The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter LV



Two or three minutes later, the hall-door of Sturk's mansion opened wide, and the figure of the renowned doctor from Dublin, lighted up with a candle from behind, and with the link from before, glided swiftly down the steps, and disappeared into the coach with a sharp clang of the door. Up jumps the footman, and gives his link a great whirl about his head. The maid stands on the step with her hand before the flaring candle. 'The Turk's Head, in Werburgh Street,' shouts the footman, and smack goes the coachman's whip, and the clang and rattle begin.

'That's Alderman Blunkett—he's dying,' said the major, by way of gloss on the footman's text; and away went the carriage with thundering wheels, and trailing sparks behind it, as if the wild huntsman had furnished its fleet and shadowy team.

'He has ten guineas in his pocket for that—a guinea a minute, by Jove, coining, no less,' said the major, whose pipe was out, and he thinking of going in to replenish it. 'We'll have Toole here presently, depend upon it.'

He had hardly spoken when Toole, in a halo of candle-light, emerged from Sturk's hall-door. With one foot on the steps, the doctor paused to give a parting direction about chicken-broth and white-wine whey.

These last injunctions on the door-steps had begun, perhaps in a willingness to let folk see and even hear that the visit was professional; and along with the lowering and awfully serious countenance with which they were delivered, had grown into a habit, so that, as now, he practised them even in solitude and darkness.

Then Toole was seen to approach the Phoenix, in full blow, his cane under his arm. With his full-dressed wig on, he was always grand and Æsculapian, and reserved withal, and walked with a measured tread, and a sad and important countenance, which somehow made him look more chubby; and he was a good deal more formal with his friends at the inn-door, and took snuff before he answered them. But this only lasted some eight or ten minutes after a consultation or momentous visit, and would melt away insensibly in the glow of the club-parlour, sometimes reviving for a minute, when the little mirror that sloped forward from the wall, showed him a passing portrait of his grand wig and toggery. And it was pleasant to observe how the old fellows unconsciously deferred to this temporary self-assertion, and would call him, not Tom, nor Toole, but 'doctor,' or 'Doctor Toole,' when the fit was upon him.

And Devereux, in his day, won two or three wagers by naming the doctor with whom Toole had been closeted, reading the secret in the countenance and by-play of their crony. When it had been with tall, cold, stately Dr. Pell, Toole was ceremonious and deliberate, and oppressively polite. On the other hand, when he had been shut up with brusque, half-savage, energetic Doctor Rogerson, Tom was laconic, decisive, and insupportably ill-bred, till, as we have said, the mirage melted away, and he gradually acquiesced in his identity. Then, little by little, the irrepressible gossip, jocularity, and ballad minstrelsy were heard again, his little eyes danced, and his waggish smiles glowed once more, ruddy as a setting sun, through the nectarian vapours of the punch-bowl. The ghosts of Pell and Rogerson fled to their cold dismal shades, and little Tom Toole was his old self again for a month to come.

'Your most obedient, gentlemen—your most obedient,' said Toole, bowing and taking their hands graciously in the hall—'a darkish evening, gentlemen.'

'And how does your patient, doctor?' enquired Major O'Neil.

The doctor closed his eyes, and shook his head slowly, with a gentle shrug.

'He's in a bad case, major. There's little to be said, and that little, Sir, not told in a moment,' answered Toole, and took snuff.

'How's Sturk, Sir?' repeated the silver spectacles, a little sternly.

'Well, Sir, he's not dead; but, by your leave, had we not better go into the parlour, eh?—'tis a little chill, and, as I said, 'tis not all told in a moment—he's not dead, though, that's the sum of it—you first, pray proceed, gentlemen.'

Dangerfield grimly took him at his word; but the polite major got up a little ceremonious tussle with Toole in the hall. However, it was no more than a matter of half-a-dozen bows and waves of the hand, and 'after you, Sir;' and Toole entered, and after a general salutation in the style of Doctor Pell, he established himself upon the hearth-stone, with his back to the fire, as a legitimate oracle.

Toole was learned, as he loved to be among the laity on such occasions, and was in no undue haste to bring his narrative to a close. But the gist of the matter was this—Sturk was labouring under concussion of the brain, and two terrific fractures of the skull—so long, and lying so near together, that he and Doctor Pell instantly saw 'twould be impracticable to apply the trepan, in fact that 'twould be certain and instantaneous death. He was absolutely insensible, but his throat was not yet palsied, and he could swallow a spoonful of broth or sack whey from time to time. But he was a dead man to all intents and purposes. Inflammation might set in at any moment; at best he would soon begin to sink, and neither he nor Doctor Pell thought he had the smallest chance of awaking from his lethargy for one moment. He might last two or three days, or even a week—what did it signify?—what was he better than a corpse already? He could never hear, see, speak, or think again; and for any difference it could possibly make to poor Sturk, they might clap him in his grave and cover him up to-night.

Then the talk turned upon Nutter. Every man had his theory or his conjecture but Dangerfield, who maintained a discreet reserve, much to the chagrin of the others, who thought, not without reason, that he knew more about the state of his affairs, and especially of his relations with Lord Castlemallard, than perhaps all the world beside.

'Possibly, poor fellow, he was not in a condition to have his accounts overhauled, and on changing an agency things sometimes come out that otherwise might have kept quiet. He was the sort of fellow who would go through with a thing; and if he thought the best way on going out of the agency was to go out of the world also, out he'd go. They were always a resolute family—Nutter's great uncle, you know, drowned himself in that little lake—what do you call it?—in the county of Cavan, and 'twas mighty coolly and resolutely done too.'

But there was a haunting undivulged suspicion in the minds of each. Every man knew what his neighbour was thinking of, though he did not care to ask about his ugly dreams, or to relate his own. They all knew what sort of terms Sturk and Nutter had been on. They tried to put the thought away, for though Nutter was not a joker, nor a songster, nor a story-teller, yet they liked him. Besides, Nutter might possibly turn up in a day or two, and in that case 'twould go best with those who had not risked an atrocious conjecture about him in public. So every man waited, and held his tongue upon that point till his neighbour should begin.

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