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Novelist Mary Cholmondeley (1859-1925), author of Red Pottage and Diana Tempest, writes of escaped criminals, desperate thieves, and the mysteries of a seemingly loving family, in The Lowest Rung and Others.
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We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung.
The sudden splendour of the afternoon made me lay down my pen, and tempted me afield. It had been a day of storm and great racing cloud-wracks, after a night of hurricane and lashing rain. But in the afternoon the sun had broken through, and I struggled across the water-meadows, the hurrying, turbid water nearly up to the single planks across the ditches, and climbed to the heathery uplands, battling my way inch by inch against a tearing wind.
My art had driven me forth from my warm fireside, as it is her wont to drive her votaries, and the call of my art I have never disobeyed.
For no artist must look at one side of life only. We must study it as a whole, gleaning rich and varied sheaves as we go. My forthcoming book of deep religious experiences, intertwined with descriptions of scenery, needed a little contrast. I had had abundance of summer mornings and dewy evenings, almost too many dewy evenings. And I thought a description of a storm would be in keeping with the chapter on which I was at that moment engaged, in which I dealt with the stress of my own illness of the previous spring, and the mystery of pain, which had necessitated a significant change in my life—a visit to Cromer. The chapter dealing with Cromer, and the insurgent doubts of convalescence, wandering on its poppy-strewn cliffs, as to the beneficence of the Deity, was already done, and one of the finest I had ever written.
But I was dissatisfied with the preceding chapter, and, as usual, went for inspiration to Nature.
It was late by the time I reached the upland, but I was rewarded for my climb.
Far away under the flaring sunset the long lines of tidal river and sea stretched tawny and sinister, like drawn swords in firelight, between the distant woods and cornfields. The death-like stillness and smallness of the low-lying rigid landscape made the contrast with the rushing enormity and turmoil of the heavens almost terrific.
Great clouds shouldered up out of the sea, blotting out the low sun, darkening the already darkened earth, and then towered up the sky, releasing the struggling sun only to extinguish it once more, in a new flying cohort.
I do not know how long I stood there, spellbound, the woman lost in the artist, scribbling frantically in my notebook, when an onslaught of rain brought me to my senses and I looked round for shelter.
Then I became aware that I had not been watching alone. A desolate-looking figure, crouching at a little distance, half hidden by a gorse-bush, was watching too, watching intently. She got up as I turned and came towards me, her uncouth garments whipped against her by the wind.
The rain plunged down upon us, enveloping us both as in a whirlwind.
“There is an empty cottage under the down,” I shouted to her, and I began to run towards it. It was a tumbledown place, but “any port in such a storm.”
“It is not safe,” she shouted back; “the roof is falling in.”
The squall of rain whirled past as suddenly as it had come, leaving me gasping. She seemed to take no notice of it.
“I spent last night there,” she said. “The ceiling came down in the next room. Besides,” she added, “though possibly that may not deter you, there are two policemen there.”
I saw now that it had been the cottage which she had been watching. And sure enough, in a broken shaft of sunshine which straggled out for a moment, I saw two dark figures steal towards the cottage under cover of the wall.
“Why are they there?” I said, gaping at such a strange sight. For I had been many months at Rufford, and I had never seen a policeman.
“They are lying in wait for some one,” she said.
It flashed back across my mind how at luncheon that day the vicar had said that a female convict had escaped from Ipswich gaol, and had been traced to Bealings, and, it was conjectured, was lurking in the neighbourhood of Woodbridge.
I took sudden note of my companion’s peculiar dark bluish clothes and shawl, and the blood rushed to my head. I knew what those garments meant. She pushed back her grizzled hair from her lined, walnut-coloured face, and we looked hard at each other.
There was no fear in her eyes, but a certain curiosity as to what I was going to do.
“If I told you they were not looking for me,” she said, “I could not, under the circumstances, expect you to believe it.”
I am too highly strung for this workaday world. I know it to my cost. The artistic temperament has its penalties. My doctor at Cromer often told me that I vibrated like a harp at the slightest touch. I vibrated now. Indeed, I almost sat down in the sodden track.
But unlike many of my brothers and sisters of the pen, I am capable of impulsive, even quixotic action, and I ought, in justice to myself, to mention here that I had not then read that noble book “The Treasure of Heaven,” in which it will be remembered that a generous-souled woman takes in from the storm, and nurses back to health in her lowly cottage, an aged tramp who turns out to be a millionaire, and leaves her his vast fortune. I did not get the idea of acting as I am about to relate from Marie Corelli, the head of our profession, or indeed from any other writer. But I have so often been accused of taking other people’s plots and ideas and sentiments, that I owe it to myself to make this clear before I go on.
“You poor soul,” I said, “whatever you are, and whatever you’ve done, I will shelter you and help you to escape.”
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