The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 19.

Cleve Verney Takes a Bold Step.

WHEN we seek danger he is sometimes — like death — hard to find. Cleve would not have disliked an encounter with Sir Booth Fanshawe; who could tell what might come of such a meeting? It was palpably so much the interest of that ruined gentleman to promote his wishes, that, if he would only command his temper and listen to reason, he had little doubt of enlisting him zealously in his favour. It was his own uncle who always appeared to him the really formidable obstacle.

Therefore, next night, Cleve fearlessly walked down to Malory. It was seven o’clock, and dark. It was a still, soft night. The moon not up yet, and all within the gate, dark as Erebus — silent, also, except for the fall of a dry leaf now and then, rustling sadly through the boughs.

At the gate for a moment he hesitated, and then with a sudden decision, pushed it open, entered, and the darkness received him. A little confused were his thoughts and feelings as he strode through that darkness and silence toward the old house. So dark it was, that to direct his steps, he had to look up for a streak of sky between the nearly meeting branches of the trees.

This trespass was not a premeditated outrage. It was a sudden inspiration of despair. He had thought of writing to Sir Booth. But to what mischief might not that fierce and impracticable old man apply his overt act? Suppose he were to send his letter on to the Hon. Kiffyn Fulke Verney? In that case Mr. Cleve Verney might moralise with an income of precisely two hundred a year, for the rest of his days, upon the transitory nature of all human greatness. At the next election he would say a compulsory farewell to the House. He owed too much money to remain pleasantly in England, his incensed uncle would be quite certain to marry, and with Cleve Verney — exM.P., and quondam man of promise, and presumptive Earl of Verney —conclamatum foret.

He had therefore come to the gate of Malory in the hope of some such happy chance as befel the night before. And now disappointed, he broke through all considerations, and was walking in a sort of desperation, right into the lion’s mouth.

He slackened his pace, however, and bethought him. Of course, he could not ask at this hour to see Miss Anne Sheckleton. Should he go and pay a visit to old Rebecca Mervyn? Hour and circumstances considered, would not that, also, be a liberty and an outrage? What would they think of it? What would he say of it in another fellow’s case? Was he then going at this hour to pay his respects to Sir Booth Fanshawe, whom he had last seen and heard in the thunder and dust of the hustings, hurling language and grammar that were awful, at his head.

Cleve Verney was glad that he had pulled up before he stood upon the door steps; and he felt like an awakened somnambulist.

“I can’t do this. It’s impossible. What a brute I am growing,” thought Cleve, awaking to realities. “There’s nothing for it, I believe, but patience. If I were now to press for an answer, she would say ‘No;’ and were I to ask admission at the house at this hour, what would she — what would Miss Sheckleton, even, think of me? If I had nerve to go away and forget her, I should be happier — quite happy and quite good-for-nothing, and perfectly at my uncle’s disposal. As it is, I’m miserable— a miserable fool. Everything against it — even the girl, I believe; and I here — partly in a vision of paradise, partly in the torments of the damned, wasting my life in the dream of an opium-eater, and without power to break from it, and see the world as it is.”

He was leaning with folded arms, like the melancholy Jacques against the trunk of a forest tree, as this sad soliloquy glided through his mind, and he heard a measured step approaching slowly from the house.

“This is Sir Booth coming,” thought he, with a strange, sardonic gladness. “We shall see what will come of it. Let us hear the old gentleman, by all means.”

The step was still distant.

It would have been easy for him to retrace his steps, and to avoid the encounter. But it seemed to him that to stir would have been like moving a mountain, and a sort of cold defiance kept him there, and an unspeakable interest in the story which he was enacting, and a longing to turn over the leaf, and read the next decisive page. So he waited.

His conjecture was right, but the anticipated dialogue did not occur. The tall figure of Sir Booth appeared; some wrappers thrown across his arm. He stalked on and passed by Cleve, without observing, or rather, seeing him; for his eye had not grown like Cleve’s accustomed to the darkness.

Cleve stood where he was till the step was lost in silence, and waited for some time longer, and heard Sir Booth’s voice, as he supposed, hailing the boatmen from that solitary shore, and theirs replying, and he thought of the ghostly boat and boatmen that used to scare him in the “Tale of Wonder” beloved in his boyhood. For anything that remains to him in life, for any retrospect but one of remorse, he might as well be one of those phantom boatmen on the haunted lake. By this time he is gliding, in the silence of his secret thoughts, upon the dark sea outside Malory.

“Well!” thought Cleve, with a sudden inspiration, “he will not return for two hours at least. I will go on — no great harm in merely passing the house — and we shall see whether anything turns up.”

On went Cleve. The approach to the old house is not a very long one. On a sudden, through the boughs, the sight of lighted windows met his eyes, and through the open sash of one of them, he heard faintly the pleasant sound of female prattle.

He drew nearer. He stood upon the esplanade before the steps, under the well-known gray front of the whole house. A shadow crossed the window, and he heard Miss Anne Sheckleton’s merry voice speaking volubly, and then a little silence, of which he availed himself to walk with as distinct a tread as he could manage, at a little distance, in front of the windows, in the hope of exciting the attention of the inmates. He succeeded; for almost at the instant two shadowy ladies, the lights being within the room, and hardly any from without, appeared at the open window; Miss Sheckleton was in front, and Miss Fanshawe with her hand leaning upon her old cousin’s shoulder, looked out also.

Cleve stopped instantly, and approached, raising his hat. This young gentleman was also a mere dark outline, and much less distinct than those he recognised against the cheery light of the drawing-room candles. But I don’t think there was a moment’s doubt about his identity. “Here I am, actually detected, trying to glide by unperceived,” said Cleve, lying, as Mr. Fag says in the play, and coming up quickly to the open window. “You must think me quite mad, or the most impudent person alive; but what am I to do? I can’t leave Ware, without paying old Rebecca — Mrs. Mervyn, you know — a visit. Lady Verney blows me up so awfully about it, and has put it on me as a duty. She thinks there’s no one like old Rebecca; and really poor old Mervyn was always very kind to me when I was a boy. She lives, you know, in the steward’s house. I can’t come up here in daylight. I’m in such a dilemma. I must wait till Sir Booth has gone out in his boat, don’t you see? and so I did; and if I had just got round the corner there, without your observing me, I should have been all right. I’m really quite ashamed. I must look so like a trespasser — a poacher — everything that is suspicious; but the case, you see, is really so difficult. I’ve told you everything, and I do hope you quite acquit me.”

“Oh, yes,” said Miss Sheckleton. “We must, you know. It’s like a piece of a Spanish comedy; but what’s to be done? You must have been very near meeting. Booth has only just gone down to the boat.”

“We did meet — that is, he actually passed me by, but without seeing me. I heard him coming, and just stood, taking my chance; it was very dark you know.”

“Well, I forgive you,” said Miss Sheckleton. “I must, you know; but the dogs won’t. You hear them in the yard. What good dear creatures they are; and when they hear us talking to you, they’ll grow quite quiet, and understand that all is well, they are so intelligent. And there’s the boat; look, Margaret, through that opening, you can just see it. When the moon gets up, it looks so pretty. I suppose it’s my bad taste, but those clumsy fishing boats seem to me so much more picturesque than your natty yachts, though, of course, they are very nice in their way. Do you hear how furious you have made our great dog, poor old Neptune! He looks upon us, Margaret and I, as in his special charge; but it does not do, making such an uproar.”

I fancy she was thinking of Sir Booth, for she glanced toward the boat; and perhaps the kind old lady was thinking of somebody else, also.

“I’ll just run to the back window, and quiet him. I shan’t be away a moment, Margaret, dear.”

And away went Miss Sheckleton, shutting the door. Miss Fanshawe had not said a word, but remained at the window looking out. You might have thought his being there, or not, a matter of entire indifference to her. She had not said a word. She looked toward the point at which the rising splendour of the moon was already visible over the distant hills.

“Did you miss anything — I’m sure you did — yesterday? I found a pin at the jetty of Penruthyn. It is so pretty, I’ve been ever so much tempted to keep it; so very pretty, that somehow, I think it could not have belonged to any one but to you.”

And he took the trinket from his waistcoat pocket.

“Oh! I’m so glad,” said she; “I thought I had seen it this morning, and could not think what had become of it. I never missed it till this evening.”

He touched the fingers she extended to receive it. He took them in his hand, and held them with a gentle force.

“For one moment allow me to hold your hand; don’t take it from me yet. I implore, only while I say a few words, which you may make, almost by a look, a farewell — my eternal farewell. Margaret, I love you as no other man ever will love you. You think all this but the madness that young men talk. I know nothing of them. What I say is desperately true; no madness, but sad and irreparable reality. I never knew love but for you — and for you it is such idolatry as I think the world never imagined. You are never for one moment from my thoughts. Every good hope or thought I have, I owe to you. You are the good principle of my life, and if I lose you, I am lost myself.”

This strange girl was not a conventional young lady. I don’t pronounce whether she was better or worse for that. She did not drop her eyes, nor yet withdraw her hand. She left that priceless pledge in his, it seemed, unconsciously, and with eyes of melancholy and earnest inquiry, looked on the handsome young man that was pleading with her.

“It is strange,” she said, in a dreamy tone, as if talking with herself. “I said it was strange, for he does not, and cannot, know me.”

“Yes,” he answered, “I do know you — intuitively I know you. We have all faith in the beautiful. We cannot separate the beautiful and the good; they come both direct from God, they resemble him; and I know your power — you can make of me what you will. Oh, Margaret, will you shut me out for ever from the only chance of good I shall ever know? Can you ever, ever like me?”

There was a little silence, and she said, very low, “If I were to like you, would you love me better than anything else in all the world?”

“Than all the world — than all the world,” he reiterated, and she felt the hand of this young man of fashion, of ambition, who had years ago learned to sneer at all romance, quiver as it held her own.

“But first, if I were to allow any one to like me, I would say to him, you must know what you undertake. You must love me with your entire heart; heart and soul, you must give yourself altogether up to me. I must be everything to you — your present, your future, your happiness, your hope; for I will not bear to share your heart with anything on earth! And these are hard terms, but the only ones.”

“I need make no vow, darling —darling. My life is what you describe, and I cannot help it; I adore you. Oh! Margaret, can you like me?”

Then Margaret Fanshawe answered, and in a tone the most sad, I think, that ever spoke; and to him, the sweetest and most solemn; like distant music in the night, funereal and plaintive, her words fell upon his entranced ear.

“If I were to say I could like you enough to wait, and try if I could like you more, it always seemed to me so awful a thing — try if I could like you more — would not the terms seem to you too hard?”

“Oh! Margaret, darling, say you can like me now. You know how I adore you,” he implored.

“Here, then, is the truth. I do not like you well enough to say all that; no, I do not, but I like you too well to say go. I don’t know how it may be, but if you choose to wait, and give me a very little time to resolve, I shall see clearly, and all uncertainty come to an end, somehow, and God guide us all to good! That is the whole truth, Mr. Verney; and pray say no more at present. You shall not wait long for my answer.”

“I agree, darling. I accept your terms. You don’t know what delay is to me; but anything rather than despair.”

She drew her hand to herself. He released it. It was past all foolish by-play with him, and the weight of a strange fear lay upon his heart.

This little scene took longer in speaking and acting, than it does in reading in this poor note of mine. When they looked up, the moon was silvering the tops of the trees, and the distant peaks of the Welsh mountains, and glimmering and flashing to and fro, like strings of diamonds, on the water.

And now Miss Anne Sheckleton entered, having talked old Neptune into good humour.

“Is there a chance of your visiting Penruthyn again?” asked Cleve, as if nothing unusual had passed. “You have not seen the old park. Pray, come tomorrow.”

Miss Sheckleton looked at the young lady, but she made no sign.

Shall we? I see nothing against it,” said she.

“Oh! do. I entreat,” he persisted.

“Well, if it should be fine, and if nothing prevents, I think I may say, we will, about three o’clock tomorrow.”

Margaret did not speak; but was there not something sad and even gentle in her parting? The old enigma was still troubling his brain and heart, as he walked down the dark avenue once more. How would it all end? How would she at last pronounce?

The walk, next day, was taken in the Warren, as he had proposed. I believe it was a charming excursion; as happy, too, as under the bitter conditions of suspense it could be; but nothing worthy of record was spoken, and matters, I dare say, remained, ostensibly at least, precisely as they were.

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