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

Chapter 68

How an Evening Passes at the Elms, and Dr. Toole Makes a Little Excursion; and Two Choice Spirits Discourse, and Hebe Trips in with the Nectar.

Up at the Elms, little Lily that night was sitting in the snug, old-fashioned room, with the good old rector. She was no better; still in doctors’ hands and weak, but always happy with him, and he more than ever gentle and tender with her; for though he never would give place to despondency, and was naturally of a trusting, cheery spirit, he could not but remember his young wife, lost so early; and once or twice there was a look — an outline — a light — something, in little Lily’s fair, girlish face, that, with a strange momentary agony, brought back the remembrance of her mother’s stricken beauty, and plaintive smile. But then his darling’s gay talk and pleasant ways would reassure him, and she smiled away the momentary shadow.

And he would tell her all sorts of wonders, old-world gaieties, long before she was born; and how finely the great Mr. Handel played upon the harpsichord in the Music Hall, and how his talk was in German, Latin, French, English, Italian, and half-a-dozen languages besides, sentence about; and how he remembered his own dear mother’s dress when she went to Lord Wharton’s great ball at the castle — dear, oh! dear, how long ago that was! And then he would relate stories of banshees, and robberies, and ghosts, and hair-breadth escapes, and ‘rapparees,’ and adventures in the wars of King James, which he heard told in his nonage by the old folk, long vanished, who remembered those troubles.

‘And now, darling,’ said little Lily, nestling close to him, with a smile, ‘you must tell me all about that strange, handsome Mr. Mervyn; who he is, and what his story.’

‘Tut, tut! little rogue ——’

‘Yes, indeed, you must, and you will; you’ve kept your little Lily waiting long enough for it, and she’ll promise to tell nobody.’

‘Handsome he is, and strange, no doubt — it was a strange fancy that funeral. Strange, indeed,’ said the rector.

‘What funeral, darling?’

‘Why, yes, a funeral — the bringing his father’s body to be laid here in the vault, in my church; it is their family vault. ’Twas a folly; but what folly will not young men do?’

And the good parson poked the fire a little impatiently.

‘Mr. Mervyn — not Mervyn — that was his mother’s name; but — see, you must not mention it, Lily, if I tell you — not Mr. Mervyn, I say, but my Lord Dunoran, the only son of that disgraced and blood-stained nobleman, who, lying in gaol, under sentence of death for a foul and cowardly murder, swallowed poison, and so closed his guilty life with a tremendous crime, in its nature inexpiable. There, that’s all, and too much, darling.’

‘And was it very long ago?’

‘Why, ’twas before little Lily was born; and long before that I knew him — only just a little. He used the Tiled House for a hunting-lodge, and kept his dogs and horses there — a fine gentleman, but vicious, always, I fear, and a gamester; an overbearing man, with a dangerous cast of pride in his eye. You don’t remember Lady Dunoran? — pooh, pooh, what am I thinking of? No, to be sure! you could not. ’Tis from her, chiefly, poor lady, he has his good looks. Her eyes were large, and very peculiar, like his — his, you know, are very fine. She, poor lady, did not live long after the public ruin of the family.’

‘And has he been recognised here? The townspeople are so curious.’

‘Why, dear child, not one of them ever saw him before. He’s been lost sight of by all but a few, a very few friends. My Lord Castlemallard, who was his guardian, of course, knows; and to me he disclosed himself by letter; and we keep his secret; though it matters little who knows it, for it seems to me he’s as unhappy as aught could ever make him. The townspeople take him for his cousin, who squandered his fortune in Paris; and how is he the better of their mistake, and how were he the worse if they knew him for whom he is? ’Tis an unhappy family — a curse haunts it. Young in years, old in vice, the wretched nobleman who lies in the vault, by the coffin of that old aunt, scarcely better than himself, whose guineas supplied his early profligacy — alas! he ruined his ill-fated, beautiful cousin, and she died heart-broken, and her little child, both there — in that melancholy and contaminated house.’

So he rambled on, and from one tale to another, till little Lily’s early bed-hour came.

I don’t know whether it was Doctor Walsingham’s visit in the morning, and the chance of hearing something about it, that prompted the unquiet Tom Toole to roll his cloak about him, and buffet his way through storm and snow, to Devereux’s lodgings. It was only a stone’s-throw; but even that, on such a night, was no trifle.

However, up he went to Devereux’s drawing-room, and found its handsome proprietor altogether in the dumps. The little doctor threw off his sleety cloak and hat in the lobby, and stood before the officer fresh and puffing, and a little flustered and dazzled after his romp with the wind.

Devereux got up and received him with a slight bow and no smile, and a ‘Pray take a chair, Doctor Toole.’

‘Well, this is a bright fit of the dismals,’ said little Toole, nothing overawed. ‘May I sit near the fire?’

‘Upon it,’ said Devereux, sadly.

‘Thank’ee,’ said Toole, clapping his feet on the fender, with a grin, and making himself comfortable. ‘May I poke it?’

‘Eat it — do as you please — anything — everything; play that fiddle (pointing to the ruin of Puddock’s guitar, which the lieutenant had left on the table), or undress and go to bed, or get up and dance a minuet, or take that pistol, with all my heart, and shoot me through the head.’

‘Thank’ee, again. A fine choice of amusements, I vow,’ cried the jolly doctor.

‘There, don’t mind me, nor all I say, Toole. I’m, I suppose, in the vapours; but, truly, I’m glad to see you, and I thank you, indeed I do, heartily, for your obliging visit; ’tis very neighbourly. But, hang it, I’m weary of the time — the world is a dull place. I’m tired of this planet, and should not mind cutting my throat and trying a new star. Suppose we make the journey together, Toole; there is a brace of pistols over the chimney, and a fair wind for some of them.’

‘Rather too much of a gale for my taste, thanking you again,’ answered Toole with a cosy chuckle; ‘but, if you’re bent on the trip, and can’t wait, why, at least, let’s have a glass together before parting.’

‘With all my heart, what you will. Shall it be punch?’

‘Punch be it. Come, hang saving; get us up a ha’porth of whiskey,’ said little Toole, gaily.

‘Hallo, Mrs. Irons, Madam, will you do us the favour to make a bowl of punch as soon as may be?’ cried Devereux, over the banister.

‘Come, Toole,’ said Devereux, ‘I’m very dismal. Losses and crosses, and deuce knows what. Whistle or talk, what you please, I’ll listen; tell me anything; stories of horses, dogs, dice, snuff, women, cocks, parsons, wine — what you will. Come, how’s Sturk? He’s beaten poor Nutter, and won the race; though the stakes, after all, were scarce worth taking — and what’s life without a guinea? — he’s grown, I’m told, so confoundedly poor, “quis pauper? avarus.” A worthy man was Sturk, and, in some respects, resembled the prophet, Shylock; but you know nothing of him — why the plague don’t you read your Bible, Toole?’

‘Well,’ said Toole, candidly, ‘I don’t know the Old Testament as well as the New; but certainly, whoever he’s like, he’s held out wonderfully. ’Tis nine weeks since he met that accident, and there he’s still, above ground; but that’s all — just above ground, you see.’

‘And how’s Cluffe?’

‘Pooh, Cluffe indeed! Nothing ever wrong with him but occasional over-eating. Sir, you’d a laughed today had you seen him. I gave him a bolus, twice the size of a gooseberry. “What’s this?” said he. “A bolus,” says I. “The devil,” says he; “dia-bolus, then,” says I—“hey?” said I, “well?” ha! ha! and by Jove, Sir, it actually half stuck in his oesophagus, and I shoved it down like a bullet, with a probang; you’d a died a laughing, yet ‘twasn’t a bit too big. Why, I tell you, upon my honour, Mrs. Rebecca Chattesworth’s black boy, only t’other day, swallowed a musket bullet twice the size, ha! ha! — he did — and I set him to rights in no time with a little powder.’

‘Gunpowder?’ said Devereux. ‘And what of O’Flaherty? I’m told he was going to shoot poor Miles O’More.’

‘Ha, ha! hey? Well, I don’t think either remembered in the morning what they quarrelled about,’ replied Toole; ‘so it went off in smoke, Sir.’

‘Well, and how is Miles?’

‘Why, ha, ha! he’s back again, with a bill, as usual, and a horse to sell — a good one — the black one, don’t you remember? He wants five and thirty guineas; ‘tisn’t worth two pounds ten. “Do you know anyone who wants him? I would not mind taking a bill, with a couple of good names upon it,” says he. Upon my credit I believe he thought I’d buy him myself. “Well,” says I, “I think I do know a fellow that would give you his value, and pay you cash besides,” says I. ’Twas as good as a play to see his face. “Who is he?” says he, taking me close by the arm. “The knacker,” says I. ’Twas a bite for Miles; hey? ha, ha, ha!’

‘And is it true old Tresham’s going to join our club at last?’

‘He! hang him! he’s like a brute beast, and never drinks but when he’s dry, and then small beer. But, I forgot to tell you, by all that’s lovely, they do say the charming Magnolia — a fine bouncing girl that — is all but betrothed to Lieutenant O’Flaherty.’

Devereux laughed, and thus encouraged, Toole went on, with a wink and a whisper.

‘Why, the night of the ball, you know, he saw her home, and they say he kissed her — by Bacchus, on both sides of the face — at the door there, under the porch; and you know, if he had not a right, she’d a-knocked him down.’

‘Psha! the girl’s a Christian, and when she’s smacked on one cheek she turns the other. And what says the major to it?’

‘Why, as it happened, he opened the door precisely as the thing occurred; and he wished Lieutenant O’Flaherty good-night, and paid him a visit in the morning. And they say ’tis all satisfactory; and — by Jove! ’tis good punch.’ And Mrs. Irons entered with a china bowl on a tray.

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