The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 8.

The Triumvirate.

THAT night Lord Verney waited to hear the debate in the Commons — waited for the division — and brought Cleve home with him in his brougham.

He explained to Cleve on the way how much better the debate might have been. He sometimes half regretted his seat in the Commons; there were so many things unsaid that ought to have been said, and so many things said that had better have been omitted. And at last he remarked —

“Your uncle Arthur, my unfortunate brother, had a great natural talent for speaking. It’s a talent of the Verney’s — about it. We all have it; and you have got it also; it is a gift of very decided importance in debate; it can hardly be over-estimated in that respect. Poor Arthur might have done very well, but he didn’t, and he’s gone — about it; and I’m very glad, for your own sake, you are cultivating it; and it would be a very great misfortune, I’ve been thinking, if our family were not to marry, and secure a transmission of those hereditary talents and — and things — and — what’s your opinion of Miss Caroline Oldys? I mean, quite frankly, what sort of wife you think she would make.”

“Why, to begin with, she’s been out a long time; but I fancy she’s gentle — and foolish; and I believe her mother bullies her.”

“I don’t know what you call bullying, my good sir; but she appears to me to be a very affectionate mother; and as to her being foolish — about it — I can’t perceive it; on the contrary, I’ve conversed with her a good deal — and things — and I’ve found her very superior indeed to any young woman I can recollect having talked to. She takes an interest in things which don’t interest or — or — interest other young persons; and she likes to be instructed about affairs — and, my dear Cleve, I think where a young person of merit — either rightly or wrongly interpreting what she conceives to be your attentions — becomes decidedly épris of you, she ought to be-a —considered— her feelings, and things; and I thought I might as well mention my views, and go — about it — straight to the point; and I think you will perceive that it is reasonable, and that’s the position — about it; and you know, Cleve, in these circumstances you may reckon upon me to do anything in reason that may still lie in my power — about it.”

“You have always been too kind to me.”

“You shall find me so still. Lady Wimbledon takes an interest in you, and Miss Caroline Oldys will, I undertake to say, more and more decidedly as she comes to know you better.”

And so saying, Lord Verney leaned back in the brougham as if taking a doze, and after about five minutes of closed eyes and silence he suddenly wakened up and said —

“It is, in fact, it strikes me, high time, Cleve, you should marry — about it — and you must have money, too; you want money, and you shall have it.”

“I’m afraid money is not one of Caroline’s strong points.”

“You need not trouble yourself upon that point, sir; if I’m satisfied I fancy you may. I’ve quite enough for both, I presume; and — and so, we’ll let that matter rest.”

And the noble lord let himself rest also, leaning stiffly back with closed eyes, and nodding and swaying silently with the motion of the carriage.

I believe he was only ruminating after his manner in these periods of apparent repose. He opened his eyes again, and remarked —

“I have talked over this affair carefully with Mr. Larkin — a most judicious and worthy person — about it — and you can talk to him, and so on, when he comes to town, and I should rather wish you to do so.”

Lord Verney relapsed into silence and the semblance, at least, of slumber.

“So Larkin’s at the bottom of it; I knew he was,” thought Cleve, with a pang of hatred which augured ill for the future prospects of that good man. “He has made this alliance for the Oldys and Wimbledon faction, and I’m Mr. Larkin’s parti, and am to settle the management of everything upon him; and what a judicious diplomatist he is — and how he has put his foot in it. A blundering hypocritical coxcomb — D— n him.”

Then his thoughts wandered away to Larkin, and to his instrument, Mr. Dingwell, “who looks as if he came from the galleys. We have heard nothing of him for a year or more. Among the Greek and Malay scoundrels again, I suppose; the Turks are too good for him.”

But Mr. Dingwell had not taken his departure, and was not thinking of any such step yet, at least. He had business still on his hands, and a mission unaccomplished.

Still in the same queer lodgings, and more jealously shut up during the daytime than ever, Mr. Dingwell lived his odd life, professing to hate England — certainly in danger there — he yet lingered on for a set purpose, over which he brooded and laughed in his hermitage.

To so chatty a person as Mr. Dingwell solitude for a whole day was irksome. Sarah Rumble was his occasional resource, and when she brought him his cup of black coffee he would make her sit down by the wall, like a servant at prayers, and get from her all the news of the dingy little neighbourhood, with a running commentary of his own flighty and savage irony, and he would sometimes entertain her, between the whiffs of his long pipe, with talk of his own, which he was at no pains to adapt to her comprehension, and delivered rather for his own sole entertainment.

“The world, the flesh, and the devil, ma’am. The two first we know pretty well — hey? the other we take for granted. I suppose there is somebody of the sort. We are all pigs, ma’am-unclean animals — and this is a sty we live in-slime and abomination. Strong delusion is, unseen, circling in the air. Our ideas of beauty, delights of sense, vanities of intellect — all a most comical and frightful cheat — egad! What fun we must be, ma’am, to the spirits who have sight and intellect! I think, ma’am, we’re meant for their pantomime — don’t you? Our airs, and graces, and dignities, and compliments, and beauties, and dandies — our metal coronets, and lawn sleeves, and whalebone wigs — fun, ma’am, lots of fun! And here we are, a wonderful work of God. Eh? Come, ma’am-a word in your ear — all putrefaction— pah! nothing clean but fire, and that makes us roar and vanish — a very odd position we’re placed in; hey, ma’am?”

Mr. Dingwell had at first led Sarah Rumble a frightful life, for she kept the door where the children were peremptorily locked, at which he took umbrage, and put her on fatigue duty, more than trebling her work by his caprices, and requiting her with his ironies and sneers, finding fault with everything, pretending to miss money out of his desk, and every day threatening to invoke Messrs. Levi and Goldshed, and invite an incursion of the police, and showing in his face, his tones — his jeers pointed and envenomed by revenge — that his hatred was active and fiendish.

But Sarah Rumble was resolute. He was not a desirable companion for childhood of either sex, and the battle went on for a considerable time; and poor Sarah in her misery besought Messrs. Levi and Goldshed, with many tears and prayers, that he might depart from her; and Levi looked at Goldshed, and Goldshed at Levi, quite gravely, and Levi winked, and Goldshed nodded, and said, “A bad boy;” and they spoke comfortably, and told her they would support her, but Mr. Dingwell must remain her inmate, but they’d take care he should do her no harm.

Mr. Dingwell had a latch-key, which he at first used sparingly and timidly; with time, however, his courage grew, and he was out more or less every night. She used to hear him go out after the little household was in bed, and sometimes she heard him lock the hall-door, and his step on the stairs when the sky was already gray with the dawn.

And gradually finding company such as he affected out of doors, I suppose, he did not care so much for the seclusion of his fellow-lodgers, and ceased to resent it almost, and made it up with Sarah Rumble.

And one night, having to go up between one and two for a match-box to the lobby, she encountered Mr. Dingwell coming down. She was dumb with terror, for she did not know him, and took him for a burglar, he being somehow totally changed — she was too confused to recollect exactly, only that he had red hair and whiskers, and looked stouter.

She did not know him in the least till he laughed. She was near fainting, and leaned with her shoulder to the corner of the wall; and he said —

“I’ve to put on these; you keep my secret, mind; you may lose me my life, else.”

And he took her by the chin, and gave her a kiss, and then a slap on the cheek that seemed to her harder than play, for her ear tingled with it for an hour after, and she uttered a little cry of fright, and he laughed, and glided out of the hall-door, and listened for the tread of a policeman, and peeped slily up and down the court; and then, with his cotton umbrella in his hand, walked quietly down the passage and disappeared.

Sarah Rumble feared him all the more for this little rencontre and the shock she had received, for there was a suggestion of something felonious in his disguise. She was, however, a saturnine and silent woman, with few acquaintances, and no fancy for collecting or communicating news. There was a spice of danger, too, in talking of this matter; so she took counsel of the son of Sirach, who says, “If thou hast heard a word, let it die with thee, and, behold, it will not burst thee.”

Sarah Rumble kept his secret, and henceforward, at such hours kept close, when in the deep silence of the night she heard the faint creak of his stealthy shoe upon the stair, and avoided him as she would a meeting with a ghost.

Whatever were his amusements, Messrs. Goldshed and Levi grumbled savagely at the cost of them. They grumbled because grumbling was a principle of theirs in carrying on their business.

“No matter how it turns out, keep always grumbling to the man who led you into the venture, especially if he has a claim to a share of the profits at the close.”

So whenever Mr. Larkin saw Messrs. Goldshed and Levi, he heard mourning and imprecation. The Hebrews shook their heads at the Christian, and chaunted a Jeremiad, in duet, together, and each appealed to the other for the confirmation of the dolorous and bitter truths he uttered. And the iron safe opened its jaws and disgorged the private ledger of the firm, which ponderous and greasy tome was laid on the desk with a pound, and opened at this transaction — the matter of Dingwell, Verney, &c.; and Mr. Levi would run his black nail along the awful items of expenditure that filled column after column.

“Look at that — look here — look, will you? — look, I say: you never sawed an account like that — never — all this here — look — down — and down — and down — and down —”

“Enough to frighten the Bank of England!” boomed Mr. Goldshed.

“Look down thish column,” resumed Levi, “and thish, and thish, and thish — there’s nine o’ them — and not one stiver on th’ other side. Look, look, look, look, look! Daam, it’sh all a quaag, and a quickshand — nothing but shink and shwallow, and give ush more”— and as he spoke Levi was knocking the knuckles of his long lean fingers fiercely upon the empty columns, and eyeing Larkin with a rueful ferocity, as if he had plundered and half-murdered him and his partner, who sat there innocent as the babes in the wood.

Mr. Larkin knew quite well, however, that so far from regretting their investment, they would not have sold their ventures under a very high figure indeed.

“And that beast Dingwell, talking as if he had us all in quod, by — — and always whimperin’, and whinin’, and swearin’ for more — why you’d say, to listen to his rot, ’twas him had us under his knuckle — you would — the lunatic!”

“And may I ask what he wants just at present?” inquired Mr. Larkin.

“What he always wants, and won’t be easy never till he gets it — a walk up the mill, sir, and his head cropped, and six months’ solitary, and a touch of corporal now and again. I never saw’d a cove as wanted a teazin’ more; that’s what he wants. What he’s looking for, of course, is different, only he shan’t get it, nohow. And I think, looking at that book there, as I showed you this account in-considering what me and the gov’nor here has done —‘twould only be fair you should come down with summut, if you goes in for the lottery, with other gentlemen as pays their pool like bricks, and never does modest, by no chance.”

“He has pushed that game a little too far,” said Mr. Larkin; “I have considered his feelings a great deal too much.”

“Yesh, but we have feelinsh. The Gov’nor has feelinsh; I have feelinsh. Think what state our feelinsh is in, lookin’ at that there account,” said Mr. Levi, with much pathos.

Mr. Larkin glanced toward the door, and then toward the window.

“We are quite alone?” said he, mildly.

“Yesh, without you have the devil in your pocket, as old Dingwell saysh,” answered Levi, sulkily.

“For there are subjects of a painful nature, as you know, gentlemen, connected with this particular case,” continued Mr. Larkin.

“Awful painful; but we’ll sta-an’ it,” said Goldshed, with unctuous humour; “we’ll sta-an’ it, but wishes it over quick;” and he winked at Levi.

“Yesh, he wishes it over quick,” echoed Levi; “the gov’nor and me, we wishes it over quick.”

“And so do I, most assuredly; but we must have a little patience. If deception does lurk here — and you know I warned you I suspected it — we must not prematurely trouble Lord Verney.”

“He might throw up the sponge, he might, I know,” said Levi, with a nod.

“I don’t know what course Lord Verney might think it right in such a case to adopt; I only know that until I am in a position to reduce suspicion to certainty, it would hardly consist with right feeling to torture his mind upon the subject. In the meantime he is — a — growing”——

“Growing warm in his berth,” said Goldshed.

“Establishing himself, I should say, in his position. He has been incurring, I need hardly tell you, enormous expense in restoring (I might say re-building) the princely mansions of Ware, and of Verney House. He applied much ready money to that object, and has charged the estates with nearly sixty thousand pounds besides.” Mr. Larkin lowered his tones reverentially at the mention of so considerable a sum.

“I know Sirachs, did nigh thirty thoushand o’ that,” said Mr. Goldshed.

“And that tends to — to — as I may say, steady him in his position; and I may mention, in confidence, gentlemen, that there are other measures on the tapis” (he pronounced taypis) “which will further and still more decidedly fix him in his position. It would pain us all deeply, gentlemen, that a premature disclosure of my uneasiness should inspire his lordship with a panic in which he might deal ruinously with his own interests, and, in fact, as you say, Mr. Levi, throw up the — the”——

“Sponge,” said Levi, reflectively.

“But I may add,” said Mr. Larkin, “that I am impatiently watching the moment when it may become my duty to open my suspicions fully to Lord Verney; and that I have reason to know that that moment cannot now be distant.”

“Here’s Tomlinshon comin’ up, gov’nor,” said Mr. Levi, jumping off the table on which he had been sitting, and sweeping the great ledger into his arms, he pitched it into its berth in the safe, and locked it into that awful prison-house.

“I said he would,” said Goldshed, with a lazy smile, as he unlocked a door in the lumbering office table at which he sat. “Don’t bring out them overdue renewals; we’ll not want them till next week.”

Mr. Tomlinson, a tall, thin man, in faded drab trousers, with a cotton umbrella swinging in his hand, and a long careworn face, came striding up the court.

“You won’t do that for him?” asked Levi.

“No, not today,” murmured Mr. Goldshed, with a wink. And Mr. Tomlinson’s timid knock and feeble ring at the door were heard.

And Mr. Larkin put on his well-brushed hat, and pulled on his big lavender gloves, and stood up at his full length, in his black glossy coat, and waistcoat and trowsers of the accustomed hue, and presents the usual lavender-tinted effect, and a bland simper rests on his lank cheeks, and his small pink eyes look their adieux upon Messrs. Goldshed and Levi, on whom his airs and graces are quite lost; and with his slim silk umbrella between his great finger and thumb, he passes loftily by the cotton umbrella of Mr. Tomlinson, and fancies, with a pardonable egotism, that that poor gentleman, whose head is full of his bill-book and renewals, and possible executions, and preparing to deceive a villanous omniscience, and to move the compassion of Pandemonium — is thinking of him, and mistaking him, possibly, for a peer, or for some other type of British aristocracy.

The sight of that unfortunate fellow, Tomlinson, with a wife, and a seedy hat, and children, and a cotton umbrella, whose little business was possibly about to be knocked about his ears, moved a lordly pity in Mr. Larkin’s breast, and suggested contrasts, also, of many kinds, that were calculated to elate his good humour; and as he stepped into the cab, and the driver waited to know “where,” he thought he might as well look in upon the recluse of Rosemary Court, and give him, of course with the exquisite tact that was peculiar to him, a hint or two in favour of reason and moderation; for really it was quite true what Mr. Levi had said about the preposterous presumption of a person in Mr. Dingwell’s position affecting the airs of a dictator.

So being in the mood to deliver a lecture, to the residence of that uncomfortable old gentleman he drove, and walked up the flagged passage to the flagged court-yard, and knocked at the door, and looked up at the square ceiling of sickly sky, and strode up the narrow stairs after Mrs. Rumble.

“How d’ye do, sir? Your soul, particularly, quite well, I trust. Your spiritual concerns flourishing today?” was the greeting of Mr. Dingwell’s mocking voice.

“Thanks, Mr. Dingwell; I’m very well,” answered Mr. Larkin, with a bow which was meant to sober Mr. Dingwell’s mad humour.

Sarah Rumble, as we know, had a defined fear of Mr. Dingwell, but also a vague terror; for there was a great deal about him ill-omened and mysterious. There was a curiosity, too, active within her, intense and rather ghastly, about all that concerned him. She did not care, therefore, to get up and go away from the small hole in the carpet which she was darning on the lobby, and through the door she heard faintly some talk she didn’t understand, and Mr. Dingwell’s voice, at a high pitch, said —

“D—— you, sir, do you think I’m a fool? Don’t you think I’ve your letter, and a copy of my own? If we draw swords, egad, sir, mine’s the longer and sharper, as you’ll feel. Ha, ha, ha!”

“Oh, lawk!” gasped Sarah Rumble, standing up, and expecting the clash of rapiers.

“Your face, sir, is as white and yellow — you’ll excuse me — as an old turban. I beg your pardon; but I want you to understand that I see you’re frightened, and that I won’t be bullied by you.”

“I don’t suppose, sir, you meditate totally ruining yourself,” said Mr. Larkin, with dignity.

“I tell you, sir, if anything goes wrong with me, I’ll make a clean breast of it —everything— ha, ha, ha! — upon my honour — and we two shall grill together.”

Larkin had no idea he was going in for so hazardous and huge a game when he sat down to play. His vision was circumscribed, his prescience small. He looked at the beast he had imported, and wished him in a deep grave in Scutari, with a turbaned-stone over his head, the scheme quashed, and the stakes drawn.

But wishing would not do. The spirit was evoked — in nothing more manageable than at first; on the contrary, rather more insane. Nerve was needed, subtlety, patience, and he must manage him.

“Why the devil did you bring me here, sir, if you were not prepared to treat me properly? You know my circumstances, and you want to practise on my misfortunes, you vile rogue, to mix me up in your fraudulent machinations.”

“Pray, sir, not so loud. Do —do command yourself,” remonstrated Larkin, almost affectionately.

“Do you think I’m come all this way, at the risk of my life, to be your slave, you shabby, canting attorney? I’d better be where I was, or in kingdom come. By Allah! sir, you have me, and I’m your master, and you shan’t buy my soul for a piastre.”

There came a loud knock at the hall-door, and if it had been a shot and killed them both, the debaters in the drawing-room could not have been more instantaneously breathless.

Down glided Sarah Rumble, who had been expecting this visit, to pay the taxman.

And she had hardly taken his receipt, when Mr. Larkin, very pink, endeavouring to smile in his discomfiture, and observing with a balmy condescension, “A sweet day, Mrs. Rumble,” appeared in the hall, shook his ears a little, and adjusted his hat, and went forth, and Rosemary Court saw him no more for some time.

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