Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XXIX

So fast does a little leaven spread within us — so incalculable is the effect of one personality on another.

— GEORGE ELIOT.

HUGH was not ill after what Mr. Gresley called “his immersion,” but for some days he remained feeble and exhausted. Sybell quite forgot she had not liked him, insisted on his staying on indefinitely at Wilderleigh, and, undaunted by her distressing experience with Mr. Tristram, read poetry to Hugh in the afternoons and surrounded him with genuine warm-hearted care. Doll was steadily, quietly kind.

It was during these days that Hugh and Rachel saw much of each other, during these days that Rachel passed in spite of herself beyond the anxious impersonal interest which Hugh had awakened in her, on to that slippery much trodden ground of uncomfortable possibilities where the unmarried meet.

Hugh attracted and repelled her.

It was, alas! easy to say why she was repelled. But who shall say why she was attracted? Has the secret law ever been discovered which draws one man and woman together amid the crowd? Hugh was not among the best men who had wished to marry her, but nevertheless he was the only man since Mr. Tristram who had succeeded in making her think continually of him. And perhaps she half knew that though she had been loved by better men, Hugh loved her better than they had.

Which would prove the stronger, the attraction or the repulsion?

"How can I?" she said to herself over and over again. “When I remember Lady Newhaven, how can I? When I think of what his conduct was for a whole year, how can I? Can he have any sense of honour to have acted like that? Is he even really sorry? He is very charming, very refined, and he loves me. He looks good, but what do I know of him except evil. He looks as if he could be faithful, but how can I trust him?”

Hugh fell into a deep dejection after his narrow escape. Dr. Brown said it was nervous prostration, and Doll rode into Southminster and returned laden with comic papers. Who shall say whether the cause was physical or mental. Hugh had seen death very near for the first time, and the thought of death haunted him. He had not realised when he drew lots that he was risking the possibility of anything like that, such an entire going away, such an awful rending of his being as the short word death now conveyed to him. He had had no idea it would be like that. And he had got to do it again. There was the crux. He had got to do it again.

He leant back faint and shuddering in the deck chair in the rose garden where he was lying.

Presently Rachel appeared, coming towards him down the narrow grass walk between two high walls of hollyhocks. She had a cup of tea in her hand.

“I have brought you this,” she said, “with a warning that you had better not come in to tea. Mr. Gresley has been sighted walking up the drive. Mrs. Loftus thought you would like to see him, but I reminded her that Dr. Brown said you were to be kept very quiet.”

Mr. Gresley had called every day since the accident in order to cheer the sufferer to whom he had been greatly attracted. Hugh had seen him once, and afterwards had never felt strong enough to repeat the process.

“Must you go back?” he asked.

“No,” she said. “Mrs. Loftus and he are great friends. I should be rather in the way.”

And she sat down by him.

“Are you feeling ill?” she said gently, noticing his careworn face.

“No,” he replied. “I was only thinking. I was thinking,” he went on after a pause, “that I would give everything I possess not to have done something which I have done.”

Rachel looked straight in front of her. The confession was coming at last. Her heart beat.

“I have done wrong,” he said slowly, “and I am suffering for it, and I shall suffer more before I’ve finished. But the worst is —”

She looked at him.

“The worst is that I can’t bear all the consequences myself. An innocent person will pay the penalty of my sin.”

Hugh’s voice faltered. He was thinking of his mother.

Rachel’s mind instantly flew to Lord Newhaven. “Then Lord Newhaven drew the short lighter,” she thought, and she coloured deeply.

There was a long silence.

“Do you think,” said Hugh, smiling faintly, “that people are ever given a second chance?”

“Always,” said Rachel. “If not here — afterwards.”

“If I were given another,” said Hugh. “If I might only be given another now in this life I should take it.”

He was thinking if only he might be let off this dreadful, self-inflicted death. She thought he meant that he repented of his sin, and would fain do better.

There was a sound of voices near at hand. Sybell and Mr. Gresley came down the grass walk towards them.

“London society,” Mr. Gresley was saying, “to live in a stuffy street away from the beauties of Nature, its birds and flowers, to spend half my days laying traps for invitations, and half my nights grinning like a fool in stifling drawing-rooms, listening to vapid talk. No, thanks! I know better than to care for London society. Hester does, I know, but then Hester does not mind making up to big people, and I do. In fact —”

“I have brought Mr. Gresley after all, in spite of Dr. Brown,” said Sybell, “because we were in the middle of such an interesting conversation on the snares of society that I knew you would like to hear it. You have had such a dull day with Doll away at his County Council.”

That night as Rachel sat in her room she went over that half-made, ruthlessly interrupted confidence.

“He does repent,” she said to herself, recalling the careworn face. “If he does, can I overlook the past? Can I help him to make a fresh start? If he had not done this one dishonourable action, I could have cared for him. Can I now?”

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