The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 1.

In the Oak Parlour — A Meeting and Parting.

“GOSSIPING place Cardyllian is,” said Miss Anne Sheckleton, after they had walked on a little in silence. “What nonsense the people do talk. I never heard anything like it. Did you ever hear such a galamathias?”

The young lady walking by her side answered by a cold little laugh —

“Yes, I suppose so. All small country towns are, I believe,” said she.

“And that good old soul, Mrs. Jones, she does invent the most absurd gossip about every body that imagination can conceive. Wilmot told me the other day that she had given her to understand that your father is a madman, sent down here by London doctors for change of air. I make it a point never to mind one word she says; although her news, I confess, does amuse me.”

“Yes, it is, very foolish. Who are those Etherages?” said Margaret.

“Oh! They are village people — oddities,” said Miss Sheckleton. “From all I can gather, you have no idea what absurd people they are.”

“He was walking with them. Was not he?” asked the young lady.

“Yes — I think so,” answered her cousin.

Then followed a long silence, and the elder lady at length said —

“How fortunate we have been in our weather; haven’t we? How beautiful the hills look this evening!” said the spinster; but her words did not sound as if she cared about the hills or the light. I believe the two ladies were each acting a part.

“Yes,” said Margaret; “so they do.”

The girl felt as if she had walked fifty miles instead of two — quite worn out — her limbs aching with a sense of fatigue; it was a trouble to hold her head up. She would have liked to sit down on the old stone bench they were passing now, and to die there like a worn-out prisoner on a march.

Two or three times that evening as they sat unusually silent and listless, Miss Anne Sheckleton peeped over her spectacles, lowering her work for a moment, with a sad inquiry, into her face, and seemed on the point of speaking. But there was nothing inviting to talk, in Margaret’s face, and when she spoke there was no reference to the subject on which Miss Sheckleton would have liked to speak.

So, at last, tired, with a pale, wandering smile, she kissed the kind old spinster, and bid her good night. When she reached her room, however, she did not undress, but having secured her door, she sat down to her little desk, and wrote a letter; swiftly and resolutely the pen glided over the page. Nothing added — nothing erased; each line remained as she penned it first.

Having placed this letter in its envelope, and addressed it to “Cleve Verney, Esq., Ware,” she opened her window. The air was mild; none of the sharpness in it that usually gives to nights at that time of year, a frosty foretaste of winter. So sitting by the window, which, placed in one of the gables of the old house, commands a view of the uplands of Cardyllian, and to the left, of the sea, and the misty mountains — she sat there, leaning upon her hand.

Here, with the letter on her lap, she sat, pale as a meditating suicide, and looking dreamily over the landscape. It is, at times, some little incident of by-play, or momentary hesitation of countenance, that gives its whole character and force to a situation. Before the retina of Margaret one image was always visible, that of Cleve Verney as she saw him today, looking under Agnes Etherage’s bonnet, with interest, into her eyes, as he talked and walked by her side, on the Green of Cardyllian.

Of course there are false prophecies as well as true, in love; illusions as well as inspirations, and fancied intimations may mislead. But Margaret could not doubt here. All the time she smiled and assumed her usual tone and manner, there was an agony at her heart.

Miss Fanshawe would trust no one with her secret. She was not like other girls. Something of the fiery spirit of her southern descent she had inherited. She put on the shawl and veil she had worn that day, unbarred the hall-door, and at two o’clock, when Cardyllian was locked in the deepest slumber, glided through its empty streets, to the little wooden portico, over which that day she had read “Post-office,” and placed in it the letter which next morning made quite a little sensation in the Post-office coterie.

Under the awful silence and darkness of the old avenue, she reached again the hall-door of Malory. She stood for a moment upon the steps looking seaward — I think towards Ware — pale as a ghost, with one slender hand clenched, and a wild sorrow in her face. She cared very little, I think, whether her excursion were discovered or not. The messenger had flown from her empty hand; her voice could not recall it, or delay it for an hour — quite irrevocable, and all was over.

She entered the hall, closed and barred the door again, ascended to her room, and lay awake, through the long night, with her hand under her cheek, not stunned, not dreaming, but in a frozen apathy, in which she saw all with a despairing clearness.

Next day Cleve Verney received a note, in a hand which he knew not; but having read — could not mistake — a cold, proud note, with a gentle cruelty, ending all between them, quite decisively, and not deigning a reason for it.

I dare say that Cleve could not himself describe with much precision the feelings with which he read this letter.

Cleve Verney, however, could be as impetuous and as rash too, on occasion, as other people. There was something of rage in his soul which scouted all consequences. Could temerity be imagined more audacious than his?

Right across from Ware to the jetty of Malory ran his yacht, audaciously, in open sea, in broad daylight. There is, in the Dower House, a long low room, wainscoted in black shining panels from floor to ceiling, and which in old times was called the oak parlour. It has two doors, in one of its long sides, the farther opening near the stairs, the other close to the hall door.

Up the avenue, up the steps, into the hall, and, taking chance, into this room, walked Cleve Verney, without encountering interruption or even observation. Fortuna favet fortibus, so runs the legend in faded gold letters, under the dim portrait of Sir Thomas Verney, in his armour, fixed in the panel of the hall. So it had proved with his descendant.

Favoured by fortune, without having met a human being, and directed by the same divinity it would seem, he had entered the room I have described; and at the other end, alone, awaiting Miss Sheckleton, who was to accompany her in a little ramble among the woods, stood Miss Fanshawe, dressed for her walk.

In came Cleve pale with agitation; approached her quickly, and stopped short, saying —

“I’ve come; I’m here to ask — how could you — my God! — how could you write the letter you sent this morning?”

Miss Fanshawe was leaning a little against the oak window-frame, and did not change this pose, which was haughty and almost sullen.

Why I wrote that letter, no one has a right to ask me, and I shall say no more than is contained in the letter itself.” She spoke so coldly and quietly that there seemed almost a sadness in her tones.

“I don’t think you can really mean it,” said Cleve, “I’m sure you can’t; you can’t possibly think that any one would use another so, without a reason.”

Not without a reason,” said she.

“But I say, surely I have a right to hear it,” urged Cleve. “Is it fair to condemn me, as your letter does, unheard, and to punish me, in ignorance?”

Not in ignorance; at this moment, you know the reason perfectly,” replied the girl, and he felt as if her great hazel eyes lighted up all the dark labyrinths of his brain, and disclosed every secret that lurked there.

Cleve was for a moment embarrassed, and averted his eyes. It was true. He did know; he could not fail to guess the cause. He had been cursing his ill luck all the morning, and wondering what malign caprice could have led her, of all times and places, at that moment, to the Green of Cardyllian.

In the “Arabian Nights,” that delightful volume which owes nothing to trick or book-craft, and will preserve its charm undimmed through all the mutations of style and schools, which, projecting its images from the lamp and hues of a dazzling fancy, can no more be lectured into neglect than the magic lantern, and will preserve its popularity while the faculty of imagination and the sense of colour remain, we all remember a parallel. In the “Sultan’s Purveyor’s Story,” where the beautiful favourite of Zobaïde is about to make the bridegroom of her love quite happy, and in the moment of his adoration, starts up transformed with a “lamentable cry,” and hate and fury in her aspect, all about an unfortunate “ragout made with garlic,” and thereupon, with her own hand and a terrible scourge, lashes him, held down by slaves, into a welter of blood, and then orders the executioner to strike off, at the wrist, his offending hand.

Yes! you do know, self-convicted, why I think it better for both that we should part now — better that we should thus early be undeceived; with little pain and less reluctance, forget the precipitation and folly of an hour, and go our several ways through life apart. You are fickle; you are selfish; you are reckless; you are quite unworthy of the love you ask for; if you are trifling with that young lady, Miss Etherage, how cruel and unmanly! and if not, by what right do you presume to stand here?”

Could he ever forget that beautiful girl as he saw her before him there, almost terrible — her eyes — the strange white light that seemed to flicker on her forehead — her attitude, Italian more than English, statuesque and wild?

On a sudden came another change, sad as a broken-hearted death and farewell — the low tone — the fond lingering — of an unspeakable sorrow, and eternal leave-taking.

“In either case my resolution is taken. I have said Farewell; and I will see you no more — no more — never.”

And as she spoke, she left the room by the door that was beside her.

It was a new sensation for Cleve Verney to feel as he did at that moment. A few steps he followed toward the door, and then hesitated. Then with a new impulse, he did follow and open it. But she was gone. Even the sound of her step was lost.

He turned back, and paused for a minute to collect his thoughts. Of course this must not be. The idea of giving her up so, was simple nonsense, and not to be listened to.

The door at which the young lady had left the room but two or three minutes before, now opened, and Miss Sheckleton’s natty figure and kind old face came in. Quite aghast she looked at him.

“For God’s sake, Mr. Verney, why are you here? How can you be so rash?” she almost gasped. “You must go, instantly.”

“How could you advise the cruelty and folly of that letter?” he said, impetuously.

“What letter?”

“Oh! Miss Sheckleton, do let us be frank; only say what have I done or said, or thought, that I should be condemned and discarded without a hearing?”

Hereupon Miss Sheckleton, still urging his departure in frightened whispers, protested her innocence of his meaning, and at last bethought her of persuading him, to leave the house, and meet her for the purpose of explaining all, of which he soon perceived she was honestly ignorant, in their accustomed trysting-place.

There, accordingly, among the old trees, they met, and discussed, and she blamed and pitied him; and promised, with such caution as old ladies use in speaking for the resolves of the young of their own sex, that Margaret should learn the truth from her, although she could not of course say what she might think of it, taking as she did such decided, and, sometimes, strange views of things.

So they parted kindly. But Cleve’s heart was disquieted within him, and his sky this evening was wild and stormy.

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