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- The Judgment House - 2/85 -
as he quickly leaned forward, she said in a low voice which the others could not hear:
"I am too young, and not clever enough to understand all the music means--is that what you are thinking?"
He shook his head in negation, and his dark-brown eyes commanded hers, but still deferentially, as he said: "You know of what I was thinking. You will be forever young, but yours was always--will always be--the wisdom of the wise. I'd like to have been as clever at twenty-two."
"How trying that you should know my age so exactly--it darkens the future," she rejoined with a soft little laugh; then, suddenly, a cloud passed over her face. It weighed down her eyelids, and she gazed before her into space with a strange, perplexed, and timorous anxiety. What did she see? Nothing that was light and joyous, for her small sensuous lips drew closer, and the fan she held in her lap slipped from her fingers to the floor.
This aroused her, and Stafford, as he returned the fan to her, said into a face again alive to the present: "You look as though you were trying to summon the sable spirits of a sombre future."
Her fine pink-white shoulders lifted a little and, once more quite self-possessed, she rejoined, lightly, "I have a chameleon mind; it chimes with every mood and circumstance."
Suddenly her eyes rested on Rudyard Byng, and something in the rough power of the head arrested her attention, and the thought flashed through her mind: "How wonderful to have got so much at thirty-three! Three millions at thirty-three--and millions beget millions!"
. . . Power--millions meant power; millions made ready the stage for the display and use of every gift, gave the opportunity for the full occupation of all personal qualities, made a setting for the jewel of life and beauty, which reflected, intensified every ray of merit. Power--that was it. Her own grandfather had had power. He had made his fortune, a great one too, by patents which exploited the vanity of mankind, and, as though to prove his cynical contempt for his fellow-creatures, had then invented a quick-firing gun which nearly every nation in the world adopted. First, he had got power by a fortune which represented the shallowness and gullibility of human nature, then had exploited the serious gift which had always been his, the native genius which had devised the gun when he was yet a boy. He had died at last with the smile on his lips which had followed his remark, quoted in every great newspaper of two continents, that: "The world wants to be fooled, so I fooled it; it wants to be stunned, so I stunned it. My fooling will last as long as my gun; and both have paid me well. But they all love being fooled best."
Old Draygon Grenfel's fortune had been divided among his three sons and herself, for she had been her grandfather's favourite, and she was the only grandchild to whom he had left more than a small reminder of his existence. As a child her intelligence was so keen, her perception so acute, she realized him so well, that he had said she was the only one of his blood who had anything of himself in character or personality, and he predicted--too often in her presence--that she "would give the world a start or two when she had the chance." His intellectual contempt for his eldest son, her father, was reproduced in her with no prompting on his part; and, without her own mother from the age of three, Jasmine had grown up self-willed and imperious, yet with too much intelligence to carry her will and power too far. Infinite adaptability had been the result of a desire to please and charm; behind which lay an unlimited determination to get her own way and bend other wills to hers.
The two wills she had not yet bent as she pleased were those of her stepmother and of Ian Stafford--one, because she was jealous and obstinate, and the other because he had an adequate self-respect and an ambition of his own to have his way in a world which would not give save at the point of the sword. Come of as good family as there was in England, and the grandson of a duke, he still was eager for power, determined to get on, ingenious in searching for that opportunity which even the most distinguished talent must have, if it is to soar high above the capable average. That chance, the predestined alluring opening had not yet come; but his eyes were wide open, and he was ready for the spring--nerved the more to do so by the thought that Jasmine would appreciate his success above all others, even from the standpoint of intellectual appreciation, all emotions excluded. How did it come that Jasmine was so worldly wise, and yet so marvellously the insouciant child?
He followed her slow, reflective glance at Byng, and the impression of force and natural power of the millionaire struck him now, as it had often done. As though summoned by them both, Byng turned his face and, catching Jasmine's eyes, smiled and leaned forward.
"I haven't got over that great outburst of singing yet," he said, with a little jerk of the head towards the stage, where, for the moment, minor characters were in possession, preparing the path for the last rush of song by which Al'mah, the new prima donna, would bring her first night to a complete triumph.
With face turned full towards her, something of the power of his head seemed to evaporate swiftly. It was honest, alert, and almost brutally simple--the face of a pioneer. The forehead was broad and strong, and the chin was square and determined; but the full, dark-blue eyes had in them shadows of rashness and recklessness, the mouth was somewhat self-indulgent and indolent; though the hands clasping both knees were combined of strength, activity, and also a little of grace.
"I never had much chance to hear great singers before I went to South Africa," he added, reflectively, "and this swallows me like a storm on the high veld--all lightning and thunder and flood. I've missed a lot in my time."
With a look which made his pulses gallop, Jasmine leaned over and whispered--for the prima donna was beginning to sing again:
"There's nothing you have missed in your race that you cannot ride back and collect. It is those who haven't run a race who cannot ride back. You have won; and it is all waiting for you."
Again her eyes beamed upon him, and a new sensation came to him--the kind of thing he felt once when he was sixteen, and the vicar's daughter had suddenly held him up for quite a week, while all his natural occupations were neglected, and the spirit of sport was humiliated and abashed. Also he had caroused in his time--who was there in those first days at Kimberley and on the Rand who did not carouse, when life was so hard, luck so uncertain, and food so bad; when men got so dead beat, with no homes anywhere--only shake-downs and the Tents of Shem? Once he had had a native woman summoned to be his slave, to keep his home; but that was a business which had revolted him, and he had never repeated the experiment. Then, there had been an adventuress, a wandering, foreign princess who had fooled him and half a dozen of his friends to the top of their bent; but a thousand times he had preferred other sorts of pleasures--cards, horses, and the bright outlook which came with the clinking glass after the strenuous day.
Jasmine seemed to divine it all as she looked at him--his primitive, almost Edenic sincerity; his natural indolence and native force: a nature that would not stir until greatly roused, but then, with an unyielding persistence and concentrated force, would range on to its goal, making up for a slow-moving intellect by sheer will, vision and a gallant heart.
Al'mah was singing again, and Byng leaned forward eagerly. There was a rustle in the audience, a movement to a listening position, then a tense waiting and attention.
As Jasmine composed herself she said in a low voice to Ian Stafford, whose well-proportioned character, personality, and refinement of culture were in such marked contrast to the personality of the other: "They live hard lives in those new lands. He has wasted much of himself."
"Three millions at thirty-three means spending a deal of one thing to get another," Ian answered a little grimly.
"Hush! Oh, Ian, listen!" she added in a whisper.
Once more Al'mah rose to mastery over the audience. The bold and generous orchestration, the exceptional chorus, the fine and brilliant tenor, had made a broad path for her last and supreme effort. The audience had long since given up their critical sense, they were ready to be carried into captivity again, and the surrender was instant and complete. Now, not an eye was turned away from the singer. Even the Corinthian gallant at the end of the first row of stalls gave himself up to feasting on her and her success, and the characters in the opera were as electrified as the audience.
For a whole seven minutes this voice seemed to be the only thing in the world, transposing all thoughts, emotions, all elements of life into terms of melody. Then, at last, with a crash of sweetness, the voice broke over them all in crystals of sound and floated away into a world of bright dreams.
An instant's silence which followed was broken by a tempest of applause. Again, again, and again it was renewed. The subordinate singers were quickly disposed of before the curtain, then Al'mah received her memorable tribute. How many times she came and went she never knew; but at last the curtain, rising, showed her well up the stage beside a table where two huge candles flared. The storm of applause breaking forth once more, the grateful singer raised her arms and spread them out impulsively in gratitude and dramatic abandon.
As she did so, the loose, flowing sleeve of her robe caught the flame of a candle, and in an instant she was in a cloud of fire. The wild applause turned suddenly to notes of terror as, with a sharp cry, she stumbled forward to the middle of the stage.
For one stark moment no one stirred, then suddenly a man with an opera-cloak on his arm was seen to spring across a space of many feet between a box on the level of the stage and the stage itself. He crashed into the footlights, but recovered himself and ran forward. In an instant he had enveloped the agonized figure of the singer and had crushed out the flames with swift, strong movements.
Then lifting the now unconscious artist in his great arms, he strode off with her behind the scenes.
"Well done, Byng! Well done, Ruddy Byng!" cried a strong voice from the audience; and a cheer went up.
In a moment Byng returned and came down the stage. "She is not seriously hurt," he said simply to the audience. "We were just in time."
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