Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XLIV

If two lives join, there is oft a scar.

ROBERT BROWNING.

RACHEL left Westhope Abbey the day after Lord Newhaven’s funeral, and returned to London. And the day after that Hugh came to see her, and proposed, and was accepted.

He had gone over in his mind a hundred times all that he should say to her on that occasion. If he had said all that he was fully resolved to say it is hardly credible that any woman, however well disposed towards him, would have accepted so tedious a suitor. But what he really said, in a hoarse inaudible voice, was, “Rachel, will you marry me?” He was looking so intently into a little grove of Roman hyacinths that perhaps the hyacinths heard what he said; at any rate, she did not. But she supposed from long experience that he was proposing, and she said “Yes” immediately.

She had not intended to say so, at least not at first. She had made up her mind that it would be only right to inform him that she was fourteen months older than he (she had looked him out in Burke where she herself was not to be found); that she was “old enough to be his mother”; also that she was of a cold revengeful temper not calculated to make a home happy, and several other odious traits of character which she had never dreamed of confiding to any of the regiment of her previous lovers.

But the only word she had breath to say when the time came was “Yes.”

Rachel had shivered and hesitated on the brink of a new love long enough. Her anxiety about Hugh had unconsciously undermined her resistance. His confession had given her instantly the confidence in him which had been wanting. It is not perfection that we look for in our fellow creatures, but for what is apparently rarer, a little plain dealing.

How they rise before us! — the sweet reproachful faces of those whom we could have loved devotedly if they had been willing to be straightforward with us; whom we have lost, not by our own will, but by that paralysis of feeling which gradually invades the heart at the discovery of small insincerities. Sincerity seems our only security against losing those who love us, the only cup in which those who are worth keeping will care to pledge us when youth is past.

Rachel was not by nature de celles qui se jettent dan l’amour comme dans un précipice. But she shut her eyes, recommended her soul to God, and threw herself over. She had climbed down once — with assistance — and she was not going to do that again. That she found herself alive at the bottom was a surprise to her, but a surprise that was quickly forgotten in the constant wonder that Hugh could love her as devotedly as it was obvious he did.

Women would have shared that wonder, but not men. There was a home ready-made in Rachel’s faithful, dog-like eyes which at once appealed to the desire of expansion of empire in the heart of the free-born Briton.

Hugh had, until lately, considered woman as connected with the downward slope of life. He would have loudly disclaimed such an opinion if it had been attributed to him; but nevertheless it was the key-note of his behaviour towards them, his belief concerning them which was of a piece with his cheap cynicism and dilettante views of life. He now discovered that woman was made out of something more than man’s spare rib.

It is probable that if he had never been in love with Lady Newhaven Hugh would never have loved Rachel. He would have looked at her, as many men did, with a view to marriage, and would probably have dismissed her from his thoughts as commonplace. He knew better now. It was Lady Newhaven who was commonplace. His worldliness was dropping from him day by day as he learned to know Rachel better.

Where was his cynicism now that she loved him?

His love for her, humble, triumphant, diffident, passionate, impatient by turns, now exacting, now selfless, possessed him entirely. He remembered once with astonishment that he was making a magnificent match. He had never thought of it, as Rachel knew, as she knew well.

December came in bleak and dark. The snow did its poor best, laying day after day its white veil upon the dismal streets. But it was misunderstood. It was scraped into murky heaps. It melted and then froze, and then melted again. And London groaned and shivered on its daily round.

Every afternoon Hugh came, and every morning Rachel made her rooms bright with flowers for him. The flower shop at the corner sent her tiny trees of white lilac, and sweet little united families of hyacinths and tulips. The time of azalias was not yet. And once he sent her a bunch of daffodils. He knew best how he had obtained them.

Their wild sweet faces peered at Rachel, and she sat down faint and dizzy, holding them in her nerveless hands. If one daffodil knows anything, all daffodils know it to the third and fourth generation.

“Where is he?” they said, “that man whom you loved once? We were there when he spoke to you. We saw you stand together by the attic window. We never say, but we heard, we remember. And you cried for joy at right afterwards. We never say. But we heard. We remember.”

Rachel’s secretary in the little room on the ground floor was interrupted by a tap at the door. Rachel came in laden with daffodils. Their splendour filled the grey room.

“Would you mind having them?” she said smiling, and laying them down by her. "And would you kindly write a line to Jones telling him not to send me daffodils again. They are a flower I particularly dislike.”

“Rachel?”

“Hugh!”

“Don’t you think it would be better if we were married immediately?”

“Better than what?”

“Oh! I don’t know, better than breaking it off.”

“You can’t break it off now. I’m not a person to be trifled with. You have gone too far.”

“If you gave me half your attention, you would understand that I am only expressing a wish to go a little further, but you have become so frivolous since we have been engaged that I hardly recognise you.”

“I suit myself to my company.”

“Are you going to talk to me in that flippant manner when we are married. I sometimes fear, Rachel, you don’t look upon me with sufficient awe. I foresee I shall have to be very firm when we are married. When may I begin to be firm?”

“Are these such evil days, Hugh?”

“I am like Oliver Twist,” he said, “I want more.”

They were sitting together one afternoon in the firelight in silence. They often sat in silence together.

“A wise woman once advised me,” said Rachel at last, “if married, never to tell my husband of any previous attachment. She said, Let him always believe that he was the first

That ever burst
Into that silent sea.

I believe it was good advice, but it seems to me to have one drawback — to follow it may be to tell a lie. It would be in my case.”

Silence.

“I know that a lie and an adroit appeal to the vanity of man are supposed to be a woman’s recognised weapons. The same woman told me that I might find myself mistaken in many things in this world, but never in counting on the vanity of man. She said that was a reed which would never pierce my hand. I don’t think you are vain, Hugh.”

“Not vain! Why I am so conceited at the fact that you are going to marry me that I look down on every one else. I only long to tell them so. When may I tell my mother, Rachel? She is coming to London this week.”

“You have the pertinacity of a fly. You always come back to the same point. I am beginning to be rather bored with your marriage. You can’t talk of anything else.”

“I can’t think about anything else.”

He drew her cheek against his. He was an ingratiating creature.

“Neither can I,” she whispered.

And that was all Rachel ever said of all she meant to say about Mr. Tristram.

A yellow fog. It made rings round the shaded electric lamp by which Rachel was reading. The fire burned tawny and blurred. Even her red gown looked dim. Hugh came in.

“What are you reading?” he said, sitting down by her.

He did not want to know, but if you are reading a book on another person’s knee you cannot be a very long way off. He glanced with feigned interest at the open page, stooping a little for he was short-sighted now and then — at least now.

Rachel took the opportunity to look at him. You can’t really look at a person when he is looking at you. Hugh was very handsome, especially side face, and he knew it, but he was not sure whether Rachel thought so.

He read mechanically:

Take back your vows.
Elsewhere you trimmed and taught these lamps to burn;
You bring them stale and dim to serve my turn.
You lit those candles in another shrine,
Guttered and cold you offer them on mine.
Take back your vow.

A shadow fell across Hugh’s mind. Rachel saw it fall.

“You do not think that of me, Rachel,” he said, pointing to the verse. It was the first time he had alluded to that halting confession which had remained branded on the minds of both.

He glanced up at her, and she suffered him for a moment to look through her clear eyes into her soul.

“I never thought that of you,” she said with difficulty. “I am so foolish that I believe the candles are lit now for the first time. I am so foolish that I believe you love me nearly as much as I love you.”

“It is a dream,” said Hugh passionately, and he fell on his knees, and hid his white face against her knee. “It is a dream. I shall wake, and find you never cared for me.”

She sat for a moment stunned by the violence of his emotion, which was shaking him from head to foot. Then she drew him into her trembling arms, and held his head against her breast.

She felt his tears through her gown.

“What is past will never come between us,” she said brokenly at last. “I have cried over it, too, Hugh, but I have put it from my mind. When you told me about it, knowing you risked losing me by telling me, I suddenly trusted you entirely. I had not quite up till then. I can’t say why, except that perhaps I had grown suspicious because I was once deceived. But I do now because you were open with me. I think, Hugh, you and I can dare to be truthful to each other. You have been so to me, and I will be so to you. I knew about that long before you told me. Lady Newhaven, poor thing, confided in me last summer. She had to tell some one. I think you ought to know that I know. And oh, Hugh, I knew about the drawing of lots, too.”

Hugh started violently, but he did not move.

Would she have recognised that ashen convulsed face if he had raised it?

“Lady Newhaven listened at the door when you were drawing lots, and she told me. But we never knew which had drawn the short lighter till Lord Newhaven was killed on the line. Only she and I and you know that that was not an accident. I know what you must have gone through all the summer, feeling you had taken his life as well. But you must remember it was his own doing, and a perfectly even chance. You ran the same risk. His blood is on his own head. But oh, my darling, when I think it might have been you!”

Hugh thought afterwards that if her arms had not been round him, if he had been a little distance from her, he might have told her the truth. He owed it to her, this woman who was the very soul of truth. But if she had withdrawn from him, however gently, in the moment when her tenderness had for the first time vanquished her natural reserve, if she had taken herself away then, he could not have borne it. In deep repentance after Lord Newhaven’s death, he had vowed that from that day forward he would never deviate again from the path of truth and honour, however difficult it might prove. But this frightful moment had come upon him unawares. He drew back instinctively, giddy and unnerved, as from a chasm yawning suddenly among the flowers, one step in front of him. He was too stunned to think. When he rallied they were standing together on the hearthrug, and she was saying — he did not know what she was saying, for he was repeating over and over again to himself, “The moment is past. The moment is past.”

At last her words conveyed some meaning to him. “We will never speak of this again, my friend,” she said; “but now that no harm can be done by it, it seemed right to tell you I knew.”

“I ought never to have drawn,” said Hugh hoarsely.

“No,” said Rachel. “He was in fault to demand such a thing. It was inhuman. But having once drawn he had to abide by it, as you would have done if you had drawn the short lighter.”

She was looking earnestly at him, as at one given back from the grave.

“Yes,” said Hugh, feeling she expected him to speak. “If I had drawn it I should have had to abide by it.”

“I thank God continually that you did not draw it. You made him the dreadful reparation he asked. If it recoiled upon himself you were not to blame. You have done wrong, and you have repented. You have suffered, Hugh. I know it by your face. And perhaps I have suffered, too, but that is past. We will shut up the past, and think of the future. Promise me that you will never speak of this again.”

“I promise,” said Hugh mechanically.

“The moment to speak is past,” he said to himself.

Had it ever been present?

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