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

Chapter 23

Which Concerns the Grand Dinner at the King’s House, and who Were There, and Something of Their Talk, Reveries, Disputes, And General Jollity.

It was about this time that the dinner-party at the King’s House came off. Old Colonel and Mrs. Stafford were hospitable, if not very entertaining, and liked to bring their neighbours together, without ceremony, round a saddle of mutton and a gooseberry pie, and other such solid comforts; and then, hey for a round game! — for the young people, Pope Joan, or what you please, in the drawing-room, with lots of flirting and favouritism, and a jolly little supper of broiled bones and whipt cream, and toasts and sentiments, with plenty of sly allusions and honest laughter all round the table. But twice or thrice in the year the worthy couple made a more imposing gathering at the King’s House, and killed the fatted calf, and made a solemn feast to the big wigs and the notables of Chapelizod, with just such a sprinkling of youngsters as sufficed to keep alive the young people whom they brought in their train. There was eating of venison and farced turkeys, and other stately fare; and they praised the colonel’s claret, and gave the servants their ‘veils’ in the hall, and drove away in their carriages, with flambeaux and footmen, followed by the hearty good-night of the host from the hall-door steps, and amazing the quiet little town with their rattle and glare.

Dinner was a five o’clock affair in those days, and the state parlour was well filled. There was old Bligh from the Magazine — I take the guests in order of arrival — and the Chattesworths, and the Walsinghams; and old Dowager Lady Glenvarlogh — Colonel Stratford’s cousin — who flashed out in the evening sun from Dublin in thunder and dust and her carriage-and-four, bringing her mild little country niece, who watched her fat painted aunt all the time of dinner, with the corners of her frightened little eyes, across the table; and spoke sparingly, and ate with diffidence; and Captain Devereux was there; and the next beau who appeared was — of all men in the world — Mr. Mervyn! and Aunt Becky watched, and saw with satisfaction, that he and Gertrude met as formally and coldly as she could have desired. And then there was an elaborate macaroni, one of the Lord Lieutenant’s household — Mr. Beauchamp; and last, Lord Castlemallard, who liked very well to be the chief man in the room, and dozed after dinner serenely in that consciousness, and loved to lean back upon his sofa in the drawing-room, and gaze in a dozing, smiling, Turkish reverie, after Gertrude Chattesworth and pretty Lilias, whom he admired; and when either came near enough, he would take her hand and say — ‘Well, child, how do you do? — and why don’t you speak to your old friend? You charming rogue, you know I remember you no bigger than your fan. And what mischief have you been about — eh? What mischief have you been about, I say, young gentlewoman? Turning all the pretty fellows’ heads, I warrant you — eh! — turning their heads?’ And he used to talk this sort of talk very slowly, and to hold their hands all the while, and even after this talk was exhausted, and grin sleepily, and wag his head, looking with a glittering, unpleasant gaze in their faces all the time. But at present we are all at dinner, in the midst of the row which even the best bred people, assembled in sufficient numbers, will make over that meal.

Devereux could not help seeing pretty Lilias over the way, who was listening to handsome Mervyn, as it seemed, with interest, and talking also her pleasant little share. He was no dunce, that Mervyn, nor much of a coxcomb, and certainly no clown, Devereux thought; but as fine a gentleman, to speak honestly, and as handsome, as well dressed, and as pleasant to listen to, with that sweet low voice and piquant smile, as any. Besides he could draw, and had more yards of French and English verses by rote than Aunt Becky owned of Venetian lace and satin ribbons, and was more of a scholar than he. He? He! — why —‘he?’ what the deuce had Devereux to do with it — was he vexed? — A fiddle-stick! He began to flag with Miss Ward, the dowager’s niece, and was glad when the refined Beauchamp, at her other side, took her up, and entertained her with Lady Carrickmore’s ball and the masquerade, and the last levee, and the withdrawing-room. There are said to have been persons who could attend to half a dozen different conversations going on together, and take a rational part in them all, and indulge, all the time, in a distinct consecutive train of thought beside. I dare say, Mr. Morphy, the chess-player, would find no difficulty in it. But Devereux was not by any means competent to the feat, though there was one conversation, perhaps, the thread of which he would gladly have caught up and disentangled. So the talk at top and bottom and both sides of the table, with its cross-readings, and muddle, and uproar, changed hands, and whisked and rioted, like a dance of Walpurgis, in his lonely brain.

What he heard, on the whole, was very like this —‘hubble-bubble-rubble-dubble — the great match of shuttlecock played between the gentlemen of the north and those of hubble-bubble — the Methodist persuasion; but — ha-ha-ha! — a squeeze of a lemon — rubble-dubble — ha-ha-ha! — wicked man — hubble-bubble — force-meat balls and yolks of eggs — rubble-dubble — musket balls from a steel cross-bow — upon my — hubble-bubble — throwing a sheep’s eye — ha-ha-ha — rubble-dubble — at the two remaining heads on Temple Bar — hubble-bubble — and the duke left by his will — rubble-dubble — a quid of tobacco in a brass snuff-box — hubble-bubble — and my Lady Rostrevor’s very sweet upon — rubble-dubble — old Alderman Wallop of John’s-lane — hubble-bubble — ha-ha-ha — from Jericho to Bethany, where David, Joab, and — rubble-dubble — the whole party upset in the mud in a chaise marine — and — hubble-bubble — shake a little white pepper over them — and — rubble-dubble — his name is Solomon — hubble-bubble — ha-ha-ha — the poor old thing dying of cold, and not a stitch of clothes to cover her nakedness — rubble-dubble — play or pay, on Finchley Common — hubble-bubble — most melancholy truly — ha-ha-ha! — rubble-dubble — and old Lady Ruth is ready to swear she never — hubble-bubble — served High Sheriff for the county of Down in the reign of Queen Anne — rubble-dubble — and Dr. and Mrs. Sturk — hubble-bubble — Secretaries of State in the room of the Duke of Grafton and General Conway — rubble-dubble — venerable prelate — ha-ha-ha! hubble-bubble — filthy creature — hubble-bubble-rubble-dubble.’

And this did not make him much wiser or merrier. Love has its fevers, its recoveries, and its relapses. The patient — nay even his nurse and his doctor, if he has taken to himself such officers in his distress — may believe the malady quite cured — the passion burnt out — the flame extinct — even the smoke quite over, when a little chance puff of rivalry blows the white ashes off, and, lo! the old liking is still smouldering. But this was not Devereux’s case. He remembered when his fever — not a love one — and his leave of absence at Scarborough, and that long continental tour of hers with Aunt Rebecca and Gertrude Chattesworth, had carried the grave, large-eyed little girl away, and hid her from his sight for more than a year, very nearly two years, the strange sort of thrill and surprise with which he saw her again — tall and slight, and very beautiful — no, not beautiful, perhaps, if you go to rule and compass, and Greek trigonometrical theories; but there was an indescribable prettiness in all her features, and movements, and looks, higher, and finer, and sweeter than all the canons of statuary will give you.

How prettily she stands! how prettily she walks! what a sensitive, spirited, clear-tinted face it is! This was pretty much the interpretation of his reverie, as Colonel Stafford’s large and respectable party obligingly vanished for a while into air. Is it sad? I think it is sad — I don’t know — and how sweetly and how drolly it lighted up; at that moment he saw her smile — the pleasant mischief in it — the dark violet glance — the wonderful soft dimple in chin and cheek — the little crimson mouth, and its laughing coronet of pearls — and then all earnest again, and still so animated! What feminine intelligence and character there is in that face! —’tis pleasanter to me than conversation —’tis a fairy tale, or — or a dream, it’s so interesting — I never know, you see, what’s coming — Is not it wonderful? What is she talking about now? — what does it signify? — she’s so strangely beautiful — she’s like those Irish melodies, I can’t reach all their meaning; I only know their changes keep me silent, and are playing with my heart-strings.

Devereux’s contemplation of the animated tête-à-tête, for such, in effect, it seemed to him at the other side of the table, was, however, by no means altogether pleasurable. He began to think Mervyn conceited; there was a ‘provoking probability of succeeding’ about him, and altogether something that was beginning to grow offensive and odious.

‘She knows well enough I like her,’ so his liking said in confidence to his vanity, and even he hardly overheard them talk; ‘better a great deal than I knew it myself, till old Strafford got together this confounded stupid dinner-party (he caught Miss Chattesworth glancing at him with a peculiar look of enquiry). Why the plague did he ask me here? it was Puddock’s turn, and he likes venison and compots, and — and — but ’tis like them — the women fall in love with the man who’s in love with himself, like Narcissus yonder — and they can’t help it — not they — and what care I? — hang it! I say, what is’t to me? — and yet — if she were to leave it — what a queer unmeaning place Chapelizod would be!’

‘And what do you say to that, Captain Devereux?’ cried the hearty voice of old General Chattesworth, and, with a little shock, the captain dropped from the clouds into his chair, and a clear view of the larded fowl before him, and his own responsibilities and situation —

‘Some turkey!’ he said, awaking, and touching the carving-knife and fork, with a smile and a bow; and he mingled once more in the business and bustle of life.

And soon there came in the general talk and business one of those sudden lulls which catch speakers unawares, and Mr. Beauchamp was found saying —

‘I saw her play on Thursday, and, upon my honour, the Bellamy is a mockery, a skeleton and a spectacle.’

‘That’s no reason,’ said Aunt Becky, who, as usual, had got up a skirmish, and was firing away in the cause of Mossop and Smock-alley play-house; ‘why, she would be fraudulently arrested in her own chair, on her way to the play-house, by the contrivance of the rogue Barry, and that wicked mountebank, Woodward.’

‘You’re rather hard upon them, Madam,’ said Mrs. Colonel Stafford, who stood up for Crow-street, with a slight elevation of her chin.

‘Very true, indeed, Mistress Chattesworth,’ cried the dowager, overlooking Madam Stafford’s parenthesis, and tapping an applause with her fan, and, at the same time, rewarding the champion of Smock-alley, for she was one of the faction, with one of her large, painted smiles, followed by a grave and somewhat supercilious glance at the gentleman of the household; ‘and I don’t believe they, at least, can think her a spectacle, and — a — the like, or they’d hardly have conspired to lock her in a sponging-house, while she should have been in the play-house. What say you, Mistress Chattesworth?’

‘Ha, ha! no, truly, my lady; but you know she’s unfortunate, and a stranger, and the good people in this part of the world improve so safe an opportunity of libelling a friendless gentlewoman.’

This little jet of vitriol was intended for the eye of the Castle beau; but he, quite innocent of the injection, went on serenely —

‘So they do, upon my honour, Madam, tell prodigious naughty tales about her: yet upon my life I do pity her from my soul: how that fellow Calcraft, by Jove — she says, you know, she’s married to him, but we know better — he has half broken her heart, and treated her with most refined meanness, as I live; in the green-room, where she looks an infinity worse than on the stage, she told me ——’

‘I dare say,’ said Aunt Becky, rather stiffly, pulling him up; for though she had fought a round for poor George Anne Bellamy for Mossop’s sake, she nevertheless had formed a pretty just estimate of that faded, good-natured, and insolvent demirep, and rather recoiled from any anecdotes of her telling.

‘And Calcraft gave her his likeness in miniature,’ related the macaroni, never minding; ‘set round with diamonds, and, will you believe it? when she came to examine it, they were not brilliants, but rose-diamonds — despicable fellow!’

Here the talk began to spring up again in different places, and the conversation speedily turned into what we have heard it before, and the roar and confusion became universal, and swallowed up what remained of poor George Anne’s persecutions.

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