Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XXX

A fool’s mouth is his destruction.

THE superficial reader of these pages may possibly have forgotten, but the earnest one will undoubtedly remember that in an earlier chapter a sale of work was mentioned which was to take place in the Wilderleigh gardens at the end of August.

The end of August had now arrived, and with it two white tents, which sprang up suddenly one morning like giant mushrooms on one of Doll’s smooth-shaven lawns. He groaned in spirit as he watched their erection. They would ruin the turf.

“Might as well iron it with a hot iron,” he said disconsolately to Hugh. “But, of course, this sort of thing — Diocesan Fund, eh? In these days we must stand by our colours.” He repeated Mr. Gresley’s phrase. Doll seldom ventured on an opinion not sanctioned by the ages, or that he had not heard repeated till its novelty had been comfortably rubbed off by his wife or the Gresleys.

The two men watched the proceedings mournfully. They could not help, at least they were told they could not help the women busily engaged in draping and arranging the stalls. They were still at large, but Doll knew as well as a dog who is going to be washed, what was in store for him in the afternoon, and he was depressed beforehand.

“Don’t let yourself be run in,” he said generously to Hugh. “You’re not up to it. It takes a strong man to grapple with this sort of thing. Kills off the weakly ones like flies. You lie low in the smoking-room till it’s all over.”

“All I can say is,” remarked Mrs. Gresley, as she and Hester led the Vicarage donkey and cart up the drive, heavily laden with the work of many months, “that the Pratts have behaved exceedingly badly. Here they are, the richest people by far in the parish, and they would not even take a stall, they would not even furnish half of one, and they said they would be away, and they are at the Towers after all. No one likes the Pratts more than I do, or sees their good points as I do, but I can’t shut my eyes to the fact that they are the meanest of the mean.”

The Pratts had only contributed two “bed-spreads,” and a “sheet-sham,” and a set of antimacassars. If the reader wishes to know what “bed-spreads” and “sheet-shams” are, let him ask his intended, and let him see to it that he marries a woman who cannot tell him.

Mrs. Pratt had bought the antimacassars for the Towers, and secretly adored them until Ada pronounced them to be vulgar. The number of things which Ada discovered to be vulgar increased every day, and included the greater part of her mother’s wardrobe, much to the distress of that poor lady. Mrs. Pratt had reached the size when it is prudent to concentrate a love of bright colours in one’s parasol. On this particular afternoon she shed tears over the fact that Ada refused to accompany her if her mother wore a unique garment of orange satin covered with what appeared to be a plague of black worms.

Of course, the sale of work was combined with a garden party, and a little after three o’clock carriage after carriage began to arrive, and Sybell, with a mournful, handsome, irreproachably dressed husband, took up her position on the south front to receive her guests.

The whole neighbourhood had been invited, and it can generally be gauged with tolerable accuracy by a hostess of some experience who will respond to the call and who will stay away. Sybell and her husband were among those who were not to be found at these festivities, neither were the New- havens, save at their own, nor the Pontisburys, nor the Bishop of Southminster. Cards had, of course, been sent to each, but no one expected them to appear.

Presently, among the stream of arrivals, Sybell noticed the slender figure of Lady Newhaven, and — astonishing vision — Lord Newhaven beside her.

“Wonders will never cease,” said Doll, shaken for a moment out of the apathy of endurance.

Sybell raised her eyebrows, and advanced with the prettiest air of empressement to meet her unexpected guests. No, clearly it was impossible that the two women should like each other. They were the same age, about the same height and colouring, their social position was too similar, their historic houses too near each other. Lady Newhaven was by far the best looking, but that was not a difference which attracted Sybell towards her. On this occasion Sybell’s face assumed its most squirrel-like expression, for as ill-luck would have it they were dressed alike.

Lady Newhaven looked very ethereal as she came slowly across the grass in her diaphanous gown of rich white, covered with a flowing veil of thinnest transparent black. Her blue eyes looked restlessly bright, her lips wore a mechanical smile. Rachel watching her, experienced a sudden pang at her undeniable loveliness. It wounded her suddenly as it never had done before. “I am a common-looking square-built woman compared to her,” she said to herself. “No wonder he —”

She instinctively drew back as Lady Newhaven turned quickly towards her.

“You dear person,” said Lady Newhaven, her eyes moving restlessly over the crowd, “are you still here? Let us go and buy something together. How nice you look,” without looking at her. She drew Rachel apart in the direction of the tents.

“Where is he?” she said sharply. “I know he is here. I heard all about the accident, though Edward never told me. I don’t see him.”

“He is not in the gardens. He is not coming out. He is still rather knocked up.”

“I thought I should have died when I heard it. Ah, Rachel, never love any one. You don’t know what it’s like. But I must see him. I have come here on purpose.”

“So I supposed.”

“Edward would come, too. He appeared at the last moment when the carriage came round, though I have never known him to go to a garden-party in his life. But where is he, Rachel?”

“Somewhere in the house, I suppose.”

“I shan’t know where to find him. I can’t be wandering about that woman’s house by myself. We must slip away together, Rachel, and you must take me to him. I must see him alone for five minutes.”

Rachel shook her head.

Captain Pratt, tall, pale, cautious, immaculate, his cane held along his spinal column, appeared suddenly close at hand.

“Mrs. Loftus is fortunate in her day,” he remarked, addressing himself to Lady Newhaven, and observing her fixedly with cold admiration. “I seldom come to this sort of thing, but neighbours in the country must support each other. I see you are on your way to the tents. Pray allow me to carry your purchases for you.”

“Oh! don’t let me trouble you,” said Lady Newhaven, shrinking imperceptibly. But it was no trouble to Captain Pratt, and they walked on together.

Lord Newhaven, who could not have been far off, joined Rachel.

“Well, my dear,” said Mrs. Pratt to Ada, “you might have let me wear my black and orange, after all, for you see Lady Newhaven has something very much the same, only hers is white underneath. And do you see she has got two diamond butterflies on, the little one at her throat and the big one holding her white carnations. And you would not let me put on a single thing. There now, Algy has joined her,” continued Mrs. Pratt, her attention quickly diverted from her own wrongs. “Now they are walking on together. How nice he looks in those beautiful clothes. Algy and Lord Newhaven and Mr. Loftus all have the same look, haven’t they? All friends together, as I often say, such a mercy among county people. You might walk a little with Lord Newhaven, Ada. It’s unaccountable how seldom we see him, but always so pleasant when we do. Ah! he’s speaking to Rachel West. They are going to the tents, after all. Well, whatever you may say, I do think we ought to go and buy something, too. Papa says he won’t put his hand in his pocket if the Loftuses are to get all the credit, and we ought to have had the choice of having the sale at the Towers, so he shan’t do anything; but I think it would be nice if we went and bought a little something. Just a five-pound note. You shall spend it, my dear, if you like.”

“This is sheer recklessness,” said Lord Newhaven, as Rachel bought an expensive tea-cosy from Fraülein. “In these days of death-duties you cannot possess four teapots, and you have already bought three teapot costumes.”

“That is what I am here for,” said Rachel, producing a cheque-book. “How much did you say, Fraülein?”

“Twenty-seven and seex,” said Fraülein.

“Now I see it in the full light, I have taken a fancy to it myself,” said Lord Newhaven. “I never saw anything the least like it. I don’t think I can allow you to appropriate it, Miss West. You are sweeping up all the best things.”

“I have a verr’ pretty thing for gentlemen,” said Fraülein. “Herr B-r-r-rown has just bought one.”

“Very elaborate indeed. Bible-markers, I presume? Oh! Braces! Never mind, they will be equally useful to me. I’ll have them. Now for the tea-cosy. It is under-priced. I consider that, with the chenille swallow, it is worth thirty shillings. I will give thirty for it.”

“Thirty-two and six,” said Rachel.

“The landed interest is not going to be brow-beaten by coal-mines. Thirty-three and twopence.”

“Forty shillings,” said Rachel.

“Forty-two,” said Lord Newhaven.

Every one in the tent had turned to watch the bidding.

“Forty-two and six,” said Rachel.

Fraülein blushed. She had worked the tea-cosy. It was to her a sonata in red plush.

“Three guineas,” said Captain Pratt, by an infallible instinct perceiving and placing himself within the focus of general interest.

The bidding ceased instantly. Lord Newhaven shrugged his shoulders and turned away. Fraülein, still shaking with conflicting emotions, handed the tea-cosy to Captain Pratt. He took it with an acid smile, secretly disgusted at the sudden cessation of interest, for which he had paid rather highly, and looked round for Lady Newhaven.

But she had disappeared.

“Fancy you and Algy bidding against each other like that,” said Ada Pratt archly to Lord Newhaven, for though Ada was haughty in general society she could be sportive, and even friskily ingratiating, towards those of her fellow creatures whom she termed “swells.” “Why half Middleshire will be saying that you have quarrelled next.”

“Only those who do not know how intimate Captain Pratt and I really are could think we have quarrelled,” said Lord Newhaven, his eye wandering over the crowd. “But I am blocking your way and Mrs. Pratt’s. How do you do, Mrs. Pratt. Miss West, your burden is greater than you can bear. You are dropping part of it. I don’t know what it is, but I can shut my eyes as I pick it up. I insist on carrying half back to the house. It will give a pleasing impression that I have bought largely. Weren’t you pleased at the money we wrung out of Captain Pratt? He never thought we should stop bidding. It’s about all the family will contribute, unless that good old Mama Pratt buys something. She is the only one of the family I can tolerate. Is Scarlett still here? I ought to have asked after him before.”

“He’s here, but he’s not well. He’s in hiding in the smoking-room.”

“He is lucky he is no worse. I should have had rheumatic fever if I had been in his place. How cool it is in here after the glare outside. Must you go out again? Well, I consider I have done my duty, and that I may fairly allow myself a cigarette in peace.”

“Really, Mr. Loftus, I’m quite shocked. This absurd faintness! The tent was very crowded, and there is not much air to-day, is there? I shall be all right if I may sit quietly in the hall a little. How deliciously cool in here after the glare outside. A glass of water? Thanks. Yes, only I hate to be so troublesome. And how are you after that dreadful accident in the boat?”

“Oh! I am all right,” said Doll, who by this time hated the subject. “It was Scarlett who was nearly frozen like New Zealand lamb.”

Doll had heard Mr. Gresley fire off the simile of the lamb, and considered it sound.

“How absurd you are. You always make me laugh. I suppose he has left now that he is unfrozen.”

“Oh! no. He is still here. We would not let him go till he was better. He is not up to much. Weak chap at the best of times I should think. He’s lying low in the smoking-room till the people are gone.”

“Mr. Scarlett is an old friend of ours,” said Lady Newhaven, sipping her glass of water, and spilling a little, “but I can’t quite forgive him, no, I really can’t, for the danger he caused to Edward. You know, or perhaps you don’t know, that Edward can’t swim, either. Even now I can’t bear to think what might have happened.”

She closed her eyes with evident emotion.

Doll’s stolid garden party face relaxed. “Good little woman,” he thought. “As fond of him as she can be.”

“All’s well that ends well,” he remarked aloud.

Doll did not know that he was quoting Shakespeare, but he did know by long experience that this sentence could be relied on as suitable to the occasion, or to any occasion that looked a little “doddery,” and finished up all right.

“And now, Mr. Loftus, positively I must insist on your leaving me quietly here. I am quite sure you are wanted outside, and I should blame myself if you wasted another minute on me. It was only the sun which affected me. Don’t mention it to Edward. He is always so fussy about me. I will rest quietly here for a quarter of an hour, and then rejoin you all again in the garden.”

“I hope I am not disturbing any one,” said Lord Newhaven, quietly entering the smoking-room. “Well, Scarlett, how are you getting on?”

Hugh, who was lying on a sofa with his arms raised and his hands behind his head, looked up and his expression changed.

“He was thinking of something uncommonly pleasant,” thought Lord Newhaven, “not of me or mine, I fancy. I have come to smoke a cigarette in peace,” he added aloud, “if you don’t object.”

“Of course not.”

Lord Newhaven lit his cigarette and puffed a moment in silence.

“Hot outside,” he said.

Hugh nodded. He wondered how soon he could make a pretext for getting up and leaving the room.

There was a faint silken rustle, and Lady Newhaven, pale, breathless, came swiftly in and closed the door. The instant afterwards she saw her husband and shrank back with a little cry. Lord Newhaven did not look at her. His eyes were fixed on Hugh.

Hugh’s face became suddenly ugly, livid. He rose slowly to his feet, and stood motionless.

“He hates her,” said Lord Newhaven to himself. And he removed his glance and came forward.

“You were looking for me, Violet?” he remarked. “I have no doubt you are wishing to return home. We will go at once.” He threw away his cigarette. “Well, good-bye, Scarlett, in case we don’t meet again. I daresay you will pay Westhope a visit later on. Ah, Captain Pratt! so you have fled, like us, from the madding crowd. I can recommend Loftus’s cigarettes. I have just had one myself. Good-bye. Did you leave your purchases in the hall, Violet? Yes? Then we will collect them on our way.”

The husband and wife were half-way down the grand staircase before Lord Newhaven said in his usual even voice:

“I must ask you once more to remember that I will not have any scandal attaching to your name. Did not you see that that white mongrel Pratt was on your track? If I had not been there when he came in he would have drawn his own vile conclusions, and for once they would have been correct.”

“He could not think worse of me than you do,” said the wife, half cowed, half defiant.

“No, but he could say so, which I don’t, or, what is more probable, he could use his knowledge to obtain a hold over you. He is a dangerous man. Don’t put yourself in his power.”

“I don’t want to, or in anybody’s.”

“Then avoid scandal instead of courting it, and don’t repeat the folly of this afternoon.”

Captain Pratt did not remain long in the smoking-room. He had only a slight acquaintance with Hugh, which did not appear capable of expansion. Captain Pratt made a few efforts, proved its inelastic properties, and presently lounged out again.

Hugh moved slowly to the window, and leaned his throbbing forehead against the stone mullion. He was still weak, and the encounter with Lady Newhaven had shaken him.

“What did he mean?” he said to himself, bewildered and suspicious. “‘Perhaps I should be staying at Westhope later on!’ But of course I shall never go there again. He knows that as well as I do. What did he mean?”

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