The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 20.

Rebecca Mervyn Reads Her Letter.

THE evenings being short, the shops alight, and the good people of Cardyllian in their houses, Tom Sedley found the hour before dinner hang heavily on his hands. So he walked slowly up Castle Street, and saw Mr. Robson, the worthy post-master, standing, with his hands in his pockets, at the open door.

“No letter for me, I dare say?” asked Sedley.

“No, sir — nothing.”

“I don’t know how to kill the time. I wish my dinner was ready. You dined, like a wise man, at one o’clock, I dare say?”

“We do — we dine early here, sir.”

“I know it; a capital plan. I do it myself, whenever I make any stay here.”

“And you can eat a bit o’ something hearty at tea then.”

“To be sure; that’s the good of it. I don’t know what to do with myself. I’ll take a walk round by Malory. Can I leave the Malory letters for you?”

“You’re only joking, sir.”

“I was not, upon my honour. I’d be glad to bolt your shutters, or to twig your steps — anything to do. I literally don’t know what to do with myself.”

“There’s no family at Malory, you know, now, sir.”

“Oh! I did not know. I knew the other family had gone. No letters to be delivered then?”

“Well, sir, there is— but you’re only joking.”

“What is it?”

“A letter to Mrs. Rebecca Mervyn — but I would not think of troubling a gentleman with it.”

“Old Rebecca? why I made her acquaintance among the shingles and cockles on the sea-shore last year — a charming old sea-nymph, or whatever you call it.”

“We all have a great respect for Mrs. Mervyn, down here, in Cardyllian. The family has a great opinion of her, and they think a great deal of her, like us,” said Mr. Robson, who did not care to hear any mysterious names applied to her without a protest.

“Well — so I say — so have I. I’ll give her the letter, and take a receipt,” said Sedley, extending his hand.

“There really is a receipt, sir, wanting,” said the official, amused. “It came this morning — and if you’ll come in-if it isn’t too much trouble — I’ll show it to you, please, sir.”

In he stepped to the post-office, where Mr. Robson showed him a letter which he had that afternoon received. It said —

“SIR — I enclose five shillings, represented by postage-stamps, which will enable you to pay a messenger on whom you can depend, to deliver a letter which I place along with this in the post-office, into the hand of Mrs. Mervyn, Steward’s House, Malory, Cardyllian, to whom it is addressed, and which is marked with the letter D at the left-hand corner.

“I am, sir,

“Your obt. servant, “J. DINGWELL.”

“The letter is come,” said Mr. Robson, taking it out of a pigeon-hole in a drawer, and thumbing it, and smiling on it with a gentle curiosity.

“Yes — that’s it,” said Tom Sedley, also reading the address. “‘Mrs. Mervyn’— what a queer old ghost of a lady she is —‘Malory,’ that’s the ground — and the letter D in the corner. Well, I’m quite serious. I’ll take the letter with pleasure, and see the old woman, and put it into her hand. I’m not joking, and I shall be back again in an hour, I dare say, and I’ll tell you what she says, and how she looks — that is, assuming it is a love-letter.”

“Well, sir, as you wish it; and it’s very kind of you, and the old lady must sign a receipt, for the letter’s registered — but it’s too much trouble for you, sir, isn’t it really?”

“Nonsense; give me the letter. If you won’t, I can’t help it.”

“And this receipt should be signed.”

“And the receipt also.”

So away went our friend, duly furnished, and marched over the hill we know so well, that over-hangs the sea, and down by the narrow old road to Malory, thinking of many things.

The phantom of the beautiful lady of Malory was very much faded now. Even as he looked down on the old house and woodlands, the romance came not again. It was just a remembered folly, like others, and excited or pained him little more. But a new trouble vexed him. How many of our blessings do we take for granted, enjoy thanklessly, like our sight, our hearing, our health, and only appreciate when they are either withdrawn or in danger!

Captain Shrapnell had written among his gossip some jocular tattle about Cleve’s devotion to Miss Agnes Etherage, which had moved him oddly and uncomfortably; but the next letter disclosed the mystery of Cleve’s clandestine visits to Malory, and turned his thoughts into a new channel.

But here was all revived, and worse. Charity, watching with a woman’s eyes, and her opportunities, had made to him a confidence about which there could be no mistake; and then Agnes was so changed — not a bit glad to see him! And did not she look pretty? Was there not a slight look of pride — a reserve — that was new — a little sadness — along with the heightened beauty of her face and figure? How on earth had he been so stupid as not to perceive how beautiful she was all this time? Cleve had more sense. By Jove! she was the prettiest girl in England, and that selfish fellow had laid himself out to make her fond of him, and, having succeeded, jilted her! And now she would not care for any one but him.

There was a time, he thought, when he, Tom Sedley, might have made her like him. What a fool he was! And that was past — unimproved — irrevocable — and now she never could. Girls may affect those second likings, he thought, but they never really care after the first. It is pride, or pique, or friendship, or convenience — anything but love.

Love! And what had he to do with love? Who would marry him on four hundred a year, and no expectations? And now he was going to teaze himself because he had not stepped in before Cleve Verney and secured the affections of little Agnes. What a fool he was! What business had he dreaming such dreams? He had got on very well without falling in love with Agnes. Why should he begin now? If he found that folly gaining upon him, he would leave Cardyllian without staying his accustomed week, and never return till the feeling had died as completely as last year’s roses.

Down the hill he marched in his new romance, as he had done more than a year ago, over the same ground, in his old one, when in the moonlight, on the shingle, he had met the same old lady of whom he was now in quest.

The old trees of Malory rose up before him, dark and silent, higher and higher as he approached. It was a black night — no moon; even the stars obscured by black lines of cloud as he pushed open the gate, and entered the deeper darkness of the curving carriage-road that leads up through the trees.

It was six o’clock now, and awfully dark. When he reached the open space before the hall-door, he looked up at the dim front of the house, but no light glimmered there. The deep-mouthed dog in the stable-yard was yelling his challenge, and he further startled the solitary woods by repeated double-knocks that boomed through the empty hall and chambers of the deserted house.

Despairing of an entrance at last, and not knowing which way to turn, he took the way by chance which led him to the front of the steward’s house, from the diamond casement of which a light was shining. The door lay open; only the latch was closed, such being the primitive security that prevails in that region of poverty and quietude.

With his stick he knocked a little tattoo, and a candle was held over the clumsy banister, and the little servant girl inquired in her clear Welsh accent what he wanted.

So, preliminaries over, he mounted to that chamber in which Mr. Levi had been admitted to a conference among the delft and porcelain, stags, birds, officers, and huntsmen, who, in gay tints and old-fashioned style, occupied every coigne of vantage, and especially that central dresser, which mounted nearly to the beams of the ceiling.

The room is not large, the recesses are deep, the timber-work is of clumsy oak, and the decorations of old-world teapots, jugs, and beasts of the field, and cocked-hatted gentlemen in gorgeous colouring and gilding, so very gay and splendid, reflecting the candle-light and the wavering glare of the fire from a thousand curves and angles; the old shining furniture, and carved oak clock; the room itself, and all its properties so perfectly neat and tidy, not one grain of dust or single cob-web to be seen in any nook or crevice, that Tom Sedley was delighted with the scene.

What a delightful retreat, he thought, from the comfortless affectations of the world. Here was the ideal of snugness, and of brightness, and warmth. It amounted to a kind of beauty that absolutely fascinated him. He looked kindly on the old lady, who had laid down her knitting, and looked at him through a pair of round spectacles, and thought that he would like to adopt her for his housekeeper, and live a solitary life of lonely rabbit-shooting in Penruthyn Park, trout-fishing in the stream, and cruising in an imaginary yacht on the estuary and the contiguous seaboard.

This little plan, or rather vision, pictured itself to Tom Sedley’s morbid and morose imagination as the most endurable form of life to which he could now aspire.

The old lady, meanwhile, was looking at him with an expression of wonder and anxiety, and he said —

“I hope, Mrs. Mervyn, I have not disturbed you much. It is not quite so late as it looks, and as the post-master, Mr. Robson, could not find a messenger, and I was going this way, I undertook to call and give you the letter, having once had the pleasure of making your acquaintance, although you do not, I’m afraid, recollect me.”

“I knew it, the moment his face entered the room. It was the same face,” she repeated, as if she had seen a picture, not a face.

“Just under the walls of Malory; you were anxious to learn whether a sail was in sight, in the direction of Pendillion,” said he, suggesting.

“No, there was none; it was not there. People — other people — would have tired of watching long ago; my old eyes never dazzled, sir. And he came, so like. He came — I thought it — was a spirit from the sea; and here he is. There’s something in your voice, sir, and your face. It is wonderful; but not a Verney — no, you told me so. They are cruel men — one way or other they were all cruel, but some more than others — my God! much more. There’s something in the eyes — the setting, the light — it can’t be mistaken; something in the curve of the chin, very pretty — but you’re no Verney, you told me — and see how he comes here a second time, smiling — and yet when he goes, it is like waking from a dream where they were, as they all used to look, long ago; and there’s a pain at my heart, for weeks after. It never can be again, sir; I’m growing old. If it ever comes, it will find me so changed — or dead, I sometimes begin to think, and try to make up my mind. There’s a good world, you know, where we’ll all meet and be happy, no more parting or dying, sir. Yet I’d like to see him even once, here, just as he was, a beautiful mortal. God is so good; and while there’s life there is hope.”

“Certainly, hope, there’s always hope; everyone has something to vex them. I have, I know, Mrs. Mervyn; and I was just thinking what a charming drawing-room this is, and how delightful it must be, the quiet and comfort, and glow of such a room. There is no drawing-room on earth I should like so well,” said good-natured Tom Sedley, whose sympathies were easy, and who liked saying a pleasant thing when he could; “And this is the letter, and here is a printed receipt, which, when you have been so kind as to sign it, I’ve promised to give my friend, Mr. Robson of the post-office.”

“Thank you, sir; this is registered, they call it. I had one a long time ago, with the same kind of green ribbon round it. Won’t you sit down while I sign this?”

“Many thanks,” said Sedley, sitting down gravely at the table, and looking so thoughtful, and somehow so much at home, that you might have fancied his dream of living in the Steward’s House had long been accomplished.

“I’d rather not get a letter, sir; I don’t know the handwriting of this address, and a letter can but bring me sorrow. There is but one welcome chance which could befall me, and that may come yet, just a hope, sir. Sometimes it brightens up, but it has been low all today.”

“Sorry you have been out of spirits, Mrs. Mervyn, I know what it is; I’ve been so myself, and I am so, rather, just now,” said Tom, who was, in this homely seclusion, tending towards confidence.

“There are now but two handwritings that I should know; one is his, the other Lady Verney’s; all the rest are dead; and this is neither.”

“Well, Mrs. Mervyn, if it does not come from either of the persons you care for, it yet may tell you news of them,” remarked Tom Sedley, sagely.

“Hardly, sir. I hear every three months from Lady Verney. I heard on Tuesday last. Thank God, she’s well. No, it’s nothing concerning her, and I think it may be something bad. I am afraid of this letter, sir —tell me I need not be afraid of it.”

“I know the feeling, Mrs. Mervyn; I’ve had it myself, when duns were troublesome. But you have nothing of the kind in this happy retreat; which I really do envy you from my heart.”

“Envy! Ah, sir — happy retreat! Little you know, sir. I have been for weeks and months at a time half wild with anguish, dreaming of the sea. How can he know?”

“Very true, I can’t know; I only speak of it as it strikes me at the moment. I fancy I should so like to live here, like a hermit, quite out of the persecutions of luck and the nonsense of the world.”

“You are wonderfully like at times, sir — it is beautiful, it is frightful — when I moved the candle then ——”

“I’ll sit any way you like best, Mrs. Mervyn, with pleasure, and you can move the candle, and try; if it amuses — no, I mean interests you.”

If some of his town friends could have peeped in through a keyhole, and seen Tom Sedley and old Rebecca Mervyn seated at opposite sides of the table, in this very queer old room, so like Darby and Joan, it would have made matter for a comical story.

“Like a flash it comes!”

Tom Sedley looked at the wild, large eyes that were watching him — the round spectacles now removed — across the table, and could not help smiling.

“Yes, the smile— it is the smile! You told me, sir, your name was Sedley, not Verney.”

“My name is Thomas Sedley. My father was Captain Sedley, and served through a part of the Peninsular campaign. He was not twenty at the battle of Vittoria, and he was at Waterloo. My mother died a few months after I was born.”

“Was she a Verney?”

“No; she was distantly connected, but her name was Melville,” said he.

“Connected. That accounts for it, perhaps.”

“Very likely.”

“And your father — dead?” she said, sadly.

“Yes; twenty years ago.”

“I know, sir; I remember. They are all locked up there, sir, and shan’t come out till old Lady Verney dies. But he was not related to the Verneys?”

“No, they were friends. He managed two of the estates after he left the army, and very well, I’m told.”

“Sedley — Thomas Sedley — I remember the name. I did not know the name of Sedley — except on one occasion — I was sent for, but it came to nothing. I lived so much in the dark about things,” and she sighed.

“I forgot, Mrs. Mervyn, how late it is growing, and how much too long I have stayed here admiring your pretty room, and I fear interrupting you,” said Tom, suddenly remembering his dinner, and standing up —“If you kindly give me the receipt, I’ll leave it on my way back.”

Mrs. Mervyn had clipped the silken cord, and was now reading the letter, and he might as well have addressed his little speech to the china shepherdess, with the straw disc and ribbons on her head, in the bodice and short petticoat of flowered brocade, leaning against a tree, with a lamb with its hind leg and tail broken off, looking affectionately in her face.

“I can’t make it out, sir; your eyes are young — perhaps you would read it to me — it is not very long.”

“Certainly, with pleasure”— and Tom Sedley sat down, and, spreading the letter on the table, under the candles, read as follows to the old lady opposite:—

“PRIVATE.

“MADAM — As an old and intimate friend of your reputed husband, I take leave to inform you that he placed a sum of money in my hands for the use of your son and his, if he be still living. Should he be so, will you be so good as to let me know where it will reach him. A line to Jos. Larkin, Esq., at the Verney Arms, Cardyllian, or a verbal message, if you desire to see him, will suffice. Mr. Larkin is the solvent and religious attorney of the present Lord Verney, and you have my consent to advise with him on the subject.

“I have the honour to be,

“Madam,

“Your obedient servant,

“J. DINGWELL.”

“P.S. — You are aware, I suppose, madam, that I am the witness who proved the death of the late Hon. Arthur Verney, who died of a low fever in Constantinople, in July twelve months.”

Died! My God! Died! did you say died?”

“Yes. I thought you knew. It was proved a year ago nearly. The elder brother of the present Lord Verney.”

There followed a silence while you might count ten, and then came a long, wild, and bitter cry.

The little girl started up, with white lips, and said, “Lord bless us!” The sparrows in the ivy about the windows fluttered — even Tom Sedley was chilled and pierced by that desolate scream.

“I’m very sorry, really, I’m awfully sorry,” Tom exclaimed, finding himself, he knew not how, again on his feet, and gazing at the white, imploring face of the trembling old woman. “I really did not know — I had not an idea you felt such an interest in any of the family. If I had known, I should have been more careful. I’m shocked at what I’ve done.”

“Oh! Arthur — oh! Arthur. He’s gone —after all, after all. If we could have only met for one minute, just for one look.” She was drawing back the window-curtain, looking towards the dark Pendillion and the starless sea. “He said he’d come again — he went — and my heart misgave me. I said, he’ll never come again — my beautiful Arthur — never — never — never. Oh, darling, darling. If I could even see your grave.”

“I’m awfully sorry, ma’am; I wish I could be of any use,” said honest Tom Sedley, speaking very low and kindly, standing beside her, with, I think, tears in his eyes. “I wish so much, ma’am, you could employ me any way. I’d be so glad to be of any use, about your son, or to see that Mr. Larkin. I don’t like his face, ma’am, and would not advise your trusting him too much.”

“Our little child’s dead. Oh! Arthur — Arthur! — a beautiful little thing; and you, my darling — that I watched for, so long — never to come again — never, never — never — I have no one now.”

“I’ll come to you and see you in the morning,” said Tom.

And he walked home in the dark, and stopped on the summit of the hill, looking down upon the twinkling lights of the town, and back again toward solemn Malory, thinking of what he had seen, and what an odd world it was.

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