Edward Benson.

Scarlet and Hyssop: A Novel



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On this restful velvet she walked up and down, again taken up and possessed by the absorption of that which lay before her. Her pride shied and jibbed at the thought of refusing to see any more of Jim Spencer because some slanderous tongue had started a vile falsehood about her, and she told herself that to do this would but confirm these inventions in the minds of such people as could ever have entertained them. She knew well enough the form the story would take. It would be supposed that the report had got to Jack's ears, and that he forbade her to see him. This would be intolerable; intolerable also was the thing itself, that she should not see him. So much she confessed frankly to herself. But one thing, one thing above all, was certain, and the thought brought to her the glow which is inseparable from all honest endeavour. She had been slandered in a way that touched her with deep resentment, but never should she give that lie a moment's harbourage, even on the threshold of her thoughts. The vileness of it, indeed, was a safeguard, and she could not without shuddering picture herself touching the subject-matter of it.

She had not walked long before a servant came out and approached her.

"Mr. Spencer wants to know if your ladyship will see him," he said.

Marie paused, feeling suddenly that this had happened before, but was unable to recollect what came next.

"Mr. Spencer?" she repeated.

"Yes, my lady."

Marie turned away from the man without replying, and walked a pace or two from him. Her mind seemed to be making itself up without any volition on her part. Then, without turning her head, "Ask him to come out," she answered, and the sound of the utterly commonplace words conveyed to her the nature of her own decision; for she had yielded, and knew it, not to be the imperative demand of her pride, which insisted that she should show not the smallest change of behaviour towards him, just because people had lied about her, but to her imperative desire to see the man.

She walked back to where the tea-table still stood, with the shining points of sunlight that filtered through the cedar making stars on the silver, and sat there a moment listening with a sort of incredulous wonder to the hammer of her pulse, and observing with the same incapacity for belief that these were her hands which trembled. But the interval was a short one, for in a moment his step sounded crisp on the terrace, and then became noiseless on the lawn. She was sitting with her back to the quarter of advance, but turned her head as he approached.

"Where in the world have you sprung from?" she asked. "Have some tea, Jim, or whisky-and-soda? I am delighted to see you, though it was not in my programme to see anybody."

"I am an intruder then, I fear," said he. "No sugar, thanks."

"Yes, but not unwelcome. I left London three days ago, and am going back to-morrow. I am eccentric, as you know, and, what is more useful, I have the reputation of being so.

Thus, nobody wonders if I disappear for a few days."

To her great relief and her hardly less surprise, Marie found not the slightest difficulty in assuming a perfectly natural manner, and even mentally classed it under the heading of phenomena which show that ordinary people in trying circumstances for the most part behave normally. It was natural to her, in fact, to be natural. But even as she drew these comforting conclusions, she had leisure to observe that Jim, too, was in the grip of some inward struggle. Its nature she did not try to guess, but continued talking under a sense of stress, a fear of silences.

"You know my gospel, do you not?" she said, "or, rather, I am sure you do not, as I have only formulated it to myself during this last day or two. There are two halves to the world, which make the whole, and each is the antidote to the other. One half is people; the other half is things. Now, the country is the place of things, and London of people. Cows, flowers, hay, all these are a certain antidote to the poisoning which unmixed people give one. In the same way, one flies from the country to town to take the antidote to the poison, a narcotic one, of things. Dipsomaniacs, so to speak, live entirely in London. They die young; it is a quick poison. The opposite dipsomaniacs live entirely in the country; it is a slow poison, and they live, or, at any rate, do not die, until a very advanced age. But oh, Jim, what a difference there is between living and not dying! They sound the same thing, but there is all the difference in the world between them."

Jim stirred his sugarless tea slowly, then drank it quickly and put down the cup. Being a man, airy nothings were not part of his stock in trade, a deficiency from a merely social standpoint.

"And so you have been poisoned with people?" he said directly. "I feel uncomfortable; I am afraid I have interrupted the cure."

"Not a bit. The treatment is over, and I am going back to London to-morrow. You are the junction, so to speak, where some one gets in, where one first sees the smoke and the sea of houses. But who told you I was here?"

"Jack told me," he said. "Why?"

On his words Marie suddenly became conscious that definite drama had entered. From this point she saw herself as she might see a character in a play, with a feeling of irresponsibility. The author of the play was responsible. It was, in fact, overwhelmingly interesting to know the manner in which Jack had said this.

"When did you see him?" she asked.

"This morning only, and by accident. He suggested I should come here, in fact, and escort you back to London."

"But I am not going to-day," said Marie.

"No; he expects you back to-morrow. He suggested I should spend the night here, and come back with you then."

"Ah, that is charming!" said she. "You have told them you are stopping?"

"But I am not. I must get back to-night."

Marie felt and knew that the words were wrung from him, that they had been difficult to speak. But, well as she knew it, Jim knew it infinitely better. His tongue, so to speak, he had to tie like a galley-slave to its oar, and it made its monotonous strokes, which, unwilling as they were and mutinously inclined, yet moved the vessel towards its safety in harbour. Then a pause which both dreaded was broken by the crisp sound of the trodden terrace, and the servant again approached Marie.

"Which room shall I put Mr. Spencer's things in, my lady?" he asked, and again the commonplace words had a hideous momentousness.

The temptation in her mind to give him merely the number of a room was almost overwhelming, for she felt morally certain that, had she done so, Jim would have said nothing. Furthermore, Jack had suggested his coming, and within herself she bore the conscious witness of her own rectitude. Only – and this was the reason for her decision – she knew that her desire that he should stop, that events should then take their course, was stronger than could have been accounted for by her desire to have a companion at dinner, even the most desirable, and a companion during her journey the next day. Further, he had come down here with the intention of stopping. But her purpose held.

"Mr. Spencer will go back to-night," she said. "But you will stop for dinner, Jim!"

"Thanks. I should like to. There is a train back at nine."

"Then, we must dine at eight instead of half-past. Let us have dinner on the terrace. We often dine there when it is warm."

The man took the tea-tray and retired with it. Then Jim leaned forward in his chair.

"Thank you," he said to Marie.

Again her hands so trembled that she had to catch hold of both arms of her chair, lest it should be apparent. And her voice, as she felt to her rebellious impotence, shook as she answered.

"For the dinner?" she said. "Indeed it will not be much, Jim – soup and a cutlet, I expect."

Great emotion has its moments of calm and hurricane, like the sea. It may lie glassy and level, though deep; again, with the speed of tropical storm, it may have its surface lashed to mountainous billows, against which no ship can make way, but must run before them. And the pitiless and intentional lightness of her words made an upheaval in him of all he was trying to suppress. He had come down here meaning to stop till the next day, but somehow the sight of her, and some deep abiding horror – the root of morality – of that for which his flesh cried out, had revealed to him the grossness of, not his design, but his acquiescence. Thus he had not even told her that he had his luggage with him; but of this blind Fate, in the shape of a liveried servant, had informed her. She knew as well as he what he had intended to do. And looking at her hands as they clutched the wickerwork of her basket chair, he could see that she, too, wrestled with, and tried to throttle, some secret enemy. Then came her light words, interpreted by the quivering of the tense hands, and his passion surged and overwhelmed him.

"Let me change my mind, Marie," he said, "and stop."

Again she told herself that it was perfectly right and natural that he should do so, but again her clear, clean judgment, recognising the force of the desire that he should, overruled her; but she was tired and nerve-jangled from the struggle, and her voice, pitched high and entreatingly, was no longer under her command.

"No, no, Jim!" she cried. "You must go."

The word she was afraid she would not be able to speak was spoken. The operation was over; she had only to keep quiet and recuperate. But she had betrayed herself to him: both knew it. A barrier had been broken down between them; each soul in its secret place was visible to the other, and in the awe and amazement of that the cries and strivings of the debatable were for the moment stilled. There was no satisfaction in the world that could equal the self-surrender that each had already made; there was nothing that either could do or say which would not spoil and degrade that which had passed between them. Jim, on his part, though he knew why he had asked to change his mind and stop, could not yet regret it, so tremendous and soul-filling was that which lay behind her refusal; and she could not find it in her heart to blame him, since his weakness had ended so gloriously. Thus in silence for a long moment each looked at the other, unashamed, acknowledging by that look, without fear or regret, the great bond that bound them indissolubly together, the great renunciation that irrevocably divided them.

Marie reached out her hand for her ivory silver-handled stick, which had fallen by her chair.

"Come and stroll for half an hour before dinner," she said. "See whether I am not right about the antidote to people which one can find in the country."

He rose, too.

"But who has been poisoning you in town?" he asked.

"Who? The six million people who live there. No, I will except you. I do not find you are poisonous here, at least."

"Thank you. But what have you done with yourself these three days?"

"Ah, that is the secret of the country! In town one has to do things one's self; the country does them all for you. You sit and you walk; you pick long feathery pieces of grass, and chew them like a cow; you think very intently for long periods, and at the end find that you have been thinking about nothing whatever. There is nothing so restful; and I have been wanting rest. I was a good deal worried about a certain matter before I left town."

He looked at her.

"I will subscribe to any institution that will guarantee you freedom from worry," he said.

"That is very kind of you, but the only way your institution could be of use would be by giving me a painless death; and I do not wish to die at all. No, you must spend your money some other way. Talking of that, have you made up your mind to stand for Parliament? It looks as if I accused you prospectively of bribery and corruption. I do not mean to."

"I wanted to talk to you about that. That was – one of the reasons why I came down to-day. I have been asked to stand for East Surrey, but by the Liberals."

She stopped suddenly.

"By the Liberals?" she said. "That will come as a great surprise to your friends, will it not?"

"Possibly. Of course, rich people are as a rule Conservative; in fact, it seems sufficient for a man that he should acquire a large fortune to make a Conservative of him. Personally I detest party politics, though no doubt they are a necessity. For myself, I only recognise one party just now, whose sole object is efficiency, not effectiveness."

She resumed walking again, with a quicker pace.

"Have you told Jack?" she asked.

"Yes. He approves warmly. He added, however, that he couldn't do anything for me, that he was bound to do all he could against me, in fact, during the election. That must be so. He is the land-owner here and a Conservative, and he does not see sufficient reason for ratting. There is nowhere to rat to, he says."

"I know Jack's view. He thinks both parties are in a hopeless state, but, belonging to one, he has no reason to join the other. Dear me, Jim, this is news! You have a subject in South Africa; so if the Conservatives get in, you will, I suppose, be among those who make it warm for them."

"I have no intention of taking politics up as a recreation," he said; "it is to be my profession, you understand." He paused a moment. "That is, given I get in."

Instantly her woman's pride in the man awoke.

"Of course you will get in!" she said; and not till she had said it did she know what she said, for no sense of his political fitness had prompted it, only her love for him.

They walked on a little way in silence, past the end of the riband bed, and into the rose-garden beyond.

"Yes, there is a cry for efficiency," he said. "John Bull is touched in his tender point, which is his purse. The tax-payer wants to know what he is getting for his increased income-tax, and the fact that he puts only one lump of sugar instead of two into his two instead of three cups of tea. He accepts the necessity, I believe, quite willingly; but as a shareholder in that very large concern, the British Empire, he wishes to see the balance-sheet, with explanations. So many millions for the South African War seem to him a large item. He does not dispute it, but he wants to have details given him, and through the mouths of his representatives he proposes to see that he gets them."

"That is called an unpatriotic attitude," remarked Marie with singular acidity.

"Ah, you are a Liberal, too! Of course Jack is."

"Certainly, if you take the utterance of the Conservative leaders as official. Jack, for instance, looks upon the Boer War as a war with a Power that was no Power at all, but the Government officially alludes to it as 'the great Boer War.' There is the party note. Oh, there is no such strong Conservative as the man who has once been a Radical! Conversion is always followed by exaggeration."

Marie stopped, plucked a couple of tea-roses and pinned them into the front of her dress. Then, looking up, she saw his eyes fixed on her face, and though they both had been speaking honestly about a subject that honestly interested them, she knew how superficial their talk had been; speeches had been made correctly, but automatically – no more. She was glad to know about his future plans; he, on his side, liked to speak of them, for, as he said, he was going to make a profession of politics. But they had both been talking "shop"; and as she raised her eyes to his, "shop" became suddenly impossible.

"Another rose," he said, "and give it me."

She did not answer. Then she drew one from the two she had fastened in her dress.

"Flowers to a friend," she said, holding it out to him. "It is an Italian proverb, Jim. Do you know the response?"

"You will tell it me."

"And honour from the friend," she replied.

He was cut to the quick, yet a phantom of self-justification was up in arms.

"When did I not give you that?" he said.

"You have always given it me," she answered. "Give it me every hour, Jim, until I cease entirely to deserve it."

Thereat he bent and kissed her hand.

CHAPTER XII

In the course of the next week or so Lady Brereton began to almost believe the slander that she had herself sown over the very congenial soil of London drawing-rooms; but though the town was soon as thick with it as is a cornfield in May with the green springing spears, she was afraid that her amiable object of revenging herself on Marie for the ill turn she had done her in the matter of Maud's marriage had not been blessed with the success which that masterly design deserved. Indeed, had she not known from Jack that he had told his wife what he had overheard at the "Deuce of Spades," Mildred could not have believed that Marie knew anything at all about it, so utterly unaltered was her demeanour to the world at large, and in particular to Jim Spencer. They were constantly together, but, somehow, Marie's attitude to him and his to her seemed in the eyes of people in general to contradict every moment the possibility of there being any dessous des cartes at all; in fact, Mildred's springing blades had rather the appearance of having been sown on stony ground: they seemed to her eye to look curiously without stamina. Yet, as already stated, although in less than the traditional nine days the world in general had ceased to concern itself with so misbegotten a scandal, Lady Brereton almost began to believe it herself. Her own invention, in fact, appeared probable to her; but its effect on Marie, from which she had hoped so much, was entirely unfruitful.

Lady Ardingly about this time, like an old war-horse now turned out to grass, had begun to prick up her ears at the trumpets which resounded through the land on the approach of the General Election. She, like many other people, had a great belief in Jack's powers of awakening the Government from the self-congratulatory torpor which had fallen on them.

"They sit in a somnolent circle," she said to him one day, "and awake at intervals to shake hands with each other; then they go to sleep again. Ardingly, perhaps, is the most sensible. He sleeps as soundly as anybody, but he doesn't congratulate his noble colleagues."

Jack laughed.

"I almost wish I had always been a Liberal," he said.

"You always have been," said she; "but now is not the time to say so. Get your seat in the Cabinet, Jack; the Conservative Cabinet is the only opening for a Liberal nowadays. That is where Mr. Spencer makes his mistake. To be a Liberal, however prominent, is nowadays to be perfectly ineffective. You are put in a box and locked up, and the key is put in the key-basket at – well, at a certain country-house. But if you are a Conservative you are let out and given your own key. That is your chance."

"And if they don't give me a seat in the Cabinet?"

"There will be no question about that. They do not like you, but they are afraid of you. The country, on the other hand, likes you a good deal. You have a way with plebeians. I don't know how you manage it. They think you are a practical man, and just now they want practical men, and they intend to get them. But you will have to be very careful about certain things. I wanted to talk to you about those; that was why I sent for you to have lunch with me alone. People were coming, but, in fact, I put them off. We will go to my room."

Lady Ardingly rose, and Jack followed her. He was not quite sure that he would like what was coming, but he was far too sensible to quarrel with her, for he considered her quite the worst person in the world to quarrel with.

"Yes, I am going to speak plainly," she said. "It is, I think, certain that you will be offered the War Office. Now, you have a very clever wife, who will be admirably useful to you; but you have a great friend who is stupider than a mule, with all her soi-disant brilliance. She is au fond a really vulgar woman, and it is vulgar people who make the stupid mistakes. She has already made one, which might have damaged you seriously, but I do not think it will. Of that presently. I was saying that they will probably give you the War Office; but you cannot with any usefulness retain the post for a day if there is a scandal connected with you – a scandal, that is to say, of the wrong sort."

Jack leaned forward in his chair.

"I don't know why I do not resent this, Lady Ardingly," he said, "or why I do not leave the room; but I do neither."

"Because you are a selfish, or at any rate an ambitious man," she said. "Every one who is worth his salt is. Now I will put names to my advice."

She paused a moment to take some coffee, and waited till the man had left the room.

"Mildred is a very vulgar woman," she said, "and her vulgarity shows itself in the nature of her mistakes. Silly Billy came here the other day, and I asked him about his scene with you. You did not score there, and if he had not been a clever little fellow in a small sort of bird-like manner, you would have involved yourself in a row of monstrous proportions. He managed you in his microscopical way very successfully. That is so. He also told me that it was Mildred who had suggested that absurd canard to him. There is the stupidity of the woman. There was no grain of sense in it all. Nobody who knows, would believe such things about Marie for ten days together. But supposing some gutter-rag of a paper had got hold of it! The wife of the man who was in the running for the Cabinet prosecuting an intrigue with the Liberal candidate of his division of Surrey! How charming! If I had wanted to ruin you, I should have tried to think of something as damaging as that. If I had thought of that I should have been quite content. Did you not see that, my poor fellow?"



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