Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter LII

Les âmes dont j’aurai besoin,

Et les étoiles sont trop loin

Je mourral dans un coin.

HOW Hugh shook off Lady Newhaven when she followed him out of the Palace he did not know. There had been some difficulty. She had spoken to him, had urged something upon him. But he had got rid of her somehow, and had found himself sitting in his bedroom at the Southminster Hotel. Anything to be alone! He had felt that was the one thing in life to attain. But now that he was alone solitude suddenly took monstrous and hideous proportions, and became a horror to flee from. He could not bear the face of a fellow creature. He could not bear this ghoul of solitude. There was no room for him between these great millstones. They pressed upon him till he felt they were crushing him to death between them. In vain he endeavoured to compose himself, to recollect himself. But exhaustion gradually did for him what he could not do for himself.

Rachel had thrown him over. He had always known she would, and — she had.

They were to have been married in a few weeks; three weeks and one day. He marked a day off every morning when he waked. He had thought of her as his wife till the thought had become part of himself. Its roots were in his inmost being. He tore it out now, and looked at it apart from himself, as a man bleeding and shuddering looks upon a dismembered limb.

The sweat broke from Hugh’s forehead. The waiting and daily parting had seemed unbearable, that short waiting of a few weeks. Now she would never be his. That long, ever-growing hunger of the heart would never be appeased. She had taken herself away, taking away with her her dear hands and her faithful eyes and the low voice, the very sound of which brought comfort and peace. They were his hands and eyes. She had given them to him. And now she had wrenched them away again, those faithful eyes had seared him with their scorn, those white hands against which he had leaned his forehead, had thrust him violently from her. He could not live without her. This was death, to be parted from her.

“I can’t, Rachel, I can’t,” said Hugh, over and over again. What was any lesser death, compared to this, compared to her contempt?

She would never come back. She despised him. She would never love him any more. He had told her that it must be a dream that she could love him, and that he should wake. And she had said it was all quite true. How sweetly she had said it. But it was a dream after all, and he had waked — in torment. Life as long as he lived would be like this moment.

“I will not bear it,” he said suddenly, with the frantic instinct of escape which makes a man climb out of a burning house over a window ledge. Far down is the pavement, quiet, impassive, deadly. But behind is the blast of the furnace. Panic staggers between the two and — jumps.

“I will not bear it,” said Hugh, tears of anguish welling up into his eyes.

He had not only lost her, but he had lost himself. That better humble earnest self had gone away with Rachel, and he was thrust back on the old false cowardly self whom since she had loved him he had abhorred. He had disowned it. He had cast it off. Now it enveloped him again like a shirt of fire, and a voice within him said, “This is the real you. You deceived yourself for a moment. But this is the real you, the liar, the coward, the traitor, who will live with you again for ever.”

“I am forsaken,” said Hugh. He repeated the words over and over again. “Forsaken. Forsaken.” And he looked round for a way of escape.

Somewhere in the back of his mind a picture hung which he had seen once and never looked at again. He turned and looked at it now, as a man turns and looks at a picture on the wall behind him.

He saw it again, the still upturned face of the little lake among its encircling trees, as he had seen it that day when he and Doll came suddenly upon it in the woods. What had it to do with him? He had escaped from it once. He understood now.

Who, that has once seen it, has ever forgotten it, the look that deep water takes when life is unbearable! “Come down to me among my tall water plants,” it says. “I am a refuge, a way of escape. This horror and nightmare of life cannot reach you in my bosom. Come down to me. I promise nothing but to lay my cool hand upon the fire in your brain, and that the world shall release its clutch upon you, the world which promises, and will not keep its promises. I will keep mine.”

Hugh’s mind wavered, as the flame of a candle wavers in a sudden draught. So had it wavered once in the fear of death, and he had yielded to that fear. So it wavered now in a greater fear, the fear of life, and he yielded to that fear.

He caught up his hat, and went out.

It was dark, and he hit against the people in the feebly lighted streets as he hurried past. How hot it was! How absurd to see those gathered heaps of snow, and the muffled figures of men and women.

Presently he had left the town, and was in the open country. Where was he going along this interminable road in this dim snow light?

The night was very still. The spirit of the frost stooped over the white face of the earth. The long homely lines of meadow and wold and hedgerow showed like the austere folds of a shroud.

Hugh walked swiftly, looking neither to right nor left. The fire in his brain mounted, mounted. The moon, entangled in a dim thicket, got up behind him.

At last he stopped short. That farm on the right! He had seen it before. Yes. That was Greenfields. Doll had pointed it out to him when they had walked on that Sunday afternoon to Beaumere. They had left the road here, and had taken to the fields. There was the gate. Hugh opened it. Crack had been lost here and had rejoined them in the wood. The field was empty. A path like a crease ran across it.

He knew the way. It was the only way of escape from this shadow in front of him, this other self who had come back to him, and torn Rachel from him, and made her hate him. She loved him really. She was faithful. She would never have forsaken him. But she had mistaken this evil creeping shadow for him, and he had not been able to explain. But she would understand presently. He would make it all very clear and plain, and she would love him again, when he had got rid of this other Hugh. He would take him down and drown him in Beaumere. It was the only way to get rid of him. And he, the real Hugh, would get safely through. He had done it once, and he knew. He should stifle and struggle for a little while. There was a turn exceeding sharp to be passed, but he should reach that place of peace beyond, as he had done before, and find Rachel waiting for him, her arms round him again.

“It is the only way,” he said over and over again, “the only way.”

He reached the wood. The moon was up now, and smote white and sharp down the long winding aisle of the cathedral which God builds Him in every forest glade, where the hoar frost and the snow held now their solemn service of praise.

Hugh saw the little light of the keeper’s cottage, and instinctively edged his way to the left. He was pressed for time. A wheel was turning in his head, so quickly, so quickly in this great heat that, unless he were quicker than it, it would out-distance him altogether.

At last he saw the water, and ran down swiftly towards it. The white tree-trunks were in league against him, and waylaid him, striking him violently. But he struck back, and got through them. They fell behind at last. His shadow was beside him now, short and nimble. He looked round once or twice to make sure it was still with him.

He reached the water’s edge and then stopped short, aghast. Where was the water gone? It had deceived him and deserted him, like everything else. It was all hard as iron, one great white sheet of ice stretching away in front of him. He had thought of the little lake as he had last seen it, cool and deep, and with the shadows of the summer trees in it. It was all changed and gone. There was no help here. The way of escape was closed. With a hoarse cry he set off, running across the ice in the direction of the place where he had been nearly drowned before.

It was here, opposite that clump of silver birch. The ice was a different colour here. It tilted and creaked suddenly beneath his feet. He flung himself down upon it and struck it wildly with his fist. “Let me through,” he stammered. But the ice resisted him. It made an ominous dry crackling as if in mockery. It barely resisted him, but it did resist him. And he had no time, no time. He scrambled to his feet again, and it gave way instantly. The other self pounced suddenly upon him and came through with him, and they struggled furiously together in deep water.

“I must, I must,” gasped Hugh between his clenched teeth.

“You shall not,” said the other self, mad with terror. “Hold on to the ice.”

Hugh saw his bleeding hands holding tightly to the jagged edge. It broke. He clutched another piece. It broke again. The current was sucking him slowly under the ice. The broken pieces pushed him. One arm was under already, and he could not get it out. The animal horror of a trap seized him. He had not known it would be like this. He was not prepared for this.

The other self fought furiously for life, clutching and tearing at the breaking ice.

“Call,” it said to him, “while there is still time.”

Hugh set his teeth.

The ice broke in a great piece and tilted heavily against him. It was over one shoulder.

“Call,” said the other self sharply again, “or you will be under the ice.”

And up to the quiet heaven rose once and again a hoarse wild cry of human agony and despair.

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