The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter LXX



It was an awful night, indeed, on which all this occurred, and that apparition had shown itself up at the Mills. And truly it would seem the devil had business on his hands, for in the cedar-parlour of the Tiled House another unexpected manifestation occurred just about the same hour.

What gentleman is there of broken fortunes, undefined rights, and in search of evidence, without a legal adviser of some sort? Mr. Mervyn, of course, had his, and paid for the luxury according to custom. And every now and then off went a despatch from the Tiled House to the oracular London attorney; sometimes it was a budget of evidence, and sometimes only a string of queries. To-night, to the awful diapason of the storm—he was penning one of these—the fruit of a tedious study of many papers and letters, tied up in bundles by his desk, all of them redolent of ominous or fearful associations.

I don't know why it is the hours fly with such a strange celerity in the monotony and solitude of such nightwork. But Mervyn was surprised, as many a one similarly occupied has been, on looking at his watch, to find that it was now long past midnight; so he threw himself back in his chair with a sigh, and thought how vainly his life was speeding away, and heard, with a sort of wonder, how mad was the roar of the storm without, while he had quietly penned his long rescript undisturbed.

The wild bursts of supernatural fury and agony which swell and mingle in a hurricane, I dare say, led his imagination a strange aërial journey through the dark. Now it was the baying of hell hounds, and the long shriek of the spirit that flies before them. Anon it was the bellowing thunder of an ocean, and the myriad voices of shipwreck. And the old house quivering from base to cornice under the strain; and then there would come a pause, like a gasp, and the tempest once more rolled up, and the same mad hubbub shook and clamoured at the windows.

So he let his Pegasus spread his pinions on the blast, and mingled with the wild rout that peopled the darkness; or, in plainer words, he abandoned his fancy to the haunted associations of the hour, the storm, and the house, with a not unpleasant horror. In one of these momentary lulls of the wind, there came a sharp, distinct knocking on the window-pane. He remembered with a thrill the old story of the supernatural hand which had troubled that house, and began its pranks at this very window.

Ay, ay, 'twas the impatient rapping of a knuckle on the glass quite indisputably.

It is all very well weaving the sort of dream or poem with which Mervyn was half amusing and half awing himself, but the sensation is quite different when a questionable sound or sight comes uninvited to take the matter out of the province of our fancy and the control of our will. Mervyn found himself on his legs, and listening in a less comfortable sort of horror, with his gaze fixed in the direction of that small sharp knocking. But the storm was up again, and drowning every other sound in its fury.

If Mr. Mervyn had been sufficiently frightened, he would have forthwith made good his retreat to his bed-room, or, if he had not been frightened at all, he would have kept his seat, and allowed his fancies to return to their old channel. But, in fact, he took a light in his hand, and opened a bit of the window-shutter. The snow, however, was spread over the panes in a white, sliding curtain, that returned the light of his candle, and hid all without. 'Twas idle trying to peer through it, but as he did, the palm of a hand was suddenly applied to the glass on the outside, and began briskly to rub off the snow, as if to open a peep-hole for distinct inspection.

It was to be more this time than the apparition of a hand—a human face was immediately presented close to the glass—not that of Nutter either—no—it was the face of Irons—pale, with glittering eyes and blue chin, and wet hair quivering against the glass in the storm.

He nodded wildly to Mervyn, brushing away the snow, beckoning towards the back-door, as he supported himself on one knee on the window-stone, and, with his lips close to the glass, cried, 'let me in;' but, in the uproar of the storm, it was by his gestures, imperfectly as they were seen, rather than by his words, that Mervyn comprehended his meaning.

Down went Mr. Mervyn, without a moment's hesitation, leaving the candle standing on the passage table, drew the bolts, opened the door, and in rushed Irons, in a furious gust, his cloak whirling about his head amidst a bitter eddying of snow, and a distant clapping of doors throughout the house.

The door secured again, Mr. Irons stood in his beflaked and dripping mantle, storm-tossed, dishevelled, and alone once again in the shelter of the Tiled House, to explain the motive of his visit.

'Irons! I could hardly believe it,' and Mervyn made a pause, and then, filled with the one idea, he vehemently demanded, 'In Heaven's name, have you come to tell me all you know?'

'Well, maybe—no,' answered the clerk: 'I don't know; I'll tell you something. I'm going, you see, and I came here on my way; and I'll tell you more than last time, but not all—not all yet.'

'Going? and where?—what are your plans?'

'Plans?—I've no plans. Where am I going!—nowhere—anywhere. I'm going away, that's all.'

'You're leaving this place—eh, to return no more?'

'I'm leaving it to-night; I've the doctor's leave, Parson Walsingham. What d'ye look at, Sir? d'ye think it's what I murdered any one? not but if I stayed here I might though,' and Mr. Irons laughed a frightened, half maniacal sort of laugh. 'I'm going for a bit, a fortnight, or so, maybe, till things get quiet—(lead us not into temptation!)—to Mullingar, or anywhere; only I won't stay longer at hell's door, within stretch of that devil's long arm.'

'Come to the parlour,' said Mervyn, perceiving that Irons was chilled and shivering.

There, with the door and window-shutters closed, a pair of candles on the table, and a couple of faggots of that pleasant bog-wood, which blazes so readily and fragrantly on the hearth, Irons shook off his cloak, and stood, lank and grim, and, as it seemed to Mervyn, horribly scared, but well in view, and trying, sullenly, to collect his thoughts.

'I'm going away, I tell you, for a little while; but I'm come to see you, Sir, to think what I may tell you now, and above all, to warn you again' saying to any living soul one word of what passed between us when I last was here; you've kept your word honourable as yet; if you break it I'll not return,' and he clenched it with an oath, 'I daren't return.'

'I'll tell you the way it happened,' he resumed. Tis a good while now, ay twenty-two years; your noble father's dead these twenty-two years and upwards. 'Twas a bad murdher, Sir: they wor both bad murdhers. I look on it, he's a murdhered man.'

'He—who?' demanded the young man.

'Your father, Sir.'

'My father murdered?' said Mervyn.

'Well, I see no great differ; I see none at all. I'll tell you how it was.'

And he looked over his shoulder again, and into the corners of the room, and then Mr. Irons began—

'I believe, Sir, there's no devil like a vicious young man, with a hard heart and cool courage, in want of money. Of all the men I ever met with, or heard tell of, Charles Archer was the most dreadful. I used sometimes to think he was the devil. It wasn't long-headed or cunning he was, but he knew your thoughts before you half knew them yourself. He knew what every one was thinking of. He made up his mind at a glance, and struck like a thunderbolt. As for pity or fear, he did not know what they were, and his cunning was so deep and sure there was no catching him.

'He came down to the Pied Horse Inn, where I was a drawer, at Newmarket, twice.'

Mervyn looked in his face, quickly, with a ghastly kind of a start.

'Ay, Sir, av coorse you know it; you read the trial; av coorse you did. Well, he came down there twice. 'Twas a good old house, Sir, lots of room, and a well-accustomed inn. An' I think there was but two bad men among all the servants of the house—myself and Glascock. He was an under hostler, and a bad boy. He chose us two out of the whole lot, with a look. He never made a mistake. He knew us some way like a crow knows carrion, and he used us cleverly.'

And Irons cursed him.

'He's a hard master, like his own,' said Irons; 'his wages come to nothing, and his services is hell itself. He could sing, and talk, and drink, and keep things stirring, and the gentlemen liked him; and he was, 'twas said, a wonderful fine player at whist, and piquet, and ombre, and all sorts of card-playing. So you see he could afford to play fair. The first time he came down, he fought three duels about a tipsy quarrel over a pool of Pope Joan. There was no slur on his credit, though; 'twas just a bit of temper. He wounded all three; two but trifling; but one of them—Chapley, or Capley, I think, was his name—through the lungs, and he died, I heard, abroad. I saw him killed—'twasn't the last; it was done while you'd count ten. Mr. Archer came up with a sort of a sneer, pale and angry, and 'twas a clash of the small swords—one, two, three, and a spring like a tiger—and all over. He was frightful strong; ten times as strong as he looked—all a deception.'

'Well, Sir, there was a Jew came down, offering wagers, not, you see, to gentlemen, Sir, but to poor fellows. And Mr. Archer put me and Glascock up to bite him, as he said; and he told us to back Strawberry, and we did. We had that opinion of his judgment and his knowledge—you see, we thought he had ways of finding out these things—that we had no doubt of winning, so we made a wager of twelve pounds. But we had no money—not a crown between us—and we must stake gold with the host of the "Plume of Feathers;" and the long and the short of it was, I never could tell how he put it into our heads, to pledge some of the silver spoons and a gold chain of the master's, intending to take them out when we won the money. Well, Strawberry lost, and we were left in the lurch. So we told Mr. Archer how it was; for he was an off-handed man when he had anything in view, and he told us, as we thought, he'd help us if we lost. "Help you," says he, with a sort of laugh he had, "I want help myself; I haven't a guinea, and I'm afraid you'll be hanged: and then," says he, "stay a bit, and I'll find a way."

'I think he was in a bad plight just then himself; he was awful expensive with horses and—and—other things; and I think there was a writ, or maybe more, out against him, from other places, and he wanted a lump of money in his hand to levant with, and go abroad. Well, listen, and don't be starting, or making a row, Sir,' and a sulky, lowering, hang-dog shadow, came over Irons. 'Your father, Lord Dunoran, played cards; his partner was Mr. Charles Archer. Whist it was—with a gentleman of the name of Beauclerc, and I forget the other—he wore a chocolate suit, and a black wig. 'Twas I carried them their wine. Well, Mr. Beauclerc won, and Mr. Archer stopped playing, for he had lost enough; and the gentleman in the chocolate—what was his name?—Edwards, I think—ay, 'twas—yes, Edwards, it was—was tired, and turned himself about to the fire, and took a pipe of tobacco; and my lord, your father, played piquet with Mr. Beauclerc; and he lost a power of money to him, Sir; and, by bad luck, he paid a great part of it, as they played, in rouleaus of gold, for he had won at the dice down stairs. Well, Mr. Beauclerc was a little hearty, and he grew tired, and was for going to bed. But my lord was angry, and being disguised with liquor too, he would not let him go till they played more; and play they did, and the luck still went the same way; and my lord grew fierce over it, and cursed and drank, and that did not mend his luck you may be sure; and at last Mr. Beauclerc swears he'd play no more; and both kept talking together, and neither heard well what t'other said; but there was some talk about settling the dispute in the morning.

'Well, Sir, in goes Mr. Beauclerc, staggering—his room was the Flower de luce—and down he throws himself, clothes an' all, on his bed; and then my lord turned on Mr. Edwards, I'm sure that was his name, and persuades him to play at piquet; and to it they went.

'As I was coming in with more wine, I meets Mr. Archer coming out, "Give them their wine," says he, in a whisper, "and follow me." An' so I did. "You know something of Glascock, and have a fast hold of him," says he, "and tell him quietly to bring up Mr. Beauclerc's boots, and come back along with him; and bring me a small glass of rum." And back he goes into the room where the two were stuck in their cards, and talking and thinking of nothing else.'

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