Edward Benson.

Scarlet and Hyssop: A Novel

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"We did not know he was standing at the time," said Jack rather feebly.

"Doubtless. But the secret of success in this world is not to make blunders where one does not know. Any one can avoid blunders if he knows everything. In any case, here is the position. It is sedulously circulated that your wife has an intrigue with Jim Spencer. And who circulates it? This cook! Luckily I did something to stop people talking."

"What was that?"

"I told them I happened to know that Mildred had quarrelled with your wife, and had invented this story out of revenge. That is the case, is it not?"

"It certainly happens to be true. But I don't see how you knew."

"I guessed it was so," said Lady Ardingly. "It was the only reasonable supposition. There is not another which holds water. Besides, if it had not been true, what does it matter? Now, this is the first way in which Mildred might have ruined you. The second concerns you also."

"I don't think we need discuss that," said Jack, who kept his temper only by the knowledge that he would lose a great deal more if he lost it.

"But we had better. You are a decent fellow, Jack; also it will amuse me to see you in the Cabinet, which I shall not, unless you are careful. Now, you have had an affair with Mildred for many years. At least, so we all suppose; that we all suppose it is the important thing. I do not mind that, morally speaking, because I am in no way responsible for your morals. It is your own business. She happens to stimulate you. Everybody knows about it except one person – your wife. Now, why not tell her?"

"For what reason?" asked Jack, far too much surprised to resent anything.

"Simply for fear she should find out, and – and blow your ships out of the water!" said Lady Ardingly. "You have fallen into a grave mistake. You have treated your wife as a negligible quantity, whereas hardly anybody is a negligible quantity, and certainly not she. That is by the way. At present we are considering your career. Now, if Marie finds out, either while you are still not yet in the Cabinet, or even after that, before you have made yourself clearly felt to be indispensable, you go. For if the middle class gets hold of a scandal about a Minister, not yet proven, that man is beyond hope. He cannot weather the storm. The middle class, who are, after all, the people, distrust his public measures because they disapprove of his private life."

"Idiotic on their part," observed Jack.

"No doubt; but the cause of success is to estimate correctly and to take advantage of the idiocy of others. None of us are clever in the way Napoleon was clever. All we can do is to be slightly less idiotic than the rest of mankind. Now you must go. I have a hundred things to do and a thousand people to see. If I can be of any further help to you, let me know."

Jack got up, then paused, indecisive.

"You mean you will tell Marie?" he asked.

"If you wish me to.

But there is a simpler plan."

"What is that?" asked Jack.

"Show Mildred the door – the back-door," she added.

"I can't."

"Very good; that is your affair," said she. "But make up your mind soon what you will do. Any line is better than none, as it was always."

At the moment a footman entered.

"Ask her to wait in the drawing-room," said Lady Ardingly, before he had spoken. Then, without pausing: "Good-bye, Jack. Send me a line; or we shall meet at Ascot, shall we not?"

Jack hesitated a moment.

"She is very obstinate," he said.

"Your wife?" asked Lady Ardingly.

"No; the person you asked to wait in the drawing-room."

Lady Ardingly laughed. She never minded being found out.

"So am I," she said. "Don't meet her on the stairs."

"Oh, I am not a fool!" said Jack, almost with gaiety.

"That may be true. But do not take your own wisdom as a working hypothesis," said that immovable woman.

After he had left, Lady Ardingly proceeded to take her maximum exercise for the day. This consisted in walking four times up and down the long gallery of portraits which ran by the reception-rooms. It was nearly a hundred yards in length, and as she stopped once to swallow a small digestive pill, which was presented to her with a wine-glass of water by her maid, it was nearly ten minutes before she returned to her room and sent a message that the person who was waiting should be shown up. The interval sufficed to pull her auburn wig straight and settle herself with her back to the light.

Mildred was more accustomed to be waited for than to wait, and neither Lady Ardingly's message that she wished to see her at 3.30 nor the period of inaction in this drawing-room had improved a naturally irritable temper. Her determination, in fact, when the tardy summons came, was to be very effusive and full of engagements – a delighted-to-see-you – how-well-you-are-looking – such-a-pleasure – must-go attitude. Lady Ardingly often rubbed her up the wrong way, but she more often gave her advice which, when she was cool, she knew to be right. She conjectured, if no more, that the subject which was going to be discussed was Jack, but was more than half decided not to discuss it. In her mind, in fact, she labelled Lady Ardingly as an impotent old meddler. Thus she entered.

"Ah, my dear," said Lady Ardingly, "you have been kept waiting, I am afraid. It was an idiotic footman, who thought I was engaged, and did not tell me you were here. How are you, Mildred?"

Mildred sat down. Her dress rustled incredulously.

"Driven," she said – "simply driven! How foolish one is to make a hundred engagements a day, and not enjoy any because one is always thinking about the next!"

"Yes, very foolish," said Lady Ardingly, "especially when one does not enjoy them. Now tell me the news, dear Mildred. I do not go out and I see nobody. You are always everywhere. I never saw a woman who sat in the mainspring so much. Tell me all about everybody."

Insensibly Mildred felt mollified. She knew perfectly well that, though Lady Ardingly did not rush about to see everybody, it was only because everybody rushed about to see her; but still there was to her a faint aroma of compliment about the speech. She disentangled a misshapen Yorkshire terrier from her muff.

"Who, for instance?" she said. "Now, Jack – he is a friend of yours, I know."

"Of both of ours," said Lady Ardingly with an intonation far more confirmatory, than correcting.

"Yes – such a dear, isn't he? Well, people have been talking about him as possibly going to the War Office. Dear Jack! I can scarcely imagine him there."

"Yes, that is interesting," said Lady Ardingly. "So he means to take up politics quite seriously. I am glad you have urged him to do that, and that you have used your influence with him in that direction!"

Mildred continued to melt.

"Yes, Jack really has great talent," she said. "And he knows about guns and smokeless powder, and – and that sort of thing, I believe. There is a craze just now for people managing Departments of which they know something. Quite new, isn't it?"

"Ah, you mean Ardingly," said the other. "How cruel of you!"

The liquefaction progressed.

"Dear Lady Ardingly!" said Mildred, "how can you say such a thing! Of course I did not mean anything of the sort. But, seriously, I think that Jack would do well at the War Office. Do not you?"

"Oh, he is not a fool! But it is necessary that he should have a wife. Does one count Marie Alston as a wife, do you think?"

Mildred frowned quite naturally, and Lady Ardingly, though accustomed to find her man?uvres successful, was almost surprised at the success of this.

"That reminds me," she said. "I wonder whether you have heard it? There is going about a horrid, horrid scandal about Marie. It started, as far as I know, in that Bridge club – 'Deuce of Spades,' is it not? Well, there one afternoon, about ten days ago, Silly Billy remarked that the Snowflake had melted, referring to the matter. Everybody knew what he meant, and Jack, as it happened, was in the room at the time. Was it not awful? And it has gone all over London?"

Lady Ardingly sat up in her chair with the deliberation that characterized all her movements, and took a cigarette from a tray. She lighted it quite slowly without replying. It was time, she felt, to begin taking the ribs out of this poor umbrella.

"Yes, I heard something of it," she said.

"Somebody told me something. But I gathered that it did not quite originate there. I heard, in fact, dear Mildred, that you, driving to that concert the other day, put the notion into Silly Billy's head."

"I don't know who can have told you that," she replied.

"Silly Billy did. Oh, I grant you that that is no guarantee at all for its truth. I never see any reason to believe what Silly Billy says. But you must now reckon with the story as it stands – as it reached me, in fact: namely, that you told him the story which he very indiscreetly repeated in Jack's hearing. You who know the world so well know that people will not care if it is true. They will only repeat it as it reached them, as it reached me."

"But I believe the story to be true," exclaimed Mildred, completely off her guard.

"Ah! so you did tell him. The story, then, as I heard it is substantially correct. Poor Silly Billy! How annoyed he would be if he knew that he had been detected telling the truth! It would be deeply humiliating to him. However, do not let us mind him; he is particularly insignificant. Now, dear Mildred, why did you put that into his head? Not that it matters why. But, anyhow, it was not nice of you."

"I did not intend it to be," said Mildred.

"Now you are talking sensibly. You quarrelled with her, and you wanted to annoy her, I suppose. But is it possible that you do not see that in annoying her you are injuring Jack with both hands?"

"In what way?"

"Perhaps you do not know that Jim Spencer is standing for the East Surrey constituency as a Liberal. And where is Freshfield, the Alstons' place? I have never been there, but I understand it is in East Surrey. The Conservative magnate's wife has an intrigue with the Liberal candidate! I said only just now to" – Lady Ardingly paused a moment – "to myself, How damaging for Jack! How completely fatal for Jack!"

There was a short silence, and Lady Ardingly continued with the driest deliberation.

"Of course, you had not heard that Jim Spencer was standing for that division. There is nothing so dangerous as a complete absence of knowledge. And it was you who started that scandal! It is lucky for you it was such a silly one. If it had been a little cleverer, you might have damaged him irretrievably."

"But there are lots of stories," began Mildred.

"Thousands. But not of that damaging kind. If you had said she was having an intrigue, say, with the Emperor of Russia, it would have hurt nobody, not even the Emperor. Never mind, dear, the thing is done. We must consider how we can make the best of it. A scandal is always a dangerous thing to touch. If one denies it afterwards, if even the inventor, who believes it to be true – how ridiculous, too, of you, dear Mildred! – denies it, there will always be people who think that the denial merely confirms it. In this case it is peculiarly complicated. The great thing is that the whole invention was so silly from the start. I should have thought, dear Mildred, that you had a better imagination. But you have not. It is not your fault; you cannot help it. What shall we do, do you think?"

This old woman was not so impotent as Mildred had hoped. She had been accustomed to consider herself fairly wide awake, but it appeared that her waking moments were somnolence personified to Lady Ardingly.

"I don't know," she said feebly.

"Then, I will tell you," said Lady Ardingly. "Start a scandal – you are so good at it – about yourself and Jim Spencer. Nothing circumstantial – only let it be in the air. Let people say things; there is nothing easier. Then it will appear also that you have broken with Jack. That, I tell you, will not injure him. A married man is open to damaging scandals in two ways: one through himself, one through his wife. And in Jack's case, my dear, both these doors are flung wide, and Lady Brereton enters through each, trumpeting like – like an elephant."

Lady Ardingly nodded her head at Mildred, with the air of a nurse scolding a refractory child.

"Now, do not look so disconsolate, my dear," she went on, observing Mildred's face falling as a barometer falls before a cyclone, "but just bestir yourself. You should really in future consult somebody before you embark on these efforts. You have dug a bottomless well, so I may say, at the foot of the ladder by which your friend Jack was preparing to mount. There is room – just room – to get him on to it still. But there is only one way of doing it – that is, by stopping somehow or another that very silly story you made up about his wife, and by taking very great care how you are talked about in connection with him by the wrong people – just now, perhaps, by anybody. You can do both these things by letting it be supposed that you are intime with Mr. Spencer. Let us talk of something else."

Lady Ardingly rose with the air of closing the subject altogether. She knew exactly when to stop rubbing a thing in, the object of that salutary process being to make the place smart sufficiently, but not unbearably. Mildred, she considered, was smarting enough.

"And about your tall daughter?" she said. "How does that go?"

"She is lovable, and he loves her; but he is not lovable, and she does not love him," quoted Mildred, restraining quite admirably her impulse to sulk or lose her temper.

"Ah! you must give her time. If he is really in love with her, he will be very patient. And, since you love her," she added, without any change of voice, "you will be patient with her, too."

Mildred got up.

"I must go," she said. "Thank you very much, Lady Ardingly. I have made a mess of things."

"Yes, dear," said the other, "and you must wipe it up. Must you be going? Some people are coming in for Bridge almost immediately. Please dine here, if you can, to-day week. I will ask Mr. Spencer, and I will not ask Jack. That is the day before we all go down to Ascot. I hope you have backed Ardingly's horse for the Eclipse Stakes. Good-bye, dear."

Mildred went out, a limp figure, leaving Lady Ardingly looking like a restored sphinx on the hearth-rug. Then she spoke to herself very gently and slowly.

"I cannot bear cooks," she said, "and other people like them so much; but I think I deserve a great many aces at Bridge."

Jack and Mildred went their respective ways full of thoughts, which up to a certain point were very similar. Prominent, at any rate, in the mind of each was that, though they knew each other very well, they would not mention that they had had an interview with Lady Ardingly. Jack here was in the superior position, since he knew that Mildred had succeeded him in audience, and felt sure that, whether Mildred told him so or not, he would find some impress of what had taken place in the next intimate conversation they had together. With regard to his reflection on his own interview, he saw the admirable justice of the greater part of Lady Ardingly's views; he did not, however, see the fitness of telling Marie anything whatever. This appeared to him a heroic remedy for a contingency too remote to reckon with. He knew her, he told himself, well enough to know that he did not know her at all, and she was quite capable, as far as he was aware, of making what Lady Ardingly had called "a row of monstrous proportions." This, as she had herself said just now, at this juncture in his affairs would be fatal to him. She might even petition for a divorce, in which case, as Lady Ardingly said, "he went." There remained, as she had suggested, the other alternative of giving up Mildred, of terminating the whole affair. He had told Lady Ardingly he could not. At any rate, she was an invaluable friend; no false notions of sentiment or altruism ever found their way into her conversation. She advised from a flintily-logical, hard, worldly standpoint.

At this point his reflections travelled off into ways utterly unknown to her, and till lately unknown to himself; and even now he only groped his path among them in a dim twilight. For he had said "I can't," not from certainty of diagnosis, but from mere incredulity at his own symptoms. His long intrigue with Mildred he had brought himself to believe was necessary to him; he could not clearly picture any other way of life. No less necessary, so he had always thought, was his aloofness from Marie. But lately – dating, in point of fact, from the time of that scene when he had told Marie what he had heard said at the "Deuce of Spades" – he had been conscious of a change in himself as indefinable, but as certain, as the first hint of dawn. Again, a pulse beat in him which had long been dormant – the pulse that had throbbed in his arteries when he was younger by more years than he cared to count, when women had been to him, not the vehicle, but the deity, of passion. He had thrown his earlier convictions in the mud, and in the conduct of his life had trampled them under-foot; and now, at the end, like the trodden seeds of wheat, they were already in ear. Marie's frank and honest contempt for him had begun this process, for it had first jarred and disturbed, then woke to activity some relaxed fibre which had long been overlaid by grosser tissue, but was alive for all that.

Then, feebly at first, the knowledge of the "might-have-been" dawned on him – that drug always bitter, and only sometimes salutary, producing in some contrition and amendment, in others only recklessness. At present it was bitter; but the bitterness was tonic. He could not yet tell whether the "might-have-been" had passed into the "cannot-be." That depended partly on himself, no doubt, but partly on her. And of her, out of long familiarity, he knew nothing. Then, simultaneously with remorse, or, at any rate, with his appreciation of her scorn for him, came in another factor, his reawakened knowledge of her beauty – a low motive, it may be, on which to base faithfulness or recall the unfaithful, but, as long as men are men, a very real one. Yet for years he had sought another woman, dimming the light of complete desire with the damp of physical satiety. This other had ministered to the demands of the flesh, she had also fulfilled that which lay immediately behind, for she had supplied him always with a ready response to his more carnal ambitions: she had flattered his own self-flattery. He had posed, as it were, before a quantity of mirrors, sometimes convex, sometimes concave, which had showed him himself now taller, now shorter, than he was. But she had never shown him himself, still less any ideal of what he might be. Then, still touching the same spot, had come Lady Ardingly's gentle classification of Mildred as a cook, made, not with the air of discovery, but merely as a passing allusion to what both knew. A cook, that was all.

Mildred's reflections were far simpler to follow, and far less disquieting. No doubt she had made a mistake about the scandal she had tried to start about Marie, and it was a comfort to think that Lady Ardingly's remarks about the silliness of it being its own doom were true. Meantime it would be amusing to "run" Jim Spencer for a while, and she felt sure that, even if she could not do it, she could easily convey the impression that she was doing it. On the whole, she would not tell Jack she had seen Lady Ardingly (this was unnecessary, for he knew), and the rest of her meditation was composed of a sense of holding Jack's rein, whatever Lady Ardingly might say, and a superb determination to do her unselfish best for him. She was, as a matter of fact, hopelessly incapable of doing anything unselfish, but a benignant Providence having denied her the possibility of altruism, spared her also the humiliation of the knowledge of its absence.

It so happened that they met the next evening at an omnibus kind of party at Arthur Naseby's, a bachelor host. He was a man of strange and wayward tastes, and you were liable to meet a Sioux Indian in feathers there one week, and a missionary who had crossed Africa and been eaten, so he would explain, by cannibal tribes, the next. In his way he was an admirable host, and, before introducing any one of his guests to another, hissed into his ear a rapid pr?cis of the chief events of the other's life. These were sometimes wildly enigmatical, as when he murmured: "Frightful scandal just five years ago. Her uncle found dead in the Underground – probably blackmail. Cut for years afterwards. Don't allude to first-class carriages. Daughter of old Toby Fairbank – mother a Jewess." But, as a rule, his information was a help to the newly introduced, and he always pronounced their names loudly and distinctly, instead of murmuring inaudibly. To-night the party centred round a gifted French actress, who recited several poems in a most melodious voice and with a childlike air which was quite killing to those who knew what she was talking about. Later on there was Bridge, owing to the repeated demands of Lady Ardingly, and Jack and Mildred having cut out, it was quite natural that they should have a talk together in a somewhat secluded window-seat.

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