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

Chapter 16

The Ordeal by Battle.

The chronicles of the small-sword and pistol are pregnant with horrid and absurd illustrations of certain great moral facts. Let them pass. A duel, we all know, spirit of ‘Punch and Judy’— a farce of murder. Sterne’s gallant father expired, or near it, with the point of a small-sword sticking out two feet between his shoulders, all about a goose-pie. I often wondered what the precise quarrel was. But these tragedies smell all over of goose-pie. Why — oh, why — brave Captain Sterne, as with saucy, flashing knife and fork you sported with the outworks of that fated structure, was there no augur at thine elbow, with a shake of his wintry beard, to warn thee that the birds of fate — thy fate — sat vigilant under that festive mask of crust? Beware, it is Pandora’s pie! Madman! hold thy hand! The knife’s point that seems to thee about to glide through that pasty is palpably levelled at thine own windpipe! But this time Mephistopheles leaves the revellers to use their own cutlery; and now the pie is opened; and now the birds begin to sing! Come along, then to the Fifteen Acres, and let us see what will come of it all.

That flanking demi-bastion of the Magazine, crenelled for musketry, commands, with the aid of a couple of good field-glasses, an excellent and secret view of the arena on which the redoubted O’Flaherty and the grim Nutter were about to put their metal to the proof. General Chattesworth, who happened to have an appointment, as he told his sister at breakfast, in town about that hour, forgot it just as he reached the Magazine, gave his bridle to the groom, and stumped into the fortress, where he had a biscuit and a glass of sherry in the commandant’s little parlour, and forth the two cronies sallied mysteriously side by side; the commandant, Colonel Bligh, being remarkably tall, slim, and straight, with an austere, mulberry-coloured face; the general stout and stumpy, and smiling plentifully, short of breath, and double chinned, they got into the sanctum I have just mentioned.

I don’t apologise to my readers, English-born and bred, for assuming them to be acquainted with the chief features of the ‘Phoenix Park, near Dublin. Irish scenery is now as accessible as Welsh. Let them study the old problem, not in blue books, but in the green and brown ones of our fields and heaths, and mountains. If Ireland be no more than a great capability and a beautiful landscape, faintly visible in the blue haze, even from your own headlands, and separated by hardly four hours of water, and a ten-shilling fare, from your jetties, it is your own shame, not ours, if a nation of bold speculators and indefatigable tourists leave it unexplored.

So I say, from this coigne of vantage, looking westward over the broad green level toward the thin smoke that rose from Chapelizod chimneys, lying so snugly in the lap of the hollow by the river, the famous Fifteen Acres, where so many heroes have measured swords, and so many bullies have bit the dust, was distinctly displayed in the near foreground. You all know the artillery butt. Well, that was the centre of a circular enclosure containing just fifteen acres, with broad entrances eastward and westward.

The old fellows knew very well where to look.

Father Roach was quite accidentally there, reading his breviary when the hostile parties came upon the ground — for except when an accident of this sort occurred, or the troops were being drilled, it was a sequestered spot enough — and he forthwith joined them, as usual, to reconcile the dread debate.

Somehow, I think his arguments were not altogether judicious.

‘I don’t ask particulars, my dear — I abominate all that concerns a quarrel; but Lieutenant O’Flaherty, jewel, supposin’ the very worst — supposin’, just for argument, that he has horse-whipped you ——.’

‘An’ who dar’ suppose it?’ glared O’Flaherty.

‘Or, we’ll take it that he spit in your face, honey. Well,’ continued his reverence, not choosing to hear the shocking ejaculations which this hypothesis wrung from the lieutenant; ‘what of that, my darlin’? Think of the indignities, insults, and disgraces that the blessed Saint Martellus suffered, without allowing, anything worse to cross his lips than an Ave Mary or a smile in resignation.’

‘Ordher the priest off the ground, Sorr,’ said O’Flaherty, lividly, to little Puddock, who was too busy with Mr. Mahony to hear him; and Roach had already transferred his pious offices to Nutter, who speedily flushed up and became, to all appearances, in his own way just as angry as O’Flaherty.

‘Lieutenant O’Flaherty, a word in your ear,’ once more droned the mellow voice of Father Roach; ‘you’re a young man, my dear, and here’s Lieutenant Puddock by your side, a young man too; I’m as ould, my honeys, as the two of you put together, an’ I advise you, for your good — don’t shed human blood — don’t even draw your swords — don’t, my darlins; don’t be led or said by them army-gentlemen, that’s always standin’ up for fightin’ because the leedies admire fightin’ men. They’ll call you cowards, polthroons, curs, sneaks, turn-tails — let them!’

‘There’s no standin’ this any longer, Puddock,’ said O’Flaherty, incensed indescribably by the odious names which his reverence was hypothetically accumulating; ‘if you want to see the fightin’, Father Roach ——.’

‘Apage, Sathanas!’ murmured his reverence, pettishly, raising his plump, blue chin, and dropping his eyelids with a shake of the head, and waving the back of his fat, red hand gently towards the speaker.

‘In that case, stay here, an’ look your full, an’ welcome, only don’t make a noise; behave like a Christian, an’ hould your tongue; but if you really hate fightin’, as you say ——’

Having reached this point in his address, but intending a good deal more, O’Flaherty suddenly stopped short, drew himself into a stooping posture, with a flush and a strange distortion, and his eyes fastened upon Father Roach with an unearthly glare for nearly two minutes, and seized Puddock upon the upper part of his arm with so awful a grip, in his great bony hand, that the gallant little gentleman piped out in a flurry of anguish —

‘O— O— O’Flaherty, Thir — let go my arm, Thir.’

O’Flaherty drew a long breath, uttered a short, deep groan, and wiping the moisture from his red forehead, and resuming a perpendicular position, was evidently trying to recover the lost thread of his discourse.

‘There’th dethidedly thomething the matter with you, Thir,’ said Puddock, anxiously, sotto voce, while he worked his injured arm’s a little at the shoulder.

‘You may say that,’ said O’Flaherty, very dismally, and, perhaps, a little bitterly.

‘And — and — and — you don’t mean to thay — why — eh?’ asked Puddock, uneasily.

‘I tell you what, Puddock — there’s no use in purtendin’— the poison’s working — that’s what’s the matter,’ returned poor O’Flaherty, in what romance writers call ‘a hissing whisper.’

‘Good — merthiful — graciouth — Thir!’ ejaculated poor little Puddock, in a panic, and gazing up into the brawny fireworker’s face with a pallid fascination; indeed they both looked unpleasantly unlike the popular conception of heroes on the eve of battle.

‘But — but it can’t be-you forget Dr. Sturk and — oh, dear! — the antidote. It — I thay — it can’t be, Thir,’ said Puddock, rapidly.

‘It’s no use, now; but I shirked two or three spoonfuls, and I left some more in the bottom,’ said the gigantic O’Flaherty, with a gloomy sheepishness.

Puddock made an ejaculation — the only violent one recorded of him — and turning his back briskly upon his principal, actually walked several steps away, as if he intended to cut the whole concern. But such a measure was really not to be thought of.

‘O’Flaherty — Lieutenant — I won’t reproach you,’ began Puddock.

Reproach me! an’ who poisoned me, my tight little fellow?’ retorted the fireworker, savagely.

Puddock could only look at him, and then said, quite meekly —

‘Well, and my dear Thir, what on earth had we better do?’

‘Do,’ said O’Flaherty, ‘why isn’t it completely Hobson’s choice with us? What can we do but go through with it?’

The fact is, I may as well mention, lest the sensitive reader should be concerned for the gallant O’Flaherty, that the poison had very little to do with it, and the antidote a great deal. In fact, it was a reckless compound conceived in a cynical and angry spirit by Sturk, and as the fireworker afterwards declared, while expressing in excited language his wonder how Puddock (for he never suspected Sturk’s elixir) had contrived to compound such a poison —‘The torture was such, my dear Madam, as fairly thranslated me into the purlieus of the other world.’

Nutter had already put off his coat and waistcoat, and appeared in a neat little black lutestring vest, with sleeves to it, which the elder officers of the R.I.A. remembered well in by-gone fencing matches.

’Tis a most miserable situation,’ said Puddock, in extreme distress.

‘Never mind,’ groaned O’Flaherty, grimly taking off his coat; ‘you’ll have two corpses to carry home with you; don’t you show the laste taste iv unaisiness, an’ I’ll not disgrace you, if I’m spared to see it out.’

And now preliminaries were quite adjusted; and Nutter, light and wiry, a good swordsman, though not young, stepped out with his vicious weapon in hand, and his eyes looking white and stony out of his dark face. A word or two to his armour-bearer, and a rapid gesture, right and left, and that magnificent squire spoke low to two or three of the surrounding officers, who forthwith bestirred themselves to keep back the crowd, and as it were to keep the ring unbroken. O’Flaherty took his sword, got his hand well into the hilt, poised the blade, shook himself up as it were, and made a feint or two and a parry in the air, and so began to advance, like Goliath, towards little Nutter.

‘Now, Puddock, back him up — encourage your man,’ said Devereux, who took a perverse pleasure in joking; ‘tell him to flay the lump, splat him, divide him, and cut him in two pieces ——.

It was a custom of the corps to quiz Puddock about his cookery; but Puddock, I suppose, did not hear his last night’s ‘receipt’ quoted, and he kept his eye upon his man, who had now got nearly within fencing distance of his adversary. But at this critical moment, O’Flaherty, much to Puddock’s disgust, suddenly stopped, and got into the old stooping posture, making an appalling grimace in what looked like an endeavour to swallow, not only his under lip, but his chin also. Uttering a quivering, groan, he continued to stoop nearer to the earth, on which he finally actually sat down and hugged his knees close to his chest, holding his breath all the time till he was perfectly purple, and rocking himself this way and that.

The whole procedure was a mystery to everybody except the guilty Puddock, who changed colour, and in manifest perturbation, skipped to his side.

‘Bleth me — bleth me — my dear O’Flaherty, he’th very ill — where ith the pain?’

‘Is it “farced pain,” Puddock, or “gammon pain?”’ asked Devereux, with much concern.

Puddock’s plump panic-stricken little face, and staring eye-balls, were approached close to the writhing features of his redoubted principal — as I think I have seen honest Sancho Panza’s, in one of Tony Johannot’s sketches, to that of the prostrate Knight of the Rueful Countenance.

‘I wish to Heaven I had thwallowed it myself — it’th dreadful — what ith to be-are you eathier — I think you’re eathier.’

I don’t think O’Flaherty heard him. He only hugged his knees tighter, and slowly turned up his face, wrung into ten thousand horrid puckers, to the sky, till his chin stood as high as his forehead, with his teeth and eyes shut, and he uttered a sound like a half-stifled screech; and, indeed, looked very black and horrible.

Some of the spectators, rear-rank men, having but an imperfect view of the transaction, thought that O’Flaherty had been hideously run through the body by his solemn opponent, and swelled the general chorus of counsel and ejaculation, by all together advising cobwebs, brown-paper plugs, clergymen, brandy, and the like; but as none of these comforts were at hand, and nobody stirred, O’Flaherty was left to the resources of Nature.

Puddock threw his cocked hat upon the ground and stamped in a momentary frenzy.

‘He’th dying — Devereux — Cluffe — he’th — I tell you, he’th dying;’ and he was on the point of declaring himself O’Flaherty’s murderer, and surrendering himself as such into the hands of anybody who would accept the custody of his person, when the recollection of his official position as poor O’Flaherty’s second flashed upon him, and collecting with a grand effort, his wits and his graces —

‘It’th totally impothible, gentlemen,’ he said, with his most ceremonious bow; ‘conthidering the awful condition of my printhipal — I— I have reathon to fear — in fact I know — Dr. Thturk has theen him — that he’th under the action of poithon — and it’th quite impractithable, gentlemen, that thith affair of honour can protheed at prethent;’ and Puddock drew himself up peremptorily, and replaced his hat, which somebody had slipped into his hand, upon his round powdered head.

Mr. Mahony, though a magnificent gentleman, was, perhaps, a little stupid, and he mistook Puddock’s agitation, and thought he was in a passion, and disposed to be offensive. He, therefore, with a marked and stern sort of elegance, replied —

Pison, Sir, is a remarkably strong alpathet; it’s language, Sir, which, if a gentleman uses at all, he’s bound in justice, in shivalry, and in dacency to a generous adversary, to define with precision. Mr. Nutter is too well known to the best o’society, moving in a circle as he does, to require the panegyric of humble me. They drank together last night, they differed in opinion, that’s true, but fourteen clear hours has expired, and pison being mentioned ——’

‘Why, body o’ me! Sir,’ lisped Puddock, in fierce horror; ‘can you imagine for one moment, Sir, that I or any man living could suppose for an instant, that my respected friend, Mr. Nutter, to whom (a low bow to Nutter, returned by that gentleman) I have now the misfortune to be opposed, is capable — capable, Sir, of poisoning any living being — man, woman, or child; and to put an end, Sir, at once to all misapprehension upon this point, it was I— I, Sir — myself — who poisoned him, altogether accidentally, of course, by a valuable, but mismanaged receipt, this morning, Sir — you — you see, Mr. Nutter!’

Nutter, balked of his gentlemanlike satisfaction, stared with a horrified but somewhat foolish countenance from Puddock to O’Flaherty.

‘And now, Thir,’ pursued Puddock, addressing himself to Mr. Mahony, ‘if Mr. Nutter desires to postpone the combat, I consent; if not, I offer mythelf to maintain it inthead of my printhipal.’

And so he made another low bow, and stood bareheaded, hat in hand, with his right hand on his sword hilt.

‘Upon my honour, Captain Puddock, it’s precisely what I was going to propose myself, Sir,’ said Mahony, with great alacrity; ‘as the only way left us of getting honourably out of the great embarrassment in which we are placed by the premature death-struggles of your friend; for nothing, Mr. Puddock, but being bonâ fide in articulo mortis, can palliate his conduct.’

‘My dear Puddock,’ whispered Devereux, in his ear, ‘surely you would not kill Nutter to oblige two such brutes as these?’ indicating by a glance Nutter’s splendid second and the magnanimous O’Flaherty, who was still sitting speechless upon the ground.

‘Captain Puddock,’ pursued that mirror of courtesy, Mr. Patrick Mahony, of Muckafubble, who, by-the-bye, persisted in giving him his captaincy, may I enquire who’s your friend upon this unexpected turn of affairs?’

‘There’s no need, Sir,’ said Nutter, dryly and stoutly, ‘I would not hurt a hair of your head, Lieutenant Puddock.’

‘Do you hear him?’ panted O’Flaherty, for the first time articulate, and stung by the unfortunate phrase — it seemed fated that Nutter should not open his lips without making some allusion to human hair: ‘do you hear him, Puddock? Mr. Nutter —(he spoke with great difficulty, and in jerks)— Sir — Mr. Nutter — you shall — ugh — you shall render a strict accow-ow-oh-imm-m!’

The sound was smothered under his compressed lips, his face wrung itself again crimson with a hideous squeeze, and Puddock thought the moment of his dissolution was come, and almost wished it over.

‘Don’t try to speak — pray, Sir, don’t — there — there, now,’ urged Puddock, distractedly; but the injunction was unnecessary.

‘Mr. Nutter,’ said his second sulkily, ‘I don’t see anything to satisfy your outraged honour in the curious spectacle of that gentleman sitting on the ground making faces; we came here not to trifle, but, as I conceive, to dispatch business, Sir.’

‘To dispatch that unfortunate gentleman, you mean, and that seems pretty well done to your hand,’ said little Dr. Toole, bustling up from the coach where his instruments, lint, and plasters were deposited. ‘What’s it all, eh? — oh, Dr. Sturk’s been with him, eh? Oh, ho, ho, ho!’ and he laughed sarcastically, in an undertone, and shrugged, as he stooped down and took O’Flaherty’s pulse in his fingers and thumb.

‘I tell you what, Mr. a — a — a — Sir,’ said Nutter, with a very dangerous look; ‘I have had the honour of knowing Lieutenant Puddock since August, 1756; I won’t hurt him, for I like and respect him; but, if fight I must, I’ll fight you, Sir!’

‘Since August, 1756?’ repeated Mr. Mahony, with prompt surprise. ‘Pooh! why didn’t you mention that before? Why, Sir, he’s an old friend, and you could not pleasantly ask him to volunteer to bare his waypon against the boosom of his friend. No, Sir, shivalry is the handmaid of Christian charity, and honour walks hand in hand with the human heart!’

With this noble sentiment he bowed and shook Nutter’s cold, hard hand, and then Puddock’s plump little white paw.

You are not to suppose that Pat Mahoney, of Muckafubble, was a poltroon; on the contrary, he had fought several shocking duels, and displayed a remarkable amount of savagery and coolness; but having made a character, he was satisfied therewith. They may talk of fighting for the fun of it, liking it, delighting in it; don’t believe a word of it. We all hate it, and the hero is only he who hates it least.’

‘Ugh, I can’t stand it any longer; take me out of this, some of you,’ said O’Flaherty, wiping the damp from his red face. ‘I don’t think there’s ten minutes’ life in me.’

De profundis conclamavi,’ murmured fat father Roach; ‘lean upon me, Sir.’

‘And me,’ said little Toole.

‘For the benefit of your poor soul, my honey, just say you forgive Mr. Nutter before you leave the field,’ said the priest quite sincerely.

‘Anything at all, Father Roach,’ replied the sufferer; ‘only don’t bother me.’

‘You forgive him then, aroon?’ said the priest.

‘Och, bother! forgive him, to be sure I do. That’s supposin’, mind, I don’t recover; but if I do ——.’

‘Och, pacible, pacible, my son,’ said Father Roach, patting his arm, and soothing him with his voice. It was the phrase he used to address to his nag, Brian O’Lynn, when Brian had too much oats, and was disagreeably playful. ‘Nansinse, now, can’t you be pacible — pacible my son — there now, pacible, pacible.’

Upon his two supporters, and followed by his little second, this towering sufferer was helped, and tumbled into the coach, into which Puddock, Toole, and the priest, who was curious to see O’Flaherty’s last moments, all followed; and they drove at a wild canter — for the coachman was ‘hearty’— over the green grass, and toward Chapelizod, though Toole broke the check-string without producing any effect, down the hill, quite frightfully, and were all within an ace of being capsized. But ultimately they reached, in various states of mind, but safely enough, O’Flaherty’s lodgings.

Here the gigantic invalid, who had suffered another paroxysm on the way, was slowly assisted to the ground by his awestruck and curious friends, and entered the house with a groan, and roared for Judy Carroll with a curse, and invoked Jerome, the cokang modate, with horrible vociferation. And as among the hushed exhortations of the good priest, Toole and Puddock, he mounted the stairs, he took occasion over the banister, in stentorian tones, to proclaim to the household his own awful situation, and the imminent approach of the moment of his dissolution.

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