The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 22.

Sir Booth Speaks.

THE idea, perhaps, that sustained Cleve Verney in this move, was the sudden recurrence of his belief that Sir Booth would so clearly see the advantages of such a connexion as to forget his resentments.

Sir Booth was looking seaward, smoking a cigar, and watching the approach of the boat, which was still distant. As Cleve drew near, he saw Sir Booth eye him, he fancied, uneasily; and throwing back his head a little, and withdrawing his cheroot, ever so little from his lips, the Baronet demanded grimly —

“Wish to speak to me, sir?”

“Only a word, if you allow me,” answered Cleve, approaching.

On ascertaining that he had to deal with a gentleman, Sir Booth was confident once more.

“Well, sir, I hear you,” said he.

“You don’t recognise me, Sir Booth; and I fear when I introduce myself, you will hardly connect my name with anything pleasant or friendly. I only ask a patient hearing, and I am sure your own sense of fairness will excuse me personally.”

“Before you say, more, sir, I should like to know for whom you take me, and why; I don’t recollect you— I think— I can’t see very well — no one does in this sort of light; but I rather think, I never saw your face before, sir — nor you mine, I dare say — your guesses as to who I am, may be anything you please — and quite mistaken — and this is not a usual time, you know, for talking with strangers about business — and, in fact, I’ve come here for quiet and my health, and I can’t undertake to discuss other people’s affairs — I find my own as much as my health and leisure will allow me to attend to.”

“Sir Booth Fanshawe, you must excuse me for saying I know you perfectly. I am also well aware that you seek a little repose and privacy here, and you may rely implicitly upon my mentioning your name to no one; in fact, I have been for some weeks aware of your residing at Malory, and never have mentioned it to any one.”

“Ha! you’re very kind, indeed — taking great care of me, sir; you are very obliging,” said Sir Booth, sarcastically, “I’m sure; ha, ha! I ought to be very grateful. And to whom, may I ask, do I owe all this attention to my — my interests and comforts?”

“I am connected, Sir Booth, with a house that has unfortunately been a good deal opposed, in politics, to yours. There are reasons which make this particularly painful to me, although I have been by the direction of others, whom I had no choice but to obey, more in evidence in these miserable contests than I could wish; I’ve really been little more than a passive instrument in the hands of others, absolutely without power, or even influence of my own in the matter. You don’t recognise me, but you have seen me elsewhere. My name is Cleve Verney.”

Sir Booth had not expected this name, as his countenance showed. With a kind of jerk, he removed his cigar from his lips, sending a shower of red sparks away on the breeze, and gazing on the young man with eyes like balls of stone, ready to leap from their sockets. I dare say he was very near exploding in that sort of language which, on occasion, he did not spare. But he controlled himself, and said merely, clearing his voice first —

“That will do, sir, the name’s enough; I can’t be supposed to wish to converse with any one of that name, sir — no more I do.”

“What I have to say, Sir Booth, affects you, it interests you very nearly,” answered Cleve.

“But, sir, I am going out in that boat — I wish to smoke my cigar — I’ve come down here to live to myself, and to be alone when I choose it,” said Sir Booth, with suppressed exasperation.

“One word, I beg — you’ll not regret it, Sir Booth,” pleaded Cleve.

“Well, sir, come — I will hear it; but I tell you beforehand, I have pretty strong views as to how I have been used, and it is not likely to lead to much,” said Sir Booth, with one of those sudden changes of purpose to which fiery men are liable.

So, as briefly and as persuasively as he could, Cleve Verney disclosed his own feelings, giving to the date of his attachment, skilfully, a retrospective character, and guarding the ladies of Malory from the unreasonable temper of this violent old man; and, in fact, from Cleve’s statement you would have gathered that he was not even conscious that the ladies were now residing at Malory. He closed his little confession with a formal proposal.

Was there something — ever so little — in the tone of this latter part of his brief speech, that reflected something of the confidence to which I have alluded, and stung the angry pride of this ruined man? He kept smoking his cigar a little faster, and looked steadily at the distant boat that was slowly approaching against the tide.

When Cleve concluded, the old man lowered his cigar and laughed shortly and scornfully.

“You do us a great deal of honour, Mr. Verney — too much honour, by — ” scoffed the Baronet.

“Be so good at all events as to answer me this one question frankly — yes or no. Is your uncle, Kiffyn Verney, aware of your speaking to me on this subject?”

No, Sir Booth, he is not,” said Cleve; “he knows nothing of it. I ought, perhaps, to have mentioned that at first.”

“So you ought,” said Sir Booth, brusquely.

“And I beg that you won’t mention the subject to him.”

“You may be very sure I shan’t, sir,” said the Baronet, fiercely. “Why, d — n it, sir, what do you mean? Do you know what you’re saying? You come here, and you make a proposal for my daughter, and you think I should be so charmed, that rather than risk your alliance I should practise any meanness you think fit. D— n you, sir, how dare you suppose I could fancy your aspiring to my daughter a thing to hide like a mésalliance?”

“Nothing of the kind, Sir Booth.”

Everything of the kind, sir. Do you know who you are, sir? You have not a farthing on earth, sir, but what you get from your uncle.”

“I beg your pardon — allow me, Sir Booth — I’ve six hundred a-year of my own. I know it’s very little; but I’ve been thought to have some energies; I know I have some friends. I have still my seat in the House, and this Parliament may last two or three years. It is quite possible that I may quarrel with my uncle; I can’t help it; I’m quite willing to take my chance of that; and I entreat, Sir Booth, that you won’t make this a matter of personal feeling, and attribute to me the least sympathy with the miserable doings of my uncle.”

Sir Booth listened to him, looking over the sea as before, as if simply observing the approach of the boat, but he spoke this time in a mitigated tone.

“You’re no young man,” said he, “if you don’t owe money. I never knew one with a rich old fellow at his back who didn’t.”

He paused, and Cleve looked down.

“In fact, you don’t know how much you owe. If you were called on to book up, d’ye see, there might remain very little to show for your six hundred a-year. You’re just your uncle’s nephew, sir, and nothing more. When you quarrel with him you’re a ruined man.”

“I don’t see that—” began Cleve.

“But I do. If he quarrels with you, he’ll never rest till he ruins you. That’s his character. It might be very different if you had a gentleman to deal with; but you must look the thing in the face. You may never succeed to the title. We old fellows have our palsies and apoplexies; and you, young fellows, your fevers and inflammations. Here you are quite well, and a fever comes, and turns you off like a gaslight the day after; and, besides, if you quarrel he’ll marry, and, where are you then? And I tell you frankly, if Mr. Kiffyn Verney has objections to me, I’ve stronger to him. There’s no brother of mine disgraced. Why, his elder brother — it’s contamination to a gentleman to name him.”

“He’s dead, sir; Arthur Verney is dead,” said Cleve, who was more patient under Sir Booth’s bitter language than under any other circumstances he would have been.

“Oh! Well, that does not very much matter,” said Sir Booth. “But this is the upshot: I’ll have nothing underhand — all above board, sir — and if Mr. Kiffyn Verney writes a proper apology — by — — he owes me one — and puts a stop to the fiendish persecutions he has been directing against me, and himself submits the proposal you have — yes — done me the honour to make, and undertakes to make suitable settlements, I shan’t stand in the way; I shan’t object to your speaking to my daughter, though I can’t the least tell how she’ll take it! and I tell you from myself I don’t like it — I don’t, by — — I don’t like it. He’s a bad fellow — a nasty dog, sir, as any in England — but that’s what I say, sir, and I shan’t alter; and you’ll please never to mention the subject to me again except on these conditions. Except from him I decline to hear of it — not a word — and — and, sir, you’ll please to regard my name as a secret; it has been hitherto; my liberty depends on it. Your uncle can’t possibly know I’m here?” he added, sharply.

“When last I saw him — a very short time since — he thought you were in France. You, of course, rely upon my honour, Sir Booth, that no one living shall hear from me one syllable affecting your safety.”

“Very good, sir. I never supposed you would; but I mean every one — these boatmen, and the people here. No one is to know who I am; and what I’ve said is my ultimatum, sir. And I’ll have no correspondence, sir — no attempt to visit any where. You understand. By — — if you do, I’ll let your uncle, Mr. Kiffyn Verney, know the moment I learn it. Be so good as to leave me.”

“Good night, sir,” said Cleve.

Sir Booth nodded slightly.

The tall old man went stalking and stumbling over the shingle, toward the water’s edge, still watching the boat, his cigar making a red star in the dusk, by which Christmass Owen might have steered; and the boatmen that night heard their mysterious steersman from Malory, as he sat with his hand on the tiller, talking more than usual to himself, now and then d —— ing unknown persons, and backing his desultory babble to the waves, with oaths that startled those sober-tongued Dissenters.

Cleve walked slowly up that wide belt of rounded gray stones, that have rattled and rolled for centuries there, in every returning and retreating treating tide, and turned at last and looked toward the tall, stately figure of the old man now taking his place in the boat. Standing in the shadow, he watched it receding as the moonlight came out over the landscape. His thoughts began to clear, and he was able to estimate, according to his own gauges and rashness, the value and effect of his interview with the angry and embittered man.

He wondered at the patience with which he had borne this old man’s impertinence — unparalleled impertinence; yet even now he could not resent it. He was the father of that beautiful Margaret. The interview was a mistake — a very mortifying ordeal it had proved — and its result was to block his path with new difficulties.

Not to approach except through the mediation of his Uncle Kiffyn! He should like to see how his uncle would receive a proposal to mediate in this matter. Not to visit — not to write — neither to see nor to hear of her! Submission to such conditions was not to be dreamed of. He trampled on them, and defied all consequences.

Cleve stood on the gray shingle looking after the boat, now running swiftly with the tide. A patch of seaweed, like an outstretched hand, lay at his feet, and in the fitful breeze lifted a warning finger, again, and again, and again.

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