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

Chapter 86

In which Mr. Paul Dangerfield Mounts the Stairs of the House by the Church-Yard, and Makes Some Arrangements.

The white figure glided duskily over the bridge. The river rushed beneath in Egyptian darkness. The air was still, and a thousand celestial eyes twinkled down brightly through the clear deep sky upon the actors in this true story. He kept the left side, so that the road lay between him and the Phoenix door, which gaped wide with a great hospitable grin, and crimsoned the night air with a glow of candle-light.

The white figure turned the corner, and glided onward in a straight, swift line — straight and swift as fate — to the door of Doctor Sturk.

He knocked softly at the hall-door, and swiftly stepped in and shut it.

‘How’s your master?’

‘Jist the same way, plaze yer honour; jist sleepin’— still sleepin’— sleepin’ always,’ answered the maid.

‘Has the Dublin doctor come?’

‘No.’

‘The mistress — where’s she?’

‘In the room, Sir, with the masther.’

‘Present my service to her — Mr. Dangerfield’s compliments, you know — and say I await her permission to come up stairs.’

Presently the maid returned, with poor Mrs. Sturk’s invitation to Mr. Dangerfield to walk up.

Up he went, leaving his white surtout and cocked hat in the hall, and entered the chamber where pale little Mrs. Sturk, who had been crying a great deal, sat in a dingy old tabby saque, by the light of a solitary mould-candle at the bed-side of the noble Barney.

The mutton-fat wanted snuffing; but its light danced and splintered brilliantly over Mr. Dangerfield’s resplendent shoe-buckles, and up and down his cut-steel buttons, and also glimmered in a more phosphoric way upon his silver spectacles, as he bowed at the door, arrayed in a puce cut velvet coat, lined with pink, long embroidered satin waistcoat, fine lace ruffles and cravat, his well-shaped leg gleaming glossily in silk, and altogether, in his glimmering jewellery, and purple and fine linen, resembling Dives making a complimentary visit to the garret of Lazarus.

Poor little Mrs. Sturk felt her obligations mysteriously enlarged by so much magnificence, and wondered at the goodness of this white-headed angel in point, diamonds, and cut velvet, who had dropped from the upper regions upon the sad and homely floor of her Barney’s sick chamber.

‘Dr. Dillon not yet arrived, Madam? Well, ’tis precisely his hour; we shall have him soon. How does the patient? Ha! just as usual. How? — why there’s a change, isn’t there?’

‘As how, Sir?’ enquired Mrs. Sturk, with a scared look.

‘Why, don’t you see? But you mustn’t be frightened; there’s one coming in whom I have every confidence.’

‘I don’t see, Sir. What is it, Mr. Dangerfield? Oh, pray, Sir?’

‘Why — a — nothing very particular, only he looks more languid than when I saw him last, and discoloured somewhat, and his face more sunk, I think — eh?’

‘Oh, no, Sir —’tis this bad light — nothing more, indeed, Sir. This evening, I assure you, Mr. Dangerfield, at three o’clock, when the sun was shining, we were all remarking how well he looked. I never saw — you’d have said so — such a wonderful improvement.’

And she snuffed the candle, and held it up over Barney’s grim features.

‘Well, Madam, I hope we soon may find it. ’Twill be a blessed sight — eh? — when he sits up in that bed, Madam, as I trust he may this very night, and speak — eh?’

‘Oh! my precious Barney!’ and the poor little woman began to cry, and fell into a rhapsody of hopes, thanksgiving, anecdote and prayer.

In the meanwhile Dangerfield was feeling his pulse, with his watch in the hollow of his hand.

‘And aren’t they better — his pulse, Sir — they were stronger this morning by a great deal than last night — it was just at ten o’clock — don’t you perceive, Sir?’

‘H’m — well, I hope, Ma’am, we’ll soon find all better. Now, have you got all things ready — you have, of course, a sheet well aired?’

‘A sheet — I did not know ’twas wanted.’

‘Hey, this will never do, my dear Madam — he’ll be here and nothing ready; and you’ll do well to send over to the mess-room for a lump of ice. ’Tis five minutes past nine. If you’ll see to these things, I’ll sit here, Madam, and take the best care of the patient — and, d’ye see, Mistress Sturk, ’twill be necessary that you take care that Toole hears nothing of Dr. Dillon’s coming.’

It struck me, when originally reading the correspondence which is digested in these pages, as hardly credible that Doctor Sturk should have continued to live for so long a space in a state of coma. Upon this point, therefore, I took occasion to ask the most eminent surgeon of my acquaintance, who at once quieted my doubts by detailing a very remarkable case cited by Sir A. Cooper in his lectures, Vol. I., p. 172. It is that of a seaman, who was pressed on board one of his Majesty’s ships, early in the revolutionary war; and while on board this vessel, fell from the yard-arm, and was taken up insensible, in which state he continued living for thirteen months and some days!

So with a little more talk, Mrs. Sturk, calling one of her maids, and leaving the little girl in charge of the nursery, ran down with noiseless steps and care-worn face to the kitchen, and Mr. Dangerfield was left alone in the chamber with the spell-bound sleeper on the bed.

In about ten seconds he rose sharply from his chair and listened: then very noiselessly he stepped to the door and listened again, and gently shut it.

Then Mr. Dangerfield moved to the window. There was a round hole in the shutter, and through it he glanced into the street, and was satisfied.

By this time he had his white-pocket-handkerchief in his hands. He folded it deftly across and across into a small square, and then the spectacles flashed coldly on the image of Dr. Sturk, and then on the door; and there was a pause.

‘What’s that?’ he muttered sharply, and listened for a second or two.

It was only one of the children crying in the nursery. The sound subsided.

So with another long silent step, he stood by the capriole-legged old mahogany table, with the scallop shell containing a piece of soap and a washball, and the basin with its jug of water standing therein. Again he listened while you might count two, and dipped the handkerchief, so folded, into the water, and quietly squeezed it; and stood white and glittering by Sturk’s bed-side.

People moved very noiselessly about that house, and scarcely a minute had passed when the door opened softly, and the fair Magnolia Macnamara popped in her glowing face and brilliant glance, and whispered.

‘Are you there, Mrs. Sturk, dear?’

At the far side of the bed, Dangerfield, with his flashing spectacles and snowy aspect, and a sort of pant, rose up straight, and looked into her eyes, like a white bird of prey disturbed over its carrion.

She uttered a little scream — quite pale on a sudden — for she did not recognise the sinister phantom who glimmered at her over the prostrate Sturk.

But Dangerfield laughed his quiet hollow ‘ha! ha! ha!’ and said promptly,

‘A strange old nurse I make, Miss Macnamara. But what can I do? Mrs. Sturk has left me in charge, and faith I believe our patient’s looking mighty badly.’

He had observed Miss Mag glancing from him to the dumb figure in the bed with a puzzled kind of horror.

The fact is, Sturk’s face had a leaden tint; he looked, evidently enough, even in that dim candle-light, a great deal worse than the curious Miss Mag was accustomed to see him.

‘He’s very low, to-night, and seems oppressed, and his pulse is failing; in fact, my dear young lady, he’s plainly worse to-night than I like to tell poor Mrs. Sturk, you understand.’

‘And his face looks so shiny and damp-like,’ said Miss Mag, with a horrible sort of scrutiny.

‘Exactly so, Miss, ’tis weakness,’ observed Dangerfield.

‘And you were wiping it with your pocket-handkerchief when I looked in,’ continued Miss Mag.

‘Was I— ha, ha —’tis wonderful how quick we learn a new business. I vow I begin to think I should make a very respectable nursetender.’

‘And what the dickens brings him up here?’ asked Miss Mag of herself; so soon as the first shock was over, the oddity of the situation struck her as she looked with perplexed and unpleasant sort of enquiry at Mr. Dangerfield.

Just then up came the meek little Mrs. Sturk, and the gentleman greeted her with a ‘Well, Madam, I have not left his bedside since you went down; and I think he looks a little better — just a little — eh?’

‘I trust and pray, Sir, that when the doctor —’ began Mrs. Sturk, and stopped short, for Mr. Dangerfield frowned quickly, and pointed towards Miss Mag, who was now, after her wont, looking round the room for matter of interest.

‘And is Pell comin’ out to-night?’ asked Miss Mag quickly.

‘No, truly. Madam,’ answered the gentleman: ‘Dr. Pell’s not comin’— is he, Mrs. Sturk?’

‘Dr. Pell! — oh, la — no, Sir. No, my dear.’ And, after a pause, ‘Oh, ho. I wish it was over,’ she groaned, with her hand pressed to her side, looking with a kind of agony on Sturk.

What over?’ asked Miss Mag.

Just then a double-knock came to the hall-door, and Mr. Dangerfield signed sternly to Mrs. Sturk, who first stood up, with her eyes and mouth wide open, and then sat down, like a woman going to faint.

But the maid came up and told Miss Mag that her mother and Lieutenant O’Flaherty were waiting on the steps for her; and so, though loath to go unsatisfied, away she went, with a courtesy to Mr. Dangerfield and a kiss to Mrs. Sturk, who revived on hearing it was only her fat kindly neighbour from over the way, instead of Black Doctor Dillon, with his murderous case of instruments.

The gentleman in the silver spectacles accompanied her to the lobby, and offered his hand; but she dispensed with his attendance, and jumped down the stairs with one hand to the wall and the other on the banisters, nearly a flight at a time; and the cackle of voices rose from the hall door, which quickly shut, and the fair vision had vanished.

Dangerfield’s silver spectacles gleamed phosphorically after her from under his lurid forehead. It was not a pleasant look, and his mouth was very grim. In another instant he was in the room again, and glanced at his watch.

‘’Tis half-past nine,’ he said, in a quiet tone, but with a gleam of intense fury over his face, ‘and that — that — doctor named nine.’

Dangerfield waited, and talked a little to Mrs. Sturk and the maid, who were now making preparations, in short sentences, by fits and starts of half-a-dozen words at a time. He had commenced his visit ceremoniously, but now he grew brusque, and took the command: and his tones were prompt and stern, and the women grew afraid of him.

Ten o’clock came. Dangerfield went down stairs, and looked from the drawing-room windows. He waxed more and more impatient. Down he went to the street. He did not care to walk towards the King’s House, which lay on the road to Dublin; he did not choose to meet his boon companions again, but he stood for full ten minutes, with one of Dr. Sturk’s military cloaks about him, under the village tree, directing the double-fire of his spectacles down the street, with an incensed steadiness, unrewarded, unrelieved. Not a glimmer of a link; not a distant rumble of a coach-wheel. It was a clear, frosty night, and one might hear a long way.

If any of the honest townsfolk had accidentally lighted upon that muffled, glaring image under the dark old elm, I think he would have mistaken it for a ghost, or something worse. The countenance at that moment was not prepossessing.

Mr. Dangerfield was not given to bluster, and never made a noise; but from his hollow jaws he sighed an icy curse towards Dublin, which had a keener edge than all the roaring blasphemies of Donnybrook together; and, with another shadow upon his white face, he re-entered the house.

‘He’ll not come to-night, Ma’am,’ he said with a cold abruptness.

‘Oh, thank Heaven! — that is — I’m so afraid — I mean about the operation.’

Dangerfield, with his hands in his pockets, said nothing. There was a sneer on his face, white and dark, somehow. That was all. Was he baffled, and was Dr. Sturk, after all, never to regain his speech?

At half-past ten o’clock, Mr. Dangerfield abandoned hope. Had it been Dr. Pell, indeed, it would have been otherwise. But Black Dillon had not a patient; his fame was in the hospitals. There was nothing to detain him but his vices, and five hundred pounds to draw him to Chapelizod. He had not come. He must be either brained in a row, or drunk under a table. So Mr. Dangerfield took leave of good Mrs. Sturk, having told her in case the doctor should come, to make him wait for his arrival before taking any measures, and directing that he should be sent for immediately.

So Mr. Dangerfield got into his white surtout silently in the hall, and shut the door quickly after him, and waited, a grim sentry, under the tree, with his face towards Dublin. Father Time had not blunted the white gentleman’s perceptions, touched his ear with his numb fingers, or blown the smoke of his tobacco-pipe into his eyes. He was keen of eye, sharp of hearing; but neither sight nor sound rewarded him, and so he turned, after a few minutes, and glided away, like a white ghost, toward the Brass Castle.

In less than five minutes after, the thunder of a coach shook Dr. Sturk’s windows, followed by a rousing peal on the hall-door, and Dr. Dillon, in dingy splendours, and a great draggled wig, with a gold-headed cane in his bony hand, stepped in; and, diffusing a reek of whiskey-punch, and with a case of instruments under his arm, pierced the maid, who opened the door, through, with his prominent black eyes, and frightened her with his fiery face, while he demanded to see Mrs. Sturk, and lounged, without ceremony, into the parlour; where he threw himself on the sofa, with one of his bony legs extended on it, and his great ugly hand under his wig scratching his head.

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