Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XI

It is as useless to fight against the interpretations of ignorance as to whip the fog.

GEORGE ELIOT.

THE children, who had reached the pear stage, looked with round awed eyes at “Auntie Hester” as she sat down at the luncheon table, beside the black bottle which marked her place. The Gresleys were ardent total abstainers, and were of opinion that Hester’s health would be greatly benefited by following their example. But Hester’s doctor differed from them — he was extremely obstinate — with the result that the Gresleys were obliged to tolerate the obnoxious bottle on their very table. It was what Mrs. Gresley called a “cross,” and Mr. Gresley was always afraid that the fact of its presence might become known and hopelessly misconstrued in Warpington and the world at large.

The children knew that Hester was in disgrace, as she vainly tried to eat the congealed slice of roast mutton with blue slides in it, which had been put before her chair half an hour ago, when the joint was sent out for the servants’ dinner. The children liked “Auntie Hester,” but without enthusiasm, except Regie, the eldest, who loved her as himself. She could tell them stories, and make butterflies and horses and dogs out of paper, but she could never join in their games, not even in the delightful new ones she invented for them. She was always tired directly. And she would never give them rides on her back, as the large good-natured Pratt girls did. And she was dreadfully shocked if they did not play fair, so much so, that on one occasion Mr. Gresley had to interfere, and to remind her that a game was a game, and that it would be better to let the children play as they liked than to be perpetually finding fault with them.

Perhaps nothing in her life at the Vicarage was a greater trial to Hester than to see the rules of fair play broken by the children with the connivance of their parents. Mr. Gresley had never been to a public school, and had thus missed the A B C of what in its later stages is called “honour.” He was an admirable hockey player, but he was not in request at the frequent Slumberleigh matches, for he never hit off fair, or minded being told so.

“Auntie Hester is leaving all her fat,” said Mary suddenly in a shrill voice, her portion of pear held in her left cheek as she spoke. She had no idea that she ought not to draw attention to the weakness of others. She was only anxious to be the first to offer interesting information.

“Never mind,” said Mrs. Gresley, admiring her own moderation. “Finish your pear.”

If there was one thing more than another in Hester’s behaviour that annoyed Mrs. Gresley — and there were several others — it was Hester’s manner of turning her food over on her plate, and leaving half of it.

Hester did it again now, and Mrs. Gresley, already irritated by her unpunctuality, tried to look away so as not to see her and prayed for patience. The hundred a year which Hester contributed to the little establishment had eased the struggling household in many ways; but Mrs. Gresley sometimes wondered if the money, greatly needed as it was, counterbalanced the perpetual friction of her sister-in-law’s presence.

“Father!”

“Yes, my son.”

“Isn’t it wrong to drink wine?”

“Yes, my son.”

“Then why does Auntie Hester drink it?”

Hester fixed her eyes intently on her brother. Would he uphold her before the children?

“Because she thinks it does her good,” said Mr. Gresley.

She withdrew her eyes. Her hand, holding a spoonful of cold rice pudding, shook. A delicate colour flooded her face, and finally settled in the tip of her nose. In her own way she loved the children.

“Ach, mein Herr,” almost screamed Fraülein, who adored Hester, and saw the gravity of the occasion, “aber Sie vergessen that the Herr Doctor Br-r-r-r-r-own has so strong — so very strong command —”

“I cannot allow a discussion as to the merits or demerits of alcohol at my table,” said Mr. Gresley. “I hold one opinion, Dr. Brown holds another. I must beg to be allowed to differ from him. Children, say grace,”

It was Wednesday and a half-holiday, and Mrs. Gresley had arranged to take the children in the pony-carriage to be measured for new boots. These expeditions to Westhope were a great event. At two o’clock exactly the three children rushed downstairs, Regie bearing in his hand his tin money-box, in which a single coin could be heard to leap. Hester produced a bright threepenny piece for each child, one of which was irretrievably buried in Regie’s money-box, and the other two immediately lost in the mat in the pony-carriage. However, Hester found them, and slipped them inside their white gloves, and the expedition started, accompanied by Boulou, a diminutive yellow and white dog of French extraction. Boulou was a well-meaning, kind little soul. There was a certain hurried arrogance about his hind legs, but it was only manner. He was not in reality more conceited than most small dogs who wear their tails high.

Hester saw them drive off, and a few minutes later Mr. Gresley started on his bicycle for a ruri-dicanal Chapter meeting in the opposite direction. She heard the Vicarage gate “clink” behind him as she crossed the little hall, and then she suddenly stopped short and wrung her hands. She had forgotten to tell either of them that the Bishop of Southminster was going to call that afternoon. She knew he was coming on purpose to see her, but this would have been incredible to the Gresleys. She had not read Rachel’s letter announcing his coming till she had taken refuge in the field where she had fallen asleep, and her mental equilibrium had been so shaken by the annoyance she felt she had caused the Gresleys at luncheon that she had entirely forgotten the subject till this moment.

She darted out of the house and flew down the little drive. But Fortune frowned on Hester to-day. She reached the turn of the road only to see the bent figure of Mr. Gresley whisk swiftly out of sight, his clerical coat-tails flowing gracefully out behind like a divided skirt on each side of the back wheel.

Hester toiled back to the house breathless and dusty, and ready to cry with vexation. “They will never believe I forgot to tell them,” she said to herself. “Everything I do is wrong in their eyes and stupid in my own.” And she sat down on the lowest step of the stairs, and leaned her head against the banisters.

To her presently came a ministering angel in the shape of Fraülein, who had begged an egg from the cook, had boiled it over her spirit lamp, and now presented it with effusion to her friend on a little tray, with two thin slices of bread and butter.

“You are all goodness, Fraülein,” said Hester, raising her small haggard face out of her hands. “It is wrong of me to give so much trouble.” She did not want the egg, but she knew its oval was the only shape in which Fraülein could express her silent sympathy. So she accepted it gratefully, and ate it on the stairs, with the tenderly severe Fraülein watching every mouthful.

Life did not seem quite such a hopeless affair when the little meal was finished. There were breaks in the clouds after all. Rachel was coming to see her that afternoon. Hester was, as Fraülein often said, "easy cast down, and easy cast up.” The mild stimulant of the egg “cast her up” once more. She kissed Fraülein and ran up to her room, where she divested her small person of every speck of dust contracted on the road, smoothed out an invisible crease in her holland gown, put back the little ring of hair behind her ear which had become loosened in her rush after her brother, and then came down smiling and composed to await her friend in the drawing-room.

Hester seldom sat in the drawing-room, partly because it was her sister-in-law’s only sitting-room, and partly because it was the regular haunt of the Pratt girls, who (with what seemed to Hester dreadful familiarity) looked in at the windows when they came to call, and, if they saw any one inside, entered straightway by the same, making retreat impossible.

The Miss Pratts had been willing, when Hester first came into the neighbourhood, to take a good-natured though precarious interest in “their Vicar’s sister.” Indeed, Mrs. Gresley had felt obliged to warn Hester not to count too much on their attentions, “as they sometimes dropped people as quickly as they took them up.”

Hester was ignorant of country life, of its small society, its inevitable relations with unsympathetic neighbours just because they were neighbours; and she was specially ignorant of the class to which Mrs. Gresley and the Pratts belonged, and from which her aunt had in her lifetime unwisely guarded her niece as from the plague. She was amazed at first at the Pratts calling her by her Christian name without her leave, until she discovered that they spoke of the whole county by their Christian names, even designating Lord Newhaven’s two younger brothers — with whom they were not acquainted — as Jack and Harry, though they were invariably called by their own family John and Henry.

When after her aunt’s death she had, by the advice of her few remaining relatives, taken up her abode with her brother, as much on his account as her own, for he was poor and with an increasing family, she journeyed to Warpington accompanied by a pleasant feeling that at any rate she was not going among strangers. She had often visited in Middleshire, at Wilderleigh, in the elder Mr. Loftus’ time, for whom she had entertained an enthusiastic reverence; at Westhope Abbey, where she had a firm ally in Lord Newhaven, and at several other Middleshire houses. She was silly enough to think she knew Middleshire fairly well, but after she settled at Warpington she gradually discovered the existence of a large under-current of society of which she knew nothing at all, in which, whether she were willing or not, she was plunged by the fact that she was her brother’s sister.

Hester perceived clearly enough that her brother did not by birth belong to this set, though his profession brought him in contact with it, but he had evidently though involuntarily adopted it for better for worse; perhaps because a dictatorial habit is generally constrained to find companionship in a social grade lower than its own, where a loud voice and a tendency to monologue chequered by prehistoric jokes and tortured puns may meet with a more patient audience. Hester made many discoveries about herself during the first months of her life at Warpington, and the first of the series amazed her more than any of the later ones.

She discovered that she was proud. Perhaps she had not the enormous opinion of herself which Mrs. Gresley so frequently deplored, for Hester’s thoughts seldom dwelt upon herself. But the altered circumstances of her life forced them momentarily upon herself nevertheless, as a burst pipe will spread its waters down a damask curtain.

So far, during the eight years since she had left the schoolroom, she had always been “Miss Gresley,” a little personage treated with consideration wherever she went, and choyée for her delicate humour and talent for conversation. She now experienced the interesting sensation, as novel to her as it is familiar to most of us, of being nobody, and she disliked it. The manners of the set in which she found herself also grated continually on her fastidious taste. She was first amazed and then indignant at bearing her old Middleshire friends, whose simplicity far surpassed that of her new acquaintance, denounced by the latter — without being acquainted with them except officially — as “fine,” as caring only for “London people,” and as being “tuft-hunters,” because they frequently entertained at their houses persons of rank, to half of whom they were related. All this was new to Hester. She discovered that, though she might pay visits at these houses, she must never mention them, as it was considered the height of vulgarity to speak of people of rank.

Mrs. Gresley, who had been quite taken aback when the first of these invitations came, felt it her duty to warn Hester against a love of rank, reminding her that it was a very bad thing to get a name for running after titled people.

“James and I have always kept clear of that,” she remarked with dignity. “For my part, I daresay you will think me very old-fashioned, but I must own I never can see that people with titles or wealth are one bit nicer or pleasanter than those without them.”

Hester agreed.

“And,” continued Mrs. Gresley, “it has always been our aim to be independent, not to bow down before any one. If I am unworldly, it is because I had the advantage of parents who impressed on me the hollowness of all social distinctions. If the Pratts were given a title to-morrow I should behave exactly the same to them as I do now.”

If Lady Susan Gresley had passed her acquaintance through a less exclusive sieve, Hester might have had the advantage of hearing all these well-worn sentiments, and of realising the point of view of a large number of her fellow creatures before she became an inconspicuous unit in their midst.

But if Mrs. Gresley was pained by Hester’s predilection for the society of what she called “swells” (the word though quite extinct in civilised parts can occasionally be found in country districts), she was still more pained by the friendship Hester formed with persons whom her sister-in-law considered “not quite.”

Mrs. Gresley was always perfectly civil, and the Pratts imperfectly so to Miss Brown, the doctor’s invalid sister. But Hester made friends with her, in spite of the warnings of Mrs. Gresley that kindness was one thing and intimacy another.

“The truth is,” Mrs. Gresley would say, “Hester loves adulation, and as she can’t get it from the Pratts and us, she has to go to those below her in the social scale, like Miss Brown, who will give it to her. Miss Brown may be very cultivated. I dare say she is, but she makes up to Hester.”

Sybell Loftus, who lived close at hand at Wilderleigh, across the Drone, was one of the very few besides Miss Brown among her new acquaintances who hailed Hester at once as a kindred spirit, to the unconcealed surprise of the Pratts and the Gresleys. Sybell adored Hester’s book, which the Gresleys and Pratts considered rather peculiar “as emanating from the pen of a clergyman’s sister.” She enthusiastically suggested to Hester several improvements which might easily be made in it, which would have changed its character altogether. She even entrenched on the sacred precinct of a married woman’s time to write out the openings of several romances, which she was sure Hester with her wonderful talent could build up into magnificent works of art. She was always running over to the Vicarage to confide to Hester the unique thoughts which had been vouchsafed to her while contemplating a rose, or her child or her husband, or all three together.

Hester was half amused, half fascinated, and ruefully lost many of the mornings still left her by the Pratts and Gresleys, in listening to the outpourings of this butterfly soul which imagined every flower it involuntarily alighted on and drew honey from to be its own special production.

But Hester’s greatest friend in Middleshire was the Bishop of Southminster, with whom Rachel was staying, and whom she was expecting this afternoon.

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