Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter LI

I thought, “Now, if I had been a woman, such

As God made women, to save men by love —

By just my love I might have saved this man.”

ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING.

HAS Lady Newhaven been here?” said the Bishop, coming into the study, his hands full of papers. “I thought I saw her carriage driving away as I came up.”

“She has been here.”

The Bishop looked up suddenly, his attention arrested by Rachel’s voice. There is a white heat of anger that mimics the pallor of a fainting fit. The Bishop thought she was about to swoon, until he saw her eyes. Those gentle faithful eyes were burning. He shrank as one who sees the glare of fire raging inside familiar windows.

“My poor child,” he said, and he sat down heavily in his leather armchair.

Rachel still stood. She looked at him, and her lips moved, but no sound came forth.

The Bishop looked intently at her.

“Where is Scarlett?” he said.

“Hugh is gone,” she said stammering. “I have broken off my engagement with him. He will never come back.”

And she fell suddenly on her knees, and hid her convulsed face against the arm of a chair.

The Bishop did not move. He waited for this paroxysm of anger to subside. He had never seen Rachel angry before in all the years he had known her, but he watched her without surprise. Only stupid people think that coal cannot burn as fiercely as tow.

She remained a long time on her knees, her face hidden. The Bishop did not hurry her. At last she began to sob silently, shuddering from head to foot.

Then he came and sat down near her, and took the cold clenched hands in his.

“Rachel, tell me,” he said gently.

She tried to pull her hands away; but he held them firmly. He obliged her to look up at him. She raised her fierce disfigured face for a moment, and then let it fall on his hands and hers.

“I am a wicked woman,” she said. “Don’t trouble about me. I’m not worth it. I thought I would have kept all suffering from him, but now — if I could make him suffer — I would.”

“I have no doubt he is suffering.”

“Not enough. Not like me. And I loved him and trusted him. And he is false, too, like that other man I loved, like you, only I have not found you out yet, like Hester, like all the rest. I will never trust any one again. I will never be deceived again. This is — the — second time.”

And Rachel broke into a passion of tears.

The Bishop released her hands, and felt for his own handkerchief.

Then he waited, praying silently. The clock had made a long circuit before she raised herself.

“I am very selfish,” she said looking with compunction at the kind tried face. “I ought to have gone to my room instead of breaking down here. Dear Bishop, forgive me. It is past now. I shall not give way again.”

“Will you make me some tea?” he said.

She made the tea with shaking hands, and awkward half-blind movements. It was close on dinner time, but she did not notice it. He obliged her to drink some, and then he settled himself in his leather armchair. He went over his engagements for the evening. In half an hour he ought to be dining with Canon Glynn to meet an old college friend. At eleven he had arranged to see a young clergyman whose conscience was harrying him. He wrote a note on his knee without moving saying he could not come, and touched the bell at his elbow. When the servant had taken the note, he relapsed into the depths of his armchair, and sipped his tea.

“I think, Rachel,” he said at last, “that I ought to tell you that I partly guess at your reason for breaking off your engagement. I have known for some time that there was trouble between the Newhavens. From what Lady Newhaven said to me to-day, and from the fact that she has been here, and that immediately after seeing her you broke your engagement with Scarlett, I must come to the conclusion that Scarlett had been the cause of this trouble.”

Rachel had regained her composure. Her face was white and hard.

“You are right,” she said. “He was at one time — her lover.”

“And you consider, in consequence, that he is unfit to become your husband?”

“No. He told me about it before he asked me to marry him. I accepted him, knowing it.”

“Then he was trying to retrieve himself. He acted towards you, at any rate, like an honourable man.”

Rachel laughed. “So I thought at the time.”

“If you accepted him, knowing about his past, I don’t see why you should have thrown him over. One dishonourable action sincerely repented does not make a dishonourable man.”

“I did not know all,” said Rachel. “I do now.”

The Bishop looked into the fire.

Her next words surprised him.

“You really cared for Lord Newhaven, did you not?”

“I did.”

"Then as you know the one thing he risked his life to conceal for the sake of his children, namely, his wife’s misconduct, I think I had better tell you the rest.”

So Rachel told him in harsh bald language the story of the drawing of lots, and how she and Lady Newhaven had remained ignorant as to which had drawn the short lighter. How Hugh had drawn it; how when the time came he had failed to fulfil the agreement; how two days later Lord Newhaven had killed himself; and how she and Lady Newhaven had both, of course, concluded that Lord Newhaven must have drawn the short lighter.

Rachel went on, her hard voice shaking a little.

“Hugh had told me that he had had an entanglement with a married woman. I knew it long before he spoke of it, but just because he risked losing me by owning it I loved and trusted him all the more. I thought he was, at any rate, an upright man. After Lord Newhaven’s death he asked me to marry him, and I accepted him. And when we were talking quietly one day”— Rachel’s face became, if possible, whiter than before —“I told him that I knew of the drawing of lots. (He thought no one knew of it except the dead man and himself.) And I told him that he must not blame himself for Lord Newhaven’s death. He had brought it on himself. I said to him”— Rachel’s voice trembled more and more —"‘It was an even chance. You might have drawn the short lighter yourself.’ and — he — said that if he had, he should have had to abide by it.”

The Bishop shaded his eyes with his hand. It seemed cruel to look at Rachel, as it is cruel to watch a man drown.

“And how do you know he did draw it?” he said.

“It seems Lord Newhaven left his wife a letter, which she as only just received, telling her so. She brought it here to-day to show me.”

“Ah! A letter! And you read it?”

“No,” said Rachel, scornfully, “I did not read it. I did not believe a word she said about it. Hugh was there, and I told him I trusted him; and he took the letter from her, and put it in the fire.”

“And did he not contradict it?”

“No. He said it was true. He has lied to me over and over again, but I saw he was speaking the truth for once.”

There was a long silence.

“I don’t know how other people regard those things,” said Rachel at last, less harshly — she was gradually recovering herself —“but I know to me it was much worse that he could deceive me than that he should have been Lady Newhaven’s lover. I did feel that dreadfully. I had to choke down my jealousy when he kissed me. He had kissed her first. He had made that side of his love common and profane; but the other side remained. I clung to that. I believed he really loved me, and that supported me and enabled me to forgive him, though men don’t know what that forgiveness costs us. Only the walls of our rooms know that. But it seems to me much worse to have failed me on that other side as well — to have deceived me — to have told me a lie — just when — just when we were talking intimately.”

“It was infinitely worse,” said the Bishop.

“And it was the action of a coward to draw lots in the first instance if he did not mean to abide by the drawing, and the action of a traitor, once they were drawn, not to abide by them. But yet, if he had told me — if he had only told me the whole truth — I loved him so entirely that I would have forgiven — even that. But whenever I alluded to it, he lied.”

“He was afraid of losing you.”

“He has lost me by his deceit. He would not have lost me if he had told me the truth. I think — I know — that I could have got over anything, forgiven anything, even his cowardice, if he had only admitted it and been straightforward with me. A little plain dealing was all I asked, but — I did not get it.”

The Bishop looked sadly at her. Straightforwardness is so seldom the first requirement a woman makes of the man she loves. Women, as a rule, regard men and their conduct only from the point of view of their relation to women — as sons, as husbands, as fathers. Yet Rachel, it seemed, could forgive Hugh’s sin against her as a woman, but not his further sin against her as a friend.

“Yet it seems he did speak the truth at last,” he said.

“Yes.”

“And after he had destroyed the letter, which was the only proof against him.”

“Yes.”

Another silence.

“I am glad you have thrown him over,” said the Bishop slowly, “for you never loved him.”

“I deceived myself in that case,” said Rachel bitterly. “My only fear was that I loved him too much.”

The Bishop’s face had become fixed and stern.

“Listen to me, Rachel,” he said. “You fell desperately in love with an inferior man. He is charming, refined, well-bred, and with a picturesque mind, but that is all. He is inferior. He is by nature shallow and hard (the two generally go together), without moral backbone, the kind of man who never faces a difficulty, who always flinches when it comes to the point, the stuff out of which liars and cowards are made. His one redeeming quality is his love for you. I have seen men in love before. I have never seen a man care more for a woman than he cares for you. His love for you has taken entire possession of him, and by it he will sink or swim.”

The Bishop paused. Rachel’s face worked.

“He deceived you,” said the Bishop, “not because he wished to deceive you, but because he was in a horrible position, and because his first impulse of love was to keep you at any price. But his love for you was raising him even while he deceived you. Did he spend sleepless nights because for months he vilely deceived Lord Newhaven? No. Rectitude was not in him. His conscience was not awake. But I tell you, Rachel, he has suffered like a man on the rack from deceiving you. I knew by his face as soon as I him that he was undergoing some great mental strain. I did not understand it, but I do now.”

Rachel’s mind, always slow, moved, stumbled to its bleeding feet.

“It was remorse,” she said, turning her face away.

“It was not remorse. It was repentance. Remorse is bitter. Repentance is humble. His love for you has led him to it. Not your love for him, Rachel, which breaks down at the critical moment; his love for you which has brought him for the first time to the perception of the higher life, to the need of God’s forgiveness, which I know from things he has said, has made him long to lead a better life, one worthier of you.”

“Don’t,” said Rachel. “I can’t bear it.”

The Bishop rose, and stood facing her.

“And at last,” he went on, “at last, in a moment, when you showed your full trust and confidence in him, he shook off for an instant the clogs of the nature which he brought into the world, and rose to what he had never been before — your equal. And his love transcended the lies that love itself on its lower plane had prompted. He reached the place where he could no longer lie to you. And then, though his whole future happiness depended on one more lie, he spoke the truth.”

Rachel put out her hand as if to ward off what was coming.

“And how did you meet him the first time he spoke the truth to you?” continued the Bishop inexorably. “You say you loved him, and yet — you spurned him from you, you thrust him down into hell. You stooped to him in the beginning. He was nothing until your fancied love fell upon him. And then you break him. It is women like you who do more harm in the world than the bad ones. The harm that poor fool Lady Newhaven did him is as nothing compared to the harm you have done him. You were his god, and you have deserted him. And you say you loved him. May God preserve men from the love of women if that is all that a good woman’s love is capable of.”

“I can do nothing,” said Rachel hoarsely.

"Do nothing!" said the Bishop fiercely. "You can do nothing when you are responsible for a man’s soul! God will require his soul at your hands. Scarlett gave it into your keeping, and you took it. You had no business to take it if you meant to throw it away. And now you say you can do nothing!”

“What can I do?” said Rachel faintly.

“Forgive him.”

“Forgiveness won’t help him. The only forgiveness he would care for is to marry me.”

“Of course. It is the only way you can forgive him.”

Rachel turned away. Her stubborn quivering face showed a frightful conflict.

The Bishop watched her.

“My child,” he said gently, “we all say we follow Christ, but most of us only follow Him and His cross — part of the way. When we are told that our Lord bore our sins, and was wounded for our transgressions, I suppose that meant that He felt as if they were His own in His great love for us. But when you shrink from bearing your fellow creature’s transgressions, it shows that your love is small.”

Rachel was silent.

“If you really love him you will forgive him.”

Rachel clenched and unclenched her bands.

“You are appealing to a nobility and goodness which are not in me,” she said stubbornly.

“I appeal to nothing but your love. If you really love him you will forgive him.”

“He has broken my heart.”

“I thought that was it. It is yourself you are thinking of. But what is he suffering at this moment? You do not know or care. Where is he now, that poor man who loves you? Rachel, if you had ever known despair, you would not thrust a fellow creature down into it.”

“I have known it,” said Rachel hoarsely.

“Were not you deserted once? You were deserted to very little purpose, if after that you can desert another. Go back in your mind, and — remember. Where you stood once he stands now. You and his sin have put him there. You and his sin have tied him to his stake. Will you range yourself for ever on the side of his sin? Will you stand by and see him perish?”

Silence; like the silence round a death-bed.

“He is in a great strait. Only love can save him.”

Rachel flung out her arms with an inarticulate cry.

“I will forgive him,” she said. “I will forgive him.”

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