Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XLV

Dieu n’oublie personne. Il visite tout le monde.

VINET.

HUGH did not sleep that night.

His escape had been too narrow. He shivered at the mere thought of it. It had never struck him as possible that Rachel and Lady Newhaven had known of the drawing of lots. Now that he found they knew, sundry small incidents, unnoticed at the time, came crowding back to his memory. That was why Lady Newhaven had written so continually those letters which he had burnt unread. That was why she had made that desperate attempt to see him in the smoking-room at Wilderleigh after the boating accident. She wanted to know which had drawn the short lighter. That explained the mysterious tension which Hugh had noticed in Rachel during the last days in London before — before the time was up. He saw it all now. And, of course, they naturally supposed that Lord Newhaven had committed suicide. They could not think otherwise. They were waiting for one of the two men to do it.

“If Lord Newhaven had not turned giddy and stumbled on to the line, if he had not died by accident when he did,” said Hugh to himself, “where should I be now?”

There was no answer to that question.

What was the use of asking it? He was dead. And, fortunately, the two women firmly believed he had died by his own hand. Hugh as firmly believed that the death was accidental.

But it could not be his duty to set them right, to rake up the whole hideous story again.

By an extraordinary, by a miraculous chance, he was saved, as it were, a second time. It could do no good to allude to the dreadful subject again. Besides, he had promised Rachel never to speak of it again.

He groaned, and hid his face in his hands.

“Oh, coward and wretch that I am,” he said. “Cannot I even be honest with myself? I lied to her to-day. I never thought I could have told Rachel a lie, but I did. I can’t live without her. I must have her. I would rather die than lose her now. And I should have lost her if I’d told her the truth. I felt that. I am not worthy. It was an ill day for her when she took my tarnished life into her white hands. She ought to have trodden me under foot. But she does love me, and I will never deceive her again. She does love me, and, God helping me, I will make her happy.”

The strain of conflict was upon Hugh — the old, old conflict of the seed with the earth, of the soul with love. How many little fibres and roots the seed puts out, pushed by an unrecognised need within itself, not without pain, not without a gradual rending of its being, not without a death unto self into a higher life. Love was dealing with Hugh’s soul as the earth deals with the seed, and — he suffered.

It was a man who did not look like an accepted lover who presented himself at Rachel’s door the following afternoon.

But Rachel was not there. Her secretary handed Hugh a little note which she had left for him, telling him that Hester had suddenly fallen ill, and that she had been sent for to Southminster. The note ended: “These first quiet days are past. So now you may tell your mother, and put our engagement in the Morning Post.”

Hugh was astonished at the despair which overwhelmed him at the bare thought that he should not see Rachel that day and not the next either. It was not to be borne. She had no right to make him suffer like this. Day by day, when a certain restless fever returned upon him, he had known, as an opium eater knows, that at a certain hour he should become rested and calm and sane once more. To be in the same room with Rachel, to hear her voice, to let his eyes dwell upon her, to lean his forehead for a moment against her hand, was to enter, as we enter in dreams, a world of joy and comfort, and boundless, endless, all-pervading peace.

And now he was suddenly left shivering in a bleak world without her. With her he was himself, a released, freed self, growing daily further and further away from all he had once been. Without her he felt he was nothing but a fierce wounded animal.

He tried to laugh at himself as he walked slowly away from Rachel’s house. He told himself that he was absurd, that an absence of a few days was nothing. He turned his steps mechanically in the direction of his mother’s lodgings. At any rate, he could tell her. He could talk about this cruel woman to her. The smart was momentarily soothed by his mother’s painful joy. He wrenched himself somewhat out of himself as she wept the tears of jealous love which all mothers must weep when the woman comes who takes their son away.

“I am so glad,” she kept repeating. “These are tears of joy, Hughie. I can forgive her for accepting you, but I should never have forgiven her if she had refused you — if she had made my boy miserable. And you have been miserable lately I have seen it for a long time. I suppose it was all this coming on.”

He said it was. The remembrance of other causes of irritation and moodiness had slipped entirely off his mind.

He stayed a long time with his mother, who pressed him to wait till his sister, who was shopping, returned. But his sister tarried long out of doors, and at last the pain of Rachel’s absence returning on him, he left suddenly, promising to return in the evening.

He did not go back to his rooms. He wandered aimlessly through the darkening streets, impatient of the slow hours. At last he came out on the Embankment. The sun was setting redly, frostily, in a grey world of sky-mist and river-mist and spectral bridge and spire. A shaking pathway of pale flame came across the grey of the hidden river to meet him.

He stood a long time looking at it. The low sun touched and forsook, touched and forsook point by point the little crowded world which it was leaving.

“My poor mother,” said Hugh to himself. “Poor, gentle, loving soul whom I so nearly brought down with sorrow to the grave. She will never know what an escape she has had. I might have been more to her. I might have made her happier, seeing her happiness is wrapped up in me. I will make up to her for it. I will be a better son to her in future. Rachel and I together will make her last years happy. Rachel and I together,” said Hugh over and over again.

And then he suddenly remembered that though Rachel had taken herself away he could write to her, and — he might look out the trains to Southminster. He leaped into a hansom and hurried back to his rooms.

The porter met him in a mysterious manner in the entrance. Lady waiting to see him. Lady said she was his sister. Had been waiting two hours. In his rooms now.

Hugh laughed and ran up the wide common staircase. His sister had heard the news from his mother and had rushed over at once.

As he stooped a little to fit the latch-key on his chain into the lock a man, who was coming down the stairs feeling in his pockets, stopped with a sudden exclamation. It was Captain Pratt, pallid, smiling, hair newly varnished, resplendent in a magnificent fur overcoat.

“What luck,” he said. “Scarlett, I think. We met at Wilderleigh. Have you such a thing as a match about you?”

Hugh felt in his pockets. He had not one.

“Never mind,” he said, opening the door. “I’ve plenty inside. Come in.”

Hugh went in first, extricating his key. Captain Pratt followed, murmuring "Nice little dens, these. A pal of mine lives just above — Streatham. You know Streatham, son of Lord —”

The remainder of the sentence was lost.

The door opened straight into the little sitting-room. A woman in deep mourning rose suddenly out of a chair by the fire and came towards them.

“Hughie!” she said.

It was Lady Newhaven.

It is probable that none of the tableaux she had arranged were quite so dramatic as this one, in which she had not reckoned on that elaborate figure in the doorway.

Captain Pratt’s opinion of Hugh, whom he had hitherto regarded as a pauper with an involved estate, leapt from temperate to summer heat — blood heat. After the first instant he kept his eyes steadily fixed on Hugh.

“I— er — thank you, Scarlett. I have found my matches. A thousand thanks. Good night.”

He was disappearing, but Hugh, his eyes flashing in his grey face, held him forcibly by the arm.

“Lady Newhaven,” he said. “The porter is inexcusable. These are my rooms which he has shown you into by mistake, not Mr. Streatham’s, your nephew. He is just above. I think,” turning to Captain Pratt, “Streatham is out of town.”

“He is out of town,” said Captain Pratt, looking with cold admiration at Hugh. “Admirable,” he said to himself; “a born gentleman.”

“This is not the first time Streatham’s visitors have been shown in here,” continued Hugh. “The porter shall be dismissed. I trust you will forgive me my share in the annoyance he has caused you. Is your carriage waiting?”

“No,” said Lady Newhaven faintly, quite thrown off the lines of her prepared scene by the sudden intrusion into it of a foreign body.

“My hansom is below,” said Captain Pratt deferentially, venturing, now that the situation was, so to speak, draped, to turn his discreet agate eyes towards Lady Newhaven. "If it could be of the least use, I myself should prefer to walk.”

Now that he looked at her he looked very hard at her. She was a beautiful woman.

Lady Newhaven’s self-possession had returned sufficiently for her to take up her fur cloak.

“Thank you,” she said, letting Captain Pratt help her on with it. “I shall be glad to make use of your hansom, if you are sure you can spare it. I am shocked at having taken possession of your rooms,” turning to Hugh; “I will write to Georgie Streatham to-night. I am staying with my mother, and I came across to ask him to take my boys to the pantomime, as I cannot take them myself — so soon,” with a glance at her crape. “Don’t come down, Mr. Scarlett. I have given you enough trouble already.”

Captain Pratt’s arm was crooked. He conducted her in his best manner to the foot of the staircase and helped her into his hansom. His manner was not so unctuous as his father’s, but it was slightly adhesive. Lady Newhaven shuddered involuntarily as she took his arm.

Hugh followed.

“I hope you will both come and see my mother,” she said, with an attempt at graciousness. “You know Lady Trentham, I think?"— to Captain Pratt.

“Very slightly. No. Delighted!” murmured Captain Pratt, closing the hansom doors in an intimate manner. “And if I could be of the least use at any time in taking your boys to the pantomime — er — only too glad. The glass down, Richards!”

The hansom with its splendid bay horse rattled off.

Captain Pratt nodded to Hugh, who was still standing on the steps, and turned away to buy a box of matches from a passing urchin. Then he turned up his fur collar, and proceeded leisurely on his way.

“Very stand-off both of them in the past,” he said to himself, "but they will have to be civil in future. I wonder if he will make her keep her title. Deuced awkward for them both though, only a month after Newhaven’s death. I wish that sort of contretemps would happen to me when I’m bringing in a lot of fellows suddenly. An opening like that is all I want to give me a start, and I should get on as well as anybody. The aristocracy all hang together, whatever Selina and Ada may say. Money don’t buy everything, as the governor thinks. But if you’re once in with ’em you’re in.”

Hugh went back to his room and locked himself in. He was a delicate man, highly strung, and he had not slept the night before. He collapsed into a chair and remained a long time, his head in his hands.

It was too horrible, this woman coming back upon him suddenly like the ghost of some one whom he had murdered. His momentary infatuation had been clean forgotten in his overwhelming love for Rachel. His intrigue with Lady Newhaven seemed so long ago that it had been relegated to the same mental shelf in his mind as the nibbling of a certain forbidden ginger-bread when he was home for his first holidays. He could not be held responsible for either offence after this immense interval of time. It was not he who had committed them, but that other embryo self, that envelope of flesh and sense which he was beginning to abhor, through which he had passed before he reached himself, Hugh, the real man, the man who loved Rachel, and whom Rachel loved.

He had not flinched when he came unexpectedly on Lady Newhaven. At the sight of her a sudden passion of anger shot up and enveloped him as in one flame from head to foot. His love for Rachel was a weapon, and he used it. He did not greatly care about his own good name, but the good name of the man whom Rachel loved was a thing to fight for. It was for her sake, not Lady Newhaven’s, that he had concocted the story of the mistaken rooms. He should not have had the presence of mind if Rachel had not been concerned.

He had not finished with Lady Newhaven. He should have trouble yet with her, hideous scenes, in which the corpse of his dead lust would be dragged up, a thing to shudder at, out of its nettly grave.

He could bear it. He must bear it. Nothing would induce him to marry Lady Newhaven, as she evidently expected. He set his teeth. “She will know the day after to-morrow,” he said to himself, “when she sees my engagement to Rachel in the papers. Then she will get at me somehow, and make my life a hell to me, while she can. And she will try and come between me and Rachel. I deserve it. I deserve anything I get. But Rachel knows and will stick to me. I will go down to her to-morrow. I can’t go on without seeing her. And she won’t mind, as the engagement will be given out next day.”

He became more composed at the thought of Rachel. But presently his lip quivered. It would be all right in the end. But, oh! not to have done it! Not to have done it! To have come to his marriage with a whiter past, not to need her forgiveness on the very threshold of their life together, not to have been unfaithful to her before he knew her.

What man who has disbelieved in his youth in the sanctity of Love, and then later has knelt in its Holy of Holies, has escaped that pang?

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/cholmondeley/mary/red/chapter45.html

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