Arminell, a social romance/Chapter 1

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Sunday-School on the ground floor of the keeper's cottage that stood against the churchyard, in a piece nibbled out of holy ground. Some old folks said this cottage had been the church-house where in ancient days the people who came to divine service stayed between morning prayer and evensong, ate their mid-day meal and gave out and received their hebdomadal quotient of gossip. But such days were long over, the house had been used as a keeper's lodge for at least a hundred years. The basement consisted of one low hall exactly six feet one inch from the floor to rafters. There was no ceiling between it and the upper house—only a flooring laid on the rafters. In the pre-traditional days the men had sat and eaten and drunk in the room above, and the women in that below, between services, and their horses had been stabled where now the keeper had his kennel.

The basement chamber was paved with slabs of slate. Rats infested the lodge, they came after the bones and biscuits left by the dogs. The pheasants' food was kept there, the keeper's wife dropped her dripping, and the children were not scrupulous about finishing their crusts. The rats undermined the slates, making runs beneath the pavement to get at the box of dog biscuits, and the sacks of buckwheat, and the parcels of peppercorns; consequently the slates were not firm to walk on. Moreover, in the floor was a sunless secret cellar, of but eighteen inches in depth, for the reception of liquor, or laces or silks that had not paid the excise. The slates over this place, long disused, were infirm and inclined to let whoever stepped on them down.

During the week the keeper's wife washed in the basement and slopped soapy water about, that ran between the slates and formed puddles, lurking under corners, and when, on Sunday, the incautious foot rested on an angle of slate, the slab tilted and squirted forth the stale unsavoury water.

The room, as already said, was unceiled. The rafters were of solid oak; the boards above were of deal, and had shrunk in places, and in places dropped out the core of their knots. The keeper's children found a pleasure in poking sticks and fingers through, and in lying flat on the floor with an eye on the knot-hole, surveying through it the proceedings in the Sunday-school below.

About the floor in unsystematic arrangement spraddled forms of deal, rubbed by boys' trousers to a polish. Some of these forms were high in the leg, others short. No two were on a level, and no two were of the same length. They were rudely set about the floor in rhomboidal shapes, or rather in trapeziums, which according to Euclid have no defined shapes at all.

There was a large open fireplace at one end of the room, in which in winter a fire of wood burned. When it burned the door had to be left wide open, because of the smoke, consequently Sunday-school was held in winter in a draught. At the extremity of the room, opposite the fireplace, stood Moses and Aaron—not in the flesh, nor even in spirit, but in "counterfeit presentment" as large as life, rudely painted on board. They had originally adorned the east end of the chancel; when, however, the fashion of restoring churches set in, Orleigh Church had been done up, and Moses and Aaron had been supplanted to make room for a horrible reredos of glazed tiles. One of the Sunday school scholars, a wag, had scribbled mottoes from their mouths, on scrolls, and had made Aaron observe to Moses, "Let us cut off our noses;" to which the meekest of men was made to rejoin, "It is the fashion to wear 'em." But through orthographical weakness, fashion had been spelled fashum, and wear 'em had been rendered warum.

But why was the Sunday school held in the basement of the keeper's cottage? For the best of good reasons. There was no other room conveniently near the church in which it could be held.

Lady Lamerton could not live in peace without a Sunday school. To her, the obligation to keep the ten commandments was second to the obligation to keep Sunday school. How could the ten commandments be taught, unless there was a Sunday school in which to teach them? How could a Sunday school be held without some teachers to hold it? And who more suitable, more certainly marked out by Providence as the manager of Sunday school than herself? There was, it was true, the Rector's wife, the Reverend Mrs. Cribbage, but the Reverend Mrs. Cribbage was—well to put it mildly, not cut out by nature to be a successful organiser, though she might be an excellent woman. The Reverend Mrs. Cribbage was willing to keep Sunday school, if her ladyship did not, and that would lead to untold mischief, for that reverend lady had a gift for setting everyone by the ears, for stirring, and stirring till she had stirred up strife, where all before was peace.

The buildings of the national school were two miles distant, near the village. The church stood in the grounds of Orleigh Park, and its satellite, the Sunday school, most certainly ought to be near it.

There had been some difficulty about a habitat for the Sunday school. Lady Lamerton had tried to hold it in the laundry of the great house, but the children in muddy weather had brought in so much dirt that no laundry-work could be done in the room on Monday till it had been scoured out. Besides—a fearful discovery had been made, better left to the imagination than particularised. Suffice it to say that after this discovery the children were banished the laundry. It must have come from them. From whom else could it have been derived? The laundry-maids were Aphrodites, foam, or rather soapsud-born, and it could not proceed from such as they. Some said—but nonsense—there is no such a thing as spontaneous generation. Pasteur has exploded that. So all the pupils, with their prayer-books and Ancient-and-Moderns under their arms, made an exodus, and went for a while into an outhouse in the stable-yard. There they did not remain long, for the boys hid behind doors instead of coming in to lessons, and then dived into the stables to see the horses. One of them nearly died from drinking embrocation for spavin, thinking it was cherry-brandy, and another scratched his ignoble name on the panel of one of my lord's carriages, with a pin.

So, on the complaint of the coachman, my lord spoke out, and the Sunday scholars again tucked their prayer-books and hymnals under their arms, and, under the guidance of Lady Lamerton, migrated to a settled habitation in the basement of the keeper's cottage. The place was hardly commodious, but it had its advantages—it was near the church.

Lady Lamerton, who presided over the Sunday-school and collected the Sunday scholars' club-pence, and distributed that dreary brown-paper-covered literature that constituted the Sunday-school lending library, was a middle-aged lady with a thin face and very transparent skin, through which every vein showed. There was not much character in her face, but it possessed a certain delicacy and purity that redeemed it from being uninteresting. She was—it could be read in every feature—a scrupulously conscientious woman, a woman strong in doing her duty, and in that only; one whose head might be and generally was in a profound muddle as to what she believed, but who never for a moment doubted as to what she should do. She would be torn by wild horses rather than not keep Sunday-school, and yet did not know what to teach the children in the school she mustered.

Lady Lamerton, seated on a green garden chair from which the paint was much rubbed away, had about her on three sides of an irregular square the eldest girls of the school. The next class to hers was taken by the Honourable Arminell Inglett, her step-daughter, only child of Lord Lamerton by his first wife.

Miss Inglett was very different in type from her step-mother; a tall, handsome girl, with dark hair cut short, like a boy's, and eyes of violet blue. She had a skin of the purest olive, no rose whatever in her cheeks, as transparent as Lady Lamerton's, but of a warmer tone, like the mellow of an old painting, whereas that of her step-mother had the freshness and crudeness of a picture from the easel sent to the Royal Academy on the first of May.

Arminell differed from Lady Lamerton in expression as completely as in type of feature and colour. She had an unusual breadth of brow, whereas Lady Lamerton's forehead was narrow. Her eyes had not that patient gentleness that filled the dark blue orbs of her ladyship, they were quick and sparkling. Her lips, somewhat prominent, were full, warm, and contemptuous. She held her head erect, with a curl of the mouth, and a contraction of the brows, that expressed impatience to the task on which she was engaged.

On the left side of Miss Inglett sat Captain Tubb, engaged on the illumination of the souls of the senior boys. Captain Tubb held no commission in the army or navy, not even in the volunteers. He was, in fact, only the manager of a lime-quarry in the parish, on the estate of Lord Lamerton, but such heads over gangs of quarry and mining men bear among the people the courtesy-title of captain.

Mr. Tubb was a short, pale man with shiny face much polished, and with sandy moustache and beard. When he was in perplexity, he put his hand to his mouth, and stroked his moustache, or his beard under the chin, turned it up, and nibbled at the ends.

Some folk said that the captain taught in school so as to stand well with her ladyship, who would speak a word for him to my lord; but the rector thought, more charitably, he did it for his soul's and conscience sake. Captain Tubb was a simple man, except in his business, and in that he was sharp enough. Perhaps he taught a class from mixed motives, and thought it would help him on a bit in both worlds.

"Yes," said Lady Lamerton, "yes, Fanny White, go on. As the list of the canonical books is known to you all, I require you to learn the names of those books which, as the sixth article says, are read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet are not applied to establish any doctrine. After that we will proceed to learn by heart the names of the Homilies, twenty-one in all, given in the thirty-fifth article, which are the more important, because they are not even read and hardly any one has a copy of them. Go on with the uncanonical books. Third Book of Esdras, Fourth Book of Esdras."

"Tobit," whispered the timid Fanny White, and curtsied.

"Quite right, Tobit—go on. It is most important for your soul's health that you should know what books are not canonical, and in their sequence. What comes after Tobit?"

"Judith," faltered Fanny.

"Then a portion of Esther, not found in Hebrew. What next?"

"Wisdom," shouted the next girl, Polly Woodley.

"True, but do not be so forward, Polly; I am asking Fanny White."

"Ecclesiasticks," in a timid, doubtful sigh from Fanny, who raised her eyes to the boards above, detected an eye inspecting her through a knot-hole, laughed, and then turned crimson.

"Not sticks," said Lady Lamerton, sweetly, "you must say—cus."

A dead silence and great doubt fell on the class.

"Yes, go on—cus."

Then faintly from Fanny, "Please, my lady, mother says I b'aint to swear."

"I don't mind," exclaimed the irrepressible Polly Woodley, starting up, and thrusting her hand forward into Lady Lamerton's face. "Darn it."

Her ladyship fell back in her chair; the eye was withdrawn from the hole in the floor, and a laugh exploded upstairs.

"I—I didn't mean that," explained the lady, "I meant, not Ecclesiastics, nor Ecclesiastes, which is canonical, but Ecclesiasti—cus, which is not."

Just then a loud, rolling, grinding sound made itself heard through the school-room, drowning the voices of the teachers and covering the asides of the taught.

"Dear me," said Lady Lamerton, "there is the keeper's wife rocking the cradle again. One of you run upstairs and ask her very kindly to desist. It is impossible for any one to hear what is going on below with that thunder rolling above."

"Please, my lady," said Polly, peeping up through the nearest knot in the superjacent plank, "it b'aint Mrs. Crooks, it be Bessie as is rocking of the baby. Wicked creetur not to be at school."

"It does not matter who rocks the cradle," said her ladyship, "nor are we justified in judging others. One of you—not all at once—you, Polly Woodley, ask Bessie to leave the cradle alone till later."

The whole school listened breathlessly as the girl went out, tramped up the outside slate steps to the floor occupied by the keeper's family above, and heard her say:—

"Now, then, Bessie! What be you a-making that racket for? My lady says she'll pull your nose unless you stop at once. My lady's doing her best to teach us to cuss downstairs, and her can't hear her own voice wit'out screeching like a magpie."

Then up rose Lady Lamerton in great agitation.

"That girl is intolerable. She shall not have a ticket for good conduct to-day. I will go—no, you run, Joan Ball, and make her return. I will have a proper school-room built. This shall not occur again."

Then Captain Tubb rose to his full height, stood on a stool, put his mouth to the orifice in the plank, placed his hands about his mouth and roared through the hole: "Her ladyship saith Come down."

Presently with unabashed self-satisfaction Polly Woodley reappeared.

"When I send you on an errand," said Lady Lamerton severely, "deliver it as given. I am much displeased."

"Yes, my lady, thank you," answered Polly with cheerful face, and resumed her seat in class.

"Now, boys," said Captain Tubb to his class, which was composed of the senior male scholars, including Tom Metters, the rascal who had put the inscriptions in the mouths of Moses and Aaron. "Now, boys, attention. The cradle and Polly Woodley are nothing to you. We will proceed with what we were about."

"Please, sir," said Tom Metters, thrusting forth his hand as a semaphore, "what do Quinquagesima, Septuagesima and the lot of they rummy names mean?"

"Rummy," reproved Captain Tubb, "is an improper term to employ. Say, remarkable. Quinquagesima"—he stroked his moustache, then brightened—"it is the name of a Sunday."

"I know, sir, but why is it so called?"

"Why are you called Tom Metters?" asked the captain as a feeble effort to turn the tables.

"I be called Tom after my uncle, and Metters is my father's name—but Quinquagesima?"

"Quin-qua-gess-im-a!" mused the captain, and looked furtively towards my lady for help, but she was engrossed in teaching her class what books were not to be employed for the establishment of doctrine, and did not notice the appeal.

"Yes, sir," persisted Metters, holding him as a ferret holds the throat of a rabbit, "Quinquagesima."

"I think," said Tubb, eagerly, "we were engaged on David's mighty men. Go on with the mighty men."

"But, please sir, I do want to know about Quinquagesima, cruel bad."

"Quin-qua-gess-ima," sighed Captain Tubb, nibbling the ends of his beard; then again in a lower sigh, "Quin-qua-gess-ima?" He looked at Arminell for enlightenment, but in vain. She was listening amused and scornful.

"Gessima—gessima!" said Mr. Tubb; then falteringly: "It's a sort of creeper, over veranders."

He saw a flash in Arminell's eye, and took it as encouragement. Then, with confidence, he advanced.

"Yes, Metters, it means that this is the Sunday or week whereabouts the yaller jessamine—or in Latin, gessima—do begin to bloom."

"Thank you, sir—and Septuagesima?"

"That," answered the captain with great promptitude, "that is when the white 'un flowers."

"But, sir, there's another Sunday collick, Sexagesima. There's no red or blue jessamine, be there?"

"Red, or blue!" The teacher looked hopelessly at Arminell, who with compressed lips observed him and shook her head.

"Sex—sex—sex," repeated Mr. Tubb, with his mouth full of beard, "always means females. That means the female jessamine."

"Be there any, sir? There's a petticoat narcissus, and a lady's smock, and a marygold, but I never heard of a she-jessamine."

"There are none here," answered Tubb, "but in the Holy Land—lots."

"Really, Arminell," said Lady Lamerton, "your class is doing nothing but play and disturb mine."

"I am on the stool of the learner," sneered the girl.

At that moment, through the ceiling, or rather boards above, dropped a black-handled kitchen fork within a hair's breadth of Arminell's head. She drew back, startled.

"What is it? What is the matter?" exclaimed Lady Lamerton. "Run up, Polly Woodley!—no, not you this time; you, Fanny White, and see what they are about upstairs."

"Please, my lady," said Polly, peering into the higher regions through the hole, "Bessie have given the baby the knives and forks to play with, 'cause you wont let her rock the cradle and to keep 'un from crying. He's a shoving 'em through the floor."

Then, down through the knot-hole descended a shower of comfits. The child had been given a cornet by its mother, and had eagerly opened it, over the hole where it had poked the fork.

The school floor was overspread with a pink and white hail-shower. In a moment, all order was over. The classes broke up into individual units, all on the floor, kicking, scratching, elbowing, grabbing after the scattered comfits, thrusting fingers into eyes, into soapy water; getting them trodden on, nipped between slates, a wriggling, contending, greedy, noisy tangle of small humanity, and above it stood my lady protesting, and Captain Tubb nibbling the ends of his sandy beard, and looking dazed; and Arminell Inglett, half angry, half amused, altogether contemptuous.

"There!" exclaimed Lady Lamerton, "the bells are going for divine service. In places at once—Let us pray!"