The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 16.

An Alarm.

Cleve reached the station, eight miles away from the dismal swamp I have described, in time to catch the mail train. From Llwynan he did not go direct to Ware, but drove instead to Cardyllian, and put up at the Verney Arms early next morning.

By ten o’clock he was seen, sauntering about the streets, talking with old friends, and popping into the shops and listening to the gossip of the town. Cleve had a sort of friendliness that answered all electioneering purposes perfectly, and that was the measure of its value.

Who should he light upon in Castle Street but Tom Sedley! They must have arrived by the same train at Llwynan. The sight of Tom jarred intensely upon Cleve Verney’s nerves. There was something so strange in his looks and manner that Sedley thought him ill. He stopped for a while to talk with him at the corner of Church Street, but seemed so obviously disposed to escape from him, that Sedley did not press his society, but acquiesced with some disgust and wonder in their new relations.

Tom Sedley had been with Wynne Williams about poor Vane Etherage’s affairs. Honest Wynne Williams was in no mood to flatter Lord Verney, the management of whose affairs he had, he said, “resigned.” The fact was that he had been, little by little, so uncomfortably superseded in his functions by our good friend Jos. Larkin, and the fashion of Lord Verney’s countenance was so manifestly changed, that honest Wynne Williams felt that he might as well do a proud thing, and resign, as wait a little longer for the inevitable humiliation of dismissal.

“I’m afraid my friend the admiral is in bad hands; worse hands than Larkin’s he could hardly have fallen into. I could tell you things of that fellow, if we had time — of course strictly between ourselves, you know — that would open your eyes. And as to his lordship — well, I suppose most people know something of Lord Verney. I owe him nothing, you know; it’s all ended between us, and I wash my hands of him and his concerns. You may talk to him, if you like; but you’ll find you might as well argue with the tide in the estuary there. I’d be devilish glad if I could be of any use; but you see how it is; and to tell you the truth, I’m afraid it must come to a regular smash, unless Lord Verney drops that nasty litigation. There are some charges, you know, upon the property already; and with that litigation hanging over it, I don’t see how he’s to get money to pay those calls. It’s a bad business, I’m afraid, and an awful pity. Poor old fellow! — a little bit rough, but devilish good-hearted.”

Tom Sedley went up to Hazelden. The Etherage girls knew he was coming, and were watching for him at the top of the steep walk.

“I’ve been talking, as I said I would, to Wynne Williams this morning,” he said, after greetings and inquiries made and answered, “and he had not anything important to advise; but he has promised to think over the whole matter.”

“And Wynne Williams is known to be the cleverest lawyer in the world,” exclaimed Miss Charity, exulting. “I was afraid, on account of his having been so lately Lord Verney’s adviser, that he would not have been willing to consult with you. And will he use his influence, which must be very great, with Lord Verney?”

“He has none; and he thinks it would be quite useless my talking to him.”

“Oh! Is it possible? Well, if he said that, I never heard such nonsense in the course of my life. I think old Lord Verney was one of the very nicest men I ever spoke to in the course of my life; and I’m certain it is all that horrid Mr. Larkin, and a great mistake; for Lord Verney is quite a gentleman, and would not do anything so despicable as to worry and injure papa by this horrid business, if only you would make him understand it; and I do think, Thomas Sedley, you might take that trouble for papa.”

“I’ll go over to Ware, and try to see Lord Verney, if you think my doing so can be of the least use,” said Tom, who knew the vanity of arguing with Miss Charity.

“Oh, do,” said pretty Agnes, and that entreaty was, of course, a command; so without going up to see old Etherage, who was very much broken and ill, his daughters said; and hoping possibly to have some cheering news on his return, Tom Sedley took his leave for the present, and from the pier of Cardyllian crossed in a boat to Ware.

On the spacious steps of that palatial mansion, as Mr. Larkin used to term it, stood Lord Verney, looking grandly seaward, with compressed eyes, like a near-sighted gentleman as he was.

“Oh! is she all right?” said Lord Verney.

“I— I don’t know, Lord Verney,” replied Tom Sedley. “I came to”—

“Oh — aw — Mr. — Mr. — how d’ye do, sir,” said Lord Verney, with marked frigidity, not this time giving him the accustomed finger.

“I came, Lord Verney, hoping you might possibly give me five minutes, and a very few words, about that unfortunate business of poor Mr. Vane Etherage.”

“I’m unfortunately just going out in a boat — about it; and I can’t just now afford time, Mr. — a — Mr.”—

Sedley is my name,” suggested Sedley, who knew that Lord Verney remembered him perfectly.

“Sedley — Mr. Sedley; yes. As I mentioned, I’m going in a boat. I’m sorry I can’t possibly oblige you; and it is very natural you, who are so intimate, I believe, with Mr. Etherage, should take that side of the question — about it; but I’ve no reason to call those proceedings unfortunate; and — and I don’t anticipate — and, in fact, people usually look after their own concerns — about it.” Lord Verney, standing on the steps, was looking over Sedley’s head, as he spoke, at the estuary and the shipping there.

“I’m sure, Lord Verney, if you knew how utterly ruinous, how really deplorable, the consequences of pursuing this thing — I mean the lawsuit against him — may be-I am sure— you would stop it all.”

Honest Tom spoke in the belief that in the hesitation that had marked the close of the noble lord’s remarks there was a faltering of purpose, whereas there was simply a failure of ideas.

“I can’t help your forming opinions, sir, though I have not invited their expression upon my concerns and — and affairs. If you have anything to communicate about those proceedings, you had better see Mr. Larkin, my attorney; he’s the proper person. Mr. Etherage has taken a line in the county to wound and injure me, as, of course, he has a perfect right to do; he has taken that line, and I don’t see any reason why I should not have what I’m entitled to. There’s the principle of government by party, you’re aware; and we’re not to ask favours of those we seek to wound and injure — about it; and that’s my view, and idea, and fixed opinion. I must wish you good morning, Mr. Sedley. I’m going down to my boat, and I decline distinctly any conversation upon the subject of my law business; I decline it distinctly, Mr. Sedley — about it,” repeated the peer peremptorily; and as he looked a good deal incensed, Tom Sedley wisely concluded it was time to retire; and so his embassage came to an end.

Lord Verney crossed the estuary in his yacht, consulting his watch from time to time, and reconnoitering the green and pier of Cardyllian through his telescope with considerable interest. A little group was assembled near the stair, among whose figures he saw Lady Wimbledon. “Why is not Caroline there?” he kept asking himself, and all the time searching that little platform for the absent idol of his heart.

Let us deal mercifully with this antiquated romance; and if Miss Caroline Oldys forebore to say, “Go up, thou baldhead,” let us also spare the amorous incongruity. Does any young man love with the self-abandonment of an old one? Is any romance so romantic as the romance of an old man? When Sancho looked over his shoulder, and saw his master in his shirt, cutting capers and tumbling head-over-heels, and tearing his hair in his love-madness, that wise governor and man of proverbs forgot the grotesqueness of the exhibition in his awe of that vehement adoration. So let us. When does this noble frenzy exhibit itself in such maudlin transports, and with a self-sacrifice so idolatrously suicidal, as in the old? Seeing, then, that the spirit is so prodigiously willing, let us bear with the spectacle of their infirmities, and when one of these sighing, magnanimous, wrinkled Philanders goes by, let us not hiss, but rather say kindly, “Vive la bagatelle!” or, as we say in Ireland, “More power!”

He was disappointed. Miss Caroline Oldys had a very bad headache, Lady Wimbledon said, and was in her room, in care of her maid, so miserable at losing the charming sail to Malory.

Well, the lover was sorely disappointed, as we have said; but there was nothing for it but submission, and to comfort himself with the assurances of Lady Wimbledon that Caroline’s headaches never lasted long, and that she was always better for a long time, when they were over. This latter piece of information seemed to puzzle Lord Verney.

“Miss Oldys is always better after an attack than before it,” said Cleve, interpreting for his uncle.

“Why, of course. That’s what Lady Wimbledon means, as I understand it,” said Lord Verney, a little impatiently. “It’s very sad; you must tell me all about it; but we may hope to find her, you say, quite recovered when we return?”

Cleve was not of the party to Malory. He returned to the Verney Arms. He went up to Lady Wimbledon’s drawing-room with a book he had promised to lend her, and found Miss Caroline Oldys.

Yes, she was better. He was very earnest and tender in his solicitudes. He was looking ill, and was very melancholy.

Two hours after her maid came in to know whether she “pleased to want anything?” and she would have sworn that Miss Caroline had been crying. Mr. Cleve had got up from beside her, and was looking out of the window.

A little later in the day, old Lady Calthorpe, a cousin of Lady Wimbledon’s, very feeble and fussy, and babbling in a querulous treble, was pushed out in her Bath-chair, Cleve and Miss Caroline Oldys accompanying, to the old castle of Cardyllian.

On the step of the door of the Verney Arms, as they emerged, whom should they meet, descending from the fly that had borne him from Llwynan, but the Rev. Isaac Dixie. That sleek and rosy gentleman, with flat feet, and large hands, and fascinating smile, was well pleased to join the party, and march blandly beside the chair of the viscountess, invigorating the fainting spirit of that great lady by the balm of his sympathy and the sunshine of his smile.

So into the castle they went, across the nearly obliterated moat, where once a drawbridge hung, now mantled with greenest grass, under the grim arches, where once the clanging portcullis rose and fell, and into the base court, and so under other arches into the inner court, surrounded by old ivy-mantled walls.

In this seclusion the old Lady Calthorpe stopped her chair to enjoy the sweet air and sunshine, and the agreeable conversation of the divine, and Cleve offered to guide Miss Caroline Oldys through the ruins, an exploration in which she seemed highly interested.

Cleve spoke low and eloquently, but I don’t think it was about the architecture. Time passed rapidly, and at last Miss Oldys whispered —

“We’ve been too long away from Lady Calthorpe. I must go back. She’ll think I have deserted her.”

So they emerged from the roofless chambers and dim corridors, and Cleve wished from the bottom of his heart that some good or evil angel would put off his uncle’s nuptials for another week, and all would be well —well!

Yes — what was “well,” if one goes to moral ideals for a standard? We must run risks — we must set one side of the book against the other. What is the purpose and the justification of all morality but happiness? The course which involves least misery is alternatively the moral course. And take the best act that ever you did, and place it in that dreadful solvent, the light of God’s eye, and how much of its motive will stand the test? Yes — another week, and all will be well; and has not a fertile mind like his, resource for any future complication, as for this, that may arise?

Captain Shrapnell was not sorry to meet this distinguished party as they emerged, and drew up on the grass at the side, and raised his hat with a reverential smile, as the old lady wheeled by, and throwing a deferential concern suddenly into his countenance, he walked a few paces beside Cleve, while he said —

“You’ve heard, of course, about your uncle, Lord Verney?”

“No?” answered Cleve, on chance.

No?— Oh? — Why it’s half an hour ago. I hope it’s nothing serious; but his groom drove down from Malory for the doctor here. Something wrong with his head — suddenly, I understand, and Old Lyster took his box with him, and a bottle of leeches — that looks serious, eh? — along with him.”

Shrapnell spoke low, and shook his head.

“I— I did not hear a word of it. I’ve been in the castle with old Lady Calthorpe. I’m very much surprised.”

There was something odd, shrewd old Shrapnell fancied in the expression of Cleve’s eye, which for a moment met his. But Cleve looked pale and excited, as he said a word in a very low tone to Miss Oldys, and walked across the street accompanied by Shrapnell, to the doctor’s shop.

“Oh!” said Cleve, hastily stepping in, and accosting a lean, pale youth, with lank, black hair, who paused in the process of braying a prescription in a mortar as he approached. “My uncle’s not well, I hear — Lord Verney — at Malory?”

The young man glanced at Captain Shrapnell.

“The doctor told me not to mention, sir; but if you’d come into the back-room”——

“I’ll be with you in a moment,” said Cleve Verney to Shrapnell, at the same time stepping into the sanctum, and the glass door being shut, he asked, “What is it?”

“The doctor thought it must be apoplexy, sir,” murmured the young man, gazing with wide open eyes, very solemnly, in Cleve’s face.

“So I fancied,” and Cleve paused, a little stunned; “and the doctor’s there, at Malory, now?”

“Yes, sir; he’ll be there a quarter of an hour or more by this time,” answered the young man.

Again Cleve paused.

“It was not fatal— he was still living?” he asked very low.

“Yes, sir — sure.”

Cleve, forgetting any form of valediction, passed into the shop.

“I must drive down to Malory,” he said; and calling one of those pony carriages which ply in Cardyllian, he drove away, with a wave of his hand to the Captain, who was sorely puzzled to read the true meaning of that handsome mysterious face.

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