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   Chapter 23 No.23

Jaffery By William John Locke Characters: 19074

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


If a ministering angel walks abroad through this world of many sorrows, it is my wife Barbara. To her and to her alone did the soul-stricken little creature owe her life and her reason. For a fortnight she scarcely left Doria's room, sleeping for odd hours anywhere, and snatching meals with the casual swiftness of a swallow. For a whole fortnight she wrestled with the powers of darkness, which like Apollyon straddled quite over all the breadth of the way, and by sheer valiancy and beauty of heart, she made them spread forth their dragon's wings and speed them away so that Doria for a season saw them no more. How she fought and with what weapons, who am I to tell you? These things are written down; but in a Book which no human eye can see.

We carried her moaning and distraught from that room of awful revelation, put her into the car, and brought her back to Northlands. It was the only thing to be done. Barbara's instinct foresaw madness if we took her to the flat in St. John's Wood. Her father's house, her natural refuge, was equally impossible. For what explanation could we have given to the worthy but uncomprehending man? He would have called in doctors to minister to a mind afflicted with a disease beyond their power of diagnosis. Unless, of course, we made public the facts of the tragedy; which was unthinkable. Barbara's instinct pierced surely through the gloom. The first coherent words that Doria said were:

"Let me stay with you for a little. I've nowhere in the world to go. I can't ask father-and I can't go back home. It would drive me mad."

Of course it would have driven her mad to return to the haunted flat-haunted now by no gracious ghost, but by an Unutterable Presence, the thought of which, even in her quiet, lavender-scented country bedroom, made her scream of nights. For she knew all. To save her reason, Barbara, with her wonderful tenderness, had bridged over the chasms between her stark peaks of discovery. She knew all that we knew. Further attempts at deception would have been vain cruelty. Barbara could palliate the offence; she could show how irresistible had been the temptation; she could prove how our love for Adrian had been unshaken by disastrous knowledge and urge that Doria's love should be unshaken likewise; she could apply all the healing remedies of which she only has the secret-but she could not leave the poor soul to stumble blindly in uncertainty.

Doria could never enter her dishallowed paradise again. Even I, when I went through the place in order to make arrangements for closing it altogether, felt a teeth-chattering shiver in the condemned cell where Adrian had worked out his doom. It had been sacrosanct; not a thing had been disturbed; there was the iron safe empty, but yet a grim receptacle of abominable secrets; the quill pen, its point stained with idle ink, lay on the office writing-table. And the blotting-pad was still there under a clump of dusty, unused scribbling-paper. On a little stool in the corner stood the half-emptied decanter of brandy and a glass and a syphon of soda-water. . . . Goodness knows, I'm not a superstitious or even an imaginative man; I had been in that room before and had hated it, on account of its poignant associations; nothing transcendental had affected me; but now I shuddered, physically shuddered, as though the cubic space were informed with a spirit in the torture of an everlasting despair. Doria not knowing, he could have borne his punishment. But now Doria knew. He had lost her love, the rock on which he had built his hope of salvation. He was damned to eternity. It is the supreme and unspeakable horror of eternal life that you cannot dash your head against a wall and plunge into nothingness. Yet he tried. The awful Presence of Adrian was dashing his head against those bare and ghastly walls. . . .

I never was so glad to breathe God's honest November fog again. Of course my affright was a silly matter of nerves. But I would not have slept in that flat for anything in the world.

I had to make, of course, another expedition to Jaffery's chambers, in order to restore to order the chaos that Doria had made. She had ransacked every drawer in the place and strewn the contents of the old portmanteau, Adrian's mass of incoherent manuscript, about the floor. I did what I ought to have done on my first visit; I brought the tragic lumber to Northlands, and having made a bonfire in a corner of the kitchen garden, burned the whole lot. Why Jaffery had not got rid of the evidence of Adrian's guilt, I could not at the time imagine. It was only later that I heard the trivial and mechanical reason. He could not burn the papers in his flat, because he had no fire-only the electric radiator. You try, in these circumstances, to destroy five or six thousand sheets of thick paper, and see how you get on. Jaffery had his idea, when he transferred the manuscript from Adrian's study; on his next voyage he would take the portmanteau with him, weight it with the cannon-ball, which he used after his bath for physical exercise, and throw it overboard. By singular ill-luck, he had started on his two voyages that year-if a channel crossing can be termed a voyage-at a moment's notice. In each case he had not had occasion to call at his chambers, and the destroying journey had yet to be made. As for discovery of the secrets lying in unlocked receptacles, who was there to discover them? Such friends as he had would never pry into his private concerns; and as for housemaids and waiters and porters, the whole matter to them was unintelligible. While he was living in St. Quentin's Mansions, he considered himself secure. When he realised, at Havre, that he would be absent for some months, he put things into my charge. That I bitterly regretted not having put tinder lock and key or taken steps to destroy papers and manuscripts, I need not say. For a long time I felt the guiltiest wretch outside prison in the three kingdoms. If I had been a wild man of the jungle like Jaffery, it would not have mattered; but I have always prided myself on being-not the last word, for that would not be consonant with my natural modesty-but, say, the penultimate word of our modern civilisation; and the memory of having acted like an ingenuous child of nature still burns whenever it floats across my brain. Metaphorically, Jaffery and I sobbed with remorse on each other's bosoms, and called ourselves all the picturesque synonyms for careless fools we could think of; but that, naturally, did not a bit of good to anybody.

The fact was accomplished. Our dear Humpty-Dumpty had had his great fall, and not all the king's horses and all the king's men could ever set Humpty-Dumpty up again.

Greek tragedies are all very well in their way. They are vastly interesting in the inevitableness of their prearranged doom. Moi qui vous parle, I have read all of them; and I like them. I have even seen some of them acted. I have seen, for instance, the Agamemnon given by the boys of Bradfield College, in their model open-air Greek theatre, built out of a chalk-pit, and I have sat gripped from beginning to end by the tremendous drama. I am not talking foolishly. I know as much as the ordinary man need know about Greek tragedy. But in spite of Aristotle (who ought to have been strangled at birth, like all other bland doctrinaires-and of all the doctrinaires on art, there has none been so blandly egregious since the early morning long ago when the pre-historic artist who drew an elk on the omoplate of a bison was clubbed by the superior person of his day who could not draw for nuts)-in spite of Aristotle and the rest of the theorists, I assert that, as far as my experience goes, in the ordinary wary modern life to which we are accustomed, doom and inevitableness do not matter a hang. If we have any common-sense we can dodge them. Most of us do. Of course, if a woman marries a congenital idiot there are bound to be ructions-here we are entering the domain of pathology, which is as doomful as you please; but in our ordinary modern life ninety per cent. of the tragedies are determined by sheer million to one fortuities. The history of our great criminal trials, for instance, is a romance of coincidence. It is your melodramatist and not your Aristotelian purist that knows what he's talking about when he writes a play. He only has to look about him and draw what happens in real life. That there may be an Eternal Puckish Malice arranging and deranging human destinies is another question. I am neither a theologian nor a metaphysician, and I do not desire to discuss the subject. I only maintain that, had it not been for sheer chance, Adrian's secret would never have been discovered a second time. I cannot see any doom about it. A series of sheer, silly accidents on the part of Jaffery and myself had brought Doria face to face with these incriminating papers. As for her having gained access to the flat without the porter's knowledge, that had been calculation on her part. She had watched at the street entrance until he had taken some one up in the lift, and then she had mounted the interminable stairs.

I could have caught Jaffery by letter at Genoa or Marseilles; but in view of his imminent return, I did not write to him. What useful purpose would have been served? He would have left the steamship Vesta and travelled post-haste overland, dragging with him a resentful Liosha, and rushed like a mad bull into an upheaval in which he could have no place

. We had arranged by correspondence that, after he had parted from the good Captain Maturin at Havre, he would come straight to us, in order to leave Liosha temporarily in our care. For what else could be done with her? Let him bring her, then, according to programme. It would be far better, we agreed, Barbara and I, to let them fulfil their lunatic adventure undisturbed, and on Jaffery's arrival at Northlands to break the disastrous tidings. It would give us time to watch Doria and see what direction the resultant of the forces now tearing her soul would take.

"Let Jaffery stay away as long as possible," said Barbara. "I can't be bothered with him. I wish his old voyage could be extended for a year."

* * *

The first time I met Doria, when she crawled out of her room, a great pity smote my heart. The ivory of her face had turned to wax, and she had dwindled into a fragile reed, and in her eyes quivered the apprehension of an ill-treated dog. I put my arm round her and hugged her reassuringly, not knowing what else to do, and mumbled a few silly words. Then I settled her down before the drawing-room fire, and rushed out into the garden and cut the last poor lingering autumn roses, and, returning, cast them into her lap. And we talked hard about the roses; and I told her which were Madame Abel Chatenay, which Marquise de Salisbury, and which Frau Karl Druska, which Lady Ursula and which Lady Hillingdon. We did not refer at all to unhappy things.

It was only some days afterwards that she ventured to raise the veil of her awful desolation. But she had no need to tell me. Any fool could have divined it. Together with far less shattering of idols has many a woman's reason been brought down. And in our poor Doria's case it was not only the shattering of idols.

"Hilary, dear," she said, with a mournful attempt at a smile. "I can't go on living here for ever."

"Why not?" I asked. "This is a vast barrack of a place, and you're only just a bit of a wee white mouse. And we love our pets. Why do you want to go?"

We were walking up and down the drive. It was a warm, damp morning and the trees shaken by the mild southwester shed their leaves around us in a golden shower; and the leaves that had fallen lay sodden on the grass borders. Here and there a surviving blossom of antirrhinum swaggered among its withered brethren as if to maintain the illusion of summer. A partridge or two whirred across the path from copse to meadow. The gentle sadness of the autumn day had moved her to discourse on the mutability of mundane things. Hence, by chain of association, I suppose, her sudden remark.

"I don't want to go," she replied. "I should like to stay in the dreamy peace of Northlands for ever. But I have been a pet for such a long time-for years, and I've shown myself to be such a bad pet-biting the hand that fed me."

I bade her not talk foolishly. She moved her small shoulder.

"It's true. While the three of you-you and Barbara and Jaffery-were doing for me what has never been done for another human being, I was all the time snarling and snapping. I can't make out how you can bear the sight of me." She clenched her hands and straightened her arms down tense. "The thought of it scorches me," she cried suddenly.

"Whatever you did, dear," said I, "was so natural; and we understood it all. How could we blame you?"

We had, in fact, blamed her on many occasions, not being as gods to whom human hearts are open books; but this was not the occasion on which to tell her so. I don't like the devil being called the father of lies. I am convinced that the discoverer of mendacity was a warm-hearted philanthropist, who has never received due credit, and that the devil having seized hold of his discovery perverted it to his own diabolical uses. It is the sort of plagiaristic thing that devils, whether they promote ancient Gehennas or modern companies, have been doing since the world began.

"That doesn't make it any the easier to me," said Doria. "The horrible things I said and did-the ghastliness of it-"

"My dear girl," I interrupted, as kindly as I could. "Don't let this mere fringe of tragedy worry you."

She laughed shrilly, with a set, white face; which is the most unmirthful kind of laugh you can imagine.

"Don't you know that it's the fringe that is the maddening irritation? The big central thing numbs and stupefies, when it doesn't kill. And for some reason"-she threw out her little gloved hands-"the big thing hasn't killed me-it has paralysed me. The springs of feeling"-she clutched her bosom-"are dried up. My heart is withered and dead. I can't explain. For all the dead things I'm not responsible. I've gone through Hell the last two or three weeks and they've been burned up altogether. But what hasn't been burned up is the fringe, as you call it. That's only red-hot. It scorches me, and I can't sleep for the torture of it. . . ." She stopped, and fronting me laid an appealing touch on my arm. "Oh, Hilary, forgive me. I didn't mean to go on in this wild way. I thought I had a better hold on myself."

"I don't see," said I, "why you shouldn't unburden your heart to one who has proved himself to be a friend not only of yours, but of Adrian."

She released me, and with a wide gesture, swayed across the gravel path. I stepped to her side and mechanically we walked on, a few paces, before either of us spoke.

"I have told you," she said at last. "I have no heart to unburden. There never was an Adrian."

"There was indeed," said I, warmly.

"Yours. Not mine."

"Have you no forgiveness for him, then?" I asked earnestly.

She halted again and looked at me and at the back of her great eyes gleamed black ice.

"No," she said.

I went straight to bed-rock.

"He was the father of your dead child," said I.

Her small frame heaved and she looked away from me down the drive. "I can only thank God that the child didn't live."

Barbara had told me something of the fear in which she seemed to hold Adrian's memory. But I had not in the least realised it till now when I heard the profession from her own lips. In fact, I know that she had never yet spoken to Barbara with such passionate directness.

"You oughtn't to say such a thing, Doria," I said sternly.

"I am as God made me."

"Adrian loved you. He sinned for your sake-in order to get you."

She dismissed the argument with a gesture.

"You must have pity on him," I insisted, "for the unspeakable torment of those months of barrenness, of abortive attempts at creation."

She was silent for a moment. Having reached the front gates we turned and began to walk up the drive. Then she said:

"Yes, I do pity him. It's enough to tear one's brain out,-his when he was alive-and mine now. The thought of it will freeze my soul for all eternity. I can't tell you what I feel." She cast out her hands imploringly to the autumn fields. "I pity him as I would pity some one remote from me-a criminal whom I might have seen done to death by awful tortures. It's a matter of the brain, not of the heart. No. I have all the understanding. But I can't find the pardon."

"That will come," said I.

"In the next world, perhaps, not in this."

Her tone of finality forbade argument. Besides what was there to argue about? She had said: "There never was an Adrian." From her point of view, she was mercilessly right.

"It's horrible to think," she went on after a pause, "that all this time I've been living, first on stolen property and now on charity-Jaffery's charity-and he hasn't even had a word of thanks. Quite the contrary." Again she laughed the shrill, dead laugh. "You see, I must go home-to my father's-I'm strong enough now-and start my life, such as it is, all over again. I can't touch another penny of the Wittekind money. Castleton's people and Jaffery must be paid."

"Tom Castleton," I said, "was alone in the world, and Jaffery's not the man to take back a free gift beautifully given. If you don't like to keep the money-I appreciate your feelings-you can devote it to philanthropic purposes."

"Yes, I might do that," she agreed. "But is this fraud-this false reputation-to go on forever?"

"I'm afraid it must," said I. "Nobody would be benefited by throwing such a bombshell of scandal into society. If anybody living were suffering from wrong it might be different. But there's no reason to blacken unnecessarily the name you bear."

"Then you really think I should be justified in keeping the secret?" she asked anxiously.

"I think it would be outrageous of you to do anything else," said I.

"That eases my mind. If it were essential for me to make things public, I would do it. I'm not a coward. But I should die of the disgrace."

"To poor Adrian," said I.

She flashed a quick, defiant glance.

"To me."

"To Adrian," I insisted, smitten with a queer inspiration. "He sinned-the unpardonable sin, if you like. But he expiated it. He's expiating it now. And you love him. And it's for his sake, not yours, that you shrink from public disgrace. You were so irrevocably wrapped up in him"-I pursued my advantage-"that you feel yourself a partner in his guilt. Which means that you love him still."

She raised a stark, terror-stricken face. I touched her shoulder. Then, all of a sudden, she collapsed, and broke into an agony of sobs and tears. I drew her to a desolate rustic bench and put my arm round her and let her sob herself out.

After that we did not speak of Adrian.

* * *

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