The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter LIII



As Dangerfield, having parted company with Irons at the corner of the bridge, was walking through the town, with his rod over his shoulder and his basket of troutlings by his side, his attention was arrested by a little knot of persons in close and earnest talk at the barrack-gate, nearly opposite Sturk's house.

He distinguished at a glance the tall grim figure of Oliver Lowe, of Lucan, the sternest and shrewdest magistrate who held the commission for the county of Dublin in those days, mounted on his iron-gray hunter, and holding the crupper with his right hand, as he leaned toward a ragged, shaggy little urchin, with naked shins, whom he was questioning, as it seemed closely. Half-a-dozen gaping villagers stood round.

There was an indescribable something about the group which indicated horror and excitement. Dangerfield quickened his pace, and arrived just as the adjutant rode out.

Saluting both as he advanced, Dangerfield asked—

'Nothing amiss, I hope, gentlemen?'

'The surgeon here's been found murdered in the park!' answered Lowe.

'Hey—Sturk?' said Dangerfield.

'Yes,' said the adjutant: 'this boy here says he's found him in the Butcher's Wood.'

'The Butcher's Wood!—why, what the plague brought him there?' exclaimed Dangerfield.

Tis his straight road from Dublin across the park,' observed the magistrate.

'Oh!—I thought 'twas the wood by Lord Mountjoy's,' said Dangerfield; 'and when did it happen?'

'Pooh!—some time between yesterday afternoon and half an hour ago,' answered Mr. Lowe.

'Nothing known?' said Dangerfield. Twill be a sad hearing over the way;' and he glared grimly with a little side-nod at the doctor's house.

Then he fell, like the others, to questioning the boy. He could tell them but little—only the same story over and over. Coming out of town, with tea and tobacco, a pair of shoes, and a bottle of whisky, for old Mrs. Tresham—in the thick of the wood, among brambles, all at once he lighted on the body. He could not mistake Dr. Sturk; he wore his regimentals; there was blood about him; he did not touch him, nor go nearer than a musket's length to him, and being frightened at the sight in that lonely place he ran away and right down to the barrack, where he made his report.

Just then out came Sergeant Bligh, with his men—two of them carrying a bier with a mattress and cloaks thereupon. They formed, and accompanied by the adjutant, at quick step marched through the town for the park. Mr. Lowe accompanied them, and in the park-lane they picked up the ubiquitous Doctor Toole, who joined the party.

Dangerfield walked a while beside the adjutant's horse; and, said he—

'I've had as much walking as I can well manage this morning, and you don't want for hands, so I'll turn back when I've said just a word in your ear. You know, Sir, funerals are expensive, and I happen to know that poor Sturk was rather pressed for money—in fact, 'twas only the day before yesterday I myself lent him a trifle. So will you, through whatever channel you think best, let poor Mrs. Sturk know that she may draw upon me for a hundred pounds, if she requires it?'

'Thank you, Mr. Dangerfield; I certainly shall.'

And so Dangerfield lifted his hat to the party and fell behind, and came to a stand still, watching them till they disappeared over the brow of the hill.

When he reached his little parlour in the Brass Castle, luncheon was upon the table. But he had not much of an appetite, and stood at the window, looking upon the river with his hands in his pockets, and a strange pallid smile over his face, mingling with the light of the silver spectacles.

'When Irons hears of this,' he said, 'he'll come to my estimate of Charles Archer, and conclude he has had a finger in that pretty pie; 'twill frighten him.'

And somehow Dangerfield looked a little bit queer himself, and he drank off two small glasses, such as folks then used in Ireland—of Nantz; and setting down the glass, he mused—

'A queer battle life is; ha, ha! Sturk laid low—the wretched fool! Widow—yes; children—ay. Charles! Charles! if there be a reckoning after death, your score's an ugly one. I'm tired of playing my part in this weary game of defence. Irons and I remain with the secret between us. Glasscock had his fourth of it, and tasted death. Then we three had it; and Sturk goes next; and now I and Irons—Irons and I—which goes first?' And he fell to whistling slowly and dismally, with his hands in his breeches' pockets, looking vacantly through his spectacles on the ever-running water, an emblem of the eternal change and monotony of life.

In the meantime the party, with Tim Brian, the bare-shanked urchin, still in a pale perspiration, for guide, marched on, all looking ahead, in suspense, and talking little.

On they marched, till they got into the bosky shadow of the close old whitethorn and brambles, and there, in a lonely nook, the small birds hopping on the twigs above, sure enough, on his back, in his regimentals, lay the clay-coloured image of Sturk, some blood, nearly black now, at the corners of his mouth, and under his stern brows a streak of white eye-ball turned up to the sky.

There was a pool of blood under his pomatumed, powdered, and curled head, more under his right arm, which was slightly extended, with the open hand thrown palm upwards, as if appealing to heaven.

Toole examined him.

'No pulse, by Jove! Quiet there! don't stir!' Then he clapped his ear on Sturk's white Marseilles vest.

'Hush!' and a long pause. Then Toole rose erect, but still on his knees, 'Will you be quiet there? I think there's some little action still; only don't talk, or shift your feet; and just—just, do be quiet!'

Then Toole rose to his knees again, with a side glance fixed on the face of Sturk, with a puzzled and alarmed look. He evidently did not well know what to make of it. Then he slipped his hand within his vest, and between his shirt and his skin.

'If he's dead, he's not long so. There's warmth here. And see, get me a pinch or two of that thistle-down, d'ye see?'

And with the help of this improvised test he proceeded to try whether he was still breathing. But there was a little air stirring, and they could not manage it.

'Well!' said Toole, standing this time quite erect, 'I—I think there's life there still. And now, boys, d'ye see? lift him very carefully, d'ye mind? Gently, very gently, for I tell you, if this hæmorrhage begins again, he'll not last twenty seconds.'

So on a cloak they lifted him softly and deftly to the bier, and laid covering over him; and having received Toole's last injunctions, and especially a direction to Mrs. Sturk to place him in a well-warmed bed, and introduce a few spoonfuls of warm port wine negus into his mouth, and if he swallowed, to continue to administer it from time to time, Sergeant Bligh and his men commenced their funereal march toward Sturk's house.

'And now, Mr. Adjutant,' said Lowe, 'had not we best examine the ground, and make a search for anything that may lead to a conviction?'

Well, a ticket was found trod into the bloody mud, scarcely legible, and Sturk's cocked hat, the leaf and crown cut through with a blow of some blunt instrument. His sword they had found by his side not drawn.

'See! here's a foot-print, too,' said Lowe; 'don't move!'

It was remarkable. They pinned together the backs of two letters, and Toole, with his surgical scissors, cut the pattern to fit exactly into the impression; and he and Lowe, with great care, pencilled in the well-defined marks of the great hob-nails, and a sort of seam or scar across the heel.

'Twas pretty much after this fashion. It was in a slight dip in the ground where the soil continued soft. They found it in two other places coming up to the fatal spot, from the direction of the Magazine. And it was traceable on for some twenty yards more faintly; then, again, very distinctly, where—a sort of ditch interposing—a jump had been made, and here it turned down towards the park wall and the Chapelizod road, still, however, slanting in the Dublin direction.

In the hollow by the park wall it appeared again, distinctly; and here it was plain the transit of the wall had been made, for the traces of the mud were evident enough upon its surface, and the mortar at top was displaced, and a little tuft of grass in the mud, left by the clodded shoesole. Here the fellow had got over.

They followed, and, despairing of finding it upon the road, they diverged into the narrow slip of ground by the river bank, and just within the park-gate, in a slight hollow, the clay of which was still impressible, they found the track again. It led close up to the river bank, and there the villain seemed to have come to a stand still; for the sod just for so much as a good sized sheet of letter-paper might cover, was trod and broken, as if at the water's edge he had stood for a while, and turned about and shifted his feet, like a fellow that is uneasy while he is stationary.

From this stand-point they failed to discover any receding foot-print; but close by it came a little horse track, covered with shingle, by which, in those days, the troops used to ride their horses to water. He might have stepped upon this, and following it, taken to the streets; or he might—and this was Lowe's theory—have swam the river at this point, and got into some of those ruffian haunts in the rear of Watling and St. James's streets. So Lowe, who, with a thief or a murderer in the wind, had the soul of a Nimrod, rode round to the opposite bank, first telling Toole, who did not care to press his services at Sturk's house, uninvited, that he would send out the great Doctor Pell to examine the patient, or the body, as the case might turn out.

By this time they were carrying Doctor Sturk—that gaudy and dismal image—up his own staircase—his pale wife sobbing and shivering on the landing, among whispered ejaculations from the maids, and the speechless wonder of the awe-stricken children, staring through the banisters—to lay him in the bed where at last he is to lie without dreaming.

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson