The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter LXXV



Dangerfield was, after his wont, seated at his desk, writing letters, after his early breakfast, with his neatly-labelled accounts at his elbow. There was a pleasant frosty sun glittering through the twigs of the leafless shrubs, and flashing on the ripples and undulations of the Liffey, and the redbreasts and sparrows were picking up the crumbs which the housekeeper had thrown for them outside. He had just sealed the last of half-a-dozen letters, when the maid opened his parlour-door, and told him that a gentleman was at the hall-step, who wished to see him.

Dangerfield looked up with a quick glance—

'Eh?—to be sure. Show him in.'

And in a few seconds more, Mr. Mervyn, his countenance more than usually pale and sad, entered the room. He bowed low and gravely, as the servant announced him.

Dangerfield rose with a prompt smile, bowing also, and advanced with his hand extended, which, as a matter of form rather than of cordiality, his visitor took, coldly enough, in his.

'Happy to see you here, Mr. Mervyn—pray, take a chair—a charming morning for a turn by the river, Sir.'

'I have taken the liberty of visiting you, Mr. Dangerfield—'

'Your visit, Sir, I esteem an honour,' interposed the lord of the Brass Castle.

A slight and ceremonious bow from Mervyn, who continued—'For the purpose of asking you directly and plainly for some light upon a matter in which it is in the highest degree important I should be informed.'

'You may command me, Mr. Mervyn,' said Dangerfield, crossing his legs, throwing himself back, and adjusting himself to attention.

Mervyn fixed his dark eyes full and sternly upon that white and enigmatical face, with its round glass eyes and silver setting, and those delicate lines of scorn he had never observed before, traced about the mouth and nostril.

'Then, Sir, I venture to ask you for all you can disclose or relate about one Charles Archer.'

Dangerfield cocked his head on one side, quizzically, and smiled the faintest imaginable cynical smile.

'I can't disclose anything, for the gentleman never told me his secrets; but all I can relate is heartily at your service.'

'Can you point him out, Sir?' asked Mervyn, a little less sternly, for he saw no traces of a guilty knowledge in the severe countenance and prompt, unembarrassed manner of the gentleman who leaned back in his chair, with the clear bright light full on him, and his leg crossed so carelessly.

Dangerfield smiled, shook his head gently, and shrugged his shoulders the least thing in the world.

'Don't you know him, Sir?' demanded Mervyn.

'Why,' said Dangerfield, with his chin a little elevated, and the tips of his fingers all brought together, and his elbows resting easily upon the arms of his chair, and altogether an involuntary air of hauteur, 'Charles Archer, perhaps you're not aware, was not exactly the most reputable acquaintance in the world; and my knowledge of him was very slight indeed—wholly accidental—and of very short duration.'

'May I ask you, if, without leaving this town, you can lay your finger on him, Sir?'

'Why, not conveniently,' answered Dangerfield, with the same air of cynical amusement. Twould reach in that case all the way to Florence, and even then we should gain little by the discovery.'

'But you do know him?' pursued Mervyn.

'I did, Sir, though very slightly,' answered Dangerfield.

'And I'm given to understand, Sir, he's to be found occasionally in this town?' continued his visitor.

'There's just one man who sees him, and that's the parish clerk—what's his name?—Zekiel Irons—he sees him. Suppose we send down to his house, and fetch him here, and learn all about it?' said Dangerfield, who seemed mightily tickled by the whole thing.

'He left the town, Sir, last night; and I've reason to suspect, with a resolution of returning no more. And I must speak plainly, Mr. Dangerfield, 'tis no subject for trifling—the fame and fortune of a noble family depend on searching out the truth; and I'll lose my life, Sir, or I'll discover it.'

Still the old cynical, quizzical smile on Dangerfield's white face, who said encouragingly—

'Nobly resolved, Sir, upon my honour!'

'And Mr. Dangerfield, if you'll only lay yourself out to help me, with your great knowledge and subtlety—disclosing everything you know or conjecture, and putting me in train to discover the rest—so that I may fully clear this dreadful mystery up—there is no sacrifice of fortune I will not cheerfully make to recompense such immense services, and you may name with confidence your own terms, and think nothing exorbitant.'

For the first time Dangerfield's countenance actually darkened and grew stern, but Mervyn could not discern whether it was with anger or deep thought, and the round spectacles returned his intense gaze with a white reflected sheen, sightless as death.

But the stern mouth opened, and Dangerfield, in his harsh, brief tones, said—

'You speak without reflection, Sir, and had nigh made me lose my temper; but I pardon you; you're young, Sir, and besides, know probably little or nothing of me. Who are you, Sir, who thus think fit to address me, who am by blood and education as good a gentleman as any alive? The inducements you are pleased to offer—you may address elsewhere—they are not for me. I shall forget your imprudence, and answer frankly any questions, within my knowledge, you please to ask.'

Mervyn bowed apologetically, and a silence ensued; after which he thus availed himself of his host's permission to question him—

'You mentioned Irons, the clerk, Mr. Dangerfield, and said that he sees Charles Archer. Do you mean it?'

'Why, thus I mean it. He thinks he sees him; but, if he does, upon my honour, he sees a ghost,' and Dangerfield chuckled merrily.

'Pray, Mr. Dangerfield, consider me, and be serious, and in Heaven's name explain,' said Mervyn, speaking evidently in suppressed anguish.

'Why, you know—don't you? the poor fellow's not quite right here,' and he tapped the centre of his own towering forehead with the delicate tip of his white middle finger. 'I've seen a little of him; he's an angler, so am I; and he showed me the fishing of the river, here, last summer, and often amused me prodigiously. He's got some such very odd maggots! I don't say, mind ye, he's mad, there are many degrees, and he's quite a competent parish clerk. He's only wrong on a point or two, and one of them is Charles Archer. I believe for a while he thought you were he; and Dangerfield laughed his dry, hard chuckle.

'Where, Sir, do you suppose Charles Archer is now to be found?' urged Mervyn.

'Why, what remains of him, in Florence,' answered Dangerfield.

'You speak, Sir, as if you thought him dead.'

'Think? I know he's dead. I knew him but three weeks, and visited him in his sickness—was in his room half an hour before he died, and attended his funeral,' said Dangerfield.

'I implore of you, Sir, as you hope for mercy, don't trifle in this matter,' cried Mervyn, whose face was white, like that of a man about to swoon under an operation.

'Trifle! What d'ye mean, Sir?' barked out Dangerfield, rabidly.

'I mean, Sir, this—I've information he's positively living, and can relieve my father's memory from the horrible imputation that rests upon it. You know who I am!'

'Ay, Sir, Lord Castlemallard told me.'

'And my life I cheerfully devote to the task of seizing and tracing out the bloody clue of the labyrinth in which I'm lost.'

'Good—'tis a pious as well as a prudent resolve,' said Dangerfield, with a quiet sneer. 'And now, Sir, give me leave to say a word. Your information that Charles Archer is living, is not worth the breath of the madman that spoke it, as I'll presently show you. By an odd chance, Sir, I required this file of newspapers, last week, to help me in ascertaining the date of Sir Harry Wyatt's marriage. Well, only last night, what should I hit on but this. Will you please to read?'

He had turned over the pages rapidly, and then he stopped at this little piece of news packed up in a small paragraph at the bottom of a column, and, pointing his finger to it, he slid the volume of newspapers over to Mervyn, who read—

'Died on the 4th of August, of a lingering disease, at his lodgings in Florence, whither he had gone for the improvement of his health, Charles Archer, Esq., a gentleman who some three years since gave an exceeding clear evidence against Lord Dunoran, for the murder of Mr. Beauclerc, and was well known at Newmarket. His funeral, which was private, was attended by several English gentlemen, who were then at Florence.'

Mervyn, deadly pale, with gleaming eyes, and hand laid along his forehead, as if to screen off an insupportable light and concentrate his gaze upon the words, read and re-read these sentences with an agony of scrutiny such as no critic ever yet directed upon a disputed passage in his favourite classic. But there was no possibility of fastening any consolatory interpretation upon the paragraph. It was all too plain and outspoken.

Tis possible this may be true—thus much. A Charles Archer is dead, and yet another Charles Archer, the object of my search, still living,' said Mervyn.

'Hey! that didn't strike me,' said Dangerfield, as much amused as was consistent with moderately good breeding. 'But I can quite account, Mr. Mervyn,' he continued, with a sudden change of tone and manner, to something almost of kindness, 'for your readiness to entertain any theory not quite destructive of hopes, which, notwithstanding, I fear, rest simply on the visions of that poor hypochondriac, Irons. But, for all that, 'tis just possible that something may strike either you or me in the matter not quite so romantic—hey? But still something.—You've not told me how the plague Charles Archer could possibly have served you. But on that point, perhaps, we can talk another time. I simply desire to say, that any experience or ability I may possess are heartily at your service whenever you please to task them, as my good wishes are already.'

So, stunned, and like a man walking in a dream—all his hopes shivered about his feet—Mervyn walked through the door of the little parlour in the Brass Castle, and Dangerfield, accompanying him to the little gate which gave admission from the high-road to that tenement, dismissed him there, with a bow and a pleasant smile; and, standing, for a while, wiry and erect, with his hands in his pockets, he followed him, as he paced dejectedly away, with the same peculiar smile.

When he was out of sight, Dangerfield returned to his parlour, smiling all the way, and stood on the hearthrug, with his back to the fire. When he was alone, a shadow came over his face, and he looked down on the fringe with a thoughtful scowl—his hands behind his back—and began adjusting and smoothing it with the toe of his shoe.

'Sot, fool, and poltroon—triple qualification for mischief—I don't know why he still lives. Irons—a new vista opens, and this d——d young man!' All this was not, as we sometimes read, 'mentally ejaculated,' but quite literally muttered, as I believe every one at times mutters to himself. 'Charles Archer living—Charles Archer dead—or, as I sometimes think, neither one nor t'other quite—half man, half corpse—a vampire—there is no rest for thee: no sabbath in the days of thy week. Blood, blood—blood—'tis tiresome. Why should I be a slave to these d——d secrets. I don't think 'tis my judgment, so much as the devil, holds me here. Irons has more brains than I—instinct—calculation—which is oftener right? Miss Gertrude Chattesworth, a mere whim, I think understood her game too. I'll deal with that to-morrow. I'll send Daxon the account, vouchers, and cheque for Lord Castlemallard—tell Smith to sell my horses, and, by the next packet—hey?' and he kissed his hand, with an odd smirk, like a gentleman making his adieux, 'and so leave those who court the acquaintance of Charles Archer, to find him out, and catch their Tartar how they may.'

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