The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 22.

Lady Dorminster’s Ball.

CLEVE VERNEY was in harness again — attending the House with remarkable punctuality; for the eye of the noble peer, his uncle, was upon him. He had the division lists regularly on his table, and if Cleve’s name was missing from any one of even moderate importance, his uncle took leave to ask an explanation. Cleve had also reasons of his own for working diligently at the drudgery of public life. His march was not upon solid ground, but over a quaking bog, every undulation and waver of which was answered by a qualm at his heart.

Still it was only some nice management of time and persons; it was a mere matter of presence of mind, of vigilance, of resource, to which he felt — at least hoped he might be found equal, and all must end well. Was not his uncle sixty-six his last birthday? People might natter and say he looked nothing like it; but the red book so pronounced, and there is no gainsaying that sublime record. After all, his uncle was not an everlasting danger. Time and the hour will end the longest day; and then must come the title, and estates, and a quiet heart at last.

When the House did not interfere, Cleve was of course seen at all the proper places. On the night of which I am now speaking there was among others Lady Dorminster’s ball, and a brilliant muster of distinguished persons.

On that crowded floor, in those celebrated salons, in an atmosphere of light and music, in which moved so much of what is famous, distinguished, splendid, is seen the figure of Cleve Verney. Everyone knew that slight and graceful figure, and the oval face, delicate features, and large, dark, dreamy eyes, that never failed to impress you with the same ambiguous feeling. It was Moorish, it was handsome; but there was a shadow there — something secret and selfish, and smilingly, silently insolent.

This session he had come out a little, and made two speeches of real promise. The minister had complimented his uncle upon them, and had also complimented him. The muse was there; something original and above routine — genius perhaps — and that passion for distinction which breaks a poor man’s heart, and floats the rich to greatness.

A man of Cleve’s years, with his position, with his promise, with London life and Paris life all learned by rote, courted and pursued, wary, contemptuous, sensual, clever, ambitious — is not young. The whole chaperon world, with its wiles, was an open book for him. For him, like the man in the German legend, the earth under which they mined and burrowed had grown to his eyes transparent, and he saw the gnomes at work. For him young ladies’ smiles were not light and magic — only marsh fires and tricks. To him old and young came up and simpered or fawned; but they dimpled, or ogled, or grinned, all in the Palace of Truth. Truth is power, but not always pretty. For common men the surface is best; all beyond is knowledge — an acquisition of sorrow.

Therefore, notwithstanding his years, the clear olive oval of his handsome face, the setting — void of line or colour — of those deep dark eyes, so enthusiastic, yet so cold, the rich wave of his dark hair, and the smooth transparency of temples and forehead, and all the tints and signs of beautiful youth, Cleve Verney was well stricken in years of knowledge; and of that sad gift he would not have surrendered an iota in exchange for the charms and illusions of innocence, so much for the most part do men prefer power to happiness.

“How d’ye do, Miss Oldys?” said this brilliant young man of actualities and expectations.

“Oh, Mr. Verney, you here!”

This Miss Caroline Oldys was just nine-and-twenty. Old, like him, in the world’s dismal psychology, but with one foolish romance still at her heart; betrayed into a transient surprise, smiling in genuine gladness, almost forgetting herself, and looking quite country-girlish in the momentary effusion. It is not safe affecting an emotion with men like Cleve, especially when it does not flatter them. He did not care a farthing whether she was surprised or not, or glad or sorry. But her very eye and gesture told him that she had marked him as he stood there, and had chosen the very seat on which her partner had placed her of malice aforethought. Fine acting does it need to succeed with a critic like Cleve.

“Yes, I here — and where’s the wonder?”

“Why — who was it? —some one told me only half an hour ago, you were somewhere in France.”

“Well, if it was a man he told a story, and if a lady she made a mistake,” said Cleve, coolly but tartly, looking steadily at her. “And the truth is, I wanted a yacht, and I went down to look at her, tried her, liked her, and bought her. Doesn’t it sound very like a marriage?”

Caroline laughed.

“That’s your theory — we’re all for sale, and handed over to the best bidder.”

“Pretty waltz,” said Cleve, waving his slender hand just the least in the world to the music. “Pretty thing!”

He did not use much ceremony with this young lady — his cousin in some remote way — who, under the able direction of her mother, Lady Wimbledon, had once pursued him in a barefaced way for nearly three years; and who, though as we have seen, her mother had by this time quite despaired, yet liked him with all the romance that remained to her.

“And who are you going to marry, Caroline? There’s Sedley — I see him over there. What do you say to Sedley?”

“No, thanks — much obliged — but Sedley, you know, has seen his fate in that mysterious lady in Wales, or somewhere.”

“Oh? has he?” He signed to Sedley to come to them.

Looking through the chinks and chasms that now and then opened in the distinguished mob of which he formed a unit, he occasionally saw the stiff figure and small features of his pompous uncle, Lord Verney, who was talking affably to Lady Wimbledon. Lord Verney did not wear his agreeable simper. He had that starch and dismal expression, rather, which came with grave subjects, and he was tapping the fingers of his right hand upon the back of his left, in time to the cadence of his periods, which he did when delivering matter particularly well worth hearing. It plainly did not displease Lady Wimbledon, whatever his discourse might be. “I’m to be married to Caroline, I suppose. I wish that old woman was at the bottom of the Red Sea.”

Cleve looked straight in the eyes of the Honourable Miss Caroline Oldys, and said he, with a smile, “Lady Wimbledon and my uncle are deep in some mystery — is it political? Have you an idea?”

Caroline Oldys had given up blushing very long ago indeed; but there was the confusion, without the tint of a blush in her face, as he said these words.

“I dare say — mamma’s a great politician.”

“Oh! I know that. By Jove, my uncle’s looking this way. I hope he’s not coming.”

“Would you mind taking me to mamma?”

“No — pray stay for a moment. Here’s Sedley.”

And the young man, whom we know pretty well, with the bold blue eyes and golden moustaches, and good frank handsome face, approached smiling.

“How are you, Sedley?” said Cleve, giving him two fingers. “Caroline Oldys says you’ve had an adventure. Where was it?”

“The lady in black, you know, in Wales,” reminded Miss Oldys.

“Oh! to be sure,” said Sedley, laughing. “A lady in gray, it was. I saw her twice. But that’s more than a year old, and there has been nothing ever since.”

Do go on.”

Sedley laughed.

“It was at Cardyllian, in the church. She lived at Malory — that dark old place you went to see with the Verneys, the day you were at Cardyllian — don’t you remember?”

“Oh, yes — what a romantic place!”

“What an awfully cross old fellow, old enough to be her father, but with the air of her husband, guarding her like a dragon, and eyeing every fellow that came near as if he’d knock him down; a lean, white-whiskered, bald old fellow, with bushy eyebrows, and a fierce face, and eyes jumping out of his head, and lame of one foot, too. Not a beauty, by any means.”

“Where did you see him?” said Cleve.

“I did not see him — but Christmass Owen the boatman told me.”

“Well, and which is your fate — which is to kill you — the husband or wife?” inquired Cleve, looking vaguely among the crowd.

“Oh, the wife, as he calls her, is really quite beautiful, melancholy and that, you know. I’d have found out all about them, but they left before I had time to go back, but Verney was at Cardyllian, when I was there.”

“When was that?” asked Cleve.

“I mean when these people were at Malory. Cleve was much more gone about her than I was — at least so I’ve heard,” answered Sedley.

“That’s very ungrateful of you, Sedley. I never interfered, upon my honour. I saw her once in church, and accompanied him in his pursuit at his earnest request, and I never saw her again. Are you going on to the Halbury’s, Caroline?”

“Yes; are you?”

“No, quite used up. Haven’t slept since Wednesday night.”

Here a partner came to claim Miss Caroline.

“I’ll go with you,” said Sedley.

“Very well,” answered Cleve, without looking back. “Come to my lodgings, Sedley — we’ll smoke, shall we? I’ve got some capital cigars.”

“I don’t care. I’m going on also.”

“What a delicious night!” exclaimed Tom Sedley, looking up at the stars. “Suppose we walk — it isn’t far.”

“I don’t care — let us walk,” said Cleve.

So walk they did. It was not far to Cleve’s lodgings, in a street off Piccadilly. The young men had walked rather silently; for, as it seemed to Sedley, his companion was not in a temper to talk a great deal, or very pleasantly.

“And what about this gray woman? Did you ever follow it up? Did the romance take fire where it ought? Is it a mutual flame?” asked Cleve, like a tired man who feels he must say something, and does not care what. “I don’t think you mentioned her since the day you showed me that Beatrice Cenci, over your d —— d chimney-piece.”

“Of course I’d have told you if there had been anything to tell,” said Tom.

“They haven’t been at Malory since?”

“Oh! no — frightened away — you’ll never see them there again. There’s nothing absolutely in it, and never was, not even an adventure. Nothing but the little that happened long ago — and you know all about that,” continued Sedley. “She’s a wonderfully beautiful creature, though; I wish you saw her again, Cleve. You’re such a clever fellow, you’d make a poem of her, or something — she’d bring you back to the days of chivalry, and that style of thing. I’m a sort of fellow, you know, that feels a lot, and I think, I think some too; but I haven’t the knack of saying it, or writing it — I’m not particularly good at anything; but I went that morning, you know, into the Refectory — you know — there are such a lot of stairs, and long places and doors, it makes a fellow quite foolish — and there she was — don’t you remember? — I wish I could describe her to you gardening there with her gloves on.”

“Don’t try — you’ve tried so often — there’s a good fellow; but just tell me her name?” said Cleve, looking straight before him, above the lamps and the slanting slates and chimneys, into the deep sky, where brilliantly, spite of London smoke, shone the clear sad moon.

“Her name? — I never found out, except Margaret — I don’t know; but I believe they did not want their name told.”

“That did not look well — did it?” suggested Cleve.

“Well, no more it generally does; but it is not her fault. It was — in fact it was — for I did find it out, I may as well tell you — old Sir Booth Fanshawe, you know he’s broken — not worth a guinea — and always running about from place to place to avoid pursuit, in fact. It can’t signify, you know, now that I think of it, mentioning him, because, of course, he’s gone somewhere else long ago.”

So said romantic little Sedley, and Cleve sneered.

“I see you can tell a fib on occasion, Tom, like another man. So you found out the name, and knew it all the time you were protesting ignorance. And who told you that? People here thought Sir Booth had gone to Italy.”

“Well, it was — but you mustn’t tell him I told you. There was a Jew fellow down at Malory, with a writ and a lot of fellows to nab him; but the old fellow was off; and the Jew, thinking that Wynne Williams knew where he was, came to his office and offered him a hatfull of money to tell, and he was going to kick him out; and that’s the way he found out it was old Sir Booth; and he is awfully afraid of getting into a scrape about it, if the old people heard who the tenant was.”

“So he would — the worst scrape he ever was in, with my uncle, at all events. And that d — d Larkin would get into the management of everything, I suppose. I hope, you have not been telling everyone?”

“Not a soul — not a human being.”

“There are some of the Cardyllian people that hardly come under that term; and, by Jove, if you breathe it to one of them, it’s all over the town, and my uncle will be sure to hear it; and poor Wynne Williams! — you’ll be the ruin of him, very likely.”

“I tell you, except to you, I swear to you, I haven’t mentioned it to a soul on earth,” exclaimed Tom.

“Well, I do think, as a matter of conscience and fairness, you ought to hold your tongue, and keep faith with poor Wynne,” said Cleve, rudely, “and I think he was a monstrous fool to tell you. You know I’m interested,” continued Cleve, perceiving that his vehemence surprised Tom Sedley; “because I have no faith in Larkin — I think him a sneak and a hypocrite, and a rogue — of course that’s in confidence, and he’s doing all in his power to get a fast hold of my uncle, and to creep into Wynne Williams’s place, and a thing like this, with a hard unreasonable fellow like my uncle, would give him such a lift as you can’t imagine.”

“But, I’m not going to tell; unless you tell, or he, I don’t know who’s to tell it —I won’t, I know.”

“And about Sir Booth — of course he’s not in England now — but neither is he in Italy,” said Tom.

“It’s well he has you to keep his ‘log’ for him,” said Cleve.

“He’s in France.”

“Oh!”

“Yes, in the north of France, somewhere near Caen,” said Tom Sedley.

“I wonder you let him get so near England. It seems rather perilous, doesn’t it?”

“So one would think, but there he is. Tom Blackmore, of the Guards — you know him?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Well he saw old Fanshawe there. He happened to be on leave.”

“Old Fanshawe?”

“No, Tom Blackmore. He likes poking into out-of-the-way places.”

“I dare say.”

“He has such a turn for the picturesque and all that, and draws very nicely.”

“The long bow, I dare say.”

“Well, no matter, he was there — old Fanshawe I mean — Blackmore saw him. He knows his appearance perfectly — used to hunt with his hounds, and that kind of thing, and often talked to him, so he could not be mistaken — and there he was as large as life.”

“Well?”

“He did not know Tom a bit, and Tom asked no questions — in fact, he did not care to know where the poor old fellow hides himself — he preferred not — but Madame something or other — I forget her name — gave him a history, about as true as Jack the Giant–Killer, of the eccentric English gentleman, and told him that he had taken a great old house, and had his family there, and a most beautiful young wife, and was as jealous as fifty devils; so you see Margaret must have been there. Of course that was she,” said Tom.

“And you said so to your friend Blackmore?” suggested Cleve Verney.

“Yes,” said Tom.

“It seems to me you want to have him caught.”

“Well, I did not think — I hope not — and I did not know you took any interest in him,” said Sedley, quite innocently.

“Interest! I— me! Interest, indeed! Why the devil should I take an interest in Sir Booth Fanshawe? Why you seem to forget all the trouble and annoyance he has cost me. Interest, indeed! Quite the contrary. Only, I think, one would not like to get any poor devil into worse trouble than he’s in, for no object, or to be supposed to be collecting information about him.”

“No one could suppose anything like that of me,” said Tom Sedley.

“I beg your pardon; they can suppose anything of anybody,” answered Cleve, and, seeing that Tom looked offended, he added, “and the more absurd and impossible, the more likely. I wish you heard the things that have been said of me— enough to make your hair stand on end, by Jove!”

“Oh! I dare say.”

They were now turning into the street where Cleve had taken lodgings.

“I could not stand those fellows any longer. My uncle has filled the house with them — varnish and paint and that stifling plaster — so I’ve put up here for a little time.”

“I like these streets. I’m not very far away from you here,” said Tom. “And talking of that affair at Caen, you know, he said, by Jove he did, that he saw you there.”

“Who said?”

“Tom Blackmore of the Guards.”

“Then Tom Blackmore of the Guards lies— that’s all. I never saw him — I never spoke to him — I don’t know him; and how should he know me? And if he did, I wasn’t there; and if I had been, what the devil was it to him? So besides telling lies, he tells impertinent lies, and he ought to be kicked.”

“Well, of course as you say so, he must have made a mistake; but Caen is as open to you as to him, and there’s no harm in the place; and he knows you by appearance.”

“He knows everybody by appearance, it seems, and nobody knows him; and, by Jove, he describes more like a bailiff than a Guardsman.”

“He’s a thorough gentleman in every idea. Tom Blackmore is as nice a little fellow as there is in the world,” battled Tom Sedley for his friend.

“Well, I wish you’d persuade that faultless gentleman to let me and my concerns alone. I have a reason in this case; and I don’t mind if I tell you I was at Caen, and I suppose he did see me. But there was no romance in the matter, except the romance of the Stock Exchange and a Jew; and I wish, Tom, you’d just consider me as much as you do the old baronet, for my own sake, that is, for I’m pretty well dipped too, and don’t want everyone to know when or where I go in quest of my Jews. I was— not very far from that about four months ago; and if you go about telling everyone, by Jove my uncle will guess what brought me there, and old fellows don’t like post-obits on their own lives.”

“My dear Cleve, I had not a notion ——”

“Well, all you can do for me now, having spread the report, is to say that I wasn’t there — I’m serious. Here we are.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lefanu/tenants-of-malory/volume2.22.html

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