Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XXV

Look in my face! my name is Might-have-been;

I am also caled No-more, Too-late, Farewell.

DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI.

IT was Sunday afternoon. Mr. Tristram leaned on the stone balustrade that bounded the long terrace at Wilderleigh. He was watching two distant figures, followed by a black dot, stroll away across the park. One of them seemed to drag himself unwillingly. Mr. Tristram congratulated himself on the acumen which had led him to keep himself concealed until Doll and Hugh had started for Beaumere.

Sybell had announced at luncheon, in the tone of one who observes a religious rite, that she should rest till four o’clock, and would be ready to sit for the portrait of her upper lip at that hour.

It was only half-past two now. Mr. Tristram had planted himself exactly in front of Rachel’s windows, with his back to the house. “She will keep me waiting, but she will come out in time,” he said to himself, nervous and self-confident by turns, resting his head rather gracefully on his hand. His knowledge of womankind supported him like a life-belt, but it has been said that life-belts occasionally support their wearers upside down. Theories have been known to exhibit the same spiteful tendency towards those who place their trust in them.

“Of course, she has got to show me that she is offended with me,” he reflected, gazing steadily at the Welsh hills. “She would not have come out if I had asked her, but she will certainly come as I did not. I will give her half an hour.”

Rachel, meanwhile, was looking fixedly at Mr. Tristram from her bedroom window with that dispassionate scrutiny to avoid which the vainest would do well to take refuge in noisome caves.

“I wonder,” she said to herself, “whether Hester always saw him as I see him now. I believe she did.”

Rachel put on her hat and took up her gloves. “If this is really I, and that is really he, I had better go down and get it over,” she said to herself.

Mr. Tristram had given her half an hour. She appeared in the low stone doorway before the first five minutes of the allotted time had elapsed, and he gave a genuine start of surprise as he heard her step on the gravel. His respect for her fell somewhat at this alacrity.

“I have been waiting in the hope of seeing you,” he said, after a moment’s hesitation. “I am anxious to have a serious conversation with you.”

“Certainly,” she said.

They walked along the terrace, and presently found themselves in the little coppice adjoining it. They sat down together on a wooden seat round an old cedar, in the heart of the golden afternoon.

It was an afternoon the secret of which autumn and spring will never tell to winter and summer, when the wildest dreams of love might come true, when even the dead might come down and put warm lips to ours, and we should feel no surprise.

A kingfisher flashed across the open on his way back to the brook near at hand, fleeing from the still splendour of the sunfired woods where he was but a courtier, to the little winding world of grey stones and water, where he was a jewelled king.

When the kingfisher had left them tête-àtête Mr. Tristram found himself extremely awkwardly placed on the green bench. He felt that he had not sufficiently considered beforehand the peculiar difficulties which, in the language of the law, “had been imported into his case.”

Rachel sat beside him in silence. If it could be chronicled that sympathetic sorrow for her companion’s predicament was the principal feeling in her mind, she would have been an angel.

Mr. Tristram halted long between two opinions. At last he said brokenly:

“Can you forgive me?”

What woman, even in her white hair, even after a lifetime spent out of earshot, ever forgets the tone her lover’s voice takes when he is in trouble? Rachel softened instantly.

“I forgave you long ago,” she said gently.

Something indefinable in the clear full gaze that met his daunted him. He stared apprehensively at her. It seemed to him as if he were standing in cold and darkness, looking in through the windows of her untroubled eyes at the warm sunlit home which had once been his, when it had been exceeding well with him, but of which he had lost the key.

A single yellow leaf, crisped and hollowed to a fairy boat, came sailing on an imperceptible current of air to rest on Rachel’s knee.

“I was angry at first,” she said, her voice falling across the silence like another leaf. “And then after a time I forgave you. And later still, much later, I found out that you had never injured me — that I had nothing to forgive.”

He did not understand, and as he did not understand he explained volubly — for here he felt he was on sure ground — that, on the contrary, she had much to forgive, that he had acted like an infernal blackguard, that men were coarse brutes, not fit to kiss a good woman’s shoe latchet, &c. &c. He identified his conduct with that of the whole sex, without alluding to it as that of the individual Tristram. He made it clear that he did not claim to have behaved better than “most men.”

Rachel listened attentively. “And I actually loved him,” she said to herself.

“But the divine quality of woman is her power of forgiving. Her love raises a man, transfigures him, ennobles his whole life,” &c. &c.

“My love did not appear to have quite that effect upon you at the time,” said Rachel, regretting the words the moment they were spoken.

Mr. Tristram felt relieved. Here at last was the reproach he had been expecting.

He assured her she did well to be angry. He accused himself once more. He denounced the accursed morals of the day above which he ought to have risen, the morals, if she did but know it, of all unmarried men.

“That is a hit at Mr. Scarlett,” she said scornfully to herself, and then her cheek blanched as she remembered that Hugh was not exempt after all. She became suddenly tired, impatient, but she waited quietly for the inevitable proposal.

Mr. Tristram, who had the gift of emphatic and facile utterance, which the conventional consider to be the sign-manual of genius, had become so entangled in the morals of the age, that it took him some time to extricate himself from the subject before he could pass on to plead in an impassioned manner the cause of the man, unworthy though he might be, who had long loved her, loved her now, and would always love her, in this world and the next.

It was the longest proposal Rachel had ever had, and she had had many. But if the proposal was long the refusal was longer. Rachel, who had a good memory, led up to it by opining that the artistic life made great demands, that the true artist must live entirely for his art, that domestic life might prove a hindrance. She had read somewhere that high hopes fainted on warm hearthstones. Mr. Tristram demolished these objections as ruthlessly as ducks peck their own ducklings if they have not seen them for a day or two.

Even when she was forced to become more explicit it was at first impossible to Mr. Tristram to believe she would finally reject him. But the knowledge, deep-rooted as a forest oak, that she had loved him devotedly could not at last prevail against the odious conviction that she was determined not to marry him.

“Then, in that case you never loved me?”

“I do not love you now.”

“You are determined not to marry?”

“On the contrary, I hope to do so.”

Rachel’s words took her by surprise. She had no idea till that moment that she hoped anything of the kind.

“You prefer some one else. That is the real truth.”

“I prefer several others.”

Mr. Tristram looked suspiciously at her. Her answers did not tally with his previous knowledge of her. Perhaps he forgot that he had set his docile pupil rather a long holiday task to learn in his absence and she had learnt it.

“You think you would be happier with some fortune-hunter of an aristocrat than with a plain man of your own class, who, whatever his faults may be, loves you for yourself.”

Why is it that the word aristocrat as applied to a gentleman is as offensive as that of flunkey applied to a footman?

Rachel drew herself up imperceptibly.

“That depends upon the fortune-hunter,” she said with that touch of hauteur which, when the vulgar have at last drawn it upon themselves by the insolence which is the underside of their courtesy, always has the same effect on them as a red rag on a bull.

In their own language they invariably “stand up to it.” Mr. Tristram stood up physically and mentally. He also raised his voice, causing two rabbits to hurry back into their holes.

Women, he said, were incalculable. He would never believe in one again. His disbelief in woman rose even to the rookery in the high elms close at hand. That she, Rachel, whom he had always regarded as the first among women, should be dazzled by the empty glamour of rank, now that her fortune put such marriages within her reach, was incredible. He should have repudiated such an idea with scorn if he had not heard it from her own lips. Well, he would leave her to the life she had chosen. It only remained for him to thank her for stripping his last illusions from him, and to bid her good-bye.

“We shall never meet again,” he said, holding her hand, and looking very much the same without his illusions as he did when he had them on. He had read somewhere a little poem about “A Woman’s No,” which at the last moment meant “Yes.” And then there was another which chronicled how after several stanzas of upbraiding “we rushed into each other’s arms.” Both recurred to him now. He had often thought how true they were.

“I do not think we shall meet again,” said Rachel, who apparently had an unpoetic nature; “but I am glad for my own sake that we have met this once, and have had this conversation. I think we owed it to each other and to our — former attachment.”

“Well, good-bye.” He still held her hand. If she was not careful she would lose him.

“Good-bye.”

“You understand it is for always?”

“I do.”

He became suddenly livid. He loved her more than ever. Would she really let him go?

“I am not the kind of man to be whistled back,” he said fiercely. It was an appeal and a defiance, for he was just the kind of man, and they both knew it.

“Of course not.”

“That is your last word?”

“My last word.”

He dropped her hand, and half turned to go.

She made no sign.

Then he strode violently out of the wood without looking behind him. At the little gate he stopped a moment listening intently. No recalling voice reached him. Poets did not know what they were talking about. With a trembling hand he slammed the gate and departed.

Rachel remained a long time sitting on the wooden bench, so long that the stooping sun found out the solemn outstretched arms of the cedar, and touched them till they gleamed green as a beetle’s wing. Each little twig and twiglet was made manifest, raw gold against the twilight that lurked beneath the heavy boughs.

She sat so still that a squirrel came tip-toeing across the moss, and struck tail momentarily to observe her. He looked critically at her, first with one round eye, and then, turning his sleek head, with the other, and decided that she was harmless.

Presently a robin dropped down close to her, flashing up his grey underwing as he alighted, and then flew up into the cedar, and from its sun-stirred depths said his say.

The robin never forgets. In the autumn afternoons when the shadows are lengthening he sings sadness into your heart. If you are joyful shut your ears against him, for you may keep peace but never joy while he is singing. He knows all about it, “love’s labour lost,” the grey face of young Love dead, the hard-wrought grave in the live rock where he is buried. And he tells of it again, and again and again, as if Love’s sharp sword had indeed reddened his little breast, until the heart aches to hear him. But he tells also that consolation is folded not in forgetfulness, but in remembrance. That is why he sings in the silence of the autumn dawn, before memory closes her eyes, and again near sunset, when memory wakes.

Still Rachel sat motionless.

She had laboured with dumb unreasoning passion to forget, as a man works his hand to the bone night after night, week after week, month after month, to file through the bars of his prison. She found at last that forgetfulness came not of prayer and fasting: that it was not in her to forget. The past had seemed to stretch its cruel desecrating hand over all the future, cutting her off from the possibility of love and marriage, and from the children whom in dreams she held in her arms. As she had said to Hester, she thought she “had nothing left to give.”

But now the dead past had risen from its grave in her meeting with her former lover, and in a moment, in two short days and wakeful nights, the past relinquished its false claim upon her life. She saw that it was false, that she had been frightened where no fear was, that her deliverance lay in remembrance itself, not in the handcuffs with which until now she had bound her deliverer.

Mr. Tristram had come back into her life, and with his own hands had destroyed the overthrown image of himself, which lay like a barrier across her heart. He had replaced it by an accurate presentment of himself as he really was.

“Only that which is replaced is destroyed,” and it is often our real self in its native rags, and not as we jealously imagine another king in richer purple who has replaced us in the throne-room of the heart that loved us. To the end of life Rachel never forgot Mr. Tristram, any more than the amber forgets its fly. But she was vaguely conscious as he left her that he had set her free. She listened to his retreating step hardly daring to breathe. It was too good to be true. At last there was dead silence. No echo of a footfall. Quite gone. He had departed not only out of her presence but out of her life.

She breathed again. A tremor like that which shakes the first green leaf against the March sky stole across her crushed heart, empty at last, empty at last. She raised her hand timidly in the sunshine. She was free. She looked round dazzled, bewildered. The little world of sunshine and the turquoises of sky strewn among the golden network of the trees smiled at her, as one who brings good tidings.

A certain familiar hold on life and nature, so old that it was almost new, which she had forgotten, but which her former self used to feel, came back suddenly upon her like a lost friend from over seas. Scales seemed to fall from her eyes. The light was too much for her. She had forgotten how beautiful the world was. Everything was possible.

Some in the night of their desolation can take comfort when they see the morning star shuddering white in the east, and can say “Courage, the day is at hand.”

But others never realise that their night is over till the sun is up. Rachel had sat in a long stupor. The message writ large for her comfort in the stars that the night was surely waning had not reached her, bowed as she thought beneath God’s hand. And the sure return of the sun at last came upon her like a miracle.

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