Scarlet and Hyssop: A Novel
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After she had left Jack that afternoon she had driven for an hour in the Park. The day was very fine, and the roadway and the path beside the Ladies' Mile were both crowded. She sat up very straight, as her custom was, in her victoria, the an?mic Yorkshire terrier by her side, and put up her veil so as both to see and be seen more distinctly. She was dressed, she knew, with extreme success, and it had been pleasant, at a block entering the Park, to see a gaunt female taking notes of the occupants of the carriages. Her own had by singular good luck paused exactly opposite this journalist, and she had out of the corner of her eye seen her examining and writing down with the facility of long practice the details of her costume: "Many smart people were in the Park, driving and walking last Thursday. Among others, I noticed Lady Brereton driving in her victoria, with her sweet little terrier by her side, extremely stylishly gowned. Her Saturday-till-Monday parties are still the attraction, and no wonder. On this occasion Lady Brereton had a new 'creation,' which I must describe. The bodice was of yellow silk, faced with orange colour; her bonnet," etc.
After this the crowd claimed her attention. Indeed, as "Diana" would say next week, "all the smart world" was about. Silly Billy, as usual, was taking his daily airing previous to clearing out the company at the "Deuce of Spades" at Bridge, talking to a nameless female, who appeared to want a lot of attention. Mildred just caught his eye, and, full of tact as ever, immediately looked away. Further on was Arthur Naseby, with hands wildly gesticulating, shrilly declaiming something of a clearly screaming nature to Blanche Devereux and a small and select company. He was standing close to the rails, and cried, "Dear lady! how are you?" to her, and the select company smiled their sweetest at her. Then, as her carriage passed at a foot's pace, she again heard his voice – in a different key and much lower. She could not catch the words, but felt sure that he was saying something about her. Then followed Jim Spencer alone. To him she waved her hand and beckoned him to the vacant seat in her victoria. But he, with seeming obtuseness, appeared not to understand, and went on his way. Then came Lady Davies, driving in the opposite direction, who passed without recognising her; soon after Kitty Paget, making violent love to her husband; and presently a tandem, which she recognised while yet some way off as Jack's. He was driving himself; a woman was seated by him. At the same moment the muscles of Mildred's face hauled up as by a crane all the paraphernalia of smiles, for the woman was her dear friend and Jack's wife. Immediately afterwards the smile had to be tied to the mast again, for close behind them was Lady Ardingly, "got up to kill," as Mildred angrily said to herself. She looked like a Turner landscape of the later period, with a lopsided sunset of auburn hair perched negligently on the top. Her mouth seemed to crack a little by way of recognition, and she passed in a flash of winking lacquer.
But Marie driving with Jack! That penultimate meeting was the most surprising.Did he really think she – Mildred – or, indeed, Marie, was the sort of woman to stand a m?nage ? trois, especially when one of the three was his wife? Then, like an earthquake wave laden with the dead slime of the stirred depths, the sense of her own impotence came over her. Only a fortnight ago she had airily told Jack that she was glad that concealment was at an end – that she would now break with Marie. But what if something else was at an end? What if her revolt at a m?nage ? trois was altogether ill-founded? Out of three people there were two mathematically possible arrangements ? deux. In this case one would have to be left out.
She had put up her veil, and at this moment something line-like crossed the field of her left eye. She put up her hand, and found between her finger and thumb a long hair, golden, but gray near the root. One hair only, and they were all numbered! But this was not number one… There were certain savage tribes that could only count up to eight. She rather envied them their blissful incapacity.
There came a sudden stop, and she found herself in a queue of carriages at the side of the road. Down the centre came the royal outriders, followed by the carriage. The King and one of the Princesses were seated in it. He took off his hat to some one in the carriage immediately in front of hers, then turned and spoke to his companion. Probably his oversight of her was quite unintentional. But something within her said, "What if – " For some weeks now she had been a little uneasy; she had felt that her case was under consideration. Perhaps her not being recognised was the formal declaration to her of her sentence.
Then, in a flash, she was herself again, back to the wall, fighting desperately for her position, which was equivalent to her life. She would show everybody if she was done with yet. A gray hair or two! What did that matter, when a woman like Lady Ardingly had no hairs at all, gray or any other colour, and all the world knew it? She had money – any amount of it – which was of more consequence than anything else; she had, what was almost better than wit, a quick and incisive tongue – an instrument, it is true, not to be used except on such occasions as when a man may draw his revolver, to defend himself at close quarters, but as valuable, when people knew you had it, as the revolver. She was selfish, ambitious, greedy of worse things than food, unscrupulous, ready to amuse, and easy to be amused. She had everything, in fact, which was needful to make up the kind of success which she desired, and which, in point of fact, she had hitherto enjoyed. Yet she had industriously and carefully been making a private little hell for herself during this last hour simply because Marie went driving with her husband, and the King happened not to see her!
Like all wise people, though she would not admit it to any one else, she frankly admitted to herself that she had made a mistake – such a little one, too – when she had allowed Silly Billy to talk about Marie and Jim Spencer, and this mistake, she was aware, had ramified further than she had anticipated. She ought never to have started it. She had not got enough beam, so to speak, to sail against Marie. Yet what a tempting prospect, if only she could have won! Marie really besmirched! How unspeakably convenient! But apparently this was not to be. She confessed that she had failed, and was genuinely sorry she had attempted it. Things had been very happy and comfortable before, and she ought to have been content. She felt, indeed, rather like a person who cannot swim, who has capsized near the bank, but in the first moment of immersion does not know whether he is within his depth or not. In any case, a few floundering plunges towards land would settle the matter, and she would be safe again – not, indeed, on the other bank, which had looked so inviting, but where she was before, and very enjoyable it had been!
As a matter of fact, one of Mildred's depressed conjectures had been quite correct, and had she known what was being said a mile or so behind her, she would not have found it so easy, perhaps, to brace herself up to make her efforts.
"Busily employed," said Arthur Naseby shrilly, "in taking the plug out of the bottom of her own boat. She exhibits a marvellous dexterity in doing it. What is the use of trying to start a scandal which nobody will believe? It was so stale, too. You and I certainly had done our level best to believe it long before, Lady Devereux. That Sunday down at Windsor – don't you remember?"
"Yes, I tried for a week, with both hands and my eyes shut," said Blanche.
"And I tried with my eyes open," said Arthur; "so we have given ourselves every chance. It, too, had every chance. It was launched without a hitch, and the colours waved madly on the winds of heaven. Silly Billy, the 'Deuce of Spades,' the overhearing of it by Jack! All brilliant accessories! But the piece was damned from the first!"
"It really is too shocking!" said Mrs. Leighton, with her mouth underneath her left ear. "Such a mistake on dear Mildred's part! Gracious powers below! did you see?" she said, pointing with her parasol at Jack and Marie in the tandem. "Yes, too heavenly, is it not?" she screamed at them. "Mildred has just passed, like Solomon in all his glory, with the Yorkshire terrier. And there are the lilies of the field," she continued, looking after Marie. "Poor dear Solomon!"
"There is a decided flavour of the best French farces in the air," remarked Arthur. "Enter, also, Madame la Marquise."
Lady Ardingly said something violent to her coachman, who drew up with a jerk.
"Ah, my dears!" she said with extreme graciousness. "How are you all? Why do none of you drive with poor Mildred? I have just passed her all alone. I am alone, too – am I not? – but I am used to it."
"Do let me come and drive with you, Lady Ardingly!" cried Arthur.
"And leave these enchanting ladies?" said she. "They would say all sorts of horrible things, and not come to my parties any more, nor tell me the news! What has been happening?"
"Jack and Marie have just passed in the tandem!" said Arthur.
"Indeed! And Black Care was going in the other direction, not sitting behind them. So much better! Ah, here are the outriders! I am not fit to be seen."
She put up an immense mauve-coloured parasol to shut herself out, and the others rose, as the carriage passed in a whirl of dust.
"And what else?" she continued.
"Well, it is supposed that Black Care has annexed Jim Spencer."
"Ah, you have heard that, too? She has a genius for annexation. Your Government would have saved a world of trouble if they had sent her out to the Transvaal years ago. That is very nice, and we shall all live peaceably again now. Marie and Jack in the tandem, and dear Mildred provided for! Good-bye, my dears; I must get home. I am playing a little Bridge this afternoon. You are all coming to my party to-night, are you not? That is so kind of you! Drive on. What a dolt!" she said to the coachman.
"There is only one Lady Ardingly," said Arthur in a reverent tone; "and I am her devoted admirer. How does she do it?"
Mrs. Leighton considered a moment.
"I would get a wig, and call my coachman fool, and ask everybody for news, in a minute, if it would do any good," she said; "but it wouldn't. People would consider me slightly cracked, and I'm sure I shouldn't wonder."
Blanche got up with a sigh.
"She takes the taste out of everybody else," she said. "I shall go home and practise doing it before a glass;" and she waved to her footman.
Arthur Naseby rose also.
"I believe she is running this whole show," he said. "She never contradicted us once. But what is she playing at?"
But since collectively they could not have mustered one-third of Lady Ardingly's brains, it was no wonder that none of them could suggest an answer.
But as he handed Blanche into her carriage, Arthur summed up the situation.
"The fact is that it takes four or five of us to understand one-half of what she says," he remarked.
The General Election had been definitely fixed to begin in the second week in July, and consequently soon after Ascot politicians of all sorts and shades of opinion were sedulously flying about the country, busy recounting to the wondering provinces how grossly their opponents had misrepresented their aims and tactics, and proving in an array of terms which beggared the dictionary, that the country could only be saved by the united voice of the people declaring that they would record a firm and combined vote. South Africa was, of course, the chosen battlefield of both parties; here each was determined to fight the matter out (this was the only matter on which they were agreed), and the speed with which the opposing armies mobilized out there was as remarkable as their man?uvres when arrived. Some charged through the country already peopled in their minds with the families of reservists, and dotted with happy homesteads, over which waved the fair golden corn, while on the hills of the Witwatersrand the great mills poured out their millions, and those who had been in arms were already spending happy Sunday evenings with their brother Boers, singing hymns to the accompaniment of the vrow's harmonium, and zealously marrying her buxom daughters. Gold paved the streets of Johannesburg, and the curbstones thereof were diamonds, and Paul Kruger and Mr. Leyds fell on their bended knees and, with tears of gratitude in their grateful eyes, blessed the names of Mr. Rhodes and the Colonial Secretary. The Union Jack waved on all the winds of heaven, and every Englishman in that happy land beat his rifle into a pea-shooter for his infant children – half Boer, half British – and ate his roast beef under his fig-tree.
But oddly enough exactly the same data furnished the Opposition with a picture by no means identical. These gentlemen went mournfully through the land, which was, it appeared, a desert. Cemeteries and ruined homesteads were the only features that they, for their part, could discern in that desolate landscape, and the cemeteries, they sadly declared, marked, not only the graves of the young British soldier, martyred to gorge the capitalist with gold, but were, to the thoughtful eye, none else than the place where the British Empire died and was buried. Along the ridge of the Witwatersrand rose the grass-grown engines of the mines; the rusty fly-wheels hung cableless in that miasmic air, tainted with rotting corpses. No sound was heard, no sign of life was visible; only from time to time there came from the bowels of the earth the sobbing of those who had once been gorged capitalists. The country was drained of its resources, sir – emptied of its inhabitants. That garden of the Lord was barren and desolate. Who, they asked, with rising passion, had done this? The late Government. Why had they done this? Because they were under the thumb of the capitalists. They had piles and masses of documentary evidence to prove every word they said. And awe fell on the assemblies.
After this first plain statement of the case delivered in duet by the leader of the Government and the leader of the Opposition, there followed what may be described as a fugual chorus. Everybody else, that is to say, joined in and shouted the same thing over and over again at the top of his voice. There were two conductors, no other than the executants of the opening duet, who, standing back to back, beat away at the chorus for all they were worth, and in the more delirious moments turned round and hit savagely at each other with their batons. The audience comprised nearly all the inhabitants of the round world, and this remarkable chorus lasted day and night without intermission for three weeks. Then they all sang "Britons never, never, never will be slaves," but with totally different expression, and meaning utterly different things, so that the effect of unanimity, which otherwise would no doubt have been extremely striking, was spoiled, and rude things were said in the French journals. That, it is true, for a moment produced a defensive alliance among themselves, and they roared out across the Channel. "How about Dreyfus?" But almost immediately the more ardent spirits – sober politicians they called themselves – began again, and mixed with the renewed chorus-singing were bonfires and other things, and most prominent people were burned in effigy and appeared not to mind it.
Then, when every one was exhausted and out of breath, they put on their coats again, and sat down for a while to see what the result had been. Europe generally was smiling, and went on much as usual; but in England itself it appeared that certain groups of people were not listening to the beautiful music at all, but puzzling and frowning over some papers of statistics. Also it was observed that some men, who ought to have been singing as hard as anybody, were not singing at all, but talking quietly to those portions of the audience who were willing to listen. Of these, two were immediately concerned with this story, and these were Lord Alston and Jim Spencer. And, although they belonged to opposite parties, they were both saying precisely the same thing.
This particular evening Jack had returned to London somewhat unexpectedly, having found himself able to catch a late train up, after the meeting he had been addressing in Southampton on behalf of a young Conservative, standing for the first time, who, because he had been nearly all the way to Pretoria, was therefore apparently qualified to say the last word on every measure, from seats for shop girls to seats for Bishops in the Upper House. Marie had just come home from a party when he arrived, and the two talked while Jack had supper.
"I don't suppose I shouted and screamed enough to please him," he said; "but the fact is, I do not think he is necessarily omniscient, nor that he will be Prime Minister at the age of twenty-four. However, I preached the gospel."
Marie threw back her cloak.
"Talk to me while you eat," she said. "I am getting swept into the vortex, too; this evening we talked about nothing but politics."
"Won't it bore you?"
"I shall enjoy it. I think people believe in you, Jack."
Jack shrugged his shoulders.
"The point is that they should believe what I say. It doesn't matter about me."
"Indeed it does. It is you who make them believe it. Besides – well, go on."
"Well, I told them that I thought both Conservatives and Liberals were doing quite wrong in making the South African affair, except in so far as it was a test of our efficiency, the cry of the election. It has been the fashion to speak of it as a great war. It is nothing of the kind, though it is perfectly true that, owing to our own hopeless mistakes, we brought it very near to being a most disastrous war, if not a war fatal to the Empire. Young Campbell's face fell rapidly as I spoke."
"I can imagine that," said Marie.
"The audience were not too pleased, either; but somehow, Marie, and for the first time, I did not care a rap. You have often told me that I speak without conviction. It is quite true; I believe what I say without feeling it. But to-night I felt it, and I knew I could make them feel it. I had them in my hand, and at first I carefully rubbed them up the wrong way. I went through the disasters of December, 1899 – Stormberg, Magersfontein, Colenso. I pointed out that most of these could have been saved, if we had only been decently prepared, instead of going into the war in a blind and idiotic manner, as if the fact of our being the British Empire made it impious and profane for any one to attempt to withstand or, even worse, check us. I touched every sore place that I could put my finger on. Once I thought I had gone too far, for a man shouted out: 'Turn the – well, horrid Radical out!' And having, as well as I could, pulled our policy to bits, I proceeded to pluck the army itself. I assure you there was hardly a feather left on it. Doesn't all this bore you?"
Jack got up, having finished his meal, and stood beside her.
"You know it doesn't," said she.
"And then quite suddenly I assured them that the Empire was far the soundest concern in the world. Well, it may seem conceited, Marie, but it is the fact, that I had them so much in hand by then that a huge sigh of relief went round the hall. I never felt so flattered. But short of that I said everything was about as wrong as it could be. What is wanted is not amiable and excellent noblemen, who talk a great deal and are excessively polite, but people who just work, do things and not say them, pay no attention to party politics whatever – that can be done by the rank and file, all those who get into Parliament simply in order to talk – and buckle to, guided entirely by experts, and insist on having men and officers, mind you, properly trained, given proper guns to handle, and made to use their heads. We have, I believe, the best material in the world out of which to make the army we need. But it is raw, it is untrained; it is no more an army than sheep's wool is a coat. And it was their first duty, I told them, to vote for the Government which they thought would best put the House in order. This was a Conservative meeting, I reminded them, but I would sooner that every man in it voted Liberal than that he should, merely because he was accustomed to call himself a Conservative, vote Conservative, if he believed that the Liberals would be more likely to put these necessary reforms into effect. Then I came down hammer and tongs with Rule, Britannia; there should be only one party in our great, our happy and glorious island, the Party of Efficiency. Efficiency is our first need. I concluded with some amiable remarks about Campbell."
Marie got up, her eye flashing.
"Well, you've done it now, Jack," she said.
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