Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XXXVIII

To every coward safety, and afterwards his evil hour.

SLEEP, that fickle courtier of our hours of ease, had deserted Hugh. When the last hour of the last day was over, and the dawn which he had bound himself in honour not to see found him sitting alone in his room, where he had sat all night, horror fell upon him at what he had done. Now that its mire was upon him he saw by how foul, by how dastardly a path he had escaped.

“To every coward safety, and afterwards his evil hour.” Hugh’s evil hour had come. But was he a coward? Men not braver than he have earned the Victoria Cross, have given up their lives freely for others. Hugh had it in him to do as well as any man in hot blood, but not in cold. That was where Lord Newhaven had the advantage of him. He had been overmatched from the first. The strain without had been greater than the power of resistance within. As the light grew, Hugh tasted of that cup which God holds to no man’s lips — remorse. Would the cup of death which he had pushed aside have been more bitter?

He took up his life like a thief. Was it not stolen? He could not bear his rooms. He could not bear the crowded streets. He could not bear the parks. He wandered aimlessly from one to the other, driven out of each in turn, consumed by the smouldering flame of his self-contempt. Scorn seemed written on the faces of the passers-by. As the day waned he found himself once again for the twentieth time in the park, pacing in “the dim persistent rain,” which had been falling all day.

But he could not get away from the distant roar of the traffic. He heard it everywhere, like the Niagara which he had indeed escaped, but the sound of which would be in his ears till he died. He drew nearer and nearer to the traffic, and stood still in the rain listening to it intently. Might one of those thousand wheels be even now bringing his enemy towards him, to force him to keep his unspoken word. Hugh had not realised that his worst enemy was he who stood with him in the rain.

The forlorn London trees, black and bare, seemed to listen too, and to cling closer to their parks and grass, as if they dimly foresaw the inevitable time coming when they too should toil, and hate, and suffer, as they saw on all sides those stunted uprooted figures toil and suffer, which had once been trees like themselves. “We shall come to it,” they seemed to say, shivering in all their branches, as they peered through the iron rails at the stream of human life, much as man peers at a passing funeral.

The early night drove Hugh back to the house. He found a note from a man who had rooms above him enclosing a theatre ticket, which at the last moment he had been prevented using. He instantly clutched at the idea of escaping from himself for a few hours at least. He hastily changed his wet clothes, ate the food that had been prepared for him, and hurried out once more.

The play was “Julius Cæsar,” at Her Majesty’s. He had seen it several times, but to-night it appealed to him as it had never done before. He hardly noticed the other actors. His whole interest centred in the awful figure of Cassius, splendid in its unswerving deathless passion of a great hate and a great love. His eyes never left the ruthless figure as it stood in silence with its unflinching eyes upon its victim. Had not Lord Newhaven thus watched him, Hugh, ready to strike when the hour came.

The moment of the murder was approaching. Hugh held his breath. Cassius knelt with the rest before Cæsar. Hugh saw his hand seek the handle of his sword, saw the end of the sheath tilt upwards under his robe as the blade slipped out of it. Then came the sudden outburst of animal ferocity long held in leash, of stab on stab, the self-recovery, the cold stare at the dead figure with Cassius’ foot upon its breast.

For a moment the scene vanished. Hugh saw again the quiet study with its electric reading-lamp, the pistols over the mantelpiece, the tiger glint in Lord Newhaven’s eyes. He was like Cassius. He, too, had been ready to risk life, everything in the prosecution of his hate.

“He shall never stand looking down on my body,” said Hugh to himself, “with his cursed foot upon me.” And he realised that if he had been a worthier antagonist, that also might have been. The play dealt with men. Cassius and Lord Newhaven were men. But what was he?

The fear of death leading the love of life by the hand took with shame a lower seat. Hugh saw them at last in their proper places. If he could have died then he would have died cheerfully, gladly, as he saw Cassius die by his own hand, counting death the little thing it is. Afterwards, as he stood in the crowd near the door, where the rain was delaying the egress, he saw suddenly Lord Newhaven’s face watching him. His heart leapt. “He has come to make me keep my word,” he said to himself, the exaltation of the play still upon him. “I will not avoid him. Let him do it,” and he pressed forward towards him.

Lord Newhaven looked fixedly at him for a moment, and then disappeared.

“He will follow me and stab me in the back,” said Hugh. “I will walk home by the street where the pavement is up, and let him do it.”

He walked slowly, steadily on, looking neither to right nor left. Presently he came to a barrier across a long deserted street, with a red lamp keeping guard over it. He walked deliberately up it. He had no fear. In the middle he stopped, and fumbled in his pocket for a cigarette.

A soft step was coming up behind him.

“It will be quickly over,” he said to himself. “Wait. Don’t look round.”

He stood motionless. His silver cigarette case dropped from his hand. He looked at it for a second, forgetting to pick it up. A dirty hand suddenly pounced upon it, and a miserable ragged figure flew past him up the street. Hugh stared after it bewildered, and then looked round. The street was quite empty. He drew a long breath, and something between relief and despair took hold of him.

“Then he does not want to after all. He has not even followed me. Why was he there? He was waiting for me. What horrible revenge is he planning against me. Is he laying a second trap for me?”

The following night Hugh read in the evening papers that Lord Newhaven had been accidentally killed on the line. The revulsion of feeling was too sudden, too overwhelming. He could not bear it. He could not live through it. He flung himself on his face upon the floor, and sobbed as if his heart would break.

The cyclone of passion which had swept Hugh into its vortex spent itself and him, and flung him down at last. How long a time elapsed he never knew between the moment when he read the news of the accident and the moment when shattered, exhausted, disfigured by emotion, he raised himself to his feet. He opened the window, and the night air laid its cool mother touch upon his face and hands. The streets were silent. The house was silent. He leaned with closed eyes against the window post. Time passed by on the other side.

And after a while angels came and ministered to him. Thankfulness came softly, gently, to take his shaking hand in hers. The awful past was over. A false step, a momentary giddiness on the part of his enemy, and the hideous strangling meshes of the past had fallen from him at a touch, as if they had never wrapped him round. Lord Newhaven was gone to return no more. The past went with him. Dead men tell no tales. No one knew of the godless compact between them, and of how he, Hugh, had failed to keep to it, save they two alone. He and one other. And that other was dead, was dead.

Hope came next, shyly, silently, still pale from the embrace of her sister Despair, trimming anew her little lamp, which the labouring breath of Despair had well-nigh blown out. She held the light before Hugh, shading it with her veil, for his eyes were dazed with long gazing into darkness. She turned it faintly upon the future, and he looked where the light fell. And the light grew.

He had a future once more. He had been given that second chance for which he had so yearned. His life was his own once more: not the shamed life in death, worse than death of the last two days, but his own to take up again, to keep, to enjoy, best of all to use worthily. No horrible constraint was upon him to lay it down, or to live in torment because he still held it. He was free, free to marry Rachel whom he loved, and who loved him. He saw his life with her. Hope smiled, and turned up her light. It was too bright. Hugh hid his face in his hands.

And last of all, dwarfing Hope, came a divine constraining presence who ever stretches out strong hands to them that fall, who alone sets the stumbling feet upon the upward path. Repentance came to Hugh at last. In all this long time she had not come while he was suffering, while smouldering Remorse had darkened his soul with smoke. But in this quiet hour she came and stood beside him.

Hugh had in the past leaned heavily on extenuating circumstances. He had made many excuses for himself. But now he made none. Perhaps for the first time in his life, under the pressure of that merciful, that benign hand, he was sincere with himself. He saw his conduct — that easily condoned conduct — as it was. Love and Repentance, are not these the great teachers? Some of us so frame our lives that we never come face to face with either, or with ourselves. Hugh came to himself at last. He saw how, whether detected or not, his sin had sapped his manhood, spread like a leaven of evil through his whole life, laid its hideous touch of desecration and disillusion even on his love for Rachel. It had tarnished his mind, his belief in others, his belief in good. These ideals, these beliefs had been his possession once, his birthright. He had sold his birthright for red pottage. Until now he had scorned the red pottage. Now he saw that his sin lay deeper, even in his original scorn of his birthright, his disbelief in the Divine Spirit Who dwells with man.

Nevertheless his just punishment had been remitted. Hitherto he had looked solely at that punishment, feeling that it was too great. He had prayed many times that he might escape it. Now for the first time he prayed that he might be forgiven.

Repentance took his hands and locked them together.

“God helping me,” he said, “I will lead a new life.”

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