The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter LVI



The next day the Sabbath bell from the ivied tower of Chapelizod Church called all good church-folk round to their pews and seats. Sturk's place was empty—already it knew him no more—and Mrs. Sturk was absent; but the little file of children, on whom the neighbours looked with an awful and a tender curiosity, was there. Lord Townshend, too, was in the viceregal seat, with gentlemen of his household behind, splendid in star and peruke, and eyed over their prayer-books by many inquisitive Christians. Nutter's little pew, under the gallery, was void like Sturk's. These sudden blanks were eloquent, and many, as from time to time the dismal gap opened silent before their eyes, felt their thoughts wander and lead them away in a strange and dismal dance, among the nodding hawthorns in the Butcher's Wood, amidst the damps of night, where Sturk lay in his leggings, and powder and blood, and the beetle droned by unheeding, and no one saw him save the guilty eyes that gleamed back as the shadowy shape stole swiftly away among the trees.

Dr. Walsingham's sermon had reference to the two-fold tragedy of the week, Nutter's supposed death by drowning, and the murder of Sturk. In his discourses he sometimes came out with a queer bit of erudition. Such as, while it edified one portion of his congregation, filled the other with unfeigned amazement.

'We may pray for rain,' said he on one occasion, when the collect had been read; 'and for other elemental influence with humble confidence. For if it be true, as the Roman annalists relate, that their augurs could, by certain rites and imprecations, produce thunder-storms—if it be certain that thunder and lightning were successfully invoked by King Porsenna, and as Lucius Piso, whom Pliny calls a very respectable author, avers that the same thing had frequently been done before his time by King Numa Pompilius, surely it is not presumption in a Christian congregation,' and so forth.

On this occasion he warned his parishioners against assuming that sudden death is a judgment. 'On the contrary, the ancients held it a blessing; and Pliny declares it to be the greatest happiness of life—how much more should we? Many of the Roman worthies, as you are aware, perished thus suddenly, Quintius Æmilius Lepidus, going out of his house, struck his great toe against the threshold and expired; Cneius Babius Pamphilus, a man of prætorian rank, died while asking a boy what o'clock it was; Aulus Manlius Torquatus, a gentleman of consular rank, died in the act of taking a cheese-cake at dinner; Lucius Tuscius Valla, the physician, deceased while taking a draught of mulsum; Appius Saufeius, while swallowing an egg: and Cornelius Gallus, the prætor, and Titus Haterius, a knight, each died while kissing the hand of his wife. And I might add many more names with which, no doubt, you are equally familiar.'

The gentlemen of the household opened their eyes; the officers of the Royal Irish Artillery, who understood their man, winked pleasantly behind their cocked hats at one another; and his excellency coughed, with his perfumed pocket-handkerchief to his nose, a good deal; and Master Dicky Sturk, a grave boy, who had a side view of his excellency, told his nurse that the lord lieutenant laughed in church! and was rebuked for that scandalum magnatum with proper horror.

Then the good doctor told them that the blood of the murdered man cried to heaven. That they might comfort themselves with the assurance that the man of blood would come to judgment. He reminded them of St. Augustan's awful words, 'God hath woollen feet, but iron hands;' and he told them an edifying story of Mempricius, the son of Madan, the fourth king of England, then called Britaine, after Brute, who murdered his brother Manlius, and mark ye this, after twenty years he was devoured by wild beasts; and another of one Bessus—'tis related by Plutarch—who having killed his father, was brought to punishment by means of swallows, which birds, his guilty conscience persuaded him, in their chattering language did say to one another, that Bessus had killed his father, whereupon he bewrayed his horrible crime, and was worthily put to death. 'The great Martin Luther,' he continued, 'reports such another story of a certain Almaigne, who, when thieves were in the act of murdering him, espying a flight of crows, cried aloud, "Oh crows, I take you for witnesses and revengers of my death." And so it fell out, some days afterwards, as these same thieves were drinking in an inn, a flight of crows came and lighted on the top of the house; whereupon the thieves, jesting, said to one another, "See, yonder are those who are to avenge the death of him we despatched t'other day," which the tapster overhearing, told forthwith to the magistrate, who arrested them presently, and thereupon they confessed, and were put to death.' And so he went on, sustaining his position with strange narratives culled here and there from the wilderness of his reading.

Among the congregation that heard this sermon, at the eccentricities of which I have hinted, but which had, beside, much that was striking, simply pathetic, and even awful in it, there glided—shall I say—a phantom, with the light of death, and the shadows of hell, and the taint of the grave upon him, and sat among these respectable persons of flesh and blood—impenetrable—secure—for he knew there were but two in the church for whom clever disguises were idle and transparent as the air. The blue-chinned sly clerk, who read the responses, and quavered the Psalms so demurely, and the white-headed, silver-spectacled, upright man, in my Lord Castlemallard's pew, who turned over the leaves of his prayer-book so diligently, saw him as he was, and knew him to be Charles Archer, and one of these at least, as this dreadful spirit walked, with his light burning in the noon-day, dogged by inexorable shadows through a desolate world, in search of peace, he knew to be the slave of his lamp.

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