Edward Benson.

Scarlet and Hyssop: A Novel



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"What do you mean exactly?" he asked.

"Dear Jack, how dull you are! Why, Jim Spencer of course. Has she come round to this policy of mutual tolerance? It is quite the best policy. Honesty is not in it!"

"No," said he. "I feel sure she has not."

Mildred laughed, and poured herself out some tea.

"You think not? You don't half appreciate Marie. Nor did I till to-day. But I think she has got twice as much ordinary work-a-day common-sense as we supposed."

She bit a macaroon with her short sharp teeth and crunched it.

"It was sensible, very sensible, of her not to make a row of European dimensions," she continued. "No doubt when it came to, she saw how impossible it was. But to make no conditions – it was charming, simply charming of her! And how much more comfortable we shall be now, Jack! Before there was always that one little reservation: 'What if Marie knew?' That is gone now. Why didn't we let her know, oh, ages ago? It would have saved so much trouble."

She laid her finger-tips lightly on Jack's neck as she passed. He moved his head away. But she did not notice it, and passed on to her table.

"This is the photograph of her which you smashed up after the Silly Billy scandal," she said. "Have they not mended the frame well? I told them to send the bill to you. Will you dine here to-night?"

"No, I am dining at home," said Jack.

Mildred paused.

"Ah, you have people, I suppose," she said.

"No, we are dining alone, Marie and I. I have got things I must say to her."

"Indeed! I cannot guess what."

"I must tell her what I have decided to do. I must tell you also. I shall not see you again, Mildred. Not, at least, in the way you mean, in the way we meant," he added.

She sat down heavily.

"You were saying?" she asked.

"I was saying – that."

"Then what has happened?" she asked, spilling her tea in the saucer as she spoke.

"It has happened that I do appreciate what you do not. I wonder if all things of this sort are so crude. That is by the way. But you are as intolerable to me as I am to Marie. I have fallen in love with her. To-day I know it, fully, completely. But I came here to talk it out. Let me do so, though there is not much to say. Long ago we knew that one of us must get tired first. We settled then that it was impossible for either of us; but supposing the impossible, we should not be sentimental and reproachful. I am sorry it is me. I would sooner that it was you. But it is me."

"And the reason?" asked she.

"I do not know for certain. What I do know is that there is only one woman in the world for me. She is my wife. And she – she does not know of my existence."

Mildred got up.

"Go, then," she said.

And she was left alone with the mended photograph of Marie and her spilt tea.

CHAPTER XVII

It was a warm bright day of early November, so serene and sunny even in London that it seemed as if the promise of spring rather than any threat of winter was in the air.

Leaves still lingered thickly on the plane-trees in the Park, and a sun divinely clear flooded the streets and roadways with unusual light. Shop-boys whistled as they went on their errands, the hoops of children were bowled with alacrity, while their nursemaids smiled on the benignant police who piloted them and their charges over perilous crossings. London, moreover, was rather full; that is to say, a few hundreds who would not otherwise have been there had joined the patient millions who were never anywhere else, for Parliament had met, and a three-lined whip had been flogging the laggards back to their places from partridge-drive and pheasant-shoot. For this reason, the columns of "Diana" had been particularly sprightly, and all the world might read with rapture that Lady Ardingly had returned with her husband to Pall Mall; that Lord Alston with his wife, "who looked quite charming in a guipure hat trimmed with sassafras" – or the effect of such words – were in Park Lane; that Lord Brereton with his wife, "whom I saw driving two spirited colts in the Park yesterday," had returned to Grosvenor Square. "Cupid's Bow," also, had reported the marriage of the daughter to Mr. Anthony Maxwell only three days before, and "Diana" had been graciously pleased to express satisfaction at the presents, knew, of course, how delighted everybody was, and what the bride's travelling dress was like; in fact, there was no doubt whatever about it.

The spirited colt business was also authentic, and the morning after this announcement had appeared it so happened that Mildred was driving them again. The carriage was of a light-phaeton type, with a seat for the groom behind, and the two cobs – "Diana" had miscalled them – took it like a feather. On the whole, Mildred had had a pleasanter autumn that she had thought possible. She had stayed at several entertaining houses, had picked up several new friends and dropped several old ones. Her method of dropping old friends was always admirable. She never hurled them violently away; she merely opened her fingers and let them fall gently to the ground, never quarrelling with them, but just becoming unconscious of their existence. Then she had been at Aix for a fortnight, and had explained matters quite satisfactorily to a person who mattered very much, and altogether had rather a success. Afterwards followed Maud's marriage, which left her freer than before (and she had already persuaded herself that the last two seasons had been bondage); and she had invented and learned by heart a little story of how that very odd woman, Marie Alston, had tried to stop it. In its finished form it was quite a pathetic narrative. "But every one must choose for himself what he means to do," it ended, "and if Marie chooses to be malicious, it is her look-out. Dear Marie! I used to be very fond of her. Yes, she has gone off terribly – quite pass?e, and so young, too. She cannot be more than thirty." This latter was quite true; she was only twenty-six, and Mildred knew it.

Yes, on the whole Mildred congratulated herself. Her appetite for pleasure had not been diminished by the events of this summer, and there was still plenty to feed it. In her superficial way she missed Jack a good deal, but she had got over it in her hard, practical manner, and all that remained to her now of regret had been transformed into implacable anger against him for his desertion. However, she had some charming new friends, and certainly one crowd was very like another crowd. To have your house full, that was the great thing, and to get plenty of invitations to houses that would also be full. She liked eating, and screaming, and laughing, and intriguing; they were still at her command. Externally, to conclude, she was a shade more pronounced; her hair was slightly more Titianesque, her cheeks a little more highly coloured, her mouth a little redder, her eyebrows a little thicker. Most people thought she looked very well, but Lady Ardingly said to herself, "Poor Mildred is beginning to fight for it."

The day was rather windy, and as she drove up Park Lane she had her work cut out for her in the matter of management. The cobs had been newly clipped, and all their nerves appeared to be outside their skins. This Mildred thoroughly enjoyed; she was conscious of the mastery over brute strength which makes the fascination of dealing with horses, and she loved to know that Box longed to bolt and could not manage it, and that Cox wanted to shy at every carriage that passed but did not dare, for that his nerves were outside his skin, and he was aware who sat behind him with whip alert. "The heavenly devils!" thought Mildred to herself as they avoided a curbstone on the one hand by a hair-breadth and a bicycle on the other by half that distance.

Like all fine whips, she infinitely preferred to drive in the streets than in the Park, but to-day they were horribly crowded, and she turned in through Stanhope Gate with the idea of letting the cobs have a good trot through the Park and come out at the Albert Gate. The day was so divine that she thought she would perhaps go out of town, and lunch at Richmond or somewhere, returning in the afternoon. She was dining out that night at Blanche Devereux's, who had a Mexican band coming, which, according to her account, was so thrilling that you didn't know whether you were standing on your head or your heels. This sounded quite promising; she liked a d?collet? evening.

So Box and Cox had their hearts' desire, and flew down the road inside the Park parallel to Park Lane. Here a motor-car, performing in a gusty and throbbing manner, was a shock to their sense of decency, and they made a simultaneous dash for the railings, until recalled to their own sense of decency by a vivid cut across their close-shaven backs and a steady pull on their mouths to show them that the whip was punitive, not suggestive of faster progress. The progress, indeed, was fast enough to satisfy even Mildred, who, however, was enjoying herself immensely. Both cobs had their heads free (she, like the wise woman she was in matters of horseflesh, abominating bearing-reins even for the brougham horses, and knowing that for speed they are death and ruin), necks arched, and were stepping high and long. Then, as they came to the bend of the road of the Ladies' Mile, she indicated the right-hand road, and found that they were a little beyond her control. Simultaneously a wayward gust picked up a piece of wandering newspaper and blew it right across Box's blinkers; from there it slid gradually on to Cox's. The same moment both heads were up, and, utterly beyond her control, they bolted straight for the gate at Hyde Park Corner. It is narrow; outside the double tide of traffic roared and jostled.

By good luck or bad luck – it did not seem at the moment to matter in the least – they were straight for the opening. If they had not been they would have upset over the posts or against the arch, but as they were they would charge at racing speed into an omnibus. A policeman outside, Mildred could see, had observed what had happened, and with frantic gesticulations was attempting to stem the double tide of carriages and open a lane for her, and it was with a curious indifference that she knew he would be too late. Passers-by also had looked up and seen, and just as they charged through the arch she saw one rush out full into the roadway in the splendid and desperate attempt, no doubt, to avert the inevitable accident. "What a fool!" she thought. "I am done; why should he be done, too?" Then for the millionth part of a second their eyes met, and they recognised each other.

Then, though she had been cool enough before, she utterly lost her head. She knew that she screamed, "Jack, for God's sake get out of the way!" and simultaneously he had met the horses as a man meets an incoming breaker, struggling to reach some wreck on a rocky shore. With one hand he caught something, rein or blinker, God knows which, with the other the end of the pole. Thus, dragging and scraping and impotently resisting, he was borne off his feet, and they whirled into the mid-stream of traffic.

There was a crash, a cry, the man was jerked off like a fly; one cob went down, and Mildred was thrown out on to the roadway. She still held the reins; she saw a horse pulled up on its haunches just above her, within a yard of her head, and the next moment she had picked herself up unhurt.

On the other side of her wrecked phaeton, jammed against her fallen cob, was an omnibus. Under the centre of it lay the man who had saved her.

Suddenly, to her ears, the loud street hushed into absolute silence. A crowd, springing up like ants on a disturbed hill, swarmed round her, but she knew nothing of them. The omnibus made a half-turn, and slowly drew clear of her own carriage and of that which lay beneath its wheels. And though she had recognised him before in that infinitesimal moment as she galloped through the arch, she might have looked for hours without recognising him now. Hoof and wheel had gone over his head, stamping it out of all semblance of humanity.

EPILOGUE

Lady Ardingly was sitting on the veranda of the New Hotel at Cairo, on a clear bright February afternoon of the year following. The coloured life of the East went jingling by, and she observed it with a critical indifference.

"We could all have blue gaberdines if we chose," she thought to herself; "but they are not becoming. Also it would be quite easy to put sepia on one's face instead of rouge."

And having thus dismissed the gorgeous East, she turned to the Egyptian Gazette. There were telegrams to be found in it, anyhow, which came from more civilized parts. She had not played Bridge for twenty-four hours, and felt slightly depressed. But whenever a carriage stopped at the hotel she looked up; it appeared that she expected some one.

At length the expected happened, and she rose from her seat and went to the top of the half-dozen steps that formed the entrance from the street.

"Ah, my dear," she said, "my dear Marie, I have sat here all afternoon! I did not know when you might come. You are not dusty? You do not want to wash? Let us have immediately the apology for tea which they give one here."

Marie put up her veil and kissed the face that was presented to her. It was fearful and marvellous, but she was extraordinarily glad to see it.

"It was charming of you to wait for me," she said. "The train was very late. I think my maid has lost it. There was a sort of Babel at Alexandria, and the last I saw of her was that she was apparently engaged in a personal struggle with a man with 'Cook' on his cap."

"Then, it will be all right if you give her time," said Lady Ardingly. "But meantime you have no luggage, no clothes? It does not matter. I will lend you all you want. Ah, my dear, you may smile, but I have all kinds of things."

The apology for tea was brought, and both accepted it, talking of trivialities. Then Lady Ardingly sat in a lower chair.

"And now talk to me, my dear," she said. "Tell me what news there is. I have not seen you since July!"

Marie paused a moment.

"I hardly know what to tell you," she said, "for I suppose you do not ask me for just the trivial news that I have, as last-comer from England."

"No, my dear; who cares? Anybody can tell me that. About yourself."

"Well, I saw Mildred," said Marie. "I saw her the same day as it happened. We went together to Jack's room. And we shook hands. I have not seen her since."

"Ah, she did her best to ruin him in life, and she succeeded in killing him," said Lady Ardingly very dryly. "I do not want news of her. She is a cook."

Marie bit her lip.

"I also do not want to talk of her," she said. "She is very gay this winter, I believe. She says it would look so odd if she didn't do things, just because of that awful accident. She thinks people would talk."

"She has a horror of that, I know," said Lady Ardingly, "except when they are not talking about her. If they are not talking about her, she joins in it. Did she, in confidence, tell you – "

"Yes, she told me in confidence that it was she who had started that silly story about me. She told me also that you knew it. So I am not violating her confidence."

Lady Ardingly made a noise in her throat which resembled gargling.

"That is enough," she said. "What else, dear Marie?"

Marie smiled.

"You mean Jim, I suppose?" she said.

"Yes, Jim."

"Well, Jim is coming out here in a week or so. He cannot get away any sooner. I have seen him a good deal."

"And you will in the future see him even oftener," suggested Lady Ardingly.

"Much oftener. I shall see him every day."

"I am very glad of that," she said; "I have a great respect for Mr. Spencer. I see constantly that he is attacking my poor Ardingly. And I respect you also, my dear. You are the nicest good woman I know. Ah! my dear, when you are old like me, you will have pleasant back-pages to turn over."

"And to whom shall I owe them?" asked Marie.

"To your own good sense. My dear, I am not often sentimental. But I feel sentimental when I think of one morning in last July. You were a good woman always, Marie, I should imagine. That day you were a grand one, too – superb! I admired you, and it is seldom that I admire people."

There was a long silence. With the swiftness of sunset in the South, the colours were struck from the gay crowds, and where ten minutes before had been a riot of blues and reds, there was only a succession of various gray. But overhead the stars burned close and large, and the pale northern heavens were here supplanted by a velvet blue.

"And I admired Jack," said Lady Ardingly at length. "He was weak, if you like, and, if you choose, he was wicked. But there was, how shall I say it? the possibility of the big scale about him. That is the best thing; the next is to know that you are small. The worst is not to know that you are small."

Again Marie made no reply. Outside the patter of bare feet went right and left, donkeys jingled their chains, and the odour of the Southern night got more intense.

"Ah! my dear, we are lepers," said Lady Ardingly. "We are all wrong and bad, and we roll over each other in the gutter like these Arabs scrambling for backshish. We strive for one thing, which is wealth, and when we have got it we spend it on pleasure. You are not so, and the odd thing is that the pleasure we get does not please us. It is always something else we want. I sit and I say 'What news?' and when I am told I say 'What else?' and still 'What else?' and I am not satisfied. Younger folk than I do this, and they do that, and still, like me, they cry, 'What else? what else?' It means that we go after remedies for our ennui, for our leprosy, and there is no such remedy unless we become altogether different. Now, you are not so. Tell me your secret. Why are you different? Why can you sit still while we fidget? Why is it you can always keep clean in the middle of that muck-heap?"

Marie was moved and strangely touched. Her companion's face looked very haggard in the glare of the electric lamp overhead, and her eyes were weary and wistful.

"Dear Lady Ardingly," she said, "why do you say these things? I suppose my nature is not to fidget. I suppose, also, that the pleasures you refer to do not seem to me immensely attractive. I suppose I happen to be simple and not complex."

"Ah! that is not all," said the other. "Those are only little accidents."

Marie let her eyes wander a moment, then looked straight at Lady Ardingly.

"I believe in God," she said.

THE END

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