Edward Benson.

Scarlet and Hyssop: A Novel



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Lord Brereton advanced very slowly and methodically across to the table.

"My wife's fan," he said, taking it up.

"She is with Marie," said the other, not pausing, "who I am afraid is very unwell. Mildred came in here just now to speak to me; I did not see she had forgotten it."

Even as he spoke he realized the utter futility of lying, when there was in the world the woman who had written that note which he held crumpled up in his hand. But his instinct was merely to gain time, just as a condemned criminal might wish his execution postponed.

"I am sorry to hear that," said Andrew. "I will leave the fan in my wife's dressing-room. Good-night."

He went softly out, and Jack opened the other door. The sweat poured from his forehead, and a deadly sickness came over him. He put his bed-candle into Mildred's hand.

"No, nothing has happened yet," he said. "I told him you were with Marie. You with Marie – there's a grim humour about that, though I didn't see it at the time. My God! we'll have a fight for it yet!"

Mildred looked at him.

"Jack, you are ill; you look frightful," she said.

"Very possibly." He paused a moment. "Mildred, you woman, you devil! – which are you?" he whispered. "My God! you have courage. Here am I, trembling; you are as steady as if you were talking to a stranger in a drawing-room full of people!"

She laughed silently, with a horrible gusto of enjoyment, the sense of danger quickening, intoxicating her.

"What does it matter?" she whispered. "What does anything matter?"

CHAPTER XVI

Marie was seated alone next morning on the veranda of her room overlooking the Park. She had breakfasted with Maud, and remembered to have talked sufficiently, at any rate, to avoid any awkward pauses about a thousand indifferent subjects, unable as yet to set her mind to that which inevitably lay in front of her. She had felt it impossible to talk out with a girl what she meant to do; it was impossible with that pale suffering face opposite to her, racked as it was with uncomprehended pain, to speak of that which loomed in both their minds as gigantic as a nightmare. Instead, a commonplace little entity, seated in some remote suburb of her brain, dictated commonplace to her tongue, and round her, for the time being, was the calm which is the result of intense emotion, identical in appearance with apathy, and distinguished also by the same fixity and accuracy of observation of trivialities. She had consented last night to take Maud with her, and did not for a moment wish to evade the responsibilities which morally attached to her for that. She would have to think and eventually act for both of them, but she could not even think for herself yet. Soon, she knew, this stunned apathy would leave her; her brain was already growing clearer from the effects of that momentary scene in the garden, which, like some drugged draught, had deprived it of the power of thought, almost of consciousness.

At present Maud was not with her, for she had gone round to Grosvenor Square to get clothes which she needed, and Marie was alone.

As yet she was almost incapable of thought; at least, only that commonplace denizen of her brain could think, and he but fed her with trivial impressions. It was he who had read the paper to her; he had even read her the list of the people at Lady Brereton's Saturday-till-Monday party. As usual, it was all wrong; she and Jack, for instance, were not included in it, and as a matter of fact they had been there. They had also played a somewhat important part there, but naturally the Daily Advertiser knew nothing of that as yet. Yet she had only been there for one night, not the Saturday till Monday; then, she recollected, she had come up, been very drowsy in the train, and on arriving at Park Lane had gone straight to bed and slept dreamlessly. Once during the night, it is true, she had awoke, still drowsy, and had seen the first tired lift of the eyelids of the dawn through her window. Then, for no reason as it seemed now, she had suddenly begun to weep, and had wept long and silently till her pillow was wet. At what she had wept she had only now a dream-like recollection; but in some mysterious way Jack and she had been just married, a new life with its endless possibilities was in front of them. But all had been spoiled, and what had happened had happened. During the night that had seemed to her a matter exceedingly pathetic, worthy of sheer childish tears. But now, fully awake, she was again as hard and as cold as a stone. Then another figure intervened – Jim Spencer. He was coming to lunch, and she had not yet put him off. But he, too, stood separated from her by the same blank blind wall of indifference. She felt nothing, she thought nothing; images only presented themselves to her as external as pictures on a magic-lantern sheet.

Maud had not yet been gone half an hour, when a man came in.

"Lady Ardingly is here, my lady," he said, "and wants to know if you can see her."

Marie suddenly woke up. She felt as if she had been dreaming that she was somewhere, and woke to find the dream exactly true.

"Is she alone?" she asked, hardly knowing why she asked it.

The man paused a moment.

"Yes, my lady," he said.

She smiled, knowing she was right.

"I will see her alone," she said. "His lordship will come back later – Lord Alston, I mean."

Lady Ardingly appeared; her face was slightly more impressionist than usual, as the hour was early. Marie stood on the hearth-rug; it occurred to neither of them to shake hands.

"Ah, my dear, it is terrible for you," said Lady Ardingly. "It is quite terrible, and they all ought to be whipped. But" – and she looked at Marie – "but you are marvellous! Long ago something of the same kind happened to me, and I was in tears for days – swollen-eyed, all sorts of ghastly things. Please let me have a cigarette. I am terribly upset."

Marie handed her the box, Lady Ardingly lit one. The little person in Marie's brain told her that it smelt delicious. But the greater lobes were now beginning to work; the apathetic mist was clearing.

"You have seen Jack?" she said. "He drove with you here, did he not?"

"Yes, my dear. How quick of you to guess! Jack is distraught. But tell me, what did you see or hear? You had a bad headache; you were in your room. What else?"

"I felt better. I went into the garden," said Marie. "I saw – sufficient."

"Ah, what stupid fools!" ejaculated Lady Ardingly, not meaning to say anything of the kind.

"Exactly – what stupid fools!" said Marie. "But not only that, you know."

"Of course, not only that," said Lady Ardingly, annoyed at herself. "Now, Marie, Jack is here. He is waiting to know if you will see him. I will wait, too. I will sacrifice all the day, if between us we can make you see – if between us we can do any good. I ask you in common fairness to listen. There will be plenty of time for all sorts of decrees correspondent – I don't know what they call them – afterwards. Now, which of us will you see first? Him or me?"

Marie suddenly felt her throat muscles beyond control. She had no idea whether she was going to laugh or cry. Her will was to do neither. The effect was that she did both, and flung herself down on the sofa by the other.

"There, there," said Lady Ardingly, "that is right. I am not a tender woman, but I am sorry for you. It is all terrible. But the sun will rise to-morrow, and the Newmarket autumn meeting will take place, and Christmas Day will come in November – or December, is it not? Be quiet a moment."

But Marie's hysterical outburst ceased as suddenly as it had begun, and she sat up again, drying her eyes. "Give me a minute," she said.

"As many as you wish," said Lady Ardingly. "By the way, is that tall thing here, that daughter?"

Marie began to laugh again, but checked herself.

"Yes," she said. "Maud saw what I saw. She came up with me last night."

"Do the servants know?" asked Lady Ardingly with some anxiety.

"I think not. But my maid knows I went last night. I left a note for her saying so. She came here an hour ago."

"Tell her you will dismiss her if she says a word," said Lady Ardingly.

"She will not."

"You are certain?"

"Perfectly."

"Then, my dear, will you talk to Jack first, or to me?" said the other.

"To Jack, if you can wait," said Marie. "Yet I don't know why I should keep you. I have got to talk to Jack. I promised him. And that is all, I think."

Lady Ardingly rose with alacrity.

"Then talk to him now," she said. "Afterwards, though perhaps you don't want to talk to me, I want to talk to you. I will send him."

For a moment Marie was alone. The interval she employed in wheeling a chair up to the table where the cigarettes were. She sat herself in it, and on the moment Jack came in, and the two were face to face. He, like her, looked absolutely normal.

"You told Lady Ardingly you wished to see me," he said.

"No; I told her I promised to see you."

She raised her eyes and looked at him. At that the chain was complete; her whole brain worked again. She felt, and knew what she felt.

"I don't know what good purpose is served by my seeing you," she said; "but here we are. Last night you told Mildred you would come back to her, if she would have you. She assented. That is sufficient, is it not? If you like, I will go on."

"That is sufficient," said Jack.

"She is your mistress, in fact," said Marie. "How long has that gone on?"

"About five years," said he.

Marie drew a long breath, then got up.

"How splendid!" she said. "And after five years you come back to your wife! You said that, too; you said you had attempted a renewal. So you had tired of her, and thought – Oh, my God!"

"Yes, I suppose you may say I had tired of her," said Jack. "That is your point of view. There is another."

"And what can that be?" asked Marie.

"You may not believe it – but – "

"It is true, I may not believe it. What I know is that about a month ago you changed your behaviour to me. You began to pay me little attentions. Once you kissed me; once – "

Jack's lips compressed a little.

"You may not believe it," he said again, "but what I tell you is true. You may say I tired of her. I say I fell in love – again – with you."

Marie sat down again. The passion for analysis, of which Jim Spencer had accused her, was strong in her. She was intensely interested.

"Let me understand," she said. "You are originally in love with me; then you fall in love with Mildred; then you fall in love with me again. Is that it? We take turns. Were there others? You have gratified your whims; why may not I gratify my curiosity?"

Jack did not reply for a moment. Then, "I never fell in love with her," he said. "But a man is a man."

"And a woman only a woman," said Marie. "No, I ought not to have said that. That is not what we are here for. I want to know quite simply what you have got to say for yourself."

"This only. Six weeks ago – a short enough time, I grant – I should have come back to you, if you would have had me. You would not. If you had, I should have told you – past history myself. Would that not have made a difference?"

"Yes, it would," said she. "What then?"

"You are a cold, passionless woman, and will not understand," he said. Then he paused a moment, for a long sigh lay suspended in her breast. "You object to my saying that?" he added.

"No; go on," said she.

"I should have told you. But you would not. And in an hour of moral weakness I fell. Ah, you do not know what such temptations mean!" he cried. "You have no right to judge."

Again Marie got up, and in a sudden restlessness began to pace up and down the room.

"I do know," she said. "I have felt it all. But this is the difference between me and certain others. You – you, I mean – Mildred, anybody, say, 'I desire something; and, after all, what does it matter?' Others and I say, 'It does not signify what I desire, and there is nothing in the world which matters more.' Oh, Jack, Jack!" – and for the second time she looked at him – "there is the vital and the eternal difference between us," she went on, speaking very slowly and weighing her words. "It is in this that there lies the one great incompatibility. If I were as you, if I could conceivably take the same view as you take, and think it possible that I should be able to be to another what Mildred has been to you, I would condone everything, because I should understand it. It would not matter then whether I had reached, as you have, the natural outcome of that possibility. If I could soberly imagine myself in that relation to another man than you, I would confess that there was no earthly reason why we should not continue to live comfortably together. But I cannot. I am not an adulteress. Therefore I will not, in act or in name, live with you any longer."

Then for one moment she blazed up.

"And it was you, you who have been living like this," she cried, "who could tell me to be careful, for fear people should talk! It was you who told me you had heard an evil, foolish tale about me! Go to your mistress!"

She stood up, pointing with an unsteady hand to the door. Cell after secret cell of her brain caught the fire, and blazed with white-hot indignation. That consuming intensity was rapid. Soon all was burned.

"You had better go, Jack," she said quietly.

He rose.

"I do not wish to argue with you," he said, "nor shall I now or henceforth put in any defence. But – and I say this not in the least hope of influencing the decision you have made – remember that a certain number of weeks ago I should have come back to you and I should have told you. I am speaking the truth. That is nearly all. You will find it more convenient, no doubt, to stay here for the present. I shall be at the Carlton. And – and – "

His voice for the first time faltered and his lip quivered.

"And I am sorry, Marie. You may not believe it now nor for years to come. But it is true. Good-bye."

He went out of the room without stopping, without even looking at her, and she was left alone again. That moment of passionate outburst had tried her; she felt weary, done for. But almost immediately Lady Ardingly entered again.

"I heard him go down-stairs, my dear," she said, "but I did not see him. I hope you gave it him hot!"

"Yes, I suppose you might call it that," said Marie.

"Well, my dear, let us talk things over. You have decided to take a very grave step. I know that without your telling me. You ought to consider carefully what will be the result. A woman who has divorced her husband cannot, for some reason, hold her head very high in England. She is, at any rate, always liable to meet people who insist on looking calmly over it, and not seeing her. That cannot be pleasant. She is thus driven into the country or else into philanthropy. I do not think either will suit you."

"I know all that," said Marie. "But neither will it suit me, as you put it, to live with Jack."

"No, my dear; I understand," said Lady Ardingly. "There is a choice of evils – "

"Ah, that is the point," said Marie. "There is no choice."

"So you think at present. I will try to show you that there is. Now think well what you are doing. You ruin yourself. That weighs nothing with you just now, because you are in pain, and nothing seems to matter when one is in pain. Then, you are utterly ruining Jack. That seems to you to matter less than nothing. Why? Because you are simply thinking about yourself, let me tell you, and your own notions of right and wrong, which are no doubt excellent."

"Because I am thinking about myself?" said Marie.

"Yes, of course. You do not mind ruining Jack's whole career. He has been offered the War Office. You stop all that, and, what matters more, you annihilate all that he will certainly do for the country. He is not an ordinary man; he is in some ways, perhaps, a great one. It is certain, anyhow, that the country believes in him and that your Empire needs him. But you stop all that like – " and she blew out the match with which she had lit her cigarette.

Marie shook her head.

"I have thought it over," she said. "It means nothing to me. I cannot go on living with him. And I will be legally set free."

Lady Ardingly thought a moment. She never wasted words, and saw clearly that the needs of the Empire were a barren discussion.

"Supposing you had had a child by him, my dear?" she said gently.

"God has spared me that," said Marie. "We need not discuss it."

Next moment Lady Ardingly could have boxed her own ears at her own stupidity.

"And Maud?" she said. "Have you thought of her?"

Marie pushed away the footstool on which her feet were resting.

"Maud," she said – "Maud Brereton?"

"Yes, my dear. She, too, is burned in your suttee. Oh, you will have a fine blaze!"

For the first moment she had a spark of hope.

"Maud!" said Marie again. "What has she done?"

"She has committed the great crime of being the daughter of your husband's mistress," said Lady Ardingly. "Otherwise I know nothing against her. Andrew, I should imagine, will divorce his wife, if you do anything. It will be pleasant for a young girl just beginning the world! She was, I believe, perhaps going to marry Anthony Maxwell. That, too, will be off, like the British Empire. But they do not matter; only Lady Alston matters!"

"Ah, you pitiless woman!" cried Marie. "Do you not see how it is with me?"

Lady Ardingly patted her hand gently.

"My dear, I am not pitiless," she said; "but it would be cruel of me if I did not put these things before you as they are. It is no time for concealing the truth. You have been thinking only of yourself. All your fastidiousness and your purity has been revolted. You wish to vindicate that insult at whatever cost. I point out to you that the cost is a heavy one."

"But if I did – if I did," said Marie, her voice quavering, "would it stop Maud's marriage, for instance?"

"Mrs. Maxwell – Lady Maxwell, I beg her pardon – would assuredly forbid the banns."

"But Anthony is of age," said Marie. "He would marry her."

"He could not. Even if he did, she would be the daughter of the divorced woman."

"But I can't help myself," cried Marie. "I could not go on living with Jack."

"You prefer to sacrifice innocent and guilty to sacrificing yourself," said Lady Ardingly. "My dear, we live in the world. It may seem to you that I am putting a low view before you, but I assert that you must take the world into account. Else what is the world for?"

There was a long silence, and the longer it lasted the more hopeful Lady Ardingly became. She would not have broken it even if to let it continue meant the abandonment of Bridge for the rest of her natural life. Of all her triumphs, there was none, given that she gained this, that did not weigh light compared to it. She hardly dared look at Marie for fear of breaking the spell; but once, raising her eyes, she saw that the other was looking straight in front of her, perfectly motionless, her hands on her lap. She knew that she herself had said her last word. Her quiver of arguments was empty; she had nothing more.

Then Marie rose.

"If you can spare the time, Lady Ardingly," she said, "please take Maud down to Windsor. You will see – that woman, and tell her what you think fit. Please tell Maud from me to do exactly as you bid her. You can make up any story you please about her absence last night, in case Andrew knows. He probably will not, for he breakfasts early alone, and comes up to town always."

She paused a moment.

"And send Jack back to me," she said.

Later on the same day Jack was waiting for Mildred in her room in the Grosvenor Square house. Before long she came in radiant.

"Now sit down, Jack," she said, "and tell me all that happened. All I know is that Lady Ardingly brought Maud back before lunch to-day. You may imagine what a relief that was! Andrew had gone up to town early – earlier than you – and he knows nothing about anything. How clever Lady Ardingly is, and how well she has managed everything! Maud, of course, was quite impossible. She would not say a word to me, and stopped down there. But I passed Anthony as I drove up. I said Maud would be charmed to see him. I think things are going all right there, and so Marie's little scheme was not successful."

"We will not speak of Marie's little scheme," said Jack.

She looked at him in surprise, too absorbed at present in her own thick relief of mind to be annoyed.

"How gloomy you are, Jack! I suppose Marie has put you in a bad temper. Did she give it you hot? Poor old man! tell me what she said."

"She said – eventually that is – that she was going to do nothing; that she would continue to live with me, and that I might go my own way and do exactly what I liked."

Mildred was rapidly stripping off her long su?de gloves.

"Now, that is nicer than I expected of her," she said. "Of course one could have objected to nothing, to no condition she chose to impose, for we were absolutely in her power, and she might have bound you never to see me again. Do you think perhaps she has something up her sleeve on her own account?"

Jack leaned back in his chair.



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