Once a man wrote: “The Great Result is the total of innumerable acts of self-control.” But the two men meeting at night in Peregrine Lovel's office knew that already, though Flower had learned in an infinitely harder school than Peregrine.
Coming among Peregrine's elegant props to gentility (fine walnut desk with brass inkpot and calfbound ledgers, fine leather chair behind it, fine bronze bust of Cicero in the narrow mantel), Flower thought with some amusement of his own office, littered with wooden stools, worn velvet chairs, gay prints of women on the dirty walls, the big iron safe in the corner, a tattooed Maori head holding down an untidy pile of lists and charge-sheets. His mind ran easily down a dozen greased grooves.
Peregrine had but the one groove—his own advancement. No flexibility about Peregrine, who had probably asked Flower here to buy him off the Council. Not so easy, my proud cock, thought Flower, leaning his broad shoulders against the wall, since he had not been offered a chair, thrusting his hands into the pockets of his old mole-skin trousers.
Peregrine, prim in his leather chair behind the desk, felt the revolt in his fastidious soul rising. The thing was impossible. Even the man's thick neck rising above the unbuttoned collar of his blue shirt forbade it. Through this agonized week Peregrine had repeatedly told himself so … and found it quite as impossible to leave the matter there. Caroline had been so explicit; women were page 189 so unaccountable; the Lovel honour was at stake. He moved his dry hand among the sedately-feathered pens laid in a row, cleared his dry throat.
“I desire to know, Mr Flower, which member of my household you are in the habit of visiting during the evenings when I am from home.”
Long-cultivated instinct controlled Flower's start, prompted the oblique answer. “Why not ask the members of your household, Mr Lovel?”
“I prefer to ask you.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Flower's quick wits had got their bearings already. Only one fear could make that lean face so ghastly within the ring of candle-light. Some man visited Peregrine Lovel's wife, and he had been mistaken for the man. By whom? More here than he could see yet, but he would find out presently.
“Kindly answer my question, Mr Flower.”
“I imagine you've answered it yourself, haven't you?”
Peregrine made a movement, sat back because he could not trust his legs. Nor his voice either, for a moment.
“I await your explanation.”
Flower was thinking fast. So the little saint wasn't a saint but just a weak woman like the rest of 'em? He didn't blame her. He never blamed women who had so much to fight. He had even a mind to save her for her lover if he could do it and plague Peregrine at the same time.
“I think my explanation is one you should not have needed, sir. If I have come to see Mrs Lovel it could be only to seek her aid. Such a lady is above suspicion.”
Peregrine felt the drops springing on his forehead with relief and fury. Did this low churl presume to teach him his duty? He said thinly:
“You have done your best to place her under suspicion. May I ask why you time your visits on the nights when I am away from home?”page 190
Flower began to smile. How easily Peregrine had dropped into the trap.
“I knew you didn't like me. You don't, do you?”
The glare from those narrow eyes confirmed that.
“I find it difficult to conceive any circumstance which would move Mrs Lovel to render aid to you, sir.”
So? The windmill had gone round, had it? His Omniscience, so lately caught by the wool, was becoming himself again. Flower looked down at the ring glittering on that lean hand. So much he could say if he had a mind to. But the little saint should enjoy her lover, though already he felt a strange desolation in that. There, he had thought, was the one good woman in a world of shams….
“I have a daughter who is a great anxiety to me. Mrs Lovel, who helps so many, has been good enough to help her.”
“Did you take her with you on your visits?”
“Your informant must have told you that.”
Difficult sailing here with so much in the dark. Flower puzzled over it, came a little nearer the truth. Some tattling woman had heard voices, built up a story calculated to inflame Lovel's easy jealousy. But why choose him, who was so outside the pale? Had the little saint done it herself, hoping to throw dust? It seemed likely. Lord, what clever unscrupulous devils women are.
Peregrine sat silent. The shock administered by Caroline had so disintegrated him that it was hard to get into his mould again. This last week had been particularly exhausting with the elections. If he had been less occupied with them he would at once have seen the impossibility of the story; of Sally, so dainty, so delicate-minded, in commerce with this coarse fellow. He burned with shame at having been so fooled; welcomed the consciousness of his own worth, of Lovel inviolability coming back.
“I accept your explanation,” he said loftily. “It is page 191 probable that you are incapable of realizing that you have behaved with an impertinence and indiscretion barely credible. Look after your daughter yourself in future, Mr Flower, and remember that your acquaintance with Mrs Lovel has ceased.”
“Will you tell her so?”
“That is my affair. Good night.”
Mr Peregrine Lovel of Lovel Hall, secure again upon his pedestal. Flower watched him with sharp eyes. How easy, how delightful to knock him off it. But let the play go on. Let young Jermyn Lovel, who had babbled so much more than he knew to a man who could put two and two together, carry his fair-faced saint further down the underground ways. No women worth saving, but this man whom Flower so hated was worth wrecking. Let the wrecking go on.
“Good night, sir,” he said civilly. “Sorry to have given trouble. We'll meet again at the Council.”