The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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The buzz of a village, like the hum of a city, represents a very wonderful variety of human accent and feeling. It is marvellous how few families thrown together will suffice to furnish forth this dubia coena of sweets and bitters.

The roar of many waters—the ululatus of many-voiced humanity—marvellously monotonous, considering the infinite variety of its ingredients, booms on through the dark. The story-teller alone can take up the score of the mighty medley, and read at a glance what every fife and fiddle-stick is doing. That pompous thrum-thrum is the talk of the great white Marseilles paunch, pietate gravis; the whine comes from Lazarus, at the area rails; and the bass is old Dives, roaring at his butler; the piccolo is contributed by the studious school-boy, whistling over his Latin Grammar; that wild, long note is poor Mrs. Fondle's farewell of her dead boy; the ugly barytone, rising from the tap-room, is what Wandering Willie calls a sculduddery song—shut your ears, and pass on; and that clear soprano, in nursery, rings out a shower of innocent idiotisms over the half-stripped baby, and suspends the bawl upon its lips.

So, on this night, as usual, there rose up toward the stars a throbbing murmur from our village—a wild chaos of sound, which we must strive to analyse, extracting from the hurly-burly each separate tune it may concern us to hear.

Captain Devereux was in his lodging. He was comparatively tranquil now; but a savage and impious despair possessed him. Serene outwardly—he would not let the vulgar see his scars and sores; and was one of those proud spirits who build to themselves desolate places.

Little Puddock was the man with whom he had least reserve. Puddock was so kindly, and so true and secret, and cherished beside, so great an admiration for him, that he greeted him rather kindly at a moment when another visitor would have fared scurvily enough. Puddock was painfully struck with his pallor, his wild and haggard eye, and something stern and brooding in his handsome face, which was altogether new and shocking to him.

'I've been thinking, Puddock,' he said; 'and thought with me has grown strangely like despair—and that's all. Why, man, think—what is there for me?—all my best stakes I've lost already; and I'm fast losing myself. How different, Sir, is my fate from others? Worse men than I—every way incomparably worse—and d—— them, they prosper, while I go down the tide. 'Tisn't just!' And he swore a great oath. Tis enough to make a man blaspheme. I've done with life—I hate it. I'll volunteer. 'Tis my first thought in the morning, and my last at night, how well I'd like a bullet through my brain or heart. D—— the world, d—— feeling, d—— memory. I'm not a man that can always be putting prudential restraints upon myself. I've none of those plodding ways. The cursed fools that spoiled me in my childhood, and forsake me now, have all to answer for—I charge them with my ruin.' And he launched a curse at them (meaning his aunt) which startled the plump soul of honest little Puddock.

'You must not talk that way, Devereux,' he said, still a good deal more dismayed by his looks than his words. 'Why are you so troubled with vapours and blue devils?'

'Nowhy!' said Devereux, with a grim smile.

'My dear Devereux, I say, you mustn't talk in that wild way. You—you talk like a ruined man!'

'And I so comfortable!'

'Why, to be sure, Dick, you have had some little rubs, and, maybe, your follies and your vexations; but, hang it, you are young; you can't get experience—at least, so I've found it—without paying for it. You mayn't like it just now; but it's well worth the cost. Your worries and miscarriages, dear Richard, will make you steady.'

'Steady!' echoed Devereux, like a man thinking of something far away.

'Ay, Dick—you've sown your wild oats.'

On a sudden, says the captain, 'My dear little Puddock,' and he took him by the hand, with a sort of sarcastic flicker of a smile, and looked in his face almost contemptuously; but his eyes and his voice softened before the unconscious bonhomie of the true little gentleman. 'Puddock, Puddock, did it never strike you, my boy, that Hamlet never strives to speak a word of comfort to the forlorn old Dane? He felt it would not do. Every man that's worth a button knows his own case best; and I know the secrets of my own prison-house. Sown my wild oats! To be sure I have, Puddock, my boy; and the new leaf I've turned over is just this; I've begun to reap them; and they'll grow, my boy, and grow as long as grass grows; and—Macbeth has his dagger, you know, and I've my sickle—the handle towards my hand, that you can't see; and in the sweat of my brow, I must cut down and garner my sheaves; and as I sowed, so must I reap, and grind, and bake, the black and bitter grist of my curse. Don't talk nonsense, little Puddock. Wasn't it Gay that wrote the "Beggar's Opera?" Ay! Why don't you play Macheath? Gay!—Ay—a pleasant fellow, and his poems too. He writes—don't you remember—he writes,

'So comes a reckoning when the banquet's o'er—
The dreadful reckoning, and men smile no more.'

'Puddock, throw up that window, the room's too hot—or stay never mind; read a book, Puddock, you like it, and I'll stroll a little along the path, and find you when I come back.'

'Why it's dark,' remonstrated his visitor.

'Dark? I dare say—yes, of course—very dark—but cool; the air is cool.'

He talked like a man who was thinking of something else; and Puddock thought how strangely handsome he looked, with that pale dash of horror, like King Saul when the evil spirit was upon him; and there was a terrible misgiving in his mind. The lines of the old ballad that Devereux used to sing with a sort of pathetic comicality were humming in his ear,—

'He walked by the river, the river so clear—
The river that runs through Kilkenny;
His name was Captain Wade,
And he died for that fair maid.'

and so following. What could he mean by walking, at that hour, alone, by the river's brink? Puddock, with a sinking and flutter at his heart, unperceived, followed him down stairs, and was beside him in the street.

'The path by the river?' said Puddock.

'The river—the path? Yes, Sir, the path by the river. I thought I left you up stairs,' said Devereux, with an odd sort of sulky shrinking.

'Why, Devereux, I may as well walk with you, if you don't object,' lisped Puddock.

'But I do object, Sir,' cried Devereux, suddenly, in a fierce high key, turning upon his little comrade. 'What d'ye mean, Sir? You think I mean to—to drown myself—ha, ha, ha! or what the devil's running in your head? I'm not a madman, Sir, nor you a mad-doctor. Go home, Sir—or go to—to where you will, Sir; only go your own way, and leave me mine.'

'Ah, Devereux, you're very quick with me,' said Puddock, placing his plump little hand on Devereux's arm, and looking very gently and gravely in his face.

Devereux laid his hand upon Puddock's collar with an agitated sort of sneer. But he recollected himself, and that diabolical gloom faded from his face, and he looked more like himself, and slid his cold hand silently into little Puddock's; and so they stood for a while, by the door-step, to the admiration of Mrs. Irons—whom Devereux's high tones had called to her window.

'Puddock, I don't think I'm well, and I don't know quite what I've been saying. I ask your pardon. You've always been very good to me, Puddock. I believe—I believe you're the only friend I have, and—Puddock, you won't leave me.'

So up stairs they went together; and Mrs. Irons, from what she had overheard, considered herself justified in saying, that 'Captain Devereux was for drowning himself in the Liffey, and would have done so only for Lieutenant Puddock.' And so the report was set a-going round the garrulous town of Chapelizod.

As Mr. Dangerfield glided rapidly along the silent road towards the Brass Castle, the little gate of his now leafless flower-garden being already in sight, he saw a dark figure awaiting him under the bushes which overhung it. It was Mr. Irons, who came forward, without speaking, and lifted his hat respectfully, perhaps abjectly, and paused for recognition.

'Hey! Irons?' said Mr. Dangerfield.

'At your service, Sir.'

'Well, and what says his worship?' asked the gentleman, playfully.

'I wanted to tell your honour that it won't make no odds, and I'll do it.'

'Of course. You're right. It does make no odds. He'll hang whatever you do; and I tell you 'tis well he should, and only right you should speak the truth, too—'twill make assurance doubly sure.'

'At eight o'clock in the morning, Sir, I'll attend you,' said Irons, with a sort of shiver.

'Good! and I'll jot down your evidence, and we'll drive over to Mr. Lowe's, to Lucan, and you shall swear before him. And, you understand—I don't forget what I promised—you'll be a happier man every way for having done your duty; and here's half-a-crown to spend in the Salmon House.'

Irons only moaned, and then said—

'That's all, Sir. But I couldn't feel easy till it was off my mind.'

'At eight o'clock I shall expect you. Good-night, Irons.'

And with his hands in his pockets he watched Irons off the ground. His visage darkened as for a while his steady gaze was turned toward Dublin. He was not quite so comfortable as he might have been.

Meanwhile Black Dillon, at Mrs. Sturk's request, had stalked up stairs to the patient's bed-side.

'Had not I best send at once for Mr. Dangerfield?' she enquired.

'No occasion, Ma'am,' replied the eminent but slightly fuddled 'Saw-bones,' spitting beside him on the floor 'until I see whether I'll operate to-night. What's in that jug, Ma'am? Chicken-broth? That'll do. Give him a spoonful. See—he swallows free enough;' and then Black Dillon plucked up his eyelids with a roughness that terrified the reverential and loving Mrs. Sturk, and examined the distorted pupils.

'You see the cast in that eye, Ma'am; there's the pressure on the brain.'

Dillon was lecturing her upon the case as he proceeded, from habit, just as he did the students in the hospital.

'No convulsions, Ma'am?'

'Oh, no, Sir, thank Heaven; nothing in the least—only quiet sleep, Sir; just like that.'

'Sleep, indeed—that's no sleep, Ma'am. Boo-hooh! I couldn't bawl that way in his face, Ma'am, without disturbing him, Ma'am, if it was. Now we'll get him up a bit—there, that's right—aisy. He was lying, Ma'am, I understand, on his back, when they found him in the park, Ma'am—so Mr. Dangerfield says—ay. Well, slip the cap off—backward—backward, you fool; that'll do. Who plastered his head, Ma'am?'

'Doctor Toole, Sir.'

'Toole—Toole—h'm—I see—hey—hi—tut! 'tis the devil's pair of fractures, Ma'am. See—nearer—d'ye see, there's two converging lines—d'ye see, Ma'am?' and he indicated their directions with the silver handle of an instrument he held in his hand, 'and serrated at the edges, I'll be bound.'

And he plucked off two or three strips of plaster with a quick whisk, which made poor little Mrs. Sturk wince and cry, 'Oh, dear, Sir!'

'Threpan, indeed!' murmured Black Dillon, with a coarse sneer, 'did they run the scalpel anywhere over the occiput, Ma'am?'

'I—I—truly, Sir—I'm not sure,' answered Mrs. Sturk, who did not perfectly understand a word he said.

The doctor's hair had not been cut behind. Poor Mrs. Sturk, expecting his recovery every day, would not have permitted the sacrilege, and his dishevelled cue lay upon his shoulders. With his straight surgical scissors Black Dillon snipped off this sacred appendage before the good lady knew what he was about, and cropped the back of his head down to the closest stubble.

'Will you send, if you please, Ma'am, for Doctor—Doctor—Thingumee?'

'Doctor Toole?' enquired Mrs. Sturk.

'Doctor Toole, Ma'am; yes,' answered the surgeon.

He himself went down to the coach at the hall-door, and in a few minutes returned with a case, and something in a cloth. From the cloth he took an apparatus, like the cushioned back of a chair, with straps and buckles attached to it, and a sort of socket, the back of which was open, being intended to receive the head in.

'Now, Ma'am, we'll prop him up comfortable with this, if you please.'

And having got it into place, and lowered by a screw, the cushions intended to receive his head, and got the lethargic trunk and skull of the Artillery doctor well-placed for his purpose, he took out a roll of sticking-plaster and a great piece of lint, and laid them on the table, and unlocked his box, which was a large one, and took out several instruments, silver-mounted, straight and crooked, with awful adaptations to unknown butcheries and tortures, and then out came another—the veritable trepan—resembling the homely bit-and-brace, but slender, sinister, and quaint, with a murderous sort of elegance.

'You may as well order in half-a-dozen clean towels, if you please, Ma'am.'

'Oh! Doctor, you're not going to have an operation to-night, gasped Mrs. Sturk, her face quite white and damp, and her clasped hands trembling.

'Twenty to one, Ma'am,' he replied with a slight hiccup, 'we'll have nothing of the kind; but have them here, Ma'am, and some warm water for fear of accidents—though maybe 'tis only for a dhrop of punch we'll be wanting it,' and his huge, thirsty mouth grinned facetiously; and just then Dr. Toole entered the room. He was confoundedly surprised when he found Black Dillon there. Though bent on meeting him with hauteur and proper reserve, on account of his damnable character, he was yet cowed by his superior knowledge, so that Tom Toole's address was strangely chequered with pomposity and alarm.

Dillon's credentials there was, indeed, no disputing, so they sent for Moore, the barber; and, while he was coming, they put the women out of the room, and sat in consultation.

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