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

Chapter 27

Concerning the Troubles and the Shapes that Began to Gather About Doctor Sturk.

It was just about that time that our friend, Dr. Sturk, had two or three odd dreams that secretly acted disagreeably upon his spirits. His liver he thought was a little wrong, and there was certainly a little light gout sporting about him. His favourite ‘pupton,’ at mess, disagreed with him; so did his claret, and hot suppers as often as he tried them, and that was, more or less, nearly every night in the week. So he was, perhaps, right, in ascribing these his visions to the humours, the spleen, the liver, and the juices. Still they sat uncomfortably upon his memory, and helped his spirits down, and made him silent and testy, and more than usually formidable to poor, little, quiet, hard-worked Mrs. Sturk.

Dreams! What talk can be idler? And yet haven’t we seen grave people and gay listening very contentedly at times to that wild and awful sort of frivolity; and I think there is in most men’s minds, sages or zanies, a secret misgiving that dreams may have an office and a meaning, and are perhaps more than a fortuitous concourse of symbols, in fact, the language which good or evil spirits whisper over the sleeping brain.

There was an ugly and ominous consistency in these dreams which might have made a less dyspeptic man a little nervous. Tom Dunstan, a sergeant whom Sturk had prosecuted and degraded before a court-martial, who owed the doctor no good-will, and was dead and buried in the church-yard close by, six years ago, and whom Sturk had never thought about in the interval — made a kind of resurrection now, and was with him every night, figuring in these dreary visions and somehow in league with a sort of conspirator-inchief, who never showed distinctly, but talked in scoffing menaces from outside the door, or clutched him by the throat from behind his chair, and yelled some hideous secret into his ear, which his scared and scattered wits, when he started into consciousness, could never collect again. And this fellow, with whose sneering cavernous talk — with whose very knock at the door or thump at the partition-wall he was as familiar as with his own wife’s voice, and the touch of whose cold convulsive hand he had felt so often on his cheek or throat, and the very suspicion of whose approach made him faint with horror, his dreams would not present to his sight. There was always something interposed, or he stole behind him, or just as he was entering and the door swinging open, Sturk would awake — and he never saw him, at least in a human shape.

But one night he thought he saw, as it were, his sign or symbol. As Sturk lay his length under the bed-clothes, with his back turned upon his slumbering helpmate, he was, in the spirit, sitting perpendicularly in his great balloon-backed chair at his writing-table, in the window of the back one-pair-of-stairs chamber which he called his library, where he sometimes wrote prescriptions, and pondering over his pennyweights, his Roman numerals, his guttæ and pillulæ, his 3s, his 5s, his 9s, and the other arabesque and astrological symbols of his mystery, he looked over his pen into the church-yard, which inspiring prospect he thence commanded.

Thus, as out of the body sat our recumbent doctor in the room underneath the bed in which his snoring idolon lay, Tom Dunstan stood beside the table, with the short white threads sticking out on his blue sleeve, where the stitching of the stripes had been cut through on that twilight parade morning when the doctor triumphed, and Tom’s rank, fortune, and castles in the air, all tumbled together in the dust of the barrack pavement; and so, with his thin features and evil eye turned sideways to Sturk, says he, with a stiff salute —‘A gentleman, Sir, that means to dine with you,’ and there was the muffled knock at the door which he knew so well, and a rustling behind him. So the doctor turned him about quickly with a sort of chill between his shoulders, and perched on the back of his chair sat a portentous old quizzical carrion-crow, the antediluvian progenitor of the whole race of carrion-crows, monstrous, with great shining eyes, and head white as snow, and a queer human look, and the crooked beak of an owl, that opened with a loud grating ‘caw’ close in his ears; and with a ‘bo-o-oh!’ and a bounce that shook the bed and made poor Mrs. Sturk jump out of it, and spin round in the curtain, Sturk’s spirit popped back again into his body, which sat up wide awake that moment.

It is not pretended that at this particular time the doctor was a specially good sleeper. The contrary stands admitted; and I don’t ask you, sagacious reader, to lay any sort of stress upon his dreams; only as there came a time when people talked of them a good deal over the fireside in Chapelizod, and made winter’s tales about them, I thought myself obliged to tell you that such things were.

He did not choose to narrate them to his brother-officers, and to be quizzed about them at mess. But he opened his budget to old Dr. Walsingham, of course, only as a matter to be smiled at by a pair of philosophers like them. But Dr. Walsingham, who was an absent man, and floated upon the ocean of his learning serenely and lazily, drawn finely and whimsically, now hither, now thither, by the finest hair of association, glided complacently off into the dim region of visionary prognostics and warnings, and reminded him how Joseph dreamed, and Pharaoh, and Benvenuto, Cellini’s father, and St. Dominick’s mother, and Edward II. of England, and dodged back and forward among patriarchs and pagans, and modern Christians, men and women not at all suspecting that he was making poor Sturk, who had looked for a cheerful, sceptical sort of essay, confoundedly dismal and uncomfortable.

And, indeed, confoundedly distressed he must have been, for he took his brother-chip, Tom Toole, whom he loved not, to counsel upon his case — of course, strictly as a question of dandelion, or gentian, or camomile flowers; and Tom, who, as we all know, loved him reciprocally, frightened him as well as he could, offered to take charge of his case, and said, looking hard at him out of the corner of his cunning, resolute little eye, as they sauntered in the park —

‘But I need not tell you, my good Sir, that physic is of small avail, if there is any sort of — a — a — vexation, or — or — in short — a — a — vexation, you know, on your mind.’

‘A— ha, ha, ha! — what? Murdered my father, and married my grandmother?’ snarled Sturk, sneeringly, amused or affecting to be so, and striving to laugh at the daisies before his toes, as he trudged along, with his hands in his breeches’ pockets. ‘I have not a secret on earth, Sir. ’Tis not a button to me, Sir, who talks about me; and I don’t owe a guinea, Sir, that is, that I could not pay tomorrow, if I liked it; and there’s nothing to trouble me — nothing, Sir, except this dirty, little, gouty dyspepsy, scarce worth talking about.

Then came a considerable silence; and Toole’s active little mind, having just made a note of this, tripped off smartly to half-a-dozen totally different topics, and he was mentally tippling his honest share of a dozen of claret, with a pleasant little masonic party at the Salmon-leap, on Sunday next, and was just going to charm them with his best song, and a new verse of his own compounding, when Sturk, in a moment, dispersed the masons, and brought him back by the ear at a jump from the Salmon-leap, with a savage ——

‘And I’d like to know, Sir, who the deuce, or, rather, what the ——(plague we’ll say) could put into your head, Sir, to suppose any such matter?’

But this was only one of Sturk’s explosions, and he and little Toole parted no better and no worse friends than usual, in ten minutes more at the latter’s door-step.

So Toole said to Mrs. T. that evening ——

‘Sturk owes money, mark my words, sweetheart. Remember I say it — he’ll cool his heels in a prison, if he’s no wiser than of late, before a twel’month. Since the beginning of February he has lost — just wait a minute, and let me see — ay, that, £150 by the levanting of old Tom Farthingale; and, I had it today from little O’Leary, who had it from Jim Kelly, old Craddock’s conducting clerk, he’s bit to the tune of three hundred more by the failure of Larkin, Brothers, and Hoolaghan. You see a little bit of usury under the rose is all very well for a vulgar dog like Sturk, if he knows the town, and how to go about it; but hang, it, he knows nothing. Why, the turnpike-man, over the way, would not have taken old Jos. Farthingale’s bill for fippence — no, nor his bond neither; and he’s stupid beside — but he can’t help that, the hound! — and he’ll owe a whole year’s rent only six weeks hence, and he has not a shilling to bless himself with. Unfortunate devil — I’ve no reason to like him — but, truly, I do pity him.’

Saying which Tom Toole, with his back to the fire, and a look of concern thrown into his comic little mug, and his eyebrows raised, experienced a very pleasurable glow of commiseration.

Sturk, on the contrary, was more than commonly silent and savage that evening, and sat in his drawing-room, with his fists in his breeches’ pockets, and his heels stretched out, lurid and threatening, in a gloomy and highly electric state. Mrs. S. did not venture her usual ‘would my Barney like a dish of tea?’ but plied her worsted and knitting-needles with mild concentration, sometimes peeping under her lashes at Sturk, and sometimes telegraphing faintly to the children if they whispered too loud — all cautious pantomime — nutu signisque loquuntur.

Sturk was incensed by the suspicion that Tom Toole knew something of his losses, ‘the dirty, little, unscrupulous spy and tattler.’ He was confident, however, that he could not know their extent. It was certainly a hard thing, and enough to exasperate a better man than Sturk, that the savings of a shrewd, and, in many ways, a self-denying life should have been swept away, and something along with them, by a few unlucky casts in little more than twelve months. And he such a clever dog, too! the best player, all to nothing, driven to the wall, by a cursed obstinate run of infernal luck. And he used to scowl, and grind his teeth, and nearly break the keys and shillings in his gripe in his breeches’ pocket, as imprecations, hot and unspoken, coursed one another through his brain. Then up he would get, and walk sulkily to the brandy-flask and have a dram, and feel better, and begin to count up his chances, and what he might yet save out of the fire; and resolve to press vigorously for the agency, which he thought Dangerfield, if he wanted a useful man, could not fail to give him; and he had hinted the matter to Lord Castlemallard, who, he thought, understood and favoured his wishes. Yes; that agency would give him credit and opportunity, and be the foundation of his new fortunes, and the saving of him. A precious, pleasant companion, you may suppose, he was to poor little Mrs. Sturk, who knew nothing of his affairs, and could not tell what to make of her Barney’s eccentricities.

And so it was, somehow, when Dangerfield spoke his greeting at Sturk’s ear, and the doctor turned short round, and saw his white frizzed hair, great glass eyes, and crooked, short beak, quizzical and sinister, close by, it seemed for a second as if the ‘caw’ and the carrion-crow of his dream was at his shoulder; and, I suppose, he showed his discomfiture a little, for he smiled a good deal more than Sturk usually did at a recognition.

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