The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 13.

Mr. Dingwell Thinks of an Excursion.

IF Mr. Dingwell had been the most interesting, beautiful, and, I will add, wealthy of human beings, instead of being an ugly and wicked old bankrupt, Messrs. Goldshed, Levi, and Larkin could not have watched the progress of his complaint with greater trepidation, or hailed the first unequivocal symptoms of his recovery with more genuine delight. I doubt if any one of them would have experienced the same intense happiness at the restoration of wife, child, or parent.

They did not, it is true, reassemble in Mr. Dingwell’s apartments in Rosemary Court. There was not one of those gentlemen who did not set a proper value upon his own life; and they were content with the doctor’s report. In due course, the oracle pronounced Mr. Dingwell out of danger, but insisted on change of air.

Well, that could be managed, of course. It must be managed, for did not the doctor say, that without it the patient might not ultimately recover. If it could have been dispensed with, the risk would have been wisely avoided. But Mr. Dingwell’s recovery depended on it, and Mr. Dingwell must be made to recover.

Whither should they send him? Stolen treasure or murdered body is jealously concealed by the malefactor; but not more shrinkingly than was Mr. Dingwell by those gentlemen who had him in charge. Safe enough he was while he remained in his dingy seclusion in Rosemary Court, where he lay as snugly as Asmodeus in the magician’s phial, and secure against all but some such accident as the irruption of the student Don Cleophas Leandro Peres Zambullo, through the skylight. But where was to be found a rural habitation — salubrious and at the same time sufficiently secret. And if they did light upon one resembling that where the water-fiends played their pranks —

“On a wild moor, all brown and bleak,

Where broods the heath-frequenting grouse,

There stood a tenement antique —

Lord Hoppergollop’s country house.

“Here silence reigned with lips of glue,

And undisturbed, maintained her law,

Save when the owl cried —‘Whoo! whoo! whoo!’

Or the hoarse crow croaked —‘Caw! caw! caw!’”

If I say they did find so eligible a mansion for their purpose, was it likely that their impracticable and incorrigible friend, Mr. Dingwell, would consent to spend six weeks in the “deserted mansion” as patiently as we are told Molly Dumpling did?

I think not. And when the doctor talked of country air, the patient joked peevishly about the “grove of chimneys,” and “the sweet shady side of Pall Mall.”

“I think, Mrs. Rumble,” said he, one day, “I’m not going to die this bout at all events. I’m looking better, I think — eh?”

“Looking very bad, sir, please. I can’t see no improvement,” said Sarah Rumble.

“Well, ma’am, you try to keep my spirits up, thank you. I’m shut up too much — that’s the sole cause of it now. If I could creep out a bit at night.”

“God forbid, sir.”

“Thank you, ma’am, again. I say if I could get out a little I should soon get my strength back again; but sitting in this great padded chair I might as well be in bed; can’t go out in the daytime you know — too many enemies. The owl’s been moulting, ma’am-devilish sick — the moulting owl. If the old bird could flutter out a bit. I’m living like a monk, I was going to say — egad, I wish I was. Give me those d —— bitters; they haven’t done me a bit of good — thanks.”

“If you was to go to the country, sir,” insinuated Miss Sarah Rumble.

“Yes, if I was, as you express it, I should die in a week. If air could have killed me, the curious atmosphere of this charming court would have killed me long ago. I’m not one of those air-plants, ma’am. What I want is a little fillip, ma’am-a little amusement — anything out of this prison; and I’m not going to squat on a moor, or to roost in a wood, to please a pack of fellows that don’t care if I were on the treadmill, provided they could take me out whenever they want me. My health, indeed! They simply want me out of the way. My health! Their consideration for me is truly affecting. We’ll not mind the bitters, yet. It’s time for my claret.”

He drank it, and seemed to doze for a little. Mrs. Rumble quickly settled the medicine bottles and other things that had been put out of their places, every now and then looking at the sunken face of the old man, in his death-like nap — his chin sunk on his breast, the stern carving of his massive forehead, the repulsive lines of a grim selfishness, and a certain evil shadow, made that face in its repose singularly unlovely.

Suddenly he waked.

“I say, Mrs. Rumble, I’ve been thinking — what about that old clergyman you mentioned — that Mr. Bartlett. I think I will see him — suppose he lectures me; his hard words won’t break my bones, and I think he’d amuse me; so you may as well get him in, any time — I don’t care when.”

Sarah Rumble was only too glad to give her wicked tenant a chance, such as it was, and next day, at about one o’clock, a gentle-looking old clergyman, with thin white hair, knocked at his door, and was admitted. It was the Rev. Thomas Bartlett.

“I can’t rise, sir, to receive you — you’ll excuse me; but I’m still very ill,” said Mr. Dingwell.

“Pray don’t stir, sir,” said the clergyman.

“I can’t,” said Mr. Dingwell. “Will you kindly sit in that chair, near the fire? What I have to say is private, and if you please we’ll speak very low. My head isn’t recovered yet.”

“Certainly,” said the old gentleman, placing himself as Dingwell wished.

“Thank you very much, sir. Now I can manage it. Isn’t your name Thomas, sir — the Reverend Thomas Bartlett?” said Mr. Dingwell, looking at him shrewdly from under his white eyebrows.

“That’s my name, sir.”

My name’s Dingwell. You don’t remember? I’ll try to bring it to your mind. About twenty-nine years ago you were one of the curates at St. Wyther’s in the Fields?”

“Yes, sir, I was,” answered the clergyman, fixing his eyes in turn inquisitively on him.

“I was the witness — do you remember me, now — to the ceremony, when that unfortunate fellow, Verney, married Miss — I have a note of her name — hang it! — Rebecca, was it? —Yes, Rebecca— it was Rebecca Mervyn. You married Verney to Miss Mervyn, and I witnessed it.”

“I remember very well, sir, that a gentleman did accompany Mr. Verney; and I remember the marriage extremely well, because there occurred very distressing circumstances respecting that Mr. Verney not very long after, which fixed that marriage in my mind; but having seen you once only, sir, I can’t pretend to recollect your face.”

“There has been some time, too, sir, since then,” said Mr. Dingwell, with a cynical sneer, and a shrug. “But I think I should have recognized you; that’s perhaps owing to my having a remarkably retentive memory for faces; however it’s of no great consequence here. It isn’t a matter of identification at all. I only want to know, as Verney’s dead, whether you can tell what has become of that poor lady, or can find any clue to her whereabouts — there was a baby — a little child — if they are still living.”

“She did write to me twice, sir, within a few years after the marriage. He treated her very ill, sir,” said the clergyman.

“Infamously, I fancy,” said Dingwell; “and how long ago was that, sir?”

“Oh! a long time; twenty — ay, five — ay, eight-and-twenty years since,” said the old gentleman.

Dingwell laughed.

His visitor stared.

“Yes, it’s a good while,” said Mr. Dingwell; “and looking over that gulf, sir, you may fill your glass, and sing —

“‘Many a lad I liked is dead,

And many a lass grown old.’

Eight-and-twenty years! Gad, sir, she’s had time to grow gray; and to be dead and buried; and to serve a handsome period of her term in purgatory. I forgot, though; you don’t follow me there. I was thinking of the French curé, who made part of my journey here with me.”

“No, sir; Church of England, thank God; the purest faith; the most scriptural, I believe, on earth. You, sir, I assume, are of the same Church,” said he.

“Well, I can’t say I am, sir; nor a Catholic, nor a Quaker,” said the invalid.

“I hope, sir, there’s no tendency to rationalism?”

“No, sir, I thank you; to no ism whatsoever invented by any other man; Dingwellism for Dingwell; Smithism for Smith. Every man has a right to his opinion, in my poor judgment.”

“And pray, sir, if neither Romanist nor Protestant, what are you?” inquired the clergyman, as having a right to ask.

Porcus de gruge epicuri, at your service,” said the sick man, with a feeble smirk.

“I had hoped, sir, it might have been for some profitable purpose you had sent for me,” said the disappointed pastor.

“Well, sir, I was baptized in the Church of England, although I don’t subscribe the Articles; so I served in your regiment, you see, though I don’t wear the uniform any longer.”

“I thought, sir, you might have wished some conversation upon religious subjects.”

“And haven’t we had it, sir? — sorry we don’t agree. I’m too old to turn out of my own way; but, though I can’t learn yours, I shall be happy to teach you something of mine, if you wish it.”

“I think, sir, as I have other calls to make,” said the old clergyman, much offended, and rising to take his leave as he spoke. “I had better wish you a good afternoon.”

“Pray, sir, stay a moment; I never knew a clergyman in such a hurry before to leave a sick man; as no man knows, according to your theory, when he’s going to be converted — and how should I? The mildew of death is whitening each of us at this moment; the last golden sands are running out. D— it, give me a chance.”

This incongruous harangue was uttered so testily — even fiercely — that the good clergyman was puzzled, and began to doubt in what state his fever might have left Mr. Dingwell’s brain.

“Don’t you see, sir? Do sit down — a little patience won’t do either of us any harm.”

“Certainly, sir,” hesitated the clergyman, looking hard at him, “but I have not a great deal of time.”

“Nor I a great deal of strength; I shan’t keep you long, sir.”

The Rev. Thomas Bartlett sat down again, and glanced meekly an invitation to Mr. Dingwell to begin.

“Nine-and-twenty years, sir, since you married that unlucky pair. Now, I need not say by what particular accidents, for the recollection is painful, I was in after-life thrown into the society of that unfortunate ill-used dog, poor Arthur Verney; I knew him intimately. I was the only friend he had left, and I was with him when he died, infamously neglected by all his family. He had just got his half-yearly payment of a beggarly annuity, on which he subsisted; he— the rightful Viscount Verney, and the head of his family — ha, ha, ha! By Jove, sir, I can’t help laughing, though I pity him. Having that little sum in his hand, said he to me, ‘You take charge of this for my son, if you can find him; and I rely on your friendship to look him up if ever you revisit England; this is for him; and he was baptized by the Rev. Thomas Bartlett, as my wife wrote to tell me just eight-and-twenty years ago, and he, no doubt, can enable you to trace him.’ That’s what he said — what say you, sir?”

“Old Lady Verney placed the child in charge of the gentleman who then managed the Verney property. I heard all about it from a Mr. Wynne Williams, a Welsh lawyer. The child died when only a year old; you know he would have been the heir apparent.”

“Poor Arthur said no, sir. I asked him — a Scotch marriage, or some of those crooked wed-locks on which they found bigamies and illegitimacies. ‘No,’ Arthur said, ‘he has no technical case, and he may be miserably poor; this is all I can do, and I charge you with it.’ It was very solemn, sir. Where does that lawyer live?”

“At this moment I can’t recollect, sir — some place near which the Verneys have estates.”

“Cardyllian?”

“The very place, sir.”

“I know it, sir; I’ve been there when I was a boy. And his name was Wynne Williams?”

“I think it was,” said the clergyman.

“And you have nothing more to say about the poor child?” asked Mr. Dingwell.

“There is nothing more, I fancy, sir,” said Mr. Bartlett. “Can I give you any more information?”

“Not any, sir, that I can think of at present. Many thanks, Mr. Bartlett, for your obliging call. Wait a moment for the servant.”

And Mr. Dingwell, thinking fiercely, rang his hand-bell long and viciously.

“Ha! Mrs. Rumble; you’ll show this gentleman out. Good-bye, sir, and many thanks.”

“Good day, sir.”

“Ha, ha, ha! It’s a good subject, and a fertile!” muttered Mr. Dingwell, so soon as he was alone.

For the rest of that evening Mr. Dingwell seemed to find ample amusement in his own thoughts, and did not trouble Mrs. Rumble with that contemptuous and cynical banter, which she was obliged to accept, when he pleased, for conversation.

The only thing she heard him say was —“I’ll go there.”

Now Malory had already been proved to be a safe hiding place for a gentleman in Mr. Dingwell’s uncomfortable circumstances. The air was unexceptionable, and Lord Verney was easily persuaded to permit the old man to sojourn, for a few weeks, in the Steward’s House, under the care of old Mrs. Mervyn’s servant, aided by one provided by Messrs. Goldshed and Levi.

There were two rooms in the steward’s house which old Mrs. Mervyn never used, and some furniture removed from the Dower House adjoining, rendered them tolerably comfortable. A letter from old Lady Verney opened and explained the request, which amounted to a command, that she would permit the invalid, in whom Lord Verney took an interest, to occupy, for a fortnight or so, the spare rooms in the Steward’s House.

So all was made ready, and the day fixed for Mr. Dingwell’s arrival.

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