The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 1.

A Lark.

“THERE’S some ‘Old Tom,’ isn’t there? Get it, and glasses and cold water, here,” said Cleve to his servant, who, patient, polite, sleepy, awaited his master. “You used to like it — and here are cigars;” and he shook out a shower upon his drawing-room table cover. “And where did you want to go at this time of night?”

“To Wright’s, to see the end of the great game of billiards — Seller and Culverin, you know; I’ve two pounds on it.”

“I don’t care if I go with you, just now. What’s this? — When the devil did this come?” Cleve had picked up and at one pale glance read a little note that lay on the table; and then he repeated coolly enough —

“I say, when did this come?”

“Before one, sir, I think,” said Shepperd.

“Get me my coat,” and Shepperd disappeared.

“Pestered to death,” he said, moodily. “See, you have got the things here, and cigars. I shan’t be five minutes away. If I’m longer, don’t wait for me; but finish this first.”

Cleve had turned up the collar of his outer coat, and buttoned it across his chin, and pulled a sort of travelling cap down on his brows, and away he went, looking very pale and anxious.

He did not come back in five minutes; nor in ten, twenty, or forty minutes. The “Old Tom” in the bottle had run low; Sedley looked at his watch; he could wait no longer.

When he got out upon the flagway, he felt the agreeable stimulus of the curious “Old Tom” sufficiently to render a little pause expedient for the purpose of calling to mind with clearness the geographical bearings of Wright’s billiard-rooms — whither accordingly he sauntered — eastward, along deserted and echoing streets, with here and there a policeman poking into an area, or loitering along his two-mile-an-hour duty march, and now and then regaled by the unearthly music of love-sick cats among the roofs.

These streets and squares, among which he had in a manner lost himself, had in their day been the haunts and quarters of fashion, a fairy world, always migrating before the steady march of business. Sedley had quite lost his reckoning. If he had been content to go by Ludgate-hill, he would have been at Wright’s half an hour before. Sedley did not know these dingy and respectable old squares; he had not even seen a policeman for the last twenty minutes, and was just then quite of the Irish lawyer’s opinion that life is not long enough for short cuts.

In a silent street he passed a carriage standing near a lamp. The driver on the flagway looked hard at him. Sedley was not a romantic being only; he had also his waggish mood, and loved a lark when it came. He returned the fellow’s stare with a glance as significant, slackening his pace.

“Well?” said Sedley.

“Well!” replied the driver.

“Capital!” answered Sedley.

“Be you him?” demanded the driver, after a pause.

“No; be you?” answered Sedley.

The driver seemed a little puzzled, and eyed Sedley doubtfully; and Sedley looked into the carriage, which, however, was empty, and then at the house at whose rails it stood; but it was dark from top to bottom.

He had thoughts of stepping in and availing himself of the vehicle; but seeing no particular fun in the procedure, and liking better to walk, he merely said, nodding toward the carriage —

“Lots of room.”

“Room enough, I dessay.”

“How long do you mean to wait?”

“As long as I’m paid for.”

“Give my love to your mother.”

“Feard she won’t vally it.”

“Take care of yourself — for my sake.”

Doubtless there was a retort worthy of so sprightly a dialogue; but Sedley could not hear distinctly as he paced on, looking up at the moon, and thinking how beautifully she used to shine, and was no doubt then shining, on the flashing blue sea at Cardyllian, and over the misty mountains. And he thought of his pretty cousin Agnes Etherage; and “Yes,” said he within himself, quickening his pace, “if I win that two pounds at Wright’s, I’ll put two pounds to it, the two pounds I should have lost, that is — there’s nothing extravagant in that — and give little Agnes something pretty; I said I would; and though it was only joke, still it’s a promise.”

Some tradesmen’s bills that morning had frightened him, and as he periodically did, he had bullied himself into resolutions of economy, out of which he ingeniously reasoned himself again. “What shall it be? I’ll look in tomorrow at Dymock and Rose’s — they have lots of charming little French trifles. Where the deuce are we now?”

He paused, and looking about him, and then down a stable-lane between two old-fashioned houses of handsome dimensions, he saw a fellow in a great coat loitering slowly down it, and looking up vigilantly at the two or three windows in the side of the mansion.

“A robbery, by George!” thought Sedley, as he marked the prowling vigilance of the man, and his peculiar skulking gait.

He had no sort of weapon about him, not even a stick; but he is one of the best sparrers extant, and thinks pluck and “a fist-full of fives” well worth a revolver.

Sedley hitched his shoulders, plucked off the one glove that remained on, and followed him softly a few steps, dogging him down the lane, with that shrewd, stern glance which men exchange in the prize-ring. But when on turning about the man in the surtout saw that he was observed, he confirmed Sedley’s suspicions by first pausing irresolutely, and ultimately withdrawing suddenly round the angle.

Sedley had not expected this tactique. For whatever purpose, the man had been plainly watching the house, and it was nearly three o’clock. Thoroughly blooded now for a “lark,” Sedley followed swiftly to the corner, but could not see him; so, as he returned, a low window in the side wall opened, and a female voice said, “Are you there?”

“Yes,” replied Tom Sedley, confidentially drawing near.

“Take this.”

“All right”— and thereupon he received first a bag and then a box, each tolerably heavy.

Sedley was amused. A mystification had set in; a quiet robbery, and he the receiver. He thought of dropping the booty down the area of the respectable house round the corner, but just then the man in the surtout emerged from the wing, so to speak, and marching slowly up the perspective of the lane, seemed about to disturb him, but once more changed his mind, and disappeared.

“What is to happen next?” wondered Tom Sedley. In a few minutes a door which opens from the back yard or garden of the house from which he had received his burthen, opened cautiously, and a woman in a cloak stepped out, carrying another bag, a heavy one it also seemed, and beckoning to him, said, so soon as he was sufficiently near —

“Is the carriage come?”

“Yes’m,” answered Tom, touching his hat, and affecting as well as he could the ways of a porter or a cabman.

“When they comes,” she resumed, “you’ll bring us to where it is, mind, and fetch the things with you — and mind ye, no noise nor talking, and walk as light as you can.”

“All right,” said Tom, in the same whisper in which she spoke.

It could not be a robbery — Tom had changed his mind; there was an air of respectability about the servant that conflicted with that theory, and the discovery that the carriage was waiting to receive the party was also against it.

Tom was growing more interested in his adventure; and entering into the fuss and mystery of the plot.

“Come round, please, and show me where the carriage stands,” said the woman, beckoning to Tom, who followed her round the corner.

She waited for him, and laid her hand on his elbow, giving him a little jog by way of caution.

“Hush — not a word above your breath, mind,” she whispered; “I see that’s it; well, it needn’t come no nearer, mind.”

“All right, ma’am.”

“And there’s the window,” she added in a still more cautious whisper, and pointing with a nod and a frown at a window next the hall door, through the shutter of which a dim light was visible.

“Ha!” breathed Tom, looking wise, “and all safe there?”

“We’re never sure; sometimes awake; sometimes not; sometimes quiet; sometimes quite wild-like; and the window pushed open, for hair! Hoffle he is!”

“And always was,” hazarded Tom.

“Wuss now, though,” whispered she, shaking her head ruefully, and she returned round the angle of the house and entered the door through which she had issued, and Tom set down his load not far from the same point.

Before he had waited many minutes the same door reopened, and two ladies, as he judged them to be from something in their air and dress, descended the steps together, followed by the maid carrying the black-leather bag as before. They stopped just under the door, which the servant shut cautiously and locked; and then these three female figures stood for a few seconds whispering together; and after that they turned and walked up the lane towards Tom Sedley, who touched his hat as they approached, and lifted his load again.

The two ladies were muffled in cloaks. The taller wore no hat or bonnet; but had instead a shawl thrown over her head and shoulders, hood-wise. She walked, leaning upon the shorter lady, languidly, like a person very weak, or in pain, and the maid at the other side, placed her arm tenderly round her waist, under her mufflers, and aided her thus as she walked. They crossed the street at the end of the stable-lane, and walked at that side toward the carriage. The maid signed to Tom, who carried his luggage quickly to its destination on the box, and was in time to open the carriage-door.

“Don’t you mind,” said the woman, putting Tom unceremoniously aside, and herself aiding the taller lady into the old-fashioned carriage. As she prepared to get in, Tom for a moment fancied a recognition; something in the contour of the figure, muffled as it was, for a second struck him; and at the same moment all seemed like a dream, and he stepped backward involuntarily in amazement. Had he not seen the same gesture. The arm, exactly so, and that slender hand in a gardening glove, holding a tiny trowel, under the dark foliage of old trees.

The momentary gesture was gone. The lady leaning back, a muffled figure, in the corner of the carriage, silent. Her companion, who he thought looked sharply at him, from within, now seated herself beside her; and the maid also from her place inside, told him from the window —

“Bid him drive now where he knows, quickly,” and she pulled up the window.

Tom was too much interested now to let the thread of his adventure go. So to the box beside the driver he mounted, and delivered the order he had just received.

Away he drove swiftly, Citywards, through silent and empty streets. Tom quickly lost his bearings; the gas lamps grew few and far between; he was among lanes and arches, and sober, melancholy streets, such as he had never suspected of an existence in such a region.

Here the driver turned suddenly up a narrow way between old brick walls, with tufts of dingy grass here and there at top, and the worn mortar lines overlaid with velvet moss. This short passage terminated in two tall brick piers, surmounted by worn and moss-grown balls of stone.

Tom jumped down and pushed back the rusty iron gates, and they drove into an unlighted, melancholy court-yard; and Tom thundered at a tall narrow hall-door, between chipped and worn pilasters of the same white stone, surmounted by some carved heraldry, half effaced.

Standing on the summit of the steps he had to repeat his summons, till the cavernous old mansion pealed again with the echo, before a light gave token of the approach of a living being to give them greeting.

Tom opened the carriage door, and let down the steps, perhaps a little clumsily, but he was getting through his duties wonderfully.

The party entered the spacious wainscoted hall, in which was an old wooden bench, on which, gladly, it seemed, the sick lady sat herself down. A great carved doorway opened upon a square second hall or lobby, through which the ray of the single candle glanced duskily, and touched the massive banisters of a broad staircase.

This must have been the house of a very great man in its day, a Lord Chancellor, perhaps, one of those Hogarthian mansions in which such men as my Lord Squanderfield might have lived in the first George’s days.

“How could any man have been such an idiot,” thought Sedley, filled with momentary wonder, “as to build a palace like this in such a place?”

“Dear me! what a place — what a strange place!” whispered the elder lady, “where are we to go?”

“Up-stairs, please’m,” said the woman with a brass candlestick in her hand.

“I hope there’s fire, and more light, and — and proper comfort there?”

“Oh! yes’m, please; everythink as you would like, please.”

“Come, dear,” said the old lady tenderly, giving her arm to the languid figure resting in the hall.

So guided and lighted by the servant they followed her up the great well staircase.

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