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Eastminster House was ablaze. A large dinner had been fixed for this October evening, and only just before half-past eight Jasmine entered the drawing-room to receive her guests. She had completely forgotten the dinner till very late in the afternoon, when she observed preparations for which she had given instructions the day before. She was about to leave the house upon the mission which had drawn her footsteps in the same direction as those of Ian Stafford, when the butler came to her for information upon some details. These she gave with an instant decision which was part of her equipment, and then, when the butler had gone, she left the house on foot to take a cab at the corner of Piccadilly.
When she returned home, the tables in the dining-room were decorated, the great rooms were already lighted, and the red carpet was being laid down at the door. The footmen looked up with surprise as she came up the steps, and their eyes followed her as she ascended the staircase with marked deliberation.
"Well, that's style for you," said the first footman. "Takin' an airin' on shanks' hosses."
"And a quarter of an hour left to put on the tirara," sniggered the second footman. "The lot is asked for eight-thirty."
"Swells, the bunch, windin' up with the brother of an Emperor--'struth!"
"I'll bet the Emperor's brother ain't above takin' a tip about shares on the Rand, me boy."
"I'll bet none of 'em ain't. That's why they come--not forgetting th' grub and the fizz."
"What price a title for the Byng Baas one of these days! They like tips down there where the old Markis rumbles through his beard--and a lot of hands to be greased. And grease it costs a lot, political grease does. But what price a title--Sir Rudyard Byng, Bart., wot oh!"
"Try another shelf higher up, and it's more like it. Wot a head for a coronet 'ers! W'y--"
But the voice of the butler recalled them from the fields of imagination, and they went with lordly leisure upon the business of the household.
Socially this was to be the day of Jasmine's greatest triumph. One of the British royal family was, with the member of another great reigning family, honouring her table--though the ladies of neither were to be present; and this had been a drop of chagrin in her cup. She had been unaware of the gossip there had been of late,--though it was unlikely the great ladies would have known of it--and she would have been slow to believe what Ian had told her this day, that men had talked lightly of her at De Lancy Scovel's house. Her eyes had been shut; her wilful nature had not been sensitive to the quality of the social air about her. People came--almost "everybody" came--to her house, and would come, of course, until there was some open scandal; until her husband intervened. Yet everybody did not come. The royal princesses had not found it convenient to come; and this may have meant nothing, or very much indeed. To Jasmine, however, as she hastily robed herself for dinner, her mind working with lightning swiftness, it did not matter at all; if all the kings and queens of all the world had promised to come and had not come, it would have meant nothing to her this night of nights.
In her eyes there was the look of one who has seen some horrible thing, though she gave her orders with coherence and decision as usual, and with great deftness she assisted her maid in the hasty toilette. Her face was very pale, save for one or two hectic spots which took the place of the nectarine bloom so seldom absent from her cheeks, and in its place was a new, shining, strange look like a most delicate film--the transfiguring kind of look which great joy or great pain gives.
Coming up the staircase from the street, she had seen Krool enter her husband's room more hastily than usual, and had heard him greeted sharply--something that sounded strange to her ears, for Rudyard was uniformly kind to Krool. Never had Rudyard's voice sounded as it did now. Of course it was her imagination, but it was like a voice which came from some desolate place, distant, arid and alien. That was not the voice in which he had wooed her on the day when they heard of Jameson's Raid. That was not the voice which had spoken to her in broken tones of love on the day Ian first dined with her after her marriage--that fateful, desperate day. This was a voice which had a cheerless, fretful note, a savage something in it. Presently they two would meet, and she knew how it would be--an outward semblance, a superficial amenity and confidence before their guests; the smile of intimacy, when there was no intimacy, and never, never, could be again; only acting, only make-believe, only the artifice of deceit.
Yet when she was dressed--in pure white, with only a string of pearls, the smallest she had, round her neck--she was like that white flower which had been placed on her pillow last night.
Turning to leave the bedroom she caught sight of her face and figure again in the big mirror, and she seemed to herself like some other woman. There was that strange, distant look of agony in her eyes, that transfiguring look in the face; there was the figure somehow gone slimmer in these few hours; and there was a frail appearance which did not belong to her.
As she was about to leave the room to descend the stairs, there came a knock at the door. A bunch of white violets was handed in, with a pencilled note in Rudyard's handwriting.
White violets--white violets!
The note read, "Wear these to-night, Jasmine."
White violets--how strange that he should send them! These they send for the young, the innocent, and the dead. Rudyard had sent them to her--from how far away! He was there just across the hallway, and yet he might have been in Bolivia, so far as their real life was concerned.
She was under no illusion. This day, and perhaps a few, a very few others, must be lived under the same roof, in order that they could separate without scandal; but things could never go on as in the past. She had realized that the night before, when still that chance of which she had spoken to Stafford was hers; when she had wound the coil of her wonderful hair round her throat, and had imagined that self-destruction which has tempted so many of more spiritual make than herself. It was melodramatic, emotional, theatrical, maybe; but the emotional, the theatrical, the egotistic mortal has his or her tragedy, which is just as real as that which comes to those of more spiritual vein, just as real as that which comes to the more classical victim of fate. Jasmine had the deep defects of her qualities. Her suffering was not the less acute because it found its way out with impassioned demonstration.
There was, however, no melodrama in the quiet trembling with which she took the white violets, the symbol of love and death. She was sure that Rudyard was not aware of their significance and meaning, but that did not modify the effect upon her. Her trouble just now was too deep for tears, too bitter for words, too terrible for aught save numb endurance. Nothing seemed to matter in a sense, and yet the little routine of life meant so much in its iron insistence. The habits of convention are so powerful that life's great issues are often obscured by them. Going to her final doom a woman would stop to give the last careful touch to her hair--the mechanical obedience to long habit. It is not vanity, not littleness, but habit; never shown with subtler irony than in the case of Madame de Langrois, who, pacing the path to her execution at Lille, stooped, picked up a pin from the ground, and fastened it in her gown--the tyranny of habit.
Outside her own room Jasmine paused for a moment and looked at the closed door of Rudyard's room. Only a step--and yet she was kept apart from him by a shadow so black, so overwhelming, that she could not penetrate it. It smothered her sight. No, no, that little step could not be taken; there was a gulf between them which could not be bridged.
There was nothing to say to Rudyard except what could be said upon the surface, before all the world, as it were; things which must be said through an atmosphere of artificial sounds, which would give no response to the agonized cries of the sentient soul. She could make believe before the world, but not alone with Rudyard. She shrank within herself at the idea of being alone with him.
As she went down-stairs a scene in a room on the Thames Embankment, from which she had come a half hour ago, passed before her vision. It was as though it had been imprinted on the film of her eye and must stay there forever.
When would the world know that Adrian Fellowes lay dead in the room on the Embankment? And when they knew it, what would they say? They would ask how he died--the world would ask how he died. The Law would ask how he died.
How had he died? Who killed him? Or did he die by his own hand? Had Adrian Fellowes, the rank materialist, the bon viveur, the man-luxury, the courage to kill himself by his own hand? If not, who killed him? She shuddered. They might say that she killed him.
She had seen no one on the staircase as she had gone up, but she had dimly seen another figure outside in the terrace as she came out, and there was the cabman who drove her to the place. That was all.
Now, entering the great drawing-room of her own house she shuddered as though from an icy chill. The scene there on the Embankment--her own bitter anger, her frozen hatred; then the dead man with his face turned to the wall; the stillness, the clock ticking, her own cold voice speaking to him, calling; then the terrified scrutiny, the touch of the wrist, the realization, the moment's awful horror, the silence which grew more profound, the sudden paralysis of body and will.... And then--music, strange, soft, mysterious music coming from somewhere inside the room, music familiar and yet unnatural, a song she had heard once before, a pathetic folk-song of eastern Europe, "More Was Lost at Mohacksfield." It was a tale of love and loss and tragedy and despair.
Startled and overcome, she had swayed, and would have fallen, but that with an effort of the will she had caught at the table and saved herself. With the music still creeping in unutterable melancholy through the room, she had fled, closing the door behind her very softly as though not to disturb the sleeper. It had followed her down the staircase and into the street, the weird, unnatural music.
It was only when she had entered a cab in the Strand that she realized exactly what the music was. She remembered that Fellowes had bought a music-box which could be timed to play at will--even days ahead, and he had evidently set the box to play at this hour. It did so, a strange, grim commentary on the stark thing lying on the couch, nerveless as though it had been dead a thousand years. It had ceased to play before Stafford entered the room, but, strangely enough, it began again as he said over the dead body, "He did not die by his own hand."
Standing before the fireplace in the drawing-room, awaiting the first guest, Jasmine said to herself: "No, no, he had not the courage to kill himself."
Some one had killed him. Who was it? Who killed him--Rudyard--Ian--who? But how? There was no sign of violence. That much she had seen. He lay like one asleep. Who was it killed him?
Back to the world from purgatory again. The butler's voice broke the spell, and Lady Tynemouth took her friend in her arms and kissed her.
"So handsome you look, my darling--and all in white. White violets, too. Dear, dear, how sweet, and oh, how triste! But I suppose it's chic. Certainly, it is stunning. And so simple. Just the weeny, teeny string of pearls, like a young under-secretary's wife, to show what she might do if she had a fair chance. Oh, you clever, wonderful Jasmine!"
"My dressmaker says I have no real taste in colours, so I compromised," was Jasmine's reply, with a really good imitation of a smile.
As she babbled on, Lady Tynemouth had been eyeing her friend with swift inquiry, for she had never seen Jasmine look as she did to-night, so ethereal, so tragically ethereal, with dark lines under the eyes, the curious transparency of the skin, and the feverish brightness and far-awayness of the look. She was about to say something in comment, but other guests entered, and it was impossible. She watched, however, from a little distance, while talking gaily to other guests; she watched at the dinner-table, as Jasmine, seated between her two royalties, talked with gaiety, with pretty irony, with respectful badinage; and no one could be so daring with such ceremonious respect at the same time as she. Yet through it all Lady Tynemouth saw her glance many times with a strange, strained inquiry at Rudyard, seated far away opposite her; at another big, round table.
"There's something wrong here," Lady Tynemouth said to herself, and wondered why Ian Stafford was not present. Mennaval was there, eagerly seeking glances. These Jasmine gave with a smiling openness and apparent good-fellowship, which were not in the least compromising. Lady Tynemouth saw Mennaval's vain efforts, and laughed to herself, and presently she even laughed with her neighbour about them.
"What an infant it is!" she said to her table companion. "Jasmine Byng doesn't care a snap of her finger about Mennaval."
"Does she care a snap for anybody?" asked the other. Then he added, with a kind of query in the question apart from the question itself: "Where is the great man--where's Stafford to-night?"
"Counting his winnings, I suppose." Lady Tynemouth's face grew soft. "He has done great things for so young a man. What a distance he has gone since he pulled me and my red umbrella back from the Zambesi Falls!"
Then proceeded a gay conversation, in which Lady Tynemouth was quite happy. When she could talk of Ian Stafford she was really enjoying herself. In her eyes he was the perfect man, whom other women tried to spoil, and whom, she flattered herself, she kept sound and unspoiled by her frank platonic affection.
"Our host seems a bit abstracted to-night," said her table companion after a long discussion about what Stafford had done and what he still might do.
"The war--it means so much to him," said Lady Tynemouth. Yet she had seen the note of abstraction too, and it had made her wonder what was happening in this household.
The other demurred.
"But I imagine he has been prepared for the war for some time. He didn't seem excessively worried about it before dinner, yet he seemed upset too, so pale and anxious-looking."
"I'll make her talk, make her tell me what it is, if there is anything," said Lady Tynemouth to herself. "I'll ask myself to stay with her for a couple of days."
Superficial as Lady Tynemouth seemed to many, she had real sincerity, and she was a friend in need to her friends. She loved Jasmine as much as she could love any woman, and she said now, as she looked at Jasmine's face, so alert, so full of raillery, yet with such an undertone of misery:
"She looks as if she needed a friend."
After dinner she contrived to get her arm through that of her hostess, and gave it an endearing pressure. "May I come to you for a few days, Jasmine?" she asked.
"I was going to ask if you would have me," answered Jasmine, with a queer little smile. "Rudyard will be up to his ears for a few days, and that's a chance for you and me to do some shopping, and some other things together, isn't it?"
She was thinking of appearances, of the best way to separate from Rudyard for a little while, till the longer separation could be arranged without scandal. Ian Stafford had said that things could go on in this house as before, that Rudyard would never hint to her what he knew, or rather what the letter had told him or left untold: but that was impossible. Whatever Rudyard was willing to do, there was that which she could not do. Twenty-four hours had accomplished a complete revolution in her attitude towards life and in her sense of things. Just for these immediate days to come, when the tragedy of Fellowes' death would be made a sensation of the hour, there must be temporary expedients; and Lady Tynemouth had suggested one which had its great advantages.
She could not bear to remain in Rudyard's house; and in his heart of hearts Rudyard would wish the same, even if he believed her innocent; but if she must stay for appearance' sake, then it would be good to have Lady Tynemouth with her. Rudyard would be grateful for time to get his balance again. This bunch of violets was the impulse of a big, magnanimous nature; but it would be followed by the inevitable reaction, which would be the real test and trial.
Love and forgiveness--what had she to do with either! She did not wish forgiveness because of Adrian Fellowes. No heart had been involved in that episode. It had in one sense meant nothing to her. She loved another man, and she did not wish forgiveness of him either. No, no, the whole situation was impossible. She could not stay here. For his own sake Rudyard would not, ought not, to wish her to stay. What might the next few days bring forth?
Who had killed Adrian Fellowes? He was not man enough to take his own life--who had killed him? Was it her husband, after all? He had said to Ian Stafford that he would do nothing, but, with the maggot of revenge and jealousy in their brains, men could not be trusted from one moment to another.
The white violets? Even they might be only the impulse of the moment, one of those acts of madness of jealous and revengeful people. Men had kissed their wives and then killed them--fondled them, and then strangled them. Rudyard might have made up his mind since morning to kill Fellowes, and kill herself, also. Fellowes was gone, and now might come her turn. White violets were the flowers of death, and the first flowers he had ever given her were purple violets, the flowers of life and love.
If Rudyard had killed Adrian Fellowes, there would be an end to everything. If he was suspected, and if the law stretched out its hand of steel to clutch him--what an ignominious end to it all; what a mean finish to life, to opportunity, to everything worth doing!
And she would have been the cause of everything.
The thought scorched her soul.
Yet she talked on gaily to her guests until the men returned from their cigars; as though Penalty and Nemesis were outside even the range of her imagination; as though she could not hear the snap of the handcuffs on Rudyard's--or Ian's--wrists.
Before and after dinner only a few words had passed between her and Rudyard, and that was with people round them. It was as though they spoke through some neutralizing medium, in which all real personal relation was lost. Now Rudyard came to her, however, and in a matter-of-fact voice said: "I suppose Al'mah will be here. You haven't heard to the contrary, I hope? These great singers are so whimsical."
There was no time for Jasmine to answer, for through one of the far entrances of the drawing-room Al'mah entered. Her manner was composed--if possible more composed than usual, and she looked around her calmly. At that moment a servant handed Byng a letter. It contained only a few words, and it ran:
"DEAR BYNG,--Fellowes is gone. I found him dead in his rooms. An inquest will be held to-morrow. There are no signs of violence; neither of suicide or anything else. If you want me, I shall be at my rooms after ten o'clock to-night. I have got all his papers." Yours ever,
Jasmine watched Rudyard closely as he read. A strange look passed over his face, but his hand was steady as he put the note in his pocket. She then saw him look searchingly at Al'mah as he went forward to greet her.
On the instant Rudyard had made up his mind what to do. It was clear that Al'mah did not know that Fellowes was dead, or she would not be here; for he knew of their relations, though he had never told Jasmine. Jasmine did not suspect the truth, or Al'mah would not be where she was; and Fellowes would never have written to Jasmine the letter for which he had paid with his life.
Al'mah was gently appreciative of the welcome she received from both Byng and Jasmine, and she prepared to sing.
"Yes, I think I am in good voice," she said to Jasmine, presently. Then Rudyard went, giving his wife's arm a little familiar touch as he passed, and said:
"Remember, we must have some patriotic things tonight. I'm sure Al'mah will feel so, too. Something really patriotic and stirring. We shall need it--yes we shall need cheering very badly before we've done. We're not going to have a walk-over in South Africa. Cheering up is what we want, and we must have it."
Again he cast a queer, inquiring look at Al'mah, to which he got no response, and to himself he said, grimly: "Well, it's better she should not know it--here."
His mind was in a maze. He moved as in a dream. He was pale, but he had an air of determination. Once he staggered with dizziness, then he righted himself and smiled at some one near. That some one winked at his neighbour.
"It's true, then, what we hear about him," the neighbour said, and suggestively raised fingers to his mouth.
Al'mah sang as perhaps she had seldom sung. There was in her voice an abandon and tragic intensity, a wonderful resonance and power, which captured her hearers as they had never been captured before. First she sang a love-song, then a song of parting. Afterwards came a lyric of country, which stirred her audience deeply. It was a challenge to every patriot to play his part for home and country. It was an appeal to the spirit of sacrifice; it was an inspiration and an invocation. Men's eyes grew moist.
And now another, a final song, a combination of all--of love, and loss and parting and ruin, and war and patriotism and destiny. With the first low notes of it Jasmine rose slowly from her seat, like one in a dream, and stood staring blindly at Al'mah. The great voice swelled out in a passion of agony, then sank away into a note of despair that gripped the heart.
"But more was lost at Mohacksfield--"
Jasmine had stood transfixed while the first words were sung, then, as the last line was reached, staring straight in front of her, as though she saw again the body of Adrian Fellowes in the room by the river, she gave a cry, which sounded half laughter and half torture, and fell heavily on the polished floor.
Rudyard ran forward and lifted her in his arms. Lady Tynemouth was beside him in an instant.
"Yes, that's right--you come," he said to her, and he carried the limp body up-stairs, the white violets in her dress crushed against his breast.
"Poor child--the war, of course; it means so much to them."
Thus, a kindly dowager, as she followed the Royalties down-stairs.
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