The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter XLIV



Sturk's triumph was only momentary. He was in ferocious spirits, indeed, over the breakfast-table, and bolted quantities of buttered toast and eggs, swallowed cups of tea, one after the other, almost at a single gulp, all the time gabbling with a truculent volubility, and every now and then a thump, which made his spoon jingle in his saucer, and poor, little Mrs. Sturk start, and whisper, 'Oh, my dear!' But after he had done defying and paying off the whole world, and showing his wife, and half convincing himself, that he was the cleverest and finest fellow alive, a letter was handed to him, which reminded him, in a dry, short way, of those most formidable and imminent dangers that rose up, apparently insurmountable before him; and he retired to his study to ruminate again, and chew the cud of bitter fancy, and to write letters and tear them to pieces, and, finally, as was his wont, after hospital hours, to ride into Dublin, to bore his attorney with barren inventions and hopeless schemes of extrication.

Sturk came home that night with a hang-dog and jaded look, and taciturn and half desperate. But he called for whiskey, and drank a glass of that cordial, and brewed a jug of punch in silence, and swallowed glass after glass, and got up a little, and grew courageous and flushed, and prated away, rather loud and thickly with a hiccough now and then, and got to sleep earlier than usual.

Somewhere among the 'small hours' of the night he awoke suddenly, recollecting something.

'I have it,' cried Sturk, with an oath, and an involuntary kick at the foot-board, that made his slumbering helpmate bounce.

'What is it, Barney, dear?' squalled she, diving under the bed-clothes, with her heart in her mouth.

'It's like a revelation,' cried Sturk, with another oath; and that was all Mrs. Sturk heard of it for some time. But the surgeon was wide awake, and all alive about it, whatever it was. He sat straight up in the bed, with his lips energetically compressed, and his eyebrows screwed together, and his shrewd, hard eyes rolling thoughtfully over the curtains, in the dark, and now and then an ejaculation of wonder, or a short oath, would slowly rise up, and burst from his lips, like a great bubble from the fermentation.

Sturk's brain was in a hubbub. He had fifty plans, all jostling and clamouring together, like a nursery of unruly imps—'Take me'—'No, take me'—'No, me!' He had been dreaming like mad, and his sensorium was still all alive with the images of fifty phantasmagoria, filled up by imagination and conjecture, and a strange, painfully-sharp remembrance of things past—all whirling in a carnival of roystering but dismal riot—masks and dice, laughter, maledictions, and drumming, fair ladies, tipsy youths, mountebanks, and assassins: tinkling serenades, the fatal clang and rattle of the dice-box, and long drawn, distant screams.

There was no more use in Sturk's endeavours to reduce all this to order, than in reading the Riot Act to a Walpurgis gathering. So he sat muttering unconscious ejaculations, and looking down, as it were, from his balcony, waiting for the uproar to abate; and when the air did clear and cool a little, there was just one face that remained impassive, and serenely winked before his eyes.

When things arrived at this stage, and he had gathered his recollections about him, and found himself capable of thinking, being a man of action, up he bounced and struck a light, vaulted into his breeches, hauled on his stockings, hustled himself into his roquelaure, and, candle in hand, in slippered feet, glided, like a ghost, down stairs to the back drawing-room, which, as we know, was his study.

The night was serene and breathless. The sky had cleared, and the moonlight slept mistily on the soft slopes of the park. The landscape was a febrifuge, and cooled and quieted his brain as he stood before it at his open window, in solitary meditation. It was not till his slowly wandering eye lighted on the churchyard, with a sort of slight shock, that he again bestirred himself.

There it lay, with its white tombstones and its shadows spread under him, seeming to say—'Ay, here I am; the narrow goal of all your plans. Not one of the glimmering memorials you see that does not cover what once was a living world of long-headed schemes, chequered remembrances, and well-kept secrets. Here lie your brother plotters, all in bond, only some certain inches below; with their legs straight and their arms by their sides, as when grim Captain DEATH called the stern word "attention!" with their sightless faces and unthinking foreheads turned up to the moon. Dr. Sturk, there are lots of places for you to choose among—suit yourself—here—or here—or maybe here.'

And so Sturk closed the window and remembered his dream, and looked out stealthily but sternly from the door, which was ajar, and shut it sharply, and with his hands in his breeches' pockets, took a quick turn to the window; his soul had got into harness again, and he was busy thinking. Then he snuffed the candle, and then quickened his invention by another brisk turn; and then he opened his desk, and sat down to write a note.

'Yes,' said he to himself, pausing for a minute, with his pen in his fingers, tis as certain as that I sit here.'

Well, he wrote the note. There was a kind of smile on his face, which was paler than usual all the while; and he read it over, and threw himself back in his chair, and then read it over again, and did not like it, and tore it up.

Then he thought hard for a while, leaning upon his elbow; and took a couple of great pinches of snuff, and snuffed his candle again, and, as it were, snuffed his wits, and took up his pen with a little flourish, and dashed off another, and read it, and liked it, and gave it a little sidelong nod, as though he said, 'You'll do;' and, indeed, considering all the time and thought he spent upon it, the composition was no great wonder, being, after all, no more than this:—

'DEAR SIR,—Will you give me the honour of a meeting at
my house this morning, as you pass through the town? I shall
remain within till noon; and hope for some minutes' private discourse
with you.
'Your most obedient, very humble servant,

Then he sealed it with a great red seal, large enough for a patent almost, impressed with the Sturk arms—a boar's head for crest, and a flaunting scroll, with 'Dentem fulmineum cave' upon it. Then he peeped again from the window to see if the gray of the morning had come, for he had left his watch under his bolster, and longed for the time of action.

Then up stairs went Sturk; and so, with the note, like a loaded pistol, over the chimney, he popped into bed, where he lay awake in agitating rumination, determined to believe that he had seen the last of those awful phantoms—those greasy bailiffs—that smooth, smirking, formidable attorney; and—curse him—that bilious marshal's deputy, with the purplish, pimply tinge about the end of his nose and the tops of his cheeks, that beset his bed in a moving ring—this one pushing out a writ, and that rumpling open a parchment deed, and the other fumbling with his keys, and extending his open palm for the garnish. Avaunt. He had found out a charm to rout them all, and they sha'n't now lay a finger on him—a short and sharp way to clear himself; and so I believe he had.

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