Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter II.

But as he groped against the wall, two hands upon him fell,

The King behind his shoulder spake: “Dead man, thou dost not well.”

RUDYARD KIPLING.

HUGH had gone through the first room, and, after a quarter of an hour, found himself in the doorway of the second. He had arrived late, and the rooms were already thinning.

A woman in a pale green gown was standing near the open window, her white profile outlined against the framed darkness, as she listened with evident amusement to the tall, ill-dressed man beside her.

Hugh’s eyes lost the veiled scorn with which it was their wont to look at society and the indulgent patronage which lurked in them for pretty women.

Rachel West slowly turned her face towards him without seeing him, and his heart leaped. She was not beautiful except with the beauty of health, and a certain dignity of carriage which is the outcome of a head and hands and body that are at unity with each other, and with a mind absolutely unconscious of self. She had not the long nose which so frequently usurps more than its share of the faces of the well bred, nor had she, alas! the short upper lip which redeems everything. Her features were as insignificant as her colouring. People rarely noticed that Rachel’s hair was brown, and that her deep-set eyes were grey. But upon her grave face the word “Helper” was plainly written: and something else. What was it?

Just as in the faces of seamen we trace the onslaught of storm and sun and brine, and the puckering of the skin round the eyes that comes of long watching in half lights, so in some faces, calm and pure as Rachel’s, on which the sun and rain have never beaten, there is an expression betokening strong resistance from within of the brunt of a whirlwind from without. The marks of conflict and endurance on a young face — who shall see them unmoved! The Mother of Jesus must have noticed a great difference in her Son when she first saw Him again after the temptation in the wilderness.

Rachel’s grave amused glance fell upon Hugh. Their eyes met, and he instantly perceived to his astonishment that she recognised him. But she did not bow, and a moment later left the nearly empty rooms with the man who was talking to her.

Hugh was excited out of recognition of his former half-scornful, half-blasé self. That woman must be his wife. She would save him from himself, this cynical restless self which never remained in one stay. The half acknowledged weakness in his nature unconsciously flung itself upon her strength, a strength which had been tried. She would love him, and uphold him. There would be no more yielding to circumstances if that pure strong soul were close beside him. He would lean upon her, and the ugly bypaths of these last years would know him no more. Her presence would leaven his whole life. In the momentary insanity, which was perhaps after all only a prophetic intuition, he had no fears, no misgivings. He thought that with that face it was not possible that she could be so wicked as to refuse him.

“She will marry me,” he said to himself. “She must.”

Lady Newhaven touched him gently on the arm.

“I dared not speak to you before,” she said. “Nearly every one has gone. Will you take me down to supper? I am tired out.”

He stared at her, not recognising her.

“Have I vexed you?” she faltered.

And with a sudden horrible revulsion of feeling he remembered. The poor chromo had fallen violently from its nail. But the nail remained — ready. He took her into the supper room and got her a glass of champagne. She subsided on to a sofa beside another woman, vaguely suspecting trouble in the air. He felt thankful that Rachel had already gone. Dick, nearly the last, was putting on his coat, arranging to meet Lord Newhaven the following morning at his club. They had been in Australia together, and were evidently old friends.

Lord Newhaven’s listless manner returned as Dick marched out. Hugh had got one arm in his coat. An instinct of flight possessed him, a vague horror of the woman in diamonds furtively watching him under her lowered eyelids through the open door.

“Oh, Scarlett!” said Lord Newhaven, detaining him languidly, “I want three minutes of your valuable time. Come into my study.”

“Another crossbow for Westhope Abbey?” said Hugh, trying to speak unconcernedly, as he followed his host to a back room on the ground floor. Lord Newhaven was collecting arms for the hall of his country house.

“No! much simpler than those elaborate machines,” said the older man, turning on the electric light. Hugh went in, and Lord Newhaven closed the door.

Over the mantel-shelf were hung a few old Japanese inlaid carbines, and beneath them an array of pistols.

“Useless now,” said Lord Newhaven, touching them affectionately. “But,” he added, with a shade more listlessness than before, “Society has become accustomed to do without them, and does ill without them, but we must conform to her.” Hugh started slightly, and then remained motionless. “You observe these two paper lighters, Scarlett? One is an inch shorter than the other. They have been waiting on the mantel-shelf for the last month, till I had an opportunity of drawing your attention to them. I am sure we perfectly understand each other. No name need be mentioned. All scandal is avoided. I feel confident you will not hesitate to make me the only reparation one man can make another in the somewhat hackneyed circumstances in which we find ourselves.”

Lord Newhaven took the lighters out of the glass. He glanced suddenly at Hugh’s stunned face, and went on:

“I am sorry the idea is not my own. I read it in a magazine. Though comparatively modern it promises soon to become as customary as the much to be regretted pistols for two and coffee for four. I hold the lighters thus, and you draw. Whoever draws or keeps the short one is pledged to leave this world within four months, or shall we say five, on account of the pheasant shooting? Five be it. Is it agreed? Just so! Will you draw?”

A swift spasm passed over Hugh’s face, and a tiger glint leapt into Lord Newhaven’s eyes, fixed intently upon him.

There was a brief second in which Hugh’s mind wavered, as the flame of a candle wavers in a sudden draught. Lord Newhaven’s eyes glittered. He advanced the lighters an inch nearer.

If he had not advanced them that inch Hugh thought afterwards that he would have refused to draw.

He backed against the mantel-piece, and then put out his hand suddenly and drew. It seemed the only way of escape.

The two men measured the lighters on the table under the electric light.

Lord Newhaven laughed.

Hugh stood a moment, and then went out.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/cholmondeley/mary/red/chapter2.html

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