Arminell, a social romance/Chapter 10

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In the four-hundred-and-thirty-first number of the Spectator is a letter from Sabina Green, on the disordered appetite she had acquired by eating improper and innutritious food at school. "I had not been there above a Month, when being in the Kitchen, I saw some Oatmeal on the Dresser; I put two or three Corns in my Mouth, liked it, stole a Handful, went into my Chamber, chewed it, and for two Months after never failed taking Toll of every Pennyworth of Oatmeal that came into the House. But one Day playing with a Tobacco-pipe between my Teeth, it happened to break in my Mouth, and the spitting out the Pieces left such a delicious Roughness on my Tongue, that I could not be satisfied till I had champed up the remaining Part of the Pipe. I forsook the Oatmeal, and stuck to the Pipes three Months, in which time I had disposed of thirty-seven foul Pipes, all to the Boles. I left off eating of Pipes and fell to licking of Chalk. Two Months after this, I lived upon Thunderbolts, a certain long, round, bluish Stone, which I found among the Gravel in our Garden."

Arminell's mental appetite was as much disordered as the physical appetite of Sabina Green. Whether Gaboriau's novels bore any analogy to the foul tobacco-pipes, we do pretend to say, their record of vice certainly left an agreeable roughness on her mental palate, but now without any intermediate licking of chalk, she has clenched her teeth upon a thunderbolt—a question hard, insoluble, beyond her powers of mastication. Besides, she was wholly unaware that the thunderbolt had been laid in her path expressly that she might exercise her teeth upon it.

A hundred and fifty years ago, Sabina Green picked corns, licked chalk and munched tobacco pipes, and the same thing goes on nowadays. There are tens of thousands of Sabina Greens with their mouths full, and with no appetite but for tobacco-pipes or thunderbolts. We have advanced—our pipes are now meerschaum—foam of the sea.

We have known young ladies who would touch nothing but meringues, and thereby seriously impair their constitutions and complexions. We have known others who could touch nothing but literary meringues, novels, and whose digestion revolted at solid food, but who crunched flummery romance at all times of day and night, till the flummery invaded their brains, filled their mouths, frothed in their hearts; and then tired of sweets they look out for what is pungent or foul—like the old tobacco-pipes.

An unwholesome trick into which German women fall is that of "naschen," of nibbling comfits and cakes all day long. They carry cornets of bonbons in their pockets, and have recourse to them every minute. They suffer much from disordered digestion, and fall into the green sickness, because they lack iron in the blood. How can they have iron in the blood when they eat only sugar? Our English girls have a similar infirmity, they nibble at novels, pick at the unsubstantial, innutritious stuff that constitutes fiction all day long. Do they lack iron in their moral fibre? Are their souls bloodless and faint with the green sickness? How can it be other on a diet of flummery.

The stomach of the nibbler never hungers, only craves; the appetite is supplanted by nausea. The symptoms of disorder are permanent; languor of interest, debility of principle, loss of energy in purpose, a disordered vision, and creeping moral paralysis.

If Arminell had reached the condition of one of these novel-nibblers, what she had heard would have produced no effect upon her heart or brain because neither heart nor brain would have been left in her. But she had not been a habitual novel-reader, she had read whatever came to hand, indiscriminately; and the flummery of mere fiction would never have satisfied her, because she possessed, what the novel-nibblers do not possess, intelligence. No control had been exercised over her reading, consequently she had read things that were unsuitable. She had a strong character, without having found outlets for her energy. A wise governess would have tested her, and then led her to pursuits which would have exerted her ambition and occupied her interest; but her teachers had been either wedded to routine or intellectually her inferiors. Consequently she had no special interests, but that inner eagerness and fire which would impel her to take up and follow with enthusiasm any object which excited her interest. Her friends said of Arminell with unanimity that she was a disagreeable girl, but none said she was an empty-headed one.

On reaching the house, Arminell found that lunch was over, and that her father had gone out. He had sauntered forth, as the day was fine, to look at his cedars and pines in the plantations, and with his pocket-knife remove the lateral shoots. Lady Lamerton was taking a nap previous to the resumption of her self-imposed duties at Sunday-school.

Arminell was indisposed to go to school and afternoon service in the church. After a solitary lunch she went upstairs to the part of the house where was Giles' school-room. She had not seen her brother that day, and as the little fellow was unwell, she thought it incumbent on her to visit him.

She found the tutor, Giles Inglett (vulgo, Jingles) Saltren, in the room with the boy. Little Giles had a Noah's Ark on the table, and was trying to make the animals stand on their infirm legs, in procession, headed by the dove which was as large as the dog, and half the size of the elephant.

Mr. Saltren sat by the window looking forth disconsolately. The child had a heavy cold, accompanied by some fever.

"If you wish to leave the school-room, Mr. Saltren," said Arminell, "I am prepared to occupy your place with the captive."

"I thank you, Miss Inglett," answered the tutor. "But I have strict orders to go through the devotional exercises with Giles this afternoon, the same as this morning."

"I will take them for you."

"You are most kind in offering, but having been set my tale of bricks to make without straw, I am not justified in sending another into the clayfield, in my room."

"I see—this is a house of bondage to you, Mr. Saltren. You hinted this morning that you meditated an in exitu Israel de Egypto."

The young man coloured.

"You tread too sharply on the heels of the pied de la lettre, Miss Inglett."

"But you feel this, though you shrink from the expression of your thoughts. You told me yourself this forenoon that you were not happy. If you leave us, whither do you propose going?"

"A journey in the wilderness for forty years."

"With what Land of Promise in view?"

"I have set none before me."

"None? I cannot credit that. Every man has his Land of Promise towards which he turns his face. Why leave the leeks and onions of Goshen, if you have but a stony desert in view as your pasture? I suppose the heart is a binnacle with its needle pointing to the pole—though each man may have a different pole. South of the equator, the needle points reversedly to what it pointed north of it. An anchor, an iron link, a nail even may divert the needle, but to something it must turn."

"Miss Inglett—had Moses any personal hope to reach and establish himself in the land flowing with milk and honey, when he led Israel from the brick-kilns? He was to die within sight of the land, and not to set foot thereon."

"But, Mr. Saltren; who are your Israel? Where are the brick-kilns? Who are the oppressors?"

"Can you ask?" The tutor paused and looked at the girl. "But I suppose you fail to see that the whole of the civilised world is an Egypt, in which some are taskmasters and others slaves; some enjoy and others surfer. Miss Inglett—you have somehow invited my confidence, and I cannot withhold it. It is quite impossible that the world can go on as it has been, with one class drawing to itself all that life has to offer of happiness, and another class doomed to toil and hunger and sweat, and have nothing of the light and laughter of life."

Arminell seated herself.

"Well," she said, "as Giles is playing with his wooden animals, trotting out the contents of his ark; let us turn out some of the strange creatures that are stuffed in our skulls, and marshal them. I have been opening the window of my ark to-day, and sending forth enquiries, but not a blade of olive has been brought to me."

"As for the ark of my head," said the tutor, with a bitter smile, "it is the reverse of that of Noah. He sent forth raven and dove, and the dove returned, but the raven remained abroad. With me, the dark thoughts fly over the flood and come home to roost; the dove-like ones—never."

"I am rather disposed," said Arminell, laughing, "to liken my head to a rookery in May. The matured thoughts are a-wing and wheeling, and the just fledged ones stand cawing at the edge of their nests, with fluttering wings, afraid to fly, and afraid to stay and be shot."

"To be shot?—by whom?"

"Perhaps, by your wit. Perhaps by my lord's blunderbuss."

"I will not level any of my poor wit at them. Let your thoughts hop forth boldly that I may have a sight of them."

An exclamation of distress from Giles.

"What is the matter?" asked Arminell, turning to her brother.

"The giraffe has broken his leg, and I want him to stand because he has such a long neck."

"If you were manly, Giles, you would not say, the giraffe has broken his leg, but—I have broken the giraffe's leg."

"But I did not, Armie. He had been packed too tightly with the other beasts, and his leg was so bent that it broke."

"Mend it with glue," she advised.

"I can't—it is wrong to melt glue on Sunday. Mamma would not like it."

The conversation had been broken along with the giraffe's leg, and neither Arminell nor young Saltren resumed it for some time. Presently the girl said, "Mr. Saltren, do you know what sort of men Addison called Fribblers? They are among men what flirts are among women, drawing girls on and then disappointing them. There are plenty of flirts and fribblers in other matters. There are flirts and fribblers with great social and religious questions, who play with them, trifle with them, hover about them, simulate a lively interest in them, and then—when you expect of them a decision and action on that decision, away they fly in another direction, and shake all interest and inquiry out of their thoughts. I have no patience with such flirts or fribblers." She spoke with a little bitterness. She was thinking of her step-mother. The tutor knew it, but did not allow her to see that he did.

"Do you not think," he said, "that they fribble from a sense of incompetence to grapple with these questions? The problems interest them up to a certain point. Then they see that they are too large for them, or they entail consequences they shrink from accepting, consequences that will cost them too dear, and they withdraw."

"Like the young man in the Gospel who went away sorrowful for he had great possessions. He was a fribbler."

"Exactly. He was a fribbler. He was insincere and unheroic."

"I could not fribble," said Arminell, vehemently. "If I see that a cause is right, I must pursue it at whatsoever consequence to myself. It is of the essence of humdrum to fribble. Do you know, Mr. Saltren, I have had a puzzling problem set before me to-day, and I shall have no rest till I have worked it out? Why is there so much wretchedness, so much inequality in the world?"

"Why was Giles' giraffe's leg broken?"

Arminell looked at him with surprise, suspecting that instead of answering her, he was about to turn off the subject with a joke.

"The world," said Saltren, "is like Giles' Noah's Ark, packed full—over full—of creatures of all kinds, and packed so badly that they impinge on, bruise, and break each other. Not only is the giraffe's leg broken, but so are the rim of Noah's hat, and the ear of the sheep, and the tusk of the elephant. It is a congeries of cripples. We may change their order, and we only make fresh abrasions. The proboscis of the elephant runs into the side of the lamb, and Noah's hat has been knocked off by the tail of the raven. However you may assort the beasts, however carefully you may pack them, you cannot prevent their doing each other damage."

Mr. Saltren turned to little Giles and said:—

"Bring us your box of bricks, my boy."

"It is Sunday," answered the child. "Mamma would not wish me to play with them."

"I do not wish to make a Sabbath-breaker of you," answered the tutor, "nor are your sister and I going to do other than build Babel with them—which is permissible of a Sunday."

The little boy slid off his seat, went to his cupboard, and speedily produced the required box, which he gave to Mr. Saltren.

The tutor drew forth the lid. The bricks were all in place compacted in perfect order.

Then he said, with half-sneer, half-laugh, "There are no gaps between them. The whole assemblage firm as it were one block. Not a breakage anywhere, not room for a breakage."

"No," said Arminell, "of course not. They all fit exactly because they are all cubes. The bricks," she laughed, "have no long necks like the giraffe, or legs or horns, or proboscis, or broad-brimmed hats, liable to be broken. Of course they fit together."

"If you shake the ark—the least concussion produces a breakage, one or two beasts suffer. You may toss the box of bricks about; and nothing is hurt. Why?"

Arminell was impatient. "Of course the reason is plain."

"The reason is plain. The bricks are all equal. If it were so in the world of men, there would be no jars, no fractures, no abrasions, but concord, compactness, peace."

Arminell said nothing. She closed her eyes and sat looking at the bricks, then at the animals Giles had arranged.

The tutor said no more, but his eyes, bright and eager, were on the girl's face.

Presently Arminell had gathered her thoughts together sufficiently to speak.

"That, then, is the solution you offer to my problem. But to me it does not seem solved. There the animals are. They are animals—and not bricks."

"They are animals, true, but they must be shaken and shaken together, till all their excrescences are rubbed away, and then they will fit together and find sufficiency of room. That is how marbles are made. Shapeless masses of stone are put in a bag and rattled till all their edges and angles are rattled off."

"What an ark would remain! You complain of some animals crippling others, this scheme of yours would involve a universal mutilation—the animals resolved into undistinguishable, shapeless, uninteresting trunks. The only creature that would come out scatheless would be the slug. All the rest would be levelled down to the condition of that creature—which is a digesting tube, and nothing more." Then Arminell stood up. "It is time for me to be off," she said; "her ladyship will be back from church, and oh! Mr. Saltren, I have interfered with the Psalms and Lessons."