Edward Benson.

Scarlet and Hyssop: A Novel



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"Certainly. Good-night, Mildred. Yes, I know my carriage is here. They told me half an hour ago. Jack is stopping to play, I suppose. Please tell him I have taken the carriage."

The two went out, and Mrs. Brereton and Naseby stood still looking at them. When they had disappeared they looked at each other.

"Dear Marie!" said that lady effusively, "how delighted she evidently is to see Jim Spencer again! Oh, dear, yes, they were very great friends in the old days, very great friends indeed. Come, Arthur, they are waiting for us."

"You always have such delightful people at your house," said Arthur, "and you always have something interesting to say about them. And that stiff young man is very rich, is he not?"

"Beyond the dreams," said Mrs. Brereton. "I wonder whom he will find to make his money fly for him?"

"One can never tell. He looks to me as if he might spend it on Corots or charity or something of that imperishable kind. Doesn't it strike you as odd that whereas the perishable nature of money is always dinned into one, yet one can apparently purchase imperishable treasure by being charitable with it? No, I can't imagine any one making his money fly. Some one might make it march away, very solemnly and in good order, but not fly. He is a little stiff, is he not?"

"Perhaps a little reserved. But when reserve breaks down, it is so very unreserved. I like seeing a reserved person having a real holiday."

"How many days would you say it was to the holidays?" asked Arthur, in a low voice, as they reached the card-table where Jack and another were waiting.

"I can't tell. I shouldn't wonder – no, I can't tell."

Marie and Jim Spencer meantime were driving down from Grosvenor Square towards the Park. The night was warm, and hosts of stars burned very large and luminous in a sky that was beyond the usual London measure of clearness. After the heat of the rooms, in particular after a certain feverishness of atmosphere, not physical so much as moral, a sense of extreme hurry and pressure, the night air and the cool steadiness of the stars were refreshing, not only physically but morally. Perhaps from their years of early companionship and intimacy, perhaps from a certain more deeply seated sympathy of mind, each was very conscious of the thoughts of the other, and the swift silent motion through the glare of the streets seemed to isolate them from the world. It was with something of this in her mind that Lady Alston spoke to the other.

"Yes, put down my window, Jim," she said, "and your own, too, if you are not afraid of catching cold. We are both outdoor people, I think."

"We used to be," said he.

"Do you mean you have changed? Or do you find I have?"

"I find you have. But I am quite willing to believe that it may be some change in myself that makes me think so."

Marie unwound the light shawl which she had thrown over her head, and undid the fastening of her gold-thread cloak, so as to let the air play on her uncovered neck.

In another woman, he felt, this might have indicated some suspicion of coquetry, but he did her the justice to feel that no such imputation was possible.

"No, if you feel that you are probably right," she said, "for you do not seem to me to have changed at all. We both agree, in fact, about you. There remains then me. How have I changed?"

He looked at her in the dusk of the carriage for a moment without replying.

"You seemed so much in harmony with those people," he said. "I felt that you felt yourself to be one of them. But I, obviously, I am afraid, felt that I was not. That is how I think you have changed; in the old days you would have appeared to yourself as alien to them as I do."

She gave him one glance.

"Ah, the old days!" she said with some impatience. "It is absurd and ridiculous to want to remain as one was. Indeed, not to change shows that one has a nature incapable of development. It implies a sort of moral torpor, an atrophy of one's nature not to get older as one gets older. And one of the biggest, and perhaps best effects of age is to give one tolerance, to make one realize that it takes all sorts to make a world."

He laughed.

"Why this sudden vehemence?" he asked.

"Oh, for a variety of reasons! One is because you judge me correctly, another because you judge me incorrectly. You are perfectly right to say that I have changed, but perfectly wrong to imply, even tacitly, that one is the worse for changing. And you do me the grossest injustice when you suppose that I am in harmony with those people. I am not any more than I ever was. But it is absurd to coil one's self up like a hedgehog, and run your spines into everything you come across. As a matter of fact I often do, but it is a mistake."

They drove on some way in silence. At last she spoke again.

"Many of the people with whom I appear to you to be in harmony I consider wicked," she said; "and many of them, I am sure, are vulgar in the largest sense of that wonderful term. England is a plutocracy, let me tell you, Jim. It worships wealth. It will certainly worship you. How will you like it? It will really be very interesting to see how you behave. It is an awful position for you: if you refuse to smile on your worshippers, they will write you down a miser; if you do smile on them, you will make yourself as vulgar as they."

He laughed.

"You frighten me," he said. "Is there no place in London for a quiet millionaire?"

She leaned forward with a sudden eagerness.

"Ah, Jim, make one, make one!" she said. "That is the root of the matter. Try if you can spend your money without encouraging either vice or vulgarity. It is worth an effort."

She leaned back again, laughing lightly, and drew her cloak round her again.

"Dear me, I have been vehement," she said; "but don't be afraid; I will treat you to no more outbursts. Only this afternoon my husband told me how absurd they were."

"Well, reserve them for me," he said; "I rather like them. You are an inspiring person, Marie. You know I always found you inspiring."

"Many thanks. But no inspiration will make any one do anything. One's motive has to come from within, not without, if it is worth anything."

"I am not so sure of that."

They stopped at Lady Devereux's house in Eaton Place, and until the bell was answered sat silent. Then, as the footman opened the carriage-door, "I am delighted you have come back, Jim," she said – "I really am delighted. Come and see me often. Come to lunch to-morrow, for instance. Yes! That is right. Thirty-one, you know, and lunch at one-thirty."

CHAPTER III

Jim Spencer woke next morning with that thrill of quickened anticipation which serves to remind us even before full consciousness has returned, that something new and exciting has come into our lives. He needed but little thought to remember what it was, and as he lay watching with idle but wide-awake eyes his man putting his clothes out, he told over and over again in his mind, like the beads of a rosary, the events of the evening before, always finishing with the pendant, so to speak, the fact that in a few hours he was going to see her again. Frankly and honestly he reminded himself that all romance was over: to begin with, and also to end with, she was another man's wife, and that was sufficient for him, as no doubt it was sufficient for her. Three years ago he had left England because he desired in every fibre of his being to marry her, and since that was impossible, because he entirely refused to waste his life in purposeless dangling after what he could not get. And in this spirit, which is more instinct with manliness than any sacrifice of years and youth to the mere watching of the unattainable shadow on the blind, he had gone out to the Transvaal, farmed there with the same fervour as that which he had thrown into his love-making, and subsequently, by the discovery of the reef on his land, had become, if not one of the richest men who had found colossal fortunes as sheep-farmers, at any rate one of the second rank-millionaire, if not multi-millionaire. But at that point a certain sobriety of nature had reasserted itself; he had not mistaken that full meal of gold for the hors d'?uvre, nor sought to duplicate it and reduplicate it. He had not lost sight of the fact that he had enough, but recognising it with all the thankfulness that plenitude gives, and not with the false appetite of the habitual glutton, he had, so to speak, said grace and retired from the dinner-table.

So now, at the age of thirty, he was temporarily, at any rate, without employment, even as he had been, temporarily also, without employment when Marie decided to marry, not him, but Jack Alston. True, he had plenty of artistic tastes; in music and pictures he could easily have passed the remainder of his life, however long, just as, without ever being bored, he could have shot all the autumn, hunted all the winter, and dozed and dined all the spring and summer, according to the traditional method of the English gentleman, whose obituary notice eventually teems with encomium on his useful and simple life, which means that he has been a J. P. But to pass one's life merely in hearing music and looking at or buying pictures seemed to him as unworthy of a person who called himself a man, as did the recognised round of shooting and hunting appear to him unworthy of a rational being at all. But as to what this temporary abandonment of employment should terminate in, he, as he lay in bed this morning, had no present idea. Anyhow, he was to see Marie again, and he deliberately quenched further reflection.

The morning had not been foresworn, but fulfilled with liberal generosity the promise of the last few days, and when Mildred Brereton reached the Row on a black mare, which had been behaving itself as might a crab on hot plates, and would have tried any but the most masterly seat and hands, the broad brown expanse of the Ladies' Mile was plentifully dotted with riders. The little green seats, too, by the side were in high request, and she walked, or rather danced, very slowly up for a hundred yards or so, before letting her chafing mount have a canter, noting with her quick eye a hundred things and people which would have escaped one less trained and less naturally gifted to observe combinations of interest. Jack Alston had joined her, and she kept up a running comment.

"There's Pagani with that absurd Italian woman," she said. "Why must a man of that kind do that when Guardina is sure to be here? There, I told you so! what a row there will be! She has the temper of a fiend, like me. Jack, if you ever flirt with another woman on the sly, and I see you, there'll be the deuce to pay. Come and tell me frankly if you are going to do that sort of thing. Dear Madame Guardina, how are you? Do walk a little way with us. No, there's not a soul here this morning, is there? I've seen no one, not even the most constant habitu?s like Pagani. And you sang Lucia last night, I hear, too divinely, and I had some stupid people to dinner and couldn't come. Yes, Lord Alston was one of them; he was the cleverest there. Judge of the rest!"

The prima donna, a good-natured soul, who had the most perfect vocal chords in the world, absolutely no artistic sense, a passion for Pagani, and an adoration for the particular set to which Mrs. Brereton belonged, was delighted to be seen talking to her, and, turning back, walked along the rails in the opposite direction to that in which Pagani sat.

"Well, I must say you missed something," she said with engaging frankness, "for I never was in better voice. And on Saturday I sing La Tosca. With the open mouth, too, as I've no other engagement for a fortnight."

"What are you going to do?"

"Go to my house on the river and throw sticks for my dogs. You've never been there yet, Mrs. Brereton. Do come down sometimes. I shall drive there on Saturday night after the opera."

Mrs. Brereton made a short calculation.

"I will; I should love to," she said. "I hear it is charming."

"A dozen basket chairs and two dozen dogs," said Madame Guardina.

"I adore dogs. Are you off? Good-bye. About the middle of next week?"

"Any day."

Mildred gave her a charming smile and turned to Jack.

"That's one good-natured thing this morning already," she said, "and it's barely ten yet. Pagani was just moving when I saw Guardina; he'll be gone before she gets to him."

"I wish you were half as good-natured to me," remarked Jack.

"Well, what can I do for you?"

"Tell me how to behave to a hopelessly unreasonable woman, who is one's wife!"

Mildred puckered her lips as if to whistle.

"Explain in five minutes," she said. "I can't really hold this untamed savage any longer. Come on, Jack; we'll canter – shall we call it? up to the end."

Whether Mildred called it a canter or not, it is not doubtful what other people would have called it. But even the heart of the restraining policeman must have been touched by the splendid vision that flew by him, Mildred sitting her horse as no other woman could, sitting a horse also that few could have sat at all, and treating its agitated toe-steps with less concern than a man in an arm-chair gives to a persistent fly on a summer afternoon. The consciousness that hundreds of people were looking at her added, if anything, to her unconcern; certainly also the fact that many who saw her saw also, and remarked, that Jack was with her gave an additional zest to her enjoyment. For her creed was that secrecy in this world was impossible, and the only way to prevent people talking in the way that mattered and was annoying was to do things quite openly. It mattered not in the least if people said, "Oh, we have always known that!" or if they always took it for granted; what did matter was if they said, "We have lately thought there must be something of the kind!" Trespassers can be prosecuted; length of possession constitutes a title.

They drew up at the top of the mile, and Mildred adjusted her hat.

"There," she said, "the cobwebs have been dispersed for the day. Now we'll go on talking. Explain, Jack. Why do you want treatment for Marie?"

Jack lit a cigarette.

"She makes scenes," he said, "and they bore me. She made one last night."

"What about?"

"I don't know that it's worth repeating, really," he said.

"Probably not, but you are going to tell me."

He looked at her a moment with his thin eyebrows drawn together in a frown, hit his horse rather savagely for an imaginary stumble, and reined it in again more sharply than was necessary.

"I don't the least like being dictated to, Mildred," he said. "Nobody adopts that tone with me – with any success, that is to say."

She laughed.

"Oh, my excellent friend," she said, "you really speak as if I was afraid of you. For goodness' sake, don't put on schoolmaster airs. You know perfectly well that doesn't go down. Don't hit your horse now; you are behaving like a sulky child that whips its doll. What was the scene about?"

"Did you see the infernal manner in which she walked off with Jim Spencer last night, driving him home in her brougham and saying she was going to Blanche Devereux'? That was her way of getting quits with me."

"Quits with you? What for?"

"For a conversation I had with her after lunch yesterday. I told her that if she was seen about with Jim Spencer people would talk, and if they talked it was absurd for her to keep up the sort of attitude she maintains towards society in general, saying that we are both fools and knaves."

Mildred made a gesture of despair.

"The stupidity of men really exceeds all bounds," she said. "I beg your pardon, that is by the way. You were saying that she walked off with Jim last night. I suppose you commented on that too, did you?"

He flushed angrily.

"If she imagines she is going to make a fool of me before all the world, the sooner she learns her mistake the better," said he.

"You said that to her?" asked Mildred in a tone in which "even despair was mild."

"Of course I did, or rather, I asked her whether she really went to see Blanche. She saw what I meant all right."

"You seem to imagine she is as great a fool as you," remarked Mildred.

He turned half round on his horse.

"I don't stand such language from any one," said he.

"Oh, for God's sake don't be absurd! You stand exactly what language I choose to use to you. Is it really possible, Jack, that you don't see what a dangerous and foolish game you are playing? Mon Dieu! mon Dieu! you are married to that pearl of a woman, and you think you can treat her like that. You aren't fit to tie her boot-laces, and – "

"I have no intention of trying."

"Don't be funny. I was saying you weren't fit to tie her boot-laces, but I can't expect you to see that. And you have practically told her you suspect her of an intrigue with Jim Spencer. Now, if she was the sort of woman you seem to think she is, that would be the very way to drive her into it. Personally, I wish she was, but she isn't, and we must make the best of it. But what you have done is to show her, if further demonstration were necessary, your own utter depravity. Of the sickening folly of that, I needn't speak. Go on: what did she say then?"

"She said she didn't care in the slightest degree whether I believed she went to Lady Devereux's or not. She also said that Jim was coming to lunch. So of course I shall go home to lunch."

Mildred laughed outright.

"You have the most wonderful power of choosing the only impossible thing to do or say," she remarked. "That is the one thing out of the question. The impeccable attitude of guardian angel, my dear Jack, is the one attitude that cannot be made to pose well. Nor have you the figure for it."

They rode on a little while in silence.

"Have your own way, then," he said at length.

"Of course I shall. Poor old Jack, how you do manage to put your foot in it! And I have to pull you out so often. Aren't you grateful to me?"

"Not particularly this moment."

"Well, you will be soon. You needn't tell me when you are. A good action is its own reward, and I am bursting with an approving conscience this morning. I've helped Guardina and Pagani, I've helped you."

"Yourself perhaps?"

"That also is my reward. I didn't think of myself – at least, not much."

She looked at him with a gay and kindled eye; the exercise had brought the blood into her face, and it was impossible to credit her with the six-and-thirty years which she had assured Marie were hers. And looking at her, his smarting ill-humour evaporated.

"How is it one never gets tired of you?" he said.

She laughed.

"Because I do not let you get accustomed to me," she answered.

Certainly if Jack Alston had, as was generally supposed, the gift of getting his way with other people, Mrs. Brereton had the gift of getting her way with him. This, she knew well, but was far too wise to say, was the true secret of his absolute dependence on her, for there is nothing that a masterful and brutal mind really enjoys so much as finding some one stronger than itself. At times she was inwardly afraid that she would some day get the worst of it, but knowing that in managing men, as in managing horses, the real secret of their mutiny is not so much fear on their driver's part, as the knowledge of that fear in the driver, she was always, as in this particular instance, more than usually brutal, and was accustomed to make him, so to speak, more resonant under her hand, when she was not quite certain in the depths of her own mind that she was going to win. Then, when the stress was over, she gave him his own head again, with such completeness as to convey to him the impression that he had always been free: there was no reminder, not the faintest strain on the curb to show him that the curb was still there. She used it, in fact, rarely, but in earnest, and never fell into the habit, so common in women of her stamp who are otherwise clever, of nagging, or making a point of getting her way over any matter on which she did not really desire it.

Nor was her genuine attachment to him less capable of comprehension than his to her. In addition to the immense charm of his extraordinary good looks and his devotion to her, there was added that sense, so dear to an ambitious woman, that she was controlling a figure that bade fair to be one of the most prominent of the day, and could make it dance to her wire-pulling like a marionette on its string. Though Jack was not yet forty, he already held a minor post in the Government, and when the elections came on in the summer or autumn, it was expected in many quarters that he would be made Chief Secretary at the War Office. For the nation had of late begun to wonder whether that serene and unbiased attitude which is the natural outcome of complete ignorance on the affairs of the Department is really the ideal equipment for a statesman. A little knowledge, it has long been agreed, is a dangerous thing, but the nation, in view of recent events, had distinctly formed the suspicion that no knowledge at all was almost as hazardous. Indeed, it was supposed that this idea had gently begun to communicate itself to the Government itself. Anyhow, it was rumoured that more than a mere reshuffling of the old cards would take place, and Jack Alston's name was freely mentioned as a probable occupant of the office in Pall Mall. Until his succession to the title on his father's death six years ago, he had been a soldier of the practical, hard-working order, not content with figures and much polo, but busy with ideas on boots and rifles, and the knowledge he had thus acquired he had since used on more than one occasion with telling effect on discussions in the Upper House about military matters, and the cold, aloof attitude with which anything so out of taste as criticism founded on knowledge, or the discussion of practical questions in a practical manner, is usually treated in that august assembly had not produced the slightest effect on him. He asked awkward questions, and pointed out the absurdity of the answers or the silence they received with such imperturbable pertinacity that it was beginning to be felt that there really might be something in this novel idea of letting a man who knew a good deal about a subject be employed in that capacity. At any rate, he could not then continue to criticise the Department in question if he controlled it. Builders and Government contractors Jack appeared to consider not as masters of the Government, but as their servants, and where a firm vowed that a particular programme could not be completed under six years, he would have no hesitation in demanding to know how they had managed to take foreign orders in the interval. These things shook the immemorial calm of Pall Mall, and produced the sort of gentle perturbation which might be caused by the introduction of a risky topic at a tea-party of elderly maiden ladies. But Jack Alston was without tact in these matters, and continued to be horribly risky.



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