The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 14.

News About the Old Man of the Mountains.

NEXT morning Margaret Fanshawe was unusually silent at breakfast, except to her new friends the squirrels, whose cage she placed on a little table close by, and who had already begun to attach themselves to her. To them she talked, as she gave them their nuts, a great deal of that silvery nonsense which is pleasant to hear as any other pleasant sound in nature. But good old Miss Sheckleton thought her out of spirits.

“She’s vexing herself about my conjectures,” thought the old lady. “I’m sorry I said a word about it. I believe I was a fool, but she’s a greater one. She’s young, however, and has that excuse.”

How old are you, Margaret?” said she abruptly, after a long silence.

“Twenty-two, my last birth-day,” answered the young lady, and looked, as if expecting a reason for the question.

“Yes; so I thought,” said Miss Sheckleton. “The twenty-third of June — a midsummer birth-day — your poor mamma used to say — the glow and flowers of summer — a brilliant augury.”

“Brilliantly accomplished,” added the girl; “don’t you think so, Frisk, and you, little Comet? Are you not tired of Malory already, my friends? My cage is bigger, but so am I, don’t you see; you’d be happier climbing and hopping among the boughs. What am I to you, compared with liberty? I did not ask for you, little fools, did I? You came to me; and I will open the door of your cage some day, and give you back to the unknown — to chance — from which you came.”

“You’re sad today, my child,” said Miss Sheckleton, laying her hand gently on her shoulder. “Are you vexed at what I said to you last night?”

“What did you say?”

“About these little things — the squirrels.”

“No, darling, I don’t care. Why should I? They come from Fortune, and that little brown boy. They came no more to me than to you,” said the girl carelessly. “Yes, another nut; you shall, you little wonders!”

“Now, that’s just what I was going to say. I might just as well have bought them as you; and I must confess I coloured my guess a little, for I only mentioned poor Whisk in passing, and I really don’t know that he heard me; and I think if he had thought of getting a squirrel for us, he’d have asked leave to send it to me. I could not have objected to that, you know; and that little boy may be ill, you know; or something may have happened to delay him, and he’ll turn up; and you’ll have to make a bargain, and pay a fair price for them yet.”

“Yes, of course; I never thought anything else — eventually; and I knew all along you were jesting. I told these little creatures so this morning, over and over again. If they could speak they would say so. Would not you, you two dear little witches?”

So she carried out her pets with her, and hung their cage among the boughs of the tree that stood by the rustic seat to which she used to take her book.

“Well, I’ve relieved her mind,” thought Miss Sheckleton.

But oddly enough, she found the young lady not sad, but rather cross and fierce all that afternoon — talking more bitterly than ever to her squirrels, about Malory, and with an angry kind of gaiety, of her approaching exile to France.

“It is not always easy to know how to please young ladies,” thought Miss Sheckleton. “They won’t always take the trouble to know their own minds. Poor thing! It is very lonely — very lonesome, to be sure; — and this little temper will blow over.”

So, full of these thoughts, Miss Sheckleton repaired to that mysterious study door within which Sir Booth, dangerous as a caged beast, paced his floor, and stormed and ground his teeth, over — not his own vices, prodigalities, and madness, but the fancied villanies of mankind — glared through his window in his paroxysms, and sent his curses like muttered thunder across the sea over the head of old Pendillion — and then would subside, and write long, rambling, rubbishy letters to his attorneys in London, which it was Miss Sheckleton’s business to enclose and direct, in her feminine hand, to her old friend Miss Ogden, of Bolton Street, Piccadilly, who saw after the due delivery of these missives, and made herself generally useful during the mystery and crisis of the Fanshawe affairs.

Outside the sombre precincts of Malory Margaret Fanshawe would not go. Old Miss Sheckleton had urged her. Perhaps it was a girlish perversity; perhaps she really disliked the idea of again meeting or making an acquaintance. At all events, she was against any more excursions. Thus the days were dull at Malory, and even Miss Sheckleton was weary of her imprisonment.

It is a nice thing to hit the exact point of reserve and difficulty at which an interest of a certain sort is piqued, without danger of being extinguished. Perhaps it is seldom compassed by art, and a fluke generally does it. I am absolutely certain that there was no design here. But there is a spirit of contrariety — a product of pride, of a sensitiveness almost morbid, of a reserve gliding into duplicity, a duplicity without calculation — which yet operates like design. Cleve was piqued — Cleve was angry. The spirit of the chase was roused, as often as he looked at the dusky woods of Malory.

And now he had walked on three successive days past the old gateway, and on each of them, loitered long on the wind-beaten hill that overlooks the grounds of Malory. But in vain. He was no more accustomed to wait than Louis XIV. Now wonder he grew impatient, and meditated the wildest schemes — even that of walking up to the hall-door, and asking to see Sir Booth and Miss Sheckleton, and, if need be, Miss Fanshawe. He only knew that, one way or another, he must see her. He was a young man of exorbitant impatience, and a violent will, and would control events.

There are consequences, of course, and these subjugators are controlled in their turn. Time, as mechanical science shows us, is an element in power; and patience is in durability. God waits, and God is might. And without patience we enter not into the kingdom of God, which is the kingdom of power, and the kingdom of eternity.

Cleve Verney’s romance, next morning, was doomed to a prosaic interruption. He was examining a chart of the Cardyllian estuary, which hangs in the library, trying to account for the boat’s having touched the bank at low water, at a point where he fancied there was a fathom to spare, when the rustic servant entered with —

“Please, sir, a gentleman which his name is Mr. Larkin, is at the door, and wishes to see you, sir, on partickler business, please.”

“Just wait a moment, Edward. Three fathom — two — four feet — by Jove! So it is. We might have been aground for five hours; a shame there isn’t a buoy there — got off in a coach, by Jove! Larkin? Has he no card?”

“Yes, sir, please.”

“Oh! yes — very good. Mr. Larkin — The Lodge. Does he look like a gatekeeper?”

“No, sir, please; quite the gentleman.”

“What the devil can he want of me? Are you certain he did not ask for my uncle?”

“Yes, sir — the Honourable Mr. Verney — which I told him he wasn’t here.”

“And why did not you send him away, then?”

“He asked me if you were here, and wished to see you partickler, sir.”

“Larkin — The Lodge; what is he like — tall or short — old or young?” asked Cleve.

“Tall gentleman, please, sir — not young — helderley, sir, rayther.”

“By Jove! Larkin? I think it is. — Is he bald — a long face, eh?” asked Cleve with sudden interest.

“Yes, sir, a good deal in that way, sir — rayther.”

“Show him in,” said Cleve; “I shall hear all about it, now,” he soliloquised as the man departed. “Yes, the luckiest thing in the world!”

The tall attorney, with the tall bald head and pink eyelids, entered simpering, with hollow jaws, and a stride that was meant to be perfectly easy and gentlemanlike. Mr. Larkin had framed his costume upon something he had once seen upon somebody whom he secretly worshipped as a great authority in quiet elegance. But every article in the attorney’s wardrobe looked always new — a sort of lavender was his favourite tint — a lavender waistcoat, lavender trowsers, lavender gloves — so that, as the tall lank figure came in, a sort of blooming and vernal effect, in spite of his open black frock-coat, seemed to enter and freshen the chamber.

“How d’ye do, Mr. Larkin? My uncle is at present in France. Sit down, pray — can I be of any use?” said Cleve, who now recollected his appearance perfectly, and did not like it.

The attorney, smiling engagingly, more and more, and placing a very smooth new hat upon the table, sat himself down, crossing one long leg over the other, throwing himself languidly back, and letting one of his long arms swing over the back of his chair, so that his fingers almost touched the floor, said —

“Oh?” in a prolonged tone of mild surprise. “They quite misinformed me in town — not at Verney House — I did not allow myself time to call there; but my agents, they assured me that your uncle, the Honourable Kiffyn Fulke Verney, was at present down here at Ware, and a most exquisite retreat it certainly is. My occupations, and I may say my habits, call me a good deal among the residences of our aristocracy,” he continued, with a careless grandeur and a slight wave of his hand, throwing himself a little more back, “and I have seen nothing, I assure you, Mr. Verney, more luxurious and architectural than this patrician house of Ware, with its tasteful colonnade, and pilastered front, and the distant view of the fashionable watering-place of Cardyllian, which also belongs to the family; nothing certainly lends a more dignified charm to the scene, Mr. Verney, than a distant view of family property, where, as in this instance, it is palpably accidental — where it is at all forced, as in the otherwise highly magnificent seat of my friend Sir Thomas Oldbull, baronet; so far from elevating, it pains one, it hurts one’s taste”— and Mr. Jos. Larkin shrugged and winced a little, and shook his head —“Do you know Sir Thomas? —no— I dare say — he’s quite a new man, Sir Thomas — we all look on him in that light in our part of the world — a — in fact, a parvenu,” which word Mr. Larkin pronounced as if it were spelled pair vennew. “But, you know, the British Constitution, every man may go up — we can’t help it — we can’t keep them down. Money is power, Mr. Verney, as the old Earl of Coachhouse once said to me — and so it is; and when they make a lot of it, they come up, and we must only receive them, and make the best of them.”

“Have you had breakfast, Mr. Larkin?” inquired Cleve, in answer to all this.

“Thanks, yes — at Llwynan — a very sweet spot — one of the sweetest, I should say, in this beauteous country.”

“I don’t know — I dare say — I think you wished to see me on business, Mr. Larkin?” said Cleve.

“I must say, Mr. Verney, you will permit me, that I really have been taken a little by surprise. I had expected confidently to find your uncle, the Honourable Kiffyn Fulke Verney, here, where I had certainly no hope of having the honour of finding you.”

I must here interpolate the fact that no person in or out of England was more exactly apprised of the whereabout of the Verneys, uncle and nephew, at the moment when he determined to visit Ware, with the ostensible object of seeing the Hon. Kiffyn Fulke, and the real one of seeing Mr. Cleve, than was my friend Mr. Larkin. He was, however, as we know, a gentleman of ingenious morals and labyrinthine tastes. With truth he was, as it were, on bowing terms, and invariably spoke of her with respect, but that was all. There was no intimacy, she was an utterly impracticable adviser, and Mr. Larkin had grown up under a more convenient tuition.

“The information, however, I feel concerns you, my dear sir, as nearly, in a manner, as it does your uncle; in fact, your youth taken into account, more momentously than it can so old a gentleman. I would, therefore, merely venture to solicit one condition, and that is, that you will be so good as not to mention me to your uncle as having conveyed this information to you, as he might himself have wished to be the first person to open it, and my having done so might possibly induce in his mind an unpleasant feeling.”

“I shan’t see my uncle before the fifteenth,” said Cleve Verney.

“A long wait, Mr. Verney, for such intelligence as it falls to my lot to communicate, which, in short, I shall be most happy to lay before you, provided you will be so good as to say you desire it on the condition I feel it due to all parties to suggest.”

“You mean that my uncle need not be told anything about this interview. I don’t see that he need, if it concerns me. What concerns him, I suppose you will tell him, Mr. Larkin.”

“Quite so; that’s quite my meaning; merely to avoid unpleasant feeling. I am most anxious to acquaint you — but you understand the delicacy of my position with your uncle — and that premised, I have now to inform you”— here he dropped his voice, and raised his hand a little, like a good man impressing a sublime religious fact —“that your uncle, the Honourable Arthur Verney, is no more.”

The young man flushed up to the very roots of his hair. There was a little pink flush, also, on the attorney’s long cheeks; for there was something exciting in even making such an announcement. The consequences were so unspeakably splendid.

Mr. Larkin saw a vision of permanent, confidential, and lucrative relations with the rich Verney family, such as warmed the cool tide of his blood, and made him feel for the moment at peace with all mankind. Cleve was looking in the attorney’s eyes — the attorney in his. There was a silence for while you might count three or four. Mr. Larkin saw that his intended client, Cleve — the future Viscount Verney — was dazzled, and a little confounded. Recollecting himself, he turned his shrewd gaze on the marble face of Plato, who stood on his pedestal near the window, and a smile seraphic and melancholy lighted up the features and the sad pink eyes of the godly attorney. He raised them; he raised his great hand in the lavender glove, and shook his long head devoutly.

“Mysterious are the dealings of Providence, Mr. Verney; happy those who read the lesson, sir. How few of us so favoured! Wonderful are his ways!”

With a little effort, and an affectation of serenity, Cleve spoke —

“No very great wonder, however, considering he was sixty-four in May last.” The young man knew his vagabond uncle Arthur’s age to an hour, and nobody can blame him much for his attention to those figures. “It might not have happened, of course, for ten or twelve years, but it might have occurred, I suppose, at any moment. How did it happen? Do you know the particulars? But, is there — is there no” (he was ashamed to say hope) “no chance that he may still be living? — is it quite certain?”

“Perfectly certain, perfectly. In a family matter, I have always made it a rule to be certain before speaking. No trifling with sacred feelings, that has been my rule, Mr. Verney, and although in this case there are mitigations as respects the survivors, considering the life of privation and solitude, and, as I have reason to know, of ceaseless self-abasement and remorse, which was all that remained to your unhappy relative, the Honourable Arthur Verney, it was hardly to be desired that the event should be very much longer deferred.”

Cleve Verney looked for a moment on the table, in the passing contagion of the good attorney’s high moral tone.

Cleve just said “yes,” in a low tone, and shook his head. But rallying, he remarked —

“You, of course, know how the title is affected by this event — and the estates?” And as he raised his eyes, he encountered the attorney’s fixed upon him with that peculiar rat-like vigilance, concentrated and dangerous, which, as we know, those meek orbs sometimes assume when his own interests and objects were intensely present to his mind.

Cleve’s eye shrank for a second under the enigmatic scrutiny which as instantly gave way, in turn, before his glance.

“Oh, certainly,” said the attorney, “the public know always something of great houses, and their position; that is, generally, of course — details are quite another affair. But everyone knows the truly magnificent position, Mr. Verney, in which the event places your uncle, and I may say you. At the same time the House of Lords, your house, I may call it now, are, very properly, particular in the matter of evidence.”

“Our consul, I suppose,” said Cleve ——

“If he were cognisant of all the points necessary to put in proof, the case would be a very simple one indeed,” said Mr. Larkin, with a sad smile, slowly shaking his tall head.

“Where, Mr. Larkin, did my poor uncle die?” inquired Cleve, with a little effort at the word “uncle.”

“In Constantinople, sir — a very obscure quarter. His habits, Mr. Verney, were very strange; he lived like a rat — I beg pardon, I should say a rabbit in a burrow. Darkness, sir, obscurity — known, I believe, personally to but two individuals. Strange fate, Mr. Verney, for one born to so brilliant an inheritance. Known to but two individuals, one of whom died — what a thing life is! — but a few months before him, leaving, I may say, but one reliable witness to depose to his death; and, for certain reasons, that witness is most reluctant to leave Constantinople, and not very easily to be discovered, even there. You see, Mr. Verney, now, probably, something of the difficulty of the case. Fortunately, I have got some valuable information, confidential, I may say, in its nature, and with the aid of a few valuable local agents, providentially at this moment at my disposal, I think the difficulty may be quite overcome.”

“If old Arthur Verney is dead, I’ll find proof of the fact,” said Cleve; “I’ll send out people who will know how to come at it.”

“You must be well advised, and very cautious, Mr. Verney — in fact, I may tell you, you can’t be too cautious, for I happen to know that a certain low firm are already tampering with the witness.”

“And how the devil can it concern any firm to keep us — my uncle Kiffyn Verney out of his rights?” said Mr. Cleve Verney, scornfully.

“Very true, Mr. Verney, in one sense, no motive; but I am older in the sad experience of the world than you, Mr. Verney. At your age I could not believe it, much later I would not. But, ah! Mr. Verney, in the long-run, the facts are too strong for us. Poor, miserable, fallen human nature, it is capable of anything. It is only too true, and too horrible. It sticks at nothing, my dear Mr. Verney, and their object is to command the witness by this means, and to dictate terms to you — in fact, my dear Mr. Verney, it is shocking to think of it — to extort money.”

“I hope you over-estimate the difficulty. If the death has occurred I wager my life we’ll prove it, and come what will I hope my uncle will never be persuaded to give those scoundrels a shilling.”

“Certainly not — not a shilling — not a farthing — but I have taken prompt, and I trust decisive steps to check-mate those gentlemen. I am not at liberty, just at present, to disclose all I know; I don’t say that I could exactly undertake the management of the case, but I shall be very happy to volunteer all the assistance in my power; and as I say, some accidental circumstances place me in a position to undertake that you shall not be defeated. A break down, I may mention, would be a more serious matter than you seem to suppose; in fact, I should prefer the Honourable Arthur Verney’s living for twelve years more, with clear proof of his death at the end of that time, than matters as they stand at present, with a failure of the necessary proof.”

“Thank you very much, Mr. Larkin; my uncle, I am sure, will also be very much obliged. I understand, of course, the sort of difficulty you apprehend.”

“It’s not conjectural, Mr. Verney, I wish it were — but it’s past that; it exists,” said the attorney, sadly.

“Well, I can only say, we are very much obliged,” said Cleve, quite honestly. “I shan’t forget your wish, that I should not mention our conversation to my uncle, and if you should learn anything further ——”

You shall certainly hear it, Mr. Verney. I must now take my leave. Sweet day, and a beauteous country! How blest are you, Mr. Verney, in your situation! I allude to your scenery, and I may add, the architectural magnificence of this princely residence. What a row of windows as I approached the house! What a number of bed-rooms you must have! Hardly so many, let us hope, as there are mansions, Mr. Verney, in that house to which we humbly trust we are proceeding.” Mr. Larkin, who, on his way had called professionally upon a subscriber to the Gylingden Chapel — an “eminent Christian”— and talked accordingly — perceived that his meat was a little too strong for a babe of Mr. Verney’s standing, and concluded more like an attorney of this world.

“Splendid and convenient residence, and in all respects suitable, Mr. Verney, to the fine position of usefulness, and, I may say, splendour, to which you are about being called,” and he smiled round upon the book-cases and furniture, and waved his hand gently, as if in the act of diffusing a benediction over the chairs and tables.

“Won’t you take something, Mr. Larkin, before you go?” asked Cleve.

“No — thanks — no, Mr. Verney — many thanks. It is but an hour since I had my modest déjeuner at that sweet little inn at Llwynan.”

So on the door-steps they parted; the attorney smiling quite celestially, and feeling all a-glow with affability, virtue, and a general sense of acceptance. In fact he was pleased with his morning’s work for several reasons — pleased with himself, with Cleve Verney, and confident of gliding into the management of the Verney estates, and in great measure of the Verneys themselves; now seeing before him in the great and cloudy vista of his future, a new and gorgeous castle in the air. These châteaux, in the good man’s horizon had, of late, been multiplying rapidly, and there was now quite a little city of palaces in his perspective — an airy pageant which, I think, he sometimes mistook for the New Jerusalem, he talked and smiled so celestially when it was in view.

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