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

Chapter 31

Being a Short History of the Great Battle of Belmont that Lasted for So Many Days, Wherein the Belligerents Showed So Much Constancy and Valour, and Sometimes One Side and Sometimes T’other was Victorious.

So jolly old General Chattesworth was away to Scarborough, and matters went by no means pleasantly at Belmont; for there was strife between the ladies. Dangerfield — cunning fellow — went first to Aunt Becky with his proposal; and Aunt Becky liked it — determined it should prosper, and took up and conducted the case with all her intimidating energy and ferocity. But Gertrude’s character had begun to show itself of late in new and marvellous lights, and she fought her aunt with cool, but invincible courage; and why should she marry, and above all, why marry that horrid, grim old gentleman, Mr. Dangerfield. No, she had money enough of her own to walk through life in maiden meditation, fancy free, without being beholden to anybody for a sixpence. Why, Aunt Rebecca herself had never married, and was she not all the happier of her freedom? Aunt Rebecca tried before the general went away, to inflame and stir him up upon the subject. But he had no capacity for coercion. She almost regretted she had made him so very docile. He would leave the matter altogether to his daughter. So Aunt Rebecca, as usual, took, as we have said, the carriage of the proceedings.

Since the grand eclaircissement had taken place between Mervyn and Gertrude Chattesworth, they met with as slight and formal a recognition as was possible, consistently with courtesy. Puddock had now little to trouble him upon a topic which had once cost him some uneasiness, and Mervyn acquiesced serenely in the existing state of things, and seemed disposed to be ‘sweet upon’ pretty Lilias Walsingham, if that young lady had allowed it; but her father had dropped hints about his history and belongings which surrounded him in her eyes with a sort of chill and dismal halo. There was something funeste and mysterious even in his beauty; and her spirits faltered and sank in his presence. Something of the same unpleasant influence, too, or was it fancy, she thought his approach seemed now to exercise upon Gertrude also, and that she, too, was unaccountably chilled and darkened by his handsome, but ill-omened presence.

Aunt Becky was not a woman to be soon tired, or even daunted. The young lady’s resistance put her upon her mettle, and she was all the more determined, that she suspected her niece had some secret motive for rejecting a partner in some respects so desirable.

Sometimes, it is true, Gertrude’s resistance flagged; but this was only the temporary acquiescence of fatigue, and the battle was renewed with the old spirit on the next occasion, and was all to be fought over again. At breakfast there was generally, as I may say, an affair of picquets, and through the day a dropping fire, sometimes rising to a skirmish; but the social meal of supper was generally the period when, for the most part, these desultory hostilities blazed up into a general action. The fortune of war as usual shifted. Sometimes Gertrude left the parlour and effected a retreat to her bed-room. Sometimes it was Aunt Rebecca’s turn to slam the door, and leave the field to her adversary. Sometimes, indeed, Aunt Becky thought she had actually finished the exhausting campaign, when her artillery had flamed and thundered over the prostrate enemy for a full half hour unanswered; but when, at the close of the cannonade she marched up, with drums beating and colours flying, to occupy the position and fortify her victory, she found, much to her mortification, that the foe had only, as it were, lain down to let her shrapnels and canister fly over, and the advance was arrested with the old volley and hurrah. And there they were — not an inch gained — peppering away at one another as briskly as ever, with the work to begin all over again.

‘You think I have neither eyes nor understanding; but I can see, young lady, as well as another; ay, Madam, I’ve eyes, and some experience too, and ’tis my simple duty to my brother, and to the name I bear, not to mention you, niece, to prevent, if my influence or authority can do it, the commission of a folly which, I can’t but suspect, may possibly be meditated, and which, even you, niece, would live very quickly to repent.’

Gertrude did not answer; she only looked a little doubtfully at her aunt, with a gaze of deep, uneasy enquiry. That sort of insinuation seemed to disconcert her. But she did not challenge her aunt to define her meaning, and the attack was soon renewed at another point.

When Gertrude walked down to the town, to the King’s House, or even to see Lily, at this side of the bridge, Dominick, the footman, was ordered to trudge after her — a sort of state she had never used in her little neighbourly rambles — and Gertrude knew that her aunt catechised that confidential retainer daily. Under this sort of management, the haughty girl winced and fretted, and finally sulked, grew taciturn and sarcastic, and shut herself up altogether within the precincts of Belmont.

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