Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XXXII

            On ne peut jamais dire.

Fontaine je ne boirai jamais de ton eau.

IF we could choose our ills we should not choose suspense. Rachel aged perceptibly during these last weeks. Her strong white hands became thinner, her lustreless eyes and haggard face betrayed her. In years gone by she had said to herself, when a human love had failed her, “I will never put myself through this torture a second time. Whatever happens I will not endure it again.”

And now she was enduring it again, though in a different form. There is an element of mother love in the devotion which some women give to men. In the first instance it had opened the door of Rachel’s heart to Hugh, and had gradually merged with other feelings and deepened into the painful love of a woman not in her first youth for a man of whom she is not sure.

Rachel was not sure of Hugh. Of his love for her she was sure, but not of the man himself, the gentle, refined, lovable nature that mutely worshipped and clung to her. She could not repulse him any more than she could repulse a child. But through all her knowledge of him, the knowledge of love — the only true knowledge of our fellow creatures — a thread of doubtful anxiety was interwoven. She could form some idea how men like Dick, Lord Newhaven, or the Bishop would act in given circumstances, but she could form no definite idea how Hugh would act in the same circumstances. Yet she knew Hugh a thousand times better than any of the others. Why was this? Many women before Rachel have sought diligently to find, and have shut their eyes diligently, lest they should discover what it is that is dark to them in the character of the man they love.

Perhaps Rachel half knew all the time the subtle inequality in Hugh’s character. Perhaps she loved him all the better for it. Perhaps she knew that if he had been without a certain undefinable weakness he would not have been drawn towards her strength. She was stronger than he, and perhaps she loved him more than she could have loved an equal.

Les esprits faibles ne sont jamais sincères.” She had come across that sentence one day in a book she was reading, and had turned suddenly blind and cold with anger. “He is sincere,” she said fiercely, as if repelling an accusation. “He would never deceive me.” But no one had accused Hugh.

The same evening he made the confession for which she had waited so long. As he began to speak an intolerable suspense, like a new and acute form of a familiar disease, lay hold on her. Was he going to live or die? She should know at last. Was she to part with him, to bury love for the second time, or was she to keep him, to be his wife, the mother of his children?

As he went on, his language becoming more confused, she hardly listened to him. She had known all that too long. She had forgiven it, not without tears; but still, she had forgiven it long ago. Then he stopped. It seemed to Rachel as if she had reached a moment in life which she could not bear. She waited, but still he did not speak. Then she was not to know. She was to be ground between the millstones of four more dreadful days and nights. She suddenly became aware, as she stared at Hugh’s blanching face, that he believed she was about to dismiss him. The thought had never entered her mind.

“Do you not know that I love you?” she said silently to him as he kissed her hand.

When he had left her a gleam of comfort came to her, the only gleam that lightened the days and nights that followed. It was not his fault if he had made a half confession. If he had gone on, and had told her of the drawing of lots, and which had drawn the fatal lot, he would have been wanting in sense of honour. He owed it to the man he had injured to reserve entire secrecy.

“He told me of the sin which might affect my marrying him,” said Rachel, “but the rest had nothing to do with me. He was right not to speak of it. If he had told me, and then a few days afterwards Lord Newhaven had committed suicide, he would know I should put two and two together, and who the woman was, and the secret would not have died with Lord Newhaven as it ought to do. But if Hugh were the man who had to kill himself, he might have told me so without a breach of confidence, because then I should never have guessed who the others were. If he were the man he could have told me, he certainly would have told me, for it could have done no harm to any one. Surely Lady Newhaven must be right when she was so certain that her husband had drawn the short lighter. And she herself had gained the same impression from what Hugh had vaguely said at Wilderleigh. But what are impressions, suppositions, except the food of suspense. Rachel sighed and took up her burden as best she could. Hugh’s confession had at least one source of comfort in it, deadly cold comfort if he were about to leave her. She knew that night as she lay awake that she had not quite trusted him up till now, by the sense of entire trust and faith in him which rose up to meet his self-accusation. What might have turned away Rachel’s heart from him had had the opposite effect. “He told me the worst of himself, though he risked losing me by doing it. He wished me to know before he asked me to marry him. Though he acted dishonourably once he is an honourable man. He has shown himself upright in his dealing with me.”

Hugh came back no more after that evening. Rachel told herself she knew why, she understood. He could not speak of love and marriage when the man he had injured was on the brink of death. Her heart stood still when she thought of Lord Newhaven, the gentle, kindly man who was almost her friend, and who was playing with such quiet dignity a losing game. Hugh had taken from him his wife, and by that act was now taking from him his life too.

“It was an even chance,” she groaned. “Hugh is not responsible for his death. Oh, my God! At least he is not responsible for that. It might have been he who had to die instead of Lord Newhaven. But if it is he, surely he could not leave me without a word. If it is he, he would have come bid me good-bye. He cannot go down into silence without a word. If it is he, he will come yet.”

She endured through the two remaining days, turning faint with terror each time the door-bell rang, lest it might be Hugh.

But Hugh did not come.

Then, after repeated frantic telegrams from Lady Newhaven, she left London precipitately to go to her, as she had promised, the twenty-eighth of November, the evening of the last day of the five months.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/cholmondeley/mary/red/chapter32.html

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