Arminell, a social romance/Chapter 2

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The church bells were ringing, the Sunday-school had at last been reduced to order, arranged in line, and wriggled, sinuous, worm-like, along the road and up the avenue to the church porch. Lady Lamerton, brandishing her sunshade as a field-marshal's baton, kept the children in place, and directed the head of the procession.

But with what heart-burnings, what envies, what excited passions did that train sweep on its way. Some of the children had got more comfits than others, and despised those less favoured by luck, and others comfitless envied the more successful. Polly Woodley had secured more comfits than the rest, and had them screwed in the corner of her pocket handkerchief, and she thrust it exultantly under the eyes of Fanny White, who had come off with one only.

Some sobbed because they had crumpled their gowns, one boy howled because in stooping he had ruptured his nether garments, Joan Ball had broken the feather in her hat, and revenged herself on her neighbour by a stab of pin. One child strewed its tongue with comfits, and when Lady Lamerton did not observe, exposed its tongue to the rest of the children to excite their envy. Another was engaged in wiping out of its eyes the soapy water that in the scuffle had been squirted into them.

Captain Tubb dropped away at the church gates to shake hands with, and talk to, some of the villagers, the innkeeper to the Lamerton Arms, the churchwarden, the guardian of the poor, and the miller, men who constituted the middle crumb of the parochial loaf.

Lady Lamerton likewise deserted her charges at the porch, and having consigned them to the clerk, returned on her course, entered the drive, and proceeded to meet his lordship, that they might make their solemn entrance into church together. Arminell had disappeared.

"Where is the girl?" asked her ladyship when she took my lord's arm.

"Haven't seen her, my dear."

"Really, Lamerton," said my lady, "she frightens me. She is so impulsive and self-willed. She flares up when opposed, and has no more taste for Sunday-school than I have for oysters. I do my best to influence her for good, but I might as well try to influence a cocoa-nut. By the way, Lamerton, you really must build us a Sunday-school, the inconveniences to which we are subjected are intolerable."

"Have you seen Legassick, my dear?"

"I believe he is standing by the steps."

"I must speak to him about the road, it has been stoned recently. Monstrous! It should have been metalled in the winter, then the stones would have worked in, now they will be loose all the summer to throw down the horses."

"And you will build us a Sunday-school?"

"I will see about it. Won't the keeper's lodge do? The woman does not wash downstairs on a Sunday."

"I wish you kept school there one Sabbath day. You would discover how great are the discomforts. Now we are at the church gates and must compose our minds."

"Certainly, my dear. The lord-lieutenant is going to make Gammon sheriff."

"Why Gammon?"

"Because he can afford to pay for the honour. The old squirearchy can't bear the expense."

"Hush, we are close to the church, and must withdraw our minds from the world."

"So I will, dear. Eggin's pigs have been in the garden again."

"There'll be the exhortation to-day, Lamerton, and you must stand up for it. Next Sunday is Sacrament Sunday."

"To be sure. I'll have a lower line of wire round the fences. Those pigs go where a hare will run."

"Have you brought your hymnal with you?"

Lord Lamerton fumbled in his pocket, and produced his yellow silk kerchief and a book together.

"That," said his wife, "is no good; it is the old edition."

"It doesn't matter. I will open the book, and no one will be the wiser."

"But you will be thinking during the hymn of Eggin's pigs and Gammon's sheriffalty."

"I'll do better next Sunday. The gardener tells me they have turned up your single dahlias."

"Hush! we are in the church. Arminell is not in the pew. Where can she be?"

Arminell was not in church. She was, in fact, walking away from it, and by the time her father had entered his pew and looked into his hat, had put a distance of half a mile between herself and the sacred building. A sudden fit of disgust at the routine of Sunday duties had come over her, and she resolved to absent herself that morning from church, and pay a visit to a deserted lime quarry, where she could spend an hour alone, and her moral and religious sense, as she put it, could recover tone after the ordeal of Sunday-school.

"What can induce my lady to take a class every Sunday?" questioned Arminell, in her thought. "It does no good to the children, and it maddens the teachers. But, oh! what a woman mamma is! Providence must have been hard up for ideas when it produced my lady. How tiresome!"

These last words were addressed to a bramble that had caught in her skirt. She shook her gown impatiently and walked on. The bramble still adhered and dragged.

"What a nuisance," said Arminell, and she whisked her skirt round and endeavoured to pick off the brier, but ineffectually.

"Let me assist you," said a voice; and in a moment a young man leaped the park wall, stepped on the end of the bramble, and said, "Now, if you please, walk on, Miss Inglett."

Arminell took a few steps and was free. She turned, and with a slight bow said, "I thank you, Mr. Saltren." Then, with a smile, "I wish I could get rid of all tribulations as easily."

"And find them whilst they cling as light. You are perhaps not aware that 'tribulation' derives from the Latin tribulus, a bramble."

"So well aware was I that I perpetrated the joke which you have spoiled by threshing it. Why are you not at church, Mr. Saltren, listening for the rector's pronunciation of the Greek names of St. Paul's acquaintances, in the hopes of detecting a false quantity among them?"

"Because Giles has a cold, and I stay at my lady's desire to read the psalms and lessons to him."

"I wonder whether schooling Giles is as intolerable as taking Sunday class; if it be, you have my grateful sympathy."

"Your sympathy, Miss Inglett, will relieve me of many a tribulus which adheres to my robe."

"Is Giles a stupid boy and troublesome pupil?"

"Not at all. My troubles are not connected with my little pupil." "Class-taking in that Sunday-school is a sort of mental garrotting," said Arminell. "I wonder whether a teacher always feels as if his brains were being measured for a hat when he is giving instruction."

"Only when there is non-receptivity in the minds of those he teaches, or tries to teach. May I ask if you are going to church, Miss Inglett?"

"I have done the civil by attending the Sunday-school, and the articles disapprove of works of supererogation. I am going to worship under the fresh green leaves, and to listen to the choir of the birds—blackbird, thrush and ouzel. I am too ruffled in temper to sit still in church and listen to the same common-places in the same see-saw voice from the pulpit. Do you know what it is to be restless, Mr. Saltren, and not know what makes you ill at ease? To desire greatly something, and not know what you long after?"

The young man was walking beside her, a little in the rear, respectfully, not full abreast. He was a pale man with an oval face, dark eyes and long dark lashes, and a slight downy moustache.

"I can in no way conceive that anything can be lacking to Miss Inglett," he said. "She has everything to make life happy, an ideally perfect lot, absolutely deficient in every element that can jar with and disturb tranquillity and happiness."

"You judge only by exterior circumstances. You might say the same of the bird in the egg—it fits it as a glove, it is walled round by a shell against danger, it is warmed by the breast of the parent, why should it be impatient of its coiled-up, comatose condition? Simply because that condition is coiled-up and comatose. Why should the young sponge ever detach itself from the rock on which it first developed by the side of the great absorbent old sponge? It gets enough to eat, it is securely attached by its foot to the rock; it is in the oceanic level that suits its existence. Why should it let go all at once and float away, rise to the surface and cling elsewhere? Because of the monotony of its life of absorption and contraction, and of its sedentary habits. But, there—enough about myself. I did not intend to speak of myself. You have brambles clinging to you. Show me them, that I may put my foot on them and free you."

"You know, Miss Inglett, who I am—the son of the captain of the manganese mine, and that his wife is an old lady's maid from the park. You know that I was a clever boy, and that his lordship most generously interested himself in me, and when it was thought I was consumptive, sent me for a couple of winters to Mentone. You know that he provided for my schooling, and sent me to the University, and then most kindly took me into Orleigh as tutor to your half-brother Giles, till I can resolve to enter the Church, when, no doubt, he will some day give me a living. All that you know. Do not suppose I am insensible to his lordship's kindness, when I say that all this goodness shown me has sown my soul full of brambles, and made me the most miserable of men."

"But how so?" Miss Inglett looked at him with unfeigned surprise. "As you said to me, so say I to you, and excuse the freedom. Mr. Saltren has everything to make life happy, education, comfortable quarters, kind friends, an assured future, an ideally perfect lot, absolutely deficient in disturbing elements."

"Now you judge by the outside. I admit to the full that Lord Lamerton has done everything he could think of to do me good, but can one man calculate what will suit another? Will a bog plant thrive in loam, or a heath in clay?"

"You do not think that what has been done for you is well done?"

"I am not inclined for the Church, I have a positive distaste for the ministry, and yet Lord Lamerton is bent on my being a parson. If I do not become one, what am I to be? I cannot go back to the life whence I have been taken; I cannot endure to be with those who hold their knives by the middle when eating, and drink their tea out of their saucers, and take their meals in their shirt sleeves. Remember I have been translated from the society to which by birth I belong, to another as different from it as is that of Brahmins from Esquimaux; I cannot accommodate myself again to what was once my native element. Baron Munchausen, in one of his voyages, landed on an island made of cream cheese, and only discovered it by the fainting of a sailor who had a natural antipathy to cream cheese. I have come ashore on an island the substance of which is altogether different from the soil where I was born. I cannot say I have an ineradicable distaste for it, but that at first I found a difficulty in walking on it. The specific gravity of cream cheese is other than that of clay. Now that I have acquired the light and trippant tread that suits, if I return to my native land, my paces will be criticised, and regarded as affected, and myself as supercilious, for not at once plodding from my shoulders like a ploughboy in marl. How was it with poor Persephone who spent half her time in the realm of darkness and half in that of light? She carried to the world of light her groping tentative walk, and was laughed at, and when in Hades, she trod boldly as if in day and got bruises and bloody noses. Even now I am in a state of oscillation between the two spheres, and am at home in neither, miserable in both. When I am in the cream-cheese island I never feel that I can walk with the buoyancy of one born on cream cheese. I can never quite overcome the sense of inhaling an atmosphere of cheese, never quite find the buttermilk squeezed out of it taste like aniseed water."

Arminell could not refrain from a laugh. "Really, Mr. Saltren, you are not complimentary to our island."

"Call it the Isle of Rahat la Koum, Turkish Delight, or Guava Jelly—anything luscious. One who has eaten salt pork and supped vinegar cannot at once tutor his palate to everything saccharine to a syrup."

"But what really troubles you in the Isle of Guava?"

"I am not a native but a stranger. Your tongue is by me acquired. There are even tones and inflexions of voice in you I cannot attain because my vocal organs got set in another world. A man like myself taken up and carried into a different sphere by another hand is inevitably so self-conscious that his self-consciousness is a perpetual torment to him. According to the apocryphal tale, an angel caught Habakkuk by the hair and carried him with a mess of pottage in his hands through the air, and deposited him in Daniel's den of lions. Your father has been my angel, who has taken me up and transported me, and now I am in a den of lordly beasts who stalk round me and wonder how I came among them, and turn up their noses at the bowl I carry in my shaking hands."

"And you want to escape from us lions?"

"Pardon me—I am equally ill at ease elsewhere, I have associated with lions till I can only growl."

"And lash yourself raw," laughed Arminell; "you know a lion has a nail at the end of his tail, wherewith he goads himself."

"I can torture myself—that is true," said Saltren, in a disquieted tone. "My lord will give me a living and provide for me if I will enter the Church, but that is precisely an atmosphere I do not relish—and what am I to do? I cannot dig, to beg I am ashamed."

"Mr. Saltren, you are not at ease in the lion's den, but suppose you were to crawl out and get into the fields?"

"I should lose my way, having been carried by the angel out of my own country. You see the wretchedness of my position, I am uncomfortable wherever I am. In my present situation I imagine slights. Anecdotes told at table make me wince, jokes fret me. Conversation on certain subjects halts because I am present. Yet I cannot revert to my native condition; that would be deterioration, now I have acquired polish, and have progressed."

"I should not have supposed, Mr. Saltren, that you were so full of trouble."

"No, looking on a rose-pip, all smoothness, you do not reckon on its being full of choke within. And now—Miss Inglett, you see at once an instance of my lack of tact and knowledge. I am in doubt whether I have done well to pour out my pottle of troubles in your ear, or whether I behaved like a booby."

"I invited you to it."

"Precisely, but in the language of the Isle of Guava, words do not mean what they are supposed to mean in the Land of Bacon. I may have transgressed those invisible bounds which you recognise by an instinct of which I am deficient. There are societies which have laws and signs of fellowship known only to the initiated. You belong to one, the great Freemasonry of Aristocratic Culture. You all know one another in it, how—is inconceivable to me, though I watch and puzzle to find the symbol; and your laws, unwritten, I can only guess at, but you all know them, suck them in with mother's milk. I have been, brought up among you, but I have only an idea of your laws, and as for your shibboleth—it escapes me altogether. And now—I do not know whether I have acted rightly or wrongly in telling you how I am situated. I am in terror lest in taking you at your word I may not have grossly offended you, and lest you be now saying in your heart, What an unlicked cub this is! how ignorant of tact, how lacking in good breeding! He should have passed off my invitation with a joke about brambles. He bores me, he is insufferable."

"I assure you—Mr. Saltren——"

"Excuse my interrupting you. It may or may not be so. I daresay I am hypersensitive, over-suspicious."

"And now, Mr. Saltren, I think Giles is waiting for his psalms and lessons."

"You mean—I have offended you."

"Not at all. I am sorry for you, but I think you are—excuse the word—morbidly sensitive."

"You cannot understand me because you have never been in my land. Baron Munchausen says that in the moon the aristocrats when they want to know about the people send their heads among them, but their trunks and hearts remain at home. The heads go everywhere and return with a report of the wants, thoughts and doings of the common people. You are the same. You send your heads to visit us, to enquire about us, to peep at our ways, and search out our goings, but you do not understand us, because you have not been heart and body down to finger-ends and toes among us, and of us-you cannot enter into our necessities and prejudices and gropings. But I see, I bore you. In the tongue of the Isle of Guava you say to me, Giles wants his psalms and lessons. Which being interpreted means, This man is a bramble sticking to my skirts, following, impeding my movements, a drag, a nuisance. I must get rid of him. I wish you a good morning, Miss Inglett; and holy thoughts under the green-wood tree!"