Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter V

What the Bandar-log think now the jungle will think later.

Maxim of the Bandar-logRUDYARD KIPLING.

IT was Sybell Loftus’s first season in London since her second marriage with Mr. Doll Loftus. After a very brief sojourn in that city of frivolity she had the acumen to discover that London society was hopelessly worldly and mercenary, that people only met to eat and to abuse each other, that the law of cutlet for cutlet was universal, that young men, especially those in the Guards, were garrisoned by a full complement of devils, that London girls lived only for dress and the excitement of husband-hunting. In short, to use her own expression, she “turned London society inside out.”

London bore the process with equanimity, and presently Sybell determined to raise the art of dinner-giving from the low estate to which she avowed it had fallen to a higher level. She was young, she was pretty, she was well born, she was rich. All the social doors were open to her. But one discovery is often only the prelude to another. She soon made the further one that in order to raise the tone of social gatherings it is absolutely necessary to infuse into them a leaven of “clever people.” Further light on this interesting subject showed her that most of the really “clever people” did not belong to her set. The discovery which all who love adulation quickly make — namely, that the truly appreciative and sympathetic and gifted are for the greater part to be found in a class below their own — was duly made and registered by Sybell. She avowed that class differences were nothing to her with the enthusiasm of all those who since the world began have preferred to be first in the society which they gather round them.

Fortunately for Sybell she was not troubled by doubts respecting the clearness of her own judgment. Eccentricity was in her eyes originality; a wholesale contradiction of established facts was a new view. She had not the horrid perception of difference between the real and the imitation which spoils the lives of many. She was equally delighted with both, and remained in blissful ignorance of the fact that her “deep” conversation was felt to be exhaustingly superficial if by chance she came across the real artist or thinker instead of his counterfeit.

Consequently to her house came the raté in all his most virulent developments; the “new woman” with stupendous lopsided opinions on difficult Old Testament subjects; the “lady authoress” with a mission to show up the vices of a society which she knew only by hearsay. Hither came unwittingly simple-minded Church dignitaries, who, Sybell hoped, might influence for his good the young agnostic poet who had written a sonnet on her muff-chain, a very daring sonnet, which Doll, who did not care for poetry, had not been shown. Hither, by mistake, thinking it was an ordinary dinner-party, came Hugh, whom Sybell said she had discovered, and who was not aware that he was in need of discovery. And hither also on this particular evening came Rachel West, whom Sybell had pronounced to be very intelligent a few days before, and who was serenely unconscious that she was present on her probation, and that if she did not say something striking she would never be asked again.

Doll Loftus, Sybell’s husband, was standing by Rachel when Hugh came in. He felt drawn towards her because she was not “clever” as far as her appearance went. At any rate, she had not the touzled, ill-groomed hair which he had learned to associate with female genius.

“This sort of thing is beyond me,” he said mournfully to Rachel, his eyes travelling over the assembly gathered round his wife, whose remarks were calling forth admiring laughter. “I don’t understand half they say, and when I do I sometimes wish I didn’t. But I suppose,” tentatively, “you go in for all this sort of thing?”

“I!” said Rachel astonished. “I don’t go in for anything. But what sort of thing do you mean?”

“There is Scarlett,” said Doll with relief, who hated definitions, and felt the conversation was on the slippery verge of becoming deep. “Do you know him? Looks as if he’d seen a ghost, doesn’t he?”

Rachel’s interest, never a heavy sleeper, was instantly awakened as she saw Sybell piloting Hugh towards her. She recognised him — the man she had seen last night in the hansom and afterwards at the Newhavens. A glance showed her that his trouble, whatever it might be, had pierced beyond the surface feelings of anger and impatience, and had reached the quick of his heart. The young man, pallid and heavy-eyed, bore himself well, and Rachel respected him for his quiet demeanour and a certain dignity, which, for the moment, obliterated the slight indecision of his face, and gave his mouth the firmness which it lacked. It seemed to Rachel as if he had but now stood by a deathbed, and had brought with him into the crowded room the shadow of an inexorable fate.

The others only perceived that he had a headache. Hugh did not deny it. He complained of the great heat to Sybell, but not to Rachel. Something in her clear eyes told him, as they told many others, that small lies and petty deceits might be laid aside with impunity in dealing with her. He felt no surprise at seeing her, no return of the sudden violent emotion of the night before. He had never spoken to her till this moment, but yet he felt that her eyes were old friends, tried to the uttermost and found faithful in some forgotten past. Rachel’s eyes had a certain calm fixity in them that comes not of natural temperament but of past conflict, long waged, and barely but irrevocably won. A faint ray of comfort stole across the desolation of his mind as he looked at her. He did not notice whether she was handsome or ugly, any more than we do when we look at the dear familiar faces which were with us in their childhood and ours, which have grown up beside us under the same roof, which have rejoiced with us and wept with us, and without which heaven itself could never be a home.

In a few minutes he was taking her in to dinner. He had imagined that she was a woman of few words, but after a faint attempt at conversation he found that he had relapsed into silence, and that it was she who was talking. Presently the heavy cloud upon his brain lifted. His strained face relaxed. She glanced at him, and continued her little monologue. Her face had brightened.

He had dreaded this dinner party, this first essay to preserve his balance in public with his frightful invisible burden, but he was getting through it better than he had expected.

“I have come back to what is called society,” Rachel was saying, “after nearly seven years of an exile something like Nebuchadnezzar’s, and there are two things which I find as difficult as Kipling’s ‘silly sailors’ found their harps ‘which they twanged unhandily.’”

“Is small talk one of them?” asked Hugh. “It has always been a difficulty to me.”

“On the contrary,” said Rachel. “I plume myself on that. Surely my present sample is not so much below the average that you need ask me that.”

“I did not recognise that it was small talk,” said Hugh with a faint smile. “If it really is I can only say I shall have brain fever if you pass on to what you might call conversation.”

It was to him as if a miniature wavelet of a great ocean somewhere in the distance had crept up to laugh and break at his feet. He did not recognise that this tiniest runlet which fell back at once was of the same element as the tidal wave which had swept over him yesternight.

“But are you aware,” said Rachel, dropping her voice a little, “it is beginning to dawn upon me, that this evening’s gathering is met together for exalted conversation, and perhaps we ought to be practising a little. I feel certain that after dinner you will be ‘drawn through the clefts of confession’ by Miss Barker, the woman in the high dinner gown with orange velvet sleeves. Mrs. Loftus introduced her to me when I arrived as the ‘apostle of humanity.’”

“Why should you fix on that particular apostle for me?” said Hugh, looking resentfully at a large-faced woman, who was talking in an “intense” manner to a slightly bewildered Bishop.

“It is a prophetic instinct, nothing more.”

“I will have a prophetic instinct, too, then,” said Hugh, helping himself at last to the dish which was presented to him, to Rachel’s relief. “I shall give you the —” looking slowly down the table.

“The Bishop?”

“Certainly not, after your disposal of me.”

“Well, then, the poet? I am sure he is a poet because his tie is uneven and his hair is so long. Why do literary men wear their hair long, and literary women wear it short? I should like the poet.”

“You shall not have him,” said Hugh with decision. “I am hesitating between the bald young man with the fat hand and the immense ring, and the old professor who is drawing plans on the tablecloth.”

“The apostle told me with bated breath that the young man with the ring is Mr. Harvey, the author of ‘Unashamed.’”

Hugh looked at his plate to conceal his disgust.

There was a pause in the buzz of conversation, and into it fell straightway the voice of the apostle like a brick through a skylight.

“The need of the present age is the realisation of our brotherhood with sin and suffering and poverty. West London in satin and diamonds does not hear her sister East London in rags calling to her to deliver her. The voice of East London has been drowned in the dance-music of the West End.”

Sybell gazed with awed admiration at the apostle.

“What a beautiful thought,” she said.

“Miss Gresley’s ‘Idyll of East London,’” said Hugh, “is a voice which, at any rate, has been fully heard.”

The apostle put up a pince-nez on a bone leg and looked at Hugh.

“I entirely disapprove of that little book,” she said. “It is misleading and wilfully one-sided.”

“Hester Gresley is a dear friend of mine,” said Sybell, “and I must stand up for her. She is the sister of our clergyman, who is a very clever man. In fact, I am not sure he isn’t the cleverest of the two. She and I have great talks. We have so much in common. How strange it seems that she who lives in the depths of the country should have written a story of the East End.”

“That is always so,” said the author of “Unashamed,” in a sonorous voice. “The novel has of late been dwarfed to the scope of the young English girl (he pronounced it gurl) who writes from her imagination and not from her experience. What true art requires of us is a faithful rendering of a great experience.”

He looked round, as if challenging the world to say that “Unashamed” was not a lurid personal reminiscence.

Sybell was charmed. She felt that none of her previous dinner-parties had reached such a high level as this one.

“A faithful rendering of a great experience,” she repeated. “How I wish Hester were here to hear that. I often tell her she ought to see life, and cultivated society would do so much for her. I found her out a year ago, and I’m always begging people to read her book, and I simply long to introduce her to clever people and oblige the world to recognise her talent.”

“I agree with you it is not yet fully recognised,” said Hugh in a level voice; "but if ‘The Idyll’ received only partial recognition, it was at any rate enthusiastic. And it is not forgotten.”

Sybell felt vaguely uncomfortable, and conceived a faint dislike of Hugh as an uncongenial person.

The apostle and the poet began to speak simultaneously, but the female key was the highest and prevailed.

“We all agree in admiring Miss Gresley’s delicate piece of workmanship,” said the apostle, both elbows on the table after the manner of her kind, “but it is a misfortune to the cause of suffering humanity — to our cause — when the books which pretend to set forth certain phases of its existence are written by persons entirely ignorant of the life they describe.”

“How true,” said Sybell. “I have often thought it, but I never could put it into words as you do. Oh! how I agree with you and Mr. Harvey. As I often say to Hester, ‘How can you describe anything if you don’t go anywhere or see anything; I can’t give you my experience. No one can.’ I said that to her only a month ago, when she refused to come up to London with me.”

Rachel’s white face and neck had taken on them the pink transparent colour that generally dwelt only in the curves of her small ears.

“Why do you think Miss Gresley is ignorant of the life she describes?” she said, addressing the apostle.

The author and the apostle both opened their mouths at the same moment, only to register a second triumph of the female tongue.

Miss Barker was in her element. The whole table was listening. She shrugged her orange-velvet shoulders.

“Those who have cast in their lot with the poor,” she said, sententiously, “would recognise at once the impossibility of Miss Gresley’s characters and situations.”

“To me they seem real,” said Rachel.

“Ah, my dear Miss West, you will excuse me, but a young lady like yourself, nursed in the lap of luxury, can hardly be expected to look at life with the same eyes as a poor waif like myself, who has penetrated to the very core of the city, and who has heard the stifled sigh of a vast perishing humanity.”

“I lived in the midst of it for six years,” said Rachel. “I did not cast in my lot with the poor, for I was one of them, and earned my bread among them. Miss Gresley’s book may not be palatable in some respects, the district visitor and the woman missionary are certainly treated with harshness, but as far as my experience goes, the ‘Idyll’ is a true word from first to last.”

There was in Rachel’s voice a restrained force that vaguely stirred all the occupants of the room. Every one looked at her, and for a moment no one spoke. She became quite colourless.

“Very striking. Just what I should have said in her place,” said Sybell to herself. “I will ask her again.”

“I can hear it raining,” said Doll’s voice from the head of the table to the company in general. “If it will only go on for a week without stopping there may be some hope for the crops yet.”

The conversation buzzed up again, and Rachel turned instantly to Hugh, before Mr. Harvey, leaning forward with his ring, had time to address her.

Hugh alone saw what a superhuman effort it had been to her to overcome her shrinking from mentioning, not her previous poverty, but her personal experience. She had sacrificed her natural reserve, which he could see was great; she had even set good taste at defiance to defend Hester Gresley’s book. Hugh had shuddered as he heard her speak. He felt that he could not have obtruded himself on so mixed an assembly. Yet he saw that it had cost her more to do so than it would have cost him.

He began to remember having heard people speak of an ironmaster’s daughter, whose father had failed and died, and who, after several years of dire poverty, had lately inherited a vast fortune from her father’s partner. It had been talked about at the time, a few months ago. This must be she.

“You have a great affection for Miss Gresley,” he said in a low voice.

“I have,” said Rachel, her lip still quivering. “But if I disliked her I hope I should have said the same. Surely it is not necessary to love the writer in order to defend the book.”

Hugh was silent. He looked at her, and wished that she might always be on his side.

“About two courses ago I was going to tell you,” said Rachael smiling, “of one of my chief difficulties on my return to the civilised world and ‘Society.’ But now you have had an example of it. I am trying to cure myself of the trick of becoming interested in conversation. I must learn to use words as counters, not as coins. I need not disbelieve what I say, but I must not speak of anything to which I attach value. I perceive that to do this is an art and a means of defence from invasion. But I, on the contrary, become interested, as you have just seen. I forget that I am only playing a game, and I rush into a subject like a bull into a china shop, and knock about all the crockery until — as I am not opposed by my native pitchfork — I suddenly return to my senses, and discover that I have mistaken a game for real earnest.”

“We were all in earnest five minutes ago,” said Hugh, “at least, I was. I could not bear to hear Miss Gresley patronised by all these failures and amateurs. But unless I am very much mistaken you will find several pitchforks laid up for you in the drawing-room.”

“I don’t mean to smash any more china,” said Rachel.

Another wavelet skimmed in and broke a little further up the sand. A sense of freshness, of expectation was in the air. The great gathered ocean was stirring itself in the distance. Hugh had forgotten his trouble.

He turned the conversation back to Hester Gresley and her writing. He spoke of her with sympathy and appreciation, and presently detected a softness in Rachel’s eyes which made him jealous of Hester.

By the time the evening was over the imperceptible travelling of the summer sea had reached as far as the tidal wave.

Hugh left when Rachel did, accompanying her to her carriage. At the door were the darkness and the rain. At the door with them the horror and despair of the morning were in wait for him, and laid hold upon him. Hugh shuddered, and turned instinctively to Rachel.

She was holding out her hand to him. He took it and held it tightly in his sudden fear and desolation.

“When shall I meet you again?” he said hoarsely.

A long look passed between them. Hugh’s tortured soul full of passionate entreaty leaped to his eyes. Hers, sad and steadfast, met the appeal in his, and recognised it as a claim. There was no surprise in her quiet face.

“I ride early in the Row,” she said. “You can join me there if you wish. Good-night.”

She took her hand with great gentleness out of his, and drove away.

And the darkness shut down again on Hugh’s heart.

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