Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XXVIII

The less wit a man has, the less he knows that he wants it.

HESTER always took charge of the three elder children and Fraülein of the baby during the six o’clock service, so that the nurse might go to church. On this particular Sunday afternoon Hester and the children were waiting in the little hall till the bell stopped, before which moment they were forbidden to leave the house. Mr. and Mrs. Gresley had just started for the church, Mr. Gresley looking worn and harassed, for since luncheon he had received what he called “a perfectly unaccountable letter” from one of his principal parishioners, a Dissenter, who had been present at the morning service, and who Mr. Gresley had confidently hoped might have been struck by the sermon. This hope had been justified, but not in the manner Mr. Gresley had expected. Mr. Walsh opined in a large round hand that as worms (twice underdashed) did not usually pay voluntary church and school rates he no longer felt himself under an obligation to do so, &c. &c. The letter was a great, an unexpected blow. Who could have foreseen such a result of the morning’s eloquence.

“The truth is,” said Mr. Gresley tremulously, “that they can’t and won’t hear reason. They can’t controvert what I say, so they take refuge in petty spite like this. I must own I am disappointed in Walsh. He is a man of some education, and liberal as regards money. I had thought he was better than most of them, and now he turns on me like this.”

“It’s a way worms have,” said Hester.

“Oh, don’t run a simile to death, Hester,” said Mr. Gresley impatiently. “If you had listened to what I tried to say this morning, you would have seen I only used the word worm figuratively. I never meant it literally, as any one could see who was not determined to misunderstand me. Worms pay school rates! Such folly is positively sickening if it were not malicious.”

Hester had remained silent. She had been deeply vexed for her brother at the incident.

As the church bell stopped the swing door opened and Boulou hurried in like a great personage, conscious that others have waited, and bearing with him an aroma of Irish stew and onions, which showed that he had been exchanging affabilities with the cook. For the truth must be owned. No spinster over forty could look unmoved on Boulou. Alas! for the Vicarage cook, who “had kept herself to herself” for nearly fifty years, only to fall the victim of a “grande passion” for Boulou.

The little Lovelace bounded in, and the expedition started. It was Regie’s turn to choose where they should go, and he decided on the “shrubbery,” a little wood through which ran the private path to Wilderleigh. Doll Loftus had given the Gresleys leave to take the children there.

“Oh, Regie, we always go there,” said Mary plaintively, who invariably chose the Pratts’ park, with its rustic bridges and châlets, which Mr. Pratt in a gracious moment had “thrown open” to, the Gresleys on Sundays, because, as he expressed it, “they must feel so cramped in their little garden.”

But Regie adhered to his determination, and to the “shrubberies” they went. Hester was too tired to play with them, too tired even to tell them a story; so she sat under a tree while they circled in the coppice near at hand.

As we grow older we realise that in the new gardens where life leads us we never learn the shrubs and trees by heart as we did as children in our old garden of Eden, round the little gabled house where we were born. We were so thorough as children. We knew the underneath of every laurel bush, the shape of its bunches of darkling branches, the green dust that our small restless bodies rubbed off from its under twigs. We see now as strangers those little hanging horsetails of pink which sad-faced elders call ribes, but once long ago when the world was young we knew them eye to eye, and the compact little black insects on them, and the quaint taste of them, and the clean clean smell of them. Everything had a taste in those days and was submitted to that test, just as until it had been licked the real colour of any object of interest was not ascertained. There was a certain scarlet berry, very red without and very white within, which we were warned was deadly poison. How well, after a quarter of a century, we remember the bitter taste of it, how much better than many other forbidden fruits duly essayed in later years. We ate those scarlet berries and lived though warned to the contrary.

Presently Boulou, who could do nothing simply, found a dead mouse, where any one else could have found it, in the middle of the path, and made it an occasion for a theatrical display of growlings and shakings. The children decided to bury it, and after a becoming silence their voices could be heard singing “Home, Sweet Home” as the body was being lowered into the grave previously dug by Boulou, who had to be forcibly restrained from going on digging it after the obsequies were over.

“He never knows when to stop,” said Regie, wearily, as Boulou, with a little plaister of earth on his nose, was carried coughing back to Hester.

As she took him Rachel and Sybell came slowly down the path towards them, and the latter greeted Hester with an effusion which suggested that when two is not company three may be.

“A most vexing thing has happened,” said Sybell in a gratified tone, sitting down under Hester’s tree. "I really don’t think I am to blame. You know Mr. Tristram, the charming artist who has been staying with us?”

“I know him,” said Hester.

“Well, he was set on making a sketch of me for one of his large pictures, and it was to have been finished to-day. I don’t see any harm myself in drawing on Sunday. I know the Gresleys do, and I love the Gresleys, he has such a powerful mind; but one must think for oneself, and it was only the upper lip, so I consented to sit to him at four o’clock. I noticed he seemed a little — well rather —”

“Just so,” said Hester.

“The last few days. But, of course, I took no notice of it. A married woman often has to deal with such things without making a fuss about them. Well, I overslept myself, and it was nearly half-past four before I awoke. And when I went into my sitting-room a servant brought me a note. It was from him, saying he had been obliged to leave Wilderleigh suddenly on urgent business, and asking that his baggage might be sent after him.”

Hester raised her eyes slightly as if words failed her. Sybell’s conversation always interested her.

“Perhaps the reason she is never told anything,” she said to herself, “is because the ground the confidence would cover is invariably built over already by a fiction of her own which it would not please her to see destroyed.”

“Who would have thought,” continued Sybell, “that he would have behaved in that way because I was one little half-hour late. And of course the pretext of urgent business is too transparent, because there is no Sunday post, and the telegraph boy had not been up. I asked that. And he was so anxious to finish the sketch. He almost asked to stay over Sunday on purpose.”

Rachel and Hester looked on the ground.

“Rachel said he was all right in the garden just before, didn’t you, Rachel?”

“I said I thought he was a little nervous.”

“And what did he talk to you about?”

“He spoke about the low tone of the morals of the day, and about marriage.”

“Ah! I don’t wonder he talked to you, Rachel, you are so sympathetic. I expect lots of people confide in you about their troubles and love affairs. Morals of the day! Marriage! Poor, poor Mr. Tristram! I shall tell Doll quietly this evening. On the whole, it is just as well he is gone.”

“Just as well,” said Rachel and Hester with surprising unanimity.

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