The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 13.

The Rev. Isaac Dixie Sets Forth on a Mission.

THERE was, as Cleve knew, a basis of truth in all that Mr. Dingwell had said, which made his voice more grating, his eye more alarming, and his language more disgusting.

Would that Fortune had sent them, Cleve thought, some enchanted horse, other than that beast, to fly them into the fairy-land of their long-deferred ambition! Would that she had sent them a Rarey, to lead him by a metaphoric halter, and quell, by his art, the devil within him — the evil spirit before which something in Cleve’s nature quailed, because it seemed to know nothing but appetite, and was destitute of sympathy and foresight.

Dingwell was beset with dangers and devils of his own; but he stood in his magic circle, making mouths and shaking his fist, and cursing at them. He seemed to have no imagination to awe, or prudence to restrain him. He was aware, and so was Cleve, that Larkin knew all about his old bankruptcy, the judgments against him, the impounded forgeries on which he had been on the brink of indictment, and his escape from prison; and yet he railed at Larkin, and defied the powerful Verneys, as if he had been an angel sent to illuminate, to lecture, and to rule them.

Mr. Larkin was usually an adroit and effectual tamer of evil beasts, in such case as this Mr. Dingwell. He waved his thin wand of red-hot iron with a light and firm hand, and made every raw smoke in turn, till the lion was fit to lie down with the lamb. But this Dingwell was an eccentric brute; he had no awe for the superior nature, no respect for the imposing airs of the tamer — not the slightest appreciation even of his cautery. On the contrary, he seemed to like the sensation, and amuse himself with the exposure of his sores to the inspection of Mr. Larkin, who began to feel himself drawn into an embarrassing and highly disreputable confidence.

Mr. Larkin had latterly quite given up the idea of frightening Mr. Dingwell, for when he tried that method, Mr. Dingwell had grown uncomfortably lively and skittish, and, in fact, frightened the exemplary Mr. Larkin confoundedly. He had recapitulated his own enormities with an elation and frightful merriment worthy of a scandalous corner at a Walpurges ball; had demonstrated that he perfectly understood the game of the serious attorney, and showed himself so curiously thick of skin, and withal so sportive and formidable a rhinoceros, that Mr. Larkin then and there learned a lesson, and vowed no more to try the mesmerism that succeeded with others, or the hot rod of iron under which they winced and gasped and succumbed.

Such a systematic, and even dangerous defiance of everything good, he had never encountered before. Such a person exactly as this Mr. Dingwell he could not have imagined. There was, he feared, a vein of insanity in that unfortunate man.

He had seen quite enough of the horrid adroitness of Mr. Dingwell’s horse-play, and felt such qualms whenever that animal capered and snorted, that he contented himself with musing and wondering over his idiosyncrasies, and adopted a soothing treatment with him — talked to him in a friendly, and even tender way — and had some vague plans of getting him ultimately into a mad-house.

But Mr. Dingwell was by this time getting into his cab, with a drapery of mufflers round him, and telling the man through the front window to drive to Rosemary Court; he threw himself back into a corner, and chuckled and snorted in a conceited ecstasy over his victory, and the money which was coming to minister to no good in this evil world.

Cleve Verney leaned back in his chair, and there rose before him a view of a moonlighted wood, an old château, with its many peaked turrets, and steep roofs, showing silvery against the deep, liquid sky of night, and with a sigh, he saw on the white worn steps, that beautiful, wonderful shape that was his hope and his fate; and as he leaned on his hand, the Reverend Isaac Dixie, whose name had strangely summoned this picture from the deep sea of his fancy, entered the room, smiling rosily, after his wont, and extending his broad hand, as he marched with deliberate strides across the floor, as much as to say —“Here I am, your old tutor and admirer, who always predicted great things for you; I know you are charmed, as I am; I know how you will greet me.”

“Ha! old Dixie,” and Cleve got up, with a kind of effort, and not advancing very far, shook hands.

“So you have got your leave — a week — or how long?”

“I’ve arranged for next Sunday, that’s all, my dear Mr. Verney; some little inconvenience, but very happy — always happy.”

“Come, I want to have a talk with you,” said Cleve, drawing the clergyman to a chair. “Don’t you remember — you ought, you know — what Lord Sparkish (isn’t it?) says in Swift’s Polite Conversations —”Tis as cheap sitting as standing.’”

The clergyman took the chair, simpering bashfully, for the allusion was cruel, and referred to a time when the Reverend Isaac Dixie, being as yet young in the ways of the world, and somewhat slow in apprehending literary ironies, had actually put his pupil through a grave course of “Polite Conversation,” which he picked up among some odd volumes of the works of the great Dean of St. Patrick’s, on the school-room shelf at Malory.

“And for my accomplishment of saying smart things in a polite way, I am entirely obliged to you and Dean Swift,” said Cleve, mischievously.

“Ah! ah! you were always fond of a jest, my dear Mr. Verney; you liked poking fun, you did, at your old tutor; but you know how that really was — I have explained it so often; still, I do allow, the jest is not a bad one.”

But Cleve’s mind was already on quite another subject.

“And now, Dixie,” said he, with a sharp glance into the clergyman’s eyes, “you know, or at least you guess, what it is I want you to do for me?”

The clergyman looked down by his gaiter, with his head a little a-one-side, and his mouth a little pursed; and said he, after a momentary silence —

“I really, I may say, unaffectedly, assure you that I do not.”

“You’re a queer fellow, old Dixie,” said Cleve; “you won’t be vexed, but you are always a little bit too clever. I did not tell you exactly, but I told you enough to enable you to guess it. Don’t you remember our last talk? Come now, Dixie, you’re no muff.”

“I hope not, my dear Cleve; I may be, but I don’t pretend to that character, though I have still, I apprehend, much to learn in the world’s ways.”

“Yes, of course,” said the young man; and tapped his small teeth that glittered under his moustache, with the end of his pencil-case, while he lazily watched the face of the clergyman from under his long lashes.

“And I assure you,” continued the clergyman, “if I were to pretend that I did apprehend your intentions, I should be guilty of an inaccuracy amounting, in fact, to an untruth.”

He thought he detected something a little mocking in the handsome face of the young gentleman, and could not tell, in the shadow of the window-curtain, whether those even white teeth were not smiling at him outright; and a little nettled, but not forgetting himself, he went on —

“You know, my dear Cleve, it is nothing on earth to me— absolutely; I act merely to oblige — merely, I mean, to be useful — if in my power, consistently with all other considerations, and I speak, I humbly, but confidently hope, habitually the truth”——

“Of course you do,” said the young gentleman, with emphasis, and growing quite serious again. “It is very kind, I know, your coming all this way, and managing your week’s absence; and you may for the present know just as little or as much of the matter as you please; only mind, this is — not of course in any wrong sense — a dark business — awfully quiet. They say that, in England, a talent for speaking may raise a man to anything, but I think a talent for holding one’s tongue is sometimes a better one. And — I’m quite serious, old Dixie — I’ll not forget your fidelity to me, upon my honour — really, never; and as you know, I may yet have the power of proving it.”

The Rev. Isaac Dixie folded his hands, and hung his head sideways in a meek modesty, and withal smiled so rosily and gloriously, as he sate in front of the window, that had it happened an hour before sunrise, the sparrows in the ivy all along the stable walls, would undoubtedly have mistaken it for the glow of Aurora, and commenced their chirping and twittering salutations to the dawn an hour too soon.

“It is very gratifying, very, you cannot readily estimate, my dear, and — may I not say? — my illustrious pupil, how gratifying to me, quite irrespective of all those substantially kind intentions which you are pleased to avow in my behalf, to hear from your lips so frank and — may I say — almost affectionate a declaration; so just an estimate of my devotion to your interests, and I may say, I hope, of my character generally?”

The Rector of Clay was smiling with a huge bashfulness, and slowly folding and rubbing one hand over the other, with his head gently inclined, and his great blue chin upon his guileless, single-breasted, black silk bosom, as he spoke all this in mellow effusion.

“Now, Dixie,” said the young man, while a very anxious expression for the first time showed itself in his face, “I want you to do me a kindness — a kindness that will tie me to you all the days of my life. It is something, but not much; chiefly that you will have to keep a secret, and take some little trouble, which I know you don’t mind; but nothing serious, not the slightest irregularity, a trifle, I assure you, and chiefly, as I said, that you will have to keep a secret for me.”

Dixie also looked a good deal graver as he bowed his acquiescence, trying to smile on, and still sliding his hands softly, one over the other.

“I know you guess what it is — no matter — we’ll not discuss it, dear Dixie; it’s quite past that now. You’ll have to make a little trip for me — you’ll not mind it; only across what you used to call the herring-pond; and you must wait at the Silver Lion at Caen; it is the best place there — I wish it was better — not a soul will you see — I mean English, no one but quite French people; and there is quite amusement, for a day or so, in looking over the old town. Just wait there, and I’ll let you know everything before you have been two days there. I’ve got your passport; you shall have no trouble. And you need not go to a bank; there’s gold here; and you’ll keep it, and spend it for me till I see you; and you must go today.”

“And, of course, I know it is nothing wrong, my dear Cleve; but we are told to avoid even the appearance of evil. And in any case, I should not, of course, for the world offend your uncle — Lord Verney, I may call him now — the head of the family, and my very kind patron; for I trust I never forget a kindness; and if it should turn out to be anything which by any chance he might misinterpret, I may reckon upon your religious silence, my dear Cleve, as respects my name?”

“Silence! of course — I’d die before I should tell, under any pressure. I think you know I can keep a secret, and my own especially. And never trust my honour more if your name is ever breathed in connexion with any little service you may render me.”

He pressed the Rev. Isaac Dixie’s hand very earnestly as he spoke.

“And now, will you kindly take charge of this for me, and do as I said?” continued Cleve, placing the gold in Dixie’s not unwilling hand. “And on this paper I have made a note of the best way — all about the boat and the rest; and God bless you, my dear Dixie, good-bye.”

“And God bless you, my dear Cleve,” reciprocated the clergyman, and they shook hands again, and the clergyman smiled blandly and tenderly; and as he closed the door, and crossed the hall, grew very thoughtful, and looked as if he were getting into a possible mess.

Cleve, too, was very pale as he stood by the window, looking into the sooty garden at the back of Verney House.

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