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

Chapter 64

Being a Night Scene, in which Miss Gertrude Chattesworth, Being Adjured by Aunt Becky, Makes Answer.

In Aunt Becky’s mind, the time could not be far off when the odd sort of relations existing between the Belmont family and Mr. Dangerfield must be defined. The Croesus himself, indeed, was very indulgent. He was assiduous and respectful; but he wisely abstained from pressing for an immediate decision, and trusted to reflection and to Aunt Becky’s good offices; and knew that his gold would operate by its own slow, but sure, gravitation.

At one time he had made up his mind to be peremptory — and politely to demand an unequivocal ‘yes,’ or ‘no.’ But a letter reached him from London; it was from a great physician there. Whatever was in it, the effect was to relieve his mind of an anxiety. He never, indeed, looked anxious, or moped like an ordinary man in blue-devils. But his servants knew when anything weighed upon his spirits, by his fierce, short, maniacal temper. But with the seal of that letter the spell broke, the evil spirit departed for a while, and the old jocose, laconic irony came back, and glittered whitely in the tall chair by the fire, and sipped its claret after dinner, and sometimes smoked its long pipe and grinned into the embers of the grate. At Belmont, there had been a skirmish over the broiled drum-sticks at supper, and the ladies had withdrawn in towering passions to their nightly devotions and repose.

Gertrude had of late grown more like herself, but was quite resolute against the Dangerfield alliance, which Aunt Becky fought for, the more desperately that in their private confidences under the poplar trees she had given the rich cynic of the silver spectacles good assurance of success.

Puddock drank tea at Belmont — nectar in Olympus — that evening. Was ever lieutenant so devoutly romantic? He had grown more fanatical and abject in his worship. He spoke less, and lisped in very low tones. He sighed often, and sometimes mightily; and ogled unhappily, and smiled lackadaisically. The beautiful damsel was, in her high, cold way, kind to the guest, and employed him about the room on little commissions, and listened to his speeches without hearing them, and rewarded them now and then with the gleam of a smile, which made his gallant little heart flutter up to his solitaire, and his honest powdered head giddy.

‘I marvel, brother,’ ejaculated Aunt Becky, suddenly, appearing in the parlour, where the general had made himself comfortable over his novel, and opening her address with a smart stamp on the floor. The veteran’s heart made a little jump, and he looked up over his gold spectacles.

‘I marvel, brother, what you can mean, desire, or intend, by all this ogling, sighing, and love-making; ’tis surely a strange way of forwarding Mr. Dangerfield’s affair.’

He might have blustered a little, as he sometimes did, for she had startled him, and her manner was irritating; but she had caught him in a sentimental passage between Lovelace and Miss Harlowe, which always moved him — and he showed no fight at all; but his innocent little light blue eyes looked up wonderingly and quite gently at her.

‘Who — I? What ogling, Sister Becky?’

‘You! tut! That foolish, ungrateful person, Lieutenant Puddock; what can you propose to yourself, brother, in bringing Lieutenant Puddock here? I hate him.’

‘Why, what about Puddock — what has he done?’ asked the general, with round eyes still, and closing his book on his finger.

‘What has he done! Why, he’s at your daughter’s feet,’ cried Aunt Becky, with scarlet cheeks, and flashing eyes; ‘and she — artful gipsy, has brought him there by positively making love to him.’

‘Sweet upon Toodie (the general’s old pet name for Gertrude); why, half the young fellows are — you know — pooh, pooh,’ and the general stood up with his back to the fire — looking uneasy; for, like many other men, he thought a woman’s eyes saw further in such a case than his.

‘Do you wish the young hussy — do you — to marry Lieutenant Puddock? I should not wonder! Why, of course, her fortune you and she may give away to whom you like; but remember, she’s young, and has been much admired, brother; and may make a great match; and in our day, young ladies were under direction, and did not marry without apprising their parents or natural guardians. Here’s Mr. Dangerfield, who proposes great settlements. Why won’t she have him? For my part, I think we’re little better than cheats; and I mean to write tomorrow morning and tell the poor gentleman that you and I have been bamboozling him to a purpose, and meant all along to marry the vixen to a poor lieutenant in your corps. Speak truth, and shame the devil, brother; for my part, I’m sick of the affair; I’m sick of deception, ingratitude, and odious fools.

Aunt Becky had vanished in a little whirlwind, leaving the general with his back to the fire, looking blank and uncomfortable. And from his little silver tankard he poured out a glassful of his mulled claret, not thinking, and smelled to it deliberately, as he used to do when he was tasting a new wine, and looked through it, and set the glass down, forgetting he was to drink it, for his thoughts were elsewhere.

On reaching her bed-room, which she did with impetuous haste, Aunt Becky shut the door with a passionate slam, and said, with a sort of choke and a sob, ‘There’s nought but ingratitude on earth — the odious, odious, odious person!’

And when, ten minutes after, her maid came in, she found Aunt Rebecca but little advanced in her preparations for bed; and her summons at the door was answered by a fierce and shrilly nose-trumpeting, and a stern ‘Come in, hussy — are you deaf, child?’ And when she came in, Aunt Becky was grim, and fussy, and her eyes red.

Miss Gertrude was that night arrived just on that dim and delicious plateau — that debatable land upon which the last waking reverie and the first dream of slumber mingle together in airy dance and shifting colours — when, on a sudden, she was recalled to a consciousness of her grave bed-posts, and damask curtains, by the voice of her aunt.

Sitting up, she gazed on the redoubted Aunt Becky through the lace of her bonnet de nuit, for some seconds, in a mystified and incredulous way.

Mistress Rebecca Chattesworth, on the other hand, had drawn the curtains, and stood, candle in hand, arrayed in her night-dress, like a ghost, only she had on a pink and green quilted dressing-gown loosely over it.

She was tall and erect, of course; but she looked softened and strange; and when she spoke, it was in quite a gentle, humble sort of way, which was perfectly strange to her niece.

‘Don’t be frightened, sweetheart,’ said she, and she leaned over and with her arm round her neck, kissed her. ‘I came to say a word, and just to ask you a question. I wish, indeed I do — Heaven knows, to do my duty; and, my dear child, will you tell me the whole truth — will you tell me truly? — You will, when I ask it as a kindness.’

There was a little pause, and Gertrude looked with a pale gaze upon her aunt.

‘Are you,’ said Aunt Becky —‘do you, Gertrude — do you like Lieutenant Puddock?’

‘Lieutenant Puddock!’ repeated the girl, with the look and gesture of a person in whose ear something strange has buzzed.

‘Because, if you really are in love with him, Gertie; and that he likes you; and that, in short —’ Aunt Becky was speaking very rapidly, but stopped suddenly.

‘In love with Lieutenant Puddock!’ was all that Miss Gertrude said.

‘Now, do tell me, Gertrude, if it be so — tell me, dear love. I know ’tis a hard thing to say,’ and Aunt Becky considerately began to fiddle with the ribbon at the back of her niece’s nightcap, so that she need not look in her face; ‘but, Gertie, tell me truly, do you like him; and — and — why, if it be so, I will mention Mr. Dangerfield’s suit no more. There now — there’s all I want to say.’

‘Lieutenant Puddock!’ repeated young Madam in the nightcap; and by this time the film of slumber was gone; and the suspicion struck her somehow in altogether so comical a way that she could not help laughing in her aunt’s sad, earnest face.

‘Fat, funny little Lieutenant Puddock! — was ever so diverting a disgrace? Oh! dear aunt, what have I done to deserve so prodigious a suspicion?’

It was plain, from her heightened colour, that her aunt did not choose to be laughed at.

‘What have you done?’ said she, quite briskly; ‘why — what have you done?’ and Aunt Becky had to consider just for a second or two, staring straight at the young lady through the crimson damask curtains. ‘You have — you — you — why, what have you done? and she covered her confusion by stooping down to adjust the heel of her slipper.

‘Oh! it’s delightful — plump little Lieutenant Puddock!’ and the graver her aunt looked the more irrepressibly she laughed; till that lady, evidently much offended, took the young gentlewoman pretty roundly to task.

‘Well! I’ll tell you what you have done,’ said she, almost fiercely. ‘As absurd as he is, you have been twice as sweet upon him as he upon you; and you have done your endeavour to fill his brain with the notion that you are in love with him, young lady; and if you’re not, you have acted, I promise you, a most unscrupulous and unpardonable part by a most honourable and well-bred gentleman — for that character I believe he bears. Yes — you may laugh, Madam, how you please; but he’s allowed, I say, to be as honest, as true, as fine a gentleman as — as —’

‘As ever surprised a weaver,’ said the young lady, laughing till she almost cried. In fact, she was showing in a new light, and becoming quite a funny character upon this theme. And, indeed, this sort of convulsion of laughing seemed so unaccountable on natural grounds to Aunt Rebecca, that her irritation subsided into perplexity, and she began to suspect that her extravagant merriment might mean possibly something which she did not quite understand.

‘Well, niece, when you have quite done laughing at nothing, you will, perhaps, be so good as to hear me. I put it to you now, young lady, as your relation and your friend, once for all, upon your sacred honour — remember you’re a Chattesworth — upon the honour of a Chattesworth’ (a favourite family form of adjuration on serious occasions with Aunt Rebecca), ‘do you like Lieutenant Puddock?’

It was now Miss Gertrude’s turn to be nettled, and to remind her visitor, by a sudden flush in her cheek and a flash from her eyes, that she was, indeed, a Chattesworth; and with more disdain than, perhaps, was quite called for, she repelled the soft suspicion.

‘I protest, Madam,’ said Miss Gertrude, ‘’tis too bad. Truly, Madam, it is vastly vexatious to have to answer so strange and affronting a question. If you ever took the trouble, aunt, to listen to, or look at, Lieutenant Puddock, you might —’

‘Well, niece,’ quoth Aunt Becky, interrupting, with a little toss of her head, ‘young ladies weren’t quite so hard to please in my time, and I can’t see or hear that he’s so much worse than others.’

‘I’d sooner die than have him,’ said Miss Gertie, peremptorily.

‘Then, I suppose, if ever, and whenever he asks you the question himself, you’ll have no hesitation in telling him so?’ said Aunt Becky, with becoming solemnity.

‘Laughable, ridiculous, comical, and absurd, as I always thought and believed Lieutenant Puddock to be, I yet believe the asking such a question of me to be a stretch of absurdity, from which his breeding, for he is a gentleman, will restrain him. Besides, Madam, you can’t possibly be aware of the subjects on which he has invariably discoursed whenever he happened to sit by me — plays and players, and candied fruit. Really, Madam, it is too absurd to have to enter upon one’s defence against so incredible an imagination.’

Aunt Rebecca looked steadily for a few seconds in her niece’s face, then drew a long breath, and leaning over, kissed her again on the forehead, and with a grave little nod, and looking on her again for a short space, without saying a word more, she turned suddenly and left the room.

Miss Gertrude’s vexation again gave way to merriment; and her aunt, as she walked sad and stately up stairs, heard one peal of merry laughter after another ring through her niece’s bed-room. She had not laughed so much for three years before; and this short visit cost her, I am sure, two hours’ good sleep at least.

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