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

Chapter 24

In which Two Young Persons Understand One Another Better, Perhaps, than Ever They Did Before, Without Saying So.

And now the ladies, with their gay plumage, have flown away like foreign birds of passage, and the jolly old priests of Bacchus, in the parlour, make their libations of claret; and the young fellows, after a while, seeing a gathering of painted fans, and rustling hoops, and fluttering laces, upon the lawn, and a large immigration of hilarious neighbours besides, and two serious fiddlers, and a black fellow with a tambourine preparing for action, and the warm glitter of the western sun among the green foliage about the window, could stand it no longer, but stole away, notwithstanding a hospitable remonstrance and a protest from old Strafford, to join the merry muster.

‘The young bucks will leave their claret,’ said Lord Castlemallard; ‘and truly ’tis a rare fine wine, colonel, a mighty choice claret truly (and the colonel bowed low, and smiled a rugged purple smile in spite of himself, for his claret was choice), all won’t do when Venus beckons — when she beckons — ha, ha — all won’t do, Sir — at the first flutter of a petticoat, and the invitation of a pair of fine eyes — fine eyes, colonel — by Jupiter, they’re off — you can’t keep ’em-I say your wine won’t keep ’em-they’ll be off, Sir — peeping under the hoods, the dogs will — and whispering their wicked nonsense, Dr. Walsingham — ha, ha — and your wine, I say — your claret, colonel, won’t hold ’em-’twas once so with us — eh, general? — ha! ha! and we must forgive ’em now.’

And he shoved round his chair lazily, with a left-backward wheel, so as to command the window, for he liked to see the girls dance, the little rogues! — with his claret and his French rappee at his elbow; and he did not hear General Chattesworth, who was talking of the new comedy called the ‘Clandestine Marriage,’ and how ‘the prologue touches genteelly on the loss of three late geniuses — Hogarth, Quin, and Cibber — and the epilogue is the picture of a polite company;’ for the tambourine and the fiddles were going merrily, and the lasses and lads in motion.

Aunt Becky and Lilias were chatting just under those pollard osiers by the river. She was always gentle with Lily, and somehow unlike the pugnacious Aunt Becky, whose attack was so spirited and whose thrust so fierce; and when Lily told a diverting little story — and she was often very diverting — Aunt Becky used to watch her pleasant face, with such a droll, good-natured smile; and she used to pat her on the cheek, and look so glad to see her when they met, and often as if she would say —’ I admire you a great deal more, and I am a great deal fonder of you than you think; but you know brave stoical Aunt Becky can’t say all that — it would not be in character, you know.’ And the old lady knew how good she was to the poor, and she liked her spirit, and candour, and honour — it was so uncommon, and somehow angelic, she thought. ‘Little Lily’s so true!’ she used to say; and perhaps there was there a noble chord of sympathy between the young girl, who had no taste for battle, and the daring Aunt Becky.

I think Devereux liked her for liking Lily — he thought it was for her own sake. Of course, he was often unexpectedly set upon and tomahawked by the impetuous lady; but the gay captain put on his scalp again, and gathered his limbs together, and got up in high good humour, and shook himself and smiled, after his dismemberment, like one of the old soldiers of the Walhalla — and they were never the worse friends.

So, turning his back upon the fiddles and tambourine, Gipsy Devereux sauntered down to the river-bank, and to the osiers, where the ladies are looking down the river, and a blue bell, not half so blue as her own deep eyes, in Lilias’s fingers; and the sound of their gay talk came mixed with the twitter and clear evening songs of the small birds. By those same osiers, that see so many things, and tell no tales, there will yet be a parting. But its own sorrow suffices to the day. And now it is a summer sunset, and all around dappled gold and azure, and sweet, dreamy sounds; and Lilias turns her pretty head, and sees him; — and oh! was it fancy, or did he see just a little flushing of the colour on her cheek — and her lashes seemed to drop a little, and out came her frank little hand. And Devereux leaned on the paling there, and chatted his best sense and nonsense, I dare say; and they laughed and talked about all sorts of things; and he sang for them a queer little snatch of a ballad, of an enamoured captain, the course of whose true love ran not smooth; —

The river ran between them,

And she looked upon the stream,

And the soldier looked upon her

As a dreamer on a dream.

‘Believe me — oh! believe,’

He sighed, ‘you peerless maid;

My honour is pure,

And my true love sure,

Like the white plume in my hat,

And my shining blade.’

The river ran between them,

And she smiled upon the stream,

Like one that smiles at folly —

A dreamer on a dream.

‘I do not trust your promise,

I will not be betrayed;

For your faith is light,

And your cold wit bright,

Like the white plume in your hat,

And your shining blade.’

The river ran between them,

And he rode beside the stream,

And he turned away and parted,

As a dreamer from his dream.

And his comrade brought his message,

From the field where he was laid —

Just his name to repeat,

And to lay at her feet

The white plume from his hat

And his shining blade.1

And he sang it in a tuneful and plaintive tenor, that had power to make rude and ridiculous things pathetic; and Aunt Rebecca thought he was altogether very agreeable. But it was time she should see what Miss Gertrude was about; and Devereux and Lily were such very old friends that she left them to their devices.

‘I like the river,’ says he; ‘it has a soul, Miss Lily, and a character. There are no river gods, but nymphs. Look at that river, Miss Lilias; what a girlish spirit. I wish she would reveal herself; I could lose my heart to her, I believe — if, indeed, I could be in love with anything, you know. Look at the river — is not it feminine? it’s sad and it’s merry, musical and sparkling — and oh, so deep! Always changing, yet still the same. ’Twill show you the trees, or the clouds, or yourself, or the stars; and it’s so clear and so dark, and so sunny, and — so cold. It tells everything, and yet nothing. It’s so pure, and so playful, and so tuneful, and so coy, yet so mysterious and fatal. I sometimes think, Miss Lilias, I’ve seen this river spirit; and she’s like — very like you!’

And so he went on; and she was more silent and more a listener than usual. I don’t know all that was passing in pretty Lilias’s fancy — in her heart — near the hum of the waters and the spell of that musical voice. Love speaks in allegories and a language of signs; looks and tones tell his tale most truly. So Devereux’s talk held her for a while in a sort of trance, melancholy and delightful. There must be, of course, the affinity — the rapport — the what you please to call it — to begin with — it matters not how faint and slender; and then the spell steals on and grows. See how the poor little woodbine, or the jessamine, or the vine, will lean towards the rugged elm, appointed by Virgil, in his epic of husbandry (I mean no pun) for their natural support — the elm, you know it hath been said, is the gentleman of the forest:— see all the little tendrils turn his way silently, and cling, and long years after, maybe, clothe the broken and blighted tree with a fragrance and beauty not its own. Those feeble feminine plants, are, it sometimes seems to me, the strength and perfection of creation — strength perfected in weakness; the ivy, green among the snows of winter, and clasping together in its true embrace the loveless ruin; and the vine that maketh glad the heart of man amidst the miseries of life. I must not be mistaken, though, for Devereux’s talk was only a tender sort of trifling, and Lilias had said nothing to encourage him to risk more; but she now felt sure that Devereux liked her — that, indeed, he took a deep interest in her — and somehow she was happy.

And little Lily drew towards the dancers, and Devereux by her side — not to join in the frolic; it was much pleasanter talking. But the merry thrum and jingle of the tambourine, and vivacious squeak of the fiddles, and the incessant laughter and prattle of the gay company were a sort of protection. And perhaps she fancied that within that pleasant and bustling circle, the discourse, which was to her so charming, might be longer maintained. It was music heard in a dream — strange and sweet — and might never come again.

1 These little verses have been several times set to music, and last and very sweetly, by Miss Elizabeth Philp.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lefanu/house/chapter24.html

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