The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter LXXX



On Sunday, Mervyn, after the good doctor's sermon and benediction, wishing to make enquiry of the rector touching the movements of his clerk, whose place was provisionally supplied by a corpulent and unctuous mercenary from Dublin, whose fat presence and panting delivery were in signal contrast with the lank figure and deep cavernous tones of the absent official, loitered in the church-yard to allow time for the congregation to disperse, and the parson to disrobe and emerge.

He was reading an epitaph on an expansive black flag-stone, in the far corner of the church-yard—it is still there—upon several ancestral members of the family of Lowe, who slept beneath 'in hope,' as the stone-cutter informed the upper world; and musing, as sad men will, upon the dates and vanities of the record, when a thin white hand was lightly laid upon his sleeve from behind; and looking round, in expectation of seeing the rector's grave, simple, kindly countenance, he beheld, instead, with a sort of odd thrill, the white glittering face of Mr. Paul Dangerfield.

'Hamlet in the church-yard!' said the white gentleman, with an ambiguous playfulness, very like a sneer. 'I'm too old to play Horatio; but standing at his elbow, if the Prince permits, I have a friendly word or two to say, in my own dry way.'

There was in Mervyn's nature something that revolted instinctively from the singular person who stood at his shoulder. Their organisations and appetites were different, I suppose, and repellent. Cold and glittering was the 'gelidus anguis in herbâ'—the churchyard grass—who had lifted his baleful crest close to his ear.

There was a slight flush on 'Hamlet's' forehead, and a glimmer of something dangerous in his eye, as he glanced on his stark acquaintance. But the feeling was transitory and unreasonable, and he greeted him with a cold and sad civility.

'I was thinking, Mr. Mervyn,' said Mr. Dangerfield, politely, 'of walking up to the Tiled House, after church, to pay my respects, and ask the favour of five minutes' discourse with you; and seeing you here, I ventured to present myself.'

'If I can do anything to serve Mr. Dangerfield,' began Mervyn.

Dangerfield smiled and bowed. He was very courteous; but in his smile there was a character of superiority which Mervyn felt almost like an insult.

'You mistake me, Sir. I'm all gratitude; but I don't mean to trouble you further than to ask your attention for two or three minutes. I've a thing to tell you, Sir. I'm really anxious to serve you. I wish I could. And 'tis only that I've recollected since I saw you, a circumstance of which possibly you may make some use.'

'I'm deeply obliged, Sir—deeply,' said Mervyn, eagerly.

'I'm only, Sir, too happy. It relates to Charles Archer. I've recollected, since I saw you, a document concerning his death. It had a legal bearing of some sort, and was signed by at least three gentlemen. One was Sir Philip Drayton, of Drayton Hall, who was with him at Florence in his last illness. I may have signed it myself, but I don't recollect. It was by his express desire, to quiet, as I remember, some proceedings which might have made a noise, and compromised his family.'

'Can you bring to mind the nature of the document?'

'Why, thus much. I'm quite sure it began with a certificate of his death; and then, I think, was added a statement, at his last request, which surprised, or perhaps, shocked us. I only say I think—for though I remember that such a statement was solemnly made, I can't bring to mind whether it was set out in the writing of which I speak. Only I am confident it referred to some crime—a confession of something; but for the life o' me I can't recollect what. If you could let me know the subject of your suspicion it might help me. I should never have remembered this occurrence, for instance, had it not been for our meeting t'other day. I can't exactly—in fact, at all—bring to mind what the crime was: forgery, or perjury—eh?'

'Why, Sir, 'twas this,' said Mervyn, and stopped short, not knowing how far even this innocent confidence might compromise Irons. Dangerfield, his head slightly inclined, was disconcertingly silent and attentive.

'I—I suspect,' resumed Mervyn, 'I suspect, Sir, 'twas perjury,' said Mervyn.

'Oh! perjury? I see—in the matter of his testimony in that distressing prosecution. My Lord Dunoran—hey?'

Mervyn bowed, and Dangerfield remained silent and thoughtful for a minute or two, and then said:—

'I see, Sir—I think I see; but, who then was the guilty man, who killed Mr. —— pooh, What's-his-name—the deceased man,—you know?'

'Why, upon that point, Sir, I should have some hesitation in speaking. I can only now say thus much, that I'm satisfied, he, Charles Archer, in swearing as he did, committed wilful perjury.'

'You are?—oho!—oh! This is satisfactory. You don't, of course, mean mere conjecture—eh?'

'I know not, Sir, how you would call it, but 'tis certainly a feeling fixed in my mind.'

'Well, Sir, I trust it may prove well founded. I wish I had myself a copy of that paper; but, though I have it not, I think I can put you in a way to get it. It was addressed, I perfectly recollect, to the Messrs. Elrington, gentlemen attorneys, in Chancery-lane, London. I remember it, because my Lord Castlemallard employed them eight or nine years afterwards in some law business, which recalled the whole matter to my mind before it had quite faded. No doubt they have it there. 'Twas about a week after his death. The date of that you can have from newspapers. You'll not mention my name when writing, because they mayn't like the trouble of searching, and my Lord Castlemallard would not approve my meddling in other persons' affairs—even in yours.'

'I sha'n't forget. But what if they refuse to seek the paper out?'

'Make it worth their while in money, Sir; and, though they may grumble over it, I warrant they'll find it.'

'Sir,' said Mervyn, suddenly, 'I cannot thank you half enough. This statement, should it appear attached, as you suppose, to the certificate, may possibly place me on the track of that lost witness, who yet may restore my ruined name and fortunes. I thank you, Sir. From my heart I do thank you.'

And he grasped Dangerfield's white thin hand in his, with a fervour how unlike his cold greeting of only a few minutes before, and shook it with an eager cordiality.

Thus across the grave of these old Lowes did the two shake hands, as they had never done before; and Dangerfield, white and glittering, and like a frolicsome man, entering into a joke, wrung his with an exaggerated demonstration, and then flung it downward with a sudden jerk, as if throwing down a glove. The gesture, the smile, and the suspicion of a scowl, had a strange mixture of cordiality, banter and defiance, and he was laughing a quiet 'ha, ha, ha;' and, wagging his head, he said—

'Well, I thought 'twould please you to hear this; and anything more I can do or think of is equally at your service.'

So, side by side they returned, picking their steps among the graves and head-stones, to the old church porch.

For a day or two after the storm, the temper of our cynical friend of the silver spectacles had suffered. Perhaps he did not like the news which had reached him since, and would have preferred that Charles Nutter had made good his escape from the gripe of justice.

The management of Lord Castlemallard's Irish estates had devolved provisionally upon Mr. Dangerfield during the absence of Nutter and the coma of his rival; and the erect white gentleman, before his desk in his elbow-chair, when, after his breakfast, about to open the letters and the books relating to this part of his charge, used sometimes to grin over his work, and jabber to himself his hard scoffs and gibes over the sins and follies of man, and the chops and changes of this mortal life.

But from and after the night of the snow-storm he had contracted a disgust for this part of his labours, and he used to curse Nutter with remarkable intensity, and with an iteration which, to a listener who thought that even the best thing may be said too often, would have been tiresome.

Perhaps a little occurrence, which Mr. Dangerfield himself utterly despised, may have had something to do with his bitter temper, and gave an unsatisfactory turn to his thoughts. It took place on the eventful night of the tempest.

If some people saw visions that night, others dreamed dreams. In a midnight storm like this, time was when the solemn peal and defiant clang of the holy bells would have rung out confusion through the winged hosts of 'the prince of the powers of the air,' from the heights of the abbey tower. Everybody has a right to his own opinion on the matter. Perhaps the prince and his army are no more upon the air on such a night than on any other; or that being so, they no more hastened their departure by reason of the bells than the eclipse does by reason of the beating of the Emperor of China's gongs. But this I aver, whatever the cause, upon such nights of storm, the sensoria of some men are crossed by such wild variety and succession of images, as amounts very nearly to the Walpurgis of a fever. It is not the mere noise—other noises won't do it. The air, to be sure, is thin, and blood-vessels expand, and perhaps the brain is pressed upon unduly. Well, I don't know. Material laws may possibly account for it. I can only speak with certainty of the phenomenon. I've experienced it; and some among those of my friends who have reached that serene period of life in which we con over our ailments, register our sensations, and place ourselves upon regimens, tell me the same story of themselves. And this, too, I know, that upon the night in question, Mr. Paul Dangerfield, who was not troubled either with vapours or superstitions, as he lay in his green-curtained bed in the Brass Castle, had as many dreams flitting over his brain and voices humming and buzzing in his ears, as if he had been a poet or a pythoness.

He had not become, like poor Sturk before his catastrophe, a dreamer of dreams habitually. I suppose he did dream. The beasts do. But his visions never troubled him; and I don't think there was one morning in a year on which he could have remembered his last night's dream at the breakfast-table.

On this particular night, however, he did dream. Vidit somnium. He thought that Sturk was dead, and laid out in a sort of state in an open coffin, with a great bouquet on his breast, something in the continental fashion, as he remembered it in the case of a great, stern, burly ecclesiastic in Florence. The coffin stood on tressels in the aisle of Chapelizod church; and, of all persons in the world, he and Charles Nutter stood side by side as chief mourners, each with a great waxen taper burning in one hand, and a white pocket-handkerchief in the other.

Now in dreams it sometimes happens that men undergo sensations of awe, and even horror, such as waking they never know, and which the scenery and situation of the dream itself appear wholly inadequate to produce. Mr. Paul Dangerfield, had he been called on to do it, would have kept solitary watch in a dead man's chamber, and smoked his pipe as serenely as he would in the club-room of the Phoenix. But here it was different. The company were all hooded and silent, sitting in rows: and there was a dismal sound of distant waters, and an indefinable darkness and horror in the air; and, on a sudden, up sat the corpse of Sturk, and thundered, with a shriek, a dreadful denunciation, and Dangerfield started up in his bed aghast, and cried—'Charles Archer!'

The storm was bellowing and shrieking outside, and for some time that grim, white gentleman, bolt upright in his shirt, did not know distinctly in what part of the world, or, indeed, in what world he was.

'So,' said Mr. Dangerfield, soliloquising, 'Charles Nutter's alive, and in prison, and what comes next? 'Tis enough to make one believe in a devil almost! Why wasn't he drowned, d—n him? How did he get himself taken, d—n him again? From the time I came into this unlucky village I've smelt danger. That accursed beast, a corpse, and a ghost, and a prisoner at last—well, he has been my evil genius. If he were drowned or hanged; born to be hanged, I hope: all I want is quiet—just quiet; but I've a feeling the play's not played out yet. He'll give the hangman the slip, will he: not if I can help it, though; but caution, Sir, caution; life's at stake—my life's on the cast. The clerk's a wise dog to get out of the way. Death's walking. What a cursed fool I was when I came here and saw those beasts, and knew them, not to turn back again, and leave them to possess their paradise! I think I've lost my caution and common sense under some cursed infatuation. That handsome, insolent wench, Miss Gertrude, 'twould be something to have her, and to humble her, too; but—but 'tis not worth a week in such a neighbourhood.'

Now this soliloquy, which broke into an actual mutter every here and there, occurred at about eleven o'clock A.M., in the little low parlour of the Brass Castle, that looked out on the wintry river.

Mr. Dangerfield knew the virtues of tobacco, so he charged his pipe, and sat grim, white, and erect by the fire. It is not everyone that is 'happy thinking,' and the knight of the silver spectacles followed out his solitary discourse, with his pipe between his lips, and saw all sorts of things through the white narcotic smoke.

'It would not do to go off and leave affairs thus; a message might follow me, eh? No; I'll stay and see it out, quite out. Sturk—Barnabas Sturk. If he came to his speech for five minutes—hum—we'll see. I'll speak with Mrs. Sturk about it—we must help him to his speech—a prating fellow; 'tis hard he should hold his tongue; yes, we'll help him to his speech; 'tis in the interest of justice—eternal justice—ha, ha, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Let Dr. Sturk be sworn—ha, ha—magna est veritas—there is nothing hidden that shall not be revealed; ha, ha. Let Dr. Sturk be called.'

So the white, thin phantom of the spectacles and tobacco pipe, sitting upright by the fire, amused himself with a solitary banter. Then he knocked the white ashes out upon the hob, stood up with his back to the fire, in grim rumination, for about a minute, at the end of which he unlocked his desk, and took forth a letter, with a large red seal. If was more than two months old by this time, and was, in fact, that letter from the London doctor which he had expected with some impatience.

It was not very long, and standing he read it through, and his white face contracted, and darkened, and grew strangely intense and stern as he did so.

Tis devilish strong—ha, ha, ha—conclusive, indeed.' He was amused again. 'I've kept it long enough—igni reservata.'

And holding it in the tongs, he lighted a corner, and as the last black fragment of it, covered with creeping sparks, flew up the chimney, he heard the voice of a gentleman hallooing in the court-yard.

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