Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XLIII

The Devil has no stauncher ally than want of perception.

PHILIP H. WICKSTEED.

It takes two to speak truth — one to speak and another to hear.

THOREAU.

MRS. GRESLEY had passed an uncomfortable day. In the afternoon all the Pratts had called, and Mr. Gresley, who departed early in the afternoon for Southminster, had left his wife no directions as to how to act in this unforeseen occurrence, or how to parry the questions with which she was overwhelmed.

After long hesitation she at last owned that Hester had returned to Southminster in the Bishop’s carriage not more than half an hour after it had brought her back.

“I can’t explain Hester’s actions,” she would only repeat over and over again. “I don’t pretend to understand clever people. I’m not clever myself. I can only say Hester went back to Southminster directly she arrived here.”

Hardly had the Pratts taken their departure when Doll Loftus was ushered in. His wife had sent him to ask where Hester was, as Fraülein had alarmed her earlier in the day. Doll at least asked no questions. He had never asked but one in his life, and that had been of his wife, five seconds before he had become engaged to her.

He accepted with equanimity the information that Hester had returned to Southminster, and departed to impart the same to his exasperated wife.

“But why did she go back? She had only that moment arrived,” inquired Sybell. How should Doll know. She, Sybell, had said she could not rest till she knew where Hester was, and he, Doll, had walked to Warpington through the snow-drifts to find out for her. And he had found out, and now she wanted to know something else. There was no satisfying some women. And the injured husband retired to unlace his boots.

Yes, Mrs. Gresley had passed an uncomfortable day. She had ventured out for a few minutes, and had found Abel, with his arms akimbo, contemplating the little gate which led to the stables. It was lying on the ground. He had swept the snow off it.

“I locked it up the same as usual last night,” he said to Mrs. Gresley. “There’s been somebody about as has tampered it off its hinges. Yet nothing hasn’t been touched, the coal nor the stack. It don’t seem natural, twisting the gate off for nothing.”

Mrs. Gresley did not answer. She did not associate Hester with the gate. But she was too much perturbed to care about such small matters at the moment.

“His lordship’s coachman tell me as Miss Gresley was at the Palace,” continued Abel, “while I was a hotting up his mash for him, for William had gone in with a note, and onst he’s in the kitchen the hanimals might be stocks and stones for what he cares. He said his nevvy, the footman, heard the front door-bell ring just as he was getting into bed last night, and Miss Gresley come in without her hat, with the snow upon her. The coachman said as she must ha’ run afoot all the way.”

Abel looked anxiously at Mrs. Gresley.

“I was just thinking,” he said, “as perhaps the little lady wasn’t quite right in her ’ead. They do say as too much learning flies to the ’ead, the same as spirits to them as ain’t manured to ’em. And the little lady does work desperate hard.”

“Not as hard as Mr. Gresley,” said Mrs. Gresley.

“Maybe not, Mem, maybe not. But when I come up when red cow was sick at four in the morning, or may be earlier there was always a light in her winder, and the shadder of her face agin the blind. Yes, she do work precious hard.”

Mrs. Gresley retreated into the house, picking her way over the débris of the porch. At any other time its demise would have occupied the minds of the Vicarage household for days. But until this moment it had hardly claimed the tribute of a sigh. Mrs. Gresley did sigh as she crossed the threshold. That prostrate porch meant expense. She had understood from her husband that Dick had wantonly torn out the clamp that supported it, and that the whole thing had in consequence given way under the first snowfall. “He meant no harm,” Mr. Gresley had added, “But I suppose in the Colonies they mistake horseplay for wit.”

Mrs. Gresley went back to the drawing-room, and sat down to her needlework. She was an exquisite needlewoman, but all the activity of her untiring hands was hardly able to stem the tide of mending that was for ever flowing in upon her. When was she to find time to finish the darling little garments which the new baby required? Fraülein had been kind in helping, but Fraülein’s eyes were not very strong, or her stitches in consequence very small. Mrs. Gresley would have liked to sit in the schoolroom when lessons were over, but Fraülein had been so distant at luncheon about a rissole that she had not the courage to go in.

So she sat and stitched with a heavy heart awaiting her husband’s return. The fly was another expense. Southminster was ten miles from Warpington, eleven according to the Loftus Arms, from which it issued, the owner of which was not on happy terms with his “teetotal” vicar. Yet it had been absolutely necessary to have the fly, in order that Regie, who so easily caught cold, might return in safety.

The dusk was already falling, and more snow with it.

It was quite dark when Mrs. Gresley at last caught the sound of wheels and hurried to the door.

Mr. Gresley came in, bearing Regie, fast asleep in a fur rug, and laid him carefully on the sofa, and then went out to have an altercation with the driver, who demurred in forcible language to the arrangement, adhered to by Mr. Gresley, that the cost of the fly should be considered as part payment of certain arrears of tithe which in those days it was the unhappy duty of the clergyman to collect himself. Mr. Gresley’s methods of dealing with money matters generally brought in a high rate of interest in the way of friction, and it was a long time before the driver drove away, turning his horse deliberately on the little patch of lawn under the dining-room windows.

Regie in the meanwhile had waked up, and was having tea in the drawing-room as a great treat.

He had much to tell about his expedition; how the Bishop had given him half a crown, and Uncle Dick had taken him into the town to spend it, and how after dinner he had ridden on Uncle Dick’s back.

“And Auntie Hester. How was she?”

“She was very well, only she cried a little. I did not stay long because Mr. Bishop was wanting to give me the halfcrown, and he kept it downstairs. And when I went in again she was in bed, and she was so sleepy she hardly said anything at all.”

Mr. Gresley came in wearily, and dropped into a chair.

Mrs. Gresley gave him his tea, and presently took Regie upstairs. Then she came back and sat down in a low chair close to her husband. It was the first drop of comfort in Mr. Gresley’s cup to-day.

“How is Hester?”

“According to Dr. Brown she is very ill,” said Mr. Gresley in an extinguished voice. “But they would not let me see her.”

“Not see her own brother! My dear James, you should have insisted.”

“I did, but it was no use. You know how angry Dr. Brown gets at the least opposition. And the Bishop backed him up. They said it would excite her.”

“I never heard of such a thing. What is the matter with her?”

“Shock, Dr. Brown calls it. They have been afraid of collapse all day, but she is better this evening. They seemed to think a great deal of her knowing Regie.”

“Did the little lamb forgive her?”

“Oh yes, he kissed her and she knew him and cried. And it seems her hands are severely burnt. They have got a nurse, and they have telegraphed for Miss West. The Bishop was very good to Regie and gave him that fur rug.”

They looked at the splendid blue fox rug on the sofa.

“I am afraid,” said Mrs. Gresley after a pause, “that Hester did run all the way to Southminster as the Bishop said. Abel said the Bishop’s coachman told him that she came late last night to the Palace, and she was white with snow when the footman let her in.”

“My dear, I should have thought you were too sensible to listen to servant’s gossip,” said Mr. Gresley impatiently. “Your own common sense will tell you that Hester never performed that journey on foot. I told Dr. Brown the same, but he lost his temper at once. It’s curious how patient he is in a sick room, and how furious he can be out of it. He was very angry with me, too, because when he mentioned to the Bishop in my presence that Hester was under morphia, I said I strongly objected to her being drugged, and when I repeated that morphia was a most dangerous drug with effects worse than intoxication, in fact, that morphia was a form of intoxication, he positively before the Bishop shook his fist in my face, and said he was not going to be taught his business by me.

“The Bishop took me away into the study. Dick Vernon was sitting there, at least he was creeping about on all fours with Regie on his back. I think he must be in love with Hester, he asked so anxiously if there was any change. He would not speak to me, pretended not to know me. I suppose the Bishop had told him about the porch, and he was afraid I should come on him for repairs as he had tampered with it. The Bishop sent them away, and said he wanted to have a talk with me. The Bishop himself was the only person who was kind.”

There was a long pause. Mrs. Gresley laid her soft cheek against her husband’s, and put her small hand in a protecting manner over his large one. It was not surprising that on the following Sunday Mr. Gresley said such beautiful things about women being pillows against which weary masculine athletes could rest.

“He spoke very nicely of you,” went on Mr. Gresley at last. “He said he appreciated your goodness in letting Regie go after what had happened, and your offer to come and nurse Hester yourself. And then he spoke about me. And he said he knew well how devoted I was to my work, and how anything I did for the Church was a real labour of love, and that my heart was in my work.”

“It is quite true. So it is,” said Mrs. Gresley.

“I never thought he understood me so well. And he went on to say that he knew I must be dreadfully anxious about my sister, but that as far as money was concerned — I had offered to pay for a nurse — I was to put all anxiety off my mind. He would take all responsibility about the illness. He said he had a little fund laid by for emergencies of this kind, and that he could not spend it better than on Hester whom he loved like his own child. And then he went on to speak of Hester. I don’t remember all he said when he turned off about her, but he spoke of her as if she were a person quite out of the common.”

“He always did spoil her,” said Mrs. Gresley.

“He went off on a long rigmarole about her and her talent, and how vain he and I should be if leading articles appeared in the Spectator about us as they did about her. I did not know there had been anything of the kind, but he said every one else did. And then he went on more slowly that Hester was under a foolish hallucination, as groundless, no doubt, as that she had caused Regie’s death, that her book was destroyed. He said, ‘It is this idea which has got firm hold of her, but which has momentarily passed off her mind in her anxiety about Regie, which has caused her illness.’ And then he looked at me. He seemed really quite shaky. He held on to a chair. I think his health is breaking.”

“And what did you say?”

“I said the truth, that it was no hallucination but the fact, that much as I regretted to say so Hester had written a profane and immoral book, and that I had felt it my duty to burn it, and a very painful duty it had been. I said he would have done the same if he had read it.”

“I am glad you said that.”

“Well, the awkward part was that he said he had read it, every word, and that he considered it the finest book that had been written in his day. And then he began to walk up and down and to become rather excited, and to say that he could not understand how I could take upon myself such a responsibility, or on what grounds I considered myself a judge of literature. As if I ever did consider myself a judge! But I do know right from wrong. We had got on all right up till then, especially when he spoke so cordially of you and me, but directly he made a personal matter of Hester’s book, setting his opinion against mine, for he repeated over and over again it was a magnificent book, his manner seemed to change. He tried to speak kindly, but all the time I saw that my considering the book bad while he thought it good, gravelled him, and made him feel annoyed with me. The truth is, he can’t bear any one to think differently from himself.”

“He always was like that,” said the comforter.

“I said I supposed he thought it right to run down the clergy and hold them up to ridicule. He said ‘Certainly not, but he did not see how that applied to anything in Hester’s book.’ He said, ‘She has drawn us without bias towards us, exactly as we appear to three-quarters of the laity. It won’t do us any harm to see ourselves for once as others see us. There is in these days an increasing adverse criticism of us in many men’s minds, to which your sister’s mild rebukes are as nothing. We have drawn it upon ourselves, not so much by our conduct, which I believe to be uniformly above reproach, or by any lack of zeal, as by our ignorance of our calling; by our inability to “convert life into truth,” the capital secret of our profession, as I was once told as a divinity student. I for one believe that the Church will regain her prestige and her hold on the heart of the nation, but if she does, it will be mainly due to a new element in the minds of the clergy, a stronger realisation, not of our responsibilities — we have that — but of the education, the personal search for truth, the knowledge of human nature, which are necessary to enable us to meet them.’ He went on a long time about that. I think he grows very wordy. But I did not argue with him. I let him say what he liked. I knew that I must be obedient to my Bishop, just as I should expect my clergy to be to me, if I ever am a Bishop myself. Not that I expect I ever shall be”— Mr. Gresley was over tired —“but it seemed to me as he talked about the book, that all the time, though he put me down to the highest motives — he did me that justice — he was trying to make me own I had done wrong.”

“You didn’t say so?” said the little wife hotly.

“My dear, need you ask? But I did say at last that I had consulted with Archdeacon Thursby on the matter, and he had strongly advised me to do as I did. The Bishop seemed thunderstruck. And then — it really seemed providential — who should come in but Archdeacon Thursby himself. The Bishop went straight up to him, and said ‘You come at a fortunate moment, for I am greatly distressed at the burning of Miss Gresley’s book, and Gresley tells me that you advised it.’ And would you believe it,” said Mr. Gresley in a strangled voice, “the Archdeacon actually denied it then and there. He said he did not know Hester had written a book, and had never been consulted on the subject.”

The tears forced themselves out of Mr. Gresley’s eyes. He was exhausted and overwrought. He sobbed against his wife’s shoulder.

“Wicked liar!” whispered Mrs. Gresley into his parting. “Wicked, wicked man! Oh! James, I never thought the Archdeacon could have behaved like that!”

“Nor I,” gasped Mr. Gresley, “but he did. I suppose he did not want to offend the Bishop. And when I expostulated with him, and reminded him of what he had advised only the day before, he said that was about a letter, not a book, as if it mattered which it was. It was the principle that mattered. But they neither of them would listen to me. I said I had offered to help to re-write it, and the Bishop became quite fierce. He said I might as well try to re-write Regie if he were in his coffin. And then he mentioned casually, as if it were quite an afterthought, that Hester had sold it for a thousand pounds. All through, I knew he was really trying to hurt my feelings in spite of his manner, but when he said that he succeeded.”

Mr. Gresley groaned.

“A thousand pounds!” said Mrs. Gresley, turning white. “Oh! It isn’t possible.”

“He said he had seen the publisher’s letter offering it, and that Hester had accepted it by his advice. He seemed to know all about her affairs. When he said that, I was so distressed I could not help showing it, and he made rather light of it, saying the money loss was the least serious part of the whole affair, but of course it is the worst. Poor Hester, when I think that owing to me she has lost a thousand pounds! Seventy pounds a year, if I had invested it for her, and I know of several good investments, all perfectly safe, at seven per cent. — when I think of it it makes me absolutely miserable. We won’t talk of it any more. The Bishop sat with his head in his hands for a long time after the Archdeacon had gone, and afterwards he was quite kindly again, and said we looked at the subject from such different points of view that perhaps there was no use in discussing it. And we talked of the Church Congress until the fly came, only he seemed dreadfully tired, quite knocked up. And he promised to let us know first thing to-morrow morning how Hester was. He was cordial when we left. I think he meant well. But I can never feel the same to Archdeacon Thursby again. He was quite my greatest friend among the clergy round here. I suppose I shall learn in time not to have such a high ideal of people, but I certainly thought very highly of him until to-day.”

Mr. Gresley sat upright, and put away his handkerchief with decision.

“One thing this miserable day has taught us,” he said, “and that is that we must part with Fraülein. If she is to become impertinent the first moment we are in trouble, such a thing is not to be borne. We could not possibly keep her after her behaviour to-day.”

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