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Slowly Jasmine returned to her boudoir. Laying the sjambok on the table among the books in delicate bindings and the bowls of flowers, she stood and looked at it with confused senses for a long time. At last a wan smile stole to her lips, but it did not reach her eyes. They remained absorbed and searching, and were made painfully sad by the wide, dark lines under them. Her fair skin was fairer than ever, but it was delicately faded, giving her a look of pensiveness, while yet there was that in her carriage and at her mouth which suggested strength and will and new forces at work in her. She carried her head, weighted by its splendour of golden hair, as an Eastern woman carries a goulah of water. There was something pathetic yet self-reliant in the whole figure. The passion slumbering in the eyes, however, might at any moment burst forth in some wild relinquishment of control and self-restraint.
"He did what I should have liked to do," she said aloud. "We are not so different, after all. He is primitive at bottom, and so am I. He gets carried away by his emotions, and so do I."
She took up the whip, examined it, felt its weight, and drew it with a swift jerk through the air.
"I did not even shrink when Krool came stumbling down the stairs, with this cutting his flesh," she said to herself. "Somehow it all seemed natural and right. What has come to me? Are all my finer senses dead? Am I just one of the crude human things who lived a million years ago, and who lives again as crude as those; with only the outer things changed? Then I wore the skins of wild animals, and now I do the same, just the same; with what we call more taste perhaps, because we have ceased to see the beauty in the natural thing."
She touched the little band of grey fur at the sleeve of her clinging velvet gown. "Just a little distance away--that is all."
Suddenly a light flashed up in her eyes, and her face flushed as though some one had angered her. She seized the whip again. "Yes, I could have seen him whipped to death before my eyes--the coward, the abject coward. He did not speak for me; he did not defend me; he did not deny. He let Ian think--death was too kind to him. How dared he hurt me so! . . . Death is so easy a way out, but he would not have taken it. No, no, no, it was not suicide; some one killed him. He could never have taken his own life--never. He had not the courage.... No; he died of poison or was strangled. Who did it? Who did it? Was it Rudyard? Was it. . . ? Oh, it wears me out--thinking, thinking, thinking!"
She sat down and buried her face in her hands. "I am doomed--doomed," she moaned. "I was doomed from the start. It must always have been so, whatever I did. I would do it again, whatever I did; I know I would do it again, being what I was. It was in my veins, in my blood from the start, from the very first days of my life."
All at once there flashed through her mind again, as on that night so many centuries ago, when she had slept the last sleep of her life as it was, Swinburne's lines on Baudelaire:
"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...."
"'There is no help for these things,'" she repeated with a sigh which seemed to tear her heart in twain. "All gone--all. What is there left to do? If death could make it better for any one, how easy! But everything would be known--somehow the world would know, and every one would suffer more. Not now--no, not now. I must live on, but not here. I must go away. I must find a place to go where Rudyard will not come. There is no place so far but it is not far enough. I am twenty-five, and all is over--all is done for me. I have nothing that I want to keep, there is nothing that I want to do except to go--to go and to be alone. Alone, always alone now. It is either that, or be Jezebel, or--"
The door opened, and the servant brought a card to her. "His Excellency, the Moravian ambassador," the footman said.
"Monsieur Mennaval?" she asked, mechanically, as though scarcely realizing what he had said.
"Yes, ma'am, Mr. Mennaval."
"Please say I am indisposed, and am sorry I cannot receive him to-day," she said.
"Very good, ma'am." The footman turned to go, then came back.
"Shall I tell the maid you want her?" he asked, respectfully.
"No, why should you?" she asked.
"I thought you looked a bit queer, ma'am," he responded, hastily. "I beg your pardon, ma'am."
She rewarded him with a smile. "Thank you, James, I think I should like her after all. Ask her to come at once."
When he had gone she leaned back and shut her eyes. For a moment she was perfectly motionless, then she sat up again and looked at the card in her hand.
"M. Mennaval--M. Mennaval," she said, with a note so cynical that it betrayed more than her previous emotion, to such a point of despair her mind had come.
M. Mennaval had played his part, had done his service, had called out from her every resource of coquetry and lure; and with wonderful art she had cajoled him till he had yielded to influence, and Ian had turned the key in the international lock. M. Mennaval had been used with great skill to help the man who was now gone from her forever, whom perhaps she would never see again; and who wanted never to see her again, never in all time or space. M. Mennaval had played his game for his own desire, and he had lost; but what had she gained where M. Mennaval had lost? She had gained that which now Ian despised, which he would willingly, so far as she was concerned, reject with contempt.... And yet, and yet, while Ian lived he must still be grateful to her that, by whatever means, she had helped him to do what meant so much to England. Yes, he could not wholly dismiss her from his mind; he must still say, "This she did for me--this thing, in itself not commendable, she did for me; and I took it for my country."
Her eyes were open, and her garden had been invaded by those revolutionaries of life and time, Nemesis, Penalty, Remorse. They marauded every sacred and secret corner of her mind and soul. They came with whips to scourge her. Nothing was private to her inner self now. Everything was arrayed against her. All life doubled backwards on her, blocking her path.
M. Mennaval--what did she care for him! Yet here he was at her door asking payment for the merchandise he had sold to her: his judgment, his reputation as a diplomatist, his freedom, the respect of the world--for how could the world respect a man at whom it laughed, a man who had hoped to be given the key to a secret door in a secret garden!
As Jasmine sat looking at the card, the footman entered again with a note.
"His Excellency's compliments," he said, and withdrew.
She opened the letter hesitatingly, held it in her hand for a moment without reading it, then, with an impulsive effort, did so. When she had finished, she gave a cry of anger and struck her tiny clinched hand upon her knee.
The note ran:
"Chere amie, you have so much indisposition in these days. It is all too vexing to your friends. The world will be surprised, if you allow a migraine to come between us. Indeed, it will be shocked. The world understands always so imperfectly, and I have no gift of explanation. Of course, I know the war has upset many, but I thought you could not be upset so easily--no, it cannot be the war; so I must try and think what it is. If I cannot think by tomorrow at five o'clock, I will call again to ask you. Perhaps the migraine will be better. But, if you will that migraine to be far away, it will fly, and then I shall be near. Is it not so? You will tell me to-morrow at five, will you not, belle amie?
"A toi, M. M."
The words scorched her eyes. They angered her, scourged her. One of life's Revolutionaries was insolently ravaging the secret place where her pride dwelt. Pride--what pride had she now? Where was the room for pride or vanity? . . . And all the time she saw the face of a dead man down by the river--a face now beneath the sod. It flashed before her eyes at moments when she least could bear it, to agitate her soul.
M. Mennaval--how dare he write to her so! "Chere amie" and "A toi"--how strange the words looked now, how repulsive and strange! It did not seem possible that once before he had written such words to her. But never before had these epithets or others been accompanied by such meaning as his other words conveyed.
"I will not see him to-morrow. I will not see him ever again, if I can help it," she said bitterly, and trembling with agitation. "I shall go where I shall not be found. I will go to-night."
The door opened. Her maid entered. "You wanted me, madame?" asked the girl, in some excitement and very pale.
"Yes, what is the matter? Why so agitated?" Jasmine asked.
The maid's eyes were on the sjambok. She pointed to it. "It was that, madame. We are all agitated. It was terrible. One had never seen anything like that before in one's life, madame--never. It was like the days--yes, of slavery. It was like the galleys of Toulon in the old days. It was--"
"There, don't be so eloquent, Lablanche. What do you know of the galleys of Toulon or the days of slavery?"
"Madame, I have heard, I have read, I--"
"Yes, but did you love Krool so?"
The girl straightened herself with dramatic indignation. "Madame, that man, that creature, that toad--!"
"Then why so exercised? Were you so pained at his punishment? Were all the household so pained?"
"Every one hated him, madame," said the girl, with energy.
"Then let me hear no more of this impudent nonsense," Jasmine said, with decision.
"Oh, madame, to speak to me like this!" Tears were ready to do needful service.
"Do you wish to remain with me, Lablanche?"
"Ah, madame, but yes--"
"Then my head aches, and I don't want you to make it worse.... And, see, Lablanche, there is that grey walking-suit; also the mauve dressing-gown, made by Loison; take them, if you can make them fit you; and be good."
"Madame, how kind--ah, no one is like you, madame--!"
"Well, we shall see about that quite soon. Put out at once every gown of mine for me to see, and have trunks ready to pack immediately; but only three trunks, not more."
"Madame is going away?"
"Do as I say, Lablanche. We go to-night. The grey gown and the mauve dressing-gown that Loison made, you will look well in them. Quick, now, please."
In a flutter Lablanche left the room, her eyes gleaming.
She had had her mind on the grey suit for some time, but the mauve dressing-gown as well--it was too good to be true.
She almost ran into Lady Tynemouth's arms as the door opened. With a swift apology she sped away, after closing the door upon the visitor.
Jasmine rose and embraced her friend, and Lady Tynemouth subsided into a chair with a sigh.
"My dear Jasmine, you look so frail," she said. "A short time ago I feared you were going to blossom into too ripe fruit, now you look almost a little pinched. But it quite becomes you, mignonne--quite. You have dark lines under your eyes, and that transparency of skin-- it is quite too fetching. Are you glad to see me?"
"I would have seen no one to-day, no one, except you or Rudyard."
"Love and duty," said Lady Tynemouth, laughing, yet acutely alive to the something so terribly wrong, of which she had spoken to Ian Stafford.
"Why is it my duty to see you, Alice?" asked Jasmine, with the dry glint in her tone which had made her conversation so pleasing to men.
"You clever girl, how you turn the tables on me," her friend replied, and then, seeing the sjambok on the table, took it up. "What is this formidable instrument? Are you flagellating the saints?"
"Not the saints, Alice."
"You don't mean to say you are going to scourge yourself?"
Then they both smiled--and both immediately sighed. Lady Tynemouth's sympathy was deeply roused for Jasmine, and she meant to try and win her confidence and to help her in her trouble, if she could; but she was full of something else at this particular moment, and she was not completely conscious of the agony before her.
"Have you been using this sjambok on Mennaval?" she asked with an attempt at lightness. "I saw him leaving as I came in. He looked rather dejected--or stormy, I don't quite know which."
"Does it matter which? I didn't see Mennaval today."
"Then no wonder he looked dejected and stormy. But what is the history of this instrument of torture?" she asked, holding up the sjambok again.
"Krool! Jasmine, you surely don't mean to say that you--"
"Not I--it was Rudyard. Krool was insolent--a half-caste, you know."
"Krool--why, yes, it was he I saw being helped into a cab by a policeman just down there in Piccadilly. You don't mean that Rudyard--"
She pushed the sjambok away from her.
"Then I suppose the insolence was terrible enough to justify it."
"Quite, I think." Jasmine's voice was calm.
"But of course it is not usual--in these parts."
"Rudyard is not usual in these parts, or Krool either. It was a touch of the Vaal."
Lady Tynemouth gave a little shudder. "I hope it won't become fashionable. We are altogether too sensational nowadays. But, seriously, Jasmine, you are not well. You must do something. You must have a change."
"I am going to do something--to have a change."
"That's good. Where are you going, dear?"
"South.... And how are you getting on with your hospital-ship?"
Lady Tynemouth threw up her hands. "Jasmine, I'm in despair. I had set my heart upon it. I thought I could do it easily, and I haven't done it, after trying as hard as can be. Everything has gone wrong, and now Tynie cables I mustn't go to South Africa. Fancy a husband forbidding a wife to come to him."
"Well, perhaps it's better than a husband forbidding his wife to leave him."
"Jasmine, I believe you would joke if you were dying."
"I am dying."
There was that in the tone of Jasmine's voice which gave her friend a start. She eyed her suddenly with a great anxiety.
"And I'm not jesting," Jasmine added, with a forced smile. "But tell me what has gone wrong with all your plans. You don't mind what Tynemouth says. Of course you will do as you like."
"Of course; but still Tynie has never 'issued instructions' before, and if there was any time I ought to humour him it is now. He's so intense about the war! But I can't explain everything on paper to him, so I've written to say I'm going to South Africa to explain, and that I'll come back by the next boat, if my reasons are not convincing."
In other circumstances Jasmine would have laughed. "He will find you convincing," she said, meaningly.
"I said if he found my reasons convincing."
"You will be the only reason to him."
"My dear Jasmine, you are really becoming sentimental. Tynie would blush to discover himself being silly over me. We get on so well because we left our emotions behind us when we married."
"Yours, I know, you left on the Zambesi," said Jasmine, deliberately.
A dull fire came into Lady Tynemouth's eyes, and for an instant there was danger of Jasmine losing a friend she much needed; but Lady Tynemouth had a big heart, and she knew that her friend was in a mood when anything was possible, or everything impossible.
So she only smiled, and said, easily: "Dearest Jasmine, that umbrella episode which made me love Ian Stafford for ever and ever without even amen came after I was married, and so your pin doesn't prick, not a weeny bit. No, it isn't Tynie that makes me sad. It's the Climbers who won't pay."
"The Climbers? You want money for--"
"Yes, the hospital-ship; and I thought they'd jump at it; but they've all been jumping in other directions. I asked the Steuvenfeldts, the Boulters, the Felix Fowles, the Brutons, the Sheltons, and that fellow Mackerel, who has so much money he doesn't know what to do with it and twenty others; and Mackerel was the only one who would give me anything at all large. He gave me ten thousand pounds. But I want fifty--fifty, my beloved. I'm simply broken-hearted. It would do so much good, and I could manage the thing so well, and I could get other splendid people to help me to manage it--there's Effie Lyndhall and Mary Meacham. The Mackerel wanted to come along, too, but I told him he could come out and fetch us back--that there mustn't be any scandal while the war was on. I laugh, my dear, but I could cry my eyes out. I want something to do--I've always wanted something to do. I've always been sick of an idle life, but I wouldn't do a hundred things I might have done. This thing I can do, however, and, if I did it, some of my debt to the world would be paid. It seems to me that these last fifteen years in England have been awful. We are all restless; we all have been going, going--nowhere; we have all been doing, doing--nothing; we have all been thinking, thinking, thinking--of ourselves. And I've been a playbody like the rest; I've gone with the Climbers because they could do things for me; I've wanted more and more of everything--more gadding, more pleasure, more excitement. It's been like a brass-band playing all the time, my life this past ten years. I'm sick of it. It's only some big thing that can take me out of it. I've got to make some great plunge, or in a few years more I'll be a middle-aged peeress with nothing left but a double chin, a tongue for gossip, and a string of pearls. There must be a bouleversement of things as they are, or good-bye to everything except emptiness. Don't you see, Jasmine, dearest?"
"Yes yes, I see." Jasmine got up, went to her desk, opened a drawer, took out a book, and began to write hastily. "Go on," she said as she wrote; "I can hear what you are saying."
"But are you really interested?"
"Even Tynemouth would find you interesting and convincing. Go on."
"I haven't anything more to say, except that nothing lies between me and flagellation and the sack cloth,"--she toyed with the sjambok--"except the Climbers; and they have failed me. They won't play--or pay."
Jasmine rose from the desk and came forward with a paper in her hand. "No, they have not failed you, Alice," she said, gently. "The Climbers seldom really disappoint you. The thing is, you must know how to talk to them, to say the right thing, the flattering, the tactful, and the nice sentimental thing,--they mostly have middle-class sentimentality--and then you get what you want. As you do now. There...."
She placed in her friend's hand a long, narrow slip of paper. Lady Tynemouth looked astonished, gazed hard at the paper, then sprang to her feet, pale and agitated.
"Jasmine--you--this--sixty thousand pounds!" she cried. "A cheque for sixty thousand pounds--Jasmine!"
There was a strange brilliance in Jasmine's eyes, a hectic flush on her cheek.
"It must not be cashed for forty-eight hours; but after that the money will be there."
Lady Tynemouth caught Jasmine's shoulders in her trembling yet strong fingers, and looked into the wild eyes with searching inquiry and solicitude.
"But, Jasmine, it isn't possible. Will Rudyard--can you afford it?"
"That will not be Rudyard's money which you will get. It will be all my own."
"But you yourself are not rich. Sixty thousand pounds--why?"
"It is because it is a sacrifice to me that I give it; because it is my own; because it is two-thirds of what I possess. And if all is needed before we have finished, then all shall go."
Alice Tynemouth still held the shoulders, still gazed into the eyes which burned and shone, which seemed to look beyond this room into some world of the soul or imagination. "Jasmine, you are not crazy, are you?" she asked, excitedly. "You will not repent of this? It is not a sudden impulse?"
"Yes, it is a sudden impulse; it came to me all at once. But when it came I knew it was the right thing, the only thing to do. I will not repent of it. Have no fear. It is final. It is sure. It means that, like you, I have found a rope to drag myself out of this stream which sweeps me on to the rapids."
"Jasmine, do you mean that you will--that you are coming, too?"
"Yes, I am going with you. We will do it together. You shall lead, and I shall help. I have a gift for organization. My grandfather? he--"
"All the world knows that. If you have anything of his gift, we shall not fail. We shall feel that we are doing something for our country--and, oh, so much for ourselves! And we shall be near our men. Tynie and Ruddy Byng will be out there, and we shall be ready for anything if necessary. But Rudyard, will he approve?" She held up the cheque.
Jasmine made a passionate gesture. "There are times when we must do what something in us tells us to do, no matter what the consequences. I am myself. I am not a slave. If I take my own way in the pleasures of life, why should I not take it in the duties and the business of life?"
Her eyes took on a look of abstraction, and her small hand closed on the large, capable hand of her friend. "Isn't work the secret of life? My grandfather used to say it was. Always, always, he used to say to me, 'Do something, Jasmine. Find a work to do, and do it. Make the world look at you, not for what you seem to be, but for what you do. Work cures nearly every illness and nearly every trouble'--that is what he said. And I must work or go mad. I tell you I must work, Alice. We will work together out there where great battles will be fought."
A sob caught her in the throat, and Alice Tynemouth wrapped her round with tender arms. "It will do you good, darling," she said, softly." It will help you through--through it all, whatever it is."
For an instant Jasmine felt that she must empty out her heart; tell the inner tale of her struggle; but the instant of weakness passed as suddenly as it came, and she only said--repeating Alice Tynemouth's words: "Yes, through it all, through it all, whatever it is." Then she added: "I want to do something big. I can, I can. I want to get out of this into the open world. I want to fight. I want to balance things somehow--inside myself...."
All at once she became very quiet. "But we must do business like business people. This money: there must be a small committee of business men, who--"
Alice Tynemouth finished the sentence for her. "Who are not Climbers?"
"Yes. But the whole organization must be done by ourselves--all the practical, unfinancial work. The committee will only be like careful trustees."
There was a new light in Jasmine's eyes. She felt for the moment that life did not end in a cul de sac. She knew that now she had found a way for Rudyard and herself to separate without disgrace, without humiliation to him. She could see a few steps ahead. When she gave Lablanche instructions to put out her clothes a little while before, she did not know what she was going to do; but now she knew. She knew how she could make it easier for Rudyard when the inevitable hour came,--and it was here--which should see the end of their life together. He need not now sacrifice himself so much for her sake.
She wanted to be alone, and, as if divining her thought, Lady Tynemouth embraced her, and a moment later there was no sound in the room save the ticking of the clock and the crackle of the fire.
How silent it was! The world seemed very far away. Peace seemed to have taken possession of the place, and Jasmine's stillness as she sat by the fire staring into the embers was a part of it. So lost was she that she was not conscious of an opening door and of a footstep. She was roused by a low voice.
She did not start. It was as though there had come a call, for which she had waited long, and she appeared to respond slowly to it, as one would to a summons to the scaffold. There was no outward agitation now, there was only a cold stillness which seemed little to belong to the dainty figure which had ever been more like a decoration than a living utility in the scheme of things. The crisis had come which she had dreaded yet invited--that talk which they two must have before they went their different ways. She had never looked Rudyard in the eyes direct since the day when Adrian Fellowes died. They had met, but never quite alone; always with some one present, either the servants or some other. Now they were face to face.
On Rudyard's lips was a faint smile, but it lacked the old bonhomie which was part of his natural equipment; and there were still sharp, haggard traces of the agitation which had accompanied the expulsion of Krool.
For an instant the idea possessed her that she would tell him everything there was to tell, and face the consequences, no matter what they might be. It was not in her nature to do things by halves, and since catastrophe was come, her will was to drink the whole cup to the dregs. She did not want to spare herself. Behind it all lay something of that terrible wilfulness which had controlled her life so far. It was the unlovely soul of a great pride. She did not want to be forgiven for anything. She did not want to be condoned. There was a spirit of defiance which refused to accept favours, preferring punishment to the pity or the pardon which stooped to make it easier for her. It was a dangerous pride, and in the mood of it she might throw away everything, with an abandonment and recklessness only known to such passionate natures.
The mood came on her all at once as she stood and looked at Rudyard. She read, or she thought she read in his eyes, in his smile, the superior spirit condescending to magnanimity, to compassion; and her whole nature was instantly up in arms. She almost longed on the instant to strip herself bare, as it were, and let him see her as she really was, or as, in her despair, she thought she really was. The mood in which she had talked to Lady Tynemouth was gone, and in its place a spirit of revolt was at work. A certain sullenness which Rudyard and no one else had ever seen came into her eyes, and her lips became white with an ominous determination. She forgot him and all that he would suffer if she told him the whole truth; and the whole truth would, in her passion, become far more than the truth: she was again the egoist, the centre of the universe. What happened to her was the only thing which mattered in all the world. So it had ever been; and her beauty and her wit and her youth and the habit of being spoiled had made it all possible, without those rebuffs and that confusion which fate provides sooner or later for the egoist.
"Well," she said, sharply, "say what you wish to say. You have wanted to say it badly. I am ready."
He was stunned by what seemed to him the anger and the repugnance in her tone.
"You remember you asked me to come, Jasmine, when you took the sjambok from me."
He nodded towards the table where it lay, then went forward and picked it up, his face hardening as he did so.
Like a pendulum her mood swung back. By accident he had said the one thing which could have moved her, changed her at the moment. The savage side of him appealed to her. What he lacked in brilliance and the lighter gifts of raillery and eloquence and mental give-and-take, he had balanced by his natural forces--from the power-house, as she had called it long ago. Pity, solicitude, the forced smile, magnanimity, she did not want in this black mood. They would have made her cruelly audacious, and her temper would have known no license; but now, suddenly, she had a vision of him as he stamped down the staircase, his coat off, laying the sjambok on the shoulders of the man who had injured her so, who hated her so, and had done so over all the years. It appealed to her.
In her heart of hearts she was sure he had done it directly or indirectly for her sake; and that was infinitely more to her than that he should stoop from the heights to pick her up. He was what he was because Heaven had made him so; and she was what she was because Heaven had forgotten to make her otherwise; and he could not know or understand how she came to do things that he would not do. But she could know and understand why his hand fell on Krool like that of Cain on Abel. She softened, changed at once.
"Yes, I remember," she said. "I've been upset. Krool was insolent, and I ordered him to go. He would not."
"I've been a fool to keep him all these years. I didn't know what he was--a traitor, the slimmest of the slim, a real Hottentot-Boer. I was pigheaded about him, because he seemed to care so much about me. That counts for much with the most of us."
"Alice Tynemouth saw a policeman help him into a cab in Piccadilly and take him away. Will there be trouble?"
A grim look crossed his face. "I think not," he responded. "There are reasons. He has been stealing information for years, and sending it to Kruger, he and--"
He stopped short, and into his face came a look of sullen reticence.
"Yes, he and--and some one else? Who else?" Her face was white. She had a sudden intuition.
He met her eyes. "Adrian Fellowes--what Fellowes knew, Krool knew, and one way or another, by one means or another, Fellowes knew a great deal."
The knowledge of Adrian Fellowes' treachery and its full significance had hardly come home to him, even when he punished Krool, so shaken was he by the fact that the half-caste had been false to him. Afterwards, however, as the Partners all talked together up-stairs, the enormity of the dead man's crime had fastened on him, and his brain had been stunned by the terrible thought that directly or indirectly Jasmine had abetted the crime. Things he had talked over with her, and with no one else, had got to Kruger's knowledge, as the information from South Africa showed. She had at least been indiscreet, had talked to Fellowes with some freedom or he could not have known what he did. But directly, knowingly abetted Fellowes? Of course, she had not done that; but her foolish confidences had abetted treachery, had wronged him, had helped to destroy his plans, had injured England.
He had savagely punished Krool for insolence to her and for his treachery, but a new feeling had grown up in him in the last half-hour. Under the open taunts of his colleagues, a deep resentment had taken possession of him that his work, so hard to do, so important and critical, should have been circumvented by the indiscretions of his wife.
Upon her now this announcement came with crushing force. Adrian Fellowes had gained from her--she knew it all too well now--that which had injured her husband; from which, at any rate, he ought to have been immune. Her face flushed with a resentment far greater than that of Rudyard's, and it was heightened by a humiliation which overwhelmed her. She had been but a tool in every sense, she, Jasmine Byng, one who ruled, had been used like a--she could not form the comparison in her mind--by a dependent, a hanger-on of her husband's bounty; and it was through her, originally, that he had been given a real chance in life by Rudyard.
"I am sorry," she said, calmly, as soon as she could get her voice. "I was the means of your employing him."
"That did not matter," he said, rather nervously. "There was no harm in that, unless you knew his character before he came to me."
"You think I did?"
"I cannot think so. It would have been too ruthless--too wicked."
She saw his suffering, and it touched her. "Of course I did not know that he could do such a thing--so shameless. He was a low coward. He did not deserve decent burial," she added. "He had good fortune to die as he did."
"How did he die?" Rudyard asked her, with a face so unlike what it had always been, so changed by agitation, that it scarcely seemed his. His eyes were fixed on hers.
She met them resolutely. Did he ask her in order to see if she had any suspicion of himself? Had he done it? If he had, there would be some mitigation of her suffering. Or was it Ian Stafford who had done it? One or the other--but which?
"He died without being made to suffer," she said. "Most people who do wrong have to suffer."
"But they live on," he said, bitterly.
"That is no great advantage unless you want to live," she replied. "Do you know how he died?" she added, after a moment, with sharp scrutiny.
He shook his head and returned her scrutiny with added poignancy. "It does not matter. He ceases to do any more harm. He did enough."
"Yes, quite enough," she said, with a withered look, and going over to her writing-table, stood looking at him questioningly. He did not speak again, however.
Presently she said, very quietly, "I am going away."
"I do not understand."
"I am going to work."
"I understand still less."
She took from the writing-table her cheque-book, and handed it to him. He looked at it, and read the counterfoil of the cheque she had given to Alice Tynemouth.
He was bewildered. "What does this mean?" he asked.
"It is for a hospital-ship."
"Sixty thousand pounds! Why, it is nearly all you have."
"It is two-thirds of what I have."
"Why--in God's name, why?"
"To buy my freedom," she answered, bitterly.
He staggered back and leaned heavily against a bookcase.
"Freedom from me!" he exclaimed, hoarsely.
He had had terribly bitter and revengeful feelings during the last hour, but all at once his real self emerged, the thing that was deepest in him. "Freedom from me? Has it come to that?"
"Yes, absolutely. Do you remember the day you first said to me that something was wrong with it all,--the day that Ian Stafford dined after his return from abroad? Well, it has been all wrong--cruelly wrong. We haven't made the best of things together, when everything was with us to do so. I have spoiled it all. It hasn't been what you expected."
"Nor what you expected?" he asked, sharply.
"Nor what I expected; but you are not to blame for that."
Suddenly all he had ever felt for her swept through his being, and sullenness fled away. "You have ceased to love me, then.... See, that is the one thing that matters, Jasmine. All else disappears beside that. Do you love me? Do you love me still? Do you love me, Jasmine? Answer that."
He looked like the ghost of his old dead self, pleading to be recognized.
His misery oppressed her. "What does one know of one's self in the midst of all this--of everything that has nothing to do with love?" she asked.
What she might have said in the dark mood which was coming on her again it is hard to say, but from beneath the window of the room which looked on Park Lane, there came the voice of a street-minstrel, singing to a travelling piano, played by sympathetic fingers, the song:
"She is far from the land where her young hero sleeps, And lovers around her are sighing--"
The simple pathos of the song had nothing to do with her own experience or her own case, but the flood of it swept through her veins like tears. She sank into a chair and listened for a moment with eyes shining, then she sprang up in an agitation which made her tremble and her face go white.
"No, no, no, Rudyard, I do not love you," she said, swiftly. "And because I do not love you, I will not stay. I never loved you, never truly loved you at any time. I never knew myself--that is all that I can say. I never was awake till now. I never was wholly awake till I saw you driving Krool into the street with the sjambok."
She flung up her hands. "For God's sake, let me be truthful at last. I don't want to hurt you--I have hurt you enough, but I do not love you; and I must go. I am going with Alice Tynemouth. We are going together to do something. Maybe I shall learn what will make life possible."
He reached out his arms towards her with a sudden tenderness.
"No, no, no, do not touch me," she cried. "Do not come near me. I must be alone now, and from now on and on.... You do not understand, but I must be alone. I must work it out alone, whatever it is."
She got up with a quick energy, and went over to the writing-table again. "It may take every penny I have got, but I shall do it, because it is the thing I feel I must do."
"You have millions, Jasmine," he said, in a low, appealing voice.
She looked at him almost fiercely again. "No, I have what is my own, my very own, and no more," she responded, bitterly. "You will do your work, and I will do mine. You will stay here. There will be no scandal, because I shall be going with Alice Tynemouth, and the world will not misunderstand."
"There will be no scandal, because I am going, too," he said, firmly.
"No, no, you cannot, must not, go," she urged.
"I am going to South Africa in two days," he replied. "Stafford was going with me, but he cannot go for a week or so. He will help you, I am sure, with forming your committee and arranging, if you will insist on doing this thing. He is still up-stairs there with the rest of them. I will get him down now, I--"
"Ian Stafford is here--in this house?" she asked, with staring eyes. What inconceivable irony it all was! She could have shrieked with that laughter which is more painful far than tears.
"Yes, he is up-stairs. I made him come and help us--he knows the international game. He will help you, too. He is a good friend--you will know how good some day."
She went white and leaned against the table.
"No, I shall not need him," she said. "We have formed our committee."
"But when I am gone, he can advise you, he can--"
"Oh--oh!" she murmured, and swayed forward, fainting.
He caught her and lowered her gently into a chair.
"You are only mad," he whispered to ears which heard not as he bent over her. "You will be sane some day."
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