," he said, sharply.
The music frayed into a discord and stopped.
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