The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 12.

In which Cleve Verney Waylays an Old Lady.

CLEVE visited the old Priory next day, but there had been no one to look at it since. He took a walk in the warren and killed some innocent rabbits, and returned an hour later. Still no one. He loitered about the ruins for some time longer, but nothing came of it. The next day in like manner, he again inspected the Priory, to the wonderment of Mrs. Hughes, who kept the keys, and his yacht was seen till sunset hovering about Penruthyn. He drove into the town also now and then, and looked in on the shop-keepers, and was friendly as usual; and on these occasions always took a ramble either over the hill or by the old Malory road, in the direction of the Dower House.

But the Malory people seemed to have grown still more cautious and reserved since the adventure of Penruthyn Priory. Sunday came, and Miss Anne Sheckleton sat alone in the Malory pew.

Cleve, who had been early in his place, saw the old lady enter alone and the door shut, and experienced a pang of disappointment — more than disappointment, it amounted to pain.

If in the dim light of the Malory seat he had seen, once more, the Guido that haunted him, he could with pleasure have sat out three services; with three of the longest of good Mr. Splayfoot’s long sermons. But as it was, it dragged wofully — it made next to no way; the shrilly school-children and the deep-toned Mr. Bray sang more verses than ever to the solemn drone of the organ, and old Splayfoot preached as though he’d preach his last. Even Cleve’s watch, which he peeped at with a frequency he grew ashamed of, limped and loitered over the minutes cruelly.

The service would not have seemed so nearly interminable if Cleve had not resolved to waylay and accost the lady at the other side — even at the risk of being snubbed for his pains; and to him, full of this resolve, the interval was miserable.

When the people stood up after the blessing, Cleve Verney had vanished. From the churchyard he had made his exit, by the postern door, from which he and his enamoured friend, Sedley, had descended a week before to the narrow road, under the town wall, leading to Malory.

Down this he walked listlessly till he reached that lonely part of the road which is over-arched by trees; and here, looking over the sloping fields toward the sea, as if at the distant mountains, he did actually waylay Miss Sheckleton.

The old lady seemed a little flurried and shy, and would, he fancied, have gladly been rid of him. But that did not weigh much with Cleve, who, smiling and respectful, walked by her side after he had made his polite salutation. A few sentences having been first spoken about indifferent things, Cleve said —

“I have been to the old Priory twice since I met you there.”

“Oh!” said Miss Anne Sheckleton, looking uneasily toward Malory. He thought she was afraid that Sir Booth’s eye might chance to be observing them.

Cleve did not care. He rather enjoyed her alarm, and the chance of bringing matters to a crisis. She had not considered him much in the increased jealousy with which she had cloistered up her beautiful recluse ever since that day which burned in his memory, and cast a train of light along the darkness of the interval. Cleve would have been glad that the old man had discovered and attacked him. He thought he could have softened and even made him his friend.

“Do you never purpose visiting the ruin again?” asked Cleve. “I had hoped it interested you and Miss Fanshawe too much to be dropped on so slight an acquaintance.”

“I don’t know. Our little expeditions have been very few and very uncertain,” hesitated Miss Sheckleton.

“Pray, don’t treat me quite as a stranger,” said Cleve, in a lone and earnest tone; “what I said the other day was not, I assure you, spoken upon a mere impulse. I hope, I am sure, that Miss Fanshawe gives me credit at least for sincerity.”

He paused.

“Oh! certainly, Mr. Verney, we do.”

“And I so wish you would tell her that I have been ever since thinking how I can be of any real use — ever so little — if only to prove my anxiety to make her trust me even a little.”

“I think, Mr. Verney, it is quite enough if we don’t distrust you; and I can assure you we do not,” said the spinster.

“My uncle, though not the sort of man you may have been led to suppose him — not at all an unkind man — is, I must allow, a little odd and difficult sometimes — you see I’m not speaking to you as a stranger — and he won’t do things in a moment; still if I knew exactly what Sir Booth expected from him — if you think I might venture to ask an interview ——”

“Quite impossible! You must not think of it,” exclaimed the lady with a look almost of terror, “just now, while all is so fresh, and feelings so excited, he’s in no mood to be reasonable, and no good could come of it.”

“Well, you know best, of course. But I expect to be called away, my stay at Ware can’t be much longer. My uncle writes as if he wants me; and I wish so much, short as it is, that I could improve it to any useful purpose. I can’t tell you how very much I pity Miss Fanshawe, immured in that gloomiest of all gloomy places. Such an unnatural and terrifying seclusion for one so very young.”

“It is certainly very triste,” said Miss Sheckleton.

“She draws, you told me, and likes the garden, and reads; you must allow me to lend you some books, won’t you? you I say; and you can lend them to her,” he added, seeing a hesitation, “and you need take no trouble about returning them. Just lock them up anywhere in the house when you’ve done with them, and I’ll get them when you leave Malory, which I hope won’t be for a long time, unless it be for a very much pleasanter residence.”

Here came a pause; the eyes of the two pedestrians were directed toward Malory as they descended the road, but no sign of life was visible in that quarter.

“You got home very well that day from the Priory; I watched you all the way,” said he at last.

“Oh! yes; the distance is nothing.”

Another little pause followed.

You’re not afraid, Miss Sheckleton, of venturing outside the walls. I fear, however, I’ve a great deal to answer for in having alarmed Miss Fanshawe, though quite unintentionally, for the safety of Sir Booth’s incognito. The secret is known to no one but to me and the persons originally entrusted with it; I swear to you it’s so. There’s no reason on earth for your immuring yourselves as you do within those melancholy precincts; it excites curiosity, on the contrary, and people begin to pry and ask questions; and I trust you believe that I would not trifle or mislead you upon such a subject.”

“You are very good,” answered Miss Sheckleton, looking down. “Yes, we are obliged to be very careful; but it is hardly worth breaking a rule; we may possibly be here for so very short a time, you know. And about the books ——”

“Oh! about the books I’ll hear nothing; there are books coming for me to Ware, and I shan’t be there to receive them. And I shall be, I assure you, ever so much obliged if you’ll only just give them house-room — they’ll be so much safer — at Malory; and you won’t deny me the pleasure of thinking that you and Miss Fanshawe will look over them?”

He fancied she did not like this; and thought she seemed embarrassed to find an evasion; but before she could speak, he continued, “and how is the little squirrel I saw in the boat the other day; Miss Fanshawe’s, I suppose? Such a pretty little thing!”

“Oh! poor little Whisk. There has been a tragedy: some horrid thing, a wild cat or an owl, killed him the other night, and mangled him so; poor little, dear thing, you must not ask.”

“Oh dear! I’m so sorry; and Miss Fanshawe can so ill spare a companion just now.”

“Yes, it has been a great blow; and — and I think, Mr. Verney, I should prefer bidding you good-bye here,” said Miss Sheckleton, stopping resolutely, and holding out her fingers for him to take; for she was on odd terms of suspicion and confidence — something more than mere chance acquaintance.

He looked towards the wood of Malory — now overlooking them, almost in the foreground; and, I think, if he had seen Miss Fanshawe under its shadows, nothing would have prevented his going right on — perhaps very rashly — upon the chance of even a word from her. But the groves were empty; neither “Erl King” nor his daughter were waiting for them. So, for simply nothing, it would not do to vex the old lady, with whom, for many reasons, it was desirable that he should continue upon good terms, and with real regret he did there, as she desired, take his leave, and slowly walk back to Cardyllian, now and then stealing a glance over the old side-walk of the steep road, thinking that just possibly his Guido might appear in the shadow to greet the old lady at the gate. But nothing appeared — she went in, and the darkness received her.

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