The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter XCII



About a quarter of an hour before this, Mr. Paul Dangerfield was packing two trunks in his little parlour, and burning letters industriously in the fire, when his keen ear caught a sound at which a prophetic instinct within him vibrated alarm. A minute or two before he had heard a stealthy footstep outside. Then he heard the cook walk along the passage, muttering to herself, to the hall-door, where there arose a whispering. He glanced round his shoulder at the window. It was barred. Then lifting the table and its load lightly from before him, he stood erect, fronting the door, and listening intently. Two steps on tip-toe brought him to it, and he placed his fingers on the key. But he recollected a better way. There was one of those bolts that rise and fall perpendicularly in a series of rings, and bar or open the door by a touch to a rope connected with it by a wire and a crank or two.

He let the bolt softly drop into its place; the rope was within easy reach, and with his spectacles gleaming white on the door, he kept humming a desultory tune, like a man over some listless occupation.

Mr. Paul Dangerfield was listening intently, and stepped as softly as a cat. Then, with a motion almost elegant, he dropt his right hand lightly into his coat-pocket, where it lay still in ambuscade.

There came a puffing night air along the passage, and rattled the door; then a quiet shutting of the hall-door, and a shuffling and breathing near the parlour.

Dangerfield, humming his idle tune with a white and sharpening face, and a gaze that never swerved, extended his delicately-shaped fingers to the rope, and held it in his left hand. At this moment the door-handle was suddenly turned outside, and the door sustained a violent jerk.

'Who's there?' demanded the harsh, prompt accents of Dangerfield, suspending his minstrelsy. 'I'm busy.'

'Open the door—we've a piece of intelligence to gi'e ye.'

'Certainly—but don't be tedious.' (He drew the string, and the bolt shot up). 'Come in, Sir.'

The door flew open; several strange faces presented themselves on the threshold, and at the same instant, a stern voice exclaimed—

'Charles Archer, I arrest you in the king's name.'

The last word was lost in the stunning report of a pistol, and the foremost man fell with a groan. A second pistol already gleamed in Dangerfield's hand, and missed. With a spring like a tiger he struck the hesitating constable in the throat, laying his scalp open against the door-frame, and stamping on his face as he fell; and clutching the third by the cravat, he struck at his breast with a knife, already in his hand. But a pistol-shot from Lowe struck his right arm, scorching the cloth; the dagger and the limb dropped, and he staggered back, but recovered his equilibrium, and confronted them with a white skull-like grin, and a low 'ha, ha, ha!'

It was all over, and the silver spectacles lay shattered on the floor, like a broken talisman, and a pair of gray, strangely-set, wild eyes glared upon them.

The suddenness of his assault, his disproportioned physical strength and terrific pluck, for a second or two, confounded his adversaries; but he was giddy—his right arm dead by his side. He sat down in a chair confronting them, his empty right hand depending near to the floor, and a thin stream of blood already trickling down his knuckles, his face smiling, and shining whitely with the damp of anguish, and the cold low 'ha, ha, ha!' mocking the reality of the scene.

'Heinous old villain!' said Lowe, advancing on him.

'Well, gentlemen, I've shown fight, eh?—and now I suppose you want my watch, and money, and keys—eh?'

'Read the warrant, Sir,' said Lowe, sternly.

'Warrant! hey—warrant?—why, this is something new—will you be so good as to give me a glass of water—thank you—hold the paper a moment longer—I can't get this arm up.' With his left hand he set down the tumbler-glass, and then held up the warrant.

'Thank ye. Well, this warrant's for Charles Archer.'

'Alias Paul Dangerfield—if you read, Sir.'

'Thank you—yes—I see—that's news to me. Oh! Mr. Lowe—I did not see you—I haven't hurt you, I hope? Why the plague do you come at these robbing hours? We'd have all fared better had you come by daylight.'

Lowe did not take the trouble to answer him.

'I believe you've killed that constable in the exercise of his duty, Sir; the man's dead,' said Lowe, sternly.

'Another gloss on my text; why invade me like housebreakers?' said Dangerfield with a grim scoff.

'No violence, Sirrah, on your peril—the prisoner's wounded,' said Lowe, catching the other fellow by the collar and thrusting him back: he had gathered himself up giddily, and swore he'd have the scoundrel's life.

'Well, gentlemen, you have made a false arrest, and shot me while defending my person—you—four to one!—and caused the death of your accomplice; what more do you want?'

'You must accompany us to the county gaol, Sir; where I'll hand in your committal.'

'Dr. Toole, I presume, may dress my arm?'

'Certainly, Sir.'

'Good! what more?'

'There's a coach at the door, you'll please to step in, Sir.'

'Good, Sir, again; and now permit me to make a remark. I submit, Sir, to all this violence, and will go with you, under protest, and with a distinct warning to you, Mr. Lowe, and to your respectable body-guard of prize-fighters and ruffians—how many?—two, four, five, six, upon my honour, counting the gentleman upon the floor, and yourself, Sir—seven, pitted against one old fellow, ha, ha, ha!—a distinct warning, Sir, that I hold you accountable for this outrage, and all its consequences.'

'See to that man; I'm afraid he has killed him,', said Lowe.

He was not dead, however, but, as it seemed, suffering intense pain, and unable to speak except in a whisper. They got him up with his back to the wall.

'You issue a warrant against another man whom I believe to be dead, and execute it upon me—rather an Irish proceeding, Sir; but, perhaps, if not considered impertinent, you will permit me to enquire what is the particular offence which that other person has committed, and for which you have been pleased to shoot me?'

'You may read it on the warrant, Sir; 'tis for a murderous assault on Doctor Sturk.'

'Hey? better and better! why, I'm ready to pay five hundred guineas to make him speak; and you'll soon find how expensive a blunder you've committed, Sir,' observed Dangerfield, with a glare of menace through his hollow smile.

'I'll stand that hazard, Sir,' rejoined Lowe, with a confident sneer.

The dreadful sounds of the brief scuffle had called up the scared and curious servants. The smell of the pistol-smoke, the sight of blood, the pale faces of the angry and agitated men, and the spectacle of their master, mangled, ghastly, and smiling, affrighted Mrs. Jukes; and the shock and horror expressed themselves in tears and distracted lamentations.

'I must have your keys, Sir, if you please,' said Mr. Lowe.

'A word first—here, Jukes,' he addressed his housekeeper; 'stop that, you fool!' (she was blubbering loudly) tis a mistake, I tell you; I shall be back in an hour. Meanwhile, here are my keys; let Mr. Lowe, there, have them whenever he likes—all my papers, Sir (turning to Lowe). I've nothing, thank Heaven! to conceal. Pour some port wine into that large glass.'

And he drank it off, and looked better; he appeared before on the point of fainting.

'I beg pardon, gentlemen—will you drink some wine?'

'I thank you, no, Sir. You'll be good enough to give me those keys' (to the housekeeper).

'Give them—certainly,' said Dangerfield.

'Which of them opens the chest of drawers in your master's bed-chamber facing the window?' He glanced at Dangerfield, and thought that he was smiling wider, and his jaws looked hollower, as he repeated—

'If she does not know it, I'll be happy to show it you.'

With a surly nod, Mr. Lowe requited the prisoner's urbanity, and followed Mrs. Jukes into her master's bed-chamber; there was an old-fashioned oak chest of drawers facing the window.

'Where's Captain Cluffe?' enquired Lowe.

'He stopped at his lodgings, on the way,' answered the man; 'and said he'd be after us in five minutes.'

'Well, be good enough, Madam, to show me the key of these drawers.'

So he opened the drawers in succession, beginning at the top, and searching each carefully, running his fingers along the inner edges, and holding the candle very close, and grunting his disappointment as he closed and locked each in its order.

In the mean time, Doctor Toole was ushered into the little parlour, where sat the disabled master of the Brass Castle. The fussy little mediciner showed in his pale, stern countenance, a sense of the shocking reverse and transformation which the great man of the village had sustained.

'A rather odd situation you find me in, Doctor Toole,' said white Mr. Dangerfield, in his usual harsh tones, but with a cold moisture shining on his face; 'under duresse, Sir, in my own parlour, charged with murdering a gentleman whom I have spent five hundred guineas to bring to speech and life, and myself half murdered by a justice of the peace and his discriminating followers, ha, ha, ha! I'm suffering a little pain, Sir; will you be so good as to lend me your assistance?'

Toole proceeded to his task much more silently than was his wont, and stealing, from time to time, a glance at his noticeable patient with the wild gray eyes, as people peep curiously at what is terrible and repulsive.

Tis broken, of course,' said Dangerfield.

'Why, yes, Sir,' answered Toole; 'the upper arm—a bullet, Sir. H'm, ha—yes; it lies only under the skin, Sir.'

And with a touch of the sharp steel it dropped into the doctor's fingers, and lay on a bloody bit of lint on the table by the wine-glasses. Toole applied his sticking-plaster, and extemporised a set of splints, and had the terrified cook at his elbow tearing up one of her master's shirts into strips for bandages; and so went on neatly and rapidly with his shifty task.

In the mean time, Cluffe had arrived. He was a little bit huffed and grand at being nailed as an evidence, upon a few words carelessly, or, if you will, confidentially dropped at his own mess-table, where Lowe chanced to be a guest; and certainly with no suspicion that his little story could in any way be made to elucidate the mystery of Sturk's murder. He would not have minded, perhaps, so much, had it not been that it brought to light and memory again the confounded ducking sustained by him and Puddock, and which, as an officer and a very fine fellow, he could not but be conscious was altogether an undignified reminiscence.

'Yes, the drawers were there, he supposed; those were the very ones; he stooped but little; it must have been the top one, or the next to it. The thing was about as long as a drumstick, like a piece of whip handle, with a spring in it; it bent this way and that, as he dried it in the towel, and at the butt it was ribbed round and round with metal rings—devilish heavy.'

So they examined the drawers again, took everything out of them, and Captain Cluffe, not thinking it a soldier-like occupation, tacitly declined being present at it, and, turning on his heel, stalked out of the room.

'What's become of it, Ma'am?' said Lowe, suddenly and sternly, turning upon Mrs. Jukes, and fixing his eyes on hers. There was no guilty knowledge there.

'He never had any such thing that I know of,' she answered stoutly; 'and nothing could be hid from me in these drawers, Sir; for I had the key, except when it lay in the lock, and it must ha' been his horsewhip; it has some rings like of leather round it, and he used to lay it on these drawers.'

Cluffe was, perhaps, a little bit stupid, and Lowe knew it; but it was the weakness of that good magistrate to discover in a witness for the crown many mental and moral attributes which he would have failed to recognise in him had he appeared for the prisoner.

'And where's that whip, now?' demanded Lowe.

'By the hall-door, with his riding-coat, Sir,' answered the bewildered housekeeper.

'Go on, if you please, Ma'am, and let me see it.'

So to the hall they went, and there, lying across the pegs from which Mr. Dangerfield's surtout and riding-coat depended, there certainly was a whip with the butt fashioned very much in the shape described by Captain Cluffe; but alas, no weapon—a mere toy—leather and cat-gut.

Lowe took it in his hand, and weighing it with a look of disgust and disappointment, asked rather impatiently—

'Where's Captain Cluffe?'

The captain had gone away.

'Very well, I see,' said Lowe, replacing the whip; 'that will do. The hound!'

Mr. Lowe now re-entered the little parlour, where the incongruous crowd, lighted up with Mr. Dangerfield's wax lights, and several kitchen candles flaring in greasy brass sticks, were assisting at the treatment of the master of the castle and the wounded constables.

'Well, Sir,' said Mr. Dangerfield, standing erect, with his coat sleeve slit, and his arm braced up in splints, stiff and helpless in a sling, and a blot of blood in his shirt sleeve, contrasting with the white intense smirk of menace upon his face; 'if you have quite done with my linen and my housekeeper, Sir, I'm ready to accompany you under protest, as I've already said, wherever you design to convey my mangled person. I charge you, Sir, with the safety of my papers and my other property which you constrain me to abandon in this house; and I think you'll rue this night's work to the latest hour of your existence.'

'I've done, and will do my duty, Sir,' replied Lowe, with dry decision.

'You've committed a d——d outrage; duty? ha, ha, ha!'

'The coach is at the door, hey?' asked Lowe

'I say, Sir,' continued Dangerfield, with a wolfish glare, and speaking in something like a suppressed shriek, 'you shall hear my warning and my protest, although it should occupy the unreasonable period of two whole minutes of your precious time. You half murder, and then arrest me for the offence of another man, and under the name of a man who has been dead and buried full twenty years. I can prove it; the eminent London house of Elrington Brothers can prove it; the handwriting of the late Sir Philip Drayton, Baronet, of Drayton Hall, and of two other respectable witnesses to a formal document, can prove it; dead and rotten—dust, Sir. And in your stupid arrogance, you blundering Irishman, you dare to libel me—your superior in everything—with his villainous name, and the imputation of his crimes—to violate my house at the dead of night—to pistol me upon my own floor—and to carry me off by force, as you purpose, to a common gaol. Kill Dr. Sturk, indeed! Are you mad, Sir? I who offered a fee of five hundred guineas even to bring him to speech! I who took the best medical advice in London on his behalf; I who have been his friend only too much with my Lord Castlemallard, and who, to stay his creditors, and enable his family to procure for him the best medical attendance, and to afford him, in short, the best chance of recovery and life, have, where you neither lent or bestowed a shilling—poured out my money as profusely as you, Sir, have poured out my blood, every drop of which, Sir, shall cost you a slice of your estate. But even without Sturk's speaking one word, I've evidence which escaped you, conceited blockhead, and which, though the witness is as mad almost as yourself, will yet be enough to direct the hand of justice to the right man. There is a Charles, Sir, whom all suspect, who awaits trial, judgment, and death in this case, the wretched Charles Nutter of the Mills, Sir, whose motive is patent, and on whose proceedings a light will, I believe, be thrown by the evidence of Zekiel Irons, whatever that evidence may be worth.'

'I don't care to tell you, Sir, that 'tis partly on the evidence of that same Zekiel Irons that I've arrested you,' said Mr. Justice Lowe.

'Zekiel Irons, me! What Zekiel Irons charge me with the crime which he was here, not two hours since, fastening on oath upon Charles Nutter! Why, Sir, he asked me to bring him to your residence in the morning, that he might swear to the information which he repeated in my presence, and of which there's a note in that desk. 'Pon my life, Sir, 'tis an agreeable society, this; bedlam broke loose—the mad directing the mad, and both falling foul of the sane. One word from Doctor Sturk, Sir, will blast you, so soon as, please Heaven, he shall speak.'

'He has spoken, Sir,' replied Lowe, whose angry passions were roused by the insults of Dangerfield, and who had, for the moment, lost his customary caution.

'Ha!' cried Dangerfield, with a sort of gasp, and a violent smirk, the joyousness of which was, however, counteracted by a lurid scowl and a wonderful livid glare in his wild eyes; 'ha! he has? Bravo, Sir, bravissimo!' and he smirked wider and wider, and beat his uninjured hand upon the table, like a man applauding the denouement of a play. 'Well, Sir; and notwithstanding his declaration, you arrest me upon the monstrous assertion of a crazy clerk, you consummate blockhead!'

Twon't do, Sir, you sha'n't sting me by insult into passion; nor frighten me by big words and big looks into hesitation. My duty's clear, and be the consequences what they may, I'll carry the matter through.'

'Frighten you! ha, ha, ha!' and Dangerfield glared at his bloody shirt-sleeve, and laughed a chilly sneer; 'no, Sir, but I'll punish you, with Doctor Sturk's declaration against the babble of poor Zekiel Irons. I'll quickly close your mouth.'

'Sir, I never made it a practice yet to hide evidence from a prisoner. Why should I desire to put you out of the world, if you're innocent? Doctor Sturk, Sir, has denounced you distinctly upon oath. Charles Archer, going by the name of Paul Dangerfield, and residing in this house, called the "Brass Castle," as the person who attempted to murder him in the Butcher's Wood.'

'What, Sir? Doctor Sturk denounce me! Fore heaven, Sir—it seems to me you've all lost your wits. Doctor Sturk!—? Doctor Sturk charge me with having assaulted him! why—curse it, Sir—it can't possibly be—you can't believe it; and, if he said it, the man's raving still.'

'He has said it, Sir.'

'Then, Sir, in the devil's name, didn't it strike you as going rather fast to shoot me on my own hearth-stone—me, knowing all you do about me—with no better warrant than the talk of a man with a shattered brain, awakening from a lethargy of months? Sir, though the laws afford no punishment exemplary enough for such atrocious precipitation, I promise you I'll exact the last penalty they provide; and now, Sir, take me where you will; I can't resist. Having shot me, do what you may to interrupt my business; to lose my papers and accounts; to prevent my recovery, and to blast my reputation—Sir, I shall have compensation for all.'

So saying, Dangerfield, with his left hand, clapt his cocked hat on, and with a ghastly smile nodded a farewell to Mrs. Jukes, who, sobbing plentifully, had placed his white surtout, cloakwise over his shoulders, buttoning it about his throat. The hall-door stood open; the candles flared in the night air, and with the jaunty, resolute step of a man marching to victory and revenge, he walked out, and lightly mounted to his place. She saw the constables get in, and one glimpse more of the white grim face she knew so well, the defiant smirk, the blood-stained shirt-sleeve, and the coach-door shut. At the crack of the whip and the driver's voice, the horses scrambled into motion, the wheels revolved, and the master of the Brass Castle and the equipage glided away like a magic lantern group, from before the eyes and the candle of the weeping Mrs. Jukes.

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