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

Chapter 97

In which Obediah Arrives.

In the meantime our worthy little Lieutenant Puddock — by this time quite reconciled to the new state of things, walked up to Belmont, with his head a great deal fuller — such and so great are human vagaries — of the interview pending between him and Aunt Becky than of the little romance which had exploded so unexpectedly about a fortnight ago.

He actually saw Miss Gertrude and my Lord Dunoran walking side by side, on the mulberry walk by the river; and though he looked and felt a little queer, perhaps, a little absurd, he did not sigh, or murmur a stanza, or suffer a palpitation; but walked up to the hall-door, and asked for Miss Rebecca Chattesworth.

Aunt Becky received him in the drawing-room. She was looking very pale, and spoke very little, and very gently for her. In a reconciliation between two persons of the opposite sexes — though the ages be wide apart — there is almost always some little ingredient of sentiment.

The door was shut, and Puddock’s voice was heard in an indistinct murmur, upon the lobby. Then there was a silence, or possibly, some speaking in a still lower key. Then Aunt Becky was crying, and the lieutenant’s voice cooing through it. Then Aunt Becky, still crying, said —

‘A longer time than you think for, lieutenant; two years, and more — always! And the lieutenant’s voice rose again; and she said —‘What a fool I’ve been!’ which was again lost in Puddock’s accents; and the drawing-room door opened, and Aunt Rebecca ran up stairs, with her handkerchief to her red nose and eyes, and slammed her bed-room door after her like a boarding-school miss.

And the general’s voice was heard shouting ‘luncheon’ in the hall; and Dominick repeated the announcement to Puddock, who stood, unusually pale and very much stunned, with the handle of the open drawing-room door in his hand, looking up toward the bed-room in an undecided sort of way, as if he was not clear whether it was not his duty to follow Aunt Becky. On being told a second time, however, that the general awaited him at luncheon, he apprehended the meaning of the message, and went down to the parlour forthwith.

The general, and my lord Dunoran, and Miss Gertrude, and honest Father Roach, were there; and Aunt Becky being otherwise engaged, could not come.

Puddock, at luncheon, was abstracted — frightened — silent, for the most part; talking only two or three sentences during that sociable meal, by fits and starts; and he laughed once abruptly at a joke he did not hear. He also drank three glasses of port.

Aunt Rebecca met him with her hood on in the hall. She asked him, with a faltering sort of carelessness, looking very hard at the clock, and nearly with her back to him —

‘Lieutenant, will you take a turn in the garden with me?’

To which Puddock, with almost a start — for he had not seen her till she spoke — and, upon my word, ’tis a fact, with a blush, too — made a sudden smile, and a bow, and a suitable reply in low tones; and forth they sallied together, and into the garden, and up and down the same walk, for a good while — a long while — people sometimes don’t count the minutes — with none but Peter Brian, the gardener, whom they did not see, to observe them.

When they came to the white wicket-door of the garden, Aunt Rebecca hastily dropped his arm, on which she had leaned; and together they returned to the house very affably; and there Aunt Becky bid him good-bye in a whisper, a little hastily; and Puddock, so soon as he found Dominick, asked for the general.

He had gone down to the river; and Puddock followed. As he walked along the court, he looked up; there was a kind of face at the window. He smiled a great deal and raised his hat, and placed it to his heart, and felt quite bewildered, like a man in a dream; and in this state he marched down to the river’s bank.

They had not been together for a full minute when the stout general threw back his head, looking straight in his face; and then he stepped first one, then another, fat little pace backward, and poked his cane right at the ribs of the plump little lieutenant, then closing with him, he shook both Puddock’s hands in both his, with a hearty peal of laughter.

Then he took Puddock under his arm. Puddock had to stoop to pick up his hat which the general had dislodged. And so the general walks him slowly towards the house; sometimes jogging his elbow a little under his ribs; sometimes calling a halt and taking his collar in his finger and thumb, thrusting him out a little, and eyeing him over with a sort of swagger, and laughing and coughing, and whooping, and laughing again, almost to strangulation; and altogether extraordinarily boisterous, and hilarious, and familiar, as Cluffe thought, who viewed this spectacle from the avenue.

Mr. Sterling would not have been quite so amused at a similar freak of Mrs. Hidleberg’s — but our honest general was no especial worshipper of money — he was rich, too, and his daughter, well dowered, was about to marry a peer, and beside all this, though he loved ‘Sister Becky,’ her yoke galled him; and I think he was not altogether sorry at the notion of a little more liberty.

At the same moment honest Peter Brien, having set his basket of winter greens down upon the kitchen-table, electrified his auditory by telling them, with a broad grin and an oath, that he had seen Lieutenant Puddock and Aunt Rebecca kiss in the garden, with a good smart smack, ‘by the powers, within three yards of his elbow, when he was stooping down cutting them greens!’ At which profanity, old Mistress Dorothy, Aunt Rebecca’s maid, was so incensed that she rose and left the kitchen without a word. The sensation there, however, was immense; and Mistress Dorothy heard the gabble and laughter fast and furious behind her until she reached the hall.

Captain Cluffe was asking for Aunt Rebecca when Puddock and the general reached the hall-door, and was surprised to learn that she was not to be seen. ‘If she knew ’twas I,’ he thought, ‘but no matter.’

‘Oh, we could have told you that; eh, Puddock?’ cried the general; ‘‘tisn’t everybody can see my sister today, captain; a very peculiar engagement, eh, Puddock?’ and a sly wink and a chuckle.

Cluffe smiled a little, and looked rather conscious and queer, but pleased with himself; and his eyes wandered over the front windows hastily, to see if Aunt Becky was looking out, for he fancied there was something in the general’s quizzing, and that the lady might have said more than she quite intended to poor little Puddock on the subject of the gallant mediator; and that, in fact, he was somehow the theme of some little sentimental disclosure of the lady’s. What the plague else could they both mean by quizzing Cluffe about her?

Puddock and he had not gone half-way down the short avenue, when Cluffe said, with a sheepish smile:

‘Miss Rebecca Chattesworth dropped something in her talk with you, Puddock, I see that plain enough, my dear fellow, which the general has no objection I should hear, and, hang it, I don’t see any myself. I say, I may as well hear it, eh? I venture to say there’s no great harm in it.’

At first Puddock was reserved, but recollecting that he had been left quite free to tell whom he pleased, he made up his mind to unbosom; and suggested, for the sake of quiet and a longer conversation, that they should go round by the ferry.

‘No, I thank you, I’ve had enough of that; we can walk along as quietly as you like, and turn a little back again if need be.’

So slowly, side by side, the brother-officers paced toward the bridge; and little Puddock, with a serious countenance and blushing cheeks, and looking straight before him, made his astounding disclosure.

Puddock told things in a very simple and intelligible way, and Cluffe heard him in total silence; and just as he related the crowning fact, that he, the lieutenant, was about to marry Miss Rebecca Chattesworth, having reached the milestone by the footpath, Captain Cluffe raised his foot thereupon, without a word to Puddock, and began tugging at the strap of his legging, with a dismal red grin, and a few spluttering curses at the artificer of the article.

‘And the lady has had the condescension to say that she has liked me for at least two years.’

‘And she hating you like poison, to my certain knowledge,’ laughed Captain Cluffe, very angrily, and swallowing down his feelings. So they walked on a little way in silence, and Cluffe, who, with his face very red, and his mouth a good deal expanded, and down in the corners, was looking steadfastly forward, exclaimed suddenly —

Well?’

‘I see, Cluffe,’ said Puddock; ‘you don’t think it prudent — you think we mayn’t be happy?’

Prudent,’ laughed Cluffe, with a variety of unpleasant meanings; and after a while —‘And the general knows of it?’

‘And approves it most kindly,’ said Puddock.

‘What else can he do?’ sneered Cluffe; ‘’tis a precious fancy — they are such cheats! Why you might be almost her grand-son, my dear Puddock, ha, ha, ha. ’Tis preposterous; you’re sixteen years younger than I.’

‘If you can’t congratulate me, ‘twould be kinder not to say anything, Captain Cluffe; and nobody must speak in my presence of that lady but with proper respect; and I— I thought, Cluffe, you’d have wished me well, and shaken hands and said something — something —’

‘Oh, as for that,’ said Cluffe, swallowing down his emotions again, and shaking hands with Puddock rather clumsily, and trying to smile, ‘I wish you well, Heaven knows — everything good; why shouldn’t I, by George? You know, Puddock, ’twas I who brought you together. And — and — am I at liberty to mention it?’

Puddock thought it better the news should be proclaimed from Belmont.

‘Well, so I think myself,’ said Cluffe, and relapsed into silence till they parted, at the corner of the broad street of Chapelizod and Cluffe walked at an astounding pace on to his lodgings.

‘Here’s Captain Cluffe,’ said Mrs. Mason, to a plump youth, who had just made the journey from London, and was standing with the driver of a low-backed car, and saluted the captain, who was stalking in without taking any notice.

‘Little bill, if you please, captain.’

‘What is it?’ demanded the captain, grimly.

‘Obediar’s come, Sir.’

‘Obediar!’ said the captain. ‘What the plague do you mean, Sir?’

‘Obediar, Sir, is the name we give him. The pelican, Sir, from Messrs. Hamburgh and Slighe.’

And the young man threw back a piece of green baize, and disclosed Obediar, who blinked with a tranquil countenance upon the captain through the wires of a strong wooden cage. I doubt if the captain ever looked so angry before or since. He glared at the pelican, and ground his teeth, and actually shook his cane in his fist; and if he had been one bit less prudent than he was, I think Obediar would then and there have slept with his fathers.

Cluffe whisked himself about, and plucked open the paper.

‘And what the devil is all this for, Sir? ten — twelve pounds ten shillings freightage and care on the way — and twenty-five, by George, Sir — not far from forty pounds, Sir,’ roared Cluffe.

‘Where’ll I bring him to, Sir?’ asked the driver.

The captain bellowed an address we sha’n’t print here.

‘Curse him — curse the brute! forty pounds!’ and the captain swore hugely, ‘you scoundrel! Drive the whole concern out of that, Sir. Drive him away, Sir, or by Jove, I’ll break every bone in your body, Sir.’

And the captain scaled the stairs, and sat down panting, and outside the window he heard the driver advising something about putting the captain’s bird to livery, ‘till sich time as he’d come to his sinses;’ and himself undertaking to wait opposite the door of his lodgings until his fare from Dublin was paid.

Though Cluffe was occasionally swayed by the angry passions, he was, on the whole, in his own small way, a long-headed fellow. He hated law, especially when he had a bad case; and accordingly he went down again, rumpling the confounded bill in his hand, and told the man that he did not blame him for it — though the whole thing was an imposition; but that rather than have any words about it, he’d pay the account, and have done with it; and he stared again in the face of the pelican with an expression of rooted abhorrence and disgust, and the mild bird clapped its bill, perhaps expecting some refreshment, and looking upon the captain with a serene complacency very provoking under the circumstances.

‘How the devil people can like such misshapen, idiotic-looking, selfish, useless brutes; and, by George, it smells like a polecat — curse it! but some people have deuced queer fancies in more matters than one. The brute! on my soul, I’d like to shoot it.’

However, with plenty of disputation over the items, and many oaths and vows, the gallant captain, with a heavy and wrathful heart, paid the bill; and although he had sworn in his drawing-room that he’d eat the pelican before Aunt Rebecca should have it, he thought better also upon this point too, and it arrived that evening at Belmont, with his respectful compliments.

Cluffe was soon of opinion that he was in absolute possession of his own secret, and resolved to keep it effectually. He hinted that very evening at mess, and afterwards at the club, that he had been managing a very nice and delicate bit of diplomacy which not a soul of them suspected, at Belmont; and that by George, he thought they’d stare when they heard it. He had worked like a lord chancellor to bring it about; and he thought all was pretty well settled, now. And the Chapelizod folk, in general, and Puddock, as implicitly as any, and Aunt Rebecca, for that matter, also believed to their dying day that Cluffe had managed that match, and been a true friend to little Puddock.

Cluffe never married, but grew confoundedly corpulent by degrees, and suffered plaguily from gout; but was always well dressed, and courageously buckled in, and, I dare say, two inches less in girth, thanks to the application of mechanics, than nature would have presented him.

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