The House by the Church-Yard, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 10

The Dead Secret, Showing How the Fireworker Proved to Puddock that Nutter had Spied Out the Nakedness of the Land.

When Puddock, having taken a short turn or two in the air, by way of tranquillising his mind, mounted his lodging stairs, he found Lieutenant O’Flaherty, not at all more sober than he had last seen him, in the front drawing-room, which apartment was richly perfumed with powerful exhalations of rum punch.

‘Dhrink this, Puddock — dhrink it,’ said O’Flaherty, filling a large glass in equal quantities with rum and water; ‘dhrink it, my sinsare friend; it will studdy you, it will, upon my honour, Puddock!’

‘But — a — thank you, Sir, I am anxious to understand exactly’— said Puddock. Here he was interrupted by a frightful grin and a ‘ha!’ from O’Flaherty, who darted to the door, and seizing his little withered French servant, who was entering, swung him about the room by his coat collar.

‘So, Sorr, you’ve been prating again, have you, you desateful, idle old dhrunken miscreant; you did it on purpose, you blundherin’ old hyena; it’s the third jewel you got your masther into; and if I lose my life, divil a penny iv your wages ye’ll ever get — that’s one comfort. Yes, Sorr! this is the third time you have caused me to brew my hands in human blood; I dono’ if it’s malice, or only blundherin’. Oh!’ he cried, with a still fiercer shake, ‘it’s I that wishes I could be sure ’twas malice, I’d skiver you, heels and elbows, on my sword, and roast you alive on that fire. Is not it a hard thing, my darlin’ Puddock, I can’t find out.’ He was still holding the little valet by the collar, and stretching out his right hand to Puddock. ‘But I am always the sport of misfortunes — small and great. If there was an ould woman to be handed in to supper — or a man to be murthered by mistake — or an ugly girl to be danced with, whose turn was it, ever and always to do the business, but poor Hyacinth O’Flaherty’s —(tears). I could tell you, Puddock,’ he continued, forgetting his wrath, and letting his prisoner go, in his eager pathos — the Frenchman made his escape in a twinkling —‘I was the only man in our regiment that tuck the mazles in Cork, when it was goin’ among the children, bad luck to them — I that was near dyin’ of it when I was an infant; and I was the only officer in the regiment, when we were at Athlone, that was prevented going to the race ball — and I would not for a hundred pounds. I was to dance the first minuet, and the first country dance, with that beautiful creature, Miss Rose Cox. I was makin’ a glass of brandy punch — not feelin’ quite myself — and I dhressed and all, in our room, when Ensign Higgins, a most thoughtless young man, said something disrespectful about a beautiful mole she had on her chin; bedad, Sir, he called it a wart, if you plase! and feelin’ it sthrongly, I let the jug of scaldin’ wather drop on my knees; I wish you felt it, my darlin’ Puddock. I was scalded in half a crack from a fut above my knees down to the last joint of my two big toes; and I raly thought my sinses were leving me. I lost the ball by it. Oh, ho, wirresthrue! poor Hyacinth O’Flaherty!’ and thereupon he wept.

‘You thee, Lieutenant O’Flaherty,’ lisped Puddock, growing impatient, ‘we can’t say how soon Mr. Nutter’s friend may apply for an interview, and — a — I must confeth I don’t yet quite understand the point of difference between you and him, and therefore —’

‘A where the devil’s that blackguard little French wazel gone to?’ exclaimed O’Flaherty, for the first time perceiving that his captive had escaped. ‘Kokang Modate! Do you hear me, Kokang Modate!’ he shouted.

‘But really, Sir, you must be so good as to place before me, before me, Sir, clearly, the — the cause of this unhappy dispute, the exact offenth, Thir, for otherwithe —’

‘Cause, to be sure! and plenty iv cause. I never fought a jewel yet, Puddock, my friend — and this will be the ninth — without cause. They said, I’m tould, in Cork, I was quarrelsome; they lied; I’m not quarrelsome; I only want pace, and quiet, and justice; I hate a quarrelsome man. I tell you, Puddock, if I only knew where to find a quarrelsome man, be the powers I’d go fifty miles out of my way to pull him be the nose. They lied, Puddock, my dear boy, an’ I’d give twenty pounds this minute I had them on this flure, to tell them how damnably they lied!’

‘No doubt, Thir,’ said Puddock, ‘but if you pleathe I really mutht have a dithtinct answer to my —’

‘Get out o’ that, Sorr,’ thundered O’Flaherty, with an awful stamp on the floor, as the ‘coquin maudit,’ O’Flaherty’s only bit of French, such as it was, in obedience to that form of invocation, appeared nervously at the threshold, ‘or I’ll fling the contints of the r-r-oo-oo-oom at your head, (exit Monsieur, again). Be gannies! if I thought it was he that done it, I’d jirk his old bones through the top of the window. Will I call him back and give him his desarts, will I, Puddock! Oh, ho, hone! my darlin’ Puddock, everything turns agin me; what’ll I do, Puddock, jewel, or what’s to become o’ me?’ and he shed some more tears, and drank off the greater part of the beverage which he had prepared for Puddock.

‘I believe, Sir, that this is the sixth time I’ve ventured to ask a distinct statement from your lips, of the cauthe of your dithagreement with Mr. Nutter, which I plainly tell you, Thir, I don’t at prethent underthtand, said Puddock, loftily and firmly enough.

‘To be sure, my darlin’ Puddock,’ replied O’Flaherty, ‘it was that cursed little French whipper-snapper, with his monkeyfied intherruptions; be the powers, Puddock, if you knew half the mischief that same little baste has got me into, you would not wondher if I murthered him. It was he was the cause of my jewel with my cousin, Art Considine, and I wanting to be the very pink of politeness to him. I wrote him a note when he came to Athlone, afther two years in France, and jist out o’ compliment to him, I unluckily put in a word of French: come an’ dine, says I, and we’ll have a dish of chat. I knew u-n p-l-a-t (spelling it), was a dish, an’ says I to Jerome, that pigimy (so he pronounced it) you seen here at the door, that’s his damnable name, what’s chat in French — c-h-a-t — spelling it to him; “sha,” says he; “sha?” says I, “spell it, if you plase,” says I; “c-h-a-t,” says he, the stupid old viper. Well, I took the trouble to write it out, “un plat de chat;” “is that right?” says I, showing it to him. “It is, my lord,” says he, looking at me as if I had two heads. I never knew the manin’ of it for more than a month afther I shot poor Art through the two calves. An’ he that fought two jewels before, all about cats, one of them with a Scotch gentleman that he gave the lie to, for saying that French cooks had a way of stewing cats you could not tell them from hares; and the other immadiately afther, with Lieutenant Rugge, of the Royal Navy, that got one stewed for fun, and afther my Cousin Art dined off it, like a man, showed him the tail and the claws. It’s well he did not die of it, and no wondher he resented my invitation, though upon my honour, as a soldier and a gentleman, may I be stewed alive myself in a pot, Puddock my dear, if I had the laste notion of offering him the smallest affront!’

‘I begin to despair, Sir,’ exclaimed Puddock, ‘of receiving the information without which ’tis vain for me to try to be useful to you; once more, may I entreat to know what is the affront of which you complain?’

‘You don’t know; raly and truly now, you don’t know?’ said O’Flaherty, fixing a solemn tipsy leer on him.

‘I tell you no, Thir,’ rejoined Puddock.

‘And do you mean to tell me you did not hear that vulgar dog Nutter’s unmanly jokes?’

‘Jokes!’ repeated Puddock, in large perplexity, ‘why I’ve been here in this town for more than five years, and I never heard in all that time that Nutter once made a joke — and upon my life, I don’t think he could make a joke, Sir, if he tried — I don’t, indeed, Lieutenant O’Flaherty, upon my honour!’

And rat it, Sir, how can I help it?’ cried O’Flaherty, relapsing into pathos.

‘Help what?’ demanded Puddock.

O’Flaherty took him by the hand, and gazing on his face with a maudlin, lacklustre tenderness, said:—

‘Absalom was caught by the hair of his head — he was, Puddock — long hair or short hair, or (a hiccough) no hair at all, isn’t it nature’s doing, I ask you my darlin’ Puddock, isn’t it?’ He was shedding tears again very fast. ‘There was Cicero and Julius Cæsar, wor both as bald as that,’ and he thrust a shining sugar basin, bottom upward, into Puddock’s face. ‘I’m not bald; I tell you I’m not — no, my darlin’ Puddock, I’m not — poor Hyacinth O’Flaherty is not bald,’ shaking Puddock by both hands.

‘That’s very plain, Sir, but I don’t see your drift,’ he replied.

‘I want to tell you, Puddock, dear, if you’ll only have a minute’s patience. The door can’t fasten, divil bother it; come into the next room;’ and toppling a little in his walk, he led him solemnly into his bed-room — the door of which he locked — somewhat to Puddock’s disquietude, who began to think him insane. Here having informed Puddock that Nutter was driving at the one point the whole evening, as any one that knew the secret would have seen; and having solemnly imposed the seal of secrecy upon his second, and essayed a wild and broken discourse upon the difference between total baldness and partial loss of hair, he disclosed to him the grand mystery of his existence, by lifting from the summit of his head a circular piece of wig, which in those days they called I believe, a ‘topping,’ leaving a bare shining disc exposed, about the size of a large pat of butter.

‘Upon my life, Thir, it’th a very fine piethe of work,’ says Puddock, who viewed the wiglet with the eye of a stage-property man, and held it by a top lock near the candle. ‘The very finetht piethe of work of the kind I ever thaw. ‘Tith thertainly French. Oh, yeth — we can’t do such thingth here. By Jove, Thir, what a wig that man would make for Cato!’

‘An’ he must be a mane crature — I say, a mane crature,’ pursued O’Flaherty, ‘for there was not a soul in the town but Jerome, the — the treacherous ape, that knew it. It’s he that dhresses my head every morning behind the bed-curtain there, with the door locked. And Nutter could never have found it out — who was to tell him, unless that ojus French damon, that’s never done talkin’ about it;’ and O’Flaherty strode heavily up and down the room with his hands in his breeches’ pockets, muttering savage invectives, pitching his head from side to side, and whisking round at the turns in a way to show how strongly he was wrought upon.

‘Come in, Sorr!’ thundered O’Flaherty, unlocking the door, in reply to a knock, and expecting to see his ‘ojus French damon.’ But it was a tall fattish stranger, rather flashily dressed, but a little soiled, with a black wig, and a rollicking red face, showing a good deal of chin and jaw.

O’Flaherty made his grandest bow, quite forgetting the exposure at the top of his head; and Puddock stood rather shocked, with the candle in one hand and O’Flaherty’s scalp in the other.

‘You come, Sir, I presume, from Mr. Nutter,’ said O’Flaherty, with lofty courtesy. This, Sir, is my friend, Lieutenant Puddock of the Royal Irish Artillery, who does me the honour to support me with his advice and —’

As he moved his hand towards Puddock, he saw his scalp dangling between that gentleman’s finger and thumb, and became suddenly mute. He clapped his hand upon his bare skull, and made an agitated pluck at that article, but missed, and disappeared, with an imprecation in Irish, behind the bed curtains.

‘If you will be so obliging, Sir, as to precede me into that room,’ lisped Puddock, with grave dignity, and waving O’Flaherty’s scalp slightly towards the door — for Puddock never stooped to hide anything, and being a gentleman, pure and simple, was not ashamed or afraid to avow his deeds, words, and situations; ‘I shall do myself the honour to follow.’

‘Gi’ me that,’ was heard in a vehement whisper from behind the curtains. Puddock understood it, and restored the treasure.

The secret conference in the drawing-room was not tedious, nor indeed very secret, for anyone acquainted with the diplomatic slang in which such affairs were conducted might have learned in the lobby, or indeed in the hall, so mighty was the voice of the stranger, that there was no chance of any settlement without a meeting which was fixed to take place at twelve o’clock next day on the Fifteen Acres.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49