Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XIV

Only those who know the supremacy of the intellectual life — the life which has a seed of ennobling thought and purpose within it — can understand the grief of one who falls from that serene activity into the absorbing soul-wasting struggle with worldly annoyances.

GEORGE ELIOT.

HESTER in the meanwhile was expressing wonder and astonishment at the purchases of the children, who, with the exception of Mary, had spent their little all on presents for Fraülein, whose birthday was on the morrow. After Mary’s tiny white bone umbrella had been discovered to be a needle-case, and most of the needles had been recovered from the floor, Regie extracted from its paper a little china cow. But, alas! the cow’s ears and horns remained in the bag, owing possibly to the incessant passage of the parcel from one pocket to another on the way home. Regie looked at the remnants in the bag and his lip quivered, while Mary, her own umbrella safely warehoused, exclaimed, “Oh! Regie” in tones of piercing reproach.

But Hester quickly suggested that she could put them on again quite easily, and Fraülein would like it just as much. Still it was a blow. Regie leaned his head against Hester’s shoulder.

Hester pressed her cheek against his little dark head. Sybell Loftus had often told Hester that she could have no idea of the happiness of a child’s touch till she was a mother: that she herself had not an inkling till then. But perhaps some poor substitute for that exquisite feeling was vouchsafed to Hester.

“The tail is still on,” she whispered, not too cheerfully, but as one who in darkness sees light beyond.

The cow’s tail was painted in blue upon its side.

“When I bought it,” said Regie, in a strangled voice, “and it was a great deal of money cow, I did wish its tail had been out behind; but I think now it is safer like that.”

“All the best cows have their tails on the side,” said Hester. “And to-morrow morning, when you are dressed, run up to my room, and you will find it just like it was before.” And she carefully put aside the bits with the injured animal.

“And now what has Stella got?”

Stella produced a bag of “bull’s-eyes” which, in striking contrast with the cow, had, in the course of the drive home, cohered so tightly together that it was doubtful if they would ever be separated again.

“Fraülein never eats bull’s-eyes,” said Mary, who was what her parents called “a very truthful child.”

“I eats them,” said Stella, reversing her small cauliflower-like person on the sofa, till only a circle of white rims with a nucleus of coventry frilling, with two pink legs kicking gently upwards, were visible.

Stella always turned upside down if the conversation took a personal turn. In later and more conventional years we find a poor equivalent for marking our disapproval by changing the subject.

Hester had hardly set Stella right side upwards when the door opened once more and Mrs. Gresley entered, hot and exhausted.

“Run upstairs, my pets,” she said. “Hester, you should not keep them down here now. It is past their tea-time.”

“We came ourselves, mother,” said Regie. “Fraülein said we might, to show Auntie Hester our secrets.”

“Well, never mind; run away now,” said the poor mother, sitting down heavily in a low chair, “and take Boulou.”

“You are tired out,” said Hester, slipping on to her knees and unlacing her sister-in-law’s brown boots.

Mrs. Gresley looked with a shade of compunction at the fragile kneeling figure, with its face crimsoned by the act of stooping, and by the obduracy of the dust-ingrained bootlaces. But as she looked she noticed the flushed cheeks, and being a diviner of spirits, wondered what Hester was ashamed of now.

As Hester rose her sister-in-law held out, with momentary hesitation, a thin paper bag, in which an oval form allowed its moist presence to be discerned by partial adhesion to its envelope.

“I saw you ate no luncheon, Hester, so I have brought you a little sole for supper.”

Some of us poor Marthas spend all our existence, so to speak, in the kitchens of life. We never get so far as the drawing-room. Our conquests, our self-denials are achieved through the medium of suet and lard and necks of mutton. We wrestle with the dripping, and rise on stepping-stones — not of our dead selves, but of sheep and oxen — to higher things.

The sole was a direct answer to prayer. Mrs. Gresley had been enabled to stifle her irritation against this delicate, whimsical, fine lady of a sister-in-law — laced in, too, we must not forget that — who, in Mrs. Gresley’s ideas, knew none of the real difficulties of life, its butcher’s bills, its monthly nurses, its constant watchfulness over delicate children, its long, long strain at two ends which won’t meet. We must know but little of our fellow creatures if the damp sole in the bag appears to us other than the outward and homely sign of an inward and spiritual conquest.

As such Hester saw it, and she kissed Mrs. Gresley and thanked her, and then ran herself to the kitchen with the peace offering, and came back with her sister-in-law’s down-at-heel indoor shoes.

Mr. Gresley was stabling his bicycle in the hall as she crossed it. He was generally excessively jocose with his bicycle. He frequently said, “Woah, Emma!” to it. But to-day he, too, was tired, and put Emma away in silence.

When Hester returned to the drawing-room Mrs. Gresley had recovered sufficiently to notice her surroundings. She was sitting with her tan-stockinged feet firmly planted on the carpet instead of listlessly outstretched, her eyes ominously fixed on the tea-table and seed cake.

Hester’s silly heart nudged her side like an accomplice.

“Who has been here to tea?” said Mrs. Gresley. “I met the Pratts and the Thursbys in Westhope.”

Hester was frightened. We need to be, in the presence of those who judge others by themselves.

“The Bishop was here and Rachel West,” she said colouring. “They left a few minutes ago.”

“Well, of all unlucky things that James and I should have been out. James, do you hear that? The Bishop’s been while we were away. And I do declare, Hester,” looking again at the table, “you never so much as asked for the silver teapot.”

“I never thought of it,” said Hester ruefully. It was almost impossible to her to alter the habit of a lifetime, and to remember to dash out and hurriedly change the daily routine if visitors were present. Lady Susan had always used her battered old silver teapot every day, and for the life of her Hester could not understand why there should be one kind one day and one kind another. She glanced resentfully at the little brown earthenware vessel which she had wielded so cheerfully half an hour ago. Why did she never remember the Gresleys’ wishes?

“Hester,” said Mrs. Gresley suddenly, taking new note of Hester’s immaculate brown holland gown, which contrasted painfully with her own dilapidated pink shirt with hard collars and cuffs and imitation tie, tied for life in the shop where it was born. “You are so smart; I do believe you knew they were coming.”

If there was one thing more than another which offended Hester, it was being told that she was smart.

“I trust I am never smart,” she replied; not with any touch of the haughtiness that some ignorant persons believe to be the grand manner, but with a subtle change of tone and carriage which seemed instantly to remove her to an enormous distance from the other woman with her insinuation and tan stockings. Mrs. Gresley unconsciously drew in her feet. “I did not know when I dressed this morning that the Bishop was coming to-day.”

“Then you did know later that he was coming?”

“Yes, Rachel West wrote to tell me so this morning, but I did not open her letter at breakfast, and I was so vexed at being late for luncheon that I forgot to mention it then. I remembered as soon as James had started and ran after him, but he was too far off to hear me call to him.”

It cost Hester a good deal to give this explanation, as she was aware that the Bishop’s visit had been to her and to her alone.

“Come, come,” said Mr. Gresley, judicially, with the natural masculine abhorrence of a feminine skirmish. “Don’t go on making foolish excuses, Hester, which deceive no one; and you, Minna, don’t criticise Hester’s clothes. It is the Bishop’s own fault for not writing his notes himself. He might have known that Miss West would have written to Hester instead of to me. I can’t say I think Hester behaved kindly towards us in acting as she did, but I won’t hear any more argument about it. I desire the subject should now DROP.”

The last words were uttered in the same tone in which Mr. Gresley closed morning service, and were felt to be final. He was not in reality greatly chagrined at missing the Bishop, whom he regarded with some of the suspicious distrust with which a certain class of mind ever regards that which is superior to it. Hester left the room, closing the door gently behind her.

“James,” said Mrs. Gresley, looking at her priest with tears of admiration in her eyes, “I shall never be good like you, so you need not expect it. How you can be so generous and patient with her I don’t know. It passes me.”

"We must learn to make allowances for each other," said Mr. Gresley, in his most affectionate cornet, drawing his tired, tearful little wife down beside him on the sofa. And he made some fresh tea for her, and waited on her, and she told him about the children’s boots and the sole, and he told her about a remarkable speech he had made at the chapter meeting, and a feeling that had been borne in on him on the way home that he should shortly write something striking about Apostolic Succession. And they were happy together; for though he sometimes reproved her as a priest if she allowed herself to dwell on the probability of his being made a Bishop, he was very kind to her as a husband.

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