Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter XLVIII

Le temps apporte, emporte, mais ne rapporte pas.

MAY I come in?” said the Bishop, tapping at Hester’s door.

“Do come in.”

Hester was lying propped up by many cushions on a sofa in the little sitting-room leading out of her bedroom. She looked a mere shadow in the firelight.

She smiled at him mechanically, but her face relapsed at once into the apathetic expression which sat so ill upon it. Her lustreless eyes fixed themselves again on the fire.

“And what are you going to do this afternoon?” she said politely. It was obvious she did not care what he did.

“I am going to Westhope on business,” he said, looking narrowly at her. It was all very well for Dr. Brown to say she must be roused; but how were his instructions to be carried out?

“I am a great deal of trouble to you,” said Hester. “Could not I be sent to a home, or a place where you go through a cure, where I should be out of the way till I’m well.”

“Have I deserved that, Hester?”

“No; but you know I always try to wound my best friends.”

“You don’t succeed, my child, because they know you are in heavy trouble.”

“We will not speak of that,” said Hester quickly.

“Yes, the time has come to speak of it. Why do you shut us out of this sorrow? Don’t you see that you make our burdens heavier by refusing to let us share yours?”

“You can’t share it,” said Hester, “no one can.”

“Do you think I have not grieved over it?”

“I know you have, but it was waste of time. It’s no good — no good. Please don’t cheer me, and tell me I shall write better books yet, and that this trial is for my good. Dear Bishop, don’t try and comfort me. I can’t bear it.”

“My poor child, I firmly believe you will write better books than the one which is lost, and I firmly believe that you will one day look back upon this time as a step in your spiritual life, but I had not intended to say so. The thought was in my mind, but it was you who put the words into my mouth.”

“I was so afraid that —”

“That I was going to improve the occasion?”

“Yes. Dr. Brown and the nurse are so dreadfully cheerful now, and always talking about the future, and how celebrated I shall be some day. If you and Rachel follow suit I shall — I think I shall go out of my mind.”

The Bishop did not answer.

“Dr. Brown may be right,” Hester went on. “I may live to seventy, and I may become — what does he call it — a distinguished author. I don’t know and I don’t care. But whatever happens in the future, nothing will bring back the book which was burnt.”

The Bishop did not speak. He dared not.

“If I had a child,” Hester continued in the exhausted voice with which he was becoming familiar, “and it died, I might have ten more, beautiful and clever and affectionate, but they would not replace the one I had lost. Only if it were a child,” a little tremor broke the dead level of the passionless voice, “I should meet it again in heaven. There is the resurrection of the body for the children of the body, but there is no resurrection that I ever heard of for the children of the brain.”

Hester held her thin right hand with its disfigured first finger to the fire.

“A great writer who had married and had children whom she worshipped, once told me that the pang of motherhood is that even your children don’t seem your very own. They are often more like some one else than their parents, perhaps the spinster sister-in-law, whom every one dislikes, or some entire alien. Look at Regie. He is just like me, which must be a great trial to Minna. And they grow up bewildering their parents at every turn by characteristics they don’t understand. But she said the spiritual children, the books, are really ours.”

“If you were other than you are,” said Hester, after a long pause, “you would reprove me for worshipping my own work. I suppose love is worship. I loved it for itself, not for anything it was to bring me. That is what people like Dr. Brown don’t understand. It was part of myself. But it was the better part. The side of me which loves success, and which he is always appealing to, had no hand in it. My one prayer was that I might be worthy to write it, that it might not suffer by contact with me. I spent myself upon it.” Hester’s voice sank. “I knew what I was doing. I joyfully spent my health, my eyesight, my very life upon it. I was impelled to do it by what you perhaps will call a blind instinct, what I, poor simpleton and dupe, believed at the time to be nothing less than the will of God.”

“You will think so again,” said the Bishop, “when you realise that the book has left its mark and influence upon your character. It has taught you a great deal. The mere fact of writing it has strengthened you. The outward and visible form is dead, but its spirit lives on in you. You will realise this presently.

“Shall I? On the contrary, the only thing I realise is that it is not God who is mocked, but His foolish children who try to do His bidding. It seems He is not above putting a lying spirit in the mouth of his prophets. Do you think I still blame poor James for his bonfire, or his jealous little wife who wanted to get rid of me? Why should I? They acted up to their lights as your beloved Jock did when he squeezed the life out of that rabbit in Westhope Park. In all those days when I did not say anything, it was because I felt I had been deceived. I had done my part. God had not done His. He should have seen to it that the book was not destroyed. You prayed by me once when you thought I was unconscious. I heard all right. I should have laughed if I could, but it was too much trouble.”

“These thoughts will pass away with your illness,” said the Bishop. “You are like a man who has had a blow, who staggers about giddy and dazed, and sees the pavement rising up to strike him. The pavement is firm under his feet all the time.”

“Half of me knows in a dim blind way that God is the same always,” said Hester, “while the other half says ‘Curse God and die.’”

“That is the giddiness, the vertigo after the shock.”

“Is it? I dare say you are right. But I don’t care either way.”

“Why trouble your mind about it, or about anything?”

“Because I have a feeling, indeed it would be extraordinary if I had not, for Dr. Brown is always rubbing it in, that I ought to meet my trouble bravely, and not sink down under it, as he thinks I am doing now. He says others have suffered more than I have. I know that, for I have been with them. It seems,” said Hester, with the ghost of a smile, “that there is an etiquette about these things, just as the blinds are drawn up after a funeral. The moment has come for me, but I have not drawn up my blinds.”

“You will draw them up presently.”

“I would draw them up now,” said Hester, looking at him steadily, “if I could. I owe it to you and Rachel to try, and I have tried, but I can’t.”

The Bishop’s cheek paled a little.

“Take your own time,” he said, but his heart sank.

He saw a little boat with torn sail and broken rudder, drifting on to a lee shore.

“I seem to have been living at a great strain for the last year,” said Hester. “I don’t know one word from another now, but I think I mean concentration. That means holding your mind to one place, doesn’t it? Well, now, something seems to have broken, and I can’t fix it to anything any more. I can talk to you and Rachel for a few minutes if I hold my mind tight, but I can’t really attend, and directly I am alone or you leave off speaking, my mind gets loose from my body and wanders away to an immense distance, to long dreary desert places. And then if you come in I make a great effort to bring it back, and to open my eyes, because if I don’t you think I’m ill. You don’t mind if I shut them now, do you, because I’ve explained about them, and holding them open does tire me so. I wish they could be propped open. And — my mind gets further and further away every day. I hope you and Rachel won’t think I am giving way if — sometime — I really can’t bring it back any longer.”

“Dear Hester, no.”

“I will not talk any more then. If you and Rachel understand, that is all that matters. I used to think so many things mattered, but I don’t now. And don’t think I’m grieving about the book while I’m lying still. I have grieved, but it is over. I’m too tired to be glad or sorry about anything any more.”

Hester lay back spent and grey among her pillows.

The Bishop roused her to take the stimulant put ready near hand, and then sat a long time watching her. She seemed conscious of his presence. At last the nurse came in, and went out silently, and returned to his study. Rachel was waiting there to hear the result of the interview.

“I can do nothing,” he said. “I have no power to help her. After forty years ministry I have not a word to say to her. She is beyond human aid, at least she is beyond mine.”

“You think she will die?”

“I do not see what is going to happen to prevent it, but I am certain it might be prevented.”

“You could not rouse her?”

“No, she discounted anything I could have said, by asking not to say it. That is the worst of Hester. The partition between her mind and that of other people is so thin that she sees what they are thinking about. Thank God, Rachel, that you are not cursed with the artistic temperament! That is why she has never married. She sees too much. I am not a matchmaker, but if I had had to take the responsibility, I should have married her at seventeen to Lord Newhaven.”

“You know he asked her?”

“No, I did not know it.”

“It was a long time ago, when first she came out. Lady Susan was anxious for it, and pressed her. I sometimes think if she had been given time, and if her aunt had let her alone — but he married within the year. But what are we to do about Hester? Dr. Brown says something must be done, or she will sink in a decline. I would give my life for her, but I can do nothing. I have tried.”

“So have I,” said the Bishop. “But it has come to this. We have got to trust the one person whom we always show we tacitly distrust by trying to take matters out of His hands. We must trust God. So far we have strained ourselves to keep Hester alive, but she is past our help now. She is in none the worse case for that. We are her two best friends save one. We must leave her to the best Friend of all. God has her in His hand. For the moment the greater love holds her away from the less, like the mother who takes her sick child into her arms, apart from the other children who are playing round her. Hester is in God’s keeping, and that is enough for us. And now take a turn in the garden, Rachel. You are too much indoors. I am going out on business.”

When Rachel had left him the Bishop opened his despatch box, and took out a letter.

It was directed to Lady Newhaven.

“I promised to give it into her own hand a month after his death, whenever that might happen to be,” he said to himself. “There was some trouble between them. I hope she won’t confide it to me. Anyhow, I must go and get it over. I wish I did not dislike her so much. I shall advise her not to read it till I am gone.”

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