The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 18.

Cleve Again Before His Idol.

CLEVE could not rest — he could not return to Ware. He would hear his fate defined by her who had grown so inexpressibly dear by being — unattainable! Intolerant of impediment or delay, this impetuous spirit would end all, and know all that very night.

The night had come — one that might have come in June. The moon was up — the air so sweetly soft — the blue of heaven so deep and liquid.

His yacht lay on the deep quiet shadow, under the pier of Cardyllian. He walked over the moonlighted green, which was now quite deserted. The early town had already had its tea and “pikelets.” Alone — if lovers ever are alone — he walked along the shore, and heard the gentle sea ripple rush and sigh along the stones. He ascended the steep path that mounts the sea-beaten heights, overlooking Cardyllian on one side, and Malory on the other.

Before him lay the landscape on which he had gazed as the sun went down that evening, when the dull light from the gold and crimson sky fell softly round. And now, how changed everything! The moon’s broad disk over the headland was silvering the objects dimly. The ivied castle at his left looked black against the sky. The ruins how empty now! How beautiful everything, and he how prodigious a fool! No matter. We have time enough to be wise. Away, tomorrow, or at latest, next day; and in due course would arrive the season — that tiresome House of Commons — and the routine of pleasure, grown on a sudden so insupportably dull.

So he had his walk in the moonlight toward Malory — the softest moonlight that ever fell from heaven — the air so still and sweet: it seemed an enchanted land. Down the hill toward Malory he sauntered, looking sometimes moonward, sometimes on the dark woods, and feeling as five weeks since he could not have believed himself capable of feeling, and so he arrived at the very gate of Malory.

Here stood two ladies, talking low their desultory comments on the beautiful scene, as they looked across the water toward the headland of Pendillion. And these two ladies were the same from whom he had parted so few hours since. It was still very early everywhere except at Cardyllian, and these precincts of Malory, so entirely deserted at these hours that there seemed as little chance of interruption at the gate, as if they had stood in the drawing-room windows.

Cleve was under too intense and impetuous an excitement to hesitate. He approached the iron gate where, as at a convent grille, the old and the young recluse stood. The moonlight was of that intense and brilliant kind which defines objects clearly as daylight. The ladies looked both surprised; even Miss Anne Sheckleton looked grave.

“How very fortunate!” said Cleve, raising his hat, and drawing near. Just then, he did not care whether Sir Booth should chance to see him there or not, and it was not the turn of his mind to think, in the first place, of consequences to other people.

Happily, perhaps, for the quiet of Malory, one of Sir Booth’s caprices had dispensed that night with his boat, and he was at that moment stretched in his long silk dressing-gown and slippers, on the sofa, in what he called his study. After the first instinctive alarm, therefore, Miss Anne Sheckleton had quite recovered her accustomed serenity and cheer of mind, and even interrupted him before he had well got to the end of his salutation to exclaim —

“Did you ever, anywhere, see such moonlight? It almost dazzles me.”

“Quite splendid; and Malory looks so picturesque in this light.” He was leaning on the pretty old gate, at which stood both ladies, sufficiently far apart to enable him, in a low tone, to say to the younger, without being overheard —“So interesting in every light, now! I wonder your men don’t suspect me of being a poacher, or something else very bad, I find myself prowling about here so often, at this hour, and even later.”

“I admire that great headland — Pendillion, isn’t it? — so very much; by this light one might fancy it white with snow,” said Miss Sheckleton.

“I wish you could see Cardrwydd Island now; the gray cliffs in this light are so white and transparent, you can hardly imagine so strange and beautiful an effect,” said Cleve.

“I dare say,” said Miss Sheckleton.

“You have only to walk about twenty steps across that little road towards the sea, and you have it full in view. Do let me persuade you,” said Cleve.

“Well, I don’t mind,” said Miss Sheckleton. “Come, Margaret, dear,” and these latter words she repeated in private exhortation, and then aloud she added —“We have grown so much into the habit of shutting ourselves up in our convent grounds, that we feel like a pair of runaway nuns whenever we pass the walls; however, I must see the island.”

The twenty steps toward the sea came to be a hundred or more, and at last brought them close under the rude rocks that form the little pier; in that place, the party stopped, and saw the island rising in the distant sheen, white and filmy; a phantom island, with now and then a gleam of silvery spray, from the swell which was unfelt within the estuary, shooting suddenly across its points of shadow.

“Oh! how beautiful!” exclaimed Miss Fanshawe, and Cleve felt strangely elated in her applause. They were all silent, and Miss Sheckleton, still gazing on the distant cliffs, walked on a little, and a little more, and paused.

“How beautiful!” echoed Cleve, in tones as low, but very different. “Yes, how beautiful — how fatally beautiful; how beloved, and yet how cold. Cold, mysterious, wild as the sea; beautiful, adored and cruel. How could you speak as you did today? What have I done, or said, or thought, if you could read my thoughts? I tell you, ever since I saw you in Cardyllian church I’ve thought only of you; you haunt my steps; you inspire my hopes. I adore you, Margaret.”

She was looking on him with parted lips, and something like fear in her large eyes, and how beautiful her features were in the brilliant moonlight.

“Yes, I adore you; I don’t know what fate or fiend rules these things; but today it seemed to me that you hated me, and yet I adore you; do you hate me?”

“How wildly you talk; you can’t love me; you don’t know me,” said this odd girl.

“I don’t know you, and yet I love you; you don’t know me, and yet I think you hate me. You talk of love as if it were a creation of reason and calculation. You don’t know it, or you could not speak so; antipathies perhaps you do not experience; is there no caprice in them? I love you in defiance of calculation, and of reason, and of hope itself. I can no more help loving you than the light and air without which I should die. You’re not going; you’re not so cruel; it may be the last time you shall ever hear me speak. You won’t believe me; no, not a word I say, although it’s all as true as that this light shines from heaven. You’d believe one of your boatmen relating any nonsense he pleases about people and places here. You’ll believe worse fellows, I dare say, speaking of higher and dearer things, perhaps— I can’t tell; but me, on this, upon which I tell you, all depends for me, you won’t believe. I never loved any mortal before. I did not know what it was, and now here I stand, telling you my bitter story, telling it to the sea, and the rocks, and the air, with as good a chance of a hearing. I read it in your manner and your words today. I felt it intuitively. You don’t care for me; you can’t like me; I see it in your looks. And now, will you tell me; for God’s sake, Margaret, do tell me — is there not some one — you do like? I know there is.”

“That’s quite untrue — I mean there is nothing of the kind,” said this young lady, looking very pale, with great flashing eyes; “and one word more of this kind to-night you are not to say to me. Cousin Anne,” she called, “come, I’m going back.”

“We are so much obliged to you, Mr. Verney,” said Miss Sheckleton, returning; “we should never have thought of coming down here, to look for this charming view. Come, Margaret, darling, your papa may want me.”

An inquisitive glance she darted furtively at the young people, and I dare say she thought that she saw something unusual in their countenances.

As they did not speak, Miss Sheckleton chatted on unheeded, till, on a sudden, Cleve interposed with —

“There’s an old person — an old lady, I may call her — named Rebecca Mervyn, who lives in the steward’s house, adjoining Malory, for whom I have a very old friendship; she was so kind to me, poor thing, when I was a boy. My grandmother has a very high opinion of her; and she was never very easily pleased. I suppose you have seen Mrs. Mervyn; you’d not easily forget her, if you have. They tell me in the town that she is quite well; the same odd creature she always was, and living still in the steward’s house.”

“I know — to be sure — I’ve seen her very often — that is, half-a-dozen times or more — and she is a very odd old woman, like that benevolent enchantress in the ‘Magic Ring’— don’t you remember? who lived in the castle with white lilies growing all round the battlements,” answered Miss Sheckleton.

“I know,” said Cleve, who had never read it.

“And if you want to see her, here she is, oddly enough,” whispered Miss Sheckleton, as the old woman with whom Sedley had conferred on the sea-beach came round the corner of the boundary wall near the gateway by which they were now standing, in her grey cloak, with dejected steps, and looking, after her wont, seaward toward Pendillion.

“No,” said Cleve, getting up a smile as he drew a little back into the shadow; “I’ll not speak to her now; I should have so many questions to answer, I should not get away from her for an hour.”

Almost as he spoke the old woman passed them, and entered the gate; as she did so, looking hard on the little party, and hesitating for a moment, as if she would have stopped outright. But she went on without any further sign.

“I breathe again,” said Cleve; “I was so afraid she would know me again, and insist on a talk.”

“Well, perhaps it is better she did not; it might not do, you know, if she mentioned your name, for reasons,” whispered Miss Sheckleton, who was on a sudden much more intimate with Cleve, much more friendly, much more kind, and somehow pitying.

So he bade good-night. Miss Sheckleton gave him a little friendly pressure as they shook hands at parting. Miss Fanshawe neither gave nor refused her hand. He took it; he held it for a moment — that slender hand, all the world to him, clasped in his own, yet never to be his, lodged like a stranger’s for a moment there — then to go, for ever. The hand was carelessly drawn away; he let it go, and never a word spoke he.

The ladies entered the deep shadow of the trees. He listened to the light steps fainting into silent distance, till he could hear them no more.

Suspense — still suspense.

Those words spoken in her clear undertone — terrible words, that seemed at the moment to thunder in his ears, “loud as a trumpet with a silver sound”— were they, after all, words of despair, or words of hope?

One word more of this kind, to-night, you are not to say to me.

How was he to translate the word “to-night” in this awful text? It seemed, as she spoke it, introduced simply to add peremptoriness to her forbiddance. But was that its fair meaning? Did it not imply that the prohibition was limited only to that night? Might it not mean that he was free to speak more — possibly to hear more — at a future time?

A riddle? Well! he would read it in the way most favourable to his hopes; and who will blame him? He would have no oracles — no ambiguities — nothing but sharply defined certainty.

With an insolent spirit, instinct with an impatience and impetuosity utterly intolerant of the least delay or obstruction, the interval could not be long.

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