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

Chapter 59

Telling How a Coach Drew up at the Elms, and Two Fine Ladies, Dressed for the Ball, Stepped in.

It was now more than a fortnight since Sturk’s mishap in the Butcher’s Wood, and he was still alive, but still under the spell of coma. He was sinking, but very slowly; yet it was enough to indicate the finality of that ‘life in death.’

Dangerfield once or twice attacked Toole rather tartly about Sturk’s case.

‘Can nothing be done to make him speak? Five minutes’ consciousness would unravel the mystery.’

Then Toole would shrug, and say, ‘Pooh — pooh! my dear Sir, you know nothing.’

‘Why, there’s life!’

‘Ay, the mechanical functions of life, but the brain’s over-powered,’ replied Toole, with a wise frown.

‘Well, relieve it.’

‘By Jupiter, Sir, you make me laugh,’ cried Toole with a grin, throwing up his eyebrows. ‘I take it, you think we doctors can work miracles.’

‘Quite the reverse, Sir,’ retorted Dangerfield, with a cold scoff. ‘But you say he may possibly live six weeks more; and all that time the wick is smouldering, though the candle’s short — can’t you blow it in, and give us even one minute’s light?’

‘Ay, a smouldering wick and a candle if you please; but enclosed in a glass bottle, how the deuce are you to blow it?’

‘Pish!’ said the silver spectacles, with an icy flash from his glasses.

‘Why, Sir, you’ll excuse me — but you don’t understand,’ said Toole, a little loftily. ‘There are two contused wounds along the scalp as long as that pencil — the whole line of each partially depressed, the depression all along being deep enough to lay your finger in. You can ask Irons, who dresses them when I’m out of the way.’

‘I’d rather ask you, Sir,’ replied Dangerfield, in turn a little high.

‘Well, you can’t apply the trepan, the surface is too extended, and all unsound, and won’t bear it —‘twould be simply killing him on the spot — don’t you see? and there’s no way else to relieve him.’

General Chattesworth had not yet returned. On his way home he had wandered aside, and visited the fashionable wells of Buxton, intending a three days’ sojourn, to complete his bracing up for the winter. But the Pool of Siloam did not work pleasantly in the case of the robust general, who was attacked after his second dip with a smart fit of the gout in his left great-toe, where it went on charmingly, without any flickering upward, quite stationary and natural for three weeks.

About the end of which time the period of the annual ball given by the officers of the Royal Irish Artillery arrived. It was a great event in the town. To poor Mrs. Sturk, watching by her noble Barney, it seemed, of course, a marvellous insensibility and an outrage. But the world must follow its instinct and vocation, and attend to its business and amuse itself too, though noble Barneys lie a-dying here and there.

Aunt Becky and Gertrude drew up at the Elms, the rector’s house, with everything very handsome about them, and two laced footmen, with flambeaux, and went in to see little Lily, on their way to the ball, and to show their dresses, which were very fine, indeed, and to promise to come next day and tell her all the news; for Lily, as I mentioned, was an invalid, and balls and flicflacs were not for her.

Little Lily smiled her bright girlish smile, and threw both her arms round grand Aunt Becky’s neck.

‘You good dear Aunt Becky, ’twas so kind and like you to come — you and Gertie. And oh, Geminie! what a grand pair of ladies!’ and she made a little rustic courtesy, like Nell in the farce. ‘And I never saw this before (a near peep at Gertrude’s necklace), and Aunt Becky, what beautiful lace. And does not she look handsome, Gertie? I never saw her look so handsome. She’ll be the finest figure there. There’s no such delicate waist anywhere.’ And she set her two slender little forefingers and thumbs together, as if spanning it. ‘You’ve no chance beside her, Gertie; she’ll set all the young fellows a-sighing and simpering.’

‘You wicked little rogue! I’ll beat you black and blue, for making fun of old Aunt Becky,’ cried Miss Rebecca, and ran a little race at her, about two inches to a step; her fan raised in her finger and thumb, and a jolly smile twinkling in her face, for she knew it was true about her waist, and she liked to be quizzed by the daring little girl. Her diamonds were on too, and her last look in her mirror had given her a satisfactory assurance, and she always played with little Lily, when they met; everyone grew gay and girlish with her.

So they stayed a full quarter of an hour, and the footman coughing laboriously outside the window reminded Aunt Rebecca at last how time flew; and Lily was for sitting down and playing a minuet and a country dance, and making them rehearse their steps, and calling in old Sally to witness the spectacle before they went; and so she and Aunt Becky had another little sportive battle — they never met, and seldom parted, without one. How was it that when gay little Lily provoked these little mimic skirmishes Aunt Becky would look for a second or two an inexpressibly soft and loving look upon her, and become quite girlish and tender? I think there is a way to every heart, and some few have the gift to reach it unconsciously and always.

So away rustled the great ladies, leaving Lily excited, and she stood at the window, with flushed cheek, and her fingers on the sash, looking after them, and she came back with a little smile and tears in her eyes. She sat down, with a bright colour in her cheeks, and did play a country dance, and then a merry old Irish air, full of frolic and spirit, on the harpsichord; and gentle old Sally’s face peeped in with a wistful smile, at the unwonted sounds.

‘Come, sober old Sally, my sweetheart! I’ve taken a whim in my head, and you shall dress me, for to the ball I’ll go.’

‘Tut, tut, Miss Lily, darling,’ said old Sally, with a smile and a shake of the head. ‘What would the doctors say?’

‘What they please, my darling.’

And up stood little Lily, with her bright colour and lustrous eyes.

‘Angel bright!’ said the old woman, looking in that beloved and lovely young face, and quite ‘filling up,’ as the saying is, ‘there is not your peer on earth — no — not one among them all to compare with our Miss Lilias,’ and she paused, smiling, and then she said —‘But, my darling, sure you know you weren’t outside the door this five weeks.’

‘And is not that long enough, and too long, to shut me up, you cruel old woman? Come, come, Sally, girl, I’m resolved, and to the ball I’ll go; don’t be frightened. I’ll cover my head, and send in for Aunt Becky, and only just peep in, muffled up, for ten minutes; and I’ll go and come in the chair, and what harm can I take by it?’

Was it spirit? Did she want to show the folk that she did not shrink from meeting somebody; or that, though really ill, she ventured to peep in, through sheer liking for the scrape of the fiddle, and the fun, to show them that at least she was not heart-sick? Or was it the mysterious attraction, the wish to see him once more, just through her hood, far away, with an unseen side glance, and to build endless speculations, and weave the filmy web of hope, for who knows how long, out of these airy tints, a strange, sad smile, or deep, wild glance, just seen and fixed for ever in memory? She had given him up in words, but her heart had not given him up. Poor little Lily! She hoped all that was so bad in him would one day mend. He was a hero still — and, oh! she hoped, would be true to her. So Lily’s love, she scarce knew how, lived on this hope — the wildest of all wild hopes — waiting on the reformation of a rake.

‘But, darling Miss Lily, don’t you know the poor master would break his heart if he thought you could do such a wild thing as to go out again ‘the doctors’ orders, at this time o’ night, and into that hot place, and out again among the cold draughts.’

Little Lily paused.

‘’Tis only a step, Sally; do you honestly think it would vex him?’

‘Vex him, darling? no, but break his heart. Why, he’s never done asking about you, and — oh! its only joking you are, my darling, that’s all.’

‘No, Sally, dear love, I meant it,’ said little Lily, sadly; ‘but I suppose it was a wild thought, and I’m better at home.’

And she played a march that had somehow a dash of the pathetic in it, in a sort of reverie, and she said:

‘Sally, do you know that?’

And Sally’s gentle face grew reflective, and she said:

‘Sure, Miss Lily, that’s the tune — isn’t it — the Artillery plays when they march out to the park?’

Lily nodded and smiled, and the tune moved on, conjuring up its pictured reverie. Those review days were grand things when little Lily was a child — magnanimous expenditure of hair and gunpowder was there. There sat General Chattesworth, behind his guns, which were now blazing away like fun, wearing his full uniform, point cravat and ruffles, and that dignified and somewhat stern aspect which he put on with the rest of his review-day costume, bestriding his cream-coloured charger, Bombardier, and his plume and powdered ails de pigeon, hardly distinguishable from the smoke which enveloped him, as a cloud does a demigod in an allegorical picture.

Chord after chord brought up all this moving pageant, unseen by Sally’s dim old eyes, before the saddened gaze of little Lily, whose life was growing to a retrospect. She stood in the sunny street, again a little child, holding old Sally by the hand, on a soft summer day. The sentries presented arms, and the corps marched out resplendent. Old General Chattesworth, as proud as Lucifer, on Bombardier, who nods and champs, prancing and curvetting, to the admiration of the women; but at heart the mildest of quadrupeds, though passing, like an impostor as he was, for a devil incarnate; the band thundering melodiously that dashing plaintive march, and exhilarating and firing the souls of all Chapelizod. Up went the windows all along the street, the rabble-rout of boys yelled and huzzaed like mad. The maids popped their mob-caps out of the attics, and giggled, and hung out at the risk of their necks. The serving men ran out on the hall-door steps. The village roués emerged in haste from their public houses. The whole scene round and along from top to bottom, was grinning and agape. Nature seemed to brighten up at sight of them; and the sun himself came out all in his best, with an unparalleled effulgence.

Yes, the town was proud of its corps, and well it might. As gun after gun, with its complement of men and its lieutenant fireworkers, with a ‘right wheel,’ rolled out of the gate upon the broad street, not a soul could look upon the lengthening pageant of blue and scarlet, with its symmetrical diagonals of snowy belt and long-flapped white cartouche boxes, moving together with measured swing; its laced cocked-hats, leggings, and courtly white shorts and vests, and ruffles, and all its buttons and brasses flashing up to the sun, without allowing it was a fine spirited sight.

And Lily, beholding the phantom regiment, with mournful eyes, played their grand sad march proudly as they passed.

They looked so dashing and so grand; they were the tallest, shapeliest fellows. Faith, I can tell you, it was no such trifle, pulling along all those six and four pounders; and they needed to be athletic lads; and the officers were, with hardly an exception, martial, high-bred gentlemen, with aristocratic bearing, and some of them, without question, confoundedly handsome.

And always there was one light, tall shape; one dark handsome face, with darker, stranger eyes, and a nameless grace and interest, moving with the march of the gay pageant, before her mind’s eye, to this harmonious and regretful music, which, as she played on, and her reverie deepened, grew slower and more sad, till old Sally’s voice awoke the dreamer. The chords ceased, the vision melted, and poor little Lily smiled sadly and kindly on old Sally, and took her candle, and went up with her to her bed.

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