Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter III

Is it well with thee? Is it well with thy husband?

WHEN Lady Newhaven slipped out of the supper-room after her husband and Hugh, and lingered at the door of the study, she did not follow them with the deliberate intention of eavesdropping, but from a vague impulse of suspicious anxiety. Yet she crouched in her white satin gown against the door listening intently.

Neither man moved within. Only one spoke. There was no other sound to deaden her husband’s distinct low voice. The silence that followed his last word “Will you draw?” was broken by his laugh, and she had barely time to throw herself back from the door into a dark recess under the staircase before Hugh came out. He almost touched her as he passed. He must have seen her if he had been capable of seeing anything, but he went straight on unheeding. And as she stole a few steps to gaze after him, she saw him cross the hall and go out into the night without his hat and coat, the amazed servants staring after him.

She drew back to go upstairs, and met her husband coming slowly out of the study. He looked steadily at her, as she clung trembling to the banisters. There was no alteration in his glance, and she suddenly perceived that what he knew now he had always known. She put her hand to her head.

“You look tired,” he said, in the level voice to which she was accustomed. “You had better go to bed.”

She stumbled swiftly upstairs, catching at the banisters, and went into her own room.

Her maid was waiting for her by the dressing-table with its shaded electric lights. And she remembered that she had given a party, and that she had on her diamonds.

It would take a long time to unfasten them. She pulled at the diamond sun on her breast with a shaking hand. Her husband had given it to her when her eldest son was born. Her maid took the tiara gently out of her hair, and cut the threads that sewed the diamonds on her breast and shoulders. Would it never end? The lace of her gown cautiously withdrawn through its hundred eyelet-holes knotted itself.

“Cut it,” she said impatiently. “Cut it.”

At last she was in her dressing-gown and alone. She flung herself face downwards on the sofa. Her attitude had the touch of artificiality which was natural to her.

The deluge had arrived, and unconsciously she met it as she would have made a heroine meet it had she been a novelist, in a white dressing-gown and pink ribbons in a stereotyped attitude of despair on a divan.

Conscience is supposed to make cowards of us all, but it is a matter of common experience that the unimaginative are made cowards of only by being found out.

Had David qualms of conscience when Uriah fell before the besieged city? Surely if he had he would have winced at the obvious parallel of the prophet’s story about the ewe lamb. But apparently he remained serenely obtuse till the indignant author’s “Thou art the man” unexpectedly nailed him to the cross of his sin.

And so it was with Lady Newhaven. She had gone through the twenty-seven years of her life believing herself to be a religious and virtuous person. She was so accustomed to the idea that it had become a habit, and now the whole of her self-respect was in one wrench torn from her. The events of the last year had not worn it down to its last shred, had not even worn the nap off. It was dragged from her intact, and the shock left her faint and shuddering.

The thought that her husband knew, and had thought fit to conceal his knowledge, had never entered her mind, any more than the probability that she had been seen by some of the servants kneeling listening at a keyhole. The mistake which all unobservant people make is to assume that others are as unobservant as themselves.

By what frightful accident, she asked herself, had this catastrophe come about. She thought of all the obvious incidents which would have revealed the secret to herself; the dropped letter, the altered countenance, the badly arranged lie. No. She was convinced her secret had been guarded with minute, with scrupulous care. The only thing she had forgotten in her calculations was her husband’s character, if, indeed, she could be said to have forgotten that which she had never known.

Lord Newhaven was in his wife’s eyes a very quiet man of few words. That his few words did not represent the whole of him had never occurred to her. She had often told her friends that he walked through life with his eyes shut. He had a trick of half shutting his eyes which confirmed her in this opinion. When she came across persons who were, after a time, discovered to have affections and interests of which they had not spoken she described them as “cunning.” She had never thought Edward “cunning” till to-night. How had he of all men discovered this — this. — She had no words ready to call her conduct by, though words would not have failed her had she been denouncing the same conduct in another wife and mother.

Gradually “the whole horror of her situation,” to borrow from her own vocabulary, forced itself upon her mind like damp through a gay wall-paper. What did it matter how the discovery had been made! It was made, and she was ruined. She repeated the words between little gasps for breath. Ruined! Her reputation lost! Hers — Violet Newhaven’s. It was a sheer impossibility that such a thing could have happened to a woman like her. It was some vile slander which Edward must see to. He was good at that sort of thing. But no, Edward would not help her. She had committed —. She flung out her hands panic-stricken, as if to ward off a blow. The deed had brought with it no shame, but the word — the word wounded her like a sword.

Her feeble mind, momentarily stunned, pursued its groping way.

He would divorce her. It would be in the papers. But no. What was that he had said to Hugh —“No names to be mentioned; all scandal avoided.”

She shivered and drew in her breath. It was to be settled some other way. Her mind became an entire blank. Another way! What way? She remembered now, and an inarticulate cry broke from her. They had drawn lots.

Which had drawn the short lighter?

Her husband had laughed. But then he laughed at everything. He was never really serious, always shallow and heartless. He would have laughed if he had drawn it himself. Perhaps he had. Yes, he certainly had drawn it. But Hugh? She saw again the white set face as he passed her. No, it must be Hugh who had drawn it — Hugh whom she loved. She wrung her hands and moaned, half-aloud:

“Which? Which?”

There was a slight movement in the next room, the door was opened, and Lord Newhaven appeared in the doorway. He was still in evening dress.

“Did you call?” he said quietly. “Are you ill?” He came and stood beside her.

“No,” she said hoarsely, and she sat up and gazed fixedly at him. Despair and suspense were in her eyes. There was no change in his, and she remembered that she had never seen him angry. Perhaps she had not known when he was angry.

He was turning away, but she stopped him.

“Wait,” she said, and he returned, his cold attentive eye upon her. There was no contempt, no indignation in his bearing. If those feelings had shaken him it must have been some time ago. If they had been met and vanquished in secret that also must have been some time ago. He took up an "Imitation of Christ,” bound in the peculiar shade of lilac which at that moment prevailed, and turned it in his hand.

“You are overwrought,” he said, after a moment’s pause, “and I particularly dislike a scene.”

She did not heed him.

“I listened at the door,” she said in a harsh, unnatural voice.

“I am perfectly aware of it.”

A sort of horror seemed to have enveloped the familiar room. The very furniture looked like well-known words arranged suddenly in some new and dreadful meaning.

“You never loved me,” she said.

He did not answer, but he looked gravely at her for a moment, and she was ashamed.

“Why don’t you divorce me if you think me so wicked?”

“For the sake of the children,” he said, with a slight change of voice.

Teddy, the eldest, had been born in this room. Did either remember that grey morning six years ago?

There was a silence that might be felt.

“Who drew the short lighter?” she whispered, before she knew that she had spoken.

“I am not here to answer questions,” he replied. “And I have asked none. Neither, you will observe, have I blamed you. But I desire that you will never again allude to this subject, and that you will keep in mind that I do not intend to discuss it with you.”

He laid down the “Imitation,” and moved towards his own room.

With a sudden movement she flung herself upon her knees before him and caught his arm. The attitude suggested an amateur.

“Which drew the short lighter?” she gasped, her small upturned face white and convulsed.

“You will know in five months’ time,” he said. Then he extricated himself from her trembling clasp and left the room, closing the door quietly behind him.

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