It is an undeniable irony of life that, despite his many blessings, man is an ungrateful brute, finding handicaps and obstacles in those things which ought to bless him. The wealthy man, comfortable in his great house, with his soft furnishings and glowing hearth, is rarely sympathetic to the plight of the poor. If a man wants for food and raiment, ought he not to work for it? There are jobs enough for those who truly want them, declares our man of wealth and wisdom—from the chair he has not left all day.
Even modern conveniences become a source of irritation when they fail us in their obligations. We have employed them, paid good money for them, ought they not to work as they were designed to do?
The weather, as mundane a thing as can be imagined, yet manages to vex our lives as few other things can. The sun that makes it possible to grow our vegetable gardens and to take our jaunts to seaside towns, is often too glaring or too warm. Conversely, the rain that waters the crops, that fills the rivers and streams, ruins our plans and dampens our moods.
Our five senses, likewise, are blessings of which we are rarely mindful, save when we cannot use them to their best advantage. We curse our noses for the colds they catch, our hands for the injuries they suffer, our ears for the sounds that annoy us. The seeing man is often blinded to the subtleties of his surroundings by the obvious. He takes what he sees as truth and rejects what might lie beneath the surface. A beautiful house is more desirable than a humble one, however inconvenient it may be; a beautiful woman, likewise, far more suitable than she who, though clever and resourceful, has less to be proud of in her appearance.
Those five senses (though some may argue six), while so essential to our lives, are things we too often take for granted. Is it possible that one, being deprived of a part of his natural senses, might appreciate all the more those that remain to him? Might he have a sweeter understanding of life and its hidden meanings?
In a large suite of rooms in a sprawling country house, sits such a man as we might put these questions to. At the moment we join him we see that our young friend is annoyed to distraction by the apparent lack of urgency conveyed by the pulling of the cord to the bells that are attached at its furthest end. In short, his servants are too slow. But this is only a part (though admittedly the greater part) of his anxieties. Other considerations circumstantially have added to them, for the weather, too hot yesterday, is dreary and damp today. A strange dog has found its way onto the property and will not leave off barking. His ears are ringing and his head has begun to ache. His tea, now tepid, has too much lemon. And on top of all this, he suspects he is coming down with a cold.
He rings the bell once more.
As to his sight, he cannot complain. That is, he has no new complaint to speak of. Arthur Tremonton was born, to his mother’s sorrow and his father’s indignation, blind.
* * *
By his staff, Arthur might have been described—were you to ask them, and assuming they were inclined to oblige—as a young man of better than average looks. His hair was fair and grew thick upon his head. His eyes bore no evidence of his malady save in their unusual paleness, a liquid blue that appeared almost white. He was tall, lithe and elegant, well dressed, well groomed and immaculate in speech if not entirely in manner. And, perhaps most significantly of all, he was well educated, which was an extraordinary thing considering he had never had a single day of school. No, he had lived his life in this house, confined almost exclusively (at first by the dictates of his parents, now dead, and then by habit) to an upper suite of rooms. He had been provided with tutors, naturally, but it was not until he had inherited his father’s library, and the vast collection of books within it, that his education ventured toward anything nearing extraordinary. The deficiencies consequent of an education directed by a too protective mother and an unsympathetic father were more than made up for in the years that followed their passing.
Of course it was not the library alone Arthur had inherited, but the house, as well as its sprawling park, its ample staff, and even, to his great fortune, his father’s aged valet, who had also served, these many years, as his teacher. Arthur could not read, but he could hear, and he could remember, and he could understand like few others. He possessed an almost supernatural gift of recollection, a keen comprehension of concepts, histories, theories and philosophies he could only experience in his mind. It was certainly a fortunate thing that Arthur had been born to money and position, for, at the age of seven and twenty, he could apply himself to no more practical occupation than that of a perpetual scholar. He had no skills to speak of that were not of the cerebral persuasion. Had he been born a poor man—a mill worker, or a printer, a farmer, perhaps—he would have been at the mercy of an unforgiving world. What hardships he would have had to endure! He could not imagine it. But then he never tried. A man’s hardships were his own business. Arthur Tremonton had his trials, and they were quite enough.
Where was Mrs. Pritchett with his tea? He rang the bell a third time. Or was it four? No matter.
Some, he knew, made themselves burdensome, and with far less reason than Arthur possessed. And yet hadn’t he made something of his life?
Again, he applied his hand to the bell cord. Harder this time. Surely it was working well enough.
He would not make a nuisance of himself for the world! Such were better off dead. He would bother no one by his infirmity. And he would prefer that the consideration be reciprocated. He needed no one, which was perhaps a good thing as he had no friends. He did not like visitors and detested interruptions of all kinds. Most, by now, had learned to leave him in peace. Most, but not all. For those infernal charity Sisters would persist! And why must they keep coming? Their efforts were wasted; whether to extract money, or to plumb the depths of his soul. They could not help him and he certainly did not want their pity.
Mrs. Pritchett at long last! She entered, freshened his cup, exchanged the pot and quickly left once more, dismissed with a terse and impatient wave of her employer’s hand.
Was Arthur lonely? Well, yes. Of course he was. But he valued his privacy and solitude more than he did company. And those who had ever come could never keep up a satisfactory conversation, for they could not compete with his intellect and only spoke of the things they saw and the places they went, as if they meant to brag of the talents they possessed and of which he had been born deficient. It was, in truth, nothing more than an insult to his impairment. He was blind! Was he ever going to cease to be blind? No! Would he ever be able to embark upon such adventures on his own? Of course not! So what use was there in discussing them? Try as a man might, Arthur could not be made to understand what a banana tree looked like, or an elephant or the ocean. The phrases ‘large as a house’, ‘fast as a horse’, ‘grey as the sea’… these meant nothing to him. One cannot comprehend the size and shape of a buffalo if one has not seen it for oneself. One cannot describe the shades of the dusk-lit sky if one has never seen colour or shade or even vast and open space. It is impossible. And it is insulting! And he made it a point to tell them so.
Wisely, and mercifully, these visitors had ceased over time to come at all. All but the wretched, annoying, supercilious young women of the Sisters’ Charitable Aid Society! They would come this very afternoon, despite a grumbling sky and the rain that tapped at the windows. They would come. They always came when he wished most to be left alone.
Just see if they didn’t!
They did come, just as foreseen. Arthur might have been accused by some of possessing the gift of clairvoyance, a sort of spiritual eye in place of the physical, but he would have denied it. He did not believe in such things. Such were for the weak of mind and palsied of intellect.
“What do they want today, Thompson?” Arthur demanded of his valet upon the announcement of the unwanted guests.
“The usual, sir,” the old man answered. “To know if you are in need of anything, and in what way they might be of assistance to you.”
“Haven’t I told them before that I have no need of their ‘assistance’?”
“You have, sir.”
“Is there no getting rid of them?”
“I did tell them you were not receiving, but then you are never receiving. They were quite insistent.”
Arthur drummed on the arm of his chair and remained this way, staring with unseeing but narrowed eyes and saying nothing at all, for some time.
Thompson at last cleared his throat. “Might I remind you, sir, that both the Rector and the Squire are patrons? It might behove you to—”
“Send them up, then. If they will not go until I have received them, then I suppose there is nothing for it but to receive them. Perhaps I can convince them their trouble is not worth the sacrifice to the comfort of either party.”
“But, sir, I do not think—”
“Send them up, I say!”
And so Thompson quit the room, to return a few minutes later with the Sisters in tow. He announced them, but Arthur offered no welcome, no greeting of any kind.
“We beg your pardon, sir, for the intrusion,” one of them said, breaking the silence.
“It is an intrusion, but then I believe you knew that when you forced your way in, so what use is there in apologising? Your names?”
“Adair, sir. Rebecca Adair. And my companion is Miss Adelaide Hilton.”
“Miss Hilton,” he said very loudly, for he could feel her fear and wished to make his point as quickly and with as little effort as possible, “what excuse have you to give for badgering a man until he has no choice but to admit strangers into his private rooms?”
He heard a slight shuffle, as if she had taken a step or two back, toward the door in which she had so recently entered.
“She is mute, sir,” said the first woman.
“Mute? And deaf, too, I suppose you’ll tell me.”
“No, sir. Her hearing is quite perfect. Perhaps unnaturally keen.”
“Is that so? Well my hearing is just as keen and I know, by the sound of her rustling skirts and uneasy feet, that she is any minute going to bolt from the room. Why do you wait? Be gone with you!” he said and threw a menacing wave of his arm toward the door.
Obediently, she ran from the room.
“And do not enter this house again or I’ll set my dogs upon you!”
“That was unkind. And you have no dogs. You lied.”
“Cannot you hear them? I don’t know that either of you, or both, won’t be torn to shreds this very morning.”
“You have no dogs. The dog that barks is a stray and has no reason to protect you or your selfish interests. I’m surprised at you, sir. I should think you, of all people, would know better than to take advantage of another’s weaknesses.”
“And do you have no weaknesses of your own, Miss Adair?”
“Certainly, I do, but I’d be a fool to confess them to the likes of you.”
“Oh, it’s the ‘likes’ of me now, is it. And I thought you’d come to offer aid.”
“I’m not sure you require any. At least I no longer believe you deserve it.”
“And who are you, Miss Adair, to be casting such judgments, and of your betters no less? Is this what you have been taught at the Sisters’ Charitable Aid Society?”
“I beg your pardon, sir. I’m from the Sisters’ Benevolent Society for the Relief and Succour of the Blind and Otherwise Afflicted.”
“The Sisters’ Benevolent … what?”
“The Sisters’ Benevolent Society for the—”
“I heard you! And what relief do you think you can possibly offer me, I’d like to know! Have you some magic cure? Some divine gift of healing, perhaps?”
No answer was offered for this.
“What exactly is your purpose in coming? Do you mind telling me that?”
“I’m not sure I know, sir. I thought perhaps I might be of some use to you. I can see now that what you require is far greater than I alone can provide.”
“There is nothing you can do for me, save to leave me be! Now good day to you.”
“You are in need of something, though,” the young woman replied. “Perhaps what you need is someone more like yourself in circumstance. I might send a Brother, instead.”
“There is a Fraternal Brotherhood of Charitable Aid, I suppose?”
“No, sir. Not for the general public, that is. But I think one might make a special arrangement for someone in your particular need.”
“I do not want your help, nor anyone’s, Miss Adair. Are you slow of learning?”
“Are you plain?”
She was silent for a moment, as if confused by the question. Or troubled by it. Ashamed of it? “In a matter of speaking, sir, I suppose I am.”
“I do not want any help from a plain-faced waif. If you were pretty, we might have something to discuss. As it is you are wasting my time. Good day to you.”
“If you cannot see me, what can it matter what I—”
“Go away, and don’t return! I do not want you, nor any of your sanctimonious charity ‘Sisters’, now go! And you can tell the rest of them I said so.”
“Good day to you, sir. And I will convey your message to the Sisters. In the meantime, I know of a Brother who might be glad to know of you.”
“Did you not understand me, Miss Adair? I do not want your help.”
All was silent, save the swishing of skirts and the light padding of feet on the floor. The occasional creak in the floorboards.
“Did you hear me, Miss Adair?”
The click of the door closing.