THIS street, in a few hundred steps emerging from the little town, changes its character into that of a narrow rural road, overhung by noble timber, and descending with a gentle curve toward the melancholy woods of Malory.
“How beautifully she walks, too! By Jove, she’s the loveliest being I ever beheld. She’s the most perfectly beautiful girl in England. How I wish some d — d fellow would insult her, that I might smash him, and have an excuse for attending her home.”
So spoke enthusiastic Tom Sedley, as they paused to watch the retreat of the ladies, leaning over the dwarf stone wall, and half hidden by the furrowed stem of a gigantic ash tree.
From this point, about a quarter of a mile distant from Malory, they saw them enter the wide iron gate and disappear in the dark avenue that leads up to that sombre place.
“There! I said it was Malory,” exclaimed Sedley, laying his hand briskly on Cleve’s arm.
“Well, I hope you’re pleased; and tell me, now, what stay do you make at Cardyllian, Tom? Can you come over to Ware — not tomorrow, for I’m not quite sure that I shall be there, but on Tuesday, for a day or two?”
No — Tom Sedley couldn’t. He must leave tomorrow, or, at latest, on Tuesday morning; and, for today, he had promised to go to afternoon service with the Etherges, and then home to tea with them. He was to meet the party on the Green.
So after a little talk, they turned together toward the town; and they parted near the Verney Arms, where Cleve’s dog-cart awaited him. Having given his order in the hall, he walked into the coffee-room, in which, seated demurely, and quite alone, he found stout Mrs. Jones, the draper’s wife — suave, sedate, wearing a subdued Sabbath smile upon her broad and somewhat sly countenance.
Her smile expanded as Cleve drew near. She made a great and gracious courtesy, and extended her short fat hand, which Cleve Verney took and shook — for the tradition of homelier, if not kindlier times, still lingered in Cardyllian, and there were friendly personal relations between the great family and the dozen and a half of shop-keepers who constituted its commercial strength.
So Cleve Verney joked and talked with her, leaning on the back of a chair, with one knee on the seat of it. He was pleased to have lighted upon such a gossip, as good Mrs. Jones, the draper, who was waiting for the return of her husband, who was saying a word to Mr. Watkyn Hughes, in the bar, about a loan of his black horse for a funeral next morning.
“So it seems Lady Verney has got a tenant in Malory?” he said at last.
“Yes, indeed, sir,” she replied, in her most confidential manner; “and I hope— I do indeed— it may turn out such a thing as she would like.”
Mrs. Jones usually spoke in low and significant tones, and with a mystery and caution worthy of deeper things than she often talked about.
“Why, is there anything odd?” asked the young gentleman curiously.
“Well, it is not, now, altogether what I would wish for Lady Verney. I haven’t seen any of the Malory family, excepting in church today; not one, indeed, sir; they are very strange; they never come into the town — not once since ever they came to Malory! but dear me! you know, sir, that might be, and yet everything as we could wish, mightn’t it; yes, sure; still, you know, people will be talking; it’s a pity we don’t mind our own business more, and let others be, isn’t it, sir?”
“Great pity; but — but what’s the matter?” urged Cleve Verney.
“Well, Master Cleve, you know, Cardyllian, and how we do talk here; I don’t say more than other places, but we do, and I do not like repeatin’ everything I hear. There’s more mischief than good, I think, comes of repeatin’ stories.”
“Oh! come, pray what’s the good of a story except to repeat it? I ought to know, perhaps I should tell Lady Verney about it,” said Cleve, who was really curious, for nothing could be more quiet than the get up and demeanour of the ladies.
“They haven’t been here, you know, very long,” murmured Mrs. Jones, earnestly.
“No, I don’t know. I know nothing about it; how long?”
“Well, about five weeks — a little more; and we never saw the gentleman once; he’s never been down to the town since he came; never indeed, sir, not once.”
“He shows his sense; doesn’t he?”
“Ah, you were always pleasant, Master Cleve, but you don’t think so; no, you don’t indeed; his conduct is really most singular, he’s never been outside the walls of Malory all that time, in the daylight; very odd; he has hired Christmass Owen’s boat, and he goes out in it every night, unless twice, the wind was too high, and Owen didn’t choose to venture his boat. He’s a tall man, Christmass Owen says, and holds himself straight, like an officer, for people will be making inquiries, you know; and he has gray hair; not quite white, you know.”
“How should I know?”
“Ah, ha, you were always funny; yes, indeed, but it is gray, gone quite gray, Christmass Owen says.”
“Well, and what about the ladies?” inquired the young gentleman. “They’re not gone gray, all? though I shouldn’t wonder much, in Malory.”
“The ladies? Well. There’s two, you know; there’s Miss Sheckleton, that’s the elderly lady, and all the Malory accounts in the town is opened in her name. Anne Sheckleton, very reg’lar she is. I have nothing to say concerning her. They don’t spend a great deal, you understand, but their money is sure.”
“Yes, of course; but, you said, didn’t you? that there was something not quite right about them.”
“Oh dear, no, sir; I did not say quite that; nothing wrong, no sure, but very odd, sir, and most unpleasant, and that is all.”
“And that’s a good deal; isn’t it?” urged Cleve.
“Well, it is something; it is indeed a great deal,” Mrs. Jones emphasised oracularly.
“And what is it, what do you know of them, or the people here what do they say?”
“Well, they say, putting this and that together, and some hints from the servant that comes down to order things up from the town — for servants, you know, will be talking — that the family is mad.”
“Mad!” echoed Cleve.
“That’s what they say.”
“The whole family are mad! and yet continue to manage their affairs as they do! By Jove, it is a comfort to find that people can get on without heads, on emergency.”
“They don’t say, no, dear me! that all that’s in the house are mad; only the old man and the young lady.”
“And what is she mad upon?”
“Well, they don’t say. I don’t know — melancholy I do suppose.”
“And what is the old gentleman’s name?”
“We don’t know, the servants don’t know, they say; they were hired by Miss Sheckleton, in Chester, and never saw the old gentleman, nor the young lady, till after they were two or three days in Malory; and one night comes a carriage, with a madhouse gentleman, they do say, a doctor, in charge of the old gentleman, and the young lady, poor thing! and so they were handed over by him, to Miss Sheckleton.”
“And what sort of lunacies do they commit? They’re not pulling down the house among them, I hope?”
“Very gentle — very. I’m told, quite, as you may say, manageable. It’s a very sad thing, sir, but what a world it is! yes, indeed. Isn’t it?”
“Ay, so it is. — I’ve heard that, I think, before.”
“You may have heard it from me, sir, and it’s long been my feeling and opinion, dear me! The longer I live the more melancholy sights I see!”
“How long is Malory let for?”
“Can’t say, indeed, sir. That is they may give it up every three months, but has the right to keep it two whole years, that is if they like, you understand.”
“Well, it is rather odd. It was they who sat in the Malory seat today?”
“That was Miss Sheckleton, was the old lady; and the young one, didn’t you think her very pretty, sir?”
“Yes — she’s pretty,” he answered carelessly. “But I really could not see very well.”
“I was very near as she turned to leave — before she took down her veil — and I thought what a really beautiful creature she was!”
“And what do they call her?”
“Miss Margaret, sir.”
“Margaret! a pretty name — rather. Oh! here’s Mr. Jones;” and Mr. Jones was greeted — and talked a little — somewhat more distantly and formally than his goodwife had done — and Mr. and Mrs. Jones, with a dutiful farewell, set off upon their Sunday’s ramble.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57