Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XVI

Une grande passion malheureuse est un grand moyen de sagesse.

RACHEL had left London precipitately after she had been the unwilling confidant of Lady Newhaven’s secret, and had taken refuge with that friend of all perplexed souls the Bishop of Southminster. She felt unable to meet Hugh again without an interval of breathing time. She knew that if she saw much more of him he would confide in her, and she shrank from receiving a confidence the ugliest fact of which she already knew. Perhaps she involuntarily shrank also from fear lest he should lower himself in her eyes by only telling her half the truth. Sad confessions were often poured into Rachel’s ears which she had known for years. She never alluded to that knowledge, never corrected the half-lie which accompanies so many whispered self-accusations. Confidences and confessions are too often a means of evasion of justice, a laying of the case for the plaintiff before a judge without allowing the defendant to be present or to call a witness. Rachel, by dint of long experience, which did slowly for her the work of imagination, had ceased to wonder at the faithfully chronicled harsh words and deeds of generous souls. She knew or guessed at the unchronicled treachery or deceit which had brought about that seemingly harsh word or deed.

She had not the exalted ideas about her fellow creatures which Hester had, but she possessed the rare gift of reticence. She exemplified the text —“Whether it be to friend or foe, talk not of other men’s lives." And in Rachel’s quiet soul a vast love and pity dwelt for these same fellow creatures. She had lived and worked for years among those whose bodies were half starved, half clothed, degraded. When she found money at her command she had spent sums (as her lawyer told her) out of all proportion on that poor human body, stumbling between vice and starvation. But now, during the last year, when her great wealth had thrown her violently into society, she had met, until her strong heart flinched before it, the other side of life: the starved soul in the delicately nurtured, richly clad body, the atrophied spiritual life in hideous contrast with the physical ease and luxury which were choking it. The second experience was harder to bear than the first. And just as in the old days she had shared her bread and cheese with those hungrier than herself, and had taken but little thought for those who had bread and to spare, so now she felt but transient interest in those among her new associates who were successfully struggling against the blackmail of luxury, the leprosy of worldliness, the selfishness that at last coffins the soul it clothes. Her heart yearned instead towards the spiritually starving, the tempted, the fallen in that great little world, whose names are written in the book, not of life, but of Burke — the little world which is called “Society.”

She longed to comfort them, to raise them up, to wipe from their hands and garments the muddy gold stains of the gutter into which they had fallen, to smoothe away the lines of mean care from their faces. But it had been far simpler in her previous life to share her hard-earned bread with those who needed it than it was now to share her equally hard-earned thoughts and slow gleanings of spiritual knowledge, to share the things which belonged to her peace.

Rachel had not yet wholly recovered from the overwhelming passion of love which, admitted without fear a few years ago, had devastated the little city of her heart, as by fire and sword, involving its hospitable dwellings, its temples and its palaces in one common ruin. Out of that desolation she was unconsciously rebuilding her city, but it was still rather gaunt and bare, the trees had not had time to grow in the streets, and there was an ugly fortification round it of defaced, fire-seared stones which had once stood aloft in minaret and tower, and which now served only as a defence against all comers.

If Dick had been in trouble, or rather if she had known the troubles he had been through, and which had made his crooked mouth shut so firmly, Rachel might possibly have been able to give him something more valuable than the paper money of her friendship. But Dick was obviously independent. He could do without her, while Hugh had a claim upon her. Rachel’s thoughts turned to Hugh again and ever again. Did he see his conduct as she saw it? A haunting fear was upon her that he did not. And she longed with an intensity that outbalanced for the time every other feeling that he should confess his sin fully, entirely — see it in all its ugliness and gather himself together into a deep repentance before he went down into silence, or before he made a fresh start in life. She would have given her right hand to achieve that.

And in a lesser degree she was drawn towards Lady Newhaven. Lady Newhaven was conscious of the tender compassion which Rachel felt for her, and used it to the uttermost, but unfortunately she mistook it for admiration of her character, mixed with sympathetic sorrow for her broken heart. If she had seen herself as Rachel saw her she would have conceived, not for herself but for Rachel, some of the aversion which was gradually distilling bitter drop by drop into her mind for her husband. She would not have killed him. She would have thought herself incapable of an action so criminal, so monstrous. But if part of the ruin in the garden were visibly trembling to its fall, she would not have warned him if he had been sitting beneath it, nor would her conscience have ever reproached her afterwards.

“I wish Miss Gresley would come and stay here instead of taking you away from me," she said plaintively to Rachel one morning, when she made the disagreeable discovery that Rachel and Hester were friends. “I don’t care much about her myself, she is so profane, and so dreadfully irreligious. But Edward likes to talk to her. He prefers artificial people. I wonder he did not marry her. That old cat, Lady Susan Gresley, was always throwing her at his head. I wish she was not always persuading you to leave me for hours together. I get so frightened when I am left alone with Edward. I live in perpetual dread that he will say something before the children or the servants. He is quite cruel enough.”

“He will never say anything.”

“You are always so decided, Rachel. You don’t see possibilities, and you don’t know him as I do. He is capable of anything. I will write a note now, and you can take it to Miss Gresley if you must go there to-day.”

“I wish to go very much.”

“And you will stay another week whether she comes or not?”

There was a momentary pause before Rachel said cheerfully, “I will stay another week, with pleasure. But I am afraid Lord Newhaven will turn restive at taking me in to dinner.”

“Oh! he likes you. He always prefers people who are not of his own family.”

Rachel laughed. “You flatter me.”

“I never flatter any one. He does like you, and, besides, there are people coming next week for the grouse shooting. I suppose that heavy young Vernon is going to lumber over with you. It’s not my fault if he is always running after you. Edward insisted on having him. I don’t want him to dance attendance on me.”

“He and I are going to bicycle to Warpington together. The Gresleys are cousins of his. If it turns very hot we will wait till after sunset to return, if we may.”

“Just as you like,” said Lady Newhaven with asperity. “But I advise you to be careful, my dear Rachel. It never seems to occur to you what onlookers see at a glance, namely, that Mr. Vernon is in love with your fortune.”

“According to public opinion that is a very praiseworthy attachment,” said Rachel, who had had about enough. “I often hear it commended.”

Lady Newhaven stared. That her conversation could have the effect of a mustard leaf did not strike her. She saw that Rachel was becoming restive, and, of course, the reason was obvious. She was thinking of marrying Dick.

“Well, my dear,” she said, lying down on a low couch near the latticed window, and opening a novel. “You need not be vexed with me for trying to save you from a mercenary marriage. I only speak because I am fond of you. But one marriage is as good as another. I was married for love myself; I had not a farthing. And yet you see my marriage has turned out a tragedy — a bitter, bitter tragedy.

Tableau. — A beautiful, sad-faced young married woman in white, reclining among pale-green cushions near a bowl of pink carnations, endeavouring to rouse the higher feelings of an inexperienced though not youthful spinster in a short bicycling skirt. Decidedly, the picture was not flattering to Rachel.

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