Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XLVII

The soul of thy brother is a dark forest.

Russian Proverb.

A MARRIAGE has been arranged, and will shortly take place, between Hugh St. John Scarlett, of Kenstone Manor, Shropshire, only son of the late Lord Henry Scarlett, and Rachel, only child of the late Joshua Hopkins West, of Birmingham.”

This announcement appeared in the Morning Post a few days after Christmas, and aroused many different emotions in the breasts of those who read it.

“She has done it to spite me,” said Mr. Tristram to himself over his morning rasher, in the little eating-house near his studio. “I knew there was some one else in her mind when she refused me. I rather thought it was that weedy fellow with the high nose. Will he make her happy because he is a lord’s son? That is what I should like to ask her. Poor Rachel, if we had been able to marry five years ago we should never have heard of this society craze. Well, it’s all over now.” And Mr. Tristram henceforward took the position of a man suffering from an indelible attachment to a woman who had thrown him over for a title.

The Gresleys were astonished at the engagement. It was so extraordinary that they should know both persons. Now that they came to think of it, both of them had been to tea at the Vicarage only last summer.

“A good many people pop in and out of this house,” they agreed.

“I am as certain as that I stand here,” said Mr. Gresley, who was sitting down, “that that noisy boor, that underbred, foul-mouthed Dick Vernon wanted to marry her.”

“Don’t mention him,” said Mrs. Gresley. “When I think of what he dared to say —”

“My love,” said Mr. Gresley, “I have forgiven him. I have put from my mind all he said, for I am convinced he was under the influence of drink at the time. We must make allowance for those who live in hot climates. I bear him no grudge. But I am glad that a man of that stamp should not marry Miss West. Drunkenness makes a hell of married life. Mr. Scarlett, though he looked delicate, had at least the appearance of being abstemious.”

Fraülein heard the news as she was packing her boxes to leave Warpington Vicarage. She was greatly depressed. She could not be with her dear Miss Gresley in this mysterious illness which some secret sorrow had brought upon her; but at least Miss West could minister to her. And now it seemed Miss West was thinking of “Braütigams” more than of Hester.

Fraülein had been very uncomfortable at the Vicarage, but she wept at leaving. Mrs. Gresley had never attained to treating her with the consideration which she would have accorded to one whom she considered her equal. The servants were allowed to disregard with impunity her small polite requests. The nurse was consistently, ferociously jealous of her. But the children had made up for all, and now she was leaving them; and she did not own it to herself, for she was but five and thirty and the shyest of the shy; but she should see no more that noble-hearted, that musical Herr B-r-r-rown.

“Doll,” said Sybell Loftus to her husband at breakfast, “I’ve made another match. I thought at the time he liked her. You remember Rachel West, not pretty, but with a nice expression — and what does beauty matter? She is engaged to Mr. Scarlett.”

“Quiet, decent chap,” said Doll; “and I like her. No nonsense about her. Good thing he wasn’t drowned.”

“Mr. Harvey will feel it. He confided to me that she was his ideal. Now Rachel is everything that is sweet and good and dear, and she will make a most excellent wife, but I should never have thought, would you, that she could be anybody’s ideal?”

Doll opened his mouth to say, “That depends,” but remembered that his wife had taken an unaccountable dislike to that simple phrase, and remained silent.

Captain Pratt, who was spending Christmas with his family was the only person at Warpington Towers who read the papers. On this particular morning he came down to a late breakfast after the others had finished. His father, who was always down at eight, secretly admired his son’s aristocratic habits while he affected to laugh at them. “Shameful luxurious ways, these young men in the Guards. Fashionable society is rotten, sir, rotten to the core. Never get up till noon. My boy is as bad as any of them.”

Captain Pratt propped up the paper open before him while he sipped his coffee and glanced down the columns. His travelling eye reached Hugh’s engagement.

Captain Pratt rarely betrayed any feeling except ennui, but as he read, astonishment got the better of him.

“By George,” he said below his breath.

The bit of omelette on its way to his mouth was slowly lowered again, and remained sticking on the end of his fork.

What did it mean? He recalled that scene in Hugh’s rooms only last week. He had spoken of it to no one, for he intended to earn gratitude by his discretion. Of course, Scarlett was going to marry Lady Newhaven after a decent interval. She was a very beautiful woman, with a large jointure, and she was obviously in love with him. The question of her conduct was not considered. It never entered Captain Pratt’s head, any more than that of a ten-year-old child. He was aware that all the women of the upper classes were immoral, except newly come-out girls. That was an established fact. The only difference between the individuals, which caused a separation as of the sheep from the goats, was whether they were compromised or not. Lady Newhaven was not, unless he chose to compromise her. No breath of scandal had ever touched her.

But what was Scarlett about? Could they have quarrelled? What did it mean? And what would she do now?

“By George!” said Captain Pratt again, and the agate eyes narrowed down to two slits.

He sat a long time motionless, his untasted breakfast before him. His mind was working, weighing, applying now its scales, now its thermometer.

Rachel and Hugh were sitting together looking at a paragraph in the Morning Post.

“Does Miss Gresley take any interest?” said Hugh.

He was a little jealous of Hester. This illness, the cause of which had sincerely grieved him, had come at an inopportune moment. Hester was always taking Rachel from him.

“Yes,” said Rachel, “a little when she remembers. But she can only think of one thing.”

“That unhappy book.”

“Yes. I think the book was to Hester something of what you are to me. Her whole heart was wrapped up in it — and she has lost it. Hugh, whatever happens, you must not be lost now. It is too late. I could not bear it.”

“I can only be lost if you throw me away,” said Hugh.

There was a long silence.

“Lady Newhaven will know to-day,” said Rachel at last. “I tried to break it to her, but she did not believe me.”

“Rachel,” said Hugh, stammering, “I meant to tell you the other day, only we were interrupted, that she came to my rooms the evening before I came down here. I should not have minded quite so much, but Captain Pratt came in with me and — found her there.”

“Oh Hugh, that dreadful man! Poor woman!”

“Poor woman!” said Hugh, his eyes flashing. “It was poor you I thought of. Poor Rachel! to be marrying a man who —”

There was another silence.

“I have one great compensation,” said Rachel, laying her cool, strong hand on his. “You are open with me. You keep nothing back. You need not have mentioned this unlucky meeting, but you did. It was like you. I trust you entirely, Hugh. I bless and thank you for loving me. If my love can make you happy, oh Hughie, you will be happy.”

Hugh shrank from her. The faltered words were as a two-edged sword.

She looked at the sensitive, paling face with tender comprehension. The mother-look crept into her eyes.

“If there is anything else that you wish to tell me, tell me now.”

A wild overwhelming impulse to fling himself over the precipice out of the reach of those stabbing words! A horrible nauseating recoil that seemed to rend his whole being.

Somebody said hoarsely:

“There is nothing else.”

It was his own voice, but not his will, that spoke. Had any one ever made him suffer like this woman who loved him?

Lady Newhaven had returned to Westhope ill with suspense and anxiety. She had felt sure she should successfully waylay Hugh in his rooms, convinced that if they could but meet the clouds between them (to borrow from her vocabulary) would instantly roll away. They had met, and the clouds had not rolled away. She vainly endeavoured to attribute Hugh’s evident anger at the sight of her to her want of prudence, to the accident of Captain Pratt’s presence. She would not admit the thought that Hugh had ceased to care for her, but it needed a good deal of forcible thrusting away. She could hear the knock of the unwelcome guest upon her door, and though always refused admittance he withdrew only to return. She had been grievously frightened, too, at having been seen in equivocal circumstances by such a man as Captain Pratt. The very remembrance made her shiver.

“How angry Edward would have been,” she said to herself. “I wonder whether he would have advised me to write a little note to Captain Pratt, explaining how I came there, and asking him not to mention it. But, of course, he won’t repeat it. He won’t want to make an enemy of me and Hugh. The Pratts think so much of me. And when I marry Hugh”—(knock at the mental door)—”if ever I marry Hugh, we will be civil to him and have him to stay. Edward never would, but I don’t think so much of good family, and all that, as Edward did. We will certainly ask him.”

It was not till after luncheon that Lady Newhaven, after scanning the Ladies’ Pictorial, languidly opened the Morning Post.

Suddenly the paper fell from her hands on to the floor. She seized it up and read again the paragraph which had caught her eye.

“No. No,” she gasped; “it is not true. It is not possible.” And she read it a third time.

The paper fell from her nerveless hands again, and this time it remained on the floor.

It is doubtful whether until this moment Lady Newhaven had known what suffering was. She had talked freely of it to others. She had sung, as if it were her own composition, “Cleansing Fires.” She often said it might have been written for her.

In the cruel fire of sorrow,

    [soft pedal.

Cast thy heart, do not faint or wail,

    [both pedals down, quicker.
Let thy hand be firm and steady,

    [loud, and hold on to last syllable.

Do not let thy spi-rit quail,

    [bang! B natural. With resolution.

Bu-ut . . .

    [hurricane of false notes, &c. &c.

But now, poor thing, the fire had reached her, and her spirit quailed immediately. Perhaps it was only natural that as her courage failed something else should take its place; an implacable burning resentment against her two betrayers, her lover and her friend. She rocked herself to and fro. Lover and friend. “Oh! never, never trust in man’s love or woman’s friendship henceforth for ever.” So learned Lady Newhaven the lesson of suffering.

“Lover and friend hast Thou put far from me,” she sobbed, “and mine acquaintance out of my sight.”

A ring at the door-bell proved that the latter part of the text at any rate was not true in her case.

A footman entered.

“Not at home. Not at home,” she said impatiently.

“I said not at home, but the gentleman said I was to take up his card,” said the man, presenting a card.

When Captain Pratt tipped he tipped heavily.

Lady Newhaven read it.

“No. Yes. I will see him,” she said. It flashed across her mind that she must be civil to him, and that her eyes were not red. She had not shed tears.

The man picked the newspaper from the floor, put it on a side table, and withdrew.

Captain Pratt came in, bland, deferential, orchid in buttonhole.

It was not until he was actually in the room, his cold appraising eyes upon her, that the poor woman realised that her position towards him had changed. She could not summon up the nonchalant distant civility which, according to her ideas, was sufficient for her country neighbours in general, and the Pratts in particular.

Captain Pratt opined that the weather, though cold, was seasonable.

Lady Newhaven agreed.

Captain Pratt regretted the hard frost on account of the hunting. Four hunters eating their heads off, &c.

Lady Newhaven thought the thaw might come any day.

Captain Pratt had been skating yesterday on the parental flooded meadow. Flooded with fire engine. Men out of work. Glad of employment, &c.

How kind of Captain Pratt to employ them.

Not at all. It was his father. Duties of the landed gentry, &c. He believed if the frost continued they would skate on Beaumere.

No, no one was allowed to skate on Beaumere. The springs rendered the ice treacherous.

Silence.

Captain Pratt turned the gold knob of his stick slowly in his thick white fingers. He looked carefully at Lady Newhaven, as a connoisseur with intent to buy looks at a piece of valuable china. She was accustomed to being looked at, but there was something in Captain Pratt’s prolonged scrutiny which filled her with vague alarm. She writhed under it. He observed her uneasiness, but he did not remove his eyes.

Were the boys well?

They were quite well, thanks. She was cowed.

Were they fond of skating?

Very fond.

Might he suggest that they should come over and skate at Warpington Towers to-morrow. He himself would be there, and would take charge of them.

He rose slowly as one who has made up his mind. Lady Newhaven feared it would be troubling Captain Pratt too much.

It would be no trouble to Captain Pratt; on the contrary, a pleasure.

His hand was now extended. Lady Newhaven had to put hers into it.

Perhaps next week if the frost held. She tried to withdraw her hand. Oh, well, then, to-morrow; certainly, to-morrow.

“You may rely on me to take care of them,” said Captain Pratt, still holding her hand. He obliged her to look at him. His hard eyes met her frightened blue ones. “You may rely on my discretion entirely — in all matters,” he said meaningly.

Lady Newhaven winced, and her hand trembled violently in his.

He pressed the shrinking little hand, let it go, and went away.

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