Edward Benson.

Scarlet and Hyssop: A Novel



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"I know I have. I couldn't help it. And to-morrow I shall find out exactly what I have done."

Marie got up and walked up and down the room for a few moments without replying. Jack's highly original line of conduct for a man whose aim was to get into the Cabinet was extraordinarily attractive to her sense of picturesqueness. He had certainly played a very bold game, but she could not feel satisfied in her own mind whether he had over-stepped the dividing-line between boldness and sheer audacity.

"Also I said that, if the Conservatives got in, it was to be hoped they would clear out the old gang," remarked Jack, in parenthesis to her thoughts.

Marie frowned.

"Ah, that was not wise, was it?" she said. "Didn't it savour too much of an application for a vacant post?"

"It was meant to," said Jack. "After the rest of my speech, it could not be supposed that I hoped – as I do hope – to get the War Office by ingratiating myself with the old gang. If I get it, I shall get it because I am popularly supposed to be wanted. I do apply for the post. I gave them this afternoon my idea of my duties if I get it. But I apply to the people. Lord, what a treat the morning papers will be!"

Marie's eyes kindled again as she continued to walk up and down the dusky dining-room, her long dress whispering on the carpet.

"I am excited, exhilarated," she said. "It is like getting out of stuffy rooms into the open air to hear you talk, Jack. I can't make up my mind as to whether I think you have done altogether wisely, but you have gone on a big scale. I admire that."

Jack got up. Marie's words thrilled him with a warmth he had not felt for her for years. Already he was beginning to look on the conduct of his married life with a wonder that rose now into a disgusted incredulity. Her splendid contempt for him had begun it; he had been stung into seeing her as she was, and her generosity to him had fostered it. No after-word of reproach had passed her lips for that which now made his ears burn to think of. She had seen with her woman's instinct his deepening contrition for that ugly scene, and, seeing it, did not need or desire a spoken assurance. But what Jack did not know was that his reawakened passion roused in her no answering spark whatever. Passion for him was dead in her. In a moment she went on:

"I am immensely interested in your aims, Jack, and your method of working for them. If one is not sure of one's self, tact and diplomacy help one to feel one's way; but there is a higher gift than these, and I believe you have it – it is strength."

He turned round, facing the fireplace, feeling suddenly chilled. In the hall a clock struck two, and a weary-faced footman looked suggestively in.

"Good gracious! is it already two?" she said, picking up her unopened post; "and I have not read these yet. They must wait; I know by the feel of them they are uninteresting."

She turned and faced him, standing in the full blaze of the electric light, her face brilliantly illuminated.

She had thrown back her cloak, her white bosom moved slowly and gently to her breathing, and his eyes were dazzled at her incomparable beauty. And all this, the perfect bloom of womanhood, this lily in a leper settlement, had been his. Instead he had preferred outwardly the rouge and the dye, inwardly the vulgar flashiness and tawdry wit of her who had so long been his mistress. At the moment he felt he loathed Mildred. Once he tried to speak and could not, and she had turned again.

"Good-night, Jack," she said over her shoulder. "You must be tired. I shall be excited to see what the unofficial Government organs make of you. Will you tell them to put the lights out when you go upstairs?"

He stood where he was listening to the diminuendo whisper of her dress. Then, after a moment, he heard the door of her bedroom shut behind her.

Quite a quantity of unknown, though probably not obscure, leader-writers bestowed their distinguished attention on Jack next day. The Daily Chronicle and Daily News announced that they had had the sagacity months before to foresee this split in the Conservative party, and hailed Jack as a prodigal son returning to the depleted homesteads of Liberalism. The Standard, on the other hand, grabbed him as the homme n?cessaire of the Conservative party; the Times, gently trimming, admitted that to a certain extent, and subject to various conditions, there was something in what he said; the Daily Telegraph clearly did not know what to think, and fell back on generalities about 9.7 guns; while a few hours later the Westminster Gazette had a cartoon entitled "Jack the Ripper," in which he was represented with an impassive face methodically disembowelling the present Cabinet – a signpost indicated Hatfield. The effect on the press, in fact, was very satisfactory; opinions were widely divergent and extremely violent. In fact, as Jack said to Marie when he saw her next morning, he seemed to have "caught on."

"And what do you suppose they will think?" asked Marie.

"Who? Oh, they! I don't know. But I soon shall, as I'm going down to headquarters now. I think, perhaps, as the papers have taken me up, it may incline them to give me office. Not that they ever read the papers. But office is regarded as a muzzling order, as far as I can make out. They may think me worth muzzling. If so, I see no reason for not taking my muzzle off. I may not be back for lunch; I rather want to see Lady Ardingly."

"General bureau; central office," said she.

"Precisely. You have the habit of putting things well. Good-bye, Marie." He bent over the low chair where she was sitting and gently kissed her on the forehead. She looked up in genuine astonishment, then flushed slightly, for they had long been strangers to that sort of spontaneous caress, and it seemed to her to come from a stranger. He saw her astonishment and winced at it. "I – I beg your pardon!" he said hurriedly, knowing the moment he spoke that he was ill-inspired.

The bewildered moment of surprise passed, leaving Marie, however, with a glimpse of what might be even more bewildering. She laughed lightly enough, but with a certain nervousness.

"How original, for a husband to apologize to his wife for kissing her!" she said.

But she got up and did not offer to return the caress.

Marie required a few moments in which to steady herself after he had left her. She had been utterly taken by surprise. If Jack had emptied the contents of the waste-paper-basket over her, he would not have astonished her more. For days now she had had the impression that some change had come over Jack. At first she had put it all down to his regret for his telling her that her name was coupled with Jim Spencer's, but by degrees it had seemed to her that there must be something more. But this possibility she had only glanced at to reject. It could not be. Then he had kissed her.

Suddenly it seemed to her that the place where his lips had been burned her; she felt as if she had been insulted; a fine state of mind for a wife, she told herself angrily. Then, with a remorseless frankness, her conscience told her why she felt thus. It was because she had made herself a stranger to him; her heart was not here, it was with another. And Jack was her husband. Anyhow, she would face it honestly. She had despised and shown her scorn for him when he told her what people said, thinking she was honest in her indignation. But what if he had told her what nobody said, but what she knew, and what she was perfectly well aware Jim Spencer knew? Had she been so faithful, then, as to warrant her cold and burning words to Jack! She had scorned and then ignored the actual falsehood of his words, but what of that which was true, which he did not know – the real essential truth of that which lay behind the falsehood?

She gave a little frightened gasp as these intimate discoveries, cape after cape, bay after bay, came into vision. And what complaint had she of her husband, but that they had long been at discord? No breath of scandal, even from the gutter, had ever reached her ears about him. She had no reason, absolutely none, for supposing that he had not been far more faithful to her than she to him. But when he kissed her she had shrunk away from him.

Now, since her drive in the Park a few days before, and the discovery attendant thereon that efforts were necessary, a militant spirit had possessed Mildred. She was seen everywhere, at her loudest and most characteristic; she had simply summoned Maud from the retirement at Windsor, she had secured a record party for next Sunday, and for the sake of general completeness she had determined, in spite of Lady Ardingly, to ask Jack and Marie. The notice was very short, and, instead of writing a note, she drove round this morning to Park Lane to deliver her invitation verbatim; she likewise wished, in case Marie was in, to air a few poisonous nothings, scouts, as it were, of her advancing armies. And arriving at this moment, she was admitted and shown upstairs.

"Dearest Marie, it is ages, simply ages!" she began. "I have come to supplicate. Do come down to Windsor from Saturday till Monday. You shall not be bored; there is Guardina to sing to you, and the place really looks too lovely. Maud has been describing it to me; she came up yesterday. And there are half the Front Bench coming on Sunday. It might be useful for Jack to be there. My dear, what do you think of Jack's speech? However, about Saturday first."

"I don't think we can," said Marie. "We have already refused two Saturday parties on the plea of – If I only could remember the plea it might be more hopeful. Political plea, I think."

"That's just right, then," said Mildred. "Jack will have a quiet talk with the old gang. Besides, Marie, if one only saw you on the days when you had not refused an invitation, I should not know you by sight in a year. So you'll come."

"Well, I think 'political' covers it," she said. "I shall be charmed if Jack has made no other arrangement. And his speech. What do you think of it?"

Mildred held up her hands in despairing deprecation.

"I thought I should have died," she said. "It is too sad when you see a clever man industriously digging his own grave. One always does it eventually by mistake, but on purpose like that, and with his eyes open!"

"Did it strike you so?"

"Surely, and the ridiculous point is that Jim said almost precisely the same things down at Freshfield."

"That surely, then, is, as far as it goes, as the Times would say, in favour of both of them," remarked Marie. "To my mind, there is a new party in birth. You may call it Imperial, I suppose. It is far from Jingo. Jack's speech is the antithesis of Jingoism; it is also not – well, Northamptonish. It is beginning to roar as every well-conducted baby should."

Mildred's appetite for politics was at all times bird-like. She pecked and hopped away. On this occasion she hopped away to a considerable distance.

"I have seen a good deal of Jim lately," she said. "In fact, I am afraid I have been seeing a little too much."

"You mean you are getting tired of him?" asked Marie, who, from having been rather absent, was now intent and alert.

"Dear me, no! not that at all. I delight in him," said Mildred, rapidly adding wings and new courtyards to the structure Lady Ardingly had indicated. "But people talk so easily and without foundation. You know what I mean."

She leaned back a little in the shadow as she spoke, feeling that she was really a very gifted woman, for her speech had many edges. In the first place, it was dramatically amusing to blood her second invention with the life of her first; a sharp edge was that she more than half believed that there was something between Marie and Jim, and what she had said was therefore of the nature of a test question; and, thirdly, granting this, how would Marie meet the claim on her property?

The paper she had been reading slid rustling to the ground off Marie's lap. It seemed to her as if some dark room familiar to her, though she could not tell how or when she had seen it, had been suddenly illuminated.

"Oh, my dear Mildred," she said, "if one pauses to pick scraps of paper out of the gutter to see what is written on them, one would spend all one's life in the same slum. I should have thought you, of all people, would not have cared an atom what people said, so long, of course, as there was no earthly truth in it."

Mildred settled herself in her chair. There was plenty more, she felt, where this came from.

"But has your experience of the world taught you that?" she asked.

"Taught me not to care what people say?" said Marie – "yes, I may certainly assure you of that. For instance – " and she paused.

Mildred rustled suggestively.

"There is no reason I should not tell you," said Marie. "It is this. Oddly enough, some fortnight or three weeks ago exactly the same thing was said about me as you are afraid will be said about you. I was supposed, in fact, to be much attached to Jim. So I am; we are the greatest friends. But this charming world uses 'friend' in two senses. Probably some cook of a woman, finding nothing to say to some valet of a man, said so. And the kitchen section of London society, I have been told, talked about it. But any perfectly inane piece of fabrication like that soon dies of – of its own inanition."

"But who on earth started anything so absurd?" asked Mildred.

"I have no idea; I did not even want to know. I was angry, I will allow, for a day or two. Then other things came and swallowed it up. It became merely dull. It simply did not interest me. I assure you I had almost forgotten it. I suppose one has lots of enemies one does not know of. Probably I had made some cook of a woman, as I said, angry without intending it. I – yes, something of that sort."

It was not till these words were on her lips that a sudden idea, wild and preposterous as it might be, occurred to her. It came into her mind quite unbidden, and was wholly unaccountable. Mildred laughed quite naturally.

"Ah, you are the Snowflake," she said – "our one unsmirchable. It is all very well for you to shrug your shoulders at what the world says!"

"That is exactly what I am told was said of me," said she quietly. "I was supposed to have melted. Did the story, then, reach you?"

"Some sort of a story did," said she. "It seemed to me not even worth repeating to you."

"Quite right. It wasn't."

Mildred rose.

"I must fly," she said. "Too delightful of you to come on Saturday, Marie! I always think nothing is complete without you."

She went gracefully out, leaving the air heavy with some languid scent, and went down the stairs rather quicker than she had come up. There was something closely resembling a flea in her ear. And everything had looked so well on paper. Unfortunately, Marie did not in the least remind one of paper.

But, leaving out all that was not to her taste in this last interview, her clouds were showing the traditional silver lining. It was, for instance, quite evident to her that Maud's golden lover had not in the least finished with her. She, when questioned on the subject, cultivated a strong reserve, which, as her mother concluded, implied in itself something which admitted of reservation. It was certain, on Maud's own authority, that Anthony had been to Windsor, but with that her nose went into the air quite like Marie's, and it was impossible to talk familiarly with such an icicle. And her mother thanked God that she herself was not of such a temperament.

Altogether, then, the solid ground had not failed beneath her feet. But it was best to make efforts; either she had been on the verge of a precipice or her nerves had led her to believe that she was. In either case, there was no such tonic as a good dose of the world – that combined soporific to the conscience and astringent to the energies. She had, it is true, applied herself to the wrong bottle when she went to see Marie, but that was easily set right, and by way of antidote she drove on to Lady Ardingly's, who, it appeared, was "up," but about whom there hung at this hour of the morning a veil of mystery, not to be dispelled without further inquiries. These inquiries were favourable, and Mildred was conducted, still by the footman, to her dressing-room.

Lady Ardingly was seated in a costume that it would be impossible to specify without being prolix, and possibly indelicate, writing notes. An uneasy shadow of a maid hovered near her, to whom she paid no attention. The footman, in obvious perturbation, opened the door and waited, in obedience, it would seem, to a command.

"Ah, my dear, how are you?" said Lady Ardingly, addressing her last note. "One moment, if you will be so kind. Walter, take these, and have them sent at once by hand. They must all wait for answers. In case any are not in, let them be brought back. Do you understand?"

"Yes, my lady."

"Say it, then."

"All to be delivered, and if" – and he glanced at the two letters – "if their lordships isn't in, the notes not to be left."

And he cast a glance of awe and astonishment at his mistress and fled.

Lady Ardingly was, in truth, an astonishing object. Nothing had been done to her; she was, with the exception of certain linen garments, as her Maker had willed she should be. Short and scant gray hair imperfectly covered her head; her face, of a curious gray hue, was arbitrarily intersected by a hundred wrinkles and crow's-feet.

"I am in dishabille," she said, rather unnecessarily; "but every old woman is in dishabille. You will get used to it, my dear, some day. So you have come to tell me what every one is saying about Jack's speech. Yes, I am ready for you," she threw over her shoulder to her maid.

That functionary took her stand by her mistress and handed the weapons. A powder-puff began the work, followed by an impressionist dusting on of rouge. Lady Ardingly grew beneath the work of her hands. Then a thick crayon of charcoal traced the approximate line where her eyebrows had once been, and a luxuriant auburn wig framed the picture. Mildred, who locked up even from the eyes of her maid such aids as she was accustomed to use, looked on with a sort of shamefacedness. Just as Marie had just now given almost a shock to her instinct of covering up and doing in secret the processes of thought, of showing to the world only the finished and diplomatic product, so Lady Ardingly gave a shock to her body. Each of them – differing by the distance of miles – was alike in this. And the frankness of both was inconceivable to her. Yet both, in their way, possessed calmly and fully what it cost her long effort to catch a semblance of. Neither minded being natural, and both naturally were so. Mildred's naturalness – a rare phenomenon – was the outcome of intense artificiality.

"And what is every one saying of Jack's speech?" repeated Lady Ardingly, with one eye closed, regarding with some favour a brilliant patch of rouge on her left cheek. "Or what do you say? You can scarcely yet have heard what people think of it."

"Surely he has almost declared himself a Liberal," suggested Mildred.

"So the Daily Chronicle said," remarked Lady Ardingly. "What else?"

"But, on the other hand, the Cabinet would sooner have such a critic on their side than against them."

"Ah, my dear, you have read the Standard too. So have I. Have you not any opinion of your own?"

"Yes; he is on the edge of a precipice."

Lady Ardingly's decorative hand paused.

"And what is the precipice?" she asked. "You have not forgotten our talk, I see."

Mildred lost patience a little.

"Your advice, you mean," she said.

"My advice, if you prefer. I am so glad you have been behaving with such good sense. And as for Jack's speech, I tell you frankly I was astonished with delight. He seems to me to have hit exactly the right note, and he is in the middle of the right note, like Guardina when she sings. I consider him as having the ball at his feet. He has sprung to the front at a bound. Now his supporters will push him along. He has only got to keep greatly en ?vidence, and he need do nothing more till the first meeting of the Cabinet."

"Has his speech done all that for him?" asked Mildred.

"Yes, certainly, for it is the speech of a man of action, of whom there are fewer in England than the fingers on my hand. He told his audience that speeches are not in his line. That is immensely taking, when at the time he was making a really magnificent one. Yes, Jack is assured, if only you are careful," she added in French, which, if considered a precautionary measure against her maid's comprehension, was not a very tactful move, since the latter was a Frenchwoman.

Mildred's eye brightened; at the same time she thought she would not tell Lady Ardingly that Marie and he were probably coming to Windsor the next Sunday.

"Dear Jack!" she said, "I have always had an immense belief in him. And now his time has come."

"I feel certain of it, provided he makes no faux pas. And what of your other friend, Jim Spencer? He also spoke last night, I see. I have not read his speech yet."



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