The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 7.

Arcadian Red Brick, Lilac, and Laburnum.

AS time proceeds, renewal and decay, its twin principles of mutation, are everywhere and necessarily active, applying to the moral as well as to the material world. Affections displace and succeed one another. The most beautiful are often the first to die. Characteristics in their beginning, minute and unsubstantial as the fairy brood that people the woodland air, enlarge and materialize till they usurp the dominion of the whole man, and the people and the world are changed.

Sir Booth Fanshawe is away at Paris just now, engaged in a great negotiation, which is to bring order out of chaos, and inform him at last what he is really worth per annum. Margaret and her cousin, Miss Sheckleton, have revisited England; their Norman retreat is untenanted for the present.

With the sorrow of a great concealment upon her, with other sorrows that she does not tell, Margaret looks sad and pale.

In a small old suburban house, that stands alone, with a rural affectation, on a little patch of shorn grass, embowered in lilacs and laburnums, and built of a deep vermillion brick, the residence of these ladies is established.

It is a summer evening, and a beautiful little boy, more than a year old, is sprawling, and babbling, and rolling, and laughing on the grass upon his back. Margaret, seated on the grass beside him, prattles and laughs with him, and rolls him about, delighted, and adoring her little idol.

Old Anne Sheckleton, sitting on the bench, smiling happily, under the window, which is clustered round with roses, contributes her quota of nonsense to the prattle.

In the midst of this comes a ring at the bell in the jessamine-covered wall, and a tidy little maid runs out to the green door, opens it, and in steps Cleve Verney.

Margaret is on her feet in a moment, with the light of a different love, something of the old romance, in the glad surprise, “Oh, darling, it is you!” and her arms are about his neck, and he stoops and kisses her fondly, and in his face for a moment, is reflected the glory of that delighted smile.

“Yes, darling. Are you better?”

“Oh, yes — ever so much; I’m always well when you are here; and look, see our poor little darling.”

“So he is.”

“We have had such fun with him — haven’t we, Anne? I’m sure he’ll be so like you.”

“Is this in his favour, cousin Anne?” asked Cleve, taking the old lady’s hand.

“Why should it not?” said she gaily.

“A question — well, I take the benefit of the doubt,” laughed Cleve. “No, darling,” he said to Margaret, “you mustn’t sit on the grass; it is damp; you’ll sit beside our Cousin Anne, and be prudent.”

So he instead sat down on the grass, and talked with them, and prattled and romped with the baby by turns, until the nurse came out to convey him to the nursery, and he was handed round to say what passes for “Good night,” and give his tiny paw to each in turn.

“You look tired, Cleve, darling.”

“So I am, my Guido; can we have a cup of tea?”

“Oh, yes. I’ll get it in a moment,” said active Anne Sheckleton.

“It’s too bad disturbing you,” said Cleve.

“No trouble in the world,” said Anne, who wished to allow them a word together; “besides, I must kiss baby in his bed.”

“Yes, darling, I am tired,” said Cleve, taking his place beside her, so soon as old Anne Sheckleton was gone. “That old man”——

“Lord Verney, do you mean?”

“Yes; he has begun plaguing me again.”

“What is it about, darling?”

“Oh, fifty things; he thinks, among others, I ought to marry,” said Cleve, with a dreary laugh.

“Oh, I thought he had given up that,” she said, with a smile that was very pale.

“So he did for a time; but I think he’s possessed. If he happens to take up an idea that’s likely to annoy other people, he never lets it drop till he teases them half to death. He thinks I should marry money and political connection, and I don’t know what all, and I’m quite tired of the whole thing. What a vulgar little box this is — isn’t it, darling? I almost wish you were back again in that place in France.”

“But I can see you so much oftener here, Cleve,” pleaded Margaret, softly, with a very sad look.

“And where’s the good of seeing me here, dear Margaret? Just consider, I always come to you anxious; there’s always a risk, besides, of discovery.”

“Where you are is to me a paradise.”

“Oh, darling, do not talk rubbish. This vulgar, odious little place! No place can be eitherquite, of course — where you are. But you must see what it is — a paradise”— and he laughed peevishly —“of red brick, and lilacs, and laburnums — a paradise for old Mr. Dowlas, the tallow-chandler.”

There was a little tremor in Margaret’s lip, and the water stood in her large eyes; her hand was, as it were, on the coffin-edge; she was looking in the face of a dead romance.

“Now, you really must not shed tears over that speech. You are too much given to weeping, Margaret. What have I said to vex you? It merely amounts to this, that we live just now in the future; we can’t well deny that, darling. But the time will come at last, and my queen enjoy her own.”

And so saying he kissed her, and told her to be a good little girl; and from the window Miss Sheckleton handed them tea, and then she ran up to the nursery.

“You do look very tired, Cleve,” said Margaret, looking into his anxious face.

“I am tired, darling,” he said, with just a degree of impatience in his tone; “I said so — horribly tired.”

“I wish so much you were liberated from that weary House of Commons.”

“Now, my wise little woman is talking of what she doesn’t understand — not the least; besides, what would you have me turn to? I should be totally without resource and pursuit — don’t you see? We must be reasonable. No, it is not that in the least that tires me, but I’m really overwhelmed with anxieties, and worried by my uncle, who wants me to marry, and thinks I can marry whom I please — that’s all.”

“I sometimes think, Cleve, I’ve spoiled your fortunes,” with a great sigh, said Margaret, watching his face.

“Now, where’s the good of saying that, my little woman? I’m only talking of my uncle’s teasing me, and wishing he’d let us both alone.”

Here came a little pause.

“Is that the baby?” said Margaret, raising her head and listening.

“I don’t hear our baby or any one else’s,” said Cleve.

“I fancied I heard it cry, but it wasn’t.”

“You must think of me more, and of that child less, darling — you must, indeed,” said Cleve, a little sourly.

I think the poor heart was pleased, thinking this jealousy; but I fear it was rather a splenetic impulse of selfishness, and that the baby was, in his eyes, a bore pretty often.

“Does the House sit to-night, Cleve, darling?”

“Does it, indeed? Why it’s sitting now. We are to have the second reading of the West India Bill on to-night, and I must be there — yes — in an hour”— he was glancing at his watch —“and heaven knows at what hour in the morning we shall get away.”

And just at this moment old Anne Sheckleton joined them. “She’s coming with more tea,” she said, as the maid emerged with a little tray, “and we’ll place our cups on the window-stone when we don’t want them. Now, Mr. Verney, is not this a charming little spot just at this light?”

“I almost think it is,” said Cleve, relenting. The golden light of evening was touching the formal poplars, and the other trees, and bringing out the wrinkles of the old bricks duskily in its flaming glow.

“Yes, just for about fifteen minutes in the twenty-four hours, when the weather is particularly favourable, it has a sort of Dutch picturesqueness; but, on the whole, it is not the sort of cottage that I would choose for a permanent dove-cot. I should fear lest my pigeons should choke with dust.”

“No, there’s no dust here; it is the quietest, most sylvan little lane in the world.”

“Which is a wide place,” said Cleve. “Well, with smoke then.”

“Nor smoke either.”

“But I forgot, love does not die of smoke or of anything else,” said Cleve.

“No, of course, love is eternal,” said Margaret.

“Just so; the King never dies. Les roix meurent-ils? Quelquefois, madame. Alas, theory and fact conflict. Love is eternal in the abstract; but nothing is more mortal than a particular love,” said Cleve.

“If you think so, I wonder you ever wished to marry,” said Margaret, and a faint tinge flushed her cheeks.

“I thought so, and yet I did wish to marry,” said Cleve. “It is perishable, but I can’t live without it,” and he patted her cheek, and laughed a rather cold little laugh.

“No, love never dies,” said Margaret, with a gleam of her old fierce spirit. “But it may be killed.”

“It is terrible to kill anything,” said Cleve.

“To kill love,” she answered, “is the worst murder of all.”

“A veritable murder,” he acquiesced, with a smile and a slight shrug; “once killed, it never revives.”

“You like talking awfully, as if I might lose your love,” said she, haughtily; “as if, were I to vex you, you never could forgive.”

“Forgiveness has nothing to do with it, my poor little woman. I no more called my love into being than I did myself; and should it die, either naturally or violently, I could no more call it to life, than I could Cleopatra or Napoleon Bonaparte. It is a principle, don’t you see? that comes as direct as life from heaven. We can’t create it, we can’t restore it; and really about love, it is worse than mortal, because, as I said, I am sure it has no resurrection — no, it has no resurrection.”

“That seems to me a reason,” she said, fixing her large eyes upon him with a wild resentment, “why you should cherish it very much while it lives.”

“And don’t I, darling?” he said, placing his arms round her neck, and drawing her fondly to his breast, and in the thrill of that momentary effusion was something of the old feeling when to lose her would have been despair, to gain her heaven, and it seemed as if the scent of the woods of Malory, and of the soft sea breeze, was around them for a moment.

And now he is gone, away to that tiresome House — lost to her, given up to his ambition, which seems more and more to absorb him; and she remains smiling on their beautiful little baby, with a great misgiving at her heart, to see Cleve no more for four-and-twenty hours more.

As Cleve went into the House, he met old Colonel Thongs, sometime whip of the “outs.”

“You’ve heard about old Snowdon?”

“No.”

“In the Cabinet, by Jove!”

“Really?”

“Fact. Ask your uncle.”

“By Jove, it is very unlooked for; no one thought of him; but I dare say he’ll do very well.”

“We’ll soon try that.”

It was a very odd appointment. But Lord Snowdon was gazetted; a dull man, but laborious; a man who had held minor offices at different periods of his life, and was presumed to have a competent knowledge of affairs. A dull man, owing all to his dulness, quite below many, and selected as a negative compromise for the vacant seat in the Cabinet, for which two zealous and brilliant competitors were contending.

“I see it all,” thought Cleve; “that’s the reason why Caroline Oldys and Lady Wimbledon are to be at Ware this autumn, and I’m to be married to the niece of a Cabinet minister.”

Cleve sneered, but he felt very uneasy.

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