The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter LIV



So pulse or no pulse, dead or alive, they got Sturk into his bed.

Poor, cowed, quiet little Mrs. Sturk, went quite wild at the bedside.

'Oh! my Barney—my Barney—my noble Barney,' she kept crying. 'He's gone—he'll never speak again. Do you think he hears? Oh, Barney, my darling—Barney, it's your own poor little Letty—oh—Barney, darling, don't you hear. It's your own poor, foolish Letty.'

But it was the same stern face, and ears of stone. There was no answer and no sign.

And she sent a pitiful entreaty to Doctor Toole, who came very good-naturedly—and indeed he was prowling about the doorway of his domicile in expectation of the summons. And he shook her very cordially by the hand, and quite 'filled-up,' at her woebegone appeal, and told her she must not despair yet.

And this time he pronounced most positively that Sturk was still living.

'Yes, my dear Madam, so sure as you and I are. There's no mistaking.'

And as the warmth of the bed began to tell, the signs of life showed themselves more and more unequivocally. But Toole knew that his patient was in a state of coma, from which he had no hope of his emerging.

So poor little Mrs. Sturk—as white as the plaster on the wall—who kept her imploring eyes fixed on the doctor's ruddy countenance, during his moments of deliberation, burst out into a flood of tears, and thanksgivings, and benedictions.

'He'll recover—something tells me he'll recover. Oh! my Barney—darling—you will—you will.'

'While there's life—you know—my dear Ma'am,', said Toole, doing his best. 'But then—you see—he's been very badly abused about the head; and the brain you know—is the great centre—the—the—but, as I said, while there's life, there's hope.'

'And he's so strong—he shakes off an illness so easily; he has such courage.'

'So much the better, Ma'am.'

'And I can't but think, as he did not die outright, and has shown such wonderful endurance. Oh! my darling, he'll get on.'

'Well, well, Ma'am, there certainly have been wonderful recoveries.'

'And he's so much better already, you see, and I know so well how he gets through an illness, 'tis wonderful, and he certainly is mightily improved since we got him to bed. Why, I can see him breathe now, and you know it must be a good sign; and then there's a merciful God over us—and all the poor little children—what would become of us?' And then she wiped her eyes quickly. 'The promise, you know, of length of days—it often comforted me before—to those that honour father and mother; and I believe there never was so good a son. Oh! my noble Barney, never; 'tis my want of reliance and trust in the Almighty's goodness.'

And so, holding Toole by the cuff of his coat, and looking piteously into his face as they stood together in the doorway, the poor little woman argued thus with inexorable death.

Fools, and blind; when amidst our agonies of supplication the blow descends, our faith in prayer is staggered, as if it reached not the ear of the Allwise, and moved not His sublime compassion. Are we quite sure that we comprehend the awful and far-sighted game that is being played for us and others so well that we can sit by and safely dictate its moves?

How will Messrs. Morphy or Staunton, on whose calculations, I will suppose, you have staked £100, brook your insane solicitations to spare this pawn or withdraw that knight from prise, on the board which is but the toy type of that dread field where all the powers of eternal intellect, the wisdom from above and the wisdom from beneath—the stupendous intelligence that made, and the stupendous sagacity that would undo us, are pitted one against the other in a death-combat, which admits of no reconciliation and no compromise?

About poor Mrs. Nutter's illness, and the causes of it, various stories were current in Chapelizod. Some had heard it was a Blackamoor witch who had evoked the foul fiend in bodily shape from the parlour cupboard, and that he had with his cloven foot kicked her and Sally Nutter round the apartment until then screams brought in Charles Nutter, who was smoking in the garden; and that on entering, he would have fared as badly as the rest, had he not had presence of mind to pounce at once upon the great family Bible that lay on the window-sill, with which he belaboured the infernal intruder to a purpose. Others reported 'twas the ghost of old Philip Nutter, who rose through the floor, and talked I know not what awful rhodomontade. These were the confabulations of the tap-room and the kitchen; but the speculations and rumours current over the card-table and claret glasses were hardly more congruous or intelligible. In fact, nobody knew well what to make of it. Nutter certainly had disappeared, and there was an uneasy feeling about him. The sinister terms on which he and Sturk had stood were quite well known, and though nobody spoke out, every one knew pretty well what his neighbour was thinking of.

Our blooming friend, the handsome and stalworth Magnolia, having got a confidential hint from agitated Mrs. Mack, trudged up to the mills, in a fine frenzy, vowing vengeance on Mary Matchwell, for she liked poor Sally Nutter well. And when, with all her roses in her cheeks, and her saucy black eyes flashing vain lightnings across the room in pursuit of the vanished woman in sable, the Amazon with black hair and slender waist comforted and pitied poor Sally, and anathematised her cowardly foe, it must be confessed she looked plaguy handsome, wicked, and good-natured.

'Mary Matchwell, indeed! I'll match her well, wait a while, you'll see if I don't. I'll pay her off yet, never mind, Sally, darling. Arrah! Don't be crying, child, do you hear me. What's that? Charles? Why, then, is it about Charles you're crying? Charles Nutter? Phiat! woman dear! don't you think he's come to an age to take care of himself? I'll hold you a crown he's in Dublin with the sheriff, going to cart that jade to Bridewell. And why in the world didn't you send for me, when you wanted to discourse with Mary Matchwell? Where was the good of my poor dear mother? Why, she's as soft as butter. 'Twas a devil like me you wanted, you poor little darling. Do you think I'd a let her frighten you this way—the vixen—I'd a knocked her through the window as soon as look at her. She saw with half an eye she could frighten you both, you poor things. Oh! ho! how I wish I was here. I'd a put her across my knee and—no—do you say? Pooh! you don't know me, you poor innocent little creature; and, do ye mind now, you must not be moping here. Sally Nutter, all alone, you'll just come down to us, and drink a cup of tea and play a round game and hear the news; and look up now and give me a kiss, for I like you, Sally, you kind old girl.'

And she gave her a hug, and a shake, and half-a-dozen kisses on each cheek, and laughed merrily, and scolded and kissed her again.

Little more than an hour after, up comes a little billet from the good-natured Magnolia, just to help poor little Sally Nutter out of the vapours, and vowing that no excuse should stand good, and that come she must to tea and cards. 'And, oh! what do you think?' it went on. 'Such a bit a newse, I'm going to tell you, so prepare for a chock;' at this part poor Sally felt quite sick, but went on. 'Doctor Sturk, that droav into town Yesterday, as grand as you Please, in Mrs. Strafford's coach, all smiles and Polightness—whood a bleeved! Well He's just come back, with two great Fractions of his skull, riding on a Bear, insensible into The town—there's for you. Only Think of poor Mrs. Sturk, and the Chock she's got on sight of Him: and how thankful and Pleasant you should be that Charles Nutter is not a Corpes in the Buchar's wood, and jiggin Home to you like Sturk did. But well in health, what I'm certain shure he is, taken the law of Mary Matchwell—bless the Mark—to get her emprisind and Publickly wiped by the commin hangman.' All which rhapsody conjured up a confused and dyspeptic dream, full of absurd and terrific images, which she could not well comprehend, except in so far as it seemed clear that some signal disaster had befallen Sturk.

That night, at nine o'clock, the great Doctor Pell arrived in his coach, with steaming horses, at Sturk's hall-door, where the footman thundered a tattoo that might have roused the dead; for it was the family's business, if they did not want a noise, to muffle the knocker. And the doctor strode up, directed by the whispering awestruck maid, to Sturk's bed-chamber, with his hands in his muff, after the manner of doctors in his day, without asking questions, or hesitating on lobbies, for the sands of his minutes ran out in gold-dust. So, with a sort of awe and suppressed bustle preceding and following him, he glided up stairs and straight to the patient's bedside, serene, saturnine, and rapid.

In a twinkling the maid was running down the street for Toole, who had kept at home, in state costume, expecting the consultation with the great man, which he liked. And up came Toole, with his brows knit, and his chin high, marching over the pavement in a mighty fuss, for he knew that the oracle's time and temper were not to be trifled with.

In the club, Larry the drawer, as he set a pint of mulled claret by old Arthur Slowe's elbow, whispered something in his ear, with a solemn wink.

'Ho!—by Jove, gentlemen, the doctor's come—Doctor Pell. His coach stands at Sturk's door, Larry says, and we'll soon hear how he fares.' And up got Major O'Neill with a 'hey! ho—ho!' and out he went, followed by old Slowe, with his little tankard in his fist, to the inn-door, where the major looked on the carriage, lighted up by the footman's flambeau, beneath the old village elm—up the street—smoking his pipe still to keep it burning, and communicating with Slowe, two words at a time. And Slowe stood gazing at the same object with his little faded blue eyes, his disengaged hand in his breeches' pocket, and ever and anon wetting his lips with his hot cordial, and assenting agreeably to the major's conclusions.

'Seize ace! curse it!' cried Cluffe, who, I'm happy to say, had taken no harm by his last night's wetting; 'another gammon, I'll lay you fifty.'

'Toole, I dare thay, will look in and tell us how poor Sturk goes on,' said Puddock, playing his throw.

'Hang it, Puddock, mind your game—to be sure, he will. Cinque ace! well, curse it! the same throw over again! 'Tis too bad. I missed taking you last time, with that stupid blot you've covered—and now, by Jove, it ruins me. There's no playing when fellows are getting up every minute to gape after doctors' coaches, and leaving the door open—hang it, I've lost the game by it—gammoned twice already. 'Tis very pleasant. I only wish when gentlemen interrupt play, they'd be good enough to pay the bets.'

It was not much, about five shillings altogether, and little Puddock had not often a run of luck.

'If you'd like to win it back, Captain Cluffe, I'll give you a chance,' said O'Flaherty, who was tolerably sober. 'I'll lay you an even guinea Sturk's dead before nine to-morrow morning; and two to one he's dead before this time to-morrow night.'

'I thank you—no, Sir—two doctors over him, and his head in two pieces—you're very obliging, lieutenant, but I'll choose a likelier wager,' said Cluffe.

Dangerfield, who was overlooking the party, with his back to the fire, appeared displeased at their levity—shook his head, and was on the point of speaking one of those polite but cynical reproofs, whose irony, cold and intangible, intimidated the less potent spirits of the club-room. But he dismissed it with a little shrug. And a minute after, Major O'Neill and Arthur Slowe became aware that Dangerfield had glided behind them, and was looking serenely, like themselves, at the Dublin doctor's carriage and smoking team. The light from Sturk's bed-room window, and the red glare of the footman's torch, made two little trembling reflections in the silver spectacles as he stood in the shade, peering movelessly over their shoulders.

Tis a sorry business, gentlemen,' he said in a stern, subdued tone. 'Seven children and a widow. He's not dead yet, though: whatever Toole might do, the Dublin doctor would not stay with a dead man; time's precious. I can't describe how I pity that poor soul, his wife—what's to become of her and her helpless brood I know not.'

Slowe grunted a dismal assent, and the major, with a dolorous gaze, blew a thin stream of tobacco-smoke into the night air, which floated off like the ghost of a sigh towards the glimmering window of Sturk's bed-room. So they all grew silent. It seemed they had no more to say, and that, in their minds, the dark curtain had come down upon the drama of which the 'noble Barney,' as poor Mrs. Sturk called him, was hero.

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