The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter LXIX



And the china bowl, with its silver ladle, and fine fragrance of lemon and old malt whiskey, and a social pair of glasses, were placed on the table by fair Mistress Irons; and Devereux filled his glass, and Toole did likewise; and the little doctor rattled on; and Devereux threw in his word, and finally sang a song. 'Twas a ballad, with little in the words; but the air was sweet and plaintive, and so was the singer's voice:—

'A star so High,
In my sad sky,
I've early loved and late:
A clear lone star,
Serene and far,
Doth rule my wayward fate.

'Tho' dark and chill
The night be still,
A light comes up for me:
In eastern skies
My star doth rise,
And fortune dawns for me.

'And proud and bold,
My way I hold;
For o'er me high I see,
In night's deep blue,
My star shine true,
And fortune beams on me.

'Now onward still,
Thro' dark and chill,
My lonely way must be;
In vain regret,
My star will set,
And fortune's dark for me.

'And whether glad,
Or proud, or sad,
Or howsoe'er I be;
In dawn or noon,
Or setting soon,
My star, I'll follow thee.'

And so there was a pause and a silence. In the silvery notes of the singer there was the ring of a prophecy; and Toole half read its meaning. And himself loving a song, and being soft over his music, he remained fixed for a few seconds, and then sighed, smiling, and dried his light blue eyes covertly; and he praised the song and singer briskly; and sighed again, with his fingers on the stem of his glass. And by this time Devereux had drawn the window-curtain, and was looking across the river, through the darkness, towards the Elms, perhaps for that solitary distant light—his star—now blurred and lost in the storm. Whatever his contemplations, it was plain, when he turned about, that the dark spirit was upon him again.

'Curse that punch,' said he, in language still more emphatic. 'You're like Mephistopheles in the play—you come in upon my quiet to draw me to my ruin. 'Twas the devil sent you here, to kill my soul, I believe; but you sha'n't. Drink, will you?—ay—I'll give you a draught—a draught of air will cool you. Drink to your heart's content.'

And to Toole's consternation up went the window, and a hideous rush of eddying storm and snow whirled into the room. Out went the candles—the curtains flapped high in air, and lashed the ceiling—the door banged with a hideous crash—papers, and who knows what beside, went spinning, hurry-scurry round the room; and Toole's wig was very near taking wing from his head.

'Hey—hey—hey! holloo!' cried the doctor, out of breath, and with his artificial ringlets frisking about his chops and eyes.

'Out, sorcerer—temptation, begone—avaunt, Mephistopheles—cauldron, away!' thundered the captain; and sure enough, from the open window, through the icy sleet, whirled the jovial bowl; and the jingle of the china was heard faint through the tempest.

Toole was swearing, in the whirlwind and darkness, like a trooper.

'Thank Heaven! 'tis gone,' continued Devereux; 'I'm safe—no thanks to you, though; and, hark ye, doctor, I'm best alone; leave me—leave me, pray—and pray forgive me.'

The doctor groped and stumbled out of the room, growling all the while, and the door slammed behind him with a crash like a cannon.

'The fellow's brain's disordered—delirium tremens, and jump out of that cursed window, I wouldn't wonder,' muttered the doctor, adjusting his wig on the lobby, and then calling rather mildly over the banisters, he brought up Mrs. Irons with a candle, and found his cloak, hat, and cane; and with a mysterious look beckoned that matron to follow him, and in the hall, winking up towards the ceiling at the spot where Devereux might at the moment be presumed to be standing—

'I say, has he been feverish or queer, or—eh?—any way humorsome or out of the way?' And then—'See now, you may as well have an eye after him, and if you remark anything strange, don't fail to let me know—d'ye see? and for the present you had better get him to shut his window and light his candles.'

And so the doctor, wrapped in his mantle, plunged into the hurricane and darkness; and was sensible, with a throb of angry regret, of a whiff of punch rising from the footpath, as he turned the corner of the steps.

An hour later, Devereux being alone, called to Mrs. Irons, and receiving her with a courteous gravity, he said—

'Madam, will you be so good as to lend me your Bible?'

Devereux was prosecuting his reformation, which, as the reader sees, had set in rather tempestuously, but was now settling in serenity and calm.

Mrs. Irons only said—

'My——?' and then paused, doubting her ears.

'Your Bible, if you please, Madam.'

'Oh?—oh! my Bible? I—to be sure, captain, jewel,' and she peeped at his face, and loitered for a while at the door, for she had unpleasant misgivings about him, and did not know what to make of his request, so utterly without parallel. She'd have fiddled at the door some time longer, speculating about his sanity, but that Devereux turned full upon her with a proud stare, and rising, he made her a slight bow, and said: 'I thank you, Madam,' with a sharp courtesy, that said: 'avaunt, and quit my sight!' so sternly, though politely, that she vanished on the instant; and down stairs she marvelled with Juggy Byrne, 'what the puck the captain could want of a Bible! Upon my conscience it sounds well. It's what he's not right in his head, I'm afeared. A Bible!'—and an aërial voice seemed to say, 'a pistol,' and another, 'a coffin,'—'An' I'm sure I wish that quare little Lieutenant Puddock id come up and keep him company. I dunno' what's come over him.'

And they tumbled about the rattletraps under the cupboard, and rummaged the drawers in search of the sacred volume. For though Juggy said there was no such thing, and never had been in her time, Mrs. Irons put her down with asperity. It was not to be found, however, and the matron thought she remembered that old Mrs. Legge's cook had borrowed it some time ago for a charm. So she explained the accident to Captain Devereux, who said—

'I thank you, Madam; 'tis no matter. I wish you a good-night, Madam;' and the door closed.

'No Bible!' said Devereux, 'the old witch!'

Mrs. Irons, as you remember, never spared her rhetoric, which was fierce, shrill, and fluent, when the exercise of that gift was called for. The parish clerk bore it with a cynical and taciturn patience, not, perhaps, so common as it should be in his sex; and this night, when she awoke, and her eyes rested on the form of her husband at her bedside, with a candle lighted, and buckling on his shoes, with his foot on the chair, she sat up straight in her bed, wide awake in an instant, for it was wonderful how the sight of that meek man roused the wife in her bosom, especially after an absence, and she had not seen him since four o'clock that evening; so you may suppose his reception was warm, and her expressions every way worthy of her feelings.

Meek Irons finished buckling that shoe, and then lifted the other to the edge of the chair, and proceeded to do the like for it, serenely, after his wont, and seeming to hear nothing. So Mrs. Irons proceeded, as was her custom when that patient person refused to be roused—she grasped his collar near his cheek, meaning to shake him into attention.

But instantly, as the operation commenced, the clerk griped her with his long, horny fingers by the throat, with a snap so sure and energetic that not a cry, not a gasp even, or a wheeze, could escape through 'the trachea,' as medical men have it; and her face and forehead purpled up, and her eyes goggled and glared in her head; and her husband looked so insanely wicked, that, as the pale picture darkened before her, and she heard curse after curse, and one foul name after another hiss off his tongue, like water off a hot iron, in her singing ears, she gave herself up for lost. He closed this exercise by chucking her head viciously against the board of the bed half-a-dozen times, and leaving her thereafter a good deal more confused even than on the eventful evening when he had first declared his love.

So soon as she came a little to herself, and saw him coolly buttoning his leggings at the bedside, his buckles being adjusted by this time, her fear subsided, or rather her just indignation rose above it, and drowned it; and she was on the point of breaking out afresh, only in a way commensurate with her wrongs, and proportionately more formidable; when, on the first symptom of attack, he clutched her, if possible, tighter, the gaping, goggling, purpling, the darkening of vision and humming in ears, all recommenced; likewise the knocking of her head with improved good-will, and, spite of her struggles and scratching, the bewildered lady, unused to even a show of insurrection, underwent the same horrid series of sensations at the hands of her rebellious lord.

When they had both had enough of it, Mr. Irons went on with his buttoning, and his lady gradually came to. This time, however, she was effectually frightened—too much so even to resort to hysterics, for she was not quite sure that when he had buttoned the last button of his left legging he might not resume operations, and terminate their conjugal relations.

Therefore, being all of a tremble, with her hands clasped, and too much terrified to cry, she besought Irons, whose bodily strength surprised her, for her life, and his pale, malign glance, askew over his shoulder, held her with a sort of a spell that was quite new to her—in fact, she had never respected Irons so before.

When he had adjusted his leggings, he stood lithe and erect at the bedside, and with his fist at her face, delivered a short charge, the point of which was, that unless she lay like a mouse till morning he'd have her life, though he hanged for it. And with that he drew the curtain, and was hidden from her sight for some time.

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson