Edward Benson.

Scarlet and Hyssop: A Novel



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"And what of the new man, Jim Spencer?" asked Naseby. "Are there developments? I always look on you as a sort of barometer. You can tell what is going to happen before it does happen."

Mildred looked round.

"A little cloud like a man's hand," she said.

"Rising out of South Africa. You mean his head will follow?"

"Hush! That's the worst of having these great people to sing. One cannot talk."

"So unsociable," said Arthur Naseby.

The room where they sat was the ballroom, with six windows overlooking Piccadilly. It would have held certainly a hundred couples on the floor, and, crowded as it was now, it must have contained twice the number. All the world, as Mrs. Brereton had said, was there, and if it was true that, as Mrs. Maxwell hoped, every one present would have been glad to see any of the guests at their houses, the world, it must be confessed, was of very catholic if not apostolic tendencies. It would be, in fact, impossible to imagine a more heterogeneous gathering: here a peer of European reputation, whose very name was considered by the country at large to be synonymous with solid respectability, was being talked to by a woman who in other circles, and in widely different ways, was also of European reputation, and who seemed capable of quite making him forget for the moment, at any rate, the happy colonies which were intrusted to his wise and well-judged care; here a traveller recently returned from regions which were supposed to be impenetrable on account of the cannibal habits of their denizens was relating to two overdressed dowagers the internal horrors which ensued on drinking the only water which could be found in these abandoned spots; here a terrible man with curiously arched eyebrows and carmine-coloured cheeks, who looked like a decadent wax-work, was retailing to a brilliant d?butante, in discreet whispers, things that made her white shoulders shake with laughter, till she was whisked away by an indignant mother. Princes of royal blood mingled with the crowd, which bobbed as they approached, and straightened itself again to make itself amusing, and all talked and giggled and gabbled together with the utmost freedom and impartiality. But the predominant feature of the entertainment which brought all its heterogeneous components into one harmonious whole was Wealth: Wealth burst from the throat of the singers, Wealth gleamed from the gilded chairs and Genoese upholstering, Wealth beamed from the ropes of pearls and diamonds which encircled lean necks and plump necks, old necks and young necks, and sat enthroned on black and gray and white and brown, and particularly on golden, hair. There were no doubt many people there who were not rich, but the wives of such were pretty, or had some cachet other than mere good breeding about them; but it is certain that there was no one in London who was very rich who had not at any rate been asked for that night, and but few who had not come.

This probably was what Mrs. Maxwell meant when she said there was no one there whom any of her guests would not have liked to have at their own houses, and, with exceptions so few as to be negligible, she was perfectly right. All the plutocracy, in fact, were there, English, American, German, Greek, and Jew, with all the mixtures of religion, race and language which wealth, with its wonderful amalgamating power, can bring together. It was, in fact, a typical English party, for there was there all that money could buy and all those whom the power of money could bring. That is why it was so very full. People of birth and breeding were there, who screamed with unkindly laughter at Mrs. Maxwell and her bevy of quite impossible millionaires, yet they drank her champagne and danced to her fiddles with the greatest goodwill in the world, and had Mrs. Maxwell a hundred sons, each of whom would be as rich as Anthony, they would have hurled two hundred daughters at their heads; and had she a hundred daughters, it is perfectly certain that at least two hundred coronets, prospective or immediate, some with strawberry leaves, some with pearls, some possibly, even with fleur-de-lis, would have been laid at their feet. There were, of course, many people who still were not seen in Mrs. Maxwell's drawing-rooms, and who persisted in looking over her head when they met her elsewhere, but she in her turn called them "stuck-up," so the honours were pretty evenly divided. The world in general, moreover, distinctly agreed with Mrs. Maxwell, and said how absurd it was to give yourself airs.

Mrs. Maxwell by this time was getting to know the ropes sufficiently well to refrain from telling people how honoured she felt by seeing them at her house; she also was sufficiently well acquainted with the minute appetite the English have for music and the great appetite that our healthy nation has for food. Consequently the concert, at which every item was admirable and performed by first-rate artists, was short, and the supper, also in the hands of first-rate artists, elaborate. Her other preparations also were on the most complete scale, and Bridge-tables were ready in one room, all sorts of nicotine and spirits in another, and in the garden behind, brilliantly illuminated as to its paths and decently obscure as to its seats, there were plenty of opportunities to enjoy the coolness of the night air, which many people seemed to find refreshing and invigorating. In the supper-room, finally, there was a huge sort of bar for the rank and file, and a quantity of small tables for the very elect. "In fact," as Mildred Brereton said to Jack as they strolled about the garden after a violent tussle to get food, owing to the invincible determination of every one to eat without delay, "it is as good as the best restaurant, and there is no bill afterwards."

Jack laughed.

"You mistake the character of the entertainment," he said. "It is a salon; I heard Mrs. Maxwell say so, and not a restaurant. Also, the bill is your presence here."

"I expect many people would like to know another restaurant conducted on the same principle," said Mildred; "but for you to say that sort of thing is absurd, Jack. I believe Marie is making you as old-fashioned as herself."

Jack swore gently.

"Has she been old-fashioned to-night?" he asked.

"Immensely. She told me about her row with you."

"How like a woman! They have to unburden to their friends about everything. What's the good of unburdening?"

"Jack, you are such a pig – so am I; that is why we are friends. But, anyhow, I can see what a pearl she is. Sometimes I've half a mind to finish with the whole affair. Marie makes – "

He turned on her fiercely.

"You don't dare," he said.

"My good man, it is no use storming. You get your way in the world, I allow, for somehow or other most people are afraid of you. But if you think I am, you are stupendously mistaken. To resume – half a mind, I said. When I have the whole mind you shall be instantly told. I am scrupulously fair in such matters, and I recognise the justice of your knowing first."

She got up as she spoke.

"I shall now go home," she said.

He laid his hand on her arm.

"No, don't go yet, Mildred," he said. "And I wish to Heaven you would not say such horrible things. But never mind that: you don't mean it. Sit down again."

She laughed.

"I mean every word," she said, "also that I must go. Come; Andrew is sure to be playing Bridge. You can just drive me home. I will leave the carriage for him."

Jack rose also.

"Won't he look for you?" he asked.

"Not for long, and then he will play some more Bridge."

CHAPTER V

Mrs. Brereton, among her many other moral hallucinations, was in the constant habit of remembering that she was an excellent mother, and that, next to her own affairs, it was highly probable that among all others she took most thought for those of her daughter. Consequently, on the afternoon following the Maxwell entertainment she determined to devote herself to Maud and her prospects, and with that end in view drove down with her in a space-annihilating motor-car to their house just above Windsor, in order both to talk with her by the way, and when arrived there see that things were in order for the week-end party that they were giving on Saturday. The summer weather which had begun with such splendour a week ago had by an unparalleled effort kept itself up, and seven days of sunshine had brought out a wealth of fresh green leaf on the trees, in London still varnished and undimmed by dust, and in the country of an exquisite verdure. Overhead the sun was set in a sky of divine purity, and the swift motion through the air she felt to be quite as exhilarating to the senses as would have been the afternoon party to which, had not duty called, she would otherwise have gone. She had never wished to have a daughter, and the abandonment of this party reminded her how often she was sacrificing herself to Maud. Indeed, she seemed to herself a most excellent mother.

But, notwithstanding that she was generally and justly supposed to be able to spar with the most robust emergencies, Mrs. Brereton did not particularly fancy the task she had set herself, or that, strictly speaking, had been set her; in fact, early this morning there had arrived for her a note from her hostess of last night, saying what sort of communication her dear Anthony had made her before he went to his bed. Under these circumstances it was only right that Maud's mother should be asked whether she sanctioned the step he proposed to take in presenting himself as a suitor for her daughter's hand. The phrasing of the note, as might be expected from so successful a lady as Mrs. Maxwell, was as unimpeachable as its contents, and both filled Mrs. Brereton with joy, for the two odious sons of her husband by his first marriage would inherit the bulk of her husband's fortune, and Maud would have almost nothing. Now, Mrs. Brereton had no desire whatever to see her an impecunious peeress, or, indeed, an impecunious anything, and she had come to the very wise conclusion that money certainly is money, and that where a chance of marrying a huge fortune was presented, it would be distinctly a failure of maternal duty not to put its advantages very distinctly and decidedly before her daughter. But she was never very much at ease with Maud, whom, if she had been another woman's child, she would have described as an uncomfortable kind of girl. But being her own, she spoke of her always as very original and with great opinions of her own. She did not particularly like girls, any more than she liked young men or new wines: they all needed maturing before they were fit for the palate. But she was just, and gave full allowance to the necessity for being young before you can become mellow, though she wished that Maud would be quick about it. Really, when a girl is nearly nineteen, nearly six feet high, with a superb figure, and a face at which men undisguisedly stare, and with reason, it is time for the possessor of such advantages to begin thinking about making her nest. Here was one ready, excellently well-feathered. She only hoped, strongly but somehow remotely, that Maud might see it in that light. But she considered her daughter to combine symptoms of hopeless simplicity with those of the most world-weary cynicism. It was impossible that both could be genuine, but it puzzled her mother to say which was.

The sun was quite hot, and Mrs. Brereton at once put up her parasol, for a large glass screen sheltered them from the wind.

"Delicious the sun is," she said, as she extinguished it. "And what a delightful drive we shall have, Maud! When one goes into the country like this, I can never understand why we ever live in town. So sensible of dear Nellie, is it not? She has bought a cottage in the country, with an orchard and a dairy and all that, and dreams of butter, she tells me. She probably wakes and finds that it is earwigs. That she doesn't tell me."

"I don't think she would care about it if she couldn't tell every one about it," said Maud. "She doesn't strike me as a real country-lover, does she you?"

"Oh, I dare say not in the sense you are, dear," said her mother. "I always wonder where you get it from. Fancy your father or I existing in the country!"

"But you said this moment that you couldn't understand why we ever live in town."

This was the kind of thing which frequently occurred when Mrs. Brereton chattered to her daughter. Maud seemed to think that in light conversation people meant what they said, an error so astounding that it seemed almost hopeless to point it out.

"Dear Maud, how literal you are!" she said. "You don't seem to realize that one has moods which may last a year or more, and may only last a minute. That one lasted less than a minute."

Maud laughed.

"How unsettling!" she said. "For how can one know whether one really likes anything? It may only last a minute."

Mrs. Brereton plunged at the opening, a header, so to speak, into the frothy water.

"Ah, that is where wisdom comes in," she said. "You have not only to choose and to do what you like, but to choose that which your reason dictates, that which you know is really advantageous for you. Life would be a very simple matter if one only followed one's inclinations. It is a lesson one cannot learn too early."

There was a short pause, in which Mrs. Brereton passed in rapid summary to herself all the occasions she could remember on which she had not followed her inclination. It seemed to her that there were an immense number; she was always doing kind things, and the pause would have been a long one had not Maud broken it.

"I suppose you mean that you want me to marry Anthony Maxwell!" she remarked in a perfectly even voice.

This was an occasion on which her mother was absolutely unable to decide whether Maud's disconcerting directness sprang from internal and childlike simplicity or a brutally frank insight into the diplomacy of others. But she put the best construction possible on it.

"Dear Maud," she exclaimed effusively, "it is too dear of you to meet me halfway like that. To tell you the truth, I was a little shy about opening the subject to you, as I did not know what you thought; but it is much easier for me to talk about it now."

"Much," said Maud.

"To think that you should have guessed!" said the other; "but you always were so quick."

"It did not need much quickness after my prolonged conversation with him last night."

"So you had a good talk to him," said Mrs. Brereton. "I am so glad."

Maud raised her eyebrows.

"Surely you meant me to," she said. "Whenever I looked up, meaning to go, I always thought I saw you pinning me down again. Did you not?"

Mrs. Brereton was not quite sure that things were going comfortably.

"I don't know what you mean by pinning you down," she said; "but it is, of course, perfectly true that I wanted you to get better acquainted with him. I am sure, Maud, you are a very lucky girl."

The lucky girl put up her parasol; her face was absolutely immobile except for the least curl at the corner of her mouth, which might have expressed almost anything – fatigue, indifference, anything.

"Then he has made formal proposals?" she asked. "His mother wrote to me asking if I sanctioned his doing so."

"You said yes, I suppose?"

"Naturally I should not forbid it, considering, as I do, that it is an admirable match for you. The young man is amiable, quite without vices I should think (which, after all, is most important, as so many marriages are wrecked that way). He is shrewd and clever, quite his father's son, and he is immensely wealthy."

"Those are all very good qualities," said Maud.

"My dear, of course they are. In bare justice to myself, I must say that, when I recommend a thing, I do so not on vague grounds, but on well-defined and cogent reasoning. Or perhaps you would prefer a husband who is a sot, a fool, and a pauper? You could easily find one of those without any great trouble."

Maud laughed; she was one of those people whom temper in others leaves perfectly undisturbed. Then she laid her hand on her mother's.

"Dearest mother," she said, "I really did not mean to be tiresome. Was I? You were saying that he was well-conducted, clever and wealthy."

"I should have thought that was a good deal to say for any one," said her mother, not yet quite calm. "There are heaps of perfectly well-conducted people in the world who are fools, heaps of very wealthy people who are vicious, and plenty, as I said, who have neither wits, morals, nor money. Which sort do you want? Or do you look forward to spinsterhood in a cottage with a canary? Almost all your father's fortune will go to Otho and Reginald. You will be quite poor."

"I don't love Anthony Maxwell," said Maud, with a deplorable relapse into directness.

"Oh, my dear, have you been reading some sentimental novel? You seem to think that every girl meets the man eternally pre-destined for her, with clear-cut features and a coiffure like a hair-dresser's. That sort of romantic stuff is extinct. It never existed in fact, and it is rapidly disappearing in fiction. If it were true, the world would have come to an end long ago, for we should all have caught such frightful colds by reading Dante and Shakespeare on violet-covered banks that we should have died without children."

Mrs. Brereton settled herself on the cushions of the carriage, feeling much more comfortable. If only Maud would continue to argue the question, she felt sure of her ground.

"You are not silly, I know, dear," she went on; "in fact, I think you are too much the other way. You like analyzing and picking things to bits, and saying, 'This seems to me faulty here, and that seems to me exaggerated there.' I assure you it is a mistake. And when you say you do not love him, you are using expressions of the meaning of which you have no idea. You don't know what love is – no girl can. You may feel attracted to a handsome face as you can be attracted by a landscape or a piece of jewellery, but no one with the slightest sense of refinement could marry a man because he was handsome. It is a grossly indelicate idea, and one I am sure which you never entertained."

"I was not proposing to marry any man because of his good looks," said Maud.

"No, dear, I am certain you were not; and I was only saying in the abstract that to do such a thing would be an inconceivable folly. If your husband was Adonis himself, you would forget he was even passably good-looking in a fortnight. Dear me, yes! one gets used to nothing so quickly. And in the same way and with the same speed you get used to the absence of good looks. Anthony Maxwell, I allow, has but small claim to them; and I was only wondering whether, when you said that you did not love him, you did not have a half-conscious idea in your mind that if he was very handsome you might have. Dearest Maud, how wonderfully well you are looking! no wonder Anthony fell in love with you."

Again the corner of Maud's mouth twitched.

"I hope that was not the cause," she said, "for you have just told me what an absurd reason that is for wanting to marry anybody!"

For the moment Mrs. Brereton had a violent desire to box those eligible ears, but restrained it, and proceeded to propound her philosophy of matrimony with the most admirable lucidity.

"Ah, that is where men are different from us," she said. "It is part of the province of women, as dear Mr. Austin says, to be beautiful, but it is quite outside the province of men. Look at your father now, Maud; he has perhaps less pretentions to good looks than any one I ever saw. But what a happy, what a blessed" – and the word did not stick – "marriage ours has been! Looking back even now, I have never yet seen a man whom I would sooner have chosen. And long, long ago – a year ago at least – I thought that if only dear Anthony would be attracted by you, what a happy thing it would be. It is silly to expect high romance. High romance does not exist for ninety-nine hundredths of the world – luckily, I am sure. And I am sure you are not romantic."

Maud had listened with the closest attention to what her mother was saying, but she made no reply, and in silence they bowled swiftly along the Bath Road, which seemed to open like torn linen in front of them. Mrs. Brereton also well knew that silence in season is as necessary an equipment to the dialectician as the most eloquent speech, and having said all that she really intended, she had no design of ruining the effect of her words by vain repetition. Once, indeed, she called attention to the loveliness of the clustered pyramids of bloom that covered the horse-chestnut-trees in the gardens round the houses of some small village half buried in blossom, but the tone of Maud's "Lovely!" showed her quite unmistakably that general conversation was for the present a futility. At the same time her daughter's abstraction indicated that her own words were probably sinking in, a process with which Mrs. Brereton had no desire whatever to interfere. At last, as they approached their gates, the girl furled her parasol with a snap which might easily betoken a decision.



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