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

Chapter 41

In which the Rector Comes Home, and Lily Speaks Her Mind, and Time Glides On, and Aunt Rebecca Calls at the Elms.

Next morning, punctual at the early breakfast-hour of those days, the cheery voice of the old rector was heard at the garden rails that fronted the house, and out ran Tom Clinton, from the stable-yard, and bid his ‘raverence,’ with homely phrase, and with a pleasant grin, ‘welcome home,’ and held his bridle and stirrup, while the parson, with a kind smile, and half a dozen enquiries, and the air of a man who, having made a long journey and a distant sojourn, expands on beholding old faces and the sights of home again; he had been away, to be sure, only one night and a part of a day, but his heart clave to his home and his darling; and Lilias ran to the garden gate to meet him, with her old smile and greeting, it seemed fonder and more tender than ever, and then they kissed and hugged and kissed again, and he patted her cheek and thought she looked a little pale, but would not say anything just then that was not altogether cheerful; and so they stepped up the two or three yards of gravel walk — she at his right side, with her right hand in his and her left clinging by his arm, and nestling close by his side, and leading him up to the house like a beloved captive.

And so at breakfast he narrated all his adventures, and told who were at the dinner party, and described two fine ladies’ dresses — for the doctor had skill in millinery, though it was as little known as Don Quixote’s talent for making bird-cages and tooth-picks, confided, as we remember, in one of his conversations with honest Sancho, under the cork trees. He told her his whole innocent little budget of gossip, in his own simple, pleasant way; and his little Lily sat looking on her beloved old man, and smiling, but saying little, and her eyes often filling with tears; and he looked, when he chanced to see it — wistfully and sadly for an instant, but he made no remark.

And sometime after, as she happened to pass the study-door, he called her —‘Little Lily, come here.’ And in she came; and there was the doctor, all alone and erect before his bookshelves, plucking down a volume here, and putting up one there, and —

‘Shut the door, little Lily,’ said he gently and cheerily, going on with his work. ‘I had a letter yesterday evening, my darling, from Captain Devereux, and he tells me that he’s very much attached to you; and I don’t wonder at his being in love with little Lily — he could not help it.’ And he laughed fondly, and was taking down a volume that rather stuck in its place, so he could not turn to look at her; for, the truth was, he supposed she was blushing, and could not bear to add to her confusion; and he, though he continued his homely work, and clapped the sides of his books together, and blew on their tops, and went so simply and plainly to the point, was flushed and very nervous himself; for, though he thought of her marriage at some time or another as a thing that was to be, still it had seemed a long way off. And now, now it was come, and little Lily was actually going to be married — going away — and her place would know her no more; and her greeting and her music would be missed in the evening, and the garden lonely, and the Elms dark, without Lily.

‘And he wants to marry my little Lily, if she’ll have him. And what does my darling wish me to say to him?’ and he spoke very cheerily.

‘My darling, you’re my darling; and your little Lily will never, never leave you. She’ll stay.’ And here the little speech stopped, for she was crying, with her arms about his neck; and the old man cried, too, and smiled over her, and patted her gracious head, with a little trembling laugh, and said, ‘God bless you, my treasure.’

‘Well, little Lily, will you have him?’ he said, after a little pause.

‘No, my darling, no!’ she answered, still crying.

‘You won’t have him?’

‘No — no — never!’

‘Well, little Lily, I won’t answer his letter today; there’s no hurry, you know. And, if you are of the same mind tomorrow, you can just say you wish me to write.’

‘Change, I can’t; my answer will always be the same — always the same.’

And she kissed him again, and went toward the door; but she turned back, drying her eyes, with a smile, and said —

‘No, your little Lily will stay with her darling old man, and be a pleasant old maid, like Aunt Becky: and I’ll play and sing your favourite airs, and Sally and I will keep the house; and we’ll be happier in the Elms, I’m determined, than ever we were — and won’t you call me, darling, when you’re going out?’

So little Lily ran away, and up stairs; and as she left the study and its beloved tenant, at every step the air seemed to darken round her, and her heart to sink. And she turned the key in her door, and threw herself on the bed; and, with her face to the pillow, cried as if her heart would break.

So the summer had mellowed into autumn, and the fall of the leaf, and Devereux did not return; and, it was alleged in the club, on good authority, that he was appointed on the staff of the Commander of the Forces; and Puddock had a letter from him, dated in England, with little or no news in it; and Dr. Walsingham had a long epistle from Malaga, from honest Dan Loftus, full of Spanish matter for Irish history, and stating, with many regrets, that his honourable pupil had taken ill of a fever. And this bit of news speedily took wind, and was discussed with a good deal of interest, and some fun, at the club; and the odds were freely given and taken upon the event.

The politics of Belmont were still pretty much in the old position. The general had not yet returned, and Aunt Rebecca and Gertrude fought pitched battles, as heretofore, on the subject of Dangerfield. That gentleman had carried so many points in his life by simply waiting, that he was nothing daunted by the obstacles which the caprice of the young lady presented to the immediate accomplishment of his plans. And those which he once deliberately formed, were never abandoned for trifles.

So when Aunt Becky and Miss Gertrude at length agreed on an armistice — the conditions being that the question of Mr. Dangerfield’s bliss or misery was to stand over for judgment until the general’s return, which could not now be deferred more than two or three weeks — the amorous swain, on being apprised of the terms by Aunt Rebecca, acquiesced with alacrity, in a handsome, neat, and gallant little speech, and kissed Aunt Rebecca’s slender and jewelled hand, with a low bow and a grim smile, all which she received very graciously.

Of course, Dangerfield knew pretty well how matters stood; he was not a man to live in a dream; facts were his daily bread. He knew to a month how old he was, and pretty exactly how time had dealt with his personal charms. He had a very exact and cynical appreciation of the terms on which Miss Chattesworth would — if at all — become and continue to be his wife. But he wanted her — she suited him exactly, and all he needed to make his kingdom sure, when he had obtained her, was his legal rights. He was no Petruchio; neither was it his theory to rule by love. He had a different way. Without bluster, and without wheedling, he had the art of making those who were under his rule perfectly submissive; sooner or later they all came to fear him as a child does a spectre. He had no misgivings about the peace of his household.

In the meantime Gertrude grew happier and more like herself, and Aunt Rebecca had her own theories about the real state of that young lady’s affections, and her generally unsuspected relations with others.

Aunt Rebecca called at the Elms to see Lilias Walsingham, and sat down beside her on the sofa.

‘Lily, child, you’re not looking yourself. I’ll send you some drops. You must positively nurse yourself. I’m almost sorry I did not bring Dr. Toole.’

‘Indeed I’m glad you did not, Aunt Becky; I take excellent care of myself. I have not been out for three whole days.’

‘And you must not budge, darling, while this east wind continues. D’ye mind? And what do you think, my dear, I do believe I’ve discovered the secret reason of Gertrude’s repugnance to Mr. Dangerfield’s most advantageous offer.’

‘Oh, indeed!’ said Lily, becoming interested.

‘Well, I suppose you suspected she had a secret?’ said Aunt Rebecca.

‘I can only say, dear Aunt Becky, she has not told it to me.’

‘Now, listen to me, my dear,’ said Aunt Becky, laying her fan upon Lily’s arm. ‘So sure as you sit there, Gertrude likes somebody, and I think I shall soon know who he is. Can you conjecture, my dear?’ And Aunt Rebecca paused, looking, Lilias thought, rather pale, and with a kind of smile too.

‘No,’ said Lilias; ‘no, I really can’t.’

‘Well, maybe when I tell you I’ve reason to think he’s one of our officers here. Eh? Can you guess?’ said Aunt Becky, holding her fan to her mouth, and looking straight before her.

It was now Lily’s turn to look pale for a moment, and then to blush so much that her ears tingled, and her eyes dropped to the carpet. She had time to recover, though, for Aunt Becky, as I’ve said, was looking straight before her, a little pale, awaiting the result of Lily’s presumed ruminations. A moment satisfied her it could not be Devereux, and she was soon quite herself again.

‘An officer! no, Aunt Becky — there certainly is Captain Cluffe, who always joins your party when you and Gertrude go down to hear the band, and Lieutenant Puddock, too, who does the same — but you know —’

‘Well, my dear, all in good time. Gertrude’s very secret, and proud too; but I shall know very soon. I’ve ascertained, my dear, that an officer came under the window the other evening, and sang a verse of a French chanson, from the meadow, in a cloak, if you please, with a guitar. I could name his name, my dear —’

‘Do pray tell me,’ said Lily, whose curiosity was all alive.

‘Why — a — not yet, my dear,’ answered Aunt Becky, looking down; ‘there are — there’s a reason — but the affair, I may tell you, began, in earnest, on the very day on which she refused Mr. Mervyn. But I forgot you did not know that either — however, you’ll never mention it.’ And she kissed her cheek, calling her ‘my wise little Lily.’

‘And my dear, it has been going on so regularly ever since, with, till very lately, so little disguise, that I only wonder everybody doesn’t see it as plain as I do myself; and Lily, my dear,’ continued Aunt Rebecca, energetically, rising from the sofa, as some object caught her eye through the glass-door in the garden, ‘your beautiful roses are all trailing in the mud. What on earth is Hogan about? and there, see, just at the door, a boxful of nails! — I’d nail his ear to the wall if he were mine,’ and Aunt Rebecca glanced sharply through the glass, this way and that, for the offending gardener, who, happily, did not appear. Then off went Aunt Becky to something else; and in a little time remembered the famous academy in Martin’s-row, and looking at her watch, took her leave in a prodigious hurry, and followed by Dominick, in full livery, and two dogs, left Lilias again to the society of her own sad thoughts.

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