The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 15.

Clay Rectory by Moonlight.

As the attorney made his astounding announcement, Cleve had felt as if his brain, in vulgar parlance, turned! In a moment the world in which he had walked and lived from his school-days passed away, and a chasm yawned at his feet. His whole future was subverted. A man who dies in delusion, and awakes not to celestial music and the light of paradise, but to the trumpet of judgment and the sight of the abyss, will quail as Cleve did.

How he so well maintained the appearance of self-possession while Mr. Larkin remained, I can’t quite tell. Pride, however, which has carried so many quivering souls, with an appearance of defiance, through the press-room to the drop, supported him.

But now that scoundrel was gone. The fury that fired him, the iron constraint that held him firm was also gone, and Cleve despaired.

Till this moment, when he was called on to part with it all, he did not suspect how entirely his ambition was the breath of his nostrils, or how mere a sham was the sort of talk to which he had often treated Margaret and others about an emigrant’s life and the Arcadian liberty of the Antipodes.

The House-of-Commons life — the finest excitement on earth — the growing fame, the peerage, the premiership in the distance — the vulgar fingers of Jos. Larkin had just dropped the extinguisher upon the magic lamp that had showed him these dazzling illusions, and he was left to grope and stumble in the dark among his debts, with an obscure wife on his arm, and a child to plague him also. And this was to be the end! A precarious thousand a-year — dependent on the caprice of a narrow, tyrannical old man, with a young wife at his ear, and a load of debts upon Cleve’s shoulders, as he walked over the quag!

It is not well to let any object, apart from heaven, get into your head and fill it. Cleve had not that vein of insanity which on occasion draws men to suicide. In the thread of his destiny that fine black strand was not spun. So blind and deep for a while was his plunge into despair, that I think had that atrabilious poison, which throws out its virus as suddenly as latent plague, and lays a felo-dese to cool his heels and his head in God’s prison, the grave — had a drop or two, I say, of that elixir of death been mingled in his blood, I don’t think he would ever have seen another morrow.

But Cleve was not thinking of dying. He was sure — in rage, and blasphemy, and torture, it might be-but still he was sure to live on. Well, what was now to be done? Every power must be tasked to prevent the ridiculous catastrophe which threatened him with ruin; neither scruple, nor remorse, nor conscience, nor compunction should stand in the way. We are not to suppose that he is about to visit the Hon. Miss Caroline Oldys with a dagger in one hand and a cup of poison in the other, nor with gunpowder to blow up his uncle and Ware, as some one did Darnley and the house of Kirk of Field. Simply his mind was filled with the one idea, that one way or another the thing must be stopped.

It was long before his ideas arranged themselves, and for a long time after no plan of operations which had a promise of success suggested itself. When at length he did decide, you would have said no wilder or wickeder scheme could have entered his brain.

It was a moonlight night. The scene a flat country, with a monotonous row of poplars crossing it. This long file of formal trees marks the line of a canal, fronting which at a distance of about a hundred yards stands a lonely brick house, with a few sombre elms rising near it; a light mist hung upon this expansive flat. The soil must have been unproductive, so few farmsteads were visible for miles around. Here and there pools of water glimmered coldly in the moonlight; and patches of rushes and reeds made the fields look ragged and neglected.

Here and there, too, a stunted hedge-row showed dimly along the level, otherwise unbroken, and stretching away into the haze of the horizon. It is a raw and dismal landscape, where a murder might be done, and the scream lose itself in distance unheard — where the highwayman, secure from interruption, might stop and plunder the chance wayfarer at his leisure — a landscape which a fanciful painter would flank with a distant row of gibbets.

The front of this square brick house, with a little enclosure, hardly two yards in depth, and a wooden paling in front, and with a green moss growing damply on the piers and the door-steps, and tinging the mortar between the bricks, looks out upon a narrow old road, along which just then were audible the clink and rattle of an approaching carriage and horses.

It was past one o’clock. No hospitable light shone from the windows, which on the contrary looked out black and dreary upon the vehicle and steaming horses which pulled up in front of the house.

Out got Cleve and reconnoitred.

“Are you quite sure?”

“Clay Parsonage — yes, sir,” said the driver.

Cleve shook the little wooden gate, which was locked; so he climbed the paling, and knocked and rang loud and long at the hall-door.

The driver at last reported a light in an upper window.

Cleve went on knocking and ringing, and the head of the Rev. Isaac Dixie appeared high in the air over the window-stool.

“What do you want, pray?” challenged that suave clergyman from his sanctuary.

“It’s I— Cleve Verney. Why do you go to bed at such hours? I must see you for a moment.”

“Dear me! my dear, valued pupil! Who could have dreamed? — I shall be down in one moment.”

“Thanks — I’ll wait;” and then to the driver he said —“I shan’t stay five minutes; mind, you’re ready to start with me the moment I return.”

Now the hall-door opened. The Rev. Isaac Dixie — for his dress was a compromise between modesty and extreme haste, and necessarily very imperfect — stood in greater part behind the hall-door; a bed-room candlestick in his fingers, smiling blandly on his “distinguished pupil,” who entered without a smile, without a greeting — merely saying:—

“Where shall we sit down for a minute, old Dixie?”

Holding his hand with the candle in it across, so as to keep his flowing dressing-gown together; and with much wonder and some misgivings, yet contriving his usual rosy smile, he conducted his unexpected visitor into his “study.”

“I’ve so many apologies to offer, my very honoured and dear friend; this is so miserable, and I fear you are cold. We must get something; we must, really, manage something — some little refreshment.”

Dixie placed the candle on the chimney-piece, and looked inquiringly on Cleve.

“There’s some sherry, I know, and I think there’s some brandy.”

“There’s no one up and about?” inquired Cleve.

“Not a creature,” said the Rector; “no one can hear a word, and these are good thick walls.”

“I’ve only a minute; I know you’d like to be a bishop, Dixie?”

Cleve, with his muffler and his hat still on, was addressing the future prelate, with his elbow on the chimney-piece.

Nolo episcopari, of course, but we know you would, and there’s no time now for pretty speeches. Now, listen, you shall be that, and you shall reach it by two steps — the two best livings in our gift. I always keep my word; and when I set my heart on a thing I bring it about, and so sure as I do any good, I’ll bend all my interest to that one object.”

The Rev. Isaac Dixie stared hard at him, for Cleve looked strangely, and spoke as sternly as a villain demanding his purse. The Rector of Clay looked horribly perplexed. His countenance seemed to ask, “Does he mean to give me a mitre or to take my life, or is he quite right in his head?”

“You think I don’t mean what I say, or that I’m talking nonsense, or that I’m mad. I’m not mad, it’s no nonsense, and no man was ever more resolved to do what he says.” And Cleve who was not given to swearing, did swear a fierce oath. “But all this is not for nothing; there’s a condition; you must do me a service. It won’t cost you much — less trouble, almost, than you’ve taken for me to-night, but you must do it.”

“And may I, my dear and valued pupil, may I ask?” began the rev. gentleman.

“No, you need not ask, for I’ll tell you. It’s the same sort of service you did for me in France,” said Cleve.

“Ah! ah!” ejaculated the clergyman, very uneasily. “For no one but you, my dear and admirable pupil, could I have brought myself to take that step, and I trust that you will on reconsideration ——”

“You must do what I say,” said Cleve, looking and speaking with the same unconscious sternness, which frightened the Rector more than any amount of bluster. “I hardly suppose you want to break with me finally, and you don’t quite know all the consequences of that step, I fancy.”

“Break with you? my admirable patron! desert my dear and brilliant pupil in an emergency? Certainly not. Reckon upon me, my dear Mr. Verney, when ever you need my poor services, to the uttermost. To you all my loyalty is due, but unless you made a very special point of it, I should hesitate for any other person living, but yourself, to incur a second time ——”

“Don’t you think my dear, d — d old friend, I understand the length, and breadth, and depth, of your friendship; I know how strong it is, and I’ll make it stronger. It is for me— yes, in my own case you must repeat the service, as you call it, which you once did me, in another country.”

The Rev. Isaac Dixie’s rosy cheeks mottled all over blue and yellow; he withdrew his hand from his dressing-gown, with an unaffected gesture of fear; and he fixed a terrified gaze upon Cleve Verney’s eyes, which did not flinch, but encountered his, darkly and fixedly, with a desperate resolution.

“Why, you look as much frightened as if I asked you to commit a crime; you marvellous old fool, you hardly think me mad enough for that?”

“I hardly know, Mr. Verney, what I think,” said Dixie, looking with a horrible helplessness into his face.

“Good God! sir; it can’t be anything wrong?”

“Come, come, sir; you’re more than half asleep. Do you dare to think I’d commit myself to any man, by such an idiotic proposal? No one but a lunatic could think of blasting himself, as you — but you can’t suppose it. Do listen, and understand if you can; my wife, to whom you married me, is dead, six months ago she died; I tell you she’s dead.”

“Dear me! I’m very much pained, and I will say shocked; the deceased lady, I should not, my dear pupil, have alluded to, of course; but need I say, I never heard of that affliction?”

“How on earth could you? You don’t suppose, knowing all you do, I’d put it in the papers among the deaths?”

“No, dear me, of course,” said the Rev. Isaac Dixie, hastily bringing his dressing-gown again together. “No, certainly.”

“I don’t think that sort of publication would answer you or me. You forget it is two years ago and more, a good deal more. I don’t though, and whatever you may, I don’t want my uncle to know anything about it.”

“But, you know, I only meant, you hadn’t told me; my dear Mr. Verney, my honoured pupil, you will see — don’t you perceive how much is involved; but thiscouldn’t you put this upon some one else? Do —do think.”

“No, in no one’s power, but yours, Dixie;” and Cleve took his hand, looking in his face, and wrung it so hard that the rev. gentleman almost winced under the pressure, of administering which I dare say Cleve was quite unconscious. “No one but you.”

“The poor — the respected lady — being deceased, of course you’ll give me a note to that effect under your hand; you’ll have no objection, in this case, to my taking out a special licence?”

“Special devil! are you mad? Why, anyone could do it with that. No, it’s just because it is a little irregular, nothing more, and exacts implicit mutual confidence, that I have chosen you for it.”

Dixie looked as if the compliment was not an unmixed pleasure.

“I still think, that — that having performed the other, there is some awkwardness, and the penalties are awful,” said he with increasing uneasiness, “and it does strike me, that if my dear Mr. Verney could place his hand upon some other humble friend, in this particular case, the advantages would be obvious.”

“Come, Dixie,” said Cleve, “I’m going; you must say yes or no, and so decide whether you have seen the last of me; I can’t spend the night giving you my reasons, but they are conclusive. If you act like a man of sense, it’s the last service I shall ever require at your hands, and I’ll reward you splendidly; if you don’t, I not only cease to be your friend, but I become your enemy. I can strike when I like it — you know that; and upon my soul I’ll smash you. I shall see my uncle tomorrow morning at Ware, and I’ll tell him distinctly the entire of that French transaction.”

“But — but pray, my dear Mr. Verney, do say, did I refuse —do I object? you may command me, of course. I have incurred I may say a risk for you already, a risk in form.”

“Exactly, in form; and you don’t increase it by this kindness, and you secure my eternal gratitude. Now you speak like a man of sense. You must be in Cardyllian tomorrow evening. It is possible I may ask nothing of you; if I do, the utmost is a technical irregularity, and secrecy, which we are both equally interested in observing. You shall stay a week in Cardyllian mind, and I, of course, frank you there and back, and while you remain — it’s my business. It has a political aspect, as I shall explain to you by-and-bye, and so soon as I shall have brought my uncle round, and can avow it, it will lead the way rapidly to your fortune. Shall I see you in Cardyllian tomorrow evening?”

“Agreed, sir! — agreed, my dear Mr. Verney. I shall be there, my dear and valued pupil —yes.”

“Go to the Verney Arms; I shall probably be looking out for you there; at all events I shall see you before night.”

Verney looked at his watch, and repeated “I shall see you tomorrow;” and without taking leave, or hearing as it seemed the Rev. Isaac Dixie’s farewell compliments and benedictions, he walked out in gloomy haste, as if the conference was not closed, but only suspended by the approaching parenthesis of a night and a day.

From the hall-table the obsequious divine took the key of the little gate, to which, in slippers and dressing-gown, he stepped blandly forth, and having let out his despotic pupil, and waved his adieu, as the chaise drove away, he returned, and locked up his premises and house, with a great load at his heart.

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