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Scarlet and Hyssop
E. F. Benson
It has been ordained by the wisdom of Nature that the same fact shall strike the majority of her foolish children almost simultaneously. This phenomenon can hardly have escaped the most casual observer; the majority of swallows, for instance, in any given area will agree, practically in the same week, that our English autumn is no longer tolerable, and with consenting twitterings set their heads southwards; or in the spring, again, one may observe that in any given field daisies and buttercups will determine, only to be nipped by unpunctual frosts, that it is now time to come out, while even man, that most vacillating and least uniform of all created things, has a certain sympathy in his sensations; the sap stirs with moderately equal effervescence in the most dissimilar units; and without further preamble, to take the case in point, London settles without consultation, but with considerable unanimity, when spring may be considered to have stopped and summer to have begun. It is hardly necessary to state that London is, if not always, at any rate very frequently, completely deceived—like the buttercups and daisies—about a point so apparently palpable as even this, and a few biting frosts about mid-May usually send it back to its furs again; but the fact remains that on or about the same day the streets suddenly wear a completely different garb. On all sides the chrysalises burst, and butterflies gay or sober, according to their temperaments, hover and try their wings over a ground strewn, so to speak, with the brown husks of the "winter weeds outworn." Nor is this bursting of the chrysalis confined to externals: the time has come; the tides of vitality turn and flow through the town, and the reopened houses, newly decked window-boxes, and the flush of colour in the streets, are but symptomatic of the inward conviction of their inhabitants that a fresh season for doing a quantity of things they should not do, and as great an opportunity for leaving undone many things that they should do, has been turned up by the spade of Time, that irresponsible farmer of years.
Though not usually given to prosing, Lady Alston had been making remarks somewhat to this effect as she sat with Mrs. Brereton after lunch in a balconied window of her drawing-room in Park Lane looking over the haze and warmth of the Park. Being for the moment, at any rate, in a pessimistic mood, she accounted for it by a belittling explanation.
"We are so obvious; that is why we all do things simultaneously," she said; "and a thing that everybody does is not in itself worth doing at all. I don't suppose there ever was a race so utterly deficient in originality."
The sun was not very hot, and Mrs. Brereton put down her parasol, and pointed dramatically with it down Park Lane.
"What do you call that?" she asked. "Did you ever see anything so wildly and colossally original? You have travelled, dear Marie, and have seen Aztecs and wigwams and the gorgeous East in fee, whatever that may mean. But have you ever seen anything to approach Park Lane?"
Lady Alston laughed.
"I don't call nightmares original," she said.
"I'm sure I don't know why not. I see nothing in the nature of a nightmare which is incompatible with originality. Just look: there we have a Gothic façade, followed by a very plain English erection which reminds me of beef and beer and Sunday. A little further down you will observe a kind of kiosk, and after that the front of the Erechtheum and something from the slums of Nürnberg. If one could look round the corner, we would see a rustic cottage, a bit of Versailles, a slice of Buckingham Palace as pièce de resistance, and some Pompeian frescoes by way of a savoury. There's richness for you."
"Scraps only, scraps from other places. It always reminds me of a dog's dinner," said Lady Alston; "and all of us who live here are like scraps for a dog's dinner, too. Bits of things, remnants, a jumble sale, with everything priced above its proper value."
Mildred Brereton leaned back in her chair, so that the sun did not catch her hair. The particular Titian shade she affected was so difficult to please in a strong light, and she felt sure that at this moment there was a sort of metallic iridescence on it. She would have to go to the hair-dresser's again to-day.
"Dear Marie, what possesses you this lovely morning?" she asked. "Why is the world so stupid?"
"Probably only because I had a very short night. I am quite aware that when one is dissatisfied with things in general, it means that one's vie interieure, shall we say? is dissatisfied with something particular."
"And what form does the dissatisfaction take?"
Lady Alston threw her hands wide with an admirably graceful gesture.
"I despair of the human race of the day," she said, "but I have enough grace to include myself. Do you suppose there ever was such a stupid class of people—especially we, Mildred, the women! We have all, literally all, we should want to make ourselves happy in an animal way—good health, sufficient money, and a deep abiding selfishness. But we can't amuse ourselves; we are not happy; we are like dogs out for a walk, we must continually have sticks thrown for us. We can none of us invent anything ourselves. We can none of us stand solitude, which is in itself a complete confession of our stupidity, our parasitic nature. We go and hear people sing and act, and make music; and go and see horses race; we play cards for hours because we have not got the wit to talk—they say Bridge killed conversation. What nonsense! there was none to kill. Our whole brains, such as they are, are occupied in devising things to do to make the time pass. And we devise very badly: we are always glad when each thing is over. We go to a concert. How long! We live three months in London. How nice it will be to get down to the country again! We play Bridge. Will the rubber never end? We spend the autumn in the country. Will November never be over? On the top of that we do all in our power to make it appear that time has not passed with us. We dye our hair and paint our faces, in order to appear young, but the moment we open our mouths it is obvious we are tired, withered old women! There!"
Mrs. Brereton moved a little into the shadow.
"Don't mind me, dear," she said, "I am going to have it done again this afternoon; it won't do at all."
Lady Alston laughed; she had noticed the iridescence.
"Now you, Mildred," she said, "you are an excellent case in point. Tell me why you find it worth while to do that. What object is served by your spending hours at your hair-dresser's? Can you find nothing better to do?"
"You don't know my hair-dresser. He is a small Frenchman with a lack-lustre eye, who sighs over the wickedness of the world. I sigh too; and we find sympathy in each other's eyes. Some day I shall ask him to dinner, and that will be disappointing. Besides, my hair is beginning to be neatly picked out with gray, and when your hair is gray it looks as if you were no longer young. Nor am I. I am thirty-six. But I have still a greedy appetite for pleasure, which is the only real test of youth. Therefore I cut my coat, or rather dye my hair, according to my essential age, and pay no attention to the utterly misleading measure of years."
"But what is the use of being young if it is only to be young?" asked Lady Alston.
"That is a question which you will not ask when you are thirty-six. Most delightful things are of no use whatever, and useful things are seldom delightful. Go on about the want of originality in the world."
"There is really nothing to say about it. It is there, a colossal fact. Nobody is serious—seriousness is considered the greatest of social crimes—and we drift along like thistle-down. We are vicious; we are idle. No one has any dignity or any manners, and there is no object under the sun, except perhaps the avoidance of physical pain, for which we would sacrifice our breakfast or dinner."
"There is no one under the sun," said Mildred, "for whom many of us would not sacrifice our reputations."
"But not our dinner. Oh, I know I am only really speaking of—well, of people you and I know best, among whom we choose to pass our time. There again you see our utter want of originality. We are bound hand and foot by conventions of our own making. Supposing I happened to go into the country for a fortnight, instead of grilling here in London, every one would say it was quite unheard of. And I have not got sufficient originality to go, although I do think that it is simply silly and absurd to live in a town in the summer."
"Every one would say a great deal more than that," remarked Mrs. Brereton.
"I know they would. They would wonder whom I had gone with, and they would speedily invent several people. I beg the pardon of the people among whom we live. They have one passion, and it is scandal; the more ill-natured the better."
"No; ill-nature has nothing to do with it," said Mrs. Brereton. "They have a passion for scandal, it is true. What else is there to talk about? I share it; in fact, I have a particularly large helping, but it is the subject-matter of scandal which really interests people. I don't see why you shouldn't call it the study of human nature. It is if you come to think of it."
Lady Alston shook her head.
"No, the study of the worst side of it," she said. "So far, what you say is true. All that most men think about is women, and all that women think about is men. That is the coarse, raw truth of the thing; that is the real indictment. Oh, it is inexplicable to me! All that we want in this world is at our command—at any rate all the beautiful and interesting things in existence can be read or heard or seen by us. But we don't waste two thoughts on them all. We sit in corners and giggle like barmaids with our young men. And, as long as there is no public scandal, no scandal of the wrong sort—you know what I mean—the more people that see us, the better we like it. We put our noses in the air when we see a Harry and a Harriet with their arms round each other's necks, having changed hats, and say, 'How those people can!' But we can! And we do!"
Mrs. Brereton shrieked with laughter.
"Oh, Marie, you are too heavenly!" she said. "And you certainly have a right to say those things, because nobody ever accused you of changing hats with anybody. You don't draw them in, you know, dear. They call you 'Snowflake' and all sorts of things, I am told. And such lots of people offer you their hats. Yet you never take one."
Lady Alston shifted her position slightly, as if something had suddenly made her uncomfortable.
"It is no use talking about wickedness nowadays," she said, "because people simply stare, as if they did not know what you meant. But I made Blanche stare in a different kind of manner the other day, when I asked her if she really had no idea how vulgar she was."
"Surely she did not mind being called vulgar?"
"She did when I explained carefully what I meant by vulgarity. Of course a certain sort of vulgarity is chic now. It is very vulgar not to be vulgar, not to talk at the top of one's voice, and eat too much, and laugh very loud at things which ought not to be said; but when I told her what sort of a picture she makes when she sits simpering and ogling Dick all across the room, and, so to speak, spreading herself on the floor for him to walk over, she did not think I was so pleasant. But that's exactly what she does."
Mrs. Brereton drew on her gloves.
"There is something very successful in your attitude, Marie," she said. "You go about hurling home-truths at people; you hold up looking-glasses to them, and make them see themselves; you point out what brutes they are, and scold them for it; but they never bear you any ill-will, and always want to see you. You really must not go into the country: we cannot get on without you!"
"Ah, if I only was conceited enough to think that, I should go!"
"That is truly amiable. But what I mean is this: you have got somehow the quality of centrality; our parties—I'm sure I don't know why—are brilliant if you are there, and sensibly flatter if you are not. I suppose it is because people are always talking about you, and it is so nice in one's own house to be able to point to the original. At the same time, I always feel about you as if you were the volcano on which we were all dancing."
"I shan't explode: I am the least likely person in the world to explode," said Marie.
"Ah, you never can tell about volcanoes. That is the joy of them. I snatch a fearful joy from you, dear. I wish I was a volcano. How do you manage it? Do you get very angry inside, and determine not to say anything till the pressure is irresistible? By the way, Jim Spencer has just come back. You know him, I suppose? Anyhow, you will meet him at dinner this evening."
Marie looked up with a sudden vivacity.
"Jim Spencer? Why, of course I do. We were brought up together almost. Then—well, then I married, and I lost sight of him somehow."
"One does," observed Mrs. Brereton. "Marriage often produces a sort of moral cataract."
"Don't be foolish, Mildred. There is nothing cheaper or easier or falser than that sort of innuendo. Besides, he went abroad; he has been away two years, I should think."
"They do go abroad," said Mrs. Brereton.
"Oh, if you want to know, there is no earthly reason why I should not tell you. He proposed to me. But I always liked him very much."
"I always said so," remarked Mrs. Brereton.
"Then you had no business to. Dear Jim! I shall be delighted to see him again. He is one of the few really reasonable people I know. He has got some sort of plan of his own; he has always known what he meant to do, though he has not always done it. For instance, he wanted impossible things; he had no money and I had none, so he proposed that we should marry and support ourselves by his writings. He has appeared before now in Christmas numbers."
"Then, perhaps you acted wisely. But he rolls in wealth now. A South African millionaire, without anything South African about him: no local colour, in fact. He is also remarkably handsome. Wealth, manners, good looks! A fairy-prince combination."
Lady Alston laughed.
"Dear me! I shall like to see Jim with society at his feet," she said.
"You make certain it will go there?"
Lady Alston raised her eyebrows.
"My dear, how can you ask? He is rich—that is sufficient alone."
"He must not kick us, then. It is to be understood he gives us halfpence, golden halfpence. And it is very interesting—that story about him and you, I mean."
Lady Alston did not at once reply.
"You give one a bad taste in the mouth sometimes, Mildred," she said at length.
"Very possibly. And you always tell one that one has done so."
"I know. That is why we are friends."
Mrs. Brereton looked doubtful.
"In spite of it, I should say."
"No, because of it. Ah! Here is Jack."
Jack Alston was one of those people whom it was quite unnecessary to point out, because he was distinctly visible not only to the outward, but also to the inward eye. He was so large, that is to say, that you could not fail to notice that he had come into a room, and at the same time, he had about him the quality of making himself felt in some subtle and silent manner. As a rule he spoke but little; but his silence, as Mildred Brereton once remarked with more than her usual insight, took up all the time. It could not be described as a rich silence, for it was essentially dry, but somehow it compelled attention. Probably, if he had been short and squat, it would have passed unnoticed, but coming as it did from him, it was charged with a certain force, partaking of his own quality. Also it was doubly unnecessary for his wife to call attention to his entrance, for on no one did it produce such an effect as on her. Thus, on this occasion, having remarked on it, she said no more.
Jack lounged slowly into the balcony, shook hands with Mrs. Brereton, and sat down on a basket chair sideways to his wife, so that he looked straight at her profile.
"Decent afternoon for once, Mildred," he said. "Summer at last. You look summery, too."
"What there is left of me," said she. "Marie has been taking the hide off us all—skinning us."
Jack considered this a moment.
"Well, you look all right skinned," he said at length. "Bad habit of Marie's, though. What has she been skinning you about?"
"She's been telling me we are all wicked and stupid, and vicious and vulgar."
"That's a hobby of hers. One must have a hobby. Going out this afternoon, Marie?"
Mildred took the hint instantly.
"I must be off," she said. "Really, Jack, you have the most brutal manner. You send me to the right-about with the least possible ceremony. So I wish to tell you I was going in any case. I've a hundred things to do."
"When have you not? I'll see you down. Wait a minute, Marie, if you're not in a hurry; I want to have a word with you."
"Oh, don't trouble," said Mildred. "I can find my way."
Jack said nothing, but merely followed her into the house, and when they had passed the drawing-room, "Has she been cutting up rough about anything in particular?" he asked.
"Oh, no; merely the rigid attitude, fire-works, thunder-storms, what you will."
"I'm rather tired of them. For several reasons she had better stop. I believe most idiots find it amusing."
Mildred took a parasol out of the stand, with the air of a purchaser selecting the one that most struck her fancy. As a matter of fact, it happened to be her own.
"I should take care if I were you," she said in a low voice. "A man like you cannot form the least idea of what a woman like Marie really is. Is my carriage here? Just see, please."
She stood on the bottom step of the stairs, putting on her rather thick and masculine driving-gloves, while Jack crossed the hall and rang the bell. Then he came back to the bottom of the stairs again.
"Do you mean that she suspects anything?" he asked.
"No, of course not. What I do mean is that she is beginning to see what we all are like. You and I, when we see that, are delighted. It is a nice big playground. But it does not strike Marie as a playground. Also you must remember that she is the—how shall I say it!—the sensation, the latest, the fashion. You've got to be careful. She is capable of exploding some day, and if she did it would be noticeable. It will hardly be worth while picking up the fragments of you and me that remain, Jack, if she does. Because if she does, it will be since something has touched her personally."
"You are extraordinarily slow. Of course the person who is most likely to touch her personally is you."
"I've got to mind my p's and q's, in fact. That's not the way to manage her."
Mrs. Brereton's face clouded a little as she walked across the hall to the door which was being held open for her.
"Well, au revoir," she said. "I shall have more to say to you to-night. You dine with us, you know."
Jack Alston did not appear to be in any particular hurry to go upstairs again after Mrs. Brereton had gone. He waited on the door-step to see her get in, a groom who barely reached up to the horses' heads holding them while she took up the reins, then running stiffly to scramble in behind, as she went off down Park Lane in the most approved fashion, elbows square, a whip nearly perpendicular, and her horses stepping as if there were a succession of hurdles to negotiate, each to be taken in the stride. Her remarks about the importance of taking care had annoyed Jack a little, and still more his own annoyance at being annoyed. He had his own ideas about the management of his affairs, among which, about halfway down, came his wife, and the hint that she might, even conceivably, make matters unpleasant for him was the same sort of indignity as a suggestion that he could not quite manage his own dogs or horses. But after a minute he turned.
"For what time is her ladyship's carriage ordered?" he asked of the footman.
"Half-past three, my lord."
"Tell them to come round at a quarter to four instead," he said, and went slowly upstairs again.
He found his wife on the balcony where he had left her, with her maid beside her with two hats in her hand.
"Yes, that one will do," she said, "and send the other back. No, I will take it myself this afternoon. It is all wrong. Put it in a box and leave it in the hall. I am going out immediately."
The maid retired with the condemned hat, and while Marie pinned the other on, she turned to her husband.
"You wanted to speak to me?" she said, not lifting her eyes.
Jack looked at her in silence a moment, and lit another cigar.
"Finish pinning on your hat first," he said.
Marie found herself obeying him, with a sense of wanting, just in order to see what happened, not to do as he told her. However, she pinned her hat on.
"Well?" she said again.
"Jim Spencer has come back," he said.
"I knew that. Mildred told me just now."
"I wanted to say a few words to you about him. I find people have not forgotten that he was very much attached to you once."
She looked up at him with eyes of indifferent wonder, as if he had asked her some inane unanswerable sort of riddle.
"People are quite at liberty to remember or forget what they like, as far as I am concerned," she said. "Is that all you have to say to me? If so, I will go out, I think. The carriage ought to be round."
"Not yet. I told them not to come round till a quarter to four. And I have more to say."
"Please consult me another time," she said, "before you take it upon yourself to alter my arrangements."
Jack did not reply at once. Then in a voice expressive neither of compunction nor annoyance, "It is no use making a fuss," he said. "I wish merely to warn you that people have not forgotten. I wish also to ask you to behave reasonably. People, very likely, will connect your names again: you know what they are."
She rose flushing.
"So you wanted a quiet quarter of an hour in which to insult me," she said.
He pointed to a chair.
"Sit down, Marie," he said.
"Supposing I choose not to?"
"We will not suppose anything so absurd. There! Why not have done it at once? As I was saying, this will inevitably happen, and so I should advise you to accept it. That will entail certain alterations in your—your general style. I have often heard you criticising rather mercilessly the world you live in; Mildred tells me you were doing so this afternoon. I don't mind your doing that: you have a racy sort of way of talking, and no doubt all your criticisms are perfectly true. But with the return of Jim Spencer, I should advise you either to drop that sort of thing, or else not see very much of him."
He paused, and flicked the end of his cigar-ash over the balcony.
"Not that I mind your doing either the one or the other in themselves," he continued, "but to do both will show a want of wisdom."
"Ah, you don't mind what I do, but only what people say!"
"Exactly. You have quite grasped my meaning."
Again she rose from the chair in which she had sat at his bidding.
"That is all, then, I imagine," she said. "Five minutes was enough."
"Yes, for what I had to say. I thought you might like to talk over it."
"I have not the least desire to."
Jack reached out his hand for an early edition of the evening paper, and unfolded it.
"Perhaps you would tell me what you mean to do."
"I have no intention of doing anything. Certainly I have no intention of discussing the question with you."
Jack did not show the slightest impatience.
"There's no use in being so nettled about it," he observed. "If a woman behaves in a certain way, she gets talked about. That is all. I have indicated to you that if you do certain things you will get talked about; I do not want that."
"From your point of view, I wonder why. Mildred is talked about, so I am told; but I never knew that you considered that a reason for not seeing her a good deal."
For one moment he looked quickly up, then turned back a fluttering leaf of his paper.
"Quite true. And if you were anybody else's wife, I should not mind how much you were talked about. But you are mine—it happens you are mine."
Marie did not reply.
"Somehow the matter has grown to larger dimensions than I had intended," he added. "I only meant to give you quite a friendly and, in a way, insignificant word of warning. But somehow you have put it all into capital letters. There, go out for your drive. Really, Marie, I had not the slightest conception you would make such an affair of it."
"You think I have been unreasonable."
She made a great effort with herself.
"Very well, I will forget all about it. You see, we rub each other up the wrong way, Jack. It is a great pity."
"Yes. But it's not worth bothering about."
The paper appeared to have nothing much in it, and it was only a few moments after his wife had left him that Jack put it down, and finished his cigar without other employment than his own thoughts. This short scene with Marie had disturbed him in the same way as a fall in the barometer may disturb a picnic-giver: it may come to nothing, but there is a hint of the fair weather breaking. At the same time, he was perfectly well accustomed to be utterly at variance with her, and never contemplated any divergence of opinion between them which could result in his having to give way. It is only selfish people who cannot believe that they are selfish, and Jack never passed moral judgments on himself or anybody else. To be critical of any behaviour that did not annoy him personally he held to be an absurd attitude to adopt; it was only behaviour that might prove inconvenient to one's self that could reasonably be criticised, or, rather, not so much criticised as corrected. He knew quite well that the small but well-dressed fragment of the world that at all concerned him, was perfectly aware that his marriage with Marie had not been a romantic success, though personally he considered it quite up to the average. To a nature like his, unbroken constancy and devotion to one's wife is not only an achievement never aimed at, but an achievement not even contemplated. He had married, as many men do, simply because many men do marry, and an heir is certainly the natural complement to estates and a title. But no heir had been born, and, in a manner of speaking, Marie had made his estates and title appear ridiculous and lopsided; she had not fulfilled her part of the bargain.
It is not meant to be understood that he stated these things to himself with the foregoing baldness, but none the less, if he had analyzed the springs of action that determined the course of the life he led, he would have admitted that they represented its ground-motives with sufficient accuracy. But Jack was not in the habit of analyzing anything: inquiry into the reasons for conduct seemed to him a profitless pursuit, since—again to put the matter baldly—he did not care at all whether a person acted wickedly or not. In fact, as his wife had said, there were many people who simply stared if you talked of wickedness. Her husband was among them, but he did not even stare.
It is commonly said that modern life is too full and too complex, but this generalization requires limiting. Certainly to a man, or in particular a woman, not belonging to"the world," a sudden plunge into that frothy mill-race would be complex to the verge of distraction. But there are many ways of simplifying this complexity, and one of the most convenient and efficient is to strike out, without further consideration, all moral obligations, positive and negative. When once one no longer thinks it necessary to reflect whether one ought or ought not to do or to avoid a thing, the saving of time and tissue is quite enormous. For it is not so much doing things as thinking about them which consumes the minutes and the nerves, and once having made an unalterable rule to do a thing if it is pleasant, and refrain from it if it is not, one can get into a single day a number of delightful experiences which would appear to those who do not know the recipe quite incredible. Again, as among wild beasts, so in the world, the weak go to the wall. There is no place for them, and no use for them. Every one has to look out for himself, and fight for his own possessions and those of other people. Not to recognise this spells failure. Such, at any rate, was Lord Alston's experience, and he was generally understood to have had a good deal of it.
But as he sat now with the stale paper on his knees he had a vague sense of being balked. He knew his own section of the world fairly well, and having broken his rose-coloured spectacles a long time ago, and not having desired to get new ones, he realized that people certainly remembered Jim Spencer's attachment to his wife, and that piecing together with their habitual amiability, their opinion of the ill-success of his own marriage with her, her frankly low opinion of the world, and the possibility of the renewed intimacy of his wife and this man, they would say things which would annoy him personally. He had hoped that Marie would see this, or if not that, at any rate learn it by heart, so to speak, from a few well-chosen remarks of his. But she had done neither the one nor the other; she had taken the well-chosen remarks, so he considered, remarkably ill, and the only amende had been to say that she would forget all about it. To Jack's mind this was but poor wifely conduct.
Andrew Brereton, Mildred's husband, was a man about whom little was known and hardly more conjectured, since he was most emphatically of that type of man who arouses in none the remotest feeling of curiosity. There seemed to be no doubt that he was of humble origin, but his origin, whether humble or haughty, he had completely built over with the tall edifice of his subsequent achievements, which had resulted in the amassing of a fortune large enough to satisfy the requirements even of his wife. It is generally supposed that brains of some kind are necessary in order to make a very large quantity of money, and these must be postulated for him; but having made a fortune, brains—or so a study of this particular millionaire would lead one to suppose—thenceforth become a superfluity. Certainly it appeared that Mr. Brereton, on his retirement from business, either locked his up, or, perhaps, as a concluding bargain, disposed of them, no doubt at a suitable valuation, to his house, which dealt largely and wisely in sound mining concerns in South Africa. Physically he was thin and meagre in build, and habitually wore a harassed and troubled look, especially in his own house, where he sat at the head of the table, and, for all the attention that was usually paid him, might as well have been sitting on the area-steps. But inasmuch as he really had an immense fortune, and his wife had the spending of it, the privilege of being present when she entertained her friends in his house was accorded him without question, and the further advantage of his sitting on the area-steps instead of at his table was never seriously weighed by any one.
To-night there was only a very small party, all the members of which, with the exception of Jim Spencer, had probably met five or six times a week since they came up to London, and during the winter had been together more often than not in each other's houses. There was, therefore, no sorting and resorting of groups required; conversation could either be general, or in a single moment split up like broken quicksilver and roll away into appropriate corners. For the moment it was general, or rather everybody was listening to Arthur Naseby, a stout young man, fresh-faced, but prematurely bald, who, standing on the hearth-rug, harangued the room in a loud and strident barytone.
"The most awful party I ever was at," he was saying. "Mrs. Boneman was there, the wife of our eminent artist, wearing a sort of bird's-nest on her head with three Union Jacks and some Easter eggs stuck into it. She was dressed in a sort of Brussels carpet trimmed with what looked like horsehair. I'm sure it was not horsehair really, but probably some rare and precious material, but it looked like it; and she wore what I understood to be the famous Yeere diamonds. They were about as large as pen-wipers, and were plastered round her neck and pinned on to the shoulders; others were scattered about her back. I imagine she stood in the middle of the room, and her maid threw them at her, and they stuck in the horsehair."
Mrs. Brereton shrieked with laughter.
"You are too heavenly!" she cried. "Go on, Arthur. Who else was there?"
"All the people whom one always sees coming out of the door of the Cecil at Brighton, and all those who ask one to supper at the Carlton, in order to inquire apparently who is sitting at the other tables. It is a sort of passion with a certain kind of person to know who is supping at the other tables at the Carlton, and his, or usually her, limitation that he never does. It appears to them of far greater importance than who is supping at their own. Well, they were all there, Princess Demirep, and the Linoleums and Lincrustas. Hosts of them! I assume it was most brilliant."
"Whom did you go with?" asked Lady Davies, who always wore an air of intent study when Arthur Naseby was talking, because she was trying to remember all he said in order to repeat it as original.
"I went with Blanche Devereux. I was dining with her, and she insisted on my coming. We are both going again on the 16th."
"So am I. Dear Blanche! What did she make of it all?"
"She said she had never felt so humbled in her life. You see, this was a particular party of intimes; the 16th is an omnibus. The brilliance of the gathering overwhelmed her, just as it did me. We really knew nobody there, and sat in a corner alone in London, till Mrs. Maxwell herself left her commanding situation at the head of the stairs where she received her guests and came and talked to us. I know she thought she was being kind. So she was, but not in the way she meant."
"She is too wonderful," said Mildred, "Was she dressed in red satin?"
"I should have said bound, not dressed. Very tightly and neatly bound with silk-markers and gilt edges. She thanked Blanche for coming, and just stopped herself saying she felt much honoured; also she had hoped to see her husband as well. Now, I have heard many tactful things in my life, but I think never anything quite so tactful as that. A strange fatality pursues poor Mrs. Maxwell; she says unerringly and loudly the only thing which it is absolutely impossible to say. Blanche is not a prude, I think we are all agreed, and therefore not easily shocked. Poor Mrs. Maxwell might have said almost anything, however improper, without offending her. Again, Blanche is a woman of the world; she can usually make some sort of reply to the most awful put-your-foot-in-it. But she was completely outclassed by that one simple sentence. Mrs. Maxwell was first, and nobody else anywhere."
Lady Davies was so far carried away by this brilliance as to laugh, and thus completely forgot all she had learned by heart from Arthur's previous conversation.
"Then poor Mrs. Maxwell turned to me," he went on, "and remarked that I looked far from well. When any one says that to me, I am always ill for the next three days; in fact, I hardly thought I could get here to-night. Of course, that spoiled the rest of my pleasure, and I hardly knew what happened, except that Dick turned up later in the evening, and—and pursued his impetuous path. I fancy that poor Mrs. Maxwell imagined that he was Blanche's husband. But I don't wonder at that."
Marie's nerves were a little on edge to-night, and both what Mr. Naseby said and the roaring volubility with which he said it jarred on them. At this particular moment certainly she was possessed with a longing of an almost passionate kind to cover him up like a canary with a piece of green baize. But, as there was no baize to hand, she got up from where she was sitting in the canary's immediate vicinity, and sought a safe distance in the window-seat. Jim Spencer, who had been sitting at the other side of the room, got up also, and, crossing the hearth-rug where Mr. Naseby stood, followed her into her retreat. The latter, seeing a secession from his audience, cast one pained and pitying glance at them, and then covered their retreat by the continuation of his monologue.
"So you, like me, find it a little trying, Jim," said Marie, when they were seated together; "but you will have to get used to it."
"Is there much of that sort of man?" asked Jim. "I don't remember anything quite like it when I was in London last."
"No, he is a recent invention. He invented himself, in fact. Mildred thinks she invented him, but she only detected him. The truth is, I think, that on the whole people have grown rather stupider in the last year or two, or perhaps it is only lazier, and Arthur Naseby saves them the trouble of having to talk themselves. In fact, he makes it impossible."
"Is he always like that?"
"As far as I know, always."
"How odd that he doesn't find it fatiguing! Or perhaps it is even odder that other people don't find it fatiguing. Tell me something about him."
"I know nothing whatever about him more than what you can see and hear," said Marie. "Indeed, I don't believe there is any more. He is very rich, and declines to marry."
"Then the man is a husk, a husk with a tongue," said Jim.
"Probably about that; at least, I never heard that any one had reason to believe there was anything more than the husk. Jim, I wonder how many of us have real people inside. I expect there are lots of husks and nothing more."
"Do you think so? I rather believe that most of us have got something real, though perhaps nothing very wholesome or very pleasant. That being so, one tries to conceal it, though sometimes it pops out like a lizard from a crevice. I think I would give anything to get inside anybody else, just for a minute, to see what he was really like."
"You would be rash to do it. It is quite certain that if you could get inside anybody, as you say, you would never speak to him again. Good gracious! Could you imagine writing down all that had been in your mind during a normal half-hour?"
"It depends who was to read it."
"You mean you would let a friend read it?"
"Well, if I am as bad as you think, it would clearly be a dangerously stupid thing to show it to an enemy."
"Ah! You would sooner lose a friend than give a handle to an enemy," said Marie. "I entirely disagree with that. I would choose to make or keep one friend, even at the risk of arming a whole regiment of enemies against myself. Enemies matter so little."
"Certainly friends matter more," said Jim, "and perhaps acquaintances less than either. The worst of having been away from London so long is that one finds so many of the latter and so few of either of the others!"
"What are your general impressions at present?" asked Marie.
The stream of talk from Mr. Naseby was apparently beginning to run dry; the pressure was diminishing, and Jim spoke lower.
"I hardly know what to think at present," he said. "London seems to me to have changed extraordinarily during the last few years. As far as I can make out, it does not matter now how dull and stupid a man is, how vulgar or vicious a woman is, as long as he or she is rich enough."
Marie raised her eyebrows.
"Why, of course," she said calmly. "What else did you imagine?"
"That is not all. Apparently, also, you can go to a man's house or a woman's house, eat her food and drink her wines. Then you hurry on to the next and tell them that it was the most awful party you ever were at. But still, apparently, you can go there again on the 16th."
Mildred Brereton had joined them, and lit a cigarette from a fire-breathing Japanese dragon. She blew out a great cloud of laughter and smoke together, with her mouth very wide.