Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XL

The only sin which we never forgive in each other is difference of opinion.

EMERSON.

MR. GRESLEY was troubled, more troubled than he had ever been since a never-to-be-forgotten period before his ordination, when he had come in contact with worldly minds, and had had doubts as to the justice of eternal punishment. He was apt to speak in after years of the furnace through which he had passed, and from which nothing short of a conversation with a bishop had had power to save him, as a great experience which he could not regret, because it had brought him into sympathy with so many minds. As he often said in his favourite language of metaphor, he “had threshed out the whole subject of agnosticism, and could consequently meet other minds still struggling in its turbid waves.”

But now again he was deeply perturbed, and it was difficult to see in what blessing to his fellow creatures this particular agitation would result. He walked with bent head for hours in the garden. He could not attend to his sermon, though it was Friday. He entirely forgot his Bible-class at the almshouses in the afternoon.

Mrs. Gresley watched him from her bedroom window, where she was mending the children’s stockings. At last she laid aside her work and went out.

She might not be his mental equal. She might be unable, with her small feminine mind, to fathom the depths and heights of that great intelligence, but still she was his wife. Perhaps, though she did not know it, it troubled her to see him so absorbed in his sister, for she was sure it was of Hester and her book that he was thinking. “I am his wife,” she said to herself, as she joined him in silence and passed her arm through his. He needed to be reminded of her existence. Mr. Gresley pressed it, and they took a turn in silence.

He had not a high opinion of the feminine intellect. He was wont to say that he was tired of most women in ten minutes. But he had learnt to make an exception of his wife. What mind does not feel confidence in the sentiments of its echo?

“I am greatly troubled about Hester,” he said at last.

“It is not a new trouble,” said Mrs. Gresley. “I sometimes think, dearest, it is we who are to blame in having her to live with us. She is worldly — I suppose she can’t help it — and we are unworldly. She is irreligious, and you are deeply religious. I wish I could say I was too, but I lag far behind you. And though I am sure she does her best — and so do we — her presence is a continual friction. I feel she always drags us down.”

Mr. Gresley was too much absorbed in his own thoughts to notice the diffident plea which his wife was putting forward that Hester might cease to live with them.

“I was not thinking of that,” he said, “so much as of this novel which she has written. It is a profane, immoral book, and will do incalculable harm if it is published.”

“I feel sure it will,” said Mrs. Gresley, who had not read it.

“It is dreadfully coarse in places,” continued Mr. Gresley, who had the same opinion of George Eliot’s works. “And I warned Hester most solemnly on that point when I found she had begun another book. I told her that I well knew that to meet the public taste it was necessary to interlard fiction with risqué things in order to make it sell, but that it was my earnest hope she would in future resist this temptation. She only said that if she introduced improprieties into her book in order to make money, in her opinion she deserved to be whipped in the public streets. She was very angry, I remember, and became as white as a sheet, and I dropped the subject.”

“She can’t bear even the most loving word of advice,” said Mrs. Gresley.

“She holds nothing sacred,” went on Mr. Gresley, remembering an unfortunate incident in the clergyman’s career. “Her life here seems to have had no softening effect upon her. She sneers openly at religion. I never thought, I never allowed myself to think, that she was so dead to spiritual things as her book forces me to believe. Even her good people, her heroine, have not a vestige of religion, only a sort of vague morality, right for the sake of right, and love teaching people things; nothing real.”

There was a moment’s silence.

“Hester is my sister,” said Mr. Gresley, “and I am fond of her in spite of all, and she has no one to look to for help and guidance but me. I am her only near relation. That is why I feel so much the way she disregards all I say. She does not realise that it is for her sake I speak.”

Mr. Gresley thought he was sincere, because he was touched.

Mrs. Gresley’s cheek burned. That faithful devoted little heart, which lived only for her husband and children, could not brook — what? That her priest should be grieved and disregarded? Or was it any affection for and interest in another woman that it could not brook?

“I have made up my mind,” said Mr. Gresley, “to forbid her most solemnly when she comes back to-morrow to publish that book.”

“She does not come back to-morrow, but this evening,” said the young wife, and pushed by some violent nameless feeling which was too strong for her, she added, “She will not obey you. When has she ever listened to what you say? She will laugh at you, James. She always laughs at you. And the book will be published all the same.”

“It shall not,” said Mr. Gresley, colouring darkly. “I shall not allow it.”

“You can’t prevent it,” said Mrs. Gresley, her breath coming quickly. She was not thinking of the book at all, but of the writer. What was a book, one more or one less? It was her duty to speak the truth to her husband. His sister, whom he thought so much of, had no respect for his opinion, and he ought to know it. Mr. Gresley did know it, but he felt no particular satisfaction in his wife’s presentment of the fact.

“It is no use saying I can’t prevent it,” he said coldly, letting his arm fall by his side. He was no longer thinking of the book either, but of the disregard of his opinion, nay, of his authority which had long gravelled him in his sister’s attitude towards him. “I shall use my authority when I see fit, and if I have so far used persuasion rather than authority, it was only because in my humble opinion it was the wisest course.”

“It has always failed,” said Mrs. Gresley, stung by the slackening of his arm. Yes. In spite of the new baby, she would rather have a hundred a year less than have this woman in the house. The wife ought to come first. By first, Mrs. Gresley meant without a second. She had this morning seen Emma laying Hester’s clean clothes on her bed, just returned from a distant washerwoman whom the Gresleys did not employ, and whom they had not wished Hester to employ. The sight of those two white dressing gowns beautifully “got up” with goffered frills, had aroused afresh in Mrs. Gresley, what she believed to be indignation at Hester’s extravagance, an indignation which had been increased when she caught sight of her own untidy wrapper over her chair. She always appeared to disadvantage in Hester’s presence. The old smouldering grievance about the washing set alight to other feelings. They caught. They burned. They had been drying in the oven a long time.

“It has always failed,” said Mrs. Gresley, with subdued passion, “and it will fail again. I heard you tell Mrs. Loftus that you would never let Hester publish another book like the ‘Idyll.’ But though you say this one is worse, you won’t be able to stop her. You will see when she comes back that she will pack up the parcel and send it back to the publisher, whatever you may say.”

The young couple were so absorbed in their conversation that they had not observed the approach of a tall clerical figure whom the parlour-maid was escorting towards them.

“I saw you through the window, and I said I would join you in the garden,” said Archdeacon Thursby majestically. “I have been lunching with the Pratts. They naturally wished to hear the details of the lamented death of our mutual friend, Lord Newhaven.”

Archdeacon Thursby was the clergyman who had been selected as a friend of Lady Newhaven’s to break to her her husband’s death.

“It seems,” he added, “that a Miss West, who was at the Abbey at the time, is an intimate friend of the Pratts.”

Mrs. Gresley slipped away to order tea, the silver tea-pot, &c.

The Archdeacon was a friend of Mr. Gresley’s. Mr. Gresley had not many friends among the clergy, possibly because he always attributed the popularity of any of his brethren to a laxity of principle on their part, or their success if they did succeed to the peculiarly easy circumstances in which they were placed. But he greatly admired the Archdeacon, and made no secret of the fact, that in his opinion, he ought to have been the Bishop of the diocese.

A long conversation now ensued on clerical matters, and Mr. Gresley’s drooping spirits revived under a refreshing douche of compliments on “Modern Dissent.”

The idea flashed across his mind of asking the Archdeacon’s advice regarding Hester’s book. His opinion carried weight. His remarks on “Modern Dissent” showed how clear, how statesmanlike his judgment was. Mr. Gresley decided to lay the matter before him, and to consult him as to his responsibility in the matter. The Archdeacon did not know Hester. He did not know — for he lived at a distance of several miles — that Mr. Gresley had a sister who had written a book.

Mr. Gresley did not wish him to become aware of this last fact, for we all keep our domestic skeletons in their cupboards, so he placed a hypothetical case before his friend.

Supposing some one he knew, a person for whose actions he felt himself partly responsible, had written a most unwise letter, and this letter, by no fault of Mr. Gresley’s, had fallen into his hands and been read by him. What was he, Mr. Gresley, to do? The letter, if posted, would certainly get the writer into trouble, and would cause acute humiliation to the writer’s family. What would the Archdeacon do, in his place?

Mr. Gresley did not perceive that the hypothetical case was not “on all fours” with the real one. His first impulse had been to gain the opinion of an expert without disclosing family dissensions. Did some unconscious secondary motive impel him to shape the case so that only one verdict was probable?

The good Archdeacon ruminated, asked a few questions, and then said without hesitation:

“I cannot see your difficulty. Your course is clear. You are responsible —”

“To a certain degree.”

“To a certain degree for the action of an extremely injudicious friend or relation who writes a letter which will get him and others into trouble. It providentially falls into your hands. If I were in your place I should destroy it, inform your friend that I had done so principally for his own sake, and endeavour to bring him to a better mind on the subject.”

“Supposing the burning of the letter entailed a money loss?”

“I judge from what you say of this particular letter that any money that accrued from it would be ill-gotten gains.”

“Oh! decidedly.”

“Then burn it; and if your friend remains obstinate he can always write it again; but we must hope that by gaining time you will be able to arouse his better feelings, and at least induce him to moderate its tone.”

“Of course he could write it again if he remains obstinate. I never thought of that," said Mr. Gresley in a low voice. “So he would not eventually lose the money if he were still decided to gain it in an unscrupulous manner. Or I could help him to re-write it. I never thought of that before.”

“Your course is perfectly clear, my dear Gresley,” said the Archdeacon, not impatiently, but as one who is ready to open up a new subject. “Your tender conscience alone makes the difficulty. Is not Mrs. Gresley endeavouring to attract our attention?”

Mrs. Gresley was beckoning them in to tea.

When the Archdeacon had departed Mr. Gresley said to his wife: “I have talked over the matter with him, not mentioning names, of course. He is a man of great judgment. He advises me to burn it.”

“Hester’s book?”

“Yes.”

“He is quite right, I think,” said Mrs. Gresley, her hands trembling as she took up her work. Hester would never forgive her brother if he did that. It would certainly cause a quarrel between them. Young married people did best without a third person in the house.

“Will you follow his advice?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I— you see — poor Hester! It has taken her a long time to write. I wish to goodness she would leave writing alone.”

“She is coming home this evening,” said his wife significantly.

Mr. Gresley abruptly left the room, and went back to his study. He was irritated, distressed.

Providence seemed to have sent the Archdeacon to advise him. And the Archdeacon had spoken with decision. “Burn it.” That was what he had said, “and tell your friend that you have done so.”

It did not strike Mr. Gresley that the advice might have been somewhat different if the question had been respecting the burning of a book instead of a letter. Such subtleties had never been allowed to occupy Mr. Gresley’s mind. He was, as he often said, no splitter of hairs.

He told himself that from the very first moment of consulting him he had dreaded that the Archdeacon would counsel exactly as he had done. Mr. Gresley stood a long time in silent prayer by his study window. If his prayers took the same bias as his recent statements to his friend, was that his fault? If he silenced as a sign of cowardice a voice within him which entreated for delay, was that his fault? If he had never educated himself to see any connection between a seed and a plant, a cause and a result, was that his fault? The first seedling impulse to destroy the book was buried and forgotten. If he mistook this towering, full-grown determination which had sprung from it for the will of God, the direct answer to prayer, was that his fault?

As his painful duty became clear to him, a thin veil of smoke drifted across the little lawn.

Regie came dancing and caracoling round the corner.

“Father,” he cried, rushing to the window, “Abel has made such a bonfire in the backyard, and he is burning weeds and all kinds of things, and he has given us each a ‘‘tato’ to bake, and Fraülein has given us a bandbox she did not want, and we’ve filled it quite full of dry leaves. And do you think if we wait a little Auntie Hester will be back in time to see it burn?”

It was a splendid bonfire. It leaped. It rose and fell. It was replenished. Something alive in the heart of it died hard. The children danced round it.

“Oh, if only Auntie Hester was here!” said Regie, clapping his hands as the flame soared.

But “Auntie Hester” was too late to see it.

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