Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter X

Wonderful power to benumb possesses this brother.

EMERSON.

OF course, Hester,” said Mr. Gresley, leading the way to his study and speaking in his lesson-for-the-day voice, “I don’t pretend to write”—(“They always say that,” thought Hester)—“I have not sufficient leisure to devote to the subject to ensure becoming a successful author. And even if I had I am afraid I should not be willing to sell my soul to obtain popularity, for that is what it comes to in these days. The public must be pandered to. It must be amused. The public likes smooth things, and the great truths — the only things I should care to write about — are not smooth, far from it.”

“No, indeed.”

“This little paper on ‘Dissent,’ which I propose to publish in pamphlet form after its appearance as a serial — it will run to two numbers in the Southminster Advertiser — was merely thrown off in a few days when I had influenza, and could not attend to my usual work.”

“It must be very difficult to work in illness,” said Hester, who had evidently made a vow during her brief sojourn in the garden, and was now obviously going through that process which the society of some of our fellow creatures makes as necessary as it is fatiguing — namely, that of thinking beforehand what we are going to say.

Mr. Gresley liked Hester immensely when she had freshly ironed herself flat under one of these resolutions. He was wont to say that no one was pleasanter than Hester when she was reasonable, or made more suitable remarks. He perceived with joy that she was reasonable now, and the brother and sister sat down close together at the writing-table with the printed sheets between them.

“I will read aloud,” said Mr. Gresley, “and you can follow me, and stop me if you think — er — the sense is not quite clear.”

“I see.”

The two long noses, the larger freckled one surmounted by a pince-nez, the other slightly pink as if it had absorbed the tint of the blotting-paper over which it was so continually poised, both bent over the sheets.

Through the thin wall which separated the schoolroom from the study came the sound of Mary’s scales. Mary was by nature a child of wrath, as far as music was concerned, and Fraülein — anxious, musical Fraülein — was strenuously endeavouring to impart to her pupil the rudiments of what was her chief joy in life.

“Modern Dissent,” read aloud Mr. Gresley, “by Veritas.”

Veritas!“ repeated Hester. Astonishment jerked the word out of her before she was aware. She pulled herself hastily together.

“Certainly,” said the author, looking at his sister through his glasses, which made the pupils of his eyes look as large as the striped marbles on which Mary and Regie spent their pennies. “Veritas,” he continued, “is a Latin word signifying Truth.”

“So I fancied. But is not Truth rather a large name to adopt as a nom de guerre? Might it not seem rather — er — in a layman it would appear arrogant.”

“I am not a layman, and I do not pretend to write on subjects of which I am ignorant,” said Mr. Gresley with dignity. “This is not a work of fiction. I don’t imagine this, or fancy that, or invent the other. I merely place before the public forcibly and in a novel manner a few great truths.”

Mary was doing her finger exercises. C C C with the thumb, D D D with the first finger. Fraülein was repeating, “Won! Two! Free! Won! Two! Free!” with a new intonation of cheerful patience at each repetition.

“Ah!” said Hester. “A few great truths. Then the name must be Veritas. You would not reconsider it.”

“Certainly not,” said Mr. Gresley, his eye challenging hers. “It is the name I am known by as the author of ‘Schism.’”

“I had momentarily forgotten ‘Schism’,” said Hester dropping her glance.

“I went through a good deal of obloquy about ‘Schism,’” said Mr. Gresley with pride, “and I should not wonder if ‘Modern Dissent’ caused quite a ferment in Middleshire. If it does I am willing to bear a little spite and ill-will. All history shows that truth is met at first by opposition. Half the country clergy round here are asleep. Good men, but lax. They want waking up. I said as much to the Bishop the other day, and he agreed with me, for he said that if some of his younger clergy could be waked up to a sense of their own arrogance and narrowness he would hold a public thanksgiving in the cathedral. But he added that he thought nothing short of the last trump would do it.”

“I agree with him,” said Hester, having first said the sentence to herself, and having decided it was innocuous.

The climax of the music lesson had arrived. “The Blue Bells of Scotland”-the sole Klavier Stück which Mary’s rigidly extended little starfishes of hands could wrench out of the schoolroom piano — was at its third bar.

“Well,” said Mr. Gresley, refreshed by a cheering retrospects. “Now for ‘Modern Dissent.’”

A strenuous hour ensued.

Hester was torn in different directions, at one moment tempted to allow the most flagrant passages to pass unchallenged rather than attempt the physical impossibility of interrupting the reader only to be drawn into a dispute with him at another burning to save her brother from the consequences which wait on certain utterances.

Presently Mr. Gresley’s eloquence, after various tortuous and unnatural windings, swept in the direction of a pun, as a carriage after following the artificial curves of a deceptive approach nears a villa. Hester had seen the pun coming for half a page, as we see the villa through the trees long before we are allowed to approach it, and she longed to save her brother from what was in her eyes as much a degradation as a tu quoque. But she remembered in time that the Gresleys considered she had no sense of humour, and she decided to let it pass. Mr. Gresley enjoyed it so much himself that he hardly noticed her fixed countenance.

Why does so deep a gulf separate those who have a sense of humour and those who, having none, are compensated by the conviction that they possess it more abundantly. The crevasse seems to extend far inland to the very heights and water-sheds of character. Those who differ on humour will differ on principles. The Gresleys and the Pratts belonged to that large class of our fellow creatures, who, conscious of a genius for adding to the hilarity of our sad planet, discover an irresistible piquancy in putting a woman’s hat on a man’s head, and in that “verbal romping” which playfully designates a whisky and soda as a gargle, and says “au reservoir” instead of “au revoir.”

At last, however, Hester nervously put her hand over the next sheet, as he read the final words of the last.

“Wait a moment,” she said hurriedly. “This last page, James. Might it not be well to reconsider it? Is it politic to assume such great ignorance on the part of Nonconformists? Many I know are better educated than I am.”

“My dear,” said Mr. Gresley, “ignorance is at the root of any difference of opinion on such a subject as this. I do not say wilful ignorance, but the want of sound Church teaching. I must cut at the roots of this ignorance.”

“Dear James, it is thrice killing the slain. No one believes these fallacies which you are exposing; the Nonconformists least of all. Those I have talked with don’t hold these absurd opinions that you put down to them. You don’t even touch their real position. You are elaborately knocking down ninepins that have never stood up because they have nothing to stand on.”

“I am not proposing to play a game of mental skittles,” said the clerical author. “It is enough for me, as I said before, to cut at the roots of ignorance wherever I see it flourishing, not to pull off the leaves one by one as you would have me to do by dissecting their opinions. This may not be novel, it may not even be amusing, but nevertheless, Hester, a clergyman’s duty is to wage unceasing war against spiritual ignorance. And what,” read on Mr. Gresley, after a triumphant moment in which Hester remained silent, “is the best means of coping against ignorance, against darkness”—(“It was a root a moment ago,” thought Hester)—“but by the infusion of light? The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not.” Half a page more and the darkness was modern Dissent. Hester put her hand over her mouth and kept it there.

The familiar drama of a clerical bull and a red rag was played out before her eyes, and, metaphorically speaking, she followed the example of the majority of laymen, and crept up a tree to be out of the way.

When it was all over she came down trembling.

“Well! what do you think of it?” said Mr. Gresley, rising and pacing up and down the room.

“You hit very hard,” said Hester, after a moment’s consideration. She did not say “You strike home.”

“I have no opinion of being mealy mouthed,” said Mr. Gresley, who was always perfectly satisfied with a vague statement. “If you have anything worth saying say it plainly. That is my motto. Don’t hint this or that, but take your stand upon a truth and strike out.”

“Why not hold out our hands to our fellow creatures instead of striking at them?” said Hester, moving towards the door.

“I have no belief in holding out our hands to the enemies of Christ," Mr. Gresley began, who in the course of his pamphlet had thus gracefully designated the great religious bodies who did not view Christianity through the convex glasses of his own mental pince-nez. “In these days we see too much of that. I leave that to the Broad Church who want to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. I, on the contrary —”

But Hester had vanished.

There was a dangerous glint in her grey eyes, as she ran up to her little attic.

“According to him, our Lord must have been the first Nonconformist,” she said to herself. “If I had stayed a moment longer I should have said so. For once I got out of the room in time.”

Hester’s attic was blisteringly hot. It was over the kitchen, and through the open window came the penetrating aroma of roast mutton newly wedded to boiled cabbage. Hester had learned during the last six months all the variations of smells, evil, subtle, nauseous, and overpowering, of which the preparation of food — and still worse the preparation of chicken food — is capable. She seized her white hat and umbrella and fled out of the house.

She moved quickly across a patch of sunlight, looking, with her large white, pink-lined umbrella, like a travelling mushroom on a slender stem, and only drew rein in the shady walk near the beehives, where the old gardener Abel was planting something large in the way of “runners” or “suckers,” making a separate hole for each with his thumb.

Abel was a solid, pear-shaped man, who passed through life bent double over the acre of Vicarage garden, to which he committed long lines of seeds, which an attentive Providence brought up in due season as “curly kebbidge,” or “salary,” or “sparrow-grass.”

Abel had his back towards Hester, and only the corduroy half of him was visible as he stooped over his work. Occasionally he could be induced to straighten himself, and — holding himself strongly at the hinge, with earth-ingrained hands — to discourse on politics and religion, and to opine that our policy in China was “neither my eye nor my elber.” “The little lady,” as he called Hester, had a knack of drawing out Abel; but to-day, as he did not see her, she slipped past him, and crossing the churchyard sat down for a moment in the porch to regain her breath, under the card of printed texts offered for the consideration of his flock by their young pastor.

“How dreadful is this place. This is none other but the house of God,” was the culling from the Scriptures which headed the selection. Hester knew that card well, though she never by any chance looked at it. She had offended her brother deeply by remonstrating, or, as he called it, by “interfering in church matters,” when he nailed it up. After a few minutes she dropped over the low churchyard wall into the meadow below, and flung herself down on the grass in the short shadow of a yew near at hand. What little air there was to be had came to her across the Drone, together with the sound of the water lazily nudging the bank, and whispering to the reeds little jokelets which they had heard a hundred times before.

† A card, headed by the above text, was seen by the writer in August 1898, in the porch of a country church.

Hester’s irritable nerves relaxed. She stretched out her small neatly shod foot in front of her, leaned her back against the wall, and presently could afford to smile.

“Dear James,” she said, shaking her head gently to and fro, “I wish we were not both writers, or, as he calls it, ‘dabblers with the pen.’ One dabbler in a Vicarage is quite enough.”

She took out her letters and read them. Only half of them had been opened.

“I shall stay here till the luncheon bell rings,” she said as she settled herself comfortably.

Rachel’s letter was read last, on the principle of keeping the best to the end.

“And so she is leaving London — isn’t this rather sudden? — and coming down at once — to-day — no, yesterday, to South minster, to the Palace. And I am to stay in this afternoon, as she will come over, and probably the Bishop will come too. I should be glad if I were not so tired.”

Hester looked along the white high road which led to Southminster. In the hot haze she could just see the two ears of the cathedral pricking up through the blue. Everything was very silent, so silent that she could hear the church clock of Slumberleigh, two miles away, strike twelve. A whole hour before luncheon!

The miller’s old white horse with a dip in his long back and a corresponding curve in his under outline, was standing motionless in the sun, fast asleep, his front legs bent like a sailor’s.

A little bunch of red and white cows knee-deep in the water were swishing off the flies with the wet tufts of their tails. Hester watched their every movement. She was no longer afraid of cows. Presently, as if with one consent, they all made up their minds to relieve the tedium of the contemplative life by an exhibition of humour, and scrambling out of the water proceeded to canter along the bank with stiff raised tails, with an artificial noose sustained with difficulty just above the tuft.

“How like James and the Pratts,” hester said to herself, watching the grotesque gambols and nudgings of the dwindling humorists. “It must be very fatiguing to be so comic.”

Hester had been up since five o’clock, utilising the quiet hours before the house was astir. She was tired out. A “bumble bee” was droning sleepily near at hand. The stream talked and talked and talked about what he was going to do when he was a river. “How tired the banks must be of listening to him,” thought Hester with closed eyes.

And the world melted slowly away in a delicious sense of well-being, from which the next moment, as it seemed to her, she was suddenly awakened by Mr. Gresley’s voice near at hand.

“Hester! Hester! HESTER!”

“Here! Here!” gasped Hester with a start, upsetting her lapful of letters, as she scrambled hastily to her feet.

The young Vicar drew near, and looked over the churchyard wall. A large crumb upon his upper lip did not lessen the awful severity of his countenance.

“We have nearly finished luncheon,” he observed. “The servants could not find you anywhere. I don’t want to be always finding fault, Hester, but I wish for your own sake as well as ours you would be more punctual at meals.”

Hester had never been late before, but she felt that this was not the moment to remind her brother of that fact.

“I beg pardon,” she said humbly. “I fell asleep.”

“You fell asleep!” said Mr. Gresley, who had been wrestling all the morning with platitudes on Thy will be done. “All I can say, Hester, is that it is unfortunate you have no occupation. I cannot believe it is for the good of any of us to lead so absolutely idle a life that we fall asleep in the morning.”

Hester made no reply.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37