The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 21.

By Rail to London.

ABOUT an hour later, Tom Sedley, in solitude, meditated thus —

“I wonder whether the Etherages”—(meaning pretty Miss Agnes)—“would think it a bore if I went up to see them. It’s too late for tea. I’m afraid they mightn’t like it. No one, of course, like Cleve now. They’d find me very dull, I dare say. I don’t care, I’ll walk up, and if I see the lights in the drawing-room windows, I’ll try.”

He did walk up; he did see the lights in the drawing-room windows; and he did try, with the result of finding himself upon the drawing-room carpet a minute after, standing at the side of Agnes, and chatting to Miss Charity.

“How is your father?” asked Tom, seeing the study untenanted.

“Not at all well, I think; he had an accident today. Didn’t you hear?”

Accident! No, I didn’t.”

“Oh! yes. Somehow, when Lord Verney and the other people were coming up here today, he was going to meet them, and among them they overturned his bath-chair, and I don’t know really who’s to blame. Captain Shrapnell says he saved his life; but, however it happened, he was upset and very much shaken. I see you laughing, Thomas Sedley! What on earth can you see in it to laugh at? It’s so exactly like Agnes — she laughed! you did, indeed, Agnes, and if I had not seen it, with my own eyes, I could not have believed it!”

“I knew papa was not hurt, and I could not help laughing, if you put me to death for it, and they say he drove over Lord Verney’s foot.”

“That would not break my heart,” said Sedley. “Did you hear the particulars from Cleve?”

“No, I did not see Mr. Verney to speak to, since the accident,” said Miss Charity. “By-the-by, who was the tall, good-looking girl, in the seal-skin coat, he was talking to all the way to the jetty? I think she was Lady Wimbledon’s daughter.”

“So she was; has she rather large blue eyes?”

“Yes.”

“Oh! it must be she; that’s Miss Caroline Oldys. She’s such a joke; she’s elder than Cleve.”

“Oh! that’s impossible; she’s decidedly younger than Mr. Cleve Verney, and, I think, extremely pretty.”

“Well, perhaps she is younger, and I do believe she’s pretty; but she’s a fool, and she has been awfully in love with him for I don’t know how many years — every one was laughing at it, two or three seasons ago; she is such a muff!”

“What do you mean by a muff?” demanded Charity.

“Well, a goose, then. Lord Verney’s her guardian or trustee, or something; and they say, that he and Lady Wimbledon had agreed to promote the affair. Just like them. She is such a scheming old woman; and Lord Verney is such a — I was going to say, such a muff — but he is such a spoon. Cleve’s wide awake, though, and I don’t think he’ll do that for them.”

I believe there may have been, at one time, some little foundation in fact for the theory which supposed the higher powers favourable to such a consummation. But time tests the value of such schemes, and it would seem that Lady Wimbledon had come to the conclusion that the speculation was a barren one: for, this night, in her dressing-gown, with her wig off, and a silken swathing about her bald head, she paid a very exciting visit to her daughter’s room, and blew her up in her own awful way, looking like an angry Turk. “She wondered how any person with Caroline’s experience could be such an idiot as to let that young man go on making a fool of her. He had no other idea but the one of making a fool of her before the world. She, Lady Wimbledon, would have no more of any such insensate folly — her prospects should not be ruined, if she could prevent it, and prevent it she could and would— there should be an end of that odious nonsense; and if she chose to make herself the laughing-stock of the world, she, Lady Wimbledon, would do her duty and take her down to Slominton, where they would be quiet enough at all events; and Cleve Verney, she ventured to say, with a laugh, would not follow her.”

The young lady was in tears, and blubbered in her romantic indignation till her eyes and nose were inflamed, and her mamma requested her to look in the glass, and see what a figure she had made of herself, and made her bathe her face for an hour, before she went to bed.

There was no other young lady at Ware, and Cleve smiled in his own face, in his looking-glass, as he dressed for dinner.

“My uncle will lose no time — I did not intend this; but I see very well what he means, and he’ll be disappointed and grow suspicious, if I draw back; and she has really nothing to recommend her, poor Caroline, and he’ll find that out time enough, and meanwhile I shall get over some months quietly.”

There was no great difficulty in seeing, indeed, that the noble host distinguished Lady Wimbledon and her daughter. And Lord Verney, leaning on Cleve’s arm, asked him lightly what he thought of Miss Caroline Oldys; and Cleve, who had the gift of presence of mind, rather praised the young lady.

“My uncle would prefer Ethel, when he sees a hope in that direction, I shan’t hear much more of Caroline, and so on — and we shall be growing older — and the chapter of accidents — and all that.”

For a day or two Lord Verney was very encouraging, and quite took an interest in the young lady, and showed her the house and the place, and unfolded all the plans which were about to grow into realities, and got Cleve to pull her across the lake, and walked round to meet them, and amused the young man by contriving that little opportunity. But Lady Wimbledon revealed something to Lord Verney, that evening, over their game of ecarté, which affected his views.

Cleve was talking to the young lady, but he saw Lord Verney look once or twice, in the midst of a very serious conversation with Lady Wimbledon, at Caroline Oldys and himself, and now without smiling.

It was Lady Wimbledon’s deal, but she did not deal, and her opponent seemed also to have forgotten the cards, and their heads inclined one toward the other as the talk proceeded.

It was about the hour when ladies light their bed-room candles, and ascend. And Lady Wimbledon and Caroline Oldys had vanished in a few minutes more, and Cleve thought, “She has told him something that has given him a new idea.” His uncle was rather silent and dry for the rest of that evening, but next morning seemed pretty much as usual, only Lord Verney took an opportunity of saying to him —

“I have been considering, and I have heard things, and, with reference to the subject of my conversation with you, in town, I think you ought to direct your thoughts to Ethel, about it — you ought to have money — don’t you see? It’s very important — money — very well to be le fils de ses oeuvres, and that kind of thing; but a little money does no harm; on the contrary, it is very desirable. Other people keep that point in view; I don’t see why we should not. I ask myself this question:— How is it that people get on in the world? And I answer — in great measure by amassing money; and arguing from that, I think it desirable you should have some money to begin with, and I’ve endeavoured to put it logically, about it, that you may see the drift of what I say.” And he made an excuse and sent Cleve up to town next day before him.

I have been led into an episode by Miss Charity’s question about Miss Caroline Oldys; and returning to Hazelden, I find Tom Sedley taking his leave of the young ladies for the night, and setting out for the Verney Arms with a cigar between his lips.

Next morning he walked down to Malory again, and saw old Rebecca, who seemed, in her odd way, comforted on seeing him, but spoke little — almost nothing; and he charged her to tell neither Dingwell, of whom he had heard nothing but evil, nor Jos. Larkin, of whom he had intuitively a profound suspicion — anything about her own history, or the fate of her child, but to observe the most cautious reserve in any communications they might seek to open with her. And having delivered this injunction in a great variety of language, he took his leave, and got home very early to his breakfast, and ran up to London, oddly enough, in the same carriage with Cleve Verney.

Tom Sedley was angry with Cleve, I am afraid not upon any very high principle. If Cleve had trifled with the affections of Miss Caroline Oldys, I fear he would have borne the spectacle of her woes with considerable patience. But if the truth must be told, honest Tom Sedley was leaving Cardyllian in a pet. Anger, grief, jealousy, were seething in his good-natured heart. Agnes Etherage —his little Agnes — she had belonged to him as long as he could remember; she was gone, and he never knew how much he had liked her until he had lost her.

Gone? No; in his wanton cruelty this handsome outlaw had slain his deer — had shot his sweet bird dead, and there she lay in the sylvan solitude she had so beautified —dead; and he — heartless archer — went on his way smiling, having darkened the world for harmless Tom Sedley. Could he like him ever again?

Well, the world brooks no heroics now; there are reserves. Men cultivate a thick skin — nature’s buff-coat — in which, with little pain and small loss of blood, the modern man-at-arms rides cheerily through life’s battle. When point or edge happen to go a little through, as I have said, there are reserves. There is no good in roaring, grinning, or cursing. The scathless only laugh at you; therefore wipe away the blood quietly and seem all you can like the rest. Better not to let them see even that. Is there not sometimes more of curiosity than of sympathy in the scrutiny? Don’t you even see, at times, just the suspicion of a smile on your friend’s pitying face, as he prescribes wet brown paper or basilicon, or a cob-web, according to his skill?

So Tom and Cleve talked a little — an acquaintance would have said, just as usual — and exchanged newspapers, and even laughed a little now and then; but when at Shillingsworth the last interloper got out, and Tom and Cleve were left to themselves, the ruling idea asserted itself, and Sedley looked hurriedly out of the window, and grew silent for a time, and pretended not to hear Cleve when he asked him whether he had seen the report of Lord Verney’s visit to Cardyllian, as displayed in the county paper of that day, which served to amuse him extremely.

“I don’t think,” said Tom Sedley, at last, abruptly, “that nice, pretty little creature, Agnes Etherage — the nicest little thing, by Jove, I think I ever saw — I say she is not looking well.”

“Is not she really?” said Cleve, very coolly cutting open a leaf in his magazine.

“Didn’t you observe?” exclaimed Tom, rather fiercely.

“Well, no, I can’t say I did; but you know them so much better than I,” answered Cleve; “it can’t be very much; I dare say she’s well by this time.”

“How can you speak that way, Verney, knowing all you do?”

“Why, what do I know?” exclaimed Cleve, looking up in unaffected wonder.

“You know all about it —why she’s out of spirits, why she’s looking so delicate, why she’s not like herself,” said Tom, impatiently.

“Upon my soul I do not,” said Cleve Verney, with animation.

“That’s odd, considering you’ve half broken her heart,” urged Tom.

“I broken her heart?” repeated Cleve. “Now, really, Sedley, do pray think what you’re saying.”

“I say I think you’ve broken her heart, and her sister thinks so too; and it’s an awful shame,” insisted Tom, very grimly.

“I really do think the people want to set me mad,” said Cleve, testily. “If anyone says that I have ever done anything that could have made any of that family, who are in their senses, fancy that I was in love with Miss Agnes Etherage, and that I wished her to suppose so, it is simply an untruth. I never did, and I don’t intend; and I can’t see, for the life of me, Tom Sedley, what business it is of yours. But thus much I do say, upon my honour, it is a lie. Miss Charity Etherage, an old maid, with no more sense than a snipe, living in that barbarous desert, where if a man appears at all, during eight months out of the twelve, he’s a prodigy, and if he walks up the street with a Cardyllian lady, he’s pronounced to be over head and ears in love, and of course meditating marriage — I say she’s not the most reliable critic in the world in an affair of that sort; and all I say is, that I’ve given no grounds for any such idea, and I mean it, upon my honour; and I’ve seldom been so astonished in my life before.”

There was an air of frank and indignant repudiation in Cleve’s manner and countenance, which more even than his words convinced Tom Sedley, who certainly was aware how little the Cardyllian people knew of the world, and what an eminently simple maiden in all such matters the homely Miss Charity was. So Tom extended his hand and said —

“Well, Cleve, I’m so glad, and I beg your pardon, and I know you say truth, and pray shake hands; but though you are not to blame — I’m now quite sure you’re not — the poor girl is very unhappy, and her sister very angry.”

“I can’t help that. How on earth can I help it? I’m very sorry, though I’m not sure that I ought to care a farthing about other people’s nonsense, and huffs, and romances. I could tell you things about myself, lots of things you’d hardly believe —real dreadful annoyances. I tell you Tom, I hate the life I’m leading. You only see the upper surface, and hardly that. I’m worried to death, and only that I owe so much money, and can’t get away, I can tell you — I don’t care two pins whether you believe it or not — I should have been feeding sheep in Australia a year ago.”

“Better where you are, Cleve.”

“How the devil do you know? Don’t be offended with me, Tom, only make allowances, and if I sometimes talk a bit like a Bedlamite don’t repeat my ravings; that’s all. Look at that windmill; isn’t it pretty?”

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