The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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So there was no feud in the club worth speaking of but those of which Dr. Sturk was the centre; and Toole remarked this night that Sturk looked very ill—and so, in truth, he did; and it was plain, too, that his mind was not in the game, for old Slowe, who used not to have a chance with him, beat him three times running, which incensed Sturk, as small things will a man who is in the slow fever of a secret trouble. He threw down the three shillings he had lost with more force than was necessary, and muttering a curse, clapped on his hat and took up a newspaper at another table, with a rather flushed face. He happened to light upon a dolorous appeal to those 'whom Providence had blessed with riches,' on behalf of a gentleman 'who had once held a commission under his Majesty, and was now on a sudden by some unexpected turns of fortune, reduced, with his unhappy wife and five small children, to want of bread, and implored of his prosperous fellow-citizens that charitable relief which, till a few months since, it was his custom and pleasure to dispense to others.' And this stung him with a secret pang of insecurity and horror. Trifles affected him a good deal now. So he pitched down the newspaper and walked across to his own house, with his hands in his pockets, and thought again of Dangerfield, and who the deuce he could be, or whether he had really ever, anywhere—in the body or in the spirit—encountered him, as he used to feel with a boding vagueness he had done. And then those accursed dreams: he was not relieved as he expected by disclosing them. The sense of an ominous meaning pointing at him in all their grotesque images and scenery, still haunted him.

'Parson Walsingham, with all his reading,' his mind muttered, as it were, to itself, 'is no better than an old woman; and that knave and buffoon, Mr. Apothecary Toole, looked queer, the spiteful dog, just to disquiet me. I wonder at Dr. Walsingham though. A sensible man would have laughed me into spirits. On my soul, I think he believes in dreams.' And Sturk laughed within himself scornfully. It was all affectation, and addressed strictly to himself, who saw through it all; but still he practised it. 'If these infernal losses had not come to spoil my stomach. I should not have remembered them, much less let them haunt me this way, like a cursed file of ghosts. I'll try gentian to-morrow.'

Everything and everyone was poking at the one point of his secret fears. Dr. Walsingham preached a sermon upon the text, 'remember the days of darkness for they are many.' It went over the tremendous themes of death and judgment in the rector's own queer, solemn, measured way, and all the day after rang in Sturk's ear as the drums and fifes in the muffled peal of the Dead March used to do long ago, before his ear grew familiar with its thrilling roll. Sermons usually affected Sturk no more than they did other military gentlemen. But he was in a morbid state; and in this one or two terms or phrases, nothing in themselves, happened to touch upon a sensitive and secret centre of pain in the doctor's soul.

For instance, when he called death 'the great bankruptcy which would make the worldly man, in a moment, the only person in his house not worth a shilling,' the preacher glanced unconsciously at a secret fear in the caverns of Sturk's mind, that echoed back the sonorous tones and grisly theme of the rector with a hollow thunder.

There was a time when Sturk, like other shrewd, bustling fellows, had no objection to hear who had an execution in his house, who was bankrupt, and who laid by the heels; but now he shrunk from such phrases. He hated to think that a clever fellow was ever absolutely beggared in the world's great game. He turned his eye quickly from the Gazette, as it lay with other papers on the club table; for its grim pages seemed to look in his face with a sort of significance, as if they might some day or other have a small official duty to perform by him; and when an unexpected bankruptcy was announced by Cluffe or Toole in the club-room, it made his ear ring like a slap, and he felt sickish for half an hour after.

One of that ugly brood of dreams which haunted his nights, borrowed, perhaps, a hint from Dr. Walsingham's sermon. Sturk thought he heard Toole's well-known, brisk voice, under his windows, exclaim, 'What is the dirty beggar doing there? faugh!—he smells all over like carrion—ha, ha ha!' and looking out, in his dream, from his drawing-room window, he saw a squalid mendicant begging alms at his hall-door. 'Hollo, you, Sir; what do want there?' cried the surgeon, with a sort of unaccountable antipathy and fear. 'He lost his last shilling in the great bankruptcy, in October,' answered Dunstan's voice behind his ear; and in the earth-coloured face which the beggar turned up towards him, Sturk recognised his own features—Tis I'—he gasped out with an oath, and awoke in a horror, not knowing where he was. 'I—I'm dying.'

'October,' thought Sturk—'bankruptcy. 'Tis just because I'm always thinking of that infernal bill, and old Dyle's renewal, and the rent.'

Indeed, the surgeon had a stormy look forward, and the navigation of October was so threatening, awful, and almost desperate, as he stood alone through the dreadful watches at the helm, with hot cheek and unsteady hand, trusting stoically to luck and hoping against hope, that rocks would melt, and the sea cease from drowning, that it was almost a wonder he did not leap overboard, only for the certainty of a cold head and a quiet heart, and one deep sleep.

And, then, he used to tot up his liabilities for that accursed month, near whose yawning verge he already stood; and then, think of every penny coming to him, and what might be rescued and wrung from runaways and bankrupts whose bills he held, and whom he used to curse in his bed, with his fists and his teeth clenched, when poor little Mrs. Sturk, knowing naught of this danger, and having said her prayers, lay sound asleep by his side. Then he used to think, if he could only get the agency in time it would set him up—he could borrow £200 the day after his appointment; and he must make a push and extend his practice. It was ridiculous, that blackguard little Toole carrying off the best families in the neighbourhood, and standing in the way of a man like him; and Nutter, too—why, Lord Castlemallard knew as well as he did, that Nutter was not fit to manage the property, and that he was—and Nutter without a child or anyone, and he with seven! and he counted them over mentally with a groan. 'What was to become of them?' Then Nutter would be down upon him, without mercy, for the rent; and Dangerfield, if, indeed, he cared to do it [curse it, he trusted nobody], could not control him; and Lord Castlemallard, the selfish profligate, was away in Paris, leaving his business in the hands of that bitter old botch, who'd go any length to be the ruin of him.

Then he turned over the chances of borrowing a hundred pounds from the general—as he did fifty times every day and night, but always with the same result—'No; curse him, he's as weak as water—petticoat government—he'll do nothing without his sister's leave, and she hates me like poison;' and then he thought—'it would not be much to ask Lord Castlemallard—there's still time—to give me a month or two for the rent, but if the old sneak thought I owed twopence, I might whistle for the agency, and besides, faith!—I don't think he'd interfere.'

Then the clock down stairs would strike 'three,' and he felt thankful, with a great sigh, that so much of the night was over, and yet dreaded the morning.

And then he would con over his chances again, and think which was most likely to give him a month or two. Old Dyle—'Bah! he's a stone, he would not give me an hour. Or Carny, curse him, unless Lucas would move him. And, no, Lucas is a rogue, selfish beast: he owes me his place; and I don't think he'd stir his finger to snatch me from perdition. Or Nutter—Nutter, indeed!—why that fiend has been waiting half the year round to put in his distress the first hour he can.'

And then Sturk writhed round on his back, as we may suppose might St. Anthony on his gridiron, and rolled his eye-balls up toward the dark bed; and uttered a dismal groan, and thought of the three inexorable fates, Carny, Nutter, and Dyle, who at that moment held among them the measure, and the thread, and the shears of his destiny: and standing desperately in the dark at the verge of the abyss, he mentally hurled the three ugly spirits together into his bag, and flung them whirling through the mirk into the lake that burns with fire and brimstone.

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