Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XV

Beware of a silent dog and of still water.

IF you are travelling across Middleshire on the local line between Southminster and Westhope, after you have passed Wilderleigh with its grey gables and park wall, close at hand you will perceive to nestle (at least Mr. Gresley said it nestled) Warpington Vicarage; and perhaps, if you know where to look, you will catch a glimpse of Hester’s narrow bedroom window under the roof. Half a mile further on Warpington Towers, the gorgeous residence of the Pratts, bursts into view, with flag on turret flying, and two tightly-bitted rustic bridges leaping high over the Drone. You cannot see all the lodges of Warpington Towers from the line, which is a source of some regret to Mr. Pratt; but if he happens to be travelling with you he will point out two of them, chaste stucco Gothic erections with church windows, and inform you that the three others are on the northern and eastern sides, vaguely indicating the directions of Scotland and Ireland.

And the Drone kept in order on your left by the low line of the Slumberleigh hills will follow you and leave you, leave you and return all the way to Westhope. You are getting out at Westhope, of course, if you are a Middleshire man. For Westhope is on the verge of Middleshire, and the train does not go any further; at least, it only goes into one of the insignificant counties which jostle each other to hold on to Middleshire, unknown Saharas, where passengers who oversleep themselves wake to find themselves cast away.

Westhope Abbey stands in its long low meadows and level gardens, close to the little town, straggling red roof above red roof, up its steep cobbled streets.

Down the great central aisle you may walk on mossy stones between the high shafts of broken pillars under the sky. God’s stars look down once more where the piety of man had for a time shut them out. Through the slender tracery of what was once the east window, instead of glazed saint and crucifix, you may see the little town clasping its hill.

The purple clematis and the small lizard-like leaf of the ivy have laid tender hands on all that is left of that stately house of prayer. The pigeons wheel round it, and nest in its niches. The soft contented murmur of bird praise has replaced the noise of bitter human prayer. A thin wind-whipped grass holds the summit of the broken walls against all comers. The fallen stones, quaintly carved with angel and griffin, are going slowly back year by year, helped by the rain and hindered by the frost, slowly back through the sod to the generations of human hands that held and hewed them, and fell to dust below them hundreds of years ago. The spirit returns to the God who gave it, and the stone to the hand that fashioned it.

The adjoining monastery had been turned into a dwelling house, without altering it externally, and it was here that Lord Newhaven loved to pass the summer months. Into its one long upper passage all the many rooms opened, up white stone steps through arched doors, rooms which had once been monks’ dormitories, abbots’ cells, where Lady Newhaven and her guests now crimped their hair, and slept under down quilts till noon.

It was this long passage with its interminable row of low latticed windows that Lord Newhaven was turning into a depository for the old English weapons which he was slowly collecting. He was standing now gazing lovingly at them, drawing one finger slowly along an inlaid arquebus, when a yell from the garden made him turn and look out.

It was not a yell of anguish, and Lord Newhaven remained at the window leaning on his elbows, and watching at his ease the little scene which was taking place below him.

On his bicycle on the smooth shaven lawn was Dick wheeling slowly in and out among the stone-edged flower-beds, an apricot in each broad palm, while he discoursed in a dispassionate manner to the two excited little boys who were making futile rushes for the apricots. The governess and Rachel were looking on. Rachel had arrived at Westhope the day before from Southminster. “Take your time, my son,” said Dick, just eluding by a hairsbreadth a charge through a geranium bed on the part of the eldest boy. “If you are such jolly little fools as to crack your little skulls on the sun-dial I shall eat them both myself. Miss Turner says you may have them, so you’ve only got to take them. I can’t keep on offering them all day long. My time” (Dick ran his bicycle up a terrace, and as soon as the boys were up, glided down again) “my time is valuable. You don’t want them?” A shrill disclaimer and a fresh onslaught. “Miss Turner, they thank you very much, but they don’t care for apricots.”

Half a second more and Dick skilfully parted from his bicycle and was charged by his two admirers and severely pummelled as high as they could reach. When they had been led away by Miss Turner, each biting an apricot and casting longing backward looks at their friend, Rachel and Dick wandered to the north side of the abbey and sat down there in the shade.

Lord Newhaven could still see them, could still note her amused face under her wide white hat. He was doing his best for Dick, and Dick was certainly having his chance, and making the most of it according to his lights.

“But all the same I don’t think he has a chance,” said Lord Newhaven to himself. “That woman, in spite of her frank manner and her self-possession, is afraid of men; not of being married for her money, but of man himself. And whatever else he may not be, Dick is a man. It’s the best chance she will ever get, so it is probable she won’t take it.”

Lord Newhaven sauntered back down the narrow black oak staircase to his own room on the ground-floor. He sat down at his writing-table and took out of his pocket a letter which he had evidently read before. He now read it slowly once more.

“Your last letter to me had been opened,” wrote his brother from India, “or else it had not been properly closed. As you wrote on business, I wish you would be more careful.”

“I will,” said Lord Newhaven, and he wrote a short letter in his small upright hand, closed the envelope, addressed and stamped it, and sauntered out through the low-arched door into the garden.

Dick was sitting alone on the high-carved stone edge of the round pool where the monks used to wash, and where gold-fish now lived cloistered lives. A moment of depression seemed to have overtaken that cheerful personage.

“Come as far as the post-office,” said Lord Newhaven.

Dick gathered himself together, and rose slowly to his large feet.

“You millionaires are all the same,” he said. “Because you have a house crawling with servants till they stick to the ceiling you have to go to the post-office to buy a penny stamp. It’s like keeping a dog and barking yourself.”

“I don’t fancy I bark much,” said Lord Newhaven.

“No, and you don’t bite often, but when you do you take out the piece. Do you remember that coloured chap at Broken Hill?”

“He deserved it,” said Lord Newhaven.

“He richly deserved it. But you took him in, poor devil, all the same. You were so uncommonly mild and limp beforehand, and letting pass things you ought not to have let pass, that, like the low beast he was, he thought he could play you any dog’s trick, and that you would never turn on him.”

“It’s a way worms have.”

“Oh, hang worms; it does not matter whether they turn or not. But cobras have no business to imitate them till poor rookies think they have no poison in them, and that they can tickle them with a switch. What a great hulking brute that man was! You ricked him when you threw him! I saw him just before I left Adelaide. He’s been lame ever since.”

“He’d have done for me if he could.”

“Of course he would. His blood was up. He meant to break your back. I saw him break a chap’s back once, and it did not take so very long either. I heard it snap. But why did you let him go so far to start with before you pulled him up? That’s what I’ve never been able to understand about you. If you behaved different to start with they would behave different to you. They would know they’d have to.”

“I have not your art,” said Lord Newhaven tranquilly, “of letting a man know when he’s getting out of hand that unless he goes steady there will be a row and he’ll be in it. I’m not made like that.”

“It works well,” said Dick. “It’s a sort of peaceful way of rubbing along and keeping friends. If you let those poor bullies know what to expect they aren’t as a rule over anxious to toe the mark. But you never do let them know.”

“No,” said Lord Newhaven, as he shot his letter into the brass mouth in the cottage wall, just below a window of “bulls’-eyes” and peppermints, “I never do. I don’t defend it. But —”

“But what?”

Lord Newhaven’s face underwent some subtle change. His eyes fixed themselves on a bottle of heart-shaped peppermints, and then met Dick’s suddenly, with the clear frank glance of a schoolboy.

“But somehow, for the life of me, until things get serious — I can’t.”

Dick, whose perceptions were rather of a colossal than an acute order, nevertheless perceived that he had received a confidence, and changed the subject.

“Aren’t you going to buy some stamps?” he asked, perfectly aware that Lord Newhaven had had his reasons for walking to the post-office.

Lord Newhaven, who was being watched with affectionate interest from behind the counter by the grocer postmaster, went in, hit his head against a pendant ham, and presently emerged with brine in his hair, and a shilling’s worth of stamps in his hand.

Later in the day, when he and Dick were riding up the little street with a view to having a look at the moor — for Middleshire actually has a grouse moor, although it is in the Midlands — the grocer in his white apron rushed out and waylaid them.

“Very sorry about the letter, my lord,” he repeated volubly, touching his forelock. “Hope her la-ship told you as I could not get it out again, or I’m sure I would have done to oblige your lordship, and her la-ship calling on purpose. But the post-office is that mean and distrustful as it don’t leave me the key, and once hanything is in, in it is.”

“Ah!” said Lord Newhaven slowly. “Well, Jones, it’s not your fault. I ought not to have changed my mind. I suppose her ladyship gave you my message that I wanted it back?”

“Yes, my lord, and her la-ship come herself, not ten minutes after you was gone. But I’ve no more power over that there recepticle than a hunlaid hegg, and that’s the long and short of it. I’ve allus said, and I say it again, ‘Them as have charge of the post-office should have the key.’”

“When I am made postmaster-general you shall have it,” said Lord Newhaven, smiling. “It is the first reform that I shall bring about.” And he nodded to the smiling apologetic man and trotted on, Dick beside him, who was apparently absorbed in the action of his roan cob.

But Dick’s mind had sustained a severe shock. That Lady Newhaven, “that jolly little woman,” the fond mother of those two “jolly little chaps,” should have been guilty of an underhand trick, was astonishing to him.

Poor Dick had started life with a religious reverence for woman; had carried out his brittle possession to bush life in Australia, from thence through two A.D.C.-ships, and, after many vicissitudes, had brought it safely back with a large consignment of his own Burgundy to his native land. It was still sufficiently intact — save for a chip or two — to make a pretty wedding present to his future wife. But it had had a knock since he mounted the roan cob. For unfortunately the kind of man who has what are called “illusions” about women, is too often the man whose discrimination lies in other directions, in fields where little high-heeled shoes are not admitted.

Rachel had the doubtful advantage of knowing that in spite of Dick’s shrewdness respecting shades of difference in muscatels, she and Lady Newhaven were nevertheless ranged on the same pedestal in Dick’s mind, as flawless twins of equal moral beauty. But after this particular day she observed that Lady Newhaven had somehow slipped off the pedestal, and that she, Rachel, had the honour of occupying it alone.

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