The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter LXXXV



'On the night when this great sorrow visited the Elms, Captain Richard Devereux, who had heard nothing of it, was strangely saddened and disturbed in mind. They say that a distant death is sometimes felt like the shadow and chill of a passing iceberg; and if this ominous feeling crosses a mind already saddened and embittered, it overcasts it with a feeling akin to despair.

Mrs. Irons knocked at his door, and with the eagerness of a messenger of news, opened it without awaiting his answer.

'Oh, captain, jewel, do you know what? There's poor Miss Lily Walsingham; and what do you think but she's dead—the poor little thing; gone to-night, Sir—not half an hour ago.'

He staggered a little, and put his hand toward his sword, like a man struck by a robber, and looked at her with a blank stare. She thought he was out of his mind, and was frightened.

Tis only me, Sir, Mrs. Irons.'

'A—thank you;' and he walked towards the chimney, and then towards the door, like a man looking for something; and on a sudden clasping his forehead in his hands, he cried a wild and terrible appeal to the Maker and Judge of all things.

Tis impossible—oh, no—oh, no—it's not true.'

He was in the open air, he could not tell how, and across the bridge, and before the Elms—a dream—the dark Elms—dark everything.

'Oh, no—it can't be—oh, no—oh, no;' and he went on saying as he stared on the old house, dark against the sky, 'Oh, no—oh, no.'

Two or three times he would have gone over to the hall-door to make enquiry, but he sickened at the thought. He clung to that hope, which was yet not a hope, and he turned and walked quickly down the river's side by the Inchicore-road. But the anguish of suspense soon drew him back again; and now his speech was changed, and he said—

'Yes, she's gone—she's gone—oh, she's gone—she's certainly gone.'

He found himself at the drawing-room window that looked into the little garden at the front of the house, and tapping at the window-pane. He remembered, all on a sudden—it was like waking—how strange was such a summons. A little after he saw a light crossing the hall, and he rang the door-bell. John Tracy opened the door. Yes, it was all true.

The captain was looking very pale, John thought, but otherwise much as usual. He stared at the old servant for some seconds after he told him all, but said nothing, not even good-night, and turned away. Old John was crying; but he called after the captain to take care of the step at the gate: and as he shut the hall-door his eye caught, by the light of his candle, a scribbling in red chalk, on the white door-post, and he stooped to read it, and muttered, 'Them mischievous young blackguards!' and began rubbing it with the cuff of his coat, his cheek still wet with tears. For even our grief is volatile; or, rather, it is two tunes that are in our ears together, the requiem of the organ, and, with it, the faint hurdy-gurdy jig of our vulgar daily life; and now and then this latter uppermost.

It was not till he had got nearly across the bridge that Captain Devereux, as it were, waked up. It was no good waking. He broke forth into sheer fury. It is not my business to note down the horrors of this impious frenzy. It was near five o'clock when he came back to his lodgings; and then, not to rest. To sit down, to rise again, to walk round the room and round, and stop on a sudden at the window, leaning his elbows on the sash, with hands clenched together, and teeth set; and so those demoniac hours of night and solitude wore slowly away, and the cold gray stole over the east, and Devereux drank a deep draught of his fiery Lethe, and cast himself down on his bed, and fell at once into a deep, exhausted lethargy.

When his servant came to his bed-side at seven o'clock, he was lying motionless, with flushed cheeks, and he could not rouse him. Perhaps it was well, and saved him from brain-fever or madness.

But after such paroxysms comes often a reaction, a still, stony, awful despondency. It is only the oscillation between active and passive despair. Poor Leonora, after she had worked out her fit, tearing 'her raven hair,' and reviling heaven, was visited in sadder and tenderer guise by the vision of the past; but with that phantom went down in fear and isolation to the grave.

This morning several of the neighbours went into Dublin, for the bills were to be presented against Charles Nutter for a murderous assault, with intent to kill, made upon the person of Barnabas Sturk, Esq., Doctor of Medicine, and Surgeon to the Royal Irish Artillery. As the day wore on, the honest gossips of Chapelizod looked out anxiously for news. And everybody who met any one else asked him—'Any news about Nutter, eh?'—and then they would stop to speculate—and then one would wonder that Dr. Walsingham's man, Clinton, had not yet returned—and the other would look at his watch, and say 'twas one o'clock—and then both agreed that Spaight, at all events, must soon come—for he has appointed two o'clock for looking at that brood mare of Fagan's.

At last, sure enough, Spaight appeared. Toole, who had been detained by business in another quarter, had ridden into the town from Leixlip, and was now dismounted and talking with Major O'Neill upon the absorbing topic. These cronies saw Spaight at the turnpike, and as he showed his ticket, he talked with the man. Of course, the news was come. The turnpike-man knew it by this time; and off scampered Toole, and the major followed close at his heels, at double-quick. He made a dismal shake or two of his head, and lifted his hand as they drew near. Toole's heart misgave him.

'Well, how is it?—what's the news?' he panted.

'A true bill,' answered Spaight, with a solemn stare; 'a true bill, Sir.'

Toole uttered an oath of consternation, and taking the words out of Spaight's mouth, told the news to the major.

'Do you tell me so?' exclaimed the major. 'Bedad, Sir, I'm uncommon sorry.'

'A bad business, Sir,' observed Spaight.

'No worse,' said Toole. 'If they convict him on this, you know—in case Sturk dies, and die he will—they'll indict and convict him on the more serious charge,' and he winked gloomily, 'the evidence is all one.'

'That poor little Sally Nutter!' ejaculated the major. 'She's to be pitied, the crature!'

Tis mighty slender evidence to take a man's life on,' said Toole, with some disgust. 'Be the law, Sir, the whole thing gives me a complete turn. Are you to dine with Colonel Strafford to-day?'

'I am, Sir,' said the major; 'an' it goes again' the colonel's grain to have a party at all just now, with the respect he has for the family up there,' and he nodded his head, pensively, toward the Elms. 'But he asked Lowe ten days ago, and Mr. Dangerfield, and two or three more; and you know he could not put them off on that ground—there being no relationship, you see—and, 'pon my oath, Sir, I'd rather not go myself, just now.'

That evening, at five o'clock, Colonel Stafford's dinner party assembled at the King's House. The colonel was a serene man, and hospitality—even had he been in the dumps—demands her sacrifices. He, therefore, did the honours as beseemed a genial and courteous old officer of the Royal Irish Artillery, who, if his conversation was not very remarkable in quality, and certainly not exorbitant in quantity, made up by listening a great deal, and supplying no end of civility, and an affluence of very pretty claret. Mr. Justice Lowe was there, and Mr. Dangerfield, and old Colonel Bligh, of the Magazine, and honest Major O'Neill, notwithstanding his low spirits. Perhaps they required keeping up; and claret like Colonel Stafford's is consoling.

The talk turned, of course, a good deal on Charles Nutter; and Mr. Dangerfield, who was in great force, and, indeed, in particularly pleasant spirits, except when unfortunate Nutter was actually under discussion—when he grew grave and properly saddened—told, in his clear, biting way, a curious rosary of Newgate stories—of highwaymen's disguises—of clever constables—of circumstantial evidence, marvellously elicited, and exquisitely put together—of monsters, long concealed, drawn from the deep by the finest tackle, into upper light, and dropped deftly into the landing-net of Justice. These curious anecdotes of Bow-street dexterity and Bagshot dodges—thrust and parry—mine and counter-mine—ending, for the most part, in the triumph of Bow-street, Justice crowned, and a Tyburn speech—tickled Lowe mightily, who quite enjoyed himself, and laughed more than his friend Colonel Stafford ever remembered to have heard him before, over some of the ingenious stratagems described so neatly by Dangerfield, and the gay irony with which he pointed his catastrophes. And Lowe actually, having obtained Colonel Stafford's leave, proposed that gallant officer's health in a bumper, and took occasion to mention their obligations to him for having afforded them the opportunity of enjoying Mr. Dangerfield's sprightly and instructive sallies; and hoped, with all his heart, that the neighbourhood was long to enjoy the advantage and pleasure of his residence among them. And Mr. Dangerfield replied gaily, that all that was needed to make such sweet scenery and charming company as the place commanded absolutely irresistible, was the sense of safety conferred by the presence of such a magistrate as Mr. Lowe, and the convivial inspiration of such wine as their gallant host provided; and that, for his part, being somewhat of an old boy, and having had enough of rambling, nothing would better please him than to spend the residue of his days amidst the lively quietude of their virtuous and hilarious neighbourhood; and some more to the like purpose, which pleased the good company highly, who all agreed that the white gentleman—fluent, easy, and pointed in his delivery—was a mighty fine speaker, indeed. Though there was a lurking consciousness in each, which none cared to publish, that there was, at times, an indefinable flavour of burlesque and irony in Mr. Dangerfield's compliments, which excited momentary suspicions and qualms, which the speaker waived off, however, easily with his jewelled fingers, and smiled mockingly away.

Lowe was mightily taken with him. There was little warmth or veneration in that hard justice's nature. But Mr. Dangerfield had a way with him that few men with any sort of taste for the knowledge of evil could resist; and the cold-eyed justice of the peace hung on his words with an attentive rapture, and felt that he was drinking deep and pleasant draughts from the sparkling fountains of knowledge; and was really sorry, and shook him admiringly by the hand, when Dangerfield, who had special business at home, rose up in his brisk way, and flashed a farewell over the company from his spectacles.

'If Mr. Dangerfield really means to stay here, he must apply for the commission of the peace,' said Mr. Lowe, so soon as the door shut. 'We must put it upon him. I protest I never met a man so fitted by nature and acquirements to make a perfectly useful magistrate. He and I, Sir, between us, we'd give a good account of this part of the county; and there's plenty of work, Sir, if 'twere only between this and Dublin; and, by George, Sir, he's a wonderful diverting fellow, full of anecdote. Wonderful place London, to be sure.'

'And a good man, too, in a quiet way,' said Colonel Strafford, who could state a fact. Tisn't every rich man has the heart to part with his money as he does; he has done many charities here, and especially he has been most bountiful to poor Sturk's family.'

'I know that,' said Lowe.

'And he sent a fifty pound note by the major there to poor Sally Nutter o' Monday last; he'll tell you.'

And thus it is, as the foul fiend, when he vanishes, leaves a smell of brimstone after him, a good man leaves a fragrance; and the company in the parlour enjoyed the aroma of Mr. Dangerfield's virtues, as he buttoned his white surtout over his breast, and dropped his vails into the palms of the carbuncled butler and fuddled footman in the hall.

It was a clear, frosty, starlit night. White and stern was the face which he turned upward for a moment to the sky. He paused for a second in the ray of candle-light that gleamed through Puddock's window-shutter, and glanced on the pale dial of his large gold watch. It was only half-past eight o'clock. He walked on, glancing back over his shoulder, along the Dublin road.

'The drunken beast. My mind misgives me he'll disappoint,' muttered the silver spectacles, gliding briskly onward.

When he reached the main street he peered curiously before him under the village tree, in quest of carriage lights.

'A lawless brute like that may be before his time as well as after.' So he walked briskly forward, and up Sturk's door-steps, and knocked.

'The Dublin doctor hasn't come, eh?'—he asked.

'No, Sir, he isn't come yet—'twas nine o'clock, the mistress told me.'

'Very good. Tell Mrs. Sturk, pray, that I, Mr. Dangerfield, you know, will call, as I promised, at nine o'clock precisely.'

And he turned again and walked briskly over the bridge, and away along the Inchicore road overhanging the river. All was silent there. Not a step but his own was stirring, and the road in places so overhung with old trees that it was difficult to see a yard before one.

He slackened his pace, and listened, like a man who keeps an assignation, and listened again, and laughed under his breath; and sure enough, before long, the clink of a footstep was heard approaching swiftly from the Dublin direction.

Mr. Dangerfield drew aside under the deep shadow of a high hawthorn hedge, overhung by trees; and watching intently, he saw a tall, lank figure, with a peculiar gait and stoop of its own, glide stealthily by. He smiled after it in the dark.

The tall figure was that of our old friend, Zekiel Irons, the clerk. A sable form, as beseemed his ecclesiastical calling—and now a white figure was gliding without noise swiftly after him.

Suddenly, as he reached an open part of the road, a thin hand was laid on his shoulder, and, with a start, and a 'hollo,' he sprung round.

'Hey! why, you're as frightened as if you had seen Charles—Charles Nutter. Hey?—don't be uneasy. I heard from the parson yesterday morning you were to be with him to-night before nine o'clock, about that money you left in his hands, and I've chanced to meet you; and this I want you to understand, Charles Nutter is in gaol, and we must not let him get out—do you see? That business settled, we're at rest. So, Mr. Irons, you must not show the white feather. Be bold—speak out what you know—now's the time to strike. I'll put your evidence, as you reported it to me, into shape, and you come to me to-morrow morning at eight o'clock; and mind you, I'll reward you this time, and better than ever you've fared before. Go on. Or stay—I'll go before.'

And Mr. Dangerfield laughed one of his chilly laughs—and, with a nod to Irons, repeated—'eight o'clock'—and so walked on a little bit.

The clerk had not said a word. A perspiration broke forth on his forehead, and, wiping the drops away, he said—

'Lord have mercy upon us—Lord deliver us—Lord have mercy upon us,' like a man dying.

Mr. Dangerfield's bold proposition seemed quite to overpower and unman him.

The white figure turned short, facing the clerk, and said he—

'See you, Mr. Irons, I'm serious—there must be no shirking. If you undertake, you must go through; and, hark! in your ear—you shall have five hundred pounds. I put no constraint—say yes or no—if you don't like you needn't. Justice, I think, will be done even without your help. But till he's quiet—you understand—nothing sure. He has been dead and alive again—curse him; and till he's at rest, and on the surgeon's table—ha! ha!—we sha'n't feel quite comfortable.'

'Lord have mercy upon us!' muttered Irons, with a groan.

'Amen,' said Dangerfield, with a sneering imitation.

'There, 'tis enough—if you have nerve to speak truth and do justice, you may have the money. We're men of business—you and I. If not, I sha'n't trouble you any more. If you like it, come to me at eight o'clock in the morning; if not, why, stay away, and no harm's done.'

And with these words, Mr. Dangerfield turned on his heel once more, and started at a lively pace for Chapelizod.

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