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

Chapter 17

Lieutenant Puddock Receives an Invitation and a Rap Over the Knuckles.

The old gentlemen, from their peepholes in the Magazine, watched the progress of this remarkable affair of honour, as well as they could, with the aid of their field-glasses, and through an interposing crowd.

‘By Jupiter, Sir, he’s through him!’ said Colonel Bligh, when he saw O’Flaherty go down.

‘So he is, by George!’ replied General Chattesworth; ‘but, eh, which is he?’

‘The long fellow,’ said Bligh.

‘O’Flaherty? — hey! — no, by George! — though so it is — there’s work in Frank Nutter yet, by Jove,’ said the general, poking his glass and his fat face an inch or two nearer.

‘Quick work, general!’ said Bligh.

‘Devilish,’ replied the general.

The two worthies never moved their glasses; as each, on his inquisitive face, wore the grim, wickedish, half-smile, with which an old stager recalls, in the prowess of his juniors, the pleasant devilment of his own youth.

‘The cool, old hand, Sir, too much for your new fireworker,’ remarked Bligh, cynically.

‘Tut, Sir, this O’Flaherty has not been three weeks among us,’ spluttered out the general, who was woundily jealous of the honour of his corps. ‘There are lads among our fireworkers who would whip Nutter through the liver while you’d count ten!’

‘They’re removing the — the —(a long pause) the body, eh?’ said Bligh. ‘Hey! no, see, by George, he’s walking but he’s hurt.’

‘I’m mighty well pleased it’s no worse, Sir,’ said the general, honestly glad.

‘They’re helping him into the coach — long legs the fellow’s got,’ remarked Bligh.

‘These — things — Sir — are — are — very — un-pleasant,’ said the general, adjusting the focus of the glass, and speaking slowly — though no Spanish dandy ever relished a bull-fight more than he an affair of the kind. He and old Bligh had witnessed no less than five — not counting this — in which officers of the R.I.A. were principal performers, from the same sung post of observation. The general, indeed, was conventionally supposed to know nothing of them, and to reprobate the practice itself with his whole soul. But somehow, when an affair of the sort came off on the Fifteen Acres, he always happened to drop in, at the proper moment, upon his old crony, the colonel, and they sauntered into the demi-bastion together, and quietly saw what was to be seen. It was Miss Becky Chattesworth who involved the poor general in this hypocrisy. It was not exactly her money; it was her force of will and unflinching audacity that established her control over an easy, harmless, plastic old gentleman.

‘They are unpleasant — devilish unpleasant — somewhere in the body, I think, hey? they’re stooping again, stooping again — eh? — plaguy unpleasant, Sir (the general was thinking how Miss Becky’s tongue would wag, and what she might not even do, if O’Flaherty died). Ha! on they go again, and a — Puddock — getting in-and that’s Toole. He’s not so much hurt — eh? He helped himself a good deal, you saw; but (taking heart of grace) when a quarrel does occur, Sir, I believe, after all, ’tis better off the stomach at once — a few passes — you know — or the crack of a pistol — who’s that got in-the priest — hey? by George!’

‘Awkward if he dies a Papist,’ said cynical old Bligh — the R.I.A. were Protestant by constitution.

‘That never happens in our corps, Sir,’ said the general, haughtily; ‘but, as I say, when a quarrel — does — occur — Sir — there, they’re off at last; when it does occur — I say — heyday! what a thundering pace! a gallop, by George! that don’t look well (a pause)— and — and — a — about what you were saying — you know he couldn’t die a Papist in our corps — no one does — no one ever did — it would be, you know — it would be a trick, Sir, and O’Flaherty’s a gentleman; it could not be-(he was thinking of Miss Becky again — she was so fierce on the Gunpowder Plot, the rising of 1642, and Jesuits in general, and he went on a little flustered); but then, Sir, as I was saying, though the thing has its uses ——.’

‘I’d like to know where society’d be without it,’ interposed Bligh, with a sneer.

‘Though it may have its uses, Sir; it’s not a thing one can sit down and say is right — we can’t!’

‘I’ve heard your sister, Miss Becky, speak strongly on that point, too,‘said Bligh.

‘Ah! I dare say,’ said the general, quite innocently, an coughing a little. This was a sore point with the hen-pecked warrior, and the grim scarcecrow by his side knew it, and grinned through his telescope; ‘and you see — I say — eh! I think they’re breaking up, a — and — I say — I— it seems all over — eh — and so, dear colonel, I must take my leave, and ——.’

And after a lingering look, he shut up his glass, and walking thoughtfully back with his friend, said suddenly —

‘And, now I think of it — it could not be that — Puddock, you know, would not suffer the priest to sit in the same coach with such a design — Puddock’s a good officer, eh! and knows his duty.’

A few hours afterwards, General Chattesworth, having just dismounted outside the Artillery barracks, to his surprise, met Puddock and O’Flaherty walking leisurely in the street of Chapelizod. O’Flaherty looked pale and shaky, and rather wild; and the general returned his salute, looking deuced hard at him, and wondering all the time in what part of his body (in his phrase) ‘he had got it;’ and how the plague the doctors had put him so soon on his legs again.

‘Ha, Lieutenant Puddock,’ with a smile, which Puddock thought significant —‘give you good-evening, Sir. Dr. Toole anywhere about, or have you seen Sturk?’

‘No, he had not.’

The general wanted to hear by accident, or in confidence, all about it; and having engaged Puddock in talk, that officer followed by his side.

‘I should be glad of the honour of your company, Lieutenant Puddock, to dinner this evening — Sturk comes, and Captain Cluffe, and this wonderful Mr. Dangerfield too, of whom we all heard so much at mess, at five o’clock, if the invitation’s not too late.’

The lieutenant acknowledged and accepted, with a blush and a very low bow, his commanding officer’s hospitality; in fact, there was a tendre in the direction of Belmont, and little Puddock had inscribed in his private book many charming stanzas of various lengths and structures, in which the name of ‘Gertrude’ was of frequent recurrence.

‘And — a — I say, Puddock — Lieutenant O’Flaherty, I thought — I— I thought, d’ye see, just now, eh? (he looked inquisitively, but there was no answer); I thought, I say, he looked devilish out of sorts, is he — a — ill?’

‘He was very ill, indeed, this afternoon, general; a sudden attack ——’

The general looked quickly at Puddock’s plump, consequential face; but there was no further light in it. ‘He was hurt then, I knew it’— he thought —‘who’s attending him — and why is he out — and was it a flesh-wound — or where was it?’ all these questions silently, but vehemently, solicited an answer — and he repeated the last aloud, in a careless sort of way.

‘And — a — Lieutenant Puddock, you were saying — a — tell me — now — where was it?’

‘In the park, general,’ said Puddock, in perfect good faith.

‘Eh? ah! in the park, was it? but I want to know, you know, what part of the body — d’ye see — the shoulder — or? ——’

‘The duodenum, Dr. Toole called it — just here, general,’ and he pressed his fingers to what is vulgarly known as the ‘pit’ of his stomach.

‘What, Sir, do you mean to say the pit of his stomach?’ said the general, with more horror and indignation than he often showed.

‘Yes, just about that point, general, and the pain was very violent indeed,’ answered Puddock, looking with a puzzled stare at the general’s stern and horrified countenance — an officer might have a pain in his stomach, he thought, without exciting all that emotion. Had he heard of the poison, and did he know more of the working of such things than, perhaps, the doctors did?

‘And what in the name of Bedlam, Sir, does he mean by walking about the town with a hole through his — his what’s his name? I’m hanged but I’ll place him under arrest this moment,’ the general thundered, and his little eyes swept the perspective this way and that, as if they would leap from their sockets, in search of the reckless O’Flaherty. ‘Where’s the adjutant, Sir?’ he bellowed with a crimson scowl and a stamp, to the unoffending sentry.

‘That’s the way to make him lie quiet, and keep his bed till he heals, Sir.’

Puddock explained, and the storm subsided, rumbling off in half a dozen testy assertions on the general’s part that he, Puddock, had distinctly used the word ‘wounded,’ and now and then renewing faintly, in a muttered explosion, on the troubles and worries of his command, and a great many ‘pshaws!’ and several fits of coughing, for the general continued out of breath for some time. He had showed his cards, however, and so, in a dignified disconcerted sort of way, he told Puddock that he had heard something about O’Flaherty’s having got most improperly into a foolish quarrel, and having met Nutter that afternoon, and for a moment feared he might have been hurt; and then came enquiries about Nutter, and there appeared to have been no one hurt, and yet the parties on the ground — and no fighting — and yet no reconciliation — and, in fact, the general was so puzzled with this conundrum, and so curious, that he was very near calling after Puddock, when they parted at the bridge, and making him entertain him, at some cost of consistency, with the whole story.

So Puddock — his head full of delicious visions — marched homeward — to powder and perfume, and otherwise equip for that banquet of the gods, of which he was to partake at five o’clock, and just as he turned the corner at ‘The Phoenix,’ who should he behold, sailing down the Dublin road from the King’s House, with a grand powdered footman, bearing his cane of office, and a great bouquet behind her, and Gertrude Chattesworth by her side, but the splendid and formidable Aunt Becky, who had just been paying her compliments to old Mrs. Colonel Stafford, from whom she had heard all about the duel. So as Puddock’s fat cheeks grew pink at sight of Miss Gertrude, all Aunt Becky’s colour flushed into her face, as her keen eye pierced the unconscious lieutenant from afar off, and chin and nose high in air, her mouth just a little tucked in, as it were, at one corner — a certain sign of coming storm — an angry hectic in each cheek, a fierce flirt of her fan, and two or three short sniffs that betokened mischief — she quickened her pace, leaving her niece a good way in the rear, in her haste to engage the enemy. Before she came up she commenced the action at a long range, and very abruptly — for an effective rhetorician of Aunt Becky’s sort, jumps at once, like a good epic poet, in medias res; and as Nutter, who, like all her friends in turn, experienced once or twice ‘a taste of her quality,’ observed to his wife, ‘by Jove, that woman says things for which she ought to be put in the watch-house.’ So now and here she maintained her reputation —

‘You ought to be flogged, Sir; yes,’ she insisted, answering Puddock’s bewildered stare, ‘tied up to the halberts and flogged.’

Aunt Rebecca was accompanied by at least half a dozen lap-dogs, and those intelligent brutes, aware of his disgrace, beset poor Puddock’s legs with a furious vociferation.

‘Madam,’ said he, his ears tingling, and making a prodigious low bow; ‘commissioned officers are never flogged.’

‘So much the worse for the service, Sir; and the sooner they abolish that anomalous distinction the better. I’d have them begin, Sir, with you, and your accomplice in murder, Lieutenant O’Flaherty.’

‘Madam! your most obedient humble servant,’ said Puddock, with another bow, still more ceremonious, flushing up intensely to the very roots of his powdered hair, and feeling in his swelling heart that all the generals of all the armies of Europe dare not have held such language to him.

‘Good-evening, Sir,’ said Aunt Becky, with an energetic toss of her head, having discharged her shot; and with an averted countenance, and in high disdain, she swept grandly on, quite forgetting her niece, who said a pleasant word or two to Puddock as she passed, and smiled so kindly, and seemed so entirely unconscious of his mortification, that he was quite consoled, and on the whole was made happy and elated by the rencontre, and went home to his wash-balls and perfumes in a hopeful and radiant, though somewhat excited state.

Indeed, the little lieutenant knew that kind-hearted termagant, Aunt Becky, too well, to be long cast down or even flurried by her onset. When the same little Puddock, about a year ago, had that ugly attack of pleurisy, and was so low and so long about recovering, and so puny and fastidious in appetite, she treated him as kindly as if he were her own son, in the matter of jellies, strong soups, and curious light wines, and had afterwards lent him some good books which the little lieutenant had read through, like a man of honour as he was. And, indeed, what specially piqued Aunt Becky’s resentment just now was, that having had, about that time, a good deal of talk with Puddock upon the particular subject of duelling, he had, as she thought, taken very kindly to her way of thinking; and she had a dozen times in the last month, cited Puddock to the general; and so his public defection was highly mortifying and intolerable.

So Puddock, in a not unpleasant fuss and excitement, sat down in his dressing-gown before the glass; and while Moore the barber, with tongs, powder, and pomade, repaired the dilapidations of the day, he contemplated his own plump face, not altogether unapprovingly, and thought with a charming anticipation of the adventures of the approaching evening.

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