The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




The ladies were not much the wiser, though, I confess, they were not far removed from the door. The great men inside talked indistinctly and technically, and once Doctor Dillon was so unfeeling as to crack a joke—they could not distinctly hear what—and hee-haw brutally over it. And poor little Mrs. Sturk was taken with a great palpitation, and looked as white as a ghost, and was, indeed, so obviously at the point of swooning that her women would have removed her to the nursery, and placed her on the bed, but that such a procedure would have obliged them to leave the door of their sick master's room, just then a point of too lively interest to be deserted. So they consoled their mistress, and supported her with such strong moral cordials as compassionate persons in their rank and circumstances are prompt to administer.

'Oh! Ma'am, jewel, don't be takin' it to heart that way—though, dear knows, 'tis no way surprisin' you would; for may I never sin if ever I seen such a murtherin' steel gimblet as the red-faced docthor—I mane the Dublin man—has out on the table beside the poor masther—'tid frighten the hangman to look at it—an' six towels, too! Why, Ma'am dear, if 'twas what they wor goin' to slaughter a bullock they wouldn't ax more nor that.'

'Oh! don't. Oh! Katty, Katty—don't, oh don't'

'An' why wouldn't I, my darlin' misthress, tell you what's doin', the way you would not be dhruv out o' your senses intirely if you had no notion, Ma'am dear, iv what they're goin' to do to him?'

At this moment the door opened, and Doctor Dillon's carbuncled visage and glowing eyes appeared.

'Is there a steady woman there—not a child, you know, Ma'am? A—you'll do (to Katty). Come in here, if you please, and we'll tell you what you're to do.'

So, being nothing loath, she made her courtesy and glided in.

'Oh! doctor,' gasped poor Mrs. Sturk, holding by the hem of his garment, 'do you think it will kill him?'

'No, Ma'am—not to-night, at any rate,' he answered, drawing back; but still she held him.

'Oh! doctor, you think it will kill him?'

'No, Ma'am—there's always some danger.'

'Danger of what, Sir?'

'Fungus, Ma'am—if he gets over the chance of inflammation. But, on the other hand, Ma'am, we may do him a power of good; and see, Ma'am, 'twill be best for you to go down or into the nursery, and we'll call you, Ma'am, if need be—that is, if he's better, Ma'am, as we hope.'

'Oh! Mr. Moore, it's you,' sobbed the poor woman, holding fast by the sleeve of the barber, who that moment, with many reverences and 'your servant, Ma'am,' had mounted to the lobby with the look of awestruck curiosity, in his long, honest face, which the solemn circumstance of his visit warranted.

'You're the man we sent for?' demanded Dillon, gruffly.

Tis good Mr. Moore,' cried trembling little Mrs. Sturk, deprecating and wheedling him instinctively to make him of her side, and lead him to take part with her and resist all violence to her husband—flesh of her flesh, and bone of her bone.

'Why don't you spake, Sor-r-r? Are you the barber we sent for or no? What ails you, man?' demanded the savage Doctor Dillon, in a suppressed roar.

'At your sarvice, Ma'am—Sir,' replied Moore, with submissive alacrity.

'Come in here, then. Come in, will you?' cried the doctor, hauling him in with his great red hand.

'There now—there now—there—there,' he said gruffly, extending his palm to keep off poor Mrs. Sturk.

So he shut the door, and poor Mrs. Sturk heard him draw the bolt, and felt that her Barney had passed out of her hands, and that she could do nothing for him now but clasp her hands and gasp up her prayers for his deliverance; and so great indeed was her anguish and panic, that she had not room for the feminine reflection how great a brute Doctor Dillon was.

So she heard them walking this way and that, but could not distinguish what they said, only she heard them talking; and once or twice a word reached her, but not very intelligible, such as—

Twas Surgeon Beauchamp's—see that'

'Mighty curious.'

Then a lot of mumbling, and

'Cruciform, of course.'

This was said by Doctor Dillon, near the door, where he had come to take an additional candle from the table that stood there; as he receded it lost itself in mumble again, and then she heard quite plainly—

'Keep your hand there.'

And a few seconds after,

'Hold it there and don't let it drip.'

And then a little more mumbled dialogue, and she thought she heard—

'Begin now.'

And there was a dead silence of many seconds; and Mrs. Sturk felt as if she must scream, and her heart beat at a gallop, and her dry, white lips silently called upon her Maker for help, and she felt quite wild, and very faint; and heard them speak brief, and low together, and then another long silence; and then a loud voice, in a sort of shriek, cry out that name—holy and awful—which we do not mix in tales like this. It was Sturk's voice; and he cried in the same horrid shriek, 'Murder—mercy—Mr. Archer!'

And poor Mrs. Sturk, with a loud hysterical cry, that quivered with her agony, answered from without, and wildly rattled at the door-handle, and pushed with all her feeble force to get in, in a kind of crescendo screaming—'Oh, Barney—Barney—Barney—sweetheart—what are they doing?'

'Oh! blessed hour!—Ma'am—'tis the master himself that is talking;' and with a very pale face the maid, who stood in the doorway beside her, uttered her amazed thanksgiving.

And the doctors' voices were now heard plainly enough soothing the patient, and he seemed to have grown more collected; and she heard him—she thought—repeat a snatch of a prayer, as a man might just rescued from a shipwreck; and he said in a tone more natural in one so sick and weak, 'I'm a dead man—he's done it—where is he?—he's murdered me.'

'Who?' demanded Toole's well-known voice.

'Archer—the villain—Charles Archer.'

'Give me the cup with the claret and water, and the spoon—there it is,' said Dillon's rough bass tones.

And she heard the maid's step crossing the floor, and then there was a groan from Sturk.

'Here, take another spoonful, and don't mind talking for a while. It's doing mighty well. There, don't let him slip over—that's enough.'

Just then Toole opened the door enough to put his head through, and gently restraining poor Mrs. Sturk with his hand, he said with a vigorous whisper—

Twill all go well, Ma'am, we hope, if he's not agitated; you must not go in, Ma'am, nor talk to him—by-and-by you may see him, but he must be quiet now; his pulse is very regular at present—but you see, Ma'am, we can't be too cautious.'

While Toole was thus discoursing her at the door, she heard Dr. Dillon washing his hands, and Sturk's familiar voice, sounding so strange after the long silence, say very languidly and slowly—

'Take a pen, Sir—some one—take and write—write down what I say.'

'Now, Ma'am, you see he's bent on talking,' said Toole, whose quick ear caught the promise of a revelation. 'I must be at my post, Ma'am—the bed post—hey! We may joke now, Ma'am, that the patient's recovered his speech; and, you know, you mustn't come in—not till we tell you it's safe—there now—rely on me—I give you my word of honour he's doing as well as we could have hoped for.'

And Toole shook her trembling little hand very cordially, and there was a very good-natured twinkle in his eye.

And Toole closed the door again, and they heard Sturk murmur something more; and then the maid, who was within, was let out by Toole, and the door closed and bolted again, and a sort of cooing and murmuring recommenced.

After a while, Toole, absolutely pale, and looking very stern, opened the door, and, said he, in a quiet way—

'Ma'am, may I send Katty down to the King's House, with a note to Mr.—a note to the King's House, Ma'am—I thank you—and see, Katty, good girl, ask to see the gentleman himself, and take his answer from his own lips.'

And he tore off the back of a letter, and pencilled on it these words—

'MY DEAR SIR,—Dr. Sturk has been successfully operated upon by me and another gentleman; and being restored to speech and recollection, but very weak, desires earnestly to see you, and make an important disclosure to you as a justice of the peace.

'I am, Sir, your very obedient, humble servant,

Upon this note he clapt a large seal with the Toole arms, and when it was complete, placed it in the hands of Katty, who, with her riding-hood on and her head within it teeming with all sorts of wild conjectures and horrible images, and her whole soul in a whirl of curiosity, hurried along the dark street, now and then glinted on by a gleam through a shutter, or enlivened by the jingle of a harpsichord, or a snatch of talk and laughter heard faintly through the windows, and along the Dublin-road to the gate of the King's House. The hall-door of this hospitable mansion stood open, and a flood of red candle-light fell upon one side of the gray horse, saddle, and holster pipes, which waited the descent of Mr. Lowe, who was shaking hands with the hospitable colonel at the threshold.

Katty was just in time, and the booted gentleman, in his surtout and cape, strode back again into the light of the hall-door, and breaking the seal, there read, with his clear cold eye, the lines which Toole had pencilled, and thrusting it into his coat pocket, and receiving again the fuddled butler's benedictions—he had given him half-a-crown—he mounted his gray steed, and at a brisk trot, followed by his servant, was, in little more than two minutes' time, at Dr. Sturk's door.

Moore, the barber, functus officio, was now sitting in the hall, with his razors in his pocket, expecting his fee, and smelling pleasantly of the glass of whiskey which he had just drunk to the health and long life of the master—God bless him—and all the family.

Doctor Toole met Mr. Lowe on the lobby; he was doing the honours of the ghastly eclaircissement, and bowed him up to the room, with many an intervening whisper, and a sort of apology for Dillon, whom he treated as quite unpresentable, and resolved to keep as much as practicable in the background.

But that gentleman, who exulted in a good stroke of surgery, and had no sort of professional delicacy, calling his absent fathers and brethren of the scalpel and forceps by confounded hard names when he detected a blunder or hit a blot of theirs, met Mr. Lowe on the upper lobby.

'Your servant, Sir,' said he, rubbing his great red hands with a moist grin; 'you see what I've done. Pell's no surgeon, no more than that—(Toole, he was going to say, but modified the comparison in time)—that candlestick! to think of him never looking at the occiput; and he found lying on his back—'twas well Mr. Dangerfield pitched on me—though I say it—why shouldn't I say it—a depression, the size of a shilling in the back of the head—a bit of depressed bone, you see, over the cerebellum—the trepan has relieved him.'

'And was it Mr. Dangerfield?' enquired Lowe, who was growing to admire that prompt, cynical hero more and more every hour.

'By gannies, it just was. He promised me five hundred guineas to make him speak. What all them solemn asses could not compass, that's sweeping in their thousands every quarter, thanks to a discerning public. Baugh! He had heard of a rake-helly dog, with some stuff in his brain-pan, and he came to me—and I done it—Black Dillon done it—ha, ha! that's for the pack of them. Baugh!'

Doctor Dillon knew that the profession slighted him; and every man's hand against him, his was against every man.

Sturk was propped up and knew Lowe, and was, in a ghastly sort of way, glad to see him. He looked strangely pale and haggard, and spoke faintly.

'Take pen and ink,' said he.

There were both and paper ready.

'He would not speak till you came,' whispered Toole, who looked hotter than usual, and felt rather small, and was glad to edge in a word.

'An' don't let him talk too long; five minutes or so, and no more,' said Doctor Dillon; 'and give him another spoonful now—and where's Mr. Dangerfield?'

'And do you really mean to say, Sir, he promised you a fee of five—eh?' said Toole, who could not restrain his somewhat angry curiosity.

'Five hundred guineas—ha, ha, ha! be gannies, Sir, there's a power of divarsion in that.'

Tis a munificent fee, and prompted by a fine public spirit. We are all his debtors for it! and to you, Sir, too. He's an early man, Sir, I'm told. You'll not see him to-night. But, whatever he has promised is already performed; you may rely on his honour.'

'If you come out at nine in the morning, Dr. Dillon, you'll find him over his letters and desk, in his breakfast parlour,' said Toole, who, apprehending that this night's work might possibly prove a hit for the disreputable and savage luminary, was treating him, though a good deal stung and confounded by the prodigious amount of the fee, with more ceremony than he did at first. 'Short accounts, you know,' said Dillon, locking the lid of his case down upon his instruments. 'But maybe, as you say, 'tis best to see him in the morning—them rich fellows is often testy—ha! ha! An' a word with you, Dr. Toole,' and he beckoned his brother aside to the corner near the door—and whispered something in his ear, and laughed a little awkwardly, and Toole, very red and grave, lent him—with many misgivings, two guineas.

'An' see—don't let them give him too much of that—the chicken broth's too sthrong—put some wather to that, Miss, i' you plaze—and give him no more to-night—d'ye mind—than another half a wine-glass full of clar't unless the docthor here tells you.'

So Dr. Dillon took leave, and his fiery steeds, whirling him onward, devoured, with their resounding hoofs, the road to Dublin, where he had mentally devoted Toole's two guineas to the pagan divinities whose worship was nightly celebrated at the old St. Columbkill.

'We had best have it in the shape of a deposition, Sir, at once,' said Lowe, adjusting himself at the writing-table by the bed-side, and taking the pen in his fingers, he looked on the stern and sunken features of the resuscitated doctor, recalled, as it were, from 'the caverns of the dead and the gates of darkness,' to reveal an awful secret, and point his cold finger at the head of the undiscovered murderer.

'Tell it as shortly as you can, Sir, but without haste,' said Toole, with his finger on his pulse. Sturk looked dismal and frightened, like a man with the hangman at his elbow.

'It was that d—d villain—Charles Archer—write that down—'twas a foul blow—Sir, I'm murdered—I suppose.'

And then came a pause.

'Give me a spoonful of wine—I was coming out of town at dusk—this evening—'

'No, Sir; you're here some time, stunned and unconscious.'

'Eh! how long?'

'No matter, Sir, now. Just say the date of the night it happened.'

Sturk uttered a deep groan.

'Am I dying?' said he.

'No, Sir, please goodness—far from it,' said Toole.

'Fracture?' asked Sturk, faintly.

'Why—yes—something of the sort—indeed—altogether a fracture; but going on mighty well, Sir.'

'Stabbed anywhere—or gunshot wound?' demanded Sturk.

'Nothing of the kind, Sir, upon my honour.'

'You think—I have a chance?' and Sturk's cadaverous face was moist with the dews of an awful suspense.

'Chance,' said Toole, in an encouraging tone, 'well, I suppose you have, Sir—ha, ha! But, you know, you must not tire yourself, and we hope to have you on your legs again, Sir, in a reasonable time.'

'I'm very bad—the sight's affected,' groaned Sturk.

'See, Sir, you tire yourself to no purpose. You're in good hands, Sir—and all will go well—as we expect—Pell has been with you twice—'

'H'm! Pell—that's good.'

'And you're going on mighty well, Sir, especially to-night.'

'Doctor, upon your honour, have I a chance?'

'You have, Sir,—certainly—yes—upon my honour.'

'Thank God!' groaned Sturk, turning up the whites of his eyes, and lifting up two very shaky hands.

'But you must not spoil it—and fatigue will do that for you,' remarked Toole.

'But, Sir, Sir—I beg pardon, Doctor Toole—but this case is not quite a common one. What Doctor Sturk is about to say may acquire an additional legal value by his understanding precisely the degree of danger in which he lies. Now, Doctor Sturk, you must not be over much disturbed,' said Lowe.

'No, Sir—don't fear me—I'm not much disturbed,' said Sturk.

'Well, Doctor Toole,' continued Lowe, 'we must depart a little here from regular medical routine—tell Doctor Sturk plainly all you think.'

'Why—a'—and Doctor Toole cleared his voice, and hesitated.

'Tell him what you and Doctor Dillon think, Sir. Why, Doctor Dillon spoke very plainly to me.'

'I don't like his pulse, Sir. I think you had better not have agitated him,' muttered Toole with an impatient oath.

Tis worse to keep his mind doubtful, and on the stretch,' said Lowe. 'Doctor Toole, Sir, has told you the bright side of the case. It is necessary, making the deposition you propose, that you should know t'other.'

'Yes, of course—quite right—go on,' said Sturk faintly.

'Why, you know,' said Toole, sniffing, and a little sulkily, 'you know, Doctor Sturk, we, doctors, like to put the best foot foremost; but you can't but be aware, that with the fractures—two fractures—along the summit of the skull, and the operation by the trepan, behind your head, just accomplished, there must be, of course, some danger.'

'I see. Sir,' said Sturk, very quietly, but looking awfully cadaverous; 'all I want to know is, how long you think I may live?'

'You may recover altogether, Sir—you may—but, of course—you may—there's a chance; and things might not go right,' said Toole, taking snuff.

'I see—Sir—'tis enough'—and there was a pause. 'I'd like to have the sacrament, and pray with the clergyman a little—Lord help me!—and my will—only a few words—I don't suppose there's much left me; but there's a power of appointment—a reversion of £600, stock—I'm tired.'

'Here, take this,' said Toole, and put half-a-dozen spoonsful of claret and water into his lips, and he seemed to revive a little. 'There's no immediate hurry—upon my honour, Doctor Sturk, there isn't,' said Toole. 'Just rest aisy a bit; you're disturbed a good deal, Sir; your pulse shows it; and you need not, I assure you, upon my conscience and honour—'tis quite on the cards you may recover.'

And as he spoke, Toole was dropping something from a phial into a wine-glass—sal volatile—ether—I can't say; but when Dr. Sturk swallowed it there was a 'potter-carrier's' aroma about the room.

Then there was a pause for a while, and Toole kept his fingers on his pulse; and Sturk looked, for some time, as if he were on the point of fainting, which, in his case, might have proved very like dying.

'Have you the claret bottle in the room?' demanded Toole, a little flurried; for Sturk's pulses were playing odd pranks, and bounding and sinking in a dance of death.

'The what, Sir?' asked the maid.

'The wine, woman—this instant,' said the doctor, with a little stamp.

So, the moment he had the bottle, he poured out half a large glass, and began spooning it into Sturk's white parted lips.

Lowe looked on very uneasily; for he expected, as Toole did also, prodigious revelations; though each had a suspicion that he divined their nature tolerably clearly.

'Give him some more,' said Toole, with his fingers on the sick man's wrist, and watching his countenance. 'D—— it, don't be afraid—more, some more—more!'

And so the Artillery doctor's spirit revived within him; though with flickerings and tremblings; and he heaved some great sighs, and moved his lips. Then he lay still for a while; and after that he spoke.

'The pen, Sir,—write,' he said. 'He met me in the Butcher's Wood; he said he was going to sleep in town,' and Sturk groaned dismally; 'and he began talking on business—and turned and walked a bit with me. I did not expect to see him there—he was frank—and spoke me fair. We were walking slowly. He looked up in the sky with his hands in his coat pockets and was a step, or so, in advance of me; and he turned short—I didn't know—I had no more fear than you—and struck me a blow with something he had in his hand. He rose to the blow on his toes—'twas so swift, I had no time—I could not see what he struck with, 'twas like a short bit of rope.'

'Charles Archer? Do you know him, Dr. Toole?' asked Lowe. Toole shook his head.

'Charles Archer!' he repeated, looking at Sturk; 'where does he live?' and he winked to Toole, who was about speaking, to hold his peace.

'Here—in this town—Chapelizod, up the river, a bit, with—with a—changed name,' answered Sturk. And at the name he mentioned, Lowe and Toole, in silence and steadfastly, exchanged a pale, grim glance that was awful to see.

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson