Arminell, a social romance/Chapter 8

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As Arminell left Chillacot she did not observe the scant courtesy shown her by Captain Saltren. She was brimming with sympathy for him in his trouble, with tender feeling for the wife who had so loved her mother, and for the son who was out of his proper element. It did not occur to her that possibly she might be regarded by Saltren with disfavour. She had not gone many paces from the house before she came on a middle-aged couple, walking in the sun, abreast, arm in arm, the man smoking a pipe, which he removed and concealed in the pocket of his old velvet shooting coat, when he saw Arminell, and then he respectfully removed his hat. The two had been at church. Arminell knew them by sight, but she had not spoken at any time to either. The man, she had heard, had once been a gamekeeper on the property, but had been dismissed, the reason forgotten, probably dishonesty. The woman was handsome, with bright complexion, and very clear, crystalline eyes, a boldly cut nose, and well curved lips. The cast of her features was strong, yet the expression of the face was timid, patient and pleading.

She had fair, very fair hair, hair that would imperceptibly become white, so that on a certain day, those who knew her would exclaim, "Why, Joan! who would have thought it? Your hair is white." But some years must pass before the bleaching of Joan's head was accomplished. She was only forty, and was hale and strongly built.

She unlinked her arm from that of her companion and came curtseying to Arminell, who saw that she wore a hideous crude green kerchief, and in her bonnet, magenta bows.

"Do you want me?" she asked coldly. The unæsthetic colours offended her.

"Please, my lady!"

"I am not 'my lady.'"

Joan was abashed, and retreated a step.

"I am Miss Inglett. What do you want?"

"I was going to make so bold, my la—I mean, miss——." Joan became crimson with shame at so nearly transgressing again. "This is Samuel Ceely."

Arminell nodded. She was impatient, and wanted to be at home. She looked at the man whose pale eyes quivered.

"Is he your husband?" asked Arminell.

"No, miss, not exactly. Us have been keeping company twenty years—no more. How many years is it since us first took up wi' each other, Samuel?"

"Nigh on twenty-two. Twenty-two."

"Go along, Samuel, not so much as that. Well, miss, us knowed each other when Samuel was a desperate wicked (i.e. lively) chap. Then Samuel was keeper at the park. There was some misunderstanding. The head-keeper was to blame and laid it on Samuel. He's told me so scores o' times. Then came his first accident. When was that, Samuel?"

"When I shooted my hand away? Nineteen years come next Michaelmas."

"Were you keeper, then?" asked Arminell.

"No, miss, not exactly."

"Then, how came you with the gun?"

"By accident, quite by accident."

Joan hastily interfered. It would not do to enquire too closely what he was doing on that occasion.

"When was your second accident, Samuel?"

"Fifteen years agone."

"And what was that?" asked Joan.

"I falled off a waggon."

Arminell interrupted. This was the scene of old Gobbo and young Gobbo re-enacted. It must be brought to an end. "Tell thou the tale," she said with an accent of impatience in her intonation, addressing Joan. "What is your name?"

"Joan Melhuish, miss. Us have been sweethearts a great many years; and, miss, the poor old man can't do a sight of work, because of his leg, and because of his hand. But, lor-a-mussy, miss, his sweepings is beautiful. You could eat your dinner, miss, off a stable floor, where Samuel has swept. Or the dog-kennels, miss,—if Samuel were but with the dogs, he'd be as if in Paradise. He do love dogs dearly, do Samuel. He's that conscientious, miss, that if he was sound asleep, and minded in his dream there was a bit o' straw lying where he ought to ha' swept clean, or that the dogs as needed it, hadn't had brimstone put in their water, he'd get up out o' the warmest bed—not, poor chap, that he's got a good one to lie on—to give the dog his brimstone, or pick up thickey (that) straw."

She was so earnest, so sincere, that her story appealed to Arminell's feelings. Was the dust that the witch, Patience, had cast on her head, taking effect and opening her eyes to the sorrows and trials of the underground folk?

"Please, miss! It ain't only sweeping he does beautifully. If a dog has fleas, he'll wash him and comb him—and, miss, he can skin a hare or a rabbit beautiful—beautiful! I don't mean to deny that Samuel takes time about it," she assumed an apologetic tone, "but then, miss, which be best, to be slow and do a thing thorough, or be quick and half do it? Now, miss, what I was going to make so bold as to say was, Samuel do be a-complaining of the rheumatics. They've a-took'n bad across the loins, and it be bad for him out in all weathers weeding turnips, and doing them odd and dirty jobs men won't do now, nor wimen n'other, what wi' the advance of education, and the franchise, and I did think it would be wonderful good and kind o' you, miss, if you'd put in a word for Samuel, just to have the sweeping o' the back yard, or the pulling of rabbits, or the cleaning up of dishes; he'd make a rare kitchen-maid, and could scour the dogs as well, and keep 'em from scratching over much. Lord, miss! what the old man do want is nourishing food and dryth (dry air) over and about him."

"I'll speak to the housekeeper—no, I will speak to her ladyship about the matter. I have no doubt something can be done for Samuel."

Joan curtsied, and her honest face shone with satisfaction.

"Lord A'mighty bless you, miss! I have been that concerned about the old man—he is but fifty, but looks older, because of his two accidents. H's shy o' asking for hisself, because he was dismissed by the late lord; the upper keeper laid things on him he'd no right to. He's a man, miss, who don't set no store on his self, because he has lost a thumb and two fingers, and got a dislocated thigh. But there's more in Samuel than folks fancy; I ought to know best, us have kept company twenty years."

"Are you ever going to get married?"

Joan shook her head.

"But how is it," asked Arminell, "that you have not been married yet, after courting so long?"

"First the bursted gun spoiled the chance—but Lord, miss, though he's lost half his hand, he is as clever with what remains as most men with two."

"He was unable to work for his living, I suppose?"

"And next he were throwed down off a waggon, and he's been lame ever since. But, Lord, miss! he do get along with the bad leg, beautiful, quite beautiful."

"You are not nearer your marriage than you were twenty years ago," said Arminell, pitifully.

"I have been that troubled for Samuel," said Joan, not replying, but continuing her own train of thought; "I've feared he'd be took off to the union, and then the old man would ha' died, not having me to walk out with of a Sunday and bring him a little 'baccy. And I—I'd ha' nort in the world to live for, or to hoard my wages for, wi'out my old Samuel."

The woman paused, turned round and looked at the feeble disabled wreck of a man, who put his crippled hand to his forelock and saluted.

"How came he to fall off the waggon?" asked Arminell.

"Well, miss, it came of my being on the waggon," explained Ceely, "I couldn't have falled off otherwise."

"Were you asleep? Was the waggon in motion?"

Joan hastily interfered, it would not do for too close an enquiry to be made into how it came that Samuel was incapable of keeping himself firm on the waggon; any more than it would do to go too narrowly into the occasion of his shooting off his hand.

"What was it, miss, you was a-saying? Nearer our marriage? That is as the Lord wills. But—miss—us two have set our heads on one thing. I don't mind telling you, as you're so kind as to promise you'd get Samuel a situation as kitchen-maid."

"I did not promise that!"

"Well, miss, you said you'd speak about it, and I know well enough that what you speak about will be done."

"What is it you have set your heart on? Can I help you to that?"

"You, miss! O no, only the Lord. You see, miss, I don't earn much, and Samuel next to nothing at all, so our ever having a home of our own do seem a long way off. But there's the north side of the church, where Samuel's two fingers and thumb be laid, us can go to them. And us have bespoke to the sexton the place whereabout the fingers and thumb lie. I ha' planted rosemary there, and know where it be, and no one else can be laid there, as his fingers and thumb be resting there. And when Samuel dies, or I die, whichever goes first is to lie beside the rosemary bush over his fingers and thumb, and when the t'other follows, Samuel or I will be laid beside the other, with only the fingers and thumb and rosemary bush between us,—'cos us ain't exactly married—and 'twouldn't be respectable wi'out. 'Twill be no great expense," she added, apologetically.

When Joan Melhuish had told her all the story, Arminell no longer saw the crude green kerchief and the magenta bows. She saw only the face of the poor woman, the crystal-clear eyes in which light came, and then moisture, and the trembling lips that told more by their tremor than by the words that passed over them, of the deep stirring in the humble, patient heart.

How often it is with us that, looking at others, who belong to an inferior, or only a distinct class, we observe nothing but verdigris green kerchiefs and magenta bows, something out of taste, jarring with our refinement, ridiculous from our point of view. Then we talk of the whole class as supremely barbarous, grotesque and separate from us by leagues of intervening culture, a class that puts verdigris kerchiefs on and magenta bows, as our forefathers before Christ painted their bodies with woad. And we argue—these people have no human instincts, no tender emotions, no delicate feelings—how can they have, wearing as they do green ties and magenta bows? Have the creatures eyes? Surely not when they wear such unæsthetic colours. Hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Not with emerald-green kerchiefs. If we prick them they do not bleed. If we tickle they cannot laugh. If we poison them, they will not die. If we wrong them—bah! They wear magenta bows and are ridiculous.

It needs, may be, a sod taken from their soil, a little dust from their hearth shaken over our heads to open our eyes to see that they have like passions and weaknesses with ourselves. Arminell, without speaking, turned to Samuel, and looked at him.

What was there in this poor creature to deserve such faithful love? He was a ruin, and not the ruin of a noble edifice, but of a commonplace man. There was no beauty in him, no indication of talent in his face, no power in the moulding of his brow. He looked absurd in his short, shabby, patched, velveteen coat, his breeches and gaiters on distorted limbs. His attitudes with the ill-set thigh were ungainly. And yet—this handsome woman had given up her life to him.

"He don't seem much to you, perhaps, miss," said Joan, who eagerly scanned Arminell's face, and with the instinctive jealousy of love discovered her thoughts. "But, miss, what saith the Scripture? Look not on his countenance or on the height of his stature. You should ha' seen Samuel before his accidents. Then he was of a ruddy countenance, and goodly to look on. I always see him as he was."

She still searched Arminell's face for token of admiration.

"Lord, miss! tastes differ. Some like apples and others like onions. For my part, I do like a hand wi' two fingers on it, it is uncommon, it is properly out o' the way as hands are. And then, miss, Samuel do seem to me to ha' laid hold of eternity wi' two fingers and a thumb, having sent them on before him, and that is more than can be said of most of us poor sinners here below."

She still studied the girl's countenance, and Arminell controlled its expression.

"Then," Joan continued, "as for his walk, it is lovely. It is ever dancing as he goes along the road. It makes one feel young—a girl—to have his arm, there be such a lightness and swing in his walk."

"But—" Arminell began, then hesitated, and then went on with a rush, "are you not discontented, impatient, miserable?"

"Why so, miss?"

"Because you have loved him so long and see no chance of getting him."

"No, miss. If I get him here, I get him to give me only half a hand; if I get him in the other world, I get his whole hand, thumb and two first fingers as well. I be content either way."