The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 8.

The Lodger and His Landlady.

SALLY was beginning to conceive a great fear of her guest, and terror being the chief spring of activity, in a marvellously short time the coffee was made, and she, with Lucy Maria holding the candle behind her, knocking at what they called the drawing-room door. When, in obedience to his command, she entered, he was standing by the chimney-piece, gazing at her through an atmosphere almost hazy with tobacco smoke. He had got on his dressing-gown, which was pea-green, and a scarlet fez, and stood with his inquisitive smile and scowl, and his long pipe a little removed from his lips.

“Oh, it’s you? yes; no one — do you mind — except Mr. Larkin, or Mr. Levi, or Mr. Goldshed, ever comes in to me — always charmed to see you, and them— but there ends my public; so, my dear lady, if any person should ask to see Mr. Dingwell, from New York in America, you’ll simply say there’s no such person here — yes — there’s —nosuchpersonhere— upon my honour. And you’re no true woman if you don’t say so with pleasure — because it’s a fib.”

Sarah Rumble courtesied affirmatively.

“I forgot to give you this note — my letter of introduction. Here, ma’am, take it, and read it, if you can. It comes from those eminent harpies, the Messrs. Goldshed and Levi — your landlords, aren’t they?”

Another courtesy from grave, dark-browed Miss Rumble acknowledged the fact.

“It is pleasant to be accredited by such gentlemen — good landlords, I dare say?”

“I’ve nothing to say against Mr. Levi; and I’m ‘appy to say, sir, my rent’s bin always paid up punctual,” she said.

“Yes, just so — capital landlord! charming tenant; and I suspect if you didn’t, they’d find a way to make you — eh? Your coffee’s not so bad — you may make it next time just a degree stronger, bitter as wormwood and verjuice, please — black and bitter, ma’am, as English prejudice. It isn’t badly made, however — no, it is really good. It isn’t a common Christian virtue, making good coffee — the Mahometans have a knack of it, and you must be a bit of a genius, ma’am, for I think you’ll make it very respectably by tomorrow evening, or at latest, by next year. You shall do everything well for me, madam. The Dingwells are always d — d flighty, wicked, unreasonable people, ma’am, and you’ll find me a regular Dingwell, and worse, madam. Look at me — don’t I look like a vampire. I tell you, ma’am, I’ve been buried, and they would not let me rest in my grave, and they’ve called me up by their infernal incantations, and here I am, ma’am, an evoked spirit. I have not read that bit of paper. How do they introduce me — as Mr. Dingwell, or Mr. Dingwell’s ghost? I’m wound up in a sort of way; but I’m deficient in blood, ma’am, and in heat. You’ll have to keep the fire up always like this, Mrs. Rumble. You’d better mind, or you’ll have me a bit too like a corpse to be pleasant. Egad! I frighten myself in the glass, ma’am. There is what they call transfusion of blood now, ma’am, and a very sensible thing it is. Pray, don’t you think so?”

“I do suppose what you say’s correct, sir.”

“When a fellow comes out of the grave, ma’am-that’s sherry in that bottle; be kind enough to fill this glass — he’s chilly, and he wants blood, Mrs. Rumble. A gallon, or so, transfused into my veins wouldn’t hurt me. You can’t make blood fast enough for the wear and tear of life, especially in a place like merry England, as the poets call it — and merry England is as damp all over as one of your charnel vaults under your dirty churches. Egad! it’s enough to make a poor ghost like me turn vampire, and drain those rosy little brats of yours — ha, ha, ha! —your children, are they, Mrs. Rumble — eh?”

“No, sir, please — my brother’s children.”

“Your brother’s— ho! He doesn’t live here, I hope?”

“He’s dead, sir.”

“Dead — is he?”

“Five years last May, sir.”

“Oh! that’s good. And their mother? — some more sherry, please.”

“Dead about four years, poor thing! They’re orphans, sir, please.”

“‘Gad! I do please; it’s a capital arrangement, ma’am, as they are here, and you mustn’t let ’em go among the children that swarm about places like this. Egad! ma’am, I’ve no fancy for scarlatina or small-pox, or any sort or description of your nursery maladies.”

“They’re very ‘ealthy, sir, I thank you,” said grave Sarah Rumble, a little mistaking Mr. Dingwell’s drift.

“Very glad to hear it, ma’am.”

“Very kind o’ you, sir,” she said, with a courtesy.

“Kind, of course, yes, very kind,” he echoed.

“Very ‘ealthy, indeed, sir, I’m thankful to say.”

“Well, yes, they do look well — for town brats, you know — plump and rosy — hang ’em, little skins of sweet red wine; egad! enough to make a fellow turn vampire, as I said. Give me a little more sherry — thank you, ma’am. Any place near here where they sell ice?”

“Yes, sir, there’s Mr. Candy’s hice-store, in Love Lane, sir.”

“You must arrange to get me a pound, or so, every day at twelve o’clock, broken up in lumps, like sugar, and keep it in a cold cellar; do you mind, ma’am?”

“Yes, sir, please.”

“How old are you, ma’am? Well, no, you need not mind — hardly a fair question; a steady woman — a lady who has seen the world —something of it, hey?” said he; “so have I— I’m a steady old fellow, egad! — you must give me a latch-key, ma’am.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Some ten or twelve years will see us out; curious thing life, ma’am, eh? ha, ha, ha! — Sparkling cup, ma’am, while it lasts —sometimes; pity the flask has so few glasses, and is flat so soon; isn’t it so, ma’am?”

“I never drank wine, sir, but once.”

“No! where was that?”

“At Mr. Snelly’s wedding, twenty years since.”

“‘Gad! you’d make a good Turk, ma’am-don’t mistake me — it’s only they drink no wine. You’ve found life an up-hill business, then, hey?”

Mrs. Rumble sighed profoundly, shook her head, and said —

“I’ve ‘ad my trials, sir.”

“Ha, ha, ha! to be sure, why not? then you’re a bit tired, I dare say; what do you think of death?”

“I wish I was ready, sir.”

“An ugly fellow, hey? I don’t like the smell of him, ma’am.”

“We has our hopes, sir.”

“Oh! sure and certain hope — yes, the resurrection, hey?”

“Yes, sir, there’s only one thing troubles me — them poor little children. I wouldn’t care how soon I went if they was able to do for themselves.”

“They do that very early in London — girls especially; and you’re giving them such an excellent training — Sunday school — eh — and Church Catechism, I see. The righteous are never forsaken, my excellent mother used to tell me; and if the Catechism does not make little Miss what’s-her-name righteous, I’m afraid the rosy little rogue has a spice of the devil in her.”

“God forbid, sir.”

“Amen, of course. I’m sure they’re all right — I hope they are — for I’ll whip ’em both; I give you fair warning, on my honour, I will, if they give me the least trouble.”

“I’ll be very careful, sir, and keep them out of the way,” said the alarmed Sarah Rumble.

“Oh! I don’t care about that; let ’em run about, as long as they’re good; I’ve no objection in life to children — quite the contrary — plump little rogues — I like ’em-only, egad! if they’re naughty, I’ll turn ’em up, mind.”

Miss Rumble looked at him with as much alarm as if the threat had been to herself.

He was grinning at her in return, and nodded once or twice sharply.

“Yes, ma’am, lollypops and sugar-candy when they’re good; but, egad! when they’re naughty, ma’am, you’ll hear ’em squalling.”

Miss Rumble made an alarmed courtesy.

“‘Gad, I forgot how cold this d —— d town is. I say, you’ll keep a fire in my bed-room, please; lay on enough to carry me through the night, do you mind?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And poke this fire up, and put some more wood, or coal, on it; I don’t expect to be ever warm again — in this world, eh? — ha, ha, ha! I remember our gardener, when we were boys, telling me a story of a preacher in a hard frost, telling his congregation that hell was a terribly cold place, lest if he described what good fires they kept there they’d all have been wishing to get into it. Did you ever know any one, ma’am, of my name, Dingwell, before, eh? Where were you born?”

“London, sir, please.”

“Ho! Canterbury was our place; we were great people, the Dingwells, there once. My father failed, though — fortune of war — and I’ve seen all the world since; ‘gad, I’ve met with queer people, ma’am, and one of those chances brings me here now. If I had not met the oddest fish I ever set my eyes on, in the most out-o’-the-way-place on earth, I should not have had the happiness of occupying this charming apartment at this moment, or of making your acquaintance, or that of your plump little Cupid and Psyche, down stairs. London, I suppose, is pretty much what it always was, where any fellow with plenty of money may have plenty of fun. Lots of sin in London, ma’am, eh? Not quite so good as Vienna. But the needs and pleasures of all men, according to their degree, are wonderfully provided for; wherever money is there is a market — for the cabman’s copper and the guinea of the gentleman he drives — everything for money, ma’am-bouquets, and smiles, and coffins, wooden or leaden, according to your relative fastidiousness. But things change very fast, ma’am. Look at this map; I should not know the town — a wilderness, egad! and no one to tell you where fun is to be found.”

She gazed, rather frightened, at this leering, giggling old man, who stood with his shoulders against the chimney-piece, and his hands tumbling over his shillings in his pockets, and his sinister and weary face ever so little flushed with his sherry and his talk.

“Well, if you can give a poor devil a wrinkle of any sort — hey? — it will be a charity; but, egad! I’m as sleepy as the Homilies,” and he yawned direfully. “Do, like an angel, go and see to my room, I can scarcely keep my eyes open.”

From the next room she heard him hi-yeawing in long-drawn yawns, and talking in snatches to himself over the fire, and when she came back he took the candle and said —

“Beaten, ma’am, fairly beaten to-night. Not quite what I was, though I’m good for something still; but an old fellow can’t get on without his sleep.”

Mr. Dingwell’s extraordinary communicativeness would have quite charmed her, had it not been in a faint way racy of corruption, and followed with a mocking echo of insult, which she caught, but could not accurately interpret. The old rascal was irrepressibly garrulous; but he was too sleepy to talk much more, and looked ruefully worn out.

He took the bed-room candle with a great yawn, and staggering, I am bound to say only with sleep, he leaned for a moment against the doorway of his room, and said, in his grimmer vein —

“You’ll bring me a cup of coffee, mind, at eight o’clock —black, no milk, no sugar — and a bit of dry toast, as thin as a knife and as hard as a tile; do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And why the devil don’t you say so? And, lest I should forget, Mr. Levi will be here tomorrow, at eleven, with another gentleman. Show them both up; and, I say, there are several things I’m particular about, and I’ll put them on paper — egad! that’s the best way — tomorrow, and I’ll post it up in my room, like a firmaun, and you had better attend to them, that’s all;” and holding up his candle, as he stood in the doorway, he gazed round the bed-room, and seemed satisfied, and shut the door sharply in her face, without turning about, or perhaps intending that rudeness, as she was executing her valedictory courtesy.

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