The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 12.

Cleve Verney has a Visitor.

SO Cleve Verney returned direct to England, and his friends thought his trip to Paris, short as it was, had done him a world of good. What an alterative and tonic a little change of air sometimes is!

The Honourable Kiffyn Fulke Verney was, in his high, thin-minded way, at last tolerably content, and more pompous and respected than ever. The proof of his succession to the peerage of Verney was in a perfectly satisfactory state. He would prove it, and take his seat next session. He would add another to the long list of Lord Viscounts Verney of Malory to be found in the gold and scarlet chronicle of such dignities. He had arranged with the trustees for a provisional possession of Verney House, the great stone mansion which glorifies one side of the small parallelogram called Verney Square. Already contractors had visited it and explored its noble chambers and long corridors, with foot-rule and note-book, getting together material for tenders, and Cleve had already a room there when he came up to town. Some furniture had been got in, and some servants were established there also, and so the stream of life had begun to transfuse itself from the old town residence of the Hon. Kiffyn Fulke Verney into these long-forsaken channels.

Here, one morning, called a gentleman named Dingwell, whom Cleve Verney, happening to be in town, desired the servant to show into the room where he sat, with his breakfast, and his newspapers about him.

The tall old man entered, with a slight stoop, leering, Cleve thought, a little sarcastically over his shoulder as he did so.

Mr. Dingwell underwent Mr. Cleve Verney’s reception, smiling oddly, under his white eyebrows, after his wont.

“I suspect some little mistake, isn’t there?” said he, in his cold, harsh, quiet tones. “You can hardly be the brother of my old friend, Arthur Verney. I had hoped to see Mr. Kiffyn Fulke Verney — I— eh?”

“I’m his nephew.”

“Oh! nephew? Yes — another generation — yes, of course. I called to see the Honourable Kiffyn Fulke Verney. I was not able to attend the consultation, or whatever you call it. You know I’m your principal witness, eh? Dingwell’s my name.”

“Oh, to be sure — I beg pardon, Mr. Dingwell,” said Cleve, who, by one of those odd slips of memory, which sometimes occur, had failed to connect the name with the case, on its turning up thus unexpectedly.

“I hope your admirable uncle, Kiffyn Verney, is, at all events, alive and approachable,” said the old man, glancing grimly about the room; “though perhaps you’re his next heir, and the hope is hardly polite.”

This impertinence of Mr. Dingwell’s, Mr. Cleve Verney, who knew his importance, and had heard something of his odd temper, resented only by asking him to be seated.

That,” said the old man, with a vicious laugh and a smirk, also angry, “is a liberty which I was about to take uninvited, by right of my years and fatigue, eh?”

And he sat down with the air of a man who is rather nettled than pleased by an attention.

“And what about Mr. Kiffyn Verney?” he asked, sharply.

“My uncle is in the country,” answered Cleve, who would have liked to answer the fool according to his folly, but he succumbed to the necessity, inculcated with much shrewdness, garnished with some references to Scripture, by Mr. Jos. Larkin, of indulging the eccentricities of Mr. Dingwell’s temper a little.

“Then he is alive? I’ve heard such an account of the Verneys, their lives are so brittle, and snap so suddenly; my poor friend Arthur told me, and that Jew fellow, Levi, here, who seems so intimate with the family — d — n him! — says the same: no London house likes to insure them. Well, I see you don’t like it: no one does; the smell of the coffin, sir; time enough when we are carrion, and fill it. Ha, ha, ha!”

“Yes, sir, quite,” said Cleve, drily.

“No young man likes the sight of that stinking old lantern-jawed fellow, who shall be nameless, looking over his spade so slily; but the best way is to do as I’ve done. Since you must meet him one day, go up to him, and make his acquaintance, and shake hands; and egad! when you’ve grown a little bit intimate, he’s not half so disgusting, and sometimes he’s even a little bit funny.”

“If I were thinking of the profession of a sexton, or an undertaker, I might,” began Cleve, who felt a profound disgust of this old Mr. Dingwell, “but as I don’t, and since by the time it comes to my turn, I shall be pretty well past seeing and smelling ——”

“Don’t be too sure of that,” said Mr. Dingwell, with one of his ugly smirks. “Some cheerful people think not, you know. But it isn’t about such matters that I want to trouble you; in fact, I came to say a word to your uncle; but as I can’t see him, you can tell him, and urge it more eloquently too, than I can. You and he are both orators by profession; and tell him he must give me five hundred pounds immediately.”

“Five hundred pounds! Why?” said Cleve, with a scornful surprise.

“Because I want it,” answered the old gentleman, squaring himself, and with the corner of his mouth drawn oddly in, his white head a little on one side, and his eyebrows raised, with altogether an air of vicious defiance.

“You have had your allowance raised very much, sir — it is an exorbitant allowance — what reason can you now urge for this request?” answered Cleve.

“The same reason, sir, precisely. If I don’t get it I shall go away, re infecta, and leave you to find out proof of the death how you may.”

Cleve was very near giving this unconscionable old extortioner a bit of his mind, and ordering him out of the house on the instant. But Mr. Larkin had been so very urgent on the point, that he commanded himself.

“I hardly think, sir, you can be serious,” said Cleve.

“Egad, sir! you’ll find it a serious matter if you don’t; for, upon my soul, unless I’m paid, and well paid for it, I’ll depose to nothing.”

“That’s plain speaking, at all events,” said Mr. Cleve Verney.

“Oh! sir, I’ll speak more plainly still,” said Mr. Dingwell, with a short sarcastic bow. “I never mince matters; life is too short for circumlocutions.”

Verney life, at all events, by your account, sir, and I don’t desire them. I shall mention the matter to my uncle today in my letter, but I really can’t undertake to do more; for I may tell you frankly, Mr. Dingwell, I can’t, for the life of me, understand what you can possibly want of such a sum.”

“I suppose, young gentleman, you have your pleasures, and I have mine, and they’re not to be had without money; and egad, sir! if you fancy it’s for love of your old uncle or of you, that I’m here, and taking all this trouble, you are very much mistaken; and if I help you to this house, and the title, and estates, I’ll take leave to help myself to some little amusement — money, I mean, also. Cool fellows, egad!”

The brown features of the old man flushed angrily as he laughed.

“Well, Mr. Dingwell, I can only repeat what I have said, and I will also speak to Mr. Larkin. I have no power in the business myself, and you had better talk to him,” said Cleve.

“I prefer the fountain-head, sir. I don’t care twopence how you arrange it among yourselves; but you must give me the money by Saturday.”

“Rather an early day, Mr. Dingwell; however, as I said, the question is for my uncle; it can’t affect me,” said Cleve.

Mr. Dingwell mused angrily for a little, and Cleve thought his face one of the wickedest he had ever seen while in this state of excited rumination.

“You all —both owe me more in that man’s death — there are very odd circumstances about it, I can tell you — than, perhaps, you at present imagine,” said Mr. Dingwell, looking up suddenly, with a dismal sneer, which subsided into an equally dismal stare.

Cleve, for a second or two, returned the stare, while the question crossed his mind: “Can the old villain mean that my miserable uncle met his death by foul means, in which he took a part, and intends to throw that consideration in with his averred services, to enhance his claim?”

“You had better tell your uncle, with my compliments,” said Mr. Dingwell, “that he’ll make a kettle of fish of the whole affair, in a way he doesn’t expect, unless he makes matters square with me. I often think I’m a d —— d fool, sir, to let you off as I do.”

“I don’t see, Mr. Dingwell, that you are letting us off, as you say, so very easily,” answered Cleve, with a cold smile.

“No, you don’t see, but I’ll make you see it,” said Mr. Dingwell, very tartly, and with an unpleasant laugh. “Arthur Verney was always changing his quarters — was never in the light. He went by different nicknames. There were in all Constantinople but two men, except myself, the Consul, and the stockbroker, who cashed the money-orders for him, who could identify him, or who knew his name. He lived in the dark, and not very cleanly — you’ll excuse the simile — like one of your sewer-rats. He died suddenly and oddly, sir, like a candle on which has fallen a drop of water, with a splutter and a flash, in a moment — one of your Verney deaths, sir. You might as well hope to prove the death of a particular town-dog there, without kennel, or master, or name, a year after his brothers had eaten him.” Cleve knew that old Dingwell in this spoke the truth and lied not. Lord Verney had written to great people there, who had set small ones in motion, with a result very like what Dingwell described. Arthur Verney was a gipsy — seldom sleeping for two weeks in the same house — with so many different names that it was vain attempting to trace him, and merely emerging when he wanted money. “So, sir,” said Mr. Dingwell, with a smirk, “I see my value.”

“I don’t recollect that my uncle ever disputed it,” replied Mr. Cleve Verney.

“I understand your difficulty perfectly. The presumption of English law, ha! ha! ha! is in favour of the duration of human life, whenever you can’t prove a death. So, English law, which we can’t dispute — for it is the perfection of human wisdom — places the putrid body of my late friend Arthur in the robes, coronet, and staff of the Verneys, and would give him the spending of the rents, too, but that you can’t make a horse drink, though you may bring him to the water. At all events, sir, my festering friend in the shroud will hold secure possession of the estates against all comers till he exhausts that patient presumption, and sees Kiffyn, and you, sir, and every Verney now alive, laid with their faces upward. So, sir, you see I know my value. I have the grand arcanum; I hold in my hand the Philosopher’s Stone that can turn your pewter and brass into gold. I hold it fast, sir, and, egad! I’ll run away with it, unless I see a reason.” And the old gentleman laughed, and shrugged and expanded his slender hands with a deprecation that was menacing.

Cleve was very angry, but he was also alarmed; for Mr. Dingwell looked quite capable of any treason against the Verney interest to which his avarice or his spites might prompt him. A wild, cold, wandering eye; a play of the nostrils, and a corrugation of the brows that gave to his smile, or his laugh, a menace that was villanous, and almost insane — warned the young man of the quality of the beast, and invited him to the exercise of all his self-control.

“I am quite certain, Mr. Dingwell, that my uncle will do whatever is reasonable and fair, and I am also sure that he feels his obligations to you. I shall take care that he hears all that you have said, and you understand that I literally have neither power nor influence in his decision.”

“Well, he feels his obligations,” said Mr. Dingwell. “That is pleasant.”

“Certainly; and, as I said, whatever is fair and reasonable I am certain he will do,” said Cleve Verney.

“Fair and reasonable — that is exactly the thing — the value; and you know —

‘The worth precise of anything

Is so much money as ’twill bring.’

And I’ll make it bring what I say; and I make it a rule to treat money matters in the grossest terms, because that is the only language which is at once intelligible and direct — and grossness I believe to be the soul of business; and so, sir, tell him with my compliments, I shall expect five hundred pounds at ten o’clock in the morning, in Bank of England notes.”

At this moment the servant announced the Rev. Isaac Dixie, and Mr. Dingwell stood up, and, looking with a kind of amusement and scorn round the room upon the dusty portraits, made a sharp bow to Cleve Verney, and saying —

“That’s all; good morning, sir”— with another nod, turned about, and walked jauntily out of the room.

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