Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XXXIII

And he went out immediately, and it was night

IT was nearly dark when Rachel reached Westhope Abbey. A great peace seemed to pervade the long dim lines of the gardens, and to be gathered into the solemn arches of the ruins against the darkening sky. Through the low doorway a faint light of welcome peered. As she drove up she was aware of two tall figures pacing amicably together in the dusk. As she passed them she heard Lord Newhaven’s low laugh at something his companion said.

A sense of unreality seized her. It was not the world which was out of joint, which was rushing to its destruction. It must be she who was mad, stark mad to have believed these chimeras.

As she got out of the carriage a step came lightly along the gravel, and Lord Newhaven emerged into the little ring of light by the archway.

“It is very good of you to come,” he said cordially, with extended hand. “My poor wife is very unwell, and expecting you anxiously. She told me she had sent for you.”

All was unreal — the familiar rooms and passages, the flickering light of the wood fire in the drawing-room, the darkened room, into which Rachel stole softly and knelt down beside a trembling white figure, which held her with a drowning clutch.

“I will be in the drawing-room after dinner,” Lady Newhaven whispered hoarsely. “I won’t dine down. I can’t bear to see him.”

It was all unreal except the jealousy which suddenly took Rachel by the throat and nearly choked her.

“I have undertaken what is beyond my strength,” she said to herself, as she hastily dressed for dinner. “How shall I bear it when she speaks of him? How shall I go through with it?”

Presently she was dining alone with Lord Newhaven. He mentioned that it was Dick Vernon with whom he had been walking when she arrived. Dick was staying in Southminster for business combined with hunting, and had ridden over. Lord Newhaven looked furtively at Rachel as he mentioned Dick. Her indifference was evidently genuine.

“She has not grown thin and parted with what little looks she possessed on Dick’s account,” he said to himself; and the remembrance slipped across his mind of Hugh’s first word when he recovered consciousness after drowning —“Rachel.”

“I would have asked Dick to dine,” continued Lord Newhaven, when the servants had gone, “but I thought two was company and three none, and that it was not fair on you and Violet to have him on your hands, as I am obliged to go to London on business by the night express.”

He was amazed at the instantaneous effect of his words.

Rachel’s face became suddenly livid, and she sank back in her chair. He saw that it was only by a supreme effort that she prevented herself from fainting. The truth flashed into his mind.

“She knows,” he said to himself. “That imbecile, that brainless viper to whom I am tied, has actually confided in her. And she and Scarlett are in love with each other, and the suspense is wearing her out.”

He looked studiously away from her, and continued a desultory conversation, but his face darkened.

The little boys came in, and pressed themselves one on each side of their father, their eyes glued on the crystallised cherries. Rachel had recovered herself, and she watched the children and their father with a pain at her heart which was worse than the faintness.

She had been unable to believe that if Lord Newhaven had drawn the short lighter he would remain quietly here over the dreadful morrow, under the same roof as Teddy and Pauly. Oh! surely nothing horrible could happen so near them. Yet he seemed to have no intention of leaving Westhope. Then perhaps he had not drawn the short lighter after all. At the moment when suspense, momentarily lulled, was once more rising hideous, colossal, he casually mentioned that he was leaving by the night train. The reason was obvious. The shock of relief almost stunned her.

“He will do it quietly to-morrow away from home,” she said to herself, watching him with miserable eyes as he divided the cherries equally between the boys. She had dreaded going upstairs to Lady Newhaven, but anything was better than remaining in the dining-room. She rose hurriedly, and the boys raced to the door and struggled which should open it for her.

Lady Newhaven was lying on a sofa by the wood fire in the drawing-room.

Rachel went straight up to her, and said hoarsely:

“Lord Newhaven tells me he is going to London this evening by the night express.”

Lady Newhaven threw up her arms.

“Then it is he,” she said. “When he stayed on and on up to to-day I began to be afraid that it was not he, after all; and yet little things made me feel sure it was, and that he was only waiting to do it before me and the children. I have been so horribly frightened. Oh! if he might only go away, and that I might never, never look upon his face again.”

Rachel sat down by the latticed window and looked out into the darkness. She could not bear to look at Lady Newhaven. Was there any help anywhere from this horror of death without, from this demon of jealousy within?

“I am her only friend,” she said to herself over and over again. "I cannot bear it, and I must bear it. I cannot desert her now. She has no one to turn to but me.”

“Rachel, where are you?” said the feeble, plaintive voice.

Rachel rose and went unsteadily towards her. It was fortunate the room was lit only by the firelight.

“Sit down by me here on the sofa, and let me lean against you. You do comfort me, Rachel, though you say nothing. You are the only true friend I have in the world, the only woman who really loves me. Your cheek is quite wet, and you are actually trembling. You always feel for me. I can bear it now you are here, and he is going away.”

When the boys had been reluctantly coerced to bed, Lord Newhaven rang for his valet, told him what to pack, that he should not want him to accompany him, and then went to his sitting-room on the ground floor.

“Scarlett seems a fortunate person,” he said, pacing up and down. “That woman loves him, and if she marries him she will reform him. Is he going to escape altogether in this world and the next, if there is a next? Is there no justice anywhere? Perhaps at this moment he is thinking that he has salved his conscience by offering to fight, and that, after all, I can’t do anything to prevent his living and marrying her if he chooses. He knows well enough I shall not touch him, or sue for a divorce, for fear of the scandal. He thinks he has me there. And he is right. But he is mistaken if he thinks I can do nothing. I may as well go up to London and see for myself whether he is still on his feet to-morrow night. It is a mere formality, but I will do it. I might have guessed that she would try to smirch her own name, and the boys through her, if she had the chance. She will defeat me yet, unless I am careful. Oh! ye gods! why did I marry a fool who does not even know her own interests. If I had life over again I would marry a Becky Sharp, any she-devil incarnate, if only she had brains. One cannot circumvent a fool because one can’t foresee their line of action. But Miss West, for a miracle, is safe. She has a lock-and-key face. But she is not for Scarlett. Did Scarlett tell her himself in an access of moral spring cleaning preparatory to matrimony? No. He may have told her that he had got into trouble with some woman, but not about the drawing of lots. Whatever his faults are, he has the instincts of a gentleman, and his mouth is shut. I can trust him like myself there. But she is not for him. He may think he will marry her, but I draw the line there. Violet and I have other views for him. He can live if he wants to, and apparently he does want to, though whether he will continue to want to is another question. But he shall not have Rachel. She must marry Dick.”

A distant rumbling was heard of the carriage driving under the stable archway on its way to the front door.

Lord Newhaven picked up a novel with a mark in it, and left the room. In the passage he stopped a moment at the foot of the narrow black oak staircase to the nurseries, which had once been his own nurseries. All was very silent. He listened, hesitated, his foot on the lowest stair. The butler came round the corner to announce the carriage.

“I shall be back in four days at furthest,” Lord Newhaven said to him, and turning, went on quickly to the hall, where the piercing night air came in with the stamping of the impatient horses’ hoofs.

A minute later the two listening women upstairs heard the carriage drive away into the darkness, and a great silence settled down upon the house.

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