The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 6.

Mr. Dingwell Arrives.

MESSRS. GOLDSHED and Levi owned four houses in Rosemary Court, and Miss Sarah Rumble was their tenant. The court is dark, ancient, and grimy. Miss Rumble let lodgings, worked hard, led an anxious life, and subsisted on a remarkably light diet, and at the end of the year never had a shilling over. Her Jewish landlords used to pay her a visit now and then, to receive the rent, and see that everything was right. These visits she dreaded; they were grumbling and minatory, and enlivened by occasional oaths and curses. But though it was part of their system to keep their tenants on the alert by perpetual fault-findings and menaces, they knew very well that they got every shilling the house brought in, that Miss Rumble lived on next to nothing, and never saved a shilling, and was, in fact, their underfed, overworked, and indefatigable slave.

With the uncomplaining and modest charity of the poor, Sarah Rumble maintained her little orphan niece and nephew by extra labour at needle-work, and wonderful feats of domestic economy.

This waste of resources Mr. Levi grudged. He had never done complaining of it, and demonstrating that it could only be accomplished by her holding the house at too low a rent; how else could it be? Why was she to keep other people’s brats at the expense of Messrs. Goldshed and Levi? What was the workhouse for? This perpetual pressure was a sore trouble to the poor woman, who had come to love the children as if they were her own; and after one of Mr. Levi’s minatory visits she often lay awake sobbing, in the terror and yearnings of her unspeakable affection, whilst its unconscious objects lay fast asleep by her side.

From Mr. Levi, in his accustomed vein, Miss Rumble had received full instructions for the reception and entertainment of her new lodger, Mr. Dingwell. He could not say when he would arrive, neither the day nor the hour; and several days had already elapsed, and no arrival had taken place. This evening she had gone down to “the shop,” so designated, as if there had been but one in London, to lay out a shilling and seven pence very carefully, leaving her little niece and nephew in charge of the candle and the house, and spelling out their catechism for next day.

A tapping came to the door; not timid, nor yet menacing; a sort of double knock, delivered with a walking-cane; on the whole a sharp but gentlemanlike summons, to which the little company assembled there were unused. The children lifted their eyes from the book before them, and stared at the door without answering. It opened with a latch, which, without more ado, was raised, and a tall, white-haired gentleman, with a stoop, and a very brown skin, looked in inquisitively, and said, with a smile that was not pleasant, and a voice not loud but somewhat harsh and cold —

“Mrs. or Miss Rumble hereabouts, my dears?”

“Miss Rumble; that’s aunt, please, sir;” answered the little girl, slipping down from her chair, and making a courtesy.

“Well, she’s the lady I want to speak with, my love. Where is she?” said the gentleman, glancing round the homely chamber from under his white eyebrows with a pair of cold, gray, restless eyes.

“She’s — she’s”—— hesitated the child.

“Not in bed, I see; nor in the cupboard” (the cupboard door was open). “Is she up the chimney, my charming child?”

“No, sir, please; she’s gone to Mrs. Chalk’s for the bacon.”

“Mrs. Chalk’s for the bacon?” echoed the gentleman. “Very good! Excellent woman! excellent bacon, I dare say. But how far away is it? — how soon shall we have your aunt back again?”

“Just round the corner, please, sir; aunt’s never no time,” answered the child. “Would you please call in again?”

“Charming young lady! So accomplished! Who taught you your grammar? So polite — so suspicious. Do you know the meaning of that word, my dear?”

“No, sir, please.”

“And I’m vastly obliged for your invitation to call again; but I find your company much too agreeable to think of going away; so, if you allow me — and do shut that door, my sweet child; many thanks — I’ll do myself the honour to sit down, if I may venture, and continue to enjoy your agreeable conversation, till your aunt returns to favour us with her charming presence — and bacon.”

The old gentleman was glancing from under his brows, from corner to corner of this homely chamber; an uneasy habit, not curiosity; and, during his ceremonious speech, he kept bowing and smiling, and set down a black leather bag that he had in his hand, on the deal table, together with his walking-cane, and pulled off his gloves, and warmed his hands at the tiny bit of fire. When his back was toward them the children exchanged a glance, and the little boy looked frightened, and on the point of bursting into tears.

Hish!” whispered the girl, alarmed, for she could not tell what effect the demonstration might have upon the stranger —“quiet!”— and she shook her finger in urgent warning at Jemmie. “A very nice gent, as has money for aunty —there!”

So the tears that stood in Jemmie’s big eyes were not followed by an outcry, and the gentleman, with his hat and outside wrapper on, stood, now, with his back to the little fire, looking, in his restless way, over the children’s heads, with his white, cold eyes, and the same smile. There was a dreamy idea haunting Lucy Maria’s head that this gentleman was very like a white animal she had seen at the Surrey Zoological Gardens when her uncle had treated her to that instructive show; the same sort of cruel grin, and the same restless oscillation before the bars of its cage.

“Hey! so she’ll be back again?” said he, recollecting the presence of the two children; “the excellent lady, your aunt, I mean. Superb apartment this is, but it strikes me, hardly sufficiently lighted, hey? One halfpenny candle, however brilliant, can hardly do justice to such a room; pretty taper — very pretty — isn’t it? Such nice mutton fat, my dear young lady, and such a fine long snuff — like a chimney, with a Quaker’s hat on the top of it — you don’t see such fine things everywhere! And who’s this young gentleman, who enjoys the distinction of being admitted to your salon; a page, or what?”

“It’s Jemmie, sir; stand up, and bow to the gentleman, Jemmie.”

Jemmie slipped down on the floor, and made a very alarmed bow, with his great eyes staring deprecatingly in the visitor’s face.

“I’m charmed to make your acquaintance. What grace and ease! It’s perfectly charming! I’m too much honoured, Mr. Jemmie. And so exquisitely got up, too! There’s only one little toilet refinement I would venture to recommend. The worthy lady, Mrs. Chalks, who contributes bacon to this house, and, I presume, candles — could, I dare say, also supply another luxury, with which you are not so well acquainted, called soap— one of the few perfectly safe cosmetics. Pray try it; you’ll find it soluble in water. And, ho? reading too! What have you been reading out of that exquisite little volume?”

“Catechism, please sir,” answered the little girl.

“Ho, Catechism? Delightful! What a wonderful people we English are!” The latter reflection was made for his own entertainment, and he laughed over it in an undertone. “Then your aunt teaches you the art of godliness? You’ve read about Babel, didn’t you? — the accomplishment of getting up to heaven is so nice!”

“Sunday school, sir, please,” said the girl.

“Oh, it’s there you learn it? Well, I shall ask you only one question in your Catechism, and that’s the first — what’s your name?”

“Lucy Maria.”

“Well, Lucy Maria and Mr. Jemmie, I trust your theological studies may render you at last as pious as I am. You know how death and sin came into the world, and you know what they are. Sin is doing anything on earth that’s pleasant, and death’s the penalty of it. Did you ever see any one dead, my sweet child — not able to raise a finger or an eyelid? rather a fix, isn’t it? — and screwed up in a stenching box to be eaten by worms — all alone, under ground? You’ll be so, egad, and your friend, Jemmie, there, perhaps before me — though I’m an old boy. Younkers go off sometimes by the score. I’ve seen ’em trundled out in fever and plague, egad, lying in rows, like plucked chickens in a poulterer’s shop. And they say you have scarlatina all about you here, now; bad complaint, you know, that kills the little children. You need not frighten yourselves though, because it must happen, sooner or later — die you must. It’s the penalty, you know, because Eve once eat an apple.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Rather hard lines on us, isn’t it? She eat an apple, and sin, and death, and colic — I never eat an apple in consequence —colic came into the world, and cider, as a consequence — the worst drink ever invented by the devil. And now go on and learn your Church Catechism thoroughly, and you’ll both turn into angels. Upon my life, I think I see the feathers beginning to sprout from your shoulders already. You’ll have wings, you know, if all goes right, and tails for anything I know.”

The little boy looked in his face perplexed and frightened — the little girl, answering his haggard grin with an attempted smile, showed also bewilderment and dismay in her eyes. They were both longing for the return of their aunt.

Childish nature, which is only human nature without its scarf skin, is always afraid of irony. It is not its power, but its treachery that is dreadful — the guise of friendship hiding a baleful purpose underneath. One might fancy the seasoned denizens of Gehenna welcoming, complimenting, and instructing new comers with these profound derisions. How children delight in humour! how they wince and quail under irony! Be it ever so rudely fashioned and clumsily handled, still it is to them a terrible weapon. If children are to be either ridiculed or rebuked, let it be honestly, in direct terms. We should not scare them with this jocularity of devils.

Having thus amused himself with the children for a time, he unlocked his leather bag, took out two or three papers, ordered the little girl to snuff the candle, and pulled it across the table to the corner next himself, and, sitting close by, tried to read, holding the letter almost in the flame, screwing his white eyebrows together, and shifting his position, and that of the candle also, with very little regard to the studious convenience of the children.

He gave it up. The red and smoky light tried his eyes too severely. So, not well pleased, he locked his letters up again.

“Cat’s eyes — owls! How the devil they read by it passes my comprehension. Any more candles here — hey?” he demanded with a sudden sharpness that made the children start.

“Three, please sir.”

“Get ’em.”

“On the nail in the closet, please sir.”

“Get ’em, d — n it!”

“Closet’s locked, please sir. Aunt has the key.”

“Ha!” he snarled, and looked at the children as if he would like to pick a quarrel with them.

“Does your aunt allow you to let the fire out on nights like this — hey? You’re a charming young lady, you— and this young gentleman, in manners and appearance, everything the proudest aunt could desire; but I’m curious to know whether either one or the other is of the slightest earthly use; and secondly, whether she keeps a birch-rod in that closet — hey? — and now and then flogs you — ha, ha, ha! The expense of the rod is trifling, the pain not worth mentioning, and soon over, but the moral effects are admirable, better and more durable — take my word for it — than all the catechisms in Paternoster Row.”

The old gentleman seemed much tickled by his own pleasantries, and laughed viciously as he eyed the children.

“You did not tell me a fib, I hope, my dear, about your aunt? She’s a long time about coming; and, I say, do put a little coal on the fire, will you?”

“Coal’s locked up, please sir,” said the child, who was growing more afraid of him every minute.

“‘Gad, it seems to me that worthy woman’s afraid you’ll carry off the bricks and plaster. Where’s the poker? Chained to the wall, I suppose. Well, there’s a complaint called kleptomania — it comes with a sort of irritation at the tips of the fingers, and I should not be surprised if you and your friend Jemmie, there, had got it.”

Jemmie looked at his fingers’ ends, and up in the gentleman’s face, in anxious amazement.

“But there’s a cure for it — essence of cane — and if that won’t do, a capital charm — nine tails of a gray cat, applied under competent direction. Your aunt seems to understand that disorder — it begins with an itching in the fingers, and ends with a pain in the back — ha, ha, ha! You’re a pair of theologians, and, if you’ve read John Bunyan, no doubt understand and enjoy an allegory.”

“Yes, sir, please, we will,” answered poor Lucy Maria, in her perplexity.

“And we’ll be very good friends, Miss Maria Louise, or whatever your name is, I’ve no doubt, provided you play me no tricks and do precisely whatever I bid you; and, upon my soul, if you don’t, Til take the devil out of my pocket and frighten you out of your wits, I will — ha, ha, ha! — so sure as you live, into fits!”

And the old gentleman, with an ugly smile on his thin lips, and a frown between his white eyebrows, fixed his glittering gaze on the child and wagged his head.

You may be sure she was relieved when, at that moment, she heard her aunt’s well-known step on the lobby, and the latch clicked, the door opened, and Miss Rumble entered.

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