Edward Benson.

Scarlet and Hyssop: A Novel



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CHAPTER VIII

It was about a fortnight after this Sunday at Richmond that the list of Birthday honours came out, and it was a surprise to nobody that Mr. Brereton's name appeared as the recipient of a peerage. For respectability and cash are things that in themselves confer such nobility on their fortunate possessor that it is only right and proper to stamp him with a coronet like writing-paper. Respectability no doubt has been, and will again be, dispensed with, but cash cannot be replaced except by exceptional achievements of some kind, of which Andrew was hopelessly incapable. And as it would clearly be absurd to bar a man from his birth from the possibility of attaining to the ranks of hereditary legislators, custom, slowly broadening down, has brought it about that since achievement in great deeds is within the reach but of the few, plenty of good gold, bestowed on plenty of good or party institutions, paves the way, so to speak, to what has been called by politicians who wrangle hotly in another place "the upper snows."

Marie Alston, who had known of the impending honours some days before, was talking it over with Jim Spencer.

"I don't say I like the principle," she was saying; "but, things being as they are, I think it a most suitable thing. Oh, my dear Jim, you know me sufficiently well to know that I think such a system all wrong from top to bottom. But, after all, it is in a piece with the rest. Plutocracy, not the King nor the Houses of Parliament, rules us, and naturally plutocracy says, 'I will have all that is within reach.' Why not? And peerages are certainly within reach. Of course the list is rather pronounced. Mr. Maxwell, I see, has been made a Baronet. But, after all, who else is there? Can you think of any eminent men whom one would wish to see peers? I can't. And there are few people richer than the Maxwells, I believe. It is no use screaming."

Jim shrugged his shoulders.

"At that rate, I could be made a peer," he said.

"Are you rich enough? How nice for you! And vice vers?, perhaps, Jack should be made a commoner. No doubt that reform will follow next. At least, perhaps Jack shouldn't because he really has the makings of an eminent man, but half the House of Peers, anyhow, should be made commoners. No doubt they would be if it were not for the innate snobbishness of the average Englishman. The average Englishman knows quite well that there is nothing whatever remarkable or admirable about quantities of peers except their peerages; yet, because they are peers, he loves and reverences them, and reserves them compartments, and incidentally takes toll off them as well."

Jim Spencer raised his eyebrows.

"Of course you are right," he said, "but you say these things, and don't take them seriously. You used to be serious, Marie."

"Ah, you do me an injustice," she said quickly. "I am just as serious as ever I was, but I realize that it is no use being serious in public.

People have no time to spare from their amusements nowadays for anything serious. But in private I am serious. I was serious in private to-day, for instance."

"Well, be serious now, and tell me what you were serious about."

"Oh, nothing. I beg your pardon, this is not in public. Indeed, it was something – something big, as it seems to me. I am not sure that I shall tell you about it."

They were both silent a moment – he unwilling to ask a question on a subject where she hesitated, she weighing in her mind whether or not she should tell him. At last she spoke.

"It is about Maud Brereton," she said, "She came to me yesterday, calm as a summer sea, to ask my advice as to whether she should marry Anthony Maxwell, just as I might ask your advice as to whether I should have a picture framed in gold or white. I did not ask her any questions as to whether she loved him, because I believe that there are many girls who have no idea what that means, and I think Maud is one of them."

Jim got up and began to walk up and down the room. He heard Marie with his ear speaking of Maud, but his inward ear translated, so it seemed to him, all she said of Maud into things she was saying about herself.

"Now, I am sufficiently modern," she went on, "not to wish all girls who do not feel passion to abstain from marrying. I believe that quite happy marriages often take place without it. Either the man or the woman may not feel it, yet by marrying they are both happier than they would have been if they had remained single. The ultimate sum of happiness is a large factor, Jim. Do you not think so?"

Again she seemed to be talking of herself, but now he could not decide whether she was speaking with complete sincerity. Her opinions, at any rate, appeared to him monstrous.

"Finish the exposition first," he said. "After all, whether I agree with you or not is a small matter. Maud Brereton asked your advice, not mine."

Something in his tone startled her for a moment, and instinctively that afternoon walk they had taken down by the river a fortnight ago came into her mind; but she went on without a pause.

"I seem cold-blooded to you," she said; "and I dare say I am – it is highly probable, in fact. Then, there is a further thing to be considered: many girls, I feel sure, have their passion awakened by marriage. Now, that constitutes a great danger, I admit, in passionless marriages. Who can tell – well, that need not be discussed. But it remains certain, I am afraid, that there are many women to whom the becoming as one flesh with their husbands has not meant anything before they married them."

"And less afterwards," remarked Jim.

"And less afterwards. Their physical nature is awakened, and – But, and here I am less modern than you at present are inclined to give me credit for."

"Credit for?" asked Jim.

"Yes, because you are not modern at all. Oh, Jim, it is a great puzzle! Supposing every girl had to feel that there was absolutely only one man in the world for her, and supposing every man had to feel that here, and here alone was his destiny, before he married, do you think we should have an increase of the marriage returns? I am afraid not. And people being what they are, do you think that this celibacy would have a good effect on morals? It is no use advocating counsels of perfection when you are dealing with the human race and its obvious imperfections. At least, that, I suppose, may eventually come; but for practical purposes the highest motive does not always secure such good results as a lower one."

"So you advised her to marry him," said Jim slowly.

"No, I advised her not to. All the excellent reasons which I have given you why she should marry him were present in my mind; I even told them her. But at the back of my mind – mind or soul, call it what you will – there was a great 'but.' I dare say it was unreasonable; it was certainly not clear to me what it was. But whatever it was, it said 'No.' It wanted me not to impose what I called my experience of the world on a girl. After all, what does one's experience amount to? The recollection of one's mistakes."

She spoke the last words more to herself than him as she leaned back in her low chair, her violet-coloured eyes looking "out and beyond," focused, not by the limit of her vision, but that of her thoughts. Quick, uneven breaths disturbed the slow rise and fall of her bosom, and the rose she had fastened in her dress shed half its fragrant petals on her lap. And because he was a man, he looked at her with kindled eye; and because he was a man who loved her, his blood also was kindled. More than ever before he knew how idle had been his flight from her; the c?lum non animum suddenly leaped in his mind from the dingy ranks of truisms to the austere array of the things that are true. He drew his chair a little closer to hers and laid his hand on its arm.

"Your mistakes, Marie?" he said.

It took her an appreciable fraction of time to recall herself, and realize what was meant by his burning look; but it took her no time at all, when once she had realized that, to answer him.

"Yes, one's mistakes," she said – "all the occasions on which one has failed to grasp the true import of what one was doing, and, in particular, all the mistakes one has seen other people making and their consequences. I always think that one's experience means much more what one has observed in other people than what one has done one's self. Of course, all observation passes through the crucible of one's personality, whether one observes things in one's self or other people, and that certainly transforms it, crystallizes it, what you will. But if one has a grain of imagination, other people's experiences are as vivid to one's self as one's own, and as potentially profitable. Don't you think so?"

She rose as she spoke, trembling slightly, and brushed the fallen petals from her dress. She was just enough not to blame him for what he had said; she was, indeed, just enough to commend him for his reticence, since her words had necessarily for him such a significance, and the need to stop him saying more was imperative. She could see what inward excitement moved him, and in her soul she thanked him for the love he bore her; but that any word of it should pass between them was impossible – merely, it could not be. This being so, she desired with a fervency of desire that she had not known for years not to lose her friend, and words of such a kind as she knew were rising to his lips would have meant this loss. Indeed, at this moment the world seemed to hold for her nothing so desired as that friendship, which a word might rob her of.

To him, her reply was both sobering and bracing. It showed him how close he had been walking to the edge of a precipice. As Marie had just told him, he was old-fashioned; he believed that "good" and "bad," "noble" and "wicked," were not yet words of obsolete meaning, words like "arquebus," which had no significance in the vocabulary of the day. A temptation had come and gripped him by the throat – the temptation to suggest to her that she should say that her marriage with Jack was, among her experiences, a mistake. He knew also – and was honest enough to confess that his desire to hear her say this was due to the fact that her confession would necessarily open certain vistas – it would be the first step, at any rate, down a path that a certain part of him had during his past fortnight longed to tread with a fervour and a passion that shook his whole nature, as a wind shakes and tosses a curtain. He knew in what sort Jack had kept his marriage vow, and he had begun to ask himself whether such conduct did not give emancipation, so to speak, to the wife – had begun to tell himself that it was no use setting up exceptional codes of morality. One lived in the world, the world did this and that; but this douche of cold water was bracing. It recalled him to sanity, to his better and his normal self, and he replied in a voice still shaken with his own overwhelming though momentary tumult.

"So you advised her not to marry him?" he asked. "Do you think she will take your advice?"

"Yes; because it showed her clearly what her own bias really was. One often does not know what one really thinks till some one expresses a strong opinion on one side or the other. Then one hears it with strong repugnance or strong sympathy, which reveals to one's self what one's true opinion is."

Jim smiled, a regurgitation of bitterness swelling up in his breast.

"Have you ever formulated to yourself what your own strongest passion is?" he asked.

"No, never. It is the most difficult thing in the world to say what one likes best until one is forty or thereabouts. All one's youth – which, I take it, extends to about forty – is passed experimentally in determining what one likes best, and one does not know till it is crystallized. By then also it is probably unattainable."

Jim laughed again bitterly.

"Oh, you need not be afraid," he said, his rebuff now beginning to sting. "I tell you that your chief passion is analysis. You do not care so much what people do, as why they do it. If a Hooligan knocked you down and began stamping on you, I can imagine you saying, 'Stop just a moment to tell me why you are doing this. Does giving pain to me give pleasure to you, or do you personally feel a grudge against me?' Then, when he had told you, you would say, 'Thank you very much. Go on stamping again.'"

Marie had detached the unpetalled rose from her dress, and had taken another from the vase in her hand. But she did not pin it in, but, after listening open-mouthed, sat down again with it in her fingers.

"I am egotistical, no doubt," she said, "and that must account for my burning desire to know why you think that. I suppose you do think that, Jim, or are you irritated with me for any cause?"

The question was unpremeditated, but as soon as she had spoken she could have bitten out her tongue for having said it. Almost certainly, she thought, in the moment's pause that ensued, he would tell her why he was irritated with her. That she knew already, and, of all things in the world, that was the one which she did not wish him to tell her. But his answer came almost immediately.

"I don't think there is anything you could do which would irritate me," he said, "and I do think what I have said. I think you are bloodless, Marie; I think you are like what you imagine Maud Brereton to be. And bloodless people are disconcerting. One does not know how to make them hear, how to make them feel the things that the majority of the race feel."

Suddenly there rose in her mind a long, far-off, dusty memory. She had been skating one day on a thinly frozen pond, and suddenly felt the ice bend and sway under her, and had said to herself, "The ice is thinner here." On that occasion she had put both feet down and gone straight for the bank. On this occasion she did exactly the same.

"You are probably right," she said. "The things which many women do, and find absorption in doing, I think stupid, and, what is worse, vulgar, and what is worst, wicked. I am bourgeoise, I am bonne femme– that is what you really mean, Jim. It is quite true; it is quite, quite true. And, no doubt, if one is not in the habit of spending all one's energies on – on matters of emotion, one disposes of them in other ways. If one does not give one's self up to feeling, one probably has more time for thinking, because one must do something if one has nerves and brains at all. But the Hooligan business you describe is beyond me, I am afraid."

He got up abruptly.

"I must go," he said. "There are a hundred things I must – not do. I must go and not do them."

At this moment, and for the first time during this interview, he had touched and moved her. His struggle suddenly became pathetic to her – a thing to pity and praise. Like a weir, he spouted at joints in the strong doors of his determination not to speak, but the flood was restrained. She rose also.

"That excuse has the charm of absolute sincerity," she said. "When people say they have a hundred things to do, it seems to me a very bad reason. Yours is better. When shall I see you again?"

"I don't know," said he, and for a moment left her awkwardly placed. But his manliness once more came to his aid – for there could be but one conclusion if he said no more – and he added: "I am away next Sunday; I come back on Wednesday. That night I dine with the Ardinglys."

"I also. Till Wednesday, then, Jim – go and not do all these things you spoke of! Not doing things takes longer than doing them. It takes all the time, in fact. Good-bye!"

CHAPTER IX

It was never denied, even by the stupidest of her enemies, that Mildred Brereton was a woman of the world, and her mode of procedure, when she learned from Maud of her first rejection of Anthony's hand, was perfectly correct from the standpoint of wisdom. She made no fuss or scene of any kind, and only said:

"Dear Maud, I am very, very sorry. But you know, dear, how I trust you."

Maud pondered this remark, in her silent, uncomfortable way, for a moment.

"Do you mean you trust me eventually to accept him?" she asked.

Mrs. Brereton wondered in her own mind where Maud could have got her tactlessness from. Aloud she said:

"I trust you in every way, dear – every way. And it shows your good sense that you did not definitely refuse him. I do not wish to force you at all or hurry your decision."

This was all that was said on the subject at the time, but Mildred, after careful thought, was convinced she had done right. This impeccable attitude was completed by her looking rather sad whenever her daughter was observing her, sighing, and constantly calling her "dear child" in well-modulated tones of chastened and uncomplaining affection. This policy – if it is possible to use so cold and calculating a word for a process so tender – had its desired effect, and Maud felt herself touched with a sense of vague contrition. Eventually, not feeling sure of herself, she had decided to confide her difficulty to Marie Alston, for whom she cherished a shy and secret adoration. This interview, however, had not been productive of a result which harmonized with her mother's tender processes; indeed, had Mildred known that her gentle dropping of water on a stone (the tender process) would have led her daughter to ask advice of Marie, she would have adopted quite different methods. Maud told her about the interview the same afternoon. She was not called "dear child," or words to that effect, on this occasion.

Now, there is a sort of anger which, though it is often seen in combination with irritation and ill-temper, is something very different from either. It is not a quick-burning emotion; it is in no hurry to strike and to hurt, but is quite deliberate, very patient, and at the end, when a favourable opportunity presents itself, strikes hard. It was this quality of anger that entered into Mildred's mind when Maud told her of this interview. Had she been simply irritated with Marie or angry with an anger of the less dangerous and quicker sort, she would probably have rushed round to Park Lane, used the language of a cook to Marie, burst into tears, and probably made it up a day or two later. But she had not the slightest impulse to do any of those things. She was irritated with Maud, called her a fool, and sent her away. Then she sat down and thought about Marie.

There occurred to her, of course, at once a very obvious method of injuring Marie. All London – every one, that is to say, who mattered at all – except Marie herself, knew that she and Jack had been great friends for a very long time. What would be the effect on Marie if she let her know quietly, drop by drop, as one lets absinthe cloud and embitter water, what had been going on so long, what she had been blind to so long! Mildred knew her to be a woman of a pride and fastidiousness quite beyond not only her own reach, but her own comprehension. This she had never either resented or envied; if people chose to behave in what she called a Holy Land manner, it was nothing to her, but she was not jealous of their unattainable Oriental longitudes. It was all very well to sit on a pedestal, but if you did, you had no idea what games went on in the jostling world below. Marie's habitual attitude was to put her nose in the air and draw her skirts away from the crowd; it would really be very humiliating for her to get to learn by degrees what had been going on all these years, to upset the pedestal, in fact, and let her struggle to her feet as best she could, to let her, who always professed to find scandal and gossip of all sorts so uninteresting, know for the first time a bit of it which she could scarcely consider dull.

Mildred got up from the sofa where she was lying in her sitting-room, and, lighting a cigarette, took a turn up and down. At first sight it seemed an excellent plan, diabolical, which suited her mood, and simple as all good plans are; but on second thoughts there were objections. In her present anger she did not value Marie's friendship a straw, while as for her own reputation, she was well aware that for all practical purposes she had none. People, she knew, did not talk about Jack and her any longer, simply because the facts were so stale, "and that," she thought to herself with grim cynicism, "is what one calls living a thing down." No, the danger lay elsewhere. Supposing Marie cut up very rough indeed, supposing in her horror and disgust at Jack she did not hesitate to punish herself as well, and bring the matter if she could into the crude and convincing light of the Divorce Court, it would be both unpleasant for Mildred herself, for she felt that cross-examination was not likely to be amusing, and it would also spell ruin for Jack's career, a thing which now, in the present state of her affections, she cared about perhaps more than Jack. Of course, the matter might be conveyed to Marie in so gradual and vague a manner that such proceedings on her part would be without chance of success as far as getting a divorce was concerned – to possess her mind with suspicions that gradually became moral certainties was the point – but Mildred knew well that in the mind of the great middle class to be mentioned in connection with the Divorce Court is the mischief, not to lose or win your case there. In any case, if she decided on this she would have to think it very carefully over; it must be managed so that Marie could not possibly go to the courts. Besides, ridiculous as Marie would appear even if she adopted the least aggressive attitude of self-defence, yet Mildred felt she must not underrate the strength of her position in society. Perhaps another plan might be found as simple and without these objections. She wanted, in fact, to think of something which would hurt Marie as much as possible, and yet give her no chance of retaliation. Where was Marie vulnerable? Where was she most vulnerable?



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