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

Chapter 7

Showing How Two Gentlemen May Misunderstand One Another, Without Enabling the Company to Understand Their Quarrel.

Loftus had by this time climbed to the savage lair of his garret, overstrewn with tattered papers and books; and Father Roach, in the sanctuary of his little parlour, was growling over the bones of a devilled-turkey, and about to soothe his fretted soul in a generous libation of hot whiskey punch. Indeed, he was of an appeasable nature, and on the whole a very good fellow.

Dr. Toole, whom the young fellows found along with Nutter over the draught-board in the club-room, forsook his game to devour the story of Loftus’s Lenten Hymn, and poor Father Roach’s penance, rubbed his hands, and slapped his thigh, and crowed and shouted with ecstasy. O’Flaherty, who called for punch, and was unfortunately prone to grow melancholy and pugnacious over his liquor, was now in a saturnine vein of sentiment, discoursing of the charms of his peerless mistress, the Lady Magnolia Macnamara — for he was not one of those maudlin shepherds, who pipe their loves in lonely glens and other sequestered places, but rather loved to exhibit his bare scars, and roar his tender torments for the edification of the market-place.

While he was descanting on the attributes of that bewitching ‘crature,’ Puddock, not two yards off, was describing, with scarcely less unction, the perfections of ‘pig roast with the hair on:’ and the two made a medley like ‘The Roast Beef of Old England,’ and ‘The Last Rose of Summer,’ arranged in alternate stanzas. O’Flaherty suddenly stopped short, and said a little sternly to Lieutenant Puddock —

‘Does it very much signify, Sir (or as O’Flaherty pronounced it “Sorr,”) whether the animal has hair upon it or not?’

’Every thing, Thir, in thith particular retheipt,’ answered Puddock, a little loftily.

‘But,’ said Nutter, who, though no great talker, would make an effort to prevent a quarrel, and at the same time winking to Puddock in token that O’Flaherty was just a little ‘hearty,’ and so to let him alone; ‘what signifies pigs’ hair, compared with human tresses?’

‘Compared with human tresses?’ interrupted O’Flaherty, with stern deliberation, and fixing his eyes steadily and rather unpleasantly upon Nutter (I think he saw that wink and perhaps did not understand its import.)

‘Ay, Sir, and Mrs. Magnolia Macnamara has as rich a head of hair as you could wish to see,’ says Nutter, thinking he was drawing him off very cleverly.

‘As I could wish to see?’ repeated O’Flaherty grimly.

‘As you could desire to see, Sir,’ reiterated Nutter, firmly, for he was not easily put down; and they looked for several seconds in silence a little menacingly, though puzzled, at one another.

But O’Flaherty, after a short pause, seemed to forget Nutter, and returned to his celestial theme.

‘Be the powers, Sir, that young leedy has the most beautiful dimple in her chin I ever set eyes on!’

‘Have you ever put a marrow fat pea in it, Sir?’ enquired Devereux, simply, with all the beautiful rashness of youth.

‘No, Sorr,’ replied O’Flaherty, in a deep tone, and with a very dangerous glare; ‘and I’d like to see the man who, in my presence, id preshum to teeke that libertee.’

‘What a glorious name Magnolia is!’ interposed little Toole in great haste; for it was a practice among these worthies to avert quarrels — very serious affairs in these jolly days — by making timely little diversions, and it is wonderful, at a critical moment, what may be done by suddenly presenting a trifle; a pin’s point, sometimes — at least, a marvellously small one — will draw off innocuously, the accumulating electricity of a pair of bloated scowling thunder-clouds.

‘It was her noble godmother, when the family resided at Castlemara, in the county of Roscommon, the Lady Carrick-o’-Gunniol, who conferred it,’ said O’Flaherty, grandly, ‘upon her god-daughter, as who had a better right — I say, who had a better right?’ and he smote his hand upon the table, and looked round inviting contradiction. ‘My godmothers, in my baptism — that’s catechism — and all the town of Chapelizod won’t put that down — the Holy Church Catechism — while Hyacinth O’Flaherty, of Coolnaquirk, Lieutenant Fireworker, wears a sword.’

‘Nobly said, lieutenant!’ exclaimed Toole, with a sly wink over his shoulder.

‘And what about that leedy’s neeme, Sir?’ demanded the enamoured fireworker.

‘By Jove, Sir, it is quite true, Lady Carrick-o’-Gunniol was her godmother:’ and Toole ran off into the story of how that relationship was brought about; narrating it, however, with great caution and mildness, extracting all the satire, and giving it quite a dignified and creditable character, for the Lieutenant Fireworker smelt so confoundedly of powder that the little doctor, though he never flinched when occasion demanded, did not care to give him an open. Those who had heard the same story from the mischievous merry little doctor before, were I dare say, amused at the grand and complimentary turn he gave it now.

The fact was, that poor Magnolia’s name came to her in no very gracious way. Young Lady Carrick-o’-Gunniol was a bit of a wag, and was planting a magnolia — one of the first of those botanical rarities seen in Ireland — when good-natured, vapouring, vulgar Mrs. Macnamara’s note, who wished to secure a peeress for her daughter’s spiritual guardian, arrived. Her ladyship pencilled on the back of the note, ‘Pray call the dear babe Magnolia,’ and forthwith forgot all about it. But Madam Macnamara was charmed, and the autograph remained afterwards for two generations among the archives of the family; and, with great smiles and much complacency, she told Lord Carrick-o’-Gunniol all about it, just outside the grand jury-room, where she met him during the assize week; and, being a man of a weak and considerate nature, rather kind, and very courteous — although his smile was very near exploding into a laugh, as he gave the good lady snuff out of his own box — he was yet very much concerned and vexed, and asked his lady, when he went home, how she could have induced old Mrs. Macnamara to give that absurd name to her poor infant; whereat her ladyship, who had not thought of it since, was highly diverted; and being assured that the babe was actually christened, and past recovery Magnolia Macnamara, laughed very merrily, kissed her lord, who was shaking his head gravely, and then popped her hood on, kissed him again, and, laughing still, ran out to look at her magnolia, which, by way of reprisal, he henceforth, notwithstanding her entreaties, always called her ‘Macnamara;’ until, to her infinite delight, he came out with it, as it sometimes happens, at a wrong time, and asked old Mac — a large, mild man — then extant, Madame herself, nurse, infant Magnolia, and all, who had arrived at the castle, to walk out and see Lady Carrick-o’-Gunniol’s ‘Macnamara,’ and perceived not the slip, such is the force of habit, though the family stared, and Lady C. laughed in an uncalled-for-way, at a sudden recollection of a tumble she once had, when a child, over a flower-bed; and broke out repeatedly, to my lord’s chagrin and bewilderment, as they walked towards the exotic.

When Toole ended his little family anecdote, which, you may be sure, he took care to render as palatable to Magnolia’s knight as possible, by not very scrupulous excisions and interpolations he wound all up, without allowing an instant for criticism or question, by saying briskly, though incoherently.

‘And so, what do you say, lieutenant, to a Welsh rabbit for supper?’

The lieutenant nodded a stolid assent.

‘Will you have one, Nutter?’ cried Toole.

‘No,’ said Nutter.

‘And why not?’ says Toole.

‘Why, I believe Tom Rooke’s song in praise of oysters,’ answered Nutter, ‘especially the verse —

‘“The youth will ne’er live to scratch a gray head, On a supper who goes of Welsh rabbit to bed.”’

How came it to pass that Nutter hardly opened his lips this evening — on which, as the men who knew him longest all remarked, he was unprecedentedly talkative — without instantaneously becoming the mark at which O’Flaherty directed his fiercest and most suspicious scowls? And now that I know the allusion which the pugnacious lieutenant apprehended, I cannot but admire the fatality with which, without the smallest design, a very serious misunderstanding was brought about.

‘As to youths living to scratch gray heads or not, Sir,’ said the young officer, in most menacing tones; ‘I don’t see what concern persons of your age can have in that. But I’ll take leave to tell you, Sir, that a gentleman, whether he be a “youth” as you say, or aged, as you are, who endayvours to make himself diverting at the expense of others, runs a murdhering good risk, Sir, of getting himself scratched where he’ll like it least.’

Little Nutter, though grave and generally taciturn, had a spirit of his own, and no notion whatever of knocking under to a bully. It is true, he had not the faintest notion why he was singled out for the young gentleman’s impertinence; but neither did he mean to enquire. His mahogany features darkened for a moment to logwood, and his eyes showed their whites fiercely.

‘We are not accustomed, Sir, in this part of the world, to your Connaught notions of politeness; we meet here for social — a — a — sociality, Sir; and the long and the short of it is, young gentleman, if you don’t change your key, you’ll find two can play at that game — and — and, I tell you, Sir, there will be wigs on the green, Sir.’

Here several voices interposed.

‘Silence, gentlemen, and let me speak, or I’ll assault him,’ bellowed O’Flaherty, who, to do him justice, at this moment looked capable of anything. ‘I believe, Sir,’ he continued, addressing Nutter, who confronted him like a little game-cock, ‘it is not usual for one gentleman who renders himself offensive to another to oblige him to proceed to the length of manually malthrating his person.’

‘Hey! eh?’ said Nutter, drawing his mouth tight on one side with an ugly expression, and clenching his hands in his breeches pockets.

‘Manually malthrating his person, Sir,’ repeated O’Flaherty, ‘by striking, kicking, or whipping any part or mimber of his body; or offering a milder assault, such as a pull by the chin, or a finger-tap upon the nose. It is usual, Sir, for the purpose of avoiding ungentlemanlike noise, inconvenience, and confusion, that one gentleman should request of another to suppose himself affronted in the manner, whatever it may be, most intolerable to his feelings, which request I now, Sir, teeke the libertee of preferring to you; and when you have engaged the services of a friend, I trust that Lieutenant Puddock, who lodges in the same house with me, will, in consideration of my being an officer of the same honourable corps, a sthranger in this part of the counthry, and, above all, a gentleman who can show paydagree like himself [here a low bow to Puddock, who returned it]; that Lieutenant Puddock will be so feelin’ and so kind as to receive him on my behalf, and acting as my friend to manage all the particulars for settling, as easily as may be, this most unprovoked affair.’

With which words he made another bow, and a pause of enquiry directed to Puddock, who lisped with dignity —

‘Sir, the duty is, for many reasons, painful; but I— I can’t refuse, Sir, and I accept the trust.’

So O’Flaherty shook his hand, with another bow; bowed silently and loftily round the room, and disappeared, and a general buzz and a clack of tongues arose.

‘Mr. Nutter — a — I hope things may be settled pleasantly,’ said Puddock, looking as tall and weighty as he could; ‘at present I— a — that is, at the moment, I— a — don’t quite see —[the fact is, he had not a notion what the deuce it was all about]— but your friend will find me — your friend — a — at my lodgings up to one o’clock to-night, if necessary.’

And so Puddock’s bow. For the moment an affair of this sort presented itself, all concerned therein became reserved and official, and the representatives merely of a ceremonious etiquette and a minutely-regulated ordeal of battle. So, as I said, Puddock bowed grandly and sublimely to Nutter, and then magnificently to the company, and made his exit.

There was a sort of a stun and a lull for several seconds. Something very decisive and serious had occurred. One or two countenances wore that stern and mysterious smile, which implies no hilarity, but a kind of reaction in presence of the astounding and the slightly horrible. There was a silence; the gentlemen kept their attitudes too, for some moments, and all eyes were directed toward the door. Then some turned to Charles Nutter, and then the momentary spell dissolved itself.

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