Probably nothing so much as Henry’s respectful sympathy for this immemorial rheumatism had contributed to win Mrs. Flower’s heart. As to the precise amount of rheumatism from which Mrs. Flower suffered, Henry soon realised that there seemed to be an irreverent scepticism in the family, nothing short of heartless; for rheumatism so poignantly expressive, so movingly dramatised, he never remembered to have met. Mrs. Flower could not walk across the floor without grimaces of pain, or piteous indrawings of her breath; and yet demonstrations that you might have thought would have softened stones, left her unfeeling audience not only unmoved, but apparently even unobservant. From sheer decency, Henry would flute out something to show that her suffering was not lost on him; but it is to be feared the young ones would only wink at each other at this sign of unsophistication.
“Oh, you unfeeling child!” Mrs. Flower would exclaim, as sometimes she caught them exchanging comments in this way. “And your father, there, is just as bad,” she would say, impatient to provoke somebody.
This remark would probably prompt Mr. Flower to the indulgence of a form of matrimonial banter which was not unlike the endearments he bestowed upon his horses, and which, when you knew that he loved the little quaint woman with all his heart, you were able to translate into more customary modes of affection.
“Yes, indeed,” he would say, “it’s evidently time I was looking out for some active young woman, Eliza—when you begin limping about like that. It’s a pity, but the best of us must wear out some day—”
This superficially heartless pleasantry he would deliver with a sweeping wink at Henry and his four girls; but Mrs. Flower would see nothing to laugh at, for humour was not her strong point.
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Ralph,” she said, “before the children. I was once young and active enough to take your fancy, anyhow. Mr. Mesurier, won’t you have a little more spinach? Do; it’s fresh from the country this morning. You mustn’t mind Mr. Flower. He’s fond of his joke; and, whatever he likes to say, he’d get on pretty badly without his old Eliza.”
“Gracious, no!” Mr. Flower would retort. “Don’t flatter yourself, old girl. I’ve got my eye on two or three fine young women who’ll be glad of the job, I assure you;” but this, perhaps, proving too much for poor Mrs. Flower, whose tears were never far away, and apt to require smelling-salts, he would change his tone in an instant and say, dropping into his Derbyshire “thous,”—
“Nonsense, lass, can’t thee take a bit of a joke? Come now, come. Don’t be silly. Thou knowest well enough what thou art to me, and so do the girls. See, let’s have a drive out to Livingstone Cemetery this afternoon. Thou’rt a bit out o’ sorts. It’ll cheer thee up a bit.”
And so Mrs. Flower would recover, and harmony would be restored, and nobody would wink for a quarter of an hour. Certainly it was a quaint little mother for an Angel.