The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 2.

A New Voice.

THE ladies ascended, led by the maid with the candle, and closely followed by their own servant, and our friend Tom Sedley brought up the rear, tugging the box and the bag with him.

At the stair-head was a great gallery from which many doors opened. Tom Sedley halted close by the banister for orders, depositing his luggage beside him. The maid set the candle down upon a table, and opened one of these tall doors, through which he saw an angle of the apartment, a fire burning in the grate, and a pleasant splendour of candlelight; he saw that the floor was carpeted, and the windows curtained, and though there was disclosed but a corner of a large room, there were visible such pieces of furniture as indicated general comfort.

In a large arm-chair, at the further side of the fire-place, sat the lady who had thrilled him with a sudden remembrance. She had withdrawn the shawl that hung in hood-like fashion over her head, and there was no longer a doubt. The Beatrice Cenci was there — his Guido — very pale, dying he thought her, with her white hands clasped, and her beautiful eyes turned upward in an agony of prayer.

The old lady, Miss Sheckleton, came near, leaned over her, kissed her tenderly, and caressingly smoothed her rich chestnut hair over her temples, and talked gently in her ear, and raised her hand in both hers, and kissed it, and drawing a chair close to hers, she sat by her, murmuring in her ear with a countenance of such kindness and compassion, that Tom Sedley loved her for it.

Looking up, Miss Sheckleton observed the door open, and Tom fancied perceived him in the perspective through it, for she rose suddenly, shut it, and he saw no more. Tom had not discovered in the glance of the old lady any sign of recognition, and for the sake of appearances he had buttoned his gray wrapper close across his throat and breast so as to conceal the evidences of his ball costume; his shining boots, however, were painfully conspicuous, but for that incongruity there was no help.

And now the servant who had let them in told Tom to bring the box and bag into the servants’ room, to which she led him across the gallery.

There was a large fire, which was pleasant, a piece of matting on the floor, a few kitchen utensils ranged near the fire-place, a deal table, and some common kitchen chairs. Dismal enough would the room have looked, notwithstanding its wainscoting, had it not been for the glow diffused by the fire.

By this fire, on a kitchen chair, and upon his own opera hat, which he wished specially to suppress, sat Tom Sedley, resolved to see his adventure one hour or so into futurity, before abandoning it, and getting home to his bed, and in the meantime doing his best to act a servant, as he fancied such a functionary would appear in his moments of ease unbending in the kitchen or the servants’ hall. The maid who had received the visitors in the hall, Anne Evans by name, square, black-haired, slightly pitted with smallpox, and grave, came and sat down at the other side of the fire, and eyed Tom Sedley in silence.

Now and then Tom felt uncomfortably about his practical joke, which was degenerating into a deception. But an hour or so longer could not matter much; and might he not make himself really useful if the services of a messenger were required?

Anne Evans was considering him in silence, and he turned a little more toward the fire, and poked it, as he fancied a groom would poke a fire for his private comfort.

“Are you servant to the ladies?” at last she asked.

Tom smiled at the generality of the question, but interpreting in good faith —

“No,” said he, “I came with the carriage.”

“Servant to the gentleman?” she asked.

“What gentleman?”

“You know well.”

Tom had not an idea, but could not well say so. He therefore poked the fire again, and said, “Go on, miss; I’m listening.”

She did not go on, however, for some time, and then it was to say —

“My name is Anne Evans. What may your name be?”

“Can’t tell that. I left my name at home,” said Tom, mysteriously.

“Won’t tell?”

“Can’t.”

“I’m only by the month. Come in just a week tomorrow,” observed Anne Evans.

“They’ll not part with you in a month, Miss Evans. No; they has some taste and feelin’ among them. I wouldn’t wonder if you was here for ever!” said Tom, with enthusiasm; “and what’s this place, miss — this house I mean — whose house is it?”

“Can’t say, only I hear it’s bought for a brewery, to be took down next year.”

“Oh, criky!” said Tom; “that’s a pity.”

There was a short pause.

“I saw you ‘ide your ‘at,” said Anne Evans.

“Not ‘ide it,” said Tom; “only sits on it — always sits on my ‘at.”

Tom produced it, let it bounce up like a jack-ina-box, and shut it down again.

Miss Evans was neither amused nor surprised.

“Them’s hopera ‘ats — first quality — they used to come in boxes on ’em, as long as from here to you, when I was at Mr. Potterton’s, the hatter. Them’s for gents — they air — and not for servants.”

“The gov’nor gives me his old uns,” said Tom, producing the best fib he could find.

“And them French boots,” she added, meditatively.

“Perquisite likewise,” said Tom.

Miss Anne Evans closed her eyes, and seemed disposed to take a short nap in her chair. But on a sudden she opened them to say —

“I think you’re the gentleman himself.”

“The old gentleman?” said Tom.

“No. The young un.”

“I’m jest what I tell you, not objectin’ to the compliment all the same,” said Tom.

“And a ring on your finger?”

“A ring on my finger — yes. I wear it two days in the week. My grand-uncle’s ring, who was a gentleman, being skipper of a coal brig.”

“What’s the lady’s name?”

“Can’t tell, Miss Evans; dussn’t.”

“Fuss about nothin’!” said she, and closed her eyes again, and opened them in a minute more, to add, “but I think you’re him, and that’s my belief.”

“No, I ain’t miss, as you’ll see, by-and-by.”

“Tisn’t nothin’ to me, only people is so close.”

The door opened, and a tall woman in black, with a black net cap on, came quietly but quickly into the room.

“You’re the man?” said she, with an air of authority, fixing her eyes askance on Tom.

“Yes’m, please.”

“Well, you don’t go on no account, for you’ll be wanted just now.”

“No, ma’am.”

“Where’s the box and bag you’re in charge of?”

“Out here,” said Tom.

“Hish, man, quiet; don’t you know there’s sickness? Walk easy, can’t you? please, consider.”

Tom followed her almost on tip-toe to the spot where the parcels lay.

“Gently now; into this room, please,” and she led the way into that sitting-room into which Tom Sedley had looked some little time since, from the stair-head.

The beautiful young lady was gone, but Miss Sheckleton was standing at the further door of the room with her hands clasped, and her eyes raised in prayer, and her pale cheeks wet with tears.

Hearing the noise, she gently closed the door, and hastily drying her eyes, whispered, “Set them down there,” pointing to a sofa, on which Tom placed them accordingly. “Thanks — that will do. You may go.”

When Sedley had closed the door —

“Oh, Mrs. Graver,” whispered Anne Sheckleton, clasping her wrists in her trembling fingers, “is she very ill?”

“Well, ma’am, she is ill.”

“But, oh, my God, you don’t think we are going to lose her?” she whispered wildly, with her imploring gaze in the nurse’s eyes.

“Oh, no, please God, ma’am, it will all be right. You must not fuss yourself, ma’am. You must not let her see you like this, on no account.”

“Shall I send for him now?”

“No, ma’am; he’d only be in the way. I’ll tell you when; and his man’s here, ready to go, any minute. I must go back to her now, ma’am. Hish!”

And Mrs. Graver disappeared with a little rustle of her dress, and no sound of steps. That solemn bird floated very noiselessly round sick beds, and you only heard, as it were, the hovering of her wings.

And then, in a minute more, in glided Miss Sheckleton, having dried her eyes very carefully.

And now came a great knocking at the hall door, echoing dully through the house. It was Doctor Grimshaw, who had just got his coat off, and was winding his watch, when he was called from his own bed-side by this summons, and so was here after a long day’s work, to make a new start, and await the dawn in this chamber of pain.

In he came, and Miss Sheckleton felt that light and hope entered the room with him. Florid, portly, genial, with a light, hopeful step, and a good, decided, cheery manner, he inspired confidence, and seemed to take command, not only of the case, but of the ailment itself.

Miss Sheckleton knew this good doctor, and gladly shook his hand; and he recognised her with a hesitating look that seemed to ask a question, but was not meant to do so, and he spoke cheerfully to the patient, and gave his directions to the nurse, and in about half an hour more told good Anne Sheckleton that she had better leave the patient.

So, with the docility which an able physician inspires, good Anne Sheckleton obeyed, and in the next room — sometimes praying, sometimes standing and listening, sometimes wandering from point to point, in the merest restlessness — she waited and watched for more than an hour, which seemed to her longer than a whole night, and at last tapped very gently at the door, a lull having come for a time in the sick chamber, and unable longer to endure her suspense.

A little bit of the door was opened, and Anne Sheckleton saw the side of Mrs. Graver’s straight nose, and one of her wrinkled eyes, and her grim mouth.

“How is she?” whispered Miss Sheckleton, feeling as if she was herself about to die.

“Pretty well, ma’am,” answered the nurse, but with an awful look of insincerity, under which the old lady’s heart sank down and down, as if it had foundered.

“One word to Dr. Grimshaw,” she whispered, with white lips.

“You can’t, ma’am,” murmured the nurse, sternly, and about to shut the door in her face.

“Wait, wait,” whispered the voice of kind old Doctor Grimshaw, and he came into the next room to Miss Sheckleton, closing the door after him.

“Oh, doctor!” she gasped.

“Well, Miss Sheckleton, I hope she’ll do very well; I’ve just given her something — a slight stimulant — and I’ve every confidence everything will be well. Don’t make yourself uneasy; it is not going on badly.”

“Oh, Doctor Grimshaw, shall I send for him? He’d never forgive me; and I promised her, darling Margaret, to send.”

Don’t send — on no account yet. Don’t bring him here — he’s better away. I’ll tell you when to send.”

The doctor opened the door.

“Still quiet?”

“Yes, sir,” whispered Mrs. Graver.

Again he closed the door.

“Nice creature she seems. A relation of yours?” asked the Doctor.

“My cousin.”

“When was she married?”

“About a year ago.”

“Never any tendency to consumption?”

“Never.”

“Nothing to make her low or weak? Is she hysterical?”

“No, hardly that, but nervous and excitable.”

“I know; very good. I think she’ll do very nicely. If anything goes the least wrong I’ll let you know. Now stay quiet in there.”

And he shut the door, and she heard his step move softly over the next room floor, so great was the silence; and she kneeled down and prayed as helpless people pray in awful peril; and more time passed, and more, slowly, very slowly. Oh, would the dawn ever come, and the daylight again?

Voices and moans she heard from the room. Again she prayed on her knees to the throne of mercy, in the agony of her suspense, and now over the strange roofs spread the first faint gray of the coming dawn; and there came a silence in the room, and on a sudden was heard a new tiny voice crying.

“The little child!” cried old Anne Sheckleton, springing to her feet, with clasped hands, in the anguish of delight, and such a gush of tears — as she looked up, thanking God with her smiles — as comes only in such moments.

Margaret’s clear voice faintly said something; Anne could not hear what.

“A boy,” answered the cheery voice of Doctor Grimshaw.

“Oh! he’ll be so glad!” answered the faint clear voice in a kind of rapture.

“Of course he will,” replied the same cheery voice. And another question came, too low for old Anne Sheckleton’s ears.

“A beautiful boy! as fine a fellow as you could desire to look at. Bring him here, nurse.”

“Oh! the darling!” said the same faint voice. “I’m so happy.”

“Thank God! thank God! thank God!” sobbed delighted Anne Sheckleton, her cheeks still streaming in showers of tears as she stood waiting at the door for the moment of admission, and hearing the sweet happy tones of Margaret’s voice sounding in her ears like the voice of one who had just now died, heard faintly through the door of heaven.

For thus it has been, and thus to the end, it will be-the “sorrow” of the curse is remembered no more, “for joy that a man is born into the world.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lefanu/tenants-of-malory/volume3.2.html

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