The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter LXVII



Mr. Dangerfield was at the club that night, and was rather in spirits than otherwise, except, indeed, when poor Charles Nutter was talked of. Then he looked grave, and shrugged, and shook his head, and said—

'A bad business, Sir; and where's his poor wife?'

'Spending the night with us, poor soul,' said Major O'Neill, mildly, 'and hasn't an idaya, poor thing; and indeed, I hope, she mayn't hear it.'

'Pooh! Sir, she must hear it; but you know she might have heard worse, Sir, eh?' rejoined Dangerfield.

'True for you, Sir,' said the major, suspending the filling of his pipe to direct a quiet glance of significance at Dangerfield, and then closing his eyes with a nod.

And just at this point in came Spaight.

'Well, Spaight!'

'Well, Sir.'

'You saw the body, eh?' and a dozen other interrogatories followed, as, cold and wet with melting snow, dishevelled, and storm-beaten—for it was a plaguy rough night—the young fellow, with a general greeting to the company, made his way to the fire.

Tis a tremendous night, gentlemen, so by your leave I'll stir the fire—and, yes, I seen him, poor Nutter—and, paugh, an ugly sight he is, I can tell you; here Larry, bring me a rummer-glass of punch—his right ear's gone, and a'most all his right hand—and screeching hot, do you mind—an', phiew—altogether 'tis sickening—them fishes, you know—I'm a'most sorry I went in—you remember Dogherty's whiskey shop in Ringsend—he lies in the back parlour, and wondherful little changed in appearance.'

And so Mr. Spaight, with a little round table at his elbow, and his heels over the fender, sipped his steaming punch, and thawed inwardly and outwardly, as he answered their questions and mixed in their speculations.

Up at the Mills, which had heard the awful news, first from the Widow Macan, and afterwards from Pat Moran, the maids sat over their tea in the kitchen in high excitement and thrilling chat—'The poor master!' 'Oh, the poor man!' 'Oh, la, what's that?' with a start and a peep over the shoulders. 'And oh, dear, and how in the world will the poor little misthress ever live over the news?' And so forth, made a principal part of their talk. There was a good accompaniment of wind outside, and a soft pelting of snow on the window panes, 'and oh, my dear life, but wasn't it dark!'

Up went Moggy, with her thick-wicked kitchen candle, to seek repose; and Betty, resolving not to be long behind, waited only 'to wash up her plates' and slack down the fire, having made up her mind, for she grew more nervous in solitude, to share Moggy's bed for that night.

Moggy had not been twenty minutes gone, and her task was nearly ended, when—'Oh, blessed saints!' murmured Betty, with staring eyes, and dropping the sweeping-brush on the flags, she heard, or thought she heard, her master's step, which was peculiar, crossing the floor overhead.

She listened, herself as pale as a corpse, and nearly as breathless; but there was nothing now but the muffled gusts of the storm, and the close soft beat of the snow, so she listened and listened, but nothing came of it.

Tis only the vapours,' said Betty, drawing a long breath, and doing her best to be cheerful; and so she finished her labours, stopping every now and then to listen, and humming tunes very loud, in fits and starts. Then it came to her turn to take her candle and go up stairs; she was a good half-hour later than Moggy—all was quiet within the house—only the sound of the storm—the creak and rattle of its strain, and the hurly-burly of the gusts over the roof and chimneys.

Over her shoulder she peered jealously this way and that, as with flaring candle she climbed the stairs. How black the window looked on the lobby, with its white patterns of snow flakes in perpetual succession sliding down the panes. Who could tell what horrid face might be looking in close to her as she passed, secure in the darkness and that drifting white lace veil of snow? So nimbly and lightly up the stairs climbed Betty, the cook.

If listeners seldom hear good of themselves, it is also true that peepers sometimes see more than they like; and Betty, the cook, as she reached the landing, glancing askance with ominous curiosity, beheld a spectacle, the sight of which nearly bereft her of her senses.

Crouching in the deep doorway on the right of the lobby, the cook, I say, saw something—a figure—or a deep shadow—only a deep shadow—or maybe a dog. She lifted the candle—she peeped under the candlestick: 'twas no shadow, as I live, 'twas a well-defined figure!

He was draped in black, cowering low, with the face turned up. It was Charles Nutter's face, fixed and stealthy. It was only while the fascination lasted—while you might count one, two, three, deliberately—that the horrid gaze met mutually. But there was no mistake there. She saw the stern dark picture as plainly as ever she did. The light glimmered on his white eye-balls.

Starting up, he struck at the candle with his hat. She uttered a loud scream, and flinging stick and all at the figure, with a great clang against the door behind, all was swallowed in instantaneous darkness; she whirled into the opposite bed-room she knew not how, and locked the door within, and plunged head-foremost under the bed-clothes, half mad with terror.

The squall was heard of course. Moggy heard it, but she heeded not; for Betty was known to scream at mice, and even moths. And as her door was heard to slam, as was usual in panics of the sort, and as she returned no answer, Moggy was quite sure there was nothing in it.

But Moggy's turn was to come. When spirits 'walk,' I've heard they make the most of their time, and sometimes pay a little round of visits on the same evening.

This is certain; Moggy was by no means so great a fool as Betty in respect of hobgoblins, witches, banshees, pookas, and the world of spirits in general. She eat heartily, and slept soundly, and as yet had never seen the devil. Therefore such terrors as she that night experienced were new to her, and I can't reasonably doubt the truth of her narrative. Awaking suddenly in the night, she saw a light in the room, and heard a quiet rustling going on in the corner, where the old white-painted press showed its front from the wall. So Moggy popped her head through her thin curtains at the side, and—blessed hour!—there she saw the shape of a man looking into the press, the doors being wide open, and the appearance of a key in the lock.

The shape was very like her master. The saints between us and harm! The glow was reflected back from the interior of the press, and showed the front part of the figure in profile with a sharp line of light. She said he had some sort of thick slippers over his boots, a dark coat, with the cape buttoned, and a hat flapping over his face; coat and hat and all, sprinkled over with snow.

As if he heard the rustle of the curtain, he turned toward the bed, and with an awful ejaculation she cried, Tis you, Sir!'

'Don't stir, and you'll meet no harm,' he said, and over he posts to the bedside, and he laid his cold hand on her wrist, and told her again to be quiet, and for her life to tell no one what she had seen, and with that she supposed she swooned away; for the next thing she remembered was listening in mortal fear, the room being all dark, and she heard a sound at the press again, and then steps crossing the floor, and she gave herself up for lost; but he did not come to the bedside any more, and the tread passed out at the door, and so, as she thought, went down stairs.

In the morning the press was locked and the door shut, and the hall-door and back-door locked, and the keys on the hall-table, where they had left them the night before.

You may be sure these two ladies were thankful to behold the gray light, and hear the cheerful sounds of returning day; and it would be no easy matter to describe which of the two looked most pallid, scared, and jaded that morning, as they drank a hysterical dish of tea together in the kitchen, close up to the window, and with the door shut, discoursing, and crying, and praying over their tea-pot in miserable companionship.

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