Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XLVI

There’s neither honesty, manhood, nor good fellowship in thee.

SHAKESPEARE.

MY mind misgives me, Dick!” said the Bishop, a day or two later, as Dick joined him and his sister and Rachel at luncheon at the Palace. “I am convinced that you have been up to some mischief.”

“I have just returned from Warpington, my lord. I understood it was your wish I should ride over and tell them Hester was better.”

“It certainly was my wish. I’m very much obliged to you. But I remembered after you had gone that you had refused to speak to Gresley when he was over here, and I was sorry I sent you.”

“I spoke to him all right,” said Dick grimly. “That was why I was so alacritous to go.”

The Bishop looked steadily at him.

“Until you are my suffragan I should prefer to manage my own business with my clergy.”

“Just so,” said Dick, helping himself to mustard. “But you see I’m his cousin, and I thought it just as well to let him know quietly and dispassionately what I thought of him. So I told him I was not particular about my acquaintances. I knew lots of bad eggs out in Australia, half of them hatched in England, chaps who’d been shaved and tubbed gratis by Government, in fact I’d a large visiting list, but that I drew the line at such a cad as him, and that he might remember I wasn’t going to preach for him at any more of his little cold water cures"— a smile hovered on Dick’s crooked mouth —“or ever take any notice of him in future. That was what he wanted, my lord. You were too soft with him, if you’ll excuse my saying so. But that sort of chap wants it giving him hot and strong. He doesn’t understand anything else. He gets quite beyond himself, fizzing about on his little pocket-handkerchief of a parish, thinking he is a sort of god, because no one makes it their business to keep him in his place, and rub it into him that he is an infernal fool. That is why some clergymen jaw so, because they never have it brought home to them what rot they talk. They’d be no sillier than other men if they were only treated properly. I was very calm, but I let him have it. I told him he was a mean sneak, and that either he was the biggest fool or the biggest rogue going, and that the mere fact of his cloth did not give him the right to do dishonest things with other people’s property, though it did save him from the pounding he richly deserved. He tried to interrupt, indeed he was tooting all the time like a fog-horn, but I did not take any notice, and I wound up by saying it was men like him who brought discredit on the Church and on the clergy, and who made the gorge rise of decent chaps like me.”

“Yes,” said Dick after a pause. “When I left him he understood, I don’t say entirely, but he had a distant glimmering. It isn’t often I go on these errands of mercy, but I felt that the least I could do was to back you up, my lord. Of course, it is in little matters like this that lay helpers come in, who are not so hampered about their language as I suppose the clergy are.”

The Bishop tried, he tried hard, to look severe, but his mouth twitched.

“Don’t thank me,” said Dick. “Nothing is a trouble where you are concerned. It was — ahem — pleasure.”

“That I can believe,” said the Bishop. “Well, Dick, Providence makes use of strange instruments — the jawbone of an ass has a certain Scriptural prestige. I daresay you reached poor Gresley where I failed. I certainly failed. But if it is not too much to ask, I should regard it as a favour another time if I might be informed beforehand what direction your diocesan aid was about to take.”

Dr. Brown, who often came to luncheon at the Palace, came in now. He took off his leathern driving gloves and held his hands to the fire.

“Cold,” he said. “They’re skating everywhere. How is Miss Gresley?”

“She knows us to-day,” said Rachel, “and she is quite cheerful.”

“Does the poor thing know her book is burnt?”

“No. She was speaking this morning of its coming out in the spring.”

The little doctor thrust out his underlip and changed the subject.

“I travelled from Pontesbury this morning,” he said, “with that man who was nearly drowned at Beaumere in the summer. I doctored him at Wilderleigh. Tall, thin, rather a fine gentleman. I forget his name.”

Dr. Brown always spoke of men above himself in the social scale as “fine gentlemen.”

“Mr. Redman,” said Miss Keane, the Bishop’s sister, a dignified person, who had been hampered throughout life by a predilection for the wrong name, and by making engagements in illegible handwriting by last year’s almanacs.

“Was it Mr. Scarlett?” said Rachel, feeling Dick’s lynx eye upon her. “I was at Wilderleigh when the accident happened.”

“That’s the man. He got out at Southminster, and asked me which was the best hotel. No, I won’t have any more, thanks. I’ll go up and see Miss Gresley at once.”

Rachel followed the Bishop into the library. They generally waited there together till the doctor came down.

“I don’t know many young men I like better than Dick,” said the Bishop. "I should marry him if I were a young woman. I admire the way he acts up to his principles. Very few of us do. Until he has a further light on the subject he is right to knock a man down who insults him. And from his point of view he was justified in speaking to Mr. Gresley as he did. I was sorely tempted to say something of that kind to him myself, but as one grows grey one realises that one can only speak in a spirit of love. A man of Dick’s stamp will always be respected because he does not assume virtues which belong to a higher grade than he is on at present. But when he reaches that higher grade he will act as thoroughly upon the convictions that accompany it as he does now on his present convictions.”

“He certainly would not turn the other cheek to the smiter.”

“I should not advise the smiter to reckon on it. And unless it is turned from that rare sense of spiritual brotherhood it would be unmanly to turn it. To imitate the outward appearance of certain virtues is like imitating the clothes of a certain class. It does not make us belong to the class to dress like it. The true foundation for the spiritual life, as far as I can see it, is in the full development of our human nature with all its simple trusts and aspirations. I admire Dick’s solid foundation. It will carry a building worthy of him some day. But my words of wisdom appear to be thrown away upon you. You are thinking of something else.”

“I was thinking that I ought to tell you that I am engaged to be married.”

The Bishop’s face lit up.

“I am engaged to Mr. Scarlett. That is why he has come down here.”

The Bishop’s face fell. Rachel had been three days at the Palace. Dick had not allowed the grass to grow under his feet. “That admirable promptitude,” the Bishop had remarked to himself, “deserves success.”

“Poor, dear Dick,” he said softly.

“That is what Hester says. I told her yesterday.”

“I really have a very high opinion of Dick,” said the Bishop.

“So have I. If I might have two I would certainly choose him second.”

“But this superfluous Mr. Scarlett comes first, eh?”

“I am afraid he does.”

“Well,” said the Bishop with a sigh, “if you are so ungrateful as to marry to please yourself instead of to please me there is nothing more to be said. I will have a look at your Mr. Scarlett when he comes to tea. I suppose he will come to tea. I notice the most farouche men do when they are engaged. It is the first step in the taming process. I shall of course bring an entirely unprejudiced mind to bear upon him, as I always make a point of doing, but I warn you beforehand I shan’t like him.”

“Because he is not Mr. Dick.”

“Well, yes, because he is not Dick. I suppose his name is Bertie.”

“Not Bertie,” said Rachel indignantly, “Hugh.”

“It’s a poor inefficient kind of name, only four letters, and a duplicate at each end. I don’t think, my dear, he is worthy of you.”

“Dick has only four letters.”

“I make it a rule never to argue with women. Well, Rachel, I’m glad you have decided to marry. Heaven bless you, and may you be happy with this man. Ah! Here comes Dr. Brown.”

“Well!” said the Bishop and Rachel simultaneously.

“She’s better,” said the little doctor angrily, he was always angry when he was anxious. “She’s round the first corner. But how to pull her round the next corner, that is what I’m thinking.”

“Defer the next corner.”

“We can’t now her mind is clear. She’s as sane as you or I are, and a good deal sharper. When she asks about her book she’ll have to be told.”

“A lie would be quite justifiable under the circumstances.”

“Of course, of course, but it would be useless. You might hoodwink her for a day or two, and then she would find out, first that the magnum opus is gone, and secondly, that you and Miss West, whom she does trust entirely at present, have deceived her. You know what she is when she thinks she is being deceived. She abused you well, my lord, until you reinstated yourself by producing Regie Gresley. But you can’t reinstate yourself a second time. You can’t produce the book.”

“No,” said the Bishop. “That is gone for ever.”

Rachel could not trust herself to speak. Perhaps she had realised more fully than even the Bishop had done what the loss of the book was to Hester, at least, what it would be when she knew it was gone.

“Tell her, and give her that if she becomes excitable,” said Dr. Brown, producing a minute bottle out of a voluminous pocket. “And if you want me I shall be at Canon Wylde’s at five o’clock. I’ll look in anyhow before I go home.”

Rachel and the Bishop stood a moment in silence after he was gone, and then Rachel took up the little bottle, read the directions carefully, and turned to go upstairs.

The Bishop looked after her but did not speak. He was sorry for her.

“You can go out till tea-time,” said Rachel to the nurse. “I will stay with Miss Gresley till then.”

Hester was lying on a couch by the fire in a rose-coloured wrapper. Her small face set in its ruffle of soft lace looked bright and eager. Her hair had been cut short, and she looked younger and more like Regie than ever.

Her thin hands lay contentedly in her lap. The principal bandages were gone. Only three fingers of the right hand were in a chrysalis state.

“I shall not be in too great a hurry to get well,” she said to Rachel. “If I do you will rush away to London and get married.”

“Shall I?” Rachel set down the little bottle on the mantelpiece.

“When is Mr. Scarlett coming down?”

“He came down to-day.”

“Then possibly he may call.”

“Such things do happen.”

“I should like to see him.”

“In a day or two, perhaps.”

“And I want to see dear Dick, too.”

“He sent you his love. Mr. Pratt was here at luncheon yesterday, and he asked me who the old chap was who put on his clothes with a shoe-horn.”

“How like him! Has he said anything more to the Bishop on the uses of swearing?”

“No. But the Bishop draws him on. He delights in him.”

“Rachel, are you sure you have chosen the best man?”

“Quite sure, I mean I never had any choice in the matter. You see I love Hugh, and I’m only fond of Mr. Dick.”

“I always liked Mr. Scarlett,” said Hester. “I’ve known him ever since I came out, and that wasn’t yesterday. He is so gentle and refined, and one need not be on one’s guard in talking to him. He understands what one says, and he is charming looking.”

“Of course, I think so.”

“And this is the genuine thing, Rachel? Do you remember our talk last summer?”

Rachel was silent a moment.

“All I can say is,” she said brokenly, “that I thank God day and night that Mr. Tristram did not marry me — that I’m free to marry Hugh.”

Hester’s uncrippled hand stole into Rachel’s.

“Everybody will think,” said Rachel, “when they see the engagement in to-morrow’s papers that I give him everything, because he is poor and his place involved, and of course I am horribly wealthy. But in reality it is I who am poor and he who is rich. He has given me a thousand times more than I could ever give him, because he has given me back the power of loving. It almost frightens me that I can care so much a second time. I should not have thought it possible. But I seem to have got the hang of it now, as Mr. Dick would say. I wish you were downstairs, Hester, as you will be in a day or two. You would be amused by the way he shocks Miss Keane. She asked if he had written anything on his travels, and he said he was on the point of bringing out a little book on ‘Cannibal Cookery,’ for the use of Colonials. He said some of the recipes were very simple. He began: ‘You take a hand and close it round a yam.’ But the Bishop stopped him.”

The moment Rachel had said, “He is on the point of bringing out a book,” her heart stood still. How could she have said such a thing? But apparently Hester took no notice.

“He must have been experimenting on my poor hand,” she said. “I’m sure I never burnt it like this myself.”

“It will soon be better now.”

“Oh! I don’t mind about it now that it doesn’t hurt all the time.”

“And your head does not ache to-day, does it?”

“Nothing to matter. But I feel as if I had fallen on it from the top of the cathedral. Dr. Brown says that is nonsense, but I think so all the same. When you believe a thing, and you’re told it’s nonsense, and you still believe it, that is an hallucination, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“I have had a great many,” said Hester slowly. “I suppose I have been more ill than I knew. I thought I saw, I really did see, the spirits of the frost and the snow looking in at the window. And I talked to them a long time, and asked them what quarrel they had with me, their sister, that since I was a child they had always been going about to kill me. Aunt Susan always seemed to think they were enemies who gave me bronchitis. And I told them how I loved them and all their works. And they breathed on the pane and wrote beautiful things in frost-work, and I read them all. Now, Rachel, is that an hallucination about the frost-work, because it seems to me still, now that I am better, though I can’t explain it, that I do see the meaning of it at last, and that I shall never be afraid of them again.”

Rachel did not answer.

She had long since realised that Hester, when in her normal condition, saw things which she herself did not see. She had long since realised that Hester always accepted as final the limit of vision of the person she was with, but that that limit changed with every person she met. Rachel had seen her adjust it to persons more short-sighted than herself, with secret self-satisfaction, and then with sudden bewilderment had heard Hester accept as a commonplace from some one else what appeared to Rachel fantastic in the extreme. If Rachel had considered her own mind as the measure of the normal of all other minds, she could not have escaped the conclusion that Hester was a victim of manifold delusions. But, fortunately for herself, she saw that most ladders possessed more than the one rung on which she was standing.

“That is quite different, isn’t it?” said Hester, “from thinking Dr. Brown is a grey wolf.”

“Quite different. That was an hallucination of fever. You see that for yourself now that you have no fever.”

“I see that, of course, now that I have no fever,” repeated Hester, her eyes widening. “But one hallucination quite as foolish as that is always coming back, and I can’t shake it off. The wolf was gone directly, but this is just the same now I am better, only it gets worse and worse. I have never spoken of it to any one, because I know it is so silly. But, Rachel — I have no fever now — and yet — I know you’ll laugh at me — I laugh at my own foolish self — and yet all the time I have a horrible feeling that”— Hester’s eyes had in them a terror that was hardly human —“that my book is burnt.”

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