Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XXXVI

And Nicanor lay dead in his harness.

I MACCABEES, XV. 28.

RACHEL laid down the papers which were full of Lord Newhaven’s death.

“He has managed it well,” she said to herself. “No one could suspect that it was not an accident. He has played his losing game to the bitter end, weighing each move. None of the papers even hint that his death was not an accident. He has provided against that.”

The butler received a note from Lord Newhaven the morning after his death, mentioning the train by which he should return to Westhope that day, and ordering a carriage to meet him. A great doctor made public the fact that Lord Newhaven had consulted him the day before about the attacks of vertigo from which it appeared he had suffered of late. A similar attack seemed to have seized upon him while waiting at Clapham Junction when the down express thundered past. The few who saw him said that, as he was pacing the empty platform, he staggered suddenly as the train was sweeping up behind him, put his hand to his head, and stumbled over the edge on to the line. Death was instantaneous. Only his wife and one other woman knew that it was premeditated.

“The only thing I cannot understand about it,” said Rachel to herself, “is why a man, who from first to last could act with such caution, and with such deliberate determination, should have been two days late. The twenty-ninth of November was the last day of the five months, and he died on the afternoon of December the first. Why did he wait two days after he left Westhope? I should have thought he would have been the last man in the world to overstep the allotted time by so much as an hour. Yet nevertheless he waited two whole days. I don’t understand it.”

After an interminable interval Lord Newhaven’s luggage returned, the familiar portmanteaux and dressing-bag, and even the novel which he was reading when he left Westhope, with the mark still in it. All came back. And a coffin came back, too, and was laid before the little altar in the disused chapel.

“I will go and pray for him in the chapel as soon as the lid is fastened down,” said Lady Newhaven to Rachel, “but I dare not before. I can’t believe he is really dead. And they say somebody ought to look, just to verify. I know it is always done. Dear Rachel, would you mind?”

So Rachel, familiar with death as all are who have known poverty, or who have loved their fellows, went alone into the chapel, and stood a long time looking down upon the muffled figure, the garment of flesh which the soul had so deliberately rent and flung aside.

The face was fixed in a grave attention, as of one who sees that which he awaits. The sarcasm, the weariness, the indifference, the impatient patience, these were gone, these were indeed dead. The sharp thin face knew them no more. It looked intently, unflinchingly through its half-closed eyes into the beyond which some call death, which some call life.

“Forgive him,” said Rachel, kneeling beside the coffin. “My friend, forgive him. He has injured you, I know. And your just revenge, for you thought it just, has failed to reach him. But the time for vengeance has passed. The time for forgiveness has come. Forgive my poor Hugh, who will never forgive himself. Do you not see now, you who see so much, that it was harder for him than for you; that it would have been the easier part for him if he had been the one to draw death, to have atoned to you for his sin against you by his death, instead of feeling, as he always must, that your stroke failed, and that he has taken your life from you as well as your honour. Forgive him,” said Rachel, over and over again.

But the unheeding face looked earnestly into the future. It had done with the past.

“Ah!” said Rachel, “if I who love him can forgive him, cannot you, who only hated him, forgive him, too? For love is greater than hate.”

She covered the face and went out.

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