Arminell, a social romance/Chapter 52
Sir Joshua Reynolds, in his treatise on the composition of a picture, lays down as a necessity that a patch of blue sky should be introduced into every painting, an opening through which the eye may escape out of the constraint and gloom of the canvas. If the subject be a dungeon, in one corner must be a window through which the eye can mount to heaven; if a forest, there must be a gap in the foliage through which the sun may strike and the free air blow. If a landscape under a grey canopy, or a storm at sea under rolling thunder clouds, there must be a rift somewhere through which the upper azure gleams; otherwise the picture oppresses and the frame cramps. For this reason, the preceding chapter was entitled "A Patch of Blue Sky," for in that chapter a small opening was made quite in a corner, into that serene and super-terrestrial, that ethereal and sublime realm—matrimony.
For a good many chapters our hero and heroine have been in a poor way, inhaling London smoke, without sunshine enlivening their existences. From Orleigh Park to Shepherd's Bush, and from the elastic atmosphere of the country to the fogs of the metropolis, is a change which, considering the altered conditions of both—Jingles without a situation, living on bread and thin tea, and Arminell without a home, living with third-rate people—was depressing to both, and the picture was overcharged with shadows. Therefore a little glimpse has been given into that heaven to which all youthful and inexperienced novel-readers aspire.
Sir Joshua Reynolds, moreover, insists on a proper balance of lights and shadows. He says that it is false art to accumulate dark spots on one side of a picture without relieving them with a corresponding number of luminous foci on the other. Now in this story the reader has been given three deaths. Therefore, there must needs be the same number of marriages to produce equilibrium. Accordingly, over against the dark points of Archelaus Tubb, Lord Lamerton, and Captain Saltren, we set off the bright combinations of Samuel and Joan, of Captain Tubb and Marianne, and of Arminell and Jingles. These are not, it is true, spots of transcendent brilliancy, double stars of the first order, but of subdued and chastened effulgence. Not many roses crowned the hymeneal altar of Sam Ceely, nor would an impassioned epithalamium suit the nuptials of Mrs. Saltren, just recovered from a touch of paralysis. Nor will the beaker of ecstatic love brim over at the union of Arminell and Giles Saltren, seeing that it is largely filled with De Jongh's cod-liver oil. When a cook has over-salted the soup, he mixes white sugar with it, and this neutralises the brine and gives the soup a mellowness, and velvety softness to the palate. On the same principle, having put too many tears into this tale, I am shaking in the hymeneal sugar in just proportions.
I know very well I am letting the reader into the secrets of construction, telling the tricks of the trade, but as this narrative is written for instruction as well as for amusement, I do not scruple thus to indicate one of the principles of the art of novel writing; and I do this with purpose, to gain the favour of the reader, who I fear is a little ruffled and resentful, because I do not give a full and particular account of the marriage. But it really hardly merited such an account, it was celebrated so quietly without choral song and train of bride's-maids, and without peal of bells. I am so much afraid that by omitting to make a point of the marriage I may offend my readers that I have let them into one of the secrets of the construction of a plot.
Among poor people a bottle of lemon-drops is set on the table, and the children are given bread to eat. Those little ones whose conduct has been indifferent are allowed only bread and point for a meal, but those who have behaved well are permitted to enjoy bread and rub. To their imaginations some of the sweetness of the lollipops penetrates the glass and adheres to their slices.
A novel is the intellectual meal of a good many readers, and it begins with bread and point, and is expected to end with bread and rub at the acidulated drops of connubial felicity. Usually the reader has to consume a great deal of bread and point and is only allowed bread and rub in final chapters. In this story, however, I have been generous, I have allowed of three little frettings at the bottle instead—indeed, instead of keeping one tantalising bottle before the eyes of the reader, I have set three on the table in front of him.
That I have transgressed the rule which requires the marriage of hero and heroine to be at the end of the book, in the very last chapter, I freely admit; but I have done this on purpose, and I have, for the same purpose, most slyly slipped in the marriage, or rather left it to the imagination, between the end of Chapter LI. and the beginning of Chapter LII. And what do you suppose is my reason? It is, that I want to dodge the dippers. The dippers are those readers who are only by an euphemism called readers. They stand by the course of a story, and pop a beak down into it every now and then, and bring up something from the current, and then fly away pretending that they have read the whole story. The dipper generally plunges the bill into the first chapter, then dips into the last of the three volumes, and then again once or twice in the mid-stream of the tale.
These dippers are gorgeous creatures, arrayed in gold and azure, with bejewelled necks and wings and crowns. But in one matter they differ from all other fowl—they have no gizzards. Other birds, notably those of the barn door, when they eat pass their food through a pair of internal grindstones, and thoroughly digest and assimilate it. The dippers, being devoid of this organ, neither digest nor assimilate anything. They take nothing into them for the purpose of nutrition, but for the taste it leaves on their tongues. Consequently, the food they like best is not that which invigorates, but that which is high flavoured.
A dipper may seem very small game at which to fire a shot, but the dippers are the special aversion of novel writers. These latter have laboured to please, perhaps to instruct; they have worked with their pens till their fingers are cramped, and their brains bemuzzed, and they see the fruit of conscientious toil treated as a bird treats a nectarine—pecked at and spoiled, not eaten.
But I have headed this chapter "On Dippers," not because I intended to blaze at those little frivolous, foolish birds who dip into my story and let all they scoop up dribble from their beaks again, but because I have another class of dippers in my eye, about whom I have still sharper words to say. And see!—one of this order has unexpectedly dropped in on the Welshes—and that is Mrs. Cribbage.
The Reverend Mrs. Cribbage was not one of the kingfishers, but was a dipper of the cormorant or skua genus. She was not one to stand by the stream of a story and dip in that, but in the sea of life, and seek in that for savoury meat over which to snap the bill, and smack the tongue, and turn up the eyes, and distend the jaw-pouches. The dippers of this order congregate on a rock above the crystal tide and chatter with their beaks, whilst their eyes pierce the liquid depths. They have no perceptions of the beauty of colour in the water, no admiration for its limpidity. They inhale with relish none of the ozone that wafts over it—their eyes explore for blubber, for uprooted weed, for mollusks that have been bruised, for dead fish, for crustaceans that have lost limbs, for empty shells invaded by parasites, for the scum, and the waste, and the wreckage, in the mighty storm-tossed ocean of life.
Aristotle, in his 'History of Animals,' says that most fish avoid what is putrescent; but the taste of the dippers is other than that of the fish. The dippers have no perception and liking for the freshness and fragrance of the sea, but have vastly keen noses for carrion. The suffering whiting, the crushed nautilus, the disabled shrimp, are pounced on with avidity, and the great penguin-pouch expands under the beak like a Gladstone bag full of the most varied forms of misery, of sorrow and of nastiness.
The skua is a dipper akin to, but more active than the wary cormorant and the clumsy auk. It is a lively bird, and darts on nimble wing over the sea, and when it perceives a glutted dipper in flight, it dives under it, strikes it on the breast, and makes it disgorge; whereupon it seizes the prey as it falls, for itself. There are skuas as well as cormorants about the coasts of the great social ocean, and there are birds with the voracity of the cormorant and the quickness and adoitness of the skua—of such was Mrs. Cribbage. It was part of her cleverness in getting the food she required to come with a whisk and blow at those who least expected her; and such was her visit or swoop on the Welshes.
Unfortunately for her, James Welsh was at home when she swept in, and he was quite able to hold his own before her.
"My dear," said he to his wife, "I think I hear the cook squealing. She is in an epileptic fit. You had better go down into the kitchen and remain below as long as the fit lasts. Get the slavey to sit on her feet, and you hold her head. I will remain at the service of Mrs. Cribbage. I am sure she will excuse you. We have an epileptic cook, ma'am—not a bad cook when out of her fits."
"I am Mrs. Cribbage," said the visitor, "the wife of the Rector of Orleigh. We have not had the pleasure of meeting before, but I know your sister, Mrs. Tubb, very well; she is a parishioner and the wife of one of our Sunday-school teachers. Of course I know about you, Mr. Welsh, though you may not know me."
"I have heard a good deal about you, ma'am."
"Through whom?" asked the lady eagerly.
"Through my nephew."
"I have come to break to you some sad news about your sister. Poor thing, she had a first seizure on the death of her first husband, and she had a second immediately after her return to Orleigh as a bride. It was kept quiet. I was not told of it, nor was my husband sent for. Now a third has ensued which has bereft her of speech, and it is feared will end fatally. I have come to town for some purchases and on a visit to friends, and I thought it would be kind and wise if I came to see you and tell you what I knew."
"Very kind indeed, ma'am."
"I promised Captain Tubb that I would do so; he is not a great hand at letter writing, and I said that I could explain the circumstances so much better by word of mouth than he could with the pen. The case, I fear, is serious. She cannot speak."
"It must indeed be serious, if Marianne can't speak," observed Welsh dryly; "I'll run down to Orleigh to-morrow."
"How is your nephew? Mrs. Tubb hadn't heard of him for three or four months. I dare say anxiety about him has brought on the seizure."
"My late nephew?" Welsh heaved a sigh. "Poor fellow, he is gone. He always was delicate."
"Yes—to a warm place."
"It is not for us to judge," said Mrs. Cribbage, sternly.
"Well, perhaps not," answered Welsh; "but between you and me, ma'am, for what else was he fit?"
"I always considered that he gave himself airs, and I had an impression that he indulged in free-thinking. Still, he was not positively vicious. Nothing was proved against his morals."
"Others go to a warm place that shall be nameless, besides those who are positively vicious."
"Well," said Mrs. Cribbage, "that is true, sadly true. And now, to change the topic—how is Miss Inglett? Is she still with you?"
"Miss Inglett?" Welsh's eyes twinkled. He knew what the woman had come to his place for. It was not out of kindness to communicate to him his sister's condition. He felt the dig of the skua's beak in his chest.
"Oh yes, we know all about it. Marianne Tubb talked before she had the stroke and lost the power of speech. You must not suppose, Mr. Welsh, that we are taken in and believe that the Honourable Arminell Inglett died as has been represented, through the shock caused by her father's fatal fall."
"Ah! I remember seeing something about it in the papers. She died, did she?"
"No, no, Mr. Welsh, that will not do. Your sister let the cat out of the bag. She said that Miss Inglett was lodging here with you; and very boastful Mr. Tubb was about it, and much talk did it occasion in Orleigh. Some people would not believe it, they said that Marianne Saltren had been a liar, and Marianne Tubb was no better. However, others say that there is something in it. So, as I am come to town, I thought I would just run here and enquire, and see Miss Inglett myself."
"We have had an Inglett here, certainly," answered Welsh, composedly, "and very decent pastry she made. She had a light hand."
"I do not comprehend."
"Are you in want of a cook, a nursemaid, or parlour maid? She was a handy girl, and Mrs. Welsh would be happy to give her a good character—a true and honest one, no reading between the lines, no disguising of defects. She did not drink, was not a lie-abed, and was clean in her work and person. I won't say whether she put her fingers into the sugar, because I don't know, and Mrs. Welsh keeps the preserves and candied fruit locked up in the sideboard."
"I do not understand," said Mrs. Cribbage, gazing perplexedly at Mr. Welsh's imperturbable face.
"She was a sort of general hand with us," explained Welsh, "was that girl Inglett. We were sorry to lose her but she thought to better herself, and we do not give high wages. We can't afford to pay more than twelve pounds, and no beer. But the maid has the tea-leaves and dripping. That is—she had; but now that we have a cook, the cook arrogates the dripping to herself. We bear the young woman no grudge for leaving us. It is the way with girls, they will always be on the move, and if they can better themselves by moving, why not? What wages do you pay, ma'am? And how about perquisites?"
"You had a general servant named Inglett?"
"Yes, and our present housemaid is named Budge. Our cook is Mrs. Winter. The last cook we had drank, and ran up a ladder. It took several policemen to get her down. The ladder was of extraordinary height. It stood in a builder's yard. It was impossible for us to retain the woman after that. She had risen into notoriety. Then, for awhile, the girl Inglett cooked for us; she was not brought up to it, had never passed through her apprenticeship as kitchen-maid, but some women take to cooking as poets take to verses—naturally."
"That is true," said Mrs. Cribbage. Her mouth was gradually falling at the corners. She had expected to fish up a very queer and unpleasant bit of scandal, and, to her disappointment, began to see that she had spooned up clean water in her beak.
"Mrs. Welsh, seeing her abilities, may have advised the girl Inglett to take a kitchen-maid's place—I cannot say. Has she applied to you for such a situation in your house, ma'am? If so, I am sure Mrs. Welsh can confidently recommend her."
"We thought," said Mrs. Cribbage, in a tone of discouragement, "that is to say, Mrs. Tubb said most positively that—that the Honourable Arminell Inglett, daughter of Lord Lamerton, was not dead, but was lodging with you. And you really had a servant of the name of Inglett?"
"Certainly, a general, as I said—and now you mention it, it does seem queer that she should have had such an aristocratic name, but I daresay she assumed it, as actresses do."
"I was led by Marianne Tubb to suppose——"
"Was not that like Marianne!" Mr. Welsh went into a fit of laughter. Mrs. Cribbage, with a ghastly smile, admitted that it was like Marianne Tubb, who was certainly given to boasting and romancing. However, she added, charitably—
"Really, it almost seems a judgment on her."
"The stroke. It was too bad of her to make us suppose that the Honourable Arminell Inglett had come to live in such a quarter as this. Then you really believe, Mr. Welsh, that Lord Lamerton's daughter died of the shock, when she heard of her father's premature death?"
"I saw it so stated in the papers, and they are generally well informed. What sort of a person was she? I ask you, as the Rector's wife, was she worldly? Was she at all prepared for the great change?"
Mrs. Cribbage shook her head.
"I was afraid it was so," said Welsh solemnly. "Then I should not be at all surprised if she also had gone to the same warm place as my poor nephew."
"It is not for us to judge," said Mrs. Cribbage gravely; "still, if it be permitted us to look beyond the veil, I would not say but that she had. She was barely civil to me, once she was positively rude. Yes—I have no doubt that she also has gone—gone—"
"To the same warm place," added Welsh.