Red Pottage, by Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter IX.

Pour vivre tranquille il faut vivre loin des gens d’église.

THERE is a little stream which flows through Middleshire which seems to reflect the spirit of that quiet county, so slow is its course, so narrow is its width. Even the roads don’t take the trouble to bridge it. They merely hump themselves slightly when they feel it tickling underneath them, and go on, vouchsafing no further notice of its existence. Yet the Drone is a local celebrity in Middleshire, and, like most local celebrities, is unknown elsewhere. The squire’s sons have lost immense trout in the Drone as it saunters through their lands, and most of them have duly earned thereby the distinction (in Middleshire) of being the best trout rod in England. Middleshire bristles with the “best shots in England,” and the “best preachers in England,” and the cleverest men in England. The apathetic Mother country knows, according to Middleshire, “but little of her greatest men.” At present she associates her loyal county with a breed of small black pigs.

Through this favoured locality the Drone winds, and turns and turns again as if loth to leave the rich low meadow lands and clustering villages upon its way. After skirting the little town of Westhope and the gardens of Westhope Abbey, the Drone lays itself out in comfortable curves and twists innumerable through the length and breadth of the green country till it reaches Warpington, whose church is so near the stream that in time of flood the water hitches all kinds of things it has no further use for among the gravestones of the little churchyard. On one occasion, after repeated prayers for rain, it even overflowed the lower part of the vicar’s garden, and vindictively carried away his beehives. But that was before he built the little wall at the bottom of the garden.

Slightly raised above the church, on ground held together by old elms, the white vicarage of Warpington stands, blinking ever through its trees at the church like a fond wife at her husband. Indeed, so like had she become to him that she had even developed a tiny bell-tower near the kitchen chimney, with a single bell in it, feebly rung by a female servant on saints days and G.F.S. gatherings.

About eight o’clock on this particular morning in July the Drone could hear if it wanted to hear, which apparently no one else did, the high unmodulated voice in which Mr. Gresley was reading the morning service to Mrs. Gresley, and to a young thrush which was hurling its person like an inexperienced bicyclist, now against Lazarus and his graveclothes, now against the legs of John the Baptist, with one foot on a river’s edge, and the other firmly planted in a distant desert, and against all the other scripture characters in turn which adorned the windows.

The service ended at last, and after releasing his unwilling congregation by catching and carrying it beak agape into the open air, Mr. Gresley and his wife walked through the churchyard — with its one melancholy Scotch fir embarrassed by its trouser of ivy — to the little gate which led into their garden.

They were a pleasing couple, seen at a little distance. He at least evidently belonged to a social status rather above that of the average clergyman, though his wife may not have done so. Mr. Gresley, with his long thin nose and his short upper lip and tall, well-set up figure, bore on his whole personality the stamp of that for which it is difficult to find the right name, so unmeaning has the right name become by dint of putting it to low uses — the maltreated, the travestied name of “gentleman.”

None of those moral qualities, priggish or otherwise, are assumed for Mr. Gresley which we are told distinguish the true, the perfect gentleman, and some of which, thank heaven! the “gentleman born” frequently lacks. Whether he had them or not was a matter of opinion, but he had that which some who have it not strenuously affirm to be of no value — the right outside.

To any one who looked beyond the first impression of good breeding and a well-cut coat, a second closer glance was discouraging. Mr. Gresley’s suspicious eye and thin compressed lips hinted that both fanatic and saint were fighting for predominance in the kingdom of that pinched brain, the narrowness of which the sloping forehead betokened with such cruel plainness. He looked as if he would fling himself as hard against a truth without perceiving it, as a hunted hare against a stone wall. He was unmistakably of those who who only see side issues.

Mrs. Gresley took her husband’s arm as he closed the gate. She was still young and still pretty, in spite of the arduous duties of a clergyman’s wife, and the depressing fact that she seemed always wearing out old finery. Perhaps her devotion to her husband had served to prolong her youth, for as the ivy is to the oak, and as the moon is to the sun, and as the river is to the sea, so was Mrs. Gresley to Mr. Gresley.

The fortunate couple were advancing through the garden looking fondly at their own vicarage, with their own sponges hanging out of their upper windows, and their offspring waving to them from a third, when a small slight figure appeared on the terrace.

“James!” said Mrs. Gresley with decision. “It is your duty to speak to Hester about attending early service. If she can go out in the garden she can come to church.”

“I have spoken to her once,” said Mr. Gresley, frowning, “and though I put it before her very plainly she showed great obstinacy. Fond as I am of Hester, I cannot shut my eyes to the fact that she has an arrogant and callous nature. But we must remember, my love, that Aunt Susan was most lax in all her views, and we must make allowance for Hester, who lived with her till last year. It is only natural that Hester, bred up from childhood in that worldly circle — dinner parties all through Lent, and Sunday luncheons — should have fallen through want of solid church teaching into freethinking, and ideas of her own upon religion.”

Mr. Gresley’s voice was of that peculiar metallic note which carries further than the owner is aware. It rose, if contradicted, into a sort of continuous trumpet-blast which drowned all other lesser voices. Hester’s little garret was two stories above Mr. Gresley’s study on the ground floor, but nevertheless she often heard confused anxious parochial buzzings overwhelmed by that sustained high note which knew no cessation until objection or opposition ceased. As she came towards them, she heard with perfect distinctness what he was saying, but it did not trouble her. Hester was gifted with imagination, and imagination does not find it difficult to read by the short hand of the expressions and habitual opinions and repressions of others what they occasionally say at full length, and to which they fondly believe they are giving utterance for the first time. Mr. Gresley had said all this many times already by his manner, and it had by its vain repetitions lost its novelty. Mr. Gresley was fortunately not aware of this, for unimaginative persons believe themselves to be sealed books, as hermetically sealed as the characters of others are to themselves.

Hester was very like her brother. She had the same nose, slightly too long for her small face, the same short upper lip and light hair, only her brother’s was straight and hers was crimped, as wet sand is crimped by a placid outgoing sea. That she had an equally strong will was obvious. But there the likeness ended. Hester’s figure was slight, and she stooped a little. Hester’s eyes were very gentle, very appealing under their long curled lashes. They were sad, too, as Mr. Gresley’s never were, gay as his never were. An infinite patience looked out of them sometimes, that patience of enthusiasm which will cast away its very soul and all its best years for the sake of an ideal. Hester showed her age in her eyes. She was seven and twenty and appeared many years younger, until she looked at you.

Mrs. Gresley looked with veiled irritation at her sister-in-law in her clean holland gown, held in at the waist with a broad lilac ribbon, adroitly drawn in picturesque folds through a little silver buckle.

Mrs. Gresley, who had a waist which the Southminster dressmaker informed her had “to be kept down,” made a mental note for the hundredth time that Hester “laced in.”

Hester gave that impression of “finish” and sharpness of edge so rarely found among the blurred vague outlines of Englishwomen. There was nothing vague about her. Lord Newhaven said she had been cut out body and mind with a sharp pair of scissors. Her irregular profile, her delicate pointed speech and fingers, her manner of picking up her slender feet as she walked, her quick alert movements, everything about her was neat, adjusted, perfect in its way, yet without more apparent effort than the succés fou in black and white of the water wagtail, which she so closely resembled.

“Good morning,” she said, turning back with them to the house. “Abel says it is going to be the hottest day we have had yet. And the letter-bag is so fat that I could hardly refrain from opening it. Really, James, you ought to hide the key, or I shall succumb to temptation.”

Once in the days of her ignorance, when she first came to live at Warpington, Hester had actually turned the key in the lock of the sacred letter-bag when the Gresleys were both late, and had extracted her own letters. She never did it a second time. On the contrary, she begged pardon in real regret at having given such deep offence to her brother and his wife, and in astonishment that so simple an action could offend. She had made an equally distressing blunder in the early days of her life with the Gresleys by taking up the daily paper on its arrival in the afternoon.

“My dear Hester,” Mrs. Gresley said, really scandalised, “I am sure you won’t mind my saying so, but James has not seen his paper yet.”

“I have noticed he never by any chance looks at it till the evening, and you always say you never read it,” said Hester, deep in a political crisis.

“That is his rule, and a very good rule it is, but he naturally likes to be the first to look at it,” said Mrs. Gresley with a great exercise of patience. She had heard Hester was clever, but she found her very stupid. Everything had to be explained to her.

Her tone recalled Hester from the Indian tribal rising, and the speech of the Prime Minister, to the realities of life. It was fortunate for her that she was quick-witted. These two flagrant blunders were sufficient for her. She grasped the principle that those who have a great love of power and little scope for it must necessarily exercise it in trivial matters. She extended the principle of the newspaper and the letter-bag over her entire intercourse with the Gresleys, and never offended in that manner again.

On this particular morning she waited decorously beside her brother as he opened the bag, and dealt out the contents into three heaps. Hester pounced on hers, and subsided into her chair at the breakfast-table.

“I wonder,” said Mrs. Gresley, looking at Hester’s pile of letters over the top of her share of the morning’s correspondence — namely, a list of Pryce Jones, “that you care to write so many letters, Hester. I am sure I never did such a thing when I was a girl. I should have regarded it as a waste of time.”

“Ha!” said Mr. Gresley, in a gratified tone, opening a little roll. “What have we here? Proofs! My paper upon ‘Modern Dissent.’ I told Edwards I would not allow him to put it in his next number of the Southminster Advertiser until I had glanced at it in print. I don’t know when I shall find time to correct it. I shall be out all the afternoon at the Chapter meeting.”

He looked at Hester. She had laid down her letters and was taking a cup of coffee from Mrs. Gresley. She evidently had not heard her brother’s remark.

“You and I must lay our heads together over this, Hester,” he said, holding up with some pride a long slip of proof. “It will be just in your line. You might run it over after breakfast,” he continued, in high good humour, “and put in the stops and grammar and spelling — you’re more up in that sort of thing than I am — and then we will go through it together.”

Hester was quite accustomed, when her help was asked as to a composition, to receive as a reason for the request the extremely gratifying assurance that she was “good” at punctuation and spelling. It gave the would-be author a comfortable feeling that after all he was only asking advice on the crudest technical matters on which Hester’s superiority could be admitted without a loss of masculine self-respect.

“I would rather not tamper with punctuation and spelling,” said Hester, drily. “I am so shaky on both myself. You had better ask the schoolmaster. He knows all that sort of A B C better than I do.”

Mr. Gresley frowned and looked suspiciously at her. He wanted Hester’s opinion, of which she was perfectly aware. But she intended that he should ask for it.

Mrs. Gresley, behind the coffee-pot, felt that she was overlooked. She had helped Mr. Gresley with his numerous literary efforts until Hester came.

“I saw you correcting some one’s manuscript last week,” he said. “You were at it all day in the hay-field.”

“That was different. I was asked to criticise the style and composition.”

“Oh well!” said Mr. Gresley, “don’t let us split hairs. I don’t want an argument about it. If you’ll come into my study at ten o’clock I’ll get it off my hands at once.”

“With pleasure,” said Hester, looking at him with rueful admiration. She had tried a hundred times to get the better of him in conversation, but she had not yet succeeded.

“I have a message for you,” continued Mr. Gresley, in restored good humour. “Mrs. Loftus writes that she is returning to Wilderleigh at the end of the week, and that the sale of work may take place in the Wilderleigh gardens at the end of August. And — let me see, I will read what she says:

“‘I am not unmindful of our conversation on the duty of those who go annually to London to bring a spiritual influence to bear on society.’—(“I impressed that upon her before she went up.")—‘We had a most interesting dinner-party last week, nearly all celebrated and gifted persons, and the conversation was really beyond anything I can describe to you. I thought my poor brain would turn. I was quite afraid to join in. But Mr. Harvey, the great Mr. Harvey, told me afterwards I was at my best. One lady, Miss Barker, who has done so much for the East End, is coming down to Wilderleigh shortly for a rest. I am anxious you should talk to her. She says she has doubts, and she is tired of the Bible. By the way, please tell Hester, with my love, that she and Mr. Harvey attacked “The Idyll of East London” and showed it up entirely, and poor little me had to stand up for her against them all.’”

“She would never do that,” said Hester, tranquilly. “She might perhaps have said, ‘The writer is a friend of mine. I must stand up for her.’ But she would never have gone beyond saying it to doing it.”

“Hester,” exclaimed Mrs. Gresley, feeling that she might just as well have remained a spinster if she was to be thus ignored in her own house, “I can’t think how you can allow your jealousy of Sybell Loftus, for I can attribute it to nothing else, to carry you so far.”

“Perhaps it had better carry me into the garden,” said Hester, rising with the others. “You must forgive me if I spoke irritably. I have a racking headache.”

“She looks ill,” said her brother, following Hester’s figure with affectionate solicitude as she passed the window a moment later.

“And yet she does next to nothing,” said the hard-worked little wife, intercepting the glance. “I always thought she wrote her stories in the morning. I know she is never about if the Pratt girls call to see her before luncheon. Yet when I ran up to her room yesterday morning to ask her to take Mary’s music, as Fraülein had the headache”—(Mrs. Gresley always spoke of the headache and the toothache)—“she was lying on her bed doing nothing at all.”

“She is very unaccountable,” said Mr. Gresley. “Still, I can make allowance for the artistic temperament. I share it to a certain degree. Poor Hester. She is a spoilt child.”

“Indeed, James, she is. And she has an enormous opinion of herself. For my part, I think the Bishop is to blame for making so much of her. Have you never noticed how different she is when he is here, so gay and talkative, and when we are alone she hardly says a word for days together, except to the children.”

“She talked more when she first came,” said Mr. Gresley. “But when she found I make it a rule to discourage argument”—(by argument Mr. Gresley meant difference of opinion)—“she seemed gradually to lose interest in conversation. Yet I have heard the Bishop speak of her as a brilliant talker. And Lord Newhaven asked me last spring how I liked having a celebrity for a sister. A celebrity! Why, half the people in Middleshire don’t even know of Hester’s existence.” And the author of “Modern Dissent” frowned.

“That was a hit at you, my dear,” said Mrs. Gresley. “It was just after your pamphlet on ‘Schism’ appeared. Lord Newhaven always says something disagreeable. Don’t you remember when you were thinking of exchanging Warpington for that Scotch living he said he knew you would not do it because with your feeling towards Dissent you would never go to a country where you would be a Dissenter yourself.”

“How about the proofs?” said Hester’s voice through the open window. “I am ready when you are, James.”

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