Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XLI

And we are punished for our purest deeds,

And chasten’d for our holiest thoughts; alas!

There is no reason found in all the creeds,

Why these things are, nor whence they come to pass.

OWEN MEREDITH.

IT was while Hester was at the Palace that Lord Newhaven died. She had perhaps hardly realised till he was gone how much his loyal friendship had been to her. Yet she had hardly seen him for the last year, partly because she was absorbed in her book, and partly because, to her astonishment, she found that her brother and his wife looked coldly upon “an unmarried woman receiving calls from a married man.”

For in the country individuality has not yet emerged. People are married or they are unmarried — that is all. Just as in London they are agreeable or dull — that is all.

“Since I have been at Warpington,” Hester said to Lord Newhaven one day, the last time he found her in, “I have realised that I am unmarried. I never thought of it all the years I lived in London, but when I visit among the country people here, as I drive through the park, I remember with a qualm that I am a spinster, no doubt because I can’t help it. As I enter the hall I recall with a pang that I am eight and twenty. By the time I am in the drawing-room I am an old maid.”

She had always imagined she would take up her friendship with him again, and when he died she reproached herself for having temporarily laid it aside. Perhaps no one, except Lord Newhaven’s brothers, felt his death more than Dick and Hester and the Bishop. The Bishop had sincerely liked Lord Newhaven. A certain degree of friendship had existed between the two men, which had often trembled on the verge of intimacy. But the verge had never been crossed. It was the younger man who always drew back. The Bishop, with the instinct of the true priest, had an unshaken belief in his cynical neighbour. Lord Newhaven, who trusted no one, trusted the Bishop. They might have been friends. But there was a deeper reason for grief at his death than any sense of personal loss. The Bishop was secretly convinced that he had died by his own hand.

Lord Newhaven had come to see him, the night he left Westhope, on his way to the station. He had only stayed a few minutes, and had asked him to do him a trifling service. The older man had agreed, had seen a momentary hesitation as Lord Newhaven turned to leave the room, and had forgotten the incident immediately in the press of continuous business. But with the news of his death the remembrance of that momentary interview returned, and with it the instant conviction that that accidental death had been carefully planned.

And now Hester’s visit at the Palace had come to an end, and the Bishop’s carriage was taking her back to Warpington.

The ten days at Southminster had brought a little colour back to her thin cheeks, a little calmness to her glance. She had experienced the rest — better than sleep — of being understood, of being able to say what she thought without fear of giving offence. The Bishop’s hospitality had been extended to her mind, instead of stopping short at the menu.

Her hands were full of chrysanthemums which the Bishop had picked for her himself, her small head full of his parting words and counsel.

Yes, she would do as he so urgently advised, give up the attempt to live at Warpington. She had been there a whole year. If the project had failed, as he seemed to think it had, at any rate it had been given a fair trial. Both sides had done their best. She might ease money matters later for her brother by laying by part of the proceeds of this book for Regie’s schooling. She could see that the Bishop thought highly of the book. He had read it before it was sent to the publisher. While she was at the Palace he had asked her to reconsider one or two passages in it which he thought might give needless offence to her brother and others of his mental calibre, and she had complied at once, and had sent for the book. No doubt she should find it at Warpington on her return.

When it was published she should give Minna a new sofa for the drawing-room, and Fraülein a fur boa and muff, and Miss Brown a typewriter for her G.F.S. work, and Abel a barometer, and each of the servants a new gown, and James those four enormous volumes of Pusey for which his soul yearned. And what should she give Rachel, dear Rachel? Ah! What need to give her anything? The book itself was hers. Was it not dedicated to her? And she would make her home with Rachel for the present, as the Bishop advised, as Rachel had so urgently begged her to do.

“And we will go abroad together after Christmas as she suggests,” said Hester to herself. “We will go to Madeira or one of those warm places where one can sit like a cat in the sun, and do nothing, nothing, nothing, from morning till night. I used to be so afraid of going back to Warpington, but now that the time is coming to an end I am sure I shall not irritate them so much. And Minna will be glad. One can always manage if it is only for a fixed time. And they shall not be the losers by my leaving them. I will put by the money for my little Regie. I shall feel parting with him.”

The sun was setting as she reached Warpington. All was grey, the church tower, the trees, the pointed gables of the Vicarage, set small together as in a Christmas card, against the still red sky. It only needed “Peace and Good Will” and a robin in the foreground to be complete. The stream was the only thing that moved, with its shimmering mesh of fire-tipt ripples fleeing into the darkness of the reeds. The little bridge, so vulgar in everyday life, leaned a mystery of darkness over a mystery of light. The white frost held the meadows, and binding them to the grey house and church and bare trees was a thin floating ribbon of — was it mist or smoke? In her own window a faint light wavered. They had lit a fire in her room. Hester’s heart warmed to her sister-in-law at that little token of care and welcome. Minna should have all her flowers, except one small bunch for Fraülein. In another moment she was ringing the bell, and Emma’s smiling red face appeared behind the glass door.

Hester ran past her into the drawing-room. Mrs. Gresley was sitting near the fire with the old baby beside her. She returned Hester’s kiss somewhat nervously. She looked a little frightened.

The old baby, luxuriously seated in his own little armchair, rose, and holding it firmly against his small person to prevent any disconnection with it, solemnly crossed the hearthrug, and placed the chair with himself in it by Hester.

“You would like some tea,” said Mrs. Gresley. “It is choir practice this evening, and we don’t have supper till nine.”

But Hester had had tea before she started.

“And you are not cold?”

Hester was quite warm. The Bishop had ordered a foot-warmer in the carriage for her.

“You are looking much better.”

Hester felt much better, thanks.

“And what lovely flowers!”

Hester suggested with diffidence that they would look pretty in the drawing-room.

“I think,” said Mrs, Gresley, who had thought the same till that instant, “that they would look best in the hall.”

“And the rest of the family,” said Hester, whose face had fallen a little. “Where are they?”

“The children have just come in. They will be down directly. Come back to me, Toddy; you are boring your aunt. And James is in his study.”

“Is he busy, or may I go in and speak to him?”

“He is not busy. He is expecting you.”

Hester gathered up her rejected flowers and rose. She felt as if she had been back at Warpington a year — as if she had never been away.

She stopped a moment in the hall to look at her letters, and laid down her flowers beside them. Then she went on quickly to the study, and tapped at the door.

“Come in,” said the well-known voice.

Mr. Gresley was found writing. Hester instantly perceived that it was a pose, and that he had taken up the pen when he heard her tap.

Her spirits sank a peg lower.

“He is going to lecture me about something,” she said to herself as he kissed her.

“Have you had tea? It is choir practice this evening, and we don’t have supper till nine.”

Hester had had tea before she started.

“And you are not cold?”

On the contrary, Hester was quite warm thanks. Bishop, foot-warmer, &c.

“You are looking much stronger.”

Hester felt much stronger. Certainly married people grew very much alike by living together.

Mr. Gresley hesitated. He never saw the difficulties entailed by any action until they were actually upon him. He had had no idea he would find it well-nigh impossible to open a certain subject.

Hester involuntarily came to his assistance. “Well, perhaps I ought to look at my letters. By the way, there ought to be a large package for me from Bentham. It was not with my letters. Perhaps you sent it to my room.”

“It did arrive,” said Mr. Gresley, “and perhaps I ought to apologise, for I saw my name on it and I opened it by mistake. I was expecting some more copies of my ‘Modern Dissent’.”

“It does not matter. I have no doubt you put it away safely. Where is it?”

“Having opened it, I glanced at it.”

“I am surprised to hear that,” said Hester, a pink spot appearing on each cheek, and her eyes darkening. “When did I give you leave to read it?”

Mr. Gresley looked dully at his sister, and went on without noticing her question.

“I glanced at it. I do not see any difference between reading a book in manuscript or in print. I don’t pretend to quibble on a point like that. After looking at it, I felt that it was desirable I should read the whole. You may remember, Hester, that I showed you my ‘Modern Dissent.’ If I did not make restrictions, why should you?”

“The thing is done,” said Hester. “I did not wish you to read it, and you have read it. It can’t be helped. We won’t speak of it again.”

“It is my duty to speak of it.”

Hester made an impatient movement.

“But it is not mine to listen,” she said. “Besides, I know all you are going to say — the same as about ‘The Idyll,’ only worse. That it is coarse and profane and exaggerated, and that I have put in improprieties in order to make it sell, and that I run down the clergy, and that the book ought never to be published. Dear James, spare me. You and I shall never agree on certain subjects. Let us be content to differ.”

Mr. Gresley was disconcerted. Your antagonist has no business to discount all you were going to remark by saying it first.

His colour was gradually leaving him. This was worse than an Easter vestry meeting, and that was saying a good deal.

“I cannot stand by calmly and see you walk over a precipice if I can forcibly hold you back,” he said. “I think, Hester, you forget that it is my affection for you that makes me try to restrain you. It is for your own sake that — that —”

“That what?”

“That I cannot allow this book to be published,” said Mr. Gresley in a low voice. He hardly ever lowered his voice.

There was a moment’s pause. Hester felt the situation was serious. How not to wound him, yet not to yield?

“I am eight and twenty,” she said. “I am afraid I must follow my own judgment. You have no responsibility in the matter. If I am blamed,” she smiled proudly — at that instant she knew all that her book was worth —“the blame will not attach to you. And, after all, Minna and the Pratts and the Thursbys need not read it.”

“No one will read it,” said Mr. Gresley. “It was a profane, wicked book. No one will read it.”

“I am not so sure of that,” said Hester.

The brother and sister looked at each other with eyes of flint.

“No one will read it,” repeated Mr. Gresley — he was courageous, but all his courage was only just enough —“because, for your own sake, and for the sake of the innocent minds which might be perverted by it, I have — I have — burnt it.”

Hester stood motionless, like one struck by lightning, livid, dead already — all but the eyes.

“You dared not,” said the dead lips. The terrible eyes were fixed on him. They burnt into him.

He was frightened.

“Dear Hester,” he said, “I will help you to re-write it. I will give up an hour every morning till —” Would she never fall? Would she always stand up like that? “Some day you will know I was right to do it. You are angry now, but some day —” If she would only faint, or cry, or look away.

“When Regie was ill,” said the slow difficult voice, “I did what I could. I did not let your child die. Why have you killed mine?”

There was a little patter of feet in the passage. The door was slowly opened by Mary, and Regie walked solemnly in, holding with extreme care a small tin plate, on which reposed a large potato.

“I baked it for you, Auntie Hester,” he said in his shrill voice, his eyes on the offering. “It was my very own ‘tato Abel gave me. And I baked it in the bonfire and kept it for you.”

Hester turned upon the child like some blinded infuriated animal at bay, and thrust him violently from her. He fell shrieking. She rushed past him out of the room, and out of the house, his screams following her. “I’ve killed him,” she said.

The side gate was locked. Abel had just left for the night. She tore it off its hinges and ran into the backyard.

The bonfire was out. A thread of smoke twisted up from the crater of grey ashes. She fell on her knees beside the dead fire, and thrust apart the hot embers with her bare hands.

A mass of thin black films that had once been paper met her eyes. The small writing on them was plainly visible as they fell to dust at the touch of her hands.

“It is dead,” she said in a loud voice, getting up. Her gown was burnt through where she had knelt down.

In the still air a few flakes of snow were falling in a great compassion.

“Quite dead,” said Hester. “Regie and the book.”

And she set off running blindly across the darkening fields.

It was close on eleven o’clock. The Bishop was sitting alone in his study writing. The night was very still. The pen travelled, travelled. The fire had burnt down to a red glow. Presently he got up, walked to the window, and drew aside the curtain.

“The first snow,” he said, half aloud.

It was coming down gently through the darkness. He could just see the white rim on the stone sill outside.

“I can do no more to-night,” he said, and he bent to lock his despatch box with the key on his watch chain.

The door suddenly opened. He turned to see a little figure rush towards him and fall at his feet, holding him convulsively by the knees.

“Hester!” he said in amazement. “Hester!”

She was bareheaded. The snow was upon her hair and shoulders. She brought in the smell of fire with her.

He tried to raise her, but she held him tightly with her bleeding hands, looking up at him with a convulsed face. His own hands were red as he vainly tried to loosen hers.

“They have killed my book,” she said. “They have killed my book. They burnt it alive when I was away. And my head went. I don’t know what I did, but I think I killed Regie. I know I meant to.”

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