Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter VI

Içi bas tous les hommes pleurent

Leurs amitiés et leurs amours.

BOURGET.

MANY sarcastic but true words have been said by man, and in no jealous spirit, concerning woman’s friendship for woman. The passing judgment of the majority of men on such devotion might be summed up in the words, “Occupy till I come.” It does occupy till they do come. And if they don’t come the hastily improvised friendship may hold together for years, like an unseaworthy boat in a harbour, which looks like a boat but never goes out to sea.

But nevertheless here and there among its numberless counterfeits a friendship rises up between two women which sustains the life of both, which is still young when life is waning, which man’s love and motherhood cannot displace nor death annihilate; a friendship which is not the solitary affection of an empty heart nor the deepest affection of a full one, but which nevertheless lightens the burdens of this world and lays its pure hand upon the next.

Such a friendship, very deep, very tender, existed between Rachel West and Hester Gresley. It dated back from the nursery days, when Hester and Rachel solemnly eyed each other, and then made acquaintance in the dark gardens of Portman Square, into which Hester introduced a fortified castle with a captive princess in it and a rescuing prince and a dragon, and several other ingredients of romance, to the awed amazement of Rachel — stolid, solid, silent Rachel — who loved all two- and four-legged creatures, but who never made them talk to each other as Hester did. And Hester, in blue serge, told Rachel, in crimson velvet, as they walked hand in hand in front of their nursery-maids, what the London sparrows said to each other in the gutters, and how they considered the gravel-path in the square was a deep river suitable to bathe in. And when the spring was coming, and the prince had rescued the princess so often from the dungeon in the laurel-bushes that Hester was tired of it, she told Rachel how the elms were always sighing because they were shut up in town, and how they went out every night with their roots into the green country to see their friends, and came back oh! so early in the morning, before any one was awake to miss them. And Rachel’s heart yearned after Hester, and she gave her her red horse and the tin duck and magnet, and Hester made stories about them all.

At last the day came when Rachel’s mother, who had long viewed the intimacy with complacency, presented her compliments, in a note-sheet with two immense gilt crests on it, to Hester’s aunt, and requested that her little niece might be allowed to come to tea with her little daughter. And Lady Susan Gresley, who had never met the rich ironmaster’s wife in this world, and would probably be equally exclusive in the next, was about to refuse, when Hester, who up to that moment had apparently taken no interest in the matter, suddenly cast herself on the floor in a paroxysm of despair and beat her head against the carpet. The tearful entreaties of her aunt gradually elicited the explanation, riddled by sobs, that Hester could never take an interest in life again, could never raise herself even to a sitting position, nor dry her eyes on her aunt’s handkerchief, unless she were allowed to go to tea with Rachel and see her dormouse.

Lady Susan, much upset herself, and convinced that these outbursts were prejudicial to Hester’s health, gave way at once, and a few days later Hester, pale, shy, in a white muffler, escorted by Mademoiselle, went to tea in the magnificent house on the other side of the square, and saw Rachel’s round head without a feathered hat on it, and both children were consumed by shyness until the two Mademoiselles withdrew into another room, and Rachel showed Hester the dormouse which she had found in the woods in the country, and which ate out of her hand. And Hester made a little poem on it, beginning:

There was a mouse in Portman Square.

And so, with many breaks, the friendship attained a surer footing, and the intimacy grew with their growth, in spite of the fact that Lady Susan had felt unable (notwithstanding the marked advances of Mrs. West, possibly because of them) to enlarge her visiting list, in spite of many other difficulties which were only in the end surmounted by the simplicity of character which Rachel had not inherited from her parents.

And then, after both girls had danced through one London season in different ball-rooms, Rachel’s parents died, her mother first, and then — by accident — her father, leaving behind him an avalanche of unsuspected money difficulties, in which even his vast fortune was engulphed.

Hard years followed for Rachel. She ate the bread of carefulness in the houses of poor relations not of high degree, with whom her parents had quarrelled when they had made their money and began to entertain social ambitions. She learned what it was to be the person of least importance in families of no importance. She essayed to teach and failed. She had no real education. She made desperate struggles for independence, and learned how others failed besides herself. She left her relations and their bitter bread and came to London, and struggled with those who struggled, and saw how Temptation spreads her net for bleeding feet. Because she loved Hester she accepted from her half her slender pin-money. Hester had said, “If I were poor, Rachel, how would you bear it if I would not let you help me?” And Rachel had wept slow difficult tears, and had given Hester the comfort of helping her. The greater generosity was with Rachel, and Hester knew it.

And as Rachel’s fortunes sank, Hester’s rose. Lady Susan Gresley had one talent, and she did not lay it up in a napkin. She had the art of attracting people to her house, that house to which Mrs. West had never forced an entrance. Hester was thrown from the first into a society which her clergyman brother, who had never seen it, pronounced to be frivolous, worldly, profane, but which no one has called dull. There were many facets in Hester’s character, and Lady Susan had managed to place her where they caught the light. Was she witty? Was she attractive? Who shall say. Man is wisely averse to “cleverness” in a woman, but if he possesses any armour wherewith to steel himself against wit it is certain that he seldom puts it on. She refused several offers, one so brilliant that no woman ever believed that it was really made.

Lady Susan saw that her niece, without a fortune, with little beauty save that of high breeding, with weak health, was becoming a personage. “What will she become?” people said. And in the meanwhile Hester did nothing beyond dressing extremely well. And everything she saw and every person she met added fuel to an unlit fire in her soul.

At last Rachel was able to earn a meagre living by typewriting, and for four years, happy by contrast with those when despair and failure had confronted her, she lived by the work of her hands among those poor as herself. Gradually she had lost sight of all her acquaintances. She had been out of the schoolroom for too short a time to make friends. And alas! in the set in which she had been launched poverty was a crime; no, perhaps not quite that, but as much a bar to intercourse as in another class a want of the letter H is found to be.

It was while Rachel was still struggling for a livelihood that the event happened which changed the bias of her character, as a geranium transplanted from the garden changes its attitude in a cottage window.

On one of the early days of her despair she met on the dreary stairs of the great rabbit warren in which she had a room, a man with whom she had been acquainted in the short year of her social life before the collapse of her fortunes. He had paid her considerable attention, and she had thought once or twice with momentary bitterness that, like the rest, he had not cared to find out what had become of her. She greeted him with shy but evident pleasure. She took for granted he had come to see her, and he allowed her to remain under that delusion. In reality he had been hunting up an old model whom he wanted for his next picture, and who had silently left Museum Buildings some months before without leaving his address. He had genuinely admired her though he had forgotten her, and he was unaffectedly delighted to see her again.

That one chance meeting was the first of many. Flowers came to Rachel’s little room, and romance came with them. Rachel’s proud tender heart struggled and then gave way before this radiant first love blossoming in the midst of her loneliness. At last on a March afternoon when the low sun caught the daffodils he had brought her he told her he loved her.

Days followed, exquisite days, which have none like them in later life whatever later life may bring. That year the spring came early, and they went often together into the country. And that year when all the world was white with blossom the snow came, and laid upon earth’s bridal veil a white shroud. Every cup of May blossom, every petal of hawthorn bent beneath its burden of snow. And so it was in the full springtide of Rachel’s heart. The snow came down upon it. She discovered at last that though he loved her he did not wish to marry her; that even from the time of that first meeting he had never intended to marry her. That discovery was a shroud. She wrapped her dead love in it, and would fain have buried it out of her sight.

But only after a year of conflict was she suffered to bury it; after a year during which the ghost of her dead ever came back and came back to importune her vainly with its love.

Rachel’s poor neighbours grew accustomed to see the tall handsome waiting figure which always returned and returned, but which at last after one dreadful day was seen no more in Museum Buildings. Rachel had laid the ghost at last. But the conflict remained graven in her face.

On a certain cold winter morning Hester darted across the wet pavement from the brougham to the untidy entrance of Museum Buildings where Rachel still lived. It was a miserable day. The streets and bare trees looked as if they had been drawn in in ink, and the whole carelessly blotted before it was dry. All the outlines were confused, blurred. The cold penetrated to the very bones of the shivering city.

Rachel had just come in wet and tired, bringing with her a roll of manuscript to be transcribed. A woman waiting for her on the endless stone stairs had cursed her for taking the bread out of her mouth.

“He always employed me till you came,” she shrieked, shaking her fist at her, “and now he gives it all to you because you’re younger and better looking.”

She gave the woman as much as she dared spare, the calculation did not take long, and went on climbing the stairs.

Something in the poor creature’s words, something vague but repulsive in her remembrance of the man who paid her for the work by which she could barely live, fell like lead into Rachel’s heart. She looked out dumbly over the wilderness of roofs. The suffering of the world was eating into her soul, the suffering of this vast travailing East London, where people trod each other down to live.

“If any one had told me,” she said to herself, “when I was rich, that I lived on the flesh and blood of my fellow creatures, that my virtue and ease and pleasure were bought by their degradation, and toil and pain, I should not have believed it, and I should have been angry. If I had been told that the clothes I wore, the food I ate, the pen I wrote with, the ink I used, the paper I wrote on — all these, and everything I touched, from my soap to my matchbox, especially my matchbox, was the result of sweated labour, I should not have believed it, I should have laughed. But yet it is so. If I had not been rich once myself I should think as all these people do, that the rich are devils incarnate to let such things go on. They have the power to help us. We have none to help ourselves. But they never use it. The rich grind the poor for their luxuries with their eyes shut, and we grind each other for our daily bread with our eyes open. I have got that woman’s work. I have struggled hard enough to get it, but though I did not realise it, I might have known that I had only got on to the raft by pushing some one else off it.”

Rachel looked out across the miles of roofs which lay below her garret window. The sound was in her ears of that great whirlpool wherein youth and beauty and innocence go down quick day by day. The wilderness of leaden roofs turned suddenly before her eyes into a sullen furrowed sea of shame and crime which, awaiting no future day of judgment, daily gave up its awful dead.

Presently Hester came in, panting a little after the long ascent of worn stairs, and dragging with her a large parcel. It was a fur-lined cloak. Hester spread it mutely before her friend, and looked beseechingly at her. Then she kissed her, and the two girls clung together for a moment in silence.

“Dearest,” said Rachel, “don’t give me new things. It isn’t that — you know I did take it when I was in need. But oh, Hester, I know you can’t afford it. I should not mind if you were rich, at least, I would try not, but — if you would only give me some of your old clothes instead. I should like them all the better because you had worn them.” And Rachel kissed the lapel of Hester’s coat.

“I can’t,” whispered Hester into Rachel’s hair. “The best is only just good enough.”

“Wouldn’t it be kinder to me?”

Hester trembled, and then burst into tears.

“I will wear it, I will wear it,” said Rachel hurriedly. “Look, Hester! I have got it on. How deliciously warm, and — do look; it has two little pockets in the fur lining.”

But Hester wept passionately, and Rachel sat down by her on the floor in the new cloak till the paroxysm was over.

How does a subtle affinity find a foothold between natures which present an obvious, a violent contrast to each other? Why do the obvious and the subtle forget their life-long feud at intervals, and suddenly appear for a moment in each other’s society?

Rachel was physically strong. Hester was weak. The one was calm, patient, practical, equable, the other imaginative, unbalanced, excitable.

Life had not spoilt Rachel. Lady Susan Gresley had done her best to spoil Hester. The one had lived the unprotected life, and showed it in her bearing. The other had lived the sheltered life, and bore its mark upon her pure forehead and youthful face.

“I cannot bear it,” said Hester at last. “I think and think, and I can’t think of anything. I would give my life for you, and you will hardly let me give you £3 10s. 6d. That is all it cost. It is only frieze, that common red frieze, and the lining is only rabbit.” A last tear fell at the word rabbit. “I wanted to get you a velvet one, just the same as my new one, lined with chinchilla, but I knew it would only make you miserable. I wish,” looking vindictively at the cloak, “I wish rabbits had never been born.”

Rachel laughed. Hester was evidently recovering.

“Mr. Scarlett was saying last night that no one can help any one,” continued Hester, turning her white exhausted face to her friend. “He said that we are always so placed that we can only look on. And I told him that could not be true, but oh, in my heart, Rachel, I have felt it was true all these long, long five years since you have lived here.”

Rachel came and stood beside her at the little window. There was just room for them between the typewriter and the bed.

Far below, Hester’s brougham was pacing up and down.

“Then are love and sympathy nothing?” she said. “Those are the real gifts. If I were rich to-morrow I should look to you just as I do now for the things which money can’t buy. And those are the things”— Rachel’s voice shook —“which you have always given me, and which I can’t do without. You feel my poverty more than I do myself. It crushed me at first when I could not support myself. Now that I can — and in everything except money I am very rich — I am comparatively happy.”

There was a long silence.

“Perhaps,” said Rachel at last with difficulty, “if I had remained an heiress Mr. Tristram might have married me. I feel nearly sure he would have married me. In that case I lost my money only just in time to prevent a much greater misfortune, and I am glad I am as I am.”

Rachel remembered that conversation often in after years with a sense of thankfulness that for once she who was so reticent had let Hester see how dear she was to her.

The two girls stood long together cheek against cheek.

And as Hester leaned against Rachel the yearning of her soul towards her suddenly lit up something which had long lain colossal but inapprehended in the depths of her mind. Her paroxysm of despair at her own powerlessness was followed by a lightning flash of self-revelation. She saw, as in a dream, terrible, beautiful, inaccessible, but distinct, where her power lay, of which restless bewildering hints had so often mocked her. She had but to touch the houses and they would fall down. She held her hands tightly together lest she should do it. The strength as of an infinite ocean swept in beneath her weakness, and bore it upon its surface like a leaf.

“You must go home,” said Rachel gently, remembering Lady Susan’s punctual habits.

Hester kissed her absently and went out into the new world which had been pressing upon her all her life, the gate of which Love had opened for her. For Love has many keys besides that of her own dwelling. Some who know her slightly affirm that she can only open her own cheap patent padlock with a secret word on it that everybody knows. But some who know her better hold that hers is the master-key which will one day turn all the locks in all the world.

A year later Hester’s first book, “An Idyll of East London,” was reaping its harvest of astonished indignation and admiration, and her acquaintances — not her friends — were still wondering how she came to know so much of a life of which they decided she could know nothing, when suddenly Lady Susan Gresley died, and Hester went to live in the country with her clergyman brother.

A few months later still, and on a mild April day, when the poor London trees had black buds on them, Rachel brushed and folded away in the little painted chest of drawers her few threadbare clothes, and put the boots — which the cobbler whose wife she had nursed had patched for her — under the shelf which held her few cups and plates and the faithful tin kettle, which had always been a cheerful boiler. And she washed her seven coarse handkerchiefs, and put them in the washband-stand drawer. And then she raked out the fire and cleaned the grate, and set the room in order. It was quickly done. She took up her hat which lay beside a bundle on the bed. Her hands trembled as she put it on. She looked wistfully round her, and her face worked. The little room which had looked so alien when she came to it six years ago had become a home. She went to the window and kissed the pane through which she had learnt to see so much. Then she seized up the bundle, and went quickly out, locking the door behind her, and taking the key with her.

“I am going away for a time, but I shall come back,” she said to the cobbler’s wife on the same landing.

“No one comes back as once goes,” said the woman, without raising her eyes from the cheap blouse which she was finishing, which kept so well the grim secret of how it came into being that no one was afraid of buying it.

“I am keeping on the room.”

The woman smiled incredulously, giving one sharp glance at the bundle. She had seen many flittings. She should buy the kettle when Rachel’s “sticks” were sold by the landlord in default of the rent.

“Well, you was a good neighbour,” she said. “There’s a many as ’ull miss you. Good-bye, and good luck to ye. I shan’t say as you’ve left.”

“I shall come back,” said Rachel hoarsely, and she slipped downstairs like a thief. She felt like a thief. For she was rich. The man who had led her father into the speculations which had ruined him had died childless, and had bequeathed to her a colossal fortune.

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