Scarlet and Hyssop: A Novel
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For a moment her irritation and exasperation got the upper hand, and she flung off the sofa with clenched and trembling hands. "How dare she – how dare she persuade Maud not to marry him!" she said to herself. It frankly appeared to her the most outrageous thing to have done. Marie must have known what her own desires for her daughter were – in fact, she had before now told her of them – yet she had done this. Mildred felt a qualm of almost physical sickness from the violence of her rage, and sat down again to recover herself. It soon passed, leaving her again quiet, patient, and implacable, searching about for a weapon. Suddenly she got up, and stood quite still a moment.
"Most extraordinary that I should not have thought of that before," she said aloud. Then she washed her face and bathed her eyes with some rose-water, examining them a little anxiously as she dried them on her silk face-napkin. They were as red as if she had been crying – red, she must suppose, from anger, just as a mongoose's eyes get red when it sees a cobra. Certainly she had been angry enough to account for the colour. But on the whole she did not like emotions, except pleasant ones – they were exhausting; and she lay down again on her sofa for half an hour to recover herself, and told her maid to bring her a tablespoonful of brandy with an egg beaten up into it. Then she dressed and went out to a small private concert, where Saltsi was going to sing two little French songs, exceedingly hard to understand, but simply screaming when you did so. For herself, she was certain that she would understand quite enough.
She had just come down-stairs when a note was brought her, which proved to be from Marie.
Mildred read it and tore it up, not even troubling to question its sincerity. Then, being told the carriage was waiting, she went out.
She was to call on her way to the concert for the person usually known as Silly Billy, who in reality was an ignoble Earl. He was called Silly Billy partly because his name was William, partly because he was exceedingly sharp. His Countess was kept in the country, and was supposed to go to church a great deal. The world was not particularly interested in her, nor was her husband. Once she had had money, but she no longer had any.
Silly Billy himself was now getting on for forty, and looked anything between twenty-five and thirty. Probably he was naturally depraved, for a career of vice seemed to suit him, and he thrived on it as other people thrive on the ordinary rules of health. He had charming manners, a slim attractive appearance, and no morals of any kind whatever.His passion just now was Bridge, which he played regularly from sunset to sunrise; the remaining hours of the twenty-four were occupied in consuming large quantities of food, owing large sums of money, and talking. He was supposed not to stand in need of sleep, which he declared was a sheer waste of time. He was often to be seen in other people's victorias; to-day he was in Lady Brereton's.
"Yes, we'll just stop for Saltsi's two songs," said she, as they drove from his flat in Berkeley Mansions, "and then I'll set you down where you like. How has the world been treating you, Silly Billy?"
He considered a moment.
"The world always treats me as I treat it," he said. "Lately I have not had much to say to it; in fact, I have done nothing, and so I have heard nothing. Tell me news. Anybody fresh about?"
"Only Jim Spencer, and he's rather a disappointment. As rich as Cr?sus, you know?"
"That's always an advantage for him and his friends," remarked Silly Billy candidly. "I should like to meet him. Does he play Bridge, or bet, or anything?"
"You are always refreshing," she said, "because you are so very frank. Does it pay?"
"Well, you must do one of two things," said he. "You must be absolutely enigmatical or quite transparent. I am quite transparent. I want other people's money."
"Shall I draw you a small cheque?"
"No, thanks; small cheques would be no good. By the way, I have heard something about Jim Spencer… Isn't he a friend of Marie Alston?"
Lady Brereton could not help smiling, and her inward anger licked its lips.
"Ah! you have heard that too," she said. "But who cares?"
"Any one may do precisely what they please, so far as I am concerned," said Silly Billy, "so long as it doesn't personally annoy me. So it's true, is it?"
"Dear Marie!" observed Mildred. "You see, they were engaged years and years ago. Marie told me so herself."
Silly Billy considered a moment.
"What have you quarrelled with her about?" he asked after a short pause.
Mildred turned round.
"Now, how on earth did you guess that?" she asked.
"Pretty simple. You said 'Dear Marie!' in – well, in a tone. So the Snowflake is melting, you think! I'm sure I tried to melt her often enough. But I never had the very slightest success."
"How funny!" she said. "I never knew that. What did Marie do?"
"Looked bored. Merely bored; not shocked, but bored. But Jim Spencer doesn't bore her, you think? I suppose you are telling everybody about it?"
"I haven't told a soul. It seems there is no need."
"Well, thank God, I'm no prude," said Silly Billy, as they stopped at the house.
"Dear Marie!" said Mildred again. "Perhaps I ought never to have discussed it with you. You are such a gossip, Silly Billy."
He shrugged his shoulders.
"Surely that is what you want," he said, and Mildred did not contradict him. Nor did she feel that she had been wasting time.
So Saltsi sang her little French songs, and the very distinguished company all shrieked with laughter. Some of them did not understand what they meant: those shrieked most, in order that it should appear that they did; the rest shrieked because they did understand. Royalty was there in a quiet little broughamish kind of way, and everything, in fact, went just exactly as it should, and when Mildred stole quietly away to avoid a string quartette and talk to Lady Maxwell, both to congratulate her on her husband's honour and advocate the virtues of patience and perseverance for Anthony, she felt braced and invigorated for the duties that lay before her. She had already wound the clock up, and it pleased her to think that its ticking would soon be audible all over London. For herself, she did not care the slightest how loudly people talked about her. She knew, on the other hand, that Marie would care very much indeed. And the audibleness of the ticking was destined to be heard more quickly than even she had hoped or expected.
It was two afternoons after this that Silly Billy was gently threading his way down Piccadilly. The day was heavenly, a flood of yellow sunshine invaded the streets, and a plum-like bloom hung over the distances. It being so divine out of doors, he was proposing to spend the hours till dinner at a select little club called the Black Deuce, which had been lately founded with the sole and simple aim of Bridge-playing. Just as he was about to cross the street, his way was stopped for a moment by a policeman letting out the pent-up carriages which stood waiting for their turn in Bond Street, just as a lock is opened to let the water out. Among this shining stream of black lacquer and silver harness there passed him a victoria with Marie Alston in it. By her side sat Jim Spencer. And Silly Billy smiled gently to himself all the rest of the way to the club.
There were three men only, all friends and respecters of his, in the card-room, for it was yet early, and he making the fourth, they sat down at once. Silly Billy, having, as usual, won the deal and the seats, established himself with his back to the window. At the angle of the wall, close to the window, was the door, which by reason of the heat was left open. Then the holy silence fell.
He and his partner went out in the first deal, and Billy cut the cards to his left in great good-humour.
"Met the Snowflake just now," he said, "driving along with her melter."
A paper rustled in the window-seat, and though the deal was not yet finished, silence more awful than the silence of the game itself again fell. Billy gave half a glance round, not to see who it was, for he instinctively felt quite sure, but merely in confirmation of his knowledge.
"Hullo, Jack!" he said. "That you? Didn't see you come in."
"I supposed you hadn't," said Jack.
"Damned good answer!" observed Billy. "What trumps did you say, Martyn?"
It is to be set down to the credit of Billy's nerves, that not only did he not revoke during that hand, but played with quite his usual brilliance. He had often claimed that the game had the advantage of enabling one to forget everything else in the world for the time being, and in this instance he was certainly justified. What was coming afterwards he had not the slightest idea, but for the present it did not concern him.
In turn his partner dealt, passed, and Billy, after a little consideration, gave him no-trumps. The first card was led, Billy's hand exposed on the table, and at that moment, Billy being unoccupied, Jack rose.
"Can you speak to me a minute without interrupting the game?" he asked.
Silly Billy rose, looking exceedingly small and young.
"Rather. Next room, I should think," he said.
The two passed out, and Martyn spoke.
"Well, I'm damned!" he said, and nobody contradicted him.
The door of the next room shut behind the others, and Jack and Silly Billy found themselves simultaneously taking out their cigarette-cases. In the box on the table there was only one match, which Jack lit, and handed first to the other. Then he spoke.
"I saw whom she was with," he remarked.
"Glad you haven't got to ask me, then," said Silly Billy; "because I couldn't have told you."
Jack threw the match into the fireplace.
"Ah! you did mean my wife, then?" he said.
Silly Billy, figuratively speaking, threw up his hand.
"Very neatly done," he said. "You had me there. Now, what do you mean to do?"
"Ask you a question or two first. Now, was that lie of your own invention, or did you get it passed on from another liar?"
"You are using offensive language to me," observed Silly Billy.
"I am. If you prefer to come back to the other room, I will use it there."
Silly Billy smiled. The situation was becoming clearer to him.
"As regards your question," he said, "what you call that lie was not of my own invention. I should also advise you for your own sake not to press me to tell who told me. I warn you that if you are offensive again, I shall. At present, I do not tell you by way of amende for a speech which was indiscreet on my part. I ought to have looked round to see that you were not in the room. And that's how we stand."
Jack knew perfectly well that Billy was no fool, and he weighed this speech for a moment in silence.
"I don't understand," he said. "I think you are too crooked for me to follow. Perhaps it will be best and simplest if we go back to the other room. I can then box your ears in the presence of witnesses."
At this Billy laughed outright.
"I shall then bring an action for assault," he said, "for I suppose you are not vieux jeu enough to imagine I shall challenge you to fight. What will happen? The reasons for the quarrel will come out in open court. Will you like that? Will you like to pose as the defender of your wife's honour? Are you" – and Billy grew more animated – "are you so dense as not to know that the surest way of dragging it in the dust is to defend it, oh, successfully, I grant you, in the court? We live in an age, my dear Jack, in which violence has altogether ceased, and law, which is meant to take its place, defeats its own object. However successful your defence of both your action and of your wife's honour may be, surely you know that, if such a thing is made public at all, every one instantly says that there must have been something in it."
He paused a moment, Jack saying nothing.
"You are thinking that I am a cur and a coward," continued Billy. "You have also used offensive language to me. Take this, then. Do you consider yourself a good defender of your wife's honour? It is easy for you to box my ears, as you suggest, and think you have done a fine and manly action, but is all your conduct to her of a piece with that? Do you think that no one will say that it was the most arrant piece of humbug? If you had been beyond reproach in your married life, I do not say that I might not even have consented to shoot at you and let you shoot at me. But now, good God!"
Jack started up, black and angry, and stood towering over the other.
"Do you think you can speak to me like that?" he said, very quietly.
For the moment Silly Billy expected to find himself on the floor, but not an eyelash quivered. He lounged against the chimney-piece, and flickered his cigarette-ash into the grate.
"If you touch me, you will be sorry for it," he said. "If you say another offensive word to me, you will be sorry for it. I am not in the slightest degree afraid of you. If you had been faithful to your wife, I should say your behaviour was admirable. As it is, it is merely childish. We are rotten folk, you and I; but I have the pull over you because I am not a hypocrite about it. Well, I don't want to call you names. I had better get back, had I not? The hand must be over, and they will be waiting for me."
Jack sat down.
"Wait a minute," he said.
"Certainly, if you have anything agreeable to say," remarked Billy. "For myself, I have done. And it was rather a weak no-trump. Wonder what my partner had?"
"Oh, damn your game!" said Jack.
"I probably shall, when I get back," conceded Silly Billy. "What do you want to say?"
"This only: We are rotten people, and I have got to think it all over."
Silly Billy moved towards the door.
"Oh, yes; that's all right enough," he said. "Not coming back, I suppose, are you?"
He sauntered back into the card-room, where the hand was only just over.
"Well, what luck?" he asked. "Whisky-and-soda, waiter."
"Yes, my lord – large or small?"
"Enormous. Two tricks did you say, partner? Thanks. Game, and twenty-four to nothing. How were aces? I only had one."
Jack heard the door of the card-room shut behind Silly Billy, and went slowly down-stairs and out into the hot, crowded thoroughfare. He was still almost powerless to believe in his own impotency, which had been so trenchantly put before him by that gentleman. Half a dozen times he wished himself back in the card-room, or in the other room where their interview had taken place, in order to have the opportunity again of knocking him down or throwing the cards in his face. Yet, so he told himself, that which seemed reasonable to him before would seem reasonable to him again. There was no flaw, so far as he could see, in the deductions which had been put before him, and he was utterly at a loss as to what he should do. The story, he knew well, would be all over London by to-morrow, for when a thing is talked about at a club, as quite assuredly this would be, there is no more stopping it than there is stopping the flight of Time by holding back the hands of a clock. It would assume protean and monstrous forms; but whatever form it assumed, his imagination could not picture one in which his own part could be construed as creditable. What account would Silly Billy give of the interview? A true one, probably, because, from his point of view, it could not be bettered. "Oh, he was violent at first; but I put before him the exact consequences of further violence, and he saw it at once." That would be quite sufficient, and he could almost hear Silly Billy saying it. But paramount in his mind was anger against Marie, for to that class of mind to which Jack's belonged a wife cannot conceivably do anything more awful than get herself talked about. He would have been perfectly indulgent, so he very kindly told himself, to anything she might do but that. That Mildred had been, and probably now was, talked about in connection with him did not concern him, for he was not her husband. To Jack's way of thinking, a flawless reputation was the monopoly of one person, namely, his wife.
He walked slowly westward through a blur of unrecognised faces, his mind turning aimlessly through what had happened, like a squirrel in a cage, without getting anywhere. He ought to have said nothing at all, he told himself, or, having said something, he should at least have had the temporary satisfaction of insulting Silly Billy. Yet that would not have done; he still saw the force of that reasoning. In fact, nothing would have done. The blame of the whole terribly irritating affair was to be laid on Marie. She had behaved in some foolish manner, and had got talked about. He remembered now that weeks ago he had warned her of this. That made it the more annoying.
At the corner of Devonshire House his step, more than half automatically, turned northwards. The season and the summer were both at their midmost, and from this side of the street to that the tide of carriages flowed full. Full, too, were the pavements, human life jostled in a race from wall to wall of the gray houses, and just outside the curbstones, like the scum and flotsam in some cross-movement of tides, moved rows of sandwichmen bearing a various burden of advertisement, from strictly private massage establishments to ballets, the more public the better. But Berkeley Street and the Square following were a back-water of the flooded river-way, and he went with his own volition, not with the dictation of the tides, through into Grosvenor Square. Still without purpose other than that born of habit, he rang the bell of that house he frequented on so many days, and at so many and different hours, and was admitted.
Mildred was not in the room when he entered, and he walked up and down with a step of caged violence. It was a room, one would have said, which was lived in by a woman of some individuality. The usual signed photographs, bearing royal and distinguished names, were there; but these, instead of being prominently displayed, were obscurely penned, thick as sheep, on a Louis Seize table in a very dark corner, while on the writing-table which was set in the window were only two – those of Jack and his wife – a highly daring and successful arrangement. Otherwise the room was ordered, one felt, in a certain manner, not that it might be like a hundred other rooms, but because the owner wished it so, and no other way. A huge engagement book lay open on the table, with some names written fully out, but here and there an initial only; half a dozen good prints hung on the walls, but there was no attempt to drape anything, nor were there any books, the literature being limited to a heap of periodicals and a hardly lesser heap of letters. Two Dresden ormolu-mounted birds stood on the chimney-piece, two Tanagra figures in daring contrast, an Empire clock, and a programme of a forthcoming race-meeting.
He had not long been in the room when the door of her bedroom, which communicated with it, was opened, and she entered. At a glance she took in his mood, and guessed, too, with absolute certainty of its cause. The things that would make Jack look like that, she knew, could be numbered on the fingers, and of these none but one could have happened. Thus there was one only left, and for the moment she was afraid of what she had done. Outwardly she showed no sign.
"What is it?" she asked.
Jack did not at once answer, but paused in front of the writing-table where the two photographs stood. Then he took up that of Marie, threw it into the fireplace, and beat it to pieces with the poker.
"Four pounds for the frame," remarked Mildred. "Those Dresden parrots are at least a hundred. It is only right you should know. Be violent, by all means, if it gives you any satisfaction. I want some new things. But would it not be better to explain first and smash afterwards?"
She had never seen Jack like this – she had never even dreamed he was capable of it – but she found it, though alarming, rather attractive.
"It is always said of women that they like brutality," she thought to herself; "and perhaps it is true."
Jack rose from the fireplace a little flushed.
"They are talking about Marie at the clubs," he said. "The Snowflake has melted, apparently. Jim Spencer is the melter."
"Do you mean you heard that said?" asked Mildred.
"Yes, by Silly Billy."
"Which hospital is he at?" asked she.
Jack sat down.
"Give me a whisky-and-soda," he said; "I'm as dry as dust. May I ring? Thanks. You mean I should have stamped on him? I did not. I talked about it quite quietly with him. He pointed out that I, as a defendant in an action for assault, would not be amused at cross-examination. He adduced reasons."
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