THE young lady was instantly grave, with even a little fiery gleam of anger in her eyes, he thought. He could not help raising his also, now quite gravely and even respectfully, looking on her.
“I think you know who we are,” she said a little suddenly and haughtily.
“You are at present living at Malory, I believe,” said he, with a respectful evasion.
“Yes; but I mean who we are,” said Margaret, very pale, very proud, and with her splendid hazel eyes fixed full upon him with the irresistible inspiration of truth.
“I have heard — in part accidentally — something.”
“Yes,” said the girl; “you are Mr. Cleve Verney, and my name is Fanshawe; and my father, Sir Booth Fanshawe, is at present living at Malory.”
“My dear! are you mad?” gasped Miss Sheckleton aghast.
“Yes. We are the people who live at Malory, and my father had hoped that he might have escaped there the observation of all but the very few persons who take a friendly interest in him. The place was looked out and taken for us by a person of whom we know nothing — a clergyman, I believe. I have now, for the first time, learned from that gravestone to whom the place belongs. We know nothing of the townspeople or of neighbours. We have lived to ourselves; and if he had known that Malory belonged to the Verneys, I hope you believe he would neither have been mad or mean enough to come here, to live in the house of his enemies.”
“Oh, Margaret! Margaret! you have ruined your father,” said poor Miss Sheckleton, pale as a ghost, and with her trembling fingers in the air.
“I assure you, Miss Fanshawe,” said Cleve, “you do me a cruel injustice, when you class me with Sir Booth Fanshawe’s enemies. There have been those miserable money matters, in which I never had, nor could have had, any influence whatsoever. And there has been political hostility, in which I have been the victim rather than the aggressor. Of course, I’ve had to fight my battles as best I could; but I’ve never done anything unfair or unmanly. You plainly think me a personal enemy of Sir Booth’s. It pains me that you do so. In the sense in which you seem to think it, I never was, nor in any sense could I continue to be so, in his present — his present —”
The young man hesitated for a word or a paraphrase to convey a painful meaning without offence.
“His present ruin, and his approaching exile,” said the young lady.
“I’m sure, sir, what you say is exactly so,” pleaded poor Miss Sheckleton, nervously. “It was, as you say, all about elections, and that kind of thing, which, with him, you know, never can be again. So, I’m sure, the feeling is all over. Isn’t it, Mr. Verney?”
“I don’t think it matters much,” said the young lady, in the same tone of haughty defiance. “I don’t — girls, I believe, never do understand business and politics. All I know is this — that my father has been ruined. My father has been ruined, and that, I hope, will satisfy his enemies. I know he thinks, and other people think — people in no way mixed up in his affairs — people who are impartial— that it was the cruelty and oppression of Mr. Kiffyn Verney, your uncle, I think you say — that drove him to ruin. Well, you now know that my father is at Malory.”
“He does, darling. We may be overheard,” said Miss Sheckleton in an imploring tremor.
But the young lady continued in the same clear tone —
“I can’t say what is considered fair and manly, as you say, in political enmity; but, seeing what it has done, I have no reason to believe it very scrupulous or very merciful; therefore, with some diffidence, I ask only, whether you can promise that he shall not be molested for a few days, until some other refuge shall have been provided for us? And when we shall have left England for ever, you will have no more to fear from my father, and can afford, I think, to forget his name.”
There was a kind of contradiction here, or rather one of those discords which our sense of harmony requires, and mysteriously delights in-for while her language was toned with something of the anguish of pleading, her mien and look were those of a person dictating terms to the vanquished. Had she but known all, they might have been inspired by the workings of his heart. Her colour had returned more brilliantly, her large eyes gleamed, and her beautiful eyebrow wore that anguine curve which is the only approach to a scowl which painters accord to angels. Thus, though her tones were pathetic, she stood like a beautiful image of Victory.
In the silence that followed, Cleve stood before her for a moment confounded. Too many feelings were on a sudden set in motion by this girl’s harangue, to find a distinct resultant in words. His pride was stung — something of anger was stirred within him; his finer sympathies, too, were moved, and a deeper feeling still.
“I’m afraid you think me a very mean person, indeed,” said Cleve. “To no one, not to my uncle, not to any living person, will I so much as hint that I know anything of Sir Booth Fanshawe’s present place of abode. I don’t think that we men are ever quite understood by you. I hope that is it. I hope it is not that you entertain a particularly ill opinion of me. I haven’t deserved it, you’ll find I never shall. I hope you will employ me. I hope, Miss Sheckleton, you will employ me, whenever, in any way, you think I can be of use. Your having, although I know it is perfectly accidental, come to Malory, places me under a kind of obligation, I wish you would allow me to think so, of hospitality; there is no room for generosity here; it would be a misplaced phrase; but I wish, very much, that you would put my goodwill to the proof, and rely upon my fidelity; only give me a trial.”
I believe that every one who is speaking all in earnest, and, for the moment, quite from a good impulse, looks more beautiful in that momentary light of paradise, and certainly no handsomer young fellow, to my mind, could have been imagined than Cleve Verney, as he stood uncovered before the beautiful stranger, and pleaded for her good opinion.
The young lady was silent, and looked at Miss Sheckleton, as if deputing her to answer, and then looked away.
“You’re very kind. I know you won’t deceive us, Mr. Verney,” said Miss Sheckleton, with an imploring look, and laying her hand unconsciously upon his arm. “I am sure you won’t disappoint us; but it is a great difficulty; you’ve no idea, for Sir Booth feels very strongly, and in fact we don’t mention the name of your family to him; and I’m sure — indeed I know— if he were aware that Malory was Verney property, he would never have come here, and if I were to tell him, he would leave it at once. It was a very old friend, Lord Hammerdon, who employed a clergyman, a Mr. Dixie, I think, a friend of his, to look out a suitable place in a very quiet neighbourhood; and so, without making — without, indeed, the power of making inquiry, we came down here, and have just made the discovery — two discoveries, indeed — for not only does the place belong to your family, but you, Mr. Verney are aware that Sir Booth is here.”
“Sir Booth will do me the justice to trust my word. I assure you — I swear to you — no mortal shall learn the secret of his residence from me. I hope Miss Fanshawe believes me. I’m sure you do, Miss Sheckleton,” said Cleve.
“We are both very much obliged,” said the old lady.
The girl’s eyes were lowered. Cleve thought she made just a perceptible inclination to intimate her acquiescence. It was clear, however, that her fears were satisfied. She raised her eyes, and they rested on him for a moment with a grave and even melancholy gaze, in which — was there confidence? That momentary, almost unconscious glance, was averted, but Cleve felt unaccountably happy and even proud.
“It is then understood,” said he, “that I am not to charge myself with having caused, however unintentionally, any disturbance or embarrassment of your plans. Do you think — it would give me so much pleasure — that I might venture to call upon Sir Booth Fanshawe, to make him in person that offer of my humble services, in any way in which he might please to employ me, which I have already tendered to you?”
He saw the young lady turn an alarmed glance upon her companion, and press her hand slightly on her arm, and the old lady said quickly —
“Not for the world! Nothing would vex him more. That is, I mean, it is better he should not think that he has been recognised; he is impetuous, and, as you must know, a little fiery, and just now is suffering, and, in fact, I should not venture, although I need not say, I quite appreciate the feeling, and thank you very much.”
A silence followed this little speech. The subject that had engrossed and excited the little party, was for the present exhausted, and no one was ready at the moment to start another.
“We have detained you here, most unreasonably, Mr. Verney, I’m afraid,” said Miss Sheckleton, glancing towards the door. “The evenings have grown so short, and our boatman said we should be longer returning; and I think we should have been on our way home before now.”
“I only wish you would allow me to set you down at Malory, in my boat, but I know that would not do, so you must allow me to see you on board your own.”
More time had passed, a great deal, during this odd scene, than it takes to read this note of it. When they stepped forth from the door of the tenebrous little church, the mellow light of sunset was streaming along the broken pavement and grass, and glowing on the gray walls and ivy of the old building.
Margaret Fanshawe was very silent all the way down to the little stone pier, at which the boat was moored. But the old lady had quite recovered her garrulous good spirits and energy. There was something likeable and even winning in Miss Anne Sheckleton, sixty years though she looked. She did not hide her gray locks; they were parted smoothly over her intelligent forehead, and in her clear, pleasant face you could see at times a little gleam of waggery, and sometimes the tenderness of sentiment. So that there remained with her that inextinguishable youth of spirit that attracts to the last.
Cleve was not one of those fellows who don’t understand even so much self-denial as is necessary to commend them to old ladies on occasion. He was wiser. He walked beside her slight figure and light firm step, talking agreeably, with now and then a stolen glance at the silent girl. Miss Sheckleton was an old woman such as I love. Such as remains young at three score, and is active still with youthful interests, and a vein of benevolent romance.
And now they stood at the gunwale of the boat, and Miss Sheckleton smiling a little anxiously, gave him her hand at parting.
“May I?” said he, in a tone respectful and even melancholy, at the same time, extending his hand with hesitation toward the young lady beside him.
There was a little motion in her hand, as if she would have shut or withdrawn it, but she looked at him with grave eyes; was there doubt in them, or was there confidence? and gave him her hand too, with a sad look. There was one strong violent throb at his heart as he pressed that slender gauge; and then it seemed to stand still for a moment; and he heard the evening breeze among the leaves, like a sigh along the shore. Was it an omen?
The next moment he was standing alone, with his hat in his hand, smiling and waving an adieu over the glittering waves to the receding boat.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57