The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 3.

Cleve Comes.

TOM SEDLEY was dozing in his chair, by the fire, when he was roused by Mrs. Graver’s voice.

“You’ll take this note at once, please, to your master; there’s a cab at the door, and the lady says you mustn’t make no delay.”

It took some seconds to enable Tom to account for the scene, the actor and his own place of repose, his costume, and the tenor of the strange woman’s language. In a little while, however, he recovered the context, and the odd passage in his life became intelligible.

Still half asleep, Tom hurried down-stairs, and in the hall, with a shock, read the address, “Cleve Verney, Esq.” At the hall-door steps he found a cab, into which he jumped, telling the man to drive to Cleve Verney’s lodgings.

There were expiring lights in the drawing-room, the blinds of which were up, and as the cab stopped at the steps a figure appeared at one of the windows, and Cleve Verney opened it, and told the driver, “Don’t mind knocking, I’ll go down.”

“Come up-stairs,” said Cleve, as he stood at the open door, addressing Sedley, and mistaking him for the person whom he had employed.

Up ran Tom Sedley at his heels.

“Hollo! Sedley— what brings you here?” said Cleve, when Tom appeared in the light of the candles. “You don’t mean to say the ball has been going on till now — or is it a scrape?”

“Nothing — only this I’ve been commissioned to give you,” and he placed Miss Sheckleton’s note in his hand.

Cleve had looked wofully haggard and anxious as Tom entered. But his countenance changed now to an ashy paleness, and there was no mistaking his extreme agitation.

He opened the note — a very brief one it seemed — and read it.

“Thank God!” he said with a great sigh, and then he walked to the window and looked out, and returned again to the candles and read the note once more.

“How did you know I was up, Tom?”

“The lights in the windows.”

“Yes. Don’t let the cab go.”

Cleve was getting on his coat, and speaking like a man in a dream.

“I say, Tom Sedley, how did you come by this note?” he said, with a sudden pause, and holding Miss Sheckleton’s note in his fingers.

“Well, quite innocently,” hesitated Sedley.

“How the devil was it, sir? Come, you may as well — by heaven, Sedley, you shall tell me the truth!”

Tom looked on his friend Cleve, and saw his eyes gleaming sharply on him, and his face very white.

“Of course I’ll tell you, Cleve,” said Tom, and with this exordium he stumbled honestly through his story, which by no means quieted Cleve Verney.

“You d —— d little Paul Pry!” said he. “Well, you have got hold of a secret now, like the man in the iron mask, and by —— you had better keep it.”

A man who half blames himself already, and is in a position which he hates and condemns, will stand a great deal more of hard language, and even of execration, than he would under any other imaginable circumstances.

“You can’t blame me half as much as I do myself. I assure you, Cleve, I’m awfully sorry. It was the merest lark — at first — and then — when I saw that beautiful — that young lady —”

“Don’t talk of that lady any more; I’m her husband. There, you have it all, and if you whisper it to mortal you may ruin me; but one or other of us shall die for it!”

Cleve was talking in a state of positive exasperation.

“Whisper it! — tell it! You don’t in the least understand me, Cleve,” said Tom, collecting himself, and growing a little lofty; “I don’t whisper or tell things; and as for daring or not daring, I don’t know what you mean; and I hope, if occasion for dying came, I should funk it as little as any other fellow.”

“I’m going to this d —— d place now. I don’t much care what you do: I almost wish you’d shoot me.”

He struck his hand on the table, looking not at Tom Sedley, but with a haggard rage through the window, and away toward the gray east; and without another word to Sedley, he ran down, shutting the hall-door with a crash that showed more of his temper than of his prudence, and Tom saw him jump into the cab and drive away.

The distance is really considerable, but in Cleve’s intense reverie time and space contracted, and before he fancied they had accomplished half the way, he found himself at the tall door and stained pilasters and steps of the old red-brick house.

Anne Evans, half awake, awaited his arrival on the steps. He ran lightly up the stairs, under her covert scrutiny; and, in obedience to Mrs. Graver’s gesture of warning, as she met him with raised hand and her frowning “Hish” at the head of the stairs, he checked his pace, and in a whisper he made his eager inquiries. She was going on very nicely.

“I must see Miss Sheckleton — the old lady — where is she?” urged Cleve.

“Here, sir, please”— and Mrs. Graver opened a door, and he found tired Miss Sheckleton tying on her bonnet, and getting her cloak about her.

“Oh! Cleve, dear”— she called him “Cleve” now —“I’m so delighted; she’s doing very well; the doctor’s quite pleased with her, and it’s a boy, Cleve, and — and I wish you joy with all my heart.”

And as she spoke, the kind old lady was shaking both his hands, and smiling up into his handsome face, like sunshine; but that handsome face, though it smiled down darkly upon her, was, it seemed to her, strangely joyless, and even troubled.

“And Cleve, dear, my dear Mr. Verney — I’m so sorry; but I must go immediately. I make his chocolate in the morning, and he sometimes calls for it at half-past seven. This miserable attack that has kept him here, and the risk in which he is at every day he stays in this town, it is so distracting. And if I should not be at home and ready to see him when he calls, he’d be sure to suspect something; and I really see nothing but ruin from his temper and violence to all of us, if he were to find out how it is. So good-bye, and God bless you. The doctor says he thinks you may see her in a very little time — half an hour or so — if you are very careful not to let her excite or agitate herself; and — God bless you — I shall be back, for a little, in an hour or two.”

So that kindly, fluttered, troubled, and happy old lady disappeared; and Cleve was left again to his meditations.

“Where’s the doctor?” asked Cleve of the servant.

“In the sitting-room, please, sir, writing; his carriage is come, sir, please.”

And thus saying, Mistress Anne Evans officiously opened the door, and Cleve entered. The doctor, having written a prescription, and just laid down his pen, was pulling on his glove.

Cleve had no idea that he was to see Doctor Grimshaw. Quite another physician, with whom he had no acquaintance, had been agreed upon between him and Miss Sheckleton. As it turned out, however, that gentleman was now away upon an interesting visit, at a country mansion, and Doctor Grimshaw was thus unexpectedly summoned.

Cleve was unpleasantly surprised, for he had already an acquaintance with that good man, which he fancied was not recorded in his recollection to his credit. I think if the doctor’s eye had not been directed toward the door when he entered, that Cleve Verney would have drawn back; but that would not do now.

“Doctor Grimshaw?” said Cleve.

“Yes, sir;” said the old gentleman.

“I think, Doctor Grimshaw, you know me?”

“Oh, yes, sir; of course I do;” said the Doctor, with an uncomfortable smile, ever so little bitter, and a slight bow, “Mr. Verney, yes.” And the doctor paused, looking toward him, pulling on his other glove, and expecting a question.

“Your patient, Doctor Grimshaw, doing very well, I’m told?”

“Nicely, sir — very nicely now. I was a little uncomfortable about her just at one time, but doing very well now; and it’s a boy — a fine child. Good morning, sir.”

He had taken up his hat.

“And Doctor Grimshaw, just one word. May I beg, as a matter of professional honour, that this — all this, shall be held as strictly secret— everything connected with it as strictly confidential?”

The doctor looked down on the carpet with a pained countenance. “Certainly, sir,” he said, drily. “That’s all, I suppose? Of course, Mr. Verney, I shan’t — since such I suppose to be the wish of all parties — mention the case.”

“Of all parties, certainly; and it is in tenderness to others, not to myself, that I make the request.”

“I’m sorry it should be necessary, sir;” said Doctor Grimshaw, almost sternly. “I know Miss Sheckleton and her family; this poor young lady, I understand, is a cousin of hers. I am sorry, sir, upon her account, that any mystery should be desirable.”

“It is desirable, and, in fact, indispensable, sir,” said Cleve, a little stiffly, for he did not see what right that old doctor had to assume a lecturer’s tone toward him.

“No one shall be compromised by me, sir,” said the doctor, with a sad and offended bow.

And the Doctor drove home pretty well tired out. I am afraid that Cleve did not very much care whom he might compromise, provided he himself were secure. But even from himself the utter selfishness, which toned a character passionate and impetuous enough to simulate quite unconsciously the graces of magnanimity and tenderness, was hidden.

Cleve fancied that the cares that preyed upon his spirits were for Margaret, and when he sometimes almost regretted their marriage, that his remorse was principally for her, that all his caution and finesse were exacted by his devotion to the interests of his young wife, and that the long system of mystery and deception, under which her proud, frank, spirit was pining, was practised solely for her advantage.

So Cleve was in his own mind something of a hero-self-sacrificing, ready, if need be, to shake himself free, for sake of his love and his liberty, of all the intoxications and enervations of his English life, and fortis colonus, to delve the glebe of Canada or to shear the sheep of Australia. He was not conscious that all these were the chimeras of insincerity, that ambition was the breath of his nostrils, and that his idol was — himself.

And if he mistakes himself, do not others mistake him also, and clothe him with the nobleness of their own worship? Can it be that the lights and the music and the incense that surround him are but the tributes of a beautiful superstition, and that the idol in the midst is cold and dumb?

Cleve, to do him justice, was moved on this occasion. He did — shall I say? — yearn to behold her again. There was a revival of tenderness, and he waited with a real impatience to see her.

He did see her — just a little gleam of light in the darkened room; he stood beside the bed, clasping that beautiful hand that God had committed to his, smiling down in that beautiful face that smiled unutterable love up again into his own.

“Oh! Cleve, darling — oh, Cleve! I’m so happy.”

The languid hands are clasped on his, the yearning eyes, and the smile, look up. It is like the meeting of the beloved after shipwreck.

“And look, Cleve;” and with just ever so little a motion of her hand she draws back a silken coverlet, and he sees in a deep sleep a little baby, and the beautiful smile of young maternity falls upon it like a blessing and a caress. “Isn’t it a darling? Poor little thing! how quietly it sleeps. I think it is the dearest little thing that ever was seen —our little baby!”

Is there a prettier sight than the young mother smiling, in this the hour of her escape, upon the treasure she has found? The wondrous gift, at sight of which a new fountain of love springs up — never, while life remains, to cease its flowing. Looking on such a sight in silence, I think I hear the feet of the angels round the bed — I think I see their beautiful eyes smiling on the face of the little mortal, and their blessed hands raised over the head of the fair young mother.

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