The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter LXIII



Poor Mrs. Nutter continued in a state of distracted and flighty tribulation, not knowing what to make of it, nor, indeed, knowing the worst; for the neighbours did not tell her half they might, nor drop a hint of the dreadful suspicion that dogged her absent helpmate.

She was sometimes up rummaging among the drawers, and fidgeting about the house, without any clear purpose, but oftener lying on her bed, with her clothes on, crying. When she got hold of a friend, she disburthened her soul, and called on him or her for endless consolations and assurances, which, for the most part, she herself prescribed. There were, of course, fits of despair as well as starts of hope; and bright ideas, accounting for everything, and then clouds of blackness, and tornadoes of lamentation.

Father Roach, a good-natured apostle, whose digestion suffered when anyone he liked was in trouble, paid her a visit; and being somehow confounded with Dr. Toole, was shown up to her bed-room, where the poor little woman lay crying under the coverlet. On discovering where he was, the good father was disposed to flinch, and get down stairs, in tenderness to his 'character,' and thinking what a story 'them villians o' the world'id make iv it down at the club there.' But on second thoughts, poor little Sally being neither young nor comely, he ventured, and sat down by the bed, veiled behind a strip of curtain, and poured his mellifluous consolations into her open ears.

And poor Sally became eloquent in return. And Father Roach dried his eyes, although she could not see him behind the curtain, and called her 'my daughter,' and 'dear lady,' and tendered such comforts as his housekeeping afforded. 'Had she bacon in the house?' or 'maybe she'd like a fat fowl?' 'She could not eat?' 'Why then she could make elegant broth of it, and dhrink it, an' he'd keep another fattenin' until Nutter himself come back.'

'And then, my honey, you an' himself'll come down and dine wid ould Father Austin; an' we'll have a grand evenin' of it entirely, laughin' over the remimbrance iv these blackguard troubles, acuishla! Or maybe you'd accept iv a couple o' bottles of claret or canaries? I see—you don't want for wine.'

So there was just one more offer the honest fellow had to make, and he opened with assurances 'twas only between himself an' her—an' not a sowl on airth 'id ever hear a word about it—and he asked her pardon, but he thought she might chance to want a guinea or two, just till Nutter came back, and he brought a couple in his waistcoat pocket.

Poor Father Roach was hard-up just then. Indeed, the being hard-up was a chronic affection with him. Two horses were not to be kept for nothing. Nor for the same moderate figure was it possible to maintain an asylum for unfortunates and outlaws—pleasant fellows enough, but endowed with great appetites and an unquenchable taste for consolation in fluid forms.

A clerical provision in Father Roach's day, and church, was not by any means what we have seen it since. At all events he was not often troubled with the possession of money, and when half-a-dozen good weddings brought him in fifty or a hundred pounds, the holy man was constrained forthwith to make distribution of his assets among a score of sour, and sometimes dangerous tradespeople. I mention this in no disparagement of Father Roach, quite the contrary. In making the tender of his two guineas—which, however, Sally declined—the worthy cleric was offering the widow's mite; not like some lucky dogs who might throw away a thousand or two and be nothing the worse; and you may be sure the poor fellow was very glad to find she did not want it.

'Rather hard measure, it strikes me,' said Dangerfield, in the club, 'to put him in the Hue-and-Cry.'

But there he was, sure enough, 'Charles Nutter, Esq., formerly of the Mills, near Knockmaroon, in the county of Dublin;' and a full description of the dress he wore, as well as of his height, complexion, features—and all this his poor little wife, still inhabiting the Mills, and quite unconscious that any man, woman, or child, who could prosecute him to conviction, for a murderous assault on Dr. Sturk, should have £50 reward.

'News in to-day, by Jove,' said Toole, bustling solemnly into the club; 'by the packet that arrived at one o'clock, a man taken, answering Nutter's description exactly, just going aboard of a Jamaica brig at Gravesend, and giving no account of himself. He's to be sent over to Dublin for identification.'

And when that was thoroughly discussed two or three times over, they fell to talking of other subjects, and among the rest of Devereux, and wondered what his plans were; and, there being no brother officers by, whether he meant to keep his commission, and various speculations as to the exact cause of the coldness shown him by General Chattesworth. Dick Spaight thought it might be that he had not asked Miss Gertrude in marriage.

But this was pooh-poohed. 'Besides, they knew at Belmont,' said Toole, who was an authority upon the domestic politics of that family, and rather proud of being so, 'just as well as I did that Gipsy Dick was in love with Miss Lilias; and I lay you fifty he'd marry her to-morrow if she'd have him.'

Toole was always a little bit more intimate with people behind their backs, so he called Devereux 'Gipsy Dick.'

'She's ailing, I hear,' said old Slowe.

'She is, indeed, Sir,' answered the doctor, with a grave shake of the head.

'Nothing of moment, I hope?' he asked.

'Why, you see it may be; she had a bad cough last winter, and this year she took it earlier, and it has fallen very much on her lungs; and you see, we can't say, Sir, what turn it may take, and I'm very sorry she should be so sick and ailing—she's the prettiest creature, and the best little soul; and I don't know, on my conscience, what the poor old parson would do if anything happened her, you know. But I trust, Sir, with care, you know, 'twill turn out well.'

The season for trout-fishing was long past and gone, and there were no more pleasant rambles for Dangerfield and Irons along the flowery banks of the devious Liffey. Their rods and nets hung up, awaiting the return of genial spring; and the churlish stream, abandoned to its wintry mood, darkled and roared savagely under the windows of the Brass Castle.

One dismal morning, as Dangerfield's energetic step carried him briskly through the town, the iron gate of the church-yard, and the door of the church itself standing open, he turned in, glancing upward as he passed at Sturk's bed-room windows, as all the neighbours did, to see whether General Death's white banners were floating there, and his tedious siege ended—as end it must—and the garrison borne silently away in his custody to the prison house.

Up the aisle marched Dangerfield, not abating his pace, but with a swift and bracing clatter, like a man taking a frosty constitutional walk.

Irons was moping softly about in the neighbourhood of the reading-desk, and about to mark the places of psalms and chapters in the great church Bible and Prayer-book, and sidelong he beheld his crony of the angle marching, with a grim confidence and swiftness, up the aisle.

'I say, where's Martin?' said Dangerfield, cheerfully.

'He's gone away, Sir.'

'Hey! then you've no one with you?'

'No, Sir.'

Dangerfield walked straight on, up the step of the communion-table, and shoving open the little balustraded door, he made a gay stride or two across the holy precinct, and with a quick right-about face, came to a halt, the white, scoffing face, for exercise never flushed it, and the cold, broad sheen of the spectacles, looked odd in the clerk's eyes, facing the church-door, from beside the table of the sacrament, displayed, as it were, in the very frame—foreground, background, and all—in which he was wont to behold the thoughtful, simple, holy face of the rector.

'Alone among the dead; and not afraid?' croaked the white face pleasantly.

The clerk seemed always to writhe and sweat silently under the banter of his comrade of the landing-net, and he answered, without lifting his head, in a constrained and dogged sort of way, like a man who expects something unpleasant—

'Alone? yes, Sir, there's none here but ourselves.'

And his face flushed, and the veins on his forehead stood out, as will happen with a man who tugs at a weight that is too much for him.

'I saw you steal a glance at Charles when he came into the church here, and it strikes me I was at the moment thinking of the same thing as you, to wit, will he require any special service at our hands? Well, he does! and you or I must do it. He'll give a thousand pounds, mind ye; and that's something in the way of fellows like you and me; and whatever else he may have done, Charles has never broke his word in a money matter. And, hark'ee, can't you thumb over that Bible and Prayer-book on the table here as well as there? Do so. Well—'

And he went on in a lower key, still looking full front at the church-door, and a quick glance now and then upon Irons, across the communion-table.

Tis nothing at all—don't you see—what are you afraid of? It can't change events—'tis only a question of to-day or to-morrow—a whim—a maggot—hey? You can manage it this way, mark ye.'

He had his pocket-handkerchief by the two corners before him, like an apron, and he folded it neatly and quickly into four.

'Don't you see—and a little water. You're a neat hand, you know; and if you're interrupted, 'tis only to blow your nose in't—ha, ha, ha!—and clap it in your pocket; and you may as well have the money—hey? Good-morning.'

And when he had got half-way down the aisle, he called back to Irons, in a loud, frank voice—

'And Martin's not here—could you say where he is?'

But he did not await the answer, and glided with quick steps from the porch, with a side leer over the wavy green mounds and tombstones. He had not been three minutes in the church, and across the street he went, to the shop over the way, and asked briskly where Martin, the sexton, was. Well, they did not know.

'Ho! Martin,' he cried across the street, seeing that functionary just about to turn the corner by Sturk's hall-door steps; 'a word with you. I've been looking for you. See, you must take a foot-rule, and make all the measurements of that pew, you know; don't mistake a hair's breadth, d'ye mind, for you must be ready to swear to it; and bring a note of it to me, at home, to-day, at one o'clock, and you shall have a crown-piece.'

From which the reader will perceive—as all the world might, if they had happened to see him enter the church just now—that his object in the visit was to see and speak with Martin; and that the little bit of banter with Irons, the clerk, was all by-play, and parenthesis, and beside the main business, and, of course, of no sort of consequence.

Mr. Irons, like most men of his rank in life, was not much in the habit of exact thinking. His ruminations, therefore, were rather confused, but, perhaps, they might be translated in substance, into something like this—

'Why the —— can't he let them alone that's willing to let him alone? I wish he was in his own fiery home, and better people at rest. I can't mark them places—I don't know whether I'm on my head or heels.'

And he smacked the quarto Prayer-book down upon the folio Bible with a sonorous bang, and glided out, furious, frightened, and taciturn, to the Salmon House.

He came upon Dangerfield again only half-a-dozen steps from the turn into the street. He had just dismissed Martin, and was looking into a note in his pocket-book, and either did not see, or pretended not to see, the clerk. But some one else saw and recognised Mr. Irons; and, as he passed, directed upon him a quick, searching glance. It was Mr. Mervyn, who happened to pass that way. Irons and Dangerfield, and the church-yard—there was a flash of association in the group and the background which accorded with an old suspicion. Dangerfield, indeed, was innocently reading a leaf in his red and gilt leather pocket-book, as I have said. But Irons's eyes met the glance of Mervyn, and contracted oddly, and altogether there gleamed out something indefinable in his look. It was only for a second—a glance and an intuition; and from that moment it was one of Mervyn's immovable convictions, that Mr. Dangerfield knew something of Irons's secret. It was a sort of intermittent suspicion before—now it was a monstrous, but fixed belief.

So Mr. Irons glided swiftly on to the Salmon House, where, in a dark corner, he drank something comfortable; and stalked back again to the holy pile, with his head aching, and the world round him like a wild and evil dream.

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