Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XLII

Is it well with the child?

I AM not really anxious,” said Mr. Gresley, looking out across the Vicarage laurels to the white fields and hedges. All was blurred and vague and very still. The only thing that had a distinct outline was the garden railing, with a solitary rook on it.

“I am not really anxious,” he said again, sitting down at the breakfast table. But his face contradicted him. It was blue and pinched, for he had just returned from reading the morning service to himself in an ice-cold church, but there was a pucker in the brow that was not the result of cold. The Vicarage porch had fallen down in the night, but he was evidently not thinking of that. He drank a little coffee and then got up and walked to the window again.

“She is with the Pratts,” he said with decision. “I am glad I sent a note over early, if it will relieve your mind, but I am convinced she is with the Pratts.”

Mrs. Gresley murmured something. She looked scared. She made an attempt to eat something, but it was a mere pretence.

The swing door near the back staircase creaked. In the Vicarage you could hear everything.

Mr. and Mrs. Gresley looked eagerly at the door. The parlourmaid came in with a note between her finger and thumb.

“She is not there,” said Mr. Gresley in a shaking voice. “I wrote Mr. Pratt such a guarded letter saying Hester had imprudently run across to see them on her return home, and how grateful I was to Mrs. Pratt for not allowing her to return, as it had begun to snow. He says he and Mrs. Pratt have not seen her.”

“James,” said Mrs. Gresley, “where is she?”

A second step shuffled across the hall, and Fraülein stood in the doorway. Her pale face was drawn with anxiety. In both hands she clutched a trailing skirt plaistered with snow, hitched above a pair of large goloshed feet, into which the legs were grafted without ankles.

“She has not return?”

“No,” said Mr. Gresley, “and she is not with the Pratts.”

“I know always she is not wiz ze Pratts,” said Fraülein scornfully. “She never go to Pratt if she is in grief. I go out at half seven this morning to ze Br-r-rowns, but Miss Br-r-rown know nozing. I go to Wilderleigh, I see Mrs. Loftus still in bed, but she is not there. I go to Evannses, I go to Smeeth, I go last to Mistair Valsh, but she is not there.”

Mr. Gresley began to experience something of what Fraülein had been enduring all night.

“She would certainly not go from my house to a Dissenter’s,” he said stiffly. “You might have saved yourself the trouble of calling there, Fraülein.”

“She like Mr. and Mrs. Valsh. She give them her book,”

Fraülein’s voice drowned the muffled rumbling of a carriage, and a ring at the bell, the handle of which, uninjured amid the chaos, kept watch above the remains of the late porch.

The Bishop stood a moment in the little hall while the maid went into the dining-room to tell the Gresleys of his arrival. His eyes rested on the pile of letters on the table, on the dead flowers beside them. They had been so beautiful yesterday when he gave them to Hester. Hester herself had been so pretty yesterday.

The maid came back and asked him to “step” into the dining-room.

Mr. and Mrs. Gresley had risen from their chairs. Their eyes were fixed anxiously upon him. Fraülein gave a little shriek and rushed at him.

“She is viz you?” she gasped, shaking him by the arm.

“She is with me,” said the Bishop, looking only at Fraülein and taking her shaking hands in his.

“Thank God,” said Mr. Gresley, and Mrs. Gresley sat down and began to cry.

Some of the sternness melted out of the Bishop’s face as he looked at the young couple.

“I came as soon as I could,” he said. “I started soon after seven, but the roads are heavy.”

“This is a great relief,” said Mr. Gresley. He began on his deepest organ note, but it quavered quite away on the word relief for want of wind.

“How is Regie?” said the Bishop. It was his turn to be anxious.

“Regie is verr vell,” said Fraülein with decision. “Tell her he is so veil as he vas.”

“He is very much shaken,” said Mrs. Gresley, indignant mother-love flashing in her wet eyes. “He is a delicate child, and she, Hester — may God forgive her — struck him in one of her passions. She might have killed him. And the poor child fell and bruised his arm and shoulder. And he was bringing her a little present when she did it. The child had done nothing whatever to annoy her, had he, James?”

“Nothing,” said Mr. Gresley, and his conscience pricking him, he added, “I must own Hester had always seemed fond of Regie till last night.”

He felt that it would not be entirely fair to allow the Bishop to think that Hester was in the habit of maltreating the children.

“I have told him that his own mother will take care of him,” said Mrs. Gresley, “and that he need not be afraid, his aunt shall never come back again. When I saw his little arm I felt I could never trust Hester in the house again.” As Mrs. Gresley spoke she felt she was making certainty doubly sure that the woman of whom she was jealous would return no more.

“Regie cry till his ’ead ache because you say Miss Gresley no come back,” said Fraülein, looking at Mrs Gresley as if she would have bitten a piece out of her.

“I think, Fraülein, it is the children’s lesson-time,” said Mr. Gresley majestically.

Who could have imagined that unobtrusive, submissive Fraülein, gentlest and shyest of women, would put herself forward in this aggressive manner. The truth is, it is all very well to talk, you never can tell what people will do. They suddenly turn round and act exactly opposite to their whole previous character. Look at Fraülein!

That poor lady, recalled thus to a sense of duty, hurried from the room, and the Bishop, who had opened the door for her, closed it gently behind her.

“You must excuse her, my lord,” said Mr. Gresley; “the truth is, we are all somewhat upset this morning. Hester would have saved us much uneasiness, I may say anxiety, if she had mentioned to us yesterday evening that she was going back to you. No doubt she overtook your carriage, which put up at the inn for half an hour.”

“No,” said the Bishop, “she came on foot. She — walked all the way.”

Mr. Gresley smiled. “I am afraid, my lord, Hester has given you an inaccurate account. I assure you, she is incapable of walking five miles, much less ten.”

“She took about five hours to do it,” said the Bishop, who had hesitated an instant, as if swallowing something unpalatable. “In moments of great excitement nervous persons like your sister are capable of almost anything. The question is, whether she will survive the shock that drove her out of your house last night. Her hands are severely burnt. Dr. Brown, whom I left with her, fears brain fever.”

The Bishop paused, giving his words time to sink in. Then he went on slowly in a level voice, looking into the fire.

“She still thinks that she has killed Regie. She won’t believe the doctor and me when we assure her she has not. She turns against us for deceiving her.”

Mr. Gresley wrestled with a very bitter feeling towards his sister, overcame it, and said hoarsely:

“Tell her from me that Regie is not much the worse, and tell her that I— that his mother and I— forgive her.”

“Not me, James,” sobbed Mrs. Gresley. “It is too soon. I don’t. I can’t. If I said I did I should not feel it.”

“Hester is not in a condition to receive messages,” said the Bishop. “She would not believe them. Dr. Brown says the only thing we can do for her is to show Regie to her. If she sees him she may believe her own eyes, and this frightful excitement may be got under. I came to take him back with me now in the carriage.”

“I will not let him go,” said Mrs. Gresley, the mother in her overriding her awe of the Bishop. “I am sorry if Hester is ill. I will,” and Mrs. Gresley made a superhuman effort, “I will come and nurse her myself, but I won’t have Regie frightened a second time.”

“He shall not be frightened a second time. But it is very urgent. While we are wasting time talking, Hester’s life is ebbing away as surely as if she were bleeding to death. If she were actually bleeding in this room how quickly you two would run to her and bind up the wound. There would be nothing you would not do to relieve her suffering.”

“If I would let Regie go,” said Mrs. Gresley, “he would not be willing, and we could not have him taken away by force, could we, James?”

The door opened, and Regie appeared, gently pushed from behind by Fraülein’s thin hand. Boulou followed. The door was closed again immediately, almost on Boulou’s tail.

The Bishop and Regie looked hard at each other.

“I send my love to Auntie Hester,” said Regie in his catechism voice, “and I am quite well.”

“I should like to have some conversation with Regie alone,” said the Bishop.

Mrs. Gresley wavered, but the Bishop’s eye remained fixed on Mr. Gresley, and the latter led his wife away. The door was left ajar, but the Bishop closed it. Then he sat down by the fire and held out his hand.

Regie went up to him fearlessly, and stood between his knees. The two faces were exactly on the same level. Boulou sat down before the fire, his tail uncurling in the heat.

“Auntie Hester is very sorry,” said the Bishop. “She is so sorry that she can’t even cry.”

“Tell her not to mind,” said Regie.

“It’s no good telling her. Does your arm hurt much?”

“I don’t know. Mother says it does, and Fraülein says it doesn’t. But it isn’t that.”

“What is it, then?”

“It isn’t that, or the ‘tato being lost, it was only crumbs afterwards; but, Mr. Bishop, I hadn’t done nothing.”

Regie looked into the kind keen eyes, and his own little red ones filled again with tears.

“I had not done nothing,” he repeated. “And I’d kept my ‘tato for her. It’s that — that — I don’t mind about my arm. I’m Christian soldiers about my arm; but it’s that — that —”

“That hurts you in your heart,” said the Bishop, putting his arm round him.

“Yes,” said Regie, producing a tight little ball that had once been a handkerchief. “Auntie Hester and I were such friends. I told her all my secrets, and she told me hers. I knew long before, when she gave father the silver cream-jug, and about Fraülein’s muff. If it was a mistake, like father treading on my foot at the school feast, I should not mind, but she did it on purpose.”

The Bishop’s brow contracted. Time was ebbing away, ebbing away like a life. Yet Dr. Brown’s warning remained in his ears. “If the child is frightened of her, and screams when he sees her, I won’t answer for the consequences.”

“Is that your little dog?” he said, after a moment’s thought.

“Yes, that is Boulou.”

“Was he ever in a trap?” asked the Bishop with a vague recollection of the ways of clergymen’s dogs, those “little rifts within the lute” which so often break the harmony between a sporting squire and his clergyman.

“He was once. Mr. Pratt says he hunts, but father says not, that he could not catch anything if he tried.”

“I had a dog once,” said the Bishop, “called Jock. And he got in a trap like Boulou did. Now, Jock loved me. He cared for me more than anybody in the world. Yet, as I was letting him out of the trap, he bit me. Do you know why he did that?”

“Why?”

“Because the trap hurt him so dreadfully that he could not help biting something. He did not really mean it. He licked me afterwards. Now, Auntie Hester was like Jock. She was in dreadful, dreadful pain like a trap, and she hit you like Jock bit me. But Jock loved me best in the world all the time. And Auntie Hester loves you, and is your friend she tells secrets to, all the time.”

“Mother says she does not love me really. It was only pretence.” Regie’s voice shook. “Mother says she must never come back because it might be baby next. She said so to father.”

“Mother has made a mistake. I’m so old that I know better even than mother. Auntie Hester loves you, and can’t eat any breakfast till you tell her you don’t mind. Will you come with me and kiss her, and tell her so? And we’ll make up a new secret on the way.”

“Yes,” said Regie eagerly, his wan little face turning pink. “But mother?” he said, stopping short.

“Run and get your coat on. I will speak to mother. Quick, Regie.”

Regie rushed curveting out of the room. The Bishop followed more slowly, and went into the drawing-room where Mr. and Mrs. Gresley were sitting by the fireless hearth. The drawing-room fire was never lit till two o’clock.

“Regie goes with me of his own free will,” he said, “so that is settled. He will be quite safe with me, Mrs. Gresley.”

“My wife demurs at sending him,” said Mr. Gresley.

“No, no, she does not,” said the Bishop gently. “Hester saved Regie’s life, and it is only right that Regie should save hers. You will come over this afternoon to take him back,” he continued to Mr. Gresley. “I wish to have some conversation with you.”

Fraülein appeared breathless, dragging Regie with her.

“He has not got on his new overcoat,” said Mrs. Gresley. “Regie, run up and change at once.”

Fraülein actually said, “Bozzer ze new coat,” and she swept Regie into the carriage, the Bishop following, stumbling over the ruins of the porch.

“Have they had their hot mash?” he said to the coachman, who was tearing off the horses’ clothing.

“Yes, my lord.”

“Then drive all you know. Put them at the hills at a gallop.”

Fraülein pressed a packet of biscuits into the Bishop’s hand. “He eat no breakfast,” she said.

“Uncle Dick said the porch would sit down, and it has,” said Regie in an awestruck voice, as the carriage swayed from side to side of the road. “Father knows a great deal, but sometimes I think Uncle Dick knows most of all. First gates and flying half pennies, and now porches.”

“Uncle Dick is staying in Southminster. Perhaps we shall see him.”

“I should like to ask him about his finger, if it isn’t a secret.”

“I don’t think it is. Now, what secret shall we make up on the way?” The Bishop put his head out of the window. “Drive faster,” he said.

It was decided that the secret should be a Christmas present for “Auntie Hester,” to be bought in Southminster. The Bishop found that Regie’s entire capital was sixpence. But Regie explained that he could spend a shilling, because he was always given sixpence by his father when he pulled a tooth out. “And I’ve one loose now,” he said. “When I suck it it moves. It will be ready by Christmas.”

There was a short silence. The horses’ hoofs beat the muffled ground all together.

“Don’t you find, Mr. Bishop,” said Regie tentatively, “that this riding so quick in carriages, and talking secrets, does make people very hungry?”

The Bishop blushed. “It is quite true, my boy. I ought to have thought of that before. I am uncommonly hungry myself,” he said, looking in every pocket for the biscuits Fraülein had forced into his hand. When they were at last discovered in a somewhat dilapidated condition in the rug, the Bishop found they were a kind of biscuit that always made him cough, so he begged Regie, who was dividing them equally, as a personal favour to eat them all.

It was a crumb be-sprinkled Bishop who, half an hour later, hurried up the stairs of the Palace.

“What an age you have been,” snapped Dr. Brown from the landing.

“How is she?”

“The same, but weaker. Have you got Regie?”

“Yes, but it took time.”

“Is he frightened?”

“Not a bit.”

“Then bring him up.”

The doctor went back into the bedroom, leaving the door ajar.

A small shrunken figure with bandaged head and hands was sitting in an armchair. The eyes of the rigid, discoloured face were fixed.

Dr. Brown took the bandage off Hester’s head, and smoothed her hair.

“He is coming upstairs now,” he said, shaking her gently by the shoulders. “Regie is coming upstairs now to see you. Regie is quite well, and he is coming in now to see you.”

“Regie is dead, you old grey wolf,” said Hester in a monotonous voice. “I killed him in the backyard. The place is quite black and it smokes.”

“Look at the door,” repeated Dr. Brown, over and over again. “He is coming in at the door now.”

Hester trembled and looked at the door. The doctor noticed with a frown that she could hardly move her eyes.

Regie stood in the doorway, holding the Bishop’s hand. The cold snow light fell upon the gallant little figure and white face.

The doctor moved between Hester and the window. His shadow was upon her.

The hearts of the two men beat like hammers.

A change came over Hester’s face.

“My little Reg,” she said, holding out her bandaged hands.

Regie ran to her, and put his arms round her neck. They clasped each other tightly. The doctor winced to watch her hands.

“It’s all right, Auntie Hester,” said Regie. “I love you just the same, and you must not cry any more.”

For Hester’s tears were falling at last, quenching the wild fire in her eyes.

“My little treasure, my little mouse,” she said over and over again, kissing his face and hands and little brown overcoat.

Then all in a moment her face altered. Her agonised eyes turned to the doctor.

In an instant Dr. Brown’s hand was over Regie’s eyes, and he hurried him out of the room.

“Take him out of hearing,” he whispered to the Bishop, and darted back.

Hester was tearing the bandages off her hands.

“I don’t know what has happened,” she wailed, “but my hands hurt me so that I can’t bear it.”

“Thank God,” said the old doctor, blowing his nose.

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