The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 6.

Malory by Moonlight.

WHEN Tom Sedley stepped out from the glass door on the gravel walk, among the autumn flowers and the evergreens in the pleasant moonlight, it was just nine o’clock, for in that primitive town and vicinage people keep still wonderfully early hours.

It is a dark and lonely walk, down the steep Hazelden Road, by the side of the wooded glen, from whose depths faintly rises the noise of the mill-stream. The path leads you down the side of the glen, with dense forest above and below you; the rocky steep ascending at the left hand, the wooded precipice descending into utter darkness at your right, and beyond that, rising black against the sky, the distant side of the wooded ravine. Cheery it was to emerge from the close overhanging trees, and the comparative darkness, upon the high road to Cardyllian, which follows the sweep of the estuary to the high street of the town, already quiet as at midnight.

The moon shone so broad and bright, the landscape looked so strange, and the air was so frosty and pleasant, that Tom Sedley could not resist the temptation to take a little walk which led him over the Green, and up the steep path overhanging the sea, from which you command so fine a view of the hills and headlands of the opposite side, and among other features of the landscape, of Malory, lying softly in its dark and misty woodlands.

Moonlight, distance, and the hour, aided the romance of my friend Tom Sedley, who stood in the still air and sighed toward that antique house.

With arms folded, his walking-cane grasped in his right hand, and passed, sword-fashion, under his left arm, I know not what martial and chivalric aspirations concerning death and combat rose in his good-natured heart, for in some temperaments the sentiment of love is mysteriously associated with the combative, and our homage to the gentler sex connects itself magnanimously with images of wholesale assault and battery upon the other. Perhaps if he could have sung, a stave or two might have relieved his mind; or even had he been eloquent in the language of sentiment. But his vocabulary, unhappily, was limited, and remarkably prosaic, and not even having an appropriate stanza by rote, he was fain to betake himself to a cigar, smoking which he at his leisure walked down the hill toward Malory.

Halfway down, he seated himself upon the dwarf wall, at the roadside, and by the ivied stem of a huge old tree, smoked at his ease, and sighed now and then.

“I can’t understand it — it is like some confounded witchcraft,” said he. “I can’t get her out of my head.”

I dare say it was about the same time that his friend Cleve Verney was performing, though not with so sublime an enthusiasm, his romantic devotions in the same direction, across the water from Ware.

As he stood and gazed, he thought he saw a figure standing near the water’s edge on the shingle that makes a long curve in front of Malory.

If a living figure, it was very still. It looked gray, nearly white, in the moonlight. Was there an upright shaft of stone there, or a post to moor the boats by? He could not remember.

He walked slowly down the road. “By Jove! I think it’s moving,” he said aloud, pulling up all at once and lowering his cigar. “No, it isn’t moving, but it did move, I think— yes, it has changed its ground a little — hasn’t it? Or is it only my stand-point that’s changed?”

He was a good deal nearer now, and it did look much more like a human figure — tall and slight, with a thin gray cloak on — but he could not yet be quite certain. Was there not a resemblance in the proportions — tall and slight? The uncertainty was growing intense; there was a delightful confusion of conjecture. Tom Sedley dropped his cigar, and hastened forward with an instinctive stealthiness in his eagerness to arrive before this figure — if such it were — should be scared away by his approach.

He was now under the shadow of the tall trees that overhang the outer wall of Malory, and cast their shadows some way down upon the sloping shore, near the edge of which a tall female figure was undoubtedly standing, with her feet almost touching the ripple of the water, and looking steadfastly in the direction of the dim headland of Pendillion, which at the far side guards the entrance of the estuary.

In the wall of Malory, at some three hundred yards away from the gate, is a small door, a little sally-port that opens a nearly direct access from the house to the rude jetty where the boats are sometimes moored. This little door stood now wide open, and through it the figure had of course emerged.

Tom Sedley now for the first time began to feel a little embarrassed. The general privacy of the place, the fact that the jetty, and in point of law the strand itself, here, belonged to Malory, from which the private door which still stood open, showed that the lady had emerged — all these considerations made him feel as if he were guilty of an impertinence, and very nearly of a trespass.

The lady stood quite still, looking across the water. Tom Sedley was upon the road that skirts the wall of Malory, in the shadow of the great trees. It would not have done to walk straight across the shingle to the spot where the lady stood, neither could he place himself so as to intercept her return to the doorway, directly so, as a less obvious stratagem, he made a detour, and sauntering along the water’s edge like a man intent solely on the picturesque, with a beating heart he approached the female, who maintained her pose quite movelessly until he approached within a few steps.

Then she turned, suddenly, revealing an old and almost agonized face, that looked, in the intense moonlight, white, and fixed as if cut in stone. There is something ludicrous in the sort of shock which Tom Sedley experienced. He stood staring at the old lady with an expression which, if she had apprehended it, would not have flattered her feminine self-esteem, if any of that good quality remained to her.

“I beg your pardon, sir,” said the old woman, with a nervous eagerness, drawing near. “But pray, can you see a sail in that direction, a yawl, sir, they call it, just there?”— she pointed —“I fancied about two miles beyond that vessel that lies at anchor there? I can’t see it now, sir, can you?”

She had come so close that Sedley could see not only the deep furrows, but the finely etched wrinkles about the large eyes that gazed on him, and from him to the sea, with an imploring stare.

“There’s no sail, ma’am, between us and Pendillion,” said Sedley, having first raised his hat deferentially; for did not this strange old lady with her gray mantle drawn over her head, nevertheless, represent Malory, and was not Malory saddened and glorified by the presence of that beautiful being whom he had told himself a thousand times since morning service, he never, never could forget?

“Ha, ha! I thought I saw it, exactly, sir, in that direction; pray look more carefully, sir, my old eyes tire, and fail me.”

“No, ma’am, positively nothing there. How long ago is it since you first saw it?”

“Ten — twenty — minutes, it must be.”

“A yawl will run a good way in that time, ma’am,” said Tom with a little shake of his head, and a smile. “The yawl they had at Ware last year would make eight knots an hour in this breeze, light as it is. She might have been up to Bryll by this time, or down to Pendrewist, but there’s no sail, ma’am, either way.”

“Oh! sir, are you very sure?”

“Quite sure, ma’am. No sail in sight, except that brig just making the head of Pendillion, and that can’t be the sail you saw, for she wasn’t in sight twenty minutes since. There’s nothing more, ma’am, except boats at anchor.”

“Thank you, sir,” said the lady, still looking across the water, and with a deep sigh. “No, I suppose there’s none. It sometimes happens to me — fancy, I suppose, and long expectation, from my window, looking out. It’s a clear view, between the trees, across the bay to Pendillion; my eyes tire, I think; and so I fancy I see it. Knowing, that is, feeling so very sure, it will come again. Another disappointment for a foolish old woman. I sometimes think it’s all a dream.” She had turned and was now stumbling over the large loose stones toward the door. “Foolish dreams — foolish head — foolish old head, yet, sir, it may be that which goes away may come back, all except life. I’ve been looking out that way,” and she turned and moved her hand towards the distant headlands. “You see nothing?”

“No sail, ma’am,” answered Tom.

“No, no sail,” she repeated to the shingle under her feet, as she picked her steps again homeward.

“A little longer — another wait; wait patiently. Oh! God, how slowly years and months go over!”

“May I see you to the door, ma’am?” asked Tom Sedley, prosaically. The old lady, thinking, I dare say, of other things, made him no answer — a silence which he accepted as permission, and walked on beside her, not knowing what to say next, and terribly anxious to hit upon something, and try to found an acquaintance. The open door supplied him.

“Charming place this Cardyllian, ma’am. I believe no one ever was robbed in it. They leave their doors open half the night, just like that.”

“Do they, indeed?” said she. I think she had forgotten her companion altogether in the interval. “I don’t remember. It’s fifteen years and upwards since I was there. I live here, at Malory.” She nodded, and raised her eyes to his face as she spoke.

Suddenly she stopped, and looked at him more earnestly in silence for some seconds, and then said she —

“Sir, will you forgive me? Are you related to the Verneys?”

“No, I haven’t that honour,” said he, smiling. “I know Cleve Verney very well, and a very good fellow he is; but we’re not connected; my name is Sedley — Thomas Sedley.”

“Sedley!” she repeated once or twice, still looking at him, “I recollect the name. No — no connection, I dare say, Cleve; and how is Cleve?”

“Very well; he’s at Ware, now, for a few days.”

“Ah! I dare say, and very well; a pretty boy — very pretty; but not like — no, not the least.”

“I’ve heard people say he’s very like what his father was,” said Tom.

“Oh! yes, I think so; there is a likeness,” acquiesced she.

“His father’s been dead a long time, you know?”

“I know; yes. Cleve is at Oxford or Cambridge by this time?” she continued.

Tom Sedley shook his head and smiled a little.

“Cleve has done with all that ever so long. He’s in the House of Commons now, and likely to be a swell there, making speeches, and all that.”

“I know — I know. I had forgot how long it is since; he was a clever boy, wild, and talkative; yes, yes, he’ll do for Parliament, I suppose, and be a great man, some day, there. There was no resemblance though; and you, sir, are like him, he was so handsome — no one so handsome.”

Tom Sedley smiled. He fancied he was only amused. But I am sure he was also pleased.

“And I don’t know. I can make out nothing. No one can. There’s a picture. I think they’d burn it, if they knew. It is drawn in chalks by a French artist; they colour so beautifully. It hangs in my room. I pray before it, every morning, for him.”

The old lady moaned, with her hands folded together, and still looking steadfastly in his face.

“They’d burn it, I think, if they knew there was a picture. I was always told they were a cruel family. Well, I don’t know, I forgive him; I’ve forgiven him long ago. You are very like the picture, and even more like what I remember him. The picture was taken just when he came of age. He was twenty-seven when I first saw him; he was brilliant, a beautiful creature, and when I looked in his face I saw the sorrow that has never left me. You are wonderfully like, sir; but there’s a difference. You’re not so handsome.” Here was a blow to honest Tom Sedley, who again thought he was only amused, but was really chagrined.

“There is goodness and kindness in your face; his had little of that, nothing soft in it, but everything brilliant and interesting; and yet you are wonderfully like.”

She pressed her hand on her thin bosom.

“The wind grows cold. A pain shoots through me while I look at you, sir. I feel as if I were speaking to a spirit, God help me! I have said more to you to-night, than I have spoken for ten years before; forgive me, sir, and thank you, very much.”

She turned from him again, took one long look at the distant headland, and then, with a deep sigh, almost a sob, she hastened towards the door. He followed her.

“Will you permit me to see you to the house?” he pleaded, with a benevolence I fear not quite disinterested. She was by this time at the door, from which with a gesture, declining his offer, she gently waved him back, and disappeared within it, without another word. He heard the key turned in the lock, and remained without, as wise with respect to his particular quest as he had arrived.

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