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

Chapter 25

In which the Sun Sets, and the Merry-Making is Kept up by Candle-Light in the King’s House, and Lily Receives a Warning Which she Does Not Comprehend.

Dr. Toole, without whom no jollification of any sort could occur satisfactorily in Chapelizod or the country round, was this evening at the ‘King’s House,’ of course, as usual, with his eyes about him and his tongue busy; and at this moment he was setting Cluffe right about Devereux’s relation to the title and estates of Athenry. His uncle Roland Lord Athenry was, as everybody knew, a lunatic — Toole used to call him Orlando Furioso: and Lewis, his first cousin by his father’s elder brother — the heir presumptive — was very little better, and reported every winter to be dying. He spends all his time — his spine being made, it is popularly believed, of gristle — stretched on his back upon a deal board, cutting out paper figures with a pair of scissors. Toole used to tell them at the club, when alarming letters arrived about the health of the noble uncle and his hopeful nephew — the heir apparent —‘That’s the gentleman who’s back-bone’s made of jelly — eh, Puddock? Two letters come, by Jove, announcing that Dick Devereux’s benefit is actually fixed for the Christmas holidays, when his cousin undertakes to die for positively the last time, and his uncle will play in the most natural manner conceivable, the last act of “King Lear.”’ In fact, this family calamity was rather a cheerful subject among Devereux’s friends; and certainly Devereux had no reason to love that vicious, selfish old lunatic, Lord Athenry, who in his prodigal and heartless reign, before straw and darkness swallowed him, never gave the boy a kind word or gentle look, and owed him a mortal grudge because he stood near the kingdom, and wrote most damaging reports of him at the end of the holidays, and despatched those letters of Bellerophon by the boy’s own hand to the schoolmaster, with the natural results.

When Aunt Rebecca rustled into the ring that was gathered round about the fiddles and tambourine, she passed Miss Magnolia very near, with a high countenance, and looking straight before her, and with no more recognition than the tragedy queen bestows upon the painted statue on the wing by which she enters. And Miss Mag followed her with a titter and an angry flash of her eyes. So Aunt Rebecca made up to the little hillock — little bigger than a good tea-cake — on which the dowager was perched in a high-backed chair, smiling over the dancers with a splendid benignity, and beating time with her fat short foot. And Aunt Becky told Mrs. Colonel Stafford, standing by, she had extemporised a living Watteau, and indeed it was a very pretty picture, or Aunt Becky would not have said so; and ‘craning’ from this eminence she saw her niece coming leisurely round, not in company of Mervyn.

That interesting stranger, on the contrary, had by this time joined Lilias and Devereux, who had returned toward the dancers, and was talking again with Miss Walsingham. Gertrude’s beau was little Puddock, who was all radiant and supremely blest. But encountering rather a black look from Aunt Becky as they drew near, he deferentially surrendered the young lady to the care of her natural guardian, who forthwith presented her to the dowager; and Puddock, warned off by another glance, backed away, and fell, unawares, helplessly into the possession of Miss Magnolia, a lady whom he never quite understood, and whom he regarded with a very kind and polite sort of horror.

So the athletic Magnolia instantly impounded the little lieutenant, and began to rally him, in the sort of slang she delighted in, with plenty of merriment and malice upon his tendre for Miss Chattesworth, and made the gallant young gentleman blush and occasionally smile, and bow a great deal, and take some snuff.

‘And here comes the Duchess of Belmont again,’ said the saucy Miss Magnolia, seeing the stately approach of Aunt Becky, as it seemed to Puddock, through the back of her head. I think the exertion and frolic of the dance had got her high blood up into a sparkling state, and her scorn and hate of Aunt Rebecca was more demonstrative than usual. ‘Now you’ll see how she’ll run against poor little simple me, just because I’m small. And this is the way they dance it,’ cried she, in a louder tone; and capering backward with a bounce, and an air, and a grace, she came with a sort of a courtesy, and a smart bump, and a shock against the stately Miss Rebecca; and whisking round with a little scream and a look of terrified innocence, and with her fingers to her heart, to suppress an imaginary palpitation, dropped a low courtesy, crying —

‘I’m blest but I thought ’twas tall Burke, the gunner.’

‘You might look behind before you spring backward, young gentlewoman,’ said Aunt Becky, with a very bright colour.

‘And you might look before you before you spring forward, old gentlewoman,’ replied Miss Mag, just as angry.

‘Young ladies used to have a respect to decorum,’ Aunt Becky went on.

‘So they prayed me to tell you, Madam,’ replied the young lady, with a very meek courtesy, and a very crimson face.

‘Yes, Miss Mac — Mag — Madam — it used to be so,’ rejoined Aunt Rebecca, ‘’twas part of my education, at least, to conduct myself in a polite company like a civilised person.’

‘“I wish I could see it,” says blind Hugh,’ Magnolia retorted; ‘but ’twas a good while ago, Madam, and you’ve had time to forget.’

‘I shall acquaint your mother, Mrs. — Mug — Mac — Macnamara, with your pretty behaviour tomorrow,’ said Miss Rebecca.

‘To-morrow’s a new day, and mother may be well enough then to hear your genteel lamentation; but I suppose you mean tomorrow come never,’ answered Magnolia, with another of her provoking meek courtesies.

‘Oh, this is Lieutenant Puddock,’ said Aunt Becky, drawing off in high disdain, ‘the bully of the town. Your present company, Sir, will find very pretty work, I warrant, for your sword and pistols; Sir Launcelot and his belle!’

‘Do you like a belle or beldame best, Sir Launcelot?’ enquired Miss Mag, with a mild little duck to Puddock.

‘You’ll have your hands pretty full, Sir, ha, ha, ha!’ and with scarlet cheeks, and a choking laugh, away sailed Aunt Rebecca.

‘Choke, chicken, there’s more a-hatching,’ said Miss Mag, in a sort of aside, and cutting a flic-flac with a merry devilish laugh, and a wink to Puddock. That officer, being a gentleman, was a good deal disconcerted, and scandalised — too literal to see, and too honest to enjoy, the absurd side of the combat.

’Twas an affair of a few seconds, like two frigates crossing in a gale, with only opportunity for a broadside or two; and when the Rebecca Chattesworth sheered off, it can’t be denied, her tackling was a good deal more cut up, and her hull considerably more pierced, than those of the saucy Magnolia, who sent that whistling shot and provoking cheer in her majestic wake.

‘I see you want to go, Lieutenant Puddock — Lieutenant O’Flaherty, I promised to dance this country dance with you; don’t let me keep you, Ensign Puddock,’ said Miss Mag in a huff, observing little Puddock’s wandering eye and thoughts.

‘I— a — you see, Miss Macnamara, truly you were so hard upon poor Miss Rebecca Chattesworth, that I fear I shall get into trouble, unless I go and make my peace with her,’ lisped the little lieutenant, speaking the truth, as was his wont, with a bow and a polite smile, and a gentle indication of beginning to move away.

‘Oh, is that all? I was afraid you were sick of the mulligrubs, with eating chopt hay; you had better go back to her at once if she wants you, for if you don’t with a good grace, she’ll very likely come and take you back by the collar,’ and Miss Mag and O’Flaherty joined in a derisive hee-haw, to Puddock’s considerable confusion, who bowed and smiled again, and tried to laugh, till the charming couple relieved him by taking their places in the dance.

When I read this speech about the ‘mulligrubs,’ in the old yellow letter which contains a lively account of the skirmish, my breath was fairly taken away, and I could see nothing else for more than a minute; and so soon as I was quite myself again, I struck my revising pen across the monstrous sentence, with uncompromising decision, referring it to a clerical blunder, or some unlucky transposition, and I wondered how any polite person could have made so gross a slip. But see how authentication waits upon truth! Three years afterwards, I picked up in the parlour of the ‘Cat and Fiddle,’ on the Macclesfield Road, in Derbyshire, a scrubby old duodecimo, which turned out to be an old volume of Dean Swift’s works: well, I opened in the middle of ‘Polite Conversation,’ and there, upon my honour, the second sentence I read was ‘Lady Smart,’ (mark that —‘LADY!’) ‘What, you are sick of the mulligrubs, with eating chopt hay?’ So my good old yellow letter-writer (‘I.’ or ‘T.’ Tresham, I can’t decide what he signs himself)— you were, no doubt, exact here as in other matters, and I was determining the probable and the impossible, unphilosophically, by the rule of my own time. And my poor Magnolia, though you spoke some years — thirty or so — later than my Lady Smart, a countess for aught I know, you are not so much to blame. Thirty years! what of that? Don’t we, to this hour, more especially in rural districts, encounter among the old folk, every now and then, one of honest Simon Wagstaff’s pleasantries, which had served merry ladies and gentlemen so long before that charming compiler, with his ‘Large Table Book,’ took the matter in hands. And I feel, I confess, a queer sort of a thrill, not at all contemptuous — neither altogether sad, nor altogether joyous — but something pleasantly regretful, whenever one of those quaint and faded old servants of the mirth of so many dead and buried generations, turns up in my company.

And now the sun went down behind the tufted trees, and the blue shades of evening began to deepen, and the merry company flocked into the King’s House, to dance again and drink tea, and make more love, and play round games, and joke, and sing songs, and eat supper under old Colonel Stafford’s snug and kindly roof-tree.

Dangerfield, who arrived rather late, was now in high chat with Aunt Becky. She rather liked him and had very graciously accepted a gray parrot and a monkey, which he had deferentially presented, a step which called forth, to General Chattesworth’s consternation, a cockatoo from Cluffe, who felt the necessity of maintaining his ground against the stranger, and wrote off by the next packet to London, in a confounded passion, for he hated wasting money, about a pelican he had got wind of. Dangerfield also entered with much apparent interest into a favourite scheme of Aunt Becky’s, for establishing, between Chapelizod and Knockmaroon, a sort of retreat for discharged gaol-birds of her selection, a colony, happily for the character and the silver spoons of the neighbourhood, never eventually established.

It was plain he was playing the frank, good fellow, and aiming at popularity. He had become one of the club. He played at whist, and only smiled, after his sort, when his partner revoked, and he lost like a gentleman. His talk was brisk, and hard, and caustic — that of a Philistine who had seen the world and knew it. He had the Peerage by rote, and knew something out-of-the-way, amusing or damnable about every person of note you could name; and his shrewd gossip had a bouquet its own, and a fine cynical flavour, which secretly awed and delighted the young fellows. He smiled a good deal. He was not aware that a smile did not quite become him. The fact is, he had lost a good many side teeth, and it was a hollow and sinister disclosure. He would laugh, too, occasionally; but his laugh was not rich and joyous, like General Chattesworth’s, or even Tom Toole’s cozy chuckle, or old Doctor Walsingham’s hilarious ha-ha-ha! He did not know it; but there was a cold hard ring in it, like the crash and jingle of broken glass. Then his spectacles, shining like ice in the light, never removed for a moment — never even pushed up to his forehead — he eat in them, drank in them, fished in them, joked in them — he prayed in them, and, no doubt, slept in them, and would, it was believed, be buried in them — heightened that sense of mystery and mask which seemed to challenge curiosity and defy scrutiny with a scornful chuckle.

In the meantime, the mirth, and frolic, and flirtation were drawing to a close. The dowager, in high good humour, was conveyed down stairs to her carriage, by Colonel Stafford and Lord Castlemallard, and rolled away, with blazing flambeaux, like a meteor, into town. There was a breaking-up and leave-taking, and parting jokes on the door-steps; and as the ladies, old and young, were popping on their mantles in the little room off the hall, and Aunt Becky and Mrs. Colonel Strafford were exchanging a little bit of eager farewell gossip beside the cabinet, Gertrude Chattesworth — by some chance she and Lilias had not had an opportunity of speaking that evening — drew close to her, and she took her hand and said ‘Good-night, dear Lily,’ and glanced over her shoulder, still holding Lily’s hand; and she looked very pale and earnest, and said quickly, in a whisper:

‘Lily, darling, if you knew what I could tell you, if I dare, about Mr. Mervyn, you would cut your hand off rather than allow him to talk to you, as, I confess, he has talked to me, as an admirer, and knowing what I know, and with my eye upon him — Lily — Lily — I’ve been amazed by him to-night. I can only warn you now, darling, to beware of a great danger.’

‘’Tis no danger, however, to me, Gertrude, dear,’ said Lily, with a pleasant little smile. ‘And though he’s handsome, there’s something, is there not, funeste in his deep eyes and black hair; and the dear old man knows something strange about him, too; I suppose ’tis all the same story.’

‘And he has not told you,’ said Gertrude, looking down with a gloomy face at her fan.

‘No; but I’m so curious, I know he will, though he does not like to speak of it; but you know, Gerty, I love a horror, and I know the story’s fearful, and I feel uncertain whether he’s a man or a ghost; but see, Aunt Rebecca and Mistress Strafford are kissing.’

‘Good-night, dear Lily, and remember!’ said pale Gertrude without a smile, looking at her, for a moment, with a steadfast gaze, and then kissing her with a hasty and earnest pressure. And Lily kissed her again, and so they parted.

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