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

Chapter 42

In which Dr. Sturk Tries this Way and that for a Reprieve on the Eve of Execution.

So time crept on, and the day arrived when Sturk must pay his rent, or take the ugly consequences. The day before he spent in Dublin financiering. It was galling and barren work. He had to ask favours of fellows whom he hated, and to stand their refusals, and pretend to believe their lying excuses, and appear to make quite light of it, though every failure stunned him like a blow of a bludgeon, and as he strutted jauntily off with a bilious smirk, he was well nigh at his wits’ end. It was dark as he rode out by the low road to Chapelizod — crest-fallen, beaten — scowling in the darkness through his horse’s ears along the straight black line of road, and wishing, as he passed the famous Dog-house, that he might be stopped and plundered, and thus furnished with a decent excuse for his penniless condition, and a plea in which all the world would sympathise for a short indulgence — and, faith! he did not much care if they sent a bullet through his harassed brain. But the highwaymen, like the bankers, seemed to know, by instinct, that he had not a guinea, and declined to give him even the miserable help he coveted.

When he got home he sent down for Cluffe to the Phoenix, and got him to take Nutter, who was there also, aside, and ask him for a little time, or to take part of the rent. Though the latter would not have helped him much; for he could not make out ten pounds just then, were it to save his life. But Nutter only said —

‘The rent’s not mine; I can’t give it or lose it; and Sturk’s not safe. Will you lend it? I can’t.’

This brought Cluffe to reason. He had opened the business, like a jolly companion, in a generous, full-blooded way.

‘Well, by Jove, Nutter, I can’t blame you; for you see, between ourselves, I’m afraid ’tis as you say. We of the Royal Irish have done, under the rose, you know, all we can; and I’m sorry the poor devil has run himself into a scrape; but hang it, we must have a conscience; and if you think there’s a risk of losing it, why I don’t see that I can press you.

The reader must not suppose when Cluffe said, ‘we of the Royal Irish,’ in connection with some pecuniary kindness shown to Sturk, that that sensible captain had given away any of his money to the surgeon; but Sturk, in their confidential conference, had hinted something about a ‘helping hand,’ which Cluffe coughed off, and mentioned that Puddock had lent him fifteen pounds the week before.

And so he had, though little Puddock was one of the poorest officers in the corps. But he had no vices, and husbanded his little means carefully, and was very kindly and off-hand in assisting to the extent of his little purse a brother in distress, and never added advice when so doing — for he had high notions of politeness — or, in all his life, divulged any of these little money transactions.

Sturk stood at his drawing-room window, with his hat on, looking towards the Phoenix, and waiting for Cluffe’s return. When he could stand the suspense no longer, he went down and waited at his door-steps. And the longer Cluffe stayed the more did Sturk establish himself in the conviction that the interview had prospered, and that his ambassador was coming to terms with Nutter. He did not know that the entire question had been settled in a minute-and-a-half, and that Cluffe was at that moment rattling away at backgammon with his arch-enemy, Toole, in a corner of the club parlour.

It was not till Cluffe, as he emerged from the Phoenix, saw Sturk’s figure stalking in the glimpses of the moon, under the village elm, that he suddenly recollected and marched up to him. Sturk stood, with his face and figure mottled over with the shadows of the moving leaves and the withered ones dropping about him, his hands in his pockets, and a crown-piece — I believe it was his last available coin just then — shut up fast and tight in his cold fingers, with his heart in his mouth, and whistling a little to show his unconcern.

‘Well,’ said Sturk, ‘he won’t, of course?’

Cluffe shook his head.

‘Very good — I’ll manage it another way,’ said Sturk, confidently. ‘Good-night;’ and Sturk walked off briskly towards the turnpike.

‘He might have said “thank you,” I think,’ Cluffe said, looking after him with a haughty leer —‘mixing myself up in his plaguy affairs, and asking favours of fellows like Nutter.’ But just then, having reached the corner next the Phoenix, Sturk hesitated, and Cluffe, thinking he might possibly turn back and ask him for money, turned on his heel, and, like a prudent fellow, trudged rapidly off to his lodgings.

Toole and O’Flaherty were standing in the doorway of the Phoenix, observing the brief and secret meeting under the elm.

‘That’s Sturk,’ said Toole.

O’Flaherty grunted acquiescence.

Toole watched attentively till the gentlemen separated, and then glancing on O’Flaherty from the corner of his eye, with a knowing smile, ‘tipped him the wink,’ as the phrase went in those days.

‘An affair of honour?’ said O’Flaherty, squaring himself. He smelt powder in everything.

‘More like an affair of dishonour,’ said Toole, buttoning his coat. ‘He’s been “kiting” all over the town. Nutter can distrain for his rent tomorrow, and Cluffe called him outside the bar to speak with him; put that and that together, Sir.’ And home went Toole.

Sturk, indeed, had no plan, and was just then incapable of forming any. He changed his route, not knowing why, and posted over the bridge, and a good way along the Inchicore road, and then turned about and strode back again and over the bridge, without stopping, and on towards Dublin; and suddenly the moon shone out, and he recollected how late it was growing, and so turned about and walked homeward.

As he passed by the row of houses looking across the road towards the river, from Mr. Irons’s hall-door step a well-known voice accosted him —

‘A thweet night, doctor — the moon tho thilver bright — the air tho thoft!’

It was little Puddock, whose hand and face were raised toward the sweet regent of the sky.

‘Mighty fine night,’ said Sturk, and he paused for a second. It was Puddock’s way to be more than commonly friendly and polite with any man who owed him money; and Sturk, who thought, perhaps rightly, that the world of late had been looking cold and black upon him, felt, in a sort of way, thankful for the greeting and its cordial tone.

‘A night like this,’ pursued the little lieutenant, ‘my dear Sir, brings us under the marble balconies of the palace of the Capulets, and sets us repeating “On such a night sat Dido on the wild seabanks”— you remember —“and with a willow wand, waved her love back to Carthage,”— or places us upon the haunted platform, where buried Denmark revisits the glimpses of the moon. My dear doctor, ’tis wonderful — isn’t it — how much of our enjoyment of Nature we owe to Shakespeare —‘twould be a changed world with us, doctor, if Shakespeare had not written —’ Then there was a little pause, Sturk standing still.

‘God be wi’ ye, lieutenant,’ said he, suddenly taking his hand. ‘If there were more men like you there would be fewer broken hearts in the world.’ And away went Sturk.

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