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

Chapter 84

In which Christiana Goes Over; and Dan Loftus Comes Home.

This evening Lily Walsingham was early tired and very weak, Sally thought, and more glad than usual to lie down in her bed; and there her old and loving nurse fancied that she looked a little strange, and that her thoughts sometimes wandered.

She lay very quietly for a good while, and suddenly, with a beautiful look, and in a clear, glad voice, she said —

‘Mother!’

And old Sally said —

‘There’s no one, dear Miss Lily, but me.’

But she was looking earnestly, and, with a wrapt smile, only said —

‘Oh!’

She thought she saw her, I believe.

Are these always illusions? Or is it only that, as the twilight deepens, and the shapes of earth melt into night, the stars of heaven, changeless and serene, reveal themselves, and shine out to the darkened eyes of mortals?

As Aunt Becky sat that night in the drawing-room with her niece, a maid, with a whisper, placed a little note in Miss Gertrude’s hand. There was a little pause.

‘Oh! aunt — oh!’ and she looked so terrified. ‘Oh! aunt,’ and she threw her arms round her aunt’s neck, and began crying wildly. ‘Poor Lily’s gone — there’s the note.’

Then arose the wild wailing of unavailing grief, and sobs, mixed with early recollections of childhood, and all poor Lily’s sweet traits poured out.

Old Aunt Rebecca took the note. Her stoicism was the point on which she piqued herself most. She looked very pale, and she told her niece to be composed; for Aunt Becky had a theory that feelings ought to be commanded, and that it only needed effort and resolution. So she read the note, holding her head very high, but the muscles of her face were quivering.

‘Oh! Gertrude, if ever there was an angel — and the poor desolate old man ——’

The theory broke down, and old Aunt Rebecca cried and sat down, and cried heartily, and went and put her thin arms round her niece, and kissed her, and cried, and cried, and kissed her again.

‘She was such — such a darling — oh! Gertrude dear, we must never quarrel any more.’

Death had come so near, and all things less than itself were rebuked in that sublime presence; and Lily Walsingham was gone; and she who was so lately their gay companion, all at once so awfully angelic in the unearthly light of death.

‘Who’d ha’ thought it was so near, Ma’am,’ said the maid; ‘the poor little thing! Though to be sure, Ma’am, a winding sheet came three times in the candle last night, and I turns it round and picks it off, that way, with my nail, unknownst to Mrs. Heany, for fear she’d be frettin’ about the little boy that’s lyin’ at home in the small-pox; and indeed I thought ’twas for him it was; but man proposes, and God disposes — and death forgets none, the Lord be praised — and everyone has their hour, old and young, Ma’am; and as I was sayin’, they had no notion or expectation up at the Elms, Ma’am, she was so bad, the heavens be her bed this night. ’Twas all in an instant like, Miss, she made as if she’d sit up, bein’ leanin’ on pillows — and so she put out them purty little hands of hers, with a smile, and that was all — the purty crature — everyone’s sorry afther her. The man was cryin’ in the hall that brought the note.’

The poor came to the door, and made their rude and kindly lamentations — they were all quite sincere —‘His reverence was very good, but he couldn’t have the thought, you know.’ It was quite true —‘everyone was sorry.’ The brave Magnolia’s eyes were red, when she looked out of the window next morning, and jolly little Doctor Toole said at the club —

‘Ah, Sir, she was a bright little thing — a born lady — such a beauty — and the best little creature. The town might well be proud of her, in every way, Sir.’ And he fell a blubbering; and old Major O’Neill, who was a quiet and silent officer, cried in a reserved way, looking into the fire, with his elbow on the mantelpiece. And Toole said, ‘I don’t know how I’ll pass that house.’

And many felt the same. Little Lily was there no more — and the Elms were changed — the light and the grace were gone — and they were only dark old trees now.

And everyone felt a great desire to find some way — any way — to show their respect and affection for their good old rector. And I’m sure he understood it — for liking and reverence, one way or another, will tell their story. The hushed enquiries at the door, and little offers of useless services made by stealth through the servants, and such like foolish kindnesses at such a time — the evidence of a great but helpless sympathy — are sweet as angelic music.

And who should arrive at night, with all his trunks, or at least a considerable number of them, and his books and rattletraps, but honest, simple Dan Loftus. The news was true about his young charge. He had died of fever at Malaga, and Dick Devereux was at last a step, and a long one — nearer to the title. So Dan was back again in his old garret. Travel had not educated him in the world’s ways. In them he was the same queer, helpless tyro. And his costume, though he had a few handsome articles — for, travelling with a sprig of nobility, he thought it but right and seemed to dress accordingly — was on that account, perhaps, only more grotesque than ever. But he had acquired mountains of that lore in which he and good Doctor Walsingham delighted. He had transcribed old epitaphs and translated interminable extracts from archives, and bought five Irish manuscripts, all highly illustrative of that history on which he and the doctor were so pleasantly engaged. It was too late that night to go up to the Elms; but he longed to unpack his trunkful of manuscripts, and to expound to his beloved doctor the treasures he had amassed.

And over his solitary tea-cup and his book the sorrowful news from the Elms reached him, and all his historical castles in the air were shivered. In the morning, before the town was stirring, he crossed the bridge, and knocked softly at the familiar hall-door. Honest old John Tracy opened it, and Dan shook hands with him, and both cried for a while quietly.

‘How is the honoured master?’ at last said Loftus.

‘He’s there in the study, Sir. Thank God, you’re come, Sir. I’m sure he’d like to see you — I’ll ask him.’

Dan went into the drawing-room. He looked out at the flowers, and then at the harpsichord, and on her little walnut table, where her work-basket lay, and her thimble, and the little coral necklace — a childish treasure that she used to wear when she was quite a little thing. It was like a dream; and everything seemed to say —‘Poor little Lily!’

So old John came in, and ‘Sir,’ said he, ‘the master will be glad to see you.’ And Dan Loftus found himself in the study; and the good doctor and he wrung one another’s hands for a long time.

‘Oh, Dan — Dan — she’s gone — little Lily.’

‘You’ll see her again, Sir — oh, you’ll see her again.’

‘Oh, Dan! Dan! Till the heavens be no more they shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep. Oh, Dan, a day’s so long — how am I to get over the time?’

‘The loving Lord, Sir, will find a way.’

‘But, oh! was there no pitying angel to stay the blow — to plead for a few years more of life? I deserved it — oh, Dan, yes! — I know it — I deserved it. But, oh! could not the avenger have pierced me, without smiting my innocent darling?’

‘Oh! she was taken in love, not in judgment, Sir — my pastor — but in love. It was the voice of the Redeemer that called her.’

And honest Dan repeated, through his sobs, a verse of that ‘Song of Songs,’ which little Lily had loved so well —

‘My well-beloved spake, and said unto me: Arise, my love, my fair one, and come thy way.’

The old man bowed his sorrowful head listening.

‘You never saw anything so beautiful,’ said he after a while. ‘I think, Dan, I could look at her for ever. I don’t think it was partiality, but it seems to me there never was — I never saw a creature like her.’

‘Oh, noble! noble!’ sobbed poor Dan.

The doctor took him by the arm, and so into the solemn room.

‘I think you’d like to see her, Dan?’

‘I would — I would indeed, Sir.’

And there was little Lily, never so like the lily before. Poor old Sally had laid early spring flowers on the white coverlet. A snow-drop lay by her pale little finger and thumb, just like a flower that has fallen from a child’s hand it its sleep. He looked, at her — the white angelic apparition — a smile, or a light upon the face.

‘Oh, my darling, my young darling, gone —“He is not a man as I am, that I should answer him.”’

But poor Dan, loudly crying, repeated the noble words of Paul, that have spoken down to us through the sorrows of nigh two thousand years —

‘For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive, and remain unto the coming of the Lord, shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first.’

And so there was a little pause, and the old man said —

‘It was very good of you to come to me, my good young friend, in my helplessness and shipwreck, for the Lord hath hid himself from me; but he speaks to his desolate creature, my good Dan, through your gracious lips. My faith! — I thought I had faith till it was brought to the test, and then it failed! But my good friend, Loftus, was sent to help me — to strengthen the feeble knees.’

And Dan answered, crying bitterly, and clasping the rector’s hand in both of his —

‘Oh, my master, all that ever I knew of good, I learned from you, my pastor, my benefactor.’

So, with a long, last look, Dan followed the old man to the study, and they talked long there together, and then went out into the lonely garden, and paced its walks side by side, up and down.

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