Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XX

Si l’on vous a trahi, ce n’est pas la trahison qui importe; c’est le pardon qu’elle a fait naître dans votre âme. . . . Mais si la trahison n’a pas accru la simplicité, la confiance plus haute, l’étendue de l’amour, on vous aura trahi bien inutilement, et vous pouvez vous dire qu’il n’est rien arrivé.

MAETERLINCK.

RACHEL and Hester were sitting in the shadow of the churchyard wall where Hester had so unfortunately fallen asleep on a previous occasion. It was the first of many clandestine meetings. Mr. and Mrs. Gresley did not realise that Hester and Rachel wished to “talk secrets,” as they would have expressed it, and Rachel’s arrival was felt by the Gresleys to be the appropriate moment to momentarily lay aside their daily avocations, and to join Hester and Rachel in the garden for social intercourse. The Gresleys liked Rachel. Listeners are generally liked. Perhaps also her gentle, unassuming manner was not an unpleasant change after the familiar nonchalance of the Pratts.

The two friends bore their fate for a time in inward impatience, and then, not without compunction, “practised to deceive.” Certain obtuse persons push others, naturally upright, into eluding and outwitting them, just as the really wicked people, who give vivâ voce invitations, goad us into crevasses of lies, for which, if there is any justice anywhere, they will have to answer at the last day. Mr. Gresley gave the last shove to Hester and Rachel by an exhaustive harangue on what he called socialism. Finding they were discussing some phase of it, he drew up a chair and informed them that he had “threshed out” the whole subject.

“Socialism,” he began, delighted with the polite resignation of his hearers, which throughout life he mistook for earnest attention. “Community of goods. People don’t see that if everything were divided up to-day, and everybody was given a shilling, by next week the thrifty man would have a sovereign, and the spendthrift would be penniless. Community of goods is impossible as long as human nature remains what it is. But I can’t knock that into people’s heads. I spoke of it once to Lord Newhaven, after his speech in the House of Lords. I thought he was more educated and a shade less thoughtless than the idle rich usually are, and that he would see it if it was put plainly before him. But he only said my arguments were incontrovertible, and slipped away.”

It was after this conversation, or rather, monologue, that Hester and Rachel arranged to meet by stealth.

They were sitting luxuriously in the short grass, with their backs against the churchyard wall, and their hats tilted over their eyes.

“I wish I had met this Mr. Dick five or six years ago,” said Rachel with a sigh.

Hester was the only person who knew about Rachel’s previous love disaster.

“Dick always gets what he wants in the long run,” said Hester. “I should offer to marry him at once if I were you. It will save a lot of trouble, and it will come to just the same in the end.”

Rachel laughed, but not light-heartedly. Hester had only put into words a latent conviction of her own which troubled her.

“Dick is the right kind of man to marry,” continued Hester, dispassionately. “What lights he has he lives up to. If that is not high praise I don’t know what is. He is good, but somehow his goodness does not offend one. One can condone it. And if you care for such things, he has a thorough-going respect for women, which he carries about with him in a little patent safe of his own.”

“I don’t want to marry a man for his qualities and mental furniture,” said Rachel, wearily. “If I did I would take Mr. Dick.”

There was a short silence.

“I am sure,” said Rachel at last, “that you do not realise how commonplace I am. You know those conventional heroines of second-rate novels who love tremendously once, and then, when things go wrong, promptly turn into marble statues, and go through life with hearts of stone. Well, my dear, I am just like that. I know it’s despicable. I have struggled against it. It is idiotic to generalise from one personal experience. I keep before my mind that other men are not like him. I know they aren’t, but yet — somehow I think they are. I am frightened.”

Hester turned her wide eyes towards her friend.

“Do you still consider after these four years that he did you an injury?”

Rachel looked out upon the mournful landscape. The weariness of midsummer was upon it. A heavy hand seemed laid upon the brow of the distant hills.

“I gave him everything I had,” she said slowly, “and he threw it away. I have nothing left for any one else. Perhaps it is because I am naturally economical,” she added, smiling faintly, “that it seems now, looking back, such a dreadful waste.”

“Only in appearance, not in reality,” said Hester. “It looks like a waste of life, that mowing down of our best years by a relentless passion which itself falls dead on the top of them. But it is not so. Every year I live I am more convinced that the waste of life lies in the love we have not given, the powers we have not used, the selfish prudence which will risk nothing, and which, shirking pain, misses happiness as well. No one ever yet was the poorer in the long run for having once in a lifetime ‘let out all the length of all the reins.’”

“You mean it did me good,” said Rachel, “and that he was a kind of benefactor in disguise. I dare say you are right, but you see I don’t take a burning interest in my own character. I don’t find my mental standpoint — isn’t that what Mrs. Loftus calls it? — very engrossing.”

“He was a benefactor all the same,” said Hester with decision. “I did not think so at the time, and if I could have driven over him in an omnibus I would have done so with pleasure. But I believe that the day will come when you will cover that grave with a handsome monument, erected out of gratitude to him for not marrying you. And now, Rachel, will you forgive me beforehand for what I am going to say?”

“Oh!” said Rachel ruefully. “When you say that I know it is the prelude to something frightful. You are getting out a dagger, and I shall be its sheath directly.”

“You are a true prophet, Rachel.”

“Yes, executioner.”

“My dear, dear friend, whom I love best in the world, when that happened my heart was wrung for you. I would have given everything I had, life itself — not that that is saying much — to have saved you from that hour.”

“I know it.”

“But I should have been the real enemy if I had had power to save you, which, thank God, I had not. That hour had to be. It was necessary. You may not care about your own character, but I do. There is something stubborn and inflexible in you — the seamy side of your courage and steadfastness — which cannot readily enter into the feelings of others or put itself in their place. I think it is want of imagination — I mean the power of seeing things as they are. You are the kind of woman who, if you had married comfortably some one you rather liked, might have become like Sybell Loftus, who never understands any feeling beyond her own microscopic ones, and who measures love by her own small preference for Doll. You would have had no more sympathy than she has. People, like Sybell, believe one can only sympathise with what one has experienced. That is why they are always saying ‘as a mother,’ or ‘as a wife.’ If that were true the world would have to get on without sympathy, for no two people have the same experience. Only a shallow nature believes that a resemblance in two cups means that they both contain the same wine. Sybell believes it, and you would have been very much the same, not from lack of perception, as in her case, but for want of using your powers of perception. If you had not undergone an agonised awakening all the great realities of life — love, hatred, temptation, enthusiasm — would have remained for you as they have remained for Sybell, merely pretty words to string on light conversation. That is why I can’t bear to hear her speak of them because every word she says proves she has not known them. But the sword that pierced your heart forced an entrance for angels, who had been knocking where there was no door — until then.”

Silence.

“Since when is it that people have turned to you for comfort and sympathy?”

No answer.

“Rachel, on your oath, did you ever really care for the London poor until you became poor yourself, and lived among them?”

“No.”

“But they were there all the time. You saw them in the streets. It was not as if you only heard of them. You saw them. Their agony, their vice, was written large on their faces. There was a slum almost at the back of that great house in Portman Square where you lived many years in luxury with your parents.”

“Don’t,” said Rachel, her lip trembling.

“I must. You did not care then. If a flagrant case came before you you gave something like other uncharitable people who hate feeling uncomfortable. But you care now. You seek out those who need you. Answer me. Were they cheaply bought or not, that compassion and love for the degraded and the suffering, which were the outcome of your years of poverty in Museum Buildings?”

“They were cheaply bought,” said Rachel with conviction, speaking with difficulty.

“Would you have learnt them if you had gone on living in Portman Square?”

“Oh, Hester! would anybody?”

“Yes, they would. But that is not the question. Would you?”

“N— no,” said Rachel.

There was a long silence.

Rachel’s mind took its staff and travelled slowly, humbly, a few more difficult steps up that steep path where “Experience is converted into thought as a mulberry-leaf is converted into satin.”

At last she turned her grave eyes upon her friend.

“I see what you mean,” she said, “I have not reached the place yet, but I can believe that I shall come to it some day when I shall feel as thankful for that trouble as I do feel now for having known poverty. Yes, Hester, you are right. I was a hard woman without imagination. I have been taught in the only way I could learn — by experience. I have been very fortunate.”

Hester did not answer, but bent down and kissed Rachel’s hands. It was as if she had said, “Forgive me for finding fault with one so far above me.” And the action was so understood.

Rachel coloured, and they sat for a moment hand close in hand, heart very near to heart.

“How is it you are so sure of these things, Hester?” said Rachel in a whisper. “When you say them I see they are true, and I believe them, but how do you know them?”

A shadow, a very slight one, fell across Hester’s face. “‘Love knows the secret of grief.’ But can Love claim that knowledge if he is asked how he came by it by one who should have known?” The question crept in between the friends and moved them apart. Hester’s voice altered.

“Minna would say that I picked them up from the conversation of James. You know the Pratts are perfectly aware of what I have, of course, tried to conceal, namely, that the love scenes in the ‘Idyll’ were put together from scraps I had collected of James’ engagement to Minna. And all the humorous bits are claimed by a colony of cousins in Devonshire who say that any one ‘who had heard them talk’ could have written the ‘Idyll.’ And any one who had not heard them apparently. The so-called profane passages are all that are left to me as my own.”

“You are profane now,” said Rachel smiling, but secretly wounded by the flippancy which she had brought upon herself.

A distant whoop distracted their attention, and they saw Regie galloping towards them imitating a charger, while Fraülein and the two little girls followed.

Regie stopped short before Rachel, and looked suspiciously at her.

“Where is Uncle Dick?” he said.

“I don’t know,” said Rachel, reddening in spite of herself, and her eyes falling guiltily before her questioner.

“Then he has not come with you?”

Regie’s mind was what his father called ‘sure and steady.’ Mr. Gresley often said he preferred a child of that kind to one that was quick-witted and flashy.

“No, he has not come with me.”

“Mary,” shrieked Regie, “he has not come.”

“I knew he had not,” said Mary. “When I saw he was not there I knew he was somewhere else.”

Dear little Mary was naturally the Gresleys’ favourite child. However thoroughly they might divest themselves of parental partiality, they could not but observe that she was as sensible as a grown-up person.

“I thought he might be somewhere near,” explained Regie, “in a tree or something,” looking up into the little yew. “You can’t tell with a conjurer like Uncle Dick, can you Auntie Hester, whatever Mary may say?”

“Mary is generally wrong,” said Hester, “but she is right or once.”

Mary, who was early acquiring the comfortable habit of hearing only the remarks that found an echo in her own breast, heard she was right, and said shrilly:

“I told Regie when we was still on the road that Uncle Dick wasn’t there. Mother doesn’t always go with father, but he said he’d run and see.”

“We shall be very late for luncheon,” said Fraülein hastily, blushing down to the onyx brooch at her turn-down collar, and drawing Mary away.

“Perhaps he left the halfpenny with you,” said Regie. “Fraülein would like to see it.”

“No, no,” said Fraülein, the tears in her eyes. “I do not vish at all. I cry half the night when I hear of it.”

“I only cry when baby beats me,” said Mary, balancing on one leg.

“I have not got the halfpenny,” said Rachel, the three elders studiously ignoring Mary’s personal reminiscences.

The children were borne away by Fraülein, and the friends kissed and parted.

“I am coming to Wilderleigh tomorrow,” said Rachel. “I shall be much nearer to you then.”

“It is no good contending against Dick and fate,” said Hester, shaking her finger at her. “You see it is all decided for you. Even the children have settled it.”

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