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   Chapter 24 No.24

Jaffery By William John Locke Characters: 16621

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


At last news came from Havre of the end of the preposterous voyage.

"Crossing to-night. Coming straight to you. Send car to meet us Reading. Local trains beastly. Both fit as elephants. Love to all.

"JAFFERY."

Such was the telegram. I wired to Southampton acquiescence in his proposal. It was far more sensible to come direct to Reading than to make a détour through London. Rooms were got ready. In the one destined for Liosha, we had already stowed the cargo of trunks which the Great Swiftness had delivered in the nick of time. The next day I took the car to Reading and waited for the train.

From the far end of it I saw two familiar figures descend, and a moment afterwards the station resounded with a familiar roar.

"Hullo! hullo! hullo!"

Jaffery, red-bearded, grinning, perhaps a bit mightier, hairier, redder than ever, his great hands uplifted, rushed at me and shook me in his lunatic way, so that train, passengers, porters and Liosha all rocked and reeled before my eyes. He let me go, and, before I could recover, Liosha threw her arms round my neck and kissed me. A porter who picked up my hat restored me to mental equipoise. Then I looked at them, and anything more splendid in humanity than that simple, happy pair of gigantic children I have never seen in my life. I, too, felt the laughter of happiness swell in my heart, for their gladness at the sight of me was so true, so unaffected, and I wrung their hands and laughed aloud foolishly. It is good to be loved, especially when you've done nothing particular to deserve it. And in their primitive way these two loved me.

"Isn't she fit?" roared Jaffery.

"Magnificent," said I.

She was. The thick tan of exposure to wind and sun gave her a gipsy swarthiness beneath which glowed the rich colour of health. When I had parted from her at Havre there had been just a thread of soft increase in her generous figure; but now all superfluous flesh had hardened down into muscle, and the superb lines proclaimed her splendour. And there seemed to be more authority in her radiant face and a new masterfulness and a quicker intelligence in her brown eyes. I noticed that it was she who first broke away from the clamour of greeting and gave directions as to the transport of their "dunnage." Jaffery followed her with the tail of his eye; then turned to me with a bass chuckle.

"We're a sort of Jaff Chayne and Co., according to her, and she thinks she's managing director. Ho! ho! ho!" He put his arm round my shoulder and suddenly grew serious. "How's everybody?"

"Flourishing," said I.

"And Doria?"

"At Northlands."

"She knows I'm coming?"

"Yes," said I.

Liosha joined us, accompanied by a porter, carrying their exiguous baggage. We walked to the exit, without saying much, and settled ourselves in the limousine, my guests in the back seat, I on one of the little chairs facing them. We started.

"My dear old chap," said I, leaning forward. "I've got something to tell you. I didn't like to write about it. But it has got to be told, and I may as well get it over now."

* * *

It was a subdued and half-scared Jaffery who greeted Barbara and Susan at our front door. The jollity had gone out of him. He was nothing but a vast hulk filled with self-reproach. It was his fault, his very grievous and careless fault for having postponed the destruction of the papers, and for having left them loose and unsecured in his rooms. He all but beat his breast. If Doria had died of the shock his would be the blame. He saluted Barbara with the air of one entering a house of mourning.

"You mustn't look so woe-begone," she said. "Something like this was bound to happen. I have dreaded it all along-and now it has happened and the earth hasn't come to an end."

We stood in the hall, while Franklin divested the visitors of their outer wraps and trappings.

"And, Liosha," Barbara continued, throwing her arms round as much of Liosha as they could grasp-she had already kissed her a warm welcome-"it's a shame, dear, to depress you the moment you come into the place. You'll wish you were at sea again."

"I guess not," said Liosha. "I know now I'm among folks who love me. Isn't that true, Susan?"

"Daddy loves you and mummy loves you and I adore you," cried Susan.

Whereupon there was much hugging of a spoiled monkey.

We went upstairs. At the drawing-room door Barbara gave me one of her queer glances, which meant, on interpretation, that I should leave her alone with Jaffery for a few minutes so that she could pour the balm of sense over his remorseful soul, and that in the meantime it would be advisable for me to explain the situation to Liosha. Aloud, she said, before disappearing:

"Your old room, Liosha, dear-you'll find everything ready."

In order to carry out my wife's orders, I had to disentangle Susan from Liosha's embrace and pack her off rueful to the nursery. But the promise to seat her at lunch between the two seafarers brought a measure of consolation.

"Come into the library, Liosha," said I, throwing the door open. I followed her and settled her in an armchair before a big fire; and then stood on the hearthrug, looking at her and feeling rather a fool. I offered her refreshment. She declined. I commented again on her fine physical appearance and asked her how she was. I drew her attention to some beautiful narcissi and hyacinths that had come from the greenhouse. The more I talked and the longer she regarded me in her grave, direct fashion, the less I knew how to tell her, or how much to tell her, of Doria's story. The drive had been a short one, giving time only for a narration of the facts of the discovery. Liosha, although accepting my apology, had sat mystified; also profoundly disturbed by Jaffery's unconcealed agitation. Her life with him during the past four months had drawn her into the meshes of the little drama. For her own sake, for everybody's sake, we could not allow her to remain in complete ignorance. . . . I gave her a cigarette and took one myself. After the first puff, she smiled.

"You want to tell me something."

"I do. Something that is known only to four people in the world-and they're in this house."

"If you tell me, I guess it'll be known only to five," said Liosha.

To have questioned the loyalty of her eyes would have been to insult truth itself.

"All right," said I. "You'll be the fifth and last." And then, as simply as I could, I told her all there was to know. She grasped the literary details more quickly than I had anticipated. I found afterwards that the long months of the voyage had not been entirely taken up with the cooking of bacon and the swabbing of decks; there had been long stretches of tedium beguiled by talk on most things under heaven, and aided by her swift and jealous intelligence her mental horizon had broadened prodigiously through constant association with a cultivated man. . . . When I reached the point in my story where Jaffery gave up the Persian expedition, she gripped the arms of her chair, and her lips worked in their familiar quiver.

"He must have loved her to do that," she said in a low voice.

I went on, and the more involved I became in the disastrous affair, the more was I convinced that it would he better for her to understand clearly the imbroglio of Jaffery and Doria. You see, I knew all along, as all along I hope I have given you to understand-ever since the day when she asked him to beat her with a golf-stick-that the poor girl loved Jaffery, heart and soul. I knew also that she made for herself no illusions as to Jaffery's devotion to Doria. On that point her words to me at Havre had left me in no doubt whatever. But since Havre all sorts of extraordinary things had happened. There had been their intimate comradeship in the savagery (from my point of view) of the last few months. There was now Doria's awful change of soul-attitude towards Adrian. It was right that Liosha should be made aware of the emotional subtleties that underlay the bare facts. It seemed cruel to tell her of the last scene, so pathetic, so tragic, so grotesque, between the man she loved and the other woman. But her unflinching bravery and her great heart demanded it. And as I told her, walking nervously about the room, she

followed me with her steadfast eyes.

"So that's why Jaff Chayne came abroad with me."

"I suppose so," said I.

"If I had been a man I should have strangled her, or flung her out of the window."

"I dare say. But you wouldn't have been Jaff Chayne."

"That's true," she assented. "No man like him ever walked the earth. And how a woman could be so puppy-blind as not to see it, I can't imagine."

"Her head was full of another man, you see."

"Oh yes, I see," she said with a touch of contempt. "And such a man! You were fond of him I know. But he was a sham. He used to look on me, I remember, as an amusing sort of animal out of the Zoological Gardens. It never occurred to him that I had sense. He was a fool."

Intimately as we had known Liosha, this was the first time she had ever expressed an opinion regarding Adrian. We had assumed that, having touched her life so lightly, he had been but a shadowy figure in her mind, and that, save in so far as his death concerned us, she had viewed him with entire indifference. But her keen feminine brain had picked out the fatal flaw in poor Adrian's character, the shallow glitter that made us laugh and the want of vision from which he died.

"Go on," said Liosha.

I continued. In justice to Doria, I elaborated her reasons for setting Adrian on his towering pinnacle. Liosha nodded. She understood. False gods, whatever degree of godhead they usurped, had for a time the mystifying power of concealing their falsehood. And during that time they were gods, real live dwellers on Olympus, flaming Joves to poor mortal Semeles. Liosha quite understood.

I ended, more or less, a recapitulation of what she had heard, uncomprehending, in the car.

"And that's how it stands," said I.

I was rather shaken, I must confess, by my narrative, and I turned aside and lit another cigarette. Liosha remained silent for a while, resting her cheek on her hand. At last she said in her deep tones:

"Poor little devil! Good God! Poor little devil!"

Tears flooded her eyes.

"By heavens," I cried, "you're a good creature."

"I'm nothing of the sort," said Liosha. She rose. "I guess I must have a clean up before lunch," and she made for the door.

I looked at my watch. "You just have time," said I.

I opened the door for her to pass out, and fell a-musing in front of the fire. Here was a new Liosha, as far apart from the serene young barbarian who had come to us two and a half years before blandly characterising Euphemia as a damn fool because she would not let her buy a stocked chicken incubator and take it to the Savoy Hotel, as a prairie wolf from the noble Great Dane. Her nature had undergone remarkable developments. As Jaffery had prophesied at Havre, she treated things in a big way, and she had learned restraint, not the restraint of convention, for not a convention would have stopped her from doing what she chose, but the restraint of self-discipline. And she had learned pity. A year ago she would not have wept over Doria, whom she had every woman's reason for hating. A new, generous tenderness had blossomed in her heart. If all the cutthroats of Albania who had murdered her family had been brought bound and set on their knees with bared necks before her and she had been presented with a sharp sword, I doubt whether she would have cut off one single head.

A tap at the window aroused me. It was Jaffery in the rain, which had just begun to fail, seeking admittance. I let him in.

"This is an awful business, old man," he said gloomily.

From which I gather that for once Barbara's soothing had been of little avail.

"Have you seen Doria yet?" I asked.

He shook his head. "Barbara is with her. She's coming in to lunch."

At the anti-climax, I smiled. "That shews she's not quite dead yet."

But to Jaffery it was no smiling matter. "Look here, Hilary," he said hoarsely, "don't you think it would be better for me to cut the whole thing and go away right now?"

"Go away-?" I stared at him. "What for?"

"Why should I force myself on that poor, tortured child? Think of her feelings towards me. She must loathe the sound of my name."

"Jaff Chayne," said I, "I believe you're afraid of mice."

He frowned. "What the blazes do you mean?"

"You're in a blue funk at the idea of meeting Doria."

"Rot," said Jaffery.

But he was.

Franklin summoned us to luncheon. We went into the drawing-room where the rest of our little party were assembled, Susan and her governess, Liosha, Barbara and Doria. Doria stepped forward valiantly with outstretched hand, looking him squarely in the face.

"Welcome back, Jaffery. It's good to see you again."

Jaffery grew very red and bending over her hand muttered something into his beard.

"You'll have to tell me about your wonderful voyage."

"There was nothing so wonderful about it," said Jaffery.

That was all for the moment, for Barbara hustled us into the dining-room. But the terrible meeting that both had dreaded was over. Nobody had fainted or shed tears; it was over in a perfectly well-bred way. At lunch Susan, between Liosha and Jaffery, became the centre of attention and saved conversation from constraint.

To Doria, who had lingered at Northlands, in order to lose no time in setting herself right with Jaffery,-her own phrase-the ordinary table small-talk would have been an ordeal. As it was, she sat on my left, opposite Liosha, lending a polite ear to the answers to Susan's eager questions. The child had not received such universal invitation to chatter at mealtime since she had learned to speak. But, in spite of her inspiring assistance, a depressing sense of destinies in the balance pervaded the room, and we were all glad when the meal came to an end. Susan, refusing to be parted from her beloved Liosha, carried her off to the nursery to hear more fairy-tales of the steamship Vesta. Barbara and Doria went into the drawing-room, where Jaffery and I, after a perfunctory liqueur brandy, soon joined them. We talked for a while on different things, the child's robustious health, the garden, the weather, our summer holiday, much in the same dismal fashion as assembled mourners talk before the coffin is brought downstairs. At last Barbara said:

"I must go and write some letters."

And I said: "I'm going to have my afternoon nap."

Both the others cried out with simultaneous anxiety and scarlet faces:

"Oh, don't go, Barbara, dear."

"Can't you cut the sleep out for once?"

"I must!" said Barbara.

"No," said I.

And we left our nervous ogre and our poor little elf to fight out between themselves whatever battle they had to fight. Perhaps it was cold-blooded cruelty on our part. But these two had to come to mutual understanding sooner or later. Why not at once? They had the afternoon before them. It was pouring with rain. They had nothing else to do. In order that they should be undisturbed, Barbara had given orders that we were not at home to visitors. Besides, we were actuated by motives not entirely altruistic. If I seem to have posed before you as a noble-minded philanthropist, I have been guilty of careless misrepresentation. At the best I am but a not unkindly, easy-going man who loathes being worried. And I (and Barbara even more than myself) had been greatly worried over our friends' affairs for a considerable period. We therefore thought that the sooner we were freed from these worries the better for us both. Deliberately we hardened our hearts against their joint appeal and left them together in the drawing-room.

"Whew!" said I, as we walked along the corridor. "What's going to happen?"

"She'll marry him, of course."

"She won't," said I.

"She will. My dear Hilary, they always do."

"If I have any knowledge of feminine character," said I, "that young woman harbours in her soul a bitter resentment against Jaffery."

"If," she said. "But you haven't."

"All right," said I.

"All right," said Barbara.

We paused at the library door. "What," I asked, "is going to become of Liosha?"

Barbara sighed. "We're not out of this wood yet."

"And with Liosha on our hands, I don't think we ever shall be."

"I should like to shake Jaffery," said Barbara.

"And I should like," said I, "to kick him."

* * *

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