Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XVII

On s’ennuie presque toujours avec ceux qu’on ennuie.

HESTER did not fail a second time to warn the Gresleys of the arrival of guests. She mentioned it in time to allow of the making of cakes, and Mr. Gresley graciously signified his intention of returning early from his parochial rounds on the afternoon when Dick and Rachel were expected, while Mrs. Gresley announced that the occasion was a propitious one for inviting the Pratts to tea.

“Miss West will like to meet them,” she remarked to Hester, whose jaw dropped at the name of Pratt. “And it is very likely if they take a fancy to her they will ask her to stay at the Towers while she is in the neighbourhood. If the captain is at home I will ask him to come too. The Pratts are always so pleasant and hospitable.”

Hester was momentarily disconcerted at the magnitude of the social effort which Rachel’s coming seemed to entail. But for once she had the presence of mind not to show her dismay, and she helped Mrs. Gresley to change the crewel-work antimacassars with their washed-out kittens swinging and playing leap-frog for the best tussore silk ones.

The afternoon was still young when all the preparations had been completed, and Mrs. Gresley went upstairs to change her gown, while Hester took charge of the children, as Fraülein had many days previously arranged to make music with Dr. and Miss Brown on this particular afternoon. And very good music it was which proceeded out of the open windows of the doctor’s red brick house opposite Abel’s cottage. Hester could just hear it from the bottom of the garden near the churchyard wall, and there she took the children, and under the sycamore, with a bench round it, the dolls had a tea-party. Hester had provided herself with a lump of sugar and a biscuit, and out of these many dishes were made, and were arranged on a clean pocket-handkerchief spread on the grass. Regie carried out his directions as butler with solemn exactitude, and though Mary, who had inherited the paternal sense of humour, thought fit to tweak the handkerchief and upset everything, she found the witticism so coldly received by “Auntie Hester,” although she explained that father always did it, that she at once suited herself to her company and helped to repair the disaster.

It was very hot. The dolls, from the featureless midshipman to the colossal professional beauty sitting in her own costly perambulator (a present from Mrs. Pratt), felt the heat, and showed it by their moist countenances. The only person who was cool was a small nude china infant in its zinc bath, the property of Stella, whose determination to reach central facts and to penetrate to the root of the matter, at present took the form of tearing or licking off all that could be torn or licked from objects of interest. Hester, who had presented her with the floating baby in the bath, sometimes wondered as she watched Stella conscientiously work through a well-dressed doll down to its stitched sawdust compartments, what Mr. Gresley would make of his daughter when she turned her attention to theology.

They were all sitting in a tight circle round the handkerchief, Regie watching Hester cutting a new supply of plates out of smooth leaves with her little gilt scissors, while Mary and Stella tried alternately to suck an inaccessible grain of sugar out of the bottom of an acorn cup.

Rachel and Dick had come up on their silent wheels, and were looking at them over the wall before Hester was aware of their presence.

“May we join the tea-party?” asked Rachel, and Hester started violently.

“I am afraid the gate is locked,” she said. “But perhaps you can climb it.”

“We can’t leave the bicycles outside though,” said Dick, and he took a good look at the heavy padlocked gate. Then he slowly lifted it off its hinges, wheeled in the bicycles, and replaced the gate in position.

Rachel looked at him.

“Do you always do what you want to do?” she said involuntarily.

“It saves trouble,” he said, “especially as no one can be such a first-class fool as to think a padlock will keep a gate shut. He would expect it to be opened.”

“But father said no one could come in there now,” explained Regie, who had watched open-mouthed the upheaval of the gate. “Father said it could not be opened any more. He told mother.”

“Did he, my son?” said Dick, and he kissed every one, beginning with Hester, and finishing with the dolls. Then they all sat down to the tea-party, and partook largely of the delicacies, and after tea Dick solemnly asked the children if they had seen the flying halfpenny he had brought back with him from Australia. The children crowded round him, and the halfpenny was produced and handed round. Each child touched it and found it real. Auntie Hester and Auntie Rachel examined it. Boulou was requested to smell it. And then it was laid on the grass, and the pocket-handkerchief which had done duty as a tablecloth was spread over it.

The migrations of the halfpenny were so extraordinary that even Rachel and Hester professed amazement. Once it was found in Rachel’s hand, into which another large hand had gently shut it. But it was never discovered twice in the same place, though all the children rushed religiously to look for it where it was last discovered.

Another time, after a long search, the doll in the bath was discovered to be sitting upon it, and once it actually flew down Regie’s back, and amid the wild excitement of the children its cold descent was described by Regie in piercing minuteness until the moment when it rolled out over his stocking at his knee.

“Make it fly down my back too, Uncle Dick,” shrieked Mary. “Regie, give it to me.”

But Regie danced in a circle round Dick, holding aloft the wonderful halfpenny.

“Make it fly down my throat,” he cried, too excited to know what he was doing, and he put the halfpenny in his mouth.

“Put it out this instant,” said Dick, without moving.

A moment’s pause followed, in which the blood ebbed away from the hearts of the two women.

“I can’t,” said Regie, “I’ve swallowed it.” And he began to whimper, and then suddenly rolled on the grass screaming.

Dick pounced upon him like a panther, and held him by the feet head downwards, shaking him violently.

The child’s face was terrible to see.

Hester hid her face in her hands. Rachel rose and stood close to Dick.

“I think the shaking is rather too much for him,” she said, watching the poor little purple face intently.

“I’m bound to go on,” said Dick, fiercely. “Is it moving, Regie?”

“It’s going down,” screamed Regie, suddenly.

“That it’s not,” said Dick, and he shook the child again, and the halfpenny flew out upon the grass.

“Thank God,” said Dick, and he laid the gasping child on Hester’s lap and turned away.

A few minutes later Regie was laughing and talking and feeling himself a hero. Presently he slipped off Hester’s knee, and ran to Dick, who was lying on the grass a few paces off, his face hidden in his hands.

“Make the halfpenny fly again, Uncle Dick,” cried all the children, pulling at him.

Dick raised an ashen face for a moment and said hoarsely, “Take them away.”

Hester gathered up the children and took them back to the house through the kitchen garden.

“Don’t say we have arrived,” whispered Rachel to her. “I will come on with him presently.” And she sat down near the prostrate vinegrower. The president of the South Australian Vinegrowers’ Association looked very large when he was down.

Presently he sat up. His face was drawn and haggard, but he met Rachel’s dog-like glance of silent sympathy with a difficult crooked smile.

“He is such a jolly little chap,” he said, winking his hawk eyes.

“It was not your fault.”

“That would not have made it any better for the parents,” said Dick. “I had time to think of that while I was shaking that little money-box. Besides, it was my fault in a way. I’ll never play with other people’s children again. They are too brittle. I’ve had shaves up the Fly River and in the South Sea Islands, but never anything as bad as this, in this blooming little Vicarage garden with a church looking over the wall.”

Hester was skimming back towards them.

“Don’t mention it to James and his wife,” she said to Dick, “He has to speak at a temperance meeting to-night. I will tell them when the meeting is over.”

“That’s just as well,” said Dick, “for I know if James jawed much at me I should act on the text that it is more blessed to give than to receive.

“In what way?”

“Either way,” said Dick. “Tongue or fist. It does not matter which so long as you give more than you get. And the text is quite right. It is blessed for I’ve tried it over and over again, and found it true every time. But I don’t want to try it on James if he’s anything like what he was as a curate.”

“He is not much altered,” said Hester.

“He is the kind of man that would not alter much,” said Dick. “I expect God Almighty likes him as he is.”

Mr. and Mrs. Gresley meanwhile were receiving Mrs. Pratt and the two Miss Pratts in the drawing-room. Selina and Ada Pratt were fine handsome young women with long upper lips, who wore their smart sailor hats tilted backwards to show their bushy fringes, and whose muff-chains with swinging pendant hearts, silk blouses and sequin belts and brown boots represented to Mrs. Gresley the highest pinnacle of the world of fashion.

Selina was the most popular, being liable to shrieks of laughter at the smallest witticisms, and always ready for that species of amusement termed “bally-ragging” or “haymaking.” But Ada was the most admired. She belonged to that type which in hotel society and country towns is always termed “queenly.” She “kept the men at a distance.” She “never allowed them to take liberties,” &c. &c. She held her chin up and her elbows out, and was considered by the section of Middleshire society in which she shone to be very distinguished. Mrs. Pratt was often told that her daughter looked like a duchess; and this facsimile of the aristocracy, or rather of the most distressing traits of its latest recruits, had a manner of lolling with crossed legs in the parental carriage and pair, which was greatly admired. “Looks as if she was born to it all,” Mr. Pratt would say to his wife.

Mrs. Gresley was just beginning to fear her other guests were not coming when two tall figures were seen walking across the lawn, with Hester between them.

Mr. Gresley sallied forth to meet them, and blasts of surprised welcome were borne into the drawing-room by the summer air.

“But it was locked. I locked it myself.”

Inaudible reply.

“Padlocked. Only opens to the word Moon. Key on my own watch chain.”

Inaudible reply.

“Hinges!! Ha! Ha! Ha! very good, Dick. Likely story that. I see you’re the same as ever. Travellers’ tales. But we are not so easily taken in, are we, Hester?”

Mrs. Gresley certainly had the gift of prophecy as far as the Pratts were concerned. Mrs. Pratt duly took the expected “fancy” to Rachel, and pressed her to stay at “The Towers,” while she was in the neighbourhood, and make further acquaintance with her “young ladies.”

“Ada is very pernickety,” she said, smiling towards that individual conversing with Dick. “She won’t make friends with everybody, and she gives it me (with maternal pride) when I ask people to stay whom she does not take to. She says there’s a very poor lot round here, and most of the young ladies so ill-bred and empty she does not care to make friends with them. I don’t know where she gets all her knowledge from. I’m sure it’s not from her mother. Ada, now you come and talk a little to Miss West.”

Ada rose with the air of one who confers a favour, and Rachel made room for her on the sofa while Mrs. Pratt squeezed herself behind the tea-table with Mrs. Gresley.

The conversation turned on bicycling.

“I bike now and then in the country,” said Ada, “but I have not done much lately. We have only just come down from town, and of course I never bike in London.”

Rachel had just said that she did.

“Perhaps you are nervous about the traffic,” said Rachel.

“Oh! I’m not the least afraid of the traffic, but it’s such bad form to bike in London.”

“That of course depends on how it’s done,” said Rachel; “but I am sure in your case you need not be afraid.”

Ada glared at Rachel, and did not answer.

When the Pratts had taken leave she said to her mother. “Well, you can have Rachel West if you want to, but if you do I shall go away. She is only Birmingham, and yet she’s just as stuck up as she can be.”

The Pratts were “Liverpool.”

“Well, my dear,” said Mrs. Pratt with natural pride. “It’s well known no one is good enough for you. But I took to Miss West, and an orphan and all, with all that money, poor thing.”

“She has no style,” said Selina, “but she has a nice face, and she’s coming to stay with Sibbie Loftus next week, when she leaves Vi Newhaven. She may be Birmingham, Ada, but she’s just as thick with county people as we are.”

“I did not rightly make out,” said Mrs. Pratt reflectively, “whether that tall gentleman, Mr. Vernon, was after Miss West or Hessie Gresley.”

“Oh! Ma! You always think some one’s after somebody else,” said Ada impatiently, whose high breeding obliged her to be rather peremptory with her simple parent. “Mr. Vernon is a pauper, and so is Hessie. And besides Hessie is not the kind of girl that anybody would want to marry.”

“Well, I’m not so sure of that,” said Selina. “But if she had had any chances I know she would have told me because I told her all about Captain Cobbett and Mr. Baxter.”

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