Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XXXIX

Les sots sont plus à craindre que les méchans.

MR. GRESLEY had often remarked to persons in affliction that when things are at their worst they generally take a turn for the better. This profound truth was proving itself equal to the occasion at Warpington Vicarage.

Mrs. Gresley was well again, after a fortnight at the seaside with Regie. The sea air had blown back a faint colour into Regie’s cheeks. The new baby’s vaccination was ceasing to cast a vocal gloom over the thin-walled house. The old baby’s whole attention was mercifully diverted from his wrongs to the investigation of that connection between a chair and himself, which he perceived the other children could assume at pleasure. He stood for hours looking at his own little chair, solemnly seating himself at long intervals where no chair was. But his mind was working, and work, as we know, is the panacea for mental anguish.

Mr. Gresley had recovered that buoyancy of spirits which was the theme of Mrs. Gresley’s unceasing admiration.

On this particular evening, when his wife had asked him if the beef were tender, he had replied, as he always did if in a humorous vein: “Douglas, Douglas, tender and true.” The arrival of the pot of marmalade (that integral part of the mysterious meal which begins with meat and is crowned with buns) had been hailed by the exclamation, “What! More family jars.” In short, Mr. Gresley was himself again.

The jocund Vicar, with his arm round Mrs. Gresley, proceeded to the drawing-room.

On the hall table was a large parcel insured for two hundred pounds. It had evidently just arrived by rail.

“Ah! Ha!” said Mr. Gresley, “my pamphlets at last. Very methodical of Smithers insuring them for such a large sum,” and without looking at the address he cut the string.

“Well packed,” he remarked. “Waterproof sheeting, I do declare. Smithers is certainly a cautious man. Ha! at last!”

The inmost wrapping shelled off, and Mr. Gresley’s jaw dropped. Where were the little green and gold pamphlets entitled “Modern Dissent,” for which his parental soul was yearning? He gazed down frowning at a solid mass of manuscript, written in a small, clear hand.

“This is Hester’s writing,” he said. “There is some mistake.”

He turned to the direction on the outer cover.

“Miss Hester Gresley, care of Rev. James Gresley.” He had only seen his own name.

“I do believe,” he said, “that this is Hester’s book, refused by the publisher. Poor Hester! I am afraid she will feel that.”

His turning over of the parcel dislodged an unfolded sheet of notepaper, which made a parachute expedition to the floor. Mr. Gresley picked it up, and laid it on the parcel.

“Oh! it’s not refused after all,” he said, his eye catching the sense of the few words before him. “Hester seems to have sent for it back to make some alterations, and Mr. Bentham, I suppose that is the publisher, asks for it back with as little delay as possible. Then she has sold it to him. I wonder what she got for it. She got a hundred for ‘The Idyll.’ It is wonderful to think of, when Bishop Heavysides got nothing at all for his Diocesan sermons, and had to make up thirty pounds out of his own pocket as well. But as long as the public is willing to pay through the nose for trashy fiction to amuse its idleness, so long will novelists reap in these large harvests. If I had Hester’s talent —”

“You have. Mrs. Loftus was saying so only yesterday.”

“If I had time to work it out I should not pander to the depraved public taste as Hester does. I should use my talent, as I have often told her, for the highest ends, not for the lowest. It would be my aim,” Mr. Gresley’s voice rose sonorously, “to raise my readers, to educate them, to place a high ideal before them, to ennoble them.”

“You could do it,” said Mrs. Gresley with conviction. And it is probable that the conviction both felt was a true one, that Mr. Gresley could write a book which would, from their point of view, fulfil these vast requirements.

Mr. Gresley shook his head, and put the parcel on a table in his study.

“Hester will be back the day after to-morrow,” he said, “and then she can take charge of it herself.” And he filled in the railway form of its receipt.

Mrs. Gresley, who had been to tea with the Pratts for the first time since her convalescence, was tired, and went early to bed, or, as Mr. Gresley termed it, “Bedfordshire;” and Mr. Gresley retired to his study to put a few finishing touches to a paper he was writing on St. Augustine — not by request — for that receptacle of clerical genius, the parish magazine.

Will the contents of parish magazines always be written by the clergy? Is it Utopian to hope that a day will dawn when it will be perceived even by clerical editors that Apostolic Succession does not invariably confer literary talent? What can an intelligent artisan think when he reads — what he reads — in his parish magazine. A serial story by a Rector unknown to fame, who, if he possesses talent, conceals it in some other napkin than the parish magazine; a short paper on “Bees,” by an Archdeacon; “An Easter Hymn,” by a Bishop, and such a good Bishop, too — but what a hymn! “Poultry Keeping,” by Alice Brown. We draw breath, but the relief is only momentary; “Side Lights on the Reformation,” by a Canon. “Half-hours with the Young,” by a Rural Dean.

But as an invalid will rebel against a long course of milk puddings, and will crave for the jam roll which is for others, so Mr. Gresley’s mind revolted from St. Augustine, and craved for something different.

His wandering eye fell on Hester’s book.

“I can’t attend to graver things to-night,” he said, “I will take a look at Hester’s story. I showed her my paper on ‘Dissent,’ so of course I can dip into her book. I hate lopsided confidences, and I daresay I could give her a few hints, as she did me. Two heads are better than one. The Pratts and Thursbys all think that bit in ‘The Idyll’ where the two men quarrelled was dictated by me. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t, but no doubt she picked up her knowledge of men which surprises people so much from things she has heard me say. She certainly did not want me to read her book. She said I should not like it. But I shall have to read it some time, so I may as well skim it before it goes to the printers. I have always told her I did not feel free from responsibility in the matter after ‘The Idyll’ appeared with things in it which I should have made a point of cutting out if she had only consulted me before she rushed into print.”

Mr. Gresley lifted the heavy mass of manuscript to his writing-table, turned up his reading-lamp and sat down before it.

The church clock struck nine. It was always wrong, but it set the time at Warpington.

There were two hours before bedtime — I mean “Bedfordshire.”

He turned over the first blank sheet and came to the next, which had one word only written on it.

Husks!“ said Mr. Gresley. “That must be the title. Husks that the swine did eat. Ha! I see. A very good sound story might be written on that theme of a young man who left the Church, and how inadequate he found the teaching — the spiritual food — of other denominations compared to what he had partaken freely of in his Father’s house. Husks! It is not a bad name, but it is too short. ‘The Consequences of Sin’ would be better, more striking, and convey the idea in a more impressive manner.” Mr. Gresley took up his pen, and then laid it down. “I will run through the story before I alter the name. It may not take the line I expect.”

It did not.

The next page had two words on it:

“TO RACHEL.”

What an extraordinary thing! Any one, be they who they might, would naturally have thought that if the book were dedicated to any one it would be to her only brother. But Hester, it seemed, thought nothing of blood relations. She disregarded them entirely.

The blood relation began to read. He seemed to forget to skip. Page after page was slowly turned. Sometimes he hesitated a moment to change a word. He had always been conscious of a gift for finding the right word. This gift Hester did not share with him. She often got hold of the wrong end of the stick. He could hardly refrain from a smile when he came across the sentence, “He was young enough to know better,” as he substituted in a large illegible hand the word old for young. There were many obvious little mistakes of this kind that he corrected as he read, but now and then he stopped short.

One of the characters, an odious person, was continually saying things she had no business to say. Mr. Gresley wondered how Hester had come across such doubtful women — not under his roof. Lady Susan must have associated with thoroughly unsuitable people.

“I keep a smaller spiritual establishment than I did,” said the odious person. “I have dismissed that old friend of my childhood, the devil. I really had no further use for him.”

Mr. Gresley crossed through the passage at once. How could Hester write so disrespectfully of the devil?

“This is positive nonsense,” said Mr. Gresley irritably, coming as it does just after the sensible chapter about the new vicar who made a clean sweep of all the old dead regulations in his parish because he felt he must introduce spiritual life into the place. Now that is really good. I don’t quite know what Hester means by saying he took exercise in his clerical cul-de-sac. I think she means surtout, but she is a good French scholar, so she probably knows what she is talking about.”

Whatever the book lacked it did not lack interest. Still it bristled with blemishes.

And then what could the Pratts, or indeed any one, make of such a sentence as this:

“When we look back at what we were seven years ago, five years ago, and perceive the difference in ourselves, a difference amounting almost to change of identity; when we look back and see in how many characters we have lived and loved and suffered and died before we reached the character that momentarily clothes us, and from which our soul is struggling out to clothe itself anew; when we feel how the sympathy even of those who love us best is always with our last expression, never with our present feeling, always with the last dead self on which our climbing feet are set —”

“She is hopelessly confused,” said Mr. Gresley without reading to the end of the sentence, and substituting the word ladder, for dead self. “Of course, I see what she means, the different stages of life, the infant, the boy, the man, but hardly any one else will so understand it.”

The clock struck ten. Mr. Gresley was amazed. The hour had seemed like ten minutes.

“I will just see what happens in the next chapter,” he said. And he did not bear the clock when it struck again. The story was absorbing. It was as if through that narrow shut-up chamber a gust of mountain air were sweeping like a breath of fresh life. Mr. Gresley was vaguely stirred in spite of himself, until he remembered that it was all fantastic, visionary. He had never felt like that, and his own experience was his measure of the utmost that is possible in human nature. He would have called a kettle visionary if he had never seen one himself. It was only saved from that reproach by the fact that it hung on his kitchen hob. What was so unfair about him was that he took gorillas and alligators, and the “wart pig” and all its warts on trust, though he had never seen them. But the emotions which have shaken the human soul since the world began, long before the first “wart pig,” was thought of — these he disbelieved.

All the love which could not be covered by his own mild courtship of the obviously grateful Mrs. Gresley, Mr. Gresley put down as exaggerated. There was a good deal of such exaggeration in Hester’s book, which could only be attributed to the French novels of which he had frequently expressed his disapproval when be saw Hester reading them. It, was given to Mr. Gresley to perceive that the French classics are only read for the sake of the hideous improprieties contained in them. He had explained this to Hester, and was indignant that she had continued to read them just as frequently as before, even translating parts of some of them into English, and back again into the original. She would have lowered the Bishop for ever in his Vicar’s eyes, if she had mentioned by whose advice and selection she read, so she refrained.

Suddenly as he read, Mr. Gresley’s face softened. He came to the illness and death of a child. It had been written long before Regie fell ill, but Mr. Gresley supposed it could only have been the result of what had happened a few weeks ago since the book was sent up to the publisher.

Two large tears fell on to the sheet. Hester’s had been there before them. It was all true every word. Here was no exaggeration, no fantastic over-colouring for the sake of effect.

“Ah! Hester,” he said, wiping his eyes. “If only the rest were like that. If you would only write like that.”

A few pages more, and his eyes were like flint. The admirable clergyman who had attracted him from the first reappeared. His opinions were uncommonly well put. But gradually it dawned upon Mr. Gresley that the clergyman was toiling in very uncomfortable situations, in which he did not appear to advantage. Mr. Gresley did not see that the uncomfortable situations were the inevitable result of holding certain opinions, but he did see that “Hester was running down the clergy.” Any fault found with the clergy was in Mr. Gresley’s eyes an attack upon the Church, nay, upon religion itself. That a protest against a certain class of the clergy might be the result of a close observation of the causes that bring ecclesiastical Christianity into disrepute could find no admission to Mr. Gresley’s mind. Yet a protest against the ignorance or inefficiency of some of our soldiers he would have seen without difficulty might be the outcome, not of hatred of the army, but of a realisation of its vast national importance, and of a desire of its well-being.

Mr. Gresley was outraged. “She holds nothing sacred,” he said striking the book. “I told her after the ‘Idyll,’ that I desired she would not mention the subject of religion in her next book, and this is worse than ever. She has entirely disregarded my expressed wishes. Everything she says has a sting in it. Look at this. It begins well, but it ends with a sneer.

“Christ lives. He wanders still in secret over the hills and the valleys of the soul, that little kingdom which should not be of this world, which knows not the things that belong unto its peace. And earlier or later there comes an hour when Christ is arraigned before the judgment bar in each individual soul. Once again the Church and the world combine to crush Him Who stands silent in their midst, to condemn Him who has already condemned them. Together they raise their fierce cry ‘Crucify Him. Crucify Him.’”

Mr. Gresley tore the leaf out of the manuscript, and threw it in the fire.

But worse remained behind. To add to its other sins, the book, now drawing to its close, took a turn which had been led up to inevitably step by step from the first chapter, but which, in its reader’s eyes, who perceived none of the steps, was a deliberate gratuitous intermeddling with vice. Mr. Gresley could not help reading, but as he laid down the manuscript for a moment to rest his eyes he felt that he had reached the limit of Hester’s powers, and that he could only attribute the last volume to the Evil One himself.

He had hardly paid this high tribute to his sister’s talent when the door opened, and Mrs. Gresley came in in a wrapper that had once been white.

“Dear James,” she said, “is anything wrong? It is past one o’clock. Are you never coming to bed?”

“Minna,” said her pastor and master, “I have been reading the worst book I have come across yet, and it was written by my own sister under my own roof.”

He might have added “close under the roof,” if he had remembered the little attic chamber where the cold of winter and the heat of summer had each struck in turn and in vain at the indomitable perseverance of the writer of those many pages.

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