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As the cape-cart conveying Jasmine to the hospital moved away from the station, she settled down into the seat beside the driver with the helplessness of one who had received a numbing blow. Her body swayed as though she would faint, and her eyes closed, and stayed closed for so long a time, that Corporal Shorter, who drove the rough little pair of Argentines, said to her sympathetically:
"It's all right, ma'am. We'll be there in a jiffy. Don't give way."
This friendly solicitude had immediate effect. Jasmine sat up, and thereafter held herself as though she was in her yellow salon yonder in London.
"Thank you," she replied serenely to Corporal Shorter. "It was a long, tiring journey, and I let myself go for a moment."
"A good night's rest'll do you a lot of good, ma'am," he ventured. Then he added, "Beggin' pardon, ain't you Mrs. Colonel Rudyard Byng?"
She turned and looked at the man inquiringly. "Yes, I am Mrs. Byng."
"Thank you, ma'am. Now how did I know? Why," he chuckled, "I saw a big B on your hand-bag, and I knew you was from the hospital-ship--they told me that at the Stay Awhile; and the rest was easy, ma'am. I had a mate along o' your barge. He was one of them the Boers got at Talana Hill. They chipped his head-piece nicely--just like the 4.7's flay the kopjes up there. My mate's been writing to me about you. We're a long way from home, Joey and me, and a bit o' kindness is a bit of all right to us."
"Where is your home?" Jasmine asked, her fatigue and oppression lifting.
He chuckled as though it were a joke, while he answered: "Australia onct and first. My mate, Joey Clynes, him that's on your ship, we was both born up beyond Bendigo. When we cut loose from the paternal leash, so to speak, we had a bit of boundary-riding, rabbit-killing, shearing and sun-downing--all no good, year by year. Then we had a bit o' luck and found a mob of warrigals--horses run wild, you know. We stalked 'em for days in the droughttime to a water-course, and got 'em, and coaxed 'em along till the floods come; then we sold 'em, and with the hard tin shipped for to see the world. So it was as of old. And by and by we found ourselves down here, same as all the rest, puttin' in a bit o' time for the Flag."
Jasmine turned on him one of those smiles which had made her so many friends in the past--a smile none the less alluring because it had lost that erstime flavour of artifice and lure which, however hidden, had been part of its power. Now it was accompanied by no slight drooping of the eyelids. It brightened a look which was direct and natural.
"It's a good thing to have lived in the wide distant spaces of the world," she responded. "A man couldn't easily be mean or small where life is so simple and so large."
His face flushed with pleasure. She was so easy to get on with, he said to himself; and she certainly had a wonderfully kind smile. But he felt too that she needed greater wisdom, and he was ready to give it--a friendly characteristic of the big open spaces "where life is so simple and so large."
"Well, that might be so 'long o' some continents," he remarked, "but it wasn't so where Joey Clynes and me was nourished, so to speak. I tripped up on a good many mean things from Bendigo to Thargomindah and back around. The back-blocks has its tricks as well as the towns, as you would see if you come across a stock-rider with a cheque to be broke in his hand. I've seen six months' wages go bung in a day with a stock-rider on the gentle jupe. But again, peradventure, I've seen a man that had lost ten thousand sheep tramp fifty miles in a blazing sun with a basket of lambs on his back, savin' them two switherin' little papillions worth nothin' at all, at the risk of his own life--just as mates have done here on this salamanderin' veld; same as Colonel Byng did to-day along o' Wortmann's Drift."
Jasmine had been trying to ask a question concerning her husband ever since the man had mentioned his name, and had not been able to do so. She had never spoken of him directly to any one since she had left England; had never heard from him; had written him no word; was, so far as the outer acts of life were concerned, as distant from him as Corporal Shorter was from his native Bendigo. She had been busy as she had never before been in her life, in a big, comprehensive, useful way. It had seemed to her in England, as she carried through the negotiations for the Valoria, fitted it out for the service it was to render, directed its administration over the heads of the committee appointed, for form's sake, to assist Lady Tynemouth and herself, that the spirit of her grandfather was over her, watching her, inspiring her. This had become almost an obsession with her. Her grandfather had had belief in her, delight in her; and now the innumerable talks she had had with him, as to the way he had done things, gave her confidence and a key to what she had to do. It was the first real work; for what she did for Ian Stafford in diplomacy was only playing upon the weakness of human nature with a skilled intelligence, with an instinctive knowledge of men and a capacity for managing them. The first real pride she had ever felt soothed her angry soul.
Her grandfather had been more in her mind than any one else--than either Rudyard or Ian Stafford. Towards both of these her mind had slowly and almost unconsciously changed, and she wished to think about neither. There had been a revolution in her nature, and all her tragic experience, her emotions, and her faculties, had been shaken into a crucible where the fire of pain and revolt burned on and on and on. From the crucible there had come as yet no precipitation of life's elements, and she scarcely knew what was in her heart. She tried to smother every thought concerning the past. She did not seek to find her bearings, or to realize in what country of the senses and the emotions she was travelling.
One thing was present, however, at times, and when it rushed over her in its fulness, it shook her as the wind shakes the leaf on a tree--a sense of indignation, of anger, or resentment. Against whom? Against all. Against Rudyard, against Ian Stafford; but most of all, a thousand times most against a dead man, who had been swept out of life, leaving behind a memory which could sting murderously.
Now, when she heard of Rudyard's bravery at Wortmann's Drift, a curious thrill of excitement ran through her veins, or it would be truer to say that a sensation new and strange vibrated in her blood. She had heard many tales of valour in this war, and more than one hero of the Victoria Cross had been in her charge at Durban; but as a child's heart might beat faster at the first words of a wonderful story, so she felt a faint suffocation in the throat and her brooding eyes took on a brighter, a more objective look, as she heard the tale of Wortmann's Drift.
"Tell me about it," she said, yet turned her head away from her eager historian.
Corporal Shorter's words were addressed to the smallest pink ear he had ever seen except on a baby, but he was only dimly conscious of that. He was full of a man's pride in a man's deed.
"Well, it was like this," he recited. "Gunter's horse bolted--Dick Gunter's in the South African Horse same as Colonel Byng--his lot. Old Gunter's horse gits away with him into the wide open. I s'pose there'd been a hunderd Boers firing at the runaway for three minutes, and at last off comes Gunter. He don't stir for a minute or more, then we see him pick himself up a bit quick, but settle back again. And while we was lookin' and tossin' pennies like as to his chances out there, a grey New Zealand mare nips out across the veld stretchin' every string. We knowed her all right, that grey mare--a regular Mrs. Mephisto, w'ich belongs to Colonel Byng. Do the Boojers fire at him? Don't they! We could see the spots of dust where the bullets struck, spittin', spittin', spittin', and Lord knows how many hunderd more there was that didn't hit the ground. An' the grey mare gets there. As cool as a granadillar, down drops Colonel Byng beside old Gunter; down goes the grey mare--Colonel Byng had taught her that trick, like the Roosian Cossack hosses. Then up on her rolls old Gunter, an' up goes Colonel Byng, and the grey mare switchin' her bobtail, as if she was havin' a bit of mealies in the middle o' the day. But when they was both on, then the band begun to play. Men was fightin' of course, but it looked as if the whole smash stopped to see what the end would be. It was a real pretty race, an' the grey mare takin' it as free as if she was carryin' a little bit of a pipkin like me instead of twenty-six stone. She's a flower, that grey mare! Once she stumbled, an' we knowed it wasn't an ant-bear's hole she'd found in the veld, and that she'd been hurt. But they know, them hosses, that they must do as their Baases do; and they fight right on. She come home with the two all right. She switched round a corner and over a nose of land where that crossfire couldn't hit the lot; an' there was the three of 'em at 'ome for a cup o' tea. Why, ma'am, that done the army as much good to-day, that little go-to-the-devil, you mud-suckers! as though we'd got Schuster's Hill. 'Twas what we needed--an' we got it. It took our eyes off the nasty little fact that half of a regiment was down, an' the other half with their job not done as it was ordered. It made the S.A.'s and the Lynchesters and the Gessex lot laugh. Old Gunter's all right. He's in the Stay Awhile now. You'll be sure to see him. And Colonel Byng's all right, too, except a little bit o' splinter--"
"A bit of splinter--" Her voice was almost peremptory.
"A chip off his wrist like, but he wasn't thinkin' of that when he got back. He was thinkin' of the grey mare; and she was hit in three places, but not to mention. One bullet cut through her ear and through Colonel Byng's hat as he stooped over her neck; but the luck was with them. They was born to do a longer trek together. A little bit of the same thing in both of 'em, so to speak. The grey mare has a temper like a hunderd wildcats, and Colonel Byng can let himself go too, as you perhaps know, ma'am. We've seen him let loose sometimes when there was shirkers about, but he's all right inside his vest. And he's a good feeder. His men get their tucker all right. He knows when to shut his eyes. He's got a way to make his bunch--and they're the hardest-bit bunch in the army--do anything he wants 'em to. He's as hard himself as ever is, but he's all right underneath the epidermotis."
All at once there flashed before Jasmine's eyes the picture of Rudyard driving Krool out of the house in Park Lane with a sjambok. She heard again the thud of the rhinoceros-whip on the cringing back of the Boer; she heard the moan of the victim as he stumbled across the threshold into the street; and again she felt that sense of suffocation, that excitement which the child feels on the brink of a wonderful romance, the once-upon-a-time moment.
They were nearing the hospital. The driver silently pointed to it. He saw that he had made an impression, and he was content with it. He smiled to himself.
"Is Colonel Byng in the camp?" she asked.
"He's over--'way over, miles and miles, on the left wing with Kearey's brigade now. But old Gunter's here, and you're sure to see Colonel Byng soon--well, I should think."
She had no wish to see Colonel Byng soon. Three days would suffice to do what she wished here, and then she would return to Durban to her work there--to Alice Tynemouth, whose friendship and wonderful tactfulness had helped her in indefinable ways, as a more obvious sympathy never could have done. She would have resented one word which would have suggested that a tragedy was slowly crushing out her life.
Never a woman in the world was more alone. She worked and smiled with eyes growing sadder, yet with a force hardening in her which gave her face a character it never had before. Work had come at the right moment to save her from the wild consequences of a nature maddened by a series of misfortunes and penalties, for which there had been no warning and no preparation.
She was not ready for a renewal of the past. Only a few minutes before she had been brought face to face with Ian Stafford, had seen him look at her out of the shadow there at the station, as though she was an infinite distance away from him; and she had realized with overwhelming force how changed her world was. Ian Stafford, who but a few short months ago had held her in his arms and whispered unforgettable things, now looked at her as one looks at the image of a forgotten thing. She recalled his last words to her that awful day when Rudyard had read the fatal letter, and the world had fallen:
"Nothing can set things right between you and me, Jasmine," he had said. "But there is Rudyard. You must help him through. He heard scandal about Mennaval last night at De Lancy Scovel's. He didn't believe it. It rests with you to give it all the lie. Good-bye."
That had been the end--the black, bitter end. Since then Ian had never spoken a word to her, nor she to him; but he had stood there in the shadow at the station like a ghost, reproachful, unresponsive, indifferent. She recalled now the day when, after three years' parting, she had left him cool, indifferent, and self-contained in the doorway of the sweet-shop in Regent Street; how she had entered her carriage, had clinched her hands, and cried with wilful passion: "He shall not treat me so. He shall show some feeling. He shall! He shall!"
Here was indifference again, but of another land. Hers was not a woman's vanity, in fury at being despised. Vanity, maybe, was still there, but so slight that it made no contrast to the proud turmoil of a nature which had been humiliated beyond endurance; which, for its mistakes, had received accruing penalties as precise as though they had been catalogued; which had waked to find that a whole lifetime had been an error; and that it had no anchor in any set of principles or impelling habits.
And over all there hung the shadow of a man's death, with its black suspicion. When Ian Stafford looked at her from the shadow of the railway-station, the question had flashed into his mind, Did she kill him? Around Adrian Fellowes' death there hung a cloud of mystery which threw a sinister shadow on the path of three people. In the middle of the night, Jasmine started from her sleep with the mystery of the man's death torturing her, and with the shuddering question, Which? on her fevered lips. Was it her husband--was it Ian Stafford? As he galloped over the veld, or sat with his pipe beside the camp-fire, Rudyard Byng was also drawn into the frigid gloom of the ugly thought, and his mind asked the question, Did she kill him? It was as though each who had suffered from the man in life was destined to be menaced by his shade, till it should be exorcised by that person who had taken the useless life, saying, "It was I; I did it!"
As Jasmine entered the hospital, it seemed to her excited imagination as though she was entering a House of Judgment: as though here in a court of everlasting equity she would meet those who had played their vital parts in her life.
What if Rudyard was here! What if in these few days while she was to be here he was to cross her path! What would she say? What would she do? What could be said or done? Bitterness and resentment and dark suspicion were in her mind--and in his. Her pride was less wilful and tempestuous than on the day when she drove him from her; when he said things which flayed her soul, and left her body as though it had been beaten with rods. Her bitterness, her resentment had its origin in the fact that he did not understand--and yet in his crude big way he had really understood better than Ian Stafford. She felt that Rudyard despised her now a thousand times more than ever he had hinted at in that last stifling scene in Park Lane; and her spirit rebelled against it. She would rather that he had believed everything against her, and had made an open scandal, because then she could have paid any debt due to him by the penalty most cruel a woman can bear. But pity, concession, the condescension of a superior morality, were impossible to her proud mind.
As for Ian Stafford, he had left her stripped bare of one single garment of self-respect. His very kindness, his chivalry in defending her; his inflexible determination that all should be over between them forever, that she should be prevailed upon to be to Rudyard more than she had ever been--it all drove her into a deeper isolation. This isolation would have been her destruction but that something bigger than herself, a passion to do things, lifted to idealism a mind which in the past had grown materialistic, which, in gaining wit and mental skill, had missed the meaning of things, the elemental sense.
Corporal Shorter's tale of Rudyard's heroism had stirred her; but she could not have said quite what her feeling was with regard to it. She only knew vaguely that she was glad of it in a more personal than impersonal way. When she shook hands with the cheerful non-com. at the door of the hospital, she gave him a piece of gold which he was loth to accept till she said: "But take it as a souvenir of Colonel Byng's little ride with 'Old Gunter.'"
With a laugh, he took it then, and replied, "I'll not smoke it, I'll not eat it, and I'll not drink it. I'll wear it for luck and God-bless-you!"
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