The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter LXXIV



'Here's a conspiracy with a vengeance!' muttered Toole, 'if a body could only make head or tail of it. Widow!—Eh!—We'll see: why, she's like no woman ever I saw. Mrs. Nutter, forsooth!' and he could not forbear laughing at the conceit. 'Poor Charles! 'tis ridiculous—though upon my life, I don't like it. It's just possible it may be all as true as gospel—they're the most devilish looking pair I've seen out of the dock—curse them—for many a day. I would not wonder if they were robbers. The widow looks consumedly like a man in petticoats—hey!—devilish like. I think I'll send Moran and Brien up to sleep to-night in the house. But, hang it! if they were, they would not come out in the daytime to give an alarm. Hollo! Moggy, throw me out one of them papers till I see what it's about.'

So he conned over the notice which provoked him, for he could not half understand it, and he was very curious.

'Well, keep it safe, Moggy,' said he. 'H'm—it does look like law business, after all, and I believe it is. No—they're not housebreakers, but robbers of another stamp—and a worse, I'll take my davy.'

'See,' said he, as a thought struck him, 'throw me down both of them papers again—there's a good girl. They ought to be looked after, I dare say, and I'll see the poor master's attorney to-day, d'ye mind? and we'll put our heads together—and, that's right—relict indeed!'

And, with a solemn injunction to keep doors locked and windows fast, and a nod and a wave of his hand to Mistress Moggy, and muttering half a sentence or an oath to himself, and wearying his imagination in search of a clue to this new perplexity, he buttoned his pocket over the legal documents, and strutted down to the village, where his nag awaited him saddled, and Jimmey walking him up and down before the doctor's hall-door.

Toole was bound upon a melancholy mission that morning. But though properly a minister of life, a doctor is also conversant with death, and inured to the sight of familiar faces in that remarkable disguise. So he spurred away with more coolness, though not less regret than another man, to throw what light he could upon the subject of the inquest which was to sit upon the body of poor Charles Nutter.

The little doctor, on his way to Ringsend, without the necessity of diverging to the right or left, drew bridle at the door of Mr. Luke Gamble, on the Blind Quay, attorney to the late Charles Nutter, and jumping to the ground, delivered a rattling summons thereupon.

It was a dusty, dreary, wainscoted old house—indeed, two old houses intermarried—with doors broken through the partition walls—the floors not all of a level—joined by steps up and down—and having three great staircases, that made it confusing. Through the windows it was not easy to see, such a fantastic mapping of thick dust and dirt coated the glass.

Luke Gamble, like the house, had seen better days. It was not his fault; but an absconding partner had well nigh been his ruin: and, though he paid their liabilities, it was with a strain, and left him a poor man, shattered his connexion, and made the house too large by a great deal for his business.

Doctor Toole came into the clerk's room, and was ushered by one of these gentlemen through an empty chamber into the attorney's sanctum. Up two steps stumbled the physician, cursing the house for a place where a gentleman was so much more likely to break his neck than his fast, and found old Gamble in his velvet cap and dressing-gown, in conference with a hard-faced, pale, and pock-marked elderly man, squinting unpleasantly under a black wig, who was narrating something slowly, and with effort, like a man whose memory is labouring to give up its dead, while the attorney, with his spectacles on his nose, was making notes. The speaker ceased abruptly, and turned his pallid visage and jealous, oblique eyes on the intruder.

Luke Gamble looked embarrassed, and shot one devilish angry glance at his clerk, and then made Doctor Toole very welcome.

When Toole had ended his narrative, and the attorney read the notices through, Mr. Gamble's countenance brightened, and darkened and brightened again, and with a very significant look, he said to the pale, unpleasant face, pitted with small-pox—

'M. M.,' and nodded.

His companion extended his hand toward the papers.

'Never mind,' said the attorney; 'there's that here will fix M. M. in a mighty tight vice.'

'And who's M. M., pray?' enquired Toole.

'When were these notices served, doctor?' asked Mr. Gamble.

'Not an hour ago; but, I say, who the plague's M. M.?' answered Toole.

'M. M.,' repeated the attorney, smiling grimly on the backs of the notices which lay on the table; 'why there's many queer things to be heard of M. M.; and the town, and the country, too, for that matter, is like to know a good deal more of her before long; and who served them—a process-server, or who?'

'Why, a fat, broad, bull-necked rascal, with a double chin, and a great round face, the colour of a bad suet-dumplin', and a black patch over his eye,' answered Toole.

'Very like—was he alone?' said Gamble.

'No—a long, sly she-devil in black, that looked as if she'd cut your windpipe, like a cat in the dark, as pale as paper, and mighty large, black, hollow eyes.'

'Ay—that's it,' said Gamble, who, during this dialogue, had thrown his morning-gown over the back of the chair, and got on his coat, and opened a little press in the wall, from which he took his wig, and so completed his toilet.

'That's it?' repeated Toole: 'what's it?—what's what?'

'Why, 'tis David O'Regan—Dirty Davy, as we call him. I never knew him yet in an honest case; and the woman's M. M.'

'Hey! to be sure—a woman—I know—I remember; and he was on the point of breaking out with poor Mrs. Macnamara's secret, but recovered in time. 'That's the she fortune-teller, the witch, M. M., Mary Matchwell; 'twas one of her printed cards, you know, was found lying in Sturk's blood. Dr. Sturk, you remember, that they issued a warrant for, against our poor friend, you know.'

'Ay, ay—poor Charles—poor Nutter. Are you going to the inquest?' said Gamble; and, on a sudden, stopped short, with a look of great fear, and a little beckon of his hand forward, as if he had seen something.

There was that in Gamble's change of countenance which startled Toole, who, seeing that his glance was directed through an open door at the other end of the room, skipped from his chair and peeped through it. There was nothing, however, visible but a tenebrose and empty passage.

'What did you see—eh? What frightens you?' said Toole. 'One would think you saw Nutter—like—like.'

Gamble looked horribly perturbed at these words.

'Shut it,' said he, nearing the door, on which Toole's hand rested. Toole took another peep, and did so.

'Why, there's nothing there—like—like the women down at the Mills there,' continued the doctor.

'What about the women?' enquired Gamble, not seeming to know very well what he was saying, agitated still—perhaps, intending to keep Toole talking.

'Why, the women—the maids, you know—poor Nutter's servants, down at the Mills. They swear he walks the house, and they'll have it they saw him last night.'

'Pish! Sir—'tis all conceit and vapours—women's fancies—a plague o' them all. And where's poor Mrs. Nutter?' said Gamble, clapping on his cocked-hat, and taking his cane, and stuffing two or three bundles of law papers into his coat pockets.

'At home—at the Mills. She slept at the village and so missed the ghost. The Macnamaras have been mighty kind. But when the news was told her this morning, poor thing, she would not stay, and went home; and there she is, poor little soul, breaking her heart.'

Mr. Gamble was not ceremonious; so he just threw a cursory and anxious glance round the room, clapped his hands on his coat pockets, making a bunch of keys ring somewhere deep in their caverns. And all being right—

'Come along, gentlemen,' says he, 'I'm going to lock the door;' and without looking behind him, he bolted forth abstractedly into his dusty ante-room.

'Get your cloak about you, Sir—remember your cough, you know—the air of the streets is sharp,' said he with a sly wink, to his ugly client, who hastily took the hint.

'Is that coach at the door?' bawled Gamble to his clerks in the next room, while he locked the door of his own snuggery behind him; and being satisfied it was so, he conducted the party out by a side door, avoiding the clerks' room, and so down stairs.

'Drive to the courts,' said the attorney to the coachman; and that was all Toole learned about it that day. So he mounted his nag, and resumed his journey to Ringsend at a brisk trot.

I suppose, when he turned the key in his door, and dropped it into his breeches' pocket, the gentleman attorney assumed that he had made everything perfectly safe in his private chamber, though Toole thought he had not looked quite the same again after that sudden change of countenance he had remarked.

Now, it was a darksome day, and the windows of Mr. Gamble's room were so obscured with cobwebs, dust, and dirt, that even on a sunny day they boasted no more than a dim religious light. But on this day a cheerful man would have asked for a pair of candles, to dissipate the twilight and sustain his spirits.

He had not been gone, and the room empty ten minutes, when the door through which he had seemed to look on that unknown something that dismayed him, opened softly—at first a little—then a little more—then came a knock at it—then it opened more, and the dark shape of Charles Nutter, with rigid features and white eye-balls, glided stealthily and crouching into the chamber, and halted at the table, and seemed to read the endorsements of the notices that lay there.

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