Scarlet and Hyssop: A Novel
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So he who should perhaps control so huge an affair as the army, and she who controlled him, rode back towards Hyde Park Corner, a striking-looking pair, at which many gazed. Their friendship was now of several years' standing, and people had begun to find that there was nothing new to say about so well-established a fact. There had never been any scandal, and London is a wonderfully tolerant town. It is, in fact, almost incapable of being shocked except by that which is printed in the daily papers. This constitutes the real power of the press. As long as definite publicity in black type on white or pink paper is not given, a fact, however well known, remains private; it is only truly shocking when the compositor has set it up; then takes place a great and essential change. And this morning half the world looked at them, and remarked on the beauty of their horses and the fine horsemanship of their riders, and shrugged their shoulders now and then, and smiled and talked about something else.
"So you had better lunch with me, Jack," said Mrs. Brereton, going back to her subject. "You have a Committee at three, I know."
"And what must I say to Marie?" asked he.
"Say? Say you lunched with me. It has also the minor advantage of being perfectly true. Oh, so few people see the extraordinary advantage to be gained by telling the truth. It is so easy, too: you can tell the truth by a mere effort of memory, whereas any – any diplomatic evasion calls the imaginative faculty into play."
"I don't think I've got the imaginative faculty," said Jack.
"No, you haven't much. That is why, when you evade, you are always so unconvincing. Rich ornamental detail is necessary to the simplest untruth, whereas if you are telling the truth the cruder you are the better. Your very crudity, Jack, is the making of you as a politician."
"I know what I want politically, anyhow," he said. "I want proper rifles and the knowledge among the men as to the right direction in which to fire them off."
"Oh, don't make speeches. That is exactly your oratorical style – in other words, no style at all. The British public likes that. It says there is no nonsense about you. How odd it is that politically you should be a man of such astounding simplicity, and socially – well, a person who savours of duplicity!"
"I'm straightforward enough," said he.
"Oh – oh! Never mind that. But the British public is odder still. It insists – at least, it wishes to believe – that its public men should be people of blameless private life. Now, what can that matter? But I don't think it has any doubt about you, Jack. It believes you to be a model of domesticity. Also by my advice, you see, you breed pigs and shorthorns. There is something magical about pigs and shorthorns. The public consider them a sort of testimonial to a man's character; I suppose it is the touch of Nature, or the touch of the farmyard."
"Making the whole world kind!"
"Chestnuts, surely.Well, au revoir; go home and dress, and try not to look glum, and tell Marie you are lunching with me. Good-bye, I must hurry: I have some things to do before lunch."
Mrs. Maxwell was a voluminous woman of gorgeous exterior, who would have been pained to hear herself alluded to as a woman instead of a lady. There was, as she had more than once acutely remarked, a breeding that is altogether independent either of beauty or wit, and Cleopatra herself might have been utterly without it.
"And that," said Mrs. Maxwell, "is what makes the difference between a lady and not a lady."
The inference which she herself drew and meant to be drawn is too obvious to need pointing out, especially when we remember that she certainly had neither beauty nor wit, except in so far as it may be held a proof of ability to have married a money-lender of Jewish extraction and enormous wealth. But Mrs. Maxwell had ambition, and an amazing industry. Years ago when she married her Henry she had made up her mind that, if there was any power whatever in the fact of millions, she would procure whatever was to be procured with them, and in especial she had set her heart on bringing not to her feet, but to her table and her ballroom, all that was noblest and highest in the land. The task had been far less arduous than she had anticipated, and she felt on this night of the 16th of May that the prize had been publicly presented to her. Every one who was any one was going to cross her threshold that night; a favoured three or four dozen were going to dine there first, and the rest would come in afterwards. Earls and Countesses were among them. There was not room for all such nowadays at Mrs. Maxwell's table.
The form that the entertainment was going to take was a concert, for, as Mrs. Maxwell said, you can dance anywhere for the cost of your shoe-leather and a couple of trumpets; but it meant a prettier penny than most people can find in their purse to hear Pagani and Guardina sitting in a comfortable chair instead of that dreadful draughty opera-house, and having to go to that cold, creepy "foyure" to get a glass of lemonade. There was no nonsense or affectation, it will be remarked, about Mrs. Maxwell's French, which she used ruthlessly in her conversation, and all her epithets ran in well-matched pairs, like her horses.
The Maxwells' house stood in Piccadilly overlooking the Green Park, and it had been purchased as it stood, glass, plate, china, and books complete, from its owner, who was in straitened circumstances. There were not many books in the bargain, but among them, luckily enough, was the callers' book of the late owner, and for the sake of continuity and general interest Mrs. Maxwell's visitors went on writing their names there without a break, since the book at the time of their taking possession was only about half full. It was curious to observe how at first there was a sort of slump in distinguished names, which now had completely rallied and developed into a boom; in fact, on the last few pages half the names were the same as those on the earlier part of the book.
Among the many other desirable objects in the house were the pictures. These included several very fine Italian pictures by great masters, "Raffle," as Mrs. Maxwell rather familiarly called that eminent artist, being notably represented. They had occasioned a somewhat violent difference between their present master and mistress, Mrs. Maxwell maintaining that it was impossible to feel easy and comfortable beneath such serious-like pictures, Transfigurations and what not, and observing with some heat that you couldn't sit quiet in your chair with St. Stephen stoned and bleeding immediately above your head. Eventually a compromise had been arrived at, and they had been removed from the drawing-room into the corridor. But even more pointed had been the discrepancies arising from the small but exquisite half-dozen of Dutch pictures that had hung in the dining-room. Mr. Maxwell, again, had been disposed to leave everything exactly as they had found it, arguing that a family who had lived in the house for a couple of hundred years knew more about what was suitable to the house than they. This had inflamed his wife.
"It's a matter of taste, Maxwell," she said; "and I've got as much right to my own taste as any Duke in the kingdom. And I maintain that while you're eating your dinner there's no pleasure in looking at a row of pots and pans hung on the wall, as if to remind you of where your food has been, and cheeses and what not. And as for that picture of old Dutchmen eating I don't know what horror, and smoking their pipes the while, why, it's enough to turn the good wholesome food in your stomach. And that's my opinion, whether you like it or not."
Mr. Maxwell, who was a just man except in matters of money-lending, realized that he did not feel as keenly as this.
"But if you take them away, my dear, what will you put in their place!"
"Why, the portraits of you and me and Anthony: you and me on each side of the fireplace, and Anthony in the middle."
This suggestion was a happy one, and had been put into effect. The portraits in question were admirable examples of a very eminent painter of the day, and Henry as large as life, with the unmistakable features of his race, sat smoking his cigar, so natural, on one side of the Italian fireplace, while on the other hung Mrs. Maxwell in her crimson gown with all her diamonds on. Both pictures were diabolically clever, and much more like the sitters than the sitters (happily for them) had any idea: for where Mrs. Maxwell saw only the impressionist blurs of coloured light which indicated her priceless stones, the painter had finely observed and faithfully represented an intolerably ostentatious opulence; where Mr. Maxwell saw only that he was, as usual, smoking a cigar, the painter had seen the man who liked to be painted as doing so. Besides, the glowing end of it, smouldering beneath its white ash, was marvellously indicated, and Mr. Maxwell often declared he could almost catch a whiff of it. Between them hung Anthony, a young man of about twenty-three. He was undoubtedly the son of each of his parents. And the two parents were turned fondly, as in life, towards the hope of the house, and the hope of this house, beautifully dressed, also as in life, stared somewhat vacuously in front of him.
It was, in fact, on Anthony, quite as much as on the mounting of the ladder of social distinction, that his mother's ambitions centred, and Anthony, it must be allowed, was largely that which his mother would have him be; but on the great question of the potency of wealth, its being able to get for you, if you spend it properly, anything you wish, from a wife or an ancestor to a pair of shoes, she did not feel certain of his soundness. There were other things, too, about Anthony which puzzled his mother: he was accustomed to read poetry, and appeared to enjoy Wagner, a curious crookedness, so she thought, in one otherwise honest. But both mother and son were agreed that, wherever he got his shoes, he could not do better than get his wife from Andrew Brereton's house, the prospective bride being Maud Brereton, a young goddess of about eighteen years and six feet of wholesome growth, whom her mother invariably alluded to as "my little girl."
To-night it certainly seemed that the new patron saint of England, St. Sovereign, received definite canonization. Royalty, stars and garters, wit, talent, beauty, and birth, all came and bowed the knee. Even a stray copy of the menu at dinner was picked up by an enterprising reporter for publication next day in the paper he represented, so that Mr. Maxwell's inimitable chef would have the opportunity of living his triumph o'er again. Dinner was not till half-past eight, and a feast that costs five pounds a head necessarily takes time to negotiate, especially since Mr. Maxwell always ate largely and slowly of every dish that was put before him, so that before the gentlemen left the dining-room the less favoured guests had already begun to arrive. Among these was Guardina, who with great good sense had declined her dinner invitation for the very excellent reason that if she dined there she would eat too much, and if she ate too much she would not be able to sing. "And I am here to sing," she added, being without illusions.
Among the diners there had been Mrs. Brereton and Lady Alston, and the former, following her invariable practice of always paying court to Jack's wife, linked her arm in Marie's as they were going upstairs, to the momentary consternation of Mrs. Maxwell, who clearly saw from her place at the end of the procession of ascending ladies that there were several women of higher rank behind her.
"Dear Marie, I haven't seen you for a whole two days," she said. "Where have you hidden yourself? And I never expected to see you here."
"Why not? Surely the dinner was excellent, and is not Guardina to sing?"
"Yes, of course. Oh, I see, you are laughing at me. Don't be cross, Marie."
"I'm not cross, only frank."
"Oh, but frankness is such a bore, except when you use it as a weapon of concealment. In fact, I was talking to Jack about that very point two days ago. As a means of convincing people that you are not telling the truth, there is nothing so certain as to tell it."
This Bismarckian but imaginative r?sum? of the conversation in the Park came out quite glibly, and Marie laughed.
"Really, Mildred, you have a way with you," she said. "Jack went out yesterday morning in a vile temper, and came back after riding with you like a drifting angel, all sweetness and smiles. What had you done to him?"
"I forget what we talked about – probably about him, for that always puts a man in a good temper quicker than anything else. I'm so glad it was successful."
Marie sat down on a gilt Louis XV chair upholstered in Genoese velvet.
"I shall send him to you whenever he is in a bad temper, I think," she went on, "with a ticket pinned on to him, 'Please return in good condition.'"
"Dearly as I like Jack," she said, "I am not sure that my affection would quite go to those lengths. Because Jack in an odious temper is like – well, like Jack in an odious temper. I know nothing, indeed, to compare to him."
"Well, I wish you would tell me your secret."
"My dear, there is none. Besides, another woman can so often put a man in a good temper, when his wife could not possibly."
"That doesn't say much for matrimony."
Mildred looked up a moment, and then fell to fingering her fan again.
"Oh, matrimony is such an excellent institution that a few little disadvantages of that sort really don't weigh. But certainly what I say is true. And you know it is just the same with us. Jack can put me in a good temper when my dear Andrew would assuredly fare pretty badly if he tried."
"I never quite knew why you married him."
"Oh, for a variety of reasons. He was very rich, I liked him, he wanted to marry me. And we have been very happy. One can't look for perfection in one's husband any more than in one's own servants or one's horses. The point is that they should not have any vices, and on the whole suit you."
"Is that the modern theory?" asked Marie.
"No, I don't know that it is exclusively modern. But what's the matter, Marie? What was Jack in a bad temper about?"
"Jack was coarse. I don't see why I shouldn't tell you. Do you remember my going home with Jim two nights ago from your house, when I was going to see Blanche about the bazaar? Well, he hinted that I had not been to see her at all. Now, what are you to do when your husband behaves like that?"
"Dear me! is that all? Men are coarse folk, you will not recognise that, and when they are in a bad temper they say all sorts of things they don't mean. Now, I can tell you how I should deal with that. I should simply have laughed in his face, laughed with a wide mouth. But as for letting it disturb my peace of mind – You, too, of all people, who simply are the most enviable woman in London."
"So you tell me," said Marie; "but I don't quite know why."
"Oh, my dear, if it was not you I should think you were fishing for compliments – Why? Because you have the brains to be sometimes amused and sometimes bored at what absorbs all of us; because you are young; because somehow or other you are the person; because you make any woman standing near you look dowdy and coarse – "
"I am stifled in my own perfections," she said. "Let me get a breath of air."
"Guardina is just going to oblige us with one," said Mildred. "She really is like the girl in the fairy stories out of whose mouth drop diamonds and pearls. I suppose she is paid at least a sovereign a note. How pleasant that must be! Look, there is poor Nellie Leighton standing close to her, as if she hoped to be able to pick some of them up. What a wonderful woman! Not a penny of any sort to bless herself with, an insatiable appetite for pleasure, and the most light-hearted and appreciative woman I know. She sees us; she is coming over here."
Mrs. Leighton, in fact, opened her mouth sideways towards one ear, which was her way of smiling, and rustled elaborately across the room. She laid an affectionate hand on Marie's arm, and looked as if she had something very important to say.
"She is going to sing the 'Zitanella,'" she whispered as the accompanist played a brilliant chromatic passage to compel silence. "Quite too divine for words. And I have bought a new house. Rustic."
But at the moment a sound as faint and far-away as the ring of a musical glass pierced the air. Guardina's lips were hardly parted, but that spear of sound thrilled through the room. Certainly, if she was paid a sovereign a note, that first note of the "Zitanella" was good measure. Then it broke like quicksilver into a thousand perfectly round and shining globules of sound, collected itself again, poised, quavered, trilled, thrilled, perched as it were like a bird on the topmost twig of sound, and vanished like a conjurer's handkerchief into air. Mrs. Leighton again extended her mouth over her right cheek.
"Too delicious!" she said. "And how we are to pay for it all – the house I mean – I haven't got the remotest idea. It is so comfortable having no money at all: you not only don't, but you can't pay for anything, and it's no use thinking about it. Marie, you must come down and see it. There are two spare bedrooms all white and chintz. When I am there I always dream of milk and butter and litters of pigs. Yes, isn't Guardina marvellous? I wish she would lend me her vocal cords for a week. I would willingly lend her anything I have for a fortnight."
The end of Guardina's song was marked by a sort of general post, and Marie was snapped up by Mr. Maxwell, if such a phrase can properly be used of so deliberate a process. His interpretation of the art of conversation chiefly consisted in opening his mouth as if he was going to speak, and then shutting it again, like a fish in an aquarium. The person with whom he was conversing he stood over in an encompassing manner, with an air of proprietorship. Elsewhere Anthony had cornered Mildred Brereton's little girl, who evidently wanted to go away, but was checked by her mother's eye, which from time to time pinned her like a fluttering butterfly to the spot. She herself was taken possession of by Mrs. Maxwell, who, unlike her husband, was as voluminous in speech as she was in person. Arthur Naseby, close beside them, was half listening to his hostess's conversation, while he was discussing a quantity of subjects entirely unfit for discussion with Mrs. Leighton.
"Yes, I'm sure she sings beautiful," said Mrs. Maxwell, "and so true. She seems to hit the note every time. What a thing to have a gift like that! and I'm sure she makes the most of it. Why, I remember her first coming out, and she went away in a hanson-cab from the opera. But she can go handsomer than cabs now!"
Mrs. Brereton again pinned the unfortunate Maud to her seat.
"And what a brilliant party you have got together, Mrs. Maxwell!" she said. "Positively, there is every one here one has ever heard of, and absolutely nobody that one hasn't heard of. That is so clever of you! It is easy enough to get people, but the difficulty is to not have the wrong ones. I'm sure you must find it so."
Mrs. Maxwell sighed.
"It's as much as Anthony and me can do in a week's work to go through the calling-book," she said. "Talk of weeding, you never saw such a deal of it as we have to do. People seem to think they can all come for the calling. But one must be careful, and I try never to ask any one whom a single one of my guests would be sorry to have in their own houses."
Mrs. Brereton smiled a congratulatory smile.
"We should most of us be very glad to see them in ours," she said.
Mrs. Maxwell's mood grew more sublime.
"And the pushing and the shoving that some people do to get asked to other people's houses," she said, "why, it fair passes belief. Now, Maxwell has no spirit. 'Let 'em all come,' he says, like that horrid vulgar song; but I said, 'No, Maxwell – if they all come, half of them will keep away, and them's the very half you want, and where shall we be then?' There's Guardina going to sing again, with Pagani this time. She's got to sing two solos and two duos. How wonderfully their voices suit! you would say they was made for each other. Excuse me, there's the Duchess of Perth just come, and I must say a word to her."
Arthur Naseby sank into the unoccupied seat.
"Anything more divine I never wish to hear," he said in a shrill whisper. "And the diamonds have caught an added lustre for their brilliant surroundings. To-night Mrs. Maxwell is one coruscation, with a collation to follow."
"How true, too, what she said about Pagani and Guardina," murmured Mrs. Brereton. "It takes that sort of person to say that sort of thing. I am not nervous personally, but" – and her eye caught sight of Maud and Anthony again – "but she is an excellent good kind woman," she added with a very distinct change of tone.
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