The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 13.

The Boy with the Cage.

AT Ware a letter awaited Cleve, from his uncle, the Hon. Kiffyn Fulke Verney. He read it after dinner, with his back to the fire, by a candle, placed on the corner of the chimney-piece. He never was in any great haste to open his uncle’s letters, except when he expected a remittance. I must allow they were not entertaining, and did not usually throw much light upon anything. But it was not safe to omit a single line, for his uncle knew them by rote, and in their after meetings asked him questions upon some passages, and referred pointedly to others. Uncle Kiffyn was in fact thin-skinned in his vanities, and was a person with whom it would have been highly inconvenient to have been on any but the very best terms.

Cleve had, therefore, to read these closely written despatches with more attention than even his friend Dixie read his Bible. They were a sore trouble, for their length was at times incredible.

As he read these letters, moans, and even execrations, escaped him, such as poets describe as issuing from the abode of torment —“Good heavens! mightn’t he have said that in five words?” Then a “Pish!”—“Always grumbling about that executorship. Why did he take it? I do believe he likes it.”

And then Cleve read — “I see no reason why, with respect to you, I may not exercise — as between ourselves, at least — an absolute unreserve with relation to a fact of which, through a channel not necessary to particularise, I have just received an authentic assurance, to the effect, namely, that Sir Booth Fanshawe, whose ruin has been brought about, partly by his virtual insanity in opposing me with an insensate pertinacity and an intense ill feeling, on which I offer no observation, but involving an expense to which his impaired means were obviously inadequate, and partly by early follies, profligacies, and vices, is now living concealed in the Rue de — — in Paris.” Cleve laughed. “He is a person to whom neither courtesy nor forbearance, as it appears to me, can reasonably be held to be in any respect due from me. There has been a recent order, charging him, as you may have seen by the public papers, with £2,317 costs in the collateral suit connected with the trust cause, in which I was, though I by no means sought the position, the plaintiff, to foreclose the mortgage over Wycroft. I have written to apprise Milbanke of the fact, that he may take such steps as the nature of the case may suggest.” “Well for Sir Booth he does not know he’s so near! What’s this? A postscript! well”—“P.S. — I have opened my letter to introduce this postscript, in consequence of a letter which has just reached me in course of post from Mr. Jos. Larkin, a solicitor, who was introduced to my notice about two years since by a member of the Brandon family, and who is unquestionably a man of some ability in his position in life. His letter is accompanied by a note from Messrs. Goldshed and Levi, and the two documents involve considerations so sudden, complicated, and momentous, that I must defer opening them, and request your presence at Verney House on the 15th proximo, when I mean to visit town for the purpose of arriving at a distinct solution of the several reports thus submitted upon a subject intimately connected with my private feelings, and with the most momentous interests of my house.”

So abruptly ended the postscript, and for a moment Cleve was seriously alarmed. Could those meddling fellows who had agents everywhere have fished up some bit of Cardyllian gossip about his Malory romance?

He knew very well what the Hon. Kiffyn Fulke Verney would think of that. His uncle could make or mar him. He knew that he had dangerous qualities, being a narrow man, with obstinate resentments. He was stunned for a moment; but then he reflected that all the romance in which he was living had been purely psychologic and internal, and that there was no overt act to support the case which he might not confess and laugh at.

“On the 15th proximo”— Very well; on the 15th he would be in town, and hear his uncle upon this subject, involving his “private feelings” and “the most momentous interests of his house.” Could it be that his out-cast uncle, who had been dragging out a villanous existence in Turkey, under the hospitable protection of the Porte — who was said to have killed the captain of a French man-of-war, in that contemplative retreat, and whom he was wont respectfully to call “the Old Man of the Mountains,” was dead at last?

The postscript would bear this interpretation and a pompous liking for mystery, which was one of his uncle’s small weaknesses, would account for his withholding the precise information, and nursing, and making much of his secret, and delivering it at last, like a Cabinet manifesto or a Sessional address.

“If the Old Man of the Mountains be really out of the way, it’s an important event for us!”

And a dark smile lighted the young man’s face, as he thought of the long train of splendid consequences that would awake at his death-bed, and begin to march before his funeral.

Ambition, they say, is the giant passion. But giants are placable and sleep at times. The spirit of emulation — the lust of distinction —hominum volitare per ora — digito monstrarier— in a wider, and still widening sphere — until all the world knows something about you — and so on and on — the same selfish aspiration, and at best, the same barren progress, till at last it has arrived — you are a thoroughly advertised and conspicuous mediocrity, still wishing, and often tired, in the midst of drudgery and importance and éclat, and then — on a sudden, the other thing comes — the first of the days of darkness which are many.

“Thy house shall be of clay,

A clot under thy head;

Until the latter day,

The grave shall be thy bed.”

But nature has her flowers and her fruits, as well as those coarse grains and vegetables on which overgrown reputations are stall-fed. The Commons lobby, the division list, the bureau, Hansard, the newspapers, the dreary bombast of the Right Hon. Marcus Tullius Countinghouse, the ironies of Mr. Swelter, the jokes of Mr. Rasp — enjoy these shams while your faith is great — while you may, now, in the days of thy youth, before your time comes, and knowledge chills, and care catches you, and you are drawn in and ground under the great old machine which has been thundering round and round, and bruising its proper grist, ever since Adam and Eve walked out of Eden.

But beside all this delicious rape-cake and man-gold of politics, Cleve Verney had his transient perceptions of the flowers and fruits, as we say, that spring elsewhere. There are fancy, the regrets, the yearnings — something recluse in the human soul, which will have its day, a day, though brief it may be, of entire domination.

Now it came to pass, among the trees of lonely Malory, at eventide, when the golden air was flooded with the vesper songs of small birds, and the long gray shadows were stretching into distance, that a little brown Welsh boy, with dark lively eyes, and a wire cage in his hand, suddenly stood before Miss Margaret Fanshawe, who awaking from a reverie, with a startled look — for intruders were there unknown — fixed her great eyes upon him.

“You’ve climbed the wall, little gipsy,” said the beautiful lady, with a shake of her head and a little frown, raising her finger threateningly. “What! You say nothing? This is a lonely place; don’t you know there are ghosts here and fairies in Malory? And I’m one of them, perhaps,” she continued, softening a little, for he looked at her with round eyes of wonder and awe.

“And what do you want here? and what have you got in that cage? Let me see it.”

Breaking through an accidental cleft among the old trees, one sunset ray streamed on the face of this little Welsh Murillo; and now through the wires of the cage, gilding them pleasantly as he raised it in his hand, and showed two little squirrels hopping merrily within.

“Squirrels! How curious! My poor little Whisk, there’s none like you, funny little Whisk, kind little Whisk, true little thing; you loved your mistress, and no one else, no one else. He’s buried there, under that large rose-bush; I won’t cry for you, little Whisk, any more, I said I wouldn’t.”

She looked wistfully toward the rose-bush, and the little headstone she had girlishly placed at her favourite’s grave, and the little boy saw two great crystal tears glittering in her large eyes as she gazed; and she turned and walked a hasty step or two toward it. I don’t know whether they fell or were dried, but when she came back she looked as at first.

“I’ll buy one of these little things, they are very pretty, and I’ll call it Frisk; and I’ll please myself by thinking it’s little Whisk’s brother; it may be, you know,” she said, unconsciously taking the little boy into the childish confidence. “What would you sell one of those little things for? perhaps you would not like to part with it, but I’ll make it very happy, I shall be very kind to it.”

She paused, but the little fellow only looked still silently and earnestly in her face.

“Is he deaf or dumb, or a sprite — who are you?” said the girl, looking at him curiously.

A short sentence in Welsh, prettiest of all pretty tongues, with its pleasant accent, was the reply.

“Then all my fine sentences have been thrown away, and not one word has he understood!”

Looking at his impenetrable face, and thus speaking, she smiled; and in that sudden and beautiful radiance he smiled merrily also.

All this happened under the trees close by the old Refectory wall, at the angle of which is a small door admitting into the stable-yard. Opening this she called “Thomas Jones!” and the Cardyllian “helper,” so called, answered the invocation quickly.

“Make out from that little boy, what he is willing to take for one of his squirrels,” said she, and listened in suspense while the brief dialogue in Welsh proceeded.

“He says, my lady, he does not know, but will go home and ask; and if you give him a shilling for earnest, he’ll leave the cage here. So you may look at them for some time, my lady — yes, sure, and see which you would find the best of the two.”

“Oh, that’s charming!” said she, nodding and smiling her thanks to the urchin, who received the shilling and surrendered the cage, which she set down upon the grass in triumph; and seating herself upon the turf before them, began to talk to the imprisoned squirrels with the irrepressible delight with which any companionable creature is welcomed by the young in the monotony and sadness of solitude.

The sun went down, and the moon rose over Malory, but the little brown boy returned not. Perhaps his home was distant. But the next morning did not bring him back, nor the day, nor the evening; and, in fact, she saw his face no more.

“Poor little deserted squirrels! — two little foundlings! — what am I to think? Tell me, cousin Anne, was that little boy what he seemed, or an imp that haunts these woods, and wants to entangle me by a bargain uncompleted; or a compassionate spirit that came thus disguised to supply the loss of poor little Whisk; and how and when do you think he will appear again?”

She was lighting her bed-room candle in the faded old drawing-room of Malory, as, being about to part for the night, she thus addressed her gray cousin Anne. That old spinster yawned at her leisure, and then said —

“He’ll never appear again, dear.”

“I should really say, to judge by that speech, that you knew something about him,” said Margaret Fanshawe, replacing her candle on the table as she looked curiously in her face.

The old lady smiled mysteriously.

“What is it?” said the girl; “you must tell me — you shall tell me. Come, cousin Anne, I don’t go to bed to-night till you tell me all you know.”

The young lady had a will of her own, and sat down, it might be for the night, in her chair again.

“As to knowing, my dear, I really know nothing; but I have my suspicions.”

“H-m!” said Margaret, for a moment dropping her eyes to the table, so that only their long silken fringes were visible. Then she raised them once more gravely to her kinswoman’s face. “Yes, I will know what you suspect.”

“Well, I think that handsome young man, Mr. Cleve Verney, is at the bottom of the mystery,” said Miss Sheckleton, with the same smile.

Again the young lady dropped her eyes, and was for a moment silent. “Was she pleased or dis-pleased? Proud and sad her face looked.

“There’s no one here to tell him that I lost my poor little squirrel. It’s quite impossible — the most unlikely idea imaginable.”

I told him on Sunday,” said Miss Sheckleton, smiling.

“He had no business to talk about me.”

“Why, dear, unless he was a positive brute, he could not avoid asking for you; so I told him you were désolé about your bereavement — your poor little Whisk, and he seemed so sorry and kind; and I’m perfectly certain he got these little animals to supply its place.”

“And so has led me into taking a present?” said the young lady, a little fiercely —“he would not have taken that liberty ——”

Liberty, my dear?”

“Yes, liberty; if he did not think that we were fallen, ruined people ——”

“Now, my dear child, your father’s not ruined, I maintain it; there will be more left, I’m very certain, than he supposes; and I could have almost beaten you the other day for using that expression in speaking to Mr. Verney; but you are so impetuous— and then, could any one have done a more thoughtful or a kinder thing, and in a more perfectly delicate way? He hasn’t made you a present; he has only contrived that a purchase should be thrown in your way, which of all others was exactly what you most wished; he has not appeared, and never will appear in it; and I know, for my part, I’m very much obliged to him —if he has done it — and I think he admires you too much to run a risk of offending you.”

“What?”

“I do — I think he admires you.”

The girl stood up again, and glanced at the mirror, I think, pleased, for a moment — and then took her candle, but paused by the table, looking thoughtfully. Was she paler than usual? or was it only that the light of the candle in her hand was thrown upward on her features? Then she said in a spoken meditation —

“There are dreams that have in them, I think, the germs of insanity; and the sooner we dissipate them, don’t you think, the better and the wiser?”

She smiled, nodded, and went away.

Whose dreams did she mean? Cleve Verney’s, Miss Sheckleton’s, or — could it be, her own?

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