Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter L

There cannot be a pinch in death more sharp than this is.

THE Bishop’s sister, Miss Keane, whose life was a perpetual orgy of mothers’ meetings and G.F.S. gatherings, was holding a district visitors’ working party in the drawing-room at the Palace. The ladies knitted and stitched, while one of their number heaped fuel on the flame of their enthusiasm by reading aloud the “History of the Diocese of Southminster.”

Miss Keane took but little heed of the presence of Rachel and Hester in her brother’s house. Those who work mechanically on fixed lines seem as a rule to miss the pith of life. She was kind when she remembered them, but her heart was where her treasure was — namely, in her escritoire, with her list of Bible classes, and servants’ choral unions, and the long roll of contributors to the guild of work which she herself had started.

When she had been up to Hester’s room, invariably at hours when Hester could not see her, and when she had entered Rachel’s sledge-hammer subscriptions in her various account-books, her attention left her visitors. She considered them superficial, and wondered how it was that her brother could find time to spend hours talking to both of them, while he had rarely a moment in which to address her chosen band in the drawing-room. She was one of those persons who find life a very prosaic affair, quite unlike the fiction she occasionally read.

She often remarked that nothing except the commonplace happened. Certainly she never observed anything else.

So Hester lay in the room above halting feebly between two opinions, whether to live or to die, and Rachel sat in the Bishop’s study beneath, waiting to make tea for him on his return from the confirmation.

If she did not make it, no one else did. Instead of ringing for it he went without it.

Rachel watched the sun set — a red ball dropping down a frosty sky. It was the last day of the year. The new year was bringing her everything.

“Good-bye, good-bye,” she said, looking at the last rim of the sun as he sank. And she remembered other years when she had watched the sun set on the last day of December, when life had been difficult — how difficult!

“If Hester could only get better I should have nothing left to wish for,” she said, and she prayed the more fervently for her friend, because she knew that even if Hester died, life would still remain beautiful; the future without her would still be flooded with happiness.

“A year ago if Hester had died I should have had nothing left to live for,” she said to herself. “Now this newcomer, this man whom I have known barely six months, fills my whole life. Are other women as narrow as I am? Can they care only for one person at a time like me? Ah, Hester! forgive me, I can’t help it.”

Hugh was coming in presently. He had been in that morning, and the Bishop had met him, and had asked him to come in again to tea. Rachel did not know what the Bishop thought of him, but he had managed to see a good deal of Hugh.

Rachel waited as impatiently as most of us, when our happiness lingers by us, loth to depart.

At last she heard the footman bringing some one across the hall.

Would Hugh’s coming ever become a common thing? Would she ever be able to greet him without this tumult of emotion, ever be able to take his hand without turning giddy on the sheer verge of bliss.

The servant announced, “Lady Newhaven.”

The two women stood looking at each other. Rachel saw the marks of suffering on the white face, and her own became as white. Her eyes fell guiltily before Lady Newhaven’s.

“Forgive me,” she said.

“Forgive you?” said Lady Newhaven in a hoarse voice. “It is no use asking me for forgiveness.”

“You are right,” said Rachel, recovering herself, and meeting Lady Newhaven’s eyes fully. “But what is the use of coming here to abuse me? You might have spared yourself and me this at least. It will only exhaust you and — wound me.”

“You must give him up,” said Lady Newhaven, her hands fumbling under her crape cloak. “I’ve come to tell you that you must let him go.”

The fact that Hugh had drawn the short lighter, and had not taken the consequences, did not affect Lady Newhaven’s feelings towards him in the least, but she was vaguely aware that somehow it would affect Rachel’s, and now it would be Rachel’s turn to suffer.

Rachel paused a moment, and then said slowly:

“He does not wish to be let go.”

“He is mine.”

“He was yours once,” said Rachel, her face turning from white to grey. That wound was long in healing. “But he is mine now.”

“Rachel, you cannot be bad all through.” Lady Newhaven was putting the constraint upon herself which that tightly clutched paper, that poisoned weapon in reserve, enabled her to assume. For Hugh’s sake she would only use it if other means failed. “You must know that you ought to look upon him as a married man. Don’t you see?"— wildly —“that we must marry, to put right what was wrong. He owes it to me. People always do.”

“Yes, they generally do,” said Rachel; “but I don’t see how it makes the wrong right.”

“I look upon Hugh as my husband,” said Lady Newhaven.

“So do I.”

“Rachel, he loves me. He is only marrying you for your money.”

“I will risk that.”

“I implore you on my knees to give him back to me.”

And Lady Newhaven knelt down with bare white outstretched hands. (Tableau number one. New Series.)

Rachel shrank back involuntarily.

“Listen, Violet,” she said, “and get up. I will not speak until you get up.” Lady Newhaven obeyed. “If I gave back Hugh to you a hundred times it would not make him love you any more, or make him marry you. I am not keeping him from you. This marriage is his own doing. Oh! Violet, I’m not young and pretty. I’ve no illusions about myself; but I believe he really does love me, in spite of that, and I know I love him.”

“I don’t believe it,” said Lady Newhaven. “I mean about him. Not about you, of course.”

“Here he is. Let him decide,” said Rachel.

Hugh came in unannounced. Upon his grave face there was that concentrated look of happiness which has settled in the very deep of the heart, and gleams up into the eyes.

His face changed painfully. He glanced from one woman to the other. Rachel was sorry for him. She would fain have spared him, but she could not.

“Hugh,” she said gently, her steadfast eyes resting on him, “Lady Newhaven and I were talking of you. I think it would be best if she heard from your own lips what she naturally will not believe from mine.”

“I will never believe,” said Lady Newhaven, “that you will desert me now, that all the past is nothing to you, and that you will cast me aside for another woman.”

Hugh looked at her steadily. Then he went up to Rachel, and taking her hand, raised it to his lips. There was in his manner a boundless reverent adoration that was to Lady New. haven’s jealousy as a match to gunpowder.

Rachel kept his hand.

“Are you sure you want him, Rachel?” gasped Lady Newhaven, holding convulsively to a chair for support. “He has cast me aside. He will cast you aside next, for he is a coward and a traitor. Are you sure you want to marry him? His hands are red with blood. He murdered my husband.”

Rachel’s hand tightened on Hugh’s.

“It was an even chance,” she said. “Those who draw lots must abide by the drawing.”

“It was an even chance,” shrieked Lady Newhaven. “But who drew the short lighter, tell me that? Who refused to fulfil his part when the time was up? Tell me that.”

“You are mad,” said Rachel.

“I can prove it,” said Lady Newhaven, holding out the letter in her shaking hands. “You may read it, Rachel. I can trust you. Not him, he would burn it. It is from Edward; look, you know his writing, written to tell me that he,” pointing at Hugh, “had drawn the short lighter, but that, as he had not killed himself when the time came, he, Edward, did so instead. That was why he was late. We always wondered, Rachel, why he was two days late. Read it. Read it.”

“I will not read it,” said Rachel, pushing away the paper. “I do not believe a word of it.”

“You shall believe it. Ask him to deny it, if he can.”

“You need not trouble to deny it,” said Rachel, looking full at Hugh.

The world held only her and him. And as Hugh looked into her eyes his soul rose up and scaled the heights above it till it stood beside hers.

There is a sacred place where, if we follow close in love’s footsteps, we see him lay aside his earthly quiver and his bitter arrows, and turn to us as he is, with the light of God upon him, one with us as one with God. In that pure light lies cease to be. We know them no more, neither remember them, for love and truth are one.

Hugh strode across to Lady Newhaven, took the letter from her, and threw it into the heart of the fire. Then he turned to Rachel.

“I drew the short lighter,” he said. “I meant to take the consequences at first, but when the time came — I did not. Partly I was afraid, and partly I could not leave you.”

If Lady Newhaven yearned for revenge she had it then. They had both forgotten her. But she saw Rachel’s eyes change as the eyes of a man at the stake might change when the fire reached him. She shrank back from the agony in them. Hugh’s face became pinched and thin as a dead man’s. A moment ago he saw no consequences. He saw only that he could not lie to her. His mind fell headlong from its momentary foothold. What mad impulse had betrayed him to his ruin?

“You drew the short lighter, and you let me think all the time that he had,” said Rachel, her voice almost inaudible in its fierce passion. “You drew it, and you let him die instead of you, as any one who knew him would know he would. And when he was dead you came to me, and kept me in ignorance even — that time — when I said I trusted you.”

The remembrance of that meeting was too much.

Rachel turned her eyes on Lady Newhaven who was watching her terror-stricken.

“I said I would not give him up, but I will,” she said violently. “You can take him if you want him. What was it you said to me, Hugh? That if you had drawn the short lighter you would have had to abide by it. Yes, that was it. Your whole intercourse with me has been one lie from first to last. You were right, Violet, when you said he ought to marry you. It will be another lie on the top of all the others.”

“It was what Edward wished,” faltered his widow. “He says so in the letter that has just been burnt.”

“Lord Newhaven wished it,” said Rachel, looking at the miserable man between them. “Poor Lord Newhaven! First his honour. Then his life. You have taken everything he had. But there are still his shoes.”

“Rachel!” said Hugh suddenly, and he fell on his knees before her, clasping the hem of her gown.

She pushed him violently from her, tearing her gown in releasing it from his frenzied grasp.

“Leave me,” she whispered. Her voice was almost gone. “Coward and liar, I will have nothing more to do with you.”

He got upon his feet somehow. The two grey desperate faces spent with passion faced each other. They were past speech.

He read his death warrant in her merciless eyes. She looked at the despair in his without flinching.

He stood a moment, and then feeling his way, like one half blind, left the room, unconsciously pushing aside Lady Newhaven whom both had forgotten.

She gave one terrified glance at Rachel, and slipped out after him.

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