The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 11.

The Pale Horse.

SALLY RUMBLE knocked at the usual hour at the old man’s door next morning.

“Come in, ma’am,” he answered, in a weary, peevish voice. “Open the window-shutter, and give me some light, and hand me my watch, please.”

All which she did.

“I have not closed my eyes from the time I lay down.”

“Not ailing, sir, I hope?”

“Just allow me to count, and I’ll tell you, my dear.”

He was trying his pulse.

“Just as I thought, egad. The pale horse in the Revelation, ma’am, he’s running a gallop in my pulse; it has been threatening the last three days, and now I’m in for it, and I should not be surprised, Miss Sally, if it ended in a funeral in our alley.”

“God forbid, sir.”

“Amen, with all my heart. Ay, the pale horse; my head’s splitting; oblige me with the looking-glass, and a little less light will answer. Thank you — very good. Just draw the curtain open at the foot of the bed; please, hold it nearer — thank you. Yes, a ghost, ma’am-ha, ha — at last, I do suppose. My eyes, too — I’ve seen pits, with the water drying up, hollow — ay, ay; sunk — and — now — did you see? Well, look at my tongue — here”— and he made the demonstration; “you never saw a worse tongue than that, I fancy; that tongue, ma’am, is eloquent, I think.”

“Please God, sir, you’ll soon be better.”

“Draw the curtain a bit more; the light falls oddly, or — does it? — my face. Did you ever see, ma’am, a face so nearly the colour of a coffin-plate?”

“Don’t be talking, sir, please, of no such thing,” said Sally Rumble, taking heart of grace, for women generally pluck up a spirit when they see a man floored by sickness. “I’ll make you some whey or barley-water, or would you like some weak tea better?”

“Ay; will you draw the curtain close again, and take away the looking-glass? Thanks. I believe I’ve drunk all the water in the carafe. Whey — well, I suppose it’s the right thing; caudle when we’re coming in, and whey, ma’am, when we’re going out. Baptism of Infants, Burial of the Dead! My poor mother, how she did put us through the prayer-book, and Bible — Bible. Dear me.”

“There’s a very good man, sir, please — the Rev. Doctor Bartlett, though he’s gone rather old. He came in, and read a deal, and prayed, every day with my sister when she was sick, poor thing.”

“Bartlett? What’s his Christian name? You need not speak loud — it plays the devil with my head.”

“The Reverend Thomas Bartlett, please, sir.”

“Of Jesus?”

“What, sir, please?”

“Jesus College.”

“Don’t know, I’m sure, sir.”

“Is he old?”

“Yes, sir, past seventy.”

“Ha — well I don’t care a farthing about him,” said Mr. Dingwell.

“Will you, please, have in the apothecary, sir? I’ll fetch him directly, if you wish.”

“No —no apothecary, no clergyman; I don’t believe in the Apostles’ Creed, ma’am, and I do believe in the jokes about apothecaries. If I’m to go, I’ll go quietly, if you please.”

Honest Sally Rumble was heavy at heart to see this old man, who certainly did look ghastly enough to suggest ideas of the undertaker and the sexton, in so unsatisfactory a plight as to his immortal part. Was he a Jew? — there wasn’t a hair on his chin — or a Roman Catholic? — or a member of any one of those multitudinous forms of faith which she remembered in a stout volume, adorned with woodcuts, and entitled “A Dictionary of all Religions,” in a back parlour of her grand-uncle, the tallow-chandler?

“Give me a glass of cold water, ma’am,” said the subject of her solicitude.

“Thank you — that’s the best drink —slop, I think you call it — a sick man can swallow.”

Sally Rumble coughed a little, and fidgeted, and at last she said: “Please, sir, would you wish I should fetch any other sort of a minister?”

“Don’t plague me, pray; I believe in the prophet Rabelais and je m’en vais chercher un grand peutêtre— the two great chemists, Death, who is going to analyse, and Life, to recombine me. I tell you, ma’am, my head is bursting; I’m very ill; I’ll talk no more.”

She hesitated. She lingered in the room, in her great perplexity; and Mr. Dingwell lay back, with a groan.

“I’ll tell you what you may do: go down to your landlord’s office, and be so good as to say to either of those d —— d Jew fellows — I don’t care which — that I am as you see me; it mayn’t signify, it may blow over; but I’ve an idea it is serious; and tell them I said they had better know that I am very ill, and that I’ve taken no step about it.”

With another weary groan Mr. Dingwell let himself down on his pillow, and felt worse for his exertion, and very tired and stupid, and odd about the head, and would have been very glad to fall asleep; and with one odd pang of fear, sudden and cold, at his heart, he thought, “I’m going to die — I’m going to die — at last — I’m going to die.”

The physical nature in sickness acquiesces in death; it is the instructed mind that recoils; and the more versed about the unseen things of futurity, unless when God, as it were, prematurely glorifies it, the more awfully it recoils.

Mr. Dingwell was not more afraid than other sinners who have lived for the earthy part of their nature, and have taken futurity pretty much for granted, and are now going to test by the stake of themselves the value of their loose guesses.

No; he had chanced a great many things, and they had turned out for the most part better than he expected. Oh! no; the whole court, and the adjoining lanes, and, in short, the whole city of London, must go as he would — lots of company, it was not to be supposed it was anything very bad — and he was so devilish tired, over-fatigued — queer — worse than sea-sickness — that headache — fate — the change — an end — what was it? At all events, a rest, a sleep — sleep — could not be very bad; lots of sleep, sir, and the chance — the chance — oh, yes, things go pretty well, and I have not had my good luck yet. I wish I could sleep a bit — yes, let kingdom-come be all sleep — and so a groan, and the brain duller, and more pain, and the immense fatigue that demands the enormous sleep.

When Sarah Rumble returned, Mr. Dingwell seemed, she thought, a great deal heavier. He made no remark, as he used to do, when she entered the room. She came and stood by the bed-side, but he lay with his eyes closed, not asleep; she could see by the occasional motion of his lips, and the fidgety change of his posture, and his weary groanings. She waited for a time in silence.

“Better, sir?” she half-whispered, after a minute or two.

“No,” he said, wearily.

Another silence followed, and then she asked, “Would you like a drink, Mr. Dingwell, sir?”

“Yes — water.”

So he drank a very little, and lay down again.

Miss Sarah Rumble stayed in the room, and nearly ten minutes passed without a word.

“What did he say?” demanded Mr. Dingwell so abruptly that Sarah Rumble fancied he had been dreaming.

“Who, sir, please?”

“The Jew — landlord,” he answered.

“Mr. Levi’s a-coming up, sir, please — he expected in twenty minutes,” replied she.

Mr. Dingwell groaned; and two or three minutes more elapsed, and silence seemed to have reestablished itself in the darkened chamber, when Mr. Dingwell raised himself up with a sudden effort, and he said —

“Sarah Rumble, fetch me my desk.” Which she did, from his sitting-room.

“Put your hand under the bolster, and you’ll find two keys on a ring, and a pocket-book. Yes. Now, Sarah Rumble, unlock that desk. Very good. Put out the papers on the coverlet before me; first bolt the door. Thank you, ma’am. There are a parcel of letters among those, tied across with a red silk cord — just so. Put them in my hand — thank you — and place all the rest back again neatly —neatly, if you please. Now lock the desk; replace it, and come here; but first give me pen and ink, and bolt the door — try it again.”

And as she did so he scrawled an address upon the blank paper in which these letters were wrapt.

The brown visage of his grave landlady was graver than ever, as she returned to listen for further orders.

“Mrs. Sarah Rumble, I take you for an honest person; and as I may die this time, I make a particular request of you— take this little packet, and slip it between the feather-bed and the mattress, as near the centre as your arm will reach — thank you — remember it’s there. If I die, ma’am, you’ll find a ten-pound note wrapped about it, which I give to you; you need not thank — that will do. The letters addressed as they are you will deliver, without showing them, or saying one word to anyone but to the gentleman himself, into whose hands you must deliver them. You understand?”

“Yes, sir, please; I’m listening.”

“Well, attend. There are two Jew gentlemen — your landlord, Mr. Levi, and the old Jew, who have been with me once or twice — you know them; that makes two; and there is Mr. Larkin, the tall gentleman who has been twice here with them, with the lavender waistcoat and trousers, the eye-glass with the black ribbon, the black frock coat — heigho! oh, dear, my head! — the red grizzled whiskers, and bald head.”

“The religious gentleman, please, sir?”

“Exactly; the religious gentleman. Well, attend. The two Jews and the religious gentleman together make three; and those three gentlemen are robbers.”

What, sir?”

Robbers— robbers! Don’t you know what ‘robbers’ means? They are all three robbers. Now, I don’t think they’ll want to fiddle with my money till I’m dead.”

“Oh, Lord, sir!”

“‘Oh, Lord!’ of course. That will do. They won’t touch my money till I’m dead, if they trust you; but they will want my desk — at least Larkin will. I shan’t be able to look after things, for my head is very bad, and I shall be too drowsy — soon knocked up; so give ’em the desk, if they ask for it, and these keys from under the pillow; and if they ask you if there are any other papers, say no; and don’t you tell them one word about the letters you’ve put between the beds here. If you betray me — you’re a religious woman — yes — and believe in God — may God d — n you; and He will, for you’ll be accessory to the villany of those three miscreants. And now I’ve done what in me lies; and that is all — my last testament.”

And Mr. Dingwell lay down wearily. Sarah Rumble knew that he was very ill; she had attended people in fever, and seen them die. Mr. Dingwell was already perceptibly worse. As she was coming up with some whey, a knock came to the door, and opening it she saw Mr. Levi, with a very surly countenance, and his dark eyes blazing fiercely on her.

“How’sh Dingwell now?” he demanded, before he had time to enter, and shut the door; “worse, is he?”

“Well, he’s duller, sir.”

“In his bed? Shut the door.”

“Yes, sir, please. Didn’t get up this morning. He expected you two hours ago, sir.”

Levi nodded.

“What doctor did you fetch?” he asked.

“No doctor, please, sir. I thought you and him would choose.”

Levi made no answer; so she could not tell by his surly face, which underwent no change, whether he approved or not. He looked at his watch.

“Larkin wasn’t here today?”

“Mr. Larkin? No, sir, please.”

“Show me Dingwell’s room, till I have a look at him,” said the Jew, gloomily.

So he followed her up-stairs, and entered the darkened room without waiting for any invitation, and went to the window, and pulled open a bit of the shutter.

“What’s it for?” grumbled Dingwell indistinctly from his bed.

“So you’ve bin and done it, you have,” said the Jew, walking up with his hands in his pockets, and eyeing him from a distance as he might a glandered horse.

Dingwell was in no condition to retort on this swarthy little man, who eyed him with a mixture of disgust and malignity.

“How long has he been thish way?” said the Jew, glowering on Sarah Rumble.

“Only today in bed, please, sir; but he has bin lookin’ awful bad this two or three days, sir.”

“Do you back it for fever?”

“I think it’s fever, sir.”

“I s’pose you’d twig fever fasht enough? Seen lotsh of fever in your time?”

“Yes, sir, please.”

“It ish fever, ten to one in fifties. Black death going, ma’am-my luck. Look at him there, d —— n him, he’sh got it.”

Levi looked at him surlily for a while with eyes that glowed like coals.

“This comsh o’ them cursed holes you’re always a-going to; there’s always fever and everything there, you great old buck goat.”

Dingwell made an effort to raise himself, and mumbled, half awake —

“Let me — I’ll talk to him — how dare you — when I’m better —quiet”— and he laid down his head again.

“When you are, you cursed sink. Look at all we’ve lost by you.”

He stood looking at Dingwell savagely.

“He’ll die,” exclaimed he, making an angry nod, almost a butt, with his head toward the patient, and he repeated his prediction with a furious oath.

“See, you’ll send down to the apothecary’s for that chloride of lime, and them vinegars and things — or — no; you must wait here, for Larkin will come; and don’t you let him go, mind. Me and Mr. Goldshed will be here in no time. Tell him the doctor’s coming; and us — and I’ll send up them things from the apothecary, and you put them all about in plates on the floor and tables. Bad enough to lose our money, and cursed bad; but I won’t take this — come out o’ this room — if I can help.”

And he entered the drawing-room, shutting Dingwell’s door, and spitting on the floor, and then he opened the window.

“He’ll die— do you think he’ll die?” he exclaimed again.

“He’s in the hands of God, sir,” said Sally Rumble.

“He won’t be long there — he’ll die — I say he will— he will;” and the little Jew swore and stamped on the floor, and clapped his hat on his head, and ran down the stairs, in a paroxysm of business and fury.

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