Scarlet and Hyssop: A Novel
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Mildred looked at him for a moment with a sort of quiet wonder.
"Do you mean he adduced me as a reason?" she asked.
"Not by name."
"How very forbearing of him! You let that pass, too?"
"You did right," she said at length. "I was at first so much surprised at your having behaved like that, that I could hardly believe it. But you did right. It was, however, quite unnecessary to smash Marie's photograph – or is that a dramatic climax to show your inalienable fidelity to me?"
"There, drink your whisky," she said. "How extraordinary men are! Whenever they have had some powerful and exhausting emotion, a little alcohol always puts them square again. One ought to measure everything by that. A wife talked about – large whisky-and-soda; a friend talked about – small whisky-and-soda; one's self talked about – well, that is a stimulus in itself: say a Lithia Varalette, something lowering, by way of adjustment."
Jack, angry as he was, answered to her voice, as a fretful horse answers to a hand it knows, perhaps from habit, perhaps from the sense of a master astride it.
"You take it like this?" he said. "You can have no idea what it means to me."
Mildred stood silent a moment, then laughed.
"Surely the English must have made a corner in hypocrisy," she said. "For sheer, genuine hypocrisy give me the frank English gentleman like – well, like you, Jack. You are annoyed that Marie has been, as you say, talked about; you are convinced that it is the chief, if not the only, duty of a wife not to be talked about. Now, what is the reason of that, may I ask you? Is it because you demand virtue of her, fidelity to you? Not a bit of it, and you know it. You do not care in the least what she does, provided only nothing is said about her. But, seriously, is it worth while keeping that sort of thing up with me? C?sar's wife must be beyond suspicion! Oh, me, what ranting twaddle! But, oh, my poor C?sar!"
Jack had not been very comfortable when he came in; he was not more comfortable now. The bogieman, who was capable of popping out as on a nervous old lady on a dark night, and frightening Cabinet Ministers with his horrible turnip-ghost of accurate figures and reliable statistics, was more terrified than terrifying here.
"You are getting quite like Marie," he observed.
"Am I? It would be a singularly awkward position for you if I was, do you not think?"
Jack had no pertinent reply for a moment; then, "I do not know that the censorious attitude suits you very well," he said.
"Ah, the whole question turns on what one is censorious of. I am censorious of your hypocrisy, reasonably I think, because I have no weakness that way. But you as censor of Marie's morals! Oh, does it not make you laugh, simply for fear you should cry? Have more whisky, Jack; you really are not yourself yet. Tell me this, now – what did you come here for? You have said nothing yet which would not have been better left unsaid."
Jack got up.
"You appear to wish to quarrel with me," he said."I think you had better do it alone."
Mildred made up her mind in a moment; the thing she had long been debating solved itself at this.
"If you go like a sulky child," she said, "it will be you who quarrel with me. Now, can you afford to quarrel with both me and Marie? Just consider that, and reckon up to yourself exactly what will be left of you if you do. You may do so if you choose, and you can say you have grounds, for it was I who put into Silly Billy's head the idea that made him say what he did about Marie. Dresden birds, a hundred pounds, and please don't touch the Tanagras," she added.
The caution was apparently unnecessary, for Jack did not show the slightest inclination to smash anything. He sat down as good as gold.
"You are a remarkably interesting woman," he said; "and as I never thought you a fool, I should really like to know why you did that."
"The immediate cause was a bad one," she said, "for it was that I was angry with Marie, and wanted to hurt her."
"Then, can you afford to quarrel with Marie – and me?" he asked.
Lady Brereton began to think that she was almost wasting her time. She was aware, however, that her answer was critical, and gave it intense, though rapid, consideration.
"Easily," she said. "Why not?"
Jack raised his eyes to her face; she saw their frightened appeal, and knew that she had won.
"Ah, you are tired of it all," he said.
"You can make me wish I had never seen you if you behave obtusely," she said.
"What have I done?"
"You have been on the point of quarrelling with me as well as Marie. Surely that is obtuse enough. Quarrel with us one at a time, if you wish. To continue, she interfered unwarrantably in a thing that concerns me alone – I mean Maud's marriage."
Jack smiled faintly.
"I see what you mean," he said apologetically.
"It is sufficiently clear. She interfered, and has seriously embarrassed me. The marriage will not take place as soon as I wished; in anger, I struck at her blindly."
"Without considering me," said he.
"Of course, without considering you. You did not occur to me, and even if you had I should not have considered you, for we settled just now that your attitude on that point was not – well, considerable. But I am glad now – I speak quite calmly – that I have done it. I do not like humbug; we have had a good deal of it. I shall before very long let Marie know what I have heard."
"Said," interrupted Jack.
"Heard. That will make a coolness between us, for she will be silently scornful of me. Oh, the truth is this, Jack – I am glad, yes, glad, that I am not going to pretend to be friends with Marie much longer. There are many good women who apparently do not mind hypocrisy, but there are many women who have no pretension whatever to be good who do not like being hypocrites. I am one. I shall not go to heaven when I die in any case, but I assure you that if I could by promising to talk about Sunday-schools to the saints I would refuse it. Now go away and have your row with Marie."
"You advise that?"
"I insist on it, else I should have wasted all my anger. Dear me, we are a sweet couple, you and I!"
There was a ring of sudden bitter sincerity in her tone, and he looked up surprised.
"What is the matter, Mildred?" he asked.
"Anything, everything, nothing. Perhaps your absurd conduct, Jack; perhaps the thunderstorm which is certainly coming; perhaps reaction from my anger. Perhaps that I have got my way: I have started a scandal about Marie – got it successfully launched. I have the sickness of success. Oh, decidedly the only way to be happy is to want things, not to get them."
"Want, then; it is easy enough."
"I am beginning to wonder whether it is," said she. "I rather think that the faculty of wanting is a faculty which belongs to youth. Dear me! I am getting philosophical, and I beg your pardon. Tell me the news. When is the dissolution?"
"Who knows? Not even the family, I believe, and I have not the honour of belonging to them. But, I imagine, not later than the end of July."
"Then the election will interfere with the grouse-shooting, will it not?"
"Yes, but apparently it is decided that Imperial affairs are to rank above grouse-shooting for once in a way!"
Mildred looked at the clock.
"I must go," she said. "I've got a hair-dresser and a dressmaker and a manicurist all waiting, and, for aught I know, a palmist and a dentist, and I'm dining at the Hungarian Embassy, an affair which demands, if not prayer, at any rate fasting. I never get used to that sort of corv?e."
"Why do you do it, then?"
"Because it is only by doing that sort of thing with religious regularity that you get to the stage when you need no longer do it unless you choose. Besides, I purpose to say a word for you in an august ear. He is taking an interest, I am told, in the army. He also takes an interest in me. I amuse him. Come to lunch to-morrow, and tell me what has happened."
The thunderstorm predicted by Lady Brereton was already beginning to grumble in the west as Jack left the house, and before he got to Park Lane a few large, warm drops were splashing on the pavements. He asked the man who opened the door whether his wife was at home, and, learning that she was in, went up to her sitting-room. Marie was there, sitting in the balcony overlooking the park, her back turned to the room, so that she did not see Jack as he entered. By her was sitting another figure, whom he recognised. Jack strolled out to join them, lighting a cigarette.
"Good-evening, Spencer," he said. "Pray don't move. There's a storm coming up."
But Jim Spencer rose.
"I was just going," he said. "I shall just get home before it begins."
He shook hands with them both, and went through the sitting-room and down-stairs. On the sound of the front-door banging behind him Jack spoke.
"Do you remember my warning you that people would talk if you were intimate with that man?" he said.
"You have chosen to disregard my warning. The consequence is that people have begun to talk."
Marie got up.
"Who, and where?" she said, facing him.
"It does not matter who. Where? In the clubs. 'So the Snowflake has melted. I saw her driving with the melter.' I heard that said this afternoon."
The rain began to fall heavily, and a blue scribble of light rent the sky. Marie did not reply, but went inside, followed by her husband. The room was very dark, and each could see no more than the form of the other. In the gloom her answer came – very cool and crisp, an extraordinary contrast to the hot, thick darkness.
"And you tell this to me," she asked – "to me?"
"It concerns you, does it not?"
"As much as that which the gutter press says of the King concerns the King. And you knew it, Jack."
Jack sat down in a chair, his back to what light there was. To her he was almost invisible except for the glowing spark of his cigarette, which, as he drew breath, faintly illuminated his mouth.
"For a woman of the world," he said, "you are more ignorant than I should have thought possible. Who are the women who are talked about at the clubs? Half a dozen names occur to you, as they do to me. Do you like being the seventh?"
Again there was silence, broken first by a sullen roar of thunder, then by Marie's voice.
"I want to ask you one question, Jack," she said. "Do you not know – you yourself – that to couple my name with that of any man except you, is to utter a foul and baseless calumny?"
"That is not the point," said he. "The point is that your name has so been coupled."
"Do you not know it?" she repeated.
Again there was silence. The devil, probably, would have betted on Jack's saying "No." If so, he would have lost his money.
"Yes, I know it," he replied; and his tattered flag of honour waved again.
"Then, how dare you repeat such a thing to me?" said Marie, still in the same unnaturally even voice. "For you seem to forget one thing, Jack, and that is that I am your wife!"
"It is exactly that which I remember," he said.
"Then you are beyond me, and I cannot understand you at all. You seem to think – God knows what you think! Anyhow, the standard of honour which is yours is utterly incomprehensible to me. You approach me with a sort of calm gusto to tell me a canard you have picked out of the clubs or out of the gutter, and you seem to think I shall care! What I care about is something quite different, and that is that you should have told me. I suppose your object was to wound me, to punish me – so you put it to yourself, for my having disregarded your warning. It is true that you have wounded me, but not in the way you think. Not long ago you thought good to cast doubts on the way in which I told you I had spent my evening. This is one step worse. And I warn you that another step may take you too far! That is all I have to say."
She turned round and, with a quick movement of her finger, turned on the electric light and stood in all her splendid beauty before him. Her bosom heaved with her intense suppressed emotion, her eye was kindled, and her mouth, slightly parted with her quickened breath, just showed the white line of her teeth. And sudden amazement at her loveliness seized the man. He looked long, then got up and advanced to her.
"Marie, Marie!" he said with entreaty, and laid his hand on her arm.
"Ah, don't touch me!" she cried.
Marie was sitting alone under the striped awning which covered the end of the terrace behind their country house in Surrey. The flap at the end was open, and from the bushes beyond came the hot, languid scent of the lilacs, the hot, languid murmur of the bees as they shouldered themselves into the clubs and clusters of the blossoms, the busy chirrup of sparrows intent on some infinitesimal occupation demanding a great deal of discussion. Unseen on the lawn below, a mowing-machine was making its clicking journeys up and down the grass, but no other sound marked the passage of the hot afternoon; no breeze stirred in the level fans of the cedar nor ruffled the lake, where the unwavering reflections of the trees were spread as sharp-cut and immobile as if they had been painted on a silver shield. On Marie's lap lay an unopened book, and she was as motionless as the mirroring lake.
A week had passed since her scene with Jack on the evening of the thunderstorm, and she had left London three days after in obedience to an instinct which she felt she could not disobey. That scene had unfocused her; she had to adjust herself to a new view of things, and the need to go away and be alone for a day or two had been overmastering. For the one thing which she had always regarded as impossible had happened to her: the snowflake – herself – was supposed to have melted. And, from the fact that this slander affected her so deeply, she knew, for the first time fully, how utterly different she was to the rest of the world. Some months ago she had heard Lady Ardingly say in her slow, sensible voice: "Ah, my dear, there are so many people who can lose their reputation, but so few who know how valuable the loss is! They were perfectly capable of valuing it when it existed, but they cannot appreciate its loss at the proper figure." At the time she had laughed, as she would have laughed at any outrageous piece of cynicism in some modern play. Now she choked at it; it was gall to her.
So, then, according to the world's view, she was in the position of many women who held their heads high, and thought of the world generally as their playground, the place kindly provided for the amusement of their spare time, of which they had twenty-four hours every day. Whether the disrepute of all these was as reliable as that which she had herself just gained was not the immediate point to be considered; but certainly, if one took a man like Arthur Naseby into a corner, he would, with no encouragement at all, tell an intimate and abominable history of half the folk he knew. For herself, she was not in the habit of taking this stout and poisonous gentleman into corners. Scandalous stories did not amuse her, particularly if they were true, and immorality she thought to be a thing not only wicked, but vulgar. Wickedness, as she had once said, seemed to the world in which she lived merely an obsolete term, describing a moral condition which had no appreciable existence; and sometimes she wondered whether vulgarity was not passing into the category of words without significance. And now it appeared that people were saying about her what they said about so many others, with no sense of condemnation, but – and here lay the nausea of the thing – with amusement. She could almost hear Arthur's voice stridently declaiming: "After all, poor thing, why shouldn't she amuse herself like everybody else? It was the one thing wanted to make her perfectly charming. But I think we shall hear less about the stupidity and vulgarity of the world. Artistically speaking, she ought to have modulated the change more. Just a shade too abrupt – a little Wagnerian in its change of key;" and roars of laughter would follow.
But this new condition in her life had by no means constituted the sum of these three days' meditation in the country. With the elasticity inherent in human nature, the moment the new condition had been made, her mental fibres set themselves automatically to adjust themselves to it. Doctors say that any patient adjusts himself to the most fatal sentence in twenty-four hours; the thing becomes a part of life. It was so with her, and now she felt, though not reconciled, at any rate used to the thing. Though highly introspective, she was not, in the ordinary sense of the word, self-conscious, and she no longer believed that the changed glances of the world at her would affect her very seriously. Surely she could manage to take them at their correct and worthless valuation. At first the thought of that had seemed intolerable; but after three days she was beginning to feel she cared very appreciably less.
So far her solitude had been successful, but beyond that it had been a complete failure. For the larger of the two reasons which had induced her to come here remained, and she could not even now conjecture what in the future should be her attitude to Jim. With this problem she had wrestled and struggled in vain, and it seemed to her, in these first days of her consciousness as to her essential relations to him, that all her life-long consistency of thought and habit on such a point were cancelled and worthless. The truth was that she had not known at all before that she was really capable of passion. Her nature, including something far deeper and stronger than mere physical nature, had till quite lately been dormant; she had been ignorant all her life of what the longing for another meant; all her life she had judged men and women by a blind standard which did not really measure that to which it was applied. All her life she had labelled immorality as vulgar, and, as such, she shrugged her shoulders at it and passed by. But now it was beginning to be burned into her that it was not her fastidiousness that labelled things vulgar, but her ignorance. She had thought Blanche Devereux vulgar because she herself had not understood. Now she was afraid she was beginning to understand, and with the gradual comprehension came growing bewilderment. And step by step with the bewilderment marched an inward tumult of ecstasy, of which she had not known herself capable. A sort of horrified wonder at herself was there, and withal a singing in her heart. It had awoke, and, like the roar of the sea which drowns the idle clatter of the Corniche road, it made a huge soft tumult.
This, then, was the problem she had brought unsolved from London, and which, she was afraid, she would bring back there without solution. The knowledge of it had burst upon her on the evening when Jack had told her what he had heard said of her, and her first conscious utterance that showed she knew of its existence was when that involuntary cry, "Ah, don't touch me!" came uninvited to her lips. Her long and gradual estrangement from her husband had immeasurably widened at that moment. In an instant his figure had leaped to remote horizons, and she had but to turn her head to see how close beside her stood another, he of whom her husband had spoken. This she had not known before; but the knowledge had come in a flash, staining backwards, as it were, through the past pages of her life, so that it seemed to her that she had loved him since the time when they were boy and girl together, and it made her view her married life with an incredulous horror. And by what sinister revelation had she gained this knowledge? For it was the fact that people spoke of Jim as her lover that had made her definitely aware she loved him. And it had been Jack through whom this knowledge was conveyed.
It was this knowledge that made her distrust herself as utterly as if her own soul and spirit had just been introduced to her among a crowd of strangers. She had thought she had known herself, and now this thing had started out upon her as if she had been asleep in a dark room, and had been wakened to find the chamber blazing with lights. Whether she had the will or the strength to resist she did not yet know; the purpose alone she could utterly answer for. But she realized that if again she saw him in such sort as she had seen him on the Sunday afternoon by the river, or on that afternoon when she had told him of her conversation with Maud Brereton, it would be a more difficult task to make him keep silence. She felt she could scarcely answer for her own silence. How much less, then, for her power of stopping the speech which a word from her would have even then brought to utterance! And now —
She rose, feeling that the only hope of victory lay in turning away from thoughts like these, and not, under the specious pretext of consciously fighting them, in reality making them familiar to her mind; for familiarity in such things breeds, not contempt, but acquiescence, half contemptuous it may be, but half consenting, and she knew that in face of certain temptations it is cowardice not to run away. The sun was already off the lawn, and a cooler breeze had begun to stir the intense heat of the afternoon. Tea had long been waiting for her under the cedar, and she walked slowly along the terrace and down the ten steps which led on to the lawn. This terrace had been an expensive whim of Jack's grandfather; it ran the length of the house, and was paved and balustraded with rose-coloured Numidian marble; urns, wreathed in delicate creepers which spilt splashes of vivid colour, stood at intervals along it; and below it blossomed a superb riband flower-bed bordering the lawn where stood the cedar.
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