The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 23.

Margaret has Her Warning.

NEXT evening, I believe, Cleve saw Margaret Fanshawe, by favour of that kindest of chaperons, Miss Anne Sheckleton, at the spot where by chance they had met before — at the low bank that fences the wood of Malory, near the steep road that descends by the old church of Llanderris.

Here, in the clear glow of sunset, they met and talked under the old trees, and the good old spinster, with her spectacles on, worked at her crochet industriously, and often peered over it this way and that, it must be confessed, nervously; and with a prudence with which Cleve would gladly have dispensed, she hurried this hazardous meeting to a close.

Not ten minutes later Margaret Fanshawe stood alone at the old refectory window, which commands through the parting trees a view of the sea and the distant headland, now filmed in the aerial lights of the sunset. I should not wonder if she had been drawn thither by the fanciful hope of seeing the passing sail of Cleve Verney’s yacht — every sign and relic grows so interesting! Now is with them the season of all such things: romance has sent forth her angels; the woods, the clouds, the sea, the hills, are filled with them. Now is the play of fancy and the yearning of the heart — and the aching comes in its time.

Something sadder and gentler in the face than ever before. Undine has received a soul, and is changed. The boat has passed, and to catch the last glimpse of its white wing she crosses to the other side of the window, and stretches, with a long, strange gaze, till it is gone — quite gone — and everything on a sudden is darker.

With her hand still on the worn stone-shaft of the window, she leans and looks, in a dream, till the last faint tint of sunset dies on the gray mountain, and twilight is everywhere. So, with a sigh, a vague trouble, and yet a wondrous happiness at her heart, she turns to leave the stone-floored chamber, and at the head of the steps that lead down from its door she is startled.

The pale old woman, with large, earnest eyes, was at the foot of this stone stair, with her hand on the rude banister. It seemed to Margaret as if she had been waiting for her. Her great vague eyes were looking into hers as she appeared at the door.

Margaret arrested her step, and a little frown of fear for a moment curved her eyebrows. She did fear this old Rebecca Mervyn with an odd apprehension that she had something unpleasant to say to her.

“I’m coming up to you,” said the old woman, sadly, still looking at her as she ascended the steps.

Margaret’s heart misgave her, but somehow she had not nerve to evade the interview, or rather, she had felt that it was coming and wished it over.

Once or twice in passing, the old woman had seemed to hesitate, as if about to speak to her, but had changed her mind and passed on. Only the evening before, just at the hour when the last ray of the sun comes from the west, and all the birds are singing their last notes, as she was tying up some roses, on the short terrace round the corner of the old mansion, she turned and raised her eyes, and in the window of the old building called the “Steward’s House,” the lattice being open, she saw, looking steadfastly upon her, from the shadows within, the pale face of this old woman. In its expression there was something ominous, and when she saw Margaret looking straight at her, she did not turn away, but looked on sadly, as unmoved as a picture, till Margaret, disconcerted, lowered her eyes, and went away.

As this old woman ascended the stairs, Margaret crossed the floor to the window — light is always reassuring — and leaning at its side, looked back, and saw Rebecca Mervyn already within the spacious chamber, and drawing near slowly from the shadow.

“You wish to speak to me, Mrs. Mervyn?” said the young lady, who knew her name, although now for the first time she spoke to her.

“Only a word. Ah! — yes — you are — very beautiful,” she said, with a deep sigh, as she stood looking at her, with a strange sadness and compassion in her gaze, that partook of the past, and the prophetic.

A little blush — a little smile — a momentary gleam of that light of triumph, in beauty so beautiful — showed that the fair apparition was mortal.

“Beauty! — ah! — yes! If it were not here, neither would they. Miss Margaret! — poor thing! I’ve seen him. I knew him, although it is a great many years,” said old Rebecca. “The moment my eyes lighted on him, I knew him; there is something about them all, peculiar — the Verneys, I mean. I should know a Verney anywhere, in any crowd, in any disguise. I’ve dreamt of him, and thought of him, and watched for him, for — how many years? God help me, I forget! Since I was as young as you are. Cleve Verney is handsome, but there were others, long before — oh! ever so much more beautiful. The Verney features — ah! — yes — thinking always, dreaming, watching, burnt into my brain; they have all some points alike. I knew Cleve by that; he is more like that than to his younger self; a handsome boy he was — but, I beg pardon, it is so hard to keep thoughts from wandering.”

This old woman, from long solitude, I suppose, talked to others as if she were talking to herself, and rambled on, flightily and vaguely. But on a sudden she laid her hand upon Margaret’s wrist, and closing it gently, held her thus, and looked in her face with great concern.

“Why does he come so stealthily? death comes so, to the young and beautiful. My poor sister died in Naples. No one knew there was danger the day before she was sent away there, despaired of. Well may I say the angel of death — beautiful, insidious — that’s the way they come — stealthily, mysterious — when I saw his handsome face about here — I shuddered — in the twilight — in the dark.”

Margaret’s cheek flushed, and she plucked her wrist to disengage it from the old woman’s hand.

“You had better speak to my cousin, Miss Sheckleton. It is she who receives Mr. Verney when he comes. She has known him longer than I; at least, made his acquaintance earlier,” said the young lady. “I don’t, I confess, understand what you mean. I’ve been trying, and I can’t; perhaps she will?”

“I must say this; it is on my mind,” said the old woman, without letting her hand go. “There is something horrible in the future. You do not know the Verneys. They are a cruel race. It would be better to suffer an evil spirit into the house. Poor young lady! To be another innocent victim! Break it off — expel him! Shut out, if you can, his face from your thoughts and memory. It is one who knows them well who warns you. It will not come to good.”

In the vague warning of this old woman, there was an echo of an indefinite fear that had lain at her own heart, for days. Neither, apart, was anything; but one seconding the other was ominous and depressing.

“Let me go, please,” she said, a little brusquely; “it is growing dark, and I must go in. I’m sure, however, you mean what you say kindly; and I thank you for the intention — thank you very much.”

“Yes — go — I shall stay here; from here one can see across to Pendillion, and the sea there; it will come again, I know it will, some day or night. My old eyes are weary with watching. I should know the sail again, although it is a long, long time — I’ve lost count of the years.”

Thus saying, she drew near the window, and without a word of farewell to Margaret, became absorbed in gazing; and Margaret left her, ran lightly down the steps, and in a minute more was in the house.

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