Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XXIV

Il le fit avec des arguments inconsistants et irréfutables, de ces arguments qui fondent devant la raison comme la neige au feu, et qu’on ne pent saisir, des arguments absurdes et triomphants de curé de campagne qui demontre Dieu.

GUY DE MAUPASSANT.

SYBELL’S party broke up on Saturday, with the exception of Rachel and Mr. Tristram, who had been unable to finish by that date a sketch he was making of Sybell. When Doll discovered that his wife had asked that gentleman to stay over Sunday he entreated Hugh in moving terms to do the same.

“I am not literary,” said Doll, who always thought it necessary to explain that he was not what no one thought he was. “I hate all that sort of thing. Utter rot I call it. For goodness’ sake, Scarlett, sit tight. I must be decent to the beast in my own house, and if you go I shall have to have him alone jawing at me till all hours of the night in the smoking-room.”

Hugh was easily persuaded, and so it came about that the morning congregation at Warpington had the advantage of furtively watching Hugh and Mr. Tristram as they sat together in the carved Wilderleigh pew, with Sybell and Rachel at one end of it and Doll at the other. No one looked at Rachel. Her hat attracted a momentary attention, but her face none.

The Miss Pratts, on the contrary, well caparisoned by their man milliner, well groomed, well curled, were a marked feature of the sparse congregation. The spectator of so many points, all made the most of, unconsciously felt with a sense of oppres- sion that everything that could be done had been done. No stone had been left unturned.

Their brother, Captain Algernon Pratt, sitting behind them, looked critically at them, and owned that they were smart women. But he was not entirely satisfied with them as he had been in the old days, before he went into the Guards and began the real work of his life, raising himself in society.

Captain Pratt was a tall, pale young man — assez beau garçon — faultlessly dressed, with a quiet acquired manner. He was not ill-looking, the long, upper lip concealed by a perfectly kept moustache, but the haggard eye and the thin line in the cheek, which did not suggest thought and over-work as their cause, made his appearance vaguely repellant.

Jesu, lover of my soul,

sang the shrill voices of the choir boys, echoed by Regie and Mary, standing together, holding their joint hymn-book exactly equally between them, their two small thumbs touching.

Fraülein, on Hester’s other side, was singing with her whole soul, accompanied by a pendulous movement of the body:

Cover my defenceless ’ead,
Wiz ze sadow of zy wing.

Mr. Gresley, after baying like a bloodhound through the opening verses, ascended the pulpit and engaged in prayer. The congregation amen-ed and settled itself. Mary leaned her blonde head against her mother, Regie against Hester.

The supreme moment of the week had come for Mr. Gresley.

He gave out the text:

“Can the blind lead the blind? Shall they not both fall into the ditch?”

All of us who are Churchmen are aware that the sermon is a period admirably suited for quiet reflection.

“A good woman loves but once,” said Mr. Tristram to himself in an attitude of attention, his fine eyes fixed decorously on a pillar in front of him. Some of us would be as helpless without a Bowdlerised generality or a platitude to sustain our minds as the invalid would be without his peptonised beef-tea.

“Rachel is a good woman, a saint. Such a woman does not love in a hurry, but when she does she loves for ever.” What was that poem he and she had so often read together? Tennyson, wasn’t it? about love not altering “when it alteration finds,” but bears it out even to the crack of doom. Fine poet, Tennyson, he knew the human heart. She had certainly adored him four years ago, just in the devoted way in which he needed to be loved. And how he had worshipped her! Of course he had behaved badly. He saw that now. But if he had it was not from want of love. She had been unable to see that at the time. Good women were narrow, and they were hard, and they did not understand men. Those were their faults. Had she learnt better by now? Did she realise that she had far better marry a man who had loved her for herself, and who still loved her, rather than some fortune-hunter like that weedy fellow Scarlett. (Mr. Tristram called all slender men weedy.) He would frankly own his fault and ask for forgiveness. He glanced for a moment at the gentle familiar face beside him.

“She will forgive me,” he said, reassuring himself in spite of an inward qualm of misgiving. “I am glad I arranged to stay on. I will speak to her this afternoon. She has become much softened, and we will bury the past, and make a fresh start together.”

“I will walk up to Beaumere this afternoon,” said Doll, stretching a leg outside the open end of the pew. “I wish Gresley would not call the Dissenters worms. They are some of my best tenants, and they won’t like it when they hear of it. And I’ll go round the young pheasants. (Doll did this or something similar every Sunday afternoon of his life, but he always rehearsed it comfortably in thought on Sunday mornings.) And if Withers is about I’ll go out in the boat, the big one, the little one leaks, and set a trimmer or two for to-morrow. I’m not sure I’ll set one under the south bank, for there was the devil to pay last time when that beast of an eel got among the roots. I’ll ask Withers what he thinks. I wish Gresley would not call the Dissenters blind leaders of the blind. It’s such bad form, and I don’t suppose the text meant that to start with, and what’s the use of ill-feeling in a parish. And I’ll take Scarlett with me. We’ll slip off after luncheon, and leave that bounder to bound by himself. And poor old Crack shall come too. Uncle George always took him.”

“James is simply surpassing himself,” said Mrs. Gresley to herself, her arm round her little daughter. “Worms! what a splendid comparison. The Churchman the full-grown man after the stature of Christ, and the Dissenter invertebrate (I think dear James means inebriate) like a worm cleaving to the earth. But possibly God in His mercy may let them slip in by a back door to heaven! How like him to say that, so generous, so wide-minded, taking the hopeful view of everything. How noble he looks. These are days in which we should stick to our colours. I wonder how he can think of such beautiful things. For my part I think the duty of the true priest is not to grovel to the crowd and call wrong right and right wrong for the sake of a fleeting popularity. How striking! What a lesson to the Bishop if he were only here. He is so lax about Dissent, as if right and wrong were mere matters of opinion. What a gift he has. I know he will eat nothing for luncheon. If only we were somewhere else where the best joints were a little cheaper, and his talents more appreciated.” And Mrs. Gresley closed her eyes and prayed earnestly, a tear sliding down her cheek on to Mary’s floss-silk mane, that she might become less unworthy to be the wife of one so far above her, that the children might all grow up like him, and that she might be given patience to bear with Hester even when she vexed him.

Captain Pratt’s critical eye travelled over the congregation. It absolutely ignored Mrs. Gresley and Fraülein. It lingered momentarily on Hester. He knew what he called “breeding” when he saw it, and he was aware that Hester possessed it, though his sisters would have laughed at the idea. He had seen many well-bred women on social pinnacles look like that, whose houses were at present barred against him. The Pratt sisters were fixed into their smartness as some faces are fixed into a grin. It was not spontaneous, fugitive, evanescent as a smile, gracefully worn, or lightly laid aside as in Hester’s case. He had known Hester slightly in London for several years. He had seen her on terms of intimacy, such as she never showed to his sisters, with inaccessible men and women with whom he had achieved a bare acquaintance, but whom, in spite of many carefully concealed advances, he had found it impossible to know better. Captain Pratt had reached that stage in his profession of raising himself when he had become a social barometer. He was excessively careful whom he knew, what women he danced with, what houses he visited, and any of his acquaintances who cared to ascertain their own social status to a hairsbreadth had only to apply to it the touchstone of Captain Pratt’s manner towards them.

Hester, who grasped many facts of that kind, was always amused by the cold consideration with which he treated her on his rare visits to the parental Towers; and which his sisters could only construe as a sign that “Algy was gone on Hessie.”

“But he will never marry her,” they told each other. “Algy looks higher.”

It was true. If Hester had been Lady Hester, it is possible that the surname of Pratt, if frequently refused by stouter women, might eventually have been offered to her. But Captain Pratt was determined to marry rank, and nothing short of a Lady Something was of any use to him. An Honourable was better than nothing, but it did not count for much with him. It had a way of absenting itself when wanted. No one was announced as an Honourable. It did not even appear on cards. It might be overlooked. Rank, to be of any practical value, must be apparent, obvious. Lady Georgiana Pratt, Lady Evelina Pratt! Any name would do with that prefix. His eye travelled as far as Sybell and stopped again. She was “the right sort” herself, and she dressed in the right way. Why could not Ada and Selina imitate her? But he had never forgiven her the fact that he had met “a crew of cads” at her house, whom he had been obliged to cut afterwards in the Row. No, Sybell would not have done for him. She surrounded herself with vulgar people.

Captain Pratt was far too well mannered to be guilty of staring, except at pretty maidservants or shop girls, and his eye was moved on by the rigid police of etiquette which ruled his every movement. It paused momentarily on Rachel. He knew about her, as did every bachelor in London. A colossal heiress. She was neither plain nor handsome. She had a good figure, but not good enough to counterbalance her nondescript face. She had not the air of distinction which he was so quick to detect and appraise. She was a social nonentity. He did not care to look at her a second time. “I would not marry her with twice her fortune,” he said to himself.

Regie’s hand had stolen into Hester’s. His even breathing, felt rather than heard, as he dropped asleep against her shoulder, surrounded Hester with the atmosphere of peace and comfort which his father had broken earlier in the day. Regie often brought back to her what his father wrested from her.

She listened to the sermon as from a warm nest safely raised above the quaggy ground of personal feeling.

“Dear James! How good he is; how much in earnest. But worms don’t go in at back doors. Why are not clergymen taught a few elementary rules of composition before they are ordained? But perhaps no one will notice it except myself. James is certainly a saint. He has the courage of his opinions. I believe he loves God and the Church with his whole heart, and would go to the stake for them, or send me there if he thought it was for the good of my soul. Why has he no power? Why is he so much disliked in the parish and neighbourhood? I am sure it is not because he has small abilities and makes puns, and says cut-and-dried things. How many excellent clergymen who do the same are beloved? Is it because he deals with every one as he deals with me? What dreadful things he thinks of me. I don’t wonder he is anxious about me, What unworthy motives of wilful blindness and arrogance he is attributing to the Nonconformists! Oh, James! James! will you never see that it is disbelief in the sincerity of the religion of others, because it is not in the same narrow form as your own, which makes all your zeal and earnestness of none effect! You think the opposition you meet with everywhere is the opposition of evil to good, of indifference to piety. When will you learn that it is the good in your hearers which opposes you, the love of God in them which is offended by your representation of Him!”

Hugh’s eyes were fixed on the same pillar as Mr. Tristram’s, but if he had been aware of that fact he would have chosen another pillar. His thin handsome face was beginning to show the marks of mental strain. His eyes had the set impassive look of one who, hedged in on both sides, sees a sharp turn ahead of him on an unknown road.

“Rachel! Rachel! Rachel! Don’t you hear me calling to you? Don’t you hear me telling you that I can’t live without you? The hymn was right. ‘Other refuge have I none, Hangs my helpless soul on Thee,’ only it was written of you, not of that far, far away God who does not care. Only care for me. Only love me. Only give me those cool hands that I may lean my forehead against them. No help can come to me except through you. Stoop down to me and raise me up, for I love you.”

The sun went in suddenly, and a cold shadow fell on the pillar and on Hugh’s heart.

Love and marriage were not for him. That far-away God, that Judge in the black cap, had pronounced sentence against him, had doomed that he should die in his sins. When he had sat in his own village church only last Sunday between his mother and sister, he had seen the empty place on his chancel wall where the tablet to his memory would be put up. When he walked through the churchyard, his mother leaning on his arm, his step regulated by her feeble one, he had seen the vacant space by his father’s grave already filled by the mound of raw earth which would shortly cover him. His heart had ached for his mother, for the gentle feeble-minded sister who had transferred the interest in life, which keeps body and soul together, from her colourless existence to that of her brother. Hughie was the romance of her grey life: what Hughie said, what Hughie thought, Hughie’s wife — oh, jealous thought only to be met by prayer! But later on, joy of joys — Hughie’s children! He realised it, now and then, vaguely, momentarily, but never as fully as last Sunday. He shrank from the remembrance, and his mind wandered anew in the labyrinth of broken twisted thought, from which he could find no way out.

There must be some way out. He had stumbled callously through one day after another of these weeks in which he had not seen Rachel, towards his next meeting with her, as a half blind man stumbles towards the light. But the presence of Rachel afforded no clue to the labyrinth. What vain hope was this that he had cherished unconsciously that she could help him. There was no help for him. There was no way out. He was in a trap. He must die, and soon, by his own hand. Incredible, preposterous fate! He shuddered, and looked around him involuntarily.

His glance, reverent, full of timid longing fell on Rachel, and his heart cried aloud suddenly, “If she loves me, I shall not be able to leave her.”

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