Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XXIII

With aching hands and bleeding feet

    We dig and heap, lay stone on stone;

We bear the burden and the heat

    Of the long day, and wish ’twere done!

    Not till the hours of light return,

    All we have built do we discern.

MATTHEW ARNOLD.

IT was Sunday morning. The night was sinking out of the sky to lean faint unto death upon the bosom of the earth. The great forms of the trees, felt rather than seen, were darkness made visible. Among the night of high elms round Warpington a single yellow light burned in an upper window. It had been burning all night. And now, as the night waned, the little light waned with it. At last, it was suddenly blown out.

Hester came to the window and looked out. There was light, but there was no dawn as yet. In the grey sky over the grey land the morning star, alone and splendid, kept watch in the east.

She sat down and leaned her brow against the pane. She did not know that it was aching. She did not know that she was cold, exhausted, so exhausted that the morning star in the outer heaven and the morning star in her soul were to her the same. They stooped together, they merged into one great light, heralding a perfect day presently to be.

The night was over, and that other long night of travail and patience and faith, and strong rowing in darkness against the stream, was over, too, at last — at last. The book was finished.

The tears fell slowly from Hester’s eyes on to her clasped hands, those blessed tears which no human hand shall ever intervene to wipe away.

To some of us Christ comes in the dawn of the spiritual life walking upon the troubled waves of art. And we recognise Him, and would fain go to meet Him. But our companions and our own fears dissuade us. They say it is only a spirit, and that Christ does not walk on water, that the land whither we are rowing is the place He has Himself appointed for us to meet Him. So our little faith keeps us in the boat, or fails us in the waves of that wind-swept sea.

It seemed to Hester as if once, long ago, shrinking and shivering, she had stood in despair upon the shore of a great sea, and had heard a voice from the other side say, “Come over.” She had stopped her ears, she had tried not to go. She had shrunk back a hundred times from the cold touch of the water that each time she essayed let her trembling foot through it. And now, after an interminable interval, after she had trusted and doubted, had fallen and been sustained, had met the wind and the rain, after she had sunk in despair, and risen again, she knew not how, now at length a great wave — the last — had cast her up half-drowned upon the shore. A miracle had happened. She had reached the other side, and was lying in a great peace after the storm upon the solemn shore under a great white star.

Hester sat motionless. The star paled and paled before the coming of a greater than he. Across the pause which God has set ‘twixt night and day came the first word of the robin. It reached Hester’s ear as from another world, a world that had been left behind. The fragmentary notes floated up to her from an immeasurable distance like scattered bubbles through deep water.

The day was coming. God’s creatures of tree and field and hill took form. Man’s creature, the little stout church in their midst, thrust once more its plebeian outline against God’s sky. Dim shapes moved athwart the vacancy of the meadows. Voices called through the grey. Close against the eaves a secret was twittered, was passed from beak to beak. In the nursery below a little twitter of waking children broke the stillness of the house.

But Hester did not hear it. She had fallen into a deep sleep in the low window-seat, with her pale forehead against the pane; a sleep so deep that even the alarum of the baby did not rouse her, nor the entrance of Emma with the hot water.

“James,” said Mrs. Gresley, an hour later, as she and her husband returned through the white mist from early celebration, “Hester was not there. I thought she had promised to come.”

“She had.”

There was a moment’s silence.

“Perhaps she is not well,” said Mr. Gresley, closing the churchyard gate into the garden.

Mrs. Gresley’s heart swelled with a sense of injustice. She had often been unwell, often in feeble health before the birth of her children, but had she ever pleaded ill-health as an excuse for absenting herself from one of the many services which her husband held to be the mainspring of the religious life?

“I do not think she can be very unwell. She is standing by the magnolia now,” she said, her lip quivering, and withdrawing her hand from her husband’s arm. She almost hated the slight graceful figure, which was not of her world, which was, as she thought, coming between her and her husband.

“I will speak seriously to her,” said Mr. Gresley, dejectedly, who recollected that he had “spoken seriously” to Hester many times at his wife’s instigation without visible result. And as he went alone to meet his sister he prayed earnestly that he might be given the right word to say to her.

A ray of sunlight, faint as an echo, stole through the lingering mist, parting it on either hand, and fell on Hester.

Hester, standing in a white gown under the the veiled trees in a glade of silver and trembling opal, which surely mortal foot had never trod, seemed infinitely removed from him. Dimly he felt that she was at one with this mysterious morning world, and that he, the owner, was an alien and a trespasser in his own garden.

But a glimpse of his cucumber frames in the background reassured him. He advanced with a firmer step, as one among allies.

Hester did not hear him.

She was gazing with an absorption that shut out all other sights and sounds at the solitary blossom on the magnolia tree. Yesterday it had been a bud. But to-day the great almond white petals which guarded it, overlapping each other so jealously, had opened wide, and the perfect flower, keeping nothing back, had laid bare all its pure white soul before its God.

As Mr. Gresley stopped beside her, Hester turned her little pinched ravaged face towards him and smiled. Something of the passionate self-surrender of the flower was reflected in her eyes.

“Dear Hester,” he said, seeing only the wan drawn face. “Are you ill?”

“Yes. No. I don’t think so,” said Hester tremulously, recalled suddenly to herself. She looked hastily about her. The world of dew and silver had deserted her, had broken like an iridescent bubble at a touch. The magnolia withdrew itself. Hester found herself suddenly transplanted into the prose of life, emphasised by a long clerical coat, and a bed of Brussels sprouts.

“I missed you,” said Mr. Gresley with emphasis.

“Where? When?” Hester’s eyes had lost their fixed look, and stared vacantly at him.

Mr. Gresley tried to subdue his rising annoyance.

Hester was acting, pretending not to understand, and he saw through it.

“At God’s altar,” he said gravely, the priest getting the upper hand of the man.

“Have you not found me, there?” said Hester below her breath, but so low that fortunately her brother did not catch the words, and was spared their profanity.

“I will appeal to her better feelings,” he said to himself. “They must be there if I can only touch them.”

He did not know that in order to touch the better feelings of our fellow creatures we must be able to reach up to them, or by reason of our low stature we may succeed only in appealing to the lowest in them in spite of our tip-toe good intentions. Is that why such appeals too often meet with bitter sarcasm and indignation?

But fortunately a robust belief in the assiduities of the devil as the cause of all failures, and a conviction that whoso opposed Mr. Gresley opposed the Deity, supported and blindfolded the young Vicar in emergencies of this kind.

He spoke earnestly and at length to his sister. He waved aside her timid excuse that she had overslept herself after a sleepless night, and had finished dressing but the moment before he found her in the garden. He entreated her to put aside such insincerity as unworthy of her. He reminded her of the long months she had spent at Warpington with its peculiar spiritual opportunities; that he should be to blame if he did not press upon her the first importance of the religious life, the ever-present love of God, and the means of approaching Him through the sacraments. He entreated her to join her prayers with his that she might be saved from the worship of her own talent which had shut out the worship of God, from this dreadful indifference to holy things, and the impatience of all religious teaching which he grieved to see in her.

He spoke well, the earnest blind would be leader endeavouring to guide her to the ditch from which he knew not how she had emerged, passionately distressed at the opposition he met with as he would have drawn her lovingly towards it.

The tears were in Hester’s eyes, but the eyes themselves were as flint seen through water. She stifled many fierce and cruel impulses to speak as plainly as he did, to tell him that it was not religion that was abhorrent to her, but the form in which he presented it to her, and that the sin against the Holy Ghost was disbelief, like his in the religion of others. But when have such words availed anything? When have they been believed? Hester had a sharp tongue, and she was slowly learning to beware of it as her worst enemy. She laid down many weapons before she trusted herself to speak.

“It is good of you to care what becomes of me,” she said gently, but her voice was cold. “I am sorry you regard me as you do. But from your point of view you were right to speak — as — as you have done. I value the affection that prompted it.”

“She can’t meet me fairly,” said Mr. Gresley to himself, with sudden anger at the meanness of such tactics. “They say she is so clever, and she can’t refute a word I say. She appears to yield and then defies me. She always puts me off like that.”

The sun had vanquished the mist, and in the brilliant light the two figures moved silently side by side back to the house, one with something very like rage in his heart, the rage that in bygone days found expression in stake and faggot.

Perhaps the heaviest trouble which Hester was ever called upon to bear had its mysterious beginnings on that morning of opal and gossamer when the magnolia opened.

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