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

Chapter 83

In which the Knight of the Silver Spectacles Makes the Acquaintance of the Sage ‘Black Dillon,’ and Confers with Him in His Retreat.

AT that time there had appeared in Dublin an erratic genius in the medical craft, a young surgeon, ‘Black Dillon,’ they called him, the glory and disgrace of his calling; such as are from time to time raised up to abase the pride of intellect, and terrify the dabblers in vice. A prodigious mind, illuminating darkness, and shivering obstacles at a blow, with an electric force — possessing the power of a demigod, and the lusts of a swine. Without order, without industry; defying all usages and morality; lost for weeks together in the catacombs of vice; and emerging to re-assert in an hour the supremacy of his intellect; without principles or shame; laden with debt; and shattered and poisoned with his vices; a branded and admired man.

In the presence of this outcast genius and prodigy of vice, stood Mr. Dangerfield. There were two other gentlemen in the same small room, one of whom was doggedly smoking, with his hat on, over the fire; the other snoring in a crazy arm-chair, on the back of which hung his wig. The window was small and dirty; the air muddy with tobacco-smoke, and inflamed with whiskey. Singing and the clang of glasses was resounding from the next room, together with peals of coarse laughter, and from that on the other side, the high tones and hard swearing, and the emphatic slapping of a heavy hand upon the table, indicating a rising quarrel, were heard. From one door through another, across the narrow floor on which Mr. Dangerfield stood, every now and then lounged some neglected, dirty, dissipated looking inmate of these unwholesome precincts. In fact, Surgeon Dillon’s present residence was in that diversorium pecatorum, the Four Courts Marshalsea in Molesworth-court. As these gentlemen shuffled or swaggered through, they generally nodded, winked, grunted, or otherwise saluted the medical gentleman, and stared at his visitor. For as the writer of the Harleian tract — I forget its name — pleasantly observes:—‘In gaol they are no proud men, but will be quickly acquainted without ceremony.’

Mr. Dangerfield stood erect; all his appointments were natty, and his dress, though quiet, rich in material, and there was that air of reserve, and decision, and command about him, which suggests money, an article held much in esteem in that retreat. He had a way of seeing every thing in a moment without either staring or stealing glances, and nobody suspected him of making a scrutiny. In the young surgeon he saw an object in strong contrast with himself. He was lean and ungainly, shy and savage, dressed in a long greasy silk morning gown, blotched with wine and punch over the breast. He wore his own black hair gathered into a knot behind, and in a neglected dusty state, as if it had not been disturbed since he rolled out of his bed. This being placed his large, red, unclean hands, with fingers spread, like a gentleman playing the harpsichord, upon the table, as he stood at the side opposite to Mr. Dangerfield, and he looked with a haggard, surly stare on his visitor, through his great dark, deep-set prominent eyes, streaming fire, the one feature that transfixed the attention of all who saw him. He had a great brutal mouth, and his nose was pimply and inflamed, for Bacchus has his fires as well as Cupid, only he applies them differently. How polished showed Mr. Dangerfield’s chin opposed to the three days’ beard of Black Dillon! how delicate his features compared with the lurid proboscis, and huge, sensual, sarcastic mouth of the gentleman in the dirty morning-gown and shapeless slippers, who confronted him with his glare, an image of degradation and power!

‘Tuppince, Docthor Dillon,’ said a short, fat, dirty nymph, without stays or hoop, setting down a ‘naggin o’ whiskey’ between the medical man and his visitor.

The doctor, to do him justice, for a second or two looked confoundedly put out, and his eyes blazed fiercer as his face flushed.

‘Three halfpence outside, and twopence here, Sir,’ said he with an awkward grin, throwing the money on the table; ‘that’s the way our shepherd deglubat oves, Sir; she’s brought it too soon, but no matter.’

It was not one o’clock, in fact.

‘They will make mistakes, Sir; but you will not suffer their blunders long, I warrant,’ said Dangerfield, lightly. ‘Pray, Sir, can we have a room for a moment to ourselves?’

‘We can, Sir, ’tis a liberal house; we can have any thing; liberty itself, Sir — for an adequate sum,’ replied Mr. Dillon.

Whatever the sum was, the room was had, and the surgeon, who had palpably left his ‘naggin’ uneasily in company with the gentleman in the hat, and him without a wig, eyed Dangerfield curiously, thinking that possibly his grand-aunt Molly had left him the fifty guineas she was rumoured to have sewed up in her stays.

‘There’s a great deal of diversion, Sir, in five hundred guineas, said Mr. Dangerfield, and the spectacles dashed pleasantly upon the doctor.

‘Ye may say that,’ answered the grinning surgeon, with a quiet oath of expectation.

‘’Tis a handsome fee, Sir, and you may have it.’

‘Five hundred guineas!’

‘Ah, you’ve heard, Sir, perhaps, of the attempted murder in the park, on Doctor Sturk, of the Artillery; for which Mr. Nutter now lies in prison?’ said Mr. Dangerfield.

‘That I have, Sir.’

‘Well, you shall have the money, Sir, if you perform a simple operation.’

‘’Tis not to hang him you want me?’ said the doctor, with a gloomy sneer.

‘Hang him! — ha, ha — no, Sir, Doctor Sturk still lives, but insensible. He must be brought to consciousness, and speech. Now, the trepan is the only way to effect it; and I’ll be frank with you: Doctor Pell has been with him half a dozen times, and he says the operation would be instantaneously fatal. I don’t believe him. So also says Sir Hugh Skelton, to whom I wrote in London — I don’t believe him, either. At all events, the man is dying, and can’t last very many days longer, so there’s nothing risked. His wife wishes the operation; here’s her note; and I’ll give you five hundred guineas and — what are you here for?’

‘Only eighteen, unless some more has come in this morning,’ answered the doctor.

‘And your liberty, Sir, that on the spot, if you undertake the operation, and the fee so soon as you have done it.’

The doctor’s face blazed with a grin of exultation; he squared his shoulders and shook himself a little; and after a little silence, he demanded —

‘Can you describe the case, Sir, as you stated it to Sir Hugh Skelton?’

‘Surely, Sir, but I rely for it and the terms, upon the description of a village doctor, named Toole; an ignoramus, I fear.’

And with this preface he concisely repeated the technical description which he had compiled from various club conversations of Dr. Toole’s, to which no person imagined he had been listening so closely.

‘If that’s the case, Sir, ’twill kill him.’

‘Kill or cure, Sir, ’tis the only chance,’ rejoined Dangerfield.

‘What sort is the wife, Sir?’ asked Black Dillon, with a very odd look, while his eye still rested on the short note that poor Mrs. Sturk had penned.

‘A nervous little woman of some two or three and forty,’ answered the spectacles.

The queer look subsided. He put the note in his pocket, and looked puzzled, and then he asked —’

‘Is he any way related to you, Sir?’

‘None in life, Sir. But that does not affect, I take it, the medical question.’

‘No, it does not affect the medical question — nothing can,’ observed the surgeon, in a sulky, sardonic way.

‘Of course not,’ answered the oracle of the silver spectacles, and both remained silent for a while.

‘You want to have him speak? Well, suppose there’s a hundred chances to one the trepan kills him on the spot — what then?’ demanded the surgeon, uncomfortably.

Dangerfield pondered, also uncomfortably for a minute, but answered nothing; on the contrary, he demanded —

‘And what then, Sir?’

‘But here, in this case,’ said Black Dillon, ‘there’s no chance at all, do you see, there’s no chance, good, bad, or indifferent; none at all.’

‘But I believe there is,’ replied Dangerfield, decisively.

‘You believe, but I know.’

‘See, Sir,’ said Dangerfield, darkening, and speaking with a strange snarl; ‘I know what I’m about. I’ve a desire, Sir, that he should speak, if ’twere only two minutes of conscious articulate life, and then death —’tis not a pin’s point to me how soon. Left to himself he must die; therefore, to shrink from the operation on which depends the discovery both of his actual murderer and of his money, Sir, otherwise lost to his family, is — is a damned affectation! I think it — so do you, Sir; and I offer five hundred guineas as your fee, and Mrs. Sturk’s letter to bear you harmless.’

Then there was a pause. Dangerfield knew the man’s character as well as his skill. There were things said about him darker than we have hinted at.

The surgeon looked very queer and gloomy down upon the table, and scratched his head, and he mumbled gruffly —

‘You see — you know —’tis a large fee, to be sure; but then —’

‘Come, Sir,’ said Dangerfield, looking as though he’d pull him by the ear; ‘it is a large fee, and you’ll get no more — you should not stick at trifles, when there’s — a — a — justice and humanity — and, to be brief, Sir — yes or no?’

Yes,’ answered the doctor; ‘but how’s the fee secured?’

‘Hey! I’d forgot. Right, Sir — you shall be satisfied.’

And he took a pen, and wrote on the back of a letter —

‘SIR— Considering the hopeless condition in which Dr. Sturk now lies, and the vast importance of restoring him, Dr. Sturk, of the R.I.A., to the power of speech, even for a few minutes, I beg to second Mrs. Sturk’s request to you; and when you shall have performed the critical operation she desires, I hereby promise, whether it succeed or fail, to give you a fee of five hundred guineas.


‘The Brass Castle, Chapelizod.’

And he dated it, and handed it to the surgeon, who read it through, and then looked with a gruff hesitation at the writer.

‘Oh, you’ve only to enquire — anyone who knows Chapelizod will tell you who I am; and you’ll want something — eh? — to take you out of this — how much?’

‘Only seven guineas. There’s a little score here, and some fees. Eighteen will cover everything, unless something has come in this morning.’

So they went to ‘the Hatch,’ and made enquiries, and all being well, Mr. Dangerfield dealt liberally with the surgeon, who promised to be in attendance at Dr. Sturk’s house in Chapelizod, at seven o’clock next evening.

‘And pray, Dr. Dillon, come in a coach,’ said Dangerfield, ‘and in costume — you understand. They’ve been accustomed, you know, to see Pell and other doctors who make a parade.’

And with these injunctions they parted; and the surgeon, whose luggage was trifling, jumped into a coach with it, and jingled home to his den and his liberty.

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