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

Chapter 32

Narrating How Lieutenant Puddock and Captain Devereux Brewed a Bowl of Punch, and How They Sang and Discoursed Together.

If people would only be content with that which is, let well alone, and allow today to resemble yesterday and tomorrow to day, the human race would be much fatter at no greater cost, and sleep remarkably well. But so it is that the soul of man can no more rest here than the sea or the wind. We are always plotting against our own repose, and as no man can stir in a crowd without disturbing others, it happens that even the quietest fellows are forced to fight for their status quo, and sometimes, though they would not move a finger or sacrifice a button for the chance of ‘getting on,’ are sulkily compelled to cut capers like the rest. Nature will have it so, and has no end of resources, and will not suffer even the sluggish to sit still, but if nothing else will do, pins a cracker to their skirts, in the shape of a tender passion, or some other whim, and so sets them bouncing in their own obese and clumsy way, to the trouble of others as well as their own discomfort. It is a hard thing, but so it is; the comfort of absolute stagnation is nowhere permitted us. And such, so multifarious and intricate our own mutual dependencies, that it is next to impossible to marry a wife, or to take a house for the summer at Brighton, or to accomplish any other entirely simple, good-humoured, and selfish act without affecting, not only the comforts, but the reciprocal relations of dozens of other respectable persons who appear to have nothing on earth to say to us or our concerns. In this respect, indeed, society resembles a pyramid of potatoes, in which you cannot stir one without setting others, in unexpected places, also in motion. Thus it was, upon very slight motives, the relations of people in the little world of Chapelizod began to shift and change considerably, and very few persons made a decided move of any sort without affecting or upsetting one or more of his neighbours.

Among other persons unexpectedly disturbed just now was our friend Captain Devereux. The letter reached him at night. Little Puddock walked to his lodgings with him from the club, where he had just given a thplendid rethitation from Shakespeare, and was, as usual after such efforts, in a high state of excitement, and lectured his companion, for whom, by-the-bye, he cherished a boyish admiration, heightened very considerably by his not quite understanding him, upon the extraordinary dramatic capabilities and versatilities of Shakespeare’s plays, which, he said, were not half comprehended.

‘It was only on Tuesday — the night, you know, I fired the pistol at the robbers, near the dog-house, through the coach window, returning all alone from Smock-alley Theatre. I was thinking, upon my honour, if I had your parts, my dear Devereux, and could write, as I know you can, I’d make a variation upon every play of Shakespeare, that should be strictly moulded upon it, and yet in no respect recognisable.’

‘Ay, like those Irish airs that will produce tears or laughter, as they are played slow or quick; or minced veal, my dear Puddock, which the cook can dress either savoury or sweet at pleasure; or Aunt Rebecca, that produces such different emotions in her different moods, and according to our different ways of handling her, is scarce recognisable in some of them, though still the same Aunt Becky,’ answered Devereux, knocking at Irons’ door.

‘No, but seriously, by sometimes changing an old person to a young, sometimes a comical to a melancholy, or the reverse, sometimes a male for a female, or a female for a male — I assure you, you can so entirely disguise the piece, and yet produce situations so new and surprising ——.’

‘I see, by all the gods at once, ’tis an immortal idea! Let’s take Othello — I’ll set about it tomorrow — to-night, by Jove! A gay young Venetian nobleman, of singular beauty, charmed by her tales of “anthropophagites and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders,” is seduced from his father’s house, and married by a middle-aged, somewhat hard-featured black woman, Juno, or Dido, who takes him away — not to Cyprus — we must be original, but we’ll suppose to the island of Stromboli — and you can have an eruption firing away during the last act. There Dido grows jealous of our hero, though he’s as innocent as Joseph; and while his valet is putting him to bed he’ll talk to him and prattle some plaintive little tale how his father had a man called Barbarus. And then, all being prepared, and his bed-room candle put out, Dido enters, looking unusually grim, and smothers him with a pillow in spite of his cries and affecting entreaties, and —— By Jupiter! here’s a letter from Bath, too.’

He had lighted the candles, and the letter with its great red eye of a seal, lying upon the table, transfixed his wandering glance, and smote somehow to his heart with an indefinite suspense and misgiving.

‘With your permission, my dear Puddock?’ said Devereux, before breaking the seal; for in those days they grew ceremonious the moment a point of etiquette turned up. Puddock gave him leave, and he read the letter.

‘From my aunt,’ he said, throwing it down with a discontented air; and then he read it once more, thought for a while, and put it into his pocket. ‘The countess says I must go, Puddock. She has got my leave from the general; and hang it — there’s no help for it — I can’t vex her, you know. Indeed, Puddock, I would not vex her. Poor old aunt — she has been mighty kind to me — no one knows how kind. So I leave tomorrow.’

‘Not to stay away!’ exclaimed Puddock, much concerned.

‘I don’t know, dear Puddock. I know no more than the man in the moon what her plans are. Lewis, you know, is ordered by the doctors to Malaga; and Loftus — honest dog — I managed that trifle for him — goes with him; and the poor old lady, I suppose, is in the vapours, and wants me — and that’s all. And Puddock, we must drink a bowl of punch together — you and I— or something — anything — what you please.’

And so they sat some time longer, and grew very merry and friendly, and a little bit pathetic in their several ways. And Puddock divulged his secret but noble flame for Gertrude Chattesworth, and Devereux sang a song or two, defying fortune, in his sweet, sad tenor; and the nymph who skipt up and down stairs with the kettle grew sleepy at last; and Mrs. Irons rebelled in her bed, and refused peremptorily to get up again, to furnish the musical topers with rum and lemons, and Puddock, having studied his watch — I’m bound to say with a slight hiccough and supernatural solemnity — for about five minutes, satisfied himself it was nearly one o’clock, and took an affecting, though soldier-like leave of his comrade, who, however, lent him his arm down the stairs, which were rather steep; and having with difficulty dissuaded him from walking into the clock, the door of which was ajar, thought it his duty to see the gallant little lieutenant home to his lodgings; and so in the morning good little Puddock’s head ached. He had gone to bed with his waistcoat and leggings on — and his watch was missing and despaired of, till discovered, together with a lemon, in the pocket of his surtout, hanging against the wall; and a variety of other strange arrangements came to light, with not one of which could Puddock connect himself.

Indeed, he was ‘dithguthted’ at his condition; and if upon the occasion just described he had allowed himself to be somewhat ‘intoxicated with liquor,’ I must aver that I do not recollect another instance in which this worthy little gentleman suffered himself to be similarly overtaken. Now and then a little ‘flashy’ he might be, but nothing more serious — and rely upon it, this was no common virtue in those days.

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