The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 10.

Reading an Epitaph.

CLEVE VERNEY next afternoon was again, on board his yacht. Wind and tide both favouring, the cutter was running under a press of canvas that brought her gunwale to the water’s edge once more for Penruthyn Priory. This time it was no mere aquatic whim; it was pursuit.

Searching the wooded sea-board of Malory with his glass, from the terrace of Ware, he had seen an open sail-boat waiting at the jetty. Down came a servant with cloaks and rugs. Cleve grew more and more interested as he adjusted the focus of his glass more exactly. On a sudden, from the little door in the boundary wall, emerged two ladies. There was no mistake; he could swear to them. They were the very same whom he had seen on Sunday in the Malory seat.

He watched till he saw the boat round the point, and then —“Yes,” he thought, “they are certainly going to Penruthyn Priory.”

And away went Cleve Verney in pursuit of the shadow which he secretly adored. From Ware to Penruthyn Priory is about six miles, and by the time the pursuing cutter was in motion the chase had made more than a mile of her course, and was within two of the landing point at the ruin.

Cleve saw the two ladies disembark. It was now plain that they had come either to visit the ruins, or for a walk in that wild and lonely park called the Warren. Cleve had brought his gun with him, only for an excuse.

Little more than five minutes after the arrival of the open boat, Cleve Verney set his foot upon the rude landing place, as old perhaps as the Priory itself; a clumsy little pier, constructed of great rocks, overgrown with sea-rack, over which slippery platform he strode with reckless haste, and up by that steep and pretty little winding lane, the trees overhanging which look centuries old, stooping and mantled in ivy. They may have heard the tinkle of the bells of the prior’s mule, as he ambled beneath their boughs, and the solemn swell of the monkish requiem from the melancholy little churchyard close by, under the old Priory windows. The thick stone wall that fences this ancient by-road is clasped together with ivy, and hoar with lichens, irregular, and broken as the battlements of a ruined tower. The approach, and the place itself, are in their picturesque sadness and solitude the very scene and setting of such a romance as Cleve Verney was pursuing.

Into the Warren, by the stile up this road’s side, went Cleve, and climbed the gray rocky hillock that commands an extensive view of that wild park; but there they were not.

Well, they must, then, have pursued the path up to the Priory, and thither he followed.

Oh, ho! here they are; the young lady at a little distance looking up at the singular ruin; the old lady engaged in an active discussion with shrewish old Mrs. Hughes, who was very deaf, and often a little tipsy, and who was now testily refusing the ladies admission within the iron gate which affords access to the ruins, of which she held the keys.

No situation could have been more fortunate for Cleve. The Warren and the Priory being his uncle’s property, and the termagant Mrs. Hughes his officer, he walked up to the visitor, and inquired very courteously the object of the application, and forthwith ordered the portress to open the gate and deliver up her keys; which she did, a good deal frightened at sight of so unexpected a deus ex machina.

An unmistakable gentleman, handsome, and plainly a sort of prince in this region, the old lady, although she did not know to whom she was obliged, was pleased at his offer to act as cicerone here, and accepted it graciously.

“My young friend will be very glad; she draws a little, and enjoys such sights immensely. Margaret!” she called. The young lady turned, and Cleve saw before him once more in flesh and blood, that wonderful portrait of Beatrice Cenci, which had haunted him for three days.

The young lady heard what her companion had to say, and for a moment her large eyes rested on Cleve with a glance that seemed to him at once haughty, wild, and shy.

With one hand he held the gate open, and in the other his hat was raised respectfully, as side by side they walked into the open court. They each bowed as they passed, the elder lady very cheerily, the younger with a momentary glance of the same unconscious superiority, which wounded him more than his pride would have allowed; and a puzzled recollection flitted across his mind of having once heard, he could not remember when, that Booth Fanshawe had married a beautiful Italian, an heiress (a princess — wasn’t she?)— at all events, a scion of one of their proud old houses, whose pedigrees run back into the Empire, and dwarf into parvenus the great personages of Debrett’s Peerage. What made it worse was, that there was no shyness, no awkwardness. She talked a good deal to her companion, and laughed slightly once or twice, in a very sweet tone. The old lady was affable and friendly; the young lady, on the contrary, so far from speaking to him, seemed hardly to give herself the trouble of listening to what he said. This kind of exclusion, to which the petted young man certainly was not accustomed, galled him extremely, the more so that she looked, he thought, more beautiful than ever, and that her voice, and pretty, slightly foreign accent, added another charm to the spell.

He made them a graceful little lecture on the building, as they stood in the court. If she had any cleverness she would see with what a playful and rapid grace he could convey real information. The young lady looked from building to building as he described them, but with no more interest in the speaker, it seemed to him, than if the bell-man of Cardyllian had been reading it from a handbill. He had never done anything so well in the House of Commons, and here it was accepted as a piece of commonplace. The worst of it was that there was no finesse in all this. It was in perfect good faith that this beautiful young lady was treating him like a footman. Cleve was intensely piqued. Had she been less lovely, his passion might have recoiled into disgust; as it was, with a sort of vindictive adoration, he vowed that he would yet compel her to hang upon his words as angels’ music, to think of him, to watch for him, to love him with all that wild and fiery soul which an intuition assured him was hers.

So, with this fierce resolve at his heart, he talked very agreeably with the accessible old lady, seeming, in a spirit, I dare say, altogether retaliatory, to overlook the young lady’s presence a good deal.

“I’ve got the key of the church, also; you’ll allow me, I hope, to show it to you. It is really very curious — a much older style than the rest of the building — and there are some curious monuments and epitaphs.”

The old lady would be charmed, of course, and her young companion, to whom she turned, would like it also. So Cleve, acting as porter, opened the ponderous door, and the party entered this dim and solemn Saxon chapel, and the young lady paused and looked round her, struck, as it seemed with a sense of something new and very interesting.

“How strange! How rude it is, and irregular; not large, and yet how imposing!” murmured the girl, as she looked round with a momentary awe and delight. It was the first remark she had made, which it was possible for Cleve Verney to answer.

“That’s so true! considering how small it is, it does inspire a wonderful awe,” said he, catching at the opportunity. “It’s very dark, to be sure, and that goes a long way; but its style is so rough and Cyclopean, that it overcomes one with a feeling of immense antiquity; and antiquity is always solemn, a gift from the people so remote and mysterious, as those who built this chapel, is affecting.”

At this point Cleve Verney paused; either his ideas failed him, or he felt that they were leading him into an oration. But he saw that the young lady looked at him, as he spoke, with some interest, and he felt more elated than he had done for many a day.

“Is that a broken pillar?” asked Miss Sheckleton — as I shall for the future call the elder lady.

“That’s the font — very ancient — there’s some odd carving about it, which has puzzled our antiquaries,” said Cleve, leading the way to it.

The young lady had not followed. His exposition was to Miss Sheckleton, whose inquisitiveness protracted it. It was dry work for Cleve. The young lady had seated herself in a sort of oak stall, and was looking up at the groining of the round ribbed arches, at some distance. The effect was singular. She was placed in the deep chiaroscuro, a strong gleam of light entering through a circular aperture in the side wall, illuminated her head and face with a vivid and isolated effect; her rich chestnut hair was now disclosed, her bonnet having fallen back, as she gazed upward, and the beautiful oval face was disclosed in the surrounding shadow with the sudden brilliancy and isolation of a picture in a phantasmagoria.

Verney’s eyes were not upon the font on which he was lecturing, his thoughts were wandering too, and Miss Sheckleton observed perhaps some odd vagueness and iteration in his remarks; but the young lady changed her position, and was now examining another part of the church.

Cleve either felt or fancied, seeing, as the Italians say, with the tail of his eye, that she was now, for a moment, looking at him, believing herself unseen. If this were so, was it not the beginning of a triumph? It made him strangely happy.

If Cleve had seen those sights in town, I can’t say whether their effect would have been at all similar; but beautiful scenery, like music, predisposes to emotion. Its contemplation is the unconscious abandonment of the mind to sentiment, and once excite tenderness and melancholy, and the transition to love is easy upon small provocations. In the country our visions flit more palpably before us; there is nothing there, as amid the clatter and vulgarities of the town, to break our dreams. The beautiful rural stillness is monotony itself, and monotony is the spell and the condition of all mesmeric impressions. Hence young men, in part, are the dangers of those enchanted castles called country houses, in which you lose your heads and hearts; whither you arrive jubilant and free, and whence you are led by delicate hands, with a silken halter round your necks, with a gay gold ring in your obedient noses, and a tiny finger crooked therein, and with a broad parchment pinned upon your patient shoulders, proclaiming to the admiring world that your estates have gone the way of your liberties, and that you and they are settled for life.

“Now, this,” said he, pointing to a block of carved stone placed in the aisle, “is the monument of old Martha Nokes; pray ask your young lady to come for one moment; it’s worth reading.”

Margaret!” called the elder visitor, in the subdued tone suited to the sacred place. “Come, darling, and see this.”

“This inscription is worth reading, and I can tell you about the old woman, for I remember her quite well. I was eight years old when she died. Old Martha Nokes; she died in her hundred and twentieth year.”

The young lady stood by and listened and read. The epitaph related her length of service, her fidelity, and other virtues, and that “this stone was placed here in testimony of the sincere and merited esteem, respect, and affection cherished for the deceased, by Eleanor, Viscountess (Dowager) Verney, of Malory.”

“There’s some beautiful embroidery on satin, worked by her more than a hundred and fifteen years ago, at Ware,” said Cleve Verney. “They say such work can’t be had now. ‘In the course of her long pilgrimage,’ you see by the epitaph, ‘she had no less than twenty-three substantial offers of marriage, all which she declined, preferring her single state to the many cares and trials of wedded life, and willing also to remain to the end of her days in the service of the family of Verney, (to whom she was justly grateful,) and in which she had commenced her active and useful, though humble life, in the reign of King George the First.’ So you see she spent all her life with us; and I’ll tell our people, if you should happen to pass near Ware — it’s not an hour’s sail across — and would care to see it, to show you her embroidery, and her portrait; and if there’s anything else you think worth looking at; there are some pictures and bronzes — they’ll be quite at your service; my uncle is hardly ever at Ware; and I only run down for a little boating and shooting, now and then.”

“Thank you,” said the old lady, and utter silence followed. Her young companion glanced at her for a moment, and saw her look blank and even confounded. She averted her gaze, and something, I suppose, struck her as comical, for, with a sudden little silvery laugh, she said —

“What a charming, funny old woman she must have been!”

And with this excuse she laughed more — and again, after a little interval. Nothing more contagious than this kind of laughter, especially when one has an inkling of the cause. Cleve looked at the font, and lowered his large eyes to the epitaph of the Virgin Martha Nokes, and bit his lips, but he did laugh a little in spite of himself, for there was something nearly irresistible in pleasant Miss Sheckleton’s look of vacant consternation.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49