Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XVIII

Le monde est plein de gens qui ne sont pas plus sages.

LA FONTAINE

IF, after the departure of the Pratts, Rachel had hoped for a word with Hester she was doomed to disappointment. Mr. Gresley took the seat on the sofa beside Rachel which Ada Pratt had vacated, and after a few kindly eulogistic remarks on the Bishop of Southminster and the responsibilities of wealth, he turned the conversation into the well-worn groove of Warpington.

Rachel proved an attentive listener, and after Mr. Gresley had furnished her at length with nutritious details respecting parochial work, he went on:

“I am holding this evening a temperance meeting in the Parish Room. I wish, Miss West, that I could persuade you to stay for it, and thus enlist your sympathies in a matter of vital importance.”

“They have been enlisted in it for the last ten years,” said Rachel, who was not yet accustomed to the invariable assumption on the part of Mr. Gresley that no one took an interest in the most obvious good work until he had introduced and championed it. “But,” she added, “I will stay with pleasure.”

Dick, who was becoming somewhat restive under Mrs. Gresley’s inquiries about the Newhavens, became suddenly interested in the temperance meeting.

“I’ve seen many a good fellow go to the dogs through drink in the Colonies, more’s the pity," Dick remarked. "I think I’ll come, too, James. And if you want a few plain words you call on me.”

“I will,” said Mr. Gresley, much gratified. “I always make a point of encouraging the laity, at least those among them who are thoroughly grounded in Church teaching, to express themselves. Hear both sides, that is what I always say. The Bishop constantly enjoins on his clergy to endeavour to elicit the lay opinion. The chair this evening will be taken by Mr. Pratt, a layman.”

The temperance meeting was to take place at seven o’clock, and possibly Rachel may have been biased in favour of that entertainment by the hope of a quiet half-hour with Hester in her own room. At any rate, she secured it.

When they were alone Rachel produced Lady Newhaven’s note.

“Do come to Westhope,” she said. “While you are under this roof it seems almost impossible to see you, unless we are close to it,” and she touched the sloping ceiling with her hand. “And yet I came to Westhope, and I am going on to Wilderleigh partly in order to be near you.”

Hester shook her head.

“The book is nearly finished,” she said, the low light from the attic window striking sideways on the small face with its tightly compressed lips.

A spirit indomitable, immortal, looked for a moment out of Hester’s grey eyes. The spirit was indeed willing, but the flesh was becoming weaker day by day.

“When it is finished,” she went on, “I will go anywhere and do anything, but stay here I must till it is done. Besides, I am not fit for society at present. I am covered with blue mould. Do you remember how that horrid Lady Carbury used to laugh at the country squires’ daughters for being provincial? I have gone a peg lower than being provincial, I have become parochial.”

A knock came at the door, and Fraülein’s mild, musical face appeared in the aperture.

“I fear to disturb you,” she said, “but Regie say he cannot go to sleep till he see you.”

Hester introduced Fraülein to Rachel, and slipped downstairs to the night nursery.

Mary and Stella were already asleep in their high-barred cribs. The blind was down, and Hester could only just see the white figure of Regie sitting up in his nightgown. She sat down on the edge of the bed and took him in her arms.

“What is it, my treasure?”

“Auntie Hester, was I naughty about the flying halfpenny?”

“No, darling. Why?”

“Because mother always says not to put pennies in my mouth, and I never did till to-day. And now Mary says I have been very naughty.”

“It does not matter what Mary says,” said Hester, with a withering glance towards the sleeping angel in the next crib, who was only Mary by day. “But you must never do it again, and you will tell mother all about it to-morrow.”

“Yes,” said Regie; “but, but —”

“But what?”

“Uncle Dick did say it was a flying halfpenny, and you said so, too, and that other auntie. And I thought it did not matter putting in flying halfpennies, only common ones.”

Hester saw the difficulty in Regie’s mind. “It felt common when it was inside,” said Regie doubtfully, “and yet you and Uncle Dick did say it was a flying one.”

Regie’s large eyes were turned upon her with solemn inquiry in them. It is in crises like this that our first ideals are laid low.

Regie had always considered Hester as the very soul of honour, that mysterious honour which he was beginning to dimly apprehend through her allegiance to it, and which, in his mind, belonged as exclusively to her as the little bedroom under the roof.

“Regie,” said Hester, tremulously, seeing that she had unwittingly put a stumbling-block before the little white feet she loved, “when we played at the doll’s tea-party, and you were the butler, I did not mean you were really a butler, did I? I knew, and you know, and we all knew, that you were Regie all the time.”

“Ye-es.”

“It was a game. And so when Uncle Dick found us playing the tea-party game he played another game about the flying halfpenny.”

“Then it was a common halfpenny after all,” said Regie with a deep sigh.

“Yes, it was a common halfpenny, only the game was that it could fly, like the other game was that the acorn-cups were real tea-cups. So Uncle Dick and all of us were not saying what was not true. We were all playing at a game. Do you understand, my little mouse?”

“Yes,” said Regie, with another voluminous sigh, and Hester realised with thankfulness that the halfpenny and not herself had fallen from its pedestal. “I see now, but when he said, Hi! Presto! and it flew away, I thought I saw it flying. Mary said she did. And I suppose the gate was only a game too.”

Hester felt that the subject would be quite beyond her powers of explanation if once the gate were introduced into it.

She laid Regie down and covered him.

“And you will go to sleep now. And I will ask Uncle Dick when next he comes to show us how he did the game with the halfpenny.”

“Yes,” said Regie dejectedly. “I’d rather know what there is to be known. Only I thought it was a flying one. Good night, Auntie Hester.”

She stayed beside him a few minutes until his even breathing showed her he was asleep, and then slipped back to her own room. The front door bell was ringing as she came out of the nursery. The temperance deputation from Liverpool had arrived. Mr. Gresley’s voice of welcome could be heard saying that it was only ten minutes to seven.

Accordingly a few minutes before that hour, Mr. Gresley and his party entered the parish room. It was crammed. The back benches were filled with a large contingent of young men, whose half-sheepish, half-sullen expression showed that their presence was due to pressure. Why the parishioners had come in such numbers it would be hard to say. Perhaps even a temperance meeting was a change in the dreary monotony of rural life at Warpington. Many of the faces bore the imprint of this monotony, Rachel thought, as she refused the conspicuous front seat pointed out to her by Mrs. Gresley, and sat down near the door with Hester.

Dick, who had been finishing his cigarette outside, entered a moment later, and stood in the gangway, entirely filling it up, his eye travelling over the assembly, and as Rachel well knew, looking for her. Presently he caught sight of her, wedged in four or five deep by the last arrivals. There was a vacant space between her and the wall, but it was apparently inaccessible. Entirely disregarding the anxious churchwardens who were waving him forward Dick disappeared among the young men at the back, and Rachel thought no more of him until a large Oxford shoe descended quietly out of space upon the empty seat near her, and Dick, who had persuaded the young men to give him footroom on their seats, and had stepped over the high backs of several “school forms,” sat down beside her.

It was neatly done, and Rachel could not help smiling. But the thought darted through her mind that Dick was the kind of man who somehow or other would succeed where he meant to succeed, and would marry the woman he intended to marry. There was no doubt that she was that woman, and as he sat tranquilly beside her she wished with a nervous tremor that his choice had fallen on some one else.

The meeting opened with nasal and fervent prayer on the part of a neighbouring Archdeacon. No one could kneel down except the dignitaries on the platform, but every one pretended to do so. Mr. Pratt, who was in the chair, then introduced the principal speaker. Mr. Pratt’s face, very narrow at the forehead, became slightly wider at the eyes, widest when it reached round the corners of the mouth, and finally split into two long parti-coloured whiskers. He assumed on these occasions a manner of pontifical solemnity towards his “humble brethren,” admirably suited to one, who after wrestling for many years with a patent oil, is conscious that he has blossomed out into a “county family.”

The Warpington parishioners listened to him unmoved.

The deputation from Liverpool followed, a thin ascetic looking man of many bones and little linen, who spoke with the concentrated fury of a fanatic against alcohol in all its varieties. Dick who had so far taken more interest in Rachel’s gloves, which she had dropped, and with which he was kindly burdening himself, than in the proceedings, drew himself up and fixed his steel eyes on the speaker.

A restive movement in the audience followed the speech, which was loudly clapped by Mr. Gresley and the Pratts.

Mr. Gresley then mounted the platform.

Mr. Gresley had an enormous advantage as a platform speaker, and as a preacher in the twin pulpits of church and home, owing to the conviction that he had penetrated to the core of any subject under discussion, and could pronounce judgment upon it in a conclusive manner. He was wont to approach every subject by the preliminary statement that he had “threshed it out.” This threshing out had been so thorough that there was hardly a subject even of the knottiest description which he was unable to dismiss with a few pregnant words. “Evolution! Ha! ha!! Descended from an ape. I don’t believe that for one.” While women’s rights received their death-blow from a jocose allusion to the woman following the plough, while the man sat at home and rocked the cradle.

With the same noble simplicity he grappled with the difficult and complex subject of temperance, by which he meant total abstinence. He informed his hearers, “in the bigoted tones of a married teetotaler,” that he had gone to the root of the matter — the roots were apparently on the surface — and that it was no use calling black white and white black. He for one did not believe in muddling up black and white as some lukewarm people advocated till they were only a dirty grey. No; either drink was right or it was wrong. If it was not wrong to get drunk, he did not know what was wrong. He was not a man of compromise. Alcohol was a servant of the devil, and to tamper with it was to tamper with the evil one himself; touch not; taste not; handle not. He for his part should never side with the devil.

This lofty utterance having been given time to sink in, Mr. Gresley looked round at the sea of stolid, sullen faces, and concluded with saying that the chairman would now call upon his cousin, Mr. Vernon, to speak to them on the shocking evils he himself had witnessed in Australia as the results of drink.

Dick was not troubled by shyness. He extricated himself from his seat with the help of the young men, and slowly ascended the platform. He looked a size too large for it, and for the other speakers, and his loose tweed suit and heather stockings were as great a contrast to the tightly buttoned up black of the other occupants as were his strong keen face and muscular hands to those of the previous speakers.

“That’s a man,” said a masculine voice behind Rachel. “He worn’t reared on ditch water, you bet.”

“Mr. Chairman, and ladies and gentlemen,” said Dick, “You’ve only got to listen to me for half a minute, and you’ll find out without my telling you that Nature did not cut me out for a speaker. I’m no talker. I’m a working man”— an admission which Mr. Pratt would rather have been boiled in his own oil than have made —“for the last seven years I’ve done my twelve hours a day, and I’ve come to think more of what a man gets through with his hands than the sentiments which he can wheeze out after a heavy meal. But Mr. Gresley has asked me to tell you what I know about drink, as I have seen a good many samples of it in Australia.”

Dick then proceeded, with a sublime disregard of grammar, and an earnestness that increased as he went on, to dilate on the evil effects of drink as he himself had witnessed them. He described how he had seen men who could not get spirits make themselves drunk on “Pain-killer”; how he had seen strong young station hands, who had not tasted spirits for months, come down from the hills with a hundred pounds in their pockets, and drink themselves into “doddery” old men in a fortnight in the nearest township, where they were kept drunk on drugged liquor till all their hard-earned wages were gone.

The whole room listened in dead silence. No feet shuffled. Mr. Gresley looked patronisingly at Dick’s splendid figure and large outstretched hand, with the crooked middle finger which he had cut off by mistake in the Bush, and had stuck on again himself. Then the young Vicar glanced smiling at the audience, feeling that he had indeed elicited a “lay opinion” of the best kind.

“Now what are the causes of all these dreadful things?” continued Dick. “I’m speaking to the men here, not the women. What are the causes of all this poverty and vice and scamped workmanship, and weak eyes and shaky hands on the top of high wages? I tell you they come from two things, and one is as bad as the other. One is drinking too much, and the other is drinking bad liquor. Every man who’s worth his salt,” said Dick, balancing his long bent finger on the middle of his other palm, “should know when he has had enough. Some can carry more, some less.” Mr. Gresley started and signed to Dick, but Dick did not notice. “Bad liquor is at the root of half the drunkenness I know. I don’t suppose there are many publicans here to-night, for this meeting isn’t quite in their line, and if there are, they can’t have come expecting compliments. But if you fellows think you get good liquor at the publics round here, I tell you, you are jolly well mistaken.”

“Hear! Hear!” shouted several voices.

“I’ve been in the course of the last week to most of the public-houses in Southminster and Westhope and Warpington to see what sort of stuff they sold, and upon my soul, gentlemen, if I settled in Warpington I’d, I’d”— Dick hesitated for a simile strong enough —“I’d turn teetotaler until I left it again, rather than swallow the snake poison they serve out to you.”

There was a general laugh, in the midst of which Mr. Gresley, whose complexion had deepened, sprang to his feet and endeavoured to attract Dick’s attention, but Dick saw nothing but his audience. Mr. Gresley began to speak in his high sing-song voice.

“My young friend,” he said, “has mistaken the object of this meeting. In short I must —”

“Not a bit,” said Dick, “not a bit; but if the people have had enough of me I’ll take your chair while you have another innings.”

In a moment the room was in an uproar.

Shouts of “No, no,” “Go on,” “Let him speak.”

In the tumult Mr. Gresley’s voice instead of being the solo became but as one instrument — albeit a trombone — in an orchestra.

“But I thoroughly agree with the gentlemen who spoke before me,” said Dick, when peace was restored. “Total abstinence is a long chalk below temperance, but it’s better than drunkenness any day. And if a man can’t get on without three finger-nips let him take the pledge. There are one or two here to-night who would be the better for it. But to my thinking total abstinence is like a water mattress. It is good for a sick man, and it’s good for a man with a weak will, which is another kind of illness. But temperance is for those who are in health. There is a text in the Bible about wine making glad the heart of man. That’s a good text and one to go on. As often as not texts are like bags, and a man crams all his own rubbish into them, and expects you to take them together. There are some men who ought to know better who actually get out of that text by saying the Bible means unfermented liquor”— Mr. Gresley became purple. “Does it? Then how about the other place where we hear of new wine bursting old bottles. What makes them burst? Fermentation, of course, as every village idiot knows. No, I take it when the Bible says wine it means wine. Wine’s fermented liquor, and what’s unfermented liquor? Nothing but ‘pop’.”

Dick pronounced the last word with profound contempt, which was met with enthusiastic applause.

“My last word to you, gentlemen,” continued Dick, “is keep in mind two points: first, look out for an honest publican, if there is such an article, who will buy only the best liquor from the best sources, and is not bound by the breweries to sell any stuff they send along. Join together, and make it hot for a bound publican. Kick him out, even if he is the Squire’s butler.” Mr. Pratt’s complexion became apoplectic. “And the second point is, Remember some men have heads and some haven’t. It is no use for a lame man entering for a hurdle race. A strong man can take his whack — if it’s with his food — and it will do him good, while a weak man can’t hang up his hat after the first smile.”

A storm of applause followed, which was perhaps all the heartier by reason of the furious face of Mr. Gresley. Dick was clapped continuously as he descended the platform, and slowly left the room feeling in his pockets for his tobacco pouch. A squad of young men creaked out after him, and others followed by twos and threes, so that the mellifluous voice of Mr. Pratt was comparatively lost, who, disregarding his position as chairman, now rose to pour oil — of which in manner alone he had always a large supply — on the troubled waters. Mr. Pratt had felt a difficulty in interrupting a member of a county family, which with the eye of faith he plainly perceived Dick to be, and at the same time a guest of “Newhaven’s.” The Pratts experienced in the rare moments of their intercourse with the Newhavens some of that sublime awe, that subdued rapture, which others experience in cathe- drals. Mr. Pratt had also taken a momentary pleasure in the defeat of Mr. Gresley, who did not pay him the deference which he considered due to him and his “seat.” Mr. Pratt always expected that the Vicar should, by reason of his small income, take the position of a sort of upper servant of the Squire; and he had seen so many instances of this happy state of things that he was perpetually nettled by Mr. Gresley’s “independent” attitude; while Mr. Gresley was equally irritated by “the impatience of clerical control” and shepherding which Mr. Pratt, his largest and woolliest sheep, too frequently evinced.

As the chairman benignly expressed his approval of both views, and toned down each to meet the other, the attention of the audience wandered to the occasional laughs and cheers which came from the school playground. And when a few minutes later Rachel emerged with the stream she saw Dick standing under the solitary lamp-post speaking earnestly to a little crowd of youths and men. The laughter had ceased. Their crestfallen appearance spoke for itself.

“Well, good-night, lads,” said Dick cordially, raising his cap to them, and he rejoined Rachel and Hester at the gate.

When Dick and Rachel had departed on their bicycles, and when the deputation after a frugal supper had retired to rest, and when the drawing-room door was shut, then, and not till then, did Mr. Gresley give vent to his feelings.

“And he would not stop,” he repeated over and over again almost in hysterics, when the total abstinence hose of his wrath had been turned on Dick until every reservoir of abuse was exhausted. “I signed to him; I spoke to him. You saw me speak to him, Minna, and he would not stop.”

Hester experienced that sudden emotion which may result either in tears or laughter at the cruel anguish brought upon her brother by the momentary experience of what he so ruthlessly inflicted.

“He talked me down,” said Mr. Gresley, his voice shaking. “He opposed me in my own school-room. Of course, I blame myself for asking him to speak. I ought to have inquired into his principles more thoroughly, but he took me in entirely by saying one thing in this room and the exact opposite on the platform.”

“I thought his views were the same in both places,” said Hester, “and at the time I admired you for asking him to speak, considering he is a vine-grower.”

“A what?” almost shrieked Mr. Gresley.

“A vine-grower. Surely you know he has one of the largest vineyards in South Australia?”

For a moment Mr. Gresley was bereft of speech.

“And you knew this and kept silence,” he said at last, while Mrs. Gresley looked reproachfully, but without surprise, at her sister-in-law.

“Certainly. What was there to speak about? I thought you knew.”

“I never heard it till this instant. That quite accounts for his views. He wants to push his own wines. Of course, drunkenness is working for his interests. I understand it all now. He has undone the work of years by that speech for the sake of booking a few orders. It is contemptible. I trust, Hester, he is not a particular friend of yours, for I shall feel it my duty to speak very strongly to him if he comes again.”

But Dick did not appear again. He was off and away before the terrors of the Church could be brought to bear on him.

But his memory remained green at Warpington.

“They do say,” said Abel to Hester a few days later, planting his spade on the ground, and slowly scraping off upon it the clay from his nailed boots, “as that Muster Vernon gave ’em a dusting in the school-yard as they won’t forget in a hurry. He said he could not speak out before the women folk, but he was noways nesh to pick his words onst he was outside. Barnes said as his tongue ’ud ’ave raised blisters on a hedge stake. But he had a way with him for all that. There was a deal of talk about him at market last Wednesday, and Jones and Peg is just silly to go back to Australy with ’im. I ain’t sure,” continued Abel, closing the conversation by a vigorous thrust of his spade into the earth, “as one of the things that fetched ’em all most wasn’t his saying that since he’s been in a hot climate he knowed what it was to be tempted himself when he was a bit down on his luck or a bit up. Pratts would never have owned to that.” The village always spoke of Mr. Pratt in the plural without a prefix. “I’ve been to a sight of temperance meetings because,” with indulgence, “master likes it, tho’ I always has my glass, as is natural. But I never heard one of the speakers kind of settle to it like that. That’s what the folks say; that for all he was a born gentleman he spoke to ’em as man to man, not as if we was servants or childer.”

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