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

Chapter 49

Swans in the Water.

‘We’re coming to something — what’s that?’ said Puddock, as a long row of black stakes presented themselves at some distance ahead, in the dusky moonlight, slanting across the stream.

‘’Tis the salmon-weir!’ roared Cluffe with an oath that subsided into something like a sickening prayer.

It was only a fortnight before that a tipsy fellow had been found drowned in the net. Cluffe had lost his head much more than Puddock, though Cluffe had fought duels. But then, he really could not swim a bit, and he was so confoundedly buckled up.

‘Sit to the right. Trim the boat, Sir!’ said little Puddock.

‘Trim the devil!’ bawled Cluffe, to whom this order of Puddock’s, it must be owned a useless piece of marinetism in their situation, was especially disgusting; and he added, looking furiously ahead —’‘Tisn’t the boat I’d trim, I promise you: you — you ridiculous murderer!’

Just then Puddock’s end of the boat touched a stone, or a post, or something in the current, and that in which Cluffe sat came wheeling swiftly round across the stream, and brought the gallant captain so near the bank that, with a sudden jerk, he caught the end of a branch that stretched far over the water, and, spite of the confounded tightness of his toilet, with the energy of sheer terror, climbed a good way; but, reaching a point where the branch forked, he could get no further, though he tugged like a brick. But what was a fat fellow of fifty, laced, and buckled, and buttoned up, like poor Cluffe — with his legs higher up among the foliage than his head and body — to do, and with his right calf caught in the fork of a branch, so as to arrest all progress, and especially as the captain was plainly too much for the branch, which was drooping toward the water, and emitting sounds premonitory of a smash.

With a long, screaking crash the branch stooped down to the water, and, so soon as the old element made itself acquainted with those parts that reached it first, the gallant captain, with a sort of sob, redoubled his efforts, and down came the faithless bough, more and more perpendicularly, until his nicely got-up cue and bag, then his powdered head, and finally Captain Cluffe’s handsome features, went under the surface. When this occurred, he instantaneously disengaged his legs with a vague feeling that his last struggle above water was over.

His feet immediately touched the bottom; he stood erect, little above his middle, and quite out of the main current, within half-a-dozen steps of the bank, and he found himself — he scarcely knew how — on terra firma, impounded in a little flower-garden, with lilacs and laburnums, and sweet-briars, and, through a window close at hand, whom should he see but Dangerfield, who was drying his hands in a towel; and, as Cluffe stood for a moment, letting the water pour down through his sleeves, he further saw him make some queer little arrangements, and eventually pour out and swallow a glass of brandy, and was tempted to invoke his aid on the spot; but some small incivilities which he had bestowed upon Dangerfield, when he thought he cherished designs upon Aunt Rebecca, forbade; and at that moment he spied the little wicket that opened upon the road, and Dangerfield stept close up to the window, and cried sternly, ‘Who’s there?’ with his grim spectacles close to the window.

The boyish instinct of ‘hide and seek’ took possession of Cluffe, and he glided forth from the precincts of the Brass Castle upon the high road, just as the little hall-door was pushed open, and he heard the harsh tones of Dangerfield challenging the gooseberry bushes and hollyhocks, and thrashing the evergreens with his cane.

Cluffe hied straight to his lodgings, and ordered a sack posset. Worthy Mrs. Mason eyed him in silent consternation, drenched and dishevelled, wild, and discharging water from every part of his clothing and decorations, as he presented himself without a hat, before her dim dipt candle in the hall.

‘I’ll take that — that vessel, if you please, Sir, that’s hanging about your neck,’ said the mild and affrighted lady, meaning Puddock’s guitar, through the circular orifice of which, under the chords, the water with which it was filled occasionally splashed.

‘Oh — eh? — the instrument? — confound it!’ and rather sheepishly he got the gray red and gold ribbon over his dripping head, and placing it in her hand without explanation, he said —‘A warming-pan as quickly as may be, I beg, Mrs. Mason — and the posset, I do earnestly request. You see — I— I’ve been nearly drowned — and — and I can’t answer for consequences if there be one minute’s delay.

And up he went streaming, with Mrs. Mason’s candle, to his bed-room, and dragged off his clinging garments, and dried his fat body, like a man coming out of a bath, and roared for hot water for his feet, and bellowed for the posset and warming-pan, and rolled into his bed, and kept the whole house in motion.

And so soon as he had swallowed his cordial, and toasted his sheets, and with the aid of his man rolled himself in a great blanket, and clapped his feet in a tub of hot water, and tumbled back again into his bed, he bethought him of Puddock, and ordered his man to take his compliments to Captain Burgh and Lieutenant Lillyman, the tenants of the nearest lodging-house, and to request either to come to him forthwith on a matter of life or death.

Lillyman was at home, and came.

‘Puddock’s drowned, my dear Lillyman, and I’m little better. The ferry boat broke away with us. Do go down to the adjutant — they ought to raise the salmon nets — I’m very ill myself — very ill, indeed — else I’d have assisted; but you know me, Lillyman. Poor Puddock —’tis a sad business — but lose no time.’

‘And can’t he swim?’ asked Lillyman, aghast.

‘Swim? — ay, like a stone, poor fellow! If he had only thrown himself out, and held by me, hang it, I’d have brought him to shore; but poor Puddock, he lost his head. And I— you see me here — don’t forget to tell them the condition you found me in, and — and — now don’t lose a moment.’

So off went Lillyman to give the alarm at the barrack.

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