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

Chapter 18

Relating How the Gentlemen Sat Over Their Claret, and How Dr. Sturk Saw a Face.

Puddock drove up the avenue of gentlemanlike old poplars, and over the little bridge, and under the high-arched bowers of elms, walled up at either side with evergreens, and so into the court-yard of Belmont. Three sides of a parellelogram, the white old house being the largest, and offices white and in keeping, but overgrown with ivy, and opening to yards of their own on the other sides, facing one another at the flanks, and in front a straight Dutch-like moat, with a stone balustrade running all along from the garden to the bridge, with great stone flower pots set at intervals, the shrubs and flowers of which associated themselves in his thoughts with beautiful Gertrude Chattesworth, and so were wonderfully bright and fragrant. And there were two swans upon the water, and several peacocks marching dandily in the court-yard; and a grand old Irish dog, with a great collar, and a Celtic inscription, dreaming on the steps in the evening sun.

It was always pleasant to dine at Belmont. Old General Chattesworth was so genuinely hospitable and so really glad to see you, and so hilarious himself, and so enjoying. A sage or a scholar, perhaps, might not have found a great deal in him. Most of his stories had been heard before. Some of them, I am led to believe, had even been printed. But they were not very long, and he had a good natured word and a cordial smile for everybody; and he had a good cook, and explained his dishes to those beside him, and used sometimes to toddle out himself to the cellar in search of a curious bon-bouche; and of nearly every bin in it he had a little anecdote or a pedigree to relate. And his laugh was frequent and hearty, and somehow the room and all in it felt the influence of his presence like the glow, and cheer, and crackle of a bright Christmas fire.

Miss Becky Chattesworth, very stately in a fine brocade, and a great deal of point lace, received Puddock very loftily, and only touched his hand with the tips of her fingers. It was plain he was not yet taken into favour. When he entered the drawing-room, that handsome stranger, with the large eyes, so wonderfully elegant and easy in the puce-coloured cut velvet — Mr. Mervyn — was leaning upon the high back of a chair, and talking agreeably, as it seemed, to Miss Gertrude. He had a shake of the hand and a fashionable greeting from stout, dandified Captain Cluffe, who was by no means so young as he would be supposed, and made up industriously and braced what he called his waist, with great fortitude, and indeed sometimes looked half-stifled, in spite of his smile and his swagger. Sturk, leaning at the window with his shoulders to the wall, beckoned Puddock gruffly, and cross-examined him in an undertone as to the issue of O’Flaherty’s case. Of course he knew all about the duel, but the corps also knew that Sturk would not attend on the ground in any affair where the Royal Irish Artillery were concerned, and therefore they could bring what doctor they pleased to the field without an affront.

‘And see, my buck,’ said Sturk, winding up rather savagely with a sneer; ‘you’ve got out of that scrape, you and your patient, by a piece of good luck that’s not like to happen twice over; so take my advice, and cut that leaf out of your — your — grandmother’s cookery book, and light your pipe with it.’

This slight way of treating both his book and his ancestors nettled little Puddock — who never himself took a liberty, and expected similar treatment — but he knew Sturk, the nature of the beast, and he only bowed grandly, and went to pay his respects to cowed, kindly, querulous little Mrs. Sturk, at the other end of the room. An elderly gentleman, with a rather white face, a high forehead and grim look, was chatting briskly with her; and Puddock, the moment his eye lighted on the stranger, felt that there was something remarkable about him. Taken in detail, indeed, he was insignificant. He was dressed as quietly as the style of that day would allow, yet in his toilet, there was entire ease and even a latent air of fashion. He wore his own hair; and though there was a little powder upon it and upon his coat collar, it was perfectly white, frizzed out a little at the sides, and gathered into a bag behind. The stranger rose and bowed as Puddock approached the lady, and the lieutenant had a nearer view of his great white forehead — his only good feature — and the pair of silver spectacles that glimmered under it, and his small hooked nose and stern mouth.

‘’Tis a mean countenance,’ said the general, talking him over when the company had dispersed.

‘No countenance,’ said Miss Becky decisively, ‘could be mean with such a forehead.’

The fact is — if they had cared to analyse — the features, taken separately, with that one exception, were insignificant; but the face was singular, with its strange pallor, its intellectual mastery, and sarcastic decision.

The general, who had accidentally omitted the ceremony — in those days essential — now strutted up to introduce them.

‘Mr. Dangerfield, will you permit me to present my good friend and officer Lieutenant Puddock. Lieutenant Puddock, Mr Dangerfield — Mr. Dangerfield, Lieutenant Puddock.’

And there was a great deal of pretty bowing, and each was the other’s ‘most obedient,’ and declared himself honoured; and the conventional parenthesis ended, things returned to their former course.

Puddock only perceived that Mrs. Sturk was giving Dangerfield a rambling sort of account of the people of Chapelizod. Dangerfield, to do him justice, listened attentively. In fact, he had led her upon that particular theme, and as easily and cleverly kept her close to the subject. For he was not a general to manoeuvre without knowing first how the ground lay, and had an active, enquiring mind, in which he made all sorts of little notes.

So Mrs. Sturk prattled on, to her own and Mr. Dangerfield’s content, for she was garrulous when not under the eye of her lord, and always gentle, though given to lamentation, having commonly many small hardships to mention. So, quite without malice or retention, she poured out the gossip of the town, but not its scandal. Indeed, she was a very harmless, and rather sweet, though dolorous little body, and was very fond of children, especially her own, who would have been ruined were it not that they quailed as much as she did before Sturk, on whom she looked as by far the cleverest and most awful mortal then extant, and never doubted that the world thought so too. For the rest, she preserved her dresses, which were not amiss, for an interminable time, her sheets were always well aired, her maids often saucy, and she often in tears, but Sturk’s lace and fine-linen were always forthcoming in exemplary order; she rehearsed the catechism with the children, and loved Dr. Walsingham heartily, and made more raspberry jam than any other woman of her means in Chapelizod, except, perhaps, Mrs. Nutter, between whom and herself there were points of resemblance, but something as nearly a feud as could subsist between their harmless natures. Each believed the other matched with a bold bad man, who was always scheming something — they never quite understood what — against her own peerless lord; each on seeing the other, hoping that Heaven would defend the right and change the hearts of her enemies, or, at all events confound their politics; and each, with a sort of awful second-sight, when they viewed one another across the street, beholding her neighbour draped in a dark film of thunder-cloud, and with a sheaf of pale lightning, instead of a fan flickering in her hand.

When they came down to dinner, the gallant Captain Cluffe contrived to seat himself beside Aunt Becky, to whom the rogue commended himself by making a corner on his chair, next hers, for that odious greedy little brute ‘Fancy,’ and by a hundred other adroit and amiable attentions. And having a perfect acquaintance with all her weak points — as everybody had who lived long in Chapelizod — he had no difficulty in finding topics to interest her, and in conversing acceptably thereupon. And, indeed, whenever he was mentioned for some time after, she used to remark, that Captain Cluffe was a very conversable and worthy young (!) man.

In truth, that dinner went swiftly and pleasantly over for many of the guests. Gertrude Chattesworth was placed between the enamoured Puddock and the large-eyed, handsome, mysterious Mervyn. Of course, the hour flew with light and roseate wings for him. Little Puddock was in great force, and chatted with energy, and his theatrical lore, and his oddities, made him not unamusing. So she smiled on him more than usual, to make amends for the frowns of the higher powers, and he was as happy as a prince and as proud as a peacock, and quite tipsy with his success.

It is not always easy to know what young ladies like best or least, or quite what they are driving at; and Cluffe, from the other side of the table, thought, though Puddock was an agreeable fellow, and exerting himself uncommonly (for Cluffe, like other men not deep in the literæ humaniores, had a sort of veneration for ‘book learning,’ under which category he placed Puddock’s endless odds and ends of play lore, and viewed the little lieutenant himself accordingly with some awe as a man of parts and a scholar, and prodigiously admired his verses, which he only half understood); he fancied, I say, although Puddock was unusually entertaining, that Miss Gertrude would have been well content to exchange him for the wooden lay-figure on which she hung her draperies when she sketched, which might have worn his uniform and filled his chair, and spared her his agreeable conversation, and which had eyes and saw not, and ears and heard not.

In short, the cunning fellow fancied he saw, by many small signs, a very decided preference on her part for the handsome and melancholy, but evidently eloquent stranger. Like other cunning fellows, however, Cluffe was not always right; and right or wrong, in his own illusions, if such they were, little Puddock was, for the time, substantially blessed.

The plump and happy lieutenant, when the ladies had flown away to the drawing-room and their small tea-cups, waxed silent and sentimental, but being a generous rival, and feeling that he could afford it, made a little effort, and engaged Mervyn in talk, and found him pleasantly versed in many things of which he knew little, and especially in the Continental stage and drama, upon which Puddock heard him greedily; and the general’s bustling talk helped to keep the company merry, and he treated them to a bottle of the identical sack of which his own father’s wedding posset had been compounded! Dangerfield, in a rather harsh voice, but agreeably and intelligently withal, told some rather pleasant stories about old wines and curious wine fanciers; and Cluffe and Puddock, who often sang together, being called on by the general, chanted a duet rather prettily, though neither, separately, had much of a voice. And the incorrigible Puddock, apropos of a piece of a whale once eaten by Dangerfield, after his wont, related a wonderful receipt —‘a weaver surprised.’ The weaver turned out to be a fish, and the ‘surprising’ was the popping him out of ice into boiling water, with after details, which made the old general shake and laugh till tears bedewed his honest cheeks. And Mervyn and Dangerfield, as much surprised as the weaver, both looked, each in his own way, a little curiously at the young warrior who possessed this remarkable knowledge.

And the claret, like the general’s other wines, was very good, and Dangerfield said a stern word or two in its praise, and guessed its vintage, to his host’s great elation, who, with Lord Castlemallard, began to think Dangerfield a very wonderful man.

Dr. Sturk alone sipped his claret silently; looking thoughtfully a good deal at Dangerfield over the way, and when spoken to, seemed to waken up, but dropped out of the conversation again; though this was odd, for he had intended giving Dangerfield a bit of his mind as to what might be made of the Castlemallard estates, and by implication letting in some light upon Nutter’s mismanagement.

When Dr. Sturk had come into the drawing-room before dinner, Dangerfield was turning over a portfolio in the shade beyond the window, and the evening sun was shining strongly in his own face; so that during the ceremony of introduction he had seen next to nothing of him, and then sauntered away to the bow window at the other end, where the ladies were assembled, to make his obeisance.

But at the dinner-table, he was placed directly opposite, with the advantage of a very distinct view; and the face, relieved against the dark stamped leather hangings on the wall, stood out like a sharply-painted portrait, and produced an odd and unpleasant effect upon Sturk, who could not help puzzling himself then, and for a long time after, with unavailing speculations about him.

The grim white man opposite did not appear to trouble his head about Sturk. He eat his dinner energetically, chatted laconically, but rather pleasantly. Sturk thought he might be eight-and-forty, or perhaps six or seven-and-fifty — it was a face without a date. He went over all his points, insignificant features, high forehead, stern countenance, abruptly silent, abruptly speaking, spectacles, harsh voice, harsher laugh, something sinister perhaps, and used for the most part when the joking or the story had a flavour of the sarcastic and the devilish. The image, as a whole, seemed to Sturk to fill in the outlines of a recollection, which yet was not a recollection. He could not seize it; it was a decidedly unpleasant impression of having seen him before, but where he could not bring to mind. ‘He got me into some confounded trouble some time or other,’ thought Sturk, in his uneasy dream; ‘the sight of him is like a thump in my stomach. Was he the sheriff’s deputy at Chester, when that rascally Jew-tailor followed me? Dangerfield — Dangerfield — Dangerfield — no; or could it be that row at Taunton? or the custom-house officer — let me see — 1751; no, he was a taller man — yes, I remember him; it is not he. Or was he at Dick Luscome’s duel?’ and he lay awake half the night thinking of him; for he was not only a puzzle, but there was a sort of suspicion of danger and he knew not what, throbbing in his soul whenever his reverie conjured up that impenetrable, white scoffing face.

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