The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 18.

Old Friends on the Green.

TOM SEDLEY saw the Etherage girls on the green, and instead of assisting as he had intended, at the great doings in the town, he walked over to have a talk with them.

People who know Cardyllian remember the two seats, partly stone, partly wood, which are placed on the green, near the margin of the sea — seats without backs — on which you can sit with equal comfort, facing the water and the distant mountains, or the white-fronted town and old Castle of Cardyllian. Looking toward this latter prospect, the ladies sat, interested, no doubt, though they preferred a distant view, in the unusual bustle of the quiet old place.

On one of these seats sat Charity and Agnes, and as he approached, smiling, up got Charity and walked some steps towards him! looking kindly, but not smiling, for that was not her wont, and with her thin hand, in doe-skin glove, extended to greet him.

“How are you, Thomas Sedley? when did you come?” asked Miss Charity, much gladder to see him than she appeared.

“I arrived this morning; you’re all well, I hope;” he was looking at Agnes, and would have got away from Miss Charity, but that she held him still by the hand.

“All very well, thank you, except Agnes. I don’t think she’s very well. I have ever so much to tell you when you and I have a quiet opportunity, but not now,”— she was speaking in a low tone; —“and now go and ask Agnes how she is.”

So he did. She smiled a little languidly, he thought, and was not looking very strong, but prettier than ever — so very pretty! She blushed too, very brilliantly, as he approached; it would have been flattering had he not seen Cleve Verney walking quickly over the green toward the Etherage group. For whom was the blush? Two gentlemen had fired simultaneously.

“Your bird? I rather think my bird? — isn’t it?”

Now Tom Sedley did not think the bird his, and he felt, somehow, strangely vexed. And he got through his greeting uncomfortably; his mind was away with Cleve Verney, who was drawing quickly near.

“Oh! Mr. Verney, what a time it is since we saw you last!” exclaimed emphatic Miss Charity; “I really began to think you’d never come.”

“Very good of you, Miss Etherage, to think about me.”

“And you never gave me your subscription for our poor old women, last winter!”

“Oh! my subscription? I’ll give it now — what was it to be-a pound?”

“No, you promised only ten shillings, but it ought to be a pound. I think less would be shameful.”

“Then, Miss Agnes, shall it be a pound?” he said, turning to her with a laugh — with his fingers in his purse, “whatever you say I’ll do.”

Agnes— of course, a pound,” said Charity, in her nursery style of admonition.

“Charity says it must be a pound,” answered Agnes.

“And you say so?”

“Of course, I must.”

“Then a pound it is— and mind,” he added, laughing, and turning to Miss Charity with the coin in his fingers, “I’m to figure in your book of benefactors — your golden book of saints, or martyrs, rather; but you need not put down my name, only ‘The old woman’s friend,’ or ‘A lover of flannel’ or ‘A promoter of petticoats,’ or any other benevolent alias you think becoming.”

“‘The old woman’s friend,’ will do very nicely,” said Charity, gravely. “Thank you, Mr. Verney, and we were so glad to hear that your uncle has succeeded at last to the peerage. He can be of such use— you really would be-he and you both, Mr. Verney — quite amazed and shocked, if you knew how much poverty there is in this town.”

“It’s well he does not know just now, for he wants all his wits about him. This is a critical occasion, you know, and the town expects great things from a practised orator. I’ve stolen away, just for five minutes, to ask you the news. We are at Ware, for a few days; only two or three friends with us. They came across in my boat today. We are going to set all the tradespeople on earth loose upon the house in a few days. It is to be done in an incredibly short time; and my uncle is talking of getting down some of his old lady relations to act chaperon, and we hope to have you all over there. You know it’s all made up, that little coldness between my uncle and your father. I’m so glad. Your father wrote him such a nice note today explaining his absence — he never goes into a crowd, he says — and Lord Verney wrote him a line to say, if he would allow him, he would go up to Hazelden to pay his respects this afternoon.”

This move was a suggestion of Mr. Larkin’s, who was pretty well up in election strategy.

“I’ve ascertained, my lord, he’s good for a hundred and thirty-seven votes in the county, and your lordship has managed him with such consummate tact that a very little more will, with the Divine blessing, induce the happiest, and I may say, considering the disparity of your lordship’s relations and his, the most dutiful feelings on his part — resulting, in fact, in your lordship’s obtaining the absolute command of the constituency. You were defeated, my lord, last time, by only forty-three votes, with his influence against you. If your lordship were to start your nephew, Mr. Cleve Verney, for it next time, having made your ground good with him, he would be returned, humanly speaking, by a sweeping majority.”

“So, Lord Verney’s going up to see papa! Agnes, we ought to be at home. He must have luncheon.”

“No — a thousand thanks — but all that’s explained. There’s luncheon to be in the town-hall — it’s part of the programme — and speeches — and all that kind of rubbish; so he can only run up for a few minutes, just to say, ‘How do ye do?’ and away again. So, pray, don’t think of going all that way, and he’ll come here to be introduced, and make your acquaintance. And now tell me all your news.”

“Well, those odd people went away from Malory”— began Charity.

“Oh, yes, I heard, I think, something of that,” said Cleve, intending to change the subject, perhaps; but Miss Charity went on, for in that eventless scene an occurrence of any kind is too precious to be struck out of the record on any ground.

“They went away as mysteriously as they came — almost — and so suddenly”——

“You forgot, Charity, dear, Mr. Verney was at Ware when they went, and here two or three times after they left Malory.”

“So I was,” said Cleve, with an uneasy glance at Tom Sedley; “I knew I had heard something of it.”

“Oh, yes; and they say that the old man was both mad and in debt.”

“What a combination!” said Cleve.

“Yes, I assure you, and a Jew came down with twenty or thirty bailiffs — I’m only telling you what Mr. Apjohn heard, and the people here tell us — and a mad doctor, and people with strait waistcoats, and they surrounded Malory; but he was gone! — not a human being knew where — and that handsome girl, wasn’t she quite bee-au-tiful?”

“Oh, what everyone says, you know, must be true,” said Cleve.

“What do you say?” she urged upon Tom Sedley.

“Oh, I say ditto to everyone, of course.”

“Well, I should think so, for you know you are quite desperately in love with her,” said Miss Charity.

I? Why, I really never spoke to her in all my life. Now, if you had said Cleve Verney.”

“Oh, yes! If you had named me. But, by Jove! there they go. Do you see? My uncle and the mayor, and all the lesser people, trooping away to the town-hall. Good-bye! I haven’t another moment. You’ll be here, I hope, when we get out; do, pray. I have not a moment.”

And he meant a glance for Miss Agnes, but it lost itself in air, for that young lady was looking down, in a little reverie, on the grass, at the tip of her tiny boot.

There’s old Miss Christian out, I declare!” exclaimed Charity. “Did you ever hear of such a thing? I wonder whether Doctor Lyster knows she is out today. I’ll just go and speak to her. If he doesn’t, I’ll simply tell her she is mad!”

And away marched Miss Charity, bent upon finding out, as she said, all about it.

“Agnes,” said Tom Sedley, “it seemed to me today, you were not glad to see me. Are you vexed with me?”

“Vexed? No, indeed!” she said, gently, and looking up with a smile.

“And your sister said ——” Tom paused, for he did not know whether Charity’s whisper about her not having been “very strong” might not be a confidence.

What does Charity say?” asked Agnes, almost sharply, while a little flush appeared in her cheeks.

“Well, she said she did not think you were so strong as usual. That was all.”

“That was all— no great consequence,” said she, with a little smile upon the grass and sea-pinks — a smile that was bitter.

“You can’t think I meant that, little Agnes, I of all people; but I never was good at talking. And you know I did not mean that.”

“People often say —I do, I know — what they mean without intending it,” she answered, carelessly. “I know you would not make a rude speech — I’m sure of that; and as to what we say accidentally, can it signify very much? Mr. Verney said he was coming back after the speeches, and Lord Verney, he said, didn’t he? I wonder you don’t look in at the town-hall. You could make us laugh by telling all about it, by-and-by — that is, if we happen to see you again.”

“Of course you should see me again.”

“I meant this evening; tomorrow, perhaps, we should,” said she.

“If I went there; but I’m not going. I think that old fellow, Lord Verney, Cleve’s uncle, is an impertinent old muff. Every one knows he’s a muff, though he is Cleve’s uncle; he gave me just one finger today, and looked at me as if I ought to be anywhere but where I was. I have as good a right as he to be in Cardyllian, and I venture to say the people like me a great deal better than they like him, or ever will.”

“And so you punish him by refusing your countenance to this — what shall I call it? — gala.”

“Oh! of course you take the Verneys’ part against me; they are swells, and I am a nobody.”

He thought Miss Agnes coloured a little at this remark. The blood grows sensitive and capricious when people are ailing, and a hint is enough to send it to and fro; but she said only —

“I never heard of the feud before. I thought that you and Mr. Verney were very good friends.”

“So we were; so we are— Cleve and I. Of course, I was speaking of the old lord. Cleve, of course, no one ever hears anything but praises of Cleve. I suppose I ought to beg your pardon for having talked as I did of old Lord Verney; it’s petty treason, isn’t it, to talk lightly of a Verney, in Cardyllian or its neighbourhood?” said Sedley, a little sourly.

“I don’t know that; but I dare say, if you mean to ask leave to fish or shoot, it might be as well not to attack them.”

“Well, I shan’t in your hearing.”

And with this speech came a silence.

“I don’t think, somehow, that Cleve is as frank with me as he used to be. Can you imagine any reason?” said Tom, after an interval.

I? No, upon my word — unless you are as frank to him about his uncle, as you have been with me.”

“Well, I’m not. I never spoke to him about his uncle. But Shrapnell, who tells me all the news of Cardyllian while I’m away”— this was pointedly spoken —“said, I thought, that he had not been down here ever since the Malory people left, and I find that he was here for a week — at least at Ware — last autumn, for a fortnight; and he never told me, though he knew, for I said so to him, that I thought that he had stayed away; and I think that was very odd.”

“He may have thought that he was not bound to account to you for his time and movements,” said Miss Agnes.

“Well, he was here; Mrs. Jones was good enough to tell me so, though other people make a secret of it. You saw him here, I dare say.”

“Yes, he was here, for a few days. I think in October, or the end of September.”

“Oh! thank you. But, as I said, I had heard that already from Mrs. Jones, who is a most inconvenient gossip upon nearly all subjects.”

“I rather like Mrs. Jones; you mean the ‘draper,’ as we call her? and if Mr. Verney is not as communicative as you would have him, I really can’t help it. I can only assure you, for your comfort, that the mysterious tenants of Malory had disappeared long before that visit.”

“I know perfectly well when they went away,” said Sedley, drily.

Miss Agnes nodded with a scarcely perceptible smile.

“And I know — that is, I found out afterwards — that he admired her, I mean the young lady — Margaret, they called her — awfully. He never let me know it himself, though. I hate fellows being so close and dark about everything, and I’ve found out other things; and, in short, if people don’t like to tell me their —secrets I won’t call them, for everyone in Cardyllian knows all about them — I’m hanged if I ask them. All I know is, that Cleve is going to live a good deal at Ware, which means at Cardyllian, which will be a charming thing, a positive blessing — won’t it? — for the inhabitants and neighbours; and that I shall trouble them very little henceforward with my presence. There’s Charity beckoning to me; would you mind my going to see what she wants?”

So, dismissed, away he ran like a “fielder” after a “by,” as he had often run over the same ground before.

“Thomas Sedley, I want you to tell Lyster, the apothecary, to send a small bottle of sal volatile to Miss Christian immediately. I’d go myself — it’s only round the corner — but I’m afraid of the crowd. If he can give it to you now, perhaps you’d bring it, and I’ll wait here.”

When he brought back the phial, and Miss Charity had given it with a message at Miss Christian’s trelliced door, she took Tom’s arm, and said —

“She has not been looking well.”

“You mean Agnes?” conjectured he.

“Yes, of course. She’s not herself. She does not tell me, but I know the cause, and, as an old friend of ours, and a friend, beside, of Mr. Cleve Verney, I must tell you that I think he is using her disgracefully.”

“Really?”

“Yes, most flagitiously.”

“How do you mean? Shrapnell wrote me word that he was very attentive, and used to join her in her walks; and afterwards he said that he had been mistaken, and discovered that he was awfully in love with the young lady at Malory.”

Don’t believe a word of it. I wonder at Captain Shrapnell circulating such insanity. He must know how it really was, and is. I look upon it as perfectly wicked, the way that Captain Shrapnell talks. You’re not to mention it, of course, to anyone. It would be scandalous of you, Thomas Sedley, to think of breathing a word to mortalmind that; but I’m certain you wouldn’t.”

“What a beast Cleve Verney has turned out!” exclaimed Tom Sedley. “Do you think she still cares for him?”

“Why, of course she does. If he had been paying his addresses to me, and that I had grown by his perseverance and devotion to like him, do you think, Thomas Sedley, that although I might give him up in consequence of his misconduct, that I could ever cease to feel the same kind of feeling about him?” And as she put this incongruous case, she held Tom Sedley’s arm firmly, showing her bony wrist above her glove; and with her gaunt brown face and saucer eyes turned full upon him, rather fiercely, Tom felt an inward convulsion at the picture of Cleve’s adorations at this shrine, and the melting of the nymph, which by a miracle he repressed.

“But you may have more constancy than Agnes,” he suggested.

“Don’t talk like a fool, Thomas Sedley. Every nice girl is the same.”

“May I talk to Cleve about it?”

“On no account. No nice girl could marry him now, and an apology would be simply ridiculous. I have not spoken to him on the subject, and though I had intended cutting him, my friend Mrs. Splayfoot was so clear that I should meet him just as usual, that I do control the expression of my feelings, and endeavour to talk to him indifferently, though I should like uncommonly to tell him how odious I shall always think him.”

“Yes, I remember,” said Tom, who had been pondering. “Cleve did tell me, that time — it’s more than a year ago now — it was a year in autumn — that he admired Agnes, and used to walk with you on the green every day; he did certainly. I must do him that justice. But suppose Agnes did not show that she liked him, he might not have seen any harm.”

“That’s the way you men always take one another’s parts. I must say, I think it is odious!” exclaimed Charity, with a flush in her thin cheeks, and a terrible emphasis.

“But, I say, did she let him see that she liked him?”

No, of course she didn’t. No nice girl would. But of course he saw it,” argued Charity.

“Oh, then she showed it?”

“No, she did not show it; there was nothing in anything she said or did, that could lead anyone, by look, or word, or act, to imagine that she liked him. How can you be so perverse and ridiculous, Thomas Sedley, to think she’d show her liking? Why, even I don’t know it. I never saw it. She’s a great deal too nice. You don’t know Agnes. I should not venture to hint at it myself. Gracious goodness! What a fool you are, Thomas Sedley! Hush.”

The concluding caution was administered in consequence of their having got very near the seat where Agnes was sitting.

“Miss Christian is only nervous, poor old thing! and Thomas Sedley has been getting sal volatile for her, and she’ll be quite well in a day or two. Hadn’t we better walk a little up and down; it’s growing too cold for you to sit any longer, Agnes, dear. Come.”

And up got obedient Agnes, and the party of three walked up and down the green, conversing upon all sorts of subjects but the one so ably handled by Charity and Tom Sedley in their two or three minutes’ private talk.

And now the noble lord and his party, and the mayor, and the corporation, and Mr. Larkin, and Captain Shrapnell, and many other celebrities, were seen slowly emerging from the lane that passes the George Inn, upon the green; and the peer having said a word or two to the mayor, and also to Lady Wimbledon, and bowed and pointed toward the jetty, the main body proceeded slowly toward that point, while Lord Verney, accompanied by Cleve, walked grandly towards the young ladies who were to be presented.

Tom Sedley, observing this movement, took his leave hastily, and, in rather a marked way, walked off at right angles with Lord Verney’s line of march, twirling his cane.

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