The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 16.

In Lord Verney’s Library.

WHO should light upon Cleve that evening as he walked homeward but our friend Tom Sedley, who was struck by the anxious pallor and melancholy of his face.

Good-natured Sedley took his arm, and said he, as they walked on together —

“Why don’t you smile on your luck, Cleve?”

“How do you know what my luck is?”

“All the world knows that pretty well.”

“All the world knows everything but its own business.”

“Well, people do say that your uncle has lately got the oldest peerage — one of them — in England, and an estate of thirty-seven thousand a year, for one thing, and that you are heir-presumptive to these trifles.”

“And that heirs-presumptive often get nothing but their heads in their hands.”

“No, you’ll not come Saint Denis nor any other martyr over us, my dear boy; we know very well how you stand in that quarter.”

“It’s pleasant to have one’s domestic relations so happily arranged by such very competent persons. I’m much obliged to all the world for the parental interest it takes in my private concerns.”

“And it also strikes some people that a perfectly safe seat in the House of Commons is not to be had for nothing by every fellow who wishes it.”

“But suppose I don’t wish it.”

“Oh! we may suppose anything.”

Tom Sedley laughed as he said this, and Cleve looked at him sharply, but saw no uncomfortable meaning in his face.

“There is no good in talking of what one has not tried,” said he. “If you had to go down to that tiresome House of Commons every time it sits; and had an uncle like mine to take you to task every time you missed a division — you’d soon be as tired of it as I am.”

“I see, my dear fellow, you are bowed down under a load of good luck.” They were at the door of Tom Sedley’s lodgings by this time, and opening it, he continued, “I’ve something in my room to show you; just run up with me for a minute, and you’ll say I’m a conjuror.”

Cleve, not to be got into good spirits that evening, followed him upstairs, thinking of something else.

“I’ve got a key to your melancholy, Cleve,” said he, leading the way into his drawing-room. “Look there,” and he pointed to a clever copy in crayons of the famous Beatrice Cenci, which he had hung over his chimney-piece.

Tom Sedley laughed, looking in Cleve’s eyes. A slight flush had suddenly tinged his visitor’s face, as he saw the portrait. But he did not seem to enjoy the joke, on the contrary, he looked a little embarrassed and angry. “That’s Guido’s portrait — well, what about it?” he asked, rather surlily.

“Yes, of course; but who is it like?”

“Very few, I dare say, for it is very pretty; and except on canvas, there is hardly such a thing as a pretty girl to be seen. Is that all? for the life of me, I can’t see where the conjuring lies.”

“Not in the picture, but the likeness; don’t you see it?”

No” said Cleve. “I must go; are you coming?”

“Not see it!” said Tom. “Why if it were painted for her, it could not be more like. Why, it’s the Flower of Cardyllian, the Star of Malory. It is your Miss Fanshawe —my Margaret —our Miss Margaret Fanshawe. I’m making the fairest division I can, you see; and I would not be without it for all the world.”

“She would be very much gratified if she heard it. It is so flattering to a young lady to have a fellow buy a coloured lithograph, and call it by her name, and crack jokes and spout mock heroics over it. It is the modern way of celebrating a lady’s name. Don’t you seriously think, Sedley, it would be better to smash it with a poker, and throw it into the fire, than go on taking such liberties with any young lady’s name?”

“Upon my honour, Cleve, you mistake me; you do me great injustice. You used to laugh at me, you know, when I’m quite sure, thinking over it now, you were awfully gone about her yourself. I never told any one but you why I bought that picture; it isn’t a lithograph, but painted, or drawn, or whatever they call it, with chalks, and it cost five guineas; and no one but you ever heard me mention Miss Fanshawe’s name, except the people at Cardyllian, and then only as I might mention any other, and always with respect.”

“What does it signify?” interrupted Cleve, in the middle of a forced yawn. “I’m tired today, and cross — don’t you see; and man delights not me, nor woman neither. So, if you’re coming, come, for I must go.”

“And, really, Cleve, the Cardyllian people do say (I’ve had letters) that you were awfully in love with her yourself, and always haunting those woods of Malory while she was there, and went away immediately she left, and have never been seen in Cardyllian since.”

“Those Cretans were always liars, Tom Sedley. That comes direct from the club. I can fancy old Shrapnell in the light of the bow-window, composing his farrago of dreams, and lies, and chuckling and cackling over it.”

“Well, I don’t say that Shrapnell had anything to do with it; but I did hear at first they thought you were gone about little Agnes Etherage.”

“Oh! they found that out — did they?” said Cleve. “But you know those people — I mean the Cardyllian people — as well, or better than I, and really, as a kindness to me, and to save me the trouble of endless explanations to my uncle, I would be so much obliged if you would not repeat their follies — unless, of course, you happen to believe them.”

Cleve did not look more cheerful as he drove away in a cab which he took to get rid of his friend Tom Sedley. It was mortifying to find how vain were his clever stratagems, and how the rustic chapmen of that Welsh village and their wives had penetrated his diplomacy. He thought he had killed the rumours about Malory, and yet that grain of mustard seed had grown while his eye was off it, with a gigantic luxuriance, and now was large enough to form a feature in the landscape, and quite visible from the windows of Ware — if his uncle should happen to visit that mansion — overtopping the roofs and chimneys of Cardyllian. His uncle meditated an early visit to Cardyllian, and a short stay at Ware, before the painters and gilders got possession of the house; a sort of ovation in demi-toilette, grand and friendly, and a foretaste of the splendours that were coming. Cleve did hope that those beasts would be quiet while Lord Verney was (as he in his grand manner termed it) “among them.” He knew the danger of a vague suspicion seizing on his mind, how fast it clung, how it fermented like yeast, fantastic and obstinate as a foolish woman’s jealousy — and as men sometimes will, he even magnified this danger. Altogether, Cleve was not causelessly anxious and alarmed. He had in the dark to navigate a channel which even in broad daylight tasked a good steersman.

When Cleve reached Verney House it was eight o’clock. Lord Verney had ordered his brougham at half-past, and was going down to the House; he had something to say on Lord Frompington’s bill. It was not very new, nor very deep, nor very much; but he had been close at it for the last three weeks. He had amused many gentlemen — and sometimes even ladies — at many dinner parties, with a very exact recital of his views. I cannot say that they were exactly his, for they were culled, perhaps unconsciously, from a variety of magazine articles and pamphlets, which happened to take Lord Verney’s view of the question.

It is not given to any mortal to have his heart’s desire in everything. Lord Verney had a great deal of this world’s good things — wealth, family, rank. But he chose to aim at official station, and here his stars denied him.

Some people thought him a goose, and some only a bore. He was, as we know, pompous, conceited, obstinate, also weak and dry. His grandfather had been a cabinet minister, respectable and silent; and was not he wiser, brighter, and more learned than his grandfather? “Why on earth should not he?” His influence commanded two boroughs, and virtually two counties. The minister, therefore, treated him with distinction; and spoke of him confidentially as horribly foolish, impracticable, and at times positively impertinent.

Lord Verney was subject to small pets and huffs, and sometimes was affronted with the Premier for four or five weeks together, although the fact escaped his notice. And when the viscount relented, he would make him a visit to quiet his mind, and show him that friendly relations were reestablished; and the minister would say, “Here comes that d —— d Verney; I suppose I must give him half-an-hour!” and when the peer departed, thinking he had made the minister happy, the minister was seriously debating whether Lord Verney’s boroughs were worth the price of Lord Verney’s society.

His lordship was now in that sacred apartment, his library; where not even Cleve had a right to disturb him uninvited. Preliminaries, however, were now arranged; the servant announced him, and Cleve was commanded to enter.

“I have just had a line to say I shall be in time at half-past ten o’clock, about it. Frompington’s bill won’t be on till then; and take that chair and sit down, about it, won’t you? I’ve a good many things on my mind; people put things upon me. Some people think I have a turn for business, and they ask me to consider and direct matters about theirs, and I do what I can. There was poor Wimbledon, who died, about it, seven years ago. You remember Wimbledon — or — I say — you either remember him or you don’t recollect him; but in either case it’s of no importance. Let me see: Lady Wimbledon — she’s connected with you, about it — your mother, remotely — remotely also with us, the Verneys. I’ve had a world of trouble about her settlements — I can’t describe — I can’t describe — I was not well advised, in fact, to accept the trust at all. Long ago, when poor Frompington — I mean poor Wimbledon, of course — have I been saying Wimbledon?”

Cleve at once satisfied him.

“Yes, of course. When poor Wimbledon looked as healthy and as strong as I do at this moment, about it — a long time ago. Poor Wimbledon! — he fancied, I suppose, I had some little turn, about it, for business —some of my friends do— and I accepted the trust when poor Wimbledon looked as little likely to be hurried into eternity, about it, as I do. I had a regard for him, poor Wimbledon, and he had a respect for me, and thought I could be of use to him after he was dead, and I have endeavoured, and people think I have. But Lady Wimbledon, the dowager, poor woman! She’s very long-winded, poor soul, and gives me an infinity of trouble. One can’t say to a lady, ‘You are detaining me; you are wandering from the subject; you fail to come to the point.’ It would be taking a liberty, or something, about it. I had not seen Lady Wimbledon, simple ‘oman, for seven years or more. It’s a very entangled business, and I confess it seems rather unfair, that I should have my time, already sufficiently occupied with other, as I think, more important affairs, so seriously interrupted and abridged. There’s going to be a bill filed — yes, and a great deal of annoyance. She has one unmarried daughter, Caroline, about it, who is not to have any power over her money until she is thirty-one. She’s not that now. It was hardly fair to me, putting it in trust so long. She is a very superior person — a young woman one does not meet with every day, about it; and — and very apprehensive — a great deal of mind — quite unusual. Do you know her?”

The viscount raised his eyes toward the ceiling with a smile that was mysterious and pleased.

Cleve did know that young lady of eight-and-twenty, and her dowager mamma, “simple ‘oman,” who had pursued him with extraordinary spirit and tenacity for several years, but that was past and over. Cleve experienced a thrill of pain at his heart. He suspected that the old torturing idea was again active in his uncle’s mind.

Yes, he did know them — ridiculous old woman; and the girl — he believed she’d marry any one; he fancied she would have done him that honour at one time, and he fancied that the trust, if it was to end when she was thirty-one, could not be very long in force.

“My dear Cleve, don’t you think that’s rather an odd way of speaking of a young lady? People used not in my time — that is, when I was a young man of two or three-and-twenty, about it — to talk so of young ladies. It was not considered a thing that ought to be done. I— I never heard a word of the kind.”

Lord Verney’s chivalry had actually called a little pink flush to his old cheeks, and he looked very seriously still at the cornice, and tapped a little nervous tattoo with his pencil-case on the table as he did so.

“I really did not mean — I only meant — in fact, uncle, I tell you everything; and poor Caroline is so much older than I, it always struck me as amusing.”

“Their man of business in matters of law is Mr. Larkington, about it. Our man, you know — you know him.”

“Oh, yes. They could not do better. Mr. Larkin — a very shrewd fellow. I went, by-the-by, to see that old man, Dingwell.”

“Ah, well, very good. We’ll talk of that by-and-by, if you please; but it has been occurring to my mind, Cleve, that — that you should look about you. In fact, if you don’t like one young lady, you may like another. It strikes me I never saw a greater number of pretty young women, about it, than there are at present in town. I do assure you, at that ball — where was it? — the place I saw you, and sent you down to the division — don’t you remember? — and next day, I told you, I think, they never said so much as ‘I’m obliged to you’ for what I had done, though it was the saving of them, about it. I say I was quite struck; the spectacle was quite charming, about it, from no other cause; and you know there is Ethel — I always said Ethel — and there can be no objection there; and I have distinct reasons for wishing you to be well connected, about it — in a political sense — and there is no harm in a little money; and, in fact, I have made up my mind, my dear Cleve, it is indispensable, and you must marry. I’m quite clear upon the point.”

“I can promise you, my dear uncle, that I shan’t marry without your approbation.”

“Well, I rather took that for granted,” observed Lord Verney, with dry solemnity.

“Of course. I only say it’s very difficult sometimes to see what’s wisest. I have you, I know, uncle, to direct me; but you must allow I have also your example. You relied entirely upon yourself for your political position. You made it without the aid of any such step, and I should be only too proud to follow your example.”

“A— yes — but the cases are different; there’s a difference, about it. As I said in the debate on the Jewish Disabilities, there arc no two cases, about it, precisely parallel; and I’ve given my serious consideration to the subject, and I am satisfied that for every reason you ought to choose a wife immediately; there’s no reason against it, and you ought to choose a wife, about it, immediately; and my mind is made up quite decidedly, and I have spoken repeatedly; but now I tell you I recognise no reason for further delay — no reason against the step, and every reason for it; and in short, I shall have no choice but to treat any dilatory procedure in the matter as amounting to a distinct trifling with my known wishes, desire, and opinion.”

And the Right Hon. Lord Viscount Verney smote his thin hand emphatically at these words, upon the table, as he used to do in his place in the House.

Then followed an impressive silence, the peer holding his head high, and looking a little flushed; and Cleve very pale, with the ghost of the smile he had worn a few minutes before.

There are instruments that detect and measure with a beautiful accuracy, the presence and force of invisible influences — heat, electricity, air, moisture. If among all these “meters”— electronometers, hygrometers, anemometers — an odynometer, to detect the presence and measure the intensity of hidden pain, were procurable, and applied to the breast of that pale, smiling young man at that moment, I wonder to what degree in its scale its index would have pointed!

Cleve intended to make some slight and playful remark, he knew not what, but his voice failed him.

He had been thinking of this possibility — of this hour— for many a day, as some men will of the Day of Judgment, and putting it aside as a hateful thought, possibly never to be embodied in fact, and here it was come upon him, suddenly, inevitably, in all its terrors.

“Well, certainly, uncle — as you wish it. I must look about me — seriously. I know you wish me to be happy. I’m very grateful; you have always bestowed so much of your thought and care upon me —too good, a great deal.”

So spoke the young man — white as that sheet of paper on which his uncle had been pencilling two or three of what he called his thoughts — and almost as unconscious of the import of the words he repeated.

“I’m glad, my dear Cleve, you are sensible that I have been, I may say, kind; and now let me say that I think Ethel has a great deal in her favour. There are others, however, I am well aware, and there is time to look about, but I should wish something settled this season — in fact, before we break up, about it; in short I have, as I said, made up my mind. I don’t act without reasons; I never do, and mine are conclusive; and it was on this topic, my dear Cleve, I wished to see you. And now I think you may as well have some dinner. I’m afraid I’ve detained you here rather long.”

And Lord Verney rose, and moved toward a book-case with Hansard in it, to signify that the conference was ended, and that he desired to be alone in his study.

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