The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter XCIV



Just as he reached Sturk's door, wagging his head and strutting grimly—and, palpably, still in debate with Dirty Davy—his thoughts received a sudden wrench in a different direction by the arrival of Mr. Justice Lowe, who pulled up his famous gray hunter at the steps of the house by the church-yard.

'You see, Doctor Toole, it won't do, waiting. The thing's too momentous.'

And so they walked up stairs and into the drawing-room, and sent their compliments to Mrs. Sturk, who came down in deshabille, with her things pinned about her, and all over smiles. Poor little woman! Toole had not observed until now how very thin she had grown.

'He's going on delightfully, gentlemen; he drank a whole cup of tea, weak of course, Doctor Toole, as you bid me; and he eat a slice of toast, and liked it, and two Naples biscuits, Mr. Lowe, and I know he'll be delighted to see you.'

'Very good, Madam, very good,' said Toole.

'And he's looking better already. He waked out of that sweet sleep not ten minutes after you left this morning.'

'Ay, he was sleeping very quietly,' said Toole to Lowe. 'May we go up, Ma'am?'

'Oh! he'll be overjoyed, gentlemen, to see you, and 'twill do him an infinity of good. I can scarce believe my eyes. We've been tidying the study, the maid and I, and airing the cushions of his chair;' and she laughed a delighted little giggle. 'And even the weather has taken up such beautiful sunshine; everything favourable.'

'Well, Doctor Sturk,' said Toole, cheerily, 'we have a good account of you—a vastly good account, doctor; and, by St. George, Sir, we've been tidying—'

He was going to say the study, but little Mrs. Sturk put her finger to her lip in a wonderful hurry, raising her eyebrows and drawing a breath through her rounded lips, in such sort as arrested the sentence; for she knew how Barney's wrath always broke out when he thought the women had been in his study, and how he charged every missing paper for a month after upon their cursed meddling. But Sturk was a good deal gentler now, and had a dull and awful sort of apathy upon him; and I think it was all one to him whether the women had been in the study or not. So Toole said instead—

'We've been thinking of getting you down in a little while, doctor, if all goes pleasantly; 'tis a lovely day, and a good omen—see how the sun shines in at the curtain.'

But there was no responsive sunshine upon Sturk's stern; haggard face, as he said very low—still looking on the foot-board—'I thank you, doctor.'

So after a few more questions, and a little bit of talk with Mrs. Sturk, they got that good lady out of the room, and said Lowe to the patient—

'I'm sorry to trouble you, Dr. Sturk, but there's a weighty matter at which you last night hinted; and Dr. Toole thought you then too weak; and in your present state, I would not now ask you to speak at any length, were the matter of less serious moment.'

'Yes, Sir,' said Sturk, but did not seem about to speak any more; and after a few seconds, Lowe continued.

'I mean, Dr. Sturk, touching the murder of Mr. Beauclerc, which you then said was committed by the same Charles Archer, who assaulted you in the park.'

'Ay, Sir,' said Sturk.

'The same murder of which Lord Dunoran was adjudged guilty.'

Sturk moved his lips with a sort of nod.

'And, Doctor Sturk, you remember you then said you had yourself seen Charles Archer do that murder.'

Sturk lifted his hand feebly enough to his forehead, and his lips moved, and his eyes closed. They thought he was praying—possibly he was; so they did not interrupt him; and he said, all on a sudden, but in a low dejected way, and with many pauses—

'Charles Archer. I never saw another such face; 'tis always before me. He was a man that everybody knew was dangerous—a damnable profligate besides—and, as all believed, capable of anything, though nobody could actually bring anything clearly home to him but his bloody duels, which, however, were fairly fought. I saw him only thrice in my life before I saw him here. In a place, at Newmarket, where they played hazard, was once; and I saw him fight Beau Langton; and I saw him murder Mr. Beauclerc. I saw it all!' And the doctor swore a shuddering oath.

'I lay in the small room or closet, off the chamber in which he slept. I was suffering under a bad fracture, and dosed with opium. 'Tis all very strange, Sir. I saw everything that happened. I saw him stab Beauclerc. Don't question me; it tires me. I think 'twas a dagger. It looked like a small bayonet I'll tell you how—all, by-and-by.'

He sipped a little wine and water, and wiped his lips with a very tremulous handkerchief.

'I never spoke of it, for I could not. The whole of that five minutes' work slipped from my mind, and was gone quite and clean when I awoke. What I saw I could not interrupt. I was in a cataleptic state, I suppose. I could not speak; but I saw like a lynx, and heard every whisper. When I awakened in the morning I remembered nothing. I did not know I had a secret. The knowledge was sealed up until the time came. A sight of Charles Archer's face at any time would have had, as I suppose, the same effect. When I saw him here, the first time, it was at the general's at Belmont; though he was changed by time, and carefully disguised, all would not do. I felt the sight of him was fatal. I was quite helpless; but my mind never stopped working upon it till—till—'

Sturk groaned.

'See now,' said Toole, 'there's time enough, and don't fatigue yourself. There, now, rest quiet a minute.'

And he made him swallow some more wine; and felt his pulse and shook his head despondingly at Lowe, behind his back.

'How is it?' said Sturk, faintly.

'A little irritable—that's all,' said Toole.

Till one night, I say,'—Sturk resumed, after a minute or two, 'it came to me all at once, awake—I don't know—or in a dream; in a moment I had it all. 'Twas like a page cut out of a book—lost for so many years.' And Sturk moaned a despairing wish to Heaven that the secret had never returned to him again.

'Yes, Sir—like a page cut out of a book, and never missed till 'twas found again; and then sharp and clear, every letter from first to last. Then, Sir—then—thinking 'twas no use at that distance of time taking steps to punish him, I—I foolishly let him understand I knew him. My mind misgave me from the first. I think it was my good angel that warned me. But 'tis no use now. I'm not a man to be easily frightened. But it seemed to me he was something altogether worse than a man, and like—like Satan; and too much for me every way. If I was wise I'd have left him alone. But 'tis no good fretting now. It was to be. I was too outspoken—'twas always my way—and I let him know; and—and you see, he meant to make away with me. He tried to take my life, Sir; and I think he has done it. I'll never rise from this bed, gentlemen. I'm done for.'

'Come, Doctor Sturk, you mustn't talk that way, Pell will be out this evening, and Dillon may be—though faith! I don't quite know that Pell will meet him—but we'll put our heads together, and deuce is in it or we'll set you on your legs again.'

Sturk was screwing his lips sternly together, and the lines of his gruff haggard face were quivering, and a sullen tear or two started down from his closed eye.

'I'm—I'm a little nervous, gentlemen—I'll be right just now I'd like to see the—the children, if they're in the way, that's all—by-and-by, you know.'

'I've got Pell out, you see—not that there's any special need—you know; but he was here before, and it wouldn't do to offend him; and he'll see you this afternoon.'

'I thank you, Sir,' said Sturk, in the same dejected way.

'And, Sir,' said Lowe, 'if you please, I'll get this statement into the shape of a deposition or information, for you see 'tis of the vastest imaginable importance, and exactly tallies with evidence we've got elsewhere, and 'twouldn't do, Sir, to let it slip.'

And Toole thought he saw a little flush mount into Sturk's sunken face, and he hastened to say—

'What we desire, Dr. Sturk, is to be able to act promptly in this case of my Lord Dunoran. Measures must be taken instantly, you see, for 'tis of old standing, and not a day to be lost, and there's why Mr. Lowe is so urgent to get your statement in white and black.'

'And sworn to,' added Mr. Lowe.

'I'll swear it,' said Sturk, in the same sad tones.

And Mrs. Sturk came in, and Toole gave leave for chicken broth at twelve o'clock, about two table-spoonsful, and the same at half-past one, when he hoped to be back again. And on the lobby he gave her, with a cheery countenance, all the ambiguous comfort he could. And Lowe asked Mrs. Sturk for more pens and paper, and himself went down to give his man a direction at the door, and on the way, in the hall, Toole looking this way and that, to see they weren't observed, beckoned him into the front parlour, and, said he, in a low key—

'The pulse is up a bit, not very much, but still I don't like it—and very hard, you see—and what we've to dread, you know's inflammation; and he's so shocking low, my dear Sir, we must let him have wine and other things, or we'll lose him that way; and you see it's a mighty unpleasant case.'

And coming into the hall, in a loud confident voice he cried—'And I'll be here again by half-past one o'clock.'

And so he beckoned to the boy with his horse to come up, and chatted in the interim with Mr. Lowe upon the steps, and told him how to manage him if he grew exhausted over his narrative; and then mounting his nag, and kissing his hand and waving his hat to Mrs. Sturk, who was looking out upon him from Barney's window, he rode away for Dublin.

Toole, on reaching town, spurred on to the dingy residence of Mr. Luke Gamble. It must be allowed that he had no clear intention of taking any step whatsoever in consequence of what he might hear. But the little fellow was deuced curious; and Dirty Davy's confidence gave him a sort of right to be satisfied.

So with his whip under his arm, and a good deal out of breath, for the stairs were steep, he bounced into the attorney's sanctum.

'Who's that? Is that?—Why, bless my soul and body! 'tis yourself,' cried Toole, after an astonished pause of a few seconds at the door, springing forward and grasping Nutter by both hands, and shaking them vehemently, and grinning very joyously and kindly the while.

Nutter received him cordially, but a little sheepishly. Indeed, his experiences of life, and the situations in which he had found himself since they had last met, were rather eccentric and instructive than quite pleasant to remember. And Nutter, in his way, was a proud fellow, and neither liked to be gaped at nor pitied.

But Toole was a thorough partisan of his, and had been urgent for permission to see him in gaol, and they knew how true he had been to poor Sally Nutter, and altogether felt very much at home with him.

So sitting in that twilight room, flanked with piles of expended briefs, and surrounded with neatly docketed packets of attested copies, notices, affidavits, and other engines of legal war—little Toole having expended his congratulations, and his private knowledge of Sturk's revelations, fell upon the immediate subject of his visit.

'That rogue, Davy O'Reegan, looked in on me not an hour ago, at the Phoenix' (and he gave them a very spirited, but I'm afraid a somewhat fanciful description of the combat.) 'And I'm afraid he'll give us a deal of trouble yet. He told me that the certificate—'

'Ay—here's a copy;' and Luke Gamble threw a paper on the table before him.

'That's it—Mary Duncan—1750—the very thing—the rascal! Well, he said, you know, but I knew better, that you had admitted the certificate formally.'

'So I have. Sir,' said. Mr. Gamble, drily, stuffing his hands into his breeches' pockets, and staring straight at Toole with elevated eyebrows, and as the little doctor thought, with a very odd expression in his eyes.

'You have, Sir?'

'I have!' and then followed a little pause, and Mr. Gamble said—

'I did so, Sir, because there's no disputing it—and—and I think, Doctor Toole, I know something of my business.'

There was another pause, during which Toole, flushed and shocked, turned his gaze from Gamble to Nutter.

Tis a true bill, then?' said Toole, scarcely above his breath, and very dismally.

A swarthy flush covered Nutter's dark face. The man was ashamed.

Tis nigh eighteen years ago, Sir,' said Nutter embarrassed, as he well might be. 'I was a younger man, then, and was bit, Sir, as many another has been, and that's all.'

Toole got up, stood before the fire-place, and hung his head, with compressed lips, and there was a silence, interrupted by the hard man of the law, who was now tumbling over his papers in search of a document, and humming a tune as he did so.

'It may be a good move for Charles Nutter, Sir, but it looks very like a checkmate for poor Sally,' muttered Toole angrily.

Mr. Luke Gamble either did not hear him, or did not care a farthing what he said; and he hummed his tune very contentedly.

'And I had, moreover,' said he, 'to make another admission for the same reason, videlicet, that Mary Matchwell, who now occupies a portion of the Mills, the promovent in this suit, and Mary Duncan mentioned in that certificate, are one and the same person. Here's our answer to their notice, admitting the fact.'

'I thank you,' said Toole again, rather savagely, for a glance over his shoulder had shown him the attorney's face grinning with malicious amusement, as it seemed to him, while he readjusted the packet of papers from which he had just taken the notice; 'I saw it, Sir, your brother lawyer, Mr. O'Reegan, Sir, showed it me this morning.'

And Toole thought of poor little Sally Nutter, and all the wreck and ruin coming upon her and the Mills, and began to con over his own liabilities, and to reflect seriously whether, in some of his brisk altercations on her behalf with Dirty Davy and his client, he might not have committed himself rather dangerously; and especially the consequences of his morning's collision with Davy grew in darkness and magnitude very seriously, as he reflected that his entire statement had turned out to be true, and that he and his client were on the winning side.

'It seems to me, Sir, you might have given some of poor Mrs. Nutter's friends at Chapelizod a hint of the state of things. I, Sir, and Father Roach—we've meddled, Sir, more in the business—than—than—but no matter now—and all under a delusion, Sir. And poor Mistress Sally Nutter—she doesn't seem to trouble you much, Sir.'

He observed that the attorney was chuckling to himself still more and more undisguisedly, as he slipped the notice back again into its place.

'You gentlemen of the law think of nothing, Sir, but your clients. I suppose 'tis a good rule, but it may be pushed somewhat far. And what do you propose to do for poor Mistress Sally Nutter?' demanded Toole, very sternly, for his blood was up.

'She has heard from us this morning,' said Mr. Gamble, grining on his watch, 'and she knows all by this time, and 'tisn't a button to her.'

And the attorney laughed in his face; and Nutter who had looked sulky and uncomfortable, could resist no longer, and broke into a queer responsive grin. It seemed to Toole like a horrid dream.

There was a tap at the door just at this moment.

'Come in,' cried Mr. Gamble, still exploding in comfortable little bursts of half-suppressed laughter.

'Oh! 'tis you? Very good, Sir,' said Mr. Gamble, sobering a little. He was the same lanky, vulgar, and slightly-squinting gentleman, pitted with the small-pox, whom Toole had seen on a former occasion. And the little doctor thought he looked even more cunning and meaner than before. Everything had grown to look repulsive, and every face was sinister now; and the world began to look like a horrible masquerade, full of half-detected murderers, traitors, and miscreants.

'There isn't a soul you can trust—'tis enough to turn a man's head; 'tis sickening, by George!' grumbled the little doctor, fiercely.

'Here's a gentleman, Sir,' said Gamble, waving his pen towards Toole, with a chuckle, 'who believes that ladies like to recover their husbands.'

The fellow grew red, and grinned a sly uneasy grin, looking stealthily at Toole, who was rapidly growing angry.

'Yes, Sir, and one who believes, too, that gentlemen ought to protect their wives,' added the little doctor hotly.

'As soon as they know who they are,' muttered the attorney to his papers.

'I think, gentlemen, I'm rather in your way,' said Toole with a gloomy briskness; 'I think 'tis better I should go. I—I'm somewhat amazed, gentlemen, and I—I wish you a good-morning.'

And Toole made them a very stern bow, and walked out at the wrong door.

'This way, by your leave, doctor,' said Mr. Gamble, opening the right one; and at the head of the stairs he took Toole by the cuff, and said he—

'After all, 'tis but just the wrong Mrs. Nutter should give place to the right; and if you go down to the Mills to-morrow, you'll find she's by no means so bad as you think her.'

But Toole broke away from him sulkily, with—

'I wish you a good-morning, Sir.'

It was quite true that Sally Nutter was to hear from Charles and Mr. Gamble that morning; for about the time at which Toole was in conference with those two gentlemen in Dublin, two coaches drew up at the Mills.

Mr. Gamble's conducting gentleman was in one, and two mysterious personages sat in the other.

'I want to see Mrs. Nutter,' said Mr. Gamble's emissary.

'Mrs. Nutter's in the parlour, at your service,' answered the lean maid who had opened the door, and who recognising in that gentleman an adherent of the enemy, had assumed her most impertinent leer and tone on the instant.

The ambassador looked in and drew back.

'Oh, then, 'tisn't the mistress you want, but the master's old housekeeper; ask her.'

And she pointed with her thumb towards Molly, whose head was over the banister.

So, as he followed that honest hand-maiden up stairs, he drew from his coat-pocket a bundle of papers, and glanced at their endorsements, for he had a long exposition to make, and then some important measures to execute.

Toole had to make up for lost time; and as he rode at a smart canter into the village, he fancied he observed the signs of an unusual excitement there. There were some faces at the windows, some people on the door-steps; and a few groups in the street; they were all looking in the Dublin direction. He had a nod or two as he passed. Toole thought forthwith of Mr. David O'Reegan—people generally refer phenomena to what most concerns themselves—and a dim horror of some unknown summary process dismayed him; but his hall-door shone peaceably in the sun, and his boy stood whistling on the steps, with his hands in his pockets. Nobody had been there since, and Pell had not yet called at Sturk's.

'And what's happened—what's the neighbours lookin' after?' said Toole, as his own glance followed the general direction, so soon as he had dismounted.

Twas a coach that had driven through the town, at a thundering pace, with some men inside, from the Knockmaroon direction, and a lady that was screeching. She broke one of the coach windows in Martin's-row, and the other—there, just opposite the Phoenix.' The glass was glittering on the road. 'She had rings on her hand, and her knuckles were bleeding, and it was said 'twas poor Mrs. Nutter going away with the keepers to a mad-house.'

Toole turned pale and ground his teeth, looking towards Dublin.

'I passed it myself near Island-bridge; I did hear screeching, but I thought 'twas from t'other side of the wall. There was a fellow in an old blue and silver coat with the driver—eh?'

'The same,' said the boy; and Toole, with difficulty swallowing down his rage, hurried into the house, resolved to take Lowe's advice on the matter, and ready to swear to poor Sally's perfect sanity—'the crature!—the villains!'

But now he had only a moment to pull off his boots, to get into his grand costume, and seize his cane and his muff, too—for he sported one; and so transformed and splendid, he marched down the paved trottoir—Doctor Pell happily not yet arrived—to Sturk's house. There was a hackney coach near the steps.

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