The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter XXII



Now it happened that on the very same day, the fashion of Dr. Walsingham's and of Aunt Rebecca's countenances were one and both changed towards Mr. Mervyn, much to his chagrin and puzzle. The doctor, who met him near his own house on the bridge, was something distant in manner, and looked him in the face with very grave eyes, and seemed sad, and as if he had something on his mind, and laid his hand upon the young man's arm, and addressed himself to speak; but glancing round his shoulder, and seeing people astir, and that they were under observation, he reserved himself.

That both the ladies of Belmont looked as if they had heard some strange story, each in her own way. Aunt Rebecca received the young man without a smile, and was unaccountably upon her high horse, and said some dry and sharp things, and looked as if she could say more, and coloured menacingly, and, in short, was odd, and very nearly impertinent. And Gertrude, though very gentle and kind, seemed also much graver, and looked pale, and her eyes larger and more excited, and altogether like a brave young lady who had fought a battle without crying. And Mervyn saw all this and pondered on it, and went away soon; the iron entered into his soul.

Aunt Rebecca was so occupied with her dogs, squirrels, parrots, old women, and convicts, that her eyes being off the cards, she saw little of the game; and when a friendly whisper turned her thoughts that way, and it flashed upon her that tricks and honours were pretty far gone, she never remembered that she had herself to blame for the matter, but turned upon her poor niece with 'Sly creature!' and so forth. And while owing to this inattention, Gertrude had lost the benefit of her sage Aunt Rebecca's counsels altogether, her venerable but frisky old grandmother—Madam Nature—it was to be feared, might have profited by the occasion to giggle and whistle her own advice in her ear, and been indifferently well obeyed. I really don't pretend to say—maybe there was nothing, or next to nothing in it; or if there was, Miss Gertrude herself might not quite know. And if she did suspect she liked him, ever so little, she had no one but Lilias Walsingham to tell; and I don't know that young ladies are always quite candid upon these points. Some, at least, I believe, don't make confidences until their secrets become insupportable. However, Aunt Rebecca was now wide awake, and had trumpeted a pretty shrill reveiller. And Gertrude had started up, her elbow on the pillow, and her large eyes open; and the dream, I suppose, was shivered and flown, and something rather ghastly at her side.

Coming out of church, Dr. Walsingham asked Mervyn to take a turn with him in the park—and so they did—and the doctor talked with him seriously and kindly on that broad plateau. The young man walked darkly beside him, and they often stopped outright. When, on their return, they came near the Chapelizod gate, and Parson's lodge, and the duck-pond, the doctor was telling him that marriage is an affair of the heart—also a spiritual union—and, moreover, a mercantile partnership—and he insisted much upon this latter view—and told him what and how strict was the practice of the ancient Jews, the people of God, upon this particular point. Dr. Walsingham had made a love-match, was the most imprudent and open-handed of men, and always preaching to others against his own besetting sin. To hear him talk, indeed, you would have supposed he was a usurer. Then Mr. Mervyn, who looked a little pale and excited, turned the doctor about, and they made another little circuit, while he entered somewhat into his affairs and prospects, and told him something about an appointment in connexion with the Embassy at Paris, and said he would ask him to read some letters about it; and the doctor seemed a little shaken; and so they parted in a very friendly but grave way.

When Mervyn had turned his back upon Belmont, on the occasion of the unpleasant little visit I mentioned just now, the ladies had some words in the drawing-room.

'I have not coquetted, Madam,' said Miss Gertrude, haughtily.

'Then I'm to presume you've been serious; and I take the liberty to ask how far this affair has proceeded?' said Aunt Rebecca, firmly, and laying her gloved hand and folded fan calmly on the table.

'I really forget,' said the young lady, coldly.

'Has he made a declaration of love?' demanded the aunt, the two red spots on her cheeks coming out steadily, and helping the flash of her eyes.

'Certainly not,' answered the young lady, with a stare of haughty surprise that was quite unaffected.

At the pleasant luncheon and dance on the grass that the officers gave, in that pretty field by the river, half-a-dozen of the young people had got beside the little brook that runs simpering and romping into the river just there. Women are often good-natured in love matters where rivalry does not mix, and Miss Gertrude, all on a sudden, found herself alone with Mervyn. Aunt Becky, from under the ash trees at the other end of the field, with great distinctness, for she was not a bit near-sighted, and considerable uneasiness, saw their tête-à-tête. It was out of the question getting up in time to prevent the young people speaking their minds if so disposed, and she thought she perceived that in the young man's bearing, which looked like a pleading and eagerness, and 'Gertrude's put out a good deal—I see by her plucking at those flowers—but my head to a China orange—the girl won't think of him. She's not a young woman to rush into a horrible folly, hand-over-head,' thought Aunt Becky; and then she began to think they were talking very much at length indeed, and to regret that she had not started at once from her post for the place of meeting; and one, and two, and three minutes passed, and perhaps some more, and Aunt Becky began to grow wroth, and was on the point of marching upon them, when they began slowly to walk towards the group who were plucking bunches of woodbine from the hedge across the little stream, at the risk of tumbling in, and distributing the flowers among the ladies, amidst a great deal of laughing and gabble. Then Miss Gertrude made Mr. Mervyn rather a haughty and slight salutation, her aunt thought, and so dismissed him; he, too, made a bow, but a very low one, and walked straight off to the first lady he saw.

This happened to be mild little Mrs. Sturk, and he talked a good deal to her, but restlessly, and, as it seemed, with a wandering mind; and afterwards he conversed, with an affectation of interest—it was only that—Aunt Becky, who observed him with some curiosity, thought—for a few minutes with Lilias Walsingham; and afterwards he talked with an effort, and so much animation and such good acceptance [though it was plain, Aunt Becky said, that he did not listen to one word she said,] to the fair Magnolia, that O'Flaherty had serious thoughts of horse-whipping him when the festivities were over—for, as he purposed informing him, his 'ungentlemanlike intherfarence.'

'He has got his quietus,' thought Aunt Becky, with triumph; 'this brisk, laughing carriage, and heightened colour, a woman of experience can see through at a glance.'

Yes, all this frisking and skipping is but the hypocrisy of bleeding vanity—hæret lateri—they are just the flush, wriggle, and hysterics of suppressed torture.

Then came her niece, cold and stately, with steady eye and a slight flush, and altogether the air of the conscientious young matron who has returned from the nursery, having there administered the discipline; and so she sat down beside her aunt, serene and silent, and, the little glow passed away, pale and still.

'Well, he has spoken?' said her aunt to her, in a sharp aside.

'Yes,' answered the young lady, icily.

'And has had his answer?'

'Yes—and I beg, Aunt Rebecca, the subject may be allowed to drop.' The young lady's eyes encountered her aunt's so directly and were so fully charged with the genuine Chattesworth lightning, that Miss Rebecca, unused to such demonstrations, averted hers, and with a slight sarcastic inclination, and, 'Oh! your servant, young lady,' beckoning with her fan grandly to little Puddock, who was hovering with other designs in the vicinity, and taking his arm, though he was not forgiven, but only employed—a distinction often made by good Queen Elizabeth—marched to the marquee, where, it was soon evident, the plump lieutenant was busy in commending, according to their merits, the best bits of the best plats on the table.

'So dear Aunt Becky has forgiven Puddock,' said Devereux, who was sauntering up to the tent between O'Flaherty and Cluffe, and little suspecting that he was descanting upon the intended Mrs. Cluffe—'and they are celebrating the reconciliation over a jelly and a pupton. I love Aunt Rebecca, I tell you—I don't know what we should do without her. She's impertinent, and often nearly insupportable; but isn't she the most placable creature on earth? I venture to say I might kill you, Lieutenant O'Flaherty—of course, with your permission, Sir—and she'd forgive me to-morrow morning! And she really does princely things—doesn't she? She set up that ugly widow—what's her name?—twice in a shop in Dame Street, and gave two hundred pounds to poor Scamper's orphan, and actually pensions that old miscreant, Wagget, who ought to be hanged—and never looks for thanks or compliments, or upbraids her ingrates with past kindnesses. She's noble—Aunt Becky's every inch a gentleman!'

By this time they had reached the tent, and the hearty voice of the general challenged them from the shade, as he filliped a little chime merrily on his empty glass.

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