The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter LXXXIX



It seemed that Mr. Dangerfield had taken Zekiel Irons's measure pretty exactly. The clerk had quite made up his mind to take the bold step urged upon him by that gentleman. He was a slow man. When one idea had fairly got into his head there was no room there for another. Cowardly and plotting; but when his cowardice was wrought upon to a certain pitch, he would wax daring and fierce from desperation.

He walked down to the village from the little gate of the Brass Castle, where he had talked with Mr. Dangerfield, appointing eight o'clock next morning for making the deposition; late now for all purposes; but to nail him to a line of vivá voce evidence when he should come to be examined on Charles Nutter's approaching trial. The whole way along he walked with the piece of silver, which Mr. Paul Dangerfield had given him, griped tight in his crooked fingers, in his breeches' pocket—no change in his grim and sinister face—no turn of the head—no side glance of the eye—all dark, rigid, and tense.

The mechanism of long habit brought him round the corner to the door of the Salmon House, the 'public' facing, but with the length of the street interposing, the Phoenix, whose lights were visible through and under the branches of the village tree. His mind wandered back to the Mills with a shock, and glided stealthily past the Brass Castle without dwelling there, and he looked down the street. Over the bridge at the Elms, lay death in its awful purity. At his left, in the Gray Stone House, was Doctor Sturk—the witness with sealed lips—the victim of Charles Archer's mysterious prowess; and behind lay the church-yard, and the quiet little church with that vault and nameless coffin. Altogether, the suggestions and associations about him were not cheerful or comfortable. He squeezed the silver—Dangerfield's little remembrance—with a furious strain, and ground his teeth.

'I'm like a man surrounded. I wish I was out of it all!' he muttered, with a care-worn glance.

So he entered the public-house.

There was not much business doing. Three friends, Smithfield dealers, or some such folk, talking loudly over their liquor of prices and prospects; and one fat fellow, by the fire, smoking a pipe, with a large glass of punch at his elbow.

'Ah, then, Mr. Irons, an' is it yourself that's in it? and where in the world wor ye all this time?' said the landlady.

'Business, Ma'am, business, Mrs. Molloy.'

'An' there's your chair waitin' for you beside the fire, Mr. Irons, this month an' more—a cowld evening—and we all wondherin' what in the wide world was gone widg ye—this I do'no how long.'

'Thank ye, Ma'am—a pipe and a glass o' punch.'

Irons was always a man of few words, and his laconics did not strike Mistress Molloy as anything very strange. So she wiped the little table at his side, and with one foot on the fender, and his elbow on his knee, he smoked leisurely into the fire-place.

To look at his face you would have supposed he was thinking; but it was only that sort of foggy vacuity which goes by the name of 'a brown study.' He never thought very clearly or connectedly; and his apathetic reveries, when his mood was gloomy, were furnished forth in a barren and monotonous way, with only two or three frightful figures, and a dismal scenery that seldom shifted.

The three gentlemen at the table called for more liquor, and the stout personage, sitting opposite to Irons, dropped into their talk, having smoked out his pipe, and their conversation became more general and hilarious; but Irons scarce heard it. Curiosity is an idle minx, and a soul laden like the clerk's has no entertainment for her. But when one of the three gentlemen who sat together—an honest but sad-looking person with a flaxen wig, and a fat, florid face—placing his hand in the breast of his red plush waistcoat, and throwing himself back in his chair, struck up a dismal tune, with a certain character of psalmody in it, the clerk's ear was charmed for a moment, and he glanced on the singer and sipped some punch; and the ballad, rude and almost rhymeless, which he chanted had an undefined and unpleasant fascination for Irons. It was thus:—

'A man there was near Ballymooney,
Was guilty of a deed o' blood,
For thravellin' alongside iv ould Tim Rooney.
He kilt him in a lonesome wood.

'He took his purse, and his hat and cravat.
And stole his buckles and his prayer-book, too;
And neck-and-heels, like a cruel savage,
His corpus through the wood he drew.

'He pult him over to a big bog-hole,
And sunk him undher four-foot o' wather,
And built him down wid many a thumpin' stone.
And slipt the bank out on the corpus afther.'

Here the singer made a little pause, and took a great pull at the beer-can, and Irons looked over his shoulder at the minstrel; but his uneasy and malignant glance encountered only the bottom of the vessel; and so he listened for more, which soon came thus:—

'An' says he, "Tim Rooney, you're there, my boy,
Kep' down in the bog-hole wid the force iv suction,
An' tisn't myself you'll throuble or annoy,
To the best o' my opinion, to the resurrection."

'With that, on he walks to the town o' Drumgoole,
And sot by the fire in an inn was there;
And sittin' beside him, says the ghost—"You fool!
'Tis myself's beside ye, Shamus, everywhere."'

At this point the clerk stood up, and looked once more at the songster, who was taking a short pull again, with a suspicious, and somewhat angry glance. But the unconscious musician resumed—

'"Up through the wather your secret rises;
The stones won't keep it, and it lifts the mould,
An' it tracks your footsteps, and yoar fun surprises
An' it sits at the fire beside you black and cowld.

'"At prayers, at dances, or at wake or hurling;
At fair, or funeral, or where you may;
At your going out, and at your returning,
'Tis I'll be with you to your dying day."'

'Is there much more o' that?' demanded Irons, rather savagely.

The thirsty gentleman in the red plush waistcoat was once more, as he termed it, 'wetting his whistle;' but one of his comrades responded tartly enough—

'I'd like there was—an' if you mislike it, neighbour, there's the door.'

If he expected a quarrel, however, it did not come; and he saw by Irons's wandering eye, fierce as it looked, that his thoughts for the moment were elsewhere. And just then the songster, having wiped his mouth in his coat-sleeve, started afresh in these terms—

'"You'll walk the world with a dreadful knowledge,
And a heavy heart and a frowning brow;
And thinking deeper than a man in college,
Your eye will deaden, and your back will bow.

'"And when the pariod iv your life is over,
The frightful hour of judgment then will be;
And, Shamus Hanlon, heavy on your shoulder,
I'll lay my cowld hand, and you'll go wid me."'

This awful ditty died away in the prolonged drone which still finds favour in the ears of our Irish rustic musicians, and the company now began to talk of congenial themes, murders, ghosts, and retributions, and the horrid tune went dismally booming on in Mr. Irons's ear.

Trifling, and apparently wholly accidental, as was this occurrence, the musical and moral treat had a very permanent effect upon the fortunes of Irons, and those of other persons who figure in our story. Mr. Irons had another and another glass of punch. They made him only more malign and saturnine. He sat in his corner by the fire, silent and dismal; and no one cared what was passing in the brain behind that black and scowling mask. He paid sternly and furiously, like a villain who has lost at play; and without a 'good-night,' or any other leave taking, glided ominously from the room; and the gentlemen who carried on the discourse and convivialities of the Salmon House, followed him with a gibe or two, and felt the pleasanter for the removal of that ungracious presence.

A few minutes later, Mr. Lowe stood on the hall-door step, and calling to his man, gave him a little note and some silver, and a message—very impressively repeated—and the groom touched his hat, and buttoned up his coat about his neck, the wind being from the east, and he started, at something very near a gallop, for Dublin.

There was a man at the door of the Salmon House, who, with a taciturn and saturnine excitement, watched the unusual bustle going on at the door-steps of Doctor Sturk's dwelling. This individual had been drinking there for a while; and having paid his shot, stood with his back to the wall, and his hands in his pockets, profoundly agitated, and with a chaos of violent and unshaped thoughts rising and rolling in his darkened brain.

After Lowe went into the house again, seeing the maid still upon the steps, talking with Mr. Moore, the barber, who was making his lingering adieux there, this person drew near, and just as the tonsor made his final farewell, and strode down the street towards his own dwelling, he presented himself in time to arrest the retreat of the damsel.

'By your leave, Mistress Katty,' said he, laying his hand on the iron rail of the door-steps.

'Oh, good jewel! an' is that yourself, Mr. Irons? And where in the world wor you this month an' more?'

'Business—nothin'—in Mullingar—an' how's the docthor to-night?'

The clerk spoke a little thickly, as he commonly did on leaving the Salmon House.

'He's elegant, my dear—beyant the beyants—why, he's sittin' up, dhrinking chicken-broth, and talking law-business with Mr. Lowe.'

'He's talkin'!'

'Ay is he, and Mr. Lowe just this minute writ down all about the way he come by the breakin' of his skull in the park, and we'll have great doings on the head of it; for the master swore to it, and Doctor Toole——'

'An'who done it?' demanded Irons, ascending a step, and grasping the iron rail.

'I couldn't hear—nor no one, only themselves.'

'An' who's that rode down the Dublin road this minute?'

'That's Mr. Lowe's man; 'tis what he's sent him to Dublin wid a note.'

'I see,' said Irons, with a great oath, which seemed to the maid wholly uncalled for; and he came up another step, and held the iron rail and shook it, like a man grasping a battle-axe, and stared straight at her, with a look so strange, and a visage so black, that she was half-frightened.

'A what's the matther wid you, Misther Irons?' she demanded.

But he stared on in silence, scowling through her face at vacancy, and swaying slightly as he griped the metal banister.

'I will,' he muttered, with another most unclerklike oath, and he took Katty by the hand, and shook it slowly in his own cold, damp grasp as he asked, with the same intense and forbidding look,

'Is Mr. Lowe in the house still?'

'He is, himself and Doctor Toole, in the back parlour.'

'Whisper him, Katty, this minute, there's a man has a thing to tell him.'

'What about?' enquired Katty.

'About a great malefactor.'

Katty paused, with her mouth open, expecting more.

'Tell him now; at once, woman; you don't know what delay may cost.'

He spoke impetuously, and with a bitter sort of emphasis, like a man in a hurry to commit himself to a course, distrusting his own resolution.

She was frightened at his sudden fierceness, and drew back into the hall and he with her, and he shut the door with a clang behind him, and then looked before him, stunned and wild, like a man called up from his bed into danger.

'Thank God. I'm in for it,' muttered he, with a shudder and a sardonic grin, and he looked for a moment something like that fine image of the Wandering Jew, given us by Gustave Doreé, the talisman of his curse dissolved, and he smiling cynically in the terrible light of the judgment day.

The woman knocked at the parlour door, and Lowe opened it.

'Who's here?' he asked, looking at Irons, whose face he remembered, though he forgot to whom it belonged.

'I'm Zekiel Irons, the parish-clerk, please your worship, and all I want is ten minutes alone with your honour.'

'For what purpose?' demanded the magistrate, eyeing him sharply.

'To tell you all about a damned murder.'

'Hey—why—who did it?'

'Charles Archer,' he answered; and screwed up his mouth with a convulsive grimace, glaring bloodlessly at the justice.

'Ha! Charles Archer! I think we know something already about that.'

'I don't think you do, though; and by your leave, you'll promise, if I bring it home to him, you'll see me safe through it. 'Tis what I'm the only witness living that knows all about it.'

'Well, what is it about?'

'The murder of Mr. Beauclerc, that my Lord Dunoran was tried and found guilty for.'

'Why, all very good; but that did not happen in Ireland.'

'No. At Newmarket, the "Pied Horse."'

'Ay, in England. I know, and that's out of our jurisdiction.'

'I don't care. I'll go to London if you like—to Bow-street—anywhere—so as I make sure to hang him; for my life is worse than death while he's at this side of the grave—and I'd rather be in my coffin—I would—than live within five miles of him. Anyway, you'll hear what I have to say, and to swear, and send me safe across the water to Bow-street, or wherever else you think best; for, if he has his liberty, and gets sight o' me again, I'm a dead man.'

'Come in here, Mr. Irons, and take a chair,' said the justice.

Doctor Toole was in the room, in a balloon-backed chair, regaling himself with a long pipe, and Mr. Lowe shut the door.

'We have another deposition, doctor, to take; Mr. Irons, here, is prepared to swear informations of very singular importance.'

'Irons, hollo! from what planet did you drop to-night?'

'Mullingar, Sir.'

'Nothing about the burning of the old woman at Tyrrell's Pass, eh?'

'No—'tis an old story. I don't care what comes of it, I'm innocent, only you'll say I kept it too long to myself. But you can't touch my life. I'm more afeard of him than you, and with good cause; but I think he's in a corner now, and I'll speak out and take my chance, and you mustn't allow me to be murdered.'

By this time Lowe had procured writing materials, and all being ready, he and the curious and astonished doctor heard a story very like what we have already heard from the same lips.

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