The Tenants of Malory, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 19.

The Greek Merchant Sees Lord Verney.

OUR friend, Wynne Williams, made a much longer stay than he had expected in London. From him, too, Tom Sedley received about this time a mysterious summons to town, so urgent and so solemn that he felt there was something extraordinary in it; and on consultation with the Etherage girls, those competent advisers settled that he should at once obey it.

Tom wrote to Agnes on the evening of his arrival —

“I have been for an hour with Wynne Williams; you have no notion what a good fellow he is, and what a wonderfully clever fellow. There is something very good in prospect for me, but not yet certain, and I am bound not to tell a human being. But you, I will, of course, the moment I know it for certain. It may turn out nothing at all; but we are working very hard all the same.”

In the meantime, down at Malory, things were taking a course of which the good people of Cardyllian had not a suspicion.

With a little flush over his grim, brown face, with a little jaunty swagger, and a slight screwing of his lips, altogether as if he had sipped a little too much brandy-and-water — though he had nothing of the kind that day — giggling and chuckling over short sentences; with a very determined knitting of his eyebrows, and something in his eyes unusually sinister, which a sense of danger gives to a wicked face, Mr. Dingwell walked down the clumsy stairs of the steward’s house, and stood within the hatch.

There he meditated for a few moments, with compressed lips, and a wandering sweep of his eyes along the stone urns and rose bushes that stood in front of the dwarf wall, which is backed by the solemn old trees of Malory.

“In for a penny, in for a pound.”

And he muttered a Turkish sentence, I suppose equivalent; and thus fortified by the wisdom of nations, he stepped out upon the broad gravel walk, looked about him for a second or two, as if recalling recollections, in a sardonic mood, and then walked round the corner to the front of the house, and up the steps, and pulled at the door bell; the knocker had been removed in tenderness to Lord Verney’s irritable nerves.

Two of his tall footmen in powder and livery were there, conveyed into this exile from Ware; for calls of inquiry were made here, and a glimpse of state was needed to overawe the bumpkins.

“His lordship was better; was sitting in the drawing-room; might possibly see the gentleman; and who should he say, please?”

“Say, Mr. Dingwell, the great Greek merchant, who has a most important communication to make.”

His lordship would see Mr. Dingwell. Mr. Dingwell’s name was called to a second footman, who opened a door, and announced him.

Lady Wimbledon, who had been sitting at the window reading aloud to Lord Verney at a little chink of light, abandoned her pamphlet, and rustled out by another door, as the Greek merchant entered.

Dim at best, and very unequal was the light. The gout had touched his lordship’s right eyeball, which was still a little inflamed, and the doctor insisted on darkness.

There was something diabolically waggish in Mr. Dingwell’s face, if the noble lord could only have seen it distinctly, as he entered the room. He was full of fun; he was enjoying a coming joke, with perhaps a little spice of danger in it, and could hardly repress a giggle.

The Viscount requested Mr. Dingwell to take a chair, and that gentleman waited till the servant had closed the door, and then thanked Lord Verney in a strange nasal tone, quite unlike Mr. Dingwell’s usual voice.

“I come here, Lord Verney, with an important communication to make. I could have made it to some of the people about you — and you have able professional people — or to your nephew; but it is a pleasure, Lord Verney, to speak instead to the cleverest man in England.”

The noble lord bowed a little affably, although he might have questioned Mr. Dingwell’s right to pay him compliments in his own house; but Mr. Dingwell’s fiddlestick had touched the right string, and the noble instrument made music accordingly. Mr. Dingwell, in the dark, looked very much amused.

“I can hardly style myself that, Mr. Dingwell.”

“I speak of business, Lord Verney; and I adopt the language of the world in saying the cleverest man in England.”

“I’m happy to say my physician allows me to listen to reading, and to talk a little, and there can be no objection to a little business either,” said Lord Verney, passing by the compliment this time, but, on the whole, good-humouredly disposed toward Mr. Dingwell.

“I’ve two or three things to mention, Lord Verney; and the first is money.”

Lord Verney coughed drily. He was suddenly recalled to a consciousness of Mr. Dingwell’s character.

“Money, my lord. The name makes you cough, as smoke does a man with an asthma. I’ve found it all my life as hard to keep, as you do to part with. If I had but possessed Lord Verney’s instincts and abilities, I should have been at this moment one of the wealthiest men in England.”

Mr. Dingwell rose as he said this, and bowed towards Lord Verney.

“I said I should name it first; but as your lordship coughs, we had, perhaps, best discuss it last. Or, indeed, if it makes your lordship cough very much, perhaps we had better postpone it, or leave it entirely to your lordship’s discretion — as I wouldn’t for the world send this little attack into your chest.”

Lord Verney thought Mr. Dingwell less unreasonable, but also more flighty, than he had supposed.

“You are quite at liberty, sir, to treat your subjects in what order you please. I wish you to understand that I have no objection to hear you; and — and you may proceed.”

“The next is a question on which I presume we shall find ourselves in perfect accord. I had the honour, as you are very well aware, of an intimate acquaintance with your late brother, the Honourable Arthur Verney, and beyond measure I admired his talents, which were second in brilliancy only to your own. I admired even his principles— but I see they make you cough also. They were, it is true, mephitic, sulphurous, such as might well take your breath, or that of any other moral man, quite away; but they had what I call the Verney stamp upon them; they were perfectly consistent, and quite harmonious. His, my lord, was the intense and unflinching rascality, if you permit me the phrase, of a man of genius, and I honoured it. Now, my lord, his adventures were curious, as you are aware, and I have them at my fingers’ ends — his crimes, his escape, and, above all, his life in Constantinople — ha, ha, ha! It would make your hair stand on end. And to think he should have been your brother! Upon my soul! Though, as I said, the genius — the genius, Lord Verney — the inspiration was there. In that he was your brother.”

“I’m aware, sir, that he had talent, Mr. Dingwell, and could speak — about it. At Oxford he was considered the most promising young man of his time — almost.”

“Yes, except you; but you were two years later.”

“Yes, exactly. I was precisely two years later about it.”

“Yes, my lord, you were always about it; so he told me. No matter what it was — a book, or a boot-jack, or a bottle of port, you were always about it. It was a way you had, he said — about it.”

“I wasn’t aware that anyone remarked any such thing — about it,” said Lord Verney, very loftily.

It dawned dimly upon him that Mr. Dingwell, who was a very irregular person, was possibly intoxicated. But Mr. Dingwell was speaking, though in a very nasal, odd voice, yet with a clear and sharp articulation, and in a cool way, not the least like a man in that sort of incapacity. Lord Verney concluded, therefore, that Mr. Dingwell was either a remarkably impertinent person, or most insupportably deficient in the commonest tact. I think he would have risen, even at the inconvenience of suddenly disturbing his flannelled foot, and intimated that he did not feel quite well enough to continue the conversation, had he not known something of Mr. Dingwell’s dangerous temper, and equally dangerous knowledge and opportunities; for had they not subsidized Mr. Dingwell, in the most unguarded manner, and on the most monstrous scale, pending the investigation and proof before the Lords? “It was inevitable,” Mr. Larkin said, “but also a little awkward; although they knew that the man had sworn nothing but truth.” Very awkward, Lord Verney thought, and therefore he endured Mr. Dingwell.

But the “great Greek merchant,” as, I suppose half jocularly, he termed himself, not only seemed odious at this moment, by reason of his impertinence, but also formidable to Lord Verney, who, having waked from his dream that Dingwell would fly beyond the Golden Horn when once his evidence was given, and the coronet well fixed on the brows of the Hon. Kiffyn Fulke Verney, found himself still haunted by this vampire bat, which hung by its hooked wing, sometimes in the shadows of Rosemary Court — sometimes in those of the old Steward’s House — sometimes hovering noiselessly nearer — always with its eyes upon him, threatening to fasten on his breast, and drain him.

The question of money he would leave “to his discretion.” But what did his impertinence mean? Was it not minatory? And to what exorbitant sums in a choice of evils might not “discretion” point?

“This d — d Mr. Dingwell,” thought Lord Verney “will play the devil with my gout. I wish he was at the bottom of the Bosphorus.”

“Yes. And your brother, Arthur — there were points in which he differed from you. Unless I’m misinformed, he was a first-rate cricketer, the crack bat of their team, and you were nothing; he was one of the best Grecians in the university, and you were plucked.”

“I— I don’t exactly see the drift of your rather inaccurate and extremely offensive observations, Mr. Dingwell,” said Lord Verney, wincing and flushing in the dark.

“Offensive? Good heaven! But I’m talking to a Verney, to a man of genius; and I say, how the devil could I tell that truth could offend, either? With this reflection I forgive myself, and I go on to say what will interest you.”

Lord Verney, who had recovered his presence of mind, here nodded, to intimate that he was ready to hear him.

“Well, there were a few other points, but I need not mention them, in which you differed. You were both alike in this — each was a genius — you were an opaque and obscure genius, he a brilliant one; but each being a genius, there must have been a sympathy, notwithstanding his being a publican and you a — not exactly a Pharisee, but a paragon of prudence.”

“I really, Mr. Dingwell, must request — you see I’m far from well, about it — that you’ll be so good as a little to abridge your remarks; and I don’t want to hear — you can easily, I hope, understand — my poor brother talked of in any but such terms as a brother should listen to.”

“That arises, Lord Verney, from your not having had the advantage of his society for so very many years. Now, I knew him intimately, and I can undertake to say he did not care twopence what any one on earth thought of him, and it rather amused him painting infernal caricatures of himself, as a fiend or a monkey, and he often made me laugh by the hour — ha, ha, ha! he amused himself with revealed religion, and with everything sacred, sometimes even with you— ha, ha, ha — he had certainly a wonderful sense of the ridiculous.”

“May I repeat my request, if it does not appear to you very unreasonable?” again interrupted Lord Verney, “and may I entreat to know what it is you wish me to understand about it, in as few words as you can, sir?”

“Certainly, Lord Verney; it is just this. As I have got materials, perfectly authentic, from my deceased friend, both about himself — horribly racy, you may suppose — ha, ha, ha — about your grand-uncle Pendel — you’ve heard of him, of course — about your aunt Deborah, poor thing, who sold mutton pies in Chester — I was thinking — suppose I write a memoir — Arthur alone deserves it; you pay the expenses; I take the profits, and I throw you in the copyright for a few thousand more, and call it, ‘Snuffed-out lights of the Peerage,’ or something of the kind? I think something is due to Arthur — don’t you?”

“I think you can hardly be serious, Mr. — Mr. ——”

“Perfectly serious, upon my soul, my lord. Could anything be more curious? Eccentricity’s the soul of genius, and you’re proud of your genius, I hope.”

“What strikes me, Mr. Dingwell, amounts, in short, to something like this. My poor brother, he has been unfortunate, about it, and — and worse, and he has done things, and I ask myself why there should be an effort to obtrude him, and I answer myself, there’s no reason, about it, and therefore I vote to have everything as it is, and I shall neither contribute my countenance, about it, nor money to any such undertaking, or — or — undertaking.”

“Then my book comes to the ground, egad.”

Lord Verney simply raised his head with a little sniff, as if he were smelling at a snuff-box.

“Well, Arthur must have something, you know.”

“My brother, the Honourable Arthur Kiffyn Verney, is past receiving anything at my hands, and I don’t think he probably looked for anything, about it, at any time from yours.”

“Well, but it’s just the time for what I’m thinking of. You wouldn’t give him a tombstone in his lifetime, I suppose, though you are a genius. Now, I happen to know he wished a tombstone. You’d like a tombstone, though not now — time enough in a year or two, when you’re fermenting in your lead case.”

“I’m not thinking of tombstones at present, sir, and it appears to me that you are giving yourself a very unusual latitude — about it.”

“I don’t mean in the mausoleum at Ware. Of course that’s a place where people who have led a decorous life putrify together. I meant at the small church of Penruthyn, where the scamps await judgment.”

“I— a — don’t see that such a step is properly for the consideration of any persons — about it — outside the members of the Verney family, or more properly, of any but the representatives of that family,” said Lord Verney, loftily, “and you’ll excuse my not admitting, or — or, in fact, admitting any right in anyone else.”

“He wished it immensely.”

“I can’t understand why, sir.”

“Nor I; but I suppose you all get them — all ticketed — eh? and I’d write the epitaph, only putting in essentials, though, egad! in such a life it would be as long as a newspaper.”

“I’ve already expressed my opinion, and — and things, and I have nothing to add.”

“Then the tombstone comes to the ground also?”

“Anything more, sir?”

“But, my lord, he showed an immense consideration for you.”

“I don’t exactly recollect how.”

“By dying— you’ve got hold of everything, don’t you see, and you grudge him a tablet in the little church of Penruthyn, by gad! I told your nephew he wished it, and I tell you he wished it; it’s not stinginess, it’s your mean pride.”

“You seem, Mr. Dingwell, to fancy that there’s no limit to the impertinence I’ll submit to.”

“I’m sure there’s none almost — you better not ring the bell — you better think twice — he gave me that message, and he also left me a mallet — quite a toy — but a single knock of it would bring Verney House, or Ware, or this place, about your ears.”

The man was speaking in quite another voice now, and in the most awful tones Lord Verney had ever heard in his life, and to his alarmed and sickly eyes it seemed as if the dusky figure of his visitor were dilating in the dark like an evoked Genii.

“I— I think about it — it’s quite unaccountable — all this.” Lord Verney was looking at the stranger as he spoke, and groping with his left hand for the old-fashioned bell-rope which used to hang near him in the library in Verney House, forgetting that there was no bell of any sort within his reach at that moment.

“I’m not going to take poor dear Arthur’s mallet out of my pocket, for the least tap of it would make all England ring and roar, sir. No, I’ll make no noise; you and I, sir, tête-à-tête. I’ll have no go-between; no Larkin, no Levi, no Cleve; you and I’ll settle it alone. Your brother was a great Grecian, they used to call him [Greek: Odusseus]— Ulysses. Do you remember? I said I was the great Greek merchant? We have made an exchange together. You must pay. What shall I call myself, for Dingwell isn’t my name. I’ll take a new one — To [Greek: men prôton Outin heauton epikalei — epeidande diepheuge kai exô ên belous Odussyn onomazesthai ephê] In English — at first he called himself Outis —Nobody; but so soon as he had escaped, and was out of the javelin’s reach, he said that he was named Odusseus —Ulysses, and here he is. This is the return of Ulysses!”

There had been a sudden change in Mr. Dingwell’s Yankee intonation. The nasal tones were heard no more. He approached the window, and said, with a laugh, pulling the shutter more open —

“Why, Kiffyn, you fool, don’t you know me?”

There was a silence.

“My great God! my great God of heaven!” came from the white lips of Lord Verney.

“Yes; God’s over all,” said Arthur Verney, with a strange confusion, between a sneer and something more genuine.

There was a long pause.

“Ha, ha, ha! don’t make a scene! Not such a muff?” said Dingwell.

Lord Verney was staring at him with a face white and peaked as that of a corpse, and whispering still —“My God! my great God!” so that Dingwell, as I still call him, began to grow uneasy.

“Come; don’t you make mountains of molehills. What the devil’s all this fuss about? Here, drink a little of this.” He poured out some water, and Lord Verney did sip a little, and then gulped down a good deal, and then he looked at Arthur again fixedly, and groaned.

“That’s right — never mind. I’ll not hurt you. Don’t fancy I mean to disturb you. I can’t, you know, if I wished it ever so much. I daren’t show— I know it. Don’t suppose I want to bully you; the idea’s impracticable. I looked in merely to tell you, in a friendly way, who I am. You must do something handsome for me, you know. Devil’s in it if a fellow can’t get a share of his own money, and, as I said before, we’ll have no go-betweens, no Jews or attorneys. D— n them all — but settle it between ourselves, like brothers. Sip a little more water.”

“Arthur, Arthur, I say, yes; good God, I feel I shall have a good deal to say; but — my head, and things — I’m a little perplexed still, and I must have a glass of wine, about it, and I can’t do it now; no, I can’t.”

“I don’t live far away, you know; and I’ll look in tomorrow — we’re not in a hurry.”

“It was a strange idea, Arthur. Good Lord, have mercy on me!”

“Not a bad one; eh?”

“Very odd, Arthur! — God forgive you.”

“Yes, my dear Kiffyn, and you, too.”

“The coronet — about it? I’m placed in a dreadful position, but you shan’t be compromised, Arthur. Tell them I’m not very well, and some wine, I think — a little chill.”

“And tomorrow I can look in again, quietly,” said the Greek merchant, “or whenever you like, and I shan’t disclose our little confidence.”

“It’s going — everything, everything; I shall see it by-and-by,” said Lord Verney, helplessly.

And thus the interview ended, and Mr. Dingwell in the hall gave the proper alarm about Lord Verney.

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