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

Chapter 90

Mr. Paul Dangerfield has Something on His Mind, and Captain Devereux Receives a Message.

Mr. Dangerfield having parted with Irons, entered the little garden or shrubbery, which skirted on either side the short gravel walk, which expanded to a miniature court-yard before the door of the Brass Castle. He flung the little iron gate to with a bitter clang; so violent that the latch sprang from its hold, and the screaking iron swung quivering open again behind him.

Like other men who have little religion, Mr. Paul Dangerfield had a sort of vague superstition. He was impressible by omens, though he scorned his own weakness, and sneered at, and quizzed it sometimes in the monologues of his ugly solitude. The swinging open of the outer gate of his castle sounded uncomfortably behind him, like an invitation to shapeless danger to step in after him. The further he left it behind him, the more in his spirit was the gaping void between his two little piers associated with the idea of exposure, defencelessness, and rashness. This feeling grew so strong, that he turned about before he reached his hall-door, and, with a sensation akin to fury, retraced the fifteen or twenty steps that intervened, and grasped the cold iron with the fiercest tension of his sinews, as if it had resented his first violence by a dogged defiance of his wishes, and spluttering a curse between his teeth, he dashed it to again — and again, as once more it sprang open from the shock.

‘Who’s master now?’ snarled Mr. Paul Dangerfield, through his clenched teeth, and smiting the senseless iron with a vindictive swoop of his cane. I fancy his face at this moment had some of the peculiar lines and corrugations which we observe in that of Retzsch’s Mephistopheles, when he gripes the arm of Faust to drag him from Margaret’s cell. So he stood behind his iron grating, glaring and grinning defiance into the darkness, with his fingers clenched hard upon his cane.

Black Dillon’s failure was a blow to the progress of his plans. It incensed him. ‘That d —— d outcast! That he should presume so to treat a man who could master him so easily at any game, and buy and sell him body and soul, and had actually bargained to give him five hundred guineas — the needy, swinish miscreant! and paid him earnest beside — the stupid cheat! Drink — dice — women! Why, five hundred guineas made him free of his filthy paradise for a twelvemonth, and the leprous oaf could not quit his impurities for an hour, and keep the appointment that was to have made him master of his heart’s desires.’

At his hall-door he paused, listening intently, with his spectacles glimmering toward Chapelizod, for the sound of a distant step; but there was no messenger afoot. He heard only the chill sigh of the air through the leafless branches.

Mr. Dangerfield had not his key with him; and he beat an unnecessarily loud and long tattoo upon his door, and before it could possibly have been answered, he thundered a second through the passages.

Mrs. Jukes knew the meaning of that harsh and rabid summons. ‘There was something on the master’s mind.’ His anxieties never depressed him as they did other men, but strung up his energies to a point of mental tension and exasperation which made him terrible to his domestics. It was not his acts — his conduct was always under control, but chiefly his looks, and accents, and an influence that seemed to take possession of him at such times that rendered him undefinably formidable to his servants.

‘Ha! — mighty obleeging (he so pronounced the word)— let in at last — cold outside, Ma’am. You’ve let out the fire I suppose?’

His tones were like the bark of a wolf, and there was a devilish smirk in his white face, as he made her a mock salutation, and glided into his parlour. The fire was bright enough, however, as Mrs. Jukes was much relieved to see; and dropping a courtesy she enquired whether he would like a dish of tea, or anything?

‘No, Ma’am!’ he snarled.

‘Would he like his dressing-gown and slippers?’

‘No, Ma’am,’ again. So she dropped another courtesy, and sneaked away to the kitchen, with short, noiseless steps, and heard Mr. Dangerfield shut the door sharply.

His servants were afraid of him. They could not quite comprehend him. They knew it was vain trying to deceive him, and had quite given up lying and prevaricating. Neither would he stand much talking. When they prattled he brought them to the point sternly; and whenever a real anxiety rested on his mind he became pretty nearly diabolical. On the whole, however, they had a strange sort of liking for him. They were proud of his wealth, and of his influence with great people. And though he would not allow them to rob, disobey, or deceive him, yet he used them handsomely, paid like a prince, was a considerate master, and made them comfortable.

Now Mr. Dangerfield poked up his fire and lighted his candles. Somehow, the room looked smaller he thought than it had ever seemed before. He was not nervous — nothing could bring him to that; but his little altercation with the iron gate, and some uncomfortable thoughts had excited him. It was an illusion merely — but the walls seemed to have closed in a foot or two, and the ceiling to have dropped down proportionably, and he felt himself confined and oppressed.

‘My head’s a little bit heated — ira furo brevis,’ and he sneered a solitary laugh, more like himself, and went out into his tiny hall, and opened the door, and stood on the step for air, enjoying the cold wind that played about his temples. Presently he heard the hollow clink of two pair of feet walking toward the village. The pedestrians were talking eagerly; and he thought, as they passed the little iron gate of his domain, he heard his own name mentioned, and then that of Mervyn. I dare say it was mere fancy; but, somehow, he did not like it, and he walked swiftly down to the little gate by the road side — it was only some twenty yards — keeping upon the grass that bounded it, to muffle the sound of his steps. This white phantom noiselessly stood in the shadow of the road side. The interlocutors had got a good way on, and were talking loud and volubly. But he heard nothing that concerned him from either again, though he waited until their steps and voices were lost in the distance.

The cool air was pleasant about his bare temples, and Mr. Paul Dangerfield waited a while longer, and listened, for any sound of footsteps approaching from the village, but none such was audible; and beginning to feel a little chilly, he entered his domicile again, shut the hall-door, and once more found himself in the little parlour of the Brass Castle.

His housekeeper heard his harsh voice barking down the passage at her, and rising with a start from her seat, cried,

‘At your service, Sir.’

‘At a quarter to twelve o’clock fetch me a sandwich, and a glass of absynthe, and meanwhile, don’t disturb me.’

And she heard him enter his little parlour, and shut the door.

‘There’s something to vex, but nothing to threaten — nothing. It’s all that comical dream — curse it! What tricks the brain plays us! ’Tis fair it should though. We work it while we please, and it plays when it may. The slave has his saturnalia, and flouts his tyrant. Ha, ha! ’tis time these follies were ended. I’ve something to do to-night.’

So Mr. Dangerfield became himself again, and applied himself keenly to his business.

When I first thought of framing the materials which had accumulated in my hands into a narrative, dear little Lily Walsingham’s death was a sore trouble to me. ‘Little’ Lily I call her, but though slight, she was not little — rather tall, indeed.

It was, however, the term I always heard connected with her pretty name in my boyhood, when the old people, who had remembered her very long ago, mentioned her, as they used, very kindly, a term of endearment that had belonged to her, and in virtue of the childlike charm that was about her, had grown up with her from childhood. I had plans for mending this part of the record, and marrying her to handsome Captain Devereux, and making him worthy of her; but somehow I could not. From very early times I had known the sad story. I had heard her beauty talked about in my childhood; the rich, clear tints, the delicate outlines, those tender and pleasant dimples, like the wimpling of a well; an image so pure, and merry, and melancholy withal, had grown before me, and in twilight shadows visited the now lonely haunts of her brief hours; even the old church, in my evening rambles along the uplands of the park, had in my eyes so saddened a grace in the knowledge that those slender bones lay beneath its shadows, and all about her was so linked in my mind with truth, and melancholy, and altogether so sacred, that I could not trifle with the story, and felt, even when I imagined it, a pang, and a reproach, as if I had mocked the sadness of little Lily’s fate; so, after some ponderings and trouble of mind I gave it up, and quite renounced the thought.

And, after all, what difference should it make? Is not the generation among whom her girlish lot was cast long passed away? A few years more or less of life. What of them now? When honest Dan Loftus cited those lines from the ‘Song of Songs,’ did he not make her sweet epitaph? Had she married Captain Devereux, what would her lot have been? She was not one of those potent and stoical spirits, who can survive the wreck of their best affections, and retort injury with scorn. In forming that simple spirit, Nature had forgotten arrogance and wrath. She would never have fought against the cruelty of changed affections if that or the treasons of an unprincipled husband had come. His love would have been her light and life, and when that was turned away, like a northern flower that has lost its sun, she would have only hung her pretty head, and died, in her long winter. So viewing now the ways of wisdom from a distance, I think I can see they were the best, and how that fair, young mortal, who seemed a sacrifice, was really a conqueror.

Puddock and Devereux on this eventful night, as we remember, having shaken hands at the door-steps, turned and went up stairs together, very amicably again, to the captain’s drawing-room.

So Devereux, when they returned to his lodgings, had lost much of his reserve, and once on the theme of his grief, stormed on in gusts, and lulls, and thunder, and wild upbraidings, and sudden calms; and the good-natured soul of little Puddock was touched, and though he did not speak, he often dried his eyes quietly, for grief is conversant not with self, but with the dead, and whatever is generous moves us.

‘There’s no one stirring now, Puddock — I’ll put my cloak about me and walk over to the Elms, to ask how the rector is to-night,’ said Devereux, muffling himself in his military mantle.

It was only the restlessness of grief. Like all other pain, grief is haunted with the illusion that change means relief; motion is the instinct of escape. Puddock walked beside him, and they went swiftly and silently together.

When they reached the other side of the bridge, and stood under the thorn-hedge fronting the leafless elms, Devereux was irresolute.

‘Would you wish me to enquire?’ asked Puddock. Devereux held him doubtfully by the arm for a moment or two, and then said gently —

‘No, I thank you, Puddock — I’ll go — yes — I’ll go myself;’ and so Captain Devereux went up to the door.

John Tracy, at the steps, told him that he thought his master wished to speak with him; but he was not quite sure. The tall muffled figure therefore waited at the door while John went in to tell his master, and soon returned to say that Doctor Walsingham would be much obliged to him to step into the study.

When the doctor saw Devereux, he stood up to meet him.

‘I hope, Sir,’ said Devereux, very humbly, ‘you have forgiven me.’

The doctor took his hand and shook it very hard, and said, ‘There’s nothing — we’re both in sorrow. Everyone — everyone is sorry, Sir, but you more.’

Devereux did not say anything, being moved, as I suppose. But he had drawn his cloak about his face, and was looking down.

‘There was a little message — only a word or two,’ said the doctor; ‘but everything of hers is sacred.’

He turned over some papers in his desk, and chose one. It was in Lily’s pretty handwriting.

‘I am charged with this little message. Oh, my darling!’ and the old man cried bitterly.

‘Pray, read it — you will understand it —’tis easily read. What a pretty hand it was!’

So Devereux took the little paper, and read just the words which follow:—

‘My beloved father will, I hope, if he thinks it right, tell Captain Richard Devereux that I was not so unkind and thankless as I may have seemed, but very grateful for his preference, of which I know, in many ways, how unworthy I was. But I do not think we could have been happy; and being all over, it is a great comfort to friends who are separated here, that there is a place where all may meet again, if God will; and as I did not see or speak with him since my dear father brought his message, I wished that so much should be said, and also to say a kind good-bye, and give him all good wishes.

‘LILIAS.’

‘Friday evening.’

Captain Richard Devereux read this simple little record through, and then he said:—

‘Oh, Sir, may I have it — isn’t it mine?’

We who have heard those wondrous aërial echoes of Killarney, when the breath has left the bugle and its cadences are silent, take up the broken links of the lost melody with an answer far away, sad and celestial, real, yet unreal, the fleeting yet lingering spirit of music, that is past and over, have something in memory by which we can illustrate the effect of these true voices of the thoughts and affections that have perished, returning for a few charmed moments regretfully and sweetly from the sea of eternal silence.

And so that sad and clear farewell, never repeated, was long after, in many a lonely night, answered by the voice of Devereux.

‘Did she — did she know how I loved her? Oh, never, never! I’ll never love any but you. Darling, darling — you can’t die. Oh, no, no, no! Your place knows you still; your place is here — here — here.’

And he smote his breast over that heart which, such as it was, cherished a pure affection for her.

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