The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 3.

Mr. Levi Visits Mrs. Mervyn.

AND now the stranger stood before the steward’s house, which is an old stone building, just three stories high, with but few rooms, and heavy stone shafts to the windows, with little diamond lattices in them, all stained and gray with age — antiquaries assign it to the period of Henry VII. — and when the Jewish gentleman, his wide, loose mouth smiling in solitary expectation, slapped and rattled his cane upon the planks of the hatch, as people in old times called “house!” to summon the servants, he was violating the monastic silence of a building as old as the bygone friars, with their matin bells and solemn chants.

A little Welsh girl looked over the clumsy banister, and ran up with his message to Mrs. Mervyn.

“Will you please come up stairs, sir, to the drawing-room?” asked the child.

He was amused at the notion of a “drawing-room” in such a place, and with a lazy sneer climbed the stairs after her.

This drawing-room was very dark at this hour, except for the patch of red light that came through the lattice and rested on the old cupboard opposite, on which stood, shelf above shelf, a grove of coloured delf candlesticks, tea-cups, jugs, men, women, teapots, and beasts, all in an old-world style, a decoration which prevails in humble Welsh chambers, and which here was a property of the house, forgotten, I presume, by the great house of Verney, and transmitted from tenant to tenant, with the lumbering furniture.

The flighty old lady, Mrs. Mervyn of the large eyes, received him with an old-fashioned politeness and formality which did not in the least embarrass her visitor, who sate himself down, smiling his moist, lazy smile, with his knees protruded under the table, on which his elbows rested, and with his heels on the rung of his chair, while his hat and cane lay in the sunlight beside him.

“The maid, I think, forgot to mention your name, sir?” said the old lady gently, but in a tone of inquiry.

“Very like, ma’am-very like, indeed — because, I think, I forgot to mention my name to her,” he drawled pleasantly. “I’ve taken a deal of trouble — I have — to find you out, ma’am, and two hundred and forty-five miles here, ma’am, and the same back again — a journey of four hundred and ninety miles — is not just nothing. I’m glad to see you, ma’am-happy to find you in your drawing-room, ma’am-hope you find yourself as well, ma’am, as your numerous friends could wish you. My name, ma’am, is Levi, being junior governor of the firm of Goldshed and Levi, well known on ‘Change, ma’am, and justly appreciated by a large circle of friends, as you may read upon this card.”

The card which he tendered did not, it must be allowed, speak of these admiring friends, but simply announced that “Goldshed and Levi” were “Stockbrokers,” pursuing their calling at “Offices — 10, Scroop Street, Gimmel Lane,” in the City. And having held this card before her eyes for a sufficient time, he put it into his pocket.

“You see, ma’am, I’ve come all this way for our house, to ask you whether you would like to hear some news of your governor, ma’am?”

“Of whom, sir?” inquired the tall old lady, who had remained standing all this time, as she had received him, and was now looking at him with eyes, not of suspicion, but of undisguised fear.

“Of your husband, ma’am, I mean,” drawled he, eyeing her with his cunning smile.

“You don’t mean, sir ——” said she faintly, and thereupon she was seized with a trembling, and sat down, and her very lips turned white, and Mr. Levi began to think “the old girl was looking uncommon queerish,” and did not like the idea of “its happening,” under these circumstances.

“There, ma’am-don’t take on! Where’s the water? Da-a-a-mn the drop!” he exclaimed, turning up mugs and jugs in a flurry. “I say — Mary Anne — Jane — chick-a-biddy — girl — be alive there, will ye?” howled the visitor over the banister. “Water, can’t ye? Old woman’s sick!”

“Better now, sir — better — just open that — a little air, please,” the old lady whispered.

With some hurried fumbling he succeeded in getting the lattice open.

“Water, will you? What a time you’re about it, little beast!” he bawled in the face of the child.

“Much better, thanks — very much better,” whispered the old lady.

“Of course, you’re better, ma’am. Here it is at la-a-ast. Have some water, ma’am? Do. Give her the water, you little fool.”

She sipped a little.

“Coming round — all right,” he said tenderly. “What cattle them old women are! drat them.” A little pause followed.

“A deal better now, ma’am?”

“I’m startled, sir.”

“Of course you’re startled, ma’am.”

“And faint.”

“Why not, ma’am?”

Mrs. Rebecca Mervyn breathed three or four great sighs, and began to look again like a living woman.

“Now she looks quite nice,” (he pronounced it ni-i-ishe) “doesn’t she? You may make tracksh, young woman; go, will you?”

“I feel so much better,” said the old lady when they were alone, “pray go on.”

“You do — quite — ever so much better. Shall I go on?”

“Pray do, sir.”

“Well now, see, if I do, there must be no more of that, old lady. If you can’t talk of the governor, we’ll just let him alone,” said Levi, sturdily.

“For God’s sake, sir, if you mean my husband, tell me all you know.”

“All aint a great deal, ma’am; but a cove has turned up who knew him well.”

“Some one who knew him?”

“Just so, ma’am.” He balanced whether he should tell her that he was dead or not, but decided that it would be more convenient, though less tragic, to avoid getting up a new scene like the other, so he modified his narrative. “He’s turned up, ma’am, and knew him very intimate; and has got a meogny” (he so pronounced mahogany) “desk of his, gave in charge to him, since he could not come home at present, containing a law paper, ma’am, making over to his son and yours some property in England.”

“Then, he is not coming?” said she.

“Not as I knowzh, ma’am.”

“He has been a long time away,” she continued.

“So I’m informed, ma’am,” he observed.

“I’ll tell you how it was, and when he went away.”

“Thank ye, ma’am,” he interposed. “I’ve heard — melancholy case, ma’am; got seven penn’orth, didn’t he, and never turned up again?”

“Seven what, sir?”

“Seven years, ma’am; seven penn’orth we call it, ma’am, familiar like.”

“I don’t understand you, sir — I don’t know what it means; I saw him sail away. It went off, off, off.”

“I’ll bet a pound it did, ma’am,” said Mr. Levi.

“Only to be for a very short time; the sail — I could see it very far — how pretty they look on the sea; but very lonely, I think — too lonely.”

“A touch of solitary, ma’am,” acquiesced Levi.

“Away, in the yacht,” she dreamed on.

“The royal yacht, ma’am, no doubt.”

“The yacht, we called it. He said he would return next day; and it went round Pendillion — round the headland of Pendillion, I lost it, and it never came again; but I think it will, sir — don’t you? I’m sure it will — he was so confident; only smiled and nodded, and he said, ‘No, I won’t say good-bye.’ He would not have said that if he did not mean to return — he could not so deceive a lonely poor thing like me, that adored him.”

“No, he couldn’t ma’am, not he; no man could. Betray the girl that adored him! Ba-a-ah! impossible,” replied Mr. Levi, and shook his glossy ringlets sleepily, and dropped his eyelids, smiling. This old girl amused him, her romance was such a joke. But the light was perceptibly growing more dusky, and business must not wait upon fun, so Mr. Levi said —

“He’sh no chicken by this time, ma’am-your son, ma’am; I’m told he’sh twenty-sheven yearsh old — thatsh no chicken — twenty-sheven next birthday.”

“Do you know anything of him, sir? Oh, no, he doesn’t,” she said, looking dreamily with her great sad eyes upon him.

“Jest you tell me, ma’am, where was he baptised, and by what name?” said her visitor.

A look of doubt and fear came slowly and wildly into her face as she looked at him.

“Who is he — I’ve been speaking to you, sir?”

“Oh! yesh, mo-o-st beautiful, you ‘av, ma’am,” answered he; “and I am your son’s best friend — and yours, ma’am; only you tell me where to find him, and he’sh a made man, for all his dayzh.”

“Where has he come from? — a stranger,” she murmured.

“I told you, ma’am.”

“I don’t know you, sir; I don’t know your name,” she dreamed on.

“Benjamin Levi. I’ll spell it for you, if you like,” he answered, beginning to grow testy. “I told you my name, and showed you my ca-a-ard. Bah! it ravels at one end, as fast as it knits at the other.”

And again he held the card of the firm of Goldshed and Levi, with his elbows on the table, between the fingers of his right and left hand, bowed out like an old-fashioned shopboard, and looking as if it would spring out elastically into her face.

There, ma’am, that’sh the ticket!” said he, eyeing her over it.

“Once, sir, I spoke of business to a stranger, and I was always sorry; I did mischief,” said the old woman, with a vague remorsefulness.

“I’m no stranger, ma’am, begging your pardon,” he replied, insolently; “you don’t half know what you’re saying, I do think. Goldshed and Levi — not know us; sich precious rot, I never!”

“I did mischief, sir.”

“I only want to know where to find your son, ma’am, if you know, and if you won’t tell, you ruin that poor young man. It aint a pound to me, but it’sh a deal to him,” answered the good-natured Mr. Levi.

“I’m very sorry, sir, but I once did mischief by speaking to a gentleman whom I didn’t know. Lady Verney made me promise, and I’m sure she was right, never to speak about business without first consulting some member of her family. I don’t understand business — never did,” pleaded she.

“Well, here’s a go! not understaan’? Why, there’s nothing to understaan’. It isn’t business. S-O-N,” he spelt “son. H-U-S-B-A-N-D—uzbaan’ that aint business — da-a-m me! Where’s the business? Ba-ah!”

“Sir,” said the old lady, drawing herself up, “I’ve answered you. It was about my husband — God help me — I spoke before, and did mischief without knowing it. I won’t speak of him to strangers, except as Lady Verney advises — to any stranger — especially to you, sir.”

There was a sound of steps outside, which, perhaps, modified the answer of Mr. Levi. He was very much chagrined, and his great black eyes looked very wickedly upon her helpless face.

“Ha, ha, ha! as you please, ma’am. It isn’t the turn of a shilling to me, but you ru-in the poo-or young man, your son, for da-a-am me, if I touch his bushinesh again, if it falls through now; mind you that. So, having ruined your own flesh and blood, you tell me to go as I came. It’s nau-thing to me — mind that — but ru-in to him; here’s my hat and stick — I’m going, only just I’ll give you one chance more for that poor young man, just a minute to think again.” He had stood up, with his hat and cane in his hand. “Just one chance — you’ll be sending for me again, and I won’t come. No — no — never, da-a-am me!”

“Good evening, sir,” said the lady.

Mr. Levi bit his thumb-nail.

“You don’t know what you’re a-doing, ma’am,” said he, trying once more.

“I can’t, sir — I can’t,” she said, distractedly.

“Come, think — I’m going —going; just think — what do you shay?”

He waited.

“I won’t speak, sir.”

“You won’t?”

“No, sir.”

He lingered for a moment, and the red sunlight showed like a flush of anger on his sallow face. Then, with an insolent laugh, he turned, sticking his hat on his head, and walked down the stairs, singing.

Outside the hatch, he paused for a second.

“I’ll get it all another way,” he thought. “Round here,” he said, “wasn’t it — the back way. Good evening, you stupid old crazy cat,” and he saluted the windows of the steward’s house with a vicious twitch of his cane.

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