Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XXI

If a fool be associated with a wise man all his life, he will perceive the truth as little as a spoon perceives the taste of soup.

Buddist Dhaammapada.

I CAN’T think what takes you to Wilderleigh,” said Lady Newhaven to Rachel. “I am always bored to death when I go there. Sybell is so self-centred.”

Perhaps one of the reasons why Lady Newhaven and Sybell Loftus did not “get on,” was owing to a certain superficial resemblance between them.

Both exacted attention, and if they were in the same room together it seldom contained enough attention to supply the needs of both. Both were conscious, like “Celia Chettam,” that since the birth of their first child their opinions respecting literature, politics, and art had acquired additional weight and solidity, and that a wife and mother could pronounce with decision on important subjects where a spinster would do well to hold her peace. Each was fond of saying, “As a married woman I think this or that”; yet each was conscious of dislike and irritation when she heard the other say it. And there is no doubt that Sybell had been too unwell to appear at Lady Newhaven’s garden party the previous summer, because Lady Newhaven had the week before advanced her cherished theory of “one life one love,” to the delight of Lord Newhaven, and the natural annoyance of Sybell, whose second husband was at that moment handing tea, and answering, “That depends,” when appealed to.

“As if,” as Sybell said afterwards to Hester, “a woman can help being the ideal of two men.”

“Sybell is such a bore now,” continued Lady Newhaven, “that I don’t know what she will be when she is older. I don’t know why you go to Wilderleigh of all places.”

“I go because I am asked,” said Rachel, “and partly because I shall be near Hester Gresley.”

“I don’t think Miss Gresley can be very anxious to see you, or she would have come here when I invited her. I told several people she was coming, and that Mr. Carstairs, who thinks so much of himself, came on purpose to meet her. It is very tiresome of her to behave like that, especially as she did not say she had any engagement. You make a mistake Rachel, in running after people who won’t take any trouble to come and see you. It is a thing I never do myself.”

“She is buried in her book at present.”

“I can’t think what she has to write about. But I suppose she picks up things from other people.”

“I think so. She is a close observer.”

“I think you are wrong, there, Rachel, for when she was here some years ago, she never looked about her at all. And I asked her how she judged of people, and she said, ‘By appearances.’ Now that was very silly, because as I explained to her, appearances were most deceptive, and I had often thought a person with a cold manner was cold-hearted, and afterwards found I was quite mistaken.”

Rachel did not answer. She wondered in what the gift consisted, which Lady Newhaven and Sybell both possessed, of bringing all conversation to a standstill.

“It seems curious,” said Lady Newhaven after a pause, “how the books are mostly written by the people who know least of life. Now the ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese.’ People think so much of them. I was looking at them the other day. Why, they are nothing to what I have felt. I sometimes think if I wrote a book — I don’t mean that I have any special talent — but if I really sat down and wrote a book with all the deep side of life in it, and one’s own religious feelings, and described love and love’s tragedy as they really are, what a sensation it would make. It would take the world by storm.”

“Any book dealing sincerely with one of those subjects could not fail to be a great success.”

“Oh, yes. I am not afraid I should fail. I do wish you were not going, Rachel. We have so much in common. And it is such a comfort to be with some one who knows what one is going through. I believe you feel the suspense, too, for my sake.”

“I do feel it — deeply.”

“I sometimes think,” said Lady Newhaven, her face ageing suddenly under an emotion so disfiguring that Rachel’s eyes fell before it. “I am sometimes almost certain that Edward drew the short lighter. Oh! do you think if he did he will really act up to it when the time comes?”

“If he drew it he will certainly take the consequences.”

“Will he, do you think? I am almost sure he drew it. He is doing so many little things that look as if he knew he were not going to live. I heard Mr. Carstairs ask him to go to Norway with him next spring, and Edward laughed, and said he never looked more than a few months ahead.”

“I am afraid he may have said that intending you to hear it.”

“But he did not intend me to hear it. I overheard it.”

Rachel’s face fell.

“You did promise after you told me about the letter that you would never do that kind of thing again.”

“Well, Rachel, I have not. I have not even looked at his letters since. I could not help it that once, because I thought he might have told his brother in India. But don’t you think his saying that to Mr. Carstairs looks —”

Rachel shook her head.

“He is beyond me,” she said. “There may be something more behind which we don’t know about.”

“I have a feeling, it has come over me again and again lately, that I shall be released, and that Hugh and I shall be happy together yet.”

And Lady Newhaven turned her face against the high back of her carved oak chair, and sobbed hysterically.

“Could you be happy if you had brought about Lord Newhaven’s death?” said Rachel.

Her voice was full of tender pity, not for the crouching unhappiness before her, but for the poor atrophied soul. Could she reach it? She would have given everything she possessed at that moment for one second of Christ’s power to touch those blind eyes to sight.

“How can you say such things. I should not have brought it about. I did not even know of that dreadful drawing of lots till the thing was done. That was all his own doing.”

Rachel sighed. The passionate yearning towards her companion shrank back upon herself.

“The fault is in me,” she said to herself. “If I were purer, humbler, more loving, I might have been allowed to help her.”

Lady Newhaven rose, and held Rachel tightly in her arms.

“I count the days,” she said hoarsely, shaking from head to foot. “It is two months and three weeks to-day. November the twenty-ninth. You will promise faithfully to come to me and be with me then? You will not desert me? Whatever happens you will be sure — to come?”

“I will come. I promise,” said Rachel. And she stooped and kissed the closed eyes. She could at least do that.

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