The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 9.

In which Mr. Dingwell Puts His Hand to the Poker.

AT eleven o’clock next morning, Mr. Dingwell was refreshed, and ready to receive his expected visitors. He had just finished a pipe as he heard their approaching steps upon the stairs, and Miss Sarah Rumble pushed open the door and permitted Mr. Levi and his friend to enter and announce themselves. Mr. Dingwell received them with a slight bow and a rather sarcastic smile.

Mr. Levi entered first, with his lazy smile showing his glittering fangs, and his fierce, cunning, prominent eyes swept the room, and rested on Mr. Dingwell. Putting down his hat on the middle of the narrow table, he stooped across, extending his lank arm and long hand toward the white-headed old man with the broad forehead and lean brown face, who happened to turn to the chimney-piece just then, to look for a paper, and so did not shake hands.

“And Mr. Larkin?” said Mr. Dingwell, with the same smile, as he turned about and saw that slim, bald, pink-eyed impersonation of Christianity overtopping the dark and glossy representative of the Mosaic dispensation.

“Sit down, pray — though — eh? — has my friend, Miss Rumble, left us chairs enough?” said Mr. Dingwell, looking from corner to corner.

“Quite ample; thanks, many thanks,” answered Mr. Larkin, who chose, benignantly, to take this attention to himself. “Three chairs, yes, and three of us; pray, Mr. Dingwell, don’t take any trouble.”

“Oh! thank you; but I was not thinking of taking any trouble, only I should not like to be left without a chair. Miss Sarah Rumble, I dare say she’s very virtuous, but she’s not brilliant,” he continued as he approached. “There, for instance, her pot-house habits! She leaves my old hat on the centre of the table!” and with a sudden sweep of the ebony stem of his long pipe, he knocked Mr. Levi’s hat upon the floor, and kicked it into the far corner of the room.

“Da-a-am it; that’sh my hat!” said Mr. Levi, looking after it.

“So much the better for me,” said Mr. Dingwell, with an agreeable smile and a nod.

“An error — quite a mistake,” interposed Mr. Larkin, with officious politeness. “Shall I pick it up, Mr. Levi?”

“Leave it lay,” said Mr. Levi, sulkily; “no use now. It’s got its allowance, I expect.”

“Gentlemen, you’ll not detain me longer than is necessary, if you please, because I hate business, on principle, as a Jew does ham — I beg pardon Mr. Levi, I forgot for a moment — the greatest respect for your religion, but I do hate business as I hate an attorney —‘Gad! there is my foot in it again: Mr. Larkin, no reflection, I assure you, on your excellent profession, which everyone respects. But life’s made up of hours: they’re precious, and I don’t want to spoil ’em.”

“A great trust, sir, a great trust, Mr. Dingwell, is time. Ah, sir, how little we make of it, with eternity yawning at our feet, and retribution before us!”

Our and us; you don’t narrow it to the legal profession, Mr. Larkin?”

“I speak of time, generally, Mr. Dingwell, and of eternity and retribution as applicable to all professions,” said Mr. Larkin, sadly.

“I don’t follow you, sir. Here’s a paper, gentlemen, on which I have noted exactly what I can prove.”

“Can I have it, Mr. Dingwell?” said the attorney, whose dove-like eyes for a moment contracted with a hungry, rat-like look.

“No, I think, no,” said Mr. Dingwell, withdrawing it from the long, red fingers extended to catch the paper; Mr. Levi’s fingers, at a more modest distance, were also extended, and also disappointed; “anything I write myself I have a kind of feeling about it; I’d rather keep it to myself, or put it in the fire, than trouble the most artless Jew or religious attorney I know with the custody of it: so, if you just allow me, I’ll read it. It’s only half a dozen lines, and I don’t care if you make a note of it, Mr. Larkin.”

“Well,” he resumed, after he had glanced through the paper, Mr. Larkin sitting expectant arrectis auribus, and with a pen in his fingers, “you may say that I, Mr. Dingwell, knew the late Honourable Arthur Verney, otherwise Hakim Frank, otherwise Hakim Giaour, otherwise Mamhoud Ali Ben–Nezir, for five years and two months, and upwards — three days, I think — immediately preceding his death; for the latter four years very intimately. That I frequently procured him small loans of money, and saw him, one way or another, nearly every day of my life: that I was with him nearly twice a day during his last illness: that I was present when he expired, and was one of the three persons who saw him buried: and that I could point out his grave, if it were thought desirable to send out persons acquainted with his appearance, to disinter and identify the body.”

“No need of that, I think,” said Mr. Larkin, looking up and twiddling his eye-glass on his finger.

He glanced at Levi, who was listening intensely, and almost awfully, and, reading no sign in his face, he added —

However, I see no harm in making the note.”

So on went Mr. Dingwell, holding a pair of gold glasses over his nose.

“I can perfectly identify him as the Hon. Arthur Verney, having transacted business for him respecting an annuity which was paid him by his family; written letters for him when his hand was affected; and read his letters for him when he was ill, which latter letters, together with a voluminous correspondence found in his box, and now in my possession, I can identify also as having been in his.”

“I don’t see any need, my dear Mr. Dingwell, of your mentioning your having written any letters for him; it has, in fact, no bearing that I can recognise upon the case. I should, in fact, apprehend complicating the case. You might find it difficult to specify, and we to produce, the particular letters referred to; so I should simply say you read them to him, at his desire, before he despatched them for England; that is, of course, assuming that you did so.”

“Very good, sir; knock it out, and put that in; and I can prove that these letters, which can easily, I suppose, be identified by the writers of them in England, were in his possession, and that several of them I can recollect his having read to me on the day he received them. That’s pretty nearly what strikes me — eh?”

“Yes, sir — certainly, Mr. Dingwell — most important; but surely he had a servant; had he not, my dear sir? — an attendant of some sort? they’re to be had there for next to nothing, I think,” hesitated Mr. Larkin.

“Certainly — so there was — yes; but he started for Egypt in a boat full of tiles, or onions, or something, a day or two after the Hakim was buried, and I’m afraid they’ll find it rather hard to find him. I think he said Egypt, but I won’t swear.”

And Mr. Dingwell laughed, very much tickled, with intense sarcastic enjoyment; so much so that Mr. Larkin, though I have seldom before or since heard of his laughing, did suddenly laugh a short, explosive laugh, as he looked down on the table, and immediately looked very grave and sad, and pinked up to the very summit of his narrow bald head; and coughing a little, he said —

“Thank you, Mr. Dingwell; this will suffice very nicely for an outline, and I can consult with our adviser as to its particular sufficiency — is not that your impression, Mr. Levi?”

“You lawyer chaps undusta-ans that line of business best; I know no more about it than watch-making — only don’t shleep over it, for it’s costing us a da-a-am lot of money,” said Mr. Levi, rising with a long yawn and a stretch, and emphasising it with a dismal oath; and shutting his great glaring eyes and shaking his head, as if he were being victimised at a pace which no capital could long stand.

“Certainly, Mr. Levi,” said the attorney, “you quite take me with you there. We are all contributing, except, perhaps, our valued friend, Mr. Dingwell, our quota towards a very exhausting expense.”

“Da-a-md exhausting,” interposed Mr. Levi.

“Well, pray allow me my own superlative,” said the attorney, with religious grandeur. “I do say it is very exhausting; though we are all, I hope, cheerfully contributing ——”

“Curse you! to be sure you are,” said Mr. Dingwell, with an abrupt profanity that startled Mr. Larkin. “Because you all expect to make money by it; and I’m contributing my time, and trouble, and danger, egad! for precisely the same reason. And now, before you go — just a moment, if you please, as we are on the subject — who’s Chancellor of the Exchequer here?”

“Who advances the necessary funds?” interpreted Mr. Larkin, with his politest smile.

“Yes,” said the old man, with a sharp menacing nod. “Which of you two comes down, as you say, with the dust? Who pays the piper for this dance of yours, gentlemen? — the Christian or the Jew? I’ve a word for the gentleman who holds the purse — or, as we Christians would say, who carries the bag;” and he glanced from one to the other with a sniff, and another rather vicious wag of his head.

“I believe, sir, you may address us both as voluntary contributors towards a fund for carrying on, for the present, this business of the Honourable Kiffyn Fulke Verney, who will, of course, recoup us,” said Mr. Larkin, cautiously.

He used to say sometimes to his conducting man, with a smile, sly and holy, up at the yellow letters of one of the tin deed-boxes on his shelves at the Lodge, after an adroit conversation, “I think it will puzzle him, rather, to make an assumpsit out of that.”

“Well, you talk of allowing me — as you term it — four pounds a week. I’ll not take it,” said Mr. Dingwell.

“My hye! That’sh liberal, shir, uncommon ‘anshome, be Ga-a-ad!” exclaimed Mr. Levi, in a blessed mistake as to the nature of Mr. Dingwell’s objection.

“I know, gentlemen, this business can’t advance without me — to me it may be worth something; but you’ll make it worth a great deal more to yourselves, and whatever else you may find me, you’ll find me no fool; and I’ll not take one piastre less than five-and-twenty pounds a week.”

“Five-and-twenty pounsh!” howled Mr. Levi; and Mr. Larkin’s small pink eyes opened wide at the prodigious idea.

“You gentlemen fancy you’re to keep me here in this black-hole making your fortunes, and living on the wages of a clerk, egad! You shall do no such thing, I promise you; you shall pay me what I say. I’ll see the town, sir, and I’ll have a few guineas in my pocket, or I’ll know the reason why. I didn’t come ALL the way here for nothing — d — n you both!”

“Pray, sir, a moment,” pleaded Mr. Larkin.

Pray, sir, as much as you like; but pay, also, if you please. Upon my life, you shall! Fortune owes me something, and egad! I’ll enjoy myself while I can.”

“Of course, sir; quite reasonable — so you should; but, my dear Mr. Dingwell, five-and-twenty pounds! — we can hardly be expected, my dear sir, to see our way.”

“‘Gad, sir! I see mine, and I’ll go it,” laughed Mr. Dingwell, with a most unpleasant glare in his eyes.

“On reflection, you will see, my dear Mr. Dingwell, the extreme inexpediency of anything in the least resembling a fraycas” (Mr. Larkin so pronounced his French) “in your particular case. I should certainly, my dear sir, recommend a most cautious line.”

“Cautious as the devil,” seconded Mr. Levi.

“You think I’m afraid of my liabilities,” croaked Mr. Dingwell, with a sudden flush across his forehead, and a spasm of his brows over his wild eyes, and then he laughed, and wagged his head.

“That’s right — quite right,” almost sighed Mr. Larkin —“do — do —pray do — just reflect for only a moment— and you’ll see it.”

“To be sure, I see it, and you shall see it, too. Egad! I know something, sir, at my years. I know how to deal with screws, and bullies, and schemers, sir — and that is by going straight at them — and I’ll tell you what, sir, if you don’t pay me the money I name, I’ll make you regret it.”

For a moment, Mr. Larkin, for one, did almost regret his share in this uncomfortable and highly “speculative” business. If this Mr. Dingwell chose to turn restive and extortionate, it would have been better it had never entered into his ingenious head, and he could already see in the Jew’s eyes the sulky and ferocious expression that seemed to forebode defeat.

“If you don’t treat me, as I say, with common fairness, I’ll go straight to young Mr. Verney myself, and put you out of the baby-house altogether.”

What babby-houshe?” demanded Mr. Levi, glowering, and hanging the corners of his great half-open mouth with a sullen ferocity.

“Your castle — in the air — your d — d plot, sir.”

“If you mean you’re going to turn stag,” began the Jew.

There— do — pray, Mr. Levi — you — you mistake,” interposed Mr. Larkin, imploringly, who had heard tales of this Mr. Dingwell’s mad temper.

“I say,” continued Levi, “if you’re going to split ——”

“Split, sir!” cried Mr. Dingwell, with a malignant frown, and drawing his mouth together into a puckered ring, as he looked askance at the Jew. “What the devil do you mean by split, sir? ‘Gad! sir, I’d split your black head for you, you little Jew miscreant!”

Mr. Larkin saw with a qualm that the sinews of that evil face were quivering with an insane fury, and that even under its sun-darkened skin it had turned pale, while the old man’s hand was instinctively extended towards the poker, of which he was thinking, and which was uncomfortably near.

“No, no, no— pray, gentlemen — I entreat— only think,” urged Mr. Larkin, seriously alarmed for the Queen’s peace and his own precious character, and for the personal safety of his capitalist and his witness.

Mr. Larkin confronted the Jew, with his great hands upon Mr. Levi’s shoulders, so as to prevent his advance; but that slender Hebrew, who was an accomplished sparrer, gave the godly attorney a jerk by the elbows which quite twirled him about, to his amazement and chagrin.

“‘Andsh off, old chap,” said the Jew, grimly, to Mr. Larkin, who had not endured such a liberty since he was at his cheap day-school, nearly forty years ago.

But Mr. Larkin interposed again, much alarmed, for behind him he thought he heard the clink of the fire-irons.

“He thinks he may say what he pleases,” cried the old man’s voice furiously, with a kind of choking laugh.

“No, sir — no, Mr. Dingwell — I assure you —do, Mr. Levi — how can you mind him?” he added in an undertone, as he stood between.

“I don’t mind him, Mr. Larkin: only I won’t let no one draw it that sort. I won’t stand a lick of a poker for no one; he shan’t come that over me”— and concurrently with this the shrill voice of Mr. Dingwell was yelling —

“Because I’m — because I’m — I’m — every d — d little whipper-snapper — because they think I’m down, the wretches, I’m to submit to their insults!”

“I don’t want to hurt him, Mr. Larkin; if I did, I’d give’m his tea in a mug this minute; but I don’t, I say — only he shan’t lift a poker to me.”

“No one, my dear sir, has touched a poker; no one, Mr. Levi, ever dreamed of such a thing. Pray, my dear sir, my dear Mr. Dingwell, don’t misconceive; we use slang phrases, now and then, without the least meaning or disrespect: it has become quite the ton g. I assure you — it was only last week, at Nyworth Castle, where I had the honour to be received, Lady Mary Wrangham used the phrase yarn, for a long story.”

“D— n you, can’t you answer my question?” said Mr. Dingwell, more in his accustomed vein.

“Certainly, sir, we’ll reply to it. Do, Mr. Levi, do leave the room; your presence at this moment only leads to excitement.”

Levi, for a moment, pondered fiercely, and then nodded a sulky acquiescence.

“I shall overtake you in the court, Mr. Levi, if you can wait two or three minutes there.”

The Jew nodded over his shoulder, and was gone.

“Mr. Dingwell, sir, I can’t, I assure you. It’s not in my power; it is in the hands of quite other people, on whom, ultimately, of course, these expenses will fall, to sanction the outlay by way of weekly allowance, which you suggest. It is true I am a contributor, but not exactly in cash; only in money’s worth — advice, experience, and technical knowledge. But I will apply in the proper quarter, without delay. I wish, Mr. Dingwell, I were the party; you and I would not, I venture to think, be long in settling it between us.”

“No, to be sure, you’re all such liberal fellows — it’s always some one else that puts us under the screw,” laughed Mr. Dingwell, discordantly, with his face still flushed, and his hand trembling visibly, “you never have the stock yourselves — not you — there’s always, Mr. Sheridan tells us, you know, in that capital play of his, a d —— d unconscionable fellow in the background, and in Shakspeare’s play, Shylock, you remember, he hasn’t the money himself, but Tubal, a wealthy Hebrew of his tribe, will furnish him. Hey! I suppose they gave the immortal Shakspeare a squeeze in his day; he understood ’em. But Shylock and Tubal are both dead and rotten long ago. It’s a comfort you can’t escape death, with all your cunning, d — n you.”

But Mr. Larkin spoke peaceably to Mr. Dingwell. The expense, up to a certain time, would, of course, fall upon Mr. Kiffyn Verney; after that, however, Mr. Larkin and the Jew firm would feel it. But be it how it might, they could not afford to quarrel with Mr. Dingwell; and Mr. Dingwell was a man of a flighty and furious temper.

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