Scarlet and Hyssop: A Novel
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"I wanted to say a few words to you about him. I find people have not forgotten that he was very much attached to you once."
She looked up at him with eyes of indifferent wonder, as if he had asked her some inane unanswerable sort of riddle.
"People are quite at liberty to remember or forget what they like, as far as I am concerned," she said. "Is that all you have to say to me? If so, I will go out, I think. The carriage ought to be round."
"Not yet. I told them not to come round till a quarter to four. And I have more to say."
"Please consult me another time," she said, "before you take it upon yourself to alter my arrangements."
Jack did not reply at once. Then in a voice expressive neither of compunction nor annoyance, "It is no use making a fuss," he said. "I wish merely to warn you that people have not forgotten. I wish also to ask you to behave reasonably. People, very likely, will connect your names again: you know what they are."
She rose flushing.
"So you wanted a quiet quarter of an hour in which to insult me," she said.
He pointed to a chair.
"Sit down, Marie," he said.
"Supposing I choose not to?"
"We will not suppose anything so absurd. There! Why not have done it at once? As I was saying, this will inevitably happen, and so I should advise you to accept it. That will entail certain alterations in your – your general style. I have often heard you criticising rather mercilessly the world you live in; Mildred tells me you were doing so this afternoon. I don't mind your doing that: you have a racy sort of way of talking, and no doubt all your criticisms are perfectly true. But with the return of Jim Spencer, I should advise you either to drop that sort of thing, or else not see very much of him."
He paused, and flicked the end of his cigar-ash over the balcony.
"Not that I mind your doing either the one or the other in themselves," he continued, "but to do both will show a want of wisdom."
"Ah, you don't mind what I do, but only what people say!"
"Exactly. You have quite grasped my meaning."
Again she rose from the chair in which she had sat at his bidding.
"That is all, then, I imagine," she said. "Five minutes was enough."
"Yes, for what I had to say. I thought you might like to talk over it."
"I have not the least desire to."
Jack reached out his hand for an early edition of the evening paper, and unfolded it.
"Perhaps you would tell me what you mean to do."
"I have no intention of doing anything. Certainly I have no intention of discussing the question with you."
Jack did not show the slightest impatience.
"There's no use in being so nettled about it," he observed. "If a woman behaves in a certain way, she gets talked about. That is all. I have indicated to you that if you do certain things you will get talked about; I do not want that."
"From your point of view, I wonder why.Mildred is talked about, so I am told; but I never knew that you considered that a reason for not seeing her a good deal."
For one moment he looked quickly up, then turned back a fluttering leaf of his paper.
"Quite true. And if you were anybody else's wife, I should not mind how much you were talked about. But you are mine – it happens you are mine."
Marie did not reply.
"Somehow the matter has grown to larger dimensions than I had intended," he added. "I only meant to give you quite a friendly and, in a way, insignificant word of warning. But somehow you have put it all into capital letters. There, go out for your drive. Really, Marie, I had not the slightest conception you would make such an affair of it."
"You think I have been unreasonable."
She made a great effort with herself.
"Very well, I will forget all about it. You see, we rub each other up the wrong way, Jack. It is a great pity."
"Yes. But it's not worth bothering about."
The paper appeared to have nothing much in it, and it was only a few moments after his wife had left him that Jack put it down, and finished his cigar without other employment than his own thoughts. This short scene with Marie had disturbed him in the same way as a fall in the barometer may disturb a picnic-giver: it may come to nothing, but there is a hint of the fair weather breaking. At the same time, he was perfectly well accustomed to be utterly at variance with her, and never contemplated any divergence of opinion between them which could result in his having to give way. It is only selfish people who cannot believe that they are selfish, and Jack never passed moral judgments on himself or anybody else. To be critical of any behaviour that did not annoy him personally he held to be an absurd attitude to adopt; it was only behaviour that might prove inconvenient to one's self that could reasonably be criticised, or, rather, not so much criticised as corrected. He knew quite well that the small but well-dressed fragment of the world that at all concerned him, was perfectly aware that his marriage with Marie had not been a romantic success, though personally he considered it quite up to the average. To a nature like his, unbroken constancy and devotion to one's wife is not only an achievement never aimed at, but an achievement not even contemplated. He had married, as many men do, simply because many men do marry, and an heir is certainly the natural complement to estates and a title. But no heir had been born, and, in a manner of speaking, Marie had made his estates and title appear ridiculous and lopsided; she had not fulfilled her part of the bargain.
It is not meant to be understood that he stated these things to himself with the foregoing baldness, but none the less, if he had analyzed the springs of action that determined the course of the life he led, he would have admitted that they represented its ground-motives with sufficient accuracy. But Jack was not in the habit of analyzing anything: inquiry into the reasons for conduct seemed to him a profitless pursuit, since – again to put the matter baldly – he did not care at all whether a person acted wickedly or not. In fact, as his wife had said, there were many people who simply stared if you talked of wickedness. Her husband was among them, but he did not even stare.
It is commonly said that modern life is too full and too complex, but this generalization requires limiting. Certainly to a man, or in particular a woman, not belonging to "the world," a sudden plunge into that frothy mill-race would be complex to the verge of distraction. But there are many ways of simplifying this complexity, and one of the most convenient and efficient is to strike out, without further consideration, all moral obligations, positive and negative. When once one no longer thinks it necessary to reflect whether one ought or ought not to do or to avoid a thing, the saving of time and tissue is quite enormous. For it is not so much doing things as thinking about them which consumes the minutes and the nerves, and once having made an unalterable rule to do a thing if it is pleasant, and refrain from it if it is not, one can get into a single day a number of delightful experiences which would appear to those who do not know the recipe quite incredible. Again, as among wild beasts, so in the world, the weak go to the wall. There is no place for them, and no use for them. Every one has to look out for himself, and fight for his own possessions and those of other people. Not to recognise this spells failure. Such, at any rate, was Lord Alston's experience, and he was generally understood to have had a good deal of it.
But as he sat now with the stale paper on his knees he had a vague sense of being balked. He knew his own section of the world fairly well, and having broken his rose-coloured spectacles a long time ago, and not having desired to get new ones, he realized that people certainly remembered Jim Spencer's attachment to his wife, and that piecing together with their habitual amiability, their opinion of the ill-success of his own marriage with her, her frankly low opinion of the world, and the possibility of the renewed intimacy of his wife and this man, they would say things which would annoy him personally. He had hoped that Marie would see this, or if not that, at any rate learn it by heart, so to speak, from a few well-chosen remarks of his. But she had done neither the one nor the other; she had taken the well-chosen remarks, so he considered, remarkably ill, and the only amende had been to say that she would forget all about it. To Jack's mind this was but poor wifely conduct.
Andrew Brereton, Mildred's husband, was a man about whom little was known and hardly more conjectured, since he was most emphatically of that type of man who arouses in none the remotest feeling of curiosity. There seemed to be no doubt that he was of humble origin, but his origin, whether humble or haughty, he had completely built over with the tall edifice of his subsequent achievements, which had resulted in the amassing of a fortune large enough to satisfy the requirements even of his wife. It is generally supposed that brains of some kind are necessary in order to make a very large quantity of money, and these must be postulated for him; but having made a fortune, brains – or so a study of this particular millionaire would lead one to suppose – thenceforth become a superfluity. Certainly it appeared that Mr. Brereton, on his retirement from business, either locked his up, or, perhaps, as a concluding bargain, disposed of them, no doubt at a suitable valuation, to his house, which dealt largely and wisely in sound mining concerns in South Africa. Physically he was thin and meagre in build, and habitually wore a harassed and troubled look, especially in his own house, where he sat at the head of the table, and, for all the attention that was usually paid him, might as well have been sitting on the area-steps. But inasmuch as he really had an immense fortune, and his wife had the spending of it, the privilege of being present when she entertained her friends in his house was accorded him without question, and the further advantage of his sitting on the area-steps instead of at his table was never seriously weighed by any one.
To-night there was only a very small party, all the members of which, with the exception of Jim Spencer, had probably met five or six times a week since they came up to London, and during the winter had been together more often than not in each other's houses. There was, therefore, no sorting and resorting of groups required; conversation could either be general, or in a single moment split up like broken quicksilver and roll away into appropriate corners. For the moment it was general, or rather everybody was listening to Arthur Naseby, a stout young man, fresh-faced, but prematurely bald, who, standing on the hearth-rug, harangued the room in a loud and strident barytone.
"The most awful party I ever was at," he was saying. "Mrs. Boneman was there, the wife of our eminent artist, wearing a sort of bird's-nest on her head with three Union Jacks and some Easter eggs stuck into it. She was dressed in a sort of Brussels carpet trimmed with what looked like horsehair. I'm sure it was not horsehair really, but probably some rare and precious material, but it looked like it; and she wore what I understood to be the famous Yeere diamonds. They were about as large as pen-wipers, and were plastered round her neck and pinned on to the shoulders; others were scattered about her back. I imagine she stood in the middle of the room, and her maid threw them at her, and they stuck in the horsehair."
Mrs. Brereton shrieked with laughter.
"You are too heavenly!" she cried. "Go on, Arthur. Who else was there?"
"All the people whom one always sees coming out of the door of the Cecil at Brighton, and all those who ask one to supper at the Carlton, in order to inquire apparently who is sitting at the other tables. It is a sort of passion with a certain kind of person to know who is supping at the other tables at the Carlton, and his, or usually her, limitation that he never does. It appears to them of far greater importance than who is supping at their own. Well, they were all there, Princess Demirep, and the Linoleums and Lincrustas. Hosts of them! I assume it was most brilliant."
"Whom did you go with?" asked Lady Davies, who always wore an air of intent study when Arthur Naseby was talking, because she was trying to remember all he said in order to repeat it as original.
"I went with Blanche Devereux. I was dining with her, and she insisted on my coming. We are both going again on the 16th."
"So am I. Dear Blanche! what did she make of it all?"
"She said she had never felt so humbled in her life. You see, this was a particular party of intimes; the 16th is an omnibus. The brilliance of the gathering overwhelmed her, just as it did me. We really knew nobody there, and sat in a corner alone in London, till Mrs. Maxwell herself left her commanding situation at the head of the stairs where she received her guests and came and talked to us. I know she thought she was being kind. So she was, but not in the way she meant."
"She is too wonderful," said Mildred, "Was she dressed in red satin?"
"I should have said bound, not dressed. Very tightly and neatly bound with silk-markers and gilt edges. She thanked Blanche for coming, and just stopped herself saying she felt much honoured; also she had hoped to see her husband as well. Now, I have heard many tactful things in my life, but I think never anything quite so tactful as that. A strange fatality pursues poor Mrs. Maxwell; she says unerringly and loudly the only thing which it is absolutely impossible to say. Blanche is not a prude, I think we are all agreed, and therefore not easily shocked. Poor Mrs. Maxwell might have said almost anything, however improper, without offending her. Again, Blanche is a woman of the world; she can usually make some sort of reply to the most awful put-your-foot-in-it. But she was completely outclassed by that one simple sentence. Mrs. Maxwell was first, and nobody else anywhere."
Lady Davies was so far carried away by this brilliance as to laugh, and thus completely forgot all she had learned by heart from Arthur's previous conversation.
"Then poor Mrs. Maxwell turned to me," he went on, "and remarked that I looked far from well. When any one says that to me, I am always ill for the next three days; in fact, I hardly thought I could get here to-night. Of course, that spoiled the rest of my pleasure, and I hardly knew what happened, except that Dick turned up later in the evening, and – and pursued his impetuous path. I fancy that poor Mrs. Maxwell imagined that he was Blanche's husband. But I don't wonder at that."
Marie's nerves were a little on edge to-night, and both what Mr. Naseby said and the roaring volubility with which he said it jarred on them. At this particular moment certainly she was possessed with a longing of an almost passionate kind to cover him up like a canary with a piece of green baize. But, as there was no baize to hand, she got up from where she was sitting in the canary's immediate vicinity, and sought a safe distance in the window-seat. Jim Spencer, who had been sitting at the other side of the room, got up also, and, crossing the hearth-rug where Mr. Naseby stood, followed her into her retreat. The latter, seeing a secession from his audience, cast one pained and pitying glance at them, and then covered their retreat by the continuation of his monologue.
"So you, like me, find it a little trying, Jim," said Marie, when they were seated together; "but you will have to get used to it."
"Is there much of that sort of man?" asked Jim. "I don't remember anything quite like it when I was in London last."
"No, he is a recent invention. He invented himself, in fact. Mildred thinks she invented him, but she only detected him. The truth is, I think, that on the whole people have grown rather stupider in the last year or two, or perhaps it is only lazier, and Arthur Naseby saves them the trouble of having to talk themselves. In fact, he makes it impossible."
"Is he always like that?"
"As far as I know, always."
"How odd that he doesn't find it fatiguing! Or perhaps it is even odder that other people don't find it fatiguing. Tell me something about him."
"I know nothing whatever about him more than what you can see and hear," said Marie. "Indeed, I don't believe there is any more. He is very rich, and declines to marry."
"Then the man is a husk, a husk with a tongue," said Jim.
"Probably about that; at least, I never heard that any one had reason to believe there was anything more than the husk. Jim, I wonder how many of us have real people inside. I expect there are lots of husks and nothing more."
"Do you think so? I rather believe that most of us have got something real, though perhaps nothing very wholesome or very pleasant. That being so, one tries to conceal it, though sometimes it pops out like a lizard from a crevice. I think I would give anything to get inside anybody else, just for a minute, to see what he was really like."
"You would be rash to do it. It is quite certain that if you could get inside anybody, as you say, you would never speak to him again. Good gracious! could you imagine writing down all that had been in your mind during a normal half-hour?"
"It depends who was to read it."
"You mean you would let a friend read it?"
"Well, if I am as bad as you think, it would clearly be a dangerously stupid thing to show it to an enemy."
"Ah! you would sooner lose a friend than give a handle to an enemy," said Marie. "I entirely disagree with that. I would choose to make or keep one friend, even at the risk of arming a whole regiment of enemies against myself. Enemies matter so little."
"Certainly friends matter more," said Jim, "and perhaps acquaintances less than either. The worst of having been away from London so long is that one finds so many of the latter and so few of either of the others!"
"What are your general impressions at present?" asked Marie.
The stream of talk from Mr. Naseby was apparently beginning to run dry; the pressure was diminishing, and Jim spoke lower.
"I hardly know what to think at present," he said. "London seems to me to have changed extraordinarily during the last few years. As far as I can make out, it does not matter now how dull and stupid a man is, how vulgar or vicious a woman is, as long as he or she is rich enough."
Marie raised her eyebrows.
"Why, of course," she said calmly. "What else did you imagine?"
"That is not all. Apparently, also, you can go to a man's house or a woman's house, eat her food and drink her wines. Then you hurry on to the next and tell them that it was the most awful party you ever were at. But still, apparently, you can go there again on the 16th."
Mildred Brereton had joined them, and lit a cigarette from a fire-breathing Japanese dragon. She blew out a great cloud of laughter and smoke together, with her mouth very wide.
"Dear Jim, you are too delicious!" she shrieked. "Really, I shall get you to come and talk to me instead of Mr. Naseby, for you amuse me much more. Arthur, you are dropped; Jim is funnier. Of course we are all going on the 16th, because Pagani and Guardina are both going to sing, and they sing too divinely for words. Also, considering what we all know about them, and considering that they know we all know it, it is exceedingly amusing to see them look at each other with frigid politeness. Why, only the other day Mrs. Maxwell introduced them to each other, saying she must make two great artists acquainted. Too screaming! But you are too delightful and old-fashioned. Your idea about the obligations entailed by hospitality is a savage notion, dear Jim, like cannibalism, and vanishes before the march of civilization. I believe there is an excessively native tribe in Java or Japan, or somewhere, which still practises it. If you eat their salt, they stick to you through thick and thin."
Arthur Naseby had joined them.
"How too dreadful!" he exclaimed. "Fancy having a lot of assorted savages, thick and thin, sticking to one! It sounds as if one was a kind of superior fly-paper."
"Arthur, you mustn't begin talking again, or we shall never get any Bridge," said Mrs. Brereton. "Won't you play, Marie?"
"No, I really haven't got time," she said. "I told you I have to go on at half-past ten. Please what time is it, Jim?"
"Close on eleven."
"Then I must really be moving, Mildred. But Jack will play; he isn't coming on with me."
"Where are you going, Lady Alston?" asked Arthur.
"To see Blanche Devereux."
Arthur Naseby's face fell.
"I never knew she was giving a party," he said.
Marie laughed, rising.
"She isn't; don't be frightened; it is still possible that she has not dropped you, like Mildred. I'm only going to see her about the soldiers' bazaar. In fact, it is because she isn't giving a party that I am going."
Jim Spencer got up too.
"Will you give me a lift?" he asked. "I am going to Eaton Place also."
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