Arminell, a social romance/Chapter 6

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Arminell Inglett walked musingly from the cottage of Patience Kite. The vehemence of the woman, the sad picture she had unfolded of a blighted life, the look she had been given into a heart in revolt against the Divine government of the world, united to impress and disturb Arminell.

Questions presented themselves to her which she had never considered before. Why were the ways of Heaven unequal? Why, if God created all men of one flesh, and breathed into all a common spirit, why were they differently equipped for life's journey? Why were some sent to encounter the freezing blast in utter nakedness, and others muffled in eider-down? The Norns who spin the threads of men's lives, spin some of silk and others of tow. The Parcæ who shovel the lots of men out of bushels of gold, dust, and soot, give to some soot only; they do not trouble themselves to mix the ingredients before allotting them.

As Arminell walked on, revolving in her mind the perplexing question which has ever remained unsolved and continues to puzzle and drive to despair those in all ages who consider it, she came before the house of Captain Saltren.

The house lay in a narrow glen, so narrow that it was lighted and warmed by very little sun. A slaty rock rose above it, and almost projected over it. This rock, called the Cleve, was crowned with heather, and ivy scrambled up it from below. A brook brawled down the glen below the house.

The coombe had been wild and disregarded, a jungle of furze and bramble, till Saltren's father settled in it, and no man objecting, enclosed part of the waste, built a house, and called it his own. Lord Lamerton owned the manor, and might have interfered, or claimed ground-rent, but in a former generation much careless good-nature existed among landlords, and squatters were suffered to seize on and appropriate land that was regarded of trifling value. The former Lord Lamerton perhaps knew nothing of the appropriation. His agent was an old, gouty, easy-going man who looked into no matters closely, and so the Saltrens became possessed of Chillacot without having any title to show for it. By the same process Patience Kite's father had obtained his cottage, and Patience held her house on the same tenure as Saltren held Chillacot. Usually when settlers enclosed land and built houses, they were charged a trifling ground-rent, and they held their houses and fields for a term of years or for lives, and the holders were bound to keep the dwellings in good repair. But, practically, such houses are not kept up, and when the leases expire, or the lives fall in the houses fall in also. A landlord with such dwellings and tenements on his property is often glad to buy out the holders to terminate the disgrace to the place of having in it so many dilapidated and squalid habitations.

Saltren's house was not in a dilapidated condition; on the contrary, it was neat and in excellent repair. Stephen drew a respectable salary as captain of the manganese mine and could afford to spend money on the little property of which he was proud. He had had the house recently re-roofed with slate instead of thatch, with which it had been formerly covered. The windows and doors had been originally made of home-grown deal, not thoroughly mature, and it had rotted. Saltren renewed the wood-work throughout. Moreover, the chimney having been erected of the same stone as that of Kite's cottage, had decayed in the same manner. Saltren had it taken down and rebuilt in brick, which came expensive, as brick had to be carted from fourteen miles off. But, as the captain said, one does not mind spending money on a job designed to be permanent. Saltren had restocked his garden with fruit trees three or four years ago, and these now gave promise of bearing.

The glen in which Chillacot lay was a "coombe," that is, it was a short lateral valley running up into hill or moor, and opening into the main valley through which flows the arterial stream of the district. It was a sequestered spot, and as the glen was narrow, it did not get its proper share of sun. Some said the glen was called Chillacoombe because it was chilly, but the rector derived the name from the Celtic word for wood.

We hear much now-a-days about hereditary instincts and proclivities, and a man's character is thought to be determined by those of his ancestors. But locality has much to do with the determination of character. Physical causes model, develope, or alter physical features; national characteristics are so shaped, and why not individual characters also?

The climate of England is responsible to a large extent for the formation of the representative John Bull. The blustering winds, the uncertain weather, go to the hardening of the Englishman's self-reliance, determination, and perseverance under difficulties. He cannot wait to make hay till the sun shines, he must make it whether the sun shines or not. Having to battle with wind and rain, and face the searching east wind, to confront sleet, and snow, and hail from childhood, when, with shining face and satchel he goes to school, the boy learns to put down his head and defy the weather. Having learned to put down his head and go along as a boy, he does the same all through life, not against weather only, but against everything that opposes, with teeth clenched, and fists rolled up in his breeches pocket.

The national characteristic affects the very animals bred in our storm-battered isle. A friend of the author had a puppy brought out to him on the continent from England. That little creature sought out, fought, and rolled over every dog in the city where it was.

"Dat ish not a doug of dish countree!" said a native who observed its pugnacity.

"Oh, no, it is an English pup."

"Ach so! I daught as much, it ist one deevil!"

Perhaps the gloom of Chillacot, its sunlessness, was one cause of the gravity that affected Saltren's mind, and made him silent, fanatical, shadow-haunted. The germs of the temperament were in him from boyhood, but were not fully developed till after his marriage and the disappointment and disillusioning that ensued. He was a man devoid of humour, a joke hurt and offended him; if it was not sinful, it closely fringed on sin, because he could not appreciate it. He had a tender, affectionate heart, full of soft places, and, but for his disappointment, would have been a kindly man; but he had none to love. The wife had betrayed him, the child was not his own. The natural instincts of his heart became perverted, he waxed bitter, suspicious, and ready to take umbrage at trifles.

When Arminell came in front of the cottage, she saw Mrs. Saltren leaning over the gate. She was a woman who still bore the traces of her former beauty, her nose and lips were delicately moulded, and her eyes were still lovely, large and soft, somewhat sensuous in their softness. The face was not that of a woman of decided character, the mouth was weak. Her complexion was clear. Jingles had inherited his good looks from her. As Arminell approached, she curtsied, then opened the gate, and asked—

"Miss Inglett, if I may be so bold, I would so much like to have a word with you."

"Certainly," answered Arminell.

"Will you honour me, miss, by taking a seat on the bench?" asked Mrs. Saltren, pointing to a garden bench near the door.

Arminell declined graciously. She could not stay long, she had been detained already, and had transgressed the luncheon hour.

"Ah, Miss Inglett," said the captain's wife, "I did so admire and love your dear mother, the late lady, she was so good and kind, and she took—though I say it—a sort of fancy to me, and was uncommonly gracious to me."

"You were at the park once?"

"I was there before I married, but that was just a few months before my lord married your mother, the first Lady Lamerton. I never was in the house with her, but she often came and saw me. That was a bad day for many of us—not only for you, miss, but for all of us—when she died. If she had lived, I don't think we could have fallen into this trouble."

"What trouble?" Arminell asked. She was touched by the reference to her mother, about whom she knew and was told so little.

"I mean, miss, the mine that is being stopped. Her dear late ladyship would never have allowed it."

"But it runs under the house."

"Oh, miss, nothing of the sort. That is what Mr. Macduff says, because he is trying to persuade his lordship to close the mine. It is not for me to speak against him, but he is much under the management of Mrs. Macduff, who is a very fine lady; and because the miners don't salute her, she gives Macduff no rest, day or night, till he gets his lordship to disperse the men. My lord listens to him, and does not see who is speaking through his lips. My brother James is a comical-minded man, and he said one day that Mr. Macduff was like the automaton chess-player that was once exhibited in London. Every one thought the wax doll played, but there was a young girl hid in a compartment under the table, and she directed all the movements of the chess-player."

"I really cannot interfere between my lord and his agent, or intercept communications between Mr. Chess-player and Mrs. Prompter."

"Oh, no, miss; I never meant anything of the sort. I was only thinking how different it would have been for us if my lady—I mean my late lady—were here. She was a good friend to us. Oh, miss, I shall never forget when I was ill of the typhus, and everyone was afraid to come near us, how my good lady came here, carrying a sheet to the window, and tapped, and gave it in, because she thought we might be short of linen for my bed. I've never forgot that. I keep that sheet to this day, and I shall not part with it; it shall serve as my winding sheet. The dear good lady was so thoughtful for the poor. But times are changed. It is not for me to cast blame, or to say that my lady as now is, is not good, but there are different kinds of goodnesses as there are cabbage roses and Marshal Neils."

Arminell was interested and touched.

"You knew my dear mother well?"

"I am but a humble person, and it is unbecoming of me to say it, though I have a brother who is a gentleman, who associates with the best in the land, and I am better born than you may suppose, seeing that I married a captain of a manganese mine. I beg pardon—I was saying that her ladyship almost made a friend of me, though I say it who ought not. Still, I had feelings and education above my station, and that perhaps led her to consult me when she came here to Orleigh and knew nothing of the place or of the people, and might have been imposed on, but for me. After I recovered of the scarlet fever——"

"I thought it was typhus?"

"It began scarlet and ended typhus. Those fevers, miss, as my brother James says in his droll way, are like tradesmen, they make jobs for each other, and hand on the patient."

"How long was that after Mr. Jingles—I mean your son, Mr. Giles Saltren, was born?"

"Oh,"—Mrs. Saltren looked about her rather vaguely—"not over long. Will you condescend to step indoors and see my little parlour, where I think, miss, you have never been yet, though it is scores and scores of times your dear mother came there."

"I will come in," said Arminell readily. Her heart warmed to the woman who had been so valued by her mother.

The house was tidy, dismal indeed, and small, but what made it most dismal was the strain after grandeur, the gay table-cover, the carpet with large pattern, the wall paper black with huge bunches of red and white roses on it, out of keeping with the dimensions of the room.

Arminell looked round and felt a rising sense of the absurdity, the affectation, the incongruity, that at any other moment would have made her laugh inwardly, though too well-bred to give external sign that she ridiculed what she saw.

"Ah, miss!" said Mrs. Saltren, "you're looking at that beautiful book on the table. My lady gave it me herself, and I value it, not because of what it contains, nor for the handsome binding, but because of her who gave it to me."

Arminell took up the book and opened it.

"But—" she said,—"the date. It is an annual, published three years after my mother's death."

"Oh, I beg your pardon, miss, I did not say my late lady gave it me. I said, my lady. I know how to distinguish between them. If it had been given me by your dear mother, who is gone, my late lady, do you suppose it would be lying here? I would not keep it in the room where I sit but rarely, but have it in my bed-chamber, where I could fold my hands over it when I pray."

"I should like," said Arminell, "to see the sheet that my poor dear mother gave you, and which you cherish so fondly, to wrap about you in the grave."

"With pleasure," said Mrs. Saltren. "No—I won't say with pleasure, for it calls up sad recollections, and yet, miss, there is pleasure in thinking of the goodness of that dear lady who is gone. Lor! miss, it did seem dreadful that my dear lady when on earth didn't take precedency over the daughter of an earl, but now, in heaven, she ranks above marchionesses."

Then she asked Arminell to take a chair, and went slowly upstairs to search for the sheet. While she was absent the girl looked round her, and now her lips curled with derision at the grotesque strain after refinement and luxury which were unattainable as a whole, and only reached in inharmonious scraps and disconnected patches.

This was the home of Jingles! What a change for him, from these mean surroundings, this tasteless affectation, to the stateliness and smoothness of life at Orleigh Park! How keenly he must feel the contrast when he returned home! Had her father dealt rightly by the young man, in giving him culture beyond his position? It is said that a man has sat in an oven whilst a chop has been done, and has eaten the chop, without being himself roasted, but then the temperature of the oven was gradually raised and gradually lowered. Young Saltren had jumped into the oven out of a cellar and passed every now and then back again to the latter. This alteration of temperatures would kill him.

Some time elapsed before Mrs. Saltren returned. She descended the stair slowly, sighing, with the sheet over her arm.

"You need not fear to catch the fever from it, miss," she said, "it has been washed many times since it was used—with my tears."

Arminell's heart was full. She took the sheet and looked at it. How good, how considerate her mother had been. And what a touch of real feeling this was in the faithful creature, to cherish the token of her mother's kindness.

The young are sentimental, and are incapable of distinguishing true feeling from false rhodomontade.

"Why!" exclaimed Arminell, "it has a mark in the corner S S,—does not that stand for your husband's initials?"

The woman seemed a little taken aback, but soon recovered herself.

"It may be so. But it comes about like this. I asked Stephen to mark the sheet with a double L. for Louisa, Lady Lamerton, and a coronet over, but he was so scrupulous, he said it might be supposed I had carried it away from the park, and that as the sheet was given to us, we'd have it marked as our own. My husband is as particular about his conscience as one must be with the bones in a herring. It was Bond's marking ink he used," said Mrs. Saltren, eager to give minute circumstances that might serve as confirmation of her story, "and there was a stretcher of wood, a sort of hoop, that strained the linen whilst it was being written on. If you have any doubt, miss, about my story, you've only to ask for a bottle of Bond's marking ink and you will see that they have circular stretchers—which is a proof that this is the identical sheet my lady gave me. Besides, there is a number under the letters."

"Yes, seven."

"That was my device. It rhymes with heaven, where my lady,—I mean my late lady—is now taking precedence even of marchionesses."

Arminell said nothing. The woman's mind was like her parlour, full of incongruities.

"Look about you, miss," continued Mrs. Saltren; "though I say it, who ought not, this is a pretty and comfortable house with a certain elegance which I have introduced into it. My brother, James Welsh, is a gentleman, and writes a great deal. You may understand how troubled my husband is at the thought of leaving it."

"But—why leave?"

"Because, Miss Inglett, he will have no work here. He will be driven to go to America, and, unfortunately, he has expended his savings in doing up the house and planting the garden. I am too delicate to risk the voyage, so I shall be separated from my husband. My son Giles has already been taken from me." Then she began to cry.

A pair of clove-pinks glowed in Arminell's cheeks. She could hardly control her voice. These poor Saltrens were badly used; her father was to blame. He was the occasion of their trouble.

"It must not be," said Arminell, starting up, "I will go at once and speak to his lordship."