The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 14.

Over the Herring-Pond.

LIKE the vision that had visited Cleve as he sate in the breakfast-room of Verney House, awaiting the Rev. Isaac Dixie, the old Château de Cresseron shared that night in the soft yet brilliant moonlight. That clergyman — vulgar I am afraid; worldly, perhaps; certainly not beautiful — had undertaken this foreign mission into the land of romance; and among its shadows and enchanted lights, and heroic phantoms, looked, I am afraid, incongruous, as the long-eared, shaggy head of Bottom in the fairy-haunted wood near Athens.

In the ancient town of Caen, in the Silver Lion, the Rev. Isaac Dixie that evening made himself partially understood, and altogether comfortable. He had an excellent dinner, and partook, moderately of course, of the very best vintage in the crypt of that venerable inn. Why should he not? Was he not making harmless holiday, and guilty of no extravagance; for had not Mr. Cleve Verney buckled a long purse to his girdle, and told him to dip his fingers in it as often and as deep as he pleased? And if he undertook the task — trod out Cleve Verney’s corn, surely it was no business of his to call for a muzzle, and deny himself his heart’s content.

In that exquisite moonlight, having had his cup of coffee, the Rev. Isaac Dixie made a loitering promenade: everything was bewitching — a little wonderful, he fancied — a little strange — from his shadow, that looked so sharp on the white road, to the gothic fronts and gables of old carved houses, emitting ruddy glimmerings from diamond casemates high in air, and half-melting in the deep liquid sky, gleaming with stars over his head.

All was perfectly French in language and costume: not a note of the familiar English accent mingled in the foreign hum of life. He was quite at his ease. To all censorious eyes he walked invisible; and, shall I tell it? Why not? For in truth, if his bishop, who abhors that narcotic, and who, I am sure, never reads novels, and therefore cannot read it here, learns nothing of it, the telling can hurt nobody. He smoked three great cheroots, mild and fragrant, that evening, in the ancient streets of Caen, and returned to his inn, odorous of that perfume.

It would have been altogether a delicious excursion, had there not been a suspense and an anxiety to trouble the divine. The Rev. Isaac Dixie regretted now that he had not asked Cleve to define his object. He suspected, but did not know its nature. He had no idea how obstinately and amazingly the problem would recur to his mind, and how serious would grow his qualms as the hour of revelation drew near.

The same moon is shining over the ancient streets of Caen, and over smoke-canopied Verney House, and over the quaint and lonely Château de Cresseron. In a tapestried room in this old French house candles were burning, the window open, and Margaret Fanshawe sitting at it, and looking out on the moonlit woods and waters, and breathing the still air, that was this night soft as summer, in the raptures of a strange dream: a dream no more; the uncertainty is over, and all her griefs. No longer is she one of that forlorn race that hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. She is not born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward, but translated. Is it so? Alas! alas! the angelic voice has not yet proclaimed “that God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away.” These words are for the glorified, who have passed the gates of death.

In this bliss, as in all that pertains to love, reason has small share. The heart rejoices as the birds sing. A great suspense — the greatest care that visits the young heart — has ended in a blessed certainty, and in so far the state resembles heaven; but, as in all mortal happiness, there mingles in this also a sadness like distant music.

Old Sir Booth Fanshawe is away on one of his mysterious journeys, and cannot return for three or four days, at soonest. I do not know whether things are beginning to look brighter with Sir Booth, or whether his affairs are being “managed” into utter ruin. Meanwhile, the evil spirit has departed from the house, and the spirit of music has come, music with yet a cadence of sadness in it.

This fair, quaint landscape, and beautiful moonlight! Who ever looks on such a scene that does not feel a melancholy mingling in his delight?

“The moon shines bright:— in such a night as this,

When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees,

And they did make no noise; in such a night,

Troilus, methinks, mounted the Trojan walls,

And sighed his soul toward the Grecian tents,

Where Cresid lay that night. In such a night

Stood Dido, with a willow in her hand,

Upon the wild sea-banks, and waved her love

To come again to Carthage.”

Thus, in the visions of the Seer who lies in Stratford-on-Avon, moonlight and love and melancholy are related; and so it is, and will be, to the end of time, till mortal love is no more, and sadness ends, and the moon is changed to blood, and all things are made new.

And now over the moonlit water, through the boughs of the old trees, the still night air is thrilled with a sweet contralto — a homely song — the echo of childish days and the nursery. Poor Milly! her maid who died so early, whose lover was a young sailor, far away, used to sing it for her in the summer evenings, when they sat down under the hawthorns, on Winnockhough, looking toward the sea, though the sea was many a mile away:—

“As Eve went forth from Paradise,

She, weeping, bore away

One flower that, reared, in tears and sighs,

Is growing to this day.

“Where’er the children of the fall

Are toiling to this hour,

It blooms for each, it blooms for all,

And Love we call this flower.

“Red roses of the bygone year

Are mingled with the mould,

And other roses will appear

Where they grew pale and old.

“But where it grew, no other grows,

No bloom restores the sere;

So this resembles not the rose,

And knows no other year.

“So, welcome, when thy bloom is red,

The glory of thy light;

And welcome when thy bloom is shed,

The long sleep of my night.”

And now the song is ended, and, listening, nature seems to sigh; and looking toward the old château, the front next you is in shadow, the window is open, and within you see two ladies. The elder is standing by the girl, who sits still at the open window, looking up into the face of her old friend — the old friend who has known, in the early days of romance, what love is, for whom now “the bloom is shed, and mingling with the mould,” but who remembers sadly the blush and glory of its light that died five-and-thirty years ago upon Canadian snows.

Gently the old lady takes her hand, and sits beside her girlish kinswoman, and lays her other hand over that, and smiles with a strange look of affection, and admiration, and immeasurable compassion, that somehow seems to translate her, it is so sad and angelic. I cannot hear what she is saying, but the young lady looks up, and kisses her thin cheek, and lays her head upon her old shoulder.

Behind, high over the steep roofs and pinnacles, and those glimmering weather-vanes, that seem sometimes to melt quite away, hangs the moon, unclouded — meet emblem of a pure love — no longer crossed by the sorrows of true love’s course — Dian the Chaste, with her sad, pure, and beautifully misleading light — alas! the emblem, also, of mutation.

In a few concise and somewhat dry sentences, as old prison stones bear the records which thin hands, long since turned to dust, have carved, the world’s corridors and corners bear the tracings of others that were busy two thousand years ago; and the inscriptions that tell the trite story of human fears and sadness, cut sharp and deep in the rock, tell simply and briefly how Death was the King of Terrors, and the shortness of Life the bitter wonder, and black Care the companion of the wayfarers who marched by the same route to the same goal, so long ago. These gigantic griefs and horrors are all in a nutshell. A few words tell them. Their terror is in their truth. There is no use in expanding them: they are sublimely simple. Among the shadowy men and women that people these pages, I see them everywhere — plots too big and complicated to be got, by any compression, within the few pages and narrow covers of the book of their lives: Care, in her old black weeds, and Death, with stealthy foot and blow like thunder.

Twelve months had come and gone for ever since the Reverend Isaac Dixie made that little trip to Caen, every month bringing his portion of blossom, fruit, or blight to every mortal. All had gone well and gloriously in this Verney Peerage matter.

The death of the late Honourable Arthur Verney was proved; and the Honourable Kiffyn Fulke Verney, as next heir, having complied with the proper forms, duly succeeded to the ancient peerage of the Verneys. So the dream was accomplished more splendidly, perhaps, than if the prize had come earlier, for the estates were in such condition as they had never attained to since the great rebellion; and if Viscount Verney was not among the more potent of his peers, the fault was not in the peerage and its belongings.

I don’t know that Lord Verney was on the whole a happier man than the Honourable Kiffyn had been. He had become somewhat more exacting; his pride pronounced itself more implacably; men felt it more, because he was really formidable. Whatever the Viscount in the box might be, the drag he drove was heavy, and men more alert in getting out of his way than they would, perhaps, had he been a better whip.

He had at length his heart’s desire; but still there was something wanting. He was not quite where he ought to be. With his boroughs, and his command of one county, and potent influence in another, he ought to have been decidedly a greater man. He could not complain of being slighted. The minister saw him when he chose; he was listened to, and in all respects courteously endured. But there was something unsatisfactory. He was not telling, as he had expected. Perhaps he had no very clear conceptions to impress. He had misgivings, too, that secretly depressed and irritated him. He saw Twyndle’s eye wander wildly, and caught him yawning stealthily into his hand, while he was giving him his view of the affair of the “the Matilda Briggs,” and the right of search. He had seen Foljambe, of the Treasury, suddenly laugh at something he thought was particularly wise, while unfolding to that gentleman, in the drawing-room, after dinner, his ideas about local loans, in aid of agriculture. Foljambe did not laugh outright. It was only a tremulous qualm of a second, and he was solemn again, and rather abashed. Lord Verney paused, and looked for a second, with stern inquiry in his face, and then proceeded politely. But Lord Verney never thought or spoke well of Foljambe again; and often reviewed what he had said, in secret, to try and make out where the absurdity lay, and was shy of ventilating that particular plan again, and sometimes suspected that it was the boroughs and the county, and not Kiffyn Lord Verney, that were listened to.

As the organ of self-esteem is the region of our chief consolations and irritations (and its condition regulates temper), this undivulged mortification, you may be sure, did not make Lord Verney, into whose ruminations was ever trickling, through a secret duct, this fine stream of distilled gall, brighter in spirits, or happier in temper.

Oh! vanity of human wishes! Not that the things we wish for are not in themselves pleasant, but that we forget that, as in nature every substance has its peculiar animalcule and infestings, so every blessing has, too minute to be seen at a distance, but quite inseparable, its parasite troubles.

Cleve Verney, too, who stood so near the throne, was he happy? The shadow of care was cast upon him. He had grown an anxious man. “Verney’s looking awfully thin, don’t you think, and seedy? and he’s always writing long letters, and rather cross,” was the criticism of one of his club friends. “Been going a little too fast, I dare say.”

Honest Tom Sedley thought it was this pending peerage business, and the suspense; and reported to his friend the confident talk of the town on the subject. But when the question was settled, with a brilliant facility, his good humour did not recover. There was still the same cloud over his friend, and Tom began to fear that Cleve had got into some very bad scrape, probably with the Hebrew community.

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