Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter VII

Cure the drunkard, heal the insane, mollify the homicide, civilise the Pawnee, but what lessons can be devised for the debauchee of sentiment?

EMERSON.

A FORTNIGHT had passed since the drawing of lots, and Lady Newhaven remained in ignorance as to which of the two men had received his death warrant. Few have found suspense easy to bear; but for the self-centred an intolerable element is added to it, which unselfish natures escape. From her early youth Lady Newhaven had been in the habit of viewing life in picturesque tableaux vivants of which she invariably formed the central figure. At her confirmation the Bishop, the white-robed clergy, and the other candidates had served but as a nebulous background against which her own white-clad, kneeling figure, bowed in reverent devotion, stood out in high relief.

When she married Lord Newhaven he took so slight a part, though a necessary one, in the wedding groups that their completeness had never been marred by misgivings as to his exact position in them. When, six years later, after one or two mild flirtations which only served as a stimulus to her love of dress, when at last she met, as she would have expressed it, “the one love of her life,” her first fluctuations and final deviation from the path of honour were the result of new arrangements round the same centre.

The first groups in which Hugh took part had been prodigies of virtue. The young mother with the Madonna face — Lady Newhaven firmly believed that her face, with the crimped fringe drawn down to the eyebrows, resembled that of a Madonna — with her children round her, Lord Newhaven as usual somewhat out of focus in the background; and Hugh, young, handsome, devoted, heartbroken, and ennobled for life by the contemplation of such impregnable virtue.

“You accuse me of coldness,” she had imagined herself saying in a later scene, when the children and the husband would have made too much of a crowd, and were consequently omitted. “I wish to heaven I were as cold as I appear.”

And she had really said it later on. Hugh never did accuse her of coldness, but that was a detail. Those words, conned over many times, had nevertheless actually proceeded out of her mouth. Few of us have the power of saying anything we intend to say. But Lady Newhaven had that power, and enjoyed also in consequence a profound belief in her prophetic instincts; while others, Hugh not excepted, detected a premeditated tone in her conversation, and a sense of incongruity between her remarks and the occasion which called them forth.

From an early date in their married life Lord Newhaven had been in the habit of discounting these remarks by making them in rapid rotation himself before proceeding to the matter in hand.

“Having noticed that a mother — I mean a young mother — is never really happy in the absence of her children, and that their affection makes up for the carelessness of their father, may I ask, Violet, what day you wish to return to Westhope?” he said one morning at breakfast.

“Any day,” she replied. “I am as miserable in one place as in another.”

“We will say Friday week, then,” returned Lord Newhaven, ignoring, as he invariably did, any allusions to their relative position, and because he ignored them she made many. “The country,” he added, hurriedly, “will be very refreshing after the glare and dust and empty worldly society of London.”

She looked at him in anger. She did not understand the reason, but she had long vaguely felt that all conversation seemed to dry up in his presence. He mopped it all into his own sponge, so to speak, and left every subject exhausted.

She rose in silent dignity, and went to her boudoir and lay down there. The heat was very great, and another fire was burning within her, withering her round cheek, and making her small plump hand look shrunk and thin. A fortnight had passed, and she had not heard from Hugh. She had written to him many times, at first only imploring him to meet her, but afterwards telling him she knew what had happened, and entreating him to put her out of suspense, to send her one line that his life was not endangered. She had received no answer to any of her letters. She came to the conclusion that they had been intercepted by Lord Newhaven, and that no doubt the same fate had befallen Hugh’s letters to herself. For some time past, before the drawing of lots, she had noticed that Hugh’s letters had become less frequent and shorter in length. She understood the reason now. Half of them had been intercepted. How that fact could account for the shortness of the remainder may not be immediately apparent to the prosaic mind, but it was obvious to Lady Newhaven. That Hugh had begun to weary of her could not force the narrow entrance to her mind. Such a possibility had never been even considered in the pictures of the future with which her imagination busied itself. But what would the future be? The road along which she was walking forked before her eyes, and her usual perspicacity was at fault. She knew not in which of those two diverging paths the future would lie.

Would she in eighteen months’ time — she should certainly refuse to marry within the year — be standing at the altar in a “confection” of lilac and white with Hugh; or would she be a miserable wife, moving ghostlike about her house, in coloured raiment, while a distant grave was always white with flowers sent by a nameless friend of the dead? “How some one must have loved him,” she imagined Hugh’s aged mother saying. And once, as that bereaved mother came in the dusk to weep beside the grave, did she not see a shadowy figure start up black-robed from the flower-laden sod, and hastily drawing a thick veil over a beautiful despairing face, glide away among the trees? At this point Lady Newhaven always began to cry. It was too heart-rending. And her mind in violent recoil was caught once more and broken on the same wheel. “Which? Which?”

A servant entered.

“Would her ladyship see Miss West for a few minutes?”

“Yes,” said Lady Newhaven, glad to be delivered from herself, if only by the presence of an acquaintance.

“It is very charitable of you to see me,” said Rachel. “Personally, I think morning calls ought to be a penal offence. But I came at the entreaty of a former servant of yours. I feel sure you will let me carry some message of forgiveness to her as she is dying. Her name is Morgan. Do you remember her?”

“I once had a maid called Morgan,” said Lady Newhaven. “She was drunken, and I had to part with her in the end; but I kept her as long as I could in spite of it. She had a genius for hair-dressing.”

“She took your diamond heart pendant,” continued Rachel. “She was never found out. She can’t return it, for of course she sold it and spent the money. But now at last she feels she did wrong, and she says she will die easier for your forgiveness.”

“Oh! I forgive her,” said Lady Newhaven indifferently. “I often wondered how I lost it. I never cared about it.” She glanced at Rachel, and added tremulously, “My husband gave it me.”

A sudden impulse was urging her to confide in this grave, gentle-eyed woman. The temptation was all the stronger because Rachel, who had only lately appeared in society, was not connected with any portion of her previous life. She was as much a chance acquaintance as a fellow passenger in a railway carriage.

Rachel rose and held out her hand.

“Don’t go,” whispered Lady Newhaven, taking her outstretched hand and holding it.

“I think if I stay,” said Rachel, “that you may say things you will regret later on when you are feeling stronger. You are evidently tired out now. Everything looks exaggerated when we are exhausted, as I see you are.”

“I am worn out with misery,” said Lady Newhaven. “I have not slept for a fortnight. I feel I must tell some one.” And she burst into violent weeping.

Rachel sat down again, and waited patiently for the hysterical weeping to cease. Those in whom others confide early learn that their own engagements, their own pleasures and troubles are liable to be set aside at any moment. Rachel was a punctual, exact person, but she missed many trains. Those who sought her seldom realised that her day was as full as, possibly fuller, than their own. Perhaps it was only a very small pleasure to which she had been on her way on this particular morning, and for which she had put on that ethereal grey gown for the first time. At any rate, she relinquished it without a second thought.

Presently Lady Newhaven dried her eyes, and turned impulsively towards her.

The strata of impulsiveness and conventional feeling were always so mixed up after one of these emotional upheavals that it was difficult to guess which would come uppermost. Sometimes fragments of both appeared on the surface together.

“I loved you from the first moment I saw you,” she said. “I don’t take fancies to people, you know. I am not that kind of person. I am very difficult to please, and I never speak of what concerns myself. I am most reserved. I daresay you have noticed how reserved I am. I live in my shell. But directly I saw you I felt I could talk to you. I said to myself, ‘I will make a friend of that girl.’ Although I always feel a married woman is so differently placed from a girl. A girl only thinks of herself. I am not saying this the least unkindly, but of course it is so. Now a married woman has to consider her husband and family in all she says and does. How will it affect them? That is what I so often say to myself, and then my lips are sealed. But, of course, being unmarried, you would not understand that feeling.”

Rachel did not answer. She was inured to this time-honoured conversational opening.

“And the temptations of married life,” continued Lady Newhaven, “a girl cannot enter into them.”

“Then do not tell me about them,” said Rachel smiling, wondering if she might still escape. But Lady Newhaven had no intention of letting her go. She only wished to indicate to her her true position. And gradually, not without renewed outbursts of tears, not without traversing many layers of prepared conventional feelings in which a few thin streaks of genuine emotion were embedded, she told her story — the story of a young, high-minded, and neglected wife, and of a husband callous, indifferent, a scorner of religion, unsoftened even by the advent of the children —“such sweet children, such little darlings”— and the gradual estrangement. Then came the persistent siege to the lonely heart of one not pretty perhaps, but fatally attractive to men; the lonely heart’s unparalleled influence for good over the besieger.

“He would do anything,” said Lady Newhaven, looking earnestly at Rachel. “My influence over him is simply boundless. If I said, as I sometimes did at balls, how sorry I was to see some plain girl standing out, he would go and dance with her. I have seen him do it.”

“I suppose he did it to please you.”

“That was just it, simply to please me.”

Rachel was not so astonished as Lady Newhaven expected. She certainly was rather wooden, the latter reflected. The story went on. It became difficult to tell, and, according to the teller, more and more liable to misconstruction. Rachel’s heart ached as bit by bit the inevitable development was finally reached in floods of tears.

“And you remember that night you were at an evening party here,” sobbed Lady Newhaven, casting away all her mental notes and speaking extempore. “It is just a fortnight ago, and I have not slept since, and he was here, looking so miserable (Rachel started slightly); he sometimes did, if he thought I was hard upon him. And afterwards, when every one had gone, Edward took him to his study and told him he had found us out, and they drew lots which should kill himself within five months — and I listened at the door.”

Lady Newhaven’s voice rose half strangled, hardly human in a shrill grotesque whimper above the sobs which were shaking her. There was no affectation about her now.

Rachel’s heart went out to her the moment she was natural. She knelt down and put her strong arms round her. The poor thing clung to her, and leaning her elaborate head against her, wept tears of real anguish upon her breast.

“And which drew the short lighter?” said Rachel at last.

“I don’t know,” almost shrieked Lady Newhaven. “It is that which is killing me. Sometimes I think it is Edward, and sometimes I think it is Hugh.”

At the name of Hugh Rachel winced. Lady Newhaven had mentioned no name in the earlier stages of her story while she had some vestige of self-command; but now at last the Christian name slipped out unawares.

Rachel strove to speak calmly. She told herself there were many Hughs in the world.

“Is Mr. Hugh Scarlett the man you mean?” she asked. If she had died for it, she must have asked that question.

“Yes,” said Lady Newhaven.

A shadow fell on Rachel’s face, as on the face of one who suddenly discovers, not for the first time, an old enemy advancing upon him under the flag of a new ally.

“I shall always love him,” gasped Lady Newhaven, recovering herself sufficiently to recall a phrase which she had made up the night before. “I look upon it as a spiritual marriage.”

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