Arminell, a social romance/Chapter 36

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Giles inglett Saltren had left the cab at Cumberland Gate, when the momentary faintness had passed. He wished to be alone, in the fresh air, and with his own thoughts. His uncle had detained the cab till he saw that his nephew was better. He left him on a bench in the park and bade him remain there till his return from the interview with Arminell.

The young man felt the relief of being alone. The vibration of the carriage, his uncle's voice, his own self-reproach, had, combined with the shock of the news of his lordship's death, brought about the slight fit of unconsciousness. He was in that overwrought condition of nervous tension in which another touch would be insupportable; and Welsh's finger was not light, he twanged the fibres in his nephew's heart, not as if he were playing a harp with finger-balls, but as if he were performing on a zither with his nails. The air was cool; the bench on which Jingles was seated had not another occupant. The great open space in Hyde Park devoted to political meetings was sparsely peopled at that time in the morning; he was not likely to be disturbed, and the rumble of vehicles along Uxbridge Road and Oxford Street produced a soothing effect rather than the contrary.

A Frenchman was walking along the path before his bench with a walking-stick; he had found a bit of slate in the way, and with his cane he flipped it along a few feet, then stopped, and flipped it on to the grass; went upon the turf and flipped it back into the path. Then he sent it forward, past Jingles on his bench, and so on as far as Cumberland Gate, where the young man lost sight of Monsieur, and was unable to see whether he continued to drive the scrap of slate before him up Oxford Street in the direction of his haunts in Leicester Square, or whether he left it under the arch.

Till the Frenchman had disappeared, Giles Saltren did not begin to consider his own trouble. He could not do so till the bit of slate was gone beyond his range, with Monsieur after it. Watching the man was a sensible relief to him. When one has run, a pause allows the recovery of breath, and abates the pulsations, so did this diversion of attention serve to relieve Jingles, to lull the agony of remorse, and enable his mind to regain something of evenness and tone.

When a man has been struck on the head by a hammer, he falls. Jingles had received three stunning blows, and recovery could not be immediate. His sanguine hopes of living by his pen had been upset, and that was a blow to his self-esteem. Then his belief in his noble parentage had been knocked over. And lastly he had heard of Lord Lamerton's death—and whether that were accidental or not, he could hardly doubt that he had brought it about, for his lordship would not have left his guests to go to Chillacot, had he not been impelled to do so by learning of the elopement.

There are moments in the lives of most of us when we come on new scenes that are epoch-making in our life's-history. I shall never forget as such my first view of Mont Blanc, from the Col de Balme, and of a portion of the moon's surface through the Cambridge Observatory telescope, or the first sight of death. Some of these first sights are invested with pleasure unutterable, others with infinite pain; and of such latter are often those peeps within ourselves which we sometimes obtain.

What atmospheric effects, what changing lights, all beautiful, invest the outer landscape with magic, even where the scenery is tame. How rarely is it unpleasing to the eye. And it is the same when we turn our eyes inwards, and contemplate the landscape of our own selves, what glories of light flood all, what richness of foliage clothes all, how picturesque are the inequalities! How vast the surface to the horizon! And yet, it sometimes happens, not often, and not even to all, that a shadow falls over the scene and blots out all its comeliness, and then ensues a flare, a lightning flash, and we see all—no longer beautiful, but infinitely ghastly.

Saint Theresa, in one of her autobiographical sketches, says that she was shown her own self, on one occasion of introspection, not as she was wont to view it, but as it was in naked reality, and she could never after recall the vision without a shudder.

Who sees himself as he is? Who wishes to do so? Who would not be offended were you to exhibit to his eyes a picture of himself as he is? No one likes his own photograph, for the sun does not flatter. But no photographs have yet been taken of man's interior self; if they were, no one would consent to look on his own; he would spend all his fortune in buying up the copies and destroying the plates.

We are accustomed to view ourselves as those do who stand on the Brocken, magnified a thousand fold, with rainbow haloes about our heads. I have known a little fellow, who reached my elbow, strut with infinite consequence, and gesticulate with tragic dignity on the Brocken, before his own shadow projected on a cloud, nimbus-girded, and vast as the All-Father of Norse mythology. A breath of wind passed, and the phantom vanished. But we carry our Brocken shadow about with us everywhere, and posture to it, and look up to it, with an awe and admiration that slides into worship; and very rarely does the cold east wind sweep it away. But there remains this consolation to the Brocken shadow worshipper, that when the phantom form disappears, nothing remains behind, and it is a satisfaction, a poor one, but still a satisfaction, when the blast has dispelled our ideal self before which we have bowed, to discover behind it simple nonentity. There would be disenchantment indeed, and a graver walk, and a more subdued voice, and a less self-asserting tone, but there would not be that exquisite, that annihilating horror that ensues when the scattering of the vapour discloses a reality the reverse at every point of what we had imagined.

In the Egyptian temples hung purple curtains embroidered with gold, and censers perpetually smoked before the veil, and golden lamps, ever burning, diffused a mellow light through the sacred enclosure. What was behind that pictured spangled veil, within the holy of holies? Sometimes a hippopotamus wallowing on straw—or a chattering crane—sometimes, Nothing. We are engaged all our lives in the erection of magnificent temples about ourselves, and in embroidering gold-besprent curtains, and in the burning of frankincense, and in the kindling and feeding of lamps, in these tabernacles; and what is behind the veil? Do we know? Do we ever look? We paint and plate with gold ideal representations of the god within on the propylæum of our temple, but what resemblance does this figure bear to the reality? Do we know? Do we care to know? Will we not rather put out our eyes than compare them? If, by chance, a sudden gleam of sun, a puff of pure air, stir the curtain and reveal the mystery, with what haste we fly to duplicate the veils, to blind the windows, to nail the curtains to the gilded sideposts, and weight them with lead. How we redouble our prostrations, and make more dense the cloud of incense; how we elaborate our ceremonial, and when the hippopotamus within yawns, or the ibis chatters, we clash our cymbals, boom our drums, peal our trumpets to drown the utterance of the god.

There was in Alexandria no god like unto Serapis, whose temple was the wonder of the world. But one day an impious hand struck off the head, and out of the gilded idol rushed a legion of rats. There is no god, no idol, like the ideal self within the veil; but it does not chance to every one as it chanced to Giles Inglett Saltren, to have its head knocked off and see the vermin scamper out of it. When that does happen, that is a moment never to be forgotten. It is a moment of infinite importance in the life-history, it is a moment determinative of the future. The worshippers of Serapis, after that terrible spectacle, which was also extremely laughable, stood in consternation; and at that moment stood also at the fork of two roads. Either they shuffled off to the left, with their hands in their pockets, damning all religion, and vowing they would believe in nothing thenceforth, or they moved with firm steps along the right-hand road that led to a truer faith.

The same takes place with us when the Serapis of our ideal self is broken and reveals the nest of rats within. Either our moral nature becomes disintegrated, and breaks down utterly and irremediably into unsightly débris, or we turn from the worship of ourselves to seek elsewhere our ideal, and looking to it, attain to a nobler, more generous, an altruistic life.

Mr. James Welsh had not spared Jingles; he had told him plainly, even coarsely, what he thought of him, but no words of his could express the intensity of the sense of infamy that Giles Inglett felt. For a moment he had been stunned, numbed as hand and foot become numbed for awhile, and then with a tingling and needle-pricking, the moral juices began once more to flow, and the agony of inner pain he felt was the pledge of moral recovery.

As soon as Giles Inglett Saltren began to consider what were the consequences drawn upon him and Arminell by his folly, an almost overpowering desire came over him to fly from England. He had sufficient money to pay his passage across the Atlantic, and to maintain him in a new world till he could obtain a suitable situation. In a new world he might begin life anew, leaving behind his old follies and faults, and make a smooth table of the past. In the old world he could do nothing to remedy what he had wrought; but he put the temptation from him. He saw that to yield to it would be an act of cowardice, and would result in moral ruin. Instinctively, without self-analysis, he reached the conclusion that a single course lay open before him if he were to save his moral self from wreck. The same moment that he became conscious of this, he stood up, and hailed a passing empty hansom.

That moment saw the beginning of a new life in him; new ends, new visions, rose before his eyes.

Thus it was that Giles Inglett Saltren entered the sitting-room where his uncle was engaged with Arminell, and thus it was that he entered it a very different man from what Mr. Welsh had described him.

"How came you here?" asked the journalist. "Did not I tell you to remain in Hyde Park till you were wanted?"

"I have come," answered Giles firmly, "to speak to Miss Inglett. I have a just duty to perform to her, to clear her mind of the clouds I have brought over it. Miss Inglett, I was utterly wrong in supposing that his lordship was—was—what I let you believe him to be, my father. I did him a grievous wrong, I imagined it possible that the best and most blameless of men had been guilty of the basest conduct. And now that your father is dead—"

"Dead!" echoed Arminell.

Saltren looked at his uncle. He had supposed that Welsh had broken the news to the girl.

"Yes," said he, and his voice, which before was firm, gave way for a moment. "Your father is dead."

"Dead!" again repeated Arminell, and put her hands to her brow. She was being stunned by repeated blows, as Saltren had been stunned. "Dead! Impossible."

"Miss Inglett, it is as well that you should know all, and know it at once, for action must be taken immediately. Your father has met with an accident—he has been found dead after a fall. I shall return immediately by the express to Orleigh. I go to my mother at Chillacot. You must allow my uncle at once to escort you to Lady Hermione; place yourself under her protection, and confide to her all the particulars of your leaving home. I will see Lady Lamerton, and she shall telegraph to you at Lady Hermione's to return to the Park. I will wire at once, in your name, to your mother, to send your lady's-maid to you at your aunt's in Portland Place. Your maid will find you there, and attend you home to Orleigh. It is possible that by this means your running away from home with me may remain unknown. You left Orleigh on Saturday, by to-night your maid will be with you in Portland Place, and I shall be seen this evening at Orleigh, where I shall make a point of showing myself. It is therefore not likely that suspicions of my ever having left may arise. There is no time to be lost. You will hear, all too soon, the particulars of your father's death—about myself I will not speak. I should be ashamed to say a word in self-justification, and my self-reproach is beyond the power of words to express."

Arminell turned herself about, as though rotating on a pivot, holding her temples with both hands, and elbows extended.

"Yes," said Mr. Welsh, "this is well considered. Giles, it shall be as you say. I will take Miss Inglett at once to Portland Place, unless she prefers that I should go to her ladyship, and prepare her; and then Miss Inglett can follow. That probably will be the least painful course."

Arminell still swung herself from side to side. She was pale as ashes, and her eyes full of trouble and terror.

"I will go home directly, uncle," said Giles. "I have acted not like a fool only, but wickedly, and I must face the consequences."

Arminell remained stationary, and released her temples.

"What was that you said?" she asked.

"As I have been guilty, not of indiscretion only, but of a crime," said he, gravely, "I must face the consequences, be they what they may." Then Arminell drew a long breath. She recovered her composure for a moment. She recalled what had been her judgment on her father when she thought him guilty.

"I also," she said, and her voice was harsh, "I also have been guilty, not of folly only, but of a crime. I have sinned against my dear, dear father. I will not go to my Aunt Hermione. I will not go back to Orleigh."

"But the repentant prodigal," said Welsh, "in the Gospel story did return."

"When the father was at home to receive him," answered Arminell sharply. "There is not—" She drew another long breath; and then said, "I also will face the consequences."