The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 24.

Sir Booth in a Passion.

DAYS passed, during which Cleve Verney paid stolen visits at Malory, more cautiously managed than ever; and nearly every afternoon did the good people of Cardyllian see him walk the green, to and fro, with the Etherage girls, so that the subject began to be canvassed very gravely, and even Miss Charity was disposed to think that he certainly did like Agnes, and confided to her friend, Mrs. Brindley, of “The Cottage,” that if Aggie married, she should give up. Nothing could induce her, Miss Charity, to marry, she solemnly assured her friends.

And I must do that spinster the justice to say, that there was not the faintest flavour of sour grapes in the acerbity with which she pronounced against the “shocking folly of girls marrying,” for she might undoubtedly have been married, having had in her youth several unexceptionable offers, none of which had ever moved her.

I know not what hopes Sir Booth may have founded upon his conversation with Cleve Verney. Men in the Baronet’s predicament nurse their hopes fondly, and their mustard seeds grow rapidly into great trees, in whose branches they shelter their families, and roost themselves. He grew gracious at times in the contemplation of brilliant possibilities, and one day, to her amazement and consternation, opened the matter briefly to Miss Sheckleton, who fancied that she was discovered, and he on the point of exploding, and felt as if she were going to faint.

Happily for her, he fancied that Cleve must have seen Margaret accidentally during some of his political knight-errantries in the county which he had contested with Sir Booth. We know, as well as Miss Sheckleton, how this really was.

Sir Booth’s dreams, however, were broken with a crash. To Miss Anne Sheckleton came a letter from Sir Booth’s attorneys, informing the Baronet that Mr. Kiffyn Fulke Verney had just served them with a notice which seemed to threaten a wantonly vexatious and expensive proceeding, and then desired to know what course, having detailed the respective consequences of each, he would wish them to take.

Now Sir Booth broke into one of his frenzies, called up Miss Sheckleton, damned and cursed the whole Verney family, excommunicated them, and made the walls of Malory ring with the storm and thunder he launched at the heads of the ancient race who had built them.

Scared and pale Miss Anne Sheckleton withdrew.

“My dear, something has happened: he has had a letter from his law people, and Mr. Kiffyn Verney has directed, I think, some unexpected proceedings. How I wish they would stop these miserable lawsuits, and leave your papa at peace. Your papa’s attorneys think they can gain nothing by worrying him, and it is so unfortunate just now.”

So spoke Miss Sheckleton, who had found Margaret, with her bullfinch and her squirrels, in that pretty but melancholy room which is darkened by the old forest, through whose shafted stems shadowy perspectives open, and there, as in the dimness of a monastic library, she was busy over the illumination of her vellum Psalter, with gold and ultramarine, and all other vivid pigments.

Margaret stood up, and looked in her face rather pale, and with her small hand pressed to her heart.

“He’s very angry,” added Miss Sheckleton, with a dark look, and a nod.

“Are we going to leave this?” inquired the girl in almost a whisper.

“He did not say; I fancy not. No, he’d have said so the first thing,” answered the old lady.

“Well, we can do nothing; it can’t be helped, I suppose?” said Miss Margaret, looking down very sadly on her mediæval blazonry.

“Nothing, my dear! nothing on earth. No one can be more anxious that all this kind of thing should cease, than Cleve Verney, as you know; but what can even he do?” said Miss Sheckleton.

Margaret looked through the window, down the sylvan glade, and sighed.

“His uncle, Kiffyn Verney,” resumed Anne Sheckleton, “is such a disagreeable, spiteful man, and such a feud has been between them, I really don’t see how it is to end; but Cleve, you know, is so clever, and so devoted, I’m sure he’ll find some way.”

Margaret sighed again, and said —

“Papa, I suppose, is very angry.”

I think Sir Booth Fanshawe was the only person on earth whom that spirited girl really feared. I’m afraid there was not much good in that old man, and that most of the things I have heard of him were true. Unlike other violent men, he was not easily placable; and generally, when it was not very troublesome, remembered and executed his threats. She remembered dimly scenes between him and her dead mother. She remembered well her childish dread of his severity, and her fear of his eye and his voice had never left her.

Miss Sheckleton just lifted her fingers in the air, and raised her eyes to the ceiling, with a little shake of her head.

Margaret sighed again. I suppose she was thinking of that course of true love that never yet ran smooth, upon which the freightage of her life was ventured.

Her spinster friend looked on her sad, pale face, gazing dreamily into the forest. The solemn shadow of the inevitable, the sorrows of human life, had now for the first time begun to touch her young face. The old story was already telling itself to her, in those ominous musical tones that swell to solemn anthem soon; and sometimes, crash and howl at last over such wreck, and in such darkness as we shut our eyes and ears upon, and try to forget.

Old Anne Sheckleton’s face saddened at the sight with a beautiful softness. She laid her thin hand on the girl’s shoulder, and then put her arms about her neck, and kissed her, and said — “All will come right, darling, you’ll see;” and the girl made answer by another kiss; and they stood for a minute, hand locked in hand, and the old maid smiled tenderly, a cheerful smile but pale, and patted her cheek and nodded, and with another kiss, left the room, with a mournful presage heavy at her heart.

As she passed, the stern voice of Sir Booth called to her.

“Yes,” she answered.

“A word or two,” he said, and she went to his room.

“I’ve been thinking,” said he, looking at her steadily and fiercely — had some suspicion lighted up his mind since he had spoken to her? —“that young man, Cleve Verney; I believe he’s still at Ware. Do you know him?”

“I should know his appearance. I saw him two or three times during that contest for the county, two years since; but he did not see me, I’m sure.”

This was an evasion, but the vices of slavery always grow up under a tyranny.

“Well, Margaret— does she correspond with any one?” demanded he.

“I can answer for it, positively. Margaret has no correspondence. She writes to no one,” she answered.

“That fellow is still at Ware. So, Christmass Owen told me last night — a place of the Verneys, at the other side — and he has got a boat. I should not wonder if he were to come here, trying to see her.”

So Sir Booth followed out his hypothesis, and waxed wroth, and more wroth as he proceeded, and so chafed himself into one of his paroxysms of temper. I know not what he said; but when she left him, poor Miss Sheckleton was in tears, and, trembling, told Margaret, that if it were not for her, she would not remain another day in his house. She related to Margaret what had passed, and said —

“I almost hope Cleve Verney may not come again while we remain here. I really don’t know what might be the consequence of your papa’s meeting him here, in his present state of exasperation! Of course to Cleve it would be very little; but your existence, my poor child, would be made so miserable! And as for me, I tell you frankly, I should be compelled to leave you. Every one knows what Booth Fanshawe is when he is angry — how cruel he can be. I know he’s your father, my dear, but we can’t be blind to facts, and we both know that his misfortunes have not improved his temper.”

Cleve nevertheless saw the ladies that day, talked with them earnestly and hurriedly, for Miss Anne Sheckleton was nervous, and miserable till the interview ended, and submitted to the condition imposed by that kindly and panic-stricken lady, which was on no account to visit Malory as heretofore for two or three days, by the end of which time she hoped Sir Booth’s anger and suspicions might have somewhat subsided.

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