The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 17.

A New Light.

It was all over Cardyllian by this time that the viscount was very ill — dying perhaps — possibly dead. Under the transparent green shadow of the tall old trees, down the narrow road to Malory, which he had so often passed in other moods, more passionate, hardly perhaps less selfish, than his present, was Cleve now driving, with brain and heart troubled and busy —“walking, as before, in a vain shadow, and disquieting himself in vain.” The daisies looked up innocently as the eyes of children, into his darkened gaze. Had fate after all taken pity on him, and was here by one clip of the inexorable shears a deliverance from the hell of his complication?

As Cleve entered the gate of Malory he saw the party from Cardyllian leaving in the yacht on their return. Lady Wimbledon, it turned out, had remained behind in charge of Lord Verney. On reaching the house, Cleve learned that Lord Verney was alive— was better in fact.

Combining Lady Wimbledon’s and the doctor’s narratives, what Cleve learned amounted to this. Lord Verney, who affected a mysterious urgency and haste in his correspondence, had given orders that his letters should follow him to Malory that day. One of these letters, with a black seal and black-bordered envelope, proved to be a communication of considerable interest. It was addressed to him by the clergyman who had charge of poor old Lady Verney’s conscience, and announced that his care was ended, and the Dowager Lady, Lord Verney’s mother, was dead.

As the doctor who had attended her was gone, and no one but servants in the house, he had felt it a duty to write to Lord Verney to apprise him of the melancholy event.

The melancholy event was no great shock to Lord Verney, her mature son of sixty-four, who had sometimes wondered dimly whether she would live as long as the old Countess of Desmond, and go on drawing her jointure for fifty years after his own demise. He had been a good son; he had nothing to reproach himself with. She was about ninety years of age; the estate was relieved of £1,500 per annum. She had been a religious woman too, and was, no doubt, happy. On the whole the affliction was quite supportable.

But no affliction ever came at a more awkward time. Here was his marriage on the eve of accomplishment — a secret so well kept up to yesterday that no one on earth, he fancied, but half a dozen people, knew that any such thing was dreamed of. Lord Verney, like other tragedians in this theatre of ours, was, perhaps, a little more nervous than he seemed, and did not like laughter in the wrong place. He did not want to be talked over, or, as he said, “any jokes or things about it.” And therefore he wished the event to take mankind unawares, as the Flood did. But this morning, with a nice calculation as to time, he had posted four letters, bound, like Antonio’s argosies, to different remote parts of the world — one to Pau, another to Lisbon, a third to Florence, and a fourth for Geneva, to friends who were likely to spread the news in all directions — which he cared nothing about, if only the event came off at the appointed time. With the genius of a diplomatist, he had planned his remaining dispatches, not very many, so as to reach their less distant destinations at the latest hour, previous to that of his union. But the others were actually on their way, and he supposed a month or more must now pass before it could take place with any decorum, and, in the meantime, all the world would be enjoying their laugh over his interesting situation.

Lord Verney was very much moved when he read this sad letter; he was pathetic and peevish, much moved and irritated, and shed some tears. He withdrew to write a note to the clergyman, who had announced the catastrophe, and was followed by Lady Wimbledon, who held herself privileged, and to her he poured forth his “ideas and feelings” about his “poor dear mother who was gone, about it;” and suddenly he was seized with a giddiness so violent that if a chair had not been behind him he must have fallen on the ground.

It was something like a fit; Lady Wimbledon was terrified; he looked so ghastly, and answered nothing, only sighed laboriously, and moved his white lips. In her distraction, she threw up the window, and screamed for the servants; and away went Lord Verney’s open carriage, as we have seen, to Cardyllian, for the doctor.

By the time that Cleve arrived, the attack had declared itself gout — fixed, by a mustard bath “nicely” in the foot, leaving, however, its “leven mark” upon the head where it had flickered, in an angrily inflamed eye.

Here was another vexation. It might be over in a week, the doctor said; it might last a month. But for the present it was quite out of the question moving him. They must contrive, and make him as comfortable as they could. But at Malory he must be contented to remain for the present.

He saw Cleve for a few minutes.

“It’s very unfortunate — your poor dear grandmother — and this gout; but we must bow to the will of Providence; we have every consolation in her case. She’s, no doubt, gone to heaven, about it; but it’s indescribably untoward the whole thing; you apprehend me — the marriage — you know — and things; we must pray to heaven to grant us patience under these cross-grained, unintelligible misfortunes that are always persecuting some people, and never come in the way of others, and I beg you’ll represent to poor Caroline how it is. I’m not even to write for a day or two; and you must talk to her, Cleve, and try to keep her up, for I do believe she does like her old man, and does not wish to see the poor old fellow worse than he is; and, Cleve, I appreciate your attention and affection in coming so promptly;” and Lord Verney put out his thin hand and pressed Cleve’s. “You’re very kind, Cleve, and if they allow me I’ll see you tomorrow, and you’ll tell me what’s in the papers, for they won’t let me read; and there will be this funeral, you know — about it — your poor dear grandmother; she’ll of course — she’ll be buried; you’ll have to see to that, you know; and Larkin, you know — he’ll save you trouble, and — and — hey! ha, ha — hoo! Very pleasant! Good gracious, what torture! Ha! — Oh, dear! Well, I think I’ve made everything pretty clear, and you’ll tell Caroline — its only a flying gout — about it — and — and things. So I must bid you good-bye, dear Cleve, and God bless you.”

So Cleve did see Caroline Oldys at the Verney Arms, and talked a great deal with her, in a low tone, while old Lady Wimbledon dozed in her chair, and, no doubt, it was all about his uncle’s “flying gout.”

That night our friend Wynne Williams was sitting in his snuggery, a little bit of fire was in the grate, the air being sharp, his tea-things on the table, and the cozy fellow actually reading a novel, with his slippered feet on the fender.

It was half-past nine o’clock, a rather rakish hour in Cardyllian, when the absorbed attorney was aroused by a tap at his door.

I think I have already mentioned that in that town of the golden age, hall-doors stand open, in evidence of “ancient faith that knows no guile,” long after dark.

“Come in,” said Wynne Williams; and to his amazement who should enter, not with the conventional smile of greeting, but pale, dark, and wo-begone, but the tall figure of Mrs. Rebecca Mervyn.

Honest Wynne Williams never troubled himself about ghosts, but he had read of spectral illusions, and old Mrs. Mervyn unconsciously encouraged a fancy that the thing he greatly feared had come upon him, and that he was about to become a victim to that sort of hallucination. She stood just a step within the door, looking at him, and he, with his novel, on his knee, stared at her as fixedly.

“She’s dead,” said the old lady.

Who?” exclaimed the attorney.

“The Dowager Lady Verney,” she continued, rather than answered.

“I was so much astonished, ma’am, to see you here; you haven’t been down in the town these twelve years, I think. I could scarce believe my eyes. Won’t you come in, ma’am? Pray do.” The attorney by this time was on his legs, and doing the honours, much relieved, and he placed a chair for her. “If it’s any business, ma’am, I’ll be most happy, or any time you like.”

“Yes, she’s dead,” said she again.

“Oh, come in, ma’am-do— so is Queen Anne,” said the attorney, laughing kindly. “I heard that early today; we all heard it, and we’re sorry, of course. Sit down, ma’am. But then she was not very far from a hundred, and we’re all mortal. Can I do anything for you, ma’am?”

“She was good to me — a proud woman — hard, they used to say; but she was good to me — yes, sir — and so she’s gone, at last. She was frightened at them — there was something in them — my poor head — you know —I couldn’t see it, and I did not care — for the little child was gone; it was only two months old, and she was ninety years; it’s a long time, and now she’s in her shroud, poor thing! and I may speak to you.”

“Do, ma’am-pray; but it’s growing late, and hadn’t we better come to the point a bit?”

She was sitting in the chair he had placed for her, and she had something under her cloak, a thick book it might be, which she held close in her arms. She placed it on the table and it turned out to be a small tin box with a padlock.

“Papers, ma’am?” he inquired.

“Will you read them, sir, and see what ought to be done — there’s the key?”

“Certainly, ma’am;” and having unlocked it, he disclosed two little sheaves of papers, neatly folded and endorsed.

The attorney turned these over rapidly, merely reading at first the little note of its contents written upon each. “By Jove!” he exclaimed; he looked very serious now, with a frown, and the corners of his mouth drawn down, like a man who witnesses something horrible.

“And, ma’am, how long have you had these?”

“Since Mr. Sedley died.”

“I know; that’s more than twenty years, I think; did you show them to anyone?”

“Only to the poor old lady who’s gone.”

“Ay, I see.”

There was a paper endorsed “Statement of Facts,” and this the attorney was now reading.

“Now, ma’am, do you wish to place these papers in my hands, that I may act upon them as the interests of those who are nearest to you may require?”

She looked at him with a perplexed gaze, and said, “Yes, sir, certainly.”

“Very well, ma’am; then I must go up to town at once. It’s a very serious affair, ma’am, and I’ll do my duty by you.”

“Can you understand them, sir?”

“N—no— that is, I must see counsel in London; I’ll be back again in a day or two. Leave it all to me, ma’am, and the moment I know anything for certain, you shall know all about it.”

The old woman asked the question as one speaks in their sleep, without hearing the answer. Her finger was to her lip, and she was looking down with a knitted brow.

“Ay, she was proud — I promised— proud — she was — very high — it will be in Penruthyn, she told me she would be buried there — Dowager Lady Verney! I wish, sir, it had been I.”

She drew her cloak about her and left the room, and he accompanied her with the candle to the hall-door, and saw her hurry up the street.

Now and then a passenger looked at the tall cloaked figure gliding swiftly by, but no one recognised her.

The attorney was gaping after her in deep abstraction, and when she was out of sight he repeated, with a resolute wag of his head —

“I will do my duty by you — and a serious affair, upon my soul! A very serious affair it is.”

And so he closed the door, and returned to his sitting-room in deep thought, and very strange excitement, and continued reading those papers till one o’clock in the morning.

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