Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XXII

Brother, thy tail hangs down behind.

Song of the Bandar-log.

RACHEL arrived after tea at Wilderleigh, and went straight to her room on a plea of fatigue. It was a momentary cowardice that tempted her to yield to her fatigue. She felt convinced that she should meet Hugh Scarlett at Wilderleigh. She had no reason for the conviction beyond the very inadequate one that she had met him at Sybell’s London house. Nevertheless she felt sure that he would be among the guests, and she longed for a little breathing space after parting with Lady Newhaven before she met him. Presently Sybell flew in and embraced her with effusion.

“Oh! what you have missed!” she said breathlessly. “But you do look tired. You were quite right to lie down before dinner, only you aren’t lying down. We have had such a conversation downstairs. The others are all out boating with Doll but Mr. Harvey, the great Mr. Harvey, you know.”

“I am afraid I don’t know.”

“Oh yes, you do. The author of ‘Unashamed’.”

“I remember now.”

“Well, he is here, resting after his new book, ‘Rahab.’ And he has been reading us the opening chapters, just to Miss Barker and me. It is quite wonderful. So painful, you know. He does not spare the reader anything, he thinks it wrong to leave out anything, but so powerful.”

“Is it the same Miss Barker whom I met at your house in the season who denounced ‘The Idyll’?”

"Yes. How she did cut it up. You see she knows all about East London, and that sort of thing. I knew you would like to meet her again because you are philanthropic, too. She hardly thought she could spare the time to come, but she thought she would go back fresher if the wail were out of her ears for a week. The wail! Isn’t it dreadful. I feel we ought to do more than we do, don’t you?”

“We ought, indeed.”

“But, then, you see as a married woman — I can’t leave my husband and child, and bury myself in the East End, can I?”

“Of course not. But surely it is an understood thing that marriage exempts women from all impersonal duties.”

“Yes, that is just it. How well you put it. But others could. I often wonder why after writing ‘The Idyll’ Hester never goes near East London. I should have gone straight off, and have cast in my lot with them if I had been in her place.”

“Do you ever find people do what you would have done if you had been in their place?”

“No, never. They don’t seem to see it. It’s a thing I can’t understand, the way people don’t act up to their convictions. And I do know, though I would not tell Hester so for worlds, that the fact that she goes on living comfortably in the country after bringing out that book makes thoughtful people, not me, of course, but other earnest-minded people, think she is a humbug.”

“It would — naturally,” said Rachel.

“Well, now I am glad you agree with me, for I said something of the same kind to Mr. Scarlett last night, and he could not see it. He’s rather obtuse. I daresay you remember him?”

“Perfectly.”

“I don’t care about him, he is so superficial, and Miss Barker says he is very lethargic in conversation. I asked him because — don’t breathe a word of it — but because as a married woman one ought to help others, and — do you remember how he stood up for Hester that night in London?”

“For her book, you mean.”

“Well, it’s all one. Men are men, my dear. Let me tell you he would never have done that if he had not been in love with her.”

“Do you mean that men never defend obvious truths unless they are in love!”

“Now you are pretending to misunderstand me,” said Sybell joyously, making her little squirrel face into a becoming pout. “But it’s no use trying to take me in. And it’s coming right. He’s there at this moment!”

“At the Vicarage?”

“Where else! I asked him to go. I urged him. I said I felt sure she expected him. One must help on these things.”

“But if he is obtuse and lethargic and superficial, is he likely to suit Hester?”

“My dear, the happiest lot for a woman is marriage. And you and I are Hester’s friends. So we ought to do all we can for her happiness. That is why I just mentioned this.”

The dressing-gong began to boom.

“I must fly,” said Sybell, depositing a butterfly kiss on Rachel’s forehead. And she flew.

“I wish I knew what I felt about him,” said Rachel to herself. “I don’t much like hearing him called obtuse and superficial, but I suppose I should like still less to hear Sybell praise him. I have never heard her praise anything but mediocrity yet.”

If Rachel had been at all introspective she might have found a clue as to her feeling for Hugh in the unusual care with which she arranged her hair, and her decision at the last moment to discard the pale-green gown lying in state on the bed for a white satin one embroidered at long intervals with rose-coloured carnations. The gown was a masterpiece, designed especially for her by a great French milliner. Rachel often wondered whose eyesight had been strained over those marvellous carnations, but to-night she did not give them a thought. She looked with grave dissatisfaction at her pale nondescript face and nondescript hair and eyes. She did not know that only women with marriageable daughters saw her as she saw herself in the glass.

As she left her room a door opened at the further end of the same wing, and a tall man came out. The middle-class element in her said, “Superfine.” His fastidious taste said, “A plain woman.”

In another instant they recognised each other.

“Superfine! What nonsense,” she thought, as she met his eager tremulous glance.

“A plain woman. Rachel plain!” He had met the welcome in her eyes, and there was beauty in every movement, grace in every fold of her white gown.

As they met the gong suddenly boomed out close beneath them, and they could only smile at each other as they shook hands. The butler, who was evidently an artist in his way, proved the gong to the uttermost; and they had descended the staircase together, and had crossed the hall before its dying tremors allowed them to speak.

As he was about to do so he saw her wince suddenly. She was looking straight in front of her at the little crowd in the drawing-room. For an instant her face turned from white to grey, and she involuntarily put out her hand as if to ward off something. Then a lovely colour mounted to her cheek; she drew herself up and entered the room, while Hugh, behind her, looked fiercely at each man in succession.

It is always the unexpected that happens. As Rachel’s half-absent eyes passed over the group in the brilliantly lighted drawing-room her heart reared without warning and fell back upon her. She had only just sufficient presence of mind to prevent her hand pressing itself against her heart. He was there, he was before her — the man whom she had loved with passion for four years, and who had tortured her.

Mr. Harvey (the great Mr. Harvey) strode forward, and Rachel found her hand engulfed in a large soft hand which seemed to have a poached egg in the palm.

“This is a pleasure to which I have long looked forward,” murmured the great man, all cuff and solitaire, bending in what he would have termed a “chivalrous manner” over Rachel’s hand; while Doll, standing near, wondered drearily “why these writing chaps were always such bounders.”

Rachel passed on to greet Miss Barker, standing on the hearthrug, this time in magenta velveteen, but presumably still tired of the Bible, conversing with Rachel’s former lover, whose eyes were on the floor, and whose hand gripped the mantelpiece. He had seen her — recognised her.

“May I introduce Mr. Tristram?” said Sybell to Rachel.

“We have met before,” said Rachel gently, as he bowed without looking at her, and she put out her hand.

He was obliged to touch it, obliged to meet for one moment the clear calm eyes that had once held boundless love for him, boundless trust in him; that had, as he well knew, wept themselves half blind for him.

Mr. Tristram was one of the many who judge their actions in the light of after circumstances, and who towards middle age discover that the world is a treacherous world. He had not been “in a position to marry” when he had fallen in love with Rachel. But he had been as much in love with her as was consistent with a permanent prudential passion for himself and his future, that future which the true artist must ever preserve untrammelled. “High hopes faint on a warm hearthstone,” &c. He had felt keenly breaking with Rachel. Later on, when a tide of wealth flowed up to the fifth floor of Museum Buildings, he had recognised for the first time that he had made a great mistake in life. To the smart of baffled love had been added acute remorse, not so much for wealth missed as for having inflicted upon himself and upon her a frightful and unnecessary pain. But how could he have foreseen such a thing? How could he tell? he had asked himself in mute stupefaction when the news reached him. What a cheat life was! What a fickle jade was Fortune!

Since the memorable day when Rachel had found means to lay the ghost that haunted her he had made no sign.

“I hardly expected you would remember me,” he said, catching at his self-possession.

“I have a good memory,” she said, aware that Miss Barker was listening, and that Hugh was bristling at her elbow. “And the little Spanish boy whom you were so kind to, and who lodged just below me in Museum Buildings, has not forgotten either. He still asks after the ‘Cavaliere’.”

“Mr. Tristram is positively blushing at being confronted with his good deeds,” said Sybell, intervening on discovering that the attention of some of her guests had been distracted from herself. “Yes, darling”— to her husband —“you take in Lady Jane. Mr. Scarlett, will you take in Miss West?”

“I have been calling on your friend, Miss Gresley,” said Hugh, after he had overcome his momentary irritation at finding Mr. Harvey was on Rachel’s other side. “I did not know until her brother dined here last night that she lived so near.”

“Did not Mrs. Loftus tell you?” said Rachel, with a remembrance of Sybell’s remarks before dinner.

“She told me after I had mentioned my wish to go and see her. She even implored me so repeatedly to go that I—”

“Nearly did not go at all.”

“Exactly. But in this case I persevered because I am, or hope I am, a friend of hers. But I was not rewarded.”

“I thought you said you had seen her.”

“Oh, yes, I saw her, and I saw that she looked very ill. But I found it impossible to have any conversation with her in the presence of Mr. and Mrs. Gresley. Whenever I spoke to her Mr. Gresley answered, and sometimes Mrs. Gresley also. In fact, Mr. Gresley considered the call as paid to himself. Mrs. Loftus tells me he is much cleverer than his sister, but I did not gain that impression. And after I had given tongue to every platitude I could think of I had to take my leave.”

“Hester ought to have come to the rescue.”

“She did try. She offered to show me the short cut to Wilderleigh across the fields. But unluckily —”

“I can guess what you are going to say.”

“I am sure you can. Mr. Gresley accompanied us, and Miss Gresley turned back at the first gate.”

“You have my sympathy.”

“I hope I have, for I have had a severe time of it. Mr. Gresley was most cordial,” continued Hugh ruefully, “and said what a pleasure it was to him to meet any one who was interested in intellectual subjects. I suppose he was referring to my platitudes. He said living in the country cut him off almost entirely from the society of his mental equals, so much so that at times he had thoughts of moving to London, and making a little centre for intellectual society. According to him the whole neighbourhood was sunk in a state of hopeless apathy, with the exception of Mrs. Loftus. He said she was the only really clever cultivated person in Middleshire.”

“Did he? How about the Bishop of Southminster?”

“He did not mention him. My acquaintance with Mrs. Loftus is of the slightest,” added Hugh, interrogatively, looking at his graceful, animated hostess.

“I imagined you knew her fairly well, as you are staying here.”

“No. She asked me rather late in the day. I fancy I was a ‘fill up.’ I accepted in the hope, rather a vague one, that I might meet you here.”

To Rachel’s surprise her heart actually paid Hugh the compliment of beating a shade faster than its wont. She looked straight in front of her, and her absent eyes fell on Mr. Tristram sitting opposite, talking somewhat sulkily to Miss Barker. Rachel looked steadily at him.

Mr. Tristram had been handsome once, and four years had altered him but little in that respect. He had not yet grown stout, but it was evident that Nature had that injury in reserve for him. To grow stout is not necessarily to look common, but if there is an element of inherent commonness in man or woman, a very little additional surface will make it manifest, as an enlarged photograph magnifies its own defects. The “little more and how much it is” had come upon the unhappy Tristram, once the slimmest of the slim. Life had evidently not gone too well with him. Self-pity and the harassed look which comes of annoyance with trifles had set their mark upon him. His art had not taken possession of him. “High hopes faint on a warm hearth-stone.” But they sometimes faint also in bachelor lodgings. The whole effect of the man was second rate, mentally, morally, socially. He seemed exactly on a par with the second-rate friends with whom Sybell loved to surround herself. Hugh and Dick were taking their revenge on the rival who blocked their way. Whatever their faults might be, they were gentlemen, and Mr. Tristram was only “a perfect gentleman.” Rachel had not known the difference when she was young. She saw it now.

“I trust, Miss West,” said the deep voice of the Harvey, revolving himself and his solitaire slowly towards her, “that I have your sympathy in the great cause to which I have dedicated myself, the emancipation of woman.”

“I thought the new woman had effected her own emancipation,” said Rachel.

Mr. Harvey paid no more attention to her remark than any one with a theory to propound which must be delivered to the world as a whole.

“I venture to think,” he continued, his heavy, lustreless eyes coming to a standstill upon her, “that though I accept in all reverence the position of woman as the equal of man, as promulgated in ‘The Princess,’ by our lion-hearted Laureate, nevertheless I advance beyond him in that respect. I hold,” in a voice calculated to impress the whole table, “that woman is man’s superior, and that she degrades herself when she endeavours to place herself on an equality with him.”

There was a momentary silence, like that which travellers tell us succeeds the roar of the lion in his primeval forest, silencing even the twitter of the birds.

“How true that is,” said Sybell, awed by the lurid splendour of Mr. Harvey’s genius. “Woman is man’s superior, not his equal. I have felt that all my life, but I never quite saw how until this moment. Don’t you think so, too, Miss Barker?”

“I have never lost an opportunity of asserting it,” said the Apostle, her elbow on Mr. Tristram’s bread, looking at Mr. Harvey with some asperity, for poaching on her manor. “All sensible women have been agreed for years on that point.”

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