The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 17.

They Visit the Chapel of Penruthyn Again.

VERY grave was Cleve Verney as the vehicle disappeared. His uncle’s conversation had been very dismal. “Ethel, indeed! What an old bore he is, to be sure! Well, no matter; we shall see who’ll win the game. He is so obstinate and selfish.” There was, indeed, an enemy in front — an up-hill battle before him. He prayed heaven, at all events, that the vindictive old gentleman might not discover the refuge of Sir Booth Fanshawe. Were he to do so, what a situation for Cleve! He would talk the matter over with his uncle’s attorneys, who knew him, with whom he had often been deputed to confer on other things; who, knowing that he stood near the throne, would listen to him, and they would not be over zealous in hunting the old Baronet down. With those shrewd suspicious fellows, Cleve would put it all on election grounds. Sir Booth was in a kind of way popular. There would be a strong feeling against any extreme or vindictive courses being taken by his uncle, and this would endanger, or at all events embarrass Cleve very seriously.

Away shadows of the future — smoke and vapours of the pit! Let us have the sun and air of heaven while we may. What a charming day! how light and pleasant the breeze! The sails rattle, quiver and fill, and stooping to the breeze, away goes the Wave— and, with a great sigh, away go Cleve’s troubles, for the present; and his eye travels along the sea-board, from Cardyllian on to Malory, and so to the dimmer outline of Penruthyn Priory.

As usual, they ran for Pendillion — the wind favouring — and at two o’clock Cleve stood on the sea-rocked stones of the rude pier of Penruthyn, and ordered his men to bring the yacht, seaward, round the point of Cardrwydd, and there to await him. There was some generalship in this. His interview of the morning had whetted his instincts of caution. Round Cardrwydd the men could not see, and beside he wanted no one — especially not that young lady, whom the sight might move to he knew not what capricious resolve, to see the Wave in the waters of Penruthyn.

Away went the yacht, and Cleve strolled up to the ancient Priory, from the little hillock beyond which is a view of the sea half way to Malory.

Three o’clock came, and no sail in sight.

“They’re not coming. I shan’t see her. They must have seen our sail. Hang it, I knew we tacked too soon. And she’s such an odd girl, I think, if she fancied I were here she’d rather stay at home, or go anywhere else. Three o’clock!” He held his watch to his ear for a moment. “By Jove! I thought it had stopped. That hour seems so long. I won’t give it up yet, though. That”— he was going to call him brute, but even under the irritation of the hypothesis he could not —“that oddity. Sir Booth, may have upset their plans or delayed them.”

So, with another long look over the lonely sea toward Malory, he descended from his post of observation, and sauntered, rather despondingly, by the old Priory, and down the steep and pretty old road, that sinuously leads to the shore and the ruinous little quay, for which boats of tourists still make. He listened and lingered on the way. His mind misgave him. He would have deferred the moment when his last hope was to go out, and the chance of the meeting, which had been his last thought at night, and his first in the morning, should lose itself in the coming shades of night. Yes, he would allow them a little time — it could not be much — and if a sail were not in sight by the time he reached the strand he would give all up, and set out upon his dejected walk to Cardrwydd.

He halted and lingered for awhile in that embowered part of the little by-road which opens on the shore, half afraid to terminate a suspense in which was still a hope. With an effort, then, he walked on, over the little ridge of sand and stones, and, lo! there was the boat with furled sails by the broken pier, and within scarce fifty steps the Malory ladies were approaching.

He raised his hat — he advanced quickly — not knowing quite how he felt, and hardly recollecting the minute after it was spoken, what he had said. He only saw that the young lady seemed surprised and grave. He thought she was even vexed.

“I’m so glad we’ve met you here, Mr. Verney,” said artful Miss Sheckleton. “I was just thinking, compared with our last visit, how little profit we should derive from our present. I’m such a dunce in ancient art and architecture, and in all the subjects, in fact, that help one to understand such a building as this, that I despaired of enjoying our excursion at all as I did our last; but, perhaps you are leaving, and once more is too much to impose such a task as you undertook on our former visit.”

“Going away! You could not really think such a thing possible, while I had a chance of your permitting me to do the honours of our poor Priory.”

He glanced at Miss Fanshawe, who was at the other side of the chatty old lady, as they walked up the dim monastic road; but the Guido was looking over the low wall into the Warren, and his glance passed by unheeded.

“I’m so fond of this old place,” said Cleve, to fill in a pause. “I should be ashamed to say — you’d think me a fool almost — how often I take a run over here in my boat, and wander about its grounds and walls, quite alone. If there’s a transmigration of souls, I dare say mine once inhabited a friar of Penruthyn — I feel, especially since I last came to Ware, such an affection for the old place.”

“It’s a very nice taste, Mr. Verney. You have no reason to be ashamed of it,” said the old lady, decisively. “Young men, now-a-days, are so given up to horses and field games, and so little addicted to anything refined, that I’m quite glad when I discover any nice taste or accomplishment among them. You must have read a great deal, Mr. Verney, to be able to tell us all the curious things you did about this old place and others.”

“Perhaps I’m only making a great effort — a show of learning on an extraordinary occasion. You must see how my stock lasts today. You are looking into that old park, Miss Fanshawe,” said Cleve, slily crossing to her side. “We call it the Warren; but it was once the Priory Park. There is a very curious old grant from the Prior of Penruthyn, which my uncle has at Ware, of a right to pasture a certain number of cows in the park, on condition of aiding the verderer in keeping up the green underwood. There is a good deal of holly still there, and some relics of the old timber, but not much. There is not shelter for deer now. But you never saw anything like the quantity of rabbits; and there are really, here and there, some very picturesque fragments of old forest — capital studies of huge oak trees in the last stage of venerable decay and decrepitude, and very well worthy of a place in your sketch-book.”

“I dare say; I should only fear my book is hardly worthy of them,” said Miss Fanshawe.

“I forgot to show you this when you were here before.” He stopped short, brushing aside the weeds with his walking-cane. “Here are the bases of the piers of the old park gate.”

The little party stopped, and looked as people do on such old-world relics. But there was more than the conventional interest; or rather something quite different — something at once sullen and pensive in the beautiful face of the girl. She stood a little apart, looking down on that old masonry. “What is she thinking of?” he speculated; “is she sad, or is she offended? is it pride, or melancholy, or anger? or is it only the poetry of these dreamy old places that inspires her reverie? I don’t think she has listened to one word I said about it. She seemed as much a stranger as the first day I met her here;” and his heart swelled with a bitter yearning, as he glanced at her without seeming to do so. And just then, with the same sad face, she stooped and plucked two pretty wild flowers that grew by the stones, under the old wall. It seemed to him like the action of a person walking in a dream — half unconscious of what she was doing, quite unconscious of everyone near her.

“What shall we do?” said Cleve, as soon as they had reached the enclosure of the buildings. “Shall we begin at the refectory and library, or return to the chapel, which we had not quite looked over when you were obliged to go, on your last visit?”

This question his eyes directed to Miss Fanshawe; but as she did not so receive it. Miss Sheckleton took on herself to answer for the party. So into the chapel they went — into shadow and seclusion. Once more among the short rude columns, the epitaphs, and round arches, in dim light, and he shut the heavy door with a clap that boomed through its lonely aisles, and rejoiced in his soul at having secured if it were only ten minutes’ quiet and seclusion again with the ladies of Malory. It seemed like a dream.

“I quite forgot, Miss Fanshawe,” said he, artfully compelling her attention, “to show you a really curious, and even mysterious tablet, which is very old, and about which are ever so many stories and conjectures.”

He conveyed them to a recess between two windows, where in the shade is a very old mural tablet.

“It is elaborately carved, and is dated, you see, 1411. If you look near you will see that the original epitaph has been chipped off near the middle, and the word ‘Eheu,’ which is Latin for ‘alas!’ cut deeply into the stone.”

“What a hideous skull!” exclaimed the young lady, looking at the strange carving of that emblem, which projected at the summit of the tablet.

“Yes, what a diabolical expression! Isn’t it?” said Cleve.

“Are not those tears?” continued Miss Fanshawe, curiously.

“No, look more nearly and you will see. They are worms — great worms — crawling from the eyes, and knotting themselves, as you see,” answered Cleve.

“Yes,” said the lady, with a slight shudder, “and what a wicked grin the artist has given to the mouth. It is wonderfully powerful! What rage and misery! It is an awful image! Is that a tongue?”

“A tongue of fire. It represents a flame issuing from between the teeth; and on the scroll beneath, which looks, you see, like parchment shrivelled by fire are the words in Latin, ‘Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched;’ and here is the epitaph —‘Hic sunt ruinæ, forma letifera, cor mortuum, lubrica lingua dæmonis, digitus proditor, nunc gehennæ favilla. Plorate. Plaudite.’ It is Latin, and the meaning is, ‘Here are ruins, fatal beauty, a dead heart, the slimy tongue of the demon, a traitor finger, now ashes of gehenna. Lament. Applaud.’ Some people say it is the tomb of the wicked Lady Mandeville, from whom we have the honour of being descended, who with her traitor finger indicated the place where her husband was concealed; and afterwards was herself put to death, they say, though I never knew any evidence of it, by her own son. All this happened in the Castle of Cardyllian, which accounts for her being buried in the comparative seclusion of the Priory, and yet so near Cardyllian. But antiquarians say the real date of that lady’s misdoings was nearly a century later; and so the matter rests an enigma probably to the day of doom.”

“It is a very good horror. What a pity we shall never know those sentences that have been cut away,” said Miss Fanshawe.

“That skull is worth sketching; won’t you try it?” said Cleve.

“No, not for the world. I shall find it only too hard to forget it, and I don’t mean to look at it again. Some countenances seize one with a tenacity and vividness quite terrible.”

Very true,” said Cleve, with a meaning she understood, as he turned away with her. “We are not rich in wonders here, but the old church chest is worth seeing, it is curiously carved.”

He led them towards a niche in which it is placed near the communion rails. But said Miss Sheckleton —

“I’m a little tired, Margaret; you will look at it, dear; and Mr. Verney will excuse me. We have been delving and hoeing all the morning, and I shall rest here for a few minutes.” And she sat down on the bench.

Miss Margaret Fanshawe looked at her a little vexed, Cleve thought; and the young lady said —

“Hadn’t you better come? It’s only a step, and Mr. Verney says it is really curious.”

“I’m a positive old woman,” said cousin Anne, “as you know, and really a little tired; and you take such an interest in old carving in wood — a thing I don’t at all understand, Mr. Verney; she has a book quite full of really beautiful drawings, some taken at Brussels, and some at Antwerp. Go, dear, and see it, and I shall be rested by the time you come back.”

So spoke good-natured Miss Sheckleton, depriving Margaret of every evasion; and she accordingly followed Cleve Verney as serenely as she might have followed the verger.

“Here it is,” said Cleve, pausing before the recess in which this antique kist is placed. He glanced towards Miss Sheckleton. She was a good way off — out of hearing, if people spoke low; and besides, busy making a pencilled note in a little book which she had brought to light. Thoughtful old soul!

“And about the way in which faces rivet the imagination and haunt the memory, I’ve never experienced it but once,” said Cleve, in a very low tone.

“Oh! it has happened to me often, very often. From pictures, I think, always; evil expressions of countenance that are ambiguous and hard to explain, always something demoniacal, I think,” said the young lady.

“There is nothing of the demon — never was, never could be-in the phantom that haunts me,” said Cleve. “It is, on the contrary — I don’t say angelic. Angels are very good, but not interesting. It is like an image called up by an enchanter — a wild, wonderful spirit of beauty and mystery. In darkness or light I always see it. You like to escape from yours. I would not lose mine for worlds; it is my good genius, my inspiration; and whenever that image melts into air, and I see it no more, the last good principle of my life will have perished.”

The young lady laughed in a silvery little cadence that had a sadness in it, and said —

“Your superstitions are much prettier than mine. My good cousin Anne, there, talks of blue devils, and my familiars are, I think, of that vulgar troop; while yours are all couleur de rose, and so elegantly got up, and so perfectly presentable and well bred, that I really think I should grow quite tired of the best of them in a five-minutes’ tête-à-tête.”

“I must have described my apparition very badly,” said Cleve. “That which is lovely beyond all mortal parallel can be described only by its effects upon one’s fancy and emotions, and in proportion as these are intense, I believe they are incommunicable.”

“You are growing quite too metaphysical for me,” said Miss Margaret Fanshawe. “I respect metaphysics, but I never could understand them.”

“It is quite true,” laughed Cleve. “I was so. I hate metaphysics myself;’ and they have nothing to do with this, they are so dry and detestable. But now, as a physician — as an exorcist — tell me, I entreat, in my sad case, haunted by a beautiful phantom of despair, which I have mistaken for my good angel, how am I to redeem myself from this fatal spell.”

A brilliant colour tinged the young lady’s cheeks, and her great eyes glanced on him for a moment, he thought, with a haughty and even angry brilliancy.

“I don’t profess the arts you mention; but I doubt the reality of your spectre. I think it is an illusion, depending on an undue excitement in the organ of self-esteem, quite to be dispelled by restoring the healthy action of those other organs — of common sense. Seriously, I’m not competent to advise gentlemen, young or old, in their perplexities, real or fancied; but I certainly would say to any one who had set before him an object of ambition, the attainment of which he thought would be injurious to him — be manly, have done with it, let it go, give it to the winds. Besides, you know that half the objects which young men set before them, the ambitions which they cherish, are the merest castles in the air, and that all but themselves can see the ridicule of their aspirations.”

“You must not go, Miss Fanshawe; you have hot seen the carving you came here to look at. Here is the old church chest; but — but suppose the patient— let us call him — knows that the object of his — his ambition is on all accounts the best and noblest he could possibly have set before him. What then?”

“What then!” echoed Miss Fanshawe. “How can any one possibly tell — but the patient, as you call him, himself — what he should do. Your patient does not interest me; he wearies me. Let us look at this carving.”

“Do you think he should despair because there is no present answer to his prayers, and his idol vouchsafes no sign or omen?” persisted Cleve.

“I don’t think,” she replied, with a cold impatience, “the kind of person you describe is capable of despairing in such a case. I think he would place too high a value upon his merits to question the certainty of their success — don’t you?” said the young lady.

“Well, no; I don’t think so. He is not an unreal person; I know him, and I know that his good opinion of himself is humbled, and that he adores with an entire abandonment of self the being whom he literally worships.”

“Very adoring, perhaps, but rather — that’s a great dog like a wolf-hound in that panel, and it has got its fangs in that pretty stag’s throat,” said Miss Fanshawe, breaking into a criticism upon the carving.

“Yes — but you were saying ‘Very adoring, but rather’— what?” urged Cleve.

“Rather silly, don’t you think? What business have people adoring others of whom they know nothing — who may not even like them— who may possibly dislike them extremely? I am tired of your good genius — I hope I’m not very rude — and of your friend’s folly — tired as you must be; and I think we should both give him very much the same advice, I should say to him, pray don’t sacrifice yourself; you are much too precious; consider your own value, and above all, remember that even should you make up your mind to the humiliation of the altar and the knife, the ceremonial may prove a fruitless mortification, and the opportunity of accomplishing your sacrifice be denied you by your divinity. And I think that’s a rather well-rounded period: don’t you?”

By this time Miss Margaret Fanshawe had reached her cousin, who stood up smiling.

“I’m ashamed to say I have been actually amusing myself here with my accounts. We have seen, I think, nearly everything now in this building. I should so like to visit the ruins at the other side of the court-yard.”

“I shall be only too happy to be your guide, if you permit me,” said Cleve.

And accordingly they left the church, and Cleve shut the door with a strange feeling both of irritation and anxiety.

“Does she dislike me? Or is she engaged? What can her odd speeches mean, if not one or other of these things? She warns me off, and seems positively angry at my approach. She took care that I should quite understand her ironies, and there was no mistaking the reality of her unaccountable resentment.”

So it was with a weight at his heart, the like of which he had never experienced before, that Cleve undertook, and I fear in a rather spiritless way performed his duties as cicerone, over the other parts of the building.

Her manner seemed to him changed, chilled and haughty. Had there come a secret and sudden antipathy, the consequence of a too hasty revelation of feelings which he ought in prudence to have kept to himself for some time longer? And again came with a dreadful pang the thought that her heart was already won — the heart so cold and impenetrable to him — the passionate and docile worshipper of another man — some beast — some fool. But the first love — the only love worth having; and yet, of all loves the most ignorant — the insanest.

Bitter as gall was the outrage to his pride. He would have liked to appear quite indifferent, but he could not. He knew the girl would penetrate his finesse. She practised none herself; he could see and feel a change that galled him — very slight but intolerable. Would it not be a further humiliation to be less frank than she, and to practise an affectation which she despised.

Miss Sheckleton eyed the young people stealthily and curiously now and then, he thought. She suspected perhaps more than there really was, and she was particularly kind and grave at parting, and, he thought, observed him with a sort of romantic compassion which is so pretty in old ladies.

He did touch Miss Fanshawe’s hand at parting, and she smiled a cold and transient smile as she gathered her cloaks about her, and looked over the sea, toward the setting sun. In that clear, mellow glory, how wonderfully beautiful she looked! He was angry with himself for the sort of adoration which glowed at his heart. What would he not have given to be indifferent, and to make her feel that he was so!

He smiled and waved his farewell to Miss Sheckleton. Miss Fanshawe was now looking toward Malory. The boat was gliding swiftly into distance, and disappeared with the sunset glittering on its sides, round the little headland, and Cleve was left alone.

His eyes dropped to the shingle, and broken shells, and seaweed, that lay beneath his feet, in that level stream of amber light. He thought of going away, thought what a fool he had been, thought of futurity and fate, with a sigh, and renounced the girl, washed out the portrait before which he had worshipped for so long, with the hand of defiance — the water of Lethe. Vain, vain; in sympathetic dyes, the shadow stained upon the brain, still fills his retina, glides before him in light and darkness, and will not be divorced.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57