Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter IV

For the sin ye do by two and two ye must pay for one by one!

RUDYARD KIPLING.

WHEN Hugh awoke the morning after Lady Newhaven’s party the day was already far advanced. A hot day had succeeded to a hot night. For a few seconds he lay like one emerging from the influence of morphia, who feels his racked body still painlessly afloat on a sea of rest, but is conscious that it is drifting back to the bitter shores of pain, and who stirs neither hand nor foot for fear of hastening the touch of the encircling aching sands on which he is so soon to be cast in agony once more.

His mind cleared a little. Rachel’s grave face stood out against a dark background — a background darker surely than that of the summer night. He remembered with self-contempt the extravagant emotion which she had aroused in him.

“Absurd,” Hugh said to himself, with the distrust of all sudden springs of pure emotion which those who have misused them rarely escape. And then another remembrance, which only a sleeping draught had kept at bay, darted upon him like a panther on its prey.

He had drawn the short lighter.

He started violently, and then fell back trembling.

“Oh, my God!” he said involuntarily.

He lay still, telling himself that this dreadful nightmare would pass, would fade in the light of common day.

His servant came in noiselessly with a cup of coffee and a little sheaf of letters.

He pretended to be asleep; but when the man had gone he put out his shaking hand for the coffee and drank it.

The mist before his mind gradually lifted. Gradually, too, the horror on his face whitened to despair, as a twilight meadow whitens beneath the evening frost. He had drawn the short lighter. Nothing in heaven or earth could alter that fact.

He did not stop to wonder how Lord Newhaven had become aware of his own dishonour, or at the strange weapon with which he had avenged himself. He went over every detail of his encounter with him in the study. His hand had been forced. He had been thrust into a vile position. He ought to have refused to draw. He did not agree to draw. Nevertheless he had drawn. And Hugh knew that if it had to be done again, he should again have been compelled to draw by the iron will before which his was as straw. He could not have met the scorn of those terrible half-closed eyes if he had refused.

“There was no help for it,” said Hugh, half aloud. And yet to die by his own hand within five months! It was incredible. It was preposterous.

“I never agreed to it,” he said, passionately.

Nevertheless he had drawn. The remembrance ever returned to lay its cold hand upon his heart, and with it came the grim conviction that if Lord Newhaven had drawn the short lighter he would have carried out the agreement to the letter. Whether it was extravagant, unchristian, whatever might have been truly said of that unholy compact, Lord Newhaven would have stood by it.

“I suppose I must stand by it, too,” said Hugh to himself, the cold sweat breaking on his forehead. “I suppose I am bound in honour to stand by it, too.”

He suffered his mind to regard the alternative.

To wrong a man as deeply as he had wronged Lord Newhaven; to tacitly accept. — That was where his mistake had been. Another man, that mahogany-faced fellow with the colonial accent, would have refused to draw, and would have knocked Lord Newhaven down and half killed him, or would have been knocked down and half killed by him. But to tacitly accept a means by which the injured man risked his life to avenge his honour, and then afterwards to shirk the fate which a perfectly even chance had thrown upon him instead of on his antagonist! It was too mean, too despicable. Hugh’s pale cheek burned.

“I am bound,” he said slowly to himself over and over again. There was no way of escape.

Yesterday evening, with some intuition of coming peril, he had said “I will get out.” The way of retreat had been open behind him. Now by one slight movement he was cut off from it for ever.

“I can’t get out,” said the starling, the feathers on its breast worn away with beating against the bars.

“I can’t get out,” said Hugh, coming for the first time in contact with the bars which he was to know so well, the bars of the prison that he had made with his own hands.

He looked into the future with blank eyes. He had no future now. He stared vacantly in front of him like a man who looks through his window at the wide expanse of meadow and waving wood and distant hill which has met his eye every morning of his life, and finds it — gone. It was incredible. He turned giddy. His reeling mind, shrinking back from the abyss, struck against a fixed point, and clutching it came violently to a standstill.

His mother!

His mother was a widow and he was her only son. If he died by his own hand it would break her heart. Hugh groaned and thrust the thought from him. It was too sharp. He could not stifle it.

His sin, not worse than that of many another man, had found him out. He had done wrong. He admitted it, but this monstrous judgment on him was out of all proportion to his offence. And like some malignant infectious disease retribution would fall, not on him alone, but on those nearest him, on his innocent mother and sister. It was unjust, unjust, unjust.

A very bitter look came into his face. Hugh had never so far hated any one, but now something very like hatred welled up in his heart against Lady Newhaven. She had lured him to his destruction. She had tempted him. This was undoubtedly true, though not probably the view which her guardian angel would take of the matter.

Among the letters which the servant had brought him he suddenly recognised that the topmost was in Lady Newhaven’s handwriting. Anger and repulsion seized him. No doubt it was the first of a series. “Why was he so altered? What had she done to offend him?” &c. &c. He knew the contents beforehand, or thought he knew them. He got up deliberately, threw the unopened note into the empty fireplace, and put a match to it. He watched it burn.

It was his first overt act of rebellion against her yoke, the first step along the nearest of the many well-worn paths that a man takes at random to leave a woman. It did not occur to him that Lady Newhaven might have written to him about his encounter with her husband. He knew Lord Newhaven well enough to be absolutely certain that he would mention the subject to no living creature, least of all to his wife.

“Neither will I,” he said to himself; “and as for her, I will break with her from this day forward.”

The little pink notes with the dashing twirly handwriting persisted for at week or two and then ceased.

Hugh was a man of many social engagements. His first impulse, when later in the day he remembered them, was to throw them all up and leave London. But Lord Newhaven would hear of his departure, and would smile. He decided to remain and to go on as if nothing had happened. When the evening came he dressed with his usual care, verified the hour of his engagement, and went out to dine with the Loftuses.

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