The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter LXXIII



In the morning, though the wind had somewhat gone down, 'twas still dismal and wild enough; and to the consternation of poor Mrs. Macnamara, as she sat alone in her window after breakfast, Miss Mag and the major being both abroad, a hackney coach drew up at the door, which stood open. The maid was on the step, cheapening fish with a virulent lady who had a sieve-full to dispose of.

A gentleman, with a large, unwholesome face, and a patch over one eye, popped his unpleasant countenance, black wig, and three-cocked hat, out of the window, and called to the coachman to let him out.

Forth he came, somewhat slovenly, his coat not over-well brushed, having in his hand a small trunk, covered with gilt crimson leather, very dingy, and somewhat ceremoniously assisted a lady to alight. This dame, as she stepped with a long leg, in a black silk stocking, to the ground, swept the front windows of the house from under her velvet hood with a sharp and evil glance; and in fact she was Mistress Mary Matchwell.

As she beheld her, poor Mrs. Mack's heart fluttered up to her mouth, and then dropped with a dreadful plump, into the pit of her stomach. The dingy, dismal gentleman, swinging the red trunk in his hand, swaggered lazily back and forward, to stretch his legs over the pavement, and air his large cadaverous countenance, and sniff the village breezes.

Mistress Matchwell in the meantime, exchanging a passing word with the servant, who darkened and drew back as if a ghost had crossed her, gathered her rustling silks about her, and with a few long steps noiselessly mounted the narrow stairs, and stood, sallow and terrible in her sables, before the poor gentlewoman.

With two efforts Mrs. Mack got up and made a little, and then a great courtesy, and then a little one again, and tried to speak, and felt very near fainting.

'See,' says Mary Matchwell, 'I must have twenty pounds—but don't take on. You must make an effort, my dear—'tis the last. Come, don't be cast down. I'll pay you when I come to my property, in three weeks' time; but law expenses must be paid, and the money I must have.'

Hereupon Mrs. Mack clasped her hands together in an agony, and 'set up the pipes.'

M. M. was like to lose patience, and when she did she looked most feloniously, and in a way that made poor soft Mrs. Mack quiver.

Tis but twenty pounds, woman,' she said, sternly. 'Hub-bub-bub-boo-hoo-hoo,' blubbered the fat and miserable Mrs. Macnamara. 'It will be all about—I may as well tell it myself. I'm ruined! My Venetian lace—my watch—the brocade not made up. It won't do. I must tell my brother; I'd rather go out for a charwoman and starve myself to a skeleton, than try to borrow more money.'

Mrs. Matchwell advanced her face towards the widow's tearful countenance, and held her in the spell of her dreadful gaze as a cat does a bird.

'Why, curse you, woman, do you think 'tis to rob you I mean?—'tisn't a present even—only a loan. Stop that blubbering, you great old mouth! or I'll have you posted all over the town in five minutes. A loan, Madam; and you need not pay it for three months—three whole months—there!'

Well, this time it ended as heretofore—poor Mrs. Mack gave way. She had not a crown-piece, indeed, that she could call her own; but M. M. was obliging, and let her off for a bill of exchange, the nature of which, to her dying day, the unhappy widow could never comprehend, although it caused her considerable affliction some short time subsequently.

Away went Mary Matchwell with her prize, leaving an odour of brandy behind her. Her dingy and sinister squire performed his clumsy courtesies, and without looking to the right or left, climbed into the coach after her, with his red trunk in his hand; and the vehicle was again in motion, and jingling on at a fair pace in the direction of Nutter's house, The Mills, where her last visit had ended so tragically.

Now, it so happened that just as this coach, with its sombre occupants, drew up at The Mills, Doctor Toole was standing on the steps, giving Moggy a parting injunction, after his wont; for poor little Mrs. Nutter had been thrown into a new paroxysm by the dreadful tidings of her Charlie's death, and was now lying on her bed, and bathing the pillow in her tears.

'Is this the tenement called the Mills, formerly in the occupation of the late Charles Nutter—eh?' demanded the gentleman, thrusting his face from the window, before the coachman had got to the door.

'It is, Sir,' replied Toole, putting Moggy aside, and suspecting, he could not tell what amiss, and determined to show front, and not averse from hearing what the visit was about. 'But Mrs. Nutter is very far from well, Sir; in fact, in her bed-chamber, Sir, and laid upon her bed.'

'Mrs. Nutter's here, Sir,' said the man phlegmatically. He had just got out on the ground before the door, and extended his hand toward Mary Matchwell, whom he assisted to alight.

'This is Mrs. Nutter, relict of the late Charles Nutter, of The Mills, Knockmaroon, in the parish of Chapelizod.'

'At your service, Sir,' said Mary Matchwell, dropping a demure courtesy, and preparing to sail by him.

'Not so fast, Ma'am, if you please,' said Toole, astonished, but still sternly and promptly enough. 'In with you, Moggy, and bar the kitchen door.'

And shoving the maid back, he swung the door to, with a slam. He was barely in time, and Mary Matchwell, baffled and pale, confronted the doctor, with the devil gleaming from her face.

'Who are you, man, that dare shut my own door in my face?' said the beldame.

'Toole's my name, Madam,' said the little doctor, with a lofty look and a bow. 'I have the honour to attend here in a professional capacity.'

'Ho! a village attorney,' cried the fortune-teller, plainly without having consulted the cards or the planets. 'Well, Sir, you'd better stand aside, for I am the Widow Nutter, and this is my house; and burn me, but one way or another, in I'll get.'

'You'd do well to avoid a trespass, Ma'am, and better to abstain from house breaking; and you may hammer at the knocker till you're tired, but they'll not let you in,' rejoined Toole. 'And as to you being the Widow Nutter, Ma'am, that is widow of poor Charles Nutter, lately found drowned, I'll be glad to know, Ma'am, how you make that out.'

'Stay, Madam, by your leave,' said the cadaverous, large-faced man, interposing. 'We are here, Sir, to claim possession of this tenement and the appurtenances, as also of all the money, furniture, and other chattels whatsoever of the late Charles Nutter; and being denied admission, we shall then serve certain cautionary and other notices, in such a manner as the court will, under the circumstances, and in your presence, being, by your admission, the attorney of Sarah Hearty, calling herself Nutter—'

'I did not say I was,' said Toole, with a little toss of his chin.

The gentleman's large face here assumed a cunning leer.

'Well, we have our thoughts about that, Sir,' he said. 'But by your leave, we'll knock at the hall-door.'

'I tell you what, Sir,' said Toole, who had no reliance upon the wisdom of the female garrison, and had serious misgivings lest at the first stout summons the maids should open the door, and the ill-favoured pair establish themselves in occupation of poor Mrs. Nutter's domicile, 'I'll not object to the notices being received. There's the servant up at the window there—but you must not make a noise; Mrs. Nutter, poor woman, is sick and hypochondriac, and can't bear a noise; but I'll permit the service of the notices, because, you see, we can afford to snap our fingers at you. I say, Moggy, open a bit of that window, and take in the papers that this gentleman will hand you. There, Sir, on the end of your cane, if you please—very good.'

Twill do, she has them. Thank you, Miss,' said the legal practitioner, with a grin. 'Now, Ma'am, we'd best go to the Prerogative Court.'

Mary Matchwell laughed one of her pale malevolent laughs up at the maid in the window, who stood there, with the papers in her hand, in a sort of horror.

'Never mind,' said Mary Matchwell, to herself, and, getting swiftly into the coach, she gleamed another ugly smile up at the window of The Mills, as she adjusted her black attire.

'To the Prerogative Court,' said the attorney to the coachman.

'In that house I'll lie to-night,' said Mary Matchwell, with a terrible mildness, as they drove away, still glancing back upon it, with her peculiar smile; and then she leaned back, with a sneer of superiority on her pallid features, and the dismal fatigue of the spirit that rests not, looked savagely out from the deep, haggard windows of her eyes.

When Toole saw the vehicle fairly off, you may be sure he did not lose time in getting into the house, and there conning over the papers, which puzzled him unspeakably.

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