The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 20.

A Break-Down.

ABOUT an hour after, a message came down from Malory for the doctor.

“How is his lordship?” asked the doctor, eagerly.

“No, it isn’t him, sure; it is the old lady is taken very bad.”

“Lady Wimbledon?”

“No, sure. Her ladyship’s not there. Old Mrs. Mervyn.”

“Oh!” said the doctor, tranquillized. “Old Rebecca Mervyn, is it? And what may be the matter with the poor old lady?”

“Fainting like; one fainting into another, sure; and her breath almost gone. She’s very bad — as pale as a sheet.”

“Is she talking at all?”

“No, not a word. Sittin’ back in her chair, sure.”

“Does she know you, or mind what you say to her?”

“Well, no. She’s a-holdin’ that old white-headed man’s hand that’s been so long bad there, and a-lookin’ at him; but I don’t think she hears nor sees nothin’ myself.”

“Apoplexy, or the heart, more likely,” ruminated the doctor. “Will you call one of those pony things for me?”

And while the pony-carriage was coming to the door, he got a few phials together and his coat on, being in a hurry; for he was to play a rubber of billiards at the club for five shillings at seven o’clock.

In an hour’s time after the interview with Arthur Verney, Lord Verney had wonderfully collected his wits. His effects in that department, it is true, were not very much, and perhaps the more easily brought together. He wrote two short letters — marvellously short for him — and sent down to the Verney Arms to request the attendance of Mr. Larkin.

Lord Verney was calm; he was even gentle; spoke, in his dry way, little, and in a low tone. He had the window-shutter opened quite, and the curtains drawn back, and seemed to have forgotten his invalided state, and everything but the revolution which in a moment had overtaken and engulfed him — to which great anguish with a dry resignation he submitted.

Over the chimney was a little oval portrait of his father, the late Lord Verney, taken when they wore the hair long, falling back upon their shoulders. A pretty portrait, refined, handsome, insolent. How dulled it was by time and neglect — how criss-crossed over with little cracks; the evening sun admitted now set it all aglow.

“A very good portrait. How has it been overlooked so long? It must be preserved; it shall go to Verney House. To Verney House? I forgot.”

Mr. Jos. Larkin, in obedience to this sudden summons, was speedily with Lord Verney. With this call a misgiving came. The attorney smiled blandly, and talked in his meekest and happiest tones; but people who knew his face would have remarked that sinister contraction of the eye to which in moments of danger or treachery he was subject, and which, in spite of his soft tones and child-like smile, betrayed the fear or the fraud of that vigilant and dangerous Christian.

When he entered the room, and saw Lord Verney’s face pale and stern, he had no longer a doubt.

Lord Verney requested Mr. Larkin to sit down, and prepare for something that would surprise him.

He then proceeded to tell Mr. Larkin that the supposed Mr. Dingwell was, in fact, his brother, the Hon. Arthur Verney, and that, therefore, he was not Lord Verney, but only as before, the Hon. Kiffyn Fulke Verney.

Mr. Larkin saw that there was an up-hill game and a heavy task before him. It was certain now, and awful. This conceited and foolish old nobleman, and that devil incarnate, his brother, were to be managed, and those Jew people, who might grow impracticable; and doors were to be muffled, and voices lowered, and a stupendous secret kept. Still he did not despair — if people would only be true to themselves.

When Lord Verney came to that part of his brief narrative where, taking some credit dismally to himself for his penetration, he stated that “notwithstanding that the room was dark and his voice disguised, I recognized him; and you may conceive, Mr. Larkin, that when I made the discovery I was a good deal disturbed about it.”

Mr. Larkin threw up his eyes and hands —

What a world it is, my dear Lord Verney! for so I persist in styling you still, for this will prove virtually no interruption.”

At the close of his sentence the attorney lowered his voice earnestly.

“I don’t follow you, sir, about it,” replied Lord Verney, disconsolately; “for a man who has had an illness, he looks wonderfully well, and in good spirits and things, and as likely to live as I am, about it.”

“My remarks, my lord, were directed rather to what I may term the animus — the design — of this, shall I call it, demonstration, my lord, on the part of your lordship’s brother.”

“Yes, of course, the animus, about it. But it strikes me he’s as likely to outlive me as not.”

“My lord, may I venture, in confidence and with great respect, to submit, that your lordship was hardly judicious in affording him a personal interview?”

“Why, I should hope my personal direction of that conversation, and — and things, has been such as I should wish,” said the peer, very loftily.

“My lord, I have failed to make myself clear. I never questioned the consummate ability with which, no doubt, your lordship’s part in that conversation was sustained. What I meant to convey is, that considering the immense distance socially between you, the habitual and undeviating eminence of your lordship’s position, and the melancholy circle in which it has been your brother’s lot to move, your meeting him face to face for the purpose of a personal discussion of your relations, may lead him to the absurd conclusion that your lordship is, in fact, afraid of him.”

“That, sir, would be a very impertinent conclusion.”

“Quite so, my lord, and render him proportionably impracticable. Now, I’ll undertake to bring him to reason.” The attorney was speaking very low and sternly, with contracted eyes and a darkened face. “He has been married to the lady who lives in the house adjoining, under the name of Mrs. Mervyn, and to my certain knowledge inquiries have been set in motion to ascertain whether there has not been issue of that marriage.”

“You may set your mind perfectly at rest with regard to that marriage, Mr. Larkin; the whole thing was thoroughly sifted — and things — my father undertook it, the late Lord Verney, about it; and so it went on, and was quite examined, and it turned out the poor woman had been miserably deceived by a mock ceremony, and this mock thing was the whole thing, and there’s nothing more; the evidence was very deplorable, and — and quite satisfactory.”

“Oh! that’s a great weight off my mind,” said Larkin, trying to smile, and looking very much disappointed, “a great weight, my lord.”

“I knew it would — yes,” acquiesced Lord Verney.

“And simplifies our dealings with the other side; for if there had been a good marriage, and concealed issue male of that marriage, they would have used that circumstance to extort money.”

“Well, I don’t see how they could, though; for if there had been a child, about it — he’d have been heir apparent, don’t you see? to the title.”

“Oh! — a — yes —certainly, that’s very true, my lord; but then there’s none, so that’s at rest.”

“I’ve just heard,” interposed Lord Verney, “I may observe, that the poor old lady, Mrs. Mervyn, is suddenly and dangerously ill.”

“Oh! is she?” said Mr. Larkin very uneasily, for she was, if not his queen, at least a very valuable pawn upon his chess-board.

“Yes; the doctor thinks she’s actually dying, poor old soul!”

“What a world! What is life? What is man?” murmured the attorney with a devout feeling of the profoundest vexation. “It was for this most melancholy character,” he continued; “you’ll pardon me, my lord, for so designating a relative of your lordship’s — the Honourable Arthur Verney, who has so fraudulently, I will say, presented himself again as a living claimant. Your lordship is aware of course — I shall be going up to town possibly by the mail train to-night — that the law, if it were permitted to act, would remove that obstacle under the old sentence of the Court.”

“Good God! sir, you can’t possibly mean that I should have my brother caught and executed?” exclaimed Lord Verney, turning quite white.

“Quite the reverse, my lord. I’m — I’m unspeakably shocked that I should have so misconveyed myself,” said Larkin, his tall bald head tinged to its top with an ingenuous blush. “Oh no, my lord, I understand the Verney feeling too well, thank God, to suppose anything, I will say, so entirely objectionable. I said, my lord, if it were permitted, that is, allowed by simple non-interference— your lordship sees — and it is precisely because non-interference must bring about that catastrophe — for I must not conceal from your lordship the fact that there is a great deal of unpleasant talk in the town of Cardyllian already — that I purpose running up to town to-night. There is a Jew firm, your lordship is aware, who have a very heavy judgment against him, and the persons of that persuasion are so interlaced, as I may say, in matters of business, that I should apprehend a communication to them from Goldshed and Levi, who, by-the-by, to my certain knowledge —what a world it is! — have a person here actually watching Mr. Dingwell, or in other words, the unhappy but Honourable Arthur Verney, in their interest.” (This was in effect true, but the name of this person, which he did not care to disclose, was Josiah Larkin.) “If I were on the spot, I think I know a way effectually to stop all action of that sort.”

“You think they’d arrest him, about it?” said Lord Verney.

“Certainly, my lord.”

“It is very much to be deprecated,” said Lord Verney.

“And, my lord, if you will agree to place the matter quite in my hands, and peremptorily to decline on all future occasions, conceding a personal interview, I’ll stake my professional character, I effect a satisfactory compromise.”

“I— I don’t know — I don’t see a compromise — there’s nothing that I see, to settle,” said Lord Verney.

Every thing, my lord. Pardon me — your lordship mentioned that, in point of fact, you are no longer Lord Verney; that being so — technically, of course — measures must be taken — in short, a — a quiet arrangement with your lordship’s brother, to prevent any disturbance, and I undertake to effect it, my lord; the nature of which will be to prevent the return of the title to abeyance, and of the estates to the management of the trustees, whose claim for mesne rates and the liquidation of the mortgage, I need not tell your lordship, would be ruinous to you.”

“Why, sir — Mr. Larkin — I can hardly believe, sir — you can’t mean, or think it possible, sir, that I should lend myself to a deception, and — and sit in the House of Peers by a fraud, sir! I’d much rather die in the debtor’s prison, about it; and I consider myself dishonoured by having involuntarily heard such an — an idea.”

Poor, pompous, foolish Lord Verney stood up, so dignified and stern in the light of his honest horror, that Mr. Larkin, who despised him utterly, quailed before a phenomenon he could not understand.

Nothing confounded our friend Larkin, as a religious man, so much as discovering, after he had a little unmasked, that his client would not follow, and left him, as once or twice had happened, alone with his dead villanous suggestion, to account for it how he could.

“Oh dear! —surely, my lord, your lordship did not imagine,” said Mr. Larkin, doing his best, “I was — I, in fact — I supposed a case. I only went the length of saying that I think — and with sorrow I think it — that your lordship’s brother has in view an adjustment of his claim, and meant to extract, I fear, a sum of money when he disclosed himself, and conferred with your lordship. I meant, merely, of course, that as he thought this I would let him think it, and allow him to disclose his plans, with a view, of course, to deal with that information — first, of course, with a view to your lordship’s honour, and next your lordship’s safety; but if your lordship did not see your way clearly to it”——

“No, I don’t see — I think it most objectionable — about it. I know all that concerns me; and I have written to two official persons — one, I may say, the Minister himself — apprizing them of the actual position of the title, and asking some information as to how I should proceed in order to divest myself of it and the estates.”

“Just what I should have expected from your lordship’s exquisite sense of honour,” said Mr. Larkin, with a deferential bow, and a countenance black as thunder.

That gigantic machine of torture which he had been building and dove-tailing, with patient villany, at Lord Verney’s word fell with a crash, like an enchanted castle at its appointed spell. Well was it for Lord Verney that the instinct of honour was strong in him, and that he would not suffer his vulgar tempter to beguile him into one indefensible concealment. Had he fallen, that tempter would have been his tyrant. He would have held everything in trust for Mr. Jos. Larkin. The effigy of Lord Verney would, indeed, have stood, on state occasions, robed and coronetted, with his order, driven down to the House, and sat there among hereditary senators; all around him, would have been brilliant and luxurious, and the tall bald head of the Christian attorney would have bowed down before the out-going and the incoming of the phantom. But the real peer would have sat cold and dark enough, in Jos. Larkin’s dungeon — his robe on the wall, a shirt of Nessus — his coronet on a nail, a Neapolitan “cap of silence”— quite tame under the rat-like eye of a terror from which he never could escape.

There was a silence here for some time. Lord Verney leaned back with closed eyes, exhausted. Mr. Larkin looked down on the carpet smiling faintly, and with the tip of one finger scratching his bald head gently. The attorney spoke —“Might I suggest, for the safety of your lordship’s unhappy brother, that the matter should be kept strictly quiet — just for a day or two, until I shall have made arrangements for his — may I term it — escape.”

“Certainly,” said Lord Verney, looking away a little. “Yes —that must, of course, be arranged; and — and this marriage — I shall leave that decision entirely in the hands of the young lady.” Lord Verney was a little agitated. “And I think, Mr. Larkin, I have said everything at present. Good evening.”

As Mr. Larkin traversed the hall of Malory, scratching the top of his bald head with one finger, in profound and black rumination, I am afraid his thoughts and feelings amounted to a great deal of cursing and swearing.

“Sweet evening,” he observed suddenly to the surprised servant who opened the door for him. He was now standing at the threshold, with his hands expanded as if he expected rain, and smiling villianously upward toward the stars.

“Sweet evening,” he repeated, and then biting his lip and looking down for a while on the gravel, he descended and walked round the corner to the Steward’s House.

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