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

Chapter 43

Showing How Charles Nutter’s Blow Descended, and what Part the Silver Spectacles Bore in the Crisis.

In the morning the distress and keepers were in Sturk’s house.

We must not be too hard upon Nutter. ’Tis a fearful affair, and no child’s play, this battle of life. Sturk had assailed him like a beast of prey; not Nutter, to be sure, only Lord Castlemallard’s agent. Of that functionary his wolfish instinct craved the flesh, bones, and blood. Sturk had no other way to live and grow fat. Nutter or he must go down. The little fellow saw his great red maw and rabid fangs at his throat. If he let him off, he would devour him, and lie in his bed, with his cap on, and his caudles and cordials all round, as the wolf did by Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmamma; and with the weapon which had come to hand — a heavy one too — he was going, with Heaven’s help, to deal him a brainblow.

When Sturk heard in the morning that the blow was actually struck, he jumped out of bed, and was taken with a great shivering fit, sitting on the side of it. Little Mrs. Sturk, as white as her nightcap with terror, was yet decisive in emergency, and bethought her of the brandy bottle, two glasses from which the doctor swallowed before his teeth gave over chattering, and a more natural tint returned to his blue face.

‘Oh! Barney, dear, are we ruined?’ faltered poor little Mrs. Sturk.

‘Ruined, indeed!’ cried Sturk, with an oath, ‘Come in here.’ He thought his study was on the same floor with his bed-room, as it had been in old times in their house in Limerick, ten or twelve years before.

‘That’s the nursery, Barney, dear,’ she said, thinking, in the midst of the horror, like a true mother, of the children’s sleep.

Then he remembered and ran down to the study, and pulled out a sheaf of bills and promissory notes, and renewals thereof, making a very respectable show.

‘Ruined, indeed!’ he cried, hoarsely, talking to his poor little wife in the tones and with the ferocity which the image of Nutter; with which his brain was filled, called up. ‘Look, I say, here’s one fellow owes me that — and that — and that — and there — there’s a dozen in that by another — there’s two more sets there pinned together — and here’s an account of them all — two thousand two hundred — and you may say three hundred — two thousand three hundred — owed me here; and that miscreant won’t give me a day.’

‘Is it the rent, Barney?’

‘The rent? To be sure; what else should it be?’ shouted the doctor, with a stamp.

And so pale little Mrs. Sturk stole out of the room, as her lord with bitter mutterings pitched his treasure of bad bills back again into the escritoire: and she heard him slam the study door and run down stairs to browbeat and curse the men in the hall, for he had lost his head somewhat, between panic and fury. He was in his stockings and slippers, with an old flowered silk dressing-gown, and nothing more but his shirt, and looked, they said, like a madman. One of the fellows was smoking, and Sturk snatched the pipe from his mouth, and stamped it to atoms on the floor, roaring at them to know what the —— brought them there; and without a pause for an answer, thundered, ‘And I suppose you’ll not let me take my box of instruments out of the house — mind, it’s worth fifty pounds; and curse me, if one of our men dies for want of them in hospital, I’ll indict you both, and your employer along with you, for murder!’ And so he railed on, till his voice failed him with a sort of choking, and there was a humming in his ears, and a sort of numbness in his head, and he thought he was going to have a fit; and then up the stairs he went again, and into his study, and resolved to have Nutter out — and it flashed upon him that he’d say, ‘Pay the rent first;’ and then — what next? why he’d post him all over Dublin, and Chapelizod, and Leixlip, where the Lord Lieutenant and Court were.

And down he sat to a sheet of paper, with his left hand clenched on the table, and his teeth grinding together, as he ransacked his vocabulary for befitting terms; but alas, his right hand shook so that his penmanship would not do, in fact, it half frightened him. ‘By my soul! I believe something bad has happened me,’ he muttered, and popped up his window, and looked out, half dreaming over the church-yard on the park beyond, and the dewy overhanging hill, all pleasantly lighted up in the morning sun.

While this was going on, little Mrs. Sturk, who on critical occasions took strong resolutions promptly, made a wonderfully rapid toilet, and let herself quietly out of the street door. She had thought of Dr. Walsingham; but Sturk had lately, in one of his imperious freaks of temper, withdrawn his children from the good doctor’s catechetical class, and sent him besides, one of his sturdy, impertinent notes — and the poor little woman concluded there was no chance there. She knew little of the rector — of the profound humility and entire placability of that noble soul.

Well, she took the opposite direction, and turning her back on the town, walked at her quickest pace toward the Brass Castle. It was not eight o’clock yet, but the devil had been up betimes and got through a good deal of his day’s work, as we have seen. The poor little woman had made up her mind to apply to Dangerfield. She had liked his talk at Belmont, where she had met him; and he enquired about the poor, and listened to some of her woful tales with a great deal of sympathy; and she knew he was very rich, and that he appreciated her Barney, and so she trudged on, full of hope, though I don’t think many people who knew the world better would have given a great deal for her chance.

Dangerfield received the lady very affably, in his little parlour, where having already despatched his early meal, he was writing letters. He looked hard at her when she came in, and again when she sat down; and when she had made an end of her long and dismal tale, he opened a sort of strong box, and took out a thin quarto and read, turning the leaves rapidly over.

‘Ay, here we have him — Chapelizod — Sturk, Barnabas — Surgeon, R.I.A., assignee of John Lowe — hey! one gale day, as you call it, only! — September. How came that? Rent, £40. Why, then, he owes a whole year’s rent, £40, Ma’am. September, and his days of grace have expired. He ought to have paid it.’

Here there came a dreadful pause, during which nothing was heard but the sharp ticking of his watch on the table.

‘Well, Ma’am,’ he said, ‘when a thing comes before me, I say yes or no promptly. I like your husband, and I’ll lend him the amount of his rent.’

Poor little Mrs. Sturk jumped up in an ecstasy, and then felt quite sick, and sat down almost fainting, with a deathlike smile.

‘There’s but one condition I attach, that you tell me truly, my dear Ma’am, whether you came to me directly or indirectly at his suggestion.’

No, indeed, she had not; it was all her own thought; she had not dared to mention it to him, lest he should forbid her, and now she should be almost afraid to tell him where she had been.

‘He’ll not be very angry, depend on’t, my good Madam; you did wisely in coming to me. I respect your sense and energy; and should you hereafter stand in need of a friendly office, I beg you’ll remember once who is disposed to help you.’

Then he sat down and wrote with a flying pen —

‘MY DEAR SIR — I have just learned from Mrs. Sturk that you have an immediate concern for forty pounds, to which, I venture to surmise, will be added some fees, etc. I take leave, therefore, to send herewith fifty guineas, which I trust will suffice for this troublesome affair. We can talk hereafter about repayment. Mrs. Sturk has handed me a memorandum of the advance.

‘Your very obedient, humble servant,

GILES DANGERFIELD.

Then poor little Mrs. Sturk was breaking out into a delirium of gratitude. But he put his hand upon her arm kindly, and with a little bow and an emphasis, he said —

‘Pray, not a word, my dear Madam. Just write a line;’ and he slid his desk before her with a sheet of paper on it; ‘and say Mr. Dangerfield has this day handed me a loan of fifty guineas for my husband, Doctor Barnabas Sturk. Now sign, if you please, and add the date. Very good!’

‘I’m afraid you can hardly read it — my fingers tremble a little,’ said Mrs. Sturk, with a wild little deprecatory titter, and for the first time very near crying.

‘’Tis mighty well,’ said Dangerfield, politely; and he accompanied the lady with the note and fifty guineas, made up in a little rouleau, fast in her hand, across his little garden, and with —‘A fine morning truly,’ and ‘God bless you, Madam,’ and one of his peculiar smiles, he let her out through his little wicket on the high road. And so away went Mrs. Sturk, scarce feeling the ground under her feet; and Giles Dangerfield, carrying his white head very erect, with an approving conscience, and his silver spectacles flashing through the leaves of his lilacs and laburnums, returned to his parlour.

Mrs. Sturk, who could hardly keep from running, glided along at a wonderful rate, wondering now and then how quickly the whole affair — so awful as it seemed to her in magnitude — was managed. Dangerfield had neither hurried her nor himself, and yet he despatched the matter and got her away in less than five minutes.

In little more than a quarter of an hour after, Dr. Sturk descended his door-steps in full costume, and marched down the street and passed the artillery barrack, from his violated fortress, as it were, with colours flying, drums beating, and ball in mouth. He paid the money down at Nutter’s table, in the small room at the Phoenix, where he sat in the morning to receive his rents, eyeing the agent with a fixed smirk of hate and triumph, and telling down each piece on the table with a fierce clink that had the ring of a curse in it. Little Nutter met his stare of suppressed fury with an eye just as steady and malign and a countenance blackened by disappointment. Not a word was heard but Sturk’s insolent tone counting the gold at every clang on the table.

Nutter shoved him a receipt across the table, and swept the gold into his drawer.

‘Go over, Tom,’ he said to the bailiff, in a stern low tone, ‘and see the men don’t leave the house till the fees are paid.’

And Sturk laughed a very pleasant laugh, you may be sure, over his shoulder at Nutter, as he went out at the door.

When he was gone Nutter stood up, and turned his face toward the empty grate. I have seen some plain faces once or twice look so purely spiritual, and others at times so infernal, as to acquire in their homeliness a sort of awful grandeur; and from every feature of Nutter’s dark wooden face was projected at that moment a supernatural glare of baffled hatred that dilated to something almost sublime.

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