The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter XXIX



Some score pages back, when we were all assembled at the King's House, my reader, perhaps, may not have missed our fat and consequential, but on the whole, good-natured acquaintance, Mrs. Macnamara; though, now I remember, he did overhear the gentle Magnolia, in that little colloquy in which she and Aunt Becky exchanged compliments, say, in substance, that she hoped that amiable parent might be better next day. She was not there, she was not well. Of late Mrs. Macnamara had lost all her pluck, and half her colour, and some even of her fat. She was like one of those portly dowagers in Numbernip's select society of metamorphosed turnips, who suddenly exhibited sympathetic symptoms of failure, grew yellow, flabby, and wrinkled, as the parent bulb withered and went out of season. You would not have known her for the same woman.

A tall, pale female, dressed in black satin and a black velvet riding hood, had made her two visits in a hackney-coach; but whether these had any connexion with the melancholy change referred to, I don't, at this moment, say. I know that they had a very serious bearing upon after events affecting persons who figure in this true history. Whatever her grief was she could not bring herself to tell it. And so her damask cheek, and portly form, and rollicking animal spirits continued to suffer.

The major found that her mind wandered at piquet. Toole also caught her thinking of something else in the midst of his best bits of local scandal; and Magnolia several times popped in upon her large mother in tears. Once or twice Toole thought, and he was right, that she was on the point of making a disclosure. But her heart failed her, and it came to nothing. The little fellow's curiosity was on fire. In his philosophy there was more in everything than met the eye, and he would not believe Magnolia, who laughed at him, that she did not know all about it.

On this present morning poor Mrs. Macnamara had received a note, at which she grew pale as the large pat of butter before her, and she felt quite sick as she thrust the paper into her pocket, and tried to smile across the breakfast table at Magnolia, who was rattling away as usual, and the old major who was chuckling at her impudent mischief over his buttered toast and tea.

'Why, mother dear,' cried Mag suddenly, 'what the plague ails your pretty face? Did you ever see the like? It's for all the world like a bad batter pudding! I lay a crown, now, that was a bill. Was it a bill? Come now, Mullikins (a term of endearment for mother). Show us the note. It is too bad, you poor dear, old, handsome, bothered angel, you should be fretted and tormented out of your looks and your health, by them dirty shopkeepers' bills, when a five-pound note, I'm certain sure, 'id pay every mothers skin o' them, and change to spare!' And the elegant Magnolia, whose soiclainet and Norwich crape petticoat were unpaid for, darted a glance of reproach full upon the major's powdered head, the top of which was cleverly presented to receive it, as he swallowed in haste his cup of tea, and rising suddenly, for his purse had lately suffered in the service of the ladies, and wanted rest—

'Tis nothing at all but that confounded egg,' he said, raising that untasted delicacy a little towards his nose. 'Why the divil will you go on buying our eggs from that dirty old sinner, Poll Delany?' And he dropped it from its cup plump into the slop-basin.

'A then maybe it was,' said poor Mrs. Mac, smiling as well as she could; 'but I'm better.'

'No you're not, Mullikins,' interposed Magnolia impatiently. 'There's Toole crossing the street, will I call him up?'

'Not for the world, Maggy darling. I'd have to pay him, and where's the money to come from?'

The major did not hear, and was coughing besides; and recollecting that he had a word for the adjutant's ear, took his sword off the peg where it hung, and his cocked hat, and vanished in a twinkling.

'Pay Toole, indeed! nonsense, mother,' and up went the window.

'Good-morrow to your nightcap, doctor!'

'And the top of the morning to you, my pretty Miss chattering Mag, up on your perch there,' responded the physician.

'And what in the world brings you out this way at breakfast time, and where are you going?—Oh! goosey, goosey gander, where do you wander?'

'Up stairs, if you let me,' said Toole, with a flourish of his hand, and a gallant grin, 'and to my lady's chamber.'

'And did you hear the news?' demanded Miss Mag.

The doctor glanced over his shoulder, and seeing the coast clear, he was by this time close under the little scarlet geranium pots that stood on the window-sill.

'Miss Chattesworth, eh?' he asked, in a sly, low tone.

'Oh, bother her, no. Do you remember Miss Anne Marjoribanks, that lodged in Doyle's house, down there, near the mills, last summer, with her mother, the fat woman with the poodle, and the—don't you know?'

'Ay, ay; she wore a flowered silk tabby sacque, on band days,' said Toole, who had an eye and a corner in his memory for female costume, 'a fine showy—I remember.' 'Well, middling: that's she.'

'And what of her?' asked Toole, screwing himself up as close as he could to the flower-pots.

'Come up and I'll tell you,' and she shut down the window and beckoned him slily, and up came Toole all alive.

Miss Magnolia told her story in her usual animated way, sometimes dropping her voice to a whisper, and taking Toole by the collar, sometimes rising to a rollicking roar of laughter, while the little doctor stood by, his hands in his breeches' pockets, making a pleasant jingle with his loose change there, with open mouth and staring eyes, and a sort of breathless grin all over his ruddy face. Then came another story, and more chuckling.

'And what about that lanky long may-pole, Gerty Chattesworth, the witch?—not that anyone cares tuppence if she rode on a broom to sweep the cobwebs off the moon, only a body may as well know, you know,' said Miss Mag, preparing to listen.

'Why, by Jupiter! they say—but d'ye mind, I don't know, and faith I don't believe it—but they do say she's going to be married to—who do you think now?' answered Toole.

'Old Colonel Bligh, of the Magazine, or Dr. Walsingham, may be,' cried Mag, with a burst of laughter; 'no young fellow would be plagued with her, I'm certain.'

'Well, ha, ha! you are a conjuror, Miss Mag, to be sure. He's not young—you're right there—but then, he's rich, he is, by Jove! there's no end of his—well, what do you say now to Mr. Dangerfield?'

'Dangerfield! Well' (after a little pause), 'he's ugly enough and old enough too, for the matter of that; but he's as rich as a pork-pie; and if he's worth half what they say, you may take my word for it, when he goes to church it won't be to marry the steeple.'

And she laughed again scornfully and added—

Twas plain enough from the first, the whole family laid themselves out to catch the old quiz and his money. Let the Chattesworths alone for scheming, with all their grand airs. Much I mind them! Why, the old sinner was not an hour in the town when he was asked over the way to Belmont, and Miss dressed out there like a puppet, to simper and flatter the rich old land agent, and butter him up—my Lord Castlemallard's bailiff—if you please, ha, ha, ha! and the Duchess of Belmont, that ballyrags every one round her, like a tipsy old soldier, as civil as six, my dear Sir, with her "Oh, Mr. Dangerfield, this," and her "Dear Mr. Dangerfield, that," and all to marry that long, sly hussy to a creature old enough to be her grandfather, though she's no chicken neither. Faugh! filthy!' and Miss Magnolia went through an elegant pantomime of spitting over her shoulder into the grate.

Toole thought there was but one old fellow of his acquaintance who might be creditably married by a girl young enough to be his granddaughter, and that was honest Arthur Slowe; and he was going to insinuate a joke of the sort; but perceiving that his sly preparatory glance was not pleasantly responded to, and that the stalworth nymph was quite in earnest, he went off to another topic.

The fact is that Toole knew something of Miss Mag's plans, as he did of most of the neighbours' beside. Old Slowe was, in certain preponderating respects, much to be preferred to the stalworth fireworker, Mr. Lieutenant O'Flaherty. And the two gentlemen were upon her list. Two strings to a bow is a time-honoured provision. Cupid often goes so furnished. If the first snap at the critical moment, should we bow-string our precious throttles with the pieces? Far be it from us! Let us waste no time in looking foolish; but pick up the gray-goose shaft that lies so innocently at our feet among the daisies; and it's odds but the second plants it i' the clout.' The lover, the hero of the piece, upon whose requited passion and splendid settlements the curtain goes down, is a role not always safely to be confided to the genius and discretion of a single performer. Take it that the captivating Frederick Belville, who is announced for the part, is, along with his other qualifications, his gallantry, his grace, his ringlets, his pathetic smile, his lustrous eyes, his plaintive tenor, and five-and-twenty years—a little bit of a rip—rather frail in the particular of brandy and water, and so, not quite reliable. Will not the prudent manager provide a substitute respectably to fill the part, in the sad event of one of those sudden indispositions to which Belville is but too liable! It may be somewhat 'fat and scant of breath,' ay, and scant of hair and of teeth too. But though he has played Romeo thirty years ago, the perruquier, and the dentist, and the rouge-pot, and the friendly glare of the foot-lights will do wonders; and Podgers—steady fellow!—will be always at the right wing, at the right moment, know every line of his author, and contrive to give a very reasonable amount of satisfaction to all parties concerned. Following this precedent, then, that wise virgin, Miss Magnolia, and her sagacious mamma, had allotted the role in question to Arthur Slowe, who was the better furnished for the part, and, on the whole, the stronger 'cast.' But failing him, Lieutenant O'Flaherty was quietly, but unconsciously, as the phrase is,'under-studying' that somewhat uncertain gentleman.

'And the general's off to Scarborough,' said Toole.

'Old Chattesworth! I thought it was to Bath.

'Oh, no, Scarborough; a touch of the old rheum, and stomach I sent him there; and he's away in the Hillsborough packet for Holyhead this morning, and Colonel Stafford's left in command.'

'And my Lady Becky Belmont's superseded,' laughed Miss Magnolia, derisively.

'And who do you think's going to make the grand tour? from Paris to Naples, if you please, and from Naples to Rome, and up to Venice, and home through Germany, and deuce knows where beside; you'll not guess in a twel'month,' said Toole, watching her with a chuckle.

'Devereux, maybe,' guessed the young lady.

'No 'tisn't,' said Toole, delighted; 'try again!'

'Well, 'tis, let me see. Some wild young rogue, with a plenty of money, I warrant, if I could only think of him—come, don't keep me all day—who the plague is he, Toole?' urged the young lady, testily.

'Dan Loftus,' answered Toole, 'ha, ha, ha, ha!'

'Dan Loftus!—the grand tour—why, where's the world running to? Oh, ho, ho, ho, hoo! what a macaroni!' and they laughed heartily over it, and called him 'travelled monkey,' and I know not what else.

'Why, I thought Dr. Walsingham designed him for his curate; but what in the wide world brings Dan Loftus to foreign parts—"To dance and sing for the Spanish King, and to sing and dance for the Queen of France?"'

'Hey! Dan's got a good place, I can tell you—travelling tutor to the hopeful young lord that is to be—Devereux's cousin. By all the Graces, Ma'am, 'tis the blind leading the blind. I don't know which of the two is craziest. Hey, diddle-diddle—by Jupiter, such a pair—the dish ran away with the spoon; but Dan's a good creature, and we'll—we'll miss him. I like Dan, and he loves the rector—I like him for that; where there's gratitude and fidelity, Miss Mag, there's no lack of other virtues, I warrant you—and the good doctor has been a wonderful loving friend to poor Dan, and God bless him for it, say I, and amen.'

'And amen with all my heart,' said Miss Mag, gaily; tis an innocent creature—poor Dan; though he'd be none the worse of a little more lace to his hat, and a little less Latin in his head. But see here, doctor, here's my poor old goose of a mother (and she kissed her cheek) as sick as a cat in a tub.'

And she whispered something in Toole's wig, and they both laughed uproariously.

'I would not take five guineas and tell you what she says,' cried Toole.

'Don't mind the old blackguard, mother dear!' screamed Magnolia, dealing Æsculapius a lusty slap on the back; and the cook at that moment knocking at the door, called off the young lady to the larder, who cried over her shoulder as she lingered a moment at the door—'Now, send her something, Toole, for my sake, to do her poor heart good. Do you mind—for faith and troth the dear old soul is sick and sad; and I won't let that brute, Sturk, though he does wear our uniform, next or near her.'

'Well, 'tisn't for me to say, eh?—and now she's gone,—just let me try.' And he took her pulse.


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