The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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The good people who had established themselves in poor Nutter's domicile did not appear at all disconcerted by the priest's summons. His knock at the hall-door was attended to with the most consummate assurance by M. M.'s maid, just as if the premises had belonged to her mistress all her days.

Between this hussy and his reverence, who was in no mood to be trifled with, there occurred in the hall some very pretty sparring, which ended by his being ushered into the parlour, where sat Mistress Matchwell and Dirty Davy, the 'tea-things' on the table, and an odour more potent than that of the Chinese aroma circulating agreeably through the chamber.

I need not report the dialogue of the parties, showing how the honest priest maintained, under sore trial, his character for politeness while addressing a lady, and how he indemnified himself in the style in which he 'discoorsed' the attorney; how his language fluctuated between the persuasively religious and the horribly profane; and how, at one crisis in the conversation, although he had self-command enough to bow to the matron, he was on the point of cracking the lawyer's crown with the fine specimen of Irish oak which he carried in his hand, and, in fact, nothing but his prudent respect for that gentleman's cloth prevented his doing so.

'But supposin', Ma'am,' said his reverence, referring to the astounding allegation of her marriage with Nutter; 'for the sake of argumint, it should turn out to be so, in coorse you would not like to turn the poor woman out iv doors, without a penny in her pocket, to beg her bread?'

'Your friend up stairs, Sir, intended playing the lady for the rest of her days,' answered M. M., with a cat-like demureness, sly and cruel, 'at my cost and to my sorrow. For twenty long years, or nigh hand it, she has lived with my husband, consuming my substance, and keeping me in penury. What did she allow me all that time?—not so much as that crust—ha! ha!—no, not even allowed my husband to write me a line, or send me a shilling. I suppose she owes me for her maintenance here—in my house, out of my property—fully two thousand pounds. Make money of that, Sir;—and my lawyer advises me to make her pay it.'

'Or rather to make her account, Ma'am; or you will, if she's disposed to act fairly, take anything you may be advised, to be reasonable and equitable, Ma'am,' interposed Dirty Davy.

'That's it,' resumed Madam Mary. 'I don't want her four bones. Let her make up one thousand pounds—that's reason, Sir—and I'll forgive her the remainder. But if she won't, then to gaol I'll send her, and there she may rot for me.'

'You persave, Sir,' continued the attorney; 'your client—I mane your friend—has fixed herself in the character of an agent—all the late gintleman's money, you see, went through her hands—an agent or a steward to Charles Nutther, desased—an' a coort iv equity'll hould her liable to account, ye see; an' we know well enough what money's past through her hands annually—an' whatever she can prove to have been honestly applied, we'll be quite willin' to allow; but, you see, we must have the balance!'

'Balance!' said the priest, incensed beyond endurance; 'if you stay balancin' here, my joker, much longer, you'll run a raysonable risk of balancin' by the neck out iv one of them trees before the doore.'

'So you're threatenin' my life, Sir!' said the attorney, with a sly defiance.

'You lie like the divil, Sir—savin' your presence, Ma'am. Don't you know the differ, Sir, between a threat an' a warnin', you bosthoon?' thundered his reverence.

'You're sthrivin' to provoke me to a brache iv the pace, as the company can testify,' said Dirty Davy.

'Ye lie again, you—you fat crature—'tis thryin' to provoke you to keep the pace I am. Listen to me, the both o' yez—the leedy up stairs, the misthress iv this house, and widow of poor Charles Nutter—Mrs. Sally Nutther, I say—is well liked in the parish; an' if they get the wind o' the word, all I say 's this—so sure as you're found here houldin' wrongful possession of her house an' goods, the boys iv Palmerstown, Castleknock, and Chapelizod will pay yez a visit you won't like, and duck yez in the river, or hang yez together, like a pair of common robbers, as you unquestionably are—not,' he added, with a sudden sense of legal liability.

'Who's that?' demanded the lynx-eyed lady, who saw Pat Moran cross the door in the shadow of the lobby.

'That's Mr. Moran, a most respectable and muscular man, come here to keep possession, Madam, for Mrs. Sally Nutther, our good friend and neighbour, Ma'am,' replied the priest.

'As you plase, Sir,' replied the attorney; 'you're tumblin' yourself and your friend into a nice predicament—as good a consthructive ousther, vi et armis, as my client could possibly desire. Av coorse, Sir, we'll seek compensation in the regular way for this violent threspass; and we have you criminally, you'll obsarve, no less than civilly.'

'Now, look—onderstand me—don't affect to misteek, av you plase,' said the priest, not very clear or comfortable, for he had before had one or two brushes with the law, and the recollection was disagreeable: 'I—Mr. Moran—we're here, Sir—the both iv us, as you see—pacibly—and—and—all to that—and at the request of Mrs. Sally Nutther—mind that, too—at her special desire—an' I tell you what's more—if you make any row here—do you mind—I'll come down with the magisthrate an' the soldiers, an' lave it to them to dale with you accordin'—mind ye—to law an' equity, civil, human, criminal, an' divine—an' make money o' that, ye—ye—mountain in labour—savin' your presence, Ma'am.'

'I thank you—that'll do, Sir,' said the lawyer, with a lazy chuckle.

'I'll now do myself the honour to make my compliments to Mrs. Sally Nutther,' said Father Roach, making a solemn bow to Mrs. Matchwell, who, with a shrill sneer, pursued him as he disappeared with—

'The lady in the bed-room, your reverence?'

Whereat Dirty Davy renewed his wheezy chuckle.

Nothing daunted, the indignant divine stumped resolutely up stairs, and found poor Sally Nutter, to whose room he was joyfully admitted by honest Betty, who knew his soft honest brogue in a panic, the violence of which had almost superseded her grief. So he consoled and fortified the poor lady as well as he could, and when she urged him to remain in the house all night.

'My dear Ma'am,' says he, lifting his hand and shaking his head, with closed eyes, 'you forget my caracter. Why, the house is full iv faymales. My darlin' Mrs. Nutther, I—I couldn't enthertain sich an idaya; and, besides,' said he, with sudden energy, recollecting that the goose might be overdone, 'there's a religious duty, my dear Ma'am—the holy sacrament waitin'—a pair to be married; but Pat Moran will keep them quiet till mornin,' and I'll be down myself to see you then. So my sarvice to you, Mrs. Nutther, and God bless you, my dear Ma'am.'

And with this valediction the priest departed, and from the road he looked back at the familiar outline of the Mills, and its thick clumps of chimneys, and two twinkling lights, and thought of the horrible and sudden change that had passed over the place and the inmates, and how a dreadful curse had scathed them: making it, till lately the scene of comfort and tranquillity, to become the hold of every foul spirit, and the cage of every unclean and hateful bird.

Doctor Toole arrived at ten o'clock next morning, with news that shook the village. The inquest was postponed to the evening, to secure the attendance of some witnesses, who could throw a light, it was thought, on the enquiry. Then Doctor Toole was examined, and identified the body at first, confidently.

'But,' said he, in the great parlour of the Phoenix, where he held forth, 'though the features were as like as two eggs, it struck me the forehead was a thought broader. So, said I, I can set the matter at rest in five minutes. Charles Nutter's left upper arm was broken midway, and I set it; there would be the usual deposit where the bone knit, and he had a sword thrust through his right shoulder, cicatrised, and very well defined; and he had lost two under-teeth. Well, the teeth were gone, but three instead of two, and on laying the arm-bone bare, 'twas plain it had never been broken, and, in like manner, nothing wrong with the right shoulder, and there was nothing like so much deltoid and biceps as Nutter had. So says I, at once, be that body whose it may, 'tis none of Charles Nutter's, and to that I swear, gentlemen; and I had hardly made an end when 'twas identified for the corpse of the French hair-dresser, newly arrived from Paris, who was crossing the Liffey, on Tuesday night, you remember, at the old ferry-boat slip, and fell in and was drowned. So that part of the story's ended.

'But, gentlemen,' continued Toole, with the important and resolute bearing of a man who has a startling announcement to make, 'I am sorry to have to tell you that poor Charles Nutter's in gaol.'

In gaol! was echoed in all sorts of tones from his auditory, with an abundance of profane ejaculations of wonderment, concern, and horror.

'Ay, gentlemen, in the body of the gaol.'

Then it came out that Nutter had been arrested that very morning, in a sedan-chair, at the end of Cook Street, and was now in the county prison awaiting his trial; and that, no doubt, bail would be refused, which, indeed, turned out truly.

So, when all these amazing events had been thoroughly discussed, the little gathering dispersed to blaze them abroad, and Toole wrote to Mr. Gamble, to tell him that the person, Mary Matchwell, claiming to be the wife of Charles Nutter, has established herself at the Mills, and is disposed to be troublesome, and terrifies poor Mrs. Sally Nutter, who is ill; it would be a charity to come out, and direct measures. I know not what ought to be done, though confident her claim is a bag of moonshine and lies, and, if not stopped, she'll make away with the goods and furniture, which is mighty hard upon this unfortunate lady,' etc., etc.

'That Mary Matchwell, as I think, ought to be in gaol for the assault on Sturk; her card, you know, was found in the mud beside him, and she's fit for any devil's work.'

This was addressed by Toole to his good wife.

'That card? said Jimmey, who happened to be triturating a powder in the corner for little Master Barney Sturk, and who suspended operations, and spoke with the pestle in his fingers, and a very cunning leer on his sharp features: 'I know all about that card.'

'You do—do you? and why didn't you spake out long ago, you vagabond?' said Toole. 'Well, then! come now!—what's in your knowledge-box?—out with it.'

'Why, I had that card in my hand the night Mr. Nutter went off.'

'Well?—go on.'

Twas in the hall at the Mills, Sir; I knew it again at the Barracks the minute I seen it.'

'Why, 'tis a printed card—there's hundreds of them—how d'ye know one from t'other, wisehead?'

'Why, Sir, 'twas how this one was walked on, and the letter M. in Mary was tore across, an' on the back was writ, in red ink, for Mrs. Macnamara, and they could not read it down at the Barracks, because the wet had got at it, and the end was mostly washed away, and they thought it was MacNally, or MacIntire; but I knew it the minute I seen it.'

'Well, my tight little fellow, and what the dickens has all that to do with the matter?' asked Toole, growing uneasy.

'The dickens a much, I believe, Sir; only as Mr. Nutter was goin' out he snatched it out o' my hand—in the hall there—and stuffed it into his pocket.'

'You did not tell that lying story, did you, about the town, you mischievous young spalpeen?' demanded the doctor, shaking his disciple rather roughly by the arm.

'No—I—I didn't—I did not tell, Sir—what is it to me?' answered the boy, frightened.

'You didn't tell—not you, truly. I lay you a tenpenny-bit there isn't a tattler in the town but has the story by rote—a pretty kettle o' fish you'll make of it, with your meddling and lying. If 'twas true, 'twould be another matter, but—hold your tongue;—how the plague are you to know one card from another when they're all alike, and Mrs. Macnamara, Mrs. Macfiddle. I suppose you can read better than the adjutant, ha, ha! Well, mind my words, you've got yourself into a pretty predicament; I'd walk twice from this to the county court-house and back again, only to look at it; a pleasant cross-hackling the counsellors will give you, and if you prevaricate—you know what that is, my boy—the judge will make short work with you, and you may cool your heels in gaol as long as he pleases, for me.'

'And, look'ee,' said Toole, returning, for he was going out, as he generally did, whenever he was profoundly ruffled; 'you remember the affidavit-man that was whipped and pilloried this time two years for perjury, eh? Look to it, my fine fellow. There's more than me knows how Mr. Nutter threatened to cane you that night—and a good turn 'twould have been—and 'twouldn't take much to persuade an honest jury that you wanted to pay him off for that by putting a nail in his coffin, you young miscreant! Go on—do—and I promise you'll get an airing yet you'll not like—you will.'

And so Toole, with a wag of his head, and a grin over his shoulder, strutted out into the village street, where he was seen, with a pursed mouth, and a flushed visage, to make a vicious cut or two with his cane in the air as he walked along. And it must be allowed that Master Jimmey's reflections were a little confused and uncomfortable, as he pondered over the past and the future with the pestle in his fingers and the doctor's awful words ringing in his ears.

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