The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 19.

Vane Etherage Greets Lord Verney.

SO the great Lord Verney, with the flush of his brilliant successes in the town-hall still upon his thin cheeks, and a countenance dry and solemn, to which smiling came not easily, made the acquaintance of the Miss Etherages, and observed that the younger was “sweetly pretty, about it, and her elder sister appeared to him a particularly sensible young woman, and was, he understood, very useful in the charities, and things.” And he repeated to them in his formal way, his hope of seeing them at Ware, and was as gracious as such a man can be, and instead of attorneys and writs sent grouse and grapes to Hazelden.

And thus this narrow man, who did not easily forgive, expanded and forgave, and the secret of the subsidence of the quarrel, and of the Christian solution of the “difficulty,” was simply Mr. Vane Etherage’s hundred and thirty votes in the county.

What a blessing to these counties is representative government, with its attendant institution of the canvass! It is the one galvanism which no material can resist. It melts every heart, and makes the coldest, hardest, and heaviest metals burst into beautiful flame. Granted that at starting, the geniality, repentance, kindness, are so many arrant hypocrisies; yet who can tell whether these repentances, in white sheets, taper in hand, these offerings of birds and fruits, these smiles and compliments, and “Christian courtesies,” may not end in improving the man who is compelled to act like a good fellow and accept his kindly canons, and improve him also with whom these better relations are established? As muscle is added to the limb, so strength is added to the particular moral quality we exercise, and kindness is elicited, and men perhaps end by having some of the attributes which they began by affecting. At all events, any recognition of the kindly and peaceable social philosophy of Christianity is, so far as it goes, good.

“What a sensible, nice, hospitable old man Lord Verney is; I think him the most sensible and the nicest man I ever met,” said Miss Charity, in an enthusiasm which was quite genuine, for she was, honestly, no respecter of persons. “And young Mr. Verney certainly looked very handsome, but I don’t like him.”

“Don’t like him! Why?” said Agnes, looking up.

“Because I think him perfectly odious,” replied Miss Charity.

Agnes was inured to Miss Charity’s adjectives, and even the fierce flush that accompanied some of them failed to alarm her.

“Well, I rather like him,” she said, quietly.

“You can’t like him, Agnes. It is not a matter of opinion at all; it’s just simply a matter of fact— and you know that he is a most worldly, selfish, cruel, and I think, wicked young man, and you need not talk about him, for he’s odious. And here comes Thomas Sedley again.”

Agnes smiled a faint and bitter smile.

“And what do you think of him?” she asked.

“Thomas Sedley? Of course I like him; we all like him. Don’t you?” answered Charity.

“Yes, pretty well — very well. I suppose he has faults, like other people. He’s good-humoured, selfish, of course — I fancy they all are. And papa likes him, I think; but really, Charrie, if you want to know, I don’t care if I never saw him again.”

“Hush!”

Well! You’ve got rid of the Verneys, and here I am again,” said Tom, approaching. “They are going up to Hazelden to see your father.”

And so they were — up that pretty walk that passes the mills and ascends steeply by the precipitous side of the wooded glen, so steep, that in two places you have to mount by rude flights of steps — a most sequestered glen, and utterly silent, except for the sound of the mill-stream tinkling and crooning through the rocks below, unseen through the dense boughs and stems of the wood beneath.

If Lord Verney in his conciliatory condescension was grand, so was Vane Etherage on the occasion of receiving and forgiving him at Hazelden. He had considered and constructed a little speech, with some pomp of language, florid and magnanimous. He had sat in his bath-chair for half an hour at the little iron gate of the flower-garden of Hazelden, no inmate of which had ever seen him look, for a continuance, so sublimely important, and indeed solemn, as he had done all that morning.

Vane Etherage had made his arrangements to receive Lord Verney with a dignified deference. He was to be wheeled down the incline about two hundred yards, to “the bower,” to meet the peer at that point, and two lusty fellows were to push him up by Lord Verney’s side to the house, where wine and other comforts awaited him.

John Evans had been placed at the mill to signal to the people above at Hazelden, by a musket-shot, the arrival of Lord Verney at that stage of his progress. The flagstaff and rigging on the green platform at Hazelden were fluttering all over with all the flags that ever were invented, in honour of the gala.

Lord Verney ascended, leaning upon the arm of his nephew, with Mr. Larkin and the mayor for supporters, Captain Shrapnell, Doctor Lyster, and two or three other distinguished inhabitants of Cardyllian bringing up the rear.

Lord Verney carried his head high, and grew reserved and rather silent as they got on, and as they passed under the solemn shadow of the great trees by the mill, an overloaded musket went off with a sound like a cannon, as Lord Verney afterwards protested, close to the unsuspecting party, and a loud and long whoop from John Evans completed the concerted signal.

The Viscount actually jumped, and Cleve felt the shock of his arm against his side.

“D—— you, John Evans, what the devil are you doing?” exclaimed Captain Shrapnell, who, turning from white to crimson, was the first of the party to recover his voice.

“Yes, sir, thank you — very good,” said Evans, touching his hat, and smiling incessantly with the incoherent volubility of Welsh politeness. “A little bit of a squib, sir, if you please, for Captain Squire Etherage — very well, I thank you — to let him know Lord Verney — very much obliged, sir — was at the mill — how do you do, sir? — and going up to Hazelden, if you please, sir.”

And the speech subsided in a little, gratified laugh of delighted politeness.

“You’d better not do that again, though,” said the Captain, with a menacing wag of his head, and availing himself promptly of the opportunity of improving his relations with Lord Verney, he placed himself by his side, and assured him that though he was an old campaigner, and had smelt powder in all parts of the world, he had never heard such a report from a musket in all his travels and adventures before; and hoped Lord Verney’s hearing was not the worse of it. He had known a general officer deafened by a shot, and, by Jove! his own ears were singing with it still, accustomed as he was, by Jupiter! to such things.

His lordship, doing his best on the festive occasion, smiled uncomfortably, and said —

“Yes — thanks — ha, ha! I really thought it was a cannon, or the gas-works — about it.”

And Shrapnell called back and said —

“Don’t you be coming on with that thing, John Evans — do you mind? — Lord Verney’s had quite enough of that. You’ll excuse me, Lord Verney, I thought you’d wish so much said,” and Lord Verney bowed graciously.

The answering shot and cheer which were heard from above announced to John Evans that the explosion had been heard at Hazelden, and still smiling and touching his heart, he continued his voluble civilities —“Very good, sir, very much obliged, sir, very well, I thank you; I hope you are very well, sir, very good indeed, sir,” and so forth, till they were out of hearing.

The shot, indeed, was distinctly heard at the gay flagstaff up at Hazelden, and the Admiral got under weigh, and proceeded down the incline charmingly till they had nearly reached the little platform at the bower, where, like Christian in his progress, he was to make a halt.

But his plans at this point were disturbed. Hardly twenty yards before they reached it, one of his men let go, the drag upon the other suddenly increased, and resulted in a pull, which caused him to trip, and tripping as men while in motion downhill will, he butted forward, charging headlong, and finally tumbling on his face, he gave to the rotatory throne of Mr. Etherage such an impulse as carried him quite past the arbour, and launched him upon the steep descent of the gravel-walk with a speed every moment accelerated.

“Stop her! — ease her! — d —— you, Williams!” roared the Admiral, little knowing how idle were his orders. The bath-chair had taken head, the pace became furious; the running footmen gave up pursuit in despair, and Mr. Vane Etherage was obliged to concentrate his severest attention, as he never did before, on the task of guiding his flying vehicle, a feat which was happily favoured by the fact that the declivity presented no short turns.

The sounds were heard below — a strange ring of wheels, and a powerful voice bawling, “Ease her! stop her!” and some stronger expressions.

“Can’t be a carriage, about it, here?” exclaimed Lord Verney, halting abruptly, and only restrained from skipping upon the side bank by a sense of dignity.

“Never mind, Lord Verney! don’t mind — I’ll take care of you — I’m your vanguard,” exclaimed Captain Shrapnell, with a dare-devil gaiety, inspired by the certainty that it could not be a carriage, and the conviction that the adventure would prove nothing more than some children and nursery maids playing with a perambulator.

His feelings underwent a revulsion, however, when old Vane Etherage, enveloped in cloak, and shawls, his hat gone, and his long grizzled hair streaming backward, with a wild countenance, and both hands working the directing handle, came swooping into sight, roaring, maniacally, “Ease her! back her!” and yawing frightfully in his descent upon them.

Captain Shrapnell, they say, turned pale at the spectacle; but he felt he must now go through with it, or for ever sacrifice that castle-inthe-air, of which the events of the day had suggested the ground-plan and elevation.

“Good heaven! he’ll be killed, about it!” exclaimed Lord Verney, peeping from behind a tree, with unusual energy; but whether he meant Shrapnell, or Etherage, or both, I don’t know, and nobody in that moment of sincerity minded much what he meant. I dare say a front-rank man in a square at Waterloo did not feel before the gallop of the Cuirassiers as the gallant Captain did before the charge of the large invalid who was descending upon him. All he meditated was a decent show of resistance, and as he had a stout walking-stick in his hand, something might be done without risking his bones. So, as the old gentleman thundered downward, roaring, “Keep her off — keep her clear,” Shrapnell, roaring “I’m your man!” nervously popped the end of his stick under the front wheel of the vehicle, himself skipping to one side, unhappily the wrong one, for the chair at this check spun round, and the next spectacle was Mr. Vane Etherage and Captain Shrapnell, enveloped in cloaks and mufflers, and rolling over and over in one another’s arms, like athletes in mortal combat, the Captain’s fist being visible, as they rolled round, at Mr. Vane Etherage’s back, with his walking-stick still clutched in it.

The chair was lying on its side, the gentlemen were separated, and Captain Shrapnell jumped to his feet.

“Well, Lord Verney, I believe I did something there!” said the gallant Captain, with the air of a man who has done his duty, and knows it.

“Done something! you’ve broke my neck, you lubber!” panted Mr. Vane Etherage, who, his legs not being available, had been placed sitting with some cloaks about him, on the bank.

Shrapnell grinned and winked expressively, and confidentially whispered, “Jolly old fellow he is — no one minds the Admiral; we let him talk.”

“Lord Verney,” said his lordship, introducing himself with a look and air of polite concern.

“No, my name’s Etherage,” said the invalid, mistaking — he fancied that Jos. Larkin, who was expounding his views of the accident grandly to Cleve Verney in the background, could not be less than a peer —“I live up there, at Hazelden — devilish near being killed here, by that lubber there. Why I was running at the rate of five-and-twenty knots an hour, if I was making one; and I remember it right well, sir, there’s a check down there, just before you come to the mill-stile, and the wall there; and I’d have run my bows right into it, and not a bit the worse, sir, if that d —— fellow had just kept out of the — the — king’s course, you know; and egad! I don’t know now how it is — I suppose I’m smashed, sir.”

“I hope not, sir. I am Lord Verney — about it; and it would pain me extremely to learn that any serious injuries, or — or — things — had been sustained, about it.”

“I’ll tell that in a moment,” said Doctor Lyster, who was of the party, briskly.

So after a variety of twists and wrenches and pokes, Vane Etherage was pronounced sound and safe.

“I don’t know how the devil I escaped!” exclaimed the invalid.

“By tumbling on me— very simply,” replied Captain Shrapnell with a spirited laugh.

“You may set your mind at rest, Shrapnell,” said the Doctor, walking up to him, with a congratulatory air. “He’s all right, this time; but you had better mind giving the old fellow any more rolls of that sort — the pitcher to the well, you know — and the next time might smash him.”

“I’m more concerned about smashing myself, thank you. The next time he may roll to the devil — and through whoever he pleases for me — knocked down with that blackguard old chair, and that great hulking fellow on top of me — all for trying to be of use, egad! when everyone of you funked it — and not a soul asks about my bones, egad! or my neck either.”

“Oh! come, Shrapnell, you’re not setting up for an old dog yet. There’s a difference between you and Etherage,” said the Doctor.

“I hope so,” answered the Captain, sarcastically, “but civility is civility all the world over; and I can tell you, another fellow would make fuss enough about the pain I’m suffering.”

It was found, further, that one wheel of the bath-chair was disorganised, and the smith must come from the town to get it to rights, and that Vane Etherage, who could as soon have walked up a rainbow as up the acclivity to Hazelden, must bivouac for a while where he sat.

So there the visit was paid, and the exciting gala of that day closed, and the Viscount and his party marched down, with many friends attendant, to the jetty, and embarked in the yacht for Ware.

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