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- The Judgment House - 20/85 -
Byng made a gesture of disgust. "Well, I call it sickening. To me there's something so personal and intimate about clothes. I think I could kill any woman that I saw wearing clothes of yours--of yours."
She laughed mockingly. "My beloved, you've seen them often enough, but you haven't known they were mine; that's all."
"I didn't recognize them, because no one could wear your clothes like you. It would be a caricature. That's a fact, Jasmine."
She reached up and swept his cheek with a kiss. "What a darling you are, little big man! Yet you never make very definite remarks about my clothes."
He put his hands on his hips and looked her up and down approvingly. "Because I only see a general effect, but I always remember colour. Tell me, have you ever sold your clothes to the Mart, or whatever the miserable coffin-shop is called?"
"Well, not directly."
"What do you mean by 'not directly'?"
"Well, I didn't sell them, but they were sold for me." She hesitated, then went on hurriedly. "Adrian Fellowes knew of a very sad case--a girl in the opera who had had misfortune, illness, and bad luck; and he suggested it. He said he didn't like to ask for a cheque, because we were always giving, but selling my old wardrobe would be a sort of lucky find--that's what he called it."
Byng nodded, with a half-frown, however. "That was ingenious of Fellowes, and thoughtful, too. Now, what does a gown cost, one like that you have on?"
"This--let me see. Why, fifty pounds, perhaps. It's not a ball gown, of course."
He laughed mockingly. "Why, 'of course,' And what does a ball gown cost--perhaps?" There was a cynical kind of humour in his eye.
"Anything from fifty to a hundred and fifty--maybe," she replied, with a little burst of merriment.
"And how much did you get for the garments you had worn twice, and then seen them suddenly grow aged in their extreme youth?"
"Ruddy, do not be nasty--or scornful. I've always worn my gowns more than twice--some of them a great many times, except when I detested them. And anyhow, the premature death of a gown is very, very good for trade. That influences many ladies, of course."
He burst out laughing, but there was a satirical note in the gaiety, or something still harsher.
"'We deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us,'" he answered. "It's all such a hollow make-believe."
She gazed at him inquiringly, for this mood was new to her. She was vaguely conscious of some sort of change in him--not exactly toward her, but a change, nevertheless.
"The life we rich people lead is a hollow make-believe, Jasmine," he said, with sudden earnestness. "I don't know what's the matter, but we're not getting out of life all we ought to get; and we're not putting into it all we ought to put in. There's a sense of emptiness--of famine somewhere."
He caught the reflection of his face in the glass again, and his brow contracted. "We get sordid and sodden, and we lose the proportions of life. I wanted Dick Wilberforce to do something with me the other day, and he declined. 'Why, my dear fellow,' I said, 'you know you want to do it?' 'Of course I do,' he answered, 'but I can't afford that kind of thing, and you know it.' Well, I did know it, but I had forgotten. I was only thinking of what I myself could afford to do. I was setting up my own financial standard, and was forgetting the other fellows who hadn't my standard. What's the result? We drift apart, Wilberforce and I--well, I mean Wilberforce as a type. We drift into sets of people who can afford to do certain things, and we leave such a lot of people behind that we ought to have clung to, and that we would have clung to, if we hadn't been so much thinking of ourselves, or been so soddenly selfish."
A rippling laugh rang through the room. "Boanerges--oh, Boanerges Byng! 'Owever can you be so heloquent!"
Jasmine put both hands on his shoulders and looked up at him with that look which had fascinated him--and so many others--in their day. The perfume which had intoxicated him in the first days of his love of her, and steeped his senses in the sap of youth and Eden, smote them again, here on the verge of the desert before him. He suddenly caught her in his arms and pressed her to him almost roughly.
"You exquisite siren--you siren of all time," he said, with a note of joy in which there was, too, a stark cry of the soul. He held her face back from him.... "If you had lived a thousand years ago you would have had a thousand lovers, Jasmine. Perhaps you did--who knows! And now you come down through the centuries purified by Time, to be my jasmine-flower."
His lip trembled a little. There was a strange melancholy in his eyes, belying the passion and rapture of his words.
In all their days together she had never seen him in this mood. She had heard him storm about things at times, had watched his big impulses working; had drawn the thunder from his clouds; but there was something moving in him now which she had never seen before. Perhaps it was only a passing phase, even a moment's mood, but it made a strange impression on her. It was remembered by them both long after, when life had scattered its vicissitudes before their stumbling feet and they had passed through flood and fire.
She drew back and looked at him steadily, reflectively, and with an element of surprise in her searching look. She had never thought him gifted with perception or insight, though he had eloquence and an eye for broad effects. She had thought him curiously ignorant of human nature, born to be deceived, full of child-like illusions, never understanding the real facts of life, save in the way of business--and politics. Women he never seemed by a single phrase or word to understand, and yet now he startled her with a sudden revelation and insight of which she had not thought him capable.
"If you had lived a thousand years ago you would have had a thousand lovers. Perhaps you did--who knows! . . . And now you come down through the centuries purified by Time--"
The words slowly repeated themselves in her brain. Many and many a time she had imagined herself as having lived centuries ago, and again and again in her sleep these imaginings had reflected themselves in wild dreams of her far past--once as a priestess of Isis, once as a Slavonian queen, once as a peasant in Syria, and many times as a courtezan of Alexandria or Athens--many times as that: one of the gifted, beautiful, wonderful women whose houses were the centres of culture, influence, and power. She had imagined herself, against her will, as one of these women, such as Cleopatra, for whom the world were well lost; and who, at last, having squeezed the orange dry, but while yet the sun was coming towards noon, in scorn of Life and Time had left the precincts of the cheerful day without a lingering look.... Often and often such dreams, to her anger and confusion, had haunted her, even before she was married; and she had been alternately humiliated and fascinated by them. Years ago she had told Ian Stafford of one of the dreams of a past life--that she was a slave in Athens who saved her people by singing to the Tyrant; and Ian had made her sing to him, in a voice quite in keeping with her personality, delicate and fine and wonderfully high in its range, bird-like in its quality, with trills like a lark--a little meretricious but captivating. He had also written for her two verses which were as sharp and clear in her mind as the letter he wrote when she had thrown him over so dishonourably:
"Your voice I knew, its cadences and trill; It stilled the tumult and the overthrow When Athens trembled to the people's will; I knew it--'twas a thousand years ago.
"I see the fountains, and the gardens where You sang the fury from the Satrap's brow; I feel the quiver of the raptured air I heard you in the Athenian grove--I hear you now."
As the words flashed into her mind now she looked at her husband steadfastly. Were there, then, some unexplored regions in his nature, where things dwelt, of which she had no glimmering of knowledge? Did he understand more of women than she thought? Could she then really talk to him of a thousand things of the mind which she had ever ruled out of any commerce between them, one half of her being never opened up to his sight? Not that he was deficient in intellect, but, to her thought, his was a purely objective mind; or was it objective because it had not been trained or developed subjectively? Had she ever really tried to find a region in his big nature where the fine allusiveness and subjectivity of the human mind could have free life and untrammelled exercise, could gambol in green fields of imagination and adventure upon strange seas of discovery? A shiver of pain, of remorse, went through her frame now, as he held her at arm's length and looked at her.... Had she started right? Had she ever given their natures a chance to discover each other? Warmth and passion and youth and excitement and variety--oh, infinite variety there had been!--but had the start been a fair one, had she, with a whole mind and a full soul of desire, gone to him first and last? What had been the governing influence in their marriage where she was concerned?
Three years of constant motion, and never an hour's peace; three years of agitated waters, and never in all that time three days alone together. What was there to show for the three years? That for which he had longed with a great longing had been denied him; for he had come of a large family, and had the simple primitive mind and heart. Even in his faults he had ever been primitively simple and obvious. She had been energetic, helping great charities, aiding in philanthropic enterprises, with more than a little shrewdness preventing him from being robbed right and left by adventurers of all descriptions; and yet--and yet it was all so general, so soulless, her activity in good causes. Was there a single afflicted person, one forlorn soul whom she had directly and personally helped, or sheltered from the storm for a moment, one bereaved being whose eyes she had dried by her own direct personal sympathy?
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