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A WOMAN'S AMBITION.

By E. F. BENSON.


TOWARDS half-past five on a certain June afternoon, a soft opalescent light, London's inimitable rendering of bright sunshine, bathed the town, turning the plainest of streets to pictures. Down the roadway, slowly and with many checks, flowed the flood of vehicles, and passage along the pavements was hardly less deliberate, for it was the hour when locomotion is at high-tide, and from house-wall to house-wall, from shop-front to park-paling, the river-beds of men were full. Democratic principles ruled the traffic, and at every street corner of Piccadilly, policemen, impartiality incarnate, opened and shut, irrespective of the quality of the stream, the spouting weirs, giving to each its turn, now to a string of nodding wagons, now to a medley of omnibuses and fretting hansoms in a seemingly inextricable knot of overlapping wheels, now to a section of winking black lacquer and liveried drivers. All took their turn, for none was exception made, and the waters of human life moved as orderly as the courses of the moon.

At no point did the race set stronger than at the corner of Hamilton Place, and in one of the victorias waiting there sat two women, both observing the streets with attentive avidity.

"This must satisfy your democratic sense, Marie," said one; "but if we are to get home at all, hadn't we better turn back and drive through the Park? It is the longest way round, I know, but I am certain it will be the shortest way home."

Marie Laridoff transformed her abstracted smile into a conscious one.

"You English are for ever proving things by proverbs," she said. "There is no such proof possible. You can only prove the truth of proverbs by observing things. Besides, dear, how can we turn? There are five omnibuses between us and the pavement on one side, and sixty-four hansom cabs on the other."

She spoke English with a singularly crisp and charming intonation, but perceptibly foreign.

"Quite impossible to go anywhere but where your policemen allow us," she said, "and I am sure they would not allow us to turn round. Besides, whether they would or not, we could not do it. So be patient and observe. Ah, there is Sir Herbert."

Sir Herbert, in fact, was likely to remain there. He had conceived the ill-starred idea of walking between carriages to gain the north side of Piccadilly, but the crush was too thick, and, despairing of getting across till the forward movement began, he had come to a halt just opposite Madame Laridoff's victoria.

"Sir Herbert," she said again, and as he turned, "get in and talk to us till we get to the corner. You will never get across on your feet. There is a seat there; put it up or pull it down. Of course you know Lady Tempest."

He stood, hat in hand, in foreign fashion, as be took the place indicated.

"I am certainly very lucky," he said, "for I was just wondering under the wheels of which omnibus my destiny would be accomplished. It is far pleasanter to accomplish it in your victoria."

A man talking to two women never addresses both quite impartially; his words are always spoken to one or the other. These were clearly spoken to Madame Laridoff.

"The hand of Fate is everywhere," she said. "But how has it led you to London now?"

"I came only yesterday," he said, "on a month's leave. In fact, I left Brussels only yesterday."

"You came earlier surely than you intended?"

"Yes; my plans were changed."

Lady Tempest instantly trampled her way into a subject off which the man evidently wished to warn intending trespassers.

"Is it about Petersburg?" she asked. "Are they going to send you there?"

"Nothing has yet been settled," he said. "Ah! we move again."

The block of carriages began to stir, like a queue of people waiting at a narrow doorway, and in a minute or two they reached land at Hamilton Place. Here Sir Herbert Vivian got out.

"A thousand thanks for my rescue," he said to Madame Laridoff. "Shall I see you this evening at the Foreign Office?"

"I shall be there," said she. "Whether we shall see each other is another matter."

Lady Tempest looked for a moment at her companion's raised colour, and devoted herself to a rapid review of data. The high-heeled boot of drama seemed to peep for a moment from below the curtain, and the dramatic, whether bound between the narrow walls of a theatre, or, as she preferred it, set on the world-wide boards of existence, was her consuming passion. And Marie Laridoff she always considered the great artiste of her acquaintance—one, too, who had not yet played her drama out, but was standing, as it were, behind the wings for a moment, before her appearance in the third act. What the third act should be Lady Tempest, with all her skill and experience in forecasting destiny, could not determine. Certainly the first two acts had been rich in material for a climax, the looms of life had woven a fragment of a strangely fantastic pattern, bat the climax was inconjecturable.

For who had ever begun the play with so vivid and fateful a series of incident? Marie, Russian born, had married, at not yet twenty, a countryman of her own—a man rich, powerful, with all the brutality of nature which makes strength dangerous, and none of the gentleness which forges it into so noble a weapon. For four years she had lived the life of a Russian of her class, cosmopolitan, restless; and then quite suddenly had come her separation from her husband and her banishment from Russia. Sympathy, if not complicity, with revolutionary spirits had been the charge against her, and the affair at the time had roused some little stir even outside Russia, for the picture, evoked by sympathetic journalists, of her husband reluctantly giving evidence of the most serious import against his own wife, having the truth torn from him, was piquant to the public. The wife, so they learned, had taken up her permanent abode in England after this, and there, for all the world, the story stayed.

Even this unshaded profile of a tale, the account of which might have been found in any contemporary paper, contained adventure enough to claim the attention of every student of human affairs; but the complete portrait, as known to the few, was far more dramatic. The charge against her was essentially false, a structure built on a laudable foundation—namely, a greater care for and intimacy with her husband's peasants than was usual. She had set up a village school in her remote home thirty miles from Kieff; she had taught in it herself; she had tried to raise the bestial standard of the people's being. Technically, she was within reach of the law for having used other text-books than those prescribed by Government; the rest was villainy, almost melodramatic, and that her husband's. After a year of married life he had tired of her in the invariable manner in which a bad man tires of a good woman, and would almost have murdered her, had there not been other ways of getting rid of her. Letters had been forged, imaginary conversations reported. In a word, his treachery had been apt and thorough, and in six months after he had obtained his separation he married again.

Madame Laridoff was still only twenty-four, a type of that patrician beauty which is a speciality of Russia, clever to a piercing point, and of so human a strength of character that all she had gone through had left her unembittered. No standard external to herself affected her own fastidiousness of morals; and though by her religion and her laws she was free to marry again, she had vowed a self-imposed celibacy so long as her husband lived. In this resolve she stood immutable. For three years now Sir Herbert had been openly at her feet; for him the world held no other woman; for her, too, so it was thought, the world no other man. Each waited for the other unconsoled, to the extreme annoyance of many of both sexes, and yet scandal had no finger to point at them. Even Lady Tempest, whose power of believing the worst about everyone fairly bordered on the miraculous, would have staked the fast-vanishing remnant of her once ample fortune on her friend, and even her amiable habit of determining character by reversing the natural conclusion of appearances was in abeyance when she looked on the child-like beauty of Marie. She was the only nice good woman Lady Tempest knew, also no one was so bien-posée.

Madame Laridoff dropped Lady Tempest at the corner of Hertford Street, and went on alone to her house in Grosvenor Square, Joie de vivre of a quiet, steady-burning kind was habitual to her, and this afternoon she had a great sense of well-being. Underneath a superficial stillness, which in itself was but a flower of breeding, moved and ran in her a strong vivifying sap; she saw more keenly, more enjoyed sight than most of the world. Like all people to whom mankind is the dominant interest, she was very self-conscious in a large, central manner, and her reflections were founded on the unformulated basis of how things struck her, not on how things in themselves really were. The latter, it is true, may be the correct philosophic attitude, but it little concerns speculation of a practical order. Interesting, for instance, to an historic sense was that very picturesque figure. Sir Herbert Vivian, whose diplomatic career had at present been so short, but was already so brilliant; but far more interesting to her was the man. Though she was not ambitious for herself—few women really are—she was very ambitious for others, and in particular for him; and this offer to him of the Embassy at Petersburg, while he was yet but just forty, pleased her immensely. She saw in him the makings of a big man, and she loved the large scale. She would blithely sacrifice anything, so she told herself; she would shred the fibres of her own heart, if by that something big might be.

Two hours later Lady Tempest would have pledged her immortal soul to be admitted to the silent drama which was being played by her favourite actress. Destiny, crude and banal as ever, had turned her attention to Madame Laridoff's third act, giving her data for a climax of the most ordinary kind. Alexis Laridoff had died very suddenly that morning, and the telegraph had brought the message to the widow. Here was the third act blatantly indicated—she would marry Sir Herbert and live happily ever afterwards. Thus was the curtain rung up.

Madame Laridoff, like all clever women, abhorred what was contrary to convention; and though it might be supposed that no one in London but she knew of her husband's death, she would naturally have cancelled all her engagements. Instead she dined with friends and went on to her party at the Foreign Office. Already the crowd was thick, and she, well known to all, and popular with everyone, made but a slow progress. The English upper class always have an idol—he may be an explorer, a music-hall star, a singer, and there is no reason why he should not be a crossing-sweeper or an engine-driver. This year Madame Laridoff occupied that envied but precarious position, and, it must be confessed, enjoyed it very much. For four years England had found her delightful, this year it found her essential. She had, as Claude Davis (who goes to more parties in a week than are given in a fortnight) remarked, the quality of centrality; and though Claude Davis does not much matter, and seldom speaks the truth, he had done so on this occasion.

***

To-night there was an extraordinary brilliance about her, and even if she had not been the idol, she would yet have been the most beautiful woman there. Her appearance at a big crush of this kind was not usual, and for that reason the more interesting. Sir Herbert, it was known, had been offered the Embassy at Petersburg, and the world was anxious to find out how Madame Laridoff took it. Though she would not marry him while her husband lived, all the world knew how great was their intimacy, and it was even thought that she might use her influence with him to make him decline a post which, owing to her banishment from Russia, so completely separated them. Lady Tempest, in fact, was discussing this very point with Claude Davis, as Madame Laridoff reached the bottom of the stairs.

"He will refuse it, you will see," said the latter, making a gesture of dismissal with his small, plump hand. "His doctor will forbid him to go, or he will have losses and be unable to afford it. My dear lady, I have studied that woman."

Lady Tempest reserved the right of being rude.

"To little purpose, then," she said. "My dear Claude, she is too clever to be so obvious as that. A stupid woman with great power over a man might act as you suggest, but Marie never."

"What is the use of her cleverness, then?" asked Claude characteristically, "if it doesn't get her what she wants?"

"What does she want?"

"The monopoly of Sir Herbert."

"She has that in any case. Claude, you don't understand women in the least, and least of all Marie. If she is as devoted to him as we think, she is quite certainly very ambitious for him. She would not stop his career in order to keep him near her."

"And she would not let him out of reach, if she gave him fifty careers by it. Besides, now that she is free——"

"Free? What do you mean?" asked Lady Tempest.

This was what Claude liked; indeed, it may be doubted whether all time held for him moments more palatable than those in which he imparted fashionable intelligence to fashionable people.

"Is it possible you have not heard?" he asked. "Her husband died suddenly this morning."

"But I was driving with Marie till after six to-day."

"They got a telegram at the Russian Embassy soon after seven. He was a cousin of the Ambassador's. I was dining there."

"Then Marie must have heard by now. So she will not be here to-night."

On the moment Claude caught sight of her coming up the stairs.

"You think not? Here is her wraith, then!"

Lady Tempest followed his eye, and her own kindled.

"Claude, promise me one thing," she said. "Tell nobody, nobody. There is something going on which I cannot fathom in the least. Given that Laridoff was her greatest enemy, it is utterly unlike her to appear in public just on the news of his death."

Claude had the beau rôle; he had scored two points already.

"Dear lady, it is as clear as her own diamonds," he said. "Surely you would not expect her to shut herself up for the death of that bear? Also, I tell you plainly, she has come here to capture Sir Herbert and make him refuse Petersburg. There, he has joined her."

Lady Tempest shook her head.

"Poor Claude," she said. "Your power of drawing perfectly obvious deductions is colossal. You think that Marie will behave like an ordinary, stupid woman. It has been reserved for you to attribute stupidity to her. Come, it is stifling here. Let us go on!"

Madame Laridoff meantime had passed through the lobby at the top of the stairs, exchanging a hundred greetings as she went. Sir Herbert was still with her, and after a populous ten minutes they penetrated the thickest of the crush and came out beyond, where it was possible to hold an isolated conversation. At present they had hardly exchanged a word.

"I particularly wanted to see you to-night," she said. "Let us sit down. They have offered you Petersburg?"

"Yes."

"And you will, of course, take it."

"I have not settled," he said.

"It would be a madness, an unheard-of madness not to," said she. "Think of your career. It is not possible to refuse. You might as well retire at once."

"Even so. But a man's career is not all his life." He paused a moment, "Oh, if you were free," he said, "if you would only consider yourself free."

"There is no profit in going over that again," she said.

"You are still of the same mind?"

"Absolutely. You have also got a chance which I suppose has never come to a man of your age."

"But Petersburg," said he.

"Is it so easy for me to urge you, Herbert?" she asked with a sudden earnestness. "Do you think I want to banish you, to send you to the place I can never come to? Do you think I find it easy?"

"You command me to go?"

"I ask you to go. I even ask you to accept at once, to-night."

The room where they were sitting began to fill up, and after a moment's silence Sir Herbert rose as two friends of hers approached.

"I will do so now," he said. "Au revoir!"

"No, it is good-bye. I leave London to-morrow."

He looked at her a moment, then turned, too well bred to ask further, too wise to take advantage of intimacy for purposes of remonstrance. But she rose, too, and just laid her closed fan on his arm.

"You understand," she said, "if—if I cared less, I would keep you. Therefore go."

For a moment, but no longer, he wavered, then, without a word, turned from her and threaded his way out through the crowded loom. That fraction of a minute was too intimate to risk, and that he did not attempt to lengthen and so to ruin it was a thrill to each. Then she was swallowed up in commonplace greetings. But her heart rejoiced, though all but the best of her was angry and bitter at what her best had done.

She was sitting next morning in her room looking over the square, when a servant entered to ask if she would receive Sir Herbert. She had foreseen and feared another interview with him, and now that it was upon her she knew that, in bare justice to him, she could not refuse it. For all that, she hesitated, and the servant, thinking she had not heard, repeated the message. At length—

"Yes, I will see him!" she said.

Herbert entered and, without greeting her, sat down in the chair she indicated.

"I have seen the morning papers," he said simply. "May I ask you one question?"

"You need not. I will tell you that I knew what you have seen before we met last night."

"That is what I would have asked you," he said. "Yet—yet—— Oh, I do not believe that you have merely given me my congé. But what have I done? What have I done?"

This was exactly what Marie feared. Only a man, she thought, could have asked such a question. For herself, there was no slight, no insult the world could hold, which, if levelled at herself, could have made her ask the reason for it. Silence, she thought, was the only answer to such a blow. But he had asked for an explanation, and went on without pausing—

"For years, as you know, I have waited for your freedom, and without murmuring," he said, "for years, as I thought you have been waiting. I was wrong, it seems. I have been under a gross delusion all the time. Oh, I do not reproach you; but it is not that I would not. Simply face to face with you I cannot. I accepted the post at Petersburg as you told me. This morning I learn you are free, that you knew when you made me accept it that you were free. Even now I can scarcely believe it; but when I do, I shall take it as I should take anything, my death, even, or my dishonour, from you. But, but—Marie!" he said suddenly.

She answered nothing, and his eyes, downcast, did not see her. The silence grew till it sang in his ears.

"I have no defence to make," she said at length.

"Be it so. I do not understand—that is all."

Suddenly she got up, stung by the surge of her own blood, stung almost to shame by a trust at once so dog-like and so worthy, so craven and so man-like.

"Are you blind? " she cried. "Are you utterly blind? I send you away, I send you where I cannot come, yet knowing when I send you that by a word then, by a word now, I could make you not go. Yes, and how hard this word was not to speak, you do not even guess. Why, do you ask why? I love you. There is the fact in all its nakedness, and is it not enough? For that reason you shall not spoil your life for me; you shall not sacrifice it, for I will not take that sacrifice. Oh, I am stronger than you, so much stronger, and you shall know it."

He had sprung up from his seat, even as she did. Next moment he had seized her in his arms and covered her face with kisses.

"No, no," he cried; "I am as strong as you are weak. Do you think I am a child, to be bribed with bright medals and coloured ribands? It is not so. Marie, what do you think the world holds for me which can weigh against what you have said? Look you, I am your master; what I choose, that shall I do."

With an effort, physically powerful, but spiritually, compared with that, as is the moving of a world from its orbit to the upsetting of a tea-cup, she wrenched herself free from his embrace.

"Now go," she said.

Slowly he won back sanity, the fire was quenched in his eyes; his arms dropped, he stood like a chidden boy.

"Go?" he said stupidly. "Go?"

Simultaneously her own passion left her.

"Yes, go," she said. "Go."

At that her voice broke and she sat down, limp, unresisting, and it was her very abandonment, her confessed weakness which called back his manhood to him.

"My poor darling," he said, "I frightened you. I am more sorry than I can tell you. But I will not even ask you to forgive me. for that is no word between us. But think, only think what you are doing. Think to what emptiness of soul you send me."

"I have thought. Am I so happy?"

"Why, then, make two tragedies?"

"For this reason. I will not, I do not choose to spoil your life. I will not mar it in the making. No man shall be maimed through me—least of all, you. There are splendid things in front of you—life, and its prizes. Win them, hold them, be master of them. But, Herbert," and the firm voice broke, "if you come back to me when your work as a man in the world no longer parts us, if you come to me when you are eighty and dying, you will find me waiting."

"Good-bye, then," he said.

"Au revoir," said she.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1940, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.