正文 Chapter 22. Conclusion.
And now all things with which, in these pages, we are concerned, are come to that point at which they are best settled in a very few words.
The one point required to establish Sedley’s claim to the peerage — the validity of the marriage — had been supplied by old Arthur Verney, as we have seen, the night before his death.
The late Lord Verney of unscrupulous memory, Arthur’s father, had, it was believed, induced Captain Sedley, in whose charge the infant had been placed, to pretend its death, and send the child in reality to France, where it had been nursed and brought up as his. He was dependent for his means of existence upon his employment as manager of his estates, under Lord Verney; and he dared not, it was thought, from some brief expressions in a troubled letter among the papers placed by old Mrs. Mervyn in Wynne Williams’s hands, notwithstanding many qualms of conscience, disobey Lord Verney. And he was quieted further by the solemn assurance that the question of the validity of the pretended marriage had been thoroughly sifted, and that it was proved to have been a nullity.
He carefully kept, however, such papers as were in his possession respecting the identity of the child, and added a short statement of his own. If that old Lord Verney had suspected the truth that the marriage was valid, as it afterwards proved, he was the only member of his family who did so. The rest had believed honestly the story that it was fraudulent and illusory. The apparent proof of the child’s death had put an end to all interest in further investigating the question, and so the matter rested, until time and events brought all to light.
The dream that made Malory beautiful in my eyes is over. The image of that young fair face — the beautiful lady of the chestnut hair and great hazel eyes haunts its dark woods less palpably, and the glowing shadow fades, year by year, away.
In sunny Italy, where her mother was born, those eyes having looked their last on Cleve and on “the boy,” and up, in clouded hope to heaven — were closed, and the slender bones repose. “I think, Cleve, you’ll sometimes remember your poor Margaret. I know you’ll always be very kind to the little boy —our darling, and if you marry again, Cleve, she’ll not be a trouble to you, as I have been; and you said, you’ll sometimes think of me. You’ll forget all my jealousy, and temper, and folly, and you’ll say —‘Ah, she loved me.’”
And these last words return, though the lips that spoke them come no more; and he is very kind to that handsome boy — frank, generous, and fiery like her, with the great hazel eyes and beautiful tints, and the fine and true affections. At times comes something in the smile, in the tone as he talks, in the laugh that thrills his heart with a strange yearning and agony. Vain remorse! vain the yearnings; for the last words are spoken and heard; not one word more while the heavens remain, and mortals people the earth!
Sedley — Lord Verney we should style him — will never be a politician, but he has turned out a thoroughly useful business-like and genial country gentleman. Agnes, now Lady Verney, is, I will not say how happy; I only hope not too happy.
Need I say that the cloud that lowered for a while over the house of Hazelden has quite melted into air, and that the sun never shone brighter on that sweet landscape? Miss Etherage is a great heiress now, for Sedley, as for sake of clearness I call him still, refused a dot with his wife, and that handsome inheritance will all belong to Charity, who is as emphatic, obstinate, and kind-hearted as ever. The admiral has never gone down the mill-road since his introduction to the Honourable Kiffyn Fulke Verney at the foot of the hill. He rolls in his chair safely along the level uplands, and amuses himself with occasional inspections of Ware through his telescope; and tells little Agnes, when he sees her, what she was doing on a certain day, and asks who the party with the phaeton and grays, who called on Thursday at two o’clock, were, and similar questions; and likes to hear the news, and they say is growing more curious as years increase. He and Charity have revived their acquaintance with écarté and piquet, and play for an hour or so very snugly in the winter evenings. Miss Charity is a little cross when she loses, and won’t let old Etherage play more than his allotted number of games; and locks up the cards; and is growing wife-like with the admiral; but is quite devoted to him, and will make him live, I think, six years longer than any one else could.
Sedley wrote a very kind letter to the Hon. Kiffyn Fulke Verney, to set his mind at ease about mesne rates, and any other claims whatsoever, that might arise against him, in consequence of his temporary tenure of the title and estates, and received from Vichy a very affronted reply, begging him to take whatever course he might be advised, as he distinctly objected to being placed under any kind of personal obligation, and trusted that he would not seek to place such a construction upon a compulsory respect for the equities of the situation, and the decencies enforced by public opinion; and he declared his readiness to make any sacrifice to pay him whatever his strict legal rights entitled him to the moment he had made up his mind to exact them.
The Hon. Kiffyn Fulke Verney is, of course, quite removed from his sphere of usefulness and distinction — parliamentary life — and spends his time upon the Continent, and is remarkably reserved and impertinent, and regarded with very general respect and hatred.
Sedley has been very kind, for Cleve’s sake, to old Sir Booth Fanshawe, with whom he is the only person on earth who has an influence.
He wrote to the baronet, who was then in Paris, disclosing the secret of Cleve’s marriage. The old man burst into one of his frenzies, and wrote forthwith a frantic letter direct to his mortal enemy, the Hon. Kiffyn Fulke Verney, railing at Cleve, railing at him, and calling upon him, in a tone of preposterous menace, to punish his nephew! Had he been left to himself, I dare say he would have made Cleve feel his resentment. But thus bullied he said —“Upon my life I’ll do no such thing. I’m in the habit of thinking before I take steps, about it — with Booth Fanshawe’s permission, I’ll act according to my own judgment, and I dare say the girl has got some money, and if it were not good for Cleve in some way, that old person would not be so angry.” And so it ended for the present.
The new Lord Verney went over expressly to see him, and in the same conversation, in which he arranged some law business in the friendliest way, and entirely to Sir Booth Fanshawe’s satisfaction, he discussed the question of Cleve’s marriage. At first the baronet was incensed; but when the hurly-burly was done he came to see, with our friend Tom, whose peerage gave his opinion weight on the subject of marriages and family relations, that the alliance was not so bad — on the contrary, that it had some very strong points to recommend it.
The Rev. Isaac Dixie has not got on in the Church, and is somehow no favourite at Ware. The Hon. Miss Caroline Oldys is still unmarried, and very bitter on the Verneys, uncle and nephew; people don’t understand why, though the reader may. Perhaps she thinks that the Hon. Kiffyn Fulke Verney ought to have tried again, and was too ready to accept a first refusal. Her hatred of Cleve I need not explain.
With respect to Mr. Larkin, I cite an old Dutch proverb, which says, “Those who swim deep and climb high seldom die in their beds.” In its fair figurative sense it applies satisfactorily to the case of that profound and aspiring gentleman who, as some of my readers are aware, fell at last from a high round of the ladder of his ambition, and was drowned in the sea beneath. No — not drowned; that were too painless, and implies extinction. He fell, rather, upon that black flooring of rock that rims the water, and was smashed, but not killed.
It was, as they will remember, after his introduction to the management of the affairs of the Wylder, Brandon, and Lake families, and on the eve, to all appearance, of the splendid consummation of his subtle and audacious schemes, that in a moment the whole scaffolding of his villany gave way, and he fell headlong — thenceforth, helpless, sprawling, backbroken, living on from year to year, and eating metaphoric dust, like the great old reptile who is as yet mangled but not killed.
Happy fly the years at Ware. Many fair children have blessed the union of pretty Agnes Etherage and the kindly heir of the Verneys. Cleve does not come himself; he goes little to any gay country houses. A kind of lassitude or melancholy is settling and deepening upon him. To one passage of his life he looks back with a quickly averted glance, and an unchanging horror — the time when he was saved from a great crime, as it were, by the turning of a die. “Those three dreadful weeks,” he says within himself, “when I was mad!” But his handsome son is constantly at Ware, where he is beloved by its master and mistress like one of their own children. One day Lord Verney ran across to Malory in his yacht, this boy with him. It was an accidental tête-à-tête, and he talked to the boy a great deal of his “poor mama,” as he sauntered through the sunny woods of Malory; and he brought him to the refectory, and pointed out to him from the window, the spot where he had seen her, with her trowel in her hand, as the morning sun threw the shadow of the spreading foliage over her, and he described her beauty to him; and he walked down with him to Cardyllian, the yacht was appointed to meet them at the pier, and brought him into the church, to the pew where he was placed, and showed him the seat where she and Anne Sheckleton sat on the Sunday when he saw her first, and looked for a while silently into that void shadow, for it is pleasant and yet sad to call up sometimes those old scenes and images that have made us feel, when we were younger; and somehow good Lady Verney did not care to hear her husband upon this theme.
So for the present the story of the Verneys of Malory is told. Years hence, when we shall not be here to read it, the same scenes and family may have a new story to tell; for time, with his shuttle and the threads of fate, is ever weaving new romance.