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

Chapter 5

How the Royal Irish Artillery Entertained Some of the Neighbours at Dinner.

If I stuck at a fib as little as some historians, I might easily tell you who won the prizes at this shooting on Palmerstown Green. But the truth is, I don’t know; my granduncle could have told me, for he had a marvellous memory, but he died, a pleasant old gentleman of four-score and upwards, when I was a small urchin. I remember his lively old face, his powdered bald head and pigtail, his slight erect figure, and how merrily he used to play the fiddle for his juvenile posterity to dance to. But I was not of an age to comprehend the value of this thin, living volume of old lore, or to question the oracle. Well, it can’t be helped now, and the papers I’ve got are silent upon the point. But there were jollifications to no end both in Palmerstown and Chapelizod that night, and declamatory conversations rising up in the street at very late hours, and singing, and ‘hurooing’ along the moonlit roads.

There was a large and pleasant dinner-party, too, in the mess-room of the Royal Irish Artillery. Lord Castlemallard was there in the place of honour, next to jolly old General Chattesworth, and the worthy rector, Doctor Walsingham, and Father Roach, the dapper, florid little priest of the parish, with his silk waistcoat and well-placed paunch, and his keen relish for funny stories, side-dishes, and convivial glass; and Dan Loftus, that simple, meek, semi-barbarous young scholar, his head in a state of chronic dishevelment, his harmless little round light-blue eyes, pinkish from late night reading, generally betraying the absence of his vagrant thoughts, and I know not what of goodness, as well as queerness, in his homely features.

Good Dr. Walsingham, indeed, in his simple benevolence, had helped the strange, kindly creature through college, and had a high opinion of him, and a great delight in his company. They were both much given to books, and according to their lights zealous archæologists. They had got hold of Chapelizod Castle, a good tough enigma. It was a theme they never tired of. Loftus had already two folios of extracts copied from all the records to which Dr. Walsingham could procure him access. They could not have worked harder, indeed, if they were getting up evidence to prove their joint title to Lord Castlemallard’s estates. This pursuit was a bond of close sympathy between the rector and the student, and they spent more time than appeared to his parishioners quite consistent with sanity in the paddock by the river, pacing up and down, and across, poking sticks into the earth and grubbing for old walls underground.

Loftus, moreover, was a good Irish scholar, and from Celtic MSS. had elicited some cross-lights upon his subject — not very bright or steady, I allow — but enough to delight the rector, and inspire him with a tender reverence for the indefatigable and versatile youth, who was devoting to the successful equitation of their hobby so many of his hours, and so much of his languages, labour, and brains.

Lord Castlemallard was accustomed to be listened to, and was not aware how confoundedly dull his talk sometimes was. It was measured, and dreamy, and every way slow. He was entertaining the courteous old general at the head of the table, with an oration in praise of Paul Dangerfield — a wonderful man — immensely wealthy — the cleverest man of his age — he might have been anything he pleased. His lordship really believed his English property would drop to pieces if Dangerfield retired from its management, and he was vastly obliged to him inwardly, for retaining the agency even for a little time longer. He was coming over to visit the Irish estates — perhaps to give Nutter a wrinkle or two. He was a bachelor, and his lordship averred would be a prodigious great match for some of our Irish ladies. Chapelizod would be his headquarters while in Ireland. No, he was not sure — he rather thought he was not of the Thorley family; and so on for a mighty long time. But though he tired them prodigiously, he contrived to evoke before their minds’ eyes a very gigantic, though somewhat hazy figure, and a good deal stimulated the interest with which a new arrival was commonly looked for in that pleasant suburban village. There is no knowing how long Lord Castlemallard might have prosed upon this theme, had he not been accidentally cut short, and himself laid fast asleep in his chair, without his or anybody else’s intending it. For overhearing, during a short pause, in which he sipped some claret, Surgeon Sturk applying some very strong, and indeed, frightful language to a little pamphlet upon magnetism, a subject then making a stir — as from a much earlier date it has periodically done down to the present day — he languidly asked Dr. Walsingham his opinion upon the subject.

Now, Dr. Walsingham was a great reader of out-of-the-way lore, and retained it with a sometimes painful accuracy; and he forthwith began —

‘There is, my Lord Castlemallard, a curious old tract of the learned Van Helmont, in which he says, as near as I can remember his words, that magnetism is a magical faculty, which lieth dormant in us by the opiate of primitive sin, and, therefore, stands in need of an excitator, which excitator may be either good or evil; but is more frequently Satan himself, by reason of some previous oppignoration or compact with witches. The power, indeed, is in the witch, and not conferred by him; but this versipellous or Protean impostor — these are his words — will not suffer her to know that it is of her own natural endowment, though for the present charmed into somnolent inactivity by the narcotic of primitive sin.’

I verily believe that a fair description — none of your poetical balderdash, but an honest plodding description of a perfectly comfortable bed, and of the process of going to sleep, would, judiciously administered soon after dinner, overpower the vivacity of any tranquil gentleman who loves a nap after that meal — gently draw the curtains of his senses, and extinguish the bed-room candle of his consciousness. In the doctor’s address and quotation there was so much about somnolency and narcotics, and lying dormant, and opiates, that my Lord Castlemallard’s senses forsook him, and he lost, as you, my kind reader, must, all the latter portion of the doctor’s lullaby.

‘I’d give half I’m pothethed of, Thir, and all my prothpecth in life,’ lisped vehemently plump little Lieutenant Puddock, in one of those stage frenzies to which he was prone, ‘to be the firtht Alecthander on the boardth.’

Between ourselves, Puddock was short and fat, very sentimental, and a little bit of a gourmet; his desk stuffed with amorous sonnets and receipts for side-dishes; he, always in love, and often in the kitchen, where, under the rose, he loved to direct the cooking of critical little plats, very good-natured, rather literal, very courteous, a chevallier, indeed, sans reproche. He had a profound faith in his genius for tragedy, but those who liked him best could not help thinking that his plump cheeks, round, little light eyes, his lisp, and a certain lack-a-daisical, though solemn expression of surprise, which Nature, in one of her jocular moods, seemed to have fixed upon his countenance, were against his shining in that walk of the drama. He was blessed, too, with a pleasant belief in his acceptance with the fair sex, but had a real one with his comrades, who knew his absurdities and his virtues, and laughed at and loved him.

‘But hang it, there ‘th no uthe in doing things by halves. Melpomene’s the most jealous of the Muses. I tell you if you stand well in her gratheth, by Jove, Thir, you mutht give yourthelf up to her body and thoul. How the deuthe can a fellow that’s out at drill at hicth in the morning, and all day with his head filled with tacticth and gunnery, and — and —’

‘And ‘farced pigeons’ and lovely women,’ said Devereux.

‘And such dry professional matterth,’ continued he, without noticing, perhaps hearing the interpolation, ‘How can he pothibly have a chance againth geniuses, no doubt — vathly thuperior by nature’—(Puddock, the rogue, believed no such thing)—‘but who devote themthelveth to the thtudy of the art incethantly, exclusively, and — and ——’

‘Impossible,’ said O’Flaherty. ‘There now, was Tommy Shycock, of Ballybaisly, that larned himself to balance a fiddle-stick on his chin; and the young leedies, and especially Miss Kitty Mahony, used to be all around him in the ball-room at Thralee, lookin’, wondhrin’, and laughin’; and I that had twiste his brains, could not come round it, though I got up every morning for a month at four o’clock, and was obleeged to give over be rason of a soart iv a squint I was gettin’ be looking continually at the fiddle-stick. I began with a double bass, the way he did — it’s it that was the powerful fateaguin’ exercise, I can tell you. Two blessed hours a-day, regular practice, besides an odd half-hour, now and agin, for three mortial years, it took him to larn it, and dhrilled a dimple in his chin you could put a marrow-fat pay in.’

‘Practice,’ resumed Puddock, I need not spell his lisp, ‘study — time to devote — industry in great things as in small — there’s the secret. Nature, to be sure —’

‘Ay, Nature, to be sure — we must sustain Nature, dear Puddock, so pass the bottle,’ said Devereux, who liked his glass.

‘Be the powers, Mr. Puddock, if I had half your janius for play-acting,’ persisted O’Flaherty, ‘nothing i’d keep me from the boards iv Smock-alley play-house — incog., I mean, of course. There’s that wonderful little Mr. Garrick — why he’s the talk of the three kingdoms as long as I can remember — an’ making his thousand pounds a week — coining, be gannies — an’ he can’t be much taller than you, for he’s contimptably small.’

‘I’m the taller man of the two,’ said little Puddock, haughtily, who had made enquiries, and claimed half an inch over Rocius, honestly, let us hope. ‘But this is building castles in the air; joking apart, however, I do confess I should dearly love — just for a maggot — to play two parts — Richard the Third and Tamerlane.’

‘Was not that the part you spoke that sympathetic speech out of for me before dinner?’

‘No, that was Justice Greedy,’ said Devereux.

‘Ay, so it was — was it? — that smothered his wife.’

‘With a pudding clout,’ persisted Devereux.

‘No. With a — pooh! — a — you know — and stabbed himself,’ continued O’Flaherty.

‘With a larding-pin —’tis written in good Italian.’

‘Augh, not at all — it isn’t Italian, but English, I’m thinking of — a pilla, Puddock, you know — the black rascal.’

‘Well, English or Italian — tragedy or comedy,’ said Devereux, who liked Puddock, and would not annoy him, and saw he was hurt by Othello’s borrowing his properties from the kitchen; ‘I venture to say you were well entertained: and for my part, Sir, there are some characters’—(in farce Puddock was really highly diverting)—‘in which I prefer Puddock to any player I every saw.’

‘Oh — ho — ho!’ laughed poor little Puddock, with a most gratified derisiveness, for he cherished in secret a great admiration for Devereux.

And so they talked stage-talk. Puddock lithping away, grand and garrulous; O’Flaherty, the illiterate, blundering in with sincere applause; and Devereux sipping his claret and dropping a quiet saucy word now and again.

‘I shall never forget Mrs. Cibber’s countenance in that last scene — you know — in the “Orphan”— Monimia you know, Devereux.’ And the table being by this time in high chat, and the chairs a little irregular, Puddock slipped off his, and addressing himself to Devereux and O’Flaherty — just to give them a notion of Mrs. Cibber — began, with a countenance the most wobegone, and in a piping falsetto —

‘When I am laid low, i’ the grave, and quite forgotten.’

Monimia dies at the end of the speech — as the reader may not be aware; but when Puddock came to the line —

‘When I am dead, as presently I shall be,’

all Mrs. Cibber’s best points being still to come, the little lieutenant’s heel caught in the edge of the carpet, as he sailed with an imaginary hoop on grandly backward, and in spite of a surprising flick-flack cut in the attempt to recover his equipoise, down came the ‘orphan,’ together with a table-load of spoons and plates, with a crash that stopt all conversation.

Lord Castlemallard waked up, with a snort and a ‘hollo, gentlemen!’

‘It’s only poor dear Monimia, general,’ said Devereux with a melancholy bow, in reply to a fiery and startled stare darted to the point by that gallant officer.

‘Hey — eh?’ said his lordship, brightening up, and gazing glassily round with a wan smile; and I fancy he thought a lady had somehow introduced herself during his nap, and was pleased, for he admired the sex.

‘If there’s any recitation going on, I think it had better be for the benefit of the company,’ said the general, a little surly, and looking full upon the plump Monimia, who was arranging his frill and hair, and getting a little awkwardly into his place.

‘And I think ‘twould be no harm, Lieutenant Puddock, my dear,’ says Father Roach, testily, for he had been himself frightened by the crash, ‘if you’d die a little aisier the next time.’

Puddock began to apologise.

‘Never mind,’ said the general, recovering, ‘let’s fill our glasses — my Lord Castlemallard, they tell me this claret is a pretty wine.’

‘A very pretty wine,’ said my lord.

‘And suppose, my lord, we ask these gentlemen to give us a song? I say, gentlemen, there are fine voices among you. Will some gentleman oblige the company with a song?’

‘Mr. Loftus sings a very fine song, I’m told,’ said Captain Cluffe, with a wink at Father Roach.

‘Ay,’ cried Roach, backing up the joke (a good old one, and not yet quite off the hooks), ‘Mr. Loftus sings, I’ll take my davy — I’ve heard him!’

Loftus was shy, simple, and grotesque, and looked like a man who could not sing a note. So when he opened his eyes, looked round, and blushed, there was a general knocking of glasses, and a very flattering clamour for Mr. Loftus’s song.

But when silence came, to the surprise of the company he submitted, though with manifest trepidation, and told them that he would sing as the company desired. It was a song from a good old writer upon fasting in Lent, and was, in fact, a reproof to all hypocrisy. Hereupon there was a great ringing of glasses and a jolly round of laughter rose up in the cheer that welcomed the announcement. Father Roach looked queer and disconcerted, and shot a look of suspicion at Devereux, for poor Dan Loftus had, in truth, hit that divine strait in a very tender spot.

The fact is, Father Roach was, as Irish priests were sometimes then, a bit of a sportsman. He and Toole used occasionally to make mysterious excursions to the Dublin mountains. He had a couple of mighty good dogs, which he lent freely, being a good-natured fellow. He liked good living and jolly young fellows, and was popular among the officers, who used to pop in freely enough at his reverence’s green hall-door whenever they wanted a loan of his dogs, or to take counsel of the ghostly father (whose opinion was valued more highly even than Toole’s) upon the case of a sick dog or a lame nag.

Well, one morning — only a few weeks before — Devereux and Toole together had looked in on some such business upon his reverence — a little suddenly — and found him eating a hare! — by all the gods, it was — hare-pie in the middle of Lent!

It was at breakfast. His dinner was the meal of an anchorite, and who would have guessed that these confounded sparks would have bounced into his little refectory at that hour of the morning? There was no room for equivocation; he had been caught in the very act of criminal conversation with the hare-pie. He rose with a spring, like a Jack-ina-box, as they entered, and knife and fork in hand, and with shining chops, stared at them with an angry, bothered, and alarmed countenance, which increased their laughter. It was a good while before he obtained a hearing, such was the hilarity, so sustained the fire of ironical compliments, enquiries, and pleasantries, and the general uproar.

When he did, with hand uplifted, after the manner of a prisoner arraigned for murder, he pleaded ‘a dispensation.’ I suppose it was true, for he backed the allegation with several most religious oaths and imprecations, and explained how men were not always quite so strong as they looked; that he might, if he liked it, by permission of his bishop, eat meat at every meal in the day, and every day in the week; that his not doing so was a voluntary abstinence — not conscientious, only expedient — to prevent the ‘unreasonable remarks’ of his parishioners (a roar of laughter); that he was, perhaps, rightly served for not having publicly availed himself of his bishop’s dispensation (renewed peals of merriment). By this foolish delicacy (more of that detestable horse-laughter), he had got himself into a false position; and so on, till the ad misericordiam peroration addressed to ‘Captain Devereux, dear,’ and ‘Toole, my honey.’ Well, they quizzed him unmercifully; they sat down and eat all that was left of the hare-pie, under his wistful ogle. They made him narrate minutely every circumstance connected with the smuggling of the game, and the illicit distillation for the mess. They never passed so pleasant a morning. Of course he bound them over to eternal secrecy, and of course, as in all similar cases, the vow was religiously observed; nothing was ever heard of it at mess — oh, no — and Toole never gave a dramatic representation of the occurrence, heightened and embellished with all the little doctor’s genius for farce.

There certainly was a monologue to which he frequently afterwards treated the Aldermen of Skinner’s Alley, and other convivial bodies, at supper, the doctor’s gestures were made with knife and fork in hand, and it was spoken in a rich brogue and tones sometimes of thrilling pathos, anon of sharp and vehement indignation, and again of childlike endearment, amidst pounding and jingling of glasses, and screams of laughter from the company. Indeed the lord mayor, a fat slob of a fellow, though not much given to undue merriment, laughed his ribs into such a state of breathless torture, that he implored of Toole, with a wave of his hand — he could not speak — to give him breathing time, which that voluble performer disregarding, his lordship had to rise twice, and get to the window, or, as he afterwards said, he should have lost his life; and when the performance was ended, his fat cheeks were covered with tears, his mouth hung down, his head wagged slowly from side to side, and with short gasping ‘oohs,’ and ‘oohs,’ his hands pressed to his pudgy ribs, he looked so pale and breathless, that although they said nothing, several of his comrades stared hard at him, and thought him in rather a queer state.

Shortly after this little surprise, I suppose by way of ratifying the secret treaty of silence, Father Roach gave the officers and Toole a grand Lent dinner of fish, with no less than nineteen different plats, baked, boiled, stewed, in fact, a very splendid feast; and Puddock talked of some of those dishes more than twenty years afterwards.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57