The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 25.

In which the Ladies Peep into Cardyllian.

“MY dear child,” said Miss Sheckleton next day, “is not this a very wild freak, considering you have shut yourself up so closely, and not without reason? Suppose among the visitors at Cardyllian there should happen to be one who has seen and known you, how would it be if he or she should meet and recognise you?”

“Rely on me, dear old cousin; no one shall know me.”

The young lady, in a heavy, gray, Highland shawl, was standing before the looking-glass in her room as she spoke.

“Girls look all alike in these great shawls, and I shall wear my thick lace veil, through which I defy anyone to see a feature of my face; and even my feet, in these strong, laced boots, are disguised. Now — see! I should not know myself in the glass among twenty others. I might meet you a dozen times in Cardyllian and you should not recognise me. Look and say.”

“H-m — well! I must allow it would not be easy to see through all this,” said Miss Sheckleton; “but don’t forget and lift your veil, when you come into the town — the most unlikely people are there sometimes. Who do you think I had a bow from the other day, but old Doctor Bell, who lives in York; and the same evening in Castle Street whom should I see but my Oxford Street dressmaker! It does not matter, you know, where a solitary old maid like me is seen; but it would be quite different in your case, and who knows what danger to your papa might result from it?”

“I shan’t forget — I really shan’t,” said the girl.

“Well, dear, I’ve said all I could to dissuade you; but if you will come, I suppose you must,” said Miss Anne.

“It’s just as you say — a fancy,” answered Margaret; “but I feel that if I were disappointed I should die.”

I think, and Miss Sheckleton thought so too, that this pretty girl was very much excited that day, and could not endure the terrible stillness of Malory. Uncertainty, suspense, enforced absence from the person who loved her best in the world, and who yet is very near; dangers and hopes, quite new — no wonder if all these incidents of her situation did excite her.

It was near a week since the elder lady had appeared in the streets and shops of Cardyllian. Between the banks of the old sylvan road she and her mysterious companion walked in silence into steep Church Street, and down that quaint quarter of the town presenting houses of all dates from three centuries ago, and by the church, still older, down into Castle Street, in which, as we know, stands the shop of Jones, the draper. Empty of customers was this well-garnished shop when the two ladies of Malory entered it; and Mrs. Jones raised her broad, bland, spectacled face, with a smile and a word of greeting to Miss Anne Sheckleton, and an invitation to both ladies to “be seated,” and her usual inquiry, as she leaned over the counter, “And what will you be pleased to want?” and the order, “John, get down the gray linseys — not them— those over yonder — yes, sure, you’d like to see the best — I know you would.”

So some little time was spent over the linseys, and then —

“You’re to measure thirteen yards, John, for Miss Anne Sheckleton, and send it over, with trimmin’s and linin’s, to Miss Pritchard. Miss Anne Sheckleton will speak to Miss Pritchard about the trimmin’s herself.”

Then Mrs. Jones observed —

What a day this has been — hasn’t it, miss? And such weather, altogether, I really don’t remember in Cardyllian, I think ever.”

“Yes, charming weather,” acquiesced Miss Sheckleton; and just then two ladies came in and bought some velvet ribbon, which caused an interruption.

“What a pretty girl,” said Miss Anne, so soon as the ladies had withdrawn. “Is that her mother?”

“Oh, no — dear, no, miss; they are sisters,” half laughed Mrs. Jones. “Don’t you know who they are? No! Well, they are the Miss Etherages. There, they’re going down to the green. She’ll meet him there. She’s going to make a very great match, ma’am-yes, indeed.”

“Oh! But whom is she going to meet?” asked Miss Anne, who liked the good lady’s gossip.

“Oh! you don’t know! Well, dear me! I thought every one knew that. Why, Mr. Cleve, of course — young Mr. Verney. He meets her every afternoon on the green here, and walks home with the young ladies. It has been a very old liking — you understand — between them, and lately he has grown very pressing, and they do say — them that should know — that the Admiral — we call him — Mr. Vane Etherage — her father, has spoke to him. She has a good fortune, you know — yes, indeed — the two Miss Etherages has — we count them quite heiresses here in Cardyllian, and a very good old family too. Everybody here is pleased it is to be, and they do say Mr. Kiffyn — that is, the Honourable Kiffyn Fulke Verney — will be very glad, too, he should settle at last, and has wrote to the young lady’s father, to say how well pleased he is; for Mr. Cleve has been”— here she dropped her voice to a confidential murmur, approaching her spectacles to the very edge of her customer’s bonnet, as she rested her fat arms upon the counter —“wild. Oh, dear! they do tell such stories of him! A pity, Miss Sheckleton —isn’t it? — there should be so many stories to his prejudice. But, dear me! he has been wild, miss; and now, you see, on that account it is Mr. Kiffyn — the Honorable Kiffyn Fulke Verney — is so well pleased he should settle and take a wife that will be so liked by the people at Ware as well as at this side.”

Miss Anne Sheckleton had been listening with an uneasiness, which the draper’s wife fancied she saw, yet doubted her own observation; for she could not understand why her old spinster customer should care a farthing about the matter, the talk about his excursions to Malory having been quite suspended and abolished by the sustained and vigorous gossip to which his walks with Agnes Etherage, and his ostentatious attentions, had given rise.

“But Miss Etherage is hardly the kind of person — is she? — whom a young man of fashion, such as I suppose young Mr. Verney to be, would think of. She must have been very much shut up with her old father, at that quiet little place of his,” suggested Miss Sheckleton.

“Shut up, miss! Oh, dear me! Nothing of that sort, miss. She is out with her sister, Miss Charity, every day, about the schools, and the Sunday classes, and the lending library, and the clothing charity, and all them things; very good of her, you know. I often say to her —‘I wonder, Miss Agnes — that’s her name — you’re not tired with all your walks; I do, indeed;’ and she only laughs. She has a very pretty laugh too, she has; and as Mr. Cleve said to me once — that’s two years ago, now — the first year he was spoke of in Cardyllian about her. We did think then there was something to be, and now it is all on again, and the old people — as we may call them — is well pleased it should.”

“Yes, but I mean that Miss Etherage has seen nothing of the world — nothing of society, except what is to be met with at Hazelden — isn’t that the name of the place? — and in her little excursions into this town. Isn’t it so?” said Miss Sheckleton.

“Oh, no! — bless you, no. Miss Agnes Etherage — they pay visits — she and her sister — at all the great houses; a week here, and a fortnight there, round the two counties, this side and the other. She’s a great favourite, is Miss Agnes. She can play and sing, dear me, very nice, she can: I have heard her. You would wonder now, what a bright little thing she is.”

“But even so. I don’t think that town-bred young men ever care much for country-bred young ladies. Not that they mayn’t be a great deal better; but, somehow, they don’t suit, I think — they don’t get on.”

“But, mark you this,” said Mrs. Jones. “He always liked her. We always saw he liked her. There’s property too — a good estate; and all goes to them two girls; and Miss Charity, we all know, will never marry; no more will the Admiral — I mean Mr. Etherage himself — with them legs of his; and Mr. Kiffyn — Master Cleve’s uncle — spoke to our lawyer here once about it, as if it was a thing he would like — that the Hazelden property should be joined to the Ware estate.”

“Joined together in holy wedlock,” laughed Miss Sheckleton; but she was not particularly cheerful. And some more intending purchasers coming in and seizing upon the communicative Mrs. Jones, who had only time to whisper, “They do say — them that should know — that it will be in spring next; but I’m not to tell; so you’ll please remember it’s a secret.”

“Shall we go, dear?” whispered Miss Sheckleton to her muffled companion, who forthwith rose and accompanied her from the shop, followed by the eyes of Mrs. Jones’s new visitors, who were more interested on hearing that “it was Miss Anne Sheckleton and the other Malory lady,” and they slipped out to the door-step, and under the awning peeped after the mysterious ladies, until an accidental backward glance from Miss Sheckleton routed them, and the materfamilias entered a little hastily but gravely, and with her head high, and her young ladies tittering.

As Cleve Verney walked to and fro beside pretty Agnes Etherage that day, and talked as usual, gaily and fluently, there seemed on a sudden to come a sort of blight over the harvest of his thoughts — both corn and flowers. He repeated the end of his sentence, and forgot what he was going to say; and Miss Charity said, “Well? go on; I want so much to hear the end;” and looking up she thought he looked a little pale.

“Yes, certainly, I’ll tell you the end when I can remember it. But I let myself think of something else for a moment, and it has flown away —”

“I beg your pardon,” interrupted Miss Charity, “just a moment. Look there, Aggie! Aren’t those the Malory ladies?”

“Where?” said Cleve. “Oh! I see. Very like, I think — the old lady, I mean.”

“Yes, oh certainly,” replied Agnes, “it is the old lady, and I’m nearly certain the young lady also; who else can it be? It must be she.”

“They are going over the hill to Malory,” said Miss Charity. “I don’t know what it is about that old lady that I think so wonderfully nice, and so perfectly charming; and the young lady is the most perfectly — beautiful — person, all to nothing, I ever saw in my life. Don’t you think so, Mr. Verney?”

“Your sister, I’m sure, is very much obliged,” said he, with a glance at Agnes. “But this Malory young lady is so muffled in that great shawl that there is very little indeed to remind one of the young lady we saw in church —”

“What o’clock is that?” interrupted Miss Charity, as the boom of the clock from the church tower sounded over the green.

So it seemed their hour had come, and the little demonstration on the green came to a close, and Cleve that evening walked with the Hazelden ladies only so far as the bridge; there taking his leave with an excuse. He felt uncomfortable somehow. That Margaret Fanshawe should have actually come down to Cardyllian was a singular and almost an unaccountable occurrence!

Cleve Verney had certainly not intended the pantomime which he presented to the window of the Cardyllian reading-room for the eyes that had witnessed it.

Cleve was uncomfortable. It is always unpleasant to have to explain — especially where the exculpation involves a disclosure that is not noble.

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