The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter XXI



Dr. Sturk's spirits and temper had not become more pleasant lately. In fact he brooded more, and was more savage at home than was at all agreeable. He used to go into town oftener, and to stay there later; and his language about Toole and Nutter, when there was none but submissive little Mrs. Sturk by, was more fierce and coarse than ever. To hear him, then, one would have supposed that they were actually plotting to make away with him, and that in self-defence he must smite them hip and thigh. Then, beside their moral offensiveness, they were such 'idiots,' and: 'noodles,' and botching and blundering right and left, so palpably to the danger and ruin of their employers, that no man of conscience could sit easy and see it going on; and all this simply because he had fixed his affections upon the practice of the one, and the agency of the other. For Sturk had, in his own belief, a genius for business of every sort. Everybody on whom his insolent glance fell, who had any sort of business to do, did it wrong, and was a 'precious disciple,' or a 'goose,' or a 'born jackass,' and excited his scoffing chuckle. And little Mrs. Sturk, frightened and admiring, used to say, while he grinned and muttered, and tittered into the fire, with his great shoulders buried in his balloon-backed chair, his heels over the fender and his hands in his breeches' pockets—'But, Barney, you know, you're so clever—there's no one like you!' And he was fond of just nibbling at speculations in a small safe way, and used to pull out a roll of bank-notes, when he was lucky, and show his winnings to his wife, and chuckle and swear over them, and boast and rail, and tell her, if it was not for the cursed way his time was cut up with hospital, and field days, and such trumpery regimental duties, he could make a fortune while other men were thinking of it; and he very nearly believed it. And he was, doubtless, clear-headed, though wrong-headed, too, at times, and very energetic; but his genius was for pushing men out of their places to make way for himself.

But with all that he had the good brute instincts too, and catered diligently for his brood, and their 'dam'—and took a gruff unacknowledged pride in seeing his wife well dressed—and had a strong liking for her—and thanked her in his soul for looking after things so well; and thought often about his boys, and looked sharply after their education; and was an efficient and decisive head of a household; and had no vices nor expensive indulgences; and was a hard but tolerably just man to deal with.

All this time his uneasiness and puzzle about Dangerfield continued, and, along with other things, kept him awake often to unseasonable hours at night. He did not tell Mrs. Sturk. In fact, he was a man, who, though on most occasions he gave the wife of his bosom what he called 'his mind' freely enough, yet did not see fit to give her a great deal of his confidence.

Dangerfield had his plans too. Who has not? Nothing could be more compact and modest than his household. He had just a housekeeper and two maids, who looked nearly as old, and a valet, and a groom, who slept at the 'Phoenix,' and two very pretty horses at livery in the same place. All his appointments were natty and complete, and his servants, every one, stood in awe of him; for no lip or eye-service would go down with that severe, prompt, and lynx-eyed gentleman. And his groom, among the coachmen and other experts of the 'Salmon House,' used to brag of his hunters in England; and his man, of his riches, and his influence with Lord Castlemallard.

In England, Dangerfield, indeed, spent little more money than he did in Chapelizod, except in his stable; and Lord Castlemallard, who admired his stinginess, as he did everything else about him, used to say: 'He's a wonder of the world! How he retains his influence over all the people he knows without ever giving one among them so much as a mutton-chop or a glass of sherry in his house, I can't conceive. I couldn't do it, I know.' But he had ultimate plans, if not of splendour, at least of luxury. His tastes, and perhaps some deeper feelings, pointed to the continent, and he had purchased a little paradise on the Lake of Geneva, where was an Eden of fruits and flowers, and wealth of marbles and coloured canvas, and wonderful wines maturing in his cellars, and aquaria for his fish, and ice-houses and baths, and I know not what refinements of old Roman Villa-luxury beside—among which he meant to pass the honoured evening of his days; with just a few more thousands, and, as he sometimes thought, perhaps a wife. He had not quite made up his mind; but he had come to the time when a man must forthwith accept matrimony frankly, or, if he be wise, shake hands with bleak celibacy, and content himself for his earthly future with monastic jollity and solitude.

It is a maxim with charitable persons—and no more than a recognition of a great constitutional axiom—to assume, in the absence of proof to the contrary, that every British subject is an honest man. Now, if we had gone to Lord Castlemallard for his character—and who more competent to give him one—we know very well what we should have heard about Dangerfield; and, on the other hand, we have never found him out—have we, kind reader?—in a shabby action or unworthy thought; and, therefore, it leaves upon our mind an unpleasant impression about that Mr. Mervyn, who arrived in the dark, attending upon a coffin as mysterious as himself, and now lives solitarily in the haunted house near Ballyfermot, that the omniscient Dangerfield should follow him, when they pass upon the road, with that peculiar stern glance of surprise which seemed to say,—'Was ever such audacity conceived? Is the man mad?'

But Dangerfield did not choose to talk about him—if indeed he had anything to disclose—though the gentlemen at the club pressed him often with questions, which however, he quietly parried, to the signal vexation of active little Dr. Toole, who took up and dropped, in turn, all sorts of curious theories about the young stranger. Lord Castlemallard knew all about him, too, but his lordship was high and huffy, and hardly ever in Chapelizod, except on horseback, and two or three times in the year at a grand dinner at the Artillery mess. And when Mervyn was mentioned he always talked of something else, rather imperiously, as though he said, 'You'll please to observe that upon that subject I don't choose to speak.' And as for Dr. Walsingham, when he thought it right to hold his tongue upon a given matter, thumb-screws could not squeeze it from him.

In short, our friend Toole grew so feverish under his disappointment that he made an excuse of old Tim Molloy's toothache to go up in person to the 'Tiled House,' in the hope of meeting the young gentleman, and hearing something from him (the servants, he already knew, were as much in the dark as he) to alleviate his distress. And, sure enough, his luck stood him in stead; for, as he was going away, having pulled out old Molloy's grinder to give a colour to his visit, who should he find upon the steps of the hall-door but the pale, handsome young gentleman himself.

Dr. Toole bowed low, and grinned with real satisfaction, reminded him of their interview at the 'Phoenix,' and made by way of apology for his appearance at the 'Tiled House,' a light and kind allusion to poor old Tim, of whose toothache he spoke affectionately, and with water in his eyes—for he half believed for the moment what he was saying—declared how he remembered him when he did not come up to Tim's knee-buckle, and would walk that far any day, and a bit further too, he hoped, to relieve the poor old boy in a less matter. And finding that Mr. Mervyn was going toward Chapelizod, he begged him not to delay on his account, and accompanied him down the Ballyfermot road, entertaining him by the way with an inexhaustible affluence of Chapelizod anecdote and scandal, at which the young man stared a good deal, and sometimes even appeared impatient: but the doctor did not perceive it, and rattled on; and told him moreover, everything about himself and his belongings with a minute and voluble frankness, intended to shame the suspicious reserve of the stranger. But nothing came; and being by this time grown bolder, he began a more direct assault, and told him, with a proper scorn of the village curiosity, all the theories which the Chapelizod gossips had spun about him.

'And they say, among other things, that you're not—a—in fact—there's a mystery—a something—about your birth, you know,' said Toole, in a tone implying pity and contempt for his idle townsfolk.

'They lie, then!' cried the young man, stopping short, more fiercely than was pleasant, and fixing his great lurid eyes upon the cunning face of the doctor; and, after a pause, 'Why can't they let me and my concerns alone, Sir?'

'But there's no use in saying so, I can tell you,' exclaimed little Toole, recovering his feet in an instant. 'Why, I suppose there isn't so tattling, prying, lying, scandalous a little colony of Christians on earth; eyes, ears, and mouths all open, Sir; heads busy, tongues wagging; lots of old maids, by Jove; ladies' women, and gentlemen's gentlemen, and drawers and footmen; club talk, Sir, and mess-table talk, and talk on band days, talk over cards, talk at home, Sir—talk in the streets—talk—talk; by Jupiter Tonans! 'tis enough to bother one's ears, and make a man envy Robinson Crusoe!'

'So I do, Sir, if we were rid of his parrot,' answered Mervyn: and with a dry 'I wish you a good-morning, doctor—doctor—a—Sir'—turned sharply from him up the Palmerstown-road.

'Going to Belmont,' murmured little Toole, with his face a little redder than usual, and stopping in an undignified way for a moment at the corner to look after him. 'He's close—plaguy close; and Miss Rebecca Chattesworth knows nothing about him neither—I wander does she though—and doesn't seem to care even. He's not there for nothing though. Some one makes him welcome, depend on't,' and he winked to himself. 'A plaguy high stomach, too, by Jove. I bet you fifty, if he stays here three months, he'll be at swords or pistols with some of our hot bloods. And whatever his secret is—and I dare say 'tisn't worth knowing—the people here will ferret it out at last, I warrant you. There's small good in making all the fuss he does about it; if he knew but all, there's no such thing as a secret here—hang the one have I, I know, just because there's no use in trying. The whole town knows when I've tripe for dinner, and where I have a patch or a darn. And when I got the fourteen pigeons at Darkey's-bridge, the birds were not ten minutes on my kitchen table when old Widow Foote sends her maid and her compliments, as she knew my pie-dish only held a dozen, to beg the two odd birds. Secret, indeed!' and he whistled a bar or two contemptuously, which subsided into dejected silence, and he muttered, 'I wish I knew it,' and walked over the bridge gloomily; and he roared more fiercely on smaller occasions than usual at his dogs on the way home, and they squalled oftener and louder.

Now, for some reason or other, Dangerfield had watched the growing intimacy between Mervyn and Miss Gertrude Chattesworth with an evil eye. He certainly did know something about this Mr. Mervyn, with his beautiful sketches, and his talk about Italy, and his fine music. And his own spectacles had carefully surveyed Miss Chattesworth, and she had passed the ordeal satisfactorily. And Dangerfield thought, 'These people can't possibly suspect the actual state of the case, and who and what this gentleman is to my certain knowledge; and 'tis a pity so fine a young lady should be sacrificed for want of a word spoken in season.' And when he had decided upon a point, it was not easy to make him stop or swerve.

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