The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 5.

A Visit to Hazelden.

THEY all looked toward the Malory seat on taking their places in their own; but that retreat was deserted now, and remained so, as Tom Sedley at very brief intervals ascertained, throughout the afternoon service; after which, with a secret sense of disappointment, honest Sedley escorted the Etherage “girls” up the steep road that leads through the wooded glen of Hazelden to the hospitable house of old Vane Etherage.

Everyone in that part of the world knows that generous, pompous, and boisterous old gentleman. You could no more visit Cardyllian without seeing Vane Etherage, than you could visit Naples without seeing Vesuvius. He is a fine portly bust, but little more. In his waking hours he lives alternately in his Bath chair and in the great leathern easy chair in his study. He manages to shuffle very slowly, leaning upon his servant on one side, and propped on his crutch at the other, across the hall of the Cardyllian Club, which boasts about six-and-thirty members, besides visitors, and into the billiard-room, where he takes possession of the chair by the fire, and enjoys the agreeable conversation of Captain Shrapnell, hears all about the new arrivals, who they are, what screws are loose, and where, and generally all the gossip and scandal of the little commonwealth of Cardyllian.

Vane Etherage had served in the navy, and, I believe, reached the rank of captain. In Cardyllian he was humorously styled “the Admiral,” when people spoke of him, not to him; for old Etherage was fiery and consequential, and a practical joke which commenced in a note from an imaginary secretary, announcing that “The Badger Hunt” would meet at Hazelden House on a certain day, and inducing hospitable preparations, for the entertainment of those nebulous sportsmen, was like to have had a sanguinary ending. It was well remembered that when young Sniggers of Sligh Farm apologised on that occasion, old Etherage had arranged with Captain Shrapnell, who was to have been his second, that the Admiral was to fight in his Bath chair — an evidence of resource and resolution which was not lost upon his numerous friends.

“How do you do, Sedley? Very glad to see you, Tom — very glad indeed, sir. You’ll come tomorrow and dine; you must, indeed — and next day. You know our Welsh mutton — you do — you know it well; it’s better here than in any other place in the world — in the whole world, sir — the Hazelden mutton, and, egad, you’ll come here — you shall, sir — and dine here with us tomorrow; mind, you shall.”

The Admiral wore a fez, from beneath which his gray hair bushed out rather wildly, and he was smoking through an enormous pipe as Tom Sedley entered his study, accompanied by the ladies.

“He says he’s to go away tomorrow,” said Miss Charity, with an upbraiding look at Sedley.

“Pooh — nonsense — not he— not you, Tom — not a bit, sir. We won’t let you. Girls, we won’t allow him to go. Eh? — No — no — you dine here tomorrow, and next day.”

“You’re very kind, sir; but I promised, if I am still in Cardyllian tomorrow, to run over to Ware, and dine with Verney.”

What Verney?”

“Cleve Verney.”

“D—— him.”

“Oh, papa!” exclaimed Miss Charity, grimly.

“Boh! — I hate him — I hate all the Verneys,” bawled old Vane Etherage, as if hating were a duty and a generosity.

“Oh — no, papa — you know you don’t — that would be extremely wicked,” said Miss Charity, with that severe superiority with which she governed the Admiral.

“Begad, you’re always telling me I’m wicked — and we know where the wicked go — that’s catechism, I believe — so I’d like to know where’s the difference between that and d-ing a fellow?” exclaimed the portly bust, and blew off his wrath with a testy laugh.

“I think we had better put off our bonnets and coats? — The language is becoming rather strong — and the tobacco,” said Miss Charity, with dry dignity, to her sister, leaving the study as she did so.

“I thought it might be that Kiffyn Verney — the uncle fellow — Honourable Kiffyn Verney —dis-honourable, I call him — that old dog, sir, he’s no better than a cheat — and I’d be glad of an opportunity to tell him so to his face, sir — you have no idea, sir, how he has behaved to me!”

“He has the character of being a very honourable, sir — I’m sorry you think so differently,” said honest Tom Sedley, who always stood up for his friends, and their kindred —“and Cleve, I’ve known from my childhood, and I assure you, sir, a franker or more generous fellow I don’t suppose there is on earth.”

“I know nothing about the jackanape, except that he’s nephew of his roguish uncle,” said the florid old gentleman with the short high nose and double chin. “He wants to take up Llanderis, and he shan’t have it. He’s under covenant to renew the lease, and the devil of it is, that between me and Wynne Williams we have put the lease astray — and I can’t find it — nor he either — but it will turn up — I don’t care two-pence about it — but no one shall humbug me — I won’t be gammoned, sir, by all the Verneys in England. Stuff— sir!”

Then the conversation took a happier turn. The weather was sometimes a little squally with the Admiral — but not often — genial and boisterous — on the whole sunny and tolerably serene — and though he sometimes threatened high and swore at his servants, they knew it did not mean a great deal, and liked him.

People who lived all the year round in Cardyllian, which from November to May, every year, is a solitude, fall into those odd ways and little self-indulgences which gradually metamorphose men of the world into humorists and grotesques. Given a sparse population, and difficult intercommunication, which in effect constitute solitude, and you have the conditions of barbarism. Thus it was that Vane Etherage had grown uncouth to a degree that excited the amazement of old contemporaries who happened, from time to time, to look in upon his invalided retirement at Cardyllian.

The ladies and Tom Sedley, in the drawing-room, talked very merrily at tea, while old Vane Etherage, in his study, with the door between the rooms wide open, amused himself with a nautical volume and his terrestrial globe.

“So,” said Miss Agnes, “you admired the Malory young lady — Margaret, our maid says, she is called — very much today?”

“I did, by Jove. Didn’t you?” said Tom, well pleased to return to the subject.

“Yes,” said Agnes, looking down at her spoon —“Yes, I admired her; that is, her features are very regular; she’s what I call extremely handsome; but there are prettier girls.”

Here do you mean?”

“Yes — here.”

“And who are they?”

“Well, I don’t say here now; but I do think those Miss Dartmores, for instance, who were here last year, and who used to wear those blue dresses, were decidedly prettier. The heroine of Malory, whom you have fallen in love with, seems to me to want animation.”

“Why, she couldn’t show a great deal of animation over the Litany,” said Tom.

“I did not see her then; I happened to be praying myself during the Litany,” said Miss Agnes, recollecting herself.

“It’s more than I was,” said Tom.

“You ought not to talk that way, Mr. Sedley. It isn’t nice. I wonder you can,” said Miss Charity.

“I would not say it, of course, to strangers,” said Tom. “But then, I’m so intimate here — and it’s really true, that is, I mean, it was today.”

“I wonder what you go to church for,” said Miss Charity.

“Well, of course, you know, it’s to pray; but I look at the bonnets a little, also; every fellow does. By Jove, if they’d only say truth, I’m certain the clergymen peep — I often saw them. There’s that little fellow, the Rev. Richard Pritchard, the curate, you know — I’d swear I’ve seen that fellow watching you, Agnes, through the chink in the reading-desk door, while the sermon was going on; and I venture to say he did not hear a word of it.”

“You ought to tell the rector, if you really saw that,” said Miss Charity, severely.

“Pray do no such thing,” entreated Agnes; “a pleasant situation for me!”

“Certainly, if Mr. Pritchard behaves himself as you describe,” said Miss Charity; “but I’ve been for hours shut up in the same room with him — sometimes here, and sometimes at the school — about the children, and the widows’ fund, and the parish charities, and I never observed the slightest levity; but you are joking, I’m sure.”

“I’m not, upon my honour. I don’t say it’s the least harm. I don’t see how he can help it; I know if I were up in the air — in a reading-desk, with a good chink in the door, where I thought no one could see me, and old Doctor Splayfoot preaching his pet sermon over my head —wouldn’t I peep? — that’s all.”

“Well, I really think, if he makes a habit of it, I ought to speak to Doctor Splayfoot. I think it’s my duty,” said Miss Charity, sitting up very stiffly, as she did when she spoke of duty; and when once the notion of a special duty got into her head, her inflexibility, as Tom Sedley and her sister Agnes knew, was terrifying.

“For mercy’s sake, my dear Charry, do think of me! If you tell Doctor Splayfoot he’ll be certain to tell it all to Wynne Williams and Doctor Lyster, and Price Apjohn, and every creature in Cardyllian will know everything about it, and a great deal more, before two hours; and once for all, if that ridiculous story is set afloat, into the church door I’ll never set my foot again.”

Miss Agnes’ pretty face had flushed crimson, and her lip quivered with distress.

“How can you be such a fool, Aggie! I’ll only say it was at our seat— and no one can possibly tell which it was at — you or me; and I’ll certainly tell Dr. Splayfoot that Mr. Sedley saw it.”

“And I’ll tell the Doctor,” said Sedley, who enjoyed the debate immensely, “that I neither saw nor said any such thing.”

“I don’t think, Thomas Sedley, you’d do anything so excessively wicked!” exclaimed Miss Charity, a little fiercely.

“Try me,” said Tom, with an exulting little laugh.

“Every gentleman tells the truth,” thrust she.

“Except where it makes mischief,” parried Tom, with doubtful morality and another mischievous laugh.

“Well, I suppose I had better say nothing of Christianity. But what you do is your own affair! my duty I’ll perform. I shall think it over; and I shan’t be ruffled by any folly intended to annoy me.” Miss Charity’s thin brown cheeks had flushed to a sort of madder crimson. Excepting these flashes of irritability, I can’t charge her with many human weaknesses. “I’ll not say who he looked at — I’ve promised that; but unless I change my present opinion, Dr. Splayfoot shall hear the whole thing tomorrow. I think in a clergyman any such conduct in church is unpardonable. The effect on other people is positively ruinous. You, for instance, would not have talked about such things in the light you do, if you had not been encouraged in it, by seeing a clergyman conducting himself so.”

“Mind, you’ve promised poor little Agnes, you’ll not bring her into the business, no matter what I do,” said Sedley.

“I have, certainly.”

“Well, I’ll stay in Cardyllian tomorrow, and I’ll see Doctor Splayfoot.” Sedley was buttoning his coat and pulling on his gloves, with a wicked smile on his good-humoured face. “And I’ll tell him that you think the curate ogles you through a hole in the reading-desk. That you like him, and he’s very much gone about you; and that you wish the affair brought to a point; and that you’re going to appeal to him — Doctor Splayfoot — to use his authority either to affect that, or to stop the ogling. I will, upon my honour!”

“And I shall speak to papa to prevent it,” said Miss Charity, who was fierce and literal.

“And that will bring about a duel, and he’ll be shot in his Bath chair, and I shall be hanged”— old Vane Etherage, with his spectacles on, was plodding away serenely at the little table by the fire, over his Naval Chronicle—“and Pritchard will be deprived of his curacy, and you’ll go mad, and Agnes will drown herself like Ophelia, and a nice little tragedy you’ll have brought about. Good night; I’ll not disturb him”— he glanced toward the unconscious Admiral —“I’ll see you both tomorrow, after I’ve spoken to the Rector.” He kissed his hand, and was gone.

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