Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XIII

Originality irritates the religious classes, who will not be taken out of their indolent ways of thinking; who have a standing grievance against it, and heresy and heterodoxy are bad words ready for it.

W.W. PEYTON.

THE Bishop was an undersized, spare man, with a rugged, weather-beaten face and sinewy frame. If you had seen him working a crane in a stonemason’s yard, or leading a cut-and-thrust forlorn-hope, or sailing paper-boats with a child, you would have felt he was the right man in the right place. That he was also in his right place as a bishop had never been doubted by any one. Mr. Gresley was the only person who had occasionally had misgivings as to the Bishop’s vocation as a true priest, but he had put them aside as disloyal.

Jowett is believed to have said, “A Bishop without a sense of humour is lost.” Perhaps that may have been one of the reasons why, by Jowett’s advice, the See of Southminster was offered to its present occupant. The Bishop’s mouth, though it spoke of an indomitable will, had a certain twist of the lip, his deep-set, benevolent eyes had a certain twinkle which made persons like Lord Newhaven and Hester hail him at once as an ally, but which ought to have been a danger-signal to some of his clerical brethren — to Mr. Gresley in particular.

The Bishop respected and upheld Mr. Gresley as a clergyman, but as a conversationalist the young Vicar wearied him. If the truth were known (which it never was) he had arranged to visit Hester when he knew Mr. Gresley would be engaging the reluctant attention of a ruri-dicanal meeting.

He gave a sigh of relief as he became aware that Hester and Rachel were the only occupants of the cool, darkened room. Mrs. Gresley, it seemed, was also out.

Hester made tea, and presently the Bishop, who looked much exhausted, roused himself. He had that afternoon attended two deathbeds, one the deathbed of a friend, and the other that of the last vestige of peace, expiring amid the clamour of a distracted Low Church parish and High Church parson, who could only meet each other after the fashion of cymbals. For the moment even his courageous spirit had been disheartened.

“I met a son of Anak the other night at the Newhavens,” he said to Hester, “who claimed you as a cousin — a Mr. Richard Vernon. He broke the ice by informing me that I had confirmed him, and that perhaps I should like to know that he had turned out better than he expected.”

“How like Dick,” said Hester.

“I remembered him at last. His father was the squire of Fallow, where I was rector before I came to Southminster. Dick was not a source of unmixed pleasure to his parents. As a boy of eight he sowed the parental billiard-table with mustard and cress in his father’s absence, and raised a very good crop, and performed other excruciating experiments. I believe he beat all previous records of birch rods at Eton. I remember while he was there he won a bet from another boy who could not pay, and he foreclosed on the loser’s cricketing trousers. His parents were distressed about it when he brought them home, and I tried to make him see that he ought not to have taken them. But Dick held firm. He said it was like tithe, and if he could not get his own in money as I did he must collect it in trousers. I must own he had me there. I noticed that he wore the garments daily as long as any question remained in his parents’ minds as to whether they ought to be returned. After that I felt sure he would succeed in life.”

“I believe he is succeeding in Australia.”

“I advised his father to send him abroad. There really was not room for him in England, and unfortunately for the army, the examiners jibbed at his strictly phonetic spelling. He tells me he has given up being an A.D.C. and has taken to vine-growing, because if people are up in the world they always drink freely, and if they are ‘down on their luck’ they drink all the more to drown care. The reasoning appeared to me sound.”

“He and James used to quarrel frightfully in the holidays,” said Hester. “It was always the same reason, about playing fair. Poor James did not know that games were matters of deadly importance, and that a rule was a sacred thing. I wonder why it is that clergymen so often have the same code of honour as women; quite a different code from that of the average man.”

“I think,” said the Bishop, “it is owing to that difference of code that women clash so hopelessly with men when they attempt to compete or work with them. Women have not to begin with the esprit de corps which the most ordinary men possess. With what difficulty can one squeeze out of a man any fact that is detrimental to his friend, or even to his acquaintance, however obviously necessary it may be that the information should be asked for and given. Yet I have known many good and earnest and affectionate women who lead unselfish lives, who will ‘give away’ their best woman friend at the smallest provocation, or without any provocation at all; will inform you à propos of nothing that she was jilted years ago, or that her husband married her for her money. The causes of humiliation and disaster in a woman’s life seem to have no sacredness for her women friends. Yet if that same friend whom she has run down is ill, the runner down will nurse her day and night with absolutely selfless devotion.”

“I have often been puzzled by that,” said Rachel. “I seem to be always making mistakes about women, and perhaps that is the reason. They show themselves capable of some deep affection or some great self-sacrifice, and I respect and admire them, and think they are like that all through. And the day comes when they are not quite straightforward, or are guilty of some petty meanness, which a man who is not fit to black their boots would never stoop to.”

Hester’s eyes fixed on her friend.

“Do you tell them? Do you show them up to themselves?” she asked; “or do you leave them?”

“I do neither,” said Rachel. “I treat them just the same as before.”

“Then aren’t you a hypocrite, too?”

Hester’s small face was set like a flint.

“I think not,” said Rachel tranquilly, “any more than they are. The good is there for certain, and the evil is there for certain. Why should I take most notice of the evil which is just the part which will be rubbed out of them presently while the good will remain.”

“I think Rachel is right,” said the Bishop.

“I don’t think she is, at all,” said Hester, her plumage ruffled, administering her contradiction right and left to her two best friends like a sharp peck from a wren. “I think we ought to believe the best of people until they prove themselves unworthy, and then —”

“Then what?” said the Bishop, settling himself in his chair.

“Then leave them in silence.”

“I only know of a woman’s silence by hearsay. I have never met it. Do you mean bitterly reproach the thistle for not bearing grapes?”

“I do not. It is my own fault if I idealise a thistle until the thistle and I both think it is a vine. But if people appear to love and honour certain truths which they know are everything to me, and claim kinship with me on that common ground, and then desert when the pinch comes, as it always does come, and act from worldly motives, then I know that they have never really cared for what they professed to love, that what I imagined to be a principle was only a subject of conversation — and — I withdraw.”

“You withdraw!” echoed the Bishop. “This is terrible.”

“Just as I should,” continued Hester, “if I were in political life. If a man threw in his lot with me, and then, when some means of worldly advancement seemed probable from the other side, deserted to it, I should not in consequence think him incapable of being a good husband and father and landlord. But I should never again believe that he cared for what I had staked my all on. And when he began to talk as if he cared (as they always do, as if nothing had happened) I should not show him up to himself. I have tried that and it is no use. I should —”

“Denounce him as an apostate?” suggested the Bishop.

“No. He should be to me thenceforward as a heathen.”

“Thrice miserable man!”

“You would not have me treat him as a brother after that?”

“Of course not, because he would probably dislike that still more.”

At this moment a hurricane seemed to pass through the little house, and the three children rushed into the drawing-room, accompanied by Boulou, in a frantic state of excitement. Boulou, like Hester, had no happy medium in his character. He was what Mrs. Gresley called “very Frenchy,” and he now showed his “Frenchyness” by a foolish exhibition of himself in coursing round and round the room with his silly foreign tail crooked the wrong way.

“Mother got out at Mrs. Brown’s,” shrieked Regie, in his highest voice, “and I drove up.”

“Oh, Regie,” expostulated Mary the virtuous, the invariable corrector of the statements of others. “You held the reins, but William walked beside.”

Hester made the children shake hands with her guests, and then they clustered round her to show what they had bought.

Though the Bishop was fond of children, he became suddenly restive. He took out his watch, and was nervously surprised at the lapse of time. The carriage was sent for, and in a few minutes that dignified vehicle was bowling back to Southminster.

“I am not satisfied about Hester,” said the Bishop. “She looks ill and irritable, and she has the tense expression of a person who is making a colossal effort to be patient, and whose patience, after successfully meeting twenty calls upon it in the course of the day, collapses entirely at the twenty-first. That is a humiliating experience.”

“She spoke as if she were a trial to her brother and his wife.”

“I think she is. I have a sort of sympathy with Gresley as regards his sister. He has been kind to her according to his lights, and if she could write little goody-goody books he would admire her immensely, and so would half the neighbourhood. It would be felt to be suitable. But Hester jars against the preconceived ideas which depute that clergymen’s sisters and daughters should, as a matter of course, offer up their youth and hair and teeth and eyesight on the altar of parochial work. She does and is nothing that long custom expects her to do and be. Originality is out of place in a clergyman’s family, just because it is so urgently needed. It is a constant source of friction. But, on the other hand, the best thing that could happen to Hester is to be thrown for a time among people who regard her as a nonenity, who have no sense of humour, and to whom she cannot speak of any of the subjects she has at heart. If Hester had remained in London after the success of her ‘Idyll’ she would have met with so much sympathy and admiration that her next book would probably have suffered in consequence. She is so susceptible, so expansive, that repression is positively necessary to her to enable her, so to speak, to get up steam. There is no place for getting up steam like a country vicarage with an inner cordon of cows round it, and an outer one of amiable country neighbours, mildly contemptuous of originality in any form. She cannot be in sympathy with them in her present stage. It is her loss, not theirs. At forty she will be in sympathy with them, and appreciate them as I do; but that is another story. She has been working at this new book all winter with a fervour and concentration which her isolation has helped to bring about. She owes a debt of gratitude to her surroundings, and some day I shall tell her so.”

“She says her temper has become that of a fiend.”

“She is passionate, there is no doubt. She nearly fell on us both this afternoon. She is too much swayed by every little incident. Everything makes a vivid impression on her and shakes her to pieces. It is rather absurd and disproportionate now, like the long legs of a foal, but it is a sign of growth. My experience is that people without that fire of enthusiasm on the one side and righteous indignation on the other never achieve anything except in domestic life. If Hester lives she will outgrow her passionate nature, or at least she will grow up to it and become passive, contemplative. Then instead of unbalanced anger and excitement, the same nature which is now continually upset by them will have learnt to receive impressions calmly, and, by reason of that receptiveness and insight, she will go far.”

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