Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XXXI

The Bird of Time has but a little way

To flutter — and the Bird is on the wing.

OMAR KHAYYÁM.

IT was the third week of November. Winter, the destroyer, was late, but he had come at last. There was death in the air. A whisper of death stole across the empty fields and bare hill-side. The birds heard it and were silent. The November wind was hurrying round Westhope Abbey, shaking its bare trees.

Lord Newhaven stood looking fixedly out eastward across the level land to the low hills beyond. He stood so long that the day died, and twilight began to rub out first the hills and then the long white lines of flooded meadow and blurred pollard willows. Presently the river mist rose up to meet the coming darkness. In the east, low and lurid, a tawny moon crept up the livid sky. She made no moonlight on the grey earth.

Lord Newhaven moved away from the window, where he had become a shadow among the shadows, and sat down in the dark at his writing-table.

Presently he turned on the electric lamp at his elbow and took a letter out of his pocket. The circle of shaded light fell on his face as he read — the thin grave face, with the steady, inscrutable eyes.

He read the letter slowly, evidently not for the first time.

“If I had not been taken by surprise at the moment I should not have consented to the manner in which our differences were settled. Personally, I consider the old arrangement to which you regretfully alluded at the time”—(“pistols for two and coffee for four,” I remember perfectly)—“as preferable, and as you appeared to think so yourself, would it not be advisable to resort to it? Believing that the old arrangement will meet your wishes as fully as it does mine, I trust that you will entertain this suggestion, and that you will agree to a meeting with your own choice of weapons on any pretext you may choose to name within the next week.”

The letter ended there. It was unsigned.

“The time is certainly becoming short,” said Lord Newhaven. “He is right in saying there is only a week left. If it were not for the scandal for the boys, and if I thought he would really hold to the compact, I would meet him, but he won’t. He flinched when be drew lots. He won’t. He has courage enough to stand up in front of me for two minutes, and take his chance, but not to blow his own brains out. No. And if he knew what is in store for him if he does not, he would not have courage to face that either. Nor should I, if I were in his shoes, poor devil. The first six foot of earth would be good enough for me.”

He threw the letter with its envelope into the fire and watched it burn.

Then he took up the gold pen which his wife had given him, examined the nib, dipped it very slowly in the ink, and wrote with sudden swiftness.

“Allow me to remind you that you made no objection at the time to the manner of our encounter and my choice of weapons, by means of which publicity was avoided. The risk was equal. You now, at the last moment, propose that I should run it a second time, and in a manner to cause instant scandal. I must decline to do so, or to reopen the subject, which had received my careful consideration before I decided upon it. I have burnt your letter, and desire you will burn mine.”

“Poor devil!” said Lord Newhaven, putting the letter, not in the post-box at his elbow, but in his pocket. “Loftus and I did him an ill turn when we pulled him out of the water.”

The letter took its own time, for it had to avoid possible pitfalls. It shunned the company of the other Westhope letters, it avoided the village post-office, but after a day’s delay it was launched, and lay among a hundred others in a station pillar-box. And then it hurried, hurried, as fast as express train could take it, till it reached its London address, and, went softly upstairs, and laid itself with a few others on Hugh’s breakfast table.

For many weeks since his visit at Wilderleigh, Hugh had been like a man in a boat without oars, drifting slowly, imperceptibly on the placid current of a mighty river, who far away hears the fall of Niagara droning like a bumble bee in a lily cup.

Long ago, in the summer, he had recognised the sound, had realised the steep agony towards which the current was bearing him, and had struggled horribly, impotently, against the inevitable. But of late, though the sound was ever in his ears, welling up out of the blue distance, he had given up the useless struggle, and lay still in the sunshine watching the summer woods slide past, and the clouds sail away, always away and away, to the birthplace of the river, to that little fluttering pulse in the heart of the hills which a woman’s hand might cover, the infant pulse of the great river to be.

Hugh’s thoughts went back like the clouds towards that tiny spring of passion in his own life. He felt that he could have forgiven it — and himself — if he had been swept into the vortex of a headlong mountain torrent leaping down its own wild water-way, carrying all before it. Other men he had seen who had been wrested off their feet, swept out of their own keeping by such a torrent on the steep hillside of their youth. But it had not been so with him. He had walked more cautiously than they. As he walked he had stopped to look at the little thread of water which came bubbling up out of its white pebbles. It was so pretty, it was so feeble, it was so clear. Involuntarily he followed it, watched it grow, amused himself half contemptuously with it, helped its course by turning obstacles from its path. It never rushed. It never leaped. It was a toy. The day came when it spread itself safe and shallow on level land and he embarked upon it. But he was quickly tired of it. It was beginning to run muddily through a commonplace country, past squalid polluting towns and villages. The hills were long since gone. He turned to row to the shore. And behold his oars were gone! He had been trapped to his destruction.

Hugh had never regarded seriously his intrigue with Lady Newhaven. He had been attracted, excited, partially, half-willingly enslaved. He had thought at the time that he loved her, and that supposition had confirmed him in his cheap cynicism about woman. This, then, was her paltry little court, where man offered mock homage, and where she played at being queen. Hugh had made the discovery that love was a much overrated passion. He had always supposed so, but when he tired of Lady Newhaven he was sure of it. His experience was, after all, only the same as that which many men acquire by marriage, and hold unshaken through long and useful lives. But Hugh had not been able to keep the treasures of this early experience. It had been rendered worthless, perhaps rather contemptible by a later one, that of falling in love with Rachel, and the astonishing discovery that he was in love for the first time. He had sold his birthright for a mess of red pottage, as surely as any man or woman who marries for money or liking. He had not believed in his birthright, and holding it to be worthless, had given it to the first person who had offered him anything in exchange.

His whole soul had gradually hardened itself against Lady Newhaven. If he had loved her, he said to himself, he could have borne his fate. But the play had not been worth the candle. His position was damnable, but that he could have borne — at least so he thought if he had had his day. But he had not had it. That thought rankled. To be hounded out of life because he had mistaken paper-money for real was not only unfair, it was grotesque.

Gradually, however, Hugh forgot his smouldering hate of Lady Newhaven, his sense of injustice and anger against fate, he forgot everything in his love for Rachel. It became the only reality of his life.

He had remained in London throughout October and November, cancelling all his engagements because she was there. What her work was he vaguely apprehended: that she was spending herself and part of her colossal fortune in the East End, but he took no interest in it. He was incapable of taking more interests into his life at this time. He passed many quiet evenings with her in the house in Park Lane which she had lately bought. The little secretary who lived with her had always a faint smile and more writing to do than usual on the evenings when he dined with them.

A great peace was over all their intercourse. Perhaps it was the hush before the storm, the shadow of which was falling, falling, with each succeeding day across the minds of both. Once only a sudden gust of emotion stirred the quiet air, but it dropped again immediately. It came with the hour when Hugh confessed to her the blot upon his past. The past was taking upon itself ever an uglier and more repulsive aspect as he saw more of Rachel. It was hard to put into words, but he spoke of it. The spectre of love rose like a ghost between them as they looked earnestly at each other, each pale even in the ruddy firelight.

Hugh was truthful in intention. He was determined he would never lie to Rachel. He implied an intrigue with a married woman, a deviation not only from morality but from honour. More he did not say. But as he looked at her strained face it seemed to him that she expected something more. A dreadful silence fell between them when he had finished. Had she then no word for him. Her eyes, mute, imploring, dark with an agony of suspense, met his for a second and fell instantly. She did not speak. Her silence filled him with despair. He got up. “It’s getting late. I must go,” he stammered.

She rose mechanically and put out her hand.

“May I come again?” he said, holding it more tightly than he knew and looking intently at her. Was he going to be dismissed?

The pain he caused her hand recalled her to herself. A look of bewilderment crossed her face, and then she realised his suspense and said gravely, “You may come again.”

He kissed the hand he held, and as he did so he knew for the first time that she loved him. But he could not speak of love after what he had just told her. He looked back when he reached the door and saw her standing where he had left her. She had raised the hand he had kissed to her lips.

That was three days ago. Since then he had not dared to go and see her. He could not ask her to marry him when he was within a few days of the time when he was bound in so-called honour to give Lord Newhaven satisfaction. He certainly could not be in her presence again without asking her. The shadows of the last weeks had suddenly become ghastly realities once more. The roar of Niagara drowned all other sounds. What was he going to do? What was he going to do in the predicament towards which he had been drifting so long, which was now actually upon him? Who shall say what horror, what agony of mind, what frenzied searching for a way of escape, what anguish of baffled love crowded in on Hugh’s mind during those last days? At the last moment he caught at a straw, and wrote to Lord Newhaven offering to fight him. He did not ask himself what he should do if Lord Newhaven refused. But when Lord Newhaven did refuse, his determination, long unconsciously fostered, sprang full-grown into existence in a sudden access of passionate anger and blind rage.

“He won’t fight, won’t he! He thinks I will die like a rat in a trap with all my life before me. I will not. I offered him a fair chance of revenging himself — I would have fired into the air — and if he won’t take it it is his own look out, damn him. He can shoot me at sight if he likes. Let him.”

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