Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XII

The depth and dream of my desire

    The bitter paths wherein I stray,

Thou knowest Who hast made the Fire,

    Thou knowest Who hast made the Clay!

RUDYARD KIPLING.

THE unbalanced joys and sorrows of emotional natures are apt to arouse the pity of the narrow-hearted, and the mild contempt of the obtuse of their fellow creatures.

But perhaps it is a mistake to feel compassion for persons like Hester, for if they have many evil days and weeks in their usually short lives, they have also moments of sheer bliss, hours of awed contemplation and of exquisite rapture which possibly in the long run equal the more solid joys of a good income and a good digestion, nay, even the perennial glow of that happiest of happy temperaments which limits the nature of others by its own, which sees no uncomfortable difference between a moral and a legal right, and believes it can measure life with the same admirable accuracy with which it measures its drawing-room curtains.

As Hester and Rachel sat together in the Vicarage drawing-room, Rachel’s faithful dog-like eyes detected no trace of tears in Hester’s dancing, mischievous ones. They were alone, for the Bishop had dropped Rachel on his way to visit a sick clergyman, and had arranged to call at the Vicarage on his way back.

Hester quickly perceived that Rachel did not wish to talk of herself, and drew a quaint picture of her own life at Warpington, which she described "not wisely but too well." But she was faithful to her salt. She said nothing of the Gresleys to which those worthies could have objected had they been present. Indeed, she spoke of them in what they would have termed “a very proper manner,” of their kindness to her when she had been ill, of how Mr. Gresley had himself brought up her breakfast tray every morning, and how in the spring he had taught her to bicycle.

“But oh! Rachel,” added Hester, “during the last nine months my self-esteem has been perforated with wounds, each large enough to kill the poor creature. My life here has shown me horrible faults in myself of which I never dreamed. I feel as if I had been ironed all over since I came here, and all kinds of ugly words in invisible ink are coming out clear in the process.”

“I am quite alarmed,” said Rachel tranquilly.

“You ought to be. First of all I did think I cared nothing about food. I don’t remember ever giving it a thought when I lived with Aunt Susan. But here I— I am difficult about it. I do try to eat it, but often I really can’t. And then I leave it on my plate, which is a disgusting habit which always offends me in other people. Now I am as bad as any of them; indeed, it is worse in me because I know poor James is not very rich.”

“I suppose the cooking is vile?”

“I don’t know. I never noticed what I ate till I came here, so I can’t judge. Perhaps it is not very good. But the dreadful part is that I should mind. I could not have believed it of myself. James and Minna never say anything, but I know it vexes them, as of course it must.”

Rachel looked critically at Hester’s innocent, childlike face. When Hester was not a cultivated woman of the world she was a child. There was, alas! no medium in her character. Rachel noticed how thin her face and hands had become, and the strained look in the eyes. The faint colour in her cheek had a violet tinge.

She did not waste words on the cookery question. She saw plainly enough that Hester’s weak health was slipping further down the hill.

“And all this time you have been working?”

“If you call it working. I used to call it so once, but I never do now. Yes, I manage about four hours a day. I have made another pleasant discovery about myself, that I have the temper of a fiend if I am interrupted.”

“But surely you told the Gresleys when first you came that you must not be interrupted at certain hours?”

“I did. I did. But of course — it is very natural — they think that rather self-important and silly. I am thought very silly here, Rachel. And James does not mind being interrupted in writing his sermons. And the Pratts have got the habit of running in in the mornings.”

“Who on earth are the Pratts?”

“They are what they call ‘county people.’ Their father made a fortune in oil, and built a house covered with turrets near here a few years ago. I used to know Captain Pratt, the son, very slightly in London. I never would dance with him. He used to come to our ‘At Homes,’ but he was never asked to dinner. He is a great ‘parti’ among a certain set down here. His mother and sisters were very kind to me when I came, but I was not so accustomed then as I am now to be treated familiarly and called ‘Hessie,’ which no one has ever called me before, and I am afraid I was not so responsive as I see now I ought to have been. Down here it seems your friends are the people whom you live near, not the ones you like. It seems a curious arrangement. And as the Pratts are James’ and Minna’s greatest friends, I did not wish to offend them. And then, of course, I did offend them mortally at last by losing my temper when they came up to my room to what they called ‘rout me out,’ though I had told them I was busy in the mornings. I was in a very difficult place, and when they came in I did not know who they were, because only the people in the book were real just then. And then when I recognised them, and the scene in my mind which I had been waiting for for weeks was shattered like a pane of glass, I became quite giddy and spoke wildly. And then — I was so ashamed afterwards — I burst into tears of rage and despair.”

Even the remembrance was too much. Hester wiped away two large tears on to a dear little handkerchief just large enough to receive them, and went on with a quaver in her voice.

“I was so shocked at myself that I found it quite easy to tell them next day that I was sorry I had lost my temper, but they have not been the same since. Not that I wanted them to be the same. I would rather they were different. But I was anxious to keep on cordial terms with Minna’s friends. She quarrels with them herself, but that is different. I suppose it is inevitable if you are on terms of great intimacy with people you don’t really care for.”

“At any rate, they have not interrupted you again?”

“N— no. But still, I was often interrupted. Minna has too much to do, and she is not strong just now, and she often sends up one of the children, and I was so nearly fierce with one of them, poor little things, that I felt the risk was becoming too great, so I have left off writing between breakfast and luncheon, and I get up directly it is light instead. It is light very early now. Only the worst part of it is that I am so tired for the rest of the day that I can hardly drag myself about.”

Rachel said nothing. She seldom commented on the confidences that were made to her. She saw that Hester, always delicate, was making an enormous effort under conditions which would be certain to entail disastrous effects on her health. The book was sapping her strength like a vampire, and the Gresleys were evidently exhausting it still further by unconsciously strewing her path with difficulties. Rachel did not know them, but she supposed they belonged to that large class whose eyes are holden.

“And the book itself? Is it nearly finished?”

Hester’s face changed. Eagerly, shyly, enthusiastically, she talked to her friend about the book, as a young girl talks of her lover. Everything else was forgotten. Hester’s eyes burned. Her colour came and went. She was transfigured.

The protecting anxious affection died out of Rachel’s face as she looked at Hester, and gave place to a certain wistful, half envious admiration. She had once been shaken by all these emotions herself, years ago, when she was in love. She had regarded them as a revelation while they lasted; and — afterwards — as a steep step, a very steep step upon the stair of life. But she realised now that such as Hester live constantly in the world which the greater number of us can only enter when human passion lends us the key; the world at which, when the gates are shut against us, the coarser minded among us are not ashamed to level their ridicule and contempt.

Hester spoke brokenly with awe and reverence of her book, as of some mighty presence, some constraining power outside herself. She saw it complete, beautiful, an entrancing vision, inaccessible as a sunset.

“I cannot reach up to it. I cannot get near it,” she said. “When I try to write it it is like drawing an angel with spread wings with a bit of charcoal. I understate everything. Yet I labour day by day travestying it, caricaturing the beautiful thoughts that come into my mind. I make everything commonplace and vulgar by putting it into words. I go alone into the woods and sit for hours quite still with the trees. And gradually I understand and know. And I listen and Nature speaks, really speaks — not a façon de parler as some people think who explain to you that you mean this or that by your words which you don’t mean — and her spirit becomes one with my spirit. And I feel I can never again misunderstand her, never again fail to interpret her, never again wander so far away from her that every white anemone, and every seedling fern disowns me, and waits in silence till the alien has gone from among them. And I come home, Rachel, and I try, sometimes I try for half the night, to find words to translate it into. But there are no words, or if there are I cannot find them, and at last I fall back on some coarse simile, and in my despair I write it down. And Oh! Rachel, the worst is that presently, when I have forgotten what it ought to have been, when the vision fades, I know I shall admire what I have written. It is that that breaks my heart.”

The old, old lament of those who worship art, that sternest mistress in the world, fell into the silence of the little drawing-room. Rachel understood it in part only, for she had always vaguely felt that Hester idealised Nature, as she idealised her fellow creatures, as she idealised everything, and she did not comprehend why Hester was in despair because she could not speak adequately of life or Nature as she saw them. Rachel thought with bewilderment that that was just what she could do.

At this moment a carriage drew up at the door, and after a long interval, during which the wrathful voice of the cook could be distinctly heard through the kitchen window recalling “Hemma” to a sense of duty from the backyard, “Hemma” breathlessly ushered in the Bishop of Southminster.

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