Edward Benson.

Scarlet and Hyssop: A Novel



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"Ah yes," she was saying, "that is just the fault with us all now. We think we can be amused merely by having people to amuse us. It is not so; being amused depends almost entirely on one's self. Some days nothing amuses one; on others one is amused by the other sort of nothing."

"It's always the other sort of nothing with me," said Arthur Naseby. "And what I like really best of all is the pantomime. You find in the pantomime exactly what you take there. I take there an invincible gaiety. That is why I find it there."

"That's what I mean," said Marie. "It is the case with everything. I love the pantomime, like you. Everything takes place without the slightest reason. It is so like life; and, like the clowns, we belabour each other with bladders and throw mud at butter belonging to other people. But the audience – the part of it like Mr. Naseby and me – are enormously amused."

"You are horribly unjust, Marie," said Lady Devereux in her sleepy, drawling voice. "We never belabour you. You are a privileged person; you go flying over hedges and ditches, while if I, for instance, as much as look over a hedge, I am supposed to be there for no good purpose. Is it the consciousness of innocence that gives you such license! One can acquire almost anything by practice. I think I shall set about that."

Marie laughed.

"I would, dear. Be innocent for an hour a day, to begin with, and increase it by degrees."

"Ah, it's not innocence, but the consciousness of it, I want," said Blanche. "It is a different matter."

"But it leads to absolutely nothing," said Arthur Naseby, in a discontented voice, "except, perhaps, promotion in the Church; but I have given up all real thought of that."

"I thought the real way to get on in the Church now was to preach heretical doctrine," remarked Lady Devereux. "Our parson at Rye always casts doubt on things like Jonah and the whale, or tries to explain them by supposing it was not a whale, but an extinct animal with an enormous gullet, which seems to me just as remarkable. They tell me he is certain to be made a Bishop. My grandfather was a Bishop."

"And mine was a draper," said Arthur Naseby. "I am thankful every day that he was such a successful one. Really, nothing matters nowadays except money. That is so convenient for the people who have some. Here is a most convenient person, for instance, just coming."

Jim Spencer entered the tent with the air of looking for somebody. He also had the air of having found somebody when he saw Marie, and sat down in a low chair by her.

"I have been playing croquet," he said; "but I shall never play again."

"What happened?"

"Nothing happened. I remained in sublime inactivity, except when other people used me for their own base ends. I never felt so useful in my life."

"But that, again, is no use," said Arthur – "like the consciousness of innocence which Lady Devereux means to cultivate. Being simply an opportunity for other people seems to me the very type of a wasted life.

I am continually being an opportunity for other people, and the opportunity I give them is to make unkind remarks about me; they constantly take advantage of it."

"What do they say?" asked Marie.

"They say I am idle, and therefore probably vicious. Now, nothing was ever less proved than that; it is a perfect fallacy, entirely due to that pessimistic person who said that Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do. That I am idle is, of course, quite true. For thirty years I have been very busy doing nothing whatever, and every day I live I find more nothing to do, if you understand."

"Then, you allow the world doesn't libel you?" said Lady Devereux.

"Certainly it does. It is that to which I so strongly object. People go about saying all sorts of things about me which are perfectly true. The greater the truth, the greater the libel."

Marie got up from her chair.

"It is true that the world has a keen grasp of the obvious," she said. "Why don't you disappoint them, Mr. Naseby, and do something?"

"I am ready to do almost anything in the world," said he, "for a suitable inducement; but nobody ever induces me."

"Well, I shall go for a stroll," said Marie, "and expect neither inducement nor companionship unless any one is inclined."

Jim Spencer got up instantly.

"Please let me come," he said.

The two left the tent, but Arthur Naseby and Lady Devereux continued to sit there. There was a moment's pause, and then in a shrill whisper, "Yes, the case certainly presents some points of interest," said he; "and as a consulting doctor, although nobody has shown the slightest desire to consult me, I don't see why I shouldn't give my diagnosis. Briefly it is this: This exceeding warm weather will undoubtedly cause the snowflake to melt; if it does not, it is no true snowflake. But it must be, for anything but a snowflake would have melted long ago; in fact, it is proved."

Lady Devereux considered this.

"Marie is a great friend of mine," she said; "but I have one criticism to make upon her: Her extraordinarily healthy way of looking at things cannot be genuine; she would not be human if it was. She gave me a lecture the other day about the vulgarity of lying down to be trampled on. Now, any one that was human would know that that is just about the only thing in the world worth doing. Personally, I consider it an instance of the wonderful self-abandonment and self-sacrificing character of love."

"And she wouldn't even call it love," said Arthur.

"No; she would use some perfectly antiquated and shocking word. Now, whatever I am, I am not antique. It is absurd to treat me as if I was Old Testament history. But Marie is a great dear. She has been too sweet about the bazaar, and has promised to hold a stall every day."

"I never can quite make out what people see in her," said Arthur. "Of course I adore her, simply because one has to – it is unheard of not to – but is there anything there after all, except – except what one sees?"

"Yes, of course there is," said Blanche. "There is in her all that you and I and the rest of us are without. To put it baldly, she is a good woman. You get force from being good if you are clever as well. Yes, you may laugh, but it is so true. Now, the rest of us are not good – neither you, nor I, nor dear Mildred."

"But Andrew is," said Arthur.

"That is why one never knows whether he is in the room or not," said Lady Devereux. "He is, or may be, good; but there is nothing else there whatever. Mere goodness is pretty colourless by itself; but Marie is everything else, and good as well. She is about five times as clever as all of us. She has tact, else she would have made rows long ago; she is a woman of the world, but she is also good."

"I suppose that is probably why I am never quite comfortable with her," said Arthur in a mild, ruminating voice.

"Very likely. It is also why you are quite wrong in your diagnosis just now. Oh, there's Lady Ardingly looking for people to make up her table. She has probably cleaned everybody else out. Come, Arthur, let us go and be cleaned out too."

They both laughed loudly and went.

Marie and Jim Spencer meantime had strolled away from the crowds on the lawn towards the meadow and the river. Even though he had been only a fortnight or so back in England, he had begun clearly to recognise that his experiment of going away, his self-banishment to South Africa in order to win back freedom from the spell which she had cast on him, had been a failure. He had thought that by filling his mind with other interests, by drugging his soul with the pursuit of gold, as you can drug an aching body into unconsciousness, he would still that pain. So, indeed, he had done for the time, but the opiate, it appeared, was not permanent in its effects; the drowsiness had passed off, and again at the sight of her his love had awoke. It seemed, too, to him now that he loved her with a more devout passion than ever before; all the old longing was there with this added – that his heightened and matured perception could now appreciate how fine she was; how different from the jostling race that swirled round her, who clutched like greedy children with both hands at the two things they alone thought worthy of effort: pleasure, at whatever cost or violation; and money, which was worth any sacrifice except that of pleasure. Like the whole of the rest of London, he knew the intrigue which Jack had been carrying on for years, and which was now so stale that it had almost ceased to form a subject for gossip, and this thought was bitterly poisonous to his mind. Could it be possible, he wondered, that Marie knew and condoned it? that she had accepted that for which there was no remedy but divorce, played gooseberry to her husband, and knew what were his relations to the woman whose hospitality she was even now enjoying? That she and Jack had drifted into the apathetic estrangement which so often is the result of childless marriages, he did not doubt; but was the reason for it that which was so well known to everybody else? Again and again during this last fortnight this unworthy and debasing suspicion had assailed him, and, to do him justice, he had as often cast it from him, his trust and whole-hearted belief in her rejecting and strangling it; and as often as it presented itself, he vowed that he would give it no home. But the other alternative, the only other possible, though it left her stainless and unsullied, was hardly less painful; and it was an intolerable thought to him that she alone should be ignorant of that of which all his better mind told him she was ignorant. Three-quarters of the world, no doubt, if they ever gave a thought now to a piece of scandal which had long outlived its first youth, commended her for her admirable common-sense in recognising the folly of making a fruitless public exhibition of her private affairs; the other quarter no doubt wondered idly how long her blissful ignorance would continue, and saw material for drama the moment that enlightenment came. And in this wonder he could not help joining – what would she do if ever she found out? Her worldly wisdom would assuredly indicate a direction completely opposite to that in which her moral sense would point. That there would be a struggle he regarded as inevitable; but even he, knowing her as well as he did, could form no conjecture as to which way it would go. Marie accepting what had happened, and not quarrelling with the irremediable, made a picture unpaintable; but Marie, living the life of a woman who had separated herself from her husband, was almost equally outside possibilities. He had a vague sense of approaching storm and brewing mischief, remote it might be, but marching inevitably nearer, even as in some spell of sultry and oppressive days we know that it is only through thunder and a convulsion of elements that we can get back to cool and dewy mornings, and again regard sunshine as a friend, not as a thing to be shunned and shrunk from.

It may have been that the vividness with which he was conscious in every fibre of threatening disaster was communicated by some subtle brain-wave to her; in any case, her first words as they walked down the shady path below the full-fledged elms bore very distinctly on that which filled his mind.

"How hot it is!" she said. "There will surely be a storm."

The echo made by her audible voice to his inaudible thought startled him.

"What sort of storm?" he asked quickly, still busy on his own ground.

She laughed.

"So you have been thinking of storms, too," she said. "We often used to think in harness – do you remember, Jim? What sort of storm? Well, I too had other storms than thunder in my mind. You used to dislike real thunder-storms, I remember; but I always loved them. I expect other sorts of storms affect one similarly. I hate compromise, you know. If one is absolutely at cross-purposes with other people, it is much better to have it out fair and square, to upset the furniture and smash the china if necessary, rather than concede a little here and have a little conceded there. That always results in a state of things no better than before, and an added distaste on both sides to open the subject again."

He did not at once answer; this bore directly on his stifled questionings, and answered them.

"Was anything particular in your mind?" he asked at length.

"No – I mean yes. I can't lie to any purpose, Jim; it's no good my trying. Yes, what was partly in my mind was a disagreement I had with Jack some ten days ago. We patched it up quite beautifully, and agreed that nothing was worth bothering about. I acquiesced, though I should personally have preferred to have it out. At least I am sure of this, that if one differs fundamentally from any one, it is no use arguing, or, as he says, bothering. And fundamentally Jack and I are very different."

She paused a moment and glanced suddenly at him.

"And that is why we get on so excellently," she added, with just a suspicion of hurry in her words.

Jim longed to applaud her quickness; it had been excellently done. But the most elementary courtesy forbade him to call attention to it. "Asides" are conventionally observed at other places besides the theatres.

"I am glad of that," he said in a perfectly even voice.

This was a turning of the tables; his conventionality was as obvious as hers; she silently noticed it and also passed on.

"Yes, that little patch-up with Jack was in my mind," she said; "but then, as I told you, we have privately settled to have no storms. No, the storm which I mean will be a bigger storm than that. On that subject Jack and I are quite agreed. I mean a national storm, a general upheaval. My goodness! some high towers and steeples will be smashed. And here we all go, meantime, dancing in the middle of the thunder-clouds, with the lightning, so to speak, playing about us."

They had emerged from the wooded walk on to the edge of the meadow bordering the river, and as Marie spoke she pointed across the field to the lawn visible beyond it, filled with gay figures, and bordered with the bright colour of the flower-beds, and set in the sombre green of the yew hedges. Jim followed her finger.

"Yes, assuredly we are dancing," he said. "But Sunday afternoon in the country is an innocuous sort of high-dress dance, isn't it?"

"Certainly; but if we dance all and every day we don't get on with our work. And in point of fact, Jim, all our dances are not very high-dress. No; the fact is we are going to the dogs as quick as ever we can. Money, money, money! That is a perfectly sound and legitimate cry if the means you adopt are those that increase wealth. But if I get a tip from a City man and speculate, I am merely snatching at what I want. Did you go to the Maxwells' the other night? I did, because we all do. That is what we all have come to; but it does not spell efficiency. We worship the golden calf, but instead of feeding it we try to cut little pieces off it."

"And Deborah was a prophetess before the Lord," said Jim. "Proceed, Deborah."

"I wish I were," said Marie. "Oh, you should hear the truth if I was! But, Jack, I must tell you, comes pretty near to being a prophet."

"Then you are the prophet's wife. Tell me what he says about it."

"Ah! he is a prophet in all but the one thing needful – I mean the fire and the burning. The prophet is like the ph?nix; he is born from the ashes of a conflagration. In Jack's case all the message is there, but it is delivered – I don't know if it will mean anything to you, but personally I feel it – it is delivered out of cold lips. He needs the touch of the red-hot coal like Isaiah. Did you hear or read his speech last week about the Army Estimates? The First Secretary had given his statement in an apologetic kind of way, apparently wishing to conciliate the Opposition for the estimates being so high. The usual bickering over rounds of ammunition followed, and then Jack got up. Instead of apologizing for their being so high, he fell foul of his own chief for their being so low. He wanted to know why the autumn man?uvres had been curtailed; he wanted to know why the experiments at Lydd had been abandoned in the middle; he wanted to know why the projected battery at Gibraltar had not been constructed: was it because of the expense? Why, in fact, they had not spent twice as much as they had."

"That would hardly be a popular speech from a member of the Government."

"Popular? No. The prophet is no opportunist, and thank God Jack cares absolutely not one jot what either his own side or the Opposition think of him. The press the next morning was worth reading; he got the most violent abuse from both sides."

"Won't that sort of thing damage him both in and after the next election? I should not think his party would like it, and I am sure the Government will not."

"Ah, I disagree with you there," said Marie. "Jack, I think, is getting a great hold on the people – the masses, if you like. He dislikes them, and he treats them like dirt; but the masses, as you know, are profound snobs, and rather enjoy that. They like a lord to behave in the way they imagine lords do behave. They even like a wicked lord. On the other hand, they are beginning to see that Jack means business. He thinks the army is wholly inadequate, and, judging from the length of the Boer War, would crumple under a great stress. You see, he considers that the walk-over which was anticipated has degenerated into a stroll. So, instead of joining in the hymn of praise to the British Empire which the Government spend their time in singing, rather out of tune with each other, he stands apart, and says bluntly that we must set to and put ourselves in a far greater state of efficiency, otherwise 'Pop goes the Empire.' Now, that is impalatable, but I think people in general are beginning to see that it may be medicinal."

"I should say it was lucky he's a hereditary legislator," said Jim. "But how about a Government post afterwards?"

"Well, I think the Government may see that, too. They know perfectly well that Jack doesn't care one straw about party questions. He has said as much. What he does care about is the Empire – I think he cares for it more than anything else in the world – and what he knows about is the army. And if this cry for efficiency – which certainly is getting louder – in the country continues, they will have a far better chance of remaining in power if Jack is put at the War Office."

They had come to the far end of the meadow, and Marie paused a moment, looking at the broad, patient stream. Hundreds of pleasure-boats were scattered over its surface, and electric launches and river steamers crowded with roaring Sunday excursionists did their best to make vile one of the most beautiful rivers in the world. Each, indeed, seemed a Bedlam let loose and packed tight. Even the stuffy little cabins were full of feather-hatted girls and amorous young men, who changed hats with each other, without finding the brilliancy of this wit grow the least stale even in endless repetition; took alternate mouthfuls of solid refreshment out of paper bags and of beer out of the same bottle, with shouts of laughter at slightly indelicate suggestions. The poor river was flecked with fragments of bun-bags and floating bottles where trout should have been feeding, and echoes of the music-halls, with absolutely independent wheezings of concertinas, owning no suzerainty, by way of accompaniment, came to Marie and her companion with that curious sharp distinctness with which sound travels over water. For a moment they stood there in silence; then Marie turned quickly in the direction of the lawn behind them, and back to the river again.

"After all – " she said half to herself.

Jim laughed. It was somehow strangely pleasant to him to find himself, as Marie had said, thinking in harness.

"Yes, but less loudly so," he answered, replying to that which she had not said.

"So it seems to us. Those good folk on the river don't seem loud to themselves. But – oh dear me, Jim! what an awkward and inconvenient thing it is to be different from the people one moves among!"

He did not feel that he owed her any mercy on this point. She had refused deliberately the other life he had once offered her.

"Ah, you find that, do you?" he said, his love for her surging up with bitterness in his throat. "Yet you chose it yourself."

They had begun walking back towards the lawn again, but at his words Marie suddenly stopped. From one side came the sound of laughter and talk, from the other, now more remote, fragments of "D'isy, D'isy."

She well knew what was in his mind, and thanked him silently for not putting it into words.

"I know I did," she said; "and no doubt the very fact that I am different to most of my milieu is what makes it so entertaining."

At that moment Jim saw where he stood. He knew that his taunt that her lot was of her own choosing had been dictated by that which was bitter within him, and was of the nature of revenge, however ineffectual. And Revenge is a very smoky lamp wherewith to guide one's steps in this world, and he had the justice to quench it without more ado. But he knew also that the void which she might have filled ached horribly, and by the irony of fate he had now in abundance that of which the lack years ago had made it impossible then that she should fill it. She had been but a girl, he but a boy; and in him, he felt now, that which had subsequently flowered into this great bloom of love had been but in bud. But the bud, it was now proved, was authentic, for there was no mistaking the flowers.



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